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Posts Tagged ‘NaNoWriMo’

The hole they had to climb in was smaller than the deer mouse hole. Kyle got stuck momentarily, and had to be pushed through from behind by Dylan and Aric, as Gran and Dish pulled from the front.
“OOPH!” Kyle grunted when he made it through. “Maybe I should stop eating pizza.”
“Whew,” Aric crawled in. “That was tough. There’s not much room in here, is there?”
Dylan was the last in. “Wish I could’ve…”
“Me, too, Dylan. But we have to stop the executions.”
“Lights on,” called Richard from somewhere up the line.
“Amazing. We could have used flashlights when we climbed to the attic.” Gran ran his beam along the floor and walls. “So this is what the state capitol building looks like.”
They crawled along under the sub-flooring, looking for an opening into the walls. Dish found the Ethernet cords first. “Computer wiring,” he called out. “I think we’re in.”
“How do we know if it goes to the governor’s office?”
“Probably goes to the server room, first. Then we read the connections, and follow the cables.”
“If they’re labeled.”
“They’re labeled in a building this old, with employees as old as some of these are.” Dish hooked a paw around a cable and pulled himself up, holding his flashlight in his mouth. “Eashy peashy.”
“What did he say?”
“Easy peasy.” Billie jumped up and followed him. She put her light into her pocket. “No need to light up his butt.”
The tension broke a little, and everyone giggled. Soon, they were all climbing up the hole where the Ethernet cord joined other Ethernet cords and heavy cables. Richard brought up the rear. They went up, then the cables leveled out, and they crawled on their paws, and turned left until they came to a mouse-sized hole.. The hole came out inside of an empty space that they identified as the inside of a cabinet. Dish turned off his flash light and pushed on the door of the cabinet. It opened easily.
Gran climbed up the cables and pushed his head through the top of the cabinet. Lights flickered on a tall server rack in the middle of the room. The cabinet Gran was atop of ran along one wall, and some papers were taped to the surface. Billie climbed up behind him.
“Brr! Tad chilly in here,” she whispered.
“Server rooms are kept cold,” he whispered back/ “We’re looking for a schematic showing which cables go to the governor’s office.”
The rest of the party had followed Dish out into the open, and now made their way to the rack of servers. Green and white lights blinked above them.
“How will we know?” Madison stared upward.
“Should be marked, somehow. You guys wait here.” Ells jumped up and grabbed hold of a cable, pulling herself up to the first blinking computer. Dish came up beside her.
“Okay, Brain. Do your thing,” he said, softly. “This is your forte, El.”
“It’s not this computer. The server is the next one up. This is just the back up.” She jumped up and peered around. Everything was functioning as it should. She counted the cords that were hooked up. “It shouldn’t be this easy,” she muttered.
GVOFC1 and GVOFC2 were plugged in, side by side. Two very yellow Ethernet cords that traveled back down the server rack where they were tied up with all the others with a zip tie.
Across the room, Billie found a list of telephone extensions. “Gran, check this out.”
“Shh. I just found a map of the building.” Gran ran over to Billie. “Can you memorize some of those?”
“Which ones?”
“Security, maybe. I don’t know.”
Billie rolled her eyes. Then she memorized two numbers: Security Entrance and Sheriff’s extension. She turned around and saw Gran and Richard poring over the map Gran had discovered. She knew Richard was likely implanting it into his brain, like a GPS.
Meanwhile, Ella and Dish had followed the two yellow cables down to the zip tie. Unfortunately, once the cables were tied together, it was impossible to tell which ones were which when they came out and disbursed. Dish set to work on the plastic zip tie, using his teeth.
Aric found some paper clips on the floor and pocketed them. Dylan and Madison located a plastic bag full of more zip ties. They were debating how best to carry the zip ties when Dish broke through the zip tie and the cables loosened enough for the mice to sort through them.
Richard, Billie, and Gran rejoined the team as Ella and Dish declared they knew which cables to follow and landed back on the floor.
“I have the floor plan to the building,” Richard said. I will send the coordinates of the governor’s office to each of you.” He held out his paws and closed his eyes in concentration.
“Good. Let’s hope that matches the direction these cables go,” Ella whispered.
“Hey, where’s Kyle?”
“I’m stuck.” There was a thumping noise and the mice followed it.
Kyle had both boots and his tail stuck on a glue trap hidden behind a chair. He looked miserable. “I’m afraid to move.”
Aric whipped out the paperclips. “I’m about to go MacGyver on you all.”
“How?” someone managed after they all groaned.
“We hold the other end of the trap down with the ends of the paperclips, so we don’t get stuck. Billie and Ella grab Kyle by the arms and pull him out of his boots. He keeps his feet in the air until they’re all clear of the trap, and then they pull his tail off. That part’s gonna hurt, Kyle.”
“There’s no stapler in this room?”
“Wouldn’t it get stuck on the sticky?”
They all stood, considering. Footsteps sounded outside the room, and the door handle rattled. Immediately, everyone went into position with Aric’s plan: Aric, Dylan, Richard, and Gran armed with paperclips ran to the opposite end of the trap and hammered one end into the sticky glue. Dylan untied his laces and then leaned back into the girl’s arms. The three girls pulled hard, with Madison coming up under his back and keeping him off the sticky mat. Once he was free, Madison and Billie yanked his tail loose.
“OUCH!” He cried out.
The sound of a key going into the lock caused them all to look toward the door.

The guard, whose name was “Brown” according to the name tag on his uniform, flipped on the light and looked around the room. It was empty. The servers hummed and blinked normally. Nothing seemed out of place, but then, this room never was the tidiest. He didn’t notice the chewed-through zip tie or the sticky rat trap with two miniature brown boots stuck to it, or the oddly placed paperclips at the other end.
He switched off the light and pulled the door closed behind himself.

The mice collapsed inside the cupboard, breathing heavily.
“I’m sorry, guys,” Kyle sniffed.
“You had no idea,” Richard soothed.
“That was good thinking, Derp. You’re almost my hero.”
“Thanks, Dork.”
“Let’s get going.” Billie stood up and dusted herself off. “I want this over.”
“Here, here.”
“Copy that.”
They pushed their way out of the cupboard and resumed their quest, this time by following the designated Ethernet cords to GVOFC1 and GVOFC2 to the hole in the wall they went into. It was too small.
“Now what?” Gran groaned and sat down.
“We get above the ceiling.” Richard had his flashlight out and was looking up at the false ceiling above.
“but, how?”
“Paperclips,” Aric answered. “We make a chain of paperclips. One of us still has to jump from the top of the server, but the rest of us can use the paperclip chain.”
“Who are you, and what did you do to my little brother?”
Soon, they had assembled a paperclip chain of varying sizes and colors. They scrambled up the server rack until they were as close to the ceiling as they could get, but it still seemed too high for any one of them to take a chancy jump at – and hope to budge the Styrofoam hanging panel while grasping the thin metal supports. Nine mice stared upward.
“Aric, this is where you levitate for real?” Ella asked.
“I thought you’d never ask.” He grinned.
Minutes later, Aric hooked the paperclips around the metal strut, and the other eight mice climbed the tenuous chain into the space between. Aric unhooked the paperclips and let them drop to the floor below. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I have more in my pockets.”
“Stay on the metal strips,” Gran whispered. “We’re going to find our way upstairs now.”
Gran led the way as they balanced their way across the little metal strips that held the Styrofoam ceiling panels in place. They found the edge of the room and began a systematic search of the perimeter for where the two yellow cords might come up. Ella suggested they break up: one group go left and the other right, but Richard felt that was dangerous. It was Kyle who decided the matter, by wandering off to the left, sniffling. He still felt terrible about his ordeal.
“Hey, guys. I found two yellow cords. Well, a lot of cords, but these two go off by themselves up a hole. And it’s big enough for me.” He stretched up, measuring the hole with his whiskers. “Did you guys know whiskers are really cool?”
The mice gathered at the base of the hole. “Can we be certain these are the right ones?”
Ella closed her eyes. “Yes. If the map is right, then these are right. We need to follow these and find our way into the governor’s office.”
“I concur,” Richard said, after examining the map in his head.
They all squeezed through and found themselves in a wider space that ran in both directions, and upward. Cables also ran upward and it was by hoisting themselves up the yellow Ethernet cords, that they began their ascent. The space was dusty, and there were the occasional cobwebs, but very little other life. A pale, long legged spider ran across the wall, once, and Madison almost lost her grip. They had to wait for her to calm down before they could resume climbing. The end of the line was a larger hole that opened into an area between a ceiling and a floor. It smelled rank.
The cords diverged at a ninety-degree angle from each other along the flat space.
“Now what?”
“We have to figure out which one goes to the governor’s office, and which one to his secretary’s.” Ella sat down. “I need to think.”
“Guys, I think someone is in here with us.” Dylan’s flashlight made a circuit of the narrow space, lighting the grey sides of some moving things in the distance. They switched on their flashlights and looked around.
“More mice! Maybe they’ll help like the wild ones did!” Gran exclaimed.
The nearest one came closer, sniffing at the strangers. It was larger, darker, and it had sharp, yellowed teeth.
“I believe we have stumbled into a rat’s nest,” Richard said, drily.

 

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Ella didn’t feel like talking to the mirror. She just wanted to cry. She tried not to look at anyone, but Natalie came over and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Stress makes people lash out,” she said, kindly. “There is tea in the kitchen.”
Aric punched her shoulder lightly, “You can be my hero.” Ella tried to punch him back, but he dodged. “Hey! You almost smiled!”
The rest sat down in the living room and tried not to look at each other. “It’s my fault,” Gran said. “I tried to tell her Mike was on the other side.”
“You should’a asked her out first,” Dish said, making to play punch his friend in the shoulder.
“Oh, yeah, she said that. Like getting Mike to ask her out was a way to get at me.”
“Girls.”

Madison talked Billie out of the bathroom. She continued to snivel, but she no longer had anything angry to say. She accepted a cup of tea from Richard and sat down between Gran and Dish. “I’m sorry, guys. It’s just been so horrid, and now she’s talking about making us mice, again.”
“The mirror is,” Dish reminded her.
Billie sniffed. “I know. It’s the mirror. But it’s telling El all this stuff, and it’s scaring me. What can we do if we’re just house mice?”
Ella returned to the room. She tried to make eye contact with Billie, but Billie wouldn’t look at her. Ella looked at Richard, who said, “We have very little time to intervene, if the execution is truly set for tomorrow at six o’clock in the evening. We must lay down our petty grievances for the better good. I believe we can all agree that we must work together as a team.”
Everyone nodded, including Billie, although she still refused to look up at Ella.
“Okay…” Ella stood before the mirror again. She was herself, and her eyes were puffy. “So, Mirror. Can you tell us the plan?”
The mirror remained silent, and reflected the room. Ella looked first at Richard, then over at Dish and Gran. “Ideas what to ask?”
“Yes.” It was Billie. “Ask it if we all are supposed to go as mice, and where to? And how are we supposed to fight? How do we kill an evil Yokai?” She looked Ella in the eye.
Ella nodded. “Got it. Mirror. Which of us is supposed to go as a mouse warrior?”
The mirror reflected twelve mice. Everyone could see the image this time. They were armed with office supplies: a stapler, scissors, a box cutter, a letter opener, push pins, and rubber bands. It was easy to tell which mouse was who: they were, again, dressed in their own clothes.
“Even Horace?” Deke pointed at the one normal mouse. “Has to be Horace.”
“Who is number thirteen, though?”
The mirror shifted, and the governor’s office was revealed. There was a single desk lamp on, but the room was lit from the street. The mirror reflected mice in positions around the room, behind books, under the desk, on top of shelves, hiding behind photographs on the credenza, or flat against the bronze statue of a cowboy herding cattle.
It faded again, and showed the shadowy form of the Yokai enter the room. He walked around to where the governor usually sat, and began pulling drawers open. He pulled a bottle of pills out of one of the drawers, and poured them out onto the desk.
“Five left. You will be dead in three days, Mr. Governor. Dead of old age.” He put the pills back in the bottle and secured it in the drawer again. He flipped the desk lamp off. He started to leave, but turned toward the mirror in the room.
“I will have four tails in three days. I will look so much more handsome.”
He turned to walk away, and the mirror seemed to zoom onto his handsome tails. The image disappeared slowly.
“I have it,” Ella whispered. “How to defeat him.”
The room was silent for a long few seconds. Billie broke the silence. “Let’s do it, Girlfriend.” She raised her fist to Ella, who bumped it back.
“Let’s do it!”
“Wait! How do we get to the governor’s office? How do we break in? Can’t the mirror show us the way in, at least?” Deke was waving his arms.
“Oh. I guess I could ask it,” Ella said. Billie laughed.

They moved in the dark of the night, after stocking up on food and taking a cat nap. They had to use a popular search engine and map application to decide where to have Deke transport them. The mirror had provided a general lay out of the capitol building, and where they might expect to find entrance. Richard – Kitsune – had implanted the mental map as best as he could. But now they were here, in the bark dust, next to the cold granite blocks the capitol building was built upon.
It was of those dark nights when the rain absorbed all the light, and everything melted into one black mud puddle. The swoosh of an occasional car on the main road echoed in the mice’s ears. They moved along the side of the building, keeping to the shelter of the azaleas and rhododendrons, and dodging the drip of rain off the roof. Noses twitched, and they hurried, silently, trusting their whiskers, instincts, and the mental map. Richard took the lead, and Natalie took up the rear. They overrode any protests by the young mice with their parental/adult authority: they had “experience” and they could shape-shift at will, even under Deke’s spell.

The red tabby was out for a stroll around the big building when he noticed the small moving things under the bushes. His curiosity was immediately piqued. He liked things that moved. He changed direction and dropped down to his belly, crawling stealthily toward the little moving things. He did not possess a good sense of smell, but his hearing and eyesight more than made up for what his nose could not tell him. He did not know what was moving, but whatever they were, they were completely unaware of him.
He left the wet grass for the relative shelter of the shrubs. He sometimes used the bark dust here for a littler box. He knew where he was, how far it was to home, and where shelter ended. He also knew that sometimes there was a cruel man who hid in the doorways and sent little flying pain pellets, but that was during the daytime. At night, the tabby was free to hunt here. Or play, as he was not particularly hungry just now. He just wanted to see if he could catch one of the little moving things.

“Did you hear that?” Aric looked around. He was certain he heard something rustle under the rhododendron.
The column stopped, and everyone looked about. This time, when Deke had changed them, he had commanded their eyesight to remain very human. They could peer out under the bush into the darkness, see the street lights, and the ground lights. Dark shadows were harder to make out: rocks, roots, bricks, a looming cat shape with pointy ears.
Aric turned his flashlight on, illuminating the large amber eyes with narrow vertical slits.
“CAT!” he squeaked, and immediately panicked, looking for a weapon.
“Oh dear,” Horace prayed. “Don’t let a cat catch me as a mouse. It’s so undignified!”
The cat’s body trembled as he prepared to jump at the little things, and he launched into the air. Something hit him on the side of the head, and something threw leaves up in it’s face. The little creatures scattered, and he missed his mark. He turned his head and was smacked on the nose with a twig. Another twig poked him in the side.
The tabby batted at the twig, momentarily fascinated with the way it waved in the air and prodded at him. There was no need for claws, as this was merely an entertainment. The tabby batted at leaves and tossed them in the air with abandon, leapt up into the bush and jumped back down again, scattering the wee things some more. They made tiny sounds like humans, but they raced around like mice or voles. The cat crouched, again, and waited to see what the creatures would do.
They scrambled for shelter, tiny voices shouting. The cat tilted his head and watched: they reassembled behind a little box with pipes coming out of it.

“We’ll have to make a run for it, somehow. The way in should be very close now” Richard hissed.
“We need a distraction.”
“We need Kyle the bear to walk up and swat that cat off its feet.”
“I’m a mouse now, sorry, dudes.”
“I’ll do it,” Natalie said. “I’m a black belt in karate. I should be able to keep up with a cat.”
“No, Mom!”
“Hey, where’s Deke? Deke?” Aric looked around, wildly.

The cat was an expert mouser and bird hunter. It saw the movement off to it’s right. A flick of the tail, a shiver down the length of its body, a pause – and it had the straggler pinned between its paws.
One of the other ones ran at the cat ad leaped at its face, but the tabby snatched its prize in its mouth and trotted off.
“Oh, nooooo.”
“Dylan, Go with the rest. Finish the job. I’m going to go save Deacon.”
“Me, too.”
“No, Aric. You’re needed here. Go, NOW.” Natalie headed in the direction the cat had gone.
“I’ll go with her,” Horace said. “It’s be us against the cat.”
Richard quickly rounded up the rest and ushered them toward the break in the foundation wall that would take them into the duct work and up to the governor’s office. Aric held back, but Ella tugged on his hand.
“He’ll be OK. He has a magic wand, if he really needs to use magic.”
Aric nodded glumly.

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It was decided to bring the mirror into the great room, and to have Ella speak to it, again. Gran and Dish carried it into the room and stood it in the middle of the room, so that each side of the mirror was visible by someone. Horace even got into the mood by hopping down from his perch and hopping over to look into the mirror. He turned his head sideways and then the other direction sideways.
“Shouldn’t I be an owl?” he asked.
“You are an owl. It’s just the first time you’ve ever looked at yourself in a mirror,” Deke laughed.
“No, no. I know what owls look like. Let me tell you, female owls are always making amorous moves on me. I quite know what they look like. They have feathers and large yellow eyes. They do not look like this fellow in this reflection glass.”
Ella came around to the side of the mirror that Horace was looking into. She giggled. “Why, I do believe you are a House Elf, Horace! Or you can become one. You’ve even a sock for a night cap on. Don’t look so irritated at me, I’m just saying that’s what I see.”
Horace pecked at the mirror and the House Elf tapped the mirror with his nose. Horace lifted a wing; the House Elf lifted the corresponding arm.
“Well, how fascinating,” the owl and Elf muttered. No one but Ella could see the change in the owl – the reflection looked like that of a Northern barred owl, and nothing more.
Ella stared at the reflection, “So no one else can see Horace as anything but an owl? Have you looked into the mirror, Richard?”
Richard sighed and came around to the back side. His reflection was one of the fox from the woods. He started. “Well!”
Ella frowned. “How many tails do you have?”
“Five, I believe.” Richard turned around to look at his backside, and, yes, he had five tails.
“The Yokai had only three. So this means you are more powerful?”
“Only older. Perhaps wiser.” Richard bowed to his fox self and stepped out of view of the mirror. “That is most unnerving – a mirror that can reveal our true selves.”
“But I only saw me,” Billie said. She marched around and looked in the mirror. “I see me, I see Horace strutting, and I see… Ella, you’re a mouse.”
“But I see me.” Ella frowned.
“No, you are definitely a mouse.”
Everyone crammed around to the backside and peered at the mirror. One after another, they declared they could see themselves, Horace, and Ella – the latter as a mouse. Aric thought of bringing all the magic wands around.
“What happens if you hold one of Dad’s props?”
“Nothing! I’ve played with these all my childhood, and I can assure you that nothing happens.” Still, Aric shoved a spiraling one into her hand.
“Ask it to show the rest of us as the warriors we are,” he said.
Ella sighed. “Okay. Mirror. My friends want to see themselves as the warriors they really are.”
The mirror reflected mice, rabbits, and a deer. Everyone gasped.
“Wait. Mirror, is this a joke?” She meant it rhetorically, but green words appeared in mist in the mirror.
I DO NOT JOKE.
“Whoa!”
“What!?”
“Wow!”
“WOW!”
Ella backed up. “I’m trying the other side.”
She faced the other side. “Where are our parents?”
The mirror faded, then refocused inside an auditorium. It looked like the inside of an emergency shelter, with cots and people milling about. The exception were the armed guards by all the exits. The mirror moved in closer, until Ella was standing before her mother, who was sitting on a cot, talking to another woman that Ella recognized as Gran’s mother. They looked tired, and as if they hadn’t showered in days.
Ella touched the glass.
“We have to trust the kids,” Ella’s mother was saying.
“I know. I don’t like that they came in and took your husband and Dustin’s father. It feels evil.”
Ella’s mom patted the other woman’s knee. “I know. Phoenix can talk himself out of most things. I’m worried, too.”
Gran’s mother leaned over and put her head on Ella’s mom’s shoulder. “What if they found the kids, and they’re not telling us? The kids haven’t had time to practice their skills. We’ve sheltered them.”
“We never even told Ella who she was.”
Ella frowned, “Who am I, mirror?”
The mirror faded again, and focused on the governor’s office. Fred sat in a chair off to the side, looking miserable and nervous. The governor appeared to be his robust self, and sat behind the desk, hands clasped before him. Seated in the high backed chairs before the governor’s desk were Ella’s father, and Dish’s father.
Phoenix sat as straight as he could, but it was clear he was in some pain. He retained his bearing, however, and stared straight at the governor with his pale blue eyes. Dish’ father slumped in his chair, circles under his eyes, stubble across his jaw, and a look of rebellion on his face. The governor was speaking.
Ella touched the glass.

“Gentlemen, I understand that you do not know where your children are, or how to contact them. They seem to have abandoned you in your crisis. Typical teenagers, thinking of themselves first.”
Phoenix blinked slowly. Dish’s dad looked up at the ceiling as if in boredom.
“I promise you, this will not go well for you if the children do not contact us soon. If you still have a familiar, you are given permission to send it to your children. Tell them to give it up, come out of hiding. The only thing that will happen is that they will be stripped of all magical powers. The reign of the wizarding world is over.”
Phoenix blinked again. “There never was a reign of the wizarding world. I think you’ve read too many novels.”
“Don’t make us hurt you again, Doctor.”
Dish’s father shook his head, “If my kid was some sort of wizard, it don’t explain his bad grades or the fact that he can’t get it together to mow the lawn or take out the trash when I ask him to. That sound like magic to you, boss?”
“Frank, you are tempting me.”
Frank rolled his eyes, very much like Dish did. “I told you. He ran away. Probably spent the night with Gran. That’s what he does when he’s mad at me, or I’m mad at him. His mother just hides in the sewing room and pretends there ain’t a problem. Flipping bad that you killed his cat, though. Dustin can carry a grudge a long time.”
“Phoenix, let us talk about your children. Where do you think they would go?”
Phoenix looked at his fingernails. “Ella has a couple close friends, but she’s a solitary mouse. She’s always hidden in the attic, but I guess you checked that out, am I right? Aric? He’d take off on his bike. Nothing like BMX to work off the adrenalin. You arrested their parents without a warrant. El’s a smart girl. She’d know this is all bogus. She’d pursue all the legal channels. Aric would just run off with Deacon somewhere. I am assuming you haven’t Deacon in custody?”
“Your daughter would go to?”
Phoenix shrugged. “A civil liberties lawyer. El’s pretty sharp.”
Fred looked up. “We could lure them in,” he suggested.
“With what?” Phoenix sounded bored.
“We could kill you.”
A long blink. “Yes, Fred, you could. But my kids would come after you, not come to my rescue.” a short blink.

It hit Ella. “Wait. Mirror. Is he sending a message? Can you decipher my dad‘s blinks?” And Dish’s dad. He keeps tapping his fingers. Can you help me? Translate it?”

The words appeared on the mirror in red.

ELLA. DO NOT BELIEVE THEM. THEY CANNOT KILL US.
DUSTIN. I LOVE YOU.
ELLA. MOUSE.
DUSTIN. HARD ON YOU TO MAKE YOU STRONG.
GOVERNORS OFFICE. MOUSE.

The scene faded away, and Ella was staring at a reflection of herself as a mouse. She turned from the mirror and found pen and pad of paper, and scribbled the messages. Then she sat down.
“I think it’s a message,” she said. “And my dad knows the mirror is watching.”
Everyone crowded around her, except for Horace, who was still parading back and forth before the opposite side of the mirror.
They read what she had written down, and listened to her recount what she had seen. Dish, especially, was intent on the story. “He really said that?”
“The mirror said he did,” Ella promised him.
Meanwhile, Richard tried to get his large screen TV to pull up the local news channels. The television faded in and out, blinked blue screen with digital images, and then connected. Headline news: first executions of wizards tomorrow night at 6:oo PM. The camera focused on four photos of men:
Phoenix Peabody
Frank Delano
Michael Michaels
John Hexton

The teenagers looked at each other: Dylan’s dad, Gran’s dad, Dish’s dad, and Aric and Ella’s father. The news reporter showed no emotion. A gallows showed in the background.
“How barbaric,” Natalie exclaimed. “Isn’t there any outrage?”
“If there is, it is being suppressed,” Ella held back tears.
“The mirror is the heirloom, don’t you get it?” Deke jumped in. “It has nothing to do with El, but everything to do with the mirror. They don’t know El can talk to the mirror. They think she has as much magic as a grasshopper. The mirror is a portal, but it wants us to go through as mice. Or Ella to. We just have to figure out where Fred – or Yokai – will be.”
“Twerp, I hate to admit it, but I think you may be a genius.”
“Yeah, well, Dork, I’m beginning to like you as Aric’s big sister. Let’s not get sentimental.”
Billie walked around the mirror to look at her reflection, again. “It probably only wants Ella to go through.”
“I wouldn’t even know what to do.”
“Be the heroine.”
Ella felt the words like a slap on the face. “What is with you, Billie? I’m not trying to be anything. I just want the same thing you do: our parents and our lives back.”
“Maybe we could have done that long ago, when everyone stopped me from talking to Mike!”
“I did not. I was going with you, to help you. Kitsune stopped ALL of us, and told us it was dangerous.”
“Then you led us into those horrid crows!” Billie’s eyes began brimming with tears. “I’ve always been afraid of birds! And your heroic idea of saving us was to crawl – CRAWL – through a MOUSE den! We couldn’t see, and it smelled awful, and then there were those raccoons, and the hunters.” She started crying.
“Oh, Billie!” Ella reached for her friend.
“Don’t touch me!” Billie turned and ran into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Everyone heard the lock turn.
Ella’s lower lip trembled. Madison touched her arm, “I’ll talk to her, El. You go ask the mirror exactly what the plan is, OK? It picked you.”

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Ella couldn’t explain her emotions. She knew the mirror was some sort of clue, but what the clue was, she didn’t know. When had her parents acquired it? She couldn’t remember ever having seen it before, and she’d played dress-up in the attic many times. She had played with all of the magic wands, too, including the one that Gran got to work – and never, never, had anything magic happened.
The mannequin was odd, too, but she vaguely remembered something like it being used on All Hallow’s Eve when she was little: it had been dressed in a long black dress, with a Styrofoam head attached and a rubber mask over the head. Ella’s father sat on the front porch in costume, and scared the bejesus out of his own daughter. Mom had been angry at him, and pranks and dressed up horror models had never been used on the front porch again. Jack o’Lanterns, spider lights, and that weird spider web stuff you could buy at the Dollar Store – those items became the staple of Hallowe’en decorations. Just the way Ella preferred it.
She wasn’t magic like the rest of her family. She always felt like a freak when Aric could do irritating little things like levitate himself or other objects in the room. Her mom sometimes made dinner with a wave of the hand, and Ella told herself – lied to herself – that it had been simmering in the crockpot all day, like normal families. Or that time her father had asked her to run upstairs for something while he repaired a bicycle that had been run over by a backing up car. It was all fixed, not a dent or scratch or spoke out of place by the time Ella returned.
Her parents let her believe what she told herself: that everything could be explained with science. They must have known she didn’t possess an ounce of magic, but it was Aric who had tormented her by hiding her stuffed animals or making them talk at night. He was punished for the trickery, but he always found a way to bug her, like levitating on the last day that Ella did not believe in magic.
Her friends, too, had hidden magic skills from her, good naturedly going along with all of her scientific explanations, and leading her to believe they were just like her. But they weren’t were they? When it came right down to it, that last day, they’d come into her house and started talking about jail, escape, having a plan, and all. Right up to the moment when Deke had turned them into mice and dropped them into the crawl space, Ella had believed that there was no such thing as magic.
That whole bellwether lie that Kitsune gave her – it could all be explained logically, now that she thought about it. She trusted the deer mice because they were mice, like herself. She could understand them because she was a mouse, and they communicated with pheromones and high pitched sounds. She knew the raccoons were trouble, because they were raccoons. Crows were crows. It was all Nature taking its course. Even the stupid toad – any mouse knew a toad was dangerous. Toads ate mice.
That mirror, however. That was strange. She’d looked into a room that noone else could see, and she had a punch-in-the-gut feeling about it. The woman staring at the computer. The dark red oak furniture. It was like being Alice and having a portal to another world.
But why couldn’t anyone else see it?
And why were Gran and Billie acting so put out?
Ella made herself a cup of tea. Everyone else was still in the great room, but conversations had changed. Some of them were playing a card game. Mrs. – Natalie – was showing Madison how to knit. Deke and Aric were head to head on some game they were plaing on a piece of paper. Horace was still roosting. Richard was reading a book, rocking in his rocking chair.
Ella stood by one of the windows and stared out into the wintry scene. A cow elk gnawed at tufts of old grass as it worked it way around the cabin. A light snow was falling, but not the kind of snow that stuck to the ground. Ella wondered where her parents were, and what was going on.
Another elk grazed its way into the scene, a regal four point bull that blew steam into the air as he followed the cow, pulling at tufts of grass the cow missed.
Natalie’s elk, Ella thought. The ones that kept covering our tracks. Even now, they are circling and covering our tracks. Why don’t I have any magic?
But why couldn’t anyone else see the other room?
Richard entered the room quietly, as was his wont. “Is the tea still hot?”
Ella nodded. “Can we make the mirror large again? Only put it in the bathroom, where I can look at it by myself?”
“I would not advise that.”
“I don’t want everyone watching over my shoulder. I need to do this by myself.”
“The mud room is perhaps a better solution.” He nodded toward the back of the kitchen, where a small room led to a back door. A washer and dryer were installed in the room, and the outside door was locked.
Ella walked over and looked. “But I don’t want anyone in the kitchen when I’m talking to the mirror. I don’t know what I’m going to say to it.”
He rubbed his chin. “Only should you promise to not use it as a portal, should I agree to this.”
“I promise.” She looked into his eyes and nodded. “I promise.”
They only let Deke and Aric in on the plan, such as it was. Aric looked doubtful. Deke had to do the magic because it was his spell to begin with, Richard said. Aric insisted that he be allowed to sit in the kitchen, ready to come to her aid should anything happen. Of course. Deke had to be included.
Richard created a diversion: popcorn, sodas, and a movie on the big screen TV in the great room.
The mirror was moved to the mud room, full size, with the magical side facing Ella. The other side faced the locked back door.

Ella ran her hand down the ornate carvings on the side of the mirror. “Where did you come from?” She murmured.
“How about, ‘What do you want to tell me?’”
The mirror dimmed until it was smoky brown. Slowly, a room came into focus, with two men standing before the mirror in an apparent disagreement. Ella moved her hand over the mirror, even as the other hand covered her mouth in surprise.
She was staring into her own attic. Her father, Phoenix, was speaking.
“Why here, Fred?”
“I don’t know. It just seemed like it wanted to be here. I was going to take it to Richard’s house, but it just… pulled me here.”
Phoenix shook his head. “I don’t know. If this is as dangerous a game as you say it is, I don’t know that I want my family involved.”
“It’s only temporary, I promise. Just until I can get rid of this yokel that is zeroing in on the governor.”
“What if he gets to you, first?”
Fred was a little man, slightly stooped, with large glasses on his nose. “Phoenix, you know me well. I’ve been the governor’s body guard for decades. Please, trust me, I don’t want to store it here.”
Phoenix, tall and straight-backed, athletic, with a chiseled face, glanced at the mirror. “I worry most about Ella. What if she comes up here and finds it?”
Fred shook his head, “How often does she come up here? It’s an attic.”
Phoenix shrugged. “She used to play up here all the time. Dress up, some little fantasy game before she had any close friends. I had to deactivate all the magic, lest she discovered she had a gift, and activated something crazy.”
Fred nodded his head. “Yeah, I get kids. You never know. I promise, I’ll be back before the weekend to move it. I just need to talk to Richard about hiding it. He’ll know.”
The mirror faded smoky again, and Ella was staring at her mouse reflection.
“Eek!” she said, automatically reaching up to feel her ears. They felt normal. She glowered at the mirror, “Don’t play around!”

The mirror turned a misty blue, with swirling light blue colors, and she was looking into another room. It was an office, similar to the first one. Fred was standing in front of a very large walnut desk, looking down at his hands, and acting as if he was embarrassed. The governor stood on the other side and seemed to be angry. The governor was a tall, large man who filled out a three piece suit. He wore a blue and white bow tie.
Ella touched the glass, and, again, she could hear the voices.
“You’re telling me that you can’t find anything? No tracks? No sightings?”
“Yes, yes sir, I am.” Fred glanced sideways at the mirror. “I, um, see you moved that into here.”
“What? The mirror? Yes, yes, I moved it in here. Don’t change subjects on me, Fred. I trusted you to get my family heirloom back. You are disappointing me. What do you plan to do now?”
“We could start killing wizards. Put it on TV. The kids would have to come out, then.”
“Killing!?” The mayor started to pace, then looked back at Fred. “When did you get to be devious?”
Yes, when? Ella wondered. “Mirror, is that really Fred? Because Deke has his wand.”
The men in the mirror changed before her eyes. The mayor shrank, his back twisting with scoliosis. He lost hair, and his face became flaccid and wrinkled with age. His hands shook, and he had to hold onto the edge of the desk to keep the shaking from showing. He aged at least fifteen years before Elle’s eyes.
But it was Fred who caught her attention: he grew taller. Darker. A smoke seemed to swirl around him as he took shape. When it dissipated, Fred was taller than the governor, and he was also no longer human in appearance. He was a black fox with three tails.
Ella pulled her hand back as if she had been burned. The image faded, and she was staring at Ella the mouse, once again.
Then she fainted.

She came to on the sofa. The room was hushed. She looked around: everyone was there, Dish kneeling by her head, Billie, Madison. Dylan. Natalie, Gran, Kyle. Aric and Deke stood behind the sofa, trying not to look concerned. Richard was at the head of the sofa, where he had been waving something under her nose.
“How long was I out?” She pulled herself up to a sitting position. “Whoa! Dizzy!”
“Put your head between your knees until it passes,” Natalie suggested.
“No, no. It’s gone.” Ella was pale as the fresh snow outside. “Where’s the mirror?”
“Under the sofa, again.” Deke shrugged. “I thought maybe it sucked the life out of you or something.”
“Twerp.” Ella waved an irritated hand at him.
Richard appeared at her side with a cup of green tea. “Drink slowly. You can tell us when you have a little more strength.”
She tasted the tea: sweet and herbally, it smelled of roses. She took a longer sip, closing her eyes and breathing in the aroma. Without opening her eyes, she said, “Fred stole the mirror. He brought it to our house. Dad didn’t want to store it because he was afraid I would find it in the attic when I went up there to hide. The attic is sort of my safe place, where I go when I feel lonely or Aric has made me especially mad, or I fail a test.”
Another sip of tea. She looked at Dish, who nodded. “Anyway, Fred said it was only until he found this yokel, only he didn’t say ‘yokel’ – he mispronounced it. He was a bodyguard for the governor. Oh, and he kept saying he was going to talk to Richard about what to do with the mirror.”
Everyone looked at Richard.
“He never came to me about a mirror.” Richard frowned.
“Well, he was going to deal with this – um, yokel. I think things didn’t go well.”
“Go on,” Dish urged, one hand on her knee.
“Well, then the mirror took me to another room. The governor’s office. He was arguing with Fred. He was really mad the Fred hadn’t located the missing heirloom, and Fred was apologizing. Then Fred said something really strange that scared me. He said they should start killing all the wizards, to make us come out of hiding. And the mayor called him ‘devious’, like that was a good thing.”
“Kill our parents?”
“Was that everything?”
“Um, no. Every time the mirror got done showing me something, it reflected me, but I was my mouse self. I thought it was being funny, like maybe it had a sense of humor, or Aric was messing with it.”
“No way, Dork!” Aric looked offended.
“I know it wasn’t you,” she replied. She sipped the last of the tea. “I think it was trying to tell me something about our mouse selves, but I didn’t get that far because I asked it why was Fred still alive when Deke has his wand, and he must be dead to have lost his wand.” She shuddered.
“It showed you more?” Billie leaned forward, looking almost like the Billie who was Ella’s friend.
Ella nodded. “The governor got really, really old, really fast. And Fred… Fred turned into this giant black fox with three tails.”
“Yokai,” Richard said, sitting down.
“What?” They all looked at him.
“Yokai, not yokel. Evil Kitsune. The opposite of myself. A shadow fox.”
“There was something else,” Ella interrupted. “The real Fred told my dad that he was trying to take the mirror to you, but that the mirror ‘pulled’ him to our house. The mirror wanted to be in the attic. Isn’t that weird?”
“Not really,” Aric came around the sofa. “I think the mirror belongs to the wizard who can talk to it. I think it’s your mirror, and it was looking for you.”
“Yeah,” Dish said. “I can see that. You didn’t even believe in magic until the mirror was in your house.”
“But why now?”
No one had an answer.
“And why did it keep showing me as my mouse self?” Ella looked at Richard, but he merely shook his head and muttered.
“Yokai. This is very bad.”

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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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