“I will not do it.”
Dragon was curled up in front of her illusory fireplace, shivering, in spite of the fact the temperature in the conference room rivaled that of a sauna.
Cleric bit her lower lip and wrung her hands. “But we must complete our task with all possible speed! Mistress Writer awaits the determination of our examination.”
Earlier in the day, Dragon and her colleagues in magic had agreed to examine Mystery, the scruffy little horse that had appeared in the yard the day before. They were going to attempt, through methods both physical and magical, to determine if the horse was real or just an exceptional illusion.
Before they could organize their efforts, however, the temperature had plummeted and a wet, heavy snow had begun falling, driven by gale-force winds. Dragon had immediately withdrawn to the conference room and the comfort of her illusory fireplace. Her companions had followed her and were now attempting to persuade her to assist them.
Sorceress crossed her arms over her chest, and tapped her foot impatiently. “Yes, as Cleric has stated, Mistress Writer awaits.”
My Gypsy nodded. “We have made a commitment and we must honor it.”
Dragon growled and a large cloud of black smoke rose from her muzzle. “Go away. I will not do it. I will not venture out in this abominable weather to spend hours in that bitterly cold shed.”
My Arrogant One, who had been listening to the exchange from the hallway, stomped into the room. He drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, and grasped his cloak with both hands. His face was red, and his voice rose to its usual glass-shattering range. “I will not have that malodorous beast in my private sanctuary one moment longer than absolutely necessary! You agreed to assist in this magical examination of the creature. Now get your paraphernalia together and take it to the shed!”
Everyone winced and covered their ears. Dragon snarled at the annoying elf, showing every one of her razor-sharp teeth. She thrust her face to within an inch of his. “If you ever again address me in that tone of shriek, no one will ever be able to find the body – if anyone even misses you.”
My Arrogant One whimpered. The color drained from his face and his eyes widened in terror. He backed out of the room so quickly, his feet tangled together and he almost fell. He grabbed the doorjamb to steady himself, then turned and fled without another sound.
“Pity.” Dragon settled herself in front of the fire once more. “I was actually hoping the pompous creature had more to say.” She narrowed her eyes and licked her lips.
A voice from the hallway startled them. “The elf can be annoying, but he has a point.”
My Bounty Hunter pushed himself away from the wall, where he had been leaning, and entered the conference room. He kept his posture relaxed and his voice conversational. “The horse should not be in the shed. The sooner you conduct your examinations, the sooner the animal can be evicted, and the sooner you will not have to tolerate the elf’s impudence.”
Dragon scowled at the man. She growled softly and shook her head. “No. I will not do it. This weather chills me to my very soul, and that shed is freezing.”
My Bounty Hunter shrugged. “You could always take your fireplace with you.”
Dragon blinked. The others nodded in agreement with my Bounty Hunter, but Dragon narrowed her eyes and scrutinized the man. She noticed a sly smile playing around his lips, and she observed that he studied his fingernails, rather than look at her and the others. She rose and faced him. “What is the benefit to you, should we decide to conduct this examination?”
He shrugged again. “Oh, just the obvious benefits. The noxious horse is evicted, so I do not have to smell it in the shed – or watch where I place my feet – and the bumptious elf is placated, so I do not have to listen to him whine.”
Dragon continued to stare at him, unblinking. Finally, the man shrugged one last time. “Well, it is, of course, your choice to make; but I would not forget, if I were you, that a promise has been made to Mistress Writer, and she expects results. She is not someone I would ever want to disappoint.” He nodded to the assembled group, then sauntered out of the room.
Dragon waited until my Bounty Hunter was out of earshot. “I do not trust that man.”
Cleric frowned. “He is not one of my favorite people, but nothing he said seems duplicitous.”
Sorceress shook her head. “I agree with Dragon. He is not to be trusted. He has an agenda of his own, or else he promotes one for the annoying elf.”
“Does it really matter?” My Gypsy raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “We did agree to this task, and he did make a sound suggestion.” The lad turned toward Dragon. “Your fireplace would be as effective in warming the shed as it is in warming this room. We would be able to complete the task in relative comfort. Once we complete the task, we would not have to suffer further conversation with the elf or his cohort.”
Dragon sighed, smoke bubbles dripping from her snout.
* * *
An hour later, the shed was toasty warm, and the flames from the fireplace added to the light provided by the lanterns. Dragon, who had assumed her familiar guise of an elf maiden, directed my Bounty Hunter and my Old Dwarf as they set up tables along one wall. “We need these for the books and paraphernalia we will use during the magical inspection, but they must be placed out of the way so the horse does not knock them over.”
After the tables were in place, she turned to my Foreman and my Young Hero. “Once we begin, you need to keep Mystery as calm and quiet as possible. Ideally, the subject of such an examination is completely immobile.”
“We will do our best.” My Foreman slid a halter on the horse’s head and attached a lead, which he handed to my Young Hero. “You hold her head. I will hobble her.”
My Foreman deftly attached hobbles and ropes to Mystery, and proceeded to lift one of the little horse’s hind legs off the ground. Cleric’s hand flew to her mouth as she watched him. “Oh, do you really need to do that?”
My Foreman raised an eyebrow. “Would you prefer the horse be free to kick, Milady?” Seeing Cleric’s distraught look, the man sighed. “I have used this sort of equipment on many animals, Milady, and never have any come to harm.”
My Young Hero smiled. “Look, Milady – Mystery is accepting the restraints without fear. I suspect she has been so held before. She will be fine.”
Sorceress and my Gypsy entered the shed, lugging the last of the books and equipment. A blast of snow-filled air followed them before they could shut the door. After they brushed the snow off themselves and their belongings, Dragon and Cleric joined them in finding the appropriate spells in the books and setting up the necessary potions and apparatus. Finally, Dragon turned to my Arrogant One. “The four of us are ready. Where are your books and potions?”
My Arrogant One drew himself up in his typical, superior fashion, rocking back on his heels, and grasping his cloak with both hands. “Books? potions? Those are the tools of lesser magicians. I need no such objects with which to wield my power.”
“You insufferable imbecile!” If Dragon had been in her natural form, she would have been spewing clouds of black smoke. “Lesser magicians, are we? Any one of the four of us has more power and skill in one finger than you could ever hope to possess!”
“So you keep saying. Well, the four of you can rely on your books and your potions. I will rely on my innate power and incredible skill.”
Sorceress stepped between Dragon and my Arrogant One, pushing the two apart. “Fine. How do you propose to assist us?”
My Arrogant One blinked. “How?”
“Yes. How?” Sorceress folded her arms in front of her chest and tilted her head.
My Arrogant One turned beet red and started stammering. “Well, I assumed . . . that is . . . well . . .”
Cleric glared at him. “You have no idea, do you?”
My Gypsy jumped in before my Arrogant One could reply. The lad herded Dragon, Cleric, and Sorceress over to the far side of the shed and spoke to them in a whisper. “I suspect the elf’s purpose here is not to help, but to hinder. Dragon, I know you do not believe the annoying one to have the skill to produce an illusion as realistic as Mystery, but assume for a moment he does. Presume she is an illusion, and he, the illusionist. What better way to keep us from discovering that than to interfere in our work here today?”
Dragon glanced over at my Arrogant One, assessing him through narrowed eyes. Finally she nodded to my Gypsy. “I still do not believe him capable, but you may be right about his desire to thwart our purposes here today . . . for whatever inexplicable purpose.”
Dragon beckoned my Old Dwarf. “Take that one and his companion out of here. They are not to reenter this shed until we have completed our work. Keep them in the house until you hear from me.”
“It be me pleasure!” My Old Dwarf bowed to Dragon. Then he grabbed my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter and escorted them out of the shed, the two of them struggling and howling in protest.
Dragon slammed the door shut, shivering as the wind reached its icy fingers toward her. She brushed off some errant flakes of snow that chilled her cheeks, then nodded to the others. “Let us begin.”
* * *
For more than five hours hours, the four companions physically examined Mystery, recited complicated spells, applied potions to the small horse, and probed her through magical means. Through it all, Mystery stood quietly, even dozing off for an hour.
“I have never worked with such a docile, compliant animal.” My Foreman sounded amazed.
My Young Hero agreed. “Most horses, even if not fearful of the proceedings, would at least be restless. This one stands almost as still as a statue.”
“Have you arrived at a determination yet?” My Foreman looked expectantly at the four magic users.
Dragon sighed. “I remain perplexed. We have found no trace of magic on her, yet her mind remains unreachable.”
Sorceress saw the confused looks on the faces of my Foreman and my Young Hero. “If Mystery were an illusion, there should be some trace of magic about her. If she is real, one of us, most especially Cleric, should be able to reach her mind, communicate with her.”
Cleric rubbed her neck and furrowed her brow. “I have been able to communicate with every form of animal life I have encountered in this world. I can induce birds and squirrels, rabbits and deer, and all manner of wildlife to pose for Mistress Writer’s camera. I have conversed with neighborhood dogs and cats. Yet I, a cleric who serves the goddess of the horse, can not communicate with this horse at all.”
My Young Hero reached over and placed his hand on Cleric’s arm. “I am so sorry.”
My Foreman turned to Dragon. “Is there anything else you wish to try, or should we release Mystery now?”
“There is nothing more we can do. We have failed.” Dragon shook her head and her shoulders slumped.
As my Foreman removed the hobbles and ropes, he instructed my Young Hero to get the horse her evening feed and water. “She will have to remain in the shed. We can not have her walking through the walls of the illusory barn, and roaming the neighborhood.”
“I know two individuals who will not be happy about that.” My Gypsy waggled his eyebrows and grinned a lopsided smile.
“Indeed.” Sorceress scoffed. “We can tell them once we pack up our books and equipment and return everything to the house.”
“And I must tell Mistress Writer.” Dragon heaved a huge sigh.
“Tell me what?” I poked my head in the door. “Miles and I were just coming out to see if anyone needed a warm beverage.”
My husband and I entered the shed and quickly closed the doors behind us, but the cold wind and snow had trailed us in. We shivered and brushed ourselves off.
“No thank you, Mistress. We can wait until we are back in the house. But I must confess we have failed to shed any light on our little Mystery.” Dragon explained all she and her companions had done, all to no avail. “I am so sorry, Mistress. I know you were counting on us.”
I raked my hand through my hair. “It’s not your fault. I guess it’s time to alert the authorities that we’ve found a loose horse.” I went over to see Mystery, and held out an apple for her. She took it gently from the palm of my hand, then she nuzzled my shoulder, and nickered softly.
My characters had gathered all of their trapping together and were ready to go back to the house. “Here, let Miles and I help you carry all this. The wind is ferocious. I’ve seen a bunch of mini snow devils in the yard today. A true snow devil is supposed to be a rare phenomenon, but there were dozens of miniature ones here today!”
“Snow devils?” My characters gaped at me, the color draining from their faces.
“Yeah, you know – a rotating column of snow. I don’t know the exact science of how they form, but basically they look like mini-tornadoes made of snow.”
Dragon grabbed my arm. “Mistress, were there any of these snow devils around the shed?”
“Well, yeah, they were all over the yard. Why?”
Dragon’s eyes widened in fear. “Mistress, you must not alert the authorities to the presence of Mystery! I fear mayhap she is neither illusion nor real horse. Perchance she is something much more sinister.”
Looking up from her pile of hay, Mystery whinnied.
Be sure to join us again next week for our continuing investigation into the true nature of our little Mystery. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.