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Gift of the Master

© 2012 Robert J. Fluegel. All rights reserved.

 

The Master of Books Series

Book 1

Gift of the Master

by Robert J. Fluegel

 

Chapter 1

Pulled In

 

My brother Reed ran at top speed down the hall just out of my reach. The jerk just wouldn’t leave me alone.He skidded to a stop in the living room in front of my mom.

“Tommy is holed up in his room again reading romance novels.” Reed tossed the book to her and folded his arms, looking at me with a smug grin.

Mom put down the patch of quilt she always seemed to be working on, and handed me back the book.

“Thanks,” I said, resisting the urge to chuck it at Reed,“and I don’t read romance novels. Maybe Reed is jealous because he can’t read at all.”

“Why are you giving it back?” Reed protested. “You told me to get him out of his room!”

“I asked you to invite him outside,” my mother chided. Ever since my dad disappeared she played both roles, disciplinarian and nurturer. “I didn’t ask you to steal his book.”

“Same thing,” said Reed, the smirk long gone. “The only way to get him away from his books is to steal them.”

“Don’t even think about it,” I said, balling my fist to let him know I meant it.

“What you gonna do about it?” Reed took a step toward me.

“Boys!” Mom’s tone stopped us both. She rarely put her foot down, but Reed and I both knew when she did, it was time to scatter. A few moments later I was back in my bedroom, curled up on the bed with my book, my favorite place in the world to be.

I didn’t make any friends of course, I never really tried to. I suppose it was my first day of kindergarten that showed me that I wasn’t the same as everybody else.

Up until that point I felt like I was a normal kid with normal parents living a pretty normal life. I don’t remember much from my early childhood, but that day is etched in my memory forever.

I remember clearly the shine of my mom’s black hair in the morning sun as we walked through the neighborhood toward school. She had half her hair all curly on top of her head, with butterfly barrettes all over the place, then straight in the back all the way down to her waist. She wore her best sparkling dress and butterfly sandals on her feet. She always dressed in butterflies though, so I was used to it. Her piercing blue eyes were filled with excitement.

The late August sun promised another scorcher as it rose over the tops of the great maples and oaks lining the streets. It had been a hotter than normal summer in Covington, our little town in northern Illinois.

“Look Tommy,” my mom said, pointing excitedly at a small group of kids walking on the other side of the street. “Maybe they’ll become friends of yours!”

My mom started waving at the children who thankfully were too busy in their own conversations to notice us. In looking at them I got my first inkling that something was wrong. They all looked the same: t-shirts and jeans with short cropped hair, matching lunch boxes, and backpacks with some comic hero plastered on the back. It was like they had come off some kid assembly line somewhere. I was only five so it wasn’t as big a deal as it became later, but I did notice that I looked nothing like the little clones. My white buttoned down shirt, red bowtie, bright orange shorts and yellow shoes were the kind of clothes I always wore when we went out. Mom let me grow my hair long too because I hated haircuts. I couldn’t have been more different and even at five, I noticed.

“Look honey, it’s your school!” My mom pointed ahead at the large brick building on the corner. A mass of children and parents were posing for pictures next to the Carl Sandberg Elementary School sign.Older kids were out on the playground throwing a football back and forth. There were more people than I had ever seen in one place in my life. I remember wanting to hide behind my mom for protection. At the age of five I didn’t understand much, but I did know I was entering a whole new world away from the quiet of home and at that moment I knew I didn’t want to.

I remember for some reason the crunch of dead grass under my feet as we walked through the school yard toward the main entrance. That crunch seemed to symbolize the shattering of my hopes of starting a fun new chapter in my life at school. Even before the kids began to laugh at my outfit, even before the parents started staring at me and my mom, and shooing their kids in the opposite direction, I knew I was going to be miserable in that big brick building.

I wasn’t very good at schoolwork; I started out bad and just got worse. But the one thing I could do was read. While the teacher tried to get the other kids to understand the alphabet, I was reading words. I didn’t have to try—the words on those pages just made sense and they took me to a new existence where I had friends and adventures and pretty much everything always worked out in the end. Without books I don’t know how I would have made it through that year. It wasn’t just school; that was a minor irritant. It was my dad.

As time passes, so do the memories so I really only remember brief flashes of my father. He was a tall man with dark hair and dark, bushy eyebrows. He wore a cologne that smelled like pine trees. I remember that for some reason. He had a deep voice and loved to pull me into his lap and read to me. “This is the first book I ever read, Tommy,” he said one day, handing me a red book with the title “Run, Jump, Ride” on the cover. “I loved that book, son. I hope you will too.”

I did love that book because he gave it to me; because it was my first book and even more because that was the day he left for work and didn’t come back. Covington, Illinois was a boring place to grow up. Nothing even remotely interesting happened there. My dad’s disappearance was the biggest scandal in twenty-five years. He went to his office to do a little work in the evening and never came back.  Nobody ever heard from him again.  At school I went from odd to mysterious. Kids began acting friendly just to see how much information they could get out of me. Once I figured out their motive, I wouldn’t go around them. More and more, I locked myself away inside my books.

As the days, weeks and months after his disappearance rolled by, our family eventually began to accept he wasn’t coming back. I was the last to give up hope. My older brother, Reed, stopped talking about my dad altogether. Mom would talk about him with me, but she would always end up crying so I stopped asking. For years I would sit in a little window seat in our front room that allowed me to see the street leading down to our cul-de-sac. Even years later I would still catch myself looking up from my book, checking the street so I would be the first to see him when he came back.

As time passed reading became my best, my only friend. Summers I barely left my house. During the school year I read as I walked, read at recess and read on the way home. I liked most types of books but my favorites contained magic. Wizards, mages, ancient artifacts that bestowed magical abilities. I ate it all up.I loved battles and duels and warriors with shining armor. I always wished I could be an adventurer in one of my books. Walking along a dangerous path, surrounded by enemies on all sides and just as it seemed most hopeless I would take a desperate chance and save the day. I didn’t know that things like that could really happen—at least not until my fifteenth birthday.

I was in my room, in the hot June summer with my window open and I had just decided on my next book. I had a pretty big collection and enjoyed re-reading my favorites over and over again. The book I’d chosen was called “People of the Plains”.It was a story about a tribe of people who lived with wolves.I can still see the old brown cover, feel the faded title embossed on the front.

That book, that day, sitting at my desk, that’s where it first happened.  I turned to the first chapter and began.

[_Reule knelt in the bushes, ignoring the pricks of the branches, not more than forty paces from his prey. Four of his fur brothers were fanned out, two to each side, closing in.  He was near enough to loose a killing arrow into the buck before it could take another step, but he held back, knowing the slightest movement would send their prey into flight before they could spring their trap.So far, it seemed unaware of their presence. _]

[_ Reule watched two of his brothers silently traversing a hill to his left.  To the right, two other wolves crouched in the bushes, waiting._]

[_Suddenly the buck stopped drinking, raised its antlered head and looked downstream.The great animal tensed for an instant, looking back at Reule’s bush.  His fur brothers on each side froze.  Everything seemed to stop for a brief instant as if very nature held its breath.  Then in one mighty leap the buck sprang away.  Reule and the wolves gave chase.  He ran down the bank towards the stream and witha leap jumped over the spot where seconds before, his quarry had been drinking peacefully. _]

[_He ran several miles, falling well behind the chase, running through wood and glen until he found them.  They were in a little clearing.  The four fur brothers had the buck surrounded.  The great animal had badly damaged its leg at some point in its flight.  The wolves were nipping at its heels, trying to find purchase on its hind quarters.  Its large antlers kept them at bay, but the buck couldn’t break out and escape. _]

As Reule got closer the smallest of his fur brothers, Loup, turned to him and signaled. Reule pulled back his bow and aimed at the buck.

So here is where it got weird.  I turned the page and kept reading but I began to feel strange.  I got real hot all over, like from standing in the sun too long.  Sweat began running down my face and my heart started thumping.  I wasn’t really scared at that point, more than anything annoyed.  I figured I was getting sick which did get me out of chores, so there was that.  The heat went away so I started the book again. No sooner had the first few words passed across my vision than the heat returned and this time, much worse.  I felt this force pulling me forward.

After a few seconds things seemed normal again so I decided to give it one more try.  The first words on the page skittered through my head and there it was again, but this time even worse, a force pulling me forward, toward the book.  I put out my arms to keep from cracking my skull on my desk, but the force was too great. No matter how hard I pushed against it I felt myself slipping, my arms shaking.  After several agonizing moments my arms gave out.  I flew forward toward my desk with enough speed to knock me out.  I waited for the thud, waited for the pain, but neither happened.  My room disappeared.  Blackness closed in all around me and then I was falling.  In front of me a white wall appeared with black markings on it but I fell too fast to see what they were. 

It was pretty horrible in the beginning but eventually I got used to the sensation.  It could have even been fun if I had some way to stop before I hit bottom.

A few moments later I felt a change, pressure, like I was being squeezed through a tube of toothpaste.  My insides felt like they were coming outside.  I’m not too proud to admit that I screamed my head off.  The pain almostcaused me to blank out.  Then a light flashed in front of me.  I closed my eyes, and my feet hit something hard.  

When I opened my eyes the tunnel and the white wall were gone and I found myself in a clearing, surrounded by trees.  Right in front of me a large buck with antlers lowered stood, surrounded by four giant wolves nipping and lunging at it.  The buck held its badly damaged front leg off the ground.  Just then I noticed I had something in my hands.  I looked down to see a bow with an arrow nocked and pointed at the buck.  I relaxed the string in confusion. It looked like the small forest out back of my home but something wasn’t right about it. There were no wolves anywhere near Covington, the air seemed different too. It was hot but not humid and the sun seemed smaller somehow. Am I dreaming?I fell asleep reading all the time but everything was way too vivid to be a dream.

The bow in my hands looked so real, the arrow had scrape marks from where a knife had carved it.  It was then that I noticed my arms and hands. They were much larger than normal and covered in dirt. Looking down I had some kind of buckskin shirt open down the front. “Holy crap! I have chest hair!” I said out loud.

 “Tamaska, why do you wait?”  a short, stocky guy said, scaring me half to death.  He’d been standing right next to me the whole time but until then I hadn’t noticed.  My arms flew up, the bow and arrow fell to the ground.

The man laughed and lifted his own bow, aiming at the buck.  For an instant he paused, held his breath and grew still.  With the slightest movement he released the arrow, which flew the short distance between us, slamming into the buck’s heart.  The great animal snorted and rushed the nearest wolf, breaking through the circle, ignoring its leg and the arrow protruding from its chest.  The wolves just let it run. 

 “I’ll get the horse, Tamaska,” said the short man, running off into the woods.  I watched him go, still in a daze.  The man, the wolves, the buck, I knew that scene!  It was the story I had just been reading.  I had dreams before about my books but not like that.  There were too many details.  My dreams were always hazy, with each scene moving slowly while my mind made up the surroundings, characters and dialogue.  This vision, dream, daydream, whatever it was, flew by.  I could see individual leaves on the odd trees.  The meadow stretched out for a mile.  Little hillocks were covered by deep grass which waved back and forth in a light summer breeze.

The wolves played in the grass, wagging their tails, growling and nipping at each other like pups.  The wolves were huge!  I’d always thought of wolves being about the size of a big dog.  Not these.  The largest wolf, a grey beast, stood as high as my chest.  The others weren’t much smaller.  It was then that it occurred to me that I was alone with four monsters, any one of which could have taken me down easily, let alone four of them.  I began to back away, thinking if I gave them a little space, maybe they’d leave me alone. 

The big grey noticed my movement and walked over to me, growling.  The hair on its back stood on end.  My hair stood on end too.  I’m not ashamed to admit how frightened I was.  I kept looking off towards the woods, hoping for that short guy to come back.  Maybe he had some control over them.  He was nowhere in sight though and when I looked back to the wolf it leaped right at me.  I didn’t yell, what would be the use?  I figured that was it.  I’d die ripped apart by a monster wolf.  Not the way I would have picked for sure. 

I held my hands up as we hit the ground, trying to keep its jaws from my throat. But then the darn thing changed tactics and started licking me.  At first I figured he was trying to see how good I tasted but he just kept on licking, making a whimpering sound.  I didn’t realize I had closed my eyes but when I opened them the licking stopped and the beast hopped off me.  Its long bushy tail was wagging a mile a minute.  It was then that I thought of the book. 

[_In the story the wolves and people were friends.  Could it be he thinks I’m one of the People of the Plains? _]

The improbability of it all boggled my mind but there it was.  Reality stood right there in front of me, wagging its big bushy tail. The other wolves were still playing.  The big grey appeared to be friendly, so throwing caution to the wind, I decided to join in.  Tentative at first, I started out petting and then scratching behind his ears.  He leaned into it so I knew he liked it.  Then I decided to push it.  I tackled him and yelled a mighty roar.  Its strength and speed were startling. 

One minute I was on top, the next minute the wolf lunged high in the air above me, looking ready to devour me in one bite.  I just barely dodged its murderous assault in time, thinking maybe I should’ve stuck to petting.  I did notice his tail wagging though so hopefully that meant we were still playing.  The wolf made another lunge at me but this time I was quicker.  Not only did I avoid the leaping animal but I got in a pretty good shove to his side, sending the animal sprawling.  I don’t know who was more surprised, me or the wolf. I looked down at my hands and again noticed the bulging muscles in my forearms and biceps. I looked like a pro-wrestler. My moment of distraction cost me though as the beast knocked me over and pinned me with its bulk to the ground. It looked the animal was in it for blood, but then both our heads turned at the sound of the short guy’s return.

“Tamaska, Ula, playing again?”  He scoffed, “Ula, I would think you would have learned your lesson after the last beating Tamaska gave you.  You should try Reule instead,” he said, beating his chest.

The revelation that his name was Reule brought my predicament back into focus.  [_This is Reule and I’m inside a book.  How is this possible? _] I didn’t have time to think on it for long.

Reule led a small horse from the trees into the clearing.  “Come Tamaska, I believe my buck should be ready.”  The small man made a series of movements and whimpers to the large wolf, after which the animal and the three others ran off in the direction of the buck.

With the wolves gone I had time to look at the strange little guy.  Could it really be Reule?  I’d read that book many times before and always had a picture in my mind of what Reule would look like.  Well, this wasn’t it.  He was too short, his black hair shiny and plastered to his head like it hadn’t been washed in weeks.  His buckskin clothes fit but they were filthy.  They looked like they had years of filth ground into them.  Hadn’t this guy ever heard of a washing machine?  He talked in a slow halting manner but smiled often and seemed like a nice enough person.  I didn’t make friends pretty much ever but I found myself liking him. 

We left the meadow behind only to find thick underbrush in every direction, most of it filled with enormous thorns and stuff that stuck to me, grabbed me and scratched most of my skin off.  I fell more than once and by the time we found a little opening in the tangled mess I was cut, bleeding and miserable.  This was no great adventure.  It was a painful, sweaty, tangled mess. 

A thought suddenly stopped me in my tracks.  How do I get back home? 

I didn’t even know how I got there.  How do I get out?  Can I get out?

  I started getting that sinking feeling in my stomach like during that long walk to the principal’s office when you know you are busted; only this was life-and-death type stuff. 

I mean, I’m not equipped for hunting and fighting and battles.  People in this book die, lots of‘em.  I’m probably the most likely to end up in a dusty little grave than any of them.

 I began to sweat, which had nothing to do with my hike.  What am I going to do?

My misery was interrupted by a sound not far away.  A lone wolf’s howl filled the air, bringing me back to reality, or at least my current reality.  Soon we heard several wolves howling and set off towards the sound. 

Over a hill we found them, circling a group of bushes.  As we came closer I saw it.  The buck was laying there, dead.  The thing that hit me first was the blood.  It was everywhere.  It smelled like iron and drowned out the wild smell of the wolves, the forest, even the short guy who could really use a week of showers and couple dozen sticks of deodorant.  I don’t consider myself a wimp.  I mean, I’ve read about blood and guts or seen it in movies and didn’t even flinch.  This was totally different.  The smell, the blood, the glassy eyes of the buck looking right through me, it all became too much.  I emptied lunch, breakfast and last night’s cookies all over the ground.  By the time I finished, the wolves had stopped their circling and were staring at me.  The short guy was giving me a look.  I couldn’t decide if it was concern or amusement. 

Without a word he pulled a long knife from a pack on the horse and, with a leather strop, began to sharpen it. 

First he leaned over the buck and began to cut.  He split the hide open from front to rear.  Next, he used a bone-handled saw to cut the tailbone.  This opened the carcass up.  Then he started removing the entrails, tossing them to the wolves who snapped them out of the air hungrily.  All this I watched from a safe distance.  It was completely gross but also fascinating.  This wasn’t mentioned in the book at all.  I could see why the author would have skipped it but watching firsthand, I have to admit to being intrigued. 

So, after the entrails were removed, Reule took a water bag from the horse and used it to flush the cavity several times.  Then he wiped it dry with a cloth.  When he finished he removed several large chunks of meat from the front haunches and tossed them to the wolves as well.  I couldn’t believe how much those beasts could eat.  Together we lifted the carcass onto the horse and tied it down with a thin, corded rope.

“Tamaska, we must be getting this meat back to the family.  They will be starting the supper pots with nothing in them this night unless we go quickly.” 

I don’t know where he came up with that name but it was close enough to Tommy that I just went with it.  With a tug on the reins from Reule, the horse began to move and we were off.  I kept a safe distance behind the carcass, which was still dripping small streams of red down the sides of the horse.

Okay, here is where I started to get ticked off.  In the book it takes a few words to say they walked back to the village.  The real journey took hours.  I’m not talking a leisurely stroll through the grass, either.  We were walking through mostly dense brush and hills adding scratches and scrapes by the hundreds along the way. All while being eaten alive by very large mosquitoes, flies, and these little annoying pests that like to buzz right in your face. 

The wolves ran off not long after we set out, probably trying to outrun the hordes of insects determined to eat us alive.  The short guy, Reule, didn’t say much.  Not that I wanted to talk anyway.  I was still trying to figure the whole thing out. 

People don’t jump into books and walk around.  These things just don’t happen. 

This wasn’t just a dream though.  I thought maybe I could be in a coma or something. 

Maybe the dreams in a coma are more vivid?  Maybe I did knock my head on that desk.  I must have knocked it pretty good to have this happen, though.

The sound of a stick breaking shook me from my thoughts.  Reule stopped the horse, grabbed his belt knife and crouched.  He looked like a snake, ready to strike.  From behind trees to the side and in front of us stepped three men, their skin painted black.  White circles were painted around their eyes and lips with a line drawn from ear to mouth down their cheeks.  They carried spears, which they held ready to throw. 

“Look like you make nice hunt, Reule,” the man in front said.  “We hungry too.  We let you live if you give meat.” He raised his spear, pointing it right at Reule. 

Reule looked at me as if I knew what to do.  I guess the dumbfounded look on my face clued him in.  Reule threw back his head back and howled.  The painted men froze for an instant, their eyes darted around, but nothing happened.  The guy in front smiled, his white-painted mouth split wide, revealing black teeth. 

“No four-paws come.  You give up meat or we take.”  The man pointed his spear again at Reule and reached for the horse’s reins.  Reule slashed out with his knife as a warning which caused the man to leap back to avoid the thrust.  The guy growled and reared back his arm, getting ready to throw his spear at Reule.  The throw was cut short by a leaping blur of hair and teeth, crashing into his back, driving him to the ground.  Two other wolves appeared from nowhere, jumping the man to our left, knocking him to the ground.  The remaining thief took off running with Ula chasing right at his heels. 

My mind was whirling.  It had happened in like two seconds.  One minute, we’re about to get run through with some nasty-looking spears, the next minute we have them captive or running in terror through the trees. 

This whole wolf-man friendship thing could come in handy.  I can think of a few jerks I would like to have Ula chase through the halls of my school.

Reule walked over to the leader and put his knife to the man’s throat.  “We’ll be keeping our meat, Jubuska.  If you ever try this again, I will gut you like this buck.”  Reule picked their spears up from the ground and broke them across his knee. 

“Now take your man and run.”  Reule signaled to the wolves.Theylet the men go, but not without a nip at their behinds as they started.  The last we saw of them was a blur of black paint tearing through the underbrush of the forest.

Reule looked at me, smiling.  “The fur brothers wanted to kill them.  I am glad they did not.  We cannot afford a full-out war with the tribesmen.” 

Now that it was all over I slowly started to relax the tension in my muscles.  Having my life threatened was a whole new experience for me.  I always thought I could be an adventurer in one of my favorite stories.  I never thought I would turn out to be a wimp.  My image of myself took a serious beating at that moment.  I realized I was no hero, no adventurer.  I just wanted to go home to the safety of my house, my room and yeah, I’ll admit it, I wanted my mommy. 

“You are not yourself, my brother,” Reule said as we watched the wolves chase the painted men through the trees.

The tension returned in an instant. What would Reule do to me if he knew I wasn’t really Tamaska? Reule continued to watch the men as they ran out of sight. “Are you not feeling well?” he said, turning to me, “First the hunt and then emptying your stomach when I cleaned our kill. I thought perhaps you were ill but I am not accustomed to you deferring to me in a fight. If there is something wrong and I can help, please let me know brother.”

He looked at me with such concern I almost told him the truth but I wasn’t sure what the truth was myself. I was clearly in more than a dream. Was it a vision? A hallucination? I knew Reule wanted an answer but I needed one even more. How long would I be there? How would I get home? What if I couldn’t?

“Tamaska.” Reule started to speak but I cut him off.

“I’m okay, Reule.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “I think I’m sick or something but it isn’t bad. I’ll be fine.”

I couldn’t tell by the look on his face what he thought of my explanation. He grunted something I didn’t understand and took the lead for the horse and began our journey again.

Hours of walking later, my legs felt like mush, my breathing came in gasps and I wanted to give up.  Reule hadn’t said a word, which was a good thing. My throat was dry; my stomach reminded me it was empty.  I began looking for a nice place to crash but just then Reule pointed to some curls of smoke rising above the tops of the trees ahead. We climbed yet another hill and finally saw the village. 

I have to admit I was more than a little excited and not just because our hike throughHades was over.  Down there might be Rendall. I remembered everything about the village from reading the book.  It looked just like I pictured it.  People and wolves were everywhere.  Small children and pups were rolling around, playing together.  Thatched huts with hardened mud on the outside were built in uneven rows along a large steep hillside. Several dwellings were carved into the hill itself. 

There was a large entrance in the hill where wolves and a few women were coming and going. That would be the dens, home of the wolf chief Rendall, my favorite character of all time. He was the reason I had read the book so many times. What would he be like? I couldn’t wait to get down there and see him.

As we entered the village, however, I was surprised that I didn’t remember reading anything about the mud and filth which were everywhere.  The people were covered in it.  The children were a mess.  I wondered along the way why Reule didn’t stop by a stream so we could wash off some of the blood and filth.  Now I understood.  Why bother? We fit right in. 

The wolves broke into a run, stopping when they reached a small pack of pups.  As I got closer they started regurgitating meat so the pups could eat it.  I didn’t have anything left to upchuck but I started getting the feeling my stomach wanted to try anyway.  That was definitely not in the book.

Nearly everyone said hello and stopped to admire our hunt.  They all seemed to know me, men and women, old and young, and all dirty.  Reule led me into the rows of huts and ducked into the opening of a large dwelling with me following close behind.

 “We have been blessed with meat,” Reule proclaimed to a full room of more than a dozen people.  He looked at me and said, “Tamaska let me have the shot for once.” 

 Everyone laughed and came up to talk and slap Reule and I rather hard on the back.  A few went outside and returned with the carcass and began working on the meat.  First they cut it into large pieces.  Some went into a pot, some to a different part of the fire to be cured.

A smelly and very dirty woman approached me and just stared.  As if I should know what she wanted?  She could have been pretty with a few long hours of soaking in a tub and some toothpaste.  She didn’t say anything so I started to move around her but she grabbed my arm in a death grip and pulled me down close to her muddy face.  Before I could pull away she planted her lips on mine in a long and rather sloppy kiss.  Another followed before I could catch my breath from the first.  Her breath made me recoil in disgust.  This was not how I pictured my first kiss.

“Thank you, Husband,” she purred, “you have brought my brother home safe and kept the raven from our door another week.” 

Reule looked at her and then back at me and winked.  I was nearly knocked over when her words finally hit me.

 I’m trapped in a book. I don’t know how to get out. I’ll probably die but even worse, I’m married!

 

Chapter 2

Eyes in the Dark

 

Have you ever wondered what a caged rat felt like?That was me in that hut with my wife chasing me around.  When I first walked in I marveled at how big that one room was.  It got smaller by the minute.  There was nowhere to hide.  If I stopped moving, embarrassingstuff happened.  I tried sitting but she plopped down in my lap, wrapping her arms around my neck. 

“What a wonderful man I have married,” She purred, stroking my face.  “Look how much he loves me!”  

She lifted up her shirt at the waist, pinching rolls of fat on her dirty stomach.  What does that have to do with love?  I gave a nervous laugh and stood, nearly dropping her to the ground.  For the first time she seemed to notice my uneasiness around her.  She looked up at me with tears forming in her eyes.  Now what do I do?  

“I’m sorry,” I stammered.  She apparently didn’t know she wasn’t my wife.  I shouldn’t be such a jerk.  On the other hand, I wasn’t going to let her keep pawing at me either. 

The woman turned away from me and buried her head in the shoulder of Reule.  He looked at me with a questioning look.  I returned it with a shrug.  How can I know what a woman is thinking?  He patted her shoulder and said something under his breath to her which seemed to comfort her.  He looked at me and nodded toward the door.  I nodded back and before she could look up made a beeline for freedom.

On the way out I sneaked a spit from the fire filled with juicy meat.  My stomach thanked me even before I took my first bite on the way out the door.  The sun was setting in the western sky, lighting the cloud banks in shades of orange and red and casting long shadows on the ground.  Should be enough light to see some of the village.

Many people were out using the last light of the day to get a few more chores done.  In the book the main characters were Reule, leader of the people and Rendall, chief of the wolves.  There were a few other minor characters but I saw many more people than the few in the book.  What are their stories?  The villagers I passed asked me why I wasn’t home.  Some asked about Mylva.  I assumed that must be the name of my wife.  Whenever they asked a question I took a big bite of meat, pointed to my mouth and kept walking.

The experience of being in a place I had read about was amazing.  The best part was discovering things I didn’t remember or weren’t even mentioned.  How could an entire village of people exist in this book world if they weren’t even mentioned by the writer?  Whenever I tried wrapping my mind around it the possibilities were too many to comprehend.  I soon decided I could either spend my time trying to figure it out or just enjoy the ride. 

I walked past small, shaggy horses munching on prairie grass.  Right next to a stable the smell of smoke led me to a large kiln, half buried in the hillside.  Newly fired pots sat cooling in the sun.  An old man sat on a stump, watching the pots dry.  Every experience of his life seemed etched in the lines of his leathery face.  Children played nearby with blunt spears in a game they called “Spatang”.

I could have stayed for hours but I knew there was one place I couldn’t miss.  Once the meat was gone and the spit discarded, I made my way to the large opening in the distant hill where I had seen wolves coming and going earlier.  My heart raced thinking inside that hole I might get to see Rendall, the great wolf chief, one of my favorite characters of all time.  For a moment I froze, staring at the opening. 

I could recall the great friendship of Rendall and Reule.  They fought side by side against men and animals until a rift developed between the wolves and people. They separated, leaving both groups weaker.  At the end Rendall came back and saved Reule, sacrificing his life for him, bringing the brotherhood of wolves and man back together, stronger than ever.  I admit I cried reading of Reule, kneeling over the body of Rendall in grief.

I looked up at the darkening sky.  Should I chance it?  I couldn’t remember anything about the caves where the wolves lived.  [_Will they know I’m not really a part of the village? _]

My excitement overwhelmed my fear.  I put my head down and ducked through the opening.  The tunnel floor was solid dirt, hardened over years by the feet of wolves and men.  Light filtered through the opening, illuminating a cramped passageway at the back of the cave.  

I had to crouch to keep from hitting my head on the ceiling.  As I moved away from the opening the darkness deepened and I began having second thoughts.  Meeting a pack of huge wolves in total darkness wasn’t sounding so wonderful.  I was about to turn around when a torch approached me from the darkness, a woman holding it ahead of her.  I stepped back, expecting her to pass.  Instead she stopped, eyeing me with suspicion. 

“Tamaska, what are you doing in here?” She planted a fist on her large hip. “I can’t imagine Mylva is happy you are out so soon after having just returned.  Oh well, I always say if you let a man sharpen his own spear, he will end up missing fingers.”

She laughed at her own joke but upon seeing my look of confusion added, “Very well, don’t know why you are in the dens this late without a light but it must be for a good reason.  You are taking a chance though.  They get aggressive in the dark.  I’m sure Rendall will be happy to see you if you get to him safely.  Take this.” 

She handed me her torch and left muttering about how stupid men were.  I paused. [_ What did she mean, reach him safely?]  I took a few steps down the narrow passageway, my torch flickering in a breeze flowing through the tunnel.  [_I’ll never have this chance again], I told myself. I didn’t need much convincing though. It was like I felt pulled toward that tunnel. I just had to meet Rendall.

Several side passages crossed my path but I kept to the main tunnel. Mud stuck to my feet.  The smell of dampness and animal assaulted my senses.  Another reason to turn back but I kept going.  I had no idea how far I had to go, I just kept walking.  The floor dropped away suddenly, causing me to stumble.  I caught myself but in doing so I dropped the torch which hit the damp ground and sputtered out.  Great, now what do I do? 

I looked up expecting total darkness but instead found a large cavern stretching out away from me with a pale light filtering in through a crack in the ceiling.  More than fifty pairs of shining eyes watched me.  Stepping forward into the cavern, legs shaking and heart thumping, I began to look for Rendall.

What will he look like?  Will I recognize him?Wolves curled up here and there in small packs, some sleeping, some watching me.  Playful pups, still full of energy, pounced on the twitching tail of an adult or attacked each other. 

I had barely taken a few steps when a growl behind me sent shivers up my spine.  I turned around and found a massive brown wolf, teeth bared, its muscular body tensed.  Is that Rendall?  I backed away a step.  The growls of two more wolves behind me snapped my head around.  They were black and smaller than the brown wolf but more aggressive.  They snarled and made small lunges at me, driving me closer to the brown wolf. 

I scanned the cavern looking for a possible getaway but the entrance was now blocked by the brown wolf; no other opening was visible.  My heart fell when other wolves trotted over and closed in on each side of me, growling and nipping at me if I moved.  I froze, feeling fear like I had never known before. 

The brown wolf lunged at me from behind.  His paws hit me in the back, sending me to my knees.  The wolves on each side closed in, growling, ready to pounce.  My thoughts turned to the buck in the forest, now I was surrounded, I was the prey and they were about to make me dinner.

Just then a howl filled the cavern, causing the wolves and I to turn our heads.  The circle opened and in trotted a wolf two times the size of the large brown wolf.  The wolves in the circle lowered their eyes and whimpered.  He had fur as black as night with a silver streak down his chest.  His eyes fell on me.  They were grey and sparkled like diamonds.  He was magnificent, beautiful.  I felt awe more than fear.  I lowered my eyes and then my head.  I felt like I was in the presence of royalty – better than royalty. 

The wolf sat on its haunches, wagging its tail.  A growl made the other wolves jump.  The brown and the others in the circle backed away, slinking off into the darkness. 

[It’s him! _] _I met the eyes of the large black wolf.  It has to be.  Seeing Rendall, looking into those intelligent, gentle eyes, I didn’t have words for the moment.

When I read the book the first time I loved every part except the end.  I always hated books where my favorite character died. I never forgave the writer for killing Rendall. I had read about nobility many times, but I witnessed it for the first time that day, sitting in a cave, in a world I wasn’t sure even existed. 

Rendall stood and walked by, bumping me as he passed.  What does he want?  The wolf stopped, waiting.  He wants me to follow him.  I had no idea where we were headed but arguing with a wolf the size of a horse wasn’t my idea of smart so I followed. 

The light coming through the crack above had almost vanished by then. I could see no more than a few feet in front of me.  With a little trepidation I put my hand on the wolf’s large back so I wouldn’t lose him in the enveloping darkness.  We left the same way I had come.  I gave one last look out over the cavern, the glow of dozens of wolf’s eyes following us. 

We walked in silence up the tunnel until I hit my head on an overhanging rock.  All I could see were stars.  I stopped, rubbing the spot on my head.  When I reached again for Rendall, I couldn’t find him.  I stumbled blindly, desperation increasing with every step. 

“Rendall,” I called out, trying not to sound as afraid as I was.  Then, I saw eyes, shining with their own light in the darkness.  They held me where I stood—I couldn’t blink. I couldn’t move. 

Suddenly, images began to play across my vision.  I was a pup, playing with my pack, my mother keeping a close watch over us.  Her scent brought me comfort and safety.  The scene changed and I was older, towering over my brothers and sisters.  Our first hunt didn’t go as planned. Wehad happened on a pack of wild boars and turned from hunter to hunted.  My older brother, Reonn had held them off almost singlehandedly so the rest of us could escape.  Now the pack stood over his lifeless body, whimpering.  I felt the grief, the pain, the regret.

The scene shifted again and I was on a hunt with a man that looked a little like me, wolf and man running through the forest together.  I could feel the exhilaration, the rush of excitement when I took the deer down by myself.  I could hear the man yelling, I could feel the blood flowing into my mouth, taste the delicious meat as I gorged.  The scene shifted again and I stood over Tamaska’sbody, a battle ragingall around.  Hundreds of painted men like those in the forest had attacked.  I threw back my head and howled, my cries fillingthe air with anguish. 

The visions ceased and I fell to my knees.  The feelings were overwhelming.  I closed my eyes to make sense of it all.  Then I felt Rendall next to me, nuzzling his head into my neck.  I reached out, wrapping my arms around him. 

When I opened my eyes I nearly swooned.  The entire tunnel was lit up like twilight.  I looked for the source of the light but could find none.  Rendall looked up at me still waiting. 

“What happened to me?  Where is that light coming from?”

I knew he couldn’t answer but his intelligent eyes met mine.  I heard a voice speaking in my mind.  “You have been given true sight.  Now you see as we see, you understand as we understand.  Use it well for it is not given lightly and only to those we love most.  Rendall and Tamaska now stand together to the end.” 

I didn’t know if he could hear my thoughts as well so I spoke my reply, “Thank you, Rendall. I don’t know what words to use to thank you for saving me and guiding me and letting me see a glimpse of what it is like to be you.”  

Rendall didn’t respond, he bumped his head against my leg and began again to lead me out. With my new ability, we reached the opening in a matter of moments.  The dim light of early evening seemed as bright as noon day to my enhanced eyes.  Rendall guided me to the exit and stood, waiting.  I looked once more into those eyes and wished I could see more but he looked past me, through the opening. 

I felt more than heard a rumble from deep inside the wolf’s barrel of a chest.  I followed the wolf’s gaze out into the dim light of the rising moon.  There I saw a mass of movement on the crest of the same hill where I had first viewed the village.

Rendall threw back his head and howled. The volume was so powerful, so terrible, so inspiring.  It reached up and out of the entrance.  It raced down the long corridors of the tunnels behind.  The echo spread in waves, increasing in volume and then faded.  My senses were frozen.

The mass on the far hill began to move toward the village.  With shock I discovered I could see their faces, even at that great distance.  They wore white paint like the thieves in the forest.  The village was under attack.  People in the village were running, some toward the attackers, some away.

Walking around in a book and meeting my favorite characters was one thing, but taking part in a battle was another entirely.  Still I found myself running toward the village, not knowing what I would do when I got there.  Rendall stayed behind in the tunnel entrance, watching me go. 

I passed several women, running to and fro, and gathering up children.  Small clusters of men, armed with bow, spears, and knives ran to a gathering just outside the village.  The group’s numbers continued to swell with every passing moment. 

I recognized a face running past. It was Reule.  The smaller man skidded to a halt, circling back to me. 

“I’ve brought your weapons, no need to go that way.”  Reule placed a spear and long knife in my hands.  With a bit of a grin, he added, “Besides, Mylva still isn’t too happy with you.  I would keep my distance for a few hours until she calms.  A battle might be safer than meeting her right now.You know how good she is with those knives.”

Reule began to run toward the cluster of men.  “Come, you know they will be lost without you.”  What does that mean?

I had no choice but to follow but wished I was running in the opposite direction.  When we reached the gathering, the attackers had stopped, staying just out of range of the arrows of the villagers.  The attackers laughed at the villagers, taunting any who shot arrows in their direction.  I could see they outnumbered us more than five to one. 

A group of men surrounded me, “Tamaska, what should we do?”  I couldn’t think of a worse situation to be thrust into or one for which I was less prepared. Why ask me? How should I know what they should do? I needed time, I needed to escape, and I needed all those men to stop looking at me like that, like I would know what to do. Somehow I knew, “I don’t know” wouldn’t be received well.

“What do you suggest?”  I said, buying time. The idea of the fate of an entire village of people at my hands made me feel sick.

A man with bushy eyebrows and long dark hair spoke first, “I suggest we head to the safety of the buildings and wait for them to be in range of our arrows.  If we kill enough, they might retreat.” 

“No, Grendy, that brings them too close to our women and children,” aman with graying hair but stout arms covered in scars countered.  “I heard Rendall’s howl.  The wolves will be coming.  We can charge their middle while our fur brothers attack both their flanks at once.” 

As if in answer to the man’s words, forty wolves ran into the midst of the gathering.  “You have a great sense of timing, Feron.”  Reule laughed, slapping the man on the back.  He seemed to be in great spirits considering our likely impending deaths. 

Rendall trotted next to me and in my head I heard, “We are ready.” 

He bumped his massive head against my leg in a show of affection.  “Which plan is best Tamaska?”  Reule asked. Every eye turned to me. 

Why ask me?  The thought drowned out everything else.  Reule is the one in charge in the book. This isn’t right.  Yet there they were, waiting for me to lead them.  I didn’t understand it, but there was no time for setting them straight either.  I decided to do my best knowing what a disaster any decision I made would probably be. 

Retreating to the huts seemed safest.  For some reason though, Feron’s plan felt right.  I thought of the book, trying to remember anything about this part.  In the book this was just a small skirmish.  It didn’t seem so small now.  The men waited, looking on in silence. 

“We will follow Feron’s plan,” I announced, hoping I wasn’t sending the men surrounding me to their deaths.

The men in the circle left, passing word to those out of earshot.  I looked at Rendall, he replied in my head, “We will take the sides.”  The wolves departed out to each flank but not the wolf chief.  He remained at my side.  With him there, I felt I at least had a chance. 

The villagers spread out into five clusters.  The archers put arrow to bow, signaling their readiness.  The attackers shouted at us from the top of the hill.  I took it all in with a growing lump in my throat.  I almost wished it would just begin.  The anticipation couldn’t be any worse than the reality.  My wish was soon granted.

The painted men gave a mighty shout and charged as one.  Their faster runners separated out ahead of the main body.  In the darkness, the white painted faces provided perfect targets for the bows of our archers.  Their bows sang. Here and there a man fell, but not enough.

Reule ran to me, his voice trembling with excitement and his eyes filled with battle lust, “Everything is prepared, Tamaska.  May I give the signal?”

The words were slow to register.  Everything was happening too fast.  Finally, with the briefest of nods, I set the plan in motion.  I knew there would be pain and death, perhaps my own.I just wished I was back in my room, in my old boring life, safe. 

Reule threw back his head and howled, a deep throaty sound filling the night.  In answer, men and wolves joined in the song.  Next to me, greatest of all, came the howl of Rendall, drowning out the calls of all around.  My fear fled, goose bumps laced my skin, and I threw back my head and howled until my voice gave out.  The painted men’s charge faltered, those in the lead stopped, looking behind them, unsure.  Reule ended his cry long after me.  He raised his spear.  With a mighty yell he plunged ahead, his group following close behind.

My group charged next, followed by the remaining villagers.  The men around me cried out as they ran, drowning out all sound.  The archers stopped at intervals to spray another volley.  White painted men fell left and right.  The attackers began to run back to the safety of their lines.  Reule let them run, waving his spear at any who got too close.  I ran along, my spear held clumsily in my hand.  Rendall ran next to me, tail wagging.  The rest of the wolves spread out to each side, disappearing into the darkness.As the line of the enemy grew closer, my fear returned.  I was sick with it.  The same thought kept flashing through my mind.

I’m going to die.

 

Chapter 3

A Small Skirmish

 

Reule made contact first, and by himself.  He rushed the largest of the painted men, a large behemoth with no hair, as wide as he was tall.  Reule thrust his spear straight through the man’s chest, screaming as he did.  He grabbed the man’s spear from his lifeless hand and ducked under a flying knife.  He rushed the thrower, his group following close behind.  They slammed into the center of the line, stabbing with spear and slashing with knife.  Cries of the injured and dying mixed with those of rage and defiance.  The last thing I saw of Reule was a leap back down the hill into a knot of the enemy, the knife in his hand a blur.

 The battle fragmented into small skirmishes while many painted men retreated back and out of sight.  My group hit a large cluster of enemy head on.  Time seemed to slow, spear thrusts and knife slashes became the world.  I had no interest in killing; my goal was simply to stay alive.  I somehow knocked aside a thrust from a wild looking man but then he punched out and hit me right in the stomach.  All the air went out of my lungs in a whoosh and I hit the ground. Before he could act on his advantage, a blur of black fur engulfed him.  He went down screaming.  I got up to a knee, still gasping for breath, watching in horror as Rendall ended the man’s screams.  Reading about battles was fun; being in the middle of a real one I found nothing but horror. 

The painted men and villagers were now fully engaged.The archers were a short distance from the fight, firing off a shower of arrows right over my head up the hill.  The villagers were more skilled but the attackers were many times our number.  Their advantage began to take its toll.  We were pressed on three sides and began to retreat a few steps at a time down the hill.  Then to the right and left a cry went up, not a battle shout or a dying scream, but a cry of fear.  The wolves had hit the lines, spreading terror wherever they went.  Their eyes lit the darkness, promising death to any who got too close.  The attackers began to press the middle, trying to stay away from the wolves.  Reule yelled from my right, signaling a charge.  The villagers gave a great shout around me, rallying to his cry. 

Rendall stood over me, guarding me while I got breath back into my lungs.  It seemed to take forever but eventually I was able to breathe again.  What a wimp I turned out to be.  “Are you well now?” I heardRendall’s voice inside my head.  I nodded and said out loud, “I’m fine.”

Rendall looked at me once more and then took off on a run toward his wolves that now had the enemy in full retreat.  I stood alone on the hillside.  Men littered the ground here and there, some crying for help, others still and not moving.  The grass was slick with their blood, a detail which I had never really pictured in a battle for some reason.  The smell overwhelmed everything else.

Then I noticed the most horrid thing.One of the enemy attackers had slipped through the lines and was going to the injured villagers one by one and spearing them where they lay.  I looked around for help but nobody seemed to notice him.  I looked on the ground and saw my spear there.  With trembling hands I reached for the handle gripping it tightly.  I shakily rose to my feet and began the longest walk of my life. Each step I took toward the man required a new level of courage I didn’t know I had.  Every time I faltered I looked at the wounded villager he was stalking and realized I was his only hope.  The painted man reached the villager and raised his spear but didn’t thrust.  He seemed to be taunting him. 

I crept along slowly, quietly, until I was just behind him.  It seemed that his taunting was over. The man raised his spear one last time and I knew that was it.  The only way to stop it was to kill him.  My arms shook, my hands felt clammy.  I swallowed down the lump in my throat and thrust my spear toward the middle of his back.  I could feel the sensation as it entered his body and the scream as he felt the pain of it.  I let go of the spear and watched as he crumpled to the ground.  A few seconds later he let out a long final breath and his eyes glazed over.  I stood there, staring at him.  Horrified at what I had just done. 

I finally pulled my eyes away and looked to the villager on the ground.  It was Feron.  “Help me up, Tamaska. I believe I can walk.”  He didn’t thank me and I was grateful.Receiving thanks for what I had just done would have made it worse somehow.

I looked one final time at the lifeless form, lying on the grass.  This is nothing like my books.  There was nothing glorious about death in battle.  I wanted to reach down and close the man’s eyes but I dared not touch him. Feron and I were the only two men standing as far as I could see.  A distant howl sounded from the village below.  It didn’t sound like a wolf. 

“Tamaska! The village!”  I heard fear in Feron’s voice. 

I began to run toward the village, far outpacing the injured man.  I wasn’t sure if I was running from what I had just done or to the village. Even with my newly enhanced vision I couldn’t see what was happening.  As I reached the first huts a great light went up on the opposite side of the village.  Flames rose on a roof licking hungrily at the thatch of a distant hut.  I changed course, angling towards the fire.  As I got closer, I heard the sound of young children crying.  Then I heard a woman scream, not in fear, but defiance.  I rounded a corner and found myself face to face with Jubuska and one of his companions from the forest.  A look of fear flashed across Jubuska’s face when he saw me.  It quickly turned to hate.

“You come back quicker than we plan.  A few more minutes and your village all on fire.  Now we kill the great Tamaska and return with his head.”

It happened so fast I had no time for thought. My body just knew by instinct to dodge the thrust of his spear. I leaped and dropped to a knee to avoid a knife swipe which brought me directly in line with a perfect target.  I punched out, landing a brutal blow to the man’s groin. Having Tamaska’s strength came in handy. Jubuska went down in a heap, moaning.  His companion pressed forward, slashing wildly with his knife.  I backed away, just avoiding getting cut with each swipe.  I knew I couldn’t win a knife fight with the man but if I ranmy life would be over in seconds.  The man rushed, rearing his arm back for a great thrust.  I angled to the side, away from the man’s stabbing hand.  The thrust came, but my movement threw off its accuracy.  I leaned back, avoiding the killing blow.  I noticed to my left that Jubuska had ceased moaning and was beginning to rise.  I was barely holding off the attack from one man.  Once Jubuska joined, I knew I had no chance. 

“When this over, I eat your heart,” Jubuska said with a raspy voice, rising to his feet.  The other man smiled, readying his blade for a killing thrust.  His smile lasted only an instant. His cry sent goose bumps up my spine. He clawed at his back for an instant and then his eyes glazed over and he fell. When he hit the ground I could see a knife hilt sticking between his shoulder blades.  I looked up to see my savior.  It was Mylva.  Tear stains streaked her grimy face. 

“That is what happens to anyonewho tries to hurt my mate,” she said in a matter of fact tone.  I could have kissed her.  I looked past her and remembered Jubuska, who had recovered enough to grab his knife.  He stalked behind Mylva, preparing to revenge his fallen companion. 

I rushed him with a ferocity that surprised even me.  Before the man could get close, I tackled him.His knife went flying.  I rose up and began to rain blows down on Jubuska’s face.  I swung until my arms grew tired and the rage subsided.  Jubuska was unconscious, blood flowing from his nose and mouth.  I pulled off the man, in shock over what I had just done.  I backed away from the scene, staring with eyes unblinking.  Around me the sounds of battle raged.  The villagers had returned and were fighting the small cluster of attackers who had snuck in during the battle, thinking to destroy the village.  . 

“Thank you,Husband.”  Mylva’s words brought me from my daze. 

She threw her arms around me in a smothering hug.  I didn’t fight it.  At that moment, I needed the comfort.  I always dreamed of living in a story but I had no idea it would be like this. 

As we embraced I heard a sound floating as if on the wind.  I looked down at Mylva but she made no reaction to it.  A second time I heard it and this time recognized the voice and even heard the words being spoken.  

“Tommy, Tommy, it is time.”

I looked around, trying to find the source.  The sounds of fighting ceased, the village and the woman shifted and blurred so suddenly I closed my eyes to keep from getting sick.  I felt myself spinning, then an impact hit my head and everything went dark.

“Tommy, I’m coming in.” I heard through the fog. “Are you okay son? Can you hear me?”  It was my mother’s voice.  I was sure of it now.  “Maybe we should call an ambulance.”

“He don’t need an ambulance.  He just hit his head.  He’s fine.”  That would be Reed, “Give him an icepack and he’ll be up and at it again in a few hours.” 

I opened my eyes and found I was laying on my floor with my mother and brother leaning over me.

“How does a kid hurt himself reading books?”  Reed looked anything but sympathetic.

“Quiet.  He’s really hurt.  He probably has a concussion.  We should take him to see a Doctor.”

With no interest in seeing a doctor, I sat up and looked around. 

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I was just trying to grab a book off my shelf and fell and hit my head. It just happened, no big deal, okay?”  I lied. 

My mom pulled back a little to get a better look at me. I could tell she had her doubts. 

“Why did you come in here?” I said, changing the subject.

“You didn’t answer.”  My mother gave me a strange look.  “I won’t ask what happened, I’m just glad you’re all right.  It’s time for your birthday cake son.  Oh no! I lit the candles!” she gasped, running from the room.

“Can’t disappoint your mother.” Reed smirked and helped me to my feet before I left the room.  I waited for my head to stop spinning and looked at my surroundings.  ‘People of the Plains’ rested on my desk, the cover closed.  Everything else appeared to be in exactly the same place.  What happened to me?

My walk to the kitchen took quite a bit more time than my mother’s.  My legs were a little wobbly, my head still spinning.The feelings I had while dreaming or knocked out or whatever had just happened overwhelmed me.  As my family sang “Happy Birthday” and celebrated, I sat in silence, staring at the cake.  Reed slapped me on the back and announced, “Tommy, you are now a man.”

“Reed,” I said, “you have no idea.”

 

Chapter 4

The First Offer

 

Amelia Sanbourne turned the corner heading down the boy’s street. She could have driven—should have driven—considering the danger especially to her, a trainer, but she wanted fresh air, real air from this world, not from the World of Books.

The excitement of meeting a new script, a child who had activated their gift,sped her along faster than she intended. Already she could see his home up ahead in a nice little cul-de-sac. His house seemed to be the last in town in this direction. Amelia turned her head a little in looking at the landscaping. The flowers were gorgeous; a brick walkway meanderedback and forth to the back yard, a row of hanging baskets swung in the breeze on the porch. The pieces fit but the whole thing seemed off somehow, like you needed to look at it sideways to appreciate it.

No doorbell, just an old brass knocker with strange lettering on the door. Amelia stopped for a moment, collecting herself. Time to get serious. As a trainer of the Gifted, she had the responsibility of making the offer. Each script was given three chances to accept the offer. Most accepted the first, a few held out to the second. She had never heard of anyone refusing the third offer which was a good thing because only the trainers knew the consequences of doing so and they were dire. “Okay, I’m ready.” Amelia reached up and rapped the brass knocker on the door a few times.

Almost immediately the door opened and a beautiful middle-aged woman answered. Jet black hair flowed down over her shoulders; bright blue eyes stared out from her porcelain face. She was as beautiful as a queen but dressed like a mom, which somehow fit but shouldn’t have.

“I am here to see Thomas.”

The woman reacted in an odd way. The surprise on her face confused Amelia. Is it such a shock that the boy has a visitor? He’s fifteen now. I would think he has friends over all the time.

“Who should I tell Tommy is here?”

“Tell him…a friend from school.”

The woman seemed, if anything, more surprised.“Please have a seat in here.” His mother led her to a sitting room off the foyer.

His home had a warm feel to it. The sitting room was decorated in flowers on the facing sofas. A floral arrangement ofiris’sand baby’s breath drew the eye to a little coffee table in the middle of the room. The place had a calming effect. She didn’t want calm. Most scripts were found before their first breach. Many of those who weren’t were never heard from again. Their pictureended up on milk cartons and posters on police department walls.

Thomas would need to understand how serious his circumstances had become. If he didn’t accept the offer he could die. The last oneto deny the offer still burned in her mind. It had been a shock to read the paper a few days later and discover she was missing. A massive manhunt took place. Amelia knew already they would never see her again. Missing for days? Amelia had spent a lifetime in a book and returned the next day. Every new script was taught that your time away from the real world was determined by the length of time it would take to read the book. If the Gifted did not return after that time they were lost or worse. Whatever happens in the World of Books is real.

“Hello,” the boy said from the doorway, startling her. She had been lost in her thoughts. His black hair and dark brown eyes were set in a tan face with high cheekbones. He was tall, a man’s height already at fifteen. If he wasn’t such a boy she would have found him attractive. She herself was only a year older than him but her experiences in the World of Books put her ages ahead of him in experience and maturity.He leaned against the wall, his arms folded. Amelia smiled.

“I don’t remember seeing you at school. Can I help you with something?” he asked, when she didn’t answer.

 “Help me?” She gave a chuckle. “My name is Amelia Sanbourne; I am a trainer for the Gifted. I know you where you were last night Thomas.”

His face paled, he looked back down the hall behind him and sat down next to Amelia. “I was in my room last night,” he said quietly, his voice had a slight tremor to it. He wasn’t a very good liar.

“It’s okay Thomas.” Amelia smiled, “This can be a confusing time for one who has just activated their gift, confusing, but also dangerous. The place you entered last night is called the World of Books. It is a place of wonders, a place of learning, but also a place of great danger.”

Amelia sat forward; it was time to make the offer. “Okay, this is very important.  I’m about to ask you a question. And depending on your answer I will either leave or will stay to give you further instruction.  Are you ready?”

 “Wait, I have so many questions about all of this.” The pleading look on his face made her almost forget the offer but this wasn’t her first time. He would get all of his questions answered after he accepted.

“Everything will be answered after the offer.”

He nodded his head in answer.

“Thomas Travers, I offer you what was offered long ago this first time to you. Training that you may have control, control that you may have knowledge, knowledge that you may have wisdom.  It is for wisdom that the gift was first given.  If you accept you must agree to all without seeing all.  Do you accept?”

She completed the covenant and waited. Offering was always exciting to her, the chance to teach and mold a new script, to see them learn control of their new gift. She couldn’t think of a better job in the world, in any world.

“What do you mean accept all without seeing all?”  He looked confused.

Not unexpected. “Now that I have spoken I can answer none of your questions, you must give me your answer now.” 

 “Then no,” He snapped back at her.

  Amelia flinched. Whenever a script denied the offering it hurt her worse than a physical blow. His chance of surviving had just dimmed. She recovered and without a word stood up quietly and walked to the door, letting herself out. Amelia stopped on the doorstep, uttering a silent prayer on his behalf. May he survive his next attempt and be wiser on his return.

***

I didn’t get up when she left. I sat staring at the flowers, trying to make sense of the last twenty four hours. She called it the World of Books, does that mean it really exists?Who are the Gifted? The thought hadn’t even occurred to me that there might be others with my new ability. Why do I have to accept without knowing? If she had just let me ask a few questions I might have accepted their training. What do I do now?

 The day passed by slowly. I wandered through the house, thinking about the girl and her offer and my dream or whatever it was.

 My sulking caught the notice of my mother, which was not a good thing. I rarely even tried lying to my mother. She could read me like an open book.

 “Okay Tommy, I haven’t asked you what is wrong, hoping you might tell me. But seeing you moping around here all day I’ve had enough.  Out with it!  What did that girl say that has you so depressed and even away from your books?” 

 I realized then that I’d been avoiding my room all day, a fact which only depressed me more. 

 What am I going to do?  It had only been a dream yesterday brought about by that bump on my head, right?

 I closed my eyes and as if in answer two gray wolf eyes stared back at me through the darkness.  Iconsidered again the effect of meeting the great wolf chief the day before.  How could I call that a dream or deny its reality?  I opened my eyes to see my mother looking at me, concern deepening the lines of her face.

 “Since I doubt you are going to tell me what’s wrong, I’ll help you get over it with a little work. I have a box of peaches in the trunk of the car. Take them down to the cellar and put them on the food shelf.”

Mom’s favorite maneuver, whenever anything was wrong—put me to work.  I didn’t care so much. I needed something to take my mind off of everything. The steps down to our old cellar were narrow and steep. I had to concentrate to avoid breaking my neck, especially with a heavy box of peach jars in tow.

There was one light in the cellar and the only way to turn it on was by pulling a string which meant you were basically in the dark until you felt around for it and got lucky. When I got to the bottom of the stairs the shock of what I saw took all my concentration away. The peaches fell from my hands and dropped to the floor. I didn’t care. The entire basement was lit like twilight. I could see into the darkest corners. I looked up at the light to make sure I hadn’t turned it on but I knew before I looked. My knees grew wobbly. I sat down right on the dirt floor and just kept staring into the bright darkness. How is this possible?

Even despite the girl’s visit I had tried convincing myself that the whole experience the night before had been a dream. I had almost succeeded but there I was, seeing in the dark, wide awake, in the real world. There was no denying it.

“Tommy, are you okay down there?” I heard from the top of the stairs.

I looked around me and saw the peaches, I had no idea how many I had just broken. “I tripped and dropped the box,” I yelled back up and then remembered to add. “I’m all right.”

“Why don’t you have the light on?” she asked, starting to come down.

“I tripped before I got to it,” I said hastily and reached up and turned on the light. The brightness of it hurt my eyes. “I’m fine,Mom. I’ll get this cleaned up right away.”

She stopped and I heard her turn around and head back up. I blew out a sigh of relief. I needed time alone right then, not those blue eyes of hers staring into my soul. Turned out I had only broken one jar so I stacked the rest on the shelf and took the box with the broken jar out to the garage. On my way back in, my Mom was there waiting for me. My heart sank. I wasn’t ready to face her.

“Okay Tommy, tell me what’s wrong with you. I want to hear all of it.”

“It’s nothing, Mom. I guess I’m just having the birthday blahs or something.”

She gave me that look. I knew she wasn’t buying it and she knew I knew. The problem was I had no way to explain it to her. I needed her to believe me or I would end up in a padded room somewhere under close observation.

“I just finished a book and I’m having a hard time picking something else out, that’s all.” It wasn’t an outright lie—there was some truth to it. Which I knew was the only way to get past my mother. I could see she was still dubious though.

 Without looking back I made a beeline for my room, hoping she wouldn’t follow me.  When I closed my door behind me I let out a huge sigh of relief. I would have to be more careful about my emotions in front of that woman.  That was two uncomfortable encounters with females today.  Perhaps it was a design flaw in the species?  I chuckled. That I could laugh at all showed I was feeling a little better.  Maybe talking withmy mother wasn’t so terrible

 I sat in my room looking at my books, trying to decide what to do.  Confronted with the same temptation as the night before, the real cause of my depression became clear in my mind.  The cause of my doldrums was the realization that my books—myone source of happiness in life—werepossibly a danger to me now.  It didn’t make any sense.  I didn’t believe in magic or whatever had caused this to happen.  If I did enter that book last night, then any book I opened would be like a vacuum hose sucking me in.  One part of me wanted to jump at the chance of seeing the worlds I had only read about.  The more careful side of me was scared of the danger. 

I sat there a long time, staring at my source of temptation and fear, trying to decide what to do.  Should I risk it?  Could I quit reading forever

 I closed my eyes and thought of the girl again.  What was it about her? I didn’t have a crush on her.  Icouldn’t even remember if she was pretty or not.  What a social misfit I am, I didn’t even notice if she was pretty. Reed would never let me forget it if he knew.  I shook my head, clearing away thoughts of the girl. Back to the real question.

[Could I give up reading, maybe forever? _] Just thinking those words again were enough to make the decision for me.There just wasn’t any future for me that didn’t include books.  In the end I knew I would end up there in my room reading.  It’s where I belonged and always would. I reached up, closed my eyes and picked a book from the shelf above my desk. When I saw the title I smiled. _This is going to be fun.

 

Chapter 5

From the Crossroads…

 

I looked at the book before starting to read.The well-worn burgundy cover felt like an old friend. Its gold embossed letters were somewhat faded but still proclaimed proudly the book’s title, The Midas Quest, by J. RichardBurns. Some of the memories of the storyhad since been melded together with the hundreds of other books I had read since,butthis had always been a favorite. The more I thought of it, the more I questioned how random my choice was. Lying on mybed,Iopened the cover, hope and dread battling equally. My hands shook as I tried to turn the pages. I didn’t really soak in much of the first few lines. I just couldn’t get that one thought out of my brain. Will it happen again?

 

Chapter 1

The Crossroads Inn

Do you believe in magic? If you don’t then put down this story right now because this is a tale about magic and adventure and friendship and tragedy and love but more than anything, this story is about magic and what it teaches.

We begin a longtime ago before you or I evenexisted. The story begins at the beginning so that is where we will start.

The styleannoyedme. Is the whole book like this? It had been years since I last read it.I keptgoing though, remembering the story was worth it.

There were three friends who walked the land in search of quests no matter how dangerous. Dragons, Dark Dwarves, wild beasts with no name—they defeated them all.They travelled for the enjoyment of the road and not the journey’s end.

I stopped, considering. Ididn’t rememberanything about danger. Maybe I should try a different book. The problemwas,Iwas startingto remember the story a little more and wanted to read itagain. Despite warning signals going off in my head, Icontinued.

 

Unbar, the great warrior,impossibly tall,with muscles larger than any man in the realm. The skilled archer Aokiwas young and slender, ingreen druidic armor which shined like emeralds, her almond eyes of the darkest brown. So great was her beauty that men had offered to betray everythingforher. The youngwizard Mardelwas young in years yet with white hair and the wisdom of one many times his age. The hair, a symbol of his grief for the loss of his love, Atallia, as you well know from our last episode. The three were known throughout the land as the Travelers. They were deadly in combat but fair and noble friendsto all the good peoples of the lands of Mirador.

This journey found them seeking adventure at the Crossroads Inn. Aptly named for its position at the cross section of eight roads,which met in the center of the great city Jurulus, a city so large it needed neithergates nor walls. Its sheer sizewas enough to deter any attack but it was its violent reputation which really kept enemies away.

The last army unfortunate enough to attack Jurulus found nearly every citizen waiting in plated armor, trained for combat, angry, and ready to meet them. The foolish captain decided to attack anyway. In less than twenty minutes the battle ended with thesurvivinginvaders running for their lives(minus their captain).

Unbar, the leader, picked the Crossroads Inn as a place most likely for the Travelers to find word of a quest.Mardel suspected he also picked it as a place most likely to break out in a brawl.

Today they would not have to wait long. Mardel cast a spell over their just delivered drinks to make sure they were not poisoned (they had learned that lesson the hard way) when they were joined at the table by a finely dressed gentleman wearing a red Chaperon. He asked if he could sit.

Yes, please do,” saidAoki,pointing to an empty chair.

I need your help, if you are who I think you are.”

And who do you think we are?” asked Unbar, his face stern but not unkind.

Are you theTravelers?” he asked, eyeing each in turn.

We are,” they said as one.

Then I have a quest like none you have ever undertaken. It is a quest that will tie you to the histories for all time. It will make you rich beyond your wildest imaginings. It could also ruin you if you are not careful.”

Go on,” said Mardel, clearlyintrigued.

I am known as Kevlin Fodris.” He paused, trying to get the nerve to continue.“Travelers, I am here to offer you the Midas Quest.”

Unbar blew out his mustache in disgust. Aoki shook her head. Mardel sat quietly,not betraying his emotions.

I turned the page and started chapter two. As I read the next words I felt a familiar pull lifting me from behind- was it something in front of me, pulling forward? ThenI was falling. I saw the rush of white and black, flying past me as before. As I fell,the realization struck me thatthis was no head injury. It made no sense but Iknew for sure. The World of Books is real.

After some time I again experienced the sensation of being squeezed anda blinding light. I landed,hard. It felt like I had jumped on a moving train.

“Tomeri, are we keeping you awake?” boomed a deep voice next to me. Ahard slap on my back nearly knocked me over.

When I opened my eyes I found myself at a table with four others, a large man to my left, wearing a shiny armor breastplate, with a leather tunic underneath visible above his massive shoulders. He was easily the largest man I had ever seen. He wore a large long-sword sheathed in a jeweled scabbard and capped with a jewel-encrusted hilt,on which he rested his hand. His eyes scanned the room like he was hunting for a target. Maybe he was. When he noticedmestaring at him he stopped with an almost hurt expression,“Are you worried about the way I look at people again? If you don’t like it, why do you put me on guard duty?”

I, of course, had no idea what he was talking about. To the left of the warrior sat a man dressed in a red coat with matchingpants anda white silk shirt with lace ruffles on the chest and sleeves. He held an audacious red and black hat. I wouldn’t have been caught dead in that outfit.

He argued with a man sitting on my right, dressed in night blue robes simple in design which shimmered whenever he moved or the light caught them just right. The man’s most defining feature was the flowing white hair framing his young, handsome face. His eyes were of the brightest green. Ihad to keep myselffrom staring at them.

The final member of the group wore green scale armor that seemed more like skin. It moved and shifted whenever she moved. She sipped her drink and fingereda long bow lyingacross her lap.She was impossibly beautiful; the kind of woman that made you stare without realizing it. She looked young, only a few years older than me, herdark hair pulled up into several loops and braids that must have taken hours. She looked almost too delicate to be awarrior maiden. But the way her eyes scanned the crowd and her hand played with the bow on her lap,Iknew it was Aoki.

Myown clothes had changed. In place ofmy jeans and t-shirtI wore a smaller breastplate with my arms bare and much larger even than during my time in the “People of the Plains”. Mypants were made of some kind of animal skin and were tucked into my leather boots. A sword hung from my side, shorter than the warrior’s and minus the jewels.

The room had a stifling heat from a fire in a large fireplace and the sheer number of people crowded around tables in the large room. Barmaidsdressed in dingy white chemiseswith leather corsets and short gathered skirtshopped back and forth taking and filling orders,periodically dodging men who got a little too friendly. The combination of stale ale, sweaty workers and unwashed patrons assaulted my nose. I had never imagined an inn in a fantasy book would smell so bad.

Abrown curtain hid aback entrance to the kitchens. Barmaids disappeared behind the curtain with empty trays and returnedoverloaded with food. Opposite the curtained opening, the grand entrance of the inn opened to a small lobby,then into the great hall. Aflight of stairsclimbed up out of sight.

Irealized the conversation at the table had grown silent. The entire group was staring at me.

“Err, what were you saying?”

“I said the Midas Quest is a fool’s errand and this man must consider us fools for mentioning it in our presence.” The man in blue robes watched me with his bright eyes, a quizzical look on his face. “Anyone smarter than dragon dung knows the gauntlet doesn’t exist. The quest was only created to get rid of unwanted vagabonds from respectable towns and villages. Tell them of the gauntlet’s supposed whereabouts, presumably somewhere across the continent and maybe even include an old map rubbed with coffee grounds to look authentic. Off they would go and the village would be free of them.”

“So it’s like a snipe hunt?”I interjected and regretted it immediately.

“What is a snipe?” the woman asked, blinking her exotic lashes in confusion. I had to remind myself to close my mouth while looking at her.

When it became obvious I wasn’t going to answer, the wizard continued.“We are clearly no fools so I ask again, why you have come. For what purpose do you so desperately want to get us out of town? I am inclined to cast a few spells forcing the truth from you, although they are rather unpleasant. You would tell us everything we asked, holding nothing back,but if you had already lied to us …” He left the rest unsaid.“So, what is the real reason you have come here today?”

The man in red turned pale.

“I swear by InachusI have come only to present to you the Midas Quest … the real Midas Quest.I have directions to where the gauntletis hidden but I am not an adventurer, I am a business man. I seek a business deal with you, nothing more. If you are successful, we will share in the proceeds. If you are not, I have lost my chance and you have lost … well you have not succeeded either.”

Everyone at the table knew what they would lose.That didn’t seem to faze any of the Travelersexceptme of course. I considered the consequences of going on the Midas Quest with the Travelers. It was a wish Iremembered making several years ago from the safety of my bedroom, but now, the reality hit me. This quest could get me killed.

“I don’t have a map so much as directions to the gauntlet,” the man went on.

Aoki huffed, “You don’t have a map, just directions? That sounds like something a wizard would say. I remember the last quest we were sent on by a wizard. I’ll bet this one would turn out just as bad or worse. Wizards always have their own interests in mind, except for our friend Mardel here, of course,” she remembered to add. I saw a hint of a smile from Mardel.

Kevlintook a deep breath and placed his hat on the table before continuing.

“Let me tell you a story. It begins many years ago when a soldier decided he had seen enough bloodshed and wanted a simpler life. He quit the army and brought his wife and child and his few belongings to a peaceful spot of land. He cleared it and worked it to the end of his life. When he died, it was passed to his son along with a reverence for nature and growing and a disdain for killing. He also passed to him his few possessions including a scroll obtained while fighting in the Kutumus Invasion. His son worked the land and had a son of his own and so on for fourteen generations, one father to his oldest son.”

“The latest son worked hard and tended the land as his father and father’s father had done before him,but times were hard. A few crops were hurt by late frost and another by a swarm of pests that ate nearly everything in a matter of hours. The man didn’t want to see his family starve so he came to me and asked me to loan him money against his farm so his family could survive. He said he would pay it back with interest and work every day for the rest of his life until he paid off his debt. He eventually paid back the amount I loaned him and all but the last payment of interest. He took sick though and knew his time to rest approached. So he summoned me to his sickbed and this is what he told me.”

“Kevlin, I have worked myself into the grave to pay back your loan with interest that I may now go to my rest knowing I am in debt to no man. Alas the grave calls and I am one payment short. I have called you to make that final payment.”

“He pulled from around his neck a key hanging on a chain and stuck it in the lock of an old wooden boxsitting on a small table at his bedside. I could see his hands were shaking, whether from what he was about to do or from his sickness, I knew not. After a moment’shesitation, he took a parchment from the box and placed it in my hand.

“There now, I don’t believe my ancestor would disapprove of this treasure saving his land.”

“I did not know what he was giving me but tried to stop him.”

“No Asa, you have paid enough. Consider your debt paid in full. Keep this as a family heirloom. I do not wish to take it from you.”

“He only smiled and pushed it into my hands.”

“Kevlin, you are a good friend and an honest man,but so am I. I will not rest in peace until all my debts are paid. Come now, you are the last one. Take it and go. I would save my remaining strength for my final words with my son.”

Kevlinstopped and patted his coat pocket.

“When I got back home I pulled out the parchment and read. As I said, it does not contain a map but it lists a set of directions that if followed, will guide one through the famous Midas Quest. Not a fake quest, mind you, but the real quest that started the legend.

So I began to inquire as to who would be able to undertake such a quest. Time and again people told me you four were the only ones so equipped, so hereIsit.”

I’d followed the story only vaguely until the man’s last words. For a minute I looked around the table silently counting to make sure. The man had included me with the three Travelers, the heroes that I loved. How could I be part of their group? I had to admit I had always dreamed it but it seemed too good to be true.

No one at the table spoke until, with a smile, Kevlin continued.“The agreement will be as follows: I will outfit you and pay for everything, including funeral expenses should the need arise. “

He hesitated, offering a weak cough before continuing. “Before you get started, I will also of course give you the scroll. For your part, you must obtain the gauntlet and after sixty days give it to me.Sixty days should be plenty of time for you to make enough treasure to never have to worry about gold again for the rest of your lives.”

“If the four of you agree,I will finish my preparations.”

Everyone at the table looked at me for some reason. Why do they care what I think? I’m just along for the ride?I looked right back at them. I’m not in charge here. The silence became unbearable. They just stared at me as if waiting for meto make the decision.

“Okay, you have a deal,” I said, figuring we were going on the Midas Quest anyway, I mean, it was the name of the book!

The business man had expected more of struggle judging by the surprised expression on his face.

“I cannot give you the directions here in the open but please meet me in my room tonight where I will give you everything you need at that time. I anticipated your approval so I arranged for your supplies and paid for your rooms. You will also find in your rooms a money purse to buy what you need on the way to re-provision, should you need it. I have a few more arrangements to make so let us part and meet in four hours in the room at the end of the hall. Until then, enjoy yourselves. The food and drinks are on me.”

After the man departed, Unbar leaned forward,holding up the ale with a smile on his face, “I think I’m beginning to like that guy.”

His words barely registered. Itried to rack my brain for the details of the book but it had beentoo many years since I read it. I knew we would be performing some kinds of tasks that would lead us from place to place untilwefound the Midas gauntlet. For some reason,Ithought the real trouble started once wesecured the gauntletif only I could remember why.

 

Chapter 6

The Knife of Qazeel

 

The three Travelersbegan recounting their many adventures together. At times they turned to me,expecting me to recount my part in the story. I didn’t hide my ignorance very well. I would tell them they could tell the story better than me which seemed to work. After a while they stopped including me.

Their stories started to sound the same, always ending with us in peril. Different group members took turns being the hero, always at the last second. It made for exciting listening, but after three or four stories, I was bored.

Eventually, I turned my attention to the crowd of people around us. They filled the crowded tables, eating and drinking, laughing and occasionally fighting. When a skirmish broke out a few huge men who worked for the inn would jump in, break it up (along with a few heads) and drag the brawlers through the doors right onto the street.

Merchants at other tables argued over the price of goods in one port or another and what the new hot seller would be the coming season. Some patrons looked as if they had just come off the trail. Their clothes were worn and dirty and some were slashed and bloodied which didn’t seem to bother them as intent as they were on their drinks.

I heard discussions aboutdark dwarves and whether they were in fact actively raiding caravans and camps in the wilderness again. Others at the same table could not beconvinced dark dwarves existedat all.

Some of the men were so drunk I couldn’t understand them at all. Their equally drunk friends listened intently and agreedwholeheartedly with everything they said. As the evening wore on, the men at these tables laid their heads down and either passed out or stumbled up the stairs to sleep it off.

As I scanned of the room I noticedtwo men sitting at a table right next to the door to the kitchens. They were quietly eating soup. What drewmy notice was one of the men staring straight back at meas he ate. He and his companion were dressed in black. The one watchingme was short, with arms and legs hardened from years of hard work. He had wavy black hair anda clean shaven face which was a rarity among those in the room. His companion sat more than half a foot taller and seemed more interested in his soup than anything else. His light brown hair was long enough that he had tied it back into a ponytail behind him. Everyso often he looked up at his companion but then, without speaking, returned to his soup.

The two men didn’t have the travel-wearylook of the other patrons. I let my eyes continue scanning the room but came back to them time and again only to find the man still staring at me. As of yet I hadn’t said anything to the others but found there was no need.

Unbar leaned close and while looking in the men’s direction said, “Tomeri, you think they want to fight?” I could smell something very foul on the his breath. Unbar didn’t notice my disgust, he flexed his massive muscles a little towards the two men.

The shorter man got up from their table followed quickly by his companion and began making his way across the room towardour group. Not a word was said at the table but I could sense the difference in each of them. The conversation stopped, Unbar cleared his sword in its scabbard, Mardel closed his eyes, concentrating, and Aoki eased her bow to the ground and slid her hand to her belt knife while never taking her eyes off the approaching strangers.As this occurred I noticed my wimp mechanism kicking in again. I started to sweat, my throat ran dry, and Itried unsuccessfully to swallow several times. Finally,I took the only solution handy and grabbed a mug from the table, taking a long pull to clear my throat.

Aoki looked at me with admiration, “I’m always so impressed with how calm you are in the face of danger Tomeri. It is no wonder they call you ‘Tomeri the Courageous’.” I was grateful she didn’t know my real reason for needing a drink orIwould have had a new nickname involving brown pants.

Although the drink fixed my immediate swallowing problem, it caused another one, far worse. It started in my belly, slowly building pressure and working its way up the back ofmy throat. It continued to rise to my nose and eyes and eventually to the top of my head which I was sure would blow right off to relieve the enormous pressure.

“You like my dwarven ale, Tomeri?” Unbar cracked a wide smile. “I don’t know of any other man who drinks it straight.” Despite the sweat and the fire in my head and belly I started to believe I might not die after all.

I leaned forward to Unbar and whispered as the men arrived, “Handle this,” hoping that the rest of them didn’t notice my continuing effort to survive the bomb that had gone off in mythroat.

While I foughtmy private battle with the dwarven spirits the chance of a very real battle was taking shape. The men stood side by side with wide stances. The short man looked over each of the Travelers with disgust until he got to me. Then, his face distorted to a mix of rage and hate.

“So, shall we find out what this is all about or just start the fun?” Unbar’s tone sounded casual, he was anything but. His muscles were tensed like a large animal’s, ready to leap on its game. The short man didn’t seem to notice; he only had eyes for me.

“I am called Hezel Strong. This man killed my brother in Pherton last year,” he said, pointing to me. “He was a simple farmer who had come in from the fields for a quiet drink after a hard day of honest work. Your friendhere slashed him from belly to throat in an alley for no reason.” The man put his hand on his sword hilt.

“I’m here to take him back with me or give him justice right now. It matters not.”

I of course had no idea what the man was talking about. I couldn’t get the room to quit spinning. The green on myskinhad given way to a nice orange with pink splotches. My head and stomach were feeling better until the spirits seemed to muster a second burst of energy and renew their assault.

Unbar laughed, angering the short man.

“You think my brother’s death is funny?”

“No, certainly not, sir, I do find your version of the tale funny though.” The warriorgrew serious. “As I recall now, Tomeri and I were in the fair city of Pherton the day you must be speaking of.We were accosted in an alley by what, ten or so men?” he said looking back to me. He raised his eyebrows a little when he saw my face;my skin had now turned a bright reddish pink. Unbar looked at the cup in front of me and with a smirk turned back to the men.

“They thought to make a name for themselves by killing the Travelers I guess, or maybe they were just after our purses. We never found out. I do remember that Tomeri instructed me to try not to kill any of them if we could help it. When we had knocked most the men out of the fight,taking a few scrapes along the way, your brother came at me from behind with a long-knife. Only the quick thrust of Tomeri’s blade saved me from being run through.

I regret your brother’s death,but would have regretted it a whole lot more if Tomeri had allowed him to stick me from behind. So you seewe were merely defending our lives.”

Hezel’s expression remained unchanged.

“This story sounds well-rehearsedand must have been told many times over to men like me seeking to redress the wrongs of a bloodthirsty murderer like your friend. I repeat my order. I will take him with me now to face trial or he will face justice right now.”

“I have tried to reason with you but I guess the talking is pretty much over then,” said Unbar,standing up to draw his sword.

As he did, several things happened at once. The tall man threw a round ball at the table in front of Mardel that exploded when it landed, emitting a red mist. Hezel kicked Unbar’s sword arm, stopping him for the moment from pulling out his sword. The second it took for Hezel’s companion to throw the object at Mardelhad been dearly bought though, Aoki’s armored glove slammed into the side of his face,ending his part in the fight. Hezel didn’t notice his companion slumping to the ground. He had only one target in mind;me.

Dodging to his right and ducking under the sweep of Unbar’s left arm,he now had a clear path around the large body of the great warrior. Shock and adrenaline all seemed to help my body fight off the remnants of the dwarven spirits. I ducked my head in the chair as a sword came whistling by overhead. I cried out as a knife slashed my armand threw myself back away from the man. My move was a little too violent. Ilostmy balance inthe chair,which tumbled over backward causing me to hit my head on the floor. I watched my attacker do a perfect spin after his sword stroke missed and the knife had failed to findmy heart. He stood over me, his sword poised to strike. I could only look up in a daze, watching death approach.

Iblinked my eyes,waiting for the death stroke to fall, but the man didn’t move. Ididn’t understand what the manwas waiting for until he was suddenly raised in the air with his arms pinned to his body, still holding the sword. The man began to kick his feet but to no avail, Unbar had him locked up tightly from behind in his massive arms. Unbar laughedwhile the man let fly a stream of words I was sure Ihad never read in any book. Finally, Aoki had had enough and walked over with a mug and thumped him on the head, knocking him unconscious.

“Hey, that was my cup,” complained Unbar, his laughter stoppingshort.

Now it was Aoki who laughed. That is until she saw the knife wound on my arm. “Mardel, come here, he’s hurt!”

She dabbed at the wound which seemed to be more on fire than my belly had been moments before. I felt feverish all over, like my skin had been pricked with a thousand needles at once.

“Mardel, why aren’t you coming?” I heard the urgency in her voice but never saw if he came or not. My eyes clouded over into blackness.

***

Mardelhad been fighting his own battle. At the moment the fight erupted, the manthrew an object at the table in front of him. Mardel thought for a second it had been only to distract him, but he had been careless and cast a spell anyway. He knew now it was a wizard’s snare. If a snare was thrown within a few feet of a wizard and they cast a spell before it dissipated,it would ensnare their magic and render them powerless. Some snares lasted less than an hour; the more powerful could last forever. Mardel could only hope this was of the lesser variety. As he thought back on everything he had ever read on Wizard’s snares and possibly how to break them,Tomeri lay on the ground, getting worse by the minute. Mardel could see that the wound was unnatural and doing far more damage than the simple cut of a knife.

Mardel sent Unbar with the men to the local constable where they would await trial for attempted murder. He and Aoki assisted staff from the Crossroads in gently carrying their leader to his room while they called on the local healer to see if there was anything she could do. In the meantime, he had to try to pick through the riddle in his head that locked his powers away. Tomeri’s life depended on it.

The healer’s stay was a brief one. She took a look at Tomeri and then to the dagger which they had brought with them and shook her head.

“That is a knife of Qazeel. It is a cursed blade.” She put the dagger on the nightstand carefully. “It was dipped in the blood of Qazeel, demonkind from the netherworlds. The only reason he is alive is the dwarven spirits you told me he drank shortly before the attack. Soon though, that will wear off and he will be gone. I am sorry.” She left as suddenly as she came.

Aoki turned to Mardelwhen the healer left, tears flowing unfettered down her beautiful cheeks. In desperation she pleaded,“Have you given up? Won’t you at least make an effort to save him?”

Mardel did not even acknowledge her words. He was already deep inthought, trying to work throughhis problem. In his mind he could see the barrier now which was the first step.Since then he had tried to thin it, tried to break it, tried to work his way around it, had even tried to convince himself there was no barrier. Nothing worked. The barrier seemed stronger than ever. When he thought about it the barrier seemed to want to get closer to his mind, to envelop him. This was unnerving; he certainly didn’t want the thing to be permanent. With his considerable strength of mind he was able to keep it from getting any closer. Somehow that seemed wrong. His instincts told him he shouldn’t be pushing it away.

He thought back to his earliest training where he learned,that in order to control magic sometimes a wizard had to surrender to it. Then he had it. He knew what he had to do. He focused on the barrier, pulling it to him. The barrier grew larger in his mind until it was everything, the barrier was him, he was the barrier and then it was upon him and he was through. The block disappeared. He felt his magic again coursing through his body. He felt the increase in concentration it gave him.

Mardel immediately opened his eyes and looked upon the scene in the room. Tomeri lay on the bed, his skin so pale Mardel did not know if he was too late or not. Unbar stood next to the bed watching over him. Aoki sat next to him, stroking his face.

“I have broken through the block my friends. It will be healed.” Looking at Tomeri though, he knew he must hurry. He didn’t like it but there was only one way he was going to be able to save him. He was going to have to bond with Tomeri’s soul.

“I will have to do a deep searching,” he announced.“His mind will speak to me and tell me how to heal him. Now leave while I prepare. The connection will last at least an hour in which it could be fatal for both of us if we are disturbed. Go to your rooms and rest. I will send word when I am done. “

***

Images floated through mymind. I didn’t know if what I saw were dreams or visions or hallucinations. I saw a dungeon of gold and heard a voice that said magic will die and life will be lost there. The images continued; I saw myself fighting in a forest. I didn’t understand how but I knew it wasn’t in a book. NextI saw a man in a book that didn’t belong there, for some reason,I was angry with him. I saw a fountain with many colors of water pouring from the top which stopped and then began to flow again. I had the impression that Ihad caused it to stop.

A man dressed in a black suit, wearing a tall top hat appeared. He introduced himself. “I was called Frederick Von Flett when I walked the world of sorrow and had the gift which you now share. Before you return,I will leave you with a few words of counsel. The gift of choice should not be thrown away lightly. Your choices may sometimes limit your course in the future but good choices lead to real freedom. Bad choices lead to chains and captivity.”

I thought Iunderstood but still felta little confused. The man told me to close my eyes and breathe slowly. I did and fell into a deep sleep where I thought I heard Mardel calling me.

Sometime later, feeling very weak,I opened my eyes. The wizard Mardelwas the only one with me in the room. He sat smoking a pipe and staring out the window.

“Hello,” I said to get his attention. “What happened to me?”

Seeing me awake, the wizard stood and walked over to my bed. Finally he smiled and said, “Hello, Tommy.”

Chapter 7

Conversation witha Wizard

 

The haze surrounding my brain made it impossible to think.The room spun when I tried sitting up. Something the wizard said frightened me. What did he call me?Tommy, he called me Tommy. He knows.How did hediscover my real name?

“In order to heal you I joined with your mind,” the wizard said, seemingly reading my mind again, “in essence I had to let your subconscious mind tell me what was wrong and how to fix it. The unfortunate part of that spell is youtell me everything, both past and present. Very few wizards are able or willing to do this type of magical healing. It is fraught with peril for both.Ourfriendship drove me to make the attempt but alas, I now understand why it is shunned.”

“Why would you regret saving me?” I asked, eyeing him with suspicion.

“It isn’t everyday a person finds out they don’t exist.”

Ithoughtfor a moment what that knowledge would do to the people I met in those stories. I imagined discovering the same thing about my own existence. What if someone was just reading my book and I wasn’t real?

“Don’t worry, my training, or should I say the way I have been written, allows me to accept reality and move on.” The wizard sat down on the end of my bed and puffed on his pipe. “I always worried that this was a bad habit. Now, I’ll smoke as much as I want!” hesaid, drawing deep on the long stem.

“Why did I almost die from a simple knife cut?” I asked.

“You were cut by a Qazeel knife forged hundreds of years ago by a being who had cast half of Mirador into shadow and darkness. It was said that when Qazeel forged these knifes he sealed his own blood on the blade giving it the power to kill a man within seconds of being pierced or even scratched. Of course now we know that is a load of foolishness. So I would imagine it was meant to add conflict to the plot.” He began laughing. I worried he had lost it.“This is going to be fun!” The wizard clapped his hands together.

“Then how am I still alive?”

“I believe several factors have worked in your favor. First and foremost is that it has been several hundred years since the forging of the knife (which I have since destroyed) and it lost much of its potency. I believe you also took a long pull of Korverin ale just before you were stabbed.

“The ale worked to slow your heart which caused the poison to take longer to work its way through your body. So, grabbing Unbar’s drink probably helped to save your life or perhaps the fact you are the main character and it is way too early in the story for you to die saved you. Who knows?”

Again he burst into laughter.

I lay back thinking about how lucky I was and how close my brush with death had been.Considering how close I was to dying, Mardel seemed to be having a good time of it.

“So as I see it, you have some decisions to make.” The wizard continued, turning serious, “After we figure out how to get you out of here I believe Ms. Amelia Sanbourne will be back to give you a second chance at your training. The question is; what will be your answer or perhaps what should be your answer?”

My head was spinning again. This time it had nothing to do with my weakened condition. I had never had a friend or felt comfortable confiding in anyone before but this man was different somehow. Despite his odd sense of what was funny, I knew I could trust him. The white haired wizard seemed like family to me. He had just saved my life. He had also been my favorite character in the story. Maybe that helped.

“I said no to the first offer out of anger more than anything. I still don’t know if I should have said yes or not. I’m okay now but only an hour ago I almost died. If I had accepted I certainly wouldn’t be here.But she said something I didn’t like, I can’t remember it now.”

“Ah yes, if you accept you must agree to all without seeing all,” interjected the wizard.

“It would be a tricky proposition to accept all without knowing who is offering and what they offer. I’m not sure I would have accepted either. Of course I would surely accept considering I—how does it go? Walk the land in search of adventure, roaming from town to town in search of quests no matter how dangerous and take my journey simply for the enjoyment of the road and not the journey’s end?”

“I cannot imagine people of your world could be interested in such stories when they have such marvelous creations of their own. I know we have little time but really,you must tell me about airplanes. Do they really fly without magic? When I saw them in your mind and delved deeper I thought the spell must have gone awry. But then I saw your journey to the “Great Canyon” in the armored bird with such detail, I knew it was real.”

The wizard leaned forward,his green eyes lit with wonder.

“Please tell me, howdoes such a large piece of metal launch into the air and then stay there without magical aid? Your mind used the word jets but I could not comprehend what jets are. Please explain this to me and then we will work on your solution, I promise”

Ididn’t see any harm in it so I told him all I knew about airplanes. It didn’t take long. I was no aviator, at least not yet, so I spent most of the next half hoursaying I don’t know to his many questions.

“Thank you for indulging me.” The wizard’s eyes were still filled with wonder. “I have always been fascinated with flying and as of yet have not been to find a spell equal to the task. It is so much more educational to hear it from your lips than to read it from your mind. When a wizard extracts information from your mind there are holes. Although the information is all there, quite often, perspective is lost.”

“Now let us look at the situation as I believe it exists and if I may, I would like to offer you my assistance and advice.First, we must get you out of this story and back to the safety of your room. In your previous attempt, your mother’s call is what I believe pulled you from the story.Nothing you did caused the event. Am I correct?”

“Yes,” I said, “I was in the village and heard her voice calling my name. Then everything shifted and I found myself on my bedroom floor.”

“Very wellthen, her call pulled you out somehow. Does she check on you nightly?” asked the wizard,starting to pace.

“Most of the time, yeah.” I tried to sit up but the room spun so I gave up the attempt.

“Then our job is to keep you unhurt until she calls on you. The only problem is that I believe there are rules associated with you being here. As I am sure you have noticed when you entered you have become the main character. The story shifts around you. The man with the knife was supposed to stab Unbar, our actual leader in the book. Instead, you were stabbed. It would be very dangerous to enter a book in which the main character dies, wouldn’t it?”

I was floored.He picked up all that just by reading my thoughts. All the clues I had missed.

“Although we must wait for your Mother’s call to pull you out,I would guess you could eventually learn to remove yourself. That is encouraging; especially if your mother does not call in time. We might have to discover a way to get you of here on our own.”

The wizard seemed to sense he had given me more than enough to consider so hestood by the window, growing silent for some time. Iwatched him standing there puffing on his pipe.

I had read dozens of mysteries and considered myself an expert at picking out the subtle clues hidden in the early chapters that gave away the ending of the story later. My image of myself as a sleuth was completely shattered.

“Would you accept her offer?” Iasked, finally able to sit up a little in bed.

“I can’t make that decision for you. Wizards typically are apprenticed for years to train and protect them. Magic is dangerous if it is not controlled. It can destroy you. I do not know if it is magic that gives you this ability but it is power. If you do not learn to control your power, you will be in danger and perhaps be dangerous.”

“So you think I should accept the training?”

“No, I have given you every reason for accepting.Let me continue. The girl who visited you was obviously hiding something. She never told you how she knew about your gift. She never told you how she knew you had recently returned from your first book journey.Her offer is troubling as well. Accept all without knowing all. I can’t imagine accepting such an offer. She seemed to expect acceptance without any further explanation.”

Stopping for a moment and putting down his pipe the wizard sat next to me again.

“There you have it, many reasons to accept and many reasons not to. I believe I have given you what Aoki wouldrefer to as a ‘wizard’s answer,”he chuckled.

Seeing that I didn’t get his little joke he grew more serious.

“I would like to tell you which one is correct but in all honesty I do not know myself. Perhaps some new event will help make your decision easier. Now, if you will excuse me, I think I can make your stay in this world easier.”

The wizard stood and left the room for a short time.

“There, that should help,” he said when he returned.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I told Unbar and Aoki that the spell I used to heal you has wiped some of your memory away. You will need to be re-trained in the use of weapons and perhaps other simple skills we take for granted. That should cover you for now. Unbar already has you scheduled for staff and sword training and Aoki for tracking as soon as we have left the city.”

“That was a pretty smart idea,” I said in admiration.

The Wizard said nothing. He just smiled and continued puffing on his pipe. We both turned our heads as the door to the hallway opened and Unbar’s huge shape appeared in the doorframe with Aoki behind him.

“You have healed him?” Aoki said, a sob escaping her.

I felt a little guilt at having my long conversation with Mardel while my other friends were worrying about me.

“It appears I will not be dying just yet,” I said, trying to be funny.

I yelped as Aoki punched me and not too softly.

“Well at least I took my gloves off,” she said, smiling through her tears.

“What did you do that for?” I said,rubbing myarm.

“That was for making me cry. A warrior doesn’t cry.”

“Bah, I cry all the time,”said Unbar with a smirk. “Just a few hours ago I shed several tears over my ale being shattered over an assassin’s head.”

That started all of us laughing. Aoki decided that Unbar’s comments merited a punch as well which she quickly regretted.

“Ow! When will I learn not to hit you without my gloves? It is like punching stone,” she said.

The warrior laughed all the more with Mardel and me joining him. Eventually Aoki joined in with the mirth although she was still shaking her bruised hand.

The laughter seemed to work better than Mardel’s magic at clearing out the last weakness of the spell. I felt much better and was about to jump out of bed to surprise them when I realized I had no pants on. I quickly pulled the covers back over myself hoping Aoki hadn’t noticed. She didn’t seem to other than a slight flush in her cheeks thatIprayed was from the laughter.

“Our meeting with the business man approaches. I believe our fine leader has the strength to attend if he is so inclined,” said the wizard.

“Yes I’ll go if I can have my pants back,”I said which sent more waves of laughter through the group.

Mardel tossed my clothes onto the bed and suggested they give me some privacy for a moment. He and Unbar left but Aoki lingered behind and sat on the bed next to me.

“Tomeri, I have suppressed this for so long.Then I see you lying in that bed dying and the healer tells us there is no hope. I kept thinking I had waited too long. All this time I thought I had in the future and thenthere was no future. I realized what a fool I had been. Waiting for some unforeseen time when we would stop doing this and settle down. I know now that we will never settle down. I do not lament it. I do not want to change what we are. I love who we are.”

She paused for a moment and leaned closer.

“I love who we are, but more than thatTomeri . . . I love you.”

She leaned towardsme and her lips met mine in the longest, most wonderful kiss ever written in a story book (or at least I thought). Her scent intoxicated me.Her lips were like delicate flower petals. She pulled away and stood,smiling.

“I don’t expect anything from a warrior. I just needed to tell you how I feel,” she paused, “just in case.”

She turned and without another word, left the room.

 

Chapter 8

Flight from Jurulus

 

When she left I leaned back and stared at the ceiling. I could still smell Aoki’s perfume in the air and see her almond shaped eyes as she moved closer. I could feel the touch of her lips against mine. I closed my eyes, trying to file away that moment so I would never forget it. My moment of peace was shattered by Unbar’s voice booming through the door.

“Oy in there, you take longer than a maiden to dress. You need help strapping up your girdle?”

I heard a chorus of laughter from the hall.I jumped out of bed and although my legs were a little wobbly,Iquickly dressed and joined my companions in the hall.

Aoki looked straight ahead not making eye contact. Apparently she was serious that she didn’t expect anything else from me. What if I want more?

Unbar led usback towards the top of the stairway and then past it to the other hallway on the second level leading to Kevlin’s room. When Unbar knockedon the man’s door, it opened a little and showed usa scene from a nightmare.The room looked like a pack of wild animals had been set loose inside it for days. Everythingwas torn apart from floor to ceiling. In the far left corner blankets and pillows had been slashed and their contents scattered. The furniture was overturned or broken apart.The large room had a curtain separating the entrance and on the other side a bed and small seating area.

Aoki was the first to move through the curtain. Her cry brought all of us swiftly to her side. Unbar had pulled his sword. I realized mine was back in my room, not that I knew how to use one anyway. Behind the curtain, on a chair sat Kevlin, covered in his own blood. He looked to have been tortured and finally had a spike driven through his heart.

I pulled my eyes away from the gore. My stomach churned. When I closed my eyes the grizzly scene was still there. I fought it as long as I could but it didn’t help. I knew I’d be sick. I ran from the room as far down the hallway as I could get before my stomach erupted. When the heaving stopped I stood up weakly and made my way back, hoping my absence hadn’t been noticed.

When I re-entered the room andcame back through the curtain the body had been covered with a sheet, for which I was grateful. The sheet still had patches of blood on it in places where it made contact with the man but it was much less gruesome. Unbar looked up from one of the chests he was rummaging through when he saw me and held up his hands to signify he had found nothing.

Mardel was sitting across from the body with his eyes closed. When he saw I was back he looked up at me with a knowing look.

“Tomeri, I need a word with you,” the wizard said,leaving the room and entering the hallway. He looked back to make sure he would not be heard before continuing.

“I knew this was coming but had to let it happen. You see, if I or you especially change too much of this story, I am afraid it could . . . well I’m not really sure exactly what would happen. I believe you need to follow the script as much as possible when you enter a story or you may run into problems. I’m just guessing but I believe my guess to be right.”

“So everything is going to happen exactly as it does in the book?”

“No, I believe the book is the script and your choices will determine how it plays out. However, if you stray too far then I think something bad could happen to you or at least it makes sense to me that it would, but keep in mind again I’m not sure.”

I had no idea what to think. Ihad to follow the story or face some unimaginable fate? It was a bit too much to be believed. But who would believe that I was inside a book walking and talking with make-believe characters?

“What happened in there?” I asked. “I guess I vaguely remember something from reading the book a few years ago but nothing like that!The book was pretty tame from what I remembered.”

“Interesting,” was the wizard’s only reply.

“What’s going on here? Have I already messed up the story somehow? Am I stuck in here?”I asked, getting worried and a little frightened.

“Very good questions all, and all deserving very good answers,” said the wizard, hesitating.“I believe the events of the story are unfolding using the basic fabric outlined by the writer using you as lead. As such it isalso using your mind and thoughts as a guide. I believe your experiences could be the difference between what is in the book and what you have seen here. What deviations will occur,I do not know. I’m not sure I want to find out.”

“I do know from what I saw in your mind we are now without the directions to the quest and are about to be accused of murder. We must escape the city and follow the murderers until we overtake them and recover the directions. Then you draw a complete blank in your memory until you again remember a cave where we acquire the gauntlet.Your mind remembers almost nothing except that trouble seems to start after we acquire it. The quest is not completed by simply obtaining the gauntlet of Midas. It would be very helpful if you could somehow recall more but I do not hold out much hope. If my spell cannot find the information then it is most likely lost to us forever.”

“Couldn’t we just cheat and go straight to it?” I knew it wouldn’t be that easy but had to ask.

“I wish we could,” said the wizard, now closing his eyes. “I have much of the information necessary to go to the gauntlet from your head, but big pieces are still missing. There are instructions on the stolen parchment that we simply must have to pass through the final obstacles to the gauntlet. You could not remember those obstacles so we need the parchment and from what you did remember, skipping any step could be fatal. Don’t forget, we must follow the story as well.So our next course of action is to pursue these murderersand retrieve the parchment. Then we will be safely on the path or I could say we are safely within the fabric of the story.”

The wizard began to walk back but then stopped.

“There is something else. In this tale you are the leader. I will help as much as I can but in the end you must still be the leader or we will be disrupting the fabric too greatly. You must also know that I believe that as this murder was more violent than you remember, what happens to us will not necessarily be what was written in the book. I believe as you are a change in what was written, other changes have already and will continue to occur.”

Not for the first time I wished I hadn’t opened up that book. I was scared beyond belief.I told myself if I ever got home alive I would never read another book again. Somehow Reed survived without them. I would find a new passion. Then the thought of trying to make it through three more years of school without reading occurred to me. Would I really be sucked into a textbook? Imagine being stuck in Algebra. The thought made me shudder worse than seeing Kevlin’s corpse.

Before entering the room again the Wizard stopped and said in a quiet voice. “It is up to you as the leader but if I may suggest, there has been a murder and we were seen in public striking a deal with the victim. I would imagine even the dimmest city patrolman would have enough to put us on trial for this and even if we were set free it would mean weeks in a cell waiting,which would not be in keeping with the fabric. “

“So we need to get out of here quickly,” I said in agreement. The inside of a cell with possibly a rope waiting at the end was not a desirable conclusion to our quest.

The wizard smiled as they entered the doorway to the room. “I think you will do just fine leading us.”

“Why wouldn’t he lead us?” asked Aoki who had overheard the wizard’s last remark. “He has been our leader for years.”

Her eyes lingered on mine for a moment and then she looked away.

“Of course he is a fine leader. Sometimes it is just nice to hear it from those you are leading. Is that not right, Tomeri?” asked the wizard, who took advantage of Aoki looking the other way and shook his head no as he said this.

I got his meaning and answered, “No, I don’t need to hear it. I do just fine without compliments.”

This brought a smile from both the wizard and Aoki. Just then Unbar came out of the sitting room with a bag. “They didn’t even take his gold. They were after the parchment, got it and left.” Then looking at me he said, “Where do we go now?”

Even knowing what I had to do I hesitated. According to Mardel,I had to lead the group or my life would be in danger. I thought about all of the books I had read with great leaders. I had always wanted to act like them, to be them. Here was that opportunity staring at me in the strangest circumstance. It was time toact like a man.

The first thing Idid was stand up a little straighter. I looked at each of them in turn as I spoke.

“The city patrol will think we have done this as soon as word gets out. I don’t think we want to be around for questioning when they get here. Let’s get our things and leave the city.”

I wasn’t sure how this first command would be taken but none of them seemed to have a problem with it.

“We need to find these murderers to get that parchment back. Mardel, do you have some way to track them?”

The wizard couldn’t hide his smile, “I do.”

“Good,” I said, relieved. “Let’s go.”

Unbar threw the gold bag on the bedand followed the rest of the Travelers out of the door, closing it behind him. Ireturned to my room and noticed a pack ready in a corner with my sword leaning close by.Igrabbed the pack and strapped on the sword before entering the hallway where Unbar and Aoki were waiting. The wizard came from his room last.

“The city patrol is coming down the street and will be pouring through the front entrance in a few moments,” Mardel said, watching me. “Someone has alerted them.”

“I noticed a door through the kitchen in the great hall,”I said. “Maybe we can sneak out the back before they get through the front.” I looked to the wizard who merely shrugged and followed as I led down the hallway.

When wewere back at the top of the stairway I was grateful to see that my earlier mess had been cleaned up, probably by the inn’s staff. The groupfollowed medown the steps and into the great hall. The tables were still jammed with people enjoying their evening as loud as ever. Webegan making our way quickly to the kitchen entrance. As wereached the doorway the sounds of the city patrol entering through the front entrance caught our attention. The others slipped through the curtains towards the kitchens but I lagged behind, peering through the curtains to see the patrol.

The men in the city patrol were each dressed in burgundy colors with a roaring lion on the right arm sleeve. Over the head of each Lion was a symbol. There were many different symbols.I guessed they might be according to their rank. One man came in who wore robes with a belt of components much like Mardel.He had a lion on the right breast of his robes but with a staff over the lion’s head. I had seen enough. I drew my head back in from the curtain.

“I think they have a wizard. Let’s get out of here quick.”

Mardel and the rest of the group agreed without hesitation. Mardel was in front and led us down a narrow passageway that descended down a hall towards the kitchens. Occasionally a barmaid with a tray would come running from ahead and curse us for being where we shouldn’t be. Weignored them and pressed on until reaching the kitchens.

The large kitchenwas a shock. The cooks used a long iron table built over a hot fire with a thick metal table skirt on the side closest to the cooksto protect their legs. The cooks wore thick leather pants and sweated profusely.

This was like nothing I had ever seen in Covington. There were trays on a different table being piled with plates of food by grubby workers with dirty aprons. The head cook was a short, robust, older man whose outfit was stained from years of wiping filth on it. His long beard was wet with grease and sweat and filled with grime, the bottom had been stained several times over by him leaning a little too closely to a pot. His fellow cooks were in no better condition, in fact several were worse. I was relieved I had not eaten anything from that kitchen.

Scanning the room I saw a back door and we made our way to it on a near run. Unbar stepped around the wizard and opened the door a crack, peering into the night.“It’s clear,” the large warrior opened the door wide, “we’re lucky, I cannot remember the guard being sloppy enough to leave an exit open.”

Unbar went first through the door into a dark courtyard. We followed behind the large man, makingour way quickly across the courtyard and through the door of a stable. While Unbar and Aoki began preparing their mounts to leave, Mardel lagged behind.

“Ever saddled a horse before?” he asked quietly.

The look on my face gave him all the answer he needed.

“Well then I suggest you find a way around that little problem.” He set off towards his horse with not a word of advice.

Unbar’s horse was nearly saddled already. No way could Ido what he had just done. I didn’t even know which was mine. ThenIthought of a possible solution.

“Unbar, saddle my horse while I keep watch,” I said,thinking what my brother Reed’s answer would be if I had given him the same kind of command.

Unbar didn’t even look up from what he was doing. He just nodded his head and quickly went about the extra work. I stood by the door watching the courtyard, praying it would remain empty. I wanted no part of another fight. I couldn’t even imagine one with two wizards involved.

Before long the horses were saddled and Unbar led a large grey stallion to me and handed overthe reins before mounting his own black horse. I looked up at myhorse and knew I was in trouble again. I had never ridden before and although I was somewhat coordinated when forced to try sports at school,I didn’t have a clue about how to ride a horse. Worse yet, all of the others were already atop their horses and waiting for me to open the stable door and mount. There would be no hiding from them. When the door to the stable was open,I tried to think of some way to distract them but my creativity seemed to have been used up in getting Unbar to saddle my horse.

Putting one foot in the stirrup,I looked for the horn on the saddleI had seen in pictures and movies but this saddle had none. Hoping the horse wouldn’t mind too much, I grabbed a handful of the horse’s thick mane and held on tight while swingingmy leg up. I almost had it but my leg hit the top of the saddle and Ilost my balance and hit the ground. When I looked at the others they pretended not to notice, although I did see Unbar trying to bite back a grin.

With my pride a little hurt I jumped up, dusted myself off and swung my leg over the saddle like an old pro, or at least how I imagined an old pro would do it. I was so proud of myself until I saw the others still smiling. Unbar tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh, even Aoki was giggling.

Mardel came to my rescue. “I believe our leader, however brave a face he puts on, is still suffering from the effects of the knife and the spell. I told you this might happen.”

Unbar and Aoki’s smilesvanished, replaced by looks of concern.

“I forgot you were near death only a few hours ago. I’m sorry, Tomeri,”said Unbar.“If you don’t mind, I will take lead out of the city. I know it well.”

I just nodded. My pride was still hurting. I thought I mounted well. At least on the second try.

Unbar and Aoki rode by but the wizard came even withme, waiting. It was then that Irealized I had no idea how to make the large animal move. I had seen men kick their legs and I thought about it, but kicking that big strong warhorse was not something I wanted to try so far from the ground. When I looked at Mardel for help I realized the wizard was chanting. When he finished he looked straight into myeyes with such force I couldn’tlook away. The wizard finally broke eye contact and I discovered I knew exactly what to do with my big horse. Moving my reins towards the wizard’s departing horse,I gave my mount a confident nudge with my legs and the horse started moving. When I drew even with Mardel I could see a hint of a smile.

Unbar led usdown one of the lesser crossroads to avoid being seen as much as possible. The large size of the city was an ally to us;we were able to keep mostly unseen. There were no walls or guard posts. Unbar guided us to a street that ended a few hundred feet short of a thick wooded forest. The street crested a hill that allowed a breathtaking view of the large city. Thousands of windows were lit for the evening.In the center rose the Crossroads Inn, looking down on the smaller homes around it. A large group of lanterns and torches were congregating from different parts of the city into the streets, amassing around the Inn. With my enhanced vision I could see their faces. I could see their wizard standing with a group of men out front. He had his eyes closed. He was chanting. That was enough for me. I turnedmy horse towards the forest and galloped my horse into the safety of the trees.

 

Chapter 9

The Forest Battle

 

A few nights later on the trail of the murderers, Mardel, Unbar and I sat around a small fire resting. Aoki slept nearby. I was trying to find a comfortable way to sit considering the soreness in my legs and behind. The first night after we stopped,Ifelt sore like never before in my life. Then I woke up the next morning. Even with my book-enhanced muscles I was in pain. Each movement caused the most exquisite pain in every muscle in my body. The thought of standing made me want to crylet alone riding another minute in that horrifying saddle. As the days passed, I got more used to riding. The soreness remained, but my tolerance increased.

Mardel handed me a small cup. “Here, drink this but do not swallow too much at once.”The golden liquid tasted sweet and smelled of roses. I sipped a little, letting the golden liquid rest on my tongue before swallowing. It tingled in my mouth and throat. Warmth spread through my limbs, my head cleared. I felt as though I had just woken from a long night’s sleep. The pain lessened. I felt the soreness, but not the crippling pain of the past few days.

“What is this?” I asked, looking at the remnants in my cup.

“It is an elixir I created some time ago.I use it sparingly, for its effects diminish if used over much.”

“Why does Tomeri need a lesson on your famous elixir Mardel? He has used it many times before this.”I forgot that Unbar was listening. Before I could stammer a reply, Mardel saved me.

“I told you the healing spell in Jurulus would cause some memory loss, Unbar. Do you not remember?”

Unbar nodded sheepishly and left the fire to prepare his bedroll.

“I never realized how slow it is to travel this way. Back home we could have covered this much ground in less than an hour. Using a much more comfortable vehicle,”I said, rubbing my still sore backside. The elixir could only help so much.

“Yes, I remember the marvelous ways you can travel from my trip into your mind. Even more impressive than your cars were the roads. To have so much black stone laid through your cities and countryside! You must have road builders engaged night and day to have so many.How much easier would our travel be if we could travel on roads such as yours?”

I realized how much I took the comforts of home for granted. Right thenI didn’t care about roads. What I wanted was my bed. I’d fall asleep and not wake up for days.

“Do you remember how long we have to reach the men ahead?”

“This part of your memory is void of details. All I know is that we need to follow them and get the directions back. I don’t know how long or how we do it.”

Mardel looked troubled. “What is it?” I asked, concerned.

“I think we make a mistake if we rely on your past knowledge of this story too much. The events unfolding around us are different because your presence in the story makes it different. It is as if we are creating a new world with every decision. Each choice brings with it many possible outcomes. I still believe you must follow the fabric of the story, but after more thought, I believe the fabric weaves itself around you. The story is you, what you decide. That is why you must be the main character. Again, I am not certain, but this might be how it works.”

“So I can do whatever I want now? Are you sure?”

“I didn’t say do whatever you want. Were you to leave the quest and settle down with a young Jurulian maiden, I believe the departure from the fabric would be too great. I do think your choices within the fabric are your own, though. You will decide how to reach the journey’s end. Does that make sense?”

The wizard’s words sent my head spinning. How would I ever learn the truth of my new gift? I could begin to see why someone would accept training without knowing what was to come. How could anyone know?

The next morning, as weprepared for the day, Mardel showed me a map.

“The realm of Mirador is split down the middle by a large river pouring into three large seas named after each of our Gods. The river, called Tethys, flows first fromthe Asterion Sea, the largest, into the Inachus Sea, the smallest, andthen finally ending in the Cephisus, the most deadly.” He pointed to each lake in turn. “The Sacred Forest borders the edge of Inachus, which is where I believe our prey is headed.”

“We will go through this later. I believe you have a date.” Mardel didn’t hide his smirk when he saw Aoki approaching, her smile lighting my heart on fire. She reached for my hand, which I offered without hesitation.

“Mardel suggested I re-train you in tracking.It saddens me to know how much you have lost. Your healing has taken much of your memory as well as your strength. No matter how you try to hide it, I see your exhaustion after a simple day of travel. You look as sore as a Hokken novice riding their first beast.”

I had no clue what that meant. I thought I had hidden mysoreness well.

“Come with me while there is still light. It’s time for your first lesson.” Aoki led me from the campsite forward on the trail. Her hand felt warm, her scent was intoxicating. I had always skipped over the romance section of the bookstore; perhaps I should have read a few to figure out how it all worked.

Aoki let go of my hand and knelt close to the ground. “See here, they have been careless!” I knelt by her, looking at two sets of footprints.

“See how long they stride?” She pointed to the distance between prints. “In men of about equal size; the younger and heartier person will have the longer stride. A long stride indicates energy, not height, in most cases.”

I looked at the prints. One set had a much longer stride. We followed the tracks down to a small stream. On the opposite bank we could find no sign of our quarry.

“They are finally showing some wisdom, using water to mask their trail. Even rivers can give clues of man’s passing though.” She stood over a rock, half exposed above the water. She tilted her head, staring at it from different angles. Finally, she smiled.

“Here,” she said, gesturing for me to stand by her. “If you tilt your head just right, you can see the imprint of a boot on the rock.” I must have looked doubtful.

“You don’t believe me?” She mocked a hurt look, which turned quickly to a mischievous grin. “Look for yourself then.”

I tilled my head and saw nothing but a bare rock. I changed the angle several times, still seeing nothing. “Okay I see it,” I said, after several moments of futility.

“Liar,” she giggled. “Come, they have gone in this direction.”

We walked the water’s edge, looking for signs of the men’s passing. Finally, Aoki found a rocky bank where they had left the river. We tracked them a few hundred yards more, Aoki showing me how to measure the depth of the imprints to determine the weight of each man. I was amazed at how much she could learn by studying the ground.

The next evening I looked hopefully to Aoki, wanting more “training”, but it was Unbar who approached me. “Mardel mentioned to me that you could use some weapons training.”

The warrior had a look of embarrassment on his face. “What is wrong?” I asked.

“It just doesn’t seem right to teach you the use of weapons, when it was you who taught me.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. It amazed me how intertwined into the story I had become. Unbar tossed me a staff. “We’ll begin with this.”

We stood across from each other as Unbar first taught me balance. I learned a variety of moves designed to throw the enemy offbalance attacking or defending. Each form had a name.

“The attacking positions always begin with the sun, the defending positions with the moon.”Unbar taught methe sun-across-the-sky, which was a sweeping motion of the staff. Next I learned the-moon-low-on-the-horizon which was a two-handed block. The sun-rides-the-waves I couldn’t quite get the hang of. It required me to flip the staff one-handed and actually let go of the handle as it twirled for an instant. I had to be quick though, if Unbar pressed me at precisely that moment,I would lose my weapon. After an hour,I began to show some skill with the staff, even penetrating Unbar’s defenses a few times.

Each night they rotated. I learned tracking with Aoki or weapons skills with Unbar.By the end of the week my skills were improving. I sat down to rest, the blood still pumping from my latest session with Unbar. Mardel sat across from me, deep in thought.

“You’ve taken to the staff like no one I have seen before. You are a natural.”

“I think I figured out the secret now,” I said, making sure Unbar couldn’t hear me. Aoki was gone tracking, Unbar was brushing down his horse across the campsite.

“What secret are you talking about?” asked the wizard, confused.

“It’s just like the horse riding.You’ve given me some magical help.”

Mardel’s expression changed from confusion to mirth. “Do you think so little of yourself? I have done nothing of the kind. The help I gave you was a unique spell I came across many years ago and is limited to horse riding. I know of no way to help you learn weapons or any other skill than through experience, like anyone else. I am afraid your skill with the staff is all your own.” Mardel chuckled. I was elated. A quiet confidence had been growing all week as I improved.Now it soared.

A week more passed on the trail before wefinally caught up with our prey. The past few days, the trail was easier to find, and fresher. About mid-morning of the fourteenth day, we discovered a recent campsite in a clearing of tall grass, bordering a thick forest of tall trees. I didn’t need my increasing tracking skills to find the spot where a fire had been lit. The embers still smoldered. Aoki walked the site, looking over nearly every patch of ground.

“They left in this direction.” She indicated an opening between two massive trees that stood like sentinels watching over the forest. The group fell silent, looking to me. I was getting used to that look more and more.

“Okay,no rest. Let’s try to reach them as quickly as possible,” Isaid. I wanted that part of the quest over as soon as possible.

The day grew hot, the hottest yet. We were protected from the sun under the thick forest canopy, but the air stifled. I swatted at little bugs flying around my face. They seemed to take pleasure in flying as close to my eyes as possible. My stallion swished its tail, trying to drive the pests away from its hind quarters.

As the day lengthened, we stopped to rest our mounts and ourtired limbs. Even Unbar looked worn down. It was the time of day when the senses grew less attentive, the reactions less precise. Everyone became alert immediately though when we heard men’s voices, coming from somewhere not far ahead.I motioned for Aoki to scout ahead while the rest of us dismounted our horses and tied them in a thicket where they wouldn’t easily be seen or heard. With our horses secured, we walked quietly toward the direction of the voices.

Aoki returned, “There are two men setting up camp in a clearing ahead and not too worried about the noise they are making. I think they believe they have left all danger safely behind. I didn’t get too close so I didn’t see their faces, but they look to be the ones we are tracking.”

The sun had fallen deep into the western sky behind us,making it difficult to see anything in that direction, which gave me an idea. In a book I had read not long ago, a party of Indians won a battle by attacking with the sun at their backs as it set. The defending army had to fight both the Indians and the glare of the sun in their eyes.

“Let’s angle in with the sun at our back and surprise them,” Iwhispered. I figured my companions would be impressed, but by the looks on their faces, they thought it elementary.

Unbar tried to whisper which came out as a low roar, “You want them dead or alive? I can handle two easily enough on my own.”

“Let’s take them alive if we can.” I couldn’t order the deaths of two people, even if they were murderers. “If they fight and we have to defend ourselves, then so be it.”

A troubled look passed Unbar’s face. “What is it?” I asked.

“What do you recommend?” I asked, turning to Mardel.

“It is a good strategy,” Mardel said quietly.

Unbar headed down the path followed byAoki. I followed close behind, heading into another fight I wanted no part of.As we got closer the groupspread out, careful to make no noise. When we could get no closer without being seen, Aoki held up her hand. She pointed through a copse of trees to the figures of two men with their backs to us. One brushed a horse while the other fried some kind of foul smelling meat over a fire.

Aoki had her bow in her hands and an arrow notched and pointed at the man closest to us,kneeling over a fire. Mardel had his eyes closed. He rubbeda dry leaf in his hands. Unbar walked with his sword drawn, the tip glinting as if by its own light. As frightened as I was,I had to admit, it was a little exciting too. These men had killed a man for gold. How could anyone have so little disregard for life?

Without warning, Aoki put an arrow in the ground, inches from the foot of the man frying meat by the fire. Unbar rushed the man brushing his horse. Mardel stayed where he was, still closing his eyes.When the man at the fire turned his head,Aoki gasped and notched another arrow, this time aiming for his heart. Only my quick reminder saved the man’s life.

The man brushing his horse slipped onto its back,trying to run from the charging warrior. Unbar turned his blade flat and used it to knock the man off his horse. He crashed to the ground in a heap, but was not done. He rolled a few feet to his pack and stood, bearing his sword with a wicked grin on his face.

The men began to circle each other, testing the skill of the other. I recognized some of the forms, but they were done with a quickness and skill I didn’t think he could ever match.

“I give you one chance, surrender and live.” Unbar retreated a step, lowering his sword.

“Do you think me easy prey, Unbar the Magnificent?” The man gave Unbar a look of derision. “Your woman child was lucky in Jurulus. You stand before a master of the blade.”

The man pulled his collar aside, revealing a tattoo of a rose on his left collarbone. “It is you who has one chance at surrender, Traveler.” The man whirled his sword in an array of forms I would have thought impossible.

“Mardel, can you end this before Unbar gets hurt?” I asked the wizard standing close by.

Mardel shrugged, “I will if you order it, but you must understand that he would be deeply offended. This isn’t Covington, Tommy,” the wizard said under his voice. “He is quite capable of dispatching this coward without a wizards help. I only prepared in case they had a trap set or had more men than we could handle.”

“What do we do with this one now that we have captured him?” I turned to look more closely at the prisoner. Aoki’s eyes were lit by a fire I had not seen before. She scared me. The man sat very still. Aoki stood over him, an arrow aimed directly at his heart. When Ilooked at the man’s face,I understood Aoki’s reaction. It was Hezel Strong, the man who almost killed me. Ihalf wished I had allowed Aoki to put her arrow through the man and be done with him.When I approached,he spat on the ground by my feet, a look of hatred clear in his eyes. I smiled at him,knowing it would enrage himfurther.

“Tie him up tight,” Iinstructed Aoki.

The sound of steel clashing and the grunts of the sword fight came to us through the trees. The fight had moved out of sight. I heard Unbar’s opponent laugh and then a bloodcurdling cry went up. The sound sent a cold chill down my spine. Time seemed to freeze. Aoki stood from her task, looking in the direction of the fight.

Hezel Strong used our distraction to his advantage. He jumped up and kicked Aoki, sending her sprawling. Hepulled a knife from his bootmovingin to finish her. I knew I should do somethingbut at first didn’t know what.

I yelled “Mardel!” and jumped on Aoki, rolling with her on the ground as aknifeswiped just above her head.

Hezel stepped forward again, not thinking of escape, his eyes promised death. I lay on the ground shielding Aoki from the thrust I knew was about to come when dozens of flaming darts flew over us,piercing the man’s chest. He cried out in agony andrageas he sank to the ground, trying to stab at me with an arm that no longer held the strength to obey. The expression of hatred froze forever as he stared at me. His eyes glazed over, unblinking.

Aoki and I lay on the ground together, I could feel her trembling. She whispered, “Thank you, my hero.”

She brushed a kiss across my cheek and pulled herself out of my embrace and to her feet. I followed, standing with my back to Mardel so the wizard wouldn’t see the red in mycheeks I was sure was there.

“It took you long enough!” Aoki turned on Mardel, “A couple more seconds and he had both of us.”

“My apologies, Mistress Aoki,”said the wizard, bowing. “In the future I will rush my spells. They will not work of course, but my father always told me to never upset a lady.”

“You’re getting as bad as Unbar,” was her only reply. At the mention of the warrior’s name we remembered our big friend and were just about to go in search of him when we saw him walking towards us, his long sword swinging as he walked

“I tried to take him alive, but he just wouldn’t cooperate.” A wide grin split the warrior’s face.

Unbar pulled out a silver flask and took a long pull. “Two weeks hard ride since Jurulus and now we’ve avenged our quest giver. Let’s take a night to celebrate and head out to find the gauntlet tomorrow.”

I wanted no part of camping in the same place where so much death had occurred.

“There is still a little light,” I said.“Let’s make a few hours before setting up for the night.”

The wizard gave me a knowing look. Unbar groaned.

“So we just leave the bodies for carrion?” Unbar looked at the crumpled form of Hezel Strong, “Not that I care much, but it seems against your nature, Tomeri.”

“Just leave them,” I said. “Once we find the scroll, we go.”

 

Chapter 10

The Scroll of Midas

 

We searched the packs of the dead men finding nothing. We searched the men’s bodies, (Unbar was given that gruesome task), but found nothing.

“Have we come all this way for nothing?” Aoki sat on the ground, frustrated. “Can we not just leave this quest behind, and go find another? I have no use for great riches in gold.”

“I think we are bound to this quest, Aoki,” Mardel replied, although he offered her no further explanation.

“Then what do we do now?” Her question was directed at me.

It was the first time I had seen her this way. If anything, she looked lovelier when she pouted. I reminded myself to breathe, and answer her question.

“I don’t think we should give up. Let’s keep looking.”

I searched the ground around the campfire as Aoki had taught me. The men’s footprints were everywhere.I spread my net in an ever growing circle, studying the ground for any disturbance. Outside the main campsite I found footprints leading away from camp and followed them to a tree where I knelt down to examine the ground. The dirt looked disturbed a foot out from the trunk. I ran back to the packs of the men, searching.

“What do you hope to find?” asked Unbar, his face doubtful. “I’ve searched them several times over. It isn’t there.”

“I know the scroll isn’t here, but I’m hoping something else is.” I continued to rifle through the belongings of the dead men until I found it.A shovel.

“Every traveler carries a shovel such as this. In fact, I have one in my pack,” Unbar replied, still looking doubtful.

“Then bring it. I could use some help.”

I ran towards the tree and the disturbed earth thrusting my shovel into the dirt as quickly as my tired arms would allow. I was joined a few minutes later by Unbar, who removed vast swaths of dirt with each pitch of his shovel. With Unbar’s help, we cleared out two feet of dirt from the hole in a very short time. I stuck my shovel in the growing hole and struck something hard, sending a jolt up through my wrists and arms. We cleared dirt from the object and discovered a small chest.

I had read about digging up a treasure chest before, it was even more exciting doing it firsthand. Unbar pulled it from the hole as Mardel and Aoki joined us, excited by the discovery. It was covered in leather with no lock, so I unlatched the plate and pulled it open.

The contents of the chest were disappointing. There was a small purse of coins, but other than that, no gold, no gems, just a bunch of documents. Documents! I remembered what we were after. On top was an ancient looking scroll with a leather string tied around it.

I untied the string and handed the parchment to Aoki, who read to us.

“Thou hast found the sacred scroll of the three Gods and art called to fulfill the quest of purity. Thou must follow these instructs exactly and in the order given. Begin neither to the north nor the south but in the middle where peace reigns. Prepare yourself well to receive wisdom. There, in themiddle, thou must pass the test of reality and the test of patience.Read no further until thou art in the center of the middle. There thou wilt obtain more than thou hast.”

Aoki finished and the group grew silent, thinking of the meaning of the clue. I tried to remember reading the book and where this clue would lead us. For some reason the memory of aboat and an island on a sea came to me.

“Could this have anything to do with the sea?” I asked, looking to Mardel.

Mardel seemed a little surprised and judging by the look on his face, impressed. “Yes, I think our leader is exactly right. We are very close to Sea Inachus or the “middle” sea and it was Inachus who it was said gave the gauntlet to King Midas,making him rich beyond man’s understanding. But Midas would not remove it from his hand so everything he touched turned to gold including his beloved daughter whom he turned by accident in a sudden embrace. In despair, he tried torid himself of the gauntlet but when he finally attempted to remove it he found it had become a part of him. He prayed to Inachus to remove the curse and was told to throw himself into the river Tethys where it flowed into Sea Inachus. He did so and when he emerged from the sea, the gauntlet was gone, but as a reminder his ears were for the rest of his life shaped liked those of an ass. He was forever after known as the fool king. The gauntlet was thought to be gone forever, although legend of course has taken many on the quest to retrieve it.”

“It sounds horrible,” said Aoki and I couldn’t disagree.

“Midas was a fool,” Unbar said with a faraway look in his eyes. “He wouldn’t take the thing off. None of us is that greedy. Think of the good we could do with that much gold, Aoki.”

“I’m sure that is your motivation Unbar, to help the poor and the needy.” Aoki’s skeptical tone was lost on Unbar who still looked to be spending his part of the gold.

“We aren’t going to do anybody any good standing here,” said the wizard. “I think Tomeri is right. The sea is our best chance. Tomeri, how are your sea legs?”

That night, further down the trail, I sat up long after the others, staring into the dying fire. All that had happened in the few short weeks since my fifteenth birthday replayed in my head.

“She could have died back there,”he said, breaking the silence.

“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.

“Aoki, I know she is not real in your world butI would have grieved for the rest of my life had we lost her due to your unwillingness to take a life.”

I could only stare in disbelief. “I saved her; I kept her from getting killed.”

“No, you put her in danger. You insisted we take those men alive and for what purpose? That we may bring them to a trial as in your world? Is that justice? That they may live in a cell for the rest of their lives? You saw how long the cell held them in Jurulus. They were on the streets in less than a few hours, yet you would have us risk our lives for your type of justice. In Mirador these men deserved death, meted out in the quickest and safest manner to our group. I could have dispatched of them before they knew we arrived. I would have been told to do so by our leader were it not for the ridiculous system of justice you have brought from your world.”

The wizard became more heated. “Your world seems to view jails as a way to punish criminals. Here, they are holding cells for their real punishment. While you are here, you must see things as they exist here and deal with them as a man would in this world. You cannot apply the solutions of your world to the problems of this one. It could prove fatal for all of us, including you.”

I thought I’d been doing the right thing, but the wizard was right. I had to think differently in this world or I could get us all killed.

 

Chapter 11

Passage

 

We reached the shores of Inachus the next morning and it wasn’t what I expected. Thesurface of the water was perfectly calm. Even the temperature changed from hot and sticky to nice and comfortable. Icould feel a strong breeze blowing my hair but there wasn’t so much as a ripple on the surface.

Aoki and Unbar went off scouting while Mardel and I waited.

“Where do we go from here?” I asked, as we sat on our horses, staring at the strange water.

“Wineska.” Mardel pointed to the north.“It is a small harbor town where we might find passage on the sea. It won’t be easy. Very few ships will venture out on these waters. They are sacred to worshippers of Inachus . . . perhaps to Inachus himself. They come to the water’s edge the day of New Year to worship and make sacrifice. The first fruits of their fields and animals are given up to the goddess for another year of plenty.”

Unbar’s appearance in the distance ended our conversation. “No luck, nobody will even swim in the sea let alone stick a boat in,” he said, shaking his head. “They say it is sacrilege.”

“Perhaps Aoki has been successful. Here she comes,” said Mardel, watching to the north.

“No luck,” she said without any further explanation.

Wedecided our best bet was to head up the beach towards the city of Wineska. The ride was enjoyable. The terrain at times slowed the trip which gaveme more time to enjoy the scenery. There were stretches of beach with the whitest sand I had ever seen andotherswith high banks dropping off straight into the water below. These were a little more treacherous and had to be navigated with care. The ground was soft, the trail narrow, forcing uscloser to the edge.

I loosed the reins, lettingmy horse pick its own way along the narrow trail.The land bordering the sea was mostly wooded with a type of unfamiliar tree. They were the tallest trees I had ever seen. The trunks were as big as eight Unbars at their bases.The top growthcreated a canopy blocking out all sun and rain. There was little undergrowth so Icould see for some distance into the trees.

Ihad always disliked the stretches in books where adventurers moved from one place to another and nothing happened. Ioften wished the author would skip those parts and just continue with the action but if I had my wish I would have missed the most enjoyable part of the journey so far. I found myself wishing the story had lingered in the “boring” parts a little longer so I didn’t have to rush away to the action so quickly.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally reached the small harbor village of Wineska. Wagons were coming and going, all loaded down with goods of different varieties.

We entered the village in a line of wagons of every height and length, waiting for those ahead to clear before working their way forward. Of all the things I thought I would see inside a book, a traffic jam was surely the last! By the time we reached the villagecenter, we were worn out from the long day, waiting for merchants to clear the road ahead. Unbar suggested we find an inn and look for a ship the next day.

We sat quietly eating a meal of fried potatoes and spicy sausages, listening to the conversations around us. A group of loud, finely dressed merchants sat around a table next to us.

A short man as wide as he was tall did most of the talking. Something he said got our immediate attention. “Rumor has it an army has left Jurulus, heading this way.”

“Nay, Hilgis. You believe every rumor you hear! Next you will be presenting doom prophecies to us as fact. ‘Tain’t anyone heard of any army coming from Jurulus or anywhere else,” scoffed a tall stranger sitting with his back to us.

“Believe what you will Natanial, but war is coming, and that is bad for business,” the rotund man replied.

We looked at each other, meaning without words passing between us. We knew a reason why an army would be sent this way.

“We need to find a boat first thing tomorrow morning and leave this villageas quick as possible,” I voiced the thought we all shared.

The next morning, after a wonderful night sleeping on a bed again for the first time in weeks, we packed our horses and walked down to the docks. Three small ships were docked.Two were unloading cargo through a system of pulleys fastened to nets surrounding boxes of goods. The third and largest was in the process of loading cargo into its hold usingthe same type of pulleys. It had a large rose painted on the bow.

I thought about asking Unbar to negotiate passage for us but when I saw the ashen look on the warrior’s face, I decided against it. Unbar had been acting strange ever since we reached the shores of Inachus. He had not said more than a few words on the journey to Wineska. His usual jovial nature was replaced by a quiet, detached gloominess.

“Aoki, could you see if they have room for passengers?” I decided a ship full of sailors might respond better to Aoki anyway.

She climbed a long wooden ramp onto the ship’s deck and was gone from sight for some time. When she returned she was followed by a man with dark skin, white baggy trousers and no shirt. The whites of his eyes and his teeth stood out in stark contrast to his dark features.

“So these are the famous Travelers, they-who-are-known-throughout-the-lands.” The dark man spoke with a thick accent, quickly jumbling all his words together.

“Findle has agreed to offer us passage on the “Rose” but we will have to sleep on deck and it will cost us most of our remaining gold.” Aoki nimbly jumped from the ramp to the ground and began to unpack Grinny, her stallion.

“What about our horses?”asked Unbar, perking up for the first time all day.“They can’t go on the ship. Perhaps I should stay here with them and you can meet me back here when you are done.”

The entire group looked at the warrior with such shock that he immediately added, “It was only a suggestion.”

“Your horses will be just fine on the deck he-who-is-afraid-of-the-water,” said Findle, walking up the long ramp from the ship.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” Unbarroared, but I could see it. Findle was right. Unbar clearly did not want to go out on that ship. Trying to hold back a smile I could see that Aoki and Mardel were trying with varying degrees of success to do the same which only lowered my resolve. A bit of a laugh escaped me. I hoped no one heard me but then Aoki laughed a little too and was joined by Mardel and then we were all laughing—allexcept poor Unbar, who didn’t think it was funny at all. Not wanting to lose any more pride, he put on his best battle face and with a snarl walked his black stallion up the ramp first.

I was impressed with the man’s courage. He had to be scared to death and had gone on anyway. When we reached the deck and found a place to tie off our horses we were shown to a spot on deck that would be our sleeping area.

Findle scrambled around the deck, overseeing every job. He returned once we were settled. “You must remove your armor, man-who-was-white-who-is-now-green.”

I looked and sure enough, Unbar had a slight greenish hue to him. I took a few casual steps away from the big man just in case, but Unbar was able to keep his breakfast down for the time being.

“Why do I have to take my armor off?” Unbar asked, clearly annoyed with Findle’s astute observations of his condition.

“Because if you fell over the side in armor you would sink like a rock,he-who-has-muscles-in-his-arms-and-his-head.”

I couldn’t help it.I let out another laugh. The strange captain clearly didn’t mind antagonizing a man twice his size. Unbar didn’t look in any condition to intimidate anyone at the moment though. He just scowled at the man and went about removing his armor after which he plopped himself down on the deck.

Findle turned his attention to Aoki and his visage changed. “You will have my cabin. If there is anything you require, anyone on board will be happy to serve you she-who-shines-like-a-green-emerald-in-an-evening-sky.”

“Thank you,” said Aoki graciously, “but I am used to the night air and being with my fellow Travelers. I don’t require special arrangements.”

Findle seemed shocked.

“You must also remove your armor, she-who-must-not-sink-or-the-world-would-be-less-lovely.”

Aoki smiled, “My armor is very special. It was made by druids and is stronger than any armor made of metal but light enough that I can swim quite comfortably in it. I will be just fine in my armor, he-who-worries-for-no-reason.”

He did not understand that she was having a little fun at his expense. Her comments seemed to cause him to worship her more. Aoki could only sigh at Findle’s adoration.

When the ship was loaded,the Rose set out to sea but not the way I expected. A smaller ship in the harbor attached a tow line and men on board that smaller craft were able to pull the much larger vessel out of its mooring into the open water. Once clear, long oars on each side of the ship slipped out and I heard a very loud, deep voice below us begin a chant. The men at the oars followed perfectly in unison. Findle stood alongside Aoki watching the oarsmen do their job as the ship began to move first slowly,then at an ever increasing speed. As much as I had wanted to see a sailing ship I was mesmerized by the oars working in perfect harmony, pulling the ship through the water. Findle was not as impressed.

“Bah, look at port side twenty-one, he is the new oarsmanand always out of rhythm. He will learn quickly or be back swabbing decks I tell you, man-who-is-moved-by-the-sea.”

Findle was already walking away. The man had a strange way of speaking but he was able to read people better than just about anyone I knew. Findle moved along the deck and was finally lost to sight when he descended below. I heard two loud voices from below,the coxswain calling out the strokes and Findle yelling at oarsman number twenty-one.Findle emerged a short time later.

“You have sails. Why don’t you use them?” asked Mardel when Findle returned.

“The Sea of Inachus is always calm, no wind on its surface to propel a vessel except on that rare occasion when the goddess is angry. Then the wind blows a gale. Inachus is the great mediator, she-who-rules-the-middle, she-who-is-in-the-middle, she-who-is-the-middle.”

“Don’t your rowers get tired after a while?” I asked.

“That is why we have two crews of rowers and even a third if we are desperate. They don’t have to row the entire trip. Sea Inachus has powerful surface currents so we row mostly to those currents and then ride along until we must leave them. Then we row out through calm waters to the next set of currents until reaching our destinations on the western shore. Those who worship the God hate the village we have just left and hate the village we are heading to. They hate us even more for desecrating their sacred body of water. They say the currents are their God’s tears being shed for the sins they have committed. So they believe we travel on the power of their sins.”

“What do you believe?” I asked, intrigued.

“I can only say that I do nothing to disrespect the sea. I dump nothing in it. I don’t bother Inachus and so far,she doesn’t bother me, man-of-a-thousand-questions.”

I looked out at the peaceful sea and behind us at the village and the shore growing smaller by the moment, listening to the cadence of the coxswain, taking us farther from shore and closer to our next adventure.

Chapter 12

The Center of the Middle

 

Findle agreed to take us out of the east-west currents towards the center point of the sea. But the problem with leaving the currents was they would have to row to get there. We didn’t hear any grumbling from the crew when they heard the news, but we did notice they weren’t quite as friendly as they had been.

The ship’s navigator was a spindly man,mostly bald on top with thick spectacles who was rarely seen out of his quarters except to stare at the sky periodically and then chat quietly with the helmsmanbefore retiring again to his quarters for another long stretch. Findle assured us he could be relied on to navigate usexactlyto the middle of the sea.

“We will search for the middle,although I know of no island,” he said with a glint in his eyes.“If it is there I would know of it, I-who-have-sailed-these-waters-since-I-was-a-youngling. But we will go for the sake of my young mistress.”

Findle gave a reverent bow to Aoki who mustered a smile for the quirky captain. Apparently the fact we had paid him in gold didn’t have as much effect as Aoki’s beauty.

The morning of the next day the navigator approached. “We are not far from your destination,” he sneered with a self-satisfied look. “If there were an island, you’d see it by now.”

Icouldn’t argue with him. There was no island in sight. Ahead of the ship was nothing but open water. I was sure in the book there had been an island. What had we done wrong?

“How far until the middle?” Mardel locked his green eyes on the navigator with an intensity that caused the man to take a step back.

“Less than a quarter-league ahead.” The man’s sneer returned.

“Then we will proceed until we are there.” Mardel’s stare was unrelenting. The man turned his back to us and very nearly ran back to his cabin.

“What a nasty little man,” Aoki said with a frown as we watched him disappear into his quarters. “But what do we do if he’s right?” she said, looking to me for an answer I couldn’t give.

“Let’s deal with that if we have to,” I said, wondering the same thing.

Fifteen minutes later the weather began to change. For the first time the water began rolling and tossing about as if a wind was blowing. A haze began to settle on the water and it became difficult for even the lookout to see more than a few feet ahead. We continued for some time like that until finally Findle had enough. He yelled to the Coxswain to stop all oars and the ship eventually lost all momentum and came to a halt in the water. Findle ordered the anchor dropped. He approached us with the navigator walking closely at his side.

“We are a few hundred yards from the center and I cannot see through this cloud. I do not believe there is an island but I dare not risk it just in case, they-who-must-go-on-without-us.”

This time his strange speech conveyed his message with clarity. The only question was how wecould go on without the ship and Unbar unable to swim. The thought of swimming that far while unable to see a few feet in frontof us didn’t sound like fun to me either.

“I ain’t swimming,” Unbar said to me with a look I would have never thought him capable of—fear. “It’s not that I can’t swim. Ijust don’t like it.”

“No one is swimming, big-man-who-talks-with-little-thinking,” said Findle, drawing a scowl from the large warrior.

“We have a small rowboat you are welcome to use if you can get the big man to sit down, they-who-search-the-empty-sea-for-land.”

Findle walked us to a small row boat just barely large enough to fit the four of us. There was a seat in the front and one in the back and the middle bench could fit two barely. I took the rear and put Unbar in the front with Aoki and Mardel in the middle as they were the smallest. The small boat had iron rings in the front and back with ropes through which the crew used to lift us off the deck and gently into the water. After untying the ropes that had been pulled through metal rings in the row boat’s bulwark, Unbar and I grabbed the oars.

Findle leaned over the rail of the ship above us, watching us start. “I will stay here for a day, they-who-must-return-or-be-left-behind.”

The choppy water was a hindrance but Unbar’s powerful arms and my book-enhanced strength sent us moving along at a good pace. After rowingfor what seemed foreverwe began to hear the sounds of gulls and other birds overhead and finally a rushing sound of waves crashing so loudly that the sound became almost deafening. Mardel tried to yell above the noise but we could only shake our heads. He pointed ahead but I didn’t have any idea what he was pointing at.

Unbar and I paddled on until wefound the cause of the loud noise, a large break of wavesone hundred yards out from a sandy shore of a small island.We had found the island. It wasn’t so much joy as relief I felt as we began to paddle toward the crashing breakers. The power and speed of the waves made paddling straight in impossible. Unbar and I decided to paddle around the break and further down the beach to see if there was a calmer approach to the shore. As we rowedwe found that the break completely surrounded the island. The only way to get to and from the shore was to ride the waveslike a surf board and risk being beaten to pieces. The other problem was getting off the island even if wedid somehow get there safely.

I leaned over to the Wizard, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Is there some spell you know that could make the water calmer?”

“I have nothing to make the water calmer,” yelled the wizard. “I do have something to make us go faster but I’m not sure if that would be a good thing or not.”

I wasn’t sure either. Trying to swim with a boat and a frantic sinking warrior crashing all around you wasn’t a good idea. The only way to the island was through the breakers so we were going to have to make the attempt and hope for the best. I remembered the brave face Unbar put on walking up the ramp to the ship even though he must have been scared to death.

“Let’s try it!” I yelled, much to the dismay of Unbar when we signaled our intentions to him in the front. “Mardel, have your spell ready and use it when you think it would be best.”

Without another word I steered the small boat toward the break and began paddling furiously. Suddenly I felt the boat shoot forward in the water like a slingshot and looked over at the wizard who simply shook his shoulders and then pointed to Unbar. The great warrior was paddling with every ounce of effort his ample muscles could provide and that was considerable.

The boat glided on the water, picking up speed as Iadded my strength to Unbar’s. By the time we reached the break of waves we were moving almost faster than the water—almost. Aoki and Mardel huddled in the middle of the small boat, grabbing hold of the sides as Unbar and I tried to stay with the crest of the fast-moving wave. My muscles ached but I didn’t dare let up or we would lose our spot atop the crest and crash down some forty feet below. Unbar paddled furiously, as if he knew his very life depended on it.

Eventually the wave began to lose its speed and power, gravity took over and the boat began to fall. Unbar was the first to hit the water and disappear.Mardel and Aoki went next,falling out the sides and finally the wave sent the boat over my head and away from me completely. I found myself in the air, falling towards the white foam below.

When I hit, it felt like someone had hit me with a flat board. All the air left my lungs, the sea pushed me back and forth, and bubbles were everywhere. I didn’t know which way was up. Panic took over. I opened my eyes and saw light above me. I felt sand brush my leg so I kicked out. Putting my feet on the bottom, I pushed up and hit the surface gasping for air. My lungs were having a hard time drawing a breath and then the next wave hit me pushing me under. I found myself rolling in the water again, but this time I found footing on the bottom easier and pushed up to the surface with time to get oriented before the next wave crashed overhead.

I worked my way slowly to shore and eventually hit a calmer area of water where I found Mardel and Aoki treading water, watching me approach. The three of us began to swim towards shore all the while looking out for Unbar. I hadn’t seen him since we fell out of the boat. And then there he was, flailing in the water, for some reason he kept his head down while he floundered. Mardel and I could touch the ground by now which meant Unbar could easily.

Mardel grinned at me “How long do you think we should let him drown before we tell him he can stand?”

“How fast can you run when he finds out?” I said,laughing.

“I suppose you are right,” said Mardel,reaching into the water carefully to avoid Unbar’s flailing arms and pulling him up by his hair. Before he could go down again he yelled, “The water is shallow. Put your feet down and you can stand quite comfortably.” Before letting go again and watching the warrior sink into the clear blue water once more.

I watched the spot where the warrior went under and after a momenthis head came up and a calm-facedUnbar stood on his feet and faced the two of uswho were once again trying not to laugh.

“I suppose you thought I didn’t know the water was shallow?”he said, his brow twitching with anger. “I was only practicing my swimming.”

“More like practicing your drowning,” said the wizard when the warrior was safely on the shore, out of earshot.

Aoki had run down the shore to secure our boat and the oars which had washed ashore. With Unbar’s help the two pulled the boat onto the beach.

The island was not large and could be walked from one end to the other in a little more than an hour. I expected it to have palm trees and exotic waterfalls like every other island I had ever read about.Instead,we found a fernlike plant withslender green leaves on long stems covering the ground both in the open and under a grove of the same type of large trees as those that bordered the sea by the village of Wineska. These trees though, if possible were even taller.

“As if they reach to the heavens.” Aoki seemed to finish my thought.

“I would imagine our destination is in the middle of that grove,” said Mardel,walking toward the forest of trees ahead.

The trees conveyed a feeling of peace and serenity that I had never felt before.There were little butterflies of every color of the rainbow that flittered about in such beautiful patterns that Iwanted to just stand and watch them. In fact that is exactly what Aoki was doing right then. I always liked butterflies as they flapped their wings in my backyard and flew by my back window, they reminded me of my mother. I would even raise my head from my books to enjoy them. For some reason thinking about my books shattered the peaceful feeling and I realized the others were just standing around staring at various parts of the forest and enjoying the beautiful scenery.

It was beautiful, just looking at the leaves in the trees as the wind swayed and tossed them. It made me want to stand and look for hours. It reminded me of the grove of trees just behind the property at my house.At times the wind would rustle the leaves and I would look up from my books and just enjoy the sound of it.

Again I felt my mind clear at the thought of my books. I began to get the feeling something wasn’t right. The forest was nice but my friends were acting very strangely. Aoki was still staring at the butterflies with the sweetest smile on her face. She was beautiful and I found myself wanting to just watch her face as she watched the butterflies flying back and forth in front of her. But thinking about my books on their shelves back at home,I was able to shake the thought and look around for the others. Unbar was staring at the bark on one of the large trees mumbling about its texture and color. Even the wizard was captivated by the herbs that grew in the grasses of a meadow where he sat. I found him looking at each blade individually with a smile on his face.

I tried everything I knew to get my companions to come with me from the grove but they wouldn’t move. Aoki just pointed to the butterflies and asked me to stay there with her so we could enjoy them together. Unbar wouldn’t even answer, he just ran his hands over the bark of the tree saying how lovely it was that something so rough could have so much beauty. Iwas sure the wizard would help me but was disappointed.

“Mardel, this is some kind of spell you are under. I need your help. Fight through it. Mardel, please, I need your help.”

The wizard only smiled at me and pointed to the herbs. “Tommy, this is the most amazing field. Every spell component I use is grown here in abundant supply and better than I have ever seen. Here they are raised for beauty, not only for use. Ihad only seen them as components. Come sit down and I will tell you the names of each.”

Mardel kept stringing the strands through his hands and naming them one by one. I pulled away and looked at my companions perplexed. Then I realized this part of the quest I was going to have to do alone. I grabbed the parchment from Aoki’s pack and set out for the middle of the forest.

My journey should not have taken long but for some reason the forest seemed to be larger than it should have been judging by the size of the island. It took me more than an hour tramping down ferns until I finally got my sword out and used it to cut my way through the thicker plants. Finally after much hacking Ireached a clearing and I didn’t know how but I knew that it was the center of the middle.

Iexpected something remarkable but instead found nothing more than a simple clearing in the trees. The feelings of peace and serenity were gone. I looked around me to see if there was some beast or creature guarding the spot.I kept my sword out, ready. There was only a faint breeze through the trees and underbrush which carried to me the smell of perfume.

I looked around for the cause of that smell. I knew it from somewhere in the back of my fuzzy mind. I had just about placed the smell when I caught the brief flash of someone walking through the trees toward me. The person was lost from sight behind a tree as they walked, giving me a chance to look around for a place to hide. It was clear that the person had seen me. As the figure got closer I finally caught a glimpse of the face of my visitor and fell to my knees. It was my mother.

Chapter 13

Full Sail

 

When she moved closer she held out her arms and I was off my knees and to her in an instant, wrapping my arms around her in a hug of released emotion.

“You finally found me.” My voice shook as the fear and emotion, buried until now, came forward, overwhelming me.

Her comforting hand held my head, stroking my hair before she pulled away to speak. “We have been so worried. We thought you ran away or worse. You have been gone for days. This girl showed up at the house and told us something had gone wrong but that I could help save you.”

“I don’t know how they can do it or how you can do it, but she told us you are trapped in a book and that I can bring you out.”

“How is that possible?” I asked.

I had not even thought of bringing somebody with me. Of course I really didn’t know much of anything about my new ability other than its ability to get me into trouble.

“She said you must leave your companions and this quest and come with me. She said once you do that the book will kick you out or something like that.”

It was the exact opposite of what Mardel had told me. He had said I had to keep in the fabric of the story or my life might be in danger but the wizard did admithe was guessing. Maybe he was wrong, and the way to leave was to quit following the storyline. The thought of leaving my friends behind didn’t sit right with me though. I was their leader and they were my friends. My thoughts stopped for a moment as the realization struck me. I finally had real friends,yet the irony of it all was thatthey weren’t real.

I looked at my mother who gave me a warm smile in return. “Mom, I’m not sure that is a good idea. The wizard said if I don’t stay in the story line I could die.”

“Why would you trust a fake wizard over your mother?” Her anger surprised me. I had never seen my mother get that upset so quickly with me before. The stress of the situation must have been getting to her.

“I need a moment to think,” I said, buying time.

“Of course, son,” she replied, the smile returning in an instant. She walked a short distance away and stood next to a tree, watching me.

I could not help but look at her as my mind tried to grasp what I should do. I thought of being back in my room right then. My books were there, as dangerous as ever. The girl waited, wanting an answer and probably upset with me considering my current mess. Am I ready to return to that? The overwhelming feeling driving me was finding the gauntlet. It didn’t make sense though. The need to complete the quest came from somewhere else inside me. I didn’t care about the riches. It’s not like I could take them home with me. Or could I?

I was still no closer to knowing what to do when my mother startled me.

“What are you thinking, Tommy? I always have such a hard time reading you.”

Everything screeched to a halt. “What did you just say?”

“I said I always have such a hard time reading you. You sit in your room reading those books day and night. I just have a hard time knowing what you are thinking. It was nothing, why?”

A realization struck me, sending a wave of fear through me like a cold breeze. I considered the things my mother had said in a whole new light. “Do you know how many books I’ve read where someone close to the main character is used like this but it isn’t really them?”

“Tommy, I don’t understand,” the figure responded, looking hurt and a bit confused.

“Yes, that is your line perfectly,” I continued,forcing a smile. “What gave you away was the part about not being able to read me. My mother has always been able to read me better than anyone. In fact, it is her most annoying trait. I can’t keep a thing from her. I don’t know who you are or even what you are. But you are not my mother and I am not going with you, so go away so I can do what I came here to do.”

“Very good, Tommy,” the figure smiled in approval.“You have passed the test of reality. You may read the next direction and after one month, may leave and continue your quest.”

“I can’t wait one month,” I protested. “We have to get to the coast in a few days or I will be disrupting the fabric of the story.”

“I’m sorry;this quest is for wisdom, not for gold and riches.The thirty days are required to pass the test of patience. Without a sacrifice you cannot obtain wisdom.”

“Our ship won’t wait that long. If we can’t leave for a month we’ll be stranded here. There’s nothing to eat. If we starve before the thirty days are up, what good is wisdom?”

“I’m sorry,” said the figure, walking away. Before I could move she passed behind a tree and was gone.

I stayed rooted to the spot, thinking of any possible solution that could solve the puzzle. FinallyI pulled out the scroll and, moving to the middle of the clearing, read the next direction.

Thou hast done well to pass the test of reality,but the test of patience awaits. Thou must learn patience or face the Akhellion. To the city of Griforlus is thy destination set. Seek the line of Five and Griforlusshall point the way. Seek two immovable points, one black, one white and then under.

When I returned from the forest, I found my companions just setting off to find me. They didn’t remember anything that happened after leaving the beach. I told themabout the next direction, leaving the part about my mother out.

“Does anyone know what an Akhellion is?”

No one in the group including the wizard had ever heard of the name before, much to my dismay. It didn’t sound good.

“I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t want to sit here and learn wisdom for a month while we starve and our ship leaves us,” I said and nobody disagreed.

“The first question ishow do we get back out to the ship past the break? Then we have to deal with an Akhellion whatever that is. For all we know it could be a disease or a bad storm.”

I wished I could remember that part of the story but my memory was empty.

“I’m not worried,” said Unbar with a smirk on his face, “we have angered the Gods before and lived to tell about it. I say, let’s get off this island and better yet, head to the nearest shore and get off the water. If that captain needs convincing then leave him to me, you know, man-who-has-seen-enough-water-for-the-rest-of-his-life.”

Our group enjoyed a much needed laugh as we set off for the beach. It was good to see Unbar back to his old self again.

When we reached the sea shore we found a nice surprise. The breakers were gone. The sea was calm all the way out into the haze away from the island. We found our boat and pushed out from the beach with Unbar in the stern and me in the bow paddling us back out to the Rose. As we began to enter the haze I looked back and saw a lone figure standing on the beach, watching us. It was the figure of my mother. She looked sorrowful. I turned, and with a growing knot of fear forming in my belly, paddled a little faster towards the ship.

When we emerged from the fog and reached the ship, ropes were lowered and pulled our small boat up on deck. The captain approached us with a big smile on his face.

“Changed your minds then did ya, they-who-leave-and-immediately-return?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, “We were gone for hours.”

“You weren’t gone for hours, he-whose-timepiece-must-be-broken. You left our sight in the haze and were immediately back again. We have been sitting here no longer than a few minutes.”

We had easily been gone for at least four or five hours, if not more. Then I understood. Time had not passed while we were on the island. If we had stayed for the required days we would have found the ship there waiting, thinking us gone for only a few minutes.I understood why it was called the test of patience, and we had just failed it.

“Findle, have you ever heard of an Akhellion?” I said, pulling the captain aside.

The captain’s normally playful mood changed immediately.

“Why did you speak that name?” said the captain in a somber tone.

“We did visit the island and were there for hours. We were told that we would face this thing, whatever it was. I was hoping you would know.”

“You would face it? And you came back to share your doom with us? You wretched man!” he cried and began yelling orders so fast, running about the ship with such alarm that several sailors around him ran for the armories, thinking we were under attack.

Suddenly the ship lurched forward as I could hear the captain below decks yelling at the coxswain, and he in turn yelling at the oarsmen. I had only thought the oarsmen had been trying before. Now we were ripping through the water at top speed with the coxswain barking for more.

The captain came on deck yelling for his second crew to get ready, “I’ll row all of ya to death if I have to,” he yelled to the men as he raced by to another part of the ship.

Findle cried out for the navigator who quickly emerged from his quarters. As they put their heads together every so often, the two would glance at usand the navigator would narrow his eyes. The captain just kept shaking his head. They poured over a map with the navigator pointing at various spots.

Without saying a word, Mardel got up and went over to the men, joining in their conversation. I could not hear them but a short argument ensued until finally the wizard closed his eyes for a few moments. When he opened them he wiggled his fingers and I felt a rush of wind across the deck. It blew with such force that I had to grab hold of the rail to keep from being propelled over. The navigator wasn’t impressed but the captain smiled and patted the wizard on the back, then ran up to the helm with the map pointing at a destination. The helmsman turned the wheel and the ship changed course. The oarsmen below deck retracted their oars and made their way on deck to join the rest of the crew who huddled around the captain.

“I know it has been a while, men, but today we are going to sail the Rose with some help from the wizard. We make for nearest land and if we have to run her onto ground we will. I won’t lie to you—we may have something chasing us that will turn this ship into floating tinder. So get in the rigging and unfurl the sails boys, and step to it lively if you want to avoid the Akhellion’s belly.”

I watched the men scramble, turning the ship into a sailing vessel again. If they were rusty, it didn’t show. Before long they had the mainsail up and everything tied off and it was time for Mardel to do his part. Working his spell, he pointed his hand into the limp sail, which took the breeze and suddenly we were moving. With the ship at sail in the full breeze Mardel was giving, the speed surprised me. We were going fast enough that I thought I could drop some skis and rope in the water and water-ski. That is, if we weren’t being chased by some sea monster,of course.Findle’s fear at the mere mention of its name was causing that knot of fear in my belly to twist.

After talking with the Captain, who despite the danger was now in much better spirits being under sail,I found out we were about eight hours from the nearest land.He wouldn’t say what exactly an Akhellion was. He just shook his head when I asked. We had not seen any sign of a sea monster or anything else so far and I hoped it would stay that way until we were safely on shore.

When we were four hours under sail the lookout yelled that he had spotted something off to the port side. Every eye on deck strained to see, some aided by looking glasses. At first the sun on the water, which shone bright in the mid-afternoon sky, blinded us in that direction. The sun ducked behind a cloud, allowing us finally to see it: a large fin like a shark’s cut through the water, running parallel to the ship. With my enhanced vision I could see just how enormous the thing was.

The fin was as big as our mainsail. I could only imagine what was under the water. Why didn’t we stay on the island? It wasn’t such a bad place after all. I told myself that if we got out of that mess I would never fail a test ofpatience again! As we watched, the fin dove under the water and disappeared.

An hour later the lookout called out that he saw it again, but off the starboard side. This time it was no strain to see as it was much closer. I looked at the enormous fin and a feeling of hopelessness engulfed me. The creature was playing with us. What is it waiting for?

The fin dove into the water again, disappearing once more for the space of another hour. On its next appearance it came closer and on the port bow. This time I could see its body underneath the water. Long arms ended with hands tipped with claws. The hands were large enough to hold three men. The body stretched out of sight in both directions.

Men along the deck cried out in fear and awe. A splash broke the water on the starboard side drawing everyone’s attention. One of the crew had jumped over the side in panic, trying to swim away from the ship. The crew cried out to him but the wizard did not slow. The fin descended under the water and everyone on the deck watched the man, pumping his arms frantically through the calm sea, swimming for his life. He made good headway until a rush of water enveloped him and an open mouth encompassed him from below. Great teeth closed over his screams, swallowing him whole before disappearing out of sight. Every man turned from the rail and I could see it in their faces. They were as terrified as I was.

Book nerds from Covington were not equipped to fight a Sears Towersizedsea monster and live. The books on my shelves back at home had many moments like this one. These were the moments I loved best: the chapters where I couldn’t stop for dinner or even sleep. These were the moments I had wanted to live the most. Yet here I was, getting my wish and all I wanted was to be back in my boring room in bed, safe. I wanted it so bad I tried to picture myself in myroom, in my bed, safe, reading my book. I closed my eyes, imagining it in my mind. Something stirred within me. I thought I could almost feel a slight shift but when I opened my eyes the ship and mortal danger were still very much there.

The Captain came running by, yelling for the navigator. “How long? How longto go at this pace?”

The navigator shook his head and said, “Too long, Captain, it can take us whenever it wants.”

“Bah, I didn’t ask you that, he-who-always-thinks-the-world-is-ending. Just tell me how long, like I asked!”

“I would say we are ninety minutes from shore yet,” he shot back with a scowl.

The captain ran up to the helm where the wizard stood, working his spell.

“How much more can you give me?” he asked, looking up at the wind emanating from the hands of the wizard.

“I am nearly spent right now,” said the wizard. He sounded exhausted.

“We are still ninety minutes away at this rate but I think if we could go full sails and you could fill them we could cut the last hour in half and make a run for it. Our big friend here seems to have an accurate timepiece stashed in his claws somewhere. He returns perfectly on the hour every hour. So he should make his next visit in thirty more minutes and then I think he is planning to crush us within sight of shore after that. I say we wait for his next visit and then go full sails and try to get there in half the time. Maybe he will think he has plenty of time, but when he shows up we will already be safely on land.”

“It sounds like a good plan. I will try to fill the fullsails for thirty minutes,” Mardel replied, still concentrating on his work.

Just as the captain suspected, the fin showed up again thirty minutes later, this time right next to the boat. This threw the crew into absolute panic, which would have been devastating to our plans if not for Unbar and Aoki. I watched in amazement as the two seasoned warriors stared calmly at the fin swimming next to the boat and somewhat in shock as Aoki began to put arrow after arrow into it. Unbar followed suit by grabbing several large harpoons and untying the ropes, burying them deep into the exposed portion of the creature. When the men saw the two warriors, unfazed by the immense creature and willing to fight back, it gave them courage. They even began to cheer each time Unbar pierced it with a particularly good harpoon throw or Aoki hit it with another arrow. The Akhellion didn’t seem to notice though; it continued to ride alongside the ship until suddenly, as before, disappearing into the water.

When the creature disappeared the crew sprang into action. Every sail they had went up. When they had everything prepared, the wizard took out a vial of the sweet liquid he had given me and downed it quickly. When he finished his cheeks flushed, he stood taller and seemed to be invigorated. He closed his eyes again, this time chanting his spell out loud.

“Et tuis veteri ohn!” Mardel cried, lifting his arms high above his head. A force of wind erupted from him so strong he had to steady himself against the rail to remain standing. Every sail pulled forward, straining against its tie lines, causing the ship to jerk forward. Several experienced sailors lost their footing, falling to the deck. The three of us had no chance. I went headfirst into the rail followed by Aoki, who fell on top of me. Unbar came next, somersaulting towards both of us.

Aoki’s eyes widened in fear, seeing the warrior about to make a sandwich of her. She curled her feet up and kicked me hard in the side, separating the two of us just in time. Unbar crashed into the now vacated rail with a thud, I on one side and Aoki on the other. I got up rubbing myside but grateful for Aoki’s quick reaction. Unbar stayed where he hit, dazed. The ship had taken far more damage from his impact than he had though.

I heard a creak above me and looked up to see the mast, straining under the enormous force of wind. It held for the moment as the ship sped along, barely touching the water. Every moment gave me hope that we could make it, but I still couldn’t see land. After ten minutes at our break neck speed the mast began to lean forward. The captain quickly ran to inspect it and shouted for some of his men to bring ropes to tie it off against the stern to assist the backstay, hoping it would hold up another twenty minutes.

“Land!” I heard five minutes later from the lookout. Off in the distance ahead of us, a coastline began to come into view. I looked at the water on all sides of the ship, seeing no signs of the beast of yet. A few more minutes and we would be safely on land and away from its clutches.

Five minutes later we heard a sound behind us that made our hearts rise into our throats. The creature had discovered our treachery when it had shown up to check in on us. Its screech spoke its purpose. The Akhellion was done playing. It was time to kill.

Looking behind us I could see the fin far back where we would have been if not for the Captain and the powers of Mardel. The creature started toward usat an alarming speed.

Running up to Mardel I yelled, “It’s coming!I don’t know if we can make it!”

Mardel continued watching the sails as he spoke. “Tommy, listen closely. Every person on this ship is not real except you. Even if we die, it is of no consequence. If you die, a real life is ended.” He paused, looking at me briefly before continuing, “Tommy, get to the bow and be the first off. Don’t worry about looking courageous, none of that will matter later when you are safely back to your world, the real world. You need to survive. Be the first off. Then get as far away from the sea as possible as quick as you can.”

I didn’t like what he was saying. It was like he was giving me an excuse to be a coward.

“I’m sorry for my remarks to you on the beach. You were right not to order the execution of those men. Don’t lose your compassion, not even inside books. Tommy, I have seen your heart as well as your mind. It is the real reason I have followed you—notbecause a story has forced me to. Now go friend, prepare, you have one chance.”

I stumbled to the front of the ship. I looked back at the wizard, standing on the stern, the wind flowing from his fingers into the sails,his youthful face crowned with white hair blowing in the breeze. It was a sight I would never forget the rest of my life. I called to Unbar and Aoki to be ready.

The Akhellion gained with alarming speed and to make things worse, the mast began to give more. The ship was now only five minutes from shore but the creature would get to us sooner. The Helmsman began to turn the boat back and forth in a panic. Findle was to him in an instant, yelling, “A straight line! Make a straight line for the beach. Run it right onto the sand if you can! Swerve neither to the right nor the left!”

We were only a few minutes from the beach when several things happened at once. The mast finally gave way, bringing wooden poles and ropes and sails down on the deck, creating a mass of confusion. To make things worse, the creature rose out of the water, right next to the boat. Its greenish-blue skin looked harder than scaled armor. The face looked almost human except for the caverns where the eyes should have been located. Its eyes looked to have been pulled back to the sides of its face, closer to the ears so that it tilted its head to look at us.

The creature reached forward to grab the ship in its claws but just then an enormous stream of flame shot from the hands of the wizard. The beast roared in agony, falling into the water. The force of its fall sent us forward in the water, moving us closer to the shore and safety. Men began jumping out on each side, wading the last few feet of water onto the sand.

Aoki and I were among those who jumped out of the bow, landing in the shallow water. Quickly we made our way to the safety of the beach. I turned around just in time to see the Akhellion rise up again out of the water, a black blast mark on its belly as it grabbed the ship with its enormous claws, pulling it back out to sea. The ship looked like a toy in its hands. I could see Unbar, sword in hand at the stern, hacking wildly at any part of the beast that was closest until finally, he sheathed his sword and jumped over the side, disappearing into the water. The creature pulled the ship farther out, rising up high in the air. We could hear the pressure being applied to the vessel by the massive arms of the beast. Finally it gave way and was crushed to pieces by its enormous clawed hands.

Aoki and I stood on the beach watching the destruction of the ship, searching the water for our friends. The Akhellion reared back its head and gave a screeching wail, causing everyone on shore to cover their ears. It turned its head sideways to look at us. Everyone backed away a few steps in fear but the creature turned and dropped into the water. The last we saw was its large fin swimming out to the middle of the sea and out of sight.

Sailors made their way out of the water one by one, dragging themselves onto the beach. Findle came ashore dragging a soaking wretch of a man I could only assume was the navigator. He looked in silence at the floating wreckage of his ship.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Findle shook his head, starting to walk by but then stopped.

The twinkle was back in his eyes again. “Bah, I have her insured twice over. I will make more on this voyage than my last three combined. The only man it appears I have lost is the idiot-who-thinks-to-swim-faster-than-a-ship-at-sail, and he deserved it.”

The Captain left us and continued gathering his men on the beach along with whatever else he could salvage that floated close to the shore. Nobody was willing to go more than a few feet into the sea at the moment.

Aoki and I turned our attention back to the sea looking for our companions. Finally, Aoki caught site of Unbar, soaking wet, walking from the water with his head bowed.

“Unbar, are you hurt?” asked Aoki as she looked the man over for any wounds.

“He is gone,” the big man said, burying his face in his hands, dropping to his knees in the sand.

“I know, it’s gone and we are safe,” said Aoki, confused. “Where is Mardel?”

We looked at the big man kneeling in the sand, realization beginning to creep in.

“What do you mean he is gone? What has happened to Mardel?” said Aoki, trying in vain to help Unbar to his feet.

“I tried to get to him after he hit that accursed beast with his spell, but the creature snuck up on the boat and waited for him to try to escape. I watched in horror as the creature’s claws snatched him from the deck before I could get there. I will never be able to get the sight of him in the claws of that monster out of my mind. He wasn’t even struggling. He just looked up at me as calm as could be and was gone.”

Unbar put his head in his hands again, tears streaming down his cheeks unfettered. I didn’t believe him. Mardel was too powerful to allow himself to die. He didn’t die in the book. That much I could remember. What had gone wrong?

“He doesn’t die!” I yelled at my grieving friends and ran away down the beach, away from their tears. I ran away before they could say another word. If I let them say even one more then it might be true. But if I ran fast enough, the words couldn’t catch me. Mardel would still be alive.

I looked to the surf;sure that Mardel would come walking triumphantly from the water if I waited long enough. I paid no heed to Aoki or Unbar who yelled for me to come back. I didn’t know how long I ran or how far, but it was Aoki who finally caught me. I had stopped to catch a breath and look out from a group of rocks at the sea when I was startled by a hand on my shoulder. I looked down to see the beautiful Aoki, her lip trembling.

“Tomeri, he is gone.”

I shook my head at the words. If I let her continue then it would be real. I couldn’t let her continue. I started to pull away, to run again from the words but the pleading look on her face stopped me.

“Please don’t! I need you.”

Wet hair clung to her cheeks.Her eyes were red and rimmed with tears. I pulled her to me in an embrace that broke her resolve. She buried her head in my shoulder, letting go. As I listened to her sobs, I tried to concentrate on comforting her, keeping my emotions as far away as possible. The strategy didn’t work. My grief overtook everything and I joined her, not caring about being a man or a leader or anything. My utter despair over losing my first real friend brought tears and then sobs and finally, I was crying like never before. I didn’t care what anyone would think. I just wanted my friend back.

 

Chapter 14

Mephitis

 

Amelia lay on the beach, basking in the Spanish sun. A hint of salt in the air tickled her nose mixed with sand and sweat. The sounds of gentle waves lapping the shore penetrated through her worries. Why don’t I do this more?She took a deep breath, for some reason that helped. Tension leaked out, replaced by calm.

Benlay next to her, breathingheavily. He deserved this too. She didn’t want to wake him but it was time. Duty called. Taking one more deep breath she watched Ben sleep. He was beautiful. Light, wavy hair, a gorgeous tan, hardened muscles just big enough but not too ridiculous. Why did he choose me?Anyone in the House would have died just to have his attention. The looks were a small part of her attraction though; he was as intelligent as he was handsome. She could turn to him whenever a problem arose and most every time he had the answer.

“Ben,” she nudged his bare shoulder. “Wake up.” He didn’t stir so she pushed him with both hands. “Come on honey, wake up.”

His hands shot out with alarming speed, grabbing both of her wrists. She squealed, first in surprise, then in protest when he pulled her down and wrapped his arms around her. “Young man, what are you doing?” she said in her best trainer’s voice.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Amelia, I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Ben grinned, pulled her closer and kissed her. Amelia tried to resist at first but gave herself up to it. His full lips wiped away any memory of why she had woken him in the first place. His kiss became more urgent but she pulled away. “Ben,” she whispered. “We have to go.”

“No more than a few minutes have passed since we left,” he pleaded, not letting go of her wrists.

“We’ve been here for hours. If I don’t go soon I’ll look like a lobster.” Pulling her close, he kissed her again, nearly breaking her resolve.

“Okay you win, but one of these days you will break down and forget your duties for more than an hour or two.”

“Yes, that could happen,” she smirked as she left his embrace to stand on the beach, “and you will most likely be the cause.”

“Ms. Amelia, you can count on it,” he answered.

Pushing Ben away with a playful shove, Amelia looked at her surroundings, telling herself they were not real. The sand, the water, the sun—theywere not real. The heat from the sun on her face, it was not real. The smell of the ocean, it wasn’t real. Finally she shut her eyes and pictured the book sitting on the table where she had begun reading, she pictured it closing. She felt warmth all over as her gift pulled her out of the World of Books. She opened her eyes and looked down at the open book on Ben’s desk. He followed her out moments later.

“Will I see you again soon?” he asked, drawing closer to her. The smell of salt water mixed with his wonderful scent caused her knees to weaken.

“Yes.” She nearly fled from the room before he could distract her further.

“Gone to Spain with MisterWonderful again?” a voice behind her sneered.

“Peter, I’ve told you before it is wrong for you to look at the open books of those who have breached. I won’t punish you right now. I don’t have time. But if it happens again there will be consequences. Now, what do you want?” she asked the short boy who stood lurking in the hallway.

Peter had accepted the first offer from Amelia almost before she got the words out. Ever since that day he’d had a crush on her. Six months later and anyone who even appeared to be friendly with her caught his ire, Ben most of all.

Amelia had tried to be nice to him. He had passed the test with ease less than a month ago and showed great skill in all of the necessary requirements. But he was odd. He was often caught listening in on conversations of other Gifted, or worse, reading the open books of those who had breached. That was a major infraction in the House, which is what the Gifted called their large home. The building had formerly been a large warehouse before the founder bought it and hid it from the world.

“No, I don’t need anything, Amelia. I just can’t believe you don’t see through his mask. He isn’t as wonderful as you think.”

“Peter, I don’t want to get into this with you. If you would like, I will talk to you later.”

“Yes, let’s talk later,” he said, slinking away.

Amelia watched himdisappear around a corner at the end of the long hallway. She wasn’t sure what she could do to help him fit in with the other Gifted. His training was complete. He wasn’t really her responsibility any more but she was the only one who he would even talk to. She tried to remember that whenever these episodes happened.

Amelia walked down several flights of steps to the first level. She passed through the lobby and stopped at the great fountain. Streams of water spouted from the top of arearing horse’s head in the middle. Each stream had its own color and hit the pool at a different point. Directly below those points at the bottom of the pool were “remembrances”, an item of significance to each of the Gifted who lived in the House. Without their remembrance in the pool, the Gifted would not be able to see the House. They would instead see a deserted piece of ground. Only one did not need a Remembrance,the Master of Books could see the warehouse without it. It had been years though since the Gifted had a Master of Books.

Amelia loved staring at the fountain. She had placed her remembrance in the pool more than a year and a half ago when she accepted the first offer from Ben. Since then the House had been her home, five floors of never-ending wonders. She never got bored of exploring the spacious old building. The entire fifth floor was a library—the largest collection of books Amelia had ever laid her eyes on.

It took years to gain control and learn the lessons required to pass the tests to be a teacher. Many of the Gifted didn’t want to be teachers. They were content to learn the use of the gift so they could do their own thing. Amelia couldn’t understand how anyone could not want to teach. Ben had literally opened a new world to her. He had given her a new life through the discovery and mastery of her gift.

She still remembered her test more than six months ago to become the youngest teacher in the history of the Gifted. Administered by Wilfred, the Keeper of Books or head of the Gifted, the test could be as long or as short as he wanted it to be. Until he was satisfied, it continued. Wilfred once breached six times with a tester and still failed him. Wilfred was tough, but fair.

The Gifted were under the constant strain of trying to find the quickened (those who had used their gift the first time) before they hurt themselves or before Mephitis got them first. No one knew how the dark wizard left the World of Books but in the years since he had been set loose, his primary goal had been the destruction of the Gifted. He especially loved to kill the teachers without mercy. He and Kaleb, a former member of the Gifted who had betrayed them,hunted down any with the gift, eliminating them without mercy. Two teachers had been killed in the last year alone. No one knew how Mephitis found out who the teachers were or when they left the House, which was seldom. She and Ben were the only teachers remaining. If she lost him, she would be truly alone.

Amelia thought back to the first time she met Ben. He showed up at her door the night after her first breach. He didn’t look to be much older than her but there was something about his eyes and the way he carried himself. He had a maturity about him, like he had seen many years more than his sixteen years. He offered her the chance to leave home and learn more about her gift.

Her life before Ben rescued her was horrific. Amelia’s parents divorced early in her childhood, which sent her mother drowning her sorrows in the bottom of a bottle. Her father didn’t care enough about her to find out what was happening. In fact, she couldn’t even remember what the man looked like.

Her mother liked to throw parties that ended with all sorts of drunken men wandering through her house. Amelia turned to books and the double lock that she personally installed on her bedroom door to escape from everything else in her world.Her memories of childhood were locked away safely now behind the doors in her mind.

The Gifted who acceptedthe offer were required to leave behind their home and friends and immerse themselves in the intense, but short training. Amelia left behind nothing that she ever cared to return to. Once trained, a full member of the Gifted could pretty much do what they liked. Most decided to stay at the warehouse and be active in the group in some way.

Fewer and fewer Scripts were found each year. Boys and girls were turning away from books to TV and video games and each other. More than any other generation, those born with the gift were not reading enough to activate it.

No one knew when the gift was first given but the first to discover it and learn to control it was Frederick Von Flett. He found he not only had the gift, but the ability to sense others who newly acquired it as well. He began to seek out these young men and women. He wrote that he felt a need to teach them what he learned and pass on his knowledge. Thanks to Von Flett and his tireless efforts, the Giftedwere found, taught, organized and survived to this day. The numbers had never been as scarce as they were now. Amelia feared that in another generation there might be no need for trainers.

Von Flett also discovered that he possessed a special ability above that of the other Gifted.He found he could bring objects from the World of Books into this one. The legend was that he found the object which Amelia now stood before.

The Liatope, a long cylinder-shaped object, stretched the length of the table upon which it rested.A hole in one end accepted the name Thomas Travers which she whispered to begin the procedure. She looked at the silver display plate. It read, Breach Occurred June 28th 7.30 P.M.She stared at the plate a few seconds more. Nothing else appeared. If he had returned from the book a second date and time would be listed as well.

He is still in the book. I hope he is okay. Amelia checked the Liatope every hour as prescribed by the edicts. She knew shortly after Thomas breached the World of Books and would know within moments when he returned. For the first time since becoming a trainer she dreaded her visit. If he rejected the second offer he would have only one more. And if he rejects that? She shuddered, knowing his chances of survival were slim.

***

An acrid smoke filled the room, spawned from a glass beaker on one of several tables set up for his experiments. The wizard waved it off. He stood watching, fuming. Another try, another failure. Just a cup of dragon blood would have made the difference. The smoke began to turn from grey to green and then to red. Wrong, all wrong. He hurled the beaker against the wall, the glass shattered, spraying its still smoking contents in every direction. The wall now appeared to be spewing red mist.

“Temper, temper.” A voice startled him from behind. He whirled around, the words of a killing spell forming in his mind.

“Come now wizard, you don’t really want to do that, do you?” Kaleb seemed to take pleasure in his failures. One day Mephitis would snap, consequences be damned.

“I would think you’d be more disappointed by another failure, Kaleb. This is your doing.”

Kaleb’s eyebrows raised, a look of incredulity flashed across his features. “You still blame me after all of these years.”

“If you had told me I couldn’t find the same components in your world, I would have brought them with me. I spent weeks planning the events that brought me here.”

“Thanks to me, you gained your knowledge of this world: the real world. If I had not come, you would still be there, ruling a subjugated nation that doesn’t exist.”

“Yes, I owe you Kaleb.” The wizard eyed the short man. “The question is what I owe. All these years of slinking around in shadows. Killing Gifted lest they grow too powerful. I begin to wonder though, Kaleb,do we kill them because they are a threat,or for revenge?” Kaleb made no effort to answer.

“I was created to rule the world! Here I rule an old empty jail with little hope for better. If I could have two or three components from my world I could create thousands of monsters to sweep away the armies of the earth and bring it under my rule.”

“If you are going to start this again, I am leaving. I have heard it far too many times.” Kaleb turned to leave.

Mephitis wanted nothing more than to let him go but Kaleb wouldn’t have come to his room to socialize. He had something important to tell.

“Okay, what is it?”

Kaleb smiled. “At times I almost believe you have my ability.”

“I don’t need a Gift to read you, Kaleb. Your face is an open book to me!”

Kaleb chuckled, “I do have news from our little messenger.”

“What is it?” asked Mephitis, trying not to sound too interested. Kaleb knew better.

“The Keeper is all excited over their latest find. From Covington, with the lineage. They are hoping he is the one.”

“This has happened countless times before. Why do they believe this one is any different?” Mephitis asked eagerly. He didn’t care if Kaleb saw his excitement. This could be what they were waiting for.

“The boy has shown no signs so far if that is what you mean. He has breached once and rejected their offer. But they believe it is long past time for a Master. There is another reason they believe. It has been six months since the last quickening.”

“Why does that matter? I would think they would be worried,” Mephitis asked, confused.

“There has always been a large gap before the Master appears. It was so with the last and all who came before him. So the Master can receive training without dilution.”

“So after all of this time the Master may have finally appeared?”

“Maybe, but we will know for sure when he joins us.” Kaleb flashed an evil grin. Someday the man’s confidence would lead to his ruin. Mephitis only hoped to be there when it happened. Maybe he could even be the cause of it.

“Where is he? Can you sense him?” asked Mephitis.

“He has breached again. Until he returns I won’t be able to find him. When he does, we must act swiftly. They will not wait to make the second offer.”

“And what if he doesn’t accept our offer?” Mephitis asked.

“I think he will when I am done with him. If not, we can afford to be patient. Better to ally him willingly; if he is forced we can never trust him.”

Mephitis nodded his head in agreement. “Is that all?”

“There is one more thing. I believe it is time to start confiscating the outstanding editions of your book. With a Master possibly reappearing it may be dangerous for us if he gets ahold of a copy.”

Mephitis thought for a moment. “Good idea.”

“I will handle it,” Kaleb’s face split in a wide grin. Mephitis knew that look. It never meant well for their enemies.

 

Chapter 15

In Memory of a Friend

 

We spent the next two days after Mardel’s passing on the road to Griforlus, grieving for the most part in silence. All but one of the horses had been lost with the ship, the lone exception being Aoki’s horse Grinny. We had found the stallion wondering the beach, badly shaken. The animal would allow no rider so we used it as a packhorse and walked. Thankfully we found the last of our gold in a bag still tied to the saddle but it wasn’t much so we had to be careful.

The ground had been level and somewhat barren of any vegetation other than grass the first day of our journey but on the second day we began to climb. Large rocks and evergreens dotted the landscape ahead. Three large mountain peaks came into view as we walked.

“The three mountains are named after each of our Gods.” Aoki’s words startled me. She hadbarely spoken since our hug on the beach. “The mountain to the west is Cephisus.” She pointed to a snow capped mountain so high clouds obscured the top.

“To the east is Asterion,” she said, pointing to a smaller mountain that looked the most dangerous. The entire mountain was a series of sheer cliffs and rocks.

“In the middle is Inachus,” the pain in her voice when she said the name was evident. That accursed name which was shared by the sea where we had lost Mardel. I scowled at the large mountain in anger. It was easily the most beautiful with a gentle slope rising up into several peaks. If it weren’t for the name I would have called it majestic. Looking at it just made me angry, though. Judging by the look on Unbar’s face as he stared at the mountain, he felt the same way.

Aoki looked at the middle mountain with a blank stare before lowering her head and walking onward. We followed her up a small rise and then between two small hills covered in grass. At the top of the slope a large valley came into view with a great city perched on a rise at the far end. As we made our way across the valley floor toward the city, five ancient buildings soared above the other smaller structures. A shiny black tower was built on the top of the tallest of the five.

As we entered the city,people whispered to each other when we walked by. A woman selling fresh-cut flowers smiled at us from under a white canvas as we passed. Out of a large wooden wagon a dark-bearded man sold hardware of every type from wooden buckets. Further up the road vendors were selling vegetables, their carts loaded down with squash and cucumbers and large heads of lettuce and cabbage. From a small building the smell of fresh-baked bread made my stomach rumble. A merchant across the street from the bakery sold dried meats and had long links of a spicy-smelling sausage hanging from the roof of his cart.He stared at us as we walked by.

The women had simple skirts of several colors, the men mostly had dark pants but every person in town including the women and children were dressed in white shirts with leather vests. The women did have flowers carved into the leather in intricate patterns but it was still odd. We traveled deeper into the city, getting closer to the five larger structures. The scenery began to change. The street merchants were replaced by stores and shops. The people there didn’t seem to gawk at us as much but I did hear whispers occasionally and always the same word, “Travelers.”

Next to a store called Marion’s Quilts and Blankets,we found a nice inn,The Glowing Hearth,and were making arrangements with the keeper when a young boy burst through the door and handed me a note.

“This is from the Council of Five,” he said it like I should know what that was.

I read the note to our group, “Welcome famed Travelers! The ruling council would like to offer you lodging and extend an invitation to break the fast with us this evening.

We thanked the innkeeper and let theboy lead us through the streets of Griforlus. With each turn it became evident we were heading toward the large black tower that now skied above us.

The boy treated us like celebrities, which when I thought about it, we probably were for these people. He didn’t say anything on our way to the tower but I caught him looking at each of us with wide eyes. As one who had never been comfortable around people, I had to admit the admiration was kind of cool.

We arrived at the base of the tower and entered a courtyard through a guarded gate. Aoki left to secure Grinny in the stables. Meanwhile Unbar and I were led through wooden doors to a large foyer. A winding staircase circled up, entering the base of the tower and climbingto the top.

The interior of the building was mostly stone. Here and there were exposed beams of a red wood that accented the brown color of the stone just right. To our left and right were long curving corridors. A servant dressed in a black vest seemed to be waiting for us just inside the large hall. The boy looked at us wistfully as if expecting something.

Unbar flipped him a small coin and patted his head. “Thank you, young man.” The boy snatched the coin from the air and was gone before Unbar could finish.

“Please follow me,” the servant said. We followed him down the left corridor which had small tables filled with vases of white flowers every hundred feet or so.

“This is your room.” The servant opened a large wooden door and Unbar stepped in. “If you require anything, please ring the bell you will find on a table next to your bed. We invite you to wash and refresh until dinner is served. A servant will come for you when it is time.”

I was about to follow Unbar when the servant stopped me. “Your room is a little further.”

The servant led me to a wooden door further around the curved hall. “Here are your quarters,” he said, and left me the way we had come.

Istepped through the doorway and let out a low whistle. The room was huge. It had a large bed in the center of the back wall with a dresser and a nightstand on each side. Large, multi-colored area rugs covered the stone floor and a table surrounded by four chairs sat in front of two open doors that led to a balcony overlooking the city.Pitchers of warm and cold water had been placed on the dresser with fresh linens. Flowers on the table gave the room a sweet scent. I wanted to skip dinner and just lie down and go to sleep. But before long, a knock at the door signaled it was time.

The servant who guided me to dinner was dressed all in white, even his vest. He had his long hair pulled back into a ponytail, which looked cool although I didn’t think my mother would ever let me grow my hair long enough to try it.

“How far do we have to go?” I asked, after we had been walking some time. The rounded hallway made it feel like we were walking in circles.

“It won’t be long now,” he said so quietly I almost couldn’t hear him.

“What are your rulers like?” I asked. The more information I had the better chance I could keep from making a fool of myself.

“Each of the members of the Council of Five ishoused in the five historic buildings of the Inner City.” The servant didn’t look at me as he spoke. “Each of the rulers are wise, there is nothing more I can say about them.” I could tell the servant wasn’t really into conversation so I didn’t try again.

We entered through a set of double doors into a large chamber which easily dwarfed my entire house. The floor was made of variegated stone, buffed and smoothed. Lining the walls were dark wooden seats, hand carved in a pattern that looked like the scenes of a journey. On a large rug an oval table filled the center of the room where Unbar and Aoki were already seated.

“You look well rested Tomeri.” Aoki had retied her hair and dressed in a beautiful gown of purple which shimmered when she moved. It reminded me of Mardel’s robes which brought the tragedy fresh again into my mind. When will this go away?

“Don’t be fooled, I’m exhausted,” I replied.

“Do you think you are still affected by the poison?” Unbar’s deep voice echoed in the large chamber. “Mardel said. . .” His voice trailed off at the mention of our fallen friend.

A bell rang and a servant came through a door in the back of the chamber.

“Great Travelers, please arise.”

As one, the three of us rose to our feet and watched the door through which she had entered. A large man walked through first. He was dark haired, and appeared to be in his late forties with black eyes and a black beard.

“Welcome Travelers! I am Balmanes, one of five, of the council of Griforlus.”He seemed genuinely excited. “Please sit.”

Aoki’s eyes met mine trying to pass an unspoken message to me. I had no clue what she wanted so I started to bow but before I could finish, Balmanes stopped me.

“Please do not bow good Traveler;I am a man just as you and no better.”

“Or worse,” added a man who had just come through the door and walked to take one of the high-backed chairs across the table. Balmanes invited us to sit again and did so himself in the center chair.

“Please do not be rude, Fenne,” Balmanes said to the smaller, portly man whose scowl had followed him into the room. What was left of the man’s hair grew in long gray strands down the sides and back of his head. His large red and bulbous nose did nothing to help his looks. He looked like he’d had a cold for his whole life.

Balmanes never lost his smile as he introduced the man, “This is Fenne, second of five and entering now is Ardanes, fourth of five,” he pointed to the red-haired young man entering at just that moment. Ardanes couldn’t take his eyes off Aoki from the moment he entered the hall. I didn’t like the man already.

“And finally Grenlin, fifth of five,” Balmanes finished, pointing to a grey-haired man who slowly walked into the room toward the table. It looked like it was going to take him a while to get there. He looked to be asleep on his feet.

“I apologize but we are missing Lemif, who is third of five, but he could not be found in time for dinner.” Balmanes waited for Grenlin to finally make it to his seat. “We did not know that the famedTravelers would be coming to our fair city, no doubt on another of your storied adventures. We have followed your careers and would love to hear of your tales firsthand.”

Balmanes sat forward, “What brings you to us and without your wizard? I have always wanted to meet him.”

The grief closed in on me again. From the look on Aoki’s face she struggled as well. Unbar continued to sit in silence, a stony look on his face. Balmanes watched us for some time, reading the tragedy on our faces. “He has fallen?”

I could only nod my head. At the moment, I wouldn’t have trustedmy voice to speak. The council men began whispering to each other, but Balmanes watched us in silence. There was compassion in his eyes.

“Men of the council, I call a vote,” Balmanes began and paused, waiting for the whispers to cease, “I propose that tomorrow be dedicated to the memory of Mardel the Magnificent. Let the wreaths of mourning be displayed. Let us celebrate the life of one who helped so many.”

When he was finished, a wooden box was brought forth and each man wrote on a small piece of parchment and placed it in the box.

“Now come,Travelers, eat and talk with us. Let us speak about light things and get to know each other. I hope we may part as friends.”

Food was brought, which seemed to raise Unbar’s spirits, but as hungry as I was, nothing sounded better at that moment than the large bed waiting in my room.

When our plates were filled and emptied I felt a little better.

“What does One of Five mean?” I asked Balmanes.

“On the council each year one acts as voice and can call votes on laws and judgments. He decides what is voted on. He does not decide if it passes. The second and third can also call a vote if they agree together. This keeps one from having too much power. “

“Do you think Mardel’s vote will pass” I asked, hopeful.

“I think so,” said Balmanes, “your group has a good name here in the city, many will be grieved to know of the wizard’s passing.”

“I lost someone close to me not long ago,” Balmanes lowered his voice. “My beloved Elania was taken by fever last winter,” He paused, a look of pain changing his features. “I spent most of my time angry. But I didn’t even know who to be angry at. How can you be angry at a fever? For a while I directed my anger at the Gods but when I had no anger left I became disheartened, which lasted for some time. I didn’t want to be a council member any longer and even told the other members to petition the people to have me replaced. They voted three to one to keep me.”

“How did you come through it?”

“After some time I accepted it. I had good friends who wouldn’t let me become maudlin. They made me talk about her. I didn’t want to but it helped. I had not allowed a service for her but at the urging of others I acquiesced. The service helped as well. Although I still feel days like what you are experiencing now, it gets better. The smiles do return.”

His words gave me comfort. Maybe I wouldn’t feel horrible forever.

A man approached Balmanes and whispered in his ear, disrupting our conversation. He nodded in response.

“Your grief only confirms to me the legend of Mardel. Those who knew him so intimately loved him deeply. That is a testament to the man. We have wearied you with our conversation enough for one evening. I have an announcement to make, after which you may enjoy the peace and rest of your residences for as many days as you wish.”

Balmanes rose, which caused the conversations at the table to cease, “The action has passed three to one. Tomorrow will be a day of memorial for Mardel the Magnificent. Let us now make the arrangements and let our Travelers rest for they are weary from their journey and from sorrow.”

I said good night to Aoki and Unbar and followed a servant back to my room where I collapsed on the bed without undressing and enjoyed the best night of sleep I’d had since discovering my gift.

The next day I awoke to the sounds of bells ringing throughout the city. While I lay on my bed shaking sleep from my eyes Aoki burst through the door. Her excitement caused her cheeks to flush, which made her even more beautiful.

“Come Tomeri, you must see what they have done. It is really quite marvelous. Will you walk with me?” For a moment she grew serious “Just for today, let us forget that we are the Travelers on a quest and pretend we are two normal people. Just for today; is that tolerable?”

She swept out of the room as quickly as she had come. Before I could get out of my bed she returned with a package wrapped in brown paper which she put on my bed.

“I purchased this from a tailor this morning for the occasion. When I described you to him he said it should fit.”

Aoki glanced at the package for a moment, unsure of herself. She looked up at me smiling for the first time in days and put it on the end of my bed. Without another word she left.

The package contained pants and a coat of iridescent black material that I would have thought ridiculous back home. There was also a white shirt of silk accented by a lace collar and cuffs. Without hesitation I took off my nightshirt and began to dress. I didn’t care what I looked like. To see Aoki smile again I would have worn a clown suit.

It took me an hour to figure out how to get the entire outfit on so I wasn’t surprised to find the hall empty when I finally left my room. I flagged down a passing servant who told me Aoki’squarters were on the opposite wing of the large structure. It took me longer than walking from one end of my high school to the other to reach the door to her room. Servants gave me directions at least three different times before I was finally able to find her.

When she answered my knock on her door Iwasn’t prepared for what I saw.Gone was Aoki the warrior. In her place I found Aoki the woman, dressed in a gown matching theblack material in my suit but accented in white. The gown flowed around her curves highlighting her in just the right ways without revealing too much. The bodice cut modestly in the front;white ruffled lacefloweddown to the waist. A single strand of pearls circled her neck in perfect contrast to her golden brown skin. The dress flared atthe ankle adding to its beauty, allowing her to walk freely.

For the first time since I had met Aoki, herhair had been let down and fashioned into a weave pulled behind her shoulders.A white flower much like a rose had been used in places in the weave. Ialways thought her the most beautiful woman Iever laid eyes on. Looking at her at that moment, words had yet to be created to accurately describe her. When she smiledthe world stopped, as did my heart.

“Well, I think I am ready to be a normal person today.” She cooed, pleased with my reaction.

“Oh, you are anything but normal.” Icroaked, for some reason I couldn’t get any moisture into my mouth.

The smile fled from her face, her brow wrinkled. Iawoke from my trance seeing her look and realized what I had done.“What I meant was that you are the opposite of normal Aoki. I’ll be walking with the most beautiful woman in the world today.”

Aoki’s face lit up again with delight. A sigh of relief escaped me.

“What about Unbar?” The big warrior grieving alone didn’t sit well with me.

“He wouldn’t come out of his room when I knocked.” Her brow furrowed, “he said he needs to sleep off a long night in the taverns but he might join us later. From the sound of him, I wouldn’t count on it.”

“I don’t think it’s the best way to grieve,” she continued, “but it is his way so I won’t argue with him.”

We left Balmanes’s homearm in arm. The people of Inner City were dressed in their finest black suits and dresses. Even my crazy clothes fit right in. Or I would have if not for Aoki on my arm. Every time I looked at her she smiled a littlesending a feeling through me that weakened my knees. Men and women took notice as we walked by. A man wearing a ridiculous black hat at least three feet tall walked right into a merchant’s display windowwatching Aoki instead of the path in front of him. His smile never left his face as he dusted himself off until his wife slapped him.

We laughed at the couple and continued our stroll. Watching her laugh I began for the first time considering what life would be like if I stayed there with her. My mother would miss me but what else did I have back there better than the friendship of Unbar and the love of Aoki? The feeling grew stronger as the day went on.

Through the day Aoki pointed to different shops and homes, each decorated with green wreaths woven with delicate white flowers the same as those in her hair.

“The circles of wreaths are meant to be a symbol of eternity and the white flowers are a symbol of purity,” Aoki told me,as she plucked one from a large wreath hanging on a shop door. With a laugh she pulled a pin from her hair and used it to secure the flower to my coat.

“Now we match.” She looked up into my eyes. I closed my arms around her, pulling her closer. Aoki leaned up and kissedmy cheek before pulling away. I could feel my face turning red so I stepped out in front of her pretending to be interested in a shop keeper’s window until the flames in my cheeks faded a little. Aoki stayed behind me in silence until I was ready to continue. The corners of her mouth gave away a smile.

For the first time since the incident our conversation turned to Mardel. We didn’t dwell on the tragedy of his loss so much as the funny things we remembered about him or some miracle he performed with his magic.We could have spent a week wandering around the city and never saw the same street twice. For the most part I let her talk at those times. My history with the wizard was shorter. In reality though, Mardel helped me develop my love for magic. The three Travelers and their many adventures started my love for fantasy. Mardel had been a close friend long before I ever met the man in person.

Getting to know him for a few weeks was like a wish granted by a genie. Most every night by thefire Mardel and I hadtalked. When we were out of earshot of the otherswe talked about life for me back home. We talked about my decision on training. Mardel taught meabout friendship, the value of it, how to be a friend. Ilooked forward to those talks more than anything. With Mardel gone I felt more alone than ever.

I couldn’t tell Aoki all of what I was feeling but what I could share she seemed to understand. She told me her feelings about being a woman on the road with three men. Although a warrior, tougher than any man I ever knew, she still needed someone to talk to. That person more often than not had been Mardel. She never entertained romantic feelings for him;he was her best friend and confidante. Now she felt those same feelings of loneliness. Knowing Aoki felt the same helped me not feel so alone. The wound in my heart began to heal. Aoki became more than just a beautiful woman to me, but more important a friend I could talk to and trust.

We spent the entire day together walking, talking and listening to street services where the people spoke about the many adventures of Mardel. We were invited to speak wheneverwewere noticed in the crowd but wepolitely declined. Speakingin public about Mardel was not an undertaking either of us were ready for.

When evening came we found ourselves on top of the tower of Balmanes’s home looking out over the valley as the sun set. It was a truly magnificent sightlooking down at the entire city from high above and across the valley floor, out to the peaks of the three mountains in the distance.

“I have been doing some thinking about the last direction,” said Aoki, leaning against the railing,watching the sunset.

“So our time as normal people has come to an end?” I chided.

“Normal people talk about adventure too, don’t they?” she replied, grinning.

“I suppose they do,” I admitted. “Okay, what did you discover about the last direction?”

“Well not so much discover as guess.” She pointed toward the mountains. “The clue says that there are three possible destinations,” she pointed to each of the three mountains, “and Griforlus shall point the way.”

“Yes, that makes sense. But how does Griforlus point the way?”

“In my conversation with the councilman Ardanes, he explained to me that they believed the directions for the city were given by the Gods themselves more than two thousand years ago.Those directions started with the placement of these five buildings which are the only structures still standing from the original city.”

Looking from high on top of the tower the five tall buildings of Inner Citywere built in a straight line.

“So what does that mean?”

Aoki smiled and pointed to each building with her finger down the line as if touching them. When she reached the last building she pointed beyond it to the center mountain, directly in line with the path of the ancient structures.

“So you think that is what it means by Griforlus shall point the way?” I asked, getting excited.

“Like I said, it is more of a guess but I think my guess is right.”

“That was a very Mardel thing to say.” I grinned.

“I thank you for the compliment.” Aoki smiled. Her facewas lit by the last rays of the sun descending behind the mountain.

I looked at her, trying to memorize the site so I would never forget the beauty of the warrior maiden standing in the sunset on the tower of Griforlus. The smile left her face as she leaned up to me. I don’t know how long we kissed. I only knew if I had fallen off the tower I could have floated to the ground.

 

Chapter 16

Dreams

 

The large bed in my room was as comfortable as I hoped it would be, but I had a hard time falling to sleep that night. Memories of Aoki in that beautiful dress, the feel of her lips as we kissed good night were still too fresh. I don’t know how long I lay there in the dark with my mind racing. Finally I faded off into a fitful sleep.

Unbar joined Aoki and I at breakfast the next morning in the great hall to discuss our plans. Unbar looked no worse for having spent the previous evening draining the cellarsof the local taverns. He appeared to be in better spirits than any day since Mardel’s passing.

We told Unbar about Aoki’sguess regarding the latest directions. “I don’t think you are wrong but I see one big flaw,” the big warrior said between bites of cheese which he carved from a large roll on the table. “Even if we know which mountain to go to,look at their size. We could search for six months and not find the cave. How are we supposed to know where to look?”

I hadn’t thought of what we would do once we got to the mountain. Unbar was right, the mountain was way too large to search blindly. The instructionson the scroll toldus to look for black and white immovable objects and go under them.

Thinking of a phrase that Mardel had said to me not long ago I said, “Perhaps events will help make our decision easier. “

Unbar nodded his head and Aoki simply smiled at me which she was doing quite often during breakfast.

While we ate Balmanes joined us. He was an excellent host. He asked each of us about our homes and families which forced me to fudge a little. The man had a way about him that put everyone at ease. I had never met anyone like that before. Finally Balmanes asked us the question that had been hanging in the air all morning.

“So how long will you be staying in Griforlus?”

“We’ll be leaving today,” Aoki and I said together and both laughed. Unbar gave me a smirk but didn’t say anything.

“May I ask where you are headed?” the man probed further.

I wasn’t sure what to tell him so I waited a bit in silence hoping Aoki or Unbar would speak up. They gave no help. Theywere used to lettingme make these decisions. Judging by what I had seen so far of BalmanesI decided to trust him.

“We are leaving for your central mountain in search of a cave. What we’ll find in the cave we don’t know. We just know wehave to go there and the less people who know about it the better.” All eyes were on Balmanes.

After a long moment he rang a bell that sat on the table next to him. The servants who stood just inside the doorway to the great hall left the room,leaving the four of us alone.

“I know the cave you speak of and I know the quest associated with it. I can tell you where it is but must give you illnews.Your quest is in vain.” Balmanes’s face had a look of profound sadness. “The place you seek is called the golden cave. I hope it is not for this fool’s errand that Mardel gave his life?”

Aoki spoke,her voice rising with each word, “Mardel gave his life for his friends to see us and the crew to safety. His life was not spent in vain.”

“My apologies, ma’am,” said Balmanes, “I spoke out of my heart forgetting my head. Of course his death and sacrifice were not given for foolishness. A man such as I who didn’t know him should never question or trivialize it. My apologies.”

Balmanes stood from his chair, faced Aoki and swept a long bow. Her anger seemed to fade afterhearing the man’s heartfelt apology. I thought about her reaction. Perhaps her anger was in part due to him hitting a little too close to the mark.

“I can see that you are set on going so I will help where I can,” Balmanes said, taking his seat again. “I will provide you good mounts and re-stock your provisions. The location of the golden cave is known to each of the members of the council although they are not allowed to enter. In fact it is said that the homes of the council members point in a direct line to the cave itself.”

Aoki and I exchanged glances but waited for the man to continue.

“The entrance to the golden cave is marked by a large white stone on the southeastern approach to the mountain on the borders of the forest of Dimshadow. Thestone is as large as four men wide and one and one half tall. It is quite easy to find.” Balmanes lowered his voice and took a quick peek at the doorway. “When you find the stone, look straight up the mountain.You will see a second stone that is black and almost the same height and width. When you are half way between the two, you will find a hole in the side of the mountain leading down a narrow tunnel into the golden cave. The entrance is easy to miss so count your paces.”

“Dimshadow, that doesn’t sound like a very nice place,”Unbar said in between bites of bacon. The man could pack it away like no one I had ever seen.

“Really it is only a small wooded area compared to its former glory. The forest used to cover the entire valley floor stretching for hundreds of miles. Over the last few centuries it has retreated to the southern reaches of the mountain including a small concealed canyon over the crest of the valley. This is mostly due to the logging needs of our people who for years did not re-plant trees when they cut them as they do now. The result is that we must go further and further for wood and obtain it only at a premium. The forest has retained its former name but it is a pleasant place. Some in Griforlus including myself have built lodges there for housing when they go to hunt.”

“Now Travelers, I regret I must take my leave. If there is anything more I can do to help, please make it knownand I will try my best.”

As he finished, Balmanes stood to go but I stopped him.

“Balmanes, thank you for everything. You have been more than kind. You’ve given us a place to stay and more help than we could have hoped for. I wish there was something more that I could say but words aren’t my strong suit.”

“You say you are not good with words yet you speak with grace and honor. It is my pleasure to have helped in some small way. I hope that I may now number Tomeri the Courageous and the Travelers among my friends.” Balmanes bowed to each of us before departing.

We left Griforlus shortly after with fresh mounts and fresh spirits. There was a renewed excitement in the group for the next stage of our adventure. Aoki’s stallion Grinny still would not accept a rider so she picked a new grey mare from Balmanes’s stables. Grinny didn’t seem to mind being relegated to the duties of a packhorse. I rode a beautiful white stallion while Unbar picked another black stallion, the largest in the stables.

According toBalmanes,the ride to the golden cave should take no longer than a day and a half setting a good pace. A feeling of urgency began to push me to get to the cave and complete the quest. My memory of what had happened when I read the book was completely gone now. I had no more indication of what would occur than did Aoki or Unbar.

We reached the foothills of the mountain and the trees of Dimshadowas night fell. Around the campfire wesat talking and laughing. A feeling of genuine happiness hit me, just being there with the two of them. My thoughts of the day before returned. How much would I miss back home?The faces of Unbar and Aoki were lit by the firelight as they laughed, telling stories about Mardel.

They treated melike a man. Could I go back to being Tommy Travers the fifteen year old boy again? Do I want to? Is there any way to keep from being pulled out?Eventually my mother will come to my room and call for me. If I make up my mind to stay will I be able to say no to my mother’s call?

In my dreams that night I ran through a forest towardsmy mother’s voice or was it away? As I ran I found Aoki crying. She begged me not to go. She faded away and I found Unbar battling dozens of little creatures with axes and clubs, he was wounded and bloodied.

“Tomeri, help me,” he said reaching out. My skill with the sword was still developing but I reached down to draw my weapon anyway. To my horror I realized I had no sword, one of the creatures hit Unbar hard, driving him to his knee. I cried out but Unbar faded from view as well. Next, the girl Amelia appeared asking me to accept the training. The scene faded before coming into focus again.She was surrounded by a gang of young men carrying clubs, about to attack her. The young men knocked her to the ground; Amelia turned to me and yelled “Run!”

 

Chapter 17

The Hidden Stone

 

My eyes flew open, my face dripped with sweat.  Aoki and Unbar were startled awake by my sudden movement.

“What is it?” asked Aoki.  She grabbed a belt knife from her roll, scanning the darkness for threats.

“Nothing, it was just a dream.”

Unbar put on his leather tunic, tightening the buckles.  Aoki, who slept in her Druidic armor, sheathed her knife and reached for her bow.  She fitted an arrow which she pointed each way she looked.

“It isn’t a dream.  I can feel it too.  Like we are being watched,” she said, continuing her scan. 

The darkness seemed as bright as day to my enhanced eyes. Looking out I couldn’t see anyone around our camp but I agreed with Aoki, something felt wrong.

The sky was still deep blue, the color of night. Unbar pulled out his sword, looking to me for orders.  I had played leader along the way but I still wasn’t ready for times like this. The last time we faced a fight I had made the wrong decision. What if one of them dies because of me? Themost important thing to me was keeping my friends safe. Even if we had to run like cowards I didn’t care, I wouldn’t lose my two friends.

“If there is something out there we meet it together,” I said.  “If there are more of them than us they will want to split us up.  More than anything, make sure we don’t get separated and,” I looked into both of their eyes, “run if we have to.” 

With haste we broke camp and headed into the forest.  Unbar rode in front, Aoki, bow at the ready,took the middle with Grinny tied to her saddle.  As usual I took the rear.  Tall trees towered over us, thick branches of pine needles at the base created a perfect place for ambush at every turn.  Grinny seemed to sense our unease, every so often kicking his hind heels high in the air, jerking hard against his rope.

When thirty minutes passed, we rounded the base of a large pine and were met by a short man standing on the trail a hundred feet ahead.  His beard was braided across his chest in long strands.  He held a large, two handed axe which he seemed to carry with ease despite his small stature.  The first hint of the sun began to show in the eastern horizon casting his small shadow across the trail.  I could see through the darkness of the trees that there were a whole troop of little men taking places around us. Unbar didn’t pause.  We continued up the trail toward the small man who waited, fingering his axe.  When we were within twenty yards the little man spoke.

“Aye, that’ll be enough for ye, we be havin’ ye surrounded, me and me lads.  There be a few with crossbows as well so don’t think of using that bow of yers, missy.”

He pointed at Aoki who had her arrow pointed right back at him.

“Now as I see it, ye got two solutions to our problem,” he continued.

“What problem would that be master dwarf?” Unbar asked.

“Now, now, I don’t like the way ye say dwarf big man.  Listen close and I’ll speak slow so that ye all can understand.”  The dwarf cast a baleful glance at Unbar before continuing, “The first solution is for ye to dismount those fine horses and give us everything ye have of any value including yer beasts, and surrender yerselfs to be sold to the slave markets.”

“I can guess what solution two is,” said Aoki, pulling the string back on her bow. 

“Yes, solution two would be most unfortunate and unnecessary, but ye look like a bright lassie.  Ye won’t give me lads any reason to have fun will ye?  See, they like ter have fun, but I keep ‘em restrained ‘cause I don’t like bloodshed.  I just do what I have to,just to support me family.”

“Kunfurin, ye ain’t got no family,” they heard from the dark, followed by a chorus of laughter. 

Judging by the laughs there were at least a dozen of the little men in a pack surrounding them.  Fear for myself but more importantly, for my friends welled up inside me. Before I could think what to do Unbar leapt from his horse with a roar and crashed into the shadows.  Aoki fired, putting an arrow in the chest of Kunfurin.  She jumped nimbly from her horse drawing her belt knife which she laid on the saddle behind her.  Searching the shadows she put another arrow to her bow.  Seeing a target she drew and fired again. 

I watched Aoki in awe, admiring her calm and quick fluid movements.  Something flew by, inches from my face.  I realized I should be doing something.  It struck me just how poorly equipped I was to be on an adventure.  Even with the training Unbar had given me. I still knew far too little about fighting with a sword.  ‘Put the sharp end into your opponent before he doesthe same to you’ was the only part I was sure about. 

I jumped from my horse, my concern for Unbar overriding my fear.  Pulling out my sword while running, I found Unbar in a fight with four dwarves.  Three wielded clubs, the other swung a two handed axe like the one their leader carried.  It looked like Unbar held back, careful not to kill any of them.  But he was taking a brutal beating in the process. 

“Don’t hold back,” I yelled. “If you have the opportunity, kill them.” 

Unbar nodded in acknowledgment and used the-moon-falls-into-the-sea to block an axe swipe.  He punched out, hitting one of the club wielding dwarves square in the face.  The dwarf dropped, holding his broken nose.  The numbers were now three on two.  Not liking those odds the dwarves attempted to back off but we pressed them.  Doing my best with my limited skills to keep from getting hammered, trying to keep at least one dwarf busy so Unbar had a chance.

One feigned a charge at me but turned and crashed his club into Unbar’s mid-section.  Unbar went down on a knee, doubled over in pain.  I was busy with my own dwarf and could not get to him in time.  The dwarf with the axe aimed it high over Unbar’s head intending a killing blow. With a thrust Unbar ran his sword up through the dwarf’s chest.  There were now two against two.  Neither remaining dwarf wanted to participate in an even fight so they turned and ran into the forest as fast as their little legs could carry them. 

Unbar and I stood back to back, scanning the forest for more attackers.  We saw no one living so we returned to check on Aoki.

Aoki stood by her horses, bow in hand, a dead dwarf at her feet having paid the price of rushing her.  Her knife remained stuck in his chest.  She paid him no attention, continuing her scan of the forest for more targets.  I had seen Aoki in action against the assassins and the Akhellion but this was a side of her I didn’t know.  Having a friend who could kill another so coldly as to leave the dagger there while she looked to kill again gave me a chill.

“Why didn’t more of them attack?” I asked.

“These are not like the good dwarves of Korver,” said Unbar, carrying a body of a fallen dwarf.  These are mostly cowards.  I knew as soon as I attacked they would lose half their number.  They are brave in large numbers against frightened travelers but when Aoki shot their leader and I attacked, only a few of them had a heart for the battle.” 

Four dwarves lay dead, none of which was the leader.“He had to have some very fine armor on to survive that shot,” said Aoki.  “I hit him in the middle of the chest.”

“Will they attack again?” I asked,worried we would be battling dark dwarves all the way up the mountain. 

“No, they will look for less well-armed and more frightened prey,” said Unbar, mounting his black stallion. “We can leave the dead.  The dwarves will return and take them.  It is said they do not bury their dead but encase them in stone.  If we were to bury them we would find empty holes in the morning.”

We spent most of our time before lunch climbing through the trees along the southern slope of the mountain.  We broke out of the forest as the noon sun reached the middle of the sky.  The valley stretched out behind us, the city of Griforlus visible far in the distance.  When I looked at the gates of Griforlus I saw a large group of men on horseback making its way from the east entering the city. 

“That must be a large group if you can see them from here,” said Aoki, straining her eyes when I pointed them out. “I can’t see anything.”

 The sight of the army touched off a nerve in me but I didn’t know why.  Turning my eyes away from the valley, I looked up the mountain, catching a glimmer far above us.

“What is that?”  I asked, pointing up the hillside. 

“I can’t tell from here,” said Aoki, squinting to look ahead. 

As we drew closer, the rays of the sun reflected off a large white stone, half covered by vegetation.  I climbed the large stone and looked up the hillside for its black counterpart.  We couldn’t see it.  Aoki and Unbar dismounted and searched on foot thinking perhaps we missed it.  Remembering I had an excellent tracker in the group, I sent Aoki off in search of the black stone while Unbar and I stopped to rest the animals. 

Several minutes passed before Aoki returned, requesting that we follow her. 

“Did you find the stone?” we asked together.

“Yes . . . and a good deal more.” She offered no more as she turned to lead the way. 

 “Women!” exclaimed Unbar, and I couldn’t help but agree.  Aoki climbed on, unfazed.

Up the hill a short walk from the white stone Aoki stopped, pointing to a mound of brush and dead limbs. A small spot was cleared away with shiny black stone showing underneath.  Aoki pointed down, showing us fresh footprints littering the ground around the stone.

“Someone has gone to quite a bit of trouble to hide this stone,” said Aoki. “I think we should keep that in mind when we try to leave.”

We started at the black stone and paced it off to its white counterpart. The number totaled one hundred forty-four paces. We paced off seventy-two steps back towards the black stone and began looking for the opening to the cave.  We found footsteps there as well, but nothing more. 

After some time Unbar unwittingly found the cave when he stepped on the opening, his leg falling through.  When we were able to pull him free we used tools in our packs to widen the opening.  We found an underground tunnel just as Balmanes had described. After spending some time removing dirt around the rock-lined hole, the opening was too small for Unbar.  Aoki and I were able to squeeze through so we dropped into the opening with Unbar staying behind to keep watch over our horses and supplies.  Balmanes had included long burning torches for our journey into the dark caves, which Unbar dropped down to us through the opening.  I pulled out the scroll and read the next direction. 

If thou hath met each challenge thou shall flow quickly to thy destination.  If not, thou hath sealed thy doom.  Hold thy breath and enter the tunnel that receives all.  There thou shall face the test of faith. Wait for thy familiar foe at the entrance.  If thou survivest, thou wilt be half complete.  The test of self-indulgence awaits.  Then shall thou have wisdom and treasure beyond measure which is found in neither gold nor silver.

When I finished reading,Aoki was silent. The first line seemed to be pretty obvious.  If wehad skipped any parts of the quest we would meet with something pretty horrible, maybe already in the tunnel.  That sent a little chill down my spine. Considering how often I had been afraid on this journey, I laughed a little to myself thinking that people referred to me as “courageous.” 

Reading the instructions again, I stopped at the words familiar foe, troubled. 

“Do you have any idea what it means by familiar foe?” I asked,looking up at Unbar who leaned his head through the opening to talk with us.

“That is the part I cannot decipher,” said Aoki.  “I think the rest is quite obvious.  We have done well not to skip any parts and will enter a “tunnel that receives all.”  I am also troubled by the news that our quest is only half completed.  I had hoped we would find the gauntlet here.”

My mind hadn’t gotten that far, but once Aoki pointed it out I added a line to my list of worries.  For some reason I thought we would get the gauntletthere.  A feeling of exhaustion began to overwhelm me.  I wasn’t used to the demands of adventures like my friends. There had been the enjoyable parts but the whole experience was tiring.  For the first time I started to feel a longing for home.  If my mother’s call came at that moment I probably would have gone.  I could just come back and visit my friends again another time after I learned more about my ability. 

A thought entered my mind that I hadn’t considered.  Could I see Mardel again?  For the first time that possibility gave me a new hope since the day on the lake.  Perhaps I could come back to an earlier time in the book and see my friend again.The rules were a mystery to me.  Maybe I could only enter a book once and that was it.Other questions lingered: would any of my friends remember me or would I start over every time I came back? I noticed Aoki watching me with concern.

“Mardel can’t help us now.”

“No, I was just trying to figure out what we should do,” I lied.  “I think in the end we just follow the directions and see who this familiar foe is.“Then with a grin I added, “Besides, I’m in no danger with Aoki protecting me.”

“Now you’re talking sense,” she said with a fierce look of determination.

Aoki lit her torch and then another and handed it to me.  Leaving Unbar, who still watched from the opening, we began to make our way down the tunnel.  We first tried the western route but it extended only a few hundred feet around a bend and then stopped.  Following the tunnel back to the east and downwards we left the sight of sunlight and Unbar again behind us.  The ceiling was easily high enough for me to walk upright and wide enough for four men to walk side by side with comfort.  The tunnels were dry and a comfortable temperature, nothing like the tunnels leading to Rendall’s cave.  Holding our torches aloft, we walked a few hundred feet down the tunnel to the east.  Aoki knelt down to look at the hard dirt.  In the poor light she couldn’t find any tracks of man or beast.

We walked down the tunnel a short time stopping at the sound of air rushing down the tunnels from behind us.  The air hit us with such force we were both nearly knocked from our feet.  Back up the tunnel a small stream of water began picking its way down to us.  It started as a trickle at first but in a matter of seconds gathered speed and volume until the entire tunnel floor was covered.  By the time the water reached Aoki it covered our shoes and ankles.  We began to run against the water back up the tunnel.  As we ran, the water level continued to rise, making it increasingly difficult to make headway. 

Through much effort we were able to get in sight of the opening far off in the distance.  We could even hear Unbar’s voice over the rush of water yelling to us.  Unbar dropped a rope into the water letting it float towards uswhile he gave more slack.  We could get no closer; we were doing all we could to hold on where we stood.  The tunnel walls grew slick, the water level continued to rise.  As the rope approached us Aoki lost her hold and was swept away down the tunnel out of sight.  I grabbed the end just as I lost my grip.  Unbar began to pull me toward the opening.  I looked down the tunnel towards where Aoki disappeared.  Could I leave her in the tunnels to an unknown fate?  Every moment the opening and safety grew closer but Aoki became farther away. There really was no other option for me—Ilet go of the rope and was swept away down the tunnel. When I let go I was close enough to see the look of despair on Unbar’s face as he watched me float out of sight, most likely to my death.

 

Chapter 18

The Familiar Foe

 

Swept by the water into the darkness, my first struggle was to keep afloat. My wolf sight didn’t help me at all. There was nothing to see but water. The sword atmy side made it much more difficult. I thought about unbuckling the scabbard but didn’t like the idea of being unarmed and alone.

A hard object slammed against my leg and I cried out. The skin on my knee ripped open. Before I could recover,another struck my other leg. Before I could react another object slammed into the first leg. The water was slamming me into large stones but I couldn’t see them, even with my enhanced vision. They were just under the surface of the water but I seemed to find every one of them with my aching legs.

The tunnel continued a short while with no more stones until I crashed into another, hitting both of my legs again and harder. I sank into the water, trying to pull my legs up to protect them. It became very difficult to tread water without the help of mydamaged legs. Finally,I found a way to float with my feet out in front of me so the bottom of myboots met the brunt of the stones I crashed into from time to time. This worked well although my legs still took a jolt from the collisions.

The journey down the dark tunnel was like something from a nightmare. With no idea of what lie ahead Iwas totally at the mercy of the strong current. Several times I tried to find something I could grab hold of to stop myself but the sides of the tunnel and even the ceiling, were slick and smooth.

Time and distance had no meaning to me. I only knew the rushing water, the blackness and the collisions with the stones against my outstretched feet. It could have been hours or it could have been minutes. After some time I saw that the ceiling ahead dipped down, leaving no room for my head above the water. I clawed at the walls of the tunnel trying to stop myself. But the water bore me along as fast as before. I’m going to drown! I took a deep breath and ducked under the water to keep from cracking my head on the plunging ceiling. The water pulled me down and through like a bullet. My breath held for the moment but I had no way of knowing how long I had to go and if there would be pockets of air to breathe ahead.

The bubbles and commotion of the water made it impossible to see anything ahead. The breath in my lungs grew stale. I felt like I was going to explode if I had to hold it in another second. I closed my eyes and saw bright spots and then I was falling and the water was no longer pushing me. At first I was disoriented but with my last strength I clawed up and broke through the surface of the water.

There in a large cavern rapidly filling with water I found Aoki. She was treading water in the ever expanding pool into which I had just dropped from a hole in the ceiling. The large cavern was lit with a jade light that came from a growth on the walls which allowed us to see each other.

“Are you okay?” I asked, swimming closer to her in the pool.

“I’m fine,” she assured me, smiling in spite of our circumstances, “I am a little bruised from a few rocks but my armor took most of the brunt of them.”

I wishedI had druidic armor, considering the way my legs felt. “Do you have any idea where that water came from?”

“The tunnel above us was blocked so unless the water broke through it must have come from an underground spring or something else.” Aoki swam closer to me. “It is far past time for spring run-off though so a flash flood makes no sense. The other option is that it was unnatural. I’m not sure that knowing the source will help us in our present predicament though.”

In the pool close to us it was calm,but fifty yards away the water continued pouring in from the tunnel. The cavern had a curved ceiling where fluorescent green moss grew. The pool reached out to the walls of the cavern on both sides. In a spot on the far end of the cavern, water swirled, sucking down anything that floated close to it. Wekept our distance from that spot, not wanting to get pulledinto the unknown.

Swimming to the edges of the pool,we were able to find a spot shallow enough to put our feet down. We stood,restingour weary arms and legs for the first time since the ordeal began.

“Tomeri, I believe I know what we have to do but you aren’t going to like it.” Aoki looked at the spot where the water drained out of the pool. “How long can you hold your breath?”

“I can hold my breath a long time but are you crazy? That’s the last place I want to go.”

“I agree, I want no part of it either, but think about what the directions said. Hold thy breath and enter the tunnel that receives all. The test of faith. It makes a lot more sense now, doesn’t it?”

The description of the pool fit exactly with the directions but the quest had already cost a life and had nearly drowned two of us.

“There is one more thing.” Her tone changed. She looked up at the water pouring from the tunnel into the cavern. “I don’t believe we have a choice. There is no other way out of here.”

It was true. Getting back out the way we came would be impossible. The tunnel wasfar above us and filled with water heading in the opposite direction. There were no other exits from the cavern and the pool had risen a lot since we arrived. The same spots where we could stand originally were now too deep. More water flowed in than could drain out. Our decision was going to be made for us if we didn’t act soon.

“Okay, let’s try it, but I go first.” I started to swim towards the end of the pool.

Before I could go far I was under the water. Aoki had dunked me and continued to hold me under. After a good long time she finally let me back up. Coughing and sputtering I gasped for air,so surprised by her actions I didn’t remember to be angry.

“What did you do that for?” I sputtered.

“Because you were going first to protect me.I am a better swimmer than you and will go first. Do not start treating me differently because of your feelings, and make me regret sharing mine with you. If you do I’ll do far worse than drown you.”

Without hesitation she swam to the end of the pool. Turning to look at me once more she took a deep breath, dove down and was lost from sight. I wonderedif it was the last time I would ever see her. Swimming over with mostly my arms due to the weakened condition of my legs,I paused a moment. A whirlpool sucked the water down in the exact spot where Aoki went under.

Gathering my courage,Itook as deep a breath as I could and dove into the whirlpool, letting it suck me down. My head was no sooner under the water than I exploded forward like a torpedo, hurtling into the darkness. Going in headfirst,Iknew if I hit a stone at that speed I wouldn’t survive.

My lungs weren’t holding up as well as before. My muscles began to lose their strength.I was saved when the current suddenly thrust up for a brief moment above the water line into an air pocket between the water and the ceiling. Iexhaled and breathed in air gratefully, filling my lungs twice. Before I could draw a third, the current caught me again, hurtling medown into the water forward into the darkness.

Hoping for another air pocket,I let the water take me. Pressure built in mylungs. The realization struck me that I only had a few more seconds. Panic took me. My arms flailed, reaching for anything that would help me find oxygen. I held on a little longer, trying to have faith the nightmare would end.

Finally,Icouldn’t hold it any longer. My lungs discharged into the water. I sucked in what I expected to be a fatal breath of water but instead found myself standing in a dry tunnel, no water in sight. My lungs thanked me for the deep breath I sucked in and for the next. Carried on the breeze in the tunnel I caught the smell of Aoki. She had been there, and not long ago. Despite the horror I had just survived I smiled in relief that she was okay.

Running ahead I rounded a corner and there she was, standing under a glowing torch hanging in a sconce on the wall at the entrance of a massive cavern.

When she saw me she flew into my arms. Her sobs echoed against the stone walls.

“I thought that was the end! Then I knew you had followed me and . . .”

She swallowed, her head buried in my chest, unable to continue. Pulling up her chin I smiled. With a laugh I wiped a tear from her cheek. In the water, in my most desperate moments, it was Aoki I had worried about. I looked into her dark eyes. She had taught me so much, about girls, about friendship, about love.

“I would imagine this is the place where we will meet our familiar foe,” I said, changing the subject before I said too much and made a fool of myself.

Her hand met mine and she looked up at me, “Whatever this foe is, we face it together.”

For the first time since I had met her I thought she might be afraid. Gripping her hand tighter I stepped forward, peering into the cave.

Beyond the glow of the torch,a light of silver and blue appeared far beyond and high above our heads. It began moving towards us, descending as it came. Then the light disappeared and darkness enveloped the cavern again. We stood hand in hand, peering into the darkness where the light had disappeared when it suddenly sprang up right in front of us, blinding us. We shielded our eyes. Aoki drew her belt knife.

“There is no need for your weapon, daughter of Hopestel. You are safe here,” said afemale figure in the light.We could only see her outline, the light was too bright.

“It is you who must come and only you.” The brightness dimmed a little and I was able to see she pointed at me. “I am your guide. You trust me, don’t you?”

The person stepped out of the light and my heart skipped a beat. It was my mother or the figure of my mother again from the island.

You are the familiar foe?” I asked when my mind would work again.

“Yes, I think perhaps an unfortunate description. But keep in mind these directions were written more than two thousand years ago. Come now, you will be safe and all will be explained,” said the messenger.

”What about Aoki? I won’t leave her here alone in the tunnel by herself.” I looked at Aoki, who for some reason didn’t respond.

“She will be safe. She willbe unaware of your time away from her,” said the figure, smiling as if to reassure me.

“Like on the island?” I asked, looking at Aoki who stoodfrozen, staring wide-eyed at the figure in the light.

The figure nodded before turning and walking into the cave. I didn’t want to leave Aoki alone there in her frozen state but I knew I couldn’t do anything for her by staying there.Hoping she understood,I let go of herhand. I looked at her lovely face one last time and turned to follow the figure alone into the cavern.

 

Chapter 19

The Golden Cave

 

The cave was much larger than it looked. The path we took wound around large piles of rock and stone all a dark yellow color. The light coming from the figure guiding me lit the high ceiling, showing the same yellow stone above us. When we came closer to one of the piles I realized the rocks were pieces of gold. I stopped, taking it all in. There was more gold there than Fort Knox. When I thought about putting some in my pocket the figure stopped.

“Touch nothing,” she said and for the first time the look on her face scared me. “This is holy ground. Only those who have passed the tests may even walk here. This is the final test, the test of abundance.”

The figure began again walking along the path among the piles of gold.

“Who are you?” I asked and stopped following her. “I’m not going any further until you tell me who you really are.”

The figure studied me for what seemed like hours.

“My name is different among each of the peoples of Mirador. Jindir to the woodelves in the forests of Fienhal. Kizkim to the dwarves, deep in the mountains of Korver. Inachus to all the races of man. I am also called sister, mediator and illuminator. Which would you prefer
Traveler?

“You are a god?” I didn’t know if I should bow down or say some kind of prayer or what.

“There is no need to worship me. I know you are not of this world so I do not require it.”

“How do you know? And how do you know what my mother looks like?

“Well, I am a goddess after all,”Inachus said with a grin.

“Can you tell me how I got here? Or how I can get home? Or maybe how I can stay?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know the answers to any of your questions and unfortunately even if I did, that is not my role here.” Inachus put her hand on my shoulder.

“I am here to help you complete this quest and learn wisdom. That may not be the answer you are looking for but I promise if you complete this quest it will be worth it.”

“But I don’t know what to do. I can’t stay.” Tears came from nowhere, clouding my vision, “But I can’t go either.”

The goddess looked at me with compassion. “Tommy, I don’t know how you have arrived in our world but I have watched your journey since the first moments at the Crossroads. I have seen nothing in your time here that would cause me to believe you lack the courage and understanding to make the right choices. Trust in yourself and the right thing will happen.”

The goddess began to walk again and I followed. “Come now, we must find the gauntlet.The quest for wisdom was given at a time of great need when the Gods saw that all of the good races of Mirador had turned to their own wisdom. They lived for self and their own good and saw no wisdom in turning to the teachings of the Gods. The spark of friendship and love died in the hearts of the good races who sought instead for gold and treasure and personal glory.

“Even those who did not seek treasures through quests sought it as merchants charging more and more for goods that the poor among them needed but could not afford. The result was many starving while others walked in fine apparel taking their money and mocking those whose money they took.

“The three Godscounseled in the Center of the Middleand agreed that a prophet was needed to bring the good races to a remembrance of our teachings. The means to select a prophet was decided and I created the cursed gauntlet to give wisdom and to name the prophet. Three scrolls were sent into the world by the Gods, each directing them to the gauntlet to learn wisdom and name the prophet. Many failed the test of reality and never left the center of the middle. Many failed the test of patience as you did and their hulls litter the bottom of the Sea of Inachus.

“The sacrifice of your friend has given you patience and brought you wisdom. Some did not see what was before them and spent years peering from the tower in Griforlus at the three mountains or searching the mountainside not having seen what was clearly before them. Most died coming to the tunnel without completing all of the steps as directed. Some failed the test of faith and drowned in the pool, unwilling to believe.

“One did make it through to the golden cave. He was a king and desired the gauntlet to attain wealth for his kingdom and then he swore he would bless the world. He did not learn wisdom and was cursed. He gained riches and lost everything. In sadness and humility he prayed to me to remove the curse.His prayer was granted but he emerged from the river with the ears of an ass to stand as a warning against those who live only for themselves.

“Never in the history of any world,” she paused, “has selfishness brought happiness.”

“The good races in all the lands saw the folly of Midas and what had caused it. They repented of their selfishness. They turned again to the three Godswho had created them and began to love and serve those around them, and they found happiness.Many hundreds of years passed with the people remembering the Gods. They loved and helped each other and were happy, but as time fades, so too do the memories of the good races of Mirador. The Godshave need again for a new prophet to be called to bring the people back to the ways of happiness.”

Again the goddess turned to me. Me as a prophet was about the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. I’d probably be considered one of the selfish.My whole existence was reading books. I never made time for friends or anything but what I wanted. Why is that? I had no answer. Friends wanted things from you. They wanted you to listen to them. They wanted you to do things with them. They even wanted you to tell them things about yourself.

Again the goddess spoke. “Climb,”she commanded and led up the largest mound we had seen yet.

At the top of that hill was a simple pedestal on which sat a stone hand. Resting on that hand was a gauntlet of a thin material I had never seen before. It was dark gold and shimmered but it was not made of gold. Inachus walked up to the statue and took the gauntlet off carefully. She indicated for me to hold my hand out. When I did she placed the gauntlet on my hand.

“Now I give you wisdom, which wisdom can only come from the curse, the curse of riches and treasure and greed. The One shall be known as he who fulfills the quest. You will nowgo into the world and live and experience all that riches can give you, both the good and the bad. When you have learned the lessons that wealth can teach, you must return the gauntlet to this place. He who completes the quest will be named the One and will be blessed by the three Gods with true wisdom.”

“The first to attempt the quest failed, but taught wisdom to the world. Learn wisdom for the world and,” she paused, “for you.”

“You now hold thegauntletand will be protected from the effects of the curse that you may learn wisdom. This does not mean the gauntlet will not affect youhowever. For while the gauntlet is in the world, selfishness and greed will rule, that man may see the folly of his self-indulgence. Place it upon your hand.” The goddesswaited for me to put thegolden object on. It looked metallic but felt like silk. The goddess began to descend the hill.“Come with meto your friend.”

We seemed to be heading further away from Aoki at first but as we reached the bottom of the hill I could see the pale glow of the torch in the sconce that marked the spot where I had left her. As I reached Aoki she was still in her trance-like state, staring straight ahead. I reached out to touch her but the goddess yelled at me.

“Touch her not! Anything you touch with the gauntlet will be turned. She would be lost forever, a golden monument to folly, forever standing at the mouth of the golden cave!”

A shudder wracked me at what I had almost done.

“The gauntlet will turn nothing to gold without a hand to guide it. You as the wearer are safe, though. You may touch yourself and will not turn.”

“You must understand, when you wear the gauntlet you must do so with utmost care. There is no way to bring an item or a person back. They are lost forever. You must also take care not to wear it too often or use it too much. The gauntlet-holder’s protection will diminish or even disappear if you wear it overmuch.”

Inachuslooked at Aoki and then back at me, “I wish you good fortune, wherever that may take you.” The goddess looked intently at me and continued. “If you are indeed the One, then this journey is only the start of a hard road you must travel.I pray you will learn wisdom and friendship to overcome the challenges that will seem to overwhelm you.I leave my blessing upon you.”

In an instant she was gone. As she disappeared her light departed too, castingAoki and I into the darkness of a single flickering torchlight. Itook off the gauntlet and put it in the pocket of my pantsbefore turningmy attention to Aoki. She didn’t respond when I called her name. Shaking her produced the same effect. Finally I gave up, waiting, standing next to her, looking at her and admiring her beauty even in its frozen state. I stroked her face thinking of her smile and also the fierceness of her gaze in battle.

The thought of how much I admired her made me smile. The things the guide had told me about the selfishness of the people in Mirador burned into my mind. I decided right then that if I got home safely,I would change. Reading would always be my great love but it was time to live inmy world as well.

Looking at Aoki I knew that it was she and Mardel and Unbar that had created the change in me and thinking back, maybe Rendall too. I was a better person now for having known them. Thinking of the many conversations we had, I continued stroking her face. Suddenly she moved and turned to look at me. First she smiled but thenshe looked around the cave, concerned.

“Where is that woman? Where do we go from here?” she asked, confused.

“Out,” I said,pulling out the gauntlet to show her. “Let’s get out of these tunnels and get on with the quest. It appears it isn’t over yet althoughthe second part might take us quite a while.” I grinned.

“Why is that?” said Aoki, concerned.

“Well the guide told me it was for me to learn wisdom. That isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Aoki smiled, leaning against me as we walked together back up the tunnel. We were relieved to find the tunnels dry and the slope gentle on our bruised and tired legs. When we arrived at the opening we half expected to see Unbar’s face still peering down from the hole we had carved in the ground. He was nowhere to be seen and did not answer our calls.

Standing Aoki on my shoulders,I was able to get her high enough to grab the opening so she could climb out. After a few moments she lowered a rope down to me. Once I had climbed out we began to scout around looking for Unbar to tell him the good news. After a few minutes we discovered something rather odd. All the signs of a full campsite appeared just a few hundred feet from the opening to the tunnel with a small fire pit and a press of grass where the large warrior had obviously slept. All was cleaned up now but we thought it odd that Unbar would camp and sleep for only the few hours or so we had been gone. Our horses were all tied and saddled close by and everything in the camp was packed and ready to go on a moment’s notice. But it was clear that Unbar had made himself comfortable while waiting.

Just then the big warrior emerged from the side of the hill. When he saw us he smiled in relief. It was not his usual lighthearted smile though.

Aoki saw it too. “What is wrong?” she asked.

“There is a small army in the valley on its way here and if I am not mistaken they bearthe colors of Jurulus. It is nice to see that you two are still alive, by the way.”

“We have the gauntlet, although our quest is not over,” I began. “It’s a long story and apparently one for another day. How far away do you think they are?”

“That is not all, when you two were gone that first night I began to get worried so I tried to enter the tunnels but found a strange woman telling me not to enter and that you were all right. So I decided to scout the area. I found a few lodges over the crest of the mountainside in a canyon. As I came upon one of the lodges I heard voices inside. I crept by quietly, not wanting to disturb the inhabitants, but then I overheard them say ‘Travelers’ so I stayed to listen.

“One of the men inside was a man they called Lemif. I can only assume he is the Council of Five member who was missing on our visit. I couldn’t catch all of their conversation but they are traitors to Griforlus and hate Balmanes. They have spies everywhere, including Balmanes’s home. They somehow found out we were heading here and decided to see if we would have better luck than they have had in getting the gauntlet. Apparently they couldn’t find the opening. So they covered up the black rock so nobody could find it before they did. I would imagine their spies know we found the opening so they are waiting near this lodge with a large group of thugs to jump us.”

“So an army on our right, a group of thugs on our left, and a sheer mountaintop behind us? What path does that leave?” I said, feeling tired again.

“Straight down and fast, would be my suggestion,” said Unbar.

“One thing I don’t understandthough is you said something about a first night. We were only gone a few hours at most.”

Unbar looked at Aoki and then at me. “You were in that tunnel for three days.”

 

Chapter 20

Down and Out

 

Three days and yet it seemed like only an hour or two to us. Aoki’s face told me I wasn’t imagining it. It’s not that we doubted Unbar. After our experience on the island it seemed the goddess had taken back the time we were given there.

“There’s nothing we can do about lost time,” said Aoki, straining to look over the valley and back to Griforlus. “I agree with Unbar. Our only chance is to ride hard and fast down and through the middle.”

Before long we were mounted and as much as we wanted speed, the reality of real horse riding hurt our chances. When I read about heroes in danger they got on their horses and galloped non-stop to safety.In reality the best we were able to manage down the steep mountain was a trot. Knowing there were hundreds of hostile men on each side of us made the slow trip seem even slower.

A few hours later we finally arrived on level ground and were able to kick our horses into a full gallop with Unbar leading. The night of the attack by the dark dwarves I had wished the forest was less dense so we could see our enemies better, but now I wished the opposite. The forest had too much open ground and seemed too sparse to provide enough cover. The horse’s hooves sounded as loud as thunder.

We were all on edge. Unbar watched left and right. I occasionally glanced behind us to see if there was anything coming from that direction. The flat ground had now given way to another long downward crest, not as steep as the mountainside but steep enough that we slowed our horses both as a precautionary measure and to rest them. As we were trotting down this second slope we heard the sound of a horn off to our left. A minute or so later another answered farther off in the distance and then horns answeredin many different directions.

Unbar turned in his saddle looking back at us, “We have been spotted byLemif’s thugs. We’ll have to risk running the horses no matter the ground now. Let’s angle to the right and hope the Jurulus army hasn’t heard the horns, although there is little chance of that.”

Unbar kicked his horse into a gallop and then a sprint which was helped by the angle of the hill.We followed behind him with Grinny kicking and straining at the line. Aoki was nearly pulled from her mount a few times.I began to worry that the horse might slow us down but I knew there was no way Aoki would leave him behind.

We saw no signs of men until we reached the bottom of the long hillside in an open field. There on our left were fifty men on horseback in full sprint coming down the hill. The trees were too sparse to slow them down. They were still more than a mile off but their horses were fresher and they were gaining. We put our heels to our mounts and lowered our heads, hoping to gain as much speed as possible. Unbar angled us away from the pursuing men and across the open field back into a place where the trees were a little thicker. As we passed out of sight of the thugs he turned a hard left trying to throw the men off our trail.

We galloped for a timewith Unbar keeping us always in the thickest part of the trees until finally he slowed. Wewalked our horses for a while, letting them rest for the next sprint.

After a little more than an hour and seeing no signs of men,we came to another large field with no cover at least a mile across. The field was bordered on one side by a barren hill that climbed several hundred feet and on the other by open ground covered in tall prairie grass. A small brook wound its way through the middle no more than a few feet wide in most places. On the far end large oaktrees were tightly packed together. If we could reach them we would have better cover than the sparse pine trees we were leaving behind.

“I don’t like it but we are going to have to cross this. Our horses are fresher now, so let’s do it as fast as possible,” Unbar said, looking to me for approval.

In answer I kicked my mount into a sprintheading straight across the field. As weapproached the brook I didn’t slow down,my horse easily jumpingthe distance in one leap. Aoki attempted to jump it while holding Grinny’s rope but the stallion pulled up just as she made the leap. Although her mount made it across okay, Grinny didn’t, and the uneven effort caused the horse to come up short and land on its leg awkwardly.

Unbar pulled his horse up and stopped. Grinny was now out of the brook and hobbling badly.

With a shake of his head and a look of compassion he said, “I am sorry, but you know what has to be done.” The big warrior scanned the tree line. “I don’t mean to be harsh, but it has to be done quickly. We’ve already been in the open too long.”

I had read enough to understand what was happening. Tears streamed down her cheeks, her eyes pleaded for another way out. She stroked Grinny’s long maneand then turned on Unbar in a flash of anger.

“I am not leaving him here! He has been with me longer than either of you and I won’t leave him. He is my only piece of home. I know he could be healed if we just found someone with talent. If Mardel was here he could do it.”

She grabbed Grinny’s reins and walked him slowly over to her horse.“We will just have to go slower, that is all.”

Unbar and Igave her a look of such shock that shestopped mounting her horse and looked at both of us.

“I don’t know what I have just said,” she bowed her head,defeated; “I am so sorry—mygrief has blinded me.”

Aoki patted Grinny’s head once more, playing with his ears and rested her head against his. The horse seemed to calm feeling her next to him. Then she handed Grinny’s reins to Unbar, mounted her horse and without turning back, galloped to the edge of the forest.

Unbar got off his horse and pulled his long sword from its scabbard. When I realized what was about to happen,I quickly kicked my mount and rode forward to be with Aoki.

She didn’t say anything when I arrived next to her under the trees. She didn’t look back. She just waited. There weren’t any words I could say to help, which was the toughest part of it.Unbar returned and without saying a word led usforward. I had never seen that side of her before. It was a side of her I didn’t even believe existed. Grief can make a person do things that are out of character and bring up emotions so strong you feel sick inside. That is what it had felt like to lose Mardel. My heart ached for her.

A short time later we heard the sounds of horns again from the direction of the field where the body of Grinny lay.The pursuit this time was much quicker. Webegan to hear horses crashing through the trees and men yelling as they tried to find us. Unbar lead us at a trot into the thickest parts of the trees but we knew it would only be a matter of time before we were found and would have to fight.

Aoki pulled out her bow and an arrow and began scanning the woods for the first target to get too close. She put an arrow into the throat of the first man unfortunate enough to make contact with us. He had come up from a dry riverbedonour left and as he climbed his way out he was as surprised as we were. Aoki’s arrow made sure he could not call out to his friends.

We continued through the forest with Aoki downing any man who found us. After discovering enough men with arrows in them the pursuit broke off a little and the groups behind started to come at us in packs.

The first of these to find uscame up from behind with swords drawn, thinking to kill mefirst before taking down Aoki, who had so decimated their ranks. Before the first rider could reach meI felt an arrow fly by my left cheek as it took out the nearest pursuer. Then another as the second in line crumbled. The remaining three lost heart for the chase at that point and broke off to find more men to put between them and Aoki’s bow.

We could have gone all day like that, except Aoki was running out of arrows. She had no more than a dozen left when a new group with eight men came in from the right. No matter how fast Aoki made her bow sing the men managed to get close enough to attack with long blade-tipped lances. They were trying to injure either rider or horse or both. We both used our swords to fight them off as best as we could until Aoki finished them off with her bow. In the tussle my horse had been cut along the flank but not too badly. Unbar made out better with his long sword, skillfully parrying the clumsy strokes of the men. That group had been more determined and had stayed to the last which worried me. Even more worrisome was the fact that Aoki was now down to her last arrow. There was certainly no time to go back and pull them from the dead.

“Why don’t they attack us all at once and overwhelm us?” asked Aoki, when we had a short breather from our latest attack.

“I don’t think they are that organized,” yelled Unbar galloping forward, “I don’t think they are sure exactly where we are, either. They have a general idea so they have spread out to find us, probably with instructions not to engage until they signal the others.But the lure of the gauntlet makes them want it all for themselves, so they attack without their full numbers hoping to split their take with fewer men. Their greed works for us.”

That brought to my mind something Inachus had told me about the gauntlet and the curse. Was it helping us or hindering? Another group of men found us but these men were better organized. Aoki kept her arrow ready and used the intimidation of her skill to keep them at bay. There were six men on our right when suddenly another group of eight showed up behind us, about a hundred yards away. The trees provided enough cover that we only caught glimpses at times of the second group, but when they thinned I could see all eight of them riding hard and gaining.

Unbar yelled, “We have to make short work of these before that new group hits us or we are done for!”

The problem was that the six men close by also heard and saw reinforcements only a few hundred yards away so they started angling off to give more time for the pursuit from behind to catch up. Unbar took a sharp right and was next to one of the men in an instant. I recognized The-Sun-Across-the-Sky as Unbar swept his sword arm through the air removing one of the six men from his horse. The other five scatteredin five different directions.

One of the men headed straight for mewith his sword out, thinking to run me through. As the man passed by we both stabbed at each other. I was as surprised as he when I saw my sword enter the man’s chest. The problem was that I was not experienced enough with a blade to know to keep a tight grip on the handle when I stabbed someone on horseback at full gallop. As the two of us went in different directions my sword was pulled from my hand nearly taking me with it. Only my newly acquired riding skills allowed me to reseat myself atop my mount and gallop on. The problem was I now had no weapon.

Unbar galloped past me and yelled, “Don’t forget the gauntlet! Put it on and touch them.”

Unbar kicked his nearly spent horseaway from our pursuers who had nearly reachedus. We galloped forward into an open field and were met by a sight that caused my heart to jump into my throat. Waiting for us a mile or so across the field was the entire force of the Jurulus army that we had seen in the valley. This was no haphazard band of thugs. The men were lined up perfectly in formation three deep. They had apparently used the horns of the thugs to track usand were waiting to trap us.

We turned around and following Aoki,charged straight back toward the tree line in the direction ofour pursuers. Only Aoki made it to the trees. All of a sudden Unbar and I couldn’t move our horses. My legs wouldn’t move either. Looking into the forest I couldn’t see Aoki. I hoped she was running her horse to safety far away from us.

The men who had been chasing us suddenly broke through into the clearing. Seeing us frozen only a few feet away they started yelling and hollering in excitement. Drawing their swords they trotted their animals toward us. They were still unaware of the army across the field.

As they were just about to reach us an explosion hit the ground right by the leader of the men and he fell dead, his greedy smile burned forever on his lips.

“That’s the man from the lodge.” Unbar gave the man a disgusted look. “The man they called Lemif.”

Two others who were near him were wounded badly and lay moaning on the ground next to their dead leader. The rest of the men finally noticed the army lined up across the field and four men on horseback riding towards us all. The thugs turned their horses and galloped into the forest, leaving their wounded companions to their fate.

“Nicely done Pixandir, I would have preferred their leader alive but these two shall suffice for now,” said one of the men with two lions side by side on his sleeve as they rode up.

“Now please turn them around so we may see the famed Travelers,”he continued.

My horse turnedbut I still couldn’t move. A feeling of panic began somewhere inside me. I couldn’t move anything but my head. My arms and legs wouldn’t respond. I knew our only chance was to run for it but I couldn’t so much as scratch my nose. My horse began to turn and I found myself facing four men on horseback. In addition to the leader there were two with a sword over their insignias and one in robes with a wand over a lion on his sleeve. I knew now why we were frozen. It was the wizard from the Crossroads Inn.

“I won’t waste our time with conversation. I only wished to look on you for a moment. I suppose you could be two of the famed Travelers we have heard so much about. Although, you don’t look like legends to me,” said the leader,drawing a laugh from the two swordsmen. The wizard remained silent.

“Where is your wizard?” said the leader, after the laughter had died.

“He is dead.”I tried to struggle against the unseen binds.“He was taken on the Sea of Inachus by a creature from the deep.”

This brought more laughter from the men with swords and a smile from the leader. It had a different effect on Unbar, who gritted his teeth and strained so hard against the magical binds that the leader for a moment looked afraid.

“What about the fourth member of your group?” said the wizard, speaking for the first time. “The female archer they say is deadly from five hundred yards? Where is she?”

As if in answer to his question,the sound of a shaft whistled through the air. The wizard cried out as it pierced his heart, hitting him with such force he was thrown to the ground. He reached out to his companionsbut in seconds he exhaled and grew still. When the arrow struck,we were released from the spell and could move.

Unbar quickly drew his sword and yelled to me, “I can hold them off! Make a break for it and I’ll catch up.”

I was torn. There I was, unarmed and not much good with a sword even when I had one, but I couldn’t leave Unbar. One friend had already died for me. I couldn’t let it happen again.

Jumping off my horse and pulling out the gauntlet, I ran towards the erupting battle between the two swordsmen and Unbar. The leader had retreated to watch from a safe distance and to signal to his awaiting army to come and help end the fight quickly.

The two swordsmen were clearly masters and worked perfectly together never giving the warrior a chance to catch his breath or gain an advantage. Time and again they slashed and their swords came away colored with his blood. I was amazed, considering their expertise and speed that Unbar was able to hold them off at all but it was a testament to how well he handled a blade himself. Even though the two were clearly winning, their leader was not impressed.

“Two on one and you are still having trouble. Perhaps you two should go back to the knife above the lion.”

His words seemed to work, the two attacked with even more speed and vigor, forcing Unbar back and eventually down to a knee. I stood behind the warrior not knowing what to do. Then I had an idea. Circling out around Unbar I charged from the side to the swordsman on the left who immediately accounted for my presenceand thrust his blade at me. It should have killedme but I was just fast enough to grab the sword withmy hand that wore the gauntlet.

When I let go the sword was pure gold. It was quite lovely and also heavy and useless as a weapon. The swordsman was in shock as he looked at his now golden blade but he had no time to think and had to use it as best he could. No matter how hard he tried, his thrusts came too slowly and with too much effort. He had to hold the blade with two hands just to move it through the air and before long, his arms tired.

Unbar, seeing his opening, pressed his attack on the remaining sword master while easily holding off the man with the golden sword. Unbar’s sword met the steel of the man in front him. He feigned a counter attack but reversed his blade, thrusting toward the heart of the man with the golden sword. The man tried to get his heavy sword up to block but it was too late. Unbar’s sword pierced his heart and drove through to his spine. When Unbar quickly pulled his sword free the man crumpled to the ground, a look of disbelief on his face. Unbar got his sword up just in time to deflect a blow from the remaining swordsman.

Unbar then attacked with a ferocity that I had never witnessed before. The sword master gave ground, circled and gave more ground. The man was clearly trying to buy time until the army could arrive. Across the field the army was no more than half a mile away. The two men circled again and again and suddenly I saw what Unbar was trying to do. The man had his back to me. The men locked swords then and when they broke free the man leaped back from Unbar and right in front of me. My first thought was to back away from him. If he had seen how close he was to me I’d have been in big trouble. Everything seemed to come to a stop. I put my hand out but pulled it back. How could I kill?

When I stabbed the man on horseback it was more out of self-defense than by design. The army was getting closer, Unbar seemed intent on keeping the man right in front of me. I knew what he wanted. In fact I knew both of our lives probably depended on it but I still hesitated. The man leaped forward away from me but then Unbar used Sun-Eclipses-the-Moon and the man jumped right in front of me again but even closer than before. Without thinking I reached out and touched his shoulder with the gauntlet. Instantly, the sword masterturned to gold, sword still in hand, a look of rage forever frozen on his shining golden face.

With horror I looked at what I had just done. It had been necessary, but nowI had killed twice in one day. Unbar grabbed me and pulled me toward my horse. I used my left hand to mount, deciding to keep thegauntlet on just in case we were attacked again.We rode back into the forest, trying to put some space between us and the approaching army.The soldiers had just reached their leader, who having seen the turn of the battle had ridden full gallop back to safety. As the leader and the soldiers reached the golden statue of the sword master he ordered thepursuit to end. We could hear him ordering a wagon to be brought forward.The golden statue was apparently more important than his quest to find the Travelers.

As we reached the edge of the forest we found Aoki there on her mount waiting for us.

“That was quite a shot, even for you,” I said.

“Let’s just say I was motivated,” she said with a sheepish grin on her face. “I didn’t want your last memory of me to be a spoiled brat trying to get her way.”

“I have never thought of you that way even once.” Iwinked at her.

“Well I have!” said Unbar, who quickly spurred his horse to a gallop to avoid any repercussions.

I marveled that my two friends could be laughing with danger still all around us. But I felt it too. We were still alive and had escaped every enemy so far. Maybe this adventure thing wasn’t so bad after all.

From a place in the corner of my mind I heard a voice calling me. It seemed familiar. I felt it more than heard it. Then it was more like a whisper and I strained to hear it.

“Do you hear that?” I asked Aoki and Unbar. Neither of them responded. The voice came again and this time I heard it more clearly.

“Tommy, wake up. I need your help.”

I closed my eyes, trying to focus on that voice more clearly. When I opened them I looked up at a strange ceiling. I was in a room full of books. How did I get here? I had just been riding in the forest of Dimshadow with Aoki and Unbar. The room seemed familiar to me, as did the voice coming through the door. I closed my eyes and opened them again concentrating on that voice.

“Tommy, this is the last time I’m going to ask. Please don’t make me get a bucket. It is 10 a.m. and I’ve let you sleep in long enough.” There was a loud banging on the door. “Get up, get dressed and meet me in the kitchen.”

It was then that I remembered. It was my mother’s voice and this was my room. I was home again, really home. I felt like hugging my pillow or my blanket or my books.

“Tommy, are you awake?”

In bed next to me I saw a book. When I picked it up to read the cover the book turned to solid gold right before my eyes. On my right hand I still wore the Midas gauntlet. The book was now very heavy in my hands.

“I’m awake,Mom.” I quickly took off the gauntlet and put the book and the gauntlet under my pillow.

Still in shock, I stared at the bulge undermy pillow wondering how it was possible that I could bring something back with me from a book. The things inside books weren’t real. How could an object that wasn’t real be brought to the real world? It wasn’t just any object either. The gauntlet could do powerful magic and obviously still worked. Suddenly athought crossed my mind:if the gauntlet could turn things to gold in my world, would the curse work as well?I almost grabbed the gauntlet and another book right then just in case but I had just gotten back. It could wait a few hours.

Throwing open the door of my bedroom,I hugged my mom, not caring what she or Reed would think if he saw me. Having been gone so long and not knowing if I would make it back,I just wanted to feel safe again.

 

Chapter 21

The Price of Refusal

 

Elizabeth didn’t know what to think of the sudden show of affection from Tommy. She had forgotten to check in on him the night before,letting him sleep in because she knew he would probably be up reading late and it was summer, after all. She wished she could get him to read less and interact with others more. But there were worse things he could be doing than reading.

Her son had been acting quite strange ever since his fifteenth birthday. She thought maybe it could be that girl who had stopped by. Could Tommy finally have his first girlfriend? She could only hope.

Earlier in the morning she had gotten a call from Laurie Kilbern who lived a few streets over. She wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to come to their usual Sunday lunch date. She was such a nice lady.She was like a second grandma to the boys. Elizabeth had hung up the phone and decided to send Tommy over with a lunch basket so she wouldn’t have to cook while she was sick.

Getting him to wake up was never easy but this morning was as bad as it had ever been. In the past she opened the door and poked her head in but he had grumbled loudly about his privacy. Sonow she tried to respect that he wasn’t her little boy anymore; he wasa young man. She had just about had enough when she heard him say he was awake. A few seconds later the door had been thrown open andthere he was, hugging her like hadn’t seen her in a month.

“Tommy, what is wrong?” she asked, pulling away to watch his face. She noticed tears on his cheeks and his eyes were different.She had seen the start of a change yesterday but this was more dramatic. It was like looking at a different person. The awkward boy was gone, replaced by theconfidence of a man. He wiped away the tears laughing a little, unashamed that she had seen them. That was different too. The awkward teenager of a few weeks ago would have hidden any emotion from her. What is happening to my boy? He smiled and hugged her again.

She had to know. “Please, tell me what’s happened to you.”

“I never could hide anything from you,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll tell you when I can, but trust me for now. I’m all right. The main thing is, I’m just happy to see you.”

Her confusion turned to concern when she noticed his arm. “Son, where did you get that scar?”

His visage changed immediately at the question. He didn’t want to answer her. She knew from long experience when she was about to be told a story.

“I’ve had this for a while,Mom. Don’t you remember when I cut my arm in gym at school last year?” he asked.

She knew he had done no such thing and was about to tell him so when he smiled and hugged her again, trying to change the subject, “Didn’t you say you needed my help? For some reason I seem to remember hearing that through the haze in my brain.”

She remembered the food she prepared for Mrs. Kilbern, sitting in the kitchen getting colder by the minute. She decided the scar could wait for another time, but she wouldn’t forget.

“I need you to run a basket over to Mrs. Kilbern. She’s feeling a little under the weather and I don’t want her to have to cook for herself.”

She waited for the objection she was sure was about to come.

“No problem, Mom,” he said,without a hint of protest, “it’ll be good to get out of the house for a bit.”

If she had any doubts something was different, that clinched it. Tearing him away from his room and his books to go visit Mrs. Kilbern was never a pleasant experience in the past. He seemed to be happy to go. She was going to have to watch him closely to find out what was causing the dramatic change in her young man.

***

I walked through my backyard carrying a basket of delicious smells. The backdoor of my home exited my kitchen onto a large wooden deck where my dadused to cook his famous bacon burgers on the large grill. The thought of burgers and smell of my mom’s cooking sent my stomach growling. I’d grown used to food cooked over a campfire, which wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t home, either. The sooner I delivered the basket, the sooner I got some good food in me, so I picked up my pace.

My yard still had the old swing set along the property line where my brother and I used to spend hours swinging and sliding the summer months away. At least until I discovered books. The years had not been kind to the metal which was now mostly rusted, along with the old chains that still held the half broken seats in place as they swayed in the breeze. Reed wanted to tear the eyesore down but my mother prevented it. I guess for sentimental reasons. Many nights I would catch her staring out at the empty swing set and wonder what she was thinking.

Bordering the yard was our detached garage. A small stone walkway led to the side door of the garage, just across from my window. In the far corner of the yard opposite the garage, a small hole in the fence gave access to a common area used by most of the kids in our neighborhood. The common area was treeless and basically useless to all of the homes that were built around it except as a dumping ground for lawn clippings and leaves. It was most often used by the kids for sports of every kind. I’d watch them from my window, wondering what it would be like to play with them. Every so often they would need a player to even sides and Reed would come in trying to get me to come out and play with them. I usually turned them down but when I did relent it was never a very pleasant experience for me.

Across the grassy common area I entered asmall forest of trees that reminded me of the friends I’d just left. So many thoughts were running through my head: my feelings of being home and safe again,the sadness of knowing Icould no longer see Aoki or Unbar againunlessI got another copy of their book. Could I dare to even go back? Would they know me if I did?My thoughtsturned to the gauntletunder my pillow. How could I bring something from the book to the real world?So many questions and no answers.

My thoughts turned next to my mother, seeing her again, the real her. As always, she had seen right through me. Can I tell her the real truth about what is happening to me?Will she believe me?What if she doesn’t?

With a chuckle I realized I had all the proof I needed back home under my pillow. Maybe just to prove it I could turn all her silverware gold.

Through the treesInoticed two people up ahead having a conversation which was odd. I couldn’t remember seeing anybody but kids in therebut one of the people ahead was definitely an adult. Keeping out of their eyesight,I swept out around them.

They were having an argument. Staying quiet I figured I would give the two a wide berth. As I got a little closer though,I recognized one of the voices. It was Amelia, that strange girl who had stopped by my house with that strange offer. Sneaking a peek through the brush I could see her having a heated discussion with an older man I’d never seen before.

“You knew when you became a teacher that the possibility would always exist, Amelia,” said the older man, leaning against a large tree, facing Amelia,who had her arms folded in anger.

“I knew it was written in the edicts but that’s it,” she shot back.“I have pledged to help the Gifted, to fight against the type of people who would do the very thing you ask me to do now. I cannot do it. I won’t.”

The fear and desperation were clear, she whispered, “Please Keeper, don’t ask me to.”

“Come now, Amelia, perhaps our worries are for naught. Perhaps the boy will accept. Then such drastic measures can be avoided.”

“Wait,” she closed her eyes a moment.“I have been a fool.” She looked directly at the spot where Iknelt crouching and pointed.

A chill ran up my spine, Iquickly backed away. Making as little noise as possible Iran, putting as much distance behind me as I could. My speed and stamina surprised me a bit. I didn’t remember being able to run so fast or so long without getting tired. The month of training and hard travels with the Travelers hadn’t been lost on my return home. With that thought I stopped. The possibilities of my new talents boggled the mind.

With a look behind I slowed to a walk; they weren’t following me. The memory of Mardel came back to me then. He had mentioned that they could track me somehow. She had pointed right to me, like she could sense my presence somehow. I wished I had Mardel with me right then. He’d know what to do.

It was obvious to me that I needed training to controlmy gift but there were things about Amelia’s offer that didn’t sit right with me. Accepting all without knowing all was a problem, but the fact they could somehow track me was more of a concern. How could she point right to me like that? Then there was this conversation. They were discussing something drastic there and I knew it involved me. What will they do? Will they try to kidnap me? I’d only talked with Amelia once but I didn’t think she was capable of hurting me.

My trip toMrs. Kilbern’s was way too quick for me to decide anything. Her home was in the middle of a row of old houses on the other side of the forest that all pretty much looked the same. White with dark shutters, a detached garage and chain link fence surrounded her small backyard. Someone mowed for her but that was pretty much the only care she gave to the outside. The bushes needed trimming. The flower beds were bare. Every other yard on her street was impeccable. Mrs. Kilbern’s was indifferent.

After a rap on the door she appeared almost at once. As usual she wanted me to come in and visit. Putting the basket on her table she directed me to her sitting room. I always felt there was something odd about the woman. She was easily in her seventies but she dressed in style. Never anything cut too low or too high, thank goodness. She just didn’t dress like a little old lady. The woman wore jeans! I’d never seen a seventy-year-old woman in jeans before Mrs. Kilbern. In fact I’d never even realized little old ladies didn’t wear jeans until her! She wore her silver hair in the latest styles as well. Her make-up and jewelry were tasteful and what one would expect of a modern woman whose life was still ahead of her. Perhaps her life is.

The one thing I’d always liked about her was she shared my love of books. Her library was extensive. Most of our conversations centered around her latest adventure, which was how she described the books she read. She often recommended books to me and sometimes lentme a book or two.

Much like Mrs. Kilbern, her home was unlike any other older person’s I’d ever visited before. She made no effort to keep the place picked up or tidy. Her living room was strewn with empty boxes and packaging, discarded without a second thought. Books were piled up on tables, the sofa, and any other flat surface that would hold them. She made no effort to apologize for the appearance of her home. She seemed quite proud of it.

She didn’t appear to be under the weather at all to me by the way she moved and spoke.

“So you have turned fifteen, Tommy. What an exciting age!” She motioned for me to sit.

“Uh, yah.”I cleared a pile of books off the sofa and plopped down.

“Do you feel any different?” she asked, watching me.

“Not really.” For some reason I felt uncomfortable. “What do you mean?

“When I turned fifteen, things started changing in me. I was confused for a time until I learned more and matured. Early on I thought I knew everything.” She smiled and picked up a teacup from the top of a book on a small table next to her. “After a time I discovered I was wrong. I needed the help of others. When I came to that realization my life changed and I was able to learn control of all of the changes that were happening to me.”

What is she talking about? Girls? Time to go. I beat a hasty retreat to the door with an excuse that my mother wanted me home right away.

Her words reached me at the door, “I’m here if you need someone to talk to, Tommy.” I needed to leave before anything embarrassing could be discussed

During the walk home I did my best to wipe out the memory of the strange conversation I’d just had, but kept coming back to it. Mrs. Kilbern had never made me uncomfortable before. In fact, I liked her more than pretty much anyone else except my mother.

My thoughts finallyreturned to my situation. As my home came in sight the reality hit me. Home meant my room, my room meant my books and right now I simply couldn’t read them. Even if Iwere to find asafe book, I didn’t know how to leave. I could grow old in there before my mother called me out!

When I arrived at the back-doorReed was waiting in the kitchen.

“Have a nice talk with your girlfriend?” He laughed, as he poured milk on his cereal and quite a bit on the counter as well. Reed ate cereal any time of the day.

“You’re a funny guy. You need help pouring your milk?” I laughed at his scowl. He rarely won our verbal duels and he knew it.

“I forgot to mention you have a visitor.” All the blood drained from my face. “You’re probably in trouble again,” said Reed, enjoying my obvious distress.

I didn’t stick around for him to tell me who it was; I thought I already knew. I was wrong. My mother stood in the entrance of our sitting room talking with someone. She saw me approaching and smiled.

“Tommy, this is Kaleb.”

 

Chapter 22

A New Offer

 

“Please sit,” the man said, motioning to the couch. He looked to be about fifty with strands of long grey hair combed straight back, accenting his long sloped forehead. I couldn’t tell whether he was fat or muscular due to the long overcoat he wore which was odd considering it was the middle of the summer. His eyes followed me to the chair where I sat. He didn’t even acknowledge my mother when she left.

“My name is Kaleb.” The man’s tone made it clear how much he thought of himself.

“My name is Tommy.” I waited for him to reply but he leaned back in his chair. An awkward silence followed before he finally spoke again.

“I am here to talk to you about your new gift,” the manbegan, watching me with an intensity that was unsettling. After a brief pause he smirked and continued, “I assume you have had one or perhaps a few experiences by now with your new power?”

When he saw my reaction his smilewidened. He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, “You have done well to survive your first breach unaided and perhaps,your second?” Again he chuckled to himself.

I hadn’t said a word but felt like I had given away everything.

“So you have breached twice and lived to tell about it? I like your spirit boy!” He leaned forward, with a glint in his eye, “Many of the quickened breach the first time and are never heard from again. Some are so frightened by the experience, they never try again. For you to have entered twice and returned unscathed is quite a feat.”

Unscathed? I should show him my scars and bruises.

“So who are you and why are you here?” I asked. I didn’t like this guy, no way was I telling him anything.

“You do not deny that you have had two experiences in books then? Good, I’m glad we’ve gotten that out of the way.”

How the man figured it out I didn’t know. When my mother read me like that it was annoying.What this man did was unsettling. Seeingmy troubled look,his grin faded.

“I have come because the world you are entering hasreal consequences. You have no doubt been approached by others offering you training?” He waited. Again I didn’t answer; again he seemed to know the answer anyway. “They have probably done so with little to no information about why you should accept. I’ll bet they sent a girl about your age just to make the offer more… enticing.” He leaned even closer, which made me lean back.

“What you don’t know is what will happen if you don’t accept.”

Kaleb looked to the doorway to make sure we were still alone. “They will kill you.”The words sent a feeling of dread through me.I closed my eyes, rubbing my head. The conversation in the woods took on a whole different light.

After a few moments of silence Kaleb spoke again, “Open your eyes, Tommy.I’d like to know what you are thinking.”

“Why would they want to kill me?” Ilooked at the man again.

Kaleb’s smile returned.“They believe they are in a war against others who have the power, or “Gifted” as they call themselves. If you were to join their enemies the consequences would justify taking your life. What do you think about that?”

“It sounds a little hard to believe, to be honest.”

Kaleb watchedme.“But you do believe it, don’t you?”

I’d had about enough of the man. Information was more important at the moment than ending an uncomfortable conversation, though.

“Okay, so why are you here, just to warn me?” Mytone was short, not very polite.

“I’m here for so much more than that, Tommy.” For once he didn’t read my growing irritation. “I’m here to offer you real training. Not the methodical piece-by-piece method they use. I’ve streamlined the training so you can make use of your power immediately.” His eyes sparkled as he continued. “I’ll teach you how to do things they will say are impossible. You have no idea the power that has been unlocked inside of you.”

“What do you get out of this?” I asked, skeptically.

“What do I get out of this? I get the pleasure of teaching. All of those blessed with the gift feel the urge to teach and pass on their knowledge to the recently quickened. That is the term we use for a person who comes to their powers. When a boy or girl is quickened they are in immediate danger. They need guidance before they are lost forever in the pages of a book. That is why each of the Gifted can sense the presence of the newly quickened until they accept training. Then the signal, if you will, is gone.”

“You mean every Gifted can sense where I am right now?”I asked, getting worried. “How many are there?”

“To answer your first question, the farther away you are the more difficult it is to sense you. As for how many Gifted there are, hundreds are scattered throughout the world but many are not active. When members get older, many of them leave the society behind and retire. They still have the gift but they do not actively participate in a group. They desire a home and their books and to live out the remainder of their lives as normal people. Some even choose a book towards the end and never return.”

“Is it possible to go back to a book I have already been in? Also, will the characters there be the same way I remembered them the last time I was there? One more thing, is there a way to get myself out instead of waiting for my mother to call me?”

The man laughed. I couldn’t tell if he was mocking me or just amused. “Okay, you want to start the training right away. I will answer these three questions but then you must agree to training before I will answer any more. First, you can go back to a book you have already breached as many times as you like. There is no limit. Your second question is related to your first. The characters there will remember you the same if you enter the same copy of the book each time. If you enter a different copy of the book then the story will be a little different. The theme is always taken from your current experiences at the time you breach. Because you are always changing, the characters and your experiences will be different. When you enter the same copy the characters will be as you remember them but the story goes on while you are away so you will not return to the same precise moment you left. Does that make sense?”

Iunderstood, but the news was a blow. The Aoki and Unbar and Mardel I knew were lost to me forever.

Kaleb continued, “In answer to your last question.It is not only possible to call yourself from a book, it is the desirable method. What you have done up to now is called ripping. It requires someone you trust implicitly and that you love without condition to call you from the book. The longer you are in a book, the harder it is for you to heed their call. The better way and your first priority in training, is to learn how to remove yourself properly. We call it closing. It is really quite easy and with a proper teacher you will have it mastered in no time.”

I closed my eyes, trying to process the new information. My day had started in camp with Aoki and Unbar, entering the tunnels to the golden cave. So much had happened since then that it all came crashing down on me at once.

“I can’t decide right now,” I said, opening my eyes. “I need time to think it over. I’m sure you understand.”

It was clear from his expression he didn’t understand. Kaleb tried unsuccessfully to hide his anger but I could see myanswer wasn’t expected.

He recovered quickly. “I understand. Here is a card with my phone number. When you have made up your mind,call me and I will return.” Then he added, his grin returning, “Remember, the difference between me and them is, I probably won’t kill you if you turn me down.”

He intended it as a joke but I hardly saw the humor. My life was in danger again and this time there was nowhere to escape to.

As the man stood to leave, my Mother poked her head into the room, “Tommy, you have a friend over to see you. I put her in your room since you were occupied in here.”

When her words registered I said goodbye to Kaleb and flewdown the hall to my room, throwing open thedoor. Turning from reading the titles on my book shelves, Amelia forced a smile as I entered. She looked worn out.

“I didn’t want to be put in your room but your mother said you were with someone. She said you wouldn’t mind if I waited here.”

“No, I don’t care,” I lied, pointing to my desk chair. “Go ahead and sit down.”

“I have no time to waste, Thomas.” She didn’t make a move toward the chair. “You have entered another book and stayed for quite some time. In this second visit I can tell you that the Gifted know each time you enter a book because you are newly—”

“Quickened?” I finished. I felt like giving her a little of what she had given me on her last visit.

“How do you know that word?” she asked, looking if possible more tired and a little frightened.

“Let’s just say I’ve figured out a few things since we talked last time.” Ihad no intention of giving her any more information considering her group’s plans for me.

“The Gifted have watched over the newly quickened or scripts as we call them, for more than a century. Helping them learn control over their new power so they could use it the way it was intended.”

“How was it intended?” I asked,trying not to snap,but feeling a growing hostility towards her.

“I told you yesterday when we visited. The gift was given for wisdom.”

“Okay for wisdom. Why do I have to accept all without knowing all? You’re asking me to sign up for a class without knowing the course. For all I know you could be teaching me the wrong way. You could be a gang of thugs who go around killing people.”

Amelia didn’t react to myquestion.She seemed to regain her composure a little before replying, “Some questions I cannot answer before you accept. I leave it to you to judge in your encounters with me whether we are a band of thugs or not. As for your question, you will never know everything so you must accept without knowing. I can say no more; in fact I cannot answer any more questions before your training.”

“Just one more,” I said,watching her eyes closely. “What happens to me if I don’t accept?”

Amelia turned pale, swallowing hard before turning away. When she looked back she said in a hoarse voice, “No more questions.”

Ididn’t need words, I had my answer. Kaleb was right.She didn’t look happy about it but that didn’t make me any less dead.

“Thomas Travers, I offer you what was offered long ago this second time to you. Training that you may have control, control that you may have knowledge, knowledge that you may have wisdom.  It is for wisdom that the gift was first given and passed down to the Gifted.If you accept you must agree to all without seeing all.  Do you accept?”

The words hung in the air. The intensity of her gaze threw me off. There were so many questions I had and she had the answers. Amelia didn’t move—shehardly blinked. The conversation I overheard kept coming back to me. How could I join a group of people who would kill me for something as stupid as not signing up?

“No.” The word was out before I could take it back. I wasn’t sure it was the right thing but there it was.

As before, she flinched as if somebody had hit her. Her eyes filled with tears,“I’m not supposed to speak after your answer but I must tell you this. You might think I am here for my own good. I don’t care if you believe me or not but the only reason I do this is to help people.”She said nothing more, closingmy door as she left.

I dropped onto my bed, her final words playing in my head. For some reason I felt guilty. She seemed to be genuine. I didn’t get the same feelings of trepidation with her that Ihad with Kaleb. The urge hit me to catch up to her and accept right then. Iwould have,excepta sudden realization struck me. I was far too comfortable. Sitting up,I threw away my pillow, looking at my bed. The book and the gauntlet were gone.

 

Chapter 23

Freezer-burned Chicken

 

The thief did not really know what to expect while searching the boy’s bedroom. The thieflookedthrough the titles of the many books in the boy’s shelves. Wars, fantasy, books about sled dogs in the Alaskan wilderness, science fiction—the boy seemed to like a bit of everything.

When looking at the desk the thief about choked. The face in the picture stared back, almost as if the man was watching the thief, accusing. Putting down the picture, the thief turned away and noticed something golden sticking out from under the boy’s pillow.

“What a dumb place to hide something,” the thief whispered.

Moving the pillow aside, the thief found a book made of pure gold with the words “The Midas Quest” engraved on the cover. Upon attempting to open the cover the thief discovered that the book was one solid piece of gold. Also under the pillow was a glove, more like a gauntlet, golden in color that felt very strange to the touch. The thief sensed something from that gauntlet, like it held its own energy or perhaps was pulling energy to it. The thief grabbed it and the book, carefully replacing the pillow and stashed the items carefully just as the handle of the bedroom door turned…

***

I searched my entire bedroom looking for the book and the gauntlet. Before I finishedI knew it was hopeless. How long had Amelia been in my room?Long enough. I stopped looking, knowing what I had to do. Bursting through myfront doorand sprinting down the middle of the street,Ibegan searching for the thief.

Towards town Icaught a glimpse of a girl several blocks up. It might be her. Running as fast as my bruised legs would carry me,Iwatched the girl turn down a side street. To my relief I could see when I got closer thatit was Amelia. She was five or six blocks ahead of me and didn’t seem to be in any hurry.

She led me out of mysubdivision towards downtown Covington, through the older neighborhoods and down a long hill. Every telephone pole we passed was littered with circus fliers. Apparently, the circus was in town. I didn’t really care, watching animals and crazy people walk on wires wasn’t my idea of entertainment. The posters did give me something to do though as I stalked Amelia. Each telephone pole had a different poster on it about a different act. I figured they would run out of acts before the street ran out of poles but the posters just kept coming. Finally,Amelia turned again, down a street that led to the buildings that were once large factories and warehouses near an old set of railroad tracks.

She walked up the steps of an old building with a sign marking it as a book warehouse and paused with her back to me. I scampered behind a tree in the empty lot across from her, peeking out to see what she would do. After a moment’s hesitation she looked across the street in my direction. I ducked back behind the tree. Did she see me? After waiting what seemed like hours, I peeked out again.She was gone.

The large warehouse was built in red brick which had faded over time. There were rows of windows high up, indicating at least five floors in the massive structure. Considering its size and appearance, I couldn’t believe that I’d never noticed it before. In the front, a pulley arm extended over the steps in line with wooden slat doors on each floor that I imagined could be opened to lower large items to the ground. The dark smokiness of the glass gave the building a creepy look. The large roof of red tile stretched out and then angled down all of the way to the second level on both sides of the building. Skylights were cut into the roof, allowing natural lighting into the upper floors of the building.

I sneakedacross the street and looked through the first floor windows. It looked like what it claimed to be: a warehouse.No people inside. Finally giving up,I crossed the street and returned to my spot behind the tree.

The afternoon sun beat down on mewith the sparse branches of the tree providing little relief. The sun felt good to my aching musclesat first. Then, as the afternoon wore on,I wished for some protection from its harsh rays. The physical and mental toll of the past few days began to wear on me. My eyelids started to droop.

Activity across the street woke me up. A group of young people arrived at the warehouse and went in. A few looked to be in their early twenties but the rest were my age or at most, a year or two older. The last to enter looked to be the oldest. He glanced across the street in my direction before entering the great wooden door to the building.

It was my stomach that decided I had stayed long enough. I hadn’t eaten at all since returning home. I had no idea how long the girl would stay in there with the gauntlet and the book. But at least I knew where they were. When I turned to go, I jumped. Amelia stood in my way, hands on her hips, a scowl on her face.

“What are you doing out here? Spying on us?” She pointed her finger like a mother scolding a child.

“I’m here to get back the things you stole from my room and I am not leaving until you return them.” My voice was calm.

“Whatever are you talking about?” she snapped. “I took nothing from your room. Have you really spent the day here to call me a thief?”

“All I know is that the items were in my room before you got there and then, when you left, they were gone. Nobody else was in that room but you. I lost a close friend getting that gauntlet and I want it back. Now!”

“What are you talking about?” she looked genuinely baffled. “Where did you get these things?”

“You know perfectly what I’m talking about, a golden book and a golden gauntlet. The book is the one I just returned from this morning,the Midas Quest.I accidentally touched it with the gauntlet. I brought the gauntletback from the book which turned the book to gold. The gauntlet is worth all the treasure in this world but it is also cursed so it’s not safe.” By the look on Amelia’s face I couldn’t tell whether she believed me or not. Her face was as pale as death.

“As soon as I can learn how, I am going to put it back. I need it back before it can cause any damage. The guide in the book told me the curse will affect everybody around me. It might already be affecting you. Maybe that’s why you took it?”

Amelia began shaking her head before I had even finished. “Now I know you are lying. It is impossible for the Gifted to bring an item created in a book into this world. Only one has that power and the last has been dead for years. Your story is not unlike many others I’ve heard from immature scripts who have just been quickened. I will forget it and forget that you have been stalking me when you are in training. That is, if you are smart enough to put these stories behind you and accept what has been offered. In the meantime, go home and don’t forget—we know right where you are at all times so hiding behind a tree does you no good.”

Amelia didn’t wait for my rebuttal. She left without another word, walking back to the building without as much as a glance over her shoulder. Then it occurred to me. She didn’t need to look back. She would know if I stayed.

There was nothing more I could do there so I began the walk home. On the way I tried to think of any way to get my stuff back. I couldn’t break into a building where everyone knew you were coming. The guide in the golden cave told me the curse would affect everyone around me. The guide didn’t say what theeffect would be. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to get the gauntlet back.

***

The thief finally had a few moments alone to examine the gauntlet and the book from the boy’s room. Looking first at the book the thief read the title, “The Midas Quest” By J. Richard Burns. It appeared to have been chiseled perfectly onto its golden surface. Meticulously scanning every inch of the book for any clues or secrets,the thief determined that the book was simply a piece of gold shaped like a book.

Setting the book aside, the thief began to examine the gauntlet. It was no ordinary gauntlet. The gold was dark in color and seemed to shimmer as it caught different angles of the light. It was like no other material the thief had ever seen.Seeing nothing else to do the thief put the gauntlet on. It did not feel hard or metallic. There seemed to be nothing special about the gauntletnor any special power coming from it, which was quite disappointing. The thief had hoped it could be the key to everything or at least something very powerful. Reachingto pick up a pen to make a note, the pen suddenly turned to gold. The thief looked in amazement at the writing utensil and its sudden transformation. This was magic which the thief had never seen before. Smiling, the thief took off the gauntlet and got a new pen. Soon the sound of furious scribbling could be heard from behind the thief’s closed door.

***

Hunger made sure I made it home in time for dinner. It was my first opportunity in weeks to eat normal food.When I sat at the table I was more than a little disappointed to find that my mother had simply warmed up some pre-made frozen chicken dinners. They looked to have been in the freezer for months. Sunday evenings were supposed to be the night the family wastreated to a nice dinner. My brother didn’t say a word. He was too wrapped up in a basketball game to notice.The T.V.had been turned towards the table and the volume raised sohe could continue watching while he ate, a strictly forbidden practice at dinnertime. Mom always told us that her house didn’t have T.V. at all when she grew up. Whatever planet that was on.

Iwatched my mother closely, waiting for a reaction.Not only didn’t she complain, she didn’t even seem to notice.She sat in silence, sawing her tough chicken.

No one said a word. Usually it was momstarting the conversation at dinnertime. Without her prompting, an uncomfortable silence settled over the table. Reed yelling at the T.V. occasionally was the only noise apart from the sound of us hacking at our tough chicken.Itreminded me of my first attempt to cook meat on the road to the Sea of Inachus. It was too done in some places and still cold in others. The mashed potatoes were from a mix and the peas were cold. All in all the worst meal Iever remembered eating at that table. Jerky and hard bread sandwich on the trail would have been better.

As I stared down a piece of over-done chicken the game was interrupted by the local news anchor. “This is a Channel 3 special newsflash. Police have reported a massive robbery at the Covington National Bank & Trust this evening. At approximately 6 p.m. a group of four men were seen leaving the bank in ski masks and dark t-shirts and jeans. Reports indicate that they somehow gained access to the vault and security deposit boxes as well as the teller areas. They escaped in a van and sped up Main Street where conflicting reports have them in every part of the city. Police are currently questioning bank employees in connection with the robbery. Judging by evidence collected at the scene,the group may have had inside help.”

Reedhad stood up when the report started.His face grew redder as it continued. When the anchor went on to report on a mysterious unrelated break-in at the public library, he erupted. “Why aren’t they saving this for the news at ten? Why are they interrupting the most important part of the game to tell us about some robbery nobody cares about? Now they tell us somebody stole a few books from the library? Someone call the governor! Get the National Guard in here!”

“I know why they are doing this,” he continued, his body shaking. “That Rod Hillman can’t stand to have the city go ten minutes without seeing his face. He loves having his mug on all of those billboards all over town. I’ve met the guy. He’s aself-important jerk! Well I’ll tell you what, Roddy,” he said,clenching his teeth and putting his face right next to the screen, “if you don’t put my game on in fiveseconds, I am going to drive down to that station and take you down a few notches myself.”

My eyes widened.I nearly choked on my last bite of chicken. Mybrother liked his sports, but he never lost his temper like that. Mymother finally seemed to snap out of her daze.

“Oh Reed, you will do nothing of the kind,”she orderedas she started cleaning up the plates. “Instead of worrying about all of that, why don’t you do something useful like helping out with the dishes for once? I never get a break around here and it is time that changed. You can watch your game while you scrub.”

Now it was mybrother’s turn to stare in shock. He hadn’t done dishes in years.

“I’m not doing any dishes. I work all week long so I can come home and relax. Not so I have to come here and do more work! I shouldn’t have to do anything at home. That’s what a mother is for.” Reed returned his attention to the game which had just switched back on.

My jaw hung open. I watched mybrother for a hint of a smirk. Reedwas into his game, he didn’t even seem to realize the beartrap he had just stepped into. I leaned back, wanting to be as far as possible from the explosion I knew was coming.

Instead my mother used her calm voice which usually meant bad things. “Fine, if you treat me like an employee then I’ll act like one. You can find anew chef and maid. I am done here.”She rose to her feet and threw her fork down so it made a loud clattering when it hit her plate. “I believe I have a nice book I would like to curl up with for a while,” she stated, looking at me for a brief instant before departing to her room.

Reed yelled down the hallway after her, “Good! At least we don’t have to eat any more freezer-burned chicken!”

 

Chapter 24

The Warehouse

 

Life at home continued to deteriorate over the next few days. Mom and Reedweren’t talking to each other. I became the subject of a recruiting effort from both. I stayed out of it as best I could,which made me popular with neither.

I continued to draw a blank on how to get the gauntlet back, yet I knewmy home life wouldn’t get any better until I did. Reading was out of the question,so Ispent my time in the forest behind our backyard. My life is a mess.I’ve brought a curse on my family and who knows who else. I’ve lost the gauntlet and lost my ability to read. Life sucks.My only solacewas the trees, dreaming about my adventures with the Travelers. I closedmyeyes,picturingtheir faces. I could almost hear their voices.

After a few moments I did hear voices but they were real and coming toward me. More out of habit than anything,I quickly jumped for cover. Hiding deep in some brush Iwatched two boys I knew from school approach, half-leading, half-dragging a younger boy between them.

“This should do just fine,” said the boy I knew only by his nickname, Red,which was due to his flaming red hair.

“Yah, this is a nice quiet spot,” agreed his buddy, Jon. “I would imagine little Momma’s boy here could scream as loud as he wants and he won’t be disturbing anybody’s afternoon.”The little boy didn’t look familiar.

Red and Jon were always hanging around together at school although they didn’t seem like the bullying type. More like class clowns. Last year at school they had put some sulfurin the ventilation system which made the whole school smell like rotten eggs and got everyone out of a day of classes. Jon was an average-sized kid for his age. Red was shorter but built like a brick wall. He had thick arms andlegs that could have doubled as tree trunks.

“Okay little Jackie, we know your mommy likes to wear nice jewelry. You are going to go into your house and get it for us. If you don’t, then Red might become your new nickname. Got it?” Jon laughed and Red joined in.

The little boy fell to the ground, curled up and began to cry.Looking around,I found a thick branch on the ground not far away. It was straight and pretty smooth, almost as good as the sticks I had practiced on with Unbar.

The two brutesballed up their fists and moved towards the kid. Not daring to wait another moment, I rushed from my hiding spot with the stick. Using Sun-Across-The-Sky, Ihit Red in the stomach before he even knew I was there. All the air went out of him and he went down holding his stomach. When Jon saw Red go down he pulled a knife from his pocket and pointed it at me, shaking with anger.

I kept my stick between us,stunned that this boy I knew at school would actually be willing to stab me, maybe even kill me. Before my experiences with the Travelers,I would have been terrified. But having faced a dozen men on horseback with swords,a kid with a puny knife didn’t seem so bad. Something wasn’t right about the whole thing and Isuspected I knew what it was.

Jon lungedwhich I avoided using the Moon-Falling-To-Earth. I attacked him with the sun-in-the-eye, which was a quick jab to the face. He hit the ground, out cold. Red was still down,making no attempt to get up. The young boy didn’t need any urging to run when he saw his attackers down. When we had put some distance behind us we stopped to let him catch his breath.

“How did you do that?” he said, with a little too much hero worship in his tone for my comfort.

“What’s your name?” I said, ignoring his question.

“Henry, I’m from over that way a few blocks,” he said, pointing toward Mrs. Kilbern’s neighborhood.

Idecided to walk him to his house to make sure he got there safe. It didn’t take long which was a relief. I didn’t want any thanks for helping him; most likely I was the cause of the whole thing. A sick feeling began in the pit of my stomach as he walked up the small sidewalk to his front door. The gauntlet was starting to change people. The time for waiting was over. It was time to do something drastic.

 

***

Amelia checked the silver plate of the Liatope.Nothing. Relieved she didn’t have to make the trip and her decision today,she walked through the warehouse looking through the rooms. She peeked into the garden room where exotic plants of every color grew in every direction. The cement ground had been removed so the plants could grow into the rich dirt underneath. A massive garden of vegetables grew on one end. The cucumbers were massive; the tomatoes were as big as basketballs. Fruit trees of every type could be found with the most perfect pears and peaches filling their branches. She picked a juicy apple from a nearby tree and moved on.

Her footsteps echoed in the large empty space as she climbed the steps to herthird floor living quarters. A long hallway with doors spaced equally apart down each side stretched away from her. The light blue ceramic tile on the floor was chipped and worn. The walls were white once perhaps, but now were grey.Single light bulbs hung on lines from the tall ceiling. To an outsider the place would have looked run down, but to her every chip of paint; every scratch on the old maple doors was like an old friend.

She didn’t see a single person in the halls or hear any sound at all from the rooms as she walked by. She knocked on a few doors to say hello but nobody answered. She poked her head into a few doors and in every one were open books on the desks and beds which meant they were in the World of Books. It was considered rude to look at the title of the books. They were supposedto use their ability to gain knowledge and wisdom. But like the others,she sometimes used hersfor fun and relaxation.

It appeared that every person on the thirdfloor had breached,which was quite unusual. At most,a few Gifted at a timebreached the World of Books.

Ameliapicked up her pace, still looking for someone who hadn’t breached. Finally, getting a little worried, she decided to visit Wilfred. She was grateful to see him at least still in his little office on the first floor. He smiled as she entered, looking up from an object in his hand. He helda silver starwhich usually sat on a pedestal on his desk. He once told her it was just a decoration.

“You know what this is, Amelia?”He held his palm forward. “Aaron gave this to me many years ago before he, well, many years ago. He said hesearched long and hard to find one that would work in our world without unintended consequences.”

“What is it?” Amelia said, sitting in the chair across from him. It appeared to be just a silver star.

“This is how it works.” He put the star on his desk and spun it. The star began to pick up speed.The silver color shifted to orange and then pink and then a light red. It began to slow and then stopped.In its last rotation each of the five points of the star stopped at the same point; the object no longer resembled a star but a pointer. The object pointed to Amelia’s right. Wilfred looked up from the star at Amelia expectantly.

“In the past day someone has used magic—thebrighterthe shade of red the more powerful the magic. Using this artifact, we could pinpoint its exact location by following the pointers. I wouldn’t recommend that though. I think we both know the source.”

Amelia was shocked. The person casting the spell could only be Mephitis. If he was using magic it meanttrouble for the Gifted.

“What do we do?” Amelia shifted in her chair.

“We stay as far from him as possible. He is merciless and without a weakness so far. I only show this to you to let you know I have it. If I were the Master of Books I would bring more than simple trinkets such as this back from the World of Books. I would bring items of real power that would protect us from Mephitis or maybe even destroy him.”

“I was not born the Master though. I was born in Montana. The Master is always born in Covington. He is always of the lineage of Van Flett,which I am not. But that is all I lacked. My mother married the wrong man and birthed me in the wrong hospital. If not for that I would have been the Master. We wouldn’t be fighting Mephitis because he wouldn’t be here. I would have never made the same mistake as Aaron.”

Amelia listened in stunned silence. She had never heard Wilfred say anything about the previous Master of Books before. Usually he always changed the subject if anyone brought him up.

“And now, we watch, helpless, while Mephitis kills us off one by one,”Wilfred continued. “We wait for another Master to come like some savior. Even if we were to find one with the power to draw out objects again from the World of Books,would that guarantee anything?Should I be excited if a new Master appears, or afraid? My heart is filled with dread Amelia. The Master of my generation caused us more misery than is worth all of the knowledge found in the World of Books.”

Every Gifted knew the story of howMephitis had tricked Aaroninto bringing him to the real world. Aaron’s name wasn’t well spoken of by many of the older Gifted but Wilfred’s talk was nothing short of treason. He could be removed as Keeper if anyone else heard him.

Wilfred grew silent, staring at the pointer. When he spoke again his voice was low and menacing, “Mephitis didn’t just kill Aaron. He turned my best friend. He used some kind of spell on his mind. Now Kaleb helps the wizard track down the quickened with offers of power and riches and distorted training.”

Wilfred’s voice increased in volume, “They teach them the forbidden exploitations. They are searching for the next Master.If they find him, their power will know no bounds. Can you imagine the Gifted trying to escape the day the wizard comes? Where would they run?”

Wilfredpaused,his anger passed and he seemed to grow old before her eyes.“It would almost be better for this generation if aMaster did not appear.”

Amelia only thought she was shocked before. TheGifted were taught to seek out the quickened but with a special eye on those born right there in Covington. Every year at least one boy or girl quickened in Covington, which for a city of its size was quite remarkable. For the Keeper of Books to suggest they would be better off without the Master?The Master would be their besthope against the Wizard! Amelia had to believe that.

Wilfredrubbed a small chain in his hand while rocking back and forth in his chair. She hadn’t noticed him doing that before. Why would he tell me this all of a sudden?The more Amelia thought about it,the entire warehouse seemed affected by something.

The conversation with the new script came back to her from the day before. The boyhad given her some story about a gauntlet and a curse brought back from the World of Books. She dismissed it out of hand at the time but now she wasn’t so sure. What if the boy told the truth? The implications were so exciting and yet devastating,she didn’t know what to feel.

There is only one way to find out though. “Wilfred, I need to go look into some things. I hope you understand.” She got up to leave.

Lost in thought, hebarely acknowledgedher departure. In the hallway, her mind racing, Amelia knew what she would have to do next. She dared not hope. She had to know for certain if Thomas Travers was the next Master of Books.

 

Chapter 25

Breaking and Entering

 

Life at home continued to deteriorate over the next few days. When we had dinner it was in silence other than the T.V. Reed watched almost exclusively now. My mother stayed true to her word, no cooking, no cleaning and no conversation. She did eat with us but she sat in silence, occasionally muttering to herself every so often. Reedand I scrounged from the kitchen for food or ordered deliverywhen Reed could sneak cash from Mom’s purse.

Not really a fan of T.V., I mostly just stared at my food until I could escape to my room or the trees out back. Not that I had anyone to talk to. My strategy of taking no sides had backfired; now I was everyone’s enemy.

The nightly news ran full time now with one special report after another. New crimes were being reported seemingly every few minutes. Rod Hillman seemed to be everywhere, on every show and with every panel of guests which they didn’t need because he wouldn’t let them get a word in anyway. My mother mumbled every so often about what the world was coming to and what had gotten into everyone. I knew the real cause and knew I’d have to do something about it, if only I could figure out what.

The latest special report started with news typical of the last few days: nine stores robbed, gas stations all over the city reporting drive-offs. Cameras showed people in luxury vehicles driving off without paying even though they could clearly afford to. Several stores closed, due to large numbers of shoplifters.

Another shooting of an officer had occurred. The police were already stretched thin due to a large number of officers taking their vacations at once. They were down another threepolicemen due to shootings in the last two days.The city council asked the mayor to call the governor for help but the mayor wouldn’t admit there was a crisis. Everyone knewhe hated the governor and didn’t want to ask him for anything.

The growing unease began to turn to panic. I didn’t know that things had gotten so bad. The scary part was that I knew it wouldprobably get worse. The guide in the golden cave said it would affect everyone in the land. Eventually the curse would spread from Covington until the whole state was infected, maybe even the country or the world. It had to be stopped before it could go any further. The problem was how. Every person in that warehouse would sense me coming from a mile away.

Rod Hillmanrepeated the warning that ran continually on the bottom of the screen. Stay indoors, especially at night. My best chance to get the gauntlet back was to wait until everyone in the warehouse fell asleepthentry my luck, but could I even get there alive? The way things were going,I couldn’t wait another night.

While I finished the last ofmy kung pao chicken from the Wok Hut,a special report interrupted the current special report. “This is Channel Three reporter Greg Frandini at City Hall covering a hastily called news conference by the Mayor and Chief of Police. We have been given no indication as to what this is about so we will go directly to Mayor Newton and Chief Drayton now.”

The police chief took the podium with a grave look on his face holding a small paper in front of him. “The Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement to me at roughlysixp.m. this evening that they were going on strike as of that time. In their statement they cited the inability of the city to keep enough officers on duty in sufficient numbers to keep them safe. Theystated that it is unreasonable to expect them to continue putting their lives at risk with the city unwilling to pay overtime to keep more officers on the streets during this recent crime spree.”

From somewhere in the crowd came a question, “Isn’t that illegal?”

“Technically yes, but who do I have to round them up and put them in jail? The cities of Dovenhill and Treeport are dealing with crime sprees of their own. The county sheriffs are stretched so thin they are considering a strike of their own.”

“There is one more thing,” the chief hesitated. The crowd of reporters pushed each other to get closer. A fight broke out and the camera was pushed, throwing the picture sideways for a few seconds. When the fight was broken up the chief continued. “We have an issue with the circus. The workers seemed to have disappeared and someone opened the cages.”

The room erupted in a chorus of shouting. Reporters trying to get their question answered, the chief trying to finish. I left the room in disgust. I couldn’t watch any more.

I escaped to my room and threw myself on my bed. If I could recover the gauntlet,I figured my best solution would be to put it inside some book. But how could I get back out again? What if it didn’t work and my mother never checked in on me? She hadn’t left her room for anything but dinner for days. Kaleb had said that it was possible to get out on my own but hadn’t givenme any idea of how to do that. The thought occurred to me that worrying about what to do with the gauntlet before I had it back wasn’t going to help much anyway. First things first.

My clockread eight-thirty. It would be a long night so Iset my alarm for onein the morningand lay back,trying to doze off. After some time, I drifted into a deep sleep. In my dreams Isaw three men fighting in the dark, one of them in chains. Then the scene shifted and there was Amelia being attacked by a group of thugs. This time she pleaded, “Come!”

These brief scenes shifted and Ifound myself standing by a campfire. A man approached outof the dark. He wore old shabby pants and a white shirt with a worn vest over the top. He reached out to me and said, “I am trapped.”

The man vanished and I was lying in the bed atthe Crossroads Inn, with Mardel sitting next to me.

“Mardel!” I sat up and threw my arms around him. “I thought you were dead.”

“In a way I was, in a way I can’t really be killed. I am, after all not real except up there,” he said, pointing to my head.

“How is this possible? Is this real?” I asked.

“This is real in a way. You have a gift, Tommy. It will assist you in ways you have yet to imagine. Now I am with you for a short time, so why did you summonme?”

The thought that I had called Mardel tomy dreams nearly caused me to forget my current plight. “What should I do?” I said, recovering.

“That is the wrong question. Ask me about what you are planning to do.” His flowing white hair seemed to glow.His stark green eyes bored into mine.

“Okay,” I stammered, “I think Amelia stole the gauntlet while she waited in my room and I’m going tonight to get it back. The problem is thatshe and all of the people around her can sense me so I thought I’d try while they’re asleep.”

Mardel listened for a moment, considering. “So far I think your plan sounds good. I would point out a few deficiencies: first,they could have people awake no matter the hour. Second, your city is without police to deter those who were teetering. I would imagine this night will be more dangerous than any your city has seen before. Third, the curse will be affecting those inside the warehouse as well. You must be prepared for whatever you might find once you get there.”

“It is a pity Aoki and Unbar and I could not join you this night. I think you will need us. That leads me to my last point which is that it is possible that some in the city are not affected by the gauntlet. If you could find a few of those people and get their help it would greatly improve your chances.”

“How could anyone not be affected by the curse?”I asked, doubt clearly in my tone.

“Remember, the gauntlet feeds on the selfish desires and passions of the individuals in your world. If you could find people, or at least someone, whose life is dedicated truly to others, they would be unaffected or at least not as affected. I am sure there are many who proclaim it but they will be exposed by the curse. You would have to find people who truly live it, not just speak it. I would imagine there are a few out there but I wouldn’t waste much time searching for them. I just want you to be aware of the possibility.” Mardel rose to his feet.

“Our time has come to an end.Your alarm is about to ring and your adventure is about to begin. I will be here for you again if you need me, friend. Good-bye and good luck.” Mardel vanished, leaving me alone.

My eyes opened, the clock read 12.58 a.m. I reached over, turned offmy alarm,and sat up. The conversation with Mardel ran fresh in my mind. It seemed like ages since my life had been normal. Only a few days had passed since my fifteenth birthday but everything had changed in that short span of time. It was time to fix that.

Putting on my darkest clothes, I slipped through my window and made my way to the garage. With my enhanced vision I didn’t need a light to make my way through the dark garage to the spot in the corner where I found mydad’s old walking stick leaning against the wall.

I gripped the handle, thinking of the last time I had seen mydad. He was reading in his small office across from my parent’s bedroom andinvited me to goread with him. I turned him down—allthose years later I didn’t even remember why. Mydad just smiled and told mewe would do it later. I never saw him again.

With the walking stick in hand I made my way out of the garage and into the night. My path to the warehouse would have to be much different than the one I took following Amelia a few days before. Staying off the streets I would keep to the shadows as much as possible,avoiding the street lights.

From one backyard to the next I made my way in silence to the first street I would have to cross. Looking up and down for any sign of movement, I quickly crossed. When I reached the other side, I stopped behind some bushes to let my nerves calm. Being exposed for just the few seconds it took to cross the street brought a level of fear I had never experienced before. Not even in the world of books. I finally got myself moving again and crept through a yard of a large two-story home with trees in the back. My new vision helped like never before. I could see every bush, every tree; what would have been pockets of dangerous darkness were instead as bright as the light of the evening sunset. I keptmy stick always at the ready as Ihad learned from Unbar.

From one yard to the next I moved with no living thing in sight until a large shadow growled at me and leaped. I got the staff up but knew it wouldn’t be much protection against such a large animal. Suddenly the creature jerked in midair, hitting the end of the slack in its chain and crashed to the ground just out of reach. The large dog barked and growled,pulling at its chain,trying to get at me. Giving the beast a large berth, I made my way out of its sight, hoping the animal would quiet down. It kept barking which caused me to have to rush faster than I wanted.

I was closer to the cityand started hearing cars driving by at top speeds. They honked their horns. Laughter came through their open windows.Bottles were thrown onto the street. Every so oftenI heard a loud crash as they hit a parked car and continued on their way to terrorize another street.

Crossing those streets became more and more difficult. Many times the street appeared to be clear but then I would find a car driving at high speeds with no lights on bearing down on me, even swerving in my direction. One car stopped and several young men got out and gave chasebut I flew through the backyards of two houses and crossed a street right under the street light to another block. In their drunken condition they couldn’t keep up. Despite the close proximity of the warehouse it took me more than an hour to reach the empty lot across the street from the large structure.

Looking out from the same tree where Amelia had scolded me, Iwatched the building for any signs of a guard or any activity inside. From the outside the building looked completely dark. There were no lights around the structure for some distance, giving me cover for what I was about to attempt.

Istartedout from behind the tree when I heard a voice behind me. “Hey! What you lookin’ at over there?” a drunk and bandaged Jon Franks babbled from behind me. Next to Jonstood Red and three other boys I didn’t know. They carried books,which struck me as odd. I didn’t have long to think about it though because when Jon recognized mehe pointed and yelled, “Get him!”

I held on to my stick and ran toward the warehouse, not sure what I was going to do when I got there. When I crossed the streetI leaped the steps in two strides. Twisting the handle of the large oak door,I hurled myself inside.

Looking at the inside door handle for a lock and finding none Ilooked for a place to hide. Just inside the entrance I saw a large fountain with a rearing horse and an umbrella of water flowing out of the top of its head. It was like no fountain I had ever seen before. Each stream of water coming out of the head of the statue was a different color and each dropped into the water over a different spot. Looking past the fountain there was adoor to what I hoped would be a closet. Quickly Ihid myself inside,hoping the chase behind me had slowed enough to give me time to settle before they burst in.

***

Red couldn’t believe his luck. That bookworm from school who had sucker-punched him a few days ago, had appeared all alone and there he was with four buddies who could help give the kid a lesson. When he took off running with his stick Red knew it would only be a matter of time until they caught him, especially when he ran towards the empty lot across the street.

The boys in front were gaining already. Then the kid crossed the street and disappeared. He just disappeared. Red’s group spent the next twenty minutes looking everywhere for the boybut with no luck. Finally the boys wanted to give up and get back to scavenging for books. The man downtown was paying everyone a ridiculous amount of money for a certain book no matter how you got it. It was like the guy was made of gold or something.

***

In the dark of the closet I spent the next several moments just trying to breathe. I couldn’t believe that the boys chasing me would be stopped by an unlocked door, especially with the curse running rampant. My worst fears were realized when the door opened and light poured in. I expected to see five angry faces ready to beat me to a bloody pulp but instead found an old man with white hair staring at me like he expected me to be there.

“Tommy Travers, I presume. Come out of there, I need to speak with you.”

His head disappeared from the doorway and with no more reason to hide I joined him in the hall.

“Follow me.” He didn’t introduce himself or mention the fact he had caught me breaking in. It suddenly hit me that I had seen him before. He was the old man in the forest who had been arguing with Amelia. I remembered too what the man had told her to do to me.

He led me to an office which looked more like a small library. Shelves lined each of the walls filled to overflowing with books, most of which were very old. Some looked like they hadn’t been touched in a hundred years. His small desk was cluttered with papers and more books piled in stacks. It also contained a few objects I didn’t recognize.

“I know who you are and why you have come here,” the man said,seating himself at his desk. “You’ve come to take over the Gifted and set me out to retire.You want to cast me aside as an old piece of furniture that has lost its usefulness. You think me old and broken. I tell you now, I will not step aside!” He pounded his fists on the table.

I stood holding my walking staffin a state of confusion. I had expected to be threatened with the police or going to jail for breaking in.If there were police to call,that is, not expecting incoherent rambling. Remembering the curse, I realized the man had to be affected. He rocked back and forth. Curse or not,I knew I had to get out of his office. The only question was how?

 

Chapter 26

The Master

 

Amelia’s search would have been much easier if Ben had been there to help, but she couldn’t find him anywhere. His room was empty and she hadn’t seen him all day. Worry began to turn to panic and she found herself running up the many flights of stairs of the warehouse to the large library on the fifth floor. She was relieved to find the three librarians actually there. At least the library appeared to be functioning as always. Betty, Pammy and Sandywere loved by all the Gifted. They seemed to cherish every moment they spent among the stacks and shelves of books in the large library.

“Betty, I need everything you have on the Master of Books as quick as possible.”

Betty’s smile disappeared. “I can make it real fast hon, there isn’t a single book in this library that mentions the Master of Books.”

Considering the size of the library and the hundreds of thousands of books piled in it, if Amelia hadn’t known Betty better she would have questioned her. But Bettywas like a database search engine. Ask her about any subject and she knew what books would have what you wanted and exactly where they were.

“As wonderful as our collection is, remember, it isn’t the only collection you can search,” Betty said as Amelia left.

Amelia headed back to her room to think. She had been so sure she would find what she needed in the library. It had never failed her before.

Amelia’s room was one of the bigger rooms on the third floor. Trainers were given larger living quarters but Amelia’s scant belongings came nowhere near filling the space. She had a small dresser with the few clothes she owned against the right wall. Her desk was pushed against the wall opposite the dresser and her little bed sat right in the middle of the room. She didn’t like sleeping against the wall; it felt too claustrophobic for her.

Seated at her desk she began to write down on a notepad everything the Gifted were taught about the Master of Books. She knew right off that there was one in each generation. Next, the Master had always been born in the town of Covington. She didn’t know if that was a requirement but it had always been the case.The Quickened in Covington were watched more closely than those born anywhere else. She also knew the Master would have the gift of dreams. In hissleep he would see events before they occurred. She didn’t know how she could find that out without asking the boy, so she moved on.

The most important of traits would be the ability to bring objects or even people from the World of Books to the existent world. At the bottom of her list she wrote that somewhere in their genealogy, the Master would be descended from Frederick Von Flett, although she had no way to confirm that.

Amelia looked at her list. It would be nearly impossible to know for sure if Thomas was the Master of Books and especially without any more information from the library. Amelia thought back to the conversation with Betty. She had said that there were other collections she could search. What did she mean by that? In the warehouse she only knew of the great library on the 5th floor. Everyone kept a few of their favorites in their private quarters but she had seen no collections she would call a library.

Then a spark lit in her mind. The Keeper—hehad quite a few books in his office but everyone knew he had a larger private collection in his quarters. But to look there would be risking expulsion from the Gifted. Amelia sat at her desk, staring at the blank wall in front of her. She closed her eyes, trying to think of any other way. She had to know though, no matter the consequences.

Moments later, Amelia leaned against the door to Wilfred’s private quarters on the 2nd floor. She knew it was her last chance to turn back and she was tempted. With a trembling hand she reached for the handle and opened his door. Taking a quick step inside, she shut the door behind her.

Wilfred’s private quarters were much like his office, littered with shelves of books that looked like they hadn’t been touched in years. An old bed was jammed into the far corner of the room but it didn’t look like it had been slept in for some time.

Feeling the need to hurry, she began looking at the titles on the shelves, hoping that something would stand out. There were books on nearly every topic; many were very old but nothing that she wouldn’t expect to find in his office or the main library on the fifth floor.

She ended the search of his shelves, having found nothing. She began searching his small desk and dresser but found nothing there either. Finally out of ideas, she plopped on his bed, sending up a layer of dust. “How long has it been since you slept here, Keeper?” she thought, waving away the dust from her face.

Amelia sat there for some time, simply staring at the room, hoping something would come to her. Finally, out of ideas, she headed for the door. She stopped, looking over the room once more and then an idea struck her. The one place she hadn’t checked. She rushed to the bed and knelt down, looking underneath.

There were two books stacked in the darkest corner against the wall. With more than a little excitement she reached for the books and nearly ran back to her room. Putting the books on her desk, she began to read.She didn’t hear the call of her Gift because it wasn’t that type of book. The first she sawwas a genealogy someone had done of Covington. It was many years old but it appeared that somebody had been writing in updates for several years.

Flipping through the book, she discovered the founder of the Gifted and his line of descendants. She traced the line through Von Flett’s only child, a daughter, and then to her ten children and forward. The forks then went off in hundreds of directions. It felt like she had been at it for hours when she found him. Thomas’s name had been scratched on a page beneath a line directly descended from the founder’s daughter but the thing that puzzled her was Thomas’sfather. The name had been scratched out. Father’s identity hiddenwas written next to the scratching.

Intrigued, she read further down the page where the word forbiddenhad been scratched. Amelia sat back, rubbing her eyes. Why would his father’s identity be hidden? And what was forbidden? Even more curious, Thomas’s mother was not anywhere to be found. She had met the woman—howcould they have missed her?

Amelia put down the book and opened the second titled ‘Edicts’ and began to read. The Forbidden Edicts of the Gifted are as follows: the Gifted are forbidden to change the original intent through compulsion. The Gifted are forbidden to harm any being in the World of Books except in defense of innocent life. The forbidden edicts were well known by all of the Gifted. Amelia read on.

An hour later she yawned, her eyes clouded, she knew she should get some rest but her mind continued to work. She looked over her list.At the top she had titled it “The Master Rules”. That got her thinking. Wasthere a different set of rules for the Masters? In order to know, she needed the edicts that applied to the Masters. She knew Betty would only let the Keeper view those so she was stuck. She kept searching through the book.

The later pages were hard to read. Many had faded to almost nothing. Amelia read Von Flett’s story of how he discovered his gift and learned its abilities and limitations. She read on, learning of the placement of the fountain and the founding of the Gifted. She had heard the story many times, but reading a firsthand account brought it to life like no other.

Amelia skimmed the chapters until she found a reference to the Master of Books. It was the first reference to that title she had found in any book. She read the page, hopeful of finding more information but was disappointed to find nothing more than what any Gifted would know.

After some reading the script changed, replaced by a delicate hand Amelia suspected could only be a woman’s. April, who was the founder’s daughter, had included a note and signed it. Amelia continued reading with no luck until she found a page titled, ‘Rules a Master Must Follow’. She scanned the page eagerly, looking for a clue that might help her.

A Master is forbidden to marry. Followed by an explanation, The Master must give up their wants for the needs of the Gifted. The Master has demands placed upon them that are not conducive to rearing a family. This is not an edict, but it is forbidden. It will only lead to unhappiness and perhaps danger.

Amelia put down the book, running the information through her mind. She looked back at the pieces she had found. Father’s identity hidden, forbidden. She looked at Thomas’s name on the page and the word Forbidden next to the scratched out space for his father. Through the confusion a light shined, showing Amelia the truth. She knew who Thomas’s father was and what he hid.

The excitement Amelia felt for her discovery turned suddenly to dread. Why would Wilfred want Thomas dead? She could not believe that Thomaswas about to join the other side. He seemed to be willfully stubborn but that description fit most scripts. He was not the first to say no to the first two offers. Amelia’s fear grew. Wilfred wanted Thomas dead. Amelia knew she had to keep the boy as far from Wilfred as possible, at least until he came to his senses.

Amelia’s thoughts turned to Thomas. He would be sleeping or maybe he was in the World of Books. Perhaps tomorrow she would be making the third and final offer. Then she would have to decide what to do. If she disobeyed the Keeper of Books, she would be thrown out of the House and could no longer teach.Thatwas her greatest love. To lose it all was her greatest fear and yet how could she harm an innocent boy? Ameliareached out with her Gift,searching for the boy. She was shocked to discover he was right there in the House. Throwing down the old book, Amelia raced down the stairs to the first story hallway. She had to get to him in time.

***

If I had to choose a word to describe my experience in the old man’s office it would be “weird.”After his initial fit of anger,Wilfred was nice enough, offering me a drink of some tea. I accepted, thinking I might have a chance to make my escape but the man never left the room. He had a little hot plate he used to warm the water right there. He watched me with interest as he handed a cup to me. He took my walking stick and leaned it against the wall before sitting back down at his desk.

“You have been offered twice and have declined twice. Why do you think you can teach yourself to master your gift?” he asked, peering over his cup as he sipped his tea.

“I don’t believe I can teach myself,” Isaid. “I haven’t accepted your training because I didn’t know who you were or what I’d be getting myself into. The girl you sent wouldn’t tell me anything about the training or how long or even where it would be. She just said to accept without knowing. I didn’t like that so I said no to give me more time.”

Wilfred took a long drink of his tea and watched me with an eager gazethat unsettled me. “I haven’t ruled out saying yes,” Iadded,hoping he would quit looking at me like that. “I just needed more time to think.”

The old man closed his eyes, smiled and started rocking back and forth again. He seemed to be having some private moment with himself. It went on for several minutes until I coughed and shifted in my chair, reminding the manI was still there.

“Oh I am sorry, it is late or should I say early,” the old man offered,looking at his large desk clock. “I believe I nodded off a bit. I see you haven’t touched your tea. Why don’t you drink up and tell me your story again. I’ll stay awake this time, I promise.”

When I raised the cup to my mouth Amelia burst through the office door in a sprint. Seeing the cup in my hands she quickly made her way to me and said, “Tea? Why thank you, I’m parched.”

Taking the cup before I could protest, she turned to face Wilfred. She stumbled as she turned, dropping the cup on the floor. She watched Wilfred as she picked up the cup and put it on his desk.

Her smilelooked forced when she addressedme, “Since you are here, how would you like a tour?It isn’t exactly the right order of things but,” she looked back at Wilfred again before continuing, “it appears convention is out the window with you anyway.”

Amelia grabbed mywalking stick and handed it to me while she shoved me out the door.She was acting even more strange than normal. How had the curse affected her? I would have to watch her closely.

As we left the office Wilfred remained in his seat, still rocking back and forth. We walked down the hall a bit before Amelia stopped.

“Wait here a second, okay?” She began walking back towards Wilfred’s office, “I need to remind Wilfred about something.”

Watching her walk down the hall I thought about having a look around but rememberedshe would know right where I was at all times. I’d have to keep my eyes open and hope a better opportunity presented itself.

***

“I knew you would come back,” Amelia heard behind her when she shut the door to Wilfred’s office. “Did you really think I poisoned his tea? Really Amelia, give me more credit than that. He has great potential if he can get past his own insecurities. Of course that potential could be turned against us and the world if he does not accept our training. I know you don’t agree with me but you don’t have all of the information.”

“I know enough!” she yelled, turning to face him. Lowering her voice she said,“I know you want me to killan innocent boy. I know you wish you were the Master of Books. I know you have been keeping secrets from me and the other Gifted, secrets that could have helped more of us survive the last few years. We have lost so many. The fountain is nearly empty. I have trusted you. You are the closest thing to a father I ever had. But you have betrayed us.”

Wilfred said nothing. He kept rocking back and forth. “I also know that Thomas Travers is the Master of Books,”Amelia continued.

Wilfred’s face gave away no emotion, he gestured for her to sit.“You know more than I thought Amelia, to your credit.” He smiled and stopped rocking. His eyes seemed to clear and for a moment he appeared to be the Wilfred she had always known.

“I do not deny much of what you have said but I do not invoke the edict without regret. I do not want to kill him as long as he will accept the training.” He waved away Amelia’s retort and continued. “Now it is you who must understand. We are at war Amelia, and we are losing. I want you to picture a world where the wizard can use his full power, combined with the power of the Master of Books. We know that many of his greatest spells cannot be worked in this world. What is he missing? He is missing components from his world. With the Master of Books on his side he could have a never-ending supply of every component to every spell he desires. We know the wizard.He will not stop there. He will send the Master to new books to bring objects of destruction and domination to the Existent World. Objects of such power that in a matter of years, months, or maybe even weeks you would no longer recognize the world you live in. That is the power the Master wields. Do you see now why the life of one person, however innocent, cannot be placed above the needs of a planet of billions? We are in a war Amelia, and in a war there are casualties.”

Amelia shrank in her chair. She had breached a book that included the eventual destruction of a world. She had closed before the end but the memory still haunted her nightmares. She knew the ending of the Existent world would be far worse. The wizard would subject everyone to his rule or destroy them.

“There is one more thing Amelia.” Wilfred leaned closer, “Kaleb has visited the boy.”

Wilfred let that sink in for a moment. Amelia only thought she was scared before. If Kaleb had visited Thomas then she had to assume that Mephitis knew he was the Master.

“How do you know this?” she whispered.

“We have a person on the inside there but I can’t tell you who. For their safety their name shall remain anonymous.”

Amelia closed her eyes, trying to process all that Wilfred had revealed to her. “So what should I do?”

“Get him to accept the training.” Wilfred said,standing to open the door. “That would solve everything; if he does not accept, then do what you have been instructed to do.”

Amelia didn’t know how she could get Thomas to accept the training. She did have the beginnings of a plan forming in her mind though. Amelia stood and waited for just the right moment when Wilfred’s head turnedto grab the doorknob. She quickly grabbed the star from his desk and put it in her pocket.As she walked past Wilfred through the open doorway she hoped she was doing the right thing.

 

Chapter 27

Breaking and Entering

 

Moving a little closer to the door I could hear the voices inside but couldn’t make out what they were saying. For a moment I considered listening at the door but thought better of the idea when Iremembered they might be able to sense me standing there. Their ability to track me was getting annoying. Looking around to keep from getting bored Inoticed the walls in the hallway were filled with drawings held up by thumb tacks. The pictures were covered by other pictures so the wall was covered in layers of pictures and paintings. The details of the drawings were of such high quality that even though I was no art critic, I knew they were done by a master. The pictures were of great battles of armies with every soldier in the line drawn or painted with such precision it felt like the artist knew them personally. There were pictures of great tournaments with heroes competing in what looked like Olympic style games. There were pictures of beautiful women standing on the wall of a castle or in a great ballroom or sitting on a throne. There were pictures of knights, kings and ships.

My heart nearly stopped when I looked at one picture. Staring at me from the deck of the Rose just as I remembered them were Unbar, Aoki and Mardel.The features of each of my friends were so perfect; it was more like a photograph than a painting.

I wished I was there with them right then or better yet they were here with me. Here Iam in a real adventure with no idea what to do and no one to help me. Myhappiness in seeing the picture of my friends lasted a brief instant, and thenloneliness began to overwhelm me.A tear escaped my eye as I stared at Mardel.

“Are you still out here?” Amelia asked from the end of the hallway. I made sure my eyes were dry before looking at her.

“Yes, I was just enjoying some of your artwork out here. Who is the artist may I ask?” I said, looking casually at the picture of my friends.

“That artist is Aaron, the last Ma…, well a former member of the Gifted.” Her cheeks flushed with red. “He died long ago but that was one of his favorite places to visit.”

“Were all of these done by this Aaron?” I asked, looking at the amazing collection.

“No, they are always added to. I have even done a few. In the World of Books we can learn many talents and do so with very little time elapsing here. Many of the Gifted are brilliant artists. We used to frame our works but it became too cumbersome considering the large number produced, so we bring them down and tack them up here. I suppose I should take time to enjoy the works of my fellow Gifted more.” She studied the wall as if seeing it for the first time.

“Are you ready to go?” she asked a short time later.

“Yah, let’s get on with the tour,” I said, falling behind as she led.

The tour through the warehouse showed a vast building that could have easily housed hundreds of people but we didn’t see a living soul. On the first floor she took me by rooms filled with machinery, tools of every kind and large machines. Some were very old but many looked like something from the future. None of the machines were on but I would have loved to spend hours in there learning what they all did.

In the middle of the first floor was a large chamber with a high ceiling that stretched up four levels of the building like a large atrium.

Around the large center chamber were halls with rooms on each side, most of which looked empty. On the fifth floor I stared in wonder at anenormous library. It ran the entire length of the warehouse and wasfilled with books,papers and even scrolls. A few old computers sat on some tables just inside the entrance but they looked like they weren’t ever used. There were rows and rows of books and shelves attached to the walls. Some went all of the way up to the vaulted ceiling and all were jammed with books.

“How does anybody find what they are looking for?” I asked, feeling like a tourist, looking up at shelves like they were skyscrapers.

“Easy,” said Amelia with a smile on her face. “Betty, Pammy and Sandy are the system.” She looked at the stacks of books with admiration. As if on cue three women came out of three different aisles of books. When they saw Amelia and me, all three raced to see who could get to us first.

It was Betty who proved quickest, “Hallo there cutie,” she said,batting her eyelashes at me, “I’ll be the one to help you find whatever you need.”

She giggledand preened her hair, which didn’t fit coming from a woman easily in her fifties. “These are my two daughters who are still learning the craft, but when they get to my age they will know where to find what you need as quick as I do.”

Betty winked at Amelia, “You seem to catch the finest scripts every time, Amelia. What does Ben think?” This set off thrills of laughter from both Pammy and Sandy with Betty joining in.

Amelia’s face flushed, “Yes, well thanks, ladies. I was just giving him the tour. I have to admit I am a little surprised to see you up this time of night.”

Betty stopped laughing and grewserious for the first time.“Something’s not right. I can feel it tugging at me. Like the devil’s got some new power he’s using to call to me. I never listened before so I ain’t listening now but I think many below did. You be careful Amelia, and bring this cutie up to visit as often as you can,” she said, eliciting more giggles from her daughters.

“You have to understand,” said Amelia as soon as we were out of earshot of the librarians, “she does this with every new boy I bring. She knows how uncomfortable it makes me, which of is course why she does it. If I could ever convince her I didn’t care, she would stop. The problem isI’m not a very good liar.”

Amelia led me through the rest of the warehouse, showing me where the Gifted ate and a common room where they gathered on the fourth floor. When the tour was nearly complete I finally asked her, “Why is the building so empty? You have all of these rooms but other than your leader and you and the librarians, I haven’t seen a single person. Is everybody asleep?”

Ignoring my question she asked, “I want you to tell me more about the item you lost, the one that caused you to follow me the other day. Where did you get it and what does it do?”

The girl’s question surprised me. If she had put the thing on after she stole it she would have figured out that it turned things to gold.Maybe she doesn’t know what else it can do?Maybe if she knew she would give it back.

“The item is a gauntlet I received in a book called the Midas Quest,” Isaid.“It will turn everything it touches into gold. That’s the good side. But whoever has it doesn’t know that it also curses people. The curse could eventually spread throughout the world.” I looked at her pointedly.

“You still think I have your gauntlet. That is why you are here. You have come to get it back.”

I didn’t answer her.

“Let me ask you this,” she said. “What would you do with the gauntlet if you were to get it back?”

“I’d take it into a book and leave it there.” I saw no reason to hide that part of my plan from her. “I don’t know exactly how that will affect the curse but I think it would have to be better than having it here.”

Sheseemed to be relieved.

“The curse will not end until you are out and the book is shut.”

“Why not?” I asked, confused. “Once it is out of our world, its power should be gone.”

“This is why you need our training, Thomas. While you are inside the book the link to this world is still open. Once you have closed and the book is shut, the link is severed. Its power will be reversed, although the consequences remain. The destruction in our city will not be undone. The people won’t remember how it happened though.”

“Tommy,” I corrected her.

“What?”

“Tommy. I go by Tommy, not Thomas. Just so you know.”

“Oh, well I think Tommy sounds too young for a man. You don’t look like a boy any more so I prefer to call you Thomas. I hope that doesn’t offend you.”

“I guess not,” I said, embarrassed I’d brought it up.

“So, are you going to give it to me?” I said, returning to the subject at hand.

“Thomas, before I go any further, I will start by saying, I promise you I will never lie to you. No matter what, I will never lie. I don’t have the gauntlet. I did not take it and did not know of its existence until you told me about it. But I do believe I know who might have taken it. He is a man we have fought against, a man who has killed many of the Gifted. He is a wizard from the World of Books and is very dangerous. His name is Mephitis.”

“He has a partner you have met. His name isKaleb.” I raised my eyebrows.“Kaleb was once a member of the Gifted. Now he works with the Wizard to recruit more Gifted to their side. Eventually they want to gain enough power to bring all people intosubjection. More than riches or wealth,they seek power.”

With a shudder I remembered my meeting with Kaleb. I didn’t like the feel of the guy from the start.

“You said you would not lie to me.”

“That is correct. I will not lie to you, ever.” She looked into my eyes unblinking.

“Okay, the day of your second offer I overheard you in the forest talking to Wilfred.Maybe I heard wrong but it sure sounded to me like he was telling you to kill me if I didn’t accept your training. Is that correct?” I said, watching her reaction.

Amelia went pale. “You clearly misunderstood what you heard. I never agreed to kill you. I am a trainer of the Gifted. It would be against my oath to hurt the newly quickened.”

I wanted to believe her but I wasn’t sure. Why did she look ill when I asked the question?

“Is there anything else?” asked Amelia, recovering her color.

“Yes,” I asked, “do you have any idea where this wizard is?”

Amelia put her hand in her pocket. “Yes, I believe I can find him. The problem is, you will have to be the one who puts the gauntlet back and you don’t know how to close yet. I think before we go after the wizard we need to decide which book to use and retrieve a copy of it. Then, we go after the wizard.”

“Do you have any suggestions?” I asked, not liking the idea of entering another book so soon.

“It is better if the book is one you have read and are familiar with. The books you have some sentimental attachment to are always used in training for exercises. They are ties to the Existent World. You will need those strong memories to close, even with my help.” Amelia walked with me down a flight of stairs to the first floor.

“It should also be the right kind of book. No fighting or wars or magic or anything that would be a danger to you while you concentrate. You will need to focus solely on closing. I’ll walk you through the steps as we drive.”

“My house?” I said,stopping. “Why are we going there?”

“Haven’t you been paying attention?” She said, slowing to a stop. “We need one of your books from your own library in case we are lucky enough to get the gauntlet from the wizard in the first place.”

She resumed her quick pace. None of my options were very good. What should I wish for? If we don’t find the gauntletI’dcontinuewatching my world tear itself apart. If we dosomehow manage it, there’s a very real chance Icould take the gauntlet to some other reality and end up stuck there. Either way, it sure looked like the gauntlet was going to be a major part of my future.

Chapter 28

Fight in the Small Forest

 

Down a dusty hallway on the first floor, Amelia paused under a faded sign marked ‘Shipping’, clearing cobwebs from anold door before pushing it open with her shoulder. The smell of rancid oil and decaying wood came through the doorway. Amelia felt her way in the scant light from the doorway to the opposite wall and grabbed a handle on the floor. She pulled up and raised a door, letting in the night air. Ichecked my watch, fourin the morning.I was surprised it wasn’t later. It had seemed ages ago that I’d come running through the front door of the warehouse.

“Help me with this.” Amelia began pulling the cover off of a large lump in the middle of the floor. The cover slipped off revealing an old Chevy Chevelle in mint condition. I whistled, thinking of what my brother would say. The only thing Reed was obsessed with more than sports was cars. This one looked like it had hardly been driven.

When wewere seated,Iput mystick in the back. “I need to warn you, I don’t have a license so you may want to strap in.”

Amelia turned the key and the V8 engine and hundreds of horsepower roared to life.Looking at Amelia,I figuredI wouldn’t get a chance to see what the car could do. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Amelia’s driving could nicely be described as terrifying. She took corners at such high speeds Iexpected wewould end up in a lawn or more likely, someone’s living room. As we sped along wecame upon cars filled with thugs who tried in vain to keep up. Once we hit a bump so hard,I swearwe went airborne. I’d expected to enjoy the ride in the beautiful car but it was with white knuckles and a racing heart that I gratefully exited the Chevelle outside of Mrs. Kilburn’splace, behind my house.

***

In his office Wilfred read the old letter over and over again as if expecting the words to be different if he read them one more time. He really didn’t need the old worn paper any more. He had the words memorized by now. Everything had happened as the letter said it would.

Reaching underneath the drawer of his desk where he had a compartment hidden, he slid open the small hatch and reaching in, found what he was looking for—asmall ball glowing with a red light. The object was from the World of Books and had been given to him by Aaron along with the letter for this day. He had hoped the day would never arrive but he knew there was no way around what he must do. He slipped the ball in his pocket and wrote a note on the letter, leaving it on his desk.

He went to grab the star but it was gone. Wilfred immediately knew who had taken it. Amelia had given him that look as she left his office. She had never been very good at hiding anything from him. Wilfred always wondered how the events in the letter would work themselves out. Now he knew.

For the past few days he felt like he had been living in a daze. His mind seemed clearer now. He knew what he had to do; he just wished the letter had told him he would be successful. Reaching out with his gift, he began to search.

***

After parking the car, I grabbed mystick and walked to the small forest behind myhome. “Have you decided on a book?” Amelia asked as we reached the edge of the trees and stopped.

“Yes, I think I have a good one in mind,” I responded, looking at my home from under the branches of a tree.

Morning was coming and I wanted to be in and out before mymother or brother woke up. “I’ll wait here,” said Amelia. “Be careful, remember Mephitis may have the place watched now that he knows who you are.”

“What do you mean? Why are the Gifted so important to him?”

Amelia’s eyes widened. “I just mean that he made you an offer of training and he may want to keep tabs on you now.”

I had a feeling she wasn’t giving me all of the information but I didn’t want to waste any more time.

Leaving Amelia, Icrept quietly to my home and headed for my bedroom window. To my dismay, someone had locked it. I sneaked around to the back door which wasalso locked. Leaving mystaff leaning against the back door,Itried every window, all locked. There was no way in. I sat on the back deck thinking about what I could do.

There was no other way to get in than ringing the doorbell. My mother opened the door in her bathrobe, bleary-eyed and shockedto see me outside. Her shock quickly turned to anger.

“What are you doing out there? Sneaking out of the house at night? You can just sleep in the garage until I decide to let you back in!”

She started to closethe door, “Sorry mom, I hope you’ll understand later,” I said as I grabbed the door and pushed it open and forced my way past my mother who screamed at me to get out. Racing down the hall to my bedroom I searched the shelves for the book I had chosen. Back in the hall I heard my mother yelling for Reed. Finally,Ifoundthe book and tucked it in the waist of my pants and ran for the front door. In the foyer I was met by my mother and a bleary-eyed Reed.

“Mom says you manhandled her or something,” Reed said, looking at her for confirmation.

“Like I told mom—sorry,” I said and hit him square in the face, sending him to the ground in a heap. As I ran out the door I looked back at my mother and hoped that when this was all over,she wouldn’t remember any of it.

My mother’s cries of shock and anger followed me out of the house. Igrabbedmystafffrom the back yard and ran across the field to find Amelia.

***

Amelia watched Thomaswalk across the field and then sat against a tree to try to get a little rest. She had no idea how they were going to get the gauntlet from the wizard, but she knew trying to do so while exhausted was not a good idea.

The ground was hard and she never seemed to be able to find a comfortable spot that allowed her to doze or even rest. But her mind was the greater nemesis;replaying again her conversation with Wilfred and his frightening words. Then her mind shifted to how they were going to get the gauntlet. No good idea came to her. Every plan she came up with would probably end up getting her and Thomas killed.

The first rays of light began to creep over the horizon when Amelia sat up. She had been getting worried that Thomas had not returned. Now she could hear voices coming, but from the opposite direction. Still sitting against the tree, she could see shapes moving not far off, drawing nearer. Some passed close to her but didn’t look her way. Then one shape stopped and looked right at her.

“Hey, look what I got here.” It was an older man with graying stubble on his face which he scratched as he talked. He was missing teeth, which he seemed delighted to reveal. “This looks like it could be some fun. Come here, missy, we won’t hurt ya,” he said, gesturing with his stubby hands.

The rest of his group quickly surrounded Amelia who stood, inching away from the tree until she found ground she liked. “We won’t hurt ya,” repeated another of their group from behind her who added, “much.”

That brought laughter from the entire group. Looking around, Amelia counted eight men and a few boys her age,most of who had clearly been drinking. She looked at each of the men, assessing their danger to her, assigning each a number. She would take out the most dangerous first,or number one,and then work her way up to the gray-haired man who she purposely saved for last.

When she had completed her assessment and before they had a chance to act, Amelia charged the man she deemed to be the most dangerous, a large, muscular, dark-haired man with ascar on his left cheek. Amelia ran at him andbegan a wild punch toward his head causing him to casually raise his arm to swat the stroke away. Stopping mid-swing she pivoted sharply to his side. Amelia jumped in the air and kicked out at the side of the man’s knee. The man cried out in agony as his ligaments gave way and he crumbled to the ground, out of the fight.Amelia had no time to revel in her victory.

Feeling more than seeing, she ducked as a punch went sailing over her head and she kicked out to the mid-section of number seven, breaking a rib judging by the crack she heard. “Should have waited your turn,” she told him, jumping over his sprawled body and breaking into a run as the remaining eight now gave chase.

Amelia was not trying to outrun the men, only space them out. When she decided that number two was close enough she turned on him and jabbed quickly to his face. His nose shattered. She watched him sink to the earth, thinking maybe she shouldn’t have ranked him so high.

The other men saw what happened to their companion and were not so quick to want to be the first to reach her now. They seemed content to run a short distance behind her, keeping her in sight but not close enough that she could surprise them with any quick attacks. She realized what they were doing. They were trying to wear her down. She didn’t want to admit it, but she was afraid it might work. The first part of the fight had been all adrenaline but now she could feel her muscles starting to slacken a little and her lungs began to burn.

Finally she decided she was going to have to turn and fight while she still had the energy. Looking ahead Amelia waited for a good spot for what she had in mind. A steep bank rose up on her left. Running past the bank a few dozen feet and waiting to time it just right, Amelia suddenly charged the men in the lead group. There were three there,one of which was the older man. Amelia’s charge surprised them for the moment but they were not afraid. Just before Amelia reached them she ran up the steep bank which put her and her kick in line with the head of the closest man. Amelia pushed off from the bank as she swung, hitting the man in the back of his head with all her strength. He went down instantly. His fall slowed the remaining two as Amelia ran back up the bank just as the other man got around his fallen comrade.

She applied the same technique to his head, sending him to the ground as well. With two of his companions down the old man charged her in a rage, shrugging off the rain of blows she landed on his midsection and head. His face twisted in anger with every blow she landed.

Amelia could not get the man to go down. She hit him and backed away and hit him again and backed away. She was getting worried knowing that the remaining members of his group could show up at any moment and that would be the end of her. She had tried up until now not to kill any of these men, knowing that they were under a curse, but she was starting to think she might have to kill the man if he didn’t give up soon. She never got to make that choice because a man grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms while the man in front of herapproached with a wicked smile on his face. Amelia looked back at the face of the man who had her. His face was covered with blood, his nose broken. It was number two. Perhaps she hadn’t overestimated him after all.

***

Amelia was nowhere to be found when I returned to the forest. Looking for some sign of her,I began to use the techniques that Aoki taught me about tracking. Starting where I left her I found a trace of both our footprints. Following them I reached an area around the tree where I lost the trail on hard ground. Then sweeping in an ever-widening circle,Isearched until I found her prints again. What puzzled me was that they were so spread out. Either I wasn’t finding all of the prints or she was running. Following the trail I found a large number of prints where Amelia had turned in different directions and something large had fallen around a larger man’s prints.

With a feeling of dread a picture began to form of what happened there. Looking for more tracks I was relieved to see that Amelia had survived her fight with the large prints man and run off. I took off running in her direction.

Along the way I kept an eye out for any signs of her or the men who made the many tracks chasing her. As IranI caught a glimpse of a man half-walking, half limping ahead of me. He was extremely large and had to be the one Amelia had fought. Judging by his limp, he had taken the worst of the fight. Circling around him I continued to run, fear driving me through the stitch in my gut that started to demand I slow down.

Not far ahead were three men walking, they looked to be somewhat drunk. They were talking rather loudly about what they would do when they got their hands on that little banshee. Their sickening talk drove me on even faster than before. I circled around those men and ran on. Something told meI had to hurry or it would be too late.

As I came over a hill I could see Amelia far ahead, pummeling a man with punches and kicks but he wouldn’t go down. On the ground two men lay unconscious. Amelia obviously had skill.

I ran down the hill,losing sight of her for a few moments as the ground dipped before rising again. As I came in sight of the ongoing battle I was just in time to see a man grab her from behind. Knowing I was her only chance, I slowed down and began to creep in closer.

The older man was having fun taunting her. He swung a punch inches from her face, enjoying the site of her shrinking back in fear but the man behind her held tight. Then he wound up and punched her in the stomach. She cried out and would have fallen to the ground if not for the man holding her. I wanted to run to stop her pain but I knew I had to surprise the men or I would do her no good.

Sneaking around behind the man holding Amelia, Icrept as close as I could, hoping that her tormentor would be too busy to notice until it was too late. When I was no more than ten feet away the man in front of Amelia punched her again and laughed, “I think we’ve had all the fun we can have with this one, Charlie. Let her fall.”

The man holding Amelia let go. She slumped to her knees holding her middle, trying to draw breath. I charged from my hiding spot and reached the man who had been holding Amelia before he even knew I was there. I swung the staff in a full arc until it connected on the side of the man’s head with such force that his feet were taken out from under him. He sailed to the ground not able to get his hands up to brace his fall. With a sickening thud he hit the ground and lay, not moving.

***

The old man watched in amazement as his buddy seemed to defy gravity, doing a spin in the air before landing unconscious on the ground. “Where did that boy come from?” he asked himself. He didn’t get long to think about it as a foot shot up from the ground, hitting him square in the face. The force of it left him dazed and suddenly he was being attacked by an army of girls. There was one hitting him in the face and one behind him kicking him in the back of his knee so he collapsed to the ground and then there were a dozen of them all around kicking him until finally as all went dark the last thing he saw was the boy grabbing a girl and pulling her away.

***

When I could finally pull Amelia from the unconscious man on the ground we walked slowly from the trees to the Chevelle as the morning sun broke over the horizon. We had hardly said a word on our walk to the car.When Amelia sat behind the wheel she put her head back and closed her eyes. I began to wonder if she was going to be able to go on. We hadn’t even made it to the wizard yet.

It was Amelia who spoke first. “I didn’t thank you.” As I started to tell her there was no need she raised her hand for me to stop and continued. “Thank you so much for risking your life to save me. I’m not sure what they would have done to me but I know I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.” Reaching over, she grabbed my hand, squeezed it and smiled. For a moment we just sat there with her holding my hand. I was sorry when she pulled away and the engine roared back to life.

Then with a grin she said, “now for the hard part.”

 

Chapter 29

The Golden Chamber

 

“How did you learn to fight like that?” I asked as the car pulled away.

Amelia smiled. “Let’s just say that art isn’t the only thing I learned to do in the World of Books.”

The possibilities were just occurring to me of what my new gift could do. What could I learn in the World of Books if I could master my gift?

Amelia pulled a silver-plated star out of her pocket and showed it to me.

“This is how we are going to find the gauntlet.” She set it down on the dashboard. “I hope it still works.”

She gave the star a spin and the pointers began rotating and turning red until all five eventually pointed in one direction, directly ahead. “It looks like we’re headed into town.” Amelia hit the gas and the car lurched forward.

***

Mephitis touched the bars of the cell, watching each turn to gold and smiled. The purity of the gold shined in the dimmest light and added beauty even to the cells of the long abandoned jail he was walking through. Looking down the rows of cells, he saw with disappointment there were no more left to turn.

Entering an open cell,he began turning the fixtures one by one. First the sink, old toothbrushes, then the double-stacked cots and even the filthy old toilets became sparkling new treasures as the wizard walked through the cells passing time. Kaleb had warned him that he shouldn’t wear the gauntlet too often but why should he listen?

A few times when Kaleb stood close, Mephitis had almost reached out and turned him into something a little more useful,“Or at least more decorative,”Mephitis thought, chuckling to himself.To be seriously considering such a thing, the gauntlet must be affecting him. He would have to be careful.

When he finished the last cell and looked back at his work, he smiled. The old cell block now shonea rich golden color. To complete the effect, he reached down and touched the floor, wondering how far the magic would work. He got his answer when the floor of the chamber from one doorway to the next turned to gold as well. He now had an entire chamber of gold.

The last remaining items were the light fixtures. Using his magic he floated up to them and began their transformation. As they turned to gold their light was extinguished. One by one the lights went out in the large chamber until finally he was left with one. He wanted to complete his work but he needed to see, so using magic he placed his own lighting at each end of the old cell block bright enough to light up the entire chamber. Smiling, he touched the last fixture, watching its light go out forever.

He enjoyed his handiwork for a few moments as he descended to the ground, thinking about his decision to come to this world. The elimination of his liberator had been necessary. He couldn’t have anyone knowing too much about him. Besides, could he help it if he was created to be evil?

Reaching the chamber floor,Mephitis began his walk to return the gauntlet to the protected place he had prepared for it. Looking over his handiwork once again he chuckled, perhaps Kaleb was right, perhaps he should use the gauntleta little less.

***

We followed the pointer into Covington,turning east on Main St. and then heading toward the river and the older part of town. As we traveled it turned a brighter shade of red, until finally we came to a block where each time we turned, the pointer turned,aimingatan old building in the middle of the block. It was a part of town I had not been to before. The street housed the old city offices and buildings which were relocated many years before to a new downtown complex. The building where the star pointed had been the old city jail.

“I knew this was going to be tough, but breaking into a jail makes it even tougher.” Amelia drove past the front door slowly. “I would imagine there are bars on all the windows and the doors are extra thick. The only way in will be the front door.”

“Then I’ll go through the front door,” I said.

“How do you expect to go through the front door and get out alive?”

Amelia turned the corner and parked the car on a side street.

“Kaleb is probably in there right now,” I said, looking in the direction of the jail. “I’m sure he can sense that I am out here. He’s going to catch us the second I step foot in there. So I’ll walk right through the front door and accept their training. While I’m distracting them you can come in and find thegauntlet and get out. I’ll find some excuse to need to go home then we’ll meet out here. We’ll leave before they know it’s gone.”

“It might work,” said Amelia. “But I see one problem.”

“What’s that?” I asked, seeing several.

“How will you know when I have the gauntlet?”

“I won’t, I’ll try to distract them for as long as I can and then leave when I can. If you have the gauntlet and I’m not out in two hours then leave without me and go back to the warehouse and wait for me there. I’ll find a way to get there,” I said, not feeling nearly as confident as my words.

“You have a lot of courage doing this,” Amelia said, which made me chuckle.

“Did I say something funny?” she asked, confused.

“No, it’s just that if it wasn’t for me, none of this would have happened. I’m just trying to clean up my own mess,” I replied, getting out of the car.

“Yes and most people would have walked away from their mess and let someone else clean it up. That is what I find courageous.”

“You have the dangerous part,” I told her as I closed the door and started toward the jail. I looked back one last time. Amelia sat in the car, waiting. I nodded my head toward her and headed to the jail entrance.

 

***

Kaleb sat in his room reading, still his favorite pastime after all these years. He had long ago learned control of his gift,which allowed him to read without being pulled into the World of Books. He still heard the call; he just didn’t heed it unless he wished too. He was enjoying this particular horror novel which was pretty much all he read any more. The way the killer went about his business in such a cold and heartless manner. It reminded him of Mephitis the first day they had met; a natural killer, pure evil, with no heart or remorse. Mephitis had much to teach him. Kaleb liked watching the weak suffer. It gave him a feeling of power.

When Mephitis had come back from the boy’s room with the gauntlet and discovered what it could do, Kaleb knew it was their ticket to destroying the Gifted once and for all and perhaps could be the means for their further ambitions as well. He read on—themurderer was about to find a pair of unsuspecting teenagers kissing in a car. “This never turns out well,” Kaleb’s grin widened, “at least, not for the teenagers.”

 

***

The entrance to the old jail was unguarded, the door half-open. I slipped through and into the lobby. The place appeared empty. There was a second cage door that also hung open and led down a long hallway. The doors lining the hallway were locked. When Ireached the end, I began wondering if the finder was wrong. Then I heard voices.

Following the sound of the voices I stepped into a room filled with old T.V. screens set up along the far wall. Piles of books in different sizes and in various conditionswere stacked against the walls, some in paperback, and some in hardcover. They all appeared to be the same titlefrom what I could see. The books were all titled“Fading Light”. I didn’t remember ever reading that book.

In the room were two rather bored-looking men,one standing and one sprawled across a couch.They both looked to be in their thirties with hair so blonde it was almost white. They had pasty white skin and bloodshot eyes. They looked ill. The man on the couch had both arms up behind his enormous head. Standing, the man would be easily seven foot tall. He was as big as Unbar but not as muscled.

Both men eyed meas if they were expecting something. Finallythe one standing grew impatient, “Okay boy, how many did you bring?”

“How many what?” I asked, confused.

The man turned to his companion sitting on the couch, “’How many what?’ he asks?” He took a step towards me, his tone becoming dangerous, “You better have something for us, boy. The only reason people are allowed in here alive is the task. Now, do you have something for us or not?”

I took a step back. This was not going as planned. I’d thought I would meet Kaleb and be able to talk about the training to waste some time for Amelia. My hesitance appeared to be all the answer the two men needed. The large man stood up from the couch and took a step towards me. The smaller man flashed a knife in his hand. Iwas just about to run when I heard from behind him, “That won’t be necessary.”

Kaleb stood in the doorway. He didn’t look happy. He turned and said, “Follow me.”

I nearly ran to him, glad to be safe for the moment. We walked in silence before Kaleb asked, “How exactly did you find me? I left a card with an untraceable phone number.”

I’d already thought of my answer in case he asked that question, “The others who offered me training tried to tell me you were evil. They let slip where you live. They know right where you are at all times. I don’t know how.”I decided beforehand to answer as close to the truth as possible while lying to Kaleb.

Kaleb looked at my face. After a few dozen more steps he looked straight ahead and said, “I believe you.”Then in a dangerous tone he hissed, “Don’t ever lie to me. I will know and the consequences will be . . . severe.”

The implied threat did nothing for the fear I was already trying to overcome. Kaleb led me to a flight of stairs which we took down and then alonganother short hallway until we reached the old prison library.

“We will talk here.” Kaleb gesturedfor me to sit in an old metal chair.

The library wasn’t much for the eyes. The paint on the cement walls was a faded grey. It was peeling and in some spots water had leaked down the walls creating rust spots. The books in the library were too new to be left over from the jail. The shelves that had books on were strewn about in disorder. Books on the floor were stacked in piles along each wall. In a corner of the room a bed had been set against the wall with a reading lamp and a night stand.

Unlike the warehouse library, it had the feel of chaos and disorder. From what I could see, all the books were horror novels. I had read a few horror novels but it appeared that was all Kaleb read. When I remembered that Kaleb could enter those books Ishuddered. Reading a horror novel was one thing; living it was another.

Kaleb sat down across from me and waited. Not ready to play my hand I asked, “What were those two men doing?”

“Oh, that is just a little project we are working on. I will tell you about it later. The important question is why you are here?” So much for stalling.

Seeing no way to delay any further,I said, “I’ve come to accept the training.”

“Very good.” Kaleb smiled, looking closely at my face. As he did so his smile faded, his features twisted to anger. “I told you never to lie to me. I don’t know what you are up to, but it isn’t to accept training. Come with me.I have someone you should meet. Perhaps he will convince you to be more truthful.”

Kaleb stood and led me out of the library and back to the staircase which we took down another level. As we walked my heart began pumping. The stupidity of my simple plan began to hit me. I knew there was no way Kaleb would just let me ‘run home.’ I knew I should probably run for it but that also meant Amelia would have no chance of finding the gauntlet. I was trapped. Aswe descended down,darknessso completely enveloped us thatmy enhanced vision was the only way I could see two steps in front of me. Kaleb seemed to know his way just fine.

We left the stairs and went through another set of doors followed by a caged door but something was differentabout those doors. I didn’t have time to look closer. I didn’t need to when I stepped into the light of the chamber. Everything in the large two-storied room shonein the purest gold. The bars on the cells, the lights, the walls, even the floor. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was worth.

“Wait here,” said Kaleb, walking to a cell and entering. After a short time he reappeared with a man walking by his side. The man was just a little taller than me and looked to be middle aged: raven-black hair, high cheekbones, a cleft chin and stark blue eyes.He wore a black long- sleeve shirt of silk and black pants.

“You say you have come to accept our training?” said Kaleb, smiling wickedly. “This is Mephitis. I have a feeling you are about to learn a great number of things.”

 

Chapter 30

The Initiation

 

Amelia crept through the front door minutes behind Thomas and began her search in the offices lining the hallway. Finding all the doors were locked she rounded the corner of the first hallway, catching a glimpse of Thomas, walking with a short man not far off. She had never seen the man before.She waited for them to get out of sight and slidby a doorway where she heard voices. Amelia creptdown a longer hall, checking doors as she went. She glanced behind her and thought she just caught a glimpse of someone ducking out of sight. Amelia found an open office door and waited, watching through a crack in the doorway. Her hands shook, sweat beaded on her forehead. If she were discovered, it would mean her and Thomas’s lives. She waited, watching the passage behind her, but saw nothing.

Maybe I just imagined it?”

Amelia waited until she felt it was safe and then followed the end of the hall to a set of steps heading down. Taking the stairs down one level she heard voices, one of which was Thomas. Creeping in the opposite direction, she began checking rooms for the gauntlet. She found an old gym with rusting metal backboards. The next room was the old laundry facility. The old machines were still in place along the walls.Stepping inside she walked past the old washers leaving a trail of footprints in the dust.

Amelia began to get worried. Pulling the star from her pocket,she put it on the ground and gave it a spin. It began turning violently until it pointed towards the back wall of the laundry room, opposite the door. Magic had been performed on the other side of that wall not long ago.

Amelia put the star in her pocket and made her way into the hallway and around the corner. At the end she passed through a doorway into a large open space, dimly lit by a few fluorescents hanging from the ceiling. It looked like an old cafeteria. Many of the lights had fallen from the ceiling and hung by their cords. A large canopy bed with heavy burgundy curtains drawn around itstood in the center ofthe room. Several tables along one wall were lit with growing lights over odd plants she didn’t recognize.

On the opposite wall, various chemicals and compounds were labeled in trays and small plastic shelves stacked on one another in a row of tables. The floor was covered in a patchwork of different types and colors of rugs. The feel of the room was eccentric more than evil, but Amelia knew she had found the bedchamber of Mephitis.

Searching carefully through the wizard’s belongings for the gauntlet, Amelia found many other interesting, if disturbing, items. The wizard liked to collect trophies from his victims, some of which were quite gruesome.An ear, a finger andeven an eye were marked in small jars with the enemy’s name. After having searched almost the entire room her initial euphoria began to fade. She had saved the bed for last thinking it too obvious a place.Amelia pulled back the curtains and there it was, lying on a pillow. She had found the Midasgauntlet.

***

The wizard flashed Kaleb a little grin, “Now, now Kaleb. You are going to make the boy think I’m a bad guy or something.” The wizard’s stark blue eyes bored into mine, making me uncomfortable.“I understand you seek training. I am sure that can be arranged. There are many shortcuts I know to get you trained up in no time. Of course, I might need you to do a few things for me in return but we will talk about that later. For now, let’s take a walk.”

I followed as the wizard walked down the middle of the blocks of cells. Kaleb stayed at the entrance, watchingus leave. When I looked back I wished I hadn’t, after catching the wicked lightshining in Kaleb’s eyes.

The wizard showed mearound the chamber, each item in the cellswas made of pure gold down to the toothbrushes in a few of the medicine cabinets. Mephitis spoke with pride about each cell and its beauty.

“How did this all turn to gold?” I asked, my voice taking an innocent tone.

The words had barely escaped my lips when I felt a pain on my back like lashes from a thousand whips. I lost my breath, my lungs burned, I fell to my knees and then it was gone. The lashes left me doubling over in pain, gasping. The wizard stood by, silent, watching me. When I recovered enough to stand up I had to steady myself by leaning against the bars of a cell.

“What happened?” Igasped when I could speak.

“You must be taught not to tell lies, Tommy,” Mephitis answered coldly.“Consider this your first lesson. You know perfectly well how this was turned to gold. Do not test the teacher. It is I who will do the testing!”

The wizard left the cell and began walking again before he stopped and waited for me. “Do you have any more questions?” he asked, when I returned to his side.

My plan had sounded fine in the safety of the car. Now in the presence of the evil wizard, feeling the pain the man could inflict with just his mind, I wishedI had thought through my plan a little longer. Just like the books,I’d jumped in without thinking and again found myself ina situation beyond my control. The danger felt different though; it was in the real world. I knew if I made the wrong move, Mephitis would kill me. The experiences of the past few weeks helped me to cope with the fear but it was still there, threatening to overwhelm me.

I’d read about villains much like him but I couldn’t imagine thinking like the man walking next to me. No remorse for killing or hurting others.

“Why did you turn the chamber to gold?” Iasked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

The wizard seemed to be surprised. “It began as a test. I knew the gauntlet had some power and was meant to be worn so I came down here and touched a few bars to see what it could do. I liked the difference so much I turned the entire chamber. Do you not like the result?”

“Yes, I do.” Isaid, “Although I have to admit, after a while it begins to lose its effect on me. When everything is gold, nothing stands out. To me a chamber with a few golden items would have highlighted the beauty of gold more. In a way, this diminishes it.”

I immediately regretted flapping my mouth and cringed, waiting for more lashes but my comments only brought silence. Feeling a little bolder,I continued. “How is it you can teach me when it is Kaleb who is Gifted?”

The wizard laughed. “Kaleb is Gifted?” He mocked, “You give that word away too easily. Kaleb hasa gift. That is all and it is only one. I have power; you have felt the smallest portion of it already. If I were to unleash the full measure of it upon you, the place where you stand would cease to exist. Not blow up or explode; I mean it would cease to exist on this plane or any other. Would you trade an ability to ride along with your favorite little adventurers for that kind of power?”

“I don’t think the power to destroy someone is all that appealing to me,” I responded. “I’drather enter a book and make friends there, than go about destroying everyone.”

“So your adventureshave taught you about friendship?” the wizard asked sardonically. “What did it teach you about bringing a cursed object into your world? Look at the effect on your city. If you could, would you go back and do it over?”

“I can’t go back, as I’m sure you know,” I answered. “I touched the book with the gauntlet before it was stolen. It’s now a block of gold.”

The wizard ignored the implication, “So, you are unable to visit your friends again?”

“Yes,” I said, “although I’m not sure I would, anyway. I don’t have control over my gift. I nearly died several times while I was there. I don’t think I would go back until I knew a lot more about what I was doing, even if I were able to.”

“Yes, it is good to know one’s limitations,” said the wizard, studying me. “I have to admit, I find you fascinating. The others Kaleb has brought me have been typical adolescent brats. Just so you know,I didn’t steal the gauntlet. I merely took it for safe keeping. In fact, when your training is done, you may have it back to do with what you wish.”

“While Kaleb offered you instruction I entered your room to see what types of books sparked your interest to see if you would fit with us. I sensed the object’s magic and took it to keep it from getting into the wrong hands. A fifteen-year old boy is certainly not ready for the responsibility of caring for an object withthat type of power.”

I didn’t believe the man, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell him that. “I believe you,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t receive more lashings for the lie.

The wizard smiled, “Good.”

We reached the end of the cellblock and the wizard motioned for me to enter a cell with a solid golden door. It had a chair and a bed on which the wizard directed me to sit. The bed was solid gold and uncomfortable. The wizard pulled the chair close to meand sat looking directly into my eyes.

“Everyone who accepts training must go through an initiation of sorts. It is painless and requires that you sit there and not move. In the beginning you will need to keep from closing your eyes but when the connection is made, you may blink. You will know when. Are you ready?” The wizardpositioned himself uncomfortably close to me.

I was only afraid before; now Ifeltpure panic. I had no idea what the man was about to do but knew I wanted no part of it. The problem was thatthere was no escaping. I thought of the small book still tucked into the waist of mypants. Maybe I could breachthe book somehow?

The thought was ridiculous and I knew it. Then I thought of Amelia and my role in the plan. I didn’t know if she had it or not, but Ihad to keep doing my part so she could do hers. With a renewed sense of purpose, I blinked one last time and looked without fear into the wizard’s eyes.

 

Chapter 31

Wrapped in Chains

 

It had been years since Mephitis had done this, but the workings of the spell came to him with a comforting familiarity. He could make the experience as unpleasant as he wanted depending on whether the subject was needed after the extraction.In this case, he needed the boy alert and able to answer questions after he mined his memories. He could extract a specific time or day if he liked.

Mephitis watched as Tommy joined in the hunt of the buck with Reule and the wolf brothers. He saw Tommy aim his arrow and noted with disdain, his inability to kill. The next scene of interest to the wizard was Tommy standing before a giant wolf in a cave. He watched the reverence Tommy had for the large beast. He asked Tommy’s mind why?The response baffled him. “Heis moved by the majesty and the sacrifice of the wolf.”

The wizard didn’t understand but continued, watching Tommy reject his first offer of training from thegirl they called ‘pig-tails’. They had been unable to get her in the open or learn much about her since she joined thetroublesome group. The wizard wanted to extract her mind almost as badly as Tommy’s—almost. The next scene was clearly his next book; Tommy was dressed in armor and surrounded by warriors and a wizard. Mephitis watched with interest as Tommy was stabbed and then saved by the wizard. He watched the wizard die. Mephitis thought to himself that he would have simply destroyed the creature rather than outrun it.

He watched Tommy enter the golden cave and listened with intent to the words of the guide. For the first time he grew a little worried. Perhaps he should have listened to Kaleb a little more closely; the gauntlet had the power to curse an entire world. He would have to wear it less, much less, or fall victim to the curse like everyone around him. He wondered why Kaleb didn’t seem to be affected by it. He had never worn the gauntlet, so he had no protection. Why was he immune?

Turning his attention back to the boy, he continued delving. He watched as the boy killed a man with the gauntlet in the field and saw the effect it had on him. “So he had been unable to kill an animal only a few weeks earlier, but was now able to kill a man? What changed him?” He watched Tommy return home and saw the boy’s home life deteriorating. He watched him enter the warehouse, replaying it again and again to memorize the exact location of the building, smiling as he did so. He watched Tommy save Amelia from her attackers. He had to admit, the boy had courage.

The wizard’s eyes narrowed as he listened to Tommy and Amelia making their plan to enter the jail. Snarling, he broke the link.

***

I wasn’t aware of any time passing. I looked into the wizard’s eyes without blinking as he instructed, then I blinked again and the wizard sat back in his chair, staring at me. After a few long moments of silence the wizard rose to his feet. “Come with me. We have some loose ends to tie up.”

***

Kaleb wondered how long it would take for the wizard to extract the boy’s mind and what he would find.The possibilities were simply . . . delicious. Perhaps he would unlock the secret of the power of the Master of Books. Then they wouldn’t need the boy at all.

His exuberance was short-lived.Jonah, one of the brothers they used as collectors, descended the stairs and approached him. “Kaleb, we have caught someone wandering around the second level. Jonathon has the intruder in your library.”

Kaleb followedJonah, the smaller of the two brothers, up the stairs to his quarters. The jail was known in the neighborhood as a place to be feared, even before the appearance of the gauntlet. People believed it to be haunted. Those careless enough to venture in returned with memories of such horror that people stayed away. Only curse-enhanced greed for the payout of the task drove them to enter now. For a stranger to be in the jail, not on the task, meant trouble. Kaleb had an idea who mightbe waiting for him in his library. He was wrong.

***

Amelia looked at the gauntlet sitting on the pillow. The sight threw red flags up inside her head. She looked under the bed, walked around it and still saw nothing suspicious. She touched the canopy, then the thick bed covering, still nothing. Seeing no signs of a trap, she held her breath, leaned over and touched the gauntlet. She tried lifting it but found it too heavy. It wouldn’t move. She crawled on the bed to get more leverage and as she did, the curtains closed around her, sealing her in. Amelia tried to part the curtains but found that no matter how much she pulled them aside, she could find no opening. She tried climbing up but could get no grip. The drapes had become slippery and the top was well out of her reach. To add to her desperation, alarms sounded all around her. They sounded like crows cawing over dead meat.She realized too late that she was the dead meat.

***

Kaleb rounded the corner of his doorway, expecting to see the girl they called‘pig-tails’. Instead, he stood face-to-face with Wilfred, his old friend, being held none too gently by Jonathon, who towered over him.

“You can release him.”

Jonathon didn’t catch on real quick but after a few long seconds of thought, seemed to process the command.

“Leave us. He is no threat,” Kaleb said, sitting in his favorite chair and studying his old friend and mentor. The years had not been kind to the old man. When he had last seen him, Wilfred was in the prime of his life and full of ideas about making the world a better place with the knowledge that they could obtain in the World of Books. Kaleb listened back then and patronized him but he wanted to use his gift for power. He had even tried to tell Wilfred once, but the look of horror on the man’s face had cut short their conversation.

Kaleb knew then thathe needed a new ally—anew mentor. He lied to Aaron about the wonders ofthe book called “The Fading Light. Long before Aaron breached, Kaleb had met Mephitis and created a plan with the wizard to bring him to the Existent World where Kaleb would be waiting.

***

Wilfred’s emotions were mixed as he stared at his former friend, now ally to his enemy. He hoped that what he was about to do would work. He just had to get close enough. “It is good to see you again after all these years, old friend,” he said, inching closer.

“It has been a longtime, hasn’t it?” said Kaleb, oblivious to Wilfred’s approach.

“Why haven’t you visited sooner?”Kaleb continued, “I would have visited you,but you removed my name from the fountain.”

Wilfred stopped moving and searched Kaleb’s face. “Is it too late?” he asked.

“Is what too late?” Kaleb seemed confused.

“Is the man I knew gone so completely after all of these years? No matter how long it has been, you have not lost the ability to choose a different path. No matter what spell you are under. Look what the promises of power have gotten you: a cold room in an old jail with no one who cares about you.If you make different choices now, your life and the lives of others will be better for it. You will find a greater power than that which you seek.”

“No one to care for me?” Kaleb spat. “How many love you, old man? You sit in that old building, hiding from the world, and you think you are better? Do your followers love you? The world doesn’t even know you exist! You have nothing! The day I left I gained the freedom to make whatever choices I wanted. I am no longer constrained by the rules of some man who lived more than a hundred years ago. I control the books when I breach. You say that is forbidden?Where is the freedom in that?Everything I do is for my own good,which has worked just fine without your help.”

Wilfred again moved closer as Kaleb spoke, to a short enough distance for the chain to work. It had been brought back by the founder’s daughter many decades ago, the object was supposed to have the ability to break the effects of any magical spell. Taking the chain off his wrist, Wilfred looked at the symbols on each end and held them together one by one. First the rock on one end held against the moon on the other. Then lightning against the cloud, then two hands open against a fist which completed the connection.

With the chain activated, Wilfred tossed it at Kaleb. The chain wrapped itself around his arm. Kaleb pulled back in agony, clawing at his flesh with his fingernails,trying to rip it off, but to no avail. Hescreamed, which brought the two brothers running from the hall. When they saw Kaleb writhing in his chair and Wilfred standing over him, Wilfred knew he had to act fast. “I’m not sure what happened, but help me with him. He needs to lie down.”

The largerbrother picked Kaleb up and placed him on his bed. The smaller asked, “What happened?”

“I’m not sure,” said Wilfred,watching with genuine concern. “I’m an old friend of his. I’ll watch him and call if he needs you.”

The two men looked unsure of what to do but Kaleb had told them Wilfred was no threat so they departed, leaving Wilfred alone again with Kaleb.

Kaleb shiftedand moaned in his bed while Wilfred watched over him, waiting. After a short time, Kaleb’s breathing slowed and he grew still. To Wilfred’s shock, the chain was now embedded in his flesh. It looked like a tattoo but when he touched it, he could still feel the metal. Kaleb opened his eyes and sat up, a look of desperation crossing his features. He grabbed Wilfred’s wrist with such intensity, he cried out in pain, trying in vain to pull it away.

“What have you done?” demanded Kaleb,twisting Wilfred’s wrist at a painful angle which drew his face closer to his own. He seemed to be reading each line of Wilfred’s face. His eyes moved back and forth, studying him. Finally Kaleb let go, got up from the bed, and walked away from Wilfred. He suddenly turned on him and yelled, “What have you done!”

Wilfred had not known what to expect, but this certainly wasn’t the reaction he hoped for. “What do you mean?”

Kaleb stepped towardWilfred with a look of menace. “It is gone; it is gone, old man! Whatever you did has taken it from me you stupid—old—man.” Kaleb flew to his desk and pulled out a knife,advancing on Wilfred, murder in his eyes.

Wilfred had no avenue of escape sinceKaleb stood between him and the door. Kaleb came at him, his intentions clear. When the sound of crows cawing filled the room, Kaleb looked in the direction of his door, gripped his knife and took another step towards Wilfred. Wilfred thought his life was over, but Kaleb hesitated. He stuck the knife into his pocketand said, “It looks like our little party might be adding a few more guests.”

Kaleb took Wilfred’s wrist and dragged him out the door and then quickly around the corner to a large room with a canopy bed in the center.The curtains were drawn around the bed. Wilfred noticed that ever so often he saw a bulge in the curtains as if something was pushing them from the inside.

“Yes, it appears our trap has been sprung.” Kaleb said as the two brothers raced into the room, drawn by the alarm.

Kaleb pulled on a rope, opening the canopy to reveal Amelia, standing on the bed. Kaleb smiled, “Hello, pig-tails.”He turned to give the brothers orders. When he turned his back to her Amelia was off the bed and to him in an instant. She hit him with a kick to the side of the head, his stomach and the side of his knee in quick succession.

Wilfred watched in horror as Kaleb quickly recovered and violently punched her midsection, knocking the air from her lungs. His fist shot out, connecting with her face. She dropped to the floor in a heap. The man didn’t even look at her as she fell. He simply indicated for the big man to pick her up and follow him. Wilfred knew where they were headed and knew his part in the events about to unfold.He looked with sorrow at Kaleb, his old friend who was truly lost to him. He gripped the object in his pocket hopingthat it still worked after all these years.

Chapter 32

Pedestal in the Dark

 

I knew something had gone terribly wrong. I could only hope Amelia was okay. It wasn’t much of a plan but at least we tried. Wewalked back through the chamber toward the spot where we’d left Kaleb. The sound of crows cawing suddenly filled the cellblock, echoing off the golden walls, rising in volume until the wizard lifted his hand and the sound disappeared.

“Do you have any idea what would set off the alarms in my room? Alarms that protect the gauntlet?”he asked. His eyes had a cold light, promising the horrible things he was planning to do to me. The only response I could think of was silence. Better to not give him any more reason to get angry. The dark wizard turned away in disgust.

“I thought you might be different.” Mephitis shook his head. “I thought perhaps that you were of a better fiber. I was going to mold you, groom you to hold real power. You have come here under false pretenses—lies!” He raised his hand to strike me but seemed to think better of it. “You had no intention of training with me. You only want the gauntlet. I would have helped you to exceed your abilities beyond any that have ever had your gift.

“There are possibilities I have not even shared with Kaleb. But now I cannot trust you. You are the same as every other person in this world. Lying to get what you want! I begin to wonder if I made a mistake. Perhaps I should have remained where I was. There, even those who studied the dark arts have honor. Here, the light and the dark lie to achieve their ends.”

The wizard looked ahead and began to walk again, “You must pay for your deceit. I tell you beforehand so you can prepare.Remember thisabove all else,I hate lies.”

I’d heard enough, “You hate lies? All you’ve done is lie to me. You say you took the gauntlet from my room for safekeeping and will give it back? Do you expect me to believe that? The man who has killed so many? Is your excuse that you werecreated evil? So what, you’ve chosen to become a monster. You talk about lies? You didn’t tell me you were going to steal my memories.”

“I’m not the first wizard to read your mind.” Mephitis spun around, a dangerous light in his eyes.

“Don’t ever compare yourself to Mardel.” My voice rose, my temper getting the betterof me. “He looked into my mind to save me. You did it to spy on me. If deceivers are to be punished, start with yourself!”

From everywhere, blows rained down on me. I fell to my knees—thepain unbearable. The lashes wouldn’t let up, wouldn’t give me a chance to breathe. The agony was like nothing I’d ever felt before. I didn’t know pain like that existed. I begged Mephitis to stop. I caught a glimpse of his face through the tears in my eyes. His eyes glowed red and the lashings continued.I closed my eyes knowing I was going to die and praying it would come quickly.

***

Amelia came to in the arms of the giant. He carried her down a dark staircase. She wasn’t sure if it was the blow to her face or not, but the ceiling shined like gold. She closed her eyes, giving herself a long moment to clear away the muddle that was her brain. When she looked again at the ceiling it was still golden.From somewhere ahead of her a person was screaming in agony. She tilted her head and to her horror found it was Thomas. A man dressed in black stood over him, his eyes glowing red with an intensity that frightened her.

She was about to drop down and fling herself on the man when Kaleb spoke, “If you are trying to kill the boy, you are doing a good job of it. But seeing that we need him alive, you might want to stop.”

Mephitis didn’t respond immediately. Thomas continued to cry out. The wizard finally tore his eyes away from the writhing figure on the floor, meeting Kaleb’s gaze with a fierce intensity. Thomasstopped writhing. He curled up in a fetal position, moaning.

“I must talk with you,” said Kaleb. The man cast a final hard look at Thomas and walked with Kaleb, out of earshot.

Amelia knew she had to be ready to act. For now she lay in the big man’s arms as if unconscious, waiting.

***

I lay on the hard golden floor, trying to get breath into my lungs again. The pain was horrible but the torture was heightened by my inability to get more than a few small gulps of oxygen into my lungs. Wilfred knelt down next to me, asking if I was okay. He slipped a glass ball into my hand, and whispered, “This is the same device as the one used against Mardel in the Crossroads Inn. I was told that would mean something to you. I also was told to say that he must perform magic before it dissipates. Wait for my move.”Wilfred stood and returned to his place by Amelia and the two brothers.

Isneaked a look at the object. My spirits rose when I realized what it was. A wizard’s snare! I watched Mephitis and Kaleb, waiting.

 

***

Mephitis listened to Kaleb with a growing amusement. The old man had somehow destroyed his ability of discernment. Kaleb had spent nearly four months in a book finding the talisman that had given him that power. Kaleb hated those types of books, which made it even more humorous.

“Do you think I could recover my power by finding the talisman again?” Kaleb asked, desperate.

“I don’t think so,” Mephitis answered. “The chain is now a part of you; you can no longer be affected by that kind of spell again.My guess is the object was conjured as a protection against unwanted spells. Removing it on purpose probably never occurred to its designer.”

Mephitis chuckled inwardly. He hated Kaleb’s ability to discern whether he was telling the truth or not. The old man had done him a favor. For that,he would be kind andgive the old man a quick end.He hated to be indebted to anyone. The wizard couldn’t hide his widening smile.

***

Kaleb and the wizard were out of our earshot, but we all heard him when his voice rose heatedly, “So it is gone forever?”

The wizard nodded his head in affirmation before leaving Kaleb and returning to the group. Kaleb lingered behind.

The wizard laughed. “Your simple plans have come to this, the three of you captive and no closer to your objective. Did you think I would allow the gauntlet to be out of my presence?”

In the middle of the room, not more than a few feet away, the air shimmered anda pedestalappeared with the gauntlet perched on top. “We have walked by it several times and you were completely unaware of it,” said the wizard, eyeing mewith a look of loathing. I continued to lieon the ground, curled up in a ball. Wilfredstepped forward.

“So Kaleb, it was your decision to join the wizard after all.” Wilfred cast me a brief glance and took another step towards the men. “All these years I thought the best of you; that you were under a bewitchment of some kind by the wizard. That if I could just free you I would have my friend back. You were never my friend, were you Kaleb? The only one you ever cared about was yourself.”

Wilfred took another step as he talked. The wizard seemed amused. Kaleb had a knife in his hand, a look of hatred in his eyes. I gripped the ball, tensing for just the right moment.

“In many ways you are worse than the wizard, Kaleb.” Wilfred continued, “He at least has anexcuse for his actions. You have had every advantage in life and still chose evil. Your time is at an end.”

I knew it was time to act. I threw the wizard’s snare at Mephitis’s feet where it broke, releasing a reddish mist that rose around him. The wizard hesitated for a moment, with a look of worry. When the seconds passed and nothing happened he laughed at me.

Wilfred rushed Kaleb, knocking the knife from his hands. I couldn’t believe how well the old man moved,considering his age. Mephitis seemed happy to watch the ensuing fight, not intervening. I got to my feet and knowing nothing better to do, charged at the wizard. Mephitis looked at me casually, almost amused. He raised his hands and pointed at me. Nothing happened.

I crashed into him, knocking both of us to the ground. Suddenly, the lights in the chamber went out. I pushed myself away from the wizard, who seemed to have no fight in him without his magic. I realized at that moment I was probably the only one in the room who could still see anything. Walking to the pedestal, I had to step over the giant, who was somehow out cold on the floor.

As I stepped over the body I heard the sounds of a fight start up behind me. Wilfred and Kaleb had found each other in the dark. I took the few steps to the pedestal and took the gauntlet from its perch. It seemed to shine with an unnatural light. With a sense of relief I put the gauntlet in my pocket. Looking around the room I began to search for Amelia.

I was startled by a hand slipping into mine. “Shhhh,” she whispered in my ear. “There is still another brother out there. I think I have an idea of how to get out of here.”

“What about Wilfred?” I said, watching the two figures grapple with each other. “Shouldn’t we try to help him?

Amelia hesitated, “No, he would want us to get out now. Let’s not waste the time he has bought us.”

I stepped in front of her and pulled her toward me. “I can get us out of here,” I whispered, when she didn’t come. Through my enhanced vision I could see the hesitation on her face. Finally she stepped toward me and followed as I lead the way to the stairs.

Behind we heard a cry and the fighting ceased. I watched in horror as Kaleb stabbed the fallen body of Wilfred several times. Kaleb’s cold voice came to us through the darkness. “Mephitis, can’t you end this darkness? Where are you, wizard?” Mephitis did not answer. I couldn’t see where he had crawled off to.

***

Kaleb laughed at himself before calling out,“I can sense you with my Gift, boy. If you do not run, I’ll spare you. If you attempt to escape, you will meet the same fate as the old man.”

Hearing nothing, Kaleb reached out with his Gift, searching for the boy but could not locatehim. How did he hide himself?Then a realization struck him.The boy accepted training, our training. The trace is gone.

Kaleb ran towards what he thought was the last place where he had seen the boy. He tripped over a large person in the middle of the floor. We really need to find better help.

 

Chapter 33

Run, Jump, Ride

 

I had crept alongquietly until Kaleb called out. I decided to give up stealth. Pulling on Amelia’s hand I began to run for the stairs. I was two steps up when Amelia’s hand was yanked away and she cried out.

Looking back in a panic, I saw she had tripped on the steps. I’d forgotten to warn her that the stairs were coming. Looking back into the chamber, Kaleb was feeling his way steadily toward the stairs, the giant’s brother had found him and the two were also moving toward our position. Mephitis had crawled away somewhere out of sight. If we weren’t in such danger, the sight of the three men moving blindly through the darkness would have been funny. As it was, I lifted Amelia onto her feet and once more holding her hand, I began leading her as fast as possible up and away from the golden chamber of horrors.

“Two stories up,” she whispered when we were far enough to feel comfortable to communicate.

A little light trickled under the doorway on the next floor which seemed like staring at the sun at noon to my eyes. With the light,Amelia could see enough to run so we flew up the second flight of stairs to the ground level and burst through the door down the long hallway. Thankfully it was empty. We did hear voices from below which pushed us forward even faster.

At the end of the hall we were through the caged door and out of the front of the jail in a blink. We ran for the car, not slowing. Amelia skidded to a halt when we turned the corner to the side street where we’d left the car. Standing around it was a group of rough looking guys watching something down the street away from us.

“We can’t stop,” Amelia said, trying to catch her breath. She grabbed my hand and ran across the street, right behind the gang who still hadn’t noticed us. We’d almost made it across when one of them yelled out and we heard feet running after us.

My adrenaline returned in an instant. My feet barely touched the sidewalk as we ran for our lives. I glanced behind and wished I hadn’t. At least five of the thugs were within a dozen feet of us and behind them only a few paces were the blond brothers. Kaleb was nowhere to be seen.

Looking on the ground I found a rock which I scooped up, never breaking stride. Pulling the gauntlet from my pocket and putting it on, I touched the rock—turningit to gold—and threw it on the ground behind us. The thugs saw it and first one, then another leaped for the golden rock. All five jumped on each other, fighting and punching. The two brothers got tangled up in the fray which gave Amelia and I time to put some distance between us.

We hit the next street and Amelia steered us left and then left again, running between two old buildings. When we were out of sight of the street she stopped.

“We need to get back to the car, it’s our only chance,” she whispered.

I followed her back behind the building and toward the jail. Ahead of us we saw the last thing we would have expected. It looked like a scene from the Discovery Channel. A zebra ran by, followed by a lion giving chase. Amelia looked at me and I looked at her with the same look of disbelief. Then I remembered hearing on the news that the circus animals had been set loose.

“Keep that on,” Amelia said, looking at my hand wearing the gauntlet.“Just in case.”

We crept out from between the buildings, looking in the direction the animals had gone. Seeing nothing, we continued heading back toward the street where the car was parked, not knowing what we would find. Behind the two buildings where we had stopped were two otherswhich faced the street where the car was parked. We walked quietly through an alleyway between the large stone structures, Amelia looking ahead, while I watched behind us. We made our way like that until we reached the end of the alleyway. Looking out at the street we saw the car right where we had left it. The thugs had not returned. A large bush obstructed our view to the left; to the right there was nothing all the way down the street. We took a cautious step forward from the alleyway and Amelia pulled the keys from her pocket to be ready. We stepped clear of the bush and looking left saw a gruesome sight. The lion had caught the zebra and was feasting on the carcass close to the passenger door to the car. We saw it first and were about to back away when the large animal looked up. My heart stopped—mylegs began to shake, I would have been embarrassed if I hadn’t noticed Ameliahaving the same reaction.

Time froze. The animal growled but didn’t move. Then it put its head down and continued consuming the unfortunate zebra. Amelia pulled my hand toward the car. We took a wide berth of the lion and step by step inched closer to the front of the caruntil the beast reared its head and looked at us. Again we froze, hoping the animal would continue its feast, but the lion stood and took a step towards us, baring its teeth.

Amelia took a small step away from the lion, pulling my hand as we took one more cautious step putting the hood between us and the beast. The lion continued watching us, but didn’t move as we backed our way to the driver’s side door.

“Take that thing off,” Amelia said, her hands shaking as she hurriedly unlocked the door. I slipped the gauntlet off and stuffed it in my pocket. Amelia opened the car door and I jumped in sliding across to the passenger side. When I looked out of the window, my heart nearly stopped. Filling my entire view was the lion staring back at me from the other side of the glass. I didn’t hear Amelia’s door slam, didn’t hear the car roar to life, but I was never more grateful than when that car lurched forward, speeding us down the street to safety.

Amelia sped the car though the streets of Covingtonwith no regard fortraffic signs or speed limits. During our drive we recounted everything that happened while we were separated. Amelia grew worried when she learnedof the wizard reading my mind. “He might know where the warehouse is.” She paused while whipping the wheel around, heading down a new street. “I wanted to take us there. Now we can’t chance it.The problem is, I don’t know of a safe place where we can do this. I want to breach together so I can help you return.”

She looked at me and her eyes widened in fear. She yelled, pointingpast me, “Look out!” Amelia slammed on the brakes as a jeep swerved towards us, just missing our front bumper. The driver lost control. The jeep rolled over several times. Amelia jerked the wheel left and then right to avoid colliding with the rolling vehicle. Her foot never left the accelerator. One block later, a black compact carswerved toward us. This time Amelia hit the gas, outrunning the slower car.

“Why are they doing this?” I said, scanning the road ahead.

An electric billboard on our right provided the answer. A description of our car with the license plate number flashed across the screen. Next to the description the caption read,‘Reward paid in solid gold for whoever brings them to the old jail.’ Below that sentence three more words gavemea feeling of dread. ‘Dead or Alive.’The city must have fallen pretty far for Kaleb to broadcast such a message in open daylight.

Amelia turned on the car radio. Kaleb’s coarse voice came through the speakers. “These two are vicious criminals. They have already killed an old man in cold blood and robbed my home. I am willing to pay in gold to make sure they get what they deserve.”

Cars right and left began slamming into the sides of our car. “You are going to have to do it here, Thomas…without my help.” Amelia looked calm, but the tremor in her voice betrayed her fear. “I’ll keep driving while you breach. Do you still have the book?”

I reached down and to my relief, found the small book tucked into the waist of my pants. I read the cover, “Run, Jump, Ride.”showingit to Amelia. She took a brief glance and returned her eyes to the road.

“I tried to pick a book with no danger,” I said, caressing the red cover of the first book I ever read. “I would imagine I’ll be safe in here,but how do I get out?”

Amelia drove for a moment. We were travellingon side streets with little traffic. “The key is to remember you are the reader. You have control. You can stop reading whenever you like. Then think of closing the book.For this to work, you must shut out each object in sight. Remembering, they are not real. When you are ready picture the bookopened in front of you. Close your eyes and picture the book closing. When you open them, you should be back here with me. But hurry, the curse will be in effect until the book is shut. Don’t waste your time finding the perfect place for the gauntlet. Anywhere will do. Just hurry back to me.”

She made it sound so easy. Somehow I knew it wasn’t going to be so simple. “Good luck,” she said, watching the road ahead. Ipulled out the gauntlet and held it in my hand. Iopened the book and began to read.

We Run! We Jump! We Ride! This is a boy. He likes to run. He runs to the big blue house. See him run. This is a girl. She likes to run. She likes to run to the big red house. See her run! With each few lines of the book,I turned a page covered with illustrations of a little blonde- haired boy playing with a little blonde girl.

As I read, a motorcycle slammed into the Chevelle from behind. The bike went flying along with its rider. Amelia drove on, racing farther away from the city center of Covington. Ireturned to reading.

This is a boy. He likes to jump! I felt warm all over and then the familiar pulling sensation. Suddenly I was falling forward through the darkness again. This time thefall was over nearly before it began. Ifelt the disorientation of being dropped onto a moving platform again but recovered quicker this time.

Looking around to get my bearings, I saw a lawn of something green. It wasn’t grass. I reached down, pulled up a handful and discovered it was licorice. Popping a little in my mouth it tasted like mint. In front of me a girl was jumping over colored sections of a sidewalk. Shelaughed as shejumped. When she noticed me watching,she giggled and said, “Come play! Come jump!”

The girl jumped over asquare and looked back at me, waiting. It was then I noticed my clothes. Gone was my t-shirt and blue jeans, in their place I wore a white shirt with blue suspenders pulling up sky blue shorts. My shoes were a matching blue and very shiny. I reached up and pulled a hat from my head. It had a little blue ribbon on it matching the rest of my outfit. I was glad right then I didn’t have a mirror.

The girl jumped again,laughing. “Come play! Come Jump!”

For a moment,Ifelt compelled to accept. Remembering my mission, Ilooked away,searching for a place to leave the gauntlet.

A blue house a few hundred yards to my right looked promising. Up and down the street on each side were houses of every color and as bright as possible, red then bright yellow and pink and fluorescent orange. It was tough to look at.

Leaving the girl to her games, I ran to the house and opened the clover-shaped door. The interior was the same color as the exterior. A blue stairway led up out of sight in the middle of the foyer. To the right a table and chairs with flowers in the middle would have looked nice without the nasty blue paint. To my left a blue living room with sofa, coffee table and two chairs, all blue. In one corner I saw a blue floor lamp in the corner and finding no better alternative, I put the gauntlet on top of it. My eyes lingered for a moment on the object that had caused so much trouble. Knowing that Amelia’s life was at risk,I pulled away and climbed the stairs to the second story of the odd house. I walkeddown a short blue hallway looking for a place I would be undisturbed. I found a room at the end of the hall. It had a blue bed and blue armchair. A few pictures of sailboats hung on the wall.I closed the door,searching for a lock but found none. Dragging the bed across the room,I wedged it against the door and began.

***

Amelia watched Thomas breach. She had seen it dozens of times, but watching the Gifted breach the World of Books was still fascinating no matter the circumstances. His head stretched forward into the book, while the remainder lagged behind for a brief instant. Then his body released, all at oncelike a slingshot,and he was gone.

Amelia continued her frantic efforts to avoid attack but it was getting more and more difficult. The cars were coming at her from nearly every side road. She pulled even with a little old lady who swerved at her, trying to force her off the road. Shots rang out—Ameliaducked her head. She was astounded to see the little old lady point a small pistol and fire again. Amelia hit her brakes, taking a sharp turn up a side street, leaving the crazy old woman behind. It seemed likethe whole town was after them. Amelia pushed the pedal to the floor, not sure how long she could keep it up. Looking at the book she whispered, “Hurry, Thomas.”

***

I sat in the blue chair, trying to remember Amelia’s instructions.Picture yourself shutting the book.I closed my eyes and formed the picture. In my mind, Ipictured the book closing. When Iopened my eyesI was still in the blue house. I tried again and again, beginning to lose hope. What am I missing?Picture the book. Close it. Then I remembered something more. Shut out my surroundingsfirst, and then make the attempt. Relieved, I looked around, concentrating on each object in the room. The walls, they are not real, the bed, it is not real.I began to feel a heightened sense of concentration. A growing power swelled withinme. As the power grew to a crescendo, a pounding at the door destroyed my concentration. The power fled.

“Hello!” I heard,followed by more pounding. “Let’s run! Come with me and jump!” I heard the girlshouting through the door.

“I have my wagon, let’s ride!” she continued banging on the door.

“Go away!” I yelled, but to no avail. She continued to yell through the door for me to gorun, jump and ride with her.

I began again,shutting out each object in the room. The banging on the door grew more insistent. I took a deep breath and concentrated on her voice. It isn’t real.

***

Amelia sped down a side street, followed by several large trucks that seemed to take pleasure inbumpingher each time she slowed down. The condition of the streets made it impossible for her to outrun them. Each cross street contained a deep dip in the pavement for drainage. If Amelia drove too fast, the car would actually catch air over these dips. The first time this happened, she hit her head on the ceiling of the car, causing white flashes to cloud her vision. The book flew around the front seat and almost out of the open window. Amelia grabbed it and tucked one end under her leg. When she lookedup, she saw a sign flash by that read, “No Outlet”. Behind her a line of trucks and cars followed, all after Kaleb’s reward.

She scanned ahead, hoping the sign was mistaken, but shortly arrived at the end of the road. Her only option was a circle drive. She hit the gas and pulled into the drive with a pick-up truck right on her bumper. A van pulled up the drive on the opposite end of the circle, directly in front of her, wedging her in. She was trapped. Amelia looked at the book, this time screaming “Hurry!”

***

I looked at the bed, it was not real. I listened to the sounds of the wind rustling the blue curtains of the windows of the room, it was not real. I began to feel the power as before but with more intensity. The power gave me a feeling of warmth all over. I closed my eyes exulting in it. I didn’t want it to end. A picture of Amelia in my mind brought me back. I pictured the book, closing it. Iopened my eyes.

Iwas sitting in the Chevelle, looking out the windshield at dozens of angry faces surrounding the car.The faces began to change, looks of confusion replacing anger. The people backed away, walking back to their cars.Ilooked over at Amelia. She held the book to her chest, her eyes were squeezed shut.

“You can open your eyes now, Amelia.”

Her eyes popped open. She scanned the outside of the car, looking for the mob. Seeing them leaving, she threw her arms around my neck,crushing me in a hug. I didn’t mind a bit.

 

Chapter 34

The Final Offer

 

I don’t know how long we held each other, but when it was over she wiped tears from her eyes. A truck and van were pulling away quietly. The rest of the people were gone orwalking away.

“I’m sorry,” said Amelia, gaining control of her emotions. “I’m not ashamed to admit I have never been so afraid before in my life. I didn’t tell you this before, but closing the first time without help is nearly impossible. In fact, I have never heard of it happening before.”

“I’m glad you didn’t tell me that before,” I said. “I’ve been so frightened the past few days I have seriously thought of crawling into a hole somewhere and never opening another book the rest of my life.”

Amelia smiled at me and then giggled. Soon her giggles turned to laughter and I joined her, enjoying the release of tension.Amelia put the car in drive, heading back towards my subdivision.

The ride home was quiet. The city seemed to be returning to normal. People were out in their yards, surveying the damage. Their looks of confusion and shock turned my feelings of relief to guilt. All of it was myfault. When Amelia dropped me off at home I was caught off guard when she announced she would be back the next day with the final offer.

“I have to be honest, Amelia.” I hesitated. “I’m not sure I was joking when I said I don’t ever want to do this again. I have only had this “gift” a few weeks and look at what’s happened. At this rate, I will destroy the world by the end of the year.”

I chuckled, but Amelia didn’t join in. Her face went pale. “The Gifted need you, Thomas… and you need them.”

Without a word of parting, she drove away. I lingered on the driveway, holding the book that now contained the golden gauntlet. I began thinking of my life without books. I would have to become a whole different person. Haven’t I already? Looking at my front door,I cast aside my dark thoughts and ran up the drive, throwing the door open. In the kitchen Ifound my family, sitting down for a meal together and chatting contentedly.

“Where have you been?” my mother asked, eyeing my messed hair and ripped clothing with suspicion. “I made chicken.”

“Is it from the freezer?”

“What kind of question is that?” my mother asked, her brows lowering. “You know my chicken is always fresh. Come and see if it meets your high standards.”

I sat down to a wonderful home-cooked meal of garlic chicken and roasted potatoes with mymother and brother, who werenow getting along just fine. Reed had no idea how he had received the black eye he was sporting but wore it with pride, making jokes every so often. I popped a large piece of chicken in my mouth and sat back in my chair, smiling. It was definitely not freezer burned.

***

Amelia drove back to the warehouse at the normal speed limits,which was a measure of her mood. After everything that happened, she thought Thomas accepting training would be a mere formality. Now there was a chance he would decline. She had to think about what she would do if he did. She remembered Wilfred’s last command to her. How could he even ask such a thing of me?

Amelia arrived at the House feeling no better. She quickly made her way to Wilfred’s office, avoiding the questions of the Gifted along the way. Most wanted to know where they could find Wilfred. She wasn’t ready to tell the story yet and have to deal with the accompanying feelings.

A flood of emotion hit her when she opened his office door. She would never see the gentle man again. He had sacrificed his life for hers. Hers and Thomas’s so they could free the city from the curse. The curse brought about by the Master of Books. Which, of course, is why he needs training.

Amelia walked around to Wilfred’s desk looking again at the chair where he had sat the first time they were introduced. Looking down, she noticed an envelope with her name on it, written in Wilfred’s strong, flowing script. The envelope contained threepages. Two looked new and the other looked worn and yellowed. On the outside of one it was written, “Read this first”. Opening the letter she read:

Dear Amelia,

I received the following letter from Aaron more than twelve years ago,a few years before his unfortunate death. I know when you read this, I will be dead. Do not mourn for those who have passed on, Amelia. It is to peace and rest we travel. Mourn for yourself that you must tarry. Read the letter from Aaron and then I have a few comments I will write after.

Amelia opened the olderletter. The handwriting was sloppy and difficult to read.

To my friend Wilfred,

I hope this letter finds you well. I apologize for our disagreement last evening. I do agree that the traditions of the founder are important.I hope you realize I am not trying to re-write the edicts, only modernize them a bit to make them more applicable to our time. Now to the purpose of my letter. I have had a dream.I believe it to be a true dream although as you know, we can never be sure. In my dream I saw you as the Keeper of Books, leading a smaller, depleted group against a worker of magic and an evil ally, yet this happened in the Existent World. I saw you old andgray but fighting. A red mist enveloped the wizard, and then everything went dark. I saw more, some of which I cannot tell you. I can say that you will have to make a sacrifice and if you don’t the world will fall.

With this letter I have provided an object from the World of Books. It is to be given to the next Master of Books, shortly after he appears. He will come to the House unbidden. That is the day that these things will come to pass. You must not give him the object or let him know of its existence until you are both in the presence of the wizard. If you do, the wizard will know. When you give him the object, tell him these words exactly, ‘This is the same device as the one used against Mardel in the Crossroads Inn.’ He will know what that means and how to use it. Tell him that this one lasts forever but the wizard must use magic before it dissipates. I do not know the full outcome of the conflict that day, Wilfred. As I mentioned,all goes dark. I only know that these steps provide the best chance of success. I close my letter to you with joy that you will someday be Keeper of Books and know that when the time is right, you will act in the best interest of the Gifted and the next Master of Books.

Aaron

Amelia read the letter over a second time just to digest it all before tucking it into a pocket and reading the third piece of paper marked with the words, “Read this last”.

Amelia,

I have read that letter and dissected it many times over the last twelve years. I see the pieces Aaron did not write. I know I am not coming back. Take comfort in knowing I am at peace with this. I make this sacrifice so that the city and you and Tommy may have a chance. I do not know how the events of tonight will play out exactly but I hope and believe you will be reading my letter, unharmed by the wizard. Perhaps even in the presence of my friend, Kaleb. If not, then my mission to him has failed and he is lost.

Writing this note to you is very difficult but it has to be done. This morning I leave the safety of the warehouse and follow you to the lair of our enemy because the Master of Books had no idea what he was doing. He brought an object of indescribable power from the World of Books into ours and then was careless enough to let it fall into the hands of our worst enemies. The city and possibly the world are now threatened by his actions, yet he has rejected our training twice. He has just left my office with you and I must saythat despite all of this, he has many likeable characteristics. He hashonestyand guts which I like. But he also has the power to burn the world, Amelia. When you make the final offer, take a look around you. Look at the results of his power. Ask yourself if one boy is more important than the world. I plead with you, I beg you in a dead man’s last wish that if he rejects the final offer, you will administer the poison. You passed the test as a teacher Amelia. Inthat test you learned of this possibility and you agreed to administer the poison. Fulfill your oath. You know now that I ask this not for personal gain, but for the sake of the world. If the dead have any power, I will pray that he accepts and you will not have to make this horrible decision. But if he doesn’t, I trust you to do what is right and administer the poison. The edict demands it. I would not invoke the edict if he wasn’t the Master. The world must be protected and you are its last hope. You will find the flask in my middle drawer. It is quick and painless. A few drops will do. Amelia, you have been as a daughter to me. I am sorry to ask this of you.

Wilfred

Amelia closed the letter with shaking hands and sat on the floor, putting her head in her hands. She thought of Wilfred and the many wonderful things he had taught her. She thought of his sacrifice. Wilfred was always looking out for the greater good even at the cost of his own life. Could she do that now? Could she look out for the greater good at the expense of an innocent life? She thought then of Thomas and the experiences they’d had together. He saved her in the forest. How could she poison him after all of that? Of course, had he accepted training Wilfred would still be alive. What would happen next time he breached untrained? How many would lose their lives because she was unwilling to act?

She had agreed before becoming a trainer that she would do this if called upon. At the time, it seemed such a silly thing. It had never been asked of a trainer before. Now the Keeper of Books had asked her to fulfill that oath and administer the poison.

Amelia fell asleep curled up on the floor of Wilfred’s office with the letter for a pillow. Despite her tremendous exhaustion, she did not sleep well, troubled by dark dreams of Thomashelping the dark wizard whileshe and Kaleb both tried to stop him.

***

I woke up late the next morning very sore, feeling I needed another night’s rest. But I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a good morning to be alive. My thoughts replayed the events of the day before over and over. From my room I could hear my mother and brothertalking. As I got dressed I noticed the book on my desk. I stared in shock. The cover had turned from red to gold. I wanted to open it and see what else had changed but didn’t dare start reading for fear that I would breach and perhaps have to start the whole adventure all over again.

As I sat looking at the cover of the golden book,I thought about my ability and the possibility of no longer using it. I really had made a mess of things by bringing thegauntlet into my world. Because of me, Wilfred had died. Perhaps it would be better if I just stopped reading. I looked around my room at my large collection. Memories of many of the books flashed through my mind. Could I give all of that up? Amelia would be back soon. I had to have an answer for her. The problem was, I was so conflicted,and I didn’t know what to do.

A knock on my door startled me. “Tommy, are you dressed?”

“Yah mom, you can come in.”

“I have some breakfast made if you want. You’ll have to eat alone. For some reason the house is a mess,” she said, turning to go.

“Mom?”

“Yes honey, what is it?” she paused, her brows raised in surprise.

“I have an important decision to make and I don’t know what to do. I could really use some advice,” I said, sitting on my bed.

“Okay, go ahead,” she said, trying not to look giddy.

“I found out I have a skill I didn’t know I had. If I could get more training I could be pretty good at it. But I could also get hurt or even hurt others with it so I am thinking about not usingt hat skill any more. What would you do?”

I knew I’d given her a tough one. “Is this football we’re talking about here? You want to play football?”

“No mom,” I said, feeling a little exasperated. Perhaps it had been a mistake to ask her.

“I’m sorry, Tommy. I should have just answered your question. Okay, let me think for a moment.” She wrinkled her brow before continuing. “In everything we do, especially in learning new things we are bound to make mistakes. That is life. It is what we do after our mistakes that counts. As long as you learn and grow you will know more and be happier than the person who plays it safe and never takes a risk.Does that help?”

“Kinda.” I stood up, “I was hoping you would just give me the answer though.”

“You are getting too old for that, son.” She smiled, “I trust you will make the right decision when she gives you the final offer.”

My shock couldn’t have been more complete. My mother raised her hand, shaking her head when I began to ask how she knew. She gave me a sad smile, closingmy door as she left.

***

Amelia decided to walk to Tommy’s house since she needed time to think. The consequences of the curse were everywhere. People in the city had no idea what had happened. They were cleaning up broken glass and garbagein yards and sidewalks everywhere. The street crews were out, picking up garbage again, much to the relief of homeowners, who were surprised to find their garages and yards filled with bags of smelly refuse. In some places the damage would require weeks of clean-up. Amelia walked by a home that had been burned to the ground. She turned a block and was met by the sight of a little girl crying, sitting on the sidewalk.

“What is wrong,sweetheart?” Amelialeaned down to wipe a tear from the girl’s little cheek.

“My mommy is gone,” she said between sobs.“She took the car and Daddy said he doesn’t know where she is.” She started sobbing again, accepting a hug from Amelia.

“Maybe she was just a long way from home so it is taking a bit for her to get back, honey. I’ll bet she is on the way now.”

The little girl looked up at her hopefully. “Do you really think so? I miss her so much.”

“Yes, I really do. And don’t forget, you have your daddy,which is more than some little girls have.”

The little girl nodded and allowed Amelia to lead her by the hand to her door. “Maybe you should go inside for now. Things are still returning to normal around here and I would feel better if you were safe inside with your daddy until they do. Okay, sweetie?”

The little girl nodded again. Before going inside she stopped and eyed Amelia with a look of adoration.“You must be a good mommy. You make me feel better like mine always does.”

She opened the door and was gone, leaving Amelia on the doorstep, with tears forming in her own eyes. She had never thought about being a mother but the little girl’s words put the image in her mind. She pictured herself for a few moments living a life of normality. A life she had always considered boring. Those few brief moments caring for the little girl felt so precious to her. Perhaps it was the closest she would ever come.

Amelia arrived at the Travers home a short time later. She knew she needed to make a decision. Pulling out the letter from Wilfred, she read again the part that reminded her she had agreed to administer the poison if he did not accept. Finally, she made her decision. If he doesn’t accept, I will honor my vow. I promised I would administer the poison. “I will keep my promise,” she said out loud and rang the doorbell.

***

I opened the door smiling and my grin widened when I saw it was Amelia. From the looks of her, she had not had a very good night. She had bags under her eyes and looked as if she had recently been crying. She was probably in mourning.

I invited her into our sitting room. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Some tea would be nice. My stomach is unsettled this morning after all of yesterday’s excitement. Why don’t you bring enough for both of us?” she said as I left for the kitchen.

I returned a short time later, bearing a pot of tea and two cups on a tray. My mother had helped me prepare it. I didn’t know my way around the kitchen other than pouring cereal into a bowl and adding cold milk. While we heated the water my mom wouldn’t answer any questions. How does she know? What does she know?

She just kept shushing me and saying we would talk about it later. She put the pot and two cups and saucers on a tray and put it in my hands. “If we could talk, it might help with my decision.” I pleaded.

My mother looked at me with a look of compassion.“Honey, I want the decision to be yours. I promise we’ll talk some other time.”

The walk to the sitting room went way too quick. I still had no clue what to do when I got there.

As I set down the tray on the coffee table, Amelia spoke. “Thomas, could you retrieve the book containing the gauntlet? I would like to see it.”

I returned a few moments later, showing her the golden cover.

“That’s odd,” she said, turning through a few of the pages. “I have never heard of such a thing before.” Amelia had poured the tea so I reached for one of the cups. She practically lunged at me, grabbing it from me.

“That is mine, Thomas.” Her reaction confused me. She handed me the other cup.“I have already drunk from this one. Thomas, I will make the offer and then we can raise a cup to your answer. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said, now more than a little confused. Why the awkward formality? I thought we were beyond that. Amelia set down her cup, looking into my eyes. She gave a nervous smile, her voice trembled and she spoke.

““Thomas Travers, I offer you what was offered long ago this last time to you. Training that you may have control, control that you may have knowledge, knowledge that you may have wisdom.  It is for wisdom that the gift was first given and passed down to the Gifted. If you accept, you must agree to all without seeing all.  Do you accept?”

I waited a brief moment, considering for the last time my decision. The cup in Amelia’s hand trembled. She looked like she was ill. Finally, my decision made, I spoke. “Yes, I accept.” I quickly drained my cup of tea to salute the decision.

Amelia looked pale, her eyes rimmed with tears. She walked around the table to me and hugged me. “Thank you,” was all she said.

I still didn’t know what was wrong with her. “Aren’t you going to drink your tea?” I asked.

Amelia took her cup and poured it out into my mother’s plant.

“What did you do that for?”

Amelia lifted her eyes to mine and said, “I hate tea.”

The End

Author’s Note:

Book 2, Secret of the Master can be found [+ here+]

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Gift of the Master

Tommy Travers opens up a book to get lost in its pages. His favorite places are in the stories he reads, and his best friends are the characters inside. He doesn't need anybody else. With books Tommy can do anything, even forget about the father that abandoned him years ago--until, on his fifteenth birthday, he's actually pulled inside. Suddenly the very stories of wizards, warriors, battles and beasts he once escaped into are now what Tommy tries to escape from. He can hardly stay alive, much less be the hero he always pictured himself as. By each story's end he experiences more than he ever could reading a book. But the danger only grows when Tommy accidentally brings a powerful curse back into the real world with him. In this first novel in the Master of Books Series, experience every bookworm's wildest dream as reality and fantasy collide.

  • ISBN: 9781370383542
  • Author: Robert Fluegel
  • Published: 2016-11-23 18:05:17
  • Words: 95084
Gift of the Master Gift of the Master