“Are you sure you don’t mind watching the house while we’re on our honeymoon? I can call Sophie, you know. She’d love the excuse to spend two weeks in Halloweentown.” Marnie looked anxiously at her brother as she spoke, scanning his face for signs that he wasn’t actually okay with the situation--or worse, that he was planning to run for the human world the second she was out of the picture, leaving the house unguarded and unwatched for almost two full weeks. “It’s just that the spiders need to be fed, and the pitcher plants will want their rats, and you have to watch that the bats don’t get into the attic, it upsets the ghosts, and--”
“Marnie! Marnie, breathe, okay?” Dylan reached up and adjusted his glasses. “First, you’re not asking me to watch the house for two weeks. You’re asking me to watch the house for thirteen days. Completely different. For example, that is one less day I have to spend thinking about you having carnal relations with a goblin. See how nice that is for me?”
Marnie raised an eyebrow. “We’ll have sex when we get home, too, you know. We’ve been living in this house for years, together, having sex in whatever room or rooms we wanted. I’m a witch. Even the ceilings have been tainted.”
“I brought bleach,” said Dylan. “Go. I’ll be fine. I have my computer. I have a lot of work to catch up on. And I have Ethan to keep me company.”
“The fact that Luke is all right with Ethan being in our house while we’re away is just shy of a miracle.” Marnie reached out to cup Dylan’s cheek with her hand. “The fact that you’re the one housesitting for us actually is a miracle. Thank you. This means a lot to me.”
“Go.” Dylan turned his head until he could kiss the side of her hand. “You are my sister and I love you and if you don’t get out of here right now I’m going to change my mind and leave you with nobody to feed your spiders. Benny’s waiting. Luke’s going to start thinking you changed your mind.”
“You’re probably right about that,” said Marnie ruefully. She took her hand away. “I’ve left a headphone on the mantle. Call if you need anything.” Then she turned and ran for the cab, still in her wedding gown, bare feet slapping against the cobblestones of the path that led to her front door. Dylan caught a glimpse of Luke as the cab door opened: green skin, orange hair, and that perpetually worried expression, like the goblin was just waiting for whatever spell was responsible for his life to finally pop like a soap bubble and leave him with the life he should have had.
Dylan couldn’t blame Luke for that. He could blame the goblin for a lot of things, and what guy likes his sister’s first serious boyfriend? Luke had put his hands on Marnie in ways that Dylan refused to think about, and only the fact that Marnie had usually been the one telling Luke what she wanted had kept Dylan from putting his hands on Luke a few times, when he had still been in his teens, suffering from testosterone poisoning, and inclined to hit before he thought things through. But he couldn’t blame Luke for being a little insecure, especially where Marnie was concerned. She was the latest in a long line of Cromwell witches tasked with the safety and well-being of all Halloweentown, and Luke was, well...Luke. A man whose verdigrised complexion was the envy of every bullfrog in every pond in town, whose primary job skill was a dogged determination to make sure things turned out the way he thought they should. A jack-o-lantern of all trades, in other words. Some people married above their station. Luke had married above his species, and Dylan wasn’t surprised to see that he was still having trouble believing it.
“Believe it, buddy,” murmured Dylan. He raised one hand in a wave. Benny, the magically animated skeleton who drove the Halloweentown taxi, waved back. Then he hit the gas and away he went, his cartoony yellow cab dragging streamers and tin cans behind it. Someone had helpfully written JUST MARRIED across the back window, as if anyone in Halloweentown--or indeed, the entire magical world--could have missed the wedding of the century. Marnie was Halloween royalty. They didn’t need to announce their marriage to anyone. Everyone already knew.
The cab moved out of view. Dylan shut the door, turned the lock, and bent forward until his forehead rested against the cool wood. He shut his eyes for good measure. The world went away. That was a nice change.
Dylan opened his eyes. The world came back. He found he didn’t mind so much, if he was going to be sharing the world with the owner of that voice. “Yes?”
“Everything is great.” The rangy warlock turned, dusting his hands together before shoving them awkwardly into the pockets of his jeans. The gesture felt artificial, but it was too late now: he was committed. If he pulled his hands out, Ethan might realize that he was nervous. And he was a Cromwell warlock on home ground. What did he have to be nervous about?
The main cause of Dylan’s nervousness gave him a dubious look. Ethan Dalloway was very good at dubious looks; good enough that Dylan sometimes wondered if he practiced in the mirror when no one was looking. It would have explained a lot. “That was the most unconvincing ‘everything is great’ I’ve heard in a long time.”
Dylan shrugged broadly. “Sincerity is not my strong suit.” He smiled, hoping his on-again, off-again, will-we, won’t-we, what-are-we friend would believe him. Was it all right for him to call Ethan his boyfriend when they’d only been on a few dates, and had never kissed? What was the rule on that? Dylan liked rules, and liked them best when they were clear and easy to understand. Maybe written down. Written down would have been good. Maybe with a nice index he could reference when he got confused, which was destined to be often.
Really, he was great with computers. Top of his field. Worth every penny that his overrated tech firm employers threw his way. It was just people that he wasn’t so good at. People, and magic, and anything involving Halloweentown. Which was why he had agreed to housesit for Marnie and Luke while they went off on their honeymoon. This was his heritage as much as it was Marnie’s, and it was time for him to start coming to terms with it. Especially if he was going to convince Ethan that he was serious about going somewhere with their relationship.
Ethan Dalloway might not be a warlock anymore--hadn’t been since he had repudiated his powers after his father tried to take over the world--but this was still the place where he’d grown up. Warlock or no, all Dylan’s roots were in the mortal world, and all Ethan’s roots were in the magical world. They had to have common ground somewhere. Maybe it was in Halloweentown, in the place where the walls between the magical and mortal world were still thin enough to let them bleed over into each other.
(Dylan had often wondered, since he had learned about the extended magical world, whether his world was to the real mortal world as Halloweentown was to the real magical world. Maybe there was a door hidden somewhere, in an accountant’s office or behind a file cabinet full of architectural plans, and on the other side of that door was a world so profoundly ordinary that Dylan’s reality would seem like a Wonderland dream. He found the idea both compelling and oddly terrifying. If monsters could tumble into the human world--and his existence was proof of that--what was there to stop him from tumbling into a reality where his ability to employ poor grammar would make him a god?)
“Neither is believability,” said Ethan. “Marnie’s really okay with me being here with you? I mean, this is her house and everything.”
“The concern is less ‘Marnie,’ and more ‘Luke,’” said Dylan. “Is Luke really okay with you being here, in his house, at all? No. I don’t think he’s ever going to be. Marnie has a very short list of ‘boys I have kissed,’ and apart from him, you’ve got the longest kissing streak.”
Ethan grinned a little, nostalgically. “Yeah, well, he wasn’t around back then. I would never have started kissing her if he had been. Anyone who’s ever seen the way Marnie looks at him knows that.”
“Anyone but Luke. He’s been waiting for her to leave him since before they got together,” said Dylan. Inwardly, he was cringing. How were they still talking about Marnie? He loved his sister, but sometimes it felt like his entire life revolved around her. The boys she’d kissed, the adventures she’d had. He was always the spunky sidekick, the younger brother, and sometimes the deus ex machina to be whipped out at the last moment and used to deliver the final, humiliating blow to the bad guy, who hadn’t even been worth being taken out by Marnie herself. It was an awkward way to live. Sometimes he wondered if that wasn’t why he’d chosen a mundane life to the degree that he had.
At least in the mortal world, he wasn’t standing in the shadow of all the other Cromwells. Including his own sister.
“True enough,” said Ethan. Then he smiled. Dylan’s heart lurched, seeming to go out of synch with itself. Ethan Galloway didn’t have any magic left. As far as Dylan was concerned, he didn’t need it. All he needed was that smile.
Ethan was a little shorter than Dylan--trees were a little shorter than Dylan, who had inherited his mortal father’s height--with sandy blond hair that always seemed to want to flop down over his left eye, no matter how much gel he put in it. His eyes were blue, his teeth were white, and his smile could have convinced the forces of darkness to go home and think about what they’d done. Taken all together it was a devastating package, and it was easy to see why his father had once looked at him and thought “yes, my son should rule the magical world.” Ethan could have ruled any world he’d taken a liking to, as long as he was willing to hand out autographed pictures twice a year.
“So, um,” said Dylan. “What did you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” said Ethan. He smiled again, a little more shyly this time, like he was just as concerned about what came next as Dylan. But that wasn’t possible. Was it? Ethan was, well...Ethan. He was smart, and handsome, and sure, he didn’t have magical powers anymore, but he’d still been allowed to finish his education at Witch U. The school allowed mortals and creatures who didn’t have magical powers, after all; there was no reason to expel a powerless warlock. Plus, Ethan had dated plenty.
So had Dylan, mind--unlike his sister, whose two non-Luke boyfriends had both been way stations on the path to the inevitable, Dylan had played around while he figured things out. He’d tried dating girls, only to find that he could never quite relax. Something was wrong. Something he didn’t figure out until his senior year at Witch U, when he’d seen Ethan playing catch with water balloons on the school quad.
If there was any better means of figuring out “oh, shit, I think I’m gay” than seeing Ethan Dalloway in a skin-tight white shirt, being soaked from four directions at once, Dylan was pretty sure he wasn’t going find it in his lifetime.
Shortly after that revelation and before he could do anything, Dylan had left Witch U. for graduate school in the mortal world, using falsified records to secure himself a place at MIT, where he had passed three glorious years surrounded by nerds, geeks, and others of his kind. Sure, he was the only kid in school who could conjure his lunch when he forgot to pack it, and sure, sometimes he missed the simplicity of Halloweentown, where the weather was always the same and no one ever looked at you funny for eating candy corn on the cob with your roast pumpkin sandwiches, but the ready availability of so many potential dates had helped to take the sting out of the changing seasons. He’d gone out with lots of boys, losing his virginity to a teacher’s aide in the back of a lecture hall, biting down on his knuckles and moaning like he’d just seen the face of God. He knew about boys.
Ethan wasn’t boys. Ethan was Ethan, the platonic ideal of what boys could be, and while Dylan had given Marnie the impression that they were a comfortable, established couple when he’d mentioned he was bringing Ethan as his plus one to her wedding, the reality was that they’d barely gotten past the awkward coffee dates stage. There just hadn’t been time, and they were usually in different worlds, literally.
There was time now. Thirteen whole days. Dylan took a step toward Ethan, trying to keep his voice light and easy as he said, “Well, we could go for a walk down by the bog. It’s really, um, pretty there. There’s frogs and fireflies and everything. It’s totally biologically implausible, of course, since fireflies don’t usually coexist with that many species of frog, and--”
Ethan’s mouth over his stopped him in mid-sentence. Dylan blinked for a moment in stunned silence before he closed his eyes and sank into the kiss. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. Leaving them in his pockets seemed like the wrong thing, so he pulled them out and placed them on Ethan’s shoulders. That felt wrong, too, like he was about to push the other man away. He slid them around to cup Ethan’s shoulder blades, feeling them flex against his fingers as Ethan slipped his arms around Dylan’s waist. Yes. This was the right thing; this was...
This was exactly right. They were standing in his sister’s living room, making out like a couple of teenagers, and this was perfect. This was how things were supposed to be. He wasn’t a secondary character in someone else’s story. He was Dylan Piper, and he was kissing Ethan Dalloway, and everything was perfect.
Until Ethan pulled away, looking stricken. Dylan lowered his hands, panic beginning to snarl his thoughts. “Did I do something wrong?” he asked. “I’m sorry, Ethan, it was just that you kissed me, and I thought...” He trailed off. He’d thought what? That this was going somewhere? That he got to be the kind of guy who kissed people now, instead of the guy who stood aside while everything exciting happened to someone else? A big sister getting married wasn’t the kind of magic that changed the world into something it wasn’t supposed to be. He knew that.
But still, he’d hoped. For just a moment, he’d hoped.
“No,” said Ethan quickly. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Dylan. You’re a great guy, you know that? You’re smart, and you’re funny, and you’re really down to earth, which is basically a miracle, given your family. It’s just...” He stopped, and shrugged, and said, “We both know this can’t go anywhere. I don’t want to lead you on. It’ll just end with both of us getting hurt, and I like you way too much to do that to you. Hell, I like me way too much to do that to myself.”
“I’m a big boy, Ethan. I think I can do my own risk management. Besides, who says this can’t go anywhere? I like you a lot. I’d like to think that we could figure out a way to make things work out.” Dylan reached out to take Ethan’s hand. Ethan stepped back, out of his reach.
“You’re a Cromwell,” he said, like Dylan could somehow have failed to notice; like Dylan hadn’t been aware of his family’s position since he had followed Marnie onto the bus that first, fateful Halloween. “You’re not going to be in charge the way your sister is, but you’re always going to be part of the family. My family has been discredited, remember? Even if I still had magic, you wouldn’t be able to have a relationship with me. This town is never going to trust me.”
“See, much as I hate to bring Marnie back into a conversation that had become blessedly sister-free, this is where I point out that she flirted heavily with the son of the man who tried to destroy Halloweentown--a man who used to date our mother, by the way, in case that matters--and that when she first met Luke, he looked human, courtesy of that same man’s magic. Plus Mom sort of had a fling with a frog golem created by Kal. The son I mentioned earlier. My family doesn’t just have a history of getting involved with our bad guys. It’s practically part of the Cromwell legacy. This town would welcome you with open arms if you came as part of a package deal with me. They’re sort of weirdly myopic like that. I don’t get it, but hey, it’s not my town that’s constantly under siege by the forces of darkness.” Dylan shrugged, trying to look casual. He was desperately afraid that he wasn’t doing a very good job of it. “Dating people who either are or used to be the bad guy is a family tradition.”
“Maybe that’s why Marnie went out with me,” said Ethan.
Dylan grimaced. “You were a rest stop on the long road to Luke. She didn’t want to admit that at the time, but everyone else knew it. Even Mom. Even me.”
“Oh?” Ethan smirked a little, finally seeming to relax. “Is that why you kept glaring at me when I was going out with her?”
“No. I glared at you because you were a dude who was dating my sister, which totally made you the enemy. Also because I wanted to be dating you, but I didn’t understand that yet, so I was sort of a dick.”
“So what you’re saying is that when Marnie dated me, I was her reformed enemy, and now that I’m yours, you want to be dating me.”
“No, I wasn’t--” Dylan paused. “Actually, yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. You are my reformed enemy. Cromwell tradition demands that we make out. A lot. The honor of Merlin demands it.”
Ethan laughed as he stepped forward again, finally coming back into reach. Dylan reached for him, feeling like everything was falling together at last. He and Ethan were going to find a way to make a go of this, whether here, in the magical world, or in the mortal world, and he was no longer going to feel like he was standing in his sister’s shadow. It was a lot to hang on one relationship that might not work out, but still. Ethan was right. He’d known that for a long time. Now he was finally going to get the chance to prove it.
Dylan laced his fingers into Ethan’s hair, pulling him in for a kiss, just as lightning split the night outside the windows, and the world turned black with rain.
This time, they both stepped away from the other, turning to stare in disbelief at the sudden storm thundering down outside. Ethan spoke first.
“I thought you Cromwells used magic to make sure that Halloweentown always had the ideal weather for the situation.”
“We do. I mean, Grandma Aggie and Marnie do. I am not a meteorologist. I mostly complain about getting my shoes wet.”
“Why does your sister getting married warrant a downpour? Is this a tradition I somehow missed?”
“Uh, no, Marnie said the schedule called for clear skies and suggested I take you on a broomstick ride.” Dylan stepped closer to the window, adding, in a distracted tone, “Luke choked on his coffee when she said that. I don’t think she understands that ‘broomstick ride’ can also be innuendo.”
“She never really did get the hang of subtext,” said Ethan. “It made some things really easy, and other things really hard.”
“Yeah. Do all magical kids grow up with that little subtlety?”
“No. Just Marnie.”
“Huh.” Dylan squinted at the rain. Something about it seemed wrong, something more than the simple fact that it was falling when it hadn’t been summoned. The weather in Halloweentown could also reflect the health of the realm, much like the jack-o-lantern in the square. It wasn’t the best barometer. Sometimes it was the only thing that they had. “Not trying to make a pass this time, I swear, but would you mind taking a little broomstick ride? There’s something I want to check on.”
“Sure,” said Ethan, stepping up next to Dylan. He slid his hand into the other man’s, and for a moment they just stood there, silent, transfixed by the storm.
Something was wrong.
Dylan was not nearly as skilled on a broomstick as his sister. This was partially because he lived in the mortal world, where stick shifts were a lot more useful than straight-up “sticks,” and partially because he liked means of transport that were less likely to end with him splattered across the landscape. Still, he understood the basics, and Ethan was a good passenger. If he missed being able to control a broomstick on his own, he didn’t show it; he just sat behind Dylan, knees pressed against his hips, and held the umbrella.
The extremely necessary umbrella. The enchantments on the broomstick that allowed it to fly also kept things like rain, smog, and blood tsunamis from getting into the driver’s eyes--sort of built-in supernatural goggles--but they didn’t do anything about keeping the driver warm in cold weather, or dry when it was raining. It was the sort of selective protection that the magical world specialized in, and that drove Dylan absolutely crazy. Why wouldn’t they come up with more comprehensive protection spells, things to keep themselves and their passengers safe no matter what was going on?
But this wasn’t the time to dwell on the failings of the magical world. With Ethan hanging tightly to his shoulders, Dylan guided his broomstick up, up, up until it seemed like there was no possible way they could still be in the grips of the storm; they should have broken through the cloud cover and into the high, safe sky on the other side. And yet, somehow, they hadn’t. The rain pelted down all around them, forcing Dylan to fly at an angle to avoid being jolted off the broom. The umbrella Ethan held was blocking the majority of the rain, but they were still soaked to the skin by the time they reached the square.
Dylan gasped. Ethan, who didn’t understand Halloweentown the way that Dylan did, leaned closer, almost resting his chin on the other man’s shoulder, and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“The jack-o-lantern! It’s gone dark!”
The big, jolly pumpkin whose light was the best barometer of the health of Halloweentown was barely visible through the storm. Its ever-burning candle had blown out. That had only happened a few times before in Dylan’s memory. It had always been bad.
“What does that mean?” asked Ethan.
“It means we need to get to Grandma’s house, and fast.” Dylan hauled on the broomstick, turning in mid-air and starting to race back the way that they had come. With the rain sleeting down around them and the candle no longer burning, the night was almost completely black. Under the circumstances, it was only natural that he missed the thin shimmer of the force field hanging in the air. He flew straight into it, like a bird tricked by an overly-clean window.
The broomstick snapped. Dylan and Ethan fell, screaming and reaching for each other, into darkness.
Dylan woke on a bed of what felt like pumpkin guts. He sat up, head still spinning from his impact with the force field, and found that his first impression had been accurate: he was sprawled in a large wading pool filled with pumpkin guts. Oddly, he was relieved. Better pumpkin guts than most of the things that felt like pumpkin guts. Vomit, for example. Or actual guts, removed from something warmer and more vital than a gourd. At least it wasn’t raining anymore, even if he was still damp and everything smelled faintly of leaf mold. That was an understandable side-effect of a rainstorm in a realm of eternal autumn, but still, would it have killed them to rake once in a while?
There was a splinter in his index finger. He sucked it out, remembering the impact as he did, the sound the broomstick had made when it splintered. That, in turn, reminded him that he hadn’t fallen alone. Dylan sat abruptly bolt upright, ignoring the pain the gesture awoke in his head. “Ethan!”
“Ah, good. You’re awake and lucid.” The voice wasn’t Ethan’s. Ethan never sounded so...so slimy. It was the vocal equivalent of rancid pumpkin guts, twisted and rotting and covered in indescribable ooze. Its owner stepped out of the shadows, smirking. “I was afraid I’d broken you, and that wouldn’t be any fun at all. Not when we’ve barely gotten started.”
Dylan’s eyes widened. “Kal.”
“In the too, too solid flesh.” The man in front of him gave a little bow, the boy he’d been still visible in his smirk, which hadn’t changed a bit. “I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.”
“Being pulled into portals to other dimensions is usually pretty final, yeah.” Dylan shoved himself to his feet. “Where is Ethan? If you’ve hurt him--”
Kal actually took a step backward, looking bemused. “The Dalloway boy? This is what this about? I expected you to have a better focus for your anger.”
“Yeah, well, I have trouble focusing on what I’m told to focus on. It always drove my teachers crazy.” Dylan raked a hand through his hair, coming away with a fistful of stringy pumpkin guts. He briefly considered chucking it at Kal before throwing it aside. Best not to antagonize the evil warlock who had somehow managed to find a way back through a supposedly unbreechable portal to the eternal darkness. Not unless he wanted to spend the rest of the night slinging fireballs and not finding Ethan. “Where is he, Kal?”
Kal stared at him.
He had grown up to be fairly handsome, like his father before him, with a good, strong-jawed face and a full head of thick black hair. His clothing was a little tattered, more suited to a scarecrow than to the former mayor’s son, but given where he’d been for the last several years, Dylan had to admit that he looked pretty good. Probably better than Dylan would have looked, had their positions been reversed. But then, Dylan had never been the kind of guy who whom “attractive” and “cool” came easily. They had to be worked for, they had to be earned, and it was easy to add “looks good even after being chewed up and spit out by a dimension of endless darkness” to the long list of good reasons to hate Kal.
“You really are just worried about your friend,” he said. “Aren’t you meant to be worried about your home town? Don’t you want to know what I’m doing to it?”
“I’m not the guardian,” said Dylan. “That’s Marnie’s job, and Grandma’s, and maybe eventually Sophie’s, unless she decides that Halloweentown is protected enough and goes into magical politics or whatever. I’m a systems administrator. When bad shit happens here, I get the hell out of the way.”
But Grandma wasn’t here, was she? Grandma didn’t know that anything bad was going on, or she would already have hopped on her broom and come racing to the rescue. Marnie was out of town for her honeymoon, and while Dylan had done his best to avoid details about the trip, he was reasonably sure that she and Luke were going to be incommunicado for quite some time. Sophie was in the mortal world, hanging out with Mom and making reassuring noises about how Gwen had not failed her children just because two out of three had chosen Halloweentown over the life she’d tried to build for them. For better or for worse, Dylan was the Cromwell on the scene. If anyone was going to save Halloweentown, it was going to be him.
“No pressure or anything,” he muttered.
Kal narrowed his eyes. “This is Cromwell trickery,” he said. “I won’t fall for it, and you’re not going to stop me. You’re already too late to do anything but watch as I drain the magic from your feeble excuse for a community. When it’s all mine, I can reconstruct the Wishing Crystal and bring my parents back, and then you’ll see! Then you’ll suffer for everything you’ve ever done!”
“See, you can’t make these casual references to adventures that Marnie had and expect me to understand them,” said Dylan, scraping more pumpkin guts out of his hair. “I remember blasting your dad with a wand once. That was pretty cool. We should do that again.”
“Your family has ruled this town long enough,” snarled Kal. “Your time ends tonight, and our time finally begins, as it should have begun long ago!”
“Put a sock in it,” said Dylan, and flung the pumpkin guts he had collected into Kal’s eyes. He followed them up with a fireball--or tried to. When he moved his hand in the familiar, almost comforting gesture, nothing happened. No light, no heat, no fire. He was just a man, covered in shattered gourd, doing charades in the middle of the town square for no apparent reason. Dylan stared at his hands. “What the...?”
“Run!” Ethan came out of nowhere, grabbing Dylan’s elbow and hauling him away from Kal before he had a chance to react. Dylan stumbled, pumpkin squishing underfoot. Then he turned and ran alongside Ethan, the two of them pounding across the square toward the old theater.
That was where Kalabar had opened the first portal to drain the town’s magic. Dylan pulled Ethan to the right, saying, “Not there,” as loudly as he dared, and pulled the other man into a nearby alley instead. They ran another ten feet or so before ducking behind a dumpster and waiting.
Kal had finished wiping the pumpkin guts from his eyes. As Dylan had hoped when he launched the attack, Kal had been born and raised in the magical world, and didn’t really expect people to get physical. As such, his surprise had kept him rooted to the spot long enough for Dylan and Ethan to get away. That part...hadn’t really been in Dylan’s plan. He’d just wanted to distract the other warlock while he mustered a decent fireball. Since he spent more time debugging code than he did generating spontaneous flames, he’d figured that a little extra couldn’t hurt. Now it seemed that the “little extra” was all that had saved him.
“What happened?” he demanded in a harsh whisper, turning to Ethan. “I should have been able to throw a fireball. It’s just a fireball. I was generating those by accident by the time I was in my junior year of high school.” Fireballs had been cross-wired with arousal for a little while. All the other boys his age had been hiding stiffened socks and inconvenient erections. He’d been trying to figure out how to carry a fire extinguisher to school without attracting unwanted attention. Sometimes being a warlock sucked beyond all measureable reason.
“Didn’t you hear what he said?” asked Ethan, casting an anxious look toward the square. Kal was still standing there, shouting uselessly at the empty storefronts for Dylan to come out and face him like a man. Apparently, facing someone “like a man” meant bringing a stick to a wand fight. Ethan was comfortable never doing anything “like a man” again. “He’s draining all the magic. You couldn’t cast a fireball because there wasn’t enough power left. If we don’t stop him, he’s going to suck Halloweentown dry, and then we’re going to be in real trouble!”
“What do you think the chances are that Marnie and Luke have already realized what’s going on and are fighting their way back here to save us right now?” asked Dylan desperately.
Marnie lay topless on a sun-warmed tropical beach, sipping her cocktail and watching Luke punch a two-headed shark between both sets of eyes at the same time.
“Best honeymoon ever,” she murmured, and set her glass aside before rolling over and going blissfully back to sleep. Dylan was a smart guy. He and Ethan were probably having a wonderful time, and wouldn’t even notice if Luke and Marnie decided to stay at the Avalon Resort and Spa for a few extra days. Why not? It was their honeymoon, after all.
“Not good,” said Ethan.
“Dammit.” Dylan pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to think a little faster. “All right. We need to get to Grandma before Kal does. Follow me.” He stood, still crouching over as he pressed close to the alley wall and started for the road behind. He didn’t have Marnie’s encyclopedic knowledge of Halloweentown--which, let’s face it, had been born of a lifelong obsession, and was probably a sign that his sister needed to get a hobby--but he knew enough to know that the road behind the shopping district connected to the sorely misnamed Quicksand Bog. There was no actual quicksand in the bog. A lot of alligators, yes, but quicksand? No. They’d be fine as long as they moved fast and didn’t sit down for a rest on any suspiciously convenient logs.
“COME BACK HERE AND FACE ME, CROMWELL!” shouted Kal, as Dylan and Ethan demonstrated that caution is sometimes the better part of valor, and beat their swift, silent retreat.
Caution seemed like a much worse idea about fifteen minutes later, when they found themselves in the middle of a bog, surrounded by mosquitoes, with no real idea which way they were supposed to be going. Dylan took a step and grimaced, feeling the mud sloshing into his shoes. “My kingdom for a towel.”
“See, Kal already took your kingdom,” said Ethan. When Dylan gave him a blank look he shrugged and said, “You’re a Cromwell, Cromwells take care of Halloweentown, ergo this is your kingdom. Every wet, muddy inch of it.”
“Swell,” said Dylan. “You know, I never really wanted to be a prince.”
“I always wanted to kiss a prince,” offered Ethan.
“Maybe I can adapt,” said Dylan. He looked around the bog and sighed. “Maybe we should be heading that way, toward the really tall trees? They look sort of like the pines that grow behind Grandma’s house.” They also looked sort of like the pines that grew near Luke’s old place, and near the antique store, and near half the neighborhoods in Halloweentown. This was hopeless.
But then Ethan nodded, and smiled at him like he was the smartest person in the world, and maybe it wasn’t so hopeless after all. Maybe they could do this.
They couldn’t do this.
After an hour of walking through the bog, they finally emerged in front of Luke’s old tree. Dylan stared at it blankly for a moment before he heaved a sigh and turned to walk toward the mailbox. Ethan watched him go, looking bewildered.
“Weren’t we going to knock? Maybe ask for help? Kal can’t have subdued everyone in town! We’d have noticed any sort of blanket enchantment, and anything that was intended to knock out the non-magicals would have taken me out at the same time. Maybe whoever lives here can help us!”
“No one lives here,” said Dylan, bending to poke around in the toadstools growing at the base of the mailbox. “This is Luke’s old place. He used to live here, before he moved into my sister’s house.” Their house now, technically; whatever belonged to her would also belong to her husband. Dylan tried not to think about that too much. It led to thinking about his sister’s married life, and there wasn’t enough bleach in the world. “Since he’s a goblin, he never had a phone put in, and he doesn’t have a car. We’re cut off unless we find someplace else to go to ground. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay here long enough to dry off, regroup, and figure out what we’re planning to do next.”
“But if no one lives here, will the inside be any better than things are out here?”
“Oh, sure.” Dylan straightened, holding the key he had pulled from the toadstools. “When they decided not to rent the place out, Luke had Marnie put a stasis spell on it, so that everything would stay exactly the same. I always figured that was one more brick in his ‘poor me, she’ll get tired of me eventually’ castle, but at least it was a practical one, since it would mean that he had somewhere to go that wasn’t my couch. The place was never spotless. It should still be livable. And warm. And give us someplace to be where Kal’s a little less likely to show up and set us both on fire just because he can.”
“Works for me,” said Ethan. “Has he always been this much of an asshole, or did we catch him on a bad night?”
“Marnie dated him,” said Dylan, without thinking. Then he paused, cheeks flushing red. “Uh.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Ethan. “We already covered the whole ‘dating the villains is a Cromwell tradition’ thing, and any hurt feelings I might have had were salved when I got to take a broomstick ride with you.” His voice turned temporarily wistful. “It’s funny. I gave up my magic because it was the right thing to do--no one would ever have been able to believe that I hadn’t been tainted by my father’s aspirations--but I never really thought about the things I was going to miss. Like flying.”
“You can come fly with me any time you want to,” said Dylan, unlocking the door and pushing it open to reveal the dusty, cobwebbed front room of Luke’s house. There were no electric lights, of course, but now that the rain had let up, the full moon was casting enough light that they could at least see. Maybe it would have been better if they hadn’t been able to see. The debris on the floor would have gone unremarked, for example, as would the mold that was currently colonizing the couch.
“I thought your sister put a stasis spell on this place,” said Ethan, easing the door shut behind himself. “I mean, it’s cozy, and as hideouts go, it’s not the worst, but it’s a little...musty.”
“Luke is a goblin, remember? This is how goblins live.” Actually, Luke was a bit of a neat freak, as goblins went, which was how he had been able to adapt so very quickly to living with Marnie, who believed in keeping things dust-free and relatively hygienic, if only for the sake of being able to identify, with absolute certainty, everything that went into her potions. The difference between a simple binding spell and a potion that would transform someone into an equal volume of toads was sometimes as minor as whether or not dust from the rafters had fallen into the kettle while it was brewing. Sure, there were cobwebs all over her house, courtesy of the resident spiders, but they were maintained in spotless condition, and re-woven three times a week. Four times, during the holidays.
“Right,” said Ethan, before flopping down onto the couch and sending a great puff of dust pluming into the air. “She didn’t tell me about him before we started dating. If she had, I could have told her we’d never work out. I am many things. I am not, nor have I ever been, a goblin.”
“And thank Merlin for that,” said Dylan, moving to peek out the window. There was no sign of an angry warlock closing in on them, but it was probably only a matter of time. Kal had magic, and now, thanks to Kal, Dylan didn’t. Neither did Ethan, of course, but Ethan had been depowered for years. He was accustomed to dealing with a world where he couldn’t snap his fingers and get whatever he wanted.
Dylan froze. That was it. Slowly, he turned to look at Ethan. “You gave up your powers.”
“Uh, yeah?” Ethan raised an eyebrow. “That’s sort of the opposite of news, Dylan. I mean, I did it in a public place, with a lot of people watching. You were watching, if I remember correctly. And I do. Remember correctly, I mean. That’s a day I’m never going to forget.”
“Right.” Feeling suddenly awkward, Dylan asked, “Are you ever sorry that you did it?”
“Honestly? Yes. Every day. I miss...so much. I miss knowing who I was and what my place in this whacked-out world was supposed to be. I miss casting spells. I miss flying.” Dylan would have needed to be deaf to miss the bitterness in Ethan’s last word. Then Ethan sighed. “I wouldn’t have done it if I had taken, like, two seconds to think. Which is why I had to make the choice then, and not now. I was better at leaping without looking when I was still that young, you know? I guess we all were. The older you get, the more time you spend looking for safety nets. It was the right thing to do. I needed to do it. And I guess I’ll regret it for the rest of my life, even though I wouldn’t take it back.”
“Okay,” said Dylan. He took a deep breath before repeating, “Okay. Because see, I’m not used to going without magic. I don’t depend on it the way Marnie and Sophie do, but I still use it all the time, for just about everything. If we’re going to defeat Kal, we need something other than magic. We need to think like people who can’t just wave their hands and get whatever they want. Can you help me? I’m the only Cromwell standing, so I guess saving Halloweentown falls to me, and I can’t do it alone.”
Slowly, Ethan began to smile. “You and me, saving Halloweentown, huh? Sure, I guess. It’s not like I was doing anything else tonight.”
Kal swooped down from the sky like a great avenging bat-themed superhero swooping down from a tall building, and thought, as his feet touched down on the mossy forest floor, that it was a real shame there had been no one around to see. The best entrances always seemed to go unobserved. No matter. He shook his cloak back into position, making sure the fabric was draped just so across his broad shoulders, and stalked toward the one tree in the area with candles burning in the windows.
Foolish little warlocks probably hadn’t even realized that without a cloaking spell, lighting the smallest flame was going to attract his attention. They were so accustomed to living in a world where magic fulfilled their smallest whims that they no longer about how those whims might ripple out into the darkness, or what traps they might trigger. Kal understood what it was like to live without magic better than most. It had been a limited resource in the dark between worlds, something to be gathered and hoarded until the day when he had finally been able to say “this is enough” and use what he had managed to assemble to blast a hole all the way back to Halloweentown. The feeling of magic rushing into his body had been like the sensation of blood flowing back into a limb that had been pinned too long under a stationary object. It had tingled and burnt and yes, it had hurt, but the pain had been glorious, because the pain had been a sign that he had succeeded. He had won. He was back where he belonged, and as soon as he had finished disposing of the people who could still get in his way, he would bring his parents back, and they would rule Halloweentown together, the way they should have been ruling it all along. They would be a family. The ruling family. They would take the place of those damn Cromwells, and this backwater excuse for a magical world would finally become the powerful force it should always have been. Always would have been, with stronger leadership.
Kal reached the door. Kal reached out and grasped the knob. It turned easily in his hand. The fools had even left their hidey-hole unlocked. It was like they wanted to be caught. He pushed the door open. He stepped inside.
The weighted load of bricks that had been suspended from the main rafter swung down and slammed into his chest, knocking him back out into the yard. Only a quick levitation spell kept the bricks from breaking his ribs. As it was, he was going to have bruises for the next week--and, adding insult to injury, the earlier rainstorm had created quite a few mud puddles, several of which he had just slid through. Kal picked himself up, dripping mud and spitting mad, and glared at the open doorway.
“Is that how it’s going to be, Cromwell?” he snarled. “You should have gone quietly. I would have made it painless if you’d just been willing to yield to me.” He stalked toward the door, waving a hand as he went. The mud covering him dried up and dropped away like it had never been there in the first place. He didn’t take the time to gloat. Gloating was the act of an amateur, someone who wanted to be defeated by the so-called heroes of the piece. He was a professional, the son of the greatest warlock Halloweentown had ever known, and by Merlin’s beard, he was going to do this the way it should be done.
Stepping around the hanging bricks, he found himself in an empty, cluttered front room that smelled of dust and time. There had been a stasis spell here recently. He could still taste the ghost of it hanging in the air, and with it, the image of the witch who had cast it; auburn hair, a jack o’lantern smile. Marnie Cromwell had been here, a long time ago, which meant this was probably the residence of her foul goblin boyfriend. The thought was enough to turn Kal’s stomach. Imagine, a witch with her breeding and family name, lowering herself to being touched by a creature. At least they couldn’t breed. Even if she someday managed to fight her way back to Halloweentown, the Cromwell family name and lineage would die with her. The name “Kalabar” would be the future.
“Dylan, I know you’re here,” said Kal, looking slowly around. The shadows were still too deep. They could be hiding something. He waved his hand, conjuring a ball of light that sat upon his palm like a crow perching on a weathervane. “Come out, come out, wherever you are. This can be easy, you know. Like going to sleep. You won’t have to worry about what happens next. You won’t have to watch your family die. Just come out, and let me kill you like a man.”
“There aren’t even words for how stupid that is,” Dylan called, from the kitchen. “Why would anyone come out and let you kill them? You can’t die ‘like a man.’ You just die. And dying sucks. If I died now, I’d never find out how Game of Thrones end. I know you’re super into this whole villainous rant routine, but I have spent way too much of my life waiting to find out who was going to take the Iron Throne for me to let you kill me now.”
“Are you speaking in tongues?” demanded Kal, as he turned and started stalking toward the kitchen. “Where is this Iron Throne you speak of? It, too, will be mine, after Halloweentown has fallen before me. All thrones will belong to me, once I am the only warlock left in the world!”
“Well, you and your dad, right? Because you’re planning to bring your dad back, for that whole ‘happy families’ routine you were talking about before. Do you really think he’s going to be okay with the idea of playing second fiddle to the son he never even told my mother existed? I mean, that’s pretty cold, if you stop to think about it. Mom and Grandma didn’t see eye-to-eye about Mom marrying a mortal, but she still sent birth announcements to all her old friends. Even your father. He knew about all of us, and she had no idea about you. Which is weird, since he was willing to make her his queen even while he was in the process of taking over the world. Like, was he going to send you to boarding school? Give you to her as a wedding gift? Or there’s always my personal favorite, burying you in the backyard.”
“Shut your stupid mouth!” howled Kal, flinging himself around the edge of the doorway and shooting a fireball in the same motion. Dylan’s phone, which had been taped to one of the cupboards, was incinerated instantly. There was no cell service in Halloweentown, something which Dylan had bemoaned on several occasions. But the recording function of the device didn’t need a signal to work. All it needed was a press of a button, and it was good to go.
Dylan huddled under the kitchen table, waiting for Kal to realize that while he had destroyed the voice, he hadn’t destroyed the original speaker. There had been no way to set a timer for the phone, not without knowing exactly when Kal would break through the doors, and the plan had required a good old-fashioned villain enraging monologue. He just hoped, fervently, that this wouldn’t end with him being vaporized.
“Cromwell!” shouted Kal.
“Dude, shut up,” said Ethan, dropping down from the rafters behind Kal. Kal turned to see who dared speak to him in such a manner. And Ethan, who had given up his own magic and gained a small measure of magic resistance in exchange, punched Kal in the face so hard that something broke inside the warlock’s mouth. Kal went down.
That was when everything exploded.
The world didn’t literally explode, of course: that would have been difficult, and very hard on all the people who had to live there. But things went white for one bright, dazzling moment, and then they went red, and then, as the light faded and returned to normal, the smell of a candle contained in rich pumpkin-flesh briefly filled the air. Dylan knew two things with absolute certainty as he climbed out from beneath the table. First, that the magic had returned to Halloweentown. And second, that the pumpkin in the town square was once more lit and burning steadily, a signal to any who looked that all was well in this magical land.
Kal was gone, leaving behind only his cloak. Since he’d never explained what he’d done to win his way back from whatever dark dimension he had been stranded in, Dylan decided not to worry about it. Maybe that was short-sighted of him. At the moment, he was far more concerned about Ethan than anything else.
Ethan, who was standing in the hall, staring at his hands. Ethan, who looked like he had just seen a ghost.
“Ethan?” said Dylan hesitantly.
“This isn’t why I did it,” said Ethan, still staring at his hands. He sounded dazed. “I mean, I didn’t do it just because...I was trying to do the right thing. That’s why you’re supposed to do stuff, right? Because it’s the right thing, and you want to do the right thing? That’s supposed to be the reason for doing basically anything. Right?” The dazed tone was fading, replaced by the jagged edges of panic.
“Ethan, hey.” Dylan stepped forward, putting his hands on the other man’s shoulders. “You didn’t kill him. I think whatever allowed him to come here didn’t like it when he lost, and so it just...took him back, that’s all. You were making sure he didn’t hurt me. You were saving Halloweentown. I think that means you’re exempt from feeling bad about any of this shit. Promise.”
“That isn’t why I did it,” said Ethan again, finally raising his head and meeting Dylan’s eyes. Then he smiled, almost shyly. “I guess Halloweentown has forgiven me. It had to happen eventually, except for the part where it never had to happen at all.”
“What are you talking about?”
Ethan snapped his fingers. The candles in the windows blew out. The door swung shut. And pale, lambent lights sprang into existence just below the rafters, hanging there and sending their glow across the entire house. Dylan gasped.
“I guess Halloweentown thinks I’ve earned it,” said Ethan, and closed his mouth over Dylan’s, and no more talking happened for a while.
As they stumbled backward into the living room, Dylan was pleased to discover that he could still transfigure a couch into a bed without saying a word, moving his hands in short, sharp motions behind Ethan’s back. Ethan’s hands were busy pulling at Dylan’s shirt, getting it untucked from his trousers. The movement dislodged the last of the dried-up pumpkin guts. Ethan snapped his fingers again, and both of them were naked, which seemed like a vast improvement. They fell together into the bed that Dylan’s magic had created, and if there was no conversation after that, well, who could blame them?
“Do you think Marnie’s going to be pissed when she sees what we did to Luke’s house?”
Dylan chuckled, deep and slow, and rolled over to reach for Ethan again. “For once in my life, I don’t give a damn what Marnie thinks,” he said. “Now come here.”