Tony Milano just knew he was one tough kid. Of course that was before he got lost in New York City. Troop 56 was taking a day trip to see "The Lion King" and he managed to slip away at the theater. He was so cool. He'd get to see the "real" New York not that sissy boy crap that Disney offered up.
At first it was a lot of fun. He checked out all the new electronics at the cacophonous gadget stores that lined Times Square. He shared a butt with a street guy that was playing guitar for the passersby. Some guy even gave him a flyer about a girlie show, but he didn't go see that. You don't want to be too cool all at once. Besides he didn't much like girls anyway, never mind with their clothes off. Yuk!
Time flew by and Tony realized he'd had too much fun. He was lost. All of a sudden he didn't feel so cool anymore. Everything that moments before felt new and exciting seemed large and menacing. He was afraid to ask for directions. This part of town was rougher than Times Square and he was scared what they might do to him if they knew he was lost. He'd heard stories about kids being taken into the sewers and getting fed to the alligators. He laughed at that story. He wasn't laughing anymore.
He turned a corner into a dark, smelly, garbage strewn alley and stopped. There was no way he was going in there. He turned back and a shiver ran down his spine. There were those two guys again. They wore long black trench coats and stood about six feet tall. You couldn't see their faces because they were hidden under big floppy hats. Tony could have sworn beady red eyes glowed under there.
Tony bolted back down the alley. He was sure it connected to the main street on the other side. He was wrong. A rusty chain link fenced blocked his way. Tony spun. He looked for a place to hide, but he saw hundreds of beady little eyes peering out at him from under the garbage. Rats!
Tony felt like crying. He felt like a little baby. Those two big men with the floppy hats came for him out of the gloom of the alley. He swore he'd never smoke another cigarette, or drink another bottle of beer and that he'd be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly and the rest of that stuff if he could just escape from this place.
He backed up against the chain link fence that blocked his escape. He sucked in a lung full of air to scream for help, but the word never came. A foul smelling, furry claw clamped down over his mouth. Tony was snatched up under one arm. He struggled, but soon fell unconscious. Tony wasn't going home tonight.
Bechhart Schulman was a mess. His normally perfectly pressed suit was wrinkled. His dirty blond hair hadn't seen mousse for days and was wild and in disarray. Bechhart's normally beautiful blue eyes were red rimmed and tear stained. Bechhart's little girl was missing.
Inga was Bechhart's universe. Everything he did he did for his little girl. When she smiled his life lit up and when she laughed Mozart would have been jealous of that music, but now she was gone. She had disappeared from the park four days ago while there with Gertrude, Bechhart's wife.
Gertrude immediately went to the police, but so far they had found nothing. Bechhart had not slept for the past two days and this had not gone unnoticed by his employer. On top of his personal tragedy he was being called into the boss's office.
Some said that Bennington Wadsworth Sloman III the Chairman and CEO of Global Finance Corp (GFC) had no soul. Some said he had a computer for a brain and a hard drive for a heart. Bechhart was the CIO of Mr. Sloman's financial conglomerate and he was not allowed to perform his work at anything less than perfect.
"To hell with the job," Bechhart whispered to himself.
"You may go in now Mr. Schulman," Mr. Sloman's personal secretary said to Bechhart.
With no small amount of trepidation Bechhart rose from his plush leather seat in the waiting room and opened one of the two large mahogany doors that protected Mr. Sloman from the rest of the world. Some said he never came out of this place.
Bechhart had only ever been in this room three times before. Contrary to what one might expect it was filled with various fauna from all over South America. The veritable jungle was home to a few tropical birds that flitted about the place. One section of the office even had a small garden with a lawn and a meandering path. For all this foliage it was still a dark place.
In stark contrast to this natural environment stood a mahogany desk with a very powerful computer on it. Looming behind that desk and in the shadows cast by the trees behind him was Mr. Sloman.
"Come Bechhart. Sit," Mr. Sloman pointed to an empty leather chair in front of his desk. Bechhart jumped to the squawk of a parrot from somewhere in the room. Bechhart complied with Mr. Sloman's request.
"Mr. Sloman I know my performance of late-" Mr. Sloman held up a gloved hand and silenced Bechhart.
"I know of your daughter's disappearance Bechhart." Mr. Sloman eyed Bechhart from the shadows sizing him up.
"I also know that the commonly held belief is that I am a heartless monster. I have cultivated this myth myself so as to keep my competitors off balance, but the fact of the matter is that it's not true Bechhart. I want you to take whatever time off you need to attend to this situation. There will be no effect on your position at this company. If there is anything you need from me just ask."
Bechhart was obviously shocked by Mr. Bechhart's offer, "Mr. Bechhart I don't know what to say. Thank you so much!"
Bechhart may have detected a smile, but it was hard to see much of Mr. Sloman's face which always seemed to be lost in the shadows.
"I can't have my employees distracted to the point of incapacitation now can I?"
"No sir," Bechhart replied. He still could not summon up a smile even with Mr. Sloman's good news.
"Go home and attend to your wife, Bechhart. Let the police do their job. They'll find your daughter and you will come through this alright."
"Thank your, Sir. I'll do that."
With this Bechhart left the cavernous office/jungle of Mr. Sloman. Some where in Mr. Sloman's office a Parrot squawked and a snake hissed.
Keith Barnnet finished off the last of the Thunderbird with a gut wrenching swig. He belched a cloud of sickly sweet alcohol breath and then tossed the bottle in a pile of garbage across the alley from him. It crashed against the wall in a shower of glass. Several somethings scampered away under the garbage.
"Damn rats," Keith mumbled to himself. Keith searched through the pockets of his dirty wool coat, but he could find no more cigarettes. He coughed a rheumy cough and began to pick himself up. After three bottles of thunderbird that was a bit of a task, but after a couple of false starts he was finally able to stand up straight.
Keith stumbled back in surprise. Two tall, well-dressed men in black trench coats and big floppy hats stood in front of him.
"Where'd cha come frum?"
One of the men growled, "Show us your hands."
The other one pointed at Keith's dirty scarred old hands, "Show us your hands!"
Keith figured these two to be cops and complied. He wiggled his fingers and smiled, "See? No guns, no knives. I'm just a homeless guy."
The taller of the two men in black flashed out a back fist and Keith's head snapped back. The poor old drunk collapsed into a pathetic pile on the ground.
"A homeless man with all of his fingers," growled the shorter of the two men. They grabbed Keith by his hands and feet and took him to the trunk of a limousine that was parked at the end of the alley. As they drove away one could barely hear the gleeful tittering of the rats hiding under the garbage.
Aikeem gently placed his knapsack on the park bench and spread out in the early spring sun. He sighed a sigh of perfect contentment. The birds chirped. The children played. The pretty girls sunned themselves and a delicious quantity of sun beamed down on Aikeem. Pendella pushed up the flap to Aikeem's knapsack and took a seat next to him.
"What a lovely day, eh princess?"
"Very nice," she replied in a distracted tone. Aikeem noticed she was eyeing a nearby flock of pigeons.
"I hope your not thinking of lunch."
Pendella looked up at her man with a look of total disgust, "City Pigeons, my dear Aikeem, are dirty, smelly and stupid. They are the rodents of the avian world. I would no sooner eat one of them than I would their ground based cousins."
Aikeem smiled at his soul mates disdain, "I've seen you kill quite a few rodents in my day."
"Kill yes, eat no. One must have standards," Pendella replied.
Aikeem's attention was snatched by the beastly growl of a Doberman Pinscher. Fifty yards off a red faced portly gentleman held up an empty leash and ran toward Aikeem and Pendella. The Doberman circled to face Pendella head on. It barked and then growled most menacingly. Aikeem was obviously nervous. Pendella cleaned a paw with her sandpaper tongue.
"He seems a most disagreeable sort," Aikeem observed.
"He's trying to impress me with his ferocity," Pendella yawned, "I'm just so impressed."
Of course this set the Doberman to barking even more ferociously. Bits of salvia and foam formed on its lips and it came closer.
"Shoo!" Aikeem snapped at the clamorous canine. The Doberman turned his attentions to Aikeem which forced him to back up on the bench. Pendella reached into her soul and drew a glimpse of her beast out for the Doberman. For a second her eyes pulsed with a dark amber glow. The Doberman screamed in terror and ran back to its master who was staggering up to the bench and close to a heart attack. The confused gentleman leashed his pet and walked away admonishing the beast the entire way.
"Thank you Lady. The only defensive spell I'm carrying causes your attacker's head to explode and I'm somewhat reluctant to use that in such a public place."
"Really Aikeem, that kind of spell seems a bit strident."
"Well, ever since we ran into that nameless horror here in New York City I've tried to be more prepared."
"You worry to much Aikeem. We destroyed that beast and the rats have learned their lesson. Our spies report no movement among the gutter folk."
Aikeem stretched back out in the sun, closed his eyes and smiled a most satisfying smile, "And that's a good thing."
Pendella started to the sound of a little girl plumping down on the bench next to her, "That is a very pretty cat. May I pet her?"
Aikeem opened one eye to give the little girl a once over. He smiled at the seven-year-old, blonde, blue eyed picture of perfection. This little girl was sure to break many a heart in the years to come.
"May she pet you Pendella?"
"Well she obviously has an eye for beauty. I give her permission."
"She would love your attentions young lady," and with that Pendella sidled up to the little girl who immediately began to stroke her highness.
"She's very beautiful. You said her name is Pendella?"
"Pendella Purrfect," Aikeem replied, which immediately rendered a giggle from the little girl.
"Why is it my name always illicits this response from your kind?"
"Why ask why dear heart."
"I'm sorry I was talking to Pendella," Aikeem held out a hand to the little girl, "I am Aikeem Abdul Jamal Yosaffa and you are?"
"I'm Cassandra Dolan and I live over there," Cassandra pointed to the upper West Side.
"Really, well Pendella and I live just across town from you then."
"Uh-oh, there's my mother," Cassandra pointed at a very attractive woman in her mid-thirties running toward them. Aikeem stood for the lady as she collected her daughter.
"Casey how many times have I told you not to run off! You nearly gave me a heart attack!"
"I assure you dear lady that she is well protected in this company. My cat Pendella would fight the death to defend Miss Cassandra," Aikeem bowed for the little girl's mother. The lady was caught off guard by Aikeem's charm and could not help but smile. She held out a hand to Aikeem, which he took and shook in a most gentlemanly way.
"Hi, I'm Mary Dolan. I see you've already met Casey. She can be a handful."
"I can say the same about Pendella."
Pendella gave Aikeem a sideways look, "I could say the same about you."
"Oh that's so cute," observed Mary, "Look at her. It's almost like she understands what we're saying."
"I hope Casey has her father's brains," jibed Pendella.
Aikeem shot Pendella a dirty look, but ignored the remark, "She's a very intelligent sort... almost to the point precociousness."
"Precocious? Moi?" purred Pendella.
"Well she certainly is beautiful," Mary observed.
"Oh there's definitely hope for this one," Pendella opined.
Aikeem stifled a chuckle while Mary grabbed her child's hand, "Say goodbye Casey we have to go now. Nice meeting you Aikeem."
"It was my honor lady," Aikeem bowed for the favor of a most delightful smile from Mary. Aikeem returned to his place on the bench. Pendella snuggled up next to her man and the two basked in the noon day sun. Puuuuurrrrrrrrr.
Across the park, under a trashcan and hidden behind some garbage a pair of beady red eyes stared at Aikeem and Pendella. With the flash of a rat-tail the creature disappeared down a nearby hole.
Keith moaned and slowly came to. He was being dragged by the arms and shoulders over a rough stone surface. He managed to open an eye and spied black boots and the hem of a black trench coat. The bile of fear began to rise at the back of his throat.
Keith was thrown on to a chrome steel table. He tried to struggle, but rough furry hands threw him back against the hard metal surface. In seconds leather straps bound his feet to the table. Steel crossbars were pulled out from the table and Keith's arms were strapped to these so his arms were fully extended to his sides. The two men grabbed razor scalpels and quickly cut off all of Keith's clothes except his undergarments. He shivered on the naked steel.
"Let me go! I got rights!"
Keith reeled in horror. A furry face with beady red eyes thrust itself in his own face and hissed, "Not in here human."
Another tall man hidden behind a white surgical mask approached Keith's table. This "Doctor" was dressed in the traditional whites of a surgeon. There was something funny about his face too, but Keith could not quite put his finger on it. The Doctor withdrew a monstrous syringe from behind his back. It was filled with a glowing green liquid that seemed to have a life of its own. Keith screamed and struggled against his bonds.
"Hold his arm still", hissed the Doctor, "This will probably hurt a lot so feel free to scream. I do so enjoy screams."
Keith complied with the Doctor's request as the man drove the needle home and pumped Keith full of his vile concoction. After a few seconds Keith's eyes glazed over and he relaxed.
One of the men in black addressed the doctor, "You need anymore?"
The Doctor looked out over his little chamber of horrors. Six other tables contained victims as wretched as Keith, "No this should do. We're very close. In days I'll have the combination correct and then we can begin to harvest."
The men in black shrugged uncaring shoulders and left. The Doctor returned to his experiments. From somewhere in the chamber came the sound of children sobbing.
Pendella waited patiently by the box of fools that Aikeem kept in his living room. She found most of the images on the box annoying and stupid. They were primarily about humans and their ridiculous exploits, which held no interest for her (although she noted Aikeem never acted that way). However on occasion there would be very short stories about her brethren coaxing yet another free meal from their humans.
She was very fond of a male named Morris who was a master at dealing with his humans. Unfortunately she had not seen him for a number of years. She also found the story about a dog who confused some faux human concoction for bacon strips hysterically funny. "Bacon! Bacon! Gotta have Bacon!" Dogs are sooooo stupid.
The VCR remote stood nearby. Aikeem had shown her how to work it and she had a tape of her own with a collection of short stories. She pounced on the remote and the VCR began to record. Her favorite! The singing cats doing a new rendition of her favorite song. Meow, meow, meow, meow, that just about says it all!
Pendella began to sing along and the houseplants in the room began to shrivel from the feline cacophony. As with all of these short stories it ended too soon and Pendella fell silent. Something Aikeem called "The News" replaced Pendella's short story and she turned away in boredom.
Pendella hopped up to the plush leather couch behind her and burrowed underneath HER blanket. Only her eyes were visible as she began lick herself to perfection. Pendella stopped what she was doing and watched the box of fools intently. She called to her man.
Aikeem strolled into the room and after a few seconds found his mate under the blanket, "What is it lady? I'm trying to do my finances."
"I have... oh bother, how do you say it? Made memories of the box of fools on my tape."
Aikeem smiled at Pendella's struggle with human context, "Recorded. You recorded to the tape."
"Yes, yes," she said impatiently, "There is something there you should see."
Aikeem picked up the remote from the floor and rewound the tape. He punched the play button and rolled his eyes, "Yes, lady the singing cats are very nice, but-"
"No not this bit. Be patient."
Aikeem watched the frolicking cats for the hundredth time. He started at the news story that replaced the crazy cats, "Casey!"
"It is the little girl from the park. What is it they're saying? I have trouble enough understanding human speak never mind from out of this blasted box."
"She has disappeared. Shortly after she left the park with her mother. Oh my!!!"
"Why is your image on the box Aikeem?"
A pencil drawing that was a very close rendition of Aikeem played across the screen. Aikeem hit the pause button and stared at the police artist's interpretation of him.
"Because, my dear lady, they believe that I had something to do with Casey's disappearance. My nose is not that big."
"Make the pictures move again."
Aikeem hit the play button and the story continued. The camera cut to an image of an empty park bench."
"Stop it!" exclaimed Pendella and Aikeem complied, "That is where we were today."
"Yes. The reporter just said that's where you and I were last seen with Casey."
"Surely they don't think I had anything to do with the disappearance of this girl?"
Aikeem smiled at Pendella, "No lady, they hold me entirely suspect."
Pendella raised a paw and pointed at the trashcan that sat opposite the bench and across the park, "Look under that garbage container Aikeem."
"It's very small, Lady. It's too small. I don't see anything."
Pendella began to lick a paw, "You don't see two pairs of rat eyes reflecting the light?"
Aikeem squinted, after a few seconds he could barely make out four pixels that most assuredly were rat eyes.
"Very good, lady. Yes now I see them. What of it? Do you think the rats had something to do with this?"
"I merely observe that they are there, in the middle of the day and in a very public place. Not very rat like behavior; don't you think?"
Aikeem pondered this for a minute, "We need to retire to the Room of See."
"Agreed. We must find this little human. She's already quite talented in attending to feline massages and will make a fine mate for a cat someday."
Aikeem smiled and gathered up Pendella and placed her across his shoulders, "Of course your highness."
The two men in the black trench coats and floppy hats shrunk from the caustic abuse of Bennington Wadsworth Sloman III. Mr. Sloman stood and pounded the desk with a misshapen gloved hand. His computer beeped in protest.
"Not only did you take the child of one of MY employees you chose the daughter of one of my vice presidents! Why don't you just stick a sign out on the front of the building? Police! Please start your investigation here!"
"It was an accident great one. She was alone. No parents were evident. She was close to us and there was no one to observe her disappearance," one of the men whined.
Mr. Sloman glared at the pair and sat down, "You had better be right or I'll have a rug made of your carcasses." The two men shivered for they knew that Mr. Sloman was not waxing metaphorical.
"You snatched the last donor yesterday correct?"
"Yes my lord. She has been placed with the other twelve."
"And how about Striped Seer? Has he perfected the process?"
"He has finished the growth serum, my lord, but not the perfection of digits."
"He's sure the serum will work? Has he tested it?"
"He tested it on three of the little ones until he had it perfected. They are not so little anymore," the other dark man hissed in laughter at this observation.
"How long did he say until the perfection of digits is complete?"
"Three days my lord. In three days you will have all that you need to claim the world," the men in black wrung their hands in anticipation of that thought.
"Double the guards around the laboratory and see that Striped Seer has all that he needs," Mr. Sloman ordered, "I will suffer no more mistakes." With that Mr. Sloman dismissed the men in black and they withdrew from the room. Mr. Sloman closed his eyes and retreated to the place from which he did all of his planning.
Aikeem entered the Room of See. Seven torches about the room immediately sprung to life. Aikeem's footsteps echoed about the mostly empty room off of the marble floor. A blue domed ceiling centered the room over a marble pedestal, which supported a large dark blue crystal. A gold pentagram several yards in length was inlayed around the center of the room. At the base of the pedestal rested a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex (as Pendella has pointed out in the past Aikeem is a very fastidious sorcerer).
Aikeem stopped before the crystal and Pendella leapt from his shoulders to the floor. Aikeem picked up the glass cleaner and began to polish the stone of summons.
"Are you going to do glow balls, eyeballs, demonettes or flying lizards?"
"I was leaning toward glow balls, lady."
"Oh, do lizards. There so much more fun to watch."
Aikeem smiled, "And so it shall be lady."
Aikeem closed his eyes and began to mumble. The crystal began to glow. Pendella began to attend to the fur between two claws. The domed ceiling began to luminesce of it's own accord. A column of light formed between the crystal and the ceiling. Aikeem's words became more audible as the force of his spell became more adamant. An ectophasic subquantum delirium began to weave between the light and with a starburst seven flying lizards popped into our realm.
The little green reptiles, which looked very much like tiny dragons began to flit about the room. Pendella was entranced as she watched them fly. One brave little soul zipped in front of Pendella and hovered before her nose for a few seconds before flying off.
"I love their aerial acrobatics," Pendella observed.
"Attention Dragons! To me!" Aikeem exclaimed along with a magical gesture.
The lizards circled Aikeem and hovered in a circle around him. Aikeem gestured and a ghostly, three-dimensional image of Casey formed in midair.
"This is Casey. She is the little girl you are to look for," Aikeem traced a rectangle in the air and a map of the upper West Side of New York coalesced from the ether. Aikeem drew a route on the ghostly map.
Aikeem pointed to a x, "This is where the girl lives in apartment 1900. You can gather her scent there." Aikeem gestured again and a semi-transparent image of the the park faded into view, "And this is where we saw her last. Any questions?"
In a very high pitched voice that was just audible to human hearing, the closest and largest lizard asked, "Squeak?"
"Just bring her location back to me and we'll take it from there. No heroics dear friends. There maybe be danger here."
The little dragon saluted Aikeem with a fore claw, and squeaked again. The little dragons followed their spokes lizard and zipped off toward the ceiling. In a flash of subphasic endomagic they disappeared with a flash of light through the ceiling.
"I love it when they do that. The lights are pretty," Pendella observed.
"Let us hope they find her soon lady. I can do nothing from behind the walls of a prison cell."
"Tonight we need to go to a dark place downtown. I have arranged to meet with one of our informers in the rat population."
"Really? Who would that be."
"His name is Conniving Blitherskites. He used to be one of their thirteen until he was usurped by a more devious and foul smelling rodent."
"And you believe he can be of assistance to us?"
"If the rats in this city are up to something he'll know, "with that Pendella turned tail and left the Room of See. A thoughtful Aikeem put out the torches and soon followed.
"Enter," boomed Mr. Sloman's voice about his jungle room.
A timid and still depressed Bechhart entered holding a gaily-wrapped box.
"Bechhart!" A genuinely surprised Mr. Sloman exclaimed, "What are you doing here?"
Bechhart placed the package before Mr. Sloman, "My wife wanted me to bring this to you. It's just a small token of our appreciation for your generosity. We can't begin to tell you how grateful we are."
Mr. Sloman waved Bechhart off, "It's nothing, Bechhart. You are one of my most valued employees. How could I not do this for you?"
Mr. Sloman began to open the package, "Have you had any news?"
"The police have found nothing yet. Another little girl was abducted just yesterday and they fear there is some group responsible for this depravity."
"That's terrible! Oh Scotch. How nice."
"It's Laphroggs. I was told you really like Scotch and this is some of the best."
"You're very thoughtful Bechhart, thank you. Of course the greatest gift will be the return of your daughter."
"Thank you, Sir. We pray this will come true."
"It will, it will. No go back home to your wife and keep her company," Mr. Sloman motioned Bechhart to the door.
"Thank you again, Sir," and with that Bechhart left the room.
Mr. Sloman rolled up his nose at the sight of the bottle of Scotch, "Alcohol! Yuk! Who ever starts these rumors." Mr. Sloman pushed the bottle off to the side and returned to his nap.
Pendella preceded Aikeem down the dark alley. A flickering fluorescent light cast a deathly pale at the other end of this dismal place. A short, fat man of no more than five feet waited for them at the other end. The hood wore typical gangster fare from some bad fifties mobster movie. He was constantly in motion, burning off nervous energy with his fidgeting. Pendella and Aikeem stopped before the man.
"All right you dirty cats! I ain't done nothing, see! I wasn't even there, see! You ain't gonna pin this wrap on me, see!"
"I thought you said he was a rat, Pendella? He seems like a bad mimic to me."
"He is a rat," Pendella waved a paw and a burst of amber light blew away Blitherskite's magical façade. A large, fat, rat replaced what once looked human.
"My... he's a big one," observed Aikeem.
Blitherskite's jabbed a dirty claw in Aikeem's direction, "One of the biggest, see! You don't want to mess with me, see! I'm the roughest! I'm the toughest, I'm the-"
"Blitherskites will you shut up!" Exclaimed an impatient Pendella. The rat clamed up and withered at Pendella's command.
"Several children have disappeared in the past two weeks. What do you know about it?"
"It wasn't us! We rats don't go near kids, ever since that Pied Piper thing."
Aikeem looked perplexed, "What's that got to do with you? It was the Piper's fault."
Blitherskites became even more animate, "Oh that's what you humans all say on the outside, but we know what you're really thinking. Oh! If the rats hadn't been there in the first place the Piper never would have showed up and stole our kids!"
"I think you're being a tad insecure," Aikeem mused.
Pendella snickered, "Rats are like that."
Blitherskites rat eyes closed half way and he leaned conspiratorially forward, "It wasn't us rats what took 'dem kids, see, but it weren't no humans either."
Pendella sat on her haunches and extended her razor sharp claws. She began to lick them clean as she spoke, "What do you know Blitherskites and tell us the truth."
Blitherskites warily eyed Pendella's claws as he spoke, "I don't know much. All I know is the buzz is there's another thirteen in town and they're snatching humans."
"Another council!" Aikeem exclaimed, "Here in the city!?"
"That's what I'm sayin'," Blitherskites jabbed a claw at Aikeem.
"Which clan, Blitherskites?" Pendella inspected the point of one claw.
"I, I, I, I, don't know. No one's saying," Blitherskites jammered.
Pendella placed both paws on the pavement, squinted her eyes and leaned forward, "Are you sure?"
Blitherskites tried to hide under his arms and backed up against the wall away from Pendella, "Don't hurt me! I'm tellin' ya the truth. I don't know!"
"We need to take care lady, if it's the snakes we could be in for a fight."
Pendella gave Blitherskites one more withering glare, "You had better be telling me the truth Blitherskites. If this is some intrigue to get you back on the thirteen then I'll turn you into a rat burger."
Blitherskites almost seemed to turn pale, "I'm tellin' ya Pendella, it's the truth!"
Pendella pondered the shivering rodent for a few seconds. She turned and left the alley. Aikeem smiled and followed his iron mistress out of this dark place.
One of the big men in the dark floppy hats carried a stack of dog bowls filled with chopped meat through the Striped Seer's chamber of horrors. He stopped before a dark dank cell that was sealed off with iron bars. Three pairs of furry, dirty arms shot through the bars and grabbed at the bowls. Guttural, bestial screams accompanied the attempts to snatch the food.
"Patience my pets. All in good time," soothed the dark man in the big floppy hat. He placed the bowls on the floor and kicked them to the creatures in the cell. He laughed at their desperate struggles to feed themselves. His hollow laughter echoed along the halls as he returned from whence he came.
In the cell next to the feeding creatures, huddled up in terror against the opposite wall sat Tony Milano, Inga Schulman and Casey Dolan. The three children clung to each other and shivered at the sounds of the feeding beasts.
"We're never gonna get out of here," Tony sobbed, "They're gonna turn us into big monsters too!"
Inga sobbed at this thought and Casey admonished Tony, "Oh hush! You're scaring Inga. Someone will come for us and they'll make these bad guys pay."
Tony started to say something, but stifled his argument. Inside he hoped Casey was right. Casey turned away from Tony. For a brief instant she could have sworn she saw a little tiny dragon hovering in midair in empty cell across from them. There was a small flash of light and whatever it was gone.
Aikeem set his wonderful knapsack down in the alley behind the Global Financial Corp. building. Pendella popped out of the backpack and rubbed up against Aikeem's leg. She purred with anticipation of the night's activities.
"There is adventure to be had this night, Aikeem."
"Yes lady, let us hope it is an adventure and not a grave that awaits us."
"Oh pooh, you worry too much."
"I may be long of life lady, but I can still be killed."
"I'll protect you."
Aikeem smiled, "Please do."
"How many spells have you prepared?"
"Seven? That's all?"
"I'm not a endless font of energy, lady. Seven spells are just about my limit. I can do ten on a VERY good day."
"They say Elderond Bundermage could store twenty."
Aikeem frowned, "Elderond was a hack... and dead I'll remind you."
Aikeem pulled off his long black coat and placed it next to his knapsack. He began to rummage through the knapsack.
"Are you bringing a boom stick?"
Aikeem sighed, "Yes lady. I'm loath to use them, but in this day and age if you don't bring along a gun you run the risk of being overwhelmed by firepower. Spells are simply not enough in these modern times."
Aikeem withdrew a twelve-gauge pump action shotgun with pistol grips and a sling that was filled with ammunition. He strapped the weapon across his back and sighed, "It seems so unwizardly."
"Will you bring Moonwind?"
"Oh most assuredly," Aikeem replied. He pulled a three and a half-foot katana from his knapsack, "Here it is."
Aikeem loosed the blade Moonwind from its scabbard and with a few deft flicks sliced the night air, "No beast be it hell born or otherwise can resist the kiss of this blade."
Aikeem strapped the scabbard across his back next to the shotgun and then put his coat back on. With a few deft movements he transformed his backpack into a butt pack and placed it on his hips.
"There we go. Already for battle and the honor of my lady," Aikeem bowed to Pendella.
"Oh you look most dashing, Aikeem... for a human."
Aikeem smiled at the off handed compliment and turned to the metal door nearest them.
"Did you bring a sound spell?"
"You're so spoiled lady. You must have theme music every time we go into battle these days."
"It confuses our enemies and fires my beast."
"What would you like? Something energetic obviously. Rock and roll? Heavy Metal? Techno?"
Pendella rubbed up against her man's leg again and replied, "Something loud and exciting?"
"Well then we'll need some hybrid mayhem... with a beat," and with this Aikeem began to gesture in the air. Murmuring accompanied the gestures and soon a pulsing rhythm began to emanate in surround sound from everywhere and no where. A lone guitar screamed out the opening battle cry and Pendella began to purr.
"Oh that's very nice. Let's go kill something."
Aikeem turned his attentions to the metal portal in front of him, "First we must attend to the door lady.
One of the men in the large floppy hats pulled two 9mm handguns and ran down the cement corridor to the stairs that led to the alley. He's keen hearing picked up the sound of music just outside the metal door that sealed off this place. Everyone was on high alert and this was most assuredly a security violation.
The guard in the floppy hat mounted the metal stairs that proceeded the doorway. He stopped on the landing and flipped on the monitor that was electronically attached to the camera just outside the door. There was a man and a cat just outside and the man was gesturing wildly in the air.
Aikeem finished the spell by thrusting outwards and the door blew inward with a sonorous bang. Man and cat rushed through the opening. Aikeem drew Moonwind as they entered.
They stomped over the fallen door and did not notice the body underneath. Pendella sniffed something familiar as she rushed over the fallen guard, but paid it no mind. A torn floppy hat lay against a wall. A dark furry snout was barely evident under the door from a creature whose magical façade was gone and that would breath no more.
"Did you hear that!" Casey exclaimed, "Someone's come for us!"
Tony and Inga hugged each other in a corner. The light of hope ignited in their eyes. Casey strained to see past the bars. She saw a lot of men in big floppy hats with guns running around.
"Feel free to summon your beast whenever you like, lady."
Pendella peered around a corner, "As you said before I am not an endless font of energy either. It is best to hold my beast until we really need her. Two approach and their weapons are lowered."
In time to the music Aikeem leapt from around the corner into the center of the next corridor. He fired his shotgun as he did so. Two men in floppy hats were blown over backwards before Aikeem even landed. Aikeem followed Pendella who sprinted for the next adjoining corridor.
"This place reeks of foul magic," Pendella observed.
"Aye lady and did you notice the ratlike appearance of those two brigands?"
"Yes, although it's hard to tell under those hats. Most curious."
Striped Seer began to scurry about furiously. Two of the men in floppy hats wheeled a sedated Keith Barnnet into the room, "Put him over there and then go assist your comrades. We've been breached!"
Striped Seer replaced his surgical mask and grabbed a meat cleaver, "This is terrible. This is not the way it was supposed to happen."
Striped Seer leaned into Keith's unconscious face, "I really don't want YOUR digits. They're too old and corrupt. We were to grow the children and take theirs, but now there is no time."
He swabbed the ring finger and pinky on both of Keith's hands with a glowing green ichor. He spoke the Spell of Transference, the Spell of Stasis and then raised the clever high over his head. Fortunately Keith was unconscious.
Aikeem rounded a corner and immediately pulled back. A fusillade of bullets accompanied his retreat.
"Time for spell number three," Aikeem exclaimed and began to gesture. A ball of lightening six feet in diameter formed up opposite him. With a metaphasic push Aikeem sent the ball rolling down the corridor. The screams of men in big floppy hats resonated down the corridor.
Aikeem didn't need to waste a shell. The corridor was littered with smoking bodies.
"Come Princess! We're almost to the prison."
"I don't care what the risks are! We have a wizard in the building! We've been found out and we need to act now!"
Striped seer withered under the admonishments of his dark lord, "Then do not hold me responsible for the outcome my lord. This is the best I was able to do under these circumstances."
Striped seer placed two blood soaked rags on Mr. Sloman's desk.
Mr. Sloman smiled in anticipation and began to remove his gloves, "Let us get on with it!"
Aikeem rounded a corner to find a corridor lined with prison cells. He rushed by each cell until he found the one with Casey in it. He did not notice the empty cell just next door.
"Aikeem!!!!" A joyous Casey screamed.
Aikeem slung his shotgun and with a flourish bowed to Casey, "Sweetest princess I have come to rescue you."
Casey clasped her hands to her heart while Tony and Inga looked quizzically at the strange man in the long black coat, "I should have known YOU would come for me Aikeem."
Tony's eyes went wide with terror, "Look out!!!"
Two long furry arms's encircled Aikeem from behind and lifted him up off his feet. Aikeem flushed as the air was driven out of his lungs. A monstrous rat of over six feet breathed its fetid breath into Aikeem's face from behind.
Aikeem managed to squeak out, "LADY PLEASE!"
Pendella watched as two more man-sized rats charged out from behind Aikeem and his captor. A furry claw slammed the ground where she was. Pendella leapt between the legs of one giant rat and tripped it up. The creature smashed into its fellow and both creatures fell to the ground with a sickening crunch. Pendella leapt to the leg of the monster holding Aikeem and began to use its leg as a scratching post.
The giant rat screamed, dropped Aikeem and went for Pendella. Pendella was gone. Aikeem leapt over the two monsters on the floor. Aikeem turned, raised his hands and fired his spell. The standing rat's head exploded. The children screamed, the two large rats on the floor screamed... Pendella laughed. The two remaining rats watched their comrade's headless body fall to the ground and then ran.
Aikeem turned to the cell, "Sorry about that children, but I was in a bit of a straight."
Tony began to throw up and was soon joined by Inga. Aikeem gestured and all of the cells lining the corridor opened up of their own accord. Aikeem turned to Pendella.
"Lady! Escort the children out of here safely. I'll attend to who ever is in charge of this den of evil. Casey you help Pendella."
"Take care Aikeem. You only have three spells left."
"I will lady," and with this Aikeem was off.
Casey gathered up the remaining children and all thirteen followed Pendella out of the place.
"We're following the cat?" Tony asked.
"She's very smart," was Casey reply.
"Yes... she'll make a very good companion to someone," Pendella thought to herself. Pendella noticed that the men in the big floppy hats were not men at all, nor were they rats.
Aikeem entered Striped Seers laboratory and found a bloodied, dazed Keith moaning on a gurney. Aikeem picked up the poor man's hand and winced at the sight of the missing digits.
"How rude," Aikeem observed, "I thought I'd need this healing spell for me. I guess you need it more."
Aikeem said the words of power and waved his fingers over Keith's hands. Had Keith been awake he would have noticed a warm feeling as his fingers regenerated. Aikeem smiled at his handiwork and began to weave a locator spell. A three dimensional display of the GFC building formed up before him.
Aikeem spoke to the intelligent endoplasmic energy, "From where in this building is the most magic power emanating?"
A bright red light danced around Mr. Sloman's office and Aikeem smiled. He had only one spell left and now he knew where he would spend it.
Aikeem burst into Mr. Sloman's office but the financier was no where to be found. Aikeem leveled his shotgun at the empty desk and cautiously made his way into the room. A parrot squawked and Aikeem jumped.
"Curious décor," he said to himself.
Aikeem spun. He did not fire at the man in the surgeon's garb who escaped out the door. Aikeem could have sworn he saw a furry body under that outfit.
Aikeem passed the desk and headed toward an open lawn set up behind the desk. He looked into the foliage over head, but nothing was evident. A chill slowly creeped up his spine. Something was watching him. Aikeem walked up to the bush that lined the lawn and began to push it apart with the tip of his shotgun.
From an overhead branch Mr. Sloman distended behind Aikeem. Aikeem felt the presence of the financier and spun. Mr. Sloman snatched up the gun and slammed Aikeem in the face with the butt of the weapon. Aikeem toppled over backwards into the brush. Mr. Sloman dropped to the ground, grabbed Aikeem by the ankle and hauled him out of the bush.
A dazed Aikeem focused on Mr. Sloman and cried in realization, "You're no rat!"
"Of course I'm not a rat Wizard! I'm a sloth you moron! You won't be needing this."
Mr. Sloman emptied Aikeem's shotgun of ammunition and then tossed it into the surrounding jungle. Mr. Sloman smiled an evil smile and waved his fingers in Aikeem's face, "I used to be a three toed sloth. Now I have a full complement of digits! Aren't they beautiful. Originally they were supposed to be the fresh sweet fingers of an artificially enlarged child, but then you showed up and ruined everything."
Aikeem was obviously nonplussed, "You went through all of this just to grow a couple of fingers?"
"They were not grown. They were lifted... so to speak," Mr. Sloman began to become more animate, "And now the Sloth's shall ascend to their rightful place at the head of the animal kingdom!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your species has boggled up the earth quite enough. It is our turn to rule! We have spent many years planning on the dreamscape and with these extra digits we can finally weave the spells necessary to subordinate all other species!"
"It takes more then just five fingers to cast the kinds of spells you're talking about," Aikeem observed.
"So you say wizard, but I know otherwise. We have plotted from our tree top perches for millennia. We have conducted various experiments in the dreamscape and always the two thing we were missing were these!" Mr. Sloman waved his new fingers in the air.
Mr. Sloman pounced on Aikeem and knocked him back. He reached behind Aikeem and drew Moonwind, "Nice sword. It feels very good in my full fingered hand."
Mr. Sloman began to wave the sword around in the air, "Soon my thirteen will gather here and we will speak the Bayless Charm. A portal will open up to our special place in the dreamscape and our own personal army dream warriors will march through and make the earth ours."
Aikeem began to crab walk back away from the unreasonable sloth. Mr. Sloman turned his attentions from the sword to Aikeem, "There's just one thing we're missing... a human sacrifice. Are you free tonight?" Mr. Sloman laughed maniacally and moved on Aikeem.
Aikeem bumped up against the desk, jumped to his feet and desperately grabbed the first thing that came to hand. Aikeem hurled the bottle of scotch with all of his might at Mr. Sloman's head, but the crazed sloth caught the bottle by the neck.
"Really wizard. That was an act of desperation," Mr. Sloman's smile left his face as his hands dropped the sword he was carrying and began to open the bottle of scotch, "What!?!?"
Mr. Sloman was powerless to exert any will over his hands as they drove the bottle of scotch back into his mouth, upended the bottle and forced an entire quart of liquor down his throat.
A dumbfounded Aikeem watched as the horrified Mr. Sloman dropped the emptied bottle, looked up at him, hiccuped once and then keeled over dead.
Pendella sauntered into the room and rubbed up against Aikeem's leg, "Did you use your last spell?"
"No lady. Evidently he stole the wrong set of fingers and it seems he could not hold his alcohol"
"Sloths are like that," Pendella observed.
Aikeem retrieved his sword and sheathed it, "I trust the children are safe?"
"I took them across the street and they pressed the numbers of safety."
"Yes I believe that was it. The men in the cars with the flashing lights came for them. The children all seemed very happy about this and kept asking if they could make the siren work. That's when I left."
Aikeem transformed his butt pack back into a knapsack and put Moonwind back into it.
"Come lady it is time for us to leave," Aikeem motioned to the opening on his pack and Pendella jumped in. Aikeem left the place for the police. He mused how their report would explain an alcohol poisoned sloth in a three-piece suit and the disappearance of Mr. Sloman.
Aikeem gestured and his last spell erased all traces of his being from this building. With this he exited the GFC building and hoped to never see another sloth again except at the zoo.
Striped Seer cursed himself for listening to Sloman's promises. He knew this stupid plan would never work. All he wanted was an extra set of fingers so he could finally play poker with out dropping the damn cards all over the place.
Striped Seer pushed the last of his belongings into his bag. He was returning to the forests of the Amazon and to his beloved cecropia tree. He was giving up his position of Seer for the thirteen and was resigned to spending the rest of his life living as most normal sloths do... asleep.
Striped Seer turned to go. Terror transformed his face. Two magically enlarged, angry, man sized rats distended from the shadows. No one in the upper levels of the building heard Striped Seer's screams.