Monday, March 29, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Five

Under the sea.

Beneath the waves, beneath all light, Pinocchio trudges through the silt and the slime. And once again, he finds himself alone.

No, not alone, he thinks, because somewhere in this dark abyss swims Monstro.

The Mermaid was torn by the decision, but she left Pinocchio some days ago. As desperate as she was to find any survivors, it was just too dangerous, they both decided, for her to swim anywhere near the great beast.

“He might swallow you whole,” she said, “but I don’t think he’d do the same to me.”

The thought of other Merfolk in Monstro's stomach is tantalizing but horrible, and Pinocchio swore to tell them about the safe waters of Neverland.

And so he completes his journey on foot, step by heavy step. He doesn’t mind the chains draping from his body - they keep him from floating away. He hopes that Monstro can hear him clanking and clinking, and even now the great beast might be swimming toward him with an open, hungry mouth.

It's impossible to tell how long he's been traveling, now that the moon and the sun and the Clock are gone. Perhaps the Mermaid could tell by the ebb and flow of the waters, but Pinocchio had never thought to ask, and now it's too late.

At least there is some comfort in her words - that whenever someone is lost, they seem to wind up in Neverland - because right now he is most certainly lost, so far from his home.

Even his words - for Pinocchio constantly calls out Monstro’s name - have nowhere to go. Immediately, they are swallowed up by the heavy, black water. Can Monstro hear him? Is he even nearby?

The Mermaid, though she tried to hide it, was doubtful. “He travels the world,” she said. “Always moving, always eating. He could be anywhere. My people, they know… they knew of his patterns, but even then, it involved a lot of guesswork.”

“I think he’s nearby,” she after many days of traveling along a fast-moving current. The fresh wreckage, the ravaged bodies, the scales and bits of bone were too much to suggest otherwise. “But it’s an entire sea to search.”

Yet Pinocchio is nothing if not persistent. In a world devoid of day and night, he has nothing but time. There’s no need for him to sleep or eat, no more tears to shed. There is nothing left - not even the Lion - except for the darkness and the water and, somewhere, his father.

“Monstro?” There is still hope in Pinocchio’s voice, but if his calls have been heard, they go unanswered.

He takes the Enchanted Mirror from underneath his shirt and holds it tightly.

“Show me my father,” he says, and it illuminates the murky water with its magical light.

Gepetto - how old and worried he looks - is once more asleep. Scattered about him are various bits of flotsam and jetsam - bottles, metal pipes, pieces of wood leaning precariously against each other - and the whole area is crisscrossed with rope.

The undead, unused to stealth and subtlety, will not be able to reach him without falling or making noise. Pinocchio smiles at his father’s resourcefulness, when suddenly the room, the cavern, the stomach - whatever it is that Gepetto considers his world - turns and shudders and rumbles.

The old woodcarver falls from his perch and awakes with a jump. The bottles tilt to the side, shattering silently in the Mirror’s reflection, and the driftwood collapses.

Gepetto looks around wildly. He stumbles against a wall and reaches for his staff as it begins to roll away.

Around Pinocchio, the waters swirl and churn, almost as if they are trying to escape the ocean itself. There is nothing to see in the darkness, though this doesn’t stop the puppet from trying.

He can feel it rather than hear it, the harsh rush of a typhoon, the change in the water and the disruption of the tide itself.

Something bellows at him from the right, and Pinocchio is swept away, hit with the full force of a tidal wave. The chains do him no good. Pinocchio flies - who knows how high or how far - still clutching the glowing Mirror.

And Monstro is suddenly upon him - almost as big as the sea - and he swallows Pinocchio up, hungry for something, anything, and only knowing that where there is light, there is life.

Pinocchio is falling, falling, the water crushes him with a roar, and suddenly he realizes there is air, a foul reek of death and decay and salt, but it is air, and the walls press against him, soft yet strong and flapping, and Pinocchio hits the ground, deep inside Monstro.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Four

"Here?" asks the Wolf. Doubtfully, he sniffs at the air, and it is indeed full of magic.

Once, this castle had been a cheerful - if isolated - fortress surrounded by the savage forest, a perfect place for an adventuresome young boy to grow up. Now, the jousting fields are overgrown with weeds, the farmlands lie untilled, and no fire burns in the hearth.

"Yar," says the Dwarf. "We need a wizard, don't we? And this is where we'll find one. The best. Now hurry." He cautiously steps from the Magic Carpet and through the window of the tallest tower. The Monkey leaps from his shoulder and scampers before him.

The Wolf looks around and sneezes.

The room is a mess. Creaky, dusty, drafty, musty. Broken brass instruments and inventions - worth little to the Dwarf and even less to the Wolf - lie strewn about. Taxidermied animals hang from the ceiling and casually watch with glass eyes. Shelves lined with pots and cannisters, which the Monkey paws through eagerly. The floor lies spotted with bird droppings, especially over the rafters in one shadowy corner. And books, an entire library of books, so many of them that the floor sags and it’s a wonder the tower still stands at all.

But all that is of interest to them is the figure lying on the large, lumpy bed.

"Hey, you! Wake up,” says the Wolf.

“He’s dead, you idiot,” says the Dwarf, and he throws down his hat in disgust. “The Genie was wrong.”

Upon the bed lies Merlin the Magician. His long gray hands are folded calmly over his chest, his tremendous beard is neatly combed, his mousy robes are stained and creased, and one shoulder is covered in a heavy, blood-soaked bandage.

“He isn’t dead,” comes a low voice from the shadowy corner. A small owl flies across the tower and perches on one of the many antlered skulls that adorn the walls. “Only sleeping.”

“Yar, it’s a spell, I know,” growls the Dwarf. He stumps over to the window where the Carpet waits. “Sleep of death, love’s first kiss. Seen it before.”

The Owl hoots out a chuckle. “Now why would he cast something like that? Look.” It points a wing at the wizard's chest, and they notice a small bit of parchment held in Merlin’s cold hand.

The Wolf snatches it up and holds it to the light (the candles in Merlin’s tower never seem to die). He looks at the words carefully for several moments before admitting he can’t read them.

“We ain’t got time for this,” says the Dwarf. “Come on.” They are all too aware of the Giant’s thundering footsteps, half a kingdom away, but coming ever closer.

“No, wait,” says the Owl, and it plucks the parchment from the Wolf’s paws. It glides through the room and drops the note before the Dwarf.

“I can’t read this either,” he says finally. “It’s backwards.”

The Owl twitters and clucks its beak. “That’s Merlin. He lives backwards in time, you know. He was rushed when he wrote that, and old habits die hard, I suppose.”

Perching on the Dwarf’s shoulder - the Dwarf is too outraged to object - it closes one eye and slowly reads: “’Friends, I am not dead, merely dying. But if you are here with the lamp, all is not lost. Simply wake me with a wish, and we shall set about righting the wrongs of the world.’

“Hmph,” humphs the Owl. “A bit off-meter, I'd have to say, but he didn’t have time to write a masterwork.”

The Dwarf places a foot on the ledge of the window. “Well, we ain’t got any more wishes, so that’s that.” He throws a meaningful look at the Wolf and Monkey, then mutters into his beard something about finding a fairy.

After one final look around him for anything of value - though most of it appears to be junk - the Wolf starts to follow, but the Owl will not be defeated.

“Wait, wait, wait,” it hoots, and flies to the cupboard. "There's another way." It circles near the Monkey, who greedily clutches a pot of dried currants to its chest.

“You want me to kiss him?” snorts the Dwarf. He whistles for the Carpet to circle closer and gives the Owl one last contemptuous glare. “No, thanks.”

“I told you,” says the Owl as it grabs a small bottle, “this isn’t that kind of spell.”

Fluttering to Merlin's bed, it says, “This will wake him up. It'll wake anybody up.” Gently, it drops the bottle upon the wizard’s robe. The approaching footsteps of the Giant cause the bottle to tremble, and the Owl hurriedly sits on it to prevent it from falling.

“Anybody?” says the Dwarf, his voice in a different tone.

“Anybody. Just a drop will do.”

The Dwarf thinks for a moment, then rushes to the bedside. With the wave of a hand, he pushes - not unkindly - the Owl away.

Some dust falls from the ceiling rafters. “Better hurry,” says the Wolf. The ground trembles as the Giant stumbles toward the smell of blood.

Quickly, the Dwarf uncorks the bottle. The label contains a word written in the maddening, spidery letters that wizards seem to always employ.

With a practiced hand, as if he were cutting the finest jewel for Snow White’s wedding ring, the Dwarf cautiously pours a single tiny drop of the shimmering liquid into the wizard’s mouth.

“Like liquid silver,” he thinks, and he wonders if such a thing could exist, and how wonderful it would be if it did.

He casually pockets the bottle, and the liquid wriggles and slithers down Merlin's throat. Almost immediately, his pale face, so different than the smooth and porcelain features of Snow White or Cinderella, and yet so similar in their pearly death, colors and crinkles.

But something is wrong. The Dwarf can tell right away - he's seen it before - by the unfocused, bloodshot eyes of the wizard. Merlin clutches his wounded shoulder with a strangled gasp.

“Hello, my friends, and good-bye,” he whispers weakly, and the edges of his mouth twinkle into a dying smile. His eyes sharpen slightly, and they hold the Dwarf spellbound.

In that instant, he sees wisdom and mirth and such infinity that it even holds the stony heart of a Dwarf in awe. Knowledge deeper than the caverns of the earth, higher than the peaks of the mighty mountains, time of the ages, all pouring and dwindling like a snuffed candle, all ruined by one bite, poisoned into an all-consuming hunger, and yet, still the wizard smiles.

“The lamp!” hoots the Owl, and it nips at the Dwarf’s wrist.

The pain is nothing - he’s used to worse - but the words jolt the Dwarf from his thoughts. He pulls the lamp from his tunic and presses it into Merlin’s unwounded hand.

“Ah, yes,” says the wizard, and he weakly caresses the brass lamp. He sighs with his final breath, and says, almost absently, “I wish to be made whole and healthy.”

The lamp sparks to life. It trembles and twitters and glows like a brass sun and the Genie rockets from the spout, laughing and twirling and dancing.

“Hey, hey, hey!” He laughs, dressed once more in his white coat and odd facemask. “Paging Doctor Genie, paging Doctor Genie,” but he stops short and pops back to his normal self at the sight of the wizard beginning to twitch.

“Oops, sorry!” The Genie claps his hands with a mighty boom, mightier than even the Giant’s unsteady footsteps.

"Quite all right," says the wizard with a chuckle. Already whole and healthy, his skin is pink and his eyes are crisp. He clumsily removes the bandage with one hand.

“Merlin, baby!” says the Genie, now wearing dark spectacles and a shining black suit. “So good to see you, my man! We must do lunch sometime. Why don't my people call your people?”

“Shut up!” says the Dwarf. The ground shakes, and the rotting stink of the Giant seeps into the musty tower. “We’ve gotta get out of here right now. That thing moves fast. Come on, we'll explain later."

“Ever the pessimist,” says the wizard, his voice gently scolding. He hops lightly from the bed and brushes himself off. “Some things never change. Especially Dwarves!” Merlin nudges the Wolf in the ribs and winks.

Oblivious to the earthquake, he reaches for a gnarled leather suitcase. “It’s so good to be back,” he says. “Now then, where are we heading?”

“Away from here!” says the Dwarf. He snaps his fingers, and the Monkey stuffs the last of the currants into its mouth and climbs back onto his shoulder.

“Yes, but that could be anywhere, couldn’t it?” says Merlin. He points at several of his books, and they come from the shelves and waddle toward suitcase, shrinking all the while.

“There’s a Giant coming!” shouts the Dwarf, his voice dwarfed by the echoing footsteps. “Wish it away!”

The Genie looks over to Merlin eagerly. His hands prepare to clap, but the wizard shakes his head with a smile. “I’ve only got two wishes left. Can’t waste them on frivolous things like Giants, my boy.”

The Dwarf doesn’t know which is more shocking - being called a boy or the wizard's insanity. “Then we’ve got to leave!" he sputters.

He seizes a rusty iron poleaxe from a suit of armor and looks out the window. The suit of armor gasps at such impudence, but is ignored.

“I can see that,” says the wizard calmly. He opens the larder and absently throws a chunk of green cheese and a loaf of yellow bread, which the suitcase catches with a gulping mouth. “But wherever do you wish to go?”

The Genie's head goes from side to side, and he says something about forty loves.

“Just wish them all away, then!” says the Dwarf. The sunlight is suddenly blocked from the window, and a milky yellow eye stares vaguely at them. He plunges the polearm into the eye, and it slow backs away.

“Ah, it's not quite that simple, but at least we’re getting closer,” says the wizard, and he nonchalantly grasps a column as the floor tilts suddenly. The Owl flies to Merlin’s shoulder, and the Wolf skids into a corner of the tower. “You wish me to undo the undead, do you?”

“We’re going to die,” thinks the Dwarf, not for the first time, not for the last time. “And all because this blasted wizard wants to teach me some blasted lesson.”

“Yes!” is what he shouts.

“But to do that, I’d have to be at the source of the curse, wouldn’t I, Genie?”

“That’s the way it works, O Bearded One!” says the Genie.

“Then...” says Merlin over the roar of ripping stone and mortar. They tumble against the walls as the Giant tilts the tower his mouth. “I wish for you to take us there.”

Books and pillows and a chandelier and armor and paintings from many years in the future all fall through the window into the Giant’s cavernous maw, but the bodies - with the thunderclap of the Genie’s hands - have disappeared.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Three

"Faster!" screams the Dwarf, and the Magic Carpet weakly, desperately pushes through the storm with the tiniest amount of acceleration.

"We're dead, we're dead, we're dead," chants the Wolf, and though he doesn't want to, he can't help but glance at the Giant chasing them.

The Giant is a world all unto itself, an unstoppable force, a moving mountain. Its footsteps overpower the thunder, its rot corrupts the smell of the rain. And with every step - every league-spanning step - it comes closer to its meal.

"We ain't dead yet," shouts the Dwarf, but his voice is lost in the piercing wind.

He’s faced Giants before - he knows how they think. A lone Dwarf versus a Giant might be madness, but the brutes were never known for their smarts. Take out its eyes nice and quick, and it'll back down.

A dead Giant, however, is another tale altogether. Even blinded, it will pursue them as long as it can smell their blood - namely, forever.

“Of course,” he thinks, “never fought a giant while flying before.” That must count for something.

His body numb from the wind and rain, he forces the Carpet to climb higher and higher. His brief hope of breaking through the clouds is dashed - Lady Luck was never one to favor Dwarves. The Carpet stops, exhausted, at eye level with the Giant.

It reaches for them with a hand the size of a cottage.

The Dwarf pats the Carpet's sodden pile, and wraps its tassels around his gnarled hands.

“Hold on tight,” he shouts to the Wolf.

"You too," he whispers to the Monkey, which clutches desperately to his beard.

“Now drop!” says the Dwarf, and with a shake of the Carpet’s tassels, they fall from the sky.

The Monkey screams, the Wolf howls, and the Dwarf - to his surprise - laughs madly.

The giant swipes at them with its massive hand, and the ensuing rush of wind slams into the Carpet.

It is only Dwarven stubbornness that keeps him from letting go of the Carpet. The rest of his body flies into the air, the Wolf flails like a flag, and their few supplies fall away into the sky.

Now almost at the Giant's waist, the Dwarf leans into the Carpet and shouts, “Now! Through his legs!”

With an uncanny instinct, the Carpet slows down somewhat before going through the bowed legs of the Giant. It rests for one final moment until the huge hands are near - grasping and grabbing and stained with a kingdom’s worth of blood - and then it zooms through.

“And up!” screams the Dwarf, though the Carpet is already traveling upward, back into the sky, somewhat rejuvenated by its momentary rest.

Again the Wolf dares a look behind him to see the Giant bent over, reaching foolishly between his fat legs.

The Giant’s face, so close to the treetops, is suddenly attacked by a flurry of arrows. They fly into his eyes, nose, mouth, nothing more than probing mosquitoes.

It takes some time for the Giant to notice, and then it plunges its hands into the forest, more interested in the many nearby morsels of blood that hide in the trees than the retreating speck of cloth.

“There’s archers down there,” murmurs the Wolf. It cranes its neck to get a better look.

The Dwarf wishes that the Wolf hadn’t said anything, or that the storm would’ve blocked out the words, but Lady Luck was never one to favor Dwarves. He’d heard rumors, long, long ago, it feels, that there had been a refugee camp in the Forest of Sherwood, one ably defended and safe. No more.

He tries not to think of them, the brave and the weak, all taking bow and blade to the hungry mouth and legs and hands of the Giant in a last, desperate, futile battle. And though his hands twist and knot the Carpet's tassels, he does not turn back.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Two

Calmly, he pads through the forests of Neverland. Nose and whiskers quiver at the scent of his enemies. The smells, though different from the Wildlands, are still familar - life and death, prey and predator.

And yet, everything tastes different from his homeland, or the cobblestoned city, or even the castle of the Beast. This land smells alive, alive in a way even the Wildlands could never hope to be. The bursts of greenery and air from the salt-scented sea combine with a wondrousness, a dreaminess that only exists in memories that never truly were.

He inhales deeply.

The stink of corpses is there, but buried and faint. The plague is here - he's seen that firsthand - but most remains untouched and alive.

Some thing - some things, rather - have marked their territory with tiny spurts of urine. Not that it matters. They are small creatures, their squabbles over territory and shelter are beneath him and hardly worth the hunt.

More interesting are the bits of spoor he finds here and there, smelling of a bountiful diet of fish and berries. Something strange and large. Best to be avoided, if possible.

And the most unmistakable smell of all - the scent of Men. Their marks are faint and aged. They haven't been in this area for some time. Still, he notices a strand of stray hair, long and black, and a bit of worked metal lodged into a tree.

When the wind is favorable, he can smell red fire to the north, and he changes course.

He walks on, ever alert for the crunching of twigs or the throaty groans of the dead, but he remains alone. There is water to drink when he is thirsty, as several brooks make their short journey to the sea, and he’s grown used to being hungry.

In some ways he is lonely, in some ways he is not. He tries not to think of the boy and the pirate ship and the abandoned Clock. Such distracting thoughts are driven from his mind by concentrating on his surroundings - where he is, where he’s come from, where he will eventually stay - and then the inviting shade of the forest breaks off suddenly, and he is amidst familiar grass, long and yellow.

So similar is this wide field to his home that he looks around with a start, thinking perhaps all that came before was a dream or a fantasy, but behind him, like a gentle wall, is the green forest. Ahead of him are the yellow grasslands, and further beyond them are brown, rocky hills.

Truly, this is a land that never was, that never could be.

He stops short. Death is nearby. Even if it weren’t for the smell, the buzzing of flies - how they seem to prosper in this time of plague - gives the intruder away.

The grass, long an ally in the art of concealment, now hinders him, and he bounds from the forest toward the hills. The broken, hungry thing cannot match his speed, and it's a small risk in order to better see his adversary.

It follows, slinking down into the grass, but still visible. In its excitement, its tufted tail, a broken reed, sticks out sharply. A lion, of all things. Male, from the smell. And large.

In no time at all, he’s reached the edge of the yellow grass, and looks up at the sturdy brown stones that grow quickly into a mountain. Plenty of time to choose his spot, which he does with ease.

The corpse lion drags itself on three legs after its would-be prey, closer and closer to the web of its demise. Finally, it looks up, fangs permanently bared - its lips and muzzle have been chewed away.

Calmly, he presses and leans against a heavy rock. It teeters and falls and tumbles, and the dead lion does not blink or flinch, even as the stone crushes its skull.

His enemy defeated, he looks out over the yellow grasslands and lets out a roar; full, mighty, happy. There are, he’s smelled, other lions on this island. Living ones. Females. They should know of his presence.

And with this large male killed in combat, that means a change in the social order. Hopefully, it hasn’t infected the rest of the pride, but he is ready to take care of such a matter.

He thinks of the future. Perhaps the Men, those still living in the north, can be reasoned with, and might use their weapons of metal and wood against the child-corpses that still roam the forests and grasslands and beaches of this island. Perhaps they’re hunting them already.

A smile crosses his scarred face and the Lion roars again. In time, he will destroy the Doorway out of Neverland, tear it apart with his claws, and let no invader, living or dead, intrude upon his island, his kingdom, his home.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chapter Eighty-One

The Magic Carpet floats serenely over the rooftops - a sight that would be wondrous, were there anyone to see.

Even at this speed - slow and steady wins the race - the Dwarf can't help but admire how much land they've covered. From the desert kingdom to this silent, nameless city, and soon enough, through the Doorway to their homeland.

The Wolf sulks in a corner, paws folded in front of him. "I want my wishes," he growls.

The Dwarf growls back. "Not yet."

Something about the lamp, something about the Wolf, something about the Dwarf makes him hesitate to hand over his tarnished and perfect treasure. At least, for now.

"You'll get it after all this is said and done," says the Dwarf. "Then you won't have to waste 'em on any necessities." Traces of Cinderella's cunning flavor his words, and he doesn't know whether to smile or frown at how she can manipulate him, even now.

“You know what I'm gonna wish for?” asks the Wolf for the fourth time. He counts them off on his claws. "First, I want all the treasure in the world. Second, I want all the food in the world. Third, I wanna be king of the world."

The Dwarf peers off the edge of the Carpet, and spits. "Well, go and greet yer loyal subjects, your majesty."

Below them, a procession of the dead parades through the cobblestone streets, trailing after the Magic Carpet.

Taking a deep breath, the Dwarf brings one hand to his mouth and sings, “Heigh-ho…” His scratchy voice echoes through the skies. The Wolf, arms still crossed, howls in accompaniment.

“If you can hear us, answer back!” shouts the Dwarf. “Stay indoors! It isn’t safe! But answer back!”

Silence from the city, as it’s been for their entire flight. The random cry from a cat or dog would be welcome, but there is nothing. Even the birds have fled.

“Not even the crickets,” wonders the Dwarf.

“No one’s left,” says the Wolf.

“Course not,” grumbles the Dwarf. “These people were soft and foolish. Couldn’t defend their homes, probably didn’t store up their larders, at least. Probably all starved by now.”

They continue to fly, still at a cautious pace. Someone else in the Dwarf’s position might find the view breathtaking. The girl, maybe. Or Snow White. It is true, this city - so foreign to the Dwarf - spreads out like a wonderful, enormous map, but who remains to see the beauty that once lived here?

All that has been created, all that has been achieved is now lost.

“Hey,” says the Wolf suddenly. “Let’s go check on Cinderella.”

“No,” says the Dwarf flatly, and now it's his turn to fold his arms. The Wolf doesn’t know it, but the Dwarf has purposefully steered them away from the girl and the bonneted dog.

“Why not?”


“But it’s not that far,” says the Wolf. “I can find her. I bet I could smell her if we go a bit lower.”

“No,” says the Dwarf, louder this time.

“Why not?” repeats the Wolf, louder as well.


“Because what?”

“Because it wouldn’t do any good!” says the Dwarf, and he resolutely scans the gray faces in the horde. “What are we gonna do, stay there, waste some of the food and water we left ‘em? They’re fine.”

“Go there,” he adds gruffly, patting the Carpet. He points to a familiar Doorway. “But set us up on that roof first, we’re gonna need you to scout ahead and let us know if it’s safe to go through.”

The Carpet ripples in understanding, and banks toward a high, flat roof, devoid of any windows, stairs, balconies, or nearby trees that the undead could possibly climb.

“Just, you know, say hello,” says the Wolf, his voice uncertain after the Dwarf’s outburst. “Make sure she’s sleepin' all right.”

“We ain’t going back,” says the Dwarf. Stupid creature doesn’t understand. “We gotta go forward. We’ll see her after all this mess is clear. There’s just... there ain’t nothin' more we can do for her.”

If he could, he would’ve built the girl an even finer coffin than Snow White's tomb of glass and gold. Inlaid with platinum, this time, smelted from the doors of the Sultan's palace. Alabaster and marble, take those nice, fancy pillows. It’d be something.

Instead, she must make do with the creaky bed of some poor dead family, locked away in a nursery, sharing fleas and water with some other dead fool’s dog.

“Ain’t fair,” he scowls into his beard. “Ain’t fair.”

“But what if they got her?” presses the Wolf.

“Yeah, what if?” says the Dwarf, and he quickly glares back with reddened eyes. “What could we do about it, ya fool? Nothin’, that’s what. She’s fine. They’re fine.”

He turns around quickly and repeats to himself, more for his own benefit than the Wolf’s. “They gotta be,” he adds quietly.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chapter Eighty

“You’re a mermaid!” says Pinocchio. He points unnecessarily at her tail.

“Of course!” she laughs.

“You’re… Maybe you can help me!”

“By finding your friends?” The Mermaid swims back from her alcove of treasures. “Is this one of them?" She holds a copper kettle. Perhaps this is his clock or the - what's that word again? - candle's stick.

“No, no, no,” says Pinocchio absently, and he takes her hands. “You see, I’m really looking for my father. I mean, we all are. My friends and I. And all we know is that he’s near where the mermaids are, so maybe you... What’s wrong?”

The girl gently pulls away. Her wide, clear eyes cloud over. “This is where the mermaids are, now. And I’m sorry, but I haven’t seen your father. Or any surface-dwellers, for that matter.”

Nonplussed, Pinocchio shakes his head and reaches into his shirt for the Enchanted Mirror. “No, look.” He squints his eyes shut for a moment and thinks of how much he wants to be with his father again.

Light dazzles from the Mirror, illuminating the alcove, and the Mermaid peers at the image.

An old man kneels. He holds a candle. A stout cudgel rests against his knees. And he scratches and scrapes at the lichen on a dark, ribbed wall. When he has enough dark-green shavings in his hand, he brings them to his mouth. The Mirror goes dark.

“That’s him! That’s my father! And I’ve seen him fighting off dead mer-people, so you must know where he is, right?”

Her eyes grow cloudier, and she stares without seeing into the vacant Mirror. When she responds, her voice has lost some of its melody.

“I think I do,” says the Mermaid, and Pinocchio leans forward, smiling.

“I came from there, you could say,” she continues, mostly to herself. “I wanted to stay, but I was sent away by my father. And I got lost.” She remembers the rushing waters, the screams of battle, the tide pushing her away.

“And when you’re lost, this is where you end up... in Neverland.” The Mermaid picks up a fork and idly runs it through her ethereal hair. “Which isn’t so bad, I suppose. It’s mostly safe here. And at least I’m not alone. But the other mermaids aren’t like me, so I keep to myself nowadays.”

All this goes unheard by Pinocchio. “So, where’s my father?” he asks, a little too loudly.

“I’m sorry,” she says again, and gently lays the fork back amidst her meager treasures. “But your father is inside Monstro.”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Nine

The Dwarf has spent several long moments pondering his next wish - after hearing the Genie's explanation of the rules and ignoring the increasingly horrible suggestions from the Wolf - and finally he speaks.

"Can you help him?" he asks, his voice oddly gentle. He points toward the dying Monkey.

“Aw, poor little fella,” says the Genie, and he is suddenly covered in a white tunic with a white paper cap on his head. A mask covers his nose and mouth and rubber gloves pop into place over his hands.

“Ol’ Doc Genie will have you good as new,” he whispers to the Monkey, but then looks up shrewdly at the Dwarf. “If that is your second wish.”


“I’ll take that as a yes!” says the Genie. A flurry of magical light - through which it seems several Genies appear and disappear, all dressed in strange white outfits, some of them with long, blonde hair, and much odd beeping - and the Monkey’s head un-bruises, its ribs reconnect, and its body plumps slightly to a healthier weight.

“Bingo, bango, bongo, no tips, please,” says the Genie, and he laughs. “I’m not a mohel.”

The Dwarf stares at him blankly, and the Genie pulls at the collar which appears about his neck. “Tough crowd,” he says. “What is this, an audience or an oil painting?”

“Third wish,” says the Dwarf loudly, and the Wolf nods eagerly. “Can you get rid of the undead?”

“Yeah, yeah!” says the Wolf. “Do that! Then get to my wishes!”

“Sorry, Charlie,” says the Genie, now a spectacled, hatted fish. “I can’t kill anyone, even if they’re already dead. Them’s the rules.”

“I figured,” grumbles the Dwarf. He slaps the lamp thoughtfully against his hand. “But can't ya just undo it? Whatever caused this mess in the first place?”

“Oh, if I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that, I’d be a millionaire!” says the Genie. His expression - full of such foreign words like "nickel" and "millionaire" - is lost on the Dwarf, but he understands its meaning.

“I wish I could - get it, ‘wish’? No, you see, buddy,” says the Genie, and he drapes an ethereal arm around the Dwarf’s shoulders. “Maybe I could do that. Maybe...” He stretches that word out for several seconds.

“There's probably a loophole, and maybe we can work around it. But turn back time? That’s tough stuff! And I’d have to undo some serious magic! Damn it, Jim, I’m a genie, not a Hercules!” The blue-skinned arm buffs up and now belongs to a handsome man in a tunic and sandals.

“That’s big-time! And that ain’t easy, no-sirree-bob, it ain’t! And I can’t do that all by my lonesome. I’m just a small-timer! A nothing! A minor-leaguer!”

“So unless,” he continues, now sporting long hair and a beard and speaking in an unfamiliar accent, “the wish came from a powerful spell-slinger, someone whose magic could boost me up to an eleven,” the Dwarf has no idea what sort of contraption the Genie morphs into, “I’m afraid I can’t grant your wish.

“And even though you have a funny hat and a funny beard,” adds the Genie, “I don’t think you’re a wizard.”

The Dwarf fumes, and the Genie continues, “But... do either of you happen to know a powerful wizard?”

Together, the Dwarf and Wolf turn toward the crumpled corpse of the Vizier.

"It all makes sense," grumbles the Dwarf. “Right at the moment when it’s too late to do anything about it.

“A wizard sends us to retrieve his lamp. Right?” He scowls and sputters. “But he doesn’t tell us what he’s up to. Why should he? So what do we do? We kill him. We ruin our only chance of undoing this entire mess.”

“We ain't licked yet,” says the Wolf, and the Dwarf stops mid-rant.

“What do you mean?” he says, suspicious of any hope.

“Don't you remember the Queen?” says the Wolf. “Couldn’t she make the wish?”

“Oh, yeah,” says the Genie, and he becomes a female version of himself. “I’m not gender-biased! Either sex will work.”

“The Queen," growls the Dwarf, and he spits on the sand. "I wouldn’t trust her as far as I can throw her. You'd go back to her? After leaving you to die, and doing what she did to Cinderella?"

“Yeah, well, beggars can’t be choosers,” says the Wolf.

"I ain't no beggar."

The Dwarf sits on the carpet, his feet dangling over the edge. He ignores the Monkey jumping onto his shoulder, the Wolf panting impatiently, and the Genie ticking like a clock and humming a catchy tune.

Finally, he says, slowly and carefully, “For my third and final wish, Genie, I want you to give us a list of all the people still living who are powerful enough to wish away the undead."

The Genie's smile grows and grows until, like a Cheshire cat, only his grin remains. "Great wish," he says, and he disappears amidst a sheaf of paper.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Eight

“Let the buzzards have him,” the Dwarf says to no one in particular. For good measure, he spits on the Vizier’s corpse.

The Wolf hopefully sniffs at the body.

“Forget it,” says the Dwarf. “He’s full of poison.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” says the Wolf. He can still smell the bile-like tang of magic - it would make for a most unappealing meal. “What about his magic stick, though? It could come in handy.”

He takes the golden staff from where it lies on the sand and aims the serpent’s head at some stones.

“Bang, bang!” the Wolf commands. He flicks the staff wildly. “Open, sesame! Shoot!” But the ruby eyes remain flat and lifeless.

“Leave it alone,” scowls the Dwarf. “Probably cursed. And I don’t want that thing in my sight.”

“So much for the all-consuming fire,” says the Wolf, and he tosses the staff onto the Vizier’s broken body.

Nearby, the Monkey lies motionless. The Dwarf gingerly picks it up, and his frown darkens. Too many bones are broken, and what can he do? Mending wounds had been Cinderella’s specialty.

“Black magic,” he mutters. “You see what’s wrong with people? They get so greedy, their hearts go black, and they turn into that.”

The Wolf isn’t listening. He stares up into the sky at the Vizier’s carpet. He whistles, and the carpet’s edges perk a little. With a bit of coaxing, it floats down.

“Can you believe that fool?” complains the Dwarf. He takes his woolen cap and turns it into a sling for the Monkey. “Willing to kill over his blasted lamp. Doesn’t he know we’re all in this together? Why’d he want it for himself?”

He looks over to make sure the Wolf is paying attention, then scowls. The Wolf - now sitting atop the carpet - is delighted and nervous as he floats over to his companion.

“Greed. That’s all it is,” scowls the Dwarf. “Pure, stinkin’ greed.” He gently lays the Monkey on the plush carpet, and pulls out the dingy lamp to look at it in disgust.

“Yeah, yeah,” says the Wolf absently. “But what does it do?”

“I don’t know!” growls the Dwarf. He turns it over and over in his hands. “Wish I did, but I don’t.”

But then he does. Something clicks in his mind, and the lamp buzzes and trills. It nearly jumps from his hands, but the Dwarf holds it close.

“What the heck?” says the Wolf, and he sits up to watch the dancing lamp. Smoke wafts from its spout. It doesn’t have the reek of bile that had followed the Vizier’s magic, it smells like something… good, something better, something more, like a cloud or baking bread or the moment before dawn.

The smoke - or is it steam? - does the exact opposite of normal smoke when it dissipates in the wind. It thickens, grows, comes together, becomes more real, and suddenly it is a glowing, grinning blue figure.

“That’s your first wish!” says the Genie. His smile makes up nearly half his size. “You now know just what the heck this lamp does!”

Monday, March 1, 2010

Chapter Seventy-Seven

Something brushes the wooden cheek of PInocchio. He stirs slightly at the touch. Everything is cloaked in a comforting, blurry darkness. He is cold and wet and feels... strange. Light. Almost airy.

Then the half-remembered images of swimming and falling and and fire and a deafening crack that tore apart the sky flood through his memories, and he gasps.

Only there is no air. He sputters and chokes and coughs out the mouthful of water, bitter water.

Then that thing - a pair of hands - touches his cheek once more, hands that are small and smooth and strong, reaching beneath his arms, and Pinocchio is flying. Is he flying? He's lifted, carried through a blanket of blue darkness, and above him the sky lightens like an egg, more and more, until he breaks the surface of the water and hungrily, desperately gasps for air.

“Are you all right?” says a voice, and Pinocchio can finally see, free from the confines of the ocean’s depths.

It is nighttime, but the full moon shines silver light over the water. It reflects and sparkles, a million tiny mirrors...

“The Mirror!” says Pinoccho, and he pats frantically at his chest. He smiles in relief as he feels the golden handle, still safely tucked into his shirt.

Beyond him lies land, presumably still Neverland, but of the pirate ship or his friends, there is no sign. How did he get here? What had happened?

“You're alive!” says the voice. “I’m sorry, I, I didn’t know you were real.”

Pinocchio turns around, splashing slightly, and he realizes he is still being held. The hands belong to a wide-eyed girl, more beautiful than any he’d ever seen. Her red hair flows and swirls and cascades down her shoulders with the ease of the ebbing tide.

“Hello,” she says, and chuckles in spite of herself.

“Hello,” says Pinocchio, somewhat shyly. “I am real. In a way.” How long ago he’d wished to be a real live boy. And now, a wish like that would be secondary - not to mention foolish - to his true heart’s desire.

“I found you under the water,” says the girl. “I thought you were a doll, and I took you with me. But then you started coughing, and I realized you're a land-dweller. But you seemed fine for hours beforehand.”

But Pinocchio is only half listening. He’d never thought about breathing, or why he didn’t need to - just as he didn’t need to eat or drink or sleep - but the gasp and accidental inhalation of water must have triggered something.

“Where are my friends?” he asks. He scans the surface of the water, but there is no sign of the Candelabra. And off in the distance, the Lion should still be waiting on the beach. But no one is there.

“Friends?” asks the girl. “I didn’t see anyone else. A ship had sunk, and I was just looking around for anything interesting. For my collectibles.

“Oh,” she adds, suddenly realizing. “You must have been on the ship. I’m sorry, I really am, but... I didn’t see any other people.”

“They weren’t people,” the puppet blurts. “They’re like me. One is a candlestick. And back on shore there's a clock. And a lion!”

Confusion clouds her face. “I don’t know what those words mean,” she says. “A lion? Like a,” she searches for the proper word, “giant... cat?”

“Yes," he says, incredulous. Who's never a heard of a lion?

“I’m sorry,” the girl says again. “But there was no one like that.”

“Oh,” says Pinocchio. He tries not to think about being left alone again, but it’s hard. The last thing he remembers is finding the pirate ship and being so happy, so close to finding his father, and now...

“There were some other things I found,” adds the girl quickly. “Maybe one of them is your candle’s tick. Or the clock.”

Pinocchio blinks, and feels a little better, a little warmer, at her smiling, hopeful face.

He nods, and she chuckles again. “Take a deep breath!” she warns, and then sinks into the water.

Pinocchio tries not to breathe as they speed through the murky blueness, down and deep. Then he realizes he doesn’t need to breathe at all, and watches eagerly.

The girl swims as fast as a bird flies, it seems, and Pinocchio is soon surrounded by her dancing red hair. And though he can only make out wavering shadows and the occasional glistening scale, she moves without any hesitation.

At last they come to a cave - an underwater cave! Maybe the Clock was right! But immediately, Pinocchio can tell this isn’t the same place as Gepetto’s shelter.

There’s no air, for one, and it’s too, too dark. How the girl can see anything is a mystery.

“Let’s see...” she says, looking around. Bits of metal and other items lie atop the coral. Some rest upon the natural ledges in the walls.

“It’s not much of a collection,” she says, and swims from shelf to shelf. “Just what I‘ve found since coming here.”

She looks at several of the items, then grabs one and brings it to Pinocchio. “Is this your friend?” she asks, and holds up a large, silver hook. It gleams in the murky light, elegant and menacing.

“No,” says Pinocchio. “That’s a hook.”

“Oh, right! A hook.” She darts over to another section of the cave, and that’s when Pinocchio let's out a bubbly gasp.

Instead of legs, she has a fishtail. Just like the creatures he's seen in the Mirror, the girl is a mermaid.