Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

There's A Devil in the Dark, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 8

It took several moments for the hubbub to die down.

"You're saying that the town's phantom was once Brewster Kinniston's familiar spirit?" Charlie asked, when the noise level had subsided to where he could be heard.

Carl nodded. "Quite an accomplishment, too. Pyewacket is, by far, the most powerful familiar that any of our people have ever attracted."

Kippy gaped at that. "There are other familiars here?"

"Oh, several. All small, and not very powerful." Carl's eyes crinkled. "Garden spirits, mostly."

Horace nodded then. "Genius loci."

"Exactly. Attached to their tiny realms, as it were. Still, quite affectionate, and always willing to assist, if possible."

Horace sighed. "How well I know!"

Charlie leaned forward in his seat. "Will Rhea Willman be open to talking to us?"

"I think so. You gave her quite a scare at the meeting in town, but she has hopefully had time to sort things out and realize that you are not here to pose a danger to our way of life."

"That is the farthest thing from our minds," Kippy said.

Carl nodded, and then looked faintly puzzled as he turned to look at the three elves. "Do you boys talk much?"

Keerby smiled. "Well, we listen, mostly."

"Best way to learn," Frit agreed. "Watch and listen."

"We hear and see a lot," Pip added. "More'n most people!"

"I believe it. What I sense from you three is quite beyond anything I have ever felt before." Carl's eyes returned to touch Charlie's. "But that's mostly true of all of you."

The idea that humans possessing an active form of skwish might consider it witchcraft had never occurred to Charlie. But if it had manifested in centuries past, what else would it be viewed as? And if that view was handed down, generation after generation...?

"We don't encounter people like you very often," he revealed. "Um, witches are not that common among the population."

Carl nodded. "How well I know." He offered a sigh. "There are a great many that have the gift, but only a few seem able to use the craft. I am always able to sense it in others, so I know how much of it out there, going unused."

"Have you ever tried to teach others?" Kippy asked.

Their host gave him a surprised look. "You mean outside the families?"

Kippy nodded. "Sure. You say you detect, um, the gift in other people, going unused. Have you ever tried to awaken it in someone?"

" That would entail revealing ourselves to others. It has never been safe to do that. It's even against the rules of the Order, because it's such a dangerous idea."

"Rhea has the truth touch," Charlie offered, giving Kippy a subtle look to warn him off the current subject. Having witches in upstate New York start drafting new members seemed not a good idea. Secrets were the hardest of treasures to keep safe. "I felt it at the meeting."

"Yes." Carl eyed him carefully. "She said you basically gave her the boot."

"It surprised me," Charlie said honestly. "I simply reacted to defend myself."

"I see. I think she thought you were hiding something. She said your power was quite considerable."

"I'm only average," Charlie said, smiling.

"I'm sure." Carl managed a smile. "Interesting group you have. Everyone has the craft in spades."

Charlie considered that, and then nodded. "Possibly. We suspected that, um, Pyewacket was attracted to Horace's skwish."

"I beg your pardon?"

Everyone laughed at the look of bewilderment on Carl's face.

"Um, it's what we call the gift of magic," Kippy explained. He tapped his forehead with his index finger. "You know? In here?"

"Oh." Carl laughed then. "It sounds like what you do to a bothersome fly."

That brought another round of chuckles.

"Anyway," Charlie resumed, "we just thought maybe the phantom had not encountered skwish before, and was so intrigued that it caused it to follow Horace home. I guess that's wrong now, since, um, the craft is so well-established here. So maybe it was just that Horace was the first new example of skwish to come along in so long a period of time?"

"That's a possibility," Carl agreed. "And there is the uniqueness factor, too." He waved a hand at the ghost hunter. "Your gift would seem to be an ability to divine and attract otherworldly spirits. Brewster Kinniston had that talent, himself. That could easily be what attracted Pyewacket to you."

"But Horace's skwish didn't worry you?" Charlie asked.

"No. It is not a talent that normally senses the craft in others, so we didn't really feel we would be exposed by it. But I am wondering now if Horace's craft...uh, his skwish...isn't a little more evolved than that. He seems to have a variety of talents not readily apparent."

"We like him," Kippy offered, grinning.

Carl nodded. He watched them a moment, and then seemed to make an effort to further the trust he sensed developing between them. "You are all so young. How did you get so powerful at such an early age?" He turned to look at the elves. "Especially you three?"

"They've had a lot of practice," Ricky said, smiling.

Carl looked to be thinking that over, and then laughed. "Okay, I won"t ask more about it. I do hope we can all become friends. Nothing would invigorate the Order of Sebastian more than having new talents and ideas arrive from outside." He sighed. "There is the sense here lately that we've become a bit stagnant."

"I found him," Pip suddenly said, looking excited. "He's nearby."

"Oh, good," Frit said. "That will help."

Charlie turned towards the elves. "What's going on?"

Keerby sat forward. "We do think this Pyewacket is a boojum now," he explained. "But some sort of variant on the ones we know about."

"So what does that mean?" Adrian asked.

Frit gave a little sigh. "Only reason a boojum would hang around humans is that it's bonded with one. This one obviously bonded with Brewster Kinniston in the past. But it didn't leave after he died, so that means it formed a secondary bond with someone else while Brewster was still alive. And that it formed a bond with someone else after that, and so on."

"That's why it's still here today," Pip added. He grinned. "It likes people!"

"Or some people," Keerby added.

"Boojum?" Carl repeated, turning to Charlie. "Like in Lewis Carroll?"

"Carroll was a witch," Keerby said, winking at Charlie to explain that he was using the word as a substitute for skwish. "He knew about familiars."

Charlie smiled at the way the elves had adapted to the situation. "So we've been told." Charlie pointed towards the elves. "Frit, Pip, and Keerby are our resident experts on familiar spirits."

Carl smiled. "I'm sure Fred Little would love to talk to you, then! He's our expert on otherworldly spirits."

Charlie leaned towards the other. "It might be a good idea if both our groups get together on this."

"That's a good idea. I can have the entire council here within an hour."

"Who are you saying is close by?" Kippy asked Pip.

That elf frowned. "I sense that Pyewacket has bonds with several people, of varying strength."

"Rhea Willman would be one," Carl supplied. "And probably the main one. She's been close to Pyewacket since she was a child."

"She is one," Pip agreed. "But she's not the strongest one. That one is male, and only several miles away."

"Can you see him? Charlie asked.

Pip closed his eyes. "Young. Black hair, gray eyes, slender, has a lot of skwish." He opened his eyes and grinned. "He's cute."

Carl took a sharp intake of breath. "That sounds like Keirnan Willman! Rhea's son!"

Kippy beamed. "I knew it! I knew that would matter, somehow!"

"There's a girl, too," Pip added. "Same dark hair and gray eyes. Pretty. She's farther away."

"Kara Willman," Carl decided, nodding. "She's off at college."

"She seems to be on her way back here," Pip said, looking at Frit. "She's in a hurry, too!"

Their host frowned at that. " is a Friday. Still, that's a fair drive to make just to visit."

"I doubt she's just visiting," Frit said, squeezing his own eyes closed. "I think she was summoned."

Carl turned to Charlie. "Rhea didn't say anything about calling her."

"Don't think it was her," Pip decided. "Think it was Pyewacket."

"But, why?" Wolfbridge looked slightly alarmed now. "That almost sounds dire."

"Almost," Keerby agreed, his eyes finding Charlie's. "We'd better be ready."

Kippy slid closer to Charlie. "For what?"

But then even Charlie could feel it. A massing of some sort, just like what had happened at Horace's house as the phantom had come close to inspect them. Once again Charlie sensed the darkness approaching them; and then it was surrounding the house. Only this time it closed in right to the walls, cutting off any feeling of the outside world. The darkness reared upwards, and Charlie was stunned to sense what seemed to be two great eyes, looking down at them.

"Illusion," Keerby said then. "Anthropomorphization, to impress us."

"It's a great trick," Ricky said, sounding subdued. "Looks like it's watching us!"

"It's aware of us," Pip agreed.

"Everybody stay calm," Frit added.

A sort of eerie wave went through the room then, making the walls and the furniture seem to ripple. Charlie, looking right at Carl Wolfbridge at the moment, was stunned to see the man vanish!

"Hold on tight!" Keerby yelled then.

Another ripple passed through the room, and then all was still again. Charlie took a breath then, suddenly aware that Pyewacket was no longer around them.

"Wolfbridge is gone!" Ricky said then, sounding truly alarmed now. All eyes turned to where the man had been sitting.

Kippy grunted. "So is Pyewacket!"

"Stay calm," Frit reassured, waving a hand to get everyone's attention. "It isn't Wolfbridge that's gone. It's us!"

"What do you mean?" Kippy asked, pushing up against Charlie now, Charlie put an arm around his boyfriend, and hugged him close.

Keerby stood and closed his eyes, and silence enveloped the room as everyone watched him. The elf's expression was a mix of alarm and determination, and it went on for all of a minute before he suddenly relaxed and opened his eyes. "Well, that sucks!"

Frit nodded. "Boojum made us vanish, didn't it?"

"It sure did," Pip answered, sounding indignant. "The nerve!"

"What happened?" Charlie asked, trying to remain calm. "Where did Wolfbridge go?"

"He's still sitting in his den, Charlie." Keerby replied. "It was us that took a trip."

Adrian grunted, sounding almost indignant now. "But to where?"

"Alternate reality of some sort," Keerby decided. "Or, alternate time frame." He smiled at them. "Might take a while to sort out."

Frit closed his eyes then, and appeared to be concentrating. He winced then, and shook his head, and opened his eyes. "Can't contact grandpa Max. Can't contact anybody!"

"No elves in this reality?" Pip asked, sounding appalled. "We must really be off the beaten path!"

Keerby sighed."I can still contact Blinken, so that's something, anyway."

Kippy turned to face him. "And who is that?"

The elf looked pleased with himself. "My new friend. A hernacki!"

Pip brightened then. "He's in the impervious zone!"

Keerby nodded, and faced the boys. "The impervious zone connects everything in spacetime. All realities, all time frames. It's immutable. So no changes to our reference frame or time rate will interfere with me talking to him."

"How will that help?" Charlie asked.

"Well, if I can't analyze where and when we are on my own, Blinken can help. And, if worse comes to worst, Blinken can contact one of the hernacki that hangs out with Nicholaas, and he can come and get us."

"Why don't we just do that?" Adrian asked. "Wouldn't that be the fastest way out of here?"

Keerby nodded. "Yes. Also the easiest." He grinned. "But we wouldn't learn anything, especially how to deal with this if it were ever to happen again. I feel good about being able to solve this problem. We have been shunted off into a border reality far from our own, with a different timeline than the one we know. But since we got here, we should be able to get back where we belong."

Frit laughed. "At least we know what happens to people when a boojum makes 'em vanish!"

"Hooray," Kippy said, with a total lack of enthusiasm. But he looked around the room, and then sighed. "At least the house is still here. That must mean a reality where Wolfbridge still exists. And if he's here, the town of Kinniston probably is, too."

"Probably," Keerby agreed. "Um, but don't be surprised if there are changes."

Charlie grimaced at that idea. "Like what?"

" could be anything." The elf shrugged. "Different timeline and different reality means that anything and everything in the history of this place leading up to now could be different than what happened in our own timeline. I just don't want you to be surprised if something isn't the same."

Charlie understood. The universe was not all one thing, like a straight line. It was more like a great river that fed an infinite number of smaller parallel rivers, and then even smaller parallel streams, creeks and brooks. Each new waterway was a branch off the main river, or off some other branch off the main flow, and each had begun as a copy of wherever and whenever it had branched from the main body. But from that moment of branching, events had diverged, and each new flow had become a unique set of events, all of its own.

So it depended on what events had caused the flow to diverge initially. Small changes caused new streams that were very like the original, just different in small ways. Large events diverging could cause an entirely different universe to emerge. Like when Pacha'Ka had used the weapon his people had devised to rid themselves of their Arpathant overlords. The weapon had taken that bully race and every single one of their works and shunted them off to a universe identical in every way to the universe they knew, save for the fact that intelligent life had never arisen anywhere within its bounds. The Arpathant had suddenly found themselves in what seemed a familiar place, but without anyone else to share it with them. From their own perspective, all other intelligent life in the universe had simply vanished.

This place they were in now must be similar to their own world, at least in some ways. Wolfbridge's house was still here, though the man was obviously somewhere else this day. Probably because Charlie and the others did not exist in this flow - until now - or were in some way engaged in different activities that had not brought them to see the house's owner. But that thought opened up the idea of other problems

"So what would happen if we all went home?" Charlie asked Keerby. "Would we meet ourselves there?"

The elf shook his head. "I tend to think we don't exist in this universe - any of us. For one thing, it's easier to displace people and things to timelines where they don't already exist. There's no resistance that comes from duplicating unique objects like people already in the destination flow. Natural laws frown upon that. Two instances of the same thing evolving from different and divergent timelines meeting in one place can cause all sorts of strange things to happen."

"Well, I wouldn't want to meet me, anyway," Kippy said. "That would be scary!"

Ricky snickered, and Charlie couldn't help smiling. "I don't think we could handle two of you!"

"Shut up, sweetheart," Kippy returned, grinning. "I won't even try to imagine two of you!"

"So you say we probably don't exist here, Keerby?" Ricky repeated, hiding his smile.

"The chances are good that we don't."

Ricky nodded. "Then I say we ought to get out of the house. What would happen if Wolfbridge came home and found eight strangers in his den? I don't want to go to jail in any timeline!"

"Might be good idea," Horace said. "Until we have some idea of where we are, anyway."

"Yeah," Keerby agreed. "I'd like to see what the world outside looks like."

They returned to the front door and let themselves out. There was no sign of Wolfbridge or Murphy. Also no sign of Charlie's 4Runner, which he had left in the driveway in front of the door.

"I guess we'll be walking," Charlie said, staring around at the property. "At least everything out here looks like I remember it. Oh...wait a second." Charlie squinted at the drive leading to the main road, and then shook his head. "No. That big oak there by the hedge - that was a stump in the other time line."

"You remember stuff like that?" Ricky asked, astounded.

"Well--" Charlie nodded at his friend. "Yeah. I happened to glance at the stump as we came up the drive."

"There are bound to be some physical differences," Keerby explained. "Let's not dwell on them until we see something important."

Kippy had turned to look back at the house, and now he snaked out an arm and grabbed Keerby's wrist. "You mean like that!"

The group turned as one, and some of the others let out gasps of surprise.

Carl Wolfbridge's neat, tidy home was no more. While the den inside had looked the same to them, the exterior of this house looked nothing like the pleasant structure they had encountered back in their own time line. This house looked like something drawn by Charles Addams, with a sagging roofline, shutters hanging askew, the colors dark and dreary, and cobwebs seeming to be attached to everything in sight. The neat flowerbeds that had run beneath the first floor windows in the other time line were here full of ugly weeds and growths that rambled and projected, and what leaves that were visible on any of them appeared to be black.

Charlie took a step back and surveyed the whole house, and was immediately struck by the strongest of impressions. "It looks like the king of all haunted houses!"

Kippy nodded, and turned to Horace. "It looks like some of those eerie paintings on the wall in your crystal ball room."

The ghost hunter nodded. "It does, doesn't it?" He frowned. "And yet, something doesn't feel right. I do believe that this house couldn't look more like a haunted one if someone had built it that way!"

With that he stepped into the nearest flowerbed and pushed aside some of the ugly plants so that he could examine one of the cocked shutters. "Aha! This thing isn't loose! It's mounted to the wall this way!"

The others moved forward to look, and soon it became apparent that the house they were looking at was the way it was...intentionally.

"Look at these cobwebs!" Ricky called. "They're plastic, or rubber, or something!"

Adrian nodded. "And that window isn't cracked! It's some kind of decal!"

"The paint is really ugly, but it also looks fresh!" Kippy decided.

"It's a sham," Keerby observed, smiling. "And a very good one."

"But why?" Charlie asked. "Why take a nice place like Wolfbridge had and do this to it?"

Frit and Pip, who were still standing in the drive, suddenly called to them and motioned for everyone to come back.

"What's up?" Charlie asked, coming to stand beside the two elves.

Pip raised a hand and pointed upwards. "What about that?"

Everyone turned to look at where the elf was pointing. Charlie wasn't the only one to gape at what he saw.

Perched atop the apex of the roof was a...well, Charlie wasn't sure just what it was. His first thought was that it was a huge bat, but this was just way too large to be any bat he had ever seen before. And the wings - they we're wings, of that he was certain - were long and had serrated edges, and more resembled a bird's wings minus the feathers in design than a bat's more web-like appendages.

Above the shoulders, the head was tilted down so that the two big, yellow eyes could watch them. To either side of the furry head, large pointed ears flicked here and there, as if listening to everything happening in the world all at one time. The face had a wolfish snout, and the mouth hung open, revealing some wonderfully pointy teeth. The creature's tongue lolled out now and then as if panting, and the dark furry chest rose and fell in accompaniment.

The beast looked like nothing Charlie had ever seen before.

Kippy suddenly laughed, and then waved his hands at the critter. "Here, boy!"

Charlie cringed at that, and turned to warn his boyfriend just as the large beast above spread its wings and launched itself towards the ground!

The group of boys scattered by reflex - all except for Kip, who stood his ground, his arms spread. The huge bat-creature swooped over him, turned once, and then settled to the grass nearby, it's tongue still hanging out in a pant. Kippy immediately stepped over to the creature and plopped a hand atop its furry head, and gave it a rub that caused the wings to flutter in ecstasy.

"There's a good boy!" Kippy turned and smiled at the others. "There's nothing to be afraid of." He turned back to the beast and fingered something around its neck, and Charlie gaped all over again. A collar!

Kippy was cooing now, and rubbing down the back of the critter's head to a spot between where the wings met in back. One of the beast's short legs began to pump vigorously in sympathy, as if the animal was using it to do the scratching himself. The yellow eyes turned upwards and gazed adoringly at Kippy, as if he had found the spot of all spots, that which could never be properly scratched by the animal himself.

Charlie returned to his boyfriend's side. "Are you nuts?" he whispered.

"No. Look." Kippy pulled the collar around so that Charlie could see a gold tag fastened to the leather. Imprinted in curly, etched print was one word: Murphy.

"You gotta be kidding!" Ricky said, leaning around Charlie so that he could look, too.

"It's the dog!" Adrian exclaimed, grinning now. He dropped a hand on Kippy's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "How did you know?"

"I don't have the slightest idea. Just something in the way he looked at me."

"Ugly thing, isn't it?" Horace offered. But he was smiling, too. "Dog analog, in this reality?"

"Must be," Charlie decided, relaxing. He leaned his shoulder against Kippy's and gave it a gentle bump. "Don't ever do that again. I feel ten years older!"

Kippy smiled. "I'm sorry. I just suddenly knew what he was. I have no idea how!"

"That's a little spooky," Ricky put in then, daring to pat Murphy on the head. "This isn't make up or a costume. It's the real deal. Where are we, in the Halloween Zone, or something?"

Keerby had joined them, and now he laughed. "It's a different reality, guys. The events that are different here than back home could be evolutionary as well as any. You may as well get used to things being a little odd."

Ricky seemed to be enjoying petting Murphy now. "He's soft. And look at those wings! Tell this guy to fetch the newspaper, and he could bring every one on the block!"

It was apparent now that this Murphy, despite his somewhat gruesome appearance, was just as sweet as the one they knew back home.

"I guess we should get back to town before it gets dark," Horace offered, eyeing the sun where it hung low in the trees. "It's going to be a walk."

"It won't be so bad," Charlie countered. "We're not really even out of town.This is sort of like the edge or something. I figure it's just a couple of miles back to the courthouse."

The older man grunted. "A few miles is still a few miles." But he smiled. "Just my old feet talking now."

Kippy leaned over and gave the bat creature a hug, and rubbed his chin on top of it's head. "Good doggie. You stay here now. There's a good boy."

They moved off down the drive then. Kippy looked back, and Murphy was still sitting there on the verge, watching them. He seemed to decide they were really leaving then, gave Kip a last, mournful stare; and then the animal was beating its wings again, and heading back to its perch on the roof.

Charlie laughed. "You can't have a better guard dog than one that can see every square inch of your property from the roof of the house!"

Horace shook his head. "I don't know, Charlie. That creature's wings are large, but it looks like a pretty heavy animal. I have to wonder if such a thing could even fly back home."

"Hollow bones," Pip announced. "Lighter than it looks."

"It's not a dog," Frit agreed. "Different evolution entirely."

Ricky shook his head. "Makes me wonder what the people here look like!"

Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm and stared into his eyes. "What do you think?"

Charlie cast a last look back at the house. "That place looks different, but it's just appearances. The doorknobs are made for hands like ours, the steps are placed for a tread like ours, and everything is at the same height and width as back home. There might be some differences in appearance, but I'd be willing to bet that people here have two arms, two legs, and one head, just like us!"

"There's only one way to find out," Ricky decided, waving a hand at the driveway. "Let's go and see for ourselves!"

They headed down the driveway to the main road, turned right, and began the walk back to the center of town.The sun was only minutes away from setting, Charlie figured. It was just barely visible now, and once it settled a little lower behind the still leafy canopy of the trees lining the western horizon, it would get dark very quickly.

"I hope one of you guys can make a light," Charlie said towards the three elves. The group had spread out into a file that stretched across the right-hand lane and spilled over the yellow center line into the oncoming lane. But there was no traffic at all, and as quiet as it seemed to be, they were sure they would hear any coming long before it reached them. They marched along, the only sounds coming to their ears being those of their own shoes against the blacktop and the soft rustle of leaves on the trees around them. The breeze was scarcely there at all, and the almost stillness heralding the fall of night seemed eerily appealing.

Frit leaned forward down the line to smile at Charlie. "Any of us can make a light. Nothing to worry about."

Kippy looked briefly at Charlie, and then smiled back at Frit. "Good. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable out here in the dark."

"It is a little weird out here," Adrian confirmed. "Feels like the whole planet is deserted!"

"This place is awesome," Ricky breathed, looking around them. "It has the feel of one of those scary movies. Watch out for the guy with the chainsaw!"

Adrian turned and poked a finger at his boyfriend. "Only you would think being chased by a chainsaw killer was cool!"

"I didn't say that!" But Ricky grinned at Adrian, and circled an arm around his shoulders and gave him a little tug. "But think about it: a nutcase with a mask and a chainsaw against Frit, Pip, and Keerby!"

Adrian blinked in surprise, and then smiled. "Oh, yeah."

"We'll be fine," Charlie reassured. "Anything jumps out of the bushes at you, just fry it with a lightning bolt."

The other boy laughed at that. Adrian held up his index finger, and blew across the tip of it as if blowing away the smoke from the barrel of a revolver.

Frit leaned forward again to stare at Adrian. "You can do lightning bolts now?"

That brought a round of laughter, and Adrian and Kippy took turns explaining to the elves the latest talents to emerge from their skwish.

The three elves looked impressed. "Wow," Pip said, grinning at Kippy. "Moving things at a distance often runs together with the talent for teleporting. You might get that one later!"

"Yeah," Frit agreed. "And, Adrian, producing electricity usually pairs with the ability to remake matter. You might be able to recombine all sorts of stuff at some point!"

That suggestion fueled more excited conversation, and Rick was given the opportunity to explain his new ability to divine skwish futures in others.

"You guys are building fast!" Pip said, grinning at them. "You'll be teaching us before you know it!"

"What about you, Charlie?" Keerby asked. "Anything new?"

"Well, no. Just the feeling that something is coming, but I don't know what."

"You try confronting it?" the elf suggested. "Corner it and make it show itself?'

Charlie frowned at that. "I didn't know I could do that."

"Sure. It's you after all." Keerby waved a hand at the line. "Stop a minute, everybody."

"We're losing the light fast," Horace reminded gently.

"I know." But Keerby's eyes looked determined. "This will only take a few seconds."

"What do I do?" Charlie asked.

Keerby came over and put a hand on Charlie's shoulder, and leaned closer and looked into his eyes. Kippy gave a little gasp at the apparent intimacy of the move, which made Charlie smile. "Now what?"

The elf closed his eyes, then quickly reopened one and smiled at charlie. "Um, close your eyes."

Charlie did as he was instructed. "Okay."

"Now," the elf's voice came, sounding surprisingly soothing. "Look into your mind, and see if you can find the place where these new things are hiding."

"Well...they're not hiding at all. They're in the same place my second presence starts from, but they're just sort of hanging out."

"Even better. Now, in your mind, walk up to the first one, and visualize it as a person."

"Walk up to it?" Charlie repeated softly, a little amazed. Could he even do that?

In his mind he envisioned the place where his second presence lived, and was surprised to see a bench in a park. A beautiful park, green with trees and dotted with flowers, with a stone fountain jetting crystalline streams of water upwards, and squirrels playing all about. And, it was a beautiful bench he saw, wrought iron, painted a pristine white, and very art deco looking in its ornamentation. Wonderful scrolls and curlicues of iron around all the edges argued with the more mundane flat iron pieces that comprised the seat and back. Even these suggested an artsy origin, being cut in places to provide gentle curves and rounded edges that seemed to ooze comfort and relaxation.

Charlie laughed. Sitting on the bench were three versions of himself, quite clear, while other versions of himself, less clear, and fading with each new iteration, went off to each side and vanished. The center figure of himself was, he somehow was certain, his ability to project his second presence. This version was wearing a safari outfit and knee-high boots, and wore a pith helmet at a jaunty angle upon his head. Upon making eye contact, he waved an unlit briar pipe at Charlie, and grinned.

"Good of you to visit us, old chap. Off on a lark, are you?"

Somehow, Charlie was not at all surprised to find himself talking to himself. "This weird planet? Well, you must know we didn't intend to come here."

"Oh, right, right. Bit of a side trip, what? Never know what these extra-dimensional critters have in store, do we?"

Charlie grinned at himself. "Um, I'm more interested in your two friends at the moment."

His seated self turned to look at, first one, then the other, the Charlies seated beside him. "Don't know the lads well myself, just yet. Only became visible recently. Bit of a surprise, but not at all unwelcome. I was getting a little bonkers just sitting here all by my own self!"

Charlie had to smile at that.

The Charlie on the left looked up at him then, and also smiled. "I'm not quite ready yet. Can you come back later?"

Charlie felt a stab of disappointment, but knew instinctively that there was no arguing with himself. "Sure. No problem." He let his gaze move to the Charlie on the right.

That one sighed; but then he raised his hands, made a show of cracking his knuckles, and grinned at Charlie. "I'll give it a whirl. What would you like me to do?"

Charlie blinked in surprise at that. "Don't you know?"

"Well, sure. But it's more fun to tease you a little."

The Charlie in the middle guffawed noisily at that. "You got a scrapper here, lad!" He turned to grin at the other Charlie. "Won't make it easy on him, I reckon?"

The new Charlie smiled. "Well, he should do some of the work." But he stood then, and pointed at Charlie. "Tell you what. I'll meet you halfway." He then strode forward three steps, and stopped.

Charlie understood then. He had to go and find this new talent! He smiled at himself, strode forward...

The park vanished. Charlie found himself running through the trees, the branches of undergrowth parting around him as his feet flew over the rough ground. Ahead of him, his other self was running just as quickly, while turning his head now and then to grin back at Charlie. "You need to be smarter than that!"

Charlie tried to put on a burst of speed, but the mental him ahead seemed able to equal anything he could muster. Try as he might, he just could not get a single inch closer. It looked like a standoff, with no easy solution in sight. But Charlie pounded onward, trying to figure a way to catch the other, thinking hard...

And then he heard his other self's words again: "You need to be smarter than that!"

Not you need to be faster, but smarter! What did that mean? Something he wasn't seeing? Charlie let his gaze rove to each side, examining the parkland around him. The forest they were running through was full with trees here, and uniform in appearance. He dropped his eyes, examined the ground...and then he saw it. Though they were running through fairly dense underbrush, what was ahead of them seemed to have been trampled once before. The small plants were broken and crushed in spots, as if...

It was then that he suspected that they were running in a continuous arc, as if around a small circle. In a moment, a bush he knew he had passed once before flew by, and Charlie was certain. Without even stopping to think, he suddenly dug in his feet and slid to a stop, and jacked himself around just in time to catch his other self as he flew into Charlie's arms.

He heard that one laugh then, and felt his other self squirm a moment, and then relax. "Okay, you got me, fair and square."

Charlie slowly released the other, and stood back as his second self smiled at him. "You're kinda cute, you know that? I can see why Kip likes you."

Charlie felt his face warm, but had to laugh. "Why do I feel like I'm playing games with myself?"

"Because you are." The other Charlie moved closer again and extended a hand, and delivered a very light, very affectionate punch to his shoulder. "Stop doubting yourself, partner. Stop avoiding looking inward. You need to trust me - trust us - more than you have been."

Charlie was amazed at that. "I trust you! Um, me!"

"But you're too worried about being careful, Charlie. Don't be afraid to experiment." The other Charlie leaned forward, his eyes intense. "Don't be afraid to come back here and check out the others on the bench. Do it often. Do it like you mean it. They're waiting on you, not the reverse."

Charlie swallowed hard, but nodded. "I'll try. I'll try to do better."

The second Charlie watched him a moment, and then smiled. "I believe you. Now...what would you like to be?"

Charlie was confused by the question. "I don't understand."

"Oh. Of course you don't! Stupid me!" And with that, the second Charlie strode forward, straight at Charlie, and...into him.

Charlie felt an incredible inner vibration, as if every pore in his skin rejoiced at the contact as his other self was absorbed into his body. The feeling was exhilarating and electric, and for a brief second of time his awareness of his surroundings felt so vivid that he knew he would never forget the moment no matter how long he lived.

And then he was suddenly back in the park, standing before the bench again. The center self, the one in the safari gear, was still there, as were all the others, save for the self that had sat to the right of his second presence. Even as he watched, the not-quite-clear Charlie next in line slid over to take his place, followed by the other Charlie's to come...and then the gap was gone.

Charlie nodded at his second presence. "Where did he go?"

"Oh, he's with you just now. Once you've learned what he has to offer, he'll be right back here, next to me, where you will always be able to find us."

"That's good to know." Charlie squared his shoulders, and smiled. "Thank you."

"No thanking me, dear fellow. Thank yourself!" The middle Charlie waved his pipe, looking pleased. "You did a good job. Now, on your bike! The others are waiting, you know!"

Charlie could feel that now, the sense that his friends were waiting on him. Kip most of all, his worry clear, and his love strong.

The Charlie to the left raised a hand and waved. "Come back, though. I'll be waiting."

Charlie smiled at them, and waved, and turned to go...

He was back on the road with the others.

Keerby brought his hands together, and his eyes positively glowed at Charlie. "You did it!"

Kippy was there beside him, and immediately gave him a hug.

"I'm okay," Charlie said gently, returning the embrace.

Kippy drew back and nodded at him. "Just being sure."

They smiled at each other a moment longer, until Adrian gave a soft sigh and snuggled closer to Ricky. "I love love!"

Ricky laughed, and gave him a squeeze, and Kippy grinned over at his friends. "Hey! That's my line!"

The others drew into a circle around Charlie then.

"That was quick, whatever you did," Horace said, smiling. "I think you were gone less than a minute."

Charlie was surprised at that. "It felt longer."

"It wasn't," Keerby assured him. "So...what have you got?"

Somehow, the elf's expression told Charlie that Keerby already knew.

Which was odd, because even Charlie wasn't certain how his new talent worked. He suspected he knew, but he couldn't be certain until he actually tried it.


Charlie stepped away from the others, and envisioned a werewolf from an old movie he had seen. He concentrated on the image in his memory, one he had saved because it was a particularly gruesome job of make up on someone's part. He could see the fur and the fangs, and the red eyes, and tall, pointed ears...

His entire body simply crawled with motion then, the weirdest sensation Charlie had ever felt!

"My word!" Horace stepped back quickly, followed by all the boys. Only the elves remained in place.

Kippy just stared, his mouth hanging open.

"Oh, that's good," Frit said admiringly, looking Charlie over.

"The clothing spoils the effect a little, but it's still pretty scary," Pip agreed.

"Wonderful, Charlie! " Keerby added, bringing his hands together. "It's perfect!"

Charlie grinned at Kip. "What do you think?" And then even Charlie started himself, because his voice, while understandable, came out in a deep and definite growl!

"Charlie!" Kippy breathed. "What have you done?"

"He changed his shape," Keerby said, with almost as much pride in his voice as if he had accomplished the magic himself. "That's a hard talent. But Charlie's great at it!"

Ricky shook his head side to side, his eyes large. "Charlie's a shape changer?"

"He is now!" Pip called, laughing.

Kippy stepped closer again. "Tell me you can change yourself back!"

Charlie laughed at that, but immediately focused on looking like his old self, the memories of those of him he had just seen in his mind giving him a very clear pattern to shoot for. But he needn't have worried. His body knew how it really belonged, and the flow back to normal was even faster than the first change. Again his entire body seemed to crawl with strange motion, and then he somehow knew that he was his normal self again.

Kippy ran to him, and engulfed him in a hug. "That was amazing, Charlie! Incredible!"

Ricky and Adrian also moved closer, both boys grinning now.

"Awesome!" Adrian said softly, followed by an amazed gush of air. "If I met you out on a dark night looking like that, I'd run for my life!"

"It was bussin', man," Ricky agreed enthusiastically. "Not to be fucked with, definitely."

"Language," Kippy admonished, though with a grin. "You sound like some dumb kid."

Ricky laughed at that. "I felt like some dumb kid when I saw that!"

Horace moved closer now, his eyes wide with wonder. "Am I to understand that you just transformed yourself into that...that creature we just saw?"

"In the flesh," Keerby said, turning to smile at the man. "That wasn't an illusion. That was a real shape change. And very well done, too!"

"I never would have believed it, until just now," Charlie admitted. "It's weird."

"Just so you don't get stuck that way," Kippy said, giving a small shudder. "I can imagine how much all that fur would itch in bed!"

"Perhaps we should get moving again?" Horace suggested. "It will be darkening in matter of minutes, I think."

They reformed the line and moved along the road again; but the conversation had been energized by Charlie's experience, and everyone wanted to know how it had been for him.

They were still discussing it when Ricky suddenly stopped and threw up a hand. "Wait! I think a car's coming from behind us!"

The conversation died, and then they all heard it - the sound of an engine somewhere to their rear. In a moment that sound was accompanied by the faint whine of tires against the blacktop, and Charlie herded everyone to the shoulder of the road. "That sounds like a truck to me."

They all turned as a faint glow appeared along the bend in the road along they way they had come, and in a moment a vehicle appeared, chugging along at a sedate pace. It appeared to be a stake-body truck, like one that might be used on a farm. But an odd-looking truck, indeed! The cab was rounded like the old trucks of the 1940's, with big, round headlights out front, and a tall, vertical grille on the nose of the vehicle that gave it a somewhat snarling appearance.

It quickly drew up to them and bathed them in the glow from the headlights, and then passed them and slowed to a stop, to the accompaniment of a squeak of brakes and a creak or two from the wood of the stakes lining the flatbed. The red glow of the taillights showed a large tag hung on the back, with a sequence of letters and numbers, and above it, in black letters, the word, N'yok.

Both of the cab's doors flew open, and two people climbed out and came around to the rear of the truck.

"Oh, Grim, check these dudes out!" the driver called to the passenger. "Are they amazing, or what?"

"I know, I know! Bitchin'!"

The two figures were dimly visible in the waning light, and the glow of the taillights only served to make them even more astounding as they stopped in front of the boys.

They were vampires.

The two looked humanoid, but scarcely human. Their faces were long and narrow, and while those faces held the normal features of a human face, they were drawn in sharp lines and angles, giving them an eerie look that would have done any budget horror movie make-up crew proud. Their dark hair looked somehow slick and dangerous, their ears came to definite points, and when they grinned, fangs were clearly visible among their upper teeth.

The suits with vests they wore were black, with high collars behind their heads, and each wore a strange looking golden amulet on a chain around his neck, that sported a pentagram within a cluster of eccentric circles. The fingernails on their longish hands were black and pointed, and their eyes winked with the same inner light that a night-seeing dog or cat would have.

Only their smiles, gruesome as they were, suggested a mellower and less dangerous personality residing within each ghoulish body.

"You guys look great!" one of the newcomers said, shaking his head in wonder. "When I saw you by the road, I nearly puked! I just had to stop to check you out!"

"Best human suits I have ever seen!" the other one joined in. "You guys could scare the socks off a Sasquatch, any day of the year!"

"They look so real!" the first one went on, eyeing Charlie, and then Kip. "Man! I'd kill dozens to show up at the Halloween party looking like that!"

"You guys look okay, too," Kippy managed to say.

The two vampires looked momentarily stunned; and then they both broke up, laughing.

"You're a riot, guy!" one said, shaking his head.

"A real kidder!" the other one expelled, holding his belly.

"Um...I try," Kippy managed, looking embarrassed now.

The two vampires laughed a while longer, and then quieted down.

"You guys heading to town for the gala?" the first one asked. He blinked then, and looked briefly at the other vampire. "Oh, sorry! I'm Darf. That's my buddy, Grim, there. We're heading to Kinniston for the Halloween bash. Can we give you guys a lift?"

"Um, I'm Charlie," Charlie said, bringing a hand to his chest. He quickly introduced the others, who either smiled and said hello, or just nodded. That the appearance of the newcomers had stunned the humans was apparent. The elves seemed much more at ease with them, and Charlie took his cue from them. If Frit and the others saw no danger in the two vampires, Charlie was willing to go along with that assessment.

"We were heading into town," Charlie confirmed then. "A ride would be great."

"Well, pile into the back, then," Darf said, waving a hand at the flatbed behind them. "Plenty of room!"

He and Grim turned back to the truck, and circled back to the doors of the cab. "Just bang on the back window when you're all aboard!"

Ricky grunted, and went to the truck's bed and heaved himself up onto the steel platform. He gave a hand-up to the others, and once they were all aboard, he nodded at Charlie. "I hope we know what we're doing," he whispered.

"So do I!"

He turned then and banged the flat of his hand on the back window. The truck, which had been idling, gave a grunt and lurched forward, just as Darf hollered out of his side window, "Grab onto something!"

And then they were off, the truck grinding along the now twilit road, making more speed than a person could run, but not by much.

They crested a hill and started down the other side. Ahead of them, a light appeared low on the horizon, and seemed to move upwards with an almost supernatural speed. Presently, they were looking at the moon - or a moon. This one was pockmarked with craters and bore the gray maria of ancient lava flows, but looked nothing like the moon they were used to back home. Gone was the familiar face of the man in the moon, so recognizable in the night skies of earth. This moon looked strange and alien somehow, a harbinger of things to come.

And of course it was a full moon, glorious and foreboding, all at the same time.

Charlie sighed, and closed his eyes. That's just great!

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