Welcome! Thank you for taking the time to read the latest installment in our new book. If you’re just joining us, you may prefer to start at the beginning. The Introduction, which is beneficial to understanding the story, can be found here. If you would rather jump straight into the story, click here for Chapter 1.
Setting up base camp took longer than Nadia wanted. Mary and Sally were experienced and efficient not only in completing their assigned task but helping Terri and Shania with theirs. Andy, on the other hand, was perhaps the clumsiest and most accident-prone person any of them had ever seen. Tent pegs and guide wires seemed to be his enemy. By the time camp was set, Andy had bandages in four places and a knot on his forehead that Sally was convinced was probably a concussion. Mary and Shania were frustrated at having to reset or replace the pegs and wires that Andy had decimated. Terri had taken the extra step of forbidding him from carrying any of her equipment for fear he would fall and break it. Nadia was heard to remark, “That boy should come with a warning label.”
Warren had volunteered to set up the two generators the rangers had graciously helped haul to the campsite. While they had both been packaged securely for the trip, moisture had still managed to make its way into the fuel lines, making it difficult to get either of the machines started. Warren cursed and fumed as he was working on them, leaving Andy to set up the men’s tent on his own. By the time Warren brought both generators to a belching start, Andy had barely managed to get the tent upright and their gear inside. Warren swore than if anyone tried putting him on another field team ever again that he would quit, retire, or something.
Looking at the 14:00 on her smartwatch, Nadia debated with herself whether to do any scouting that afternoon. While there was still a good five hours of sunlight left, she knew that leaving markers and documenting their terrain would limit the distance they would be able to cover. Her decision to send them out was based as much on the frustration she knew everyone felt more than any scientific reasoning.
Nadia divided the team into two groups. Mary, Terri, and Warren were one group and would look east of the camp. Sally, Shania, and Andy would stay with her and explore to the north. None of them would go more than two miles into the forest and they would keep in constant communication in case either group found something important or needed assistance.
“Now is when we put our personal biases and concerns aside and behave like scientists,” Nadia told them in a pre-hike pep talk. “We know the satellite is picking up something it thinks is a mountain. So, we’re looking for any sign of ground disturbance, any signs of unexpected damage or shock, anything that seems too new to fit with the landscape. I don’t expect much today, just set the markers, and let’s try to get back here by 18:00 if we can. There’s no point in going too far this afternoon.”
The team nodded, shouldered backpacks and equipment, and started off. Two minutes in, Andy tripped over a tree root and fell on his face. It was going to be a long afternoon.
Scouts that Bogmenak had sent out wasted no time sending word back that there were humans in the forest. Bogmenak wasn’t surprised by their presence, only that they were there so soon after the storms had passed. He briefly considered letting Bockwimen know about the possible intrusion but was concerned that doing so might alert Apa’ii, who might not be in an aggressive mood after all the Nawa’ Diyo casualties in the battle. She had permitted the clans to fight their own battles, after all, and scaring off a team of human scientists didn’t sound like too difficult a task. He could handle this one without any help from the home tree.
Bogmenak’s strategy was simple: make it too difficult for the humans to make their way through the forest. They would create a barrier that the humans would see as a thorn hedge. If the scientists tried to hack their way through, they would find that not only would the hedge be impervious to human attacks but that they would also cut and slice at anyone daring to enter into their midst. No one was going to make their way past the Yarrats. Bogmenak was certain.
The warrior had waited many seasons for this opportunity. Bogmenak set his troops along a line where the mist had once formed. They weren’t trying to be invisible or fly so there was little worry about their minimal magic failing them. They dug down as best they could. Unlike the sand of the desert, the topsoil here was shallow and sedimentary rock made it difficult to bury themselves as deep as they might have preferred. Still, they would not be easily moved. Getting past them would require a level of magic Bogmenak knew the humans didn’t have.
Terri was the first to come across what she assumed was a hedge of wild thistles. She thought it was a bit unusual to see so heavy a group of thorned bushes in the underbrush but as that was not her immediate point of study she concerned herself more with trying to find a way around them. Not finding a reasonable solution, she called to the rest of the group, “Did anyone happen to bring a machete? We have a bunch of thistles we’ll have to hack our way through.”
“I have one,” Sally responded, “But I’m rather reluctant to use it. Are you sure we can’t go around it?”
“Not unless you plan to do some fancy climbing,” Terri answered. “There’s a ravine about 30 yards to our east and a lovely rock formation to our west. The hedge extends the width between them. The easiest way north is to go through them.”
Nadia walked up as Terri finished talking. “We’re here to explore, not tear things up,” she said. “Finding a hedge like this deep in the forest is unique. The last thing we want to do is hack it up with a machete.”
“It doesn’t really look all that thick,” Andy said as he examined the hedge. “I can probably find us a path through that’s minimally disruptive.” He looked at the others before adding, “No one is wearing shorts, so we don’t have to worry as much about surface cuts.”
“I don’t know, this may be a good place to stop and turn around for the night,” Nadia said. “We’ve not seen any signs yet of natural disruption. We can go back to camp, study the map a bit more, and find a better way that doesn’t disrupt anomalies like this.”
As she finished talking, Nadia turned around to see that Andy was waist-deep in the middle of the hedge. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she yelled at him.
“I just thought I could…” Andy started.
“No, you weren’t thinking,” Nadia interrupted. “Get out of there before you crush something with those big feet of yours.”
“Well, there’s kind of a problem with that,” Andy said. “I seem to be stuck and the more I try to move the more I’m caught on the barbs. It’s as though they’re trying to hold on to me.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard,” Nadia said.
“Stay there and stop fidgeting like a two-year-old,” Sally said. “I’ll see if I can get you out with minimal damage to the hedge.” She carefully took a couple of steps into the hedge but had not gotten far before one of the Yarrat soldiers reached out and grabbed hold of her pants leg, refusing to let go. Another grabbed her from the other side, trapping her in the hedge. “These barbs are a bit sticky,” she said as she tried to free herself from what she thought was a snag. She reached down and the warrior stabbed her hand with one of the thorns. Sally gave a bit of a yelp as she pulled back her hand. Blood was dripping from the puncture wound. “These are nasty,” she said. “I hate to do this but hand me the machete on the back of my backpack and I’ll get us both out.”
“Really?” Nadia asked, challenging Sally’s decision. “It’s only a hedge. This shouldn’t be that difficult.” She walked to the edge of the hedge and tried reaching over to move a barb snagged on Sally’s blouse. As she did, the warrior reached up and stabbed her as well, causing her to stumble into the hedge.
“The machete, please?” Sally asked as she gave Nadia an annoying side glance. Terri managed to reach over the top of the hedge and free the machete from the back of Sally’s backpack, handing it to her. Sally started hacking at the bush closest to her only to find that her machete bounced off without doing any damage. Bogmenak had made sure all the warriors composing the hedge were protected from such attacks. Even fire wasn’t going to get them to loosen their grip.
Sally tried the machete again with the same results. She looked at Nadia and said, “Okay, we have a problem. We should probably call for help.”
“Quickly, maybe,” Andy said. “I must be allergic to the bush or something. I’m starting to not feel so well.”
Nadia grabbed the radio from her belt and pushed the button on the side. “Team two to team one, team two to team one, do you read?”
“Team one to team two, we copy. What’s up?” Mary said.
“We need some assistance over here, please. We’ve gotten impossibly stuck in a hedge and can’t get ourselves out. Even the machete didn’t work.”
“Can you send me your coordinates?” Mary asked.
Nadia checked the GPS on her phone and answered, “41°, 53, .0857 North, 75°, 30, 38.537 West.”
There was a pause before Mary answered. “There’s some rough terrain between here and there, or we have to swim,” she said. “Looks like our best route puts us about 20 minutes away. Can you hold out that long?”
Nadia looked over at Andy. He was starting to look flushed. “We’ll do our best but if you can shorten that any we wouldn’t object. These thorns are not treating us well. We may have an allergic reaction to deal with.”
“Copy,” Marry said. “We’ll be there as quickly as we can.”
Terri looked at Sally and then Nadia before asking. “What can I do? Twenty minutes seems like a long time to wait.”
Andy coughed a couple of times, did his best to turn away, and then vomited violently over the bush. The warriors were caught off guard by the sudden volume of liquid coming from the human’s mouth and momentarily loosened their grip.
Andy stumbled a few steps toward the others before being caught again and inflicted with a new set of puncture wounds. The warriors drove their barbs deep into the human’s legs. Andy could feel the blood trickling down into his sock. He turned and vomited a bit more. Not only was the warm liquid annoying to the magicians, but the smell was also disgusting. The warriors moved to let the vomit fall to the ground, shaking themselves to get the offending material off their heads. The more they shook, the tighter Andy was caught. He fell to his knees and threw up one more time before passing out.
The women looked at each other, both concerned and frustrated. They all had first aid training and Nadia and Mary both carried kits in their backpacks. Mary was still at least fifteen minutes away, though, and the hedge seemed determined to not let Nadia move toward Andy at all.
“Have you seen his medical file?” Sally asked. “If he’s having an allergic reaction we may not have a lot of time.”
“No one on the team listed any severe allergies,” Nadia said. “But then, it’s not every day one comes into contact with barbs like this, is it? I don’t even recognize the species. I have Epinephrine in the kit but I can’t get to it and even if I could I cant get to Andy. I’m worried about anaphylaxis.”
“That may not be our only concern,” Sally said. “How are you feeling? I’m starting to not do so well myself.”
Nadia’s adrenaline had long taken over, raising both her heart rate and blood pressure while convincing her that everything was fine. “I’m okay,” she said, “But we’re going to need help getting Andy out of here. He’s too big for any of us to carry and we don’t have the materials to make a stretcher.”
“That’s if anyone can get to him,” Sally said. “Now that he’s down, I’m having trouble keeping an eye on him.”
Bogmenak’s warriors had moved tightly around Andy’s body. Anyone who didn’t know he was there would have likely walked right past him. Getting him out was going to be an undertaking that had no easy solution.
Nadia checked with the other group and, hearing they were still several minutes away, instructed Terri to change channels on the radio and send a distress call to the rangers. The call was not received kindly. Only two rangers were on duty at the station after 5:00 PM and one of them had to stay at the station. They would have to call for medics from the nearest town and wait for them to arrive. The odds of getting Andy out of the forest alive were not looking good.
Alternatively, Terri walked back the way they came, still within earshot of Nadia, looking for saplings they might cut down for use as stretcher poles. If they could wave their backpacks along the poles, they might at least be able to get Andy back to camp. His odds were better there and it would be easier for the rangers to find them.
Sally had started throwing up when Mary, Shania, and Warren reached them. Reaching over the bushes, Warren and Mary pulled Nadia and Sally free. Both were bleeding from their cuts. Sally slumped to the ground as Terri and Shania broke open the first aid kits and began treating the wounds.
Mary and Warren looked for Andy as best they could without wading into the bushes. Neither of them could see him. Warren tried hacking at the bushes with the machete as Sally had done and was infuriated to have the blade bounce off the branches. “There has to be a way to get to him,” Warren groused. “We’re not going to lose him or leave him. Everyone gets out.”
A rustling from the path caused them all to turn. “Are the rangers here already?” Terri asked, checking her watch. Only ten minutes had passed since she made the emergency call.
There was more rustling and for a moment the group became hopeful only to have that hope replaced by terror as what emerged from the brush was seven of the biggest gray wolves any of them had ever seen.
“Just great,” Warren muttered. “Out of the frying pan and straight into the fire.”
None of the humans would have guessed that the wolves were Bockwimen and a group of scouts. Having been alerted to the presence of humans close to the mist, they were out on patrol. Coming across the humans wasn’t a surprise but finding Bogmenak and his warriors was. “What are you doing here this far from your mountain?” Bockwimen asked angrily.
“Protecting us all,” Bogmenak shot back. “We’ve already taken one of the humans down. We may yet get some of the others if you’ll leave us alone.”
Bockwimen looked at the humans and snarled. “They don’t look so dangerous to me. What gives you the impression they are trouble?”
“They have a camp set up with a lot of the human technology. Two of them carry maps with pictures of our mountain. If they find the mountain, they find the home tree. They are putting us all in danger,” Bogmenak said.
Bockwimen sniffed at Sally and Nadia, both of them recoiling in fear as they felt the hot breath of what they assumed was a ferocious beast. He looked over at Bogmenak and said, “Their bodies are covered in fear. Let them go. We will watch them pack and leave. They pose no harm to anyone in this condition.”
“You are soft and you are a fool!” Bogmenak said defiantly. “If we let them go, they will only return later with more humans, possibly from the air where it is more difficult for us to stop them. We kill them now, there is no chance they will do us harm.”
“That is not how humans think,” Bockwimen said. “You would make martyrs of these. Their deaths would only unleash more humans in our forest. They would cut down the trees and burn the underbrush to get at us. If they are after our mountain then we must find more effective ways of convincing them it’s not there.”
“Queen Apa’ii has given us permission to protect ourselves as we see fit,” Bogmenak challenged. “We have permission to take lives.”
“You do not have permission to act in haste,” Bockwimen said. “The queen is now aware of what you have done. She orders you to stand down and return to your homes. She will have counsel for you in the morning.”
Bogmenak growled only to have the wolves growl back at him. He knew that Boackwimen carried the power of the queen’s magic with him. To try and fight would be pointless, especially in front of humans who already didn’t have a clue what was going on.
The transition happened too quickly for the humans to notice anything more than a strong wind. As Bogmenak and his warriors left, Bockwimen produced a real hedge in their place, just as thick and more dangerous. The thorns were toxic to humans. However, they weren’t impenetrable. The frightened and damaged humans would be able to leave in defeat, likely keeping any others away from the mist for a while.
Nadia and the team were not aware of the conversation between Bogmenak and Bockwimen, of course. All they saw was a group of wolves keeping them tightly together as one seemed to snarl and growl at the hedge.
“What do we do?” Shania asked. “There’s nowhere to run!”
“Don’t make any sudden or unusual moves,” Mary said. “There’s more of us than there are of them. Stand as tall as you can and try to look fierce even if you’re not feeling it. Intimidation is the only weapon we have right now.”
There was a flutter of wings as a group of birds landed on the branches of the trees around them. “That’s interesting,” Terri said. “I wouldn’t have expected a whole flock of songbirds this time of day.”
“At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if snakes suddenly came up from the ground,” Nadia said. “We need to get Andy and get back to camp… maybe to a hospital.”
The birds were another set of scouts led by Puckwudjinee. “The queen sent us in case the humans try to attack you,” he said to Bockwimen. “There are several more humans coming. You’re strongly encouraged to leave and let the forest cover you, but we have permission to make ourselves visible and fight if necessary.”
“Not just yet,” Bockwimen replied. “There’s one more thing we need to do.” He nodded his head, yipping at two of his wolf scouts who carefully wove their way through the hedge until they got to Andy. Each one grabbed a strap from his backpack and pulled the scientist free of the bushes. His clothes were torn and bloody, his skin pale and cold to the touch.
Bockwimen stared at Nadia until he had her attention. Then, in an audible voice that everyone heard, the great wolf said, “You are trespassing on sacred ground. We are sparing your lives only so you can go back and tell others to stay away. You will not return. Should we see you again our response will not be as friendly.”
The sound of the approaching rescue team could be heard in the distance. Bockwimen and the other scouts sent up a howl that echoed menacingly through the forest before trotting off down the ravine, disappearing into the trees on the other side. Puckwudjinee and his scouts flew away as well, leaving the humans stunned.
“I’m more ill than I thought,” Nadia said. “Not only am I hallucinating, I’m hearing voices. I would have sworn that wolf was talking to me.”
“There’s no such thing as shared hallucination,” Mary said. “I’m pretty sure we all heard the same thing and we need to agree right now that we’re not going to say a damn word about it to anyone. They’ll have us locked in a looney bin before nightfall if we do.”
The others nodded in agreement. Talking wolves were not good for anyone’s career.
The ranger arrived accompanied by a team of eight, carrying three stretchers. “We didn’t want to take any chances on everyone being able to walk out,” he said as medics began attending to Andy first, then Sally and Nadia. “What the hell happened up here? Did I hear wolves howling?” the ranger asked. “This is usually the quiet region of the forest. We never have any problems up here.”
Nadia nodded toward the hedge. “We made the mistake of thinking we could get through that mess. Once those barbs grabbed hold, they didn’t want to let go.”
“That’s odd,” the ranger said as he walked over to the nearest bush. “I don’t recall anything like this being in our flora population. This isn’t native to our forest.” he took out his knife and cut off a small section, careful to include barbs for poison testing.
Shania, feeling calmer now that the wolves were gone, walked over and took a closer look at the hedge. “These aren’t indigenous to North America at all,” she said. “This is gymnosporia buxfolia. I saw them when I was doing my thesis research in Zimbabwe. Be careful of both the spines and the leaves. Nothing about this plant is friendly and anyone who’s had even a small scratch needs to see a doctor pretty damn fast.”
The ranger looked suspiciously at Shania. “You sure about that? I know migratory fowl drop a lot of seeds in the forest, but we’ve never had anything pop up from the African continent.”
Shania shrugged. “Call a botanist if you don’t want to believe me,” she said. “Just don’t prick yourself on those barbs. You’ll be sick before you get back to the station.”
“I can confirm her opinion,” Warren said, his tone defensive. “Sally probably could too, if she wasn’t about to pass out. There aren’t any dummies on this team. You might want to listen and put that sample in a bag before someone else is exposed to the toxin.”
Mary reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a plastic sample bag, handing it to the ranger. “Here, use this. They’ll want to test the toxin at the hospital.”
Reluctantly, the ranger took the bag and put the hedge sample inside. The medics had Andy and Sally on stretchers and were heading back to the ranger station.
“Are you sure you can walk?” one of the medics asked Nadia.
“Yeah, for now,” Nadia answered. “Stay close in case that changes, though.” She looked at the rest of the team. “Someone probably needs to stay at camp with the equipment. We’re going to have to pack things up and head back.”
“I’ll stay,” Warren said. “Won’t be the first time I’ve had to break camp by myself.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Shania said. “I’m not sure anyone is safe out here by themselves.”
Nadia looked at Mary. “Your call, stay, or go?”
Mary held out her hand with a long scratch across the top. “I’m not sure when or where I got it, or if it’s even from this hedge, but I’m not taking any more chances tonight.”
“Same here,” Terri said. “I thought I had stayed clear, but I’m seeing all these little scratches now and Nadia, you don’t look well at all. Are you sure you don’t want that stretcher?”
Nadia didn’t have a chance to answer before her eyes closed and she slumped to the ground. The remaining medics quickly moved her to the stretcher and made sure the straps were secured before heading down the path.
“Are you two sure you’re good for the night?” Mary asked, looking at Warren and Shania. “I’m not sure any of us will be back before morning.”
“We’ll be fine,” Warren said, “as long as the bears don’t try to start a conversation.” He winked and gave Mary a wry grin. Shania suppressed a giggle.
“If they do its only because they think you’re one of them,” Mary said, happy to inject some humor into the situation. “I’ll try to keep my phone with me in case anything changes.”
“I’m going to call Brad and have him send a couple more people out,” Warren said. “I don’t think Nadia or Sally are going to be in any shape to drive. And Andy… I just hope the boy is still alive when you get to the hospital.”
“Ma’am, we need to go,” a medic urged.
“Sure,” Mary said. Sighing she added, “It’s always something. Scorpions, snakes, wolves, poisonous bushes. There are times I wonder if nature doesn’t like us.”
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Reggie did his best to not let his emotions get the best of him as he sorted through the debris of the burned-out lab. Wildfires were not that unusual in the state, but no one could recall having so many erupt at the same time. Lightning had struck everything it could find and everything it had struck, burned. The entire university campus had been evacuated so no one had to suffer the pain of watching all the years of research go up in smoke. Of course, raw data and everything else that could be digitized was safe in off-site backup facilities, but anything that was still in progress, any work that involved live cultures or tissue samples, or any natural material of any kind, was gone.
An email from the Dean had let him know that all research and the grants funding them were suspended until the university trustees determined how and when facilities and programs would be rebuilt. Anticipation was that classes would not resume on campus for at least three years. Classroom buildings and dormitories were among the oldest structures and were the first to succumb to the fire. That there had been no human fatalities was considered a miracle.
Reggie was tired. The fires had not only consumed the majority of the campus but also most of the neighboring towns. Reggie had managed to grab his laptop, some notes, and a few changes of clothes before leaving his 60-year-old ranch home. When he returned, all that was left was the foundation and a mortgage. Insurance would cover the mortgage and, so far, the police had let him park his pickup in the driveway and sleep in the bed. That wouldn’t be safe for long, though. As more people returned, so would the desperation and violence that too often shows humans for what they are.
Water was being rationed, which meant no one was taking showers. Everyone and everything smelled of smoke. Reggie was glad that Kay had retreated to her parents’ home somewhere in the midwest. While the university had secured faculty salaries, for the time being, all research and support staff were dismissed. No one could be sure if or when all the funding would return. He knew she would likely find a position at another university without too much trouble. For now, they were still exchanging text messages several times a day but he didn’t expect that to last.
This was the first day the university was allowing anyone back on campus in an attempt to salvage anything. He knew the task was futile. Five floors of research had collapsed into a heap of smoldering rubble. The odds of finding anything amidst all the clutter was infinitesimal. Eighteen years of his life’s work was nothing but ash. He had completed and defended his doctoral dissertation here. His marriage had started and ended here. Perhaps most importantly, this had been the place where he first hypothesized that minute magnetic anomalies picked up by various instruments might represent an alternative life form. He had been certain that he was about to prove his theory when the storms started.
That was why the scientist was here now. Somewhere in all this mess was a hard drive that might still contain the video of a box levitating before tipping over and dumping its contents of small cameras on the floor. He knew that even if he did manage to find the right drive, and there was no way to know if he found a drive that it was the right one, there would still be the difficult and challenging task of recovering any data it might contain.
Reggie kept telling himself that the smart move was to wait, maybe take a long vacation, and start over when new facilities were completed. Each time he came close to convincing himself to leave, however, he would look and see dozens of other researchers and professors doing the same thing he was, looking for things they were not likely to find. Scientists like him were not ones to give up no matter how daunting the obstacles. There was a unifying belief among them that the more challenges one faced in getting to a discovery made that discovery more valuable. Any discovery that came after this mess would be a great prize.
Reggie kicked at the debris with the toe of his shoe. Knocking away one layer of ash only revealed another layer of the same. It occurred to him to wonder if any of the carbon floating around might be radioactive. Had anyone bothered to check? He knew that none of the research in this building had directly involved any radioactive elements, but that didn’t eliminate the possibility that some might have been created during the fire as different elements and materials fell together, potentially mixing. If there was any such danger lurking, it was too late to worry. Exposure had already happened and there weren’t any decontamination facilities.
Hours passed as Reggie kept searching. He stopped long enough to eat a cold cheese and lettuce sandwich handed out by a local charity. The only grocery store still open was 40 miles away and its shelves were empty as deliveries were currently impossible. Campus security announced via bull horn that the campus would be closing in an hour and that everyone would have to leave. Reggie felt frustrated at having wasted the entire day finding nothing. He gave one more kick at the nearest pile of ash. Nothing but dust.
Reggie walked back toward his truck feeling more depressed than when he had arrived. He could always come back in the morning, he reasoned. Others were likely to do the same and it wasn’t like other tasks were demanding his attention. As he neared the pickup, there was an instant where Reggie thought he might have seen a flash of blue light in the cab. He quickly dismissed the idea. There were several police patrols in the area with their lights flashing. That the window glass would reflect that light was too logical to consider anything else. He unlocked the door and pushed over a jacket lying in the front seat when he saw the drive.
Right there, in the cab of his pickup, with the security tag still visible and the connecting wires still attached, was the drive for which he’d spent the day looking. He didn’t need to plug it in to be certain. This had to be the correct drive.
The next question was how had it gotten to the front seat of his pickup? There was no question that the doors were locked. He heard the latch release when he pressed the button on his key fob. Not that duplicating the fob’s signal was all that difficult. There were plenty of people around campus who would have that capability. Who, though, could have found the drive and determined this was the one he needed and why didn’t they bring it to him directly?
Sitting in the cab of the truck, turning the drive over in his hands, he realized the drive hadn’t been in the fire at all. There were no burn marks, no signs of heat stress, not even a hint of melting with the plastic mounting pieces. This drive had been removed from the building or somehow protected before the fire!
Again, the question of who might be responsible was problematic. The fires had caught everyone at the university by surprise. No one could have anticipated his building taking multiple direct lightning strikes. The whole event was such an anomaly that any action that might appear predictive would be dismissed as random chance. Yet, he was holding an untarnished drive in his hand.
Reggie pulled his cell phone from his pocket and opened an app showing the location of hotels that were still open and had a vacancy. He needed a safe place with electricity to try connecting the drive to his laptop. A soft bed to sleep in wouldn’t be a bad thing, either, he reasoned. Scrolling through the list, he finally found a small hotel about an hour to the South, near the bay. He booked the reservation for three nights. Not only would it take some time to find the video on the drive, editing, and documenting the precise moment the box had levitated was critical. He also knew that if he ever fell asleep he’d likely stay that way for several hours.
His foot firmly on the brake pedal, Reggie started the truck’s engine. There was a startling flash of blue light, enough to make Reggie think an electrical problem had occurred with the truck. Looking over at the seat next to him, though, he saw three small winged individuals perched playfully on the back of the passenger seat. Kek, Breen, and Vecom smiled and waved. “So, where are we going?” Kek asked.
“And would you like us to drive?” added Breen. “Not that we’ve ever done it before, but it doesn’t look too difficult.”
Reggie rubbed his eyes, surprised to find the three still there after doing so. “Hallucinations aren’t a side effect of radiation poisoning,” he said aloud to himself.
“No, but they can be caused by stress, and dude, you’re so stressed you’re about to pop,” Vecom said. He flew up, landed on Reggie’s shoulder, and looked at his phone. “You really need something closer,” he said. “You shouldn’t be driving too far in your condition.”
“My condition?” Reggie asked, adamantly. “What do you mean, ‘my condition?’”
“Stressed!” they said in unison.
“Well, tough!” Reggie said. “That’s the closest place with any room.”
“Nah, you missed this place,” Vecom said, pointing to Reggie’s smartphone. “Nice place, too. I know we’ll feel more comfortable and the Internet should be back up in a couple of days.”
Reggie looked at the app. Sure enough, it was showing an available room only a couple of miles away. He quickly reserved the room and headed toward the hotel.
“Whee!” shouted Breen. “I’ve never gone for a ride in an automobile like this one. Are you sure we can’t drive?”
“We’re not going far,” Reggie said. “I think I can handle it.” He stopped talking as he realized what he was doing. “And now I’m talking to the fairies that aren’t sitting in my truck.”
“Fairies? Where?” Kek asked, turning his head from side to side. “I didn’t know there were any fairies still in this region, did you guys?”
“I’ve not seen any,” Breen confirmed.
“Me neither,” said Vecom. “Where are you seeing these fairies?”
Reggie shook his head. “If you guys aren’t fairies then I should go ahead and check myself into a hospital.”
“You think we’re fairies?” Kek said, doubling over laughing. “You think we’re fairies!”
“We’re pixiemandalons, silly!” Breen said. “Fairies are bigger, nearly twice the size we are, but they don’t like it around here as much. They prefer forests with lots and lots of trees.”
“Pixiemandalons,” Reggie repeated as he drove. “My own brain is mocking me, making up creatures that don’t exist, and making them talk. I had to have inhaled something toxic out there. A healthy brain doesn’t do things like this.”
“Hey, you’re the one who was looking for us before the war started,” Vecom said. “And you’re welcome for saving that drive for you. We were afraid you might not come back if it burned.”
“Wait, you’re the ones who dumped all the cameras on the floor?” Reggie asked. “You realize you ruined thousands of dollars worth of university equipment?”
“Which all burned in the fire so it doesn’t matter, does it?” Breen said. “Besides, we couldn’t let you put those things back in the forest. Not with the war going on. You’re likely to get hurt.”
“Yeah, not everyone is as friendly as we are. Those who live in the forest don’t like humans much at all,” Kek said. “Nor those in the desert… or the air… or the water.” He posed for a moment as though he were in thought, then added, “You know, pretty much everyone doesn’t like humans. You’re lucky we find you amusing.”
Reggie pulled up to the hotel and told them, “I’m going inside and getting the key to my room. You probably won’t be here when I get back because I still think you’re the work of a mind in the process of a complete breakdown. But if you are here, I want to know more about this war you keep mentioning.”
“You hear that?” Kek said to Breen. “He thinks we’re a piece of work!” They all laughed loudly as Reggie slammed the truck door shut and went inside the hotel. He wouldn’t have been surprised if he didn’t have a reservation, but he did. Not only did he have a room, but he also had a suite at the price of a standard unit. He didn’t know how that had happened but he wasn’t going to complain.
He returned to the truck certain that he would have the cab to himself. He did not. The three small and talkative beings, whatever they were, still sat on the back of the passenger seat, laughing. They had also turned up the volume on the radio, listening to very lively music from the 1990s.
Reggie got in the pickup and started the engine. “Okay, thanks for the room upgrade and all. I still think I’m losing my mind, but what is this war you keep mentioning?”
“Our war with humans,” Breen said. “Can’t you tell? Why do you think we set everything on fire?”
“Wait, you guys set the fire?” Reggie asked. “You’re responsible for all this mess?”
“Not directly,” Vecom said. “I mean, yeah, we made sure there were plenty of flammable materials lying around and such, but you have sylphids to thank for the lightning that started the fire. This was mostly their doing.”
“Who?” Reggie asked. “This is ridiculous. I’m sitting here in my pickup talking to some kind of creature that probably doesn’t exist and you’re telling me that this fire was set intentionally?”
“Yep, and it’s all your fault,” Kek said. “There’s something you can be proud of! After thousands of seasons, you finally got Queen Apa’ii to let us go to war!”
Reggie parked the car and grabbed his things from the back along with the hard drive from the front seat.
“Would you like us to help you with that?” asked Vecom.
“Right, cause that won’t make me look more strange than I already am,” Reggie said. “And how is any of this my fault?”
“You captured Puckwudjinee,” Kek said.
“I captured who?” Reggie asked.
“Puckwudjinee,” Kek said. “You know, the bird from Pennsylvania that kept disappearing? That was one of the queen’s scouts. That didn’t go over well back home. You’re lucky. This has been building a long time. Otherwise, they would have sent a squad of elf-somethings to finish you off.”
“I am so very confused!” Reggie said. He stopped short at the door to the hotel and asked, “Can anyone else see you, or is this one of those overplayed sitcoms where I’m the only one?”
The three magicians looked at each other then disappeared without saying a word.
“Good,” Reggie thought to himself. “Maybe now that nonsense is over.” He took the elevator to the 15th floor and walked down the hallway until he found his room: number 1515. He opened the door and walked into the suite, setting down his backpack and briefcase dear the closet before going on in and setting his laptop and the rescued drive on the desk. Walking over to the window, he pulled back the curtain and looked out over the complete destruction of everything below him. How this one hotel had managed to escape serious damage was a mystery. Everything nearby was rased to its foundation. Across the entire city, only four hotels had escaped with little enough damage to stay open. He still couldn’t believe his luck in getting this room.
He turned around, thinking he might take a quick nap before starting on the hard drive. When he looked at the bed, though, there sat Kek, Breen, and Vercom on the pillow. “I thought I lost you guys outside,” he said, his voice expressing his frustration.
“I wouldn’t say you lost us,” Kek said.
“I never felt lost for a moment,” added Breen.
“Not even slightly misplaced,” Vecom said. “We just didn’t want to do that whole sitcom thing you mentioned. We can, for the most part, choose our level of visibility and the form that we want to be seen in, but it’s getting more difficult.”
“We could have come in looking like cats,” Breen said, “but they would have told you ‘no pets allowed’ and made us leave. This was just easier for everyone.”
Reggie looked at them, thinking, trying to make sense of the whole situation, and finding it impossible to do so. Finally, he asked, “So, all those feral cats roaming the campus, they’re all fairies?”
“We’re not fairies!” they yelled in unison.
“For a smart guy, you sure are dumb,” Kek said.
“Just like a human,” Breen added.
Reggie sighed and sat down in the office chair in front of the desk. “I still don’t understand the whole war thing and how any of this is my fault and if it’s all my fault why you saved the drive for me.”
“Your bird trap,” Vecom said. “You know you caught more than birds. Your security video caught him popping back and forth between visible and invisible. We didn’t save that one for you, by the way. It’s gone. Anyway, his name is Puckwudjinee and he’s kind of a big deal, one of the queen’s scouts. Capturing him upset a lot of souls. She even called a council meeting…”
“Which she hardly ever does,” Breen interrupted.
“And the council was ready to vote not on whether to go to war against humans but how—what the rules would be,” Vecom explained.
“But then Dasheng Sen ruined everything,” Kek said. “She killed a clan leader. Drowned him. Not just any clan leader, either. She killed the head of the troubled ones, titanic rock monsters you hope you never meet. In retaliation, the troubled ones attacked the council meeting by surprise. Thousands of souls died.”
“Thousands?” Reggie asked.
“Over 8,000, not counting the 600 troubled ones,” Breen answered.
“So, now it’s not just a war between humans and magicians, it’s also a war between magic realms: land and air versus the water,” Vecom concluded.
“That’s why no one has any water,” Reggie said, the pieces slowly falling into place. He sighed and lowered his face into his palms as he considered what he was being told. He wondered if any of this could be true or if he was having a complete nervous breakdown. He wouldn’t be the first scientist to go nuts.
Reggie spent several minutes processing the information quietly in his head. He paced. He looked out the window. He sat on the sofa. He paced some more. All the while, the pixiemandalons played around the room, darting in and out of the curtain, under the bed, through the light switches, and jumping on the television remote. In one moment where their shenanigans knocked over a lamp, Reggie wondered if it might have been easier if they had been cats.
One thing that seemed certain was that the little ones, whatever they were called, seemed to prove his theory, but only if he wasn’t completely mad. He needed evidence that he was still sane. “So, I need some help here,” Reggie said. “I need some proof that I’m not loco en cabeza or something.”
“Ooh, he’s almost bilingual, or something,” Breen teased.
Kek hopped on one of the TV remote buttons while Vecom jumped on another and the television came on to a network news program showing a video of the new landmass and the “mysterious creatures” found on it.
Reggie watched for a few minutes then asked, “Really? Some mermaid hoax?”
Vecom shrugged. “Dasheng Sen, queen of the water realm, probably doesn’t consider it much of a hoax. Those are her subjects. Or were.”
Reggie turned off the TV and said, “No one whose mind is in the real world is going to believe that isn’t some kind of elaborate hoax. Whole continents don’t randomly rise out of the ocean.”
“Says the person who has spent how many seasons trying to prove we exist?” Breen said. “How do you think any of the continents got here, smart guy? They didn’t fall out of the sky. Well, not exactly.”
Reggie ran his fingers across his head, pulling at his own hair. “This is insane,” he said. “Not one bit of this makes sense.”
“Plugin your drive and watch the video,” Vecom suggested. “Zoom in and tell me if you find a better explanation. We’re here, we’re at war, and like it or not, Reginald, you are our prisoner.”