Alex Reynard

The Library

Alex Reynard's Online Books


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Watching with shining eyes, leaning slightly out the window, Toby was like a kid on Christmas as he took in the streets of Coryza. They reached their destination far too soon. He came very close to asking if they could spend another few minutes going around in circles.

It cannot be emphasized enough how much care the townspeople had put into every surface of every side of every building. Color and ornamentation everywhere. Toby's eyes were zipping to and fro trying to keep up with it all. Everything was laid out with surprising efficiency. From a city built on the soil of nightmares, he'd expected twisted little streets and dark alleys all over. Instead, he soon realized that everything was laid out in a tidy circular grid like a dartboard. All the buildings were crammed tight, utilizing the full potential of every inch of real estate. Toby's temporary illiteracy still persisted though, so he often had no idea what any of the businesses were selling. Some of it was pure gibberish while others might have been real things in Phobiopolis. What was an Alabasteration? Or a Tuuwean Beark?

He turned to see Piffle gazing out her window too, antennae bobbing. "This is probably nothing new to you, isn't it? You've been all over the place."

She shook her head. "Nope, this is my first time! I've explored the forest a lot, but I haven't really been much farther than Cryptolysis." She nibbled her lip. "Umm, I know you're in a hurry to get home, Toby, but d'you think you'd mind sparing an afternoon to browse around tomorrow?"

"Not at all!" he shouted. "I was just thinking that, actually!"

The traffic around them was a rainbow of transportation. There were boats on wheels, egglike minicars, spinning tops, rickshaws, magic carpets, coupes, convertibles, trucks, scooters, and even a wheeled refrigerator. There was too much rumbling and music for Junella's voice commands to be overheard, so she relied on the buzzer system to steer George. Soon enough, they were arriving at the somewhat-world-famous Tatterdemalion bar and hotel.

To Toby it looked like most other moderately-expensive tourist lodgings. Brick walls, arched windows, bushes and ivy greening up the sides. The only two interesting features of note were the perplexingly small parking lot, and its name. Instead of a wooden, fiberglass or neon sign, the word 'Tatterdemalion' simply existed above the main entrance in an elegant font, like the title of a movie.

The tiny parking lot's valet was visibly startled to see a luminous deathpony come trotting in off the street, but she quickly straightened up and regained her professional demeanor.

Toby looked out the window and was confused for the umpteenth time. Not only was the parking lot only big enough for a single vehicle (maybe two) but there was some kind of... blur in the middle of it. Like a grey-flecked smudge the size of a bouncy castle, just sitting there as if it made sense. The parking attendant was an otter in traditional uniform: black jacket and pants, white shirt, red cummerbund. She appeared perfectly normal, except for having a moth's mouth. 'How does she eat?' Toby wondered. Her muzzle was just a coconut-like bump with a slit up the middle, out of which protruded a springy spiral tongue. 'Never needs to buy a crazy straw, I guess.'

Her voice vibrated quite a bit but was sufficiently coherent. "Ummm... short-term or long-term parking?"

Zinc leaned across Junella's lap to send a breezy grin the otter's way. "Probly just for tonight, babydoll. Though our engine's kinda sentient. Anyplace we can keep him?"

She blushed. "Not a problem, sir! We have many guests arrive in creature-drawn vehicles. Should even be much less hassle than normal, as yours doesn't seem coerced."

George exhaled in relief. He'd been worried he'd have to spend the night with nothing but wagons and sedans for company. Though of course he would have accepted such a fate without complaint.

The otter was a bit cautious in approaching George, until he gave her a deep, gentlemanly bow and extended his hoof for a shake. Giggling, she did. And even though his harness was handmade and unfamiliar, she soon had it off of him. George stepped away to stretch his back, and everyone else hopped down from the Fearsleigher to do the same.

Toby was bursting to ask about the blur, but figured if he just kept quiet he'd see for himself. And so he did. The otter skipped over to a carnival-like red lever. When it was pulled, the blur began to slow down. It changed from a dryer-lint-colored cloud to a flickering procession of cars, all passing in and out of existence so fast it was like watching timelapse footage or a flip-book. For fractions of a second at a time, the lone parking spot would be filled with a sports car, a military transport, a hovering disc, a crab-shaped robot, or hundreds of other vehicles. It was like watching the spinning symbols on a slot machine. Every now and then the space would remain empty. The otter adjusted the lever back and forth until the space came up empty again and stayed that way. Toby was just about to ask if they'd have to push the Fearsleigher into it, when the skatecar started sliding forward on its own. It was sucked up into the space as if filling a vacuum. Then with a tug on the lever, it disappeared away into the blur.

George trotted over to the otter. "And where would my nightly lodgings be, Madam?"

She brushed a hand through her headfur, as surprised as everyone else to hear him speak. "WOW! Um, we have a corral, but I guess in your case, you can stay anywhere your... 'owner' chooses." She said that specific word quite carefully, just in case it might cause insult.

George chuckled good-naturedly at it.

"Just stand right where you are for a moment." She went back to Junella and unfolded a rectangle of thin plastic from her pocket. There was a transparent window in its middle, and she held it up in front of George. "Everyone, please look at your horse through this."

Toby, Doll, Piffle, Junella and Zinc all did.

Then the otter shifted the rectangle diagonally to make the window smaller. As she did, George appeared to remain the same size relative to the window's border. When she'd slid the corners to within an inch apart, she took the rectangle away and now George was the size of a nectarine.

He looked quite startled. "Oh, how fascinating! I didn't feel a thing! I do hope this is impermanent."

Toby could hear his brain making eggs-frying-in-a-skillet sounds, trying to figure out how an optical illusion could reduce the size of real objects.

Junella chortled at his expression and patted his arm. "Don't think about it too hard. You'll go mad faster than normal." She reached down to the cement so George could walk up onto her palm. Then she tucked him comfortably into the folds of her scarf.

Zinc rustled around in his jacket and found a gemstone necklace to tip the valet with. She smiled appreciatively while discreetly positioning herself in front of the 'Our Attendants Do Not Accept Tips' sign. Zinc shot her a wink, then rejoined the group as they walked towards the hotel's entrance. He tossed his wrenches around Piffle and Toby, nearly toppling them. "So! Who's up for some desserts? The answer is me; you weren't quick enough. So we're all gonna go get some right this very instant!"

Junella arched an eyebrow at this minor insubordination. "Maybe I wanted to go straight to bed?"

He didn't even blink. "Or maybe you want cake, and maybe I know you well enough to know it."

She rolled her eyes and chuckled. Not saying he was right, but not saying he wasn't.

Piffle gasped. "Cuppycakes!! I forgot we were gonna go get some before we got Dacryphilia-napped!" She squealed and clapped her paws.

Toby was fine with this. All he'd had to eat since yesterday was an orange and a few candy bars. They seemed to have stayed put just as they should, so he was more than happy to try more substantial fare.

He had a thought and looked down to Doll. "Do you eat?" he asked.

He felt a question mark being drawn on his leg, followed by L-E-T-S-S-E-E


In the lobby of the Tatterdemalion, Toby tried not to look directly at the walls. Nearly everything here was wood, expertly carved and stained a rich caramel brown. But the whorls in the boards were all moving. Constantly. Swirling around like fish in an aquarium. It made Toby feel seasick.

The place was cozily dim, lit by caged candles every few feet. The atmosphere was thick with a combination of food smells, smoke, jovial conversation, and thumping footsteps. Customers lounged around a fireplace on red leather sofas or headed up the ornate staircase to their rooms. On the walls were portraits of heroes and monsters.

The outside of this place had looked modern, but the inside was almost exactly what Toby had been imagining. It was the quintessential inn for weary travelers in a world of iron and dragons to rest their swords and tired feet. He wondered if they served grog at the bar, or mead. Thinking of this made him realize for the first time that he himself was on a quest, just like so many heroes in stories he'd read. Somehow along the way, he'd gone from a frightened bumbler staggering around in the dark to the focus of a grand expedition to a mythical site. He had a goal and he had his party of companions. 'Just not the actual heroism,' he reminded himself. He looked down at the hammer tucked into his pajama bottom's waistband. 'Not the most impressive armor or weaponry either.'

Piffle noticed a display stand full of brochures about Coryza's many attractions. She started snatching up a bouquet of them.

To the left of the entrance was a counter with a guestbook and an industrial-sized willwell. Behind it was a wall overcrowded with room keys, staff notes, and slots for mail delivery. Toby watched as an army of identical-looking nonev mice ran all around the mail slots, either tucking letters in or dashing off with them to disappear into holes in the wainscoting. He assumed they had to be a form of delivery service, otherwise the staff would be chasing them out with brooms.

"Useful li'l squeakers," Zinc said, noticing where Toby was looking. "They're called The Vermillion. Carry a couple hundred times their body weight, like ants. Plus they can go into any hole in Phobiopolis and come outta any other one. One solid good thing about this crapsack world: you can buy somethin' mail-order and have it show up in about five minutes."

"Cool. Can they carry-" Toby completely forgot what he was about to ask when the hotel's proprietor came walking around the corner.

She did not mind the mouse staring at her. Most people did. And in a land where the impossible was normal, it was a treasured feeling to be seen as unique. The feline lit up when she saw Junella. "Dear friend! It's been far too long! And you've brought guests this time?"

"Yep. All four of us," the skunk said.

"Five!" corrected Piffle, holding up Doll.

"Six," George added from Junella's shoulder.

"So it seems," came the reply, and she crossed the room to introduce herself to Piffle and Toby. She placed her palms together and bowed. "This is my hotel. I am Mrs. Mia Xenoiko. Your comfort and safety are in good hands."

Piffle gave her own name and returned the bow, but Toby took a little longer to wake his brain up. It is not often one encounters a living tattoo.

From any angle one could view her, Lady Xenoiko appeared to be two-dimensional. Her features were surrounded by an inked outline, her colors clear and sharp. Beyond this though, she was also of two distinct and opposite natures. Split precisely down the middle, she was two different species at once. Her right side was a demure Japanese housecat, with fur as white as a ceramic teacup. Her makeup, hair and ornamentations suggested both a geisha and a maneki-neko figurine. Her right side was a fierce fiery tiger, looking like it had leapt straight out of an ancient woodblock print. The striped fur swayed like a sunburst. Both her eyes were pure yellow though, with a single black brushstroke in the center. She was wearing a dazzlingly blue kimono, tied with a white sash like Junella's scarf, which almost seemed to be holding her contradictory halves together.

"I'm..." Toby said. "I- I- I'm a stuttering idiot."

Lady Xenoiko held her tiger paw to her mouth and giggled silently. "I'm sure you're not. My appearance is having its desired effect. In a business this rowdy, being able to intimidate and discombobulate with one's mere presence is an asset."

"Did you go to that 'Freeze Yourself New' place?" he blurted.

Her eyes widened. "I should say not! Those amateurs?" She chuckled at the very idea they could be capable of such work.

"Toby, by the way," he finally remembered, as the dualistic feline padded on her sandals back behind the counter.

"She's neat," Piffle said, visibly wondering what it would be like to live in a body like that.

Lady Xenoiko's housecat paw was slender as an iris petal. In contrast, her tiger paw was three times its width. She walked barefoot to the register and traced a snowy finger across the chart showing all the hotel's rooms. Her tail flicked in vexation. "It's a bit late in the evening. And on a weekend," she said to Junella.

"Do you have ANYthing?"

"I have a double I can convert to a quad in a short amount of time," she replied. "That is, if you don't mind batbeds."

Junella sighed. "They make me burp for some reason, but it beats sleeping at the train station."

Xenoiko laughed musically and began to ring them up. "No charge for your horse, as that's covered by the parking fee. We can provide a small bed for him if he likes." As was proper for a hotelier, she took his impossible sentience in stride.

George leaned forward so suddenly he nearly tumbled to the floor. "That would be appreciated to a degree I cannot possibly convey!!" he shouted, almost wishing he could cry. A bed! After a centuries-long night of pitch-black soil and crawling insects!

"And Doll can sleep with me," Piffle piped up.

"Duly noted," Lady Xenoiko replied, not sure if the toy was actually alive or if the hamsterfly was a bit touched in the head. She looked back at the cash register. "How many nights?"

Junella was about to answer, when Toby cleared his throat.

"Umm... Piffle and I were kind of thinking about exploring the city tomorrow."

"I thought you wanted to get home, mouse?"

"I do! It's just, this place looks neat and, well..." He shrugged. "It'd be really nice to just relax for a short while in a place that seems relatively safe. I mean, before we go back to facing monsters and haunted forests again."

The skunk was normally a stickler for time on a road trip, but she could see his point. "Allright. We leave before they close up for the night though."

Toby risked her finger-needles to shake her hand. "Sounds fine."

Lady Xenoiko rang them up. "Checkout is normally at noon as you know, but they're my rules and I can bend them for a valued customer. If you can be out before six and don't leave much mess, I'll only charge you for an extra quarter-day."


"The total for the room comes to 40,000 grit."

Toby's eyebrows went up. He nudged Zinc. "Is that a lot?"

"Naaah. We ain't talkin' dollars. It's a good price; she likes us. We come here a lot and occasionally snap some pencilnecks for her if a bar fight breaks out. That reminds me! Gimme a moment and I'll get you a willwatch."

Lady Xenoiko gracefully lifted the key to room 257 off its hook and handed it to Junella. "If my memory's correct, I believe you have some mail." As soon as the sentence was finished, a mouse zoomed out of one of the mail slots with a clutch of letters in its teeth. It ran across the floor and up Junella's leg to deposit them in her paw, then dove into Zinc's bellybutton and disappeared.

'He wasn't kidding when he said any hole!' Toby thought.

The canine leaned closer to his partner. "What'd we get, Juney?"

She seemed moderately pleased. "Looks like more job offers than death threats this time."

When Junella tucked the letters away in a nonexistent pocket, Lady Xenoiko scooted the guestbook forward and held out a pen. Toby noticed that when Junella took it, her needles brushed against her palm and she sang briefly, "apple juice".

The mouse watched her give her signature, and then an irresistable urge came over him. He scratched his fingernail down Junella's shoulder.


She turned around and gave him a look of supreme unamusement.

Toby paled, unable to believe he had actually done such a thing.

"You get exactly one of those for free. Next time, I collect a lucky mouse's foot keychain."

"Perfectly understood!" She tossed him the pen and he quickly scribbled his name.

Or part of it. He stared at the page. He'd written 'Toby' just fine, but was now drawing a complete blank on his last name. 'Oh no...' He'd forgotten about Piffle's warning that he'd start forgetting things.

Piffle poked her head over his shoulder. "deLeon," she supplied.

"Thank you!" Toby said and wrote it down. "I thought I'd lost it for good!"

"Arencha glad you've got me around to be your memory piggybank?" she said with a smile, then started adding her name to the guestbook too. All twelve parts of it.

Seeing as he'd have plenty of time to ask now, Zinc tapped the counter with a wrenchtip. "Pardon me, Señorita, I believe I misplaced my willwatch last time I was in here. Little black one? Could you check the lost and found if it's not too much trouble?"

"No trouble at all." Xenoiko reached beneath the counter and hauled up a cardboard box that was at least half-full of willwatches alone. (Plus the usual hats, sunglasses, phones, daggers, and a mummified set of demonic sexual organs.)

"Well waddaya know! Here it is! I'd lose the other half of my head if it wasn't stitched on. Thanks a ton!" He turned back to Toby and made a 'ta da!' gesture as he handed the little device over.

It fit comfortably on the mouse's arm, but he felt uncomfortable somehow nonetheless. Then it hit him. "You don't have wrists. You just stole this, didn't you?" he whispered accusingly to Zinc.

Oh that grin of his. "I wouldn't exactly call it 'theft'. These things practically grow on trees. People practice with 'em until they get good, then toss 'em in the street. And that," he poked Toby's chest, "is precisely what I want you to start doing. It's the third skill anyone needs to learn in Phobiopolis. After running and hiding."

"I'm good at those at least," Toby admitted.

Piffle finally finished up and added a little heart after her name. "There we go!" She pirouetted and passed the pen to Zinc.

Since Zinc indeed had no wrists, and abnormal elbows too, it was rather hard for Toby not to laugh at the astonishing contortions the canine had to go through just to write the four letters of his name.

Though when he finished, his signature was as neat as anyone's. "You can't imagine the practice that took," he told Toby and Piffle.

Junella didn't think it truly mattered, but she lifted George down so he could add his hoofprint as well.

"Will you be going directly to your rooms?" Lady Xenoiko asked. "Any luggage?"

"No and no," Junella replied. "Zinc volunteered us for dessert. And we'll be fine with what we've got on us."

It occurred to Toby that he had no clean clothes to change into tomorrow. Then again, did he need them? Any dirt seemed to disappear from his pajamas when he stopped noticing the stains.

"Have a lovely meal then," the feline wished her guests. The sextet began heading for the bar area. "And Zinc! Please try not to destroy the sheets this time!"

"I'll try!" he called back. To Toby and Piffle he said, "Fell asleep with my wrenches still bolted on once. Dreamt I was in a boxing match."

"I'm surprised the bed survived," Toby said.


Toby had expected the tables around the bar to be packed tight with grizzled, squinty-eyed adventurers, wearing viking helmets and bear pelts and guzzling down tankards of ale. And while there were a few who fit that description, most of the seats were filled with everyday citizens. A surprising amount of families too. The mouse noticed a waitress in a saloon outfit swish past with a tray full of silvery rocks on it. 'Was that a meal, or the leftovers of one?' he wondered.

The room was set up like the dining area of most restaurants, and continued the lobby's theme of carved wood and candlelight. Nearly every chair, booth and barstool had a butt on it, leading Toby to wonder if they'd have to order their meal to go and eat in their rooms. Luckily though, Zinc had already spotted a booth in the corner where the busboys were wiping the table and collecting their tips. He pinched Toby's pajama sleeve and led him through the chatty crowd.

Toby's attention was torn between not bumping into anyone and snatching glances at the bartender. It was a plant! The whole area behind the half-moon bar was filled in with dirt and a behemoth tangle of green was nestled in its center. The plant's vines snaked in all directions to pull bottles off shelves, mix drinks, refill baskets of pistachios or set out napkins. It had several bud-shaped 'heads' which customers were speaking to. Toby had no idea how it could hear or see them.

Zinc let Junella slip in first, then perched himself right on the edge of the leather seat so he could maneuver his wrenches around without knocking out her teeth. The booth itself had a wooden tabletop which was pockmarked and scratched from hundreds of diners over the decades. There was a hanging lantern overhead which gave off a pleasant yellow light. The color seemed to make Toby hungrier. He skootched in beside Piffle and she set Doll between them.

Toby noticed a medium-sized willwell at the end of the table, but no menus or condiments.

His mouth opened to ask about that, but Piffle tickled his chin shut. "It's a thoughtstaraunt, Toby!" she said. "Some places serve cooked food, some serve imaginite."

"That explains the rocks on the plates," he reasoned.

She nodded. "In a place like this, you don't order whatcha want, you order how much food you wanna eat. Then in the kitchen, they spray willpower over a chunk that size and bring it out. You look at it and turn it into whatever you'd like."

"Real smart business model for places that wanna save space by not stocking ingredients," Zinc interjected. "And it means the food's always good. Or as good as you can dream it."

Toby hadn't even thought about what he wanted until then, but in that moment he suddenly knew. Oh, he couldn't wait! He could taste it already! Though it occurred to him he didn't know whether someone else would cover this or if the checks would be separate. 'I'd better start practicing now,' Toby thought.

He looked down at his willwatch: a black plastic oval the size of a kiwifruit. It had a dial and a red line. Toby stared at the red line. To his surprise, he actually got it to wiggle on the first try. He pushed harder. It was more stubborn this time. Getting it to actually move was more difficult than it looked.

Piffle noticed his efforts. "Wanna tip? Try picturing your hand reaching in to yank on it. Or sometimes I like to imagine a lot of little mes inside, all working hard to make it move."

Toby imagined a team of tiny Tobys in construction hats, all shoving at the red line. That made a substantial difference. It wasn't flying around the dial yet, but it was at least moving. "Thanks, Piffle!" He pictured his construction crew adding ropes and pulleys. That helped too. It seemed that visualization worked better than sheer force alone.

Junella smirked at Toby being so excited to move the red needle a few inches. "Tricks like that only work so far. They'll get you to a point where you can buy groceries, but if you wanna be rich, you gotta develop yourself. How much will is in your soul?"

That took the wind out of Toby's sails. "So I'm destined to be a hobo then," he quipped.

Junella laughed, but with him, not at him. "Nah. It just takes practice. And I mean more than staring at your wrist until your eyes bug out. I mean like getting out in the world and bending it to your demands. Will comes from confidence, confidence comes from experience. Like I said earlier, you just need life to kick your ass a little. Then you'll start kicking back."

That sounded daunting and terrifying and impossible and... hopeful. "Thanks, Junella. I don't have much confidence in myself. But if other people say it, maybe I can convince myself to listen to them."

Junella simply nodded: 'That's how it is'.

Toby was just about to redouble his efforts at the willwatch, and Zinc was just about to ask about their mail, and Junella was just about to ask George if he'd rather stay in her scarf or run around the table, when their waitress showed up.

She was a potbellied rat with four arms and lipstick the color of a fresh bruise. "Goodeve'nin. My name's Sue and I'll be serving you tonight. How hungry are ya?"

Zinc barely waited for the end of the sentence. "Three pounds please!"

'Three pounds!?' Toby thought.

Sue wrote it down, then pointed her pen at Junella.

"I'm not that hungry. Just a pound for me."

Piffle was next. "Four pounds!"

Toby was dumbstruck. "Am I the only furson here who eats normal-sized meals!?"

Junella reached across the table to tap his hand. "This ain't Earth, remember? Calories don't exist. Might as well take advantage of it."

He hadn't considered that. Though it made perfect sense. If he could go for nearly two weeks on virtually nothing, the opposite ought to be true as well. "Allright then. Two pounds," he told the waitress. 'And if I don't finish it all I can ask for a doggy bag.'

"Ten total," Sue added up. She rustled around in her apron and placed napkin-wrapped silverware before each of them, plus straws.

"Do we order drinks separate?" Toby whispered to Piffle.

"Only if you wanna get zozzled."

He blinked.


He blinked again.



She tittered. "I haven't been here specific'ly, but it's probly like at Falcon's Feast. You can imagine yourself some beer if you wanna, but the bartender's even better at it. So most people order that. Otherwise, just picture milk or pop when you make your meal. I'm having a root beer float!"

"I don't think I've ever actually had one of those," Toby realized.

Piffle jostled his shoulder. "You should, you should!"

While the group waited for their food to arrive, Junella read Zinc's mind and got out the mail for them to both peruse. She was also about to ask George if he wanted to come down, but the pint-size horse was quite obviously luxuriating in the comfort of her fluffy scarf.

Toby went back to practicing with his willwatch, sometimes using visualizations, sometimes just testing how strong his inner strength was. Not very, he realized without surprise. Piffle supplied him with as many helpful hints and encouragements as she could think of.

Toby had managed to get the red line to go around the dial three times. "So is this enough to pay for my share of the food yet?"

Piffle tried hard not to giggle. "No, silly! Willwatches are just for practice. They don't store anything."

"Oh hell," Toby swore. "I'm gonna have to do this again when the bill comes?"

She squeezed his shoulder soothingly. "Don't worry. We'll help out. It's your first time, after all."

He put his hand on top of hers. "Thanks. And I really hope I can start contributing soon. Something! Anything! I feel like an infant you guys're all babysitting. I never stop with the questions, I'm always confused-"

Piffle lightly pinched his lips shut. "You hush. Everyone was like this for a while. Me especially! I almost talked Mommy's ears off asking her everything that popped into my head. And even if you can't help out right now, it's good that you want to. That's very selfless and thoughtful and kind of you."

Toby blushed so hard he thought he might melt. "That's... wow. Thank you. And you're all of those things too. Thank you for being so willing to help me out. And that reminds me," he said to Zinc, "you've explained a lot of stuff to me too. If I haven't said I'm grateful for that yet, I am."

"Ehh. I like to hear myself talk," the canine said modestly.

"I've told you stuff too," Junella pointed out, mock-offended.

"Yeah, but mostly you've just been an old grump," Toby dared to tease.

She grinned. "You're getting bolder, mouse."

"Oh hey!" Zinc spoke up. "You remember that thing with him hitting the moon with a paint can? I was gonna say earlier, I think I know how he did it."

Toby had nearly forgotten their incredulity over that. He was intrigued by the remote possibility he might have done something impressive.

Zinc pointed a wrenchtip at the mouse. "You said you knocked the wall over? It just fell over?"

Toby nodded. "I'm assuming that's uncommon."

Junella suddenly had a flash of insight into Zinc's thought process. "No, no, no; you are NOT gonna tell me you think he mindfucked it!"

"It fits the facts," the canine countered.

"WE couldn't do it on that scale!!"

"Exactly my point. We have to try. He has no idea. Hence, odds are in his favor."

Junella stared up at the ceiling, her face showing that she knew her partner was exactly right but still not quite believing it.

Toby traced his finger on the tabletop. "At what point is someone gonna tell me what it is I did?"

Junella held up a finger. "If we do, you might not be able to do it again. Consider that. Besides, here comes the chow."

Toby was left once again in a state of bewilderment as Sue the waitrat returned and set down serving platters in front of them. In direct light, each chunk of imaginite was more white than silver, but had shimmering branches of iridescence running through. They reminded Toby of sea salt lamps.

Sue's many years of customer experience told her the albino was a rookie just from the way he looked at the nugget on his plate. "You know how this works, hon? That stuff'll turn into whatever you want, but it's volatile as heck at the moment. Be careful what you think at it. If you turn it into the wrong thing by mistake, there's no refunds."

Toby nodded to her. "I'll remember that." He tried not to make direct eye contact with his chunk for fear he might turn it into a goat head or an old boot by mistake. He decided to see how the others did it first.

Zinc wasted no time. He licked his chops, glowered commandingly at the imaginite, and turned it into a double chocolate layer cake with several scoops of caramel ice cream piled on top, plus a frosty tumbler full of milk. There had been no shimmer or sparks or smoke. One moment there was a rock on his plate, then reality seemed to wobble it out of existence and shove a minor mountain of dessert into its place.

"That does look good!" Piffle said as Zinc started digging in. "I might ask you for a bite later."

He winked and gnashed his teeth at her flirtatiously.

The hamsterfly giggled. She put her paws over her eyes, then concentrated for a moment. She took her hands away like playing peekaboo and made her four pounds of imaginite into a gleaming three-tiered glass stand crammed with dozens of cupcakes, every topping imaginable, in every color of the visible spectrum. Some were even shaped like animals or faces. It was a marvel to behold. The kind of display you'd see at the center of a championship baking competition. (Plus two tall root beer floats and a bowl of salty mixed nuts to clear the palate.)

Junella's jaw was nearly on the table.

Zinc whistled. "That's some imagination!!"

Piffle's mouth was too full of a cream-cheese-frosted carrot-and-currant cupcake with glittery green sugar on top to reply.

The skunkette, out of spite, turned her single pound of imaginite into a peanut butter milkshake, and a blue-frosted yellow cake shaped like a shark's head. It had white chocolate teeth and eyes, plus hard candy fingers in its strawberry maw.

"Both of those are creative," Toby said to Piffle and Junella, sensing competition between them.

The hamsterfly smiled appreciatively. The skunk 'hmmphed'.

Toby had no desire to top anyone else's treats. He knew exactly what he wanted and it was a snap to envision it sitting in front of him. He directed his will at the imaginite and it obligingly became a steaming bowl of split pea soup, with two grilled cheese sandwiches and a pickle on the side, along with a pitcher of icewater. The mouse leaned in close and inhaled the aroma of his soup. Every ounce of worry and tension faded away like magic. This was what heaven smelled like.

Zinc snorted. "Pea soup? We all get dessert and you get pea soup!?"

"Shut up," Toby shot back without conscious thought. His eyes were closed and he was lost in happiness. "You have your comfort foods, I have mine." He skimmed his spoon lightly across the surface of the bowl, capturing chunks of potato, ham and carrot, and brought it up to his mouth.

From the expression on his face, no one would have been surprised at that point to see the mouse slide out of his seat and fall into a blissful coma on the floor.

Toby tried a bite of the top sandwich. Magnificence. Exactly the right amount of melt to the cheese and burn on the bread. He took another sip of soup. There were no words for the flavor! He could feel the warmth slide all the way down his esophagus to his tummy. The texture of every ingredient was perfect. Toby felt himself transported back in time to his early childhood. Dinner at Grandma's house. She would start making her soup the night before and by the following day the whole house would smell good. Toby's memories of his grandmother had already begun to degrade, but he didn't think anything could erase the memory of her split pea soup.

George perked up at smelling such wonderful things. "Pardon me, Madam Brox. I don't believe I have ever actually eaten. At least, I wouldn't call biting panicked innocents 'eating'. Would you mind terribly if I were to sample some of your meal?"

"Go right ahead." She plucked him out of her scarf and set him down on the table. "Getcher nose right in there. I ain't afraid of horse germs."

"A thousand thanks," he replied, and happily plunged his face into the icing. He gobbled it up and swallowed. The mouthful traveled visibly down his throat and simply vanished somewhere around his midsection. "Oh my goodness! This flavor is overwhelming! I may need to lie down."

"You can try mine too," Piffle said. Zinc and Toby gestured to indicate the same offer. Toby normally would have been a bit grossed out by the idea of someone eating off his plate, but there was no denying that the sight of a teensy little horse trotting around the table and taking polite nibbles here and there was ridiculously adorable.

"I almost forgot!" Piffle reached over to pat Doll's hair apologetically. She held a red velvet cupcake to Doll's mouth-ish area. "Everyone look somewhere else so she can try to eat it."

Everyone did. Toby didn't have any trouble tuning out everything else but his soup.

When Piffle peeked, Doll had not so much eaten the cupcake as gotten it smeared all along the edges of her face-gouge. Lumps of frosting sat unswallowed in the bottom of her hollow head. "Oh dear. Didn't work, huh?"

She looked away so Doll could respond. N-O-F-O-O-D-4-M-E, and a :( were traced onto Piffle's thigh.

"Did it at least taste good?"


The thought that someone would be trapped in a form that was unable to appreciate cupcakes was so overwhelmingly sad it drove Piffle to tears. She scooped up Doll and hugged her tight, rocking back and forth and whispering promises to free her from such an unthinkable fate.

Toby reached over to pat Doll comfortingly too.

Junella tried to keep her face a blank, trying to not reveal how much seeing the hamstergirl hug that ratty, dirty, faceless thing creeped her the bejeezus out.

George was busy attempting to take a bite out of a brazil nut, which was proportionally as large as his ribcage.

Zinc just shoveled more warm cake and drippy ice cream into his mouth. "You givuh anfy fhought to whevver you wan' know my fheory 'r not?" he asked Toby, sending a spray of crumbs his way.

"'Scuse me?" Toby asked.

Zinc swallowed, then over-enunciated, "Have you given any thought to whether you want to hear my theory about you? Considering that, like Junebug said, it might jinx you."

Toby put down his spoon. "I hadn't, actually. But... I am really curious what you think. And knowledge is usually better than ignorance, right? If I have no idea what I did, I'm as likely to screw it up next time as to get it right."

Junella licked her lips. "That's hard to answer. See, it's all about your state of mind. And I hate admitting it, but Zinc's probably got it: you're such a blank slate, you're a natural."

"Okay, now my curiosity's hit the roof. You guys gotta tell me, whatever the consequences."

Junella looked over to Zinc. "You take this. I got frosting on my fingers and don't wanna end up lookin' like I'm covered in war paint."

"Righty-o." She already had a bit of pink on her forehead, which he declined to tell her about for amusement's sake. Zinc turned to Toby, still filling his mouth every other sentence. "Allright. The official-type term for it is 'dumbfounding'. But us common riffraff what ain't got no couth call it mindfucking." He paused a moment to figure out how much extra kaka he needed to lay out before he could explain the specifics. "Okay, we went over how no place in Phobiopolis is completely stable. There's uncertainty in the air everywhere. So if you're good at it, or if you're lucky, you can make it do things for you. Junella, would you kindly demonstrate on a three-count?"

"I'm still eating, but allright."

Zinc gave Toby a bigass grin. "Watch this. You're gonna like it. Three, two, one, DRAW!"

It was almost too fast too see. One moment Junella's hand was on her napkin, the next it was filled with silver and pointed at the wall directly above Toby's head. He squeaked loudly and ducked down. Junella, still nonchalantly chewing, had literally plucked a snub-nosed revolver out of thin air. Without even looking at it, she tucked it out of sight below the table, then revealed an empty hand.

Toby's eyes were as wide as two tomato slices. "That was incredible! I saw you do that with the mail earlier, but I thought my eyes must've been playing tricks on me. You can literally take things out of nowhere and put them back! WOW!!" (His squeak and exclamation had a few other diners swiveling in their seats to get a load of the greenhorn.)

Junella kept her cool exterior, but did smile a bit at having her skill appreciated.

"That's dumbfounding," Zinc said. "Remember back at my place when I pulled an egg outta the fridge? I didn't know it was in there. In fact, now that I think back, I'm pretty sure I ate the last of 'em Thursday. But it didn't matter 'cause when I reached in there, I knew I was gonna come out holding an egg. Because I wanted one. I didn't ask for it. I didn't order it to be there. I didn't even think about it. I just knew it was gonna be there and it was."

Toby began to grasp the concept. "It's like making things with imaginite, but without the imaginite."

Piffle extended a finger to help George climb up to the second tier of her cupcake tree.

Zinc shook his head. "Close but not quite. Imaginite's way easier and way more reliable. Plus, the two methods work in opposite directions. To make something outta imaginite, you concentrate. To mindfuck something, you gotta have no idea you're doing it. No conscious thought."

"That's gotta be difficult," Toby remarked.

Zinc made a 'you ain't kiddin'' snort. "Ever heard the old 'Don't think of a polar bear' routine? S'like that. Obviously Juney and I can do it in some situations, but it takes practice like you wouldn't believe. You gotta clear away ANY hesitation between wanting something and getting it. You're basically just assuming somethin's already there for you to take, and your chutzpah fools the world into agreeing with you."

Junella took a sip of milkshake. "Like when Zinc says draw, I draw. Reflex." (Toby noticed she could still reply with her mouth closed, which made sense.)

"That happens to me a lot!" Piffle said. "If I wake up in the morning all smudgy and blinky, I'll reach out for my skirt and it'll be where my hand lands. I didn't know there was a name for it." She frowned. "I wonder if it'll stop now that I'll be expecting it?"

Toby could easily understand just how tenuous this ability would be. "Allright, I think I get it, but how does this relate to me? I didn't make anything. The paint can was already lying there."

Zinc grinned. "What you did, you fantastic sonofabitch, is to figure out a completely new way of getting out of Trapforest Path. See, the normal way out is to find the edge at either end, then wiggle your way around it. Either find a tree you can squeeze your way past, or climb up and over. I've never heard of someone knocking the wall down before! So however the hell you did it, you must've assumed it was the most logical solution, and went for it without any doubt."

Toby chuckled. "Kinda. Doll gave me a hint about the moon; I guess I misinterpreted it. But I figured if I could hit it with something, I'd get out. Like ringing the bell at the top of a test-your-strength game. It just felt right."

"Use that," Zinc urged, pointing at him. "If we're stuck in some shit later on, and you get an idea how to get us out, ignore anything we say and just do it. But it's gotta come from your gut, not your head. And No Hesitation."

"I have no idea if I'd ever be able to pull off something like that again," Toby admitted. On a whim, he reached out to pluck an ace of spades out of the air. But all his fingertips touched was each other. "I'll have to practice that."

Zinc scooped up another monumental forkful of cake and disappeared it in one gulp. "Try it when you're distracted," he recommended. "Pop on some music, do math in your head, run around in circles. Get your mind doing something else, then pounce."

Toby nodded. He took another slurp of soup (It was even staying at the perfect temperature!) and considered possibilities. He looked down at his willwatch. He kept the little oval in the center of his vision while his other hand supplied soup and sandwich to his mouth. He focused again on the red line. Energized by this discussion of his moon solution, he found it slightly easier to push now.

Zinc caught on to Toby's plan and motioned for the others to go back to their desserts. He did too, but occasionally glanced back at the mouse. He watched Toby drill his gaze into the willwatch while chewing furiously. Then the mouse's paw suddenly darted out. It caught air this time too. But it had moved with less hesitation.

Toby let the noise of the other customers chewing and conversing recede. He let himself forget his companions. All that mattered was his meal and his wrist. He let his tongue bask in the nostalgic warmth of his soup. It brought him back to better times, before he was confined to his room. Back when his mother still let him eat normal foods. And leave the house, and go to school. Without realizing it, a spark of resentment was added to his efforts to move the willwatch's red line. If he really, really concentrated, he could keep it moving at a steady pace. He envisioned his team of Tobys chaining a bunch of bulldozers to it and gunning the engines. Toby's vision narrowed in. Only the window of the willwatch existed. He let himself hear each tiny Toby shouting to the others. He let himself hear the rumbling engines and see their billowing black exhaust. His jaw cranked up and down. There was no distinct flavor in his mouth anymore: the tastes transitioned directly to emotion. It was a clashing set of feelings at first. Comforting calmness from his food, frustrating exertion from the willwatch. But soon they mingled together. The positive emotions he felt from his memory-rich soup turned into encouragement. Every sip or bite felt like it was cheering him on. Toby did not notice the beads of sweat trickling down his forehead, not even when they landed in his bowl. The red line was still moving mockingly slow, but it was moving. That was important. If Toby had reached his limit of speeding it up, at least he could stop it from slowing down.

Everyone else at the table had gone silent, just watching what was happening with expressions of disbelief or amazement.

"Toby..." Piffle whispered.

"Huh?" He looked over at her, then blinked several times as his vision readjusted after focusing on something so close up.

Piffle pointed at the tabletop.

Toby's head turned, and he felt time freeze when he saw a small pile of aces laying there.


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