The Dogs of Avaline
Anya stopped breathing. Gevin’s face went limp. Taika asked, “A basement?”
They frantically ran around the house, searching for the source of the barks until they found a spot in a wall it seemed to be coming from.
Anya pressed her ear against it. “It sounds like it’s right here, but I don’t understand. There’s no door or stairs or…”
“It’s a false wall,” said Taika.
Gevin beat on it with his fists, but it was solid. He kicked it, but only pulled back his foot and howled in pain. After catching his balance, he said through a painful grimace, “Use your wand.”
“What?” Well this was surprising.
“Go on. Taika’s right. It’s just a wall. You’re not going to hurt anybody.” He mistook her surprised look for fear. “Here, let me try it.”
She skeptically reached into her pocket and handed him the wand. He aimed at the noisy section of the wall and tried to perform magic. “Open! Vanish! Disappear! Show yourself!”
“It’s not going to work for you.” Anya’s gentle voice surprised him.
When he handed her the wand, their hands touched, sending a cold shock through his palm. He jerked away violently. “Aaah! What was that?”
“That was me.”
He looked fearful again.
“When I touch the wand, it pulls magic from me. I can feel the heat leaving my body.”
Eyes downcast, he got out of her way. Not to embarrass him, she decided to ignore the fact he was so obviously hurt and turned to aim at the wall. “Open! Show your secret! Basement!”
“Try ‘ginger snaps.’” No one had noticed Taika slipping off into the kitchen.
“What?” Anya and Gevin both chimed in.
“Ginger snaps. It says here to ‘feed the dogs ginger snaps’.”
“It says where?” asked Gevin.
“There’s a list of Alexander’s duties entitled ‘While I’m Away’, and one of them says, ‘Feed the dogs ginger snaps.’”
Anya pointed her wand at the wall and yelled, “Ginger snaps!” POP! The section of wall vanished to reveal a dark set of steps leading down. “Does it tell how to make light?”
Taika said, “No. But there’s candles and—”
“Light! Sun!” Anya had to think. How many words are there for light anyway?
“Here.” Taika had brought them lit candles and passed them out. Anya started to pocket her wand, but Taika stopped her. “I’d hold that out in front if I were you.”
“Isn’t that like holding a hilt without a blade?” asked Gevin.
“Gee, thanks,” said Anya.
“Oh come on! It took you five tries to light a fire. What are you going to do if we run into anything dangerous anyway? ‘Excuse me Mr. Monster, could you please hold still a minute while I figure out how to use this thing?’ OW!”
Anya had punched him.
“I’m not trying to be mean, but seriously.”
“And to think I was concerned with your feelings.”
“What feelings!? I don’t have any feelings!”
Anya and Taika rolled their eyes.
“At least let me walk in front.” He sported a shiny, sharp dagger.
“Fine.” Anya resentfully let him pass ahead of her. She hated to admit it, but he did look more prepared for battle than she did.
He held his dagger in a defensive stance, all the while needling Anya. “A bow without an arrow. A slingshot without a rock. A lance without a—OW! Hey, watch it. I’m on stairs you know.”
“Well maybe you should have thought of that before you—” Anya’s retort was cut short by their awe as they entered the basement.
The stairs had opened up to a vast, musty room filled with countless cages. They were all different shapes and sizes, and filled with a plethora of animals. There were dogs, cats, frogs, rodents, birds, and many animals they didn’t recognize. At least twenty cages hung from the ceiling, filled with glowing, small winged creatures that lit up the area.
“Ho … ly … narfel nuggets!” Gevin stood slack jawed.
“Those poor creatures!” Anya reached out to touch one, but it snapped at her, almost biting her finger off.
Taika warned her. “Don’t, Anya! Some of these may be dangerous.” Every enclosure was made specifically for the animal inside. Most had a food and water dish that appeared full.
“Who feeds them?” asked Anya. She walked over to a sizable pool in the middle of the basement filled with all sorts of oddly shaped and colorful fish. A small, overstuffed cage full of worms hung on the inside of the pool.
Taika said, “I would assume Avaline, or Alexander. These bowls are all completely full though. I wonder…” She walked over to a harmless looking bunny and reached in to poke at the food dish. The bunny immediately bared its monstrous, sharp teeth and lunged at her, hitting the bars with a sharp bang.
Gevin was looking around in bewilderment when he noticed what happened and jumped back, startled. “That’s disturbing.”
Taika blew out her candle and used it to push the bowl upwards from a hole in the bottom of the cage. The bowl rose up on one side until it tipped some of its food out. After about half of the food was gone, she let it back down. Several seconds later, food appeared, making it full again. “Magical food dishes,” she mumbled.
She continued to investigate, intrigued by the set up of it all, but Anya was becoming overwhelmed. One of these “creatures” was her father. But which one? And then what? She couldn’t change him back. Or could she?
Taika turned. “Anya, what are you doing?”
“One of these is my father, and I’m going to change him back!” Before anyone could stop her, she began calling for him again, “Dad! Pillar!” In a frantic blur, she ran from one end of the room to the other, calling out her father’s name. But no matter where she went, no animal reacted to her any differently than the others.
“I don’t understand it. Methuselah said he knew what was going on the whole time he was an animal. Why isn’t my dad letting me know who he is?”
Gevin and Taika exchanged looks. Taika said, “Anya, there are many reasons why your father isn’t showing you who he is. He might not—”
“Don’t you dare say it!”
Taika leaned back in alarm.
“He’s here! I know he’s here! That witch turned him into one of these animals, and he’s in one of these cages!”
“Actually, Anya, I was going to say that he may not even recognize you.”
Anya wasn’t sure which hurt worse. That her father didn’t recognize her, or that he wasn’t here. Either way ripped a hole in her chest, making her hurt in a way she didn’t know was possible.
Taika must have seen the hurt on her face. “Anya, I’m sure if he were human he would. But being an animal … just because Methuselah remembered understanding doesn’t mean that’s what actually happened. Nor does it mean that every person … or … animal … is going to react to this spell in the exact same way.”
Anya thought for a moment, considering the possibility Taika might be right. Fine. If she didn’t know who her father was, then she’d just turn them all back. She raised her wand and pointed at the nearest occupied cage. “Change back! Human! Take your proper form!”
Gevin asked, “What are you doing?”
“If I can’t figure out who my father is, then I’ll just do them all. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and one of them will know who he is.” She continued to go around the room, pointing her wand at creatures and yelling out whatever words she could think of next that would change an animal that used to be human back into a person.
Gevin firmly grabbed her arm to stop her from continuing. “Ahnny!”
She bore her rage-filled eyes into his.
“Stop. These are innocent people. Victims of Avaline, just like your father.”
“So why did you stop me!? They need help, just like my father!”
“Yes, but in the meantime, your wand could be doing things to them. Harmful things.”
She lowered her wand. Her throat closed up. Her nose burned.
Taika approached them. “We need help, Anya. This is out of our league.”
Anya screamed through thick tears, “But I can’t just leave him here!”
“They’ll be fine until we can come back. They’re being fed and watered, and we’ve stopped Avaline and Alexander from doing any more harm.”
Gevin agreed with Taika. “She’s right, Anya. There’s nothing more we can do tonight. We’ll have to come back later.”
Anya wanted to protest. She wanted to throw them out of the basement and get back to finding her father. But they were right. And she knew it. She leaned against a wall and allowed herself to slide to the floor, breaking down completely.
Gevin shrugged at Taika, as if to ask what to do next.
Taika raised her hands and mouthed back, “I don’t know.”
He gestured over to her, mouthing, “We have to do something.”
Anya stopped crying. She looked up at them, sniffed, and wiped her face. And then she laughed. Not a belly laugh, merely a slight giggle. But it was enough. “You two are horrible at making someone feel better.”
They appeared stunned.
She got up, cleaned herself off, and headed for the stairs. “You’re right. There’s nothing we can do now.” She jerked her head up the steps. “Come on.”
Taika shrugged at Gevin. Gevin raised his eyebrows in question.
“Are you coming?”
They followed her up the steps.
Once they were back in the kitchen, they started searching for anything they could find of value, such as spell books and potion ingredients. Taika wanted to take all of Avaline’s potions and empty jars. Anya was adamantly against that, kindly explaining the obvious dangers of unlabeled potions from an evil witch while inwardly wondering how Taika managed to survive.
They filled up bags with magical ingredients and every scroll and book they could find. Gevin enjoyed himself by throwing all the potions into the fire until one of them exploded so violently they made him pour the rest out.
As the other two packed everything up to leave, Anya walked over to Alexander in his cage and crossed her arms, staring down at him. “OK, I understand we can’t do anything about all the animals down there, but what about this little mongrel?”
Taika said, “Ah. Yes. I guess we can put him with the others until we come back.”
“But what will he eat? We don’t have an extra set of magical food and water bowls.”
Gevin said, “Take him with us.”
Anya said, “What?”
“We’ll have to take him with us. It’s the only way.”
“How do we explain a monkey?”
Gevin answered, “I’ll take him home as a pet for my little brother. He’ll love it.”
The girls shrugged and nodded their agreement. Taika added, “Be sure to keep him locked up until he calms down and no longer wants to kill us.”
Gevin picked up the cage and carried the unconscious associate of evil. They loaded up the reluctant horses and pony, even heavier than when they arrived, and left for home.
Night had completely fallen by the time they left the witch’s domain of the forest. Anya had slouched over her saddle’s horn, asleep. Gevin kept reaching over to prop her up so she wouldn’t fall off, but finally gave up and slept himself. Taika managed to stay awake by reading Avaline’s books by candlelight. Every now and then they would hear an, “Ow!” as hot wax dripped on her hand.
While everyone else was either sleeping or reading, Alexander was quietly watching. The sway of the horse made his cage wobble, which made the peg in his door wiggle loose. Slowly, ever so slowly, he pulled the peg with every loosening sway until the latch on his door came free. Making sure no one saw him, he jumped out and ran off into the dark woods.
Tired, dirty, and late, they got the horses into the stables and unloaded them.
As Gevin untied his horse’s load, he noticed Alexander’s empty cage. “NO!”
Anya said, “What?”
“The cage is empty!”
“Oh no! When did that happen?”
Gevin pouted. “I don’t know. Stupid monkey. I was looking forward to having him as a pet.”
“What if he goes back and moves the cottage or something?”
Taika said, “I doubt he can. It appeared as though Avaline was the only one with any power. Otherwise, he would have thrown spells, not canned food at us.”
Gevin went back to work, roughly unpacking his horse and throwing things on the ground. When he got to the caged parsnip, he held it up and asked, “What do we do with ol’ Avaline here?”
Taika answered, “I’ll take her.”
He shoved the vegetable into Taika’s hand. “I have to get home.”
“Can you two help me carry everything to the library first?”
Before Gevin could protest, Anya said, “Sure, Taika,” insinuating that he should do the same.
He groaned, “Yeah.”
Although their burdens were greatly reduced by the weight of the wax, they still had a heavy cauldron and several stacks of books to carry. They peeked around all the corners to make sure no one could see what they were doing, (it would look a bit odd to be carrying such items in the middle of the night, especially in Cupola.) and dropped it all off at the library.
Gevin said, “I’m exhausted. Can I go home now?”
“Thank you, Gevin,” answered Taika. “I can clean this up tomorrow. For now we’ll just push it all in the back where it’s not obvious.”
He waved them bye, and Anya helped Taika shove everything into a far corner behind some shelves. Taika told her, “Anya, we need to talk to Methuselah again. He’s our only lead to changing those people back.”
Anya agreed. “I’ll meet you first thing in the morning. I need to get home though.”
Taika nodded, and they both went their separate ways.
Anya took her time going home. She still hadn’t told her family about Canis. Not that she had purposefully tried not to, she’d just been too busy lately. And although her mother probably wasn’t too worried about her, considering her mother still thought she worked in the kitchen and was more than likely just held up or had decided to sleep there tonight, Anya didn’t want to come up with an explanation for being late either. She tried the door, afraid it had been barred for the night, but it opened. Silently, she peeked inside. They were sound asleep. Whew! Relieved to be spared all her difficulties for another evening, she ate some stale bread and hard cheese before getting into bed herself.
Still being used to kitchen time, Anya rose early. Normally leaving before they did anyway, she thought nothing of a quick meal before taking off for Taika’s. Her family roused as she was leaving.
“Got home late last night, Mom. There was no way to send word.” That was true. “I’ll see you tonight. Love you!”
“Have a good day. Love you too!”
Anya didn’t have to wait long for Taika to arrive. They quickly put away their treasures from the previous night, which included potting Avaline-the-parsnip in a leaky bucket.
“Until we know for certain what to do with her, I don’t want to risk Otis mistaking her for a midday snack.” Taika placed the pot on a table by a sunny window. They then started their search for Methuselah.
After exhausting West Cupola, they tried the east side. Anya had never been to East Cupola before, but she had heard about it. The rumors held true. Their eyes darted from one dilapidated house to the next. Everything felt darker, colder than her side. Some of the buildings had been burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt. Black stubble where once stood a home. The filthy streets reeked of garbage, dog poo, and smells Anya neither could nor wanted to identify. Even Taika walked with a tad less confidence. Maybe Basil was right. Maybe getting to know a little more about Canis would help Anya understand why she acted the way she did. If Anya had to live here, she’d be a little grumpy too.
The barren silence became almost unbearable. Anya was just about to tell Taika they should search someplace else when they found him, standing in the grimy shadows of a back street.
Taika approached him first. “Mr. Methuselah?”
He slowly turned his head. Anya watched recognition gradually surface on his unfocused eyes. A moment later, he smiled.
Taika asked, “Are you able to speak with us, Mr. Methuselah?”
“Of course, child. I was hoping to see you again.”
Anya stood at Taika’s side and listened to their conversation.
Taika said, “We just came from Avaline’s house once more.”
Methuselah’s eyes widened, and his head jerked back in surprise.
“We found the cages.”
His expression turned mournful. “People tried to stop her, especially her suitor, Flynn. He was a fiery one that Flynn.” His smile was full, yet sad as well. “He was my uncle. Flynn tried and tried, but she wouldn’t come back, and he wouldn’t leave his desire to be a knight for the Queen. Avaline, in her maddening anger, took it to mean he loved Queen Doshishi more than her.
“What she didn’t realize, of course, was that with every bit of evil that you do, you lose a bit of your beauty. We all do bad every now and then, but when you do far more bad than good, you turn ugly. Some ugly people hide behind beautiful skin, but Avaline wasn’t able to do that. Her true nature filled up and bled through to the outside.
“Every time a new man would turn her down, she changed him into an imprisoned animal. Eventually, she became so ugly that no man would take her. Over the years as a dog, I watched her change from an angry maiden to a hideous hag.” He stopped, and stared off past the decaying dwellings for a long time.
Taika cleared her throat. “You said you were born over 200 years ago?”
He turned his head back to face her. “Yes.”
“So that means you don’t age when you’re an animal?”
He adjusted his weight on his cane. “It would appear not. It drove me mad with grief. My family gone. No one knew me. I had no place to go. No one trusted the stranger who talked of a witch. I came back to a world who had forgotten mine. A world whose past was lost, and where magic was feared.”
Anya interrupted them. “Mr. Methuselah? We don’t know where the water fairies are. How can we change the others back?”
“Ah. Well, my child. Without the fairies, I’m afraid that’s something only the witch herself can do.”
Anya’s jaw dropped. “But that’s impossible!”
“Impossible? No.” He indicated Taika. “Your friend here looks crafty enough to do it.” He squinted his eyes and peered into Anya’s. A smile broke across his face.
He told Taika, “Know this. Not just the same magic must be used, but the same wand.”
Taika thought for a moment. “Thank you, Methuselah. We’ll do our best to help all that have been wronged by her.”
Anya stood transfixed by his stare.
“Come on, Anya.” Taika took her arm to try to pull her along. “Let’s go.”Anya blinked rapidly and joined Taika in leaving. Methuselah called after them. “Be careful, children! It can take a long time to realize you were once human.”