“Mind if I join you? This looks like a good place to hide from all the fireworks.”
I looked up from my computer screen to see my husband, Miles, standing at the door to my office. He was wearing an uncharacteristic scowl. I motioned for him to come in.
“Fireworks? Honey, what are you talking about? It’s not even lunchtime yet. The fireworks won’t start until after dark tonight.”
Miles cautiously made his way through my cluttered office, maneuvering around obstacles and inching his way across the room as if he were walking through a minefield. He removed a few books and a pile of papers from the chair next to mine and sat down, still scowling. “Those fireworks will be tame compared to the ones that have been going on upstairs this morning.”
“Oh, no! Is one of my characters conjuring fireworks in the house? Who is it? My Arrogant One? My Gypsy? Sorceress? Dragon?” I jumped up, ready to go put a stop to such shenanigans.
“That type of fireworks wouldn’t be so bad!” Miles rubbed the back of his neck.
I sank back into my chair and eyed him warily. “Oh?” I wasn’t at all sure I really wanted to know.
Miles nodded ruefully. “So far this morning, I’ve broken up two fistfights between your Gypsy and your Young Hero, and a screaming match between Sorceress and Cleric.”
Miles held up his hand to indicate he was not finished. “Then your Old Dwarf almost lopped off my head with that great big axe he carries around.”
My eyes widened. “He did what? Why?”
“About an hour ago, I walked into the kitchen and found him making one of his little snacks – one that would feed the average family of four for a week. I made the near-fatal error of suggesting he wait until lunch.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, that would do it.”
Miles’ hand went up again. “Then I went back to the living room and found Dragon scratching her back on the carpet again. When I asked her to stop, she threatened to scorch my shoes with me still in them!”
I giggled. “She hasn’t made that threat in ages!”
“I don’t think it’s funny.” Miles scowled, and I tried to hide my grin. “Last but not least, your Foreman was arguing with your Arrogant One and your Bounty Hunter, and when they saw me standing there, they tried to gang up on me. Dragon put an end to that – she saved me after she herself had just threatened me!”
I sighed. “It’s a confusing time right now, honey. All my characters seem to be at each other’s throats. Dragon theorized it could be the heat or just plain boredom, but she also suggested there could be something more sinister behind it.”
Miles blanched. “You don’t think it could be Morcant again, do you?”
I shook my head. “No. I am confident that Morcant will never bother us again. When the three crones from his world retrieved his familiar from our world, they collapsed the magical conduit. Morcant will never again be able to send his familiar here.”
Miles sighed and nodded. “That’s good. But what about your Arrogant One?” Miles furrowed his brow. “Is there any way he could create a conduit between the two worlds?”
I snorted and shook my head again. “I don’t think his magic is anywhere near that powerful.”
“He could be the one causing the friction between all your characters, though.” Miles quirked an eyebrow and tilted his head.
“Yes, I suppose he could be behind it. If so, Dragon will discover it and put an end to it.”
“Do you or Dragon have any other theories about what could be causing this? I mean, one sort of expects your Arrogant One to rub people the wrong way, and I guess Dragon and your Old Dwarf can both be prickly at times. But for the lads to be brawling or Cleric and Sorceress to be at each other’s throats . . .” He shrugged. “They’ve always been the best of friends. There must be something more than heat or boredom fuelling the furor.”
“Do you really think I’m prickly?”
Miles and I both jumped, and my husband turned beet red as Dragon stuck her head in the door, her broad grin displaying rows of dagger-sharp teeth.
“Dragon! Er . . . ah . . . I didn’t hear you come downstairs!” Miles stammered and turned from beet red to deathly white as Dragon continued to stare at him and grin.
“You didn’t?” Dragon feigned surprise. “I suppose I can be very stealthy when it serves my purpose.” The huge beast winked at Miles, then began to shrink. She entered the room and gracefully picked her way through my office, wrinkling her nose in disdain at the untidy conditions. As she approached Miles, she began to transform. By the time she reached his chair, she had shape-shifted into a very hefty porcupine. “Prickly, too.” She giggled.
Miles shrank back in his chair and pulled his feet up. He looked wide-eyed at the porcupine, and started to sweat.
“All right, Dragon! That’s enough! No skewering Miles with your quills. And no scorching his shoes, either – with or without his feet still in them!” I glowered at her.
“You don’t let me have any fun.” The ersatz porcupine shapeshifted into her familiar guise of an elf maiden. She conjured a chair and sat, facing Miles and me. She immediately turned serious.
“Master Miles, you were asking if your wife and I had any theories to explain the change in everyone’s demeanor. I agree with Mistress Writer that it can not be Morcant. However, I have discovered nothing else that can account for the recent conflicts. I have been too busy trying to keep my companions from inflicting serious bodily harm on each other, and have not really been able to devote much time to investigation.” She lowered her eyes and her cheeks turned bright red. “I have also been . . . busy . . . keeping my own violent tendencies under control.”
I reached out and took her hand. “It must be something very sinister indeed to bring out the beastly side of your nature.”
She nodded. When she spoke, I could barely hear her. “I have been thinking of shapeshifting into something that can do no harm to anyone. I can not risk incinerating any of you.” When she raised her head, I saw genuine fear in her eyes.
“Will that really do any good? To shapeshift into something harmless?” Miles quirked an eyebrow at Dragon.
“Miles is right. It wouldn’t do much good. Even if you took the shape of something innocuous, you are a dragon. In a fit of anger, you could immediately change back to your true state.”
“I could ask Sorceress and Cleric to cast a spell on me once I have changed, preventing me from changing back unless they released their spell.”
“No!” I jumped from my chair. “With everyone at odds with each other, you would not be safe. Under the influence of whatever is causing this, the two magic users could refuse to release the spell. Or, when Sorceress and Cleric were not around, you might encounter one of the others who might harm you if you were unable to defend yourself. No, there must be another way!”
Dragon nodded. “I will study on it further and see if there is an alternative. If there is not, I may have to go away until I would no longer be a threat to any of you.”
Before I could reply, Dragon jumped up and rushed from the room, shapeshifting back to her beastly form as she left.
I collapsed back into my chair. Miles and I sat looking at each other, stunned.
“Do you think it will come to that? Do you think Dragon will go away?” Miles seemed genuinely upset at the thought.
I shook my head and shrugged. “I hope not. I realize she feels we may be in some danger with her here, but I trust that she can exert enough control over herself that it would not come to that. And how will we find the cause of all this friction among the characters if she is not here to help?”
Before we could discuss the matter further, my Old Dwarf came hotfooting it into the room. “Eh, be we havin’ a midday meal taday or no? I be starved!”
Miles wisely kept quiet and did not comment on the old reprobate’s appetite. We followed him back upstairs to the kitchen, where all my characters had assembled around the table.
Over a tense lunch, I guided the conversation to the festivities planned for that evening. Although July four was still several days away, our town had planned its celebration for the weekend.
I explained to my characters the early history of our country, and exactly what it was we celebrated each Fourth of July. My monologue was met with stony silence and narrow-eyed glares from my characters.
Finally, I got to something that sparked some interest. “So tonight, we will have a barbecue in the back yard.”
“A bar-bee-cue?” My Old Dwarf’s eyes lit up. “Food?”
“Yes, food.” At that, even the others started to look interested. “After that, we’ll go to the park to enjoy our town’s fireworks display.”
“Fireworks?” My Gypsy looked intrigued.
“Fireworks.” I nodded, but met with blank looks from most of my characters.
More blank looks.
“Huge, colorful showers of bright sparks in the sky, usually accompanied by loud booms.”
My Arrogant One’s eyes lit up at that, but my Old Dwarf frowned at Miles and me. “Jest ye two be goin’?” He started fingering his axe.
I hesitated. “You can all go, if you can agree to a few conditions.”
All nine of my characters glared at me. “What conditions?” My Foreman’s voice was almost a feral growl.
“First, all weapons, wands, staffs, and spell components will be left at home. Second, you will all dress in modern garb. Third, you will behave in a civilized manner. Last, you will tell no one who you really are. If anyone asks, you are our out-of-town relatives and friends, visiting for the holiday weekend.”
After considerable debate and grumbling, everyone agreed – even my Arrogant One.
The barbecue was delicious. I was glad I had made enough to feed the entire neighborhood, even though none of my neighbors were there. My Old Dwarf ate more than their share.
After eating, we ambled down to the park for the fireworks display. The closer we got to the park, the more relaxed my characters seemed to be. We found a grassy knoll no one had yet claimed and we set up our lawn chairs and blankets. As darkness fell, I was happy to see all my characters talking and laughing.
As always, the fireworks display was awesome. Every one of my characters sat, wide-eyed, oohing and aahing at the pyrotechnics.
As we walked back home, I was pleased at my characters’ behavior and lack of any incidents. As soon as we walked in the door, that all changed. Within minutes, the screaming and fighting had resumed. I beckoned to Miles. “Come on. I know a good place to hide from all the fireworks.”
Will we discover what is causing their hostilities? Will all my characters survive their unexplained acrimony? Will Dragon go away? Be sure to come back next week to find out. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.