“You wouldn’t believe the bookstore I just visited,” said Tullugaq, turning to the Daltons as soon as the Greebik left town.
“Dried sea life hanging from the ceiling?” asked Asp, chuckling.
Tullugaq gave a loud snort. “That would have been a slight improvement. This place was a mess. It looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned for hundreds of years, and it was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside—and to top it all off, the rooms moved around. At least, that was what I was told by the owner. I believed him; the place was a safety hazard. One of these days, someone’s going to have an accident there. Wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a few skeletons lying about somewhere.”
“Sounds exciting,” said Maureen, fascinated. “What’s its name?”
“That’s the ironic part,” said Tullugaq, peevishly. “It’s called 'The Cheerful Dragon’s Antiques and Books.' Believe me, it’s not the kind of place you’d want to visit on your sightseeing list. Well, anyway, I ended up buying some stuff.” She handed the hatbox to Mrs. Dalton. “See for yourself.”
Maureen opened up the box and pushed aside the newspaper. “It’s nearly brand new—must have been worth a fortune,” she said, picking up the book.
Tullugaq grinned. “Well, to tell you the truth, it didn’t cost much. Just a couple of drixals, along with a weird-looking mirror.”
Maureen frowned as she studied the book more carefully.
“What is it?” asked Asp, peering over his wife’s arm.
“Oh, I just got the funniest feeling that I’ve seen this book before,” muttered Maureen. “That twisting centipede, especially.” She tapped the silver seal with a clawed forefinger. “It’s very much like the symbol in the Poison Zodiac…”
“Poison Zodiac?” said Tullugaq. “What’s that?”
“In bygone days, certain sorcery books were adorned with an emblem of one of twelve poisonous animals, symbolizing the book’s potency.”
“All right if I have a look?” asked Asp eagerly.
“Sure, go ahead,” said Maureen, casually.
Asp took it very gingerly. He studied the book for a moment, and then tried to undo the silk ribbon. After several unsuccessful attempts, he took from his carpetbag his wand, and waved it over the book, and chanted a brief spell:
The ribbon remained tightly in place.
“Hhhmmm,” said Asp, rubbing his chin and wrinkling his brow. He then raised his wand high and tried another spell:
Save for a slight twitch, the ribbon made no effort to unwind.
“That settles it,” said Asp testily. He sat up in his seat. “Untangle. Disentangle!” he cried, striking the book with his wand. “Extricate. Liberate. Dissipate. Separate!”
“Problems, dear?” inquired Maureen, curiously examining the strange mirror.
Asp looked at her in exasperation. “This bloody book isn’t unbinding!”
Maureen smirked. “Maybe it’s sealed for a very good reason… like keeping your prying eyes from being plucked out by a highly annoyed fiend of darkness.”
“Oh, very funny,” said Asp, sourly. “It’s easy enough to be nervous if a book’s got a skull and crossbones marked in bright red ink across the cover. One mustn’t judge a book by its macabre cover, you know.” He stared curiously at the glass cylinder. “What’s that?”
“It’s a mirror, or course,” said Maureen, handing the thing over.
“Reminded me of a lamp-chimney,” said Asp, peering at it closely. He wiped away some of the grime. “Ainsel-ware, I suppose. It’s luminescent, and it feels light, very light… must be one of those touristy gewgaws.”
Tullugaq shrugged. “I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. The bookstore guy said he got it at an estate sale, along with that book. He told me the previous owner died mysteriously… Have you ever heard of an artist named Jules Gurkle?”
“Who hasn’t heard of Jules Gurkle?” exclaimed Asp, putting the mirror and book back in the box. “I must’ve seen every horror masterpiece that guy ever painted. They give the creeps. I heard in one gallery they had to turn his paintings around at night when one of the watchmen nearly went mad with terror.”
He was silent for a moment.
“It’s peculiar,” he went on slowly. “Damned peculiar… the way the poor bloke ended up looking like something out of one of his paintings. What could suck a man dry, leaving nothing, but shriveled skin and bones, Maureen?”
Maureen thought for a minute. “Well,” she said brusquely, “I have a pretty good idea. There were rumors floating around that Gurkle dabbled in black magic, and that his models had arisen from some frightening netherworld rather than from his own morbid imagination. Now, if these rumors were true, then Jules Gurkle was not only a misguided magician, but an idiot as well. Imagine, summoning up something unspeakable in order to paint its portrait. I mean, if you’re going to paint monsters, stick with the ones you know—like the Harpies, Chimeras, and vampires. They’re rational and a lot more understanding compared to those... Anachronamatons... prowling just outside our dimension.”
Asp stared down at the opened hatbox with growing fascination. “You say the monster painter really did own this stuff?”
“So I was told,” Tullugaq replied.
Asp was silent as he stared at the puzzling objects. When he looked up, his expression had grown exceedingly grave.
“Funny,” he said quietly, “about you getting these for just two drixals. I mean, this was once the property of a pretty famous person—you’d think the guy would have asked for more.”
Maureen glanced at him, and nodded. “Now that you've mentioned it,” she said, “it does seem rather funny she got those things at all.”
“Just shows I could find bargains in unexpected places,” said Tullugaq with a knowing smile. “If the guy was concerned about collecting famous memorabilia, he wouldn’t have sold it in the first place.”
“I don’t mean that, of course,” Asp interrupted. “I mean—do you think they’re really cursed?”
Tullugaq laughed harshly. “Cursed? Yeah, right, and I’m the Queen of the Phoenix Islands! Next you’ll be wondering if the fella in the bookshop really was a demon in disguise.”
“The thought had just occurred to me,” said Asp dryly, handing back her hatbox.
“Look, the guy was just a harmless hoarder!” exclaimed Tullugaq impatiently. “A pack rat, basically—if he was a demon, he would have at least made his store more attractive to the customers.”
“She’s got a point there, Asp,” muttered Maureen. “Perhaps we’re making a great to-do over a harmless tourist curiosity—“
“But what about you getting that strange feeling you’ve seen that book before,” Mr. Dalton hastily pointed out, “and what about that macabre symbol on the cover?”
“Oh, well… I made a mistake,” said Maureen dismissively. “I’m quite sure now this is just a decorative notebook. When I touched it, I felt no dark power surging through it, just blank pages waiting to be filled.”
“But this book here really did belong to the former Jules Gurkle!” insisted Asp loudly. “It’s got to be magical—!”
“It isn’t,” said Maureen bluntly. “It’s just an impressive-looking journal, nothing more.”
“Just a journal?” Tullugaq’s heart sank.
“I’m sorry it didn’t turn out to be what you expected,” said Maureen gravely.
“Really?” said Tullugaq sullenly.
“Hey, cheer up!” said Maureen, nudging her in the side. “It’s much better than spells and evil curses.”
“I should have gotten one of those shrunken heads instead!” said Tullugaq regretfully.
The Greebik followed the Main Route as it twisted its way through the rugged Zilix Mountains. It crossed the steel bridge spanning the Gnaw Bone River, and then, after several dips in the road, entered the rolling green landscape of the Erskine Valley. Tullugaq leaned back glumly in her seat. She tried to relax, but found she couldn’t. She kept glancing at her wristwatch, counting down the seconds in her head.
In the past, such trips to Grandma’s didn’t take so long. Her parents took the velocicopter, which only took two hours, but what an exciting two hours it was. The scenery, from that altitude, was breathtaking. It was too bad the device got stolen from the parking lot of a shopping center three months ago. Unlike Tullugaq, Kiki wasn’t as upset by this loss; she got dizzy at heights and the thought of the velocicopter suddenly spinning out of control and crashing made her sick to her stomach.
Tullugaq tried to think of the things she was going to do when she got to Zelmak, but her thoughts soon returned to the hatbox seated by her feet. Maureen was probably right when she said that fancy book was only a plain, ordinary notebook, but Tullugaq still had her doubts. Unless she had X-ray vision, she didn’t see how she was ever going to discover what it was exactly without opening it.
Bending down, Tullugaq picked up the box and opened it. As she was pulling out the book, her thumb accidentally brushed the silver seal. A creepy tingling immediately ran through her whole frame, causing her to drop the book on the floor.
Niamh instantly jerked her head up, and she sat bolt upright. The novel she was reading slipped from her limp fingers.
Kiki looked up at her anxiously. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
Niamh shrugged, and then leaned over to pick up her book. “Oh, nothing at all to worry about,” she muttered, straightening up. “Just a bit of heartburn.”
Tullugaq shivered as she examined the tip of her thumb. It seemed okay; she wasn’t too sure about her nervous system, however. The sickening sensation she just felt reminded her of something—something that happened when she was only seven. She had got up in the middle of the night to get a glass of cranberry juice. Shoving a foot in one slipper, she suddenly felt something cold and squishy. Her screams nearly brought the house down. Much later, it was discovered that large green slug had crawled inside.
She stared at the book for a while, and then cautiously picked it up.
She remembered clearly seeing Maureen touching the seal with her finger. Well, why didn’t she feel something strange? Then she remembered that Maureen used her nail.
Static electricity, she thought, quelling her fear. That must be what I felt.
After fumbling around in her satchel she took out a jackknife and started cutting the ribbon around the silver seal.
Niamh turned slowly to look at the back. She sensed the lock breaking loose, and what was once carefully hidden was now opened and exposed. Her eyes narrowed as she searched for the source of disturbance rippling the air.
She then settled her gaze with laser beam precision on a certain Churcka with tiger-striped hair.
It’s her! Niamh went rigid. The raven, the Changer! She’s the one with the Algrisa!
Tullugaq had no idea she was being watched, she was too busy trying to make sense of this strange book. It had no title or author’s name, and many of its parchment pages were filled with an unknown writing—cryptic glyphs arranged in flowing spirals, instead of straight parallel rows. She found it somewhat disturbing to look at, but what was even more puzzling and disturbing were the illustrations. She couldn’t figure out what these were supposed to depict. They were all the same—completely distorted ink drawings with a round dizzying spiral in the middle.
Feeling terribly nervous, Tullugaq glanced to see if the Daltons had noticed her discovery. They hadn’t. Maureen was taking a catnap, her leonine head cushioned by a red plushy pillow, and Asp was gazing dreamily out the window.
She glimpsed picturesque cottages with immaculate lawns and gardens, and knew they were on the outskirts of Perthamboyne.
Tullugaq went back to her investigation. She riffled through several more pages, hoping to find something that would help her translate the writing. Stopping at page 100, she decided she couldn't find anything useful, so she put away the book and sat still, thinking.
She heard Maureen stirring, and tried to look nonchalant.
Tullugaq felt it was better not to tell the Daltons about the discovery she just made. They might become frightened and promptly decide to get rid of it. It’s my treasure, she thought determinedly. I found it first! Why should I let anyone destroy it on the grounds that it’s black magic, and bad for me to have? To Dreon with their overbearing rules and magical regulations!
Maureen yawned lazily, stretching out her arms. The sleeves slid down, revealing arms bereft of any mysterious glowing inscription.
Niamh noticed the back seat passengers moving furtively in ones and twos toward the front. This didn’t surprise her; those Gibblians were a real annoyance. What they were doing exactly to cause this exodus didn’t concern her at all. They were the least of her worries. Right now, she had to come up with a plan of retrieving what she considered was rightfully hers. The teleporting spell she used earlier wasn’t going to help her. Once opened, the book repelled any spell of removal.
Kiki suddenly uttered a cry of surprise. “Niamh! Look over there!” she exclaimed, observing a flock of about a hundred peculiar birds foraging in a field. “What are those things? They’re big with shaggy red and orange feathers!”
“Karura,” murmured Niamh, indifferently.
“Karura,” said Kiki, musingly, “I wonder what they’re raised for. They look too big to eat. Maybe people ride on their backs like horses.”
“They’re used as guard dogs and pack animals,” returned Niamh, still watching Kiki’s sister. “To even eat one would be considered a felony, for they’re sentient beings.”
“They must be from far away,” said Kiki, thoughtfully. “I never heard of a Karura before. Where are they from?
But Niamh didn’t hear her. She had tuned Kiki out, literally. The words faded away along with the rest of the chatter of the crowded bus, like someone tuning down the volume on a radio. Only the voices of the Churcka and the Zoldrak couple remained.
“I noticed your tattoos have disappeared,” observed Tullugaq.
“My tattoos?” said Maureen.
“Yeah, those glowing green things that appeared on your arms when you threatened to zap that lunch-stealing shyster Arthur Gerhardt.”
“Oh, you mean my glyph illusions,” chuckled Maureen.
“Really?” said Tullugaq, surprised. “But those symbols looked real enough. They were burning with green fire.”
“A projection of the mind,” explained Maureen. “If you were to touch them, they wouldn’t burn, not unless you were hypnotized into believing they would.”
“What about your real spells?” asked Tullugaq.
“They’re not as showy as my warning displays,” Maureen answered, “but they’re twice as effective.”
“I see,” said Tullugaq. “So, if you were really serious about zapping Arthur, you wouldn’t have waited twenty seconds.”
“She would have changed Arthur’s precious nose into a tuber root,” laughed Asp, turning back from the window.
“You two seem to know Arthur pretty well,” said Tullugaq.
Asp grimaced. “Too well!” he exclaimed. “He lives next door to us, and he’s always coming over to badger us about his bizarre inventions.”
“So, he’s a mad scientist and a swindler,” said Tullugaq, nodding understandably.
Asp shook his head. “A mad inventor’s more like it,” he said. “The only invention of his that ever worked was an espresso machine, but his lady assistant ran off with the plans and prototype.”
It was at that moment Niamh felt a tap on her shoulder. She jumped as if she had stuck her finger into a light socket, and all of the background babble came roaring back like a crashing drawer full of silverware and several dozen cats churning away in a cement mixer.
“Is something wrong?” asked Kiki anxiously. “Is that sister of mine creating another scene back there?”
“Oh, no, your sister seems to be on her best behavior,” answered Niamh, easing her features into something serene, which took some effort. “I’m just wondering why everyone is moving up front.”
Kiki looked about curiously. She soon noticed that there were passengers sitting four to a seat or crowded in the aisle. Everywhere, people were now packed in tight as sardines. When she looked toward the back, it was nearly empty. The only people left there were the two Zoldraks, the Churcka girl Tullugaq, and a party of Gibblians sitting a few seats away.
Puzzled, she turned back to Niamh. “What do you think is going on?” asked Kiki. “Why’s everyone moving up front?”
“Beats me,” said Niamh with a shrug, “but I’ll ask.”
She then tapped the shoulder of a grizzled old wehr wolf crouching by their seat. “Excuse me, sir, but can you tell us why everyone is crowding up front?”
The wehr wolf regarded her with pale eyes. “Cooties,” he growled.
“Pardon?” said Kiki.
“Cooties!” exclaimed the wehr wolf. “You know, little crawly things that get into people’s fur and hair.” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “Those Gibblians back there are crawling with cooties.”
“Sounds like he’s the kind of fellow who would make up that Rakshasa mumbo-jumbo,” said Tullugaq, “or at least take it seriously.”
“What are you saying?” said Asp, incredulously. “Of course it’s all true! These terrors aren’t some campfire fancies designed to frighten naughty children!”
“Well, if you say they’re for real, then where’s your proof?” Tullugaq demanded. “Where’s all your solid, scientific evidence like fossils and grainy photographs?”
“Vampires don’t appear in photographs or in the fossil record,” Asp pointed out, “but they do exist.”
“I still think this Rakshasa legend’s a crock of snot,” remarked Tullugaq. “That kind of weird-horror stuff went out yesterday with the barbarian heroes and scantily-clad women.”
Asp was unperturbed by her sarcasm. “Beware,” he said, pulling out a large pool ball from his bag, “for those who discredit such tales shall pay the ultimate price. The Rakshasa are vampires who prey on the strong and most innocent… and your turn might come if you don’t watch your step.”
“And you’re going to save them the trouble by turning me into a pink, yellow-spotted toadstool,” chuckled Tullugaq.
“No, impudent long-nosed one!” said Asp grumpily. “I’m going to show you these demons of darkness, so you’ll have some idea of their malevolence!”
Tullugaq looked at him and slowly nodded her head. “Uh-huh,” she said. “Sure.”
“Watch closely!” he commanded.
Tullugaq watched skeptically as he shook the ball and muttered a few phrases over it.
“Okay,” said Asp, handing the eight ball over to her. “Now look deep into that small, round window.”
Tullugaq did as she was told, expecting to see the usual huge, hulking, monstrously ugly, gorak-like apparition. Instead she found herself staring horrified at a seething, slimy mass of wriggling eel-like creatures.
Choking with shock, Tullugaq reeled back. Snatching up her things, she rushed up the aisle. The Daltons watched her go.
“Well,” said Maureen, eying her husband coldly. “I hope you’re extremely pleased with yourself. Your little conjuring stunt’s going to give her nightmares for several weeks.”
“Hey, I had to be graphic to get the point across!” exclaimed Asp. “She mustn’t scorn such tales, no matter how dim these legends may be! Anyway, no one’s exactly sure what a Rakshasa is supposed to look like, so I had to come up with something that’s really scary and disgusting at the same time. Believe me, I didn’t know she was going to take off like that! She didn’t strike me as the sort to run at the sight of hagfish.”
“Well, still, you should have known better,” said Maureen huffily. “She was having a rough day. A while ago, she was complaining to me about her mum and sister bossing her around, and those insufferable Gibblians treated her worse than duktrika droppings.”
“Hey, I gave them a severe one-hundred percent hexing!” said Asp. “Look—”
He pointed to the Gibblians, who were scratching away like mad at their mangy hair. Maureen then noticed the wide-open space around, and the cringing passengers crammed up front, nervously eying the head-scratching crowd.
She turned back to her husband in bewilderment. “What did you just do?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing too serious,” he replied, shrugging.
Maureen stared piercingly at him. “What?” she hissed.
“Well, I couldn’t just give them a severe toasting,” he laughed nervously. “That’s if they’re attacking everyone. Since they were just being a bother, I decided to simply make their lice overpopulate.”
Maureen slapped her forehead in exasperation. Asp smiled smugly. “Now, they’re going to have to use that special lice shampoo,” he said. “If they can’t afford that, they’re going to have to dip their whole heads in turpentine and stay away from open flame.”
“Oh, that’s great, Asp!” Maureen shouted. “That’s really terrific! You do realize the seriousness of the situation?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Asp with a careless wave of his hand. “It’s just a minor infestation. We’re far enough away, and these lice only infest Gibblians.”
“Look, lice are lice!” Maureen exclaimed. “They aren’t too picky about their hosts. Now can you do something, please? Your ‘minor’ infestation is now becoming a major blizzard!”
Asp stopped grinning as he glanced toward the back. “Blast! I was afraid of this!” he growled. “Something’s always going wrong!”
Muttering irritably to himself, he started rummaging through his carpetbag, pulling out sheets of notes, and flipping through several books. Scratching his head in perplexity, he finally turned back to his wife. “Uhh… Maureen,” he began worriedly.
She glowered at him, her lavender mane bristling. “What?” she snarled.
“I… seem to… have… misplaced the spell to stop it.”
Maureen stamped her feet hard and whirled around. Frantically, she started gesturing, all the while shouting incantations.
Waves of gray lice began moving down the aisle and over the seats. At this point, the people pressed up front decided it was time to leave. While some ran up the aisle, others scrambled across the seats to avoid clogging the aisle further.
Hearing the screams, Gnashgarak whirled around in his seat. His red eyes bulged at the sight of frantic passengers fleeing the churning gray mound of arachnids.
Bellowing and pounding the horn, the gorak reined the startled Greebik to a screeching halt. Quickly, he yanked the door lever hard, opening the carriage door. Most of the passengers followed him out the front door, but a few decided on a much shorter route by hurling themselves out the nearest open window.
Maureen, snarling a Zoldrak curse, scooped up her husband under one arm, and vaulted effortlessly over the seats.
The center of downtown was a scene of indescribable confusion. A large crowd hemmed in by police and bright orange barricades watched as a short, bespectacled fire chief quarreled loudly with a troll four times his size. Ultimately, the responsibility for getting rid of the pesky lice fell upon the fire department and Bruno’s Bug Busters, apparently in the belief that fire and plagues of vermin were very similar occurrences, both being disastrous to local business. Right now, the two parties were debating on how to proceed with the situation.
The fire chief objected strongly to the use of traditional insecticides, saying they would be hazardous to the environment and public health. The troll, presumably Bruno, thundered loudly about water being an inferior candidate in combating infestations.
“Hey, it didn’t stop that rampage of Giant Vampire Orchids at Griswold’s Nursery!” shouted Bruno. “If I’m not mistaken, the beastly things tore through the hoses!”
“But those were mutants!” replied the fire chief, incensed at being held up at so important a moment. “They got that way because some daft sorcerer mixed some growth formula into the fertilizer!”
“Ahh, that’s not the story I heard,” disagreed Bruno. “I heard they escaped from some mad scientist’s laboratory up in Dinzdale. Anyway, you can take off. I already got my best guys working on this case.”
The “best guys” in question were a grizzled bunch of goons all dressed in yellow overalls, rubber gloves, and baseball caps labeled “Bruno’s Bug Busters.” Already, they were hard at work, hurling bug bombs through the carriage’s open doors and windows, setting upon the escaping lice with their steel-tipped boots and brooms.
There were several loud booms, the tinkle of glass breaking, and an ominous blue cloud filled the carriage. It soon oozed out of the windows and doors and into the street. The festival atmosphere of the whole spectacle suddenly changed to a mad dash for cover as the acrid smoke drifted across the police barricades. While this pandemonium was occurring, the Greebik sat peacefully with its numerous legs tucked neatly underneath its sinuous bulk, chewing its cud.
The fire chief was so enraged at this blatant disregard for public safety that he threw his helmet down. “Right! That’s it!” he shouted. “No more niceness!” He turned to his crew. “Okay, let ‘em have it!” he roared.
The fire crew turned on the water all the way, hosing the exterminators at full blast. There was a great deal of smoke, cursing, people floundering around, tripping, or getting tangled up in the hoses.
Arthur lurched out of the cloud. His lavish suit was ragged and stained with smoke from the bug bombs and dirt from falling in the street. Gagging, he clung to a nearby lamppost for support. A dark-blue bottle slipped unnoticed from his coat pocket and bounced to the side of the curb.
“Bunions and corns!” the old elf wheezed, rubbing his smarting eyes. “What do they put in those blasted bug things?”
Finally regaining his bearings, he bolted around a corner, his swallowtail flapping behind him as he ran.
Reaching the Columbine Café and Bakery, Niamh opened the satchel with clumsy impatience. Inside was an empty lacquered lunchbox with chopsticks, a jackknife, several carved pieces of wood, a wallet, a hairbrush, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a silver amulet, a white calling card, and a stuffed toy animal. Niamh let the satchel fall and gave a cry of muffled fury. It was in the hatbox, she thought, grinding her teeth. It was in the hatbox all this time!
Startled, she jumped and whirled about to face a tall, reptilian, leather-clad person with a gaunt, lavender face, taloned hands and feet, and bright pink tentacles for hair. His deep-set eyes were a piercing blue, and glittered behind a pair of wire-framed spectacles.
“A book,” Niamh answered, giving the stranger a speculative stare. Although her knowledge of magical creatures was extensive, she didn’t recognize this monster from any known sphere. However, right now, she had no time to expand her scientific knowledge, much less make a new friend. Picking up the satchel, she began walking away.
“Oh, what kind of book?” the creature asked, easily keeping up with her long strides.
“A poetry book,” Niamh replied, walking a bit faster. “It’s by my favorite poet, Gorph Dorkings… he wrote about clocks…”
“Poems about clocks?” said the creature curiously.
He suddenly halted in his tracks. “That seems strange!” he said, mystified.
“Not strange at all!” she snorted, striding away down the street. “It’s really good poetry. Now I really must be going.”
The crowd reassembled a respectable distance away from the scene, their fear soon forgotten. More people were pouring onto the streets, making things no easier for the authorities trying to keep law and order. Accidents were always interesting and popular, especially when things go more awry.
“Hey, has anyone seen my satchel? It’s reddish-brown with a gargoyle’s face on it? Anyone?”
Tullugaq wandered the outskirts of milling throng, hoping to find someone willing to help her. Much to her annoyance, everyone was either busy gawking or in a hurry to get somewhere.
“I think it was stolen!” she cried despairingly. “Someone grabbed it from me when we rushed off!”
Moodily, she watched while police in olive drab were interviewing the passengers crowed around them. Everyone was talking at the same time.
“I think it was one of those blasted, beetle-crunching, low-down, slick-fingered Gibblians!” said Tullugaq, peevishly. “Hey, if anyone sees a Gibblian with such a bag, bang on the dome for me, willya!”
She stopped griping when she noticed the three Greebik ambulances parked nearby. Attendants in white suits were lifting the last of the Gibblians inside the carriages. The Gibblians were a wretched sight, all sickly pale and glassy-eyed. Tullugaq guessed they were either suffering from blood loss by hungry lice, or from shock and disgust at being doused by antibiotic foam.
She watched as the rear doors slammed shut, and the Greebiks rumbled away at full speed, the red lights on top flashing and sirens screaming full blast. They careened around a turn and were lost from view.
Tullugaq was totally stunned by this dramatic turn of events. It would seem that she was wrong in accusing the Gibblians of stealing her Wymble. They were all suffering a major louse invasion at the time. Now she felt terribly sorry for the Gibblians. Even though they hadn't been particularly nice, they certainly didn't deserve this kind of punishment.
Nagging questions were now flitting through her mind; who could have possibly taken her satchel? Had it been one of the people seated up front? It certainly would seem like it, yet how would a thief have possibly grabbed it? She was in the rear, behind a frightened mass of people, all stampeding in the same general direction. A thief would have been facing a most remarkable double jeopardy. He or she would have been trampled first by the crowd, and then smothered under a sea of ravenous lice. Unless, of course, this particular thief was a professional in the art of escape as well as the art of theft.
The sound of muffled sobs broke her chain of thoughts. Glancing around, she saw Gnashgarak sitting on a nearby curb. He was staring morosely at his bedraggled Greebik and busted carriage. Tears were rolling down his lumpy, leathery cheeks. Several times he snorted trying to force back his sobs, but it was to no avail. He soon broke down and began crying uncontrollably.
Tullugaq shook her head. Now there was someone who was having a worse day than she was. For a minute, she thought about asking the gorak if he had seen anyone suspicious carrying a sculpted leather satchel, but decided against it. Gnashgarak was far too depressed to do anything but wail over the mess being caused to his beloved vehicle. Leaving the gorak to his sorrows, Tullugaq set off down the street, determined to find the Wymble herself.
There was a little alleyway behind the Frommstonk’s grocery that provided some space where Niamh could work in private. Concealed behind a pile of pallets and packing crates, she was busy, grinding one hundred different ingredients in a small ceramic pestle. She was just about finished when she felt a sharp tug at the hem of her dress. Startled, she looked down; there was nothing there. Niamh then got up and began a painstaking examination of the doorway she was sitting in- still nothing. Eventually she returned to her seat, and looked around nervously for a moment before returning to her work.
Just as she was attributing the incident to her imagination, something gave her a sharp pinch in the ankle. Instantly she clapped her hand to her foot, thinking that a pinch beetle was doing the pinching and tugging. When she looked down again, whatever it was had bolted. Yet she had a brief glimpse of something small and rodent-like darting around the corner of the grocery. Her sharp ears caught the sound of faint, chittering laughter.
Niamh laughed too, highly relieved. So that was what the infernal thing was, a Kluge rat, possibly drunk or in a mischievous mood. She smiled humorlessly, thinking about what would have happened had it been a few seconds slower in its getaway.
Ten minutes later the powder was thoroughly mixed with water and poured into an eyedropper. Carefully, she squeezed a drop of the green liquid on both of the Wymble’s glass eyes. The concoction bubbled for a bit then sank out of sight; briefly, there arose a dry smell of herbs and bone dust.
She regarded the toy thoughtfully for a few minutes before replacing it carefully in its satchel. Then she turned to her briefcase, which opened obediently. Immediately the mortar, pestle, and eyedropper whisked themselves inside the lid then closed with a sharp click.
Niamh picked up the Buxsan amulet and quickly dropped it with a hiss. It was like getting burned by a live coal. Opening up her briefcase again, she took out a pair of white leather gloves and jerked them on. Picking up the amulet, she stared at it for a moment, and then she flicked it casually over her shoulder. It shot the length of the alley, finally embedding itself deep in the brick wall of the Perthamboyne Pharmacy. The card she read, and then tore it up into confetti.
There, she thought, no more butting in from meddling mountebanks.
Suddenly she became aware of a loud buzzing, and glanced up. Circling ponderously overhead was a bluebottle fly. Her face suddenly grew cold and hard. Setting down the satchel, she slowly rose to her feet. Keeping her eyes fixed on the insect, Niamh crept across the alley a few steps at a time. Then abruptly, she stopped. She waited patiently until the fly got within range, and then opened her mouth. A long, red tongue flicked out, and the snared fly gave a shrill hum as it disappeared between her rosebud lips.
“Mmm, kind of sweet,” murmured Niamh interestingly. “Must have been in someone’s honey jar.”
After a careful look around, she returned to the doorway. Picking up the satchel and briefcase, she headed back toward the noise and confusion of the main street.
Thirty yards back where the amulet landed, parts of the wall began to shift and waver. A scaly arm, the same color and texture of the bricks, erupted from the wall. It stretched out a clawed hand to grasp the shiny bauble. A pair of glowing blue eyes watched Niamh as she moved on down the alley.
Luckily for the public, the clash between the fire department and exterminators soon came to a close. The trolls grudgingly agreed to wait while the fire company watered down the bug bombs and lice. As soon as the smoke cleared, they would get their chance to climb aboard to complete their clean up. To while away the time waiting, the trolls all started whistling and singing an old Bluggerwart pub song called “My Old Man’s a Dustman.”
Kiki was inside a phone booth a short distance away from the hubbub. Holding the receiver up to her ear, she dialed, and then waited patiently. She could hear the phone ringing at the other end of the line.
Finally Grandma Esme’ stormed from the bathroom to the living room, trailing puddles of water in her wake. She was a short, birdlike woman with a sharp, fox like face with slanted brown eyes. She wore only a green bathrobe with all her hair bundled underneath a white towel turban.
“Bloody telemarketers!” she growled, snatching up the receiver. She snapped into the mouthpiece. “Now, look here, you galling mass of jurat worms! You green, noisome globs of malodorous slime! I am up to my pointy ears in your blatant advertising, so you can just go and stuff your freaking magazines up your horking—!”
“Uh… Hello, Grandma?” said a timorous voice at the other end.
Grandma Esme’s eyes bulged and she sputtered. “Oh, it’s you, Kiki!” she exclaimed, embarrassed. “Sorry about my language, but I thought you were one of those blasted salespeople who’d been calling me all morning.”
Kiki fidgeted nervously. “Grandma,” she said glumly, “we’re at Perthamboyne. I’m calling from a payphone near the corner of Lugar and Kootz Street.”
“I didn’t expect you girls to call so early,” said Grandma Esme’ worriedly. “What happened? Did the bus break down?”
“No, it didn’t break down…” answered Kiki hesitantly. She glanced back at the confusion still going on- the milling crowd of sightseers, the police trying to shoo them away or redirect traffic, the exterminators cheerfully singing, Gnashgarak shaking and sobbing. Several sympathetic pedestrians were now comforting him.
“What’s the howling noise I keep hearing?” Grandma Esme’ asked curiously. “Are there people injured?”
Kiki turned back to the mouthpiece. “Uhh… that’s the Greebik driver, Grandma,” she muttered. “I think he’s having a conniption fit.”
“Sounds more like a nervous breakdown to me!” Grandma Esme’ exclaimed in astonishment. “Was there really an accident? Did the Breebik crash?”
Kiki winced at the loudness of the questions. “No, there wasn’t any accident,” she answered weakly. “It’s just… it… well, it’s sort of hard to describe, but I think there was some kind… of… black… magic… involved.”
“Well, just try to do the best you can,” said Grandma Esme’ encouragingly.
“Well,” said Kiki, nervously scratching her ear, “the reason why the Greebik suddenly came to a stop is… that… it appeared to have some infestation—”
“Infestation of what?” asked Grandma Esme’, interrupting.
“Vermin,” mumbled Kiki.
“Vermin?” exclaimed Red Fox, startled. “As in grankle birds?”
“Uhh… smaller,” muttered Kiki nervously, “with… six legs… and they suck blood.”
There was a long pause.
“Chiggers?” exclaimed Grandma Esme’, baffled
“Close, Grandma,” said Kiki wearily. “They’re lice.”
“How could lice hold up a bus?” exclaimed Grandma Esme’. “Unless they were some incredibly filthy people on board.”
Kiki sighed. “Well, that’s the strange part. They just… well, for some reason, multiplied.”
“Multiplied? You mean like locusts?”
“Yes,” answered Kiki awkwardly, “they started swarming off these Gibblians in waves! This crawling ocean of vermin! They would have sucked us dry if we hadn’t gotten out of there in time.”
“Now let me get this straight,” said Grandma Esme’ calmly. “The lice swarmed off these Gibblians in waves?”
Kiki heaved a deeper sigh. “It’s hard to explain, Grandma!” she replied hoarsely. “I don’t know how it happened! It just happened! The lady I was talking to on the bus told me she was part of this group of magicians who were going to the Festival of Bells in Zelmak. I think the Gibblians ticked someone off—”
“It’s spells instead of bells,” Grandma Esme’ interrupted again. “What happened to those poor Gibblians?”
“Oh, they were taken to the hospital,” Kiki replied. “They weren’t in the best of shape.”
“No doubt,” muttered Grandma Esme’. “Ahh… is Tullugaq with you?”
Kiki scanned the crowded street, searching for that familiar green dress.
She turned back to the mouthpiece. “I don’t see her, Grandma,” answered Kiki. “I haven’t seen her since we evacuated the Greebik!”
Tullugaq, by now, was in a really grouchy mood. She still hadn’t recovered her beloved Wymble and had spent what seemed like eternity walking up and down the street, asking people.
“Great!” shouted Tullugaq, plonking herself down on the curb. “This is worse than being tread on by Lummoxes!”
She then spied a blue bottle lying near her feet. It was about the size and shape of a beer bottle, but it was much more elaborate.
“Now who would leave a fancy thing like that in the gutter?” muttered Tullugaq as she picked it up. She then noticed it was sealed tight with a cork, and as she held it up to the light, it appeared to contain a tiny, mummified man dressed in a stylish costume.
“Hey, a homunculus!” she exclaimed excitedly. “That’s just what I need to complete my Weird Wonders of the World Collection! My one-hundredth item!”
The stopper was a bit stiff, but she managed to pull it out. There was a loud foof and an eruption of greasy, green smoke, and Tullugaq found herself standing into the large, piercing eyes of a monstrously tall ghoul. The bottle dropped from her limp fingers and rolled along the pavement. “Oh crap!” she murmured.
Wilkie seemed to be the very definition of malevolence and rage. His short red hair and cat-whiskers bristled on end, while his wide mouth curled back to reveal ghastly purple gums and long spiky teeth. “Where's that snouting scoundrel, Gerhardt, gone to?” shouted Wilkie.
Tullugaq shot straight into the air and whirled around. Upon hitting the ground, she changed into a huge, orange cat and barreled down Lugar Street. Wilkie watched her turn a corner and disappear.
“Oh, fresh meat!” he groaned, his whiskers drooping in despair. “Now I’ve gone and frightened off some Changer.”
He heard a fly buzzing around. At first, it was too faint for him to pay much attention, but as the noise grew louder, it sounded more like a bumblebee. Turning slowly, Wilkie noticed with extreme annoyance that a huge horsefly was hovering near his nose.
“Git! Scram!” he shouted, waving his hands wildly. “Do I look like a horse to you?” The fly whirled out of reach, and after circling round him once, drifted high into the air. “Wretched biting pest,” Wilkie grumbled. “I sure hope a spider gets it.”
His long nose twitched when he caught the sudden fragrance of apple blossoms.
“Excuse me, sir,” said a silvery voice behind him.
Wilkie turned around and saw an elfin woman so richly dressed, so alluringly beautiful, that it took his breath away. It was like she had just stepped out of a classical painting, or from one of those history books on the ancient times before the boundaries between this world and the rational human one were closed forever.
“Ah—ah—afternoon,” he gasped. “I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Fair Lady.” He then doffed his silk top hat and did a low bow. Despite their terrifying appearance, ghouls were actually very courteous when it came to manners.
“Have you seen a Churcka girl in a green dress?” she asked. “She left her satchel behind when the Greebik was evacuated; it has a toy Wymble in it…”
“Suffering Cats!” exclaimed Wilkie with widening eyes. “The Greebik was evacuated? When was all this?”
“Why, half an hour ago, sir,” she said. “Don’t you remember? Some goofball of a magician placed a curse on the Gibblians, and they all came down with a severe case of lice. We would have all caught it if we haven’t gotten out…” She paused, staring at him in surprise. “Dear me!” she said, distressed. “What a dunce I am! No wonder you can’t remember! That old Ainsel whirled you up into a bottle!”
“Gerhardt, that rotten sneak!” Wilkie snapped. “If I so much as smell or see him around again, I’ll give him a curse so dreadful, that it would rival any loosened by all the known deities!”
He became aware of a buzzing again, and glanced up. The horsefly had returned and was now doing a planet-like orbit of his hat. Then it started circling round the Ainsel woman. She immediately stiffened, glared at it, then made a wild swipe at the fly with her briefcase. Not surprisingly, it missed the insect completely, knocking off Wilkie’s hat instead.
“Oh, dear!” she exclaimed, horrified. “I’m so very sorry!”
“It’s all right,” said Wilkie reassuringly, placing his hat back on. “It wasn’t your fault, Miss…?”
“Niamh,” she beamed, promptly shaking his hand. “Niamh the Golden, I’m really pleased … Beat it, you Glazarotsnatz!”
A look of venomous hatred spread across her face as she savagely swatted the air. Wilkie leaped nimbly back just in time. Seeing his startled gaze, Niamh apologized profusely.
“I can never stand insects,” she said, turning scarlet with embarrassment, “especially flies. Really disgusting things, you can catch a lot of foul diseases from them crawling all over your food… and there are certain people who like eating the larvae.”
“Well, they’re actually good protein,” said Wilkie, as politely as he could. “A lot of people enjoy eating them, not just ghouls.”
Niamh gaped at him wide-eyed. “Disgusting!” she wailed, whipping out her silk handkerchief and fanning her with it. “The very thought of it makes me ill!”
Wilkie nodded his head slowly. She must be a vegetarian, he thought curiously. I can never understand people who are vegetarians. His elder brother Gavin once tried to lead that sort of frustrated existence—disdaining carrion of every kind. Of course, Gavin had to give it up when he fainted from lack of proper nourishment and fell down the stairs.
Suddenly he tilted his head back and his keen nose began snuffling the air. “Wait, I’m getting something!” he yelled. “It’s just a whiff, but it’s there!”
“What is it?” asked Niamh. “Is it Gerhardt?”
“No, no,” answered Wilkie. His nostrils sifted and worried the air like a pair of eager bloodhounds. “Professor Gerhardt reeks of that horrid, pink, aftershave lotion; you can smell him halfway down the street. This smell reminds me of lightning, like shortly before a thunderstorm when there’s tremendous pressure in the atmosphere.”
Niamh sniffed speculatively. “All I smell is the smoke from the fumigating,” she said.
“You mean you don’t smell it?” said Wilkie, dismayed. “It’s getting stronger now!” Suddenly he wrinkled up his nose in disgust. “Phew!” he cried. “What an abominable stench! Is someone curing beef around here? If it’s one thing I can’t stand, it's smoked jerky.”
“Nope, sorry,” replied Niamh, giving the ghoul a funny look. “Well, I won’t waste anymore of your time. I have a satchel to return—” She broke off to glare at the horsefly as it droned into view. In spite of her swatting and yells of protest, it zoomed past her nose and spun around her head.
“Oh-h… Wait!” cried Wilkie. “That Churcka you’re looking for…”
“So you did see her?” she said with such sweetness that it put him immediately at ease.
He turned and pointed in the direction that Tullugaq took. “The girl you’re looking for, she…” He trailed off when he heard a sharp crack like a whip snapping behind him, then a series of strangled hiccups.
Turning around, he caught sight of the horsefly spinning in erratic circles near the ground. Glancing up, he then noticed Niamh clasping her handkerchief to her mouth. Her eyes bulged and her face took on a greenish tint. Concerned, Wilkie stepped toward her, but the Ainsel shook her head.
“I’m oo-kay,” croaked Niamh, muffled by her handkerchief. “Just feeling a bit peakish, that’s all. It… um… must have been something I just ate…” Immediately she was seized with a convulsive fit of coughing. “Bloody awful bugs!” she said, gasping feebly, like a stranded goldfish.
Niamh’s face was now a deathly white, and the surface of it twitched and quivered as though a swarm of beetles were crawling underneath. Wilkie’s eyes widened in horror. Niamh was changing.
Her face shifted like hot wax, melting from that of a beautiful Ainsel woman into another thing, a foul and atrocious thing, a monstrosity whose face was scarcely more than a skull barely covered by dry, desiccated skin. Coarse black hair hung loose and mane-like over the scalp, the lips were thin and stretched tight over the teeth, and the eyes were the most hideous feature. What should have been empty eye sockets were filled with red flame. The burning stench of singed hair and dried leathery flesh rose in intensity, totally replacing the flowery scent Wilkie smelt earlier.
Terrified, he tried to move, but couldn’t. Helpless, he cast pleading looks at the people walking by. Most hurried by without so much as a single glance, and those that did turn their heads to look just stared at him, as though wondering if perhaps Wilkie was a little touched. Soon he realized that only his eyes, and no one else’s could see this grisly abomination lurking underneath a beautiful golden facade.
With immense effort, Wilkie finally managed to shake off his paralysis, and took a step back, and then he took another step, then another. Good, he thought, it’s not looking at me.
The creature was still nursing whatever mysterious ailment suddenly overcame it. Maybe it wasn’t used to sunlight or large, noisy crowds.
Still fiddling with its hanky, good.
Now all he had to do was turn around and run like the wind. Maybe he could find a shaman, or a fellow magician, anybody who just happened to be toting a complete arsenal of defensive spells. Wilkie kicked himself for letting Gerhardt pull the old “Djinn in the bottle” trick on him, and for having left his Thimbulian demon trap at home. That was the problem with having so many magical trinkets; you never know when one of them might come in handy one day.
Wilkie wheeled about suddenly, ready to race pell-mell far from that loathsome, mummy-faced nightmare. Yet something got in the way of his foot and he stumbled over backwards.
Niamh glanced up sharply at the loud ringing of a bottle rolling down the street. Then she looked down at the ghoul sprawled flat on his back.
“Are you okay?” asked Niamh. Her voice now had a rasping, metallic quality. It grated rather than cooed.
“Fine,” squeaked Wilkie, cursing his stupidity and bad luck. Now he was going to be deprived of his life shortly, all because of Gerhardt’s blasted blue bottle. When I go down to the Underworld, he thought somberly, I'm going to ask Dreon to let me come back as a ghost, so I can haunt that ghastly Gerhardt wherever he goes!
To his astonishment the Thing bent down, took hold of his shoulders, and hauled him to his feet. After studying his face closely for a few minutes, she said:
“You don’t look fine.”
Wilkie gulped and his hands trembled. Standing before him was something that could squash him as easily as one would squash a fly. He had to disguise his thoughts, and fast. If this something latched onto his mind, he was history.
“It’s your dress… and your hair,” he stammered, icy with terror. They’re… they’re so… gorgeously bright… and beautiful. It makes my eyes ache just looking at you.”
The Thing that was Niamh smiled. Her withered lips curled up, revealing yellowish teeth. Wilkie was suddenly reminded of a dead ferret he once found. Then the smoked flesh smell abruptly died away, and Niamh’s familiar face shifted back into place. “Why thank you,” she said, smiling sweetly. “You’re so kind.”
She then glanced at her gold and diamond watch. “Dear me!” Niamh exclaimed. “Three o’clock already? My, how time flies!” She sighed and looked at him solemnly. ”Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Bye.”
The ghoul stood motionless, watching her go. As soon as the lingering scent of apple blossoms faded, he heaved a long sigh of relief.
“Such a distinguished young woman,” he said sarcastically. “I wonder if she’s related to that Medusa woman. She nearly froze me to stone. Really wild hairdo… must be having trouble finding the right shampoo—”
Wilkie broke off when he realized what he had done. “Mother of Ravens!” he gasped. “I just sent that monstrosity after that poor Tullugaq girl!”
A hand suddenly gripped his shoulder.
“Hi, Wilkie!” exclaimed a voice right in his ear. “Long time no see, buddy! How on Relmar did you get out of that bottle?”
Wilkie greeched. He whirled around with bristling whiskers, flattened ears, and wild, bulging eyes.
“Oh, it’s you, Asp,” he laughed, somewhat relieved.
The Zoldrak stared at him in amazement. He had never seen Wilkie get into such a rattled state like this before. Something must have frightened him so terribly. But what on Relmar would frighten a ghoul?
“By the Harvester of Souls!” Asp finally burst out. “What the hork happened to you? You look as though you’ve seen a Rakshasa!”
Wilkie laughed hysterically. “Rakshasa? By the Lord of Darkness and Death! What I saw was worse than any mere minion of Ravana’s realm! What I saw was a Preta!”
Asp shivered and glanced behind him, half expecting to see something horrid rushing toward him. But there was nothing there, except for a few sparrows searching for crumbs.
Turning back, he nearly tripped over Arthur, who was dragging himself to his feet.
“Arthur!” Asp exclaimed in surprise. “Where did you pop up from?”
“So she’s gone at last,” Arthur muttered faintly, as he brushed the dust and drool from his clothes. “Thank the Gods for that. If I hadn’t been a nasty biting horsefly, I would have been down her gullet like a crumb of bread.”
Looking up, he finally acknowledged Asp. “Oh, hello there, Asp!” He then nodded to the ghoul. “Wilkie… fancy meeting you all here! In case you’re all wondering, I was nearly swallowed up by an Ainsel woman with an amazing expandable tongue, and if my suspicions are correct, I think…”
Arthur put his hands to his head and closed his eyes. A wave of dizziness swept over him and he fell to his knees.
“I… I don’t know if her breath’s poisonous or what,” he muttered faintly, ”but I suddenly feel queasy.”
Alarmed, Asp stooped down and helped Arthur to his feet. He glanced at Wilkie. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll talk about this at The Gourmet Insectivore.”
Written by Mmpratt99 deviantart
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