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.
“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.”
“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.”
Gypsy 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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”