Dragon 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.
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.
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.
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. The 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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.