The beast released a jet of smoky fire from the back of its throat.
My back paws scrabbled on the wet stone. At the last second, friction took over and I jumped to the side then raced behind him, slashing backhanded with my sword. A howl erupted from the fox as the edge sliced through the tendon of one back leg. The howl ended in a screech and I turned to see Waffles with his teeth clamped on the foxes’ neck just under its chin.
As the creature reared back, its damaged leg gave out and it toppled over, fire bursting from its mouth and filling the small room with light. I scrambled into the monster’s ear and thrust my sword in as far as it would go. Again. And again. It screamed and shook its head, but I held fast.
Grabbing Waffles’s fur, Gretchen scuttled up and onto the fox’s cheek, then grasped the nail with both hands and drove it into its swirling eye while Dichall jabbed his pencil into its side.
It fell over, its fire extinguished, plunging the room into darkness.
The only sound was our panting, and the patter or rain on the leaves outside. A faint light shone through the hole in the outer wall.
I coughed and jumped down. “Let’s get out of here before its mate shows up… or worse!” I started for the hole, not caring if anyone followed me or not.
They did though, and we walked out and gulped deep breaths of moist, fresh air, feeling the rain pour down.
“I don’t think I’m burned. Just my fur.” Waffles shook himself then peered at his legs through one eye.
I squinted and tried to see into the forest through the downpour. “Is there more to this locus? Or is it just this building?”
Gretchen shook her head. “They can be huge or tiny. I think this might be a small one. Most of them are. But we’ll have to walk around to make sure.”
I sighed and glanced over my shoulder back into the room, nervous about what might be lurking. We’d never hear it coming. The body was still in there, the outline barely visible. Not moving. And neither was anything else. C’est bon.
“She has to be here, right?” Waffles was sniffing the air. “You said she was in Panama.”
“Pananima. Not Panama, that’s a country.” Gretchen picked up a leaf and drank some water that had collected in it. “We might have gone to the wrong locus.”
“You mean… There’s not a one-to-one correspondence between the woods and a locus?” Waffles’s voice rose in pitch.
Gretchen shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. One geopattern can connect to many. If Vivian isn’t here, we’ll need to go back and try again. I’m sorry, Waffles.”
My stomach dropped at the thought. How many monsters would be in the next one? I put my paw on my belly, hoping I hadn’t disturbed the pregnancy. I sighed, then climbed up on Waffles’s back. “In any case, she’s not here. Let’s go – maybe she’s somewhere nearby.” My cloak was soaked. I was going to freeze when we got back to the cold winter of the Mundane World.
The others joined me and Waffles started out into the rain – sniffing the ground as he walked. When it finally appeared that we’d explored the limits of this world I sighed again, then turned to the others. “This is a bust. Let’s head back.”
Waffles turned his head to direct his speech at Gretchen, tucked into the fur on his back. “Do I need to shut my eye?”
“Nein. You don’t know these woods. Just walk back in the direction we came from, and I’ll try to invoke the geopattern.”
Good. I buried myself next to Dichall in the dog’s fur and tried not to think about the coming winter.
Waffles nodded, turned toward the woods, and set off. The trees closed around us, things seemed to shift slightly as we walked and eventually we saw snow. Seconds later the temperature dropped, my wet cloak stiffened and froze solid. I pulled it off, then huddled up with Dichall and Gretchen. I waited till I had her attention, then locked eyes with her. “How can we make sure we get to the right locus next time?”
Gretchen shivered with Dichall and me in Waffles’s undercoat. I could see the gears turning in her head for several moments, then: “If I had an idea of what it looked like, I can maybe picture it. That would help.”
I poked my head out of the fur. “Waffles, can we go to Vivian’s room?”
“I can get you in through the dog door. But my family will want to dry and maybe bathe me, so you’ll need to go hide as soon as we’re inside. Can you do something about my burned fur? If they see that, they’ll lock the dog door forever.”
I frowned. “We can nibble them off… maybe. That okay?”
Waffles nodded, panting happily, and ignored us as we set to work on the singed patches.
We’d cleaned up one patch and were working on the second when Gretchen exploded into action. “Wait!” She practically scratched me as she scrambled out of Waffles’s fur. “Stop! Stop the dog!”
Waffles stopped so fast we almost tumbled off. He stood frozen, eyes darting from side to side. All we could hear was a breeze of cold air blowing through the woods.
Dichall recovered first. He reached up and tugged on Gretchen’s clothing. “What is it?”
Gretchen held up her arms, and down into them fluttered a moth. She cradled it gently while looking down at us, smiling. “It’s my new familiar. Meet Emerson.”