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The Curse of Moose Lake: Chapter 3

We are pleased to release the third chapter of THE CURSE OF MOOSE LAKE by Bethany Helwig, the start of a new YA urban fantasy series set to publish October 18, 2016. Launch day is next week on Tuesday!

Read the third chapter for free below:

CHAPTER 3

 

I always find something new whenever I visit the armory. The room itself looks like an enormous cave with blue LED lights embedded throughout the ceiling that give a diffused glow similar to moonlight. A few brighter spotlights shine down on three computers in the very center that catalog the various weapons strapped to the walls. There are several metal racks holding bio-mech guns. Next to those are rows of swords, staves, axes, hammers, crossbows, and longbows that hang along the walls, held up by near invisible holders so the weapons appear to float in the air.

At the back are glass cases where famous weapons are on display. There are golden swords etched with dragon script, a flamethrower branded with a skull, and even a chainsaw with a plaque that reads “Used by Rae Lightfeather to decapitate the infamous Siren of Mississippi River at the water entrance to Underground.”

I peer into the newest glass case while Hawk swings a monk staff at invisible monsters on my left. He’s changed into a plain t-shirt and jeans—I did the same after that terrible meeting, ready to get out of that coffee-stained blouse as soon as possible. We didn’t put on our junior agent uniforms just in case Director Knox decides to take those away too. I sigh and try to focus on what’s inside the glass case illuminated by blue light. It’s something that looks like a bio-mech gun but is longer with silver gills down the length of the barrel.

“What’s a phase-repeater?” I ask offhand, reading the plaque inscription.

A wheelchair rolls up beside me carrying one of my oldest friends, Aaron Wallowitz. We just call him Witty. He came to Underground around the same time as us and under similar circumstances. A blanket covers his scarred legs that are defunct after he suffered a hydra attack when he was five. His parents—a pair of IMS agents—were killed in the attack. His godfather, who still works for the IMS, brought him here for healing. They couldn’t do anything for Witty’s legs but they let him stay in the protection of the magical city.

Witty peers into the glass case beside me and brushes his dark hair out of his bright blue eyes. “It’s new dragon tech,” he says. “The latest model of the bio-mech gun—fully automatic and with extra kick. They’re for use against level five monsters.”

“Ah, I see.” I straighten and dodge Hawk’s attempt to smack me in the back with the monk staff. Witty returns to the computer he had been working on so I follow him. “What are you up to?”

“Just entering data on the two bio-mech guns you guys said you were using for target practice.” He quirks an eyebrow at me then strums on the lighted keyboard, plugging notes into some database. Witty’s lucky he has top-notch computer skills—he’s so good that he was asked to work the IMS systems before officially becoming a junior agent. At least he has a job.

Hawk comes around the computers popping into various kung fu stances with the staff and flashes a wide smile at us. He’s playful despite everything that’s happened but there’s something lingering in his eyes. I’d say it’s fear because I feel it too—fear of not knowing what’s going to happen to us now. “We did use them for target practice . . . just on moving targets. Right, Nix?”

“Right” I say. “One pudgy, the other bright red, big, and freakin’ scary.” I hold my arms out at my sides like a gorilla and make a high-pitched shriek, attempting to be as playful as my brother so I don’t have to think about anything else. Hawk fake attacks me with the staff complete with sound effects.

Witty holds up a hand and shakes his head. “No way. You two fought a berserker?

“Yeah,” Hawk says and throws a fake blow at my head. I grab the staff and start to shake him. He’s trying not to laugh as he says, “We kind of weren’t supposed to, though.”

“Hence, the permanent ‘suspension’,” Witty says with a sigh. “Well done.”

I push Hawk away to glare at Witty. “Hey, we’ve already gotten enough crap from the director. We don’t need it from you too.”

“I’m just saying, you won’t have much of an excuse to come visit me now that you aren’t on active duty. I’m always stuck in this cave, remember?”

I roll my eyes. “Oh, how will you survive without us?”

Hawk jumps behind Witty to grab the back of his wheelchair. “We’ll still come around for races!” He starts to push Witty forward at a fast clip out of the armory, Witty yelling the whole way.

We run a few laps around headquarters, Witty holding onto his wheelchair for dear life, but eventually an agent comes out and barks at us to knock it off after we nearly crash into the doddery unicorn near the colonnade. Witty wheels himself back to the armory after Hawk and I are banished from headquarters. Without the company of our friend and without any training or missions to look forward to tomorrow, our shoulders slump.

I suggest getting cheesy noodles at Old Man Two’s. Hawk shrugs noncommittally but follows me to the centaur’s restaurant anyway. The noise and mixed aroma of the market surrounds us from the various eateries, apothecaries, and emporiums. I glance at each of the shops morosely.

“I suppose we’ll have to get a job somewhere,” I mutter.

Hawk clenches his jaw and keeps his eyes straight ahead. “Yeah.”

I don’t mention jobs again. There’s always been prejudice against werewolves in general throughout the magical community and Hawk is no exception. Werewolves are diseased, infected with an evil magic. They aren’t legally considered monsters anymore since the invention of the serum that lets werewolves keep their minds, but still, it’s not easy being a werewolf. It certainly won’t help Hawk’s job prospects.

We reach the restaurant and an airy voice calls my name. “Phoenix! Over here!”

Celina, a faun with long golden locks and a permanent smile, waves me over to the seating area outside the restaurant. She’s wrapped in a red silk, brocade dress and her crossed hooves stick out from under the table she shares with Doocan the giant. He’s got a bowl the size of a gallon bucket in front of him. He waves his dinner plate-sized hand and gives us a gap-toothed smile before attacking his soup. I take the chair opposite Celina and Hawk plops down beside me.

“Oh, darling,” Celina coos and reaches across the table to grasp my hands in hers, the soft fur on the edges of her palms like velvet against my skin. Her deer-like ears flick back and forth in agitation. “You two look terrible. What happened? You must tell me everything and not squander a detail to the void.” She waves over Old Man Two. “A couple of bowls of raisin soup for my friends, please!”

The centaur grumbles something and clomps off into the restaurant. I worked for him a couple of summers ago but you’d think I’m some impolite customer by the indifference he shows me. I heave a sigh and spill the story to Celina. She’s one of the only people I can talk unabashed to apart from Hawk. Celina was the one that took care of us both when we first came to Underground. She’s the closest thing I have to a mother. She listens with rapt attention despite Doocan loudly slurping his soup beside her. My story is eventually interrupted as Old Man Two returns to shrug two bowls of soup onto the table in front of me and Hawk.

“Thanks,” I say but the centaur ignores me and stalks away.

“Oh my dears,” Celina sighs. “I’m so sorry. I truly wish there was something I could do for the pair of you.”

Doocan finally speaks and stares wide-eyed at me. “You discovered the shapeshifter by yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“You are smart.”

“Thanks, Doocan.”

He stares off into space and doesn’t rejoin the conversation, ignoring us again. None of us take any offense. Tuning out is just something he does.

“We’ll figure something out,” Celina assures us. “I promise. Hawk, dear, how are you doing? You haven’t spoken a word.”

Hawk shrugs, then pushes out his chair and walks towards the eastern end of Underground, most likely going to the stadium near the water entrance. I let him go. I know what becoming any agent means to him, what it means to me. With everything that’s happened, I wouldn’t be surprised if he runs a few laps on the track to let it all out.

I lean back in my chair, blow out an exasperated breath, and stare up at the cement ceiling a long ways up. Celina starts suggesting a slew of other jobs we might try for but they’re mostly custodian work or cooking. My mind wanders as I watch a couple of air sprites that look like child-shaped clouds run across the ceiling and stop at slated vents to circulate the air. Then they’re off chasing each other again.

When Celina puts a hand on my arm I almost jump. She pulls me up out of my chair and pats Doocan on his forearm to get his attention.

“Come on,” she prompts. “We haven’t watched a movie together for some time. I heard they’re playing one of those spy movies you love. It’ll be fun.”

I don’t fight the pull on my arm and allow myself to be led away from the market to the north side of Underground. We grab ourselves a couple bags of smoked paprika popcorn from the nymph vendor outside the entertainment arcade and make for the movie theater. We slip past a group of rowdy elves having a dance off and I almost get stepped on by a centaur trotting down the row carrying rolls of video game tickets. We hurry into the safety of the dark theater and worm between the wide spaced seats to the back right corner. We’re late for the movie tonight. It’s already in the opening credit sequence with ladies dancing in some bizarre flashing color intro.

I stuff a fistful of popcorn in my mouth and try to focus on the screen. Right now I just want to forget everything that happened today. I wish Hawk were here though.

I zone out as the hero sneaks into a secret facility in the mountains. I sink into a stupor and the tension in my shoulders begins to ease away. I’ve been coming to watch movies here since Celina first told me everything was going to be all right. She was the one who brought me and Hawk to the theater and showed us the video game room—the fun, semi-normal side of Underground. She shared her love of smoked paprika popcorn and introduced us to Doocan, the friendliest giant you’ll ever meet.

The movie picks up in pace and the hero uses some crazy gadget to blow open a grate.

“That’s not possible. That’s not possible . . .” Doocan mutters beside me in a hypnotic-like trance.

Celina reaches over me to pat his knee. “It’s okay, Doocan. He’s allowed to do these things in his own movie. He’s special.”

Special—it’s a word people have used to describe me on more than one occasion. I automatically reach for the silver mark under the sleeve of my shirt on my right shoulder. It’s an odd discoloration of the skin in the shape of three fingers trailed down. A mark left by a powerful dragon—the same dragon I suspect rallied for me and Hawk to join the IMS. I’m what they call Blessed—people touched by dragons. The few other Blessed I know can levitate things with their mind, melt metal, or control electricity. All I’ve been able to do is lift heavy things. So much for being special. At least it gives me a free, lifelong pass to Underground.

I don’t pay much attention to the movie after that. I just nibble at my popcorn. Every time a song plays, even a sad one, Celina gets out of her seat to dance. Fauns are like that. She pulls me up one time and makes me dance with her. Once she sees that my heart isn’t into it she doesn’t do it again. As soon as the movie ends, I leave my friends behind and shuffle back through the arcade, across Merchant Square, and to the apartments on the other side.

I pass the cement housing for the giants, the fields and forests for the fauns, centaurs, and nymphs, until I reach a row of Roman inspired houses complete with marble columns and balconies. I reach the one in the middle with a red door and step inside. Almost everything inside is made of marble, from the staircase, to the parlor benches, to the columns supporting the apartment complex. Hawk and I share it with other agents on three separate floors but most of them are hardly ever at Underground anymore. I tramp up the winding flight to the top floor and enter our apartment.

The main living space only has a sofa and one tiny table in the center. I glance out the open balcony to the lights over Merchant Square before turning into the connected kitchen. As usual, there’s a mess of bloody meat wrappers left on the counter. Grumbling, I shove them into the trash and push open the door to Hawk’s room. The inside looks like a couple of air sprites played a game of toss—clothes are scattered all over the floor, there are crumbs spilled from open packets of crackers, and stains of drool mark the rumpled bed sheets. Hawk is already sound asleep on his bed spread out on his stomach, mouth open, a pool of drool forming to create yet another stain. I quietly close the door and slip away to my own room.

Despite the fact Hawk and I are twins, our rooms are like night and day. Everything in my small square of life is tucked away in its proper place, the bed is made, and not a layer of dust dirties any surface. My coffee-stained blouse and skirt are the only things sitting out at the foot of my dresser, ready to be washed the next day.

I sit on the edge of my bed and carefully strip off my shirt. The red burn on my shoulder sticks out painfully, just like my wounded pride. I take a deep breath and slip into my pajamas.

So what if I can’t be an agent? At least I get to stay here in this world that I love. I’ll just never get a badge and be able to protect legends like all the other Blesseds do. I reach for the ripped picture on my nightstand. A happy couple beams up at me clutching onto their two squirrelly, red-haired kids, IMS badges visible on their jackets.

I set the picture back with a sigh. “I’m sorry, Mom and Dad.”

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