I’m recruiting a limited number of ARC readers who enjoy humorous YA Fantasy (12+). Here’s how it works:
Step One: You get to read Debunked for free, a few weeks before launch!
Step Two: You leave an honest review at your preferred online retailer.
Step Three (optional): We run down the beach in slo-mo like Rocky and Apollo, when Rocky is training to fight Clubber Lang in Rocky III. Lots of splashing, slo-mo high fives, and (optional) hugs.
SCROLL DOWN THIS PAGE TO READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS OF DEBUNKED!
Genre: YA Fantasy Adventure (12+), Humorous
Word Count: 108,400
Dearest Alexandria and Ozymandias,
If you are reading this, I have perished. My demise likely involved some manner of spiked pit or curiously fanged beast, so it’s doubtful I suffered long. Do not try to find me—the path is too perilous, and I am lost to the mortal plane.
I bequeath to you my travel journal. Do NOT open it (but when you inevitably ignore my wishes and plumb its depths, remember: mystery and danger are jealous companions—you cannot flirt with one without courting the other).
You were my favorite adventures. I’m sorry I failed you.
Your grandfather, Quidby Forsythe III
Ozzie sighed and folded the letter closed. Dying six times in two years had to be a record, even for an explorer as incompetent as Grandfather.
The journal’s FRAGILE stamp had done little to protect it from a herd of stampeding buffalo somewhere between Peru and England, and a peppery aroma hinted at a layover in a Marrakesh spice market. Aged leather and the corner of an ornate metal frame peeked through tattered brown wrapping paper. Ozzie lifted the book with a grunt. Family secrets are always heavier than they look. He dropped the journal onto the lampstand by the door, triggering a shock wave that toppled chest-high document stacks cluttering the foyer.
Two months ago, Sir Quidby disappeared on an expedition to Siberia, then resurfaced in the Amazon rainforest. The time before that, an airport mix-up stranded the old explorer in the Moldovan Codru Forest instead of the grasslands of Outer Mongolia. How could one of the world’s foremost map experts be so hopeless at using a compass?
Ozzie started up the main staircase, giving a wide berth to a tripwire that released a bone-bruising battering ram. Grandfather’s dizzying collection of booby traps had turned St. Jude’s, his lighthouse home, into a training ground for temple robbing. Mrs. Willowsby relocated the traps every few days, but Ozzie had cracked her rotation.*1 He vaulted a bear trap at the top of the bannister without breaking stride.
Tattered red carpet lent an elegant backdrop to curiosities congesting the second floor. Ozzie straightened a rack of Masai spears, heard a telltale swish, then dodged a sandbag that dropped from a false ceiling panel. Careful footwork defeated a gauntlet of cunning snares as he advanced to the end of the hallway, where Grandfather’s ramshackle residence connected to the lighthouse. Ozzie ducked under the archway and ignored the spiral staircase’s complaints as he ascended the gently swaying tower. Groaning scaffolds, whistling drafts, and perpetual dampness are facts of life when you live in a one-hundred-fifty foot lighthouse perched atop a pinnacle in the North Sea.
He gave a cautious fist bump to a spiky suit of armor standing watch over the third floor landing. “What ho, Spikealot.” The knight, focused on defending the stairs from pillaging hordes and ill-tempered wheels of cheese, didn’t answer.
Ozzie paused at the threshold of his room. His desk was as he left it, groaning beneath a forest of research papers and textbooks. A shaft of light from the window speared his unmade bed, and a trail of dirty laundry stretched out of his closet like the tail of a slumbering dragon.
Whistling under his breath, Ozzie strode across the room and swung an overloaded bookshelf away from the wall, revealing a hidden alcove. He slumped into a blue corduroy bean bag and pulled the shelf closed behind him. With the flick of a switch, Christmas lights painted his lair with unseasonably jolly shadows.
Ozzie opened a three-ring binder, flipped to the end, and slid the newest death letter into a clear protective sleeve. He scribbled “Missing/Dead” on the calendar, and after a moment’s reflection, added a question mark. A year ago, Grandfather’s disappearances rarely exceeded a week, but they had grown in frequency and duration over the last six months.
He chewed the marker cap and sank lower in his beanbag, scanning newspapers and articles that wallpapered his headquarters. Headlines touting “Eminent Explorer Missing, Presumed Dead” and “Forsythe Curse Claims Another Victim!” degenerated to photos of disgruntled search and rescue teams. From there, the Professor’s misadventures migrated to gossip rags, bottoming out with “SCANDAL! Lonely Professor Weds Mail-Order Cartographer Bride.” Ozzie smoothed the latest edition of Treasure Hunter’s Weekly and trimmed a headline (“Fool Us Once, Sir Quidby”) from yet another character assassination piece by Lord “Bully” Bulwerk, Head Stuffypants of the Guild of Borderless Explorers.
Sir Quidby was well-liked, but his unapologetic pursuit of debunking made him a pariah amongst his peers. The old explorer endured his exile with good grace and relished explaining the origins of his life’s work to Ozzie. “In the Age of Discovery, every ship returning from the New World carried a wealth of knowledge that constantly forced cartographers to scrap their work. Many mapmakers succumbed to despair and exhaustion, refusing to get out of bed to receive daily dispatches—in the vernacular of their trade, they bunked. Only a tenacious few de-bunked, rising each day to greet a constantly changing world.”
Ozzie smiled, remembering when Grandfather had cleared a desk with a sweep of his arm, unrolled a dog-eared map, then pointed to labels on amorphous land masses. “Terra Incognita.” Whispered reverence breathed magic into Latin. “Unknown land—the white flag of an explorer who bunked.”
Ozzie had struggled to decipher the scribbled name. “Ferdinand Magellan?”
“He went on to fame and fortune but lived a waking death, fenced by boundaries in his mind.” Eager palms flattened another map. “Terra Incognita. Thirteenth century.” A trembling finger traced ridges of mountains on the edge of the chart. “When Marco Polo reached the foothills of the Himalayas, he bunked.”
“I’ve heard of him.” At the swimming pool.
“My Guild colleagues lionize Marco Polo, but trust me, lad—he bunked.”
“Mom says Lord Reginald wants to kick you out of the Guild.”
Grandfather had snorted, then rolled the chart up. “Reggie Twixton regards any acknowledgment of his limitations as a personal insult. I was perfectly within my rights to name those mountains Reggie’s Blisters.”
“Then why does he write you so many angry letters?”
The explorer’s scowl was seared into Ozzie’s memory. “Those are from his lawyers, who equally lack a sense of humor. You’re missing the point, Ozymandias.” He’d leaned closer, reflections from the fireplace dancing in his eyes. “Great men chase horizons. Exploring shows us who we are, but debunking whispers who we might become.”
Those golden conversations belonged to the old days—back when Grandfather’s souvenirs were trinkets and trophies, not nightmares. Back before the “Accident” changed everything.
Ozzie’s fists curled at the memory of the official police report.
Accidents didn’t happen on purpose.
Someone…no, something…took his parents.
A creaky floorboard announced an intruder. Ozzie elbowed the bookshelf open and flopped on his side like a snail evacuating its shell. A sigh from the bed made him cringe.
Ozzie propped himself up on one arm. “I didn’t hear the door open.”
His sister waved a calloused hand. “I free soloed a new route.” The bedroom window swung open with an accusing moan as a breeze rocked the lighthouse.
People laughed when they learned the Forsythes were twins. Ozzie didn’t blame them—aside from dark, wavy hair and piercing blue eyes, the siblings couldn’t be more different. Alex limited her wardrobe to black leggings, black shirts, black beanies, and her ever-present Chuck Taylor sneakers—also black. Ozzie favored cargo pants and long-sleeve shirts that gave his arms sun protection on the rare occasions he went outside.
He was a constant source of disappointment to rugby and football coaches who hoped Alex’s athleticism ran in her family. Once they saw Ozzie run—an act he approached with the grace of a newborn calf learning to walk—they left him alone.
As children, the Forsythe twins were inseparable. When you’re undersized, book-loving, and named after an Egyptian pharaoh, it helps to have a sister whose punch rules the playground. But Alex lived for the moment, and a crowbar couldn’t pry Ozzie’s fingers from the past, so over time they drifted apart. Age fifteen found Ozzie spending his days scouring books for clues to their parents’ kidnapping, while Alex notched first ascents on the sheer cliffs of Keeper’s Rock.
He winced. “Don’t let Mrs. Willowsby catch you climbing the lighthouse again.” The housekeeper’s disapproval had the half-life of plutonium.
Alex snorted. “I’m not the one making collages in a broom closet and hunting imaginary monsters.”
Ozzie stiffened. “I’m just doing what’s necessary.”
“You’re acting like a crazy person.”
Arguing was safer than actual conversation, so he dove in. “I’m acting like the only person willing to admit something strange is going on!”
“The only thing strange in this house is your refusal to move on with your life!” she snapped.
That definitely wasn’t true. The twins glared at each other across seven years of scorched earth. Silence was painful, but when your own sister doesn’t believe you saw your parents kidnapped, what else is there to say?
Alex broke the stalemate. “This isn’t healthy, Oz.”
The truth hung over him like a storm cloud. She was probably right.
But she was definitely wrong.
Sir Spikealot rattled a warning from the landing. Ozzie lunged for the bookshelf, but Alex’s cheetah-like reflexes beat him to the punch, slapping the secret door closed.
“Five minutes until dinner, children,” snapped Mrs. Willowsby, in the tone of a SWAT team announcing a raid. She tapped a wooden spoon on the apron shielding her severe gray skirt and spotless white blouse. Her black hobnailed boot drummed the floor as she surveyed the room, cataloguing grievances. Ozzie kicked laundry into a basket, then straightened papers on his desk—anything to distract her from the red and green glow beneath his bookshelf. The housekeeper kept dim views on “poking into Sir Quidby’s private affairs,” and Ozzie was running out of secret hideouts.
“Thank you, Mrs. Willowsby,” he said, trying for a winning smile and failing to place.
“Thank you, Mrs. Willowsby,” Alex chimed in.
Ozzie concealed a gossip rag proclaiming “Crackpot Missing, World Shrugs” behind his back. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.
The housekeeper squinted suspiciously over her spectacles. “Pea soup.”
“Indeed.” She lingered three excruciating seconds longer than necessary, then spun on her heel and marched down the stairs. Sir Spikealot rattled a metallic raspberry.
Ozzie plonked down on the mattress next to his sister.
“Ozzie—” Alex started.
“Just drop it. Thanks for closing the bookshelf.” He offered an olive branch. “Another death letter from Grandfather came today.”
“Exploding jellyfish or a hyper-territorial merman?”
“Spiked pit. Possibly a curiously fanged beast.”
Mrs. Willowsby’s voice cracked like a whip. “Dinner!”
The bed exhaled in relief as the siblings bounced to their feet.
Alex grinned. “When and where?”
Ozzie chewed his lip, running some quick math. “Seventeen days. Greenland.”
“Four days. Tasmania,” she countered.
“An optimist. I’ll bet a week of dish duty we’re talking Northern hemisphere.”
“You already owe me ten days.”
“For when Grandfather showed up in Indonesia? The equator doesn’t count, it’s hemisphere-neutral. Besides, he was wearing Arctic snow gear.”
Dodging booby traps and needling each other, the siblings raced down the spiral staircase. Ozzie snickered when Alex jumped the handrail to take a shortcut through the study—she always forgot the quicksand pit. He slid down the bannister and pounded past the foyer without giving the book on the lampstand a second glance.
By Wednesday, the journal was buried and forgotten beneath a mountain of obscure manuscripts and crates of poison-arrow tree frog venom.
Twelve weeks later, the Forsythe children held a funeral and started a war.
The Professor’s long history of dramatic reappearances kept an ember of hope burning in the weeks following his latest death. Friends and family waited patiently for another geographically absurd miracle, but after three months, hope dimmed and Arrangements were made.
Visitors from around the world descended on the sleepy seaside village of Lamswool to pay their respects to Sir Quidby. St. Jude’s foyer overflowed with exotic flowers from a steady parade of gift-bearing tribal chiefs and despondent travel agents.*1
The Guild of Borderless Explorers typically honored former members with a funeral at their London headquarters, but in his pursuit of debunking, Sir Quidby accomplished the impossible: uniting his squabbling peers against a common enemy. The Professor’s stubborn refusal to perish in a hail of poison-tipped arrows was widely regarded as selfish. As word of Sir Quidby’s exploits spread, explorer clubs in every hemisphere disavowed and blacklisted him.
And so it came to be that the funeral for Sir Quidby Forsythe III, world-famous debunker and disgraced archaeologist, was held at his favorite Lamswoolian pub: The Juniper Rhinoceros.
As usual, the coastal weather dressed for a funeral. Somber clouds cast a brisk chill in the air as Ozzie trudged up the hill, cursing the thin soles of his leather shoes. He ran a finger around his collar and lobbed dark thoughts at growth spurts, clammy sports coats, and undersized pants.
Alex and Mrs. Willowsby, irritatingly fresh after their climb, loitered in front of the Juniper Rhinoceros. Warm light spilled out of the pub’s windows, painting cobblestones gold in the late afternoon haze.
“Let me look you over.” The housekeeper straightened Ozzie’s tie and brushed Alex’s shoulders. Back at the lighthouse, the Battle of Formal Attire had been brief but fierce. When Alex finally slinked down the stairs in a black dress, Mrs. Willowsby wisely ignored his sister’s sneakers and focused on subduing her unruly hair. A French braid kept the peace.
In what Alex described as “an outrageous and hypocritical abuse of authority,” the housekeeper wore her standard ankle-length gray skirt and angular white blouse. As always, Mrs. Willowsby’s silver hair was chiseled in a bulletproof bun. A red carnation pinned to her lapel was her only concession to the occasion.
Troop inspection complete, the old woman dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. Ozzie squeezed Mrs. Willowsby’s shoulder, then tensed when she clenched him in a tight hug. The awkwardness was beginning to fade when his sister’s arms circled both their waists. Alex’s rare display of emotion overwhelmed Ozzie. He hadn’t cried since their parents’ funeral seven years ago, but tonight, all bets were off. The three survivors huddled in the street, weeping unapologetic tears.
A loud crash inside the pub roused them from their grief. Guttural, foreign voices rose in a boisterous drinking song, and a wry grin turned the corner of Ozzie’s mouth. His Mongolian was limited to swearing and street slang, but thumbing one’s nose at the Grim Reaper was a universal sentiment. The stout wooden door banged open and a raucous cheer chased a squawking ball of feathers into the night. The door clapped shut, muting the pandemonium.
“Was that a chicken?” Alex sniffled.
Mrs. Willowsby blew her nose. “I daresay it was.” She cleared her throat and reforged her steely voice. “Let us enter the fray.”
A blast of oriental spices and incense enveloped the trio as they crossed the pub’s threshold. The Juniper Rhinoceros enjoyed a reputation for drawing an eclectic crowd, but Grandfather’s funeral was more diverse than the buffet line at the United Nations.
A menagerie of mourners milled in the center of the room, trapped between the pub’s weathered oak bar and rows of seated booths lining the walls. Ornate feathered headdresses, bright sarongs, and business suits dotted the crowd as dignitaries mingled with locals under the watchful glares of steely-eyed bodyguards. Warm chaos melted any reservations Ozzie had about the funeral. Grandfather would have loved this.
Leon, the barkeeper, slid an overflowing mug to a customer and waved a welcome with his washcloth. Ozzie nodded back. Mrs. Willowsby muttered something about ordering drinks and disappeared, leaving the twins alone by the shrine at the front of the room.
Candles, a hibiscus lei, and a mountain of sentimental baubles surrounded a framed photo of Sir Quidby—ground zero in a passive-aggressive culture war over the best way to celebrate the explorer’s life. Ribbons and flowers battled an army of shrunken wicker soldiers for the honor of escorting the Professor’s soul into the underworld.
Ozzie straightened the picture frame and smiled. His grandfather grinned back at him from the Serengeti plains, one foot planted on the chest of a big game hunter he’d knocked unconscious with a tree branch. “They used the poacher photo.”
“I love that story,” Alex said.
“Me too.” He rubbed his nose with the cuff of his sleeve. “Grandfather against the world.”
“It’s how he rolled.”
Alex inspected a jewel-encrusted octopus statue valuable enough to bankroll a dozen arctic expeditions. Even Russian oligarchs were paying their respects to Sir Quidby. She whispered their grandfather’s motto, “The world is waiting—”
“—and it won’t wait forever,” Ozzie finished.
The twins claimed a corner table and indulged in the World Championship of people-watching. A troupe of Moko Jumbie stilt walkers milled through the crowd, crouching to avoid Leon’s antique lighting fixtures. Two women at the bar casually twirled blowdart guns, staring openly at a trio of baskets guarded by a flute-wielding Indian man. In the center of the room, a sumo wrestler stood in a circle of empty chairs, waiting to strike a cartoonishly large drum.
Alex nudged Ozzie. “Did Grandfather know all these people?”
“Most of them rescued him.”
“Excuse me!” Mrs. Willowsby weaved through the mob, burdened with sloshing mugs.
Sir Quidby’s housekeeper was a subject of rampant speculation in Lamswoolian watering holes, and the rumor mill never stopped grinding. Edward Hunt recognized her from a live internet stream of an underground mixed martial arts tournament in Shanghai. The butcher’s wife swore the housekeeper knocked out a charging bull in Flenderson’s paddock with a single karate chop. Old Billy—well, you had to remember it was Billy, now—saw Mrs. Willowsby write cryptic messages in the sky with a flamethrower while wing-walking on a biplane. No one knew her full story, but local gossips practically dove out of the housekeeper’s path when she walked to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.
Mrs. Willowsby plunked three blackcurrant cordials on the table and clucked, “Bless her. Juney is going to make a mess of this.” The children followed the housekeeper’s gaze to the back of the room where Juniper, the pub’s resident rhinoceros and namesake, nuzzled through the crowd like an asthmatic World War I tank. Ozzie grinned, pulled a sugar cube from his pocket, and whistled. Snuffling, huffing noises quickened, accompanied by tinkles of broken glass and startled shouts from bulldozed victims.
“Juney!” he called.
The hip-tall beast brayed and loped to their table. Locals, used to the quirks of dining at the Juniper Rhinoceros, held their mugs aloft until tremors from the earthquake subsided. Juney swallowed Ozzie’s hand in her eagerness for a treat.
“Hello, girl.” He scratched the secret spot behind her ears, kindling a purr deep in her belly. How many tender moments like this had Grandfather shared with Juney after he discovered her wandering the East African plains, her mother slain by a poacher?
The baby rhinoceros made a keening sound and tilted her head to stare into Ozzie’s eyes.
“He isn’t here, Juney. Sorry.” The wretched truth caught in his throat.
Mrs. Willowsby nudged Ozzie and scowled. “Steady on. Bully Bulwerk is making his entrance.”
A pear-shaped man with a quivering handlebar mustache strutted to their table. Most people would balk at wearing a tuxedo and top hat to a funeral, but Lord Bulwerk rarely left his mansion unprepared to rub elbows with royalty. He belonged to an elite class of Gentleman Adventurers who conquered the Orient on the backs of cargo-toting natives while sipping brandy with wealthy benefactors.
Bulwerk’s appointment as Chairman of the Guild of Borderless Explorers came courtesy of the Queen, and his lion-headed cane and the Rolls Royce idling outside the window were gifts from the Duke of Windsor. Explorers who challenged the silver-spooned chairman’s lack of field experience soon found their expeditions defunded or bogged in a minefield of bureaucracy. If Grandfather hadn’t defied the Guild and founded the St. Jude’s Debunking Society, he wouldn’t have been sanctioned to set foot beyond his own front door.
The fake explorer adjusted his monocle, cleared his throat, and grasped his lapels. “What a sad day for us all. The Guild of Borderless Explorers wishes to extend our deepest—” He caught sight of Mrs. Willowsby’s stone face and faltered, “—er, sympathies…”
Alex slammed her mug down, flooding the table with a sticky tsunami of cordial.
“Are you happy my grandfather died?” she asked.
Bulwerk’s eyes widened. “Not at all! Such a tragic loss for the explorer community.”
“We are sitting in a pub because the explorer community and your Guild wanted nothing to do with him!”
The buzz of conversation faded, and heads swiveled. For possibly the first time in his life, Lord Bulwerk squirmed in the spotlight. “Certainly not! Quidby may have—”
“Sir Quidby!” Alex’s shout turned more heads. The explorer recoiled, his face reddening. Ozzie raised his hands to defuse the situation, but his sister hadn’t finished. “I wish you had offered Shambles House for Grandfather’s funeral, so I could laugh in your face.”
Bulwerk puffed up to unleash a pedigree of tongue-lashing only centuries of meticulous breeding could muster. He got as far as “How dare you?” before self-preservation instincts tapped him on the shoulder and gestured to an attentive room. The pub was silent, except for munching sounds beneath the table where Juney had discovered a fallen bowl of pretzels. Bully Bulwerk seethed, “I see grief has overcome your reason. My condolences.” He rapped his cane on the floor and stormed off to resuscitate his ego.
Mrs. Willowsby glowered at the chairman’s receding back and called, “Good riddance, you pillock.” Bulwerk stiffened, but he kept walking. “Well said, Alexandria. Those pompous blowhards at the Guild were unworthy of your grandfather.”
The line of mourners at the shrine dwindled as people found seats for the memorial service. Ozzie drained his cup, then offered an arm to Alex. “I guess it’s time. We’re in the front row.” A gentle touch on his shoulder stopped him in his tracks. A proud African warrior towered over the table, resplendent in an orange robe and crimson sash. Colorful beads stretched the man’s earlobes to his shoulders. They jiggled as he bowed.
The warrior’s voice rumbled like distant thunder. “I am very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Alex said. “You must be Noko.”
The man smiled with a warmth that rivaled the sun. “Yes! Your grandfather and I grew up together.”
Alex nodded. “He said you taught him bushcraft.”
Noko’s laugh shook the foundations of the building. “He was a wretched student! The man is a magnet for venomous snakes. It is a wonder he survived.”
The group laughed, and Ozzie finally found his voice. “Grandfather would have been pleased you came.”
“It is my honor and my duty. I am here to fulfill my friend’s dying wish.” Noko laid a silver metal box the size of a deck of cards in Ozzie’s palm.
Mrs. Willowsby frowned and lowered her drink.
Alex tapped the box. “What’s in it?”
“I do not know. Twenty years ago, your grandfather visited me and said he had made a very important and dangerous discovery—one that could cost his life. If he died, I was to deliver this box to your father for safekeeping.” Noko paused and met Ozzie’s eyes. “When your father passed, the burden fell to you.”
“Burden?” Ozzie shook the box, but he couldn’t hear any rattles over the noise in the pub.
“A dying man’s last wish is rarely a blessing to the living.” Noko pressed his fingertips together. “He claimed the fate of the world depends on what is in that box.”
Ozzie grinned at his grandfather’s flair for the dramatic. He tilted the box and the chrome surface flashed red. “Did he leave instructions on how to open it?”
Noko shook his head. “Quidby’s secrets died with him.”
“Then I guess we—”
Movement by the door caught Ozzie’s eye. Someone screamed, then the pub exploded.*2
Mrs. Willowsby knocked the twins from their stools with a diving tackle as a concussion wave swept through the room. Ozzie thrashed to free his arms, but the housekeeper disappeared before he could push her off his chest. He sat up, gasping for air. Lanterns flickered in the smoke.
“Alex! Are you okay?” High-pitched ringing drowned out his voice. Alex touched his shoulder and gave a thumbs-up. He shouted, “Are you hurt? We’ve got to—”
His sister reached down and picked up a cylinder that was spewing a column of white smoke. Ozzie frowned. A smoke grenade?
A bony apparition snatched the grenade from Alex’s hand, flung it across the room, then pointed at the door. “Go!”
Ozzie said, “Mrs. Willowsby?”
A hulking shadow with glowing blue eyes wrapped the housekeeper in a bear hug. Mrs. Willowsby split her attacker’s nose with a vicious head butt, then punched him in the groin.
Ozzie’s first instinct was to check on the fallen man, but Alex had a death grip on his arm, her mouth agape at the deadly dance unfolding around them. Something fluid, predatory, and dangerous had replaced their housekeeper’s Victorian reserve.
He yelled, “You’re going to hurt yourself!”
Mrs. Willowsby gave Ozzie a look Lamswoolians reserved for Old Billy, then leveled a shadowy figure with a reverse spinning back-kick that folded the man in half. She flung a steak knife into the bicep of a would-be axe murderer and snapped, “If you’re not going to leave, find a weapon and help!” She splintered a barstool, then chased two assailants into the smog.
“Let’s go!” Ozzie tugged Alex toward the exit, but she wrenched him back, saving him from being stabbed by the stranger blocking their path. Their foe’s luminescent blue eyes glimmered as he beckoned them closer with his knife.
Juney charged out of the smoke at a full gallop, demolishing floorboards with every stride.
The baby rhinoceros plowed into the slack-jawed man. The killer’s fractured body rolled across the floor and stopped, unmoving, at the twins’ feet.
Ozzie slapped Juney’s back. “Good girl.” The rhino bellowed, then charged a shadow by the billiard tables.
Alex nudged their attacker with her foot. A silk hood concealed his face, but tattoos covered his jaw, neck, and collarbones. Interlocking geometric shapes gave the designs a tribal look, but they didn’t belong to any culture Ozzie recognized. A dagger lay in the man’s limp hand.
Find a weapon and help.
Ozzie reached for the knife, his pulse accelerating. The blade’s three razor-sharp edges corkscrewed to a fiendish point, looking more like the horn of an evil unicorn than a functional weapon. The hilt was warm and slick with sweat. Adrenaline wrestled Ozzie’s muscles for control of the trembling dagger.
Mrs. Willowsby’s voice sliced through the chaos, “I was speaking to your sister!”
Alex snatched the knife from Ozzie’s hand and shoved him behind her. He sagged against the wall, relieved and ashamed.
Five shadows sprang out of the smoke, forming a wall in front of the exit. Alex dropped into a defensive stance, twirling her knife with practiced ease. Unless they were close enough to see her ashen face, no one would know she’d only taken two months of Krav Maga before defecting to an ultimate frisbee league. Mrs. Willowsby limped to Alex’s side. Judging from her confident grip on the broken stool leg, the blood on her blouse belonged to someone else.
The housekeeper taunted her opponents between labored breaths, “Come on, lads…who wants to dance…with an old biddy?”
Sapphire eyes smoldered like stars in the depths of the hoods. The shortest one hissed, “Cuthorah!” His comrades stretched out a golden, sparking net and advanced, using long spears to shepherd the children, while staying out of Mrs. Willowsby’s reach. The Forsythes surrendered ground until their backs hit a stone wall.
To Ozzie’s horror, Mrs. Willowsby doubled over in a coughing fit and dropped her weapon. Alex whispered, “I’ll distract them. Go for the door.” She braced her foot against the wall and coiled to lunge.
“Don’t!” he said.
The men flung their net the moment she leapt. Alex never had a chance.
A stork-like figure leapt over the hooded assailants, shrieking a battle cry that petrified hairs on the nape of Ozzie’s neck. Noko landed like a gazelle, sliced Alex free from the net with a stroke of his curved blade and spun to engage the spears.
Mrs. Willowsby waved Ozzie over. Sweat and blood ran down her face, but her voice was steady. “Get your sister. It’s time to go.”
He helped Alex to her feet. Aside from a bruised ego and superficial burns from the electrified netting, she appeared unharmed.
“Don’t say anything,” she hissed.
“Good work diving straight into their net. Solid plan.”
“At least I did something.”
Mrs. Willowsby produced a machete from the folds of her skirt. She winked at Ozzie’s shocked expression, then charged across the pub.*3 Four adversaries blocked the door, but Juney flattened two of them before they could scream. Noko took advantage of the distraction to dispatch another foe, leaving only one—the leader—standing between the Forsythes and freedom.
The man hissed, his glittering eyes locked on the twins as the African forced him away from the door. Black robes stirred in the smoky background, picking up weapons. The odds were changing faster than Juney could charge.
Noko pointed to the exit. “Go! Remember your grandfather’s wish.”
Ozzie slid Mrs. Willowsby’s right arm over his shoulder and grunted as she surrendered her weight. The housekeeper handed her machete to Alex, then succumbed to a coughing fit. Ozzie gritted his teeth—hadn’t they just seen how knives encouraged his sister to do insane things? He made a half-hearted attempt to pry the blade from Alex’s hand, but she pushed him away. The trio limped into the night.
1 Thanks to Sir Quidby’s fondness for hazardous locales, nearly all the plants were carnivorous and had to be separated to prevent literal turf wars.
2 When police reconstructed events, the official incident report concluded: “The disturbance began when a loincloth-clad drummer grew impatient for the funeral to begin and took matters into his own hands. The concussion from his drum startled a baby rhinoceros into charging a woman who was breathing fire. She spewed a ball of flame directly at a snake charmer, who released three spitting cobras from baskets. Two blowdart hunters took advantage of a suddenly target-rich environment. Pub patrons responded accordingly, and panic ensued.”
The report circulated behind the scenes for years and became an urban legend at the Police Academy. Street-hardened cops used the phrase “pulling a baby rhino” to describe how the job plays tricks with your mind.
Most Lamswoolians who attended the funeral refused to discuss that fateful night at the Juniper Rhinoceros. The few who loosened their lips became minor celebrities in local watering holes. After countless beer-soaked retellings, facts grew cloudy and exaggerated. Somehow—by unspoken agreement, greased palms, or drinking to forget—no one mentioned the assassins.
3 As charges go, it wasn’t one for the record books. Mrs. Willowsby’s injury limited their speed to a steady limp, but that’s not the kind of thing you point out to a blood-spattered woman holding a machete.