I stumbled numbly down the stairs the next morning, having stayed up all night to read the field guide. I barely registered that the kitchen was an obvious mess of tension and went straight for the coffee pot, pouring myself a huge cup, spilling part of it on the counter, then gulping the rest down like my life depended on it.
"Okay then." My mom said, breaking the silence and pushing her chair away from the table. "I'm going to work."
I blinked and noticed everyone else sitting around the table staring at the scratched woodwork. It didn't look like any of them had slept a wink either.
"I'm going to work." Mom repeated, pushing in her chair and making her exit. The front door closed with a creak.
No one at the table moved. I poured myself another cup of coffee and went to take Mom's vacated seat.
"Anyone want to hear something crazy?" I chanced, downing half my mug. Mallory snorted, but Simon and Cassie looked my way.
"We aren't alone in this house." I whispered hoarsely.
"What the hell, Jared? Why would you think that we aren't the only humans here?" Mallory said venomously.
"I don't think so, I know so. And I didn't say it was human." I replied.
"The scratching in the walls..." Simon said. "The red squirrels?"
"No. Not squirrels. Something crazier." I replied, drinking the other half of my coffee.
"I don't have to listen to this." Mallory said, getting up and stomping out of the room.
"Does this have to do with that book?" Cassie leaned in.
"Book? What book?" Simon asked.
"Yes." I replied. "It has everything to do with that book." Cassie sat back in her chair, looking ill.
"Book... what book?" Simon asked.
"Simon. I need your help. Now." Mallory stood in the doorway, obviously peeved that Simon hadn't followed her out. Simon sighed and obeyed.
"I'm going back to the study, I want that thing to find me and tell me what it wants." I said, standing.
"Let me come too, just in case..." Cassie said, standing as well. I turned and went to the dumbwaiter, climbing in. I motioned for her to climb in as well. Once she had squished in, I pulled on the ropes to begin our ascent.
As we rode up, I noticed in the dim light that Cassie's face had taken on a pained look.
"What's wrong?" I asked. She winced and pushed up her sleeve a little to reveal angry red skin underneath. Burns?
"From last night?" I asked softly. She nodded.
The study came into view, significantly lighter than before. Light filtered in from several windows I hadn't noticed before.
"What happened?" I asked as Cassie unfolded herself from the dumbwaiter and barely bit back a hiss of pain.
"It was like the shower became possessed or something... I didn't noticed anything until the bathtub began to fill up with hot water. Then I was pulled under. Whatever It was that had me was trying to drown me in a boiling bath." Her blue eyes flicked to mine and I felt myself reaching out to touch her shoulder. She flinched slightly, but she smiled at the gesture.
I looked around the study, noticing more than I had the previous night. Papers adorned literally every surface of the many desks, bookshelves taking up any space that wasn't the desks. The books themselves seemed to be more scattered around the room than on the shelves.
I noticed our footprints from the night before in the dust carpeting the wood floor. And alongside our footprints... bingo.
"What are those?" Cassie asked, following my gaze.
"Footprints," I replied, "of what attacked you and Mal last night."
The now familiar scratching sound erupted from the far corner of the room and Cassie screamed. I pulled her behind me and faced the scratching, watching as papers scattered of their own accord as the invisible pest came closer.
"It's a Brownie." I said, fixing the invisible force in my gaze.
The instant I said it, the skittering stopped. A couple papers fluttered into the dust.
"A what." Cassie breathed.
"A household Brownie. Usually very friendly creatures, they make their nests in the walls of the house and can aid in household chores. But make them mad, and they turn into something altogether more nasty."
A little creature materialized on the desk nearest to us, making Cassie scream and dig her fingers into my shoulder.
"Friend or foe, methinks why you know." It said in a sharp little voice, adjusting its little vest and wiggling its pointed ears at us.
"We destroyed its nest, I think..." I said to Cassie. "We destroyed your nest, didn't we?" The Brownie narrowed its eyes dangerously. I nodded.
"We need to make him a new one, would you like that?"
"New nest... that's what's best." The Brownie said.
"Do you have a name?" I asked, moving closer. Cassie squeaked and held on to me.
"Thimbletack, snicker snack." the Brownie replied.
"Okay, Thimbletack. Let us go downstairs, and we'll make you a new nest. You can tell us how you like it, okay?"
Thimbletack considered this for a moment, then reached out a tiny hand and gestured for more.
"A-and I'll fetch you some honey from the pantry." I reasoned. The Brownie nodded. I took Cassie's hand and led her to the dumbwaiter.
"H-h-how do you know he likes h-honey?" She stuttered, still staring over her shoulder.
"I read it in the book, now get in." I said, pushing her in the box. I folded myself in beside her and tugged the rope. I heard a scratching in the wall beside us that meant Thimbletack was following. Good.
We got out of the dumbwaiter in the kitchen to see Thimbletack standing on the countertop, arms folded. I moved to the hall, where the trash bag from the night before still was. I grabbed it and came back to face the little creature.
"Show us a good place, okay? Somewhere Mom won't see." I told the Brownie. Cassie let out an odd squeak.
Thimbletack jumped down from the counter and began walking down the hallway. We followed him up the stairs and down the hall past the bedrooms to a skinny door on the far end of the house where we had yet to even go. I opened the door to see that it was an empty closet. I opened the trashbag and began pulling out objects that seemed like they would be fitting for the new nest; the doll's head, a couple shiny pieces of tinfoil, some of the old plaster with a nice wallpaper print on the other side, a couple rocks, and a rusted charm bracelet.
"That okay?" I asked Thimbletack. The Brownie shrugged, then his ears pricked up.
"To the glass, quick and fast!" he said, black eyes wide.
"The window. He means the window." Cassie said, turning around to look out the window across from the closet. I walked over, completely confused.
We stood at the window and at first all I could see were Mal and Simon fencing on the front lawn.
I felt a tug on the leg of my jeans and looked down. Timbletack was holding up a small round stone with a hold punched through, offering it urgently to me. A seeing stone?
"Why do I need this?" I asked, bending down so I could take it from him.
"Look, look, see what they took!" I caught Cassie's worried gaze, then turned back to the window and held the stone to my eye. This was getting a little weird, but what the hell.
What I saw on the front lawn made my stomach drop.
Not even a minute later, I was flying down the main staircase with Cass on my heels. I sprinted into the kitchen and grabbed the first sharp object I could, then darted to the front door and wrenched it open.
"MAL? SIMON!" I shouted. The lawn was empty.
"Oh my god." Cassie panted, her voice ragged. I whirled and saw that she was holding a knife in one hand and the seeing stone in another.
"MALLORY! SIMON!" I screamed.
"Oh my god, what are you two doing?" Mallory's voice came from behind me. She entered from the kitchen. We turned, knives raised. Mallory's fencing mask went bumping to the ground.
"Where's Simon!?" I yelled, my voice jumping an octave.
"He's out on the front lawn! Put the fucking knives down!"
I turned. Simon was definitely not on the front lawn.
"Mal, he's not there." Cass said, significantly calmer than I could have managed.
"What are you talking about? Of course he's there. He probably just went exploring or some shit like that." My heart sank. No, I couldn't believe that after what I'd just seen.
"I have to go find him, stay inside!" I yelled, leaping off the porch and heading for the edge of the lawn. I noticed now that there was a ring of protective mushrooms around the house. Fairy magic. I'd read about it last night. If anyone stepped outside the circle, they were fair game for the evil creatures Cass and I had just seen through the seeing stone.
"Jared, wait! The stone!" Cass had followed me.
"Give me the stone and stay here!" I yelled back, holding out my hand. Instead, she grabbed my hand and pulled me along with her, heading for a path near the edge of the lawn.
"Okay, well fucking come back before sunset!" Mallory screamed from the porch as we disappeared into the trees.
I drew in a shaky breath and kept running. If we came back at all.
We ran for about ten minutes before a stitch in my side made me stop. I was nowhere near in good enough shape to keep running full tilt across forest terrain. I could hear running water nearby. Cassie panted and leaned against a tree a little way ahead.
"Let's keep going after we get some water." I gasped. We continued down the trail until a small stream blocked our path. I was just about to bend down to get a drink of water when something began to emerge slowly from the water, which quickly turned murky.
At first, it was like a small hill was pushing itself from the stream's bottom, but as more of it erupted to the surface, a ghastly face began to take shape. Every cell in my body screamed at me to run before it took its full shape. I grabbed Cassie's hand and leaped across the stream, pulling her with me. We landed hard on the other side and I wheezed as the wind whooshed out of me.
Cassie's piercing scream cut through my daze and I felt my arm being tugged practically out of the socket. I forced myself upright and ran with Cassie before I chanced a loo back.
I paled when I saw the ten foot river troll grinning toothily at up.
"What the hell IS THAT?" Cassie yelled, pulling me backwards.
"A river troll!" I gasped, following her.
"Cooome baaack. I haaave something for youuu" I paused, suddenly transfixed. The Troll extended a closed hand as if it did indeed have something for me.
"Jared..." Cass pleaded, yanking on my hand.
"Hang on." Slowly I walked closer to the monstrous troll.
"What do you have to give me?" I asked, tentatively creeping closer. The troll grinned, and his foul breath washed over me, reeking of pond scum and something...dead.
"Iiiiiiii hasssss a booook" the troll held out its hand and opened it slowly. Inside was the exact copy of the field guide. My blood ran cold as I realized that I had just played into the trap. Dammit! That's what trolls do, transfix you with curiosity then kill you and eat you when you come too close.
"No!" He yelled, propelling myself backwards. The troll lunged, his gnarled and slimy hand just missing the front of my shirt. Cassie took the opportunity to yank me backwards as hard as she could and take off running. I followed.
"Coooooomeeeeee Baaaaaaaack!" The troll screamed after us.
"What the hell was that all about?" Cass yelled as soon as we were far enough away from the stream to stop again. I collapsed against a tree, shaking my head and closing my eyes.
"Jared!" Cassandra smacked my chest.
"OW! What?" I yelled back, opening my eyes.
"We have to save Simon before the sun sets or he'll be chow for whatever those things are." She looked up, frowning. "I see smoke."
"Campfire," I wheezed, "they roast shit before they eat it. They being Goblins."
"Well then let's get a move on before Simon becomes Goblin shit or whatever." Cassie said, collecting her mass of sweaty curls into a bun and securing it with a hair tie.
I reached out a hand for her to help me up. She obliged. I realized that of the two of us, she was the only one who still had her knife. I'd let mine drop when we got surprised by the troll.
"I'll protect you." Cassie said, handing me the seeing stone, which she'd put in her pocket the first time we'd stopped. "Let's go get Simon."