Standard Operating Procedure

Hunted by a fearsome demon, a boy seeks safety with a group of mysterious strangers with awesome powers.

Reilly kept his eyes glued to his plate and idly pushed his peas around as his parents spoke.

“I just don’t understand why the police haven’t caught the guy yet,” Dad said in a tone that suggested catching a kidnapper should be easier than mowing the lawn or taking out the trash. Dad used that tone a lot.

“They’re doing their best, Chad,” Mom replied. When she used Dad’s first name it meant she was trying to stop one of his rants before it began. She’d spent the last few evenings cleaning everything in the house. She did that whenever she was nervous. Reilly had never seen the place so clean.

“Well, they aren’t doing enough. This town is only four square miles. How hard can it be to search?” He punctuated his last question with a long gulp of red wine.

Reilly’s older sister Maddie piped up from across the table. “Mike Madsen says it’s the Democrats, stealing kids for their sex dungeon in the basement of the pizza parlor.”

“Mike Madsen’s a dumb fucking twat and he needs to stop listening to his redneck father,” Dad snapped.

“Chad!” If there was one thing Mom absolutely couldn’t stand, it was foul language at the dinner table. “Maddie, what have we told you about hanging around Mike Madsen?”

She rolled her big blue eyes. “Don’t hang around Mike Madsen unless I want to end up barefoot in the kitchen of a double-wide with three screaming children in the living room and a fourth on the way.”

“Maddie!” Mom exclaimed with a sigh.

“What? That’s exactly what you told me about hanging around Mike Madsen.”

Mom raised her napkin to her mouth to hide her smile. “Well, please do not repeat the things your mother says after three glasses of white wine!”

“Ry,” Dad said gently, “you’re quiet tonight. How ya doin’ over there, bud?”

“Fine,” Reilly grumbled. Adults had been asking him versions of that question for the last ten days, since Meg Warrick first went missing from her parents’ backyard. The inquisitive heat then ratcheted up several dozen degrees when Ike Dennis didn’t make it home from little league practice. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure how he was doing. He was worried about Meg and Ike, sure, but he couldn’t really understand why everyone in town was in such a tizzy about it. It wasn’t like the cops had discovered them chopped up and stashed in a duffel bag behind Big Beefy Burger Boy. No one had found anything. Supposedly they had a thing for each other. They’d probably just run away or something.

“You’ll tell us if you’re not fine, though, right?” Mom asked. “Or if you notice anything strange or threatening?”

Reilly clenched his free hand tighter around the mysterious black spot that had begun growing in his palm around lunchtime. “Yeah. Definitely.”

After dinner, Reilly and Maddie cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher as usual. Rather than hide his hand in his pocket, Reilly made sure he was using it as much as possible. No one would spot the discoloration in his palm through a plate or a handful of silverware. Maddie gave him a few weird looks, but no more and no worse than usual. Mom and Dad retired to the living room to watch the news, bottle of wine in tow.

The boy darted upstairs to his bedroom and shut the door behind him, rattling the superhero action figures arrayed on a nearby bookshelf. He swung himself into his big leather desk chair and flicked on his reading lamp. The black spot on his right palm pulsed ominously in the bright light. Had it gotten bigger since the afternoon? Was it…breathing?

On the bus ride home he’d shown Rory Eakin, his best friend. “You’ve just been playing with yourself too much!” He should’ve known Rory was going to go there. Rory always went there.

Whatever the heck it was, Reilly wanted it gone. He opened up the big gaming laptop he’d gotten for his twelfth birthday a few months ago and scoured the internet for assistance. First he went to the self-diagnosis site his mother had once used to identify Maddie’s mild case of bronchitis as tuberculosis; that turned out to be useless, again, and he chided himself for even considering it. A search engine led him to images of a fish disease, and then a scholarly paper on a fungus that kills plants, and then a pirate wiki. He was reasonably certain none of it applied.

Stressed and disappointed, he pulled out his phone and reflexively started looking for his favorite Instagram model’s latest updates—and then, heeding Rory’s warning, thought better of it. An alert on called his attention to a message from his friend: word around town was Meg’s father hadn’t been seen in three days. Reilly didn’t want to get into it, so he stashed his phone back in his pocket without replying. The town rumor mill never stopped churning, and his classmates’ disappearances had turbo charged it like nothing he’d ever seen.

He launched a farming game on his laptop and got to work planting turnips and milking pixelated cows—mundane, repetitive tasks that normally helped him enter an almost meditative state and set his mind at ease. In game, it was a big day: his new chicken coop would be completed in a few hours and Erika, the redheaded, denim loving neighbor he wanted to romance (partly to spite Rory, who’d drawing crooked pictures of her on his book covers but hadn’t figured out the right combination of dialog options to draw her interest), would be stopping by later so they could watch the virtual town’s summer solstice fireworks. Clicking through his virtual tasks didn’t help, however, and after every completed action he checked his palm. Was the spot getting bigger? Darker? Could he ask his father about it without word getting back to his hypochondriac mother? The last thing he needed was another hysterical ride to the emergency room. She’d probably blame it on her horribly misguided decision to vaccinate her children. He’d heard more than enough of that bullshit.

A chill wafted through the room and sent a shiver down his spine. The weather had turned suddenly brisk two or three other nights that week. His father had been promising he’d replace the windows in that room for almost as long as he could remember. Something about this sudden cold spell, however, felt different, and the throbbing black spot on his hand agreed. The hair on the back of his neck stood up straight.

Something was behind him—if not in the room, then peering in through the windows above his bed. He was sure of it.

“Don’t look,” an unfamiliar but not unfriendly voice hissed from the hallway. Reilly swung his eyes toward the nearby door. The light in the corridor was always on at this time of night and a shadow was clearly visible through the gap at the floor. But who the heck was it? And what did he know about the thing intruding in Reilly’s room?

“Pretend you don’t know it’s there. Stand up and come out into the hallway. I’ll bring you somewhere safe.”

The presence behind Reilly bore down further, perhaps in response to the stranger’s instructions. He could feel it pulling at his awareness, somehow reaching through his flesh to take hold of the bones beneath. It wanted him.

“Rot damn it,” the man beyond the door said. “Come out or this gets messy. I only brought my big gun. The little one’s in the car.”

Reilly couldn’t fight the pressure at the base of his skull. He turned, slowly, knowing that whatever he saw would somehow be even more horrible than anything he could imagine.

Its head and shoulders floated right outside the window above Reilly’s pillow, peering inside with intense yellow eyes. Waves of hunger radiated off of it like heat off a warm summer street. Unidentifiable brown muck coated its pale skin and stringy hair. A mole on its left cheek had sprouted some sort of wildly flapping appendage.

Realizing he recognized the creature, Reilly gasped. “Mr. Warrick?”

The missing girl’s father smiled. Three tongues snaked out through his ruined teeth to lick his cracked lips. An unsettling appendage on his mole whirled. The glass windowpane shimmered as Mr. Warrick pressed a single crooked finger through it and beckoned Reilly toward him.

“Fuck,” the man in the hallway muttered before kicking the bedroom door off its hinges. The metallic barrel of a huge shotgun entered first, followed by the most gigantic man Reilly had ever seen in person—a video game bad ass come to life, complete with black fatigues, a bandolier loaded with spare shells, and a cocksure grin plastered across a square jaw.

The shotgun bellowed. Most of the wall exploded outward. Mr. Warrick shrieked, snarled, and zipped off into the night. Reilly’s ears rang. He’d never seen anything that cool.

The big man took gentle but firm hold of Reilly’s bicep. “We gotta go, kid.” Confused by the pointy tips on the man’s ears, the boy hesitated. A sharp tug pulled him to his feet and led him out into the hallway.

The rest of the house was surprisingly quiet. Even a bottle of wine deep into one of their favorite reality shows his parents should have come running upstairs in a panic at the sound of that shotgun blast. Where were they? Had they bailed rather than try to save him? Had Mr. Warrick gotten to them first?

Reilly struggled to keep up with the big man’s long, loping strides as he was dragged toward the stairs. He tripped over his own feet and his rescuer simply lifted him up off the carpet while he regained his balance, all without slowing down. If he wanted to hurt me there’s nothing I could do about it, Reilly thought. A lump formed in his throat.

They passed his sister’s bedroom and Reilly glanced inside. Maddie stood still as a statue in the center of the room, staring out into the hallway through milky white eyes without pupils. She looked alive, but why was she just standing there like a zombie? He realized as they hit the stairs that the man must’ve done something to incapacitate her on the way to his room. In that state she’d be defenseless against Mr. Warrick.

“My sister!” Reilly squeaked as they careened down the stairs.

“She’ll be fine,” the man said, deftly guiding them around the turn at the landing. He wasn’t even breathing hard. “It’s not interested in her, or in your parents.”

Reilly opened his mouth to ask why not, but a throb in his palm answered his unspoken question.

They reached the foyer at the foot of the stairs. The big man plowed through the wide open front door, past Reilly’s frozen father. Dad stared lifelessly out at the yard, his eyes white and his finger raised as if he were about to unleash holy logical hell upon some poor interloping salesman unlucky enough to have been assigned their address. A wine glass teetered precariously in the fingers of his other hand. Reilly waved in his general direction, trying to illicit a response. If he registered the boy’s presence he wasn’t capable of acknowledging it.

Something shrieked bloody murder in the distance as they hurried out into the cool evening. The crack of a rifle shot echoed half a step later. The lack of a followup scream told Reilly the shooter had missed. Mr. Warrick was still close.

They descended the front steps in one long leap. Solar lamps shaped like tiny pagodas lit the concrete walk leading to the street. Above, the cloudless sky was freckled with stars. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the pair of oak trees on either side of the front yard. All of the lights in the Daugherty house across the street were off but there might’ve been someone peeking out through the curtains in one of the second floor bedrooms. The big man’s grip on his forearm was warm and slick with sweat. The front of Reilly’s pants were just a little bit wet. The boy didn’t understand why these small details burned themselves into his brain. Perhaps some part of his subconscious had decided to indulge in every sensation available, just in case.

The old RV parked haphazardly at the edge of the property didn’t look functional, but it had gotten there somehow. It seemed crooked, twisted by whoever had driven its front left wheel up unto the sidewalk. Reilly disliked it immediately. The vehicle’s square headlights, dingy tan side panels, and tinted windows suggested a checkered history just outside of playgrounds and school zones. No doubt its owner’s picture was displayed prominently in the local post office.

And the big man was headed right for it.

“Hurry up and get him inside,” a new voice shouted. It belonged to a dark figure atop the RV’s roof, brandishing a long rifle. “I lost track of that thing, but it can’t be far.”

Reilly knew from safety assemblies at school that getting into a strange vehicle with people he didn’t know was a great way to end up dead in a ditch. He’d always thought those assemblies a bit melodramatic until that very moment. The rough stone of the concrete walk tore at his socks as he dug in his heels and tried to wrench his arm free. “No! I’m not going with you!” he screamed. Maybe the sound of his distress would wake up his mother or father or attract the neighbors. “Let me go! Let me go!”

The man stopped and—surprisingly—complied. He took a small step away from Reilly to give the boy some space. “Mr. Warrick will not stop hunting you,” he said gently. “And if he catches you…”

“So I’m supposed to get in your crappy truck and go wherever you want to take me and trust that you won’t do something just as bad?” Reilly squeaked around the lump in his throat. If he stalled long enough, maybe an adult he knew would come and help.

“Get him in the vehicle,” the man on the roof insisted.

The big man lowered himself to one knee and reached his hand out over the grass, palm down and fingers spread. “My name is Ankh,” he said. “My friend up there is Hirace.” He wove his hand above the lawn in a slow, tight figure eight motion as he spoke, focusing intently on his work.

“We’re elves,” Ankh continued. “We use our magic—and our big guns—to protect people.”

“I don’t believe in elves and magic!” Reilly snapped reflexively. He was far too old for that kind of little kid stuff.

The air between the supposed elf’s palm and the ground distorted as if with static. “Do you believe in big guns and good intentions?” he asked with a smirk. “More importantly, do you believe in what you saw watching you through your bedroom window?”

Reilly knew he’d never forget the hideous creature that was like Mr. Warrick but wasn’t quite Mr. Warrick. Those teeth…that mole… “What happened to him?”

Ankh’s jaw tightened and a bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. “When you let the bad stuff visit too often, eventually it moves in and starts remodeling.”

The boy nodded, but he was still confused. “So that’s why he can fly?”

A trio of tiny plants sprouted up out of the ground underneath Ankh’s hand. At first they were just slender tendrils, uncurling like alien tentacles as they struggled to reach above the surrounding grass. Buds formed at their tips as their stalks stood up straight and thickened. Puffy yellow flowers bloomed and Ankh smiled in satisfaction. “I was supposed to be a farmer,” he said, “but I wasn’t very good at it. I had classmates that could grow an acre of wheat without blinking. Me? I end up asleep for three days if I work on anything larger than a lily. But I’m good at protecting people, so I do that instead.”

This is like a movie, Reilly thought. And he’d obviously just met the good guys—but what about the mark on his hand? Was it like what had happened to Mr. Warrick? Was the darkness changing him too? He opened his palm and held it up to Ankh. “What about this?”

The elf squinted to examine the black mark. “Got any pain in your head?” Reilly nodded. “That’s how it knows where you are. It probably enchanted you a few days ago, or maybe the curse jumped to you the last time you were around Meg. Either way…it dies when Mr. Warrick does. All right?”

“All right.”

“Good,” Ankh said as he rose. “I promise you won’t regret it. Let’s go.”

Hirace met them beside the RV’s side door. The man held his rifle at the ready, but pointed low. Reilly gasped at the sheer size of the weapon. If it wasn’t longer than he was tall, it was certainly close. “Don’t worry, kid,” the slender elf said with a grin. “We eat bad guys like this for breakfast.” Ankh stepped aside and waved Reilly through the open door first, his eyes scanning the darkness.

Contrary to the vehicle’s exterior, the inside of the RV was bright, clean, and sterile. Reilly’s eyes took a moment to adjust. When his vision cleared, he gasped in awe. It was like walking into some high tech government lab. Shelves lining the walls were packed tight with all sorts of screens, gauges, tools, and gear he couldn’t recognize. Something further inside beeped steadily like one of those machines that monitors a heartbeat.

“Oh, hello there!” another elf said. This time it was a young woman, short and slender, her blond hair pulled up into a tight bun. She wore the same fatigues as the other two but barely filled them. “Welcome aboard the Mark VII Mobile Espionage Unit! My name’s Althene. I’d give you the tour, but as you can see I’m a little busy right now!”

Reilly took a step closer, flinching as his right shoulder brushed against the handle of something that looked vaguely like a vacuum cleaner. Althene stood facing the wall, her sleeves rolled up and her hands plunged deeply into a vat of what looked like bright blue jell-o. A tangle of copper wires also ran up out of the vat to a variety of screens and instruments. “What’s that?”

“Oh, just a little trick for keeping an eye on Mr. Warrick” Her wideset eyes flickered blue, and the gel shivered, and then something beeped. “He’s…not far.”

Chills ran up Reilly’s spine. “Where is he?”

“Can’t say for sure. I’m not good at directions, yet.”

“Distance is all we need,” Hirace replied from outside. “When it comes, we’ll be ready for it.”

Althene curled her back and reset her feet. “And you’ll be safe in here. There’s three inches of solid titanium between us and the rest of the world and two of Evitankari’s finest watching the door. Nothing short of a nuclear bomb’s getting in here.”

Reilly looked around nervously, as unsure of those claims as he was of where to stand. “Why’s Mr. Warrick so interested in me? What is going on?”

The elven woman blushed, gathering her thoughts before she replied. “Well…we know from Meg’s journal that she had a thing for you, and Meg’s father really had a thing for her.”

“You could not have put that any worse if you’d tried,” Ankh said from outside.

“I’m trying to keep it PG!” she protested. “Anyway, we know that new feral demons created by repeatedly assaulting a particular victim often proceed to the people and things their victim loved. Like Ike Dennis’s, your name was crossed out everywhere it appeared in Meg’s journal, using a different color ink than it was written in.”

Blinking in confusion, Reilly leaned back against the support of the nearest shelf. Meg Warrick wasn’t in love with him; he would’ve known it if she were, he thought. Everyone knew she loved Ike Dennis. Then again…though he never would’ve admitted it, Reilly could think of at least three or four girls in school he had a little thing for, so he supposed it was possible for Meg to like multiple boys.

And her father had been assaulting her? What did that even mean? He wondered if that was why she’d seemed so sad lately, and why she’d missed a week of school a month ago. She’d been awfully self-conscious of those bruises on her leg.

A horrible thought constricted the muscles in Reilly’s chest. “Are Meg and Ike dead? Did Mr. Warrick kill them?”

Althene filled her lungs with a deep breath and then looked down at him sadly. “Reilly, I’m sorry–” Her eyes flashed blue. The gel jittered violently. The machinery chirped in what sounded like desperation. “It’s here!”

Every fiber in Reilly’s body went rigid. Even in the interior of a heavily armored vehicle, defended by a trio of powerful warriors with amazing powers and impressive weapons, the idea that something horrible was coming for him was deeply unsettling. What if Mr. Warrick somehow got the better of Ankh and Hirace? It looked like there was another door in the back of the vehicle if he needed to make a run for it. Or maybe he could rush to the driver’s seat, fire up the engine, and flee with the Mark VII. Was there something on the shelves he could use as a last ditch weapon? None of his backup options felt great.

The pressure Reilly had felt at the base of his skull back in his bedroom returned. He cringed and shivered. Mr. Warrick wanted him very, very badly.

“We don’t see it!” Hirace called desperately. “Are you sure?”

As Althene opened her mouth to answer, a human hand reached clean through the titanium reinforced wall and clamped itself over her lips. The rest of Mr. Warrick soon followed, flying horizontally through the metal as if either it or he were incorporeal.

“He’s a ghost!” Reilly screamed as Mr. Warrick shoved the elf across the aisle and slammed the back of her skull into the edge of the shelf behind her. Bone cracked, blood spattered, and the injured elf whimpered once before her body went limp.

The boy turned and ran, tumbling down the RV’s steep steps and out onto the lawn. A strong hand grabbed his collar and hoisted him to his feet. “What happened?” Ankh demanded.

“Mr. Warrick, he…he melted through the wall!”

“Center of the lawn,” Hirace said calmly. “Back to back to back, each of us watching a different direction. At least it’ll have nowhere to hide.”

Ankh acknowledged the idea with a nod, and the two elves bolted across the sidewalk, dragging Reilly with them. He closed his eyes and sobbed, trying to wipe away the memory of the terrified look on Althene’s face as the demon that used to be Mr. Warrick had bashed her skull in. “Your friend’s hurt badly.”

“Nothing we can do about it now,” Ankh said as he swung the boy in between himself and Hirace. The two elves faced the street side-by-side, weapons ready. “Watch the house. We’ll help Althene after we take care of Mr. Warrick.”

They didn’t have to wait long. Mr. Warrick melted through the wall of the RV like a spirit manifesting from the ether, leaning heavily on its left leg as if its whole right side didn’t work anymore. The pressure in Reilly’s skull became a full-fledged migraine. He couldn’t believe this horrible, twisted thing had once been his friend’s father. A gob of brown muck dripped from its hair and splattered on the sidewalk.

“Reilly,” it hissed, raising its right hand and curling a finger, beckoning him forward. The boy felt a compulsion to do just that. He took a step without realizing it, then fought the urge to take another.

The elves didn’t waste anymore time, opening up with their weapons. Hirace’s rifle boomed and Ahnk’s shotgun bellowed. Reilly flinched back against the noise, covering his ears. He’d never heard anything so deafening, and he had a little sister who really enjoyed turning up the volume on his headset when he wasn’t looking. At least it worked as a distraction from the pressure in his skull. He took a step back toward the house, put his hands over his ears, and crouched down in the grass until the shooting stopped a few seconds later.

“Well,” Reilly could just hear Hirace say through his battered ears. “Now what we do?”

A sense of foreboding washed through the boy as he craned his neck around to peer between the two elves. Mr. Warrick still stood, seemingly uninjured and unimpressed. The exterior of the RV behind him, however, was shredded, like someone had run a giant cheese grater along the outside of it. The armor underneath was pocked and dinged with bullet impacts.

The mental compulsion to join the demon brought Reilly to his feet. “He can walk through walls,” the boy said through a desperately clenched jaw. The black spot on his palm ached as if someone had stuck his hand in a vice.

“If you can walk through a wall, you can walk through a bullet,” Ankh said.

“But he was solid when he touched your friend.” How else could he have hurt Althene that way? Reilly knew what he had to do.

The boy burst forward, surprising the two elves as he darted between them. Ankh’s had just grazed the back of his shirt collar, and then he was through. “Hirace,” the big man said, clearly sensing the kid’s plan. “Don’t miss.”

A crooked smile contorted Mr. Warrick’s face. As Reilly closed the distance, the demon stood up straighter and spread his arms in welcome. The pressured in his skull blurred his vision and made him want to retch. Fear bloomed, desperately screaming that he stop in his tracks and turn right back around because this was dumb and hadn’t he seen what Mr. Warrick had done to the elf in the truck and oh shit you’re going to end up just like Meg and Ike, but by that point the compulsion was too strong. He leaned into it, letting it pull him toward death and dismemberment, giving the demon exactly what it wanted on the chance it might make a mistake.

He collided with the demon’s chest, reminded of how a much younger Reilly used to greet his father upon his return from work every evening. His arms wrapped around a blessedly solid torso. Mr. Warrick felt softer than he should have, like his bones had all melted and his skin had weakened. The stench of death filled Reilly’s nostrils and burned his throat.

This is it, he thought as the demon’s arms closed around him. His head felt like it was about to burst. This is the end.

A single loud crack split the night. Something whizzed above Reilly’s scalp, ruffling his hair. A wet thump struck Mr. Warrick and the demon’s body went limp. Hot blood spattered down over the boy’s head and shoulders. Next thing he knew, he was staring down at what remained of his friend’s father, a twisted, broken thing now sporting a ragged hole where the right side of his face should’ve been.

The next thing Reilly knew, he was enveloped in Ankh’s strong arms. “You brave, stupid, amazing child,” the elf whispered into the boy’s hair. “Don’t look at him. He’s done for, but you don’t need to see that.” As if Reilly could see anything around Ankh’s giant torso.

The dam broke, then, and the magnitude of what he’d just done washed through the boy. His knees went weak, but Ankh held him up. Tears streamed down his face. He squirmed against Ankh’s grip to make enough space in the sea of muscle and black fabric to get a look at his own palm. The spot was gone. Mr. Warrick was dead. It was over.

Time lost all meaning. Reilly lost track of how long he stayed in the elf’s embrace. He just knew that it felt good and warm and safe, and that even though he didn’t know the man just being there with him made everything alright.

A distant siren finally put an end to it. Ankh released the boy and took a step away, smiling warmly. “That’s our cue to get a move on.”

Reilly sniffled. “What about Althene?”

“Hmm. Hirace?” Ankh called into the RV. “How’s it look in there?”

“I’ll have her back on her feet in a few seconds,” he replied, his voice strained. “It’s alright to bring the boy in.”

Ankh waved for Reilly to join him. “Come on, let’s make sure the first thing Althene sees when she wakes up is our smiling faces.”

That sounded good to the boy. Ankh went up the stairs first—just in case things were worse than Hirace had claimed, Reilly realized—but then quickly beckoned him forward.

The friendly elf lay on her side in a pool of her own blood. Hirace knelt beside her, his hand pressed to her shoulder, his face knotted in concentration. This didn’t look like any sort of medical intervention Reilly had ever seen. On TV there was always a few men in white coats, wielding stethoscopes and looking concerned, maybe applying bandages or shouting about surgery. Or maybe there was a friendly alien with a healing gun, or a robot with a big wrench.

Hirace spasmed first. Althene followed a heartbeat later. She pulled a deep, ragged breath into her lungs and leaned forward, her eyes snapping open. The back of her head, crusted with blood, appeared to be in one piece. Hirace jerked away then reached back to steady the woman, who seemed unable to believe she was alive and breathing.

“Fuck,” she sighed, her eyes darting around the room. “Oops. Sorry, kid.” Reilly’s smile got even bigger. “I assume the target’s been dealt with?”

“Mission accomplished,” Hirace said, his voice strained. He leaned back and sat down hard. “That took a week off my life.”

“Thank you,” she said, squeezing his forearm and grinning like he’d just handed her a winning lottery ticket. “I won’t forget it.”

Hirace’s gaze flicked up to Ankh and his face tightened. “Speaking of…”

For a few seconds the elf’s comment hung over the room like a shroud. Reilly didn’t miss the strange weight of Hirace’s words, but for the moment his mind was preoccupied with Althene’s recovery. Had that been magic? It must’ve been magic. He hadn’t seen a ray gun.

“Just what on God’s green earth do you people think you’re doing?” a shrill voice cut through the silence from outside.

Reilly would’ve recognized that tone and general sentence structure anywhere. It had chased him off of far too many missions to recover baseballs, kickballs, soccer balls, and footballs from his neighbor’s yard. “It’s Mrs. Hardwick,” he whispered, like he often had to his friends. “You guys are in trouble.”

“Her first,” Ankh said. Hirace nodded, and the big man exited the vehicle.

Reilly followed before the others could protest. If anyone could stand up to Mrs. Hardwick it’d be his new elven friends, and he sure wanted to see it.

And there she was, out there in her that infamous pink and green nightgown that made her look like a watermelon, her finger bouncing fearlessly off Ankh’s broad chest like a basketball. Contempt radiated from the short old woman like as if it poured out through special glands hidden in her saggy wrinkles. “I have been president of this neighborhood’s HOA since you were in diapers, young man, and I will have you know that such activity will not be condoned under my administration! You shall be arrested, sir, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law!” The approaching sirens agreed with her assessment.

Ankh, superhero that he was, stood there and took it, his hands in his pockets and his face stoic. Reilly couldn’t help felling impressed, if a little disappointed. Was this bad ass commando really going to let a crazy old woman walk all over him?

“I don’t know what things are like where you come from, but around here—”

And then he wasn’t taking it anymore. His left hand whipped up out of his pocket and released a shower of silvery dust right into her face. One inhalation and her eyes rolled back in her head, leaving just the whites showing. Mrs. Hardwick suddenly went rigid, as if someone had suddenly replaced her spine with a rod of hardened steel. Reilly remembered the way his family looked back in the house.

“You saw nothing,” Ankh said. “Mr. Warrick shot himself in the skull with a revolver when he realized he couldn’t escape the authorities. You didn’t hear it because you were enjoying a cozy night at home with a bowl of ice cream and your favorite movie. Now, please return to your couch.”

The old woman made a gurgling sound, then turned on her heel and hobbled off. Reilly watched her go, thoroughly confused—and worried about what that meant for him.

Ankh turned to face the boy, indecision clearly torturing his expression. He knelt down to put himself on Reilly’s level but didn’t come closer. “Regulation says I’m supposed to wipe your memory too, but you won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“No!” he replied, shaking his head vehemently. “I promise.”

Ahnk nodded. “I know. The dust in the water and the subliminal messages in the television will wipe it all away eventually, but here—take this.”

He flipped a shiny silver something Reilly’s way. The boy reached up and caught it, then brought it close to his face so he could get a look. It was a silver coin, about the size of a quarter, inlaid with the dark shape of a willow tree. “This is beautiful,” he said. “I can keep this?”

The elf stood back up and glanced in the direction of the sirens. They’d be there soon. “You can. That’s a little thank you for helping us out back there. You’ll forget us in time, but you’ll always know that’s important—and you’ll know that if you find yourself in another strange situation, showing that to one of us will get you through.”

Reilly’s heart sank. “Y-you’re leaving?” He’d had visions of so many more adventures with his new friends, of wrongs righted and valiant quests completed and schoolyard bullies knocked down a few pegs. He’d just met Ankh, Hirace, and Althene. Surely they couldn’t be leaving so soon.

“I’m afraid so, son,” the elf said, unable to meet the boy’s gaze. “I can’t say you’ll always remember us, but we’ll never forget you, ok?”

Anhk vaulted up into the RV and slammed the door before Reilly could respond. The vehicle’s engine sputtered to life and flung the thing into motion, whirling it into a sharp U-turn and rocketing it away from the police cars that had just appeared at the end of the street.

Reilly gave the cops the same story Ankh had given to Mrs. Hardwick. Though there was no weapon on the scene, and both the police and Reilly’s parents spent weeks grilling the boy about whether he’d taken it, eventually the story stuck.

What didn’t stick, however, were Reilly’s memories of that night. His understanding of the event faded slowly over the next few months until he couldn’t recall the faces or the names of the nice, normal people who’d helped him. He tried to write it all down, but he found himself getting confused, and soon discovered the words he’d written on previous attempts to be unintelligible. The idea of asking Mrs. Hardwick was tempting but, he decided, not worth incurring her wrath. Years later, he dismissed it all as a dream, just the fantasy of a child obsessed with somehow finding adventure in his sleepy little town, though he still mourned the deaths of Meg and Ike.

But he always kept the coin close. At first it stayed under his pillow, and then later—as he grew up and moved out, on his way to college and beyond—it persisted as a comforting weight in the bottom of his wallet. Though he couldn’t remember where he’d found it, the thing was a treasure he knew would always be there for him, even when the nights seemed particularly dark and fraught with terrors. That was good enough.

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