After leaving San Desperado, Jack rode down the eastern seaboard. He stopped in a few places along the way and found it hard to be interested in anything. In Boston, he tailed a hockey player who didn't look human only to discover that the man kept his secrets too well. Besides, if the man really was an alien, Jack didn't want to know. He paused in Washington D.C. and pondered the strange concentration of ghosts at certain memorials. He spent one night in a dollop of a town in North Carolina and didn't like the way he heard the weather spirits laughing at the state. They were planning something nasty, and Jack felt too tired to try to stop them. His hundred-year search had worn him out. He recharged a little in Atlanta, but he was too aware of the city's ghost. It creeped him out. It was the only city in the world that he knew of that had a ghost.
He ended up in Orlando, Florida. Florida gave him the creeps, too, especially Orlando, but not as much as Atlanta did. He wasn't sure why he decided to stop in Orlando until he and Bacchus wandered past the Disney theme park. A black barrier surrounded the whole area, and the people passing out of it looked drained. Their faces were pale, and their eyes were vacant. He couldn't help thinking that for some reason, he should have come to Disney World a long time ago. He wondered if he was supposed to do something. Maybe something about the barrier? He couldn't remember. But, curiosity being one of his better qualities, Jack decided that an investigation was in order.
Bacchus didn't agree and protested as much as he could. He knew Jack wouldn't listen, and Jack didn't. He stashed his Honda in the parking lot of a fast food joint and headed into the Magic Kingdom. Bacchus cringed inside Jack's jacket, leaving only the tips of his ears visible.
"You're a big pussy, Bacchus," Jack said.
All Bacchus could do was nod in agreement.
Getting into Disney World wasn't as easy as Jack thought it would be. There was no way through the barrier except at the main gates. He suspected that the ticket takers weren't human but chalked his suspicion up to hanging around Mr. Detective too long and ignored it. He sneaked into a line and amused himself untying shoes and bumping around purses and camera bags. A lot of the smaller children in the lines were already crying, and the parents assumed it was due to the noise and the amount of people. Jack was pretty sure those kids could see people popping through the skin of the purple-black bubble at the front of the lines. Human kids could see things like that until they were about six or seven, depending on certain environmental factors. Only a few humans seemed to maintain that kind of sight, so Jack was surprised to see a fifteen-year-old girl staring in horror at the smooth edge of the bubble as she inched forward behind her oblivious parents. She must have been special, and she was beautiful. Her hair and her eyes were as black as a raven's wings. Jack was in love. He had to make sure the girl got out of the park without that vacant look stealing over her eyes.
"Ticket please," a bored voice to his left said.
Jack turned his head.
The blonde boy probably couldn't see Jack through the visor of hair that hung down over his dull, lazy eyes, so Jack took a step forward just to see what the Taker would do.
A quick arm shot out and a strong hand gripped Jack's elbow so hard he wondered if his arm would snap off. The blue eyes that turned up and gazed at him were lazy like he figured they would be, but they were the furthest thing from dull he had seen on an ordinary human in a while. Then he realized that his suspicion was right. The boy, and the rest of the Takers, wasn't an ordinary human.
"I said ticket please, cucumber boy," Ridley the Taker said. His teeth snapped and ground as he spoke.
"I don't have a ticket," Jack said.
"Then you can't go in."
"Come on, that's not fair."
"Why is that not fair?"
Behind Jack, the queue was getting restless. They couldn't see the hold up. At the front of the line, the black haired girl slipped through the membrane with an audible pop that made all the Takers turn their heads.
Sensing that Jack wasn't thinking as quickly as usual, Bacchus wriggled out of Jack's jacket and darted towards the edge of the barrier.
"Bacchus!" Jack shouted. He strained against Ridley's grip.
"Ah fuck," Ridley said. Bacchus passed through the barrier with a small pop of his own.
"You have to let me go get him."
"All right, fine. But if you and that fucking cat cause any trouble, I will hunt you down and have salad for dinner."
"That's not very threatening."
"I'm warning you, Jack O'Lantern."
"Yeah, I got it. Now let go. I bruise easily."
Ridley released his grip on Jack's elbow, and Jack squirmed through the crowd after his cat and the girl.
When Jack stepped through the barrier, he could feel wicked, gnarled hands with thick claws scratching at him and trying to pull him apart. The sensation sent him sprawling several feet across the pavement. He was glad that the crowd thinned as they spread into the park from the main gates. A few people stopped and stared, not really seeing what was blocking their way. Some tripped over him and looked down for what tripped them. Others veered around him of their own accord, but these were few and far between. He was mostly stepped on and tripped over and wondered if he would ever be able to get up when a Birkenstock sandal planted in the small of his back. His eyes popped out of their sockets. The foot didn't move on. Jack strained under its weight, pushing himself up to his hands and knees.
"Well, look at what I got here," a voice above him said. "If it ain't the world famous Jack O'Lantern."
Jack thought he should have recognized the voice, but he dismissed that thought like he had his suspicion about the Takers. Then he thought better of it. If he was right about the Takers, he was right about this one. He just couldn't remember the voice. "What if it ain't?" he asked.
"Hmph. I know your stench anywhere, Jack."
"I smell better than your feet do. Get off me."
The sandaled foot lifted off Jack's back, and he stood up. The spirit standing over him was tall and thin, expect for a beer gut that stuck out over the waistband of his knee length neon blue shorts and was barely covered by his neon yellow tank top. His eyes were hidden behind mirrored, wrap-around sunglasses, but Jack knew that one was yellow and the other blue. And he still couldn't remember the spirit's name.
"So, um, Todd ... " Jack said. He waited to be corrected.
"It's Aristotle, you moron."
"Well, damn. How could I forget that?"
"Quit fucking around, Jack. What are you doing here?"
"Did you get permission from your Fury?"
"How do you know about that?"
"Everyone knows, Jack. You know how gossip is in the spirit would. Oh wait. You can't go there any more, can you?" Aristotle laughed.
Jack folded his arms across his chest and looked around. Nothing seemed unusual except the black barrier above him and the empty feeling of energy being drained. "What do you know about the barrier?" he asked.
Aristotle frowned and scratched his belly. "I've seen it."
"He ran in ahead of me."
"Jack, look. I don't like you; you know that. But I don't hate you enough to want to see you ending up trapped here like me. Besides, I don't want you that close to me. Find your cat and get the hell out of here. And if you can't find him, just go. This place will suck you dry."
"No, that's exactly why I can't leave. I need to find out who's doing it and shut it down."
"Have you tired?"
"That's what I was sent here to do. I've been here for two weeks, Jack. I've got nothing left."
"Sure you do. You can help me."
"Come on, Ari."
"You'll get your juice back."
"Like I'm supposed to believe you've got enough of an attention span to get anything done. If you find a way out, let me know. See ya later, kid." Aristotle started to walk away. Jack ran after him.
"What else are you gonna do? Wander around all bored and depressed? Come on. Aren't you curious about that thing? And just think what'll happen if you stop it! You'll be as famous as me."
"Right, Jack. Whatever. You'd take all the glory for yourself."
"I've had enough of being famous."
"Jack, I can't figure out where it's coming from, and I've looked everywhere."
"As much of everywhere as I can."
"What about the everywhere you can't?"
"I'm going to regret this, aren't I?"
"Not at all, Ari. Not at all."
"This could be bad. This could be very bad indeed," Loki muttered. He scratched his chin, pondering the message Ridley had just given him. The Disney racket had been going strong for about five years, after several miscues, and Jack O'Lantern had been responsible for quite a few of those miscues, though Loki was certain Jack didn't realize what he had done. But to have Jack in the Magic Kingdom at that moment, so close to being ready for the end, was an ill omen.
"What do you want to do, sir?" Loki's assistant, Bob, asked. Bob was an annoying, ass-kissing yes man of a spirit, and Loki sometimes wondered why he tolerated Bob. At least Bob followed directions.
Loki shrugged. "Nothing. Let him look for his cat. He knows nothing. He can't possibly be here because of our operation. The machine will drain him soon enough. If he doesn't give up like Aristotle did, I'll happily kill the little bastard myself."
"But, sir - "
"Bob, shut up. I know what I'm doing."
"Jack has quite a reputation. I'm sure you're aware that he's now been placed under the watch of one of the two remaining Furies."
"How the hell did he get mixed up with the Furies?"
"Well, sir, it's quite a long story. You see - "
"Bob, shut up."
"Was there something else?" Loki asked Ridley.
"There was a girl Jack seemed interested in," Ridley said. "She's probably fifteen, and she smelled Wiccan."
"Yes, but untapped."
"In your estimation, how powerful is this girl capable of being?"
"She could be capable of god like powers."
"God like? How interesting. How very interesting. I see good things coming from this. Find her and the cat and bring them to me. That should put Jack right where I want him."
A fly looped into the room and landed on Ridley's ear. It buzzed its wings a few times.
"Jack has convinced Aristotle to help him find out more about the barrier," Ridley said.
"Let them try for now. And get that girl and that fucking cat down here now."
Ridley and his fly left the room. Loki stood up and began to pace. He scratched his chin. He couldn't convince himself that it would end well. "Bob, what do you think?" he asked.
"Well, sir, I think you've done exactly the right thing. Jack O'Lantern is a tricky one to go up against, but he's never been very smart. You get his cat and his girl, and you'll have him right where you want him. He's no match for you anyway, sir. No way."
Loki sighed. "That's just the thing, Bob. Jack is a fool, but no one ever said he wasn't smart. He's quite a formidable opponent really. He's messed up my plans before without even knowing he was doing it. Just imagine what he could do if he put his mind to it."
"Yes, sir. You're right, sir. He is a hard one to deal with, but I'm sure he's no match for you. After all, you've got all this energy stored up. If you used just a little bit of that, you'd certainly crush him."
"I'm saving that for a special time, Bob. It is not to be wasted on tricksters and witches."
"Of course, sir. I know it's for Ragnarok, but sir, you might need it."
"Shut the hell up."2. Burning Lilies
Branwyn Cain wanted to be somewhere in Ireland or some other misty-forested thousand years ago, when there were gods and goddesses for every conceivable thing who were placated with offerings of everything from spices and fruits to sheep or virgins. She wanted to feel a starry night against her skin and hear its spirits calling to her. She wanted to taste the moonlight spilling down on her lips and smell the power that crackled in her fingertips.
Instead, she was standing in line to ride a roller coaster at Disney World, listening to her parents' chatter and children screaming and laughing around her. Some of the kids seemed terrified, and Branwyn didn't blame them one bit. She didn't know what the black thing they had walked through was, but she hadn't liked the way it felt. She didn't like the way she felt standing in line either. It could have been the weather. It was late November, but it felt like May. The air was heavy and wet, and the sky overhead, from what she could see through the bubble, was ashy grey. She prayed for rain. It didn't come.
It could have been her period, too. She wasn't cramping like she had been the day before, but she felt more uncomfortable than usual. Maybe it was the crowd. Maybe the weather. Maybe all of it.
The line moved like a lethargic slug. No one but Branwyn seemed to mind. She shifted from foot to foot and looked around. She took out her camera, hoping to make things a little more interesting.
It was through the camera lens that she first saw them. One of them, the one she saw first, was dressed in shorts, sandals and a tank top. The other, who followed behind the first and seemed to be trying to convince the surfer bum of something, was dressed like a biker. Neither of them looked normal, the biker especially. His skin was green, and his eyes kept changing color as he talked. A humid breeze tumbled the distinct smell of cucumbers towards her. She felt a spark of something when she looked at the biker, some kind of power, maybe. But the surfer felt like an empty husk.
Branwyn took a few pictures of the pair, noticing as she did that people didn't seem to know that they were there. Later on, she wouldn't be surprised when they didn't show up in the pictures.
The line lurched ahead. Branwyn stumbled, still transfixed by the pair. The surfer was trying to get away from the biker, but the biker was persistent. "You can't just walk away like that," she heard the biker say. The surfer ignored him. Branwyn decided she wanted to follow them.
"Mom, I don't want to go on," she said.
"Oh, what's the matter, honey?" Mrs. Cain asked.
"Do you need some Tylenol or something?"
Mrs. Cain dug in her purse and surfaced with two Tylenol and a ten-dollar bill. "Get yourself a soda or something," she said.
"Okay. Thanks. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, honey. I understand. Believe me. Oh, here. Take my cell phone just in case. I'll call you from Dad's phone when we get off."
"Okay. Is it all right if I just wander around a little then?"
"Sure, just be careful, okay."
"I will, Mom. Have fun."
Branwyn slipped the cell phone into her camera bag and bolted out of the line towards the nearest concession stand. It felt like a huge rock had been lifted off her back to get out of that line. She didn't mind roller coasters, really, but she just wasn't in the mood. She got a soda and took the Tylenol. When she looked around for the surfer and the biker, they were gone. She sucked down the rest of the drink and found a bathroom. She tried to hurry, but she had to wait in line for a few minutes and changing her pad always felt like it took forever. When she came out of the bathroom, she headed in the direction she'd seen the two going. Whatever they were (she didn't think they were human) and whatever they were doing, it had to be more interesting than standing in hour-long lines for two minute rides.
Bacchus hadn't gone to Tomorrowland, and for that, Jack was grateful. He had never been very fond of the space above the earth. The spaces between were bad enough. He couldn't imagine what kinds of terrible things existed up there in all that empty blackness. The thought creeped him out almost as much as Atlanta's ghost.
A strange scent wafted towards him as he and Aristotle weaved around the Space Mountain line. He sniffed the air. "What is that?" he asked.
"Hot dogs?" Aristotle suggested.
"All I smell is you."
"Then move and tell me what that is." Jack shoved Aristotle away and kept sniffing. It was some kind of flower, maybe a lily, and it kept snapping, as if the bloom were exploding into flames. He could smell it blooming and burning over and over.
"Holy shit," Aristotle said. "I think it's a witch."
"A witch ... "
"A very strong witch."
"Where's it coming from? I gotta find her. I gotta get her outta here."
"Jack, what the fuck - "
"Come on, help me find her."
"What about Bacchus?"
"He can take care of himself. But I gotta get her out."
"You spend way too much time chasing women. What would your Fury say?"
Jack wasn't listening. He was already following his nose towards the Tomorrowland Arcade. Aristotle followed with his hands in his pockets, keeping his eyes open for Bacchus or anything that might have noticed Jack's arrival.
Jack stepped into the Arcade, looked around and stumbled back out, feeling like he had been punched in the gut. Every machine in the place was sucking energy, and it made the room feel airless and dead. It hurt worse than passing through the barrier. He stood in the doorway and watched. The machines that were in use were pulling hard on the people standing in front of them. Shimmering tubes ran from the machines to the people's eyes and mouths. It didn't look like the people were in any pain. They would regenerate their energy after they left Disney World. Jack had the evidence he was hoping to find. Something really was draining people. But he couldn't help but think he had been told that already. He just couldn't remember who told him or why.
Near the back of the room, Jack saw the girl with the dark hair and dark eyes. She was strolling down the aisle, glancing at the machines with no real interest. The energy she added to the room was hotter and brighter that the rest, and Jack could smell the burning lilies drifting off her flesh. Then she turned around and headed towards the door. Jack's eyes flushed bright pink then washed out to white when he realized that she could see him and was coming right at him. He wanted to go in to meet her, but every time he tried to step through the doorway, he felt that sucking pain. He couldn't make himself fight through it, so he waited. The waiting was almost as painful as the energy sucking.
She was almost at the door when a metallic teal stuffed alien in a plushie crane machine sat up. The alien rallied some plushie friends - a sleepy looking bear, a giraffe, a gorilla, a unicorn with a neon green mane and Goofy. They pounded on the plexi glass front until the girl turned her attention towards them.
Jack watched her eyes glaze over as she walked up to the machine and dug in her pockets for change. "No!" he shouted. She put her fingers on the buttons and caressed the knob of the joystick. Smoky lines rose up from the machine and aimed at her eyes and mouth. Jack noticed another line at the back of the machine that probably took the energy to wherever it was being stored, but he didn't care. He ignored the pain and rushed towards her.
"Jack, stop!" Aristotle shouted, reaching out to grab the collar of Jack's jacket. His fingers closed on nothing. "You fucking idiot," he muttered. He watched and waited for his cue to go in and rescue Jack.
It seemed to Jack that the girl had been standing in front of the machine forever and that he was racing through miles and miles of quicksand to get to her. He was certain he would be too late to save her. He could feel the machines sucking on him and weakening him. He almost couldn't feel the girl in his arms when he came up behind her and pulled her away. The smoky lines broke away from her eyes and mouth and hung in the air for a second, their feathered tips searching for something to latch onto. Then they found Jack. His eyes were fierce rainbows as the lines pulled him closer to the machine. The plushies oohed and aahed. He tried to fight it off, but in no time at all, the pain had him tucked into an envelope of darkness.
Branwyn just stared for a second as the green skinned boy was pressed to the front of the crane machine. She saw his eyes reflected in the plexi glass, and then his eyes went blank. She wanted to save him the way he had just saved her, but she could think of nothing to do except stare at him.
Warm, long fingers closed over her elbow. She looked up into one bright blue eye, one bright yellow eye and mirrored sunglasses pushed up on an unseasonably tanned forehead. "Go outside," the surfer said. He didn't sound like a surfer. Branwyn wasn't sure just what it was he did sound like, but she rushed towards the door anyway. She turned around and watched the surfer pull the biker away from the machine. Strange smoky tendrils fell away from the biker's face and hunted for something else to hook into. They brushed across the surfer's face, found nothing substantial there and fell back against the glass. The plushies inside moaned in disappointment. Then they climbed up on each other's shoulders and boosted the alien over the top.
Aristotle watched the alien run towards the back of the Arcade and out the emergency exit. If it hadn't been for the limp biker in his arms, he might have followed it, but he was pretty sure Jack would figure it out. Branwyn might have followed the alien herself if she hadn't been afraid to go into the Arcade again and wasn't getting the feeling that something was very wrong with the Magic Kingdom.
Aristotle put Jack down on the ground several feet away from the Arcade's entrance. The girl sat down close by, and he could smell the burning lilies. No wonder Jack went after her, Aristotle thought. Even with some of her energy gone, her eyes glittered like dark stars. The sad thing was that she didn't seem to realize how much power she had.
"Is he okay?" she asked.
Aristotle looked down at Jack and slapped Jack's cheek lightly. "Probably not," he said. He slapped both of Jack's cheeks a few time. "Come on, Jack. Wake up."
Jack reached up and batted at Aristotle's hands, not entirely sure what was beating on his face. He sat up and opened his eyes. "Ow," he moaned, slumping forward as a small galaxy began to spin above his head.
"Jack, look at me," Aristotle said. He put his hands on Jack's shoulders and shook him a little. "Hey. Look at me. Come on, Jack."
Jack lifted his head, wincing. "What happened?" he asked. The galaxy tilted and whirled. His eyes were flat white.
"You just got yourself drained, dumb fuck."
Jack closed his eyes. The stars above his head wobbled around and started to fade. He caught the scent of the burning lilies and looked at the girl. "Are you okay?" he asked her.
Branwyn thought she saw his irises turn into hearts, but it was gone before she could be sure. She smiled. "Yeah, I think so," she said. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. My name's Jack. He's Aristotle."
Jack wanted to say something but found himself tongue-tied. He opened his mouth and reached up to loosen the knots.
"So what's going on here?" Branwyn asked.
"Someone or something is draining people's energy," Aristotle said.
"I don't know."
"We need to stop it," Jack said.
"Neither of us has any power any more, Jack. What the hell do you think we can do?"
"Something other than let it keep sucking energy. What if it's for something really nasty, like the end of the world?" That sounded familiar. Jack almost recalled a conversation with an old man in a fancy suit in a little diner in Finland. Or was it Norway? That was at least thirty years ago. He couldn't seem to remember anything the old man had told him. He had been too busy tossing pieces of crackers to the two ravens perched on the back of the booth over the old man's shoulder.
"It's probably just some hungry wraith or something."
"Bullshit. It's not purposeless."
"How do you know?"
"I just do."
"You're gonna get us in trouble, Jack."
"So what exactly are you guys?" Branwyn asked.
"We're spirits," Aristotle said.
"Okay. And why am I the only one who can see you?"
"You're a witch."
"You mean you didn't know?" Jack asked. "How could you not know? All that power ... "
"I just started reading about Wicca a few months ago. I don't really know anything yet. I've tried a couple rituals. I mean, I was really just kinda bored. They didn't work anyway. One was supposed to make my parents change their minds about coming here."
"That doesn't mean you don't have power," Aristotle said. "You just need to learn how to use it."
"So what do we need to do about the energy drain?"
"Jack'll think of something. If not, we'll all die."
Loki watched the shiny alien as it gesticulated wildly. Bob was bent over at the waist, nodding at every hand wave. When the alien was finished, Bob said, "Thank you." The alien saluted then bowed to Loki. Loki waved his hand. The alien trotted off.
"Well, what the hell did it say?" Loki asked.
Bob related the alien's tale, translating as near to word for word as he could. When Bob stopped talking, Loki just glared at him.
"How do you wish to proceed, sir?" Bob asked.
Loki sighed and put his chin on his fist. "Well, some good does come out of this. Jack is powerless, and that's bound to make things harder for him. But it's highly unlikely he'll decide to do nothing, power or no. Send the wolves after them."
"Any word on Bacchus?"
"Not yet, sir. But I assure you that he'll be found shortly."3. Big Bad Wolves
Jack, Aristotle and Branwyn made their way towards Frontierland, looking out for any suspicious activity that might lead them to whoever was behind the energy draining. Jack called out for Bacchus a few times, but there was no sign of his familiar.
"What's Bacchus?" Branwyn asked. "Is he a spirit, too?"
"He's my cat, but yeah, he's a spirit," Jack said.
"I hate to tell you this, Jack, but chances are he's dead," Aristotle said.
Jack's eyes turned pale blue.
"I mean, he's pretty small. It wouldn't take long to drain him completely."
"I'll find him."
Branwyn emitted a strange, high pitched chirruping sound.
"What the fuck is that?" Jack asked.
"A cell phone, silly," she said. "It's my mom."
"Oh. Right. A cell phone. Um ... "
Branwyn laughed at him and answered the phone.
Jack's eyes flushed bright pink.
"Ah, young love," Aristotle said. "It's so lovely."
"You've really fallen hard, haven't you?"
"I said shut up, asshole."
"That must be some kind of record, Jack."
"It's none of your damn ... oh, fuck."
Aristotle watched Jack's eyes get big and slowly move up to something over his shoulder. Branwyn was looking, too, and all the color had drained from her face.
"Mom, I gotta go," she said. "We're about to get on a ride. Bye!"
"What is it?" Aristotle whispered.
Jack kept staring at whatever it was, then his eyes went fierce red. "That fucker's got Bacchus!" he said. He tried to run forward, but Aristotle held him back.
Aristotle carefully looked over his shoulder. Two wolves the size of large elephants were loping towards them. One of the wolves was clutching Bacchus's limp body in her jaws. "Shit! Run!" Aristotle said.
"No! I have to save Bacchus!" Jack said.
"Jack, he's dead! Just run!"
The wolves heard Jack's cry and paused. In fact, everything and everyone in the Magic Kingdom stopped for just a second. None of them had ever heard the wail of a banshee before, and the sound chilled their blood.
Branwyn blinked back a haze of tears and saw that the wolves were moving towards them again, their ears laid back against their heads. She saw the small black cast in the jaws of one of the wolves lift its head a little and look at Jack. She grabbed Jack's hand. He looked at her, and she was positive that time that little hearts danced across his eyes. "We have to hide," she said. "We can't fight them, but when they lose us, we'll follow them. Then we can find out what's going on and get your cat. Okay?"
"Okay," Jack said.
Jack had to force himself not to look back as they ran out of Frontierland. They bumped through the line for the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. They shoved their way across a bridge into Adventureland and veered towards Liberty Square. The wolves were close behind. Jack could hear them breathing.
"We have to split up," Aristotle said as they near the Hall of Presidents.
"Like hell we do!" Jack said.
"There's two of them and three of us."
"I know how to count."
"They can't chase all of us."
"And if you're wrong?"
"How 'bout if I kill you instead?"
"Somehow I don't think your Fury would approve!" Aristotle burst through the doors of the Hall of Presidents.
Jack let his hand slide away from Branwyn's. "Keep running," he said.
She nodded and headed towards the Haunted Mansion, loosing steam as a pack of Japanese tourists paused for a group picture. She looked over her shoulder, but Jack was already out of sight. One of the wolves was padding around to the back of the Hall of Presidents. The one that held Bacchus was heading towards Fantasyland.
The Japanese tourists wouldn't get out of her way. They kept switching out for someone else to take the shot. They didn't seem to hear her when she shouted, "Excuse me!" Finally, she took a deep breath, muttered a few words and watched, almost in shock, as a small rain cloud forced the tourists to seek shelter well out of her way.
Branwyn figured the Haunted Mansion would be a good place to hide for a little while. If Jack and Aristotle could keep the wolves distracted long enough, she would head towards the castle. She had been able to feel the presence of other magic when she used the rain cloud spell, and a lot of it seemed to be coming from inside the castle.
Two mean looking Donald Ducks were blocking her way into the Haunted Mansion. When they saw her, they nodded to each other and began to waddle towards her. She turned around and ran the other way. Mickey and Minnie blocked her path. She stopped. The Donalds were closing in. She muttered a fire spell, and Minnie's skirt went up in flames.
Minnie screeched and started to beat at the flames, but the hands of the costume caught on fire. "Stop, drop and roll!" Mickey shouted. He shoved her to the pavement and rolled her around on the ground. The flames spread to Mickey, and he started rolling on the ground next to Minnie. The Donalds waddled up with bottles of water from a concession stand. People were beginning to scream and shout.
In the commotion, Branwyn was able to get half way to Adventureland before she found herself surrounded by Goofy, Pluto and two menacing Mickeys. She tried the fire spell again, but it didn't work. They closed in on her too quickly for her to think of anything else to try.
The wolf was close enough to try to take a few swipes at Jack with her paws, but Jack was able to stay just out of her reach. He jumped the railings of Cinderella's Golden Carousel, grabbed a pole and swung himself onto the ride as it spun by. The wolf went around to the other side and waited for him. She tried to step on him as he tumbled under the railing after mistiming his dismount. He scrambled out of the way and ducked under a flying elephant that almost clipped the wolf's nose. Jack grabbed onto a tail as it whizzed by and gracelessly flipped himself onto the elephant's back. The giggling passengers didn't notice him.
He scampered towards Dumbo's ears and held on as the ride dipped down. The wolf glared at him. When the ride came around again, Jack stood up on the outstretched ears. "Hey, bitch!" he shouted. "Let go of my cat!"
The wolf opened her mouth and snapped at Jack. Bacchus landed on his feet and shook himself. He attached himself to the wolf's leg, clawing and biting. She flicked him off.
Jack slipped as he dodged the wolf's jaws and rolled off the edge of the ears. He grabbed the edge and dangled there as the ride went around again.
Bacchus yowled and hissed. Ridley had him by the scruff of his neck.
"Let him go!" Jack shouted.
"Ride's over, Jack," Ridley said.
The wolf clamped her jaws down on Jack's left side. Jack wailed. The wolf shook her prey until it was silent.
Goofy, Pluto and the two Mickeys dragged Branwyn towards the castle, pausing only at the desperate sound of Jack's wail. Branwyn kicked and screamed, but no one seemed to be paying any attention. She tried spells, but she wasn't calm enough to focus her power so the spells would work. Mostly, nothing happened, but some of them backfired, causing ripples and cracks in the energy around her, including, she noticed, in the barrier. She concentrated more on making her spells backfire, but if she kept it up, she knew she would end up hurting herself. Still, she might get lucky and at least put a crack in the barrier before the consequences got too dire.
She fell silent for a minute, still struggling against her captors' grips. She mumbled a light spell, changing a few words and forcing as much energy as she could into it. She felt like she was being ripped in half. Menstrual cramps were nothing compared to that. Sparks arced out of her fingertips. She dug her heels into the ground, pulling back on the hands that held her. The sparks gathered into a great bolt, and she aimed them up at the barrier. The bolt shot upward, leaving her with greying vision and a limp, cold sensation, like standing up too fast but without the recovery. The bolt slammed into the barrier and kept going, making a hole the size of a basketball. Branwyn looked up to see the grey sky beyond the hole and the thousands of tiny fissures that radiated from the hole.
"Fuck," Pluto said. "Loki's gonna be pissed."
"Knock the little bitch out," one of the Mickeys said.
But there was no need. Branwyn was unconscious before the cracks she made stopped running.
Skalm dropped her prey at Loki's feet and slinked backwards, keeping her sharp eyes on the tasty green spirit. Bacchus had gotten out of Ridley's grip and was running around the Taker's head with his claws out. When he saw Jack hit the ground, he stopped, raced over to Jack and stood there hissing, his fur puffed out and his back curved upward. Skalm sat down and glared at Bacchus. Ridley limped out of the room with his hands over his face.
"Good job, Skalm," Bob said. "This is a very good thing indeed, sir."
Behind Loki, the machine coughed and sputtered. Its gears ground to a halt. Loki turned and stared at it. It whirred back to life. He glanced at a panel of monitors and saw the hole that Branwyn made in the barrier and the cracks that ran from it. "That little bitch is starting to figure things out," he said.
Bob gave the monitors a worried look and said nothing.
A moment later, Skade padded into the room with Aristotle's head in her mouth. Below her jaws, his body kicked and struggled. One of his sandals had already fallen off and the other was just barely holding on. She spat him onto the floor and sat down beside her sister.
Aristotle sat up, thought about telling Skade to brush her teeth and then saw Jack and Bacchus. Jack wasn't moving. His left arm was lying at a funny angle, and there were several deep puncture wounds on his left side from his neck down to his thigh. Aristotle crawled over to Jack. Bacchus hissed as he inspected Jack's wounds. Thin dark green fluid seeped from the holes, and Jack didn't respond to Aristotle's voice or his touch, even when Aristotle pressed his hand down on a wound that went all the way through Jack's shoulder. He yanked his crushed sunglasses off his face and looked up, for the first time, at the god standing placidly in front of him. "You son of a bitch," he said.
"Hello, Aristotle," Loki said. "Long time, no see."
"Now, now. Don't get testy. You said yourself you don't really like Jack."
"Just because I'd rather see him trapped in a rusty snuff box doesn't mean I want him dead. Especially not because of you."
"Tsk, tsk. You're such a fickle spirit."
"You won't get away with this, Loki."
"I've heard that one before."
"Someone will stop you."
"What, do you think the Fury that's supposed to be his guardian will come down here and do something?" Loki laughed. "By the time Tisiphone finds out and gets down here, it'll be too late."
A door opened. Goofy, Pluto and two Mickeys carried Branwyn into the room and dumped her beside Jack. They bowed to Loki and left.
"Well, now the gang's all here," Loki said. "I can get back to business as usual without you all meddling. Skade, Skalm, keep an eye on them. If they try anything, feel free to have yourselves a snack." Loki grinned smugly and turned back to the machine. A black wall came up between him and his prisoners, cutting off their view of him and the machine.4. Monkey Wrench
Aristotle kept a wary eye on the wolves and went over to Branwyn. She opened her eyes with a gasp as he pressed his fingers against the inside of her wrist. The pulse there was warm and strong, and he was glad to see her dark eyes fly open.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Branwyn sat up and rubbed her head. "Yeah, I think so," she said. "I tried to break the barrier."
"Well, you got it started. It isn't down, though."
"Is Jack okay?"
"I don't know. It doesn't look good."
"I heard them say something about Loki."
"Yeah, he's behind it."
"But how? He's supposed to be chained up, isn't he?"
"He's had a lot of time to figure out a way to get free."
Branwyn looked up at the wolves. They grumbled at her. She crawled over to Jack and put her hand against his cheek. When she touched him, she felt those sparks again, but he didn't respond. She sat down Indian style and rested his head in her lap. Bacchus meowed at her. "You must be Bacchus," she said.
"I'm Branwyn. Help me get his jacket off. I'm gonna try to heal him."
Bacchus climbed up on Jack's chest, took the zipper in his mouth and pulled backwards until the jacket fell open. Now matter how careful they were taking the jacket off, Jack's left arm kept bending in ways it shouldn't. But Jack didn't notice.
"I think he's dead," Aristotle said.
Branwyn touched her fingers to the green stuff that oozed from the punctures. It smelled strongly of cucumbers and was cold as if it had just come out of the refrigerator. She thought Aristotle might be right, but she didn't want to agree with him.
"Do you know how to raise a dead spirit?" Aristotle asked.
"I don't even know how to heal a wounded one," Branwyn said.
"But that doesn't mean I can't try."
"Well, if he's dead, it certainly won't hurt him."
Branwyn pressed her hands to Jack's head and closed her eyes. She knew nothing that even resembled a healing spell. She concentrated on Jack's wounds and tried to make her energy flow to them. In her mind, she saw something that looked like an x-ray image of Jack, except there were no bones. He looked as if he were made entirely of light. His wounds showed up as black spots that were leaking light. The more they leaked, the dimmer Jack got. She could see the light of her energy as well and concentrated on making it flow to Jack's wounds and closing them up. Soon, the light stopped flowing out of the wounds, and the black spots closed up. Jack began to brighten, except for a grey gash across his chest.
Branwyn opened her eyes and dropped her hands to the ground. She was exhausted but elated. She hadn't expected to be able to do anything, but all of Jack's wounds were healed.
"Whoa, you did it!" Aristotle said. "You're incredible. No wonder he fell in love so fast."
Branwyn blushed. She was pretty sure that was the first time in her life she had ever blushed. "Thanks," she said.
Bacchus mewed and rubbed his head against Jack's cheek until Jack opened his eyes.
For a moment, Jack's eyes were black as he looked around wondering where he was. Then he smelled the burning lilies and realized that his head, at least, was cradled in Branwyn's lap. He wasn't sure about the rest of him. The black cleared from his eyes and melted into a flash of springtime green. Bacchus was pawing at his face, and Aristotle was grinning like a fool in spite of himself. But as soon as Jack sat up, he saw Skade and Skalm watching him and licking their teeth.
"Are you okay?" Branwyn asked. "I didn't hurt you or anything, did I?"
"No. I'm fine," Jack said. "I don't know what you did, but thanks."
Branwyn felt herself blushing again as Jack smiled at her. His eyes turned pink and slowly intensified to a bright red that she could almost feel. She didn't quite notice that they were leaning towards each other to kiss until Aristotle cleared his throat and pointed back over his shoulder at the wolves.
"Don't you think we need to do something about them first?" Aristotle asked.
Jack grinned. "I think I can take care of that," he said.
Skade and Skalm eyed Jack like a tempting meal they were saving for later. Jack stood up and took a few steps towards them. They drooled. Thick, slippery pools of spittle gathered at their feet.
"Hey, ladies," Jack said.
"Jack, what the hell are you doing?" Aristotle asked.
"Be quiet, Ari. Let me work."
Aristotle groaned and put his hand on his forehead.
The wolves lowered their head, pulling their lips back from their teeth in angry snarls.
"So you wanna eat me, huh?" Jack asked. "I didn't know wolves liked vegetables."
"You will make a very satisfying crunch in our jaws when Loki is done with you," Skade said.
"Loki? Is that what this shit's about?" Jack shrugged. "Oh well. What's one more screwed up job?"
"You can't stop him this time," Skalm said.
Jack shrugged again. "Nah, probably not. He's way too tricky for me. I admit it. He's outsmarted me this time. But you know what, ladies? He's outsmarted you, too."
Skade looked at Skalm. Skalm kept her eyes on Jack.
"He's tricked you into thinking I'm snack food. Look at me, ladies! Do I look like a nice juicy, meaty wolf treat? Hell no!"
"Red meat isn't good for the heart. We need to eat a balanced diet that contains lots of fresh vegetables," Skade said.
"I think I like cucumbers," Skalm said. "You tasted pretty good when I had you in my jaws."
"Yeah, well. About that," Jack said. "That wasn't very nice."
"That's okay. I'll still tell you about the salads."
"What salads?" Skade asked.
Jack stepped a little closer to the wolves and looked around to make sure no one was listening. "Loki's salads," he said. "You see, ladies, he's got his very own salad bar in Valhalla. He doesn't go there often, because he's not allowed in there, but his assistant Bob goes there for lunch almost every day. Yup, I've had one of these salads. It's really good. Lots of crispy green stuff and whatever else you want. I'm not nearly as fresh as that."
"Can we get mushrooms? And bean sprouts? I love bean sprouts."
"Cucumbers?" Skalm asked.
Jack paused, thought for a second, and then said, "No. No cucumbers. Loki's allergic to cucumbers."
"Why didn't Loki tell us about this salad bar?" Skade asked. "He knows how we love our fresh, crunchy veggies."
"Because he never had any intention of rewarding you properly for all the hard work you've done," Jack said. "You'd split me, and then what? Aristotle is nothing but gristle. And Branwyn ... well, Loki won't let you have her. Bacchus will give you hairballs. You don't want that."
Skade and Skalm looked at each other. They looked back at Jack.
"You ladies deserve Loki's salad bar."
"That bastard's been holding out on us!" Skalm said.
"He used us just like he uses everyone else!" Skade said. "We should have never trusted him."
"But he made the offer sound so good."
Jack nodded. "Yep. He's a used car salesman. You bought a lemon."
"Tear that wall down!" Skade said. We'll show him! Hell hath no fury like a she-wolf denied her salad!"
"You go, girls."
Skade and Skalm got up and went over to the wall. They sniffed around the edges, looking for the best way to break it down.
"Stand back," Skalm said.
Jack, Bacchus, Aristotle and Branwyn huddled against the back wall. Skade and Skalm threw their shoulders into the wall. The wall shuddered but showed no signs of coming down. They hit it again, and tiny bits of rock shook loose from the seam at the ceiling. Small fractures opened at the impact points. After a few more hits, the wall was a pile of rubble and dust at the feet of the two wolves.
Loki and Bob turned away from the machine and the monitors. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Bob asked.
"We want the Valhalla salad bar," Skade snarled.
Loki blinked. "Excuse me?" he asked. "The what?"
"You promised us we could eat Jack when you're done," Skalm said. "But we've been told there's something better. And he's not big enough to share."
"Who the hell told you that?" Bob asked.
Loki glared past the wolves at Jack. "Jack, what kind of lies did you tell these wolves?" he asked.
"Nothing worse than the lies you told them, asshole," Jack said.
"There's no need to resort to name calling."
"My apologies. You're right. Let's sort this out civilly. Rock, paper, scissors. Two out of three. Let's go." Jack held his fisted left hand out in front of him, his eyes easing into a serious dark grey.
Loki cocked an eyebrow. "You can't be serious."
"No, I can't. I find it painfully difficult. Come on, Loki. I'm challenging you to a duel."
"Bob, do something about that, would you? It's almost time." Loki turned his back on Jack.
"Oh, you fucker. You are so dead."
Bob took a few steps towards Jack, but Skade and Skalm were on him in a second, demanding salads. They swiped at him and snapped their teeth at him. He ran out of the room. They went after him.
Loki shook his head and sighed. "I guess that means I have to deal with you myself." He turned to face Jack and flashed his smarmiest grin. "I am not playing rock, paper, scissors with you, Jack. I really don't have time. All I have to do is press one little button, and it's over. So if you want to stop me, you don't really have time to play games either, do you? And you've got no power. What are you gonna do?"
Jack picked up his jacket and pulled it on. He poked his fingers through the holes Skalm's teeth had made. "Damn, now I have to get a new one," he said. He looked up at Loki. "As for you, once I throw the monkey wrench into your machine and release the energy, Odin will come and take you back to your rocks and the poison will drip on your dick and on your eyes for tricking your wife into taking your place. And Ragnarok will happen as it should, not as you want it to."
"You knew about this already?" Aristotle asked.
"Well, yeah. He's been trying this shit for years. Odin asked me to fuck with him. But then I got distracted. Better late than never, I guess."
"So all those times you foiled my plans weren't accidents?" Loki asked.
"You little bastard!"
"Hey, I thought we weren't resorting to name calling."
Loki made a growling sound deep in his throat. "You may have a plan, but you still have to get past me." His suit began to smoke. Holes burned open, and small tendrils of fire coiled up around him. Then he began to grow. Soon, he was nine feet tall and surrounded by flames.
"Not impressed," Jack said. "You guys keep him busy for me."
Aristotle, Branwyn and Bacchus nodded.
Loki laughed. "There's nothing you can do! It's too late! I will set Yggdrasil on fire!" He shoved his finger against a button next to the monitors and laughed.
Jack ran for the machine. Loki stepped into his path, still laughing. He picked up his foot to kick Jack. Branwyn hit Loki with a spell. He stumbled a little then recovered. It didn't look like anything had happened. He laughed again, and Jack darted to the left while Loki was distracted by his own power. Suddenly, Loki let out a high-pitched cry of pain. He doubled over. There was more smoke pouring out of him than fire. "You bitch!" he shrieked. "What the hell did you do to me?"
Branwyn grinned. "I cut you down to size," she said.
Loki screamed again and hit the floor. When he hit, he broke into hundreds of tiny pieces.
Jack stopped and stared. "Wow," he said.
The pieces began to move. Hundreds of tiny Lokis got to their feet and laughed.
"Oops," Branwyn said.
"Step on them!" Aristotle shouted as a group of Lokis broke towards the machine. "Jack, go!"
A small swarm of Lokis closed in on Jack and grabbed his ankles. Jack shook them off, stomped on some of them and kicked the others to the side. He ran for the machine again and began to climb. The gears, cogs and levers made nice toe and finger holds, but he hadn't counted on how massive the machine was. From the bottom, it looked a thousand feet tall, and the only opening was at the very top. He didn't think he could climb fast enough.
Inside the machine, the trapped energy was being run through a series of tubes, mashed under turning wheels and spewed into a vat. There was so much energy in the machine that it had become tangible. Jack could feel the part of it that was his reaching out to him as he climbed. Then he had an idea.
Below him, Branwyn and Aristotle were squishing Lokis under their feet. Bacchus played with them like they were mice. There were too many of them, though, and several of them were climbing up the side of the machine after Jack.
Jack tried to climb faster and focused on his energy inside the vat. His eyes flashed orange and seeped into a deep coffee brown. It was hard to climb and think at the same time. He could feel the swarm of Lokis gaining on him.
The machine rumbled. The Lokis stopped. "What the hell was that?" one of them squeaked. The rumbling got louder. The parts rattled and clanged against each other. "Don't stop!" another Loki shouted. "Get him!"
Jack was almost at the top, but that was as far as he could climb. The last few feet were glass, and he couldn't quite reach the rim from where he was. The rumbling continued and deepened. The Lokis reached his feet. He kicked them down, almost losing his grip. Inside the machine, the vat was shaking as the jelly-like energy mass bubbled. Jack concentrated harder. It bubbled more and began to spill over the rim. Soon, it was gushing out of the vat, and the machine was beginning to fall apart.
"No!" the Loki's cried. "No, you can't stop it! I don't wanna die! You bastard!"
Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out the monkey wrench Hermod had delivered to him years and years ago. The monkey blinked and squeaked. Jack tossed it up over the rim of the machine. It splashed down into the vat. Then everything erupted.
Jack lost his grip and fell backwards off the machine. He fell past chunks of metal and glass, dislodged gears and arcing beams of light. The little Lokis clung to the machine but were soon falling around Jack. On the ground, the Lokis were scrambling for cover. Aristotle grabbed Branwyn and Bacchus and shoved them out a door, but when he turned to get Jack, the bulk of the machine toppled over, blocking the way back in.
"Damn it!" Aristotle shouted. "Damn it, damn it, damn it!"
Branwyn clutched Bacchus and tried to hold back her tears. "Is he ... " she started. She couldn't finish the question.
"I don't know. He was falling, then the machine fell over. I can't get back in to find him."
"But he released all that energy. Don't you have your power back?"
"Yeah, but I can't move things like that."
"Then what are we gonna do?"
"Go home. There's nothing else we can do. That little shit. He knew that would happen. He knew he'd go down with it."
"And he did it anyway."
"Damn it." Aristotle rubbed his eyes.
Bacchus meowed and jumped down from Branwyn's arms. He started pawing at the rubble that blocked the door.
"You're right, Bacchus," Branwyn said. "We can't just leave him."5. Fireworks
Jack still felt like he was falling, but he was no longer aware of anything else falling with him. The machine parts were gone. The Lokis were gone. The lights were gone. There was nothing around him but empty space. And falling. He stopped after a while. He could feel something solid underneath him, but he was afraid to move just in case he was still falling.
At length, Jack heard footsteps approaching. Several it seemed, and he sat up, not surprised to see Odin, Hermod and several other figures he didn't recognize. Jack scrambled to his feet, thought better of it and stumbled to his knees before the approaching host of gods.
"Well, Jack, you've done it," Odin said.
Jack looked up. The gods were bright in the dark room. He squinted and found nothing to say, a rare occurrence for him.
"Loki is back where he belongs, and Yggdrasil is safe until it is time."
"Is it really true he did this just because he didn't want to die?" Jack asked.
"Yes, it seems so. But all things happen for a reason and happen when they are ready."
"I'm sorry it took me so long. I ... um ... "
"You had other matters to attend to. You did well, even if by accident."
"Oh. The wolves. They might be paying you a visit."
"Yes, we've seen them. They're well fed."
"Sorry about that. Who knew they liked salad?"
"Jack, there's one more thing I would ask you to do for me."
"I don't know. I mean, I'm not very reliable, and I really would hate to piss you off. I mean, you're cool and all, but man, I know what you can do when you're pissed."
Odin laughed. "I think you'll find this a simple task. Hermod, the box."
Hermod stepped forward and handed Jack a small wooden box. It barely filled his hand.
"What is this?" Jack asked.
"We debated whether to tell you that," Odin said. "I think it's wise to keep you informed, while others believe that that knowledge is too dangerous. If it gets out what you have, you could have trouble."
"Oh, don't worry about that. Me and trouble go way back."
"If I tell you that you are never to open that box and not tell you what it is you're guarding, you'd open it."
"Well, yeah. Eventually."
"But if I tell you it's Yggdrasil, and you are never to open that box, you'd leave it alone."
Jack just stared at the box, his jaw dropping.
"Jack ... "
"No. No, I'd never open it if that's what's in it. But ... but why?"
"I fear for its safety."
"I can't keep this."
"Then give it to someone who can."
"But what if Loki finds out about it?"
Odin grinned. "Even if he learns of its location, Loki's not going anywhere. He's got someone else watching over him now. Your friends are looking for you, Jack. Go. And thank you again."
"You're welcome." Jack tucked the little box into his pocket and turned away from the gods.
Jack couldn't remember exactly when he stopped walking away from Odin and the others or when he might have fallen asleep, but he had apparently done both because he opened his eyes and felt as if a very strange dream were slipping out of his mind as the light slipped in. He sat up and looked around. He was sitting on top of a pile of rubble in a room under Cinderella's Castle. He could see the very top of the doorway that led out. The debris in front of the door was shifting downward every so often. Jack scrambled towards it and began to dig around the opening. Soon, it was big enough for him to squirt through, and he tumbled into Branwyn's arms.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
He gazed into her dark eyes and lost himself there. He inhaled the sharp scent of her burning lilies, managing a nod. Bacchus rubbed up against his legs and meowed.
"You fucking idiot!" Aristotle shouted.
Jack looked away from Branwyn with a great deal of effort. It almost hurt. "What?" he asked.
"You damn near got yourself killed. You knew that thing would fall apart like that."
"Well, yeah. That was the point. To destroy it."
"At the cost of your own life?"
Aristotle shook his head. "I guess I underestimated you."
"Yeah, that happens."
"Well, I'm leaving. I've had enough of the Magic Kingdom. Jack, I hope I never see you again."
"Same here, Ari. Bye!"
Aristotle popped out of the room. Jack turned his attention to Branwyn again, and her cell phone rang.
"I'm trying to kiss you," Jack said. "I really am."
"Be patient," Branwyn said.
Patience was something Jack didn't really have much of. He fidgeted while Branwyn talked to her mom and paced the floor. She put the cell phone away and took his hand. "The fireworks are getting ready to start," she said and led him outside. Bacchus trotted after them.
The barrier was gone, and the sky above them was clear and full of stars. The people around them seemed happy and vibrant. There were no vacant eyes.
"I can't believe we really did that," Branwyn said. "And no one will ever know."
"The important ones know," Jack said. "Odin knows. That's a good thing. It's not every day you get to be in good with a god."
"That's good for you. But ... I mean, I'm proud of what I did."
"I know what you did. You saved my life."
She smiled as he pulled her close to him. "I guess I'll never see you again, will I?"
"Sure you will. I'll find you."
"You won't forget me?"
"How could I do that?" Jack dug into his pocket and pulled out the box Odin had given him. "Here. I want you to keep this for me."
"What's in it?"
"The Tree of Life."
"No. Odin was worried about it. He wanted to keep it safe just in case someone else got some bright idea."
Branwyn tucked the box into her camera bag. "I'll protect it."
"Branwyn, I love you."
"I love you, too, Jack."
They kissed as fireworks splashed beautiful colors across the black sky.