I climbed onto the dog’s head. “Waffles, when we get a ways in, you close your eye. I will steer you by touching your ears. I’ll tell you if you have to jump or if there is a stick in front of you or something.”
In response he nodded, during which I bounced up and down, holding tight to his fur.
After we’d walked about half a kilometer into the Gatineau park, Gretchen poked up over Waffles’s head. “I think I’m ready to try to activate the geopattern. Just keep walking, and I will concentrate my spirit on it.”
I attempted to steer Waffles around bushes and over fallen trees.
Gretchen closed her eyes. “Easy, nice and slow. Do you know where you are?”
Waffles rambled aimlessly, half ignoring me and more than once almost ramming his nose into a tree as I yanked on his ear. “No idea. And I can’t smell Vivian, either.”
“Good.” Gretchen breathed deeply, sitting very still, as she went into her trance.
We rode in silence another half a kilometer, but nothing appeared to change. I frowned and looked around, scanned the underbrush and the treetops. Then stood up on the dog’s head and turned around to look back the way we’d come. Nothing. The woods looked exactly the same. Did we miss it? Something poked at my thoughts and made me look harder at the ground. Snow. There wasn’t any snow. Water splattered on my nose and I jerked my head up to stare at the sky. It was… raining? It was too cold for rain. “Gretchen…”
“Are those leaves I feel under my feet?” Waffles sniffed the ground.
I remembered with a start what I was supposed to be doing, whirled around and sat down, then tugged hard on Waffles’s right ear as he almost walked into a blackberry bush.
Gretchen got my attention with a paw on my back. I turned to her and saw her with her eyes open. “Eve, I think we’re in a locus. Everybody, look sharp. Waffles, you too.”
The dog stopped and we all looked around. More water splattered on me, then the sky opened and rain descended. Warm rain. Well, warmer rain anyway – I wrinkled my nose… the smell of wet dog isn’t something I enjoy. We were definitely not in Quebec anymore. I sniffed at the air but the stench of Waffles’s rain-drenched fur drowned everything else out. “Waffles, do you smell anything?”
“Yes, but it’s not Vivian.” He turned his head to the left. “There’s something that way.” He began trotting, avoiding the leaves and stepping on rocks and logs when he could for silent progress.
I saw it first. “Mes amis. There’s a building up ahead.”
The structure was two storeys high and what I could see of it was constructed out of corrugated steel.
Waffles stepped out of the protection of the trees where the rain poured harder. Yelping, he flattened his ears and dashed for a small dark spot on the side of the building near the ground. It turned out to be a rusty hole, dented in as if something had rammed into the building in the past. He crept through on his belly, then stood and shook while we hung on for dear life.
“Next time you do that,” I said while blinking rain from my eyes, “let us get off, first.” I put my hood back, then looked up at a ceiling only about half a meter above my head. This place was not built for humans. I shivered—who, or what, was it built for? I sniffed the air again. “I smell…” My stomach clenched and my heart threatened to leap from my chest. “…fox.”
Gretchen poked her head between me and Dichall. “Oh, ah, speaking of foxes. There’s something I forgot to tell you… The animals in Pananima, they’re not… smart.”
Waffles was licking his paws. “That’s not a very nice thing to say.”
I looked at Gretchen, confusion written across my face. “What do you mean, not smart?”
“I mean they’re like humans think we are. You can’t talk to them, and they can’t talk to you. You can’t reason with them, because all they understand are instincts and hunger. Showing them your bead does nothing because not only do they not know what it is, they wouldn’t care if they did. If there’s a fox in here, he will try to kill us. And if there isn’t one in here, there most certainly are outside.”
Waffles stopped licking his paw and started sniffing the air.
I stared at Gretchen in stunned silence while trying to wrap my mind around the idea of an animal that couldn’t talk, then tried for smells again. Still nothing but fox – but at least not fresh fox. “Well, even if we can’t smell Vivian, we should check it out.” I pulled out Grim’s blade, which I was now carrying after I had to surrender Grassblade to the Council Library. I grabbed a handful of the dog’s hair with one paw, grapsed Grim’s blade in the other, and straightened my shoulders. “Let’s go, Waffles, that ceiling’s too low for the size of this building, find the way upstairs.” Gretchen and Dichall settled down on Waffle’s spine and sat back-to-back, one looking to the right, the other looking to the left.
Waffles sniffled at the floor for a few seconds, then began meandering around. It took several minutes but at last we came to a small spiral stone staircase and wafting down it was the cloying scent of fox. I gripped the blade harder and peered up into the darkness. A second later, something leapt out of the darkness and down the stairs at us, emitting a horrendous sound that was a mixture of glass breaking and a hawk screeching. It faced us, growling: a fox, but yet not a fox. The licks of flame emerging from its nostrils really drove home the point that not only were we not in Québec, we weren’t even on Earth anymore.
Waffles leaped off the stairs and dashed a few feet away, then spun around to face the monster. The smell of singed tail-hair mingled with the odors of fox, and nearly made me gag.
We bailed out, leaping to the floor, dashing to the sides, and backing away from the battle.
The fox sprung – soaring over our heads only an inch below the ceiling, to land between us and the rusty hole. It turned and screeched at us.
“Micean Council!” Dichall held his bead up.
The creature just screeched louder, and took a step toward us.
“It was worth a try.” Dichall planted his newly sharpened pencil eraser-down in front of him and pointed the end at the beast like a pike.
I grasped Grim’s blade with both hands and held it in front of me. Gretchen stepped beside me, her carpenter’s nail held back, ready to be thrust forward.
The monster took another step toward us and lowered its head slightly, staring at us with eyes that changed colour wildly from moment to moment, like swirling eddies of froth in the stream.
It’s not a fox, I told myself, you can’t reason with it. Between us and the exit, the only way out was through. I gripped my blade, mustered my courage, and ran right at it.