I opened the conference room door, and was almost driven back by the blast of sauna-like heat. Dragon was there, toasting herself in front of her blazing illusory fireplace while poring over a pile of books.
My characters have been in this world for a number of years now, and most have taught themselves to read at least a bit. Dragon reads voraciously. She has worked her way through my complete library of fantasy fiction. She loves to discuss the similarities and differences between the various worlds in those novels and her world, the world I wrote about in the manuscripts from which she and eight of her fellow characters fell into the real world.
Today, whatever Dragon was reading did not seem to be to her liking. She kept changing colors, growling softly, twitching the tip of her tail, shaking her head, and snorting clouds of smoke bubbles. I tried not to giggle at the sight of the smoke, dripping from her snout like the soap bubbles from a toy bubble-pipe.
“So, what are you reading?” I closed the door behind me, and walked across the conference room to stand beside the big creature.
“A book.” Dragon narrowed her eyes and glared at me. She was obviously upset, either by my intrusion or by whatever she had been reading.
“What book?” I braved her glare and tried to look over her shoulder at the book.
“The Dead of Winter by Jean Rabe.” Dragon growled softly again and shook her head slightly. There was a look of disgust on her reptilian face.
I raised an eyebrow at Dragon. “I’ve read that book. It’s excellent.”
Dark smoke drifted from the creature’s snout, and the look she gave me clearly said I did not know what I was talking about.
“Well, what’s wrong with it?” I tilted my head.
“I have read other works by this scribe. Mistress Rabe is a most excellent chronicler of events in worlds where Dragons and elves and dwarves and magic users abound. But this?” Dragon shook her head and snorted. “No dragons.”
I nodded. “Jean is well known for her sci-fi and fantasy novels.”
“Sci-fi?” Dragon tilted her head and furrowed her brow.
“Science fiction. A story that uses advanced technology – sometimes real and sometimes imaginary – and alien races from other planets the way a fantasy story uses magic, elves, dragons, dwarves and such.”
Dragon drew herself up and narrowed her eyes. “You talk as if magic and the creatures of which you speak are not real.”
I shrugged. “Well, dragons and elves and dwarves and the various other creatures that inhabit fantasy literature are not indigenous to this, the real world; and the existence of magic is an oft-debated subject. But, that is a topic for another day. We were discussing Jean Rabe’s book, The Dead of Winter, and why you don’t like it.”
Dragon growled softly again. “No dragons.”
Again I laughed. “I know it can be disappointing to some readers when one of their favorite authors switches genres, but the same fine craftsmanship, credible characters, and attention to detail that make Jean’s fantasy and sci-fi books so popular are what makes her mysteries so wonderful.”
“Mysteries? Plural? This scribe has penned more than one of these?” Dragon pointed to the open book and grimaced.
“Oh, yes.” I nodded. “As a matter of fact, Jean has published a second book in the Piper Blackwell series, The Dead of Night, and I believe she is already working on her third. I’ve read both of her current mysteries starring Piper Blackwell, and I can’t wait for the next one to be published!”
Dragon blinked. “Why?”
“Because they’re excellent books!”
Dragon looked unconvinced and I sighed. “Jean’s first Piper Blackwell novel, The Dead of Winter, is a real page-turner. That means it’s so exciting, I didn’t want to put it down. Jean revealed the first dead body on page one, and the action never stopped.”
Dragon tilted her head, and stroked her chin. “Continue. What about the second book?”
“Well, in book two, The Dead of Night, I just love the way Jean weaves together the solving of two unrelated mysteries with historical details of the rural Indiana county where the action takes place. Minutiae of the character’s daily lives and routines add flavor and charm; the technical details of police procedure give it authenticity; and Jean’s penchant for detail that makes all her novels so realistic shines through in the discussion of topics such as computer hacking and banking fraud. Finally, all the twists and turns Jean introduces in the investigation of the crimes will keep readers guessing right up to the minute Piper and her deputy crack the cases.”
Dragon frowned. “Well, if you are so impressed with these books, I suppose I should reconsider. I will read them both and try to see the value of them, even if they have no dragons.”
I laughed. “I should think you would like mysteries. You have often been instrumental in solving them.”
“I suppose.” Dragon tilted her head and rubbed her reptilian jaw. “Perhaps I still do not feel completely familiar with your world. I can solve mysteries in my own world, or mysteries in your world that involve aspects of my world – features such as magic, and creatures that you would term mythical – but things like police procedure and . . . what did you say was included in the second book? Computer hacking? Banking fraud? Well, these are topics with which I have little familiarity or understanding.”
I nodded. “I think you will find that Jean does an excellent job explaining these things. Her main character, Piper, is brand-new to the job of county sheriff. She needs to be instructed on some of these topics, too, so you will learn with her.” I looked at my watch. “But why don’t you leave that until later? Miles should have lunch ready by now.”
“I do not suppose your good husband would deliver some here? I do hate to leave the warmth of the fire.” Dragon tried to look beguiling, but her toothy smile was less than charming.
“I’m afraid not.” I chuckled. “He did set the thermostat a bit higher today, though, knowing how you hate the cold.”
“Then, I suppose I should refrain from terrorizing him with my usual threat to char his shoes with his feet still in them.” Dragon winked.
As we walked up the stairs, I frowned. It felt just as uncomfortably warm as it had in the conference room. “I better talk to Miles. I think he’s set the thermostat a bit too high.”
Dragon giggled. When we reached the kitchen, I saw why – there was her fireplace, blazing away. The rest of my characters, assembled around the table for lunch, were panting and dripping with sweat. They all started shooting dirty looks at Dragon as we entered the room.
My Old Dwarf jumped from his seat and commenced bellowing. “Ye consarned beastie! Ye might be all comfy-like wit all this heat, but tha rest o us be meltin’ away here! Iffin we be wantin’ ta be this hot, we be workin’ in a dwarven forge!”
“Indeed!” My Arrogant One sniffed disdainfully. “Why must the rest of us be subjected to these intolerable conditions just because of that vile creature? My robes are wilting!”
My other characters nodded, several adding their own complaints, rather loudly.
I turned toward Dragon, my eyes narrowed, my expression grim. “Lose the fireplace.” My tone did not invite discussion. Dragon hung her head and sulked, but the fireplace disappeared, and the temperature in the room dropped immediately to a more comfortable level.
Dragon shimmered and shape-shifted into her alter-ego, an elf maiden, so she could sit at the table with us. Miles served lunch, ladling up bowlfuls of thick, creamy chowder, brimming with corn, carrots, potatoes, onions, and several of his secret ingredients.
Conversation during lunch was scant, limited to requests for additional servings of the steaming chowder, or slices of thick, crusty bread slathered with sweet butter. Once everyone had finished their second helping, and some were on their thirds or fourths . . . or more . . . pockets of quiet conversation started up among my characters.
My Foreman leaned across the table to address Dragon, who was sitting to my right. “That new horse was a bit rough, don’t you think? I mean, a winter coat is one thing, but that animal was absolutely scruffy when we first saw her. It took us hours to groom her, and she still looks a bit like a furball. Who did you conjure her for, anyway?”
Dragon stared at my Foreman as if he were speaking a foreign language.
My Foreman frowned, and red tinged his weathered cheeks. “What? Was she supposed to be a surprise for someone here? I am sorry if I let slip a secret.”
Dragon continued staring. Finally she replied, “I have no idea of what you speak. I have added no new mounts to your illusory stable.”
My Gypsy snorted. “Well, then, what did we spend all morning working on?”
“I have no idea.” Dragon’s elven eyes showed concern, and she quickly rose from her seat. “Show me this new horse.”
I jumped up. “I think I better tag along.”
My Foreman and the lads led Dragon and me out the door to the deck, then across the stable yard to the barn. The stable was an elaborate illusion Dragon had created for my Foreman and the lads because they missed their former lives so much. In their world, my Foreman had been a legendary cavalry officer. When injuries had forced his retirement, he went on to become foreman of the largest horse breeding operation in the kingdom. That stable had been owned by the parents of my Young Hero, who had grown up around horses. My Gypsy, too, had been raised around horses. His people had earned their livelihood breeding, training and selling fine Gypsy horses.
One of the best features of the illusory stable, in my opinion, was the spell of concealment Dragon had woven into the illusion. None of our neighbors or visitors to our home ever saw anything other than our normal back yard, even when the horses were grazing in the pasture or being ridden in the paddock.
We ducked through the paddock fence and walked to the barn. My Young Hero opened the barn door and lit the lamp. From the first stall, we heard a deep nicker. My Foreman’s spirited black stallion stuck his head over the stall door, a snatch of alfalfa trailing from his mouth. In the second stall, my Gypsy’s flashy black-and-white cob was crunching a carrot. Standing on tip-toe, I checked the third stall. My Young Hero’s chocolate palomino pony was sleeping in a corner. The remaining stall was open and empty.
“So, where’s this new horse?” I looked at my Foreman and the lads, who were all frowning.
“She was here this morning. We put her in the stall next to my pony.” My Young Hero took the lamp and moved toward the back of the barn, where the feed and tack were stored. “Wait. There she is.”
The horse was cowering in the shadows in the far corner. As we approached, she scooted past us and stood just inside the open door, eying us intently. Standing in the doorway, backlit by the harsh glare of sunlight bouncing off the snow in the paddock, the shaggy mare was difficult to see. She appeared to be a large pony or small horse. I judged her coat condition to be equal parts winter growth of hair and lack of a regular deworming regime. Other than the light mane and tail, her color was dubious. I reckoned she could be a chocolate palomino, like my Young Hero’s sleek pony, or perhaps a flaxen sorrel. She watched us all warily, flicking her ears back and forth, and flaring her nostrils.
Dragon motioned us all to stay back. She quietly approached the mare, who snuffled suspiciously at the elfin figure. Dragon reached out and placed her hands on the horse, who trembled but submitted. Dragon stroked the horse gently, while mumbling some arcane words in an ancient language. Finally, Dragon turned to us. All color had left her face.
“I can not tell if this horse is real or illusion. If illusion, she has been created by a magic user even more gifted and skilled than myself. She is solid and substantial, and I am unable to detect the slightest aura of magic around her. If real, I can not tell if she is from this world or another. I sense nothing from her. She is a mystery.”
“Mystery.” I looked at the nervous little mare, and then at Dragon. “That’s a good name for her.”
Be sure to come back and join us as we attempt to solve the mystery of Mystery. We’ll leave the porch light on for you. And if you love a mystery as much as I do, be sure to check out Jean Rabe’s excellent Piper Blackwell books, The Dead of Winter and The Dead of Night.