The decibel level rose swiftly. I could hardly hear myself think. On my right, Dragon, Sorceress and Cleric were all talking at the same time, as Dragon pushed several books at me. On my left, my Old Dwarf was also talking, or rather bellowing, as was his habit. All four of them kept raising their voices, each trying to be heard over the others. Miles, sitting beside me, looked dazed.
Finally, I leapt off the couch and threw up my hands. “Enough! You’re giving me a headache!”
Everyone gaped at me and silence fell over the group . . . for about five seconds.
“Stop! I can’t hear any of you if you are all going to talk at the same time!”
Dragon stepped forward, waving one of the books. “Mistress, I think you will find this most curious.”
My Old Dwarf stepped forward. “Be it curiouser then where ye can be findin’ the elfie, or what methinks him an’ his accomplice, the Bounty Hunter, be up to?”
Dragon frowned and puffed a large cloud of black smoke toward the dwarf. “Who cares where that despicable creature is? Neither he nor his cohort is of any consequence! And if you do not refrain from interrupting us, you might find yourself on tonight’s menu.”
My Old Dwarf’s eyes narrowed. He took a step nearer Dragon and slapped the flat of his axe on the palm of his hand. “Wale, I would na be too sure aboot thet, beastie.”
I stepped between them. “Dragon, will anything dire happen to any of us if you do not tell me your news right this instant?”
The large creature tilted her head and wrinkled her scaly brow in thought for a long moment before replying. “No . . . no I do not believe so.”
“Dwarf? What about your news? Does it demand immediate attention?”
The old reprobate frowned and stroked his beard, then he shook his head. “Wale, I do na be sure, but I do na be thinkin’ the two o them can git inta any mischief in short order. They be needin’ more time ta prepare.”
“Then I will hear you each in turn. Dwarf, why don’t you go to the kitchen and get a snack while Dragon, Sorceress, and Cleric fill me in on their discovery?”
My Old Dwarf’s face fell. I had to lean forward to hear his mumbled response. “Wale, lass, iffin ye do na be thinkin’ what I be sayin’ be as important as what the beastie and the two lassies have fer ye, I guess I could be findin’ something ta nibble on in the kitchen.”
I placed my hand on his arm. “Old friend, it isn’t that your news is less important. I just figure you have been so hard at work with your investigation, you have probably forgotten all about trivial concerns, like meals and such. As soon as you have eaten your fill, I will be glad to hear your report.”
He brightened and nodded, then rushed off to the kitchen. Dragon watched him leave. She turned back toward me and sniffed disdainfully. “If he is not to return until he has eaten his fill, we may not see him again until summertide.”
I chuckled, and took my seat again. Miles looked at me, then stole wary glances at the other three. “Should I leave?”
Sorceress shook her head. “There is no need, Master Miles. You are aware of the items that have traveled through a magical conduit from our world to yours. There is no reason for you not to hear what we have to say to Mistress Writer.”
Cleric fidgeted with her robes, and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “We studied the books thoroughly. We first probed them by magical means, and then we conducted a physical examination of them.”
“And what did you find?”
Cleric continued fidgeting with her robes. “We can assure you the books pose no threat.”
Sorceress frowned, and clarified. “There were no traps or defensive wards on the books. We found only two traces of magic. One was from the conduit through which these books entered your world. The other, we could not identify.”
“So, what are the books?”
All three spellcasters shrugged.
Dragon handed me the pile of four books. “Please look at the first page of each book.”
I opened the book on the top of the pile. On the first page was a detailed illustration of a talisman. It looked exactly like the Innkeeper’s talisman that Miles had found on the steps on Christmas Eve. I handed the book to him, and we exchanged worried looks. We grew more concerned with each book I opened.
The second book had an illustration of a horseshoe, like the one I had found in the hallway near the master bedroom on New Year’s Eve. The third book had an illustration of a ruby ring, identical to the ring Dragon had found on the conference room table in early January. An illustration of the royal seal, an object I had discovered mid-January in my office, was on the first page of the last book.
As I finished looking at the illustrations, Dragon said “Other than the presence of the illustrations, we can not tell you what information the books contain. None of us can read the text. What is more puzzling, none of us are seeing the same text.”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“Each of us is quite adept at speaking and reading a number of languages. We can each read the languages that are most prevalent in our own geographic regions of our world. Each of us also has knowledge of several other written languages. Cleric is fluent in the priestly language of her order, and Sorceress and I both are well-versed in several magical scripts.”
“Okay, so the books are written in a language that is foreign to all three of you.”
“Not just that, Mistress.” Cleric wrung her hands. “We think this might account for the second trace of magic.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
Dragon sighed, loosing a dark cloud of smoke. “When we first examined the books, we took turns looking at each book. None of us could read any of the words. Then we gathered around one of the books and started to try and work it out together. That is when we realized we were not seeing the same things on the page.”
I raised an eyebrow. “A spell to prevent anyone from reading the books?”
“That is what we assume, Mistress.”
Miles had been leafing through the first book I had handed him. He nudged me and handed me the book, open to the middle. I looked at it and frowned. I picked up another of the books and opened that one to a random page. I stroked my chin. I handed the book to Dragon. “Are you quite certain none of you can read this?”
My three spellcasters huddled around the book. They exchanged glances and all three shook their heads.
Dragon handed the book back to me. She studied Miles and me for a long few moments, then her eyes widened. “You two can read the books.”
The three companions crowded closer. Their eyes flew open and they clamored excitedly. “What do they say? What is the nature of their texts?”
Before I could reply, my Old Dwarf came in and plopped down in a chair. “There dinna be much in the way o snacks in the cold box! Ye mayhap be needin’ ta make a trip ta the food store.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then wiped his hands on his tunic. “So’s ye be finished jawin’ aboot them books?”
Dragon growled, but I motioned her to silence. “Yes, we just finished, thanks. Now would you care to share your news?”
The dwarf puffed up and grinned. “Be right happy ta tell ye aboot it, lass. Wale, I be kinda put out when the elfie be slippin’ outten me grasp the other night, so’s I be spendin’ me time trackin’ ’em down. It be takin’ me some time, but I be findin’ ’em.”
“Where was the loathsome creature holed up?” Dragon was expelling clouds of black smoke again.
My Old Dwarf carefully studied his fingernails, then he locked eyes with Dragon. “Why be ye wantin’ ta know? Dinna ye be sayin’ he dinna be o no concern?”
Dragon growled and narrowed her eyes. “Do not annoy me, dwarf. I am tired and hungry, and it would take little provocation for me to make you my next meal.”
“Eh, ye be all bluster, ya ugly beastie!” The dwarf chuckled. “Anywho, the elfie be in the shed loft, with the Bounty Hunter.”
I held up a hand in warning to Dragon before she could make good her threat. “Did you find out what they are doing there?”
“Aye. The elfie be nursin’ his wounded pride and practi-sizin’ his magic. He be almost as good as ye, beastie, at creating illusions.”
I had to step in front of Dragon to keep her from lunging at the dwarf. “How dare you suggest that imbecilic toad is my equal?”
“Causin he be makin’ the illusion o a piece o chock-lit cake fer me, and it be mighty tasty!”
Cleric gasped but Sorceress snorted and rolled her eyes. “The Annoying One can create solid and substantial illusions?”
“Either he can or he can not, dwarf.” Dragon was still fuming.
“I could be seein’ it and smellin’ it. When I be pickin’ it up, though, it be lastin’ just long enough fer me ta be takin’ a big bite. I be tastin’ it, but almost liken summat ye snacked on afore, and ye still be havin some o it atween yer teeth.”
“What a lovely image.” Cleric wrinkled her nose.
I frowned. “So he has been practicing his magic in the shed?”
“Aye, lassie. An’ the Bounty Hunter be encouragin’ him. I be watchin’ and listenin’ fer a good long time whilst the two o them be jawin’ at each other. I be gittin’ the idea the Bounty Hunter be havin’ a new reason fer wantin’ ta find a way back ta our world.”
The old reprobate paused and gave everyone a sidelong glance. When he was sure everyone was listening, he leaned forward and tapped his nose several times with his index finger. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “I be gittin’ the idea the two o them mayhap be tryin’ ta take sommat o this world back there.”
Be sure to come back and find out what the Old Dwarf suspects the other two plan to take back to their world; and maybe you can read over my shoulder while Miles and I peruse the books. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.