Authors: Carrie Harris
“Yeah, stupid question, I know. So how do we get out of here? Can you break the cage?”
The she-yeti shook her massive head and I caught a glimpse of a black ring around her neck. I recognized it immediately. Our dog Armstrong had a shock collar just like it. Tobias must have put up invisible fences, and I had to believe that he’d cranked their power if it had been enough to put down a yeti.
“So this guy slipped his collar?” I asked. The she-yeti nodded. “And the chances of that working again are pretty slim. Okay, so what else can we do?”
She started gesturing, but I had no idea what she was trying to say. I was really wishing I’d taken sign language instead of Spanish, but then a movement across the clearing caught my eye. The door to the trailer opened slowly, and Amethyst stuck her head out. I couldn’t believe my eyes; they’d been in there the entire time? Where had they been, hanging from the ceiling?
I leapt to my feet, looking wildly around for any sign of Tobias. I hadn’t really paid attention to where he’d gone after he’d locked me in the cage. I scanned the trees, looking for the muddy brown of his jumpsuit, and finally spotted him near the road. It was probably safe for the girls to make their escape, provided they did it fast.
So I stood up and waved my arms to get Amethyst’s attention. Her eyes snapped to me instantly and she ducked back into the trailer, probably to report my captive status. It would have been embarrassing if I hadn’t been so busy being impressed by how smart the girls were. They’d tricked both me and Tobias into thinking they’d run, and then they must have hidden somewhere in the trailer. I felt pretty cool by association.
The door opened wide, and the girls slipped out in quick succession, plastering themselves against the wall of the trailer and moving stealthily into the shadows. Their heads swiveled back and forth, scanning for danger. I pointed toward the spot where I’d last seen Tobias. He was working his way back toward us, his face pointed toward the ground. Hopefully, his tracking skills weren’t much better than mine. Otherwise the girls weren’t going to get far.
But instead of heading for the woods, the girls crouched down and made their way toward my cage. I nearly shouted at them to go away and realized only at the last minute what a bad idea that was. Tobias was crazy, but he wasn’t deaf.
“Are you okay?” demanded Europa once she was within earshot.
“I’m fine. Did you call the cops?” I hissed.
Amethyst started shaking her head about halfway through my sentence. “No landline. And we all left our cells in the cabin.”
I tried not to let my disappointment show on my face. If I was honest with myself, the only reason I hadn’t completely flipped out was because I’d assumed help was coming. Now I’d have to deal with the mad scientist myself, and that fact made me less than thrilled.
“All right. Then you’d better get out of here before he sees you.”
“No! We’ll free you, Clanlord.” Calamity’s face was white and pinched. I honestly expected her to try to rip the fence apart with her bare hands. Sure, if she’d really been a barbarian princess, this would have been a great idea. But she wasn’t a barbarian. She played the violin and got straight As, and her bedroom was all pink. I’d seen it once when we were studying for an algebra test.
“Charlotte,” I said, and she recoiled. I think it was the first time I’d used her real name since we’d started gaming together. “You guys have to get out of here before someone really gets hurt. This guy is crazy, and he’s got a gun. This isn’t a game. Do you understand?”
The girls hesitated. Europa’s lips wouldn’t stop quivering, and the tears on her face had nothing to do with taking a boot to the nose. Amethyst looked pale and nervous; she couldn’t stop twitching, and she gripped the chain link with bloodless fingers. But at least they were
“Now go,” I ordered, handing my compass through the links of the fence. “Find the camp, or any civilization, really. And send help.”
Amethyst took a slow, reluctant step backward. She looked really strange, and it took me a moment to figure out what was wrong. The girl just didn’t look right without her wings. I made a mental vow to go back and get them when this was all over.
I felt like I should say something really witty to put the girls at ease, but I didn’t get a chance to think of anything good.
The ground near the girls’ feet exploded, pelting me with dirt. A nice big clod went right into my eye.
“Stay right where you are!” Tobias shrieked. He’d looked creepy before, but now he was totally unhinged. His eyes were wide and showed way too much white, like a skittish horse. I wasn’t sure what had made him suddenly start firing, but then, it’s not like this guy was Mr. Logic. He genetically engineered yeti and lived in a moldy old trailer. Not exactly the kind of lifestyle that inspires major confidence.
“Run!” I yelled as he advanced, reloading the rifle.
“Scramble!” Amethyst barked, and the girls reacted instantly, splitting off and sprinting for cover. If he did manage to reload before they got to safety, he’d have to pick a target instead of sighting them all at once.
Europa tripped over something on the ground—due to the grime inhabiting my eye socket, my vision was too blurry to identify the object—and went down. Calamity wasn’t even looking, but she seemed to sense that something was wrong. She slowed. Hesitated. Stopped.
Tobias slipped two shells into the chamber and flipped the rifle closed with a practiced hand. I didn’t want to watch, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Europa struggled to her feet, but now she was limping. There was no way she’d make it to the trees. Tobias put the gun to his shoulder. If he shot her right in front of me, I’d never be able to live with myself.
I rattled the cage, screaming, “Don’t you dare shoot her! Her name is Emily. She has a little brother and she likes Hello Kitty!”
The she-yeti seemed to pick up on my state of mind. She threw herself against the side of her cage and let out a howl that sounded like a pack of wolves mating with an air raid siren. Then she fell to the ground, jerking and shuddering. Stupid shock collar! I mentally added it to the list of things I wanted to tear apart with my bare hands.
“Shut up!” Tobias screamed, clapping his hands to his ears. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or to the voices in his head, but I didn’t care. I made as much noise as I could, hollering and banging the sides of my cage. I could hear noises in response—a coughing yowl, a shriek like a carrion bird, and a growl that rattled the ground—as the menagerie of creatures joined in the chorus and then were cut short as their collars zapped them.
The cage rattled under my fingers, and for a glorious second, I thought it was going to fall. But it didn’t.
All of this happened within moments, and when I looked back at Europa, I saw her slung over Calamity’s shoulders, fireman-style. She outweighed Calamity by at least twenty pounds, and the smaller girl staggered under the weight but refused to go down. They disappeared into the trees, their costumes melding into the undergrowth just like they were designed to.
Tears streamed down my face, obscuring my vision. I scrubbed at my eye furiously and only succeeded in making it sting more. I was beginning to think Tal’s costume should include a pair of safety goggles. If I survived, I would make that happen. And sure, I was scared, but I also felt this overwhelming sense of relief that at least the girls were okay.
Said sense of relief lasted about two seconds. Then Tobias shoved the barrel of his rifle under my nose.
“You,” he said.
“You’ve ruined everything,” he snarled. “My buyer has insisted on absolute secrecy.
Who do you work for?
“Nobody!” I shrieked right in his face, and then I broke off panting. Losing my temper wasn’t going to help, and every minute he spent talking to me gave the girls time to escape. “Are you sure your buyer is even real? I mean, how do you find someone interested in buying yeti, anyway? eBay?”
“I tried that,” he muttered, “but their rules are so strict.”
“Look,” I said, trying to sound soothing, “you’re clearly a talented guy. I mean, look at these creatures! They’re so freaking awesome!” My voice cracked at the end there, and he looked at me funny.
“Thank you?” he replied, but he didn’t sound too sure. Like maybe I was up to something.
“But they’re really unhappy being caged up like this. Why don’t you let them go? There’s plenty of wilderness they could live in. And then you could get some help for your … you know. Problem?” I pointed to my ear.
If I made it out of this alive, I’d have to tell my guidance counselor to knock
off my list of potential professions, because I sucked at it. Tobias had actually started to nod when I brought up his imaginary friend, but then his face tightened and his brows drew down into their customary angry glower. He shouldered his rifle and stalked toward the trailer.
“You should give it up!” I yelled. “The girls will come back with the cops!”
“My buyers will be here within the hour,” he said. “We’ll be gone before the police arrive.” He turned to look at me. “I’ll leave you here in the cage for them to find. I’m not going to hurt you, and I wouldn’t have hurt those girls.”
The urge to argue with that was overwhelming—even warning shots can hit unintended targets, right? But it seemed silly to pick a fight when he had just offered me a get-out-of-metal-cage-free card. All I had to do was wait for a couple hours, and then someone would let me out and hopefully give me a Mountain Dew. I was parched.
So I just nodded and sat down. Tobias seemed to take that as approval; he took out a cell phone and made a call. I tried to listen so I could give the authorities as many details as possible,
but he was speaking another language that sounded like he was hacking up fur balls mid-word. Listening was futile, so I made myself comfortable. Maybe I’d even take a nap.
I was feeling pretty good about the situation when I lay down. But then I came face to face with the he-yeti still curled up on the ground. Sure, this arrangement worked for me, provided Tobias delivered. But what would it mean for all the creatures?
Nothing good, if you asked me.
A few minutes later, Tobias disappeared into the big building. I launched myself to my feet, ready for action. Too bad I didn’t know what to do. I racked my brain for something that might make a difference, but I had no resources in my cage, and neither of the yeti had been any help. It wasn’t like I could pick locks with my fingernails. Maybe Sir Tal could, but not me.
Still, how hard could picking locks be? High school dropouts did it all the time, right? I scanned the landscape for something useful.
The cage on my right was empty except for a metal box in the middle. The box was small, maybe a square foot, with a briefcase-style handle. I figured it was light enough that it would slide if only I could reach it. Maybe there was something I could use inside.
I took the twine out of my bandolier and rummaged through my gem collection until I found one of the heavier stones. I chose a bright pink one with a funky-looking flaw in the middle that I used to cast pretend luck spells in the LARP. I thought I could definitely use some luck right then.
I tied the stone to the end of the twine, threaded the twine through the chain link, and gave it an experimental swing. It wouldn’t do at all to let go of the end, so I pinched my fingers together so hard that the tips turned white. The gem dragged along the ground as I tried to hook it around the box handle. I figured if it wedged in there just right, I should be able to pull the box close enough to open it.
It took three tries, but finally I made it. This got me to the tricky part: pulling the case along the ground without dislodging the gem. I failed the first couple of tries and had to repeat the whole thing all over again, only this time with a sound track of words that would make my mom cluck her tongue if she ever heard me say them.
Finally, I got the case close enough to my cage to grab it. My hands were just small enough that I could fit my thumb or my fingers through, but not both at the same time. So it took
a fair amount of fumbling before I could twist it around. Nothing on the outside indicated its contents or screamed “Hey! I could easily be repurposed as a lock pick!” But the case was only held closed with a pair of latches, so I refused to give up just yet. Maybe there would be a useful yeti-rescue tool inside.
I flipped the latches and threw open the lid. A glob of liquid shot out at me, landed on my bandolier, and began eating through the strap. I slammed the lid closed, and the bandolier fell to the ground. My tunic also sported a growing hole, and I didn’t want to know what would happen when the mystery liquid hit my skin. I quickly took off my shirt and tossed it to the ground too, just in case. I’d rather be a cold, scrawny guy with no shirt than a warm, covered corpse with a hole in its chest. Go figure.
A sane person would have left the box alone after that, and despite what my sister thought, I considered myself pretty sane. Maybe I lived in a fantasy world most of the time, but I knew it wasn’t real; I just had more fun there than I did in the real world. So I didn’t have a problem recognizing that whatever was in that box wasn’t good news. But I also hoped it could help me get out of this cage if only I could avoid getting aerated in the process. I hadn’t exactly pulled a Houdini yet, but it was the best lead I had.
First, I had to figure out exactly what I was dealing with. It might have been a trap, in which case I’d set it off when I’d opened the box and no other action was necessary. Or it could have been an alien, a chaos snake, a death wyrm, or slime. But I wasn’t sure how any of those things could fit in such a tiny box, and I wouldn’t be able to defeat one if I let it out and it decided to eat me. Maybe I could tame it and it would eat its way out of the box, and then I’d ride it to freedom. Which was so awesome that I could barely stand to think about it.
A wise man would have left the case alone and found another way. So of course I decided to open it again.