Dragon slowly released my Arrogant One, and my Bounty Hunter helped him to his feet. The elf was white as a ghost, weak-kneed and trembling like a leaf. As he rose, several items fell from his robes and clattered to the floor. I gasped at the sight of a silver talisman, an iron horseshoe, a ruby ring and a royal seal.
As I bent to retrieve the items, they slowly dissipated in a shower of sparks. I whirled to face Dragon. “I thought you said these items were real, that they were not illusions, they had not been conjured.”
Dragon gaped at the bare spot on the floor where the items had been. She seemed as startled as was I. “They . . . they were real. I examined them. And, even had I not, I am the only one here capable of producing solid illusions.”
“Mebbe so. Mebbe nay.” My Old Dwarf stood, axe raised, guarding my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter. “Them gew-gaws be soundin’ pretty solid ta me.”
The color was returning to my Arrogant One’s face, and with it, the elf’s smug attitude returned as well. “You always did underestimate my skills and power, beast!” He sneered at Dragon.
Black smoke billowed from her nostrils. “You contemptible creature! You pompous, puffed-up popinjay! Power? Skill? You possess neither, in great quantity. You are a sham, a fraud! You deal in chicanery, misdirection, and sleight of hand!”
The elf narrowed his eyes. “I will not tolerate such insolence!”
Dragon lowered her head, bringing her nose to nose with my Arrogant One. “Tolerate? Insolence? Brave words from a tasty morsel.” She grimaced, displaying her maw of dagger-like teeth.
“Enough!” I raked my hand through my hair. “This is getting us nowhere. I want answers, elf, and I want them now.”
“I have done nothing for which I must answer, most especially not to you or your oversized pet.”
Dragon growled a loud warning, and I stepped between her and the elf.
“Look, if you do not care to be her next meal, perhaps you’d best lose the attitude and just answer my questions.”
My Arrogant One glowered at me, and started to offer a retort, but my Bounty Hunter placed a restraining hand on the elf’s arm. “No sense antagonizing anyone. You may have great power, but it will be most difficult to wield it from the belly of the wyrm.”
I narrowed my eyes and studied my Bounty Hunter, still trying to determine his role in these incidents. I turned back to my Arrogant One. “You would be wise to listen to your friend, elf.”
“And if I do not? If I refuse to stay here and be insulted and misused? Certainly, you do not expect me to believe you would allow your beast to eat me?” He rocked back on his heels, his narrow-eyed glare and his tight-lipped smile daring me to prove him wrong.
I mirrored his cold smile. “If you do not stay and answer my questions in a civil manner, I will be forced to remind you . . . quite graphically . . . of my own power.” I paused, gauging the elf’s reaction. When I saw I had his attention, I continued. “I am The Writer. While Dragon may be able to devour you, and other characters may be able to harm you through the use of physical attack or magical assault, I am the one who can literally unmake you. I can delete every mention of you from my manuscripts. You will cease to exist.”
The elf blanched, but made no reply.
“Right. Now I think we should retire to the conference room and sort everything out.” I gestured toward the stairs. My Arrogant One glowered at me, but my Bounty Hunter took him by the elbow and urged him along.
At the conference room, my Old Dwarf took his place in the hallway by the door. “I be guardin’ the door here, elfie, so do na be tryin’ ta go nowhere, ceptin the lassie be tellin’ ye to.”
The look my Arrogant One gave my Old Dwarf is probably the one found in the dictionary, illustrating the idiomatic phrase if looks could kill. “Stop calling me elfie, you boorish, dim-witted ruffian!” If his voice got any higher, I feared the neighborhood dogs would start howling.
“Oh, I be so sorry! I be meanin’ no disrespect, Yer Most Highest Annoyin’ One.” The old reprobate snickered and took his place at the door while Dragon and I prodded the other two into the room.
Once inside the room, my Bounty Hunter released his grip on my Arrogant One’s arm. “Well, no need for me to remain. I would only be in the way.” He turned to go, but found his way blocked by the dwarf. “What I said ta the elfie I be meanin’ fer ye, too. Ye do na be tryin’ ta go nowhere, ceptin the lassie be tellin’ ye to.”
My Bounty Hunter raised his eyebrows and shrugged, then sauntered to the table and sat down. My Arrogant One flounced over and threw himself into the chair next to him, rubbing his arm where his companion had been holding it. I took a seat opposite them and Dragon reclined on the floor by her conjured fireplace.
I studied the elf and his confederate while I formulated the questions I needed answered. My Bounty Hunter sat motionless, and met my gaze with unwavering poise. My Arrogant One crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his foot. He kept shooting nasty looks at Dragon. She, in turn, rolled to her belly and rearranged her bulk into a sphinx-like position, with her small arms curled like a cat’s under her chest, and her wings folded neatly out of the way. The elf looked away from her and gave his companion a sidelong glance, but the Bounty Hunter never took his eyes off me.
After a long few moments watching this interplay, I cleared my throat and addressed my Arrogant One. “Okay. You created illusions of four very interesting items. Care to tell me why?”
A range of emotions flickered across his face – amusement, defiance, fear, disinterest, cunning. Finally he raised his chin and looked down his nose at me. “Simply practicing my craft. If one does not constantly hone one’s skill, one can not possibly improve.”
“Indeed. Now, if there is nothing further, I will take my leave. I grow bored.” He began to stand.
Black smoke drifted from Dragon’s nostrils. “Stay bored.” She bared her multitude of impressively sharp teeth. “Unless you grow bored of living.”
My Arrogant One slumped back into his seat. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. I tried to hide a smile. Judging from the look the elf shot me, I was not very successful.
“Okay, let’s just pretend I believe you. What made you choose those specific items with which to practice your skills?”
The elf waved his hand dismissively. “They were just four random items.”
I raised an eyebrow and tilted my head. “Really?
He jumped from the chair, cheeks flaming, and lips contorting into a snarl. “You dare suggest I lie?”
“Why do you care what illusions I create?”
“They seemed most unremarkable items to me.” My Bounty Hunter leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs and folding his arms across his chest.
He nodded, his face devoid of expression.
“Uh-huh.” I turned back to my Arrogant One. “Unremarkable?”
I placed my hands on the table, templing my fingers. “I see. Well, in order to create an illusion of an object, you must be fairly familiar with it. Otherwise, how could you make the illusion look real? So when did you come into contact with these four items? The real items, that is.”
Again, my Arrogant One waved dismissively. “Oh, I must have seen them at some point in time. I really do not remember exactly when.”
“Where did you see them?” I fixed him with a steely gaze.
“Well, somewhere back in my own world, of course.”
“Really? I don’t remember you ever seeing any of those items in your world. I never chronicled you seeing them.”
“Well, I . . . I must have. How else would I know what they look like?”
“I think you saw them here.”
“Those items were here?” My Bounty Hunter raised his eyebrows.
“They were. They are. And I think both of you have seen them here.”
“Well, I for one have not.” My Arrogant One’s voice was petulant and he tossed his head defiantly. “But even had I seen them here, what difference does that make?”
“I am trying to determine if the items I have seen here were real, or just illusions you created.”
“They were real!” Dragon jumped to her feet. “I examined them. They were real.”
I noticed a sly smile tugging at the corners of my Arrogant One’s mouth.
I raised my hand, silencing Dragon. “I want to hear the elf’s answer.” I turned to him. “Well? Were the items I saw here before today real or were they illusions?”
He shrugged. “How should I know what you saw?”
“Was today the first time you created these specific illusions?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my Bounty Hunter lean forward slightly, studying the elf, waiting for his answer.
My Arrogant One shrugged again.
I rounded on my Bounty Hunter. “What do you know of this?”
“How would I know anything?”
Dragon growled. “This is pointless. We will get no information from these two!”
I rose from my chair and paced the length of the room and back. “Perhaps you’re right, Dragon. I guess I’ll go start editing my manuscripts, removing some characters.”
“Wait!” Fear flickered in my Arrogant One’s eyes. “I . . . I have conjured these illusions several times recently.”
“The items I saw previous to today were your illusions?”
“No.” He spoke so softly, I had to strain to hear him.
“Why did you create these illusions?”
“The Bounty Hunter and I saw you find two of the items, the talisman and the horseshoe. We discovered where you were keeping them, and found the other two items with them.”
The elf turned to his companion. “The Bounty Hunter convinced me that if I could duplicate these items through illusion, we could use them.”
I furrowed my brow. “For what purpose?”
My Bounty Hunter scowled. “I thought if we could convince you someone in our world sent them as a way to request help, you would be more agreeable to finding a way for us to return to our own world.”
I sighed. “I keep telling you, you are already in your own world.”
My Bounty Hunter looked uncharacteristically flustered. He stood and took a few steps toward me, his hands balled into fists at his sides. His eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. When he spoke, his voice was ragged. “You keep telling us we exist in both places at the same time. You have offered us what proof you have, which amounts to nothing more, really, than your own observations and conclusions.” He stood there, shaking his head. “Mistress Writer, I am a Bounty Hunter. When I awoke one day and found myself in this world, I had been in the middle of a mission, hot on the trail of my quarry. I need to know, Mistress Writer, beyond all shadow of a doubt, that I am really still in my world, completing my mission, even as I stand here before you.”
He went back and slumped into his chair. When he continued, his voice was small, empty. “I thought if we could create the impression that one or more of your characters from my world – dear friends of the other characters here – you . . . or the other characters . . . would finally find a way to return us to our world, or find proof positive that we are, really, still there.”
I sighed and raked my hand through my hair. “Well, I guess that explains some things. But it leaves a lot of questions still unanswered.”
“Indeed.” Dragon nodded. “We are really no closer to solving the mysteries than we were before. Who created the magic conduit that allowed the items . . . the real items . . . to enter this world in the first place, and for what purpose?”
“Yes. And is there a connection between those items entering this world, and the fact that my husband sometimes talks and acts as if he were the Innkeeper?”
Be sure to come back next week as we continue to search for answers. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.