“Yer doin’ it again, sista.” The speaker raised an eyebrow at Dragon, who was still in her assumed identity of a delicate and exotic maiden.
“I. Am. Not. Your. Sister.” In a flash, Dragon transformed into her true self and towered over the now-quaking man who called himself the Boss. Black smoke poured from the beast’s snout.
“Yikes! No, you sure ain’t! What the heck kinda monster are ya?” His eyes were bulging as he tried to backpedal away from the brut, only to be hemmed in by her companions.
“Monster?” Dragon stood before the terrified man, once again in her guise of a maiden, batting her eyelashes and feigning innocence.
The Boss rubbed his eyes and gaped at the beautiful woman.
“And just what were you are accusing me of doing again?” Dragon asked sweetly.
“Huh? Uh . . . oh, yeah. You were talkin’ about me like I ain’t right here.” The Boss tried to appear annoyed, but it was difficult to do when his eyes were still bulging, and his forehead was beaded with sweat. After a few moments, though, he seemed to regain some of his bluster. “An’ waddaya mean I’m real and ill . . . illus . . . waddeverthaheck else ya said I was?”
“Both real and illusory. It means you show signs of simultaneously being both a real person and an illusory being.” Seeing the man’s confused look, Dragon continued. “You may be a created being, an illusion.”
“Waddaya talkin’ about? I ain’t no illusion!” The Boss curled his lip and all but snarled the words. “I’m as real as the next guy.” He gestured in the direction of the guide, Sangree, and the stable hand.
The Arrogant One chortled as he drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, grasped his cloak with both hands, and looked down his nose at the Boss. “That statement has little meaning if either of those two” – he indicated the two figures at whom the Boss had gestured – “are the next guy to whom you refer, considering both of them are illusory.”
The Boss looked at the Arrogant One as if the elf were speaking a foreign language. “Waddaya sayin’?”
Sympathy tinged the Gypsy’s voice as he tried to explain the situation to the Boss. “He is saying Sangree and the stable hand are illusions, created to fulfill a specific function in this world, a contrived world, an illusory world; and we believe you may also be an illusion.”
“More accurately, you appear to have both properties marking you as a real being, and properties revealing you as mere illusion.” Sorceress was still gaping at the man as she spoke. “We do not know how this could be. As I said before, one is either real or illusory. One cannot be both. Or so we thought.”
“Wha . . . wha . . . wha . . .?” The Boss looked like a fish gasping for air. Before the confused man could form any intelligent words, the Old Dwarf pushed him aside.
“Wot be wrong wit all o ye? Why be we wastin’ tha time ta be jawin’ aboot this man? It do na be makin’ no nevermind ta us iffins he be real or iffins he be illusionable. We been findin’ tha Foreman, likens we been come here ta do. Now we be needin’ ta be skedaddlin’ back ta tha town, so’s we kin be gettin’ back ta tha real world . . . afore we be gettin’ losted in this make-beliveable world fer e’re.”
“He is right. The most important thing right now is to find our way back.” The Gypsy nodded.
“Indeed. We did not come all this way to find the Foreman just to end up staying here with him. We must return to the real world and take him with us.” The Young Hero placed his hand on Tor’s shoulder and gave him a reassuring look.
Dragon pursed her lips and nodded. “What you say makes a great deal of sense. This mystery, though important, is not our paramount concern. Returning to the real world is. We should leave immediately.”
She turned to the Boss, who was still looking gobsmacked. “You will come with us. If we can get you back to the real world, perhaps we can unravel the mystery of your identity and your nature.”
“Well, sista . . . er, I mean lady . . .” The Boss gulped nervously and gave Dragon a wary look before continuing. “What if I don’t wanna go witchya?”
“You will come with us.” Dragon’s tone of voice did not invite further discussion.
The Old Dwarf stood by Dragon’s side, glaring at the Boss and brandishing his sword. “Ye been hearded the Beastie. Ye be comin’ wit us. Now, be ye movin’ along on yer ownest two feetsies, or be I slicin’ ye up inta little bitty pieces wat we kin be carryin’ in our pouches?”
The Boss blanched. “My feet’ll do just fine. No need ta get dicey.”
Tor turned to say goodbye to the stable hand. “I do not even know your name, friend.”
The lad shrugged and made a moue. “Don’t know it myself. Had one, once . . . I think.”
Tor extended his hand. “Well, take good care of yourself and these horses, friend. Maybe someday I will be able to return, and you will have remembered your name.”
The other man nodded and accepted Tor’s hand, shaking it warmly. “I’ll be right here if ya ever git back.” Then he turned and started distributing the feed and water to the stalled animals.
Tor nodded to Dragon, indicating he was ready to go.
“Sangree, you will lead us back to the town.” Dragon motioned for the man to proceed.
The self-proclaimed best guide in the town looked like a startled deer. “But . . . but . . . nobody ever asked to go back to the town. The road leads away from the town.”
“Well, it should be easy enough to follow the road back in the opposite direction, toward the town.” Cleric picked up her pouch and tied it back on her cincture, adjusted her robes, and started walking out of the barn. She stopped when she noticed no one following her. “Well, it will be easy, will it not?”
Sangree shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”
“Oh, this is ridiculous!” The Bounty Hunter scowled at the man. “You have guided many people away from the town, correct?”
“Well, how do you get back to the town to lead the next group away from it?”
“I . . . I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever gone back to the town. I’m just there when someone needs a guide.” Sangree furrowed his brow and scratched his head. “I have no idea how to get to the town.”
Dragon sighed. “That makes sense. Sangree is an illusory being, designed to be a guide for people entering this world. People enter at the town. He guides them to places within the town, or to places away from the town. Once he guides someone to their destination outside of the town limits, they would presumably be able to find their own way back to the town, so he is not designed to lead people in that direction.”
Cleric’s eyes widened and she started fidgeting with her cincture. “How will we find our way, then? How will we negotiate that treacherous region Sangree called the Changes? Sangree had enough trouble finding his way through there!”
“The first thing we will do is not panic.” Dragon would have sounded more convincing had she not transformed into her true nature, then immediately morphed blue and started dripping smoke bubbles from her snout.
Sorceress rolled her eyes. “Good advice. You should listen to it.”
The Old Dwarf pushed through the companions, dragging the Boss with him and making sounds of disgust. “There do na be no reason ta be panickin’.” Pointing to Sangree, he demanded, “Wat be tha place nearest tha town thet ye been guidin’ folk to?”
“Why would that matter?” The Bounty Hunter furrowed his brow and scratched his head.
The dwarf sighed and rolled his eyes. “Iffins tha guide be takin’ us ta tha place closest ta tha town, mebe we kin be findin’ tha rest o tha way our ownest selves.”
Sangree furrowed his brow and put his hand to his chin. The tip of his tongue poked out of the corner of his mouth and his eyelids almost closed. He remained in that position for several long minutes. Just as the dwarf was reaching for him to shake him out of his stupor, Sangree’s eyes flew open and he smiled broadly. “This stable! This stable is the closest place to the town that I’ve ever led anyone to.”
“Oh, that’s really helpful!” The Boss snorted.
The Gypsy frowned at the Boss and turned to address Sangree. “Okay, so this is the place closest to the town, but what about places within the town where you have led people?”
Again, Sangree furrowed his brow and put his hand to his chin. Again, the tip of his tongue poked out of the corner of his mouth and his eyelids almost closed. But this time his eyes flew open almost immediately and his smile was so wide, it looked as if his face would split. “The marketplace! Almost everyone wants to stop at the marketplace for supplies before leaving the town.”
“Well, then, can you lead us to the marketplace?” Dragon had changed back into the form of a maiden and was looking hopefully at Sangree.
“Piece of cake!” He beamed with pride.
After five days of wandering around the ever-transforming landscape of the region known as the Changes, Sangree led the companions into the town. “See? What did I tell you? Piece of cake!”
All nine characters and the Boss glared at Sangree and muttered an expansive array of expletives, epithets, and profanities at the man, who just stood there grinning.
Finally, the weary group of travelers took their leave of the best guide in the town and emerged in the real world.
* * *
Miles and I jumped up from the breakfast table. “What in the world is that racket?” Miles looked at me in alarm. After so many weeks of just the two of us rattling around the house, the slightest noise seemed to echo through the place. And this was no slight noise.
“It sounds like a herd of elephants stampeding around downstairs.” I grabbed my husband’s hand and tugged him toward the stairs, a smile spreading across my face. “My characters must be back!”
We ran downstairs to the conference room and threw open the door. As I had hoped, there were my characters, all appearing safe and sound.
As soon as they saw Miles and me, my companions fell silent for just a split second; then pandemonium broke out again, with everyone talking at the same time. I held up my hand like a traffic cop to quiet them. “Welcome back.”
The clamor picked up immediately, and the characters pressed in around Miles and me, each trying to tell us what had happened. Suddenly, I held my hand up a second time and called for silence.
I walked over to a man standing among my characters. “Arthur? What are you doing here?”
The man shook his head. “My name is Chester.” He looked around, a dazed expression on his face. “And I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t even know where here is.”
Where did Chester come from? Is he the Boss? Is he real or illusory . . . or some impossible combination of the two? How will my characters figure things out? Will they be able to help Chester and return him to wherever he belongs? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.