Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 6

They had dinner with Mildred again, and it was another wonderful meal. But Charlie found it hard to concentrate on the food, or even the conversation that went with it. Sunset was only about an hour away, and it would be dusk long before that, here among the trees. They would be outside at dark, in case the leafy man came early.

But was that what Castor had in mind?

Charlie did not at all feel that another confrontation was what his spirit friend was seeking. There was another reason that Castor wanted them outside, he was now certain. But the inability to discuss things with his new friend in fine detail was often annoying. Pictures were very good for passing along distinct ideas, but not so good for subtle ones. Too much needed to be inferred, and some pictures he had received from the spirit since Ian had given him the dragon medallion had been obscure, at best. That Castor often felt the same frustration at being unable to make himself understood easily also seemed clear.

Yet spoken language was not something the spirits that lived in wood seemed able to manage.

Kippy laid a hand on Charlie's and patted it affectionately. "You're a million miles away."

Charlie turned to smile at his boyfriend. "Just considering what comes next. I really don't have any idea what Castor is hoping to accomplish by us being out at dark."

His boyfriend shrugged. "Maybe he can communicate with this leafy guy. I mean, pictures would work for any mind, wouldn't they?"

Charlie held up a hand helplessly. "But this is not a living creature, as far as we know. Communicating with the dead can be complicated, as we have already experienced, ourselves."

"Then we just wait and see," Kip returned, firmly. "Castor won't put us at risk."

Charlie did feel that was true. Castor was no dummy, and his experience with the world was far greater than Charlie's. The spirit had yet to show all its capabilities to them, but he was powerful, certainly, and Charlie did sense that Castor could play rough if the need arose.

He sighed inwardly. Let's hope there is no need for that!

"I can see where you are all chafing to get on with this investigation," Mildred finally said, looking around at her guests. "I would suggesting getting outside very soon now, so that you can look around and make your plans before darkness falls."

"A good idea," Dick said, nodding. "I'd like to have a better idea of the land around the house, just in case we have to beat a hasty retreat." But he smiled when he said that, to show that he didn't expect that to happen.

"It wouldn't hurt," Horace said. "I do want to stress the idea of all of us staying together, though. If Castor is to present any ideas while we are out, we will need to be close to Charlie to participate in them."

"We'll be okay," Browbeat assured. "I'll get between you guys and the leafy man, if I have to. He can't hurt me through my shields."

"That you know of," Rick said, arching his eyebrows at the flyer. "You be careful, too!"

Browbeat tittered at that. "He can't kill me, that's for sure!"

Charlie nodded at that. "Yes, but still. We don't want to have to rush you back to Engris for emergency repairs, either!"

"You just stay out of trouble," Kippy admonished, waving a finger at Browbeat. "No one is indestructible."

"This Nyah-gwaheh is supposed to be," Rick reminded. "And we don't have any arrows to shoot into the soles of its feet."

Dick smiled at that. "The problem with some of these old legends is sometimes in the translation. That could just as well have been a misunderstood reference to the Nyah-gwaheh having only one vulnerable spot where it could be injured. It may not have actually been the soles of its feet."

"Well, this one is supposed to be dead already," Rick countered. "I don't suppose the legends have a way of dealing with one of these things that is already done in?"

Dick gave a quick shake of his head. "I don't believe that ever came up, no."

"Figures." Rick sighed dramatically. "It always falls to us to solve the little things others forgot to figure out."

Adrian rolled his eyes and wrapped a hand around Rick's arm. "Are we feeling melodramatic tonight?"

Rick flashed a big smile. "A little. Maybe." He gave his shoulders a quick shake, flexed his hands a few times, and then nodded. "Okay, I'm ready. Let me at him!"

Adrian smiled at Kip. "My tiger!"

"Just keep your tiger out of trouble," Kip returned, winking at Rick.

They finished up, and Mildred walked them to the front door.

"Coming outside?" Kippy asked her.

"Until dusk, perhaps. I shan't move away from the door, though. I need to be able to get inside and bolt it in a moment's notice."

Adrian squinted at her. "What would happen if the leafy man got inside? Wouldn't Lugh be able to take care of it?"

Mildred made a little sound that sounded mildly annoyed. "Oh, Lugh has some funny rules. No one can enter the house if I keep the door locked. Lugh will defend if someone tries to force entry. But if I leave the house unlocked, and someone comes inside, he seems to feel that it's my fault they're there, so my problem to deal with."

Kip smiled at that. "Lugh seems a little testy to me."

"To me, too." Mildred's eye twinkled. "I guess you get to be a little odd if you've been around for two thousand years and all you've ever really known is being a house of some sort."

"His attitude towards the leafy man is certainly interesting," Dick offered. "You don't know why your house friend does not view the leafy man as threatening?"

"No." Mildred squinted in puzzlement at that. "I haven't been able to figure that out. The doubt is enough to make me very cautious. My imagination has allowed me to see the possibility of this creature getting inside the house and Lugh deciding it did not need to be evicted. I would then either have to get forceful and remove it, myself, or have to put up with wind and leaves in the house all night long! I have to draw the line somewhere!"

Rick gave a low whistle. "Didn't think of that possibility. I would have thought that if you didn't want someone inside, Lugh would follow that wish."

Mildred clasped a hand to her forehead. "One problem is that I'm new at this. I have only known Lugh for a short period, and I don't understand him sometimes. His refusal to interfere with the leafy man's visits tells me that may extend to almost anything, as long as no harm comes to me or the house. But I do know that if I work to keep the leafy man out, he will stay out. No one may enter the house unless I invite them in, or leave the door unlocked."

"Or, they happen to be a teleporter," Kippy amended, grinning.

Mildred actually smiled at that. "Oh, I think Lugh likes you and your friends. He lets you teleport in because he knows I would let you in, anyway. At least, I think that's what's happening!"

"We won't test that theory, if we can help it," Charlie decided. "Kip, if we get into trouble, you could just teleport us out to the road, or something. Or, anywhere here on the property the leafy man isn't at the time."

"We got into the house once before," Kippy pointed out.

"Yes, but what happens if you teleport us and the house doesn't let us inside?"

Kippy scratched at one eyebrow. "Um, well, I guess we go right back to where we started."

Charlie nodded. "Not the best place to be, if there's trouble."

"Okay. If I have to teleport us, I'll pick a good, safe spot to go to."

"Okay, then, let's go."

Mildred walked them to the front door, looked out through the peephole, and then opened it. They stepped out into the already graying evening, and Mildred pulled the door shut..

"Gets dark early in the woods," Rick said, looking around. "Once that sun gets low and the trees get between it and us, it's just about over with."

Charlie felt another brief burst of warmth from Castor, and another picture formed in his mind.

"Let's go around back," he said to the others. "So that we can see the carriage barn and where the old house stood."

"Oh...wait," Mildred said then. She turned, looked at the door, and shook her head. She looked back at them, and then stomped one foot on the floorboards of the porch. obviously annoyed at something.

"What's up with that?" Kippy whispered.

Charlie smiled. "Wait for it."

Mildred heaved a sigh, and then she dipped a hand into a pocket of her dress, and pulled out a small ring of keys. Quickly, she locked the front door, and then turned and came off the porch to join them. "I'm going with you."

"You're okay with that?" Kippy asked, sounding surprised. "What about the door?"

"It's locked. That's actually enough for Lugh to deny entry. The bolts are just for my own peace of mind."

"I see," Charlie said quietly.

At Charlie's somewhat amused look, the old woman beamed. "What? I feel as if we may be getting close to the answer to this mystery. Who wants to be sitting in the parlor sipping tea while important events are happening in one's own backyard?"

Charlie gave a little bow. "We'd be happy to have you with us."

"I'll scout the way!" Browbeat called, spinning in the air and quickly disappearing around the house.

They turned, and circled the house to the rear, to stand before the carriage garage. It was even darker here, the house standing now between them and what limited clear sky could be seen above the drive.

Charlie closed his eyes, and listened to the voice of the woods. He could hear the normal sounds, the ones he knew, but they all seemed a little distant. Locally, everything seemed subordinate to the low moan of the gonkers in the trees. The sound was eerie, otherworldly, almost as if these creatures were discussing Charlie and the others, what they were now doing. As if these things knew that something unusual was going to happen.

Charlie heard the flutter of wings, and opened his eyes as Browbeat lowered himself onto his shoulder. "All clear. Except those gonkers! They sure seem agitated, too!"

Mildred's eyes searched the trees. "Strange beasts. Have they been here all along?"

"Since we've been here, anyway," Charlie agreed.

The old woman narrowed her eyes. "I didn't know about them. They're energy thieves, of a sort. Come to feed on turmoil and uncertainty."

"They appear where humans interact with ghostly apparitions," Horace said. "At least, that is what little I know of them."

"Yes. But they're parasites.I don't like having them here."

"They're harmless," Browbeat offered. "They just suck up free spiritual energy. It's going out there, whether the gonkers are there to take it in, or not."

"It's the principle of the thing," Mildred countered. "But I suppose we'll have to tolerate them for now. I seem to recall there is a magic to dispel them, but it's been so long now, I'd have to go back to the books."

"You have books of magic?" Kippy asked, his interest clear.

Mildred cackled out a laugh. "And a broom in the kitchen closet, which I have never ridden, but probably could, if I set my mind to it!"

Kippy looked surprised. "I didn't mean--"

Mildred held up a hand. "No, it's me. I am basically a witch, in the terminology of more than one people. I know it. I just find it hard to admit, sometimes." Her eyes held humor though, and Kippy grinned.

"You're one of the sweetest witches I have ever met, I will say," Charlie's boyfriend offered.

Mildred looked pleased. "Oh, you handsome young men are all alike. Terrible flirts!"

Charlie couldn't be certain in the off light, but it appeared the Mildred's face had reddened with embarrassment. He was just about to offer a relaxing comment when he felt the sensation of contact between himself and Castor intensify, and the dragon medallion on his chest warmed against his skin.

He heard a horse whinny.

Charlie looked around, and then motioned the others closer. "Quick! Put a hand on me. I think Castor is going to show me something."

Slowly, as if the picture of the forest around them was somehow warming up like an old-fashioned TV set, the scene brightened. A house came into view before them, a two-story farm-style house, with a wide front porch beneath a roof supported by square posts. The first-floor windows of the house were aglow with light, but this was not the cool sunshine of modern electric lamps. The windows flickered cheerily, though a bit dully, with the yellowish light of oil lamps within. In that glow, Charlie could make out the carriage garage nearby, looking totally renovated now, as fresh as if it was new.

Compared to the one they knew, it was new!

The forest seemed less omnipresent around them now. The trees were farther apart, and the canopy above thinner, allowing a watery mix of moonshine and starlight to reach the ground below. The trees stood away from this house, as if they had been cleared, and there was room around the house for small puddles of that moonlight to stand out.

The horse whinnied again, sounding louder now, and somehow frightened.

Charlie turned his head, and was startled to be able to see down the drive, also lit by cool moonlight, to where it reached its vanishing point in a faint haze of milky probabilities. Mildred's house was not present here, and the realization that they were seeing her property at some point in the distant past arose strongly in Charlie's mind. This, then, was the house that had originally occupied the property.

The horse whinnied again, and a sharp bang came from the carriage garage. The front door of the house opened inward then and a man filled the door frame, his features indistinct, but his gaze plainly directed at the carriage garage. He watched a moment, heard the horse whine and kick once more, then turned and vanished within. Charlie saw the light in the doorway change then, intensify, and the man returned to the door and came outside, holding up a lantern in one hand, and toting what looked like a rifle in the other.

"Something's spooked Reedy," he called over his shoulder. "Let me check on her, and I'll be right back."

A woman's voice answered, and as the man came down off the porch, a figure in a dress filled the doorway a moment, watching.

The man crossed to the carriage garage, and Charlie's point of view turned to follow him. The man held the lantern high, and brought up the rifle, which briefly shone in the yellow light.

"Is that a Winchester?" Rick asked, sounding surprised.

"A Henry repeater," Dick said softly. "Brass frame. That places us at least around the the end of the Civil War era, or later."

The man reached the carriage garage, and paced slowly and carefully around its perimeter. The light faded as he reached the back of the building, then intensified again and came into view as he rounded the rear corner and walked slowly up the near side. He came around front again, and went to the small door next to the two large carriage doors, raised the latch, and went inside.

Curiously, and a bit astonishingly, their view swooped after him like a dark raven in the night, and they entered the garage as the man walked over to the horse in its stall and set the lantern atop one of the posts supporting the side rails. The horse seemed skittish, its eyes wide, but calmed as the man crooned to it, though its gaze seemed somehow set over his shoulder, almost as if it was looking right at Charlie and the others.

"What's the matter, sweetie? Night jitters? Hear something?" The man reached across the top rail, and the horse allowed him to rub her nose, but still seemed alarmed somehow.

The man seemed to find that puzzling, and looked slowly around the interior of the garage. There was a wagon inside, a buckboard that looked fairly new. Again there was a deft swoop in their perspective as it shifted to one side of the man, and his face came more clearly into view in the light from the lantern. He was bearded, pleasant looking, and maybe 35 years old, though with the beard it was just a best guess. He wore overalls and a thin cloth jacket to ward off the cool autumn night, and his eyes held intelligence as they alertly scanned the interior of the garage.

"I plugged that hole that little fox was getting in through," he murmured then, shaking his head. He smiled at the horse again, and patted her nose reassuringly. "Maybe just the wind? It does seem sort of eerie out tonight."

The horse suddenly backed away from his hand, its eyes widening in fear. At the same time a tiny sound came to their ears, as if some stiff bit of stem in the hay spread around on the floor had been stepped on...

The man spun in the pool of light from the lantern, the rifle coming up before him even as a towering and indistinct shape appeared out of the darkness to his rear. A large hand at the end of a dark arm reached out and snatched the rifle away from him, even as he gasped and stepped back, turning to grab the lantern from atop the post. He lifted it by the handle, turned, swung it upward, held it high--

Charlie heard the others gasp, and felt his own heart pounding in his chest.

A huge shape shuffled forward into the light. It towered over the man by several feet, and was so clearly a bear that Charlie immediately felt the man was about to be killed. But--

This bear was hairless! Or, furless, to be exact.

Its skin was dark, a light brownish in color, and instead of sharp-clawed paws it had hands much like a human. Its dark eyes glittered as it looked down at the man, who was so plainly frozen in shock and fear that the moment dragged on for several seconds before the bear leaned forward and opened its mouth, which was full of very sharp-looking teeth. "I won't hurt you."

"It talked!" Kippy breathed, as if he thought he might be overheard.

"My word!" Mildred followed with, also sounding amazed.

The bearded man's mouth dropped open in shock. He took a sudden breath, coughed, and gave a quick shake of his head. "I...what?"

"I won't hurt you," the bear repeated. It held up the rifle then. "And you will please not shoot at me."

The man gave another little shake of his head, plainly unable to believe the notion of a talking bear. And one far larger than had ever been spotted in these parts, to boot!

The bear canted its head at him. "It's simple. You don't try to injure me, and I will not try to injure you. A pact, if you will." The hairless arm reached out again, offering the Henry rifle back to the bearded man. "Can we agree?"

The man automatically reached for it, but then stopped. "You can't be a bear."

"I'm not," the other agreed. "I'm a Simisant. My name is Akeeri."

The man squinted at that, as if deciphering what had just been said to him, and let the lantern drop a little. "Akeeri?"

"That's right."

Again, the man gave a little shake to his head. He glanced back at the horse, which had moved to the far side of its stall, still making frightened sounds. That seemed to convince him, somehow, that all of this was really happening.

He looked back at the bear, gave his head another little, mystified shake. "I'm, uh, Martin Jemeson."

The bear extended the rifle again. "Nice to meet you. Please take this, but do not use it."

The man reached out and put his hand on the stock of the rifle. The bear watched him, but made no move otherwise.

Slowly, Martin Jemeson closed his hand on the stock of the rifle and gave it a small tug. The bear released it then, and Martin had to use both hands then to keep from dropping it. But he had his rifle back, and the bear was clearly watching him to see what he would do with it. Martin looked down at it, and then turned slowly and stood it against the post the lantern had sat on.

"Our friend is clearly quite a gentleman," Mildred whispered approvingly.

Martin turned back to the bear. "How? What are--how do do you talk?"

"I resemble a native animal," Akeeri said, with emphasis. "I look like bear, I know. But my people are called Simisants. I am from a...a far place."

Martin closed his eyes, gave a little laugh. "Must be damn far, is all I can say."

He jacked his eyes open again as he heard, in the distance, the baying of dogs. "What the hell?"

"They've been chasing me," Akeeri explained. "They must not catch me." The huge creature leaned forward, looking resolute. "I don't want to hurt any of your people. But I can defend myself, if I have to."

As if for emphasis, the bear extended a hand towards an overturned wooden bucket on the hay-strewn floor. A fierce glow sprang up between its fingers, and a small cloud of light blazed across to hit the bucket. In seconds, it had been reduced to a pile of ash.

"Mother of God," Martin breathed, staring. "What manner of deviltry is this?"

"There is no deity involved," Akeeri corrected. "No demon, either. This is a power native to my kind. It is used for defense. I prefer not to have to, if you know what I mean."

Martin stared at the remains of the bucket, even as the sounds of the baying dogs drew nearer. He shook his head again, as if trying to clear it. "They have your scent. They'll find you, no matter what I do."

The bear issued a low, somewhat frightening growl, which Charlie was surprised to realize was a laugh. "They won't find me. I levitated myself from about a quarter-mile away when I saw your lights, and floated over here with the breeze. The animals will have no scent to follow on the ground, and if they arrive here, I will give them nothing to scent in the air. All you need do is tell them you have not seen me."

Martin frowned. "Why are they after you?"

The bear leaned closer. "Because I am different. And it frightens them."

"That's all?" Martin seemed stunned by the idea, but then suddenly grunted. "Well...I was pretty scared, myself, when I first saw you."

"As I said, I do resemble a species of predator native to your lands here. They think I am an animal."

Martin emitted a low whistle. "I can see the problem."

The sound of the dogs grew louder now. They and their handlers had seen the light from Martin's house. "I'd better go and head them off." He frowned at the bear. "You'll still be here when I get back?"

"I will remain."

The man nodded. "Good. 'Cause, I'd really like to know more about...all this."

Charlie and the others followed as Martin left the garage, and carefully latched the door. He crossed to the porch, and held the lantern up then, his rifle cradled in the other arm.

They could see lights in the woods then, which soon grew near.

"Hello, the house!" a voice called. "Mind if we come in?"

"Come ahead," Martin returned, and they could see the man fortifying himself for what must come next.

The lights in the woods moved closer, and four men came into the yard, all carrying rifles in one hand, while two carried lanterns in the other, and the other two held onto the leashes of hounds..

"Hello!" one of the men called. "I'm Preston Allen."

"Martin Jemeson," their man returned, nodding. "This is my place."

"Didn't expect to find a house out here," Allen returned, looking around the yard. "Kind of all on its lonesome, ain't it?"

"It'll do," Martin said. He indicated the dogs. "Looks like a posse. You looking for someone?"

The man gave an amazed grunt. "Not a someone. A bear! And the biggest damn bear you ever heard of, too!"

Martin played his part well. He looked cautiously around his yard. "A bear? I haven't seen one."

"You heard us coming?" one of the other men asked. He patted his chest. "Jed Pender, 'scuse me. You were out here for a reason?"

"Something spooked my horse," Martin said, waving back at the carriage garage. "But I just checked, and she's fine."

"Might have gone by here," a third man volunteered. "We can walk the dogs around the house, see if they pick up the scent again."

"We lost the scent a ways back," Allen explained. "Just like the critter climbed a tree or somethin'. Confused the dogs all to hell. We saw your house lights, and came on ahead."

Martin shook his head. "I've been out here ten, maybe fifteen minutes. I haven't seen or heard a thing."

"Kind of odd, him disappearing, and your house being right here," the fourth man said quietly.

"That's Jack Johnson, and don't pay him any mind," Allen said, grinning. "He still thinks he's deputy over in Holmesville."

At that moment the door of the house opened, and a woman's voice called out. "Martin? Is everything alright?"

"My missus," Martin explained. He turned and waved at her. "Everything's fine. I'll be in shortly."

Charlie was watching the man called Johnson's face. A suspicion that had been flowering there was now just as clearly fading away as he realized that Martin's family was in the house. It was amazing how that sixth sense worked in some people!

"Mind if we walk our dogs 'round your place?" Allen asked. "Be nice to get the scent again, but if nothing else, we can let you know this bear isn't here."

"Sure. I'll walk with you. One more lamp and one more rifle can't hurt."

They did that then, leading the dogs around the house, the carriage garage, and the edges of the woods.

"Nothing, "Johnson said then, looking back into the woods the way they had come. "Maybe the lights of the house scared him off. That critter must have doubled back somewhere, or something. No way these dogs could just lose the scent."

"Well, I'm glad it's not here," Martin said, looking relieved. "But I'll be keeping an eye out tonight, just in case."

"Thanks for your help," Allen said, tipping his hat. "I'd keep the house locked up tonight, if I was you."

The men gathered their dogs, and headed back the way they had come. Martin watched them go, and then headed for the house. "Honey? I want to check on Reedy one last time, and then I'll be in."

The man started back for the carriage garage, stopped, seemed to think a moment, and then walked back to the porch and stood the Henry rifle against a post. He turned then, and went back to the garage. Charlie and the others moved with him, just as if they were walking alongside the man.

"Amazing, the way this works!" Horace said softly, his voice full of delight. "Castor knows his craft, I must say!"

"I don't think we have to whisper," Charlie answered then. "I don't think anyone here can see us or hear us."

"You think this Akeeri is the leafy man?" Kippy asked.

"I'm almost sure of it," Charlie decided.

"I think so, too," Browbeat agreed. "They feel the same to me!"

"We're being shown the history we need to know to understand what is happening in our time, at Mildred's house, I think," Adrian offered.

"Oh, you people are good," Mildred said happily. "Not only will you solve my problem, but it will be fun doing it!"

Kip laughed. "We do try to earn our keep!"

"This man Jemeson is a marvel," Horace said. "It's hard to imagine a man of that time period so readily accepting a fellow as strange as this Akeeri. Many people today are not so accepting!"

"Akeeri talks," Dick pointed out. "That's a pretty good persuader."

"Still. I can't wait to see how this progresses!"

They followed Martin inside the building. The horse whinnied, happy to see him. The man held up his lantern and looked around. "Hello? Akeeri?"

"Here." The very large shape detached itself from the shadows and resolved into the huge Simisant. "I heard. It was very kind of you to help me."

Martin seemed surprised by that. "Well...they have no right to shoot you, just because you look like a bear." The man set the lantern on a post again, and frowned at his new friend. "How is that, anyway? That you look so much like a bear?"

The Simisant came closer, and for just a second, Charlie was startled, suddenly reminded of their friend, Kontus. Akeeri was even bigger than the Trichani, but there was something similar in their manners that made Charlie smile. A certain earnest forthrightness that was appealing.

"This world, the one you know, is but one of many."

Jemeson nodded. "Yes. There are several others along with our sun, besides the Earth."

"No. I mean, your earth is but one of many earths, each with a different history."

The man's eyes widened. "I only know of the one. This one."

"There are others, that exist alongside it, in alternate realities. On your earth, your species rose to dominance. On my earth, it was my species that found intelligence first. The ursinoids, rather than the humanoids."

Martin shook his head. "I don't understand that. Where is this other earth you speak of?"

The Simisant grunted. "It is actually in the very same place as this earth, but in a different offshoot of time and space. A different offshoot of probability. A different reality."

Jemeson frowned, obviously trying to understand. " did you come to be here?"

The funny little growl, now plainly a laugh, came again. "I came on purpose. I am looking for someone. He is here."

They could see Martin Jemeson's eyes widen at that admission. "Someone here?"

"Yes. One of my people. He is called Rimzi."

The man shook his head. "Why? If you don't mind me asking?"

Akeeri looked around the inside of the garage. "Your people and mine exist simultaneously, but at different eras of progress. Science and technology are farther advanced in my world. The ability to move to surrounding parallel worlds has been around longer than my lifetime." His gaze returned to settle on Jemeson. "It has caused some problems."

When Martin didn't respond, Akeeri continued. "The technology is closely guarded. Trips to other realities are allowed for the purpose of study, but those participants are carefully screened, and trained to observe but not to interact with the people of these other earths. In general, the program works well. But, from time to time, there are participants who deviate from the plan."

Martin shook his head. "How so?"

"This Rimzi did not return when he was supposed to. Concern has been mounting in my world that he is interfering with events in your world. I have been sent to look for him, and to bring him back to our world." The Simisant paused, and then leaned forward for emphasis. "Or, to kill him, if I cannot get him to return."

"Kill him," Martin repeated softly, following that with a sigh. "That sounds extreme."

"You do not understand. My kind enjoy a very long lifespan. If allowed to remain here, Rimzi may easily last in your world until your level of technology reaches a point where he can utilize it to do very great harm."

"Why would he do that?"

Akeeri gave a deep and alarming grunt. "It has been learned that he is a political dissenter in our world. He holds views that none of my kind should be allowed to visit any of the alternate earths we can reach. Our authorities think now that, by creating havoc in one of them, he can raise public outrage, and prove that the portals between worlds are too dangerous to be allowed to exist. He wants them closed forever."

Martin's expression grew alarmed. "What sort of havoc?"

The towering Simisant was quiet for a moment, before answering. "I don't know. But just the intention to do so can be enough. Rimzi has already been here long enough to have interacted with some of the people in your world. Even that much is too much interference."

"How long has he been here?"

Akeeri shuffled a little closer. "Two hundred years."

Martin gasped. "Two...hundred! Why are you just doing something about this now?"

"This level of interference is unprecedented. Others who have deviated from required return times have done so because they were too involved in their research, or reluctant to stop in the middle of a project. The scientific mind operates in a different time reference than what we know, at times. But in each event, a reminder was sufficient to get the violator to come home. Rimzi has made it clear that he has no intention of returning home on his own."

Martin raised a hand to his forehead and rubbed it, plainly overwhelmed by this new information. "Well...he can't just walk around in plain view. People will chase after him with guns and dogs, just like they did you tonight. How much trouble can he cause here, if he's in hiding all the time?"

"He will not be in hiding. Not all the time. Observe."

The Simisant moved forward, until he was fully within the circle of light from the lantern. Martin sucked in his breath, clearly awed at the sheer size of his visitor.

But...that size suddenly changed. Without warning, the shape of the Simisant flowed, shortened, narrowed, completely changed in appearance. In only a few second's time, Martin Jemeson found himself staring at a carbon copy of himself!

"He's a shifter!" Kippy said, sounding amazed. "Like you, Charlie!"

At the same moment, they heard a gasp from the doorway of the carriage garage. With amazing speed, Akeeri turned and shot to the doorway, reached out, and pulled a woman into the light.

"Emma!" Martin cried, running forward. "Please don't hurt her! That's my wife!"

Akeeri had slowed, and was now simply leading the woman back into the light. She looked slightly dazed at the speed with which she had been discovered, but calmed as Martin reached her side.

She was an attractive woman, Charlie decided immediately. Her hair was done in a braided bun with a simple gold cinch clip in back, and her dress was obviously designed for house work, plain but pretty. She had a sweet face and intelligent eyes, and a courageous set to her lips that caused Charlie to like her immediately.

"Please," Martin said, taking his wife's other arm. "Let her go."

The duplicate Martin nodded, and released the woman. "She was listening."

"That's right," Emma said, nodding. "And I heard everything." She turned to fully face Akeeri now. "How can my husband and I help you?"

Mildred gave a happy sniff then, and Charlie had to smile at that.

"Brave woman," Dick said, his approval clear. "Now maybe we'll get somewhere."

"You heard everything?" Martin asked, looking astonished. "Why are you out here?"

His wife smiled at him. "Oh, Martin. It was clear when those men came to the house that something was happening. And it only takes a minute to check on a horse. I felt something was afoot the moment you didn't come right back to the house." She turned her smile on Akeeri. "And...I believe this one. His words strike me as the truth."

"Skwish," Kippy whispered. "I'm sure of it!"

Martin smiled, and pulled his wife closer. "See how lucky I am?" he said to Akeeri.

The other Martin turned to Emma. "You saw, as well as heard?"

"Yes. I...I saw you as you really are."

Akeeri flowed back into his former, towering self, and gave a little grunt. "Tiring. But now you can see how Rimzi can cause trouble here. By masquerading as one of you."

Emma shook her head. "It amazes me that this Rimzi would be willing to harm us in an effort to save us. It sounds counterintuitive to me."

"Because it is a political position, and not one of pure reason. Rimzi has rationalized the use of force as a means to an end." The big Simisant grunted. "A mindset I have found common to your species and mine."

Emma nodded. "So you are like, the police in your world?"

Again came the growling laugh. "Not quite. There is no law enforcement agency in my world empowered to cross into alternate realities. And, attempts have been made thus far to keep this incident quiet. I was hired by conducting the research in your world to find Rimzi and stop him before he caused harm here, and therefore in our own reality as a consequence."

Martin's mouth dropped open. "So you're a...a bounty hunter?"

"That is a term that might apply, though my reasons for accepting the job are more than for just compensation. I also happen to believe in the value of the research being done in alternate realities, and that those realities must also be protected from harm."

"It sounds noble, to me," Emma said. She turned to smile at her husband. "He's here to help us, and that's what matters. We must help him, if we can."

Martin considered that, and then nodded. "Can we help?" he asked Akeeri. "I have no idea how."

"You might," Akeeri said, sounding thoughtful. "Shape-changing is hard for me. It requires much energy, and is draining. Rimzi is more adept at it, and can keep up his charade far longer than I can. That limits my ability to track him when he is among your kind."

Emma gasped. "You know where he is?"

"Yes. There is a town nearby. He is there."

"Norwich!" Ricky said, sounding amazed. "It has to be!"

"Probably the only place close by that could really be called a town in this era," Dick agreed.

"This is all incredible!" Mildred put in, sounding every bit as if she was delighted to be a part of it.

"It's also a lot of fun!" Browbeat countered, tittering happily.

"Shh," Kippy warned then. "We'll miss something!"

"What would you like me to do?" Martin asked.

"Us to do," Emma corrected.

Martin smiled. "Us to do," he agreed.

Akeeri turned to look at the doorway where had just surprised Emma. "Perhaps we can go into your home and talk more comfortably. I believe your animal there - a horse, is it? - would be happier if I removed myself from this particular building."

"We can go in the house," Martin agreed. He turned to his wife. "Can you go first and draw the drapes? I don't want to chance those men with the dogs coming back and seeing something they shouldn't. Just do it causally, as you would any evening."

"I'll go right now," Emma agreed. She pulled up the hem of her dress, and moved quickly back to the door of the garage and exited.

Martin fingered his jaw as he turned his gaze back to Akeeri. "Best if you go back to looking like one of us as we walk to the house." He chuckled. "But not like me, of course. Anyone seeing that would likely come on a run!"

Akeeri again flowed down into a human being, and in an instant another man stood in his place.

"Who's that?" Martin asked, frowning. "He looks familiar."

"Someone I observed while watching the town. He came along the road, and seemed quite inebriated."

Martin's eyebrows shot upwards. "Drunk!" He snapped his fingers. "That's Calvin Bloom, the town drunk!"

"It will do to cross to your home," Akeeri insisted, perhaps with some humor in his voice. "I will endeavor not to bob and weave as this one did when I saw him."

Martin gave a little shake to his head, but started for the door, motioning Akeeri to follow him. "You have alcohol in your world?"

The snort that Akeeri returned sounded full of mirth. "Doesn't everyone?"

As the two men left the garage, the scene slowly faded from view. Charlie looked around, and found that they were back standing in Mildred's backyard. It was still light out, no darker than when the vision had started.

"What?" Dick said, looking around, mystified. "Did that all happen in an instant, or something?"

"Or something," Horace agreed. He looked at his watch. "About two minutes have passed since Castor first took us for a look into the past."

"That was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced!" Mildred offered. "Was it all true?"

"I"m sure it was," Charlie agreed. "Castor's ability to show past events is something we have experienced before."

"I'd also say it was true," Dick decided. "Akeeri said that Rimzi had already been in our world for two centuries. That would have allowed plenty of time for him to become the basis of the Nyah-gwaheh legends he so resembles."

"Mid-sixteen hundreds," Charlie noted, nodding. "Sounds right to me, too."

"What happens now?" Browbeat asked. "This isn't done, surely!"

In answer to that, the dragon medallion at Charlie's chest offered a brief flash of warmth, surely an agreement that they were not yet through observing the past.

"I think Castor is giving us a brief break to assimilate what we have learned thus far. I do think there will be more."

Kippy looked around at the trees. "I hope he does it before dark. I don't want to be standing out here, immersed in the past, when our leafy friend comes along."

"Maybe if we let Castor know we are ready to go on?" Adrian asked.

"Are we ready to proceed?" Rick wondered. "Anyone have anything to say now?"

Charlie looked around at the circle of faces, until his eyes landed on Mildred. "Anyone want to exit the group and go back inside?"

She smiled. "Just try to make me go back in the house!"

Charlie grinned and held up a hand. "I kind of doubt I'm up to it, actually,"

"Oh, boy!" Browbeat said, looking around excitedly at the others. "Is this getting fun, or what?"

Kippy reached over and rubbed the little flyer's back. "Happy Halloween, little friend."

"Friends! Happy Halloween back!"

That brought a round of smiles, and then they pretty much agreed they were ready to go on.

Charlie placed a hand over the dragon medallion on his chest, and passed on the idea that they were ready for more.

And as the world around them faded once again, he wondered what would come next.

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