Gretchen blinked up at me from out of the floof. “Do you see something?”
“No, everything looks the same. But that bird was talking nonsense.”
Gretchen crawled up next to me, Emerson fluttering on her shoulder. She looked up at the nuthatch. “Ma’am? Have you seen a little girl?”
Eip eip eip.
Gretchen surveyed the environment. “Ja. We’re here. Waffles, you can look now.”
Waffles blinked and got his bearings. “Looks just like the woods behind the house. Are you sure we’re in?”
“It’s a different locus than the one we were in before.” Gretchen nestled back into Waffles’s fur. “This one has the same weather as the Mundane World, it looks like. Keep moving, but don’t go out in the open.”
The dog changed course to walk under the cover of some low-hanging pine branches. After a minute, he stopped and sniffed. “I got something.” He moved his snout in the air, then brought it to the ground, sniffing. “Not human. It’s not anything I recognize.” He pointed his nose at a spot in the snow. “Right there.”
I got down and sniffed. He was right. Not human. Not any animal I recognized either. Something unnatural, something terrible.
Waffles pointed his nose deeper into the woods, sniffing. “That way.”
I got back on and we moved forward slowly, sniffing and looking around. Nervous, I kept turning around to make sure nothing snuck up behind us. We heard sounds of civilization before we saw anything else—first a clunking sound, perhaps wood on wood. We crept forward until we saw something…
Through a tangle of leafless branches we saw an old-fashioned stone well, covered with a snow-covered roof. Leaning over, into the top of the well was a humanoid figure, its back to us. The wind changed, and we caught a whiff of its fetid, otherworldly stench.
Waffles stopped and lay down in the snow, silent.
We mice poked up our heads and watched. The figure lifted a rope again and again, until the sound of ice breaking came from deep within the well. Using the pulley, it pulled up a bucket of water, took it in its hands and turned around. It was vaguely female, with a humanlike but misshapen face. She had no chin, no lower jaw, and her long teeth hung like icicles from the top of her mouth. As she adjusted her grip on the large bucket of water, a drop of saliva dripped from a long tooth into the snow at her feet. She blinked her eyes, one at a time, and turned, following her own footsteps in the snow away from us. The rustling of her clothing sent another waft of her alien scent toward us. My mouth went dry, and I shuddered at the sight of this monster.
I waited until she was out of view. “Follow her tracks but keep your distance. We don’t know how sharp her ears and nose are.”
Her cloth boots left clear imprints in the fresh snow for us to track. Behind us, dog prints were just as easy to see. We are vulnerable. I held dog fur with my left paw and the cold metal of Grim’s blade with my right.
The creature led us into what looked like a Medieval town of stone buildings—or what I thought a Medieval town would look like from the toy advertisements I’d seen in catalogues. There were other beings there, too, vaguely humanoid, like the first, but wrapped in clothing against the cold, so I couldn’t see their features clearly.
Waffles hid behind a fence around someone’s yard.
There was one building that stretched at least twice as tall as all the rest. It didn’t appear to be made of storeys, like most buildings, but rather spiraled up, as though the inside was one, long, twisting ramp. That’s what I gathered from the placement of the windows, anyway.
Dichall pointed to it. “Looks like we should check that out. Waffles, you want to wait here?”
“No! I didn’t travel to another world to wait in the cold. Vivian is out there somewhere.”
I patted his head from my position on his neck. “We might be able to sneak in there, but I don’t think a Pomeranian will be able to. Not without being seen.”
“I can run! We don’t even know if it’s dangerous. What if you need a quick exit?”
“Stay here.” Dichall’s voice had just a little too much edge to it. I glanced at him, trying to read him, but his face was neutral.
“No, I’m coming.” Waffles started around the fence into a small alleyway, headed deeper into town. “I’m headed toward that tower, unless you mice have a better idea.”
Dichall opened his mouth, his eyes narrowed, but I put my paw on his. He looked at me and his face softened. Then he nodded and said nothing.
Waffles took narrow paths past stone buildings, and as we got further in, we heard voices and motion. The wind shifted and Waffles stopped short. We all smelled it at once.
Her black head peeked around the corner of an outhouse beside one of the town’s buildings. She was big, her head probably the size of Waffles, without his fur, anyway. A low growl came from deep within her, and one lip curled up, revealing one large, yellowed canine tooth. She stepped out, shaking snowflakes from her shiny coat. That was a lot of dog.
Waffles didn’t even wait to see if we were hanging on before he turned and darted back the way we came. From behind us we heard an angry bark—disturbingly not words, just a bark.
I held on tightly and looked back to see her following us.
There was no way we were going to outrun her.