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The Uninvited Guest

Chapter one–Garden Getaway


Could this day possibly get any worse!?

            She didn't dare say it out loud, but that's what twelve-year-old Mariah Prindle was thinking as sweat rolled down her forehead and stung her eyes. For as long as she could remember, gardening had never been fun. And on this particular occasion when she was being forced to weed the entire vegetable garden, it was a downright miserable endeavor. It was a hot day, and as she knelt in the garden, sweating and dirty, it only served to bring the mosquitos out in droves.

            The only way to keep the pesky little biters off her arms and neck was to wear a sweatshirt. This, in turn, made her even more uncomfortable, and terribly unhappy. Adding to her suffering was the fact that regardless of her attempts to yank them out, the weeds stubbornly refused to give up their position among the vegetables. Despite wearing gloves her fingers ached from trying to pull the unwanted plants out of the ground. She didn't even want to see how much dirt had collected underneath her fingernails.

            "I wish these plants could learn to weed themselves," she muttered in the general direction of her mother. "Who needs them anyway?" Her mind wandered, and she stared across the yard, spotting the row of apple and pear trees. Ugh, she thought. Before long it'll be time to pick apples. Sometimes I feel like I'm nothing but a servant around here.

            The job was progressing slowly at best, and being constantly scolded for laziness only served to make Mariah dawdle even more. As the minutes crept by and the task continued to wear her out, she wanted to be anywhere but there. Too her surprise, someone called out her name. It spoke softly at first, and then with a sense of urgency.

            She glanced around, but didn't see anything. "Mariah," the voice repeated. "I'm over here." When she turned and looked toward the wooded area behind her house, something moved. Her first reaction was to rub her eyes, because what she was seeing didn't seem possible. It looked like a horse, but unlike any horse she had ever seen before, this one had wings. Its coat was silver, and she could see a twisted and glistening golden horn coming from out of the beautiful creature's head. With a long tail and a mane that sparkled under the midday sun, it cast an unearthly glow as it pawed at the ground in front of her.

            Somehow her mother and father were unaware of what was going on. Not only did they fail to hear it calling for her, it appeared that they were also unable to see it. As the horse-like creature stepped forward, it stopped a few feet away from her father and shook its gorgeous, shimmering silver mane. Her parents, however, remained oblivious to its presence. It was like they were frozen in time, while the only moving objects were Mariah, her dog Willow, and the mysterious visitor.

            "Well," it said, scuffing its hooves into the grass. "I can't stand here all day. Are you coming with me or not? The spell I put on your parents isn't going to last forever. And besides that, if I stay here too long I'll turn into a horse. No offense to horses, but I'd much rather be an alicorn."

            "Alicorn? I've never heard of an alicorn. You look like a Pegasus-unicorn to me."

            The alicorn rolled its big purple eyes before speaking again. "Sounds like you've got a lot to learn. And right now, I don't have time to teach you."

            "Where are we going?" Mariah said tentatively.

            "I don't know for certain, but you'll know it when you're there," the alicorn replied, shaking its head.

            "How long will I be gone? Will I be back before dark?"

            "I can't really say, although time doesn't have the same meaning once we cross over."

            "Cross over?" the young girl said with a puzzled expression on her face. "When I'm there will I be able to understand the language? Do they speak English?"

            "Ummmm—that's hard to tell, but I imagine so."

            "That's not very helpful. Is it safe where we're going?"

            "Kind of, but I wouldn't want to guess."

            "What do you know!?" Mariah demanded. She took a quick peek over at her mother and father, who were still standing motionless with silly looks fixed on their faces. Whatever spell the magical creature put them under, it was still working.

            "You don't need to raise your voice," the alicorn told her. "I may not be able to answer your questions, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with my hearing. In fact, I can hear your parents' heartbeats speeding up, which means the enchantment is about to end. So make up your mind—are you coming or not?"

            "Now, please, just follow me, Mariah," it said politely with an abrupt change of tone. "All I can tell you is that you've been summoned. Everything else will soon be apparent. My job is to take you to the other side. What happens after that will be up to you."

            "Summoned? By who? And why me? Wait—how do you know my name?"

            The alicorn came to an unexpected stop and stared back at her with a strange sparkle in its large purple eyes. "Do you really need to ask?" it began. "You're pretty well known in the mystical world, Mariah Prindle. It's not everyone who has met both the Snow Maiden and Mercy Meredith."

            Up to this point she had been waffling on whether it was wise to follow this beautiful otherworldly creature from the land of Faerie. At the mention of her previous forays into the realms of magic, she made her decision. Mariah wasted no further thought on the subject, abandoning her dreaded chores to join the ethereal visitor. In her mind, it wasn't every day that a winged unicorn showed up in the yard.

            The alicorn started toward the woods, stopping once to glance back and make eye contact with the young girl. As it continued to walk away, Mariah abandoned her job and ran to catch up, with her dog Willow following. There would be big trouble later, but at that moment, it didn't matter. She disappeared into the trees, leaving her mother, father and the weed-filled garden far behind.

            She would soon come to regret this hasty decision, but since that involves events yet to be discussed, it would be better to proceed with her immediate course of action. After all, who would want to know the end of a story before they barely even knew the beginning?

            "Okay, I followed you. Now what?" Mariah said to the alicorn when she could no longer see her house.

            "Hop on my back. It'll be much quicker that way."

            She had experienced some very strange things in her life, far more than the average girl. Riding on an alicorn was a first. It took her a moment to get comfortable, but once she did, the ride felt surprisingly smooth.

            As they trotted along Mariah realized she knew nothing about the creature she was running away with. "By the way, what's your name?" she asked.

            "My name? Where I come from they call me Achilles. I . . ."

            "Did you say Achilles?" Mariah interrupted. "He's my favorite character from The Iliad . . ."

            "Yeah, I know. I hear that all the time," Achilles said sullenly, stopping her mid-sentence.

            While Mariah rode, Willow ran alongside the alicorn, occasionally bounding ahead before coming to a halt when he realized he had no idea where they were going.

            "Nice dog you've got there. Very faithful," Achilles commented. "I have a feeling that will be very useful where we're headed. Of course a dog can also be a real liability. There are likely to be strange things to sniff and to chase. You'd better keep a good eye on him."

            "No, I trust Willow. He's a good dog except . . ."

            Again, before she had a chance to finish her thoughts, she was interrupted by the alicorn.

            "Now brace yourself, Mariah. We're about to cross over and this could get rough. Hold onto my mane. It's going to be bumpy."

            Achilles wasn't exaggerating. When they reached the void uniting the world of humans and the dimensions of magic, Mariah lost her grip on the alicorn's mane and sailed through the air. She hit the ground with a thud, rolling three times before coming to a stop, lying face up.

            When she opened her eyes the first thing she saw was Willow's tongue. It was also the first thing she felt.

            "Hey! Quit that!" she told the dog while wiping her wet cheek. An attempt to sit up made her dizzy, and she realized it would take some time to recover. This forced her to hold her hands out to prop herself up, only to have Willow knock her back down in his enthusiasm.

            "Hey," she said, raising her arms in defense from the over-exuberant springer spaniel. "I'm okay boy. Glad to see you too, but let me get up." No longer dizzy, she stood up and surveyed the area around them. "Where are we Willow?" At the sound of his name the dog sat up on his hind legs with his tail sweeping against the ground like a broom.

            Mariah could tell that wherever they were, it was a destination not found on any ordinary map. There was also no sign of the alicorn, and for a moment she wondered whether she had imagined the whole thing. What her parents described as her 'overactive imagination' was the subject of plenty of teasing over the years. Because of this they doubted her claims to have once saved Christmas from an evil enchantress, and laughed when she told them about her escape from a pair of mischievous gnomes who trapped her in a barn.

            A sudden chill brought her back to the moment and Mariah felt touched by a very strange feeling. It was one she had never experienced before. In truth, she was lost.

            Still, it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. As far as she could tell, it was filled with trees of every possible size, shape and color. Even the grass seemed different, although she wasn't certain why it appeared that way. It was a similar shade of green, and it smelled like the grass back home. Somehow it did not feel the same when she walked on it—softer, or maybe lighter. Up ahead she could see a rainbow coming out of a small pond. It shimmered against the golden rays of the sun. And there, drinking from the pond, she spotted Achilles, with the sun shining brilliantly off his horn.

            "Follow me," the magical creature cried out. "It's not far from here." She wasn't sure what "it" was, but this, it seemed, was her kind of place. Her mother and father would be sorry for scolding her. She would stay right here, in this special place, and no one would be able to find her unless she wanted them to.

            Thoughts of her parents reminded Mariah about her father's tales of a lake or pond deep in the woods behind their house. He swore he heard something, perhaps a trapped bird, crying and floundering in the water one evening. He also heard the yowl of a giant cat that night, but had come across no such sound since then. Mariah's mother always joked that it was her father's old cat, Rio, now grown to the size of a tiger.

            She couldn't see any cats, nor could she hear any trapped birds, but for the first time in her life, her father's story sounded quite possible.

            As she started toward the rainbow, her dog Willow stood fast and began to whimper. "What's the matter boy?" she asked. "Don't be afraid, it's only a rainbow."

            Off to the side she caught a glimpse of the actual subject of Willow's attention. A small brown rabbit was hiding underneath the bushes, hiding among the clusters of white berries that reminded her of snowballs. It was doing the familiar rabbit trick of sitting completely still, trying to become invisible to this sudden disturbance of peace and quiet.

            It was too late.

            When Willow saw this he bounded forward, the way springer spaniels are famous for. His front paws went airborne and his long brown ears flapped as he bounced toward the rabbit. Frightened by the oncoming spaniel blur of black, white and brown, the cottontail jumped away from the snowball-like bushes. Hoping to escape, it dashed wildly from one side to another, as they are also known to do.

            Leaving all caution behind, the excited canine charged forward.

            "Willow, come back!" Mariah shouted. It was already too late. As anyone whose dog has ever chased a rabbit knows all too well, there is no stopping an avalanche, a runaway locomotive, or a dog in pursuit of a hopping four-legged fur-ball. The rabbit darted out of a group of golden colored bushes and quick-hopped toward the remains of a tree that tipped over many years previous. With a sudden flash of light, the rabbit vanished. This did not deter the hard charging spaniel, and with another burst of light, he also disappeared. Something strange was going on here, and Mariah could think of no other choice than to go check it out.

            As was the case with both the rabbit and dog before her, she saw another dazzling flash. In seconds Mariah found herself in a completely different place. Instead of the wooded area, she now stood beneath a huge oak tree. Willow was nowhere to be seen, although she could hear him. The dog's familiar bark soon led her to the base of another tree. Her dog was standing on his hind legs, front paws placed firmly against the side of the trunk, barking up into the tree.

            "Oh Willow, you crazy boy, rabbits don't climb trees," she scolded, walking toward him. "Or do they?" Much to the contrary, Mariah saw that her dog was correct. The rabbit had somehow made its way up the tree and was clinging to a branch for all its worth. This sight was followed by something even more unusual when the branch broke free, and acorns fell all around her. That, in itself, was not unusual. She had seen thousands of acorns before. These were not typical acorns. Instead they were shiny and gold. "Ow!" she exclaimed as a tree nut dropped down and hit her on the head. Not only were they golden colored, but they were also made of gold, and solid gold at that!

            "Ooooh! Golden acorns," she rejoiced before commencing to scoop them up off the ground to fill her pockets. What an amazing find, she thought. I'm going to be rich! Her mind flooded with visions of all the things she could do with the money these acorns would bring.

            "Caw, caw CAW!!" the silence of her dream world was shattered by the appearance of an enormous crow flying straight at her. Dozens of crows appeared from out of the sky, all of them bearing down on her. There were so many that Mariah stopped gathering the golden acorns and instead searched for a place to hide. For some strange reason she recalled learning that they call a grouping of this type a murder. She didn't like the sound of that at all. "Caw, caw, thief! thief!" the crows squawked in unison, and she understood that the golden acorns she pocketed were the source of their aggravation. They had her surrounded now, and the birds continued to squawk like a crazed chorus.


Caw! Caw! Thief! Thief!

What do you think you are doing?

Caw! Caw! Thief! Thief!

What are you trying to do?

Caw! Caw! Thief! Thief!

You'd better hand them over

Caw! Caw! Thief! Thief!

They don't belong to you!


            It was all too clear that the crows were not happy with her. And then a second strange thought went through her mind. In it she recalled memories of a very scary movie where birds attacked an entire town. Stay calm, she told herself, although this was much easier said than done. She had no idea how to escape them in one piece, but knew she had to try something.

            Her first instinct was to pull out a handful of acorns. She followed this move by throwing them at the crows, hoping to create enough of a distraction to make a fast getaway. At first the plan worked, as many of the crows gave up the chase in favor of the golden acorns. Dozens remained in pursuit, and these angry birds showed no intention of letting her off so easily. Feathers, claws and beaks engulfed her as the crows swarmed and pecked away. When Mariah scanned the area she saw no way to escape their flight pattern.

            But maybe there was!

            Hands over her head to ward off the dive-bombing crows, she sprinted toward the giant oak tree and the rabbit hole. It had brought them to this location. She hoped it would also take them back the other way. At this point it was their only chance. Otherwise . . . she didn't finish the thought. There was no time for second guessing herself.

            In the end, it worked. At least in some respects.

            Like before, she experienced a sudden burst of light, and she vanished. Always a quick study, she had learned to close her eyes after the last blinding flash. Now, as she opened them, a new problem awaited her.

            Where was she?

            It definitely wasn't the same place.

            Rather than the wooded area, Mariah now stood next to a statue of a little man with a long beard. Arms pointed toward the sky, his face was also focused upward. It looked as though he was searching for something far, far away. No, this was not where they started from. Regardless, it was better than being 'murder-ed.'

            "That was a close call," she said. "But where's Willow?"


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