Alex Reynard

The Library

Alex Reynard's Online Books


Light Version | Dark Version


The next thing he knew he was falling again.

He hit solid ground with a painful splat. For a moment, all his senses were whipping around crazily. His body felt disconnected. But Toby picked himself up and tried to will his perceptions to make sense.

Wait. Standing. He'd stood up.

He dared to open his eyes.

For a second he thought he was blind, but then realized his vision was still blocked by webbing. He could feel the slime oozing around his ears. He could feel it all over actually, but it was loose now. How had he gotten free of it?

That poor girl... He was still shaking from hearing the sound of her screams. The sound of her bones cracking open. He tried to push it away. He'd have no hope of escaping wherever he was if he let in the full horror of knowing someone else had just died mere feet away from him. He had to concentrate on the moment or he would end up sharing her fate.

He reached up to pull the thick, slippery webbing away from his eyes. A chunk of gunk the size of a car tire had been draped over his head. When he tossed it aside, the daylight made him blink.

No. No, this did not make ANY sense! How could he be outside!? One moment the girl in the web had been screaming bloody murder and he could hear the octopus-monster's beak tearing chunks out of her. Then he was screaming too. Then... there was a blank. But then he was falling and now here he was. But that made no sense! How could he have fallen underground, then fallen again and wound up aboveground!?

The impossibility of it made him feel a bit panicky, but he tried to remind himself not to look a gift horse in the mouth. He was free of the octopus-monster's web. That was the most important thing. Worrying about the 'how' was a minor concern next to just taking a moment to realize he was miraculously not digesting in a slimy gut right now.

'Maybe I somehow fought back hard enough to get free?' he wondered. 'But then, why don't I remember it?'

He looked down at his feet. He was standing in a pile of shredded octosilk as big as a haystack. He turned in a circle to survey his surroundings. The arachnopus, or any sign of its lair, were nowhere to be seen. He was standing in a clearing in the woods. Same patternless trees, same dingy, overcast sky. The day had only seemed bright in comparison.

He looked behind him and saw, way off in the distance, the hills his cave had been a part of. Even more impossibilities. How could he have gotten so far away from them? The hole he'd fallen into couldn't have been... what did the distance seem like? Two miles away, maybe?

"You out there, Toby?" came a muffled shout.


She was alive!? Impossibilities upon impossibilities! Toby dropped to his knees in the awful, slimy mess of webbing and started swirling his hands around, trying to find anything living. She'd be injured, certainly. She'd need a hospital. There sure as heck wasn't one nearby. Although she said she knew this place. Maybe she'd know where to get help? 'Maybe she'd know how to get home?' he dared wonder.

Adrenaline was keeping Toby from thinking too hard about the fact that his fingers kept brushing up against chunks of bone. 'Those are just rocks,' he lied to himself. He tried to keep his mind on finding Piffle. 'Did I... actually save her?' he dared to think. No, that wasn't likely. Hard as it was to admit, her being alive was probably an accident of whatever he'd done to save himself.

"Down here!" came her voice again. She sounded characteristically unconcerned about being trapped and injured under a pile of slimesilk.

Finally, Toby's fingers felt fur. "There you are!" he said. He started heaving heaps of web out of the way.

"Oh thank you, Toby!" Piffle said joyfully. "This stuff's awful slickery."

Toby brushed sweat off his forehead, but only got his hair covered in mucous. "You're welcome. There's not much more and aaaaAAAaaaAAAAAAAAAAIIIGHHH!!!!"

That was the noise Toby made as he jumped up in the air, then managed to crab-walk straight backwards out of the webbing-pile and crash into a bush. Gibbering insensibly, all he could do was point at Piffle with his trembling hand.

"Yikes! What is it, Toby!?" she said as she got to her feet.

Toby clamped his eyes shut to make the horrible image stop. But the tone of her voice got past his fear. She didn't know! She had no idea! Toby hesitantly forced one eye open, then shut it quickly out of instinctive revulsion.

He heard her take a step forward. "What's wrong?"

"No! Stop! Don't come any closer, please!" he shouted. He made himself look again, somewhat more prepared this time. "You... something's happened to you." The webbing! "Being in the octopus' web must have transformed you somehow. You've changed into a... a bug monster!"

Piffle stopped dead in her tracks with an expression of dull surprise on her petite muzzle.

Then she started giggling again in an 'Aren't I silly?' kind of way.

Slightly more than half of Piffle was the normal features of a golden hamster. The very definition of 'pleasantly plump'. Her fur resembled a vanilla sundae with hot caramel melted on top. Her face was perfectly normal and cute in every regard. Except for her eyes. And her twitching, arm-length antennae. But mostly her eyes. Two bulging cranberry-red disco balls jutted out of her sockets, surrounded by little dark, coarse hairs. And while her limbs looked normal too, her pear-shaped torso was encased in an iridescent green exoskeleton, jointed with ridges like a washboard. More stiff black hairs poked out all over. On her back grew a pair of glassy, vein-covered wings.

Her chuckling stopped and real concern entered her voice. "Don't be scared, Toby. I'm sorry I didn't tell you b'fore, but I just didn't think of it. I'm used to me being like this. I forgot that you wouldn't be."

Toby's tail and hands were trembling. "Used to it?"

Piffle started twirling around, flinging the blobs of goo off her. "Yep! I've been a fly for so long I'm not even sure anymore when it happened. But stuff like that just kinda happens here! You hang around long enough and, ka-zam! You're something else! One time I was a couch for three months."

"A... couch..." Toby's brain was bouncing back and forth, trying to reconcile the horror movie monster his eyes were seeing with the bubbly, harmless girl his ears were hearing. When she'd turned all the way around, Toby noticed, right on the bottom of her exoskeleton, there was a poofy round hamster tail. Like it'd been stuck on with tape.

"Yeah, that was the pits," Piffle continued. "Dull and double-dull. Though being sat on felt kinda nice." She started rubbing her eyes clean with her paws. "I hope me being a bit buggy won't stop us from being friends, Toby."

A pang of guilt hit him. Yes, he could barely stand to look at her. But... She had been nicer to him than anyone else here so far. And even the Mushroom Woman, ugly as she was, had at least been helpful. If this really was a land of nightmares, he had to admit that not all of it was out to kill him.

'Or is it? Remember that nice-sounding voice that lured you into a trap before?'

Piffle came cautiously closer to Toby and held out her paw to help him to his feet.

Toby's own hand twitched. One look at that bottle-green insect 'skin' on her torso made him flinch. His horror returned like a bright flare. He couldn't do it. As much as he hated being impolite, he could not bring himself to touch her.

Piffle retreated a step. She held her paws behind her back. "I understand."

Toby leveraged himself up using the bush. He tried to look her in the eyes but couldn't. For starters, what part of them should he look at? For another, they were Fly Eyes Coming Out Of A Rodent Face!! He shuddered just imagining what they'd feel like. How much would they weigh? How could she see out of them?

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I just..."

Piffle cut him off. "Nahhh. Nothing to get in a tizzy about. You're new. I shoulda warned you, simple as that. It takes a long time to get used to this place without everything scaring the pants off ya all the time."

With that, Piffle had a sudden revelation. "I don't have any clothes on!" Her cheeks flushed pink, she shot up into the air, then dive-bombed behind a bush.

Once she was out of sight, Toby's brain told him, slowly and carefully, 'Now is the time for you to start running.'

Normally that would have been very good advice. But... Even though he didn't trust Piffle completely yet, and even though she was a hideous monster hybrid, well... He wanted to trust her. She'd shown him enough that he thought he ought to at least give her the benefit of the doubt. Even if he could hardly bring himself to look at her, he could still be polite to her. He'd just keep an arm's-length between them until he was more certain whether she was trustworthy or not.

He was also reminded of his time in the cave, the aching loneliness that chewed at his mind for days on end. He wanted someone to trust. But more than that, he needed it. If he was going to find his way home, his chances were far better if he had help.

A few moments later, a rustle of leaves heralded Piffle springing back into sight. "Ta-daa!!" She was now dressed in an old-timey sailor suit, like the kids in black and white cartoons would wear. Bright white blouse with little embroidered anchors on the lapels. Plain blue unpleated skirt, small enough to reveal she was wearing bloomers beneath. "Ya like?"

Actually, the outfit was so ridiculously cute it helped blunt the stomach-churning feeling of seeing her insect bits. It covered up nearly all of her scaly torso. Though there were still those eyes, and those constantly swiveling antennae.

"I thought flies didn't have antennae," Toby blurted.

She giggled. "Hmph! I put on a nice new outfit and that's all you can see?"

He blushed. "It's pretty," he could say honestly.

"Oh thank you, Toby!" she squealed. He saw her start to dash over for a hug, but stopped herself. That was reassuring. She was respecting that he didn't want to be touched just yet.

'Just yet?' his mind asked him. 'As in, you'd possibly consider it in the future?'

'Well... yeah. Maybe. She's acting very kind. I suppose I could get used to her enough to have her bug parts not bother me.'

Although it also occurred to him that flies were notorious for spreading disease.

'Maybe hamsterflies are different,' he countered.

Piffle patted out some of the wrinkles on her skirt. "I know it'll take some time before you're used to my looks. That's okay," she said.

Toby nodded. "Thank you. And... It's more than just that. I think I might also be in shock a bit, because that thing back there that tried to eat us... That was the worst moment of my entire life. I've never been so scared. And that's really saying something. I don't know how I'm not just curled up in a ball screaming my lungs out. I don't even know how I can think at all right now. So, yes, you look kind of..." he tried to be tactful, "...abnormal. But also, I'm not sure I could deal with anyone touching me right now."

She nodded understandingly.

"But..." His voice was very quiet. He looked down at his paws. "I've been alone since I got here, and you seem nice. I do want to trust you."

Starshine exploded from her smile. Piffle doubled her efforts to refrain from hugging him and instead hugged herself while bouncing up and down a bit. "I'm ultra-deluxe glad to hear that, Toby!"

The mouseboy smiled too.

Piffle clapped her paws together. "Allright then, what now? We're free of the web, and I did say I wanted some cupcakes. Would you like to join me?"

"YES," came out of his mouth without any conscious choice. His hunger had simply made a lunge for his control panel and overridden all else. "Um, I mean, if that's okay."

"Sure!" she chirped. "There should be a road nearby that'll take us right to Stoma. It's just a dot on the map, but we can catch a bite to eat there. And you probably want a shower to get all that goop off you."

He hadn't even thought to hope for that. Right now, a long hot shower sounded even better than a meal. "How will we find the road?"

She gave him a wide smirk, then wordlessly took to the air. Her thin wings caught the wind and propelled her into the sky with a buzz. He was actually pushed back a bit by the force of her takeoff.

Once she was about sixty feet off the ground, she spun around and pointed westward. "There it is!" she called down.

Toby looked where she was pointing and could indeed see a line where the trees looked thin.

Suddenly Piffle plummeted, and for a heartbeat Toby was absolutely sure she was about to crash into him. Or pounce on him and eat him!

Instead she landed so gracefully she didn't even make a sound. Except for her chuckling. "Jeepers, you do scare easy! I'll try not to tease you. If I can help it," she winked.

Toby unclenched his hands from on top of his head and stood back up. He needed a moment to slow his breathing. "Yes. Please don't."

She let him recuperate a bit more. "Ready to go to town now?"

Toby stretched his back and closed his eyes for a second to concentrate on calm. He took a moment to inventory the good things about his current situation. 1: Nothing had made him violently sick yet. 2: He'd survived the octopus monster. 3: His experience with it hadn't driven him irrevocably insane. 4: He'd been standing out in the open for a few minutes now and nothing had attacked him. 5: He'd gained a potential friend. 6: The possibility of cleanliness and food existed. "I think I'm ready."

"That's dandy!" She took off in the direction of the road. "Sorry if I'm slow; flying's easier than walking."

"That's allright. I hardly ever get any exercise. You'll probably have to stop every now and then to let me catch up."

She glanced back. "You moved pretty quick when you got your first peep at me," she kidded.


Toby was wary about leaving the harmless-looking clearing to enter the regular forest, but Piffle seemed unconcerned. He watched where she stepped and avoid anything she avoided. He wondered how long she'd been living here.

They passed more of those trees with the leaves shaped like playing card suits. The sight didn't bother him now; he'd seen so much worse that such minor ridiculousness hardly registered anymore. And he only flinched a little when a beetle shaped like a telephone receiver passed them.

Even though he still felt rattled, like he could slip into another panic attack with barely any provocation, the clean forest air was helpful. A wood smell, a waxy smell, a cucumber smell. Nothing unpleasant. The temperature felt warm as May. Toby trailed closely behind Piffle, blushing a little at how often her skirt would flip up.

After walking through perhaps a hundred feet of normal forest, they came to a place where the grass turned darker and looked somewhat pointier. There was a wide oblong patch of it to cross before they reached the road. Piffle tilted her head at it, then grinned in realization.

Toby peered over her shoulder. "What is it?"

"Step on it and see," she said slyly.

He shook his head. "I don't think I can deal with any surprises right now."

Her whiskers rose up as she smiled. "Well, you're gonna have to sometime! This is Phobiopolis, Sweet Cheeks! Imagine a jack-in-the-box handle turning all the time, and Jack always pops up when you least expect him. If you can learn the difference between what's really dangerous and what's just 'Oooga booga boo!' then you can get along okay here. I'd be happy to teach you."

He gulped. Part of him thought he was in far too fragile a state right now, and part of him realized that she had a point. The sooner he started accepting that he was going to be in a constant state of freaked-out until he escaped from this place, the easier it would be on him.

"Lesson one: take a step." She held out her hands like a maître d' towards the strange grass.

Toby tried to convince himself that he wasn't about to walk onto some huge hidden creature's tongue and Piffle would laugh maniacally as it slurped him up. He put his bare paw out and brought it down.

It produced a G note.

He tilted his head. He put his other foot down. D flat.

He smiled. "What is this stuff?"

Piffle walked out onto it and a tiny melody accompanied her. "Pianograss! Isn't it fun? It's not too common. But it's your first lesson: just because this place is built of nightmares, doesn't mean everything's all scary all the time. Sometimes bad dreams are bad, and sometimes there's parts of them that aren't bad at all."

Toby momentarily forgot all about fear as he walked around on the cool, soft, tickly greenery. It played him a sweet little suite. It sounded like one of those tinkly upright pianos you might see in a saloon. "Sounds like ragtime."

Piffle concurred. "There's other varieties that sound different. The real tall stuff sounds like a big black grand piano, and there's even a greeny-yellow kind that sounds a bit like a harp."

"Neat." Toby couldn't resist taking the longest route possible through the pianograss. It was having a surprisingly positive effect on his mood. By the time they reached the edge of the patch, Toby wasn't exactly relaxed, but he was at his lowest point of tension since he'd arrived.

From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to the road Piffle had spotted. Though it was less of a road and more like a dirt path, and the dirt was blue-ish to boot. Toby looked down at it before putting his bare feet on it. "This stuff's not dangerous, is it? Or musical?" he asked, half joking.

Piffle laughed cutely. "Not that I know of. But we can find out!" She started down the dirt road and automatically held her hand out to accept his.

He still couldn't bring himself to take it, though he considered the idea for a little longer this time. Maybe he could get used to her 'unusual features' quicker if he learned more about them. He matched Piffle's pace behind her. "So... um, your eyes. What's it like to see through those?"

She was pleased he'd taken an interest. "Oh golly, they were a real headache at first! Literally! I'd have to cover them up with my paws or I'd get dizzy and fall down!" She did a pirouette on the spot to illustrate. "It was hard on my noodle, going from two perspectives to two thousand."

Toby's eyebrows went up. "That many?"

"Posilutely! Eventually I realized I could just concentrate on a few of them at once and it was almost like having my old vision back. So now, instead of looking around, I just change my concentration to whatever part of my eyes're already pointed at what I wanna see. I can even see behind me a bit. And my antennys help too!" She wiggled them at him. "Hard to describe what that's like. I can touch stuff with 'em, but I also kind of just 'know' where things are. Like, I could cover my eyes and walk all the way into town and not bump into anything."

"That sounds useful," Toby had to admit.

"Uh-huh. So, Toby, what's your goal?" Piffle said out of the blue.


"Now that you're in Phobiopolis. What're you gonna do after we get the cuppycakes?"

He looked towards the horizon. Beyond the clouds he could faintly make out that everpresent peak.

"I want to go home," he said. This time, it didn't sound like a whine, but the statement of an attainable goal.

Piffle noticeably drooped. "Oh," she said. That one syllable clearly conveyed she didn't think it was possible, but she didn't want to break his heart by saying so.

Toby tried not to feel disheartened. "I was told there's a wizard out there in those mountains who could help me."

Piffle looked back with a perfect 'Oh gosh!' expression. "You mean Aldridge?"

"Yes!" So she'd heard of him. That was a good sign. It meant that the Mushroom Woman hadn't just been making things up.

Piffle nibbled her thumb in thought. "Some folks talk about him like he's real. Some act like he's just a fairy tale. Though Anasarca's real at least," she said, pointing with an antenna towards the mountain in the distance. "I- I don't think I could fly you the whole way there, but I'd certainly help you along."

"You'd-" The words caught in Toby's throat. "I'm kind of stunned you'd even offer! I wasn't expecting you to be my taxi."

She turned back and gave him one of the most purely genuine smiles he'd ever seen. "I like helping."

"Th-thank you," Toby said softly, a little awed by her selflessness. "But don't you have anything better to do than... well... be my tour guide?"

That giggle again. "Nah! Mostly I just buzz around looking for fun stuff. Or people to help. I'm more than happy to be your welcome wagon." She blushed a tiny bit. "Though I wish I could show you how much I like helping by giving you a hug..."

He paled a bit (which is not easy for an albino). "I... I still don't think I'm ready yet. I'm sorry."

She grinned to let him know she wasn't offended. "It's okay. I figger I'll wear you down soon enough. If you haven't guessed by now, I'm very cuddle-oriented!"

He laughed. "I did notice. But, to be honest, your bug parts make me feel... creeped-out. I'll do my best to get used to them though. I owe you that. It's just, it'll be difficult. I've been terrified for days since I got here, and I'm still tense even now. All I did for years before I ended up here was lie in bed and read and watch TV. I was sick."

A soft gasp. "I'm sorry to hear that! Whatja have, if you don't mind me asking?"

He sighed. "It'd take an hour to list everything."

"We've got time. I can walk slower and listen." She brightened. "And remember what I said about writing things down you don't want to forget? You can tell me about your life and I'll be your memory box"

Toby smiled gratefully. "Okay. I guess I'll start with my chronic conditions."

And so, as the mouseboy and hamstergirl walked together down the blue road to Stoma, Toby told Piffle as much as he could about his life. While he did, he slowly came to realize just how much of his previous existence had centered around sickness. Around coughing and pain and medicinal side effects and swallowing pills and the scent of disinfectant. It had felt normal a few days ago while he was still living it. But telling it to someone else now, he began to wonder how he'd survived it all for so many years.

Piffle listened quietly, nodded at times, and did her best to remember.


Next Chapter