On Nightingale Hill by FiliKlepto
Past Featured StorySummary:

After a long hiatus, Nightingale Hill is back! 

Nick doesn't know how or why, but he finds himself in a strange, abandoned place with no memories. His only hope is to head for a castle in the distance, but who is this guy after him? And what's the deal with the little girl Nick finds who is suddenly not-so-little anymore?

On Nightingale Hill


Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: Nick
Genres: Adventure, Fantasy
Warnings: Death, Graphic Sexual Content
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 22 Completed: No Word count: 61969 Read: 31165 Published: 01/21/07 Updated: 08/31/14

1. Prologue: In Which Nick Sleeps by FiliKlepto

2. Chapter 1: To Be Dead by FiliKlepto

3. Chapter 2: Friends, Strangers by FiliKlepto

4. Chapter 3: PB&J by FiliKlepto

5. Chapter 4: Bye Bye, Baby by FiliKlepto

6. Chapter 5: Into the Woods by FiliKlepto

7. Chapter 6 Pt 1: In Which Nick Confronts by FiliKlepto

8. Chapter 6 pt 2: Getting Some Answers by FiliKlepto

9. Chapter 7: A Sending Off by FiliKlepto

10. Chapter 8: No Mouths, No Faces by FiliKlepto

11. Chapter 9: History and the Flood by FiliKlepto

12. Chapter 10: Nine and Three-Quarters by FiliKlepto

13. Chapter 11: A Revelation by FiliKlepto

14. Chapter 12: How They Met by FiliKlepto

15. Chapter 13: Shards of Porcelain by FiliKlepto

16. Chapter 14: Apple Pie by FiliKlepto

17. Chapter 15: Light and Dark by FiliKlepto

18. Chapter 16: Oblivion by FiliKlepto

19. Chapter 17: The Chase by FiliKlepto

20. Chapter 18: Twenty by FiliKlepto

21. Chapter 19: Puzzle Pieces by FiliKlepto

22. Chapter 20: Vegas, Baby by FiliKlepto

Prologue: In Which Nick Sleeps by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

I wrote ONH for NaNoWriMo 2006, so this here is novel-length fanfiction (though not as long as some of the tomes I've found while glancing around the site, heh). While the general rating is R for some adult content, it doesn't actually occur until about 40,000 words in. So if you mind the R-rating, you're safe reading up to a certain point when I'll put some warning tags. Don't be scared off by the prologue, this IS a Nick fic, he just doesn't make an appearance in the first chapter.

 



The rain fell at an almost impossibly horizontal angle. It splattered against the car, the windshield wipers of which were going at top speed as the car raced along the small, twisting highway. Within the vehicle a young woman struggled with the passenger beside her, and at times the car skidded back and forth, dangerously crossing the road's double solid yellow lines.

"Günter, no! I can't do it. I just can't..." she panted, exhausted from both the mental and physical effort of fighting him. "Please don't make me do this. Please... I can't."

Two big hands reached over and gripped her forearms. "You know we must do this, Lene. You must do this. It is necessary for our survival." His colorless eyes gave her a piercing look, "I cannot take them all. It is time for you to do some work on your own. You will listen to me because you owe it to me as your Savior," the man commanded. "You would be dead right now if I had not stepped in."

"I know! I never forget it, and I am not ungrateful." Her voice was high, crying, full of emotion. It contrasted sharply with his low, hard tone. "I owe you my life, but don't make me take another – especially not his." A sob went through her body as she saw the approaching headlights, faint and blurry in the wet night.

"It is time. He approaches." Günter kept a firm hold on her arms and mind.

"But..." She stopped pleading, though the tears continued to stream down her face. "Don't make me do this," Lene said one last time.

"Do it. Do it now!" With a hard jerk, he turned them into the oncoming vehicle. There was a crash and a very bright light. The rain continued to fall sideways, oblivious of the accident.



Günter strode down the white, sterilized hospital corridor, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his long, dark trench coat. As a child, Lene had once asked him, "Do you wear trench coats because they make you look scary?"

And he'd replied, "No. I wear them because they're stylish and warm."

He passed doctors, nurses, grieving vistors, but in spite of his striking appearance, few people bothered to take a second glance at the tall, hawkish man. Günter's hair was pure white, though he did not appear to be very old, and his pale eyes cut like sharp blades. He masked his presence well, however, through methods which he had long cultivated, and he was able to walk by most individuals without notice.

Günter used that ability now as he slipped past security into the private ward of the hospital and stopped outside the door of room 1116, where three young women were huddled together in intimate conversation. He leaned in close and listened to their exchange.

"...caught a red-eye from Florida. How long have you been here, Angel?"

"All night. They called Aaron first at the condo, then he called me. He's in there with Mom and Dad right now while Ginger's in the lobby. Can you believe it, Leslie? Mom and Dad're actually talking to each other."

"Hey," the third chimed in, "I'd be pissed if they didn't get over their problems and talk to each other. I mean, our brother is fighting for his life in there. What I'm more concerned about is why we can't all go in there at once. Screw the doctors! What if something happens? What if…" she trailed off as the other two stood there uncomfortably. After a moment, the woman tried again. "All I'm saying is that we all need to be in there, together. It's not fair."

"I know, BJ, I know..." The one called Angel threw her arms around her.

Günter practically stood on top of the trio because he had gradually inched forward as he listened, but none of the girls noticed. Though his face was impassive, a little trill of excitement went off inside of him at their despair. He would have stayed and fed off of their grief longer, but the door to room 1116 opened. Günter stepped back to allow a doctor to pass, acting like he belonged there, but the little man was so absorbed with the charts on his clipboard that Günter needn't have bothered.

A quick glance inside the chamber revealed a pale, bandaged figure in a large bed, surrounded by and hooked up to an array of complicated machines. Already, the room had been filled with balloons and plants to overcome the cold, impersonal hospital atmosphere in addition to a few personal affects from the patient's home – a guitar, an iPod, a mug from his favorite coffee shop. On a couch near the victim's bedside, a man and woman sat together, talking quietly.

Günter detached himself from the group of girls he'd been observing as a young man appeared in the doorway. /This must be the brother,/ he decided. /Probably the one they had called Aaron./ The blonde youth strongly resembled the one that Günter was after, but unfortunately, the similarities lied in appearances only. No one else in the family but his one target held the powers he sought, and so they were of no interest to him.

"Guys," Aaron announced as Günter walked away, "the doctor says we can forget about the visitor limit, at least for immediate family. They think," he paused, taking a deep breath as he choked on the words, "they think we'll lose him if he doesn't stabilize soon. So they want us all to be there... in case anything happens."

Günter strained to hear these last words from down the hall, and a smile curled his lips, though it didn't reach his eyes. There would be no stabilizing. Soon. His target would be dead soon.

He continued on down the hall to the open door of room 1503. The victim's family had generously offered to cover a private room for the mysterious Jane Doe whose car had collided with their son's. But in stark contrast with the previous room, the woman's chamber was small and bare. No visitors cried by her bedside, no cards adorned the table with get-well hopes. Günter checked the hallway to make sure it was clear and then shut the door. He drew close to bed where a small, dark haired woman lay comatose, and his eyes narrowed.

"Lene." Günter's eyes narrowed as his hand reached out and encircled her small, braced neck. "You may have thought you stopped me, but I haven't lost yet. I've sent him to Other World, and once he is dead, you shall be next. I have no use for anyone who defies me." His grip tightened on her throat. "Come, let us go to the castle."

Chapter 1: To Be Dead by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
Did you guys miss Nick in that last chapter? This one's ALL Nick -- hope that takes care of you. So I'll be the first to admit that this story is a bit weird -- even I thought so as I was writing it. It turned out even stranger than I thought it would be! Please read and review, I would love some feedback.

He wondered if this was what it was like to be dead. The young man walked down the middle of the long street, which stretched out forever and ever into the distance, without an end in sight. He felt lightheaded and confused, his mind blank like a marker board that had been wiped clean. Where was he? There were no cars, no people. To each side of him rose cookie-cutter houses, as if he were trapped in some Levittown, though he didn't understand why he knew what a Levittown was when he couldn't even remember his own name. But wait, that wasn't true. Closing his eyes, the man stopped in the middle of the road – after all, no cars seemed to be approaching – and searched his mind.

"My name is... Nick," he tested it. It sounded right. Did he have a last name? "Nick..." Nothing. He reached a little farther. All his memories were vague impressions, like a word on the tip of his tongue that he couldn't quite remember. Voices and images blurred together, indistinguishable, and with a sigh, he gave up.

Amnesia, was it? Why did he have amnesia, had something happen to him? Nick knew that people didn’t lose their memories for no good reason; they got amnesia from some sort of physical or mental trauma. Had he gotten a concussion? Nick put his hands to his head, running his fingers through his hair, which was long but not too long, and tested for bumps. No, his head felt perfectly fine, except for the fact that it was completely blank. Had something happened to him emotionally? Had he done something so horrible that his mind was no blocking out the memories?

Afraid he’d committed a crime, Nick looked at his hands, almost expecting to see blood there. On his left wrist was a tattoo of a skull and crossbones, with the words “Old Habits Die Hard” below it. His fingernails were trimmed short, and there were calluses across his fingertips but none on his palms. Strange. But there was no blood, either, and for that he was grateful.

Tilting his head back, Nick blinked against tears of frustration. “Okay, so I have amnesia, and I don’t know why. I have no clue how I got here or even where I am, and…” he looked around, “there’s no one to ask for help.”

That was another puzzle. Why were there no cars, no people, but all these houses? Nick ran through the list of plausible reasons: Maybe he was in a new housing development, so these houses were still up for sale? He left the road and walked across the neatly manicured lawn of a boxy, two-story house. The unit had large windows, and –

“Curtains?” Nick noticed, confused. “Does someone live here?”

The unit was outfitted with a set of dark, heavy curtains that were tied back in place. Through the sheer inner-drapes he could see a heavily furnished living room – couches, a coffee table, a piano set into the corner. He went to the front door and knocked, but there was no answer, so he tried the doorbell. No reply. Either no one was home, or this was a display model.

Curious, Nick tried across the street and found the same thing, a decorated front room and no answer at the door. His curiosity turned to confusion as he went down the street, checking the front windows of each. Every house he found fitted with drapes or blinds, and they couldn’t all be display models: there were too many of them. /So this neighborhood isn’t under development,/ Nick decided. /People actually live here./

Where had all the occupants gone? Nick couldn’t tell what time it was, but he doubted that every person in a neighborhood could be gone at the same time. /Maybe there was an evacuation?/ he thought. As Nick considered it, the idea sounded more and more reasonable. If the neighborhood had been evacuated, then that would explain why everyone was gone, why there were no cars.

But what had caused the mass exodus? Had there been a dangerous gas leak or a terrorist threat? If so, then this wasn’t the safest place to be. The weather seemed so mild that Nick ruled out the possibility of a natural disaster. Maybe an epidemic? Had some debilitating illness swept through the area and forced everyone to evacuate? Or perhaps some sort of freak accident had occurred and meant the area had to be evacuated… Was that it? Had he been a victim in some accident and gotten amnesia? It seemed the most likely explanation.

At that moment, Nick’s stomach made itself known with a loud rumble, and he clutched his hands to his gut. When was the last time he’d eaten? His stomach growled again. Well, if the area was evacuated, Nick decided that it couldn't hurt to find an open house and eat some food before it spoiled. He hoped that in the emergency evacuation, at least one household had forgotten to lock its doors...

Nick approached the door of number 1437, another boxy two-story and tried the front door. Locked. So he moved on to the next house and, as before, made his way down the street, testing the doors of each unit. Then he crossed the street and tried the doors on the opposite side. The street seemed ridiculously long, and Nick didn’t know how long he tried to find an unlocked door, but eventually his stomach got the better of his conscience.

He pushed through some hedges and walked around to the side of the house. /I can't believe I'm breaking and entering/, he groaned. But there was no one here, no one anywhere, so what did it matter? Nick looked around for something with which he could break the window and spotted an ornamental lawn gnome set on the grass.

He picked up the gnome and stared at its brown, wrinkled face. "Man, you're an ugly guy..." Nick commented.

The little face contorted and suddenly the gnome spoke, "You're not so pretty there yourself, bub."

"Oh, crap!" Nick yelped as the now living ornament sunk its teeth into his hands. He flung the gnome away, and it waddled into the bushes. Incredulous, he looked at the gnash marks where sharp, little teeth had torn away the skin and then back at the hedges. "You're kidding me..."

Nick couldn’t recall its source, but he felt the sudden urge to mutter, “I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore...” Blood welled up from the score across his palm, and he made a tight fist against the pain. He thought back to his spontaneous exclamation: “Kansas? …Am I from Kansas?”

And was it normal for lawn ornaments to come to life and sink their teeth into your hand? Nick didn’t think so, but he considered it as he searched the ground for a nice, safe, non-bitey stone. He smashed the window in and reached in to flip the latch that locked it. /I’m going to have to write an apology note to the people that live here,/ Nick told himself, brushing broken glass shards off the windowsill and hoisting himself through the frame with his uninjured hand.

Nick landed in a well-furnished den. The flower-print couches looked comfortable though a bit stuffy, and little knit doilies covered every visible surface. He grabbed one of the doilies, and pressed it to his bleeding palm. Maybe he could find a bandage kit somewhere, but first – the kitchen. Nick made his way down a winding hall, checking doorways until he found the kitchen at the back of the house. It was spacious with an island in the center and a checkered tile floor. He went to the sink to wash the blood off his hand, but when he turned on the tap, nothing happened.

/Are the utilities turned off?/ Nick wondered. It was bright enough in the kitchen that he hadn’t needed to turn on the lights, but now he went over to the switch and flipped it. The lights came on. /So just the water is shut off then./ “Oh, well, I can eat with my left hand then,” Nick decided. It would be awkward, but at least he’d have food.

Opening the fridge, Nick found… nothing. The fridge was completely empty. He checked the pantry; still nothing. He then opened every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen, but everything had been cleared out. There wasn’t even any silverware to eat with. “What the hell?” Had they taken everything with them? “But why?”

Though he’d ruled it out earlier, Nick started to wonder again whether he’d found a model display home. He found the stairs and went upstairs into the bedrooms, checking closets and drawers – all empty. There were beds made and desks and in one room a treadmill, but whenever he tried to open something, it was empty. Nick checked the bathroom, hoping that the residents had left something behind in there that he could use to treat the cut on his hand. Opening the door, he found someone already in there.

“Oh, sorry!” Nick exclaimed, shutting the door quickly. “Wait… there’s somebody here?” He knocked and opened the door again slowly, peeking into the bathroom. It was decorated in frills and trim and more doilies like the living room. Staring back at Nick was a young man with a slightly unkempt look about him, who wore an unmarked t-shirt and jeans and was clutching something in his hand.

“Where did everybody go?” Nick asked, while the man mouthed back soundlessly. Nick realized that this was his reflection – completely unfamiliar to him – and he was looking in a mirror.

He stepped into the bathroom and walked up to the sink counter. Tossing the doily he held aside, Nick pressed his hands up against the mirror and leaned in to examine his face. In spite of his scraggly appearance, something told him that he would be considered handsome by others if he ever came into contact with people again. His hair was light blonde and tousled, cut close against the sides of his head and longer on top. His eyes were a vivid blue, his face attractive, his jaw strong. Nick had no idea when the last time he’d shaved was, but he could tell from the light stubble dusting his chin that it hadn’t been more than a day or so ago.

Turning to the side, Nick found that he had more tattoos high up on both his arms near the shoulders. He rolled the shirtsleeves of his tee up and examined them. On his right arm was a sun with a strange symbol in the center and some sort of ornamental tribal band beneath it; on his left was a shark with more strange characters written beneath it and stars, ocean waves, and a fish tattooed in the background.

“So this is me,” Nick said. He felt unsettled at not being able to recognize the face that looked back at him from the mirror. After a few more minutes of examination, Nick pulled himself away from the mirror – leaving behind a smear of blood that had to be wiped away with the doily – and hunted the bathroom for a first aid kit.

He found nothing and in frustration left number 1437, going across the street to 1440, where he broke in another window and climbed inside. There he discovered the exact same situation: the house was completely furnished but empty of any personal effects. This time, though, the furniture seemed quite lived in, compared to that of the last house. Nick didn’t think that a housing development would use old furnishings for a display home. But why had they taken everything with them? If there had been an evacuation, people wouldn’t have had time to completely pack up their homes, even if they’d left the furniture.

The water didn’t work here either, though the lights did. In fact, the lights seemed to be the only thing that functioned normally. Spotting an old rotary phone by the window, Nick went over, lifted the handset from the receiver, and put it to his ear. It was dead. He toggled the receiver button, trying to bring up a dial tone, but nothing happened. Nick checked to make sure that the phone line was plugged in, following it all the way along the wall to its source. He disconnected the line from the jack and then plugged it back in.

Nick returned to the phone and tried it again, but there was still nothing. He gave up and set the phone back on its mount. Nick supposed that it didn’t matter whether or not the phone worked because he didn’t know whom he would call or even what their phone number was. Looking around the room for other things he could test, Nick saw a television set and tried to turn it on. He pressed the button and the TV switched on with a slight electric crackle, but the screen remained blank and there was no more sound. Nick banged his uninjured hand against the side of the television. No flicker, no reaction, nothing.

“So,” Nick said to himself. “There are lights but no water or working appliances.”

He continued down the street, trying every house he could find, and in every house he found the same situation. When the residents got back, they were going to find a string of broken windows, but at least they didn’t have to worry about theft because they hadn’t left anything behind for a petty burglar to steal.

Nick realized then that he’d forgotten to leave an apology note in any of the houses, and he’d just broken a lot of windows. It was getting late, so he stopped to rest in number 1455 and to write a letter to the people of the neighborhood. Hoisting himself through the window he broke, Nick landed on top of a desk that had been set below the window. He fumbled around in the dark, knocking things off of the tabletop and stumbling along the walls until he located a light switch. Flipping it on, he found himself in a study. A handsome desk, the one he’d landed on coming in through the window, was paired with a leather chair, and a La-Z Boy was set near the opposite wall by a tall bookcase, which stood in the corner. Beside the recliner was an end table with a newspaper and a few books that had been taken down from the shelf.

Nick straightened up the things he’d knocked onto the floor – a quartz clock, a cube-shaped paperweight, and some blank leaves of paper – and took a seat at the desk where a stationary set was laid out. “Hm… looks like I broke the clock,” he noticed. It was stopped at 11:43 and none of the hands were moving. “Well, I’ll have to apologize for that, too.”

Nick peeled the doily off of his hand, which had slightly crusted over with blood, and gingerly clutched a pen. “Dear people of this neighborhood,” he wrote. “I’m sorry to break into your homes, but I was left behind, and I needed something to eat.”

/Except they took all their food with them,/ Nick thought grimly.

“Don’t worry. I didn’t steal anything from your homes, and I made sure to lock all the doors behind me. Sorry about all the smashed windows, and I’ll try to pay you back later. I’m also sorry about breaking your clock, but I knocked it off the desk when I came in through the window. Sincerely, Nick –”

He paused, not knowing what to put down for his last name. Below his printed name, Nick found that he was able to write his signature, which came out in an illegible scrawl. He tried to decipher the words: the “Nick” part was easy enough, but all he could make out for his last name was that it started with the letter “C.” He also didn’t know what to put down for the date. Nick glanced around the room for a calendar and couldn’t find one, but he did notice the newspaper sitting on the end table by the La-Z Boy and rose from the leather chair to fetch it.

When he picked up the newspaper, though, he discovered something odd: The newspaper was completely blank: no name, date, headlines, or articles, just a folded-together stack of unprinted newspaper sheets. Nick unfolded the bundle to check inside, accidentally dropping some of the blank pages on the floor. He bent down to retrieve them and clumsily bumped into the end table, knocking the stack of books onto the floor. One of the books fell open, revealing empty pages, just like the newspaper.

“More blank pages? Is this a diary?” Nick wondered. He reached for another book and opened it to find that it, too, was blank. Standing, Nick started pulling texts from the bookshelf. “Empty… Empty… Empty,” he tossed them onto the floor behind him. “What the hell is this?”

No words, no dates… He looked back at the broken clock on the desk. No time… Nothing was making any sense anymore. All of the explanations Nick had worked through earlier were falling through the cracks. These houses weren’t models. Lawn ornaments came to life, newspapers and books were blank. There was no food, and every cabinet and drawer he opened was empty. Did people really even live in these homes? Had anyone ever been here before Nick? Now none of his explanations were making sense anymore.

He looked at the pile of empty books on the floor. Those more than anything, more than the stopped clock, more than the lawn gnome even – okay, maybe as much as the lawn gnome – scared him witless. With his memory blank, Nick wasn’t certain about anything, but he knew that something about this situation was not right. From some strange place, the thought came to him:

/Is this it, then? Am I dead?/

Nick didn't like this train of thought: how had he died? And if he were dead, did that make this Heaven? It couldn't be. In spite of his current memory failure, Nick knew that Heaven would feel different, as surely as he knew that the rows and rows of identical houses bordering the street he walked reminded him of a Levittown. So... if this wasn't Heaven, did that mean he was in the other place?

Nick's stomach growled loudly, and he put his hand to his gut. Was one supposed to feel hungry in Hell? He wasn't sure. He also wasn't sure what he had done in particular to deserve to go to Hell, but that in itself was no promise that he hadn't done anything wrong.

"This is ridiculous. I can't be in Hell. Where's the fire and brimstone? Where's Satan? ...Where's the party?" he tried to joke. Hunger pangs struck again, and he clutched his stomach. "That's it," Nick reasoned. "I'm hungry, so I can't possibly be dead because then things like eating wouldn't matter. And if I'm not dead, I can't be in Hell." The thought made him feel a little better, except... "Then where the hell am I?"

Chapter 2: Friends, Strangers by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
I got my first review! Thanks a lot, Mel. :3 Your review inspired me to post the next chapter... This one goes out to you! *laughs at song reference*

Disturbed by his death revelations, Nick picked up all the books that he had thrown on the floor and put them back on the shelves. He noticed that the spines lacked titles, so he ended up sliding them back into place randomly. Nick left the study after that and made a quick run to the kitchen to verify that there was indeed no food in the refrigerator (there wasn't), then he went upstairs and found a bedroom to sleep in.

In the end, Nick chose a boy's room with race car patterns printed across the comforter. It was weird to take over someone else's bed, and he rested fitfully and without dreams. The next morning Nick woke up as tired as ever, but he left house 1455 and continued his journey down the strange and unending street. It occurred to him that no normal road would go on forever without cross streets. In fact, nothing about this place was normal: everything was blank and empty; the clocks didn't work; lawn ornaments took offense and attacked; and all the people seemed to have completely disappeared.

His memory loss wasn't helping. If only he could remember how he had got here, then maybe Nick would be able to find his way back to the normal world – to Kansas? – wherever that was. As it stood, he could only remember as far back as the day before, to when he had been walking down the street, marveling at how his surroundings reminded him of a Levittown.

Nick refused to accept that he was in Hell or that he had even died, though the strange circumstances in which he found himself troubled him to no end. He stopped worrying about the people who might or might not be living in the houses that he broke into and haphazardly commenced with smashing in windows and tearing up homes, searching for some sort of clue about the place he found himself trapped in.

As he walked down the street – the only thing left to do because it had to end somewhere – Nick began to shout random nonsense to pass the time. Words, phrases, sometimes even songs sprung from his mouth. He had no idea what he was quoting from, or whether he sang the tunes correctly, but the sound of his own voice was reassuring. Nick almost wished that the gnome hadn't run off, just so he could hear someone (or something) else's voice besides his own. The longing for other people had even led him to try pressing the buttons on answering machines he'd come across, but the messages had played only silence.

Nick felt like he was going crazy, cut off from contact with others. The worst thing was that he couldn't remember what it was like to be around people – to hold a conversation, to fight, to love. Nick recalled that these were things one did with other people, but he didn't understand how they worked or how they were done.

In this miserable state, Nick traveled for two days through the houses of the empty neighborhood, stopping only to rest when his hunger-weakened body demanded it. His lips grew cracked and dry from thirst, and when he ran his tongue over them he tasted blood. Nick wondered how long he could go on without food or water. Would he die in this strange place without ever finding out who he was, without seeing another human face? To die alone seemed like a terrible and lonely thing.



Lene's knees buckled under her and she collapsed to the floor as Günter crushed her wrist in a bone-crushing grip. She hit the flagstones and groaned. "Ah! Günter, please..."

"You defied me," he growled, releasing her. "You tried to spare him. /Fool/," he spat. "You know my power, and you thought you could stop me? You can only delay the inevitable for so long."

"I – I'm sorry. I told you that I couldn't kill him, Günter. He's not like the others. Nick is good."

Günter's cold hand grabbed her chin and turned her face up to his. "So you saved him. You thought you could just disobey me, the one to whom you owe your life?" His words were angry, but the emotion did not extend up to his eyes, which lacked both expression and color. "No matter. He will die, Lene, and there is nothing you can do to stop it."

She turned her head away, focusing instead on the elaborately woven tapestries that adorned the wall and the suits of armor that marked the room at regular intervals, anything to avoid looking at Günter's piercing glare. He jerked her arm, and Lene was dragged to the window, tripping over the hem of her long, white dress as he pulled her and forced her to look outside. They were in a castle tower high atop a giant hill with a great stone wall surrounding the hill at its base, and beyond the wall she could see for miles and miles without end. Outside the castle and hill's protection, a vaguely sinister labyrinth stretched and twisted as far as the eye could see.

"I know this place," Lene realized. "This is Other World… We're on Nightingale Hill." She had not been to the castle for many years, but when she was a child Günter had brought her here often. As a young girl, her lively imagination had transformed the castle's lonely halls and suits of armor – outfitted with swords, shields, and pennants – into a royal court. Lene used to pretend that she was a princess and that the world outside the gates of Nightingale Hill was the great wilderness bordering her kingdom. And once, she had asked Günter to let her go beyond the castle walls, but he had forbidden that she travel beyond the gates.

/Other World is a dangerous place, even I cannot control it,/ he'd said. /Beyond the gates that protect Nightingale Hill lies death./

"Beyond the gates lies death," she repeated now. Lene's eyes widened and she turned to face him. "Are you going to kill me, Günter? Is that why you brought me here?"

His pale eyes remained unchanged. "That little ward you put on Nick might have spared him last time, but I noticed that its effects did not extend to Other World. Your precious Nick is out there now, alone, and soon he will be dead."

She had nearly killed her physical self, trying to spare him from Günter's reach in the car accident, and it seemed to be for nothing. Lene's lip trembled. "Don't... Don't do it, Günter."

"Lene, why do you defy me now after all these years? You never had a problem with my targets before this. Could it be that you feel something for him?" He arched an eyebrow inquiringly at her.

"No! Of course not." She struggled for an explanation. "But the others, they were evil, they were murderers, and we were right to rid the world of them. Nick is different than they were. Why can't you see that?"

"I don't care." Günter's face darkened. "I /will/ have that power, Lene, and not even you can stop me. For all these years, you thought that defeating evil really mattered to me? How charmingly naive of you." He boredly looked down at his fingernails, which were fashionably pedicured, and a lock of silver-white hair fell into his face. "I defeated the evil, but I was also defeating the strong. And with their magic I became stronger."

Lene breathed deeply. "So, it's his power that you're after. You… You don't care one bit about justice!"

"Justice," he scoffed. "There is no justice – not in Other World, not in my castle, and certainly not out there in the real world." Günter pointed at the spiral staircase that wound through the heart of the tower up to a door in the ceiling.

"Who are you? You're not the Günter that I know. Where's the man who saved me when my parents were slaughtered and the murderers came after me?"

"Lene, you never knew the real me," he shook his head. "…And as for your parents, ah," he chuckled. "Yes, charmingly naive. But I supposed you never would have helped me get to where I am today, if you had suspected me of any wrongdoing in that situation. How fortunate I was to find you!"

"All this time... Everything has been a lie?" Lene bit her lip; a sound like rising blood rushed in her ears. "And you told me that Nick was an enemy. You wouldn't listen when I tried to tell you that he was good, that he would never harm us. You wanted me to kill him myself!"

Günter smirked, deflecting her accusations. "Though naive, I know that you're not stupid. You realize that I just admitted to having a part in your parents' murders, and all you can complain about is Nick? You really do care about him." His smile twisted cruelly. "That shall make his death even more enjoyable."

"No." Lene's hands balled into tight fists. "/I won't allow you to kill him!/" she cried. With her words, the stone tower began to vibrate. Günter lost his balance and fell against the wall, and Lene used that chance to scamper out of his reach. The air surrounding her glowed softly, and she saw Günter's eyes widen as he saw what she was doing. He raised his hand towards her, and a wave of power knocked her to the ground. But it was too late: a blinding, bright light filled the room and shot out the window, flying deep into Other World.

Her lips curled in grim satisfaction, Lene lay motionless on the floor, faint and ready to pass out. Through the veil of dark hair covering her face, she saw Günter approach and with her last ounce of energy willed Nick to live.



The third night Nick feared that it would be his last. Hollows had appeared around his ribs and belly as his body consumed its reserves in the absence of food. He had ceased shouting, ceased speaking in order to conserve his parched throat, which had gone hoarse from thirst. Breaking the window to house number 1503, Nick had trouble hoisting himself through the window frame to get inside. He lost control and fell in, landing on bits of broken glass that pricked his hands – one of which had just begun to scar over from the lawn gnome's bite – and cut into his bare arms.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Nick stood and brushed bits of glass from his palms and limbs. Fortunately, the cuts were shallow and stopped bleeding quickly, and he wiped his hands on his jeans. Because he was so distracted by the pain, it was several minutes before he registered the distant sound of crying. Nick twisted and turned his head, trying to discern the direction from which the sound came. It was somewhere inside the house.

He followed the sound to the stairs and made his way up them, ignoring the smarting in his body from the fall. The crying grew louder as Nick drew nearer to its source. At the top of the stairway was a landing that led to several rooms; one of the doors was already open, and from that room came the sound.

Entering, Nick discovered a nursery, painted white with teddy bear accents. A crib was set against the far wall, and in that crib stood a baby, clutching at the railing as it wailed its head off. The baby's pale skin was flushed deeply red and hot tears streamed down its cheeks. The moment it spotted Nick, the infant stopped crying and made unintelligible baby sounds at him, hiccupping as its mouth worked to form coherent words. Instinctively, Nick crossed the room and lifted the child into his arms. On closer inspection, "it" was a girl.

"Hey, kiddo," he croaked. Clearing his dry throat, Nick smiled and looked down at her. A mop of large, black curls crowned the baby's head, and she was clad in a fancy, white dressing gown. She had to be somewhere around a year old. Her eyes were as red as the rest of her face from crying, but as she returned Nick's gaze, the infant's big, amber eyes widened.

"Where's the rest of your family?" he asked.

Nick tried to put her back down in the crib for just a moment so he could check the other upstairs rooms, but at the toddler's cry of protest, he took her with him. Her chubby baby fingers reached out and grabbed a hold of his shirt, as though she refused to let him go now that she'd found him.

"I hear you on that one," Nick agreed. Now that he'd made human contact, he wasn't going to surrender it. He decided not to let the baby out of his sight.

A thorough inspection revealed that the rest of the floor was completely deserted, all closets and bureaus cleared out as they had been in every other house he'd checked. Tired from his search, which had taken a toll on his already weakened body, Nick sat down on the edge of bed, looking down at the little girl. "Who left you here?" Nick asked her.

She made baby sounds back at him in reply, trying to talk, though words were beyond her abilities just yet. He wondered who would take everything with them but leave a young child behind. It only cemented Nick's wariness of this unnatural place he found himself in. How long had she been here, crying until someone came to her? Surely a baby couldn't survive for long on its own, but Nick was certain that this neighborhood had been deserted for at least the past three days that he'd been traveling it. For a brief moment, he wondered whether he should also be suspicious of the infant he held – after all, the last time he'd picked up a "tiny person," it had bit him. But as Nick looked into the child's eyes, which were bright and golden though a bit tinged with red from crying, he felt a deep connection to her and knew she could be trusted. He smiled, grateful to his core that he was no longer alone, even if his companion was just an infant.

Before too long, the baby began to fuss with hunger. "Yeah, me too," Nick told her. "Let's go downstairs and see if your parents left anything behind," he said, though he doubted that they would find anything.

When they got to the refrigerator, Nick looked down at the little girl. "Now, don't be too disappointed if there's nothing in there. I've been through this way too many times these past few days, and you're too young to turn into a cynic, okay?"

Nick slowly opened the fridge door and looked inside. Nothing. His heart sank and he shut it again. "Surprise, surprise… Sorry, kid," he told her.

As though ignoring Nick, the baby reached out and put her hands on the door handle and made a loud sound.

"What? I showed you, already," he said, opening it again for her benefit. "There's nothing in he—" Nick trailed off, gaping at the refrigerator that was now fully stocked with food.

The shelves held plastic containers of leftovers, saran-wrapped dishes, carafes of milk and juice, and bottles of water. Where those there a second before? Maybe he hadn't looked at the fridge hard enough the first time. Was Nick so used to finding empty drawers that he saw what he was expecting to see – or rather, didn't see what he was expecting to see – instead of what was actually there? "I don't believe it," he muttered.

The infant made gurgling sounds as she spotted a baby bottle on a fridge shelf. Nick set her on the kitchen counter beside him and passed the bottle to her then grabbed a bottle of water for himself. The baby sucked her bottle greedily, and Nick was inclined to do the same but limited himself to taking slow sips because the cold water almost came as a shock to his dehydrated body. His knees felt weak, so he grabbed a stool and brought it over to where he had been standing and sat down.

Nick realized then that he had left the fridge door open. He was almost afraid to close it, for fear that all the food would be gone the next time he checked it. But he knew that he couldn't just leave the unit open, so he grabbed several different pieces of fruit from the crisper and set them on the counter beside the baby. Nick shut the door, counted to ten, and then opened the refrigerator again. The food was still there. He gave a hoot of delight and felt reassured enough to finally close the door. Grabbing a round, red piece of fruit off the counter, he took a bite into it and chewed slowly. It was fresh and crisp with the slightest hint of tartness to it. "This… whatever it is, tastes great," he told the infant on the counter.

Juice ran down Nick's chin, and he wiped it away with the back of one hand, staring hard at the refrigerator door. "I swear that was empty…" As Nick thought back again, he was positive that he had not imagined the fridge being empty. Yet somehow, it was now completely full of things to eat, and there was no way to explain it. He sure wasn't going to complain, though, because for the first time in days that dread feeling had left the pit of his stomach.

Chewing on his fruit, Nick looked hard at the round red thing in his hand and took a guess. "…a—apple. Hey! I know what this is. Check it out, kid, this is an apple." Nick showed it to the baby, but she was more interested in her bottle.

With a shrug, he finished his apple and went back into the fridge to start on some sort of chilled meat. Nick devoured one drumstick after another, tossing the bones aside. The food seemed familiar and delicious on some level that he couldn't quite grasp, but the name was harder to remember than the apple had been. He licked the grease from his finger tips, savoring the flavors, and then he remembered. This was fried chicken.

The baby watched Nick eat through the contents of the fridge (he'd tried the microwave, but it didn't work): triangle-shaped pieces of flat bread covered in red sauce and cheese, cold curvy pasta in a cheesy sauce, a creamy yellow dish with potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. And one by one, Nick slowly recalled the name of the different foods. Pizza. Macaroni. Potato salad. Was this a sign of his memory returning? Nick certainly hoped so.

When he was comfortably full, Nick was content to just sit and rub his sated stomach. The baby burped and finished her bottle, as well, dropping it beside her. She looked sleepy, so Nick lifted her into his arms. He felt just as tired, and thought that for the first time in days he might actually get some real sleep. Whispering reassuring words into the baby's ear, he carried her back upstairs.

The nursery didn't have a spare bed in it, only the crib, and Nick did not want to leave the infant in a room by herself. So he chose the room next to the nursery and set her down on the mattress there. He tucked her in on the side of the bed that was pushed up against the wall so she couldn't fall out, and then Nick shut off the light and crawled into bed beside her.

Chapter 3: PB&J by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
I'm terrible at chapter titles. In fact, when I wrote this, I didn't even bother separating the novel into chapters; I just have natural breaks when there is a change in scene. So, if you can think up a better title for any chapter, mention it in the review. ;)

Nick slept peacefully and dreamed about people he didn't know. There was a guy in his dream that looked a lot like him and several girls, as well, and all of them knew his name. When he woke up in the morning, the baby was still asleep. Nick looked down at her and marveled at her tinyness, fighting the urge to make silly, cooing sounds. It was amazing to think that humans came in such compact form.

Watching her, his mind wandered back to the night before, and Nick examined what had happened with the refrigerator: The first time he'd opened the fridge, it had been empty. He recalled the sinking feeling with which he realized that there was no food and knew that he couldn't have imagined its emptiness. But then somehow when he reopened the door, the unit was completely filled with food, lots and lots of delicious, real food. How had the food gotten inside there? A thought occurred to Nick and it seemed so bizarre, and yet he couldn't discount it because everything about this place was bizarre. Nothing different had happened between the time he closed the refrigerator door and the time that he opened it again except…

Except the toddler who was currently asleep beside him had reached out and grabbed the door handle then wailed for Nick to open it again. Somehow, she had put that food in the fridge. It was incredible to think that this little girl could have that ability, and yet this neighborhood (this world?) was so bizarre that anything was beginning to seem possible. Books were blank, people seemed to live here but had disappeared without a trace, lawn gnomes came to life… So to top it all off, this little girl that he'd run into wielded strange powers. Nick decided that he had to test them out, not only to figure out whether his explanation for the refrigerator was true or not, but also to determine the extent of her powers. Was her power only limited to fridges? Could she do other things as well?

And if the baby had powers, should he worry? Would she attack him like the gnome had? It didn't seem likely. Nick felt in his heart that there was nothing malicious or threatening about this child. They had bonded from the moment they first saw each other, and he knew that he could trust her. In fact, she was probably the only thing he could trust about This Place. (Besides, she was the bringer of yummy food, the filler of empty fridges, and one couldn't just take a girl like that for granted.) Nick looked down at the child fondly. She slept on her back with her mouth open, breathing peacefully. Nick thought that she looked as calm as he had felt when he slept, and he didn't want to wake her. He recalled his dream from the night before, the first dream he'd had since he came to This Place. Who had those people been, how had they known his name?

And that guy who looked like Nick, had that been him? If so, why had he spoken to himself, called himself by his own name? It didn't make any sense. Nick was getting used to his questions going unanswered, so he tried not to let it bother him. Somehow, he would figure this place out and find a way back to Kansas, or wherever it was that he belonged.

The baby finally stirred and opened her eyes, working her dry mouth with lip-smacking sounds. She blinked at Nick, and her eyes brightened, though they were heavy with sleep. The toddler cooed in delight and reached out for him. Smiling, Nick gathered her into his arms.



Later the two of them sat on the floor of the nursery, looking at each other. The infant clutched a new bottle in her hands, and Nick was munching on more cold leftovers from the fridge. He told her about himself and his story, as far back as he could remember it – how a few days ago he'd found himself walking down the street, knowing nothing but his name; how he'd kept making excuses for all the unusual things that kept happening; how he'd eventually given in and chalked all the peculiarities down to the strange nature of This Place; and, finally, how he'd met her.

"Okay," Nick said. "You probably don't understand me right now, since you're a baby and all, but I have to say something. I think that last night you put that food into the fridge with some crazy, but really cool, powers."

The infant babbled at him, her mouth opening to form happy baby gibberish.

"You know, that /does/ sound really dumb out loud," Nick admitted. "But, anyway, kiddo, I want to test this idea out." He shuffled across the floor on his knees towards a diaper changing station with cabinets built into it. He opened one of the doors so the little girl could see inside. "See? This is empty. Since this is a nursery and all, I figure that some sort of baby care stuff should be in here, like diapers and whatever. And since you're a baby, we really need those things at the moment because you're starting to… smell like a baby does." He couldn't think of any nicer way to put it.

"So, I want you to put your hands on this here door, kid, and do your thing. Fill this cabinet with all the stuff that belongs inside of it, okay? Or if your power is only limited to filling empty stuff with food, that's okay, too, because I like food."

The baby's head lolled to one side and she giggled. Nick wasn't sure whether she was reacting to his words or the comic expression on his face. "Come here," he beckoned with his hands, and the toddler clambered to her feet and walked towards him. The hem of her fancy white gown brushed the top of her feet, and Nick worried that she might trip and fall, but she crossed the room with no problem and joined him before the changing station. "Okay, let's do this."

The toddler stood there and stared at him.

"Come on," Nick prompted, "do it like you did last night." He was beginning to feel silly. Nick reached out and took her hands in his, pressing them up against the cabinet drawers. He held her hands there for a moment, giving her powers enough time to kick in. "Allright," Nick decided after a while. "That should do the trick."

Letting go of the infant's hands, he opened the cabinet and found it completely empty. It was his turn to stare now. "Okay… I feel really lame right now," Nick told her. "You must think that I'm a freak, don't you?" Disappointed, he shut the door and sat back, frowning. "None of my theories about this place are right. What the heck was I thinking? You're not a super-baby; you're just a regular baby after all…"

The little girl looked at Nick and cocked her head to the side. "Gah?" she asked.

"Yeah, gah," Nick repeated. "That's how I feel right now."

The baby sat there watching him for a moment and then reached out and grabbed the cabinet handle. She turned to look at Nick expectantly and bounced, squatting up and down at the knee.

"What, you want me to open it again?" Nick pulled the door open and fell backwards in surprise. The cabinet wasn't full, but there were now packs of diapers, a bottle of baby powder, and containers of wipes inside.

"You really do have magic powers!" he exclaimed. "This is incredible. I wonder what else I can test you out on…"

The baby started crying, and Nick realized that he still needed to change her diaper. He lifted her onto the changing station and did so, marveling at the fact that the act seemed to come naturally to his hands, even though his brain had no idea what it was doing. Once the baby was all powdered and in a fresh diaper, she squirmed and gurgled with delight. Nick threw the rolled up bundle of waste in the garbage and scrubbed his hands with a sanitary wipe. He was glad that the gash on his palm from the gnome bite was healing over but still wished he could properly wash his hands with soap and water.

"Do you do bathrooms, too?" Nick asked jokingly, tickling the infant's belly. It didn't seem like a bad idea, though, so he carried her into the bathroom and set her on the counter by the sink. "Here," he indicated the medicine cabinet and opened the mirrored door for the baby to see inside. "Can you put stuff in here? I need soap to wash my hands."

After some cajoling, Nick got her to set her hands on the medicine cabinet. She babbled as she did so, as though she were holding a conversation with him. When she removed her hands, Nick opened the door and look inside. There was a razor, a can of shaving cream, and a collection of bottles filled with an assortment of pills inside but no soap. "Soap?" Nick asked the infant. "No soap?" He rubbed his hands together, mimicking the act of washing them.

She clapped her hands together, trying to copy the motion

"What am I doing," Nick wondered, "trying to communicate the idea of soap to a one-year old?" At times he thought that she might actually understand what he said, and other times she was just a baby, albeit one with magical powers.

...

Nick spent another night and day in number 1503, testing the extents of the toddler's abilities. He took her to one of the bedrooms where her powers summoned women's clothing and some oversized men's clothes. Nick threw on a baggy shirt for the sake of wearing fresh garments, but he was still stuck in the same jeans. All in all, he was having no luck with getting the kid to fill the dressers with the things he actually wanted. The food and the diapers seemed to have been lucky results. Nick realized that they couldn't stay in the house forever, even though there was food in the refrigerator and a medicine cabinet full of pills for which he didn't know the use. He had to find his way back home and decided on his third night there that it was about time to get moving again.

The problem was how to take the infant – Nick didn't want to name her, so he got by with just calling her "Kid" – with him. She could walk but not very far or for too long, so that was out of the question. But if he had to carry her, along with all the other stuff he wanted to carry, his arms would get tired and they'd have to stop for frequent breaks. Nick tried to get the kid to use her powers on some of the drawers in the nursery, but none of them turned up a baby carrier that he could use.

Instead, she filled one bureau drawer with clothes, another with toys. Nick decided that in lieu of a baby carrier, he would just have to fashion some sort of sling. He pulled a sheet out of the little nursery crib, and threw it over his shoulder, tying it across his body like a sash. He'd place the kid in the sling, and even though he'd still need to use his arm to support her, at least it would be more comfortable than cradling her in his arms.



Before they left the nursery, Nick grabbed a pack of diapers, the bottle of powder and the container of wipes. Then he went into the bedroom where he slipped a pillowcase off one of the pillows to use as a sack. He stuffed an oversized sweater that he'd found in the bureau into the pillowcase as well. All that was left now was the food.

Nick lifted the baby into his arms and carried her downstairs into the kitchen. He set her up on the counter as he chucked baby bottles, bottles of water, and some fruit into the bag. Nick didn't know whether the containers of leftovers would travel well or not, but he also packed them anyway. On a whim, he decided to leave an apology note in the house out of habit, though he doubted that anyone would ever see it. He wondered again where the owners had gone and why. Nick had so many questions about This Place, and they were all unanswered. What had happened to this neighborhood? Now that he'd seen the kid's powers there was another possibility: had it been magically emptied?

"Sorry I raided your fridge," Nick wrote on a slip of paper he found lying around. He remembered to add, "You forgot your baby here, so I took her with me." He signed the note with that same barely-legible signature and left it in the kitchen.

"Ready to go?" he asked the infant and slipped her into the carrier securely against his chest. They left by the front door, and Nick made sure to lock it behind him.

Back on the street, he walked at a steady pace and made good time. Nick could see no end on the horizon but prayed that it was just a trick of the eye or a blind curve that kept him from seeing where the road led. He felt a little bit silly, wearing a baggy t-shirt and carrying a baby in a bed sheet sling, with a pillowcase full of food slung over his shoulder, but at least there wasn't anyone around to laugh at him. It was probably the only time Nick ever felt glad that This Place was deserted.

The toddler babbled from her carrier, and Nick talked back, pretending that she was actually asking him questions.

"Where are we going? Honestly, I have no idea, kid. Out of this place, though," he said. "I feel kind of bad for taking you away from your home in case your parents come back, but I couldn't just leave you there. I mean, what if something happened to you?"

"Anyway," Nick continued on, "My destination is home, wherever that is. I started having dreams again the other night, you know – which, now that I think about it, I wasn't able to do until I ran into you – and in my dreams there are all these people talking to me. I don't recognize any of them, but they all know who I am. There was even this one guy who looked a lot like me. I'm starting to think now that maybe that was my family."

"Aaaahh?" was all that the baby said in reply.

"Yeah, family. You know, when I arrived here the other day all blank and confused, I couldn't remember anything but my first name. I still don't know who I am or where I'm from, but I think things might just be coming back to me."

He smiled down at her, shifting the sack of food to sit more comfortably on his shoulder, "The moment I ran into you, kid, things didn't seem so strange or scary anymore. I mean, I'm not going crazy anymore – though I'm still talking to myself – but at least I'm not alone."

Nick's mind wandered back to the people from his dream, the people who might be his family, and then his thought turned to the infant who was now his responsibility. "I wonder who your family is," Nick said. "How could they have forgotten you? No offense to you, since that's your family and all, but whoever they are, they can't have been too nice since they were able to abandon a defenseless baby." The very thought of it made him angry. "But at the same time, I'm kind of grateful that they forgot you. I mean, if you weren't there, I don't know what would have happened to me. I might have gone crazy from the isolation or died from hunger or who knows what."

"How did you survive so long on your own without anyone else?" Nick asked the infant. "Did you just stand there for days and days in your crib, crying your head off until someone came for you? Maybe your powers kept you alive…"

Nick thought out loud like this as he walked down the street. He didn't stop anywhere, didn't try to enter any more houses. He'd decided that from now on, he would continue down this road until he found out where it led. And he would only stop at night when he got tired and had to rest. Besides, it would be too hard to frequently break into houses and climb in through windows with a baby in his arms. No, it was best if he just put off the breaking-and-entering until night set in.

After a couple miles worth of travel, Nick stopped by the side of the road and sat on the curb. He set down the pillowcase of food beside him then held the baby in his free hand as he untied the bed sheet sling. Then he laid the blanket on the hard ground and set her down on top of it because he hadn't found any shoes for her. The toddler gurgled with happiness at being able to move around and walked to the edge of the sheet.

"Hey, stay on the sheet," Nick told her. "I don't want your feet to get all dirty. After all, there isn't any water to bathe with."

He pulled a bottle out of the food sack and handed it to her. "Here, you're probably hungry." Nick leaned in close as she drank and put his nose to her belly, "You smell fine right now, so I don't think I have to change your diaper for a while."

He sat back and pulled a half-eaten sandwich out of the pillow case. The sandwich had already been partially eaten when he'd found it in the fridge, which – like everything else – did not make any sense. The bread was a bit dried out, but it tasted delicious, and the sandwich was filled with something thick and creamy and something sweet and fruity. Nick closed his eyes, "Mmmm, this is good… Peanut butter and jelly… I ate this a lot when I was a kid."

With a jerk he sat upright, realizing that he knew what he was eating and that it had unlocked a memory of his childhood. "Peanut butter and jelly!" He showed the sandwich to the baby. "Look! It's peanut butter and jelly."

She pulled the bottle out of her mouth and copied his intonation. "Ee-aaah-ahh-ehhh-eeeee!" she squealed.

How much more could he remember? Nick went through the bag, but nothing else seemed to unlock any memories. Maybe he would have to eat some more to recall anything.

When he finished his sandwich, Nick stretched his legs out. "Ah, that was good… How about your bottle, kid?" he looked over at her. The baby had finished before him and was toddling back and forth on the sheet. She gurgled and moved towards Nick, climbing into his lap.

"Oh, I get it," he teased, wrinkling his nose. "You need a diaper change." He set her down on her back and took care of the business. When he was done, Nick cleaned his hands with the baby wipes and stared at the dirty diaper. He had no idea what to do with the garbage. "Well, I can't take this with us. I guess… I'll just leave this here?" he said awkwardly, leaving it beside the street.

Nick packed up, lifted the little girl into his arms, and retied the baby carrier sash around his body. "Here we go again, kiddo…"
Chapter 4: Bye Bye, Baby by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
Hey, I noticed that ONH has been favorited twice, awesome! :3 So this one's for Charlene and kaos55. Thanks, guys!!!

"Why are you tired, kid?" Nick asked with a yawn as he tucked her into bed. "I'm the one who did all the walking," he grinned.

She blinked up sleepily at him and waved hello – or perhaps it was "goodnight" – with one hand, opening and closing her fingers. He plopped down on the bed beside her exhausted and promptly fell asleep. This time, Nick's dreams were of different people than before: he was sitting around with four other guys, and they were all singing, as if it were perfectly normal for five people to just sit together and sing. And then the dream shifted, and this time he was in a room full of people, sitting in the corner with an instrument in his arms and singing. He was by himself this time, and the four other guys from earlier had disappeared. Everyone was watching him, cheering. Nick… Nick…

"Nick." There were hands in his hair, tugging on the blonde locks. "Nick, wake up…"

"Wah?" He was bleary-eyed, blinking against a light that shone somewhere above him. A head appeared in his vision, blocking out the light. It was a little girl with dark curls that fell past her shoulders.

She removed her hands from his hair as he woke and began to complain. "Niiiiick," she said, "I hafta go potty… Where's the bathroom?" Her words were juvenilely formed, the "v" sounds coming out sounding like "b" and "th" sounds slurred into "f" sounds.

He bolted upright and stared. A little girl stood by the bed, her knees pressed together, and a distressed look on her face. She looked about four or five years old and was dressed in a fancy, white dress that flowed all the way to the floor. "Nick," she said again, pushing on his shoulder. She spoke with an accent he didn't recognize. "I need to pee, come on…"

He climbed out of bed and led the strange girl down the hall to the restroom. "The toilets don't work, though," Nick told her, opening the door.

She glanced at it and said, "I can fix it," then shut the door behind her.

Where had this strange girl come from? Nick suddenly remembered that he'd left the baby in the bedroom and ran back down the hallway to make sure that she was allright. The infant was gone. Panicked, he ran back to the bathroom and heard a toilet flush. The little girl opened the door.

"Where's the baby?" Nick demanded. "What did you do with her?"

"What baby? Hey, lemme go!" she said as he reached for her shoulders and shook her slightly.

"There was a baby in the room, sleeping on the bed beside me. What did you do with her? Who are you?"

"Stop it, I dunno what baby you're talking about! You're scaring me, Nick!" the girl whined.

"Wait, how do you know my name?" he asked, letting go of her.

"'Cause you told me… Are you mad at me, Nick? I didn't see any baby on the bed, and I was sleeping right next to you."

"What do you mean you were – huh…" For the first time, Nick looked at the little girl closely. Her hair was a rich black, curled in large ringlets, and she had bright amber eyes, which right now were close to tears. Her fancy white dress was in the same style that the baby's had been. "…Kid?" Nick said slowly.

"Wha–?" she sniffled, blinking hard. "You're gonna get mad and yell at me again…" Her eyes watered.

"Hey, don't cry…" Because she was so much shorter than him, Nick bent down on his knees and wrapped his arms around her. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell. I was just worried, but I'm not mad, okay?" This girl… she looked so similar, she knew his name, could she be the same baby, just older? How had she aged several years overnight, did people grow faster in This Place than normal? If so, he would have to look at himself in the mirror again; maybe he was rapidly turning into an old man…

The girl wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and told Nick, "I'm hungry."

"Okay, let's get something to eat." He grabbed the edge of his t-shirt and dabbed at the tears on her face. Nodding, she slipped her hand into his – because she was barely half his size, Nick had to hunch over slightly for her to reach it – and they walked down the stairs to the kitchen. As they walked down the stairs, Nick marveled at the notion that this girl could be the same baby he'd carried in his arms yesterday. /Well, at least I won't have to change any more diapers.,/ he thought.

They reached the kitchen, which was a homey affair with wooden cupboards, a gas stove, and a kitchen island. Nick opened the fridge to find the sack of food inside. Nick had thrown the pillowcase of food into the empty refrigerator before bed. Because he'd been too sleepy to unpack the contents of the sack, in addition to the food there was also a baggy sweater, some diapers, a pack of wipes, and a container of baby powder. Nick set the pillowcase on the island behind him and started rummaging through it.

"I guess you don't want baby bottles anymore. Plus, I don't know if these are good anyway since I was carrying them around all day yesterday." He grabbed a sandwich and passed it to her. "Here, have some peanut butter and jelly, it's good." She didn't take it from him. Nick glanced in her direction, but the girl wasn't looking at him. She was staring at the closed refrigerator. "What's the matter?" She didn't respond. "Kid?"

Standing up on tip-toe, she stretched as far as she could and grasped the handle of the fridge door and then reached out with her other hand as well, using both to tug the door open. There was food inside.

"Hey, how did you do that?" Nick hadn't been able to ask her as a baby, but now that she was older, maybe she could answer his questions.

The little girl shrugged. "I just opened it and everything came back," she said simply, as if that explained everything.

It still didn't make any sense. He supposed that he would have to wait until she was older – and at the rate she seemed to be growing, that probably wouldn't be too long – to get an explanation. "Allright then," Nick said. "Let's see what we have in there." He pulled out a pot that held some sort of meat and vegetable stew.

"How about utensils?" he asked. "Can you get us some forks and spoons to eat with?"

The kid nodded. "I just hafta find them…" She looked around the room and walked to a drawer by the kitchen sink. "It's too high," she said, holding both her hands above her head.

Nick went over and picked her up by the waist, lifting her to about the height of the drawer. As before, the little girl put her hand on the handle and then opened it. Inside was a utensil tray of mismatched forks, knives, and spoons. Nick grinned to himself. He was having better results with this older version of the kid than he'd gotten with the toddler.

"How old are you anyway?" he asked her.

"I'm a big girl. I'm fibe years old," she told him.

"Five, huh?" Nick set her down on the floor and pulled a couple of spoons from the drawer. "How about bowls? Do you know where any bowls are?"

She nodded and went to a floor-level wooden cabinet, revealing a collection of bowls in various sizes. Nick pulled out two and brought them to the counter with the utensils. Briefly, he wondered whether there was already stuff in all these cabinets. The success they were having was almost too good to be true. He opened a drawer, which turned out to be empty.

"Hey," he called to the little girl. "Can you make something show up in here?"

She looked at it for a moment then nodded. Nick shut the drawer and lifted her again so that she could reach it. When she opened the drawer, it was full of odds and ends – straws, birthday candles, matches, a bottle opener. So it wasn't a coincidence after all. He set the girl down and impulsively grabbed the book of matches. Nick stuffed them into his pocket then turned back to the cold stew and started scooping it out into the bowls. Its texture was slightly gelatinous and did not look very appetizing. Nick's gaze traveled from the food over to the gas range by the fridge. Walking over, he turned one of the knobs. The stove started with a click, but no gas came out of the unit to produce a flame.

"Hey, can you make this thing work?" Nick asked the little girl. He switched the stove off. "I think it's out of gas or something."

She shook her head. "Mamma telled me not to play with those. She said it's for growned-ups only."

"Your… mom?" Nick repeated.

"Uh-huh. I wanted to cook like Mamma, but she said I'm not supposed to touch the stobe. Are we gonna eat now, Nick? I'm hungry."

What was the kid talking about? When had she spoken to her mother? As Nick spooned cold stew into the bowls, he decided that he would have to ask her about it later. He lifted the girl onto a high stool on the other side of the island and sat down beside her, sliding one of the bowls over.

"Here, eat this." He started in on his own bowl. Though cold, the stew was actually pretty good, in spite of its unappetizing appearance. When they finished eating, Nick decided to question the girl some more about her mother. "So when did your mom tell you not to use the stove?" he asked.

"It was when she was cooking… cooking, uh… cooking…"

Nick waited patiently, realizing that she seemed to have lost her train of thought.

"Um… cooking… uh… cooking… oh! Cooking dinner." The five-year-old nodded. "Mamma was cooking dinner. I wanted to help her because I'm a big girl now and I can almost reach the stobe, but then Mamma said I hafta be more growned up."

It seemed like that conversation had taken place recently, yet just last night she had been only one-year old. "Tell me about your family," Nick said, trying to find out more.

"Um… there's my far and my mor and my puppy and me."

Far and mor? /…Father and mother?/ Nick guessed. And he didn't remember seeing a puppy in the house. Had they taken the dog but forgotten their own daughter? "Where are your parents now?"

"I dunno, at home? I miss them. Are you going to take me back home, Nick?"

He didn't have the heart to tell her that there wasn't anyone back at her house. "I'll try to help you find your family, kid," he said instead. "What are their names?"

"Mamma and Pappa. And my doggy's name is Bruno."

Nick shook his head. This was easier than communicating with a toddler, but he still wasn't getting much information out of her. "Hey, where are you going?" he asked.

Somehow, the little girl had managed to slide off of her stool without falling and breaking her neck, and now she was walking towards the door to the backyard. "Can I go outside and play?" She pointed out the window, and he could see a sandbox and swing set.

"Yeah, go ahead, I guess. Just stay where I can see you while I put this stuff away." Nick put the pot of stew back into the refrigerator, keeping an eye on her through the window. He went through the pillowcase that was still on the island countertop, throwing out all the old food he'd been carrying. There was no more need for the baby diapers, so he took them out of the sack and set them on one of the counters. Nick left the dirty dishes in the sink since there was no running water, and then went outside to keep a better eye on the kid.

She was down on her hands and knees in the sandbox and appeared to be building a sand castle, though it looked more like a misshapen mound with smaller heaps of sand on top of it for towers. /Her dress is going to get all dirty,/ Nick thought, /and there's no way to wash it./

"Hey, what are you doing there, kiddo?" Nick looked down at her castle. Beside it, she had written out some sort of word in a shaky, five-year-old hand. He crouched down in the sand beside her. "L-E-N-E," Nick read. "What's that? Lene?"

The little girl shook her head. "No, not ‘lean,' silly, Lene. Leh-nuh. That's my name!" she giggled.

"Lene?" he asked. "Don't you mean Lenna?" Nick traced the letters in the sand with his finger.

"No, this is how Mamma showed me to write my name," Lene told him.

"Oh. So what did you make there? A sand castle?"

She nodded. "There's the castle that we have to go to," she told him. "But we're still far away."

"Wait, what? Castle?" Nick was confused.

Lene pointed somewhere beyond his shoulder, "Over there. See?"

He turned around and nearly fell over. Beyond the backyard fence, far in the distance Nick could see a white castle, its highest towers shrouded in clouds. "Where did that come from?" Had it been there the whole time? Why had he never seen it? "What is that place?"

"That's where we hafta go," she repeated.

"How do you know that?" Nick had to ask.

Shrugging, she said, "I dunno. We just hafta."

His mind was racing as he stood up and told her, "Stay here for a second, okay? I want to go check something out." Nick walked over to the back fence. He reached up and, gripping the top edge of it in both his hands, hoisted himself up so he could see over.

What Nick found scared him. This Place really wasn't the normal world. Behind the house, there was a park and a lightly wooded forest that went on for what seemed like miles and miles. The castle itself was beyond all these – on some sort of rise, probably, because it should have been obscured by the distance and all the obstacles between it and Nick's current location.

If that was truly his destination, then Nick had been traveling in the wrong direction for days. Was the street he was currently on some sort of trick? Did that mean he'd been walking in some huge loop? Nick was grateful that at least he didn't seem to have traveled full circle yet.

So their next journey was beyond the fence. He let go, shaking off the soreness in his injured hand, and went back to Lene and helped her to her feet. She brushed sand from the front of her dress, which was a little bit brown about the knees from kneeling in the dirt. "We should set off pretty soon," Nick told her. "If that castle is our destination, it looks like we have a long ways to go…"



Before they left, Nick refreshed himself in the bathroom where Lene had fixed the toilet. He tried to ask her about how she'd made it work but got the same indistinct answer as when he'd asked her about anything else. When that was taken care of, Nick stood before the mirror and examined his face closely. It was the same, unfamiliar face he'd seen two days ago, which meant that the kid was the one aging quickly and not him.

Within an hour, everything was packed and ready to go. Nick got Lene to fill a closet with a bunch of random junk, including shoes for her and a backpack for him, which was highly preferable to a pillowcase sack. He filled the backpack with portable food, the container of wipes, a sweater from the closet that fit better than the baggy one he'd been carrying around, a knife from the utensil drawer (though its potential as a weapon was ruined by the fact that he had no idea how to use it for anything but eating), and, for some reason, the bottle of baby powder.

Taking the most direct path towards their goal meant scaling the backyard fence, but Nick knew that it would be impossible for the five-year-old to climb over by herself. He slipped the backpack on backwards, so that it sat at the front of his body and then kneeled down before the fence. "Here, Lene, climb onto my back." She scrambled on, fastening her arms tightly around his neck. "Hold on tight, okay?" he said and stood up. Nick struggled to climb over the fence without upsetting the kid's balance or crushing the contents of the backpack. When they finally made it over, they were in the park he had seen that morning. It was really just a large grassy field with winding paths that led into the woods.

Progress through the forest itself was slow, and Nick had to switch back and forth between walking at a five-year-old's pace and carrying her piggyback when she got tired. He wished he'd remembered to ask Lene about a flashlight for later on when it got darker, but at least the wood wasn't too heavily wooded and for now they could see just fine.

"Are you scared?" Nick asked, wondering if the forest frightened her.

She shook her head. "Nah, it's just a bunch of trees."

"Good point," Nick smiled. They walked along, and Lene kept him entertained with random, wandering stories about her puppy Bruno. Her anecdotes were made all the more entertaining by the melodic accent with which she spoke. Nick couldn't match her dark curled hair and light eyes to her accent to determine an ethnicity – either because of his memory loss or because he'd never run into any like it before – but found its sound pleasant to his ear, regardless. After a few miles, they stopped to eat and sat on the large protruding roots of a giant tree, munching on sandwiches.

"You know," Nick told Lene. "I loved turkey sandwiches when I was a kid. I'd beg my mom to make them for me. It was practically all I ate."

She nodded back in agreement. "Me, too. Mamma makes me turkey sammiches all the time."

He stopped, right before taking another bite into his sandwich, realizing that he had just named another food he was eating and recalled a bit more of his childhood. Nick tried to remember more – what his mom looked like, what other foods she made him as a kid – and in his mind's eye he saw a woman cooking in a very small kitchen… and that was all.

"I'm thirsty," Lene broke into Nick's thoughts.

Swallowing hard though there was nothing in his mouth, Nick reached into the backpack and pulled out a juice box. "Here you go, kid. Sorry it's not that cold anymore."

"S'okay, it's still good," Lene said, sipping at it.
Chapter 5: Into the Woods by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
Here's a short one. The next passage after this was kind of long so I decided just to break them into two separate chapters. This one's dedicated to starbeamz2, who gave me a review on the last chapter, yay! :3

 

Günter sat in a grand chair set on a dais in one of the castle towers, staring idly at a bright tapestry. The design woven into the wall hanging was alive and moving, and it showed a young man walking through the woods, hunched over slightly as he held the hand of a young child. Hearing a sound of movement on the floor, Günter turned his colorless eyes away from the tapestry and looked down at the foot of his chair, where a cage was set beyond his dais on the flagstones, its bars glowing with a magic light.

Lene was finally beginning to awaken from their last encounter, and Günter tisked at her, "Lene, I am very displeased with your interference. It's an interesting bit of magic you used there, but do you honestly think you can protect him as a five-year-old?"

The expression on her face was sleepy and confused, and she blinked at him, trying to get her bearings. Lene struggled to a standing position and recoiled as her arms came in contact with the magical bars that confined her.

"Hurts, doesn't it?" Günter commented blithely. "Thanks to that cage, your magic won't be quite as effective as you intended. I'm afraid it will hamper the link between you and your other self, making communication between you and your younger version nearly impossible."

Her golden eyes widened and she spoke at last. "It doesn't matter. You underestimate my magic, Günter. It's stronger than you think, and I won't be five forever. Nick will make it out of Other World, you'll see. I won't let you have him."

"Strong words coming from a prisoner. I can strike you down with the snap of my fingers," he reminded her.

"Then why don't you?" she raised her chin defiantly.

Günter barked a short, guttural laugh. "Finally starting to get a backbone, my sweet, simpering Lene? I like it. Don't worry, I'm not going to kill you… until I get rid of Nick. I've decided that I want you to see him die."

Standing, he stepped down from the dais and went over to the moving tapestry on the wall. Günter put his hand to the woven fabric, which began to glow beneath his hand. "There," he said definitively. "You may not have to wait long."



Nick was just cleaning up the remains of their lunch, keeping one eye on Lene as she played among the roots of a giant tree. He stooped to pick up an empty juice box and when he straightened up again, she rounded the tree and disappeared out of sight. "Lene? Hey, Lene, come back here. Stay where I can see you…" Nick said, but she didn't come back.

He slung the backpack over his shoulder and quickly followed after her. On the other side of the big tree trunk there was a break in the path that he hadn't noticed before, with a smaller trail disappearing into a dense copse of ivy. Nick was just in time to see the skirt of Lene's dress vanish around a turn in the smaller trail and he walked more quickly lest he lose track of her.

"You'd think it would be easy to keep up with a five-year-old," Nick muttered to himself. "Lene, wait for me," he called out loud. The curve in the path opened out onto a small but deep clearing. The plants grew thickly here and high overhead, barely allowing the sun to filter through except in one area up ahead where the light trickled through, casting a patch of dappled sunlight into the gloomy thicket.

Nick walked deeper into the copse and found Lene there in that patch of sunlight with two other girls her age. The strange girls were dressed in long, flowing white dresses and had crowns of ivy set on their heads with ribbons flowing from the crowns into their hair. They giggled and took Lene's hands, leading her in a game of "Ring around the Rosie" within the circle of light.

"Ring around the rosie…" the two girls began, dancing.

"Lene?" Nick called out to her. "Who are your friends?" Where had these girls come from? What were they doing here?

The five-year-old looked over at him, but the other girls pulled her attention back to them with a tug of their hands and continued on with their song. "A pocket full of posies…"

"Hey, who are you kids? …And where are your parents?" he added lamely.

They ignored him. "Ashes…"

Nick didn't like the feeling of the situation. On the surface it seemed innocent, and yet he sensed something sinister lurking beneath it all. Nick couldn't explain why, but he knew that he had to get Lene – and himself – away from these girls and their eerie vibes.

"Ashes…"

He didn't know what else to do, so he charged up to the circle of girls and lifted Lene into his arms, out of their grasp. "Time for us to go," he said. "Sorry, kids, you'll have to find another playmate." He turned away from them but two sets of hands grabbed onto his shirt in protest, and Nick looked back to see the little girls holding onto him, except that they were no longer little girls anymore. Their flesh had wasted away, leaving behind gaunt, skeletal figures with empty black holes for eyes.

"We all fall down…" they sang in hollow voices, their grips on him tightening.

Nick's breath caught in his chest. "Don't look, Lene," he told her, pressing her head against his shoulder so she couldn't see what was going on.

"Let go of me, you two," he ordered, trying to shake off the boney girls. He headed back the way they came in, but the skeletons clung on to Nick and were dragged along as he tried to escape. Just as he approached the edge of the clearing, a roaring sound began somewhere from beneath his feet and the ground began to rumble. Nick stopped to regain his balance and suddenly the earth cracked and split. White boney hands reached out of the soil and grabbed at his feet, trying to take a hold of his legs and ankles.

Yelling, Nick kicked the hands away and pulled free from the two "girls" clinging to his shirt, which gave way with a ripping sound. Nick ran as fast as his legs could carry him and made it back to the safety of the main trail. The skeletons did not follow him out of the copse, and when he was clear of it, the entire structure wavered and then collapsed to the ground. Dust and leaves rose into the air, obscuring Nick's vision. But when the dust finally cleared, it revealed a plot of aged gravestones, crumbling and heavily overgrown with ivy.

Nick looked down at Lene who was staring at the graveyard with wide eyes. "I told you not to look," he said, turning and taking them further away from what had – just a few minutes ago – been a copse. "What were you doing in there, anyway?"

"I wanted to play," she said, holding onto him now as tightly as the skeletons had. "They said they had a fun game for me…" The little girl shivered. "That wasn't fun, Nick. I don't like those girls."

"Me, neither, kid," Nick agreed. "Me, neither…"
Chapter 6 Pt 1: In Which Nick Confronts by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
Reading back on all my replies to the reviews, I feel like a broken record: "I'm glad you like it," "I'm glad that you like it," and another "I'm glad" after that. But it's true! I'm so... glad *grin* that everyone is reading, enjoying, and reviewing my fic. This one is for Ashley and Jennifer(Star). Last chapter was the first time I ever got more than one review for the same chapter. Ha, I'm such a newb... ^^; Sorry this chapter's not as long as I promised it would be in the last Author's Notes. I got sleepy editing and decided to just update with what I had ready. Oh, and by the way, there's a little bit of swearing in this one.

 

"So from now on, you won't run off by yourself again," Nick said, carrying Lene on his hip.

She nodded fervently, her curls bouncing. "Never, never," the five-year-old promised then yawned.

Lene nuzzled her head into his shoulder, rubbing against the knit material of the sweater Nick had put on to cover his torn shirt, and before long she dozed off. While she slept, Nick reflected back on their encounter with the graveyard and shivered at the memory. Lawn gnomes coming to life was one thing, but skeletons and graveyards were in a completely different league of scary and a lot more difficult to take on. It was obvious that Nick couldn't trust appearances in This Place, but how would he know for sure what was safe and what was an illusion?

After a while, Lene woke up from her nap and was restless, so Nick set her down to let her walk in front of him. She ran back and forth with a child's abundant energy like she hadn't just been passed out on his shoulder, but she remembered not to stray too far from Nick's side. As they walked, Lene babbled endlessly with follow-up stories to the ones she'd told earlier about her dog, and Nick wondered again when she'd had a chance to have all these adventures and how she could recount them as if they'd just happened yesterday.

The pair traveled for the rest of the day, taking only a few minutes for dinner because they still hadn't reached the other side of the forest and Nick worried about walking unprotected at night. Who knew what was lurking in the dark, just waiting for the two of them to walk into its grasp? The woods ended up being a lot deeper than Nick had originally imagined, and it wasn't long before he'd lost his bearings on the winding trail. The trees grew so thickly that he was unable to use the castle as a beacon, and he had no idea whether they were even going in the right direction anymore. Nick's worries increased as dusk settled in, and he strained his eyes against the graying light, searching for the way out and really wishing he had a flashlight.

He lifted Lene into his arms and carried her so that she wouldn't trip over anything in the dim light then asked, "Hey, kid, think you can use that magic of yours and pull up a flashlight for me?"

She shook her head in response. "Sorry, but I don't see a flashlight nowhere, Nick. It's gonna be nighttime soon, huh?"

"Yeah," he agreed, but he didn't want her to worry so he changed the subject. "Hey, tell me some more about Bruno. He seems like a pretty cool pup."

"Oh yeah, he is! You shoulda seen it this one time when me and my valp went –"

"Valp?"

"Oops sorry, puppy. A valp is a puppy. I forget sometimes, but Mamma and pappa say I hafta speak English all the time now ‘cause we camed here."

"Here? You mean, you came here to This Place?" Nick tried to sort out what she was saying.

"No, this is the woods, silly. We camed to our house! Anyway, like I was saying, me and Bruno went out to the park and…"

While she prattled on, Nick focused on searching for a way out or at least a safe place to spend the night before he could no longer see his own hands before him. He prompted Lene for more and more stories until she finally told him, "I think that's everything me and Bruno did together. He's only a val – I mean, puppy, so I can't do too much with him. But when he gets bigger, Nick, we're gonna go fishing and out on walks far away from home all by ourselves; then I can take him to the zoo and we'll look at the–" And off she was again on another tangent.

/Well, at least I know how to keep her calm in a scary situation,/ Nick decided.

In the end, he couldn't find the edge of the woods, but what he did find was a small stone cottage. Though Nick didn't feel safe trusting anything about This Place or these woods, he decided that he would rather take his chances inside.

"We're gonna stay here for the night, kiddo," he told Lene and tried the door.

It rattled as Nick both pushed and pulled but didn't yield, so he set her down and examined it closely, squinting to see in the last of the light. The door's brass knob had no keyhole, but it appeared to fasten shut with a hook on the inside.

"It's latched," his five-year-old companion stated the obvious.

"Hmm…" Nick ruffled through his backpack and pulled out the knife he had brought along then slipped it through the crack between the door and its frame. Carefully sliding the knife upwards, he felt the latch pop up, too, and the door unlocked. Nick looked into the small, one-roomed cottage – which was really more of a hut – from the doorway and found that it was almost bare. There was a small, stone fireplace with a stack of split logs beside it, a thin cot tucked into the corner, a washbowl on a stand with a bucket nearby, a pantry cupboard, and a table with a couple of chairs. The floor was cold, packed dirt that had been swept clean. A still air filled the cottage, as if no one had been here for a very long time. Nick hadn't noticed the sensation before, perhaps because the other houses had been so much bigger and this was just one small stone hut.

He returned the knife to his backpack and set it in the entryway then closed the door behind them, flipping down the latch. However, Nick didn't feel too secure with just a little hook locking the door, so he fumbled in the dark for one of the chairs that was nearby and stuck it under the doorknob. Now they were indoors and it seemed safe enough, but still he felt worried about being in the woods at night. Who knew what was out there and how easy it might be for them to get inside? The windows were tiny slits that kept Nick from seeing outside, and they barely let in any light. He had to feel his way across the pitch black cabin to get to the fireplace and put some kindle inside. Lene didn't seem to feel any of his apprehension, though, because she ran back and forth across the dark room.

"Hey, cut it out," Nick told her. "What if you run into something and hurt yourself?"

"Boy, this is a small house!" she exclaimed. "It's like the size of my room at home. I have a big room with lots of places to put my toys because I'm a big girl. Do you have your own room, too, Nick?"

"Yeah, I have a big room, too," he said. He rummaged in his pockets for the book of matches that he had found earlier. "Though when I was a kid, I had to share it with B.J. because we didn't have a lot of space."

"B.J.?" Lene asked. "Who's that, Nick?"

"I'm not sure…" The statement about sharing a room had just come out of his mouth for no reason. "I think… I think that's my sister's name?" As he said it, Nick felt more sure. "Yeah, my sister, Bobbie Jean. We call her B.J. She can be a real pain sometimes but not so bad as Leslie." /Wait, Leslie?/

"Is Leslie your sister, too?"

"Yeah," Nick nodded his head slowly as he thought about it. "Leslie's my sister, too. She's younger than BJ." The matches were hard to strike in the dark, and Nick ended up ruining two or three of them as he replied to Lene's questions before he successfully lit one. He held it to the edge of the dry log but wasn't quite fast enough because the match burned down too far and singed his fingers. "Ow," he said, shaking his stinging hand. Bite scars and scorch marks, what else would his hand have to bear?

"I don't have any sisters," Lene told him. "That's why Mamma and Pappa got me Bruno, so I would have someone to play with when I got lonely."

"Oh?" Nick said. He realized then that in all the stories the five-year-old had told him about her adventures with her puppy, she hadn't once mentioned other people. "What about your friends?" he asked. Nick struck another match and moved quicker this time, holding it up to the edge of the kindle.

"I don't have a lot of friends. I used to have a friend named Samantha, but we had to move far away – like lots of miles! And then I made another friend named Carlie, but we moved again. I haven't seen them for a long time, maybe a hundred days!"

"I used to move around a lot, too, when I was little," Nick remembered. "We used to live in… New York, I think, when I was really, really little. But then my parents relocated us somewhere else… Maybe Florida?"

"Florida? Where's that? What's it like in Florida?"

"I'm not sure. I can't remember much about it yet besides the name, but I think it's far from here." /How did I get to Kansas from Florida?/ Nick wondered. /Did my family move again?/ The flame finally caught one of the logs and he watched the fire spread slowly. It glowed with only a faint light, but at last he could see a little bit. He was getting pretty tired of the darkness.

Behind him, Lene screamed. Nick spun around quickly to find a tall man standing in the cottage, holding her horizontally under one arm, the five-year-old's body kicking and flailing in his grasp. /Was he here when we walked in?/ Nick wondered. /He couldn't have been./ The man would have been impossible to miss. It took him a moment to get over the shock of seeing another human being, this time one as old as he was. But unlike Lene, this person didn't seem to be friendly.

"Put her down," Nick ordered.

"Or you'll do what?" the man asked, his thin lips twisting in a smirk. "You don't want to fight me, Nick. I'll do much worse things than just bite you."

/Bite./ Somehow the stranger knew about the lawn gnome. "Have you been watching me? Who are you?"

"I think the question, Nick, is who are /you/? I bet you don't know," the man taunted. Lene continued to struggle in his grasp and, as if singling in on the word "bite," she did just that, sinking her teeth into his hand. "Auugh," the stranger growled, dropping her. Lene scampered away from him, but not before he delivered a strong kick to her backside. "Such a troublemaker lately, Lene. Too think that you used to be so good, so obedient." She cried and ran into Nick's arms.

"You bastard!" Nick glared at him.

The logs cracked in the fireplace, sending up sparks, and the blaze became stronger, filling the room with orange light. Nick could see the stranger more clearly now: he wore a long, dark trench coat and had silver white hair, though he didn't at all appear to be old. The look in the man's strangely colorless eyes was not friendly and his long, thin face was twisted in anger.
"She's only five years old, man," Nick said angrily. "Do you get off on hurting little kids or something?"

"I, as you call it, ‘get off' on causing pain in general," the man smirked. "But you're right, she's not my target, you are." He raised a hand at Nick and stepped forward.

"Get behind me, Lene." Nick didn't have any sort of weapon handy. The knife was inside his backpack by the door, and he didn't think a book of matches would be very effective. Looking around frantically, he found that the only thing left to do – and a pretty stupid thing at that – was to plunge his hand into the fireplace. Ignoring the heat, Nick grasped hold of the unlit edge of a piece of kindle and turned to face the strange man, clutching the flaming log between his hands. The stranger did not have any sort of weapon in his hands, and yet he exuded a power that made Nick wary. "You stay away from us," Nick called loudly.

"Or you'll do what?" The man asked. He took another step forward, his eyes narrowing in concentration, and Nick felt an odd sensation in his body, like he was going numb all over. The firewood fell from his hand and rolled across the floor and then somehow he was flying through the air and was thrown against the wall above the fireplace. Nick heard Lene scream.

"You bastard…" he repeated. With a groan he collected the log he'd dropped, which fortunately had not gone out yet, and struggled to his feet.

"Nick! Nick, are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Lene, just stand back…" He stepped forward and narrowed his eyes at Günter, who hadn't moved an inch that whole time. /How did he do that?/ Nick wondered.

"Wasn't that fun?" The man took another step towards him. "Shall I do it again, then?"

"You stay away from us!" Nick shouted, holding the burning log up between them. He didn't know what he was going to do. This guy had strange powers, and all Nick had was a big stick.

Then suddenly, from outside the cottage, a howl sounded far in the distance. Another howl, coming from somewhere on the other side of them, howled in return, and then another answered and another. With a pained look on his face the strange man turned to look back at the door, as though wondering if it was secure, and Nick used that moment of distraction to charge forward, brandishing the blazing firewood. His hands felt strangely warm as he swung hard and aimed high, catching the stranger on the back of his head. Another strange feeling went through his body at the contact, and the man staggered and roared. With grim satisfaction, Nick smelled the singed scent of burning hair.

The howling sound outside drew nearer. Raising the log high above his head, Nick concentrated on striking as hard as possible and brought it down once more across the stranger's back, knocking him to the floor. He pulled back for the final blow when abruptly the man vanished.

Nick let out a deep, tired breath and dropped the burning firewood, which rolled a short distance across the ground to extinguish on the dirt floor. /Where did he go?/ Nick turned around to find Lene huddled into a ball, her head down and her arms around her knees. He kneeled on the floor beside her. "Lene… Hey… It's allright. We're okay now." She raised her head from the circle of her arms, eyes shining. Placing his finger under her chin, Nick lifted her face a little higher. "Did he hurt you?" he asked seriously as howls rang almost right outside the door.

She shook her head and sniffled. "My butt hurts," the five-year-old said frankly, "but mostly I was just ascared."

/So she does get scared,/ Nick noted. But who wouldn't be afraid in that situation? Even he was scared witless; his hands were still shaking.

At that moment the door cracked and splintered as it was smashed from the outside, sending fragments of wood flying into the room. The chair bracing it under the doorknob shattered and gave way, and several dark figures bounded into the cottage, filling the small space. In spite of the fire roaring behind him, all Nick could see of the invaders was massive black shapes. He wrapped his arms protectively around Lene, but there were too many of them to fight off.

"Do what you want to me," he shouted over the strange roar that filled the room, "but please don't hurt the kid. She's only five years old."

Chapter 6 pt 2: Getting Some Answers by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
Here's the second half to the chapter I posted last time, plus a little more for your patience. Something happens in this chapter that I didn't exactly plan for, and I felt really weird writing it... but I'll explain more in the next chapter. Bonus points go to Sarah (starbeamz2) for being very close in her review for last chapter. Oh, and shoutouts to all the other people who reviewed and favorited recently, Ashley and FricksBabyGurl.

 



"Do what you want to me," he shouted over the strange roar that filled the room, "but please don't hurt the kid. She's only five years old."

One of the huge shadows stepped forward and demanded in a deep growl. "Where is he? That villain was here, I can smell him…"

Nick looked up and saw a great dark muzzle over his head: dark lips curled back in a snarl, baring pointed teeth. Beyond the large, dangerous teeth he saw two yellow eyes and past those were black triangular ears, erect with anger. Nick stared, dumb-founded, as the big black dog's jaw opened again. "WHERE IS HE?"

Lene was the first to react. She wriggled free of Nick's arms and ran forward. "Bruno!" the little girl exclaimed, hugging the canine around its leg. The giant hound was much larger than she. Nick's heart leaped into his throat, and as the dog lowered its head, he feared that it was going to swallow her whole.

Instead, the canine sniffed at Lene and then looked back at Nick. Seeing the five-year-old seemed to have softened his anger. "The villain's scent is upon this child. It is strong in this room. Where has he gone?" The dark shapes, more giant hounds, moved restlessly behind their alpha leader.

"If you're talking about that freaky guy with the white hair," Nick managed to say at last, "he's not here. I fought him off with some firewood and he disappeared."

The black canine bobbed its head up and down in a nod. "A satellite then. But it must have been a powerful satellite for his scent here is concentrated. Who are you, human? It has been a long time since anyone but that villain crossed these woods on two legs. Why are you in our forest with this young one?"

"Lene!" she announced her name from his leg. "My name is Lene! You look just like my puppy Bruno." She hugged the dog's leg tightly.

"I… I'm Nick," he said, eyeing Lene warily. The canine seemed to be friendly but hadn't yet proved that he wouldn't swallow the little girl whole. "We're trying to get to the castle."

"The villain has been here, and now you speak of his castle. You will have to explain yourselves. Come outside, where there is room for our council to see you." The black dog turned and led the pack out the door. Nick scooped Lene into his arms and carried her out after them, making sure to grab his backpack on the way out.

The moon was beginning to rise above the trees, and it was brighter outside than in the cottage. There were still more hounds outside, and so many of them altogether that Nick lost count. He stood with Lene in his arms, the pack leader sat opposite him (almost as tall as Nick's shoulder, even when sitting on its haunches), and the rest of the pack members ranged themselves beyond the alpha male.

"My name is Arthur," the leader announced.

/Funny, Arthur doesn't really sound like a canine-like name,/ Nick thought.

"The villain who attacked you tonight is our enemy. Why do you go to his castle?"

"I'm… I'm not sure," Nick admitted truthfully. "I'm trying to find my way home, and I think that castle is the way out of This Place."

"You are not a resident of Other World then?" Arthur turned his head and looked at Nick out of one glowing, yellow eye.

"Other World?"

"That is what this place is called. From Nightingale Hill to the deep canyons to our woods and to the developed lands beyond – all of it is part of this place, Other World."

So This Place had a name.

"And why does the villain seek you?" the canine asked.

"Honestly, I don't know. This was the first time I ever saw that guy. I hope it's the last," Nick squeezed Lene tightly in his arms as he remembered the moment that the stranger had seized her. "Who was that guy anyway? You keep calling him 'villain.'"

Arthur bowed his head in concurrence. Rather than answer, though, he turned his back to Nick and faced the pack of hounds behind him. They seemed to be communicating, but spoke in a combination of body language and growls that Nick couldn't understand. Finally, the leader turned back to him and raised his black muzzle high. "My people accept your story and say that I may share ours. The villain – who first came to these woods decades ago – is called Günter, and he is the scourge of Other World. We came to this cottage here tonight in pursuit of him. It has been a long time since he has entered our woods, and we cannot be free until he is dead."

Nick switched Lene to the crook of his other arm. "Free?" he asked.

"About twenty-five years ago, Günter attacked Other World, seeking domination over the magic found here. He failed to completely conquer the land, but succeeded in capturing Nightingale Hill, the rise on which that distant castle stands. It is the doorway from Other World to the World, another land which is said to be similar to ours but much larger. I have never been there, so I do not know for sure."

/A doorway to the World? Is that where home is?/ Nick both wondered and hoped.

"It was during that war that Günter cursed us. My people and I have not always been like this," Arthur explained. "We, too, were once men and women and fought Günter in his quest for power. But he used my people's bones to build the gates of his castle and turned the remaining survivors into hounds. We are forced to roam our former lands in this cursed state. We cannot find peace until he is dead."

"That's why he looked so scared when he heard you," Nick realized.

"Scared? As well he should be," the great black dog looked pleased. "When we find Günter, my people and I shall tear him to shreds."

Nick shivered and looked away as the big hound licked its chops. He did not want to get on the wrong side of these guys. "And us?" he said slowly. "What do you intend to do with us?"

As soon as the words left his mouth, the ground beneath them began to rumble. Nick lurched forward and struggled to keep his balance with Lene in his arms. For a moment, he worried that this was an angry sign from the canines, but then he saw that they, too, were frightened by the earth's movement. Several of the big dogs cowered down low or slinked against another dog for comfort.

When the trembling stopped, Arthur spoke again. "My people and I shall lead you to the edge of the forest, but we can go no farther than that. You are not safe here. When Günter attacked Other World, he unleashed an evilness to this place that no one knew existed. Even he cannot control it, which is why he often sends out satellites rather than physically leaving his castle."

"Satellites?" Nick asked.

"We must go now," the leader announced. "I will explain on the way." With a bark, Arthur called one of the big dogs over. "This is Bruno," he introduced, his voiced tinted with canine amusement.

"Bruno!" Lene exclaimed, squirming in Nick's arms. He set her down, and she ran up to the dog, her eyes shining with adoration. "You look like my puppy, only bigger!" the five-year-old squealed.

Bruno lay down on the ground before her, "Climb my back, little one. I will carry you."

"Is that safe?" Nick asked as she got onto his back. The dogs looked at him, and he put his hands up defensively. "Oh, no offense to you guys. I just meant – what if she has trouble keeping her balance and falls off?"

"I will not let her fall," Bruno assured him, rising to his feet once Lene was safely seated. "And we will be traveling so close beside each other that there will be nowhere for her to fall anyway."

"Besides," Arthur added, "you cannot move fast enough while holding her. We may have to carry you, as well, before long."



Pulling back his satellite, Günter's body was immobilized as it took him a few minutes to recover from the exertion of projecting himself into Other World. His eyes could see, though, and he watched powerless as Lene stood in her cage below the dais, her hand pointed across the room at one of the suits of armor standing against the wall. She didn't seem to realize that Günter had returned to his body and in his absence was using her powers to drag the statue towards him – despite the damper from the bars of the cage, which was severely hampering her magic.

Günter watched in fascination as the suit of armor crossed the floor, its arm lifting to point its sword straight ahead – perfectly in line with his throat. He admired Lene's ingenuity and willingness to take advantage of him in his weakened state; it was ruthless and definitely something that he would have done in the same situation. He could not move his body to dodge the attack, but there was still time yet, so he didn't panic. The suit of armor moved slowly. Lene was focusing so hard to manipulate it that she didn't turn and see that Günter had already regained consciousness. The sword's pointed edge came within inches of his throat… closer… closer… When it was right upon him, Günter's body tingled, recovering from the shock of producing a satellite. The edge of the statue's blade was just close enough to make the delicate hairs curl on his neck and yet not close enough to break the skin.

Günter's mouth twisted in a malicious smile, and he narrowed his eyes at her. "Boo." Lene jumped in surprise, her concentration broken. His hand shot forward, and he blasted her back, hurling Lene against her cage. She struck it with a jolt and cried out in pain from the shock of the magical bars then fell to the stone floor. The physical damage wasn't enough to satisfy Günter though; he wanted to really see her suffer.

"Getting ruthless, are we?" he asked. "Tisk, tisk, my dear Lene. How can you condone my methods when you make such good use of them? Attacking the unaware in a state of defenselessness? Ah, sounds like me at my finest moment."

"Don't compare me to yourself," she groaned. Lene struggled to her hands and knees, spitting through the bars of her cage at Günter's feet.

He looked down at the wad of spittle in disgust; she'd dirtied his favorite pair of boots. "But, sweetheart, I thought you liked me? You've been my faithful companion for over ten years now." He gave her an arched look.

"I only followed you because I thought you were something else."

"Ah, yes, your knight in shining armor. It was pitiful, how you clung to me when you were little! If you knew what I was…" He shook his head, his face overcome with mirth.

"I don't think I've told you of my finest moment yet, have I, Lene? You're not in a hurry to go anywhere, are you? …No? Oh, that's right, you're in a cage. Let's see…" With a sweep of his arm, Günter easily sent the suit of armor sailing back to its place against the wall. He sat back in his throne and hooked one booted foot over the other in a reclining pose.

"It was over ten years ago, I believe," he began. "I had just tracked down a couple to their latest home. They moved so often, you see, because they knew that their family and powers were hunted by many. In particular jeopardy was their young daughter, who was beginning to really come into her powers."

Günter rubbed his hands together, relishing the next part of the story. "I got to their house, but it was too late to enjoy the pleasure of killing the parents. Some bastards had gotten there before me and drained both the man and his wife's powers and were just about to start in on their daughter. Well I, being the genius that I am, killed the bastards and took their powers – including the ones they'd drained from the couple – and pretended that I was saving the little girl. She believed it, truly believed that I was saving her," he taunted. "What a fool. And because she thought I was a hero, I have been able to manipulate that girl's abilities for over ten years now."

"Yes," Günter smirked. "Attacking the unaware when they are at their weakest… it has always been my specialty." He eyed Lene, whose face was hidden behind a curtain of dark hair. "What are you thinking right now, Lene? Do you want to kill me? Do you want it so bad you'll stop at nothing?" If Günter played his cards right, maybe he wouldn't have to kill her after all. Maybe he would be able to twist her heart until it turned dark, until her ideas of right and wrong disappeared and she saw only power.

Disappointingly, Lene turned her back on him and curled up on the floor, sobbing into the circle of her arms. "Weak…" Günter sighed. This was going to take a lot of work. Shaking his head, he rose from his throne and was about to taunt her some more when a sudden sensation gripped his body. Günter's skull throbbed, his back ached, and he smelled a charred odor. With a grunt he realized that the smell was coming from his own head; his satellite injuries were catching up to him and they were even worse than he'd expected. Cursing Nick's name, Günter felt consciousness slip away from him.



Nick ran alongside Arthur, trying to keep up. With four legs, the black dog and his companions had the advantage, and Nick had to fight not to fall behind the pack. There was no light apart from the moon that filtered through the treetops, and he often tripped over fallen branches and protruding roots.

"I /can/ carry you, you know," Arthur offered.

"What are you talking about? I'm… I'm fine," Nick panted.

"We have a long way to travel and will be running all night. The moon will soon be behind the trees, so you will be unable to see where you are going. It will be difficult for you, and you will be tired when we part ways in the morning."

"I… I appreciate the offer," gasp, "Arthur, but I'd feel awkward. Besides, I'm too… too heavy for you."

"Nonsense," the canine told him, "you would not be heavy at all. I am leader of the pack because I am the strongest, and you insult my strength by saying I cannot carry you."

"Oh! No offense m-meant…" Nick pressed his hand to his stomach, feeling the stitch growing there. The idea of being carried began to sound more convincing.

Before Nick could say anything else, Arthur gave a low bark. Another hound approached Nick from behind and butted him in the back of the knees with its head. He lost his balance and lurched forward, falling across Arthur's back. The big black dog was running crouched down low in order to catch him but did not falter one step, and once Nick was splayed across his back, Arthur straightened to his full height. Other dogs shifted their positions, running over to elevate Nick's long arms and legs. Recovering from the fall, Nick found himself lying face down on a platform of soft black dog fur.

The position quickly became uncomfortable for his lower extremities, which were being struck against the dogs' backs by the constant thumpa-thumpa motion of their running. Nick felt an aching feeling spread from his groin to his stomach and, removing his backpack with a grunt, he flipped over face up towards the sky and squeezed his eyes shut against the discomfort. Slowly the ache subsided and he settled down across the canines' backs, balancing the backpack on his stomach. Nick still hadn't found a truly comfortable position, but at least this way wasn't so painful.

Setting his head down near Arthur's neck, Nick gave a deep sigh. "Fine, you win."

"You cannot stay in the forest long; there are too many dangerous things about. We can run faster now that you are riding. Isn't it better this way?" The dog sounded amused.

Nick glanced over at Lene, who had somehow managed to fall asleep in spite of the bumping and jolting of her ride. The great canines ran so close together that there was no room between them and no need to worry that the five-year-old might fall. "Yeah, I guess so…" Nick said at last.

"Now that you're properly settled, I can answer the questions you asked earlier," Arthur told him. "You wanted to know about satellites?"

"Yeah, what are they? You said that Günter guy sends them out?"

"I spoke earlier of the evil that villain unleashed upon Other World and how it was too strong even for him… Günter knows that he is in danger if he physically leaves his castle. Only death waits for him here in Other World; my people and I are not the only ones who want him. So he projects himself from Nightingale Hill; that way he can recede back into his body at any sign of trouble."

Nick thought about it for a moment. "That person we saw then… he wasn't real? He sure felt real when I hit him."

"The satellites are just as real, just as strong, and just as dangerous as his actual self," Arthur said. After allowing some time for that to sink in, the pack leader spoke again, "So tell me a bit more about yourself. You said you come from the world beyond Nightingale Hill?"

"I guess so," Nick said. "I mean, I'm not really sure where I'm from… I just know that this place isn't my home. Everything about it is foreign to me."

"How did you come to Other World then?"

"I'm not sure about that either," he admitted. "It's kind of a long story…" Nick then went on to explain his lack of memory, his discovery of the Levittown, and his first encounter with Lene. When he brought up her ability to fill empty fridges and cabinets with things, Arthur interrupted.

"The child is able to use magic at such a young age. She must be a native of this place. That place you described, where the people have all left… it sounds like the developed lands beyond our forest. Where could they have all gone and why? I have not been there in many years, for this curse forbids us from leaving these woods."

"You've always lived in the forest, then?" Nick asked.

"Yes, Other World is divided into areas and their peoples, our area being the forest. We are a rural people, preferring nature to the uniformity of the developed lands. We have not seen anyone from other lands since we were transformed."

"Can you use magic, too? Like Lene?"

"Before we were cursed, we could," the canine replied. "Now the magic left to us is different. It's been integrated into the fibers of our very beings – the ability to run together far and fast without tiring; the power to speak to all creatures, man and animal alike; and a closer affinity to nature than what we had as men, including the ability to closely read the weather… Our powers were once as you describe the child's, magic we could use deliberately."

"Do you miss having powers?"

"We miss a lot of things about being human," Arthur said huskily and left it at that.

Changing the subject, Nick asked, "So what reasons would Günter have to come after me?"

"That is a good question. He would not come to these woods without reason, even in satellite form, so he must want something from you."

"He knew my name and Lene's, too. It felt like he was mocking me because I don't know who I am... like he knew more about me than I know about myself..." Nick stared into the darkness around them. That was how it felt inside his mind, dark and almost impossible for him to see the memories that should be there like the trees he would have been able to see if only the moon hadn't descended beyond the horizon. "If that guy's after me, I'm starting to think that he may be the reason I can't remember anything. As for Lene, I'm not sure what her story is…"

"I'm afraid I've never heard of any magical ability that involved aging faster than is natural," Arthur admitted. "But then, there are different levels of magical abilities that people can wield. Perhaps she is a special case?"

"Maybe," Nick said then yawned. There were no more questions, and he just sat there staring out into the night. Somehow, despite all the bumping and jolting of the dogs, Nick managed to fall asleep.
Chapter 7: A Sending Off by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

Sorry for the delay, guys. It's the first week of school, and I haven't had a lot of time to edit the fic. Anyway, this one's an in-between kind of chapter, but it will get more interesting soon. This one is dedicated to Moppy (sorry I don't know your actual name), Sarah, and Ashley.


His dreams were full of those people again that he thought were his siblings. Two of them he knew now were B.J. and Leslie, but the other girl with dark hair and the guy who looked like Nick, he still didn't know their names. They all had a big house together and there were a lot of dogs, both large and small but none quite so big as the canines that Nick had encountered in the forest. For some reason, Nick had to keep reminding his sisters to feed their dogs.

"Dogs get hungry, too," he muttered as rays of light shone through his eyelids. It was morning and Nick sat up. As his fingers gripped into handfuls of thick fur, he realized where he was – in the forest, on a moving bed of large, black hounds. /Well, weirder things have happened recently,/ Nick decided, blinking against his sleepiness and reached for the backpack that had fallen off of his stomach.

In the early morning daylight he was able to marvel at the canines' ability to run so closely packed together and in step. It was like they moved as one entity, never allowing for gaps that might let their passengers slip through. Arthur felt him stirring and spoke, "Within an hour or so, we shall reach the edge of our forest."

"How big are these woods anyway?" Nick looked around them, marveling at how fast the trees seemed to fly by.

"At a human's speed, it would have taken you three or four days to pass through the forest. Of course, that is if you kept to the marked road, but we have crossed these woods on special paths known only to us. When we found you and the young one, you were less than a third of the way along the trail. That cottage belonged to a woodcutter who lived on the edge of the forest. The rest of my people lived in a small village at the heart of the woods, which is now abandoned as we have no use for our old homes."

"Really, why not?" Nick wondered. "I mean, besides being… uh, dogs now," he faltered.

Arthur turned his head to look at Nick with one big, yellow eye. "Indeed, it is not just that which keeps us from returning to the village. Last night you spoke of blank books and emptiness everywhere you checked. It is much the same for us; our homes have become vacant."

"But why is all this happening?"

"I do not know for certain," Arthur admitted, "but I do have a theory. Strangely enough, it seems that Other World has its own means of combat. Somehow it has closed itself off, making the homes we once dwelled in uninhabitable, perhaps to turn the land inhospitable for the evils around. Of course, that also means that my people and I cannot dwell in the homes we once did."

As Arthur spoke, the sun rose and shone brighter into the forest. Lene woke from her spot on Bruno's back and looked about sleepily, rubbing her eye with a balled-up fist. She spotted Nick on the other side of the canine pack, and her smile brightened. With her free hand she waved at him.

Nick waved back. "So where are you taking us now? The forest edge?"

"Yes, there is a spring where we can rest near the edge of these woods, and that is where we shall leave you. I am sorry that we can escort you no further, but the border of these woods is our boundary."

"Will I be able to reach the castle from the edge of the forest?" Nick asked.

"Yes, but it is not a direct path, and it will not be easy. I am not sure of the exact way to get there, for we survivors of the war never went to Nightingale Hill. However, what I do know is that beyond our forest you will come upon a giant canyon, which you must follow for several days. It is impassable on this side for the canyon is so deep that if you were to fall in, it is said that you would die of hunger and thirst before you ever hit the bottom – or perhaps of fear in anticipation of the collision."

"Is that true?" Nick marveled.

"I do not know. I don't think that anyone has been willing to try it and find out," the black dog deadpanned. "So you must follow along the edge of that canyon for two days' worth of travel by foot, until the elevation drops and it opens onto a broad river. You will not be able to cross that river for some time, either, because it is too fast and wide and too deep to ford. Eventually, though, you shall come to a ford, and there you can cross to the other side. We know that there are developed lands across the river with more houses, though not quite to the extent of the developed lands that you were in before. Before the war, there used to be a market held in that town by the river every week. I do not know if the tradition still continues for no one comes through these woods anymore; maybe the town, too, is abandoned like that whence you came. And then beyond those lands, I know not what exists. All I can tell you is that the castle you seek is on Nightingale Hill, which itself is located in the middle of a great city, but I do not know how to get there. "

"You've never been anywhere past the town with the market?" Nick asked.

"No," Arthur explained. "My entire life has been spent in these woods, with an occasional visit to that marketplace. As a man, I never felt as though I lacked anything here, so I never sought the world beyond this forest. And now I am confined here until my dying day… at least it is in a place where I can be happy."

...

Before the edge of the forest, they stopped at the spring that Arthur had mentioned for rest. They were in a tiny grove with a small spring bubbling out from an outcrop of stones down to a pool below. There were many large, wide rocks to sit on, but Nick preferred to walk around and stretch his legs, which had gone numb from sitting for such a long time. Lene clung to Bruno the entire time, refusing to leave his side until she absolutely had to, even for Nick. "Puppy!" she exclaimed, latching on to the canine, which lowered his head to snuffle her hair affectionately.

The rest of the black dogs frolicked with each other as if they weren't the least bit tired, though they did stop to take slow drinks of cool water from the spring's pool. Nick quenched his own thirst, drinking the flowing water until his teeth hurt from the cold, and then filled the spare bottles he carried in his backpack.

When he was done, Arthur pulled him aside to share some final notes of warning. "We have guarded you from the dangers that would harm you in the forest, but there is still much peril in the plains beyond. It is a wide area, with only the canyon on one side and a great openness on the other. Do not stray from the canyon's side. If you try to venture out into that openness, you may never reach the town beyond."

"What do you mean?" Nick asked.

"I know not much of what goes on in the plains these days. They used to be safe, but now there are rumors… The animals of the forests are afraid to leave because they have seen what happens out there. They fear it even more than they do the dangers of the forest. Apparently, those who do not follow the canyon road wander out into the open plains and never return. And though it is quiet and peaceful in the day, at night strange things happen in the dark. You are in danger without a light to protect you."

"What sort of strange things? And there's still moonlight. Won't that protect us?"

"Even with the moonlight you are not safe," Arthur told him. "I am not certain of the nature of these creatures for the animals we questioned were so frightened with fear that we could not gather much information about them, but we do know that they are dangerous."

Nick felt a cold chill run through his body. He looked over at Lene, playing so happily with the other dogs, and knew that he had to do everything possible in order to protect her. "So what can I do to ward these things off? If moonlight doesn't work, then what?"

"Fire. There was a lightning storm a few years ago that set off some brush fires, and the animals reported that the night beings shirked away from the fire as they do sunlight. So as you travel, collect all the scrap wood and brush you find then build your camp and rest before dark. You must make a campfire as large as possible and sit as close to it as you can, and you cannot let it go out until the sun rises the next morning."

Nick looked around him for wood that he could collect now. There were some broken tree branches, but nothing big. "How will I be able to collect enough wood for such a big fire?"

"The plains are a big open field now yet that wasn't always the case. There used to be some trees near the canyon, but after a series of harsh storms, most of them were blown over, so there should still be scrap wood littering the plains. You'll be able to set a large enough fire with that," Arthur said.

"Allright," Nick nodded. "I can do that. Is there anything else?"

"That is all the advice I have for you at this time. Now you may ask any questions that you might have, and I will do my best to answer them."

"Thanks… So, why are you helping us? I mean, I appreciate it, but Lene and I haven't done anything for you… What's in it for you guys?" With a motion of his arm, Nick indicated the entire pack of hounds.

"Günter is after you, and there must be some reason for it. If there is anything we can do to foil that villain's plans, then we will do it gladly," Arthur told him.

"Thanks. Um, I have another question also…" Nick began slowly. The big dog lowered his head in a nod. Pulling out his backpack, Nick opened the bag and showed its contents to the dog. "Lene and I have some food, but not that much. Even though she has the power to fill empty things, she doesn't seem to be able to control what she fills them with. So Lene can't just summon food at will. …Do you know if there's anything to eat around here?"

"I'm afraid that you would not be able to stomach the things we eat in this canine form…" Arthur began. "Unless, that is, you can skin and cook a rabbit?"

"Afraid not," Nick said. If it ever came down to it, he would have to try, of course, but he had trouble picturing himself skinning a rabbit – especially with just a kitchen steak knife.

"I didn't think so," the black dog said. "I expected that… The people of the developed lands didn't know too much about such things either, from what I remember of the ones I met in the marketplace. So I sent a few of my people to scout the area for the various fungi that grow here. I am not an expert on such things, but a few members of the pack used to gather mushrooms before we were cursed and have experience with what is edible and what is not."

Because he was grateful for their help, Nick tried not to let his expression waver at the mention of fungus. /We have to eat that?/

Arthur turned as a group of three canines approached him. "Here they are now… Nick, I'd like to introduce Willis, Myrtle, and Barryn."

One of the large black hounds, Myrtle, stepped forward. She was older, the hair about her muzzle turning gray and white, and she spoke in a deep, rough woman's voice. "We found several patches of mushrooms at the bases of some trees not too far from here," Myrtle informed them.

"Good." Arthur turned to Nick. "You'll need to collect them yourself because our paws won't do. Lene can remain here with the rest of the pack while we go with these three. Are you ready?"

"Yup." He slung his backpack over his shoulder and followed the hounds to the mushroom patches.

With the directions of the elder canine, Nick got down on his knees in the dirt and gathered up mushrooms. Once he'd collected enough to last him and Lene for a few days, he carried them back to the spring where he rinsed them off. Nick laid them on top of one of the wide rocks to dry off and then gathered the mushrooms carefully into his backpack.

...

With many goodbye hugs and kisses, Lene finally pulled away from Bruno and took Nick's hand. The big black dogs ranged themselves in rows at the edge of the forest and watched as the two waved.

"Bye," Nick bowed his head to Arthur and to the rest of the pack. "Thank you so much – for everything."

"Good speed to you and remember, fire is your ally."

"Bah-bai!"

They headed out of the forest and when Nick looked over his shoulder, the canines were still standing there watching until they disappeared out of sight.

Nick found the canyon easily and held Lene's hand tight. "Don't let go of me, kiddo. It's a looooong drop down." They crept up towards the edge of the cliff but not too close as Nick felt the strong pull of gravity. The walls of the canyon were a rich swirl of red and gold, and as he looked down the color was lost in the dark blackness. Nick couldn't see the bottom. "Okay, that's enough canyon for us." He stepped back from the edge and looked across the chasm, which appeared to be miles wide. On the other side was a stretch of open field with a scrub of brush beyond that, then a forest and far in the distance, the hill and the castle on top of it. Was Günter there now in that castle, waiting?

Nick and Lene started walking down the long gradual slope beside the cliff. It was hard to see very far because of the way that the canyon curved. They plodded along steadily, and Lene, the usual chatterbox kept up a steady running commentary.

"Hey, look at those rocks! And the grass, it's all yellow and dried… And those fields, they're so big!" The plains stretched far and wide away from the cliff's side, and Nick could not see where they ended. "The doggies were nice, weren't they, Nick?"

"Yeah, they were," he agreed.

"Are we going to the castle now?"

"We're trying to, but I'm not sure how to get there. Since this canyon is in the way, we're going to have to go around it somehow, probably crossing the river that Arthur said would be at the bottom," Nick told her.

"And then we go to the castle?" the five-year-old asked.

"Eventually. When we cross the river, the way to the castle should be clearer than it is now." Or at least Nick hoped so.
Chapter 8: No Mouths, No Faces by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

Here's the next chapter for you guys! There might be a bit of a delay before the next one because I've got some logistics problems to iron out. ^^; Enjoy and review! Much love to all the regulars.


The sun curved across the sky as they walked the entire day, stopping only to rest for lunch when they finished the rest of the sandwich bread and peanut butter that Nick had brought with them. It would be dark within a few hours, so he began to collect stray bits of wood and brush as they walked for the fire he would have to build. When they stopped to set up camp, Nick stacked the wood into a cone-shaped mound. The matchbook was still in his pocket; he pulled it out and on his second attempt was able to start the fire.

Then they walked around, collecting wood for the kindle pile to keep the bonfire blazing throughout the night. Nick wondered what kind of creature they were trying to ward off and how light would stop them. He picked up as many logs and branches as he could to keep in a stack besides the fire that had taken hold and was now burning merrily.

Lene tagged along with him, clutching a few sticks in her hand. "Look, I'm helping, too!" she exclaimed.

Nick turned and smiled at her, "You're doing great there," he told her. Once the wood was sufficiently piled up, Nick sat down and opened his backpack. "You hungry, kid?" he asked Lene.

"Yeah! Let's eat!" she bounced up and down.

"Have you ever had mushrooms before? Do you like them?"

"Is that veggies?" the five-year-old asked. "Mamma says I need to eat my veggies, but I don't like to."

"Nah, these aren't vegetables..." Nick began slowly. "They're /fungus/!" He pulled one of the mushrooms out of the bag and waved it in her face.

"Ewwwww!" she erupted in giggles. "What's fungus?"

"It's like... well, I don't really know how to explain it, kid, but that's what we're eating for dinner." Nick pulled several long, thin branches from the pile of firewood, and they speared the mushrooms on the sticks, toasting them over the fire. The late afternoon was still warm, so once the mushrooms were toasted, Nick and Lene moved away from the flames and sat on a log that was left from a tree that had fallen over. They ate the roasted mushrooms and a pack of powdered donuts that Nick had with him and drank bottles of spring water.

"No more juice?" Lene asked, disappointed.

"Sorry, Lene, we're out of juice. All that's left is water, unless you can magically make a juice box appear." She shook her head. "Yeah, I didn't think so," Nick said with a shrug.

After they were finished eating, he tossed some wood on the flames to build them up more. The sun was setting, and Nick gazed at the spare kindle, satisfied that they had a large enough stack of wood to keep the fire going all night. He sat in front of the bonfire, his back against the pile of timber, and Lene climbed into his lap. Wrapping his arms around the five-year-old, Nick looked down and noticed her clothing. "Your dress is all dirty, Lene. And it's a white dress. Do you know how hard it's going to be to wash that?"

She shook her head. "Doesn't it just get clean by itself when you put it in the washer machine?"

"Have you ever seen your parents do laundry?" Again she shook her head. "Well, it's not easy taking a stain like that out, even when you use a washing machine. I do my own laundry, and when Aaron came to live with me, he'd never done it by himself before, so I had to show him. What a pampered brat!" Nick laughed. And then he realized – Aaron was the name of the blonde guy from his dreams, the one who looked like him.

"Who's Aaron, Nick?" Lene asked. "I never heard about him before..."

"Aaron's my brother... he's younger than B.J. and Leslie... And the brunette... that's Angel! She's his twin sister," he remembered. "You know, the first time we did laundry, he forgot to separate his socks and got the whites and colors all mixed up, so he ended up with a load of pink socks."

"I like pink," Lene told him. She started talking about her pink room back at home – Nick thought it had been white with teddy bears – until it got late and she fell asleep. Nick fed their collected wood to the roaring fire and kept a vigilant eye on the darkness around them. He wasn't sure what strange creatures Arthur had been talking about, and there didn't seem to be any sign of them tonight. Eventually Nick became drowsy, and his head bowed down until his chin rested on his chest and he fell sleep.

...

A pop and a crack from the logs in the fire woke him several hours later. The flames had died down to half their original size, so Nick reached for more wood and started tossing the pieces in. Lene was curled up against his body, resting so deeply that she didn't even stir when he moved. As Nick shook off the fog of sleep, he suddenly became aware that they weren't alone. Ranged in a circle just beyond the reach of the fire's light were figures, people positioned shoulder to shoulder. They stood there watching, waiting... except that they didn't have eyes to watch with or faces that those eyes could belong to even if eyes did exist. In fact, they had nothing – no body, no substance. They were invisible, flat like cardboard displays. The only reason Nick could tell they were there was by the thin outline surrounding their bodies, distinguishing them from the rest of the empty air like giant man-shaped cookie cutters.

The strange beings were muttering in low voices, but their speech was so garbled that he couldn't make it out. Nick dropped the piece of wood that he'd been holding in his hand just as his mouth dropped open wide in shock. Were these the things Arthur had spoken of? They had to be. Nick just couldn't imagine a creature getting any stranger than this. He wondered just how these human-shaped things were going to attack. He couldn't imagine them being capable of physical harm, and yet they were so creepy that it didn't matter anyway.

But how was Nick going to fight something that nearly wasn't there? What if whatever he threw at them went right through their invisible bodies? Nick then recalled that Arthur had said to keep the fire blazing strong, so he resumed tossing pieces of wood onto the flames. The bonfire grew stronger, extending its light in a wider ring, and the strange creatures backed away, always staying just beyond the firelight's reach.

Nick didn't trust himself to sleep anymore now that he knew those things were out there. He fought his tiredness and kept the fire going strong into the late hours of the night. When the first rays of dawn finally shone over the horizon, the strange creatures backed off and faded away. Nick stared after them for a minute, just to make sure they had really gone, and then he allowed himself to get some rest. But when Nick closed his eyes, for a long time all he could see behind his eyelids were those eerie outlined people.

...

He managed only a couple hours' worth of light sleep before Lene woke him, shaking his arm. For breakfast, they had more mushrooms roasted over the fire pit with packets of string cheese.

"Mushrooms again?" Lene complained.

"Sorry, kiddo. This is all we got until we get off this hill and find a refrigerator."

By the time they were finished eating, the fire had burned down to a heap of glowing coals, and Nick covered it with rocks and dirt until the flames went out. They continued their way down the sloping fields, and the day went much the same as it had the day before with walking, wood collecting, and mushrooms. This time when night fell, Lene tried to stay awake with Nick and he had to persuade her to sleep so that she wouldn't have to see the scary cookie-cutter people.

"But, Nick, I'm not sleepy!" the five-year-old claimed. "I want to stay up late with you like a big kid."

"You've been walking all day, Lene; you need your rest for tomorrow. I don't see the bottom of this hill yet, which means we've been traveling slower than Arthur thought we would. We have to make it to that marketplace town before we run out of food," Nick told her. "And who knows, maybe there will even be other people there..."

Eventually, she quieted down and settled against him, and it was just in time because soon afterward the creepy outline figures gathered around the bonfire like they had the night before. They were a lot earlier this time, and Nick couldn't help but wonder if these things had been following them all day, waiting for night to fall. He constantly threw more kindle on the fire to keep it blazing, one eye kept on the weird creatures though they didn't move any closer. The sound of their muttering was audible over the crackle of the burning wood, and then Nick heard another voice, as well.

"What are they, Nick?" Lene sat up in amazement.

"Kid, I told you to go to sleep." He wondered if she was scared.

"I tried like you told me to, I really did, but they woke me up. Where are their faces?" she peered at them closely, standing to get a better look.

"Lene, don't go anywhere," Nick tugged her back by the dusty skirt of her white dress. "Arthur said they're dangerous."

"Oh. Well if Arthur said so..." she walked back to him, wrapping her arms around his neck and looking past his shoulder into the darkness. "They look sad," the five-year-old commented. "Prolly ‘cause they don't have any bodies."

Nick tossed some more wood on the fire and told her to go back to sleep. "Come on, kiddo. Like I said before, you need to get some rest."

"What about you, Nick? Aren't you tired," she asked, lying down in the grass beside him again.

"Don't worry about me," he told her, but yawned, revealing his fatigue. "I'll sleep eventually, okay?" Nick ran his hands soothingly over her curly hair until she finally went to bed.

...

"See, I told you that you would be tired if you didn't go to sleep early," Nick said as he carried Lene in his arms along the canyon's side. "Now I have to carry you, you big baby," he teased.

"I'm a big girl," the five-year-old murmured sleepily, her head lolling against his shoulder.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever you say, kiddo. Just get some rest," Nick told her, "and we should finally get to that town today."

After a couple of hours of walking, the canyon trail finally began its gradual descent in a sequence of small hills. Making it to the top of the last rise, Nick saw the land finally flatten out at the bottom where the canyon opened onto a wide, rushing river. Fortunately, the gorge had narrowed, as well, so that they wouldn't have to ford a river that was several miles wide. In the distance was the town that Arthur had spoken of. At the sight of it, Nick's stomach rumbled because they'd finished the rest of the mushrooms the night before and there'd been nothing but a few crackers washed down with a drink of water this morning, and he couldn't wait to find food at their destination.

As Nick descended from the hillside, the scenery changed from the open, brown plains to a lush, green landscape. There were trees here and shade, and the walk was more pleasant. The ground was soft and sandy where the river had overrun its banks, and it gently gave way beneath his feet. Nick saw rabbits and birds again, which made him feel less worried that the scary, invisible people were down here in the valley as well. Animals had abandoned the plains out of fear of those strange beings, but if they felt safe here, then that had to be a good sign.

Across the river and further down the road, Nick could see the outer edges of a town. It stood maybe an hour or so away from his current location, and the sight of it gave Nick a renewed burst of energy and made him walk faster toward his goal. He bounced along the road, enjoying the crunching sound of sand beneath his feet. The past couple of days of walking and carrying Lene seemed to have strengthened Nick because he didn't feel too tired from carrying her, and yet when she had been a baby, his arms had grown exhausted a lot more quickly. Somehow Nick's whole body felt stronger. Maybe there was something in the air? It just felt so cool and clean out here, and he felt like he could breathe easily.

Surveying the deep rushing river as he walked, Nick was grateful for the safe crossing spot that waited for him by the town. He couldn't imagine trying to cross those turbulent rapids; he'd probably slip on a rock and fall into the water to be swept away by the current.

Lene woke from her long nap and snuggled against his neck. "I hear water," she mumbled.

"Uh-huh, you want to take a look?" Nick stopped and turned her around in his arms.

Her amber eyes flashed with excitement. "Ooh, so fast! I bet if you swimmed in it, the water's too fast, huh?"

"Yeah, way too fast," Nick agreed. "That's why we're going to cross the river later on. Arthur said there's supposed to be a spot near the town. Hey, did you want to walk now?" he asked. It would be nice to give his arms a rest.

"Sure." Nick set Lene down and made sure that she was steady on her feet before he started off again. The five-year-old giggled and ran around spiritedly, and with a yawn Nick wished that he could take a nap and be as refreshed as she was when he woke up.

"Hey, stay away from the river, okay? I don't want you falling in," he warned.

When Lene finally burned off her excess energy, she came up to him and took his hand. "I'm hungry, Nick. When are we going to eat? Besides mushrooms," Lene made a face. "Those taste like vegetables."

"Sorry, kid, you'll have to wait until we get into town. Don't worry, it's not too far. See, it's right over there," he pointed. "Can you wait until then?"

"I think so. Let's hurry!" The five-year-old tugged on his arm and began running again.

Nick laughed because he only had to take one long step for every several that her small legs did. "Careful, don't trip over your own feet," he said, "or your dress."

"But I'm hungry. Come on!" Lene urged him on.

"Allright, allright..."
Chapter 9: History and the Flood by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

To Sarah, Ashley, Mel, and Moppy, who have been waiting nearly two months for an update. Every time I logged onto my computer, I felt guilty for not tackling this chapter, which I was having such difficulty rewriting and editing. But here it is for you guys, and now that I've finished this section, we've got smooth sailing for the next thirty pages or so of my fic. ^_^

With special thanks to Elise, my dear Elise, who understands the poor memory-hungry Nick of this story better than anyone else.

 

 


Günter lay in bed in his third-story flat, staring at the ceiling. His run-in with Nick had been disastrous, and it was all the fault of those damned dogs. He couldn't go within a league of the forest without them smelling him, an unfortunate result of turning the wood folk into canines.

Should have chosen something harmless... or better yet, I should have cursed them all into beetles. Then I could crush each and every one of them under my heel, he thought darkly.

Günter closed his eyes as his head throbbed in pain from where he had been struck from behind by the burning firewood. It wasn't supposed to have turned out this way. He'd assumed that he would slip into the forest, take care of business, and then be done with it before the dogs had even had a chance to come close. It should have been easy to finish off Nick once and for all: Günter thought that he'd found a workaround to the troublesome ward Lene had cast on Nick to protect him from harm by Günter's hand. The spell only defended Nick as long as he remained in his own world, and by moving him to Other World, Günter was free to attack him once again.

Of course, he hadn't counted on his target fighting back with the very powers that Günter intended to procure. But somehow Nick had concentrated magic into his swing, and the damage was far more extensive than it should have been. Surely, Nick couldn't have figured out how to use his powers already, could he? No, the force behind that attack must have been unconscious. Either way, that bastard was going to pay, especially for ruining Günter's hair.

Why can't Nick just die already and give up the power I seek? It's not like the fool is using his magic anyway; he doesn't even realize that he has special abilities.

None of this would have happened if Günter hadn't counted on Lene to get rid of Nick. She should have had no problems taking him out and draining his magic, but, of course, Günter hadn't foreseen the inconvenience of Lene developing feelings for Nick. Unfortunately, she had proved to be soft-hearted and weak and now she was no longer of any use to him.

It was a pity because Lene had been such a faithful ally in the past, instrumental in helping Günter to achieve his nefarious goals. Lene was a fountain of magical energy and so in tune with her powers that she could use them with very little instruction. Because he'd gained her trust, Günter had been free to tap into Lene's magic on a regular basis while she unwittingly believed they were ridding the world of what she called "bad men." Instead, Günter had used her power for his own sinister purpose, the conquering of Other World.

He had known since he was young that there were people who were special and there were people who weren't, the latter of whom did not matter to him. Günter had shown enough promise that he was apprenticed to a master, who had many books and knowledge on the use of magic. This master, whom Günter had eventually killed and drained of all power, was the one who introduced him to another world, smaller than the usual one, that was simply called Other World.

It had been created in the empty spaces of the normal world by powerful magic users as a place where special people could go to live or just visit and freely be among others like themselves. And to Günter, who had grown power-hungry in his studies, Other World was a mine rich with energy if he could only find a way to harness it.

Two hundred years of planning and preparation passed before he finally attacked, poisoning the land with a sudden strike that caught the reasonably peaceful inhabitants of Other World unawares. His assault unleashed a torrent of evil so great that many residents fled in its wake. But others fought back, and after years of war Günter managed only to successfully conquer Nightingale Hill, the one portal out of Other World. Those fleeing, who had not made it to Nightingale Hill before Günter claimed it, and the rural folk, who were so deeply attached to their land that they had remained behind, were trapped. Günter used the bones of the dead to adorn the protective gate around his castle, and he cursed the surviving residents of Other World so that they couldn't revolt: the forest people became dogs; the plains peoples turned into strange, invisible specters; the lake's ferrying people had transformed into a rather interesting sort of ferry; and so on, and so forth.

Now, even altered and disabled, they were out for his blood, and Günter was not strong enough to defeat them all. Somehow the land itself, his former fountain of magical energy, decided to battle his leeching poisons, retreating like a tortoise into its shell until Günter could no longer steal power from anywhere beyond his castle. As Other World withdrew, he found that all books of magic were blank, all homes emptied of their particulars – drawers bare, refrigerators cleared out – and all sources of power departed. It would take a great force to compel Other World to open itself again, and the magic Günter received from the conquered Nightingale Hill was insufficient for this purpose.

So he hunted, ferreting out magic users in the normal world and killing them to take their powers for his own. One day, when Günter had drained enough people's magic and become strong enough to fight, he would go back out into Other World and finally conquer the land and the powers contained therein would be his own.

In the meantime, Günter was letting Other World grow wild and full of darkness. Though he couldn't control them just yet, the wilds were still a useful place to send people that he wanted to kill. His castle was the only escape from Other World and few of his prey made it even that far. For if Günter didn't catch his target first, then the dangers of Other World did, and that person's magic was absorbed into the land. The end result would be the same: that power would become Günter's someday when he conquered Other World.

This system had worked effectively for several years, which made the delays with Nick even more frustrating to bear. Günter wanted that power. Nick's magic was strong, though that fool was unaware of it, and if Günter could kill him and take it, he would be so much closer to finally conquering Other World. And when Nick was dead, he would kill Lene and then her magic would be his, as well. Günter considered getting rid of the girl now just to boost his energy and speed the recovery of his wounds, but his desire to see the horror in Lene's eyes when he killed Nick was just too strong. A smile spread across Günter's face at the thought, and his pale eyes lit up with a malicious light. In his two hundred years of living, he had found nothing more satisfying than causing others pain.

...

They reached the ford, and Nick's mouth was set in a grim line. Just beyond the river's bank he could see the town, but the river was over hundreds of feet across and rushing far too fast for Lene to cross by herself – not to mention that the river had risen much higher than what Arthur had said it would be. Nick guessed that the water would go above his waist at its deepest point.

"We have to cross that?" Lene asked in wonder.

"Yeah," Nick said. "But it's a lot deeper than Arthur mentioned. I bet there was probably a storm or something that made the water higher since the last time he came by here." It was hard to imagine a storm in Other World with the weather so disarmingly mild, but Nick couldn't imagine any other explanation.

"I can't swim," the five-year-old clung to his leg. "Do I have to go?"

"Don't worry, Lene. I'll carry you, okay?" Nick took off his backpack and handed it to her. "Hold onto this, will you?" Once she had slipped the bag onto her back, he kneeled down low to the ground. "Allright, sit up here on my shoulders, so you don't get wet." Lene climbed up Nick's back, and once she was seated comfortably, he stood up.

"Whoa!" Lene clapped her hands over his eyes, trying to keep her balance.

Nick steadied her with one hand and peered out through the gaps between her fingers. "I can't see," he told her in a mock-stern voice.

"Where do I hold on? Here?" she moved her hands to his ears and grabbed a hold of them with her little hands, giggling. "Or here?" the five-year-old grasped her hands in Nick's hair.

"Just as long as you don't pull it out, right there is fine." He adjusted Lene's skirts so they lay neatly across her legs. "You ready? Here goes," Nick set off into the cool water. His shoes squelched in the muck and the mud, and the river came up to his shin. "You doing okay up there, Lene?"

"Yup." Her fingers moved around on his head. "You have soft hair, Nick!" she exclaimed.

"Uh, thanks," he said, not sure if he should take that as a compliment. Were guys supposed to enjoy praise for their hair? – maybe for their manly muscles or their fast cars, but Nick couldn't remember if he usually received compliments on his hair. "Uh... I like yours, too?"

The five-year-old giggled again. He smiled and continued his trudge through the river. The water rose and swept quickly by his knees. And while it had felt pleasantly cool at first, the water was starting to feel cold. Nick wiggled his toes within his shoes, trying to keep them from going numb. He stepped further into the river, which got deeper and rose to his thighs and then to his waist. Nick gritted his teeth in surprise as the water suddenly and painfully chilled his privates, the lower reaches of which particularly ached.

"What's wrong, Nick?" asked the five-year-old, feeling him stiffen between her legs.

"Oh, nothing. I'm, uh... just trying to get my footing. Don't worry about it," he told her and focused on the remaining distance he had left until he could feel his balls again.

Is this natural? Nick wondered, staring down at his soaked pants. Are my... balls supposed to hurt this much? He decided that "balls" sounded funny to him. Why was balls the first word that came to mind when he thought about his testicles? There had to be a better term to describe them. Nuts... sack... testes... scrotum... gonads...? Nothing else sounded right, either. Nick was just going to have to stick with "balls."

Said article of his body was still numb from the cold, and Nick glanced at the opposite bank to see how much longer he had to go. To his chagrin, he seemed to be no further than when he had started thinking about his balls; he wasn't even halfway across the river yet.

"What's going on?" Nick muttered to himself.

Lene tugged on his hair lightly. "You're going so slow, it's like you're not even moving. What's the matter?"

"I don't know, kid. We're going nowhere fast..." It was true. No matter how much he walked, Nick was caught midstream. "It's like I'm stuck—" He took one step forward and unexpectedly plunged deep into the river. Somewhere above him, Nick heard Lene scream, but the sound was muted as water rushed into his throat and ears. He opened his eyes, trying to find his way up. Thrashing his arms and legs until he surfaced, Nick coughed out the five-year-old's name, remembering she couldn't swim. "Lene? Lene where are you? Lene!"

He spotted her a few feet away, being carried off by the river's current. The five-year-old bobbed up and down in the water, sputtering and crying for help. Stroking his arms powerfully, Nick found that he moved through the water easily, as with years of practice. He swam over and wrapped his arms around her before the river could pull her under. "I got you, Lene! I got you!" he reassured her and kicked his legs, trying to get them to the other side as the current swept them along.

The five-year-old clung to his neck crying. "It's okay," Nick told her. "You're safe now. We're going to be allright."

Lene shook her head and pointed behind him, "No, look!" Turning, Nick froze as he saw a huge torrent of water, surging down the river towards them. They were going to drown. Immobilized with fear, he stopped swimming and they began to sink. "Nick!" Lene screamed, beating her hands on his shoulders. Water lapped into her mouth and nose, and she wailed, spitting it out. "Nick!"

Her cries got through to him, and he started swimming again. Nick's muscles screamed in protest, but he raced for the opposite shore as the violent flood bore down on them. He knew that he wasn't going to make it in time. "Try to hold onto me!" Nick shouted.

Just as a huge wave crashed into them, his shoe struck rocky ground and he struggled to his feet, only to be knocked over by the force of the current. Somehow, rather than sweeping the two of them away, the waves pushed Nick and Lene toward the riverbank, and they were deposited on land in a shallow pool of water.

Struggling to his knees, Nick looked frantically around for Lene and found her just a little bit down the shore from him. "Oh my god," he ran over, gathering her into his arms. "Lene! Oh my god, Lene." He shook her.

The five-year-old opened her eyes and coughed a little bit, water dribbling out of her mouth. "Nick..."

He held her close. "I'm so glad you're okay. You are okay, right, kid?"

Lene nodded, her eyes squeezed tight as tears streamed down her face. "I was... so s-scared," she hiccupped and started to bawl.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." Nick murmured. He pushed bedraggled tendrils of hair from her face. "Shh... don't cry, baby. We're okay now."

She nodded again and when Nick finally calmed her down, Lene climbed to her feet. "I'm c-cold," she shivered.

"Yeah, me, too," he agreed, straightening the skirt of her dress, which was plastered against her legs. Somehow the five-year-old had managed to hold on to Nick's backpack the entire time, so he took it from her and got to his feet. Partially unzipping the bag, Nick turned it upside down until all the water drained out. Then he closed it and slipped it on his back. As he did so, Nick glanced over his shoulder at the treacherous river, which had mysteriously died down until the current flowed smoothly and regularly again. Other than the soaked banks of the river, there was no sign of the flood that had nearly drowned them. Nick shook his head, damning this entire place.

He took Lene's hand and said, "Come on, let's go find someplace to dry off."

His balls were still cold.

 

Chapter 10: Nine and Three-Quarters by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
Here you guys go! I wanted to post another chapter before school got busy again. Updates should come once a week now or, at least, every two weeks. If not, just give me a nudge. :D This one goes out to all my lovely reviewers. *hearts* You girls keep me motivated to keep posting here on AC. I couldn't do it without you!

 


 

They made their way into town, which proved to be as deserted as the developed lands, as Arthur had called them, that they had left behind before. The houses here were more worn and not nearly so identical as the Levittown had been, but they still possessed that air of abandonment that had haunted Nick on his arrival. "This looks as good as any," he said, and led a soaking wet Lene up to the door of number 848. Nick tried the doorknob, which was locked then knocked and rang the doorbell just in case there might be anyone inside. There was no answer so Nick left Lene on the doorstep and went to the window.

Setting his backpack on the floor, Nick removed the drenched sweater he was wearing and wrapped it around his hand. He made a fist and punched at the corner of the window to shatter the glass. Then with his free hand, Nick reached through the broken pane and undid the lock.

He shook bits of glass off the sweater and stuffed it into his backpack, looking over at Lene. "Wait here while I..." Nick trailed off. The five-year-old had vanished from the porch, and the front door was ajar. "...unlock the door?" he finished, confused. "Lene? Lene, where'd you go?"

"Boo!" Her face appeared in the open window, and she laughed.

"Watch out for the broken glass," Nick warned her.

"It's okay. I'm being careful, promise," Lene said, looking down at the floor.

"Hey, how'd you get in there, kid?" he asked. "That door was locked just a minute ago." Nick walked across the porch and through the front door, clutching the backpack in his hand. He looked at the door suspiciously before he closed it and turned the lock. "How did you get in?"

"Easy. I opened it, silly!" the five-year-old laughed like it was the simplest thing in the world but stopped when her teeth chattered. "Nick, I'm cold," she told him again, "and hungry. But mostly cold."

"Allright, let's take care of that first."

The pair deposited their wet shoes by the front door and searched the house for some dry clothing. The house was only one story high, and they found a single bedroom tucked into the back of the bungalow, leaving a trail of wet footprints down the hall. The room had a queen-sized bed, a television, a recliner set into the wall, and a long mirrored bureau. Lene went through the bureau dressers, opening them one by one until she found a drawer with men's shirts and another with slacks.

Nick asked her to check the closet next, and she uncovered a pair of towels. He dried the five-year-old's hair then wrapped a towel around her head. "Can you undress yourself?" he asked.

Lene shook her head. "Can't reach the buttons."

"Turn around, kid," he told her and undid the row of buttons down the back of her dress, letting it fall to the floor. Nick realized that he should feel a bit uncomfortable stripping down a five-year-old, and he quickly threw another towel over her shoulders. "Hold onto that," he said and rummaged through the dresser for a shirt. With his head turned to the side, Nick handed Lene the shirt. "Put this on. It buttons up the front." He became incredibly interested in the scar on the palm of his right hand and stared at it intently until she gave him the word that it was okay to look.

"Okay, done," the five-year-old announced. Nick turned and laughed, looking down at her. The shirt sleeves hung far past Lene's hands, and some of her buttons were done crookedly. He kneeled down and undid a couple of the off buttons, refastening them in their correct positions.

"There you go," Nick removed the towel from her head. "Feeling warmer now?"

"Uh huh. You're still wet, though."

"Yeah, I am," he agreed. "Let me take care of that and then we'll look for something to eat, okay?"

She went over to the recliner with the tails of the men's shirt dragging behind her and sat down, curling into a warm ball like a contented feline.

Nick looked down at his t-shirt, which was torn from where the skeleton "girls" had grabbed at him what-seemed-like so many days ago, and pulled it over his head. He deposited the soggy tee on the floor then used a towel to dry off his hair. It was still damp from when he'd used it to towel off Lene's curls, but there'd only been two towels in the closet for them to use. Nick ran one hand through his blond locks until they stood on end.

"You look crazy," Lene giggled from her seat.

Nick made a funny face at her and grabbed a button-up shirt from the bureau. It was just a little bit tight on him, and he had to undo the cuffs so that the wrists of the shirtsleeves didn't pinch his arms. Nick turned away from Lene and struggled with his pants. The wet jeans were stiff and difficult to remove; they kept getting caught on his legs as he tried to push them down. Finally getting the jeans off, Nick kicked them aside. He noticed that he had two tattoos on his legs, one on each calf – a stingray on his right leg and a sea horse on the left. Wow, I must have a thing for tattoos, he thought, and the ocean. Nick glanced up and happened to realize that Lene was watching at him in the mirror. "What are you staring at?" he asked.

"Your tattoos... and also your shorts have guitars on them," the five-year-old observed. And so they did.

"I like guitars, I think," Nick said, using the towel to dry off his damp boxers. "I keep having this dream about me playing the guitar in front of a crowd of people," he told her, reaching for a pair of slacks from the bureau. Nick slipped them on and zipped the fly, but the waist was too tight to fasten the top button. "And then when I'm done singing, I always drink a cup of coffee – two sugars, no milk."

"My far drinks coffee in the morning when he goes to work. He says it makes him awake." Lene slid off the recliner and stumbled slightly on the hem of the long men's shirt before straightening. "Food time now?"

"Yeah, let's go get something to eat."

...

After two days of consuming nothing but roasted mushrooms, Nick was starving and knew that Lene felt the same. He lifted the five-year-old by the waist and made her open all the cupboards in the bungalow's little kitchen. In a cabinet above the refrigerator, she uncovered several boxes of cereal, all different brands.

"Cinnamon Toast Crunch!" Nick exclaimed, setting her down. "And Cheerios and Honey Nut Chex! This is awesome!" He pulled out all three boxes and set them on the counter, automatically reaching for the fridge door to get the milk. It was empty. "Oh, right. Go ahead and do your thing, kid."
They were soon sitting at the kitchen table, munching on cereal. "It's best when you mix them," Nick told Lene as he spoke through a mouthful of Cheerios. "You've got to put the Cinnamon Toast Crunch in first on the bottom so it makes the milk all sugary," he instructed. "And then you add the Chex to blend in that sweet honey nut taste. Finally, you top it off with Cheerios, gotta have the Cheerios."

Lene nodded back at him. "It's good!" she agreed.

The pair happily munched on their cereal until they had their fill then Nick set their bowls in the sink and decided to explore the house. Besides the little kitchen, there was the living room – with its smashed windowpane – plus a bathroom, laundry room that led into the garage, the one bedroom, and a negligible backyard. The garage was small and devoid of both cars and the usual junk you'd find in a garage alike.

"How about we try to dry off our clothes?" Nick proposed. "These ones don't really fit me, and that shirt doesn't look like it fits you, either." They gathered their wet clothes from the bedroom, though Nick chose to throw out his torn shirt. He also decided to dry out his wet backpack, so he opened the bag and removed its contents – a couple of water bottles, the kitchen knife, a container of wipes (which were now useless because the container had filled with water), and the bottle of baby powder, which had remarkably remained dry. Setting these aside, Nick brought his jeans, sweater, backpack, and Lene's dress to the dryer, setting them on top of the unit.

"So, can you make it work?" he asked the five-year-old. "You fixed the toilet, and you must have unlocked the front door earlier, so I'm guessing there's more to your powers than just filling fridges and drawers with stuff. Can you get this dryer going?"

Lene looked at it for a moment then nodded. "But I hafta reach the knobs to turn it on." Nick tossed their clothing into the dryer's front-loading door and picked her up, setting her on its top. She put her hands to the unit and then turned to Nick. "Okay, it works now. I don't know how to turn it on, though."

He reached out and twisted a few of the switches then hit the start button. The dryer came to life with a rumble, and Lene jumped in surprise. "Whoa! It's bumpy," she giggled, her voice vibrating from the rumbling of the dryer.

Nick set her back down on the floor. "Now we wait for that to dry." He looked out the window at the darkening sky and thought of the faceless outline people. Nick didn't think they would pursue him and Lene down from the plains, but just in case he'd have to take precautions. He'd already shattered the front window, so the little bungalow was no longer secure. The bedroom did have a lock on the door, though, so Nick hoped they would be safe enough in there.

When the clothes and backpack were dry, he removed them from the machine and led Lene back into the bedroom. Once again, he turned away while the five-year-old removed her clothing and then handed her the white dress, which by now had turned into a dingy brown from where dirt marks had dried on the fabric. As soon as Lene had slipped her dress on, Nick helped her button up the back. As for himself, he decided not to change back into his jeans because they weren't exactly the most comfortable clothes to sleep in. Nick rummaged in the bureau until he found a pair of sweats and put them on. He removed the tight button-up shirt he'd been wearing and decided to sleep shirtless.

Lene stared at his arms and observed, "You have a lot of tattoos."

"Yeah, looks like I'm an ink maniac," he agreed.

"There's some more on your back, too," the five-year-old told him.

Nick twisted around and tried to see over his shoulder but couldn't. "What do they look like?"

"Um... there's a moon with a sun in the background on the left side... and then you have a music note on your right shoulder... and in the center, there's a word."

"Really, what does it say?" he asked.

"I can't read it," Lene said. "K-A-O-S... What does that mean, Nick?"

"I don't know... Hm, Kaos? I wonder what that is." He turned his back to the mirror and glanced at the reflection, seeing the letters K, A, O, and S written vertically down his spine. Nick puzzled over it for a minute, and then turned away from the mirror. "You should use the bathroom now if you have to," he instructed Lene. "I'm going to lock us into the bedroom after this, and neither of us can leave until morning."

"Why, Nick?" she asked.

"Because I'm worried about those things I saw when we were on the canyon road," he told her. "I don't think that they'll follow us all the way down here, but just in case, I want to lock the door so we're safe. So let's go use the bathroom now, okay?"

The five-year-old got the toilet working, and when she was done with it, Nick relieved himself, too. They returned to the bedroom, where he locked the door and then pushed the recliner in front of it. He drew the curtains and then looked around the room, satisfied. "Hm, so what's there to do for the next couple of hours?" he wondered. Nick's gaze landed on the television set, and he remembered his past experience trying to turn on a TV.

"Can you fix this?" he asked. "Last time I tried turning one on, it didn't really do anything..." Nick went over and pressed the power button, and the same thing happened as before – the unit made a turning-on sound, but nothing happened and the screen remained blank.

"Hm..." Lene went over and touched the black screen, which sparked with static electricity when her hand came into contact with it. After a moment, the screen flickered and came to life. Nick's eyes widened in excitement, but then the television only displayed a still image of colored bars and started to make a high-pitched atonal sound.

Disappointed, Nick wrinkled his nose at the loud tone and turned the unit off. "Oh well, it was worth a shot," he said to Lene, setting his hand on her shoulder. She jumped back in surprise and Nick removed his hand as an electric shock sparked between them, most likely from the static of the TV.

"It's okay, Nick, I'm tired anyway." The five-year-old yawned.

He nodded. "Well then, you take the bed, and I'll sleep on the recliner by the door. You can wake me up if you need anything." Nick tucked Lene into bed and told her goodnight. Then he took a seat in the recliner, pulling a handle on its side to trigger the leg rest. He reached over to flip the light switch, but thinking better of it, he left it on, remembering that light was his friend. Eventually, Nick was able to fall asleep – but not before wondering if those invisible cut-out people were going to attack them in the night.

...

He woke the next morning to hands on his shoulders and a hysterical Lene shaking him. "Nick! Nick!" she cried. "Nick, help me!"

"What's wrong?!" he started, awake. Nick couldn't move because she had climbed on top of him and was clinging to him frantically. "Is it the faceless people, are they here?" But it couldn't be them. It was daylight, he realized.

"They got my parents! The bad men, they hurt Mamma and Pappa. They were after me, too!"

"Wait... what?" Nick was confused. She didn't seem to be in any apparent danger, so he had no idea what she was talking about. Nick looked at the five-year-old on top of him and saw that she wasn't a five-year-old any longer. Lene's curly, dark hair had grown longer and fell across her arms and back, and her white dress was different now and clean again though in a similar style as before, but her amber eyes hadn't changed at all. They glinted with the same topaz and gold flecks, and right now those eyes were filled with tears.

"You gotta help them, Nick!" she begged him urgently. "Günter got the bad guys, but he won't go back to help my parents. He says it's too late." The girl broke into a terrified wail and wept against his bare shoulder.

Nick sat up and put his arms around her. "Lene. Lene..." he said her name calmingly. "Whatever you're thinking of, that's not happening right now. There's no one here who's going to hurt you," he told her, rubbing her back. She cried harder. "It's okay, kid, it's okay. I'm here, I'll protect you... You don't have to worry. You're safe now."

"But my parents..." her voice was muffled against his skin. "Those bad men killed them."

Nick's hand stopped in shock. When had her parents died? "Did you see it happen?"

The girl pulled back from his arms and nodded, her face stained from crying. "They came to our house and were fighting with Mamma and Pappa. There was... all this bright light and then... and then it happened and they tried to come after me," she sobbed. "Bruno tried to protect me... they got him, too. Those bad guys came after me next, and I thought they – thought they were going to kill me," Lene's voice caught and her eyes filled with fresh tears.

"Shh... no one's going to hurt you now," Nick soothed, stroking her long hair gently. "What happened next, baby? How did you get away?"

She choked back another sob. "I couldn't," she told him. "There was nowhere for me to run. The bad men put their hands up towards me... But, but then Günter showed up."

His eyes widened in shock. "Günter? Are you sure?" She nodded. "What happened? What did he do when he got there?"

"He saved me," the girl said numbly. "He fought those guys and there was more of that bright light and then he took me away. He said we couldn't save my mor or far, so he took me with him. After that, Günter took care of me."

Nick shook his head. That jerk saved her? None of this sounds right, he thought. "That doesn't make any sense, kid," he told her. "Günter's a bad guy, why would he save you? He's just as bad as those men who murdered your parents."

"No!" the girl exclaimed loudly. "He did save me. Günter's been looking after me ever since."

"Listen to me, Lene," Nick said seriously. "I've heard so many things about that guy that you wouldn't even believe. He's a bad man, and if you ever see him again, don't trust him. Stay away from him, kiddo. Come on, think back to a few days ago... Remember the woods? When we were in that cottage? Günter attacked us then. Don't you remember that?"

She still didn't look like she believed him. "I don't know, Nick. ...It seems like a long time ago, even though I know it's only been a few days. All these things are mixed up in my brain."

It happened just a few days ago, so why wasn't the incident as fresh in her memories as it was in his? "Lene, when did this happen to you?" Nick asked. "When did the bad men get your parents?"

She shook her head. "I dunno, like last night? Time is all messed up in my head, it's hard." She grabbed fistfuls of her dark hair and tugged in anguish. "I can't tell apart what happened yesterday at the river and what happened last night when they came. And before the river, everything's all jumbled together."

Nick looked down at her tear-soaked face. It didn't make any sense. Lene had been with him the entire time, but now that she'd aged, she was inundated with all these strange memories that couldn't have happened and yet had. He put his hand up to one of her cheeks and wiped it off, then did the other. "How old are you, kiddo?"

"I'm nine and three-quarters," Lene sniffled. "I'm gonna be ten in November. But I was just five yesterday, wasn't I?"

"Yeah, you were," Nick agreed. So she knew that she was aging rapidly. "Do you know why you get older so fast?" he asked.

"No, but it's not normal, is it? The weird thing is, I remember being five yesterday, but I also remember being nine... There's something's wrong with me, isn't there, Nick?" Her amber eyes looked devastated.

"There's nothing wrong with you," he assured her quickly. They sat there in awkward silence not looking at each other until Nick spoke again. "Listen... I'm really sorry about your parents, Lene. I never met them, but I know you loved them a lot. And even though I can't do anything to help them now, I want you to know that I'll protect you, okay? You're safe with me."

Lene nodded. "Thanks, Nick." She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him.
Chapter 11: A Revelation by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
I know, I know I said last time that updates would come every week or every other week! I got sidetracked with school and work, and I'm also currently sewing four costumes for an anime convention at the end of May. To make up for it, I promise to release chapter twelve in less than a week, okay? Love you guys! *hearts*

Uh, this chapter is dedicated to the last person who reviews by the time I post the next one. XD [/silly]

 



Nick stood outside the bathroom door while Lene took a shower to clear her head. Now that she was older, he hoped she might be able to explain some of the questions that puzzled him, but this morning had already presented a whole slew of new riddles to be solved. Lene said that her parents were murdered just recently, and yet she had been with him for over a week now. When Nick found her abandoned as a baby, maybe around a year old, he'd thought that her parents had abandoned her there in that house. But according to Lene, she'd been raised by them for the past nine years. And then there was that whole business with Günter; what exactly was the relationship between those two? Why would that guy have saved Lene and when could it have happened? None of this made any sense.

When she got out of the shower, Nick took over the bathroom. Lene had opened the medicine cabinet, which contained a man's razor and some shaving gel among other things. Appreciatively, he rubbed his chin; it had become prickly with beard stubble and was in desperate need of a shave. Nick wet and lathered his face and then applied the razor.

"Ow!" he jumped as he nicked himself and blood welled up from the cut. "Guess I'm out of practice," Nick muttered and went back to shaving his chin, this time taking more care. Then he rinsed his face, showered, and dressed in his boxer shorts and jeans. He still didn't have a shirt because his old one was torn, so he went back to the bedroom and ruffled through the bureau for a shirt that would fit him.

Lene watched him from the bed where she was sitting. "You have a lot of tattoos," she commented. "There's some on your legs and your arms and your back. Why do people get tattoos, Nick?"

"I don't know, because they look good, I guess. I think they're kind of cool..." He found a striped polo shirt in the dresser and tried it on. The cotton material stretched and fit him better than the button-up had and, satisfied, Nick turned to Lene. "Okay, should we go eat something?"

They went into the kitchen, but there wasn't much in the refrigerator that was already pre-cooked. Nick pulled out a carton of eggs, remembering how he would make breakfast on the weekends with his siblings. "I can make some pretty good scrambled eggs, but the stoves don't turn on. Do you think you can get it working?" he asked. "I know you couldn't when you were little 'cause you weren't allowed to touch the stove, but how about now?"

Lene looked at the unit with an intense look that Nick recognized as the one she used when trying to fix things or fill them with their contents. "I can fix it," she said and put her hands on the knob for one of the burners. After a second, the girl turned it and with a click the range produced a blue flame. She let it burn for a couple of seconds and then switched it off.

"Awesome." Nick looked at the stove. "So what do your powers do, exactly? I've already seen you load fridges with food and dressers with clothes, and now you've fixed toilets, stoves, the TV – though it didn't completely work out – showers..." he marveled. "And you unlocked the front door yesterday. What kind of powers are those? What other kind of things can you do?"

She shrugged. "I don't really know what I can or can't do until I try it. I mean, I know I can't fly, but I do know that I'm good at unlocking things. And if I try hard enough, sometimes I can even make things move."

"Move? What do you mean?"

The girl reached out one hand – Nick noticed for the first time that she was left-handed – and held it up towards the carton of eggs he'd placed on the counter. Her eyes narrowed slightly, and the long cardboard box began to slide across the tiled surface towards her, albeit very slowly. Lene dropped her hand. "Pappa said I would get better at it as I got older and in the meantime to keep practicing."

Nick stared at the egg carton; he was getting used to weird things, but this still felt pretty weird. "So your dad showed you how to use your powers?"

She blinked rapidly, and Nick could tell that she was thinking about her family again. Lene shook her head. "No. I just used them on my own," she told him, wiping her watery eyes. "Pappa and Mamma helped me out once in a while, but most of it they let me learn by myself."

"How do you know how to do all these things?" he asked in amazement.

Lene shrugged, her dark curls bouncing across her shoulder as she did so. "I dunno," she said. "Something inside me just tells me these things, and then I do them. Don't they ever tell you?"

"No, never," Nick admitted. "To tell you the truth, most of the time I feel like my mind is completely bank inside. I only remember things in bits and snatches."

"That's weird." Fixing her glistening eyes on him, Lene told Nick, "Hold still." He felt a little self-conscious under the scrutiny of a nine-year-old. Her amber eyes were focused intently on him, but after a moment she shook her head.

"Sorry... your memories are being locked away from you," she told him. "Even I can't open it. It's because we're here in this place," the little girl motioned to the world around them. "This entire world is trying to keep you from knowing who you are and I don't know why. You're a lot harder to open than a fridge or a door."

"So this place is causing my amnesia?"

"Amnesia?" Lene asked. "Like when you get a bump on your head?"

"Right, or when something terrible happens. Your brain subconsciously shuts memories away from you," Nick told her.

She shook her head. "No, like I said, it's not your brain that's keeping information from you, it's Other World."

"Other World," Nick breathed. "That's the name of this place, isn't it?"

"Yes. I'm not sure how I knew that, maybe you told me when I was little, but anyway – it's Other World's fault."

"Why would it do that?"

"I dunno, but everything is closed here. That's why I have to keep opening the empty fridges and drawers, they're all locked."

"Wait..." he tried to wrap his mind around what the kid was telling him. "You're saying everything here is 'locked,' what does that mean?"

"Well, like, the fridge didn't have anything in it because all the stuff was locked up, almost like a gate that's closed, so I had to unlock it. The food's already in there, we just can't see it because Other World is keeping it locked away. It's the same story for your memories." Lene walked up to the fridge.

"What are you doing?" Nick wondered. "Can you make all the stuff disappear again and show me how you opened it?"

"No, silly," the nine-year-old said, "I can't lock stuff away – at least I dunno how to yet – but Other World does that for us anyway! But I'm gonna show you the freezer since I haven't unlocked it yet." She opened the upper compartment of the fridge that was reserved for frozen foods, and showed him that it was still empty. "Okay, so this is locked right now, see?"

"Right," he nodded.

"Well," she said, shutting the freezer door, "first I put my hand on the door or whatever part needs to be unlocked. I look at it and try to 'hear' it. You can get in tune with whatever you're working with so you can find the gate that's keeping it shut. And then you kind of reach out and your magic just unlocks it." Lene worked as she spoke, and when she opened it again, the freezer was filled with frozen dinner boxes with labels that revealed them to be Salisbury Steak and Potatoes, Chicken Pot Pie, and Beef Stew.

"And you said that you just know how to do this automatically?" Nick asked in wonder.

"Yup," Lene shut the freezer door. "I kind of get the feeling inside of me to do something, and so I try it out and it usually works. You should give it a shot!"

"Wait, what are you talking about?" Nick said. "I don't have any powers."

She gave him a funny look. "Of course, you do. I can feel the magic coming off of you... No one's ever shown you how to cover it up? That's one of the things Mamma actually taught me how to do."

"Are you trying to say that I can use magic? Like you?" he was dumbfounded.

"Duh. Come on, try it out." The nine-year-old skipped across the room to a cabinet on the other side, oblivious to the fact that Nick was utterly bowled over by her news. Bracing her hands on the counter top, she hoisted herself up and sat on top of it so that she could reach the cabinet door's handle. "Here, I haven't opened this one yet," Lene told him. "I think it has..." she narrowed her eyes, examining it, "pots in it. Yeah, feels like pots. Come here, Nick, I'll show you how."

Still stunned, he crossed the room. "What do I do?" he asked uncertainly.

"Gimme your hand," she instructed and placed it on the handle of the cabinet. "Now, listen."

Nick stood there, feeling dumb. Nothing happened. "Uh, I don't hear anything."

"You have to really concentrate," she told him. "It's not a regular sound. It's almost in your head, normal people can't hear it."

"I hate to burst your bubble, kid, but I think I am just a normal person. I don't remember anything about having powers."

"But you do have them," she insisted. "I can tell! Just keep listening."

"Fine," Nick sighed and focused again. Slowly, softly, a humming sound reached his ears; its pitch was somehow both high and low at the same time. "I hear it!" he exclaimed.

"Good, now there's a gate there. Just reach out and open it."

"What?" he said confused. His concentration broke and the humming went away. "I lost it," Nick told her.

"It's okay. Just try again. It's not gonna be easy on your first try," Lene assured him.

"Yeah, says the kid who's been doing this since she was in diapers," he scoffed.

"Try it again," she repeated.

"Allright, allright." Nick took hold of the cupboard handle and focused until the sound returned. "Okay, what do I do now?" he asked. "I can't find this gate you're talking about."

"Here, I'll show you." The nine-year-old placed her hand on top of his, and the humming became even clearer. "Now, find the gate. You kinda have to look around for it," she told him. Nick concentrated and found that he could sense some sort of obstruction that wasn't letting the sound come through to him completely. "Good," Lene whispered. "Now just unlock it."

He opened it and at the same time pulled on the cabinet door, revealing shelves full of pots and a couple of pans. Nick reached in for a pot and looked at it. The nine-year-old clapped her hands, "Yay! You did it! I knew you could do it!"

"Did I really?" he asked in wonder. He couldn't believe her. "No, that couldn't have been me. I mean, you helped me. You must have been doing all the work..."

"Nope! That was all you, I just helped you focus a little bit." She patted him on the shoulder. "Good job!"

Nick set the pot down on the counter, the full weight of what had happened almost knocking him over. "I did this? ...I can use magic?" Insane. "What else can I open?" he wondered. He had to test out more of his powers.

Looking around the room for other things he could try to "unlock," Nick spotted a telephone set into the opposite wall. "How about that phone? Can I make that work?"

"Try it!" Lene encouraged.

Crossing the room, he placed his hand over it and focused, as she had instructed him, on finding the gate that kept the phone "closed." Lene hopped down from the counter and joined him, watching. He could hear a faint humming somewhere beyond his ears, and when it was loud enough, Nick reached out mentally and released the gate. When he picked up the handset again, he could hear the steady drone of a dial tone. Nick tried to contain the warm sense of achievement that spread through him, but he still couldn't resist grinning.

He held the phone out to Lene. "Look, I did it! By myself this time!" he exclaimed.

"If you keep practicing, then pretty soon you'll be able to do it a lot faster and it gets really easy," she told him.

Nick looked at the handset in his hand. "Too bad I don't know any phone numbers to call. How about you?"

She shook her head and made a sad face. "I forgot my phone number."

"Because of Other World? Is it affecting your memory, too?"

"Maybe..." she said. "But we just moved into our new house, too, so I didn't memorize the phone number yet."

"I guess I could just try dialing random numbers," Nick decided. He punched at the keypad indiscriminately and then waited as the phone rang. There was no answer. "Hmm... guess there's no one to pick up the phones around here, anyway." Just for the heck of it, he tried another random phone number, but that didn't work as well. When he set the phone down, Nick noticed that Lene was looking at him with a thoughtful expression on her face. "What?" he asked.

"You've really never used magic before, huh?"

"No, or at least not as far as I can tell. That's why I didn't believe you when you said I had powers. But now that I know I can, I want to practice like you said so I can get better! This is so cool."

Lene smiled at his infectious enthusiasm. "Well, I've pretty much unlocked everything in this house now, so we should probably go somewhere else."

"Yeah, that sounds good, I'll just go get my—"

"But first," she interrupted, "food!" The girl pointed at the carton of eggs on the counter. "You said you make good scrambled eggs."

"Oh, right," Nick grinned. "I was so caught up that I forgot about eating..." And for some reason, that felt like a first for him.

Chapter 12: How They Met by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

So.

I am a terrible liar and an irresponsible updater. *hangs head in shame* I promised in the last chapter to post the next update within a week, and yet here we are weeks later...

You see, after re-reading the chapter that I was about to post for an update, I realized that after all the time Lene had spent being five years old, she spends very little time being nine-and-three-quarters. And it felt really unbalanced. So I decided to add some more flesh to chapter twelve (yay, more content for the readers!) but then got buried with school, work, and sewing (boo, no time for writing).

As a result, instead of a nice well-rounded chapter twelve full of Nickalicious goodness, here is a stringy, little Nick-less chapter to tide you over until uni gets out in two weeks. I know I keep making promises, but things should pick up again with ONH in June!

This one is for both Ashley and Sarah, who've stuck with me through the dry season. 


 

Lene stared through the bars of her cage out of the only window in the tower, wondering where Nick was at this moment. Somewhere in the wilds of Other World, a piece of Lene was with him. How old was she out there now, still five? Lene could no longer watch Nick through Günter's tapestries because he was the only one who knew how to activate the wall hanging and use it as a mirror to the realms beyond the castle. And she hadn't seen Günter in days, not since he'd left the tower through that door in the ceiling to go back home and recover from his wounds; she couldn't remember when that was exactly because there was no way for her to keep count in her cage. But at least he'd left her water and bread. "Traditional prisoner fare," he'd chortled.

Apparently, when Günter had sent his satellite out into Other World, something had happened during his encounter with Nick, and it had not gone well for him. At the time of his return, Lene hadn't noticed his injuries at first because she'd been so wrapped up in her plan to escape Günter by threatening him at sword point. When he'd recovered from his satellite too soon and foiled her plans, Günter had punished Lene, first with physical violence and then with his cruel words. But soon afterward he'd collapsed to the floor, weakened by some sort of injuries that he'd sustained in satellite form. Had Nick fought Günter and been victorious? What did it mean?

Staring out the tower window, she wondered how long it would take Nick to get to the castle. Lene wasn't the least bit familiar with the geography of Other World, so she had no idea where those forests – the ones from the tapestry where she'd last seen Nick – were located. He could be hours or days away for all that she knew. If only Nick could get to the castle before Günter returned, they could escape Other World together. And if Günter came back and they had to face him, then what would Lene do? If in the end it came down to it, could she kill the man who had raised her since she was nine years old? Of course, he had admitted to a part in the murder of her parents, but still – if needed, could she kill the man whom she'd once steadfastly followed?

Günter had accused Lene of already trying to kill him when she'd only been trying to scare him into letting her go. He'd approved of her actions, saying that Lene had taken after him. Is it true? Am I just as ruthless as he is? Lene wondered. She stared at her hands. Were these the hands of a murderer? According to Günter, she had not been helping him all these years to rid the world of evil men; she had been part of the evil, an accomplice to his schemes for power. Maybe not all of those people they'd defeated had been the monsters that Günter had made them out to be. Some of them might have had families. Some of them might have been people like her parents, and Lene had helped Günter to get rid of them and in the process made him even stronger.

Lene's parents, though they'd died when she was nine, had instilled her with a strong sense of what was good and right. She'd thought that she had been honoring them all these years, not spitting on their memory by helping a man with a blackened heart. How did I not notice the truth about Günter? Lene wondered. Surely there must have been some clue, some sign along the way, revealing Günter's real motives. But she had been too blinded by her own sense of duty to him, the man she'd believed to be her savior. Lene had followed his every command unquestioningly until Nick had come into the picture.

Nick... She sighed longingly at the very thought of him.

Meeting Nick had been like a refreshing trip to the seaside after a lengthy journey in the desert, and it had changed her life. From the moment Lene had started watching Nick under Günter's command, she'd known that something had been absent in her life and that something was amiss with the orders she'd been given. She couldn't reconcile Günter's report of a cold-blooded killer with the sweet, funny man who played guitar on Friday nights at his favorite coffee shop: Nick was kind to everybody, loving to the three sisters and one brother who had lived with him for a while but were now scattered across the country, and didn't even seem to know that he was gifted with magic powers. Sure there were things she saw about his lifestyle – the partying, the women – but these were the flaws of men, not monsters, and nothing comparable to the horrors that Günter had accused him of. It had been easy for Lene to feel attracted to Nick with his good looks and natural charm, and it had been even easier for her to fall for him, although he only knew her as that Norwegian chick with the accent who poured his coffee.

Leaving out any mention of her feelings for Nick, Lene had tried to tell Günter that he wasn't dangerous, that surely they were after the wrong man, but Günter had insisted that Nick was a real threat. And then he had insisted that Lene be the one to kill him. Not since her parents' death had she felt so miserable. Lene understood now that Günter had been manipulating her for his own purposes. Günter already had so much blood on his hands from the past crimes he'd committed, had he intended for her to join him in it now, as well? Whatever the reason, Günter's plans had been ruined by Lene's defiance of his will. Hopefully, some good would come of her mutiny. And as long as Nick survived, there was still hope.

Chapter 13: Shards of Porcelain by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

Now that Harry Potter month is winding down, I have some free time to direct my energies elsewhere. This chapter isn't as long as I would have liked it to be, but I'm happy with how it turned out.

For Julie, Ashley, Sarah, Elise, and Moppy. Sorry to make you girls wait so long~ And to anyone reading this for the first time, welcome.

I'll try not to make you wait so long for the next one. 

 



After scrambled eggs and washing the dishes (Lene let Nick "unlock" the sink by himself), they wandered down the street looking for another home to explore. At first Nick wanted to go from house to house, one-by-one down the street, and explore each but his nine-year-old companion instead chose a little cottage-style home nestled between two larger ones.

"'Sides," she told him, "you don't wanna get all tired out from practicing too much at first. Papa and Mama always made me do things the normal way if they thought I was getting tired from using alotta magic at once."

The cottage was painted a fading yellow with brown trim that had begun to peel. Its front door, also peeling, was locked and Lene put her hand up to open it. "Unlocking things that are actually locked locked is harder than opening things that are 'locked,'" she explained. "Know what I mean?"

"I think so," Nick said. "You mean that if something is physically locked, instead of 'locked' by Other World, then it's harder to open, right?"

"Right, you have to actually make all the pieces inside move around," Lene nodded as the knob clicked and she swung the door open. "Making things move is harder than unlocking them."

They entered the parlor and Nick gladly removed his sneakers, which were still damp from fording the river, and deposited them in the front entrance. The first room of the house was neatly furnished with comfortable couches and bookshelves that were filled with hard-bound tomes.

"Hey, books" Nick exclaimed, shutting the door behind him. He went up to a shelf and pulled one down, opening it to reveal blank pages, and looked over at Lene. "It's just like the last time I found some books. They're all empty; do you think this can be opened?" he asked.

She reached out and grabbed a book from one of the lower shelves. "Let's try it and find out."

With a nod Nick closed the book, placed his hand on the cover, and went through the process of unlocking. Then he flipped open the tome.

It was still blank. "Oh," he said, disappointed. "I guess not then."

Lene looked up at him from her own book, held open in her small hands, its pages filled with text. "Try it again," the child encouraged. "Unlocking a book is different from unlocking a telephone or cupboard. You hafta find that special sound it makes. So don't just give up on it after the first time. It takes practice."

Nodding, he gave it another shot and when he opened the book again, words filled its pages. "...The Swiss Family Robinson," Nick read off the title. "Hey! I know this one; it's about... it's about this family on a ship, and they get stranded on an island so they have to survive there. I've read this before, a long time ago," he said. Nick slipped the novel back onto the bookshelf in its spot and noticed that the story's title was now embossed on its spine. Wondering what other books he might recognize, Nick reached for another, unlocked it, and flipped it open. "Lord of the Flies... looks like it's another book that takes place on an island." He thought about it for a while then said, "Hm, I don't think I've ever read this one, though."

Lene grabbed a novel off the shelf and held it open. "...Brave New World?" she read.

"...I haven't read that one before either." Nick continued to try the various books on the shelves but didn't recognize very many texts they uncovered. "Well, I guess I'm not much of a reader then," he said, disappointed. Nick had almost hoped that he was gaining back his memories from the past, but since he didn't seem to be particularly well-read, more often than not he couldn't recognize the novels they uncovered. He set the book he was holding, 'Frankenstein,' back on its shelf and turned to Lene. "So, are you going to start training me?" he asked.

"What do ya mean, Nick? This is training!" she told him. "Every time you try to unlock something, you get better at unlocking that kind of thing. Pretty soon, you'll be a master at opening books and they'll just unlock super fast."

"Your parents must have been really good teachers," Nick commented, "since you know so much about the process."

Lene shook her head, "No, I told you, remember? My parents liked to let me figure things out by myself. Mostly they just gave me small hints, unless I was doing something not safe."

"So how did you figure out all this stuff about unlocking? On your own?" he asked, amazed.

The girl shrugged, "I guess. I dunno when I first started understanding it; I've been unlocking things since I can remember, so I've just always known about it."

"Oh." It made sense, Nick supposed. After all, she had been unlocking things for him since she was a baby, and now that she was nine, nearly ten, it was probably second nature to her. "So what's next?" he asked.

"I guess we'll just go through the whole house, and you can try unlocking everything. It's a small house, so you shouldn't get too tired, and I can help you with the hard stuff until you get better at using your powers by yourself," the girl said. "Then after a while, you can even use them without thinking hard about it or getting tired. It just gets natural."

"All right, but I don't think it'll tire me that much, so let's move on to a bigger house afterward, 'kay?" Nick doubted that he would be worn out from the practice; after all, he was much larger than Lene was and it took a lot more to fatigue him out than it did her. He wanted to go to several houses that day and train himself as much as and as quickly as possible. Somewhere in his gut instinct he knew that controlling his magic was essential.

Even so, by the time they'd gone through most of the books then moved on to unlocking the fridge and opening every single cupboard and drawer in the kitchen and pantry, Nick felt like he'd just run a marathon. It wasn't even a particularly large kitchen, but Lene had allowed him to open everything on his own, offering her assistance only when Nick was so frustrated that he wanted to sink to the floor and admit defeat.

"Why am I so tired?" he moaned, struggling with the freezer until he turned red in the face. When he finally managed it, the kitchen was done and Nick dragged himself to the first bedroom he could find.

"It takes a lot more energy if you mess up than if you do it right on the first time," Lene acknowledged then added bluntly, "and ya did mess up a whole lot."

She skipped along cheerily behind him, and he wanted to glare at her for being so lively while he was left fatigued, but even that seemed to require too much energy. Nick opened the bedroom door and flopped down on the mattress there, which was too short and caused his feet to hang off the end. He buried his face in the soft pillows, the combined exhaustion of their travels and the strain of magic taking their toll. The bed seemed so comfortable Nick was convinced that getting up again was clearly not worth the effort. He decided that he could move to a different room later if he wanted to, but at the moment all he wanted was to take a nap.

"I'm gonna close my eyes... just for a little bit, kid," he yawned. "Don't let me sleep too long, yeah?" He barely heard Lene's response as he was covered in the sweet rush of darkness.

It was the crash of dishes that woke Nick several hours later; another crash, and he sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes. The room was much darker than it had been when he'd entered the bedroom that afternoon, the fading light outside casting shadows across the floor. Why had Lene allowed him to sleep so long?

"I thought I asked her to wake me up," Nick muttered groggily.

His entire body felt lethargic but there was another shattering of glass, which had him up and out the door, heading for the kitchen as he realized that something might be amiss. Is it that Günter guy? Is he here? he worried and called down the hall, "Lene? Lene, are you okay?"

When he reached the kitchen, Nick found the nine-year-old on her hands and knees with a dustpan, scrambling to tidy an assortment of broken glass and china. She looked up at him, flushed and agitated, and said, "Sorry, I was so noisy and made you wake up. I'll clean it."

Relieved that the girl was safe, he dropped to his knees beside her and removed the dustpan from her hands. "Hey, don't worry. I got it, kid. Besides, don't want you to cut yourself." Carefully, he began to collect the shards of glass and ceramic together.

When the nearest pile of debris was gathered up, he rocked back on his heels and looked at his companion who, despite all reassurances, continued to appear flustered. Nick reached a hand out in concern and swept her bangs aside to find that her forehead was covered with a thin sheen of cold sweat. Her face was pale and gray now that the redness was beginning to subside, and wisps of dark curls clung to her damp cheeks and neck. "Are you okay? What's wrong, is it because of the broken dishes?" Lene nodded. "Well, would you mind telling me what you were doing here then?" he asked gently.

"I – I can show you," she told him and straightened to her feet.

Nick watched as Lene reached one hand toward an open cabinet of dishes that he had unlocked earlier that day. The nine-year-old's face was set in concentration, the very tip of her small, pink tongue peaking out from the corner of her determined mouth. He was distracted by the serious expression on Lene's face and nearly missed seeing a dinner plate float from its shelf, cross the room, and land unsteadily on the counter opposite, where a stack of assorted dishes and tumblers were already placed. Nick's jaw dropped.

"How did you – ?! But you could barely move that carton of eggs this morning and now you're making things fly around. You moved all those across the room?" He motioned at the collection of dinnerware on the counter in awe.

"'Cept the ones on... the floor," Lene panted. "I was practicing. It was... slow at first, but now I can make things move faster. S'just... a little bit shaky. I started dropping 'em, didn't mean to wake you up."

"That's because you're tired, baby," Nick observed. She was beginning to wobble on her small legs, and he gathered her into his arms and carried her back to the bedroom. "Weren't you the one getting on my case about wearing myself out? Come on, let's get you to bed."

"But –"

"No buts," he interrupted. "Don't worry, I'll take care of cleaning the mess."

Once he had settled the girl into bed and was sure she had gone to sleep, Nick returned to the kitchen to take care of the remaining broken dishes on the floor. He swept the mess – a medley of glass tumbler shards and chipped porcelain – into the dustpan, marveling at the abilities of his young friend. When he'd first met Lene, Nick had believed that she could fill empty spaces and make broken things work. But in actuality her power went beyond that; she could open things that were already present but locked away by Other World's enchantment. Now Lene was displaying a new kind of magic, making things around her move – from the tumblers of locked doorknobs to plates sent flying across the room. What sort of magic was this and what other kinds of power did she have? Lene had told him before that she didn't know what she could do until she tried. Did this mean that her gifts were endless?

And what about me? Nick wondered. Lene had proven to him that he could use magic, so was he capable of the same things as she? Not to mention, there were still so many questions left unanswered. No matter how many new puzzles arose, the underlying ones remained: Why was he here in Other World? What did Günter want with him? And most importantly...

Who am I?

With a sigh, Nick rose to his feet and discarded the last of the broken dinnerware in the trash. There were only a few more dishes left in the cabinet; the rest had been transported to the countertop across the room. He eyed the stack of plates thoughtfully then raised his hand, as Lene had, and concentrated. Nick wasn't sure what he was doing or how to make it work, but his eyes narrowed and he listened for that special note that he knew to look for when unlocking things.

There. What next?

He bit his lower lip and focused as hard he could on making those dishes on the counter move. Slowly, the dinnerware rattled and inched towards him. Nick's eyes widened in surprise but he tried to stay focused, holding onto the note in his head until a strange pressure began to develop in his ears. A thrumming sound grew as he strained against the pressure and finally Nick could hold on no more. He released the connection; the dishes halted, perched precariously at the edge of the countertop.

They wobbled slightly and Nick realized what would happen next. He dashed forward to catch them but was too late and the whole lot came crashing down, shattering across the tile he had just swept clean. Panting slightly – partially from his sudden sprint, partially from the effort it had taken to move the stack of plates mere inches across the counter – Nick surveyed the damage and hoped that he hadn't woken Lene.

It was back to cleaning for him.

Chapter 14: Apple Pie by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

Would you believe me if I said it took nearly two years to write this chapter?  I got the main idea for “Apple Pie” back in the summer of 2007 and then promptly forgot to work on it when I went to study abroad in Japan for a year.  Then a few months after my return, my computer crashed and stupid me—I forgot to keep backups of ONH.  Fortunately, my wonderful BF recently recovered the files after weeks of combing through my severely corrupted hard disk.  This one goes out to Ashley, who kept asking for more Nick and Lene even when I thought I had let them go forever, and to my newest reader-reviewers kevmylove (Erika) and Carter-Orange (Steph).  Love you guys! <3


In his excitement the next morning, it was all Nick could do not to wake Lene before sunrise and show off his work from the night before.  He had slept little, dozing for half-hour stretches whenever his body grew tired from the exertions of practicing magic, and his broken collection of dreams had been linked by one shared motif, basketball: one-on-one games against another guy who, though several inches shorter than Nick, had managed to thrash him soundly every single time.  “You got no game, Frack,” the other man had teased.  “I thought you said you were gonna practice.”

Scrubbing at his face over the bathroom sink, Nick wracked his brains trying to connect the guy with previous dreams.  That merry face, those bright eyes, the brotherly affection…  Were they related?  Perhaps.  Nick toweled off and put all thought of the mystery man aside as he remembered what had caused him to rise so eagerly in the first place—his impatience to share his new-found powers with Lene.  He’d forced himself to go back to sleep each time he woke during the night, reminding himself that it was too early to wake his young companion, but Nick’s impatience had finally gotten the best of him and he hurried over to her bedside.

Kneeling over the little girl, he touched her shoulder and watched as she stirred from her slumber.  Lene yawned and made a grouchy face, pulling the quilt over head when she saw him.  “Whaddaya want?” she whined.  “S’too bright in here.”

“That’s because it’s morning.  Now, now… don’t be grumpy, kiddo,” Nick teased, climbing up onto the bed and tugging the blankets away from her.  “I want to show you something cool.”

She insolently buried her face in the pillow.  “Can’t it wait… ‘til after, y’know, breakfast?” came her muffled response.

Nick gently gripped her by the shoulders and encouraged the reluctant child to turn over and sit up, shaking his head at her.  “Nope, this is too cool to wait any longer, you grouch.  You’ve gotta check this out and then we’ll have breakfast.”  He turned to face the open door and held his palm out.  The hint of a smile touched his lips as Lene rubbed her bleary eyes with a tiny, balled-up fist and grudgingly did as he asked.

“What do you wanna show me?”

“Shhhh, just watch,” he said, narrowing his eyes.  Nick focused… focused…  The door began to quiver.  He heard a tiny gasp of surprise from the child as she sat up straight and looked at the door with greater interest.  Then all of a sudden it slammed shut with a loud bang that shook the door’s frame and made its brass knob rattle.  Lene jumped, nearly falling out of bed in astonishment, and grabbed on to Nick for support.

“Holy cow!” the nine-year-old exclaimed.

“Yeah, I know.  Cool, ain’t it?”  Nick had discovered quite by accident the night before that it was easier to hurl objects a short distance with great force than to guide them slowly through the air as Lene had done.  As a result, there was now a garbage bag full of broken dishware in the kitchen to prove it, which he explained to his young friend in full detail.

“That’s so good, Nick!” Lene said enthusiastically.  “Now we can practice together!”  She made a face then as her stomach growled audibly and clutched her hands to her belly, adding, “After breakfast.”

The two headed to the kitchen where, unfortunately, Nick’s efforts had left very few dishes to eat from, so they ended up scooping cereal into a couple of chipped mugs and downing it quickly before milk could seep through the cracks.  “We should probably move on to a different house, huh?” he suggested, finishing the last of his Fruity Pebbles.  He reached for the box and poured himself another serving.  “I’ve kind of trashed this place, sorry.”

“S’alright,” Lene replied through a mouthful of Cap’n Crunch, “prolly no one’s coming back here anyway and there’s plenty of other houses for us to go and see.  I got a funny feeling, though.  I think we should go through the back yard this time, Nick."

“Yeah?  You think so?  Well, once we’re finished eating I’ll grab my backpack and we can go.”

They raced through breakfast, excited by what new things they would do today.  In his hurry, Nick slopped milk onto the countertop and had to grab a towel to wipe it down.  Finishing first, Lene pushed away from the counter, "I'm done, I win!"  With a wave of her hand, she effortlessly sent her chipped dishware soaring across the room into the sink and skipped out of the kitchen.

Nick stared.  Though last night she had practically turned red straining to move dishes across the room, now after a night of sleep—without any further practice—she could do it without trying, without even the hint of a wobble in her technique.  And she didn’t even seem to notice the difference.  How had her abilities improved so much just overnight?  It made his own shaky attempts to move things look pitiful.  Finishing his breakfast, Nick decided to give his own powers another try and waved his hand the way Lene had, focusing on moving his dishes to the sink.  Instead of guiding smoothly like Lene’s hand, they flew across the room and shattered loudly against the wall above the sink, sending bits of china everywhere.  Nick flinched.  /How does Lene do it?/  This girl’s powers were unreal.

“Ready to go?” she was back and clutching his backpack and sneakers.  “What was that loud noise?”

“Uh… nothing.”  Nick turned and grabbed his things from her.  “Let’s go.”  Out the back door they went.  It opened onto a quaint yard landscaped with small trees and a winding gravel path that was dotted with larger stones along its edges.  Nick picked up one of these smooth flat stones, weighing it in his hand before tossing it to Lene.  “Here.  I want you to show me that again.”

“Huh?”

“In the kitchen, you made the dishes fly into the sink so easily even though last night it seemed really hard for you.  Can you do that again?”

“You mean like this?” she held out her hand and the stone sailed into a bed of rocks across the yard, too slowly and smoothly for her to have just tossed it.  “Why?”

“Whenever I try to move things, they kind of just go /boom/ instead of flying around smoothly like that.  Watch,” he held his hand out to another rock sitting at the roots of tree, this one larger than the last.  It shot up suddenly into the air, scattering leaves from the tree branches as it went, and flew high into the sky.  “Oops.”  His eyes followed the rock and he snatched Lene out of the way as it fell to the ground and fragmented into several pieces, sending chips of rock in their direction.

She laughed at him.  “I bet that wasn’t on purpose!” the girl giggled.  She stopped when she saw the expression on his face.  “Aww, don’t look so sad.  You just need practice is all.”  She made him do it again.  Then again, and again; they spent the better part of the next hour sending stones flying across the yard.  Nick found the rocks hard to control, and a smooth glide was much more difficult to maintain then just letting the rocks go flying randomly.  Sweat trickled down his scalp, across his temple and along the front of his ear.  Nick wiped it away with his sleeve and tried not to let himself get frustrated that what was like second nature to the little girl at his side was so challenging to him.  Lene was in an entirely different league.  Her abilities seemed to have magically increased ten times, and now objects soared around more quickly and steadily than they had the night before.  It was as if her previous unsteadiness and exhaustion had never even happened.  He, on the other hand, could barely keep his rocks from exploding against the fence and one particularly poor attempt sent a huge rock crashing through the wooden fence, smashing one of its planks.

“You broke it!”  Lene exclaimed and ran over to the gap in the fence to peer through.  “Hey, neat!  Check this out,” her small lithe body slipped easily through the hole left by the missing plank.

“Lene, don’t go off anywhere alone,” Nick called after her loudly but it was too late.  The gap in the fence, though perfect for Lene, was much too small for him to pass through so he tugged at the planks around it until they broke off.  He slipped through the fence to join her and found the girl standing beneath a great big wizened apple tree, gazing up into its gnarled branches.

“How old do you think it is?  Looks like a million years old!” she exclaimed.

“Nah, I don’t think it’s that old,” Nick remarked.  Still, the tree was rather aged.  Its leaves were dead and brown, scattered at its roots, leaving bare twisted boughs bent beneath the weight of shriveled gray apples.  Its trunk was warped and scarred so that the deformities looked like a snarling old face.  This, along with the spindly branches that sagged in their direction, lent the impression that the giant withered tree was standing over them like a predator about to pounce upon its prey.

“Ooooh, scary,” Lene said in a spooky voice then giggled.  She reached her hand up toward one of the tree boughs and an apple came sailing down into her palm.  Wrinkling her nose at it, she held it up at Nick.  “This doesn’t look very yummy… Prolly has worms inside it!”

“What do you mean?  It looks delicious,” he joked, snatching it from her hand and pretending to take a bite.

“Ewwwww, gross!” Lene exclaimed.  She reached her hand toward the branch above Nick’s head and mischievously sent a shower of gray apples down on him.

“You scamp!” he exclaimed, ducking and trying to dodge the hail of leathery old fruit.  He reached for the little girl with a playful swipe of his arm but missed, and she yelped then danced out of reach giggling and kicking up dirt.  Nick gave chase, but the apple tree was so wide around that Lene was able to stay just out of reach, keeping the broad tree trunk between them.  They ran around and around laughing and wearing a footpath into the earth around the tree.  In their distraction they did not see the great old apple tree begin to quiver, or the strange twisted face in the bark frown at them, or the mouth of its evil face begin to open wide revealing a huge gaping hole so dark that the bottom could not be seen.  With a creak of its roots the tree leaned over just as Lene skittered by and in a flash swallowed her whole.  She screamed as she fell into the cavern of its maw, but her cries were cut off as the mouth tightly shut and the old tree settled back into place.

A few wrinkled apples quivered and fell from their boughs, and then all was silent.  Nick stared dumbfounded at the place where Lene had been playing just a moment before; there were dainty footprints left where she had been standing.

“Lene!” Nick yelled, shocked.  “Lene, can you hear me?  Are you in there?”  There was no answer.  Nick stared closely at the twisted face, which had returned to its original snarl.  “Give her back,” he demanded loudly, aware that under any other circumstance he would have felt idiotic talking to a tree.  But Other World was a weird place and he had encountered no end of strange and abnormal things since he’d first woken up on that endless street of tract homes some weeks ago.  “I said give her back!”  Still no response.  “Lene, can you hear me?!” he tried one last time before turning away to think.

/There has got to be some way to make it open its mouth again,/ Nick thought, worriedly running his hands through his hair.  /What made the tree swallow Lene in the first place?/  He decided that the crabby old apple tree must have gotten annoyed at them somehow.  The only solution then was to make it so angry that it would open its mouth once more.

Nick tried all the things he and Lene had been doing before she was swallowed.  He ran around the trunk waving his arms and making lots of noise, but there was no response.  Then he tried to make showers of apples fall from the branches in case that was what had annoyed the tree before.  His movements, however, lacked the precision of Lene’s abilities and instead he made the withered fruit explode.  Leathery bits of tough apple skin and rotted pulp splattered Nick’s clothing and the floor.  Still, the disgruntled old face in the bark did not respond.  Frustrated, he kicked at the battered tree trunk, sending chips of dried bark flying everywhere.  “Let me in, damn you!” Nick screamed, kicking so hard his toes hurt. “You stupid tree!  I said, LET ME IN!”  He kicked again with all his might… and got nothing but air as the tree angrily opened its mouth wide and swallowed him whole.

Losing his balance, Nick went tumbling in head first and found himself rolling down a damp, earthy slope that led far below the apple tree.  The incline was so steep that he couldn’t check his momentum and ended up crashing and tumbling for a very long time until he landed with a thud at the bottom.  The impact knocked the wind from him, and Nick lied there clutching his chest and wheezing in pain.

When finally he regained his breath, Nick realized that the hole he’d fallen into was pitch black.  For a second he was uncertain whether his eyes were open or closed and, putting his hands to his face to check, nearly poked himself in the eye.  “Ow!”

“…Nick?”  A distant whisper.  “Is that you?”

“Lene?”  She sounded very far away.  “I can’t see you.”  Nick groped around in the dark, wishing his eyes would adjust, but because the cavern he’d fallen into lacked any light whatsoever, it remained a deep inky black.  “Lene?”  He thought he heard her somewhere in the distance, but it sounded like she was moving farther away.  Nick clambered to his feet to go after her and, with his hands out leading the way blindly, wandered in the direction from which he thought he’d heard her voice.  To his surprise the cavern was tall enough for him to stand in.  Nick wondered how far he had fallen and just how big the cave was.

“If only I had a flashlight to see with...  I really gotta remember to ask Lene to find one for me in one of these houses,” he murmured.  If it weren’t so dark, he could have gone much faster without worrying about walking into anything.  Not to mention that without a flashlight he was beginning to imagine all sorts of boogeymen and creepy crawlies lurking in the darkness, and Other World had already proven that there was no such thing as an overactive imagination.  All of a sudden, Nick’s foot struck a heavy object and he tripped, barely catching himself.  

“What was /that/?”  He reached for the space by his ankles and discovered a thick root protruding from the earth.  “Oh, just a root.  That’s perfectly normal,” Nick told himself.  After all, he was underground beneath an apple tree—albeit an evil apple tree that had swallowed him and his friend whole—so encountering a root was normal.  “Perfectly normal…” he repeated.  However, at that moment the root twitched and twined itself around his wrist.  “Gaaah!”  Nick jerked his hand away.  “Okay, not normal!”

He heard the sound of crunching soil as the root slid away from his hand and burrowed back into the ground.  Listening closely, Nick began to imagine that he could hear roots moving all around him.  Was he going crazy?  Nick freaked out and turned and fled, wondering what to do if he ran straight into a wall full of writhing roots.  Would they grab Nick, never to let him go?  And what about Lene?  She was so small, she’d never be able to fight them off.  He had to find her and get them out of that cave as soon as possible.

“Lene!” Nick called as loudly as he could.  “Lene, where are you?!  Can you hear me?”

“Nick…”  There it was again, that faint cry.

He thought that he saw a shimmer of light somewhere to his left and turned that way.  Was that her?  Had she managed to find a flashlight?  Something crept against his elbow and he yanked his arm away.  “Lene?!” Nick yelled.

“Nick!”  Her voice was much louder this time.  They called back and forth until the faint shimmer he’d spotted before appeared again and brightened before him, illuminating the entire chamber.  Nick was blinded momentarily.  As he stood there rubbing his eyes, a small figured hurled itself at him and threw its arms around his body.  “Nick!”  It was Lene.  “Did you see that big tree?  He ate me!  Oh, he must’ve eaten you too, huh, since you’re here…  But I’m so happy I found you!”

“Happy to see you too, kid, but could you point that flashlight somewhere else?  It’s freakin’ bright,” he added, squinting against the dazzling light in her hands.

“Oh, it’s not a flashlight,” the little girl told him and, dimming it until it was tolerable, showed him a round ball of light glowing in her hands.  “See?”

“Whoa, how’d you do tha—” Nick began, but now that he was no longer blinded anymore he was able to see the cave around them.  Its high, dark earthy walls were teeming with long, twisted roots that reached hungrily toward the two of them like the tentacles of some fierce starving creature.  They were practically surrounded.  Nick could tell from the look on Lene’s face that she had noticed, as well, and had been trying to find an escape from the apple tree’s dungeon.  “You know, on second thought, tell me later.  Do you know how to get out of here?”

“Maybe.  I think I found a tunnel that goes outside.”

“Okay, well do you remember how to get back there?  Why don’t we check it out together?”

The little girl took Nick’s hand, and he wondered whether it was for her sake or for his own.  Now that he could view his surroundings, he almost wished that he couldn’t.  The sight of those creepy pulsing roots gave him terrible chills and his disgust showed plainly on his face.  It was far more revolting than any monsters Nick might have imagined to be lurking in the dark.  The roots waved back and forth in a disorderly roiling heap, and Nick wondered just how he had avoided walking into them so far when it seemed that at any second he or Lene might be snatched up.

After a bit of wandering and backtracking, not to mention a few dead-ends, the pair finally arrived at the mouth of a low narrow tunnel that gleamed faintly with a distant light.  Lene confirmed that this was the way out.

“This?” Nick asked.  Peering down the hole, he could see thick tangles of short roots extending far into the passage.  “Is that even possible?”

“Yeah.  I think if we crawl, we can do it,” the little girl told him.  “I’ll go first ‘cause I have the light.  Are you ready?”

“I think so,” Nick said hesitantly.  He got down on his hands and knees and let her go first then followed closely behind.  It was an even tighter space than he had feared it would be.  Roots stretched at them from both sides and down from overhead, forcing them to crawl very slowly.  Although Lene was small enough that she could pass through just fine, Nick was much too large of a person to be crawling through tunnels the size of molehills, and it made him feel claustrophobic and tense.  The space was so narrow, in fact, that at times Nick swore he could feel the rough tip of a gnarled root brushing against the back of his neck or tugging at his backpack.  But whenever his nerves failed, he reminded himself that soon this would all be over, and he tried to think of all the nice things that awaited him outside.

“You know, when we get out of here, I want a nice hot shower—maybe two of them.  And then I’m gonna stretch out in bed and go to sleep with all the lights on,” Nick declared.  “I hate the dark.”

“Yeah, me too,” Lene agreed, “and I wanna dance!”

“Dance?”

“Yeah!  Will you dance with me, Nick?”

He chuckled, “Sure, I will, kid.  Anything’s better than crawling.”

The light of the tunnel grew slowly brighter, and Nick breathed a sigh of relief as he caught sight of the exit up ahead.  A burst of energy ran through his body, releasing his tension and fatigue.  Eagerly, he moved faster to keep up with Lene, who seemed to have gained her second wind, as well.

“We’re almost there!” she exclaimed.

At long last, the two of them rolled from the narrow mouth of the cave and into the open air, flopping themselves down onto a grassy knoll.  They shut their eyes, still sensitive from the darkness of the cave, tightly against the sun that shone high overhead and just lied there soaking in the warm luscious rays of light and heat and enjoying the cool, fresh breeze.

“We made it…” Nick breathed.  “We’re finally out of there…”  He sat up and stretched, blinking at the sunlight.  “Now let’s go and—” he stopped.  “Wait, where are we?”

End Notes:

 


P.S.  My other fic "On the Rails" http://absolutechaos.net/viewstory.php?sid=9453 has been nominated in three categories for the Felix Awards! ♥ I'd like to thank whomever nominated me, it is truly an honor.  If you haven't read "On the Rails" yet, please check it out!

Chapter 15: Light and Dark by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

This one’s dedicated to Julie (RokofAges75), whose amazing writing really inspired me to get back on track with ONH. I’m sorry it took me almost two years to write this =o but I promise you won’t have to wait as long for the next one.

Nick stared open-mouthed, in shock at their surroundings. He and Lene had emerged from the cavern at the bottom of a deep and narrow chasm that was dark all around except for the patch of grass on which they sat. A stream of sunlight trickled down from high above, shining into the ravine like a spotlight. Outside of that little circle of light was a darkness so black and thick with fog that the sunlight couldn't penetrate it. An illuminated pathway branched just beyond their patch of light in one direction around a bend, in the other down a long, narrow trail.

"Where are we?" Lene whispered, looking up in wonder.

Nick shook his head. "I dunno, kid, but I don't think we're gonna be able to climb our way out of this one." He followed Lene's gaze up the cliff face that stood towering on both sides above them. The sheer canyon wall shot straight up beyond the dark mist, stretching as high as he could see, and was too smooth to climb. Nick realized that they must have fallen beneath the apple tree for the longest time to have arrived here, and the only way out would be to follow the path of the ravine until they came upon an exit. But which way to go? They were supposed to be heading for the castle in the distance, yet Nick had no idea which path would lead them towards it. Since they couldn't see the castle from their location, they might easily choose the wrong direction.

Well, things could be worse, Nick decided. They could be back inside the cavern, trapped with those creepy crawly roots.

"It looks like we're going to have to pick a path," he said, looking over at Lene.

She clambered to her feet and looked back and forth between the two options that the trail presented. "Well... since we're going to the castle, we gotta go this way." She pointed to the path that disappeared around the corner.

"You're sure? How can you tell?"

A strange expression crossed the girl's face. "I just get this feeling about the castle sometimes. It's like..." Lene stopped and her expression returned to normal. She lifted her arms in a shrug."I dunno, Nick. I just know somehow. Magic, I guess?"

Nick was curious about what she had been about to say, but he knew that Lene couldn't always explain the way her powers worked so he decided not to press her. He got up and took her hand, and they began to walk along the narrow lighted path. Just beyond the bend the trail continued with twisty, turny curves edged in shadow and swirling mist.

They stuck close together, not saying much for a while until Lene asked, "Do apple trees always swallow people like that, Nick?"

"As far as I can remember, that's the first time I've ever seen that happen. But it was pretty freaky right?" he shivered, remembering the way the root had curled around his wrist. "Don't think I can ever eat an apple again... or sleep in the dark. Lucky for me, I got you for a night light, huh kid?" he joked. "How'd you do that anyway, that ball of light? Think you can tell me?"

"Hmm..." The pink tip of Lene's tongue peeked out from her mouth as she thought about it. "I kinda thought of something warm and bright and I held it in my hands until it just appeared. I can show you how to make one," she told him brightly.

"Really? That'd be awesome." Nick thought a power like that would come in handy, especially since he never could seem to find a flashlight.

"Sure! I'll show you when it gets dark ‘cause they're kinda hard to make in the daytime."

Contrary to their plans, however, the day refused to turn to night on their little path, and sunlight continued to shine down on them unwavering. Nick and Lene walked the entire time with only a short break for lunch. As the hours crept by; Nick began to grow suspicious, and with a moan he adjusted his backpack. "Geeze, it feels like we've been walking forever."

"How much longer until we get outta here?" Lene asked.

"Hopefully not too long. We only have enough food for a day or two. After that, we'll have to eat squirrels," Nick joked. The girl's eyes grew big and with a laugh he told her, "I'm just kidding, okay? I won't make you eat a squirrel."

Just as Nick spoke, a bushy gray-tailed squirrel scampered along the grass in front of them and stopped right in the middle of the path. It cocked its head to one side, observing them, and then ran off the trail into the shadowy mist, disappearing completely.

"Whoa, did you see that!" Lene exclaimed. She let go of Nick's hand and ran over to where the squirrel had vanished, examining the fog with curiosity. The little girl reached an arm out and waved her hand through the swirling air. "Brr! It's cold, Nick! That's so weird ‘cause it's all warm and sunny over here."

He joined her and cautiously reached an arm out to find that Lene was right. The shadowy air was freezing cold, like ice. Pulling back, he said, "I don't think we should mess around with that fog, kiddo. That's pretty weird."

"But don't you want to know where the squirrel went?" she insisted. "It just disappeared."

"Nope," Nick said resolutely. "I think you and I have gotten into enough trouble for one day. Let's stay on the trail." Putting his hand on her shoulder, he began to gently steer her away from the spot where the squirrel had vanished when something caught his eye. "Did you see that?" He turned back, narrowing his eyes as he tried to peer into the fog.

"See what, Nick? Was it the squirrel?"

"No, it was... like a flicker of light." He stared into the misty darkness, hoping to catch another glimmer but saw nothing. "You know what? Don't move. I wanna check this out."

"Okay, I'll come with you!" Lene announced.

"No, you stay right here. I'll only be a minute, okay?" Stepping forward, he walked into the mist and let himself be enveloped in its darkness. It was cold, even colder than when he had reached his hand into the shadow. Nick hugged his arms around himself and tried to let his eyes focus, but in the dark he could barely make out his own frosty plumes of breath as they got snatched away into the fog. Glancing behind him, he saw no sign of Lene or the sunny path from which he'd come from. Nick carefully took a few steps forward then stopped because he had no idea where he was going. For a second he wondered if he should turn back before he lost his bearings. After all, there was no sign of whatever it was he had seen earlier.

Nick felt the fog rolling around him, cold and damp like a wet shroud. Damn, I wish I learned that night light trick from Lene, he thought just before he felt something tug on his sleeve.

"Ahh!" Nick jumped. A small figure threw itself at his legs and held on tight. "Lene, is that you? I thought I told you to stay put!" he yelped and pried her off.

"I did, but you were gone forever. I started to get worried so I came looking for you."

"What are you talking about? I wasn't even gone a minute. Jesus, you scared the friggin' crap out of me!" He kicked at the ground to let off some tension, and ran his hands through his damp hair. It took him a second to realize that Lene was crying. Turning to her in the dark, Nick knelt down to the girl's height and put his around her. "Hey, what's wrong? I'm sorry I yelled, okay? You just freaked me out is all."

"You weren't gone just a minute," she sobbed. "I waited for an hour! I got s-so scared that something happened to you, or that you left me..."

"Huh? ...An hour?" Nick shook his head in disbelief. There was no way an hour could have passed, unless time flowed differently here in the darkness than it had back on the sunny path.  "Well, I'm sorry, kiddo... I wasn't trying to scare you, and you should know that I would never just leave you, okay? I swear, over here it only felt like a minute. Time must've gone screwy on us."

She sniffled. "It's cold in here..."

"Yeah, like a freezer, right?" Nick stood up. "Come on, let's look around for a bit and maybe that thing I saw will come up again. If not, we'll head back before we turn into popsicles."

"Want me to make a light? S'dark in here!"

"Nah, not right now. The light might wash out that thing that I saw. There was like this flicker-wait, over there." He groped for Lene's hand in the darkness and pulled her along with him. They walked towards the little glimmer of brightness, their clothes growing soggy from the mist, and somehow managed not to bump into anything. Although not too long before they had been trapped in a narrow canyon, they now seemed to be roaming across a wide, endless plain with only that beacon of light to guide them.

Gradually the light grew stronger and bigger and solidified into the shape of a tunnel, which they walked through until they emerged from the fog in a low valley. The sun had just begun to set behind huge mountains capped with snow, turning their peaks purple against the fading red and orange sunset. Mist billowed all around Nick and Lene, and it poured from the tunnel behind them into a grassy meadow below, eventually dissipating into the wind.

"Hey, look! Over there!" Lene tugged excitedly on his hand and pointed. Nestled deep in the meadow between two mountains was a cottage, its windows dark in the fading light.

"Do you think they have a fridge?" Nick grinned. Eager to find out, they took off for the little house at a mad dash, running through the tall grass until they arrived breathlessly at the front door. The cottage was picturesque, with a thatched roof and walls covered in ivy. A small stone well stood in the garden beside it, which was overgrown with fruits and vegetables that had long been unattended. Nick had to admit that the whole scene was rather, well, pretty-for lack of a better word-and looked like it had come out of a painting.

The wooden door of the cottage had no lock, just a latchstring, which Nick tugged on and then pushed the door in. "Honey, I'm home!" he jokingly called into the dark room before turning to Lene. "Hey, show me that light thingy of yours, will ya?"

With a nod, the girl cupped her hands together and when she opened them again, she was holding a little ball of light that steadily glowed brighter and brighter. The inside of the cottage filled with light, and as his eyes adjusted, Nick saw that it was one big chamber. There was a large stone hearth in front of the fireplace, a wooden table with little wooden chairs, and a big bed in one corner. All along the walls were shelves covered with knickknacks and tall candlesticks, as well as wooden trunks on which stood short thick candles. Digging through the pockets of his backpack, Nick fished out a lighter, which he had uncovered back when they were going through various houses unlocking things, and he carried it around the room lighting candles one by one.

Lene shut the door of the cottage and grabbed one of the already lit candles to help Nick finish lighting the room, and before long everything was bathed in warm candlelight. "I don't see a fridge," she said with a frown.

"Yeah, you're right," Nick agreed. "But I bet there's a pantry or something. Maybe... in here?" he said hopefully, checking a cabinet not too far from the hearth. It revealed a small, empty closet with bare shelves.  "Oh, I guess not."

"Nick!" Lene ran over to stand beside him. "You forgot to unlock it," she reminded him, shutting the door and pulling it open again to reveal a pantry stocked with food. On the floor there were bins of potatoes and onions and bulbs of garlic, while the shelves were lined with jars of red and orange and green fruits and vegetables, and a huge smoked ham hung from the ceiling.

Nick's mouth watered as he eyed all the food. "I'll take one of everything."

***

The sound of a log crackling in the hearth as it split in two woke Lene in the middle of the night. The fire that Nick had lit to cook their supper had burned down to a soft glow, and in its dusky light she could see him curled up on the floor on a makeshift bed of thick quilts, which he had dug out of one of the trunks. Lene sat up in bed, wrapping her own quilt more tightly around her body as she thoughtfully studied Nick's sleeping figure. He had kicked off his covers during the night, and she could see the strong lines of his tattooed arms, the shape of his broad back, and the curve of his spine as it disappeared into the waistline of his pajama bottoms. Watching him, Lene contemplated all of the time they had spent together and how Nick had grown to be just as dear to her as her own parents were.

She didn't understand how she could have such vivid memories of being raised by her mother and father when she knew that she'd been travelling with Nick since she was a baby. It also didn't make sense that he had discovered her all alone in an empty house. If Lene's memories were correct and her parents had been murdered, then Nick should have found her with Günter because he had been the one taking care of her after her parents' death. Surely Günter wouldn't abandon her in that house for Nick to find, but how else could she have gotten there?

 Lene also didn't understand why she was aging so fast, how one day she could be five years old and the next day she could be nine. Nick had assured her that there was nothing wrong with her, yet still Lene wondered. He was the same age from one day to the next and didn't make any weird and sudden age jumps. Assuming she was from Other World-which she did, considering that Nick had found her here-maybe people from this place matured faster than people did where he was from? Lene didn't have anyone to ask about it since all the inhabitants of Other World had vanished, but it made sense. Did this mean then that she was going to grow old very fast? That she would die before Nick did?

The thought scared Lene. She adored Nick more than anything, and she didn't want to be separated from him. Nick was her best friend. He was nice, he was so funny, he told her bedtime stories, and most importantly, he always looked out for her. She could remember not having a lot of friends while growing up because her family was always moving around, but Nick had always been there for her, and she knew that he always would be-or at least he would until he went back to where he belonged.

Nick had told Lene where he had to go in order to get back home-Nightingale Hill. And Lene knew that it was her duty to lead him there. Something deep inside told her that she needed to show him the way to the castle in the distance, which called for her like an imperceptible tug on her body. Yet that castle scared her. Sometimes at night when Lene couldn't fight it, strange images invaded her dreams, and she saw herself running through palace corridors, staring at beautiful tapestries, hiding behind tall suits of armor. When had she been there before, and why was Nightingale Hill calling for her?

Lene didn't want to go there, not if that place would take Nick away once and for all. Of course, she wanted to help him, she really did, and he seemed so eager to get back home, wherever his home was. But why couldn't they just continue on here in Other World and stay together always? The thought of losing Nick, the only person Lene had left, was too much to bear. Without Nick, she would be left all alone in Other World. Who else did she have to turn to?

Günter, the thought came to her uncontrollably. Lene shook her head. She was just as confused about Günter as she was about everything else. Her memories told her that he was the nice man who had saved her when her parents were murdered, but Nick kept insisting that Günter was a bad person. Nick said that the castle belonged to Günter and that he was trying to hurt them. Lene supposed it made sense that the castle belonged to him, especially since he sometimes appeared in her dreams of running through the castle halls. But it was difficult to reconcile the bad things Nick had told her about Günter with the positive things from her own memories. How was it possible that he could be their enemy? Besides, if Günter really was a bad guy, and the castle belonged to him, then why did they need to go there?

None of it made any sense. All Lene understood was that she didn't want to lose Nick. Earlier that day when she had sat in the canyon waiting for him to come back, she had gotten so scared as time passed that he had left her. She'd already lost her parents; she couldn't stand to lose him, as well. But so far Lene had only been leading Nick closer and closer to the castle, which would separate them forever. It had to stop. Somehow, she had to find a way to keep Nick from Nightingale Hill.

He had told her he would never leave her. She just had to make sure he would keep his word.

 

Chapter 16: Oblivion by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

I am very excited to bring this chapter to you! I'm a liar and a procrastinator, and it takes me forever to update. However, this year I have resolved NOT to be George R R Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire) and make you wait six years before the next update. So here we have a chapter, and I'm about a third of the way through the next chapter, and I plan to finish On Nightingale Hill before the end of this year, so help me God. Thank you, to everyone still reading!


Lene awoke to the smell of bacon the next morning. Her eyes were still bleary as she sat up in bed and brushed her dark curly hair out of her eyes, but she could hear the sound of an egg being cracked followed by the sizzle of a frying pan. "Mmm… brekkers!"

Crouched on the hearth over a cast iron skillet, Nick glanced over his shoulder at the sound of her voice. "Mornin', sunshine. You seemed kinda tired today so I let you sleep in."

Lene looked out the nearest window and saw that the sun was already up and shining brightly in a clear blue, sky.

Rising from the fireplace, Nick walked over to the table, skillet in hand. "Hey, can you believe it--I found a chicken outside, a real frickin' chicken. I followed it for like twenty minutes 'til it went back to its nest, and there were all these eggs!"

"You chased a chicken?" The little girl giggled, throwing back the quilted covers and hopping out of bed.

"Just for you, kiddo. Now come here and have some before it gets cold." He tipped the contents of the skillet onto a wooden dish and passed the plate and a fork to her. "When you're all done eating, I think I found a way to get to that castle."

"Oh," Lene said, her mouth full. She wished they wouldn't have to take off so soon, especially since they had found a nice place to stay with plenty of things to eat. The cottage was cozy and welcoming, and with the late morning light filtering in through the windows the room was bathed in a warm, golden glow. If only she could find a way to keep Nick's mind off that castle.

"Geeze, kid, slow down. You're, like, eating your own hair," Nick said, reaching over to sweep a loose lock of hair away from her plate.  He dipped a wooden cup into a bucket of water beside the table and passed it to her. "Here, you thirsty?" 

Nodding, Lene took the cup from him and drank with a loud slurp. Nick rose from the table and began to pace around the room as he talked. "So I was walking all around the valley this morning. This place is like a painting, I can't believe how green the grass is and how purple the mountains are. I mean, are mountains even supposed to actually look purple? I don't remember. Anyway, if you keep walking down the valley, you come to this pass through the mountains, and through there I could see the castle. It doesn't seem so far away as before either, so we must be getting close I think, like no more than a few days away."

Lene mumbled something, which made Nick stop pacing and turn to look at her. "What was that?"

"I said… Do we have to go? We just found this place, and it's nice and has lots of food, and it doesn't feel scary like every other place we've been to. I like it here." She held her breath, waiting to see how Nick would respond.

He smiled and walked back over to the table to take a seat on the chair beside her. Reaching over, he put one big hand on her head and mussed her hair. "Yeah, I like this place, too. We don't have to go right away, but you know we can't stay here forever, kiddo."

"But why not? There's chickens and there's eggs. We could have eggs everyday!"

"Because we don't belong here. This isn't our home." He smiled patiently and told her, "I'm sure they have chickens and eggs back in the World where I'm from, and the key to getting back is that castle. We have to go there."

"Says who?" Lene stuck out her lower lip, giving Nick a huge pout.

"Well Arthur, for starters. Remember him, from the forest? He said that the castle is some sort of doorway between Other World and my world. And also… well, you. Ever since you were old enough to talk, you've been insisting that we have to go to that castle."

It was true. Up until now, she'd only been speeding along the process that would take Nick away from her. Well, that was going to have to change. Somehow. "I don't remember," she lied.

"Okay, if you say so… either way, you should finish your food and we'll take a walk down the valley. Maybe seeing the castle again for yourself will help jog your memory."

Lene pushed the food around on her plate sulkily, trying to prolong breakfast as much as possible while she watched Nick from the corner of her eye. He went around the little cottage, magically unlocking various cupboards, drawers, and closets looking for anything that might be useful to them on their travels and piling them neatly into the center of the room. She had no idea how she was going to convince him not to go to the castle, but instead to stay here in Other World with her. Crying had never seemed to convince her parents to change their minds once they had made a decision, but would it work on Nick?

He was just digging around in the closet when he made a shout of discovery. "Hey, check it out!"

Lene hopped off of her seat to go take a look as Nick dragged a large black trunk out into the main room, its lid wide open. Peering inside, she saw the gleam of wood amidst folds of dark velvet cloth, which Nick pulled out to reveal a beautiful classical guitar. The bright cedar top of the instrument had been detailed with elaborate marquetry along the edges of the body and around the sound hole, while the fretboard was done in richly hued rosewood marked with gold frets. The tuners were gold plated and carved ivory, finely shaped into round tuning keys.

"Wow, this is gorgeous…" he whispered almost reverently.

"Do you know how to play it?" Lene asked.

"You know what, I think I do…" He gathered the guitar into his arms, positioning it in front of his body. As his hand moved over the instrument's elegant neck, Lene could sense magic rising off of it—very faintly at first, but the longer Nick held the guitar the more pronounced the magic became. It was a complicated enchantment, and Lene could only understand a little bit of it, but in a flash she realized that it had the power to make one forget. Her mouth formed a tiny 'o' of surprise.

Oblivion, the guitar sang in harsh discord as Nick gave the strings a light strum. They rang decidedly off key. "Wonder when's the last time this thing's been tuned," he mused aloud and began to fiddle with the tuning keys on the head of the guitar, plucking at the strings one at a time.

"Nick, don't…" Lene began, not sure if she should warn him. She had no idea why anyone would enchant a guitar to make one forget, but an opportunity seemed to have fallen right into her lap. Already she could see a glazed look coming over Nick's eyes as the spell took hold.

"There we go, I think I got it," he said and strummed again. This time the strings rang in harmony, and it was almost as though the sound swirled through the air and spun itself tightly around Nick, who was blissfully unaware. "Sorry, kid, were you saying something?" he asked, looking up from the guitar at her.

"Uh… Could you... play me a song?" she asked with a nervous smile.

***

Nick could play, all right. He knew countless songs that Lene had never heard, and his voice was so beautiful that she wanted nothing more than to sit and listen to him play all day. And that was just what they did. For hours Nick played song after song--pop songs, ballads, classic rock, even a few kids songs to entertain her--and Lene sat and listened, mesmerized by the beauty of it. It wasn't just the guitar, so gorgeous and melodious, that had captivated her but Nick's voice, too. At times it was so clear and pure, others husky and soulful, filled with deep longing.

Before they knew it the day had slipped away, and Lene's stomach was growling. Nick set the guitar aside with a laugh. "God, what happened to the time? Let's eat something, I'm starving." They cooked dinner together with some vegetables picked from the overgrown garden, while Nick chattered away about his new discovery.

"I can't believe this!" he enthused. "I feel like my memory's coming back to me. I know all these songs. I must be, like, a musician or something back home, right?"

"…right," Lene gave him a wan smile. Even though Nick hadn't brought up the castle since this morning, he didn't seem to have forgotten about going home either.

"Well, when we're finished eating, I can play some more for you!" he said excitedly. "Maybe if I play enough, I can remember more about who I am."

He played late into the evening by candlelight until Lene dozed off, unable to stay awake and listen any longer, and when she awoke the next morning he was playing again, still seated at the same chair by the window. She wasn't sure if Nick had even slept.

"Oh sorry, did I wake you?" he asked.

"Did you play all night?" Lene said in surprise, sitting up on the stuffed mattress. She grabbed the nearest quilt and wrapped it around her shoulders against the cold morning air.

"No, that's crazy!" Nick laughed. "But I couldn't sleep well, so I got out of bed a little while ago. Are you cold?" he asked, noticing her shiver. "Let me light a fire." Gently setting the guitar aside, he rose and bustled around the hearth, and before long a warm fire was crackling away.

Lene went out to fetch water from the well, leaving Nick to get breakfast started. Her breath rose in frosty plumes as she worked the well's lever, pumping water into the wooden bucket she'd brought from the kitchen. She felt a little unsettled by how Nick had looked when she woke up--as though he hadn't moved from his place by the window at all, just sat there playing guitar all night--but brushed the feeling aside. If the enchantment was working to make Nick forget about the castle, she should just let it do its work and not worry about it.

When Lene went back in, Nick was chopping some vegetables for breakfast omelets. "Do you like zucchini?" he asked, holding up a long green squash.

"Looks weird." Lene wrinkled her nose.

"Ha, well you're gonna eat it anyway," Nick told her and proceeded to chop it up.

She dragged the bucket over to the kitchen table and sat down, watching him cook. She observed in silence, listening to the rhythmic staccato of the kitchen knife on the cutting board. Nick was humming a song she didn't know.

"What song is that?" Lene asked him.

"I'm trying to remember… it has this amazing guitar part that I really want to try and play." Humming a little more, he began to sing, "Guilty roads to an endless love… There's no control, are you with me now? Your every wish will be done…They tell me, show me the mea--hey!" he stopped suddenly. "That's it. The song is called 'Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely.' It's off of Millennium."

"Off of what?" Nick was saying a lot of things that she didn't understand. "Mill… m&m?

"Millennium. It was, like, one of the biggest albums of all time. We worked so hard on it, me and the guys…" he trailed off, his brows furrowing. "The guys… why can't I remember? I feel like I should." He set the kitchen knife down and walked away from the table, deep in thought, heading for the guitar across the room. "Maybe if I play some more…" At that moment Nick stumbled, tripping over the things he'd left in the center of the room while preparing their travel gear the day before. "Ahh! What is all this junk doing just lying here in the middle of the floor?"

"You--" Lene began but caught herself quickly, "I'll get it. I'll put it away." Nick didn't seem to have noticed. Already, he had picked up the guitar and was working his way through a difficult section of the song. /He doesn't remember. He forgot why he pulled all those things out/, she realized. 

There was a coat that looked like it would fit her, some warm clothes for Nick, and a backpack and satchel filled with matches and other sundries, including… baby powder? Lene had no idea why Nick might think they needed baby powder, but she stuffed it and all the other things on the floor in the closet. Out of sight, out of mind.

Nick was stilling working on his song when she was done, so she finished preparing breakfast and carried a plate of omelet and toast over to him. "Here you go."

"Oh thanks, kid," he looked up from the guitar and quickly set it aside. "Sorry, I got distracted. I can't wait to play it for you."

"I can't wait to hear it!" she said excitedly. Then in a more careful voice,"…So, anything you wanna do today, Nick?"

He shrugged. "I dunno. After breakfast, I was thinking of splitting more wood for the fire. I saw some logs and a hatchet out back. I think we need more eggs, too, so we should hunt down that chicken I found yesterday and see if there are any more of them out there."

Lene's heart skipped a beat. No mention of the castle. "Oh, anything else?"

"Not really. Maybe try to do something about that crazy garden. It's full of weeds. And play the guitar, of course."

It had worked. The spell had really worked! Nick had completely forgotten his plan about going anywhere, which meant that they could stay at the cottage together. "Thank you," Lene mouthed silently, looking at the guitar leaning against the wall. Whoever had enchanted that guitar, and for whatever reason, she owed them one.

***

They spent the next few days tending to the little cottage and its garden. Walking around the meadow, the two of them found a stray cow and her calf, which they led back to the cottage and tethered to a post, as well as a dozen chickens with nests full of eggs. Lene kept Nick away from the far end of the valley, which she knew led to the castle, but he didn't seem very interested in wandering far from their new home anyway. In fact, as the days passed by, Nick didn't seem particularly interested in anything but playing guitar and going through the motions of eating and sleeping.

Lene didn't notice at first, as she was busy tending to their new livestock and playing house. She had named the cow Daisy and the calf Sunshine, and she spent hours each day brushing their coats until they gleamed. Since Nick was busy working on his music, Lene talked to her new animal friends instead and told them how terribly excited she was that she and Nick were going to stay in the cottage forever, and that he would always be there to play games, tell stories, and sing to her. 

But it wasn't long before Nick's withdrawal became so pronounced that there was no missing it. Sometimes when Lene called his name, Nick would have a far off look in his eyes, as though he weren't hearing her. His favorite place became the seat at the kitchen table closest to the window, where he spent days playing song after song. When we wasn't playing, he passed the hours absently staring off into the distance, just holding the guitar in his arms. Lene took care of everything else--watering the farm animals, tending the garden, and preparing their meals by herself.

By the end of their first week staying at the cottage, she knew she had made a huge mistake. She had to draw Nick out of his stupor somehow. Maybe if she got him talking about his life again?

Lene called to him from across the room, but it was difficult to get his attention. "Nick… Nick…! …NICK!" The last time she spoke very loudly, walking up to him and waving her hands in front of his face.

Nick blinked. "Oh, sorry, kiddo. I didn't hear you. What's up?"

"Nick, tell me a story. One about those guys you made music with? The mill m&m guys," she said.

"What are you talking about?" He smiled at her quizzically. "Hey, I got a great idea. How about I play you a song instead. Have you heard this one?" And he launched into a poppy, upbeat tune, singing without a care in the world.

This was bad. Nick seemed to have no interest in anything she said. What if one day, he just stopped responding all together? As Nick sang, the setting sun shone in through the window and casted orange and gold beams across his face. Somehow the light had a sinister glow to it from the guitar's spell, which swirled around him, and Lene could see the enchantment for what it really was--a curse. She had to do something about it.

"I'm going to the bathroom," she announced, though Nick wasn't paying attention anyway, and grabbed the lantern off the hook by the door. However, instead of heading to the outhouse she walked over to the fence where Daisy and Sunshine were tethered. The big cow mooed gently and swished her tail as Lene approached.

"Hey, girl…" she whispered, reaching for the rope attached to Daisy's collar. She untied it and gave Daisy a firm smack on the rump. "Go!" With a start the cow took off at a run into the fading light of the meadow. Lene summoned up her best tears and then headed back into the cottage, bursting through the door.

"Nick, Nick! Daisy's goooooone!" she wailed. "I went to check on her, and-and she wasn't… she wasn't there!" Her loud cries broke through Nick's daze.

"What happened, kid? Calm down." He blinked several times, as though trying to bring the world into focus.

"I don't know, but…" she forced the tears out, "Daisy wasn't there where I left her. What if something bad happened to her?!"

Nick set the guitar down. "It's okay. She couldn't have gone far. Why don't you stay here, and I'll go look for her? Make something to eat while I'm gone."

Lene nodded, sniffling loudly. He took the lantern from her and went out into the night to look for the wayward cow. As soon as the door shut behind him, Lene went to the window to watch until Nick was out of sight. Then she ran back outside and around to the woodpile, where he usually split timber for firewood. There, wedged into an old stump was a large hatchet, which Lene planned to use to make kindle out of the cursed guitar and set Nick free. She grabbed the handle and pulled.

Nothing happened. Nick had driven the hatchet into the tree stump too deeply. Gripping it with both hands, Lene braced her foot against the stump for leverage and pulled again. Still nothing. Her hands slipped and she fell backward, landing on her bottom with a hard thump. This was no good. She rubbed her bottom as she climbed to her feet and looked at the hatchet with determination. Just because she was nine years old didn't mean a farm tool could get the best of her.

When Lene grabbed the handle once more, she closed her eyes and focused on pulling the hatchet out not only with her hands, but with her will. Slowly, the blade wiggled free from the stump, and she stumbled back nearly landing on her bottom again.  Lene managed to keep her balance, though the hatchet was much heavier than she had expected. No time to waste, she marched with determination back into the house and stood before the guitar.

It looked perfectly normal, albeit exceptional beautiful, leaning against the wall where Nick had left it. Who could've known that such an innocuous-looking instrument harbored such a powerful curse? Lene knew though, and she had let the enchantment take over the mind of the person dearest to her. It was time to undo her wrong. She closed her eyes, hoisting the hatchet high above her head, ready to deliver a crushing blow to the instrument. Lene willed all of her power into the strike and was just about to swing when, all of a sudden, the axe handle was wrenched from her grasp.

"What the hell are you doing?!" Nick shouted, throwing the hatchet aside. His eyes were blazing with a look she had never seen in them before.

Lene shrank away from him. "I…"

He ignored her, gathering the guitar into his arms possessively. "What is WRONG with you? What the hell is freaking wrong with you?!" Angrily he stomped over to the kitchen table, grabbed a wooden chair, carried it to the far end of the room, slammed the chair down in the opposite corner facing the wall, and pointed. "Sit down!" he barked. He looked so furious the veins in his neck were standing out.

Lene scurried over to the chair and sat down. "For how long?" she asked meekly.

"Until I say so! No supper for you, and don't you dare turn around until I say you can get up," Nick said imperiously. "And if I hear so much as a peep out of you, I'll be so mad, I don't know what I'll do!" Before long, Lene could hear the sound of furious strumming as he vented his anger with music.

Dinner that night was awkward and silent. Nick ended up bringing her a hunk of bread and some water, but he only grunted when she said thank you. The bread tasted as dry as cotton in her mouth. Lene bit her lip, trying to fight off the tears that were genuine this time. She regretted ever letting Nick play the stupid guitar. She had wanted him to forget about the castle, but he had forgotten about everything else, as well. How much longer before Nick forgot about her, too?

 

End Notes:

Many thanks to whomever nominated On Nightingale Hill for Most Creative story in the 2012 Felix Awards. Stay tuned for the next update SOON!

Chapter 17: The Chase by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

I'm really happy to be posting an update again so soon! This one's for Steph :> It begins and ends with a chase.


 

That night as Nick slept holding the guitar tightly to protect it from Lene, she sat and studied him, trying to untangle the enchantment that had wrapped so tightly around his mind. Pulling at the spell was like plucking uselessly at strings she didn't know how to play. Every bit of magic she unwrapped from Nick, another came from the cursed guitar holding on to him tightly. That guitar was the key. She had to get rid of it somehow, so she would be free to undo the spell. But how, when the last time she'd taken it away from him, his reaction had been so strong, almost violent?

Through the darkest hour of the night the girl sat watch and plotted.

At first morning light, Lene slipped quietly out of bed and shrugged into the small coat Nick had found for her in the closet. It was still a little too large for her and went down past her knees, so she had to roll up the sleeves a bit. She shouldered one of the bags that Nick already packed and buckled on her shoes. As Lene stood in the open doorway, her heart beat so loudly she thought it would wake him. She lifted her hand to his sleeping form from across the room, closed her eyes, and pulled. The guitar wrenched free from Nick's embrace and came sailing into her arms. 

Lene felt the enchantment reacting to the touch of her body, and the curse reached for her mind with its song of Oblivion. She batted the spell away. As long as she didn't try to play the instrument, she could fight off its magic.

With a start Nick jerked awake and stood up from the chair he had been sleeping in. His body swayed, befuddled with sleep. "What's happening?" He spotted Lene across the room standing in the doorway with the guitar. His eyes narrowed. "Where are you going with that?"

"I'm sorry, Nick."

In a split-second he charged at her, leaping with a suddenness that made Lene take a step back. She waved her hand, sending the stuffed mattress from the bed flying into him, knocking him to the floor. Then she shut the front door and ran. 

"Please don't open. Please don't open. Please don't open," she willed, trying to seal the door with magic as best as she could. But it was weak and wouldn't hold Nick for long.

The quiet vale was awash in pale gray light that showed her the way. Before he had been ensnared by the spell, Nick had told Lene that Nightingale Hill was visible further down the valley. She could feel the faint tug from the castle that was always there, inexplicably pulling her towards it. She ran through the tall grass, which swayed in the crisp morning breeze. Its dew soaked her skirt, plastering it to her legs, and the bottom of her coat hung damp and heavy. Lene wished she knew a spell that would make her fly.

At the far end of the valley, she looked back and her heart leapt into her throat. The wooden door of the cottage was splintered and broken, and Nick had just begun to give chase across the meadow. She had a few minutes' lead on him, but he was much bigger and faster than she was. Lene turned and bolted.

If Nick caught her, she didn't think he could actually harm her, but she didn't want to wait and find out. She came to the narrow pass between the mountains that Nick had described, and there she saw framed in the sky between the two mountains a cold sliver of white stone, Nightingale Hill. It was bigger than she'd ever seen it before, near enough for her to make out its twisting parapets and impossibly high towers that reached for the heavens. Beneath Lene's feet, the grass of the valley gave way to dry scrub and a worn gravel path. Her wet shoes lost traction, and she slipped on the loose gravel and went down, scraping her outer leg all the way up her thigh as her dress and coat rode up around her hips. Tears sprung to her eyes, and she smarted from the pain.

"Lene! You can't run from me forever! Give it back, and I promise I won't get mad!" Nick's voice echoed across the valley and off the sides of the mountain pass.

She gave a low moan of dread. How was he catching up so quickly? The girl scrambled to her feet and collected the guitar, which seemed no worse for wear though she had dropped it in her fall. For a moment she wondered if it were indestructible. Best hope not. Favoring her scraped leg, she continued on with a shuffling gait. Her lungs burned and she was gasping for breath, but somehow Lene managed to stay ahead of Nick. The trail wound back and forth between the mountains and then opened suddenly to join a wide thoroughfare that led directly to the next town. 

By this time, Lene was tired and limping and unsure of how much further she could go. She was coming up to a large artifact of jagged stone at the side of the road. "Welcome to…" it declared, but the name of the town had been scratched out long ago by someone or something.

And then she saw him. Nick burst through the mountain pass, his hair a wild golden mess, and he looked like a snarling beast that was about to froth at the mouth at any second. When he spotted Lene down the road, he came running at her, his eyes livid and rolling with madness. Nick closed the hundred or so yards between them in what felt like a matter of seconds. There was nowhere to run.

In sheer terror, Lene burst into tears. A sudden rush of adrenaline propelled her feet, and she launched herself at the jagged welcome stone, blindly swinging the guitar through the air. It exploded with an ugly twang. She swung and swung, bits of wood splintering and flying all around her until the broken instrument hung limply in her hands. She could sense its magic disperse into the air and float away. Then she turned and reached out for Nick who was nearly upon her, grabbed a hold of the spell enchanting him, and pulled with all her might. His body hurled into hers, knocking her over. They fell at the side of the road, a tangle of bodies rolling over and over in the brush and weeds. 

When at last they came to a stop, Nick wasn't moving. Lene lay there beside him for the longest time, gasping in exhaustion and crying with relief that it was over. When at last she sat up, her hair was tangled in her face, full of dried bits of grass and dirt and wet with her tears. She pushed it back to look at Nick's motionless body. His eyes were open, and he was looking up at her expressionlessly. Had it not worked? Was the spell still upon him?

Finally, Nick blinked. "Lene, where are we?" he asked, seriously confused. "…And why are you crying?"

She threw her arms around him and started sobbing so hard she felt her heart would burst.

***

It took forever for Nick to piece together what had happened as he couldn't get Lene to stop bawling for more than a minute. The last thing he really remembered was finding the guitar and trying to play it, and from there everything became a blur. Based on Lene's fragmented explanations, he was able to gather that the guitar had been cursed with a powerful spell that made him so obsessed with playing he forgot everything else. When she finally managed to take it away from him, Nick had chased Lene all the way to the next town before she was able to destroy the guitar and lift the spell.

The little girl had gotten thoroughly bruised and scraped in the process. Cradling her in his arms, he carried her into town and unlocked the first house he came to, a large two story with red shuttered windows. The outside was shingled in natural wood siding, and the inside of the house had a rustic, woodsy feel.

"Don't cry… don't cry…" Nick whispered soothingly and stroked Lene's tangled hair as he carried her down the hall. Setting her on a bathroom counter, he unlocked the drawers and medicine cabinets looking for disinfectant. He found some, along with cotton pads and bandages. "Hold on just a second," he told her and then went to look for towels, which he discovered in a linen closet in the hallway.

Nick set Lene's backpack on the floor and helped her out of her coat then turned on the tap and let the water run until it was warm. The nine year old had stopped crying for the moment, but her body shook with dry sobs. "Sorry, but this might hurt a bit. You should bite down on this." He gave her a small, fluffy hand towel. "Here, open your mouth… Try to breathe through your nose, okay?"

When she was ready, Nick flushed out her wound with warm water, rinsing away the dirt and gravel, and then disinfected the scrape, which ran up the side of her left calf all the way to the middle of her thigh. Silent tears were streaming down Lene's face from the pain, but she sat and bore it until Nick was done. There wasn't much blood anymore, so he wrapped her leg loosely in a light cotton bandage with some antibiotic gel he'd found in one of the drawers.

"My brave girl," he smiled at her encouragingly when he was finished. 

Lene shook her head, her face screwing up tightly for another round of crying. "Nooooooo, not brave… it was all my fault." 

"Don't say that. If anything, I'm the one to blame. I'm so sorry I scared you. It wasn't your fault, baby."

"B-b-but it was! I knew, I KNEW what it was doing and I didn't stop it. I…" The nine year old didn't look at him, but her eyes brimmed with fresh tears.  "You're going to get mad at me if I tell you…" she whispered.

"No way," he told her, placing a hand on her back and rubbing gently. He was a bit alarmed because, as far as he could recall, he'd never seen anyone cry as much as she had been doing in the past hour. Still, whatever the problem was, it couldn't be as bad as she was making it out to be. "Just tell me what's wrong."

"…I don't want you to go away, Nick."

"Huh?" Her response threw him off. "What are you talking about, kid?"

"If we find that castle, you're going to go leave me. I'll be stuck here in Other World by myself while you go back home. I'll never see you again. I don't want to lose you!" she cried.

"Lene…" Nick had never considered what would happen to her once he got to the castle and found his way out of this place.

She continued on, tears streaming down her cheeks anew. "So when we found the guitar in that house… I let it curse you. I knew that it had a bad spell on it. I could have stopped it, but I wanted you to forget about going away so that we could stay together at the cottage with our cows and chickens forever. I'm so sorry, Nick!"

He was a bit shocked. "You let it curse me?" Nick repeated.

"I did it because I don't want you to leave me."

"Kid…" Nick's hand fell away from her back. "Don't you understand?  I have to get to Nightingale Hill." Grabbing a towel, he wiped the tears off her face, but they kept flowing. "Other World isn't my home.  I'm starting to remember more--my friends, my family, the world I belong in… I need to get back there."

"What about me? I'm going to be stuck behind when you leave! All alone. S'like I don't even matter. You don't care about me, do you?" she bawled.

"That's not true, and you know it." Nick wrapped his arms around the nine year old, hugging her close. "I do care about you, kid. I'm not doing this because I want to abandon you. I'm sorry I didn't think more about what my leaving would mean. Don't cry anymore, please."

Lene pressed her face into his chest. "You're still going to leave me though…"

"Baby, I don't know what I'm going to do now." He kneeled down so that he was eye-level with her. "But we're going to figure something out, all right?"

She nodded while he soothed her dark curls then hugged Nick around the neck. "I love you, Nick," Lene whispered. "I'm gonna miss you when you go."

"I love you, too, kid. And let's not worry about splitting up right now. Let's just focus on getting to that castle," he said. "But first, maybe we should find some clean clothes." His jeans had gotten torn at the knees when he fell, while one side of Lene's skirt was pink with blood from her fall in the mountain pass. He lifted her down from the counter. "Can you walk?"

"I think so." The girl took a few steps forward, gingerly limping on her left leg.

Nick shook his head. "I don't think so." He scooped her up again right away and carried her out of the bathroom and back down the hall. "There's no way you're walking on that leg. I guess the castle can wait just one more day."

***

Nick breathed heavily. He'd been watching her all night, mesmerized by the sway of her hips and the laughter in her face as she played hard to get. The dance floor was crowded with bodies gyrating, pulsing, grinding against one another to the beat. They saw each other from across the room and pretended to ignore one another. It was all part of the chase. He tried to act cool, of course, letting her wonder until finally he ventured to buy her a drink. From there things progressed smoothly--her name, her phone number, more drinks, flirtation, and then the invitation back to her place readily accepted.

Her apartment was stylish and located in a swanky part of the city, but it was like a million other apartments he'd been in before, just as she was like a million other girls he'd slept with--long, bottle-blonde straightened hair; a superficial mind; and an attractive body enhanced by regular visits to the gym, trips to the tanning salon and, more likely than not, a bit of plastic surgery. But none of that mattered, not while Nick's head swam from all the liquor he'd consumed. 

All he could think of right now was how beautiful this girl was, even if her beauty was artificial, and how much he wanted her, even if she was just another empty conquest. Clothes were discarded beside the bed haphazardly. Hands, mouths roamed… Voices murmured low. Her eyelids were heavy as she climbed on top of him, straddling his hips, and he had a perfect view of her luscious body. Such full breasts, gorgeous curves, a flat belly, and her hands were like sin as they moved across his stomach and down… down… down…

Nick awoke with a groan. He sat up and pressed his hand to his beating chest, the sheet he slept with falling away from him. It had just been a dream, a terribly realistic dream. But how was he supposed to go back to sleep with this aching feeling inside? Nick looked around the darkened room. Lene was sleeping beside him, and it was still the middle of the night. Although he usually gave her the bed while he took the floor or a separate chair, after her heart-wrenching confession the little girl had refused to leave his side. When they went to bed that night, she had insisted on curling up beside him on the floor. It made no sense for the both of them to sleep on the ground, so Nick had caved and climbed into bed, letting her join him.

Now he climbed out of bed, needing to go outside and take a walk for a bit. With a grimace, he reached down and adjusted himself. He wasn't some sicko who could just lie there with an erection next to his little sister--well practically his little sister, anyway. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea for them to share a bed. Although Nick had dreamt of sleeping with other women before tonight's mystery girl, this time had definitely been the most vivid. If he was going to continue having such intense dreams, he would have to insist to Lene on sleeping alone.

Clumsy from sleep, Nick accidentally whacked the bulge in his pajama pants with the bedroom door as he opened it and yelped. Quickly he glanced up to see if he'd woken Lene, but the nine year old appeared to be sleeping peacefully.

Nick hobbled uncomfortably down the hallway, downstairs, and out the front door into the cold. A few minutes was all it took, and then he was climbing back into bed again. He growled deep in his throat and turned over onto his stomach to bury his face in his pillow. He desperately needed sleep as they were supposed to start traveling again in the morning, not a night filled with restless tossing and turning. Nick shut his eyes and tried not to think about the sweet breasts of that bleach blonde. Before he finally drifted back to sleep, he reflected that every dream had been with a different girl. Back in his own world Nick seemed to have quite the uncontrollable libido. 

Well soon he would be out of Other World, he told himself, and soon he would be able to satisfy the intense urges he felt inside.


 

End Notes:

Up until now, ONH has been coasting through mostly PG-13 material despite its R-rating, but this is where it gets a bit more raunchy. You've been warned!

Chapter 18: Twenty by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:

When I first wrote this chapter circa 2005 (yes, I've been keeping it from you that long, sorry guys) I was just trying to get out as many words as I could for NaNoWriMo. I have no idea what motivated me to write the shower scene, but I do remember cackling the entire time. All I can say is... Nick's a dirty pervert! ;P


The next morning, Nick had a boner. He groaned, instantly regretting climbing back into bed beside Lene. Of course, I would wake up with morning wood. He kicked himself mentally.

He knew that had to get away from the nine year old before she awoke and became aware of his "predicament"--seriously, how could he even explain the situation without sounding like a huge pervert?--but she was sleeping so close to him, her hair tickling the bottom of his chin, her head nuzzling into his chest, and her feet… brushing against his? Nick sat up in response to that sensation and nearly fell out of bed as he tried to pull away from the young woman sleeping on the mattress beside him. He stared.

It was Lene, all right. There was no mistaking those delicate features… That long dark hair, the pale skin, and those eyes--he had a feeling that when she opened her eyes, they would be the most riveting shade of golden amber. She was much taller now, which explained why her feet reached all the way to his, and had grown up, really grown up. Nick felt his entire being reacting to the sight of her. His breath caught in his chest, and his body involuntarily tightened. Lene was a real woman in the flesh, not a figment of his subconscious and she was, simply put, beautiful. Gorgeous. Exquisite. Breathtaking.

Too many words, Nick. Take a deep breath, Mr. Poet…†he told himself.

He inhaled slowly, relishing the very sight of her. This was what had been plaguing his dreams, this was what his body had been longing for: a female, a mate. And she was the embodiment of everything physical that his dreams could conjure--long, shapely legs were visible beneath the thin skirt of her white dress, which led to softly curving hips and, further up, the swell of her chest was even larger than the woman's of his most recent dream. Plus, he was pretty sure that her breasts were actually real.

Nick tried to recall again that dream woman's face as she'd looked down into his when she'd climbed on top of him, but the only face he could imagine now had amber eyes and was framed in curling black hair.

Alarmed, Nick realized that he was fantasizing about Lene. The same Lene he had found as an infant wailing away in her crib, the same Lene whom he had carried piggyback when she was five years old, the same Lene who had lost her parents at the age of nine and cried in his arms... and now the same Lene who lay sleeping peacefully beside him, her breasts rising and falling with the rhythm of her breathing. They pressed against the gauzy fabric at the bodice of her gown. Nick stared fixated at the way they moved, and it took all his effort not to reach out and touch them, the way he had touched the women in his dreams.

Self control, Nick, he reminded himself. He had just been about to feel up Lene in her sleep. God, maybe I really am a pervert?

It was no use. He had to get away from her and decided that a shower would clear his thoughts. Nick stumbled out of bed and headed for the bathroom, peeling off his clothes as he went. He jumped into the shower, and turned on the tap. As the hot stream of the shower caressed his body, Nick stood there for a minute trying to orient himself. Somehow he had to wash away the funny, achy urge that coursed through him.

"Don't think about Lene, don't think about Lene," he chanted like a mantra. "Hairy toes… drowning puppies… nuns, really old nuns… kicking toddlers…" Nick ran through a list of the most horrible, unsexy images he could think of.

He needed his body to relax, needed this weird feeling in his belly to go away. Unbidden, he felt his hand move down his body in a motion that was both foreign and, strangely enough, not. Nick was shocked as he took hold of himself, yet for some reason the sensation was completely familiar, and he didn't want to stop. He pressed his free hand against the wall for balance and hunched forward slightly, pumping his arm. His breath came hard and fast, and all he could think about now was how it had felt to wake up with Lene in his arms, her body curling to meet his, those glorious breasts pressed against him. The fabric of her dress had been so light, she may as well have not been wearing anything. God, how he wanted to touch her. When it was over, Nick straightened and reached for the shower knob, turning the water to cold.
The frigid water came as a shock and was almost painful for certain parts of his body. He stood beneath the running water for a few moments until he heard the door open.

"Nick? …Nick, are you in there?" The voice was hers but older, richer. Paired with that accent, which he had found cute and bouncy when she was a child, when Lene spoke it sounded like music.

"D-don't come in here, Lene," he warned her, stuttering against the cold.

"I was just wondering where you--oh," she stopped. Watching her blurred figure through the frosted glass, Nick saw Lene turn to look at herself in the mirror. She rubbed away at the foggy glass to get a better look. "Hey, Nick, I'm older! I look… wow. I'm all grown up now," she marveled.

"Um… Lene," he struggled. "I'm trying to take a shower here. Could you… could you give me a minute?"

"Oh, right. Sorry, Nick!" she closed the door behind her.

He turned the tap until the water shut off and leaned back against the cool bathroom tile. Pressing his hands against his face, Nick sighed. He felt utterly disgusted with himself. Not necessarily for what he had done because, honestly, that had felt great, but rather for what had been running through his mind while he had been doing it.

Lene.

Lene, Lene, Lene.

How was he going to face her?

***

After he'd had sufficient time to brace himself, Nick got out of the shower and put his shirt and pajama pants back on that he'd discarded on the floor.

"Lene?" he peeked his head out of the bathroom door, but she wasn't there. Where'd she go? he wondered.

Since she wasn't in the beroom, Nick took off his pajamas and dressed in jeans and a fresh t-shirt that he found in a dresser drawer. The pants were a bit large around the waist, but he managed to find a belt to go with them. He poked a new hole into the leather of the belt and cinched it tight. Nick wished his clothes would just magically reset every few days the way Lene's did, so he wouldn't have to wear clothing that didn't really fit him. He grabbed a red hooded sweatshirt out of another drawer and pulled it on over his head then went to look for Lene.

Walking down the hallway, Nick called her name. "Lene? Lene, where are you?"

He peeked over the railing down at the first floor and found her standing before a mirror at the foot of the stairs. She didn't seem to realize that Nick was watching her from above because she was closely scrutinizing her reflection. Her hands cupped the weight of her breasts, and she lifted them slightly then let them drop, lifted and let them drop, as though testing her new pair. Embarrassed, Nick turned away. He didn't want to have to take another cold shower so soon. When he looked again, Lene had turned with her backside to the mirror. She inspected herself from over her shoulder, biting the nail of her thumb coyly as her eyes swept down her reflection and examined the curve of her butt. Nick grinned at the sight, suddenly recalling that his sisters would all do the same thing.

He laughed aloud and called down from the top of the stairs, "Cut it out, you look fine!" just as he'd have told his sisters.

Lene started in surprise and looked up. "How long have you been up there?"
"Long enough to think that you're silly," he told her. "Do you really need a mirror to tell you you're pretty?"

"I look just like min mor… My mother, I mean," she explained and then admitted, "It's hard not to stare… I didn't understand it so much when I was nine, but now I realize what a big change it is to jump ahead and get older. Especially by ten years, what a difference…"

Nick walked down the stairs, his eyes never leaving her. "Ten years, huh? So that would make you… nineteen?"

"Close. My birthday just passed," Lene told him, "so twenty."

Twenty, Nick absorbed the information. That means she's legal. Wait, no! What am I thinking? I'm pretty sure that I'm still a lot older than her. This is just wrong.

He tried to turn his mind away from any lascivious thoughts, but the way she was looking at him as he approached her--her innocent eyes big and inquiring, her mouth slightly open and just begging to be kissed--it was all just too much for Nick. Focus on something else, focus on something else, he told himself. Casting about for a new subject to bring up, Nick couldn't help but notice the scent that was wafting towards him. "Hey, what is that?" he asked.

"That?" Lene perked up. "Oh, I made coffee. I thought you might want some before we head out. You still want to keep going to that castle, right?"

Nick didn't reply. His mind was rooted on the first thing she had said. "…Coffee?" Memories stirred.

"Yeah," she nodded. "I brewed some for you. Don't you like coffee? I thought I remembered you telling me once how you like to drink it." Lene's face became thoughtful, "Two sugars… no milk, I think you said? That's right, isn't it, Nick?"

Things were somehow falling into place. Like a puzzle, random thoughts from his memory came together and revealed a startling image. It couldn't be, but it was true. Nick's mind reeled, and he had to ask the question: "Kid, have you ever worked in a coffee shop before?"

"Gosh, I'm not really a kid anymore, you know," she said, a blush coloring her pale cheeks. She didn't seem to notice the epiphany he was having right in front of her face.

Nick put his hands on her shoulders, which he couldn't help but notice were so much higher than they used to be. She was only just a head shorter than him now. "I'm serious, Lene. Have you ever worked in a coffee shop? Maybe one with an open mic on Fridays?"

"Open mic?" she asked, confused. "No, GŁnter showed me how to make coffee so I could brew him some in the morning. I've never worked in a coffee shop or anything like that. Actually, I've never even had a part-time job. Why do you ask?"

Was she lying, or did she really just not remember? Could Other World be affecting her memory, too? Nick made a note to ask her more about GŁnter later then said, "Because, Lene, I recognize you now. You're not from Other World, you're a barista at the coffee shop down the street from my condo."


End Notes:

I've been reading Launched and Landing by Pengi, and Hannah's constant updating has really been motivating me to write more. If you haven't read the series yet, you should DEFINITELY check it out.

Chapter 19: Puzzle Pieces by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
I vowed to myself that I would update ONH with a new chapter before Mare finished reading chapter 18 and here we are. Thank you, Mare, for lighting a fire under me. :)

And my deepest thanks to everyone on the message boards who voted for me as one of their Top Ten favorite authors of all time. I tied for 10th place with our founding father Chaos, whose fic "Ground Zero" I admired sooooo much when I first joined AC. I'm flattered and humbled.

Okay, shutting up now. On to chapter 19!

Nick sat at the breakfast nook in the kitchen, watching as Lene bustled around preparing food. She moved a bit agitatedly, as though she were still unsettled by the fact that he knew her from his own world.

“Yesterday—it was just yesterday, wasn’t it?” she muttered to herself, buttering a slice of toast.

“What was yesterday?” Nick called over to her.

She looked up from the toast. “When I told you how scared I was that you were going to leave me here in Other World, alone. I remember the conversation like it was just yesterday and yet… it almost feels nostalgic, like it happened years and years ago.”

“Well you did say that you’re more than ten years older now. What do you know about yourself now that you’re twenty that you didn’t know when you were nine?” Nick asked.

“Hm, there’s a lot that’s happened in ten years. Everything’s all jumbled up in my head,” Lene told him, frowning to herself. “There are so many things, so many memories, that it’s hard to wrap my mind around them.”

Nick slouched against his high-backed stool. “Do you think we can at least figure out why you and I are both here? I mean, obviously I know you from that coffee shop in Kansas, so—”

“Kansas?” Lene interrupted. “When was I ever in Kansas?”

“Well, I think that I’m from Kansas,” he explained, “and since you work down the street from where I live, you’re probably from Kansas, too.”

“Hmm… I may have a lot of memories to sort out, but I still don’t remember anything about this coffee shop of yours. If you don’t mind me asking, what makes you think you’re from Kansas?”

“Something from back when I first showed up here in Other World. I got bit by this lawn gnome.”

“A lawn gnome?” Lene raised an eyebrow at him. “You mean like those ornaments that you put on grass?”

“Yup,” he held his right palm up for her to see. “That sucker came to life and bit me hard. Well, right after it happened I randomly muttered, ‘I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore.’ So it makes sense that I come from Kansas.”

Putting the spatula she held down, Lene clapped a hand to her mouth and stifled a giggle.

“I don’t get it, what’s so funny?”

“Nick, you’re not from Kansas. How could you be when you don’t even have an accent? ‘I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore,’ that’s a line from the movie Wizard of Oz. The main character Dorothy says it after a tornado picks up her house and she lands in a strange place called Oz,” she explained.

Nick still didn’t know what she was talking about, and it must have shown on his face because Lene carried two plates of breakfast over, set them on the tabletop, and reached out to him.

“Here,” she said, taking his hand. At the contact, a flood of images flashed into his brain—a green-faced witch, flying monkeys, little munchkin people, and lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my!). Nick reeled back, astonished by the rush of information that had just passed between them.

“Remember?” Lene asked, this time raising both her eyebrows and looking at him earnestly.

“How did you do that?!” he exclaimed. “I just… I feel like I just saw that whole movie in a second.”

“Because you’ve seen it before,” Lene told him. “That’s why it was so easy for me to remind you of it. I shared a bit of my memory about the film, which made it easier for me to unlock a tiny bit of your memory to you, so then you remembered seeing it. Here, have some eggs.” She slid one of the plates over to Nick and took a seat across from him at the breakfast nook.

/Well, at least I don’t have to worry about vague explanations of how her powers work anymore.../ Nick thought, his mouth hanging open as he stared at her and tried to remind himself that this girl was the same person as the nine-year-old, five-year-old, and toddler that he’d known. She was just older and a lot more on top of the situation than he was. Oh, and stunningly beautiful. But he really shouldn’t be thinking about that.

All of a sudden, Nick remembered just what he had done in the shower that morning and the back of his neck burned at the recollection. He felt disgusted with himself all over again. Was he really such a horndog that he would beat it in the shower, thinking about a girl he had known since she was just a baby? Granted, she was a lot older now but at one time he had changed the kid’s diapers...

Lene, who was digging into her eggs and toast, looked up and caught him staring at her. She motioned at his toast, giving him a look that clearly said ‘What the heck is wrong with you?’

“You should eat your breakfast… before it gets cold.”

***

After they ate, Nick cleaned up since Lene had prepared the food, and then they rummaged through the house for things that might be useful to take with them. They needed to replace the backpack that Nick had been using so far, as it had gotten ripped during their wild chase through the mountain pass. Unlocking a bedroom closet, Nick found a hot pink children’s backpack hanging on a peg inside.

Lene reached for it and ran her hand over the bag’s screen-printed design, which was emblazoned with widely smiling teddy bears and rainbows. “You know, I was never that fond of Care Bears.” She handed it to Nick. “Here you go. I always liked My Little Ponies better anyway.”

“Gee, thanks.” He made a face as he took the bag from her. Nick didn’t know what the “Little Ponies” that Lene mentioned were, either, but if they were anything like the Care Bears on the backpack he was holding now, he wasn’t too interested in finding out.

“ What TV shows did you watch a lot when you were a kid, Nick?” Lene asked him.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “You know, ‘cause of this whole memory problem I can’t really say.”

“Oh, right.” Lene put her hand on his upper arm and smiled. “Does this ring a bell?”

At the physical contact, a stream of cartoons danced around in his head – pink and blue bears, prancing ponies, sunshine and rainbows. When he looked down again at the backpack in his hands, Nick realized that he could name every character on it. He could even remember arguing with his younger sister over who was the best Care Bear: Cheer Bear or Tenderheart Bear. And he recalled being firmly in the Cheer Bear camp.

“I remember this…” Nick began slowly. “But those are girl shows. I never watched those!” he lied. Nick decided not to share his childhood addiction to Care Bears and brought up another cartoon instead. “I always fought with my sister over the TV remote because I would rather watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” A memory of giant green turtles eating pizza and doing karate popped into his head.

Lene dropped her hand. “I didn’t watch that one. That was a boys show,” she teased.

Another thought popped into Nick’s head then. “Hey, Lene? Since you’re able to share your memories with me and help me remember stuff, I was wondering… Do you think you can unlock the rest of my memory, too?” he asked. “It would be nice to finally figure out who I am, where I come from, all that stuff.”

“No… sorry.” She shook her head. “To be honest, I’ve been trying to unlock what I could of your memory the past few times, but the block that Other World has set on your mind is really strong. I can only take little cracks at it here and there. I don’t know how to completely unlock you.”

“I see, nevermind then.” He changed the subject, disappointed. “Well, since we can’t figure out anything about me, then what about you? Had enough time to figure anything out?”

“A little…” she said slowly. “I can sort out the main things, but all the details are still jumbled together.”

“Well, you’re better off than I am since your memories are there, at least. You just need to figure them out. I don’t even have that to work with,” Nick said moodily. Lene made a sympathetic sound in response, which he shrugged off. “Let’s focus on you now. What’s your name?”

“You know my name, silly, it’s Lene.”

“I mean, your last name,” Nick corrected himself. Why had he never thought to ask her this before? “Do you remember it? I know that mine starts with the letter ‘C’ but that’s about it. How about you?”

“Oh, my last name is Olsen,” she told him.

“Lene Olsen, huh?” It had a nice sound rolling off his tongue. “And do you remember where you’re from? I know you’re not from here because I’m sure I’ve met you before, in that place wherever it is I’m from.”

“Mm…” she bit the corner of her lip, thinking about it carefully. “I vaguely remember, but I’m not sure exactly. My parents moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I’m not sure where we’re from originally, but if it wasn’t here in Other World, then it must have been… somewhere in Europe, I guess? They never told me why we moved around so much. I was probably too young to understand.”

Nick nodded his head in agreement. “Europe would explain the accent.”

“Accent?” Lene laughed self-consciously. “Is my accent that bad?”

Actually, he thought her accent sounded like music, like tinkling little bells. How odd that he'd never noticed it before; she had just seemed like a kid with a funny voice.

“I’ve tried to get rid of it,” Lene told him. “When my family moved to America, I hoped that my accent would go away so I would sound like the other kids. Is it really so strong?”

“Not in a bad way. It’s nice; I like it,” Nick assured her, which brought a smile to her face. But his next question took it away again. “So, your family moved from Europe to America?”

“Yes, that’s right. When I was nine.” Lene’s face darkened as she said slowly, “It was to a little town in New England… maybe somewhere in Connecticut? I was so angry because by that time I was old enough to be upset that we were moving far away from my friends. My parents wouldn’t even let me give them our new address to keep in touch. Anyway, that was the last time we moved. At least, me and my parents, I mean...” Lene looked down at the ground and became very interested in something by her feet.

Nick realized that he knew what happened next in the story. “From what you’ve told me,” he said carefully, not wanting to upset her, “your parents died when you were nine.”

Lene’s eyes remained on the ground. “Yes.”

“Do you remember what happened?” Nick pressed, trying to find out more. She didn’t say anything, just continued staring at her feet. Silently, they stood there in the bedroom for the longest time, Lene with her eyes on the ground, Nick comically clutching the Care Bears backpack as he watched and waited for her to say something.

Just when it seemed like she wasn’t going to tell him anything, Lene spoke again. Her voice was flat and sad. “It was a few months after we had moved there. One night, it was very late. I was sleeping, but I woke up when I heard them shouting. My parents, they were arguing with… some men. Strangers. And then the house shook. Things were breaking.”

She shut her eyes tight, as though it could help her shut away the painful memories. “Growing up, my parents had always told me that if anything bad happened, I should hide. They didn’t explain what this ‘bad thing’ was, just that I needed to cover myself—with magic, my mother showed me how to do it—and to stay very quiet until one of them came for me. But that night when they were fighting, I heard Bruno, my dog, barking… and I didn’t want to leave him. I wanted to hide him, too. So I left my room and went looking for him.”

Nick swallowed hard, his heart in his throat as he pictured Lene at nine years old, so young and innocent, thinking only of her dog and not her own safety.

“Bruno was in the kitchen. With my… with my father. Papa was on the ground, not moving. Bruno was standing over him, barking in the direction of the living room. The strangers were there, yelling at my mother. And I heard them say, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’ Then there was this bright light and she screamed. And she was dead, too.”

Lene blinked against the tears that came to her eyes. “The strangers saw me through the doorway of the kitchen. I think I was so shocked when I found my father that I forgot to hide myself. They came toward me then.”

Her breath caught. “I don’t… I don’t even remember their faces. Just their open hands stretched out, palms pointed at me as they approached. Bruno tried to protect me from them. He barked and barked. Then there was another bright light and he… he…” Her voice was getting progressively shakier, but Lene continued. “I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything. I was terrified. It all had happened so fast… Just like that, everything I knew was gone. I was completely alone.”

Setting down the Care Bears backpack, Nick put his arms around her. His chin rested on the top of her head, and he held her tight. Lene sniffled and buried her face in his chest but refused to let herself break down crying.

“I’m sorry, I know this is hard for you,” Nick said. “Thank you for telling me about what happened.” He stroked her long dark hair and tried his best to be comforting. “There’s one more thing I have to ask, though… The last time we talked about it, you told me that somebody saved you that night…”

He felt Lene stiffen in his arms.

“Yes.”

“You told me… that it was GŁnter. And that after your parents died, he took care of you.”

“That’s right,” she said quietly.

“I’m sorry, Lene, but that just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

She pulled away from Nick and gave him a cold look. “Listen, I know you think that just because I can use magic, I seem to know everything, but I can’t explain it. It doesn’t make sense to me either.” She raised her hands helplessly. “Somehow I have memories of my life growing up with GŁnter, while at the same time I have memories of being here in Other World with you. I don’t know how both are possible, but what I do know is that there’s got to be some sort of misunderstanding here. GŁnter is not a bad man.”

“Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?” Nick asked skeptically. “Tall, long silver hair, piercing eyes…?”

“Yes, and believe me, I’ve known him for over ten years. He’s always looked out for me. I know he’s a good person because he’s been fighting all these years to get rid of bad men, people who would use their magic to hurt others. Like the men who killed my parents.”

“But GŁnter is after us, Lene, and we’re not bad people,” Nick reminded her. “He tried to attack us in the forest. When you were, like, four years old he kicked you. Seriously, who kicks babies?”

“Kicked me? I have no idea what you’re talking about, Nick,” Lene looked at him doubtfully. “First of all, I don’t know how you expect me to remember something that supposedly happened when I was four years old. Do you remember everything perfectly from when you were four? Or nine?” she stopped. “Oh, well, I guess I’m asking the wrong person since there are a lot of things you can’t remember, but what I’m trying to say is—so much has happened since then, and everything’s all mashed together!”

“Second of all,” Lene crossed her arms, “just what have you got against GŁnter, anyway? He raised me ever since my parents died and he’s been nothing but kind to me. I think I know him better than you do.”

“But what if you’re wrong about him?” Nick tried to reason. “When we were in the forest, Arthur told me all these bad things that GŁnter had done. The problems with Other World, they’re because of him. People used to live here in Other World, even in this house, but then GŁnter came and started a war.”

“A war? That’s ridiculous. First of all, who’s Arthur? Are you sure this guy can even be believed?” She arched an eyebrow at him. “How long have you known him? And why do you trust his word over mine?”

“Don’t you remember? Arthur, he’s the leader of those big black dogs in the forest, but they haven’t always been dogs. He said that GŁnter declared war on Other World like twenty five years ago and turned them into animals. Come on, you met Arthur… There was another dog in his pack named Bruno, just like your dog.”

“What?” Lene laughed hollowly. “Please… can you just listen to yourself for a second? Your only reason for thinking that GŁnter—my guardian, the person who saved me—is bad, is because a talking dog told you?”

Nick sighed. Lene didn’t believe him, and she refused to accept that the man who raised her could be a horrible villain. He supposed that he couldn’t blame her. After all, if he were in her shoes, Nick would probably trust the man who’d raised him, as well. But there was too much evidence against GŁnter, too many things Nick had seen and heard. There was no way that Lene’s guardian could be the good guy that she claimed him to be. Nick had to make her see the truth about GŁnter before she winded up getting hurt.

“Lene…” He reached out and took her arm.

She looked down at his hand. “What?”

Nick concentrated hard on the memory of their encounter with GŁnter in the forest, the look of pure evil in his eyes, the cold satisfaction that man had gotten out of hurting them. And then the long talks with Arthur, their ride through the forest with the pack of big dogs, every bad thing that he had heard about GŁnter’s past.

/If only I could send my memories to her like she did to me.../ Nick thought.

Lene’s face twisted in surprise. She yanked her arm away from him with a gasp, and Nick knew that somehow he had managed to share his memories with her.

“What was that?” she demanded. “How did you figure out how to do that by yourself? I never showed you…”

“I just sort of figured it out on my own,” Nick explained, “but that’s beside the point. Don’t you see?” He took both her hands in his own. “That’s the real GŁnter. You can’t trust him.”

“No!” She pulled away from him. “You… you’re wrong! And I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

Why was she being so stubborn? “But, Lene—”

“I told you, I don’t want to talk about it.” She turned and stormed out the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

End Notes:
---

Much love to everyone still reading! Feedback much appreciated but not required.
Chapter 20: Vegas, Baby by FiliKlepto
Author's Notes:
I did it! I squeezed one more update in before the end of August~ Okay, so it's really down to the wire, but here it is!

Thank you to everyone who's reading for the first time and to everyone who's coming back again.
Nick stared at the door after Lene and gave a long sigh.

She really didn’t believe him about GŁnter or, at least, she didn’t want to believe him. And he didn’t know if he should keep trying to convince her or just drop it for now or what.

Nick stooped down to pick up the Care Bears backpack off the floor and proceeded to fill it with things from his ripped bag--matches, a coil of rope, a pocketknife, baby powder...? He wasn’t sure why that last item was in there, but distractedly he stuffed it into the new bag along with everything else.

...What to do about Lene? Nick wondered. If she refused to believe him even after he had shared his memories of their encounter in the woods with GŁnter, then there really wasn’t anything more he could do. Not for now, at least. Not until he had more proof for her.

And if the castle they were heading for was GŁnter’s, then that meant the truth must come out soon, right? Nightingale Hill. Somehow it was the way back to wherever he came from, but what was he going to find there? Was he going to have to fight GŁnter? Would Lene believe him then that GŁnter was a bad guy? And when the time came, whose side would she take?

Nick decided it would be better not to worry about that for now. The important thing was just getting to the castle, which appeared to be a few more days away at least.

He finished repacking their things and shrugged on the Care Bears backpack. It was meant for a much smaller person than Nick, so he had to adjust the straps to their longest point for the backpack to fit over his shoulders. Nick was sure that he must look ridiculous; hopefully it would break the ice when he found Lene. Maybe she would be too busy laughing at him to be mad about GŁnter.

Nick stepped out into the hallway and called her name. “Lene...! Hey, Lene, I think we should get going now…”

No answer.

Nick checked the other bedroom but there was no sign of her. He looked downstairs. Nope. She wasn’t in the kitchen either or the living room. Where could she be? Had she left without him? That was when Nick noticed the back door ajar. Peeking outside, he saw a grassy little backyard and a children’s swingset. Lene was there on the swing, her back to him as she faced the fence, idly rocking back and forth.

“Hey, Lene…” Nick called from the doorway. “We should get going.”

She didn’t hear him at first. Or maybe she was ignoring him. Nick took a step outside and called her name again. “Lene…” No response.

He came up right behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, bringing the swing to a stop. “Hey, kid. Let’s go.”

Lene tilted her head back to look up at him. She didn’t look angry anymore, but she had definitely been sulking. Nick could see tear stains running down her cheeks, and at that moment it was like she was nine-years-old again rather than a fully grown adult. Their argument had shaken her up. Although Nick knew that GŁnter was bad, it was obviously hard for Lene to come to terms with. He was going to have to be more careful from now on about maligning the man who raised her.

“I’m sorry that I upset you,” Nick said. “We don’t have to talk about you-know-who anymore if you don’t want to. Deal?”

She nodded her head. “Okay.”

“We’re still going to that castle, though, right?” He wondered for just a second if she would try to lead him astray, out of loyalty to GŁnter. “I have to get to Nightingale Hill. I’m not sure what’s going to happen when I get there, but I’d feel a lot better if we were together. Will you come with me?”

Lene nodded again and rose from the swing. “Yes, I’ll go with you.”

Nick was visibly relieved. “All right then, let’s go.”

The rest of the day was awkward. Even though they had agreed not to talk about GŁnter anymore, the topic hung in the air between them like a dark cloud. Nick and Lene walked for hours not saying much, leaving behind the small town where Lene had gone from nine to twenty years old, and followed the road along open fields and rolling hills.

At times, the road led them down into low valleys, which cut off their view of the castle in the distance. But even with Nightingale Hill out of sight, Nick trusted Lene’s navigation. She always seemed to know the way, as though there was something about the castle drawing her towards it. And sure enough, when they climbed the next rise, they saw the castle come into view again a little bit bigger than before. Nick wondered just how big this castle must be, that he was able to see it so clearly from far away.

Nick and Lene walked all day until the sun set behind them and the big round moon began to rise from the hills ahead. There was no sign of shelter for miles, so they pulled off the road by a small river, where the riverbank formed a little hollow in the grass that they could sleep in.

Nick pulled the red hooded sweatshirt that he was carrying out of his backpack and gave it to Lene. “Here, you should take this in case you get cold.” Her long white dress reached down almost to her ankles, but it was light and flowy. She would probably get cold during the night.

Lene pushed the sweatshirt back towards him. “No, I’m fine. You keep it.”

Nick sighed, knowing that she was only refusing because of the argument they’d had, but he decided that he didn’t want to fight with her over a sweatshirt. “All right, but if it gets cold, you can have it, okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” she insisted and turned her back to him, curling up against the side of the grassy hollow.

Nick sighed again. “Okay. Good night.”

Are women always this difficult? he tried to remember as he lay down and closed his eyes.

The sound of splashing water woke Nick early the next morning. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but the pale light of dawn was changing the sky from a deep purple to a soft blue. Nick shivered and turned over to reach for the covers but instead he got a handful of dewy wet grass. Remembering that he’d spent the night outside and not in a warm bed, Nick sat up and looked around. The grass beside him was flattened from where Lene had been sleeping, but she was gone.

Nick heard the sound of splashing again and this time one other sound: heavy, frantic breathing.

A low voice carried through the still morning air. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…”

“Lene?” Nick followed the sound downstream to a little bend in the river, where he found Lene crouched on the low bank, scrubbing her hands furiously in the icy cold water. Her hair hung in wild tangles, hiding her face from view. She was breathing so fast that Nick thought she might be hyperventilating.

“Lene?” he said again, but she couldn’t hear him calling her name. “Lene, are you okay?”

Nick reached out for her arm. At the contact of their skin, he was flooded with a vivid stream of memories.

***

"Happy birthday," the man said, handing Nick a long slim box tied with a silver ribbon.

Nick took the box in his hands and looked down at it. "A present, for me?" Nick was jarred to hear that the voice coming from his mouth wasn’t his own. The voice giggled and it sounded like tinkling bells. "Oh, you shouldn’t have."

"Yes, for you, silly child. Go on, open it."

Nick’s hands were small and slender and moved of their own accord. He realized that he had no control over them; in fact, he had no control over anything. It was as if Nick were sitting inside of his own brain, watching the events unfold. Except this wasn’t his own brain that he was sitting in. It was Lene’s.

Nick’s hands slipped the silver ribbon off of the box and lifted its lid. Inside, nestled in layers of tissue was a beautiful lacy black dress.

"Oh, this is too much!" Nick lifted the dress from the box. "First, taking me to Las Vegas for my twenty-first birthday and now this? GŁnter, I don’t know what to say!"

Nick looked up from the dress in his hands into the face of the much taller man who stood before him. The man’s silver white hair was tied back with a black ribbon, giving him a pirate-like appearance. Two pale flashing eyes looked down over a thin aquiline nose. The man was what some would describe as handsome, others--cruel. But there was no mistaking the face.

A thin smile spread across it.

"This isn’t even your real birthday present yet, Lene. Today’s a special occasion, so you need something special to wear. Now get dressed; we’re going out to a show."

***

A man in a tuxedo led a beautiful woman across the stage, her face plastered with a big red lipsticked smile. She gave the man a kiss on the cheek before stepping into a tall gilded box. The door was shut and the box spun around. When the man opened it again, the woman was gone. The audience gave a loud collective gasp.

"They say the Palms Resort has the best magicians..." GŁnter smirked. "People in this world don’t even know what real magic is."

The tuxedoed man on stage pointed into the audience and Nick turned around to look behind him. The beautiful woman was there, sitting a few rows back. She rose from her seat, smiling and waving as the audience broke into applause.

"How did he do that?" Nick wondered aloud, impressed.

"Don’t be stupid. It’s an illusion, poppet," chided GŁnter.

The beautiful woman returned to the stage and joined hands with the man in the tuxedo. They took a deep bow and then waved goodbye and exited behind a curtain. The people around Nick and GŁnter rose from their seats as the show came to an end, laughing and chatting animatedly.

Nick turned to GŁnter. "If you think it’s so stupid, why did you take me to a magic show anyway?"

"No need to pout, Lene. There’s a very good reason for us to be here. The main act is yet to come..."

The room was slowly emptying of people and ushers began to walk through the aisles clearing out the stragglers. GŁnter waved his hand lightly and shrouded the two of them from view.

Nick could feel the air around them shiver as they were blanketed in GŁnter’s spell. Is this how Lene sees magic? he wondered.

An usher in a bow tie and red vest walked by their seats and didn’t notice them in the slightest.

"As I was saying..." GŁnter continued, "we’re here for a reason. Yes, yes, it’s your twenty-first birthday and very important. You’re blossoming into a young woman and all that, but our purpose here is twofold. There’s work to be done."

GŁnter reached into the inner breast pocket of his suit jacket, pulled out a small envelope, and handed it to Nick.

"Lene, I’m sure you’re well aware of the work I do. From our first encounter you saw that I am a... hunter of a certain type of person. A bad type of person, of course. It’s a dangerous and difficult job that requires strong powers. Powers that I have. Powers that you have, as well... If you look into that envelope, you’ll find the work of our next target."

Nick hesitated.

"Go on," GŁnter said. "Take a look."

Slowly, Nick opened the envelope and slid out three polaroids. The first was a snapshot of a picture frame containing a family photo--a smiling couple with their young son and daughter, along with an older woman who must be their grandmother. They looked like a normal, happy family. Nervously, Nick looked at the next polaroid.

The photo was taken at a crime scene sectioned off behind yellow police tape. There was blood everywhere. Lying on the floor were the bodies of the elderly woman and the young boy, both of them slashed repeatedly. The last photo showed the little girl in her bed, her head violently smashed in.

Nick dropped the polaroids and hunched over, clutching his stomach. "I think I’m going to be sick..."

"Breathe, Lene..." GŁnter scooped up the photos from the floor and forced Nick into an upright position. He shoved the polaroids back into Nick’s hands. "Don’t look away. There are monsters out there who need to be stopped, people who can’t be caught by the police because of their powers. This is what I do. This is what *we* do. You’re old enough now, strong enough to join me. That’s why we’re here in Las Vegas. It’s time for you to help me rid the world of these monsters."

GŁnter raised his hand and pointed across the rows of seats up at the stage, where a work crew was setting up for a concert. At center stage a young man with a clipboard was talking to one of the crew members. He was a much older, scruffy looking man in overalls carrying cables and some lighting equipment. The man was unshaven and his overalls looked worn and dirty.

"That man, there.” GŁnter pointed “Those photos you’re holding are the work of that man on stage. You see, *this* is my real birthday present to you, Lene. Your first kill.”

***

Later that night, Nick’s hands were shaking as he slipped backstage and climbed up a ladder that led to the catwalk. The platform was very narrow and rigged with stage lighting and audio equipment. Nick didn’t want to be up there, but there wasn’t anything he could do to stop Lene. Still, he had the strong feeling that she didn’t want to be up there either. He crept his way across the narrow rig and hid in a corner where GŁnter had told him to wait.

Looking down below, Nick could see people excitedly filing into the theater. There was going to be a big concert tonight. Once the show began, GŁnter would pursue their target across the catwalk, using the chaos of the music and the audience noise to cover their tracks. He would then chase the man towards Nick, who was supposed to block their target’s escape and finish the job.

The lights went down and the crowd began to scream with excitement. As the opening act began, Nick thought that he was going to be sick again. He couldn’t believe that GŁnter had talked Lene into doing this. Of course, the pictures he’d seen were horrible, but was the solution for them to turn into crazy vigilantes? The old guy at least deserved a trial or something. Was there such a thing as a court for magical crimes? And why did Lene have to be the executioner?

When the headliner finally appeared on stage, the audience’s roar increased to a deafening level. Any minute now, GŁnter and their target would be coming Nick’s way. He was just waiting for the signal.

At that moment, though, something on stage caught Nick attention. Looking through Lene’s eyes, Nick saw the performers below standing before the screaming crowd. There were four of them altogether and one of the men, a tall blond, was talking to the audience.

“How you doing, Las Vegas!” he called out. The man flashed a brilliant smile, which caused the crowd to dissolve into hysterical shrieks. But it wasn’t his smile that had caught Nick’s attention, it was the magic rolling off of the man, raw and unmasked.

Nick realized then that he was staring at his own face below. The man he was looking at, that *Lene* was looking at, was Nick himself.

I’m a... pop star? he thought bewilderedly. Staring at the vision of himself on stage, Nick nearly missed the body hurtling by him.

“Lene!” GŁnter’s voice barked from the darkness.

Startled, Nick jumped and turned as someone ran past. The platform shook wildly and for a split second, the man’s face came illuminated in a flicker of stage light. It was stricken with terror.

Lene, don’t! Nick shouted from inside her mind. But this was just a memory and she couldn’t hear him.

Nick raised his hand and with a bright flash the man crumpled lifelessly onto the catwalk. Nick stared at the body for a few moments, breathing heavily, and then his legs gave out and he dropped to his knees. He could feel the panic that filled every inch of Lene’s being. Although Nick couldn’t hear her thoughts, he knew that at that moment she was thinking, “What have I done?”

GŁnter appeared from the darkness like a shadow. He stood over the body and watched as wisps of magical energy began to bloom forth. Then GŁnter closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, breathing the magic in. Nick watched in horror as wisps of energy flowed from the dead man into GŁnter.

When he was finished, GŁnter’s eyes opened and locked with Nick’s. Slowly, he walked across the catwalk and lifted Nick to his feet, supporting him around the waist because Nick was still too shocked to stand. And then GŁnter’s head dipped down and his lips met Lene’s. Nick could feel GŁnter’s mouth open and the magic flowing between them: GŁnter was transferring the magical energy from the dead man into Lene.

Finally, when he was done, GŁnter lifted his head and looked down at Nick, his pale eyes glowing in the darkness. “Happy birthday, Lene.”

A sudden yell from the stage caught both their attention.

“Are you ready, Vegas? Put your hands up!”

They turned to look down below where Nick--the performer on stage, Nick--was firing up the crowd. The magical energy flowing off of him was even stronger than the magic that had just passed between GŁnter and Lene.

Nick turned to look back at GŁnter, whose eyebrow was arched as he watched the other Nick below.

“Well, that’s interesting…” GŁnter said.

With a jolt the memory ended and Nick was back in the present moment, his hand still on Lene’s arm as she hunched over the riverbank. She was hyperventilating from panic and now Nick was, as well.

“Lene…” he choked out with a gasp, trying to catch his breath. “Lene, stop, it’s okay. Lene!” Nick grabbed her by both of her shoulders and shook her roughly until she snapped out of it. For a second, Lene stared at him blankly and then she blinked and was back again.

“I killed him!” she shrieked. She looked absolutely horrified with what she had done.

“Lene, it’s okay. You’re not there anymore. You’re here with me, it’s all right!” Nick tried to reassure her. He grabbed her hands, which were icy cold from the river, and held them tightly.

“I killed him…!” she cried again. “I killed him…” Lene’s face scrunched into a look of pure misery and she sank against Nick. “What have I done…?”

“Shh…” he soothed, stroking her hair. “You’re not there anymore, you’re here with me,” he chanted like a mantra. “Everything is going to be okay.”

“He told me we were stopping the bad people,” Lene sobbed. “If what we do is right, Nick, then why do my hands feel so dirty?”
End Notes:
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I can't be the only one going, "Holy crap!" right now, right?

Hope you enjoyed and hope to have another update for you soon!
This story archived at http://absolutechaos.net/viewstory.php?sid=8279