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Excerpt from The Star of Whatever

Book Two of The Western Lands and All That Really Matters series

Copyright © Andrew Einspruch, 2018. All Rights reserved.

Chapter 3

Whoever Did This

 

There was no question the Purple Haze was strange. There was the buzz, for one thing. For another, the mist was not damp, the way one would expect fog to be. When Eloise touched her skin or the bones they sat on, they were dry. Dry to the point of dust. How could there be a dry fog?

The fog also seemed to have a non-specific light source. There was no obvious single point where the sun might be. The fog seemed to create its own light while shrouding the natural light outside it. 

And there was something else. Eloise had trouble putting words to it. Her first thought was that something was “calling” to her. But that wasn’t quite right. It was more a tugging at her insides. “Beckoning” might have been the way to describe it. But this was soft, like the entreaty of a shadow cast far away. She had to focus to feel it, but it was definitely there.

Eventually, Johanna stood up, brushing dust off her dress. “Come on, El. Let’s get out of here.”

Eloise didn’t move. She was still thinking things through.

“El? Really? This place is horrible.”

“Yes, it is.” Still, she didn’t stand up.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m thinking something I don’t want to think, but I have to.”

Johanna sat back down. “I know that expression. Whatever it is you’re thinking, stop it right now. I mean it. I’ve seen that look too many times, and no good ever comes of it.”

Eloise stared her sister straight in the eyes. “Do you have an answer?”

“An answer to what?”

She pointed at the pile of bones she was sitting on. “Why we don’t look like that.”

“No, I don’t. And frankly, I don’t think I want to know.”

“There has to be a reason.”

“I guess,” said Johanna. “Here’s what I do know. I hate it here, and the sooner we get out of here, the better. It might take a while to find our way out, so we should get started.” Johanna stood and offered Eloise a hand to help her up. Eloise ignored it.

“Whoever created this fog, it was a crime.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do.”

“You can’t possibly know. It’s been over two centuries. It could have been anything. It could have been an accident.”

“Look around, Jo. Does this look like an accident to you?”

“It could have been.”

“Maybe something went wrong. Maybe what happened wasn’t what was supposed to happen. But this…” Eloise pointed at the fog, then at the bones everywhere. “This was deliberate. And there’s only one explanation that makes any sense.” Eloise blinked back tears. She didn’t think of herself as a crier. In fact, she was usually the exact opposite. But she had cried more times on this trip than she had in years—probably since she was a toddler.

“Go ahead, El. What makes sense?”

“It’s our fault.”

There. She’d said it.

“What? That’s not right. How could it be our fault?”

“Not you and me. But it was one of us. It was our family.”

“Oh. Oh, no.” Johanna started sifting the pieces of the puzzle to form the same shape that had formed in Eloise’s mind. She sat down again. “You can’t use magic against blood.”

“Yes.”

“So one of our direct blood ancestors…”

“Exactly,” said Eloise. “On our mother’s side.”

“How do you reckon that?”

“Because if it was on our father’s side, more people would have been unaffected by the Purple Haze. The de Chëëëkflïïïnt bloodline is all over the Half Kingdom, both with legitimate issue and presumably illicit offspring as well. You can tell from the amount of bones here that there have been a lot of foggings. Surely some of them would be directly related up the line to Father’s family. If it had been his side that cast this magic, someone would have walked out of here a long time ago, and everyone would have known more about what the fog was all about. There would have been people sent in to explore it.”

“Maybe it kills them—kills us—but more slowly. Maybe they still don’t make it out of here.”

“Possible,” said Eloise. “What I’m thinking isn’t without holes.”

Johanna picked up the previous thread of logic. “Mother was the first Gumball to marry someone from the Half Kingdom since before it was the Half Kingdom. Since before the fog. So we’re almost certainly the first direct blood descendants of whoever created this to have come in here.”

They sat there pondering, trying to remember history lessons they’d endured a decade ago. Then at the exact same moment, they said the exact same three words: “Gwendolyn the Irritable.”

“She was queen—” started Eloise.

“—when the Purple Haze first appeared,” Johanna finished. “And she hated what’s-his-face…”

“I don’t remember his name either, but you’re right, she hated the Northern Lands king. Brüüünööö somebody? Brüüücëëë? It was Brüüü-something.”

“Brüüütus Ulcer Tabific Twizzle de Chëëëkflïïïnt,” said Johanna, pronouncing the name with an affected rural northern accent.

“How can you possibly remember that?” Eloise grinned.

“Because the initials of his first names formed a word that a bored six-year-old in Histories and Hearsay found amusing.” Johanna giggled at the memory.

“I never saw that. Why didn’t you tell me?” Eloise nudged her sister with her elbow. “Back then you told me everything.”

“Back then I didn’t need to tell you everything. You already knew it.”

The moment of lightness passed. “You’re right. I did,” said Eloise. “And so did you.”

“Now look at us,” said Johanna. “Sitting on a mountain of bones, practically strangers. What happened to us?”

“Life, Court, the Thorning Ceremony, Mother—take your pick. Life happened, I guess.”

“I guess.”

Another silence fell between them. Eloise took comfort in Johanna’s nearness. She even put an arm around Johanna’s shoulder and pulled her into a hug. They sat that way for a long time.

“I can’t believe I was less than a day away from marrying Uncle Doncaster.” Johanna shuddered. “Thank you for coming after me. It must have been hard for you.”

“You have no idea,” said Eloise.

Finally, it was Eloise who stood. Johanna looked at her. “You’ve got that look on your face again. Stop it. I really mean it.”

“I have to get going.”

“Right. Any idea which way is out?”

“I’m not going out.”

“I knew you’d say that.” Johanna stood as well.

“I have to—”

“I know, I know. You have to go find whatever this is and stop it.”

Eloise shrugged. “It was one of us who did it. If anyone can put an end to it, it will be another one of us. I’ve seen a fogging. For that matter, I’ve seen you fogged. I promised myself I would figure out a way to end it. I’m going to try to keep that promise.” Eloise squeezed her sister’s arm affectionately. “I’m not asking you to come with me.”

“No, you’re not.” Johanna sighed. “That’s not how you work. The last thing I want to do is traipse all over this Çalaht-forsaken hellscape looking for who-knows-what, which, by the way, is clearly lethal. But then, I can imagine that’s also the last thing you feel like doing. Plus, you just saved me from a disastrous marriage, so I owe you one.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t owe me anything.”

Johanna shrugged that off. “Got any clues which way we should go?”

“Actually, I do. I’m guessing you do, too.” Eloise pointed. “That way.”