“Whatever. As soon as it comes around—it’s time for one of you lot to take the ‘Maiden’ in. Agreed?”
The Elder Mystic and Owl Rex nodded in unison. Curtis scooted forward and turned to Corporal Donalbain, who was by now looking as if he were about to nod off in his chair. “Jack,” he said, “what’s a Kitsune, anyway?”
“Hmmph?” asked the wolf, clearly having been startled from a nascent stupor. “A Kitsune? Well, it’s a creature from the Shrine Groves at the edge of the Wood. A shape-shifter.”
“Shape-shifter? What do you mean?”
“Some folks say it’s an ancient aberration in the Woods Magic. Some say they’re demigods. But either way: A Kitsune is a black fox,” replied the wolf. “With the very incredible ability to transform itself, at will, into human form. The damndest thing. The damndest thing.” And with that, the wolf’s words trailed away, his snout coming to rest on the fabric of his coat, and he fell into a deep slumber.
Enter the Assassin
Abraided barista excused herself while she stretched her arm over Ms. Thennis’s head and pulled the cord to the neon OPEN sign in the café’s front window. It flickered a few times before turning off, and Prue looked up at the girl apologetically.
“Sorry,” she said. “We’ll get out of your hair now.”
The barista smiled and waved her hand. “Nah,” she said, “don’t worry about it. Looks like you two are having a serious conversation. I got a ton of cleanup to do, anyway. Take your time.”
Out on the dark avenue, a red traffic light changed green, and the shine of passing headlamps flashed the front window. The last of the fading, dim light was rapidly disappearing behind the wall of trees just beyond the river’s ravine. Prue glanced up at the clock on the wall above the café bar: It was five thirty.
“Shoot,” said Prue. “I should really get going.” Ms. Thennis was sitting beneath the taxidermied head of a moose. Prue hadn’t noticed it until that moment.
“Yeah,” said Ms. Thennis, dazed. “Yeah.” She hadn’t touched her cappuccino; the milk foam had begun to look like Christmas tree flocking.
Prue waited for her teacher to say something else, but nothing was coming. “I’m sorry to, like, burden you with all this. I know it sounds so crazy.”
“Yeah,” repeated the teacher. She shook her head a little and rubbed her chin with a finger. A bracelet made of small wooden beads clattered against her wrist. “So, again: Curtis. Your friend. The one who went missing. He’s still there.”
“Yeah,” said Prue.
“With a band of bandits.”
“Yeah. I mean, he’s a bandit himself now.”
“Uh-huh,” replied Ms. Thennis. “Right. What about his parents?”
“They don’t know.”
Ms. Thennis seemed to blanch. “Okay.”
“You swore yourself to secrecy, Ms. Thennis,” Prue reminded the teacher.
Darla squirmed in her chair. “Yeah, well, I didn’t know your story would involve a missing child.” A pause. “So Curtis is just there? In the bandit camp?”
“Yup. Totally safe. I’d even go so far as to say that he’s probably totally happy there.”
“And where is this place? Like, where’s the camp?”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Prue, scraping a fingernail at a little of the foamed milk residue on the edge of her mug. “Like I said: You wouldn’t be able to go in there anyway.”
“Right. Magical barrier.”
“But he’s safe?” Ms. Thennis leaned forward in her chair. “And this so-called Bandit King, this Brendan—is he in the hideout too?”
“Yeah—that’s his home.”