Taking a Moment to Relax

Once they had finished cleaning up from the fight, things became rather dull, so far as Liesel was concerned.  The Stars might consider themselves to be totally different from the Crosses, with their own community and their own rules for governing it, but Liesel couldn’t see any difference.  Both groups wanted to talk everything to death.  The only good thing about the Stars was that they didn’t expect kids to stay in the meeting.  That meant that they were allowed to go out to the playground near the community center.

It turned out to be the same park they’d visited with Konrad, where they’d first met David.  This time, they were allowed to see the whole playground, since they didn’t have to stay where Konrad could see them.  Liesel found the large climber that Markus had played on during their first visit and climbed up to a platform with two slides coming from it.

“Hey, Olivia,” she said, grinning at the other girl.  “I didn’t know you were here.”

Olivia nodded.  “Daddy told Mommy to keep us outside during the meeting,” she said.  Then, she shook her head.  “I didn’t know why, but them Mommy said there was a fight!”

“Everyone’s all right,” Liesel said, nodding.  Her brows furrowed and she shook her head.  “Mr. David mentioned that there was a map of gateways, like the one over in the forest there.”

“It’s in the book that the Elders keep,” Olivia said, nodding.  Her brows furrowed and she shook her head.  “Most of them are gone, though.  They got closed or broken.”

“How do you break a doorway?” Frieda asked, shaking her head.

Olivia shrugged.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “I just know they broke somehow.  Mr. Malcolm was telling Daddy about it.  Crosses closed some of them, he said, but a lot more were broken.”

Liesel hummed to herself.  Then, she sat on the slide.  At the bottom, she looked up at Konrad.  “How do you break a doorway?” she asked, shaking her head.  After a moment, she seemed to think better of the question and added, “I mean… the magic doorways, that lead to the Otherworld.  How could one of them get broken?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Konrad said, shrugging.  He ruffled her hair and said, “We’ll work on the problem together, later.  Markus might be able to get a copy of their book.”

“Why Markus?” Frieda asked, as she reached the bottom of the other slide.  “Why not you or Opa?”

Konrad smiled.  “If these Elders are anything like the ones back home, they’ll figure that Staffs are the ones that do research,” he said, nodding.  “Markus is our staff, so they might lend him a copy of the book Olivia mentioned.”

Frieda nodded and then scampered over to where Markus was playing with Johannes.  It was a large ball-shaped climber with webbing strung between the larger points of it.  Johannes was climbing around in the webbing, pretending to be a spider.  Markus was pretending to be a fly that was trying to get free of the webbing.

“Do you want to borrow the portal book from the Eden community Elders?” she asked, frowning up at him.

He climbed up to perch on one of the large green beads at the juncture of several bars.  “Yeah, sure,” he said, nodding.  He looked over at Johannes.  “Do you want for me to borrow it?”

“I think we need to see it,” Johannes said, his expression serious.  Then, he looked at Frieda and said, “Do you want to be a pretty butterfly?  Come into my web!”

“Pass,” Frieda called, as she ran back over to the big climber.  She climbed up the side, using the hand and footholds.  Then, she grinned at Olivia and Liesel.  “Johannes is pretending to be a spiddy spider,” she said.

Olivia shook her head.  “Why’s he wanna be a spider?” she asked.  She made a face and added, “Spiders are icky!”

“I think it’s because that dome has webbing in it and it makes him think he’s a giant spider in a giant nest,” Frieda said.  She hopped onto the platform and then said, “I don’t want to pretend to be stuck, though.”  Then, she went down the slide.  She was just hopping to her feet when she heard Opa calling her and her sister and brothers.

She sprinted over to the entrance of the playground.  Once she was there, she caught Opa by the hand.  “Is the boring stuff over?” she asked.  “Markus wants to borrow book.”

“The one that talks about the doorways,” Markus said, glancing over at David.  He adjusted his glasses and shrugged.  “It might help us know how everyone here became tainted.”

“And more about the doorways,” Frieda said, nodding.

“Not a bad idea,” David said, nodding.  He smiled at Konrad and nodded.  “I’ll clear it with the Elders and then Markus can borrow my copy.”

“Thank you,” Johannes said, grinning.  He looked up at Konrad and spread his hands.  “Why do they keep forgetting?” he asked.

“Because it’s not how they do things,” Konrad replied, lifting one shoulder.  He smiled at David.  “The Cross is in charge of things like this, even if he is only seven years old.”

“Right,” David said.  He chuckled and looked down at Johannes.  “Didn’t keep you from skipping a meeting, though.  Did it?”

“It’s not my fault you didn’t invite me to stay,” Johannes said.  He looked up at Opa and said, “I was a spider, Opa.”  He pretended that his pointer fingers where the spider’s mouth, waving them back and forth and making clicking noises.

“No spiders in the car,” Opa said, as Liesel and Frieda screamed and hid behind Konrad.  He chuckled and then shook David’s hand.  “I’ll get in touch with you about that book,” he said.

“Sure,” David said, nodding.  Then, he called for his own children.  “Time for lunch, kids,” he said, as Josh and Olivia ran up.  “Say goodbye to your friends.”

“We’ll see them again, right?” Olivia said, frowning.

Frieda grinned at Olivia and nodded.  “We visit here every summer,” she said, her tone certain.  “Even if you don’t see us again this summer, we’ll be back next year.”

Olivia grinned and then hugged Frieda.  Turning to Liesel, she hugged her as well.  “I hope you can come to the founders’ festival next month, at least.”

“Yes,” Liesel said.  Then, she giggled and danced back from Olivia.  Waving, she said, “Enjoy your lunch, Livie.  We’ll see you again soon.”  Then, she scampered off towards where Opa had parked the van.

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A Plan of Action

The next day, they had a quick breakfast, then Opa took them out to the barn to meet with the others once again.  “This is not how I imagined your summer with me,” Opa said, as they all got out of his car.

Konrad shrugged.  “I’m sure that Tevas never imagined that we’d have to face down a horde of Singers when he took us camping,” he said, his voice soft.  He shook his head.  “Unfortunately, this is the life that we’ve got.”

“At least it’s never boring,” Liesel said, shrugging.  She scampered ahead of them to hold the door for everyone.  Then, she followed them inside.  Malcolm was already there with Ainsley.  David was there, as was Ryan.  There were also several other people that she didn’t know by name, but she recognized them for the previous night.

“You all know why we’re here,” David said, addressing the group.  His brows furrowed.  “I don’t think any of us suspected there was more to this than… just a misunderstanding.”

“We know different now,” someone grumbled.  Liesel looked over as an older man shook his head and glanced over at Ainsley.  “A Hammer, attacking her own Star…” he trailed off for a moment.  “I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Never thought I’d see the day one of us dragged outsiders into our disputes,” an elderly woman said.  She looked over at Opa and shook her head.  “They had no business putting a portal in your garden, Richard.”

“Grandson took care of it,” Opa said, ruffling Johannes’s hair.  “I’m more concerned with the here and now.  Do we have an idea how many we’ll be dealing with?”

Malcolm grimaced.  “Are we assuming everyone in the Eden Community aside from those gathered here has been tainted?” he said.  When Opa shrugged, he grimaced.  “With that assumption in place, they’ll outnumber us.”

“Good times,” Liesel said, grinning up at Konrad.

He grimaced.  “Not so much, no,” he countered.  He heaved a sigh and shoved his hands into his pockets.  Turning to David, he frowned thoughtfully.  “How much do you figure we’ll be outnumbered by?” he asked.

“Going by the same assumption as Malcolm, it’ll be something like four to one,” David said, nodding once.  Then, he shrugged.  “It may not be a valid assumption, though.  We might find that, the moment we start purifying them, and the inevitable reaction starts among them, a bunch of them are actually on our side.”

“From your lips to the Great Father’s ears,” Markus murmured.  He looked around at everyone.  “Would someone please tell me that we’ve got some sort of plan in place?”

“Spoken like a proper Staff,” Ryan said.  He shrugged.  “Right now, we know that everyone will be gathering at the community center.  The Elders have called a meeting and, in fact, we’re supposed to be there…” he trailed off to glance at his watch, before he finished the thought.  “In about twenty minutes.”

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Picking up the Pieces

Once they got back to the barn, Frieda and Liesel sat down near Ainsley.  She was still very upset over what had happened.  Frieda knew, from her own experience, that it might help to talk about it with someone.  She gave the girl a faint smile.  Ainsley was about the same age as she was, with brown hair that just brushed her shoulders.  It was pinned back with barrettes on each side, but they were crooked.  Her tee shirt was a bit dirty and there was a bump on one knee that was also dirty.

“Do you want to borrow my brush?” Frieda offered, opening her little handbag.  Handing Ainsley the brush, she added, “So that you can fix your hair?”

“Thanks,” Ainsley said, taking the brush.  She tugged the barrettes out of her hair and then began smoothing her hair, while Malcolm tended to the bump on her knee.  As she reclipped her hair, she shook her head.  “I asked her wear you were and… she got really angry,” she said, looking down at Malcolm.

Heaving a sigh, Malcolm nodded.  “I’m sorry that happened, Ainsley,” he said, his voice soft.

Frieda took the brush and tucked it back into her bag.  “That happened inside the cabin?” she asked.  When Ainsley nodded, she asked, “What were you doing outside?”

Ainsley rubbed at her eyes.  Shrugging, she said, “I wanted to find Malcolm and – and Theresa was scaring me, so I sneaked out.”  She looked down at her knee, which was cleaned up and bandaged now.  “She knocked me down and… she seemed so angry!  I thought she was going to hurt me.  I just… I don’t know what happened.  All of sudden, there was blood.”

“Is your ring activated?” Johannes asked, pointing at her hand.  When she looked at him in surprise, he held up his own hand.  “I have one too, but it’s not awake yet.”

Nodding slowly, Ainsley looked down at the ring on her hand.  “My uncle – Malcolm’s father – activated it,” she said, her voice faint.  She looked at Johannes.  “You mean… my ring did something to Theresa?”

“It’s meant to protect you,” Johannes said, shrugging.  “If Theresa was trying to hurt you… it makes sense that your ring did something.”

“They make arrows,” Konrad said, his voice soft.  When all eyes turned to him, he shrugged.  “Flaming arrows, apparently.  At least, that’s why the Elder Sword back home said.  It’s why they teach the Crosses archery.”

Ainsley closed her eyes for a moment and then shook her head.  “I saw some kind of flash of light,” she said.  “Then, there was blood and… I think that I screamed.  Then, I realized that it was Theresa’s blood.”

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Something Unexpected

It took quite a bit of convincing to get Opa to stay home.  He finally agreed only because Konrad promised that none of his younger siblings would be alone at any time during the operation.  Now that they were creeping through the trees, Liesel was wishing that Opa hadn’t let them go at all.

There was hardly any light from the moon.  Between the tiny sliver that was left of it and the scattered clouds, the forest was dark.  Then, there was the ground cover under the trees.  It was thick with brush and brambles.  Even seeing each other was difficult.  Seeing someone farther away than a few yards would have been impossible.  Any other time, Liesel might have been grateful for the natural cover.  Not tonight, though.  Tonight, it made her uneasy.  If she could hide, so could their enemies.

She nearly jumped out of her skin when Konrad touched her on the arm.  “Quietly,” he said, his voice hardly louder than a breath.  He pointed through the trees.  “I can see the cabin ahead of us.”

Liesel heaved a sigh and nodded.  She should have remembered that Konrad would be able to see.  She was blind without the light.  His vision was exactly the opposite.  In this darkness, he could see far better than he could in the daytime.  “Any activity?” she breathed.

He nodded once before he moved ahead of her, stepping carefully through the thick underbrush.  Liesel followed him as closely as she could manage.  Behind her, she could feel more than see the others.  Malcolm, David and Ryan had come with them.  Malcolm was keeping a close eye on Markus and Frieda, while David looked out for Johannes.

The wind ruffled through Liesel’s hair and she caught the faintest whisper on the breeze.  “Beware the Dark Ones,” the wind warned.  When she silently asked where they were, the wind answered, “All around you.”

She tensed and caught Konrad by the back of his jacket.  Her brother’s eyes seemed to glow as he turned to face her.  “Trouble,” she told her, her voice faint and her tone calm.  “Dark Ones are around us… somewhere.”

Konrad breathed a curse and glanced to the left and then the right.  Finally, he nodded and pointed forward.  “Straight ahead,” he said, speaking into her ear.  “Stop when you reach the edge of the trees.”

At her nod, he slipped away, moving on to the next person in their party and passing on her warning.  Liesel didn’t linger to hear them ask how he knew of the danger.  If they just thought about it for a moment, they already knew the answer.

Liesel slowed to a stop as she came to the edge of the trees.  A moment later, Frieda and Johannes joined her.  David was close behind.  She frowned at Frieda.  “Where’s Markus?” she breathed into her sister’s ear.

“He and Malcolm ran into trouble just as Konrad got to me,” Frieda replied, her tone vaguely annoyed.  “Konrad sent me on ahead.  He said that he’d help them.”

“I don’t like it,” Johannes whispered.

David gave a wry laugh.  “No one asked you to like it, pup,” he said.  He nodded once as Ryan arrived on the scene.  “The others?”

“They’re coming,” Ryan reported.  He heaved a sigh and shook his head.  Touching Johannes on the sleeve, he said, “How are you with healing?  Can you manage one?”

“Depends on how bad it is,” Johannes said, shrugging.  “Markus or Konrad?”

“Konrad,” Ryan said, scowling.

Johannes grimaced.  As the Sword, their brother tended to think of everyone else but himself.  When he got hurt, it was seldom a minor injury.  Johannes was about to speak when they heard a shrill cry from the cabin.

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More from the meeting…

Continuing right where I left off..

**

Johannes nodded and then looked around at the group.  “You aren’t the only group that’s got splitting happening, though,” he said, shaking his head.  “It’s happening in the Haven communities too.”

When Ryan frowned, Konrad said, “He’s right.  Our parents left their home community because they were against marriage between Defenders and Crosses – even other Defenders.  You were expected to marry someone from among the Haven families, but not someone that held their family’s gifts.”

Frieda blinked and then looked at Konrad.  “The elders where we live don’t mind,” she said.

“No, they don’t,” Konrad agreed.  Looking at David, he said, “They even encourage it, since it makes those with the gifts in the next generation that much stronger.”

The Thurman Lance sighed and shook his head.  “When will it end?” he asked.  “Why can’t we have disagreements without it leading to splits that… we’ve considered each other enemies.  My cousins want to kidnap your Cross to punish him for stopping our Sword when… they were in the wrong from the start.”

“Why did they open a portal in Opa’s garden in the first place?” Liesel asked, shaking her head.  Her brows furrowed.  “Were they after us or Opa or Tevas or… was it just something they felt compelled to do?”

It was Ryan who answered.  “Someone found a map that contained the doorways,” he said.  He looked over at Liesel.  “You saw the one that was near the park?  There are others and each one leads to another part or level of the Otherworld, where the spirits dwell.”

“All right,” Markus said, frowning.  “What’s that got to do with opening portals?”

“If they open the right portal,” Ryan said, “they believe it will lead to the level of the Otherworld where the Snow Queen can be found.”  While they stared at him in shock, he nodded. “The problem is that the map only has the portals marked on it.  It doesn’t show any of the physical landmarks.”

“So, they don’t really know which portal to open,” Konrad said, his voice soft.  “They open a portal where the map shows one and try to figure out where it leads… to try to get their bearings.”

“Because the Cross families have closed enough of the doorways on the map that we can’t find enough of them to use as landmarks,” the Thurman Lance murmured.

Johannes frowned at Ryan and said, “I’ve got a question about that song you were singing.”

“The Power Disruption Song,” he said, his voice soft.  “It makes you feel the way it does because it changes the oscillations of your aura and disrupts your magic.”

For a moment, Johannes just stared at Ryan, blinking.  He looked over at Konrad and his brows furrowed.  Frieda knew exactly why, too.  Their Elders were very firm in the fact that they did not work magic.  They barely tolerated the songs being called spells.  They corrected anyone who made the mistake of calling it magic almost obsessively.

As Johannes turned back to Ryan, he said, “It’s magic?”

“What did you think it was?” David asked, frowning.  “Just singing doesn’t do very much, you know?  It’s the specific sequence of notes and tempo that make the spells work.  That’s magic.”

“Our Elders don’t allow us to call it magic,” Konrad said, shrugging.  “It’s an ability and a gift of the Great Father, but… they’re really adamant about it not be magic.”

“That’s because of how the wizards have treated us,” the Thurman Lance murmured.  He looked at Johannes and shook his head.  “What were you going to ask?”

“That’s the language the Singers use,” Johannes said, shaking his head.  “How do you all know it?  Is it related to the reason why our singing bothers you the way that theirs does us?”

“It’s the language of the spirits,” Ryan said, blinking.  His brows furrowed.  “All of our spell songs are in that language.  You mean yours aren’t?”

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In the Dark of Night

Frieda was surprised when Opa not only let them go to the meeting, he insisted on coming along with them.  Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised her so much.  After all, he took his responsibilities towards them very seriously.  However, that was the biggest reason why she hadn’t expected him to let them go at all.

The place where they were invited looked less like a community center and more like an old barn.  Frieda climbed out of the van as Opa drew up in the field with the rest of the vehicles.  As she set her feet on the ground, the sound of singing reached her ears.  She whirled around to look at Johannes.  Her little brother, held in Konrad’s arms, was shaking and hiding his face.

Glaring, she whirled around.  Immediately, she sought out the person singing.  She spotted her target after only a moment.  A young man was standing just outside the barn.  His voice was ringing across the field.  “Hey,” she snapped, stalking forward.  Behind her, Opa and Markus were calling to her, but Frieda ignored them.  “Shut your face, before I shut it for you!”

“Frieda,” Opa said.  His tone was exactly like the one their father used when he was torn between embarrassment at something Liesel said and pride that she’d come up with it.

The young man stopped singing as she reached him.  He looked her over and smiled.  “You’re going to shut my face?” he asked.  He crossed his arms over his chest.  “You’re… what?  Seven years old?  How are you going to shut me up?”

“I’m nine years old,” Frieda said, balling her hands into fists.  Shaking her fist at him, she said, “Having a fat lip makes singing rather difficult.”

“Ryan,” a stern voice said.  “I told you we were expecting guests.  What were you doing to upset them?”

“This little girl just threatened to punch me,” Ryan said, thrusting a thumb at her.

The Thurman Lance chuckled softly and nodded.  “You expected any less from a lance?” he said, arching his brows.  He waved at them to join him and said, “Your lucky you got a warning.”

“He made my little brother cry,” Frieda said, crossing her arms over her chest.  She stood between Ryan and Konrad as he slipped into the barn, still carrying Johannes.  Then, she sprinted ahead of her eldest brother to lead the way.  Markus and Liesel took up position on either side of Konrad, with Opa following just behind.

David Gilbert nodded as they stepped through the gathering crowd to the front of the room.  “I’m glad that you could make it,” he said, his gaze on Konrad.

Konrad smirked.  “There’s one difference between Crosses and Stars,” he said, his voice soft.  He set Johannes on his feet and smoothed his hair gently.

“What’s that?” the Thurman Lance asked, shaking his head.

Shrugging, Konrad said, “You’re talking to me as the one in charge.  Why?  Because I’m the oldest?”  He shook his head.  “That’s not how Crosses work,” he added.

“I’m the Cross,” Johannes said, looking up at David.  “That means I’m the head of our family.”

Ryan chuckled.  “I had you in tears just a moment ago,” he said, shaking his head.  “You’ve got a long way to go before you can be the head of anything.”

Johannes frowned at him and then closed his eyes.  Frieda couldn’t help but smirk.  Ryan and the others probably expected Johannes to begin singing, or humming at the very least.  However, she knew that he didn’t need to actually make sound.  Just thinking of the melody was enough to active his gifts.  Ryan found that out a moment later, as the power of Johannes’s spell song hit him and he sat down, holding his hands over his ears.

Immediately, Johannes’s eyes flew opened.  “That was just from me imagining the melody, Ryan,” he said.  “Imagine if I’d actually been singing.”  He shook his head.  “Then again, it’s probably not fair to judge power based on sneak attacks.”

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Meeting the Other Side

After the incident on the bike trail, Konrad decided it was better for them to stay away from secluded places.  He didn’t tell the girls that they couldn’t go out on their bikes alone quite yet.  However, Liesel was fairly certain that he was hoping that, by keeping them where other people could easily see them, he was preventing any further trouble.  She had no problem with that.  After all, it was Johannes that the Thurmans were after.  As one of his Defenders, it was her job to keep him safe.

As before, they were riding their bikes, while Johannes skated between them.  On this day, they went to the same park that they’d visited with their brother on the day that Opa had his meeting.  Today, though, they simply rode around the playground, keeping to the bike trails and in full view of the parents that had brought their children there to play.

A sound in the bushes just off the trail made Johannes skid to a stop.  Frieda followed his example, turning back to watch as he skated into the grass.  “Where are going?” she asked, as Liesel followed him, walking her bike.

“It’s a kitty,” Liesel said, her tone excited.  Greeting the cat, she said, “Hello, pretty one.”

“That’s a sidhe,” Johannes said, his voice soft.  As the cat padded over to rub against his fingers, he pointed.  “You can see her wings, tucked against her back.”

“Is she… friendly?” Frieda asked, approaching her brother and sister carefully.  She didn’t know as much about the different spirits as her brother did.  She only knew that some became corrupted by staying in the physical world for too long.

Johannes smoothed the cat sidhe’s fur gently and nodded.  “She’s a spirit of diligence, not sloth,” he said.  “How did you get here, Kitty?  Is there a portal opened nearby?”

The cat sidhe trilled at him and then looked to the trees.  Johannes stood and followed the cat sidhe’s gaze.  Frieda squinted, trying to see the same thing that her brother was.  She gasped softly as she saw the edge of a stone doorway.

“That’s not just a portal,” she said, her voice soft.  When Liesel made a curious sound, she pointed towards it.  “I mean… it’s not just this rip in the veil, like the Thurmans made.  That’s a doorway.”

“Frieda’s right,” Johannes said.  “Someone made that.”  He scampered forward and the cat sidhe bounded after him.

“Hansel,” Frieda called, her voice strained.  “We’re not supposed to go in the forest alone.”  She looked at Liesel, who shrugged.  Then, she heaved a sigh and dropped her bike to hurry after her brother.  Liesel was close behind her.

As they drew near the doorway, the stranger with the bow from the previous day stepped out from behind it.  Johannes stopped to let Frieda and Liesel draw up on either side of him.  “Did you open this?” Johannes asked, nodding at the doorway as the cat sidhe bounded through it and vanished.

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Mysteries Wrapped in Puzzles

It was another day.  Frieda and Liesel went out on their bikes once again.  This time, they were just going to ride around Opa’s neighborhood and see what they could find.  Johannes came with them on his roller skates.  Sometimes, they didn’t like having him around, but he was good at keeping up with them and it was nice to have him there when they went exploring.  He was very good at remembering how to get back to Opa’s house.

They rode around the different side streets near Opa’s house for some time.  Then, Frieda noticed a path that led off through the trees.  “A bike trail,” she said, as she stopped to read the sign.  She looked over at Liesel and Johannes.  “Do you want to check it out?”

“Sure,” Liesel said, nodding.

Johannes frowned for a moment and then looked up towards his right, where Michael probably was.  Finally, he nodded.  “We’ve got a few hours until Opa calls us for supper,” he said, grinning.  “Maybe it’ll lead out by one of the lakes or something.”

Frieda nodded and then kicked off, steering her bike down the trail.  Liesel and Johannes followed behind along her.  Soon, they were lost in the enjoyment of exploring the trail.  In the shade of the trees, it was cool and refreshing.  Little birds flitted from the branches that hung low overhead, singing and chattering to each other.

As they rounded a corner, Frieda saw a lone figure walking along the trail.  She eased her bike to one side of the trail, so that she wouldn’t hit him.  However, she frowned when he moved directly into her path.

“What’s his damage?” Liesel murmured.  She rang the bell on her bike and then glanced at Frieda when the man stopped, still standing directly in their path.  Together, they put their feet down and stopped their bikes.  Johannes skidded to a stop between them.

“Engel Cross,” the man said, his voice soft.  “You shouldn’t have come here.”

Frieda tensed and glanced over her shoulder.  Behind them, there were two other figures.  “Are they tainted spirits?” she whispered.

“They’re people,” Johannes said, shaking his head.  In a soft voice, he added, “I think… maybe they’re like the Thurmans were – people who serve the Great Father’s adversary and who aren’t nice.”

Konrad had mentioned that Mr. Gilbert was like Johannes – but served the adversary as well.  However, he wasn’t a bad person.  He didn’t agree with randomly opening portals to let whatever wanted to come enter their world.  He simply didn’t like the idea of trapping good spirits in their world.  That was, sometimes, what corrupted them, after all.

“What do you want?” Liesel asked, as she hopped off her bike.  She shook her head.  “We don’t want any trouble from you.  We’re just riding our bikes.”

“Let us have the Cross, then,” one of the people behind them said.  She smiled at Johannes and added, “Then, they can be on their way and we’ll be on our way.”

“We’re not going to let you have our brother,” Frieda growled.  She let her bike fall to the side of the trail as she summoned her pike.

As she watched, one of them summoned a whip.  The lone stranger summoned a bow with arrows.  The third summoned a long staff with metal tips.  “Then, it seems we’ll fight,” he said, his voice soft.

Johannes breathed a soft curse.  He was about to sing when a low, dark melody began echoing through the trees.  Tears sprang to his eyes and he covered his ears with both hands.  It was the same reaction that he had whenever Singers would sing at him.  However, Frieda was certain there was no Singer this time.

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Two Opposing Sides

The next day, Konrad took them to a park that was somewhat closer to Opa’s house.  He ran beside them while they rode bicycles that they were borrowing from Opa.  Johannes used his roller skates, because he didn’t feel comfortable on a bicycle.  As they neared the park, Markus pointed.  “There’s a place that we can lock the bikes,” he called.

They slowed as they rode around the side of the park and past a group of picnic tables.  As they locked up their bikes, Konrad pulled Johannes’s sneakers out of his bag.  “I’ll sit in the shade and keep an eye on your skates,” he said.  “All right?”

For a moment, Johannes looked torn.  Did he want to leave the skates on for a while.  Finally, he nodded and sat down on the ground to tug at his laces.  “There are tables with parasols over to the right, Brother,” he said, as he began tugging his sneakers onto his feet.

As Konrad settled down at the tables, he waved toward the nearest climbing toy and a pretend stage that was set near it.  “Stay kind of in this area, you three,” he told Johannes and his sisters.  He looked over at Markus.  “You’re old enough that I don’t need to watch you closely, but don’t leave the playground area.”

“Right,” Markus said, nodding.  He scampered over to a slide that led to the lower playground area and then made his way over to the larger of the two climbers.

Frieda and Liesel exchanged a look and then ran over to the pretend stage.  Behind it, there was a set of play drums that Liesel began pounding on.  Meanwhile, Frieda stepped over to the stage and began tap-dancing on it.

Johannes watched them for a moment and then he stepped over to the small climber.  His brows furrowed as he looked it over.  Konrad watched him examine the slide.  Then, he scrambled up and climbed through the tunnel to the other side.  This led to a set of parallel bars that he edged across to an overhead ladder.

Konrad nodded slightly.  The slide was a bit too small for Johannes, but he really wasn’t big enough for the slides on the largest climber yet.  Frieda and Liesel were big enough for it, but he knew they would enjoy pretending to be performers more than they would enjoy simply scrambling around on a climber.

“Frieda,” a high voice called.  “Liesel!”

He chuckled as his sister froze and then ran over to greet another little girl enthusiastically.  “Olivia,” Frieda said, hugging the girl.  “It’s so good to see you!”

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A Time Apart

Frieda found it difficult to put the matter with the Thurmans completely out of her mind.  Until they’d started attacking people at the picnic, they’d seemed like a nice elderly couple.  They fed the squirrels and the birds.  Opa said they’d always been good people to have as neighbors.

So, if they’d always served the Dark One, had all of that been an act?  The part of her that had trouble trusting people said that evil was good at pretending to be nice.  That was what made it so dangerous.  People could do evil things and think that they were still good people.

However, thinking that way also scared her.  It made her wonder: what if she was evil without even realizing it?  Maybe the crosses weren’t the good ones after all.  Maybe it was the ones that served the other god who were good.  It made her uneasy.  She had trouble sleeping.

Opa decided that they needed to get out of the house for a while – away from the garden where so much unpleasantness had happened.  So, after Tevas had gone back to West Virginia, he packed up the kids and brought them to the park for the day.

Frieda had never seen a park like the one they visited.  Not only was there a lake with a beach, but there was a playground and something that Opa called a splash pad.  The moment that she saw it, she understood why they were wearing swimsuits.  Frieda and Liesel lingers with Opa long enough to get their first coating of sunblock.  Then, they went over to the splash pad, where a few other children were already playing.

As they arrived, the water suddenly cut off.  Frieda frowned and looked at a girl about her age with her dark hair tied in braids.  “Is it done already?” she asked.

“It’s on a timer,” the girl replied.  Turning to a woman with the same kind of dark hair, she said, “Mom!  Hit the button, please?”

“Sure,” her mother replied.  She pressed a button on a red megaphone-like thing and the water began to spray around them once again.

“Thank you,” Frieda and Liesel said, along with the little girl.  She turned to the girl and smile.  “I’m Frieda Engel.  This is my sister, Liesel.”

“I’m Olivia Gilbert,” she said, grinning.  “I’ve never seen you here before.  Are you new in town?”

“We’re visiting our Opa for the summer,” Liesel said, pointing over towards the edge of the beach, where Opa had laid out the blanket.  “He decided to come here for the day, but he lives in Eden Lake.”

“That’s really close by,” Olivia said, nodding.  “Mom takes me to a cookie shop there sometimes.  Do you go there too?”

“Miss Hannah makes the best chocolate cake cookies in the whole world,” Frieda proclaimed, nodding.  Then, she pointed over at Johannes, who was playing on a spinning rope climber with another boy.  “That’s our little brother, Hansel.”

“He’s playing with my little brother,” Olivia said, chuckling.  Then, she beckoned to them and dashed under a plastic palm tree that was showering water downward.  From there, she went under an arcing pipe with water spraying from it.  Finally, she circled around to climb onto the spinning rope climber.

“Hey, Josh,” she called, as she climbed through the ropes to join the boys.

Frieda grinned.  “It’s like a merry-go-round,” she said.  She waved at Liesel, who ran around to the other side.  Then, they began spinning it until it was the speed they wanted.  They jumped up together and rode it, along with the two boys and their new friend, Olivia.

They played with Olivia and Josh until their mother called them for lunch.  As they were waving to their new friends, Opa called to them.  They ran over to the blanket he had set up in the shade and settled down for their own lunch.

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