Authors: Terry Kroenung
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy
“Sometimes. Hit or miss, it is. But that won’t matter if they catch us. We has to run.”
I took Eddie’s hand. “Trust me?”
“Sure,” he said, squeezing mine back. “But tell me what’s going on.”
“I will as soon as somebody tells me. Right now we have to run.”
“All right.” As I took off at a dead sprint he hollered, “Oh, you mean really run?”
I used the lead I’d gained to think ‘cup’ and shift Jasper down while Eddie couldn’t see. He’d find out about Jasper real soon, but I couldn’t stop to explain. Ernie kept talking like the hounds of hell were after us, and for all I knew that was no exaggeration.
We dashed through the alley and out onto 10th Street, looking every which way for enemies.
But how can you tell who’s an enemy if they’re shape-shifters?
As we passed my house I skidded to a stop and ran inside. Ma would still be at Ford’s, hanging up costumes. I wished I’d remembered that. Didn’t like going off without saying good-bye. Who knew when we’d be back? Or if. But I could scratch out a quick note. Besides, we needed some supplies for the trip. After all, we were going to Virginia. The Confederacy. Enemy territory. Seemed kind of funny to be escaping one foe by running toward another, but it had been that kind of night.
“Be careful,” Jasper said. “They know where you live.”
I kept my right hand tight on Jasper and crept into the flat. Everything lay as dark and silent as a Halloween graveyard. So did my Stone. Seemed safe. I lit a lamp and told Eddie to gather some food from the pantry while I rounded up other things. We had a couple of old oiled haversacks that some soldiers had given us to play Army with. Eddie stuffed them full of bread, bacon, and leftover chicken. He filled two canteens with water. I gathered up matches, a penknife, paper and pencil, and a map of Virginia that Ma’d cut out of
. As an afterthought I grabbed a couple of caps and both of my light jackets.
“You’re packing like we’re going on a long trip,” Eddie said.
“We might be. I don’t know.” I sat at the kitchen table to write a note to Ma to not worry about us. Silly. She’d go crazy. Still, I couldn’t do anything else.
“Why? No one acts like this unless they’ve done something wrong. Is the law after you?”
“No. The opposite, actually.” I focused on my writing
. “Dear Ma, by the time you read this…”
He put his hand on mine to make me stop scribbling. “Verity.”
I sighed and told him everything. Just let it spill out like grain from a torn sack. Falling through the floor, seeing the letters on the wall, watching the Stone glow, taking the sword, meeting Jasper and Eddie, fighting Venoma. All of it. I showed him how the sword could change its shape. I even blew out the lamp and proved I could see in the dark by telling him how many fingers he held up. Not once did he laugh, snort, or make any other sign of disbelief. Name me a grown-up who could’ve done that.
“Boy,” he said after a long silence.
“Yeah,” I answered. Sometimes that’s all friends have to say.
“Guess you’d better finish your letter then.” He lit the lamp again and left me alone, moving over to the front window to watch the street.
I knew that time grew short or else I might’ve written twenty pages. How do you tell your ma that monsters are coming and that you’re the savior of humanity? That you, her only child, were going into a war zone where thousands of men were dying? That you loved her and would see her soon? I settled for the last bit and stood up.
“Anybody out there?” I asked, throwing my haversack over my neck.
“No,” Eddie said. “We should go out the back anyway, though.”
That made sense to me. Didn’t want to be out in the open any more than necessary. We pushed open the back door, me in the lead because I could see and hear the best. It felt a little silly to be holding a battered tin cup in front of me as if it were a cannon, but an enemy would laugh at it, too. That might give us the split-second we’d need to react. Ernie moved into my haversack. He claimed it would leave me free to fight, but my wonder-ears picked up munching sounds.
“Leave some for the rest of us,” I whispered.
He peeked his snout out of the bag for a second, a bread crumb falling out of his jaws. “Child, a famished mouse is no good to anybody. Press on with your quest.”
Our intrepid band of mighty warriors slid down the steps into the alley. Turning right, we headed west, hoping to get to the Potomac before the moon rose much higher. After about five minutes we began to relax a little. No matter how bad things get, it’s hard to keep yourself on total alert for long. It drains all the energy out of you. And I’d just about used mine up as it was. I found myself leaning on Eddie’s arm for support as we stumbled along.
Which is why the giant surprised us. Two blocks from home an enormous dark mass rose up out of the ground. Seeming as wide as it was tall—and it looked plenty tall, believe me—it blocked our way as if somebody had dropped the Rock of Gibraltar in our path. It growled at us and brought up its brawny arms. I had just enough time to register Ernie screeching “Blimey!” before things went crazy.
Eddie yelped and froze, hunkering down. Somebody hollered “Whoa!” Me, I suppose. The giant’s growl struck me like an ocean wave. I punched my pathetic little cup at the thing. All that went through my mind was the picture of a cartoon fist. That proved to be enough. I felt a small tremor up my arm. With a
as the wind got knocked out of him, the Goliath crashed back head over heels and lay still.
“Did you kill it?” Eddie asked, recovered from his fright.
“Dunno,” I said. “Is it breathin’?”
“Well, go look.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re the one with the ferocious fist.”
I looked at Jasper. The tin cup had sprouted a shiny steel cartoon fist almost two feet square. My own eyebrow went up, because Jasper’s weight hadn’t increased. This magick stuff could almost be fun. Well, except for the screaming, running, and perhaps dying horribly part.
“OK, you win,” I said with a shrug. “Jasper, sword, please.” The big funny hand shimmered and shrank into Morphageus again. I crept up to the fallen giant with as much stealth as I could manage. For all I knew he just shammed to draw us closer.
“He’s movin’ a little,” I said. “Boy, he’s a big cuss. I think--whoa! Eddie! Come here and help me!”
I knelt next to the tree I’d felled. With Eddie on the other side of him we managed to haul him up till he sat upright. It took a lot of effort and energy, which I had in short supply, to hold him there. He smiled at me. My Stone returned a rosy hello.
This is no enemy.
“You packs a mighty punch, Miz Verity,” said Romulus, rubbing his sore chest. Giant knuckle marks still lived on his shirt. “How do, Mister Eddie.”
“We thought you was gonna eat us,” I said, hugging him. My arms didn’t reach anything like all the way around him.
“Child, that’s the first time anybody said that to ol’ Romulus since---”
“Since he almost ate me,” Ernie said, hopping out of my haversack and onto the big man’s belly.
“Why, Mister Ernie! I’m sho’ glad you’s here to look out for these here chil’n.”
My eyes bulged. “You can understand each other?”
“Course we can. We’s both Marshals of the Equity.”
Great. One more thing I don’t understand a lick of. If the monsters don’t get me, sheer ignorance will do me in.
“Will somebody please tell me what’s goin’ on! I’m at my wit’s-end here.”
Romulus touched the top of my head with his giant paw. It amazed me how gentle it felt, like a baby’s breath. “We been yo’ bodyguards, Miss Verity. Lookin’ out for you ever since you got to Washington. Keepin’ you safe.”
Ernie turned to look up at me. “From the Hon’rable Merchantry, of course.”
That didn’t help me any. “And just who is this Merchantry? Evil bankers and railroad men and such?”
“Oh, no, miss,” said Romulus, standing with a groan. Ernie scampered up his bulky body and onto his shoulder. “The Honourable Merchantry is sorcerers. And they runs the whole world.”
“You mean…like black magick?”
“The blackest, lovey,” Ernie nodded. “And they want to get hold of you and your Stone.”
“You a threat to them,” said Romulus.
There was a long pause while I thought about this. I could hear gunboats swooshing through the Potomac half a mile away. An owl hooted from atop the Smithsonian’s turret and at St. Bart’s the clock tolled ten. My nose caught the scent of flower beds a block distant, even when competing with the gagging smell of the Canal. All this I could accept, no matter how unbelievable. But the thought that wicked magicians were bent on pursuing a twelve year-old tomboy to the ends of the earth because of her daddy’s gift? Too much.
“This is all some kinda mixup,” I protested. “A mistake.”
Jasper’s voice piped up inside my head. “Do you know what would’ve happened if anyone but you had tried to take the Morphageus off the chamber wall?”
“Nope. An alarm bell would’ve rung, maybe?”
“Their bones would’ve collapsed into ash and their skin would’ve
fallen to the floor like an old gunny sack. Then their brains would’ve run out of their ears like warm custard.”
I winced. “No mistake, then.”
Romulus shook his head. “Oh, no, miss. You’s the Stone-Warden, that’s certain.”
“The Anointed One,” added Ernie.
“She who will restore Accord and Harmony,” said Jasper.
“But,” Ernie scowled, jabbing a paw at me “you’re still a pain in me arse.”
My shoulders fell. “I still think there’s been a howlin’ mess made by somebody. But as long as the Merchantry thinks I’m their girl, we still need to get outta here.”
“That’s sho’ ‘nuff true,” sad Romulus. “Time’s a-wastin’.”
This time Romulus led us. Seemed like he could see in the dark almost as well as me. We took a meandering course, avoiding major streets and lit buildings. I followed second, Ernie back in my haversack, and Eddie brought up the rear. Every now and then our guide would get down on all fours to sniff the ground.
“Why does he do that?” I wanted to know.
“Habit? Waddya mean?”
“I mean that me old mate Romulus used to be a dog, before the Merchantry… disciplined him.”
“You’re pullin’ my leg.”
“’Fraid not, missy. That’s how they punish people who cross ‘em, by shape-shiftin’ ‘em into a lower form of life.”
“And somebody thought a colored man’s lower than a dog?”
“You’re bein’ naïve, Verity, dear. Just about everybody in these parts thinks that.”
I shuddered, and not just because we were skirting St. Bart’s. For some reason what had been done to Romulus struck me as more awful than Venoma’s stench. Had Ma known? Might she be one of the Marshals of the Equity? Was that how Romulus, of all…people…had been hired on at Ford’s?
Have I just been a stupid blind kid all this time?
“You’re not stupid,” said Jasper. I’d forgotten that he stayed my head. “Just human.”
“Like you, once?”
“You said you’d tell me about it.”
“And I will. But not now. You got bigger things to think about.”
“Oh, right. Savin’ the world.”
“Savin’ yourself first. They’ve caught us.”
I ran smack into Romulus, who crouched down, unmoving. Eddie bumped into me.
This is like some bad minstrel show. The world’s dependin’ on us?
Focusing my sharpened senses, I felt for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing I saw, heard, or smelled caused any alarm.
Is Jasper wrong?Who’s caught us?
Then the Stone began to freeze. Turned so cold I thought it’d burn a hole through me.
Still I saw nothing. We were across the street from the southeast corner of St. Bart’s. The oak trees glared down at us like angry gods who were miffed that we dared trespass on their sacred ground without due homage. Night made them even creepier than they’d seemed that afternoon. No light came from the school’s windows. They were like the eyes of dead Argus, once all-seeing but now blind.
“Let’s go,” I whispered, starting to step around Romulus. “There’s nothin’---”
His log of an arm shot out and blocked me. “Sshh. Look.”
Maybe twenty yards ahead of us stood two soldiers, a sergeant and a corporal.. They were the Provost Marshal’s men—military policemen tasked with patrolling the streets of the capital. Confederate spies and saboteurs crossed the river all the time to cause trouble. Or they just walked right out of their houses to do the same. A lot of Washington’s residents sympathized with the South’s cause, though they had to stay silent about it. That made policing quite a dangerous job.
This didn’t look like a case of military necessity, though. A frail little boy of maybe seven or eight cried to the pair that he’d gotten lost and wanted his mama. They were kneeling down trying to calm him. Telling him that it would be alright, they asked if he remembered his street address. He had his hands in his coat pocket and just shrugged, while continuing to cry, head down.
“Do you have any older brothers or sisters we could take you to?” the taller of the two soldiers asked, trying to get some helpful information out of the boy.
The little tyke nodded. “A sister.”
“Do you know where she is?” asked the other soldier, shifting his slung musket.
“Yes, sir. She’s right there.” The kid raised his head to display black eyes. His hand came out of his coat pocket and an impossibly long finger pointed straight at me, pale as the finest china, the tip swollen like a tree frog’s. And then I noticed his white-blonde hair.
And the last piece of my recurring nightmare came to pass.
7/ Hordes of Bullies
I just swung a magick sword through a shape-shifted sorcerer and now I’m bein’ congratulated by a spellbound talkin’ mouse. What’s natural about that?