Excerpt for Tales from Elsewhere by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Tales from Elsewhere

By

Lazette Gifford

Copyright 2018, Lazette Gifford

An ACOA Publication

www.aconspiracyofauthors.com

ISBN: 978-1-936507-79-5

Smashwords Edition

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Originally published as three sets of flash fiction serials on my Joyously Prolific Blog. This version has been expanded, updated, and corrected.




All material copyright 2018, Lazette Gifford

An ACOA Publication

www.aconspiracyofauthors.com

ISBN: 978-1-936507-79-5

Cover Art by Lazette Gifford




Dedication:

So, there I was resting in bed and sighing dramatically as authors often do. I had a great idea for a flash fiction serial for my blog, but the story refused to fall into place. Something was missing.

Edmond, one of my two lovely black cats, came over and stood on the edge of the bed and stared intently into my face.

That was it! The story needed Edmond the talking cat!

So yes, this book is dedicated to Edmond. It wouldn't be the same without him.






Table of Contents

About These Tales

PART ONE: SURVIVING ELSEWHERE

Chapter 1: Journey to Elsewhere

Chapter 2: Arrival

Chapter 3: The Scent of Trouble

Chapter 4: The Trees

Chapter 5: Reflections

Chapter 6: Into the Water

Chapter 7: Found

Chapter 8: Help

Chapter 9: Calm Before the Storm

Chapter 10: Eye of the Storm

Chapter 11: The Battle/Part 1

Chapter 12: The Battle/Part 2

Chapter 13: The Confrontation

Chapter 14: The Path of Darkness

Chapter 15: Darkness

Chapter 16: Escape

Chapter 17: Back to the Cottage

Chapter 18: Teeth and Claws

Chapter 19: Journey to the City

Chapter 20: Omens

Chapter 21: North Street

Chapter 22: North Wind

Chapter 23: The Job

Chapter 24: Lord Snow

Chapter 25: Meeting Anastacia

Chapter 26: Questions

Chapter 27: Cat Trap

Chapter 28: Quiet

Chapter 29: Lessons/Part 1

Chapter 30: Lessons/Part 2

Chapter 31: Lessons/Part 3

Chapter 32: Magic

Chapter 33: Connections

Chapter 34: Lord Fire

Chapter 35: Tests

Chapter 36: War Cows

Chapter 37: Creston

Chapter 38: In the Woods

Chapter 39: Stonewild

Chapter 40: Arrival

Chapter 41: Lord Cayman

Chapter 42: Family

Chapter 43: Water

Chapter 44: Confrontation

Chapter 45: Escape

PART TWO: GOING SOMEWHERE ELSE

Chapter 46: Somewhere Else

Chapter 47: Down

Chapter 48: Trap

Chapter 49: Others

Chapter 50: Enough

Chapter 51: Deal

Chapter 52: Travel

Chapter 53: Lost

Chapter 54: Shelter

Chapter 55: Surprise

Chapter 56: Found

Chapter 57: Biters

Chapter 58: Night

Chapter 59: Friend

Chapter 60: Attack

Chapter 61: Followers

Chapter 62: Decisions

Chapter 63: Bog Bob

Chapter 64: Going Down

Chapter 65: Bridge/1

Chapter 66: Bridge/2

Chapter 67: Just Mist

Chapter 68: Fall

Chapter 69: Jungle

Chapter 70: Job

Chapter 71: Crazy

Chapter 72: Peace

Chapter 73: Shark

Chapter 74: Island

Chapter 75: Circles

Chapter 76: Cloud City

Chapter 77: Inside

Chapter 78: Trust

Chapter 79: Desperation

Chapter 80: Escape

Chapter 81: Decisions

Chapter 82: Bridge Redux

Chapter 83: Bridge Redux/2

Chapter 84: Potilia

Chapter 85: The Door

Chapter 86: Going Through....

PART THREE: SAVING EVERYWHERE

Chapter 87: Home

Chapter 88: Attack

Chapter 89: Rescue

Chapter 90: Travel

Chapter 91: Camp Magic

Chapter 92: Others

Chapter 93: Explanations

Chapter 94: Waiting

Chapter 95: Surprise

Chapter 96: Truths

Chapter 97: Decisions

Chapter 98: Desert Night

Chapter 99: Train

Chapter 100: Alsia

Chapter 101: Lost

Chapter 102: Found

Chapter 103: Snow World

Chapter 104: Visitors

Chapter 105: Snow City

Chapter 106: Open Doors

Chapter 107: The Long Trail

Chapter 108: Famous

Chapter 109: Hiding

Chapter 110: Trucker

Chapter 111: Not Here

Chapter 112: Closer

Chapter 113: Encounter

Chapter 114: Return

Chapter 115: Help

Chapter 116: Battle/Part 1

Chapter 117: Battle/Part 2

Chapter 118: Magic

Chapter 119: The End

About the Author

Preview: Beware the Wrath of Bunny Hopper





About These Tales:

I originally wrote the Elsewhere stories as a continuing flash fiction serial on my blog. Each entry was 1,000 words or less and the three sets (Surviving Elsewhere, Going Somewhere Else, Saving Everywhere) ran 45 weeks, 41 weeks, and 32 weeks respectively with breaks between each set.

I really enjoyed writing these little bits of fun each week. By the end I knew I was going to rewrite it all into something more coherent with (I hope) the discontinuities removed, outright mistakes corrected, and even adding a bit more to the 1,000 words of each section.

However, I have tried to keep the traditional serial 'cliffhanger' at the end of each little chapter.

I hope you enjoy Mark, Maggie, and Edmond's adventures!





PART ONE: SURVIVING ELSEWHERE





Chapter 1: Journey to Elsewhere

The first time I knew that my life would soon become strange was when I awoke to find my cousin Maggie standing over my bed.

I yelped -- first because she'd disappeared the day after her thirteenth birthday three years ago, and second because in the hot summer night I only wore my underwear. I grabbed the sheet while sleep fled.

"I've seen you in your underwear, Mark," she whispered and laughed softly.

"We were five," I protested and clutched the sheet up to my chest.

"True." Her large hazel eyes flickered left as though she saw something that I knew was not there.

I blinked and smiled, glad to see her even in these strange circumstances. I sat up as I watched her. Maggie had changed, and it was far more than the blue hair and metal wings folding down on her back. Steadier: she wasn't the kid who was afraid of her own shadow. Maggie held a metal staff with a glowing orb the size of my fist atop it and this lighted the room with a flickering blue and green magic. I had no doubt now that she had reached safety after she had disappeared. That eased an old fear from the back of my mind.

Maggie had spent most of her life looking over her shoulder, worried that her holier-than-thou parents would find her doing something they would not approve -- and they didn't approve of much at all. They didn't accept schooling outside of The Bible, and they didn't like the friends she made in town. They definitely didn't approve of me, who was her Aunt Peggy's half-breed bastard son. Even so, she'd been my best friend.

Her parents turned out to be the worst of all hypocrites. When the police investigated Maggie's disappearance, they learned that the two had been robbing from church funds. They'd been all show and no belief.

I sometimes wondered if they dared to preach in prison. I thought about telling Maggie what had happened, but then decided not to ruin this odd reunion with talk about them.

"What's Elsewhere like?" I asked, waving towards the orb she carried.

"Elsewhere is ... strange," Maggie said, her eyes staring at the blank wall behind me this time. "I don't have much time, Mark. Take this. You're going to need it."

She dropped an old metal compass into the palm of my hand. The arrow didn't point north.

"What --" I asked as she backed away. The wall behind her dissolved into a gray mist and I could see a pond bathed in moonlight not far away. There were no such pond in our yard.

"Always keep the compass with you. Edmond says there will be trouble, but we don't know when or what. Just come to Elsewhere and find me when you're ready. Be careful."

She turned and walked through the wall to somewhere I couldn't clearly see. Her wings spread, and she had just leapt into the air when the wall returned to the colorless expanse lit only by moonlight. I would have thought the incident had been a dream except I had the old compass in my hand.

I trusted Maggie. I kept it with me all the time.


Two months later, I was running for my life, hoping the compass would show me the path to Elsewhere.

I still had the gun in my hand when I crossed the worn, wooden footbridge over the Driftwood Creek. The turbulent water ran high after this morning's storm, and I could see limbs, leaves, and even a car tire rushing downward towards the distant river. I thought about jumping into that morass, but I feared I wouldn't die.

Wouldn't being caught now be worse?

Death might be the better choice, but I couldn't make myself do it. Besides, jumping to my death would imply that I felt guilty for what had happened -- and I didn't.

I threw the damned gun into the water instead and then ran again, a chill going through me because I couldn't remember how I had gotten the weapon. I didn't own one. It had just been in my hand when I saw Tommy clawing the girl's chest open.

I could hear shouts growing far too close.

Tommy Creston was dead. No doubt about it. I'd put two bullets in his chest and one in his head and then looked from him to the bloody body of Mary Hale. Both of them dead. Since Tom was the county sheriff's son, there wasn't going to be any hope if Sheriff Creston caught me. I felt sorry for Mary, though. I thought I should have done something different. If I had been there sooner, she might have survived.

Once I knew Tommy had died and the remembrance of his still body almost made me ill. I had reacted out of instinct afterward when I ran straight for the hills behind the little town of Crossing. I pulled out the compass and headed whatever direction it pointed.

The full weight of shock hadn't hit me even yet. I raced over the footbridge and into the mass of maple and ash trees, down deer paths and through brambles that tore at my arms.

Tommy's fingers had been claws. His face had been long, muzzle-like, and there had been a hint of fur on his hands. He'd been changed. Inhuman. As soon as I shot him, those changes had started to disappear. He'd looked human when he died.

Sheriff Creston and his men drew closer. They'd spread out, and I could hear the odd echoes of their harsh voices along with the unsettling barks and bays of dogs who caught my scent.

How far did I need to run? The gateway to Elsewhere stood in the hills above town but being magic meant it moved a bit. Those of us who grew up in Crossing heard about the gate all our lives, this link to a place of magic and danger. Once you crossed over, you could never return to what you had been before. Oh, you could step back through for a little while the way Maggie had to give me the compass, but she was different now. She couldn't live among humans. People changed when they went to Elsewhere and remained for more than a few hours.

If I could get across and hide, no one would take more than maybe four hours to try to find me, but if I stayed that long, I wouldn't come home again. Only desperate people wanted to go to Elsewhere. I'd miss mom, but she'd married and took in her new husbands' four kids. Even after five years, I still felt like a stranger living with them, me with my slanted Japanese eyes and dark hair. I had planned to move on after graduation anyway. I just hadn't thought about never coming back.

I looked down. The arrow pointed right. I changed direction and charged through another line of bramble bushes, my shirt catching, so I had to yank it free, leaving cloth and blood behind. It hardly mattered since the dogs would find me anyway. The bushes were not as thick as I had expected and I was almost immediately back out into the bright light.

When I looked up, I saw the gateway. I took a step forward, my heart pounding. The sign glittered in the shadows, the letters bright and beautiful, even though the wooden plank hung half off the posts; I had found the link to another reality.

Welcome to Elsewhere

This side of the gateway stood in late afternoon light, the forest shadows growing long and dark, and the sounds of birds giving their cries of protest at the humans in their land. The dogs grew louder as they came closer.

The view through the opening showed only a fog, murky and gray. I paused, breathless and wondering what --

Sheriff Creston charged through the bushes so fast that he ran into me. I sprawled across the dirt and rocks and by the time I had rolled over, he had his gun pulled and aimed straight at my head. I hadn't realized he didn't look much like his son until now. Tommy had been brown haired, brown eyed, and this father had dark, close-cropped hair and green-eyed, his face narrow and intent.

"I don't have the gun," I said, holding out my hands.

"Yeah. A shame I didn't know that at the time," Sheriff Creston said, his voice steady. I couldn't say I saw any rage in his face, either. "But they won't question me."

The gun steadied, and his finger twitched --

"Stop!"

The shout came from behind me; a heartbeat passed before I realized everything had stopped, including the bird flying from the tree, the breeze blowing through the leaves -- the bullet hanging no more than a yard from my face....





Chapter 2: Arrival

The bullet hung in the air and aimed at my head.

I couldn't move, though I could clearly see everything in my field of vision, including Sheriff Creston's enraged face and the growing hatred in his eyes. He twitched slightly, I thought, but he wasn't able to fire again. I couldn't even breathe. Apparently, I didn't need to.

I stared at death coming for me.

The bullet wobbled, came forward an inch --

"Hold!" the voice shouted once more.

And the bullet obeyed; magic held the reality of my death at bay a little longer.

"Grab him," a voice said by my ear. I couldn't see anything but a small piece of shadow near my face.

"I -- I can't," the other person said. "If I try to, I'll -- I'll lose the spell. I can't pull him out fast enough!"

Maggie, I realized. My cousin. Despite her words, she still gave me a reason to hope. I was not friendless here.

"Deflect the bullet?"

"Same problem." She gasped, and the bullet wobbled again. "Can't move fast enough to do another spell, Edmond."

"Then you have to grab him. It's the only chance you have, Maggie. You can't hold this spell much longer."

"Yeah."

Maggie moved within my line of sight and leaned closer, her hands reaching towards my shoulder. Her metal wings unfurled, casting a shadow over both of us as she paused, her face pale and covered with a sheen of perspiration.

"Roll to your right and behind my wings, Mark," she said, her voice steady. "Be ready."

Panic had been held at bay, as still as my breath. I couldn't answer her. I could only hope I could move.

She reached -- the air seemed to tingle and sparkle as she grabbed my arm and I rolled --

I heard the bullet ping against the metal feathers and something brushed against the side of my head, like a whisper of fire. I knew that wound was going to hurt more in a moment, but I had moved fast enough, and the bullet impacted with the ground, sending up a little spattering of dust and rock.

Sheriff Creston made an inarticulate growl of anger, darted to the side, and fired again.

That bullet hit home somewhere in my right shoulder. I jerked with the shock and pain and thought the next bullet would kill me. Then I feared he would shoot Maggie and her companion as well.

"Go --" I said to Maggie. Or tried to. "Go --"

She lifted a hand, her face dark with fury, and I saw branches, leaves, dirt, and rocks sailing through the air at Sheriff Creston. I heard his yell of pain as she dragged me up to my feet and shoved me through the gate to Elsewhere.

I couldn't say I felt safe.

I rolled as I hit the ground, trying my best to ignore the pain while I attempted to find Maggie and feared --

She caught me by the left arm and dragged me across dirt and rock and into the shadow of green bushes. Birds fled before us. I clamped my mouth shut against both agony and panic. I could feel blood running down my chest, and every breath seemed harder to take.

I feared Maggie wouldn't stop moving. Then I heard a howl and a yell of fear, and I thought maybe we ought to go farther and faster.

Maggie stopped and gently lowered me onto the grass. There seemed to be a slight fog around us, but all the colors of the plants and flowers stood out, unnaturally bright in the afternoon sun. Gorgeous colors spread around me, as though everything had been made of jewels. The birds didn't just make calls, they made music. Even the scents in the air seemed so sweet that everything combined into an overwhelming onslaught against my senses. Elsewhere, I reminded myself. Not home.

"Mark." Maggie knelt beside me. Her hand brushed very lightly over my shoulder. The pain lessened to a throb and I thought the bleeding had stopped. Maggie shook her head with worry though. The wings on her back fluttered with an odd, metallic sound. "I don't dare try to get the bullet out. I don't have that kind of skill. I need to get help for you. My magic will hold for a little while. I'm sorry I wasn't there faster."

"Came for me," I said, trying to get my mind to work. I turned my head slightly. "Creston --"

"Edmond scared him off," she said, looking towards the gate. "You okay, Edmond?"

"Yeah. He kicked me, but I scared the hell out of him!"

A cat suddenly moved closer to me; sleek black fur and bright golden eyes that stared into my face. Then the mouth moved.

"He doesn't look very good, Maggie."

I stared.

"I know. I need to get someone --"

"Davis." The lips moved again. Cat. Cat talking to Maggie. "And you better be quick. He looks as though he might be going into shock."

That had nothing to do with being shot. Talking cat.

Maggie leaned forward and touched the side of my face. I had a hard time looking away from the talking cat. "Stay still. I'll be back with Davis as fast as I can."

"Maggie --" I whispered, trying to find the words to say. "Thanks."

She gave a quick smile and stood.

The cat nudged my hand. "Take the compass! You don't want anyone finding it on him."

"Edmond," she said, worried as she bent and took the compass from my numb fingers. "If you know --"

"I don't know anything except you had better get Davis. Fast."

I managed to turn my head as Maggie took off running and leapt upward, the wings beating loudly against the air as she lifted. The silver lining of the feathers caught a glitter of light and shot random rainbows into the sky.

I finally looked back at the cat. He stared somewhere else.

"Edmond?" I said softly, thinking I must be wrong. Hallucinating. Something.

He blinked and looked at me. "If we need to go, can you move? I didn't want to worry Maggie, but I think we're in trouble here."

"Creston?" I asked. I forced myself to sit up, though my head pounded with each heartbeat, and my shoulder hurt with a surge of agony. The magic again began to numb my right arm and chest, but I still had trouble breathing.

"Nah. He won't come through. Not yet. There's far worse on this side than a human with a gun. And believe me, you don't want to meet up with them. Once they scent human blood --"

Somewhere off to the right I heard something howl, and another picked up the sound. And another.

"Oh yeah," Edmond said with a sigh. His ears went back, and his tail twitched. "That's trouble."





Chapter 3: The Scent of Trouble

I tried desperately to fight away the pain and fear as I slowly turned my head in the direction of the animal sounds. I had a bullet in my shoulder; I couldn't ignore that presence because I could feel it every time I shifted, despite the magic that had partly numbed the shoulder and arm. However, the howls seemed far worse than the pain, and the sound sent shivers of fear through me without even knowing what we might face. I wanted away from whatever creatures were coming our way.

A dense forest stood close by with a line of tall trees and forbidding shadows, and the sounds came from that forbidding darkness. I heard the animals again, but this time they added a loud, keening cry as part of the unearthly chorus. A scattering of colorful birds took flight with screams of fear, and then silence fell everywhere for a few heartbeats.

"We have to go," Edmond whispered.

The howls rose once more, cascading over one another so it became impossible to tell how many might be out there.

"What are they? What do we do?" I whispered, turning back to the cat.

Edmond was gone.

"Oh hell -- oh hell --"

"Shut up and get to cover, you fool!"

I spotted two golden eyes staring out from under a thick bush. I didn't need a second warning, especially when I could tell the howling creatures had moved closer. I considered my options for cover. I could barely see the edge of the gate, but that wouldn't be a good escape, especially since I thought I saw movement the other side and suspected Sheriff Creston waited for me to come back through. He wouldn't realize I had purposely run to Elsewhere and never meant come back out.

Edmond's cover was the best I could spot, though I doubted it would stand up to whatever came our way. I clenched my mouth shut against any sound of pain as I turned over and crawled towards the bushes, sliding on my stomach as I slipped under the tangled branches. By a miracle, the wound had not started bleeding again, but I had trouble turning so I could watch where Edmond stared, his tail ticking left and right in a steady beat.

"They're almost here," Edmond said, his words nearly a hiss. The cat dropped onto his stomach, his ears went back, and tail stilled. "Say nothing."

I heard the beasts rush from the forest, a thundering of paws that seemed to shake the ground. The first of the animals came into view, and then another, and another. I didn't make a sound. I didn't breathe.

The wolves stood as big as horses. Their immense snouts sniffed at the ground while clawed-paws tore up tuffs of grass. Lips pulled back in snarls showing teeth the size of daggers. I would have trembled if I'd had the strength, and I would have burrowed into the ground like a badger if I'd had the ability. Instead, I could only stare as the creatures circled and snarled, moving closer to us.

Edmond slid nearer to me, a warm body and reminder I was not alone, for all the good a small talking cat could do against these brutes. They were coming too close though, and I felt Edmond tense --

A human shout drew my attention. For a moment I thought help had arrived.

Sheriff Creston charged through the gate and into the glade. He must have heard something through the magical gate and thought he had another chance to catch -- or kill -- me.

"Oh shit!" Creston shot at one wolf and then another. As far as I could tell, the bullets only made them angry. They turned on the sheriff, growls low in their throat and legs tensing to leap.

Creston spun and ran back the way he'd come and with the wolves chasing after him, straight through the gate and gone.

"We need to go." Edmond threw himself out from under the bush as soon as the wolves disappeared beyond the magical barrier. "They'll follow him for awhile, but they won't go far -- they don't want to lose their way and their powers. It won't be long before they return through the gate. Human blood drew them to us. We need to get to a stream and get you cleaned up, so they lose the scent."

"I don't know if I can walk."

"We have to go," the cat said.

I remained on his stomach, aching and trembling. When I lifted my head, I found myself staring straight into Edmond's dark-furred face, the golden eyes intent.

"You will do this for Maggie," the cat said in a voice that brooked no disagreement. "She risked a great deal for you just in taking that compass out of Elsewhere. Only people from Elsewhere are supposed to have such a magical device so they can always find their way home. If some of the higher powers knew she gave it to you so you could escape after killing someone --"

"You know what I did?" I pulled myself out from under the bush despite fearing I would black out at any moment. The memory of the killing came back, and I felt ill. That didn't help.

"I see things sometimes," Edmond said and gave an odd little cat shrug. He backed up and turned his head to stare at the gate where Creston and the wolves had gone. "And right now, I see us as dinner if we don't get moving. That doesn't take any special power, either."

I could barely hear the wolves through the magic of the gate, but I could tell they were still on the chase. If Edmond was right, that run wouldn't last long.

I stood with a force of will. I would do this for Maggie. The world went black around me for a moment, but I locked my knees and didn't go down as I blinked the world back into focus.

"Good," Edmond said and sounded assured. "Good. Follow me."

"Careful. I'll trip over just about anything."

I didn't know if Edmond heard me or cared. I followed, holding my right arm close to avoid bouncing it much. Blood still ran down the side of my face where the other bullet had come close to killing me. Now giant wolves wanted me for dinner, and we headed toward a line of trees that I probably would have avoided at any other time. The trees stood tall, stately, dark ... and dangerous. The wolves had come from those woods. Were there more of them?

I had to trust Edmond.

Trust a cat.

Welcome to Elsewhere. I hadn't thought about facing trouble on this side of the gate. I had feared I wouldn't reach the promised sanctuary, but now I had to wonder what I had expected. Best not to think about anything. Keep moving. I stumbled my way along the path behind Edmond, hoping that my cousin's magic held and kept me alive until she came back with help.

The moment we crossed from the glade into the trees I knew this had been a serious mistake. The trees began moving, and no, there wasn't a breeze. Leaves rattled, and branches bent closer to me, thin twigs brushing over my head and arms.

But I still followed the cat.





Chapter 4: The Trees

We had walked no more than a dozen steps into the shadow of the forest before even Edmond began giving the trees nervous looks. Limbs continued to move, the branches twisting and turning, dipping low so that sometimes I had to swerve to avoid hitting one that hadn't been there a moment before. Fog enveloped the trees as well, moving as though alive -- or perhaps the fog was something ghost-like, the remnants of things that had never left these woods. Did I fear the mist and the trees more than I feared the wolves? I couldn't decide.

I hurt. My shoulder sent waves of fire through my body with every step, and I didn't know how I could keep going. I wanted to stop and sit down. Rest.

"Ed-mond," I whispered.

I went down on my knees, and then fell forward on my face. The scent of forest debris sprang upward, along with small pieces of leaves and needles. I breathed in the rich air and tried to calm the pounding of my heart.

Edmond turned and darted back to me, his tail dipped low to the ground. His eyes showed mostly black now with only a little circle of gold around the enormous pupils as he leaned down close to my face. He twitched at the slightest sound.

"This isn't a good time --" Edmond whispered.

"No choice," I replied with hardly enough strength to say even those words. Everything moved oddly. I thought Edmond began slipping away --

No. Something had hold of me by the leg, dragging me. Lifting me.

I hadn't enough strength left to protest.

Everything went black.


I came awake when something jabbed me in the side. I slapped it away and gasped in pain from the little movement. This was the most uncomfortable bed I'd ever slept on. I tried to move and heard the snapping of small twigs. Who made a bed out of twigs?

Trees do. I learned that as I opened my eyes and found myself held up in the boughs of a big old oak tree. A face stared at me made from boles where limbs had broken off and left puckered circles in a triangle marking two eyes and a mouth. The eyes, dark and unfathomable, blinked with a sullen red glow that was not fire -- no, nothing burning in these woods. The mouth moved, and I could hear the grinding of wood against wood. The bark of the old tree had weathered like the skin of an old man. He'd gone bald as well; I could find hardly a leaf left on the gnarled limbs of his crown.

Alive and not just as trees lived in my world. This one was aware. I tried not to panic as I tested the grip of the branches. They held too tight to get free, but at least the tree had stopped jabbing me.

"Hu-man," it said and the branches that held me shook. I grabbed hold, afraid the tree would let go after all. "No Hu-man allowed."

I started to speak, but other trees began to shout and grumble, a waving of limbs and rustling of leaves all around me. The tree that held me prisoner seemed to tremble in rage, and I dared not look at the others nearby. The sounds of wood scraping against wood made me fear they were closing in and I didn't like to think of trees chasing me. Then, as if on cue, I heard wolves howling, though nowhere near. They were back in Elsewhere, though. Everything in this world seemed turned against me. Why had I thought I would be safe here?

"You do not belong here, Hu-man." The tree shook me, and I started to get annoyed. "You do not -- Ow! Ow!"

Edmond had arrived, clawing his way up the tree and then walking nonchalantly out on to one of the branches that held me. He turned around and sat down, casually cleaning one paw.

"That hurt, cat!" the tree grumbled. "You have needles for claws."

"I had to be sure I got your attention," Edmond replied. He leaned closer to the face, and the eyes narrowed as though it feared those claws would strike. "Do I have your attention now? Do you know who I am?"

"Yes, and yes." The words came like a growl from the wood. Not a happy tree.

"Those are Fenris wolves after us. You do not want them to catch up with Mark and me."

"Why not?"

"Because then Maggie would be unhappy since this is her cousin."

All the trees went very, very still.

"Maggie?" the tree asked softly.

I hadn't expected such a reaction, and it made no more sense than anything else that had happened since I crossed the gate. I stayed still and rested while Edmond took care of the problem. I couldn't say I really cared if I survived by this point.

"I'm sure you saw her flying frantically towards the city?" Edmond asked. He sounded rather smug, but then what would anyone expect from a cat? He cleaned his other paw while trees whispered around us. "Do you want to be the ones responsible for the wolves catching him? Because I will survive, you know. And I'll make sure she knows why the wolves caught him."

"No need, no need!" I heard frantic sounds elsewhere. "We can mislead the wolves a bit. There now. On your way."

The tree lowered us carefully to the leaf-strewn ground. The face had slid down the side of the trunk and watched from ground level now, as though he had leaned over to make sure we were safe. I wished I felt better and could appreciate my survival. However, I could hear the wolves again and coming closer.

Edmond gave a little nod of his head to the right and started away without a word. At least I'd had a little rest, right? Each step still hurt like hell and I feared I would not be going far. I wanted out of the woods, though. I could hear the trees moving again and looked up to see branches twisting and turning over our heads while a scattering of leaves fell.

I almost stumbled.

"Edmond," I whispered.

"We're almost out of here," he said. He slowed and walked at my side. "Just keep going, Mark. Can you see the open glade ahead?"

I lifted my head briefly and saw something that seemed to be a brighter green, though I couldn't focus. I looked back down at my feet because I had almost fallen. "See it," I mumbled. "Not sure I can walk that far."

"You will do this for Maggie," Edmond said. "We don't want to upset Maggie. No one in their right mind wants to upset Maggie."

"She's -- powerful?" I asked. It helped a little to focus away from the pain, as much as I could with my shoulder on fire.

"There's a reason the Council named her as their messenger. She is even-handed, but powerful with righteous anger when someone has been wronged. You don't want to mess with that sort of magic."

"I don't understand," I answered. I saw Edmond glance at me, his eyes narrowed. "But not now. Don't try to explain anything now. Just get me where I can rest."

"Yes," Edmond said with a nod. "Almost there."

The wolves howled, moving closer to us again. I thought Edmond muttered a curse. I continued to walk, watching the bright green grow larger, but certain I would not survive to reach it.





Chapter 5: Reflections

One step and then another, each one a lesson in pain.

I remembered the time I'd been out riding my bike along the trails in the woods, had hit a rock in the middle of the path, and flew over the handlebars. I'd broken my arm and had to walk home, bringing my battered bike with me. I'd been eleven and the walk had been more than four miles.

I wished I could walk home now.

Another step.

The wolves bayed and barked but I thought they might not be any closer this time. Perhaps the trees had led them astray as they'd promised. Perhaps I could rest soon. Everything blurred, and my shoulder became a pinpoint of agony and spreading fire. How long since I had been shot? Where was Maggie?

The shadows of the forest gave way to brilliant light, all but blinding me. Behind us I could hear the unsettling whisper of trees: Go, go, go they said with a flutter of anxious leaves. Edmond moved on into the knee-high grass, bounding his way up and down through the covering so that he became nothing more than a black spot against a world where colors washed out in the sunshine.

Follow the bouncing ball.

"We're almost there," Edmond said as he slowed and walked just ahead of me. We followed what might be a deer trail if they had such things in Elsewhere. The grass seemed to move slightly on each side of us, but it didn't speak or try to catch hold of me. "Can you see it? That's the pond. Just a few more steps."

I'd been watching the ground. I slowly brought my head up, gasping at the pain racing through my shoulder at the movement. Something glittered like diamonds and sapphires ahead of us -- the reflection of light against water. I could make out the shapes of small trees nearby, which worried me. I wasn't certain when I would trust a tree again. However, having a destination gave me a little more strength.

Edmond glanced back the way we'd come. I could see the movement of his head, and the glitter of golden eyes. "The trees weren't very happy with us taking a shortcut through their land, and they might not keep the wolves occupied for long. We need to be ready to get away fast."

I started to remind him that I could not hurry but speaking would take too much energy. I could feel warm blood on my arm, and my head throbbed. I feared whatever magic Maggie had used must have begun fading. That made me think about having shot Tommy and about how he must have felt in those few seconds before he died. I shouldn't have killed him -- but what choice? He had been preparing to kill me, too -- and then no one would have been able to tell the others. Mary hadn't been the first dead girl in our town. Tommy had become a monster, and I stopped him from hurting someone else. I would not regret that action no matter what else happened.

That thought gave me the strength to keep moving through those last few steps to the water. I wanted Maggie to return because otherwise I was alone with a talking cat who might be leading me anywhere. I told myself this was better than being completely alone. Maybe.

Light glittered in my eyes, so bright I had to close them.

"Sit down before you fall down," Edmond ordered and nudged the back of my legs.

That sounded like a good idea. I sat on a nicely placed boulder, the hard surface reassuringly still and steady. My fingers dropped into cool water, startling me. I hadn't realized we'd reached the edge of the pond, but as I blinked, I could see a small stretch of impossibly blue water, our side well-shaded by the trees (they stayed mostly still), and with a scattering of a few cattails and water lilies strewn over the watery expanse. An odd green frog about the size of my palm stared intently at me from a rock just within the water's edge. I waited, expecting an attack. The frog only stared, eyes blinking -- first the left and then the right. Never both at once.

"Yes? Yes?" I finally said in exasperation. I leaned a little closer, hoping I did not fall in and drown as I stared the frog in the face. "What have you got to say?"

The frog blinked.

"Mark? Why are you talking to the frog?" Edmond asked, sounding incredibly bewildered.

"Because he's bound to have something to say about me being here," I replied. The frog blinked again. "Everything else has."

"Why would you think a frog could talk?" he asked, looking up at me with confusion.

"Cats talk. Trees talk. Why wouldn't the frog talk?" I asked.

"Oh." He smirked and then tilted his head. "You know, there's a kind of logic in that idea. Unfortunately, logic never works very well in Elsewhere. The frog doesn't talk -- I don't think. Sip some of the water; it'll help you feel better. All the water in Elsewhere has a little magic in it."

The frog still stared.

I wanted to be safe. I wasn't going to find such a place, I feared. I dipped one hand into the water and sipped. It did taste good and I felt a little revived. Sitting helped, too. Even the quiet of the place helped to steady me.

"Why did I come here?" I asked. "Why am I in Elsewhere?"

"Because you killed someone."

That hadn't been what I meant, and the cat's answer felt like an electric shock. I hadn't needed the reminder. I shivered as I remembered Tommy starting to crouch as he prepared to leap on me; his lips had pulled back in a feral snarl showing long, dangerous teeth. The blood on his face emphasized the animal he'd become. I thought I would be ill, remembering the look in his flashing silver eyes. His entire shape had changed from the kid I had seen in school no more than half an hour before we met in the woods over the body of the dead girl.

"He -- he wasn't human," I whispered, seeing him so clearly in my mind this time.

"Yeah? So? That's not a good excuse to kill something here."

I turned to Edmond, startled and afraid. "Was he from Elsewhere? Was he one of you?"

Edmond blinked several times and stared somewhere else, as though he could see something over my shoulder. I feared to turn and learn what stood there. Then he blinked again and shook his head.

"He was touched by something dark." Edmond's golden eyes turned back to me. "We don't accept that sort of evil in Elsewhere any more than humans would. You will still have to prove what you did was wise if the Council wants to hear your reasoning, but I really don't get the feeling that you're in trouble from that area. Sip more water. We can't remain here for long, so we'll have to keep moving if Maggie doesn't show up soon. She'll be looking for us though. It won't be much longer."

"Good." I still felt shaken. I'd tried not to think about Tommy and killing him. I'd tried not to think about Sheriff Creston and that he had shot me for killing his son. I concentrated instead on not falling into the pond as I dipped my hand into the water. The frog continued to blink at me. I still expected him to speak.

Wolves howled louder this time.

"Damn overgrown dogs," Edmond said with a hiss. He looked up into the air. "Come on, Maggie."

I didn't think I would have the strength to run.

"I was starting to think there was nowhere even as calm and peaceful as this place in Elsewhere," I said, dipping my hand in the water once more. I let some of the wonderful water dribble over my aching shoulder, and the pain eased slightly.

"Safe enough," Edmond agreed. "As long as the wolves don't catch us here and naiad doesn't take exception to us."

"Naiad?" I asked. I remembered the term from mythology. Water nymphs --

The wolves howled, much closer. I could see the line of trees not nearly far enough away. Once the Ferris Wolves cleared that line, they would see us. There was nowhere to run for cover.

"Go, Edmond," I said. "Get away before they see you."

He stopped pacing and stood like a statue, the golden eyes unblinking as he stared at me. "More like Maggie than I thought," he admitted. Then he shook his head. "Get up. We can go a little farther before they catch up and hope that Maggie finds us first."

"You should --"

"I am not leaving --"

I saw movement at the edge of the trees. Too late. Neither of us would get away. The gigantic wolves already began charging straight across the glade, baying as they came in a rush of dark fur against the green grass. They had our scent, but I thought they hadn't quite seen us yet against the glare of the water.

I tried to stand.

A wet, long-fingered hand caught hold of my arm and dragged me into the water.





Chapter 6: Into the Water

I flailed in panic as something pulled me into the pond. I couldn't have been in Elsewhere for an entire hour, and this was the third thing trying to kill me. I found strength in anger and I fought to pull free --

"Be still!" a woman's voice whispered. Cold hands took hold of my shoulders -- I winced -- but she held my head above water, so I wasn't being drowned by this -- naiad? "Do not draw their attention!"

I thought that wise when I heard the wolves sprinting closer. I found Edmond in the water as well, treading like a dog. He didn't look happy. Then I turned my head a little caught a glimpse of someone with long green hair and blue skin. She bent her mouth close to my ear, her breath chilly enough to make me shiver, though being in the water had eased a lot of aches and pains.

"Take a deep breath," she said softly.

"Edmond --"

"I will take care of the cat as well." She reached out and snagged Edmond by the scruff of the neck.

"I hate this," Edmond grumbled as he hung there in her long-fingered hand. "But do what she says."

I did. I took one breath and then a deeper one that set my head pounding.

She let go long enough to reach out and touch my lips with long, blue fingers. She touched Edmond's mouth as well. The wolves had moved far closer when she took hold of my arm and pulled me beneath the pond's surface.

The blue water rippled around us, light refracting into momentary rainbows and stars, obscuring the view both around us and in the air above.

Edmond dived under the water with us, looking like a mutant otter. Cats aren't made for underwater swimming, though, and he had problems maneuvering. I reached out with my wounded arm, ignoring the spike of pain, and pulled him over to nestle close to me. His claws caught on my shirt -- and some skin -- but I saw relief in his face until he glanced at the surface above us.

A shadow passed overhead.

I looked upward to see the distorted, drooling face of a colossal wolf staring into the pond. His gigantic paw splattered the water above us, and I feared he would leap into the water and dive down in the depths to come after us. The naiad must have thought the same. She began to pull me into the deeper water.

I didn't want to go. Panic at the thought of drowning nearly overcame the fear of being torn apart by the wolf --

Then I realized I didn't feel the need to breathe.

Well.

I stopped fighting as she pulled us towards the bottom, swimming past frogs, fish, and a couple startled turtles. Magical, I thought -- my first pleasant thought since I arrived in Elsewhere. A scattering of gems and pretty rocks lined the pond bed. Colorful fish that I would have thought were tropical darted all around us, looking like moving gems. If I had not been in such danger, I would have been delighted in this unusual journey.

Unfortunately, the wolf followed along the edge of the pool which wasn't a large enough stand of water that we could get away from him. I saw him howl once, and even heard the echo of the sound reverberating through the water. All the smaller creatures darted for cover behind whatever growth or rocks they could find.

I wanted to do the same. The naiad looked bothered. I wondered how long her magic would hold and we could stay underwater. I feared I might be starting to feel uncomfortable and Edmond had begun shivering.

We went farther along the bottom of the pond. I tried to take see everything, to accept this beauty even at such a bad time. After all, it wasn't often that a person got a chance to experience something so outside his own world. Though maybe this sort of thing was more common here in Elsewhere. Edmond had said something about hating it, after all. Maybe this wasn't his first time in the water.

I was starting to feel uncomfortable. I looked at the naiad with worry, but the lovely lady shook her head, green hair floating around as though in the wind. Then she patted my arm and let go before she darted upwards. I almost panicked, thinking we were abandoned. However, I could swim to the surface even though that wasn't a safe place. I held where we were, anchoring one foot around a rock. Edmond snuggled closer and looked up at me, worry in his eyes.

I watched the naiad. She had reached the surface and lifted one hand. A flash of light hit the wolf. I felt the tingle all the way where we were.

The wolf yelped and ran away. I couldn't tell if he went far. Our protector swam back, caught my arm and quickly moved toward the opposite end of the pond.

We finally reached the surface and came up amid a scattering cattails and water lilies. Birds took to the air and I could hear large things running away. The wolves had retreated, at least for the moment.

"I am not a fish," Edmond mumbled.

"Nor are you wolf food, little cat," the naiad replied with a smile. "Take that into account."

"My apologies," he said, and sounded sincere. "Thank you for that wonderful tour of you home."

"Thank you," I also managed. I gasped, but I think that came from the panic of never having learned to swim. "I didn't care to be wolf food, either."

"Polite human," she said and laughed with a sound that somehow reminded me of spring rains. She nodded to the boulders beside us. "Climb up over these stones and you'll find a clearing on the other side. The way should be easier there. Go as fast as you dare. I'll entertain the wolves for a while longer."

I carefully pushed Edmond up to the mossy stone. He scrambled to the top, looked frantically around, and then disappeared over the other side. I tried to follow, but my arm wouldn't hold me. The naiad gave me a boost, and I scrambled up much like Edmond had on all fours. When I looked back, she had disappeared.

"Thank you," I said again, though softly. I could still hear wolves, but they weren't near.

I climbed over the rock and down into a grassy field, settling with my back to the warm stone. Edmond stood shaking water from his ears.

"Well, that went better than I hoped," the cat said. "She didn't kill us."

"There is always the next thing," I said and feared that he grunted agreement. My head pounded, and my arm bled. Whatever came after us now, I knew I wouldn't be able to fight it off or to run.

Then I noticed Edmond staring at the sky. Something roared in the distance and I could see a bright dot that caught the light as it headed our way.

"Well, that's either help or --" Edmond looked back at me. I could read the worry in his small cat face.

"Or trouble."

"Yeah."

I wasn't even surprised.





Chapter 7: Found

Exhaustion overtook me, and I hadn't the strength to move as I watched the bright spot grow closer and slowly define into a shape. A flying motorcycle? The vehicle made a turn, the wings spread out wide on either side, golden and tipped with black. They flapped and then settled as the cycle swept downward. The driver leaned forward, his golden hair streaming behind him.

It wasn't until he had landed that I saw the second figure gliding down as well.

"Maggie and Davis!" Edmond shouted and bounded into the tall grass. Soon I could only see his tail emerging at each leap as he charged out to meet her.

I tried to push away from the boulder and failed. I didn't even have the energy left to shiver, and I don't know how I kept my eyes open. I focused on the man climbing off the motorcycle that had landed a few yards away, the wings folding against the bright chrome surface.

Tall, thin, long blond hair falling back over his shoulders: surfer dude. He could have ridden a surfboard and looked perfectly in place at Malibu.

Maggie rushed past him and caught hold of me, magic spreading over my shoulder and dulling the pain and maybe stopping the bleeding again. Her eyes grew large with worry.

"Why didn't you stay where I left you! We almost couldn't find you again!"

"Big wolves," I said, trying to pull my thoughts together. "Sheriff Creston. Unhappy trees. The frog didn't talk, and the naiad didn't drown me. That's a win, right?"

I thought I heard Edmond laugh, but on cue, the wolves howled again.

"Davis!" Maggie shouted, turning to look over her shoulder.

"I'm here," Surfer Dude said. He put a hand to my forehead and frowned before he pulled back some of the cloth at my shoulder. Even with Maggie's magic, I felt a twinge of pain. "Can't do anything here. Let's get him on the cycle and head for my place. Fast. I don't want to deal with Fenris Wolves."

"Yeah," she agreed. No one asked me. I had wanted to rest until I heard the wolves closer and decided relaxing somewhere else might be nicer, and probably wiser as well.

Surfer Dude -- Davis -- gave a whistle, and the motorcycle came closer, rolling over stones, the wings fluttering slightly. Davis and Maggie maneuvered me onto the seat before I could even gather the words to protest the idea of flying. Maggie grabbed up Edmond who gave a rather dramatic sigh.

"First a fish. Now a bird. When did I stop being a cat?"

"When you started talking," Davis and Maggie chorused.

I grinned. Edmond burrowed his head into Maggie's arm while she helped me settle better on the seat. Davis swung himself on behind me.

We took off immediately. As we lifted, I saw the wolves bound into the glade, some leaping at us as we took to the sky. I tried to turn to check on Maggie and nearly fell until Davis caught tighter hold of me and even used a little magic to hold me in place. That surprised me -- he had seemed totally human and normal until that moment.

But what was normal in Elsewhere?

"Careful. Maggie is up. Don't worry; I wouldn't leave her behind. We don't have far to go."

I looked down and watched the glade disappear behind another stand of trees. As we went higher, I thought I saw buildings in the distance in what appeared to be a haphazard array, some of them half hidden in mist. The landscape directly below took on the design of a crudely-drawn checkerboard of fields and trees. I couldn't focus and decided to close my eyes instead. Everything moved in odd ways. Was that magic? Or was I dizzy?

I slipped far away for the rest of the trip, only faintly aware of the roar of the cycle, the beat of the wings and Surfer Dude's arm around my waist, anchoring me in place. Safe, I supposed. The wolves couldn't get me here.

Unless they had wings. That seemed possible. I would need to ask.

When the cycle started to descend, I opened my eyes. Not far below stood a lovely cottage straight out of a storybook: stone walls, wooden shutters painted bright red, and a thatch roof. The motorcycle dropped onto the neatly cut grass, and Davis immediately took me from the seat. I had barely gotten my feet under me when he started towards the building.

"Get the door open!" Davis shouted as we stumbled along a stone path.

A grey squirrel dropped from a tree and charged straight at the door, taking a prodigious leap and hitting it full force with all four paws. The door snapped open.

And then snapped back, hitting the squirrel who rolled away like a furry bowling ball. He quickly got back to his feet, shouted what was plainly a curse in squirrel speak, and charged again.

"Broom! Block the door!" Davis ordered.

The squirrel charged, and the door snapped open while a broom moved inside, blocking it from closing again.

"Sorry," Davis said. "The door and I are having disagreements."

"Right." I watched the broom and the door with trepidation as we passed.

"Mark." Davis settled me into an overstuffed chair. My head spun, and my shoulder ached. "I need to ask something before Maggie gets here."

"Yes?" I said, looking into his worried face.

"She doesn't know about your fae blood, does she?"

I stared at him, blinking. "What? What do you mean?"

He leaned closer, looking me full in the face. "Damn. Hell." He glanced out the door, still held open by the broom. Maggie had just landed, and Edmond leapt from her arms and headed our way. "I'm going to do something extremely rude, and I apologize. I couldn't do this if you weren't so weak, but I think this is important."


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