all kinds of clothing, food, toys, guns, lanterns, oil, tents, and gear of every shape, size, and color. Most of which Samantha suspected she would need, as she was supposed to climb the Great Ice Mountain and kill the Ogin; although, neither she nor her sister, Gale, had any idea what an Ogin was. Additionally, nobody seemed able to tell them.
"But why won't anyone tell us what the Ogin is?" Samantha said crossly for what felt like the hundredth time.
"Mainly because the only people that have actually seen it are dead," said Mr. Bristle, as he admired his new socks. "You're daft for wanting to even go near the thing, I should say," he added, the spines on his back, flexing up and down to emphasize his point.
Gale, who was about a foot taller than Mr. Bristle--who looked and moved like a man but in all other respects resembled a hedgehog--said, "Then how come there are stories about it?"
"What do you mean?" Mr. Bristle asked, wincing as he heard the sound of one of his spines punching through his new parka.
"I mean if the Ogin eats everyone then where do the stories about it come from?"
"I didn't say it ate everyone," Mr. Bristle said as a down feather from his coat floated past his thick glasses.
"No. You didn't. You said it killed them all, so it is still a good question," Samantha said. "So how did the stories get out?"
"I'm quite sure I don't know about that, but I can tell you that the Ogin has been on top of Ice Mountain longer than I have been alive. I think it was there before my grandfather was alive."
"But you don't know that. You've never seen it."
"Well I don't have to see it to know it exits. I've never seen the backside of the moon, but I know it must be there. It's the same thing here, only the Ogin is much closer than the moon," Mr. Bristle said.
Samantha, who had raven black hair, green eyes, and a pointy nose said, "That is not fair. You can at least see the moon, so you know it is real. You have never even seen the Ogin. You don't have to accept it exists. That would be like me believing in the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot."
"Well since I don't know who either of those gentlemen are, I'm sure I don't know anything at all about it, but I will tell you, an Ogin is real. Sure I have never seen it, but let me say, you don't have to see something directly to know it exists. I've seen its paw tracks in the snow. Not to mention, you can go into the store this very second and buy some Ogin droppings, though anything more than a spoonful will cost you more than most people see in year."
Samantha's head began to hurt and she looked around thinking ruefully, I may go get eaten, just so I don't have to stay here.
Samantha and Gale's room was a large, private affair above the main store. Mr. Morgan kept it for guests, and it was the only extra room that he had and was obviously not intended to make people feel welcome. It had a queen-size bed with a brass headboard, a desk, and one set of drawers, but no private bathroom or toilet (those were down the hall), and only one small window. Wind Rawth had paid for two weeks worth of food and lodging for the girls by trading one of her tail feathers, and while Samantha did not know how much the stone Scheherazade had given her was worth, she did know that the feather was worth far more than Mr. Morgan had traded for it.
Right after the two great owls that had flown them over the frozen sea and dropped them off, Mr. Bristle had gone out and spoken with them. Apparently, Shadow Stalker had given him a tail feather as well, but his was to make sure that the girls knew exactly how much the stone they had was worth, and to make sure they got all the help they needed. This, so far, the hedgehog had done with great aplomb, and he had even taught Samantha and Gale the basics of the money they would have to use, the vel. One vel was worth 50 toinka, which as far as Samantha could figure was like cents. There was a one toinka coin, but then they only came in multiples of five for the toinka, until you hit twenty, when it jumped to a 35 toinka coin, but the same was not true for the vel bills. There were one, two, five, ten, twenty, thirty, fourty, and fifty notes, but according to Mr. Bristle, most people have ever seen more than a twenty vel bill.
"Why?" are the Ogin droppings so expensive?" Gale asked.
"Well most people only make between 60 and 120 vel in a year, so once you get over three or four vel, you are talking about a lot of money for most folks. In fact, things like bread mostly cost one or two toinka at most. So if you go out to a good restaurant and ate a lot with two or three or your friends, that would be about, one vel or a vel and 30 toinka. And this room," said Mr. Bristile, waving around his hand (which still had spines on the back of it) "is, I think, V1.25 for a night. Ogin droppings on the other hand, start at seven vel for a spoonful. But it's amazing stuff. You can burn that same spoonful for six months straight and still have a bit of warmth to spare. But if you don't want to burn it there are lots of other uses for it. For example, you just have to sprinkle a little here and there, and it will fertilize a whole field for a year, so Mr. Morgan also sells loads of it to people far to the South at a great markup."
"So how much is this worth?" Samantha had asked, pulling out the gem that Scheherazade had given her.
"Well now, I'm not sure," Mr. Bristle said. "You see, as far as I know there is only one of those in the world, so the fact that you have a second is bound to cause quite the stir."
Gale came by and took the stone out of her sister's hand. "It looks like a rock to me," she said peering at it closely.
"Hey," Samantha said, jumping up after her sister, "Give that back."
"You always get to hold it!" Gale said. "I want to hold it," and the smaller of the two girls scampered out of her sister's reach. Samantha was up like a lightning bolt.
"Give it back. It's your fault I'm stuck here. If you hadn't played with that stupid TV, then none of this would be happening."
"I didn't know what was going to happen!" Gale said fiercely. "Besides, you're the one who just wanted to sit there and do nothing!"
Samantha didn't say anything after that. She just lunged at her sister, but Gale was smaller and faster, and she missed and stubbed her toe on the bed. This only made the older girl more angry, and this time when she lashed out she managed to catch Gale, who struggled and knocked the gem loose. It skidded across the floor towards Mr. Bristle, who picked it up. The hedgehog, made no move to stop the girls from fighting, and Samantha, who got distracted by the gem skidding across the floor, paid for it when Gale bit her.
"Ouch!" Samantha said, and was getting ready to slap Gale when they both stopped. The stone in Mr. Bristle's hand suddenly flared and filled the room with such blinding light that in spite of the fact that both Samantha and Gale closed their eyes, they were both blinded for the next several minutes.
Mr. Bristle was standing at his full height, which barely broke four foot, and even though his face was inscrutable, every single spine on his body had gone ridged, and there were down feathers impaled on many of them. "If you two are quite finished acting like starved mongrels fighting over scraps, then I suggest you listen."
Samantha let go of Gale and, nursing her still throbbing toe, sat on the bed. Gale followed, but sat on the opposite end. "Good," Mr. Bristle continued, "now Scheherazade was right to send you lot to Mr. Morgan. He is not, as I'm sure you've noticed, all that nice. But a shrewder business man you won't find. Also, even though he won't show it, he does have a few scruples. He won't rob you two of this here gem, but don't think for an instant he won't try and get you to sell it cheap." The hedgehog glared at the two girls, but when they did not interrupt, he said, "Good. I'll take that to mean you understand. So if you get nothing else, remember this: you need to remember that the Ogin, as frightful as it might be, as deadly as it undeniably is, is not the end of your journey. He is the beginning, so you need to make sure you get enough money to last for what will come next. Now listen, Wind Rawth and Shadow stalker told me what to do..."
The girls listened, and when Mr. Bristle was done explaining his plan he said, "Good. Now, Samantha, I want you to take this back," and he held out the stone," but I also want you to know why it is so valuable. So put it up to your lips and ask it any question you want."
Samantha took the stone, and, a bit confused did as she was told and asked, "How do you beat the Ogin."
For an instant nothing happened, but then the stone warmed up until Samantha let go of it, but it did not drop. If floated in the air and started vibrating and said in a clear, cold voice "That which burns the brightest, burns the fastest, and vanity is the most combustible fuel of all." No sooner had the words stopped ringing in the girls' ears then the stone stopped vibrating and fell on the bed.
"What does that mean?" Gale asked.
"I'm not quite sure," Mr. Bristle admitted, "but remember it. That," he said pointing at the gem now lying on the bed, "is called the Fortune Stone, for it always tells you the answer to any question you ask, and if you can figure out its answers, you can obtain anything you want. However, if it is anything like the other gem, then you have to be a wizard to make heads or tails out of what it tries to tell you."
Gale heard the words and with excitement blazing behind her eyes, she rushed forward and pressed the gem to her lips and said, "how do we get home?"
Again the stone warmed up, vibrated, and floated out of the child's hand, but all it said was "Seek not the answers you already know, but find the questions you did not know existed."
"Well that's stupid," Gale said, and then added, "if that old walrus wants this stone, he can have it, as long as I get home." Then she went and stared out of the one window the room had.
"Thanks for letting me know why Mr. Morgan wants this," Samantha said, picking up the Fortune Stone and tucking it away. "I promise we will follow your plan, now if you will excuse us."
"Of course," the hedgehog said and turned around carefully (so his spines would not knock anything off the shelves) and then he left Samantha and Gale, who both sat looking out over the frozen waste of the ocean that had trapped nearly the whole of the city in ice.
Over the next week the oddest assortment of beings that either of the girls could imagine tramped in and out of the Morgan and Wells store. They were all interviewed by Mr. Bristle, and a list was compiled. About a third of the original group came back, and then words like "contract" and "services rendered" started floating around. Neither Samantha nor Gale quite understood the percentages and rights exchanged, but Mr. Bristle seemed very pleased with the results. Still, the diminutive hedgehog consulted the stone as often as he could; Samantha was even forced to lend it to him for a full six hours while he sought out how best to get everything Samantha and Gale's expedition needed from Mr. Morgan.
Finally, after they had been cooped up in the store for ten days, Samantha, Gale, and Mr. Bristle met with Mr. Morgan in his office, which was dim, smoke filled, and covered in a thick red carpet. It took most of the day, and several shouting matches between Mr. Bristle and Mr. Morgan, but in the end, a deal was reached and a contract was drawn up. The girls signed their names, and Mr. Morgan signed his and then said around his two massive tusks, "You three drive a hard bargain. Particularly you, Mr. Bristle, but I must say," and he began stroking his massive mustache, "That said, I do hope you succeed, and if you do, please consider me first when selling the carcass. I will give you a most handsome price indeed."
The girls thanked him and then left his office, which they felt was stuffy. Samantha still had the stone in her possession, as Mr. Bristle had insisted that it not be turned over until just before the expedition got underway, not happen for another four weeks. But from that day forth, the girls were kept very busy. First tailors came and fitted them for new clothing, boots, gloves, and hats. It was all fur-lined and double stitched. Meanwhile the six guards that Mr. Bristle had selected each began to teach the girls different skills. They spent hours learning how to put up their tent, how to start a fire in a high wind, how to spot the North Star (which Samantha was relieved to find still rested in the handle of a constellation that looked like the Big Dipper), how to safely light a lantern and refill it with oil, and much to Gale's delight and Samantha's dismay, how to shoot little derringer pistols. This last activity Mr. Bristle had objected to, but the guard that gave the girls the pistols--a hulking brute that looked like a rhino; had embedded the head of a javalin into his horn; only wore loose fitting pants, a fez, and golden earrings; and that only answered to the name of Ahmed--said, "It is better that they have them. I will see they know how to use them safely." Then he lowered his head until the point of the javelin that was stuck in his horn was hovering just an inch away from the hedgehog's face, and added, "Unless you think it unwise." Samantha thought Mr. Bristle's spines were going to fall out, and when he did not object, it was settled.
The other guards were not quite as imposing as Ahmed, but there were two, the Colt brothers, who looked like horses and had an amiable and jovial way about them. Another, Mr. Murry, who looked like a basset hound, was coming along because of his sense of smell; Mr. Fang, who looked like a panda bear and never spoke around the piece of bamboo that he was constantly chewing like a toothpick; and finally, another huge creature, Motley, who like all the rest, was shaped like a man, but was in all other respects a moose. Samantha was sure that Motley was not his real name, but as his fur always looked a little mangy and unkempt, everyone just called him that.
So it was that a month later, with everyone weighted down with as much as they could carry and Samantha and Gale ridding an animal that looked like a cross between a yak and a double-humped camel, they finally set off to face the Ogin. Mr. Bristle was with the girls, which, unbeknownst to the girls, had more to do with Ahmed again encouraging him than any innate desire on his part to accompany them up the mountain.
Still, for the first few days, all went well. They crossed the last of the frozen sea with no troubles. After that, they began to ascend using narrow passes where they had to walk single file. Higher and higher they went, and both the girls thanked the heavens for their warm clothing as they spent all day watching streams of steam come out the noses of their companions.
It happened two weeks after they left Zamrazenigrad. One morning they woke up and Mr. Murry was gone. He had taken the guard shift in the middle of the night, but never raised the alarm. When it was Ahmed's turn to relieve him, two hours before sunup, he searched and searched, but found nothing. Ahmed had immediately woken everyone, and they built a huge bonfire, trying to see into the inky blackness, but to no avail. Once the sun came up, they spent hours combing every pass and crevice that was nearby, but it was as if Mr. Murry had simply vanished into thin air.
Eventually, when everyone admitted there was no reason to stay, the group pressed on. Over the next four days, nothing happened, and some of the tension that had taken hold, began to slip away. Mr. Fang even ventured his opinion on what became of Mr. Murry by saying, "A coward. That's what he was, which is why we didn't find anything. He just ran off." Whether that was true or not did not matter, it made people feel like they were in less danger, and even Gale said, "I bet he was a big scaredy pants."
But that night, both the girls had the same dream. In it they were in a palace. It was like something out of a fairytale. It sat at the top of the Great Ice Mountain, had great domed spires for a roof and all around it, huge shards of ice broke through the ground like the carelessly discarded swords of a giant. The building had room after room full of treasure and riches, and both the girls were delighted by the the floors. Each room had a different wooded floor that was laid out in a unique pattern that never repeated anywhere else in the palace. Some rooms had ceilings made of gold. Others were made of silver. Still others had black wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl to create the effect of a starry night. But then, somewhere in the depths of the palace, there came a growl.
It was a growl unlike anything either of the girls had ever heard. It sounded like the rumble of a diesel engine mixed with the squeak of an old door hinge and a kind of cascading laughter. It made the hair on the back of both girls' necks stand on end. Then they saw it.
The eyes literally burned with the same blue flames as on a blow torch. The thing was about twice as long as a suburban, and just as tall. Thick, knotted muscles were bunched under the skin which was pulled so tight that in a few places it had split, and more blue fire danced out of the cracks. It looked mostly like a great lion, but with the fur of a wolf. In addition, it wore black plate armor embossed with strange glyphs. On its back was a rider that was just as huge as the beast he was astride. He carried a massive club over his shoulder, and a banner decorated with more of the strange glyphs fluttered off the cudgel's weighted end. The riders fingertips also looked to be made of flames, but the rest of him was covered, and it was impossible to make out his age or anything else.
The rider pointed, and suddenly Ahmed's rumbling voice cut into their dreams. "Wake up! Wake up!" The huge rhino shouted, the moonlight glinting of the spearhead embedded in his horn. "The Colt brothers are gone."
"Both of them?" Gale said, the alarm evident in her voice. In response, Ahmed simply nodded.
"But where did they go?" Samantha asked.
"I do not know," Ahmed said, and there was a slight quaver in his voice that made both Gale and Samantha's stomachs fall through their feet. "They have vanished liked Mr. Murry, but we found this" and the massive rhino held up the revolvers the brothers always carried on their hips.
"They wouldn't have left without those," Samantha said.
"I know." Ahmed replied. But I heard something this time. It was like something growling, but I have never heard a thing like it before." Then before anything else happened the light in the tent shifted as in the distance a huge spout of blue flames erupted into the night.