(Due to length, this chapter has been split in order to better balance the existing parts of the story. As a result, a new section has been added to chapter two, located here
; readers should re-read the end of that chapter before beginning this one.)
King was reluctant to make the trip into the woods for two reasons. First, there had been a heavy snowfall in Babylon Gardens the night before, which had blanketed the ground in a crisp, pristine blanket of white; it granted the neighborhood an air of peaceful winter serenity, and King was hesitant to disturb it. Second, due to his short stature, snow that only came up to the knees of other dogs reached roughly to his waist; he didn't walk so much as wade
through it, the dampness soaking through his fur and chilling him to the bone.
And yet, there he was, trudging through it alongside Fox, his arms wrapped around his sides, and his teeth chattering. The meager scarf around his neck did nothing to protect him from the cold that encompassed him on all sides. The walk to Fox's house had been long, but it had at least been tolerable; the city sidewalks had been shoveled and the streets had been plowed, which made the route much easier to navigate. In contrast, there was no path leading into the woods except an old hiking trail, which even now was completely hidden by the snow itself. They were surrounded by trees, and to King's eyes, they all looked alike. He had no idea where they were going, let alone how to find his way back should they get lost.
Fox, however, was faring much better. The husky almost seemed at home in the cold weather--he certainly wasn't shivering and struggling with every step like King was--his eyes alert and his tail straight, sniffing at the air as he looked around, his ears swiveling back and forth atop his head. He appeared to possess an instinctive knowledge of where to go, although he still paused long enough to ask, just to be certain. "It's this way, isn't it?"
"Yeah, just a bit further," Fido replied. He was also accompanying them. That was just one more reason for King not to go; he had tried to object, but Fox had insisted upon bringing him along. They didn't know exactly what Peanut was planning, Fox had said, and Fido was both a police officer and trained in first aid; he could supervise the procedure, whatever it involved, and would be good to have on hand just in case something went wrong. King was trying his best not to stare at him too much. It had been one of the other dogs, the one who insisted upon tackling everything, who had actually taken him down after he had helped to kidnap Fox, but it was Fido who had placed him under arrest; he could still clearly remember the anger in the dog's voice when he had accused him--or rather, his partner--of trying to kill his friend. King shivered hard, and not from the cold.
That seemed to draw Fox's attention; he looked back over his shoulder at the trembling corgi. "Are you all right?" he asked. "I said I'd carry you, so you wouldn't have to walk."
"I'm fine," King said, growling the answer through his teeth. He wasn't fine, of course, but he felt that walking upright was one of the few privileges left over from his human life, and it was one that he intended to keep; he would sooner freeze out here in the tundra than suffer the indignity of being carted around like an infant in a stroller.
Fox's eyes lingered upon King, uncertainly, before they drifted over to Fido. "I'm sorry for dragging you out here like this, what with the party and all."
"Don't worry about it," Fido said. "Knowing Bill, he'll be grilling long into the night, anyway. I think that man actually looks for excuses to eat meat."
"Still," Fox continued. "I know that you probably have better things to do than freeze your tail off out here with us."
Fido chuckled. "You'd be surprised," he said. "The other guys in the department tell me that it gets pretty quiet around here during the holidays. That suits me just fine, personally, but some of the boys get restless when there's nothing for them to do. There are exceptions, of course, like when the Arbelt boy went missing last year, but other than that... anyway, I want to help you out, if I can. It's my duty to serve and protect... and besides, I used to be the new dog too, if you'll remember."
Fox smiled. "Yeah," he said, "I remember."
"Remember what?" King asked. The corgi jogged through the snowdrifts as best as he could manage, hurrying to keep up with his companions. "What are you guys talking about?"
Fido glanced at Fox. "You never told him?"
Fox merely shrugged. "It never came up."
Fido gave an amused snort of breath, and looked down at King. Fido's sunglasses were very dark, appearing to King as little more than a pair of black voids set within his face, and they to make the already much taller dog look even more intimidating. "My family moved to Babylon Gardens when I was only a pup. Bino was even younger than I was, and Joey hadn't even been born yet. My Dad got a new job out here, and that meant moving into a new house, in a new neighborhood, with a new school. I didn't know where anything was, and I didn't have any friends. On top of that, the obedience school year was already in progress, so I had to join after classes had started. I felt singled out from day one. I was a real teacher's pet, always studying hard and volunteering to answer questions. I also needed some tutoring to catch up on the lessons I'd missed at the beginning of the year, and that was just another reason for the other kids to pick on me. I was completely miserable. All I wanted was to go back home, to our old home, I mean."
King listened with rapt attention. He was all-too-familiar with the scars of his own childhood, but he had never imagined that Fido, being the paragon of canine virtue that he was, would have experienced any kind of self-esteem problems. "What happened?" he asked.
"Well, one day, this other pup came up to me out of the blue and offered to let me play with some toy of his... a tennis ball, I think. I didn't even know his name. He couldn't have known who I was either, but that was just it: he didn't care. He didn't care that I was new, or that the others made fun of me, or that I always did my homework and had to stay after class sometimes. He just wanted to be my friend... and he has been ever since." Fido turned to look in Fox's direction. "Fox and I were inseparable, right up until I left to join the academy. We were always getting into trouble together..." King saw the edges of Fido's mouth turn upward into a grin. "... although I think he got into a little more trouble than I ever did."
Fox clasped his hands together behind his head and stuck his tongue out in retaliation. "Aw, you just didn't know how to have fun, that's all," he retorted. "You looked like you could use a friend, so I gave you one. It seemed like the natural thing to do."
Fido turned his attention back to King, that smirk remaining upon his lips. "Maybe so," he admitted, "though it seems like you've made a habit of it."
"Don't criticize," Fox said, wagging a finger in mock admonishment. "He's a work in progress. And besides, you turned out pretty well under my tutelage, didn't you?"
Fido looked back at Fox, and his smile broadened. "That depends," he mused. "Have you ever forgiven me for introducing you to Bino?"
At the mention of that name, Fox's demeanor immediately changed; he lidded his eyes, and his arms fell to hang limply at his sides. "Ugh," he deadpanned, "I'll have to get back to you on that."
King couldn't help but be fascinated by the interplay between them, and he smiled in spite of himself. They were so casual, so comfortable with one another; it was obvious that they had been friends for some time, and had developed a strong rapport. It reminded him of the bond he shared with Fox himself, and the similarities between Fido's story and his own experience had not been lost upon him; perhaps the husky was simply an extrovert, and eager to make friends. In any case, being around the two of them, watching them laugh and joke with each other, somehow made Fido seem less frightening, and certainly helped King to feel more at ease. Maybe if--
"Hey, we're here!"
The sound of Fox's voice derailed King's train of thought. The forest suddenly opened up into a large, oval-shaped area that was completely devoid of trees. However, there was no shortage of snow; it covered the ground in a thick, unbroken sheet of white, its surface glimmering in the light of the cold winter sun overhead.
Fido gave a low whistle at the sight. "It's kind of a pity, really. After next week, this whole place will be a wreck. We'll be picking toilet paper out of the trees again. It'll be worse than one of Bino's Easter egg hunts."
"Yeah," Fox agreed, gleefully wringing his hands together in anticipation. "It's gonna be great.
" He lifted a hand and pointed toward the clearing. "Look there."
Peanut and Joey were standing together in the middle of the glade, their heads bowed over a clipboard that Peanut held in his hands. Peanut waved as they approached, and was smiling broadly. He was no longer wearing the glasses that he had been using to read, but a crimson scarf was draped around his neck, hiding his collar from view.
"Welcome, gentlemen!" he jovially greeted them. "Now that everyone is here, we can begin!"
Peanut?" Fox asked. "You still haven't told us exactly what it is we're doing out here."
Peanut was grinning from ear to ear. King still thought that the transformation was remarkable, a dramatic change from his earlier, rather sour manner; he supposed that when Peanut was genuinely interested in something, his attitude brightened considerably. "I'll let Joey explain," he said. "We've been brainstorming some ideas together. Joey?"
King still thought of Fido's youngest brother as being a little odd; he always looked jittery, and fidgety, as if he'd drunk too much coffee--or whatever it was that dogs drank--and had a nervous habit of tapping his fingertips together when he spoke. Despite that, out of all the dogs in Babylon Gardens, he was also the one that King felt most comfortable around, apart from Fox; Joey was only slightly taller than King himself, and was one of the few dogs whom he could manage to look in the eye.
"Right. So, um," Joey began, "King thinks that he has bad luck, and we want to change that, right? Well, luck is really just a measure of probability, of calculating the odds. It's all just numbers, the chances that something will or won't happen. Luck acts as a modifier on that number, making it higher or lower, and making the odds better or worse. It's kind of like rolling a savings throw... you're presented with a situation, and when you take action, how high or how low your numbers are determines the outcome." He then fell silent, as if he was waiting for all of that to sink in.
"Go on, Joey," Fido gently prodded. "We're listening."
"Right!" Joey said, drumming his fingers together. "So, uh, it turns out that testing luck is actually kind of hard, unless you're Gladstone Gander. It's dependent upon a large number of variables, and sometimes there are too many for us to take into account. In other cases, the odds are stacked so high in favor of a given outcome that luck makes no difference. If you jump out of a plane without a parachute, then you're probably going to hit the ground, no matter what."
King suddenly felt the blood drain from his face. The prospect being shoved out of an airplane in the name of science did not appeal to him.
"We've been trying to design an experiment that depends upon random chance, without being too
random," Joey continued. "That will allow us to observe how luck affects the outcome. Ideally, we would be trying this under real-world conditions, like playing a slot machine or something, but-"
"But gambling is illegal in Babylon Gardens," Fido said, flatly.
"... correct," Joey said. "So, we've been forced to improvise." He turned to the dog at his side. "Peanut?"
"We came up with a few ideas," Peanut said, tapping the clipboard he held with his index finger. "At first, we were going to pick a random number, and ask King to guess it. The problem is that his handicap is too high; even if it was a number between one and ten, his chances of failure would still be 90 percent. In addition, we'd have to repeat the test about a hundred times in order to have a proper sample size, and that would take forever. Then we were going to flip a coin and have King guess whether it would come up heads or tails, but the odds for either choice are 50 percent. Those are better odds, but they're also mathematically locked; every
coin flip has a 50-50 chance of being either heads or tails, and we don't think luck will change that. And like the previous test, we'd have to perform it over and over again before we could begin to analyze the results. What we need is a scenario where the odds are slightly biased against King, so that we can slowly tilt them in his favor, and see if our efforts to change his luck are having an effect."
And then, like Joey, Peanut went quiet. No one said anything; there was no sound, save for the winter wind whistling through the trees.
"Well!?" King asked, impatiently. "Did you come up with anything, or did you drag us all out here for nothing?"
Peanut and Joey exchanged an uneasy glance. "We think we may have hit upon a solution," Joey said, "but you're probably not going to like it."
King's ears drooped. He was suddenly sorry he asked. He watched as Peanut reached down to the ground and picked up an errant branch that had probably been blown off one of the surrounding trees by the wind. Peanut approached the spot where he, Fox, and Fido stood, and drew a long line in the snow, just in front of them.
"There we are," Peanut said, mostly to himself. "King, if you'll come with me, please?"
King looked to Fox and Fido for reassurance, but they both appeared to be just as puzzled as he was. With a sigh, he followed Peanut's lead, trudging through the heavy snow. They moved a short distance away from the others, and then came to a halt.
"Very good," Peanut said. "That should be fine." He walked back toward the others, and gestured to the lonely spot where King stood. "Fido, about how far would you say that is?"
"About 15 or 20 feet, I guess."
"Good, good." Peanut bent down where he stood, scooping a handful of snow into his palm. "Do you think you could hit King with a snowball from here?"
"Huh?" Fido briefly sized up the distance, and gave a short nod. "I suppose so, why?"
King, however, wasn't nearly as agreeable. "Hey!"
he yelled. "What the Bicycle Repair Man!?"
Peanut ignored him, slowly rolling and molding the snow in his hands into a sphere. "Most of the time?"
Fido squinted. The distance was one of only a few yards, something that he would routinely run several times over during a game of fetch, but the corgi presented a small target. "I think so, yeah.""I didn't come out here to be used as target practice!"
"But you could still miss?" Peanut asked.
"If my aim was off, or the sun was in my eyes, or something, sure," Fido replied. "Peanut, what's this all about?""Hey! Are you even listening to me!?"
Peanut lightly tossed the ball of snow he had crafted into the air a few times, caught it within his open palm, and nodded in satisfaction. "Joey and I have devised a simple way to test King's luck," he said. "At this distance, a snowball thrown at him will be considerably more likely to hit him than to miss, but won't be guaranteed to hit him all the time. This means that we can improve his chances. We've brought a few good luck charms with us, and after each throw, we'll give him one to see how it affects the next attempt. When we miss, we'll know that we've changed his luck for the better."
"Wait a minute," Fox said. "Lucky charms don't make
people lucky, they are
lucky. Once we take them away, won't he start having bad luck again?"
"Not necessarily. We plan to use several items simultaneously, so the effect will be cumulative, and will give him an 'overdose' of good luck. Our theory is that the combined luck of multiple charms being used all at once will permanently rub off on him, like a piece of metal that's been magnetized. We don't think it will hurt him."
"You don't think?
"Well, I've never heard of anyone having too much good luck, have you?"
Fox looked out toward his friend; the corgi was stomping around the small area that he had been assigned, ranting and raving to himself about the situation he was in and how no one cared to hear his opinion of what should be done with him (as usual), uttering a string of obscenities that Fox didn't dare to repeat. The husky's ears splayed back. "Well... to be honest, I think he could use a little," he said.
"Don't worry," Peanut said. "The best part of all this is that the experiment poses absolutely no risk to King. He'll be completely unharmed. Observe." He handed the snowball he had created over to his fellow researcher. "Joey?"
Joey nodded, took the proffered snowball, and promptly hurled it in King's direction; the icy globe struck the corgi's chest with a harmless paf
, although the impact did cause him to stop dead in his tracks. Fox swallowed; he got the distinct impression that if looks could kill, then judging by the way King was glaring, he would have murdered the whole lot of them.
"There, you see? Nothing to fear," Peanut said. "Now we have a baseline reading. We know that with no luck-enhancing items at all, snowballs will hit King, just as we expected. Do you have the first charm, Joey?"
Joey nodded again, reached into his scarf, and dug out what appeared to be an old penny; Fox could clearly see that the coin was more green than brown, covered with grime and worn down from years of use.
"I took a look around the house after you called," Joey said. "You were right, I found one lying right on the floor."
Peanut smiled. "No better standby than a lucky penny," he said. "Take it out to the subject, if you would, please."
Fox watched as Joey ran to the spot where King stood, stone-faced, and held the precious penny out in offering. King wordlessly swiped the coin from his grasp, sending Joey scurrying back to the safety of the group.
"All right, we're ready to begin," Peanut said. "Fido, would you care to do the honors?"
Fido shrugged, and bent down to scoop some snow into his hands, just as Peanut had done before. He condensed it into a ball, and looked out toward the visibly irritated King. Fox watched him wind up like a major league pitcher, and could almost hear the sound of a weapon cocking as his arm drew back. Fido's arm wasn't a gun, after all, but it might as well have been; the snowball exploded from his grasp like it had been shot from the barrel of a cannon, rocketed straight toward its target, and caught King flush in the face, catapulting him off his feet.
The corgi dropped to the ground like a rock, and disappeared amid the surrounding snow.
~"Completely unharmed, huh?"
Fox's voice. It was far away, and distant, like he was hearing it through a tunnel. He sounded annoyed."Actually, I'm rather impressed. That should have been physically impossible."
That was Peanut. Closer than Fox, but still somehow warped, distorted."Look, I think he's coming around."
Darkness was slowly replaced by light, blurred and hazy though it was, as King blinked his eyes open. His heart was seized by a flash of fear as he found Fido kneeling over him, the police dog's face scant inches from his own, and his brow furrowed in concern.
"There we are, easy does it," Fido said, helping the corgi to sit up. "Are you all right?"
King blinked groggily a few times, rubbing a hand across his face. "Nnn... what happened?" he murmured.
Fido looked crestfallen. "I'm afraid I beaned you," he said, apologetically. "I studied marksmanship at the academy, but they don't train us to miss, you know."
King took a moment to examine himself, flexing his fingers and toes experimentally to make sure they all still worked. He didn't appear to be injured--in fact, he felt no pain at all--and guessed that the snow must have cushioned his fall. That thought would have been comforting, were it not for the unpleasant side effect; the snow itself had worked its way into his fur, and left him feeling significantly colder than before. Walking through the snow was one thing, but actually lying down in it
was another matter. "Don't worry about it," he muttered, trying to keep himself from shivering. Out of all the gruesome fates he had imagined himself suffering at the hands of Fido and the other members of the K-9 unit, he supposed that taking a snowball to the face was getting off relatively lightly.
Fido, however, did not appear to be satisfied; the worry he felt was evident in his face. "I guess I don't know my own strength," he said. "I'm really very sorry.""Speak for yourself, I thought it was hilarious."
The small voice drew the attention of both King and Fido; Spo was peering out from his nest atop Fido's head. King thought he must have been seeing things, given how tiny the mouse was, but he could've sworn that it was smirking at him.
"That was the funniest thing I've seen all week," Spo continued. "I'm glad I didn't miss it!"
"Spo," Fido said, in a weary tone, "I thought you were napping."
"I was," Spo replied, "but it's hard to get any rest with you dogs yapping all the time. But that's okay, if I'd known that you guys were gonna spend the afternoon pelting Tiny here with snowballs, I wouldn't have wanted to sleep through it anyway. I bet you weren't even going to wake me up, were you?" The mouse actually managed to sound offended at the notion.
He wasn't the only one. "Who are you calling tiny, fuzzball?" King said, rising to his feet.
"I'll have you know that I'm very tall for a mouse, shorty," Spo replied, haughtily. "Notable height happens to run in my family."
"You don't look so big to me," King retorted.
"Oh yeah? Why don't you come up here and say that?" Spo challenged, gesturing to his perch. "Oh wait, you can't, cuz yer short!
That drew a growl from King, who had actually begun to advance toward the mouse before Peanut stepped in between them.
"Gentlemen, please," he said. "We're all on the same side here, and we can't afford to let petty disputes impede our progress. Besides, we have a lot more work to do."
"More work?" Fox said, incredulously. "You want to keep going?
"Of course. We've only just started the experiment, and if we stop now, all of our preparation will have been for nothing. We owe it to ourselves to continue. And as you've seen, King is unhurt.""Unhurt?"
Fox was aghast. "He was knocked out!
"A slight miscalculation," Peanut said, making a dismissive gesture. "Fido is a trained police officer, and is accustomed to using more force than is required for our purposes. The simplest solution is to have someone else do it, and so I will administer the remaining tests myself. Fair enough?"
Fox was not at all convinced. He turned to King, kneeling down and resting his hands upon the corgi's shoulders. "It's your choice. You don't have to do this if you don't want to. We can leave right now. Do you want to go on, or not?"
King was still glaring at Spo, who in turn was making a variety of crude faces at him, tugging down one of his lower eyelids and sticking his tongue out at the canine. He then turned his attention to Fox, and felt a sudden rush of guilt at the concern that was evident in the husky's navy blue eyes; he hated making his friend worry. "Why not?" he said, feigning a smile. "I mean, I'm probably going to end up with my face in the dirt sooner or later anyway... it might as well be for a good cause."
"Then we're agreed," Peanut said, clapping his hands together. "Once more unto the breach. Joey, bring me the second item."
Joey obediently fetched a burlap sack from its spot upon the ground, from which he withdrew a large, curved, metal object. Peanut took it in his hand, looking upon it with obvious admiration.
"A lucky horseshoe," he explained. "A little souvenir from my uncle's farm."
"Aren't you supposed to nail those things above a doorway?" Fido asked.
"Quite true, Fido, but I'm afraid that we don't have any doorways handy at the moment. But no matter. Do you still have your lucky penny, King?"
King looked down at his hand, and found that he was indeed still clutching the moldy old coin within his grasp. He was surprised that he hadn't dropped it when he fell. "Yes."
"Good. Now, take the horseshoe in your other hand. There you go. Hang on to both of them. Now, the rest of you, follow me back to the line. We'll see if Uncle Reuben's gift makes any difference."
As the others walked away from him, King lifted the horseshoe, testing its weight; it felt heavy in his hand, and certainly seemed more like just a hunk of iron than a mystical talisman.
"Now I'm certain
this was a bad idea..." he muttered to himself. He looked up and saw Peanut carefully forming another snowball within his hands, handling the white orb with a kind of reverence, as if it had to be the perfect size, shape, and weight. Peanut nodded in satisfaction, drew his arm back, and then let the icy projectile fly.
King even caught a glimpse of it speeding toward him before it struck him cleanly between the eyes, and just as Fido's had done before, sent him toppling to the ground like a tree felled by a lumberjack.
Fox's jaw slacked open where he stood. "How did you do that?" he asked.
Peanut smiled sheepishly, cupping a hand against the back of his head. "I, uh, play a lot of video games," he said. "Good hand-eye coordination, I guess."
The last thing King heard before he lost consciousness was the sound of Spo's squeaky voice yelling, "BOOM, HEADSHOT!"
"All right," Peanut said, brushing the snow off King's shoulders. He had approached the corgi alone this time, to personally inspect the damage he had inflicted. "Now we're making some progress."
"Progress?" King said, flatly. "That's what you call this?"
"Of course," Peanut replied. "Every piece of data we collect is valuable. Knowledge is power. We can learn something even from our mistakes, and use that information to reach a better conclusion."
"You wanna hear my conclusion?" King grumbled. "I don't think this is working."
"Come, come, keep your chin up," Peanut said, a wry smile upon his lips. He reached into his scarf, and gingerly withdrew a small plastic bag. "Here, this is the next charm," he said. "Please be careful, it's quite delicate."
King took hold of the proffered bag and held it up to the light to examine its contents. "A four-leaf clover," he murmured. "Where did you manage to find one of these, especially with all the snow on the ground?"
"It's from before the snow," Peanut said. "Grape found it while hunting for mice a few months ago. She gave it to me. I keep it under my pillow, next to--" Peanut abruptly stopped himself, and for a moment, King thought that he saw the dog's cheeks redden. "Well... I keep it in a safe place," he finished.
King nodded. "Grape is your sister, right? Will she be joining us today?" He didn't think it particularly likely that a cat would be hanging out with a bunch of dogs anyway, although that hadn't stopped her from showing up to their cookout in July; besides, if she was
going to make an appearance, then he thought it wise to have a little advance warning, so that he could at least keep his distance from her.
However, King regretted speaking the words almost as soon as they left his lips. Peanut's expression suddenly changed; his eyes narrowed, his jaw tightened, and his lips curled back to bare his fangs.
"No, she will not,
" Peanut said, tersely. "She's busy with Maxie
" He spoke the name with such venom that it made King shiver.
As Peanut walked back to where the others were waiting, King began to feel, with an increasing sense of dread, that he had said something wrong, although he couldn't imagine what it might have been. He thought that perhaps short tempers might have run in the Sandwich family, although that didn't make sense, considering that Peanut and his sister weren't even the same species.
Peanut was moving differently now, taking long, stalking steps, gathering up snow with a fierce swipe of his arm; the practiced, leisurely crafting that King had observed earlier was replaced by angry packing and mashing as he worked it into a ball, drew back, and--
King thought that maybe if he closed his eyes, the impact might have stung a little less.
His vision was blurry, and his limbs felt stiff. He still felt cold, but somehow not as cold as he had before. He wondered, idly, if perhaps he should take that as a bad sign. He could dimly remember hearing somewhere that warmth was one of the symptoms of hypothermia.
Fox was leaning over him, his head poking into view against the gray, overcast winter sky.
"Listen, uh, King?" he said. The tone in his voice wasn't exactly worried... he sounded more embarrassed than anything else. "That last hit, um, knocked your scarf off, and uh... we can't find it. We're not exactly sure what happened to it. So you just sit tight for a second, and we'll keep looking, okay?"
He nodded. Somewhere, from behind Fox, he could hear the sound of Spo's high-pitched, cackling laughter.
He closed his eyes.
"Three strikes," Fox sighed. "We're out."
"Now, now," Peanut chided, "it's not as bad as all that." He was carefully scrutinizing the clipboard he held. "While I admit that our early results have been... discouraging, I don't think the game is over quite yet. There are still a few more things for us to try, and--""HEY!"
The outburst drew the attention of all the dogs present; King was standing before them, looming large despite his height, his fur ragged, his fists clenched, and his teeth grit together.
"If you guys are just gonna knock me on my butt again," he said, panting for breath, "then why don't I just take all your little trinkets now, so you only have to do it once?"
The other dogs looked to Peanut, who appeared genuinely taken aback by the suggestion.
"I guess we could,
" he said, slowly. "In theory, there's no reason why it shouldn't work..."
Fox blanched. "Do you mean we could have just done that to begin with and avoided putting King through all this?"
Peanut shrugged. "I suppose so," he said. "We'd intended to slowly increase his luck and stop the tests as soon as it reached a certain threshold, but as I said, you can technically never have 'too much' good luck, so... there was really nothing stopping us from using all the charms on him at the same time."
Fox cupped his palm against his forehead and groaned.
"Well, no matter," Peanut said, cheerfully. "That just means that we have less work to do now, and we have more than enough data from our previous runs to conduct a final test. Did you bring any lucky items with you, like I asked?"
King, who had no luck to begin with, did not. Fox, however, stepped forward, undid the yellow kerchief from around his neck, and began to affix it over King's collar, in place of his lost scarf. King cradled the soft fabric within his hands, looking down at it uncertainly.
"Your bandanna?" he said. "Fox, I can't take--"
"Save it, buddy," Fox interrupted him. "You're not taking it... you're just keeping it warm for me, okay?"
King looked up at him, swallowed a lump in his throat, and nodded. Joey was the next to approach him; he handed King a small, surprisingly heavy cloth bag. King shook it a few times, and could distinctly hear a number of small objects rattling around inside. "What are these?" he asked.
"My lucky D&D dice," Joey said in hushed whisper. "They were a gift to me from Gary Gygax himself. Please... take care of them."
King lidded his eyes. "Right," he deadpanned. Fido was the last; he reached up, closed his eyes, and slowly drew his sunglasses off his face, before placing them upon King's head.
King wriggled his nose at the extra weight upon it. "Your sunglasses?" he asked.
sunglasses," Fido corrected him with a grin. "Why do you think I never take them off?"
"Because they're a chick magnet
, that's why."
Both Fido and King turned their weary eyes to Spo.
"It's true," the mouse continued. "All the girls want my main man Fido, and you know why? The glasses. Girls like bad boys, the kind who look like they don't care, and that's what the glasses do for him. 'He looks just like Jack Nicholson', that's what they say. Of course, I doubt they'd have the same effect for a stubby little runt like you. Size does matter, you know, and--HEY!
Spo's diatribe was cut off in mid-insult as Fido lifted the ranting rodent from between his ears, and carefully set him down atop King's head.
"Come to think of it," Fido said, "why don't you take my lucky mouse, too? I think this would be a good learning experience for him."
"Fido, wait!" Spo cried, running to the very edge of one of King's ears, and nearly falling off it. "Fido, I've always liked you! I didn't mean to nibble holes in your vest! I was hungry! Whatever it was, whatever I did, I'm sorry!
But the mouse's pleas fell upon deaf ears; the other canines all walked back to the line in the snow, leaving King by himself once more, carrying a penny, a clover, a horseshoe, and a bag of plastic dice, and wearing a neckerchief, a pair of sunglasses, and--last but not least--a weeping mouse for a hat.
"I feel like such an idiot," King murmured.
"That's okay, shorty," Spo opined, "'cause you look
like one, too."
King turned his eyes upward, although he couldn't see Spo, and in spite of himself, and everything that had happened to him today, he smiled.
"Your mother was a rat," he said.
There was a horrified squeak of a gasp, followed shortly after by Spo's shrieks as he flew into a rage. "YOU TAKE THAT BACK, YOU SON OF A--"
King was almost relieved when the snowball struck him in the face, and the mouse's furious voice fell silent.
"Why did you agree to help us, anyway?" Fox asked.
Peanut shrugged. "I was bored."
"Well, how disappointing," Peanut said, dejectedly. "I really thought that was going to work. His case of bad luck must be particularly severe."
"So we're done?" Joey asked. "There's nothing else we can try?"
Peanut sat in the snow, flipping through the pages of his clipboard. "I took notes on a few home remedies and pieces of folklore that were listed in my books, but some of them are pretty outlandish. I'm not sure they'd do us any good."
"I'm not sure we should subject King to any more of this," Fox said. "It can't be good for him. We could end up giving him a concussion or something."
"They're just snowballs, Fox," Fido mused. "You'll probably take harder hits than that next week. Go ahead and read a few of them off to us, Peanut. Let us know what we're dealing with here."
"Okay. First up is, uh... letting a baby puke on you. That's supposed to bring good luck."
That brought a chorus of "Ewwww!"s from all assembled, except for Spo; the mouse had fallen into the snow after the last volley, and didn't tolerate being buried in it nearly as well as King did. He was currently sitting perched on Fido's shoulder, wrapped in the edge of the dog's scarf, his teeth chattering, and his fur more blue than gray.
"Yeah," Peanut said. "They really don't get much better. Even if we wanted to try it, I don't know of any kids that young living in the neighborhood anyway. Next is... swinging a dead cat over your head by the tail in a graveyard at the stroke of midnight."
"No," Fido sighed, rubbing his eyes. "Just no. I can't even tell you how many laws we'd be breaking."
"Yeah, okay, I didn't think so either. Then there's, uh... pouring warm urine into your ear."
King merely stared at Peanut, his eyes lidded.
"Right, right," Peanut said quickly, flipping through the pages more rapidly. "Look, guys, these are just what I read, it's not my fault they're all disgusting. And we've already tried everything else, except for..." Peanut's eyes scanned the list in front of him, and he winced. He lifted his gaze to the others, and looked mildly ill. "... a lucky rabbit's foot."
Silence fell over the group. They all looked at one another, uneasily. It was Fox who finally spoke up.
"Where are we gonna get one of those?
"You're sure I don't have to do anything?"
Zach's nose twitched and his whiskers trembled; Peanut supposed that it was in a rabbit's nature, as a prey animal, to be nervous, especially with so many dogs around.
"I promise," Peanut said. "All you have to do is stand here, like we discussed. You don't have to move an inch. Okay?"
Zach's nose twitched once more, and he still looked uncertain, but he nodded nonetheless. "Okay," he said. "I think I can do that."
"Good." Peanut turned to King. "Just, uh... hold his hand, or something, all right? You have to be in physical contact with him, but it doesn't really matter how. Oh, I almost forgot. Zach, this is King. King, meet Zach."
"'Sup," Zach said, wiggling his fingers in greeting.
"Hi," King muttered, bluntly. He grasped the rabbit's hand within his own. "Let's just get this over with."
Peanut nodded, and jogged back to the line in the snow where Fido and the others were gathered. "Okay," he said, panting, "this is it. After this, I'm afraid I'm out of ideas."
"Are you sure about this?" Fido asked, skeptically. "I thought we only needed a rabbit's foot."
"That's the beauty of it," Peanut said, grinning. "We've got a whole rabbit. I figure he's got to be about ten times as lucky as just one foot." He knelt down to get a handful of snow, when Fox stopped him.
"Let me do it this time," the husky said. "Maybe I can hit him in the body and avoid giving him brain damage, like you guys."
King's breathing quickened as he watched Fox bend down and scoop the snow into his hands. He didn't know why he felt so anxious; he was sure that this time wouldn't feel any different from those that had come before, although that didn't mean he was looking forward to it. As Fox wound up, King squeezed Zach's hand more tightly, closed his eyes, and--PAF.
King opened his eyes, first one, then the other. He had clearly heard the impact of the snowball, and yet, he was still standing. He looked down at himself, checking to see if Fox had caught him lower on his body, but as far as he could tell, that was not the case; it appeared that Fox had missed him entirely.
"It worked," he whispered. He smiled, not quite believing it himself, and said it again, more loudly. "It worked! Hey Zach, it--"
King turned, only to find that his rabbit companion was nowhere to be seen. He looked down at the hand he was still holding within his own, and followed it to find the bunny who was lying prone in the snow beside him, a fresh snowball embedded squarely in the middle of his forehead.
"--ooh. Ooh, hey... hey, Zach?"
"So, how do you feel?"
King glanced at Peanut as he walked along the edge of the glade. The taller dog was smiling broadly, apparently satisfied with the results of his grand experiment. His tail was wagging behind him at a mile a minute.
King, however, did not feel quite so joyous. "Okay, I guess," he murmured. "How's Zach?"
Peanut looked over his shoulder; Fido had managed to sit the stunned bunny up, while Joey was using his clipboard to fan him. "He'll come around in a minute," he said. "I've been a little shell-shocked before myself, it's not that big a deal."
At the very least, Peanut expected a smile from the corgi, but instead, he merely cast his eyes down toward the ground as he walked; he got the impression that if King had pockets, both his hands would be jammed firmly inside them.
"What's the matter?" Peanut asked. "You wanted to change your luck, didn't you? I thought you'd be happy."
"Yes, but..." King sighed. "Look, I appreciate what all of you guys tried to do for me..." He rubbed his hand across his face, still able to feel the sting of the snowballs there. "... I guess... but to be honest, I don't feel particularly lucky."
"Really?" Peanut tilted his head to the side. "Would you like us to try again?""No!"
King almost screamed the word, holding his hands up in a defensive posture. "No, that's okay!"
Peanut smiled faintly. "Mmm... you know, there is one thing we haven't tried," he said. "Something that I read about a long time ago. It's not very scientific, I guess--not that any of this has been, I suppose--but you might find it helpful. I don't know."
King was almost afraid to ask. "W... what is it?" he said, hesitantly.
"A while back, I took a correspondence course in Akkadian." That drew a strange look from King, and Peanut merely shrugged. "I was bored," he explained. "Anyway, one of the things I learned was that the ancient Babylonians had a special prayer for dogs. They called it 'The Master's Blessing'. I always thought that was kind of neat, and so it stuck with me. I still remember it."
King's ears perked. "A prayer, huh?" That sounded simple enough, and relatively harmless. "How does it go?"
"In English, it reads, 'The Master's dog, the king who cannot be rivaled'." Peanut closed his eyes, his brow furrowing in concentration. "In the original Akkadian, it's 'Kalab bel-im, sar la sanan'."
King glanced back toward Fox, who was helping the still-disoriented Zach to get his bearings. "That's a mouthful," he said. "Could you say it again?"
When King looked back, Peanut was gone.
The corgi stopped in his tracks. He looked left, and then right; indeed, Peanut was still gone. The other dog had vanished. King looked all around himself; Peanut was nowhere to be found. He wasn't with the others, and King couldn't see him anywhere else in the clearing. They were near the treeline, and so he may have gone into the forest, but King's attention had been drawn away for only a moment, and he hadn't heard the sound of the snow crunching beneath Peanut's feet as he'd walked away. Besides that, he had given no indication of going anywhere, and although King didn't know him very well, he didn't seem like the sort who would leave without saying goodbye.
He had simply... disappeared, into thin air.
"Huh," King said, rubbing the back of his head with his hand, "where did he go?"
~Peanut opened his eyes and found that he was not in Babylon Gardens anymore.
For that matter, he was not exactly certain where he was. He was standing upon a platform of some kind, and the ground beneath his feet appeared to be some variety of cobblestone. But there were no streets, no buildings, no structures of any kind. There was... nothing. Nothing, all around him. Blackness that seemed to expand in every direction.
Not darkness. In the dark, there would have been stars, like the kind he gazed at so often. Here, in this place, there were no stars, nor any clouds to hide them. Just the black, everywhere. Everywhere except the light.
A single street light rose above the middle of the platform, casting down a beam of light under which he now stood. It was the only indication of any civilization, that anyone had ever been here. It was an old-style oil lantern, like the kind Peanut had read about in history books. He didn't know they still made them like that anymore.
His head hurt. The light was warm upon his face, and felt comforting, but it didn't extend very far beyond the lamp itself; beyond it, there was nothing but the blackness, on every side, as if the ground he was standing upon was floating by itself in the middle of some vast void.
"Hello?" he called out, his voice echoing into the empty space.
"Is anyone there?"
He took a small, hesitant step out of the light; he was reluctant to leave its protection, but he couldn't simply wait here for something to happen. He had to find a way out of here... wherever "here" was.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you. If you wander off, you might never find your way back."
Peanut spun around toward the source of the voice. There was a man standing under the light. Peanut was certain that no one was there a moment ago. The man was well-dressed, wearing a brown suit and slacks, fancy shoes, and a bowler hat atop his head. A thick, white mustache rested just beneath his nose, but the edge of his hat was tipped down over his face, and Peanut could not see his eyes. He gripped a wooden cane within his gloved hands, lightly tapping it against the cobblestones.
"I must apologize for bringing you here," the man continued. "I'm afraid that the protective seal I have in place does not make a distinction between counterspells and other, more benign incantations. A small failsafe against those who would seek to interfere with my plans. It has been a long time since I last heard The Master's Blessing. You speak it quite well."
"Huh?" Peanut said. "What are you talking about?" he asked. "Who are you?"
"My name is not important," the man said, "and besides, you would not be able to pronounce it in your language."
Peanut squinted at the man, trying to better discern his features, but he was finding it difficult to concentrate; the man appeared to be fuzzy, in flux, his shape constantly shifting and changing, like static on a television set. "You look familiar," he said, rubbing his temples. "Do I know you?"
"No," the man replied. "But I know you... in a roundabout fashion. I borrowed your shape to speak to the other one, in her dreams. She was part of my design, but you are not. I must say that I did not expect you to find your way here. Most interesting."
Warning bells were going off in Peanut's mind, but it was difficult to hear them. His headache was getting worse; he knew that he had seen this man somewhere before, but the memory was dim, clouded, struggling to find its way to the surface. "I... I can't remember," he said.
"You do not belong here," the man said. "You are disoriented. This dimension is not suited to you lesser creatures. You lack the number of senses needed to properly perceive it."
"I... I want to go home."
"As I said, it was not my intention to summon you here. And yet..." The man paused. "... and yet, now that you are here, you may be of some use to me."
"What do you mean?" Peanut held his head within his hands; something about this place made him feel sick to his stomach.
"You see, I too would like to leave this place, and I have been waiting patiently for the proper opportunity to do so. And now, thanks to you, I believe I may have found it. I wonder, would you be willing to help me?"
Peanut lifted his eyes to the man, although they felt heavy, and reluctant to open. "If I help you... can I go home?"
Peanut thought that he could see the man smile, although his vision was so blurry, and the man's mustache was so thick, that he couldn't be sure. "Yes," the man said. "If you agree to help me, then you can go home."
Peanut ignored the muffled voice of caution in the back of his mind and nodded. Right now, he wanted nothing more than to leave this place. "Okay," he said. "What do I have to do?"
"Excellent," the man said, tapping his cane against the ground once more. He gestured with it toward the base of the street light. "All you have to do is look in here."
Peanut peered at the spot the man had indicated; he was pointing toward a small wooden bucket that sat upon the ground. Peanut didn't remember seeing it there before. He knelt down in front of it, and leaned over the open container. It was filled with water, and despite his hazy vision, he could clearly see his reflection in the surface. He could also see the reflection of the man behind him as he leaned over Peanut's shoulder. There was a glimmer of yellow light from somewhere beneath the man's hat, and then--
Fox ran over to the spot where the corgi still stood, scratching his head and looking around in bewilderment. King smiled as his friend approached, but the confusion he felt was clear upon his face.
"Hey, Fox. Have you seen Peanut? He was here a minute ago, and now he's... uh... not."
"Peanut?" The husky paused, and shook his head. "Nah, he probably took off right after we got finished. He's always busy, moving from one thing to the next. And besides that, we've been out here in the snow all day. I wouldn't be surprised if he just wanted to get home and warm up for a while. That's what we're going to do, anyway."
"Huh?" King blinked. "We are?"
Fox nodded. "Yeah, I'm sure Dad is still grilling, so the rest of us are going to head back to my house and eat a few burgers. Well, except for Zach, I guess, maybe Dad can fix him a salad, or something. Do you want to come?"
"Sure," King said, nodding slowly. He looked back over his shoulder, hesitantly, as they left the snowy clearing, and made their way back to the street.
"So, how do you feel?" Fox asked.
"Peanut asked me the same thing," King replied. "You know, at the time, I didn't feel any different, but now that you mention it... I do feel a bit better. Maybe my luck really is
Fox's shoulders slumped. "Well, actually... I have a confession to make."
King canted his head. "What is it?"
"On that last throw, I kind of... fudged the test. I missed you on purpose."
"You missed me?" King stared at him. "... and so you hit
"Well, I didn't mean to!" Fox complained. "I got tired of seeing the others knock you down, and I didn't want to hurt you, so I threw it wide, and... and it caught him right in the face! I'm sorry!"
King's mouth twitched as he tried, and failed, to suppress his laughter. His body shook with surprising force for so small a dog, and he doubled over where he stood, clutching his sides and gasping for air between each guffaw.
"Well, I'm glad you're
amused," Fox said, wryly. "I still haven't told Zach yet, and I'm not sure if I want to. I'd hate for him to think that I dislike him, or something."
King took a moment to catch his breath, straightening his posture and smiling at his friend. "It's not that, it's... jeez, I dunno, Fox. You know, for a long time now, ever since I got here, I've felt like I had a pair of eyes on me... like I was always being watched. And now, for the first time, I don't have that feeling. It's like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, like those eyes are looking somewhere else."
"Aw, you're just being paranoid," Fox said, dismissively. "You also made a lot of new friends today. Fido, Zach, Peanut... we all take care of each other. That's what the pets in Babylon Gardens do. So stop worrying and let us watch your back for a little while. You should be thinking about what you want on your burgers, because I know my Dad is gonna ask the minute we walk through the door."
King licked his lips at the thought; he was
hungry, and the thought of a juicy burger or two--his first real meal in recent memory--was not an unappealing one. However, one thought still nagged at him, and he cast a lingering glance back toward toward the forest; if he really had made a new friend today, then he was only right to be concerned. King could not help but wonder, now that those ever-present eyes were no longer watching him, just where they had turned their baleful gaze.
"Peanut, I'm home!"
Grape blew in through the front door to the Sandwich household with a chill winter breeze, shivering as she shut it behind her. The sudden rush of warmth from inside the house was a feeling she relished; it made her fur stand on end, creating a slightly ticklish sensation, one that made her giggle. She unraveled her scarf from around her throat and tossed it onto the rack by the door, making her way into the living room. She could see the back of Peanut's head where he sat upon the couch, looking toward the crackling fireplace.
"Sorry I'm late. Maxie and I were picking out the things that we each want for Christmas this year. I haven't gotten you anything yet, so you need to let me know what you'd like, okay? Anyway, we were in the PetMart, looking at cat toys, and I saw the cutest little catnip mousie. It was red, and it would squeak when you squeezed it! Not that there's any such thing as red mice or anything, but you know that's my favorite color. So Maxie offers to get it for me, and I just laugh at him and remind him that they don't sell catnip to pets, right? And he tells me not worry, and that he'll just tell his Dad to get us both one for Christmas. So then I ask him if he doesn't already get enough catnip for Christmas anyway, because his parents buy it in these huge bags that--Peanut?"
Grape paused to stare at him. He hadn't moved a muscle, let alone acknowledged her presence. "Peanut, are you okay?"
She crept closer to him, slowly, moving soundlessly upon the floor. He sat perfectly still, as rigid as a statue.
"Peanut?" she repeated, feeling a vague, indescribable fear rising into a knot in her stomach. "You're not mad at me, are you?"
There was a sudden, jerking movement from him, as if her voice had startled him. He turned his head slightly, enough for her to see that his eyes were closed. "Oh, Grape," he said. "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in. I must have dozed off."
Grape sighed, allowing the tension to leave her body along with it as a wave of relief washed over her. "I'm sorry about leaving you alone today," she said. "You knew that I had plans."
"S'okay," he said. His voice was barely above a whisper. He reached out, patting the spot at his side with his palm. "Come sit with me?"
Grape smiled, and walked around the couch, crawling forward upon the cushions. She stretched herself across his lap, as she was accustomed to doing, resting her chin upon the armrest of the sofa; he bowed his head forward, rubbing his nose between her ears, and stroking his hand down her back, all the way from the nape of her neck to the base of her tail.
"Mmm," she purred, rubbing her head beneath his chin, "you're being affectionate tonight."
His fingers idly scratched the back of her neck. "Is that bad?" he whispered.
"No," she sighed, resting her cheek upon the armrest, soaking up the warmth of his body, as well as that of the glowing fire. She lidded her eyes, looking into the flames, watching the dancing shadows that the light cast upon the room. "Have you just been sitting here by yourself all day?"
"I solved a problem today," he said, rubbing his palm between her shoulder blades. "I feel like I accomplished something."
"Mmm... nothing too serious, I hope?"
"Nothing that I couldn't handle."
"Good." She nestled closer against him, yawning, and allowed her eyes to drift shut, his familiar closeness and warmth making her feel pleasantly groggy. "I don't have any plans for tomorrow," she whispered. "I thought we might stay in and play some games together... is that okay?"
"I'd like that," he murmured, resting his chin atop her head, between her ears. His arms held her close, as they had many times before. "After all..."
Peanut's eyes cracked open, gazing into the fireplace. From where she lay, Grape could not see the fanged smile that spread across his face, or how his eyes glowed in the darkness, a gleaming, golden hue that shone even more brilliantly than her own.
"... you know how much I love