Well... so much for weekly updates! Whoops. I probably shouldn't promise things like that at this point. I'll make a post soon about what I'm working on, but for now, here's a little short story! I wrote it for an anthology that didn't wind up happening.
The Raccoon of Doom
The Raccoon of Doom
The end of the world. That’s what my grandfather called it. After months of travel, his family had reached the end of the Western Reach to find a cliff jutting above an endless ocean, salty and flaccid. “Surely we have met our doom,” he said to my grandmother, staring down at waves splashing weakly against the shore.
He was certain he’d led his family to their end. He built a haphazard log cabin and cultivated a beet field. His two great contributions to the world. He died a year later moaning “I am sorry to have led you all to doom!”
Father was far more optimistic. He built an enormous castle here. He never forgot his daddy’s words though, and so it was that the castle came to be called Doom. He left the cabin and the beet field untouched. I’d have been grateful for this later if I didn’t hate beets with the fury of a thousand suns.
Now I live in the Castle of Doom alone, the only raccoon left in the world. As far as I know, anyway. A terrible sickness swept through my family and friends when I was young, killing everyone shortly after we settled in here. Like most of my kind, we fled to the outskirts of Eldara when the Ursa struck down the Royal Rabbit Army. I haven’t heard from any of my more distant relations in decades, so I figure I’m probably the only one left.
It’s like I always say. Never trust a rabbit to do a raccoon’s job anything. Naturally superior in every way, we raccoons could absolutely definitely have bested the bears in battle had we not been so busy fleeing in terror and running for our lives and whatnot.
A storm curled against the sea, obscuring the horizon. I stood on a knife-narrow tower and watched lightning skitter along the surface of tall, cumulus clouds. It was going to be a heavy storm, the kind that would seep through the ceiling and flood all the ruts in grandfather’s beet garden.
A good night for magic.
I’d been experimenting for decades, sifting through ancient spell books that had belonged to a different, less dour grandfather. My mother’s father. He’d been a magician of sorts, self-taught. Every day he’d read through dusty old tomes, searching for something. He never told me what he was after. I had but one clue. When I was a small child, he’d told me he was searching for a “special kind of travel”.
He’d read and practiced his spellwork every day, until the stormy night he magicked himself out of existence. Aside from myself, he was the only raccoon I knew of who hadn’t died in the plague.
After the incident (but well before everyone was gone), Father had locked up the library, looping chains around the door handles and padlocking them together. We’d all been forbidden to go near the books, or talk about Grandpa’s research, or to discuss the foreboding black spot that had appeared in the carpet where Grandpa had cast his spell.
I’d obeyed those rules for years, until I was the only one left. Even then, it had taken me a year to work up the courage to break in with a pair of rusty old bolt cutters.
I didn’t know what he’d been seeking, but I knew what I was after.
The only other raccoon I knew who might still be alive.
Heavy storms— and all the lightning that came with them— would provide vast amounts of magical energy. I could harness them for far more magic than what I could squeeze from my tiny, furry frame, handsome as it might be. I’d been waiting for a storm like this. Waiting for my moment, and now at last it was here.
I smiled in the face of the oncoming gale. “Bring your worst!” I yelled to the oncoming storm. “We’ll be ready for you!”
A slip of the tongue. There had been no “we” for a very, very long time. I turned to walk back down the stairs. They wound downward in a tight spiral, so narrow my elbows brushed either wall. Doom had seven such towers. They were the only way up or down in the castle, built small so that any invading army of bears would struggle to get to us. We’d never pretended it would do anything but irritate and delay. They would just bring the castle down around our ears if we annoyed them enough.
I walked a broad hallway, a dark, dusty corridor neglected by everyone but the spiders. They’d woven their homes in the corners where the walls met the ceiling.
My laboratory was waiting for me, an enormous, chilly room dominated by great skylights above and sweeping picture windows lining one wall, offering a commanding view of the sea and the coming maelstrom. The windows often fogged with smoke and ephemera of the craft, but I had taken to scrubbing them every week, taking a break from my experiments to wash all the windows until they were so clean I couldn’t even see them.
There were old wooden tables everywhere, each one littered with half-spilt glass bottles, moldering half-read books, and half-used candle stubs mired into their votives by melted wax. The center of the room was dominated by Mister Lightning.
Mister Lightning was the name I had endowed on my creation, a sprawling device that could capture lightning in a bottle and well— hold it there till I figured out what to do with it. The lightning alone wasn’t the only key though. Grandfather was insistent that the big storms, the real barnstormers, were critical. They possessed an energy like nothing else in Eldara.
I glanced up at the sky. I could just see the purpled edges of the storm beginning to drift over the roof of the castle. Perfect. Clapping my paws in excitement, I scuttled to the wall and turned the crank to open the skylight above Mister Lightning. Rain began to clatter against the skylights and drizzle into the laboratory through the open window.
A great crack! of lightning shot across the sky above. A bang sounded from somewhere below. I ignored it and rushed to Mister Lightning. Using a winch built into the hulking device I raised a lightning rod high into the sky. It towered above the enormous glass orb that made up the body of Mister Lightning.
“No,” I said. “It’s not a good time for solicitors!” I knew that sound. It was my front door. Bang! Bang! Someone really wanted in. I didn’t get visitors often, the odd squirrel, sometimes wandering deer. We were too far from Ursa Major for bears, thank goodness.
I glanced up at the long, copper rod wobbling in the wind of the oncoming storm. I turned and left the lab, grabbing a small gunnysack loosely filled with beets. Living in a castle often gives the impression of riches. Most visitors usually wanted food and a warm place to stay. I would supply my visitor with all the beets they could stomach and a bed of straw in Grandfather’s cabin.
Bang! The sound came again, louder as I descended the stairs. “Yes, yes, I’m coming!” I hollered. “Keep your shirt on!”
Angry at having my big night interrupted, I swung the door open hard. “Well then! Who’s out here physically assaulting my beleaguered front door?!”
A brown and white rabbit with drooping ears stood on the front step. Rain hammered the front lawn all around him. He was thoroughly drenched.
I held out the sack of beets. “Help yourself,” I told him. “You can stay in the cabin,” I added, jerking my head in the direction of Grandfather’s house.
“Wait!” the rabbit shouted when I began to close the door. “Wait just a cotton sniffin’ minute!” He glanced down at the sack in his hands. “Are these beets?”
“What?” I asked. “I’m very busy just now.”
“Well, can’t I stay inside? Can’t I ‘ave something besides beets? It’s awful rainy out and your cabin has holes in the roof.”
“Um, no,” I said. I couldn’t think of much else to say. “I’m very busy,” I added weakly, and slid the door another foot closer to sweetly shutting away the outside world.
“Please? Can I talk to the master of the house?” The rabbit reached into the sack, grabbed a beet, sniffed it, and took a huge bite.
“I am the master of the house,” I said, then immediately regretted it.
“Oh, I figured you for the butler,” he said around a mouthful of food. “Terribly sorry sir! Hey that’s not half bad,” he said, taking another bite of beet.
“I don’t have a butler,” I admitted.
Don’t do it, I told myself. Don’t say it.
“I live here alone,” I heard myself say. “I suppose you can come in. I really don’t have much to eat besides beets though.”
NOOOOOOOO! What are you doing? My inner voice wailed. WE HAVE PLANS.
It was my mother’s fault. I could hear her, even after all these years. “Truly we have nothing if we don’t have a little charity, my sweet son.” When my mother had been alive, no one had passed this way without a place to sleep and a hot meal. What would she say to my making visitors sleep in an old shack?
“Aw thanks,” the rabbit said from inside the house and down the hall. “Hey, nice fireplace!”
“How did you get in—” I shook my head. “Ok, you have to stay downstairs,” I told the rabbit. “I’m conducting an important— BZZZZAAAAAP! The sound of lightning striking above drowned out my words. I felt the fur all down my back stand up.
“Speaking of…” I mumbled, hurrying up the stairs.
“What in the name of the Turtle King’s pajamas was that?”
“The… who?” I called over my shoulder, too distracted to process his reference to obscure reptilian royalty.
“You know, ruler of the Four Seas? We rabbit folk figure his pajamas gotta be mighty—” I lost track of what he was saying as I hurtled up the stairs three, then four at a time. I dashed down the cobwebby hall back into my laboratory.
The great glass orb was alive with dancing, sparkling, dazzling lightning. I had to shield my eyes from the brilliant glow.
“It worked!” I cried, throwing my arms into the air in jubilation.
“Now… what do I do with it?” I mumbled to myself. Rain splattered the stone floor as the storm raged above. More lightning flashed across inky black clouds above, leaping through heaving walls of dark cumulus.
I knew the spell Grandpa had been working on. It had been a “doorway spell”, which I assumed meant that he had stepped through a magical portal to another part of the world. Perhaps even another continent. There were rumors of undiscovered lands across the sea, whole nations ruled over by enormous, cat-like beasts.
I refused to believe the other possibility. I refused to admit it to myself most days, but staring at all that leaping, crackling lightning, I had to at least entertain the fact that it might be…
…That my Grandpa had simply obliterated himself.
I grabbed the spell book, the one that had been open the night of Grandpa’s disappearance. It had still been open and bookmarked when I’d cracked into the library years later.
The magic called for but two things. A slab of oak wood and a great deal of lightning. There is no lightning rod in the library of course, so I have no idea where Grandpa got the lightning from. My guess was something far smaller than the hulking apparatus that was Mister Lightning.
This isn’t the way of most magic, of course. Magic being a word we use for energy sitting around in some hidden pocket of the universe waiting to be called up. It usually used the bodies of studious magicians to enter the world. I knew how to make smaller amounts of lightning, but my attempts to recreate Grandpa’s experiment had thus far ended in failure.
I went to where the trunk of an old oak tree leaned against the far wall. It was ten feet of rough-cut wood, the bark still attached. I had no hope to lift such a monstrosity, so I used a bit of magic to make it floaty, then pushed it into place next to Mr Lightning.
“Watcha doing, Mr. Raccoon?”
I jumped, and the trunk lost its levity and crashed to the floor with a boom! nearly as loud as the lightning outside.
“The name is Victor,” I said.
“Ivan,” the rabbit replied. “Nice to meet ya.”
“Didn’t I ask you to stay downstairs?” I asked, deciding not to mention my intent had not been introducing myself.
“Did you?” Ivan asked, taking a big bite out of a fresh beet.
“Didn’t I?” I scratched at one ear, trying to recall.
“Did you?” the rabbit asked, shrugging.
“Did… I don’t know, never mind that! As you can see I’m quite busy here.”
“Oh carry on, I won’t be a bother! I’d love to watch! Never seen magic before.” Ivan the Rabbit was dripping water onto my carefully swept hardwood floors, which irked me.
“Out of the question!” I replied. Then glancing at the floors, I had a brilliant flash of inspiration. “Unless… you’d care to do a bit of cleaning? Earn your keep, as it were?”
“Sir, I assure you this laboratorium shall be the cleanest in all of Eldara!” the rabbit shook as he desperately scanned the room— for a cleaning rag, perhaps? I handed him one and he immediately began to scrub the floor. He worked so furiously I felt a —brief— pang of pity for the rabbit.
“Just… stay away from the tables, will you? Sensitive equipment, eh?” I returned to my experiment.
The trick was to let a little lightning out and channel it into the wood without you know, vaporizing myself. The whole point of Mister Lightning was not just to catch the lightning but also to dole the extra amperage out to me in a safe measure.
A thin metal pole stuck out of the big glass orb’s side. It had a knob on the end. I sighed, closed my eyes, and grasped it. All the fur on my body stood on end. Screwing up my courage, I twisted the knob clockwise till it clicked.
“Hey, whatcha—” Ivan began. I missed the rest of his sentence as lightning flooded my body. It slipped right through me, going around the particles of my body instead of into them, as I’d planned. As I’d planned! It was working!
I pointed my free hand toward the oak slab and an enormous discharge of lightning struck the wood. There was a brilliant flash, and I felt myself collapse to the floor. My whole body went numb for several seconds.
I winced inwardly, half expecting to find myself a charred mark on the rug. My spirit would haunt the towers of Doom until the bears conquered the whole world and tore the castle down stone by stone.
“Hey… you ok buddy?” I heard Ivan call. “I can’t bring myself to look.”
That made two of us.
I decided to risk popping one eye open.
I was not, fortunately, a stain on the floor. My body was intact. I took in the room with one eye sweeping from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. The rain pattering against Mister Lightning, the windows with their seaside vista, Ivan with his ears pulled down to hide his face…
…And the large wooden door that had appeared in the middle of the room.
Ivan peered around one floppy ear. “Was that ’sposed to happen?” he asked, so meekly I could barely hear him.
“Going to be honest with you,” I replied, standing up. “I have no clue.”
I walked toward the door. It was huge, tall and wide enough to admit a bear, perhaps even a bison. It stood in a slim wooden frame made of darker wood. A brass knob— at eye height for me— waited invitingly. I peered around the other side of the door. It was just smooth wood on the other side, no knob.
I returned to the front and reached for the doorknob. “Ain’t you gonna knock?” Ivan asked.
“No I am not going to knock on the magic door!” I replied, then let my hand fall, hesitant.
“Grandpa?” I called, then sighed and rapped my knuckles against the wood.
“It’s only polite,” Ivan said. “My momma would be proud of you—”
“Would you hush!” I hissed, straining to hear what might be on the other side of the door.
“Where does it lead?” Ivan asked, suddenly standing at my elbow, holding a broom. I jumped, nearly summoning a bit of lightning to zap him.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, scratching absently at my ear.
We spent a long moment in silence, both of us staring at the door, side by side now.
“Don’t think anyone’s home,” Ivan said, finally breaking the quiet.
“Alright, I’m going to open it,” I told the rabbit, trying to sound confident.
Ivan raised the broom as if brandishing a weapon. “Ok, I’m ready,” he said.
“Open your eyes,” I told him.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, popping open one eye and keeping the other firmly shut, as if ready to close his eyes again at a moment’s notice.
I pictured the burn marks on the library rug. Glancing down, I saw similar marks on the floor of the laboratory. We never saw a door down there, I thought, even as I was wrapping my fingers around the knob and twisting it, it occurred to me that this door, like that one, was bound to vanish.
And then the door was open, and I was face to face with… my laboratory. Immediately I felt like a fool. Where else had I expected a door in the middle of the room to open into?
“It’s just my lab,” I said. I hovered for a moment between relief and disappointment.
“No it ain’t,” Ivan said. “Unless your lab got real vine-y while we wasn’t looking.”
I studied more closely and realized he was right. Vines swathed the far wall. What I had taken for one of my squeaky clean picture windows was actually just open air. The sky was the same outside, though. A deep, bruised purple. The door led to a world like ours, but different.
“You going in?” Ivan asked.
I glanced between the rabbit and the door, then pictured the burn mark on the floor of the library again.
“Not without a little preparation,” I told him.
A few minutes later I cinched the rope tightly around my waist.
“You sure this’ll work?” Ivan asked, fingering the rope where it wrapped around his own belly.
“Nope,” I admitted. I had tied the other end of the rope to an old candelabra by the door. Most of the cord lay coiled on the floor, maybe two hundred feet or so. Enough to let us dip our toes into the other world. “You can stay here, but I’m going to try and find my grandpa.”
“How long did you say it’s been since you saw him?” Ivan asked.
“Twenty-three years,” I said. It felt like longer when I said it aloud. Practically a lifetime. In that twenty-three years I’d grown up, lost my family, and taught myself magic. It was a lifetime, but if Grandpa was trapped in another world, it was my job to rescue him.
“Oh I’ll come,” he replied. “Way I see it I owe you one for the beets and for not making me sleep in a dirty hole in the ground. But you sure he’s still alive?”
“No. I wish I could be.” But I’ve come too far and worked too hard not to see this through, I finished in my head.
I glanced at Ivan, grabbed at the rope around my waist, and stepped inside. There was no obvious change. No flashes of light or wind in my ears, but the world felt different. The air was different in my lungs, thin and oily. I had a hard time catching my breath at first. There was a heavy scent of green in the room, a sleepy, flowery smell.
The lab on the other side of the door was very like the one we’d left, but… worn. My tables— or at least what I thought were my tables— were there, but most of them were so overgrown with ivy I hardly recognized them. Where Mister Lightning ought to have been, there was just an old rug, rotting and carpeted with moss.
All the windows were long gone, letting a sea breeze curl through the leaves of the plants that grew everywhere. The ocean stretched endlessly beyond. I thought I saw a large shadow shifting under the waves at the edge of the horizon, but it had to be some trick of the light.
“Hey, Grandpa!” Ivan cried. I jumped and turned to see the rabbit had cupped his hands around his mouth to yell.
“What are you doing?” I asked, though it was obvious.
“I’m calling your grandpa! Thought we was here looking for him.”
“Well, yeah but he’s not your grandpa.” Until we figured out what was going on with this place, I didn’t want to draw any unwanted attention.
“He don’t know that! Way I see it, it’s been twenty-three years. How would he know what you sound like? GRAMPS!” he hollered.
“Pipe down, will you?” I cried. “We don’t know who’s in this version of my castle!”
“Whoa!” Ivan cried, suddenly turning back to me with a ridiculous grin on his face. “Did you hear yourself just now? My castle! I’ve always wanted to talk like that. ‘Oh do be a lamb and come to my castle, we’ll roast my finest carrot.’ How’d it feel coming out?”
“Um, what?” I replied. “Did you hear yourself just now? Because you sounded like a dumb rabbit.”
‘That’s kind of mean, but ok,” Ivan replied, his ears drooping.
“I hate that castle. I’ve lived in the big, stupid, drafty, blasted thing all alone every day for years. I haven’t seen another raccoon in— wait.” A scrabbling sound echoed through the hallway outside the overgrown version of the lab.
“Do you hear that?” I asked.
“Couldn’t miss it,” the rabbit replied, tugging one of his floppy ears. The sound grew louder. Footsteps running over bare stone.
“Get ready,” I told Ivan. The rabbit hid his eyes behind his ears, held his broom high, then peeked one eye out.
The sound stopped.
“Ready for what, exactly?” he asked after a moment.
“I have no—” A terrible screeching sound cut me off. A shadowy figure stood in the entrance to the laboratory. Lightning flashed, and I stepped back in horror.
The figure was… me.
Cast back into darkness, my night vision had been ruined. The otherworldly version of me let out another screech and tore toward us. I couldn’t see anything but a shadow tearing toward us in the dark.
I fell backward as the Other Me sprang, claws out. I hit the raccoon with a burst of electricity and it flew across the room with a wild yelp, sizzling through the air like a firecracker.
“Why did you attack us?” Ivan asked, eyes wide.
“Why are you looking at me?” I asked. “How should I know?”
“He’s you, isn’t he?” Ivan asked, tugging on one ear and gesturing wildly with his broom.
“Not really! He’s some sort of parallel world version of me!” Lighting still crackled along my right palm. I put it out, worried I would shock Ivan or myself by accident. I had practiced some with magically created lightning, but I’d never used it in an actual fight before.
It was… nauseating.
I felt certain I could throw up at any minute, and it wasn’t the smell of burnt hair that now permeated the lab. My heart was hammering in my chest, my palms slick with sweat.
The raccoon hadn’t risen from where it had fallen. I stepped closer, ready to summon another spark should it try to attack again. It sat in a heap, half-leant against the wall like a vagrant slouching under an awning. It let out a feral hiss as I drew near.
“It’s like a mad version of me,” I said.
“Why ain’t you wearing clothes?” Ivan asked, poking the Mad Me in the foot with the broom. The raccoon shuddered and gave another hiss but seemed too dazed yet to rise.
“I told you, that’s not me!” I cried. “I’m me!”
“I know you’re you,” Ivan replied. “But he’s kinda you too. Thought you might know.”
A musical chiming brought our eyes up to the doorway. A small, golden ball floated in the hallway, bobbing up and down and releasing a pleasant little sound.
“What’s that?” Ivan asked.
“You mean besides incredibly creepy?” I replied. “No idea.”
The little golden ball moved up and down a few more times, then suddenly turned a deep orange color and vanished.
Ivan fingered his rope. It was an absent-minded gesture, but it wasn’t hard to tell what he was thinking.
“I’m not ready to go back yet,” I said. “But you’re more than welcome to.”
“We’re tied together, sirrah,” the rabbit replied.
I reached for the knot at my belly button and began to loosen it.
“Nah,” Ivan said, giving the rope a little tug so it jerked out of my palms. “I’ll stay. Let’s just make it hasty-like.”
That was a suggestion I couldn’t argue with. I stepped out into the hall with the rabbit a few feet behind.
I was immediately attacked by another mad raccoon and sent it flying toward the stairs.
“Yeeouch!” I cried. “That one bit me!”
“Wow!” my companion cried. “I think you knocked him down the stairs! By the Emperor’s fuzzy slippers, he’ll be feeling that in the morning!”
“I wish they’d stop,” I said. “I don’t want to hurt my own people.”
“Was that a mad version of you?” Ivan asked.
“I think it was my Aunt Margaret,” I replied hollowly, feeling terrible. I was nauseated again and now bothered by my conscience. “Another mad version of someone from our world.”
“Maybe everyone is mad here. Mad Eldara!”
From then on, that was what we called the other world.
I leaned down to check the bite on my ankle. It was shallow. Mad Aunt Margaret hadn’t had time to do more than break the skin.
“Emperor’s… you think Mhysifus wears fuzzy slippers?” I asked as I straightened. I couldn’t picture the gigantic bear emperor wearing anything over his already furry feet. Bears weren’t one for footwear, even in the dead of winter.
“Don’t all rich folk have fuzzy slippers?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I don’t think so.”
We moved down the stairs. Another dazed raccoon slumped there, but despite being stunned and flung across the castle, it didn’t seem badly hurt. She, I corrected myself. She didn’t seem badly hurt.
The doors to the Mad Eldara version of my castle hung on their hinges. One of them was tangled about with ivy leaves. I checked the downstairs hall and the coat closet for more crazed relatives, but there was no sign of anyone else.
I tried to step outside and felt a tug. I looked back at Ivan with a frown, but he shrugged. “We’re out of rope,” he said, twanging the tightened cord like a tuneless guitar string. “Can’t you magic it longer?”
I shook my head. I knew exactly three spells. Lightning, making wood floaty (and not much else) and the doorway that had brought us here. I had studied loads of theory behind other spells, but had never actually worked any of them out, being self-taught it had been hard enough just to get started.
“I have an idea,” I said. I untied the rope from around my waist. With the knot loosed, I gained another foot of space. Keeping a tight hold of the cord in one hand, I stepped outside. The rain had softened to a drizzle. The front lawn was a maze of shoulder-height grasses that waved in the wind. I could see what might have been the ruins of Grandfather’s beet farm. In Mad Eldara they were all but devoured by the overgrowth.
No sign of Grandpa. Of course, it had been so long. It had been a slight hope.
“What happened to this place?” Ivan asked.
“I was wondering the same thing,” I replied.
The waving grass began to shudder wildly. “Something’s coming!” I whispered, taking a step backward.
Over a dozen raccoons burst out of the nearby underbrush, all of them hissing and screeching. They bounded in on all fours, then stopped and stood, staring at us with blank, black eyes.
“You gonna zip-zap ‘em?” Ivan asked.
I swallowed hard, feeling sick again. I didn’t answer aloud, trying to steel my resolve for another fight.
A distant bolt of lightning lit up the yard. The raccoons all had familiar faces, virtually identical to relatives I’d lost to the plague. Except naked and crazy and living in an unkempt parallel universe.
As if on some silent signal, every last one of the mad raccoons raced toward me. I let go of the rope, taking a few steps away from the castle entrance. I didn’t want to strike Ivan by mistake.
When the raccoons were mere inches away I let out a huge burst of lightning in all directions. Raccoons went flying everywhere, some yowling as they flew into the tall grasses. One smacked the wall behind me. Another landed on the roof of Grandfather’s cabin.
Drained by the exertion, I dropped to one knee, panting hard.
“That was amazing!” Ivan cried, patting me on the shoulder.
I stared at his paw. It seemed to move up and down in slow motion, landed with the weight of a thousand pounds each time it descended. I found my eyes moving down to our improvised lifeline. It was still tied around his waist.
I was about six feet from the door, crouching in a burnt patch of grass. “How are you outside?” I asked.
Both of the rabbit’s ears shot straight up, his eyes widening with alarm. If the rope was loose now, what happened to the door home?
“RUN!” I cried. Shaking off my exhaustion, I made a dash for the front door. Ivan was even faster, bounding ahead of me in a brown and white blur. The raccoon I’d knocked into the wall hissed weakly as I hurtled by.
The small yellow sphere appeared as we entered the antechamber. It chimed as we ran past. The stairs seemed a hundred feet high as we hurtled upward. I tripped on the top step and smacked into the runner so hard I saw stars.
Ivan stopped at the entrance to the lab, hesitating.
“Keep going,” I managed to groan. “Check the door.”
A strong hand grabbed my wrist. Expecting another resident of Mad Eldara, I resisted. Suddenly I was standing in the lab. Going from sprawled on the ground to standing in another room instantaneously was so disorienting I would have lost my balance and fallen immediately were it not for the hand still clamped on my arm like an iron vice.
An elderly raccoon with a graying muzzle smiled at me with twinkly eyes. The portal home was on the far side of the room. The doorway was on fire. Flames danced on the top of the frame, the door blackening with char. In seconds the whole thing would be little more than a puff of ash.
And a black mark on the rug.
We teleported again— for that was how we’d gotten into the lab so quickly— this time right up to the burning doorframe. The elderly raccoon pushed me through the door, following on my heels.
“Grandpa!” I shouted as we burst back into the real world.
The door was burning on this side too. Ivan had found a bucket somewhere and tried splashing the flames with water, but the liquid did nothing.
“Leave off, rabbit friend,” Grandpa said. “You will not do any good. I found no spell to make the doorway into that awful place permanent, and no spell at all could bring me home.”
“How did you—” I began. “How? How?”
“Think you broke him,” Ivan said.
“I just, I mean—” I tried to articulate my questions, but it was hopeless. The rush of emotion I felt at seeing Grandpa alive after all this time was overwhelming. I threw my arms around him, the last of my family.
He returned the hug fiercely. He smelled of the other world. That same heady, flowery scent I’d noticed in the Mad Eldara version of the lab.
“I’m guessing we’ve both got a story to tell,” Grandpa said. His voice was huskier than I remembered. He looked thinner too. It was as if the other world had dried him out. “Where’s the rest of the family? Are we in the ballroom?” he asked, glancing around.
“Hasn’t been a dance here in a long time,” I said. Tears filled my eyes as I realized he didn’t know everyone was gone. “Ivan, get him a chair,” I said, rubbing hands roughly at my eyes. I’d just ventured into a hostile universe and saved my only living relative. I could get through this, too.
“That’s… Well, there’s really no word for it,” Grandpa said when I’d told him everything. “Awful, terrible, they’re too small for tragedies.” He stood and clapped a hand on my shoulder, tears brimming in his eyes. “Thank you for rescuing me. That was very brave.”
He turned to Ivan, who had been surprisingly silent this whole time. “And you are?” Grandpa asked.
“Ivan Hawthorne,” the rabbit replied. “At your service.”
“Thank you for helping my grandson, Ivan. You’re a good friend.”
“Oh we’re—” I began, then caught myself. I’d been about to say we weren’t friends. But Ivan had ventured into another world with me, refused to abandon me even when things became truly terrifying. What better friend could I ask for, rabbit or no?
“Yes he is,” I said instead, catching the rabbit’s gaze and smiling.
“What brought you all the way out here?” Grandpa asked Ivan.
“Them bears are always wanting more land,” Ivan replied. “They took my family’s farm.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Grandpa replied.
“Victor here was gonna set me in up in that old cabin outside,” Ivan said, “but I talked him into letting me stay in here.”
“Is that awful shack Cornelius built still standing?” Grandpa asked. He stood and began to pace. He studied Mister Lightning, then the mark on the rug where the doorway to Mad Eldara had been. “Clever, using this device to help you channel enough lightning to create a doorway! I suppose it’s my turn,” he said, returning to his chair.
“As you know, I made a doorway to that crazed version of our world—”
“We call it Mad Eldara,” Ivan interrupted.
I glared at the rabbit, but he seemed oblivious to my gaze. “Don’t interrupt!”
“Ok,” Grandpa said. “I made a doorway to Mad Eldara. That’s a good name for it, by the way. I didn’t set out to create a portal to another world. I only wanted a way to get around our world faster.”
“Which you found!” I said, before realizing I was doing what I’d just scolded Ivan for.
“Yes… I had a lot of time to myself over… in Mad Eldara. I taught myself how to teleport. Without the ability we might have gotten trapped over there. Turned out I was barking up the wrong tree. Magical doorways are a far slower way to get around than just using teleportation. Anyway, when I—”
“What’s that?” Ivan asked.
“What?” Grandpa replied.
“Telly potato… whatever. I don’t know what that means.”
“Teleportation… instantaneous travel from one place to another. Are we good? Ok, so I went over there. I had no idea the doorway would collapse. I explored for hours with no thought to how I would return home. The Mad Eldara version of the castle was empty. I have no idea who built it over there. I walked the nearby woods. The road to Ursa Major was still there, overgrown but still there. When I came back the door was gone.”
“So where did you go for twenty-three years?” I asked.
“I kept exploring. For years I just… wandered. The whole planet is abandoned except for feral versions of our friends and family members. At least, as far as I ever found. I set a warning spell in case one of you lot ever crossed over somehow, so I’d know if I could go home.”
“The creepy music ball!” Ivan cried.
“I’m so proud of you, teaching yourself magic,” Grandpa said to me.
“I could use a teacher,” I admitted.
“And you’ve got one!” Grandpa burst to his feet. “We must get started right away!”
“Started?” I asked.
“There’s so much to do!” Grandpa cried, waving a hand wildly toward the world outside the castle. “Our relatives, I don’t think they really died of the plague. I think they’re the raccoons of Mad Eldara!”
“You mean we might be able to save our people?” I asked, refusing to let myself believe it.
“I think so,” Grandpa replied.
“Wait, there was a Victor over there too,” Ivan pointed out. “How’s that work? He didn’t die of no plague.”
“And… I mean, I buried everyone,” I said. “That doesn’t really make sense, Grandpa.”
“I don’t fully understand it myself,” Grandpa admitted. “But I think the doorway I made messed with reality. Your re-creation of my experiment probably warped it even further. It’s going to be a lot of work. It could take years to fix things.”
I shrugged. “I’ve got time.”
“Excellent, and then when we set things aright we can get back to my previous work.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Proper doorways. I’m convinced there are more than just these two worlds, and you and I, we’re going to find them!”
“You mean the three of us,” I said, putting my arm around Ivan’s shoulders.
“You telling me I can stay?” he asked.
“Of course you can stay,” I said. “You have a home here as long as you need it,” I told him. “And you don’t have to sleep in the cabin.”
I grinned, filled with hope for the first time in years. All the possibilities ahead were so exciting I could hardly believe it. “I’ll need your help. Grandpa’s right. We’ve got a lot of work to do!”