Chapter 1 A Kid and His Talking Ax Hit the Town for Some Fajitas If I told you it was Thursday when I literally set my own pants on fire while being chased by a Gargoyle with a bad haircut, you likely wouldn't be surprised. That's because surely you know by now that all Dwarves are born with a Thursday curse. But lately things have gotten so bad our pants could spontaneously ignite pretty much any day of the week and nobody would even bat an eye. It all started with the return of Galdervatn. Or, at least, sort of. I mean, that's definitely when it started, but what we didn't know was that Galdervatn only sort of came back. Which means the Dawn of a New Magical Age hasn't quite arrived the way I thought it had when I was standing on Navy Pier several months ago, watching the city go dark right after defeating my former best friend, Edwin. But right now you're probably just wondering how in the world I ended up with my pants engulfed in flames and an angry Gargoyle with a mullet chasing close behind. I wish I could tell you it wasn't my fault, that I wasn't responsible for getting myself into such a predicament. But then I'd be lying, and Dwarves don't lie. We were in downtown Evanston (a suburb directly north of Chicago) on our first-ever Monster Pacification Mission (MPM). According to the Council's guidelines, MPMs have just two simple rules: 1. Avoid violence at all costs (befriending the monster is better than beheading it). 2. Don't make a scene. You already know I broke rule number two. Since, by most people's standards, a pudgy kid running down a street screaming with his pants ablaze in bright flames would constitute something of a "scene." And, coincidentally, the vicious Gargoyle flying right behind me certainly meant I was likely to break rule number one as well. Turns out that knowing you're a Dwarf doesn't exactly help you avoid failing like one. But we definitely hadn't expected things to go this poorly. Maybe if I go back to when we first arrived in downtown Evanston earlier that night to help explain how I got myself into this mess, it won't seem quite so bad? Maybe it'll even seem like we did the best we could and that breaking the only two MPM rules was pretty much inevitable? But first I should probably clarify why Monster Pacification Missions were even a thing at all. The short version is this: Galdervatn (or "Ancient Separate Earth Magic" to your average layperson) is coming back and it can't be stopped, we know that. It appears in the form of a colorful vapor, and as more and more of it gradually seeps from the Earth's core back toward the surface, we're seeing an increase of magical-monster sightings across the globe. And also reports of random rolling blackouts; cell phones dying and never coming back to life; stalled cars, construction equipment, and kitchen appliances; and generally a lot of confusion and chaos among humans. MPMs are the Council's solution (for now). They identify a possible fantastical-monster sighting, then send out a squad of specially trained Dwarves to neutralize the threat to humans--either by befriending the creature and bringing it back to the Underground, or, if need be, by destroying the thing entirely. But "strange sightings" are being reported so frequently lately that the Council was forced to draft a squad of Dwarven kids to assist. Since Lake, Eagan, Ari, Glam, Froggy, and I were nearly done with our training and already battle tested from infiltrating an Elven hideout to rescue my dad, we were the first lucky kids chosen for a mission. Which is how we ended up on a commuter train that night headed out to Evanston, where earlier that day several Humans had reported power outages and sightings of a strange flying object downtown. "It's so quiet," Ari had said as we descended the steps from the train station sometime around midnight. "Yeah, suburbs usually are quiet this late," I said, forgetting yet again that they hadn't spent most of their lives among Humans in the modern world like I had. "So where was this thing supposedly spotted?" Glam asked, her faint mustache bristling with excitement as she flexed her bulging biceps under the streetlights. "I'm going to smash it into oblivion . . . whatever it is." "Glam!" Ari said. "We have to try and befriend it first. Rule number one, remember? Besides, fighting monsters in a downtown suburb definitely won't help us with rule two either." We all stopped at the bottom of the steps, under the train platform. Our weapons (to be used in case of emergency only) were stashed in two large hockey bags (surprisingly, the perfect size for stowing battle-axes, swords, and other Dwarven armaments) slung over one each of Glam and Lake's shoulders. Glam set her bag down and threw her hands up in frustration. "Who cares if Humans see us fighting a monster!" she said. "They're all going to find out the truth eventually. A lot of them probably already know something weird is going on. So why are we working so hard to hide it from them?" "Because the Council said it's not the right time," Eagan explained. "Besides, do you really think if a bunch of people who've been living underground for centuries suddenly emerge and tell the world that all the blackouts and strange occurrences lately are not related to solar flares and climate change and government conspiracies, but rather to the impending return of an ancient, mythical, long-lost magical essence , that the collective world of seven billion people will just go, 'Oh, yeah, okay, cool. Makes sense.'" "Pfft, they'll have to believe it when they eventually see it," Glam muttered. "Aye, lest it be known so sayeth ye Elders doeth such that magic draws nigh!" Lake added. "Stop it, you guys, we're wasting time," Ari said. "The Council's decision was to avoid attention and to let the Humans discover the truth in due course. So that's what we'll do. Which means no smashing unless we have to!" "Ugh, fine ," Glam finally relented. "You just don't want to have any fun . . ." I'm with her , the Bloodletter added from the hockey bag at her feet. Let's make this a party while we're all the way out here! I mean, then we can prove wrong everyone who says the suburbs are boring! We'll chop up a monster, destroy some stuff, then still have time to hit Uncle Julio's for all-you-can-eat fajitas! "No, we're not going to chop up anyone or anything," I said, looking down at the hockey bag. "I already told you that on the train when you tried to talk me into cleaving that ticket guy in two just to see if METRA line employees are actually real people and not robots." "Talking to your ax again, huh?" Glam asked with a smirk. I rolled my eyes, but grinned back. "Guys, let's stay on track!" Ari said. "Now, according to the police reports, an unidentified gray object was seen flying above downtown Evanston just after sunset. It mostly stayed near the Carlson building on Church Street. Which is just three blocks east of here." "Hence alloweth thyne party receiveth th're posthaste!" Lake said, pointing east dramatically. Glam picked up her hockey bag of weapons and we followed Lake down the silent, deserted suburban street toward the heart of downtown Evanston. After a few steps, three squirrels charged ferociously at us from the base of a nearby tree.* I sidestepped one of them and Glam quickly booted it like a football. The other two squirrels squeaked in terror and retreated back toward the tree (which was an Amur cork tree, in case you were curious). The squirrel Glam kicked recovered quickly and dove into the safety of a bush, screeching what I can only imagine was a long string of squirrel obscenities. "Geez, will animals ever stop attacking us?" I asked. "I mean, just yesterday a pigeon nearly ripped my whole ear off." "Well, in its defense, you do have pretty ears," Glam said. I rolled my eyes and grinned. It was normal for Glam to try to flirt with me or comment on how cute I was at least three or four times a day. But at this point, I think it was more of an ongoing joke than anything serious--she just liked to make me uncomfortable (had even said I was especially cute when I was embarrassed). "They definitely won't stop attacking us if we're kicking them around like soccer balls!" Ari said, glaring at Glam. "Was I just supposed to let it bite me?" Glam shot back. "It probably had rabies." Since Ari didn't really have a good reply, she merely sighed. As a rare vegetarian Dwarf (in fact, the only one in existence as far as we all knew), Ari had been particularly hard-hit by the ongoing battle between Dwarves and animals. I wasn't sure what hurt her more: the inexplicable nature of animals' hatred for Dwarves, or the fact that many of us were being forced to defend ourselves in increasingly aggressive ways. Not that we particularly enjoyed fighting off the attacks--but you really don't know fear until you've woken up to find a whole army of spiders trying to crawl into your head through your nostrils. " Anyway ," Eagan said as we recovered from the squirrel attack and continued walking toward downtown Evanston, "the fact that the potential monster was flying helps narrow down the options of what it might be." In the months since the night we rescued my dad from the secret Elven lair inside the huge downtown skyscraper formerly known as the Hancock building, we'd not only continued our magic and combat training, but had also started learning about all sorts of other things, including Dwarven history, Elven history, and all the different monsters and creatures (there were a lot of them) that once roamed Separate Earth and might someday return with magic. For the most part, the classes were pretty similar to those at my old school, the PEE. Except that there, my Humanities and Math teachers weren't constantly telling me that my life would one day depend on memorizing the Pythagorean theorem or knowing the names of the artists who emerged during the Early Renaissance period. Unsurprisingly, Eagan was near the top of the class for most subjects. "Narrows it down to how many?" I asked. "Well . . ." Eagan paused, doing some calculations in his head. "There are at least one hundred twenty flying magical creatures known to have existed in Separate Earth. And that's only counting the ones documented, so I guess it actually could be even more . . ." "Yeah, that really narrows it down," Glam said. "It's a start," Eagan said, but he didn't sound very optimistic himself, even for a Dwarf. "Well, we know more than just that it flies," Ari said, referencing some printed transcripts of 911 calls.** "Witnesses also said it was gray. So how many flying gray monsters do we know once existed in Separate Earth?" We all turned and stared at Eagan expectantly. He threw his hands up. "Guys, I don't know!" he said. "I'm not a walking monster encyclopedia! You're all in the same Monsterology and Creature Classification class as I am, you know. I don't always have all the answers." "T'couldst be'est a Harpy?" Lake suggested. "Yeah, Harpies can fly," Ari agreed. "And are generally thought to be gray." "Okay, what else?" Eagan said. "Who can remember more?" "I hope it's a Langsuyar Vampire!" Glam said. "They supposedly take the form of beautiful women, but how beautiful can they be? They don't even have facial hair! Pfft. I'd love to use my fist as a wooden stake and punch a hole right through her ugly torso!" "Gross, Glam," Eagan said. "But remember rule one: 'avoid violence at all costs.'" "Yeah, yeah, I know," Glam said, rolling her eyes. It could be a Krystallinsk Wyvern , the Bloodletter suggested (only to me, of course, since I was the only one blessed/cursed with the ability to hear it). Ooh! I hope it is! For eons, I've been longing to feel my blade once again slice through their supposedly impervious diamond-encrusted skin! After it's all over, I'll even tell you how to make a Wyvern-skin coat! They used to be quite popular back in Separate Earth, you know. Only the most glamorous people had them. Next, Ari and Lake each suggested a different hybrid: possibly a Griffin, or maybe a Chimera, respectively. As we neared the city center, we passed a homeless guy slouched in an alley. I realized he must have heard a good portion of our conversation, because he looked at us like we were walking, talking toasters. Downtown Evanston was made up mostly of modern, sleek, glass buildings, separated by a few gray stone relics from the early twentieth century. That night, the area was deserted, aside from that homeless guy, and a few cars cruising past on the mostly empty streets. Our eyes searched the night sky, hazy and orange from the glowing reflections of the nearby streetlights. We collectively looked for signs of a Griffin, Chimera, Krystallinsk Wyvern, Langsuyar Vampire, Harpy, or any other yet-to-be-mentioned monster. But nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The first sighting had been reported just over four hours ago. After that, a few more trickled in until just after sunset according to our copy of the Evanston Police Department report log. There was no reason to suspect the monster had suddenly vanished. Unless it was one of the few fantastical beasts that could list "spontaneous disappearing" among its powers. "Maybe it was a Kolossal Dagslända?" Eagan suggested, apparently thinking the same thing. "They supposedly have a life span that is measured by the hour. So maybe it showed up, freaked out some humans, laid a hatchling somewhere, and then died? Perhaps we need to be looking around for a Dagslända hatchling instead?" "No," Froggy said calmly. We all spun and stared at him. It was often easy to forget he was with us. Even now, after being reunited with his dad (who was also our combat instructor, Buck) and making more friends than he'd ever had at the PEE, he still rarely spoke. In fact, I sort of figured he sometimes didn't even listen to our conversations at all since his ears were often plugged with a pair of earbuds connected to an ancient MP3 player. "What do you mean, no ?" Eagan asked. "It wasn't a Kolossal Dagslända," Froggy said. "It was a Gargoyle." "What makes you so sure?" Ari asked. That's when Froggy calmly pointed up toward the roof of an old gray building across the street. Perched on the ledge was a dark gray beast with gnarled wings and glowing red eyes that peered down at us in a decidedly predatory fashion. The creature opened its mouth and let out an anguished shriek before unfurling its massive wings and leaping off the roof. The demonic red eyes seemed to grow bigger by the second as they soared right toward us. ___________________________________________________________________________ *In case you forgot, the return of magic also led to the reemergence of a savage, inexplicable hatred of Dwarves by pretty much all animals. And it'd only gotten worse in the past few months. **Not all Separatist Dwarves live in the Underground. In fact, the Council assigned a number of Dwarves to live and work in high places among humans, such as a 911 dispatcher or local government official. Excerpted from The Curse of Greg by Chris Rylander All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.