“Why do we have to split up?” Ben asked.
Shias rolled his eyes. He’d been fielding this question from Ben for the last hour. “You know why,” he said. “It helps us cover more ground. Mint could be anywhere.”
“Mint” was the name that the Dawn Riders had come up with as code for the Locksmith. Shias had thought it was silly, but Shana and Kathryn had insisted. It was sort of, kind of, a tiny bit close to “Locksmith.” And he had to admit they had one strong point: it would be hard for those watching them to draw that connection. They needed a code word, and they’d found a useful one that wasn’t all that suspicious.
“Hey, I was grounded until today,” Ben said. “I’m behind the loop on things.”
“I think you just don’t like hanging out with me,” Shias said, shoving his hands in his pockets and pretending to pout as he looked away.
“You’re not convincing,” Ben said.
Shias laughed. “Guess not,” he said. “That’s more Shana’s thing.”
“For twins, you two sure are different.”
“It’s not that odd. Sharing DNA doesn’t make us the same person. We have three other siblings, too, and they’re all pretty different.”
“Yeah, but…” Ben kicked a pebble. “You’re twins.”
Shias shook his head. “You should pay more attention in Bio.”
“Speaking of which, where are you planning on going to college?” Ben asked. “I mean, I’m just gonna go to Grimoire U, but you’re super smart. You could go anywhere.”
Shias smiled. “Dunno yet,” he said.
“You don’t know?”
“I’m waiting to see where Shana goes.”
Ben laughed. “What were you just saying about twins?”
“I like being with her,” Shias said. “And I want to be a Hunter, so there isn’t a lot of need for me to study somewhere intensive. It would probably be better for me to stay in Grimoire, actually.”
“Speaking of Hunters,” Ben said, hopping up to slap a swinging sign that hung over a shop, “how do you think Caleb’s doing?”
Shias mulled over that question in silence for several more blocks. He eyed the signs and doors as they wandered the south-eastern Pisces District. It was one of the oldest districts in Grimoire, but it clashed with the new, since it was so close to the Crater District. Grim Night’s stood at its edge, just next to Crater District, and the area around it was quite new, with more modern buildings, arcades, and major chain stores. Shias and Ben had explored that area briefly, but, with no sign of the Locksmith, had headed farther east and north, into the oldest section of town, where the streets were at their very narrowest, and constant elevation changes were common. If people came from the opposite direction, Shias and Ben stepped aside and pressed themselves against the wall of the nearest building to make room.
“I think he’s fine,” Shias finally said. “He’s getting specialized Time Magic training.” He smiled. “I can’t wait to see what he’s like when he comes home.”
“Hey, we can shop and stuff while we’re out here, right?” Ben asked, pointing to GO Retro, a video game store specializing in old and obscure titles. “I kinda wanted to see if they have the first Legendary Galaxy game.”
“Sure,” Shias said. As Ben started to lead the way inside, Shias looked down the street. He’d just remembered something from the conversation Shana and Kathryn had overheard Saturday night, and realizing where he was, he took a long look at the store Taro Beyond.
Chase – or whoever it was that Bronn guy was talking to – is charged with watching that store, Caleb thought. Is he watching right now? They were talking about people going in and not coming back out again. What does that mean?
“Hey, you coming?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, sorry,” Shias said, following Ben into the game store.
“Hey, so…” Ben started, looking nervous as he browsed the shelves. “What do you, um… what do you think of Kathryn?”
“What do I think of her?” Shias asked. “She’s talented.”
“Yeah,” Ben said, picking up an old cartridge in a plastic box, reading over the blurb on the back. “She’s really cool, isn’t she?”
Shias nodded. “She sure is,” he said.
“So, like…” Ben said, still carrying on oddly nervously.
“What’s the matter?” Shias asked. “Are you feeling okay?”
“What?” Ben asked, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I’m fine. Totally fine. I don’t know what you mean. Anyway, forget what I said. It’s nothing. Seriously. Yeah. I’m good.” He started laughing awkwardly, turning his back to Shias as he browsed some more.
Definitely weird, Shias thought, eyeing Ben suspiciously. But after a few minutes, things seemed to be back to normal, and they were chatting back and forth about different video games as they checked them out. Unfortunately, Legendary Galaxy I wasn’t there, though the shopkeeper said the owner had been trying to find copies and had one on order, so Ben asked them to hold it for him and left his phone number with them.
“Let’s check out Taro Beyond,” Shias said when they went back out on the street.
“Huh?” Ben asked, following Shias in the direction of the odds-and-ends store. “What do you want with that?”
“Remember what we talked about?” Shias asked, lowering his voice to a whisper, but carrying himself in such a way that it didn’t look suspicious to any potential watchers. “People have been going in there and not coming out.”
“So why would we go in there?” Ben asked, staring at Shias with wide eyes.
“Don’t you want to know what’s going on?” Shias asked, stopping in front of the store. He eyed a strange spot in the brick that looked like it had been bashed with something heavy – it was caved in and shattered in a way that made it seem very suspicious to Shias. Looking at the merchandise on display in the windows, he didn’t see anything too strange, and the shop’s interior seemed the same as always. Then his eyes rested on a small spot above the door, and his eyes widened. He grabbed Ben’s arm.
“This is Mint,” Shias said softly, quickly flicking his eyes up to the spot above the door and back down. Ben took a quick look, eyes widened, and he nodded.
“Now what do we do?” he asked.
“Tell the others,” Shias said. He started walking back the way they’d come, pulling out his phone and messaging Shana, Kathryn, and Rae using the group they’d formed on Re-Code. Found Mint. Taro Beyond. Meet up at planned spot?
The reply came nearly instantly, with Kathryn taking the lead. Let’s go! DAWN RIDERS!
Ben laughed, and Shias saw he was reading the reply on his phone, too. Shias didn’t think it was that funny, but whatever. Ben laughed at lots of weird stuff.
The pair left the Pisces District, heading up Grimoire’s main street a short way before crossing it into the Taurus District, passing Grimoire’s Grimoires on their way to Ring Park. It was their established meeting place, and was a small park with a perfectly circular perimeter. Inside, circles were a common motif, from circular flowerbeds to artwork to benches and more. The center was a circular three-tiered fountain, and the girls were already there waiting for them.
“You found him?” Kathryn asked excitedly.
“You mean Mint,” Shana said, giving Kathryn a meaningful look. “But seriously? Shias, you’re amazing to find Mint that fast!”
“Code words sound funny,” Kathryn muttered, giggling to herself.
“We did,” Shias said. “At least, it has the symbol. But remember what those guys said about Taro Beyond?”
“Oh, right,” Shana said, pursing her lips. “People going in and not coming out. What do we do about it?”
“It doesn’t make sense, though,” Rae said. “Mom knows the owner, and h-he’s run the store ever since his father died and p-passed it down to him.”
“Well, it might just be a clue to guide us to Mint,” Shias said. “We won’t know until we check it out.”
“But Chase is watching the store,” Shana said softly. “Isn’t it bad if he sees us?”
“If it’s where we have to go, then shouldn’t we just go?” Kathryn asked, shrugging. “Who cares if we’re seen? If they know about Mint, then they know it’s at Taro Beyond. They said there was nothing they could do with Mint anyway. Let’s just go.”
Shias smiled. “Yeah, maybe we’re worrying too much about this,” he said. “Let’s go before it gets dark.”
The five Dawn Riders headed back across town to the Pisces District and Taro Beyond, chatting all the while and having fun as they went. Shias mostly kept to himself, constantly doing his best to look and listen and observe, trying to catch any notice of the people who were watching them, but he didn’t notice anything suspicious. Meanwhile, Shana and Rae chatted away (Shana did most of the talking, of course, but Rae continued to come more and more out of her shell), while Kathryn picked on Ben.
“We’re here,” Shana said, staring at the Locksmith’s symbol over the door. She nodded. “Yup. It looks exactly the same.”
“Ready?” Shias asked.
The other four nodded. “Let’s go,” Shana said.
Shias opened the door, causing a bell to ring as the five teens stepped into the small shop. A young woman was manning the counter, and she looked up as the five entered.
“Good evening,” she said, adjusting her glasses. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
Shana, bold as ever, stepped up to the counter and placed the Locksmith’s Emblem on it. “We’re here to see the Locksmith,” she said.
The woman behind the counter studied the Emblem for a moment, then nodded. “Understood,” she said. “What are your names?” The five introduced themselves in turn, and the woman smiled. “Excellent. He’s been expecting you for some time. Right this way.”
The woman drew curtains over the windows and then led the group to the back, pushing aside a shelf and then, so quickly that Shias couldn’t follow her movements, traced a symbol on the wall with her finger. A single dot in the wall glowed blue for a moment, and then a door appeared. The woman inserted three different keys into its three different locks, then pushed the door open, revealing a staircase leading down.
“Lock!” the woman called down. “The ones the Small Lady told you about are here.”
“Send them down!” a deep voice replied. It sounded muffled, but it was loud enough that they could hear.
The woman nodded to the five, gesturing at the stairs. “Go on down,” she said.
“What do you think he’s like?” Shana asked as they descended.
“It sounded like he was wearing a mask,” Shias said.
“Is that why he sounded kinda weird?” Kathryn asked. “That makes sense.”
The stairs stopped after quite a while – Shias guessed they’d descended several floors underground, a good seventy or eighty feet. The narrow stairwell opened up into a warmly lit blacksmith’s workshop. Tools were neatly ordered, and a furnace glowed and hissed with heat on the far wall. Standing in the center of the workshop, wiping grease-stained hands on a leather apron, was a large man. He wore a metal welder’s mask, which explained his voice, but Shias was totally stunned at the man’s size. His shoulders were bigger than Shias’ head! He was very heavily built and muscular above the waist, but his legs were short and stocky, giving him a rather deformed appearance, since at least two-thirds of his towering height was his torso.
“So you’re the ones, eh?” the man asked, cocking his head to the side. “I’m the Locksmith, though you must have guessed that. You can call me Lock. Go ahead, have a seat.”
“The Small Lady,” Shana said, pulling a wooden stool up to the central work table and sitting on it. “Is that Annabelle?”
Lock nodded. “That’s right,” he said.
“So she’s really important, if you give her a title like that,” Shias said.
Another nod. “Very much so,” Lock said. “She’s one of the princesses of Solitude.”
Shias thought about that for a moment. “Is that linked to the Library of Solitude?” he asked.
“It is,” Lock said. “So you know some about the Enchanted Dominion. Then you know where the Small Lady is?”
“She’s with the Radiant King,” Shana said, bowing her head. “She thinks Maribelle can help us save her.”
“She’s probably right,” Lock said.
“You said Annabelle notified you about us,” Shias said. “But how? She’s a prisoner.”
Shias couldn’t see Lock’s eyes behind the mask, but he could swear the massive man was scowling. “She is,” he said. “But that doesn’t matter. Have you heard of magical contracts?”
Shias shook his head, as the rest of the kids concurred. None of them had heard of them.
“I’m not surprised,” Lock said. “They were banned by humans about a thousand years ago.”
“Banned?” Shias asked. “By – you mean you’re –”
“Not human?” Shana asked, finishing Shias’ question.
Lock nodded. “Of course,” he said. “I’m an Enchanted. What did you expect?”
“We just haven’t met very many,” Kathryn said, laughing. “This is kind of brand new to us.”
“Why were they banned?” Ben asked.
“Because magical contracts give one person immense power over another,” Lock said. “In the worst cases, it’s worse than any form of physical slavery. You know how normal contracts work, I assume. Sign on the dotted line, here are the things you must do, and here are the penalties if you breach the contract, that sort of thing. A magical contract is like that, but far more binding. There aren’t penalties to try and discourage breaking the contract, for one simple reason: it’s impossible to break these contracts.”
“Impossible?” Rae asked, shuddering. “But how is that even p-possible?”
“The contract binds to a person’s very soul,” Lock said gravely. “And it stays there until a person dies, or the contract’s time limit or conditions are fulfilled. While there, it can compel the person contracted to abide by the agreement, no matter what. It can control one’s movements and speech, and, in the worst cases, inflict horrible pain or even crippling conditions onto the contracted if they fight back too much.”
“Why would anyone sign something like that?” Shana asked, eyes wide in shock.
Lock leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “Magical contracts give the contracted power,” he said. “High-ranking and important mages would contract bodyguards: ‘you will protect me, even at the expense of your life. In exchange, I grant you the strength of ten mages, and skin as hard as steel.’ Things like that.”
“How is that possible?” Shias asked. “If it were that simple, wouldn’t more people use them?”
Lock held up one finger at a time as he counted aloud. “One: it takes incredible power to form a magical contract. Very few mages could do it even when it was legal. Two: the contract’s boons must balance out with its conditions and its penalties. The more power you wish to grant someone, the more you must ask of them, and the more painful it must be if they so much as think, for a fleeting second, of going against that contract in the slightest way. Three: the contract always, in all cases, grants the contractor full access to the contracted’s mind – their thoughts, their desires – at any time. Four: the contract binds contractor and contracted for the duration of its existence. If harm befalls one, it befalls the other. If the contracted should die of causes outside of the contract itself killing them, then the contractor dies as well.”
“That’s…” Ben started.
“Insane,” Kathryn finished, staring at Lock.
Lock nodded. “Indeed,” he said. “So they were outlawed among humans, and it’s been so long that there probably isn’t a living human that knows they ever existed – except you five now, of course.”
“What does this have to do with Annabelle?” Shias asked.
Lock rolled up a dirty sleeve, revealing a tattoo on his arm. It clearly was magical – the strange X-shaped symbol pulsed with a purple light, shimmering and shining of its own accord. “I am contracted to the Small Lady,” Lock said. “I won’t go into details, but one of the boons she granted was that she can communicate with me telepathically no matter the distance.”
“So she puts a lot of faith in you,” Shana said, smiling. “You’re important to her, and she finds you trustworthy, so she wants to make sure she can always talk to you.”
“That aside…” Lock pulled his sleeve back down, “you want me to send you to Maribelle, right?”
Shana nodded. “Yes, please,” she said.
“You’ll have to do something first,” Lock said.
“What’s that?” Kathryn asked. “Some kind of test?”
Lock nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “A test.”
“But Annabelle’s in trouble!” Shana pleaded. “We can’t waste time with tests and trials!”
Lock shook his head. “This is my condition,” he said. “I can send you anywhere. And I am contracted to the Small Lady. But she understands that people need to earn my trust, too. Just because she trusts and has sent you, doesn’t mean I can just trust you instantly. I have one test. If you pass it, I can send you anywhere, anytime, as long as you can continue to find me.”
“So… what is it?” Kathryn asked.
Lock leaned forward. “You have to make me laugh.”
Silence filled the workshop. Did he really say that? Shias wondered, staring at Lock. Make him laugh? That’s… is he serious?
“Wait, that’s it?” Shana asked, voicing Shias’ thoughts.
Lock nodded, then leaned back and folded his arms smugly. “I’ll have you know, it isn’t easy,” he said. “And if it takes you too long to make me laugh, I’ll refuse to help you.”
“Seems a bit unreasonable,” Ben muttered.
“Why laughter?” Shias asked. “Why is that your condition?”
“The ability to make someone laugh shows integrity,” Lock said. “The ability to give joy to others is not to be taken lightly.”
“But some people laugh at really stupid stuff,” Kathryn said.
“And some people find really dark or disgusting things funny,” Shana chimed in.
Lock shook his head. “What is or isn’t ‘stupid’ when it comes to humor is largely up to interpretation,” he said. “As for dark, disgusting, or disturbing things, I assure you I do not have that sense of humor. So? How will you make me laugh?”
Is he a connoisseur of humor or something? Shias wondered, staring at Lock as if seeing him for the first time. This guy’s… kind of a weirdo.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” Ben blurted out. Kathryn stared at him like he was an idiot, but Ben had his eyes fixed on Lock.
“Why?” Lock asked.
Ben rocked his stool back on two legs, grinning. “To get to the other side!” he proclaimed proudly.
Silence filled the workshop once more.
“You doofus!” Kathryn said, punching Ben in the arm. “That’s not even a joke!”
“But it’s one of the oldest jokes…” Ben said, frowning.
“And no one uses it seriously as a joke,” Kathryn said, sighing.
“Fine, I have a better one!” Ben said, staring at Lock eagerly. “Knock knock.”
Lock cocked his head to the side. “Who’s there?” he asked.
“Banana,” Ben said, and instantly Kathryn groaned.
“Banana who?” Lock asked.
Lock grunted. “Banana who?”
Lock hesitated for a moment before continuing. “Banana who?”
“Orange!” Ben said excitedly.
Ben grinned, pausing for dramatic effect before delivering the punchline. “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”
Silence, once more, filled the workshop.
“Benjamin, I swear!” Kathryn shouted, punching Ben in the arm. “Keep your stupid jokes to yourself and take this a little bit seriously!”
“The lady has a point,” Lock said with a shrug. “You, Benjamin, have zero talent for jokes.”
Ben sighed, looking sincerely dejected.
Did he seriously think his jokes were good? Shias wondered. I thought he only used that stuff because he knew those jokes were dumb.
Kathryn’s eyes suddenly lit up, and she raised her hand. “My turn next!” she said eagerly.
“Go ahead,” Lock said.
Kathryn grinned, looking around the room with an attitude of expectancy, like something really funny was about to happen. She looked to Shana, then Rae, then Shias, then back to Lock, conspicuously passing over Ben.
“There’s one thing that never fails to make me laugh,” she said in a hushed tone designed to build anticipation. Lock, Shana, Rae, and even Shias leaned in, hanging on her every word. Ben was lost in his own sorrow, rocking back and forth on his stool, staring at his feet. Kathryn turned to him then. “Hey, Ben.”
Ben looked up. “Wha –”
He never even finished his first word. Kathryn hooked her foot around one of the legs of Ben’s stool and pulled. Ben tipped backwards, his arms flailing desperately as his eyes grew wide and he made strange, wordless noises of panic. For a brief moment, it seemed he would keep from falling. But then gravity took hold, and Ben went flying backwards with a shriek of terror, crashing to the floor.
Kathryn, Rae, Shana, and Shias looked at Lock expectantly.
To their delight, the Locksmith suddenly tilted his head back and burst into raucous laughter.
“That was brilliant!” Lock roared, bending over until his hands were on his knees, laughing so hard he struggled to get words out. “The build up! The anticipation! The confidence! And the payoff!” He stood up, pointing dramatically at Kathryn. “You, young lady, have saved your team and completed my trial. I’ll take the five of you wherever you wish to go.” He then pointed to Ben, still sprawled on the floor. “And you! Completely oblivious is the perfect condition to be in for that kind of prank to hit home. So I must commend you for failing so much at terrible jokes that you thought were funny, so that you wouldn’t be properly paying attention when the lady played her ace. Bravo!”
He’s… kind of a nut, Shias thought, but he smiled. Even if it was at Ben’s expense, Shias couldn’t deny that he always found it funny when Kathryn pulled that chair-trip on Ben. He’d have thought Ben would have learned by now not to rock back in his chair when Kathryn was around.
“We did it!” Shana exclaimed, leaping to her feet. She pulled Kathryn into a hug. “Thank you! You’re the best!”
“How’d you know that would work?” Ben asked, sitting up on the floor and glaring at Kathryn.
Kathryn grinned at him. “Because it always make me laugh,” she said. “Thanks for making it so easy.”
“We can finally go after Maribelle, right?” Shana asked, looking at Lock.
The Locksmith nodded. “Indeed,” he said. “It will take some preparations, but it shouldn’t take too long to prepare your doorway to the Final Frontier.”
Shana turned to Shias, smiling, and he smiled back at her. His sister’s promise was one step closer to being fulfilled, and little Annabelle was one step closer to being rescued.
All thanks to making someone laugh.