It was a dark day. Clouds hung low over the hills. The air was wet, and the wind blew. Haley stood on the steps behind her father's big, old house. The wind pushed the wet air against her face. Down in the garden, Alice was digging in the dirt again with her blue shovel, digging as she had done for months.
"A gusty wet day today," Haley's father said from behind her. "What's that Alice doing?"
"She's digging for centipedes," Haley said.
"Centipedes?" he said.
Her father shook his head. Haley knew what he was thinking. He was thinking, "That Alice is crazy."
But was she really? You never knew what Alice was thinking. People joked about her being crazy, but she had her own plans. It might be, it just might be, that Alice was up to something.
"Good for Alice," her father said, and went inside.
Haley pulled her raincoat close around her and sat on the steps. She re-tied the laces her boots. The boots were new and black. She had polished them that morning.
Alice was down there with her yellow raincoat, getting dirt all over her trousers. Under the dirt, the trousers were purple with little flowers on them, but because of the dirt, you could not see the flowers any more.
"Alice, are you cold?"
Alice did not look up. Instead, she put down her shovel and lifted a stone. She looked underneath the stone and put it down again. She picked up her shovel and walked further down the garden. She found another place, and started digging again.
Haley knew that if she asked to help Alice, Alice would say "I find my centipede," and keep looking. Haley might help her, but Haley did not want to find a centipede. Haley liked bugs, but digging in the rain for centipedes did not seem like fun to her. Watching Alice digging in the dirt looking for centipedes, however, was fun. It was like going to see a play, only you did not have to keep listening to the words the actors were saying because you already knew what was happening. Alice might find a centipede at any time, and when she found it, what would she do? That was the question to which Haley very much wanted to find the answer. Would Alice step on the centipede? Would she pick it up and put it in her mouth, like she put a crab in her mouth when they were at the seaside? Or would she just watch it running around and shout at it?
Thirty minutes passed. Haley began to get cold. She was thinking about going inside. Alice pushed over a small log. The log was old and rotten. It was on the edge of a patch of trees in their garden. When Alice turned the log over, it fell apart. She looked at the log pieces for a moment, and shouted.
Haley jumped up and ran towards her.
Alice took a long, thin jar out of her coat pocket and flicked something in the air with her shovel, something that looked like a tiny stick. Whatever it was, Alice caught it in her jar. She took a lid out of her pocket, and screwed it down tightly. Then, with the jar held firmly in her hand, she turned and began running through the trees, away from the house, leaving her blue shovel in the dirt behind her.
Alice had found her centipede, Haley was certain of it. Haley ran after her. Haley knew she could run faster than Alice, so she let Alice stay ahead of her, about a hundred steps ahead.
Alice never looked back, she just kept running, her yellow boots going up and down, her yellow raincoat flapping, and her arms going in and out. In her hand she held the jar. Whatever was in the jar was being shaken around. If it was a centipede, Haley felt sorry for it.
On and on Alice ran, until she came to the edge of the garden. There was no fence, but there were some big rocks on the ground that marked the edge. Alice ran between them without slowing down, and started going up towards Rocky Hill. Haley followed. She was getting tired, but she knew that she could run farther than Alice, so she would not be left behind.
As the two sisters ran on, one behind the other, the sharp, stony slopes of the hill rose above them, dark and wet beneath the clouds. Where was Alice going?
Up the hill Alice ran, around a tall rock that Haley remembered from a walk with Alice on another day, a happy sunny day. On that day, Alice had said that the rock looked like an old giant with trees growing on his head, sitting down on the ground and looking for bugs. Today, Alice did not say anything. She ran around the edge of the tall rock, and onto a walking path. Haley remembered the walking path, and she knew where it went. Suddenly, she was frightened.
Haley knew that the path went to the home of a creature. Haley had met the creature once, with her father, when they had first moved to the house where they now lived. At that time, she was only two years old. She could not remember what the creature looked like, but she remembered that he spoke in a deep voice like a man, and she remembered being so frightened of him that she had hidden behind her father's legs, shivering, and holding on to his trousers until he and the creature had finished their conversation and the creature had gone away. After that, her father had picked her up, and she had held him tight.
"Don't be frightened of him," her father had said, "He would never hurt you, do you understand? He is someone you can trust. All of his kind you can trust. They would never hurt a child."
"What if I get big?"
"Then you will know how to speak to him politely, and he will be your friend."
When Haley and Alice went on walks together, Haley never allowed them to go near the creature's house. She had never even seen his house, even though she knew where it was. But now, in front of her, Alice was on the path, running there as fast as she could.
Although Haley did not remember the creature's face, she did remember his name. It was a long name, and she was frightened even to say it. The creature's name was Dreadmanifold.
"I must stop her," Haley thought, "That creature might be friendly when he's talking to my father, but when we are on our own here, who knows what he will do. He might put us in a pot and cook us."
Haley ran as fast as she could. She did not know how far it was to Dreadmanifold's house, because, as I have said, she had never been all the way up the path before, but she thought it was far enough that she could catch up with Alice before Alice reached the door.
But Haley was wrong. The house was closer than she thought. She ran around a corner, and there was Alice, standing in front of a steep wall of rock. The wall of rock was part of Rocky Hill. There was a big door in the bottom of the wall, and this door was open. Beyond the door was a dark passage. Outside the door, sitting on a big wooden chair in the rain was the creature, and Alice was speaking to him.
Haley stood still for a moment. Now that she saw him again, she remembered him. He looked at her. She was only twenty steps away from him. He had the shape of a man, but he was bigger, much bigger than any man she had ever seen. His face looked like the face of an orc, except his skin was black. Most orcs have hair like we do, but this creature had no hair, none at all. He had no hair on his head, he had no eyebrows, he had no eye lashes. From the front of his mouth, two bright white tusks curved upwards towards his cheeks. His eyes were red, like those of some of the orcs Haley had seen, and instead of black circles in them like we have, his eyes had black slits, like the eyes of a cat. The muscles on his arms were huge with sharp edges. Dreadmanifold, Haley now realized, was what people called a black-orc.
Dreadmanifold's clothes were not as frightening as his face and body. In fact, his clothes seemed rather cheerful as he sat in his chair with the gray cliff behind him and the gray clouds above him. He wore a red, short-sleeved shirt and bright green trousers. On his feet he wore sandals.
Alice looked at Haley and waved to her.
"That's my sister," she said to Dreadmanifold.
Dreadmanifold smiled at Haley, and stood up. He was three times as tall has Alice.
"Haleyhashemi, is that right? I am Dreadmanifold, perhaps you remember me. We met in your garden with your father."
His voice was deep and slow, and her name sounded strange when he said it, but she could understand him. What should she do? Her father said Dreadmanifold was a friend. If so, then it would be rude of her not to say hello.
"Hello," she said.
He sat down, and put his hand on Alice's head. His hand was so big that if he had wrapped his fingers around Alice's head, his fingers would reach down to her neck. As for his fingers: they had claws. They were not long, but they were definitely claws, and not nails like we have. His claws were black, like his skin.
Alice held up her jar so Dreadmanifold could see it. He lifted his hand off her head and took the jar between two of his fingers.
"Ah," he said, and he smiled. For a moment, Haley saw rows of large, sharp, white teeth in his mouth. "You have brought me a centipede. Well done. I thought you had forgotten our bargain."
"I not forget," Alice said.
Dreadmanifold looked at the centipede. "A big one, too. Excellent."
If Haley had been on her own, she would have run home. But if Dreadmanifold was dangerous, she could not leave Alice alone with him, so she had to stay. But perhaps she could make Alice come away.
"Alice, come home," she said.
Alice ignored her.
Dreadmanifold looked at Haley for a moment, and said, "Your sister has brought me a centipede, and I promised to give her something in return. I will go and get it, and then you can leave."
He turned and walked through the door in the base of the cliff. He disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel beyond. As soon as he was gone, Haley ran up to Alice and took her hand. Alice was smiling.
"Come on!" Haley said, and tried to pull Alice away.
"No!" Alice said, and sat down on the ground, "I want my stick."
"My magic stick."
"Come on, Alice, he might eat us."
Alice laughed. "No! He's my friend."
She nodded. "Yes, my friend."
Dreadmanifold came out of the doorway again. He stood above Haley and looked down at her. She looked up at his white tusks and his red eyes. She was so frightened that she bit her lip, but she did not run away. She could not leave her sister.
"You are frightened of me, aren't you Haleyhashemi," Dreadmanifold said.
Haley nodded. She held Alice's hand.
"You are a brave girl."
He turned to Alice, and gave her a stone about the size of an egg. Alice held it in her hand and jumped up and down, laughing.
"Be good with it, Alice, or your father will be upset with me for giving it to you. But have fun with it, too."
Alice waved her hand around in front of her, as if she was waving a stick in the air.
"Ouch," she said, and rubbed her head. "Haley, I have a magic stick."
"Come on, Alice, let's go," Haley said.
"Yes, you should go," Dreadmanifold said, "Your sister is not happy here."
"No!" Alice said, "I want to see your house!"
"That was not part of the bargain, and I do not let people into my house unless they ask politely."
"Please can I see your house?"
"Not today, Alice."
Haley pulled Alice's arm, and Alice came with her. They started to run back down the path, but then Haley stopped, and called out to Dreadmanifold.
"Goodbye, Mr. Dreadmanifold."
"Goodbye, Haleyhashemi, I look forward to meeting you again."
"Thank you for my magic stick," Alice said.
"You are welcome, thank you for the centipede, I will put him in my collection, and you can see him and my other bugs when you come and visit another day."
"Okay," Alice said, and then she had to run, because Haley was pulling her. They ran all the way down the hill, until they were close to their garden, and then Alice sat down on the ground.
"I'm tired from running," she said.
"Okay, we can rest here," Haley said.
"I have a magic stick," Alice said.
"No you don't, he gave you a rock."
Alice moved her hand, and Haley felt something hard hit her on the head.
"What was that?"
"My magic stick."
Alice would not let go of the little stone she held in her hand, but when Haley felt in front of the stone, she found that there was something in front of Alice's hand, something that she could feel, but that she could not see. She felt along whatever it was, and discovered that it was as long as her arm, and as thick as three of her fingers put together. It felt as hard as wood, but it was not heavy at all. The magic stick was not made of glass. It was made of something else, something magical, and she could see through it just like she could see through the air all around her.
"Wow," Haley said, "An invisible rod."
"My magic stick," Alice said, "I gave him my centipede, and he gave me a magic stick."
"He collects bugs?"
"He has hundreds of bugs in boxes, all dead with pins in them."
"They like it."
"No they don't," Haley said, "Bugs don't like to be dead."
Alice rolled her eyes, tilted her head around, and made a funny face. "I like to be in a bug collection."
Haley laughed. "Alice, you're crazy."
"I have a magic stick!"
"Why didn't you tell me you that you were friends with Dreadmanifold, and that you were looking for a centipede so that he would give you an invisible rod?"
Alice looked at Haley. "You never asked me."