I . . . can . . . not . . . move.
I feel . . . as though . . . I am bound . . . swaddled tightly . . . in thick cotton.
I can . . . barely breathe.
Dragon tried to shake her head, but could not. She tried to open her eyes, but found to her surprise they were already open. She could see nothing. She would have clawed at her face, had she been able to move her hands and arms, to remove whatever obstructed her vision. She would have done so many things, but could do nothing but try to breathe. Slowly, the helpless beast drifted back into unconsciousness.
* * *
“The outing went very well, don’t you agree?” Miles handed me a cup of tea.
I thanked him for the tea and motioned to an almost-empty chair next to my desk. Miles moved the files and books that occupied it, and sat down. He looked at me expectantly.
I nodded, but a smirk played at the corners of my mouth. “Oh, yes, the picnic was a great idea! Everyone really enjoyed the meal. You and my Old Dwarf indulged in afternoon siestas, and the rest of us had a great time hiking and exploring nature. Everyone worked together to help me get oodles of photos. Sorceress and Cleric cooperated and collected scads of much-needed components for their spells. And it took almost two hours after we arrived home again for the bickering and the shouting and the brawling to begin anew.” I heaved a big sigh.
Miles gave me a searching look. “I don’t suppose you’ve had any luck determining the source of the tension? I mean, it surely must be more than simple boredom if the camaraderie your characters shared during the outing could deteriorate so quickly.”
I shrugged and frowned. “I’m no closer to finding the cause of the problem and solving it than I was before the outing. It’s obvious the problem is centered here, in or around the house. My characters were fine at the fireworks display on the Fourth of July, and they were fine at the picnic. But we can’t take them on a trip every day.”
I paused, chewing my lower lip. “I wish Dragon hadn’t left. I really need her wisdom and her sleuthing prowess right now. She’s the only one I know who could have discovered what is behind the outbreaks of hostility.”
“She left to protect us.” Miles crossed his arms over his chest and arched an eyebrow. “She was as affected by whatever is happening as your other characters are. She was afraid she would lose control of herself and harm us.”
I nodded, but furrowed my brow. “I know, and I appreciate that. But without her help, I may not be able to solve this problem before one of my characters seriously injures, or even kills, one of their companions . . . or maybe one of us.”
“What will you do?”
I sighed. “I may be forced to make good on my ultimate threat.”
My husband’s eyes widened. “Edit them out of the manuscripts?”
I nodded. “And, subsequently, out of existence.”
Long after the conversation had ended and Miles had left my office, I sat there, deep in thought. I couldn’t recall how many times I had threatened my characters with this . . . so many times, they often finished my if you don’t stop this immediately statement for me, in a sing-song chorus. “You will edit us out of the manuscripts.”
Of course, I had only seriously considered that option with one or two characters, and then, the thought was fleeting. The threat was more something I would hold over their heads than something I would actually do. Now, however, I was seriously contemplating eradicating my entire band of characters. It was not an act to be considered casually. Once they were edited from the manuscripts, they would cease to exist. And while I could always change my mind and return them to the stories, I did not know if it would be possible to return them to the real world.
I sighed. They’ve been with me for so long. They may be a nuisance, they may be a headache, they may be an expense, but they’re . . . family. A tear slipped down my cheek.
I gave myself a mental shake. Yes, they are, but they’re also a potential danger – to each other, to me and my husband, to visiting friends and relatives, to the neighborhood.
I looked at the manuscripts, sitting on my desk. I sighed again. Then I heard a door slam, followed by loud, angry voices upstairs. I hesitated, but as the voices grew louder I reached for my manuscripts. As I listened to the argument escalate into a brawl, I picked up my red pen.
* * *
Dragon gradually awoke. As her awareness increased, she realized her breathing had become less labored, and she found she could move unrestrained. She slowly opened her eyes and cautiously looked about. As the world around her came into focus, she saw she was still in the desert, still within the sheltering copse of trees in a large oasis. She frowned. A low growl rumbled deep in her throat, and a wisp of smoke drifted from her nostrils.
The big beast tried to stand, but was too weak. She slumped back against the rough bark of a date palm. As her head cleared, she noticed something was different. She twisted around and looked hard at the palm tree. It looked different than it had, different than everything had looked, in the shadowy world within the pages of the manuscript. It didn’t look flat anymore. It looked solid, real.
A smile parted her reptilian lips. I have done it! I have slipped from the shadowy, insubstantial world inside the pages of the manuscript, into the world about which Mistress Writer penned her stories.
Dragon leaned back against the tree and drifted into a restorative sleep. When she awoke, she pulled herself unsteadily to her feet. Her throat was parched and her belly rumbled with hunger. She made her way to a nearby spring and threw herself on the ground. She plunged her snout into the pool and drank, long and deep. With her thirst slaked, she turned to finding some food. The trees of the oasis yielded barely enough fruit to take the edge off her hunger, so when she chanced upon a fairly fresh carcass of some hapless creature, she hesitated but a moment before gobbling it down. Not as good as Master Miles’ stew, but Mistress Writer once told me beggars can not be choosers. Dragon wrinkled her nose. I suppose I have a better appreciation of that axiom now.
With her belly full, the big beast settled herself under the date palm again and contemplated her next move. I need to find whoever sent those items and books through the magic conduit from this world to Mistress Writer’s world. Dragon’s brow wrinkled. How do I find this person? All I know about him is he claimed to be apprentice to one of the foremost historians of his world, this world. But who is his master, this foremost historian, and where will I find the two of them?
Dragon searched her memory for details about this world and its inhabitants. It was a large world, with a diverse population. This desert in the northern continent, where she found herself now, was home to two rival bands of desert dwellers. The northern continent was also home to one of the largest and most powerful of the human kingdoms of this world, as well as the sprawling dwarven kingdom. Several minor human kingdoms were scattered throughout the southern continent, with a large territory being occupied by Gypsies. The elven kingdom was far to the west, across a vast ocean, and islands to the south of their empire were claimed by a reclusive race about which Dragon knew very little.
The huge creature squirmed, scratching her itchy back on the rough bark of the tree while she thought. I do not believe this historian would be a desert dweller, a Gypsy or a recluse. Their cultures all rely more on oral tradition than on written accounts of their history. So, I suppose I must look for this person among the elves or the dwarves or within the largest of the human kingdoms.
The immense beast frowned. There must be a way to narrow it down more than that. To search for this historian among three such vast populations would take far too long. I must find them quickly. I have no way of knowing what is happening with my fellow characters back in Mistress Writer’s world, the real world, but the situation surely must be deteriorating.
“What else do you know about this historian?”
Dragon leaped up and whirled around. She found herself facing a huge dragon, a mirror image of herself. She must have stood there gaping for a long few moments, as the creature repeated itself.
“What else do you know about this historian?” This time, the Great Wyrm spoke slowly, enunciating each word with care, as if speaking to an obtuse child.
Dragon’s eyes widened. “I did not realize I was speaking aloud.”
“You were not.”
Dragon blinked. Of course! You, like me and like all of the Great Wyrms, are telepathic among our own kind. “I am sorry. It has been too long since I was last in the company of one of my own race.”
“Well, maybe we should pull up a couple of boulders and catch up over tea and cakes.” The other dragon’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “But I was under the impression your mission was urgent, and time was short.” The Wyrm stood there, its short arms folded over its chest, one foot tapping an impatient staccato as it waited for Dragon to respond.
Who are you, arrogant stranger, and how dare you chastise me, Dragon? Her eyes narrowed and black smoke began to spew from her nostrils. Still, the thought that this creature might be able to help compelled Dragon to control her anger and answer.
“I know only this: on five separate occasions, this person transported items through a magic conduit from this world to another world. The items included a talisman, a horseshoe, a ruby ring, the Royal Seal and a set of four books. In the first book, this person claimed to be apprentice to one of the foremost historians of this world.”
As Dragon spoke, the other creature settled itself sedately under a tree, its arms still folded across its chest, its eyes half closed. When Dragon was finished speaking, the Wyrm opened its eyes, tilted its head, and looked at Dragon expectantly.
After a few moments, Dragon frowned. “That is all I know.”
“Is it?” The Wyrm sounded amused.
“Then I really can not help you.”
Dragon snorted. “I do not remember asking for your help. It was you who imposed yourself on me.”
“Well, it was pretty obvious you were not doing such a great job figuring things out for yourself.” The Wyrm chuckled.
Dragon growled and unleashed a blast of her dragonfire. It bounced harmlessly off the Great Wyrm’s scales.
“Testy, testy!” The Wrym chuckled again. Then, before Dragon could even blink, the Wyrm had her by the throat. “I would not advise doing that again.” The beast’s eyes narrowed, and its voice invited no discussion. “You remain a young wyrm, while I have aged, growing in both strength and wisdom. I am your superior in every respect. Take care, lest you annoy me beyond my tolerance.”
The Wyrm released Dragon, who fell back, shaken. She studied the Great Wyrm with anger, apprehension, and not a small measure of fear.
The Wyrm settled itself once more under the tree, and stared intently at Dragon. “Now, tell me what else you know about this apprentice historian you seek. And hurry. Time may be shorter than you know.”
Dragon eyed the beast warily. “Time may be shorter than I know? How do you know this? Who are you?”
The Wyrm gave Dragon a penetrating look. When it spoke, it addressed her by name, pronouncing her name in the ancient tongue of their race. Then it asked, “Do you not know?”
“I do not. Tell me. Who are you?”
The Wyrm again pronounced the name.
Slowly, Dragon’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped as realization swept over her.
* * *
I could hear the brawl still going on upstairs when my Old Dwarf stomped into my office, chuckling. “Thet Foreman o yourn be – – ” He stopped mid-sentence, turning deathly white as he saw me holding the manuscript and the red pen. “Lassie?” His eyes were full of fear, his quavering voice pleading. “Ye can na really be doin’ this!” A tear rolled down his cheek, matching the one slipping down my own. “Please, lassie. Do na.”
I took the pen and put a thick, blood-red line through the first character’s name.
* * *
Who is this strange dragon, this Great Wyrm? Will it help Dragon find the historian’s apprentice? Will Dragon find the answers she seeks? Will any of my characters survive the red-penned purge? Be sure to join us again next week to find out. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.