“Oh my God!” Isabella cried as a blast of air thrust them forward down a tube in a wild zigzag. Seth’s shouts filtered into her ears as they whipped left and right. Then, without warning, the tube spat them out onto black asphalt. “Ouch!” Isabella rubbed her behind as she looked around them. “This looks like an alley or something.” There were black-brick walls on either side of them, and above their heads, warm light spilled from what looked like a blue sky.
“That can’t be the sky. We didn’t go that far up,” noted Seth.
“But it looks like it, and that definitely feels like the sun,” she replied.
They looked around, spotting lots of trash bins and decaying fliers taped to the walls. They heard what sounded like a train whistle followed by a loud rumble. Then, voices peeled into the alley, and above their heads, a little gray bird tweeted the calls of the train whistle and then repeated the rumbling noise. “It’s a mockingbird,” said Isabella.
“So that’s where he went.”
The bird flew a figure eight in the air and then, without warning, dive-bombed Seth’s head, missing it by a hair. “I told you it was going to attack!”
Before she could respond, the bird swooped by Isabella and into a doggy-door-size opening in the brick wall in front of them.
“Look! It went in there.” Isabella got up and moved toward the opening.
“Oh, no,” Seth said, scrambling up behind her. “I’m not going back into another dark hole.”
“But that bird saved us,” said Isabella.
“It just attacked me,” Seth reminded her.
“It led us out here, didn’t it?”
“It was just getting itself outside. We happened to head in the same direction. It’s not like it waited around for us.”
Before the rest of their argument could play out, commotion emanated from the bird’s hole. “I don’t think a mockingbird could make that much noise,” said Seth. “Something else is in there.” They both stood fixed in front of the small opening, like two deer about to be run over by a semi.
“I was actually a gray catbird,” began a teenage-sounding female voice. “But sometimes I do a black catbird or just a plain ole lil’ black cat. Depends on my mood. Technically, I’m not allowed to go feline, so I keep that under wraps.” She was still talking, but no one had appeared. “Oh, no!” the voice cried. “I think I miscalculated something. I’m stuck. Frickety frack! Help, please! I can’t change unless I’m upright.”
Unsure of what to do, Isabella looked at Seth.
“I’m not going near that thing. Let’s go,” he said.
“Just move the boxes to one side, and I can get out. Please!” the voice implored.
Isabella, ignoring Seth’s protests, knelt down in front of the hole and pulled free several pieces of cardboard. She immediately jumped back to her friend’s side, afraid that she’d made the wrong decision. If she thought about it, she knew her instincts rarely led her astray. Of course, she felt a little different down there: frightened and confused but also calm and less chaotic. She really could not explain the contradiction.
“Thanks so much!” the voice said as she crawled from the hole and stood before them. She was a girl. A short girl who looked to be no more than thirteen. Her hair was the color of rust and stuck to her head in loopy curls, and her eyes were a haunting sort of gray. She wore a ratty velvet coat, a too-big dress, and thick boots. “So, as I was saying, I do like to do the kitty thing when no one’s looking. It’s fun to curl up into a ball and roll, but it’s not safe to do that outside, really, and my mother would kill me.”
“Why’s that?” Isabella asked, curious, forgetting for a moment that the conversation was absurd.
“Well, I’m supposed to morph into a raven like the rest of my line, but nobody likes ravens. They have really bad reps, ya know?”
“I guess,” Isabella replied.
“So I do the catbird. I just don’t like the way they sound,” the girl babbled, exposing a row of teeth about half the size of a normal person’s. “I do admire the mockingbird’s ability to mimic, so I’ve mastered a way to morph the two. It’s a rare skill, but I can do it because I’m… well, me!”
“You mean to tell us you are that bird we just saw?” Seth asked.
“One and the same.” She thrust her hand out for one of them to shake. “Name’s Mimi.”
Seth eyed her. “How do you expect us to believe that you were that bird?”
“Why would I lie about something like that? It’s no big deal,” she replied with a good-natured smile.
“Yeah, Seth, it’s no big deal,” Isabella joked, taking a step backward. Mimi’s hand was still extended, unshaken. This girl couldn’t be that bird, really. Could she?
“Okay. If you’re some kind of sci-fi shape-shifter,” Seth continued, though the girl looked like she had no idea what he was talking about, “how do we know you weren’t the one chasing us with those tornadoes from hell?”
“Oh! I saw that, but I don’t really like chaos, so I hid until it was over.”
“Gee, thanks,” said Seth.
“But I did try to help her when she was drowning. I sent a boat, but you didn’t take it.” She turned from Seth to Isabella and folded her arms with a pout.
“If you’re not a shape-shifter, what are you?”
Her pout turned into a bright smile. “A morphling.”
“Sounds like another word for shape-shifter,” Seth muttered.
“I don’t know what you mean, but everyone knows what morphlings are.”
“Is that a type of empath?” asked Isabella.
“No, we’re nether-creatures. Somewhere between fair folk and you empaths.”
“Most of us are extinct. Except maybe the noxies in Druid Lake. Oh, and the ones who live in his forest, but they never come out. Unless you count the Bahrguest,” she said quickly. “I hate that thing.”
“Wait. First of all, whose forest? And what is a noxie and a—”
“Bahrguest? That’s just a big, black dog that comes out when people die an untrue death. He howls at the moon, and all the other dogs come out—unless they’re locked up, of course—and walk down the Avenue,” she said, nodding her head toward the opening in the alley.
“I don’t think I like the sound of that,” said Seth.
“Whose forest?” Isabella pressed, half-wondering if she’d say Jack Heel.
“What?” Mimi asked absently, as if she seemed to notice Seth for the first time. A faraway look touched her gray eyes.
“You said something about someone having a forest,” Isabella said through gritted teeth.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, Joseph Gaut,” she said dreamily, smiling at Seth for a moment longer before turning to Isabella. “I mean, no one’s ever seen him, so I don’t think he’s real. Other than the fair folk, he’s supposedly the only one who can talk to Yemaya.”
Isabella frowned. “Is that your word for God or something?”
The girl giggled. “No, silly. Yemaya is the oracle goddess of all of us elementals.”
“So she is your god?”
“No. It’s complicated…”
Isabella grasped her necklace and a light shone around it. Mimi looked at her with big, bright eyes. “Theophilus sent me to give you a message! If only I knew where it was or what he told me to tell you. Argh!” She fidgeted through her pockets but nothing was retrieved.
“You know Theophilus? What did he say?” Isabella’s anxiety was almost too much for even her pendant to keep in check. Seth watched her, his expression colored with anticipation and perplexity.
“I can’t seem to remember the words he sent for you. I’m sorry.” Mimi looked off into the distance as if her mind was clouded. “Oh, P.S., I would be extremely careful with the one who calls himself The One True Light… He is no fun.”
“The one feared by all. The one who wants him, who wants the Fire. The one who wants…” She inaudibly mumbled another word.
“What did you say?” asked Seth.
Mimi looked around with wide eyes as she mouthed, ”You’re cute.”
Seth rolled his eyes. “Is that why you dive-bombed my head?” He then turned to Isabella with raised eyebrows. “We need to find the others. And I’m so done with this wetsuit!”
“Okay, then we need to focus on finding the lost heir,” said Isabella. Mimi gasped; Isabella had no idea why. She looked toward the opening in the alley. “Is this really a street? You called it the ‘Avenue,’ didn’t you?” She looked back to Mimi when the girl didn’t immediately answer. But no one was there. “Where’d she go? Why do people keep disappearing into thin air?”
Seth looked around and shrugged. “She was weird, anyway. Let’s go.”
“How can you be so calm? Aren’t you still freaked out?”
“After being attacked by those things in there and seeing that bird turn into a girl, I’ve decided to give up on being shocked at this point.”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Let’s hope we don’t get sucked into anymore tubes.”
Seth started toward the noise coming from the opening in the alley.
Isabella gasped. “Get back here!”
He followed her line of sight as she pointed at a sign that swung high above them. It was shaped like a pair of goggles with an arrow pointing to its destination. “Dodge’s Diverting Delectables,” she read.
“Theophilus,” they said in unison. Thank God.
“He’s obviously not gonna be there,” surmised Isabella, “but maybe we can get some answers.”
They approached the corner of the alley. Before Isabella could inch a toe beyond it, Seth held her back with his arm. “Wait until I say it’s all clear.”
“What are you doing?”
“Just be still until I say to move.”
She tried very hard not to grind her teeth. He was still playing Mr. Tough Guy. “Seth?”
“What?” he sounded annoyed but looked back anyway.
“Let’s go find some dry clothes.”
He sighed. “And some food. I’m starving.”
The sound of horse hooves clopping on pavement filled her ears. That can’t be right. The telltale stench of horse wafted into the alley.
A man wearing a tight, charcoal suit and a black bowler hat lumbered past, pulling a large black steed behind him. Just like Charlie Chaplin in that cutout she’d seen in the Freakland Lagoon back there.
“That’s so random,” said Seth, peering around the corner. “It’s a street, a huge street, with people, lots of ‘em. Like it’s downtown L.A. or Midtown Manhattan or something. Well, maybe not that crowded. And all decorated. It’s like a town square but way cooler.”
He held her shoulders, hovering behind her as she peered onto the street. She couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a street, an avenue, like the girl had called it, but not like any avenue she’d seen before. Decorated with wreaths plus blue, green, silver, and gold bows, and eight-pointed stars, it looked like a vintage Hollywood village imprinted for the holidays, yet not so commercial. Hunter-green banners with the letters and S embossed in gold hung from the light posts.
“E.S…. Empath Society,” Isabella whispered to herself. “Awesome.” Even more impressive was the design of the thoroughfare. Sidewalks were patterned in a large checkerboard of gray and black stones. Running down the center of it all were two terrestrial rails, as if for a tram system of some kind, with no room for automobiles. Footbridges crossed up and over the streets at the corner of each block. And shops with uniquely designed signs almost seemed to wink at every passerby, as the soft light from above filtered down over them in a peaceful haze.
“Let’s just slip out and try to act like we’re not flipped out, okay?” Isabella insisted.
“Well, I think it’s pretty awesome, but just the same, stay close,” he said.
They eased around the corner. Isabella started to walk, but she heard Seth clear his throat. “Izzy, I think the sign was pointing this way…” Seth trailed off, eyes wide, as two car-size vehicles zipped down the rail lines. “Whoa!”
“Guess it’s not a tram,” she said. A third zoomed by in the opposite direction. They were all different colors and shapes, like mini-bullet trains.
“Sick!” Seth exclaimed once more, pushing past a woman wearing a bird hat who eyed him as if he were some oddity. The look she gave Isabella was not much different.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but do you happen to know where Dodge’s Diverting Delectables is located? Or do you have a cell phone we could use?” Isabella had an inkling that phones were not commonplace here, but the thought of calling someone from home—maybe Elyse or Rolf; okay, not Rolf—might have been a good idea.
The woman laughed out loud. “Do you think this is the 1980s? We haven’t used phones in the Underground for thirty years. Haven’t you heard of the empath network? Cell phones…! Why they open the portal for Wintertide, I’ll never know,” she said tiredly, eyeing Isabella up and down. Self-consciously, Isabella looked down and gripped her necklace. “And why are you both soaking wet?”
“We went diving today,” Isabella said, feeling a shiver run through her body.
“During Wintertide? Mighty cold for that.” The woman stepped closer to Isabella and studied her eyes, ears, and nose. “Where’s your seal?”
“Your seal. The Light Council has every citizen on watch for invaders. If you’re from sky-side, you still have to have been given a seal. I am not one to discriminate but have to protect my own, you understand? I’m just glad you’ll be gone when the portal closes if you are that kind.”
Isabella did not understand at all. Seth’s attention seemed stuck to the traffic beside them, as a blue then a black then yellow car-like vehicle sped by on the rail.
“Your seal, youngster, or I shall report you to the Hall Patrol or worse, the Shadows.”
“Did you see that man?” Seth interrupted, eyes shining like a child on his first trip to the circus. “His face was glowing—purple!”
“Violet,” the bird-hat woman amended. “Haven’t heard of the violet ones? The diadems?”
“The what?” Isabella asked.
“Show me your necklace, girl, and you, boy, show me your ring.”
Realization dawned on Isabella, and she pulled out the necklace Theophilus had given her from beneath her wetsuit. Bird-hat woman snatched the pendant. When she turned it over, her eyes grew as big as flapjacks. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Forgive me,” she muttered.
“But what did you mean when you said the portal closes?” Isabella asked before the woman could retreat.
“The portal closes as the clock strikes midnight on the first of the year,” she said, her eyes turned down, and then dashed down the road.
“That was weird. And it’s freezing!”
“I know, and I’m hungry,” Seth complained. “Did you notice that bird on her head? Do you think it was one of that Mimi girl’s relatives?”
“Ew. Don’t be scary.”
“You never know. Could have been won in battle. Like the Celts, when they walked around with enemy skulls on a stick so they could tell stories about how they’d killed each guy on their kabob.”
“That’s gross, Seth.”
“It’s true! And pretty cool if you ask me.”
“Boys,” she sighed. “Well, I’m sure there’s some place we can get some food around here.”
“I think I see a place up the road.” She followed him, thinking that eating might be nice.
As they walked, she noticed that cool air flowed all around them. It was cold enough to mimic a winter chill, yet warm enough to not cause frostbite. “We definitely need some dry clothes now. It’s freezing.” She resisted the urge to clutch Seth’s hand for warmth. ”My hair’s like a sponge, so I’m really cold,” she said, teeth chattering.
“Do you think they have some kind of air pumps down here?” Seth asked. “They have to, right?” They continued on, passing shop after shop; people stared at them as they walked by. “How come we never knew about this place? You, especially. It’s right under your hotel.” An old man with a white beard and a capuchin monkey on his shoulder passed them. “He was wearing a fez like that weird tour guide,” he noticed.
Isabella looked back and grinned, arms tucked across her chest. “Oh yeah… You remember that guy’s name? The one the tour guide mentioned, I mean?”
“Fleck or Neck or something.”
He really thought he was funny, didn’t he? “Peck,” Isabella corrected, not bothering to play into his joke. “Do you also remember that other name in that room we found? Millford Peck?”
Seth nearly tripped over an enormous dog; it had the build of a springer spaniel but was the size of a Great Dane. “You mean the room with our parents’ names on those gold pen things?”
“Betty’s name was on one, too. You know, my favorite chef at the hotel?”
“Oh, the chowder-taco lady, right?”
“Exactly,” she said, impressed that he remembered. “The only name I didn’t know was Millford Peck… until you mentioned that tour guide a second ago. Didn’t he mention someone with that name?”
“That can’t be the same guy! That guy was a loony tune.”
“So what?” she said, exasperated, although she knew she should not expect Seth to have a penchant for names like she did. “But that was his boss’s name. Remember?”
“Maybe,” he said without commitment.
“Never mind,” she grumbled as they came upon a small shop with a carved sign shaped like a coffee cup and what looked like real steam billowing from its center.
“You think they sell pecan pie?”
“We should eat real food, Seth. Not pie.”
“Pie is real food.”
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