Linda’s handlers were not gentle in returning her to her friends. They pulled open the door and hurled her across the cell into a mound of straw. She didn’t stop until she slid into Gene, who was awake by now.
“Linda, are you okay? What did they do to you?”
“Baliwick wanted to have a chat,” she said, grunting. “It was just like talking to my grandfather, except with magic lightning instead of butterscotch candy.”
“Did he hurt you, Linda?” Edward asked.
“Not much. I’m okay… for now.”
“Yeah… I’m not sure how much longer that’s going to last.”
She kept her head down, not meeting any of them in the eyes. “Linda?” Edward asked. “Linda, what is it?”
“Baliwick found out I don’t know who the girl in the picture is,” she said. “He didn’t take it well.”
“How ‘not well’ did he take it?” Gene asked.
“There’s going to be an execution tomorrow,” she said.
“All of us?” Gail asked.
“I don’t know. Me, that’s for sure.”
“Well that’s it, we’ve got to get out of here,” Gene said. “We’ve got to get Benny and get out of here.”
“How do we do that?” said Gail.
“There’s got to be a way. Maybe we can get through that stone Benny moved earlier.”
Linda opened her Third Eye and gazed through the walls. “No,” she said. “It’s too well guarded out there, we’d never make it.”
“Another rock then?” Gail said. “Maybe there’s another loose one.”
“And how do we find it? There’s got to be a thousand rocks in this cell.”
“And a great many of them lead out towards something solid,” Edward said. “I don’t think spending your energy looking for a bit of loose masonry is the way out of here.”
“Do you have a better idea?” Linda asked.
“Not at the moment,” he said, “but this is still a relatively new problem. I’m sure I could come up with something.”
“Edward, Baliwick wants to have me killed tomorrow. Do you think you may be able to come up with something soon?”
“Hard to say for certain,” he said. “Don’t worry, Linda. You’ll be protected somehow.”
“You’re in chains!”
“Chains do not a prison make, to paraphrase someone smarter than I. If there’s one thing Baliwick is adept at, it’s underestimating anyone smaller than him.”
“That’s just about everyone,” Gene said. “The guy’s huge.”
“Yes, well, we’re just going to have to count on the fact that he always seems to forget even tiny sleeves like yours are big enough to hold surprises.”
* * *
Morning came too soon for Linda. Between the leftover aches from Baliwick’s interrogation and sheer anticipation for what was coming, it was impossible to sleep, and she suspected it was best to go into an execution well-rested.
She knew it was morning only because she heard the guards banging on cell doors and requesting the rest of the “vermin” wake up and eat. Their door opened a few moments later and four bowls slid into the room. Linda was hoping for something warm – oatmeal, maybe, or even grits, but instead found herself looking into a bowl of runny gray mush.
“Last meal, moppets,” the guard said, laughing. “Eat hardy. No one likes to die on an empty stomach.”
He slammed the door and skulked off, laughing. “You think that means if we skip breakfast they’ll let us live?” Gene asked.
“It only seems fair,” Linda said. “I’d prefer lasagna for my final meal. Nobody should have a bowl full of smashed beetles as the last taste in their mouths.”
“You get used to it,” Edward said.
“Good morning, Edward,” Linda said. “Come up with any brilliant escape plans yet?”
“Oh dozens, yes. Unfortunately, most of them involve battering rams, attack squads and death rays. What are our assets again?”
“I’ve got this rock that was stuck in my shoe,” Gene offered.
“Oh, good. Now we’ve got a two percent chance of escape. You should have mentioned the rock earlier, lad.”
“How can you make jokes?” Gail said. “They want to kill us! We’re never going to get out of this place!”
“When you’ve been in as many deathtraps as I have, Gail, you learn to make jokes. It keeps you from losing your mind.”
“But does it help you stay alive?” she asked.
“Well now, if it didn’t, would I have been in more than one of those deathtraps?”
Linda looked up at that grin, that insufferably cognizant grin that never seemed to leave Edward’s face. “You do have a plan, don’t you?”
“It’s not exactly a plan, dear. It’s more like a pipeline to some very important information. Baliwick’s wards drive away animals and weaken humans in an attack, but they don’t dampen magic. I’ve been having a very productive conversation with Elmer as you slept.”
“Elmer?” Linda said. “Could you ask him what was in that juice he slipped me?”
“Way ahead of you, Linda. It was a present.”
“A present? Do presents usually leave you half-dead when you unwrap them?”
“Well, we’ve always had unusual customs in our circle of friends. Elmer knew the potion would make you weak for a time, but he also knew the gifts that you woke up with would more than make up for it when the time came.”
“Gifts?” Gail asked. “Linda, do what is he talking about?”
“You’re immune to his brainwashing, Linda, you already know that.”
“Yeah, I know. But every time he tries to use it on me it feels like someone’s driving an ice pick into my brain.”
“Well, no one ever said there wouldn’t be drawbacks. It’s your other gift Elmer says is important.”
“What’s your other gift, Linda?” Gene asked.
“You’re talking about the… the Third Eye?” she asked.
“Third Eye? Is that what you call it?”
“I had to come up with names myself. Nobody gave me a manual to go with these ‘presents’.”
“It’s as good as any. You’ve figured out how it works by now, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. I can see whose side everyone is on – people are either light or dark. And people who have been brainwashed are orange, just like their eyes.”
“I’ll take your word for that,” Edward said. “Elmer’s descriptions left something to be desired. But here’s what you have to remember – you have more than just five senses to rely on for information. When you’re in the courtyard for the execution, he’s going to create a distraction visible only to you. It will be up to you to take advantage of it.”
“That, I’m afraid, I don’t know. But I know this, Linda – he knew that potion would give you certain weapons against Baliwick, but he wouldn’t have given it to you unless he knew you were strong and capable and brave enough to use those weapons.”
“Nice endorsement,” Gene said.
“How could he know that?”
“Come closer,” Edward said. Linda stepped up to him, leaning her head as close to his as she could, and he whispered. “He knew the same way Nancy knew you were someone who could be trusted.”
“How is that?” she asked.
“You’re one of us now, Linda. That’s not a responsibility you can turn down, but it comes with certain advantages as well, and one of them is that you will never fight alone. There will always be one of us nearby.”
“Who is us?” Linda asked.
“If you think about it,” Edward said, “you already know.”
“I don’t think they’re going to give me time to think about it, Edward.”
“You’ll have what you need, lass.” His head perked up. “Do you hear that?”
“No.” She opened her Third Eye to see Baliwick and an entire squadron of orange-glowing guards marching down the hall. “He’s coming,” she said, out loud to the others.
“Now?” Gail asked. Edward answered by whistling a familiar tune.
“Bravery, Gail, bravery. Don’t let him know you’re frightened.”
“Trust me, he’ll figure it out!”
“Gail,” Linda said, grabbing her friend by the arm, “Calm down. We’re going to get out of this.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t need to know it. I believe it.”
“What’s the difference?”
“You call it ‘believing’ when you do it for no good reason.”
“That’s supposed to be comforting, Gail,” Gene said.
The door shrieked open to reveal Baliwick, wearing the same leather-like coat he’d had on when they saw him that first day at the playground. He waved in six guards, two for each of the children, and they lifted them up so they couldn’t struggle.
“Say good-bye to Edward, children. Your future will be too short to count on a return engagement.”
Edward whistled again, and Baliwick bristled. “Again with that insufferable tune, Edward? If this is a scheme to make me give you a Victrola just so I’ll hear a different song from you for once, it’s very close to succeeding.” He snapped his fingers and the guards marched for the door.
“Edward, help!” Gail screamed, trying to thrash against the guards. They held her tightly, though, and when the door slammed behind them she began to shout louder. She continued shouting until another sound cut through her wails, somehow soothing her.
“By the skies, is he whistling through the blasted door?” Baliwick snapped.
“No sir,” said one of the guards holding Linda. “It’s the girl.”
He looked down at Linda, and sure enough, she had her lips pursed into a perfect “o” and the same tune that Edward had used as his calming mantra was tooting into the torch-lit hallway.
“You try my patience, girl.”
“What are you going to do, kill me twice?” she said, returning to the whistle.
“I’ll make it hurt. Significantly more than otherwise.”
“Really? Is Andro nearby? I don’t see him anywhere.”
“I don’t need Andro to butcher you.”
“You needed him to even make me squeak before.”
He clamped his mouth shut and smoke hissed from between his teeth. Gene and Gail both jumped at the sight, startled. “What in the…” Gene muttered.
“Take them!” Baliwick said. “Take them before I slaughter them right here.”
“Come on, girl,” one of Linda’s guards said. The six giant men turned towards the staircase, dragging the three frightened children off to slaughter. The only thing any observer would find unusual was the fact that Linda was whistling the entire way to her doom.
* * *
It was daylight in the courtyard, the sun glaring down on a large, open area full of guards. With her Third Eye open, Linda could tell that there were only six of the black figures, the ones like Baliwick. All the rest were orange, mindwiped beings, completely unable to control their own actions. She liked to think that most of them would be opposed to this, were they capable of being so.
On the eastern edge of the courtyard, the sun only now peeking over the wall, was the massive gate and drawbridge they had avoided during their own entrance into the palace. There were a series of stalls and booths along the north and south walls, all of them fallen into disrepair since the occupation began. The western edge, where they were being led to, had an enormous grandstand that Linda hoped hadn’t been constructed just for their benefit.
The guards took them up the steps to the grandstand – thirteen steps, Linda unfortunately counted, lashed them each to a post, and left them to Baliwick and one of his black-glowing comrades.
“Let the execution begin!” he declared.
“Already?” Linda shouted. “No show trial? No speeches about your own magnificence to share with the masses? Don’t you know anything about showmanship, Baliwick?”
“These people are all in my thrall already, Linda. I have no need for such pleasantries.”
There was movement along one of the walls – a corridor that led to the stables they used to get inside the castle. Everyone’s attention was on the three of them, she was the only one looking there. Even if everyone else had been, they probably wouldn’t have seen anything. The motion she saw was visible only to her Third Eye. There were two figures, both of them small, around her own size, shrouded in violet mist the way Andro had been. They crept into the courtyard, keeping to the walls, clearly there for the events that were unfolding, even if she couldn’t tell who they were.
“Harridan,” Baliwick said to the man next to him, “are you ready?”
In response, Harridan turned to an unoccupied post. He took a deep breath, looking like the big bad wolf about to huff and puff and blow down a house around some tasty little piglets. He puffed his chest out, then exhaled a blazing gout of fire onto the post. He spat out the flames like a human blowtorch, scorching the post beyond all recognition. When he finished, wiping his mouth like he’d eaten messy soup, the remains of the post burned into ash, crumbling to the grandstand in a pathetically small heap.
Harridan smiled at the next post over, or, more accurately, to Gail, who was lashed to it.
“Linda…” Gail said, her voice trembling. Linda replied with Edward’s whistling tune, but not even she was drawing comfort from it now.
“Number one,” Baliwick said, pointing to Gail. Harridan began breathing in again.
“No!” Linda screamed. “That’s it? You’re just going to… torch us off the planet?”
“This isn’t one of your insipid movies, Linda, I’m not going to be distracted long enough for you to execute some brilliant escape plan. Harridan…”
Linda looked at the purple figures in the courtyard, still invisible to all but her Third Eye. “So I guess if there’s some brilliant plan to save us, whoever’s behind it would have to do it right now!”
One of the purple figures raised its left arm, used its right arm to cross itself, then pulled something back and let go. A small, glittering object shot through the air. Harridan puffed out his chest, oblivious, and Gail’s eyes were closed and wet.
Gene, however, was saying, “What the…”
The glistening object smacked Harridan in the chest just as he bent forward and began to spit fire. Gail screamed at the sound, but the flame never touched her. A blue bubble of energy snapped into place around Harridan and his torch scarred the inside of it, filling the bubble with smoke.
“What in blazes is that?” Baliwick shouted. Harridan, inside the bubble, tried to punch the inside. Instead, he succeeded in causing the bubble to roll forward and off the grandstand, falling onto a few of the orange guards beneath him.
“What’s happening?” Gene asked. “The Macana? Gail, open your eyes, you’ve got to see this!”
“Gail, he’s trapped!”
“Trapped?” She opened her eyes. “What happened?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Linda said, looking at the purple figures as they rushed, unnoticed, towards the grandstand. As Baliwick leapt to the ground to try to break Harridan out of the force bubble, the two purple figures climbed the steps and ran to the captives, one untying Gail, the next, Gene.
“What’s that?” Gail asked. “Somebody is messing with the ropes!”
“Don’t worry,” said a voice coming from one of the purple people. “We’re getting you out of here.”
Linda recognized the voice. Gene clearly did too – his eyes were bulging and looking around in astonishment. “KEVIN?” he shouted.
“In the transparent flesh,” Kevin said, freeing Gene’s arms and turning to Linda. “No time to explain now. Unless you guys want to be part of the Nogard Fourth of July Barbecue, let’s just get the heck out of here!”