We pigeoned to the kindergarten early in the morning to beat the rush of children, but late enough to follow a teacher inside and snuck in through a door propped open by somebody on a smoke break.
After making our way to the kindergarten classroom, where a lone teacher tapped at a computer, we found a hiding spot in a pile of stuffed animals and cased the place. The room was full of small chairs and desks, toys, a bookshelf, and cubbies labeled with first names. So far nothing looked unusual.
“What’s the big deal?” I yawned. “Don’t children just get listless sometimes?”
Gretchen nodded. “Ja, it might be nothing. But if there are happiness-eaters here, which seems likely, it could endanger the children. If a kid gets her happiness eaten too much, she starts to lose the ability to create it. She could be depressed for the rest of her life.”
Well, that did seem pretty serious.
I thought for a moment, and then turned to my team. “Have you noticed that with all the faerie activity lately, and with what Musk Muskmusk told the council… I feel like we’re just taking out the fae’s footsoldiers.”
Dichall sniffed. “We’re mice. It makes sense we deal with things our size.”
He had a point, but I felt uneasy about it. I forced myself to shrug and get to work. “Let’s focus on the present. Gretchen, would you take a look with your magical sight?”
Gretchen concentrated for a moment, then gestured with her snout. “I don’t see anything of note. If there’s something here, it’s hiding.”
Dichall pointed to a shelf. “Let’s find a good vantage point for a stake out. Something will show up.”
We found some dusty toys on a shelf and hid ourselves among them, figuring that they didn’t get played with much. Soon the pupils came in, and the room went from soothing silence to chaotic activity. But much too quiet for small kids. They milled about or practiced tying their shoes, writing words, and drawing.
It didn’t look right. “Aren’t kids this age a little more, I don’t know, excitable?” I hadn’t meant to mutter outloud, but apparently I did because Dichall nodded at me.
“I agree.” Dichall leaned forward, leaning on his weapon. “These young ones are acting more like turtle babies than human ones.”
“Look! Look at the pages.” I pointed to an oversized picture book one of the kids was reading.
The child’s eyes lit up as one of the characters on the page waved to him.
Clever. The faeries were flat, hiding, nestled in the pages of the books.
The faerie did cartwheels on the page, and the child giggled a little. Then the creature reached up, off the page, and touched the kid’s thumb. The joy stopped abruptly.
“Happiness-eaters. Nailed it!” Gretchen slapped the shelf, nodding.
The faerie was making faces at the kid now, trying squeeze more happiness out of her.
“See this? They sometimes create happiness so they can consume it. But these kids are burned out.”
“How do we kill it?” I looked around again, but we were so far away it was hard to make out what was on the pages of other books.
“We don’t want to spook them,” Gretchen stayed me with her paw, lest I jump down, sword blazing. “We need to find out how many there are. When we get them, we want to get them all.”
Dichall nodded and put his paw on my shoulder too.
I glanced at it.
“Look,” he waved his other paw toward the room, “in the corner, there’s a boy reading alone. We can ask him which books are haunted,” He glanced at my eyes, and quickly pulled his paw away. What look did I give him to make him do that?
We worked our way around the room and down to floor level. We could hear the child laughing and talking to the book.
“Hi,” Dichall stepped out in front of the child, “What are you reading?”
The kid glanced up and smiled slightly. I expected more of a reaction to his seeing some mice wearing clothes. But all these kids seemed somehow diminished.
A little faerie paw reached up from the book and touched his wrist, and the smile faded instantly. There was a happiness-eater in his book! I shuddered.
But Dichall, if he noticed, didn’t react to the faerie. “We’re interested in the books you have here—the ones that have pictures that move. Can you tell me which books can do that?”
But just then the faerie poked his head over the top of the book and looked at us. He was in the form of a fox illustration, flat and apparently drawn from pastels, about a mouse-tail long. He pointed a paw at us. “Don’t talk to them! They want to take us away! They want to kill me!”
Well, that was true.
The kid made eye contact with the faerie, then pulled the book to his chest protectively.
“Keep me safe! And go tell the teacher there are mice in the classroom!” The faerie smiled wickedly at us as the kid ran to the teacher, carrying the closed book in his hands, the faerie’s head poking out the top like an evil bookmark.
This wasn’t good.
We scrambled out of sight behind a plastic box.
“Okay, kids!” The teacher stood up. “It sounds like we have some mice in the classroom.”
“And they’re wearing clothes!”
The teacher, predictably, ignored this elaboration.
“The bookshelf must have a hundred books!” Gretchen gestured at the shelf. “If we were going to get to all the faeries in them, we were going to need the help of the children.”
I peeked around the box, keeping watch. “The teacher’s coming with a broom!”
“Follow me!” I led us up to hide behind the first shelf of books. We felt safer in the darkness. The teacher moved things and banged the broom around, trying to flush us out.
She gave up after a few minutes. I don’t think she really wanted to find us.
“We’re too late!” Gretchen threw down her carpenter’s nail in frustration. “These kids have had all of the happiness drained from them already!”
“All of it?” I was horrified.
Gretchen shrugged. “We still need to try to kill them. Salvage what’s left of these kids’ minds. But a team should have been here weeks ago.” She rubbed her eyes and sighed.
I looked from Gretchen to Dichall. All three of us were tired. We still hadn’t rested from our mission to the museum.
“And how are we going to get them all? Look how many books there are in here! We’re never going to find all the faeries in here!” Gretchen kicked a particularly large book next to us. “I don’t even think we could get this one off the shelf, and we certainly don’t have time look at every page. And before we were done with half of them, some of these wily faeries would have moved to books we’d already cleared!”
“Get a hold of yourself, Gretchen Flix.” Dichall leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. “When the kids go to lunch we’ll get started.”
Gretchen just shook her head and turned away.
I put my paw on her back. “Gretchen, try to get some sleep.”
Gretchen nodded, curled up in the darkness, and was dozing in three breaths.
I kept watch with heavy eyelids until the teacher eventually herded the kids to the cafeteria. “All right.” I got up. “Let’s get to it.”
I woke Gretchen and we got to work, starting with the book we knew was haunted. Dichall and Gretchen turned the big pages (they had to walk to do this; it was a big book), while I stood, my magical sword Grassblade held high and ready. I put a few holes in the pages before I actually managed to kill any faeries. They kept slipping around and hiding in the illustrations.
One of them peeled off the page and darted across the floor. Dichall threw Grim’s blade at it and got it before it could slip its flat body under the door.
Sometimes they ran. Others held still, hid in the illustrations.
I was getting good at seeing the little differences that gave them away, though. But the truth was, there was no way to know how many we missed that day.
We worked through all the books we could, but by the time the kids’ lunchtime was over we were as exhausted as all the kids looked. The floor was a mess—we certainly didn’t have the strength to put the books back.
We’d killed about eight faeries and tossed them in the trash, where Gretchen assured me they’d disintegrate quickly. We snuck out of the room, and slogged outside to try to get a ride.
I shook my head as we scanned the sky for a bird. “So is this all there is? We just take out the faeries as they show up?”
“That’s what the Micean Council does, mostly.” Dichall just sat in the snow, looking down. We were all cranky.
I held my cloak tight around me for warmth. “But what about the fae draining spark for that sculptor? Are the owls going to take care of her?”
Dichall shivered in the cold. “If they get the time. They’re busy.”
“But the owl organization—the uh, the…”
“The Oversight Parliament.”
“Right. It’s part of their mandate, right?”
“The owls are weird.” Dichall pulled my hood over my head. “It’s like they’re half spy organization, half superhero team, and half Micean Council.”
“That’s three halves.”
“Like I said. They’re weird.”
I shook my head. “Listen, you two, I have a faerie-killing weapon. Kids are getting sick and the Council is stretched thin,” I picked Gretchen up to a standing position. “I think we need to go after the fae.”
Dichall swallowed. “Didn’t we agree that going after a fae was, basically, suicidal?”
“Are you scared?”
He looked away, refusing to answer.
I shrugged. “I just don’t see another way for this to play out in our favour, long term.”
Eyes blazing, he whirled around and lit into me. “Yes I’m scared! I can’t understand your lack of empathy for me.”
“You’re the one with an empathy problem.” I turned to Gretchen. “What do you think?”
Gretchen scanned the sky for a bird. “Those are not our orders, Eve Pixiedrowner.”
Dichall shook his head. “Beatrice Brownbrow would disapprove.”
I held up Grassblade. “We took that sword, against the rules, and now you don’t even want to do anything with it!”
Gretchen frowned and looked away.
I sighed, exasperated. “Why are we on these missions? To fight evil. The way I see it, we fight evil the best way we know how. Isn’t that why we’re here? Are you telling me we have a magical weapon and we’re just going to use it to kill the fae’s little underlings? Is that what you want to do?”
Gretchen narrowed her eyes at me. “You’ve only been a Councilmouse for a few days! What we do is not your decision. You has no idea what’s out there.”
Dichall cocked his head and lowered his voice. “We’re a team of three.”
I didn’t know what he meant by that, but admitting it would make me look like I knew nothing, which was Gretchen’s point.
Gretchen rubbed her eyes. “Okay, Let’s make a plan, just in case.”
Dichall smiled at me. “It’s easier to argue when you’re right. Ah, there’s a bird!” He whistled at a passing pigeon.