Elliot and the Pixie Plot, Page 2Jennifer A. Nielsen
The werewolf raised a claw and growled so loudly that the branches of the tree behind Elliot trembled. Elliot stumbled a few steps backward and said, "Look, if you want to talk to me, then just do it as yourself."
"There is no myself," the werewolf said. "I am a Shapeshifter. I am whatever form I take at the moment."
"So this is your scary form?" Elliot asked.
The werewolf laughed, which sounded more like a pre-hunt howl. Then he asked, "Do you want to be scared?"
Elliot didn't, but it was clearly a rhetorical question. The werewolf wasn't looking for an answer. It retreated into the shadow of a tree and took a deep breath; then its height shrunk by a foot or two. The werewolf's fur blackened to become more like a body of smoke and fire than of flesh and bones. Elliot could feel the heat from the black fire, but there was no light, just the bitter smell of burning. A long, black cloak hung around the creature's shoulders, and when Elliot glanced down, he saw that the creature was only barely touching the ground.
The creature's voice was like a whisper Elliot heard in his head, but not through his ears. It ran a shiver up Elliot's spine as the creature said, "Now I am a Shadow Man. I am your worst nightmare."
Dear Reader, this may be a good time to think about your worst nightmare. Is it one where you are being chased down a very steep hill by a million hungry white bunny rabbits and you are holding what appears to be the last carrot on earth? Or am I the only one having that dream?
Elliot doesn't remember most of his dreams. However, he felt that if he had dreamt of his Brownie friend turning into a goat, changing to a werewolf, evolving into a Shadow Man, and threatening to do something horrible to him if he didn't release Grissel, who would then turn around and do something horrible to the Brownies, he would certainly remember such a dream. So this was probably not his worst nightmare.
It was a pretty scary daymare though, if such a thing existed.
The Shadow Man stared down at Elliot, who felt beads of hot sweat line his forehead. Something inside Elliot stopped working. Something important, like his heart. This was nothing like being scared to death by the Goblins. It was worse. He stumbled backward, tripping on a root and falling to the ground.
"Is this what you are?" Elliot asked, not sure what he was seeing.
The creature's laugh sounded like the powerful hiss of a steam engine pulling into a train station. "Shadow Men are servants of the evil Demon Kovol. Fear them, Elliot, and hope you never cross their path."
Elliot's heart pounded in his chest. Kovol was asleep. His friend Agatha the Hag had told him that. As long as Kovol remained asleep, the Shadow Men would have no reason to bother him. He hoped.
"You're not Mr. Willimaker, and you're not a goat or a werewolf," Elliot whispered. "And you can take the shape of a Shadow Man, but that's not you either."
"I am far more powerful than they are, for I can become them when I want to, or become anything else. I am a Shapeshifter, and you will do what I say."
Elliot shook his head and forced himself to look into the empty black pits that were now the Shapeshifter's eyes. "You're made of shadow. You can't hurt me."
The figure swirled around Elliot, creating a wind that sucked the air from his lungs. Heat from the Shadow Man filled the space where the air had been, and sweat stung Elliot's brow. He collapsed forward and whispered, "Okay, I get it. You're bad."
The swirling stopped, and Elliot was able to breathe again. "I'm not bad actually," the Shapeshifter said. "I just wanted to scare you because you bet me I couldn't."
"You win, okay? Please change."
The Shadow Man shrugged as if it didn't matter to him, then exhaled slowly and dissolved into the shape of a boy about Elliot's age.
The boy was about Elliot's height but with normal legs (Elliot's legs were still too long for his body). Elliot's hair had darkened since summer to the same light brown as the boy's, although streaks of blond still showed in Elliot's sun-bleached hair. And unlike Elliot, the boy's clothes matched. Elliot wondered if he'd change anything about his own body if he were a Shapeshifter. Bigger muscles maybe.
"What's your name?" Elliot asked.
"All the best Shapeshifter names were taken before I was born. By the time I came along, it was either Morphid or Pupa Boy." He shrugged. "My parents skipped Shapeshifter names and called me Harold instead."
"Harold's good. That's our hamster's name at school."
Harold groaned. "That doesn't make me feel better."
"It should. He's a good hamster. Runs fast on his wheel and everything. I guess you already know my name."
"Obviously. Now please, King Elliot, you must release Grissel."
"All I know is that the Pixies want him free. They forced me to come here and try to fool you into releasing them."
"How did they force you?"
Harold threw up his hands. "How many times has your mother told you that rhyme, 'Pixie one, lots of fun. Pixie two, trouble for you. Pixie three, better flee.'"
"Never." Elliot's mother didn't know Pixies exist.
"Well, my mother says it every time the Pixies trick me. She says it a lot. Anyway, they said I wasn't a very good Shapeshifter, because I couldn't turn into anything I wanted. I said I could. They bet me I couldn't." Harold lowered his eyes. "I have this problem with bets. I can't say no to them."
"What did they want you to turn into?" Elliot asked.
Harold's mouth twisted. Then with a sigh he said, "A marshmallow."
Elliot giggled. "Regular or mini?"
"It's not funny," Harold said. "Of course I had to prove that I could do it. Then when I became a marshmallow I couldn't think my way back, because as it turns out, marshmallows don't have brains. The Pixies said they'd change me back but that I had to do what they wanted."
"What was that?"
"They wanted me to pretend to be you and order the Brownies to release Grissel. But even if I looked exactly like you, I still wouldn't be the king, so I couldn't release him. So after they helped me change back, I promised that if they released me, I'd come here pretending to be Mr. Willimaker. The Pixie princess, Fidget Spitfly, agreed, and here I am. So will you release Grissel?"
Elliot wasn't usually a stubborn kid, but he didn't see a lot of room to bargain on the issue of Goblins eating his royal subjects. "You'll have to go back and tell Princess Fidget that I'm not releasing Grissel until he promises to stop eating the Brownies."
Harold shook his head. "Are you crazy? I'm not telling her anything. Do you know how mad she'll be that I failed? Sorry, but you'll have to tell her yourself."
"If she comes after me, I'll just capture her," Elliot said. If he had done that with the Goblins, he could surely do that with her.
"She's not some stupid Goblin, Elliot. When Princess Fidget wants you, you'll be the one coming to her."
Elliot didn't like the sound of that. "How? When?"
"I don't know. But if I were you, I wouldn't go to sleep."
"Ever." With that, Harold exhaled slowly, and his human body dissolved into the shape of a brown sparrow. He fluttered into the air, waved a wing at Elliot, and then began to fly away. He circled around and stopped midair in front of Elliot, then tweeted, "Sorry about trying to trick you."
"That's okay," Elliot said.
"Maybe I can make it up to you in some way."
Elliot rolled his eyes and turned. Crashing through the bushes was Tubs Lawless, his least favorite former bully.
"Okay, Penster, now you're going to have to deal with me!"
Not so long ago, if Tubs Lawless had crashed through the bushes and told Elliot, "Now you're going to have to deal with me," what that really would have meant is, "Now you're going to have to deal with a twisted neck." These days what he meant probably wasn't a whole lot better. It meant Elliot would have to deal with Tubs through an entire slee
pover that night.
"My stuff's already at your house," Tubs said. "My parents dropped it off before they went out of town. I already ate the rest of your mom's lasagna, because I'm always hungry after school. Wendy said she'd cook you something to eat if you ever decide to come home from school."
"More like she'll burn me something to eat," Elliot said grimly. Maybe he could have real food next year.
"Anyway, I told her that I'd find you and drag you back home."
"I know the way to my own house. I was just talking to someone."
"I saw that. You were talking to a bird." Tubs gave Elliot what was probably meant to be a playful jab in the arm. Elliot wondered if it would leave a bruise. "Who are you, Snow White or something?"
Elliot nodded and slung his backpack over his shoulder. "Yeah, something like that."
Tubs pretty much stopped talking at that point, which was fine by Elliot, who would have preferred to be alone. He wanted to think about everything Harold had said, and what it might mean for him.
The only thing Elliot knew about Pixies was that during the Goblin war, Fudd Fartwick had borrowed some of their magic to make Elliot's bedroom disappear. Fudd had been an advisor to the queen of the Brownies before Elliot took her place. Then Fudd had worked with the Goblins to try to get Elliot killed so that Fudd could become king.
When Elliot won the Goblin war, Fudd had confessed to his crimes and promised to change. No one had worked harder in getting Elliot's blown-up house rebuilt than Fudd Fartwick. He even made it so that the stairway didn't squeak anymore.
If Tubs weren't walking beside him now, Elliot would have called for Fudd to come talk to him and tell him everything he knew about the Pixies and their princess, Fidget Spitfly.
But Tubs had started talking again. Elliot wasn't paying much attention, but it sounded like a story about Tubs last Halloween.
"My mom says I'm too old for trick-or-treating," Tubs was saying, "but I think, who's too old for candy? Not me."
Elliot smiled. Finally he and Tubs had something in common.
Tubs continued, "Did I ever tell you about a few years ago when I saw these kids in Goblin costumes? They looked so cool, I could've sworn they were real."
Elliot shoved his hands into his pockets. "Do you think Goblins exist, then?"
Tubs snorted. "They weren't real Goblins, dork. They were eating all these pickles, and a real Goblin wouldn't eat pickles."
"Right," Elliot muttered, thinking about how the Goblins had started a whole war with the Brownies over a bag of pickles.
Elliot's mind wandered back to his own troubles. If Princess Fidget was so dangerous, why hadn't Mr. Willimaker warned Elliot about her? Mr. Willimaker had told Elliot everything he needed to know about the Goblins during the war. Why hadn't anyone told him about Pixies? Maybe Harold was making Princess Fidget sound worse than she really was. Just because he got himself tricked into becoming a marshmallow didn't mean Elliot was in any danger of being tricked. After all, Elliot couldn't turn himself into a marshmallow, even if he wanted to. Which he didn't, by the way.
He also wondered about the Shadow Men. When Harold had turned into one, everything in Elliot's body froze with fear. And that wasn't even a real Shadow Man. It was just a Shapeshifter pretending to be one. He was glad Kovol remained asleep, because he'd rather face a hundred Goblins trying to scare him to death before he faced a real Shadow Man.
"Hey, Tubs," Elliot said. "Are you afraid of anything?"
Tubs shrugged. "You'd have to be stupid not to be afraid of something."
"But you are--" Elliot stopped. It didn't seem like a good idea to point out the obvious, which was that several important pieces of Tubs's brain seemed to be missing, such as the thinking piece.
"So what are you afraid of?" Elliot asked instead.
"Same thing everyone's afraid of," Tubs said.
"No, you wimp. Afraid that the ground beneath us will suddenly turn to quicksand and all of Sprite's Hollow will be swallowed up under the world."
"Why are you talking about the Underworld?" Elliot said quickly. "There's no Underworld."
"Sure there is," Tubs said.
Elliot stopped walking. "How do you know?"
"The clouds are over the world. We're on the world. The dirt is under the world."
Elliot breathed a sigh of relief and kept walking. "Oh, yeah, sure." When he first became king, Mr. Willimaker had told Elliot that if he ever shared the secret of the Underworld with anyone, the Brownies would never be able to return to him again.
When they got home, Wendy met Elliot at the front door. "Why didn't you save me any dinner?" he scowled at her.
Wendy's eyes widened, then she said, "Mom told you to hurry home. But I can make you something else if you want."
"Nah. I can ruin my own food later on."
Wendy frowned, and Elliot knew he had hurt her feelings. But she shrugged it off and said, "You need to go to the backyard. You have a visitor."
"Who?" Elliot asked.
"Oh, just a special visitor who wants to see you. Better hurry."
Elliot handed her his backpack, then walked around his house into the backyard. Beyond the grass was the end of Sprite's Hollow and the beginning of a thickly wooded area that went on for miles. Since nobody had ever bothered to think of a name for it, everyone just called it "the woods." When Elliot saw who his visitor was, his eyes flicked to the woods. The idea of hiding there for a couple of years until it was safe to come out again crossed his mind.
Cami was sitting on the ground weaving blades of grass together. She was working on a chain that was now almost as long as her arm.
"Hey," he said, "stop using up all my family's grass."
"Sorry," she said, throwing the grass chain down. "I didn't realize you were down to your last gazillion blades."
"Never mind," he said. "What's going on? I thought you weren't coming here until tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, but when I got home my mom said I have a soccer game in the morning. Are you just getting home from school now? You're slow."
Elliot let Cami's comment pass and followed her to a big white bucket with a black lid on it. "I've added the ingredients already," she said. "I won't tell you everything that's in there, because you really don't want to know. The recipe says it has to sit in the sun for five days, then it's ready."
"Can I look in it?"
"Sure. Just don't smell it too deeply, because it'll probably kill brain cells."
Elliot opened the lid and immediately slammed it closed. "It smells like something died in there."
Cami nodded. "Like I said, you don't want to know about the ingredients."
Elliot cracked the lid open again. The liquid inside was clear and thick like syrup. Every now and then a thick bubble rose to the top and popped, even though it wasn't cooking. Elliot shut the lid. "So what do I have to do?"
"Nothing but let it sit. Stir it if you want." Cami began to walk away but then turned back to him. "Oh, and one more thing, if it starts making noises, then you'd better get everyone out of the house, because that means it's going to blow up."
"What kind of noises?" Elliot asked.
"I dunno," Cami said. "It's a liquid, so it probably shouldn't make any noises at all. Anyway, I'll come back in a day or two and check on it."
As she began to leave, Kyle and Cole, Elliot's six-year-old twin brothers, ran to Cami and Elliot. "Secret lovers, hiding place. Secret lovers, kissy face," they teased.
Elliot picked up a stick and hurled it toward his brothers. "Stop bothering me all the time!" he yelled, although this was in fact the first time they'd bothered him all day.
Cami shrugged. "I have to go anyway."
"You really should go out through the gate on the other side of the house," one of the twins said. It was probably Cole, Elliot thought. He had trouble telling the twins apart.
"But there's no fence in your yard," Cami said. "Why do you have a gate if there's no fence?"
"It's rude to cross the grass where there would be a fence if we had a fence. Use the gate." Kyle winked at Cole as he finished, but Elliot didn't think Cami noticed.
"All right," Cami said and followed the twins to the gate. She waved at Elliot in such a nice way that he couldn't help but wonder what devious tricks she had up her sleeve. Then he noticed she wore a short-sleeved shirt, so she probably didn't have room for any tricks up there. And if she did, they probably weren't very good tricks.
Elliot was so busy wondering about Cami's tricks, he didn't notice how watchful Kyle and Cole were being until it was too late. Kyle and Cole only watched what entertained them, and something about Cami leaving through the gate definitely had their attention.
She stepped on a pile of grass that instantly sunk beneath her feet, leaving Cami knee deep in mud.
Only a few weeks ago, Kyle and Cole had been fascinated with water. It only made sense that by now they had moved on to mud.
Cami's face turned red, the color a face gets when a person is really mad. She tried to pull her legs out but only got more mud on herself. "I'm stuck," she said to the twins. "Help me." They only laughed, which of course made her face even redder.
Elliot didn't wait around to see what happened next. He yelled, "Okay, well, I'll keep an eye on the science project for you," and ran away.
Those readers who lived near Lake Baikal in Russia on June 30, 1908, will remember the meteor explosion that occurred a few miles up in the sky. Some 80 million trees were knocked over from the force of the explosion, and glass windows shattered as far as a hundred miles away. If there is anyone reading this story who did not happen to be living near Lake Baikal over a hundred years ago, then you should know it is considered to be the loudest single event ever to happen on this earth. It was a hundred times louder than a one-ton bomb and was more than three times the sound required to cause hearing loss.
Lying in his room that night, with his ears sandwiched between two pillows, Elliot was sure he had discovered the second loudest sound in history.
Tubs was snoring.
Tubs snorted in air, and Elliot thought this must be what it's like inside a tornado.
Then Tubs exhaled, and Elliot imagined a million tiny Tubs germs being sent as far away as the jungles of Africa, all riding on a single breath.