Eric couldn't figure out why he'd been summoned to the principal's office. As far as he knew he hadn't done anything wrong. So maybe it was a good thing. Some kind of award or something. But he couldn't think of anything he'd done to deserve an award, either. In fact, as far as he could remember he hadn't done anything worthy of any kind of notice. Ever.
Things got even more mysterious when he got to the office and, without a word, the principal herded him and three other kids into a station wagon. Two of them he recognized. One was Mike, the seventh-grade class president and the most popular kid in school. He was good at sports and most of the girls seemed to find him attractive. He was tall, too, almost a foot taller than Eric, at least five-foot-six or so. The other was Tiffany, who was the head cheerleader even though she was also only in seventh grade. She was blonde and pretty and had a figure and everything. Just about every boy in school had a crush on her, and Eric was no exception. He'd never talked to her, though, or even seen her this close up. As for the third kid, Eric didn't recognize her but he knew the type. She was all muscular and had freckles sprinkled across her cheeks and had hair the color of straw and just as coarse, chopped about an inch above her shoulders. She looked like every girl who had ever beaten him up in elementary school.
"So what's the story here?" Mike asked. "Are we being sacrificed to the volcano god or something?"
The principal didn't say anything, just kept on driving. Pretty soon Eric couldn't figure out where he was. None of the streets looked familiar. "Guess so," Mike said.
"Everything will be explained when we get there," the principal said.
"There" turned out to be a low-lying office building, tucked away behind some hills. It looked unassuming enough but as they drove around looking for a place to park Eric realized that it was really quite sprawling. Finally they found a spot and the principal escorted them inside and into a waiting room. "Have a seat," the principal said. "Someone will be with you in a moment." Then he left.
"But I just had a check-up three weeks ago," Mike said.
Eric had to smile. Usually these popular guys turned out to be jerks, but Mike at least seemed to have a sense of humor. Tiffany went over to the magazine rack and started flipping through an issue of PEOPLE.
"So do any of you know what this is all about?" asked the unfamiliar girl. "I just got this summons and suddenly, bang, into the station wagon."
"Who cares?" Tiffany asked. "As long as we get out of class."
The door to the back office opened and a man in a long white coat came out. He had the kind of face that looked like it belonged on a Roman coin. "So you're the kids Principal McVicker sent over, eh?" he said.
"Nah," Mike said. "We're just here 'cause it's the happening place to hang out."
The man looked confused for a second but then got the joke. "Ah, ha ha. Come on back. I'm Dr. Sleator. I'll explain everything in a moment."
He led them back into what looked like some kind of lab. Waiting there was yet another kid, and suddenly Eric remembered where he'd heard the name "Sleator" before. Kondracke Sleator was the smartest kid in seventh grade, probably in the whole school. He had thick horn-rimmed glasses and an overbite and pretty much fit the classic nerd stereotype. "I believe you know my son Kondracke," Dr. Sleator said.
"Greetings and salutations," Kondracke said.
"Yeah, whatever," Mike said. "So what's the deal? Is this like an episode of 'This is Your Life' or what?"
"Not exactly," Dr. Sleator said. "Let me explain.
"This facility is dedicated to dimensional field research. This branch of it, at any rate. The main facility is divided up into two main branches with five sub-branches apiece, and—" He paused. "It's not important. Let me cut to the chase, as it were. Two days ago we isolated a rupture in the interdimensional field. A portal to another dimension."
"I haven't heard anything about it," said the unfamiliar girl.
"Of course not," Dr. Sleator said. "It's very hush-hush. We have to prepare a report before we can present our findings to the press. Can you imagine if we just went blurting things out? We'd have every reporter in the country swarming around here."
"Yeah, we're all real impressed," Mike said. "So why are you telling us?"
"I was getting to that," Dr. Sleator said. "Last night my partner, Dr. Grimes, fell asleep while taking some readings. When his wife came to pick him up, she brought their six-year-old son, and... he, uh, fell in."
"Fell in?" the unfamiliar girl said. "That's ridiculous. Didn't you take any precautions or—"
"We didn't know he could fall in!" Dr. Sleator protested. "We were intermittently able to look into the other dimension, but we were never able to physically penetrate it. We thought it was perfectly safe." He coughed. "Anyway, standard procedure would be to seal the breach as soon as it was determined to be potentially dangerous. Even with the boy on the other side. But this is my partner's son — you understand the situation."
"Not really," Mike said. "I mean, where do we fit in? What do a bunch of junior-high kids have to do with this whole 'dimensional' thing?"
Dr. Sleator started to say something, but then checked himself. "Perhaps I should just show you," he said. He walked over to a closet and pulled out a tennis ball and bunch of uniforms. "Here, put these on."
"What are these things?" Tiffany asked.
"Radiation suits," Dr. Sleator said. "When the boy fell in, the rupture started emitting increasing levels of radiation. We had to seal it off. Now you have to be fully protected before you can approach it." He gestured toward an empty room. "You can change in there."
So Eric found a suit that looked like it would fit him and waited in line to get into the changing room. He was last. It fit like a sort of wetsuit, covering his entire body. There was also a helmet that was all big and bulky, but even after he put it on he could still see and hear perfectly. Cool, he thought.
Once he was done changing Dr. Sleator led them all out of the office and up to a big metal door with a guard posted in front of it. Dr. Sleator and the guard had to turn a pair of keys simultaneously in order to open it. Then they went inside and closed the door behind them.
The breach wasn't quite what Eric was expecting. It looked like just a little oval hole in the back wall, maybe eight feet long from top to bottom and four feet wide at its widest point. Through the breach he could see a grassy meadow with a stream running through it and a forest off on the right side.
"Now watch," Dr. Sleator said. He walked up to the rupture and tried to stick his hand into it. It didn't work. It stopped him just like a wall. He took the tennis ball he taken from the closet and threw it at the rupture. It bounced back and rolled to the back of the chamber.
"Now watch what happens when Kondracke tries," he said. "Go ahead, son." Kondracke walked up the breach and stuck his hand through like there was nothing there. He pulled out his hand and tried a foot. That went through just as easily.
"It seems to have something to do with age," Dr. Sleator said, "though I admit I have absolutely no idea how that's possible. But the fact remains that children can get through the breach, and adults can't."
"So you need us to rescue little Timmy, right?" Mike asked.
"Exactly," Dr. Sleator said. "Kondracke has already been through and back a number of times, so we know it's safe. But he can't find the boy by himself. I explained the situation to Principal McVicker at his school and he picked the four of you to accompany Kondracke in trying to find Dr. Grimes's son — whose name, by the way, is in fact Timmy. Together, the five of you possess a range of different talents and qualities: we weren't sure which would come in useful in your search."
"Oh, I get it," Mike said. "Like, Kondracke's got like an eight-digit GPA, and Tiffany's a babe, and Jamie — you're Jamie Hunter, right? — is the captain of the softball team and the girls' soccer team and all, and—" He turned to Eric. "Who are you, anyway?"
"I'm Eric," Eric said.
"Oh," Mike said. "What do you do?"
"I'm not sure," Eric said.
"Whatever," Mike said. "So when are we supposed to do this?"
"Right now, if possible," Dr. Sleator said. "We know it's safe on the other side, but we still need to get Timmy out as soon as possible. He could starve or injure himself."
"I don't know about this," Jamie said.
"Aw, come on," Mike said. "If the doc says it's okay, it's okay. We'll be in the papers and everything."
"Plus you'll receive a large financial reward," Dr. Sleator added.
"Really?" Tiffany said. "Cool!"
"I say we do it," Mike said.
"What about our parents?" Jamie asked. "You can't just drag us out of school and ship us off to another dimension just like that. We're minors. You'd have to have our moms and dads fill out about a million forms and—"
"Your parents have already been notified," Dr. Sleator said. "I personally contacted all of your parents and secured the proper clearance from each of them."
"You talked to my dad?" Tiffany said. "I didn't think they even had phones at the commune."
"Yes, well, we sent a telegram," Dr. Sleator said. "It's all been taken care of."
"So let's go," Mike said. "Time's a-wasting."
"I'm not going," Jamie said. "You can't make me."
"True," Dr. Sleator said. "The decision is yours." He checked his watch. "Of course, now I'll have to go about finding a replacement and do another background check and secure the proper clearances again and by the time I do all that Timmy could be—"
"Okay, okay, I'll go," Jamie said. "But if anything weird happens I'm coming straight back."
And with that the five of them ventured forth into the breach
and were transformed.
Mike was about ten years older and a foot taller. He had a beard and held an enormous double-headed axe that would've been far too heavy for him to lift if not for the fact that his body was suddenly a mass of bulging muscles. "Dude, instant steroids," he said.
Tiffany, too, looked to be in her early twenties. She had grown as well, in some places more than others. She was draped in silk and seemed to shine, even in the bright sunlight. "Like, this is totally unreal," she said.
Kondracke seemed to have aged fifty years in an instant. His hair was white and he'd suddenly grown a long white beard — you could barely tell it was the same person. He wore a long black robe with yellow stars and moons on it. He also wore a pointy hat with the same design on his head and pointy yellow shoes on his feet.
Jamie looked pretty much the same as she had when she'd stepped through the portal. The only difference was that instead of the radiation suit she was wearing a simple outfit with a chainmail vest. Attached to her belt was a scabbard, out of which she pulled a shining silver sword. She touched the blade with her finger. "Yowtch, sharp," she said.
And Eric — Eric felt mostly the same, except for a certain tingling in his ears. He felt them and sure enough, they were now very definitely pointy. He felt something heavy strapped to his back and was surprised to find a bow and a quiver of arrows. Unfortunately, he also seemed to have shrunk a couple of inches, and he'd been short to begin with.
"The first thing we do," Kondracke said, "is lose the stupid hat." He pulled off his pointy hat and drop-kicked it into the river.
"Where are we?" Tiffany asked.
"I think we should go back," Jamie said. They turned around: the portal was still there. They could see Dr. Sleator pacing around the sealed chamber, looking concerned.
"Funny how we can see him from here but we couldn't see here from there," Jamie said.
"What do you mean?" Eric asked.
"I mean how when we were standing in the chamber all we could see was whiteness," she said. "And now look: trees, grass, a stream. Weird."
"You couldn't see the meadow from the other side?" Eric asked.
"You could?" Mike asked.
"Sure," Eric said.
The other four all stared at him. Eric felt his ears growing hot. "That's impossible," Kondracke said. "I've been here before. It was never like this. It was always just whiteness."
"So when you looked through the hole you saw all this, huh?" Mike asked Eric. "You never saw just a white spot in the gray wall."
"No, never," Eric said. "Is that what you saw?"
"I think he's making it up," Tiffany said.
"Now who are you again?" Mike asked. "I mean, you must have some kind of talent or something for Principal McVicker to have picked you. Are you like a smart guy or what?"
"N-not really," Eric said. "B-minuses and C-pluses, mostly."
"So what do you do?" Jamie asked. "What are you interested in?"
"I don't know," Eric said. "Reading, I guess." That was a lie, of course. Reading was far more than just a guess. It was all he did. Every afternoon after he got home from school he'd head right for his room and grab whatever book he'd been reading and next thing he knew it was practically bedtime and he hadn't even started his homework, which explained the bad grades. Sometimes he'd even get up early in the morning and read for a couple of hours before school.
"So what do you read?" Jamie asked.
"Um, fantasy books mostly," Eric answered. "Swords and sorcerers and dragons and stuff."
Mike snapped his fingers. "That's it!" he said. "This place must be some kind of fantasy dimension! They must have found that out and got this guy who was like an expert!"
"I still think he's making it up," Tiffany said.
"So what are we going to do?" Jamie asked. "I think we should go back and tell them what we've found."
"Are you kidding?" Mike said. "We just got here. If we come back without Timmy old Doc there is gonna have a cow. A whole herd, probably." He looked around. There were no signs of civilization as far as the eyes could see. To the north, past the stream, was the forest; to the west were some hills. The sun hung fairly low in the sky: it was late afternoon. "I say we pick a direction and go with it," he said. "Let's go west." "Who put you in charge?" Tiffany asked.
"You all did, remember?" he said. "I'm class president."
"That doesn't make you leader," Tiffany said. "Fine," Mike said. "All in favor of making me leader say 'aye.'" Everyone said "aye" except for Tiffany. "Okay, then, who do you want to be leader?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said.
"Then it's decided," Mike said. "I say we go west. We already know there's nothing in all the other directions but we don't know what's over those hills."
"How are we going to get there?" Tiffany asked.
"Walk," Mike said.
"But that's miles," she complained.
"Aw, pobrecita," he said. "Come on, let's get going."
They walked for an hour before they reached the hills. The portal had shrunk to a little speck on the horizon. "It's still not too late to turn back," Jamie said.
"We're not turning back," Mike said. He stopped. "You know what we should do, though? We should mark our trail so we know how to get back."
"I've already been doing that," Jamie said.
"Really?" Kondracke asked. "How?"
"I had some change in my pocket," she said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of quarters. "I've been dropping some every fifty paces or so. I don't know how easy it'll be to find but it's all I could come up with."
"Change?" Mike said. "How did you wind up with a pocketful of American money out on the other side of the universe?"
Jamie shrugged. "I don't know, I just did," she said.
But Jamie ran out of money after about three hours of walking so they had to start remembering landmarks. The last sliver of sun dipped below the horizon and it was getting hard to see. "Okay, after the weird tree came the two hills," Mike said. "Remember that."
"We should start thinking about finding a place to sleep," Jamie said. "We're not going to be able to see anything in the dark."
"Hey, isn't that a house?" Eric asked. He pointed off to the southwest. On the horizon was a silhouette of something that looked very much like a cottage. "Maybe they can put us up for the night."
"All right, we're stoked," Mike said. "Or are we? This is fantasy land — what are the villagers like?"
Eric scratched his head. "Well, usually they're distrustful of strangers at first," he said. "But if we can convince them that our intentions are good we should be okay."
"I hardly think we should be worrying about their disposition," Jamie said. "How do we know they're even human? All we've seen are grass and trees, no animals or anything. And even if they are human, who's to say they're going to speak English?" "No problem," Mike said. "Yo hablo muy español."
"I think we should camp out," Jamie said.
"Camp out?" Tiffany said. "Are you crazy?"
"My feet are killing me," Kondracke said. "These shoes are really—"
"Forget the shoes," Mike said. "Look, it can't hurt to try, can it? Either they let us crash at their place or they don't."
"They could attack us and kill us," Jamie said.
"With me around?" Mike said. "Not a chance." He gave the axe hooked to his belt a couple of taps. "Besides," he said, "I'm the leader, and I say we check it out."
So half an hour later they stood at the door of the little cottage. By now dusk had passed and it was very definitely nighttime. Mike knocked on the door. "Cross your fingers," he said.
There were some thumps inside the house and a minute later an old man with a candle answered the door. He had just a few wisps of white hair left on his head and wore a long tattered garment that looked like a nightgown. "Yes?" he said.
"Uh, hi," Mike said. "We're with the Girl Scouts, and we were wondering if you'd be interesting in buying some of these cookies we're selli—"
Jamie elbowed him in the ribs and shot Eric an urgent look. "Um, we're travelers from a faraway land," Eric said, "and we have no place to stay. We were wondering if you'd be so kind as to provide us somewhere to sleep for the night."
"And some eats," Mike said. "I'm a hungry dog."
The old man looked bewildered but after a moment or two motioned them inside. He closed the door. "Gretta!" he called. "Gretta, we have guests."
Another candle appeared on the other side of the cottage and a thin woman in her forties came into the main room which seemed to function as living room, family room, dining room and kitchen all in one. She appeared to have some sort of skin disease, and when she spoke everyone could see that her teeth were mostly rotted. The old man had no teeth at all. "Who are all of you?" she asked.
Mike gave Eric a little shove. "Um, we're travelers from a faraway land, and we have no place to stay," he said. "We were wondering if you'd be so kind as to provide us somewhere to sleep for the night."
"That's just what 'e told me," the old man said. "They also want something to eat."
"Eat?" the woman said. She shuffled over to the corner and lifted the lid off a pot that was sitting there. "Well, there's some stew left," she said. "It's cold now, though."
"Could you tell us where we are?" Jamie asked. "Is this England?"
The old man and the woman traded confused glances. "I don't know this 'England' you speak of," the woman said. "Where we are is where we are. Where did you come from?"
"We're from a land called America," Eric said. "We came to your land through... a magical portal. We're looking for a lost child. His name is Timmy. Have you seen him?"
The woman thought for a moment while Mike lumbered across the room and started slurping stew out of the pot. "A magical portal, you say," she said. "And a lost child."
"You should go to the castle," the old man said. "'Specially if there's magic involved. The wizard'll set ye straight."
Eric looked around the room, lit only by the flickering light of the two candles. He could hardly believe it. Just this morning he'd been eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and watching old cartoons on the USA network, and here he was barely twelve hours later in a cottage in some fantastic realm talking about visiting the local wizard. It was wonderful.
"I think I'm gonna hurl," Mike said. There was a loud clang as he dropped the stew pot and then he threw up all over the room. "Dude, that stew was nasty," he said, wiping his mouth.
Gretta looked down in dismay. "I'll go prepare you a room," she said, and shuffled into one of the back rooms of the cottage.
"Uh, sorry about that," Mike said to the old man. The old man didn't hear him, though — he'd fallen asleep.
"Looks like you didn't get a stomach of steel along with the muscles," Kondracke said.
"That stew, man," Mike said, "that stew was just the worst. It had these little chunks of meat that were like chewing on a dog toy. I mean—"
"Your room is ready," the woman said. "I hope you don't mind sleeping on straw. I don't know what the custom is in your land, but—"
"That'll be fine," Eric said. "Thank you for your generosity."
"Yeah, but no thanks for the stew," Mike said. "Talk about a barforama."
They went into their room and found that it was just that: a tiny little room with some straw scattered on the floor. "This is it?" Tiffany asked.
"Looks like it," Jamie said. She took off her chainmail and gathered up some straw to make a sort of pillow. The others looked at each other and then copied her.
"Nighty-night," Kondracke said. "Don't let the bedbugs bite."
"Bedbugs?" Tiffany said.
"It's an expression," Kondracke said.
"Dude," Mike said. "Wait till the guys hear I slept with Tiffany Ambergher. They'll just die."
Eric felt someone kick him in the thigh. "Ow!" he yelled.
"Oops, wrong guy," Tiffany said. "Sorry."
The next morning they woke up to discover that the bedbugs weren't just an expression after all. All five of them were covered with at least a dozen little red bites. "This is just the grossest thing ever," Tiffany said.
The door opened and bright light came streaming in. Kondracke grabbed his eyes. "My retinas!" he cried. "You've charred them."
"I've made you all some breakfast," Gretta said. "It should give you some strength on your journey to the castle."
So they assembled in the main room, with bleary eyes and puffed-out hair speckled with bits of straw. "This better be better than that stew, man," Mike said.
"It certainly smells better," Kondracke said. "What are you making?"
"I've cooked some biscuits for you," the woman said. "Here's some honey." She plunked a jar of honey down on the table and started handing out biscuits.
"None for me, thanks," Jamie said. "So how do we reach this castle?"
"Just travel west, along the river," she said. "It's a three days' journey from here. Maybe two days for you, since you're young and strong."
"Hey, that reminds me," Kondracke said. "You wouldn't happen to have any spare shoes, would you? These ones are giving me blisters."
The woman looked confused again. "In your land you have shoes that don't give you blisters?"
"Oh my God," Tiffany yelped. "There's a bug in my biscuit." She dropped her biscuit like a hot grenade.
Mike started to laugh but then choked and spat out the piece that was in his mouth. "Dude, I've got two in mine," he said. "What gives?"
"Sometimes fleas get into the flour," the woman said. She shrugged. "We are humble peasants. Only the nobility can afford pristine bread."
"Forget this," Mike said. "I mean, thanks for the thought but no thanks for the food poisoning, huh? Let's get out of here." He threw open the door and stumbled outside. The others followed him.
"Good luck!" Gretta called after them. But a few years later, when another band of travelers came by looking for shelter, she just shut the door in their faces.
As it turned out, it did take Eric and the others only two days to reach the castle. The first day they walked nonstop from morning to night. Well, almost nonstop — every fifteen minutes they had to stop so Kondracke could soak his feet in the river. Even after the sun had been down for quite a while they kept walking. There was a cool breeze blowing that smelled so good it was nothing less than blissful, and even after hours and hours of walking they were still full of energy. It was all they could do not to break into a sprint. Even Tiffany felt a little disappointed when they finally decided to call it a night.
"So what're we gonna do for food?" Mike asked. "In case you all hadn't noticed, we haven't really eaten since we got here."
"I'm not hungry," Jamie said. "I'm no hungrier than I was when we first came through the portal. Are you?"
"Nah, I guess not," Mike said.
"So are we just going to sleep on the ground?" Kondracke asked.
"Sure," Mike said. "Didn't you ever do it when you were in the Scouts?"
"I was never in the Scouts," Kondracke said. "I went to Computer Camp instead."
"Dude," Mike said. "How about you, elf boy? Were you a Scout? A Cub Scout at least?" Eric shook his head. "I don't believe this," Mike said. "Weren't any of you in the Scouts?"
"I was," Jamie said. "I still have my uniform somewhere."
"Good," Mike said. "I mean, yeesh. You people. So you know how to make a fire and everything?"
"Sure," she said. "Do you really want to make a fire, though? What'd be the point?"
"Nah, I guess not," he said. "Just something to keep in mind, though."
"Nature hikes are just the greatest," Jamie said. "Have you ever camped out up in the hills? My family and I went backpacking once and I still remember how that night I looked up and for the first time really saw—"
"So we're just supposed to lay down on the grass?" Tiffany said.
"It's 'lie down,'" Kondracke said.
"Whatever," Tiffany said. "So that's it? No setting up?"
"What's to set up?" Mike asked. "Just find a soft patch of ground."
So they did. Just as they were drifting off to sleep Eric asked, "So what did you see?"
"Hmm?" someone murmured.
"Jamie," he whispered. "What did you see? When you went backpacking."
"Oh," she said. "I was going to say, I looked up and for the first time really saw the stars. Not just a speck here and there, but completely lighting up the sky. I just stared for hours and hours." She paused. "I just noticed. I don't recognize any of the constellations."
Eric looked up. The stars looked pretty much the same to him, but then he didn't know what they were supposed to look like. But Jamie didn't have to know that. "Weird," he agreed. They went to sleep.
When they woke up the next morning the sun was high in the sky and Jamie was gone. "Where'd the tomboy go?" Mike asked.
"I don't know," Tiffany said. "What time is it?"
Eric automatically turned his wrist to look at his watch, but his watch had vanished when they went through the breach. "Looks like about ten, eleven o'clock, looking at the sun," Mike said. "Great! So what, we're supposed to just sit around and wait for her to get back?"
"Who says she left of her own free will?" Kondracke asked. "Perhaps she was abducted. Or attacked and eaten by some wild animals. Or—"
"There she is," Eric said. "Coming out of the forest."
Jamie emerged from among the trees and waded across the stream back to the others. "So you all finally got up," she said.
"When did you get up?" Mike asked.
"Dawn," she said. "I can't sleep when it's light out. Anyway, I did some scouting ahead. All the terrain up ahead looks exactly the same. Oh, and the forest's nice and woodsy. Do any of you like to climb trees? There are lots of good—"
"All right, listen up," Mike said. "I think we probably covered way more ground yesterday than Ma and Pa Kettle were expecting. We can probably make it the rest of the way today. So I say we're going to keep walking till we get there, even if it's not till late at night. As for you, Jamesy, if you're such an early bird you can be our official scout. Sound good?"
"Sure," she said.
So they set out for the castle and arrived only about an hour or two after nightfall. The castle wasn't really that much bigger around than the cottage had been, but it was incredibly tall: it stretched way up into the air, and not straight up, either. "Dude," Mike said.
The front entrance was a set up double doors about fifteen feet high, with a heavy metal ring attached to each one as a knocker. Eric tried to use one of them but he could barely budge it. Mike had to come over and do the actual knocking. A moment or two later a tall, thin balding man answered the door. "Yes?" he said.
"Um, is this the wizard's castle?" Eric asked.
"Indeed it is, sir," said the man at the door — the butler, it looked like. "Do you wish an audience with him?"
"Yes, we'd like that very much," Eric said. "We're travelers from a faraway land and we came here through a magic portal in search of a lost child."
"Quite," said the butler. "Well, do come in. My name is Harris, and I'll fix you all a spot of tea."
Eric was tingling with excitement. An actual wizard with actual magical powers! And with an actual butler. There hadn't been any butlers in the books. "Make mine an iced tea," Mike yelled.
"I hope they have shoes here," Kondracke said.
"So tell us about these wizards," Mike said. "What's the story?"
"Well," Eric said, "usually the wizards are all-knowing and wise, but because they're so wise novices can get impatient with them. If we're patient we should learn all we need to know to find Timmy." He looked over at Kondracke. "And maybe he can teach Kondracke some spells."
"The only spell I care about right now is one that heals blisters," Kondracke said. "Ow ow ow ow ow."
"Your tea, sirs, ladies," Harris said. "Iced tea for the muscular gentleman, and Earl Grey for the rest of you."
"None for me, thanks," Jamie said.
"That was awful quick," Mike said.
"Yes, well, it tends to go much quicker in the microwave," Harris said.
"Microwave?" they said in unison. All five of them ran into the kitchen.
The kitchen was a fully furnished, modern kitchen. Dishwasher, refrigerator with ice and water dispenser, oven, electric stove, microwave. "But where do you get the electricity?" Jamie asked.
"Excuse me?" Harris said.
"The electricity," Jamie said. "Where does it come from?"
"I beg your pardon, miss," Harris said. "I'm not familiar with the term you mention."
"Electricity," Kondracke said. "The energy released from the burning of fossil fuels, contained nuclear reactions or moving water is converted into electricity, which is then relayed to homes in the form of an alternating current which can be plugged into and used to power appliances. However, we haven't seen any indication that anyone in this dimension has any electricity, unless you're running off a portable generator or something."
"Ah," Harris said. "That is very interesting. However, these appliances are all powered by magic."
Tiffany sipped at her tea. "Hey, this stuff is pretty good," she said.
"Thank you, miss," Harris said. "That is very rewarding."
"Okay, okay," Mike said. "So how do we go about setting up a powwow with the Wiz?"
The butler looked perplexed. "He means an audience with the wizard," Eric said.
"Ah, yes," Harris said. "Well, I shall prepare a grand meal for the six of you and you can discuss whatever it is you need to discuss at that time."
"Cool deal," Mike said. "What's on the menu?"
"I was planning on preparing boiled lamb and boiled potatoes with brown gravy," Harris said.
"Eww," Kondracke said. "Can you please not boil it?" The others nodded in agreement.
"Not boil it?" Harris said. He scratched his ample forehead. "Are you suggesting that you would prefer your meals raw?"
"Nuh-uh," Mike said. "Just make it some other way."
"Other way, sir?"
"Sure," he said. "You could broil it, or fry it, or bake it, or roast it, or sauté it, or grill it, or—"
"These are ways of boiling, sir?"
Mike sighed. "Forget it. Boil away."
"Very good, sir," Harris said.
So a few hours later they all sat around a huge ornate dinner table and Harris set them up with boiled lamb and boiled potatoes with brown gravy. "None for me, thanks," Jamie said.
"What is it with you?" Mike asked. "Don't you eat?"
"I'm not hungry," she said. "I only eat when I'm hungry, not when it happens to be a meal time. Plus I'm a vegetarian. And plus — plus I don't trust the food here."
"What, because it's boiled?" Mike said.
"No, not because it's boiled," Jamie said. "I mean, you all seem to have just accepted this place, bang, just like that. Seriously, another dimension? With pseudo-medieval cottages and wizards' castles with British butlers? Looking for a six-year-old named Timmy Grimes? You don't have a problem with this whole setup?"
"Not enough of a problem to starve myself to death," Mike said.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm keeping my guard up until I have some idea of what's going on here," Jamie said. "I mean, heck, I'm not sure if I'd be more relieved if this is really happening or if it isn't."
Right then the wizard came downstairs. He was dressed much like Kondracke, except his robe wasn't closed properly so as he came down the staircase they all got occasional flashes of his underwear. He was also very fat, and didn't have a beard so much as a thick stubble. "Sirs, ladies, I present Mr. Wizard," Harris said.
"Mr. Wizard?" Mike said.
"That is the proper term of address, yes," Harris said.
"Pigeons in a bubble," the wizard said.
Eric's mind raced to try to figure out what that could possibly mean, but he couldn't come up with anything. "Uh, hello," he said. "We are honored to be guests of such a great and powerful wizard."
"Beauford is full of hot air," the wizard said.
That threw Eric for another loop — he couldn't figure out if the comment was just random or some kind of oblique reference to his greeting. "Um, we came to this realm through a magic portal," he said. "We're looking for a little boy from our dimension, but we have no idea where he could possibly be. Can you help us?"
The wizard sat bolt upright, suddenly looking alarmed. "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" he demanded, glancing wildly around the room. Then he slumped back in his seat again.
Eric looked around the table helplessly. "I don't think he's going to be much help," he said.
"C'mon, Wiz, snap out of it," Mike said. "We need some info or we're going to be wandering around for years here. Where should we go?"
"Un burro es un animal muy importante," the wizard said. "Y inteligente!"
"Chili con carne," Mike said. The wizard shrugged.
"More tea, anyone?" Harris asked. Tiffany nodded and held out her cup. Harris poured her some more.
"I saw a strange bird," the wizard sighed.
"Yes, what about it?" Jamie asked.
"How was it strange?" Kondracke added.
The wizard picked at his lamb and potatoes. "This is for you it is my full heart," he muttered.
"How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" Mike asked. "Give up? The answer is two. One to find the fish and the other to fill the bathtub with brightly colored machine tools."
"You're not helping," Jamie said.
"Mom? Dad? I'm okay," the wizard said. "They're giving me pills and stuff..." He belched.
"Harris, I'm done," Mike said. He pushed his plate away and wandered off into the next room. Kondracke and Jamie and Eric followed suit. Tiffany sat and sipped at her tea for about fifteen minutes before finally joining them.
"So now what do we do?" Eric asked.
"I think we should retrace our steps and go back," Jamie said.
"Uh-uh," Mike said. "We'll figure out something."
"I have an idea," Kondracke said. "Don't wizards usually have trainees? Like a sorcerer's apprentice?"
"That's right," Eric said. "Usually they screw up a lot, but anything would be more helpful than this guy. Let's go ask Harris." They went into the kitchen, where Harris was washing the dishes. "Harris, is there a sorcerer's apprentice around here?" Eric asked.
"Indeed, sir," he said.
"Great!" Eric said. "Can we talk to him?"
"You are talking to him, sir," Harris said. "I am the sorcerer's apprentice."
"No way," Mike said. "You're the butler."
"I am also the butler," Harris said. "I have found butlering to be much more fulfilling than sorcery."
"But you do know some magic," Kondracke said. "You can help us out." "Certainly, if I can, sir," Harris said. He loaded the last dish into the dishwasher. "Shall we retire to the sorcery room?"
They did. "Basically we just want to know where to go to find Timmy," Eric said. "We're totally lost. Can you cast a divining spell or something?"
"I'm afraid that is beyond my power, sir," Harris said. "Perhaps I can help you in some other way. I do know some ancient prophecies that might be of use."
"Great!" Eric said. "That's perfect." He turned to the others. "These prophecies always turn out to be about whoever's hearing them," he whispered.
"Here is the prophecy," Harris said. "Four strangers from a land of talking squirrels will come through a magic portal in search of a golden retriever named Sparky. They will fight many valiant fights but will end up crushed beneath the heel of an amiable giant of a verdant hue."
"But there are five of us," Tiffany said.
"And we're looking for a little boy, not a dog," Eric said.
"But most importantly," Kondracke said, "we're not from a land of talking squirrels."
"Indeed?" Harris said. "I see. Very well, perhaps I can recall another prophecy that seems to apply. Ah, here's one. Five travelers will come to our land in search of a boy. They will travel west and find him in a great city. In the end, one of the five will prove a great hero; one of the five will prove a great villain." He paused. "How is that?"
"Sounds like us," Eric said.
"Right," Mike said. "Wow. Well, I think it's pretty obvious who the hero's going to be. I'm just wondering which one of you is the villain."
Somewhere in the castle a clock struck twelve. "I'm afraid I must be off to bed," Harris said. "Feel free to take any bed you like, and I shall see you all in the morning. Is there anything I can get for you before I go?"
"Can I have some more tea?" Tiffany asked.
So Tiffany had some more tea and then they all went to bed. Eric found himself in an enormous room featuring a soft feather bed with a canopy. He wasn't sure which he liked better, sleeping in the luxurious bed or sleeping under the stars with the others. They were both equally wonderful in their own way, he decided. As he was drifting off to sleep he suddenly felt an unfamiliar urge to say some kind of prayer. "If anyone's listening," he whispered, "thank you. And please, let me be the hero. Please."
The next morning Harris fixed them all breakfast — boiled eggs, scones, and tea — and then asked what their plans were. "Well, it looks like we're gonna head for that city you talked about," Mike said. "We'll just follow the river west."
"Very good, sir," Harris said. "I must say, it's been a pleasure having you. Feel free to help yourself to anything around the castle you might find useful. There's an armory downstairs."
"Um, do you have a spell book or something?" Kondracke asked. "I'm supposed to be some kind of wizard, but I don't know any spells."
"Certainly, sir," Harris said. "Follow me into the library. We'll find something appropriate."
The rest of them went down to the armory, which was essentially a basement full of benches loaded with various pieces of armor plating and shields and such. The wizard sat in the corner, hiding under a table. "That busing and pornography just doesn't go," he muttered. "It's causing four- letter words to come into my living room through my television set."
"Yeah, whatever," Mike said. "All right, everyone grab a shield." He picked up a big round one with arcane runes all around the edges. "Okay," he said, "you guys help yourselves. I'm gonna go raid the fridge."
Mike went upstairs; Jamie followed him. In the corner, Eric found a trunk marked with a sign saying "MAGICAL ITEMS". "Open it," Tiffany said.
He did. Inside he found a sword in a scabbard: he picked it up and hooked it to his belt. Tiffany found a golden ring. "I wonder what this does," she said. She put it on.
A few minutes later they went upstairs. Mike and Kondracke were waiting in the dining room. "Check it out," Kondracke said. He opened his spellbook and found the proper passage. "'Presto change-o, blisters be gone!'" he declared. He took off his shoes. "All better," he said.
"So where's Jamesy?" Mike asked. "We'll never make it to the city if we spend the whole day here."
"I'm right here," Jamie said. She came downstairs from her room. "I was just collecting some stuff."
"All-righty then," Mike said. "Westward ho."
That day they covered almost as much ground as they had their first day out from the cottage. Once they'd made their camp and Jamie had started a little campfire Eric hopped across the stream to the forest to test his magic sword against some trees. He took a couple of practice swings and then hacked at the tree with all his might. The sword broke into a million pieces.
"Dude!" Mike called out from across the stream. "Hope you got a warranty on your magic sword, buddy."
Eric looked at the hilt of his sword. It seemed to be sprouting a new blade even as the old one lay in pieces on the ground. "Wow," he murmured. "It really is magic." He waited for the new blade to reach its full length and then he tapped it with his finger. It broke into a million pieces.
Disappointed, he returned to their camp. As he crossed the stream he met Jamie on the other side, heading the opposite direction. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"I'm going to go sleep in the forest," she said. "I'll see the rest of you tomorrow morning after I've done my scouting."
Eric thought that was kind of strange, but he didn't say anything. "Looks like you got shafted on the sword," Tiffany said when he got back.
"I guess," he said. "Have you figured out what your ring does yet?"
"Uh-uh," she said. "It is magic, though. Look. Now it's blue."
"Hmm," Eric said. "I wonder what that means."
The next morning Jamie was waiting for them when they woke up. The sun was directly overhead. "About time you guys got up," she said.
"Shut up," Mike said. He pulled a big turkey bone out of his pack and started gnawing on it. "So whadja find?"
"Two things," Jamie said. "First of all, the stream we've been following flows into the forest. You can keep going west but eventually you reach a deep crevice and by the time you make it to the end of the crevice you're back in the forest. So we probably ought to just follow the stream into the woods and back out again."
"Okey-doke," Mike said. "What's the second thing?"
"Well..." She paused. "This is going to sound crazy, but about an hour and a half ahead I swear I saw a herd of unicorns."
"Unicorns? Really?" Mike said. "Huh."
Eric's pulse started pounding. Real unicorns! Less than a two-hour walk away! He was beginning to wonder if he ever wanted to go back. "Let's go find them," he said.
So they gathered their things and headed west along the edge of the forest. Sure enough the river veered to the north and into the forest; they followed it through the woods past the crevice and back out to the meadow. A few minutes later the unicorns appeared on the horizon. "There they are," Jamie said, pointing, "but this has got to be some trick."
But they were real, all right. As Eric and the others drew closer they saw the unicorns weren't tethered or fenced in but just roaming freely, grazing. At first they looked like everyday white horses, but then you noticed the single golden horn on each one's forehead. A few of them came trotting to see who the visitors were.
"Look, they're friendly," Jamie said. A couple of the unicorns started nuzzling her. "Hey, that tickles."
"C'mere, boy," Tiffany said. She tried to stroke one but it shied away.
"What studly unicorns," Mike said. He gave the one closest to him a pat on the flank that nearly knocked it over. "Let's take a few of 'em."
"Hey, what gives?" Jamie asked. There were at least half a dozen milling around her. "Someone call these things off."
"C'mere," Tiffany said. She took a couple of steps toward Jamie and the unicorns all took a few steps away. "Come here!" she said. "Stupid horses. What's the deal?"
"They're attracted to maidens," Eric said.
"So?" Tiffany said. "Maidens means girls, right? So what's the problem?"
"To be a maiden," Kondracke said, "you must also be a virgin."
"Oh," Tiffany said. "Forget it, then."
They all gaped at her.
"What?" she said. "Don't look at me like that. You're just jealous."
"So let's hijack a few of 'em and get going," Mike said. "We'll get to the city in no time on these babies."
"Are you kidding?" Kondracke said. "I just got rid of my blisters and you want to give me saddle sores? No way. Besides, in case you hadn't noticed, they're defecating all over the place. I'd prefer not to wake up with a faceful of unicorn manure."
"Eww, he's right," Tiffany said. They all backed away from them. "Gurr-ose."
"So we're not taking them?" Eric said. "But — they're unicorns! When are we ever going to get another chance to ride a real unicorn?"
"They're not real," Jamie said. "Unicorns aren't real. They're just made up. They'll probably disappear out from under us. I bet this is a trick."
"So it's settled," Kondracke said. "Three to two. We leave them here."
"Uh-uh," Mike said. "I'm the leader, and I say we take them. So we're taking them." He hopped up on one of the unicorns. "Come on, pick your pony and let's mosey."
"You guys go ahead," Jamie said. "I'm going on foot. We'll see how well you get around without a scout." With that she turned around and headed back toward the river.
"I don't believe this!" Mike said. "Talk about gross insubstantiation."
"It's 'insubordination,'" Kondracke said.
"Whatever," Mike said. "What're you all standing around for?"
"I think we should go with her," Eric said. "We have to stick together. What's going to happen if only four of us come back?"
"Oh, take her side," Mike said. He hopped off the unicorn. "Fine. We'll do it her way. But when we all keel over from walking fifty thousand miles don't come crying to me."
That night Tiffany's ring changed again. "Look, it's black now," she said. "And it was green earlier today."
"Maybe it detects magical energy or something," Eric said. "Or tells us how close we are to the city."
"Let me see," Jamie said. Tiffany slipped off the magic ring and handed it to her. Jamie studied it for a second. "It's a mood ring," she said.
"A what?" Tiffany said.
"A mood ring," Jamie said. "My mom had one back in the seventies. It's not magical at all." She yawned. "Well, I'm going. See you tomorrow."
"Where are you going?" Eric asked.
"Into the forest," she said. "Good night."
Eric tried to get up early, but even though he was the first of the group to get up, it was still late in the morning. He looked around. The sun was shining, the grass was cool, leaves were rustling in the breeze, the stream weaved its way around the trees on the outskirts of the forest. It was beautiful. He tried to figure out how far they'd gone since crossing the portal: a hundred miles at least, he decided. A hundred miles of gorgeous countryside. There was nothing like it on earth.
"How long have you been up?" Jamie asked. He yelped and tripped over his feet and landed in a heap on the ground. Jamie giggled. "Sorry," she said.
"It's okay," he said. "Um, I guess fifteen minutes or so."
"Oh," she said. "Are they still asleep?"
"No," Kondracke said. "It's all an elaborate ruse."
Mike sat up and rubbed his eyes. "So what's the report?" he asked.
"Absolutely nothing," Jamie said. "I walked over the hills and about three miles further than that. It's just more grass and more trees. No sign of any civilization at all. I'm beginning to wonder about this city. For all we know it's on the other side of the planet."
"Makes you wish you had a horse, huh?" Mike said. He opened his pack. "Ugh, out of food. Bum deal."
"I'm still not hungry," Jamie said. "We've been here, what, almost a week? How come I'm not hungry?"
"You know what else?" Kondracke asked. "I haven't had to go to the bathroom the whole time I've been here. Have you?"
They all shook their heads. "Too bad that doesn't work for keeping clean," Tiffany said. "I feel so gross it's not even funny. Look." She tried to run her hand through her hair but it was all thick and matted and her hand got caught. As Eric watched her try to pull her hand out he noticed her silks had turned from white to a very distinct beige. "I have to admit, I feel kind of sticky," Eric said. He hadn't realized, but now that it'd been pointed out, he could tell it'd been a week since he'd had a bath.
"So why don't you do something about it?" Jamie asked. "The stream's right there in the woods. I've been taking a bath every morning. See?" She ran her hand through her hair and it came out without a snag.
"Dude," Mike said. "Dibs on the river."
"No way," Tiffany said. "Me first." She picked herself up off the ground and headed for the forest.
"So am I supposed to wait for you all to wash up before we go?" Jamie asked. "The day's practically half over already."
"Tough," Mike said. "Hope she hurries, though." He scratched his back and suddenly a smile broke across his face. "So what do you say, guys?" he asked. "Do we watch her?"
"Watch her?" Eric said.
"Yeah," Mike said. "We can hide behind some trees or something. I mean, dude, when are we gonna get a chance like this again?" He rubbed his hands together.
"I'm in," Kondracke said.
"All right," Mike said. "Babes ahoy at eleven o'clock. You in, elf boy?"
"I think I'll stay here," Eric said.
"Your loss," Mike said. "Come on, Kon-man. This is gonna be better than when we staked out the girls' cabin at outdoor ed." They vanished into the forest.
"My sister was right," Jamie said. "Guys are pigs. Uh, no offense."
Eric didn't know what to say so he didn't say anything. A few awkward minutes passed. "So what do you think?" Jamie finally asked. "Of this place, I mean."
Eric shrugged. "It's okay," he said. He wanted to tell her that he wanted to stay forever but he wasn't sure how she'd take it. When in doubt, always best to be noncommittal.
"Well I don't like it," Jamie said. "Plus, do you realize we've missed a week of school? How are we ever going to catch up?"
"I'm sure Principal McVicker arranged something," Eric said.
"But don't you miss everyone?" Jamie asked. "Your family, your friends? I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little homesick. I don't really feel much like questing around for the next five years."
But I do, Eric thought. "I think I'm going to find some place to wash up," Eric said. "Tell the others not to leave till I get back." He ducked into the forest and found an isolated spot upstream to wash his hands and face.
When he got back everyone else was waiting for him. The four of them were just standing around talking. Every time Tiffany said something, though, Mike and Kondracke burst into grins and traded secret low-fives. "Hey look, the elf's back," Mike said when Eric finally got back into earshot. "One of them anyway."
"What do you mean?" Eric asked.
"We saw some elves in the forest," Kondracke said. He adjusted his glasses. "We're debating whether we should keep going or go talk to them."
"Let's just go," Jamie said. "We can talk to the elves after we've found Timmy."
"But maybe they can help us," Kondracke said. "At least tell us a shortcut to the city."
Eric had been dying to see an elf the whole time he'd been here. "So let's go talk to them," he said. "That's a great idea."
"Well, I'm going on ahead," Jamie said. "You can try to catch up to me if you're going to go chitchat with imaginary tree-people. We'll see how fast you find Timmy without a scout."
"You know," Mike said, "you're not much of a team player. It's four- to-one we talk to the elves. We're talking to the elves."
"Maybe you are," Jamie said. "Catch you later." She picked up her pack and headed out towards the hills.
"Come on, guys, let's go," Mike said. "We're not gonna let her jerk us around."
"But we have to stick together," Eric said. "I want to see the elves, but—"
"Oh, all right," Mike said. "But this is the last time."
So they caught up to Jamie and clambered over the hills as a group. On the other side lay a huge chasm at least twenty yards across and running north to south as far as the eye could see. Only a rickety bridge gave them any hope that this wasn't the end of their quest right here.
"Oh, aces scouting job," Mike said. "What, you forgot to mention the gigantic trench?"
"This wasn't here a couple hours ago," Jamie said. "I swear."
"Yeah, okay," Mike said. "Remind me not to call you as a witness if I'm ever in court, huh? Now let's check out the bridge."
As it turned out, that was easier said than done. As they were approaching the bridge a big ugly troll popped out from under it. "None shall pass," the troll said.
"Oh, no," Kondracke said. "It's a troll bridge."
"The troll wasn't here either," Jamie said. "Honest."
"I'll bet," Mike said. "Okay, troll, what's the story? Do we pay you a toll or what?"
"None shall pass," the troll snarled.
"Give me your mood ring, Tiff," Mike said. She did. "Here, you want this?" he asked. He handed the ring to the troll.
The troll examined the ring for a second and then threw it into the chasm. "I don't want your trinkets," the troll said. "Now turn back. None shall—"
"No, don't tell me, let me guess," Mike said. "None shall pass, right? You already said that." He sighed. "What do we do, Eric?"
Eric thought for a moment. "Trolls are usually really stupid," he said. "Maybe we can trick him somehow."
"Gotcha," Mike said. "Hey, troll, look, over there."
The troll looked in the direction Mike was pointing. Mike took the opportunity to slip onto the bridge. "Sucker," he said.
The troll turned around and with a flash whipped out a dagger. Less than a second later the dagger was buried in Mike's shoulder. Mike screamed and clutched his wound. "None shall pass," the troll said.
Eric suddenly had an idea. Maybe his magic sword only worked on evil creatures! He unsheathed it and swung it around threateningly. The others backed off as the troll eyed the sword cautiously. Mike lay crumpled on the bridge, moaning and holding his bleeding shoulder. "Back off, troll," Eric said, "or we'll have to resort to force."
The troll whipped out another dagger and lunged at Eric; Eric dodged and delivered a solid blow to the troll with his glistening sword. On impact the blade broke into a million pieces. The troll looked down and laughed. Eric did a double take and took off running. "Look," Tiffany said, "can we please cross the bridge? Our friend is hurt!"
The troll put away his dagger. "Well, sure," he said. "All you had to do was ask nicely." He stepped out of the way and let them pass. Together the four of them were able to hoist Mike up and carry him across the bridge: Jamie took his arms and the other three took his feet. "Enjoy your stay on the other side," the troll called. "Tell your friends!" Then he disappeared under the bridge.
"I'm dying, man," Mike moaned. He looked up at Jamie. "This is all your fault."
"We can worry about whose fault it is later," she said. She turned to Kondracke. "Are there any spells in your book that can fix this?" she asked.
Kondracke opened up the spellbook and flipped through the pages. "Ah, here we go," he said. "Wounds, shoulder, healing of. Stand back." He held the book in one hand and made a dramatic gesture with the other. "'Ready, okay! Heal that wound yeah heal that wound, heal that wound yeah heal that wound! Go! Heal! Go! Heal! Yay!'"
The others stared at him. "Well that's what it says," he said.
"I think it worked," Mike said. He sat up and rubbed his shoulder. The wound was gone. "Skin's still kinda tender, but that did the trick."
They stood around for a minute and watched the leaves rustle. "Okay," Mike finally said, "here's the deal. We're going to go talk to the elves now. And anyone who doesn't want to," he added, shooting a dirty look at Jamie, "is free to go. Good riddance."
"I'll go," she said. "Look, I'm really sorry. But I swear, this morning there was nothing on the other side of the hills but—"
"I don't really want to hear it," Mike said. They headed into the forest.
"So where were these elves?" Eric asked after they'd been looking for a while. "Did you actually see them up close or just off in the distance?"
"Off in the distance," Kondracke said. "In fact, we're not even sure they were elves. Maybe they were just some sort of animal."
"That'd make sense," Eric said. "Elves are usually hard to find. Plus they're almost always dying out for some reason. In the books whenever they meet some elves they're always the last few elves left in the world or at least in some kind of grave danger or—"
"Hi," said an elf.
The elf was just a little shorter than Eric, with pointy ears and dressed all in green. "Are these the people you were talking about?" the elf asked.
"Uh, who are you talking to?" Eric asked.
"Jamie," the elf said. "Are these the people you were talking about? Your companions?"
"Yeah," she said. "Um, they don't know about—"
"Wait, you know her?" Mike asked.
"Sure," the elf said. "Well, know of her, anyway. She's already visited a bunch of other elf holts. We figured she'd show up here eventually."
By now a few more elves were milling about trying to see what was going on. "Well, you little weasel," Mike said. "This is what you've been doing in the forest every night, huh? Going behind our backs?"
"It's not like it looks," Jamie said. "I mean, one of us is supposedly working against us, right? And I know it's not me. I figured this way if the elves had anything to tell us the 'villain' wouldn't find out and use it against us. But they don't. That's why I didn't want to waste any more time here."
"How conveeeeenient," Mike said. "Do you really expect us to bel—"
"Why don't you just come back to our holt?" the elf asked. "We can talk there."
So they took a couple of hidden paths and soon found themselves in the elf holt. The place was just swarming with elves. Elves walking to and fro, elves standing around, elves in little tents, elves not in little tents, elves in trees, elves not in trees, elves, elves, elves. "Dude, it's like Elf Tokyo," Mike said.
Eric looked around in amazement. He hadn't been surrounded by so many people shorter than him since the time in sixth grade he'd accidentally walked into the kindergarten room by mistake. "Wow," he said. Then he was tackled.
"Will you father my children?" asked the elf girl who'd tackled him. "Please please please?"
"And then mine?" asked another elf girl.
"And then mine?" asked yet another elf girl.
"Oh, I forgot to mention," Jamie said. "They breed like bunnies."
"Help!" Eric yelled. "Get them off me!"
"Dude, you sure?" Mike asked. "I mean, triple score."
"Yes I'm sure!" he yelled.
"Okay, scram," Mike said. He lifted two of the elf girls off of Eric and Jamie dispatched the third one. "That better?"
"Thanks," Eric said. He picked himself up and brushed himself off and tried to wipe the elf lipstick off his face.
Meanwhile Kondracke was talking to the head elf. "You're sure you don't know any shortcuts to the city?" he asked.
"Nope," the head elf said. "Just keep going west. It's still a ways away but you'll get there."
"Okay, then," Kondracke said. He went back to the others. "Looks like we're out of luck," he said. "The elves don't know anything. Or if they do they're not telling."
"That's what I've been trying to tell you," Jamie said. "This is all a waste of time. We could have covered—"
"You," Mike said, "are going to keep your mouth shut until I say different. Now let's go."
That night when Jamie went to the forest Mike had Eric trail her. "Me?" Eric said.
"Yes, you," Mike said. "Keep an eye on her. Make sure she isn't up to anything. Don't let her out of your sight. If she tries to attack you, come back here and we'll hunt her down and officially take her prisoner."
"You think it's her?" Tiffany asked. "The villain?"
"Yeah I think it's her," Mike said. "It is her and she is It." He laughed. "Heh heh. 'Valkyrie is It.' 'Wizard is It.' Heh heh."
"I'm not It," Kondracke said.
"I know," Mike said. "It's a joke. You know, from the game."
The other three traded blank looks. "You don't remember the game?" Mike said. "'Elf shot the potion.' Remember? Aw, what a bunch of losers." He looked at Eric. "What're you still doing here? Get going."
So Eric, with more than a little trepidation, wandered into the dark forest. "Uh, Jamie?" he called. "Jamie, are you here?" There was no answer. After a few minutes he looked around and realized he had no idea where he was or how to get out. "Jamie?"
There was still no answer, but he heard a thumping sound and decided to check it out. If it was another elf holt maybe they could at least point the way back to camp. But it wasn't an elf holt. As he emerged into the clearing he found it was none other than Jamie herself, setting up a tent or something. "Uh, hi," he said. "What're you doing?"
"Building a lean-to," she said. "Look up in the sky."
He looked. "I don't see anything," he said.
"Exactly," she said. "No stars. That means it's cloudy, which means it might rain. So what're you doing here?"
"Um... well, you see..."
"Oh, I get it," she said. "You're here to check up on me, right?" She smiled. "Sorry. If I'd known you were coming I'd've arranged it so you caught me doing something nasty and nefarious. So are you supposed to report back now or can you stay?"
"I'm supposed to stay here," Eric said. "I'm, uh, not supposed to let you out of my sight."
Jamie giggled. Her laugh was very pretty and she had nice teeth. "God, if that guy gets any more paranoid we'll have to get him committed. Well, I wish I could help you out but I don't have any evil plans up my sleeve at the moment. Do you want to sleep with me?"
Eric almost choked on his tongue. "Excuse me?" he said.
"Under the lean-to," she said. "So you don't get wet."
"Um, no, that's okay," Eric said. "I'll, uh, I'll just sleep here."
"Suit yourself," Jamie said. "Good night. Sweet dreams."
That night it rained off and on — just as Eric felt his clothes drying out from the last shower a new one would sweep through and soak him again. After a while the ground got kind of muddy. But even that didn't bother him half so much as the tapatapatapatapatap of the rain hitting the canvas of the lean-to. It wasn't until the sun was almost up that he finally managed to grab a few hours of sleep.
The sun was high in the sky dodging clouds when Jamie finally woke him up. "Rise and shine," she said. "I don't believe it. Did you really sleep out in the rain?"
"Huh?" he said. "Uh, yeah. What time is it?"
"Late," she said. "I just got back from scouting. I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. So unless any more magical trenches pop up we should cover a lot of ground."
"So are we heading back?" Eric asked.
"Not just yet," she said. She took off her chainmail vest and dropped it under the lean-to. "Things to do. Will you hold my feet?"
"Your feet?" he asked, perplexed.
"Sit-ups," Jamie said. "You don't think I stay in this kind of shape by magic, do you? Come on, it'll only be a minute."
"Uh, okay, I guess," Eric said. He held her feet and Jamie did two quick sets of twenty sit-ups each. Then she did thirty-one push-ups and collapsed on the grass.
"Yecch," she said. "Heck, I get enough exercise with all this hiking anyway. Bleah. We'll just skip the rest of it." She pulled herself to her feet. And then before Eric's eyes she stripped off her clothes and jumped in the river.
"Eep," Eric said.
"What's keeping you?" Jamie asked. "The water's warmer than it looks, honest." She took a couple of playful splashes at him. Eric got up and stumbled behind the lean-to.
"What?" Jamie called after him. "Aren't you coming?"
"Um, I think I'll wait till later," he said.
"Whatever," Jamie said. Eric sat there under the lean-to clutching his knees to his chest and listening to Jamie splash around for a while. "So what are you thinking about?" Jamie finally asked.
"Huh?" he said. "Uh, nothing."
"Hmm," she said. "I wouldn't go around admitting that to people. Except maybe Tiffany." She laughed. "Poor girl. Going from like an A- cup to a C just like that. My sister says that when you first start developing it feels all sloppy for a while until you get used to it. But in like half a second, yikes. I'm surprised she's not tripping all over herself."
Eric rocked back and forth under the lean-to trying not to let his ears scorch the sides of his head.
"I'm so glad my body didn't change," Jamie continued. "Aren't you? I mean your ears did, but other than that you're pretty much the same, right? It's not like you're suddenly in a totally unfamiliar body like the rest of them. That must be awful. Don't you think? Your body changing? I sure wouldn't want mine to. I mean, I realize it's going to change soon naturally, but at least that'll be gradual and it'll still be me. This whole place bugs me. If we don't find that kid soon, I tell you, I'm going back. I don't care what Dr. Sleator says."
Not a bad idea, Eric thought. I wouldn't mind getting out of here right now. "Hey, can you get my towel?" Jamie asked. "It's right in my pack."
Eric found the towel and went to go lay it on the river bank. But Jamie was already standing there, dripping and naked, waiting for him to hand it to her. Eric clapped his hands over his eyes and flung the towel at her. It landed a good couple of yards from where she was standing. "Jeez, what's with you?" she asked. Then she put her hand to her mouth. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't realize."
Kind of a funny thing not to realize, Eric thought. "You have to understand," Jamie said. "I'm the seventh of nine kids. Mom used to bathe us in squadrons. That kind of knocks the self-consciousness out of you after a while. I didn't mean to freak you out or anything, really."
"It's okay," Eric mumbled.
"No, really, I'm sorry." She laughed. "God. You know, back home when we were little it was like none of us had anything the others didn't know about and after a while it's no big deal. It never occurred to me that you might have a prob— do you have any brothers or sisters? I don't think you told me."
"Uh-uh," Eric said. Hurry up hurry up, he thought. Let's get out of h—
"You can look now," Jamie said. Eric peeked between his fingers and saw that she was now wearing a white terry-cloth bathrobe. "I'll go change over there if you want," she said. "And you can wash up in privacy. Okay?"
"Yeah, whatever," Eric said. "Hey, where'd you get the—"
"Bathrobe?" Jamie said. "At the castle. You were all getting magic stuff but I got something really useful. A bathrobe. Towels. Soap. Shampoo. You can use it if you want. Just help yourself to whatever's in my pack."
"Okay," Eric said. Just go just go—
"What's the matter?" Jamie asked. She touched his shoulder. "Don't you like me? I like you. You're not like the other three. Don't you want to be friends?"
Jamie's face fell for a second, but then she shrugged too. "Well, have it your way," she said. "Just give me a minute to clear out."
So Eric quick washed the mud out of his hair and then he followed Jamie back to the main camp — following ten paces behind, of course. The others were waiting for them. "You two took long enough," Mike said. "Let's get going."
"Did you just sleep out in the open?" Jamie asked. "What about the rain?"
"Rain? What rain?" Mike said. He grinned mischievously. "So what did our little master scout find this morning?"
"Nothing," Jamie said. "This terrain never changes. I must've spent four or five hours scouting and it's all the same."
"That's what you said before I got shish-kabobbed," Mike said. "We'll see."
But Jamie was right: it was the same terrain as ever that entire day. "We're never going to make it to the city," Tiffany complained. "And even if we found that little brat tomorrow it'd take us two weeks to get back. What happens if we don't get back for a couple of months? We'll have missed everything!"
Eric didn't think that sounded so bad, but he didn't say anything. Soon they set up camp for the night and Jamie retired to the forest. Mike asked him to follow her again but Eric refused to go. Even after Mike ordered him to go Eric stood his ground. "Well, I guess you don't have to," Mike finally said. "But why? What happened? I thought you said everything was on the up and up with her."
"It is," Eric said. "I just don't want to go."
"Well, okay," Mike said. "Night, all."
They were awoken in the middle of the night by the howl of a wolf. "What was that?" Tiffany asked.
"Sounds like a wolf," Kondracke said. "Nothing to be worried about."
Suddenly the air was filled with howls. And not just howls. Howls and barks and growls and all sorts of wolf sounds. "Okay, explain that," Tiffany said.
"That sounds like about a hundred wolves," Kondracke said. "And that is something to be worried about. Uh, Mike?"
"Yeah, don't worry, I'll protect us," Mike said. He got up and picked up his axe. "Lemme at 'em, I'll splat 'em."
"Maybe they'll leave us alone if we don't bother them," Eric said. "I don't even see them. Maybe they're not even all that close."
"There they are," Tiffany said.
Heading straight for the camp were what looked like a good three dozen wolves, barking as they padded along. "Okay," Mike says, "here's where your hero valiantly saves you all. When they make the TV movie this'll be the first big action scene. Fire up the cameras."
"Wait," Eric said. He picked up his bow and arrows. "I'll help."
"Aw, you're just trying to hog the glory," Mike said. "Well, what're you waiting for? Start picking 'em off."
Eric nocked his first arrow and aimed it at the wolf at the head of the pack. He felt a sick feeling in his stomach but forced himself to ignore it. If I'm going to be the hero, he thought, I can't chicken out now. He let the arrow fly.
If flew over the lead wolf's head but skewered one in the middle of the pack. "Good shot," Mike said. "But pick up the pace, huh?" They're almost here!"
It was true. The wolves didn't mourn their fallen comrade but just kept advancing. Eric shot off another arrow and picked off a wolf in the back of the pack; the one after that took out the leader. Soon it was a regular rhythm, loading and shooting and having another arrow nocked before the last one had landed. Nevertheless, the wolves didn't disperse but kept advancing, undaunted. Soon they were dangerously close. "Back off, kid," Mike said. "Good job — you got almost half of them. But now it's my turn."
Eric backed off and watched breathlessly as Mike charged the pack, swinging his axe around wildly. After that it was hard to make out what was happening. It was just a blur of blood and gleaming metal and flying fur. It was only a couple of minutes, but it seemed like an hour. Then all was still.
"Mike?" Eric called out.
Mike got up and pried a pair of wolf's jaws off his hand. "Can you believe it?" he said. "This one tried to bite me!" He took the wolf's head and tossed it over his shoulder — the head hadn't been connected to anything. Eric felt sick again.
"Jeez, it's like an explosion at the ketchup factory," Mike said. "Check it out." Now that he'd emerged from the pile into the moonlight, you could see the blood glistening on his body: his arms and chest were completely covered and dripping. "Not mine," he said. "All theirs. Wish I had a camera. Yeesh, this stuff is sticky." He went to the stream and washed off his axe and then rubbed some water over his body to try to get the blood off.
"What are we going to do with the bodies?" Eric asked.
"Ah, leave 'em," Mike said. "We'll deal with them in the morning. Or not. There's no one around — who's gonna notice?"
That question was answered the next morning. "NOOOO!" came the cry. "My wolves! Oh, God—"
Eric rubbed his eyes. The sun was low in the sky: still early morning. "What's going on?" he asked.
"My wolves! My wolves!" Jamie cried. Tears were streaming down her face and plopping onto the ground. "They're all dead!" She stroked one of the corpses and broke into sobs.
"All right, what's the story here?" Mike asked. "What're you blubbering over these things for?"
"Someone killed all my wolves!" Jamie cried. "Look! Why didn't you stop them? Why didn't you find whoever was killing them and stop them?" She buried her face in her hands.
"I killed 'em," Mike said. "It was fun."
Jamie looked up. "You—?" She jumped to her feet. "You — you, you killed — you — I HATE YOU!" She pounded his chest with her fists. Eric had to admit it was kind of laughable: no matter what kind of shape she was in, Mike was a musclebound giant and Jamie was a twelve-and-a-half-year- old girl. She kept punching him, his chest, his stomach; Mike just stood there.
"You done?" he finally asked. He took one hand and pushed her to the ground. "So you sent these wolves after us, huh?"
"They were trained," Jamie said. She sniffed. "That's why I kept visiting the elves even though they didn't know anything. They were helping me train these wolves. I sent them to sniff out the evil one. Three guesses who that is!"
Mike smirked down at her. "I only need one guess," he said. "Trained wolves. Trained to kill us, you little traitor. I wondered what you were doing skulking around in the forest all these nights." He looked off into the distance for a second. "Now I guess the only question is whether we take you prisoner or just kill you."
Jamie scrambled to her feet and took off running into the forest. "Should we go after her?" Kondracke asked.
"Nah," Mike said. "She won't be coming back."
"So she was It after all?" Tiffany asked.
"Brilliant deduction," Mike said. "Fifty points and an A." Eric wasn't so sure. But he didn't say anything.
They were all still pretty tired so they went back to sleep for a few hours and didn't wake up until early afternoon. "So how are we going to find our way around without a scout?" Eric asked.
"Are you kidding?" Mike asked. "Fat lot of good she did. This place is the same no matter where you go. What's to scout?" He snorted. "Besides, the one time she could've come in handy I ended up with a butcher knife in my shoulder. We're better off without her."
Mike proved to be right, at least that day. They proceeded west along the edge of the forest without incident and everything was pretty much the same as it'd always been. But when they set up camp for the night and it started to rain again Eric began to wish that Jamie were around. "Does anyone here know how to set up a lean-to or something?" he asked.
"Lean-to shmean-to," Mike said. "Do your thing, Kon-man."
Kondracke opened his spellbook and gestured at the sky. "'Rain, rain, go away,'" he intoned solemnly, "'come again some other day.'"
Eric could still hear the patter of the rain all around him, but suddenly he was dry. So were the others. The rain was falling everywhere except their camp. "It's like a magical umbrella," he said.
"You know it," Mike said.
The next day they continued along the edge of the forest and it became clear that they didn't need Jamie after all. But then the day after that the forest grew sparser and sparser and soon they were walking through an immense meadow without a single landmark in sight. Even the stream had disappeared. "Great, now what do we do?" Tiffany asked.
"We keep going west," Mike said. "We don't need a scout or a river to tell us where west is."
So they kept going west, walking away from the sun in the morning and towards it in the evening. That worked fine for a while but the next day they found themselves face to face with a massive hedge at least thirty feet high. It stretched from north to south as far as they could see.
"Uh-oh," Eric said.
"Uh-oh nothing," Mike said. "Kondracke, get rid of it."
Kondracke flipped through his spellbook. "I can't find anything about hedges," he said.
"Then look up plants," Mike said. "Plants, vegetation, green stuff. Anything."
"Here's a salad recipe," Kondracke said. "'Take six cups freshly chopped lettuce, three diced tomatoes—'"
"That doesn't help much," Mike said.
"Uh, guys?" Tiffany called. She'd wandered about fifty yards from the others. "There's an opening here."
They ran over to where she was pointing and sure enough, there was a sort of doorway set into the hedge, wide enough for a person to pass through. They walked through it and proceeded about ten yards before hitting another hedge. "Left or right?" Eric asked.
"Uh, let's try right," Mike said. So they did. Then they hit another hedge and had to turn left. After doing so they found themselves in a sort of corridor about fifty yards long, with an opening in the left wall about twenty yards down.
"We appear to be in some sort of labyrinth," Kondracke said.
"Oh, great," Mike said. "Three-D Pac-Man." He looked at the others. "Don't tell me you guys haven't heard of Pac-Man either."
"Isn't that some kind of ancient video game?" Kondracke asked.
"Very good," Mike said. "So do we take the door in the wall or not?"
Kondracke shrugged. "Up to you," he said. "Maybe we should split up and—"
"No splitting up," Mike said. "Then one of us'll get out and die of old age waiting for the others. Just follow me. We'll get out of here."
So they turned left, and then right, and the left again, and then went straight for about a hundred yards, and then turned left again, and then took a passageway right, and then left, and pretty soon it got dark and Tiffany started complaining. "We're never going to get out of here, are we?" she asked. "We're just going to wander around and around until we starve and have to eat each other and I'll never see my friends again and—"
"Quiet," Mike said. "Kondracke, check your spellbook."
"Nothing under mazes," he said. "Let's see. Oh, here we go. Labyrinths, escaping from." He cleared his throat. "'Please, please God,'" he cried, "'Don't let me die here! Take the others if you want, but let me out of here! I'll do anything! Please!'"
The others glared at him.
"It's just a spell," he said.
Nothing happened for a minute. But then, slowly, a ball of light appeared in front of them and changed into an arrow. It spun around for a moment and then stopped, pointing straight at the hedge.
"Oh, good job," Tiffany said.
"Hmm," Kondracke said. "Perhaps my inflection wasn't quite right."
"What's the problem?" Mike said. "It says we go that way, we go that way. Stand back." He unhooked his axe from his belt and swung. It sliced through the hedge to no effect. But after a few more swings there was enough of a hole for them to climb through. Kondracke was the last one through and the arrow followed, bobbing lazily alongside him. It still pointed the same direction, though, right at the next hedge.
"I think I get the idea," Mike said. "Stand back, this could take a while." He took his axe and started swinging away. Once he'd cleared that hedge he started right in again on the next one, then the next one and the next one. It took a couple of hours, but soon they were out of the maze — ten feet from where they'd come in.
"Oh, great," Tiffany said.
"All right, gang, here's the deal," Mike said. "It's probably the middle of the night by now, so we're going to sleep here. Then tomorrow, we go around this stupid thing."
"Is that fair?" Eric asked.
"Fair?" Mike said. "Of course it's fair. You can go through the thing if you want. They probably have a big hunk of cheese waiting for you at the end. Nummy-num."
So they went around the labyrinth. It took a full day of traveling to get to the far southern end of the thing, and then as it turned out it was only a couple of hours' walk deep. "Huh," Mike said. "Probably should've just cut through. Oh well."
"Look," Eric said. "The grass is gone."
They looked at their feet. Eric was right: instead of grass they were now walking on barren brown earth. And even that didn't last long. By the time the labyrinth was completely behind them, the earth had turned to sand and instead of hills, the only topography to go by was the occasional sand dune. "Jeez, how far south did we go?" Kondracke asked.
"I wonder where Jamie is," Eric said.
"Shut up," Mike said. "I'm sick of hearing about her."
The next day it wasn't Jamie he was sick of hearing about: it was water. "If I don't get a drink soon I'm going to die," Tiffany moaned.
"I've got sand in my shoes," Kondracke said. He emptied his shoes out but enough sand stuck to the soles of his feet when he put them back on that it didn't help much.
"I need to wash my hair," Tiffany said. "It's all gross and sandy. And I need a drink! Where's the water?"
"Will you all just shut up?" Mike said. "You're all such crybabies."
"We could use a drink," Eric said.
"No, we couldn't," Mike said. "Think about it. When did we ever take a drink before? We don't need to drink any more than we need to eat or go to the bathroom."
"But I'm thirsty," Tiffany said.
"No you're not," he said. "It's all in your head."
"Being hot isn't all in our heads," Kondracke said. "It's got to be a hundred and ten out here."
"So whip up a spell and fix it," Mike said. "Do something about it instead of just complaining."
Eric had to admit that the desert was beautiful in its own way. The wind had carved intricate patterns on the sand and every now and then they'd see a breathtaking sandstone castle off in the distance. "I'll tell you one thing," Mike said. "I bet you wish we'd taken those unicorns now, huh?"
That night they slept on the sand — even that was okay, Eric thought, and the sand certainly had more give to it than the grass they'd slept on before — and when they awoke the sun was directly overhead. They set out again as before but this time as the sun was setting Eric noticed that it wasn't directly in front of them but off to the side. "Um, have we been going west?" he asked. "It looks like we've been going south almost all day today."
Mike threw his shield down in frustration. "Will you all just stop whining!" he yelled. "I'm about ready to leave you here."
"I'm just saying—"
"I'm just saying you better shut your mouth if you want to keep it," Mike said. "Kondracke, see if you can find us a spell to get us out of here."
Kondracke opened his spellbook. "Here it is: deserts," he said. "It says, 'Cream one cup sugar with eight tablespoons butter. Add three eggs and twenty-four ounces cream cheese. Stir in large bowl with long-handled spoon.'" He frowned. "Hmm. Must be a typo."
"Hey, look," Tiffany said. "Here comes someone." She pointed off in the distance.
"I wonder if it's—" Eric started to say, but then checked himself. First of all, he didn't want to get Mike any madder than he already was, and second of all, it wasn't Jamie, but some strange old man leading a llama across the desert.
"Let's go talk to him," Kondracke said. Mike picked up his shield and the four of them ran across the desert to meet the strange nomad. It took about twenty minutes to get there but eventually they headed him off.
"Eh?" said the old man.
"Uh, hi," Eric said. "Um, we're travelers from a faraway land, and— oh, heck with it. We're lost. Can you tell us how to get out of here?"
The old man shrugged and started to lead his llama away. "Hey, guy, wait up," Mike said. "We're on a quest, man. We need to get to the big city. Where is it?"
The old man spat into the sand and shrugged again. "Lemme alone," he said.
Mike grabbed his wrist. "Ve haff vays uff making you talk, dude," he said. "Now where are you coming from and where are you going?"
"Came from the city," the nomad said. "Going to the forest. Gonna raise llamas. Now lemme go."
"So how do we get to the city?" Kondracke asked.
The old man shrugged yet again. "I ain't tellin' nothin' less'n you pay me," he said.
"I'll pay you with a broken wrist is what I'll pay you with," Mike said. "Tell us!"
"Wait, wait, back off," Tiffany said. "I'll handle this." Mike let go. "I bet it gets lonely out here in the desert, huh?" she asked.
The old man shrugged. "Yeh, I guess," he said.
"I bet," Tiffany said. "No one but your camel here to keep you company."
"It's a llama," the old man said.
"Whatever," Tiffany said. "Well, I'll tell you what." She lowered her voice. "I could give you a night of passion like you wouldn't believe. Just tell us how to get to the city."
The old man gulped. "Two days north by northwest left at the rock formation straight ahead to the bazaar north four hours to town," he said.
"Good boy," Tiffany said. "You heard him, guys. Let's go."
"What about th' night of passion?" the nomad asked.
"I said I could give you one," she said. "I didn't say I would. Come on, guys, let's get out of here."
"Good work, Tiff," Mike said. "I'd like to see the tomboy pull that one off. Heh heh." They headed north.
The old man watched helplessly as the four of them disappeared over some dunes. "Ah, heck with it, Bessie," he said, slapping his llama. "Yore purdier'n her any day."
They set up camp shortly after the nomad was out of sight. The next morning they headed north by northwest, as he had instructed; the desert didn't grow any less desolate, and they started to get discouraged. But the following day as night fell they saw a massive rock formation on the horizon. "That might be the one the guy was talking about," Kondracke said.
"You know it," Mike said. "Tomorrow we hang a left and get the heck out of here."
And so they did. The sand turned back into earth, and the earth into grass. But it wasn't the grass that excited them so much as the lack of grass along a certain strip: "It's a road," Mike said. "Or at least a path. Gotta be."
They followed the path for a while and eventually it turned into a gravel road, complete with signs saying things like "CITY AHEAD" and "25 MI. TO CITY" and "YOU MUST BE AT LEAST THIS HEIGHT TO ENTER THE CITY." (Eric was half an inch above the line.) They started encountering people going the other way along the road, and occasional cross streets, and as the sky grew dark, they found what seemed to be a hotel at an intersection. "An inn!" Tiffany said. "Let's check in? Please? I'm so sick of sleeping on the ground—"
"Me too," Mike said. "Okay, let's go for it."
But when they went in they were turned away. "I'm sorry, sir," said the man behind the desk, "but rooms are ten pieces of silver per person per night. No silver, no room."
"Fair enough," Mike said. Eric was surprised he was so calm about it — he half expected him to whip out his axe and lop off the clerk's head. But when they got outside he found out why. "All right, Dracky," he said, "whip us up some silver."
"Coming right up," Kondracke said. He opened his spellbook. "Hey, this one doesn't have any words," he said. "All I have to do is this." He reached into a pocket inside his cloak and produced a magic wand. Motioning the others to step back, he tapped the ground with the wand three times. There was a burst of light and a large black monolith grew up out of the ground.
"Now what?" Tiffany asked.
"Look," Eric said. He pointed at the monolith. "It's flashing a message. What does it say?"
Kondracke squinted at the small green letters flashing across the monolith. "It says, 'Please enter your PIN number,'" he said.
"Five," Mike said.
"What?" Kondracke said.
"Our PIN number is five," Mike said.
"How do you know that?" Tiffany asked.
"I don't," he said. "I just like five."
"Okay," Kondracke said. He walked up to the monolith. "Uh, five," he said.
A slot on the monolith opened up and silver coins started pouring out. A sizeable pile collected and then the monolith shuddered and silently crumbled to dust. "See?" Mike said. "Told you." He picked up a handful of the coins and they went back into the inn. But the clerk still wouldn't give them a room.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but we can't accept foreign money."
"What do you mean foreign money?" Mike asked.
"Our currency has the portrait of our king on it," the clerk said. "These coins bear the likeness of some sort of poodle."
"Poodle?" Mike said. He picked up a coin and squinted at it. "Dracky, you put poodles on our money?"
"I didn't put them there," Kondracke said. "I guess that's the kind of coins you get when your PIN number is five."
"If you'd like to sell some of your valuables," the clerk said, "there is a bazaar a mere fifteen minutes up the road from here. Er... I'd suggest you also buy a change of clothes. Your current garments are a bit... unusual."
Eric looked around. Most of the people in the lobby were dressed in simple peasants' outfits: not silks, not wizards' garb, not barechested like Mike. "Fifteen minutes, huh?" Mike said. "Okay, let's give it a shot."
The bazaar was almost ready to close up for the evening when they got there, but there were still plenty of tables open. "Hey, it's like a swap meet," Mike said. And in a way, it was: most of the tables were covered with whatever items that particular vendor was trying to hawk, from swords to clothes to primitive birth control devices. But there were also tables where you could sell things, and even a few where you could play different sorts of card and dice games.
"So what can we sell?" Eric asked.
"I dunno," Mike said. "What've we got that we don't need? How about your sword?"
"I don't think so," Eric said. "It still might come in handy."
"Yeah, right," Mike said. "Okay, how about that ring? Tiff?"
"The troll threw it in the trench, remember?" she said.
"I'll sell these shoes," Kondracke said.
"All right, finally we're getting somewhere," Mike said. But when they took the pointy yellow shoes to a couple of the pawnbrokers they just got laughed at.
"This is hopeless," Eric said.
Mike snapped his fingers. "I've got it," he said. "I know exactly what we can sell. You guys wait here." He vanished into the crowd for a few minutes and then came back, grinning. "Dude, major score," he said. "Check it out." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of shiny silver coins.
"So what did you sell?" Tiffany asked.
"You," Mike said. "See the guy with the mustache over there? You belong to him now. Don't worry, I'll try to buy you back if I have any money left over."
"Like, are you kidding?" Tiffany said. "You didn't seriously—"
The man with the mustache let out a sharp whistle and beckoned Tiffany over to him. Mike gave her a little shove in his direction. "Catch you later," he said. "Come on, guys, we've got stuff to buy."
The first place they went was one of the gambling tables. A man with a pair of dice was rolling them onto the table over and over again and calling, "Dice game! Put down your coins and try your luck!"
"What's the story here?" Mike asked.
"Two dice," the man said. "Put your money down and roll. You get a ten, I double your money. You get an eleven, I triple it. You get a twelve, I give you five times what you put down. Go ahead, try your luck."
"What do you say, Kon-man?" Mike asked. "Sound like a good deal?"
"Hardly," Kondracke said. "To break even the award for each roll should correlate to the number of possible rolls. In this case, there are thirty-six possible rolls, six of which garner awards: three possible combinations of ten, two possible combinations of eleven, and one possible combination of twelve. Thirty-six rolls by three winning numbers is twelve, twelve by three is four, twelve by two is six, and twelve by one is twelve, so in order to break even as the number of rolls approaches infinity the award for a ten should be four to one, six to one for an eleven, and twelve to one for a twelve. In other words, this is a ripoff."
"Who let him in?" asked the dice man.
"Well I'm going to give it a shot anyway," Mike said. He put a coin down on the table and took the dice in his hand. But he didn't roll them. "Ah, heck with it," he said. "Let's go for big money big prizes." He emptied his pockets onto the table.
"You're crazy," Eric said.
"I'd advise against this," Kondracke said.
"Tough," Mike said. "Here goes." He rolled the dice. They came up double sixes.
"Ha!" Mike yelled. "Pay up, dice boy. Ha ha ha! What'd I tell you, dude? Lady Luck always smiles on yours truly."
"I don't have enough to cover this," the dice man said. "I can pay you back three and a half to one, but—"
"Three and a half?" Mike said. "Oh no, my friend. You said five, I'm gonna get five."
"But I don't have it," the man said.
"We'll see about that," Mike said. "Come with me." He shoveled all the coins into his pocket and grabbed the man by the collar and dragged him into the crowd. Kondracke and Eric followed.
"Hey!" Mike yelled. "Mustache dude! Get over here!" The guy with the mustache looked over his shoulder and started to walk even faster, dragging Tiffany along behind. But even loaded down with change, Mike was able to catch up with him. "I want to make you a deal," he said. "I'll buy back the girl for twice what I paid."
"But I haven't had a chance to enjoy her yet," the man said. Tiffany shot Mike a dirty look.
"Okay, two and a half times," Mike said. "And I'll throw in this guy here. Maybe he's not exactly what you were looking for but I'm sure he'd make a great floor-scrubber or galley slave or something. What do you say?"
"Make it three times my money back and the man and you've got a deal," said the man with the mustache.
"Deal," Mike said. He handed over the money and the dice man and the guy with the mustache let go of Tiffany. "Nice doing business with you, dude."
"I don't believe you did that," Tiffany said. She punched him in the arm and nearly broke all the fingers in her hand.
"What's the problem?" Mike said. "Nothing happened to you, and now we've got tons-o-bucks. You should be thanking me. Now let's grab ourselves some decent clothes and get back to the motel before they start rolling up the sidewalks."
"They don't have any sidewalks here," Kondracke said.
"Whatever," Mike said. "Let's make like a tree and get out of here."
So they went back to the inn and this time the clerk put them up in a posh suite with individual rooms for each of them. Eric found his bed to be almost as comfortable as the one he'd had at the wizard's castle. Hard to believe that was over a month ago. Or was it? He'd lost track. He went to sleep dreaming of the city they'd finally see tomorrow. He did not dream of the world he'd left. After all these weeks, it just didn't seem real any more.
As it turned out, they didn't leave the hotel until late afternoon. The other three slept in until almost two, and then Mike hit the buffet downstairs and stuffed himself to the point that he couldn't bring himself to get up out of his chair for a while. It also took Eric a while to get used to everyone's new clothes. They'd all been wearing the same outfits for so long they'd become almost inseparable from the person wearing them. His own included. "All-righty then," Mike finally said. "Let's see what this city's all about."
So they gathered up their stuff and headed north, as the old man in the desert had told them. It was dark by the time they arrived, and there wasn't much moonlight so they could only make out the vaguest outlines of buildings. But it was a city, all right. The buildings weren't much to look at, but the entire place was crisscrossed with cobblestone roads, and the town square seemed to have been paved. "Spooky," Tiffany said. "This is the city? It's like a ghost town."
"What do you expect?" Mike said. "They don't have electricity. Everyone's asleep."
"Some in public," Kondracke said. "Look."
He pointed straight ahead. There, smack in the middle of the town square, someone was curled up, asleep. "Must be some bum," Mike said. "Let's see if we can get a room somewhere."
They were about to go looking for an inn when Eric did a double take. "That's no bum," he said. "It's — it's Jamie."
They tiptoed up to the figure lying on the pavement, and sure enough, it was Jamie. She'd taken a towel out of her pack and was using it as a pillow. Mike prodded her with the handle of his axe. "Wakey-wakey, eggs and bakey," he said.
Jamie sat up, rubbing her eyes. "Huh? What's going on?" she asked. She looked up and gasped. "You!" she said. "How did you get here?"
"That's just what we were about to ask you," Kondracke said. "Why were you sleeping in the middle of the town square?"
"Town square?" Jamie said. "What are you talking about?" She looked around and gasped again. "Where've you taken me?"
"We haven't taken you anywhere, Jamie," Eric said. "You were lying here when we got here."
"But that's impossible," she said. "When I went to sleep I was lying in the middle of a field. The same kind of place we were always camping out."
"You might want to think about cutting down on the acid, Jamesy," Mike said. "Hmmf. Treachery and hallucinations. Kids these days."
"This has got to be some kind of dream," Jamie said.
"Well, this is the part of the dream where we tie you up," Mike said. He grabbed her before she had a chance to struggle. "Guys, tie her wrists together."
"With what?" Eric asked.
"I dunno," Mike said. "Try your bowstring."
Eric took the string off his bow and tied Jamie's wrists with it. "I'm really sorry about this," he said.
"I'm sure," Jamie said. "Now what?"
"Now we take you to the cops," Mike said.
There was no real "police station" in town but one of the city guards wandered by shortly thereafter and directed them to the king's castle. "It's right on the edge of town," he said. "Take this street all the way to the end and then turn left. Believe me, you'll recognize the castle when you see it."
They saw what he meant. The king's castle made the wizard's look like a toy. "Dude," Mike said. "It's huge."
"I'm surprised there's nothing orbiting around it," Kondracke said.
"Well, let's go in," Mike said. "Hope they don't mind us barging in in the middle of the night."
At the front gate they found a big burly guard with a big threatening sword. "None shall pass," he said.
"Oh, not this again," Mike said. "Look, we've been walking for like a month and there's no way we're gonna get stopped now. Move it."
"None shall pass," the guard said.
"We need to talk to the king," Eric said. "It's urgent. He's — uh, he's expecting us."
"Don't matter," the guard said. "I'm not s'posta let anyone in."
"Okay, enough of this," Mike said. He unhooked his axe from his belt.
"Wait, wait," Kondracke said. "I think I can take care of this." He went up to the guard. "Let us in," he said.
"I already told you," the guard said. "I'm not s'posta let anyone in."
"Yes you are," Kondracke said.
"I am?" the guard asked. He scratched his head.
"Yes," Kondracke said. "You're supposed to get out of the way and let us in."
"Well... okay," the guard said. "I'm gonna need to see some dockyimints first, though."
"No you aren't," Kondracke said. "You're supposed to let us go on ahead."
The guard scratched his head again. "Okay, well, go on ahead." He opened the gate.
"That was cool!" Mike said once they were inside. "What was that, some kind of Jedi mind trick?"
"Not really," Kondracke said. "He was just really stupid."
Eric looked around the deserted chamber. Twin staircases led up to the next floor and there were at least four other doors to choose from. "So are we just going to scout around for the king?" he asked.
"Nah," Mike said. "First, we drop off Jamesy here in the dungeon. Then we grab some sleep and look for the king in the morning."
So they headed down to the dungeon and locked Jamie in the dankest cell and then the next morning went around the castle asking for the king. No one in the castle seemed concerned that four strangers were wandering around the king's home: they were just shuffled from place to place until they ended up in what looked like some kind of office. A man sat at a primitive desk dictating to a scribe; on the desk was a poorly-drawn picture of what seemed to be his wife and kids. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Uh, scribe, don't write that down."
"We're travelers from a faraway land," Eric said. "We came here through a magical portal and are now on a quest to find a lost boy. We need to speak with the king."
"Who're you, anyway?" Tiffany asked. "Some kind of advisor?"
"Oh, no," the man said. "Nothing so important. I'm the third-level assistant undersecretary to the king's advisor's page's assistant's cousin."
"So can we speak with the king?" Eric asked. "It's really important."
"Oh, I'm afraid that's quite impossible," the man said. "But you do seem to be genuine. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll supply you with passes and send you across town to see the king's head knight's public relations coordinator. How's that?"
Kondracke started counting on his fingers. "We'll take it," he said.
So they followed the man's directions to the castle's branch office. Eric was disappointed that the city looked so ugly in the daylight. Trash littered the streets, unwashed peasants wandered to and fro, and the entire place smelled like a dank men's room. "Look out below!" yelled a woman. Eric and the others ducked just in time to avoid being splashed by a cascade of foul-smelling sewage.
"Eww," Tiffany said.
"Looks like they're emptying out the chamber pots today," Kondracke said.
"They empty out the chamber pots every day," said a passing peasant.
Further along they passed a toothless man holding a cup. "Shpare change?" he asked.
"Oh, sure," Mike said. He dug in his pocket and give the man a coin. "Here you go."
The man studied the coin and threw it back at him. "I don't want no coin with no poodle on it," he said. "Bleedin' foreigners."
Eventually they made it to the branch office. They showed their passes to the guard and were shown to the king's head knight's public relations coordinator's office. There was a huge portrait of the king hanging in the office that looked just like the portrait on the coins. "How can I help you?" the coordinator asked. "Make it quick, I'm a busy man."
Eric started to tell the story but the coordinator cut him off. "An elf!" he said. "How did you get in here? Didn't you see the signs?"
"I was above the line," Eric said sheepishly.
"Hmm," the coordinator said. "We'll have to raise the height requirement. Well, let's hear your spiel." Eric told him the story of their adventure to date, from stepping through the portal to their arrival at the branch office. "So you're looking for a little boy, eh?" the coordinator asked. "Between the ages of five and eight?"
"He's six," Eric said.
The coordinator shook his head. "I'm afraid it's hopeless, then. The dragon's got him."
"Dragon?" Eric said. "I thought dragons only kidnapped young maidens."
"Our dragon is a bit of a pederast," the coordinator said. "Every year we lose three or four little boys to that thing. He's sucking the treasury dry, too. We have to pay him a tithe so he won't level the town. We wanted to install a half-decent plumbing system, maybe some relief programs for the less fortunate: no way. We just don't have the funds."
"What if we killed the dragon?" Mike asked.
The coordinator stroked his chin. "You'd become legends around here if you could do it," he said. "But that dragon is thousands of years old. Countless brave knights and powerful mages have tried to slay him and received nothing but a painful death for their troubles."
"But we're cooler than they were," Mike said. "Where is he? We'll bring you back enough dragon meat to feed this burg for months."
"Well..." the coordinator said, "I personally wouldn't advise that you try it, but the dragon's cave is just a few miles from the outskirts of town. Go to the southwest gate and the road leads straight there."
"What do you say, guys?" Mike asked. "Do we pulverize 'im?"
"We have to," Eric said. "It's in the prophecy."
So they changed back into their original clothes — it seemed more appropriate somehow — and headed for the southwest gate. Even before they got there word had leaked out that a band of adventurers were going to try to slay the dragon and so there were throngs of people waiting at the gate to meet them. They got a big sendoff. "Go get 'im!" someone yelled. "Give 'im one fer me!" yelled another.
"We'll do our best," Eric said.
"They're toast," one of the townspeople muttered.
The city was just barely out of sight when they spotted the dragon's cave. "This is it, guys," Mike said. He paused. "Uh, I just want you all to know that even though we didn't always get along so great I think you're all really cool."
"That's it," Tiffany said. "We're going to die, aren't we?"
"Shut up," Mike said.
So they tiptoed into the cave. There, tied up in the back of the cave with a big piece of duct tape over his mouth, was Timmy Grimes. But they couldn't reach him because the green, scaly dragon, curled up and sleeping soundly, took up nearly the whole cave and blocked their path. "Where the heck does a dragon get duct tape?" Kondracke whispered.
"Who cares?" Tiffany whispered back. "So what do we do now?"
"I'm not sure," Mike said. "Let's see if we can zap him with a spell. Kondracke?"
Kondracke opened up his spellbook. "I can't seem to— wait, here's something! Dragons, disposal of." He gestured. "'Don't leave me hangin', get rid of the dragon!'" he declared.
Nothing happened. "Or not," Kondracke said.
"Okay," Mike said. "Looks like we do this the hard way." He unhooked his axe from his belt and charged.
The dragon didn't hear him approaching. Mike swung once, twice, three times. The head of the axe broke off the handle and clattered to the ground.
"Oops," he said.
The dragon opened one eye and let an amused smile creep across his face. "So," the dragon said. "Visitors."
"Let go of the boy," Eric said, sounding nowhere near as tough as he'd hoped. "Uh, please?"
"Well, well, well," the dragon said. "What have we here? You're certainly not from this dimension." He sniffed. "In fact, you smell just like this delicious little morsel I picked up a few weeks ago. You come from the same place, yesss?"
"Yeah," Mike said. "Let him go."
"You're going to have to do better than that," the dragon said. He sat up and stretched his wings. "Convince me."
Eric suddenly realized that the dragon had been sleeping on a pile of credit cards and traveler's checks. "I thought dragons were supposed to sleep on piles of gold," he said.
"Gold?" the dragon asked. "You must be joking. Do you have any idea how volatile the market in precious metals is these days? I invest most of my assets in T-bills and municipal bonds. They give you a nice return at minimal risk." He coughed. "But I believe you were here to slay me."
"That's right," Mike said. "Give up, or we'll kill you."
"With what?" the dragon asked. "You don't seem to have any weapons."
He was right, Eric realized. Mike's axe was broken, Kondracke's spells didn't work, and he'd taken apart his own bow to tie Jamie's wrists together. They had absolutely no weapons. Except...
"I think we're in trouble, guys," Mike said.
Except... there was one weapon he had left. And now he knew what it was for. Eric took the magic sword out of its scabbard. It seemed to glow and dance of its own free will. "This is your final warning, dragon," he said. "Let the boy go, or we will kill you."
"I'd like to see you try," the dragon said.
"Very well," Eric said. Time seemed to stop as Eric rushed forward, swung the magic sword, and...
...it broke into a million pieces.
"Well, this has all been very amusing," the dragon said, "but I'm afraid you've grown rather tiresome. I think I'll kill you now." He turned to Mike. "I'll start with you. Attacking a fellow in his sleep! I never."
The dragon breathed a fiery jet at Mike; only his shield saved him. "Run, guys!" Mike yelled. "I'll hold him off! You guys get out of here!"
They ran. Tiffany first, then Eric and then Kondracke. "Stupid shoes," Kondracke muttered. "Can't walk in them, can't run in them—"
Eric stopped at the threshold of the cave. A strange thought had occurred to him. It was worth a shot, anyway. "Beauford!" he said.
The dragon stopped. Mike's shield was dripping with slag — he couldn't have lasted another few seconds. "What did you say?" the dragon asked.
"I said 'Beauford,'" Eric declared. "That is your name, right?"
"Yesss," the dragon said. "Hmm. This is most disturbing."
"What's going on?" Mike asked.
"It's his true name," Eric said. "Remember? At the dinner with the wizard? One of the things he said was, 'Beauford is full of hot air.' And when I saw the flames I realized what he meant. He may have been senile, but he must have been a great wizard once, and he figured out the dragon's true name. And knowing the true name of something gives you power over it."
"Not really," the dragon said. "I just find it really embarrassing. Look, I'll let you all go if you promise not to tell anyone, okay? I'll even throw in the boy. Just don't tell."
"And will you stop harassing the townspeople?" Eric asked. "And rescind the tithe?"
"Anything, anything," the dragon said. "Just don't tell. If this gets out I'll never hear the end of it."
Mike went over and untied Timmy and ripped the duct tape off his mouth. "Bet it feels good to be free, huh, kid?" he said.
"No!" Timmy yelled. "It kills." He put his hand to his mouth. "Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow."
"Shut up," Mike said.
"No!" Timmy yelled. "Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow—"
"Hey, guys, look over there," Mike said.
They did. Mike pulled Timmy's hands away from his mouth and put the duct tape back on.
"So how will the townspeople know we've defeated you?" Kondracke was asking.
"Uh, here," the dragon said. He handed them a stack of white cloth. "Take these."
Eric took one of the pieces of cloth and unfolded it. "I Defeated The Dragon And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt," it read.
When they got back to the city the townspeople threw them a parade. Feasts were held in their honor. What was more, they received an audience with the king's chief advisor. "Chief advisor?" Mike said. "Dude, we deserve the genuine article after all we've gone through."
"I'm afraid that's impossible," said the chief advisor. "The king — this is so awkward — the king died about four years ago. We, ah, never got around to telling the townspeople. The bureaucracy has been running things in the meantime."
Just then their doors to the chief advisor's throne room flew open and two guards came in dragging Jamie along behind them. "We found this girl in the dungeons," they said. "She says she belongs with them."
"Preposterous!" the chief advisor cried. "Have her beheaded at once."
"No!" Eric said. "I mean, she is with us. Go ahead and untie her." They did.
"How strange," the chief advisor said. "But as I was saying, the king has been quite dead for some time now, and we on the advisory committee have reached a decision. We want the two of you to be king and queen." He pointed at Mike and Tiffany.
"But Eric's the real hero," Mike said. "He should be the one to be king."
"Ah, but we've made arrangements for him too," the chief advisor said. "We may not be on the best of terms with the elf kingdom, but we do have diplomatic relations with them and they have demanded that young Eric here live with them as their prince. He will live in the lap of luxury and have his pick of any of the elf maidens he desires — or, knowing the elves, all of them."
"Dude," Mike said.
"What's happened to you people?" Jamie said. "Maybe you forgot: we're Americans! We don't believe in kings and queens and harems!"
"That's right," Kondracke said. "I think we should abolish the feudal system and set up a representative democracy with a bicameral legislature and—"
"You," the chief advisor continued, "will of course be appointed Sorcerer Supreme of the realm."
"Oh, okay," Kondracke said. "Do I get better shoes?"
"Listen to yourselves!" Jamie said. "We can't stay here! We have to go back home! We don't belong here!"
"Maybe you don't," Eric said. "But we do."
"That's right," Mike said. "We'll just drop you and little Timmy off back at the lab and then set up shop here. Sound like a plan, guys?"
"Does that mean we're going to have to spend another two months walking?" Tiffany groaned.
"Of course not," the chief advisor said. "Surely your sorcerer can provide you with a magical fiery chariot."
"Really?" Kondracke said. He opened his spellbook. "Huh. Here it is: Chariots, magical, fiery. Let's see." He gestured. "'Dum-DUM-de-dum- DUM-dum, dum-DUM-de-dum-DUM, dum-DUM-de-dum-DUM-dum, dum-DUM-de-dum-dum.'" A chariot of fire magically appeared, floating in the middle of the chamber.
"That's rad," Mike said.
So Mike and Tiffany and Kondracke and Eric and Jamie and Timmy got into the chariot, which floated out of the room, through the front gate, and up into the air. Soon they were hurtling over the landscape.
"Oh, dude," Mike said. "This puppy must be going Mach One. At least."
The desert flew by beneath them and soon they were back amongst the hills and the stream and the forest they'd come to know so well. The entire trip took only a few short hours. Before too long the chariot slowed, hovered in midair for a moment, and then gently set them down in the middle of a meadow.
"Huh," Mike said. "Wonder why it dropped us off here."
They looked around. There didn't seem to be anything to distinguish this particular stretch of meadow from any of the countless others. Then Jamie looked down.
"Look," she said. "It's a quarter." She picked it up. "This is where we first arrived."
"So where's the little portal doohickey?" Mike asked.
"The rupture," Kondracke said, "seems to have sealed itself during the month we've been gone. I believe we're here for good."
Eric's heart started beating fast. For good? That was something that had never occurred to him. Even as he was dreaming of staying here he'd always assumed someone would drag him back to the other world. This was better than he could have imagined.
"Oh, no, no," Jamie said.
"Don't cry," Eric said. "This place is a heck of a lot better than that other. There's magic here, Jamie. Magic and adventure and—"
"There's magic in the real world, too!" Jamie said. "It's not as obvious and you have to look for it, but it's there. You're just too busy dreaming of fantasy worlds to see what's... right under... your... nose." She stopped. "I know why we can't get back," she said.
"Why?" Kondracke asked.
"Because we haven't solved the riddle yet," Jamie said. "The hero and villain thing."
"Sure we have," Mike said. "It's pretty obvious to me, chickadee."
"To me, too, now," she said. "At least I know who the villain is."
"Who?" Eric asked.
She turned as if to answer him, but instead just took out her sword and plunged it into his stomach and out the other side. Eric looked down in shock and slumped forward.
Everything went black.
Jamie took off her helmet.
The others soon followed. "Dude, what're we doing back here?" Mike asked. He looked down at his body. "Aw, man, I'm not buff anymore!"
And Tiffany wasn't buxom, and Kondracke wasn't old, and Eric didn't have pointy ears. They were standing in the chamber in the lab.
"You can come in now, Dr. Sleator," Jamie called. "I think we've had what you'd call an abnormal termination."
The door to the chamber opened and Dr. Sleator came in. "Where's Timmy?" he asked.
Tiffany looked around. "Hey, that's right!" she said. "Where'd Timmy go?"
"There is no Timmy," Jamie said. "Just as there is no other dimension. This whole thing has been some kind of simulation, right? How long have we really been in here?"
"About six hours," Dr. Sleator admitted.
"Simulation?" Eric said.
"Right," Jamie said. "Probably fed to us through these suits. These aren't radiation suits, are they? Look at the label on the inside of these helmets. 'SimSci'. They're hooked up to some kind of simulator, right?"
"Well, yes," Dr. Sleator said. "We were about to end the program anyway, but I see you—"
"Program? Simulator?" Kondracke said. "Please don't tell me it was all just a dream. That's so cliché."
"It wasn't just a dream," Jamie said. "It was a lot more sinister than that. We were tricked. I knew that place couldn't have been real. It was just too... conventional somehow. That's the problem with fantasy worlds: we can't come up with anything truly fantastic so we just mix and match things we know. What are the chances another dimension was going to be some pseudo-medieval place with dragons and unicorns and swords and sorcery? Zero, that's what."
"I still don't get it," Tiffany said. "Why'd you kill Eric?"
"Because he was making it happen," Jamie said. "I kept thinking to myself, why would they bring in some obscure guy with no real talents? And then I realized: he was here because he had the best imagination. He could visualize these worlds so well that he could get the rest of us to believe them. There's no computer in the world that could simulate all that stuff. We were hooked up straight to his brain, weren't we? And when I 'killed' him it was enough of a shock to shut down the machine."
"More or less," Dr. Sleator said. "But—"
"That's why I didn't see the troll bridge or the city before the rest of you got there," Jamie said. "Because they weren't there until he got there. Maybe he didn't consciously think, 'I want this chasm to be here,' but as soon as the idea popped into his mind, conscious or not, bang, there it was. And when he didn't want the portal back to be there, it wasn't there. That's why he was the 'villain.' He was keeping us trapped there."
"Hey, wait—" Eric said.
"We were running around in the kind of world he was always dreaming about," Jamie continued. "But we didn't have the same preconceptions he did. Which is why anachronisms kept popping up. Tiffany's ideas of what a spell should sound like, for instance."
"Or Kondracke's idea of the gold market," Mike said. "I get it."
"Right," Jamie said. She looked at Dr. Sleator. "You don't do real physics work here at all, do you? This place is all about simulations and hooking up brains to computers and stuff, right? Just like all those annoying cyberpunk books. Guys, put your helmets on. I bet we see the hole in the back wall again."
They put their helmets back on and sure enough, where there had only been a blank gray wall before there was now the "portal." Jamie took off her helmet again. "I have to admit I'm pretty impressed," she said. "I didn't know we had this kind of technology yet."
"Well, we're still experimenting with the neural interface," Dr. Sleator said, "but yes, we've—"
"Yeah, I'll bet," Jamie said. "Well, I'll bet the press is just going to love this one. Kids forced into an experiment without their consent. Lifelike simulations. It may not be enough to get you into any trouble — I'm sure you've got tons of lawyers ready to convince everyone we're just a bunch of silly kids trying to trick people — but I bet it'll be enough that you won't be able to do it to any other kids." She dropped her helmet onto the floor. "Come on, guys," she said. "Let's change back into our normal clothes and get out of here."
They filed out, one by one. All except Eric. Eric sat huddled in the corner. "What are you waiting for?" Dr. Sleator asked. Eric put on his helmet. "Can you please turn the machine back on?"