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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

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?”
“Right.”
“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.”

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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…”

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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.

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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.”
“I-I-icicle.”
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!”
“Wooo!”
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.

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“Hello.”
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?”
“Yes.”
“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.
“Right.”
“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.
“Bear.”
“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

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“Little mouse lives!” the big face reared back and giant claws ripped through the air, culminating in a clap just above Elle’s head. “I saved little mouse Eric!” Another clap, and a roar that nearly deafened the mice.
“Whoa!” Aric pushed himself up. “What!? Who?” He looked from Ella to the now grinning mouth of putrescent breath. “Gawd! Your breath smells horrible! Who are you?”
The face retreated. “Sorry. No toothbrush.” A paw the size of Texas covered the mouth. Beady eyes looked down from the darkness of the hulk. “”I’m Kyle. Kyle Beezer. Nice to meet you mousies.”
Twerp was the first to find his voice. “Kyle? Kyle Beezer? From Mr. Giles‘ history class?”
The eyes blinked. “I don‘t remember any mousies in history.”
Twerp shook his head, “No, I’m Deacon Smith.”
“Oh. Deacon… Deke? Wait. Is that you, Aric Peabody?” The face loomed over Aric, again.
Aric raised his paw. “Kyle. Do.Not.Breathe.On.Me.”
“Sorry. Again. But – Aric! Little Deacon! I was so lonely! Where’d you guys come from?”
Ella raised both of her paws. “STOP. Who are you, again, and what are you? How did you get here, and why did you save us? We get to ask first.”
“Oh. OK.” It sat in the water. “Kyle Beezer. I’m a bear. It was the first thing that popped into my head when the men in white coats came to my house. A big bear that scared them, and I ran into the forest. I’m just lonely.”
“Why did you save us?”
“Oh. That. I saw little raccoon slap little mousie into the water. It made me mad. Made me remember pushing little Deacon’s face into the toilet and I felt bad. I had to save the mousie. I didn’t know it was my friend, Aric.”
Aric coughed again and sat up. “Ow. My head hurts!”
“Because you’re bleeding,” Ella scolded. “Maybe your bear friend can give me a leaf out of the water to put on it.”
The bear brought up a paw, with a leaf of late watercress dangling from it. “Like this?”
“Perfect.” Ella snatched it and applied it to the side of her brother’s furry face. “Can you hold it there?”
“How bad is it?”
“Not too. But we should probably find shelter soon.”
Twerp had advanced and was looking up at the bear. “Kyle, I didn’t know you were a wizard.”
“I didn’t know you were, Deke. You have a lot of friends.”
“Well, I grew up here. You just moved there. And they’re not really friends…” Twerp paused. “They’re sort of family. That’s Ella, Aric’s big sister. And her friends, Billie and Gran, and Dish. We just grew up together. They call me ‘twerp’ instead of my name.”
“That’s mean,” the bear answered.
“I know. But, after awhile, I almost forget they’re being mean. You know where we can hide for awhile? Rest up? Talk, but not out here in the open?”
“No.”
“Rats.” Twerp missed his own rodent reference. “We need to hunker down, out of the open.”
“Well…”
“Look, dudes, we just need to get off of these rocks and somewhere downstream before daylight. We can’t be caught in the open like this.” Gran over came his fear and stepped forward. “Think you can help us out, Kyle?”
“Which one are you?”
“Gran.”
“Well, sure. What do you want me to do?”
“Just walk along the stream with us until we find a place you can fit into, and we can join you. Then we’ll talk.”
“Like a den? ‘Cause I found a cool den. It’s down stream a little ways.”
“I thought you said… Nevermind. Yes, like a den. Let’s go.”
“Remember, we walk a lot slower than you can, because of our size, you know. Oh – and because Aric’s wounded.” Twerp waved his paws dramatically.
“You could just get on my back and hang onto my fur, and I’d give you a ride there.”
“You don’t have clothes on?”
“I wouldn’t be a big scary bear if I was dressed, would I? Oh. You guys have clothes on.” Kyle added that as if he had just noticed. “Is this gonna be awkward?”
“You’re a bear. No.” Ella shook her head. She was both irritated and worried. Aric kept the cress pressed to his wound, but he also wasn’t talking. It wasn’t like Aric to not talk.
It was agreed that the mice would climb onto Kyle’s back and hang onto his fur until they reached the den he had spoken of. It was with some difficulty that they got Aric on and situated, but one he was on, he grasped a tuft of coarse bur hair with his right paw and said, “Let’s do this.”
Kyle’s rolling gait and wide back made for an interesting ride, as well as the branches and bushes he barreled his way through. He was surprisingly quiet as he walked along, except when he stepped into the water and splashed. His passengers were too awed, tired, and exhausted by the terrifying raccoon encounter to say much. They passed the trip in silence, the night now dark and moonless. Finally, Kyle stopped and said, “Well, this is it. I’ll sit down so you can just slide off, and then follow me in.”
‘This’ was a small, dry, cave under a ledge, a few feet from the stream, but blocked with huckleberry, snowberry, and nettles. Kyle went in first and curled up near the back of the shelter, making room for the mice. Ella grabbed some nettle as she passed. She put the milk of the broken stem on the little blisters that formed on her paw to stop the sting, and then made Aric sit down while she applied more of the milk of the nettle to his wound. The bleeding had slowed, but the nettle stopped it.
“It’s a narrow gash, but nothing that will need stitching,” she announced.
“I want to sleep,” Aric whined. He walked away from her, and picked a spot against Kyle’s chest. “Don’t roll over, Kyle.”
Kyle looked at the rest. “So who’s leading you guys?”
“I am, Gran said.”
“Well, Gran, Twerp, and I are,” Ella said. She shot Gran a look that silenced any protest he might have put up. “Aric is our warrior, but you can see he got pretty hurt.”
Kyle nodded. “Are your parents held prisoner, too? Do you know what’s going on?”
They briefed the bear on everything that happened thus far, skipping a great many details and concentrating on what Kitsune had told them (without mentioning the fox).
“In short, we’re following the stream and we think it will lead us to the detention center. Then we’ll form a plan.”
“Pretty weak,” Gran added. “It’s just, we don’t know what we’re up against.”
“So, someone stole a talisman?”
“Or something.” The mice looked at each other. They hadn’t mentioned the magic wands that Gran carried, and while they didn’t believe those were the pilfered item, they wanted to guard them. “Something magic.”
“And this is why the government is coming down on all wizards? Seems like it must be a pretty mad wizard high up to do that, and not a non-wizard. Revenge and all.”
“We don’t know.”
“Do you think there’s more like us out there? I mean, if I thought to turn myself into a bear, and you guys turned into mice, couldn’t there be others?’
“We’re hoping so,” Ella replied. “We’re hoping we meet up before we get to the detention center. But we really don’t know.”
“Mice storm the Bastille.” Kyle chuckled. “I love history. We just need little pitchforks and hoes and torches.”
“Maybe a guillotine.” Twerp scratched his nose. He met Ella’s stare. “We just studied the French Revolution in history.”
“I know what the Bastille was.”
“We could use Aric’s barbecue skewer,” Gran sighed.
“Barbecue?”
“He stole it out of our back yard garbage. Then he used it to piss the crows off. We made him leave it when we met the deer mice. You can guess how effective it would have been against those raccoons.”
“Look, guys, I’m getting sleepy. Maybe we can brainstorm after a nap.”
Gran looked at Ella, “Twerp has a point. It’s been a long night. My mouse body likes to sleep and eat. Can we think later?”
Ella sat down near Kyle’s big muzzle, her back to the cave wall. She watched her friends snuggle up against the warm bear. Kyle didn’t close his eyes, but looked ate her. “You’re the real leader.”
“I’m the bellwether. Gran’s a natural leader, but Twer- er, Deke – is the mouse of action. He’s really smart. What about you, Kyle? Where do you think you fit in?”
“I’m the big, brawny friend that everyone thinks is dumb because he’s big and brawny. I think we need to find out how many more of us there are, and what we’re up against at this detention center, if it is even that. I think Dish may be right about going to his parent’s cabin. I could probably get us there in a day’s travel.”
“We’re supposed to follow the stream.”
“Why?”
Ella stared into the eyes. Kyle was just Kyle. He wasn’t pretending, she thought. She wanted to tell him about Kitsune, but…
“Okay, if you can’t tell me, can you tell me why all of you have to go? Maybe Deke and Dish can come with me, and we’ll go to the cabin.”
“Is it that important to go to the cabin?”
“That’s where Deke said he sent everything that was magic that was in the attic. I dunno. It’s weird, but…”
“But you feel like there’s an answer there. I know. I do, too. And I feel like you’re trustworthy. It’s just that… “
“I get it. You’re supposed to go downstream.”
“If only I had some direction…”
“Yeah.”

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Aric was the furthest from the duo and he called out, “They’re hypnotizing us. How can you be sure they are safe, Ella?”
“Drop it, Derp,” she said without looking back. “They’re talking to us. Can’t you guys hear them?”
One of the deer mice came forward, its nose twitching. Ella knelt onto all fours and let her whiskers touch the other mouse’s. It squeaked audibly, turned and scurried back to its mate before pausing to look back.
“It wants us to follow it. It wants to take us to a safe place, away from the Caw Birds. They came because they sensed our fear, and they didn’t know who we were, but they can only feel peace and friendship from us, so they’re offering us a place to hide.”
“You know all that from touching it’s whiskers?” Gran sounded doubtful.
Ella ignored him and followed the mouse. Billie followed her. Gran came in third, then Dish, Twerp, and, last, Aric. The second mouse faded back into the fern.
They didn’t have to go far: the mouse led them to a boulder under which was a crawl space, it ducked into the crawl space, and Ella got back on all fours. “Oh, boy,” she said. “We get to go spelunking.” She followed the mouse under the rock.
“It’s a mouse hole,” her voice came back, muffled and distant, receding.
Billie looked at Gran before she, too, got on all four. “No more mean birds,” she said before she disappeared under the rock. Gran shook his head and followed. Dish looked back at the other two. Then he, too, got on all fours and scurried under the rock.
Twerp looked at Aric. “Sorry, bud. I think you gotta leave your weapon behind. We’re going into friendly territory now.” Twerp disappeared under the boulder.
Aric threw his skewer to the side and muttered, “OK, but if El is wrong…”
The second deer mouse entered the tunnel behind Aric, blocking off all light.
The tunnel smelled earthy. Here and there, something brushed past Ella’s face, but since the mouse ahead did not startle, she did not. She could smell the mouse, and feel its pleasant thoughts. Happiness. Peace. Friendship. Welcome. It seemed to be talking, but its voice was very high pitched, and she only caught bits of the words – more like images in her mind, than actual words.
This was home, the mouse was saying. We all live together down here. We have many ways out. Caw Birds can’t get to us. Family is here (Ella saw naked baby mice sucking on their mother’s teats). Sleep. Rest. No fear. Happy. You friends. Smell good. We show you path.
The tunnel passed by other openings, and sometimes there was a whiff of something else up those tunnels. The mouse showed her a picture of the creature, and she decided it was a vole. How interesting, she thought. They dropped into a larger room amid high pitched voices and excited chatter. They were in the main chamber, where the baby mice were, and the mother mice, and several older siblings. The mice were busy sniffing, cuddling, and touching each other’s whiskers. So many came at her, that she felt like she was in a very crowded room, with no room to turn around. She felt frightened, and wanted to scream or run out.
Images flashed in her mind. She was picturing words, directions, orders, conversations. Her mouse touched whiskers with her again. It wanted her to keep following, to not linger in the big room. Ella called back, “Guys! Can you follow my voice?”
“Coming!”
“Wow, so many of them!”
“So nice. So friendly.”
“Following Dish’s tail.”
“I’m right here!” Aric’s voice brought up the rear, and they were in a narrow tunnel again, this time, running slightly uphill.
The mouse ahead didn’t seem fazed by the pace, but Ella’s front paws were getting tired, not to mention how her toes felt in her boots. She was panting with exertion when the mouse turned suddenly straight up. Ella followed, her boots making little purchase on the tunnel walls, She heaved herself upward, while Billie yelled from behind.
“Geez, El! Enough with the dirt in the face, Girlfriend!”
“Sorry!”
They came out under a flat piece of tin. The rivulet gurgled merrily a few feet away (yards, by Ella’s view, but she knew it had to be feet). The deer mouse was busy picking rose hips off of a wild rose, hanging upside down to do so. It was humming happily.
Aric was pushed up the tunnel by the second mouse, who kept sending him happy thoughts. Tumbling out into the bucolic scene of his friends eating rose hips and happily humming, Aric stood up. He wanted to be angry, but such peaceful feelings came over him: peace. Love. Happy. Family. Food. Aric knew he was hypnotized, but the sweet aroma of rose hips filled his nostrils, and he reached for one. It was like biting into a chocolate covered pomegranate seed. The energy seemed to go right to his belly and his head.
“Mouse cocaine,” he muttered as he gnawed his way happily through several rose hips.
Sated, Ella dropped down beside a stone, under the shelter of thick, round leaves. Aric dropped beside her. “They left, you know,” he said.
“I know.” She patted her tummy. “They were very nice.”
Gran dropped down on the other side of her. “Weird that I don’t even question their motives, isn’t it?”
Dish, Billie, and Twerp joined them. Billie giggled and said, “I wish I had my phone. I’d post on social media with a photo of Dish hanging from a wild rose bush: Just crawled through a mouse house with naked babies and feasted on rosehips. Life’s so good.”
“Attacked by rabid crows,” Aric added. “Not LOL.”
“Really?” Ella laid back. “I think I would just post something about being so darn tired.”
“Dear Evil Person: We have Kitsune on our side.”
They all chuckled.
“Don’t mess with house mice. Deer mice come to the rescue.”
“#deermiceheroes #underground tunnels #followthestreamlet.” Dish let out a long breath. “Probably a good thing we don’t have cell phones and can’t let the enemy know where we are.”
“If only we knew who the enemy was.”
“What now?” Twerp burped contentedly. “I could use a nap.”
“They showed me a place not far from here. Isn’t it weird that I could see the pictures they sent me?” Ella stood up. “They didn’t even notice we were wearing clothes.”
“Didn’t they think it was weird, us having shoes and all?” Gran fell in beside her as they made their way along the creek, careful to stay under cover and stay alert this time.
“They thought it odd that we walked on our ‘back legs’ at first, but once in the tunnel, we were all equal. They were even going to let us stay in their nest, but I panicked. Claustrophobic, I guess.” Ella grinned up at Gran. “I’m not a good mouse, am I?”
“I don’t know, that was pretty tight back in there. I was beginning to panic, myself.” Dish offered up from behind them. “I wonder how long we were in their tunnels?”
They dodged a large banana slug. It smelled of something sickly. The air was crisp, and song birds few and far between now. They climbed over mossy rocks. Dish lost his footing once, and fell into a hole, but Aric and Billie helped him back out.
Ella found what she was looking for after what seemed like an hour: a blackened hollow in a tree that was mostly grown over by the tree and hidden by some low plants. The picture in her head matched, and she clapped her paws in delight. “Oh! A place to sleep! At least, to rest.”
“Should we set a sentry?” They were inside the tree, smelling the cedar and feeling the lightning-carved walls. Billie was doing what she did naturally: gathering bark shavings into a nest near the back wall.
“We don’t have a weapon anymore.” Aric picked up some boulders and hauled them beside the door. “I don’t know how far I could heft one of these if I had to fight.”
“Can we just hope noone saw us come in here?” Billie stood up and looked around at them.
“Most predators have a refined sense of smell, and they’d likely just follow our scent to us. But I guess mice just live life in the moment and don’t worry about predators much…” Ella’s voice trailed off. She didn’t have an answer.
Twerp dropped down into the nest. “I’m claiming first sleep.” He curled up and was snoring promptly.
“Well, I guess that’s it. We nap, and hope noone follows us.”

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