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Wizards: The Ones Who Stayed

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Okay. Recap. They saved the world for the second time since the beginning of summer break, this time against an extra-terrestrial god on a power trip. Most of their new Akiridion friends – actually, all of them except for Krel – left for Akiridion-5 and took Eli with them, and on the way home from saying goodbye, they meet a talking cat who tells them they have to save the world again.

Yeah, okay, Toby can see why Steve is screaming.

The cat peeks back around the corner it’d disappeared beyond. If cats could raise their eyebrows, he’d definitely be doing just that. Actually, he does kind of have eyebrows, and he is kind of raising one of them. He sighs and sits and adjusts his glasses.

“Are you quite done?” the cat asks.

“I hate you,” says Steve.

“Well, that feels rather pre-emptive and uncalled for.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re coming,” says Toby as Steve pulls his phone out of his pocket. “What are you doing?”

“Calling Krel!” He puts the phone to his ear. Then, after Krel has apparently picked up, he yells, “There’s more weird stuff happening!”

Toby takes the phone from his hysterical friend. “Hey, Krel.”

“Toby? What’s going on? Is Steve okay?”

Toby considers it. “Probably not. Hey, can you meet us?”

“Where are you going?”

“I dunno, track our phones, man! Aren’t you some sort of tech genius or something?”

“I am a tech genius, not or something.”

“Whatever! Just find us. There’s a talking cat.”

“There’s a what!?”

Toby hangs up and gives Steve his phone back. The cat clears his throat, or at least that’s what it sounds like. Can cats clear their throats? Toby supposes they can, kinda like getting rid of a hairball.

“If you’re ready,” he says.

Steve groans. “Can’t you find a different group of people to help you save the world, wizard-cat?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Steve, stop whining like a two-year-old,” says Toby, even though he agrees. Haven’t they saved the world enough? First the Eternal Night, then Morando, now whatever this is? There’s got to be more qualified people than teenagers.

“You stop whining!” Steve shoots back. It doesn’t make sense, but neither does half the stuff Steve says when he’s angry, so there’s that.

The cat is done waiting for them, obviously, because he starts walking again. The way he walks on two legs creeps Toby out. If one of Nana’s cats had ever done that, he thinks he would’ve had a heart attack.

Aaarrrgghh!!!, at least, doesn’t seem too bothered by this turn of events. He offers Steve a pat on the back as they follow the cat. At least one of them is totally chill with a talking cat wearing glasses. Toby’s not sure how he feels and Steve looks on the verge of a mental breakdown.

The cat eventually stops in front of that weird magic store downtown. That’s about as cliché as it gets, the wizard owns a magic store. Toby’s never been, of course, but Claire has and she says it’s the coolest store in Arcadia.

Seconds after they arrive, Krel glides up on his hoverboard. He’s in human form, and it’s windy out, so his hair has gone everywhere and he has to take a moment to fix it after he jumps off the board.

Steve points at the cat with a wide-eyed, my-entire-life-is-a-lie kind of expression. The poor guy looks near tears.

“He’s wearing glasses,” Steve whimpers. “He’s a cat with bad eyesight.”

“I thought the weird part was that he talked?” says Krel.

“Any weirder than an extra-terrestrial teenager and a troll?” the cat points out. Krel opens his mouth to respond to this, but he must not be able to find a good answer because he scowls and crosses his arms. “Exactly. Now, if you will follow me inside. We have a lot to discuss.”

“Does this have to do with the world as we know it ending?” Toby asks.

Krel glances at him with alarmed wide eyes. “Oh, kleb. Not again.”

“This has everything to do with that,” says the cat. “Come.”

They follow the cat into the magic store. It’s late, so the store is closed and no one is in the front. Toby reaches to touch one of the knick-knacks on the counter, but without looking back, the cat says, “Ah, no touching, please and thank you.”

“How did he know?” Toby whispers as he jerks his hand back. Could wizard cats see everything? Toby thought he had bad eyesight.

“I am well accustomed to teenagers,” says the cat.

“He’s got you there,” says Krel, as if he wasn’t just about to grab something himself.

The cat stops in the middle of the room and rolls back the rug there. Okay. A secret hatch is definitely exciting. Toby can almost overlook the whole world ending thing just for that. The cat pulls it open and starts down the stairs into the dimly lit downstairs.

“Come along,” says the cat.

“Guess we’re going into the creepy secret room then,” says Krel.

Aaarrrgghh!!! frowns at the entrance and shifts. “Too small.”

“Sorry, Wingman,” says Toby, patting him on the arm. “You’ll have to stay here.”

Aaarrrgghh!!! rumbles disappointedly and sits. The items in the shop rattle with his weight. Toby follows Krel and Steve down the stairs. The room – a library by the looks of it – is dimly lit. It has just the right sort of ambience for a magical library.

There’s a person sitting at a desk reading. It takes Toby a moment to realise he’s stirring his drink by spinning a finger several inches away from the spoon in the mug, and another to realise he actually recognises the guy.

“Douxie?” he says. Douxie’s head shoots up. Toby hopes he got the right name. “From Battle of the Bands, right?”

“Hey! Toby, Steve, and Krel, right?” says Douxie brightly. Then his brow furrows. “What are you doing here?”

“Uh…”

“I brought them,” says the cat primly. Douxie stares at him, still absently stirring his drink. The cat sighs. “We discussed this. The end of the world?”

“Oh! Yes,” says Douxie. “Thank you, Archie. Somehow, I’m not surprised. You three always end up involved in the end of the world.”

“Uh, we do?” asks Krel. He laughs uneasily. “I’ve only been here a few months.”

“And in that time we’re reaching our third end of the world.” Douxie closes his book and stands. He makes a large gesture with his hand to several armchairs. ”Have a seat. We’ve got a lot to discuss.”

Steve practically collapses into a chair. Toby and Krel sit a little more calmly, but Toby also doesn’t blame Steve. It would have been nice to have a break.

“I met your sister, you know,” Douxie says to Krel, sitting in another armchair. The cat – Archie? – leaps up and perches on his leg. “Guess I was right about those travel lines, eh?”

Krel’s brow furrows. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Douxie shrugs. Steve leans forward, gripping the arms of the chair so tight his knuckles turn white. “Okay, I’m freaking out. Your cat has glasses and the world is ending and now you’re talking about Aja for some reason and I am so confused.”

“Right,” says Douxie. He frowns and takes a deep breath. “Well, I’m not entirely sure what to tell you, to be honest. As you must have realised by now, I’m no ordinary human. I’m what’s known as a wizard, which means I can do magic.”

“You did not tell me Earth had magic!” Krel hisses to Toby.

“Shh!” Toby hisses back.

“I happen to be fairly gifted in prophecy and future-sight.” Douxie waves a hand in front of him. Toby scrambles back when the candles flicker and the oranges of the flames form into a glowing representation of the Eternal Night, right in the middle of the library.

“Lively,” Krel mumbles, reaching out to run a hand through the light. It sounds weird to hear from him instead of Aja.

“Trust me when I say the Eternal Night was no surprise to me,” Douxie says. “But there’s something even worse afoot.”

“Putting aside the fact you just said ‘afoot’ unironically,” says Toby, “what do you mean something worse? Like, Morando bad?”

“Worse still,” says Douxie. “I think. I don’t know any details about that one.”

“He was a murderous alien-turned-god, how much worse can it get!?” Steve exclaims.

“Akiridion-turned-god,” Krel corrects.

“I mean, you guys defeated him pretty easily.” Douxie waves his hand again, completely ignoring the put-out expression that filters over Krel’s face, and the image shifts – this time, it shows Arcadia in ruins. Toby shudders. Krel reaches out to put a hand on his shoulder, but his eyes are focused on the illusion of destruction and his grip is too tight. Toby wonders what he really saw in the Deep, and if it looked anything like this.

“Is that what you saw?” Steve’s voice breaks. Toby can recognise the tone of panic he’s trying to mask.

“Please tell me that isn’t what you saw,” Toby says.

The illusion vanishes. For a moment, they are plunged into darkness. Then the candles flicker back on. Douxie shakes his head. “Yes and no. Not… exactly, I should say. The problem with future-sight is that it’s never very clear. Something is coming. I don’t know what, and I don’t know when, but I know it is. And soon.”

“Great,” says Steve. “That helps us so much.”

“Along with us, the wizards, you are Arcadia’s last line of defence,” says Douxie.

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Krel says. He still looks troubled by the illusion from before. “We’re supposed to stop that?”

“If this is, like, the end of the world, for real, why is it starting in Arcadia?” Steve demands. “Like, I get that the Eternal Night was here because of Trollmarket, and I get that Morando was here because of Aja and Krel and the core thingy, but shouldn’t this start somewhere else? Like – like New York!”

“This isn’t a movie, dude,” says Toby.

“Yeah, ‘cause if it was, we could have a normal summer here in the totally unremarkable town of Arcadia!”

“I bet Aja doesn’t have to deal with this on Akiridion-5,” grumbles Krel.

“Chins up!” says Douxie. “I’m sure if we work together we’ll be able to stop the end of the world, no problem.”

“That’s a lot of optimism coming from the guy who just showed us an illusion of us losing,” Toby mutters.

“Incentive!”

“Last time someone tried to give me incentive, I got thrown off a cliff,” Toby says.

“Me too,” says Krel. “I do not like this incentive.”

“Unfortunately for you, you don’t have much of a choice,” says Archie. “The world is ending, whether you like it or not. You can choose to sit around and wait for it to end, or you can join us in preventing it.”

Toby groans. “Fine. I’ll call Jim. Maybe – ugh – Merlin can help us.”

Douxie and Archie exchange wary looks.

“Maybe not,” says Douxie. “I don’t fully trust this… Merlin. He’s old. He’s a wild card. And I saw what he did to Jim.”

Toby flinches. Merlin’s treatment of Jim will always sour his opinion of the old man, but Toby thinks he’d be willing to help save the world. After all, he lives in it too. Then he thinks back, to the Eternal Night, when all Merlin cared about was getting his magic back.

“Yeah,” he finally agrees. “We’ll keep Merlin out of it.”

“It’s late,” says Douxie. “You three should head home and get some sleep. And your troll friend – I’m assuming that was the thud I heard upstairs.”

“Sleep,” scoffs Steve. “As if we can sleep after finding out the world’s going to end. Again! Why does this keep happening!?”

“With any luck this’ll be the last,” Douxie offers. “Except, you know. Climate change. And if that doesn’t do us in, I’m sure something else will come along.”

“Not helping,” Steve bites out.

“Alright, let’s go before Steve attacks the wizard,” says Toby. He grabs Steve by the arm and starts guiding him out as Steve starts muttering, “All I wanted to do this summer is hang out with my friends and girlfriend by the pool. Maybe play some flag football. Instead, I get three apocalypses! Three!”

“Oh, boy,” mumbles Krel. He waves awkwardly as they leave. “Uh, see you later… wizard and talking cat.”

Aaarrrgghh!!! follows them out of the shop. He nods as subtly as Aaarrrgghh!!! can nod towards Steve. “He okay?”

“He’ll be fine, big guy,” says Toby.

“I HATE THIS SUMMER!”

 

 

An unknown end of the world approaching doesn’t make Toby feel very comfortable walking around town at night, even if he’s not that worried when Aaarrrgghh!!! is here.

“Toby,” says Krel hesitantly. “What did this… Merlin do to Jim? Does it have something to do with why he was blue?”

Toby winces. “You saw him, too, then.”

Krel nods. Steve looks visibly interested too – Toby’s pretty sure he and Eli never got the full story of Troll Jim, actually. He sighs.

“Basically, Merlin told him he wasn’t good enough, which is stupid because Jim was awesome as he was.” He fiddles with his war-hammer for a moment before continuing. “Krel, you remember when you helped us capture lightning?”

“Of course,” says Krel. “I thought that was strange.”

“Yeah, well, that was one of the ingredients for some potion Merlin wanted to make,” says Toby. “He basically forced Jim to drink it, and it turned him into a troll, which means Jim can’t go into the sun or go to school or enjoy normal human food – and I dunno, maybe Jim couldn’t have survived as a human, but… it just felt really cheap to me. Plus, Merlin was a jerk who only really cared about getting his magic back if you ask me. He was missing for most of the fight!”

“Maybe a good call on not asking him for help,” says Steve.

Krel looks horrified. “We helped you get the lightning – if we hadn’t–”

“I’m going to stop you right there, man,” says Toby. “No part of it is your fault, okay? Merlin was sneaky and manipulative and made Jim feel like he had no other choice. That has nothing to do with you – or even me.”

Krel nods. Toby thinks he still looks guilty, but, then again, Toby still feels guilty. Maybe if he’d stayed – if he’d been there, when Merlin convinced Jim, however Merlin convinced Jim – maybe Jim wouldn’t have felt so alone to make the choice. There’s nothing Toby can do now, though.

Toby isn’t paying attention when they reach his house, so Aaarrrgghh!!! has to stop him from just walking past it.

“Home,” rumbles Aaarrrgghh!!!.

“Yep, this is our stop,” says Toby. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

“Come by my place,” says Krel, even though all four of them know he’d rather be anywhere else. Toby had tried inviting Krel to live with him – and so had Steve, for that matter – but Krel didn’t want to leave the Blanks alone after they stayed for him. “We can see if there’s any information in… what’s left of Mother’s databases. Plus, I should be able to connect to local internet and intergalactic databases from there.”

“Bright and early,” agrees Toby.

He and Aaarrrgghh!!! try to be quiet as they walk in. Nana is probably already asleep, unless she’s calling Varvatos. There’s something really weird about his grandmother dating at all, let alone dating an extra-terrestrial living nearly fifty thousand light-years away.

He settles in his bed. Aaarrrgghh!!! sits on the floor. “You okay?”

“Yeah, man,” he says. “Just – that was a lot. How much did you hear?”

“All of it,” Aaarrrgghh!!! says.

“I don’t know how we’re supposed to prepare for a threat we know nothing about.” Toby manages a weak laugh. Chompsky peers out of his dollhouse worriedly. “Without Jimbo… you know I’m not the smart one, Aaarrrgghh!!!.”

“Plenty smart,” says Aaarrrgghh!!!. “No Jim against Morando, either.”

Toby inclines his head and tries to smile. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess not.”

“Don’t worry,” says Aaarrrgghh!!!. “Wingman got this.”

“We got this,” Toby corrects. “Hey, we can be our own little dream team! You and me and Krel and – Steve, I guess. He’s really changed, you know?”

“Mmm,” agrees Aaarrrgghh!!!.

“Guess we should get some sleep then,” says Toby. “I get the feeling we have a long day ahead of us.”

He pulls the covers up and lays down, turning his back to Aaarrrgghh!!! to hide his frown. He wishes they had more time to prepare. He doesn’t feel ready for another end of the world, so soon after the last one. And now he’s part of the last line of defence?

He hopes they’ll be enough.

 

 

The nice thing about hanging out at Krel’s place early in the morning is that Lucy Blank is always happy to make pancakes. Whether or not they stick to the ceiling or end up on a plate is irrelevant.

The house decoy is still a bit of a wreck from the fight with Morando and Kubritz. Toby knows Krel and the other Akiridions didn’t bother to clean up before the others left, since Krel’s decision to stay was kind of last minute. He can tell Krel and the Blanks tried to clean up a bit, maybe before Steve called Krel, maybe after their talk with Douxie, but Toby still winces to look around and see the destruction.

“Lucy has discovered something called ‘chips of chocolate’,” says Krel, proudly showing his pancakes off. “They make the pancakes even better!”

“Why are we here so early?” Steve asks through a yawn. He holds up his plate to catch a pancake. The gesture is so second-nature that, paired with his clear sleep-deprivation, it makes it obvious Steve has been over for breakfast often.

“If you didn’t sleep enough, that’s on you,” says Krel, crossing his lower set of arms in order to look disapproving but still be able to eat his pancakes with the upper pair.

“Like you’ve ever, once, in the entire time I’ve known you, gotten enough sleep,” scoffs Steve.

“And that is on me.” To punctuate this, Krel takes a large bite of his pancake and lights up. “The chips of chocolate were a good choice, Lucy!”

“Great!” she chirps. “I’ll bookmark the recipe!”

Then she laughs her creepy Lucy-laugh. Toby loves the Blanks, don’t get him wrong, but, man, can they be really freaky.

“When you guys finish up, we can head into the ship and start researching,” says Krel.

“Why do I feel like this is just going to stress me out more?” mutters Steve.

Krel won’t let them bring food into the ship right now – apparently, there’s too many exposed and easily breakable parts – so they have to scarf down their pancakes before heading down. Even Toby’s saddened by the destruction he sees around the Mothership. He may not have had the emotional connection that Krel did, but Mother seemed pretty darn cool.

“I haven’t had time to start fixing things up,” says Krel, tone apologetic as they step over the remains of an OMEN robot. “We did a little, but I haven’t had time since Aja left. Doesn’t look like I’ll have much time for a while.”

“Offer’s still open if you want to move in with me and Aaarrrgghh!!!,” says Toby.

“Or me,” says Steve. “Coach asked me this morning if I was sure you were okay all by yourself.”

“Thanks, but I am not all by myself,” says Krel. “I have the Blanks.”

“Right,” says Toby slowly. “Like the Blanks are the best emotional support a teenager could need. Gotcha.”

Krel shoves him good-naturedly. “They’re not so bad. Just a bit… unique, that’s all.”

Krel pulls up the database. The files look weirdly corrupted, and by Krel’s wince it must be because of Morando’s attack.

“Ay-yi-yi,” he mutters. “Well, we’re not going to find anything here.”

“It’s an Earth threat, probably, right?” says Steve.

Krel pulls up the internet instead and flexes all four arms. “Earth resources it is then. Any ideas where to start?”

“Try searching for the end of the world,” says Toby.

Krel does so. It’s really interesting to watch Akiridion letters translate to English in the search box. Toby wonders in the back of his mind how Aja and Krel know English, anyway. As far as Toby knows, they don’t have any translators, unless those are built into their suits or, like, them. Maybe they have some sort of microchip. Toby isn’t sure if that would be cool or creepy, but he’s leaning towards cool.

“This is all nonsense!” Krel exclaims. “Half of this is talking about religion and half of it is talking about the asteroid we diverted! Hey! This one says the US government made the laser. I made the laser! Me!”

“Would you like to tell the world you’re an Akiridion?” says Steve dryly. “I hate to break it to you, but there are more Colonel Kubritzes than there are Lieutenant Costas. They’ll experiment on you or something.”

Krel makes a face. “That would be bad. Well, your human internet is not helping. Yeesh, you people will believe every end of the world threat there is.”

“And here we are, listening to a wizard and a talking cat,” Toby points out.

Krel pauses. “Thanks. That makes us sound crazy, too.”

“I’m beginning to wonder,” mutters Steve.

“Well, I guess we should start searching the intergalactic databases, then,” says Krel. All twenty of his fingers fly at the keyboard until what must be several hundred files pop up. Krel’s eyebrows raise. “This could take a while.”

 

 

By the time they break for lunch, they haven’t found anything remotely useful. They find a lot on other planets that have been destroyed, along with plenty of conspiracy theories. Searching for Earth brings up a bunch of stuff about Aja and Krel, because apparently that’s travelled the intergalactic grapevine. They even find the siblings’ bounties. Krel is outraged, both by the fact that Aja’s bounty is still higher than his and by his picture, which he says gets his worst side. Toby almost regrets teaching him that.

Lucy offers to make them lunch, but they decide instead to go out to eat. Krel suggests they find Stuart’s taco truck, partially because they all like tacos, partially because Stuart’s been known to have really weird information.

“Maybe the information is hidden somehow,” says Steve. “Maybe someone doesn’t want us finding it.”

“It’d be nice to know if this apocalypse is going to be caused by someone,” says Toby. “What if it’s just like… Yellowstone erupts!”

“Yellow… stones?” Krel repeats.

“Yeah, man, it’s a super-volcano!” Toby exclaims. “Maybe it’s going to erupt, and then there’ll be a bunch of earthquakes, and lava, and hot ash, and a thousand-year winter or something!”

Steve laughs unsurely. “Like that’s likely.”

“Actually it’s overdue.”

“Not helping, Domzalski!”

“Well, we couldn’t stop that,” says Krel. “Douxie thinks we can stop whatever this is, so it can’t be a natural disaster.”

“Good point,” agrees Toby. “So it must be because of a person, that would make it easier to stop.”

“No one said it was going to be easy,” Krel adds.

“I’m trying to be optimistic!”

“How can you be optimistic about the end of the world?” Steve exclaims. “There’s no bright side to that!”

“If the world ends, then we won’t have to deal with the climate change Douxie was talking about,” says Krel. “Also, we won’t have to worry about the S-A-Ts that Señor Uhl mentioned before we let out for the summer.”

Toby groans. “We want reasons to save the world, Krel, not reasons to let it get destroyed.”

Krel shrugs. “Just saying, you can be optimistic.”

Toby is about to respond, but he’s interrupted by the sound of someone in armour landing in front of them – now, that’s a weird thing to pick up by sound, but Toby has heard Jim make his superhero landings in armour enough times to recognise it. Unfortunately, the person is not Jim. Instead, it’s a stranger in greenish-grey armour. Toby can’t tell their gender, especially with their helmet on, but whoever they are, they don’t look very friendly.

“Uh, hi,” he squeaks.

The scary person in armour doesn’t respond with words. Instead, they respond by attacking. Toby is forced to dive one way and Steve and Krel the other as the person – knight – comes at them.

“Kleb!” Krel exclaims. He activates his serrator. Toby gets out his war-hammer.

“I don’t have a weapon!” cries Steve.

“Why don’t you have a weapon?” Toby shoots back. “We just got told the world was about to end, why weren’t you expecting something like this?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any travel-size weapons!”

“Then stay behind me,” Krel snaps.

“No offence, Krel, but don’t you think the better plan is to give me the serrator, and then you stay behind me?”

“Hey!”

Toby catches the knight’s sword with his hammer and grunts with the struggle. “Guys! Fight the scary knight now, argue later!”

Steve mutters something Toby doesn’t catch, then gives what he must think is a battle-cry and runs at the knight. He manages to tackle them away from Toby. Krel runs up to shield him from the sword immediately afterwards.

“Rule number three!” Toby yells.

“Play with my phone?” Krel asks in confusion.

“No! Kick ‘em in the gronk-nuks!”

“The what?”

“I got it!” hollers Steve. He runs around Krel’s shield and manages to land rule number three perfectly. It clearly hurts, but the knight also doesn’t double over like Toby had hoped.

“Okay, either this guy’s really tough, or they don’t have gronk-nuks,” Toby says.

“What does that even mean!?” Krel yells.

“Tell you later!” Toby raises his war-hammer and lets out his own battle-cry. He runs at the knight. He swings his hammer at their head; the knight ducks and Toby stumbles past them.

“Toby!” Krel yells. He runs towards Toby, but the knight catches him by the neck and lifts him into the air. Krel drops his serrator, hands going immediately to try to pry the knight’s hand from his throat.

“Krel!” Steve screams. He grabs Krel’s serrator from the ground and launches himself towards the knight. The knight parries his blow with their own sword. Toby lets out another cry and rushes at them. The knight disarms Steve, then throws Krel into Toby. Both of them go down. Steve stumbles to them, holding out the serrator threateningly. Krel gasps in air, hand still at his throat. Toby stands in front of him.

The knight doesn’t attack. Instead, they sheath their sword and take off their helmet. That would probably explain the lack of gronk-nuks – she’s a woman. She’s wearing some sort of head covering and glaring at them with dark eyes.

“You are not ready,” she says.

Then she turns and walks away. Toby waits until she’s far enough away before dropping back to his knees beside Krel.

“Hey, hey, man, you okay?” he asks.

Krel coughs. “I’m fine. This human body needs more air than my normal one.”

Steve gently tilts his head up and winces. “That’ll probably bruise.”

“Great,” mutters Krel.

“What was that?” Toby asks. He reverts his war-hammer to its travel form.

“I dunno, but it ruined my appetite,” says Steve.

“We should go talk to this… Douxie,” says Krel. “He might have an idea.”

Toby gets to his feet as Steve helps Krel up. As the adrenaline wears off, Toby’s hands shake. She could have killed them. She could have – could have snapped Krel’s neck then and there, and then done in with him and Steve, and there was nothing they could have done about it. And, yeah, Toby’s been in life-threatening danger before, but it never gets less terrifying.

“Let’s hope Douxie has an idea, then,” he says. “Because I never want to run into her unprepared again.”

 

 

Douxie is in the main room of the shop when they arrive. He looks happy to see them until he notices Krel leaning on Steve and the fact that they all look, generally speaking, worse for the wear.

“What happened?” he asks seriously, walking to the window and switching the open sign to closed. At Toby’s questioning look, he shrugs. “Business wasn’t exactly booming. And this looks more important. Come downstairs. I’ll get you some cocoa.”

Steve takes a moment once they get downstairs to make sure Krel’s sitting down – much to Krel’s apparent annoyance – before finally exploding. “We got attacked by a crazy lady with a sword! She nearly killed us!”

“Well, that’s not good news,” says Douxie. “Crazy lady with a sword?”

“Some sort of knight in green armour,” Toby explains.

Douxie’s brow furrows. “That sounds familiar. Hang on.”

He first disappears back up the stairs, which isn’t helpful at all. Toby sits in one of the chairs. Archie leaps onto the arm of the chair and sits as well. “He’s probably getting you that cocoa. You look like you could use it.”

“We were almost killed!” Steve seethes.

Archie tilts his head towards Krel, who immediately stops rubbing his neck and acts like nothing is wrong. “Yes, I can see that.”

Steve throws his hands in the air. “We just got over being almost killed by a crazy Akiridion-turned-god, and now we’re being almost killed by a crazy lady with a sword!”

“And I’m sure you’ll be almost killed many more times before this is over,” says Archie.

“Thanks, Archie, you’re a real ray of sunshine,” Toby says.

Archie lays down on the arm of the chair, stretching his front paws over the edge and flexing his claws. “Yes, I’m aware.”

There’s footsteps on the stairs, and then Douxie comes in, balancing four mugs of cocoa on a tray with such skill that it must be from his waiter job. He gives one to each of them and keeps one for himself.

“Okay,” he says, placing his mug down on a table and fingering through several books on a shelf nearby. “Now, green armour definitely sounds familiar. Anything else?”

“She had a sword and she almost killed us,” says Steve. “What else do you want?”

“She was really quiet,” Toby offered. “Up till she totally beat us. And then all she said was like, ‘You are not ready.’”

“That sounded nothing like her,” says Krel.

“Not ready?” repeats Douxie. He pulls out a rather large book and sits. He sips his cocoa as he flips through it. “Aha! I knew it sounded familiar. The Green Knight.”

“Seriously?” says Steve.

“Arthurian legend,” says Douxie. “My uncle loves this stuff. The Green Knight is a judge of sort. A tester of heroes.”

“Oh, great, that’s wonderful!” exclaims Steve. “That doesn’t help us at all!”

“Yeah,” says Krel. “I’m pretty sure we failed her test, anyway.”

“Maybe she won’t bother us again?” Toby suggests.

“Oh, she’ll be back,” says Douxie. “I bet she’ll keep testing you until you pass… or…”

“Or die,” guesses Krel.

Steve lets out a long groan. “I hate our lives!”

“Well, this does mean one thing,” says Douxie, as if there’s possibly a bright side to this. His smile falls quickly, though, so maybe it isn’t a bright side after all. “Archie and I were right about you. The end of the world is coming, and you three are important to stopping it.”

Somehow, that doesn’t comfort Toby at all.