Alexandra sat on the cave floor, within earshot of the underground pool where Geegowl "fished" for prey. She could hear water lapping against stone, but Sees-From-Laurel had led her somewhere the bugbear would be less tempted by fresh warm girl-flesh, and where Alexandra would be less tempted to set things on fire. The small creature had also left her alone long enough to put on another change of dry clothes. While she did that, she unwound the bugbear's hair from her wrist and stuffed it into the backpack.
"I'm sure your modesty is admirable among your own folk," Sees-From-Laurel said, when he returned, "but you should know, it's rather silly here. Your bare hide is no more interesting to me than Geegowl's."
"You don't talk like any elf I've ever met," Alexandra said. "Not like house-elves or the Generous Ones, and you don't talk like the hill dwarves either."
She set her lantern between them, and Sees-From-Laurel took a cross-legged sitting position within its circle of radiance.
Sees-From-Laurel had elfin features: a wrinkled, bare scalp, pointed ears, protuberant eyes, and a surprisingly long nose. His skin was muddy-dark in the lamplight. Interestingly, his garb appeared to be random bits of cast-off items. His flowing white and blue shirt's stitched quilting looked like something a human infant might once have worn. His pants were a patchwork of assorted scraps of clothing, and he wore bracelets that included a bottle cap with the center cut out.
Sees-From-Laurel said, "Hill dwarves are not my kin at all. We have not a drop of blood in common. The Generous Ones are a tribe from the Lands Below. They are a strange, dark folk. And house-elves… well, I'll thank you not to compare me with them. My folk are like yours in a way. The blood of the Little People who lived in these hills long before the arrival of wizards from across the ocean is mixed with the blood of the servile creatures you brought with you. I and my kin are both and neither, and as much a part of this land as any. And —" Suddenly his voice rose to a comical, nasal squeak: "We doesn't talk like this, Missus Troublesome."
Alexandra cleared her throat. The lineage of New World elves was interesting, but… "Why do you want me to kill this jimplicute?"
"It is a fearsome beast that hunts us in these tunnels. It has devoured many of us."
"Oh, so you don't like monsters who want to eat you?" Alexandra said. "Imagine that."
Sees-From-Laurel narrowed his eyes.
"Why don't you just leave?" Alexandra snapped her fingers. "I know your folk, whatever you call yourselves…" She waited, but Sees-From-Laurel did not fill in the blank. "…can pop in and out of any location, just about."
"We cannot leave this mountain," Sees-From-Laurel said. "We have been trapped here."
"It is complicated," said Sees-From-Laurel.
"Try explaining it. I'm pretty smart."
The lids fell halfway down Sees-From-Laurel's large eyes, as he regarded her with an expression she read as amusement, exasperation, or cunning — possibly all three.
"There are oaths and wards that bind us, as they bind your house-elves," Sees-From-Laurel said. "We made a Compact with the Ozarkers ages ago. Originally we were free to come and go. But the Confederation made a pact with the dwarves, paying them with goblin gold to trap us in this mountain. Now we cannot leave, but neither are we permitted to war against other Beings, and so we cannot exact vengeance against the odoriferous hill-folk."
This only raised more questions in Alexandra's mind. She opened her mouth, but Sees-From-Laurel said, "Yes, you are curious to know more, but I have told you enough. Suffice it to say the jimplicute is a plague upon our folk. And upon the dwarves as well, though they are mostly able to keep it out of their tunnels. They fear it only when they venture outside. They undoubtedly meant to feed you to the jimplicute, in the hopes that it would be sated for a while."
"Is the jimplicute a Being, like Geegowl?"
"No, the jimplicute is not a talking beast."
"So why can't you kill it? Isn't your magic strong enough to just drop a big rock on it or something?"
"No," said Sees-From-Laurel firmly, "it has to be done by a wizard. Or a witch. Didn't you say you were on a Quest?"
"Yes," Alexandra admitted reluctantly. And this sure sounded like a Quest. Go kill a magical creature that other magical beings asked you to. But something smelled funny about the whole thing. "I've never actually seen a jimplicute. You want to tell me anything about it?"
"It is very large and very fast, and it has enough teeth to bite you in half," said Sees-From-Laurel. "But humans almost never see it, because it is so fast and because it fears your wands, the only things that can slay it. Well, perhaps those and firearms."
"How does it know if someone's carrying a wand? Or a firearm?"
Sees-From-Laurel shrugged. "It is very cunning, and patient. It will follow you through the woods until it is certain. Perhaps it can smell them."
Alexandra thought about the feeling she'd had earlier, of something lurking behind her in the woods. "How am I supposed to kill it, if it won't let me see it?"
"I know where it lairs. I will take you there… which happens also to be the way out."
"Of course it is," Alexandra said. "So, I'm supposed to sneak up on it or something?"
"Did you not say you must use your wits on a Solemn Quest? You are a wand-wielder. I will leave the slaying of the jimplicute to you."
"Thanks," Alexandra said. "No problem." She put her hand over her mouth to cover a yawn. "Do you mind if I tackle this part of my Quest in the morning? I've been running around trying not to get eaten all day. I could kind of use some sleep before I try to kill jimplicutes."
"There is only one jimplicute," Sees-From-Laurel said. "And you may sleep here."
"How about somewhere a little further from the man-eating bugbear?"
"Geegowl will not trouble you. You have my word."
Trusting the word of a wild elf concerning a bugbear didn't fill Alexandra with confidence. "He'd better not. I can be pretty troublesome myself."
Sees-From-Laurel paused. "Is your Name truly Troublesome?"
Alexandra could hear the emphasis on the word Name. "Is your Name truly Sees-From-Laurel?"
Sees-From-Laurel gave her another inscrutable look. Then he said, "We have an understanding with Geegowl. He only eats unwelcome intruders."
"Really." Alexandra wondered how many of those unwelcome intruders had been humans who accidentally found their way into these deep caves. "Fine. I'll just roll out my bag, then."
Sees-From-Laurel nodded. "I will return in the morning, and fulfill my part of the bargain by leading you to the outside."
"All right then." Alexandra watched as Sees-From-Laurel walked away, vanishing into the shadows.
She took her Warming Blanket out, then ate some more pemmican. She listened for the sound of anything else moving in the darkness, but Geegowl was too far away. Biding his time, waiting until I'm asleep, then he'll creep through the dark, or — She looked at the water and shuddered, imagining long, ghostly-white hair snaking its way through the water until it curled up onto the rock where she lay, snatching her and dragging her back into the water…
She yawned. She was very tired. She didn't want to go to sleep, but neither did she want to stay up all night and face a jimplicute exhausted from the previous day's trials and lack of sleep.
She walked around the little circle of light cast by her lantern, and did her best to create magical alarums and wards, but she suspected mosquito netting would be more effective than her obstinate basswood wand with its core of goat feathers.
She wished Charlie were here. Charlie would watch over her while she slept.
"Be okay, Charlie," she said. "Come back to me."
For a moment, she thought she heard a distant caw. She held her breath and strained her ears, but it had been her imagination. No sound had echoed through the caves.
Maybe Charlie is out there, and that's what I heard, like sometimes I see through Charlie's eyes. Or maybe she was just trying to convince herself of that.
Angrily, she rubbed her eyes, fighting back tears. This wasn't like her. It was exhaustion weakening her. She lay down, and uneasily rested her head against her arms. She thought it would take her a long time to fall asleep, but it didn't.
Alexandra woke with a start. She was lying on her stomach beneath the Warming Blanket. The Ever-Burning Oil in her lantern still burned. Without a watch and no sky above, she had no way of knowing how much time had passed. Maybe she'd been woken up by the magical alarm she'd set, but she couldn't tell.
She thought she'd dreamed about Charlie, and she hoped that was a good sign. I swear, once I get out of here, I will learn to call you to me no matter where you are, she thought. She did not allow herself to consider the possibility that they wouldn't be reunited. Resolutely, she forced her worries about her familiar aside.
After checking the water for contamination by long white hair, she washed her face, then took out her metal canteen cup and dipped it in the underground pool. She set it on a rock and held her wand over it, conjuring heat until the water boiled. She sat with her chin cupped in one hand, levitating the cup in the air and waiting for the water to cool. It was so hard to do simple things without a decent wand!
The water had finally stopped bubbling when footsteps made her jerk upright and almost slosh the steaming water out of the cup. Sees-From-Laurel emerged from the shadows and stared at her quizzically.
Alexandra allowed the cup to settle on the ground. "I don't suppose you have any bottled water?"
"Why would we put water in bottles?" the elf asked, with an expression suggesting that humans were strange folk indeed.
"Never mind. So, anything else you can tell me about the jimplicute I'm supposed to kill? Does it breathe fire? Does it have a single missing scale I have to shoot an arrow through?"
"No, jimplicutes do not breathe fire like dragons. I do not know about missing scales, but if you want to shoot it with arrows, I can perhaps find you a bow."
Alexandra wasn't sure if Sees-From-Laurel was as serious as he sounded, but she shook her head. "How about a gun?"
Sees-From-Laurel's eyes narrowed. "What sort of witch uses a gun?"
A witch who doesn't have a real wand. "Just kidding." She reached into her pouch and pulled out a handful of pemmican. She was about to cram it into her mouth, but hesitated, then held it out to the elf. "Pemmican?"
She didn't expect the elf to accept the offer, but to her surprise, he reached a spindly hand out and took it. He stuffed the pemmican into his mouth with evident enjoyment. "It has been a long time since humans have left offerings of food for us."
"I'll be sure to mention to the Ozarkers that you'd appreciate some care packages. Of course, I have to survive the jimplicute to do that." Alexandra ate the rest of the pemmican in her hand and dug some more out, which she also shared with the elf.
Sees-From-Laurel waited while Alexandra put everything but the lantern back in her pack. She wore jeans and a sensible long-sleeved shirt.
"I notice I haven't seen any of your fellows," she said. "You're not the only elf down here, are you?"
"No," Sees-From-Laurel said, "but I am the only one you need to meet."
"I see." She didn't, but Sees-From-Laurel obviously wasn't going to expand on that.
The elf led her along the edge of the cavern — in the direction away from Geegowl's cave, Alexandra noted happily — to a small rushing channel of water between two rocks. The water in the cave drained out to an underground stream, but Sees-From-Laurel walked toward another low tunnel. Alexandra leaped over the water and followed.
They walked what seemed a great distance, now through tunnels that were all stone and dirt and usually completely dry, though sometimes they passed through a cave with moisture sweating out of the rock or pooling in crevices. Alexandra was as lost as before, which really meant no change in her situation. She mulled over ways she could kill a jimplicute. She would prefer to just blast it, except she didn't trust her basswood wand. If it wasn't fireproof, perhaps she could burn it. Maybe she could drop a rock on it?
Eventually they reached a tunnel that narrowed to a hole that even Sees-From-Laurel would have to stoop to fit into. Alexandra reckoned she could crawl through it, but only by dragging her backpack after her.
"I don't suppose there's another way around?" she asked.
"If you would like to take the long way," said Sees-From-Laurel. "It will take another day. Perhaps two."
Alexandra sighed. "So, how far does this tunnel go?" Because I'm sure there's no other way out of these tunnels that you could have shown me.
"Two hundred paces. My paces. So not far at all for you. It leads to an opening above a labyrinth of connected caves and tunnels where the jimplicute lairs. You will be able to see sunlight from where you emerge. Be careful, for if the jimplicute hears you, it can scale cliffs."
"Wonderful," Alexandra said.
"Good luck, angry witch."
"Thanks. Sure you don't have a gun you can give me?"
Sees-From-Laurel gave her another one of those squints. "If we had a gun, we would shoot it ourselves."
"Good point." Alexandra unslung her backpack and pulled out her Seven-League Boots. Sees-From-Laurel's eyes were wide with interest as he watched her unbuckle her waterproof boots, slide them off, and lace on the Seven-League Boots, before pushing the other boots back into her pack.
She put out the flame in her lantern, and she and Sees-From-Laurel were plunged into pitch darkness. She put the lantern in her backpack, then crawled into the narrow tunnel, hooking a foot through the strap of her pack so she could drag it after her. Sees-From-Laurel said nothing, and she heard nothing else as she squeezed herself down the passage. She moved very slowly, not wanting to make too loud a dragging noise. She stopped every foot or two and listened for something at the other end of the passage. No sounds came to her.
Two hundred elf-paces seemed like a much longer distance when crawling through a tunnel that was barely wide enough for Alexandra's shoulders. Eventually she saw a dim gray lightening in the absolute black ahead of her. She slowed her crawl even more.
In the gloomy underground, even the slightest difference in light quality was noticeable, so Alexandra knew she was indeed seeing sunlight when she emerged from the tunnel — really, it was not so much an emergence as a widening in the tunnel, enough for her to sit up in. Just enough light seeped in from somewhere ahead that she could see a drop into another, wider tunnel before her.
No sign of the jimplicute. After a minute of peering in vain through the near-darkness, Alexandra realized she was holding her breath. She almost let it out in a gasp, but forced herself to breathe out slowly before inhaling again very quietly.
After sitting motionless for ten minutes or so, she wondered if the jimplicute might be out hunting. Should she try exiting? What if she encountered the beast on the way out? She still didn't have any great ideas for fighting it. Flames or falling rocks. Neither seemed reliable or safe. Anna would definitely call them bad ideas.
Sometimes there aren't any better ideas, she thought.
She tensed when she heard a scraping sound from the main cave area.
Her fingers closed around a small rock. While preparing to cast the biggest fireball she could from her department store wand, she tossed the rock as far as she could.
In a blinking instant, a shape appeared near the mouth of the cave where the rock had fallen, so instantaneously that Alexandra didn't even see a blur of motion. It was as if the thing had soundlessly Apparated. Coiled and vaguely serpentine, it crouched in the light for a moment.
Oh crap, she thought, this thing is fast.
Maybe too fast to summon flames before it would be on her, even hidden up in her alcove. Could she bring the cavern down on it by will alone?
And then how will you get out, genius?
The jimplicute's head twitched this way and that, in jerky motions as quick as the darting of a toad's tongue.
Suddenly it was gone.
Then, just like that, a spiny reptilian silhouette eclipsed what little light penetrated to where Alexandra huddled. The jimplicute's head was directly in front of her — it had crossed the space to the wall above which she was perched, scaled it, and thrust its head into the nook where she hid. Alexandra gasped and rolled backward into the crawlspace from which she'd emerged as the thing's jaws closed where she'd been a moment ago with an audible snap. Its head, shadowy but distinct in shape, turned in her direction, and with cold dread, Alexandra realized that the jimplicute might be some distant relative of a dragon, but it was shaped more like a snake, and that serpentine head could come after her in the narrow tunnel she'd crawled through with ease. She was like a groundhog backed into its tunnel by a viper. And in these close quarters, a fire was sure to cook her as thoroughly as the jimplicute. No way she could improvise a Fireproof Charm —
A loud, belligerent shriek echoed from the cavern outside into the tunnel where Alexandra was cornered. She recognized the sound.
"Charlie!" she screamed.
The jimplicute's head snapped around with impossible speed, and Alexandra saw black feathers and flapping wings — somehow the raven had attached itself to the back of the beast's neck. The jimplicute's jaws gaped and it emitted an evil hiss. Then Charlie was flapping away, and screeching: "Fly! Fly!"
"Charlie, no!" Alexandra yelled, as the jimplicute disappeared after the raven, so fast she only saw a flash of its tail before it was gone.
She drew a deep breath, swallowed, and launched herself out of the tunnel. She snatched up the backpack, thrust her legs over the ledge, and slid the ten feet down to the cave floor below. Her Seven-League Boots cushioned the shock of her landing. As soon as she hit the ground, she bolted toward the light, running as fast as her magic boots could carry her.
She made one turn, veering around a rocky outcropping with only an inch to spare at a speed that would have snapped her spine had she collided with the rock. A bright hole in the gloom appeared ahead, the proverbial sunlit exit she had been hoping for the previous day. Had Charlie preceded her out there? Had the jimplicute? Guilt wracked her — she wanted to stop, call for her familiar — but she knew that if she stood still and the jimplicute came back for her, she was dead. She ran.
She burst out of the tunnel into glorious daylight — and found herself on a steep hillside, plummeting down so fast that only with the help of the Seven-League Boots was she able to keep her feet under her. Even so, she had no choice but to keep running. Alexandra shot down the side of a mountain, leaping rocks and dodging trees, which became thicker as she reached lower elevations, too breathless and panicked to even think about what she was doing or which direction to take. Only when she got to a lower slope that leveled out enough to slow down did she begin to slacken her pace, finally running to the edge of another steep bluff before stopping, where she turned to face the woods she'd just run through. She put her hands on her knees, breathing heavily.
From here, she couldn't even see the entrance to the jimplicute's lair. She listened, and heard lots of birds and insects, but nothing like a large, scaly reptile slithering through the woods. Had she eluded it?
Alexandra stood up straight again and closed her eyes, holding out her arms. If the jimplicute found her now, so be it. She concentrated, and with all her heart, cast her thoughts out to wherever her familiar might be.
She sagged with relief when she felt wind through feathers and saw the entire mountainside from high above, through a bird's eyes.
Come here, Charlie, she commanded. Come to me.
It took several minutes before the raven descended through the trees and landed on her two outstretched hands. She pulled the bird close to her, laughing and crying.
"You stupid bird!" she said. "Don't you ever do that again!"
"Clever bird," said Charlie.
"Yes," she said. "My beautiful, clever bird." She wiped tears from her eyes.
"Fly, fly," Charlie said.
Alexandra nodded, eyeing the woods warily, "Yeah. We should get out of here."
She ran for miles, letting the Seven-League Boots carry her away in a rush of speed, rocks and trees blurring past. Charlie followed. Alexandra stopped by a river and considered where to go next. So far her Quest had resulted in several near-death experiences and meeting interesting new creatures who wanted to eat her. What was she supposed to do next? Camp out and wait for something else to try to kill her?
"You did not kill the jimplicute."
Alexandra jumped, made a motion to draw her wand, then glared at Sees-From-Laurel, who was standing in the middle of a flowering thicket by the river.
"I thought you can't leave the mountain," she said. "You're trapped underground."
"So I am. However, some of us have always been able to speak to those in the world above through certain mediums. For me, it is the plant you call laurel."
Alexandra looked again at the green shrubs with their whitish-purple flowers. The elf, standing amidst the branches and flowers, was on second glance not entirely solid, as if he somehow shared space with the plant. His blinking eyes were the bobbing of flower petals; where his spindly arms ended and the branches of the bush began was hard to separate.
"I get it," Alexandra said. "'Sees from laurel.' Cool. Well, sorry about the jimplicute. Turned out it was easier to outrun it."
"Yes." There was no mistaking the dissatisfaction in Sees-From-Laurel's voice, or the sour look he cast at Alexandra's boots. "I did not recognize those magic boots. That was foolish of me."
"You don't sound happy that I escaped," Alexandra said.
"You were not supposed to escape. You were supposed to kill the jimplicute, or…"
"Or get eaten?" Alexandra folded her arms. "Sorry to disappoint you. You didn't really expect me to survive, did you?"
"No one ever has. But you are a witch, and you boasted of your power. The jimplicute fears wand-wielders, so if there is a way to slay it, surely you were as likely to succeed as anyone."
"But you didn't really think that. So you sent me to my death, basically. You're no better than the hill dwarves!" Alexandra felt her jaw tightening, and a vein throbbed in her temple. The headache, which had never really gone away since being hit over the head by the dwarves, was returning savagely.
"It wasn't personal," Sees-From-Laurel said. "I have no animosity for you, angry witch."
"You sent me to die!" Alexandra yelled. Charlie cawed and Sees-From-Laurel actually stepped back, which didn't cause the slightest rustle in the laurel bush. "That is personal!"
"I did not send you to die. I sent you to kill the jimplicute. I expected you to die, but that is not the same thing."
"I've met two kinds of elves," Alexandra said through gritted teeth. "Helpful, and conniving little bastards who are out to screw you. I guess I know which kind you are. So thanks for nothing, Sees-From-Laurel. But I escaped and you didn't, so hah hah hah."
"Hahahah!" echoed Charlie.
"Troublesome witch," said Sees-From-Laurel, "if Troublesome you are, it may be you who is fated to free us."
"I don't want to free you," Alexandra said. "I want to finish my Quest, without any more elves or dwarves or other little people trying to trick me, eat me, or lure me into a monster's lair. So… go away." She waved a hand, as if to Banish the elf.
"If you are truly on a Quest, then the secret all other Ozarkers have sought must surely be of interest to you," Sees-From-Laurel said.
Alexandra paused. "What secret is that?"
"The way to a World Away," said Sees-From-Laurel.