The Keys, part 4 – The Mystery Resolved

The Keys, part 4 – The Mystery Resolved

The house seemed preternaturally quiet that afternoon. Miles was gone for the day, running some errands and scouting out the local yard sales. In spite of the beautiful spring weather, I had closed the doors and windows against the cacophony of birdsong, traffic noise, neighborhood lawnmowers, and the dull thud of sword and ax on shields as my Old Dwarf and my Bounty Hunter held weapons practice in the back yard for the amusement of my other characters.

lilacs-1287880_1280I had hoped to take advantage of the peace and quiet of the empty house to work on the next chapter of Book Three, but I could not concentrate. A profusion of lilac bushes were in full bloom in the front and back yards. In spite of the closed windows, the heady fragrance permeated the entire house, making me drowsy. As I sat on the couch, I began to nod, and my mind began to drift.

Images crowded my befogged brain. Keys, heavy gold keys secured on an unbreakable ring…a tall, sinister figure in flowing black robes…an impregnable stone tower, devoid of door or window…and something else…

I tried to drag my mind back to consciousness, but ended up with the words of Poe tiptoeing through my mind – “…suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping…”

No, wait. There was something tapping. I jolted fully awake. I cocked my head and listened. The tapping started again, this time louder and more persistent. It seemed to be coming from the guestroom. I rushed in to look. Something was outside the window. For a split second, I thought something had slipped out of Poe’s poem; but the black bird sitting on an overhanging branch of the ironwood tree, pecking at my window frame, was not a huge, imposing Raven but an undersized, bedraggled Common Grackle.

I went to the window and opened it. “Shoo! Stop pecking on the house! I don’t need it full of holes!”

The bird did not fly away. Instead, it slowly sidled along the branch, drawing closer to the window. It hunched over, almost appearing to bow to me. When it raised its head, I found myself looking into milky white eyes. My mouth went dry and my knees almost buckled.

Morcant's familiar

The bird shifted on the branch, getting as close to the window screen as possible. He ruffled his feathers, shook his tail, and opened his beak. “Good morrow, accursed witch! How fare thee, these many long centuries?” he croaked.

“Morcant!”

The bird fixed me with his opalescent stare. “It gratifies me that you have not forgotten me,” it said in a voice not unlike fingernails on a chalkboard.

“How did you get here, Morcant?” I demanded.

“As you must know, cunning one, it is not I upon whom you gaze. I remain locked away in the same dark tower to which you condemned me.”

“So, how did your familiar get here?” I glared at the bird, a figure with whom I was well-acquainted.

Keys 015“He followed the energy of a certain set of keys as they slipped from world to world, along magical conduits and enchanted paths,” the bird replied in Morcant’s voice.

“Well, he can just turn right around and follow those same magical conduits and enchanted paths directly back to your world, where he belongs!”

“Methinks not, beldame. He has followed the keys to your world, where, no doubt, you summoned them. Their magical signature has disappeared, but I am most certain you are still in possession of the keys. My familiar will not return without them.”

“Really?” I quirked an eyebrow and folded my arms in front of me. “I assure you, Morcant, the keys are, and will remain, out of reach of this pathetic creature.”

“Really?” Morcant’s voice echoed my own from the bird’s gaping beak. “Perchance my familiar can convince one of your retinue to retrieve them. To my mind, they should not be that difficult to persuade. Especially a certain Bounty Hunter, or an exceptionally greedy elf.”

“You’ve been spying on me,” I accused. “Well, it doesn’t matter, Morcant. The keys are out of reach of all and sundry. Now, recall your familiar before I feed it to my Dragon.” My eyes narrowed and I took a step toward the window.

The bird squawked, and hopped to the ostensible safety of a higher branch.

Morcant changed tacks. “Surely I have paid for my crimes. Have you no pity?” his familiar cried entreatingly. “It has been seven long centuries since I have felt the sun and the breeze upon my skin; seven long centuries since I have feasted my eyes on the outside world or heard the voice of another human, save through the eyes and ears of my familiar.”

“You’re breaking my heart, Morcant. Your punishment fit your crimes, and it has been a scant few years, not centuries, since you were exiled to the tower. And,” I reminded him, “it was not I who locked you away, it was the inhabitants of your world, those that remained after you rained down death and destruction on their villages and cities.”

“Years in your world, maybe, but many lifetimes in mine. And you were the one who created the locks, penned the incantation, and hid the keys,” he charged.

“I only recorded the events as they unfolded, Morcant.”

The grackle screeched in anguish. “Nay, crone! Had you not penned the vile words…”

The tirade broke off abruptly, as the grackle took wing. Below the window, my characters looked up at me.

“Did you call us, Mistress?” my Cleric asked.

“No,” I replied quickly. “I was…er…chasing a bird. It was pecking holes in the window frame.” I closed the window and lowered the blinds, ending the conversation.

I turned and collapsed onto the bed, as my rubbery legs could no longer support me. For long minutes I lay there, my heart racing, my palms sweaty, my mouth desert-dry. Finally, I pushed myself up and swung myself out of bed, nearly colliding with my Cleric.Elf

 

 

 

 

 

“Mistress, what is the cause of such distress?” she asked, wide eyed.

I shook my head and placed my finger over my lip. I gestured for my Cleric to follow me. Once in the hallway, I whispered to her to wait there. I went into the master suite, unlocked a cedar chest and retrieved an antique document box, crafted of mirrorwood and decorated with fine marquetry in the form of runes and mystic symbols. I returned to my Cleric, motioning for her to remain quiet and follow me. The others were in the kitchen, preparing lunch, so we tip-toed down the stairs and entered the conference room, closing the door behind us. I placed the box on the table, and we sat down.

“That is the box I gave you some time ago,” my Cleric noted. “This must have something to do with the keys.”

I nodded. “When you gave me this box, you said that it could prevent magical detection of any object locked within it. However, before I secured the keys within the box, someone found their magical signature and followed them here.”

“Who, Mistress?” My Cleric’s eyes were as big as saucers, and she leaned forward in her chair, eager to learn more about this trio of keys.

“His name is Morcant. Actually, Morcant himself isn’t here, just his familiar.”

“His familiar? Then he is a magic user.” It was a statement, not a question. My Cleric is conversant in the ways of magicians.Morcant

I nodded. “Morcant was…is…an evil wizard,” I explained. “He is from another world – not this world, the real world, and not the world from which you come. I wrote about him some years ago. He was the most powerful wizard in his world, and probably the most evil person who ever existed there. He used his magic to kill and destroy, in an attempt to rule his world.”

“What happened to him?” my Cleric asked.

“He was tried in absentia by the judicial system in his world, and found guilty of atrocities too numerous to list. Their prescribed punishment was exile, but they did not know how to enforce the exile of a wizard. A coven of good witches put their minds to the task. It took them five years, but they finally devised a way to trap Morcant for all eternity.”

“They trapped him? How did they do that, Mistress?”

“One of the witches lured him into a tower with the promise of an artifact of enormous power. Once he was distracted by the object, she slipped out, closing the door behind her. The other witches rushed in to lock the tower. They had constructed three magical locks in the side of the tower, and crafted three magical keys. The three keys were inserted into the locks and turned at the exact same moment. The top and bottom keys were turned clockwise, while the middle key was turned counterclockwise. Once the keys were turned, Morcant was sealed inside the tower forever.”

My Cleric sat there, mouth agape, eyes almost popping out of her head. Finally, she declared, “That must be extremely powerful magic, Mistress.”

“It is,” I agreed somberly. “The tower itself is enchanted. No one can break into it by physical force, nor can Morcant break through the walls to free himself. He can not break through the floor to tunnel out of the tower. There is no physical means of escape.”

My Cleric gasped. “But what of the windows?”

“When the tower was sealed, the windows and doors disappeared, leaving only solid stone walls.”

“But that is a death sentence!” my Cleric objected. “There is no way to deliver food! He will starve to death!”

“He needs no food,” I explained. “He is not only trapped in that place, he is trapped in time. Yet, through his psychic connection to his familiar, who was not trapped with him, Morcant is aware of the passage of time outside the tower. He is also aware that his familiar has followed the magic energy of the keys and has discovered that the keys have somehow fallen into this world, and I now have them in my possession.”

“So the familiar desires to take the keys back and free his master?”

“That is his wish,” I agreed, “though the chances of him freeing Morcant, even if he had the keys, are very slim.”

“Oh?”

 

“The locks and the keys are also enchanted,” I explained. “Each key has a unique bit that will only fit its own specific lock. If a key is inserted into the wrong lock, the lock will be destroyed. If the keys are not turned at the exact same moment, and in the proper directions, the locks will not unlock. And to insert all three keys into their respective locks at the same time, the keys must first be freed from the magic ring that holds them.” I unlocked the box, and took out the set of keys. “See? The ring is unbroken. It has no split anywhere in the metal, where the keys can be taken off the ring. On the ring, they can not be held far enough apart to reach the three locks all at the same time, nor can they be turned. And the ring is enchanted to be indestructible.”

“So why do you need to keep the keys hidden in the enchanted box?” my Cleric asked.

“As an added precaution,” I explained. “If magic could create these keys and their corresponding locks, perhaps greater magic…or pure, dumb luck…can defeat them. And Morcant can never be allowed to leave that tower. The consequences of that event, both to his world and to myself, whom he blames for his predicament, are too horrible to contemplate!”

My Cleric nodded her understanding.

“I will keep the keys locked in this box, and keep the box itself under lock and key in an undisclosed location. You may share with the others what I have told you, but I alone will know the location of the keys.”

“I understand, Mistress.”

We left the conference room, and started up the stairs.

“So, now…why don’t you tell me all about the visitors we had last week?” I gave my Cleric a sidelong glance as I reach past her to turn on the porch light. She was blushing bright red.

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The Keys, part 3 – The Mystery Continues

The Keys, part 3 – The Mystery Continues

The energy in the conference room was almost tangible. The five visitors were exhausted from their trip; yet, not an eyelid drooped, not a head nodded, not a yawn escaped. All five were on the edge of their seats, eager for the characters to explain the mystery of the keys. Dragon, in her guise of an elf, was the first to take up the tale.

Elf cleric

“The keys are from another world, a world you know only through the writings of our Mistress. It is the world from which we come,” she explained to the visitors, gesturing at herself and the other characters around the conference room table. “I obtained the keys when I was rather young. Although I had the keys in my possession, I had no idea what they might open. I only knew that I must not allow them to be found or taken…but by whom, I could not say.”

“How did you come by the keys, luv?” Mary asked.

“How dare you interrupt us, you tiresome creature!” the Arrogant One snarled. “If you wish to learn, then hold your tongue and let us continue!”

Mary’s eyes widened, her mouth dropped open and her face flamed beet red. She tried to sputter a reply, but the Old Dwarf saved her the trouble.

“Dinna ye be warned afore ta shut yer pie hole, ye twit?” he demanded of the Arrogant One. “Let the lassie be askin’ er questions. Methinks I be liken ta know, too, how Dragon here happened ta git those keys.”

“Oh, well, if you wish to know, then by all means, continue!” The Arrogant One jeered at the Old Dwarf, then turned away, with his nose in the air. Mary gave the Old Dwarf a grateful glance, and he grinned back at her and winked.

Dragon cleared her throat, and all eyes were on her as she continued. “Well, Mary, I added the keys to my treasure trove many centuries ago, after I acquired them from someone who…who had no further need of them,” she explained delicately, studiously examining her fingernails as she spoke.

The visitors’ eyes widened, and they blanched as they grasped Dragon’s meaning. Arlene and Susan, who were sitting closest to Dragon, scooted their chairs away. Dragon squirmed uncomfortably, and a flush crept across her delicate elven cheeks. No one spoke.

Debi finally broke the awkward silence. “How did you know that you needed to keep the keys from being found or taken, Dragon?”

“Dragons are magical creatures, Debi,” Dragon explained, “and we can sense magic in objects around us. I could almost taste the power that emanated from the keys.”Keys 003

“You know the keys are magic, but you don’t know what they open?” Dawn quirked an eyebrow skeptically.

Dragon shook her head. “The…former owner…did not share that information with me before I relieved him of the keys, Dawn. He was a vagrant, a vagabond, so he had no home that the keys might have unlocked, and he had no locked chest the keys might fit. There was nothing else among his possessions that provided a clue to what the keys might open. Still, with the powerful magic I detected, I knew they must not fall into the wrong hands.”

“Did you bring the keys with you when you came into this world?” Susan asked. “Is that how they came to be here?”

“Actually, Susan, I no longer had the keys in my possession when I fell out of the pages of the manuscripts The Mistress penned, and arrived in this world. The keys had long since passed into the possession of others,” Dragon explained.

“Then how did they come into this world?” asked Debi.

“The Mistress knows I have a compulsion to hoard shiny objects, Debi, and she often hides baubles around the house for me to find. One day, I found the keys among some shiny trinkets under a chair in the living room. The keys must have dropped out of her books, the same way all of us did, and landed under that chair. I recognized them at once, and hid them in my lair, under my other treasures.”

The visitors nodded, and Arlene mused, “So now we know how the keys came to be here, and we know they are magic.” She frowned, and rubbed her chin. “What else can you tell us?” she asked. “How did the rest of you discover the keys were here, and why were you all trying to acquire them?”

All the characters tried to speak at once, attempting to shout over one another. Finally, Dawn yelled over the pandemonium, “One at a time!”

“Who should go first?” Susan asked.

“I will!” the Gypsy quickly replied. There was some grumbling among the others, but Arlene put her hands up and quieted them.

“Let him begin,” she instructed them. “You’ll all get your turn.”

GypsyGypsy nodded his thanks, and started. “I was just entering the living room when Dragon found the keys. I saw them, and immediately recognized them from a legend oft told in my village – the bows and the bits are of a unique design. If they are the legendary keys, they will unlock enormous magical knowledge, and they should be returned to my people.”

“Ye be daft,” the Old Dwarf shouted, slamming his fist on the table. “They be dwarven keys!”

“What makes you think so?” Mary asked.

Dwarf“Well, lassie, dwarves be unmagical. As a rule, we can na do magics, and we be immune to the effects o most magics. But I felt the presence o the magic keys! Iffin I be feelin the magic, it must be rare dwarven magic! There be a legend among me people o a great treasure guarded by the magics o three keys. So, the keys oughta be returned ta my people.” The Old Dwarf glowered at the Gypsy.

The Sorceress shook her head, and stated, “I, too, can sense magic in an object, as I am the most powerful sorceress among my people. From the moment the keys fell into this world, I could feel them. And I believe they belong to my people.”

Stu-04-NatGal

“Why do you think that?” Susan asked.

“As with the Gypsy and the Old Dwarf, there is a legend among my people of a set of keys. The keys will restore a great magical bridge that once connected our island nation to the mainland.”

“So, any of you three might have a valid claim to the keys.” Arlene reflected on all that had been revealed. “And what of you two?” She addressed the Foreman and the Young Hero. “What is your interest in the keys?”

“We both serve the king of a great nation in our world,” replied the Foreman. “We feared the keys might open something that would be a threat to our king and our land.”

“Without proof of what these keys are and what they might open, we felt it our duty to investigate, and to take control of the keys, if possible,” the Young Hero explained.

The visitors exchanged glances, and nodded. “That seems reasonable,” Dawn replied. And what of you, Annoying One? What is your interest in the keys?”

“How dare you, you impudent little…”

Dawn cut him off, raising her hands in a conciliatory manner. “Oh, sorry,” she said in a voice that plainly indicated she was anything but. “I meant Arrogant One.”

Arrogant One

The others tried to hide their amusement, turning away and covering their faces; all but Debi and the Old Dwarf, who doubled over with laughter. The Arrogant One’s eyes narrowed, and the cords on his neck stood out. He stared at them all with vile intensity until they all fell silent. Finally, he answered, in clipped tones. “My interest in the keys is purely pecuniary. The proceeds of the sale of those keys would afford me a fitting lifestyle for many years.”

Dawn rolled her eyes and Susan pursed her lips.

“And you, Bounty Hunter?” Debi addressed the mysterious figure still lurking in the shadows on the other side of the table.

Bounty Hunter

“I am employed by someone who wishes to add the keys to his collection of magical antiquities,” the Bounty Hunter replied, nonchalantly.

 

The visitors all eyed him skeptically, but did not dispute his account.

That just leaves you, Cleric.” Arlene turned to the raven-haired elf. “Tell us what you know about the keys.”Elf

 

“When I saw the keys, I had a feeling I had seen them before. Through meditation, I was able to recall certain facts. My clerical order had, long ago, been given a set of three keys and charged with their safe keeping. If these are those same keys, I feared them falling into the wrong hands. It is said that they can be used to unleash a cataclysm!”

“So you and Dragon arranged for the keys to pass into Marge’s possession?” Susan asked.

“Yes. We do not know who among us has a legitimate claim to the keys; nor do we know if they are dangerous or benign. Dragon and I felt it best if The Mistress was the only one who knew their whereabouts. She has them safely stored in a box that prevents their magical energy from being detected, even by those well versed in magic.”

“You just left the keys where Marge or Miles would find them, right? So, how did Marge know that the keys needed to be safeguarded? Wouldn’t she think they were just a decorative item?” Arlene asked the Cleric.

The Cleric tilted her head, and furrowed her brow. “She knows, because she is The Mistress.”

“Then she does know what they are, what they unlock?” Mary asked, moving to the edge of her chair.

“Yes. She knows each possibility. She is The Writer.” The Foreman replied with conviction.

“She is a charlatan,” sneered the Arrogant One, “who knows nothing more than what we tell her. She is a chronicler, not a creator!”

Debi frowned. “Then you do not believe she knows what the keys are?”Keys 015

“Of course not,” the Arrogant One replied, smugly.

“Then why did she place them in the box to safeguard them and shield them from magical detection?” Susan challenged.

The Arrogant One’s eyes narrowed, and he glowered at Susan, but could not provide any explanation.

“I think if we are to discover the real answer to this mystery, we need to talk to Marge,” Mary decided. Her companions agreed.

The Cleric looked thunderstruck. “I am so sorry, but that will not be possible this evening!” Her eyes were as big as saucers, and she was wringing her hands.

“Why not?” Arlene asked.

“Perhaps some other time,” the Sorceress suggested. She casually moved to stand at the Cleric’s side. Dragon and the Gypsy joined them. The four magic users linked hands and mumbled something.

* * *

Arlene steered the vehicle off the main road and into the small development. The neighborhood was pitch dark, save one porch light in the middle of the block. “Well?” she asked, as she pulled over to the curb and shifted into park. “What do you think?” She turned to the woman sitting next to her.

“I’d be a lot more confident if your GPS hadn’t gone on the blink,” Debi admitted, “but if I’m reading this map correctly, this should be the right street. And, there is a porch light on at that house.”

As they sat there, debating, the solitary light winked out. “Let us see that map,” Mary said, and Debi handed it to the three passengers in the back seat. After a few minutes, Susan sighed deeply and declared, “I think we’re lost!”

Dawn agreed, and added, “I guess we’re never going to find the answer to the mystery of the keys.

 

Inside the house, Cleric was wringing her hands. “If The Mistress finds out what we have done, that we have tampered with time, she will be very angry!”

Dragon, back in her true form, nodded and blew a puff of smoke from her nostrils. “We couldn’t allow those visitors talk to her, though. They were much too clever! Just wait until they drive away, and we’ll turn the porch light back on. The Mistress will never know.”

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The Keys, part 2 – In Pursuit of The Mystery

The Keys, part 2 – In Pursuit of The Mystery

Arlene steered the vehicle off the main road and into the small development. The neighborhood was pitch dark, save a solitary porch light in the middle of the block. “Well?” she asked, as she pulled over to the curb and shifted into park. “What do you think?” She turned to the woman sitting next to her.Fixtures Light Elegant Lighting Fixture And Supply Company Intended For Front Porch Light Fixtures Front Porch Light Fixtures

“I’d be a lot more confident if your GPS hadn’t gone on the blink,” Debi admitted, “but if I’m reading this map correctly, this should be the right street. And, there is a porch light on at that house.”

Arlene’s brow furrowed, as she studied the house. “Gee, I wish Ollie had made the trip with us. At least he’s been here before,” she lamented. “What do you think, Mary?” she asked, turning around to look at one of the passengers in the back seat.

“Don’t ask me, luv!” Mary protested. “All these streets look alike to me.”

“How would you know?” Dawn scoffed, folding her arms in front of her. “You’ve been sound asleep for the past hour.” She snorted and shook her head.

“Oh, bugger! Can I help it if I have blooming jet lag?” Mary grumbled, frowning deeply.

“Ladies!” Susan said in a disarming tone. “I know it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and we’re all exhausted, but there’s no reason to be cranky with each other.”

Dawn and Mary looked at each other sheepishly. “Sorry,” they both said.

“So, is this the right street or not?” Arlene pressed.

“I really can’t tell,” Susan admitted, and Dawn just shrugged.

“Well, we better decide soon, before some insomniac looks out their window and decides to call the police about a suspicious car sitting in the middle of the street,” Debi advised.

Just then, the door to the house with the glowing porch light opened, and someone stepped outside.

“You mean like that insomniac?” Mary asked.

Before Arlene could put the vehicle in gear and pull away, the figure waved to them and gestured to Arlene to pull into the driveway. “I guess that’s our answer,” she said as she swung the big SUV off the street and parked it in front of the two-car garage. “This must be the place.”

The group spilled out of the vehicle, groaning and stretching. Arlene turned to speak to the individual from the house, but that person was already walking back to the door.

“I guess we’re supposed to follow her?” Debi frowned and rubbed her neck. She looked around at the others. A few nodded, but Susan hesitated.

“I’m not so sure about this. Should we really follow some person we’ve never met into a strange house?” she asked, cocking her head and quirking an eyebrow.

“Well, I don’t think it’s any more foolish than standing here, scratching our…” Debi started to reply, but the stranger cut her off, calling in an urgent whisper for the group to follow her.

The five weary travelers looked at each other uncertainly. Finally, Mary piped up. “Well, maybe I’m off my trolley, but I didn’t come all this way just to turn back. Come on! We’ll jolly soon get it all sorted out.”

Elf facing rightAt the door, the stranger, a female with delicately pointed ears, thick dark tresses and cornflower blue eyes, turned and spoke softly. “Welcome, curious readers! I am the Cleric. Please keep your voices down until we are all seated in the conference room. We do not wish to disturb the Mistress and her husband.”

“But I thought we would get to meet Marge and Miles,” Susan protested.

“Oh, I am sorry!” The Cleric chewed on her lower lip, uncertainly. “Perhaps, if you are still here when they arise in the morn…”

The Cleric was cut off mid-sentence by another individual who had joined them on the porch, a fair-haired, green-eyed male elf dressed in elegant silk robes. “What, are we not good enough for you?” he demanded, sneering. “You would rather talk to that incompetent scribe who chronicles our adventures?” He shook his head and flashed a cold smile. “Perhaps you do not realize how privileged you are that we have chosen to meet with you instead,” he said smugly.

Arrogant One

That statement was met with several titters from the group.

“The Arrogant One!” Arlene confided knowingly to the others. “Boy, Marge sure described him accurately!”

“Right cheeky monkey!” Mary agreed.

The others nodded, and the annoying elf gave the entire group a piercing glare.

“We came here…” Debi started to explain.

Again the Arrogant One interrupted. “We know why you came. Now, be nice little readers and follow me to the conference room. And do be quiet! We do not need that meddlesome scrivener joining us!”

The group stood there, wide-eyed and mouths agape. Finally, Debi asked the others, “Can you believe that one? I don’t see why Marge needs the likes of him in her books!”

Dawn snickered. “I think we need to give Marge some ideas on how to eliminate him…painfully!” The others nodded and laughed.

“He is rather irksome,” the Cleric confessed in hushed tones, “but, alas! He is, most regrettably, vital to the book the Mistress currently pens.” She gestured for the others to follow the Arrogant One down the thickly carpeted stairs of the tidy split-level. “Turn left at the bottom of the steps, and you will find the conference room,” she instructed them.

The group made their way down the stairs and to the left. As promised, a rather large, ornate door directly before them opened to reveal a huge conference room.

Dawn looked at the room. She rubbed her chin, and her brow furrowed. “Didn’t Marge describe this room as small?” she asked the others, uncertainly.

“No, I don’t think so,” Arlene responded. “I think this is where she brought her characters when her office proved too small to hold them all.”

“That’s right,” Susan agreed. “Still, this is much larger than I had expected.”

“It looks right big for the house,” Mary commented.

Debi nodded, adding, “Yeah, it does. We saw the width of the house outside. This room could span two houses this size.”

“It is an idea we borrowed from the greatest sorcerer in our world,” the Cleric informed them proudly. “The room…”

The Arrogant One interrupted, snapping at her, “That is of no concern to them!” He turned and glared at the group huddled together at the doorway. “Well, don’t just stand there like a bunch of fence posts. Come in and get settled, so we can get this over with…”

“Eh, do na git yer breeches in a tangle!” someone warned the Arrogant One gruffly. A grizzled old Dwarf with a long beard and a twinkle in his eye shoved the annoying elf aside and addressed the group. “Ye do na be payin’ thet one no mind! Ye be mor’en welcome here. The Mistress al’ays be leaving the porch light on, so’s none o’ her readers be trippin and hurtin themselves. Come on in and git yerselves sitted down.”

Dwarf

 

 

 

 

The group entered, but remained tightly bunched by the doorway. They looked about timidly. There were several individuals already seated at the large round table. The Old Dwarf quickly made the introductions.

“Thet there on the other side o the table be the Foreman, and the two lads aside em be the Gypsy and the Young Hero. Next ta them be the Sorceress, and skulking back there in the shadows be the Bounty Hunter. Ye already met the Cleric and the Insufferable One, er I mean the…”

“How dare you?” the Arrogant One demanded, his lips twisted in a snarl. “You know perfectly well my name is…”

“Oh, ye best be shuttin yer pie hole! It don’t make much nevermind who ye be, or what ye be callin’ yerself. We all know what ye be, and thet be insufferable!” The Old Dwarf stood toe-to-toe with the Arrogant One, his face red and his hands balled into fists at his side.

mens-991728_1280

The Foreman jumped from his chair and quickly limped over to separate the two. “Is this any way to act in front of guests?” he hissed at them. The Old Dwarf started to sputter a reply, but a look from the Foreman silenced him. The Arrogant One flounced over to a chair and threw himself down, pouting. The Foreman, a man of military bearing who walked with the aid of a thick oaken stick, turned to the visitors who all stood there agape. “Please pardon our manners,” he said with a courtly bow. “If you will all find seats, we can commence.”

Gypsy“I thought we were having a little snack first,” the curly haired Gypsy protested, gesturing toward the buffet table set up at the far end of the room.

 

Young hero 2“Yes,” agreed the red-headed Young Hero. “We raided the refrigerator, and there’s plenty of roast beef and makings for sandwiches.” He looked at the food longingly.

 

The Arrogant One wrinkled his nose. “There are also fruits, nuts, and other selections for those civilized individuals who, like me, disdain the consumption of animal flesh.”

Stu-04-NatGal

“I still don’t know how you elves survive on that stuff you eat,” the Gypsy commented, making a face as if he were gagging.The Sorceress, an exotic looking figure in silk and voile, nudged the Gypsy and frowned. She nodded toward the visitors and quirked an eyebrow. The Gypsy ducked his head and muttered, “Sorry.”

 

The visitors stood rooted in place, their eyes darting about the room uncertainly. Finally, Arlene spoke up. “Thank you so much, but really, we couldn’t eat a bite. It is almost three in the morning. Not exactly dinner time.”

Someone behind her giggled and trilled, “For the lads, it’s always dinner time.”

Arlene and her companions turned and found themselves face-to-face with a large dragon, whose great bulk could barely squeeze through the oversized door and whose wide smile revealed an alarming number of dagger-sharp teeth. As one, the group took several rapid steps back. Debi and Arlene paled at the sight of the hulking beast. Mary’s legs turned to jelly, and she plopped rather awkwardly into a chair. Susan started to hyperventilate and Dawn’s eyes were bugging right out of their sockets.

 

Another dragon“Oh, dear!” Dragon giggled again. “I’m sorry,” she said in a voice ringing with amusement. “I seem to have that effect on new acquaintances. Except Ollie…” Dragon’s voice got dreamy. After a few seconds, she shook herself and continued, “I assure you, I have no intention of having any of you for a snack.” She smiled, trying to look reassuring and failing miserably. She continued, “We know you are here because of what The Mistress wrote about the keys. You are, undoubtedly, curious. Why don’t we all sit down and my companions and I will tell you the story as we know it.”

Keys 015

The visitors cautiously edged away from Dragon and took their seats. The resident characters were all seated as well, all but Dragon. She stood there, eyes half closed, thrumming softly. After a few moments, she started to shimmer. As everyone watched, Dragon shape-shifted, shrinking in size and taking on the form of an elven maiden. The visitors all gasped. Dragon and the Cleric could have passed for twins.

Elf cleric

“There, now, not so scary like this, am I?” Dragon smiled. She took her place at the table and began.

“It all started a long time ago, in a world you only know through the writings of our Mistress.”

The visitors listened in rapt attention as the characters spun their tales.

 

Upstairs, in the master bedroom, Marge stirred. “Honey?” She reached over and shook Miles’ shoulder.

“Wha?” he mumbled. “What’s wrong?”

“Do you hear something?”

Miles sat up and listened. “No, I don’t hear anything.”

“Well, something woke me up.”

“Probably just the lads, raiding the refrigerator again. Or Dragon, searching for more shiny trinkets.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Marge paused, her brow wrinkled in thought. “Honey?” She shook Miles again.

“What now?” he said, trying to stifle a yawn.

“Did we leave the porch light on?”

“Don’t we always?”

Marge smiled and the couple drifted back to sleep.

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The Keys

The Keys

Another dragonDragon stirred, shifting around restlessly. She raised her delicate snout and sniffed the air. She emitted a soft growl, and looked about for the source of the faint scent she detected. She saw no one. The doors to the closet she had claimed as her lair in this strange world remained tightly closed.

Grumbling, Dragon squirmed about and repositioned herself atop her pile of treasures, mostly shiny trinkets the Mistress of this world had hidden for Dragon to find. The Mistress seemed to understand Dragon’s compulsion to hoard shiny objects. The Mistress seemed to understand a great many things, Dragon mused. She might not, however, understand the keys, Dragon feared. Dragon herself did not understand them. She only knew she must not allow them to be found, to be taken, though she knew not by whom they must not be found or taken.

Keys 003

Carefully, she rooted through the pile of shiny gewgaws. The keys had been there earlier, before Dragon fell asleep – three heavy gold keys on a large ring. She had placed them on the floor of her lair and carefully piled up the other trinkets atop them. Now she painstakingly poked through the baubles and gimcrack until she saw the keys, still there, undisturbed. Sighing, Dragon curled up and drifted slowly back to sleep.

 

Gypsy

Beads of sweat formed on the Gypsy’s brow as he peered through the crack between the closet doors. Wary of being discovered by the beast within, he meticulously pronounced an intricate spell under his breath. At the conclusion of his incantation, the Gypsy was able to see the interior of the closet as clearly as if he had turned on a floodlight, yet no one else observing the area would be able to see anything but darkness.

The Gypsy settled himself by the doors and watched. Dragon was moving about, checking her trove of sparkly whatnots. The Gypsy squinted, trying to discern the contents of that cache. He saw a large collection of shiny tools, and bits of polished copper pipe, but not the items he sought. He squirmed about, trying to see the rest of Dragon’s pile. As Dragon moved out of his way, the Gypsy was able to see several pieces of flatware, along with a silver picture frame, and two flashy gold-plated bracelets. Finally, the Gypsy sighed in relief. The keys, all three of them, were still there. With a whispered word, the Gypsy extinguished the spell, and slunk out of the room.

 

Stu-04-NatGal

The Sorceress peered into the scrying bowl full of magical liquid. She saw a watery image of Dragon poking about the pile of shiny bric-a-brac the beast called her treasures. The pile was quite large, larger than the Sorceress had expected. She strained to see the individual objects more clearly, intoning the words to strengthen the power of the scrying spell. Suddenly, the Sorceress gasped. She glimpsed a magical shimmer from the bottom of the pile. As she concentrated on strengthening her spell, the shimmer intensified, and took on a distinct outline. Without a shadow of a doubt, the trio of keys was there. The Sorceress smiled weakly, then fell back, exhausted. A few moments later, the Foreman and the Young Hero furtively slipped out of their hiding spot behind the Sorceress, and quietly stole out of the room. They gave each other knowing looks, and crept back toward the kitchen.

 

 

The Old Dwarf paced around the garden. He knew the keys were somewhere within this world. Though incapable of magic, the Old Dwarf could nonetheless feel their presence. He felt them most intensely within the house of the Mistress of this world. It hardly surprised him. It had been that woman, after all, who had brought them all here, torn from their own world. She denied it, of course, claiming she had no knowledge or understanding of how they had come to be here, in her world. DwarfThe Old Dwarf’s eyes narrowed, and he spat. He knew better! How could she not have caused it? And now, he mused, she must have somehow seized the keys as well. The Old Dwarf paced some more. He stroked his long, grizzled beard and pondered the situation. He must find the keys, regardless of the consequences. He checked his battleaxe. The blade was sharp, honed to a fine edge. The Old Dwarf grimaced, then snuck back inside the house.

The Bounty Hunter remained motionless in the shadows as the Old Dwarf skulked through the garden and entered the darkened house. Giving the Old Dwarf a reasonable head start, the Bounty Hunter followed, silent as a cat. He entered the house, and slipped along the hallway toward the guest room. He froze, as the door to that room started to open. Quickly, he concealed himself in the bathroom, keeping the door open just a crack. He watched, barely breathing, as the Gypsy tip-toed past, heading toward the kitchen. When he was sure the coast was clear, the Bounty Hunter emerged, and quietly changed direction, going to the conference room.Bounty Hunter 2

 

 

 

The Cleric sat at the conference room table, wringing her hands. She jumped when the door opened, and the Bounty Hunter entered. He put his finger to his lips, motioning the Cleric to remain silent, and quickly closed the door. For many long minutes, he stood with his ear to the door. Finally, he straightened and addressed her. “I apologize if I gave you a fright, Milady. I did not know anyone would be here at this time. Did someone call a meeting?”

“Why, no, I do not believe so,” she replied, trying to sound nonchalant. “What brings you here at this hour?”

“I often roam the house when sleep eludes me,” he replied, his eyes narrowed. “And you?”

“Oh, I was just…meditating,” the Cleric replied, swallowing hard. She gave the Bounty Hunter a sidelong glance. “You seem to be trying to avoid someone,” she observed.

Elf cleric

“I feared I may have awoken Mistress Writer,” he explained. “I do not relish the thought of being on the receiving end of that woman’s temper.”

The Cleric gave an understanding nod. “She can be quite…shrill.”

“Well, I shall leave you to your meditation, Milady. Good night!” The Bounty Hunter left, and the Cleric collapsed back into her chair.

The Arrogant One stepped from behind the draperies, sheathing his dagger. “Quick thinking,” he commended the Cleric. “A Cleric meditating. Very believable.”

“I do not like this,” the Cleric replied, wringing her hands again.

Arrogant One

“It matters not if you like it or no,” the Arrogant One scoffed. “We can permit no one from this world to find those keys until we understand their purpose. Nor can we allow that Bounty Hunter to lay claim to them. We know not by whom he may be employed.”

 

 

“I realize that,” the Cleric replied in a small voice, “but I will not be party to violence.”

“Ye might na have a choice, lassie” the Old Dwarf stated, as he entered the room. “We do na know who be lookin’ fer these keys, or why they be lookin’ fer ’em.”

“From what I have seen, everyone in this house, save Mistress Writer herself and her spouse, has been looking for them.” The Arrogant One stated. “The Gypsy, the Sorceress, even the Foreman and the Young Hero.”

“But these are our friends,” the Cleric objected. “We should work together…”

“Are they?” The Arrogant One cut her off, and raised an eyebrow skeptically.

“They are,” the Cleric declared emphatically, crossing her arms in front of her.

The Arrogant One stared at her, taking her measure. Finally he decided, “Perhaps you are right, Mistress Cleric. All but the Bounty Hunter, that is. He has not been here long enough to have earned our friendship nor our trust.”

“Ye speak wise words,” the Old Dwarf said, nodding his approval. “We need ta be gittin’ everyone, save the Bounty Hunter, here tomorrow night fer a meeting.”

“But what of the Mistress?” The Cleric was still wringing her hands.

“She can not know about the keys!” the Arrogant One insisted. The Old Dwarf agreed, nodding and thumping the flat of his battleaxe on his open palm.

“But…but you would never harm her, would you?” The Cleric’s eyes widened.

The Old Dwarf was unable to meet the Cleric’s eyes. “I be doin’ what needs ta be done, lassie,” he replied with a catch in his voice.

“No! No, you can’t!” she cried.

“We’ll discuss this tomorrow night, at the meeting,” the Arrogant One declared, cutting off any further dispute. He and the Old Dwarf turned and left the Cleric standing alone in the middle of the room. A tear slipped down her cheek.

The Cleric threw herself back into her chair. She hid her face in her hands and sobbed quietly. Finally, no more tears would come. The Cleric sat up straight, squared her shoulders and set her jaw. She resumed her meditating, reaching out with her mind, searching for the answer. By morning, she knew what must be done.Elf

 

 

“Hey, honey, have you noticed how quiet it’s been lately?” Miles asked me as we turned off the television and headed for bed.

I nodded. “I have noticed,” I replied. “It’s been weeks since my Foreman and the lads have raided the refrigerator. My Old Dwarf and my Bounty Hunter haven’t been holding target practice in the living room. My Sorceress hasn’t been burning anything with the sparks from her glamors. My Arrogant One hasn’t demanded a staff meeting to discuss his role. Even my Cleric hasn’t been around. And Dragon hasn’t been collecting any more of the trinkets I leave around the house for her.”

“Are they still here?” Miles asked. “Or have they found their way back to their own world?” His eyes lit up at that thought.

“I have no doubt they’re still around here somewhere,” I replied with a sigh. “Make sure we’ve left the porch light on. Maybe one of my readers will let me know what my characters are up to.”

I went into the bedroom as Miles went down to turn on the porch light. When he came back, he was holding a set of three large gold keys on a ring. “Did you leave these on the front doorknob?” he asked me.

Keys 015

 

“Not me,” I replied.

Miles shrugged. “I bet they’d look nice on your office wall,” he said, holding them up and admiring them glittering in the lamplight.

“I better not hang them in my office,” I said with a chuckle. “Dragon might add them to her hoard.”

“Yeah, you may be right,” Miles agreed, laughing.

I took the keys from Miles and examined them. They were heavier than they looked, and felt very warm. Suddenly, I gasped, and my eyes widened as I recognized the keys.

“These keys need to be kept hidden,” I exclaimed. “I’ll lock them up in the old box my Cleric gave me a few weeks ago.”

Miles frowned, but nodded. He had long since stopped questioning events that involved my characters.
Across the hall from the master bedroom, the Cleric eased the door of the guest room closed. She sighed deeply, and smiled. The keys were safe now, safer than in Dragon’s lair, safer than in the possession of any of her companions, though they might not agree. But the Cleric knew. And she knew that the Mistress knew, as well. It had all come to the Cleric while she was meditating. Then, it had just been a matter of explaining it to Dragon.

Hours later, the Cleric and Dragon quietly slipped downstairs. At the front door, they turned on the porch light, which Miles had forgotten all about when he found the keys.

 

“Perhaps some of Mistress Writer’s readers will stop by, and we can explain to them about the keys,” whispered the Cleric.

Dragon nodded. A puff of smoke from her nostrils encircled the two companions, and took on the shape of a key.

The Case of the Missing Tools

The Case of the Missing Tools

My characters came sprinting into the laundry room, drawn by the loud clatter of the washing machine followed by an even louder string of my more colorful expletives.

Dwarf

“Lassie, whatever be the matter?” my Old Dwarf gasped, wide-eyed and breathless. He wielded his great battle axe and looked about for whatever monsters needed slaying. He was backed up by my Bounty Hunter with his crossbow, my Gypsy with his dagger, my Young Hero with his morningstar, and my Cleric with her staff and her healing herbs.

I looked at them, all ready to defend me to the death, and answered sheepishly, “Oh, this darn washer is acting up again. It didn’t drain, and it started jumping around like a thing possessed.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Possessed?” My Cleric pushed past the others to scrutinize the situation. She frowned and reached for her pouch of herbs. “I am not certain I have the proper components for a demonic exorcism, Mistress, but I will give it my best effort.”

“I said like a thing possessed, not that it is possessed.” I laughed. “There is no need for any exorcisms.”

“Are you quite certain, Mistress?”Elf facing right

“Quite.”

My Cleric’s shoulders slumped, and her normally bright eyes clouded. She sighed deeply. “You know, Mistress, ever since we fell out of your manuscripts and took up residence in your world, I feel you have greatly undervalued us, and the contributions we could make here. I especially feel you have not utilized my abilities to their greatest potential.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, but there will be no exorcisms.” My tone invited no further discussion.

“Well, there must be something we can do to help!” my Gypsy asserted. “A little magic, perhaps?” He grinned and waggled his eyebrows.

I was not amused. “No! No magic! And what you can do is absolutely nothing!” I replied, scowling at the lot of them. “I’ll call the repair service.” I turned toward my office, and added under my breath, “again.”

My Gypsy’s sharp ears picked up that last comment, and he stated in a loud stage whisper, “Oh, yes, please do, Mistress. They were ever so much help all the previous times you had them here.”

I ignored him. I have a service contract with my utility company that covers all my appliances, so the repairs were free. That is a price I find extremely attractive, so I don’t mind if they don’t get it right the first few times.

I dialed the number from memory and went through their automated phone system. After choosing all the correct options, I was, as usual, immediately placed on hold. A recorded voice sweetly informed me that all service representatives were helping other customers. The disembodied voice went on to inform me that all calls were taken in the order received, and cautioned me to remain on the line. Then I was treated to some soothing music (I think it might have been a crossover thrash version of the 1812 Overture), blessedly interrupted at regular intervals by the sweet voice endlessly repeating how much they appreciated my business and assuring me that a customer service representative would be with me shortly.telephone1

Ninety minutes later, I was finally connected with a live being, whose tired, irritated voice contrasted sharply with the sweet tones of the automated system. After taking all the pertinent information, the representative assured me that a service technician would be dispatched the next morning, sometime after 8 am.

I returned to the laundry room to find my characters still crowded around the washer, jabbing and poking at it as if they could prod it back to life.

“Okay, why don’t you all go back to whatever it was you were doing before all this excitement?” I suggested.

“Are you quite certain we can do nothing to help, Mistress?” my Cleric inquired.Elf

 

“There’s nothing you can do,” I assured her. “The service technician will be here tomorrow. And while he is here, all of you are to make yourselves scarce. He won’t need any help.”

 

“Of course,” my Gypsy replied, his voice ringing with insincerity.

“I mean it. If even one of you miscreants so much as pokes your nose into this room tomorrow, I’ll…”

“…write you all out of the books,” the entire group intoned. I guess they’d heard that threat a few times.

Catching the murderous look in my eye, my Cleric hustled the others out of the room. The last I saw of them, they were disappearing up the stairs, whispering urgently among themselves.

 

Repairman

The following day, the repairman arrived bright and early at the break of noontide, and got right to work. About two hours later, I heard a knock on my office door. “Excuse me, ma’am, but are there any children in the house?”

I frowned. “No, why?”

“Well, I seem to be missing some tools, and a metal clamp. I had just set it all out, and had to go out to my truck to get one more item. When I came back, the tools and clamp were gone.”

“That’s strange,” I replied, trying not to choke. “Are you quite certain?”

“Ma’am, I can hardly be mistaken. I had it all spread out on the floor in front of the washer. I was gone for less than five minutes. When I came back, the stuff was gone.”

I rose from my chair, and suggested we go take a look. Sure enough, the items in question were nowhere to be seen. My jaw tightened, and the vein in my left temple started to throb. I’ll kill them! I’ll delete each and every one of them from the manuscripts and replace them with characters that know how to stay in their own world and do as their writer tells them!

“Why don’t I just run upstairs for a moment?” I tried to think fast. “There are no children here, but I do have several relatives visiting. Perhaps one of them wandered off with your things.”

The repairman frowned. “If any of your relatives did take the items, ma’am, I’ll have to report it to my supervisor. Our company takes a dim view of pilfering.”

I started to sweat, imagining how I could possibly explain the theft of these items by characters out of a book. “I’ll be right back,” I promised, and I tore up the stairs.

My Foreman and the lads were, predictably, raiding the refrigerator. “Okay,” I accosted them without preamble, “where’s the stuff?”

“What stuff?” My Gypsy and my Young Hero asked in unison.

“The tools and the clamp that disappeared from the laundry room the minute the repairman’s back was turned,” I replied in a hoarse whisper, trying not to screech.

“We had nothing to do with any disappearing tools,” my Gypsy asserted with a frown. “We’ve been here for the last half-hour, having a bite of lunch.”

My Foreman nodded. “It’s the truth, Mistress. The lads have been here with me.”

“Then who?” I asked. I could not imagine my Cleric stealing anything; and while I would not put it past my Bounty Hunter or my Old Dwarf to indulge in a bit of thievery, I could not understand what interest they would have in the tools.

“Disappearing items seems more the purview of the Sorceress, I would think,” retorted my Gypsy, still sounding aggrieved that I had suspected him.

My Young Hero nodded, but my Foreman frowned. “The Sorceress may have the ability to make things disappear, but she would have no motive,” he mused. He chewed his lower lip for a moment, then asked, “Mistress, are these tools shiny?”

I nodded, comprehending. “DRAGON!” I screeched.

Another dragon

I raced into the guest bedroom, and threw open the door of the large walk-in closet my Dragon had claimed as her lair. Sure enough, on the wide built-in shelf at the back of the closet, there was the great beast, curled up and feigning sleep. She lay atop a small pile of shiny trinkets. In addition to several pieces of my flatware that had gone missing some months ago, a silver picture frame, two flashy gold-plated bracelets, and a set of large, gold keys poked out from beneath her bulk.

“Dragon!”

She opened one eye and yawned.

“Dragon, where are the tools and the clamp you took from the laundry room?”

“Tools? Clamp?”

“You know what I’m talking about…” I started to say.

My Young Hero gently pushed me aside and addressed my Dragon. “You really must return the items, my friend. We shall all be in serious jeopardy if you do not.”

My Dragon giggled, and trilled, “But they are so shiny!”

 

“I know. But it is not honorable to steal.”

Dragon

My Dragon stared at my Young Hero, her eyes wide. She sucked in her cheeks, and snorted a puff of smoke from her flaring nostrils. “I did not steal them!” she protested defensively. “I merely borrowed them to admire them more closely.”

“Well, if you will allow me to relieve you of these borrowed items, I will see that they are returned to their rightful owner, and no dishonor will be visited upon you,” my Young Hero promised her tenderly.

My Dragon stared for many long moments into the guileless green eyes of her friend. Finally, she nodded and moved aside, her head held high and her dignity intact. My Young Hero gathered the tools and the clamp, but shook his head when I reached for them.

“Nay, Mistress, I promised my friend I would see these items back to their rightful owner, and I shall.”

Tools

He and I walked down to the laundry room. “I apologize for the trouble,” he said to the repairman as he returned the items. “I fear my pet collects shiny objects, and when she saw these unattended, she just made off with them.”

The repairman chuckled and asked, “What do you have? A crow? A kitten? A ferret?”

“A dragon,” my Young Hero called back over his shoulder, as he walked out of the room and left me to face a bewildered repairman. I merely shrugged, and went back to my office.

That evening, I decided to prepare roast beef, a favorite of my Young Hero and his companions. I made certain there were plenty of leftovers for their midnight raid on the refrigerator. Before going to bed that night, I scattered a few shiny trinkets around the house, where my Dragon was sure to find them. And I left a pink rosebud on my Cleric’s pillow, hoping she, and the others, would feel less unappreciated.

 

If you’d care to see the great repair job the service technician performed on my washing machine, I’ll leave the porch light on for you. I just recommend you leave any shiny objects at home.

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