The companions – eight of the characters who had fallen many years ago from the pages of a manuscript into what Mistress Writer termed the real world – stepped into the illusory world the magic users among them had created for their friend, the ninth companion to fall from the manuscript.
That character, known as the Foreman, had become bored and unfulfilled in the real world. As he had explained it to Mistress Writer, he not only missed the world from which he had come, he missed who he had been in that world. There was no place in this real, technologically advanced world, for the manager of the largest and most prestigious horse breeding facility in the medieval world from which he had been torn.
Even the illusory horses and small barn and paddock Dragon had created for him and two of the other companions who had also been proficient horsemen in their world did not alleviate his sense of worthlessness. In the real world, he lamented, he had become little more than a go-fer.
So Dragon and the other magic users among the companions had created an illusory world for the Foreman, a world where he could once again manage a large and prestigious stable. But something had gone wrong.
The Foreman had entered the illusory world in the company of the two lads. The lads had returned with glowing reports of how wonderful the world was, and with the Foreman’s promise to return that evening to sup with them and thank them properly for their gift. But the man had not returned that night.
When the Foreman still had not returned several days later, Dragon and the others had entered the illusory world and searched for him, but to no avail. They could find no trace of him, and none of the illusory residents of that world admitted to ever having seen him.
After that, Sorceress had used her ability to scry and had seen the Foreman. However, she could not pinpoint his location, so the companions once again entered the illusory world to track him down.
Dragon led the group as they emerged in the illusory world. The beast had transformed into her preferred – and less formidable – guise of a delicate and exotic maiden. She held up her hand and commanded the attention of her comrades. “Take heed! Stay together, remain aware of your surroundings, and do not assume the illusory beings inhabiting this world are harmless.”
“Eh, ye really be thinkin’ thet a bunch o peoples ye been makin’ up outten smoke an’ a fancy turn o phrase be posin’ any real danger ta us?” The Old Dwarf snorted.
Dragon scoffed at her diminutive friend. “Forsooth! Remember my prowess at creating illusions. My illusions are solid and substantial. They exhibit all the traits, characteristics, and features of the real item. Indeed, they are virtually indistinguishable from the real object. And I had the help of four other powerful spellcasters in creating this world, to strengthen and enhance my spell. Therefore, a person in this illusory world would be able to inflict as much damage as any real person.”
“Dragon is correct.” Sorceress furrowed her brow. “And if, perchance, something has interfered with the spell that created the illusion, the denizens of this world could be deadly.”
The Gypsy lad frowned and rubbed his jaw. “I think the first thing we should do is examine the threads of magic that created this world and that keep it intact, to see if anything has tampered with the enchantment.”
Dragon nodded. “I examined it as much as possible from the outside, but a more thorough inspection should be feasible now that we are on the inside.”
The Bounty Hunter spoke in a low tone. “We need to find somewhere you can do that without drawing attention.” He nodded toward a small group of people at an open-air market, whispering among themselves and staring at the companions.
Cleric fidgeted with her cincture. “Dragon, could you not simply place a spell of concealment around us?”
Dragon furrowed her brow and chewed on her lower lip. Even though she was not in her true form, smoke drifted from her nose as she obviously wrestled with her thoughts. “Perchance that would work if nothing has interfered with the spell creating the illusory world. However, since we do not know if the magic has been tainted, I do not know if a spell of concealment would work. And the fact that we already have people watching us makes it much harder. We cannot simply poofer out of sight.”
“When the Gypsy and I left him, the Foreman was headed toward a complex of barns and sheds he saw in the distance, past the fields of horses.” The Young Hero pointed down the road out of town. “Perhaps we should go there. The Bounty Hunter and I could search there for the Foreman, while the magic users could examine the threads of the spell shielded from sight within one of the buildings, with the Old Dwarf standing guard.”
The companions turned toward Dragon, their leader, who paced back and forth for a few minutes, rubbing the back of her neck. Finally, she nodded curtly, and the group started the long trek toward the farm.
The group moved along at a steady pace and by lunchtime they were a stone’s throw from the beginning of the fenced pastures.
“This looks like a good place to rest and partake of some refreshment.” The Bounty Hunter indicated several wooden picnic tables in a grassy spot next to a meandering stream that paralleled the road.
Dragon frowned. “Picnic tables? Those are anachronistic” Seeing the blank look on some of her friends’ faces, she explained. “They should not be here. They are not correct for this world, which was designed to represent a world similar to our own, a world that Mistress Writer would term medieval.”
“Eh, be they correct or nay, they be here, an’ there be no signs what be warnin’ anyone away.” The Old Dwarf made a beeline to the nearest table and started pulling food and beverages from one of the bags of holding Dragon had provided.
The others approached the tables with caution, looking around warily. Finally, having seen nothing else untoward, they sat and shared a midday repast.
“Does anyone else find it strange that, although this road is wide and well maintained and has the appearance of a well-traveled highway, we seem to be the only ones using it?” The Gypsy reached for another sandwich as he spoke.
“It does make one wonder.” The Bounty Hunter nodded. “Perhaps we should ask the person who has been shadowing us ever since we left the village.”
The Young Hero’s eyes widened. “I noticed no one.”
The Bounty Hunter smirked. “I told you my skills would be useful. He is about a half league behind us.” He finished his sandwich and washed it down with three gulps of cool water while the others strained to see their pursuer. “Perhaps I should remain behind while the rest of you continue toward the barns. I could lay in wait here and find out what the rascal is up to.”
Dragon shook her head. “No, I think it best we stay together. We do not need to be searching for more than one of our company.”
“We will be separating at the barns. Why not now?” The Bounty Hunter frowned.
“The separation will not be so great a distance there, and the Old Dwarf will be able to keep his eye on both groups.”
The Bounty Hunter considered Dragon’s words, then nodded. “Very well. But if he still shadows us when we arrive at the stable, I may deal with him then.”
Dragon nodded. “Let us finish eating now and get on the road. We still have a distance to travel.”
Not long after, the companions came to the first of the pastures and the Young Hero stopped. “This should be where we left the Foreman.”
The Gypsy nodded. “We had come across the fenced pasture, and we were admiring the magnificent horses right before we parted company.”
“But this is wrong.” The Young Hero frowned. “These are not the same horses.”
The Arrogant One scoffed. “So, they rotated their stock, and different horses are now in this pasture.”
“No.” The Young Hero shook his head and gestured emphatically. “These are Appaloosas. That is a breed found in Mistress Writer’s real world. They should not exist in a medieval world.”
Sorceress furrowed her brow. “Perhaps a similar breed was developed in this illusory world.”
The Young Hero frowned. “True. Appaloosas are not the only spotted breed in the real world, so I suppose a breed of spotted horses could exist here.”
The Gypsy interrupted. “But the horses are not the only thing that has changed. The day we were here with the Foreman, the fencing was lime-washed bright white, like the fences around the horse farm he used to manage in our world.”
The companions gaped at the natural wood fencing, untouched by whitewash, paint, or stain.
“Are you certain we took the right road from the village?” Dragon addressed the lads.
“Positive,” the two friends answered in unison.
The Gypsy turned from examining the fence. “There is only one road in and out of the village, and in the opposite direction, it takes a quick turn and heads directly for a mountain range.”
“Then let us proceed to the barns. Perhaps we will find the answer – and the Foreman – there.”
Are the companions on the right road? Is this the same pasture they saw before? What will they find when they arrive at the barns? Is someone following them? Be sure to come back next week. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.