Iola Pennybreaker regretted the day-glo spandex almost more than she regretted the leg warmers, one of which kept falling down into a soggy glob around her ankle. Then again, when she’d donned the 80s outfit, she hadn’t exactly planned to go trotting around in a berry patch. She came up with the outfit when she’d heard about a Halloween party in Assjacket…
Now she’d just be happy to find Assjacket. The logical solution was to just magic herself out of there—broom or not, she’d been a great master of poofing herself for longer than she could remember—but for some reason, her magic was misfiring.
Her shoulder length silver hair—spray painted with temporary color and enough hairspray to make a crop circle stay in place—kept getting in her face, sticking to her skin because of the stupid fog and the stupider sprays. To say she was beyond frustrated was an understatement of overwhelming proportion, and that was before she spotted the castle.
It could be that the townsfolk of Assjacket went above and beyond for their costume party, crafting a really realistic castle for the purpose of setting. Somehow… she doubted it.
“Ah hells, this is Dad’s bullshit, isn’t it?” she asked the raven on her shoulder. The animal belted out an unhelpful caw, and she glared at him. “Oh, now you shut up?”
Her familiar had plenty to say about the weird message from her father earlier in the night. But Iola hadn’t wanted to hear it. She had a party to go to, and the last thing she needed was to get wrapped up in another one of her father’s disasters of epic proportion, as she liked to think of them.
“I said I wasn’t going to get him out of this scrape, if you remember correctly,” she reminded the raven.
Cock-Knock, as she’d lovingly renamed her raven familiar, didn’t answer. Instead, the frustrating animal picked at his feathers from his perch on her shoulder.
“When I said it, I meant it,” Iola reiterated as she climbed the sweeping stone stair to what looked like the front gate to the castle.
Cock-Knock rapped his beak against her head, taking wing before she could flick him back. “I can still smite you,” she warned him, wiggling her fingertips in a threatening way. The bird didn’t appear worried by her threat, cawing at her in laughter. Probably he knew she wouldn’t risk hurting him, even if he had annoyed her, because her magic simply wasn’t behaving as it should be. Who knew what one little zap would do, under the circumstances?
The castle appeared abandoned, dust coating just about every visible surface. But there, on the central staircase, she could just spot a shuffle in the dust. Although it could be from some random animal, she tended to assume that it was from her father. Jack Pennybreaker, her dad, sent her a message via his own familiar crow earlier that day. The scrawled message simply read, “Being held prisoner. Need help. Come quick! I think you can get me out!”
He hadn’t said it was in a castle, but then again…
“It was the damn cookie scented tornado,” Iola bitched aloud. The sheer emptiness of the castle was kind of creeping her out. “I think I was close to the party, not that I know my way around Buttsweater, West Virginia—”
“Assjacket,” her crow corrected.
With a flick of her finger, she let Cock-Knock know what she thought of his correction. “Whatever. I think I was close until that weird wind thing sucked us up and dropped us into the fog.”
Cock-Knock settled back to her shoulder as she climbed a second flight of stairs. “How do you know this has a thing to do with the letter from Jack?” he asked.
With a puff of breath, Iola blew her bangs out of her face. They moved as one solid chunk, the hairspray still keeping them well-glued together. “Isn’t everything weird in our life something to do with Jack? And with that letter earlier…”
“I agree, for what it’s worth,” Cock-Knock muttered. “It probably is related to the letter from Jack. You’d think he could’ve mentioned he was trapped in a castle.”
“An enchanted castle,” another voice corrected.
Iola slammed to a stop, sharing a glance with Cock-Knock. “Who said that?” she asked her familiar.
“I did,” the voice answered.
Scanning the long hallway lined in suits of armor, Iola squinted. “Are you in one of these suits of armor?”
“No, the painting,” the voice supplied. “Over here.”
A few steps later, Iola spotted the painting in question. “Uh, hello,” she said.
The figure in the painting swept an impressively low bow. “Milady,” he said. He had a long moustache, and it twitched when he spoke. “As I was saying, it isn’t just a castle. It’s an enchanted castle.”
Before Iola could formulate a response, a loud roar from somewhere in the castle rattled the window panes and seemed to shake the very ground under her feet.
“I’m out,” Cock-Knock said unhelpfully, taking wing and heading back toward the door.
Planting her feet, Iola turned in the direction of the roar and worked up the enthusiasm to head that way. If there was one thing her years on this earth taught her, it was that her father was excellent at finding trouble. Whatever made that monstrous noise was big, likely scary, and it screamed trouble with a capital T.
Which meant if she followed the sound, she’d surely find Jack.
* * *
The Beast hadn’t expected company. Then again, he’d had a few people randomly stop in over the years of his curse. He’d even tried to follow one or two as they made their way back out into the fog...
Some of his unexpected visitors might have been a little scared, since being chased by a Beast while you ran screaming through mysterious fog likely wasn’t a pleasant experience, but that wasn’t really Beast’s problem.
His problem was the whole getting out of the fog thing. Although his drop in guests seemed to navigate the mists without problems, he just ended up back at the damn front gate. If he ever got his hands—claws?—on that old woman witch, he’d...
Well, he had come up with a long list of creative things he’d like to do to her. When given an endless amount of time to do nothing more than obsess over how to pour vengeance on the witch who cursed him to a personal hell, he found he could get quite inventive.
But back to his current problem—the oily little man currently bitching from the other side of the cell door. “Why are you smiling?” he asked his prisoner.
Perhaps it wasn’t right to take the man captive, but the guy was a real class A jerk. He’d wandered into the castle like many others had over the years. The castle took a liking to him, offering him a banquet of food and other creature comforts before the Beast even realized he had company. By the time Beast did notice him, the guy was stuffing his pockets with trinkets out of one of the guest bedrooms.
What kind of person even did that? When offered hospitality, this guy tried to rob his host blind.
Then, when Beast had growled at him and ordered him to leave, he’d tried to steal that stupid enchanted rose the witch left behind to mark the time of the curse. His excuse? He planned to give it to his daughter.
Beast didn’t buy it. The man was a thief and a liar, so he figured he’d teach the guy a little lesson.
In a cell. Until he decided to let him go. Which could be a really long time, since it wasn’t like Beast had anything better to do than punish him.
But now the evil little man leaned on the bars, grinning his stupid face off. “My daughter is going to come and rescue me,” the man explained.
The Beast roared in laughter. “You’re hoping some girl is going to find my castle, then find you, then rescue you? From me?”
The Beast was over seven feet tall. He had claws the size of shot glasses and teeth like a sabre tooth lion. And this man hoped some female would rescue him? Aside from the kind of bravery said female would need, she’d first have to find the enchanted castle that no one could find because that damn witch hid him and it somehow...
He really hated witches.
“She’s clever, my Iola. I’m sure she’ll rescue me,” the man said with surety.
Beast rolled his eyes. If this guy’s daughter managed to find him—doubtful—and made it far enough to find the Beast, she’d run screaming into the night and never be seen or heard from again... But, whatever, this guy could have his pipe dream if he wanted.
“Sir, someone is coming,” the rug warned him.
The enchanted rug would know, as it was a runner and trailed the whole way down the hall. Beast turned, a bit surprised. Although the occasional random stranger wandered onto his lands, he couldn’t recall a time when he’d had more than one unexpected guest at a time.
In seconds, a woman came striding down the hall. Her hair was the first thing the Beast really noticed—teased far out from her head, it was like a downy but solid helmet of rainbow colored fluff around the pale oval of her face. She was a slender little thing, with curves in all the right places, and she wore some god-awful hot pink spandex pants which practically lit the way as she stormed right past him to face the iron bars holding the oily little man.
“Dad,” she began.
The oily man smiled beatifically. “I knew you’d come, Iola. This Beast has me captured and won’t let me free. You’ve gotta help me!”
Beast rolled his eyes again. Somehow, who the hell knew how, the evil little thief and liar of a man was right. His daughter had come to rescue him. “Look,” Beast began, prepared to explain to her why he’d locked up her dad.
“Uh, no, dude. Just no. I’m not here to rescue you. I was headed to a party.” The poofy haired woman gestured at her bizarre clothes in frustration.
“I sent you a message,” the man said.
“Yeah, don’t care,” Iola explained. “You’re constantly doing stupid stuff and expecting me to fix it. I’m not your parent; I’m your daughter. I’m not sure when we had this role reversal that made you think you could come to me for your problems, but just hellfuckno. Not my problem. You got yourself into this; you can get yourself out of it, too.”
The girl turned, still ignoring Beast, and lifted her arm. A crow or raven came and perched on the offered arm. Although the woman seemed determined to ignore him, the bird stared at Beast with an uncanny awareness. Right about then was when Beast noticed the sparking around the woman’s fingertips.
All of his fascination with the woman vanished as quick as he could think bibbity-bobbity-no-freakin-way. “Wait, you’re a witch?” the Beast asked. Before she could answer, he added, “Get out of my castle.”
If there was one thing he hated, it was witches. Especially ones who might curse a guy for something stupid... like eating a candy house.