The Mage closed his eyes and let the ionized micro-encapsulated derma spray blast into his face. The penultimate tactile experience in the Six Inhabited Realms was an Atlantian Total Immersion Shower (commonly called the "ATIS"). The ATIS automatically applied focused infra red heat or deep penetrating cooling gels to the body in accordance with a magnetic resonance imaging scan as one entered the shower. The ATIS also included sonic dermal abrasion, three hundred pinpoint focused water jets, and mood lighting and sound. Finally, one had a choice of over two hundred-fifty scented soaps and body washes from the Golden Flower line from Billion Baths, Ltd. (founded by his grand-niece Kellan and her best friend Anacaona), one of the fastest growing aethernet.coms in the Fourth Realm.
It had been an exhausting day, a perfect end to another exhausting week of negotiations with the Atlantians to secure land in the southern hemisphere of the First Realm to establish a permanent territorial presence for the House of the Earth Angel. The last three days had been particularly brutal. Some of the Atlantians' proposals made no sense at all, which was shocking given their penchant for precision. Worse, though, was the fact that several of the painstaking responses that he and Secretary of State Salash had drafted were not included in their counter-proposal packets. That didn’t make any sense either.
Although he would have been content to stand in the shower for the next hour, he washed and rinsed quickly. The ultimate tactile experience in the Six Inhabited Realms was waiting for him in bed. Princess Kimura of the Qpiad, his wife, had returned just before dinner time from her month long visit with her sister, Queen Amura of the Qpiad.
"Finished," he announced. The sprays ceased and the doors opened silently, releasing a cloud of steam into the bathroom. He rubbed the water from his eyes, and stepped out of the shower. He reached out and grabbed his towel, then dove back into the shower stall. "Seven Hells!"
"Are you all right in there?" came a concerned query from the bedroom.
"I'm fine. I'll just be a couple more minutes."
The Mage wrapped the towel around his waist, and stepped back out of the stall. He crossed to the sink, and knelt down. "Cairi, what are you doing here?"
"I'm not here. I'm in bed sleeping," the diminutive, copper skinned little girl replied.
Most entities would have sensed a disconnect at this point, but the Mage was familiar with visits from little grand-nieces who weren't there. Cairine's half-sister Flos, the Crown Princess of the House of the Earth Angel, had been astrally projecting for the last three years. There was no real reason that Cairi couldn't astrally project herself as well, except that she was half Qpiad and half High Sidhe, and neither of those races had the ability to astrally project. He'd worry about that later. "I understand. What's bothering you, sweetheart?"
"Something is very wrong at home," she replied gravely.
Most entities would have had a hard time trying not smile at the six year old's tone and stern demeanor. The Mage, however, was not one of them. Cairi was brilliant and circumspect. He expected her to have her first doctorate by age ten. Her powers of observation and deduction were unsurpassed. If she thought something was wrong, she was probably 99.999999999 percent correct.
"Tell me about it."
"I'm not sure what to tell you. My waked up me doesn't even know."
"Hmm. Well, how long have you thought something was wrong?"
The astral Cairi, her young face looking wizened in deep thought, answered, "I think it is three days now."
"Good. What happened three days ago?"
She paused for a moment, then looked up with tears in her eyes. "He's gone." She sniffed twice, then continued softly, "Kiefer."
"Who is Kiefer?"
"Kiefer is a banded golden keefrip. He lived by the gate. Every night, he would sneak into the kitchen. The cooks kept setting traps, but he was too smart.
“Whenever the Power-Pack Girls were on patrol, he would run up a sunflower and watch us. At breakfast, the cook complained that he got in the kitchen again. The Power-Pack Girls went out on the morning patrol, but he wasn't there." An ephemeral tear ran down her cheek.
"Honey, lots of predators like to eat keefrips, particularly big, fat, juicy ones. If Kiefer was that smart, he probably was well fed."
Cairi shook her head. "Nope. Nope. Nope. Kiefer was too smart to get eaten.”
"All right. Keefrips are very curious creatures. You saw how he liked to watch the Power-Pack Girls. Maybe his curiosity led him somewhere that was dangerous."
Cairi thought for moment, then agreed. "That could be. He was very smart. So whatever trouble he got into, that is what I have to figure out before anyone else gets hurt. I better let the waked me know."
The Mage was about to explain that whatever caused Kiefer's disappearance probably wasn't much of a threat to the non-keefrip residents of the House of the Earth Angel. However, one look at her determined visage, and all the Mage could do was offer to be available for further consultation, if necessary.
Kimura stood at the bathroom door watching her husband talking to himself, and hugging nothing at all. He stood up and noticed her for the first time. She smiled. "Aha. Caught you entertaining strange women in my bathroom!" She laughed. "So what's bothering Flos?"
"It's stranger than you think. That was Cairi." He walked over and put his arms around her.
"Cairi? It can't be. She's half..." She didn't get to finish her sentence since his mouth covered hers.
After a full minute, he broke the kiss, then scooped her up in his arms. On the way to the bed he told her, "I know. But that is a problem for another day. We have much more important matters to attend to tonight." He set her on the bed, and dropped the towel from his waist.
Cairi held up her hand. Flos and Ragi stopped silently, instantly on the alert for any signs of danger. Cairi turned a full 360 degrees, then lowered her hand.
Ragi was disappointed. She was looking forward to a good fight. Of course, she was always looking forward to a good fight, so she didn't stay disappointed. "What's up, Cairi?"
Cairi shook her head. "I'm not sure. Did you ever have the feeling you are not being watched?"
Flos came over and joined them. "I have been having that feeling, too."
Ragi, who preferred action to words, stopped to consider her words. "Yep. Me too. For the last couple of days."
Cairi burst into tears. Flos and Ragi instantly hugged her from both sides. "What's wrong?" the deeply concerned half-sisters inquired.
Cairi sniffled, then explained, "I just told me. Kiefer's gone."
"Kiefer's gone!" came the two part harmonic shocked reply.
All three girls looked over to the sunflowers by the gate. The huge flowers bobbed up and down in the wind, but none of them carried a banded golden keefrip. The Power-Pack Girls ran to inspect the flowers.
Flos checked the flowerbed for recent tracks. Ragi helped Cairi up on her shoulders, so Cairi could check on top of the broad yellow blooms. There was no sign of any recent keefrip activity high or low. Ragi lifted Flos and Cairi up onto the fence, then climbed up herself.
Ragi made a fist and placed it over her heart. "You were a noble warrior, Kiefer. You will be missed."
Cairi stood up on the fence. She leapt up, cartwheeled over her sisters, and
landed standing up on the fence with her finger in Ragi's face. "You take that back, Ragi! We don't know that Kiefer is dead!"
Flos hurriedly put one hand on Ragi's shoulder holding her down, and the other stretched across Ragi to take ahold of Cairi's outstretched finger. "Settle down, Power-Pack girls. You're both right. Kiefer is a noble warrior, and we don't know what happened to him. He may need our help." She released her calming grip on her sisters. "This sounds like a job for the Power-Pack Girls!" Without waiting for her sisters to agree, she hopped off the fence. "C'mon!" Ragi and Cairi looked at each, nodded, then hopped off the fence and chased after Flos.
The Power-Pack Girls spent the rest of the morning searching the garden for clues. By lunch time, they were certain of one thing. Whatever happened to Kiefer, it didn't happen in the garden.
Angel, Brunhilde and Salash were tied up in negotiations with the Atlantians, so lunch was Jack's responsibility. There were twenty-two kitchen workers, but he loved making the girls their lunches himself. He assembled their favorite lunch, kwellanut butter and Merkency Salt Lake jellyfish sandwiches. Normally, the volume at lunch rivaled that of a passing freight train, but this time the girls were silent. Jack set aside the kwellanut butter and New Verus Boar bacon sandwich that he was making for himself, and went to investigate.
He found his daughters deep in thought. For Cairi, that was pretty much situation normal. For Flos, not so much. For Ragi, well, something was up, and Jack meant to get to the bottom of it.
"Hey, girls. You're so quiet. I thought you loved KBJ sandwiches. Don't you like your lunch?"
"Lunch is very good, Daddy," the pseudo-triplets answered in three part harmony. "But the Power-Pack Girls have a really tough case. We're trying to figure out our next step."
Jack understood, or at least thought he understood, the mechanisms of answering simultaneously and in unison when his identical twin daughters Aithne and Birkita did it. He really had no clue how the pseudo-triplets accomplished the feat since they came from three different mothers. It probably had something to do with their Qpiad telepathic abilities. He had forced open a premature Gathering of the Clan to contact them when they were kidnapped when they were only three years old. That may have left them permanently linked. He would have to talk to High Lady Alyxx, the Qpiad Court Healer about that possibility.
"Nope. No blood."
Either the girls were playing an elaborate trick on Daddy, or they were actively telepathic. Jack decided on the latter. "Do you need some help?" he thought in their directions.
"Daddy! We can do it ourselves!" came back the answer, in three part harmony.
"Okay. Okay. Anyone need some more kshari melon juice?"
"Okay. I'll be in the kitchen fixing my lunch if you need me. Love you, girls."
"Love you, Daddy."
Jack knew something was wrong. The pseudo-triplets never went to bed without any fussing. There were no requests for one more bed time story chapter, no extra hugs, no extra drinks of water, no "forgot to brush my teeth" or "have to go to the bathroom", nothing. Just three quick kisses and into bed. He turned off the light, and thought to his daughters, Love you, girls.
"Love you, Daddy," came back in three part harmony, followed by three
He stepped out into the hallway, and closed the door part way. He stood there listening, but there was no giggling or whispering. He closed the door.
Flos's astral self sat on the fence waiting for her sisters. Cairi's astral self joined her. "Hey, Flos. Where's Ragi?"
"She's still tossing and turning. Daddy was keeping her awake too long. He said goodnight a million times."
"Here she comes!" Cairi pointed to a glowing speck right on the line between twilight and night.
As the speck approached, Flos crossed her arms. "What took you so long? We were waiting forever."
Ragi crossed her arms. "Not my fault. Daddy wouldn't leave!"
Cairi and Flos nodded, then answered in unison, "We know."
Flos hopped off the fence and headed towards the burrow that they discovered during their morning search. "Come on. We need to see if there are any clues at Kiefer's house."
They walked over to the burrow's entrance. Ragi bent down and looked in the hole. "I can't see anything."
Cairi pulled three astral flashlights out of her pocket. She handed one to each of her sisters. "We better go in and have a look."
Ragi shook her head. "We're too big."
Cairi put her hands on her hips. "Of course, now we are. But we'll fit just fine if we grow down." That said, she shrank down to an inch in height.
Flos looked at Ragi, shrugged, and shrank down to an inch and a half. Ragi called out, "Wait for me," and shrank to a foot and a half. "I'm coming. Don't go in yet." She shrank another foot.
Cairi tapped her foot impatiently. "Stop fooling around, Ragi. We have to find Kiefer." Ragi scrunched up her face in concentration, and finally shrank down to an inch and five-eighths. Once more properly proportioned in height and weight, the astral Power-Pack Girls lit their flashlights, and started into the burrow.
They walked forward for a couple of meters that seemed more like a city block. The tunnel gradually sloped downward, then split into three passages. Without a word, each girl took a separate branch.
Ragi raced down her passageway. If there was something to be found, she'd find it faster that way. She hoped that she'd find whatever monster attacked Kiefer so she could fight it by herself.There was no evidence that Kiefer had been attacked by any monster, but Ragi didn't allow that fact to slow her pace.
She turned a corner, immediately flattened against the wall, and flicked the flashlight off. Something was just ahead. The beam from her flashlight had reflected off one of its eyes! She held her breath (not that her astral being needed to breathe), and listened. There was no sound. This was a cunning adversary.
She crept closer, then froze and listened. Silence. She moved two steps closer. The flashlight was too short to use as a club. It could be used as a projectile, but Ragi decided that it would serve best as a distraction. She flicked the switch, and rolled it towards the point where she saw the eye.
As soon as she released the flashlight, she jumped up and ran full bore straight ahead. Even if the monster heard her, it would focus on the flashlight. She raised both fists, released a fierce war cry, and blasted into the monster's lair.
Flos slowly worked her way down the passageway, looking for any signs of a struggle. The floor of this passageway was well worn. Kiefer had come this way many times. There were signs that something had been dragged through the area, but nothing else appeared amiss. There was no blood or tufts of fur.
Looking ahead, she noticed an opening to her right. Whatever was dragged through the passageway was headed to that point. She really didn't want to know what had been dragged that way in case it was Kiefer, but dutifully headed in that direction.
Cairi paused to listen. It wasn't her imagination. There were faint mewling sounds ahead of her. She picked up her pace, thinking that Kiefer could be injured, and in need of her help.
The passageway widened into a room. Cairi played her light over the floor from left to right. There was no sign Kiefer, but the mewling sounds continued. She directed the beam to the back of the room. There was a small nest of twigs. She walked over to the nest, and shined her beam inside. Four baby keefrips, their eyes not even open yet, weakly raised their heads and cried in her direction.
"Kiefer is a mommy!"
Ragi slammed her fists downward, passing right through a large pile of shiny treasure. There was no monster. Disappointed, she retrieved the flashlight, and explored the treasure chamber.
It was quite a collection. There were two keys on a small ring, a dozen coins, two Earthside bottle caps, and a platinum and emerald High Sidhe Brooch of the Athol family crest.
Ragi smiled. "So that's where it went." Cairi had borrowed the brooch from her mommy because it went so well with the Power-Pack Girls' dress uniforms. They were going to receive commendations for saving the planet Diknarz from the Proglezian Invasion.
After the ceremony, Cairi couldn't find the brooch. Auntie-Mommie Salash was very angry. Cairi was sure that she put it on her dressing table. She never loses anything. But since the brooch wasn't there, she got a spanking and a time out. She was so mad. She was sure that Flos or Ragi borrowed it, which they both denied. She wouldn't speak to them for hours! She was going to be so surprised that Kiefer took it.
Flos had procrastinated a full three seconds. It was time to look through the opening. You can do this, she chided herself, you're a Power-Pack Girl. So start acting like one.
She raised the flashlight and pointed it into the opening. The beam landed squarely on an immature kshari melon, that was just starting to turn green. Kiefer must have found it in the garden, and dragged it back home.
They met back at the junction, and reported their findings. The first order of business was taking care of Kiefer's babies. They went back to the nest.
Ragi's eyes went wide. "They're so tiny!"
Flos added, "And hungry. We have to feed them. Cairi, do you have any ideas?"
"Hmm. Remember when we fought with Kellan and Queen Macha. We didn't have any acorns, but we thought we did, so we did."
Ragi shook her head. "How will that help? The babies aren't like the blackness monster."
Cairi held up one finger. "I know. We didn't know where the acorns were, so we had to make them up. But babies like milk, and there is lots of milk in the kitchen. Since we know where the milk is, Flos can Veil it here. We just have to imagine the bottles." She reached into her pocket and took out four tiny baby bottles. "Flos, could you fill these with milk from the kitchen?"
Flos nodded. "Sure, but I have to cook it first. Babies don't like cold milk." She closed her eyes. "Okay, it's ready." Flos filled the astral bottles with real milk, then placed one in the mouth of the loudest mewling baby in the nest. It sucked greedily at the bottle. "It works!" She gave a second bottle to the next baby in line. Ragi and Cairi each fed one of the remaining tiny keefrips.
The babies drained the bottles, then snuggled together in a clump and fell asleep. Ragi smiled. "They are so cute. But what if they get hungry again before we find Kiefer?"
Cairi set her jaw. "We'll just have to find Kiefer as fast as we can."
Flos closed her eyes, and revisited the trip down her passageway. "I think I know how Kiefer gets to the kitchen. My tunnel kept going past the room where I found the melon. We need to follow that tunnel until it ends. That should take us closer to Kiefer.
"Our work here is done. Let's go, Power-Pack Girls!"
The shadows shifted ever so slightly. He was ready. He tensed, muscles coiling, ready to pounce as soon as his prey appeared. He reared up -- and dropped back down on his haunches.
"Mowth?" The color changing, miniature, button-nosed Adpagian Eathcrak was confused.
The Power-Pack Girls stepped out into the kitchen. Flos put her finger to her lips. "Shhhh, Mowth. It's us." The astral girls returned to their normal size. Mowth was the only member of the household that could detect them in their astral state.
Ragi looked around the kitchen, then put her hands on her hips. "Now what? We made it to the kitchen, but where is Kiefer?"
Flos shook her head. "I don't know, Ragi. Something happened to Kiefer in
here. I know it."
Cairi got down on her hands and knees, and crawled slowly along the wall until she came to a point where the wall paper was coming off. "Here. This is where it happened."
Flos and Ragi asked simultaneously, "Where what happened?" Mowth added, "Mowth?"
"I'm not sure. Flos, can you Veil us back three nights?"
"No, silly. But we can watch what happened on the remote viewer."
A large screen remote viewing apparatus appeared on the wall over their heads. The first shot focused on the hole that Kiefer had dug behind the cabinet. Kiefer cautiously stuck her nose out, then scurried behind the cabinet. She ran up the back side, then squeezed her way out and onto the counter. She ran across the counter, and headed towards the dry goods.
She was about to try to pry off the lid on the jar of kwellanut butter, when
something sparkly caught her eye. Feeding the babies was of paramount importance, but they had just eaten. She could spare a moment to investigate. She ran down the cabinet and headed over to the flashy spot at the wall.
A portal appeared in the wall, no more than three inches in diameter. The foot long, pencil-thin, silvery-blue bookworm slithered out into the kitchen. Kiefer could tell that something was happening, but couldn't detect the incorporeal bookworm.
The bookworm took a moment to gather its bearings, then solidified. The keefrip watched the shiny creature slowly materialize, and knew she had to add it to her treasures. It was twice her length, but she didn't hesitate. She leapt, and pinned it down with her sharp, acerous, front claws.
The bookworm squirmed and twisted. Kiefer batted at it. It coiled into a tight spring like position, then snapped forward and knocked Kiefer into the wall, stunning her. Before Kiefer could recover, it slithered over and extended an appendage that touched her side, then lifted her and appended her to the back of the leaf of wall paper that was coming off the wall.
"Kiefer!" the girls yelled in unison.
Cairi peered behind the peeling wallpaper. "Yep. There she is."
Ragi put her hands on her hips. "Now what do we do?"
Flos shushed their pet again. "Shhhh, Mowth. If you wake the mommies, we'll be in big trouble." She turned back to her sisters. "The first thing we have to do...."
"Mrrrrrr, mowth, mowth, mowth!"
"Mowth, shhhh!" Flos turned back to their angry pet, and noticed the sparkling on the wall.
"Power-Pack Girls, prepare for battle!"
Flos and Cairi took positions on either side of the opening portal. Ragi stood right in front. When the portal expanded to a three inch diameter, the bookworm made its appearance.
When the worm was halfway through, Ragi wound up and punched it in the nose, driving it back an inch and a half. Flos clapped her hands together and delivered a vicious blast of psychic energy that knocked the worm towards Cairi, who spun and delivered a blinding kick that knocked the dazed worm back to the center. Ragi reached over and grabbed the worm, and threw it over her head and into the cabinet.
The bookworm had no idea what was attacking it. Nothing should have been able to perceive it until it manifested, much less do it harm. It knew its only chance was to become solid as quickly as possible.
"Mowth!" He reared back on his powerful cricket-like legs and sprang onto the shiny bookworm, pinning it down at either end. One snap of his powerful jaws, and the worm lay in two writhing parts, dripping purple ichor onto the immaculate kitchen floor.
As the last of the writhing stopped, Kiefer popped out from under the wallpaper and froze. Mowth eyed the keefrip, but stayed by the bookworm, looking for any sign that it might still have some fight in it. Kiefer moved tentatively, and Mowth growled.
Flos came over to the watchful pet, and put her hand on his leg. "Great work, Mowth. This is Kiefer the Keefrip. She is our friend, too. You can let her go back to her babies."
Mowth stopped growling. Kiefer took two tentative steps, then dashed up the cabinet and back down the other side. She darted into her hole, having had enough excitement for one night.
Jack had dozed off, but was instantly awake when the door nudged open. Mowth came over and dropped the two segments of the bookworm at his feet. Jack scratched him behind his ears. "Good work, Mowth. I think I know why negotiations have stalled."
He checked the girls. They had been tossing and turning for most of the night, but now were sleeping peacefully. He gave each of them a kiss, then scooped Mowth up under one arm and picked up the bookworm with his other hand, and carried them both out into the hall. He closed the door. "Another triumph for the Power-Pack Girls."
"A bookworm? What does it do?" The Mage closed the lid on the box.
Jack laughed. "It changes the text on documents. It can add text or delete it, depending on whatever will cause the most confusion."
Salash shook her head in disgust. "I should have guessed. There was no way that the Atlantians could be that careless in their drafting. There had to be outside interference."
Jack agreed. "Whoever sent the bookworm obviously does not want the House of the Earth Angel to complete these negotiations with the Atlantians. Either House is a major force to contend with. But once this treaty is concluded, both Houses should be virtually untouchable."
"How did you find it, Jack?" the Mage inquired.
"I didn't. The Power-Pack Girls found it when they were trying to save Kiefer the Keefrip."
"Ah, Cairi's little friend."
Cairi held up her hand. Flos and Ragi stopped silently, instantly on the alert for any signs of danger. Cairi turned a full 360 degrees, then lowered her hand. Without explanation, she turned and ran toward the fence. Flos and Ragi were close at her heels.
Kiefer scampered down the sunflower when the girls were still fifty feet away. It was probably safe, but with the babies depending on her, she wasn't willing to take a chance. She watched them walk up to the sunflower, before scooting into the burrow.
Cairi watched the huge yellow bloom bobbing up and down in the wind. She giggled, then reached over and grabbed the shiny brooch. "Thank you, Kiefer."
CK Copyright 2011; Moral rights to be identified as the author of “Saving Kiefer" asserted worldwide (including in Great Britain in accordance with Sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act of 1988)