It sounded like bedlam as I approached the conference room door. Inside the room, my characters were all engaged in loud, animated discussions, and several of them were yelling at each other across the room. The racket ceased the instant I walked through the door.
All eyes were on me, as I took my seat at the round table, and gestured for the others to be seated. I began without preamble. “I assume Cleric has shared with you the conversation she and I had regarding Morcant, the recent appearance of his familiar at my window, and his connection to a set of keys in my possession.”
“Good. I can not emphasize strongly enough the danger Morcant represents…to his own world, to other worlds including this one, and to me personally. He simply can not be allowed to retrieve the keys. Therefore…”
Dragon tugged at my sleeve. Her reptilian brow was creased, and a frown distorted her delicate snout. “Mistress, are you certain the keys in your possession are the ones used to imprison Morcant?” she asked. “When I found them here, I was absolutely positive that they were a set of keys I once had in my treasure trove, an item I collected in my own world when I was still a wyrmling.”
Before I could reply, my Gypsy interrupted. “They can’t be from Morcant’s world; nor can they be Dragon’s keys,” he objected, shaking his head emphatically. “I tell you, I recognized them from a legend I heard countless times as I was growing up. The keys are Gypsy – the bows and the bits are of a unique design. They are quite unmistakable!” he insisted, his voice intensifying.
My Sorceress rose and faced the Gypsy, crossing her arms and narrowing her eyes. “And I still believe them to be keys from my civilization, keys to a magical bridge,” she maintained, scowling.
“I was so certain they were the keys my Order was tasked to safeguard,” my Cleric stated softly, biting her lower lip and looking downcast.
My Old Dwarf jumped to his feet. “Ye all be daft! They be Dwarven keys, ta a great Dwarven treasure! Otherwise, how be it thet I can sense the magic o them?” he demanded, sticking his chin out defiantly and smacking the palm of his open hand with the flat of his battleaxe.
“Sit down and be quiet!” I commanded.
My Old Dwarf looked taken aback, but meekly resumed his seat. The others quieted and waited for me to continue.
“Yes, Dragon, I am certain of the origin of the keys. But you are correct – they are the same keys you added to your treasure trove as a wyrmling,” I disclosed. “How they came to be in your world, I do not know. Perhaps the same way they…and all of you…materialized here, in the real world. Perhaps they fell out of the pages of one manuscript and into the pages of another.” My gaze moved from Dragon’s face to the others around the table.
“They are also the same keys your Order safeguarded, Cleric. They may even be the keys of legend among other societies in your world, which would explain the basis of your beliefs regarding the keys,” I explained, looking at my Gypsy, my Sorceress and my Old Dwarf. “It seems this trio of keys has slipped from world to world, from people to people…or, in some cases, from people to dragons…and from one point in time to another, and now they are here.”
My characters sat and chewed on that information for a while. Finally, my Old Dwarf stood up and began pacing. “Iffin these keys be the keys o Dwarven legend, or o Gypsy legend, or o legend o the civilization Sorceress hails from, why do ye na just be givin’ one o us the keys? Do na we have a claim on em?” He stopped pacing and stood, facing me, eyes narrowed and fists balled at his side.
“The safety of our worlds must be placed above any personal claim or likelihood of profit,” I argued, meeting his steely glare.
“The Mistress is correct,” my Cleric came to my defense. “The keys had been entrusted to my Order to safeguard due to their danger. It was said that they could be used to unleash a cataclysm!”
“Or unlock a monumental treasure!” my Old Dwarf countered with a snort.
“I agree with the Old Dwarf,” my Arrogant One stated, rising from his chair, grasping the front of his cloak and rocking back on his heels in a self-important manner. “How do we know what you say is true? Perhaps you just wish to acquire these riches yourself.”
My Bounty Hunter rose and nodded in agreement, but I cut him off before he could say a word.
“I really don’t care if you believe me or not, any of you!” I retorted, glowering at the assembled group. “I know the origin of the keys, and the dangers of letting them fall into the wrong hands. The keys are now in my possession, where they shall remain. They are magically concealed, so Morcant’s familiar will have no way to locate them, nor will any of you. For your own protection and the protection of both our worlds, I will share the location of the keys with no one, not even Miles. And there will be no further debate on the issue.”
I heard some grumbling, and most of my characters nodded rather reluctantly. However, my Foreman stepped forward, his brow furrowed and his jaw tense. “Are you quite certain, Mistress, that the keys can not escape from their place of concealment, and slip back into our world?”
“If there is any chance of them being a threat to our king, we have a duty to try to retrieve and destroy the keys,” my Young Hero added.
“I assure you, they can not escape nor be taken, either physically or through the use of magic; therefore, they pose no threat to your king, or anyone in your world,” I avowed.
The two characters nodded and visibly relaxed, so I continued, “I have not seen Morcant’s familiar since his initial appearance, but I doubt that he has abandoned his quest to recover the keys. Even though there is no way for him to succeed in his mission, there is no end to the mischief and misfortune he might wreak. Should anyone see a rather runty Common Grackle with milky white eyes, drive him off.” My tone invited no argument.
My characters nodded, all but my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter. The two of them huddled together, whispering and giving the rest of us sidelong glances.
Doing my best to ignore them, I proceeded to the next issue. “Now that that matter is settled, I understand we had visitors recently,” I commented, feigning innocence.
Suddenly, the floor, the ceiling, or their own hands and feet seemed the most fascinating objects my characters had ever seen, as they shifted and fidgeted uneasily in their chairs. I waited, but not one of my squirming, red-faced characters replied.
Well?” I finally demanded. “Did we, or did we not, have visitors?”
Blushing furiously and biting her lower lip, my Cleric replied cautiously, “Well, yes and no, Mistress.”
“Yes and no?” I quirked an eyebrow and crossed my arms in front of me. “Which is it? Yes or no?”
“Technically,” Dragon offered, in a shaky voice, “It is both.” She shrank to the size of a mouse, and scurried under my Cleric’s robes, where she peeked out at me, trembling.
“Explain!” I thundered.
More squirming and fidgeting ensued. Finally, my Sorceress stepped forward. “Five people were here two weeks past. They came seeking answers to the mystery of the keys. We each told them what we knew…”
“Or what we thought we knew,” my Cleric interjected, wringing her hands.
“When it became obvious to them that definitive answers could only come from one source, they requested an audience with you,” my Gypsy continued the explanation.
“Then why didn’t you summon me?”
“It was quite late, Mistress, and…” my Cleric faltered.
“And we had no wish ta be disturbin ye at thet hour, lassie” my Old Dwarf finished her statement.
I quirked an eyebrow. “Oh, really? Since when do any of you worry about disturbing me, at any hour?”
“Actually, we feared that we had already revealed too much to the visitors,” the Gypsy said, hanging his head.
“So, what did you do?” I asked, remembering other times they were called upon to exercise their problem-solving skills. I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead.
Dragon, still mouse-sized, slowly emerged from beneath my Cleric’s robes. Gradually, she increased in size, until she could look me in the eye. She squared her shoulders and set her jaw. “We four,” she confessed, indicating herself, my Cleric, my Gypsy and my Sorceress, “joined hands and used our combined powers to send them back in time. We sent them back to the moment they had arrived on our street. Then, before they could determine the correct house, we turned out the porch light. They assumed they were lost, and they left.”
“So, you see, technically we did have visitors, and we did not have visitors,” my Sorceress finished with a smirk.
I stood there, gaping at the foursome. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or terrified that they were able to manipulate time and space that way. Before I could find my voice, my Cleric tilted her head and stroked her chin.
“Mistress, it just occurred to me, we might be able to use a similar spell to send Morcant’s familiar back to his own world. Once there, he would not be able to return here, as he needs to follow the magic signature from the keys in order to slip from world to world. As long as the keys are concealed, there will be no magic energy to follow.”
My Arrogant One’s head shot up at that. “Why have you never revealed the extent of your power?” he snarled. “If you can do that, you can use your magic to return us all to our own world!”
“We can not,” replied my Sorceress somberly.
“And just why can’t you?” my Bounty Hunter demanded, pushing past my Arrogant One to confront the foursome.
“Because,” Dragon replied, “even with our combined power, sending someone between worlds is dangerous. If the distance is too great, our energy could be drained before the completion of the spell, with disastrous results.” She thrust her face toward him and grimaced, revealing her mouthful of razor-sharp teeth. “Would you care to risk that possibility?” she asked.
My Bounty Hunter recoiled, and blustered, “Why you accursed beast! I should…”
Smoke poured out of Dragon’s nose. I stepped in between them, and pushed my Bounty Hunter back to his side of the table. “Sit down!” I commanded vehemently, shoving him into his chair.
I turned back to Dragon, who shrank a bit from my stern glare. “If the spell is so unreliable and potentially dangerous, are you sure you should attempt it on Morcant’s familiar?”
“Would it really matter if the bird met with disastrous results?” my Sorceress asked, coldly.
I frowned. “Actually, it would.”
My Sorceress quirked an eyebrow at me, and shrugged.
“Let me give this some thought. In the meantime, if we should have any more visitors, I want to be notified immediately, regardless of the time or circumstances. Is that understood?”
All of my characters nodded. I rose and walked out of the room, which came alive with the buzz of hushed conversation as soon as I left. I walked upstairs, pausing by the front door to look outside. The sun had set an hour ago, and the darkening street was empty. Some birds were still calling softly from their roosts in the trees, and a dark shadow winged overhead.
I thought about Morcant, trapped in the tower for eternity. I thought just how much longer eternity could seem, if his familiar were to be lost to him. Even Morcant’s crimes did not seem to warrant endless isolation, I mused.
I sighed wearily, and tried to push aside the troubling thoughts. I turned on the porch light and headed upstairs to sleep. Attracted by the light, a visitor entered the front yard. Just beyond the reach of the soft glow of the lamplight, an undersized and bedraggled Common Grackle with milky white eyes half hopped and half flew to a tree branch. He cocked his head and watched me through the window as I ascended the stairs, then settled himself for the night, hidden among the leaves.