Everyone stared at Ella’s hand writing. Deke broke the long silence.
“So, my wand is legit?”
Richard looked up at him and smiled. “Yes, Mr. Smith. Your wand is yours. It is not the stolen talisman.”
Aric nudged him hard with his shoulder. “Way to go, Deke.”
Ella punched him. “Twerp.”
He smiled as he reached out and picked up the wand. “You guys don’t know how terrified I was that this was stolen. I was so scared.”
“You should’ve trusted us,” Gran growled.
“At least been open,” Billie grumbled.
Ella looked over at them. “Guys. Don’t be mean. We’re all scared.”
“Says Miss Brainiac who never believed in magic, anyway,” Billie spat out. “How scared can you be when you think it’s all logic and programming?”
Ella’s jaw fell open. She blinked.
Gran stood up and nodded, “I’m with Billie. Trust is a big deal. Ella, you’re just so stupefyingly naïve. Twerp could have saved us a lot of pain.”
“How?” Dish snapped. “What if he’d told us? It wouldn’t have changed anything. We were still trapped in a house with white coats coming after us. Deacon figured out a way to save us. He transported all the attic to the cabin, and then to here. The talisman is still in there, somewhere. And, just a point – we haven’t used magic since we met Kitsune. Ella has been a good leader, not a hot head like some people I could mention.”
Kyle coughed. “Guys. I’m with Dish here. Nothing changes how we got here. It’s not Deke’s fault. He’s just a dude who found something and when everything came down, he got scared. I have secrets, too, and I never told anybody.”
All eyes turned to him. He blinked. “Not like a talis- whatever. I just moved here, remember? I… Um. I’ve been lonely. I mean, Deke and Aric are nice, but some other kids haven’t been. And there was this old lady down the street who was really nice. She gave me flowers to take to my mom. And one day she handed me something that wasn’t just a flower. She gave me a wand. I thought it was a mistake and I tried to give it back to her. She just smiled and said, ‘Troubled times, young man. You think about what you want.’”
“So you just took a supposed magic wand from some old lady?” Gran was incredulous.
“Cool,” Dylan said.
“Not just any old lady,” Kyle replied. “Miss Sophy. I used it to make myself a great big bear. I thought when I was a bear that I’d lost the wand, but when I crossed into this house, it was in my hoodie pocket.” He pulled out an ornately carved wand with a crystal tip
“They arrested her,” Aric added. “Deke and I saw it.”
Richard and Natalie exchanged glances. “They thought the arrested her. They arrested her pet canary. She is at one of our other safe houses.” Richard held out his hand, “May I look at your wand, Kyle?”
“Sure.” Kyle held it out, but when Richard reached for it, it pushed him away.
“Interesting,” he said.
“May I?” Natalie held out her hand. The same thing happened.
“Whoa. What if I look at it?” Deke asked.
Again, and again, the wand refused to go to another person. Kyle finally shrugged and put it back into his pocket. “Guess it doesn’t like anyone else.” He looked abashed.
Richard was stroking his chin. “I shall have to ask Miss Sophy what she did with this particular wand. She’s a gifted wand maker, but this one is certainly unique in that it refuses to be handled by anyone other than you, Kyle. No one can steal that from you.” He smiled at the awkward teen.
Gran was trying out the different wands, not paying a lot of attention to anyone else, when suddenly he grew a moustache and beard. Billie happened to look over at him as it happened, and she screamed. Everyone looked.
“Your face!”
Gran jumped, turned beet red, and immediately reversed the spell. “Um, I found the magic one.”
Natalie put her head down between her hands. “Teenagers.”
Richard guffawed. The rest of the room soon joined him, including Gran. The only one who did not laugh was Horace, as he was perched on the back of a chair, trying to sleep. He opened his eyes and gave everyone a baleful stare, which set them off again.
Ella leaned back against the sofa, holding her sides. It felt so good to just laugh and be relaxed! She glanced over at Dish, who had better color this morning and who was engaged in a little game of boyish fisticuffs with Gran, laughing all the while.
They finally gained control of their outburst, and it was suggested that they bring the items out from under the sofa, one at a time, restore them to size, and examine them to see if something was hidden somewhere. They were going with the theory that whatever had been stolen, had been hidden in the Peabody attic, and so everything had to be looked at.
The stacked chairs were first, but were quickly eliminated. They were prank chairs used during parties at the Peabody house. The holiday decorations were also dismissed. The items were sent back to the Peabody attic as they worked. The first trunk enlarged and opened, held old lace, handkerchiefs, linen tablecloths, baby clothes, an ornate box of fine silver, an old sable coat, a mink shawl, and two well-preserved black dresses in the 19th Century Victorian style, as well as their petticoats, and one gentleman’s suit, including a beaver top hat.
“Oh, Mom always brings these out for our big feasts,” Ella exclaimed. “Fine china, the best silver, napkin rings, tablecloths, placemats…” she fondly refolded each item after it was inspected. “The baby clothes were grandfather’s.”
“It’s all sentimental items,” Natalie muttered. “Nothing magic.”
“The trunk itself must be magic.” Dylan ran his hand along the contours of the trunk. “How old is it, El?”
She glanced up from the baby clothes she was refolding. “It’s been in the family a couple hundred years, at least.”
Richard made sipped on a cup of tea. “The spell on the trunk is most likely what included it in Deacon’s spell cast.”
Ella set the hat down on the top, and looked at it. “Yes, definitely. I never thought about it before, but Mom always packed it without a care as to how things stacked, and yet the lid always goes down, and nothing is every squashed. You’d think I would have noticed that before.”
The second trunk was slightly more interesting, filled as it was, with all the stage props from Mr. Peabody’s youthful acting career, and some of his early medical implements. Nothing jumped out as new or so unusual that it fit the definition of what they were looking for. The third trunk held costumes and some larger props, and was – yet, again, dismissed.
“That’s it, I guess,” Ella said, flopping down on the sofa next to Billie, who still looked grim.
“No, there are two more items.” Deke retrieved the sewing mannequin and the free-standing mirror.
“I’ve never seen that mirror before,” Ella frowned. “Have you, Aric?”
“It was in the attic.” He shrugged. He was bored. “Right, Gran? Deke?”
“Huh. Guess I don’t get up there much. What’s the body-thing for?”
Billie rolled her eyes. “Don’t you know? It’s a costume-fitting model.”
“It’s for sewing,” Madison volunteered. “My mom sews – she likes working with her hands. You can adjust the bust and waist, and you hand the blouse or skirt over it to make adjustments.”
“Cool.” Deke eyed the mannequin.
“The mirror is certainly beautiful.“ Natalie ran her hands over the ornate, dark wood. She fingered the carvings. “Such detail in the flowers.”
Billie stood and looked at herself in the reflection. “Looks like me.” She shrugged.
Natalie looked at herself on the opposite side. “I don’t look like a rabbit, thankfully.”
Deke sighed and sat down next to Ella. “Guess there wasn’t anything special in your attic.”
“It’s all special, Twerp.” Ella got up and walked over to look at her self in the mirror.
Ella walked around the mirror and looked at the other side. She gasped. “That’s another place! Like I’m looking into an office!. Gran and Dish tried to peer over her shoulder, but all they saw was their own reflection.
“Psyche!” they said, joshing her.
“No! I’m not joking! It’s an office. Richard, can you see it?”
Richard and Natalie, and everyone else took turns looking, but noone could see the other place. Ella had to pull herself away from it. “Can we make it little again? I don’t want to look at it right now. I feel sick.”


The governor paced his office. He glanced down at his hands: the knuckles were swollen with arthritis, and age spots dotted the thin skin. He was bent over, his spine curling cruelly down from the scoliosis he had developed in his twenties. His joints ached.
There was a light knock on his office door and he hustled to the great chair behind the large desk. “Come in.” His voice still held power.
It was his press secretary, Fred Gist. Weasely looking, mouse-face, shrinking violet, Fred. The governor waited while the door closed behind Fred and the balding man made his way to the nearest high-back chair facing the governor. Fred waited to be asked to sit. The governor did not ask.
“Did you track them?”
“I sent a team, yes. Unfortunately, there’s a very active herd of elk in that area, and tracks were obliterated by their passing.“ Fred stared at the desk, not meeting his master’s eyes.
“What team?”
“Team C. Coyote. They’re not affiliated with the raven. He has not reported to me in days.”
The governor waved a hand, dismissing the topic. “Do we have a list of the missing, yet?”
“Of course. Some elementary school students, junior high, a handful of high school students. Mrs. West, Mrs. Woodhouse, old lady Sophy…”
“I thought we arrested Miss Sophy.”
“We did, but when the patrol car got to the detention center, she was gone. There was just a canary in the back seat of the patrol car. They put it in a cage, and we have the canary…”
“Then we have her. Pitiful attempt at shape-shifting.”
“Ah. Yes. Yes, sir. There’s an additional problem.”
“Poachers. There’s a pair of yahoos who have been making potshots at everything that moves in the woods: coyotes, bears, elk, deer. They haven’t actually shot anything yet, but they’re making the rounds, and they have the game wardens up in arms. Pair of regular rednecks.”
“Well, they might accidentally take out one of our errant wizards. They’re of no concern to me. What was the last location of any magic activity?”
“Days ago. It’s like everything stopped. We’ve tracked possible sightings of mice, voles, rabbits, hares, owls, ravens -not King Raven – and any creature that walks or crawls. People just report any animal they see and we go to check. We can’t just shoot anything we think might be a familiar – there were too many complaints by law-abiding citizens, and then there’s Mrs. Swainson and her house of cats. We’re running in circles, sir.”
“Bring me Phoenix Peabody.”
“Yes. Sir.” Fred took this as his cue to leave the office. He closed the heavy door behind himself, glanced at the imposing mirror, and nodded at the brunette receptionist who was watching YouTube videos. She didn‘t look up.
He thought about how much older the governor looked this week: as if he’d aged twenty years.

Ella curled up next to Billie. They stared into the fireplace. “You remember when I thought noone believed in magic, except my parents and Aric?”
“Yep. Even when I gave you the newspaper and tried to make you understand we were in trouble.”
“Then Twerp – er, Deke – changed us into mice. How’d he do that, I wonder?”
Billie shrugged. “He said he’d been practicing. Do you think Richard is telling us the truth?”
“He didn’t try to turn us in, if you mean that. And Natalie seems to think he’s on the up-and-up. I just don’t know what I think.”
“I want my life back. My boyfriend.”
Ella was silent, thinking about Dish. She just wanted a boyfriend.
“Know what I think?” Billie whispered.
“That whatever the governor wants, we should just return it to him. Make him swear a magic oath that he’ll let everyone go, and let him have his stupid talisman thing.”
Ella thought differently, but she didn’t say it out loud. She wondered what the morning would bring – and if they should try to get to Dish’s family’s cabin so they could go through everything from the attic. She decided she’d tell Richard about it in the morning. She trusted him.

Richard listened thoughtfully, his hands folded over a steaming cup of tea. The six former mice looked expectantly at him. Maddy, Dylan, and even Natalie, looked surprised. Ella finished up with, “and I think we should go to the cabin and look over everything to see if there’s any clues.”
“Oh, too dangerous,” Natalie objected.
“I agree,” Richard said, pausing to lift his tea to his mouth.
Ella and the others groaned. “But we -”
Richard lifted one long finger at her. “Patience. If young Mr. Smith could send those items to the cabin, he should be able to bring them here.”
“Where would we put them?” Gran asked. “It was a lot of stuff.”
“Where did Deacon put them when he sent them to the cabin?” Richard looked intensely at Deke, who felt his face redden.
“I shrank them. I didn’t want them to crush something in the cabin. I had a picture of a cabin and a room, so I just set them under a chair, all mouse-sized.”
“Can you really bring them here?” Gran asked.
Deke squirmed. He didn’t like being the center of attention just now. “I s’pose, but… I’ve never practiced bring things to me…”
“You told me how to move us all from one place to another, so we wouldn’t have to cross the BMX trails in the open. I never practiced. I just did it.”
“Yeah, and Kitsune showed up, telling us all to quit practicing magic.”
Richard cocked his head. “You think I came because of that single use, Mr. Smith?”
Deke shrugged. “I guess not.”
All eyes were on him. Aric reached out and lightly punched his shoulder. “You can do it, dog!”
Deke plunged his hands into his pockets. He scrunched close his eyes. “Okay. Everything magic that I sent to Dish’s cabin, come back here, stay small, and land under the sofa, safely.” He bit his lip.
There was a small thumping and scraping under the sofa. Deke held his breath.
Everyone else turned on their heads and peered under the sofa: there were several trunks, boxes of holiday decorations, a sewing bust, an old free-standing mirror, and two wooden chairs stacked on each other. All eyes turned to Deke who was breathing now, and who had his eyes open now.
“Did I do it?”
“YES!” Aric jumped up and held his had up for Deke to hit back. Deke pulled out his hand and slapped five.
“I did it!” Something clattered to the floor, and Deke looked down. Elation faded from his face, along with any color. “Oh. That.”
There, on the floor beside his seat, was a short red wand. Deke picked it up and played with it nervously. “I never stole it,” he whispered. “I found it in the middle of the road.”
“May I?” Richard held out his hand. Deke laid the wand reverently on his palm.
“I knew it,” Gran muttered, his tone dark. Dish just shook his head. Billie glared. Deke felt very, very, very small.
Aric sat down next to him and punched him lightly. “You dog. Should’a showed me.” He gave his friend a small smile of support.
Richard held the wand up. “Fascinating. It has runes carved into it. The red seems to be the wood, not paint.”
“Is it the missing talisman?” Madison was leaning intently forward.
Richard shook his head, “No, no. It is not even close to the missing item, but I am surprised that the former owner of this wand is not looking high and low for it.” He looked at Ella. “Miss Peabody, in the third drawer down next to the sink, you should find a magnifying glass. Bring it to me, please.”
Ella was in the kitchen, pulling open the drawer, when something tapped on the window. She jumped and squealed, “Eek!”
Dish and Dylan ran into the kitchen. “You okay, El?”
She stood with her hand over her heart. “Something big just tapped on the window.”
“I’ll check.” Natalie had followed the boys into the kitchen. “You all just return to the great room.”
“Can I go with you, Mom? Just to make sure you’re safe?” Dylan hesitated while Ella found the glass.
Natalie touched her son’s shoulder. “I am much safer than you think I am.”
She pulled open the back door, but before she could step outside, there was a rush of grey and brown feathers as Horace dove inside.
“I FOUND YOU DEACON!” he hooted joyfully.
Ten minutes later, after everyone had calmed down, and Horace’s feathers had been unruffled, they watched as Richard examined the red wand under the magnifying glass.
“it is not runic alphabet, as I thought,” he said. “But I believe it is a cryptograph.” he took a pen from his pocket and scribbled on a napkin.


Everyone stared. “That’s impossible,” Billie groaned.
“Maybe there’s a hint to the key,” Ella muttered. “Can I see the wand?”
Richard handed it to her. “Of course. I did not see a hint.”
Ella turned it over in her hands. This was her element. Not magic, but logic. She ran her fingers over the worn wood, looked at both ends, then gasped. She lifted the magnifying glass and peered at the slightly rounded tip.
“Guys, there might be a hint. Here, on the tip. DQ/QD I think either the ‘Q’ stands for the ‘D’, or the ‘D’ stands for the ‘Q’, Definitely the ‘Q’ stands for the ‘D’…”
She grabbed the pen and took the napkin, setting the wand back down. She began scribbling on the napkin. Words began to form and she scribbled faster as it came to her.
Ella leaned back, surveying her work. “That explains why it works for Deke: Fred is apparently dead.”
Slowly, the words sank in, and everyone turned to look at Richard, who looked stricken.
“That explains why he did not acknowledge me at the debriefing. He isn’t Fred.”


The following day was crisp and clear. The five companions made good mileage, stopping to eat here and there, and napping only once during the day. The herd of elk kept circling around behind them and around them. The snow had melted, but the ground was soft, and the greens still tender. The only birds they saw were varied thrushes, dark-eyed juncos, and northern flickers. A flock of geese too far away to see glided over, honking as they flew in a southerly direction. Canadas, Ella told them.
They rested a third time as dusk set in, hiding in the hollow of a fallen tree, punky and rotten, with a large, blackened conk growing out of the side of it. They did not talk as much as before, each of them wrapped up in his or her own thoughts about the night before and what lay ahead of them. The mice rode in the hoodies while Dylan and Madison maneuvered through the thinning under growth toward the imagined goal: Deke’s family’s hunting cabin.
The night was clear, but no full moon. A deer made a bed nearby: they knew it was a deer by the different musk scent and the sounds it gave off. Dylan made no mention of his mother, but they all secretly hoped it was her.
Dylan was on watch when he smelled danger. He thumped once. Not far away, he heard the deer rise from its bed and snort softly. Then it bounded off: thump! Thump! Thump! He imagined it jumping, large tail flashing black and white: Danger! Danger! Danger!
Aric and Madison joined him by the opening into the hollow. The smell of wet dog wafted on the air, and a pheromone sense of weariness. They could hear the large foot pads of something clumy working its way in their direction. Occasionally, there was a whuff as the animal sniffed the air. Eventually, a voice drifted their way.
“Let’s just find a place, OK, Kyle?”
“I’m looking.” Kyle sounded peeved.
Aric squeaked into the night air, “Kyle! Buddy! Gran! Billie! Dish! Over here!! Over here!”
“Shush,” Madison whispered, “It could be a decoy!”
“Did you hear that, Kyle? Was that Aric?”
“Gran the Man! Here, dog!” Dylan yelled.
“Dylan! Dylan the Villan! Follow that voice, Kyle!”
Dylan and Aric shouted into the darkness as if they were calling a pet dog. “Here! Over here!”
A large black shape shuffled out of the woods, round black eyes and long snout sniffing the air. “I smell rabbits and mousies. Is that my friend, Aric Peabody?”
“KYLE!” Aric bounced out of the hollow log and hopped across the space between them, doing little paw bumps as he want. “You guys are safe!”
Kyle sat down. “Are all of you safe?”
Billie was the first to scramble off and run toward the hollow log. Ella had just poked her nose out at the excitement. “Ellaaaa!”
“Billeeeeeee” Ella jumped from her perch and ran into her best friend’s hug. They danced in a circle, hugging and exclaiming, and hugging, again. They forgot, for a short moment, what they were, and why, as old friends hugged and slapped paws, and laughed with relief.
The deer brought them to their senses. She stood in a shaft of moonlight, her ears cocked curiously at them, steam rising from her nostrils when she exhaled. She eyed them, and stamped one slender hoof onto the ground. Everyone fell silent and turned to face her. She did not speak, but turned eastward, and slowly walked past, her long, white tail switching furiously.
Dylan hopped after her, “Mom?”
The deer paused, and looked over her shoulder briefly before continuing on her walk away. Dylan looked over at his friends, his eyes brimming with tears. He hopped slowly back. “I thought it could be her,” he whispered.
“And I think it is her,” Ella said, reaching out to pat his paw. “I think she wants us to follow her, but quietly. C’mon, let’s go.”
Dylan was reluctant, but the mice were already on board with anything Ella said, and soon the odd assembly of creatures was moving silently through the moon-lit forest, following the slender doe. The doe did not act surprised or nervous, but walked at a pace they could all keep up with.
She traveled in a fairly straight line, along a well-used deer trail that sometimes narrowed enough that Kyle’s riders had to hold on for all they were worth, lest they be scraped off and left behind. An owl hooted here and there, frightening Madison until Ella whispered in her ear that it was probably Horace, and Horace was a friend.
They came upon a meadow where the elk were bedded down, and the deer crossed out into the open, leading her small parade past the big bulls, cows, calves, and small bulls. Just beyond the dozing elk, she flipped her tail upward with a flash of white, and it was as if the flag had dropped at the car races: the elk lumbered to their feet, grunting and squealing, and they took off at a trot the way the caravan had just come. The doe watched them, and it seemed as if a smile played on her face.
That was magic, Ella thought, if nothing else is! The deer, the elk, the moonlight!
They crossed the meadow, and onto a path. The path led to the back of a cabin, from which warm light glowed. The smell of wood fire was in the air here. The doe led them around the side of the cabin, and to the front. Mr. Nagasaki sat on the steps of the porch, smoking a pipe. He waited until the doe was before him before standing up and bowing deeply. The doe bowed back.
“I suggest you come into the cabin single file,” Mr. Nagasaki said to the animals. “Piggy-back is not advised.” Then he turned and walked into the cabin, leaving the door open.
They all scrambled down to the ground, then looked at the doe, but she made no move to enter the cabin. At last, it was Ella who stepped over the threshold first. She was no more than three paces in when she felt the world change rapidly around her, and she was suddenly herself.
Kyle refused to come in until he saw that both Dylan and Maddy changed into themselves, fully clothed. He peered into the cabin and said, “You promise, Mr. Nagasaki?”
The doe butted him from behind, and he was forced to enter. He felt himself shrink and change, but he kept his eyes closed tight until someone touched his shoulder.
“It’s OK, Kyle. You have clothes on. Pajammas, to be exact, but they are clothes.” Ella stifled a giggle.
The doe entered last, turning into Mrs. Woodhouse, dressed in her painting clothes. She sighed and hugged Dylan, then Maddy.
The rest of the group felt too awed to speak, and too cowed, after their initial meeting with the deer. Mr. Nagasaki had a fire in the fireplace, and everything seemed too homey to be real. The smell of snicker doodle cookies hung on the air, and a heavy aroma of stew.
He smiled at the group and pointed toward the kitchen, “There is hearty vegetable soup in the kitchen. Please refresh yourselves, and then we will talk.”
Mrs. Woodhouse sank into a comfortable chair. “Good evening, Richard.”
“Natalie. Are you not hungry?”
“I will let the kids eat first. They’re teenagers, and their stomach comes first.” She smiled briefly.
The teens filed through the kitchen, filling soup bowls with a barley-vegetable soup, and grabbing cookies from the cooky jar as they passed, They all filed back into the main room, sitting on the floor or on the sofa, or taking up a wooden chair at the dining table by the window. Ella found herself sitting next to Dish. He looked more tired than ever, with circles under his pale eyes. His dark hair hung into his eyes. She leaned over and laid her head on his shoulder for a moment.
“I missed you.”
He tried to smile through a spoonful of stew. “Show you thay.”
Ella smiled.
They went back for seconds, and some went back for thirds. The cookies disappeared. Mrs. Woodhouse even got a bowl of stew before it, too, disappeared. Sated, finally, and the dishes stacked in the sink, everyone gathered around the two adults. Ella asked the first question on everyone’s mind:
“Why are we back to ourselves now? Wouldn’t the use of magic alert someone to where we are?”
“Elemental magic,” Mr. Nagasaki said. “This is my hunting cabin you are in. Everything here is elemental magic.”
“The elk were also elemental magic at work. They covered your tracks so the hunters could not smell you or track you. Real elk, but they obeyed commands.” Mrs. Woodhouse smiled mysteriously.
“So – where are our parents?”
“Who is doing this?”
“What is the talisman?”
“Who stole it in the first place?”
“What do we do now?”
Mr. Nagasaki waited patiently until Ella called out, “Guys, wait. Let them tell us, OK?”
“Thank you, Ella Peabody. First, please call me Richard. That is my given name, when I am not Kitsune.”
“And please call me Natalie, not ‘Mrs. Woodhouse’. That sounds so old.”
“We needed to make certain you were all safe, but we were not immediately certain who – or, rather, what – you all were. There are others, but they are in different locations. We could not risk bringing everyone under the same roof.”
Natalie nodded. “The attack blind-sided the wizarding community. We did not know anything had been stolen, or why this sudden crack down. Only Richard, here, had a strong enough cover to go undetected as a wizard or magician, and he alone was able to discover why we were attacked, and in most cases, illegally arrested and impounded.”
“Yes,” Richard nodded, before adding, “Does anyone want a cup of hot tea? I have made myself some, and wish to pour a cup before I settle down to tell you what I know.”
Ella raised her hand, but everyone else declined. She followed the ex-librarian into the kitchen, where he poured the tea into delicate cups and offered her cream and sugar. She took the sugar and they came back to the rest of the group.
Richard smiled as she settled down. “I went to the emergency meeting where many of us protested the arrests of our neighbors. We were given flyers, propaganda, and a man from the Capitol came to speak to us: Fred Gist, the governor’s press secretary. It was what he did not say that intrigued me.” He took a sip of tea.
“He did not say that the raids were conducted almost simultaneously, starting at 0700. He did not say that many students were missing from the schools, from K-12. He did not say the word ‘wizard’, but he used the words ‘witches’ and ‘sorcerors’. He alluded to a ‘family heirloom’ that could only have been ‘taken by black magic’. He did not mention burglary, alarms, theft, or motive. He did not mention whose family heirloom was missing, but intimated it was someone very high in the governor’s office.”
“So, by all that stuff missing, you figured out the plot?” Gran shook his head.
“Sure, that’s how you figure it out in a book,” Dylan replied. “It’s always what’s missing that’s the real clue.”
“Like these?” Gran held out the five wands from the Peabody house.
Natalie raised her eyebrows, “Everyone knows about those, Gran. Frank pulls them out at every party and tries to trick the newest guest into guessing which one – if any – is actually a real wand.”
Richard sipped his tea, listening. Ella sipped hers, too. “I see what you inferred,” she said. “He was making it sound as if the wizarding community was involved in practicing Dark Arts, and that it was by force the Dark Arts that this heirloom disappeared. But what he really meant was that anyone with access to some magic skill was suspect. But that’s not true.”
“Of course it’s not true!” Aric glowered at his sister.
“I believe your sister has more to add,” Richard said calmly. “Ella? Go on.”
“Dylan reads a lot of true crime and mystery stuff, so he should be on board with this: any good burglar can steal something, and they don’t have to use magic to do it. They just know coding and disable alarms, or they case the place and know all the security code, all of that James Bond stuff.”
“But he did not mention a burglary!” Dish looked excited. “That’s how Mr. Nagasaki knew it was a magic talisman!”
“Or totem, or whatever,” Madison said.
“Riiiight,” Billie leaned forward. “Because it would have had a non-removal spell on it, and someone had to know how to get around that spell in order to take it.”
“But we still don’t know who got robbed, or what it is.”
Richard raised a hand, “You learn quickly, but I have not finished my account. Fred is a good friend of mine. He used to come to the library at least once a week. A very avid reader. Yet, when I approached him after the news conference, he was extremely distracted and agitated. He did not have time for an old friend, and he looked frightened. I asked how the governor was, and he merely shook his head. ‘No comment’, as if I was a news reporter.”
“The governor…”

A fist landed in the middle of the large, old, oak desk. The In-box and Out-box rattled, paperweight shifted, papers jiggled, and the little man in the blue suit jumped from the force of the blow. The little man adjusted his black-framed glasses nervously.
“WHAT do you mean, noone can find any trace of my family heirloom? You HAVE rounded up every known practitioner of magic, have you not?”
“Er, no. No, we have not. Some have, er, run away. Kids, mostly. Teenagers.”
“”Incompetent police work. Incompetent. How hard is it to track down teenagers?” The voice dropped low. “Magic has been used. Just track the damn magic. Someone has used a magic wand – at least one someone. How hard is it?”
“Well, sir, we have been able to track down the where to all of those instances, but never the who. We have patrols out, searching for all the familiars, and we’ve made good progress at eliminating them. The fact is, we simply have no sightings…”
“Tracks? Can’t turn dogs loose out there? What?” The voice sounded kinder than the face behind it looked.
Fred gulped, his Adam’s apple moved visibly. “The dogs have caught no scent. The Peabody kids, for instance, moved the entire attic out from under our noses. There was no trace of them, no one found their cell phones, nothing. The last cell phone ping was inside the house, hours after the kids disappeared.”
The eyes closed and Fred was spared the baleful stare for a moment. He took the moment to pat down his sparse hair and compose himself. Then the eyes were open, staring him down.
“Did anyone consider shape-shifters? That they used magic to turn themselves into animals?”
“Oh, yes, yes! We did consider that. We sent out some spies. The raven reported some mice a few days ago, but they … just … disappeared, without a trace. The crows that told the raven about the mice couldn’t remember anything except that one mouse had a long spear or something that it poked at them.”
The man at the head of the desk looked upward, as if praying. He blew out a long breath. “The raven should have been onsite with the crows. I do not want any more second-hand news from birds whose highest mental capacity is how to crack walnuts in the road.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll try to relay that to…”
“I will tell the raven myself. Now, let me go over a few other details with you, Fred. Please. Sit down.”
Fred did so, reluctantly.
“My friend reports that his pet toad has been killed. Do you know anything about that?”
“Um. Toad? No. No, sir, I would most certainly remember if a report of a dead toad had crossed my desk.”
“The toad is in the morgue. I want you to go down and get the coroner’s report. I want to know the exact cause of death, you understand?”
Fred understood.
“And, Fred, before you leave. I have one more favor to ask of you.”
Fred knew it was not a ‘favor’, but an order. He nodded as he slowly stood up.
“Find my family heirloom before you start noticing changes in me. Do.You.Understand?”
“Yes. Yes, sir.”
Fred exited the large office, nodded at the brunette receptionist, passed the ornate mirror, and entered the wide hallway that always smelled of lemon wood polish, brass cleaner, and dust out of a vacuum. He thought about the changes he had noticed in his employer: wrinkles beside the eyes, thinning hair, the new toupee (poorly placed), and the age spots on those large hands that could crush a larynx with not more trouble than one crushed a beer can.
The boss was aging rapidly.

Ella had an idea where they were headed now. She felt excitement, but also worried: it seemed like such an obvious place for a certain group of teenagers to head for. Surely, whoever had orchestrated this sudden crack-down on magic, wizards, and witches would think of this place. There was an ‘unless’, and that depended on the person’s resources, and Dish’s parents willingness to talk. Then, there was the problem that Deke had transferred all of the property in the Peabody attic to Dish’s family cabin. If whoever was behind this had conducted any kind of an investigation into the property days ago, he (or she) would know that the attic contents were now stored there.
They were all cuddled into a ‘den’ of scotch broom, Himalayan blackberry, and wild grass. The mice had dined on old blackberries. The rabbits munched on pine needles, bark, and anything green that poked up out of the half-melted snow. Their tummies full, they crowded into the little den set against the base of the large scotch broom and compared notes.
Ella laid it all out on the table: the stolen wands that Gran was carrying (at least one of which was magic), Deke’s use of magic, the murder of the toad, and the addition of Kyle to the team. She felt Dylan and Madison deserved the truth.
Madison, in turn, revealed that she had been in possession of her own wand since her 16th birthday, a gift from her indulgent father. Dylan reminded them all that his mother was also free, disguised as a white tail doe.
They all tried to imagine what the ‘stolen talisman’ could possibly be, and who might have taken it, and who might be the angry wizard. It had to be someone in power, they agreed.
Deke sat in the corner, paws deep in his pockets. “What is a talisman, anyway?”
“The ring in that story about the elves,” Madison replied, citing a popular movie.
“Any kind of totem, or inscribed stone, or ring. They’re usually thought to possess magic powers. A totem might be a small carved animal that carries a protective spirit.”
“A small carved animal? Like what kind of animal, El?”
“Well, an eagle, or a seal, or a rabbit. Like, something native peoples believe in.”
“Could it be a button?”
“I don’t know about that, but I guess so.”
Kyle burped. “Sorry. I was just thinking maybe it was a stolen wand. You said your dad had several and that Gran-the-Man took them all. Maybe someone snuck an extra wand into your dad’s collection, and that’s the one that is magic.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Aric snapped. “Why would someone frame my dad?”
“Maybe not frame. Maybe the thief knew about the wand collection and figured that would be a good place to hide the stolen wand until he – or she – could come back to retrieve it. Like, it’s a ‘hot’ wand, and they needed to wait to use it or sell it?”
“You read too many mystery novels,” Madison chuckled.
“No, wait. That is plausible…” Ella was scratching her ear. “Kitsune didn’t show up until after Gran tried the magic thing. Maybe that particular wand is a trigger.”
“But why hide it with your dad’s stuff? Who even knows about that?”
Aric and Ella exchanged glances. “Anyone he was in college school plays with. Anyone who comes to our annual New Year’s Eve Party, or the Hallowe’en costume party, or the big summer barbecue. Dad likes to get them out and show them to people, because he hand carved every single one of them. They are rather unique looking.”
“That sure widens the circle of suspects.”
“And it doesn’t answer how we’re going to get our parents out of jail, or who lost this magic wand or token, and how we can make them not mad anymore.”
“Totem, not token.”
“Whatever. They’re still going to be mad, even if we find a way to return it. I mean, they’ve already done a lot of damage to the wizarding community.”
“Maybe it wasn’t theirs to begin with, and whoever took it, took it to return it to the rightful owner.”
“That’s a good point, Kyle. It could be that our mission is to find the talisman and return it to the rightful owner, and that will set everything right, again.” Ella looked excited for the first time in the past few days.
Kyle and Madison readily agreed, giving each other a high five. Deke slumped in the corner, paws in pockets, looking glum. Aric paced.
“I have a question,” he finally said. He looked at everyone. “Why did Kitsune wait to show up after Gran used the wand? Why did he put GPS coordinates in our heads, especially if he knows what the talisman is? Why are we all headed away from our parents?”
A silence fell under the scotch broom.
Deke and Ella both started to speak at the same time, “No -”
Deke nodded at Ella, “You go.”
“Okay. No, Kitsune is not the enemy. He’s not trying to trick us. He already told us that he’s good Kitsune, and his alter-ego is Mr. Nagasaki. He’s cool. I think he would have come the first few times Twerp used his magic, but they were all in awkward places, like the crawlspace under our house. No.”
Deke nodded. “That, and he made sure we found Kyle. Kyle hasn’t got any way to conceal something, and he was just lonely. If he thought Gran had the wand, he could’ve taken it right then, and none of us could have resisted.”
“So why is he free to use magic, and we’re not?”
“Elemental magic. Don’t you guys read anything about magic? Kitsune is an element, not like a conjure. Whoever is mad isn’t looking at elementals.”
Kyle’s jaw dropped. “That’s why they never saw my mom leave her studio. She’s an elemental.”
Everyone stared at him, now. He made a rabbit’s attempt to shrug. “A shape-shifter. An animal guide. I didn’t inherit her magic, if that’s what you’re thinking. I have to learn mine, just like you guys.”
“Everyone but me,” Ella muttered. “I apparently have no magic powers, except to speak to other mice.”
“Well, to be fair, Dork, you never believed in magic.” Aric gave her shoulder a friendly punch.
She nodded. “Know what? I’m really tired, and I think we should get some rest before we make tomorrow’s trek. I think we’re headed to Dish’s parent’s cabin.”
“I’ll take first watch,” Aric said, hoisting his barbed wire strand.

Dusk fell before the three travelers found a dry place to spend the night. They were surrounded by mushrooms, and the heady smell of fungi filled their noses, not to mention they sated themselves before they crawled far up under the chanterelles and nestled against a moss-covered rock. Outside of their shelter, rain had begun to fall, and their eyelids drooped to the sound of drops on their fibrous roof. They dozed with their weapons at the ready.
They awoke refreshed and ready to go. The air was decidedly cooler now, and the sound of rain had ceased. There was no sound, and the air smelled of ‘shroom, musty, damp, and delicious. Aric was the first to leave the shelter.
“Guys! Dork! Deke! Come look!”
Ella shoved Aric as she came out from under their shelter, “Derp.”
“Oh.” Twerp stepped cautiously out. “It snowed!”
“Is snowing,” Ella corrected, as a flake landed on her nose. “I think we better get going before it gets too deep.”
“Aw,” Aric groaned. “I forgot for a minute that we were mice.”
Ella led, downhill again. The night was eerily still, and their shoes left little tracks behind, with their tail imprint. Ella hoped it would snow enough to cover their tracks, at least. She wondered how normal mice got around when it snowed. “Isn’t it strange how we’re not cold?”
“Speak for yourself,” Twerp snapped. “You have boots on. I have sandals.”
“You wear sandals all year, and you should have mouse feet. Mice walk in this stuff all the time and don’t get frostbite.”
“Says you, Aric. My toes are cold.”
They trudged along, dodging rocks and snow-covered ferns, and catching snow flakes on their whiskers. Once, they all slipped on a rock they couldn’t see for the snow, and slid on their butts and tummies until they all smacked into a larger, lichen covered boulder. The barbed wire and stick with a nail clattered down the slide behind.
They took turns leading. The snow changed the way things smelled, and they almost missed the bounty of pine nuts as they navigated through a cone-infested, snow-covered landscape. The snow was not falling as heavily now. Ella shoved at a fairly large pinecone, in an effort to move it out of her way. Several seeds fell out as she did so, and Aric picked one up. His nose twitched.
He took a bite, closed his eyes, and sighed. “These are really good. You need to roll pinecones around more often, Dork.”
“Seems all you think about is your stomach, Derp.” Ella picked up one of the dark nuts and bit into it. “Wow.”
They grazed for a short bit before starting out again. The world was turning grayer, and the croak of a raven floated through the woods. A pack of coyotes gathered and began singing, their voices harmonizing and echoing. The mice headed back under the cover of vegetation that was now drooping under the inch of snow.
“Crows, coyotes, toads, hunters. I hate the wilderness,” Twerp griped.
They forded a tiny stream. Ella found a dry space under the shelf of a stone, hidden behind a small, thick-growing yew. “Rest time,” she announced.
They were asleep in a few moments.

A howl woke them. It was not a howl like a coyote. It spiraled up in anger and despair, an eerie thing that consumed the air. It formed words. “Veeeennnnnnnnnnnie! Aaaarrrrggggghhhhh! Who killed you, my Vennie? Whoooooooo? Awooooooooo”
The mice cuddled together and shivered. “Guess he found his t-t-toad,” Twerp whispered.
“B-b-but how’s he kn-know it wasn’t natural?”
“N-nail through the h-head.”
“Could’ve been – b-b-been a t-talon.”
A cold wind whooshed through the tree tops, still howling, still cursing. “Ayyyyyyyyeeeeeee wiiiilllllllllll fiiiiiinnnd yoooooouuuuuuuuu Awooooooooo.” It seemed that a shadow passed overhead at the same time, then the wind changed directions and blew back up the slope, screaming “VEEEENNNNNNNNNNIIIIIEEEEEEEE!”
“Pretty sad, considering he wasn’t afraid to kill other people’s familiars…” Aric whispered.
“We need to move.”
That voice came from outside the shelter, and sounded familiar. The mice jumped up and scurried out, carrying their weapons. They came face to back with two rabbits looking back up the hill.
“Yes, and quickly,” the one on the left said.
“Wait! Guys! Madison! Dylan!”
The rabbits turned slowly, warily. One was wearing a beat up black hoodie with CRYPTIC in white lettering on the back. The other had a newer hoodie with THRASHER written in white across the back. “Who are you?”
“Ella. Ella Peabody.” She got no further because the big female cottontail leaned in close.
“Ella? As in, ‘there’s no such thing as magic’ Ella? Nerdy Ella, the hacker?”
“Hacker?” Aric and Twerp stared at her.
“The same.”
“If there’s no magic,” the male bunny said, “How is it that you’re a talking mouse?”
“I did that,” Twerp blurted out. “We were in a situation that called for drastic measures.”
“Um, this is my bro, Aric, and that’s Twer- er, Deacon.”
The male sniffed at Aric. “You the dude who does the serious backflips on his BMX? That’s an Aric.”
Ella glared at her brother, but he didn’t look at her. He puffed out his chest and nodded. “That’s me, bro.”
“You guys know anything about that freaky wind? Scared us.”
Ella stepped forward. “Depends. Where are you guys heading? Can we trust you?”
The cottontails exchanged glances. “Have we ever given you reason to not trust us, El?”
She nodded. “You can trust us, too. Now, where are you headed?”
They paused. “We don’t know. We’re following a sort of map.”
“You’ve met Kitsune?”
“The Animé dude? Yeah. Weird. You, too? You know where we’re going?”
“No. But we need to get going.”
“That’s what we were doing.”
“One thing, Dylan. We can’t travel as fast as you can. Can you guys give us a ride?”
Madison looked at her boyfriend. “She totally hacked that creep for me.”
Dylan knelt down. “I would be honored, even if you dudes ride BMX.”
Coyote howls filled the early morning air, closer than they had been earlier. The mice scrambled up onto the backs of the rabbits and clung on. Dylan led and Madison followed, their ears back and tails up. They hopped through the snowy landscape, following the little rivulet of water. Overhead, the sky turned white: another day of snow. It no longer mattered to Ella: the rabbits could navigate snow. She crawled into Madison’s hood and held on. She hoped her brother and Twerp thought of the same tactic.
The rabbits did not always run. They slowed down, here and there, stopping to nibble and study their surroundings. Their ears were always swiveling. It was during these breaks that they compared notes with the mice. It was also during one of these breaks that a flock of crows flew overhead and the mice hid in the hoodies, shivering. The crows did not bother the rabbits and continued on.
“So, what do you think this talisman is?”
“A magic wand, maybe? Something powerful.”
“It has to be, to pit magician against magician. Why try to imprison other wizards and ban all magic? I don’t get that part.”
“Maybe it has been used for evil. I know our parents wouldn’t practice evil. They’re all about healing and law and order.”
Madison lifted a hind leg to scratch behind an ear. “Let me know if this bothers you, Ella. I get you. My mom is a waitress. Dad is a mechanic. I only know they’re wizards because I once threw a fit and made the bed in my bedroom rise to the ceiling. I was trying to recreate a scene from some horror flick I’d watched. Mom totally made the bed while it was in the air, vacuumed under it, and then ordered it back down and me tucked in. She wasn’t even mad, just amused.”
“My dad’s an EMT. When they came and arrested him, it was surreal. Mom was in her studio and she told me to change into an animal that could move quickly. She turned herself into a deer, and placed herself out in the woods, a hundred yards from the house. She leaped up into the woods, and I haven’t seen her since.” Dylan wiped a tear from his eye.
“I was already a rabbit. I didn’t know if Dylan would get my text or not, but he must have. Next thing, he was by me.”
“What did you do with your cell phones?”
“We sent them to the toilet. It wasn’t long afterward that we met Kitsune. He was pleased that we’d ditched the phones into the toilet. He warned us not to use any magic.”
“Did he tell you where we’re going?”
“No. He just gave us, like, GPS coordinates, but in rabbit terms. What about you guys?”
“I guess it’s GPS coordinates. I just know when I’m not headed the right way, like when we went uphill to hide.”
“Hide? From who?”
“What.” Aric corrected. “When you’re a mouse, it’s always a ‘what’ that wants to have you for lunch or dinner.”
“I get that,” Dylan said.
Madison was in the lead now, and she stopped, sat up erect, and thumped her foot in warning. Her long ears pointed forward. She whispered, “I hear cars.”
Dylan crept up next to her. He sniffed the air. “Exhaust fumes. Diesel. I think we’re close to a road.”
They stayed in the brush and ferns as much as they could, creeping closer to the highway sounds. Dylan peered over a rock. “There’s a culvert with a small stream running through it. We’ll be exposed for a short distance on this side, but not to traffic. I can see a … I think it’s a gas station and convenience store. Bar. It’s a bar. Crazy Sully’s. I know that Big Foot sculpture in the front.”
Madison peered over the rock. “Not much traffic. Why can’t we just cross the highway?”
“Because we all have clothes on.” Ella had climbed out of the hoodie and was trying to see what the rabbits were looking at. Her bad eyesight kept her from making out much.
“Oh. I forgot.” Madison sank back down. “I hate getting wet.”
They sneaked down the steep slope until they were out of brush. No birds overhead, no peering eyes that they could discern, only the little streamlet snaking through the rocks. The snow had melted some, but they all thought the same thing: the water would be very, very cold. Madison went first, agilely avoiding slipping. She held her breath when she stepped into the darkness of the culvert. Water swirled up to her tail.
Dylan followed, relying on his years of skateboarding to navigate the rocks quickly. He splashed loudly into the culvert. “Not so bad,” he grinned.
“Shush!” Sound echoed in the culvert. The sound of cars passing overhead rumbled and shook the ground. The rabbits waded slowly, paws akimbo in case they teetered to one side or another. The opening behind them began to get smaller as the one before them got larger. They could hear more water gurgling now.
Dylan reached the end first. “Shoot.Me.Now.”
What is it?” Madison edged up beside him.
The end of the culvert dangled over a steep, rocky, drop.
“How far do you think that is?” Madison whispered.
“Further than I think I can jump.”
“Not even.” Madison stepped back from the edge. “You just gotta believe in yourself, Dyl. Think about the first time you jumped stairs. Just pretend you’re going to grind the stair rail at the old church.”
Dylan waded back to where she stood. “That’s crazy, Maddy. There’s no stairs or rail out there. Just air and rocks.”
“No, air, rocks, water, and a dirt spot between two trees, if you aim it right. Go look again.”
“This is crazy,” Ella squeaked.
“Hush. You just be the geek girl and hang on. Tight.”
Aric and Deke peered over Dylan’s shoulders. Aric couldn’t make out much, but Deke’s glasses gave him an edge. “I could do that on my bike,” Deke boasted.
“Okay, dudes. You hang on real tight, because I’m going to grab some serious air.” Dylan back tracked, turned around, and said, “Got a grip, dudes?”
“COWABUNGA!” He took three running steps and pushed off with both feet. They sailed out over the water and rocks and into the low-hanging branches of a tree. The tree slowed Dylan’s momentum and broke his arc, sending him tumbling down into the mud and snow between the trees, where he did two somersaults before landing upright.
Deke held on tight, even through the somersaults. Aric flipped out of the hoodie and grabbed at the branches as they tumbled. He caught himself and dropped down by degrees. Dylan jumped up in the air, fist pumping.
The next moment, there was a flash of black hoodie and brown rabbit as Madison made the jump in typical rabbit fashion: from all fours. She missed the tree branches, but she managed a cartwheel as she hit the ground. Ella fell out of the hoodie during this maneuver, dizzy and stumbling a bit. “Wow,” she said.
Madison hopped up to Dylan and high-fived him, then did a hip bump, and they did a double high five. “That was freaking wild!”
They all heard a car screech to a stop above the culvert, and immediately dove for cover. A clatter of hooves thundered across the pavement, then a herd of elk crashed into the timber. The heavy scent of musk filled the air and the ground shook. Steam rose from the elk. They grunted, squealed, and tromped heavily over the rabbits’ recent tracks.
The car started again, and the woods receded into a peaceful quiet.

23670 words

The first whizzing bullet overhead caused Ella to startle and lose her grip on the bear. Aric reached for her as she slid, mouth open in panic, but unable to scream. Kyle twisted suddenly, causing Deke to lose his grip. Deke tumbled into Aric, who was hanging on with one hand, and they both went flying and tumbling onto the ground. Kyle was already gone from view, although they could hear him crashing up the hill through brush, encouraged on by Gran and Dish.
Aric cupped his paws and shouted, “Ella!”
“Over here!”
They found her hiding under the brown remains of a bracken fern. She motioned for them to be quiet before they all embraced in a group hug. “Men coming,” she whispered. The mice scooted as far under the bracken as they could. They shivered.
Boots scrambled up the hill.
“It’s gone, Hank.”
“Shit. It was a big bear, too. Could’a filled my freezer with sausage.”
“You got a bear tag? Because all I have is a buck tag.”
“No, I ain’t got a bear tag. Not worth tracking him. But there was something funny about him. Looked like there was something on its back.”
“You’re seeing things. And now you’ve alerted every damn buck within a mile that we’re hunting here. Let’s go back to the rig and drive on around the point. Maybe it’ll cross the road up there – that’s the direction its heading. We can cover it up with a tarp.”
“Okay. Sure hate to miss out on a fella that big. I know who makes good summer sausage.” A boot stopped just inches from where the mice held onto each other.
“C’mon. I ain’t climbing no hill.” The other pair of boots was already headed back down the slope.
The boot before them turned toward them, and the other boot just missed Ella’s toes. The hunter followed his friend back down the hill, snapping twigs and muttering loudly about how much he hated how his knees hurt. The mice sank to the ground, and exhaled at the same time.
“We lost Kyle and the others, though.” Aric sniffled.
“Maybe they’ll come back looking for us.”
Ella looked at Twerp. “No, they won’t. They just got shot at. They won’t know the hunters aren’t following them, or even where we fell off. We’re on our own.”
A miserable silence engulfed the trio.
A misty rain began to fall, adding to their despondent mood. Ella put the hood up on her hoodie, but neither Aric nor Twerp wore a hoodie. “We can’t just sit here, she said. We need to follow the map in our heads, and hope we can make it to wherever we’re going. Maybe Horace will fly by and find us, and we could ride with him.” She forced a smile.
“Not likely.” Aric grabbed a pebble and threw it. “Screw it. Let’s march.”
“I’m sorry I fell off and made you fall, Aric.” Twerp sniffed.
“No, that was a good thing. Ella fell first, and I was trying to reach for her. Better its all three of us together, than just Dork out here on her own.” Aric lightly punched his best friend’s shoulder.
They stayed to the low growing plants as they started hiking again. “At least the rain should keep the crows at bay.”
“What about raccoons?’
“I think there are a lot more things to watch out for than just crows and ‘coons.” Aric studied their surroundings as best as he could. They stood four inches tall, at most, he thought, and couldn’t see much further, except for general impressions. “I wish we could find some ten penny nails or some human discards we could make into weapons. My barbecue skewer was awesome.”
Ella led by her nose and whiskers. “We’d probably have to stumble right over the top of an old campsite or pioneer dump. I don’t think the odds are in our favor.”
“’If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.’” Twerp quoted a nursery rhyme his grandmother used to say to him.
“’If turnips were watches, I’d carry one by my side.’” Ella laughed. “Did you guys know the original jack o’lanterns were actually carved turnips, not pumpkins?”
“I hate turnips.”
“Turnips sound wonderful to my mouse taste buds.” Deke tripped. “OUCH!” The other two turned around and came back to help him up.
Deke brushed himself off. “Sorry.”
Aric was looking at what Deke had tripped over: a short strand of barbed wire. He held it up. “This could be very handy.”
Ella and Deke crowded close. “Think there’s more? Why such a short piece?”
“There could be a fence here, and we wouldn’t know it because of our eyesight,” Aric replied. He was scavenging around, working his nose. “Maybe some fence staples or something.”
“What are fence staples?” Deke nosed the ground. He came up with a two-pronged piece of galvanized steel that just fit into his paw like brass knuckles might. “Will this work?”
“That,” Aric said, “is a fence staple. A new one, at that. Find another one and you’ll have a two fisted weapon.”
Ella held up a short piece of wood with a square nail jutting out one end. “I think this will be handy. Old nail. Did our prayers just get answered?”
“Or our wishes. This Kitsune might be nearby?”
They peered around, trying to see into the mist. Nothing moved.
Aric , Ella, and Deke marched in the open now, their weapons held at the ready. They sometimes jogged, hoping to make better time. The mist let up, and the sun came out, causing the earth to steam where the sun touched it. The steam was worse than the rain, as it created a low fog. Their tummies were growling, their clothes were wet, and despite the weaponry, their spirits began to sag. They had no idea how much ground they had covered, but they knew it couldn’t be as much ground as Kyle could cover. They hoped Kyle had turned and started to follow the mind-map. They hoped he had not continued uphill, and across the road where the hunters were waiting. They hoped they would find shelter and food.
Ella was climbing over a little hill in the ground when everything gave way. She disappeared into a hole with a sudden squeak.
Aric and Deke ran forward and peered down. She was sprawled in a large tunnel, her nail-on-a-stick next to her. “Ow,” She moaned.
“Boomer hole,” croaked a nearby voice. “Nasty creatures.”
“It’s a boomer hole. We gotta get you out of there!” Aric yelled down to his sister.
“That’s not so hard,” she answered. “I can climb out. It’s just it’s dry, and smells unused. I thought we could sleep in here.”
“Oh, no, no.” A large toad crawled forward from under some large, brown leaves. “You must not do down there. Boomers are evil.”
“Um, Ella, there’s this frog up here that says whatever lives down there is pure evil.”
“Toad,” the toad corrected. “They eat mice.”
“Frog? A talking frog?” Ella looked around. The place certainly seemed deserted. She tried to remember what she knew about frogs. “Okay, I’ll climb out.” She used her nail on a stick to help herself up.
“What eat mice?” Deke stared at the dark, lumpy form.
“Boomers, of course,” The toad replied. “I can show you a place to stay the night, if you need one.”
Aric helped Ella out of the hole. “The fro- er, toad, says he can show us to shelter.”
She dusted herself off and turned around, looking for the toad. It was large, lumpy, and blended in with the world around it. It’s eyes were yellow. It seemed to smile, and it croaked, “My name is Veneno.”
Ella felt a shiver run down her spine. “No, I think we’ll just continue on our way. Nice to meet you, Veneno.”
“Vennie, for short.” The toad hopped around in front of the trio. “I’d really like to be your friend.”
“No, I think we really should just go.”
“What’s wrong, El?” Aric shifted his weight and looked from toad to his sister. “I could use a place to sleep, and Vennie is offering us one.”
Ella shook her head. “No. We need to get going up the hill, or we’ll miss the rest of our gang. Nice that you offered, Vennie.” She waved at the other two to follow her up.
“Wait, I thought we were going d- “ Deke caught himself. “Yeah, you’re right, Bellwether. Up we go.”
Aric stared at his sister and friend. “Okay guys. Sorry, Vennie.”
“No, I am sorry.” The toad jumped and landed in front of Ella. “I cannot let you go.”
“How are you going to stop us?”
“Um, El… There’s, like, a line of red-bellied salamanders surrounding us.” Aric slowly turned around, surveying the danger.
“Great. You’re not very nice, Vennie.”
The toad blinked.
The three mice backed into each other as the salamanders advanced. The teens moved in a circle. Aric grasped his barbed wire strand. “Guess we’ll have to fight.”
“Fight?” The toad almost laughed. “Mice can’t fight, except with their teeth.”
“You have bad eyesight, toadie,” Aric swung the barbed wire strand, catching a newt with a barb. It screamed.
Ella waved her stick threateningly. Deke jabbed with his staples, trying to look brave.
“Dork! Give me your stick!” Aric handed his barbed wire to her. “You can handle that better.”
Deke swung wide at an advancing newt and poked its face with a staple. It hissed in pain and backed rapidly up.
“What are you doing?” the toad croaked. It leaped upward as Aric swung down with the nail. Aric followed it, this time swinging the nail sideways. He caught the toad in the eyeball. It screamed, and thrashed. The newts all disappeared backward, hissing angrily.
Aric brought the nail out and brought it down hard on the toad’s head. The toad splayed out and kicked a few times before dying. The mice, horrified at the turn of events, backed into the base of a tall Douglas fir tree. Deke recovered first.
“I think we better scram. That was a familiar, and his wizard is bound to be on the way.”
“Uphill,” Ella said. Together, the three mice pushed upward, still carrying their weapons. They were no longer tired.

21,375 words

Kyle’s basso voice startled Ella from her dream. She wanted to keep the dream, but it dissipated like mist off a fence in the early morning sun, leaving her somewhat unnerved and lost. She sat up, rubbing her eyes. It was morning, she could tell that by the grey light inside the little cave. Following the direction of Kyle’s nose, she made out a large snowshoe hare just ender the ledge, nibbling of leaves, and working its nose. One ear was cocked toward the bear.
The other mice stirred, and still the hare didn’t speak or move away. It continued to eat, the eye on the right side of its head watching them. It chewed and sniffed and watched.
“Um, hello,” Ella said.
“I tried that,” Kyle reminded her.
“Maybe it’s just a hare.” Gran stretched lazily.
“No,” Ella said. “Kitsune. Welcome to the cave.”
The rabbit seemed to smile. “Good morning, Ella Peabody. You are developing your talent, I see.”
“I was hoping to see you today,” she confessed.
“Ah, yes. You followed my instructions well. Making friends with the deer mice was an unusual strategy. Now, you have located Kyle.”
“You knew about me?” Kyle wondered. “Isn’t kitsune an Animé fox?”
The hard turned its head so it could see Kyle with both eyes. “Japanese cartoon. Quaint. Kitsune predates cartoons. I can be fox, human, or other. Today, I have chosen the hare. I have also come to warn you.”
“Me?” Kyle’s eyes widened.
“All of us,” Ella said, patting the bear’s nose. “Kitsune has warned us before.”
“Yes, all of you. You have followed the stream and you have met Kyle. This was my intention. Kyle has good magic, and a good heart. Ahead of you lies trials: I do not wish you to continue down this stream, for that journey would be pointless. You must now turn, and leave the stream behind. Beware this path: there are dangers lurking out there that are greater than the family of raccoons, or the teasing crows. You must keep your wits about you at all times.”
“Where are we going?” Gran asked.
“Impetuous Gran. If I told you where I was sending you, and you were captured by our mortal enemy, you would tell him what he wants to know. I am directing you toward what will set us all free from this tyranny, but you must trust me.”
“But how do we know where to go?”
The hare smiled, showing yellowed teeth. “I am sending a map to your primitive brain. Should you become separated, you will all have the same map inside your head, and, being animals, you will be able to follow that map. If plans should change, I will find you.”
“There’s a chance we could get separated?”
“A very strong one, yes. This is a dangerous mission you are on, to restore the balance of magic and non-magic.”
“Why can’t we just find the stolen talisman and return it?”
The hare shook its head. “That would be one way to restore the balance. You must remember: the talisman that was stolen was stolen first from someone else. It must be returned to the original owner before persecution can be halted and balance restored. That is all I can tell you now.”
“What about our parents? Aren’t they in that old warehouse?”
“Ella, I only sent you down the stream to meet Kyle. You drew conclusions. That is dangerous. That old building is what it has always been: an empty eyesore. Your parents are being taken care of, and are not in any immediate danger. Your father has asked me to relay a short message to you: ‘What does not belong is the key’”
“What does not belong is the key?”
“What about Kyle? Can he come with us?”
“Of course. That is why I sent you to him. There will be others, but there will be some who are not as they seem. Be careful. Now I must go. It is hunting season. I must quit this hare as quickly as possible. Safe travels. Trust the map in your head.” Kitsune turned and crawled out from under the ledge and past the huckleberries. They listened as he thumped away at a hare’s pace.
The mice climbed onto Kyle’s back and headed out not long afterward, but not before dining on the left-over huckleberries and snowberries in front of Kyle’s little den. They headed somewhat west by southwest through rhododendron thickets and fir thickets. Challenging their skills to hang onto Kyle’s coarse brown fur.
“What did he mean – there’s no one in the detention center?” Dish rubbed a paw across his nose.
“He said I made an assumption, because the deer mice showed me there the stream came out. I assumed that was where we were going, when all the while, he only wanted us to find Kyle.”
“Or me to find you,” rumbled Kyle.
“Now where are we going?”
“I don’t know. I think he did that on purpose, to protect us. We’ll just know when we get there.”
Kyle turned to the left, following a more open trail.
“We’re just supposed to trust hat was really Kitsune?” Gran asked. “I thought he was a fox or Mr. Nagasaki.”
“Should we be out in the open like this?” Billie looked skyward.
“Pretty sure crows won’t mess with Kyle,” Deke replied from his post.
“Easier walking,” Kyle grumbled. I hate rhododendrons.”
“Why was Mr. Nagasaki so worried about hunting season? He was a rabbit. There’s no set season on rabbits. It’s year round.” Dish glanced over at Ella.
“He could be shot any time. So, if someone’s out here with guns, they could be hunting him.”
“Yeah.” Aric was sitting up, riding the bear like a cowboy. “But they’d be hunting elk or deer. Or…” He looked down.
“Or what?” Ella and Dish looked back at him.
“Kyle! Get out of the open! We have to stay in the thickets!”
A whizzing, spiraling sound whistled up the ridge toward them, splitting the air over Gran’s head. Another round hit a tree in front of Kyle’s muzzle, spitting bark and pieces of wood outward. The birds and chickarees went silent.
“RUN!” Everyone screamed. “Uphill! Into the rhodies!”
Kyle lurched forward, putting the tree between him and the whistling bullets, and made three great leaps into the cover of the rhododendrons. Gran was clinging to fur close by his ear, yelling, “Uphill, uphill! Stay in the brush! Turn left on those rocks! Slow down! Down the rocks! Don’t leave tracks. Hurry!”
Billie and Dish had grabbed each other and were clinging to the fur behind Kyle’s shoulder. “We need to slow down, guys, and think of an escape plan before those men climb the hill.” Dish squeezed Billie’s shoulder.
“Right. At the bottom, hide behind that big Douglas fir. El will have an idea.”
Kyle made his way down, careful not to step off of the round rosks that made up the edge of a talus slope, hidden under vine maple and old rhododendrons. He plastered himself against the big fir tree when he reached it. “Ok, what now?”
“El?” Gran looked back.
Ella, Aric, and Twerp were gone.
19645 words – jdp