Coraline spent the night in her parent's empty bed, tossing and turning. The sheets slowly twisted around her legs, like swathes of seaweed in a changing tide, until, inevitably, she woke with heart pounding and brow slick with sweat, torn from sleep by the terrible dreams. Then, huddled in that far too empty bed, with nightmares playing at the edge of consciousness, she put pen to paper, jotting sleepy thoughts onto a small pad, before slumber came to take her, unwillingly, yet again.

It was a long night.

-oOo-

Dawn broke over the Pink Palace, feeble rays of sunlight cut through the morning fog, bathing the landscape in a depressing half-light. Inside a grimy apartment, Coraline chewed spoonfuls of cereal. She stared blankly ahead, raising the spoon with slow, mechanical movements.

She had gone through the note pad that morning, dismissing each idea with a mental snort. The pages were filled to the brim with wild speculation and drowsy half-thoughts. Ideas that seemed so clever to her sleep-addled mind were laid bare in the morning light, and found sorely lacking.

She needed a plan.

Coraline looked around the empty kitchen. Had it been just yesterday? It seemed so unreal, not to have her mother-her real mother-trundling around the kitchen, cooking breakfast and plying her with multi-vitamins. Dad would be slurping a bowl of cereal, pacing around in blue flip-flops, making his silly little jokes. She'd been brushing him off lately, telling him she wasn't a kid anymore.

Tears started welling up and Coraline angrily rubbed her eyes. She wouldn't cry. She just wouldn't.

Tossing her bowl in the kitchen sink, she walked down the hallway, grabbed her school backpack from beside the front door, and stepped outside. A dense fog was rolling in, layering the landscape with thick blankets of white. Watching the vapor roll in, Coraline's thoughts wandered. Yesterday her biggest problem was a boring new school uniform, today...

Her eyes were drawn to a garish sign by the front steps. She passed it each day, never paying it much mind. "Bobinsky there" it read, pointing up a rickety staircase. The stairs wrapped around and up the house's side, and before she quite knew what she was doing, Coraline found herself climbing them.

At the top, she paused before Mr. Bobinsky's front door, a scraped and dented panel of wood that had seen better days. Her hand rose poised to knock, pausing as she recalled her mom's words.

"I never said he was crazy, Coraline. He's drunk."

Crazy or drunk didn't matter much to her, not at this point. Besides, Coraline thought, her mother was being unfair. Bobinsky was weird, no doubt, but he never did anything to make her uncomfortable. In fact, she rather liked the eccentric Russian. Something about the man inspired trust. More importantly, she clearly remembered the military medal pinned to his dirty shirt. It was the first thing she noticed when they had met, and now, when everything had gone so wrong, it took on new importance.

Her knock turned out a little more timid than planned. More tap than knock, really. She was about to try again when the door flew open with speed, wafting a gust of cool air through her hair.

There was Mr. Bobinsky, all smiles, and lanky limbs. He stepped outside, booming in his thick accent. "Ah, Coraline! A good morning to you!"

She weakly smiled back. "Hey, Mr. B. Mind if I come in?"

"But of course Coraline! Please, please!" Mr. Bobinsky stepped aside and bowed, gesturing her to enter. Coraline couldn't help but grin at the man's antics; a small grin, one that did not reach her eyes, but there it was nonetheless.

Inside Bobinsky's apartment was a bona fide mess. She stood in the middle of a small, one room apartment that seemed more like a shed than a place to live. A chicken, perching atop an outdated stove, clucked at her.

Bobinksy followed close behind her, firmly shutting the door against a chill morning. He swept a bundle of old clothes off a chair and motioned for her to sit. Weaving through the mess, he pirouetted before sitting on the edge of a tattered cot.

"And to what," he asked, "Do I owe the pleasure of this most unexpected visit?"

Casual, thought Coraline. Calm and casual. "Actually, I was wondering about your medal."

Mr. Bobinsky's smile faded a bit. "And why would you be thinking of this?"

"I thought about it this morning," she said, offering a small shrug, "You know, just out of the blue. I was wondering how you got it?"

Bobinsky's twinkling eyes dulled. "If you do not mind terribly...I would rather not say."

The man's smile was fading fast, and Coraline felt a wave of guilt. Some of that guilt tapped at the shield around her emotions, around her worry and desperation, and she felt cracks in the armor.

Ignoring her unraveling control, she pressed on. "It's just…I could really use some help."

"Help? What are your parents, if not for help?"

She ruthlessly choked down a sob before it came out.

Mr. Bobinsky leaned forward, peering at her. "Coraline, is there something you wish to tell me?"

Yeah, she thought, my parents are kidnapped and the Othermother wants my eyes and no one's going to believe me and I don't know what to do and…

Coraline took a deep breath. "Someone…took my family."

"Took? Kidnapped? This is for the police, yes?" Standing, he reached for a nearby telephone.

Coraline's eyes widened and she jumped up. "Wait! It's not like that!"

Bobinsky paused, slowly lowered his arm, and sat back on the edge of his cot. "Then, if it was not like that, it was…?" He trailed off, waiting expectantly.

"It was…" She gestured weakly, and hung her head, unsure what to say, if anything. Who would believe her, anyway? Those tears were back, ready and waiting for something to tip the hand in their favor.

Mr. Bobinsky sighed, running a rough hand over a rough face. "So...This thing has happened again."

Coraline looked up, eyes wide.

He sighed again, looking rather older, and fixed her with a sad gaze. "Do you know what the mice have been saying, Coraline."

She shook her head.

"They've been nervous lately. They say the darkness is growing hungry, spreading. This...thing, it has taken your family?"

Coraline sank to knees, relief coming out in quiet sobs. She had been so afraid no one would believe her, that people would laugh and scoff. Or worse, suspect her, take her away to a white room and ask question after question after question. It was all so unreal, she barely believed it herself. And yet, here was a man, crazy maybe, or drunk (or both), but he believed, and that was all that mattered.

"Yeah," she said, wiping at her eyes, "It did."

Mr. Bobinsky bent down, gently pulling her up by the arm and letting her sink back into the chair. He crossed the room and began rummaging through a cabinet.

"You wonder," he asked, "How Bobinsky knows this?"

Coraline blinked, now that you mention it…

"A little," she said. "How come?"

Bobinsky went to the stove with a chipped mug in hand, filling it from a steaming pitcher. He placed the cup into her hands on his his way back to the cot, sitting heavily. Coraline took a small sip, breathed in the sweet aroma of coffee, and watched him, waiting.

"I see the signs," he said, "The mice see the signs. And we see it starting to happen, just like the last time. When I first moved to this place, long time ago, this same thing happened to another little girl. She was close to your age, I think. I tried to save her," Bobinsky sagged, "But the Lovat girl did not want saving."

Her grip on the mug tightened "Lovat? As in Wybie Lovat?"

Bobinsky nodded, staring down at calloused hands. Coraline sipped her coffee, waiting for the man to continue. Moments passed in silence before she spoke.

"But how did you know? The first time, I mean."

Bobinsky looked up from his hands and leaned back, resting against the wall. "I learned how in a place called Locksnept."

Coraline racked her brain, trying to remember half-forgotten geography lessons.

Bobinsky smiled. "That name you won't find on any map. Not the city, not the country. It was a place in the north. Far north, past the steppes, past the tundra. Farther north than humans should be, I think. More than animals lived there, on the edge of the world."

Coraline shifted, holding her mug close. "What do you mean, more than animals?"

Bobinsky seemed to stare through her, through the walls of his little room, and out to a frozen, far off land. "Why do we need lights, Coraline? Are we so afraid of the night? Locksnept had no lights. We lived in the dark. We survived in the dark. And in the darkness they came."

Coraline set her mug onto the table, drawing her legs up, hugging them to her chest. "Who came?"

"Less who, more what. Some came in the form of men, others animals, and some as neither. Each night of the winter months, each time under cover of darkness, and always for the children."

"Why didn't you leave?"

Bobinsky chuckled softly. "It seems crazy, yes? To stay in such a place? Darkness may have been close, but there was still light, no matter how little. Still beauty, and laughter, and strength. We had a saying: 'God made Locksnept to test the faithful'."

He grinned at Coraline. "Much like you are being tested now, I think."

Coraline clasped her hands nervously. "So these…things. You can fight them?"

Bobinsky's grin grew. "Even more. You can kill them.

Coraline gaped, and Bobinsky's grin grew even bigger. "Oh, they can be hard to do in, but not impossible with the right tools." He glanced around, lowering his voice. "Above all, they hate silver."

Coraline frowned, incredulous. Bobinsky watched her, nodding knowingly.

"I thought the same," he said, "Silver. I laughed outright the first time I heard. But it works, even if the dark ones do not die easy."

For the first time since she got back, Coraline felt hope kindle within. "Mr. B, when you moved, did you bring anything from Russia?"

She smiled as Mr. Bobinsky stood and snapped off a salute, voice booming once more. "Why, Coraline, I thought you would never be asking!"

Dropping to hands and knees, he reached under the cot and pulled out a wooden briefcase, then another, and finally one that was very long and thin. All three were darkly varnished and locked shut with silver latches.

Setting them on the cot, Bobinsky rubbed his hands together. "Perhaps these may assist."

Coraline gasped when he opened the first case. Nestled in black foam was a pair of pistols, each identical and crudely engraved with crouching wolves. Strapped to the inside of the lid were eight ammunition magazines.

"Of course," said Bobinsky, deftly unlatching the second case, "All the ammunition is laced with silver."

From the second case came a compact submachine gun. Hefting the weapon briefly, he nodded and handed it to her. "I think that one is best for you. You can hold it with both hands, hold more rounds, and the folding stock is good for the beginner."

Removing the bullets from a magazine, he continued distractedly. "See the switch on the side? Leave it where it is, to set her for single shots. Next one down is burst, and last is full automatic. Leave it on single, or you just waste the bullets, yes?"

Coraline held the weapon gingerly, as if it would turn to bite her at any moment. "Um, Mr. B? I don't...that is, I never..."

He thrust the now empty magazine at her. "Bah! Is easy. Just push the magazine in here. There. Now rack this slide back…no, all the way. Good. Then flip that switch down. Now pull the trigger. Simple, yes?"

To her surprise, it rather was.

Mr. Bobinsky watched her perform the procedure until he was satisfied. Not that he worried about her getting the hang of it; he'd once known a ten-year old who operated a Kalashnikov with more finesse than himself.

"What about those?" asked Coraline, pointing to the matching hand guns.

"The pistols? They are chambered for rounds in three fifty-seven. Very large. The recoil would make it difficult for you." He looked at her, cocked his head to one side, and gave his bristly chin a stroke. "Still, always have backup, they say. You can carry them if you want, but don't use unless you're close. And I do mean close."

Coraline nodded and motioned toward the last, long case laying on the cot. "And that one?"

Bobinsky patted the case affectionately. "This is what you use when the bullets run out."

The case opened, and a sword was revealed; a Scottish claymore with silver letters running down the blade's spine. It was longer than Coraline was tall.

"Brunhilda," said Mr. Bobinsky, "Is too much for you, I think. But not this."

Reaching under the lid, he took a moment to fiddle with something. Drawing his hands back, he presented her with a dagger. At least, he called it a dagger. Coraline, who was half the man's height, called it a sword.

-oOo-

Out of the apartment came a girl very different from the one who entered. A blade rested on her hip, sheathed in oiled leather. A submachine gun was slung across her back, resting on an old backpack filled with silver ammunition. Strapped on either thigh were matching pistols.

Earlier, as she had holstered the handguns, Coraline found her eyes drawn to the wolves engraved on the barrels. Mr. Bobinsky saw her staring.

"Those," he said, "I added myself. Skillfully done, are they not?"

Though fierce, the carvings were crude, as if done by the hand of a child. Mr. Bobinsky smiled, watching as she struggled to come up with a compliment.

"I know," he said, "They are ugly, yes?"

"Just a little." she replied, grinning weakly.

"I made them ugly, because death is an ugly thing. And make no mistake Coraline, these are deadly instruments of quality most high."

-oOo-

Coraline walked down the steps, listening to the magazines in her backpack click together. As she descended, the words of a cat came to mind, unbidden.

"She has a thing for games."

With each step, Coraline felt her heavy load of steel and silver, and decided it was time to play.