Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder
“Yeah, that’s seriously what his father named him. Who names their kid Gilgamesh?”
“Who names their kid Marty?” Doc said, glancing back at him. They were back in another forest, having ridden past the boundaries of the Baron’s lands late yesterday afternoon. “Who names their kid anything, really?”
“Yeah, but Marty’s a pretty normal name,” Marty pointed out. “I thought you reserved the weird stuff for the middle name.”
“Why, have you got an unusual middle name?” Jennifer asked, grinning at him playfully.
Marty shrugged. “Sort of – my full name’s Martin Seamus McFly.”
“After a great-great-grandfather.” Marty tilted his head at Jennifer, now curious. “What’s your middle name?”
“Jane,” Jennifer supplied. “After my mother.”
“What was your father’s name?” Alice asked, glancing over.
“Robert. Why?” she asked, frowning in puzzlement at her friend.
“Well, I’d always thought royalty had fancier names,” Alice said with a shrug. “King Robert, Queen Jane, and Princess Jennifer doesn’t sound particularly royal, begging your pardon.”
“Oh, some families might relish in calling their children things like Hulderbrand and Rodehesia and Amethyst, but the Parkers were always more sensible than that,” Jennifer said, putting her nose up proudly. “Of course, now I’m wondering what your middle name is.”
“Me too,” Marty agreed, leaning over the mane of his horse.
“I fall into the ‘weird stuff’ category,” Alice admitted with a giggle. “It’s Pleasance. I don’t know why my parents named me that, it hardly fits me.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself – you’re perfectly nice to us,” Marty protested. He turned his attention to Doc, in the lead. “Hey, Doc, what’s your middle name?”
“Lathrop,” Doc replied, glancing back.
“It’s a family name somewhere on my mother’s side,” Doc explained, rolling his eyes. “It was something of a tradition in the town I grew up in.”
“Oh, I got you.” Marty looked back at Victor, bringing up the rear. “Your turn, Victor. What’s your middle name?”
Victor turned somewhat pink. “Er--” He looked down at his horse and mumbled something none of them could hear.
“What?” Jennifer said, also turning back to face him. “Don’t be shy, we won’t make fun of you for it.”
“The rest of us shared,” Alice agreed with a nod. “Out with it.”
Victor made a face, but looked back up. “Fitzwilliam,” he confessed.
Marty did his best to bite back a snort. “Fitzwilliam?”
“Marty, we said we wouldn’t,” Alice scolded.
“I know, I’m sorry, it’s just – Fitzwilliam,” he said, shaking his head. “How did you get saddled with that?”
“It’s just a bit complicated,” Victor said, still looking a touch embarrassed. “My mother wanted to name me Victor Fitzgerald. But my father’s family has had a long-standing tradition of giving sons their father’s name as the middle, so naturally Father assumed I’d be Victor William. Fitzwilliam was Mother’s idea of a compromise.” He rolled his eyes. “She loved it. Said it gave me an aristocratic feel. All I knew is that anyone who learned about it teased me for days.”
“The children of my hometown didn’t tease me for Lathrop,” Doc said. “But I think that’s because none of them could figure out what it meant. I got more questions about ‘why did your mommy name you that?’ as a child than I could count.”
“I can’t say which one is weirder myself,” Marty said, looking between them. “Though I think Fitzwilliam’s barely better than Gilgamesh. At least it’s not your first name, Victor.”
“Thank Heaven for small favors,” Victor muttered.
“You think it would be, if your mother liked it so much,” Alice said curiously.
“Well, Mother was expecting a girl, so she’d only picked out girls’ names,” Victor explained. “When I turned out to be a boy, she couldn’t think of one right away, so she let Father name me. I don’t know why he chose Victor, though.”
“I think it suits you,” Alice said with a smile.
Victor looked at her in surprise for a moment, then blushed. “Thank you. I think yours suits you as well – all of it.”
“Especially Pleasance,” Victor murmured, almost too low to hear. Alice blushed too, and ducked her head under her hood.
They rode on in silence for a while, until they came to a fork in the road. “Which way?” Marty asked as they clustered around it.
“I think we want to go to the left,” Doc said, peering down the left fork with pursed lips. “That should lead us over to Count Bonejangles’ lands, and I’m pretty sure his territory’s the closest to the royal court.”
Jennifer turned her head toward the right. “And what’s down that way?”
“Damned if I know.” Doc looked too. “It doesn’t look like it’s been used in a while.”
“Maybe another abandoned castle,” Marty joked. “We seem to have a talent for finding them.”
“Really, Marty, how many abandoned castles can one kingdom support?” Doc joked back.
“Hey, they don’t cost much for upkeep, they give the landscape some character, people are always finding treasure in them – we should have more of them.”
Doc shook his head with a chuckle. “Well, anyway, I’m sure there’s nothing down there of interest. Come on, we need to get going.”
“Yeah, I guess we’ll never get there if we keep stopping,” Marty shrugged. “Lead on, Doc.” The group proceeded down the left path.
Five minutes later, they proceeded back. “I want to know how a tree even grows that large,” Victor said, looking back at the absolutely massive elm that was blocking their path. “And how any force on earth could knock it down.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Jennifer said.
“That’s tree’s too big for any axe, even mine,” Alice agreed, idly stroking the head of her beloved tool. She glanced backward. “I suppose I could try the blunderbuss on it. . . .”
“I don’t think that would help in the long run,” Doc said with a sigh. “You might succeed in blowing up part of it, but I think the aftershock would bring down even more trees for us to clear away.”
“Hmph. I see.” She frowned a little at her gun. “For such a lovely weapon, it really can’t do much, can it?”
Marty shrugged. “Guess we get to see what’s at the end of the right path after all.”
“If it is another abandoned castle, I’m going to wonder how many noble or royal families we’ve lost over the years,” Jennifer commented as they rode down the right-hand path. “It was bad enough learning about what happened to my family.”
“I think we’d all prefer it if the Parkers had remained on the throne,” Doc said sympathetically, reaching over to pat her hand.
“Like I’ve said, I really wish I’d been born earlier,” Marty nodded.
“Not your fault. I’m just happy I ended up with all of you.” She smiled warmly at Marty. “True Love should be worth waiting for.”
Marty caught himself blushing. “Was I worth the wait?”
“Well, a hundred years is a long time. . .but so far, I think so.”
The lane went on into the woods for about a half a mile, then bent sharply to the right. The group turned the corner, and stopped, surprised. Before them stood a cleared park, and in the center of it, an old manor house surrounded by an iron fence. The fence was old and rusty, the front gate hanging open slightly at an angle. The manor house didn’t look to be in much better condition. “Well – it’s not a castle?” Marty finally said, glancing at the others.
“It’s still rather strange,” Doc said, frowning.
“It’s not yours, is it?” Victor said suddenly. “You said you left your fancy house behind when you went on the run.”
Doc shook his head. “No, I wished it out of existence, actually, three nights later. I thought it would make it harder to follow me.”
“Should we investigate?” Alice said, moving forward a little.
“We don’t have anywhere else to go at the moment,” Doc shrugged. “Maybe if the interior hasn’t completely rotted away, we can stay in it for the night and plan our attack against that tree.”
“And hey, maybe there’s treasure in here too,” Marty said, half in jest. He rode ahead and opened the gate, which screeched so shrilly everyone winced. “Never know until you look.” He went in, followed shortly by the others.
Inside the gate, the park was rather old and disheveled-looking, the grass yellow and scraggly. The path they crunched along was gravel, grey and brittle with age. There was a fountain set up in the front, shaped like a cherub tipping out a jug of water, but it had long dried up, and the stone was cracking and crumbling. What appeared to be the remains of flower beds were now completely overgrown with weeds. The manor house itself was in no better shape – the white paint was peeling all over, and most of the yellow trim was completely gone. The front steps looked brittle, and one was broken clean through. The front porch was in similar disrepair, with splintered boards and a large hole to the left of the front door. “So much for getting inside,” Jennifer said, eyeing the hole with trepidation.
“These places usually have a back entrance for servants, right?” Marty pointed out. “Maybe that’s in better shape.” He hopped off his horse, leaving it near some still-green grass, and headed around.
“Wait for us!” Doc yelled, the others quickly dismounting and hurrying after him. “You need to learn patience as well as fear!”
Marty didn’t respond. Doc rolled his eyes at the others. “That kid. . . .”
“Well, that’s why we love him,” Alice said sarcastically. “What’s got you all in a tizzy?” she added as they rounded the back corner of the house.
The answer, however, provided itself to them. Whereas the front garden was an absolute mess, the back garden was absolutely beautiful. The grass was green and well-trimmed, with no bare spots to be seen. The paths were laid with clean white stones, swept free of dirt. And lined up in neat rows along each path were a series of lovely rose trees. All of them were just bursting with roses, of all sorts of different colors – the traditional red to start with, then burgundy, dark and light pink, white, yellow, orange, peach, lavender – even the special Fae-created strains of blue and black. There were also mixed colors near the ends of each row – deep red roses that faded to pink at the tips, roses striped red and yellow like sunbursts, white roses with red tips that looked almost like they’d been splashed with paint. “Oh,” Jennifer whispered, clasping her hands in front of her. “It’s lovely. . . .”
“Isn’t it?” Marty agreed, staring at the flowers in pleased amazement.
“Incredible,” Doc said, taking a deep sniff of their scent.
“Breathtaking,” Victor said, admiring them.
“It’s all right, I suppose,” Alice said, not sounding particularly enthusiastic.
The others looked at her, surprised and confused. “Just ‘all right?’” Jennifer asked. “Alice, it’s wonderful!”
“If you like roses.” Alice looked at one of the white and red trees disdainfully. “I’m not fond of them. I’ve always preferred tiger lilies.”
“What’s so awful about roses?” Jennifer demanded, putting her hands on her hips.
“Their stems are prickly and liable to cut your fingers, they die particularly quickly once cut from their place--” Suddenly, Alice’s voice faltered. “And my grandmother loved them.”
Jennifer’s face went from mild annoyance to deep embarrassment in about two seconds. “Oh. I’m sorry, Alice. I didn’t even think--”
“Because you didn’t know. I never thought it important to mention what sort of flowers my family most enjoyed.” She shook her head. “Really, though, even before the unpleasantness involved with my last remaining family, I wasn’t that fond of roses. Give me a good daisy chain any day, that won’t scratch your head or neck.”
“Well, I like roses,” Marty said, making his way over to the brightest of the red rose trees. “You want one, Jennifer?”
Jennifer turned to him. “A rose like that? Of course!”
“Wait a minute,” Doc said, as Marty reached for one of the roses. “These look far too well cared for to be abandoned, no matter what the rest of the grounds look like. Somebody’s either living here, or has been coming here regularly to tend these flowers. He – or she – might have some objections to you just picking one.”
“I’ll leave one of my gold coins, that usually seems to smooth things over,” Marty said with a shrug, finding the stem of the biggest rose and gripping it tight. “Besides, it’s just one rose, and--”
He paused as his friends’ eyes suddenly went very wide. “Oh, he’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?” Marty realized with a sigh. “Okay then, I’ll ask him. Hey, gardener?” he started, turning around.
And paused. Whatever was standing behind him was definitely not the gardener. He knew of no gardeners with three glowing yellow eyes, or a furry snout with a horn growing out the tip of the nose, or three horns growing out of the tops of their heads, or long fangs like a lion’s or a tiger’s. They also didn’t usually have thick black fur, sharp white claws on their hands and feet, more horns running down their spines, large black bat wings, or long, whippy, pointed tails. And none of them had ever growled at him before in a way that suggested they were going to eat him. Guess we can’t get away from the monsters, he thought with an annoyed grunt.
There was a whistling in the air, and Alice’s knife flashed past Marty’s head. The monster managed to dodge the blade, which continued on for a moment before losing momentum and falling to the ground. “Marty, pull your sword!” she yelled, grabbing her axe.
The monster snarled at her, then looked back down at Marty. “COWER, MORTAL!”
Marty, who’s hand was going toward the hilt of his sword, paused again. The monster’s voice was – not what he had expected. He stared up at the monster. “What?”
Marty continued to stare, as did the rest of the group. The monster’s expression changed to one of desperation. “Cower, damn it! I’ve got a reputation to keep up!”
“. . . Is that a British accent?” Jennifer asked, an absolutely baffled look on her face.
“Yes – your friend there has one!” The monster pointed to Alice.
“Yes, but you don’t usually hear it coming out of – well – creatures who look like you.”
The monster deflated. “I can’t help the way I talk,” it said sulkily.
“You’re not a demon,” Alice said slowly, lowering her axe.
“You want a prize for that observation?”
“You want your head cut off anyway?”
“Stop it,” Marty said firmly, glaring between the two. “All right, monster guy, who exactly are you?”
“I’m the owner of this house, and the monster who’s been tending those roses for years now. I get a little ticked off when people pick them without even bothering to ask.”
“They’re just roses,” Marty protested.
“Just roses?! I had to pay through the nose to get those black and blue varieties! Not to mention I’ve spent years cultivating the hybrids! Hell, I’ve spent years just tending them and working on getting them to bloom bigger and brighter than anyone else’s! These roses are my life!”
“Okay, okay,” Marty said, holding up his hands in surrender. “I was going to pay you for it, like leave a gold coin by the roots--”
“Gold coins don’t replace flowers!” The monster stood protectively in front of his rose tree. “What are you all doing here, anyway? I should just eat you for trespassing.”
“The house looks abandoned from the front,” Jennifer hastily explained, gripping a section of her skirt tightly.
“W-We had no i-idea anyone w-was living here,” Victor added, looking like he was fighting very hard the urge to flee.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what that other guy said too. Well, get out of here! Go down the other road, that leads to civilization.”
“Not anymore it doesn’t,” Marty said. “There’s this huge tree blocking the path.”
“Huge tree?” The monster frowned, suddenly looking, of all things, thoughtful. “Completely blocking the path?”
“Do you know how long it’s been there?”
Marty blinked. “Uh, no, we just saw it lying there.”
“It looked like it had been there a while, though,” Doc offered up. “It definitely had some wear and tear from the elements.”
“Really?” For a moment, the monster looked hopeful for some inscrutable reason. Then the expression vanished, to be replaced with one of despair. “No, she’d never let anything like a tree, no matter how big, get in her way. . . .”
There was obviously a lot more to this monster than they’d previously thought. Marty frowned up at him. “You’re not your typical monster, are you?”
“I’d say technically I’m not a monster at all, but. . . .” He poked his chest. “I can see why people would have a hard time believing that.”
“Are you under some sort of curse then?” Jennifer asked, her own curiosity sparking.
“What does it matter to you?” the monster replied, frowning. “You’re just a bunch of travelers who stumbled across my manor and tried to pick my roses. I should eat you all and be done with it.”
“If you were going to eat us, you would have done it by now,” Alice said, crossing her arms.
“Maybe I like playing with my prey.”
“No, I think you’re not going to eat us,” Marty grinned.
“. . . . All right, fine, I’m not, but who would want to eat human anyway? I tried snacking on a fresh corpse I found when I first ended up like this – humans do not taste like chicken, no matter what anyone else says. We – you’re kind of stringy too.”
“You are under a curse!” Jennifer said triumphantly, catching the verbal slip.
“How do you know so much about curses?” the monster challenged her.
“I was under one until recently. Cursed to sleep until I received True Love’s Kiss. Luckily, Marty and his friends found me in my castle.”
“Maybe we can help you,” Marty offered. “I mean, as a way to say ‘sorry’ for nearly taking one of your roses.”
The monster blinked his three eyes. “Oh.” He thought a minute, then sighed. “No, it’s no use. None of you could help with my curse, and the only one I who I thought could is long gone.”
“You – you don’t know t-that,” Victor pointed out shyly. “Perhaps we can help. What sort of curse is it?”
The monster regarded them all with a new sense of curiosity. “You – really want to know?” he asked, a little suspicious. “Most people who come here are happy just to run away screaming.”
“I bet, but I’ve come to a hypothesis about our group,” Doc said, holding up a point-making finger. “No matter what we do or where we go, it appears we will be somehow compelled to assist in some sort of task or situation on another’s behalf. The evidence piling up in favor of this hypothesis is astounding. Especially when you consider it’s pretty much the reason we all met in the first place.” He shrugged. “There’s also the fact that you’ve probably piqued all our curiosities at this point, and we don’t have anywhere else to go right now with the other path blocked.”
“Could go back the way you came.”
“That would be the opposite way of our goal. Besides, you sound like you’re dying to talk to someone about it, given the hints you’ve dropped into the conversation. And as Alice rightly pointed out, if you were going to eat us, you would have done so already.”
The monster huffed. “Mister Smarty-pants, huh?”
“I’ve spent years getting to that point,” Doc smirked.
The monster sighed, shaking his head. “Well – all right. It does get lonely around here, especially now that she’s gone. . . . All right, since you’re so insistent, here’s my oh-so-fascinating story.”
“Perhaps you could tell us your name first?” Victor suggested, starting to relax just a little. “In the interests of politeness?”
“It’s Caliban,” the monster provided. “Caliban Shakespear. I used to be the human owner of this manor house years ago.” He glanced over at the building in question. “My father was a successful banker, and I inherited the place from him. Sure, it was a little remote, but it was a really nice place back in the good old days. Plenty of room for my flowers, the chance to slide down the stair rails whenever I wanted, no annoying neighbors to deal with. . .that was the life. But then, when I turned twenty-one, the trouble started. On a particularly rainy and cold night, this ugly old hag came up to my doorstep and asked for shelter. I was pretty stupid at that age, and kind of spoiled too. So I idiotically told her there was no room in my house for the likes of her, and shut the door.”
Doc winced. “Wait. You told a mysterious old woman asking for your aid that she couldn’t have any?”
“I said I was stupid! Anyway, ten seconds later I felt a little bad for what I’d said and decided to let her know she was welcome to spend the night in the carriage house, at least. But when I opened the door, the old lady was gone, replaced by a gorgeous young woman who literally glowed. She was really hot, too.”
“Must you dwell on such things in your remembrances?” Alice said, looking disgusted.
“No, literally – the rain was turning to steam wherever it touched her. Might have been because she was mad at me. . . . Anyway, I realized the mistake I’d made and started babbling out apologies and such. The – witch? I don’t think she was a Fae, exactly, but I never really got a chance to find out – was unmoved and told me that I should ‘wear a beastly form to match my beastly manners.’ Next thing I knew, I’m levitating and being twisted into this.” He looked disdainfully down at his current body. “Damn, did it hurt too! You haven’t known pain until you’ve grown a tail, let me tell you.”
“We’ll take your word for it,” Jennifer said, grimacing.
“Sure you don’t want to grow a tail? Okay, anyway, she leaves me in a whimpering heap on the doorstep, but before she goes, she tells me that the curse will only break if someone falls in love with me just as I am, and that I’d better learn some better manners. Then she just up and vanishes! How rude is that?” Caliban growled. “Anyway, I didn’t think there was going to be anyone who’d fall in love with a guy with three eyes and who looked kind of like a shaggy demonic cow, so I decided I might as well keep up with being my usual beastly self. I let the manor go to ruin just for the hell of it, and amused myself chasing off anybody who came near. People can make the funniest expressions when they get scared – there was this one guy who I swear dislocated his jaw just to scream at me.”
“Really? Ouch,” Marty commented. “But you mentioned a ‘she’ before, so obviously somebody must have liked you.”
“Maybe,” Caliban said, suddenly looking very sad. “The last guy I caught in my rose garden was this fellow named Dave Davenport. I was all ready to do the whole ‘rawr, I will eat you’ bit when he starts babbling about how he only wanted a rose to take to his employer so she could do experiments on it and turn it into a carnivorous flower. That got my attention, so I asked him a bit about it. He apparently worked for this evil genius, and told me that as a result of being exposed to all her chemicals, he’d probably be a pretty poor snack. Then he offered up the scullery maid as a replacement. I was amused and said sure, you send her over and I won’t eat you. Two days later, this dark-haired temptress in a maid uniform and glasses arrives with a bunch of guns, calling for the local monster.”
“Back up a minute – bunch of guns?” Jennifer repeated, staring.
Caliban chuckled. “Yeah. Mell was special. Trigger happy to the extreme. Never as cheerful as when she was shooting something. Dave and his employer sent her over as a trick – I’m sure they expected her to kill me. She came pretty close too – she’s a good hunter. But I managed to convince her I wasn’t actually going to eat her or her friends, and we got to talking, and – well, she decided to stay here with me. Said – said I was nice to talk to. And for a few months, things were great. We talked together, hunted our own food – she even helped me with the flowers from time to time. After a while, I – started to fall in love with her. And I thought she was falling for me too.” Caliban briefly looked dreamy, then scowled. “Until a telegraph came from her employers, asking for her to visit them back at the lab. Mell promised she’d be back in three days.”
“And how long has it been?” Jennifer asked gently.
Caliban’s shoulders slumped. “Two weeks.” He let out a deep breath through his nostrils. “I guess I wasn’t as important to her as I thought. I mean, I don’t doubt we were friends, but – I was kind of hoping. . . .”
Victor gave him a sympathetic look. “We’re quite sorry for you, sir.”
“Yeah, that sucks,” Marty said. “What are you going to do about it?”
“What can I do? I’m not going to force myself on her. That’s a good way to get shot. And I don’t think I’ll ever love anyone else quite the way I loved her.” He sighed. “I’m just resigning myself to be forever like this. It’s – not so bad. You don’t have to bathe if you don’t want, you can scare off anybody who’s trying to hurt you, you don’t have to cook your food. . . .” He tried to smile, then gave up the effort. “It’s just going to be really lonely without her here.”
The group looked at each other. “Well, you don’t have to be alone for a night, if you don’t want,” Marty suggested after a moment. “We were planning on making camp here before you showed up. We can keep you company for a little while.”
“Really? You guys don’t have anywhere else to go?”
“Not for tonight, anyway,” Doc said.
Caliban slowly smiled. “Thanks. It would be nice to have somebody to talk to again. I just hope you brought your own food.”
“Oh, in spades.” Alice looked at the house. “May we go inside? The porch looked rather dangerous.”
“Inside’s okay – I tore up a lot of the wallpaper when I first transformed, but the floors won’t collapse on you or anything.” Caliban inclined his head. “This way.”
The inside of the manor house was a bit nicer than everyone expected. The wallpaper was ripped to shreds, and a couple of paintings had been severely defaced – “Me as a human,” Caliban explained, poking the flap of one torn piece of canvas. “I really didn’t take being turned into this well.”
“Who would?” Marty said, looking around a little more. The rest of the house seemed to be in relatively decent shape – the carpets were a little thin, and had a few claw marks, but they were still there. The floor was a little dusty, but it was solid. And there was one hallway across from them that looked cleaner than the rest of the house. “Is that--?”
“Where Mell slept, yes,” Caliban nodded. “The kitchen is also that way. And a bathroom.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Victor murmured. “We could do with a proper wash.”
“I noticed,” Caliban smirked, fangs glistening. “How long have you guys been on the road?”
“Week or two, maybe?” Marty said, glancing back at the others for confirmation. “We left Mechanicsburg the 14th. . . .”
“It’s been nine days, three hours, and--” Doc consulted his pocket watch “– forty-seven minutes since we left our last major stop. Mechanicsburg, I mean, not Heterodyne Castle, if you’re counting that.”
“Heterodyne Castle?” Caliban repeated, sounding intrigued. “What were you guys doing by Heterodyne Castle?”
“Mind saving the story for over dinner?” Jennifer said. “I’d really like to get cleaned up first.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Just tell me – is that weird ogre still living there, or did she move out?”
“You knew about her?” Victor said, astonished.
“Well, she tried to move in here first, but I managed to scare her off,” Caliban said proudly.
“You scared off an ogre?” Alice said, a hint of disbelief in her voice. “Not that your face isn’t scary, mind, but you wouldn’t think an ogre would be affected by such things.”
“She wasn’t, but she sure was affected when I told her this house didn’t have any of those fancy ‘electrical’ power sources she needed,” Caliban admitted. “She would have popped my head off if I hadn’t told her about Heterodyne Castle.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about her anymore – she’s very conclusively dead,” Doc said, running his fingers through his hair. “Alice here killed her.”
“Really?” Caliban looked at Alice with new respect. “I thought you were just boasting when you said you could chop my head off.”
“No boast,” Alice assured him. “The people near where I used to live could tell you that.”
“You’ll have to tell me all about it.” He grinned at them. “I’ll get a fire going so you can have hot water.” He jogged off in another direction.
“He’s not a bad guy, once you get past the monster stuff,” Marty noted, causing a few amused snickers from the others.
“He’s not,” Doc agreed. “I actually feel a little sorry that whatever he had with Mell didn’t work out. I know all about false and deceitful women. . . .”
“Hey, men can be false and deceitful too,” Alice said in protest, folding her arms. “We can’t be sure he’s telling us the entire story.”
“Yeah, but he also hasn’t tried to eat or even hurt us, so I’m willing to cut him a break,” Marty said. “Unless his idea of a bath is ‘cook ‘em in a stew pot.’”
“I think I’d take even that right now,” Victor said, discreetly scratching an itch under his arm. “However, manners in all things – ladies first.”
“Oh yes, let us tender morsels get cooked first,” Jennifer teased. “Will you pour the vegetables into the bath water yourself, Master Van Dort?”
Victor blushed bright pink. “I c-could never,” he admitted, suddenly looking shy again.
“Could never what?” Alice said, smirking at him.
“Well – it’s h-horribly impolite!”
“Of course cooking someone is impolite. Cannibalism is frowned upon in most civilized society.”
“Y-you know w-what I mean,” Victor said, pulling at his tie. “W-what if the s-s-situation was reversed? Could you d-do it to me?”
Alice seemed ready to snap back with a witty retort, but then made the mistake of actually picturing the scene. She blushed too. “W-well, I don’t think so,” she said, matching Victor’s stutter momentarily. “If only because I couldn’t see the value in boiling you alive.”
“Right,” Victor said, trying to sound playfully smug and not quite succeeding.
“Well then, I guess if Caliban wants to boil anyone, he has to put in the vegetables himself,” Marty said, shaking his head at their antics. “Now, I guess we should let the girls go – hey. Where’s Doc?”
“Going to be the first ingredient!”
The sound of his horse’s whinny pulled Marty out from a sound sleep. He lifted his head, blinking in confusion as his mind attempted to make sense of where he was and why he was there. After a moment, though, the early morning amnesia dissipated, and he remembered he was in Caliban’s house, shacked up in the bedroom the monster had cleared out for Mell. He yawned and rubbed his eyes, untangling himself from the blanket he’d found late last night. “Man, did I sleep. . . .”
He looked around. Doc was still asleep on the floor, his coat wadded up under his head for a pillow. Jennifer and Alice were sleeping on the bed, back to back and covered by a sheet. Victor’s place on the floor, however, was empty. Marty thought for a moment he’d gone to the bathroom, but then saw him standing by the window, looking out at something. “Hey, Victor, what’s up?” he asked, getting up to join him.
Victor just silently pointed out the window. Marty looked out to see –
To see –
He couldn’t possibly be seeing what he thought he was seeing. Marty tilted his head to get a better angle. The perspective changed, but the view itself didn’t. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Still there. He stared for a moment longer, then turned to Victor. “Uh – am I crazy, or is there a whole group of giant gerbils on the front lawn?”
“I was just about to ask you the same question,” Victor said, deadpan.
Marty looked again. “Why are there giant gerbils on the front lawn?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea. I was rather hoping I was dreaming.” Victor gazed out at the gerbils, one who gave a tremendous “SQUEAK.” “The horses don’t seem to like them much, do they?”
“Who doesn’t like what much?” Alice mumbled, lifting her head from the pillow.
“We’ve got giant gerbils outside,” Marty reported.
“. . .Giant what?”
“Gerbils. Come see.” Marty cleared a space for her at the windowsill as she stumbled out of bed. “It’s pretty wild.”
Alice peered out the window. Her eyes widened. “Bloody hell. What are they doing here?”
“I don’t know,” Victor said. “They seem harmless – oh no, I shouldn’t say such things--”
But the deed was done. With a loud, rather disturbing sound that seemed, somehow, to be “squeak” backwards – “KAEUQS.” – one of the gerbils suddenly tried to bite Marty’s horse. The horse let out a shrill whinny and galloped away to the back of the house. “HEY!” Marty yelled, suddenly furious. “That’s my horse! Leave him alone!”
The gerbil looked up at Marty, almost as if it understood him. At this closer angle, he could see the animal had beady-looking red eyes, and its mouth was matted with blood. If this had ever been a normal, natural gerbil, it certainly was no longer. “SQUEAK,” it replied, and ran after the horse. Its fellows began harassing the other horses, most of whom followed Marty’s steed in running. Victor’s stallion, however, lingered a moment to deliver some rather painful kicks to any gerbil who drew near, resulting in a lot of loud “SQUEAKS!” and “KAEUQS!”
The noise woke the remaining two members of the group, who quickly joined the others at the windowsill. Doc and Jennifer gawked at the scene. “Are those gerbils?” Jennifer said, with extreme disbelief.
“Yeah, and these eat meat,” Marty said, getting quite angry. “And they’re trying to eat our horses!”
“What?!” Doc quickly grabbed his rifle from where he’d left it. “Come on, then!”
“Right behind you, Doc!” Marty snatched up his sword. “Lead the way!”
Alice grabbed her axe, and passed her knife to Jennifer again. “Do you still have that toasting fork, Victor?” she asked. “I know it’s not much, but it’ll still be better than nothing.”
“Right here,” Victor said, extracting it from the inside of his jacket.
“Doesn’t that get uncomfortable?” Jennifer asked as they rushed for the door.
“Sometimes – I just have to make sure the prongs face outward when I slide it into place.”
Caliban met them in the main hall, looking very confused. “What the hell’s going on? Sounds like your horses are going crazy!”
“The place has been infested by gigantic carnivorous gerbils,” Doc explained, making sure he had bullets. “They’re attempting to eat our horses.”
“. . .You’re putting me on.”
“No! There’s seriously huge gerbils out there!” Marty said. “And you might want to help us, because our horses led them straight to your back garden!”
“What?!” Caliban immediately dashed outside. The five followed in his wake.
They got outside to find the horses taking shelter behind the leftmost group of rose trees, snorting and pawing the ground fearfully. The gerbils were trying to get at them, but were hampered by their large size. “SQUEAK,” one said in what was almost an annoyed tone, and attempted to knock over the tree.
“OH NO YOU DON’T!” Caliban launched himself at the offending gerbil with a roar, causing it to let out a startled “KAEUQS?!” The others gerbils scattered as he landed hard on their brother, promptly sinking his overlarge fangs into its throat. The gerbil screamed and tried to bite him. “NOBODY MESSES WITH MY ROSES!”
“Obsessed much?” Marty mumbled, shooting Doc a wry look.
“Don’t quip until we’ve managed to kill a few of these things,” Doc replied, quickly lining up a shot with his rifle. He put a bullet through the head of the nearest gerbil – it twitched violently, then fell down dead right on the spot.
The other gerbils noticed the new disturbance and turned their attention to the group. They surrounded the fivesome, tails held almost erect behind them. “SQUEAK,” one said, sounding surprisingly menacing.
To anyone besides Marty, that is. “Yeah, squeak to you too, buster,” he said, darting forward and stabbing his sword deep into the gerbil’s chest. The creature barely had time to react before Marty twisted it hard, making it shriek. He pulled back, extracting the now quite bloody sword. The gerbil clutched at the wound for a moment, then slowly fell to the ground, its eyes going glassy and its tail going limp. “Right,” Marty said, holding his sword aloft, “who else wants some?”
The other gerbils “SQUEAKED” and pounced, oversized incisors gleaming in the early morning light. Alice whacked the head off of one as it attempted to gnaw on her arm, while Marty slashed another open from throat to belly as it threatened Jennifer. One almost seemed to growl at Victor, who make his own squeaking noise in the back of his throat, and hastily jammed his toasting fork into its nose.
There was a sudden loud “BANG!” and the gerbil slumped down, half its head caved in. The others stared at it, then at Victor’s bloody fork. “That thing have powers we don’t know about?” Doc commented, blinking.
“Ho, you blackguards! I’ll have your hides for my wall!”
Caliban lifted his head from the gerbil he’d killed. “Mell?”
The others looked past the remaining gerbils to see a young black-haired woman with glasses, wearing the outfit of a scullery maid, standing there, wielding a blunderbuss (though hers was rather less impressive than Alice’s) and looking thrilled. “Hello Caliban!” she yelled, putting a large hole through another gerbil. “Miss me?”
“You came back!” Caliban said, getting up and jogging toward her. One of the gerbils tried to tackle him, but he knocked it aside with a swipe of his claws.
“I said I would, doofus.” Mell blew the head off a gerbil with droopy whiskers.
“You also said it would only be three days,” Caliban pointed out.
Mell grimaced at that. “Sorry – that idiot Madblood decided to try and take over the world once I got back, and of course Helen had to go stop him, and we had to go with her as the loyal henchmen. I told her I had a deadline! Then Madblood tried to unleash his army of golems–” She paused a moment to kill another gerbil “–which all look like him, which is really creepy if you think about it too long – anyway, Helen ended up transmogrifying Madblood into Dave, which mean the golems defaulted to following me! It was ginchy! I nearly got to take over the world!”
“What stopped you?” Caliban asked, smacking an intruding gerbil with his tail. Doc put a bullet in its head for good measure.
“Artie got the bright idea to teach them about revolution,” Mell said, in disgusted tones. “Rebelling against your creator and so forth. So they ditched me.” She shook her head. “I like Artie, but he just doesn’t understand about evil conquest. He’s kind of a drag that way.”
Caliban laughed. “I bet.” He put a bloody arm around her. “I really missed you, Mell.”
“Hey, I missed you.” She looked over at the fivesome, who were finishing off the last of the giant gerbils. “Who’s those guys, then?”
“Travelers who stopped for the night,” Marty said, wiping his blood-soaked sword on the hide of a nearby dead gerbil. “We stayed ‘cause we felt sorry for your friend here. I’m Marty, this is Doc, Jennifer, Alice, and Victor.” The others waved.
“Nice to meet ya,” Mell said with a grin. “I’m Mell. Didn’t know you were entertaining, Caliban.”
“They were only staying overnight,” Caliban said. “Insisted on it after they made me spill my guts about what happened with you. Apparently they felt sorry for the poor, lonely hellbeast.”
“Hey, you seemed genuinely upset the other night,” Alice protested, cleaning off her axe. “He was quite torn up about your leaving and not returning.”
“Really?” Mell had a funny expression on her face.
“Like I said, you said three--”
The gerbil he’d knocked away before suddenly came back with a vengeance, snarling and “KAEUQSING” for all it was worth. It leapt at Mell, teeth bared. “Look out!” Caliban yelled, shoving her aside and putting himself in the monster’s path. The gerbil, crazed with pain, promptly took the opportunity to sink its incisors into the beast’s throat. Caliban roared with pain as blood gushed out of his neck.
“What? Hey!” Mell yelled as she hit the ground. “What was that – CALIBAN!” She fumbled for her blunderbuss, eyes huge behind her glasses. “GET OFF HIM, YOU – YOU NON-FROSTY THING!”
“Caliban, go flat!” Doc yelled, readying his own gun.
Caliban did so – very fortunately, as Doc and Mell fired at the same time. The impact of the two bullets reduced a good part of the gerbil to bloody chunks of flesh and bone. It shrieked in pain briefly, then fell over dead. Mell shoved what remained of its corpse off Caliban and leaned over him. “Oh shit. . . .”
The five rushed over to inspect the damage. Caliban’s throat was almost completely torn open, and blood was flowing freely out of the wound. Anyone could see it wasn’t long before he bled to death. Mell glared at him as she attempted to stanch the flow with her apron. “You idiot,” she said, voice strangled. “I could have taken care of it.”
“Didn’t. . .want to see. . .you hurt,” Caliban wheezed.
“You can still talk? You are tough,” Marty said, impressed. Then his smile faded. “Really shouldn’t end like this, though. You just got back together.”
“Right!” Mell said, still trying to pull Caliban’s throat back together. “Any of you know medicine?”
“Not really,” Doc said sadly. “I don’t think there’s much even a doctor could do, however.”
Victor suddenly looked up at a seemingly empty patch of air. “Wait, perhaps--” he started, beginning to fumble around inside his jacket, then paused. “What? What on earth do you mean? You’re by his feet, I don’t see why I shouldn’t help.”
“Who are you talking to?” Jennifer asked, looking deeply concerned.
“Oh – Victor, do you see – the Reaper?” Alice whispered, eyes widening.
Victor nodded. “He’s by Caliban’s feet, but he says that Mell’s due to say something that’ll make my services unnecessary.”
Mell didn’t notice their conversation, too busy staring at Caliban. “No,” she said, a few tears finally starting to trickle down her cheeks. “No, you – you can’t die! You just can’t!”
“Don’t think. . .it works. . .like that,” Caliban told her, managing a small grin. “Least I. . . got to see. . .you again. . . .” His eyes closed.
“Don’t you dare die on me, Caliban!” Mell yelled, looking like she wanted to shake him and just barely staying her hand. “You can’t die! You – you just can’t. . . .” She lowered her head, closing her own eyes as she whispered, “I love you. . . .”
None of them were really sure what happened next. All that anyone was really sure of was that there was a strange, brilliant white flash of light from the vicinity of Caliban’s body. Everyone blinked as it faded, seeing spots. “Okay, what the hell was that?” Marty said, rubbing his eyes.
“Dunno,” Mell said, opening her eyes again. “Went straight through my – ack!” She suddenly pushed herself backwards, staring down at the spot where Caliban was lying. “Who the hell are you?”
The others looked. Lying down on the ground in front of them was – a young, blond man with large blue eyes. He was still wearing Caliban’s bloody clothes, but looked unhurt himself. He blinked and sat up very slowly, feeling his throat, then his face. “What – oh my God--” he whispered, in Caliban’s voice.
“Who are you?” Mell demanded again, snatching up her blunderbuss. “You rapscallion, if you give me any lip--”
“No! No, Mell, wait! It’s me! It’s Caliban!”
Mell froze upon hearing his voice. “Caliban?” she repeated, eyes huge behind her glasses. “But – but you’re--”
“Human?” Caliban provided, starting to smile. “I know! I’m back to normal! The curse is broken!”
“I’m surprised – it didn’t require a kiss,” Jennifer said with a happy grin.
“Which is good, ‘cause I don’t know how she would have kissed the other you,” Marty added with a chuckle.
Mell lowered her gun. “Right, the curse. . . . Sorry, I’m just having a hard time grokking onto the new you,” she admitted, looking him over. “Glad you’re not bleeding to death anymore, though.”
“Yes, me too,” Caliban said, feeling his throat again with a frown. “It’s rather strange if you think about it, though.”
“Must be a pleasant side effect of breaking the curse,” Victor said, with a relieved smile.
“Yeah. Good thing.” Caliban gave Mell a nervous little grin. “You, uh, like the regular me?”
Mell looked him over again. Then, slowly, she smiled. “You know, you’ve got really pretty eyes like this.”
Caliban blushed, but grinned wider. “Thanks. You’ve got really nice eyes yourself.”
Mell reached over to ruffle his hair. “So, what do you want to do now that you’re all human and stuff? We should celebrate.”
“How about going for a long walk?”
“Sheesh, thought you’d want to do something more romantic.”
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
“We know when we’re not wanted,” Jennifer laughed as they got up. “You two have fun together, then.”
“Yeah, congratulations,” Marty said. “Oh, hey, Mell – how’d you get past that big tree lying on the other path? We couldn’t figure out anything.”
“Oh, Helen lent me her molecular disintegrator, just in case.”
There was a round of staring. “You have a disintegrator?” Doc said, astonished. “Great Scott, why were you using the blunderbuss before?”
“I like my blunderbuss! You don’t get the same effect with a disintegrator!”
Marty shook his head, amused. “You’re weird, Mell. You and Caliban are going to be very happy together.”
“Yeah,” Caliban grinned, taking Mell’s hand. Mell grinned back at him. Then he seemed to think of something. “Oh, hey, before you go. . . .” He went over to one of the red rose trees and, after a moment’s contemplation, snapped off a rose. “Here,” he said, giving it to Marty. “I guess you’ve earned it.”
“Gee, thanks!” Marty took a whiff. “Smells great.” He happily presented it to Jennifer, who broke off the thorns and put it behind her ear.
“You’re welcome. Just – don’t let it wilt too soon, okay? I worked hard on those roses.”
“You and your flowers,” Mell said, rolling her eyes.
“Hey, I bred a special blood-red version just for you!”
“Really? Let me see. . . .”
As Caliban showed Mell his latest creation, the fivesome gathered up their horses, calmed them down, and mounted up. After exchanging a few final goodbyes and well wishes with the new happy couple, they rode off, back to the fork in the road and down the left path. Sure enough, the large tree was gone, with only a small line of sawdust across the road to show it had ever been there. “All right,” Doc said as they continued on their way, “anyone care to bet on whether or not we’ll actually make it to our destination this time without being pulled away to help someone else?”
“Oh hell no,” Marty smirked. “Only an idiot would take that bet.”
“I think we will actually make it to the next town this time,” Victor said. “It’s what happens afterwards that concerns me.”
“Well, whatever comes, it certainly can’t be weirder than giant carnivorous gerbils,” Jennifer commented, shaking her head.
“Jennifer, I hate to tell you this, but you’ve just guaranteed it will be weirder,” Alice said knowledgeably.