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“Well?” The fierce predator blinked repeatedly, her flaming eyes flashing off and on in the dark. It was an intimidating effect she had perfected over the years to capture the attention of many broods of squabbling owlets.
The two tiny gastropods embracing in her nest pulled apart with a slight sucking sound. The larger one addressed her with a polite bow.
“Please accept our sincere apologies for dropping into your inviting… uh, Xanadu, uninvited. You see, we have just escaped the clutches of a deranged evangelist, and must have taken a wrong turn in our haste. We are the unwitting victims of gravity.”
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“Plummeting is not an altogether unpleasant sensation,” Elliot thought as they fell into the chilly night. “If I didn’t know how it has to end, I might be enjoying it.” He was beyond panic, and the sight of Cassandra tumbling beside him left him feeling only regret.
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“Please allow me to introduce you to a few Members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Mansion. They are here to collect your Donation.”
Scritchy-scratchy tiptoes scraped from every crack and crevice as tiny green versions of the large orange stranger closed in on Elliot in a creeping, tightening circle. He swiveled his eye stalks wildly searching for Cassandra. He didn’t find her. She must have escaped, he thought. I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to her! But he kept looking. He needed to be sure.
The stranger stepped up onto a rocky outcrop against the far granite wall beneath a sheltering overhang, and observed the scene with a look of beneficence.
“Little Brothers!” he called, “The Great Spirit Man’Tis, Granter of Prayers, is well pleased with the Work you have done so far. Now, in answer to our Prayers, he brings us yet another Gift — a fine, if smallish, Donation of Construction Materials! This Child of the World, heavy with the World’s Burdens, has come here of his own Free Will. It is your Job to relieve him of the Weight he bears and transfer it to our Hallowed Hill of Shells.”
“Wait!” Elliot yelled. “I’m not giving you my home!”
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“There’s something I must do before we leave,” Cassandra announced. “Would you mind making one stop?”
“Of course not! Just tell me which direction to go.” Elliot couldn’t believe his recent trials had led him here. There was no way he was going to mess this up.
“Just beyond the mossy knoll, and then behind the fern, you’ll see a tall stalk not quite ready to bloom. That’s where we have to go. I need to say goodbye to my mother.”
Elliot was glad Cassandra couldn’t see his face; his smile had disappeared as he bit his lips, nervous about what her mother might say. Would she think he was a cad and a bounder? Would she try to talk her daughter out of going with him? Would she take away his one chance for love? Would she ruin his life?
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Deep in the underbrush, Elliot finally stopped to rest. Sweat dripped from his eye stalks down the back of his neck, trickling under the front edge of his shell. “Great,” he muttered, “now I’ll get an itchy salt rash, and I won’t even be able to scratch it.”
An exotically accented, soft female voice emerged from the undergrowth ahead. “It is soundink to me as if you are needink a friend — a vife, perhaps.”
Curious, Elliot stretched his neck toward the sweet sound. “Who’s there?” he asked hopefully.
But when the leaves parted, Elliot’s eyes bulged in terror.