“What?” I gaped at my characters, my brain unable to wrap itself around their revelation.
Finally, Dragon – still pale blue and dripping smoke bubbles from her snout – spoke. Her voice was so soft I had to strain to hear her. “We knew how unhappy your Foreman has been recently. We were just trying to help.” She hung her head, and a tear slipped down her reptilian cheek.
I rubbed my neck and continued to gape.
“We really meant no harm.” My Gypsy gave me a guilty look. “As Dragon said, we were just trying to help.”
“And you created an illusory world for him?”
“Yes, Mistress.” Cleric fidgeted with her cincture and gave me an apologetic look. “We never imagined he would get lost there.”
I raked my hand through my hair. “How, exactly, does one get lost in an illusion?”
My magic users pushed my other characters aside. The adepts all started talking at once, each trying to be heard over the other. I held up my hand to silence them. “One at a time! One at a time!” I glared at them until they quieted down. “Okay. Let’s start at the beginning. First, whose idea was this?”
My Old Dwarf pushed to the front of the group again and gave me a sheepish look. “Wale, I be guessin’ thet would be me.” Seeing my frown, he hastened to point out, “Wale, ye dinna be doin’ nuttin ta be helpin’ yer Foreman, an’ anyone could be seein’ he be feelin’ lower ’en a blue-nosied, two-toesied Tunnel Terror!”
I blinked. “That’s the second time you told me that. What exactly is a blue-nose . . .?”
The old reprobate waved me off and blustered at me. “It do na be makin’ no nevermind wat it be. Yer Foreman be lower ’en it! He be walkin’ aboot tha hoose liken he be walkin’ in ’is sleep. ’Is head be hangin’, ’is shoulders be slumped, an’ he jus’ be starin’ oot inta nothin’-ness. Ye dinna be doin’ nuttin, so I been thinkin’ o a way ta be helpin’ ’em.” His eyes flashed with anger and his face was flushed.
My Young Hero stepped forward and placed his hand on my Old Dwarf’s shoulder. “Do not blame him, Mistress. We could all see how miserable your Foreman was. Your Gypsy and I had told you some time ago that your Foreman no longer even took pleasure in riding his illusory horse.” He paused, his brow furrowed. “As the dwarf said, someone had to do something.”
“I see.” I continued frowning and rubbed my jaw. “So, what did you all do?”
Dragon stepped forward. She had stopped dribbling smoke bubbles and had returned to her normal coloring. Her voice was still a bit shaky, however. “The . . . the dwarf approached me with an idea. He . . . he remembered how much fun we all had on our illusory trip. He wanted to know if . . . if it were possible to do something along those lines for your Foreman, to . . . to create a scenario wherein your Foreman could have the same duties and responsibilities he held in our world.”
The big beast paused, wrinkling her brow. “It . . . it seemed like such an easy task. However, I petitioned the other practitioners of magic for their input.”
Sorceress stepped forward primly and spoke in clipped tones. “We all agreed it would be no great feat to accomplish. Dragon created the illusion, and we assisted her. When it was completed, the lads fetched your Foreman and accompanied him into the illusory world.”
“It was spectacular!” My Young Hero sighed. “We were tempted to remain there with him. The stable reminded me of my father’s place. Hundreds of magnificent horses grazed in lush pastures surrounded by miles of lime-washed fencing.” As he stood there, remembering, I could see the longing in his eyes.
My Gypsy nodded. “It was most tempting to remain.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And how long did you stay?”
“The lads returned within the hour, Mistress. The rest of us had waited in the conference room for them.” Dragon sighed. “We expected your Foreman would return within a day, maybe two. We had told him it would be possible for him to revisit the illusory world whenever he wanted, so we expected him to take short forays.”
“To be fair, time in the illusory world can pass at a much different rate than time in the real world.” My Arrogant One nodded toward Dragon. “Even you, beast, were not aware of how much time had passed when we were on our illusory trip at the beginning of this year. You thought we had been gone only a few days, when we actually had been gone for more than five weeks.”
Dragon hung her head. “That is true.”
“So, it could be just a case of my Foreman losing track of time?” I sighed. “Whew. That’s a relief!”
“Well . . .” Cleric chewed her lower lip and fidgeted again with her cincture. “It might not be that simple.”
“Oh?” I crossed my arms and waited, but Cleric just blushed furiously.
Finally, my Bounty Hunter spoke. “When your Foreman did not return after a time, we entered the illusory world and searched for him. Not only was he nowhere to be found, no one to whom we spoke there had ever seen or heard of him.”
I gaped at my characters again. “So that brings us back to my previous question. How, exactly, does one get lost in an illusion?”
Dragon gulped. “We . . . we are not sure, Mistress. But I am working on determining what has happened, and on finding your Foreman.”
My husband cleared his throat. “Ah, just a thought . . . why don’t you just dispel the illusion? Wouldn’t the Foreman return to reality, and pop back into the conference room?”
Dragon shook her head. “Normally, I would say yes. But the fact that we could not find the Foreman in the illusory world, the fact that no one within the illusory world has seen him, nor heard of him . . . well, that changes things. It could be dangerous to just dispel the illusion. We could lose him for all time.”
I frowned. “I don’t understand any of this.”
“Neither do we, Mistress.” Dragon sighed. “That is why I am going to sequester myself in the conference room with all my tomes and grimoires and reference materials. I will determine the cause of this aberration, and I will bring your Foreman home.”
“And we will all help.” My Gypsy pounded his fist into the palm of his other hand and nodded.
Dragon shook her head. “No. I appreciate your offer, but I need solitude in order to access my research materials. I will let you know if I need your help.”
Long, anxious hours passed. My Old Dwarf stood guard in front of the conference room door as Dragon worked within, trying to find the solution to this problem and bring my Foreman back.
The rest of us were congregating in the living room, moping, when Cleric suddenly announced, “We can do nothing to help Dragon or the Foreman, and it is beautiful weather outside today. Let us sit out on the gazebo and engage in some nature photography. We have not done that in such a long time, and it will help take our minds off our worries.”
“That sounds like a great idea. I’m not that good with a camera, so I’ll bring out some refreshments for you. Then I can come in and prepare tonight’s dinner.” Miles smiled.
It took a while to convince the rest of us, but eventually we were seated on the gazebo with our cameras and refreshments.
My Gypsy was the first to spot a bird. “Look!” He started whistling, and a beautiful male American Goldfinch in bright breeding plumage hopped through the branches of a nearby tree until he was close enough to photograph.
Cleric scanned the tree near the goldfinch. “There is an American Robin!” Cleric pointed to a bird with its back to us. She talked to it for a few minutes, charming it into turning around for us.
My Young Hero was the next to spot a bird. “There is a Black-capped Chickadee on the thistle feeder.”
Sorceress pointed to a bird on a nearby tree trunk. “Is that another chickadee?”
My Gypsy looked, then shook his head. “That is a White-breasted Nuthatch. See how he walks down the trunk of the tree, head-first?”
Sorceress frowned. “I always get that one wrong. Oh, well, at least there is no mistaking those.” She pointed to some ducks at the back end of the yard, near the pond. “Those are Mallards.”
My Gypsy laughed. “They seem to be enjoying the seed you scattered out there earlier, Mistress.”
After watching the ducks for a few minutes, I spotted more birds. “There! On the suet logs! A pair of Downy Woodpeckers.”
“How do you know they are a pair, and not two males or two females?” My Arrogant One strained to see the two small birds.
“The male has the red mark on the back of his head.” My Gypsy was quick to show off his knowledge.
As the Downies flew off, another bird took its place at the suet. My Arrogant One studied it carefully. “That is a Red-bellied Woodpecker, correct?”
I nodded. “A female. The male would have a red crown as well as the red nape.”
Sorceress pointed to a bird in the nearby tree. “That appears to be a woodpecker, also. It looks like the Downy Woodpecker, but it is almost as large as the Red-bellied Woodpecker.”
“That is a Hairy Woodpecker.” My Gypsy showed off his expertise once again.
“And there is the largest woodpecker you will see here.” I pointed to a bird on a tree stump at the back of the neighboring yard. “That is a female Pileated Woodpecker.” I took a quick photo of her before looking for her mate. “And there is the male.” We watched as he flew from a tree to the suet logs. “They both have red crests, but he has a red stripe on his cheek while she has a black stripe.”
It was only a few minutes before we had another flurry of activity in the yard.
“Red-winged Blackbirds! They are in the trees, and on the feeder poles.” Sorceress turned to my Gypsy. “I remember you told me the female is a rather drab brown bird so she can remain unseen by predators while sitting on her nest and protecting her eggs or nestlings.”
My Gypsy nodded. “And the adult males in breeding plumage have the bright shoulder epaulettes that they display to the females during courting, and to other males during disputes over mates, territories, and food.”
My Arrogant One pointed at some birds in a tree. “I believe you have previously identified those birds for me as Common Grackles. I remember how attractive I found their iridescent feathers, not at all common looking.”
A few minutes later, my Gypsy started whistling, and was promptly answered by two Song Sparrows, one in a tree and one on the ground.
My Young Hero smiled. “I always wished I could whistle like the birds. Could you imitate the call of that Yellow-rumped Warbler?” He pointed to a bird sitting in a neighbor’s tree.
My Gypsy obliged, then started imitating the gentle cooing of a Mourning Dove, who answered from its perch on a feeder pole in the middle of the yard.
My Young Hero smiled again. “It is truly amazing how you can mimic the birds.” He cocked his head for a moment. “Do you hear that? It sounds like a Northern Cardinal.” He scanned the treetops. “There he is! Can you mimic him?”
My Gypsy grinned. “I would, but I would not wish to interrupt him while he is serenading his mate.” He pointed to the female who was on the ground, eating a grape.
As we prepared to go inside for dinner, I turned to my Bounty Hunter. “I think you are the only one who did not spot any birds today.”
My Bounty Hunter chuckled. “I left the birding to the rest of you. I thought I would get a couple of pictures of the Eastern Cottontail rabbit to show your Old Dwarf. I know how fond he is of the little varmints, as he calls them.”
Miles had prepared a wonderful meal for us, but most of us just picked at our food. Everyone kept glancing at the empty chairs around the table.
“Don’t worry.” Miles reached over and gave my hand a squeeze. “Dragon will find a way to bring your Foreman back.”
Will Dragon be able to find my Foreman and return him to reality? Or will he be lost to us forever, somewhere in the illusory world? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.