Lunch was an awkward affair, eaten in uncomfortable silence. I watched as my Old Dwarf, my Foreman and the two lads kept shooting dirty looks at my Bounty Hunter. The latter seemed completely unperturbed, perhaps even amused judging by the smirk that tugged at the corners of his mouth. As soon as they all finished eating they quickly excused themselves and left the room.
“I’m glad that’s over.” Miles started to clear the table. “I wasn’t sure if your Bounty Hunter was going to get out of here in one piece.”
I gathered the glasses and silverware and followed Miles to the sink. “Yeah, if he doesn’t stop trying to stir up trouble, one of my other characters is going to throttle him good and proper, although he appears singularly unconcerned.”
Miles rubbed his chin thoughtfully as I filled the dishwasher. “He did put you on notice some time ago that he is not going to stop looking for a way to return to his own world, or at least force your other characters . . . and you . . . to search harder for a way for it to happen.”
I sighed. “Yeah, I know. He won’t accept my theory that he and the others are already in their own world, existing simultaneously in both worlds. I really do feel sorry for him and all my other characters who have fallen out of my manuscripts. They never asked to be here. They’re homesick, and they’re doing their best to learn how to live with foreign customs, and deal with advanced and – to them – alien technology. They’re cut off from everything and almost everyone familiar. In one way, I can’t blame any of them if they continue to search for a way home, even if I do not believe it possible. But my Bounty Hunter and my Arrogant One go about it in such an adversarial way, stirring up as much trouble as they can.”
Miles nodded. He took a washcloth and wiped the table as I started the dishwasher. “There. All clean. Are we bringing the books back here to continue reading?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think we can chance my Bounty Hunter or any of my other characters joining us. We need to do this in private.”
“The conference room?”
“Nope. Since they missed lunch, I assume Dragon, Sorceress and Cleric are still using the conference room.”
“That’s right. Aren’t they’re trying to determine if it is possible for your characters to enter their own world?”
“I thought your Gypsy was supposed to be working with them, but he was with us at lunch. What happened?”
I frowned. “I saw him with them earlier. I don’t know why he didn’t stay. And my Old Dwarf had been guarding the door for them while they worked, but he was at lunch, too. Since we have to stop by the conference room to pick up the books, I’ll ask Dragon. Then we’ll go to my office.”
“Should I bring my shovel?” Miles chuckled and winked at me.
“No more cracks about the condition of my office, thank you very much! There’s enough room to get in the door and over to the desk. No shovel required!” I poked him in the ribs, and we headed down the stairs. We were on the landing when I suddenly remembered. “Oh, by the way, that phone call at lunch? That was James. He received my e-mail.”
“Oh? What did he say about it?”
I started to reply, but as we reached the bottom of the stairs, I was startled to see my Old Dwarf standing guard at the door to the conference room. “I thought you went out in the yard with my Foreman and the lads after lunch. How did you get back down here so fast, and without us seeing you?”
My Old Dwarf looked at me as if I had just sprouted another head. “Eh? What be ye talkin’ aboot, lass? I be standin’ here the whole o the morn and right through the midday meal. I never be desertin’ me post!” He sounded affronted at the very idea.
Miles frowned. “I saw you at lunch, too.”
The old reprobate shook his head. “Methinks ye both be daft!”
I quirked an eyebrow. “There are times I think so, too.”
“So, what be bringin’ ye two down here?”
“We need to do a bit of reading. Since you are still here, can I assume that Dragon and the others are still at work in the conference room?”
“Aye. They be hard at work. But the big beastie tolded me iffin ye came lookin’ fer yer books, I should be lettin’ ye in.”
I pushed open the door as quietly as I could to avoid distracting the occupants of the room. Still, Dragon’s sharp ears caught the almost imperceptible squeak of the hinges. She looked up from her grimoires and magical tomes and waved me in. She pointed to a chest in the far corner of the room. “I have integrated my magical protective grid into the fabric of Cleric’s enchanted box, and enlarged it to accommodate the books. The receptacle is absolutely secure. No one will be able to detect its contents and it will only open for you or me.”
“Thanks, Dragon. I appreciate that.” I looked around and saw Cleric and Sorceress deep in conversation with my Gypsy. “Dragon, has my Gypsy been here with you the entire day?”
The big beast tilted her head and peered at me as if trying to determine my reason for asking. “Yes, the Gypsy lad has been here. His insights have proven most valuable.”
“He hasn’t left the room, even for a short time?”
“And, to the best of your knowledge, has my Old Dwarf been at his post by the door since his arrival this morning?”
Dragon narrowed her eyes and black smoke started drifting from her nostrils. “You know as well as I, nothing could cause that one to abandon his duties. Nothing.”
I frowned, and rubbed the back of my neck. “Well, Miles and I just finished lunch. My Foreman, my Young Hero, and my Bounty Hunter ate with us . . . as did my Gypsy and my Old Dwarf.”
Dragon blinked. The smoke from her nostrils grew thicker. “You mean someone who appeared to be the Gypsy lad and someone who appeared to be the dwarf were with you at lunch.”
“Uh-huh. Or perhaps the ones at lunch were the real ones?” I raised an eyebrow and looked at her questioningly.
Dragon went to the door and seized my Old Dwarf. She dragged him into the room, ignoring his sputtering and cursing. She held him fast and called to my Gypsy. “Gypsy! Come here.”
My Gypsy came running over and Dragon grabbed him by his arm. She stood there, holding tight to both characters. They both struggled to yank themselves free of her vise-like grip. My Old Dwarf raised his war axe, but Dragon shook him like a rag doll until he dropped it.
“Be still!” Her voice filled the room like thunder. Both my Gypsy and my Old Dwarf stopped struggling and fell motionless.
Motionless, but hardly quiet.
My Old Dwarf’s voice grew every bit as loud as Dragon’s. His face was deep red and his scowl would have given pause to most creatures. “What be the meanin’ o this, ye daft beastie? Be ye tryin’ ta rip me arm outten me shoulder?”
My Gypsy also protested. “Yes, what are you doing? Why have you assaulted us in this manner?” It was clear from his expression he thought Dragon had gone completely mad.
Dragon gave them both another shake. “Stand still. Do not move an inch.” She tentatively loosened her grip on them, and they stood there gaping at her and rubbing their sore arms.
Miles entered the room and he, Sorceress, and Cleric all tip-toed over and stood next to me. “What is going on?”
“Deception and chicanery.”
The three of them looked at me and frowned, not comprehending. I held up my hand and gestured toward Dragon.
Dragon sniffed my Gypsy and my Old Dwarf. She poked and prodded them, then flicked her snake-like tongue over their faces as they both sputtered in protest. Finally, she mumbled a brief incantation and examined them once more.
She turned to me. “These are the genuine articles.”
“Then, the Gypsy and the dwarf at lunch today were illusions?”
“I presume so.” Dragon’s pronouncement was accompanied by a billowing cloud of smoke.
Miles frowned. “Your Arrogant One at work again?”
I nodded. “Most likely.” I turned to my Old Dwarf and my Gypsy. “Find my Bounty Hunter and my Arrogant One and bring them both here.”
The old reprobate nodded grimly, retrieved his axe from the floor where it had fallen, and took off up the stairs at a dead run, my Gypsy hot on his heels.
Miles and I hardly had time to tell the others what had transpired before and during lunch, when my Old Dwarf and my Gypsy brought their quarry into the room.
My Bounty Hunter draped himself casually into a chair, one booted foot propped up on the adjacent seat. My Arrogant One just stood there, his nose in the air.
I narrowed my eyes and faced the two of them. “Talk.”
“The elf was merely practicing his craft. No harm done.”
Before I could respond, my Arrogant One turned toward me, looking smug. He drew himself up and rocked back on his heels, grasping the front of his cloak. “I have been improving with practice, have I not? Not one of you present at lunch could detect that your precious dwarf and Gypsy were not real.”
“I would have been able to tell.” Plumes of smoke poured from Dragon’s nose, and I could see sparks in her great maw as she spoke.
“Perhaps.” My Arrogant One shrugged.
I frowned. “For what reason did you create these illusions?”
The annoying elf stuck his nose in the air again. “As the Bounty Hunter stated – I was merely practicing my craft.”
I folded my arms over my chest, and lowered my voice to a threatening growl. “Well, if any of us ever again discover you practicing your craft by creating an illusion of any one of us, I will let Dragon deal with you.”
Dragon bared her dagger sharp teeth, each as long as the elf’s forearm, and thrust her face at his. The elf shrieked and scampered over to take refuge behind his cohort.
I tried to suppress a snicker, then continued, “If you need to practice, try creating the illusion that you are contributing something worthwhile to this household.”
My Arrogant One sputtered and gaped at me. He drew himself up once more and assumed an injured air. “I resent that implication.” Then he tossed his hair back out of his face, drew his cloak close about him, and marched out of the room.
“Ye be wantin’ em back, lass?” My Old Dwarf thumped the broad of his axe against the palm of his hand and started toward the door.
“No, let him go. He has been put on notice what will happen should he continue to practice such illusions.”
My Bounty Hunter smirked. “And if you have no further need of me, I, too, shall take my leave.” He strolled through the door and followed his companion up the stairs.
More than an hour later, Miles and I were finally settled in my office with the books. Before we continued reading the first one, the one featuring the image of the Innkeeper’s talisman on the first page, Miles placed his hand on my arm. “Honey, with all the drama in the conference room, you never did have the chance to tell me. What did James have to say about the e-mail you sent him? Could he read any of the pages of the book?”
“Ah, yes, the phone call.” I leaned back in my chair. “Well, James said –– ”
The conversation was interrupted by a commotion at the front door. Someone rang the doorbell several times in quick succession, then rapped loudly on the door and hollered something unintelligible.
Miles sighed. “Hold that thought.”
Who could be at the door? Will I ever get to tell Miles what James said about the e-mail I sent him? Will my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter continue to cause problems? What will Dragon and her colleagues determine regarding the ability of my characters to enter their own world from this one? Be sure to come back and see what happens. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.