The Legend of Springheel Jack
Notes: The characters are not mine (save Mr. Kaestner and his butler) and the story is! This was written for the prompt Springheel Jack at Paranormal25. Rather than the bizarre character of Victorian legend, however, this Jack is based more on a version from Jackie Chan Adventures. However, he does retain some of the mannerisms of the Springheel Jack reported in real-life. This takes place between my fics Your Name is Angels Whispering and The Adventure of the Underground Crypt, but neither really needs to be read first. Many, many thanks to Kaze for the amazing riddle and for other plot help! Thanks also goes to Northeastwind for her idea on the location of the climax, to Nanenna for some of Autor's musings, and to Moon Shadow Magic for advice on the horse scenes!
The well-dressed man gave a quiet sigh to himself as he put the finishing touches of a late afternoon snack onto a metal tray. It had been a long day, he mused, and the oncoming night was likely to continue in the same vein. There were always people coming to look at the collections available for public viewing. Some journeyed for hours to tour the exhibits. Their fame was known well outside of Kinkan.
A slight smirk passed over his features. What they saw was impressive, but never all there was to see. The collections' owner was not a fool; there were some things that no one other than he was allowed to see. If some of his acquisitions were publicly known, he could easily become the target of more thieves and robbers. He had already been nearly robbed more than once.
The sudden shattering of glass and the pained cry, abruptly cut short, brought the man's attention sharply to the present. Abandoning the tray on a table, he hurried down the carpeted hall to the half-open door that housed one of the private exhibits.
"No," he gasped in horror.
A form was lying lifeless on the floor. Next to it, the rounded glass case had been completely broken. Worse still, it was empty.
How did one pick up the pieces of a life interrupted upon being given the chance to continue?
Autor frowned to himself as he poured a cup of tea. The shadows of the room were dark and silent, mixing with the dancing and leaping flames of the fire in the hearth. He could not find his answers from either thing. With a sigh he sank into a chair, staring blankly into the blaze as he sipped the beverage.
He had been dead for weeks, killed in a tragic accident after rescuing a child from a carriage out-of-control. But for reasons he did not entirely understand, he had been chosen as the worthy soul allowed to live again—something granted to one person in Kinkan only once every hundred years.
He carried his memories of being in the afterlife, though some were starting to fade. Perhaps it was for the best; it was strange and awkward, to remember living in two worlds so very different from each other. But at the same time he did not want to let those memories go. He wanted to remember being in a place of perfect peace.
He stared into the distance, a slight smirk passing over his features. It had not been as hard to explain to the executor of his estate about his return as he had thought. Whatever the poor man had seen and heard upon his visit to the house, it had shaken him up so badly that he had fainted dead away when Autor had appeared in his doorway. After Autor had revived him, he had stammered and shakily told Autor not to worry, that his property would not be disturbed any more. Autor was still not sure if the man really realized he was no longer dead.
At school, most of the other students regarded him in a mixture of cautious suspicion. They left him alone for the most part, which was the same as always, but the whispers he heard now and then were new. Though Ahiru had said that the cemetery rumors were true and Autor had been the one chosen to be revived, some students seemed to wonder whether she was just trying to cover her tracks and if she and Fakir could have performed a forbidden ritual to bring him back. Others seemed to fear that he was no longer mortal at all, but instead was among the undead.
To those tales Autor sniffed in derision and shook his head in dark amusement. The thought of Ahiru and Fakir using some sort of black magic was both entertaining and frightening. And he was most certainly mortal, even though it seemed incomprehensible not only to the other Kinkan students, but to he himself as well. There was little he could do about his peers' mindsets; if they were insistent on believing him to be some sort of possibly dangerous supernatural being, that was up to them. In time, some of them might be able to accept the truth. But he had the feeling that some others would likely never fully accept his return.
He set the teacup and saucer on the table next to the chair and reached for the newspaper. Life in Kinkan went on as usual; his demise had not changed anything in the overarching picture. But it had greatly changed things for his two closest friends, which he deeply regretted. He had never wanted to hurt Ahiru or Fakir.
That was always what ended up happening, though, wasn't it? A frown crossed his features as he shook out the paper. Some time back he had lost his mind and had tried to take over the world with his powers of Story-Spinning through music. It had crushed his friends.
Life had gone on relatively well since that disaster, he supposed. But then he had met what he had thought would certainly be his end at the hooves of those mad horses. And his death had shaken both Ahiru and Fakir very badly.
There was a secret he still carried with him from those weeks. He knew what had caused it to look like his ghost was roaming the town. He knew it had devastated Fakir to the point that he had subconsciously willed ghostlike activity into being. Autor had pretended to not have any knowledge of what had been responsible, but he had always known.
It would not do any good to tell something like that to Fakir, not when he was still reeling from the pain and trying to get used to Autor's restoration. But it was something Fakir did need to become aware of at some point. He needed to know he had that kind of sway over reality. Who knew what else he might cause sometime if he did not know.
Autor's gaze traveled over the reported stories. The most interesting thing happening in town today seemed to be the mysterious calamity at the home of a local collector, noted for his eccentric and varied exhibits of the past. Autor could not help a scowl of disbelief as he read the incident.
At approximately four P.M. this afternoon, Luther Kaestner overheard a strange sound
in the direction of his exhibit on Victorian England. When he went to investigate,
he discovered his butler unconscious on the floor and a broken glass case nearby. Upon
reviving the unfortunate man, Kaestner was told that the case, containing a stone figure of a nefarious character known as Springheel Jack, had been accidentally struck and destroyed. The creature had escaped, rendering the butler senseless in the process.
Kaestner urgently warns all the townspeople to beware of Springheel Jack, noted in Victorian
England for his amazing leaps, breath of fire, and love of mischief. "I am doing all that I can
to ensure that Springheel Jack is returned to his rightful place as an inanimate statue in my
collection," he told reporter Lena Hoch.
"So a statue somehow came to life?" Autor muttered. "Or was it the real Springheel Jack, frozen in stone? Either way, how would breaking the case make it sentient?"
He set the paper aside. Springheel Jack was a creature he had never really thought existed, from the little he knew about it. But in Kinkan, where strange things were always happening, it was hard to say what could be possible. Stories could even turn against their creators, as he and the others knew all too well.
He eased himself out of the chair. Maybe he should have a look around town, just for curiosity's sake. If the being had actually been released, it would be fascinating to see it up close. And it would have to be stopped, of course. He might have to pay the eccentric collector a visit.
Kinkan seemed normal enough when he stepped into the mild evening air. He walked past the fountain, which was turned off as usual, and down the cobblestone street. People were chatting with each other in front of houses and in the middle of the road. Others were walking past, like him, but they paid him no heed. That was alright, though; he was used to being ignored, and at the moment he had far more pressing matters to deal with.
He stiffened as a familiar and very unwelcome sound reached his ears. Horses' hooves were clopping on the road. Without another thought he quickly dove to the side. Glancing over his shoulder, he tensely watched the approaching carriage.
He would not say he was outright afraid of the things, or the animals, but it was hard to forget the fear, the pain, and the panic he had experienced when the crazed horses had fatally kicked and trampled him. He walked faster, hoping to get away from the method of transportation.
Alright, he said silently to himself as he vanished around a corner. Maybe I am afraid. He slumped against the wall of the house, letting out a breath he had not realized he was holding. He would be perfectly content to never see a horse or a carriage again.
He gave a start at the voice. "Ahiru?" He straightened, hoping he did not look strange or visibly distressed.
The girl approached him from the opposite side, concern and confusion spreading over her features. "What are you doing?" she asked.
He smirked at her, placing one hand on his hip. "Haven't you heard about what happened this afternoon?" he said.
She blinked. "Should I?" she said.
"Word travels fast," Autor said. "And if there's really a menacing troll on the rampage, I would have thought the entire town would know by now. Even if there isn't a troll, people often panic when they see or hear something frightening being told by the media."
Ahiru's wide eyes went wider. "A menacing troll?" she said in horror.
"Supposedly it was set loose about two hours ago," Autor said. "I was going to talk to the person who claims to have had it in his collection."
Before Ahiru could even reply, a horrified scream tore through the air. Both she and Autor turned to look in its general direction—and were promptly assailed by a bizarre creature that leaped overhead. Autor ducked, pulling Ahiru with him to shield her. When the thing landed on their other sides, the teenagers straightened and turned. Autor stared, while Ahiru let out a shocked "Quack!"
The being standing before them was half their size, plump and pale-skinned with pointed ears and sharp teeth. Its red hair was slicked back, its clothes fancy and in the style of a Victorian England nobleman. But perhaps oddest of all were the large springs in the heels of its shoes.
"Well, well, what have we here?" it spoke in a refined tone. "Are you a duck or a girl, my dear?"
Ahiru's lips worked in vain as she fought to speak. "Wh-what are you?" she gasped.
"My name is Springheel Jack, and truly I did not think my arrival would prompt a quack," was the reply.
Autor frowned. This thing was most unlike the few reports he had read about the entity that had tormented England in the past. In fact, it was most unlike anything he had read about at any time, ever.
"What do you want?" he demanded.
"I want to be free, to be me!" Jack answered. With a tremendous leap he landed on the roof of the house. The person inside screamed as the roof began to dent inwards. Jack only cackled, jumping to the next house and the next.
Ahiru stared in horrified alarm. "We can't let him do this!" she cried. "He's going to break everyone's houses!"
"And a lot of other things too," Autor frowned, watching as the troll jumped onto a lamppost. It bent back from the weight and he laughed, springing off of it and onto the next block.
Autor winced at the destruction. "The problem is, we don't even know how to defeat it," he continued. "If we go after it now, what will we do when we catch up to it again?"
Ahiru looked to him in disbelief. "Then we have to just let him keep causing trouble?" she exclaimed.
"There's not much choice until we can do something of use," Autor said. "We need to talk to the man who had it captive."
Ahiru looked back down the street. Springheel Jack flew into a tree, rocking it back and forth before leaping onto someone's chimney. As he jumped away, several bricks creaked and loosened.
She clenched a fist, conflicted. How could she just go away knowing he was right here creating a terrible uproar? Her first instinct was to run over and try to stop him right now. Princess Tutu could have done it. But as Ahiru, what could she do without having the knowledge Autor was talking about?
Autor grabbed hold of her wrist. "To try to interfere without knowing what we're doing will only make the problem worse," he said. "Let's go!"
At last she turned, looking back to him. With a reluctant nod she sealed her choice. Autor let go of her wrist, running in the direction opposite to the troll. Taking a deep breath, Ahiru ran after him.
If Ahiru had known where Jack would end up before they could catch him again, she would have likely refused to go along with Autor's idea.
At the antique shop, both Fakir and Charon gave a start as a huge crash resounded outside. In the stable, the horses began to whinny.
"What on earth . . ." Charon muttered, crossing to the door and pulling it open. At the sight of a mysterious creature dropping down from the wall across the street, his mouth fell open in disbelief.
Right behind him, Fakir stared too. "What is that thing?" he wondered.
"Whatever it is, it's coming this way," Charon said, his tone dark. "Fakir!" he exclaimed as the boy pushed his way past, running onto the property outside. Charon hurried after him.
The bizarre, troll-like creature smirked at them both. "Fiddle-dee-dee, you can't catch me!" it declared, springing past Fakir with a monstrous bound.
Momentarily startled, Fakir quickly recovered and gave chase. "Hey!" he yelled. Leaping into the air, he took hold of the strange thing around the waist and dragged it to the ground. "Who are you?" he asked, fighting to pin it in place while it struggled.
"Let me go and I may say. Hold me down and I won't sway," was the answer.
Fakir regarded it in disbelief. Charon came closer, staring in stunned shock. "Springheel Jack," he said.
"You know of me," said Springheel Jack, looking at him over Fakir's shoulder. "My fame has spread far and wide, you see!"
Fakir frowned. "What's Springheel Jack?" he asked.
Charon shook his head. "He tormented people in England years ago," he said. "The last reported sighting was over a century past. I never thought he'd be here."
Fakir looked back to the troll. "How did you get here?" he demanded.
"Trapped in stone was I," said Jack, "unable to speak or sigh." Then with a wicked grin, he brought his legs up and kicked Fakir in the stomach. The boy gasped in pain, his eyes widening at the forceful blow. He fell back, sprawling on the ground.
"Fakir!" Charon cried, kneeling next to him. He pulled up the edge of Fakir's shirt, seeing the cruel red marks forming on his skin from the heavy shoes. Furious, the blacksmith looked up at their new enemy.
Springheel Jack merely shrugged. "His wounds will not last," he said. "And I will not be a mere relic of the past!" He jumped onto the outer wall of the town, then leaped onto a roof several houses away.
Charon turned his attention back to Fakir, who was trying to sit up. "Fakir, you should rest!" he exclaimed. "Those weren't ordinary shoes."
Fakir placed a hand over his throbbing stomach. "Being kicked by a horse is worse," he rasped. "That thing has to be stopped."
"I don't even know how to stop it," Charon admitted. "No one ever caught it that I know of."
"It turned into stone somehow," Fakir said. "If we knew how, we could turn it back." He dragged himself to his feet. "Maybe Autor would know what to do."
"Would he have researched things like this?" Charon wondered.
"He researches all kinds of things," Fakir said. "Who knows. Even if he doesn't know, maybe he knows who does." He stumbled in the direction of the stable. "I'm going."
Charon's shoulders slumped. There was no stopping the boy when he got like this. Charon had learned that long ago. "Be careful," he said.
Fakir looked back, smiling in relief and gratitude that Charon was not going to protest. "I will," he said before entering the stable.
In a moment he reappeared, riding his dark horse past Charon and into the night.
As Autor and Ahiru approached Luther Kaestner's large house some distance hence, Ahiru could not help staring at it in awe. "I think it might be even bigger than your place, Autor," she exclaimed, gazing at the windows of the upper levels.
"That isn't surprising," Autor said. "He needs a large house for the collections he brings back."
He frowned as he caught sight of a form standing at the edge of the property. What was that person there for? He had a suspicion, but said nothing of it as they drew nearer.
"We need to see Luther Kaestner," he said. "It's urgent."
As Autor had half-expected, the man shook his head. "I'm sorry, but that won't be possible," he said. "No one may see him."
Ahiru stared. "But this really is important!" she cried. "There's a troll-thing jumping all over town and breaking things and Autor says he came from here and . . ."
"Mr. Kaestner has taken ill," the man interrupted. "The knowledge of his collection piece's flight shook him up badly."
"Well, maybe he shouldn't have had the troll in his collection in the first place!" Ahiru exclaimed.
"Maybe you can help us," Autor said, unruffled as he looked to the man. "All we need to know is how to defeat it."
But the servant shook his head. "I don't possess that knowledge. I'm sorry." A bit of worry flickered across his previously expressionless face. "I asked Mr. Kaestner for the secret, intending to go out myself and recapture the mischief-maker, but he was too sick. He said nothing, instead staring into space. I doubt he even heard the question."
Annoyed, Autor pushed up his glasses. "How can he have such a dangerous thing in his possession without knowing how to stop it?" he said. "There must be a book or some record that tells the secret."
"Perhaps, but I don't know where," was the nervous reply. "Please, you should go. If Mr. Kaestner learns that more people have been asking about the troll . . ."
"And how would he learn?" Autor countered. "You said he was too sick to even hear your question."
The servant flushed. "Yes, that's true. But he could quickly come out of that state."
Autor narrowed his eyes. "Alright," he said. "We'll look elsewhere. Thank you for your time." He looked to Ahiru. "Come on."
She looked at him in surprise. "Where are we going?" she asked.
"Maybe the library," he said, leading her into the shadows. "Or the bookstore."
Ahiru shivered. "Where the Bookmen are?" she squeaked.
Autor nodded. "Only we aren't really going there," he said, keeping his voice low. "We're staying right here. Something strange is going on and I want to know what it is."
Ahiru's eyes widened. "What are we going to do?" she exclaimed.
"I'm going to try to find a way to get inside that house," Autor said. "It could be dangerous, so I don't expect you to come." But he knew she would, anyway. She would not abandon him, especially if possible danger was involved.
Indeed, Ahiru grabbed his forearm. "Autor, you should know me better than that, after all the things we've been through together," she said. "I'm staying!"
A slight smile passed over Autor's features. "I know," he said. "But I have to say it anyway. This is technically illegal, after all." He moved closer to the house in the darkness. There were several lit windows on the first floor. He had to hope he would find one of them unlocked.
Ahiru hurried after him, trying to be perfectly quiet. "What do you think is going on?" she hissed as he crouched below what would be eye-level to someone in the house. He reached up, feeling the nearest window with one hand.
"I don't know," he said. "The servant seemed to be covering for his boss. Maybe the man even has a dark secret he doesn't want anyone to learn. This whole incident seems suspicious to me. I can't help wondering if the troll being released wasn't an accident after all."
"Why would he set it free on purpose?" Ahiru said in horror.
Finding a loose window, Autor carefully slid it up and rose, peering into the room. It looked to be some sort of study or den. And though the light was on inside, no one was visible.
"I can't imagine, unless he thought it had some valuable treasure he wanted," he said.
He glanced over at Ahiru. "I'll go in first, just to make sure it's safe," he said. "If I'm caught, don't try to follow."
Ahiru swallowed hard. "O-okay," she stammered. She did not like the thought of Autor doing this, but something weird really must be going on. And they had to somehow figure out how to catch that troll quickly, while Kinkan Town still existed. Maybe under the circumstances, they were justified.
Autor hoisted his slender body through the window, staying alert for anyone who might suddenly appear within the room's boundaries or in the doorway. But it seemed to be entirely empty, as he had previously deduced. He lowered himself to the floor, advancing slowly into the room. About halfway through, he stopped and looked back. "You can come in," he said. "But try to be quiet."
Ahiru had some difficulty with that instruction. As she tried to scramble through the window, she found herself stuck. She gritted her teeth, tugging and pushing with all her might. Autor watched in disbelief.
"What on earth is the problem?" he said at last as he went to her side to help. Taking hold of her hands, he fought to pull her inside.
"I think my hair's caught on something!" Ahiru gasped in pain.
"Shift position and try to untangle it," Autor said, releasing one of her hands.
Awkwardly Ahiru reached behind herself and attempted to do just that. Finally feeling her braid come loose of some sort of sharp thing, she pushed again and this time slipped through the window.
Autor stumbled back, trying to keep hold of her while not sending them both to the floor. When Ahiru at last stepped onto the short carpet and had her balance, he reached and slid the window down.
Ahiru looked around the well-furnished room in nervous fascination. "What now?" she asked.
"We need to find the information on sealing Springheel Jack," Autor said. "Unfortunately it might be in Kaestner's Victorian London exhibition room and not here, but this looks like a good place to start." He crossed to a strong desk and began looking through the papers and folders accumulated on its surface.
Ahiru followed him, uneasy as she glanced around the room. She had never before intruded into someone's house like this. What would happen if they were caught? Did Autor have a plan for that? And why did that picture on the wall look like it was looking at her?
The alarmed girl tried to stifle a cry as she turned and ran towards the desk. Instead she knocked into a pedestal and sent the vase upon it furiously rocking to and fro.
Autor looked up with a start at the noise. "Ahiru!" he hissed, as she frantically tried to steady the upset décor. "Please be more careful!"
Ahiru flushed, her hands shaking as she gripped the vase. "Autor, that picture was looking at us!" she wailed, trying to keep her voice down at the same time.
"What?" Autor frowned, glancing at the painting Ahiru had indicated. It depicted a likeness of a stern, white-haired man with a short beard. The eyes were hard, but did not seem to be staring at anyone in particular. Autor started to turn away. "It must have just been the lighting," he said.
Ahiru gave the painting a suspicious glare. "Really?" she said.
"Of course," Autor said, going back to the desk. "Pictures don't have independent vision. Or any vision at all, for that matter." He shuffled through the mess of unsorted papers. So far it seemed to be bills for purchases that had not yet been filed. And that gave him an idea.
"Ahiru, look in that filing cabinet," he directed. "See if you can find the bill of sale for Springheel Jack."
Ahiru's eyes went wide. "There'd be a bill of sale for him?" she said.
"Most likely," Autor said. "He was encased in stone and would have looked like a statue."
"That's scary," Ahiru gasped. "I mean, what if some person got in stone and they were being sold like a statue?"
"Ahiru." Autor sounded like he was trying to keep hold of what remained of his patience. "Just look in the cabinet."
Ahiru stiffened. "Sorry. Okay," she said slowly, going to the metal storage device and opening the nearest drawer. "Should I look under Springheel Jack?"
"How does he seem to have his files organized?" Autor asked, still looking over each sheet on the desk. "Are they by category or individual name?"
Ahiru frowned, looking over several of the folders. "This one says Jewelry," she reported. "Here's Swords and Weapons. . . ." She gasped. "Mythological creatures!" she read in alarm.
"Try that one," Autor said.
Ahiru pulled out the folder and flipped it open. "This looks like stories about weird things," she said with a frown. "Eh? Batsquatch?" She stared at a bizarre picture of a giant bat-monster obstructing a car in the road.
"Is that all it is?" Autor asked, slight impatience in his voice. He had just reached the end of the unsightly stack of papers without success.
Ahiru flipped through the pages of the folder. "No," she said slowly. "Most of them have other papers stapled to them with Mr. Kaestner's thoughts on the monsters. Oh, here's the one for Springheel Jack." Balancing the file, she peered through the gathered pages. "Creepy stories about people seeing him. . . ." She looked up at Autor in alarm. "He breathes fire?"
Autor came to her side. "So it's been said," he answered in a noncommittal tone.
He stiffened as Ahiru turned to a hand-written sheet. "What's that?" He reached for it, pulling it far enough away from the other papers that it could be read.
"'At last I have the creature in my possession,'" he quoted aloud, his eyes traveling quickly over the scrawled lines. "'Springheel Jack, the mad troll that terrorized Victorian London, including my great-grandfather. He failed to capture it, but now I have it as a trophy.'" He looked up, excitement glittering in his brown eyes. "This might be what we're looking for."
The sound of footsteps outside the room made both teens freeze in their tracks. Ahiru gripped the folder, her knuckles going white. "Someone's coming in!" she hissed. "What do we do?"
Autor slid the drawer shut almost noiselessly. "For now, we'll take this with us and hide," he said, shoving the Springheel Jack papers into the folder and closing it.
"Where?" Ahiru retorted. She looked around wildly, her braid swinging from one side to the other.
Autor pulled open a door halfway and peered inside. "In this closet," he said. "Get in here!" He ushered the girl inside and followed after, pulling the door shut just as the knob to the room turned.
Ahiru winced as she crashed into a rack of coats. "Ow!" she exclaimed as a hanger poked her in the face.
"Stay quiet," Autor warned.
He shifted awkwardly as Ahiru turned and walked into him. For such a large house, the closet was preposterously small. Or it was overly crowded. Either way, there was scarcely enough space for him, Ahiru, and the coats. It was inevitable that they would have to stay close.
"I know I heard voices in here," the butler's voice muttered as the door to the room opened. "Where are you?" The man advanced into the room, the floor creaking under his footsteps.
Ahiru kept her lips tightly pressed together, barely remembering to breathe. What would they do if they were caught? Would they be turned over to the police? Would they meet a far worse fate? And what about the troll? Where was he right now? Did they have the secret to beating him?
Autor kept his focus on the closed door, his eyes narrowed. If the door were suddenly to open, he would need to have a plan ready to put into action immediately.
"Listen to me," he hissed, bending down to whisper directly into Ahiru's ear. "We have to surprise him if he opens the door. Be prepared to push past him out of the room and shove him inside the closet."
"What?" Ahiru gasped in alarm, whirling to look at Autor in disbelief. "I've never done something like that before!"
"In light of our options, you should start thinking about it," Autor said. He moved to one side of the door. "Get on the other side."
Ahiru swallowed hard but obeyed, stepping as noiselessly as she could. She winced when her foot bumped into a cardboard box. Hopefully that was not as loud outside as it sounded in here.
The butler's footsteps stopped right outside the closet. "There's nowhere else for you to hide," he mused. "You have to be in there."
Autor tensed, waiting for the assault. But to both his and Ahiru's surprise, though they heard the man's hand on the knob, he did not turn it.
"What is this?" he muttered. "It's stuck again?"
The creaking of the floor near the entrance to the room brought his attention elsewhere. But the teens realized in horror that it was not a beneficial development—for him or them.
"Who's . . . AUGH!"
The bone-chilling scream was swiftly followed by a crash and a horrible moan. Ahiru could only barely hold back a cry herself, her eyes wide in sheer horror and alarm.
"What's going on?" she wailed.
Autor was already searching the closet in desperation. "I don't think we want to know until we're actually in a position to fight back!" he said. But there were no weapons here that he could see, nor anything that could pass for a makeshift defense unless they used the hangers.
"There's not another way out of here!" Ahiru exclaimed. "We're trapped!" She listened in terror to what was going on in the study. It was impossible to determine exactly what was happening amid the screams, crashes, and moans, but the longer she tried to hear the more it sounded like she could make out horrified words.
"Sir, this is impossible!" the servant cried. "How can you be . . ."
Again the creature cut him off. With a mad roar it lifted something in the room and threw it at the hapless man.
Ahiru stiffened. "Autor, he said 'sir'!" she said. "But I thought Mr. Kaestner was sick!"
"He doesn't sound particularly healthy," Autor observed.
"What are we going to do?" Ahiru exclaimed. "And how can we just leave the butler? It sounds like he's really in trouble!"
"We'll be in trouble if we leave here," Autor said. "We don't know what's out there." But on the other hand, it would be far worse for them if they were boxed in here and the door was opened by Mr. Kaestner or whoever had interrupted the butler's search. Looking at that option, their best chance was to get out of the closet while they still could. That would not solve the problem of what to use for weapons, however.
He snatched several vacant wooden hangers off the rack. "Take these," he said, handing half to Ahiru.
She nodded, gripping them as Autor went to the door and wrestled with the stuck knob. "Won't they hear?" she exclaimed as he rattled and turned the stubborn device.
"It doesn't sound like it," Autor said. From the noise outside, the fight was continuing without any indication of stopping for anything. "If they possibly hear this over the racket they're making, they don't care."
At last the door popped open. Autor jumped a mile as it tore free of the doorjamb. But then he froze and gasped at the sight beyond.
"What is it?" Ahiru cried. "What's going on?"
Autor just kept staring. "Unbelievable," he breathed. "Mr. Kaestner is . . . well, he looks far worse than just ill."
Ahiru ran over, peering through the crack. The butler had tripped and fallen and was sprawled on the floor in horror, gazing at the thing that was advancing on him. With its sickly skin, empty eyes, and animalistic roars, it no longer resembled a living person by any stretch of the imagination.
"A zombie?" Ahiru gasped. Oh, please say this isn't happening. . . .
"I don't know," Autor said, pulling the door open wider. "Let's rescue the butler and see if he knows what's going on."
They ran out into the study, barely paying attention to the fresh air that greeted them after being in the stuffy closet. Ahiru took one of her hangers, gripping it tightly as the monster snarled and raised its hands above the petrified servant.
"Stop!" Ahiru burst out. "Why are you trying to hurt him?"
The thing and the butler both turned to stare. Then the creature turned their way with a roar. Ahiru's knees quaked, but she threw the wooden hanger in desperation. "Leave us alone!" she cried.
The object bounced off of its shoulder and struck the wall. It snarled in outrage, only stopped for a moment before advancing again. Autor launched a hanger as well, but even as it bounced off the pasty forehead, it had the same result.
"The legend is true," the butler moaned, shakily getting to his knees. "I never wanted to believe it, but now there is no choice!"
"What legend?" Autor demanded, diving out of the way as the hanger was thrown at him like a boomerang.
"It's been kept a family secret for years," the butler said. "Mr. Kaestner didn't fully believe it. When Springheel Jack revives, it can only be on a night when all is perfectly aligned in the sky. And in order to break free of his stone prison, he drains the lifeforce of the person nearest to him when the alignment happens. That person is then little more than the walking dead unless it is reversed!"
Ahiru leaped out of the way of a flying paperweight. "But I thought you were the guy with him when he got free!" she exclaimed.
"I just reported it that way to try to keep the horrible publicity down!" the butler said, gripping the edge of the desk as he shakily stood. "And I gave a 'statement' of Mr. Kaestner's to the press. After the troll drained him, he was left lying lifeless on the floor. I put him to bed and he'd been there quietly until now!"
As he spoke, Autor and Ahiru dodged soaring objects and tried to defend themselves with the hangers. "And how do you reverse the damage?" Autor demanded. "We have his file on Springheel Jack, but unfortunately we haven't been able to read through it yet!" He jumped away as Mr. Kaestner brought a fire poker down in his direction.
"That's just it, I don't know how!" the butler said. "It was written in a riddle!"
"We'll figure it out," Autor said. "But for now, why don't you help us? Isn't there a way to render your employer unconscious?"
"I don't know that, either," was the reply. "In his state it might not be possible!" The servant took up one of the fallen hangers, trembling for a moment as he hesitated. "I'm sorry, sir," he said then, striking the occupied Mr. Kaestner over the head with the hard wood.
For a moment the wild man stiffened in seeming pain. But then he turned in fury, facing the horrified valet.
"Oh!" the butler cried.
Abruptly Autor tackled the thing from behind, sending them both flying in the direction of the desk. Mr. Kaestner, slamming into it with full force, at last went limp with a final groan. Breathing heavily, Autor slumped back, his glasses and hair askew.
"Autor!" Ahiru exclaimed, running over to him and crouching down. "Are you okay?" She laid a hand on his shoulder.
Autor pushed up his glasses. "I'm fine," he said, trying to force back the dizziness and the aches from the sudden assault. "More importantly, Mr. Kaestner is senseless." He looked to the amazed butler. "We need to bind him. Do you have any chains?"
"Chains?" the servant repeated in disbelief.
"I don't trust rope," Autor said.
"O-of course." The man nodded and headed towards the door, looking to be in a daze. "I'll see what I can find."
"And don't be long," Autor warned. "He might wake up soon."
The butler stiffened, then increased his pace.
Soon Mr. Kaestner was bound tightly with a chain fastened by a large padlock. Hoping for a bit of extra insurance against a breakout, the trio locked him in the closet before daring to relax.
"I must say, you teenagers were persistent," the butler told them as they settled in the front parlor. "But I'm grateful for it."
Autor nodded. "You were acting suspicious, so I decided we needed to find out firsthand if there was any information on the troll." He held up the folder. "Ahiru found this in the filing cabinet."
"Yes." The butler looked weary, but nodded. "Mr. Kaestner compiled that information over a period of time. His great-grandfather discovered a riddle about Jack carved into a wall in the catacombs of London, but he never could solve it. Apparently someone must have done so, however, since Jack eventually was stopped and sealed in stone."
Autor flipped open the folder. He was leafing through the papers, Ahiru peering over his shoulder, when a sudden knock at the front doors gave both them and the butler a great start.
"More reporters?" the man groaned. He got up, shuffling to the doors and cautiously opening one. "Yes?"
"I'm looking for my friends," a familiar voice replied.
Ahiru jumped up from the couch in surprise. "Fakir?" she exclaimed, hurrying over to the entryway. One foot hooked under an expensive rug and she yelped, her arms waving wildly as balance was lost.
Fakir cringed as she crashed on the floor. "Idiot," he said.
The butler looked from one to the other, bewildered. "You know each other?" he said.
"Yeah," Ahiru grumbled. She jumped up, letting go of her frustration. "How did you know to come here, Fakir?"
"I just took a wild guess," Fakir said, walking onto the marble tiles. "I was going to Autor's place to see if he knew about the troll that's breaking the town apart. Then I saw the evening paper and figured Autor would be coming here."
Autor smirked as he strolled over, pushing up his glasses. "I must say, Fakir, you took your time," he said.
Fakir grunted. "Well, have you found anything out or not?" he asked.
"I was just about to look through this," Autor said, holding up the folder. "There's an unsolved riddle about the troll in it."
Still feeling a bit dazed, the servant shut the door and locked it. "Won't you come sit down?" he said, stretching a hand vaguely in the direction of the furniture.
Fakir was already following Ahiru and Autor towards the couch. Once they were settled, Autor opened the folder and began again to pore over the pages.
"Here it is," he said at last, extracting a sheet protector that held a yellowed and stained piece of paper. He squinted at the faded ink and fancy English script.
"Can you make it out?" Fakir frowned.
"Yes," Autor said. Adjusting its angle in the light, he recited the verses.
Sprightly Jack, Leech of Life,
A Devil's Pawn who rules the Night,
Return to Stone, he can be bade,
And Spell he wrought, now unmade.
For Jack, you see, one Foe exists.
Restore the Fiend to black Abyss:
Find Peter, Champion of noble hue—
Gold flame, not lilac, gives Jack his due.
As Peter, from the Earth he came,
So Jack be sent and there remain.
Hurry now, this Knight to seek,
Else Life be lost in Darkness bleak.
Ahiru stared, certain she could hear the sound of her brain breaking.
Fakir frowned, crossing his arms. "That's it?" he said.
"Yes." Autor studied the sheet some more, frowning at the cryptic words.
Ahiru dug her fingers into her scalp in despair. "But it doesn't mean anything!" she wailed. "We have to find some guy named Peter?"
Fakir frowned. "Maybe just his grave?" he suggested. "He'd be long dead by now."
"But his grave would be in England," Autor said. "There isn't any way we could get there before Kinkan would be destroyed. And how would we get Jack there?" This interpretation was certainly a concern, if true. Since the riddle had been written in London, maybe the writer had not thought Jack would ever leave that city. What if, by bringing him to Germany, Mr. Kaestner had made it so it would be nigh impossible to defeat the creature?
The butler sighed, shaking his head. "Mr. Kaestner was trying to crack the riddle that his ancestor could not," he said. "He was always afraid of the day coming when Jack would be set free, though he did not want to admit it. And as you can see, he did not have any luck."
"What did he do to try to decipher it?" Autor queried.
"Oh, everything he could think of," Mr. Kaestner said. "He traveled to London himself and went through the catacombs, looking for any famous Peters to whom the riddle could have referred. He discerned one or two possibilities, but nothing definite. And the 'gold and lilac flames' he never could make sense of."
Autor tapped the sheet protector with a thoughtful air. "Those may be the key to this mystery," he said. "What do gold and lilac flames have to do with Peter?"
Ahiru shifted. "Maybe he made fires or something?" she said.
"With a riddle, the more obvious answers are hardly ever correct," Autor said.
The butler sighed. "And I wonder how much time we really have," he said, nervously prowling the room.
"Turn on the radio," Autor directed, seeing one in the corner. "Maybe we can find out something about the troll's current status."
The servant obeyed and went over, turning the power switch. For a moment there was static, but then a weak signal came through.
"All of Kinkan is in a state of mass panic due to the wild troll Springheel Jack," the announcer said. He himself sounded strained. "The trouble-maker was last seen downtown, where he wreaked havoc on every building up and down the block, save for the pizza parlor."
"That's odd," Autor said, raising an eyebrow.
"Maybe he likes pizza?" Ahiru blinked.
"Maybe," Fakir frowned. "But why didn't he go get some then?"
"He was too busy jumping around?" Ahiru said.
"Quiet!" Autor cut in, looking towards the radio.
"This guy must have some kind of soft spot for places with food," the reporter was saying. "The grocery store and Ebine's restaurant were also spared, or so I'm told."
Autor narrowed his eyes. "I doubt this has anything to do with a love of the culinary arts," he said. "What if there's something he's trying to avoid, something that would be found wherever there's food?"
Ahiru gave him a baffled look. "What are you talking about, Autor?" she said. "Do you mean maybe he's allergic to some kind of food?"
"Yes." Autor's eyes gleamed the way they did when he had an idea. "Very allergic." He read through the riddle again, lingering at the middle and last verses the longest.
"Let us in on it," Fakir growled, leaning over to study it as well.
Autor leaned forward, growing excited. "If you burn potassium nitrate, its flame will be a light purple hue," he said.
Ahiru was completely lost now. "Potass . . . what?" She stared at Autor. Sometimes it was like he spoke a different language altogether.
"It's used in gunpowder," Fakir said. "It's also called . . ." His eyes widened. "Saltpeter."
Autor nodded. "If you burn sodium, its flame is yellow," he said. Glancing at Ahiru he added, "It's one of the main properties of table salt."
Ahiru's eyes went wide. "So Jack is allergic to salt?" she said.
"I would say so." Autor glanced over the riddle's verses. "Peter isn't a person at all; it's a clue pointing to saltpeter. The mention of the golden flame then means to turn our attention to salt instead."
"And it comes from the earth!" Ahiru exclaimed, glad to finally be able to contribute to this discussion.
The butler shook his head in amazement. "This riddle has stymied the Kaestner family for over a hundred years," he said, "and you've solved it in ten minutes."
Autor smirked. "It just takes the right knowledge," he said.
"But there's only one way to know for sure if we've really solved it," Fakir said. "We have to get a bunch of salt and somehow get it to Jack."
Ahiru leaped up. "Well, that can't be too hard!" she said. "Come on, let's get some and go!"
Fakir allowed a slight smile at her determination. "Do you have some we can take?" he asked.
The butler nodded. "I'll get the largest container possible from the kitchen, since the riddle didn't specify how much is needed," he said.
"It would be smart to have extra anyway," Autor said.
"You must hurry, though," said the man, his eyes concerned and his tone grave. "If the alignment in the sky falls out of order and Jack is still at large, even salt might not work. Of course I don't know for sure, but it's another precaution you should take."
"We'll be quick," Autor said.
Within five minutes the teens were on their way. According to the radio, Jack seemed to be staying in the downtown area, so they went in that direction. Autor, refusing to ride Fakir's horse—and not particularly wanting to be near it, either—took a different path.
"I hope he'll be okay," Ahiru worried.
"He'll be fine," Fakir said. "If he meets the troll, he has some salt too." They had decided that it would be best for each of them to carry some of the substance, just in case they were separated or in case one was in trouble and could not reach their supply. The butler had agreed.
"Yeah . . . but that wasn't exactly what I meant," Ahiru said. She held on to Fakir as the horse increased speed to a gallop, flying over the stone road.
Fakir grunted. He was aware of Autor's agitation around equines, and considering what he had been through, it was not surprising. But Autor could take care of himself. Fakir was not worried about him so much as he was the town in general.
He tensed as Ahiru's arms slipped down, pressing against the tender skin courtesy of Jack's powerful shoes. Feeling him stiffen, Ahiru loosened her grip. "Fakir, what's wrong?" she exclaimed.
"Nothing," Fakir retorted.
"It's something," Ahiru said. "And how did you find out about Jack anyway?"
"We'll talk about it later," Fakir said. He was not just saying it to avoid the topic; it was difficult to converse on a galloping horse.
Ahiru frowned, but moved her arms higher and did not let go.
It was easy to know when they neared Jack's current disaster zone. The sound of the hardy springs and the mad laughter were hints enough, even without seeing the sprawled and dazed people, damaged buildings, and leaning lampposts. Fakir slowed the horse to a walk, glaring at the destruction. Ahiru was horrified.
"And he's doing all this just to have some fun?" she said.
"That's the impression I got," Fakir said.
Abruptly the troll leaped down in front of them. The horse shied away to the right, pulling on the reins as it neighed. Ahiru yelped. Fakir gritted his teeth, tugging on the left side of the reins to try to steer the stallion back in the right direction.
"What's this I see? The animal is afraid of me?" Jack grinned, jumping to the side.
"I'm not," Fakir said coldly. "This is going to end now." The horse at last obeyed Fakir and stopped moving away, but it cast an uneasy look towards Jack and snorted.
"Cease and desist? I'm afraid I must resist!" Jack said. He leaped back again as Ahiru reached for her container of salt.
"Why do you do these things?" she cried. "What's fun about hurting people?"
"People are nothing to me, as long as I'm free," Jack said. But he tensed at the presence of the container. "What do you have there? Do I see, do I dare?"
Fakir pulled off the lid of his own plastic jar. "This is your worst nightmare," he said. Then he groaned inwardly. I made it rhyme without thinking, he thought.
Jack took one look at the white substance and sprang onto a nearby roof. "You can't play your foul trick if I'm too slick!" he said.
Ahiru gasped as he began jumping from one building to the next. "What are we going to do, Fakir?" she exclaimed. "He's too high!"
Fakir gritted his teeth, closing the lid. "He'll have to come down eventually," he said. "And look, Autor's at the next corner." He pointed ahead. The other boy was just running into view, then stopping to stare at Jack's insane bounds.
"Let's catch up with him!" Ahiru said. "Maybe it'll work if we all throw our salt together!"
Fakir spurred the horse on, all the while keeping his attention divided as he followed Jack's flight with his eyes.
Without warning the troll vanished from view. Fakir gawked. "What?" he gasped. Then he glowered. "He must have jumped down onto the next street over."
The sounds of screams and galloping hooves filled the air. As Fakir drove the horse on, some of the panicked cries became intelligible.
"It's taken the carriage!" a woman screamed. "The driver has fallen and he's hurt!"
This announcement had a profound effect. Without warning people on the other side of the street began to flee across, forcing Fakir to pull hard on the reins and stop to wait. He swore under his breath.
Autor, closer than Fakir and Ahiru, went pale. The thunder of the hooves was distinct, causing the ground to tremble as the beasts drew nigh. People were shrieking and scattering in all directions, desperate to get out of the way.
Autor was petrified. The horses barreled into view, strong and brown, just like the ones that had ended his life. Jack cackled like a madman, snapping the reins as he sat in the driver's seat. The door of the cab flapped open, revealing that it was empty.
Autor's heart raced. He should run too. If his legs could not move, then he would have to just dive to the side. He could not be near to the carriage. He could not.
But then he snapped back to himself. He was the only one close by. Not even Fakir and Ahiru could get over, still held up by the panicked people in the road. And even if they came, then what? Fakir was steering the horse; he could not let go to jump to the carriage. And Ahiru would likely have a dreadful fall if she attempted it.
Jack had to be stopped. All of them knew that. But it was not likely to be possible as long as he was careening this carriage out of control. And someone else could even be run over as Autor had been.
"How do I get myself into these situations?" he cried despairingly. As the horses tore past, he took a deep breath and gave chase. The carriage wheels rattled over the street, jarring the vehicle. Autor leaped away from them and towards the open cab, diving forward with all his might.
Somewhere behind him he could hear Ahiru calling his name in alarm and Fakir proclaiming him an idiot. Grimly, he had to agree. He crashed to the floor of the cab, gasping in both relief and surprise. He was inside.
Pushing up his glasses, he struggled to pull himself upright. Jack had not noticed him, too busy having his fun. The troll drove the horses sharply to the right, taking out a mailbox. Then he swerved them to the left, clipping a tree. The force of the blow knocked Autor forward against the cushioned back of the driver's box.
Recovering quickly, he leaped over it and onto the seat beside Jack. The troll gave a start and turned to look. For a moment surprise flickered in his eyes, but then he sneered.
"Tsk tsk, you're taking quite a risk!" he declared.
"I know that," Autor said as his hair blew wildly over his glasses and into his eyes. Somehow he had to get the madman away from the reins before they tried turning him to stone. Otherwise the carriage would go out of control even worse and he and others would probably die. And that was not an option.
Jack smirked. "Let me introduce you to one of my ploys," he said. "It's quite a deadly little toy." He opened his mouth wide, shooting out a flame of deadly orange in Autor's direction.
Autor gasped, gripping the edge of the box as he dodged the fire. The hot breath soared past him, grazing his arm before hitting a lamppost full-force. Autor hissed in pain, staring at his torn sleeve and the new injury.
"The only thing about you that doesn't seem to be true is your reputation for scratching people," he said.
"Don't count it out; you may regret your doubt!" Jack said.
While still gripping the reins in one hand, he held out his other hand at Autor. To the teen's alarm, the fingernails grew into horrendous curved talons. Cackling madly, Jack swiped at Autor. He only barely missed as Autor rocked away. The claws tore into the cushioned back of the box, leaving four perfectly parallel tears. Autor gaped at the damage, his stomach twisting at the thought of the claws raking through his body.
At that moment Fakir pulled up alongside, his stallion galloping frantically to keep pace. "What do you think you're doing?" he demanded. Behind him, Ahiru stared in horror and fear for Autor's safety.
Jack turned to look at them, momentarily distracted. "Now, now," he said, "this is no time for a row."
Autor reached over, grabbing hold of the reins and pulling with all his might. The horses whinnied, bewildered by this sudden, forceful pressure. They strained against the pull of the straps, refusing to slow.
Jack laughed but did not let go. "Boy, you're afraid," he stated. "Your hands will likely end up flayed."
Autor held on tighter, furious with himself that his fear was showing. "Now!" he yelled. "Get him now!"
Ahiru was still staring in horror, but she gave a firm nod. Clutching the container tightly, she worked to unscrew the lid.
Jack cried out. "No!" he yelled. "I must not go!" Smirking, he let go of the reins and jumped onto the seat. "Have fun, my friend, but beware—this ride may leave you with blood through your hair!"
Autor gripped the reins, staring in alarm. "What are you doing?" he exclaimed, even as Jack cackled and sprung out of the carriage. Ahiru shrieked as the troll flew completely over her, Fakir, and the horse before landing on the street.
"Use the salt!" Fakir ordered.
But it was futile; Jack was already much too far ahead. And right now they had a more immediate problem. Fakir cursed the situation, looking back to the panic-stricken Autor.
"Autor, somehow you're going to have to stop that carriage!" he called.
Autor stared at the other boy in disbelief. "How am I going to do that?" he cried.
"Keep pulling on the reins," Fakir said. "You can't jerk them like you were doing before. Go slowly."
Autor's hands shook. The straps were slipping in his clammy grasp, but he could not let go. If he were unable to hold onto them, what would happen? Would these horses kill him, just as those others had done?
"They're not slowing down!" Ahiru said in alarm.
"Then you'll have to jump," Fakir called to Autor. "If you fall, I'll catch you."
Autor started out of his panicked thoughts. "I don't need to be caught!" he fumed.
"Then don't fall," Fakir shot back.
A frantic prayer ran through Autor's mind. Again his hands trembled, but all at once Fakir's words fully registered in his mind. To try to halt this madness he had to go slowly. Gripping the reins, he pulled with as much care as was possible. He did not want to jump; he wanted to stop the carriage. Or was it that the thought of jumping terrified him the most? Fakir might not be able to catch him. What if he fell and was trampled by Fakir's horse? At least when he was in the driver's box he had a better chance of survival should the vehicle crash.
The sound of the hooves grew louder in his ears. Terrifying memories flashed before his eyes. He was pushing the child out of the way. One of the horses was kicking him in the head, cutting open a painful gash. He was falling to the road in a daze. He was being trampled. . . .
He would not die this time. He would not, he would not! . . .
He gave a sharp start. The horses and the carriage were slowing to a stop in the road. His hands were still gripping the reins, violently shaking. As the carriage came to a complete halt Ahiru climbed into the box with him, relief and joy spread across her features.
"You did it, Autor!" she exclaimed. "You stopped the horses! And you're okay. You're really okay!"
Slowly Autor let the reins drop from his hands. "I . . ." He gave Ahiru a blank look. "I stopped them?"
She nodded. "Mm-hmm!"
Still on his horse, Fakir shook his head. "Pretty good for someone who's never driven a carriage before," he said.
"I never intend to do so again," Autor declared. "Ever."
Ahiru bit her lip. "And Springheel Jack got away," she said.
"Then we'll find him again," Fakir said. "It shouldn't be hard; we'll take the path he chose."
Autor climbed out of the box. "And I am going to walk," he said. His legs were shaking as he lowered himself to the ground.
"Idiot," Fakir growled. "What did you do such a stupid thing for in the first place?"
"We had to try to stop Jack, didn't we?" Autor said, not facing Fakir as he pushed up his glasses.
"Yeah—stop Jack, not commit suicide!" Fakir said.
Autor did not answer. Instead he walked further away from the scene, hoping desperately that his body was not actually shaking as much as he felt it was. It had been a foolish thing to do. In fact, it had been a reckless thing to do, something more likely of Fakir than Autor.
Why did I do that? he wondered. Was I really just trying to be noble? Or was it more selfish than anything else—a desperate attempt to conquer my fears?
He frowned, unable to find the answers.
From the driver's box, Ahiru watched him go. She sighed sadly, her shoulders slumping. "Autor," she whispered. Somehow she felt so helpless.
She looked up as Fakir brought his horse closer to the carriage.
"We need to go," he said. "Come on."
Somberly she climbed down and walked over to the stallion. Fakir must have noticed her dejected nature, as he held out a hand to help her up. She blinked in surprise but accepted. Soon she was on the horse in back of Fakir.
"Fakir . . . do you think Autor will be okay?" she asked.
Fakir grunted. "Yeah," he said.
"What could have made him do something like that?" Ahiru said, slowly drawing her arms around Fakir as he made the horse go faster.
"Who knows," Fakir said. "Right now we have a bigger problem."
Ahiru stiffened. "What's that?" she moaned.
"That troll is heading for the center of town," Fakir said in frustration.
"But that will lead him right to the school!" Ahiru said, horrified.
Fakir gave a grim nod. They were plunging into quite the showdown.
The iron gates were swinging open by the time the teens were converging on the academy grounds. Students and even some of the faculty were standing both outside and inside the gate's boundaries, gawking at the sound of a familiar mad cackle.
"Students and teachers, come one and all! Witness my triumph or have a bad fall!"
The woman who had been Ms. Goatette stared in horror and indignation at Jack's silhouette perched above the clock on the main school building. "This is terrible!" she declared. "Everyone, go back to your rooms. This creature is dangerous."
But in spite of her words, no one moved. They were too transfixed in shock.
"Such an incident!" Lilie exclaimed, clapping her hands to her cheeks. "I hope he causes such a commotion that everyone will be talking and gossiping about this for weeks!"
Piké gave her a put-out look. "But he's been destroying places all over town," she said. "Do you really want to see that happen to the academy?"
Lilie frowned as she considered the question. "No," she said slowly. "But oh! Maybe someone will be seriously hurt during a heroic attempt to stop him!"
Piké gave up. There was no way to talk to Lilie when she got like this.
They both looked up with a start at the pounding of hooves on the street. As Fakir and Ahiru pulled up at the gate, Lilie looked ready to levitate.
"Ahiru!" she greeted. "Is Springheel Jack your fault? It's your fault, isn't it?"
Ahiru flinched as she climbed down. Was it her fault? Fakir had told her to dump the salt on Jack, but he had already been too far away before Ahiru could open the container.
"Don't be ridiculous," Fakir said icily as he jumped off the horse.
Ahiru looked to Fakir in surprise, gratitude coming into her eyes at how quickly he had come to her defense. But he was already hurrying ahead of her through the open gates of the school grounds.
"What are you doing?" Piké demanded, seeing the container of salt that Ahiru was tightly clutching to her bosom.
"I'm sorry, I can't stay and talk," Ahiru said, rushing past her and Lilie. "We have to catch that troll!"
Lilie stared in amazement, her green eyes wide and filled with stars. "Ahiru?" she cried. "Oh no, that will never work! She will fail spectacularly, more spectacularly than ever before!" She looked to the worried Piké in excitement. "Let's go closer! We have to see!"
Piké ran through the gates. She certainly did not want Ahiru to be hurt, and unfortunately, Lilie was right that it could and likely would happen. But what if it was Fakir who was hurt instead? He had already gone through the paneled glass doors leading inside the building and was most likely heading for the stairs leading to the roof.
Another breeze tore past the girls, running in the same direction. For a moment Lilie stopped and watched, taking in the source of the wind.
"The music student too?" she said. "You know, I don't think I've ever seen him run!"
It was not long before two teachers followed. They could not allow any of the academy's pupils to be injured attempting to do something as foolish as bring down the mad troll that had been terrorizing Kinkan all evening.
Fakir was already at the top, throwing open the window nearest to the carved lyre upon which Jack had been standing. By now Jack had leaped away; his wild, pounding jumps were echoing over the roof. Gritting his teeth, Fakir began to ease himself through the space as he reached for the ledge.
Ahiru arrived just as Fakir made it to the lyre. "Fakir!" she said in horror.
Fakir stood, stiffening as he saw her leaning out the window. Visions of her body plummeting through the air turned over in his mind. "Idiot! Stay there!" he ordered.
"Stay?" Ahiru cried, watching as Fakir began to climb the slanted portion of the roof immediately above the ledge. "But we were supposed to defeat Jack together! What if you get hurt and fall?"
"You'd never be able to keep your balance up here," Fakir retorted. "We'd probably both fall because I'd have to grab for you!"
Ahiru glowered. Well, that was probably true, but he didn't have to say it like that. And did this mean there was really nothing she could do? She stared, feeling helpless as Fakir disappeared from her view. Above her, she could hear his footsteps across the roof, following Jack's pounding jumps.
Another set of footsteps echoed over the stairs. Ahiru whirled, her braid whipping out. "Autor!" she exclaimed as her other friend reached the top. "Fakir's gone up on the roof and he won't let me come!"
Autor glanced to the open window. "You would fall if you tried to go that way," he said, pushing up his glasses. He did not even want to try it himself.
"Then what are we going to do?" Ahiru cried. "Just let him chase that horrible troll by himself?"
"There's another way to get to the roof," Autor told her. "But we have to hurry." He grabbed her wrist, leading her across the attic floor. Below them, other, heavier footsteps were on the stairs. The students still had the advantage, especially with Autor's knowledge, and he soon brought Ahiru to a step-ladder placed below a square door in the ceiling.
"What's this for?" Ahiru frowned in confusion.
"It's so repairmen can get to the roof easily," Autor said with impatience. "Go ahead of me. If you fall, I'll catch you."
Ahiru swallowed hard at the thought of falling. But, taking a deep breath, she gripped the ladder and placed a foot on the first step. She climbed as quickly as she could, reaching with one hand to undo the latch on the door at the top. To her relief, it was not stuck. She pushed it upward and followed suit, the cold night air striking her across the face as she emerged onto the roof.
"So this is what it's like to be on the roof of the school," she quavered, kneeling at the top to collect her bearings. "Scary. . ." Especially with Springheel Jack at large. Taking a deep breath, she got to her feet and looked around.
Autor climbed out a moment later, closing the door behind him. "Do you see them?" he asked urgently.
Before Ahiru could answer, Jack dropped right into their path. Ahiru jumped a mile. "Well, well, what have we here?" he sneered. "I perceive that you are awash with fear."
Ahiru glowered at him. "You should be the scared one!" she cried.
While she spoke, Autor was quickly unscrewing the lid on his container of salt. If she could just distract Jack long enough . . .
"Scared of a girl who quacks like a duck, and a boy who's really quite out of luck?" Jack whirled, leering at Autor as he sprang forward.
Autor gasped, rocking back as Jack lunged at him. Ahiru screamed. Even as he lost his footing, Autor threw the contents of the open container of salt directly at Jack.
The troll stopped, clawing at his chest. "No!" he cried. "This cannot be! Stone is not what I wish to see!" But even as he spoke, his upper torso was growing hard and cold.
Ahiru was barely even watching. "Autor!" she wailed, dropping to her knees as she reached for her friend's wrist. Autor had sprawled on the slanted roof and was holding on, but who knew how long that would last.
He looked up at her. "I'm fine!" he said. "But it looks like all of our salt is needed. Don't worry about me; throw your salt at him!"
Ahiru trembled. "But . . ." She looked back to Jack, who was gritting his teeth as he fought to take several steps forward. The new weight of his stone chest was making it difficult, but from his flashing eyes he was not about to give up—or to forgive Autor.
"Now!" Autor yelled, scrambling back up the roof.
Ahiru took courage. Flinging off the lid, she heaved the salt at their enemy.
Jack roared. "I will not let you champion my defeat!" he cried. "A dreadful end you will meet!" And as he roared, fire shot from his mouth in Ahiru's direction. She shrieked, throwing up her arms to shield herself from the blast.
It never came.
With a confused start she looked up and gasped. Fakir had dropped down from one of the spires, his eyes cold and furious as he blocked the fire with his sword and sent it back at Jack. The troll snarled, fighting to dodge the blaze. But thanks to Ahiru's salt, all limbs but one arm were stone.
His eyes lit with a wicked gleam. "If I must die, then so must you," he declared. "Fall from grace and make your loved ones blue."
Fakir's eyes widened. The troll rocked forward, using his one free arm to grab hold of Fakir's arm as he tumbled. With nothing to take hold of, Fakir plunged with him.
Ahiru screamed. "Fakir!" she wailed, diving after them.
"Ahiru, no!" both Fakir and Autor yelled at the same time. Autor lunged to catch hold of the panicked girl, his eyes wide in horror and alarm. Was this it? Did they have to lose a friend to end this madness? He had to save Ahiru, but Fakir had to fall?
"Let me go!" Ahiru cried as Autor encircled his arms around her waist. "Fakir!" She gripped Autor's arms, shaking as she stared.
Fakir was not willing to give up and die. He stabbed Lohengrin's sword into the side of the building, bracing himself against the wall.
"You just made a big mistake," he said.
"I?" Jack sneered. "As long as I do not release your arm, your fate has doomed you to harm. Lose your limb or lose your life; tonight you will suffer strife!"
Fakir gritted his teeth. Unfortunately, the troll could be right. It felt like his arm was being torn out of its socket. And his other hand could not grip the sword's hilt much longer. If only he could reach his salt!
And even if he could, they would both fall for certain once all of Jack was stone. Fakir's arm would be clutched in the mad troll's grasp possibly indefinitely. If he survived the fall, he really might be forced to lose his arm.
A hand took hold of his wrist. He looked up with a start. Ahiru was kneeling above him, gripping his arm with all her might. Autor was holding onto her by way of support. And behind him, two teachers were making their way over in horror. They joined the chain.
"We're right here with you, Fakir," Ahiru said, trying to smile despite the strain. "We're not going to let you fall."
Fakir gazed at her, then the others. With their support, all of them just might be stronger than Jack. In fact, judging from the feel of the slipping hand on his other arm, Jack was just about out of strength.
"Don't think you've won," Jack snarled, regarding Fakir and the other teens with hatred. "One day I will return and have my fun."
Unable to hold on any longer, he plummeted into the canal below. Water sprayed several yards high in all directions.
Fakir narrowed his eyes, watching the sight. Released from the pressure, his left arm was throbbing. And he was rising; Ahiru and Autor and the teachers were pulling him up.
A moment later he was kneeling on the roof. Ahiru hugged him close, tears of relief and joy pricking her eyes. "Fakir . . ." she whispered. "You're okay. . . ."
But then she pulled back, her eyes flashing. "How could you go do something like that?" she demanded.
"It's not like I tried to fall off the roof with him!" Fakir retorted. "And speaking of doing stupid things, why are you on the roof?"
"We were worried about you!" Ahiru snapped.
Fakir reached down, pulling the sword out of the wall. "Idiot," he muttered. Standing, he walked across the roof to the trapdoor. "This still isn't over, either," he said.
Ahiru was about to retort, but then stiffened at these words. "Eh? What do you mean?" she exclaimed.
"Jack isn't completely stone yet," Fakir answered, going through the door and down the ladder.
It was not long before he was exiting the building and crossing to the bridge over the canal. Jack's one fleshy arm was flailing as the hand tried to grip a support beam. Again and again he fought to keep himself above the water, only to splash back down.
Fakir approached, unscrewing the lid of his jar. "You won't have to drown now," he said. "You'll just go back to being a statue."
Jack glowered hatefully as he clutched the bridge. "You should not still be alive," he said. "I wanted to see you take a dive."
Fakir eyes were narrowed darkly as he poured the salt over Jack. As Ahiru and Autor ran outside and over to the bridge, the creature's visage froze in a hateful grimace. Fakir stepped back, surveying the scene.
"Now," he said, "it's over."
It took some time to launch a boat into the canal and pry the stone troll free of the bridge's support beam. Luckily his grip had been loosened right before the salt had worked its power, so eventually the workers were successful without causing too much damage either to Jack or to the bridge.
The teens then commandeered a carriage to take them back to Luther Kaestner's home. Not only did they need to take the troll there, but they wanted to make certain the spell over the man had been broken.
It was a relief to see the butler helping a shaky but very placid Mr. Kaestner onto the porch when they arrived. Ahiru smiled brightly. "Everything's okay, just like the riddle said!"
"Good," Autor sniffed. "The last thing we need right now is to be forced to fight the seemingly undead."
Fakir climbed down from the box, walking to meet the men on the porch steps. "The troll is stone again," he said darkly. "You should find something better to do with it so this doesn't happen another time." He was more than a little annoyed by the eccentric collector and the trouble his collection piece had caused for all of them. And he was not hesitant to make his feelings clear.
"It shouldn't happen unless everything aligns in the sky again," Mr. Kaestner said. "But I have to thank you for capturing Jack. I haven't been myself ever since he got loose."
"That's an understatement," Autor remarked.
"We didn't do it for you," Fakir said. "We did it for Kinkan."
"Of course," Mr. Kaestner said. "And I'm most grateful."
"If you insist on keeping the thing, you should lock it up better," Fakir grunted, "so that even if things in the sky align again, it can't get free."
Autor adjusted his glasses as he leaned over the back seat of the carriage. "You should probably expect a bill from the city," he said. "Since the troll is in your possession, you'll be held responsible for the damage."
"I will?" Mr. Kaestner looked dazed, but then snapped to. "Oh! Naturally," he said. "I'm certainly willing to pay for all repairs."
"Some people might want you to pay their doctor bills too," Fakir remarked.
"Doctor bills?" Mr. Kaestner's eyes widened. "People were hurt?"
"With the widespread destruction, did you think they could all escape?" Autor frowned.
Mr. Kaestner swallowed hard. "No one was killed, I trust?" he said.
"Not that we know of," Fakir said. "But you'll have to find out."
Once he and Autor assisted in lifting the stone form out of the carriage, both boys climbed back aboard. "Be more careful!" Autor instructed. "I don't want to hear about any more of your exhibits getting loose."
"C-certainly not," Mr. Kaestner quavered. "It won't happen again."
"See that it doesn't," Autor said. "There are better uses to be made of our time."
Fakir was silent as he steered the horses away from the manor moments later. Ahiru leaned back in the seat, breathing a sigh of relief.
"Well, now we can go home in peace, right?" she said.
Fakir nodded. "In the morning we'll have to start helping pick up the pieces of Jack's rampage," he said.
Autor frowned, wondering just how much damage had been done. He crossed his arms, running some approximate calculations through his mind.
"Kaestner's going to be busy correcting all of this," he remarked.
"Good," Fakir said. "It'll give him something constructive to do."
Ahiru leaned forward, looking to Autor in concern. "Are you okay, Autor?" she asked. "I mean, about riding in a carriage and all."
Autor froze, then looked away. "At least I'm not driving it," he said. But his face burned with shame. He should not be afraid. He was not supposed to have fear at all. And to be leery of something as mundane as a horse and buggy!
Fakir glanced over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed. "Don't try to get over what happened too fast," he grunted.
Autor's head shot up. "What do you mean?" he asked, looking to the other boy.
Fakir turned back to face the road, snapping the reins. "You died because of one of these things," he said. "It's natural to not like them. Give yourself time to heal."
Autor glared at Fakir's back. "And of course you would know how natural it is," he said sardonically, "even though you've never had such an experience."
"Everyone has something," Fakir said, his tone clipped.
Autor frowned, growing subdued as the words hit him. Everyone has something. Even Fakir, who had needed to get over his fear of writing. He had not died from that, but his parents had.
Fakir gave a vague shrug, indicating it was alright. "You'll know when you're ready to move on," he said. "Don't pull stupid stunts just to try to prove to yourself that you already have."
Ahiru nodded in concern. "Please, Autor," she said, leaning forward to look at him. "We don't want anything else to happen to you."
"I don't want that either." Autor looked into the pleading blue eyes. "Unless I feel like I have to act, I'll be careful."
Ahiru bit her lip, knowing that was the best answer they were likely to get from him. "Okay," she said.
Autor leaned back, gazing out at the Kinkan night. It had been a bizarre evening. But in another way, it had been exhilarating to have something to put his mind to, something to investigate and research again. There were countless mysteries in the town, he knew. Maybe he would try his hand at solving some of them.
Deep down, he knew he had not conquered his fears, just as Fakir seemed to frustratingly know. It took all of his willpower not to order the carriage stopped so he could get out and walk home. But maybe in time he would be able to put it behind him.
Meanwhile, he thought, he would just be thankful for the life he had that had been restored to him.