Dragon – still in her guise of an exotic and delicate maiden – gaped at the figure standing before her.
“Arthur?” Cleric’s voice sounded incredulous as she pushed past her companions. “Why, it is Arthur!” Her eyes widened and she took a step back.
The Gypsy jostled to get a glimpse of the man in question and scowled. “What is he doing here?”
The Young Hero frowned. “Arthur? Are you sure that is Arthur?”
The Foreman, Tor, gaped at the man he knew as the Boss. “I should have recognized him! When I first saw him here in the barn with the farrier, I thought he looked out of place, but I did not realize he was someone I had met in the real world.”
“I can hear ya, ya know. Ya don’t hafta talk about me like I ain’t right here!” The Boss sneered.
Dragon approached the man and studied him carefully. “You are Arthur, are you not?”
The man gave her a smug look. “Maybe. Maybe not. What’s it ta you, sista?”
Dragon gave him a cold stare. Smoke started to drift from her nose, despite the fact that she was not in her true form. “Most assuredly, I am not you sister.”
“Whatever.” The man gave her a curious look. “So, who are ya, and what’s yer business here?”
Dragon ignored him and turned to the Foreman. “What do you know of this man?”
Tor took off his hat and raked his hand through his hair. “I know him as the Boss, but nothing more. I did not recognize him as Arthur, though I sensed he might not be from this world. For several hours now, I have repeatedly asked him who he is and how he came to be in this place. I have gotten nothing but evasion and double-talk.”
The other man tsk-tsked and smirked at Tor. “Whatchya talkin’ about? I already told you. I’m the Boss. I came here from the town, same as you probably did, and I got here by walking, same as you probably did.”
“Yes, yes, you have told me that. But you refuse to reveal the identity you held before you came here and became the Boss. You refuse to reveal where you came from before you were in the town, or how you got to the town.” Tor’s voice was strained, and a vein in his temple throbbed.
Dragon studied the man closely through narrowed eyes. He seemed singularly unconcerned as he flopped back down on the bale of hay.
After many long minutes, Dragon turned back toward her companions and addressed Sorceress, the Arrogant One, the Bounty Hunter and the Old Dwarf, none of whom had ever met Arthur. Their confused looks faded as Dragon explained, “This man appears to be Arthur, the man who runs the writers’ group, Lost in the Words, and who has – on numerous occasions – caused serious problems for us.”
“Yes, he does appear to be Arthur,” Cleric interrupted, still sounding incredulous. “But can we be certain? How could Arthur be in this illusory world?”
Dragon frowned. “I do not know how he could be here. And, no, I am not certain he is Arthur. The physical resemblance is exceptional. However, his manner of speaking is all wrong. And, if he were Arthur, he should recognize some of us.”
“Be there no way ta be sure, beastie?” The Old Dwarf moved closer to the seated figure. “Mebe I can be gittin’ ’em ta be more forthcomin’ wit ’is answers?”
Dragon started to reply when another voice drew everyone’s attention to the far end of the barn. “If you folks’er here lookin’ ta buy some horses, yer just gonna hafta wait. I’m jus’ giving ’em their grain and water now. Come back later in tha day an’ they’ll be ready ta show ya.”
Tor gestured toward the newcomer. “That is the stable hand.”
The other companions stared at the figure while Dragon walked down the length of the barn aisle and studied the lad closely. “You are from this place, are you not? Like Sangree, the guide, you have a specific function here.”
The youth nodded. “I’m from here. I tend tha horses.”
“Do you know that man? The one sitting on the bale of hay?”
The stable hand scowled. “Calls himself the Boss. Ain’t my boss. I won’t work fer that man no more.”
Dragon nodded. “How long has he been the Boss?”
The stable hand frowned and scratched his head. “Not sure, really. Can’t remember but seems like maybe there usta be another boss. Don’t matter, though. Ain’t gonna work for that one no more.”
Dragon turned back to the group at the other end of the barn. “Sangree? Are you still here?”
“I am right here, milady! Do you need me to guide you to another place?” The self-proclaimed best guide in the town scurried down the aisle toward Dragon and the stable hand, a broad grin on his face.
“Not yet. I do need you to stand here, next to the stable hand, please.”
Sangree took his place without question, grinning like a fool.
“Now you.” Dragon pointed to the man who called himself the Boss. “Come here and stand with them.”
“Whatchya got in mind, sista?” He made no move to join them.
“Tha beastie been tellin’ ye afore, she do na be yer sister.” The Old Dwarf had retrieved his axe from his satchel and stood before the Boss, smacking the flat of the blade against the palm of his open hand. “Now, be ye walkin’ o’er there on yer ownest two feetsies, or be I slicin’ ye inta little bitty pieces wat I kin be carryin’ there?”
The Boss narrowed his eyes and took the Old Dwarf’s measure. He rose slowly and stretched. “All right, all right, I’m goin’. No need ta git yer tin can all steamed up.” He started strolling lazily down the barn aisle but picked up his pace considerably when the dwarf whacked his derrière with the flat of the axe blade.
Once the Boss stood with Sangree and the stable hand, Dragon motioned to Cleric, Sorceress, the Gypsy, and the Arrogant One. She drew her four magic colleagues close and spoke in a whisper. “Share your power with me, please.”
The elf drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, grasped his cloak with both hands, and sneered. “My power? For what purpose?”
Dragon silenced him with a raised eyebrow. “Not just your power, elf. I need all of you to strengthen a spell I will cast on those three. We know two of them are illusory – residents of this illusory world you helped me create for the Foreman. We need to determine if the third one – the one who calls himself the Boss, but who looks like Arthur – is also illusory, or if he is real.”
The Arrogant One frowned but nodded. The others agreed with no hesitation. They all joined hands and concentrated as hard as they could. Brows became furrowed, shoulders grew tense, and tongues peaked out of the corners of several mouths. Finally, Dragon intoned a spell in an ancient and arcane language.
After several minutes, Sangree and the stable hand were outlined in a soft blue light. Several more moments passed before the third figure also started glowing softly.
Suddenly, the light around the Boss intensified. He fell to the ground, writhing in a carnelian glow.
“What has happened?” Cleric broke the circle, pulling away from her companions and rushing toward the thrashing figure.
“Do not touch him!” Dragon reached out and grabbed Cleric.
“But he may need healing.” Cleric was already reaching for her pouch of herbs and her clerical emblem.
“I doubt he has been harmed, and even if he has been, I doubt you would be able to help.” Dragon kept a tight grip on Cleric’s arm, moving her away from the Boss, who lay, groaning, in a fading aura of reds and blues.
Slowly, the man’s spasms slowed, and he lay there still, with only an occasional twitch.
“He dead?” The stable hand sounded hopeful.
“No.” Dragon shook her head.
The man rolled over and glared at the stable hand. “It takes more’n a few fireworks ta finish me. I’m the Boss!”
“Sez you,” the youth muttered.
The Boss dragged himself into a sitting position. “What’dya do ta me, sista?”
“Ye be callin’ the beastie sister just oncet more, and ye be seein’ wat it be gittin’ ye.” The Old Dwarf glowered at the Boss, and vigorously pounded the flat of his axe blade into the palm of his open hand again.
The Boss scowled at the dwarf, but kept his mouth shut as he finished dragging himself to his feet. He stood there, leaning unsteadily against a stall door, shaking his head.
Once they were certain the man had sustained no serious or permanent injury, the companions huddled together and looked at Dragon.
“So, do we know any more now than we did before?” The Gypsy asked the question that was obviously on everyone’s mind.
“Yes and no.” Dragon pursed her lips. “The soft blue aura that surrounded the three figures marked them as illusory beings. The reddish radiance showed the one to be real.”
“How can that be?” Sorceress gaped at Dragon. “One is either real or illusory. One cannot be both.”
Dragon shrugged. “He is.”
How can the Boss (or is it Arthur?) be both an illusion and real? How are the companions going to solve that mystery? And will they ever find their way out of this illusory world and back to the real world where Mistress Writer and Master Miles await their return? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.