Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chapter Sixty-One

A raven flies clumsily over the forest of tangled thorns. It is missing one of its main feathers, so it dips and falls erratically. But it speeds ever faster toward the castle atop the Forbidden Mountain.

Here is the home of the uninvited enchantress. Here the Queen will find her answer.

After an eternity of walking, it takes her only moments to reach the castle, dark and cold.

Its many windows are pristinely colored and depict images from long, long ago. The glass, were it not made from magic, would have been an extravagant fortune.

Quickly, she circles the countless towers and turrets. Precious time is wasted looking for an entrance - the spell, devoid of blood or flesh, will not last long - but perhaps a dark force looks out for the Queen, or perhaps the castle wants her inside, for she finally finds an open window and flies in toward her destiny.

Surprisingly, it is not dark within the castle. Torches pulse faintly with an otherworldly glow. Fairy lights, they call them, and they are said to lead travelers toward their doom.

She flies as best she can, bumping against the ceiling numerous times, but it is better than being snatched down by an errant claw. Who knows how many of the creatures are trapped in here? And she feels fortunate, though ever more cautious, that there are no closed doors - they have all been smashed down.

And so the Queen flies, searching for items of magic. They are everywhere in this castle, for everything has been created by the Dark Fairy, but they are as worthless to her cause as the torches.

Rooms of torture. Rooms of pleasure. Rooms filled with the skins of monsters, stuffed into fearful poses. A gallery of stone figures - would-be heroes caught cowering or standing defiant, all dead. A pastoral garden, indoors, the plants still plump and smiling, despite no water or sunlight.

And at last, a room of blackness, dark and dreary, except for a large red book. It glows and pulses with a strange heartbeat. It is alive, and waits to be read once more.

Its power causes the Queen to break into a sweat, though she doesn’t know birds could do such a thing. Without realizing it, her enchantment has worn off, snuffed out by the power of the Grimoire.

Trembling, she dares not touch it, for it is open to a spell... the final spell cast by the Dark Fairy. Its pages glow and thrum. Blood flows through them. The letters glisten and squirm - they were written in something more ageless than ink.

And though the language is none spoken on this mortal realm, the Queen reads it with practiced eyes. She unconsciously mouths the words with an unknowable hunger. Her lungs fill with the breath of magic.

This is the Curse of Living Death, the spell that gave life to that which is dead, a spell of creation, a spell of oblivion, a spell of destruction.

The Queen could never know why the Dark Fairy cast it, whether it was some minor spite for a forgotten festival invitation, or the scorned affections of a pure-hearted mortal, or whether she merely wanted to corrupt death itself. But she did something that none could do, that none should do, and the worlds fell.

Enchanted by the aroma of power, the Queen takes hold of the pages. In this Grimoire are so many spells, one must surely hold the answer. It is not of human creation - it comes from beyond time.

She barely notices the blood draining from her hands as she touches the pages. It is a small and worthwhile sacrifice, her blood for the Grimoire’s knowledge.

And the Queen is nothing compared to these spells. She, a mere mortal, who fancied herself a sorceress. And her own spellbook, priceless and unique in the world, is nothing compared to what the Grimoire contains.

The rapture of knowledge, the beauty of the sacrifice, the words that can change the world - she thanks the dark forces for choosing her to see such truths.

Instantly, she knows the Dwarf lied to her - that his bite wasn’t cursed, that she herself was never dying. But it doesn’t matter.

And for the first time in her life, the Queen feels humbled that she was chosen. Her half-mad companion, for all her inbred idiocy, was something inhuman, something from the realms of magic and so deserved this sight more than the Queen.

But she fell, and it was the Queen who was chosen.

Such spells, so many ways to change this world, which is nothing, really. Nor even the worlds beyond. They are nothing, they are pages to be written upon, or clay to be sculpted - such power these beings have!

The plague of death is nothing. It isn’t life from a corpse, it is a living puppet, it is a cough in the night, it can be fixed and changed as surely as she can make an image disappear from a mirror by covering it with a cloth.

The power courses through the Queen’s soul. The Grimoire drinks thirstily from her fingertips, and she finally listens with her ears, her weak, useless ears, nothing compared to a rabbit’s or a dog’s, but she hears the scratchings on the floor.

And she finally realizes she is not alone.

She turns, and while touching the Book she can see everything – the chamber is as brightest day, and she sees through the great and mighty dragon for what it truly is: the Uninvited Enchantress.

And the Dark Fairy is long dead, her insides chewed, the scales eaten through. An act of childbirth that brought her death. She is the mother from whom the dead first found life. And yet she is alive, she is a plaything of the Spell, she is one of the cursed.

When the Spell went wrong, and the Spell must have gone wrong, her final act had been to transform into this creature. Trapping herself in the Room of Magic, she fought her children, her creations. And inevitably, she died.

To wait, hungry and patient, and, without knowing it, to protect the Grimoire from any interruption.

And now comes an insect, weaker than a dog or rabbit, already her soul is being fed to the Grimoire, but the Dragon, the Enchantress, may feed upon the flesh.

Too late, the Queen sees how the Grimoire protects itself, and still she will not let go, she wants to sacrifice herself, she wants it to drink her blood, she wants the wisdom of death, and it never bothers her, it’s such a paltry little thought, that her body is already dead.

END PART II

Disney Zombies will conclude with Part III on Sunday, January 3, 2010.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chapter Sixty

The Wolf doesn’t end up eating the parrot. The Dwarf won’t let him.

“Eh, didn’t want it, anyway,” mutters the Wolf. “It was just a bunch of skin and bones.”

“Sour grapes,” says the Dwarf.

There’s a moment of uncomfortable silence. The Wolf folds his arms and tries to appear casual by leaning against the fireplace.

“So yer really going, huh?” he asks for the third time.

“Yar,” says the Dwarf. He pats down his toolbelt, looks around the nursery one last time, and tightens the twine that is knotted around the parrot’s legs.

The Wolf scoffs. “Just gonna leave us,” he says, but somehow the guilty look on the Dwarf’s face doesn’t bring him any pleasure.

“You can take care of yourself,” growls the Dwarf, “and I’ve done all I can fer the girl.”

We've done,” says the Wolf.

“She’s as safe here as anywhere else.” For some reason, the Dwarf can’t bring himself to look at her bed. “And she’s got a good nursemaid to look after her.”

The bonneted dog sits up a little straighter and cocks her ear in salute. The Wolf glares at her, but she’s grown used to ignoring him.

“And me!” The Wolf doesn’t like the whine that’s crept into his voice, and he clears his throat harshly. “I’ve been riskin’ my neck every night findin’ food!”

The Dwarf grants him that with the slightest of nods. “Fair enough, but there’s a prince out there that needs help. And by gar, I’m gonna help him.”

“Yeah, well, yer wastin’ yer time,” sneers the Wolf. “He’s probably dead. And you don’t know where he is, anyway.”

“You don’t know nothin’,” says the Dwarf. He pulls out the parrot’s golden key, now securely tied around his neck. “You know where this was made? I’ll tell ya. From the Far East, off in one of them desert kingdoms. Merchants pay a fortune fer this kind of craftsmanship back home.”

Seeing the greedy glint in the Wolf’s eyes, he tucks away the key and continues hurriedly, “Not that that means anything nowadays. You can have all the gold you want, and what’s it good for? Nothin’. Can’t eat it, can’t fight the deathlings with it, can’t keep you warm or build a suitable shelter.

“But if this prince sent away this key, it must mean something. That bird died gettin’ this message to us. And lemme tell ya, I’d rather find out what it means than sit here all winter eatin’ yer leftovers.”

The Dwarf double-checks the barricades over the windows and the entrances. He humphs and mutters, but cannot find any faults that could delay them any longer.

Wanting something to do with his hands, the Wolf wanders toward Cinderella’s bed. He smooths out her already smooth quilt and clears his throat again.

“So what am I supposed to do?” he finally asks.

The Dwarf shrugs and looks away.

When it becomes clear the Dwarf isn’t going to speak, the Wolf says, “Well, maybe I should come with you, then.” He steps in front of the only open window.

“I thought yer still wounded,” says the Dwarf.

“I am,” responds the Wolf. He rubs at his stitches, which are now all but invisible beneath his matted fur. “But I can climb like nobody’s business, and I can smell and hear and fight a lot better than you.

“And another thing,” says the Wolf. “I know yer going the wrong way. That bird flew in from the east, and this window faces west.”

“Don’t I know it.” The Dwarf peers over the window sill. “But I ain’t goin’ this way. They are.”

He nods down at the dead creatures milling about. The Dwarf checks the parrot and the length of twine, opens and closes his fist several times, and pulls out his shortest, sharpest knife.

“What’re you doing?” asks the Wolf, but his question is ignored.

After rolling up one sleeve, the Dwarf slices lightly at his arm. The blood flows quickly, and he wipes the wound with the parrot’s body. Soon it is a sticky mess of feathers and blood, and then he begins unraveling it down the side of the house.

“I know it ain’t dignified,” he says to the parrot, “and I’m sorry, but it’ll help us a lot more than it’ll bother you.”

The creatures below immediately take notice. Whether it’s the scent of fresh blood or the sight of something red and wet, they claw at the parrot with a desperate hunger.

At the window’s ledge, the Dwarf stops unraveling the twine once the parrot is just out of reach of the tallest corpse.

He smiles grimly at the Wolf. “That’ll keep ‘em busy for a while. Now, come on, we’re goin’ up the chimney.”

At the fireplace, the Dwarf finally turns and faces the bed. “You watch over her,” he says sternly to the bonneted dog, and she nods once.

“And you,” he says to the sleeping maiden, but he has no words, no use for good-byes or empty wishes of a safe return.

Turning, the Dwarf and the Wolf silently climb the chimney.

It's the last time either of them will ever see Cinderella.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Nine

The Lion does not speak. He merely pads away, dignified and slow, from the forlorn castle. Though the windows are full of staring eyes, he refuses to look back. It’s best to remain gracious in defeat, lest he lose control.

“Why wouldn’t they come with us?” asks Pinocchio. He keeps glancing behind and waving.

“The Master is hurt,” says the Clock. It daintily picks its legs through the fallen branches and leaves. “And it’s their duty to remain by his side.”

“Oh,” says the puppet. “But don’t they want to bring your friend back to life?”

“Of course they do,” says the Candelabra. “But... your plan is a hard thing to believe in, you must understand. We’ve witnessed her die. Twice.”

“And hope is a fragile thing,” says the Clock. Its voice takes on a poetic lilt. “Fragile as a rose in the winter.”

“I believe you’re speaking of love,” says the Candelabra.

“No, love would be the sun in this particular metaphor...”

The Lion suppresses the urge to scream.

His plan has failed miserably. Only two agreed to follow him.

A clownish brigade of three soldiers - this is the bloodless army he’s dreamed of leading? A fine enough trio, he thinks with utmost sarcasm, to find his food and protect him from the dead.

And out of this merry band of four, despite being the strongest, the smartest, the master of tooth and claw, he is the only one who is vulnerable.

His thoughts are interrupted by the baritone voice of the Candelabra.

“Monsieur Lion,” it says. “Tell us, how exactly do you intend to revive the Mademoiselle?”

“Yes,” adds the Clock. “You were a bit vague about that part of the plan.”

The Lion remains silent. Being in front, his face remains hidden from the others, so they cannot see his scar darken. He hasn’t yet come up with a suitable lie for this particular question.

“My father can do it,” Pinocchio pipes up suddenly, and once again, the Enchanted Mirror flashes to life with a vision of Gepetto.

“He can?” says the Candelabra. It peeks into the Mirror, and looks less than hopeful at the skinny old man.

“Oh, I know he can!” says Pinocchio. “He brought me to life, didn’t he? He can ask the Blue Fairy, easy, and she’ll help us all. Why, she’ll probably fix everyone!”

The Clock appears unconvinced. “If that’s the case, why hasn’t she done so already?”

Pinocchio considers for a moment. “Maybe she hasn’t thought to. We just have to ask her, and she’ll do it. Why, that must be it! She only helped Father because he wished for it, wished with all his heart.”

The Lion turns to stare at the puppet for a moment. He decides this lie is as good as any, and smiles warmly. “Of course, that’s exactly what I was thinking. Well done, my friend.”

“Now,” says the Candelabra, “we just have to find him.”

“But he could be anywhere,” complains the Clock.

The Lion continues to smile. He is thinking the exact same thing. He can take them anywhere – anywhere he wants - in the search for Gepetto.

“I think I know where he is,” says Pinocchio. “Look.”

He holds up the Enchanted Mirror. It depicts the old man fighting off one of the undead. He smashes a heavy stave upon a crawling, trampled woman.

For a moment, the Lion wonders what the boy is seeing - was she the victim of an elephant stampede? The wounds are familiar, but harder to understand when they are on Man rather than on beast. Is the old man living in the Wildlands?

“Sacre bleu,” says the Candelabra.

And then the Lion sees it. It isn’t how the corpse was killed, it’s why she is crawling.

She has no legs.

Or, rather, in place of legs, she has the tail of a fish.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Eight

The days trickle into weeks, and the summer darkens into fall.

The bonneted dog suddenly looks up from her position at the foot of Cinderella’s bed, which she’s guarded faithfully since their arrival. She bounds over to the nursery window and - despite the Wolf’s best efforts to silence her - begins barking loudly.

“What is it?” grumbles the Dwarf. The dog never barks, despite the horde of dead bodies that eternally watch from the streets below. This must be something different. He reaches for his spear-axe and peers suspiciously out into the cityscape.

“Look,” says the Wolf, and he flicks his snout.

After a moment, the Dwarf’s beady eyes pick it out - something small and colorful wavering in the morning sky. “Hmph,” he mutters. “Don’t see many birds nowadays.”

He doesn’t like the way it’s flying erratically - could be cursed or bitten. It flaps its wings for as long as it can, then rests and dips closer to the ground, then finally forces itself to fly for a few seconds more.

Once the bird hears the dog barking, it changes course, and finally, with much difficulty, lands on the window ledge.

They stare silently at the bird - a red parrot - for some time. The Wolf begins salivating, even though it wouldn’t be much of a meal.

Maybe once it was plump, judging from the folds of flesh that hang from its frame. But like all the other survivors, it’s lost too much weight. Now, the biggest thing about the parrot is its beak, and even that is no longer a bright and cheerful yellow, but dull and flat.

“Get it some water,” says the Dwarf, once he’s satisfied that it isn’t infected. But something’s wrong with the bird - it shudders and breathes fitfully and its eyes cannot seem to focus.

“You get it,” snaps the Wolf.

The Dwarf grumbles under his breath, but before he can stump to the pail of water, the bonneted dog pads forward, the tin dipper held carefully between her teeth.

At first the Wolf rolls his eyes, but then he experiences a pang of unexpected jealousy as the Dwarf takes the dipper and gently pets the dog. “Yer a good girl,” he says, which she accepts with her usual stoicism.

The Dwarf places the tip of his finger into the dipper, and then gently places it next to the parrot’s beak. Drops of water coat its cracked black tongue.

“What’s that?” asks the Wolf.

“It’s a jungle bird,” growls the Dwarf.

“No, stupid. I mean, on its leg.”

The sunlight flashes on something attached to the parrot’s leg. “Gold?” says the Dwarf. Before the Wolf can step forward, he unties the piece of string.

It’s a key. A miniature golden key. And though he wasn’t a goldsmith in the old days, like all Dwarfs he recognizes skilled craftsmanship of any precious metal or jewel. And while this key wasn’t created by a Dwarf, the man who made it hadn’t done that bad of a job.

Ignoring the hungry look in the Wolf’s eyes, the Dwarf pockets the key. Later, he will scowl at its elegant flourishes and curlicues, and wonder why a smith would waste so much detail on such a tiny item.

“Help,” coughs the parrot in a scratched and parched voice. Although it can no longer see, it seems calmed by the warm hands, the cool water.

“Shh, we’re helpin’ ya,” says the Dwarf. “Just rest up, regain yer strength.”

The parrot sputters and coughs some more. The Dwarf wets his finger and places it in the parrot’s beak, but the water drips uselessly from its mouth.

“Not me,” squawks the parrot in an exasperated near-whisper. “Help the prince.”

And then it dies.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Seven

It requires the largest pieces of furniture - the divan, the wardrobe, and the bed - to pick up their Master and carry him back to his chambers. Pinocchio, having nowhere to go, follows behind.

Worried whispers drift through the castle. Their surgeon was destroyed during the Master’s last rage, and none of the servants are quite sure what to do.

The Beast’s heart still beats, ever so faintly, but he does not wake up. The basin and sponge gently clean the wounds beneath his matted fur as best they can. The rest watch silently.

Unable to see onto the high bed, Pinocchio looks about the forbidden room. It isn’t nearly so frightening, now that he is no longer alone.

“What’s that?” he asks suddenly. He points to a beautiful, ornate hand mirror.

“That?” says the Candelabra. “That is one of the Master’s most treasured possessions. It is an enchanted looking glass.”

“It shows you,” interrupts the Clock, “whatever it is your heart wishes to see, no matter the distance.”

“Can I see it?” asks the puppet.

May I see it,” corrects the Clock.

“May I see it?”

“If you wish,” says the Clock. “But it doesn’t always bring happiness, I must warn you. No, not always,” it adds, softly.

Unmindful of the Clock’s words, Pinocchio grabs eagerly at the mirror. “I wish to see my father,” he whispers.

And instantly, the mirror sparkles to life. It is Gepetto! He is alive! But where? In a dark, cramped, place. He holds a candle high, illuminating his gaunt, unshaven features, and then the image fades to Pinocchio’s own face.

“It’s Father! He’s alive!” gasps Pinocchio.

“I’m happy for you,” says the Clock, though its face is still sad.

Delighted, Pinocchio clatters downstairs to tell his companion. The Lion is in the entrance hall, at the edge of the pool of blood. He does not turn at Pinocchio’s voice.

“I saw him! I saw him!” Pinocchio calls.

“Is that so?” says the Lion, his voice oddly muffled. In the shadows, the mop and bucket watch him silently.

“Yes! He’s in the mirror! You were right!” He waves the mirror, shining brightly once more.

The Lion growls faintly as Pinocchio steps closer - a warning, the boy believes, to stay back from the sight of the man’s body. It was a most distressing sight, after all.

“Of course. I told you we should come here,” says the Lion, after swallowing. “And this is why.”

“Now all we have to do is find out where he is.” Pinocchio peers into the mirror, trying to spot any clues before the image fades away.

“That will be difficult,” says the Lion, and for a moment, Pinocchio’s smile falters. “But I believe I’ll be able to find him.”

Thinking silently for a moment, the Lion finally says, “It will be easier if we have help. You must go upstairs and ask the others.”

The Lion looks solemnly at Pinocchio, his muzzle flecked and wet. “Tell them it is not too late to save the girl and their master, just as it is not too late to find your father. Tell them.”

Nodding eagerly, Pinocchio scampers back upstairs, his eyes bright. Hope, after all, is a valuable meal.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Six

Up, up, up the Forbidden Mountain sits a dark and beautiful castle - this is the Queen’s destination. But before she can undertake such a steep and treacherous climb, first she must pass a forest most twisted and cruel.

Many of the dead have been caught amidst its enchanted thorns and thistles. They groan and reach out helplessly, but the Queen ignores their pleas. Let them struggle until the end of days.

Every now and then she comes across a true corpse, and they catch her attention more than the undead. Here was once a handsome young lad in the fine silks and silver of a nobleman. How he must have suffered in these thorns, trapped for hours, days, before starving alone.

There are worse fates, she thinks, and she looks again at her wounded hand. How much time remains?

Soon the Queen cannot step any closer - the twisted thorns are too full of groping arms and groaning bodies. To enter further would be literally walking into an open, hungry mouth.

How many, she wonders idly, have made it past these demonic thorns?

One, perhaps? One would be enough. And, roaming aimlessly, it might soon encounter a fawn, weak and helpless. And the fawn would bite and kill throughout the wilderness. And from the forests would come death. And that death would never stop, never stop, never stop, until none remained.

She surveys the Forbidden Mountain with some respect. An impossible journey for a mere mortal, except perhaps the true of heart. But for one skilled in the blackest of magic, it’s a simple matter. With silver knife and raven’s feather, she prepares the painful transformation.

It started here, spoke the Mirror. This is where the death began, in the castle of the uninvited enchantress. And, on her dying day, before she, too, can be claimed by the curse, the Queen intends to undo the spell.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Five

Rifle pointed in front of him, the stranger enters the forlorn castle.

The Lion catches the scent of the man’s oiled hair. And, more worryingly, he can smell gunpowder. Best to remain in the shadows, while the bravest of the furniture - led by Pinocchio and the Candelabra - creep forward to spy on the visitor.

The man has the build of a hunter, tall and burly. Even in the gloom, the Lion can see the large knife gleaming on his belt.

Pinocchio, ever foolish, speaks first. “Father?” he asks, his voice full of doubt and hope.

Thunder explodes through the castle, and the boy clatters to the floor. Smoke wisps from the barrel of the rifle.

The man frowns. Clearly, he was not expecting to hear the voice of a child. He cocks his rifle and steps forward, eyes aware of any movement. The furniture, shocked, stays still and inconspicuous.

Pinocchio clutches his chest. It doesn’t hurt, but he feels as if it should. His fingers probe the newly formed hole where his heart would be if he were made of flesh.

He starts to cry.

“What the devil?”

“You’re not my father,” sobs Pinocchio.

Ears still ringing from the gunshot, none save the Lion can hear the door opening upstairs. The air grows rank with the tiniest threat of fur and sweat and filth.

The Lion glances upward at the Master of the castle - a beast unlike any in his native Wildlands. It stares down from its chamber and takes no notice of the furniture, or the wooden boy, or the Lion.

But this man... HIM... He is not welcome here.

Its eyes blaze in fury, and before the Lion can consider what is to come, the Beast leaps from the balcony.

A nightmare of fur and fangs flies through the air. Its roar - bitter anguish and pain - shakes the castle walls and sucks the air from the man’s lungs.

He’d come following the Lion and the boy, and he’d found something worse - a demon with blue, hate-filled eyes.

Mouth agape, face gray, the man vaguely points the rifle in the direction of the Beast. He staggers backward and numbly pulls the trigger, but the shot is a whisper lost amidst the roar.

“You!” screams the Beast. It lands on the floor - tiles shatter, furniture scatters - and sends the man flying with a savage swing of its black claw. “It was you!”

The man crashes into the wall, and the Lion hears the faintest snapping of bone. The man, overwhelmed, doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s drawn his hunting knife.

“You killed her!” screams the Beast, and it flies toward the intruder. And although the man is a mountain among men - the champion of his town, once upon a time - he is nothing more than a toy compared to the monster before him.

“You murdered her!” the Beast rages. Its shadow envelops the man, and from his alcove, the Lion’s whiskers twitch at the scent of hot, fresh blood.

“Stop! Stop! Please, stop!” screams Pinocchio. He tries to move forward, to help the man, but he is held back by the Candelabra. The servants have seen their Master in such a state before, and they know what happens to those who get in the way.

For many moments, Pinocchio’s cries accompany the Beast’s, punctuated by the wet, smacking thud as the man is destroyed. Even when there is almost nothing left, it continues to slam its giant fists against the bloody tiles.

Only when the Beast’s vengeance is finally complete, its rage sated, does it sit back and notice, wonderingly, the knife in its side, the bullet hole in its body. With a mournful howl, it collapses, its blood mingling with the remains on the floor.

And still the Lion does not move.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Four

Elsewhere in the city.

The attic window of a posh, ruined house, left purposefully unlatched. Outside on the wide ledge, a little elephant catches its breath.

“Yoo-hoo!” chirrups a snow-white mouse. She jumps from a tiny saddle atop the elephant, pushes open the window and glances around. “Darlings!”

“Honestly, Miss,” says another mouse, a common gray. “Be careful!” The elephant’s trunk rummages through one of its many saddlebags and removes a tin of cat food. He hands it to the gray mouse, who accepts the mountainous load with a grunt.

“Oh, pooh,” replies the first mouse. “It’s been ages since we’ve seen them. Surely they’ve missed us!”

“And surely they’ve grown,” mumbles her companion. “Kittens grow up fast, and you know what they eat, don’t you?” His voice drops to a whisper. “Mice.”

“Not these children,” she says in her usual confident tone. “They love us!”

“You, maybe,” says the gray. The tin proves too much for his tiny paws, and it clatters to the attic floor.

Hands on hips, she turns with an annoyed glare. “Really, can’t you be any more quiet? We don’t want any of them hearing us.” She gestures with a paw to the streets below, where the many dead humans wander aimlessly.

The gray nods meekly and holds the next tin all the tighter.

Something isn’t quite right. The kittens would’ve heard the can falling, surely, and if there’s one sound they recognize - other than the Miss’s voice - it’s food.

But the attic remains still.

“Don’t you think...” he begins, but she silences him with a paw. She looks around thoughtfully, at the floor, the windows, the ceiling, everywhere.

There’s a reason why she is such a well-regarded member of the Society, and it isn’t because of her beauty. Since the attacks, she’s been responsible for rescuing dozens of refugees, and has initiated even more members into their organization.

Birds, squirrels, all creatures meek and small had the advantage in this new world. They could slip beneath doors or hide in crawlspaces and cracks. The aerial squadron was instrumental in discovering safe places like this attic, and the flying elephant solved all issues with transport of food and people.

There are shelters like these all over the city, all over the world, but now...

“They aren’t here,” says the snow-white mouse. “This place has been breached.”

“By who?” The gray looks over to the closed trapdoor in the attic’s floor - the dead wouldn’t be so polite as to close it after them.

And the kittens were a handful, but they’d know better than to wander off into the dangerous world, wouldn’t they?

“They still had food,” she says, and she points to a large, mostly empty sack of cat food. It slumps in the corner, fat and dejected.

“And water, too.” Along the other window is the contraption they’d set up to catch rainwater.

“Disappeared,” he thinks. “Just like the Dalmatian couple.” He carefully puts down the tin and sniffs the air. Some unfamiliar scent makes his whiskers tremble.

“We should go...” he says, and unconsciously steps backward to the waiting elephant.

“You smell it, too, don’t you?” she says, and he nods.

“It’s, it’s like a dog,” he says at last. “But not quite.”

“No,” she agrees. “Not quite. Something wilder.”

“A dog might’ve scared them away,” he says.

“Yes, but a not-quite dog would’ve done something worse.”

She continues to look around, always returning her gaze to that open window.

It’s hard to stomach that look on her face, so he takes off his cap and studies it instead. “We should go, Miss,” he says again, and she finally tears herself away from her thoughts.

“Yes, we should.” With one last unsatisfied look at the window, she slowly returns to the ledge. The little elephant smiles at her, eager to fly some more.

“Maybe we can leave one tin for them,” says the gray, hoping for some hope. “You know, in case they come back. I could even open it up, since they can’t use a can opener.”

“No,” she says flatly. She climbs atop the tiny elephant, scratches absently at his enormous ears - he squirms in delight - and looks out over the city. “That won’t be necessary.”

The gray starts to climb up after her, but she stops him. “Oh, and be a dear and hitch along that sack of food, will you? Someone else will need it.”

On her orders, they never return.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Three

“Just my luck,” grumbles the Dwarf. “Started with one sleepin’ girl, ended up with another. Left one dead kingdom, and look where I am.”

He speaks with the same fastidiousness he’d use when stoking a fire. The silence, like the cold, would be overwhelming, and he’s the only one who can carry the conversation.

The bonneted dog listens stoically, and the Dwarf surprises himself by scratching her shaggy haunches.

Cinderella slumbers, lost in the sleep of death. He won’t allow himself the notion that she can hear his words, and doubts that she can feel the plushness of the bed in which she lies. It took him quite some time, working alone, to push it into this room.

The Wolf is gone. He’d been no use the day before, of course. He’d whined about his stitches and wounds, constantly circling about and getting in the way, and hadn’t helped board up a single door or window. Then with the rising of the sun, the Wolf had abandoned them altogether - up through the chimney, quick, quick, quick.

“Good riddance t’ bad rubbish,” growls the Dwarf. It’s a return to his favorite topic. He scratches the bonneted dog harder. “Hope they got him. One less mouth t’ feed, anyway.

“Not that we got much,” he says, raising his voice to drown out the scrambling and scratching below. Downstairs, the dead thrash against the walls and go bump in the night, agitated by the unreachable scent of Dwarven sweat.

“Hard, moldy bread. Water if it rains soon... which it won’t. Probably end up needin’ to eat these shoes.”

With a long-suffering sigh, he stumps toward the fireplace. Not that he needs a fire - his eyes are long accustomed to the darkness of the mines - but the girl might appreciate it. And maybe the firelight will be noticed by someone in this great empty city. Some lucky fool.

A crash and a thump from the roof. The bonneted dog snaps to attention and growls faintly. The Dwarf swears and grabs at his spear-axe. How they got up there is nobody’s guess, but he’ll be damned if they get through.

“Watch over her,” he orders the dog. She nods a small salute, and stands by Cinderella’s bed.

The noise changes to a scuffling in the chimney, and the Dwarf relaxes ever so slightly. Defending a fireplace is easy - they can’t get in faster than he can kill them.

And the dirty head of the Wolf peers through. For a horrible moment, the Dwarf fears his bitter words have come true, but then the Wolf winks. He wriggles from the fireplace and wipes the soot from his arms.

The Dwarf drops the axe to his side. “Don’t make a mess in here,” he says. There’s no need to bother with a greeting.

Slowly, sarcastically, the Wolf brushes himself over the fireplace. Then, paws clean, he reaches into his pocket and removes three bundles of fur. Kittens. Dead. He tosses them in the Dwarf’s direction.

He picks one up, brings it to his nose, and sniffs. Fresh, but no longer warm. Snapped neck. Of course, the Wolf probably ate the plumpest of them, but it’s enough for a stew, and maybe some meat can be dried.

“Where’d you get these?”

“Other end of town. Holed up in an attic.”

The Dwarf grunts. “Should’ve brought back the other ones you ate, too.”

The Wolf’s eyes go wide with pretend innocence. “There were only three, I swear!”

The bonneted dog snorts.

“She could’ve used the extra fur for a blanket. It’s summer now, but it’ll get cold soon enough.” He begins gutting the first kitten. It’s wearing a leather collar, which he pockets. He does not read the name.

The Wolf nods and grins in a way that the Dwarf doesn’t trust. But the creature doesn’t seem hungry... at least for the time being.

“How’re you gonna feed her?” asks the Wolf, with a flick of his tail toward Cinderella’s bed.

“I don’t,” says the Dwarf. “If she’s like the other one, she’ll maybe just drink a few drops of water, but I don’t think she even needs it. But it... it just ain’t right to not give her nothin’.”

The Dwarf tries to focus on the kitten, though one eye keeps going toward the Wolf. He salivates openly, and keeps running his paws over the stitches in a way that is almost - but not quite - scratching.

Muttering to himself, the Dwarf vows to keep watch that night, but eventually, stomach full of stew, he falls asleep. He doesn’t hear the Wolf disappear, quick, quick, quick, up the chimney for a brief nighttime prowl.

But in the morning, someone has placed a small cup of fresh water beside Cinderella’s bed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Two

Like the rest of the castle, the upstairs landing remains dark, empty, destroyed. Pinocchio looks around.

“Father?” he calls once more. His voice trembles.

He knows - but he doesn’t know how he knows - that his destination must lie beyond the closed door at the end of the hallway. The scariest door. The largest door. That is the one he must open.

He tiptoes closer, although he’s not quite sure why - whatever dwells behind the door has surely heard his voice. As he reaches up to grab the doorknob, a baritone voice emerges from the darkness:

“Ah-ah-ah, I wouldn’t open that if I were you.”

A small flare of fire - a candle is lit - and a candelabra gasps at the visitor. “Sacre bleu! It is a small wooden boy.”

Pinocchio smiles. A talking candlestick! Surely Gepetto is nearby.

It subtly hops away from the forbidden door, and Pinocchio follows.

“Hello,” he says. “I’m looking for my father. Gepetto.”

“Well... I am fairly certain he is not here,” says the Candelabra. It eyes Pinocchio carefully, checking for any distinguishing traits. “Unless you are one of mine.” It chuckles. “In which case, I would say the family resemblance is, how shall we say? Not so good.”

“But, but the Lion said...” begins Pinocchio.

“I am sorry, young monsieur,” says the Candelabra, and it continues to lead the boy toward the staircase, “but there is no Gepetto here. I have never heard the name. Now you must go. I fear you may have already disturbed the Master.”

“The Master?” Pinocchio casts a hopeful eye at the bedroom door. It has to be Gepetto. “Did he make you, too? He made me!”

The Candelabra shakes its head, casting odd, flickering shadows. “I am afraid not, young monsieur. Now truly...” its attention is diverted by scurrying sounds from downstairs - the rest of the staff seems restless this day. “You must go.”

Confused, Pinocchio stops walking. Was the Lion mistaken? But how could he be wrong? And there’s that ever-important lesson he’d learned from the Lion: not everyone could be trusted. Would that include talking candlesticks?

There have already been so many tests - all of which Pinocchio is quite sure he’s failed - along his journey. This must be another one. And his many mistakes had cost him his father, his conscience, the Little Pig. Just about everything.

And somehow he knows - without quite knowing how he knows - that the right decision will cause Gepetto to appear. But if he is wrong, his father will be whisked even further away.

The Blue Fairy told him he must be brave, truthful and unselfish in order to be a real boy. She never said what he must do to find his father. And the Lion has taught him, time and time again, that he simply isn’t suited toward making the right choice.

Should he listen to the Candelabra, a stranger? Or disobey and see for himself?

“Maybe... I’d better... check,” decides Pinocchio. The choice is made. And before the Candelabra can protest, they hear the click and creak of an opening door.

But it isn’t the scariest door, the largest door, the Forbidden Door of the Master.

It comes from the great hall downstairs.

Someone has entered the castle.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chapter Fifty-One

The forest is still alive. And that troubles the Queen.

She no longer fears the dead. Now she fears the living.

How many hours remain before she, too, falls prey to the curse of walking death? Should a stray squirrel or badger draw near, will she be tempted by the taste of their flesh, the scent of their blood? How much longer does she have?

Her hand still throbs painfully. Already she can see the redness around her missing finger. Not for the first time, not for the last time does the Queen curse that foul Dwarf.

She expects the curse will travel up her arm and slowly kill her, but she isn’t sure - she never bothered to study any of her dying subjects, not when the Mirror was missing.

Now her beloved Mirror weighs down her pack. How it fits inside such a small satchel is a matter of magic most dark, darker than the whispering forest that she hurries through.

Whatever moves about and watches from the trees, it will only impede her on her quest, and she still has leagues to walk before she sleeps. Indeed, she may never sleep again. Not when so much is at stake.

Her approaching death makes it easier to carry on. No pausing for rest or food or even water. There is no more need. All that matters is that she reach the Forbidden Mountain, the birthplace of this terrible curse, before it claims her, as well.

On a different night, under different circumstances, perhaps, she would pause and listen to the whispers of the forest. Out of curiosity, if nothing else, for secrets are often spoken in the dark. But not tonight.

The Queen glides on, a glimmer of jeweled darkness in the moonlit night, until finally the forest calls to her.

“Ho, fair lady,” comes a pleasant voice from the trees.

She does not stop. Something steps lightly among the branches and follows her.

“My lady, these woods be most treacherous at night. Why not wait 'til daybreak up here, safe above the ground?”

Still the Queen does not stop, although her spine begins to buzz with the beginnings of fear. She can smell flesh and blood.

“Please?” A pause. “Well, if that be the case...” says the voice, and something falls lightly from the trees and lands quietly at the ground in front of the Queen.

“We’ll need to be taking whatever you’ve got, then.” He sees the jewels of her crown, and then bows slightly. “Your majesty.”

He is a fox, dressed for a life spent outdoors. He casually carries a longbow, but is too polite to aim it upon her person.

“You dare rob from me?” says the Queen. Too late, she’s identified this forest as Sherwood.

“It’s what we do,” says the fox. He smiles. “Take from the rich, give to the poor. Of course, if you’d agree to stay with us, there’d be plenty of food for all.”

The Queen looks up into the mighty trees of Sherwood, only now realizing the walkways and well-concealed huts. A perfect sanctuary from the dead, a sanctuary she would destroy were she to accept this thief’s invitation.

A bear appears from the shadow of an oak, and unslings the pack from the Queen’s shoulders. He rifles through it, but the magic prevents him from seeing its true contents.

He groans in disappointment. “No food.”

“What?” The fox nearly drops his bow in surprise. “No food? What about water?”

“Not a drop.”

The fox turns to the Queen. “What have you been eating, then?”

She raises her wounded hand, revealing the stump where her finger was bitten. “Myself,” she says.

The bear is too stunned to resist as she snatches her pack and flees into the darkness, intent on putting as much distance as she can from this haven before the inevitable.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chapter Fifty

“Keep runnin’,” gasps the Dwarf. He readjusts the sleeping Cinderella across his shoulders and continues stumping up the cobblestone streets. At his heels, the Wolf forces himself to limp a little faster.

Though they've only been in the Lands Beyond for a few moments, already the Dwarf has come to hate it.

His people fled here? To this undefended maze of a city? What were they thinking?

Two dead children stumble into the street, blocking their way. The Dwarf lowers Cinderella to the ground - he winces as she falls upon the stones - and draws his polearm.

“Carry the girl!” he shouts to the Wolf, and rushes forward to attack the dead.

“I can’t!” snarls the Wolf. He pulls feebly at her apron, but his stitches throb too painfully.

“Then you’ll get us all killed,” scowls the Dwarf, and he swings angrily at the children. He pays no mind to what they once were.

“Come on,” he says roughly, and picks up Cinderella once more. He looks behind at the straggling bodies, then continues running.

Instinctively, the Dwarf heads toward a clock tower in the distance - it’s the only building in this city of glass that looks safe - but getting there, that’ll be the trick.

“Turn here,” wheezes the Wolf. He sniffs at the air. “Less of ‘em.”

“Less is still lots,” growls the Dwarf. Fightin' 'em off ain't hard, he’d admit, not when you have a weapon made to keep your distance and the enemy doesn’t know any tactics. But each moment fightin' is a moment not runnin'.

“Gotta be somewhere safe,” says the Wolf. He looks longingly at the ruined buildings, but each one has a broken door or a smashed window - an open invitation to the undead.

“Hmph. Not even a tree!” It’s difficult, but somehow the Dwarf finds the breath to complain.

Three more of the dead pick their way through the wreckage of a shop. Not a troubling number - he’d killed seven with one blow before - but the Dwarf’s mostly concerned with the ever-increasing horde following them. The corpses fall over the broken bricks, and the Dwarf decides it’s not worth it, best to keep running.

“Where now?” he asks.

“Doesn’t matter,” says the Wolf. The smell is everywhere. His eyes flit about for any sign of escape. “They’re all coming.”

“Damnation.” He slides Cinderella to the street and looks for the closest cluster. Each group, on its own, wouldn’t be nothin', but not all of them all at once. He doesn’t have time to strategize, especially with that damn barking. What’s the Wolf trying to do, alert the whole cursed city?

“Will you shut yer yap?” he shouts at the Wolf, who looks back at him in surprise.

“It ain’t me!” the Wolf shouts back. The two look at each other, then wildly about the neighborhood. Dead dogs don’t bark. They may howl, but they don’t bark.

Soon they see it - a large dog barking at them from a second-story window.

“Go!” says the Dwarf, but the Wolf is already hobbling in that direction.

The door to the house is nailed shut, but there’s a small broken window next to it. The Wolf, after smelling carefully, shimmies through the hole, and the Dwarf gingerly passes Cinderella through.

In a moment, they’re inside and the Dwarf surveys the interior. Not many windows on this floor, he decides, but not many is still too many.

There’s a lumbering step at the stairs, and they turn to see their barking savior: a large, mountainous dog wearing - of all things - a bonnet.

“It safe upstairs?”

The bonneted dog nods.

“This room ain’t worth defendin’,” decides the Dwarf. He picks up Cinderella and stomps up the stairs. “Maybe I can hold ‘em off from the stairway, pick ‘em off one at a time...”

And then he notices the sound of his own footsteps. The staircase rattles. It isn’t made of good, solid, unbreakable marble, but of a fancy wood. A fancy, delicate, flimsy wood.

Setting Cinderella on the second-floor landing, he takes a crowbar from his tool belt. Within seconds, he’s removed one of the stairs. He looks down - eleven more to destroy.

“This the only way up?” he asks the bonneted dog. She barks back a single affirmative.

“Good,” says the Dwarf, smiling joylessly as the undead beat upon the windows. He rushes downstairs, hoping he has enough time before they break into the house.

“This won’t be easy, but it’ll do,” he says to no one in particular. They’re the cheeriest words he’s ever spoken.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chapter Forty-Nine

Like all the other rooms of this forlorn castle, the parlor is empty and silent, still and shadowy, save for the ticking of a clock.

“You can come out now,” says the Lion. “I know you’re in here.”

Nothing.

“There’s no use hiding,” continues the Lion. He patiently circles the parlor. “And you have my word that I won’t harm you.”

Nothing.

“Come now,” purrs the Lion, even gentler, “you have nothing to fear from me... as long as you don’t make me lose my temper.”

He stops pacing in front of the mantelpiece clock.

It ticks a little faster.

The clock opens one eye, only to see Lion’s scarred muzzle staring into its face.

“Hello,” says the Lion.

There is a long pause. “What do you want?” says the Clock.

“To help, of course.”

“Well, we don’t need any help,” says the Clock, and it waddles around to face the wall.

The Lion lazily swats his paw and the Clock falls to the floor. He extracts a single claw, turns it over, and taps on the pendulum. And although the Clock shouldn’t feel pain, it trembles.

“You might not need my help...” The Lion thinks for a moment, but cannot remember the human’s name. No matter. “But she does.”

The parlor rustles slightly and the Lion smiles to himself. He finally has their attention.

“And,” says the Lion, out to the rest of the rooms, “any other things would do well to listen to what I have to say.”

“We’re... we’re listening,” says the Clock, still squirming on the floor. “But you’re too late to help her.”

“Why is that?” asks the Lion.

“She’s dead.”

“Oh, is she?” The Lion tuts sorrowfully. “That does make things slightly more difficult.”

“What do you mean?” asks a broomstick, brushing through the doorway.

“Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself,” says the Lion. He pauses as more pieces of furniture enter. The smell of magic permeates throughout the parlor. “Please, tell me what happened.”

The room buzzes and titters. The Clock clears his throat loudly, and most fall silent.

“She died,” repeats the Clock. His voice is thick. “She fell ill, wasted away and died.”

“And with her...” adds the divan, but the Clock interrupts the interruption.

“...Died the hopes of our master.”

“Only she didn’t die, did she?” whispers the Lion. “Not exactly.”

The room murmurs.

“We, we tried to bury her,” says the Clock. “Only she wouldn’t let us.”

The shovel, which leans in the doorway for fear of soiling the carpet, pipes up. “Her skin was so cold, monsieur. Like her eyes. She couldn’t see us anymore.”

“We think,” says the Clock, “that it was part of the curse.”

“She left,” continues the shovel. “Without a word of good-bye. Just walked back to the town in that broken way of hers.”

“And the master was devastated,” adds the Clock. He is determined not to let the shovel take over his story. “Locked himself away in his room. He sees no one, now.”

They do not mention the day and night he raged through the castle before he was overcome with despair. So much destruction, so many faithful servants crushed and trampled on that painful and unholy day.

The Lion nods thoughtfully. He’d been concerned about having to deal with their master. “And what if I told you that it is not too late to help her? That I could bring her back?”

In a way, they’re just like Pinocchio. Gullible and indestructible. An army of these tools, so much better than an army of hyenas. Feed them their hopes, and let them find his food and shelter.

The Clock speaks with the unanimous thoughts of the others. “We’d do anything to help her.”

The Lion smiles.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chapter Forty-Eight

And so the Queen finds herself alone in the Castle of the Door, staring down at the body of the mad witch. The crone’s head still bleeds and she groans feebly. It’s a small comfort that - for the moment, at least - she still lives.

Gone are the bodies for the sacrifice - Dwarf, maiden, even Wolf. Not what the Queen would have hoped for, and losing the witch’s powers will certainly be regrettable, but the old woman deserves as much for her failure. And someone has to die.

She forces some apple into the witch’s mouth before dragging the body into the courtyard. It wouldn’t do to have the fool wake up in the middle of the ritual and ruin things even further.

Beyond the portcullis, the undead moan and flail their arms helplessly, but the Queen has long since learned to ignore their pitiful cries. Later on, she’ll have to figure out a way past them, but for now, there is the ritual to attend to.

The mad witch lays still and blissful, lost in the sleep of death. The bindings of spider’s silk are unnecessary, but custom requires it. The bowl of water reflects the image of the pure, blazing sun. The Mirror sees the reflection. The undead quiver and groan, and the Queen raises the knife of bone high.

Words of magic, words from Hell are spoken, and the many spirits that had left their corruptible, mortal state at the Castle of the Door gather and swirl about, unseen.

The Magic Mirror opens one lazy eye, curious and cautious by the gift of blood. And not just any blood, but the blood of a witch, aged to a vintage most delicious and potent.

The Queen continues to chant. The gift is welcomed. The dagger falls. The wind sighs as the blood pools upon the cold stone grounds, as all are pleased by the sacrifice. The undead moan and beg at the scent of blood, and fight against the portcullis.

With a subtle nod, the Mirror soaks in the power and the life of the mad witch, who quickly dies amidst her dark, shadowy dreams.

It is a most suitable sacrifice, far better than an ordinary girl and a common Dwarf, but the rules were stated long ago, when magic was first formed: Though the gift be great, it is only one life, and the Queen may ask for a single boon in return.

There is no need for well-worded rhymes. For the moment, at least, the Queen can treat the Demon in the Mirror as an equal. It regards her silently, its mask bloated a deeper hue with the blood of the mad witch. It will give nothing away without being asked first. Those are the rules.

“This plague,” says the Queen, and she gestures with her free hand toward the creatures at the portcullis. “From where did it begin?”

It is a question she has long considered, the single request that would reveal the most to this mystery. If only she had another life to give, she could learn more, but this will have to do.

And if the Mirror thinks anything about the Queen’s choice of words, it does not share any opinion. There is perhaps a reason why it appears as a mask.

“At the Forbidden Mountain,” it speaks at last, “home to an uninvited enchantress, dark and beautiful. She is the mother from whom the dead first found life.”

The trade of blood for knowledge is fair by all accounts. The wind hushes its approval, the spirits fade, the blood cools in the morning air, and the Queen bows graciously at her reflection in the Mirror.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chapter Forty-Seven

Once upon a time, the Big Bad Wolf abandoned his son to the hungry dead. He was starving and exhausted, but at least he could still run, whereas Junior could do no more than curl into a ball and weep.

The Wolf awakens to the screams of his son, still fresh from his fevered dream. It takes him a moment to realize that the cries are real, and they’re coming from within the castle.

That’s right, he remembers. He’s inside a castle. The Castle of the Door, in fact. The gateway to the Lands Beyond.

Once upon a time, a wooden boy and a little pig invited him - however reluctantly - to journey with them to this very castle. And he turned them down, attacked the pig, and was driven away. At the time, he didn’t know what hurt worse, the rocks thrown by the puppet or the fact that he was beaten by a child.

Slowly, gingerly, the Wolf creeps toward the cries. It’s difficult to move - his chest is oddly tight. He looks down and is surprised by the black thread stitched across his body. Yet the pain isn’t nearly as bad as he’d expect - he’s certainly felt worse these past few days. And the wounds no longer burn.

He enters the Chamber of the Door, and another memory, another flash from his dream, gives the Wolf pause.

Once upon a time, in this very room, the little pig stayed behind to build a final wall of brick, a practical way to protect the Door. But it trapped him with the Wolf, and the Wolf had his revenge. Even armed with a hammer and trowel, the little pig was soon killed and eaten.

Now two bodies lie upon the bloodstained floor – a sleeping beauty and an unconscious witch.

How similar they are to the prophecy spoken by the Demon in the Mirror: that two would come to end the Wolf’s pain. Witch and Queen, Dwarf and Maiden, he’d never been sure who the Demon was referring to. And that might have been the point of the prophecy, after all.

But, of course, only one of them would have made stitches so tidy, and once upon a time - just last night, though it’s hard to believe - Cinderella sewed them all and saved his life.

Beyond the bodies, the Dwarf stands before the wall of brick. His spear-axe is pointed at the Wolf.

They regard each other silently, cautiously, as the Wolf drags himself over to the witch’s body. He holds his breath at the stink of her magic, and lifts a leg to leave his scent. Let it be known that once upon a time, the Wolf was here.

The Dwarf’s spear relaxes the tiniest bit.

“You leaving?” says the Wolf.

Warily, the Dwarf nods.

“Can I go, too?”

The Dwarf’s eyes flicker to the sleeping maiden at his feet, but then, reluctantly, he nods.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chapter Forty-Six

The scent of magic is overpowering, almost painful. The Lion isn’t surprised that no animal or bird or even insect will approach this place. A tremor runs down his spine and he subtly hides it with a quick shake of his mane.

“Go on, my boy,” says the Lion. “Open the door.”

Pinocchio looks doubtful. “Why would my father be here?” he asks. Another question, as always. “It’s so... ugly.”

“Is it?” says the Lion. “I hadn’t noticed.” To him, all of Man’s buildings are ugly.

“Everything’s grown over,” says the puppet. “And it’s all broken and ruined.”

Pinocchio tries not to shiver - not in front of the Lion - but there’s something about the castle that makes him feel like he is being watched, and not by the welcoming eyes of his father.

“And wouldn’t he have seen us by now?” Pinocchio asks. “If he were here?” In his imagination, Gepetto would have rushed from the castle as soon as he saw them on the trail. And inside there would be all manner of music and merriment, light and warmth.

But the castle’s windows - the few that aren’t shattered - remain black, empty, staring.

The Lion sighs heavily. He only needs the brat to do one simple, final act - open a door - and even that is proving to be a struggle of epic proportions.

“I don’t know, child. Perhaps he’s asleep. It is dusk, after all. In any case, you’re just moments away from reuniting with him... so what are you afraid of?”

“I’m not afraid,” says Pinocchio. His nose puffs out slightly. To prove his words, he raps his small wooden fist against the door. It makes a small, lonely sound - the call of an intruder - but from within the castle, there is no response.

At least, not to Pinocchio. The Lion’s ears prick up slightly. He definitely heard something rustle inside. Excellent. He shakes his mane once more.

“Maybe he’s not home?” Pinocchio asks hopefully.

“My boy,” says the Lion, “all the trouble you’ve caused has come to pass because you did not listen to your elders.” He says this with such assurance that Pinocchio cannot help but nod. “Listen to me now, for once, and open the door.”

He does.

“Father?” Pinocchio calls into the empty entrance hall. Once it was grand, fine, plush. Now it is a mess of broken glass and faded, moth-eaten fabric. Shattered porcelain, broken plates, an overturned and ripped-apart divan.

And silence.

“Father, it’s me. Pinocchio.”

Something rustles softly from within, somewhere upstairs. Though the Lion is usually loathe to step indoors - the buildings of Man are always so claustrophobic - he enters the castle eagerly.

“Go on and find him, Pinocchio,” he says in his kindest voice. ”Perhaps he’s upstairs.”

Pinocchio turns back to the Lion and clutches at his mane. “Will you come with me?” It’s even darker upstairs, and he still can’t help but feel he’s being watched.

“I wouldn’t dare intrude on such a reunion,” says the Lion. “I’ll remain down here, waiting for you both. Now go on, show him what a brave son he has.”

Pinocchio looks back upstairs. Old portraits peer at him from the shadows. “I... I guess you’re right,” he says, and with a deep breath, hesitantly makes his way up the staircase.

The Lion smiles back pleasantly until the boy disappears into the gloom. He sniffs at the air, tracing the strongest aura of magic, and then he, too, melts into the darkness.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chapter Forty-Five

“Take him and the girl,” says the Queen. “We haven’t much time.”

Just listening to her voice makes his blood boil, but the Dwarf forces his face to remain slack. Oldest trick in the book, playin’ opossum, but he’ll be damned if he’ll show his hand before the time is right.

She doesn’t make much noise as she exits – slithery as a snake, that one is – but her footsteps soon fade.

The large purple cat still sits upon his chest. It mustn’t know he’s awake, not yet, not until he’s got his weapon in hand.

He forces himself to think calming thoughts – biting off the Queen’s finger, for instance. Another trick well played. Let her stew on that for a while, maybe it’ll throw her off her game ‘til she realizes she ain’t gonna die. Not of the curse, at least, though the Dwarf hopes his mouth is dirty enough to at least make the wound fester.

The cat lazily lifts itself from the Dwarf’s body, and it jabbers to itself in the voice of a madwoman. “Take the bodies, she says. But how? A jungle ape? A bear? An ogre, mayhap?”

With each creature mentioned, the room crackles and flickers with magic as the purple cat changes shape. The Dwarf keeps his eyes closed and his face still, though talking animals fill him with disgust. His polearm, he knows, lies over yonder. And judging from the cat’s voice, its back is now to him, probably facing Cinderella.

“Ogres can’t fit through them doors,” the cat warbles. “So jungle ape it is!”

Another flash of magic, and that’s the moment he’s been waiting for. The Dwarf opens his eyes and reaches, the spear-axe is right there, and finally the comforting weight of solid iron is in his hands once more.

The purple ape, hunched over Cinderella, doesn’t hear the Dwarf’s charge. The blunt end of the axe, heavy, iron, thick, smacks into its skull.

The ape falls, bleeding and unconscious, but the body that hits the floor is that of a mottled old crone.

The Dwarf stares at her body, spinning the polearm restlessly. It’d just take one quick stab to end her wicked ways, and the girl – both of them, in a way – would be avenged. He presses the point of the spear against the witch’s black heart.

But is that what Snow White would want? Or Cinderella, who was always so kind to even the nastiest of magpies?

And there’s something pathetic about the crone’s toothless mouth, something helpless and weak, that gives the Dwarf pause. It was the Queen who brewed the poison, after all, not her companion. He chews at his beard angrily, and suddenly sheathes the weapon.

“Ain’t no way you’ll make me a murderer,” he growls to the witch, and he slumps toward Cinderella’s sleeping form. He cannot bring himself to look at the maiden’s face.

Taking Cinderella’s body, the Dwarf lifts her with a weary grunt and steps toward the Doorway. Whoever bricked it up surely didn’t do them any favors, that’s for sure.

It’s not gonna be easy doing this alone – he’ll have to climb ahead, clear out the area, climb back, and then carry the girl. And all before the Queen returns.

Speak of the Devil, there’s a faint step at the entrance to the Chamber, and the Dwarf whirls around. He reaches for his polearm and eyes the intruder.

Staring back is the Big Bad Wolf, freshly bandaged and cleanly stitched by Cinderella’s own hand.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chapter Forty-Four

She should be readying herself, she knows. The ritual will be dangerous, and even weakened by the light of the morning sun, the Demon in the Mirror will not be dominated so easily.

And yet, the Queen cannot stop staring at her wounded hand and thinking of that Dwarf, that damned Dwarf. All her plans and predictions ruined by a heinous little creature and his snapping jaws.

She is dying, she knows, as her blood gives in, drop by precious drop, to the undead plague. At best, she has a day or two before the Dwarf’s bite will kill her, reduce her to a hungry, mindless corpse, trembling in the summer storms.

In one hand the Queen still holds a slice of her apple, steeped in the liquids of sleeping death. How easy it would be to taste its poison and leave this burden to another.

But, she wonders, could the apple protect her? Could it still her heart, stop the curse, and leave her waiting, dreamless and breathless, for love’s first kiss?

Does it matter?

No one would come save her, not in this doomed kingdom where the bravest of men fled like cowards, leaving the Queen alone to save them all with magicks darker than the tomb.

No. She is too important to remove herself from the game. She will cast her spell and carry on for as long as she is able. Two days is not much time, but it might be enough to save the world. And if it isn’t, then as the last whispers of her life fade, she will take a bite from her apple, and fall where she may.

Absently, anxiously, the Queen prepares the courtyard for the spell that must take place. Soon everything is in position – the red spider’s silk, the knife of bone, the golden bowl of water to catch the sunlight, and, of course, the Magic Mirror to view its reflection.

All that she needs is the blood, the sacrifice. Two gifts, a Dwarf and a maiden, sleeping eternally. Two answers to any question, two visions into the past or the future.

But what’s taking the mad witch so long? Could she not carry their bodies this far? Could she not think of a shape to shift into with such strength and mobility? Or more likely, did she give in to temptation and eat the girl?

Cursing her luck when it comes to lackeys, the Queen strides into the castle. Quickly she passes empty hallways and bloodstained corridors. The crone will certainly be punished for this delay. She should know the importance of this ritual.

The Queen steps into the Chamber of the Door, ready with an angry command, but the unexpected sight kills the words in her throat. Of the Dwarf and the maiden, there is no sign. In their place, a solitary figure lies bleeding on the floor - the plump, unconscious body of the witch.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Chapter Forty-Three

“But why would they shoot at us?” asks Pinocchio.

“Because they are Men,” says the Lion. “And they must never be trusted.” He steps cautiously through the unfamiliar forest, so different from the Wildlands. The smell of magic - that intriguing, burning smell - grows stronger and stronger. They’ve almost arrived.

“But...” persists Pinocchio, and desperately, longingly, he looks back toward the little town.

“It does not matter, my friend.” The Lion curls behind the tiny puppet and gently nudges him forward. “We’re looking for your father, aren’t we? And he is not within that town.”

“Are you sure?” asks Pinocchio. “Wouldn’t he want to be with other people? It’s a safe town! They were shooting guns and they had fires going!”

The smoke was another reason why the Lion had avoided the dwellings of Men.

“What have I told you about red fire?” the Lion asks with a theatrical display of weariness.

The puppet sighs and speaks by rote – this is one of the many lessons he’s learned since traveling with the Lion. “Fire is dangerous.”

“And not just for me...” says the Lion. He winces - his many scars contract into a maze of ruined flesh - at the memory of flames from so many seasons ago, when he was still a cub, and how he had to flee with the rest of his pride. How long ago that had been.

“...But for you, as well,” he finishes. “You are made of wood, Pinocchio, and wood burns. Who’s to say they wouldn’t use you to cook their dinners or heat their water?”

“Well, I’ve never had that problem...” says Pinocchio, though doubt creeps into his voice. Times are different now, and the Lion seems so sure.

“You’ve also never been attacked before,” adds the Lion. “What kind of Men would shoot at an innocent child? Not the kind that can be trusted.”

“No,” he purrs, with another sniff at the air, “your father would not associate with Men like that. He continued walking, through this very forest, down this very path. Why, we’ve almost caught up to him now.”

“Really?” asks Pinocchio. He quickens his pace, and the Lion lets him walk ahead... just in case.

“Have I ever lied to you?” asks the Lion.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chapter Forty-Two

A little town, a quiet village. Dawn rises, and the world is punctured with the blasts of gunfire.

The Town Champion wakes with a start, his hand automatically reaching for the musket on the floor. Still half in dream, he looks out the window and almost sees the mob-like phantoms from his nightmare before realizing they’re just shadows on the morning mist.

This isn’t the first morning to begin with gunshots - just yesterday there was another round of cleansing - but usually they’re fired on his command.

Which means something else must be going wrong in his poor, provincial town.

Crawling over the two sleeping wenches, the Champion prays his men are firing upon the dead - the real enemy - instead of on each other.

He pulls on his boots, grabs his musket, and marches toward the town wall. After a moment outdoors, the brisk morning air clears his sleepy head, and he remembers to fix his hair.

It had taken many hard choices, many difficult decisions, just to keep the women and children safe. And the men, those who were expected to fight and sacrifice and, yes, perhaps die for this safety, were proving to be cowards and traitors, all.

With a sniff, he walks upwind of the town blacksmith, still hanging from his rope. Let the ravens have him, the traitor. After all, he’d killed Pierre. Murdering a dog, could there be anything more cowardly? A foolish act of revenge, when all the dog had done was sniff out the sickness in the blacksmith’s son.

He’d made it clear there were only two choices - turn the sick out of the town to fend for themselves and eventually die, or be lined up against the wall and save everyone the trouble and ammunition.

The townsfolk hadn’t liked that, turning against their friends and family, but what would they know about sacrifice and duty, and what it might take to survive?

It’s a sickness, and when a dog is rabid, you don’t wait for him to bite you. You put him down and ease his suffering.

The people also didn’t like being compared to dogs.

And now gunfire. There better be a good reason for it. Bullets are hard to come by these days.

“What’s going on?” he asks the cobbler standing guard atop the wall. “More of the dead?”

The cobbler looks down at the Champion and salutes. He’s one of the few who still do.

“No, Monsieur,” he says. “It was... a lion.”

“A lion?! That’s impossible.” The Champion nimbly leaps up to the top of the wall. He scans the surrounding fields, but nothing is visible in the mist.

“I swear, Monsieur,” stammers the cobbler. He knows the Champion is very short-tempered these days. “It, uh, it ran away as soon as I fired.”

“It’s all right, Henri. I believe you.” The cobbler being one of the few men not plotting behind his back, he’s sure. “Which way did it go?”

“It ran off toward the western woods.”

The Champion checks his musket, then reaches for the powder horn hanging from Henri’s shoulder.

“But that’s not all, Monsieur,” continues the cobbler. “It was with someone. With a child.”

“A child?” If any other person had made such claims, the Champion would’ve laughed in his face and sent him to the asylum.

But Henri has the best eyesight in town - second only to the Champion himself - and is not one to tell tales. That’s why he is put on the vital nighttime shift - well, that, and it leaves his wife alone at night.

“Yes, Monsieur,” says Henri. “Though the child was definitely alive, not lurching like the dead.”

“And,” adds the Champion quickly, to show that he is more clever than the cobbler, “the dead wouldn’t be frightened off by gunfire. They’d be attracted to the noise.”

It hardly makes sense. Lions live in the deepest wilds of Africa - what would one be doing in France? And with a child, at that? It sounds of witchcraft or madness, but also of adventure and glory.

“I’m going after them,” the Champion impulsively decides. It’d be nice to have a lion pelt, after all. And the people could use some fresh meat - it might cheer them up after the latest round of cleansing. And perhaps they’d stop their mutinous mutterings if he rescued a child.

“But Monsieur,” says the cobbler, “the western woods lead to...”

“I know where they lead,” says the Champion curtly. And with a jump, he is over the safety of the wall and after his newfound glory.


Chapter Forty-Three will be published on Wednesday, September 9, 2009.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Chapter Forty-One

An apple falls to the floor, perfect and unmarred except for a single, small bite.

Cinderella, sleeping the sleep of death, collapses into the waiting arms of the frail old woman.

“Witch!” snarls the Dwarf. Now he remembers. Too late, of course.

All his life he’s thrown acorns and small stones at the woodland creatures who’ve stolen from his garden, and the Dwarf’s aim still holds true. With furious accuracy, he hurls his own apple at the crone’s head, where it connects with a satisfying knock.

But before he can grab his polearm and run her through, something soft, huge and strong charges into his back.

The Dwarf crashes to the floor, and the lavender cat – somehow grown to a massive size – sits on his stomach and pins down his knobby shoulders.

“Mightn’t I eat him, your Majesty?” asks the enchanted cat in a warbling, simpering voice.

“No, we need him,” responds the woman.

“It’s YOU!” the Dwarf spits at the Queen. “You did this to Snow White, now you did this to her, too.”

“Snow White?” asks the Queen. A tremor in her voice cracks through before relaxing again. She smiles coolly. “Ah, so you must be one of her Dwarfs.”

“Damn straight,” growls the Dwarf. He can see his weapon, just a few feet away. Too far. And he can barely squirm beneath the weight of the giant cat.

The Queen gently lays the body of Cinderella onto the cold stone floor.

“Rest assured, Dwarf,” says the Queen, and she begins combing her splotchy hands through what little remains of her hair, “your friend here will not die in vain.”

“Wicked!” the Dwarf shouts. “Wicked!” His cries echo through the empty halls of the castle.

“Ooh, he’s a lively one, ain’t he?” chuckles the purple cat.

The Queen continues running her hands through her hair and over her face, and her features blur, melt, grow in vitality and youth. She stretches her back, and her spine uncurves.

The Dwarf refuses to look upon such black magicks - all he cares about is his polearm. Still too far, and the cat is much too heavy to throw off.

Finally, the spell fades, and in the ancient crone’s place stands the beautiful Queen. She bends over to pick up the Dwarf’s uneaten apple.

“You will eat this,” she says calmly, “and you will never wake up. But I give you my word that your sacrifice, and that of your friend,” she nods toward Cinderella, “will save the world.”

“Your word,” he repeats sarcastically.

“It matters little whether you believe me or not,” responds the Queen. She removes a small, evil knife from her cloak, and cuts the tiniest of slices from the poisoned apple.

The Dwarf clamps his mouth down tightly. If six of his brothers couldn’t make him drink medicine, he wagers one measly woman won’t get him to open up, neither.

After a meaningful look from the Queen, the purple cat digs her claws into the Dwarf’s shoulder. Blood begins to seep, crimson against his red tunic, but the Dwarf’s jaw remains tight.

That damned polearm. Still too far away.

The Queen studies the Dwarf’s face for a moment, then delicately and deliberately takes hold of his large nose and holds it shut.

The Dwarf keeps his lips clamped. The Queen waits. The cat laughs.

A minute passes.

The Dwarf sweats.

Seconds pass. The cat flexes and unflexes her bloody claws. The Dwarf shuts his eyes.

The Queen begins to smile. She dangles the piece of the apple over his head.

Another minute passes.

And then the Dwarf’s head snaps back. He bites onto the Queen’s hand and tears savagely. She shrieks and pulls away.

Now the Dwarf is the one laughing. He spits her finger aside and grins a blood-smeared grin.

“Now yer as dead as me, Witch. In just a couple days, you’ll be stumbling around the countryside, dead as the rest of ‘em.”

“What?!” gasps the Queen. Her unharmed hand clutches the other at the wrist, though blood continues to spurt from the wound.

“You heard me,” the Dwarf smiles coldly. He has a very uncharacteristic look of satisfaction across his face. “I’m done for, already. I just wanted to get the girl somewhere safe afore I died.”

“You… you’re…” the Queen stammers. She looks at the Dwarf’s mouth, then back to her bleeding hand, then to the finger lying on the floor.

“Ooh, now I’m glad I didn’t eat him,” says the cat. She starts to giggle, but stops after a withering glare from the Queen.

“Let’s just kill him, your Majesty,” says the cat, eager to mollify her mistress. “A quick cut of the claw, he’ll be headless and harmless.”

The Queen still looks at her finger on the floor. She would like nothing more than to see this foul Dwarf dead, see him suffer, see him scream and beg for mercy before giving in to the curse, but there are greater matters at stake than her own vengeance.

“No,” she says finally. “We need him to cast the spell. And we won’t get another chance.”

How long will she last? A day? Two? Certainly not until the next moon cycle. For how long can she carry the weight of the world? And who will carry on, after she dies? Her mad companion?

The best laid plans, shattered by a common Dwarf.

After tying a small, dark ribbon around the stump that was her finger (and yet, the blood stops pumping immediately once the black cloth touches her skin), the Queen finds the uneaten piece of apple and again crouches by the Dwarf.

With her healthy hand, she crushes the apple, so its enchanted liquid falls against his tightly closed mouth. And then she covers his nose once more.

“Bite me again, Dwarf,” she says, “but first you’ll taste the juice.”

The Dwarf doesn’t move.

Neither does the Queen.

The cat’s eyes flit from one to the other. A minute passes, and suddenly the Dwarf goes slack beneath the Queen’s hand. His face grows peaceful, perhaps for the first time in his life.

“Take him and the girl,” says the Queen. She stands, a little unsteadily. “We haven’t much time.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Chapter Forty

“Visitors!” says the ancient peasant woman. She smiles a toothless, wobbly smile. “Oh, that’s so lovely!”

She limps toward the Dwarf and the servant girl, and the Dwarf raises his weapon automatically. He just doesn't trust anyone who's so cheerful.

A lavender cat, as plump as its mistress is frail, sidles into the Chamber of the Door and eyes the two newcomers with hungry interest.

“We haven’t had visitors in such a long time,” croons the peasant.

“That’s such a shame,” says Cinderella. She tries to mask her confusion with a smile. “But why wouldn’t you go through the Doorway...?” She stops as she sees why. Most of the Doorway has been bricked up.

The crone laughs. “Well, as you can see, my child, some busy brick-layer walled us in. My little kitty could make it through, but I’m afraid it’s a bit too much of a climb for these old bones.”

“I see,” says Cinderella, but before she can continue, the Dwarf interrupts.

“Well, ‘tis a shame. We’ll be going now.”

He starts to march toward the Doorway, but the old woman tugs at his tunic.

“No, no, you can’t go!” she wails. “We haven’t had visitors in so long! Please, stay for a while,” she persists in a sugary voice. “At least for a meal and a cup of tea.”

The Dwarf glares at her, unpersuaded. Besides, he is allergic to cats and already he’s fighting the urge to sneeze.

The woman turns her bleary eyes hopefully toward Cinderella. It takes the girl a moment, but then she smiles back, polite and confused.

“Oh... well... of course,” she says.

“Excellent, excellent!” wheedles the woman.

The girl's manners might prevent her from asking the jumble of questions bustling about her head, but the Dwarf holds no such qualms. "You've been hidin' here all this time? Fer how long?" he asks. "What happened to the others? And how come y'didn't answer when we first arrived?"

His questions fall on deaf ears, and out of nowhere, the hunchbacked crone produces a picnic basket. A symphony of smells emanates from within.

In spite of himself, the Dwarf sniffs eagerly, all potential sneezes forgotten. He’s been living on scraps for far too long, and though the girl fancies herself a cook, she doesn’t prepare things in the proper Dwarven way.

Whatever the old hag’s got in her basket, it must include some fresh, oaty Dwarf bread, salted venison, and the tangy scent of ale. Exactly what he’d been missing.

“It smells delicious,” says Cinderella.

“Oh, we’ve all sorts of goodies, just waiting to share,” says the peasant. She rummages through the basket with one clawed hand.

“Let me see...” says the woman, “how about an apple?” She finally removes her hand, and it holds two perfect red apples.

The lavender cat stops pawing at a bloodstained spot on the floor, its wide face trained on the visitors.

“But they’re not even in season!” says a delighted Cinderella, and she reaches out happily.

“Oh,” the woman clicks her tongue, “they’re always in season somewhere.”

The Dwarf’s mouth stops watering. Fruits, bah. Good for fattening up deer and nothing more. Though, he has to admit, it’s a nice specimen, almost like a jewel, so shining and red...

“Thank you so much,” says Cinderella.

Been some time since he’d seen an apple that nice. Not since…

“You’re so very welcome, dearie,” smiles the woman, and she offers the other one to the Dwarf. "Now eat up, eat up, both of you, and have a proper breakfast."

He takes it, but something about this apple is very familiar...

Cinderella bites.

The crone smiles.

The sun rises.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Nine

"Are you sure my father went this way?" asks Pinocchio.

"Yes, yes, of course," lies the Lion. "I can smell him. But keep your voice down. We must be careful."

The great scarred head of the Lion looks up and down the deserted streets and cautiously sniffs the air. The creatures are nearby, lurking in their dwellings, but that’s what he's come to expect in this city of the dead. Already, a cluster are slowly following them.

However, the unmistakable scent of magic burns in the Lion's nostrils – a sure sign they are nearing another Doorway.

"This way." He quickens his silent pace, ignoring the pain from the hard, unyielding streets.

"It's just that..." begins Pinocchio, and the Lion tries to shush him with a slight growl. It goes ignored. "We keep passing all these Doors," the boy finishes in a louder voice. "How do you know he didn't go through any of them?"

The Lion forces himself to count to ten, and then answers calmly. "As I told you, I can smell him. And I assure you, he passed these Doorways, probably in a vain attempt to find you."

After looking behind them, he continues: "This would all be much simpler if you could read the messages he left for you." Indeed, it was fortunate to discover words painted on several Doorways and walls throughout the city, and so easily believable that the child's father had written them. "But since you decided to be a disobedient child and not go to school, it will be all that much harder for us."

The little puppet looks shamefully away. He knows it's all his fault.

The Lion waits silently - so that the guilt can fester for a moment - before giving a word of encouragement. "But do not worry, my friend. I'm sure we'll find him... sooner or later."

"Do you promise?" asks Pinocchio.

"Of course," lies the Lion. But it isn't the boy's father that he is looking for.

He detects more smells - perfumed aromas, the likes of which he'd never encountered in the Wildlands - but they cannot mask the magic of a nearby Doorway, or the decay of the dead.

"We've arrived," says the Lion.

"Ooh," says Pinocchio. "It's a garden."

Walled on four sides, a metal gate protecting it from the dead, the little plot of land might prove a secure place to stay were it not for the powerful competing smells. The little puppet eases through the iron bars and wades through the wild-growing flowers. He bends to pick one, but is interrupted by a hiss from the Lion.

"Find the Door!" He doesn't like standing in the open like this, and after determining the garden to be isolated, he leaps over the brick wall and strides after Pinocchio.

The boy looks thoughtfully at an elegant wooden door, seemingly leading to nowhere. Around its edge is carved a pattern of roses, and words, the mysterious words of men, are chiseled into its center.

“What does it say?" asks the Lion immediately, though he knows the answer.

Averting his eyes, Pinocchio says, “I don't know. I can’t read it.” Quickly, he adds, ”It might be in another language.” His nose twitches slightly.

The Lion stops the growl in his throat. “Well, we can’t leave here for the time being. There are too many of them outside."

“I know. I’m sorry.”

"You were walking too loudly."

"I know. I tried, but... it's hard."

The Lion sighs heavily, so that Pinocchio will understand what a burden he is.

"I could tell you a story in the meantime," the puppet offers.

“Perhaps later. Can you at least tell me what letters those are? Not that I expect anything to come of it, but we can’t keep searching until those things depart.”

Pinocchio squints at the letters in the door in the hopes they'll become legible. He recognizes some of them - he learned the alphabet from his father - but he had never practiced much.

“B?” He finally ventures.

A slight tremor goes through the Lion’s mane. “And the next?”

“That’s an E.” Of this, Pinocchio is certain... somewhat. There’s an E in his father's name.

“After that?”

“There's two of the same letter... It’s either an I or an L.”

“L?” says the Lion. He pronounces the word carefully. “Elle? Elle?”

“Yes,” agrees Pinocchio. This seems to be the answer that will make the Lion happy. “Yes, I think so.” His nose twitches again.

The Lion's yellow fangs peek through. He is smiling.

“Pinocchio, my dear friend, I think this is it. I believe your father went through here.”

And together, they walk through the doorway marked Belle et la BĂȘte.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Hands stained with blood, Cinderella speaks to the glaring Dwarf. “There’s a story about one of these wolves,” she says, her voice purposefully soothing.

“He ate seven baby goats whole. But while he slept, the mother cut open his stomach so that her children were freed. It’s a simple surgery, really.” She sets aside her scissors into a kettle of boiling water.

"You don't know the rest of the story," growls the Dwarf. “I do.” He knew that family very well, in fact, once upon a time. "She replaced her children with seven hot stones. When the Wolf woke up, he tried to drink from a stream to ease the burn in his belly, and he fell in the water. The stones weighed him down, and he drowned horribly."

Cinderella remains unfazed as she considers the Dwarf’s tale. Beneath her nimble needle, the Wolf squirms and whimpers. "Well,” she says at last, “at least it's a happy ending for the goats."

She wipes her hands on the cleanest part of her apron. "I suppose we'll stay here for the night,” she says casually, “and make sure the Wolf has improved before we leave."

"Oh, no, we aren’t," says the Dwarf. "I said I'd getcha to the Doorway, and I meant it. You've dilly-dallied long enough, now yer gettin' out of here to somewhere safe."

Cinderella's prepared for this. Feigning curiosity, she asks, “What makes you think the Doorway leads to someplace safe? We didn’t know that the Castle of the Door had fallen. Perhaps the Other Lands have been invaded, as well.”

The Dwarf grits his teeth and spits into the fireplace. These are thoughts he’s joylessly mulled over for many sleepless nights. Seeing the castle abandoned and unguarded wasn’t as bad as his worst fears – at least the place wasn’t swarming with the dead – but this was bad enough for him.

Still, he has to argue with the girl. “You don’t know nothin’. There could be any number of safe havens out there. We all know them dead can’t breach these walls with the drawbridge pulled up, so it’s better than hidin’ here and starving’ to death.”

His positivity stuns them both.

“And besides,” he adds with a scowl, “I’m sick of you slowin’ me down. I’ve got a prince t’ find.”

He turns his back on the girl and mutters into the corner. “Playin’ nursemaid to a wolf, fer cryin’ out loud.”

“If there are safe havens out there,” Cinderella says quietly, “how do you know your prince isn’t in one of them?”

The Dwarf stops grumbling. He unwillingly turns his ear in her direction.

“Let’s face it,” says Cinderella, and she winds a silk curtain tightly around the Wolf’s ribcage, “the land has been abandoned.”

He grunts sullenly. Truth be told, he hadn’t thought of that, and wouldn’t it be just like a human prince to abandon his kingdom when the going gets tough?

“If there are safe havens,” continues Cinderella, “wouldn’t it stand that one would be led by a prince? He probably fell back to find a more defensible position… isn’t that what you men-folk call it?”

The Dwarf grunts once more and nods slightly. “I don’t like it, though,” he hastens to add. Why would they have abandoned the Castle of the Door? It was fine enough. Doesn’t hold a candle to Dwarven construction, naturally, but it’s a good, safe place. And the Doorway must be preserved. But perhaps they did fall back…

“So why don’t I just go on,” finishes Cinderella, “and if I find the prince, I’ll send him back here to you?”

“What?!” the Dwarf gasps. Of course she’d think of something so nonsensical. “And what’re ya gonna fight the dead with, yer sewin’ needle?” He snorts in outrage.

“No, no, no, Missy, and that’s the final word. I’ll go with ya in the morning and find him myself.” He trails off and pokes angrily at the fire. “Can’t let you go off getting killed, ya daft girl.”

Standing behind him, Cinderella is secure in the knowledge that he cannot see her smile.