"So cautiously at first, and then so high!
As he spoke my spirit climbed into the sky!"
This story is set in late August of 2007
"I heard my Mom and Dad talkin' about you last night," said Jackie, plopping down beside her friend.
"Somethin' good, I hope," said Jill, absently, as she watched an ant hill.
"Depends. They said you're somethin' special. I already knew a seven-tailed kitsune was somethin' special, anyway, but the way they were talkin'..."
"Yeah, well, mostly I'm special by how big the trouble I get into is," sighed the fox girl. "You know I'm pretty powerful. I'll get more powerful as I get older, but I'll also have more control."
"Umph," said Jackie, rolling onto her back. "They used a word I didn't know for you. Something different from kitsune."
"Myobu," Jill sighed again, and all enthusiasm seemed to drain out of her. "Its a special type of kitsune. They're the servants of Inari, the harvest god. They've got white fur, like me."
Notch-Ear came up, tentatively wagging his tail, head low. Jackie absently reached out and skritched him under the chin. The nearly-grown wolf sighed happily, sitting down and closing his eyes.
"He's such a wimp," snickered Jill, looking at the wolf.
"He's the Omega," said Jackie. "Poor boy. Nothing wrong with him, really. Just his role in the pack."
"Sorta like Tony," said Jill, nodding, recalling a friend from school. "He's smart, and not really bad at the physical stuff, but everybody picks on him."
"We don't," said Jackie. "Well, I kid him, sometimes, but I don't meant it."
"Yeah, you and me and some of the other weirdoes treat him like he's one of the group," Jill agreed.
Notch-Ear by now was laying on his side, as Jackie rubbed his belly and Jill his back. He looked quite content.
"D'you think he'll be a changer?" Jill asked.
"This guy? I thought you could tell."
"It's harder with wolves," said Jill.
She got the young wolf's attention and tried to look into his eyes. He shied away.
"See? Most of the wolves here won't even let me look, and the others don't like it."
"Okay, yeah, I can see why you'd have trouble telling, if you have to stare into their eyes like that," Jackie said, grinning. Few wolves would willingly play dominance stare with a shapechanger, even a non-werewolf shapechanger.
"Hey, where'd your brother go?" Jill asked, suddenly, looking around.
"You mean Todd? He and some of the other older werewolves and wolves went out into the woods."
"Oh," said Jill, obviously disappointed.
"Hah! You're sweet on him!" Jackie teased. "Though what you could see in my brother I don't know. Ech..."
"Am not," insisted Jill. "He's just... nice."
"Jill's sweet on Todd, Jill's sweet on Todd..." Jackie chanted.
She stopped abruptly when the younger, smaller girl not only turned all the way to fox, but hid her head under her multiple tails.
"I'm sorry," said Jackie, reaching out to stroke her friend's coat. "I didn't mean anything."
The little fox stayed just where she was, until Notch-Ear nuzzled her. Jill looked up, surprised, and got a lick right on the muzzle. She promptly shifted back to her foxy trueform, a look of disgust on her face.
"Eeww... I got kissed by a wolf!"
"At least he's a boy wolf," snickered Jackie.
The older girl grabbed the wolf in a playful neck-hold and noogied him. Notch-Ear acted submissive, as if he were being punished, but both girls could tell he enjoyed the attention.
"Look, if you want to see Todd we could find them easy enough," said Jackie, releasing the wolf, to his obvious disappointment.
"We're not allowed off the lot without an adult," said Jill, in a tone which implied she'd been caught doing just that many times.
"Well, if we find Todd and the others, we'll be with adults," Jackie pointed out.
Jill considered this for a moment, then nodded.
"Okay, Notch-Ear," said Jackie, turning to the young wolf. "Find Todd!"
He looked at her quizzically for a moment, then seemed to get the idea. He stood and took off, heading for the back gate.
* * *
"No wonder he's the omega," muttered Jackie, as she stumbled over a rock projecting from the bare dirt of the trail.
"Now, don't blame him," Jill chided. "You said earlier that they came out here to learn how to cover their tracks."
Notch-Ear paused, one forepaw in the air, to look forlornly back at the girls, tail between his legs. Jackie rolled her eyes; Jill giggled.
"See? He's apologizing."
"Which means he knows it's his fault," said Jackie, her glare making the young wolf slink up to her, belly practically dragging the ground.
Jackie glared at him for a moment longer, then sighed, relented and patted the wolf.
"It's okay, Notch-Ear. You tried your best. And Jill can't find them, either."
"So do we head back, now?"
"We've only been gone..." Jackie looked at her watch "...eighteen minutes. Still plenty of time."
"Are you sure we're not lost?" Jill asked.
"Sure. If nothing else, Notchy, here, could find the center. Or you could switch to fox and sniff our back trail."
The path had wandered and branched, became wider and narrower, and switched from bare dirt to leaf mold to pressed but still living grass and back to dirt. At no time had they seen any sign of their quarry. Jill was about to insist they return when Jackie stopped, and squatted. She pulled up some of the stunted grass and pointed.
"Look; this is buried gravel. I bet this is part of an old driveway. See? You can tell the trees and such going along this way," she swept her arms out in opposite directions to indicate where she meant, "are smaller, younger."
"So it's an old driveway," Jill replied, shrugging.
Notch-Ear, who had wandered ahead along the old drive, stopped and whined, ears up, looking at something off to the side.
"What is it boy?" giggled Jill. "Did Timmy fall in the well again?"
"Hush," muttered Jackie, though she smiled.
The girls joined the wolf and looked in the direction he indicated. Ahead, through the trees, they could just see part of a house, on top of a slight rise.
"Looks abandoned," muttered Jackie, pushing a hanging branch aside as she started forward. "Just to be safe, you better go human."
Jill sighed and shifted as she caught the branch and in turn pushed past it, white fur and multiple tails retracting, vulpine ears and cute little muzzle converting to their human equivalents. The midform was the natural one for her, unlike werewolves, who were born either human or wolf. That was how she felt the most comfortable, and the way she preferred to be around people who knew what she was.
The trio struggled uphill through the underbrush for a bit, having a slightly easier time as the ground leveled, then suddenly found themselves beside the house, facing a wall, windows with closed curtains above them.
"This must have been a lawn," said Jill, looking around. "How long would it take for a yard to grow wild like this after someone stopped mowing it?"
"Don't ask me," muttered Jackie, looking left and right along the brownstone foundation. "I think the front is to the left."
"D'ja notice anything strange about this place?" asked Jill, quietly. "The yard's gone wild, but the house is perfect. The windows are not only not broken, but look clean. The paint's white and new-looking."
"Here's the porch," said Jackie.
Instead of going around to the steps, fighting through the tall grass and weeds, she simply grabbed the white wooden railing and climbed over. Notch-Ear jumped up, neatly slipping between the verticals. Jill climbed up as well, though with a bit more trouble than the athletic Jackie.
"Look at this place!" Jackie exclaimed, sweeping her arm in a broad arc. "Look; from up here you can see where the old drive curves around to that garage, and you can still see part of the old walkway going from there to the steps to the porch."
"Jackie..." said Jill, very quietly.
The older girl turned, and was slightly surprised to see her friend back in her foxy trueform. She was more surprised to note something else.
"You're sensing magic, right?"
"How can you tell?"
"Your eyes go all weird," said Jackie, with a slight smirk.
"There's magic protecting the house," Jill confirmed. "Human magic. Sorcerer stuff, not fae or shapeshifter or even Lisa's sort of spirit stuff."
"Wonder if anybody's home..." said Jackie, moving to the door.
She pulled the old screen door open, and raised her hand to the knocker. Before she could touch it, there was a faint click, and the door slowly, silently opened.
"Jill?" said Jackie, backing warily away.
"I think it's all right," said Jill, stepping a bit closer. "I don't feel anything bad. Just lots of magic, not used in a long time. And it wants to be used."
Notch-Ear slipped between them and stuck his nose inside, sniffing. The girls looked at each other, shrugged simultaneously, and the trio walked in.
"Doesn't even smell stuffy," said Jackie, sniffing in a manner not unlike that of Notch-Ear.
The room was furnished in a old-fashioned style, but not really old. Oh, some specific items were obviously antiques, like the clock on the fireplace mantle. But the recliner was much more modern. There was a large, console TV in one corner, where both the couch and recliner approximately faced it. Nearby was a console stereo and radio combination, the top open to reveal an LP record on the turntable. All was silent. No lights were on, and nothing moved. Even the old clock was still, long wound down. Yet the room appeared well tended, with nothing out of place, not even a speck of dust visible.
All three members of the expedition gave a slight start as the door swung silently closed, only making a slight, muffled clack as it latched. Jackie immediately reached for the knob. It turned without resistance, and the door opened.
"Well, that's a relief," she said, letting go and watching as it closed again. She flipped the switches on the wall beside the entrance. "No electricity, big surprise."
They wandered around the room for a while, at first bunched together, then slowly spreading out as nothing menacing appeared. Jackie found a magazine bin on the floor beside the recliner. The latest date was from more than forty years earlier.
"This is so weird," said Jackie. "It's like some nice old couple went for a walk, and just never came back."
"Only nothing has changed," said Jill, softly. "There's no dust, no decay, no insects or mice..."
"I wonder if the car is still in the garage?" mused Jackie. She glanced over at Jill. "You still gettin' magic vibes?"
"Oh, yeah..." she breathed, obviously distracted.
She turned and headed out of the family room, through one of the open doorways. Jackie and the wolf followed, curious. The young kitsune went down a short hall, past a doorway to the kitchen on the left and an open door to a bathroom on the right. At the far end of the hall were three doors, one each to the left and right, and one straight ahead. All were closed.
Jackie, left to herself, would have opened each door in turn, but Jill was already reaching for the one straight ahead. She turned the knob, then pushed the door open. Inside was a sun-lit den, obviously the haven for the male head of the family which had lived here. There were framed photographs and paintings on the walls, some neat book cases, and a large desk with a wooden swivel chair. Seemingly random items lay scattered on nearly every horizontal surface, including the floor. Even the clutter, however, gave the impression of having been placed deliberately. In the far wall was a door to the outside. Through the glass they could see a back porch.
"This is so weird," said Jill, repeating her friend's phrase, only in a whisper.
She stepped into the center of the room, turning slowly to take it all in. Notch-Ear trotted over to the rug beside the desk, sniffed a bit, then flopped down, as if he'd been here before and knew he was welcome. Jackie explored, looking at items on the shelves and hanging on the walls
Jackie tried on a straw hat, found it much too large and put it back. A row of fishing rods, hanging by their tips, was set gently swinging by her finger as she walked along the wall. Books on shelves were looked at but not taken down. Most of them appeared to be about hunting and fishing. Old-fashioned waders, still smelling strongly of rubber, were examined in puzzled curiosity. She opened a container on the desk which proved to contain loose pipe tobacco, sniffed at it's pungent, herbal aroma, sneezed, and quickly closed it.
"Y'know," she remarked, as she examined the other contents of the pipe rack, "it's strange, but... I feel as if it's all right for us to be here."
"They liked children," said Jill, gaze distant and preoccupied. "All the neighborhood kids were welcome. In Summer they'd have ice cream and lemonade, and in Winter fresh-baked cookies and hot cocoa. The man and the woman would tell tales, and listen to the children's stories of their own adventures."
"A childless couple?" asked Jackie, head tipped to one side, as she considered her friend.
"No. There was a son. Grown and with children of his own. They were fulfilled, but still willing to contribute."
"So... how do you know this?" Jackie asked with careful casualness.
Jill shook her head, and came back to the here and now with a start.
"I don't know!" She shivered. "I just... it just came to me. Nothing like that has happened before!"
"Easy," said Jackie, giving the smaller girl a reassuring hug. "Maybe it's just your powers developing."
"Yeah, that could be," she agreed, calming. "But... you know, whatever else they were, at least the husband was a powerful sorcerer."
"No kidding," grinned Jackie.
"Yeah. And... it seems like the focus is in this room. On the desk. There..."
Jackie looked where the young kitsune was pointing, and saw a small case. Puzzled, she moved behind the desk and considered it.
"Y'know," she said, slowly, as she examined the case, which was exactly in the center of the blotter pad, "everything else in here feels like it's in the right place... but this is the only thing which looks like it was deliberately put where it would be noticed. I mean, who leaves their glasses exactly in the middle of their blotter?"
"I don't know about this," said Jill, obviously worried.
"Look, everything you've told me so far tells me that whoever lived here not only wouldn't have minded, but would want kids to look around and explore. Well, as long as they didn't break anything."
She opened the case. Inside was a pair of old-fashioned spectacles, in heavy frames and with thick lenses. Jackie lifted them out of the case.
"Okay, I give," she said. "This is a magic item?"
"Yes," whispered Jill, wide-eyed. "There's very strong magic, there. But very... disciplined magic. Tamed. Peaceful. Like the people who lived here."
Jackie shrugged and slipped the glasses on. She looked up, and gaped. Before her stood an image from a fairy tale; a Japanese fairy tale. She was tall and slim and delicate, with long white hair and almond eyes (blue almond eyes, though). A cluster of meticulously groomed, white-furred tails sprouted behind her. Her garment was silk, or perhaps something even finer, white and elaborately embroidered in red and gold and silver, with pearls sewn on. Jackie stared, astounded.
"Are you all right?" the exotic image asked, in Jill's voice.
"Yeah," said Jackie, vaguely.
"What do you see?"
"Well... you. But you're different. Grown-up."
"Oooh, neat!" said Jill, excited. The exotic figure incongruously bounced like a little girl. "What do I look like?"
"A lot more Japanese than you do now."
"Let me see!" Jill demanded, stepping forward and reaching for the glasses.
"It's still my turn!" said Jackie, jerking away.
As she turned, she saw Notch-Ear, and gasped. Because, through those arcane lenses, he was a human, a naked young man. Notch-Ear looked up at her, curious about the fuss. Before Jackie could react further, Jill grabbed the glasses. And shrieked in pain, dropping them to the immaculate, meticulously polished hardwood floor.
"What?! What?! What?!" Jackie demanded, grabbing her friend's hand.
"It burned me," whimpered the kitsune.
There was no mark on her hand. Nor was she still feeling any pain, once she calmed enough to notice.
"Serves you right," said Jackie, with a snicker. "Guess that's something put in 'em to make kids share without grabbing."
"Maybe," said Jill, tentatively.
Jackie looked for the glasses, and saw Notch-Ear sniffing at them.
"Don't, boy; you'll scratch 'em," she chided.
The young wolf looked up at her, as if not sure he was being scolded. Jackie scooped up the glasses and held them towards a window.
"Eewww, wolf-snot," she muttered.
Jackie began looking for something to clean them with.
"Maybe you should wash 'em," Jill suggested.
Jackie nodded, and the trio trooped into the bathroom. Jackie turned on the faucet, but no water came out.
"Oh. Right," muttered Jackie.
So they trooped into the kitchen. A clean, dry (of course) dish towel was put to use. With a considerable amount of breathing on the lenses and scrubbing with the cloth, the glasses were soon clean.
"Now..." said Jackie, starting to put them back on. Only, she hesitated and looked at Jill, feeling a bit guilty about hogging their prize. "You wanna try 'em?"
"Go ahead," said Jill, actually stepping back a bit.
Jackie slipped the oversized frames onto her face, and peered around. As before, all looked unchanged except the kitsune and the wolf.
"This is so neat!" she exclaimed, walking around her friend, inspecting her from head to foot.
"Why do you keep looking over my head?" Jill asked.
"Because you look taller," was Jackie's matter-of-fact reply. "Cool blue eyes, by the way."
"Neat," grinned Jill.
Jackie next turned to Notch-Ear. She walked around the wolf, who looked like a young man crouched on all fours. Then, she snickered, and bent to look underneath.
"Stop that," snapped Jill, whapping her friend on the back of the head.
"Okay, okay," Jackie muttered. "Oh! Mirror! I wanna see me!"
She hurried back to the bathroom, having to hold the ear pieces with both hands to keep the glasses from bouncing off.
"Hey! What a gyp!"
"What?" gasped Jill, ducking into the bathroom.
"Oh. I look just the same, and at first thought that meant I wasn't gonna be a werewolf," said Jackie, turning back and forth between looking at her friend and looking at the mirror. "Then you came in and I saw that you still look the same in the mirror. So it just doesn't work with mirrors. All I see is my regular reflection."
"Oh. Then look down."
She did so. And pursed her lips, thoughtfully, as she postured and twisted, peering at her form.
"Well?" said Jill, impatiently.
"It's... different," she replied. "I mean, I look different. Like an adult. But I can't tell if I can change."
"Well, you'll be able to. I've told you that."
"Yeah," sighed Jackie, "but I'd like to see it..."
Jill hesitantly reached out and touched the frame of the glasses, quickly jerking her hand away.
"It doesn't like the fae," she explained.
"Oh." Jackie took the glasses off, folded them and tucked then into her shirt pocket.
"That's not unusual. Mortal magic often is antithetical to Changelings. It's just the way things are."
"Oh," Jackie repeated. She suddenly realized something. "Hey, where's Notch-Ear?"
"He was sniffing at one of the doors in the hall."
"Hmm," said Jackie, thinking. "There's three doors in the kitchen. One leads to the same back porch as the one in the office. I bet one of the others is for a pantry. Which means the third one leads to the upstairs or the basement. And it's just about opposite the left door in the hall. So..."
They found the young wolf scratching at the left-hand door, occasionally whining. Jill decided not to repeat her joke from earlier, outside, though the temptation was strong. Jackie turned the knob and pushed the door open. On the other side was a steep set of steps, going down. Darkness swallowed the treads after only a short distance.
"That's... spooky," said Jackie, an odd tone in her voice. "Of course, this means that opposite door in the kitchen leads upstairs. See up there? That's the other steps. The underside of 'em, going up."
Jill made a gesture. A bright light formed at her fingertips, then sputtered and died.
"My magic doesn't work right here," she sighed.
"Maybe we can find candles, or a lantern," Jackie suggested. "You check the kitchen; I'll check the office."
Jill found candles and matches, but Jackie found something better.
"What's that?" the kitsune asked, puzzled, looking at Jackie holding up her find.
"A Coleman lantern!" Jackie shook it. "Still has fuel! There was a can with it, but this is almost full, so let's not bother with that just now. No reason to make a mess if we don't have to."
"You sound like your father," Jill giggled.
Jackie set the lantern on the kitchen table and pumped vigorously for several seconds. Then she lit a match, poked it through the hole, and twisted the valve. There was a slight delay, a soft pop, and the mantle lit. Jackie waved the match out, and looked around in vain for a place to put it.
"Just put it in the sink for now," Jill suggested. "Nothin' t' burn there."
Jackie did so, then went back to the lamp and fiddled with it, grinning as she opened and closed the valve.
"Oh, stop playing with it and let's go downstairs!" said Jill, exasperated. "Hey, where's Notch-Ear?"
"Notch-Ear!" Jackie called, looking around. "Hey! Notchy!"
They heard a soft bark from the hallway. However, he was not there. Additional calls revealed that he was already down in the basement.
"Well, whaddaya know; he's not afraid of the dark," muttered Jackie, a bit surprised.
Jill went first, with the taller Jackie behind, holding the lamp high. They descended into the slightly musty air of the basement. Notch-Ear was only partly visible, standing beyond a huge furnace. There, on the concrete floor, was a circle, the border an elaborate filigree with arcane symbols mixed in.
"This is where it happened."
Even though the kitsune whispered, her voice still startled Jackie.
"Where what happened?" Jackie asked, also in a whisper.
"Something sad, and hopeful, and... powerful."
Jackie stared at her for a moment, then glanced back at the circle. It appeared to be drawn with blue chalk. She suddenly grimaced, and pulled out the glasses.
"Nothin'," she announced, after putting them on and examining the circle.
"I think they only work with people," said Jill. "Either to show their true nature, or their potential."
"So what did happen here?" Jackie demanded.
"I don't know!" cried Jill, eyes actually starting to tear. "It's just so sad..."
Jackie sat her friend down in a chair at a work table. She noticed that Notch-Ear was already there, forepaws on the table, sniffing at an envelope. Again, among all the tools and supplies and canned foods, this looked as if it had been placed to attract notice. Jackie looked up at the rafters, found a hook, and climbed on the table to hang the lantern. She checked on Jill, who looked better and insisted she was all right. Which left her free to examine the envelope.
"It's addressed 'To Those Who Find It,'" she stated, puzzled, reading the neat script on the front. "It's not sealed, either."
Inside was a one-page letter, also in neatly written longhand.
"'They have all moved away, and we cannot,'" Jackie read. "'Our power, our lives, are tied to this place. But without the children our lives are worthless. So we are preparing a ritual of merging and waiting. One day, the children will return. And our wait will be over. Until then our power will maintain our home and keep out those not welcome. If you are here, know that you are welcome.' And it's signed 'Olivia Franklin' and 'Joseph Franklin.'"
"They're so lonely," sobbed Jill, starting again.
Jackie put a hand on her shoulder, not sure what to do.
"It looks like they expected children to find their house, and for that to undo whatever they did," she mused, looking around. "Howcum that hasn't happened yet?"
"I think... I think 'cause it took longer than they expected," Jill replied, pulling a handkerchief out of a back pocket to wipe her eyes and nose. She suddenly blinked in surprise. "Hey... my Dad says people moved out of this area because it has a high level of magic, and that made them uncomfortable. It's why your folks were able to get the house and the land for the day-care center cheap."
"You mean... because they had magic, they drove off the families... and the children..." Jackie shook her head, slowly. "That was pretty stupid."
"Well, back then, people - normal people - around here weren't as spooked by it," said Jill, remembering conversations she'd overheard among the fey. "But as city people moved in, and locals got more - uhm - sophisticated?"
"Whatever," said Jackie.
"Well, the people changed. Less used to nature, and to magic. So both made them uncomfortable."
"Okay. So how do we bring them out of it?"
"Just being here enough would do it, I think," said Jill. "The more kids, the faster. But we probably don't have time this morning."
"Eep!" said Jackie, quickly looking at her watch. "Whew. It's been less than an hour since we set out. Still, we need to head back, soon."
"Yeah," said Jill, standing, and looking disappointed.
She looked around the basement, and Jackie sensed an odd, prickly sensation. A gathering of power. Whether it came from her friend, the house, or both she wasn't sure.
"We will be back," Jill promised, apparently to the house.
Jackie returned the letter to the envelope and put that back in its place on the table. She then retrieved the lantern, and they went upstairs. Jackie set the lantern on the kitchen table and closed the valve, watching to make sure it went out. Then she and Jill and Notch-Ear headed for the door. None of them had spoken since Jill's promise. They hadn't needed to. However, as Jackie reached for the door knob she stopped with a wordless exclamation of irritation, and spun around.
"I've still got the glasses. Be right back."
A quick round trip to the office and she was ready.
"You put them back in the case?" Jill asked, pointedly.
"Of course," said Jackie, exasperated, as she opened the front door. "I'm the responsible one, remember?"
"You're the responsible one?!"
They stood on the front porch for a moment, looking around as the screen door whispered closed behind them.
"Do we tell the grown-ups?" Jackie asked.
"Sure. They'll check it out, and see what we saw."
"But will they let us - and maybe other kids - come back here?"
"Sure," said Jill, with a smile. "I mean, we have to rescue those people. And when did you ever know your Dad or mine to be able to resist a mystery?"
"You have a point, there," laughed Jackie. "C'mon. We're already in trouble. Let's try and keep it to a minimum."
They hurried away, not noticing that the grass seemed a bit shorter and less weedy, that some of the small trees in the yard and drive were shrinking, and that the drapes in the living room were now open.
* * *
The strange group stood in the gravel drive, looking up at the house. A large, muscular man stood over a head above any of the others, but he was quite mundane-appearing compared to the even the young wolf sniffing at the base of the short slope. A woman and a girl - both appearing human - would have also escaped initial notice from some random hiker suddenly coming upon the group. Because two of their number were kitsune, one a four-tail, the other a seven. The former was male, a bit shorter than the average US adult, but also rather athletic, in a lean, distance runner sort of way, with Asian features. Beside him, the seven-tail was a young female, mostly Asian in appearance, with pure-white fur. The members of this apparently diverse group did have one thing in common, however. All were momentarily speechless as they stared at the house and surrounding property, discovered that morning by the two young girls in the party.
"I would never have found this," said How, amazed, tails momentarily stilled.
"Given your knack for finding things, that is quite an admission," said Joyce.
"Even I can feel the magic," muttered Bent-Tail, looking around, "and I'm not sensitive to such things."
"Well, dear, there are people who say you're not sensitive to much at all," joked his wife.
"Yes, but the magic isn't detectable outside the boundaries of the property," said How. "Marvelous job... Time was held in abeyance, and they used that to help keep the magic contained, so it wouldn't be noticed."
"I can't believe how much this place has changed," said Jackie, stepping away from the others a bit to look around the neatly groomed lawn. "The closer to the house, the better it looks, but even the driveway is almost clear, now."
"There's definitely something stirring here," How said, nodding. "A complex pattern of magic, old and deeply ingrained."
Jackie nodded absently, then ran up the short, steep slope to the level part of the lawn. Notch-Ear bounded happily after her, tail high for a change. Jill hurried after her friends, fluffy white tails bouncing, while the adults followed more sedately. Though the children headed for the front porch, Notch-Ear ran around back.
"What's with him?" asked Jill.
Jackie just shrugged. She opened the screen door and reached for the knocker. This time she actually had to use it before the door unlocked and opened. Maybe because there were adults present? Or maybe because the owners were awake?
"You girls wait for us!" Joyce called.
"Aw, Mom..." complained Jackie. "We've done this before. It's okay."
"I don't care," said Joyce, as she and the other adults and How arrived. "Okay, now we can go in."
"Hello?" Jill called, as they entered. "Mr. and Mrs. Franklin? Are you home?"
"Well, of course they are," muttered Jackie, after a brief pause brought no response. "They're just not... out, yet."
"I don't get it," said Jill, standing in the middle of the immaculate room, looking around puzzled. "I thought they'd be awake by now. I mean, look at the yard, and the driveway..."
"That's just the maintenance spells spreading due to the stimulation of your earlier presence," said How, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. He patted his daughter on the shoulder. "They've been asleep for a long time, honey. It may take a while before they wake up."
"Well, we can go ahead and give you the tour," said Jackie.
First came the living room, naturally, since that was where they were standing. The two girls showed what they'd found there, including the old magazines. Then down the short hallway and into the kitchen.
"And we put the match in here, 'cause we couldn't find the garbage and..." She blinked as she reached the sink, and found it empty. "Hey!"
"Just the maintenance spells," said How, grinning.
"At least the lantern is still where we put it," said Jackie, pointing to the kitchen table.
Back in the hall the girls showed the adults what was behind each door. When they reached the den all five were surprised to see Notch-Ear lying on the rug beside the desk. He looked up at them curiously for a moment, then lay his head back down.
"How did he get in here?" said Joyce, astounded.
The answer was quickly discovered: a pet door in the human door at the far end of the den.
"Okay," said Jill, spooked, "I know that wasn't there last time. And how did he know about it?"
"Well, he did go out of the center's yard for a while, earlier, when you were telling us about the house," said Bent-Tail. "Maybe he came back here and explored, and found the pet door."
"But how did it get there?!" Jackie demanded.
"Maybe the Franklins loved dogs as well as children," said How. He shrugged and grinned. "Something to ask them, if we ever get their attention."
"Anyway, those are the glasses," said Jill, pointing to the case on the desk, but not touching it.
"I think we'll leave those for later," judged How.
The two hallway doors the girls hadn't tried before were checked next. As the party left the den Notch-Ear rose, stretched, yawned, and followed, though he seemed reluctant to leave the rug.
The door to the right was the master bedroom. Sedately furnished, quiet, neatly kept, with just enough clutter to make it comfortable. The other side door led to the library.
"Pope on a rope," whispered How, as they stared at the walls of shelving.
The shelves were full, to overflowing, though even the overflow was neatly arranged. Most of the shelves were mounted directly to the walls, but two tall bookcases were also fully laden. Paperbacks, hardbacks and magazines filled every available space.
"Look at these," said Bent-Tail. "A complete set of Strange Tales, from the first issue to the end of the original run. The Shadow Magazine. Doc Savage Magazine."
"Look at the Tarzan and John Carter and Oz books!" gasped Joyce. "There are multiple editions of some of them!"
"I remember, now!" said Bent-Tail, smacking the side of his head. "I read in a biography of Todd Browning, that he'd had a childhood playmate who shared some of his interests. A man named Joe Franklin, who later went on to become a writer!"
"I remember that, too," said Joyce, nodding. "He earned most of his money writing scripts for radio plays, and advertising copy, but he also wrote some fantasy stories which were considered minor classics."
"What are you two talking about?" demanded How. "Who's Todd Browning?"
"Made Dracula, Freaks and a number of other horror movies, back in the Thirties and Forties," said Bent-Tail. "He's from Louisville, you know."
"I did not know that," said How, amazed.
There was a closet in the room, which turned out to be full of piles of lesser magazines.
"Do you have any idea how much this stuff is worth?" mused Bent-Tail. "At a rough guess, a shrewd seller could get several times the value of the house and land, just for what's in the closet."
The tour of the ground floor completed, they next fetched the lantern and a couple of candles and trooped to the basement.
"Interesting..." mused How, walking slowly around the design on the floor. "A very unusual application of transubstantiation."
"Which means?" Joyce encouraged.
"Basically, they merged themselves with the network of spells embedded in the house and land."
"I was right!" crowed Jill. "So, when will they come out?"
"I don't know, honey," said How, puzzled. "There seems to be... something else needed."
"Did you notice that there's a well and pump over there?" asked Bent-Tail. "Makes sense; they were too far from city water when the house was built. And the geology's right."
"I'm surprised, then, that the spells don't supply water to the faucets," said Joyce.
"They might, now," said How.
"Can we see the upstairs, now?" asked Jackie. "We didn't have time before."
"Okay, okay," chuckled Bent-Tail.
In the kitchen, Jackie gleefully yanked the door open and charged up the stairs. Jill and Notch-Ear bounded after her, the others following more sedately.
The stairs ended in a short hall, with two doors in the far wall and one at each end. Jackie had already opened one of the side doors.
"Looks like the second floor is only half as wide as the first," said Bent-Tail, peering around and being mindful of the headroom. "Though I bet there's an access hatch to an attic storage space here, too, somewhere."
"This one's just a big closet!" exclaimed Jackie. She wrinkled her nose. "Smells like moth balls."
Jill giggled and Jackie rolled her eyes at her friend's weird and punnish sense of humor.
The other side door was a bathroom, exactly over the one on the ground floor. The right end door opened onto a bedroom.
"This was their son's," said Jill, as they stood at the door, looking around. "He was... like them. Until later."
"You all right, Hon?" How asked, concerned at his daughter's sudden attack of psychometry.
"Yeah," said Jackie, looking into Jill's eyes and nodding. "She did this before, in the den, this morning."
"It's certainly a nice room," said Joyce, stepping carefully past the entranced kitsune to look around. "I'm certain the mother cleaned up in here after the boy moved out, but you can tell he took care of the room better than most kids do theirs."
"Aw, Mom..." muttered Jackie, as her mother gave her The Look.
"There are photos on the desk," said Bent-Tail, pointing but not entering, not wanting to crowd into the small room.
"Looks like they're mostly of the son, at various ages," said Joyce, being careful not to touch. "This is probably why there weren't any photos of children in the master bedroom. They put them up here. Look, he must be getting married, here."
"His wife was... small," said Jill, still spacey. "Narrow. Mundane. Banal. And made him like her."
"Any grandkids in the photos?" asked How.
"Not that I can tell," said Joyce. "Looks like the last photo was made not long after the wedding."
"He moved away from them, in body and soul," Jill intoned.
"Hon, that's getting too strange," said How, gently, bending to look at Jill. "Can you come back to us, please?"
"Sure, Daddy," said Jill, turning and smiling. "What did you want?"
"Just my daughter back," said How, beaming.
"I don't think I'm going to look in the closets," said Joyce, moving back to the door. "Like in the bedroom downstairs, I just don't feel comfortable about that."
"Okay, then it's off to the other end of the hall!" How happily announced.
If the library had been surprising, what lay beyond the door was astounding.
"We never looked at the far end of the house from outside," said Bent-Tail, distantly. "If we had..."
"We'd have seen it had an observatory built into it," How finished, nodding.
The room was slightly larger than the bedroom, partly because it used some of the attic space Bent-Tail had mentioned. A rotating dome with slit was overhead, a large refracting telescope on a pedestal positioned directly under the center. Shelves held other equipment, and books and magazines. On the walls were star charts and illustrations and photographs of constellations and planets.
"Normally, I'd say a second floor wouldn't be rigid enough for observations with a 'scope this big, but this place is solid," Bent-Tail mused, putting a reverent hand on the tube of the telescope. "Was this for the father or the son?"
"Both, I think," said How, frowning thoughtfully. "There's an odd mix of associations in here. And they may have used magic to stabilize the structure."
"The mother loved the stars," Jill intoned, doing it again.
"If the other room is a shrine," said Joyce, as she watched her husband inspect the dome's opening and rotating mechanisms, "this is a museum. A working museum."
"You just might be right," said How, nodding.
They spent some time looking around the room, more in idle curiosity than with any purpose. Then, with a few words, they moved back downstairs to the kitchen. Jill, seeing the sink and recalling something How said earlier, impulsively went to the sink and turned the knob. With a cough and a sputter, water gushed out. It was rusty at first, then ran clear. Jill laughed in delight, trying the other valve.
"Things are still improving," mused Joyce.
"Any sign of our hosts stirring, yet?" asked Bent-Tail.
"No," said How, frowning. "They should be. Of course, they also seem to have been asleep longer than intended. But even if all this activity in the house didn't waken them, this wasn't something they did in a hurry. They surely had some sort of backup plan, in case..."
"In case children didn't come, or that wasn't enough," Joyce finished, nodding.
"We're missing something," mused How. "Some key..."
"Key!" said Joyce, in sudden revelation.
She turned and hurried into the living room, the others trailing puzzledly after her.
"You're the one who commented on time being stopped," Joyce stated, heading for the fireplace. "What better symbol for restarting it than winding a clock?"
"D'oh!" exclaimed Bent-Tail, smacking himself on the head again.
"That could be it," said How, nodding.
Joyce opened the antique clock, looked briefly inside, and triumphantly produced the key. Turning back to the clock, she hesitated.
"There's 3 holes..."
"Start at the top and work down," Bent-Tail suggested.
"They're in a triangle," she muttered.
"If the point's up, start at the top and go clockwise," said Jackie.
"Like father, like daughter," said Bent-Tail, beaming.
Joyce shrugged, and did just that. After winding all three springs, she put the key back in the base of the clock, then gently pushed the pendulum. It seemed reluctant to move at first, but with each cycle the movement became faster, more certain, until it was swinging freely in a regular rhythm.
"That stirred something up!" said How.
"Now you know why I married her," said Bent-Tail, proudly.
How was bristling by now, and he wasn't the only one. Not only was Jill's fur also standing on end, and Notch-Ear's, but Bent-Tail's head bumped the ceiling as he reflexively changed to his huge midform.
"Eep!" said Joyce, seeing all wildness.
Gradually, though, the lupines and vulpines in the room relaxed. Which made Joyce relax.
"Should we go down to meet them?" asked Jill, excitedly.
"Yeah!" said Jackie, dashing for the stairs.
"I think we grown-ups should stay here," said Bent-Tail, returning to human. "Let the girls go ahead. And Notch-Ear. No sense confronting the owners of this house with a full-blow invasion."
Within minutes they could hear the children excitedly talking to someone, and the young wolf making happy sounds. All these noises, plus adult voices somehow warm and familiar, became clearer, accompanied by the sounds of people ascending the stairs. Finally, an older couple entered the hallway and turned towards the family room, where the trio of modern adults awaited them. They were both white-haired, he still tall and lean, she slightly plump, both alert and vigorous. They smiled quizzically at How, Bent-Tail and Joyce.
"Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Franklin," said Bent-Tail, grinning. "Welcome to the Twenty-First Century."
This story is Copyright 2001 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to use this story for anything beyond personal
enjoyment must obtain permission from the author, who can be reached at: email@example.com