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.
“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.”
At 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.