Probably Sort-of Safe
The story so far:
And now…Chapter 14
“So then what happened?” Derek asked.
He and Chowdah and Grub had been summoned to Melissa’s house. The whole gang sat on the floor of her bedroom.
Melissa sat on her neatly-made bed with Lim and Clark on either side. They had taken turns with the telling, and now that the tale was told, the exhaustion of the day was clear on their faces.
And it was not simply exhaustion that was nagging Lim. Guilt over the events in the woods hung on him like fifty pound weights tied around his soul, dragging him to the bottom of a lake.
“I shoulda just given him the key,” he said.
“No, you were right to ask questions,” insisted Melissa. “We had no way of knowing what he was up to or who he was.”
Lim said nothing in reply to this. He knew that it was his delay in handing over the key that had allowed The Man of Locks to be abducted.
Sure there had been logical reasons to not hand over the key at once, but no matter what rationalizations were tried, and no matter how logical his choice might have seemed, in his heart he could not deny the truth: That even if The Man of Locks had shown up with proof of identification, a letter from the President, and the confirmed approval of Lim’s mother, none of it would have been enough.
Lim would never have given up the key.
He glanced around the room at the people he now thought of as his friends. Did they like him, really like him? Sure. He thought so.
But what was he to them without that key?
The question clattered around his head, snapping and sniping any good thought that tried to form.
The knowledge that he had played a part in another person (let alone a magical person) being dragged away by evil forces because he didn’t want to risk losing friends made Lim’s skin crawl in self-disgust.
“So then what happened?” Derek repeated.
Melissa said, “We came here, called you. There was some hot cocoa mixed in there, somewhere. And now here we are.”
Derek and Chowdah and Grub were seated with their legs crossed, like kids at story-time,
“So, to recap, we’ve got Clark having crazy dreams, Lim’s got some kinda super-power he doesn’t know about, and there’s some magical guy in charge of the doors and he got attacked by a humungous dog and a voice with no person attached.” Derek shook his head. “You know, a month ago, this would’ve all seemed really strange.”
“You said the dog obeyed the voice, right? Like it was tame?” Grub asked.
“Awesome,” said Grub and Chowdah. Two minds swam with images of riding a giant dog.
Derek honed in on a more crucial part of the story.
“Wait…you said that he said that the he knew why the weather was all messed up, right?”
“Yeah, and he said that it was only going to get worse if he didn’t put a stop to it,” said Lim. “That’s why we have to do something! We need to find him and rescue him before it’s too late.”
“Rescue him from where?” said Clark. “From who? We don’t have anywhere to start.”
“He said something about ‘The Lonely King’,” said Melissa. “God, why does that sound so familiar? Does it feel that way to anyone else?”
“Sorta,” said The Grub. “It sounds like something I read about a long time ago.”
“That’s it!” cried Melissa. She flew off the bed and went to her closet.
“What’s it?” Derek asked.
“Once upon a time!” said Melissa, and she threw open her closet doors. An avalanche of books came spilling out onto the carpet.
“Holy crap,” said the others.
“I know,” Melissa said. She began to burrow into the mound. “Before I had you guys, I had books. Now, where- AHA!” She held up a single, slim volume.
She brought the book over and the others crowded in for a closer look.
“Oh, that’s right!” said Grub. “I read that book a million times as a little kid.”
The title read MONSTROUS WORLD.
The cover was a painting of an old stone castle, wrapped in fog, with a skyline of an impossibly close moon and diamond stars. Each window of the castle was marked by a yellow blot of candlelight.
In each window, the outline of an inhuman figure could be seen, frozen in a pose of aggression.
Melissa began to flip the pages. One twisted, leering face was replaced by another and then another and then more, each face more heinous than the one before.
The pages halted.
“Here it is,” she said.
On one page was a wall of text, topped with the heading The Lonely King. Across from this was an illustration.
The illustration was a black and white pencil drawing of a dark stone hallway, lined with cobwebs and broken bones. The hallway ended in a gaping black hole, a pool of ink that was without bottom or end.
From out of the darkness, there came a figure.
He wore a crown and an ornamental mask that would not have been out of place at a Harlequin ball. No one could discern where the mask and crown separated. The mask covered only the top half of his head. His mouth hung open, revealing splintered teeth.
Each child was suddenly alone, each imagining a different wail of agony coming from between those lips and echoing down those ancient hallways. An identical shiver went down each spine.
Tattered robes hung from his slim frame, dripping with some unknown substance. His feet were bare and blackened with grime and filth. His fingers were tipped with claws.
The Lonely King reached off the page.
“The Lonely King,” read Melissa, “is a commonly seen apparition with noted appearances in fifteen different locations on four different continents over the past two hundred years.
“There is a great deal of debate over his origins. Some believe that The King was actually a poor man who was caught stealing from the wealthy and made to wear this costume before his execution. He now walks the passageways of nobility, seeking vengeance.
“Others believe that he was indeed a member of a royal family who went mad and ordered his soldiers to massacre the people of a nearby village. When he awoke from his insanity and discovered what the soldiers had done under his name, he threw himself from the tallest balcony of his palace. The guilt will not let him rest.
“The name comes to us from the very first account of an encounter with The King. A priest was wandering through the cellar of his abbey, when The King appeared behind him and gave chase. In his journal, the priest referred to the creature as ‘The ghastly specter of The Lonely King.’
“No reason for this title was recorded.”
Melissa closed the book.
The shadows were too long for comfort.
‘Especially Chowdah’s,’ thought Lim, and he frowned. There was something off about Chowdah’s shadow.
He could not explain his discomfort and so he ignored it, returning to the matter at hand.
“You think that’s what The Man of Locks was talking about?” he asked. “You think this is that Lonely King?”
Melissa shrugged. “Makes sense, doesn’t it? How many Lonely Kings can there be?”
“According to this, there’s quite a few.”
“Hey, yeah!” said Grub. “Imagine an army of angry ghosts going swooping out a magic door and spreading across the world and now that I’m saying that out loud I realize how bad that would be holy crap.”
“So we stop it,” said Melissa. “Right?”
“How are we supposed to stop that?” asked Clark. “Especially since that has that thing and God knows what else at God knows where.”
“We don’t have to stop it,” Lim said. “We just need to find The Man of Locks and release him. Then he’ll set everything back to normal.”
“One problem,” Clark said, “and it’s the same problem we’re going to keep running into, no matter what plan we come up with: we don’t know where they are. And unless there’s another book lying in there with all the answers to everything, we’ll never find out.”
“But we already know where to find the answers,” said Chowdah.
Every eye swiveled to the small girl. She had her head down while she lazily flipped the pages of the monster book. It took a moment for her to realize that the others were staring.
“Well?” she said. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Five heads shook.
Chowdah sighed and rolled her eyes. “You guys, come on. You can’t be so dumb all the time. When it comes to this monster stuff, it’s always the same thing: The monster is in your mind.”
Every eye turned to the very scared Clark.