Sometimes It Works - By Lillow G 

   There was a statue of Lenfast in the square, establishing this as a village of small people. Lenfast was the God of Fast and Faster who was worshiped by the smaller people of the land. People whose existence involved avoiding or escaping from the larger things that either paid them no mind, pushing and stepping on them or chasing after them. Those who loved Lenfast could, it is said, in an emergency, draw on the numinous energy imparted by Lenfast to go that extra mile, so to speak. Or that extra speed necessary in evasive actions, that's what Lenfast promised. All the survivors of these nefarious encounters swore that it was Lenfast that got them through. Those who didn't survive never really talked about it. 

   Birtlen was the top member of the clergy in the Big Church of Lenfast and was called a Lennard. Besides being a high ranking Lennard he was also leader of the Lenfast congregation in Pixieville, a community of Pixies near the Elvenstead Akashic Records, Tomes, Crystal Balls and Exchanges Division. Lennard Birtlen loved that library and spent as much time as he could there. Today he was studying the application of Chaos Theory to velocity in quick escape situations, a subject he planned to lecture on this week in church. He had spent the afternoon in the library's Reference and Divination section studying up and was preoccupied with checking his notes as he left so he didn't notice the Troll who'd come walking up from the other way, oblivious to the underlying communities of small folk hereabouts. 

   A curious aspect of the Akashic Records is that they can be accessed by people of all sizes. From giants larger than trolls and dragons to people as small as Færies and Pixies. Even bigger and even smaller are possible, one at a time of course, just as pretty much every shape and color are all welcome at the Akashic Records, and all will find a place that fits them there.     

   So here was the diminutive Lennard Birtlen drifting out while the Troll Harmfirst was lumbering in, a potentially disastrous encounter, for the Lennard anyway. But just as Lennard Birtlen stepped off the top step, Harmfirst stepped on the bottom step, neither aware of the other. The library's middle steps, trying valiantly to accommodate both these extremes at once, went boing and knocked Harmfirst to the ground rendering him further senseless. This would seem both impossible and a validation of Lenfast's teachings wherein an innocent small person was saved from sure crunching under a giant's foot through some sort of divine intervention or something but it was not to be. In fact the step's boing did somehow increase Harmfirst's senselessness and it shot Lennard Birtlen into space where he achieved a near perfect low-earth orbit which, while perfect in its way, was not beneficial to the Lennard's well-being. On Thursdays and Sundays he can still be seen with binoculars but we are encouraged not to look, perhaps because the Lennard wore a dirty robe.   

Flocks - By Silver G 

   We follow the clouds the way nomads follow their herds. We're light færies who whisper to clouds, diaphanous spirits who keep the watery haze like herders would, like herders would their fluffy sheep. 

   It's said we need clouds to survive but in fact the clouds need us as much. We are the clouds and they are us. Mostly we drift and fly with the wind. Sometimes we can't be seen at all. Blue skies! we hear you say with smiles of comfortable joy but you don't know, you don't see that we are here yet, our gossamer vapors too distant, too widely spread for eyes to perceive but we are here, nonetheless. We are always here, pray it be so. 

   The wind shows us where we should gather, where in the world is calling, what channels to take but make no mistake for once in the while we steer our own course, sometimes to flow back, back facing the wind so that all are confused and vexed, perhaps to be rained upon, perhaps to see Father Sun. 

   Other times we pile one atop the other 'til off down below is the blackness of night and oh, the wind blows and oh, the wind calls for the hail stones to drop out, solid and piercing, for the boom and crackle of mighty gods 'midst buckets of rain in waving displays that whip past, grazing our looks, our smiles, our sense of completion 'til off we go quickly, off to the next calling, the winds say hurry it's this way or that. 

   And then we are passing, a mist on our trail, Father Sun set to casting rainbows for any to see, while the greening earth thrills to the great silent sounds, reaching for heaven, life in accord, separate together renewing again and again. And each time we sigh and sighing call out one more time, at least one more time. Send us a herding this time one more time. Once more for the rainfall, once more for the storm and once more to follow where the winds go.  

Also - By Lillow G 

   In the meadow there's a song that is always playing and those that hear it often sing along. It is today the song of Autumn, a song of wet and chilly or the Sunshine Contraction Song. This is the song of slowing down and resting. It is a song of gestation for our Mother Gaia and she has our love and gratitude even though she seems ready to cast us off for her own preservation. Unless we can make massive changes. We knew better all along. In any case, today there's the meadow and Autumn leaves. 

   Ishmael was there already, having returned from the Shine with Ishytoo some time ago, and he and Holly were having tea when we arrived. Lorna and I'd had a wonderful Crow that morning, greeting and encouraging Father Sun, then we had tea at the manor with the witches. I wanted to start right away as soon as we got to the meadow. There'd been a disturbance in the aether around Bluff, that semi-existent home to the Witch's Council and other strange things. 

   “Hi Ishmael and Holly!” I said as we approached. “Is Ishytoo coming with us?” I asked Ishmael. 

   “Not today. He's working on the Light.” The Light is what Ishmael and Ishytoo shine whenever there's need, which seems to be a lot these days. It is magical and shines when Ishmael casts the spell, bringing love and hope. When Ishytoo 'works on the Light' it means he's practicing the spell. I nodded at this. It was a complicated spell to get to Bluff so I understood how much work was involved. 

   “Well, let’s get going then,” I said and soon we were underway. Ishmael and I on brooms and Lorna riding on Holly's back. We circled the meadow until I got the spell right, then we floated serenely onto Bluff. As soon as we landed, we began looking for the disturbance. I knew the Radio Galaxy was nearby but I was hoping it wasn't the problem. I didn't feel like messing with Ego. Bluff itself seemed about as peaceful as it ever does. More so actually since there was no kerfuffle going on. As we walked past the Witch's Council, approaching EATS, our favorite restaurant, I noticed a flicker in the aether. Seeing my look Ishmael looked up. 

   “Is that . . .?” he began. The aether starts to clear making the thing more visible. 

   “I think so Ishmael,” I answered with a grimace. “I think it's a Space Manifold Portal.” 

   Holly looked at it with round and worried eyes. “Doesn't that lead to the Arches of Chaos?” she asked. 

   “Yeah, it does,” I answered. 

   “What's it doing here?” Ishmael asked. 

   “I think that's what we need to find out,” I said.        

    We got into our exploration formation, with me on one side of Holly and Ishmael on the other, riding our brooms close in while Lorna rides on Holly's back. We developed this formation because Holly has the best flying spell I ever saw. The spell forms a bubble keeping air inside that constantly renews regardless of the conditions outside the bubble. It also keeps you dry and warm or cool, whatever may be necessary. Anyone keeping close enough stays inside this bubble, which is why Lorna rides on Holly's back and Ishmael and I stay close to her sides. In this formation we leave Bluff and fly toward the Space Manifold Portal. 

   As we approach it becomes clearer. It is roughly circular, perhaps ten meters across and inside is a chaotic seeming maelstrom of strange colors. I know it's not as bad as it looks but is rather a reflection of the Arches of Chaos that are on its other side. Holly lets me lead our formation and I steer us slowly, cautiously into its center. There is little turbulence despite the appearances and we are soon inside the great Space Manifolds. It is dark and gloomy and we can see the Arches of Chaos in the distance. 

   There are many portals here that are passages to distant places, even other galaxies, and when one enters and exits by portal, they are quite useful. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, most who come to the Manifolds do so via the Arches of Chaos. That's crazy. Seriously, it's crazy, chaotic and extremely off-putting. But now I knew because I could see, plainly see that the disturbance that'd been reported and that we were investigating was the result of extraordinary amounts of negative energy flowing through the Arches and being distributed by the Manifolds throughout the cosmos. This is bad. 

   Holly's flying spell takes us safely, miraculously you could say, through the Arches of Chaos and we arrive at a place that is almost too depressing to describe. It's a land of incredible wealth populated by poor and willfully ignorant slaves. It's leadership is corrupt from top to bottom, its environment collapsing in what should have been preventable problems. Mean-spirited greed and anger are the dominant forces that create huge homeless populations that are beyond hopeless. The super-wealthy further enrich themselves through endless wars while their machines take jobs away from the people who slavishly support their own demise, blaming their sad condition on minorities or some other country or just some other. Their taxes support a first class health-care system yet they themselves cannot afford it or even access it. Their news is propaganda and their supreme leader is a cheap con-man. They hate voting and they hate thinking about stuff because they literally worship stupidity. We were shocked to our core and made our way to some out of the way spot to consider what must be done to stop this negativity from walloping the rest of us. But everywhere, no matter how remote, was posted private property with keep out signs, keep out or else, but we finally found a spot that seemed safe and settled down. Hidden. We were glum. 

   “What can we do here?” Ishmael asked. “Do you think the Light would help?” 

   No one answered for a long moment, then Holly said, “I don't think this situation can be remedied.” 

   “Nor do I,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “A steady diet of Light magic begun a decade ago might have helped but these people are thoroughly oppressed and determined to keep it that way. A suicidal society with leaders bent on fleecing every drop of energy out of it before it all collapses.”      

   “Taking their environment with them,” Lorna added with a tragic look. 

   “The problem we face is that their negativity is poisoning everyone else,” Ishmael pointed out. “It's made worse in the Arches and distributed by the Manifolds so it's poisoning the entire galaxy.” 

   “Then it's containment?” I asked. I didn't feel good about saying this. It was the same solution we had arrived at to defeat Dredung, the well of evil magicks, whose power is domination and whose goal is the cessation of all life. Dredung is so powerful that entire countries can be consumed by it. I think it wants to grow until it can destroy planets. We contained it in our world using the magic wand Zingellawabic but it seems that same evil is recurring here. I don't guess it'll ever be totally contained since its seeds are fear, anger, hunger and animality, fairly common emotions for humans. Besides Zingellawabic is back on the farm along with Ishmael's Light. I could see by the other's expressions that they were just as unsure of this solution as I was. 

   “Perhaps we ought to get a good night's sleep and talk more about this in the morning?” Ishmael suggested. It was turning dusk and our hiding spot seemed safe and congenial so we agreed and settled down. 

   After sleeping on it I knew containment wasn't the answer and I think the others knew it as well. 

   “We have to change how this society functions,” I told the group. By their silence I knew they agreed and by their silence I also knew they had no idea how to accomplish this. 

   I thought of the people back there, willfully killing themselves and each other while their leader, a man named Drumf which didn't surprise me a bit since that was the same name Dredung used in our land. The name used when that evil had grown enough to menace everyone. It had already destroyed Joten when we arrived to confront that Drumf although that was a long process that was just culminating with the Drumf. Joten is the land of Trolls, Orcs and the ultimate source of the evilist rot, the Grimn Leapers. Those who blindly accept, who devoutly believe what they are told, despite the evidence of their eyes and ears. We destroyed that Drumf with Ishmael's Light. A giant infusion of Love, Light and Hope right into the middle of that Drumf's Troll factory where the lies, hate and division were created and, in the process, creating new Trolls. Then those Trolls would go out spreading fear, hate and lies, disrupting societies and planting the seeds of destruction. Including their own demise, along with whatever country nurtured them. Well, Ishmael's Light knocked old Dredung for a loop, out, we thought, but it came back, seemingly in no time, and we fought it back. Our final solution was containment.     

   “We need a new approach,” I said, realizing that I knew what needed doing. “We need to give them Love. Let Love come back to them. And respect for the marvel that is life.” I paused, feeling a little like some sort of preacher but also realizing that I didn't have the minutia of this grand design. I just had the overall vision.    

   “Give them love?” Holly asked looking confused. 

   “Capital L Love,” I tell her. 

   “But those people are hateful,” Ishmael stated. 

   “Look what they've done to their environment,” Lorna said with a sad look. “I almost want to see them fail, see their country collapse so that at least they'd stop hurting the earth.” 

   “And it was fear, hatred, and greed, that started it,” I said. Then added, “And the enforced divisions that made them that way based on class, color creed or whatever else they could come up with.” I was not at all sure where I was going with this. 

   “Those were systemic changes happening over a long time,” Ishmael pointed out. 

   “Yes, but what started them?” I asked. 

   “Greed,” we all said at once. 

   “How do we stop that?” Holly wondered, looking around quizzically. 

   “I dunno,” I answered, “but I believe it's a start. That realization.”  I gazed around slowly, seeing their looks of uncomprehending interest. “Well,” I continued, “what is it that causes a person to want more than they need? What makes a hoarder? Because really, no matter how you look at it, a person who accumulates wealth is a hoarder.” 

   “Need,” Ismael said unconvincingly. 

   “Fear,” Lorna spoke decisively. “They've been taught that success is all that matters. Just look at the homeless people crowding their streets. Monstrous deprivation playing out right in front of them every day and getting worse. They're afraid of that. Of going homeless.” 

   “That's a fearsome thought alright,” Holly whispered with a sad look. 

   “But what of the fellow who builds an empire?” Ishmael asked. “Not because he wants to but because he's just so good at it, that everything he touches easily turns to gold, and in the process of doing what he loves best he employs hundreds, or even thousands. Thousands of families, wives, husbands, children, all relying on his continued success.” 

   “It's a thorny problem,” I murmur. 

   “I think it's the second generation that's the problem,” Lorna said. 

   “Huh? What'ya mean?” Ishmael asked. “You mean the kids? Something like that?” 

   “Could be something like that,” Lorna answered. “But I think it's pretty much whoever takes over after the wealth apparatus is put in place. You know, when the money machine is punching out the profits and the old man retires or dies.”  

   “Those children or executives would be riding the coattails of success,” Ishmael continued, “and if they didn't have their founder's flair and few do I think, coupled with the enormous responsibility of the welfare of hundreds or thousands, well, I could see how morality and ethics could be set aside.” Seeing our shocked expressions he continued. “For the greater good. You know, sell yourself to evil so that others could live. Why it'd be a self-sacrifice when you look at it that way.” 

   “That's ghastly,” I said, dismayed at how right it sounded. 

   “So it's greed fostered by fear,” Holly summed up. 

   “Well, there's more,” Ishmael added, “you know, like the charities and religions that jump on the money train forgetting good works entirely, or the investors that are so rich that richer is their only thought.” 

   “And politicians,” Lorna continued with a scowl. “Elected by the people but doing only the work of the highest bidder. Corruption that thrives on the lack of consequences these same corrupt politicians create for themselves.” 

   “A self-perpetuating cycle feeding on all it can,” I said, “which again brings us back to throwing out morality and ethics,” I look around. “Apparently an easy thing to do.”   

   “Especially when this corruption lifts you well past the fears of want, need, homelessness and despair,” Ishmael added with a frown. “Then it's just greed.” 

   We're all silent, wearing glum looks. 

   The next morning we have a plan. Using local materials along with knowledge and gold from the farm, where it has little value, we start a Love-Spell factory. These are not romance spells necessarily, rather they allow a burst of the joyful love we all have, or once had, in our innermost being. We cast these Love spells over and over imbuing whatever we can; rocks, seeds, coins, whatever with powerful Love spells that can uplift moods, brighten days and lets people see their own inner beauty and peace along with the natural beauty that surrounds us all. We spend a lot of time surreptitiously planting our little Love poppers. They may seem imperceptible at first, just a glimmer here and there, a little less glum perhaps but already while we were still there, they've managed to vote the horrid Drumf out of office. A new leader whose mind is on creating a just society that serves all its members as well as conserving and healing their environment has come to power. A weak power that relies on the people for its success. I hope we've begun healing the enormous fractures in this society. I smile with renewed hope and give my team a thumbs up as we surround Holly to mount up, so to speak, preparing to return through the Arches of Chaos and back to our own space through the Manifold. We look forward to a long rest in the calmness of the farm and her restorative meadow. We've had our fill of chaos, that's for sure, at least for now.      

      

Stupid Story, Part 1 - By Rosy 

   My children, two girls, Brakka and Jant, work at a farm outside of town. I've been to it, I think, but I'm unclear on what the farm actually does or what their work entails and, well I'm not even sure it exists, having heard differing reports along those lines. So you'd think I'd be worried sick and normally you'd be right. 

   Except I hear and see other things, like the obvious fact that both girls love their jobs and are eager to start each day. That they get paid each week in strange gold coins that the bankers readily pay large sums of money for, sums far beyond a week's wages at any job I'd ever heard of. I know they're both good girls and wouldn't do anything dishonest. 

   My girls are both of a marriageable age, Brakka being a year older than Jant yet they rarely pay any attention to suitors. One young man who took Brakka out a couple times had pointed ears, of that I'm sure, even though he tried to hide them under his strange hat. I think they're still seeing each other but curiously he doesn't come here anymore. Jant is just too flighty to take anything seriously and doesn't, that I can tell, have any suitors at all. 

   I should leave well enough alone, with things going so well, the girls happy as larks, our financial situation the best it's ever been but, well, I'm just curious, that's all. I mean no harm. 

   The first time I tried to follow them to the farm I, well I should tell you right off that I've been curious about that farm for some time now, from the beginning actually, and well, as I was saying, the first time started off fine with them in clear sight ahead and me far enough behind to remain unseen. It was brilliant and I remember smiling with pride as I made my way from one hidden spot to the next. They danced and laughed openly up the lane, never thinking to look back. I didn't think anything when they passed the giant old tree south of town where the path curves around upward. I hid while they went around the tree, watching intently for their reappearance so I could move behind the tree to follow. I watched and I kept watching but they never reappeared. They'd gone behind that tree and zappo, they were gone! I was totally freaked and would've called detectives from somewhere if they hadn't returned that evening, but they did, smiling and happy like nothing had ever happened. 

   The next time I got confused somehow, especially since they started off in a different direction, and, oh and it was cloudy, probably raining or at least misty, or foggy and then the wind blew so I got more confused and somehow, I ended up in the grocery store. I don't remember going in but I did remember some things we needed so I went shopping. The girls were back at their regular time that evening. 

   There were a few more incidents along these lines then, this last time, I was behind them like I do, watching closely then hiding and so on when suddenly I heard some giggling behind me, soft and furtive and I spun around to find my daughters watching me with unfeigned merriment. 

   Then Brakka, laughing, gestured for me to join them. They went to work even though I was with them. We went to a farm I'd never seen before and milked cows and threw hay. We fed chickens and mended fences. It was long, dreary day, sort of dreamy somehow and I was very glad to get home that evening.  My husband (he had a similar experience when he demanded to see the farm) and I have never thought about their jobs again except I felt a little sorry for them with all that hard work. Now we're both content to be, well, content. Amazingly content. I wonder sometimes what the farm's called?

The Space Patrol - By Rosy 

   I think you will find that a lot of people who don't know anything make up stuff, perhaps to compensate. You know, fill in the vast empty spaces where normal people put all the stuff they know. This following story may well be a classic example of this. 

   Captain Rivitir just told us there'd been signals of a mysterious type coming from the Juno Mission and that we were going to investigate. Our ship, the Dashem, was a class two Destroyer, recalled and modified to do secret spy work, then recalled and modified to just wander around and look at stuff. I liked our last incarnation the best and I think the rest of the crew did too, so this newest modification into investigators, which did morph nicely into a lot of our previous spy work gear I'll admit, still this investigating mission was not entirely welcome. In any case I am Steddy Gripp, the Chief Detective Investigator and Detective Sirius Whatly is my assistant. And we haven't gotten fat and lazy like they're saying on Mars. We just haven't had time to come in for physicals is all and now, well, we got investigating to do. 

   We set a course straight away to the Juno Mission which was, as we suspected, circling Jupiter. We knew there was a truck stop there, only for spaceships of course, (the old ways are strong in space. Many spacers wear cowboy hats and wide belt buckles, their belts loaded with weapons, their eyes narrow, their faces stern. Boots with spurs are also popular) so we headed for the Juno Mission dock. 

  Besides the docking bays and fuel pumps there was a restaurant, a motel, a casino, and several satellites of ill-repute at Juno Mission but no churches despite the name. All were transmitting their usual barrage of signals, things like radio, telephone, internet and so on, so that Juno Mission was surrounded by a cacophony of signals, like most outposts in space. Except now, at this spot, there were also mysterious unknown signals. 

   First thing we discovered was that the signals were made of smoke. Smoke signals were a method not employed in space before, that we knew of, and no one knew how to read them. Yes, these were mysterious, especially since there's no air in space for the smoke to float in or to even build a fire in. This whole thing was getting mysteriouser and mysteriouser. We landed at the mission to check it out firsthand, get gas and a bite to eat. 

   After we ate Captain Riviter and the crew returned to Dashem while D Whatly and I went to investigate. I asked Bob, the cook who was famous for his earth style hamburgers, well, I asked Bob did he know anything about any smoke signals? 

   “Smoke signals?” he answered, glancing nervously to the back. “Gosh no. I mean that's crazy right?” I suspected something and watched him carefully. D Whatly started poking around looking at the back room. “Well,” he muttered sullenly, “I guess Engine Horatio might have something going on out in the desert.” 

   “The desert?” I asked, realizing that things had just gotten more mysteriouser. “How is there desert in space?”  

   He looked warily surprised then, with a shrug, told us to follow as he strolled through the kitchen toward the back door, which was a screen door that opened revealing an endless expanse of dry brown wasteland. There were a few cacti and sagebrush growing but little else. The horizons seemed infinite. Bob stepped out and gazed out over the barren scene for a moment, searching, then he muttered, “Yep, there he is.” He pointed, “See 'im?” 

   I squinted in the direction he was pointing and finally I saw him. Barely visible, looked to be sitting. Then a puff of smoke rose above where he sat followed by three quick puffs then a pause. 

   “Again, I must ask, how is this possible? We're in space and the Juno Mission is just a supply station with very little room inside.”   

   “Well it's a secret for one. Like you shouldn't even be here,” he muttered, scowling, “But you're some sort of official or something so here we are. It's a dimensional thing, near as I can figure,” he answered with a shrug. As I turned back, I saw a highway running past the front with sleek, alien looking cars racing past. 

   “Where're they going?” I asked. 

   “Oh they're coming from the large coastal city. Or returning to it.” He gazed off in the distance. “Off thataway is our village with a modern casino and five star hotel if you're interested in staying a spell? Much nicer than the ones at Juno Mission Space Side.” I could see the distant structures now that I knew where to look. There appeared to be a silhouette that looked like a Ferris wheel. 

   “Not sure if we'll be staying,” I answered. 

   Bob nodded then added, “A few klicks the other side of our village is the Saturnalia gate to yet another dimension.” He paused, frowning. “Never been there though.” I turned back and looked at Engine Horatio and saw another puff of smoke rise up. 

   “What's he saying?” I asked, pointing to the smoke. 

   “Oh, that. Well, Engine Horatio runs an inter-dimensional advertising firm, Wejakkem Inc it's called. He's just sending our message out.” 

   “Your message?” I asked incredulously, looking closely at him. “And just what would your message be?” 

   “It's uh, oh you know, the usual.” 

   “What's it say?” 

   “Well if you can't read it, then it says, Eat Hamburgers at Juno Mission – Yumm.” 

   “It says Yumm?” 

   “Yeah, the whole thing's Eat Hamburgers . . .” 

    “Okay,” I interrupted, “we got that. It says Eat Hamburgers at Juno Mission – Yumm. Right?”      

   “Doesn't sound as good the way you say it,” Bob answered with a frown, “But yeah, that's the message. I'm famous for my earth style hamburgers, you know.” I could tell he was proud and let him continue. “We get our syntho-beef from Hoggsdale Ranch,” he pointed in the direction of the big coastal city, “with real synthetic longhorns and cowboys to herd 'em.” Then a bell rang. “Wupp! Gotta go, orders coming in.” He turned back to the screen door. “See how advertising pays off?” he asked with a smile before entering. 

   I looked at Whatly, “Well I guess we better go check this Engine Horatio guy out.” We began trudging across that barren desert. It was hot so we both removed our smart looking detective jackets and loosened our ties. After we'd walked a goodly way, I realized the distance was much greater than I'd imagined so I ordered a rest by a nearby rock overhang which offered some shade. 

   I pondered our next move as we rested, then sent Whatly back for water. I wasn't surprised when I tried to radio Captain Rivitir and couldn't get through but I was surprised when my radio crackled back on and a rather terse voice announced, “Listen, you are not licensed for inter-dimensional communications so why're you even trying? Please apply for permits at Village, number One Center and don't even think of trying again until you do.” Snap, and the signal was gone. 

  When Whatly returned we drank up then continued on toward Engine Horatio. I told him we'd lost communications with the ship and made a mental note to tell headquarters about those permits. I had a hunch we'd need 'em in the future.   

   It was dusk when we finally arrived at Engine Horatio. There was an Acme Smoke Message Machine churning out puffs of smoke in front of a log cabin with a thatched roof. Suddenly it was full dark and I watched, fascinated as the smoke balls rose up higher and higher until they were in the upper atmosphere and beyond, illuminated by the setting sun. Turning I saw lights inside the cabin so I knocked on the door. It was opened by a young girl with horns. She smiled brightly at us. 

   “Hello. I'm CDI Gripp and this is D Whatly of the earth ship Dashem, authorized by the Royal Earth Bosses, Department of Looking-At-Stuff. We're from the Space Coppers Division, so we're allowed to ask questions.” I wasn't sure if that was true or not as we showed our badges. She continued smiling brightly at us. “So, uh is anyone home?” I asked. 

   “”No,” she answered before slamming the door. Fortunately D Whatly's foot, that he'd cleverly snuck past the jamb, stopped it. He yelped in pain, the door being shut with great force and when the little girl saw the door still open and us looking in, she turned and ran. Whatly, barely limping, ran in hot pursuit. I saw her smile slyly back at him as she ran. I was suspicious so I stopped and examined the room carefully. It was clear we, well I now, was in the conning tower of an ancient submarine, perhaps from a big war somewhere. I knew I was being conned but I looked through the periscope, nonetheless. Sure enough, there I was under an endless ocean gazing at the amazing fishes and plants, seaweeds I'd say, and feeling the sway of the sub as the currents carried us away. 

   I yelled, “Up periscope!” Then I looked again. This time I could see the sea was just going on forever no matter how much I swiveled around. Every direction was endless sea. You don't expect this on a space patrol even if you are expecting the unexpected like they say to do. Now I yelled “Surface!” hoping the sub would do like I asked. I was quite pleased when it surfaced. I stepped out onto the dripping deck and searched the horizon, circling 360 degrees and seeing nothing. No place should be this empty I thought as I climbed back down into the sub. I supposed I ought to go find Whatly so I headed down the submarine's hallway in the direction I remembered him going last. I hope. 

   Suddenly there was a gut-wrenching crunch and the floor tilted. I fell against the wall and was alarmed to see water come splashing in. I rushed back to the conning tower and climbing out again was astonished to see the sub had crashed into a reef. There was a large tree-covered island beyond and I gasped in amazement. How could I have missed that? Then I saw two vaguely familiar figures on the beach waving at me but I couldn't make out who they were for sure. Slowly a big sucking noise was tilting the deck back and turning I was shocked to see the sub sinking beneath the waves. I immediately jumped ship and swam quickly, madly to shore where sturdy arms pulled me up. I was surprised to see it was D Whatly and the little horned girl as I stumbled ashore.   

   “I'm so glad you made it ma'am,” Whatly said, smiling and helping me along. I looked at the little horned girl walking beside us. “Yes Ma'am,” Whatly responded, seeing my look. “This here's Rotilda Wilda, the entry wizard for this passage.”  

   “I see,” I said, but I didn't, not really. “Nice to meet you, Rotilda,” I offered. 

   “Nice to meet you ma'am,” she responded. “Now if you are truly desirous of getting through this passage then you must do exactly what I say.” 

   Looking ahead I could see a luxury hotel, partly hidden by palm trees and flowering shrubs and we appeared to be heading toward it. 

   “This passage?” I asked. I was, in fact, quite confused. 

   “Yes ma'am. You and Whatly are stuck in a Non-Denominational  Trans-Dimensional Shift Organizer. Frankly it's not going well, not going well at all in fact so I have brought you to a sanctuary where you can rest before I direct you back to your proper time and location.”     

   “What?” I uttered foolishly. 

   “You're in the wrong place and I'm to put you right,” she finished, leading us into the hotel lobby where several young men rushed up to help us. Soon I was tucked in and quickly fell asleep. I was more tired than I thought. 

   When I woke up D Whatly was sitting beside me and Rotilda Wilda was standing by the window watching us. 

   “What's going on?” I whispered to Whatly. 

   “Ah, there you are ma'am,” he answered, looking pointedly at Rotilda. 

   I looked at Rotilda. “Get up,” was all she said, so I got up, and finding myself clothed, I put on my smart looking detective jacket. Then Whatly, similarly attired, and I followed Rotilda out of the room and out of the hotel where a taxi awaited us on the front lawn. “Get in,” Rotilda ordered. She conferred briefly with the driver as we got in and as soon as our door closed, we were off. The taxi turned out to be a spaceship and soon we were back at the Dashem where we reported to Captain Rivitir, after she paid our fare.    

 “Our case is solved,” I began proudly. “The mysterious signals are smoke signals that advertise for this restaurant.” I pointed at the Juno Mission. “They say 'Eat Hamburgers at Juno Mission – Yumm'”  

   “It says yumm at the end?” Captain Rivitir asked with a sour look. 

   “Yes ma'am,” I answered. “And the signals, created by Engine Horatio, CEO of Wejakkem Inc enter space from another dimension, causing them to endure much longer than anyone would imagine.” She scowled. “Oh, and we need to look into getting some inter-dimensional communication permits. I have a hunch they'll be useful in the future.”   

   She nodded. “Good work detectives. I'll pass this on to headquarters with your recommendations. Now we can get back to looking at stuff like we should be doing.” 

   And how to avoid physicals, Whatly and I both added to ourselves of course. 

   

A Famous Story - By Rosy 

   “Do you need a list?” Captain Rivitir asked as I gazed apprehensively at the control panel in front of me. Must be a hundred gauges, switches, and dials, I thought. 

   “Uh, a list?” I muttered trying to decipher what I was seeing. 

   “Yeah, you know, a list of all this stuff and what it means,” she answered waving casually at the control panel. 

   I looked at her, “Well, uh if that's okay. Yeah, yeah, I would. I mean I know most of it, no problem,” I lied, nodding reassuringly, “but there is some stuff here that I'm not too sure about.” I was trying to appear knowledgeable, seasoned as they say, give the impression that I was a competent and well-trained co-pilot who would already know that panel inside and out and more but in fact I was in way over my head and I knew it. 

   “No problem,” she shrugged, and with a smile handed me the pamphlet she was holding. “Everybody needs a refresher when it comes to these old rigs,” she stated, walking away. Then she stopped and turned, “Oh, and if you're feeling in over your head, don't worry, you are.” Continuing on she whispered, “We all are.”  I wasn't sure if I was meant to hear that last part or not. I saw the navigator giving me a worried look as I opened the pamphlet. 

   I was able to gain a working knowledge of my job with that very useful pamphlet. I could tell that several hands had already thumbed through it and I paid extra attention to the sections that someone had underlined or circled. This was a top secret mission I was told, national security and strictly need to know, so I wanted to give a good showing despite my inexperience. I wondered why they'd chosen this old airplane. And me. 

   “Here we go!” Captain Rivitir yelled above the engine noise which suddenly became much louder. Then we were taxiing down the runway. All my gauges seemed fine and I settled back. This is actually pretty cool, I thought as we became airborne and began our ascent. What a view from up here! I was thrilled until one of my gauges crawled up into the red. I quickly thumbed through the pamphlet until I found it. The passage was underlined and I recalled its urgency as I found and flipped the switches it assured me must be flipped. Nothing happened for a few heart wrenching moments then slowly, wonderfully, the gauge settled back into its proper position. I glanced over at Captain Rivitir who smiled and gave me a thumbs up. I blushed, nodding with a weak smile as I returned the thumbs up. 

   My only experience was flying a little single engine antique around the towns the Blarney Bailey Circus was visiting, flying a banner with Blarney Bailey Circus! emblazoned on it. It's pretty hard to fly that rickety old crate with a giant banner dragging along behind. Dimitri, one of the Flying Dangle Brothers, would set the banner firmly between two poles where I could swoop down and hook onto it. He'd make sure the banner wasn't tangled as I took to the skies. 

   Since it was my plane, inherited from my Uncle Flete who used to do crop dusting, they were glad to pay me without checking my license or anything, which was good because I didn't have one. Always meant to do the studying and flight hours and get one but I never did and they just assumed, since I had a plane and all, that I had one, and well, here I am, where I could just fly and no one questioned anything. I also did odd jobs around the circus, helping pitch tents and set up bleachers, that sort of thing. I worked ticket booths most evenings. I thought I was good for another decade or so until a black government vehicle pulled up. 

   I was parking my plane after flying circles for the last couple hours, and I watched the vehicle warily. Two men in dark suits got out and began strolling toward me, easy, unconcerned. They both wore dark glasses and before I even noticed they were on either side firmly gripping my arms and walking me toward their vehicle. 

   “Ma'am, you need to come with us and it'd be better if you didn't make any resistance,” one of them hissed as they pulled me along.    

   “Wait! What . . .?” I sputtered 

   “National Security,” the other barked. 

   Then I was in the back seat beside one man as the other got behind the wheel and hurried us away. Neither spoke, despite my demands for answers, as we sped to an airport where I was put on a giant, I mean bigger than what you're imagining now, way bigger, airplane with four huge propeller engines mounted on the wings.   

   I'm helping drive that plane right now. Co-pilot. I've found the pamphlet given to me by Captain Rivitir to be very helpful and I was even beginning to feel optimistic until the navigator handed out three large tan envelopes marked TOP SECRET in bright red letters, one to each of us. I opened mine and read. 

TOP SECRET for Lillow G and no one else, or else! 

Lillow! You are the co-pilot on a secret mission and you have no idea what you are doing. That's perfect. No one does. Captain Rivitir is actually the skipper of a tugboat and Rokkie Maikdue, your navigator, is a taxi driver in a large city. Listen: No one knows what they are doing. The reason is because you are going to fly through the Arches of Chaos, something no capable, reasoning pilot and crew could ever hope to accomplish. Your current chaos is just what's called for. You'll make it through, pretty sure. Once on the other side you'll be inside the Space Manifolds. One is plugged so you need to unplug it then return here. The Universe depends on you! Good Luck! 

   The navigator looked at me, “Wow. So you're the only one who's ever actually flown before.” I looked back unable to speak. 

   “Explains why you picked it up so quick,” Captain Rivitir said, beaming at me. 

   We kept our current course, each of us checking our pamphlets from time to time. Soon we entered the Arches of Chaos, sooner than we expected, though we really didn't know it at the time, and all my gauges started spinning or bouncing around. I noticed our tail was now in front and loud claxons began blaring from all sides. I opened my pamphlet but only found the funny pages, in color. I looked over and watched as Captain Rivitir pulled the overhead horn again and again, emitting an enormous foghorn bellow each time that was barely heard over the claxons. Now the entire cockpit was flashing red, blue, and green and screaming was heard from somewhere far off. The tail was no longer in front, rather we were spinning madly, tilting back and forth, and shaking. Suddenly everything stopped and we sat in silence, except for the navigator who took a moment longer to stop screaming. 

   We were staring into blackness but not starry blackness, just blackness. Then we slowly began to make out massive portals in the gloom leading to who knows where. Very dim but we could see one of the portals was blocked with something. 

   Captain Rivitir steered us over to it. Steering was easy, almost like a car, but stopping was not. Captain Rivitir was frantically flipping through her pamphlet when we bumped right into that big thing that was blocking the portal. We stuck there for a moment then, with a massive, slow, sucking whoosh it fell through and the portal was open. Captain Riviter dropped the pamphlet and pulled the steering wheel hard right and held it. We circled around and returned to the Arches of Chaos, something we were used to so we slipped through easily, I think. 

   When we got back, we splashed down in a big lake since none of us knew how to land big planes. The plane was so big it floated and soon we were picked up. We're national heroes, as I'm sure you already know. Saved the Universe. 

   What? You didn't know? Surely, you've heard of Rokkie Maikdue, famous explorer? Really? So how about Lillow G, the daredevil pilot? Gosh. Well, you've certainly heard of Rosy the Riviter, huh? Remember the 'We Can Do It' posters back in the 40s? You know them. Yeah, that's right, that Rosy! So there you go, a famous story. 

-Rosy 

 Relish The Thought 

      Stanford Yurofome was the leader of the pack, near as anyone could tell. He was a strange guy anyway, very strange but this was too much. Whenever they, Stan's pack that is, would come screaming out of the blue and raze another part of the realm, dropping gigantic pickles like bombs, everyone, especially our meager law community, would search the sky carefully trying to determine just who was riding with Stan, himself identifiable by his flaming red hair that billowed above like a cloud, and, even more pressing, they'd try to figure out where the pack came from or to where it was going. Yet despite careful observation by these professionals as well as the copious scrutinizing of the hoi polloi, no one has yet been able to determine either location, or even any of the other members of the pack.     

   That's when I was called in. I'm SDCI Whatley, assigned to the Weird, Odd or Shocking Investigative Division of the Elvenstead Lawkeepers. We've had Yurofome in our sights for quite some time now since his shocking red hair was hard to miss. We, WOSHI as we're known, didn't like the guy, not sure why, we just didn't, not one of us, so when we heard he was leading a pack of pickle bombers we weren't surprised. 

   Detective Inspector Hare Standfast, who along with Detective Seedy Grimmsee and myself comprised the entire division. D Standfast accompanied me on my initial investigation while Seedy stayed behind at our secret spot to provide back-up. A recent attack on Kattsop, a village nearby, was where we'd begin. We'd be able to investigate the aftermath of a high speed pickle bombardment firsthand, a prospect we did not relish but knew we had to do. 

   We marched forcefully into the main square which had taken the brunt of the attack. Pickle remains were strewn everywhere and the village's mayor, Mayor Hattrack, was standing in the midst of it shaking his fist at the sky and pronouncing various curses upon Stan's pack. 

   I interrupted his rant, “Hello! Mayor?” 

   He stopped and looked at me, “Yes. Who're you?” I could easily tell he was in a bad mood. 

   “I'm SDCI Whatley and this is DI Standfast come to investigate this hideous crime.” 

   “About time!” he barked. “Stan must be stopped!” 

   We nodded a somber agreement. “So you saw this attack?” I asked. 

   “Yeah, through my office window,” he pointed up at some broad windows overlooking the square. “It was horrible, that pack swooping down at super-fast speed then the shwack, shwack, shwack of giant pickles hitting and exploding.” He looked at me with a horrified expression. “Blendin, over there sweeping,” he pointed at a nearby sweeper, “was out here, right here in the square when it happened and he seen it all.”  

   I nodded curtly at the mayor, “Don't leave town,” I told him as we turned and approached Blendin. 

   “Mister Blendin?” I asked. 

   “Yes, ma'am,” he answered, “Blendin Runjump, Towne Sweeper. You investigating this bombing?” 

   “Yes, we are Mister uh, Runjump. I was told you saw it, that you were right out here when it happened. What'dya see?”  

   “Yessum, I was. Din't see much,” he said with a frown. “I was doing like I'm doing now only then it was leaves and stuff and now . . .” he pushed a pile of pickle remains forward, “well, you see what it is now.” I nodded. “Well, I was sweeping when I heard this loud squealing noise and suddenly, quicker than you'd think, really a lot quicker, they came screaming over, flying low and fast with the eerie, siren wail of pickle bombs falling, making awful splats all around.” 

   “It must have been horrible,” DI Standfast murmured. 

   “Yessir and uh, ma'am, it was. Horrible!” 

   “Which way did they go?” I asked calmly. 

   “Dunno,” he answered with a confused look. “Thought it was thataway,” he pointed, “then I saw something flying way off over thataway,” he pointed in the opposite direction, “so I just ent sure.” He shrugged.  

   “Hmmm,” I thought, thinking. “Let us know if you remember anything else. Let's go Standfast. Nothing else to find here.” We returned to our cubby in city hall, next to the newsstand where we've received millions of handy tips and suggestions. I'd given Moredom, the proprietor, a secret signal in case he ever got something I should know about and I looked over, discreetly making eye contact. 

   “Hey detective!” he yelled, apparently forgetting our secret signal. “I gotta clue!” I gestured him to be quiet and wait until I could come around to the side. “Yeah,” he continued loudly, “I gotta clue about your pickle bombing case.” 

   “Be quiet!” I hissed from the side. “Now what you got?”  

   Finally realizing the need for discretion he whispered, “This guy come around, couldn't see him too clear through his crazy red hair, anyway he said, 'You tell that detective to look for a ring.'”           

   “Huh?” I said. 

   “That's just what I said,” he said smiling proudly, “Same exact word.” 

   “Yeah,” I said with a scowl, “so what'd he say?” 

   “Nuttin. He was just gone.” I started to speak and he cut me off, “Din't see where. He was gone too quick, quicker 'an you'd think.” 

   I nodded thanks. Back in our cubby I asked Standfast what he thought Moredom had meant by 'look for a ring,' but he had no ideas. We sat glumly. 

   Then D Grimmsee spoke, “Say, I been thinking, boss,” I raised my eyebrows. “Well, I thought maybe a map of the attacks might help. You know, show us where they been happening.” 

   I shrugged, “Why not. We got no other clues.” 

   We pinned a big map of the area to our cubby wall and began methodically plotting the spots where the attacks had occurred. It took some time but when we were done, we backed up to look. Slowly what we were seeing became clear and we all gasped. The attacks were in a giant circle. A huge 'ring'! 

   “I think we've found the ring,” I said, “but now what?” 

   “Dunno,” D Grimmsee muttered, staring at the map. 

   “Say, what's that in the center?” DI Standfast asked. “Look there. See?” 

   We all bent over to see, and there, right in the center was written in small letters, 'Stan's Pickles.' Well we hustled right on over and when we got there, staring at this big pickle factory, we were attacked by Stan's Pack, a full on pickle attack. We ran for cover inside and found the factory was empty, deserted. Shocked and dismayed we returned to our cubby. 

   “Couldn't tell a thing about the attack, could you?” I asked. 

   “No ma'am, they was too fast,” D Grimmsee moaned, wiping pickle juice off his new suit. The one that his wife, Tamolly bought him to celebrate his promotion to detective. It was a big deal and he looked good in it. Very professional. Except for the pickle stain. And the smell. I felt bad for him.   

   DI Standfast had an idea, a crazy idea but an idea nonetheless, and we sure didn't have anything else. He said, “Maybe a big net? Something with fine netting so's you can't see it, but strong, you know?” I was noncommittal but Grimmsee nodded, like it was maybe okay. “If we put a couple up high,” he continued, “both north and west then we'd be sure to nab 'em, either coming or going.” Grimmsee and I both thought he was probably nuts but we didn't say it and since we didn't have a better plan we went ahead and did it. We put up them big nets in the villages that hadn't been hit yet, then we sat back and waited.   

   Sure enough, we nabbed the miscreants the very next day, just like I said we would. They got tangled in a net right as they were attacking and we got 'em all. Turns out they were aliens from outer space, and everyone of 'em had shocking big red hair. That's how you can tell 'em. We rounded 'em up and threw them in jail for a hundred years or more. They hoped to conquer us with vicious pickle attacks but we were too smart and thwarted their evil scheme. We sure never thought we'd end up saving the earth from an alien invasion. 

Aggy, Part Two - The Return of the Witches - By Rosy 

Eight 

   The River Goddess has destroyed Teleron's castle but Teleron himself is missing. The slaves began escaping when the castle started to collapse and when the last of them crossed the drawbridge the rest of the castle collapsed with most of it crumbling into the river. Spike and the goats were speechless with awe at what they'd seen but the Elves seemed pleased, like they weren't greatly surprised at this denouement. Many were rushing over to help the slaves. Somehow the rubble had ignited about fifteen minutes after the collapse and was now a raging inferno. Many of the slaves had left already, anxious to return to their homes, but a sizable group still remained, watching the flames consume their late prison. There was no sign, not a trace, of Teleron and it was believed he'd perished in his castle along with his apprentice Glar and the six minions who had stood by his side through it all, keeping the evil enterprise going. 

   “No loss there,” people muttered as the gossip circulated. 

   Spike, Brak and Jant made their way to the group of remaining ex-slaves and began checking faces, looking for Ishyate and Elvisher. It took a while and Spike was getting frantic by the time they finally found them, sitting in the shade of the forest, completely ignoring the fire while talking to a couple of women. It was clear they were all ex-slaves by their dirty, unkept appearance and their sallow faces, especially the women's. 

   Ishyate and Elvisher's faces lit up at the sight of Spike and the goats and they jumped up to hug each other while the two women sat and watched, smiling at their friends' joy. 

   “Oh golly, sweet Robin are we glad to see you!” Spike gushed, unable to control his relief and joy. He kept wagging his tail too hard, disappearing then reappearing a couple meters away. Brak finally came over and sat on that wagging tail to keep Spike in one place. 

   Ishyate gestured at the women, “Hey guys, this is Lagretta and Magnella, friends we met while inside.” 

   Elvisher smiled in agreement and added, “Even though they've been here much longer than us they came and offered us whatever aid and assistance they could.” The women smiled but said nothing. 

   “Thank you,” Spike said, “Thank you so much! These two are dear friends.” Brak and Jant nodded their concurrence. Spike continued, “I don't suppose anyone knows anything about an Agitha Gladstar, reported to be here . . .” 

   Lagretta and Magnella both sat up with smiles, “We do!”  

   “Is she here now?” Spike asked feeling a surge of excitement. 

   “No,” Lagretta answered. “She's been gone for a long time now. No one knows how or where but she musta done it with magic.” 

   “That so,” said Spike. “So she's a . . .?” The women squirmed but did not answer. “Witch maybe? Sorceress?” he prompted. 

   “Dunno,” Lagretta answered looking down. 

   “She could just do lots of stuff,” Magnella interjected, “sometimes we couldn't tell how she did it but that was okay, I mean . . .” 

   “She knows tons of things, things you never heard of,” Lagretta said forcefully. Spike could see that both the women admired and looked up to Agitha. 

   “How long ago did she . . . uh, leave?” Spike asked. 

   “Hmm, what, a week ago?” Lagretta answered looking inquiringly at Magnella. 

   “Yeah, but now I think on it, maybe more like three or four days ago,” Magnella offered. 

   “That's not a long time,” Brak muttered. 

   “It is here, or was, blessed be,” Lagretta said. Her gaze clouded with anger and loss as she turned toward the now smoldering ruins. “Few lasted more'n a month, some a couple but I never heard of anybody lasting longer. Me and Maggie been here 28 days.” Spike was shocked. They both looked emaciated like they'd been prisoners for years.    

   The group of ex-slaves was dwindling rapidly. Many were meeting arriving friends and family, some wandered off in groups of two or three. But no one came for Lagretta and Magnella. 

   “You guys got a place to go?” Spike asked them. 

   With a worried glance at each other they both shook their heads no. 

   “Well, we don't either. Our place is quite a ways south of here so maybe we should all camp together tonight?” 

   They found a nice spot by Columbia's River about a klick south of the ruins and settled in. 

Nine 

   Father Sun was just past his zenith when their camp was fully set up. They spent the rest of that afternoon in leisure pursuits, talking or sitting by Columbia's River, enjoying the peace. With food and water Lagretta and Magnella or Gretta and Maggie as they asked to be called, were already looking much better. 

   Spike and his fellows talked more with Gretta and Maggie, trying to discover more about Agitha Gladstar. Apparently, she and another woman named Hortense disappeared one night without leaving a single clue. Gretta and Maggie finally admitted that they were sure Agitha, or Aggy as they called her, had used magic to escape mostly because she'd been teaching them magic but also because of how impossible it was to break out at night. 

   “It was darn lucky the Goddess came during the day because at night we'd have all been locked in,” Gretta remarked. 

   “I'll bet that's why she did it, came in the morning like that,” Elvisher said. 

   “Yeah, I agree. She wanted to spare the innocents,” Ishyate added. 

   “What kind of work did you guys do in that place?” Spike asked. 

   “We built armored vehicles with mounted cannon,” Gretta answered. “First we forged the metal from ore that was delivered every week, then we bolted and welded sections of that metal to make large cars where the driver and a couple others could hide inside and be totally protected from the outside warfare.” 

   “They brought in large engines from the mythical lands,” Maggie continued, “powerful engines that could move the cars through most anything,” Maggie scowled. “and those cannons mounted on the cars can shoot balls of iron a great distance causing untold violence and mayhem.” 

   “That's what me and Maggie did,” Gretta said shaking her head, “was make cannon balls. Eleron prepared magic powders that touched to a flame would explode and cause the ball to hurtle through the air.”   

   “How many of these cars were made?” Spike asked. 

   “I dunno,” Maggie answered looking at Gretta who shrugged. “I do know there were two downstairs mostly finished and one completely finished because I was working on them when the Goddess attacked,” she finished. 

   “Downstairs?” Spike asked. 

   “Yeah, there was a basement where the finishing work was done. Very secret. I had a hunch that people who worked down there would disappear after they were done so I was especially glad that the attack happened when it did,” Maggie replied. 

   “I was engaged in packing the magic powder into tubes at the time,” Gretta explained, “I'm not sure what the tubes would do but they seemed like they could be missiles. I'm sure it was this magic powder that caused the castle to burn. The stuff is very flammable and I'd heard of other workers getting burned or even killed by accidents with it.” 

   That night they were awakened a couple times by distant roaring that was still loud enough to shake the ground. The first time it happened Spike jumped up and ran to the campfire. Elvisher and Maggie were already there looking off to the north. 

   “What was that?” Spike asked. 

   “Dragons,” Maggie answered with a grim look. “We're not too far from a Thrym Dragon hold. We heard them occasionally in our cells at night, but they seem a lot louder now. ”  

   “Thrym Dragon?” 

   “Yeah, the most terrible and vicious of the dragons. Eleron kept them away somehow and now with him gone I fear they might show up.” 

   Spike looked to the north, “I'd sure like to just bolt south except we haven't found Agitha yet.” 

   “Yeah, that's the problem all right. And we don't have a clue as to her whereabouts,” Elvisher said. 

   That morning they managed to scrape together a meager breakfast from their three remaining backpacks. 

   “Any ideas about where we should go from here?” Spike asked the group. “Where could Agitha be?” 

   “Well, I've been thinking,” Maggie spoke up. “There was something Aggy said the day before she disappeared.” This got everyone's attention. 

   “What'd she say?” Ishyate prompted. 

Ten 

   Maggie remembers something that Agitha Gladstar said just before she disappeared from the fortress. 

   “She said the last Grandmother had passed and that was a very big reason why she hadda get out of there now. We heard all kinds of sad stories in there and I didn't think much of it at the time.”   

   “I sure felt something when she said it, though,” Gretta added, “Like it was my own Grandmother. Gave me chills.”  

   Spike thought of Oxxy and how she'd disappeared, just collapsed leaving nothing but her clothes. “There was a witch who passed recently on the farm but her name was Moran, not Gladstar,” he said. 

   “Moran! That's my name,” Gretta blurted. “I'm Lagretta Moran.” 

   “Wow! That's amazing. Oxxy Moran was an ancient witch, one of the last I thought, who with three others, ruled Gladstar farm.” 

   “I'm probably related to an ancient witch!” Gretta crowed. “Really! Because like how many Moran's are there? Not many, I'm thinking, and the few that are have to be related. Have to. There just aren't enough to not be. 

   Everyone gaped at her. Spike wasn't one who believed in coincidences. He spoke, gazing curiously at her, “Well, once, long ago, there was a witch named Lillow Gladstar who was, I thought, the last of the Gladstars, but that was long ago and long before I heard of Agitha. I mean I was truly surprised to hear there was still a Gladstar, unbeknownst to us. Wow. So now, here she is, a new Gladstar to run the farm if we can find her. And it was Oxxy, the ancient witch that told us to find her and bring her back.” Everyone was watching and listening with rapt attention. “And the curious part is her name was Moran, just like Gretta's. Now, looking for the last Gladstar at Oxxy's bidding we find her possible descendant.” There was silence, as Spike looked around. He seemed to remember Oxxy mentioning something about others. Well, this might be what she meant. He continued, “There were four witches back then, Lillow Gladstar, Oxxy Moran, Laura Mercy and Rosy Rivitir.” He stopped when Maggie gasped. 

   “My name's Mercy. Magnella Mercy. And I'm pretty sure Tenner's name is Rivitir.” 

   “Yeah, I remember, she told us, “Gretta spoke up, “Hortense Rivitir she said, claiming it was an old and distinguished name.” 

   “She told me her Great something-Grandma was a witch but I didn't pay no never mind,” Maggie said. “I mean everybody wants to be related to a witch nowadays.” 

   Spike was too shocked to speak. He'd started off not believing in coincidences but this was beyond the possibility of coincidence. Could these four women be descendants of the original four witches? Are they the 'others' that Oxxy spoke of? 

   Spike sat down feeling dazed and was comforted to see Ishyate also sitting with a totally dazed look. “I am the eighth Ishy after Ishmael.” Ishyate muttered. He looked at Gretta and Maggie with wonder. “I love the old stories, old history, you know? But now, somehow, it's like the old stories are happening again, like history might just be repeating cycles that slowly become something new while keeping something old.” He looked at Spike who could only look back with wide, uncomprehending eyes.  

   “So we just need to find Agitha and, what was it? Hortense?” Elvisher asked, breaking their revery. 

   “That's how it looks,” Spike answered, looking around and feeling relieved somehow. “Well, what do you guys think?” he asked the group. “Maybe Maggie and Gretta should come back to the farm with us after we find Agitha and Hortense?” 

   “Yes, absolutely,” Ishyate said. “And when we find Agitha and Hortense the farm will be complete again.” 

   Brak and Jant both brayed agreement. Spike was oddly relieved at the thought of someone else taking charge of the farm. 

   Maggie and Gretta smiled and accepted. They hadn't mentioned to anyone that they'd both lost husbands at the fortress and were now homeless so this seemed a wonderful good fortune. 

Eleven 

   Father Sun was well into the morning and well into curious observation as well, for he too wondered where Agitha Gladstar and Hortense Riviter had disappeared to. The engine of his discovery was the very band led by the bulldog Spike. Depending on who you ask, Ishyate and Elvisher are either co-leaders or seconds in command. In any case it was decided that two groups would form, one, consisting of Spike, Brak and Gretta, was to explore northward while the other, consisting of Ishyate, Elvisher, Jant and Maggie, was to explore southward, all in search of Agitha and Hortense. 

   “Look for any sign, any clue, anything that could lead us to Agitha and Hortense,” Spike directed the group, “I have a feeling they're close by,” he finished. They divided into their two groups, agreeing to meet at that spot again before dusk became dark. 

   Spike's group headed north and were soon back at the fortress ruins, only they didn't find any ruins. What they did find was a small hillock covered with flowers of every color and shape. A couple small trees grew near the top where birds sang and butterflies flew. They stood gaping in astonishment at the rare beauty before them where but two days earlier lay the burned-out, smoking ruins of an evil fortress. They approached the hillock slowly, almost fearfully, despite or perhaps because of its beguiling beauty and were soon enveloped in a cloud of floral scents and passions that were in every way as enticing as their flowery source. 

   “Okay, everybody back away,” Spike ordered loudly, backing up. “This is a flower spell and it can hypnotize you.” 

   Everyone backed beyond the scents and their overpowering visuals and huddled under some nearby trees. “Something strange here, and dangerous too,” Spike growled, looking back at the hillock. “Somehow the flowers can pull you in until you are mesmerized and lost to their desire. I've seen this before with Lillow many, many years ago.” 

   “The first witch? Gretta asked, reverently. 

   “No, the last, we thought,” he answered, looking back at the hillock. 

   “So what's the flowers' desire?” Brak asked, looking nervously at the hillock. 

   “Food usually,” Spike answered, watching the flowers intently, for they were all facing them, as if watching them. He couldn't recall if they'd been facing them before when they'd arrived but he sort of thought they hadn't been. 

   “Food?” Brak and Gretta moaned in unison. 

   “Usually,” Spike answered, keeping his eyes on the flowers. “But these guys seem interested in something else.” He watched for a moment more then gestured them to follow further back into the forest where he found a spot where they could observe the hillock without the hillock observing them if that's what it was actually doing. As they watched from their hidden glen the flowers slowly turned away until only those directly in front of them stayed watching. A three hundred and sixty degree look-out Spike thought with admiration. But a look-out for who, or what? As they watched two women opened a door that was magically hidden in the flowers and emerged, quickly running toward the river. 

   “Hey! That's them! That's Aggy and Tenner!” Maggie yelped jumping up and screaming “Aggy! Tenner!” as loud as she could but Aggy and Tenner didn't hear her as they dove into the river. They watched in wonder as the women didn't surface, not even bubbles burbling up. Then the ground began to vibrate and an immense yet distant grumbling could be heard. 

   “What's that?” Brak asked with a worried look. 

   “Dunno,” Spike answered with the same worried look. 

   The sound grew louder as the ground shook more fiercely. Spike was having trouble standing and sat as Gretta had already done. Brak skittered about staying upright and braying loudly. When the sound and shaking had reached a peak the side of the hillock collapsed as a huge, armored vehicle with a large cannon poking out the front pushed through, smoking and grumbling. 

Twelve  

   While the sky darkened with the clouds of an impending rainstorm Spike, Brak and Gretta watched, horrified, as an armored vehicle, clanking and smoking, drove to the path and headed east. They knew a fork lay ahead with its northern way leading to the Elven kingdom Elvenstead and the southern way leading to Gladstar Farm. 

   “Should we follow that thing?” Brak asked. 

   Just then there was giant crack and Spike twirled around expecting to see smoke from the cannon's end but instead was buffeted by a strong gust of wind followed by a torrential downpour. They ran to the shelter of some thick trees but even there they were soon drenched. The sky grew darker and darker, interspersed with a series of bright flashes as lightning streaked earthward followed quickly by booming cracks and crackles. What a spectacle did Mother Earth provide that day, so much so that it rained long after in grudging respect. It was an early, cloud-besotted dusk that greeted their wet and shaken return to their campsite headquarters. They had a roaring fire going in short order and were drying themselves in front of it when the other group returned. 

   “Nothing going on in the south as far as we could tell,” Ishyate stated walking up to the fire. They'd found a little better shelter during the storm but were still wet and soon everyone was circled around the fire, staying close even when the smoke blew their way. 

   “Thought we heard one of them slave trains in the distance during the rain but that couldn't be right, could it?” Elvisher asked. “I mean that was a serious downpour, no troop of chained slaves could have walked through it.” He stopped on seeing Spike and Gretta's expression. “What? How?” was all he could muster. 

   “It was an armored car with enormous power that easily traversed that storm, by what we could see anyway, clacking and clanking like the very monster it is and carrying within a person or persons unknown whose intentions are also unknown but likely unfriendly,” Spike told him. 

   “The darn thing busted right out'a the side of the fortress wreckage, which was somehow just a sweet, flower covered hillock when we got there,” Gretta continued. 

   “It was one of the cars we worked on, wasn't it Gretta?” Maggie asked. 

   Gretta looked down then looked up into her friend's eyes and slowly nodded yes. “I'm pretty sure it was the car we'd finished,” she whispered. 

   “After that heavy rain I doubt we could follow its tracks,” Elvisher said. 

   Everyone was silent, absorbing all they'd heard. Then Spike said, “Another thing that happened is that just before that car busted out of the hillock two women who Gretta says were Agitha and Hortense, came rushing out a hidden door and ducked into the river before anyone could stop them.” 

   Maggie looked at Gretta, “It was them? You sure, in that darkening sky and all? It was Aggie and Tenner?” 

   Gretta looked stricken, “I think so Maggie. I was sure at the time but I've sorta gotten doubts since.”      

   “What doubts?” Maggie asked fiercely. “I mean you either saw them or you didn't.” 

   “Well they was a long way off and it was darkening, like you mentioned, but yeah, okay, it was them.” 

   “You sure?” 

   Gretta nodded glumly. 

   “Why the face?” Maggie asked. 

   “They never came up Maggie. They dived in and just stayed under, never came up that we could see.” 

   They were all silent and solemn as they huddled and dried around that fire until night's somnolent embrace sent them off to sleep. During the so-called wee hours a black silhouette, like a large dragon might make, glided gracefully across the sky, visible only when it blocked the starlight. No one of the group saw it, even Elvisher who was the guard at that hour, for despite having not fallen asleep, he simply hadn't looked up at the right time. 

   They were all up before Father Sun's golden caresses cleared the horizon, eager to get on with their search. 

   “Today we must also find food, as our provisions are nearing depletion,” Spike told them. 

   “Got it, food and Agitha,” Ishyate agreed. “So how do we start? I don't think search parties are doing any good. There are food markets as you near Elvenstead but I don't think that's going in the right direction.” He paused. “You see, it's becoming abundantly clear to me that our real job is finding and stopping that armored car, further, I think there's ample evidence that the car went south.” 

   “But that's the direction of Gladstar Farm!” Brak interjected. 

   “We're all aware of the southern road's route, thank you,” Spike said, feeling a little agitated that nothing was working as it should. 
   “I think Ishyate is right,” Elvisher spoke up, “I think if we find that car, we'll find whoever's behind all this plus I think that somehow that's where we'll also find Agitha and Hortense, likely there for the same reason we are.”         

    

Thirteen 

   Spike was unable to argue against Ishyate and Elvisher's reasons for going south, especially since he had no plan of his own. He could see too, that their arguments had merit. Clearly, they must hasten south to prevent the car's arrival at Gladstar farm, and that would be a cause that would surely attract Agitha, if she's still around.     

   “Alright people!” Spike barked, suddenly conscious of urgency, “Lets head out! We need to make haste.” He marched down the road as his company scrambled to follow. They marched in a generally eastward direction until they came to the crossroad. Spike glanced north knowing the Elvenstead food marts, considered the best in the world, were near, well fairly near. He knew that Elvenstead had more food marts than any other city in all of Fæirie Land. His mouth watered and he was certain he could smell their heavenly scents, yet he valiantly held true to their cause and stalwartly led his band south. 

   After an hour or maybe two they heard a commotion over the next rise. There was loud clanking and clacking, similar but not quite like the slave trains. Sort of like the armored car moving with a new clanking like something hitting something metal followed by a loud boom, a time of silence then repeated. Having developed something of a cautious nature they crept as close as the could and, hopefully without being seen, peered over the top. Below, mired in a pool of mud and rocks up to its middle, sat the armored car, unable to move as the repeated spinning of its wheels proved. Spike wondered why the car's driver or helpers didn't get out and clear the rubble, when his question was answered. Carefully the car's hatch on top slowly opened, showing no sign of the occupants, then suddenly a group of three, humans or Elf he couldn't tell, appeared quickly from the forest, and threw rocks, as big as they could handle down on the car whose hatch promptly shut. Spike watched in amazement as the cannon swiveled around, aiming at the spot where the group stood then letting loose a tremendous boom firing a cannon ball at them. Except they weren't there anymore and the cannon ball plowed a fair sized crater in their place, tossing dirt and debris quite a ways. Then there was silence. It seemed to Spike that the silences were getting longer.  

   Finally a woman's voice, commanding and fierce rang out. “Surrender Teleron and we will spare your life. Continue and you die!” Spike could see the speaker was not too far from where they hid so when the cannon swiveled around, he ordered a hasty retreat. They were running when the cannon ball hit behind them, knocking them off their feet and spraying them with debris. 

   Spike looked back and saw the woman jumping fearlessly across the recently excavated crater. She smiled at him as she neared, “Spike, I believe. Late of Gladstar farm if I'm not mistaken?” she looked at Spike with questioning eyes. He nodded a wary yes. Grinning wide she announced, “I'm Agitha Gladstar.”  Another woman appeared out of the woods as yet another group appeared across the gully, tossing a rocky barrage downward then watching as the cannon swiveled their way. There was a loud boom and a cloud of smoke which, when it cleared showed another sizable crater and no sign of the rock-throwing group. 

   The new woman shook her head at the blast behind her and smiled at Agitha before turning and scrutinizing Spike's group. “This is them, huh?” 

   “Yep'” Agitha answered. “That's Spike and that's Ishyate,” she said pointing at each. “Not sure about these others but I'd say they're farmers for sure.” 

   The group agreed readily to this assessment as Gretta and Maggie stepped forward. Agitha grinned in surprised wonder, “Hot dang here's my girls! I was worried you wouldn't make it but I shoulda known better, huh? Tenner, just like I told you, here's Maggie and Gretta, it'll be the four witches again.”           

   There was a clank and Teleron's angry scream rang out behind them, “I'll never surrender!” 

   “He's finally out of cannons,” Agitha said with a grim smile. “Time to end this madness.” 

   They watched as a huge cloud of smoke came billowing out of the gully followed by a solid thonk, like an arrow hitting its mark. When the smoke cleared a minion lay slumped over in the hatch with an arrow in his chest. No sign, not a hint, footprint, nothing was found of Teleron who Agitha and the Wood Elves had clearly seen had been there. They destroyed the car, making sure it would never terrorize anyone again. Eleron, if he persists, will surely be tomorrow's problem, Spike thought ruefully, joining his band behind the farm's hereditary witches, Aggie, Tenner, Maggie, and Gretta. The magic is back, his mind and soul sang

Aggy Searching for Witches: Part one - By Rosy 

One 

   There's a meadow at the beginning. A meadow of timeless endurance, that nobly endows the life of ideas that burble up from the cosmic quantum that lies beneath. These cosmic quantum ideas or cosquanti as we came to know them, are processed by four witches in a castle that has itself chosen to remain a cosquanti and is therefore not manifest at all in the corporeal world. This is something of a problem since the witches are in fact manifest. Their solution was the meadow, of course. And the meadow does indeed fulfill this need, gladly displaying its cosquanti core as cows, loons, and many other strange entities, (Cows and loons are stranger than one would think) while maintaining a tenuous grip on some sort of reality.  

   This creation also has curious physical features such as a castle known simply as the manor, a large red barn on its southern border called since antiquity Holly's Palatial Estate and a magical path between which also continues around, circling the entire compound. It takes a day or a year to follow that trail around, yet many have done it.   

   In the southwest corner, apart yet a part, is a swamp called by the superstitious peasantry, the Swamp of Doom, giving it a somewhat dismal cast. Yet Father Sun shines there as well, despite the onerous swamp gases and vapors. It is also believed by this superstitious peasantry that dinosaurs roam the swamp. 

   Another group of superstitious peasants, our four creative witches in fact, call that odious swamp Silvia's Place after an ancient witch that once ruled there. Bad witch, or so it is believed  In any case all the superstitious peasants avoid it. 

   Today the ancient witches still rule though you'd hardly know it while the meadow has long been the demesne of a dog. A peculiar dog, a bulldog in fact, a bulldog named Spike. Spike is universally recognized as the lord of the meadow mainly because of his endurance. He's a really long time resident who's always been there as far as anyone can tell. 

   Over the years, and they've been vast, it is said, Spike acquired some super powers. He could fly. He could see through walls, kind of. Thing is he was so strong that if he couldn't for some unfathomable reason see through those darn walls then he'd push them down. But despite his stories of longevity and strength his actual observable age, according to the oldest fauna, was still several decades, at least. It has been whispered that he's actually hundreds of years old and drinks the blood of tourists who stumble onto the farm but hardly anybody believes that. Now the crazy part; he's as spry and quick as a dog of, well . . . as a dog quite a bit younger, possibly several hundreds of years younger. Plus there's his superpowers. That part's crazy too.  

   The superstitious peasantry publicly deny his vast age despite the prevalent evidence but do accept he could fly since everybody saw him do it pretty much every day. That's convincing. 

   It was a new day and Spike began as usual by making his rounds. First, he looked up at the manor. Dark, silent, gloomy, spooky. Check. Then he toured the meadow proper, eyeing its flora. Green and lush with lots of flowers. There's the two goats, Brak and Jant, on duty, keeping it all neat and trim. Check. Next, he marched into Holly's Palatial Estate, glancing briefly into the large room with stalls where everyone slept. It looked fine. Upward he could see bats hanging in the dark places above the rafters while squirrels and mice scurried back and forth beneath. In the loft he could see the great ape Ishyate storing a bundle of hay while Elvenglock, an Elf resident, wheeled another in from the pulley up front. Check. 

   Elvenglock saw him and waved, and Ishyate seeing Elvenglock waving looked down and waved too. Spike sat down and, grinning up at them, began wagging his tail. I have not yet mentioned this superpower. When Spike wags his tail rapidly one of two known things could happen. One, there could appear from out of nowhere a person or thing or maybe a creature. Two, Spike could disappear and reappear somewhere else. It was the latter today and he popped instantly onto the loft.  

   “Hey guys, how's it going?” 

   Ishyate wiped his brow. “Excellent Spike, and you?” 

   Just then Elvenglock arrived and leaning against his wagon, smiled, and nodded, “Hey Spike! Wassup?” 

  “Nothing much, guys. Everything's fine,” Spike answered with a serene look. “Yessir, just fine.” 

   Then one of the goats started braying loudly below and Spike looked over, “Hey, what's wrong Brak?” 

   Looking up Brak answered, “Oh, there you are Spike!” He seemed upset. “Something has come for you!” He was skittering around, not holding still and looking out at the meadow with worried and frightened eyes. 

Two 

  Spike felt a stab of fear with Brak's announcement. 'Something?' What, what, what? Was all he could think but there were no answers here. Ishyate and Elvenglock were staring at him with wide eyes and fearful expressions. Below Brak was hiding behind the door peering surreptitiously out. He walked over to the steps and walked calmly down. He did not fly or teleport. When he got to the bottom, he walked quietly up behind Brak and looked nervously out into the meadow. At first, he could see nothing untoward, then he saw Jant crouching in the bushes. Then he saw the thing. Like a shadow, though not as big as you'd think, not physically anyway, still, and ominous, standing, waiting, a black shape with a black pointed hat and green face. The meadow was deathly still and there seemed to be a cloud directly overhead. Spike reared back and gasped. He knew who this was. It was Oxxy, one of the ancient witches. With eyes wide, he stepped slowly out the door. He stood staring for a long moment then proceeded cautiously, slowly, step by step, watching Oxxy closely. When he was close enough, he stopped. 

   “Hey Oxxy. Long time no see,” Spike said quietly. 

   There was no response, but Spike knew not to rush things. He sat down and began wagging his tail but not too fast. 

   Finally, in a whisper Oxxy murmured, “It is good to see you Spike. You are looking hale and hearty, that is good. Sugfissel's magic is strong.” 

   She was referring to the multi-dimensional being, Sugfissel, from whom Spike is, purportedly, an appendage. In Sugfissel's dimension time is different, so different in fact the Spike does not appear to age, at least he hasn't for the last three hundred or so years. 

   “Nice to see you too Oxxy. So what brings you out this way?” Spike was nervous having someone more powerful and with higher authority facing him. It didn't help that she cast an ominous image either. Brak was still hidden and peering cautiously from inside the Estate and Jant was staying behind the bushes.          

   After another long pause she spoke, “The others have left and I am ready to go.” 

   “Huh? What?” Spike said with a sinking feeling. 

   She gazed at Spike with a curious expression then continued, “In the north is a wizard, the great grandson of the fabled Treywiz.” She spoke with shaky determination. Spike had known Treywiz of old and listened attentively. 

   “His name is Teleron and I've heard he's evil, betraying his heritage. With him is another, another whose name . . .”       

   Spike listened carefully. He wasn't sure why the legendary Oxxy was here telling him these things, but he listened closely, nonetheless. He waited for her to continue but the silence stretched out. 

   Spike began wagging his tail again. Then he cleared his throat. With a worried look he whispered, “Uh, Teleron ?” It seemed as if Oxxy's dreamy eyes suddenly focused on him. 

   “To the north . . .” she began. “Agitha . . .” Then with a shudder and visible effort she continued, “To the north with Teleron is Agitha,” Pause. “Gladstar.” 

   “Yes?” Spike asked. He knew that name for it was the hereditary line that ruled this meadow and its environs, known since antiquity as Gladstar Farm. The three witches, who apparently have left or at least two of them with the third about to follow, have ruled for the last few hundred years and now it would seem there was an opening. “So uh, this Agitha?” Spike ventured. 

   “The last Gladstar,” Oxxy muttered weakly. “Tell her. Bring her here, bring her home Spike, bring her and the others home.” She stopped and took a couple deep breaths. “Tell her the farm needs her.” With that the black robe and hat collapsed in a pile in front of Spike. Clearly Oxxy was more than ready to go, she was gone. Spike gaped in shock then backed up until he bumped into Brak.         

Three 

   The visitation caused quite a stir among the fauna not to mention Spike who paced and fretted the rest of that otherwise beautiful day. 

   “What should I do?” he asked Brak who was munching on some grass, just doing his job. 

   Brak looked up and answered, “Braaak!” 

   Just the sort of thing you'd expect from a goat, especially from a goat named Brak, Spike thought angrily as he walked away. He'd pretty much asked everyone so far and so far; he'd gotten no advice. No one knew what to do, but it did seem like the farm ought to have a commander they'd murmur. Someone to watch Spike if nothing else but no one actually said that part out loud. Spike barely slept that night and when he finally did, he had an unsettling dream, a dream of himself going north. He was startled awake and could not get back to sleep. 

   When rosy colored dawn arrived Spike resolved, after gut wrenching deliberation, to ignore this horrid intrusion, this ridiculous go north commandment. Go north indeed! he fumed. Why that could be anywhere! North is big! He had no idea who this Teleron was nor this Agitha person but, well, he thought with a pang of disquiet, he did know the name Gladstar. He glanced across the meadow at the manor which curiously now seemed empty, somehow enormously empty and he began pacing. I can run this place just fine by myself, he thought. We don't need someone lying about that manor acting all dark and mysterious and not even giving us a sign that there's anyone there at all! We don't need 'em, I got this covered! Now he was grimacing and glaring at the manor. 

   “Are you okay?” Jant asked softly from behind him. 

   Spike jumped then turned around feeling oddly guilty. “Uh, well yes. Yes, I'm fine. How're you Jant? And Brak. How is Brak? The meadow looks marvelous by the way, perfectly marvelous and I'm just fine and everything is fine.” 

   Jant looked at him curiously with her head tilted, “You don't seem fine.”  

   “I'm absolutely fine I tell you,” Spike said muffling his confused anger. 

   “Oh. Okay then. Well I just wanted to let you know we're ready.” 

   Spike's eyes went round, “Ready?” 

   “Yeah, you know, to go north. Me and Brak got some nifty packs and Ishyate has an old but reliable pack. Elvisher said he wants to go too. We've already got a good store of provisions set up and . . .” she stopped at seeing Spike's look of distress. “Are you sure you're okay?” she asked. 

   “Huh? Oh, uh yeah, I mean yes, yes, I'm okay. Uh, set up, are you? Say, who said anything about going north?”   

   “Why it was Oxxy. You remember, right here in the . . .” 

   “Yeah, yeah, I remember. Sort of. You have to admit it wasn't all that clear. I mean how do you just go north? Right? That's a mighty big place, north, and I thought maybe we should, you know, maybe it'd be good if we waited to see . . .” 

   “I thought she was pretty clear,” Jant said giving Spike a suspicious look. “She said, plain as day, and we all heard it, well, me and Brak but we told Ishyate and Elvenglock right after, about how she said go north. Get Agitha Gladstar she said.” Jant seemed a little angry now and Spike backed up. He felt cornered, trapped. “look, we found a pack to fit you,” she held up a pack that he hadn't noticed her holding before. Then he noticed that she was wearing a pack. 

   “Well gosh,” he said nervously. “So, uh maybe we could leave in the morning, you know, get an even earlier start than this,” he waved at Father Sun who was barely risen. “Fresh start, that's what I . . .” he stopped when he saw Brak, along with Ishyate and Elvisher, emerging from the Estate with full backpacks and walking sticks. They were laughing about something and Spike eyed them with disbelief. 

   “Hey buddy, ready for a walk?” Ishyate called out as they neared. Spike just nodded, smiling weakly. 

Four    

   Ishyate had a compass and after careful consideration he pointed, “North's thataway.” 

   Brak and Jant's friend, Normin, a mountain goat who, along with his family, agreed to watch the meadow while they were away and stood to the side watching with great interest. He cheered as they filed past and some of the fauna joined in. 

   “See ya Normin!” Brak called as they passed. Spike brought up the rear and the cheering died off. Spike stuck his tongue out as he followed the others and Normin looked shocked.  

   They continued across the meadow passing between the manor and the Golly Orchard, then on past the Darnalong Stump where the Hallway to Forever started. Soon they arrived at the upper perimeter trail which they crossed then on past the ancient Sentinels standing tall and proud still. Once past these guardians they would be in wilderness and Spike went into high alert. He hadn't been off the farm in, well . . . he stopped and sat down. Why it's been . . . 

   “Catch up Spike!” Ishyate called back. Spike jumped and hurried to catch up. He couldn't remember when he'd been off the farm last and that bothered him. He'd grown increasingly fearful of the outside world over the last few hundred years despite his superpowers. With a jolt he realized he didn't know if he'd have his superpowers off the farm. The farm was very magical and he was sure living there had contributed to attaining those powers especially considering how long he'd lived there. Had to have some effect. 

   They found a path going northward and started following it. After going a goodly way they came to a rest area by a pond in a forest grove. The spot was beautiful and peaceful and they all settled down quickly with sighs of relief and joy at their surroundings. Brak and Jant immediately started munching on the grass while Ishyate and Elvisher had sandwiches. Spike found some biscuits in his pack, a perennial favorite and settled down contentedly. 

   “I think we're making good time,” Ishyate opined. 

   “I wonder if this path goes to Teleron's place?” Elvisher asked. 

   “Well, at least it's going north,” Ishyate replied with a smile. “I'm sure we'll find someone along the way who can give us directions.” He was enjoying taking charge of Spike's mission as much as Spike was hating it. Spike kept quiet though because he knew that if he was leading, he'd do just as Ishyate is doing. That part was galling too. But the big ape was impressive strutting at the head of our procession he thought glumly.     

   Just then there was a clamoring down the road that seemed headed their way. Spike and Elvisher jumped up and ran over to look. 

   “What's that?” Elvisher asked. 

   “I dunno but I can tell you this, it doesn't look good.”          

   At this they all hurried over to see. Soon it became clear that a procession of armed weasels were leading a covered palanquin regally along. Behind, somewhat hidden and creating the majority of the clamor they'd heard were a string of slaves chained together, followed by a wagon being pulled by a worn looking horse. 

   “I don't like the look of this,” Spike yelled, grabbing his pack. “Run!” 

   “Oh, I don't know,” Ishyate pronounced. “Looks like a government official, a sheriff probably, leading a string of criminals. Curious that Elves would work with weasels though,” he rubbed his chin. “Anyway maybe they can tell us how to get to Teleron's place.” 

   Meanwhile Spike was running willy-nilly into the forest followed by Brak and Jant who stayed with him as best they could. They'd gone for quite a way before the clamoring died down. They've stopped, Spike thought as he ran. When he'd gone far enough to where he couldn't hear any clamoring anymore, he slowed, trotting for a bit then stopping. Soon Jant appeared looking round worriedly. 

   “Over here!” Spike called quietly from where he'd hidden behind a pile of rocks. When she got there, he hissed, “Keep quiet. Where's Brak?” She looked at him with wide eyes and shook her head no. “I hope he makes it,” Spike whispered. “And I hope Ishyate is right, that they are just government officials.” He scowled. “But I kind of don't think so. From the moment I saw those weasels, armed to the teeth, I had a bad feeling about that caravan.” 

   “What're we gonna do?” Jant whispered. 

   “We wait. It's all we can do.”  

Five   

   It was quite a while later when Spike and Jant heard someone approaching. They kept hidden and silent until they heard Brak calling loudly, “Jant! Spike! Where are you?” Spike peered intently over the rocks making sure Brak wasn't being forced to call them before answering. 

   “Brak?” he called softly, still not showing himself. Jant was peering over now and watching closely. Brak stiffened when he heard Spike but looked in the other direction. 

   “Spike! Is that you?” Brak asked in an odd tone. 

   Then Spike saw a weasel sneaking around behind Brak and facing away from them. He snuck over behind and using a rock he'd picked up he whacked the weasel in the head. Then staying hidden he watched. Sure enough another weasel appeared on the other side, this time facing them. He picked up the crossbow from the weasel he'd whacked and taking careful aim he shot. Thwack! Right into the weasels chest. 

   “Just two?” he whispered loudly at Brak who was grinning widely. 

   “You got them both?” Brak asked. 

   “Yeah, two of them. Is that all?” Spike answered. 

    “That's all. Just two,” Brak replied, looking over to where Spike and Jant were hiding. Jant ran out and hugged Brak as Spike stood grinning and watching. 

    “What about the others?” Spike asked. 

   “The weasels got 'em” Brak said with a grimace. “They're chained with the other slaves now. They're waiting, hoping to find us I think.” 

   Then they heard the clamoring start up again in earnest, moving slowly away. 

   “Or maybe not,” Brak said with a grim look. 

   They took all the weapons from the dead weasels then headed north, cross country. They were super wary now, listening for even the slightest hint of suspicious movement yet they made fairly good time. Both the goats and the bulldog could move pretty quickly through forest without making much noise. Soon they could hear the raucous clamoring of the weasel pirates as they led their plunder further north, running parallel to them about hundred meters away. They slowed and kept pace with the pirates. They knew that at the very first chance they must try and rescue Ishyate and Elvisher.  

   Somber eyed dusk crept in yet the march continued on, then continued through the dark starry night. The trail turned west around midnight and they in turn. As golden dawn came alight with Father Sun's imminent arising, they arrived at a large fortress with several tall smokestacks that were belching black smoke into an otherwise pristine sky. The fortress was on a bluff high above a mighty river that was somehow made muddy with greenish oily slicks flowing downstream. The appearance was sooty, dark, and forbidding. Spike, Brak and Jant watched from a hidden spot in the forest as the weasels led their living booty, clacking and clanking across the drawbridge into the castle. At the end of the procession they could make out Ishyate and Elvisher chained and marching with the others. They retreated back into the woods a couple klicks until they found a hidden spot where they could rest. Weary from their all night march they were soon asleep. 

   Father Sun was at his highest when something awakened Spike. He wasn't sure what and looked around. They were nestled in a rocky overhang with a lot of shrubbery in front, enough to make their space an enclosure. Brak and Jant were still asleep and everything seemed fine, except something woke Spike up. He sniffed the air and listened closely. Nothing untoward. He'd just made the decision to slip out and check the area, see what if anything were going on, when the shrubs at their entryway parted and a head peered in. 

   He grabbed a weasel sword and demanded, “Who is it? Don't come in here!” Then he flashed the sword back and forth. 

   “What's this?” a voice attached to the head asked in accusatory tones. “Weasels, is it? Well, we'll see about that!” Then a longer sword thrust into the cave barely missing Spike. Brak and Jant, awakened by the voices were scrambling backward further into the cave. 

Six  

   The sword of the outsider flashed by Spike then pulled back. 

   “I'll not tolerate weasels here especially not of Teleron's ilk.” The sword thrust again, even closer. 

   “Wait!” Spike yelled. “We're not weasels! Stop please!” 

   The sword, which had drawn back preparatory to a third thrust, stopped. 

   “What say you?” the voice asked cautiously. 

   “We're not weasels. In fact we're hiding from the weasels.”  

   “If that is true then step out.” 

   Spike cautiously stuck his head out. A forest Elf stood watching him warily and holding a long sword above. Spike stepped all the way out, “See? Not a weasel.” 

   “But a dog nonetheless,” the Elf declared, “Good heavens fellow what has happened to your nose? Did Teleron do that?” Spike's flat nose, common to his breed, was apparently unknown in these parts. 

   “No, I'm okay,” Spike answered, “it's just my type.” 

   “Why're you hiding? Who's with you? Are the weasel's after you?” the Elf asked in quick succession, while looking around nervously and brandishing his sword. 

   “It's just me and my two friends. Brak, Jant come on out,” Spike answered calmly, hoping to appease the Elf. “I don't think the weasel's are after us but they got two of our friends and we're here hoping to rescue them.”                

   “Yeah? What's yer plan?” the Elf demanded. 

   Brak and Jant were out now and glancing around sheepishly. Perhaps goatishly would be more accurate and they watched through round eyes. 

   “We haven't got one,” Spike admitted. “We only just got here early this morning.” 

   “That a fact?” The Elf eyed them distastefully. “You always carry weasel swords?” 

   “Uh, no. We took these off a couple weasels who came looking for us after our friends got caught. That was yesterday. We been tailing 'em ever since and now we hadda chance to rest. So here we are.” 

   The Elf continued to regard them with suspicion. “Elfend, what do you think?” he asked. Spike saw a movement and realized that another Elf had been standing behind the first. He'd blended so completely into the forest that he was only visible when he moved. Spike gasped and he heard yelps from Brak and Jant. 

   “They seem a sorry lot to take on Teleron,” Elfend answered. 

   “A sorry lot indeed, yet they are filled with determination.” The first Elf paused. “I think they might be useful to our cause.” There was a stirring in the woods and a rustling between the branches and suddenly there were a dozen or so armed Elves visible and watching them. 

   “What is your cause?” Spike asked looking around nervously. 

   “We are dedicated to defeating the evil Teleron and removing his weasel scourge from our land.” 

   “Well, we're definitely against the weasels and this Teleron guy too if he's controlling them,” Spike said, “We want to get our friends back from the fortress and it's the weasels that snatched 'em.” Spike was speaking forcefully now, angry at what the weasels had done and were still doing. 

   “Well said!” the first Elf laughed. “I think we could use your fighting spirit. My name is Elvenjoy and these” he gestured at the now visible group, “are the Elvinheim Rangers, come seeking entry into Teleron's lair that we may bring an end to his reign of terror.” 

   Realizing that this was probably the only chance they'd have to free Ishyate and Elvisher, Spike glanced hopefully back at Brak and Jant, who were both nodding yes, then turned back. “In that case we would be honored to join your noble cause Elvenjoy, for we too are oppressed by these vile creatures and would fight to bring their end. I'm Spike and these are Brak and Jant.” 

   “Well met!” Elvenjoy raised his arm in greeting. “Join us tonight.” 

   There was a cheer, then Elvenjoy led the band into the woods with Spike and the two goats joining them.         

Seven  

   Elvenjoy led his band, which now included Spike, Brak and Jant, further into the forest and farther away from the castle where Ishyate and Elvisher were imprisoned. They traveled about an hour before they came to an Elf village nestled in the trees after the fashion of Elves. 

   “Behold fair Elvinheim!” Elvenjoy announced with obvious pride even though a person could barely tell there was anything there. “Rangers dismissed!” he barked and the other Elves left for their homes. “You guys come with me and I'll show you the guest quarters,” he said to Spike, Brak and Jant. “Tomorrow we meet to plan strategy.”  He left them in a barn like structure, one of the few on the ground, with a lot of hay on the floor. They stretched out gratefully and were soon asleep. 

   They were awakened by a huge booming noise coming from the mighty river. 

   “Whoa! What is that?” Spoke yelped, jumping up. He ran outside with Brak and Jant to see what was going on and he could tell right off that the Elves were just as startled and confused as they were. The Elves higher up in the trees were exclaiming loudly and alarmingly about what they were seeing. Spike and the goats could see nothing from the ground but they could sure hear the huge booming, rhythmic thump, thump, thump like a giant drum. The ground seemed to reverberate with the force of it. 

   “She's heading for the fortress!” someone yelled as they ran by toward the fortress. 

   Spike looked at Brak and Jant with confusion. The Elves were pretty much all running toward the fortress so he asked, “Maybe we should go see what's happening at the fortress? Maybe we'll see a way to rescue Ishyate and Elvisher. Maybe rescue more, who knows?” 

   “Yeah, I think we should,” Brak said, joining the running Elves. “And these guys know the way,” he added over his shoulder. Spike and Jant began running, joining the excited crowd. As soon as they entered the clearing around the fortress they stopped and gaped in amazement. There, standing in the middle of the mighty river stood an angry hundred meter tall woman holding a long spear. 

   “Teleron!” she screamed in rage. “Teleron this is Mother Columbia and this poisoning must stop and it must stop now!” She stepped closer to the fortress. “Teleron you coward! Get out here and answer my demand!” She raised her spear and with a swoop knocked one of the bellowing smokestacks over. 

   Teleron appeared in a high turret holding a staff. He appeared calm, unfazed by the giant woman and the toppled stack. He lifted the staff and lightning flashed from its end hitting the giant woman. She smiled and the lightning bolts instantly changed direction and flew back at Teleron who barely avoided getting hit. 

   “Stop this smoke! Stop this pollution!” Mother Columbia demanded. 

   “Never!” Teleron screamed, then he aimed the staff again and a red beam flashed out instantly cutting or slicing anything it hit except the giant. Again she smiled and the red beam twisted around, going right at Teleron whose eyes got round. His bravado knocked back; the beam stopped before hitting him. Now he looked troubled. “Who are you? How do you do that?” he yelled out to the giant. 

   “Teleron, you damn fool! I'm a Goddess and this is my river. And this,” she pointed at the billowing smoke, “must stop now!” She pointed at the water and a spout shot upward then arced over and into the chimney as two more spouts followed suit making a loud sizzling noise that was quickly drenched in water. Even the broken stack was filled with water. Then she threw her spear at the opening where the pollution came out into the river. It crashed into the pipe with a mighty roar and the rocks above came tumbling down, then half the castle, weighted with water, began crumbling downward. Slaves were running out the front as fast as they could while the back of the castle collapsed and fell slowly into the river, effectively blocking the pollution. Then, with an angry glare she yelled in a voice of thunder, “Teleron you are warned. Do not provoke me again.” With this she stomped back up the river with thunderous booming steps until she blended into and became the river again.

Cranch - By Rosy R. 

1. A road is found. 

     Alone in a spaceship. How did this happen? Entom looked around. Must be someone about, has to be, he thought. And just what is this spaceship anyway? These and other questions were on Entom's mind as he gazed helplessly out the window. The window of an apparent spaceship showing infinite space beyond. He sat down in what appeared to be the Captain's chair. How did this happen? he wondered again. 

   Entom remembered being in charge of an expedition into one of the darkest and most remote locations on earth in search of the fabled Karoo people who were said to have secrets that gave them incredible powers. As a respected anthropologist from a big city university Entom, Professor Entom Maxtut to be precise, was very interested in the secrets of the Karoo and persuaded his university to fund an expedition. Entom's teaching assistant, Tragar, and two graduate students, Brak and Jant, accompanied him into the unknown with a retinue of a dozen or so porters from Uxil's Mountain Guide Service. They never could get an accurate count of the porters and their leader Uxil didn't seem to understand whenever he'd been asked about it, sometimes falling into odd accents to further obfuscate. Curiously no one outside of this alleged big city has ever even heard of the fabled Karoo. 

   Nonetheless, when the map to Cranch, the peculiar name of the Karoo country, was discovered Entom had been enormously excited since he'd claimed that no one had ever been able to find Cranch before. He talked of an amazing road of twists and turns that was said to lead to Cranch, itself undiscovered. This is probably because most thought Cranch to be mythical, just the stuff of legends and never having a physical reality at all. But legends are often based on some thread of truth, truth that's greatly enlarged and distorted in time. 

   Much to everyone's surprise the map had given a starting point at a well-known suburb of the very city that Professor Maxtut's university was in. Further the suburb was where Professor Maxtut maintained his modest home. As you can see, we've gone from Entom to Professor Maxtut as our doubts quicken. How could he teach about Cranch and not know the secret road started right next door? How? Especially since right next door was a large hillock with a boulder blocking something suspicious, likely a cave entrance. 

   The very next morning the expedition, with Professor Maxtut at the head, hired a tractor to move the boulder then bravely entered the cave that was revealed. They all had excellent flashlights with fresh batteries and the cave was well lit as they began. By the end of the first day they were using just a front light, a middle and a back light as the need to preserve their batteries became apparent. The cave was pitch black without flashlights and that night was terrifying, trying to sleep in absolute blackness smothered by absolute silence. 

   The next day's march through darkness was a stumbling and stifling mess until a light was seen ahead. Tragar, Professor Maxtut's teaching assistant, who had proven to be a capable expedition chief by making sure everyone had dinner and a bed last night, then posted guards, all in absolute darkness, was the first to see it. 

   “Light ahead!” he screamed and everyone surged forward. They practically ran for the remaining couple of klicks to a large round exit, an exit that led to dry sand drifts under a bright, searing sun. The heat was unbearable and they stepped back into the shade of the cave. 

   Tragar gaped for a long time, then stuttered, “How is this possible?” He looked around, “How is this even possible?” 

   “This is the road to Cranch, I'm sure now,” Professor Maxtut proclaimed with a pleased and somewhat superior expression. 

   “We have to cross this hostile desert?” Tragar asked with eyes wide. 

   “No, no, nothing like that,” Professor Maxtut smiled. “According to the map,” which he was now looking at, “we go thataway.” He pointed into the cave from which they'd just emerged. “The spot we're at is marked Layover Two.” He looked up with a smile, “Layovers are, according to the map's legend, crossroads that can only be left at dawn.” 

   “So what happened to Layover One?” Tragar asked. 

   “Hmmm, I'm not sure,” Professor Maxtut said, scratching his head, “but I've got some ideas. We'll see, soon I hope.” He peered at the map for a moment more, then shrugged. “Anyway, we camp here and leave at dawn.”  

2. Sliding along. 

   That afternoon was hot. Hotter than they had thought possible and they stayed in the shadow of the cave exit, drinking lots of water and dozing. As evening approached it got cooler and once again Professor Maxtut was impressed with Tragar's organizational skills as he, working well with the grad students Brak and Jant, put their camp together. He could only see six porters helping and he waved Uxil aside and asked if some of the porters had left. 

   “Nossuh!” Uxil exclaimed happily, seemingly transformed into some sordid version of a native. “All dem right hyar suh!” 

   With a stunned expression Professor Maxtut continued, “Oh. I thought a dozen or so had started with us, I mean . . .” 

   “Nossuh! Six like always, like we talked boss.” He smiled proudly. “See there? All de stuff okay, all de stuff here. Juss six dunnit.” 

   “Yes, of course. Thank you Uxil, you and your men are doing a marvelous job.” Uxil bowed and returned to helping set up camp but Professor Maxtut was troubled despite Uxil's assurances. He wondered why Uxil had used that obscure and demeaning slave lingo. He wondered how he could be so sure he'd seen a dozen or so porters at the start. But when he counted them again later there were only five. 

   They built a fire against the increasing cold using old driftwood they found along the base of the bluff where the cave emerged. As they huddled around the fire the night dropped like a curtain and it was suddenly dark. There was a huge swath of stars in the sky and they lost track of the cold, staring in awe. Unfortunately that awe was short lived as the cold soon became biting. It got colder and they crawled into their sleeping bags. Soon they were all huddled together near the fire trying to keep warm. It was a long night of very little sleep. No guard had been posted due to the shocking cold. Around three a.m. they heard a shrill, otherworldly screech, then another further off as if whatever had made that sound was sending a message. Then the sound was repeated again faintly in the distance. Maybe a pack. 

   When morning's first glimmer finally arrived, they began packing, anxious to get away from this spot but also to avoid freezing. They entered the cave entrance as the first rays of the sun lit their site. Professor Maxtut noticed, with some trepidation, that there were only three porters now. They seemed adequate to the task though and Uxil appeared unconcerned so he said nothing. Tragar looked momentarily puzzled then quickly turned and began the day's march. 

   The cave was definitely different now, curving around to the right and climbing sharply upward. It was well lit this time although no sources for the light could be seen. Within minutes they came to a sudden downturn that soon became too steep and they stopped. It was so steep they feared sliding if they took any further steps which was especially fearsome as the end of the slide could not be discerned. After standing in perplexity for a few moments Professor Maxtut sat down. He immediately began to slide and Tragar, in trying to reach him, fell on his bottom and began to slide too. Somehow Brak and Jant's feet slipped out from under them and they fell on their bottoms and began sliding as well. The last thing Professor Maxtut saw before sailing over the rim was Uxil and three porters solemnly watching with expressionless faces. He splashed into a deep underground river that carried him quickly outside then plopped him into a large placid lake. Soon Tragar, Brak and Jant joined him and together they swam for shore.       

   Luckily their packs were watertight, something that Professor Maxtut had insisted on, as if he had some sort of secret foreknowledge. The shore they found themselves on was part of a small clearing in a thick pine forest where a stream entered the lake. The air was cool and dry and it seemed to be early afternoon. Professor Maxtut pulled out the map and examined it again. 

   “Mmm. Mmmm,” he hummed, then looking up he announced, “Well, this is clearly Layover Three. The road to Cranch won't become visible until morning so let's set up camp.” 

   “How many Layovers does that map have?” Tragar asked. 

   “Doesn't say. And they, like the road itself, are only visible when you get to them.” 

   “Well that's awkward,” Tragar grumped. 

   “We're on the right trail though, of that there can be no doubt, no none at all.” Professor Maxtut shook his head. “And I have a feeling we're getting close to Cranch as well.”  

3. Swimming in the prairie. 

   That afternoon they were plagued by insects as they set up camp. Even though it wasn't cold Tragar started a large fire using the dead wood that littered the area and the smoke seemed to keep the worst of the bugs away. When it got dark and they'd eaten and settled in the bugs were not as bad. The sky, like in the desert, was a blaze of stars but it was nowhere near as cold. Later they could hear roars and growls along with the stamping of large, heavy creatures running by but always staying out of sight, despite their excellent flashlights. They kept the fire blazing and huddled together through another almost sleepless night. The next morning there was a dirt road leading away from their campsite. 

   “How could we have missed that last night?” Tragar asked in amazement. 

   Professor Maxtut shrugged and, with a wry smile, answered, “I think that's how it works Tragar. I don't know how but that's apparently the way it works.” He shook his head. “I didn't believe it myself at first, I mean this is like some sort of, well magic. It's just like magic and I'm a professor at a university. I deal in facts, in truth, not magic.” 

   “Yet there it is,” Tragar said, pointing to the road. 

   “Yet there it is,” Professor Maxtut agreed, nodding slowly. Shrugging again he added, “Just as it appears to have been from the start.” 

   Somehow, they knew not to expect Uxil and the Porters as they began following the road. Tragar was walking beside Professor Maxtut and asked, “Were you talking about the cave, how it changed after the layover when you said magic was with us from the start?” 

   “Before that, but I didn't get it until now.” He was quiet for a time, walking a steady pace. “You remember how that boulder was covering the cave at the beginning? How it was blocking an obvious tunnel? And the incredulity at our not having seen it before?” 

   Tragar nodded uncertainly but Jant spoke up from behind them. “Yeah, I do. Something fishy about that.” 

   “Just so,” Professor Maxtut confirmed. “No one seems to remember how it looked the day before.” He was silent for a ways then continued in his lecture voice so that they could all hear. “It looked like a grass-covered hillock that was being used as a city park which is what it was, nothing more. There was a trail to the top with benches along the way. The boulder was there but it was mostly buried with a lot of shrubbery covering it. Then, in one night it emerged.” 

   “Why? What'd cause that boulder to appear like that?” Jant asked. 

   “The discovery of the map.” Professor Maxtut frowned. “In our university library of all places. Apparently coming to the surface like that set off the first layover, which then caused the boulder to appear.” 

   “Who found the map?” Tragar asked. 

   “That's a mystery, I'm afraid. Miss Myrkle's class was there to study the library system and it'd gotten a little rowdy when Miss Myrkle was suddenly called away. Had to quiet the lot several times as the librarian, Ms. Bookish recalled. Anyway, during one ruckus someone set the map on her desk and announced, 'Looky what we found Ms. Bookish,' and when she looked there was the map on her desk but no one delivering it. When she got them quieted again no one claimed to know anything about any map, not even to Miss Myrkle when she got back.” 

   They walked in silence. After an hour or so they left the forest, entering a vast plain with the road cutting a straight line to the horizon. The thought of crossing that expanse seemed insurmountable but seeing no other options they continued on. After a time they came to a small pond with a grove of trees. It was a lovely spot and Professor Maxtut called for a rest stop. There was a small creek feeding the pond and they restocked their water bottles and washed their faces. Brak and Jant started wading in the shallow part near where the stream entered the pond and soon discarded their clothing and were splashing and swimming about. 

   “Com'on in!” Jant called as she splashed Brak, “The water's fabulous!” 

   Professor Maxtut and Tragar had washed in the stream's delightful water but despite the lovely conditions neither wanted to jump in. Neither could have said why, they just didn't. Instead they sat on the shore leaning against a couple of the trees, enjoying the splashing students, the balmy air, and the fragrant breeze. Must be flowers nearby, Professor Maxtut thought dreamily. He was trying to identify the scent when Tragar spoke, as if in a dream. He seemed to be saying how calm and peaceful it was here, and . . . he jerked awake. 

   “What . . .?” he sputtered. He looked at Tragar who was blinking his eyes, giving him a questioning look. “Where's the kids?” he asked, suddenly aware of how quiet it was and how he could see their clothes still lying on the shore where they'd dropped them. And how still the pond was. The pond's other sides were open prairie, just this grove of trees being the only feature. They stood and began calling their names. 

   “Brak! Jant! Where are you?” they called, over and over, even walking around the pond several times but they got no reply. They stayed the night, hoping for their return but there was nothing. During the night they heard splashing from time to time but never a voice or any response at all to their calling. Their flashlights showed only mild ripples whenever they tried to see. 

4. Flying away. 

   The next morning the road they'd arrived on was gone, replaced by a blacktop bike trail winding through rolling grass-covered hills. Professor Maxtut was sure the trail went in the opposite direction of their arrival. There were two bicycles lying by where the trail began and, having not heard a thing from Brak and Jant since they disappeared yesterday, they mounted the bikes and began pedaling the trail. Both thought that the best way to get answers to all their questions was to get to Cranch. After a couple hours of pleasant yet brisk pedaling they came upon a rock hut with a thatched roof. In front sat a man . . . well, perhaps a dwarf or well, whatever, he sat watching them arrive. 

   They stopped in front of him and dismounted. Professor Maxtut spoke, “Hello there!” he called out. The figure didn't move or respond at all. Giving Tragar a curious look he tried again, “Hello! You there! Can you hear me? We're riding this bike trail . . .” 

   “I can see what you're doing. What you want?” the creature asked irritably. 

   “Oh! Uh, well we're going to Cranch. Perhaps you've heard of Cranch?” The creature was silent, unmoving. “Thing is,” Professor Maxtut continued, “we aren't really sure where it's at. Cranch that is. We're going there but we . . .” 

   “Why?” 

   “Huh?” 

   The creature leaned over to his right and emitted what sounded like a fart. “Ahh,” he said with a smile. Then, scowling at Professor Maxtut, who'd backed up, he continued, “Why you going to Cranch?”  

   “Science,” Professor Maxtut promptly answered. 

   “That a fact,” the creature muttered. “You muss be scientists, huh?” 

   “Why yes. Yes, we are,” Professor Maxtut agreed, then looking at Tragar he added, “Well I am. Tragar's my assistant.” Seeing a look of disgust on both their faces he added, “But he's still a scientist. Darn good one too. Why I rely on . . .” 

   “Yeah, yeah, a scientist. So what's your name?” 

   “Maxtut. Professor Entom Maxtut and this here is Tragar Fetchit,” gesturing at Tragar, “my esteemed colleague and fellow scientist who . . .” 

   “Maxtut?” the creature asked. 

   “Uh, yes. Entom Maxtut, at your service.” 

   “Your daddy named Enmar Maxtut?” 

   Completely shaken Professor Maxtut could only nod and whisper, “Yes. How, how did you . . .” 

   “Well I reckon I could take you on into Cranch then, most the way anyway.” He stood and it was now apparent that he was a Dwarf. He walked into the hut and returned with a two wheel scooter, like the kids used. “Keep up!” he yelled as the scooter carried him away at a high speed. Scrambling to get on their bikes they pedaled as fast as they could but still lost sight of the Dwarf after a few minutes. Seeing no alternative they continued on the trail until they came to a fork where they stopped, unsure which way to go. 

   Then they heard a distant voice, “Up here!' Looking around they spotted a small rise in the prairie with a stone tower on it. The Dwarf was standing by the tower, waving. They followed the trail up to the tower and dismounted as the Dwarf watched. When they walked up to where the Dwarf stood, he smiled at them, “This here's a Layover. Guess you all know what that is?” 

   Professor Maxtut nodded, looking around, “Number four, isn't it?” he asked. 

   “Thass right! Nummer four, thass right!” 

   “Is it the tower?” Professor Maxtut asked. 

   “Nah, don think so. Thass it,” he pointed to a side area where a picnic table, a pile of chopped wood and a fire ring became apparent. “That tower's jussa marker, you know? Big prairie an it marks the spot.” He pointed again at the picnic area. “That there's nummer four!” With that he laughed then hopped on his scooter and was gone in a flash.  

   “Looks like we're here tonight,” Tragar muttered watching the Dwarf speed away. 

   That night they heard sounds of war with missiles and rockets exploding, shaking the ground, and showering them with debris amid the rapid fire and screams of soldiers. But it was all beyond their sight, somehow always beyond their flashlight's range and nothing showed, no lights, flashes, nothing. The war ended before dawn and in the ensuing quiet they both dozed off. 

   Sunlight striking his face awakened Professor Maxtut and the first thing he saw was the tower. Its door was wide open and he rose groggily to inspect it. Looking back he saw that Tragar was sleeping soundly. I'll just peek inside, he thought, wondering if the tower was somehow the next way to Cranch. He stepped inside and immediately the door slammed shut behind him. Then there was a roaring and he was knocked to the floor as the tower crumbled away to reveal a spaceship blasting into space. The force knocked him out and when he awoke, he was in space, wondering how this had happened. 

   As he sat in the Captain's chair pondering, a strange thing happened. He heard three odd tones and his head began to clear. Three more and he remembered everything, everything that had been locked and hidden in the far recesses of his mind, until now. He smiled, knowing that he'd been successful and they now had all they needed. He turned on the controls and expertly piloted the spaceship to the hidden mother ship where General Enmar Maxtut, his father, waited for the word, the 'all clear' to invade. 

   There was a clang as Entom's ship attached itself to the mother ship and a tube allowing for passage filled with oxygen. He walked triumphantly down the corridor as soon as it opened. When he entered the mother ship, he wasn't given the reception he'd expected. Instead there was no one and he walked uncertainly into what appeared to be an overgrown vacant lot with tall brick buildings on three sides. Stepping in he stood in the weeds and trash, now with a bustling street behind, staring stupidly at a sign announcing the future construction plans for this site. The sign proudly proclaimed this to be the future home of Layover Five.

Bad Neighborhood - By H.R.Riviter 

   As she approached the pond, she knew something was wrong. It was nothing she had seen or heard, rather it was a feeling, thick as syrup, palpable and unnerving, that was giving her goosebumps. She stopped and looked in every direction, even up, but saw nothing untoward and continued on. It was a beautiful spring day, bright with new life and stunning colors, a day that would normally have brought a bounce to her step and a song to her lips yet here she strode purposefully, wary of something, careful but of what she couldn't say. It seemed so gloomy that she gave the sun a worried look, checking for clouds or . . . well, anything to account for this shadowy cover, for that's how it felt, like being in an oddly pervasive shade that lurked and hid things, yet the sun was bright overhead with no clouds nearby. Somehow the pond and its environs remained gloomy with a strong sense of shadow even under a bright sky. She stopped again. 

   “Hello?” she called out. She was sure she'd seen a furtive movement in the shrubs ahead by the path. With a fearful perusal she continued forward. 

   This was her second year as a deputy with the Loomin County Sheriff's Department under Sheriff Madsen, a fearsome 'my way or the highway' despot. She'd surreptitiously seen him frown and shake his head as she left to answer the call of suspicious activity at Donner Pond. This was not what deputy's ought to be doing, as he'd proclaimed many a time. This was for those damn uppity rangers since it was more'n likely some wild animal causing the trouble. Loomin County was rural and crime was rare. Enough wildlife though to cause problems. Unfortunately Deputy Runjump was not experiencing any normal kind of wildlife out at Donner Pond that day. 

   “Who's there?” she called out. 

   She'd unstrapped her service revolver and left her hand on it. Peering cautiously ahead she continued toward the pond. The wind was blowing persistently against her as if trying to push her back. She had a sense of being watched that grew stronger as she neared the pond. When she got there the first thing she noticed was how still the water was. Not a ripple despite the breeze which, she suddenly realized, was now completely still. Silence instead of the natural sounds that were usually heard in the countryside, sounds like birds, squirrels, and the buzz of insects, all silent. Again she felt goosebumps. 

   She seemed frozen to the spot, totally disconnected and surreal when her personal radio squawked and a voice asked, “Deputy Runjump! You hear me? It's the Sheriff. What you got out there?” 

   She was unnerved by the sudden call and took a moment to answer. Pulling the mike down she pressed the button and spoke, “Yeah, I hear you. Nothing so far. The pond looks calm and no one's around.” 

   “Yeah, it's like I thought. Probably just a bear or some bucks fighting. You should come on in.” 

   “Uh, sheriff, there's something odd here. Something isn't right. You mind if I look around a little?” 

   “What you think it is? You want backup?” 

   “I dunno, I don't think so. Haven't seen anything, it's just there's a strong feeling of wrongness here.”   

   “Hmm. Yeah, okay, but don’t be too long huh? Slow day so far but you know how quick that can change.” 

   “Copy that.” She reattached the mike to her shoulder harness and looked around. Silent and still. Then she heard footsteps, like someone walking on a hard floor or even marble. The pace was slow but steady and she looked nervously around. There was nothing but natural country, nothing paved for at least half a mile, that being the highway, itself poorly paved. There was nowhere this sound could be happening from. 

   Her fear increased and she pulled her revolver out. “Who's there?” she called loudly. 

   The steps continued and slowly, as if out of a cloud, a man appeared in the middle of the pond, wearing a typical business suit, and carrying a briefcase. He was walking on the pond's surface, which had somehow solidified. When he was in front of her, he stopped and tipped his hat, a black bowler with a wide brim, and said, “Good afternoon ma'am. You must be the Interferometer Oscillatum. I trust everything's okay on this end? I know there was a big ruckus this time. Sorry about the bangs and flashing lights. Rough connection, you know, the dimensional drift and all that but I assure you things will be calmer now going forward.” He smiled at her. 

   “Where you from?” she sputtered. “How'd you walk on water?” The only analogy she could think of was Jesus who also walked on water and that disturbed her deeply, deeper than she could say. 

   He looked surprised, “They didn't inform you? You aren't . . .” She just shook her head slowly. “Oh dear. Well this is a mess.” He looked around. “Say, this is Eridani 6, isn't it? Doesn't really look like it.” 

   “This is Donner Pond,” she said, glad to have something that she knew about. 

   “Yes, yes, but what planet?” 

   “Planet?” 

   “Yes. What planet?” 

   “Why earth, of course.” 

   The man visibly went pale and took a step back. “Oh my heavens!” He looked around fearfully and started slowly backing up, holding his arms protectively in front of him and using the briefcase as a shield. “Is that thing you're holding a weapon?” he asked with wide eyes, pointing to her hand. 

   She looked down and seeing that she was still holding her gun, she lowered it a little. “Yeah,” she answered. “So what're you? Where you from? I mean what's going on here?” She was beginning to feel a little hysterical and raised her gun again. Nothing like this had ever happened before. She looked out across the pond where the man had first appeared but could see nothing except maybe a little fog. When she looked back, he was gone. Slowly, as if the sound was being turned back on, she could hear the pond's fauna again. Now she could see little waves where the breeze was teasing the water and feel the wind blowing against her face. 

   Then she heard a disembodied voice, “We're so sorry to have bothered you, just a little calibration error, it'll not happen again, I can assure you. Oh, and by the way, madam, do you have any idea where you're at? Please be careful.”