Mooi

by Geron Kees

Sprookjes

© 2017 Geron Kees All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction and depicts sexual situations between minors. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation. Please observe the laws of your jurisdiction with regards to reading this material.

If you are not 18, you shouldn't be reading this at all. Go find a boyfriend and talk stuff over with him.

This story is third in the sequence that began with Mooi and was followed with Nachtmerrie. You really should read them first.

It began with the darkness.

Damsko experienced nighttime like any other city, but Damsko's nights were not the nights that other cities knew. Summer evenings in Damsko persisted; the sun set late, after ten, and the sky held further reminders of that fiery orb's presence for some time after it had vanished from the sky. There was a heavenly afterglow, a sort of dusk that slowly and stubbornly faded into starlight, as if the earth below held some small trepidation at what might come to visit with the darkness. And the stars that finally came to light and looked down thereafter did so wonderingly, unable to determine what was real and what was phantom; for all the worlds that had once been Damsko's tended to emerge with nightfall. And then - for good or for ill - the party was on. That Amsterdam was a haunted city Coby had learned, and that that presence ran the gamut from the ethereally beautiful to the darkly sinister, he had experienced firsthand.

And he loved every moment of it. Coby, and David, too. Love was something they both understood now.

Coby loved David, and David loved Coby, and that made them one. It has been said many times through the ages that strength lies in numbers; but so, too, does strength lie in unity. Two souls, combined as one, can carry the burdens of the world upon their shoulders. And so they did. They had been tested, and not found wanting.

"I can take it," Coby breathed, wincing under the strain. His face was screwed up into heroic proportions at this latest test, his nerves on edge and ready to fire at a moment's notice. It was tough, but he was managing it.

David raised up from between Coby's legs and shook his head. "Such a crybaby. You'd think I was biting you instead of loving you."

Coby grinned, but did not open his eyes. "I am very sensitive there. And you are so wonderful at what you are doing, it is nearly beyond my ability to cope."

David laughed, lowered his head, and resumed his actions, while Coby squirmed and grinned and gave out little laughs of pleasure along with his grimaces. This went on for some time, until finally the reward was his. He felt that incredible urge spring up within his loins, felt it build and build, until at last he could no longer contain it. He grunted, gasped, and rubbed his fingers quickly through David's hair to let him know it was time.

But David did not cease his efforts, and when Coby gasped a final time and delivered the gift of his body, David was still there to receive it. For a moment out of time Coby simply shuddered, his back arched and his hips thrust forward, his hands gently pressing the sides of David's head.

And then it was done. David sighed, cleaned up with his tongue while Coby giggled at the pleasure of the touch; and then David was squirming carefully up over Coby's body to lie atop him. For a moment the other boy grinned down at Coby, his face pale and handsome in the cool moonlight; and then they were kissing, and Coby was wrapping his arms around David with the greatest of delights.

"You were wonderful," he whispered, as their faces parted. "Opwindend."

"You inspire me," David insisted, rubbing the tip of his nose against Coby's. "And tempt me. I could not resist."

Coby smiled, and hugged his boyfriend closer. They were laying on a blanket in the grass, the quiet of the summer night all about them. That they had not a stitch of clothing on between them was not an uncommon state to find them in these days, as they spent all of their free time together, and much of that making love. It was their right, and their gift to one another, and they never failed to enjoy the moment.

"So quiet here," David said, giving a soft sigh. He looked briefly about them, his eyes taking in the little moonlit park in which they lay, just up the street from Coby's flat in Indische Buurt. "Back where I grew up, in The States, there would be crickets and katydids singing right now. It seems a little empty without them."

Coby nodded. "Ja. They are here, too. You just have to be further out in the country to hear them. These small stretches of park and grass are not quite enough to keep them happy." He listened a moment, but could only hear the distant rumble of a train making its way along the docklands. It was not strange to him. This was how the world always sounded at night.

But he could understand the sense of absence that David was feeling. He had experienced it enough times in his life. First with the loss of his parents, and then with the loss of his own soul. Or, the perceived loss of his own soul. That misperception had been due to the loss of something else, in fact, something that Mooi had patiently showed Coby that he had not actually lost, but rather had pushed away from himself:

Courage. The courage to go on with life in the aftermath of loss.

Mooi had showed him the errors of that thinking, by doing no more than focusing Coby's thoughts on what he still had, and what he was yet to receive. What he still had was Uncle Geroit, who loved him and cared for him and patiently urged him onward; and what he was yet to receive was David, glowingly foreshadowed by Mooi herself, who had worn David's body and presence about as if a second skin - which, for that ancient and mysterious spirit, it actually had been. Mooi could be whomever she wished to be, and she had used that power to be the object of Coby's dreams: a boy whom he could love, and who would love him back. That this boy was a real part of Coby's future life had been the finest gift of all.

Coby smiled at that thought, and hugged David to him.

"What?" David asked, smiling in the night. "What are you thinking?"

"Just how lucky I was to have met you. It has been prachtig - wonderful."

David sighed. "For me, as well." He kissed Coby, and made it a long one.

The night was pleasant, the world just entering fully into summer. The midnight sky was dotted with stars, the horizon wispy with the next morning's clouds. Coby gave David a last squeeze, and one more kiss, and then sighed. "We should be gone from here. Not that anyone much comes here at night, but let us not press our luck."

David chuckled, and nodded. "I would not wish the politie to be waking my parents at this hour with stories of their son naked behind the bushes in some park." He looked around at the little wooded triangle of land, with its trees and shrubs and grass, surrounded by buildings full of flats, and shook his head. "Not even a full park. Coby, you make me dare things in places I would have never imagined."

Coby grinned. "Love is bold, mijn lieve."

They got dressed, and gathered the blanket and returned to their bicycles. It was late, but not yet too late to be out. Uncle Geroit was happy enough if Coby was home by two a.m., knowing that if David was with him, then Coby would be safe. They were both seventeen now, and both experienced enough to know trouble when they saw it, and wise enough to be expected to avoid it.

"I'm hungry," Coby announced, smiling, as they pushed their bicycles down to a lamp post so that Coby could fold the light blanket and return it to the bag behind the seat. "Do you fancy an uit de muur eten?"

David laughed at that. Eating from the wall, as Coby had put it, was a popular form of food on the go. There was a FEBO on Molukkenstraat, a short distance away from Coby's flat and just a couple of minutes by bicycle from their present location at the Ceramstraat park. The automatiek - the self-serve vending machines built into the wall inside the FEBO automat - contained all sorts of tasty goodies that could be had at a fair price.

"I could manage a kipburger about now," David decided, nodding.

Coby smiled, and licked his lips at the idea of one of the tangy chicken sandwiches. "You've convinced me. Shall we?"

They pedaled off down the lamp-lit street, aware of small movements here and there as people strolled past them on the walks. But for the most part, people were in their flats by this time, the windows filled with the soft, pulsing glows of televisions or the sedate shine of a light left on for reading. Indische Buurt was a quiet neighborhood, a working neighborhood, and even more so on weeknights, when only the school-aged, out of classes on summer break, had the luxury of keeping late hours.

The FEBO was normally closed at his time. This was a residential neighborhood, quiet and unassuming. The automats were open until all hours of the night in the club districts; but here in Indische Buurt businesses were normally all closed in the summer before dark. But the automat had recently been experimenting with later hours in an attempt to provide for the school-break foot traffic that remained out until after midnight, like Coby and David, in fact; and when they arrived it was to find the shop still lit, and even several people within.

They got themselves kipburgers and bottled waters, and stood in the open front of the automat and watched the other people come and go. For this time of evening, there were a lot of people out, it seemed. Coby new that the start of summer break was always this way. At first, the younger crowd was everywhere, stretching their new wings of freedom. Eventually, that would slow, and the FEBO would go back to closing at its regular hour.

Coby was taking a sip of his water when he felt David tense next to him.

"What?" Coby asked. "What happened?"

David looked at him. "Oh...nothing, I guess. I thought I saw something."

Coby grinned. "What did you see?"

David took a bite of his kipburger, and Coby realized that his boyfriend was stalling. He put a hand on David's arm. "Well?"

David rolled his eyes and laughed. "A trick of the moonlight, is all it was."

Coby glanced at the moon, three-quarters full in the sky. "The moon watches, but it never plays tricks."

"You know what I mean. A shadow, in the corner of my eye."

"What did this shadow look like, mijn lieve?"

David frowned, swallowed, and looked at Coby. "A very little man, with a beard and a pointed hat."

Coby gave a small laugh. "Where?"

David used his drink to point down the street. "I thought I saw him run across the road. I told you, it was a trick of the light."

Coby stared down the street, but saw nothing. "Maybe you are sleepy, and --"

Just then they heard a yell from down the street, just where Coby had been looking. It was short and high-pitched, the kind of yell someone might give out if they were startled - or frightened.

Coby and David looked at each other; and then Coby pushed off the door and started down the street. David was a step behind him, and then came along side of him. Together they hurried down the walkway, peering ahead into the places the streetlamps failed to light.

"Probably someone went to put the cat out and fell off the stoop," Coby mused aloud, smiling. Even so, he did not reduce his pace. Something about that yell had filled him with a sense of urgency.

They passed a lit building full of flats, and then encountered another small park. There were lights on poles in the center of it, and a bench, and someone was sitting on the bench, folded over, their face in their hands. Coby and David looked at each other, and then approached the sitter slowly.

As they neared they could hear sobbing. Whoever it was, they were crying.

"Hallo?" Coby called, as the they came up. "Are you okay?"

The person's head jerked up, and Coby could see then that it was a woman. A young woman, too.

"God! You scared the crap out of me!" She stared at them out of wet eyes, and sniffed and rubbed her nose on the sleeve of the old jacket she was wearing.

"Was that you that yelled?" David asked, as they stopped before her. "Do you need help?"

The woman gave a sigh. "Thanks. But it's a little late for that now."

Something about the woman's voice was familiar. Coby stared at her face, estimating her age at no more than twenty. A girl, really.

David looked at Coby, then back at the girl. "I'm sorry...do we know you?"

The girl leaned back and stared at them. She almost smiled. "No. I'd remember a couple of cuties like you two, that's for sure."

Coby grinned. With her head back, the light from the lamps above fell more squarely onto the girl's face, and now she did look familiar. "Come, come. I've seen you before. We must have met someplace."

David suddenly grabbed Coby's arm. "It's her."

Coby looked at him. "Her?"

David made a small surprised sound. "Imagine her with green hair and a streak of pink in it."

Coby jerked his eyes back to the girl, and knew then that David was right. It was the girl that had kissed Coby in Leidseplein back at the start of the Halloween season. She had also had turquoise slashes on her cheeks at the time, and when she had kissed Coby, she had been the earthly representation of the spirit of Amsterdam, in human form.

"Mooi," Coby breathed, nodding. "You're right, mijn lieve. It is her."

The girl stared at them now. "Had a few, haven't you? You look a little young to be out boozing on a Wednesday night."

David grinned, and Coby laughed. "No. We have not been drinking. You just look so much like someone we know, is all. We are sorry for staring."

The girl shrugged, and wiped her eyes. "Oh, well, it doesn't matter. The way this night has been going, at least you aren't a pair of muggers." She suddenly eyed them. "Right?"

Coby laughed, and held up his bottled water. "Have you ever been robbed by someone armed with a Spadel?"

A smile crept onto the girl's face. "No. It doesn't matter, anyway. I don't have anything left to steal. Those...those guys got my backpack. Everything I had was in it."

Alarm came onto David's face. "You were robbed? Do you want us to call the politie for you?"

The girl quickly held up her hands. "No police. They wouldn't...they couldn't help, anyway."

Coby moved to sit on the bench next to the girl. "Did you see the one that robbed you?"

"They," the girl said. "There were six of them."

David gasped, and went to sit next to the girl on the other side. "Six? Did they hurt you?"

"They weren't big enough to hurt me. Just drag me down until they could get my pack off. Then they ran like the wind."

What? David's eyes came up, and Coby could see what he was thinking. This one is not right in the head.

"You're American?" Coby asked, trying to figure the girl out.

"Canadian. Good old Oriole Road, Toronto. I wish now I'd stayed there."

"I am Coby," Coby said. "And this is David."

"Angelina," the girl returned. "My friends call me Angie." She squinted at Coby. "Your English is pretty good, but you're a local." She turned to look at David. "You sound like a Yank."

"You kind of do, too," David returned.

Angie laughed. "It's Toronto, man, not Mars. We're like twenty klicks from the border. I grew up watching TV from New York."

Coby nodded. "So...the ones that robbed you? They were short? They were boys?"

"Oh." Angie shook her head. "Yeah...about that. I kind of think you wouldn't believe me if I told you, so I just won't tell you, okay?"

David smiled. "Oh, now how do you know if you don't try?"

Coby nodded. "We are very good listeners."

Angie looked at Coby, then looked at David, then shook her head. "Just remember you asked me, okay?"

Coby nodded. "Yes."

Angie blew out a breath. "Well...the guys that robbed me were...kabouters."

Coby stared. David laughed.

"What the devil is that?" David asked.

Coby leaned forward to look at him. "Kabouters are, um, gnomes. Elves, if you like. Little men with beards and pointed hats."

David's mouth fell open. "I saw..." He broke off, and swallowed hard. "I see."

Coby nodded at Angie. "You got a good look at them?"

"Oh, yes. They were definitely kabouters. I can tell them from leprechauns, tomte, brownies, and hobs by the way they dress and talk. I suppose they could have been kobolds, but they sure sounded like local guys to me."

David's eyes were large now. "Is this for real?"

Angie grinned. "Told ya you wouldn't believe me."

Coby nodded. "Can you tell me why kabouters would wish to steal your backpack?"

Angie frowned. "Well...uh...because I was carrying the Stone of Armanath in it?"

This time Coby was at a loss, too. "What is this stone?"

Angie shrugged. "I don't know exactly what it's for. I was just carrying it as a favor to Billy Blind."

David eyed her. "And who might that be?"

Angie made a small face. "Um, well, he's a kind of a brownie lord I met in Hawick, while traveling in Scotland. I told him I was coming to Amsterdam, and he asked me if I wouldn't deliver the stone to someone here."

Coby nodded. "Uh huh. And who would that be?"

Angie gave a soft sigh. "Well, that would be Klaas Vaak." Coby gave a little splutter of astonishment at that.

David looked at him. "You know this person?"

Coby frowned. "Well, Klaas Vaak is not a person. Not human, I mean. He, also, is a kabouter. A rather special one."

Angie nodded, and looked at David. "He's the sand man. You know...the guy that throws sand at you and puts you to sleep?"

David stood up, and started pacing back and forth, and Coby smiled.

Angie watched him a moment, and then turned to Coby. "It is a little hard to believe, I know."

Coby stood. "Do you have somewhere to go? Any money?"

Angie sighed, looked about, and then made herself comfortable on the bench. "Right here will do, I guess. My passport was in my backpack, and my money...so I guess I'll be a guest of your nice city for a while."

Coby bent and took her gently by the arm. "Are you hungry? There is a FEBO just up the street."

David stopped his pacing and stared at Coby. "You believe this stuff?"

Coby frowned. "I find it no harder to believe in than Black Matthew."

David sucked in his breath, held it a moment, and then let it sigh out. How well he knew of Black Matthew! The highwayman magician had nearly done them in in their last adventure for Mooi.

David smiled at Angie. "Are you hungry? Come along."

Angie blinked at him. "That was a fast turnabout. Who's this Black Matthew?"

Coby helped her to her feet. "He was a highwayman, sorcerer, and servant of the deveel. He died seven hundred years ago, but not all the way. It made him rather difficult to be around."

Angie pulled up and grinned at them. "You serious?"

Coby stopped, and nodded. "Very."

Angie looked at David, who nodded.

"Wow," the girl said. "You guys are jagers, huh? Spirit hunters?"

"Of a sort," Coby agreed. "We do favors for someone who knows a lot about that sort of stuff."

"I'd love to meet him."

"Her," David corrected.

"It," Coby corrected again, looking at David. "If you will recall, I first met Mooi when she was wearing your body."

Angie stopped so fast that Coby's hand came off her arm. The girl looked back and forth between them. "City spirit?"

Coby simply stared at her. "You know of such things?"

Angie frowned. "Well, I have been around a little. It was Alainn, in Edinburgh, who directed me to Billy Blind."

Coby shook his head. "Who is Alainn?"

Angie put her hands on her hips. "What were we just talking about? Alainn is the city spirit of Edinburgh."

Coby and David locked eyes in astonishment.

"What? You thought yours was the only one?" Now Angie grinned. "From what Alainn says, there are spirits in most of the older cities, all over the world." She gave a little laugh. "Although it's hard to understand what she says sometimes, with that godawful burr in her speech."

Coby and David each took one of Angie's arms and began walking her back up the street. "It appears we have much to discuss," Coby said.

"I'll say," Angie agreed. "I always heard the Dutch were nice people. I sure didn't expect a pack of their little folk to rob me blind as soon as I got here."

"Maybe we can help you with that," Coby said. "We will need to find Mooi first."

"Your city spirit?" Angie asked. "What's it like?"

Coby grinned then. "Well, I have to admit that we do tend to think of her as she. She is quite magnificent, actually."

"Yes," David said. "She's really cool for someone a thousand years old."

Angie gave an excited little laugh. "Ooh. I'll bet she has some stories to tell. Right up my alley. Let's go."

David cast a last look at Coby, one that Coby interpreted to mean, I hope you know what you're getting us into!

In truth, Coby had no idea where they were heading. But if anyone could tell them what was going on, it would be Mooi.

That is, if they could only find her.


The FEBO was getting ready to close when they arrived, but they were able to get a kipburger and a Spadel water for Angie. The lights of the automat died as they exited and went to their bicycles, which they had left locked to a rack out front.

"We'll push them, and you can eat as we walk," Coby said. "My place is just up the straat."

"Nice area," Angie said, gazing about at the comfortable looking buildings full of flats along the tree-lined street. "Quiet."

Coby smiled at her. "It does not quite have the things to do that Kinkerbuurt or Helmersburrt have, but it is a very pleasant place to live, ja."

"Kind of an odd place for you to be delivering your stone, isn't it?" David suddenly asked.

Coby tried not to grin at his boyfriend's persistent distrust of things etherisch - those things that existed just south of the real world. Despite all that Mooi had exposed them to thus far, David seemed insistent on playing the role of skeptic.

Angie smiled at him. "Just passing through. I was to meet someone at the gate to Oost Indisch Groen at one in the morning."

David looked at Coby. "Where is that?"

"East Indian Green. A little community garden at Insulindeweg and Kramatweg. Just down Molukkenstraat and over toward Flevopark. Not far." Coby smiled at Angie. "It is quite a lovely little place...in the daylight."

Angie shrugged. "Hey, I just go where I'm told. I was also told that this was a safe city. I had no idea I'd be mugged by a bunch of Nederlander elves."

Coby stopped, and pulled out his cell to check the time. "It is just past midnight. What will happen if you do not show up at your meeting?"

Angie stopped, too. "I have no idea. But I don't have the stone now. So I don't know what to do."

Coby looked at David. "Any ideas?"

David frowned, and Coby smiled. Under the cool yellow of the street lamp, David was handsome even when frowning. David caught the smile, and his eyes twinkled in the golden light. "Maybe we should go to the meeting. Maybe we will get a clue as to who the thieves were. And, maybe, why this stone is important."

Coby's smile widened. "That sounds quite sensible to me."

Angie scratched her cheek. "Be nice to get my backpack back. If you think it's worth it, let's go."

Coby nodded. "We can continue on to my flat. It is just in the next block. We have another bicycle there you can use." He paused. "You can ride a bicycle?"

Angie gave a short sigh. "Yes, I can ride a bicycle." She canted her head at him. "I thought we were going to go and look for your city spirit?"

Coby made a small frown. "Mooi knows most everything that happens here in the city. She must know we are looking for her by now." The frown turned to a helpless little smile. "The truth is, we don't know exactly where to find her. She usually finds us. Mooi is alwetend."

David smiled at the uncertain look that came into the girl's eyes. "He means she's omniscient."

"Oh." Angie eyed David. "You speak the language pretty good. Better than any Yank I've ever met."

David nodded. "I've been around a bit, myself." He flashed a grin at Coby, who returned it, and Angie's eyebrows rose faintly.

"Hmm. You guys are best friends, huh?"

There was something extra in that question, and David looked like he didn't know how to take that. "Well...yes."

Angie smiled. "That it?"

Coby eyed her. Well. This one was sharp. "Is it so apparent?"

The girl looked from one boy to the other, and then back again. "Well...you called David my sweet earlier. So, yeah, I guess it is."

Coby laughed. "Oops."

David shook his head, but gave Coby a little smile. "I didn't even notice, I'm so used to it." He shrugged then, looking back at Angie. "How do you feel about that?"

"Oh, I don't care. Kind of a shame, from a female point of view, on account of the fact that you're both so cute." Angie rolled a shoulder. "But I've been around a bit, too. Two people find love, I think that's all that matters."

Coby let his grin grow a bit larger. "I do believe I like this one, David."

"She's not so bad," David agreed, nodding.

Angie rolled her eyes. "Gee, thanks. Can we be going now?"

They moved on. Angie finished her kipburger and water, and threw the trash in a bin they passed.

The flat that Coby shared with Uncle Geroit was on the ground floor of an older building, but a building that had been well-maintained by its landlord. Bicycles were kept in the hall, in a nook just inside the front door. Uncle Geroit's was there, and Coby checked the tires before wheeling it outside. Uncle Geroit was one of the few people that Coby knew who preferred to walk rather than cycle. He walked to the little cafe where he cooked for a living, and anyplace else nearby he wished to go, and rode the tram to most of the other places he went. So he did not ride the bike enough to ensure that it was always fit to use. Coby tried to remember to check the air in the tires now and then, at least, so that his uncle would not find the bike useless if he needed it.

The flat was quiet, and Coby knew that his uncle was already in bed. Uncle Geroit rose with the summer sun, and started his workdays early. They would have the bike back long before morning, just in case his uncle had planned to use it. Coby did not intend to press his curfew if he could help it, even though Uncle Geroit was far from being strict about it.

"This is my uncle's," Coby said, when he had wheeled the bicycle outside. "I will ride it, and you can take mine."

They all climbed aboard their machines, and Coby led the way back down Molukkenstraat towards their destination.

Just in the time since they had left the FEBO, the streets had grown quieter. They still saw people here and there, but it was obvious now that it was getting late for people to be out, even for the at-home school crowd. They passed a few other cyclers, and then no one else for a while. They reached Javastraat, turned left, then right, and went around to Ceramplein, which took them directly to Insulindeweg, where they went left again.

"This way runs to a corner where it meets Kramatweg. The gate to Oost Indisch Groen is there."

"I wasn't supposed to go inside," Angie said then. "Just meet someone at the gate."

"That is good," Coby returned, "as the garden is closed at night, and I do not wish to trespass."

David gave a laugh. "Why not? If the politie arrive, we just tell them we are meeting with Klaas Vaak, the sand man, to talk about the magical Stone of Armanath."

Coby made a face, and nodded. "Uncle Geroit would pick us up at the politiebureau, but he would not be happy about it."

"My parents would not be happy about me being picked up by the police, either," David mused, suddenly more serious about what they were doing. It was late, and he could well imagine that the politie were not the most understanding with young people with wild stories to tell about elves. "So let us be careful, mijn lieve."

Angie flicked a smile at David, but didn't say anything.

The road was empty here. The street lamps seemed now not to light the way so well, being hung over by the densely-leafed limbs of trees and spaced farther apart, forming pools of yellow interspersed with the shadows of darkness. A screen of trees shielded the road from the lights of buildings to their left, though a tall building full of flats stood immediately across from the gate to the garden on their right. But many of the windows there were dark, and the night seemed to hold sway over the street corner there. Beyond the corner, across Kramatweg, was a blackness that seemed to fill even the sky on the far side of the road - the garden in the woods that was Oost Indisch Groen.

"Ja, that is it, there on the right," Coby said. "There is no light directly above the gate, see? But there seems enough spill from the flats to see by."

They stopped their bicycles at the corner and locked them to the light pole there, as all of the racks seemed to be full. Coby glanced around, but could see no one out. The gleaming bodies of autos lined the parking area along the backside of Kramatweg, and to the left of the last of them showed the faint reflection from the green-painted steel gates of the garden.

"Not as I imagined it would be," Angie admitted. "I thought it would be in the middle of nowhere. This is still in the city." She observed the dark bulk of trees in front of them, and then shrugged. "More or less."

Coby laughed. "The darkness you see beyond is just Flevopark. But it is surrounded by Damsko in every direction, believe me." Coby waved a hand around them. "I have seen pictures of American and Canadian big cities. You will not find their like here."

They crossed the road and approached the gates. The night was quiet about them, warm and leisurely in its passing. It felt quite empty of threats, and Coby was relaxed. He pulled out his cell and checked the time, then returned it to the pocket of his shorts. "A few minutes yet."

Angie frowned, looking about the empty corner. "I envisioned this as happening a little differently, I guess."

"You are supposed to meet Klaas Vaak himself here?" Coby asked.

The girl looked uncertain. "Well...no one said that, exactly. I was just supposed to give the stone to the person with the correct password."

Coby's eyebrow's went up.

David laughed. "Isn't that a little melodramatic?"

Angie smiled. "Maybe. I didn't write the darn script, okay? But I can see why they want to take precautions. The Stone of Armanath is supposed to be a powerful charm."

"What does it do?" Coby asked.

"Oh, they didn't tell me that. I'm just the courier." Angie smiled.

Coby and David looked at each other.

"You did not wish to know?" Coby asked, letting his eyes go back to the girl. "It could have been dangerous for you to carry."

"Alainn would not put me in danger."

Coby smiled. Mooi had said the same thing about him and David; yet their meeting with Black Matthew had felt far less than safe.

David was apparently thinking along the same lines. He blew a short burst of air through his lips. "Yeah, I get it. These city spirits are a little too crafty for my liking, sometimes."

Coby put a hand on his boyfriend's shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. "I do not think Mooi would put us in genuine danger. I think her perspective on what is dangerous is just different than ours."

David thought about that, and then nodded. "I guess if you're a thousand year-old, immortal spirit that can move through time and be anybody she wants to be, you don't worry so much about a little fear twisting on the part of some has-been black magician."

"Edinburgh is close to that age, too," Angie put in. "So I am guessing that Alainn is on the order of the same age as your Mooi." She frowned. "Say, doesn't Mooi mean 'beautiful' in Nederlander?"

Coby nodded. "Yes."

Angie grinned. "That's interesting. I think Alainn means 'lovely', or something like that, in Gaelic."

Coby considered that. "I guess we have named them, then, as we consider our cities to be both lovely and beautiful."

David made an interested sound in his throat. "I wonder how old a city has to be before it gets a spirit?"

"I know what Alainn said," Angie offered. "She said spirits are born with cities, but only become aware and wise if that city is loved by many for a very long time."

Coby looked about the quiet street and smiled. "That would be true of Damsko, then."

"The cities in America are not very old," David said. "They may have spirits, but they may not have developed to the point that Mooi has."

"Canada is the same, probably," Angie said, nodding. "Although some of the places people have lived are quite old, even if a city has not always been present. It's the same with America." She frowned. "That leads me to wonder...do small towns have spirits? They are just as loved as the big cities, after all."

"And what of the Native Americans?" David considered aloud. "Their places are every bit as old as Damsko or Edinburgh. Do they have spirits?"

Angie nodded vigorously. "I would say they do. And that the Native Americans are far more aware of them than Europeans are aware of their spirits. Native American lore is full of the ways of spirits and the places they reside."

Coby was looking right at the girl, and so saw the dark shape materialize behind her. Or, rather, it formed from the night itself, with darkness seeming to suddenly flow towards a certain spot and build there, until the darker outline of a figure became visible. But it was just a shadow, black as midnight, with no features visible at all. Only the outline was definite.

It was of a small figure in a pointed hat.

"Someone behind you," Coby said softly.

"You, too," David suddenly said, moving closer to Coby.

Coby's eyes moved about them then, and he could now see the dark outlines of four of the little men about them. Kabouters.

"Je komt van Billy Blind?" a soft voice asked. You come from Billy Blind?

Angie looked about at the dark figures. "Yes. Alainn of Edinburgh sends her compliments." Her voice held a strained note.

"Wie zijn deze anderen?" Who are these others?

"We are vrienden," Coby said then. "Friends of this one. Spreekt u Engels?"

One of the other dark figures moved closer. "We speak all languages. You have something for us, ja?"

Angie licked her lips. "You have words for me?"

There was a faint laugh. "Ah, ja. De code. Five men lost in darkness, four men found in light, three men of no foul deed, and one man the guilty soul."

Angie nodded. "I don't have the stone."

For a moment there was silence. Then: "No. I do not sense it. What has become of it?"

There seemed to be no surprise, no anger among the dark figures.

"I was jumped on and robbed in the city. My pack was stolen. The stone was inside." Angie nodded. "Six kabouters did it."

The two dark figures who had so far done all the talking now seemed to look at each other before their gazes came back to Angie. "Yet you live," said one of the soft voices. "So not the faction of Tal."

"The faction of Orm," the other soft voice supplied.

"Yes." The two dark kabouters seemed to put their heads together a moment and whisper. Then they separated, and one moved closer.

The night peeled away from his form, sliding to each side until all was revealed. A tiny figure, in a pointed red hat with a white accent above the brim. They gazed into large yellow cat's eyes, luminous even in the shadows in which they stood. The kabouter was bearded - a neat Van Dyke coming to a little point beneath his chin. His face was aged, slightly wrinkled, but held an aura of youth at odds with what was visible to the eye. The kabouter grinned, displaying small, very sharp teeth.

"Someone wishes to speak with you."

And with that he tossed a small hand at them.

A cloud of tiny, glittering particles puffed up about them, swirling about their heads like microscopic, jeweled butterflies carried on a breeze.

Coby opened his mouth to speak, the faintest sense of warning coming over him...but then he just couldn't talk, he was suddenly so sleepy. A pleasant warmth settled over him, and he smiled. He was vaguely aware of David leaning against him; and then they were sinking to the ground together. A few feet away, Angie was also settling to earth, a beatific smile upon her face.

And then they were asleep.


"Ah, Coby. And David, too."

Coby pushed his eyelids upwards. It was an effort, and he had to try several times before they would stay clear of the lenses of his eyes.

A woman stood before them. She was older, slender, with fine features and a sweet smile. Her hair was dark, with hints of gray throughout, and her eyes were a serene blue, and full of affection, plainly directed at them.

Coby smiled, and sighed. Everybody's idea of mama en appeltaart - mom and apple pie. The perfect mother-type, in the flesh.

"Mooi," Coby breathed. "It is you?"

"It is I," the woman agreed.

Coby turned his head, and found David laid out just beside him. His boyfriend's eyes opened and closed as if he was fighting to awaken. A few feet away, Angie also lay out on the stone floor, and she, also, seemed to be struggling towards consciousness.

Coby sat up slowly and looked around, and realized that he had been to this place before.

They were high upon a tower, just by the waist-high stone wall that was all that stood between them and the depths below. Coby stretched his neck, and could just see over it. The streets of Damsko, alive with movement in the golden afternoon sun, laid out in profusion all about them, interlocked with the glittering waters of canals in a relaxed symmetry that brought a smile to the soul. A small breeze ruffled Coby's sandy hair, and made suggestive murmurs into his ears. The view resembled the one available from the church spire of the Westerkerk - yet that was not Prinsengracht below. The view was approximate of many parts of the city, yet could be placed exactly with none that Coby knew.

"This place does not exist - not really," Mooi had once said. "It is the place I come to when I wish to examine myself. I exist across the centuries, and how I view myself is tinged with the colors of time." Mooi - in the form of David then - had turned and waved a hand out at the view. "Some of what you see exists in your now - some exists in your past. Some exists in your yet-to-be. It is all the same to me, no matter how different it seems to you."

"We are in your special place," Coby said now, rising to his knees, and then slowly getting to his feet. He looked out upon the ephemeral image of the city below, and smiled. "Still as beautiful as ever."

"Thank you, Coby. It is exactly that sentiment that allows me to be here today."

Coby turned and eyed the woman up and down. "But who are you wearing? Is this someone I have met, or will meet someday later?"

Mooi smiled, a lovely thing to see. "This one is from your yet-to-be, yes." She came slowly forward, made to take Coby into her arms.

But Coby took a hesitant step backwards, and then felt his face burn with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. You were going to kiss me. I just thought...this woman is older...so motherly...to be kissed by her as you like to kiss would be...um...I'm sorry."

But Mooi just smiled again. And then she flickered, and it was like a film running backwards. Years of time simply slid off the woman's features. Her hair darkened, her figured firmed, and then she stood there, much younger, a beautiful young woman scarcely older than Coby himself.

Coby just stared as the girl came forward, and then he was in her arms, and she was kissing him. Coby's breath grew short at the intensity of the kiss, at the talent of the tongue involved, and he felt his face grow very warm, but could generate no impulse to step away. He felt a tingling between his legs, followed by the sensation of blood flowing into his special parts. So arousing was the kiss, that Coby could scarcely breathe. He was filled with lightness, and a sense of well-being, and the sure knowledge that Mooi only meant love for him, and nothing else.

Finally, it was Mooi that stepped back. She smiled at him, her dark eyes aglow with humor. "Wonderful, as always, my Coby."

Coby could only nod, not trusting himself to speak yet.

"Not my business, but aren't you cheating on your guy there?" a voice said.

Coby turned his head, saw Angie sitting up now, her back to the wall, watching them.

David sat up then, too, and simply waved a hand at Coby. "I'm used to it."

Coby grinned. "This is Mooi," he explained to Angie. "The spirit of Damsko."

"Friendly little thing, isn't she?" Angie's eyes roved up and down the figure that Mooi wore, and then she shrugged. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Mooi laughed, and suddenly was older again, back to the more mature woman she had been when Coby had first opened his eyes.

Angie blinked at that, and then shook her head. "Oh. Never mind."

"And how is Alainn?" Mooi asked, moving to stand closer to Angie.

"Just fine, I guess." Angie got to her feet and brushed off the back of her jeans. "Although she and Billy Blind may be a little sore at me that I lost the stone I was carrying to this place."

"It was foreseen, actually," Mooi said.

Coby froze. "You knew it would happen?" That implied that Mooi knew beforehand that Angie could be in some small danger. The conversation with the kabouters came back to him now:

"I was jumped on and robbed in the city," Angie had said. "My pack was stolen. The stone was inside. Six kabouters did it."

"Yet you live," one of the soft voices had said. "So not the faction of Tal."

"The faction of Orm," the other soft voice had supplied.

Yet you live...

Did that mean that, had the other faction been the one to rob Angie, that she would now be dead?

Mooi smiled at him, but he could detect a shade of reticence there. "It was just one possibility," she said, soothingly. Mooi smiled at Angie. "You were not in any real danger."

Coby frowned, unsure of what to make of that.

David came over and stood next to him. "Why are we here?"

"I wish your help again. If you will offer it."

Coby sighed, reached out and took David's hand in his. "Are we to be in any danger?"

Mooi gave a soft sigh. "So naughty of you to ask that, my dear Coby. You know I would not place you or your David in any danger."

Coby thought about that, realizing for the first time that Mooi sometimes said things in such a fashion that Coby inferred one thing, when the city spirit was saying another.

He nodded. "Uh huh. And will anyone else be placing us in danger?"

Mooi immediately nodded. "I do believe you may be in danger from other parties in this current problem, but I will see to it that they do not prevail against you."

Coby and David exchanged glances at that. That was about as forthright as Mooi had been with them yet. But rather than allay his fears, it seemed somehow to boost them. Coby pointed at Angie. "And the girl? Will she, also, be safe?"

"Yes, Coby. The three of you will not be harmed, I promise you." A mild pout came out on Mooi's face. "You act as if you no longer trust me."

Coby felt a little badly at that, but not terribly so. "Black Matthew scared us out of several year's growth, Mooi. It has made me realize that you see the world very differently than we do. Also, that you and I define the word danger differently, as well."

Mooi nodded. "It is so. I take the measure of you, and of David, and weigh what you are against what could happen to you in my service. If the balance is in your favor, than I consider that no harm will come to you as a result. That does not mean that you will not be frightened, nor pushed to physical extremes. It simply means that you will suffer no harm that is permanent."

That was definitely a more extreme view of things than Coby had been considering. He looked at David. "What do you think?"

Coby had expected David to be his usual, skeptical self. So he was surprised when David pulled him closer, and put an arm around him. "I have adopted - and have been adopted by - this city, Coby," he said softly. "And I have come to love it. If it needs me, I feel compelled to answer the call."

Coby's breath caught, and then he smiled. "You never fail to surprise me, mijn lieve."

David grinned. "It's what I'm here for, right?" But he pulled Coby closer and kissed him, and Coby could only sigh at the depth of feeling it offered.

Angie watched them, smiling. "You guys are suckers. But...I love it."

Coby and David both laughed. "I have not heard you refuse to assist yet," David said.

Angie looked at Mooi. "Am I in on this?"

The city spirit nodded. "You have a place in things to come, should you be willing to assume it."

The girl frowned. "Hey, if it means getting my backpack back, I'm in."

Mooi stepped towards the girl and extended her arms.

Angie's eyes widened, and she raised her hands. "Uh...look, if you plan to lay one on me like you did Coby, we're going to have a problem."

Mooi laughed, a very pleasant sound. She continued forward, and took Angie's hands into her own. "I would not dream of crossing such boundaries with you." She turned and smiled at Coby. "That one is special, and so receives special things."

Angie nodded slowly, looking down at her hands, which were clasped lightly in the city spirit's hands. Mooi's gaze came back to the girl, and her smile intensified. Angie's eyes slowly widened, and her mouth dropped open. She drew her arms back, but seemed unable to withdraw from Mooi's grasp.

Finally, the city spirit released her, and turned away. Angie took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.

Coby tried not to laugh, wondering if Angie had just received a brief dose of Mooi's amazingly sensual presence, but without the kiss.

David wrinkled his nose. "I just noticed that I never get kissed." He immediately held up a hand. "Not that I expect it, or anything." He looked at Mooi. "But why is that?"

The city spirit smiled. "Coby is the watcher, who first drew my attention with his gaze. He comes before you, and so we are bonded." Mooi smiled at Coby. "David is your love, never to be tempted away from you. It is that simple."

David pouted. "But it's okay for you to tempt Coby away from me?"

Mooi gave a soft sigh, like the gentle breeze of a bright spring day. "He cannot be tempted from you, David. He loves no other, and never will."

David's eyebrows went up. "Oh." But then he smiled at Coby, and snuggled closer to him. "Oh. That's different."

Coby laughed, pulling David against him.

"Yeah...suckers, all right," Angie said, softly. But her eyes held a shine that would have been a smile, had she been willing to offer one.

"So what are we to do?" Coby asked, returning his gaze to Mooi. "Do we have to retrieve the Stone of Armanath?"

"No. Actually, the stone is right where we wish it to be."

Coby and David traded glances.

"Are you saying you wanted the stone to be stolen by those kabouters?" Angie asked then.

"It was foreseen," Mooi said again.

Angie frowned and looked at the boys. "I think someone is playing games now."

The city spirit smiled, a little sadly, and waved a hand at the cityscape around them. "This is my body, that which is mine. It is gifted to me by all those that have lived here and loved here for a thousand years of time. I take that responsibility very seriously." Mooi's eyes came to touch Coby's. "Within my own realm, I am all-seeing. And I am in contact with those of my kind that watch over their cities, their special places, too."

Mooi turned and gazed out over the dreamlike landscape. "But while I can see all the places that are mine, there exist many places that I cannot see, yet impact places that are mine." She turned back to gaze at Coby, and David, and Angie. "The places where such as kabouters and the other magical beings make their homes are not within my view. So when those I cannot see plot against the people that are mine to protect, I take what measures I need to ensure that they do not succeed in their plans."

Coby felt a small shock. "The kabouters are out to get us? I did not sense that kind of aggression at the meeting at Oost Indisch Groen."

"No," Mooi agreed. "Those you met with there represent the main political entity of the kabouters. These wish only peace with humankind."

Coby thought back to the conversation with Klaas Vaak, and remembered what was said. "The two sects they mentioned - Tal and Orm - these are some form of splinter groups?"

Mooi smiled, a radiant thing to see. "Coby, you never fail to please me with your attention to details."

Coby felt his face grow warm, and his slight embarrassment was increased when Angie grinned wolfishly at him. But the girl didn't comment, and returned her attention to the city spirit.

"For more than my own lifespan, kabouters have lived peacefully with humans," Mooi resumed. "For the most part, the two cultures do not interact. But there have always been those curious ones, on both sides, who, once aware of the other, seek out further contact. Thus are born the legends among humans and kabouters alike."

"I have never heard of these little men," David pointed out, "and I have been living here for some years now."

"They are not spoken of as much these days, except as fantasies for the very young," Mooi agreed. "Your kind has grown away from the myths and legends of your more primitive days. Your reliance upon and proficiency with the magic of machines has dulled your acceptance of...other forms of magic."

Coby nodded at that. It was true. Science had gone a long way towards dispelling some of the human race's more ancient beliefs. Perhaps, even, too far. For, quite obviously, there were still things that moved about the world that could not be readily explained by the science of men.

"But what do these...sects...of kabouters have against us?" Coby asked.

Mooi sighed. "It is exactly your abilities with the magic of machines and electrons that have spurred these groups into being. Some among the magic folk feel that your science will someday soon reveal the existence of their world to humankind. They fear this revelation, and wish to preclude it from occurring by acting first."

David looked uncertainly at Coby, and then at Mooi. "Wouldn't their magic protect them from us?"

The city spirit closed her eyes a moment. "Even I sense what your people do, all over the planet. What I cannot directly see, I often feel." Mooi opened her eyes. "Much of it is violent in the extreme."

Coby felt a brief wash of guilt, but quickly pushed it away. "We cannot all be held responsible for what some people do."

"I agree," Mooi returned, nodding. "And it is the same among the magical peoples. Not all can be held accountable for the actions of some few."

"Then what's the beef?" Angie asked.

Mooi smiled at her. "I like your directness." The city spirit frowned in thought. "Magic and science are closely intertwined. Two faces within the same mirror, in fact. Both disciplines have rules and requirements which govern their use. In one area, both disciplines share a common need in order for them to be productive." She eyed them emphatically. "Science and magic each require energy in order to function. Magical peoples have long harnessed the natural energies of the earth in order to produce their magic. In this area they have always excelled far beyond what humans were capable of producing in the way of energy. But in the last century, that has changed."

Coby nodded. "We have progressed considerably."

"Frighteningly so," Mooi emphasized. "Humans now produce energy on a scale that magical peoples cannot hope to match. What these new groups of kabouters most fear is your kind's ability to create and manipulate vast amounts of energy. Far more energy than an entire race of magic-users have ever been able to produce."

Coby could understand that. His own people had lived for many years in the fearful shadow of their own ability to produce tremendous amounts of scarcely controlled energy through the use of nuclear weapons. What must such titanic releases of raw power seem to those who regularly channeled energies through their own bodies in more minute fashion to govern the environment about them?

David nodded. "I can get that, actually."

"Me, too," Coby admitted. "How can we blame another kind for fearing the same things we fear ourselves?"

"Just so," Mooi agreed. "And yet we cannot allow these sects to act on their desires."

Angie looked annoyed. "This is all very interesting, but how does the Stone of Armanath...and how do I, for that matter, fit into all of this?"

Mooi nodded. "The Stone of Armanath is a seer's portal."

Angie looked surprised, but Coby and David simply looked at each other in confusion. "What is that?" Coby asked.

It was Angie that spoke up first. "She's saying that the stone is an oracle of sorts."

Mooi seemed to consider that, and then nodded. "Of a sort, yes. Not the kind you might be imagining, however. The Stone of Armanath cannot see into future times. It's concern is only the present."

Angie looked confused now. "If it doesn't tell the future, then what does it do?"

Mooi laughed lightly. "It sees, my dear. It takes in all that is around it, and allows those in tune - even those far away - to share in what it sees."

Coby smiled at that. "You mean it is a spy!"

David's mouth dropped open. "You let them take it so that you could watch them?"

"Of course," Mooi confirmed. "We made them think the stone had another purpose. That it could channel energy, and magnify it."

Coby nodded. "When we met Klaas Vaak, he was not surprised that the stone had been stolen."

"No," Mooi agreed. "He was a party to this deception."

"How about that?" David said in amazement. "Isn't that kind of like selling out his own kind?"

The city spirit frowned at him. "No more than you would be a traitor to your kind by helping to stop rogue humans from starting a war with kabouters."

"A war!" Coby breathed. "Is that what is happening here?"

"It is what we are preventing even now, Coby. The sect of Tal is the violent one, the group that advocates the destruction of humankind as a precautionary measure. The sect of Orm merely desires to...neutralize the human threat. Current steps being taken within the kabouter hierarchy to identify and discipline members of these sects have not met with success because there are sympathizers in high places that have been warning sect members when moves are being taken to control their actions. By showing their hand in this matter by stealing the stone, Orm has identified their informer to the governing body. It is those governors of kabouter society that plan now to use this informer to disable the activities of both splinter groups."

"War," David breathed. "It's incredible!"

"There will be no war," Mooi stated flatly. "Tal is too small, and has not the resources to effect a conflict of any kind with humanity. Orm, which does have the means to start trouble, will soon be neutralized so that they cannot act, either."

"You're throwing this word neutralize around an awful lot," David protested. "How do these Orm people intend to neutralize the human race without killing us off?"

When Mooi did not immediately answer, Coby compressed his lips. "You need to tell us, Mooi."

The city spirit looked resigned. "The Orm plan a plague for your kind."

Coby paled. A plague!

"I thought they didn't want to kills us!" David protested.

Mooi nodded. "They do not plan to kill you, just to make you harmless again. The plague they plan is a plague of...forgetfulness." Mooi shook her head. "The Plague of Oblivion, like that granted by the waters of the Lethe. This malady would spread among your people, causing them to forget the things they know. The Orm wish to remove the threat of your kind by returning them to the primitive state of millennia past, before the rise of science."

Coby and David locked eyes, aghast at this news. Forgetfulness! If humans were to suddenly forget how to manage their technology, the world would descend into a state of chaos.

"We have to stop them," Coby said, feeling his heart rate accelerate. "These Orm may think this is a peaceful way of dealing with humans, but for people to forget how to do every single thing - millions will die."

"If not billions," David said, quietly. The look of fear upon his face made Coby's own heart quail.

"This will not be allowed to happen," Mooi said, with grave certainty. "Every city spirit in the world is involved in this project, and our own magic is considerable. Orm cannot hope to defeat us - especially as they are unaware of our involvement."

"They don't know about you?" Angie asked, her eyes wide with disbelief.

Mooi allowed another radiant smile. "Only a few of the oldest and wisest leaders of the kabouters know of us. The trusted ones, like Klaas Vaak. That humans are also magical in nature is a thought that few kabouters understand. They view us as dense and uninteresting for the most part, unable to mingle properly with the forces of the world except through technology. They do not understand the nature of human magic, and therefore think that there is none."

Coby couldn't help smiling at that. "Us? Do you see yourself as one of us, Mooi?"

The city spirit nodded. "I am born of human magic, my Coby. I cannot be other than human in nature."

There was great reassurance in those words. The idea that city spirits were gathering world-wide to stand against this threat to humankind filled Coby with relief. Surely hundreds of city spirits were a force to be reckoned with!

Angie frowned. "Alainn used me. She sent me to Billy blind, and then here, without telling me any of this."

Mooi crossed to the girl again, and placed a hand upon her shoulder. "Alainn did what was necessary, Angelina. You were a visitor, and not one of her own. She could not ask you to place yourself at her disposal, only to assist a friend. She knew in her heart that you would be inconvenienced, even frightened. But she also knew that you would not be harmed." Mooi shook her head. "Is that so much to ask to help save your people?"

The girl winced, closed her eyes, and nodded. "No. It's not too much to ask." She opened her eyes again. "I hereby offer my assistance to you. In exchange, I want to know what I am getting into."

Mooi smiled. "That is fair enough."

"Be careful what you ask for," David said, eying the girl pointedly.

Mooi laughed, a pleasant, tinkling sound that echoed through both directions of time. "I must agree with David, Angelina. To know all that awaits you may make you too fearful to act."

"Oh, brother." The girl shook her head, and sighed. "Okay. How about you just tell me --" her gaze moved briefly to encompass Coby and David " -- you tell us, rather, enough so that we have an idea what we are doing. You can keep the hobgoblins in the closet, though, okay?"

The city spirit nodded. "I agree."

"What sort of magic do you mean, when you talk of human, magic, Mooi?" Coby asked. He smiled. "I have been unable to light a fire without a match, ever, despite having tried more than once as a boy."

David grinned at that, and nodded in agreement. "There you go. " His eyes wandered briefly to touch Coby's. "I'll admit to trying to move things with the power of my mind when I was a boy. It never worked."

Coby smiled. What boy has not tried that?

Mooi moved about, gathering the three of them within the span of her arms. Suddenly, they were no longer upon the roof of the tower, but standing in a vast room with walls of stone. A great hearth full of burning logs crackled and popped before them, the occasional spark captured within the bounds of a wrought-iron grill. Four comfortable-looking chairs were arrayed in a semi-circle before the flames, standing upon an ornate carpet rich with texture.

Behind the chairs, the room slowly crept into darkness, the flickering of the fire serving to suggest the stones of a distant wall, and no more. To their left was a great window that looked out upon a star-filled night sky, with the luminous globe of a full moon perfectly centered within. It was a room that had once known the knights of old, perhaps; or maybe a princess in waiting. The place simply oozed romance and mystery in equal proportions, and the three young people stared about in wonder.

"What is this place?" Coby whispered, as if to speak loudly might in some way break the spell.

Mooi laughed. "Above we look upon my realm, that which is my heart, the city. Here we look within that heart, to the small moment of time where I am me, by myself, alone. This place is unique, and there is no other like it, anywhere in space or time."

David smiled, looking captivated. "This is your secret heart, Mooi? This mysterious and delightful room, that speaks of loves past, and loves waiting?"

Coby laughed at the eloquence of the statement. "You have a lover's heart, mijn lieve."

Even Angie smiled at that. "I'll say."

David looked slightly embarrassed. "This room...I just feel...love is very strong here." He moved closer to Coby, rubbed a shoulder against him playfully. "It reminds me of our brief time together in the park, earlier this very night. That seems so much more romantic now, somehow."

"I think this place accentuates such feelings," Coby mused. He smiled at David, leaned over and quickly kissed him. "I feel the weight of possibility in this room, as if all the things I have ever wished may be found here."

"The future holds much mystery, and that is what you feel now," Mooi said. "The past also can be mysterious, the actions of the once-world sometimes couched in riddle. The confluence of those two streams is at this place, for Damsko, at least. I am the common ground, for both future and past."

"What about the romance?" Coby asked softly. "This room also speaks of great loves."

"Yes. Our city has held great loves in the past, holds them even now, and will hold them again as the future arrives each day. Again, I am the confluence of this emotion. It is what has brought me into existence."

"Can we sit?" Angie asked, waving a hand at the chairs.

"It is why we have come," Mooi agreed.

The four of them moved to the tall-backed chairs and sat. Coby noticed then that the roaring fire cast no heat, and that the room was comfortable, the air somehow shimmering with vigor. The moon outside the window very plainly observed them; here was the watcher of dreams that Mooi had often spoke about. He smiled at that moon, seeing a friendly face there among the glow.

"You asked of human magic, my Coby," Mooi said then. She smiled. "Almost as if you doubt me when I say it exists."

Coby shrugged at that. "Well, I have never seen it, or felt it, so of course I have my doubts that it exists."

David reached over and took Coby's hand, and squeezed it warmly. "I see more of it every day I spend with you, mijn lieve."

Angie gave a small snort, but her eyes belied the amusement of the sound. "You two are something."

Coby grinned at that. "Yes, we are. The important thing is that we are together."

Mooi nodded. "Your strength is my strength, dear Coby. All the loves of Damsko are a considerable magic, indeed."

Angie sighed in disappointment. "Is that what you mean by human magic? Love? That's not magic."

Mooi looked surprised. "Oh, but it is. It is one of the purest magics there is, dear Angelina." The city spirit smiled. "But it is not the only human magic, by far."

Coby considered that. Mooi did not seem to wish to be mysterious, yet she also did not seem to wish to describe to them her definition of human magic. That implied that there might be a reason for them not to know more.

"You think telling us will somehow spoil it?" he asked.

David looked at him, frowning. "Spoil it?"

"Yes. Sometimes magic is spoiled by knowing what the magician has done. Sometimes for the magic to be magic, it must remain mysterious."

Mooi laughed, and reached over from her seat and patted Coby's arm. "You see why you are a special one, my Coby? You are able to look beyond what is before your eyes and see the many small things that hold up the world."

"So you're not going to tell us," Angie said flatly.

"No," Mooi agreed. "It will work better for you if you do not expect it."

Coby was surprised at that. "You expect us to be able to perform some kind of magic, Mooi?"

"Oh, yes. I do not merely expect it, I have foreseen that it will be so."

The three young people looked at each other. Angie seemed torn between wishing to place faith in Mooi's words, and some allegiance to a long-standing distrust of the world in general, and perhaps people in particular. Coby could see the girl wrestling with her own thoughts, and sought to ease the struggle with regards to Mooi, at least.

"I have faith in you," he said to the city spirit, his voice quiet and calm. "I owe my very life to you, Mooi. And my happiness." He turned the other way and smiled at his boyfriend. "And David's happiness."

David nodded, and dropped a hand on Coby's wrist. "Yes."

Coby turned back, and saw Angie leaned slightly forward, frowning at them past Mooi's serene face. But the girl sighed then, and nodded. "Okay. I'm in. Blind and deaf to what may come...but I'm willing to go for it."

Mooi smiled. "I knew you would."

Coby and David both laughed at the expression that came onto the girl's face at that. Angie watched them a moment before allowing a small smile to attach itself to her lips. "Oh, shut up, you two."

"So what now?" Coby asked. "We lay our plans?"

"They have already been set in place," Mooi told him. "Now, we simply follow the future into the present."

Briefly, Coby felt David's fingers tighten around his wrist.

He smiled reassuringly at his boyfriend, but inside, Coby felt the smallest of fears. Once again he and David - and now Angie, too - were off to face the great unknown in the service of Mooi. Coby wished that he could have more of the confidence that Mooi displayed in their success. That, and perhaps some of her magic to play with.

Because that magic would be needed before the day was won was amply clear to him now. Magic, and more than a little luck.


Coby opened his eyes and found himself standing once again before the gate to Oost Indische Groen. David and Angie were there, too, standing just where they had been standing before the arrival of Klaas Vaak and his kabouters. Coby pulled his cell from his pocket and checked the time - it was five minutes past one.

Angie was doing the same thing. She sighed, thrusting her phone back into the pocket of her jeans. "Amazing, the way these magic folk ignore the passage of time. When I visited with Alainn, it was the same way. I'd spend an hour with her, and then find myself back on the street, with only minutes passed away since I left."

David nodded. "And did you notice - Mooi didn't really tell us anything!"

Coby simply laughed at that. "She never does. Not really."

Angie frowned. "Damn. She's even sneakier than Alainn!"

Coby patted the girl's shoulder reassuringly. "I think Mooi - and Alainn - do what is best for us, in the end."

The girl grinned then. "I think your city spirit has the hots for you, Coby."

Coby and David both laughed. "She is a spirit," Coby protested, "and I am a mortal. There could never be anything between us."

"I don't think that stops her from copping a kiss and a nice feel," Angie returned.

Coby grinned. "I noticed that when she took your hands, you tried to pull away. You seemed surprised at something."

They could not tell if the girl's face reddened in the off light, but the tone of her voice sounded mildly embarrassed. "Um, well...she surprised me, is all."

"She is quite sensual," David suggested, smiling just a little. "Not so surprising, if she is created by love, as she says."

Angie considered that. "Maybe. But I sure felt like I was being undressed a little, and it was pretty freaky."

The boys laughed together again. "That is just Mooi's way," Coby said.

"You guys are too trusting, I think." The girls eyes were sharp, even in the poor light.

"There is trust, and there is faith," David said then. "These are not the same. I have more faith in Mooi's intent to keep us out of harm, and more faith in her ability to view future events, than I have trust in what she tells us. She is like a careful parent, telling the children about the world in terms that will not frighten them to death."

Coby laughed at that, but nodded. "I must agree, Angie. Mooi will get this done. For now, let us just be away from this spot, before some passing politie decides to stop and ask us what we are doing here."

Angie grunted, but nodded, and led the way back to where their bicycles were locked. They undid them, and climbed aboard.

The trip back to Coby's flat seemed slightly unreal, the lamp-lit streets flowing with golden light, the dark faces of the buildings they passed speckled here and there with softly glowing windows, and everything else cloaked in the uncertain shadows of the after-hours. Coby was no stranger to the idea that what filled the mind was often reflected in how the eyes perceived the world. Knowing that there were magical beings at work out there, that were certainly drawing their forces together against the human race, overlaid all things with an aura of mystery, and an eerie one at that. Damsko was still as beautiful as ever, but now seemed overflowing with secret places, from which watched eyes that were less than friendly, and behind which lurked minds whose channels flowed to areas beyond human ken.

Yet they were unmolested on their journey, and arrived at Coby's flat in short order. They placed their bicycles in the little alcove by the door, and Coby shut that door and bolted it, and leaned his back against it.

"Kind of strange out there, I know," David said, coming over and putting a hand comfortingly behind Coby's neck. David's fingers moved gently against Coby's skin, transferring a warmth that made Coby sigh, and relax. His breathing, which had felt short and choppy, slowed, and he finally smiled. "I hate being chased by ghosts."

Angie grinned at that. "I felt them, too. Like they were behind every tree, whispering about us."

Both boys grinned. "You're good at this," David said.

Angie covered her smile by rubbing her nose. "Like I said, I've been around a bit."

"Then you have shared a hostel room with others," Coby answered, smiling. "As you will need to do here, as there is only my room and Uncle Geroit's, and I feel he would be quite alarmed to waken and find you sleeping across from him."

Angie shrugged. "I was thinking I was going to have to sleep on that bench where you found me. Certainly a blanket on the floor someplace here would be much better."

Coby frowned. "We can do better than that. How would the sofa in the living room do? I will get you a summer blanket, and there are small pillows already there."

"That will be fine." The girl grinned. "What about your uncle, in the morning? Won't he still be alarmed to find me on the couch when he wakes?"

"I doubt he will even see you," Coby decided. "He showers and dresses and goes right out, most mornings. He cooks at a little cafe a few blocks down, and fixes his first meal when he gets there." He smiled. "But I shall hang a note outside the entry to the living room, just in case."

Angie winked. "It would be the first time he would waken to find a girl sleeping over, I'll bet."

Coby and David grinned at each other. "He has no illusions about who I am," Coby said patiently.

Angie sighed. "Shame, too."

David put an arm around Coby and squeezed him closer. "Now, now. No jealous snits."

They all laughed, and Angie was shown to the living room. "I'll get you a blanket," Coby said, as the girl sat down on the sofa and began to remove her shoes. Coby went to the hall closet and found a light woven summer blanket, and returned to the living room and dropped it beside Angie. "Bathroom at the end of the hall, kitchen right there, if you get hungry or thirsty. My room is to the left at the end of the hall, if you need us." He smiled. "I normally lock the door, for privacy. You will need to knock, should you need us to help fight off any kabouters."

Angie's eyebrows went up, and a faint smile tugged at her lips; but she only nodded. "Let's not ask for trouble. Night, guys. See you in the morning."

The boys smiled, nodded, and left Angie to prepare for bed.

Later, as Coby and David lay together under the sheet, the boys talked. David gently rubbed his fingers against Coby's chest, and the effect was to immediately make Coby sleepy.

"I can only wonder where this is going," David said softly. "There seems to be a real lack of clues to go on."

"Ja. You know Mooi," Coby returned. "Everything is geheimzinnig. Mysterious. I sometimes think she does not tell us things because we simply would not understand. Or believe, for that matter."

"We're out of our depth with this magic stuff," David agreed. "I don't know what Mooi thinks we can do, but I already know I do not have a magical bone in my body."

Coby grinned, reaching beneath the covers, until he found David's special part. "I don't know about that, mijn lieve."

The other boy sighed, and slid his own hand down the front of Coby's body. "Can you stay awake for this?"

"Always."

The night was silent, and deep, and their feelings strong. But at last their weariness overcame them, and after love, there was sleep.


"Coby? Coby, wake up."

Coby pushed his eyelids open. David was hovering above him, looking down at him with concern.

"What? Was I snoring or something?"

"No. I cannot find Angie. She's gone."

Coby blinked at that, and sat up in the bed, trying to shake off his sleep. "Gone. Gone where?"

David sighed. "If I knew that, we would not be having this conversation. "

Coby looked at the window, and could see by the light that it was after dawn, but still early. "Has Uncle Geroit left yet?"

"Yes. It was him going out at that woke me. I had to pee, so I got up to use the bathroom. I peeked into the living room, could not hear anything, and when I looked over the back of the sofa, it was empty."

Coby swung his legs over the edge of the bed, ignoring his own nakedness, as well as David's.

Almost. "You went to the bathroom naked? With her here? What if she had been up and seen you?"

David rolled his eyes. "I was sleepy and forgot she was here. When I came out of the bathroom, I saw the note hanging where you left it for your uncle, and remembered. That's why I peeked, to make sure that she was not up. But she was not there at all."

Coby looked up at his boyfriend. "Maybe she went out for a walk. Maybe that was her you heard going, and not my uncle."

"No. I peeked through the bathroom window, and saw your uncle going up the walk. It was him, I am sure."

Coby stood up, found his underwear on the floor. "Put something on, and help me look," he instructed. David nodded, reached down and retrieved the other pair of underwear. "Huh? These are yours. You have mine on."

Coby grinned, heading for the door. "For good luck. And fond memories."

David grinned, pulled up the underwear, and followed.

They first peeked around all the doorways, even into Uncle Geroit's room. Coby was not shy, but also felt it a little improper to be stalking about the house in just his underwear while a guest might be present. But it did not matter. Angie was nowhere to be seen.

The met back at the living room, and circled the sofa. The blanket they had provided for Angie was laying on the carpet. When Coby picked it up, he found the girl's shoes and socks on the floor beneath. "She would not have left without those," he decided, the first traces of worry entering his mind.

"Nor this," David announced, holding up Angie's jacket. "It was draped over the back of that chair."

Coby nodded, went down the little front hall and opened the front door. He stepped out onto the stoop and quickly scanned the front lawn of the building. Nothing.

David, who had followed him, shook his head. "She is not here, Coby."

"No." Coby shut the door, and led the way back to the living room. He looked about, noticed then that some magazines that had been on the coffee table were now on the floor. And the coffee table itself had been pushed back from the sofa, and now sat askew from its normal position on the carpet. Uncle Geroit was a bit of a neat freak, and always kept the table aligned with the pattern on the carpet beneath.

"It looks like she got up in a hurry." Coby said. "I was kidding her about needing help if kabouters showed up. Maybe it was not a joke after all."

David nodded. "But we heard nothing."

Coby scanned the room again, his eyes going from the sofa to the blanket to the coffee table, and then landing on the little circle of light beneath the window, where the morning sun pooled on the finish of the hardwood floor.

He was moving his gaze back to David when he was struck by something odd. His eyes jerked back to the pool of light beneath the window, and he stared at it, suddenly realizing that it should not be there. Could not be there.

"What?" David asked, immediately sensing the change in Coby, and turning to follow his gaze.

"That glow of light, there on the floor," Coby said.

"The sun," David said, pointing at the window above.

Coby shook his head and pointed to the hallway. "The morning sun comes in my bedroom window. It never comes into the living room."

David eyed him, and Coby nodded. They moved together to stand near the puddle of light on the floor.

"Weird looking," David decided, now that they were close to the luminescence. "Like the wood itself is glowing."

Coby squatted, peering more closely at the spot, which looked to be the same width as the window, which is why it had at first looked like sunlight. It did seem as if the floor itself gave off the light.

"I have no idea what could cause this," Coby began, idly reaching out to touch the light. "It almost looks like --"

But as his hand entered the glow it was as if something grabbed his arm and started to drag him forward. Coby yelled in alarm and pulled back, but the force was simply too great. As he pitched forward into the light he felt David's arms go around his waist and attempt to restrain him - and then both of them were dragged within.

It was like a vortex, a spinning column of light down the center of which they plunged. Clouds of sparkles of various sizes twirled about them, amidst little whorls containing pinpoints of starlight. Coby felt immediately dizzy, but the sensation passed so quickly that he was just feeling it, when it was gone.

He spun and faced David, who was still holding him about the waist, albeit loosely. They grabbed each other, closed their eyes, and held on for dear life.

And then it was done.

Coby suddenly became aware that he was standing again, on what felt like cool, soft earth. He opened his eyes and looked over David's shoulder, and took in their surroundings. They were in a small field among trees, a glade, with a weak sunlight streaming down through the leaves above. A faint breeze caressed them; Coby was immediately aware that he and David still wore only their underwear. Or, each other's underwear. Not that it mattered. But it was scarcely the attire one would wish for a magical trip to the other side of beyond.

"Coby? Are you okay?" David's voice sounded subdued.

"Ja. A bit weak at the knees, but I feel in one piece, mijn lieve."

They separated, going to arm's length, and examined each other. "What happened?" David asked.

"I do not know. But--" Coby glanced around them. "I have a sneaking suspicion that this is where Angie has gone. Or was taken."

David stared at him. "The light? Like a...a gateway of some kind?"

"Why not? It seems apparent, after what just happened. There are no woods of this extent anywhere near my flat."

David nodded, let go of Coby, and examined the ground beneath their feet. "Looks normal enough."

Coby nodded, suddenly feeling the hair on the nape of his neck rise up. "Except for that small dragon sitting there on that tree branch."

David turned and looked, and froze. Sitting upon a broad limb of a nearby tree was a...well, dragon was the word that did come to mind. It was about the size of a large eagle, a slight purplish in color, with a long, barbed tail that was currently wrapped about the limb to provide balance. It's wings were ribbed, like those of a bat, and currently about halfway unfurled. Extended, they would certainly span the height of a tall man, or more.

The dragon's head, set upon the end of a long neck, was more serpentine than reptilian, though with forward-facing eyes, and great ones, indeed, a rich amber in color. Those eyes watched them now with a coolness that was slightly frightening in the intelligence that seemed to lurk behind them.

"Shoo!" David said softly, waving a hand at the beast.

Coby could not help giving a small, amazed laugh, so disproportionate was his boyfriend's reaction. Like prodding a crocodile with a Q-tip and telling it to get lost.

"You shoo," the dragon said. "I was here first."

Coby and David stared. "Ongelooflijk," Coby breathed. "I do not believe it."

"What?" the dragon said then. It glanced down at itself, the neck moving in a rubbery fashion that was slightly disconcerting. "What are you looking at? Do I have crumbs on my brisket?"

Coby worked some saliva back into his mouth, which had gone just a little dry. "We have never seen a dragon before," he said slowly.

"One that talks, too" David added.

The one in the tree made a chittering sound that could only be laughter. "Silly gabreds. I am not a dragon. Dragons are large, and would eat such as you. I am a darvil. We are far beyond dragons in culture. We have taste, and refinement, and would find your bony bodies unappealing fare, I am sure."

"What is a gabred?" Coby asked.

"You are a gabred," the creature replied. It peered more closely at them. "Although...you are bigger than any gabred I have ever seen. Uglier, too."

"Because we're not gabreds," David said. "We're humans."

The darvil's eyes widened, and its mouth dropped open. "Of course you are! And I am Baron Tlost's chief war hawk!"

"We are too humans," Coby said, feeling a slightly unreal sensation that he was even having this conversation. "We came looking for one of our friends."

"One of your own, you say? Here? What would one of your own be doing here?"

"We think she may have been kidnapped by kabouters," Coby returned, for the first time verbalizing the thought that had been in the back of his mind. Who else could have taken Angie?

The darvil chittered again. "Oh, a female? So you are on a quest, seeking a kidnapped maiden?"

Coby and David looked at each other a moment. David shrugged, and Coby turned back to the creature in the tree. "Is that so hard to believe?"

The amber eyes of the darvil surveyed them. "Well, you're certainly dressed for a quest! What was I thinking?" A stunted arm emerged from beneath a wing and a tiny, claw-like hand clapped the creature on the side of the head, as if trying to knock some sense into it.

Coby looked down at the underwear he wore, and then glanced at David. "Well, we didn't know the...gateway...would suck us in so quickly. Or we would have dressed for it, certainly."

For the first time the darvil eyed them more seriously. "Gateway? What did it look like?"

Coby described the glow on the floor of his flat.

The creature suddenly looked perplexed. "That does sound like kabouters, after all. But certainly had they raided your stronghold for females, they would have closed the gate behind them."

"Well, they did not," Coby insisted. "We had never seen one, and when I touched it, it pulled us through."

"I am Krange," the creature said then. "You have names?"

"I am Coby, and this is David."

"And you are humans, you say?"

Coby and David both nodded.

The creature suddenly extended its wings and launched itself from the limb. Coby and David both started, but barely had time to move before the darvil was settling to the ground right next to them. Krange's golden eyes gazed up at them, looking thoughtful. "You are awfully large to be gabreds."

"And too ugly," David reminded, his eyes settling on Coby and transmitting the fact that he did not subscribe to that belief at all.

"Well, I was kidding about that part, mostly," Krange said. "You lack the fangs of gabreds, and those silly pop eyes, both of which I have always found unappealing." The darvil's eyes roamed over the boy's bodies one more time. "You're actually quite sleek, also not a gabred trait. Still...I find it hard to believe that you are true humans."

"Why is that?" David asked. "We believe in you. Our eyes do not play tricks of this sort."

"Normally," Coby interjected, smiling at his boyfriend.

"No. Not normally, anyway," David agreed.

"But...humans are fairy tales," Krange objected, "used to scare the young ones to bed, or to keep them from flying all about, and into danger. You cannot be real."

David glanced about, and nodded. "I would not have believed that this could be real just a short time ago. Yet...it seems it is."

Coby marveled at the idea of them being a fairy tale, when everything he had encountered since meeting Mooi would have him believe that the reverse was true. Humans occupied the real world, and these creatures, and Mooi, the world of make-believe.

Maybe it was just a matter of perspective?

"In our world, kabouters and creatures like yourself are fairy tales," Coby said. "It is as hard for us to believe in you as it seems it is for you to believe in us."

Krange blinked at that. "Who are you calling a creature?" he asked, indignantly.

Coby couldn't help smiling, just a little. "I do not use the term as an insult. Just to mean...I guess I meant that I have never even imagined people like you existed."

Krange gave a very human nod, seeming to be somewhat mollified. "That I can understand."

"So, anyway," David said, leaning closer to the darvil, "if kabouters were to come through here, where would they be bound?"

The darvil considered that. "Very probably, they went to the castle of the Baron Tlost. It's just through the trees there." With that, Krange extended the small hand again and pointed beyond the boys, to a gap in the woods by the edge of the field. "But you don't want to go there, certainly."

"If that is where our friend was taken, we must," Coby said.

Krange moved a little closer. "The Baron Tlost is not known for his tolerance of...strangers."

Coby and David looked at each other.

"That sounds like experience," David said to the darvil.

The creature made a small, indecipherable noise. "Yes. The tales of him are not exaggerated, nor those of that magician of his, Corst. Not the sort of people you'd invite to a kraznadag."

Coby smiled. "What on earth is that?"

"Oh." Krange actually grinned at them, after a fashion. At least, Coby interpreted the odd stretching of the darvil's face as suggesting a sense of humor. "A kraznadag is a group gathering, where much music is heard and roaring is done. There is food of every kind, both prepared, and still wild and free." The darvil winked at them. "The fun is that you have to catch it to eat it. It's very pleasant, as such social things go."

"Ja, it sounds like it," Coby said, keeping a straight face. "So this Tlost and Corst are not people you'd wish to associate with?"

"They're --" the darvil leaned forward, and looked quickly about them "-- haters. Nasty people, who are only for kabouter-kind, and at the expense of all others."

David looked pointedly at Coby before returning his gaze to Krange. "Have you ever heard of Tal? Or Orm?"

"Eh? Tal, no. Orm is the name of yon castle, just through the trees."

Coby nodded, feeling things now falling into place. Orm had come back for Angie, for whatever mysterious reasons that only kabouters knew.

"That is where we need to go, then," David said. "We have to rescue our friend."

Krange shook his head. "You cannot simply walk up to the gate at Orm and present yourselves." The darvil grinned, and waved a small hand at them. "And certainly, not dressed like that. You will need clothing, and weapons, and supplies. Have you any giddas?"

Coby stared. "I am not sure what you mean."

"Giddas. Silvers. Coin of the realm." The darvil leaned forward. "Money?"

Coby and David looked at each other, each dropping their hands to rub the waistbands of their underwear. "Uh, no," Coby said. "I left my wallet in my other...outfit."

Krange gave a small sigh. "That will make things harder. But I may be able to assist you. Can you fly?"

Coby and David both laughed. "Do we look like we could?" David asked.

"No. But appearances can be deceiving." Krange closed one eye and looked at them suspiciously. "Are you certain you are humans? You're supposed to be magical, aren't you? I thought flying about, tossing fireballs across the heavens, and turning roth root into churm was easy for you."

"Ah, no," Coby returned. "I do not even know what roth root or churm is."

"And why do you think humans are magical?" David asked. "Especially as you do not believe in them."

"Most things of legend are magical in nature," Krange said wisely. "Elst they would not be legend." He nodded. "Now come along, won't you?" The darvil pointed at the side of the clearing away from where he had pointed to indicate the presence of the castle. "I do not walk well. As you can see, my legs are short. So I will fly a short distance ahead, and wait for you to catch up."

And with that, Krange flapped his wings, rose into the air, and moved off towards the other side of the field, in far more graceful fashion than Coby would have believed possible.

David looked at him, and pointed after the Darvil. "Shall we, mijn lieve?"

Coby simply nodded. "Yes. Let's see what our new friend has planned."

They strode off, together.


"Point your toes," Hobarti the cobbler instructed Coby. "And push." The dwarf shook his head, looking unhappy.

Coby stared at the odd shoe he was trying to get on, silently cursing it. It was made of leather, and dyed a bright green, and had a pointed toe that curled backwards into a spiral, and was the dumbest-looking footwear he had ever seen. It resembled every fairy elf shoe that Coby had ever seen in illustrations, and was so frighteningly gay that even he was embarrassed to be seen in them. All that was needed were little bells suspended from the points to complete the process of emasculation.

Across from him, another dwarf was trying to help David into his shoes, and not looking any happier about it. "Such big feet!" Shana, the wife of Hobarti exclaimed. "I thought dwarfs had big feet, but you certainly have us beat!"

Perched on a workbench nearby, Krange bobbed his head. "I told you these outlander gabreds were some big ones, didn't I?"

When they had arrived at the town of Snosh, Krange had flown ahead to meet with the outfitters, claiming that his friends, soon to arrive, had been waylaid by highwaymen and been robbed of all of their clothing and gear. Maintaining the fiction that Coby and David were gabred members of a large-framed mountain outlander clan seemed necessary to keeping the secrecy of the boy's rescue mission pure. Krange, once having put his faith in them, seemed to be going all out to assist.

"How are we going to pay these people? "Coby had whispered to the darvil, while the three of them sat in the shop of Hobarti and Vann, the local outfitters. The dwarfs had eyed the humans doubtfully, and then gone to the back of the shop to see what could be found that might fit them.

"Do not worry, I have arranged it," Krange had whispered back. "One with wings can do many things to earn his keep that those that sniff the ground cannot."

And so the boys had been outfitted with clothing, and some that actually fit. There were soft velvet pants, a forest green in color, and a brown undertunic that was loose and quite comfortable. There was an overtunic to go with the outfit, one with a hood attached, and also in green. Leather belts tied about their waists drew in the excess of material, with a long length of belt wrapped with brass bands hanging down in the front. The outfits were actually quite striking, and Coby had just come to the thinking that they might actually come away from the outfitters looking like a rather formidable pair of forest rogues...when the boots with the curly, pointed toes had been brought out.

But now...

"It just doesn't fit," Coby grunted, after having tried to thrust his foot within the ugly shoe for the tenth time.

"No," Hobarti agreed, pulling the boot away and gazing at it sadly. "As the clothing could contain your bulk, I though also that these boots might fit your feet. These outfits were custom ordered by Norvil the Huntsman last year, before he joined the crusade against the southern hordes of banshee. As he has not returned from that quest I fear him lost, and so feel able to allow the clothing to go at a discount. Norvil was one of the tallest gabreds I have ever met...well, until the two of you. But apparently his feet were not the equal of yours. Nor his." He tossed a thumb at David.

Across from them, Shana had pulled the boot off David's foot, too. David was looking relieved at the fact, his obvious distaste for the fairy boots plainly written on his face.

"We may have to go barefoot," David said, looking resigned to the idea.

"Oh, I could craft boots that would fit you, but it would take the better part of several days," Hobarti said. He placed a stubby finger to his jaw and rubbed there, as if considering something. "What am I remembering? Something..." He suddenly snapped his fingers. "Of course!"

He placed the curly-toed boot on the floor and vanished again into the back of the shop through a curtained doorway. A moment later, Vann, the tailor half of the business, stuck his head through the curtains and surveyed Coby and David, his black eyes contemplative. "Perhaps."

Coby frowned as the dwarf retreated back behind the curtains again.

A moment later Hobarti returned, carrying two sets of boots. They looked to be of tanned suede, and were entirely normal in appearance, and quite large, too.

Hobarti handed a pair of the boots to his wife, who took them with a look of no small trepidation, and held them at arm's length as if they might bite. "Surely you don't mean to..."

Hobarti shushed her. "Just wait a moment, my dear."

The dwarf bent and patted Coby's right foot, which he obediently lifted. He pointed his toe as the dwarf placed the boot over his foot, gave a small push...and his foot slid right in! The boot was soft and comfortable. Hobarti watched him a moment, his eyes slowly widening; and then he positioned the second boot, and Coby stepped right into it. He stood, walked about, and smiled. The boots were an excellent fit!

The dwarf watched him carefully. "No pain? No sensation of stinging or burning in your feet?"

Coby walked about a bit more, and shook his head. But then the cobbler's words registered, and he stopped. "Burning in my feet?"

David was also standing now, and walking about in his boots, which also seemed to fit perfectly. Coby already knew that he and his boyfriend had the same sized feet, so this was no surprise. But David also turned to look at Hobarti as the question was asked.

"They do not hurt?" Shana asked, in disbelief. She looked at her husband, a small trace of fear present in her eyes.

The cobbler looked at his wife. "My dear, why don't you get our young men some safety accoutrements?" At Shana's frown, Hobarti made fond shooing motions at her. "Go on."

The female dwarf nodded, and passed through the curtains into the back of the shop.

"What was that about?" Coby hazarded to ask. He looked down at the boots, which looked quite good on him, he thought now. "Is there something wrong with these shoes?"

"No, no, nothing," Hobarti said smiling. But at the boy's continued stares, he sighed. "Well, maybe a small something."

Coby and David glanced at each other. "Such as?" David asked.

Hobarti leaned against his workbench. "These were left here by a traveler several years ago. A gabred, like yourselves. Big one. He simply wished them cleaned, and I did that, yes I did. "Hobarti eyed them. "Quite an experience. I placed my hand inside the first boot in order to brush it, and received quite a shock."

Coby and David looked at each other. "A shock?" Coby repeated. "What kind of shock?"

"Why, like a static shock. Surely you've received one before?"

David nodded. "Yes. Never from footwear, however."

The dwarf laughed. "Nor I. Not only was this a shock of fair notice, but it continued to repeat until I whipped my hand out of the boot."

Coby frowned. "You expected us to get shocked?"

"I...did not know," Hobarti admitted. "Everyone that has placed a hand or foot into one of these boots has been forced to withdraw it immediately. The shock grows more painful the longer one leaves their hand inside."

Coby stamped a foot, walked over to stand next to David. "And yet, we feel nothing."

"I wondered, since you are gabreds like this other, if they might not bite you so."

"This gabred was like us?" Coby inquired. "No fangs, no bulging eyes?"

"Just like you," Hobarti agreed. "Not like any other gabred I had ever seen." He pointed at Coby's boots. "Take them, both of you. No charge for these. I could not sell them to others even if I wanted to do so."

Krange's wings gave a small flutter. "I like the sound of that!"

The dwarf smiled, showing blocky, square white teeth.

Shana returned from the back room, carrying two long daggers in scabbards, and with four odd-looking contrivances tucked beneath her arms. She placed the daggers on the bench, and dropped one pair of the leather devices next to them. The other pair she brought to Coby. "Give me your arms, and I'll lace you up."

"What are these?" Coby asked, before he could stop himself.

Hobarti made a surprised sound. "You have never seen vambraces before? Surely?"

Coby peered at the handsomely worked leather cylinders, which tapered from wide to narrower down their length, and which had been dyed black and polished to a shine. A pattern of diamonds had been worked into the leather, and adorned with small brass studs at the point of each interface in the pattern. Formed of a single dense skin rolled over, the long edges of the things were punched, with metal eyelets inserted, and leather laces woven back and forth from side to side. They were quite well-made, but Coby had never seen the like of these things before.

"Oh, a vambrace," he managed, nodding, as if he'd meant to jest. "Certainly, certainly." He extended an arm, and Shana slid one of the things over his hand and fitted it to his forearm. The wider end of the vambrace just reached to below his elbow joint, while the narrower end reached to his wrist. Shana turned his arm over and pulled the laces tighter, until the leather was snug against his arm, and proceeded to lace them up.

Coby realized then what the things were: protection for his forearms. The leather was undoubtedly tough, and would deflect or at least impede all manner of things, including the sharp edges of daggers. He watched as Shana tied the first vambrace, then placed the second one on his other arm and laced it up, too.

David was next, and after he was similarly attired, they were each given a long dagger in a scabbard and shown where to hang it on the front of their leather belts. More a short sword than a true dagger, the weapon appeared to have a good double-edge on it, and likely would be deadly if used in a brawl.

When all was said and done, the boys pulled up their hoods and stepped away from each other, each eying the other boy up and down.

David shook his head and grinned. "Robin of Locksley, I presume?"

Coby returned the grin. David looked very masculine in his new outfit, competent, and perhaps even a bit dangerous. It was sexy in the extreme, and Coby blew out a small breath in admiration.

"You and your partner do good work," he said to the dwarf. "We at last feel able to continue our journey again."

Hobarti looked at Krange. "On the matter of payment..."

The darvil stretched its wings. "In the fall, I will return, and fly to the top of the Silver Mountain with a large sack, just as you have asked. There I will gather and return with all the Snur Berries I can carry."

The dwarf clapped his hands together merrily. "I can hardly wait! I have not had Snur Berry wine in many a year!"

"You're not paying now?" Coby asked the darvil.

"Snur Berries are not ripe until the fall," Krange pointed out.

Coby simply nodded, deciding to leave the matter until they were alone.

They said their farewells to the dwarfs, and emerged from the shop into the town street. Krange moved with a fluttery waddle, which caused passersby to speed up to get out of his way.

"You two look like ones to be reckoned with now," the darvil said, again giving his chittering laugh. "As you were before, no one would have paid mind to you."

"Clothes do make the man," David acknowledged, grinning. "I feel quite able now, too."

"I am sure you do," Coby said, smiling at his boyfriend.

David's eyes sparkled with understanding, but he didn't say anymore.

"Where do we go from here?" Coby asked the darvil.

"To Orm Castle, I would guess. Is not your quest to free your maiden from captivity?"

"Ja." Coby glanced at David. "But my friend and I have not eaten for some time. I think we should, before taking on a possible fight."

"Agreed," Krange said. "There is a tavern just down this way that does wonders with lamb and boar."

Coby's eyebrows darted upwards at that. "Um...are you allowed inside a tavern?"

The darvil chittered in merriment. "And why would I not be?' He reached under a wing and produced a small leather sack, which jingled merrily when shook. "I am a paying customer." He eyed the two boys pointedly. "The only one of the three of us, it would seem."

"What about that?" Coby asked. "You did not pay the outfitters with money?"

"They are the ones that suggested payment," Krange said. "Snur berries are a rare delicacy in these parts. For a dwarf to climb the Silver Mountain to gather them would be dangerous in the extreme, while I can simply fly up to the terraces where the berries grow. A large bag of them, which I promised in return for your gear, will be far more valuable than silver."

"But...how do they know you will pay?" David asked. "Especially if you cannot do it until the fall?"

Krange looked mildly affronted. "I have given my word, that's how they know. Darvils are known in these parts, even if we are not numerous. A darvil always pays his debts."

Coby felt his cheeks grow warm. "We will find a way to pay you back, Krange."

"I think you will, too. You two have much about you that is strange and interesting. But I do sense your forthrightness...and, I rather like you."

David grinned. "We rather like you, too!"

Krange looked momentarily flustered, and made a brief show of patting his brisket with his hands as if to remove crumbs from his last meal. His features seemed not quite able to make a smile, but there was something very close to one there when his eyes returned to meet theirs. "And, by Snorgel's Tail, it is a chance to take a poke at that Baron Tlost and his nasty magician, Corst." The darvil did manage to look indignant then. "Why, do you know that the Baron once had his magician toss a fireball my way? I was simply sitting on a branch along the road, minding my own business, when the Baron's entourage came riding by. The Baron spied me, leaned over and whispered to Corst, who rode next to him...and the next thing I knew, that one is slinging green fire my way!"

They were moving along the cobbled street now, the boys walking slowly while Krange progressed in small hops and a brief flutter of his wings.

"What did you do?" David asked, his tone holding no small sympathy for the darvil. "That would have angered me as well!"

Krange made a sound between a chitter and a growl. "I threw up a wing to protect myself, is what." He extended the closest wing towards them. "They're fireproof, you know." The darvil's eyes held anger at the memory. "And then I got myself out of there in a hurry, while those buffoons laughed at me!"

Coby frowned. "I don't know how we're going to deal with magic." A new thought occurred to him. "I thought that all kabouters could use magic. You mean even they have magicians among them?"

"Oh, yes," Krange returned, with certainty. "Anyone can charm an animal, spell plants to grow faster, or get a mop to clean a floor on its own. It takes talent to throw fire, or make the rain of steel."

David's mouth dropped open at that one. "Rain of steel? That sounds ominous."

"Oh, it is. All of a sudden you have all these little steel splinters winging your way at considerable speed. Hundreds and hundreds of them. A stout leather shield will not stop them, and they have even been known to pierce iron armor. If it's just you and your skin, there is not much to be done."

David gaped at Coby, who held up a reassuring hand to him. "Just wait. Remember what Mooi said. We will not be harmed."

"Mooi isn't here," David pointed out. "It's just you and me...and the rain of steel."

Coby nodded, his own confidence slipping down a notch. Mooi had to know where they had gone - she knew everything.

Right?

Men moet hopen, he thought. And then, "One would hope," he whispered aloud, just to cover all the bases.

David had moved closer to Coby, and now Coby threw an arm around his boyfriend's shoulders and squeezed him in what he hoped would appear to onlookers as a comradely fashion. In truth, he was both trying to reassure the other boy, and himself. This would not be the first time they had faced something dark in the name of assisting Damsko. But it would be the first time they had done it in a world other than their own.

The tavern was called The Squealing Piglet, and was noisy enough to be heard before it was seen. It was edging into late afternoon, and some of the locals had apparently started their binges early. As the boys and the darvil rounded the corner onto the street holding the tavern, a swinging door in the facade of the building burst open, and two figures were thrown out onto the cobbles. Coby caught sight of two massive hands attached to enormous forearms, one of which hands suddenly pointed at the two men laying in the street.

"And if yers comes back this night, I'll be breakin' pieces off of yers, ya pop-eyed, feelthy torm rats!" an equally huge voice roared.

With that a considerable, shaggy head leaned briefly out through the opening and launched a giant wad of spit into the street next to the two, who were now sitting up groggily.

Coby's breath went out at the height of that hairy head from the ground - at least a half meter higher than his own!

"Oh, so not good," Krange said, slowing. "Ogres. Probably in from the mines for a night on the town."

Ogres? "You mean that big guy was a..."David started to say.

"Yes," Krange interrupted. "Nasty, intolerant, and don't like gabreds, especially."

Coby saw the two men that had been thrown into the street now, as they slowly got to their feet and brushed themselves off. They were, at first glance, quite human-looking, if a bit chubby in appearance. Only when Coby focused on their faces did he feel a small shock. The two men had fangs, and their eyeballs stood out in their sockets, looking like the halves of a ping-pong ball worn as a joke at Halloween.

The two were obviously drunk, and paid no attention at all to the darvil and the two human watchers. They staggered away in unison, muttering in a slurred, guttural tongue.

"Maybe we should not go into this establishment," Krange said slowly, looking about the street. But then he shook his head. "But...it is the only place in town that serves food, unless you wish to take a room at the inn for the night?"

"No," Coby said, looking at David, who simply shrugged. "If we leave the ogres alone, maybe they will leave us alone, too."

Krange gave a chittering laugh. "What a novel idea. I am just senseless enough at the moment to go along with it to find out what happens next." He flapped a wingtip at the swinging door. "Shall we, then?"

Coby took a deep breath, and nodded. He settled the hood of his outer tunic to more shadow his face, moved forward to the doorway, and looked in through the panes of the window built into it. The glass was of poor quality, full of waves, and all he could see was a blurry rendition of a dim and smoky interior. So he pushed the door inward and stepped inside, feeling the skin at the back of his neck crawl with nervous fear as he did so.

But David was right with him, and Krange at the rear. Coby looked about the interior, could make out several dozen figures seated at various tables, and three very large ones at the bar running along the back wall. Their faces were indistinct in the murky light, although he was aware that the three of them were watched carefully as they made their way to a table against the front wall. Coby wished to stay away from the ogres - as far away as was possible. He still couldn't get over how large the men seemed inside even the sizable interior of the tavern.

They seated themselves, even Krange perching himself upon one of the rough-hewn but sturdy-looking chairs.

A dwarf female approached the table, dressed in a brightly-colored and slightly revealing dress, which had absolutely no effect on the boys, and would not have even had they been straight as a pin. Coby found the wide, compressed physical make-up of dwarfs somewhat fascinating, and with its own inherent beauty; but he had not taken even a single mental step towards considering their sexuality. Especially not with the females.

"Greetings, gents. Special today is baked boar's nose in Farbi sauce, with scallions and nurfa seeds. Brown ale, lafti greens."

Krange smacked his lips. "That sounds quite wonderful. What do you say, men?"

Coby thought it sounded less than appealing, but decided he was hungry enough even for boar's nose. David seem to agree, as he nodded just as Coby did.

"Three servings," the darvil said. "We will have the ale while we wait."

The girl flashed them a smile, nodded, and headed for the kitchen.

"You drink ale?" Coby asked Krange, somehow surprised at the idea, and wondering what it would be like to shepherd about a drunken darvil.

"Doesn't everyone? Really, you two have some odd ideas."

Coby and David smiled at each other, each thinking that they were not the only ones with 'odd ideas'.

"Greech, do yers smell somethin'?" a loud voice said then. "Smells like goat dung in here. Or rotten pig feed. Or...maybe even gabreds."

Coby let his eyes slide to the bar, where one of the three ogres there had stood erect and was looking their way. He had an enormous tankard of ale in one hand, and Coby could see a faint sway in the giant frame of the man that signaled that quite a bit of that ale had already gone down the gullet of the ugly fellow. It was difficult to see the ogre's face, framed as it was within a shaggy mane of tangled, dark hair; but Coby though he could just make out a great, bulbous nose, and large eyes that gleamed like hot coals as they moved among the three at the table.

David made an uneasy sound. "Maybe this was not such a good idea."

"We have every right to be here," Coby said, feeling irritated at the unwelcome attention. He knew that having the right to patronize the tavern was no protection whatsoever, but some stubborn element of his nature refused to acknowledge the ogre's attentions.

"In fact," the big fellow said, turning and setting his tankard on the bar with sufficient force to cause its contents to spill over the rim, "I do believe the smell is causin' me to want ta retch."

The ogre took one step towards Coby's table when the equally large fellow next to him snaked out a hand and grabbed his companion's sleeve. "Leave 'em be, Knarsh. Ol' Jorry told yers not to start no more trouble in his place. Tryin' ta get us thrown out?"

"I'm not gonna bust nothin'," the first ogre said, and then laughed. "'Cept maybe some gabred heads."

He shook off his partner's hand and started across the floor towards the three at the table. Krange sighed, and stood in his chair, watching the ogre approach.

As the giant drew up next to them Coby's nostrils were assailed by the stench of unwashed armpits, and certainly other areas that he did not even wish to consider. The ogre's clothing was stained with what looked like coal dust, and other, more mysterious blotches, some of which even resembled dried blood. The man's face, now more visible, was craggy and mean, with wide, thick lips, and a certain bluntness to the areas that might normally have signaled humor.

Coby stared up at the fellow, unable quite to fathom his size, with the ogre's broad shoulders easily as wide as Coby and David standing together, and the fellow's arms as large in girth as Coby's own thighs. The ogre was certainly scraping two and a half meters in height, and probably two hundred kilos in weight.

And yet...Coby felt a strange disassociation come over him, a coolness that seemed to belie the danger they were quite obviously facing. "If anyone in here stinks, it's you, my giant one."

Coby felt shock at that. Had he said that!?

David simply stared at him, and Krange made little, nervous-sounding chitters under his breath.

An odd tingling filled Coby's body, seeming to start in his feet and work its way up his legs. "Go away," Coby said, again calmly. "We are not bothering you."

The ogre tossed his head back and bellowed with laughter. Over at the bar, the other two ogres had stood erect and were watching the little play taking place at Coby's table. Both of them now also roared with laughter at Coby's daring. "Yers got a live one there, Knarsh!" The one named Greech called.

The ogre next to Coby suddenly leaned forward and whipped a giant hand down onto the heavy oak table top. The entire table rebounded from the floor, and a long, straight crack appeared in the top, following the grain of the wood. "You sassy little scab! I'll teach you to mouth at your betters!"

The ogre reeled back and brought the same hand up, obviously intending to swing it at Coby. David suddenly leaped to his feet and grabbed the arm, not merely arresting its motion, but bringing it to a stop with a crack from inside it which might have been the sound of a joint dislocating.

"Ow!" the giant roared, yanking his arm out of David's grasp. "Why, that hurt, ya little --" He raised his other hand and clenched it into a fist, and started it towards David's face. Alarm and anger raced through Coby in equal measure as his eyes tracked the movement in slow motion.

The tingling in Coby's legs, until then a vague bother, turned into an electric shock as energy surged upwards from his feet, causing him to stand bolt upright, his chair bouncing backwards. He threw a hand out towards the ogre, and as his fingers touched the giant's breast there was a terrific flash, and a crack like thunder.

And then the huge man was flying away from them, over top of a table at which were seated two frightened-looking dwarfs, back towards the bar from which he had come. The ogre crashed to the floorboards at the feet of his companions, raising a cloud of dust, and causing the two other ogres to drop their tankards of ale.

Coby took a huge breath, feeling the energy drain back down his legs to his boots, there to mildly prick his skin a moment before subsiding.

The tavern was completely silent. The two ogres at the bar stared down at their unconscious companion, and then let their eyes come back up to meet Coby's.

"Take him and leave," Coby said quietly. "While you still can."

David nodded, moving to stand next to Coby.

The two ogres looked at each other, and the one called Greech nodded slowly. "Times we was gettin' back to the mine," he said quietly. "Come along, Tarf. Helps me with Knarsh here."

The two ogres bent and grabbed their friend underneath the arms, and roughly pulled him to his feet. Knarsh's head lolled, and his eyes blinked, and he blubbered a moment before gasping, "What happened?"

Greech leaned closer to the other ogre's ear, probably meaning to whisper, but Coby heard him quite clearly anyway. "Ya picked on a coupla wizards, ya pure dumb buck."

Greech and Tarf started forward, pulling the semi-conscious Knarsh along between them. They gave Coby's table a wide berth, and Greech nodded at them as the trio passed. "You be havin' a fine evenin', gentlemen, and no hard feelin's 'cause of me drunken friend here, I's hope. He's a stout lad and a good worker, just not too smart when the ale's in him."

Coby simply nodded, and the three ogres passed through the swinging door and disappeared.

Coby looked at David. "What just happened?'

David simply shook his head, and pulled at his chair and sat down again. Coby grabbed his own chair, and did the same.

Around them, the silence remained, until the other patrons begin to understand that it was over, and that Coby and David had withdrawn their attentions from the room. Other patrons, who had jumped to their feet at the start of the confrontation, eased back into their seats and began to whisper together. At the bar, the barkeep went back to work, and slowly the tavern returned to life.

Coby and David simply stared at each other. It took them both a moment to realize that Krange was watching both of them, his eyes more than slightly conveying his wonder.

Coby finally looked at the darvil and smiled. "What? You've never seen anyone throw a lightning bolt?"

David started laughing then, and so did Coby. Krange stared at them a moment longer, and then started chittering away. "Oh, did you have me fooled, you two! Here I was, assuming you a pair of helpless, not-too-smart gabreds, and all along you were a potent pair of mountain wizards! When did you plan to tell me?"

Coby felt his laughter drain away, until it was just a smile. He looked at David, who shrugged, and then at the darvil. "Um...actually, we did not know."

Krange stopped his own laughter, and looked back and forth between the two boys. "You didn't know...what?" The darvil's eyes widened. "You didn't know you were wizards?"

"No," David said. "It just happened, all of a sudden. I felt this weird tingle in my feet, and then my legs, and then I just jumped up and grabbed that ogre's arm."

"You stopped him cold," Krange pointed out. "Like you had twice his strength! I could not believe my eyes!"

"Heilig schijt!" Coby said softly, shaking his head. "I saw that, David! I heard the man's joints pop, you stopped him so suddenly!"

"I didn't know it would happen," David protested. "I saw he was going to hit you, and...I just reacted." He smiled, and so did Coby.

"That is what happened to me," Coby said, recalling the incident. "The ogre went to swing at you, and I just...reacted." Coby slid his chair back now and gazed down at the boots upon his feet. Then he looked up at his boyfriend. "You said you felt a tingling in your feet? I felt the same thing!"

David also slid his chair back and examined his boots. "You think it was the shoes? Hobarti did say that people were shocked if they put their hands or feet into them."

"But not us," Coby said. "At least, not until we needed it."

Krange had been watching and listening, and now nodded. "The cobbler did say the boots were left by another gabred. Maybe that one was magical in nature, and this power is somehow now yours by virtue of you wearing the man's footgear?"

"Stranger things have happened," Coby decided.

Krange made a surprised noise at that. "Really? The pair of you must live interesting lives!"

The serving girl brought their ales then, setting a tray carefully onto the cracked tabletop and dispersing the tankards - considerably smaller than the ones the ogres had been drinking from - to each of them. She seemed slightly nervous, but offered them a game smile as she took her tray and backed away from them. "I'll have your meals shortly, kind sirs."

Coby raised his eyebrows at that, but just nodded as the girl scurried away. He looked about the dimly lit room, noting how the other patrons studiously ignored them. "They act as if the fear us," he whispered to David, who nodded slowly, looking less than pleased.

Krange leaned over the table at them. "I told you," he said in a low voice, his eyes going from one boy to the next, "that common magic is what people know here. Anyone can charm the cows into the barn at sunset." The darvil shook his head then, and looked at Coby. "Doing what you did is a talent, a gift. It is not what everyone can do." Krange looked around the room at the other patrons. "Those seated here respect that power...and fear it, at least a little."

Coby sighed. "Once we leave here, so will the memory. Let us eat, and then be off."

Krange nodded, and sat back to a perch upon his chair. He watched the two odd young men before him, and for the first time believed - truly believed - that they might really be humans. That they might not be of this world, or any other that the darvil had ever experienced. For just a moment Krange felt a strange, close kinship, an intimate association with all the myths and legends he had ever heard, stretching back until the time before he could fly well, to when his birth-parent had scolded him with tales of what could happen to an unwary hatchling if he strayed too far from the nest.

And then the darvil smiled, as much as his features allowed the action. This adventure could prove to be quite an amazing one indeed! The possibilities were endless, in the company of two that could do what these two could do. He sighed, feeling a sense of excitement as the serving girl returned with a large tray and began setting out steaming dishes before them. Yes, excitement was truly the word!

It wasn't every day that one could go questing...in the company of fairy tales!


The moon in this land was also a watcher. Coby could feel it, feel its attention upon them, as they walked down a road painted in the milky light from above. Not only was this moon a watcher, but it was also a friendly one. Whenever Coby turned to gaze up at the shining orb, he felt a sense of ease, a restoration of confidence. Here they were, strangers in a strange land, probably heading into the mouth of the lion, and Coby's nerves were a-jangle at the prospect of what might come. Yet the moon watched, and it comforted, and it lit the way for them. Coby understood now the respect that Mooi seemed to hold for the earth's companion in her travels about the sun.

We go, together always, into whatever may come.

The road was hard with dry ruts, and would have been quite unmanageable in true darkness. Despite the hour, neither Coby nor David were tired. They had come right from bed at just after dawn in their own world into late afternoon in this one, and so had not yet racked up enough waking hours to require more sleep. Coby marveled at how much they had accomplished in just a half-dozen hours since coming to this place beyond the glowing door.

Coby carried their pack, assembled with ideas from Krange on what they might need to gain entry to the castle. There were all manner of things inside, some of which Coby could imagine no use for. But he and David had bowed to the darvil's wishes, especially as Krange was the one paying for the supplies.

"I thought I saw a light up ahead," David said in a whisper, moving closer to Coby.

"Undoubtedly you did," Krange whispered, flapping his wings. "The castle of Orm is just through this stand of trees. We must be silent now, for there will be a watch posted. And best we leave the road, and go through those trees to the left."

The darvil led the way, flying just ahead and then settling to the ground to wait as the boys caught up. Once they entered the trees, Krange had to walk as best as he could manage, and soon they were creeping through the underbrush, stepping lightly in an effort to keep silent their approach.

Coby could see lights ahead - the flickering lights of torches and lanterns. Soon only a small screen of low underbrush stood between them and Orm castle, and Coby and David settled to a crouch to peer ahead.

The castle stood in the open, upon a small rise surrounded by trees. For some reason - perhaps because kabouters were small in stature - Coby had expected a small castle as well. But Orm was a great, rambling structure, replete with a high, crenellated outer wall that completely encircled the tall, somewhat brooding form of the keep within, which itself was adorned with slender towers at the corners and graceful air bridges between them. Lights issued forth from the tall, narrow windows set high in the walls of the keep, while torches lit the barbican and gate. There was a bit of storybook to the look of it, no doubt about it.

And, there was no moat, for which Coby was grateful. He had no desire to swim such untested depths, even in the moonlight.

"How will we get inside?" David asked, shaking his head.

"Oh, I will help with that," Krange whispered. "I will fly to the top of the wall and lower the rope we brought along. Then you two can climb up."

Coby stared at the wall. It was every bit of ten meters in height, if not more. But...what other option did they have?

His eyes picked out the forms of guards then, moving slowly about the battlements at the top of the wall. "What about them?"

"I have already paced them," Krange said. "There will be sufficient time to climb the wall and drop down the other side in between rounds. If we hurry, that is."

David put a hand onto Coby's shoulder and gave him a brief squeeze. "So let us hurry."

Coby set down the pack and removed the rope from within. It was larger in diameter than anything they might have used back home, owing to its natural fiber weave. So it was bulky, and heavy, and had comprised most of the weight of the pack. The positive aspect was that the rope's diameter would give them something to hold onto in their climb.

"Make certain the coil is free to unwind," Krange instructed, "and then let us go to the wall."

Coby nodded, pulled the coiled rope up onto his shoulder, and handed the pack to David. Krange, whose night vision seemed to be excellent, watched the wall, and then indicated when it was safe for the boys to approach.

They stepped out of the underbrush and started across the field. Fortunately, the grasses had been kept down, no doubt to provide a clean line-of-sight to anyone approaching the perimeter of the castle. This factor worked in the boy's favor, and they were soon standing at the base of the wall.

"A moment," Krange said, cocking an ear towards the battlements above them.

"What if there are magical warnings placed about this castle?" David asked, in a whisper.

"Then we are caught," Krange said simply. "Give me the end of the rope and lay the coil on the ground."

Coby did as he was instructed.

"When the rope stops unwinding, grasp it. When it is fast I will pull three times." Coby nodded.

The darvil seemed to listen a moment longer, then took off with a soft whoosh and quickly soared up the face of the wall. The rope unwound silently, and then stopped. Coby took it in his fingers gently, feeling the rough weave and wishing now that they had gloves of some kind. Climbing such a rough line would not be easy on the hands.

The rope moved back and forth slowly as Krange made it fast, and then jerked three times.

"Go," Coby said, holding down the base of the rope. David nodded, grimaced, and grabbed the line and started upwards. Coby watched as his boyfriend quickly progressed up the rope, and grinned at his athletic prowess. Not that that was unexpected!

It took the boy a minute to make the ascent, and then the line pulled three more times in Coby's hands. Coby immediately scrambled upwards, no slouch at the job himself. As he neared the top of the wall the line was tight enough that he was able to put his feet out and walk up the rough stone; and then David was there, leaned over the wall, helping him up onto the battlement.

"This is taking longer than I imagined," Krange said tightly. "Quickly. Unloop the line from about that parapet and place it over that one on the interior side. And then down you go, and quickly!"

David hauled the rope upwards while Coby worked the loop up off the stone battlement of the exterior wall and then transferred it to one on the inside wall. David threw the rope over, grasped it, and immediately started down.

"Follow him!" Krange said. "You do not have time for him to reach the ground."

"The rope --"Coby began.

"--will hold both of you," the darvil interrupted. "Go!"

Coby swallowed hard, grasped the rope, and climbed over the battlement. He could feel the flexing of the rope under David's weight, and hoped that the addition of his own would not overtax the thing.

But as he started downward the rope seemed firm, and Coby made good time. It was much faster going down than coming up, and Coby had to be careful not to let the rope burn his hands.

His feet touched ground, and David was there to grasp him and pull him into shadows. It seemed they'd no sooner concealed themselves then there was a soft, fluttery sound in the air, and then the rope came down and slapped the ground near them. But the sound was not loud, and was blended with faint animal sounds from a nearby barn.

A moment later they heard another flutter, and then Krange settled to earth next to them and moved into the shadows. "Shh!"

The boys froze, looking upwards, and tried to make themselves smaller in the darkness. Above them, outlined against starlight and set aglow by the moon, the top of the wall was easy to see. Briefly, there was motion, and something round appeared in the outline of the battlement. Coby took a soft breath, realizing that it was the head of a guard, obviously looking downward. He must have heard or seen something, to have had his curiosity provoked.

But they made no move, and in a moment the head pulled back and was gone. Krange, whose hearing was also now obviously far better than the boys, gave a soft sigh and relaxed. "He has moved on."

Coby turned and surveyed the keep, which looked even taller up close. The first windows were also quite high off the ground, perhaps five meters. The only entry to the place seemed to be to the front, and was well lit by torchlight, in which clustered several guards.

Coby surveyed the windows again. All were slightly inset into the wall of keep, and had sloping ledges before them, so that the rain would run off. Most were dark, although a few shone with lamplight from within, and...Coby stared. One window cast an odd, reddish glow, as if the light from within was filtered somehow through something of that very suspicious color. The more Coby looked at that window, the more he felt certain that it was red for a reason.

"The one window," David whispered then, "that shows red. Something tells me that there is where we wish to go."

Coby grinned in the shadows, leaned over and hastily kissed David on the cheek. Krange, who was eying the castle, missed the act, and only turned when David gave a soft laugh. "You, too?"

"Yes," Coby agreed. "The more I look the more certain I am that Angie is there."

"Some bit of magic, perhaps?" David asked softly.

"Ja. It is a signaal, I think."

The darvil made a soft sound of impatience. "If you think I should look at that window, I will look at that window. Be silent here until I return."

Krange cocked his head about, listening, peered around into all the nearby shadows, and then took a step, gave a small hop, and was airborne. The darvil's wings made a minimum of noise as he soared up towards the suspect window, briefly circled before it, and then came down softly on the ledge outside. They could see the darvil place his face close to the glass, as if peering within.

A moment later he was off again, simply leaning backwards and plunging off the ledge, to glide to a landing in front of them. The darvil folded in his wings and hastily stepped back into the shadows with them.

"You continue to amaze me, humans. There is one like you within, although the view is not clear. There is something before the window, like a linen woven in red. But it is sheer enough that I could see the one in question. This person is seated on the bed, with its head in its hands."

"Was it a girl?" David asked.

"I do not know." Krange made a small irritated sound. "It looked much as you do, except for quite a bit more hair on its head."

Coby grinned. "Kind of wild looking?"

"Yes."

"Sounds like our girl to me." Coby frowned then. "Now to get up there to her. I don't suppose there was anywhere to tie the rope?"

"There is." Krange nodded. "The standard iron loop is there, for a fire rope."

Coby and David looked at each other. "Fire rope?" David repeated, questioningly.

They could see the darvil peering at them in the shadows. "Do not your keeps ever catch fire? There must be a way for those within to escape should the interior passages become unnavigable. Ropes with iron hooks at the ends are kept in a wooden chest beneath each window."

"Oh, sure," David said, sounding slightly annoyed. "For when our keeps catch fire. Certainly."

Coby stifled a laugh, and gently poked his boyfriend in the ribs with his elbow. "Patience, mijn lieve."

"I will take the rope and attach it," Krange said. "And then one of you can climb up and tap upon the window."

"We'll both go," David said. "Krange, you can look out for us."

"Very well. Give me the rope."

Coby looked about, then stepped out of the shadows and grabbed up the end of the rope. Once again he gazed up at the red window, and then forced his eyes into the shadows beneath it, looking for any possible obstacles. The last thing they needed was for the rope to catch on something while the darvil was in flight with it.

But there seemed to be nothing there. Coby stepped back to Krange and handed him the end of the rope. "Be careful. We can ill afford to lose you."

The darvil peered at him a moment. "What a sweet thing to say, Coby. I will be careful."

David gave out a soft snicker as Coby stepped back to his boyfriend's side. Coby smiled, but refused to encourage him.

Again Krange launched himself into the sky, once more to land on the ledge outside the red window. He paused there for what seemed a small eternity to Coby; and then the darvil had launched himself from the ledge and was coming back down. Coby breathed a sigh of relief as Krange reentered the shadows with them. "Ready to go."

It was then they heard a sound from the front of the castle, and saw several of the kabouter guards light torches. The boys and the darvil crouched down within their pocket of shadow, watching as the great latticed gate within the barbican suddenly groaned and started upwards. The guards with the torches walked that way, and stood in a line on each side of the entry as two large carriages came through the gate and circled before the keep.

"What's this?" David wondered in a whisper. "Someone is arriving, I think."

Coby nodded, watching, as a guard went to the door of each carriage and opened it, and saluted to the occupants. They could hear a brief exchange of voices, and the guards nodded and stepped back.

Kabouters began to emerge from the carriages, a number of them, all dressed in rather regal fashion. At least, to Coby's eyes, there was a sense of money and power to these arrivals, if such notions could be transferred over from the human world and applied to such as these. The kabouters carried a sense of authority about them, and the attitude of the guards - their servility - seemed to bolster this impression.

Someone important in the kabouter world was arriving.

In all, at least a dozen of the slight men emerged from the two carriages. They formed a single group then, and two guards with torches led them away, out of sight, obviously to the entry of the keep.

"Something tells me we should hurry," Coby whispered.

They looked about; but all of the guards now seemed occupied with the carriages and their drivers. Coby patted David on the shoulder, and then stepped out of the shadows and walked calmly to the wall of the keep beneath the red window. He sensed David just behind him all the way, and took a deep breath as they both entered into the shadow of the keep and out of the moonlight. Coby found the rope, and immediately started up while David held the end to steady it.

This second climb was easier, and Coby now thanked his physical education instruteur, Mijnheer Verhoeven, for the man's insistence that they climb ropes daily to increase upper body strength.

Coby reached the ledge, and hauled himself up the short length of rope to the iron hook around which it was tied. He felt the rope sway, and knew that David was on his way up. There would just be room for the two of them on the ledge. He waited until the other boy appeared, and then helped him up to a perch beside him.

Coby then turned and pressed his eyes carefully to the window glass. He saw then what Krange had meant; the inside of the window was covered with something red, perhaps a linen. It was sheer, and he could see through it. The glass here was wavy with imperfections, too, but Coby could see well enough to spy Angie sitting on the edge of the bed within the room. She had her chin propped on her hands, and looked to be lost in thought.

Coby raised a hand an knocked softly on the window glass. Within, Angie immediately lifted her head and looked their way. Coby rapped again, and saw the girl rise and come towards them.

Just then, the large door set in the wall behind her opened, and two kabouters came into the room. They were dressed as guards, and one raised an arm and spoke sharply to Angie. The girl immediately turned away from the window, and nodded at the newcomers. Without so much as a backwards glance, she went to the door and went out. One kabouter immediately turned to follow her...but the other paused and gazed at the red linen over the window. Coby and David crouched down, hoping that the moonlight was not strong enough to make them visible. But then the kabouter guard shook his head, and turned and left, closing the door behind him.

Coby cursed softy, disappointment and anger flooding through him at being so close and then having victory snatched from their hands.

"We need to get inside," David said softly. "You can be upset later."

Coby gritted his teeth and nodded.

"I see no outer latch," David continued, moving his eyes over the window, squinting in the poor light.

"It opens thus," Coby said, equally softly. He took his elbow and rapped it smartly against one of the small panes of glass, which was poorly made. It immediately cracked, and most of it fell out into the room beyond. Coby laughed, stunned that it had been so easy. "A burglar's dream, surely," he commented, carefully loosening the remainder of the pane from its caulk with his fingers and dropping it into the room beyond.

He pushed an arm inside and carefully felt around the joint between the two halves of the window, found the latch, and lifted it, leaning against the join at the same moment. The window hinges groaned briefly, and then the two halves pushed inward. Coby stepped into the room, pushing aside the red linen, and David followed him. A few seconds later there was a small flutter of wings, and Krange joined them.

The darvil looked about the room, some confusion evident on his features. "Where is she?"

"Two guards came and got her just before she could open the window," David said, disappointment obvious in his voice as well. "We almost had her."

"Perhaps it is best," The darvil said. "Had those two guards walked in while you were entering the room, I'm not sure we could have escaped in the ensuing hostilities."

Coby smiled at the way Krange chose his words. He was certainly well-educated, for a darvil.

Coby glanced once more about the room, noting the low height of the furniture, and the fact that he could reach up and touch the ceiling. The room was probably grand by kabouter standards, but Coby felt it cramped, mostly due to the low ceiling. The room itself was sizable in dimension, but the sense of something just overhead kind of diluted any sense of real space.

"What do we do now?" David asked.

"Follow her," Coby said, immediately. "I am wondering now if these newcomers have something to do with the guards coming to get Angie. If we are going to rescue her, it won't do to have her taken away in a carriage surrounded by kabouters."

David nodded. "Okay, let's go."

Krange looked from one boy to the other, and they heard the darvil sigh. "Well I can only be killed once. Lead on."

Coby grinned, and made for the door to the room. It was a small door by human standards, scarcely as tall as Coby himself. He placed an ear against it, but heard nothing beyond. Taking a deep breath, he lifted the latch, and eased the door open.

Beyond was a wide hallway, lit by oil lamps along the walls. A colorful, ornate carpet runner proceeded the length of the hall, and ended at a massive stairway that led to a lower floor. The ceiling was somewhat higher than the one in the room, and gave a greater sense of space. A low, elegant chest of drawers of some kind stood against the wall across from them, resplendent with brass pulls and fittings. There were several other doors visible across the hall, all closed.

Coby eased the door open further, and stuck his head out and quickly looked both ways. The hallway was empty.

Voices wafted upwards from the stairway, one of them almost certainly Angie's. Coby pulled back into the room and eased the door shut. "They took her downstairs, I think."

David nodded, and Coby eased the door open again, checked the hall, and then stepped out. The voices continued to come up the stairs, but they did not sound like they were on the stairway itself. A faint echoey quality to the voices suggested a large open space down below.

Coby paced carefully down the hallway to the stairs. The hallway was wider than the stairs; a balustrade extended from the far wall to a carved newel post at the head of the staircase. Coby eased forward and peered downward through the balusters to the floor below.

The stairs descended to a landing, turned left, and continued downward to a great room. Tall, narrow windows admitted milky moonlight to one side, but the room's chief source of illumination came from rows of torches in holders along the walls. A long, heavy table ran down the length of the room, at which was seated at least two dozen kabouters. On one side of the table, Coby recognized the richly dressed newcomers that had arrived shortly before in the two carriages. But those kabouters seated across from them were equally well-outfitted, and Coby had the sense of a high-echelon meeting of one sort or another taking place in the room below.

At the head of the table sat another of the small folk, albeit a stout little fellow as kabouters went, with a black patch over one eye. Beside him stood another kabouter, this one dressed in a rich green robe with large, flowing sleeves. The seated man with the eyepatch had his chair turned about, away from the table, and he and the standing fellow were gazing at Angie, who stood before two armed guards who looked alert for trouble.

"I think you lie," the stout little kabouter said calmly to the girl. "I think you do know, and are concealing the answer."

"I've told you each time we've talked," Angie returned, wearily, "that I was just to carry the stone and deliver it. I was not told what it did."

The stout kabouter drummed his fingers upon the arm of the chair. "So you say. Yet we can sense the power of the stone. It is there, waiting. There must be a method to access it."

"Well, I don't know it," Angie said. "That's all I can tell you."

"Baron Tlost," said the newcomer seated at the end of the table nearest the stout kabouter. "It would seem that your methods are not productive. You have had the Stone of Armanath in your possession for a full day now, and yet you still are unable to utilize it." The fellow grinned, showing sharp little teeth, and Coby felt a small shudder creep up his back at the kind of thoughts that that grin implied. This kabouter was not one to play with.

The little man stood, and produced a wicked-looking little dagger from his belt. He pointed the sharp tip of it at Angie and smiled again. "I can make her talk, I assure you."

The stout kabouter - obviously the Baron Tlost - offered an expression of distaste. "Your methods would kill her, Morf. I know you at Tal believe that the humans should be destroyed, but that is not what we are after here. Orm believes in a better way."

The kabouter called Morf played with his dagger, watching Angie. "This one will not tell you what you wish to know, Baron. Not without a little help, I fear."

The Baron shook his head, and waved a hand at the kabouter in the green robe next to him. "Even my magician, Corst, has not been able to unravel the secrets of the stone. It carries a magic beyond what we know. A human magic."

"Pah!" Morf expelled, waving the dagger in an agitated fashion. "There is no human magic! These are barbarians, who must twist nature into machines to do the things that we gifted ones do by right!"

"There is human magic," Corst spoke up, nodding with certainty. "It is rare, but there are those that practice it, and know it well." He dove a hand into the pocket of his robe, and produced a sparkling circlet of silver dangling from a silver chain, at the center of which was mounted a fiery red stone. He held it up for all to see. "The Stone of Armanath is imbued with this magic. I sense it, can feel its power. Almost as if it is aware of me even as I hold it." He leaned towards Morf, and nodded. "Your narrow vision will be your downfall at Tal."

Morf did not like that, not at all. "You let your hirelings speaks to your guests in this manner?" he hissed at the Baron, who frowned in response.

"Corst is not a hireling," he said. "Not in the fashion that you at Tal mean, anyway. Corst is a trusted friend, and a believer in the philosophies of Orm. What he says holds merit. Your violent ways have so limited your vision that your group has been unable to grow in political power. The kabouter community at large considers you to be dangerous cranks. Even now Klaas Vaak and his council move against you."

"We were valuable enough for you to call upon us for aid!" Morf exclaimed, his eyes glittering with a small madness.

"You cannot be of assistance to us," the Baron said sadly. "Not a gifted magic user among you. We brought you here to ensure that your wild plans did not interfere with ours, is all."

The kabouters seated along that side of the table looked at each other in agitation, even as a door at the end of the room banged open and a round thirty guards raced into the room with drawn swords. They lined up quickly behind the seated rank of Tal, swords pointed, their intent quite plain that anyone getting up from their seat would go down again forever.

"Betrayal?" Morf said softly, as if he could not quite believe what he was hearing. "Against your own kind?"

Baron Tlost shook his head. "You are not our kind. Nor do your thoughts mirror those of kabouterkind. You are like dangerous animals, that must be caged so as to not harm others."

Morf moved then, his arm coming up and around in a single swift motion. The dagger flew from his hand, aimed squarely at the Baron's neck.

Corst also acted quickly, his own hand flexing and his fingers coming up. There was a brief flash along the dagger's path, and then the blade winged upward at an angle and thunked solidly into the dark wood that paneled the walls of the room.

Baron Tlost, who had scarcely flinched at the attack, looked angry now, a dangerous glint coming into his golden eyes. "Fool! It is just these sort of rash actions that have brought you the notice of the council."

Morf, scarcely subdued by his miss, nodded. "We know that the council has learned of us." He leaned over the tabletop, and grinned nastily. "Also that they know quite well of you at Orm, too."

"They know of us, but not of our plans," the Baron assured. "And tomorrow it will be too late for them to act. We will have launched our solution, and the beginning of the end to the human threat."

A cold hand descended upon Coby's heart at those words. Tomorrow! He looked over at David, who also appeared grim at the news. They had to do something!

But...what?

"I thought you said you needed the power of that stone to launch your plan." Morf said, obviously distressed now at the notion that things would soon be moving quite beyond his control.

"No," the Baron answered. "I said it would greatly enhance our project to be able to multiply our powers against those that stand against us. But our weapon is ready now. And tomorrow, it will be deployed." Tlost looked up at Corst, and the two men smiled at each other. "In two week's time," Tlost continued, "the human menace will be no more."

The Baron looked back at Morf, and sighed. "But for now...Corst?" He waved a hand at the magician.

Corst immediately raised his hands and extended them at the seated group from Tal. Several of the men jumped to their feet, and Morf himself tried to leap at the Baron. But it was too late. The air itself wavered around the visitors, and suddenly they were enclosed within a glowing cylinder of air. The guards behind the chairs stepped back as the cylinder contracted around the Tal sect, and then began to grow smaller, compressing those inside together, chairs and all. The cylinder changed shape, became a slightly glowing sphere, against the inside of which pressed the faces of the captives, contorted with fury and fear. The sphere continued to shrink, until it seemed that it was impossible that it could hold all those men and their chairs, too.

The soldiers arrayed behind Tal stood back fearfully. Even though they had seen such magic in action before, the complexities of gifted magic were beyond their understanding. And what they could not understand, they only feared.

The others of Orm, seated along the opposite side of the table, were more acquainted with complex magics, and so less fearful. But no sane man can watch the life being squeezed from others without feeling some discomfort, some revulsion. Orm in its entirety disavowed the use of violence to achieve its aims; and while such violence was occasionally found to be necessary, it was never accepted easily. Those kabouters were pressed back in their chairs, their expressions showing their discomfort, their eyes squinted down to shade their troubled thoughts.

Yet none moved to stop Corst, nor the Baron. None moved to intervene. None said a word in protest.

Coby's eyes went to Angie, who had been watching the events with no expression up to that point, but who now looked horrified at the tangle of bodies within the sphere, and the contorted faces staring outwards. She shrank back, away from the sphere, pushing her guards, until they tapped her with the tips of their swords to keep her from retreating even further. The girl stopped, her eyes locked upon the scene before her.

Baron Tlost rose from his chair, and walked around the table to the great sphere. He gazed within, shook his head, and turned back to look at Corst. "I need Morf."

Corst nodded, moved his hands, and the sphere turned slowly, until the face of the leader of Tal came into view. Baron Tlost nodded, stepped forward some more, and lowered his face until it was just opposite the contorted features of the other. "You can hear me, I know."

"There will be vengeance...for this," Morf managed to get out.

"No, there will not." Tlost shook his head. "Not from you, anyway. You are done."

The Baron reached inside his cloak and produced a small sphere, about seven centimeters in diameter. It fit neatly into the palm of his hand, and glowed with an inner light. Coby squinted and leaned slightly forward, staring at the compact orb. It reminded him of a small snow globe that had been shaken, except that this one held microscopic fireflies instead of snow. Within the orb, a tiny cloud of lights swirled and eddied, pulsing in a manner that was both charming and somehow deadly. Coby was certain at that moment that the lights within the sphere were somehow alive, and that, should they be released, the consequences would in some way be fateful.

For the world.

The Baron smiled, watching the way Morf's eyes followed the glowing contents of the orb. "Beautiful, is it not? Beautiful...and deadly."

"That is it?" Morf croaked, the lights in his own eyes fading rapidly. "That is the Plague of Oblivion?"

"Yes. The solution to an old problem, now within my hand."

"You will not be able to use it," Morf said with certainty, his voice now down to a whisper. "There are those that will stop you, even now coming near."

The Baron looked over at Corst, who shrugged. "The ravings of a dying man. Their air should just about be gone now."

Tlost nodded, and turned back to the sphere containing the men of Tal. He frowned. "Such a senseless loss. Tragic, in some ways. But...there are none so blind as those who will not see."

Corst laughed. "Quoting human wisdom?"

"Some of what they say has merit." The Baron surveyed the tiny globe in his hand a final time, and then returned it to within his cloak. Then he leaned closer to the large globe containing Morf and the members of Tal, and shook his head. "They breathe no more. Time to dispose of this mess, I think."

Corst nodded, and waved a hand. The big globe started to contract again, growing smaller and smaller. Faint snapping noises came from within, as furniture and bone alike were compressed to dust. Finally, the sphere was the size of a soccer ball, and then smaller...and then was gone.

"A waste of very fine chairs," the Baron said, a bit testily. He returned and sat himself down, and smiled at Angie. "Now...where were we?"

The look on the girl's face was one of horror. "Even if you squeeze me down to the size of a marble, I cannot tell you what I do not know."

"I know not this marble you speak of, but I infer from your words that it is a tiny thing, indeed." Tlost shook his head. "I do not intend for you what became of the men of Tal. You have none of the ills within you that that lot possessed."

"You murdered them," Angie said with certainty.

The Baron shook his head. "No. Morf and his people had been dying in small doses for years. They simply did not know it."

"Dying? Of what cause?" Angie looked as though she did not believe anything the Baron said now.

"They were dying of hate," the kabouter told her. "Hate, and more hate."

"And you don't hate?" Angie returned, sounding slightly contemptuous, despite her fear.

"No." Surprisingly, the Baron shook his head most sincerely. "I do not hate your people. I only fear their reckless attitude towards life. Both their own lives, and those of others. Such disregard must be addressed before it destroys everyone."

"What you plan is murder," Angie said. "What you plan will kill just as surely as if you used a knife at the throat of my people."

An impatient look crossed Corst's face. The magician came to stand next to the Baron. "She will never understand. What do you wish done with her?'

"Nothing." Tlost sighed. "I have no quarrel with her. I am not even certain she knows anything."

"And if she does?"

"It does not matter now. We are ready to proceed. Tomorrow we will go to the world of humans and--" he smiled, patting his cloak and the small orb within "-- offer up our gift."

What happened next could not be foreseen. Coby had leaned forward a bit more, the better to follow what was going on below. David, too, was watching, with Krange peering carefully between the bottom of the balusters. At that exact moment, the Baron turned and pointed to the top of the steps, his eyes following. "Take her back to her --"

The Baron's eyes met Coby's, and the two stared at each other for a full second.

"Corst! There!"

The kabouter magician was fast. Had Coby been on his own, he might not have ducked back quickly enough to save his life.

But as the robed kabouter's hand came up at them. Coby felt a huge surge of energy at his feet, which shot up his legs and through his torso so quickly that he yelled in alarm. His hands came up of their own accord, and the air before the three of them flashed into a wall of crystal just in time to intercept the hundreds of steel slivers that fired up from below like shotgun blasts.

Coby felt his arms quiver at the impact, although surely the force was somehow mitigated by the shield now before them, for even such tiny needles of steel as were these projectiles carried an awesome force of motion in their hundreds.

Coby's eyes returned to the floor below, staring through the crystal shield at the Baron and his magician. Both men wore expressions of shock as they observed the mass of needles suspended in the air, backed by the faint glow of the crystalline shield.

David suddenly leaned forward and shot out a fist. It impacted against the shield with a tremendous crack; and suddenly those hundreds of steel slivers were winging their way back at the room below.

Corst grabbed the Baron and pulled him close, his other hand spinning wildly in the air before them. The flight of steel suddenly parted cleanly just two meters before them, the needles deflected around the men to impact the floor, the chairs, the tabletop...and several of the kabouters seated at the end of the table. The sound was incredible, as splinters of wood went flying everywhere.

To their credit, Angie's two guards had hauled her back to the base of the stairs, out of harm's way. The Orm side of the great table now erupted into motion as those who had survived the initial exchange pushed their chairs back and jumped to their feet, most of them running for the door into the downstairs hall. A few others dived beneath the table itself, or found refuge behind the great chest of drawers to one side of the room.

A strange silence descended upon the room as the two parties stared at each other.

"No one move," Coby heard himself say into the vacuum. His voice sounded strong and forceful - one to be reckoned with.

The Baron and Corst looked at each other. Coby could see the magician's eyes briefly widen in an admission that he had no idea who the newcomers might be.

"Who are you?" Baron Tlost said, regaining some of his bravado. "How dare you invade my home and hearth!"

Coby realized then that his hood hid his face, and that the Kabouters could not see him. He raised a hand and peeled it back.

"Humans!" The Baron hissed, disbelief plain in his voice.

"Human magicians," Corst corrected, just after.

"We have come for the girl," Coby said then, his voice quiet. "Send her up to us."

The Baron licked his lips, and looked at Corst. "How can this be?"

The magician shrugged, never taking his eyes off of Coby. "We knew they existed, somewhere. Your actions with the girl have evidently brought them to light." There was a small note of accusation there, which caused the Baron to briefly wince. But he was not ready to give in.

"They had to have seen and heard everything. They cannot be allowed to leave!"

"What would you have me do?" Corst returned, acidly. "Entertain them with fireballs? They would just as likely fling them back at us." He waved a hand at the room around them. "Will you have Orm keep burned to the ground?"

"Use the sphere, like with Tal! Crush them!" the Baron looked horrified at the idea that they might have no options left.

"They are too far," Corst said. "I was but the length of a table from all of Tal."

The Baron turned to Corst, his face furious. "You can do nothing? Nothing at all?"

The magician laughed. "I would give them what they want, Baron."

Tlost's eyes came back up to gaze at Coby, who stared back calmly, filled now with a certainty that Mooi was somehow with them, and would not let them down. Coby's feet and legs vibrated with a strange energy, which filled his entire body with a quick assurance that force would be met with force, whatever occurred next.

"Coby, I feel very odd," David whispered, moving closer. "Like nothing can harm me - nothing at all."

Coby simply nodded, not taking his gaze away from Corst's. That it would be this easy seemed wrong, somehow. Surely the kabouters were better than this.

But the Baron gave out a sharp sound of disgust, and turned to the two guards. "Let her go." He pointed at Angie. "You. Go to them."

Angie, whose eyes had widened as Coby dropped his hood, and had stayed widened thereafter, suddenly came to life and bounded up the stairs to the landing. As she made the turn to start up the second flight, Coby briefly let his eyes move to watch her.

He caught Corst's motion out of the corner of his eye, just as David grabbed both him and Krange and jumped backwards, hauling both boy and darvil away from the balustrade with amazing speed. In his mind's eye Coby saw Angie on the steps, briefly frozen, and he threw out a hand and felt something leave his fingertips. And then he and David and Krange hit the carpeted floor just as a tremendous explosion washed over them.

Coby yelled in fright, as it felt as if the world was disintegrating around him. Bits of furniture and stair railing and other less definable things raced past them, somehow deflected to a height just above their prone forms. Coby felt as if he was glued to the floor alongside David, with the darvil just beyond. The force of the explosion seemed to carry a life of its own, and to Coby's hyperextended senses, go on and on. Yet both its violence and the sound of it were somehow muted, feeling as if a gentle spring breeze were washing over them. Only the sense that they were living in the interval between seconds seem to go on.

But surely the explosion was brief in length. It ended just as quickly, with an echo of sound that seemed strangely elongated, and then faded to imitations of itself before going away altogether.

David moved then, raising up and leaning anxiously over Coby. "Are you all right, my love?"

Coby opened his eyes and smiled. "Yes. Thanks to you." He sat up and looked over his boyfriend at the darvil. "What of our friend?"

Krange managed to lever himself to his feet, and made small chittering noises as he patted himself down wherever he could reach. "That was pretty thrilling, I'd say! You gents sure know how to have fun!"

Coby grinned, amazed that the darvil had taken everything that had happened so easily in stride.

"Angie," David said then, his face grim.

Coby gasped, and got to his feet.

The head of the stairway was gone. So was the flight of steps up to the landing, and the flight from the landing to the second floor. All that remained was a smoking, charred gash in the internal structure of the keep. The room below was a shambles, and Coby could see the lifeless forms of several kabouters beside the overturned remains of the great table.

But of the Baron Tlost, and Corst, there was no trace.

The stairway landing was also gone...except for the very back corner, where the two walls met. Crouched there, and surrounded by the crystalline shield, sat Angie, looking dazed, but unhurt.

Coby remembered then the strange force he had felt flowing from his fingertips even as David had dragged him down. Mooi had not forsaken them, even in the dire second at the flash of doom.

Coby waved at the girl to get her attention. Her eyes came up, unfocused, until something in her mind suddenly recognized what it was that she was seeing.

"I thought you were dead."

Coby patted himself, grinning. "I do not think so." He grinned at David, who came to stand beside him. "Do I look like a spook, mijn lieve?"

"Not to me," David returned, his eyes sparkling with delight. "But then I am biased, and partial to the way you look."

Angie laughed, just a little raggedly. "What's this thing around me?"

"Oh." Coby automatically raised a hand, as this seemed to be the required gesture to make magic work. He felt the tingling in his boots again, much smaller this time, and then a corresponding tingle in his fingertips. The crystalline shield about Angie winked, and then faded from view.

She shook her head, put a hand on each wall of the corner, and pushed herself to her feet.

"Can you get down from there?" Coby called.

Angie stepped forward and peered over the charred edge of the landing. She suddenly pulled back, all the way to the corner. "No. The floor below is gone. I can see down into the basement of this dump."

David whistled. "Quite a poke that guy took at us." He looked around the room below. "You think they were killed in the blast?"

Coby shook his head. "Not for a second. I think Corst spirited his boss and himself away from here just before." He smiled at his boyfriend again. "I took my eyes off them a second to see how Angie was doing. Had you not been looking, I would be dead now, I am sure. Thank you, mijn lieve."

David shook his head. "Thank these weird boots. I felt lightning come up my legs, and then I was moving. It was like my brain was along for the ride. I'm sure I couldn't do that again in a million years."

"Let us hope that you can," Coby said emphatically. "For this is not over yet." He turned back to Angie. "We will get you across."

Krange spoke up then. "We can use the rope. I can fly it over to her, or something."

Coby looked up at the ceiling, surveying the damage above, and nodded. "I think we can mange something."

"What's that next to you?" Angie suddenly called across the way.

Coby looked around, before he realized that the girl was talking about Krange. He laughed, and turned the darvil towards the girl. "This is our good friend, Krange. Krange, this is our good friend, Angie."

The darvil gave a little bow. "I am pleased to find you still around to be saved, young maiden."

Angie looked surprised, but followed up immediately with a grin. "Maiden? Oh, I like this Krange. Pleased to meet you!"

Coby and David grinned at each other, and shook their heads.

They went back to Angie's room and retrieved the rope, and brought it back to the stairs. Some of the ceiling panels, and the boards of the next floor above the stairway, had also been blown out, leaving charred but still serviceable joists in place. Krange flew up and passed the rope over one, and they had Angie grab the end and tie it about her waist. Then they pulled her up to the level of the second floor and reeled her in. David caught her and pulled her away from the edge, and Angie sank to a crosslegged position on the blackened carpet and sighed. "Boy, I'm tired. Who'd have thought that such little guys could be so draining?"

Coby frowned. "Did they mistreat you?"

"No. The Baron was actually very nice. They came back to get me because they couldn't make the stone work. I was dead asleep on the couch when they woke me." She grinned. "Took a mess of them to take me."

"Wildcat," Coby said, smiling. He sighed. "I'm glad you are okay. We have been worried about you."

"I wasn't really scared. Like I said, the Baron and his people were very decent to me. Well...except that Corst. I got the impression a few times that he'd like to pull out a few fingernails to make me talk."

Angie's eyes narrowed then, and she crossed her arms. "I'm mad at you two."

Coby looked at David, who looked amazed. "We're sorry," David said. "We had no idea they'd come back for you."

Angie shook her head. "Not that. You guys told me you were jager, um, spirit hunters. Not that you were a couple of sorcerers or something."

Coby and David looked at each other again, and both boys started laughing.

"What?" Angie said, looking indignant. "Tell me that wasn't the two of you, throwing little metal darts around, and using force fields and everything."

The boys laughed some more, until Angie reached out and slapped Coby's wrist. "I'm serious!"

Coby nodded. "I know. We are not being mean. It is just...we are not sorcerers."

Angie didn't look like she believed them."Okay. Maybe that's the wrong word. But you sure gave old Corst back a thing or three...hundred." The girl laughed now. "You should have seen the look on his face when all those metal doodads came flying back at him and the Baron. It was priceless!"

"It was Mooi," Coby said. "She is somehow working through us."

"Mooi!" Angie at first looked unconvinced, and then like she didn't want to believe that the city spirit was the one behind the magic. "Aw. That's not nearly as much fun as two cute guys who can do magic!"

Krange chittered. "I am not sure what I am hearing. The three of you are wonderfully fascinating." The darvil looked at Coby. "Who is this Mooi?"

Coby decided it was not the time to explain such things. "I think that will have to wait for later." He looked back at the charred end of the hallway. Noises were coming from below now, and Coby suspected that the guards had screwed up enough courage to come and see what had happened to their bosses. It would not pay to stick around for another confrontation.

David heard the sounds, too. "I'll bet this whole place is on high alert now. It's going to be hard to go back over that wall."

Coby nodded. "Let us leave the hallway, at least. Angie's room will be a good place to make some plans."

They retreated to the room where Angie had been locked away, and closed and bolted the door. David went to the window and looked out just as a horn sounded somewhere outside. "Uh oh. The place looks like somebody kicked over an anthill. The little guys are running everywhere."

Krange shook his head. "If I were master of security here, I would begin a systematic search of the keep, to look for survivors, and to see if the enemy was still about."

Coby agreed. "Going over the wall now will be impossible." He grinned at the darvil. "You sure are up on many things, my friend."

The darvil looked pleased with himself. "I take notice of the things I see and hear. Too many do not."

David came back to stand by Coby. "We can't stay here. We'll be caught."

Coby considered that. "Maybe. Maybe not. The guards are opgewonden - stirred up. Perhaps we can stir them up even more, and use the confusion to make our escape."

Until now, the magic that Coby had used had come on its own, in defense against attacks by others. But...magic was magic, was it not? It seemed a shame to be even a funnel for Mooi's powers, and not be able to call upon it when needed. What would happen if Coby simply asked for something to be done? Would the magic respond, and do his bidding?

He looked over at the door to the hallway, which they had bolted. What if he wished the door open, but did not care to walk to it and throw the bolt? In his mind, he pictured that happening...the door suddenly straining against the bolt...pulling inward with irresistible force...the metal of the latch stretching, and then groaning...and then shrieking as it parted...

Nothing happened.

Coby frowned. Something was missing...oh! The hand! One must wave the hand, or point, or in some other fashion symbolize the call for magic...

Coby raised a hand and pointed a finger at the door.

"What are you doing?" David asked, coming to stand alongside him. Angie came closer, too.

"An experiment. Just be silent and watch for a moment, all of you."

Again, Coby imagined the door straining against the bolt...pulling inward with irresistible force...the metal of the latch stretching, and then groaning...

Coby felt a tingling sensation within his feet, and the door suddenly rattled in its frame.

"They're here!" David hissed, placing a hand on Coby's shoulder.

"No, they are not. It's me, mijn lieve. Just watch."

Coby waved the finger slowly, went on imagining...the metal of the latch stretching, and then groaning...

The door seemed to bow in the middle, and press towards them.

...and then shrieking as it parted...

There was a horrendous screech of tearing metal, and the door flew open and crashed back into the wall.

Coby laughed out loud. "It worked!"

David was at him immediately, asking for an explanation, and Coby told him what he had done.

"Surely, it wasn't that simple!" his boyfriend said, staring at him.

Coby took the same finger he had just waved at the door and swiftly crossed himself. "Swear. Try it."

Angie stepped back and looked at Krange. "Can I call 'em, or what?" she whispered. "That sure looked like sorcery to me!"

The darvil extended a small hand and scratched his chin. "I am not magical, really, so do not know. But this is certainly the most fun that I have had in decades."

David went to the door and looked both ways down the hall. "It's clear, for the moment." He turned back to Coby. "What have you got in mind?"

Coby grinned. "Let me ask you this: what creature could spit fire all over the great hall like that and cause such a ruckus?"

David rolled his eyes. "You've got to be kidding!"

"I am not, mijn lieve."

David smiled, and turned to look at Krange.

The darvil seemed taken aback. "What? I cannot breathe fire!"

Coby laughed, and looked over at David. "Can you imagine him about ten times larger?"

David grinned. "He'd seem quite ferocious!"

Krange made a small sound of surprise and took a step away from Coby. "No thank you! I like my current size!"

"Not you," Coby said, shaking his head. "A replica of you. But much larger, and able to spit fire."

"I am not a dragon," Krange pointed out. "They will not be fooled."

Coby crossed his arms. "Are dragons so common that every soldier has seen one? For that matter, are darvils so common that every soldier has seen one?"

Krange opened his mouth, and then shut it. He sighed. "You make a good point. But if I may suggest, you start with my image, and then change a few things. Make the flesh more purple, the snout longer, the ears bigger, and the teeth much sharper. Then you may have something." He gave a small chitter, and waved his barbed tail. "Don't forget the back end!"

Coby nodded. "We need to get down to the great hall." Coby went to stand by David, and peered out the door at the empty hallway. They could hear voices in other parts of the keep, but for the moment, no one was near.

Coby looked down the hall away from the disintegrated staircase. It went for some distance, and made a right turn further on. "What would you bet there are more stairs the other way?"

David nodded. "Shall we go and see?"

They emerged from the room and strode down the hall towards the turn. When they reached it, David peered around the corner. "Coast is clear."

Coby heard a small sound behind them, and turned just as Angie was helping herself to a short spear that had been decorating the wall. She hefted it, felt the tip with a thumb, and nodded. Then she noticed Coby looking. "You don't think you two are going to have all the fun, do you?" she asked. "I'm not having any more of these little folk grabbing me!"

Coby just held up his hands and smiled. "I am not saying a thing."

They progressed down the second hallway, and soon arrived at another, narrower staircase.

"Probably for the hired help," David surmised. "They have to have some way to bring up the clean pillowcases without going through the great hall."

Coby laughed, and started down the steps. "It serves our purpose, in any event."

At the bottom of the stairs was another hallway. They could smell food cooking towards the back of the keep, but as Coby gazed the other way down the hall he decided that he knew where it went. "I think this is the way the guards came into the great room behind the men of Tal."

They started forward, pausing to listen every so often. But most of the sounds they could hear seemed to come from the back of the keep or outside. Coby would have figured that the explosion in the great hall would have brought men running; but perhaps the kabouters operated to a different set of expectations than did humans. So far, this part of the keep seemed empty.

They reached a set of double doors, and Coby pushed one open and stuck his head inside to look. It was indeed the great hall, and was certainly the way the troops had come in to the room to guard the men of Tal. Some of those troops were still there, among the dozen or more casualties of the explosion that Coby could readily spy. A brief anger washed over him at the callous disregard that Corst and the Baron had shown for the lives of their people.

"Come on," he said, pushing his way into the room.

Now they could see the true devastation wrought by the explosion. The floor had been punctured in several places, the charred lengths of heavy beams showing below. The tapestries on the walls had been incinerated, and much of the furniture destroyed. Even the walls of the room showed fracture lines, and the windows were absent from their frames.

"Outer wall there," Coby said, pointing. "In the state its in, it should not take much to bring it down."

David frowned. "You want to knock the wall down?"

Coby shook his head. "No. I want you to knock the wall down. I will be busy doing something else."

David's eyes grew wider, and he stared at the wall. "I don't know if I can do that!"

"You can." Coby wrapped his hand around his boyfriend's wrist and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "I have faith in you. Just do as I told you." He grinned. "And don't forget to wave your finger."

David nodded, and looked resolute. "Say when."

"Come here, Krange." Coby waved at the darvil, who gave a pump of his wings and leaped over. Coby nodded. "Now just stand there, so I can look at you."

Krange nodded, and gave a little pose. "Like this?"

"Just look fierce," Coby said, grinning.

He closed his eyes, waved a finger, and imagined what he would need first. It must be big...a full-fledged dragon. It would be a projection, a mirage - not real. Large enough that all of them could walk about inside it, and have it go where they went. It must obviously be a dragon...but what did a real dragon look like?

He opened his eyes again and looked at Krange. The darvil was still in something of a silly, pose, obviously having fun with all of this. But it would do.

The projection must have wings, like Krange, only tremendously larger. The body would be like Krange's, only about ten times larger. And what had the darvil said about appearances? Make the flesh more purple, the snout longer, the ears bigger, and the teeth much sharper. Then you may have something.

Yes. Coby wove all of that into his imaginary creature. Now, if they were to walk about inside a projection, he needed to take precautions against those brave souls that would want to throw spears or shoot arrows at the beast. So a crystalline shield must be raised, inside the projection, between their group and those outside. And all of this must coordinate, so that it moved when the group moved, and heeded Coby's instructions.

Oh...and it had to breathe fire, too. The real kind, not a projection.

Coby grinned, feeling a stir in his boots, and then felt the faint crackle of electricity coursing up his legs. It made him tremble slightly, which just added to the excitement of the moment.

"Everyone come over by me now," Coby said, and explained what he was doing. "We must all move together. Nothing will be able to hurt us, so you must not run if danger strikes. You will be safe as long as you remain within the belly of the dragon."

The air about them sparkled, and seemed to twirl into a maelstrom with their group at the center. Coby looked upwards, and suddenly found himself with the peculiar perspective of being inside a dragon on the build. He saw the body take shape, and the wings, and the ferocious-looking head - all from the inside. For them, the dragon was slightly transparent, so that they could see out; but for all of those on the outside, the dragon would seem quite solid, quite real.

Coby found that sustaining this magic took a small degree of attention. He could still do other things, but he could not remove his focus entirely from the dragon-image, he somehow knew, or it would collapse and fade away.

There. It was done. Above them and about them now towered one of the most fearsome creatures that Coby had ever seen, from the inside or the outside. Now if he just could make it move, and keep it all together...

Briefly, he hoped that Mooi was watching, and of an inclination to assist if the need arose.

"Okay, David. Now take out the wall." Coby gave a brief laugh. "Try not take down the entire keep."

"Thanks," David said dryly, but grinned. The boy closed his eyes, and Coby could see him concentrating. David suddenly shook his head, smiled to himself, and raised a finger and waved it. "Almost forgot the important part."

Coby turned to face the outer wall of the room. It was already cracked, so maybe it would be easy to take down.

David's expression grew taut with concentration, and a minute passed. And then another. Coby was just about to ask if his boyfriend needed help when the wall before them gave a small rumble. Chunks around the large crack tore loose, and cascaded down the stone facade. There was a loud bang, as though something mighty had impacted the wall, and more mortar and stone tumbled to the floor of the keep.

A terrific impact struck the wall, and the crack widened perceptibly. And then another huge impact, and the wall pushed outward at the base. And then a final impact, and a great oval of wall crashed outwards and fell to the ground with a roar, sending stones and mortar in very direction.

Beyond the wall, the courtyard was alive with light and motion. The moon still cast a milky glow over the land, but now that soft light warred with the brighter glows of torches and bonfires lit to provide light for the dozens of soldiers moving about, readying the castle for war. Coby doubted that the kabouters knew what had happened inside the keep; just that it was dire, and that the entire fortress was in danger.

With the crashing down of the keep wall, those soldiers had paused, weapons raised, ready to do battle with this new threat.

Coby took David and Angie each by an arm, and moved forward through the giant hole in the side of the keep. Around them, the dragon strode purposefully forward, it's wings slightly spread, its thick legs flexing with serpentine muscle.

As the dragon stepped outside, it reared back, its mighty head going high. A fearsome bellow issued forth from the mouth full of pointed teeth, followed almost immediately by a blast of fire that lit the sky and made the bonfires look paltry by comparison. The bellow had been an afterthought by Coby, and he hadn't known quite what to expect, other than that he had imagined the sound to be quite monstrous in nature. The result far exceeded his expectations, as the vibrations could even be felt in the ground beneath his feet.

Everywhere, the soldiers froze, their faces locked in equal measures of astonishment and disbelief, gazing upwards at the horror that had just burst outward from the central keep. Coby, feeling quite theatrical now, whipped the head around so that the great, red eyes glared down upon one of the larger groups of soldiers, who had been busy readying shields and spears. Coby had the dragon bellow again, and launched a stream of fire over the heads of the soldiers, who promptly broke and ran for their lives.

"We're heading for the gate," Coby said, taking a step and drawing the others along. "Krange, can you keep up?"

The darvil gave a magnificent chitter. "Can I! I would not miss this show for all the clurbles in Broobetch!"

Coby had to grin, wondering briefly what clurbles might be, but unable to focus on the question at that particular moment. They proceeded across the ward towards the barbican, the dragon bellowing, squirting fire, and flapping its mighty wings.

A few of the soldiers they passed, brave souls indeed, paused long enough to throw spears or shoot arrows, which glanced off the crystalline shield and sailed away into the night. To any onlookers, it would just appear that the hide of the invading beast was tough and impenetrable, indeed. The dragon continued across the ward, unfazed by anything thrown at it, and those still standing and watching now broke into a hasty retreat.

Coby could see soldiers running the length of the ramparts above the castle gate, which was closed. He briefly wondered if they intended to pour burning oil on them, or perhaps offer up any of the other medieval horrors he had read about...but that seemed not to be the case. As the dragon approached the great gate it began to rise, and the message from that action seemed quite clear.

"They want us to leave!" Coby said gleefully, picking up the pace a bit so as to let the dragon move a little faster.

"Do you blame them?" David asked, his voice also full of humor. "We are the unwelcome guest at the picnic!"

By the time they reached the gate, the portcullis was all the way up. Even so, Coby had to duck the dragon's head in order to pass through the archway. No one interfered with that passage, no burning oil was dumped upon them, and they were no sooner outside then the gate crashed to earth behind them, as if its controls had been abandoned and gravity allowed to do its work. Coby had the dragon move towards the woods, but could not resist having it glance back over one mighty shoulder, and spit forth a long tongue of flame at the now closed gate, just as a reminder that taggers-along would not be welcome.

And then they were among the trees, and the castle passed from sight behind them.

"We'll keep going until we reach the little glade where we first arrived," Coby said. "Just in case anyone was foolish enough to follow."

They strode down the winding road, the moonlight passing through the form of the mighty dragon all about them, lighting the ruts beneath their feet; and finally reached the small field that had welcomed them to this world. With a sigh of regret, Coby let the dragon projection dissolve from around them. It had served them well, and Coby gave an internal thanks to the magics involved. And then they were alone in the glade, unprotected. For the moment they were once again three teens from human Earth, strangers in a strange land, having met with the ills of that land and, briefly, turned them back on their creators.

And one darvil, a new friend, and a truly good one, indeed.

Angie took her spear and thrust the point into the earth. "You guys sure know how to show a girl a good time!"

Coby laughed, and then let out a sigh, realizing now the strain that holding all of that together had placed upon his mind. Mooi made it look easy, as if warping time and space to suit her needs was merely second nature. Coby knew otherwise, and his level of respect for the city spirit moved upwards a notch.

"Now if we can just get home," David said, tiredly.

Coby looked around the field, spied the tree that Krange had been perched in when they arrived, and moved towards it. The grass was knee-high, and the moon summer bright, and so Coby nearly stepped into the glowing pool of light as he reached it. He stared at it, now knowing what it was.

"That looks like the gateway that brought us here," David said quietly, coming to stand next to Coby. David placed an arm around Coby, drawing him closer. "That means we can go home."

Angie also came to stand with them, and Krange, too. "This is where you two came in," the darvil said. "Don't tell me you're leaving on me, right in the middle of all the fun!"

"I'm afraid we must," Coby said, turning and squatting down before the darvil. "We still have to find a way to stop Baron Tlost and Corst from loosing the Plague of Oblivion on my people."

"You'll need help with that," Krange said, sounding hopeful.

David squatted next to Coby, and both boys placed a hand on the darvil. "We'll miss you," Coby said fondly. "You have been a wonderful friend."

Krange gave out a pitiful sigh. "Aw...that's not fair. I don't even get to see how this thing ends? Come on, don't do this. Let me come with you."

Coby shook his head. "You cannot."

The darvil's face screwed up into an unhappy expression. "Why not?"

"Well," Coby began...and then stopped. He turned and looked at David. "Uh...why not?"

David frowned. "Um...I don't know." He suddenly smiled. "Why can't Krange come with us?"

Coby gave a small laugh "How would he get back? I cannot just tell Uncle Geroit that he now has a permanent border from the kabouter world living under the bed in my room."

David shrugged. "Mooi could send him home, I'm sure."

"We don't know that," Coby pointed out.

Angie patted each of them on the shoulder. "Look you two, this is easy. If your city spirit doesn't want Krange to come with you, he will not be able to cross over. Why don't you let the magic decide?"

Coby grinned. "I knew there was a reason I liked you."

Angie rolled her eyes, but could not hide her smile. "So let's just go, and see what happens, huh?" She gave a small shudder. "If I never see this place again, it will be too soon."

Coby nodded. But before rising, he leaned forward and gave the darvil a hug. "Just in case, my friend."

The boys got to their feet. "Join hands?" Coby asked.

They did, with Krange extending his and placing one within Angie's hand, and the other within David's. Coby grasped David's other hand, and took a deep breath.

"On my mark," he said, "we all step into the gate at once."

He counted down, three, two, one, and all of them stepped forward into the light.

Again the vortex sprang up around them, a tornado of tiny lights that briefly dazzled Coby's eyes; and then they were stepping out into the living room of Coby's flat.

For just a moment Coby felt disoriented, and blinked his eyes. And then he leaned forward and looked past David, and smiled.

Krange was looking around in obvious delight at the unfamiliar surroundings. David and Angie both had big smiles on their faces.

"Welcome to Earth," David said, giving the darvil's hand a brief shake before releasing it.

Krange made a small, gleeful sound and bobbed his head, giving his wings a small flap in the process. "Nice place you got. You can show me around later. But for now..." He rubbed his belly. "What's to eat around here? All this hopping back and forth between worlds is enough to starve a poor darvil to death!"


It was evening again in their own world, and now Coby and David were tired. After fixing a meal for the four of them, which exhausted the kitchen's meager supply of meats, they sat down in the living room to talk. The glow upon the floorboards by the window was gone, and so then was the gate which it had symbolized. Coby had decided that Mooi had dispensed with it as no longer needed, and was glad to know that they did not have to return to the kabouter world.

That the doorway was also now closed for the darvil was something he tried not to consider. Surely, Mooi would have an answer for that, when needed.

Uncle Geroit had come in as they were finishing their meal, smiling at the teens - and then looking shocked when he had seen the darvil. Coby quickly explained that they were assisting Mooi in a new project, and that Krange was both friendly and intelligent, and after the darvil had waved a wingtip at the man and said hello, Uncle Geroit had come to sit in a chair and talk with them.

The teens took turns explaining their recent adventures, while Uncle Geroit listened in amazement. But the man was already aware that Mooi existed, and that there was much more to the world than he could see or hear, and so it was astonishment and worry for their safety that he offered in return, and not disbelief.

"Coby, you must be careful, son," he had said, after the story was told. "I know how important this is, but the three of you are inexperienced, and the danger in what you are doing seems extreme."

"Mooi has assured us we will not be harmed," Coby had countered, while knowing full well that his uncle was right. A true war was a thing for soldiers and weapons, and not for three young people still in school. Well...Angie was no longer in school, but even she could not be long away from the experience. The three of them were young, and scarcely warriors, and that was what Uncle Geroit meant with his words.

But Uncle Geroit had simply nodded. "I know of the spirit of our city," he said. "Most of us older people who have lived our lives here know of it, in one fashion or another." He had smiled then. "But few of us have spoken with her in person, and certainly, we have not met any of her friends."

Krange had laughed at that, his contagious chitter causing Coby and the others to smile. "I've never met the maiden myself, kind sir. But in knowing those that assist her, I have come to have great respect for her."

Uncle Geroit laughed. "Why, Coby, I see you have indeed found a good friend." The smile slipped then, and Uncle Geroit gave them a pointed look. "I would not take Krange out into the streets if I were you, however." He offered the darvil a sad look. "There is not much of an acceptance of fantastic things in our world. Krange. Not truly. Outside of the cinema or books, people seem strangely intolerant of the unknown. You would be in danger to show yourself in our world just now."

The darvil nodded. "I have been told this already, and understand. Intolerance is not limited to the human world, not at all. But I am thoughtful enough to see the differences between a land where people know of my existence, and one where they do not." He smiled in his contorted fashion. "I did not believe that Coby and David were humans, until I got to know them. So I know what it is to know of fairy tale beings, but not truly believe in them."

"One man's fairy tale is another's neighbor," Uncle Geroit said, smiling.

"Exactly. I have learned much about your kind from these three. It has been a pleasure, I can assure you." Krange chittered. "Quite fun, too."

Uncle Geroit turned and smiled fondly at Coby. "You probably could not have selected better to learn from, in my opinion."

Coby felt his cheeks redden, but smiled. "Not now, Uncle. Krange already acts as if we can walk on water."

"I do not," the darvil said defensively. "Fly over it, maybe." He chittered again.

Uncle Geroit looked at Coby. "I don't know what you plan next, but should you be sitting here, waiting? What about those two Kabouters and the plague you mentioned? Is it not their plan to release it soon?"

Coby looked helplessly at David, and then shrugged. "I really do not know what to do next, Uncle. I rather expected Mooi to have contacted us by now." He sighed. "Have you any ideas?"

"I have no place in this," Uncle Geroit said. "I cannot suggest a thing."

"We do not know where the Baron and Corst intend to use their weapon," David pointed out.

Angie cleared her throat. "I heard that pudgy Baron and his buddy talking," she said. "I got from what they said that they planned to release the plague right here in town, at a place where many people would be together."

Coby frowned. "There are many such places."

Angie nodded, and screwed up her face in thought. "Corst said...he said something odd. He said it was ironic that the first humans would become infected as the fairies danced."

Coby and David just looked at each other. "That has no meaning for me," Coby said. David shook his head to indicate that he did not understand the clue, either.

Coby sighed. But just then he caught the expression on his uncle's face, which looked thoughtful.

"Uncle? Does that mean something to you?"

Uncle Geroit frowned. "I...maybe. This afternoon I was talking to old Baltus, who comes in each day at the cafe for an espresso. He was telling me that he has tickets tomorrow evening for Het Concertgebouw. He is going to see a double program with Tweede pianoconcert in f, by Chopin, and Notenkrakersuite, by Tsjaikovski."

David blinked. "The Nutcracker? My parents took me to see that one Christmas." A sudden look of surprise came over the boy's features, and then one of excitement. "Coby! There is a piece in the second act called The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies!"

Coby nodded. "I have been to Het Concertgebouw many times, mijn lieve." His eyes narrowed. "The great hall must hold two thousand people!"

Angie sat forward in her seat. "That's a lot. But infecting them would hardly take out the world of humans."

Coby shook his head. "They said that in two weeks, the human problem would be ended." Coby looked pointedly at Angie. "Every single person interacts with several others during the course of a day. Some people meet many others. The plague would spread quickly, and each day there would be more and more infected to help the spread. People sail on ships, fly on planes, travel by train. Damsko is full of tourists, many of whom will move on after a short stay. The Royal Concert is a great draw. If the incubation period is long enough, the plague could be spread all around the earth in two week's time!"

Uncle Geroit nodded. "I agree. And people will be focused on the music, and the lights will be down. It would be easy even for two kabouters to move about inside and release something terrible among the concert-goers."

Coby felt a tingling inside of his body. He and David had changed clothes, but both of them were still wearing the soft and comfortable boots they had acquired from Hobarti the cobbler in the other world. They had no idea if the shoe's power could assist them here, in the real world; but it seemed poor judgment to ignore a possible weapon to be used in their quest to find the two rogue kabouters.

Now it seemed strange that they had not heard from Mooi. With so much going on, and of such great importance, time seemed to be of the essence. So, where was the city spirit?

"Could something have happened to Mooi?" David seemed to be reading Coby's mind.

Coby considered that. Mooi's actions were often inscrutable at best. If everything was going to the plan the city spirit knew would unfold, she might not feel a need to present herself. If Coby and David were even now following the path that had been foreseen, then the spirit might be awaiting them to act, so that some great plan could come together. There was simply no way to know.

But Coby did know that they must do something. At the least, they could cover the Royal Concert House, and see if their suspicions held merit. If Mooi had other plans for them, surely those plans would become apparent.

Coby leaned forward towards his uncle. "Is it too late to get tickets, I wonder?"

Uncle Geroit laughed, and pulled out his cell. "I can try. How many?"

"Four," Coby said. "You and the three of us, Uncle."

Uncle Geroit looked surprised, and Coby nodded. "I feel you are part of this now."

The man licked his lips, but nodded, and began entering numbers into the phone.

Krange reached over and gave Coby's shirt sleeve a tug. "What about me? I can count, and there are five of us present."

Coby laughed. "You are coming, too, my friend. But not by the front door, so you will not need a ticket. I fear you would stop the performance if you tried to enter with the crowd."

"Maybe that's what we should do," Angie suggested. "I mean, stop the performance. It would be easy enough to accomplish. Just call in a vague threat of some kind --"

"No," Coby interrupted. "It might stop the deployment of the Baron's weapon at that time, but then he would just go elsewhere to use it. And we would have no clue at all as to where or when."

The girl nodded. "Right." She shrugged. "That's if we are even right about this clue."

"It's all we've got," David pointed out. "We have to try."

Uncle Geroit had been talking on his cell. Now he stopped, and slid the phone back into his pocket. "The show was nearly sold out, but I was able to secure four tickets. The seats are on the stage, however."

Coby and David both laughed at that. "Any seats will do," Coby said. "We just want to get inside. After that...I do not know. We will have to improviseren."

David laughed at Angie's look of confusion. "He said we'd have to wing it!"

Angie rolled her eyes. "Oh, my god. And I could have skipped Amsterdam and gone on to Brussels!"

"But you did not," Coby pointed out. "Because you were needed here." He nodded, and looked around at the others. "All of us were needed here."

Uncle Geroit smiled. "Shall we make our plans?"

David laughed, and Coby grinned. "Such as we can. Now come closer and listen, my sweets, for I am about to tell you a tale..."


Uncle Geroit borrowed the small delivery van from the cafe where he worked to drive them to the concert. That way they could hide Krange in the back, at least until they reached the Concert House.

Het Concertgebouw was located off the Museum Quarter at the corner of Concertgebouwplein and Van Baerlestraat. Parking was where you could find it, and it was common for many concert-goers to walk, or take the tram, or ride their bicycles, rather than attempting to find a place to park a car. Yet they were lucky enough to find a place at the curbside on Jan Willem Brouwersstraat, just down the block behind the hall itself, and Uncle Geroit slid the van into the spot as neatly as if he had driven the vehicle every day of his life.

"We will be walking, but it will at least be quick," the man said, looking out at the quiet street. For a neighborhood so close to a large attraction like the concert hall, this one was very much unaffected by congestion. Because so many of the people that arrived at Het Concertgebouw for each performance did so by means other than driving themselves, there was seldom any major traffic spillover into the areas surrounding the great hall. These neighborhoods were just as quiet as most other city neighborhoods, as if unaware of their proximity to fame.

Even though the sun was still up, so had the moon come to watch. The sky was rose-colored, with a faint line of hazy white clouds between the haloed sun and the rising moon, and there was even the faintest sprinkle of new stars at the apex of the sky, where the universe beyond waited for the night. It was the kind of evening that portended positive magic of one sort or another, and not the doom of an entire race. As Coby and the others stepped from the van, he felt for certain that the balance of forces this night was somehow, even though unseen in their massing, building quite solidly in their favor.

There was a sound out in the world that night, a soft sound, a sound with no name. Not just the usual mix of traffic noises and people, which went along with every evening in the city. This sound, somehow so familiar and yet quite beyond putting a name to, seemed to exist just at the edge of Coby's hearing, right at his ability to sense. Yet hear it he did, and somehow, it was a very reassuring sound, indeed. It was a rich sound, a sound that carried with it a sense of life, of history, of accomplishment of all kinds. It was a sound that made him aware of the people of Damsko, everywhere about them, going about their lives, dreaming their dreams, loving their loves. It was that last part that made him think of Mooi, and all the other spirits of human cities everywhere on the planet, and he envisioned them now, massed into ranks, standing and waiting for their moment to act.

"It feels strange out here tonight," Angie said softly, as they met on the sidewalk beside the van. "Like the world is holding its breath."

Uncle Geroit nodded. "I feel it, too. A sign, perhaps, that our city spirit is near?"

"Maybe," Coby said, nodding. "Something is afoot, anyway. I had my doubts that we were even coming to the right place...but, no more. The very air here speaks of things to come."

The others simply nodded. Everyone was feeling the mysterious charge in the evening all about them.

They were early. The concert hall opened forty minutes before the performance was to begin, to give the attendees time to arrive and find their seats. Uncle Geroit had purchased their tickets by phone, and so had been given a voucher number for their seats. They had to take that number to the ticket office and claim their actual tickets in order to be allowed into the main hall. Coby had allotted time for that, and so they had planned to arrive the moment the doors opened.

Despite what Angie had overheard of the kabouter's plans, they could not bank on Baron Tlost and Corst waiting for the second act and The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies to begin before releasing The Plague of Oblivion. That that was some private joke on the part of the two kabouters seemed obvious, but that they would stick to their plan and wait on that moment in the concert could not be counted upon. Coby intended to have the hall scoped out and all of them in place when the concert began.

He turned back to the van, to where the side window was rolled halfway down. "Krange? It looks like these clouds will shortly cover the sun. As it darkens to twilight, that will be the time for you to emerge and make flight for the concert hall. Go to the roof and see if there is a way in from there. I would suggest you try not to be seen, but we cannot wait for darkness, or for the streets to be momentarily empty. When you hear the concert begin, you must immediately enter the building, even if it means dropping to the street and entering by the lobby doors."

There was movement within the van, and then a tiny chitter. "Yes. I will be there."

"You remember the music?" They had gone online and found The Nutcracker, and played the opening to the second act of the ballet for Krange until the darvil knew it by heart. He was to try to remain out of sight for the first act, so as not to cause a panic within the building. But had nothing already occurred by the time the second act music began, Krange was to find a spot on the upper level of the hall where he could see what was going on, and be prepared to act at a moment's notice. There was too much at stake for them to worry about him being seen.

This was the haziest part of their plan in construction, because they had no idea if there would be a method of entry to the hall from the roof. Krange would look for one upon arriving, and use it if it proved workable. But if not, he would simply drop to the sidewalk and come in through the front door, just like everyone else had that evening.

"I remember it. I will be there," The darvil promised.

"Geluk, allemaal," Uncle Geroit breathed, as they started for the concert hall. Good luck, all.

It only took them two minutes of walking to reach Van Baerlestraat. There the sidewalk in front of the hall was more crowded, as people met and stopped to talk. The open green across the way was also dotted with groups of people, some there to attend the concert, and others just out and about the Museumplein, enjoying the pleasant weather. In every way it seemed a typical evening, except for that small sense of large things lurking at the edge of one's awareness.

The doors to the lobby were open, and people were starting to go inside. "Let's get our tickets and look about," Coby said, totally aware that none of them had any idea where the kabouters planned to strike. Coby had brought his small camera, so that they could move about the building giving the impression that they were sightseeing. It was a common practice in the great hall, and no one would look twice at them for doing it.

They had seats in the podium noord, to the right and above and slightly behind the orchestra. They were interesting seats because they placed one right on the stage with the musicians, and had been all that had been left on such short notice. In a way it had worked out for them, because now they would be in a position to see most of the great hall's seating, including the balkons - the balconies, that graced the upper level to the sides and rear of the hall. Coby had been to the concert many times, but this would be the first time he had had such grand seating - and now he likely would not even be able to enjoy it.

Het Concertgebouw offered free drinks before each show, at the intermission, and after the show was completed. You could get wine or coffee, but Coby and his group passed, feeling the a full bladder would do nothing to sharpen their awareness of what was to come.

They claimed their tickets and found their seats, in the back row right on the aisle. To their right was the grand Maarschalkerweerd-organ, three stories tall in its beautiful, ornate wooden casing. Over 120 years old, restored and again sounding to its fullest range, it was a magnificent voice that took full advantage of the hall's near-legendary acoustical properties. The possible action here, this night, was in a way a double fist to the heart of humankind on the part of the kabouters, who had picked a place of profound beauty in which to deliver the death knell for humanity.

They must be stopped at all costs!

After checking their seats, Coby and the others circled the great hall as the orchestra tuned, treating the still only partially filled hall to bright bits and pieces of sound. People entering seemed divided between those who went straight for their seats, and those that chose to look about, so Coby and his company were not in the least conspicuous as they moved about, spying into every nook and cranny for places in which the kabouters could hide themselves.

And quickly realized that there weren't any!

The great hall was largely open space, with a minimum of complication in architecture. There was really no place within the hall itself that a kabouter could hide and remain unseen. The foyers that circled the hall on two levels were also devoid of places to hide. There were plenty of other rooms in the building - maybe the kabouters intended to wait until the concert was going to come out of hiding. They would need to enter the great hall if they wished to expose the hundreds of people there to the plague.

"Maybe they just intend to pop in at the right moment and drop the little sphere," David suggested, after they had returned to their seats to discuss the matter. The hall was filling now as the time for the concert to begin neared.

"If that is the case, we will have very little time in which to intercept them," Coby responded. He thought about it, and shook his head. "I just feel that these kabouters will too much enjoy the anticipation of their moment to simply pop in, drop the sphere, and pop out. They will want to watch their victims first, just as they did with Tal at the table in the keep."

"They sound rather nasty," Uncle Geroit put in. "I thought these Orm elves were the good ones?"

Angie gave a rough laugh. "They may think they are. I sure wouldn't call them that. Not after the way they treated those kabouters from Tal." She shook her head. "They're killers. Nothing nice about that at all."

Coby agreed, but did not add anything to the discussion. He was too concerned now that they had missed something important, and that that omission might prove their undoing later on.

The house lights went down a bit, a signal for people to find their seats. The buzz of conversation within the hall slowed, and finally dropped to a murmur as the house lights went down again. The hall was still lit, but softly, with the stage more brightly lit, and the seats where Coby and the others sat set in soft shadow.

The geleider - the conductor - appeared, gave a small nod to the orchestra, and assumed his podium. The hall quieted as the man gazed out at the main seating, and the doors to the foyer areas were closed by the ushers.

"Goede avond dames en heren, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight we bring to you two wonders of the musical world, Tweede pianoconcert in f, number 2, by Frédéric Chopin, composed at the start of his career in 1829; and Notenkrakersuite, The Nutcracker Suite, that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky extracted from his two act ballet, which debuted in 1892. This suite is performed with modifications to better embrace the spirit of the original ballet, and is performed with all of its celesta sequences intact. For that reason, we have as guest performer on the celesta, the world renowned pianist..."

Coby tuned the man out. It would be too easy to become lost in the performance, and so be sitting, doing nothing, as the axe fell upon the neck of the human race. The others also seemed nervous, clearly not listening, their eyes moving about to cover the hall.

"I wonder if Krange made it inside," David, who was seated inside Coby's aisle seat, whispered.

"I have not heard any yelling or screaming, so let us hope he did." Coby felt a nervous tic briefly twitch under one eye, as the pressure continued to build within him. Still no sign of Mooi or the city spirits, and the hour had almost arrived!

The orchestra proceeded into the Chopin piano concert. The hall resounded to the music, which was in turn soft, and then affirmative. Coby and the others watched everything, wishing that they could just get up and walk around the hall as the concert progressed. But the flashlight-toting ushers were very strict about unnecessary movements, and to have walked about en masse would have been to invite expulsion. It was well-known to Amsterdammers that the hall's acoustics were so good that any noise was a disruption, and that the doors to the hall were closed just before the performance began, and not opened again for any reason until the performance was concluded. Coby briefly smiled, wondering how many ticket-holding latecomers were stranded in the foyer or the restaurant, unable to claim their seats because the performance had already started!

Surely these rules would not keep the kabouters out. How ironic it would be if the Baron and his magician could not enter because of the rules! But it was a brief thought, not even serious in nature. The kabouters would enter with a gate, of that Coby was sure. Where and when - that was another matter.

Finally, after what seemed like ages, the Chopin presentation drew to a conclusion. On any other evening Coby would have enjoyed the concert; but tonight his nerves and their reason for being here precluded it. The lights came up, signaling pauze - intermission. The doors to the foyers opened and the audience seemed to leap to its feet and head for the champagne area to receive their free drinks. Coby and the others stood too, anxious to walk around some more and check things out.

They circled the entire hall in the foyer again, and peeked into the curtained areas, and checked the stairwells to the second level balkons.

Nothing.

Angie pulled the group of them up as they headed back to their seats. "It occurs to me that the Baron may have selected the Tchaikovsky piece for several reasons, not just because he liked the idea of the symbolism of screwing us over while the fairies danced." She pointed at the crowds, who were smiling and laughing as they returned to take their seats. "Intermission would be a perfect time to gate into this place. Most people are off getting their drinks, and the hall is noisy and distracting. And, while one glass of bubbly isn't enough to schnocker the crowd, it might make them more mellow and less attentive to the presence of little guys in pointed hats."

Coby nodded in agreement. If Tlost and Corst were to make their entry unnoticed, now would be the perfect time.

They resumed their seats. The crowd stilled, the lights went down, and The Nutcracker began. Coby tried to look everywhere at once, even as the others did the same. But their eyes settled on nothing out of the ordinary, and Coby just could not imagine where the kabouters intended to attack from. To be seen entering might cause a stampede, thus diluting the effect of their attack as many people escaped before they could be infected by the plague.

It was starting to look to Coby like the entire idea of the kabouters making an attack at the concert hall was a foolish assumption on their part. There were so many avenues from which to attack large crowds in the city - why here? Only the one small clue about the fairies dancing had brought them to this place - what if they were wrong?

Somehow, Coby just could not believe it was so. Certainly Mooi would have moved to intervene if she had seen them off on a wild goose chase.

Unless something had happened to the city spirit. Coby had faith in Mooi's powers...but he had also seen the powerful capabilities that the kabouter magician, Corst, could bring to bear. Coby could not forget the destruction at the keep, nor the callous disregard for life shown on the parts of the Baron and Corst as they made their escape.

The compilation from the first act of The Nutcracker ended, and that from the second act began. The original suite as extracted from the ballet by Tchaikovsky was only twenty minutes in length; but for the purposes of this show, additional material from the ballet's score had been included to lengthen it to concert proportions. Coby tensed as Angels began, knowing that The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies would come next.

He took a deep breath, tried to relax...and then felt something upon his arm. He turned with a start, and found Krange hunkered down in the aisle next to him, one small hand extended to Coby's forearm. Coby opened his mouth in alarm, and then closed it just as quickly, taking his other hand and tapping David's arm to make him aware. Coby stared at the darvil, finally seeing that something seemed off about him.

Krange seemed slightly nebulous, and Coby suddenly realized that he could see through the darvil. This wonder had only made its first impression when the darvil lifted his other arm from beneath his wing and turned and pointed upwards. Coby's eyes darted after, following the arm to the outstretched finger at its end...and then beyond.

Krange was pointing at the organ - the case of it, rather; the ornate and carefully wrought decorative outer covering of the organ. It rose eight meters above the stage, capped on either front corner by magnificent little domes, with a somewhat larger dome in the center. The soundpipes of the great organ, also ornate and quite beautiful, graced five arched or peaked openings in the face of the case.

The boy stared, not sure what he should be looking at, and so caught the small movement at the top of the structure as a head briefly appeared behind one of the corner domes and gazed out at the audience.

Coby's breath went out in shock. The kabouters were atop the organ case, the only place they could hide and still be in plain sight!

How they had missed that now obvious perch, Coby could not guess. The great organ seemed such an integral part of the hall, the fact that it did not go all the way to the ceiling had been lost on them.

"They're atop the organ!" Coby hissed to David, causing people ahead of them to turn and shush them.

The orchestra paused, and then started into the intro for Sugar Plum Fairies. Coby stared up at the cap of the organ, and saw a hand come out. In it was the small, glowing orb containing the Plague of Oblivion. Coby had no doubt that, dropped from that height, the orb would shatter when it hit the wooden floor below.

Coby came up out of his seat, and was aware of David leaping up just behind him. Krange seemed to evaporate from his spot, leaving behind a brief glimpse of dark wings soaring upwards. Coby hit the red carpeted stairs running, was nearly to the bottom of them when he heard a brief commotion from above. Coby leaped over the stair railing the short distance to the floor of the stage below, and looked up just as the hand seemed to spasm and draw back. But as it did so, it clipped the front edge of the casing, and lost its grip on the tiny orb of doom.

That glowing sphere suddenly dropped like a shot straight towards the hardwood floor.

But Coby and David arrived beneath it just as it reached them, and Coby caught the thing in both hands, and David clapped his own hands around Coby's to make sure that he held onto it.

Again came the sounds of a scuffle from above, and then the Baron Tlost hit the floor beside them, and rolled over onto his back, stunned. A moment later Corst tumbled down as well; but that one suddenly slowed just before impact, floated sideways, and alit on his feet three meters away from them. The magician's eyes were furious, and held a dangerous gleam within them.

Coby reacted. He felt fire burn through his feet, and race up his body, and then he and David were suddenly enclosed within a crystalline shell even as a cloud of steel slivers impacted the shield and the face of the organ all around them.

"Give me the orb!" Corst hissed, as the rain ended. "Or I will destroy this entire crowd!" The magician waved a hand at the seated audience, who somehow seemed quite unaware of what was happening on the other side of the orchestra.

In fact...the orchestra itself seemed unaware of what was happening just on the other side of the orchestra. Two meters away, part of the woodwinds section - oboe, clarinet, and bassoon - filled in their parts of the Dance, apparently blind to Coby and David and their confrontation with a wizard just a little more than half their height. Coby could see the clarinetist's eyes as they followed the music on the sheet before him, but the man seemed unable to see them.

Corst stepped forward, waved his hand again at the hundreds of people in the audience, and the orchestra so blithely entertaining them. All seemed blind to the fateful moment occurring virtually beneath their very eyes.

"What do we do?" David breathed, sounding frantic. "We can't let him kill two thousand people!"

"We can't let him kill seven billion!" Coby countered.

The baron, briefly stunned by his fall, suddenly sat up. He glared at the two boys, disbelief plain in his eyes. "You! I do not believe it!" The kabouter got to his feet.

"They have the orb," Corst spit out, coming marginally closer.

"What?" The Baron stepped forward, reached out and wrapped his knuckles against the crystal shield. "Obviously this protection worked even against your blast at the keep, or these would not still be alive." The Baron turned to Corst in disgust. "Surely this cannot mean that human magic is stronger than our own!"

Corst licked his lips. "I am not familiar with this shield. I do not think I can break it. However --" He grinned, his eyes moving past Coby and David. "Unfortunate for them that they are not all inside it!"

Coby turned his head, saw Angie and Uncle Geroit standing close to one side of them. Outside the crystalline shield. "No!"

The shield about them warped, and ballooned outward just as Corst fired another round of steel splinters directly at the two humans. The splinters caromed to one side and seemed to spray everywhere, striking the floor, and the walls of the staircase beside them. Some struck the floor near the Baron, who cursed and leaped backwards. "Watch it, you fool! I have no such protection!"

Corst screamed in rage, and stamped a foot against the floorboards. "Give me the orb!"

Coby shook his head. "No."

The Baron turned to his magician. "Corst. Shatter the orb."

"What?" The magician's eyebrows shot upwards in outrage. "With it inside that shield, it will be ineffective against the crowd!"

"No, it will not." The Baron stepped forward. "Once loosed inside the shield, these two will forget their magic. The shield will crumble, and the plague will be released. Shatter it!"

Corst suddenly gave a hoarse laugh, and stepped forward. "I am stupid! Of course!"

Coby turned to David, his heart rising into his throat. "No! I cannot forget you, mijn lieve. Not ever."

David nodded, straining forward, and kissed Coby. "I cannot forget you, either, my love."

Within their hands, Coby felt the orb move. He looked up at Corst, saw the evil grin on the man's face as he waved a hand at them. "Fools! Did you think we would carry about an orb filled with poison that could easily be shattered? It was hardened against such accidents. Had you not caught it in its fall, it would have bounced, unharmed, from the floor. But now, I remove that protection, something your shield cannot stop."

Within Coby's hands, the orb shattered like the shell of an egg. The myriad of firefly lights swirled outward around them, against the walls of the shield, straining to be free. Their beauty belied their deadly purpose as they formed a cloud that slowly grew to fill the interior of the shield.

Angie and Uncle Geroit came closer, to stand with the boys.

"I guess we are done," Uncle Geroit said sadly, placing his hands on Coby's shoulders from behind. His voice was quiet, resigned. He leaned closer, placed his cheek against the side of Coby's head. "I am so proud of you, for what you tried to do."

Coby simply stood there, holding David, unable to believe what was happening. Unable to believe that they had lost. "I love you, Uncle," he said softly. "Thank you for everything."

"Thank you, Coby, for sharing your life with me." The man turned, grasped Angie's forearm, and pulled her closer. "Come. Be with us in this last moment. Do you have family somewhere?"

Angie wiped at her eyes, and nodded. "A mother. I wish now I could see her one more time."

Coby stared at David, who simply stared back. "I love you, mijn Lieve." Coby said.

The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, which had continued on about them, the creators of that beautiful sound apparently unaware of the drama taking place just next to them, suddenly slowed, distended, dropped a full octave, then two, and then ground to a stop. The lights of the concert house dimmed, and went out. For just a moment all Coby could see were the dancing lights of the plague swirling about them, the vague reflection of the containing crystalline shell, and the two kabouters beyond, watching them with a fanatic fervor in their eyes.

Coby saw then, the robed figure that materialized behind Corst. And then another, and then two...and then a dozen of the robed figures, materializing out of the darkness beyond, forming a circle all about them.

"Hold."

Corst whipped around and threw up a hand...but nothing happened. The baron, his eyes widening in alarm at the sudden appearance of these new foes, turned to flee...but could not move. Neither kabouter could move, as if their feet were now imprisoned by the floor.

Corst continued to whip his hands about to no avail. The robed figure directly behind him, too tall to be anything but a human, came closer, and pointed a finger at him. "Cease moving, silly man. Your magic has no power here."

Corst looked stunned, his mouth dropping open. "What?" He drew a hand back and stared at it, unable to believe that his powers had failed him.

The robed figured raised his hands and pulled his hood back, revealing a face that Coby had never seen before. A human face. The man smiled at him, and nodded. "At last." He stepped back into his place in the circle and extended his arms. The robed figures to either side raised theirs, and slowly the circle of figures linked hands.

Coby felt a new tingling, but it was not inside his boots. It seemed to come from the air all around them, a vibration of tremendous power. The tiny firefly lights of the plague carriers suddenly swirled faster, as though agitated, and began to fly about like mad, seeking escape from within the shield. But there was nowhere to go. And then, one by one, and then in groups, the lights began to go out. Coby heard a strange clatter, and looked down at the floor. It was slowly covering with what looked like tiny, tailed beads of glass, like frozen raindrops, that fell out of the air all about them; and he realized that these were the fireflies, now devoid of light. They continued to drop, bouncing, sliding, piling up, while the air about them ceased to glow with the deadly spark of oblivion.

And then there were no more lights, anywhere.

The crystalline shield flickered, and was gone. There was another sound, almost like a tiny tornado, and the dull glassy droplets began to swirl in a circle on the floor, as if going down some invisible drain. They moved faster and faster, became a blur, and then vanished into a tiny black hole, one that pulled itself inward behind them and vanished.

Coby squeezed David to him, and kissed him. "I have not forgotten you, mijn lieve," he whispered, joyously. David nodded, pressing close, his eyes closed as he nuzzled Coby's face.

From behind the robed humans came several more figures, all of black. Coby recognized their shapes as kabouters, and the darkness they wore as the same one that had cloaked the four kabouters at the gate to Oost Indisch Groen. They lined up in front of Corst and the baron, who drew back from them in obvious agitation.

The blackness suddenly peeled away from one of the new arrivals, and Coby recognized the same kabouter they had spoke with at the meeting that night.

Klaas Vaak, the Sandman.

Baron Tlost drew up his hands and covered his eyes with them, but Corst simply looked resigned. "You have us, I see."

Klaas Vaak nodded. "So it would seem."

Corst looked about at the robed humans. "I knew there was human magic out there, but I never dreamed it could best ours."

Klaas Vaak shook his head sadly. "It has not bested ours, Corst. Only yours, as that was all that was needed."

Corst leaned forward, anger coming onto his face. "You traitor! Siding with these against your own!"

"You are no longer one of us," the other kabouter countered. "When you stepped outside our laws, when first you contemplated this horrendous crime, you ceased to be...one of us." Klaas Vaak nodded. "It is time for justice to be served."

The Sandman leaned forward, and raised a hand towards Corst, who immediately pulled away. "Do not touch me. I would die untarnished by the contact of such as you."

Klaas Vaak looked briefly surprised, but nodded. "If that is your wish." The kabouter stepped away, and nodded at the robed human male. "He has declined our justice. Maybe he shall be satisfied with yours."

Corst suddenly paled, and the baron dropped his hands and looked horrified. "You cannot leave us with these humans!" he wailed.

"I will. I have," Klaas Vaak said, gathering his group together. The four of them stepped past the humans and vanished into the darkness beyond.

The man who had dropped his hood nodded at the two kabouters. "See now, your judges." He waved his hand about in the air, and the blackness to his rear lit with a glow, which rapidly spread around the circle and back, revealing more robed humans...and more...and even more. Ranks of them, in ever larger circles, stretching away until those in the rear were small with distance.

Corst looked horrified himself now. "So many! All magic users? I would not have believed it!"

The baron gave a small squeal of terror and whipped his hands up, again covering his eyes. Corst curled a lip at him, and then ceased to acknowledge his presence.

"So kill me," Corst said, defiantly. "Someone else will come along later, and complete what I have begun. It is only a matter of time."

The human spokesman came forward. "An interesting choice of words, for that is your fate. To be imprisoned in time."

Corst stared at the man, and licked his lips. "I...I do not understand."

The man nodded. "You do not need to, Corst. It is done."

Corst and Baron Tlost vanished. And then, one circle at a time, the robed humans began to vanish, from the distant rear ranks forward, and darkness settled around again, until it was just Coby, David, Angie, and Uncle Geroit standing in a tiny pool of light with the robed human. That man smiled at them, and then turned and cast the smile up into the darkness, and waved a hand. "Come. There is no need to fear."

There was a brief flutter of wings, and Krange settled into the light with them. "Whew! Thought we all had it there for a minute!"

The four humans laughed as one, and crowded around the darvil, patting him and rubbing him fondly.

The robed man came forward, and bowed his head at them. "I am Bekoorlijk, of Utrecht."

"Utrecht?" Coby gasped, instantly understanding. "You're a city spirit!"

The man nodded. "Yes."

And then Coby understood. "All of them...all of the robed people I just saw. City spirits?"

"From all about the earth, yes. We have been waiting for you to accomplish your mission. You have. All is now as it should be." Bekoorlijk smiled again. "Will you come with me now?"

Coby looked at David, who bobbed his head in an affirmative.

"We'll just tag along, if you don't mind," Krange said merrily, extending his wings to shepherd along Angie and Uncle Geroit.

"Where are we going?" Coby asked, as he and the others fell into step with the robed one. They left the circle of light, which faded, and then vanished into darkness behind them. Overhead, a million stars suddenly winked into existence, lighting a flat landscape that extended away from them forever in every direction.

Bekoorlijk gave a soft chuckle. "Do you really not know? There is someone who wishes to speak with you."

Coby sighed, nodding, and reached out and grasped David's hand. "Kom, mijn lieve. Walk with me under the stars."

Behind them, Uncle Geroit bowed to Angie, and linked his arm with hers. "May I?"

Angie giggled, and nodded.

Behind them, Krange looked both ways, and sighed. "Odd man out again. I'm going have to fix that if I'm going to stay around here."

Bekoorlijk started off again, and the others followed, and together, they marched off into the endless night.


There were six chairs before the roaring hearth this time. The pleasant face of the moon still watched through the great stone window, cheerful and timeless. Coby found himself seated, with David and Uncle Geroit to his left, an empty chair to his right, and Angie and Krange seated beyond that. Well...Krange was perched upon his chair, but it amounted to the same thing.

"Beautiful, our watcher," a voice said.

Coby turned towards the voice, and saw Mooi standing by the window, gazing outwards. He laughed, finding David's hand and squeezing it. "Mooi! I was wondering when you would show up!"

The city spirit turned to them and smiled her own very radiant smile. "I have been with you all along, my Coby."

David laughed. "Was that you, hiding inside our shoes?"

Mooi came over and took the vacant seat by Coby. "No. That was not I."

"There is something special about these boots," Coby said, raising a foot and nodding at the suede covering.

"Only because you think so," Mooi countered. "The shoes were left at the cobblers specifically for you to come along and receive. It was always intended that they be yours."

Coby looked at David, then back at the city spirit. "Hobarti said that a man that looked like us...looked human...had left them several years before."

Mooi nodded. "Yes. A man much like you, a genuine human, a friend to Bekoorlijk, much as you all are friends to me. He was asked to do this thing, and he did."

"But years before we arrived?" Coby asked, shaking his head. "How could he have known?"

"He did not. But I did, and therefore Bekoorlijk did. I have told you before my Coby, that all of time is as one to me. I knew of the coming plan by Corst and Baron Tlost. I knew also that Orm would destroy Tal, and that it would come down just to Corst. He was the only player in this drama that ever really counted."

"I thought that Baron Tlost was the leader of Orm," David said.

Mooi laughed, a sound that made Coby smile. "Only in name, David. It was always Corst who was the driving force to act against the humans. Tlost was simply a follower, although even he did not know it. He was a wealthy patron - exactly what Corst needed to further his plans."

"Why was Corst so important?" Coby asked. "You dealt with him easily enough at the end there. You even stripped him of his magic. I don't see why you needed us at all, frankly."

Mooi was silent a moment before speaking again. "Magic is an interesting talent, my Coby. There are magics that all can perform, and magics that only a few can perform. And, rarely, there are individual magics that only one can perform. Such was the case with Corst. He had fabricated a magic that only he could undo."

Coby shook his head. "And what was that?"

"The orb," Mooi responded. "That tiny container that held the Plague of Oblivion. Corst created a magic to harden that shell against shattering before he was ready to deploy the plague. His intent was to dispel that protection only moments before the orb was to be shattered. We had the magic to destroy the plague, but it needed some time to work. So we had to design a way to encourage Corst to dispense with the container's protection that would give us time to destroy it. Hence the drama of which all of you were a part."

Coby's jaw dropped. "All of that...everything we did...was just to get Corst to remove his protection from the container?"

"To get him to remove it and leave us time to deal with the contents," Mooi emphasized. "Yes, my Coby. For that protection was entirely unique. A personal magic that Corst and no other could break. We could have dealt with Corst at any time, and sent the container away to places you cannot imagine. But no accounting of times past, present, or future by the combined spirits of human cities could guarantee that that container and its secret would stay lost forever. That was as much as saying to us that somehow, some when, it would return to haunt the human race. So it had to be dealt with now, and therefore, forever."

Coby nodded. "What happened to Corst and the Baron? Bekoorlijk said they would be imprisoned in time." He licked his lips. "Were they killed?"

Mooi gave a tinkling laugh. "Of course not, my Coby. They were sent home, back to Orm castle."

Coby's mouth dropped open. "What? But...what is to stop them from plotting against us again?"

"They cannot, not ever." The certainty in Mooi's voice was so clear that Coby was briefly at a loss for words. The city spirit smiled at his look of confusion. "Perhaps it is better to say that Corst and Tlost will continue to plot against us, forever. But nothing will come of it."

"How can you be certain?" David asked.

Mooi shook her head. "There was a day briefly past in which Orm and Tal met at Orm castle to discuss their plans. This was before our Angie arrived, before our recent plans were set into motion. All of Orm, and all of Tal, in one location." She smiled sadly. "It has been arranged that that day go on for those present...forever."

Coby stared. "Forever? You mean...the day will repeat, over and over?"

"Yes. A loop in time, turning back on itself at the stroke of midnight. Forever."

"That's awful," Angie said, her voice subdued.

"It is a better fate than death," Mooi countered. "And it has been agreed upon by Klaas Vaak and the kabouter hierarchy." she shook her head. "Those inside the loop will never know."

No one said anything for a full minute. Mooi waited patiently for them to get over the shock of the kabouter's fate.

"I guess...it is better than killing them," Coby finally admitted.

David squeezed Coby's fingers. "It's done, Coby. It's over."

"Yes."

Uncle Geroit sat back in his chair and gazed at the fire. "So exciting are these adventures of yours, Coby. I regret now that you did not ask me along before now."

Coby managed a laugh. "I am sorry, Uncle. I did not know you would enjoy them so."

The man smiled, and nodded. "We should spend more time together, Coby."

"I would enjoy that, Uncle."

David squeezed Coby's hand again. "We should spend more time together, too."

Coby laughed. "Every day and every night is not enough for you?"

David's eyes twinkled in the firelight. "Well...it's a good start."

Angie stood up and came around to face Mooi. "In all this stuff going on, did any of you city spirits happen across my backpack?"

Mooi smiled, and pointed at the floor next to Angie's feet. "That one?"

The girl looked down, and gaped. Coby and David both laughed at the expression on Angie's face as the girl bent down and retrieved her pack from the carpeted floor. She went back to her seat and opened it, and dug through it, shaking her head the whole time. "Everything's here. Those little thieves didn't take a thing!"

"They only wanted the stone, which, by the way, has been returned to Billy Blind by way of Alainn of Edinburgh. It, too, has played its part."

Coby stood up now, and smiled at the city spirit. "Now there is only one thing to be done, Mooi." He pointed at Krange. "Can you send our friend home?"

Mooi smiled, and placed a finger to her lip. "But...he does not wish to go." She turned, and smiled at the darvil. "Is that correct?"

Krange bounced in his chair, and then flapped his wings and landed on the floor next to Coby. "I want to stay with my friends."

Mooi looked back at Coby, and shrugged, "He wishes to stay with you."

Coby gaped at the darvil. "But...Krange! Be realistic! You cannot stay cooped up in our flat for the rest of your life. How would you live? In hiding? That is no existence for you. You must return home."

Krange gave a chittering laugh. "Why would I have to stay cooped up? I just don't understand you, Coby."

Coby was astounded. "But...people will see you! They will see you, and --" Coby stopped, suddenly recalling something. He pointed at the darvil. "When you came into the seating area to warn us that the kabouters were atop the organ...I could see through you, Krange!"

"Well, of course. I had to let you see enough of me so you'd know who it was touching you!"

David rose from his chair and came to stand with Coby and the darvil. "Krange...are you saying...you were invisible?"

"Of course! What kind of idiot do you think I am, to go wandering about your world in plain sight!"

David looked at Coby, and grinned. "That is how he got into the concert hall without raising an alarm. No one could see him!"

"I thought you found some rooftop door," Coby said, staring at the darvil.

"I came in the front door with a crowd of people, Coby. No one noticed at all."

Coby shook his head. "Krange, why did you not mention that you could become invisible?"

The darvil chittered again. "Well, it never really came up. And you never asked!"

Coby sighed, but then gave a small laugh. "If you stayed, wouldn't you be lonely for your own kind?"

Krange rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Oh, I doubt that will happen. In fact, I am sure of it."

Coby could make no sense of the expression on the darvil's face, but he just nodded. He turned to Uncle Geroit. "Uncle? It is your flat. What do you say?"

Uncle Geroit smiled. "I say that we always have room for a guest." He turned to Angie, and nodded at her. "Several guests, in fact. Until you are ready to move on, that is."

Angie grinned. "That sofa was pretty comfortable. And the company isn't bad, either."

Mooi stood, and came to Coby, and gathered him into her arms. She drew him close and kissed him, and again Coby was lost in the experience.

"That doesn't make you jealous?" he vaguely heard Angie ask David. "It would me."

And he heard David sigh. "No. I am used to it. And I know it's just a city spirit thing."

"Thank you, my dear Coby," Coby thought he heard Mooi say. "For your help, once again."

Coby's body tingled with unnameable forces, unnameable desires. The kiss seemed to go on and on, and then slowly ebbed away, and when he opened his eyes again, he and the others were standing in the living room of Uncle Geroit's flat.

Mooi was gone.

"Have you ever noticed that she seems to always get the last word?" David asked, coming to Coby and taking him into his arms.

Coby smiled, and let David kiss him. He returned the kiss, happy that he would never forget what he had. Not now, anyway.

Krange waggled his wings then, and rubbed his belly hopefully. "Anyone hungry? I sure know I am!"


A week passed, and things returned to normal. The four of them relaxed, and went back to their routines. Angie seemed to get rested, and more cheerful, until one morning she announced that she was going. "I still have Brussels to do," she said, smiling.

A sadness settled over Coby, but he understood. Angie was a wanderer, of a sort, and looking for something. Something even she could not name.

"Will you come back and visit?"

"Yes. I promise."

She gave Coby and David long hugs, and a kiss each on the cheek. "I'll go by the cafe on my way and say goodbye to Uncle Geroit, too."

Coby breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you. He would not be happy to know you left without saying goodbye."

"I wouldn't do that," Angie said, gathering her jacket and her backpack and getting into them.

"What about Krange?" David said. "He will be upset to find you gone, too."

Angie laughed. "Oh, I said goodbye to him this morning."

"Where is he, anyway?" Coby asked. "I have not seen much of him lately."

Angie paused, and let her eyes move from one boy to the next. "Um...just how much do you two know about darvils?"

Coby blinked. "What's to know? Krange tells us most anything we ask him."

"You didn't know he could become invisible," Angie pointed out. "I've been bunking in this room with him for a week now, and we've talked a lot." She raised her eyebrows. "About all sorts of things."

The emphasis she placed on those words seem to mean something, but Coby had no idea what. "Is there something you need to tell us?"

Angie sighed. "Then you don't know. Sit a minute, guys."

The three of them sat down on the couch, and Angie watched them closely a moment. "Uh...Krange isn't exactly a he."

The words entered Coby's ears, and just sort of sat there. He took an astonished breath. "Are you saying that Krange is...is a girl?"

Angie shook her head. "Nope. Not a girl. Not a boy, either. Not strictly."

David leaned closer. "What else is there?'

Angie grinned. "From what Krange told me, darvils are self-reproducing."

Coby had heard of this trait before, in his science courses. "You mean, like parthenogenesis?"

Angie smiled, and nodded. "I guess. Whatever that is. Krange doesn't need another darvil to reproduce."

Coby and David stared at each other. "Don't tell me..." Coby began, but stopped, his imagination taking over.

Angie nodded. "Uh huh. Krange has been out building a nest somewhere. He's about to lay some eggs and have kids."

David shook his head in wonder. "Lay eggs. How many, do you think?"

"Well, from what Krange said, between twenty and thirty of them."

Coby bolted to his feet. "What? You mean to say that we are about to have another thirty darvils on the loose in the city?"

"Twenty to thirty," Angie corrected. She laughed. "You think Damsko is haunted now, wait a week or so. It's about to become even more haunted!"

Coby scratched thoughtfully at an ear, and sat down again. "Mooi. She had to know about this. And yet she allowed Krange to stay."

David smiled. "A few darvils floating about won't hurt Damsko. In fact, they may help to protect the place, don't you think? Especially if they're invisible!"

Coby shrugged, but then grinned. "You know this makes us godfathers?"

Angie laughed, rose, hugged each of them, wiggled her shoulders to settle her pack, and headed for the front door. Coby and David walked with her, and the three of them paused on the front stoop.

"We'll miss you," Coby said, smiling. David nodded.

Angie sighed. "Don't get me going, okay? I'll come back through here on my way back from Brussels. About a month? Maybe I can use that sofa again for a night or two."

"Ja," Coby said, grinning. "Anytime."

They watched her head off up Molukkenstraat. She paused at the corner, turned and waved, and then was gone. Coby watched the spot a moment, full of mixed feelings. People come and go in life. But he smiled then. This one would be back, he felt sure.

The boys went back inside, and went to the kitchen to make lunch.

"Can you imagine that?" David said, as Coby made sandwiches. "Old Krange is about to be a momma. And a poppa!"

Coby shook his head. "Is it me, or does the world just keep getting stranger?"

David watched his boyfriend a moment, and then got up and took Coby in his arms. "It's you. My world has been nothing but strange since I met you, Coby."

At Coby's sudden pout, David smiled, and leaned in and touched the tips of their noses together. "Strange, and wonderful, and exciting, and...magical."

Coby smiled back at him. "There's more to come, I think."

David nodded, and kissed him. "I certainly hope so. There's no point in living in a haunted world, unless one gets to meet a ghost or two every now and then."

They kissed, long and intensely. When it was over, David smiled. "I can see why Mooi likes that so."

"There are things that Mooi can never get from me," Coby said.

David looked interested. "Like what, for instance?"

Coby put down the knife in his hand and grasped David's arm. "Come, and I will show you."

"But the food--"

"-- can wait," Coby interrupted.

Coby led David down the hallway to his room, and they went inside and closed the door. As Coby turned towards the bed, he had a second thought, and turned back and locked the door.

Not that it mattered - not really.

Locks were for people, and the small nods they gave each other regarding privacy. They did nothing to keep out an insistent world, especially when that world had links to the supernatural.

There was no turning away a world that was full of ghosts, and elves, and evil magicians...and city spirits, enigmatic and ancient.

And other fairy tale creatures, on both sides of reality, both waiting to be met, and waiting to be imagined.

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