It had been a long day, with the search for my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter yielding no results. I had just finished some late-night work in my office and was looking forward to getting some shut-eye. I was starting to ascend the stairs of our bi-level home when I saw Cleric on the landing, with the front door open. I could barely hear as she whispered to someone standing outside, “I will leave the porch light on for you.” She quietly eased the door closed and left it unlocked. Then she switched on the porch light and turned around.
“Mistress!” Her hand flew to her mouth, and her cheeks flamed scarlet.
I slowly ascended the stairs to the entryway. I tilted my head and studied Cleric. “Getting a little night air?”
“No, Mistress. I mean, yes, Mistress. I was just enjoying the night air. There is a most refreshing breeze this evening.”
“I see. Maybe I should go out and get a breath of fresh air myself.”
“Oh, no, Mistress!” Cleric’s eyes widened and she started fidgeting with her robes. “It is so cool out this evening. I know how easily you chill. We should go to the kitchen where I can prepare a nice cup of cocoa for you before you retire.”
I raised an eyebrow and folded my arms across my chest. Cleric blushed all the more furiously. If her face got any brighter, I would be able to read a newspaper by its glow. “So who was enjoying the night air with you?”
“Mistress?” Cleric started to look around, like a deer about to bolt. I had never seen such a guilty look on anyone’s face.
I furrowed my brow and stroked my chin, puzzled by her behavior. I could not fathom her being in league with my Arrogant One or my Bounty Hunter. The possibility that she had been conversing with Morcant himself, through the milky-eyed grackle that served as his familiar, was even more unthinkable. Cleric had one of the strongest moral compasses of any of my characters. Plus, she had recently suffered the terror and indignity of having been kidnapped by my Arrogant One in his quest to obtain the keys for the evil wizard, Morcant. I could not believe Cleric would have anything to do with any of them. So, who had she been whispering to? For whom was she leaving the porch light on and the front door unlocked?
I stepped toward the door. Cleric’s eyes widened further and she started to slip between me and the door. Just then, Miles appeared at the top of the steps. “Oh, there you are! I was about to send out the bloodhounds! Are you coming to bed sometime tonight, honey?”
“Be right there!” I eyed Cleric quizzically again. I reached around her and locked the door before heading up the second flight of steps.
Miles tilted his head and furrowed his brow as I joined him at the top of the staircase. “What was that all about?”
“I’m not sure. Cleric was whispering to someone as I started to come upstairs. She told someone outside she would leave the porch light on for them, and she deliberately left the door unlocked. She appeared distraught that I had observed this.”
“Well, who would she be talking to that she wouldn’t want you to know about?”
“That’s just it – she shouldn’t need to hide any conversation she has. The only people she shouldn’t be conversing with are my Arrogant One, my Bounty Hunter, or Morcant himself, through his familiar. But I just can’t imagine Cleric sneaking around, conversing with any of them!”
“No, she has always seemed too honorable to become involved with the likes of them!”
As we turned into the hallway to our bedroom, we almost collided with Sorceress. She blanched, and she began to stammer. “Oh! I . . . I am s-so sorry! I did not see the two of you.” Before we could reply, she scooted past us, and I could hear her receding footsteps as she dashed down the stairs.
Miles looked at me. “What’s her problem?”
I furrowed my brow and shook my head. “I have no idea. Usually Sorceress is so poised, so deliberate, so unflappable.”
Miles shrugged. “Well, I’m sure it’s nothing to lose any sleep over.”
Well, maybe he didn’t lose any sleep, but I sure did. All night long I tossed and turned. I spent the whole night thinking about the odd behavior of Cleric and Sorceress, the possible whereabouts of my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter, and whether the two situations were in any way related. The few times I started to drift off to sleep, I woke to the sound of furtive whispers and footsteps in the hallway outside the bedroom door; yet, when I got up and looked, no one was there. When I dragged myself to the kitchen for breakfast the next morning, I felt like I hadn’t slept in days.
I apparently was not the only one. I looked around the table at my characters. Cleric and Sorceress both had dark circles under their eyes; my Old Dwarf couldn’t stop yawning; my Foreman and the lads could hardly keep their eyes open; and they all were barely picking at their food.
“Good morning! My, everyone looks so bright-eyed and bushy tailed this morning.”
My sarcastically chipper greeting was met with some groans and a few scowls.
“What’s wrong? You’re not all coming down with the flu, are you?” Could characters from another world who fell out of a manuscript into this world even get the flu? “Perhaps Cleric should prepare some healing herbs for everyone? Or maybe just some good old fashioned chicken soup?”
Everyone’s eyes widened, and heads shook, as they all assured me they were not sick.
I raised my eyebrow skeptically, but said nothing more. Miles and I got our breakfast and the two of us sat down at the far end of the table.
“Has anyone seen Dragon this morning?”
There was a general stirring of the characters around the table, accompanied by several yawns and various unintelligible grunts and mutters.
Finally, my Young Hero looked at me, bleary-eyed. “Um, I think I saw her curled up on the sofa when I came through the living room.” He looked as if it had sapped all his energy to relate that fact. He slumped in his chair, eyelids drooping and bloodshot eyes unfocused. He picked up his fork and made three attempts at stabbing a piece of flapjack before he just gave up. The fork clattered loudly onto the plate.
My Gypsy jumped at the noise, almost falling out of his chair. “Uh, yeah . . . uh dragon . . .sofa . . .yeah.”
The room grew quiet again, my characters obviously too exhausted for their usual animated banter. I almost hated to disturb them.
“So, has anyone devised a plan for locating my Arrogant One, my Bounty Hunter, or Morcant’s familiar?”
“Eh, I reckon we should jest keep lookin’ fer ’em around here. They couldna ha’ gone far.”
I raised an eyebrow at my Old Dwarf. “We all looked in every conceivable spot on this property yesterday. We checked and double-checked every nook and cranny in the house, the garage, the yard, and the shed. Then we looked all around the neighborhood and along the streets leading to downtown. Where else do you propose to look?”
No one answered.
Miles cleared his throat. “Maybe Sorceress and the Gypsy could try scrying again?”
“I am afraid not, Master Miles. I am not finished preparing my spell components.” Sorceress spoke slowly and softly, like someone suffering the effects of a hangover . . . or a sleepless night. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
I frowned. “I thought you found all the herbs and plants you need.”
“I have, Mistress, but one does not simply use raw ingredients. The components must be carefully prepared. It takes time.”
My Gypsy nodded his agreement. “A long time.”
My frown deepened. I sighed loudly. “Well, does anyone else have any ideas?”
Dragon entered the kitchen just then, yawning and rubbing her eyes, and addressed the question. “I am afraid I do not.” She yawned again. “I have been spending my time considering the situation of which you and I spoke, Mistress. I will continue pursuing this matter and I will let you know if I discover a solution to the problem.”
I nodded. I knew Dragon referred to the problem of examining the magic keys safely, to determine if they could be destroyed before the evil wizard, Morcant, found a way to obtain them and free himself from his eternal exile. That problem was as important as finding my two missing characters and determining if Morcant’s familiar was still hanging around.
Since no one could devise a better scheme, we agreed to just continue keeping a close watch that day for my Arrogant One, my Bounty Hunter, and the milky-eyed grackle that served as Morcant’s familiar. By the end of the day, they still remained at large, and I remained frustrated and uneasy. I double-checked that the doors were locked before retiring for the evening. For the second night in a row, my sleep was disturbed by worries about my characters, by fears regarding the situation with Morcant and his quest for the keys, and by noises in the hallway.
Morning came way too early, and I could barely drag myself out of bed. I did notice that the house seemed strangely quiet. The kitchen was deserted when Miles and I entered it for breakfast. While Miles prepared some French toast, I trudged downstairs to check my office and the conference room. Both were empty. I went back upstairs and checked all the rooms, then stepped out onto the deck and looked around the yard. None of my characters were anywhere to be seen.
Miles placed two heaping plates of French toast on the table. “Where is everyone today?”
I frowned and raked my hand through my hair. “I don’t know. I can’t find them anywhere.”
The morning dragged on. Neither Miles nor I could concentrate on our chores. The lunch table was as deserted as the breakfast table had been. I chewed my food without tasting it, and I stared off into space.
Miles gently took my hand. “Do you think they’re gone? Do you think they have finally found their way back into the pages of your manuscripts and returned to their own world? Or do you think Morcant is somehow behind their disappearance?”
“I wish I knew.” My cheek felt wet, and Miles reached out and wiped away my tear.
“Why don’t we go for a drive? Maybe we can find some birds to photograph, or you could take some pictures of the fall colors.”
I nodded. While Miles cleaned up from lunch, I gathered my camera and gear, and we soon headed out. We made a day of it, and it was late when we returned home. The porch light was on, but the house was pitch-dark. We entered the silent house and trudged up the stairs.
Suddenly, the lights blazed on. A chorus of voices sang out, “Surprise!”
Miles and I blinked. Cleric and Sorceress ran up and took us by the hands. They tugged us into the living room, and over to the sofa. “Come! Sit here!”
I looked around the room at my characters, who were all grinning like Cheshire cats. “What is all this?”
“Yeah, what’s going on?” Miles asked.
My Old Dwarf cackled gleefully at our confusion. “This be a cell-ee-bration o yer birth-ed days!”
Cleric smiled warmly at us, her cornflower blue eyes shining brightly. “We learned that you both celebrate your birthdays this week — you, Mistress, on Tuesday, and you, Master Miles, on Thursday.”
“We have also learned by watching programs on your magic box – that which you call a television – that in this world, just as in our own, friends usually gather to help commemorate such a happy event.” Sorceress smiled and motioned to my Gypsy and my Young Hero, who dashed off to the kitchen. They returned with a beautiful cake and bowls of ice cream.
“We understand special confections are served. The Gypsy and I baked this cake for you, and the others made the ice cream.” My Young Hero grinned as he placed the cake on the coffee table in front of Miles and me.
“You made this?” Miles and I both gaped at my assembled characters.
My Foreman nodded. “And there are presents.”
“Presents? Oh my goodness! Thank you all so much! But . . . but you didn’t have to do this!”
“We know that, Mistress.” Cleric sat next to me and put her arm around my shoulder. “But we have been so much trouble to you and Master Miles, we wanted to do something special for you, to let you know how much you both mean to us all. That is why I was whispering to someone the other night at the front door. The Old Dwarf was going out to the shed to work on his gifts for you two.”
“We all met in the shed that night to work on our presents. That is why we were all so tired the next morning, and why you were unable to find us today. We needed to finish our work.” My Foreman grinned, obviously pleased at pulling off this surprise.
Dragon piped up from the corner. “But do not fear, Mistress, as we all continued to look for our missing companions and for Morcant’s familiar as we worked on this.”
“Wow! I can’t believe this!”
Sorceress cut the cake and everyone took a slice, along with a bowl of ice cream. After we ate, Dragon cleared her throat. “Ahem. We would like to wish you both a most happy birthday, and many more to come.” She pointed to two small piles of gifts next to the couch, one next to Miles and one next to me. “These are just some tokens of our affection.”
There were so many beautiful gifts! For me, there were hand-painted pictures of birds, including a trio of birds painted on antique bottles;
a hand-carved wooden dove;
and several horses, one in the form of a wooden candy dish, one a wooden replica of an antique child’s toy and one carved of snowflake obsidian.
For Miles, the car enthusiast, there was a collection of hand-carved wooden replicas of antique vehicles;
a wooden puzzle;
and an assortment of polished stone marbles that Cleric explained represented a pledge of friendship and protection.
For both of us, there was a matched pair of leather-and-wood camel-saddle footstools.
“I don’t know what to say!” Miles looked at my characters, and at the gifts they had so painstakingly produced for us. “Thank you!”
“Yes, thank you!” I beamed at my characters, happy tears stinging my eyes.
“Now, then, be there any more o thet cake an’ nice cream?” My Old Dwarf rubbed his hands together and smacked his lips. We all shared a hearty laugh at that.
Much later, with full bellies and full hearts, Miles and I headed for bed, after making sure we had left the porch light on. Neither of us noticed the milky-eyed grackle peering in the window.