Fantys

 

Copyright (c) 2020-2022 by Jeff Wunder. All Rights Reserved. Version 3.51, June 2, 2022. This is a pre-publication version subject to revisions.


Table of Contents

 


 

To Hannah and her imagination.

 

Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream. –William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

 

Fake

 

The world might be fake, but Ean was real. He was reasonably sure of that. It might be the only thing he was sure of, after everything that happened. He gripped the steering wheel with one hand and smoothed his tangled brown hair with the other, scowling at the traffic and sticky weather. Humidity and stupidity. That’s what he got for leaving the sanity of his room.

So Arie had been snooping again. Okay, she was smart, but still a kid as far as he was concerned. As her older brother, he was the expert in these matters, especially with all his computer skills and his promising future in academia.

“I’m just telling you what your geek magazine said,” Arie protested. Her hair was longer and blonder than his, but almost as messy. She brushed a strand out of her eyes and slurped cola through a loopy straw, making way more noise than necessary. “Everything could be fake. You can’t prove we’re not living in a simulation. A virtual reality.”

Ean took a deep breath. Launching into a technical discussion with his sister was an act of self-immolation. He wouldn’t go there. “So? Who cares if you can’t prove we’re not in a simulation? You can’t prove invisible fairies aren’t flying around inside your phone either. Would it matter? No.”

“Fairies in my phone would totally matter.”

Ean frowned. “Why?”

“Because I’d have questions. Anybody would. Like…how’d they get in there? What are their names? Isn’t it cramped?” She took another noisy slurp. “And I wouldn’t want them listening in on my calls either.”

Ean slapped his forehead and opened his mouth to respond. But after thinking it over, he just tightened his lips and stared ahead at the road.

Earlier this morning, he’d maneuvered his old VW onto a Maryland rural route, off the main highways. On the highways, other cars honked at it and cops liked to pull it over. Arie loved to ridicule it, but Ean took a more nuanced view. Yeah, it needed a little body work. It also left a conspicuous puddle of oil wherever he parked. And some other kind of fluid. But the guy he bought it from assured him it was a classic and would only appreciate in value. For the money, it wasn’t a bad set of wheels. It actually worked, and that was one of its best features.

Green pastures and horse farms checkered the countryside on their way north. June had arrived and the aroma of cut grass and manure hung in the air. They’d traveled this route before and quickly grew tired of the scenery, so they amused themselves by reading old billboards along the road. Some were of the ‘Lose thirty pounds in five days’ variety. On others, fast-food burgers looked far more appetizing than they did in reality. On one billboard, a smiling personal injury attorney advertised his services, and on another, a buxom young woman proudly proclaimed her boobs were real and only her smile was fake. Ean laughed, so Arie suggested they pass the time by seeing what other fake things they could come up with.

Once examined, the sheer amount of fakery in the world astonished them both. Ean kicked things off with fake eyelashes, fake tans, and fake diamonds. Arie countered with clip-on ties, toupees, and margarine. That led to fake finger nails, fake memory cards, photoshopped pictures, placebo drugs, fake wheel covers, aspartame, imitation crab and lobster meat, reality TV, fishing lures and fake worms, counterfeit money, fake charges on phone bills, and faked deaths for collecting insurance.

Even nature was fake. Insects were disguised as twigs, leaves, or other less tasty things. Birds faked broken wings to lure predators away from their young, and brightly-colored males advertised fake fitness to females.

But finally, Ean brought up fake art and fake news. Arie chimed in with fake vomit, pseudo leather, and the ultimate fakery of all: a simulated world and fake everything. That’s where Ean drew the line. If everything was fake, then what did real mean? Ice cream still tasted good and bees still stung. The world felt real enough, whatever else it might be.

“Alright then,” Arie said. “How about fake people?”

“Like your friend? The one who dresses up in her mom’s clothes to look more mature?”

“Don’t pick on her. Jeani’s brilliant but she doesn’t have many real friends, so she tries to fit in with the cool gang at school.” She frowned. “They’ll just slow her down and turn on her in the end.”

Arie fingered her bracelet, which she often did when something bothered her. It was a cheap-looking thing made from coppery plates, each one engraved with a snapshot of a sunrise in progress. A gift from Dad that she never removed.

“Anyway, that’s not what I meant by fake people. I meant the stuff you like. You know, robots and androids. Real people are making fake people for some reason.”

Ean shrugged. “Androids are more interesting.”

“Only an antisocial dweeb would say that.”

“I’m more of a geek than a dweeb. And I’m not antisocial.” He hesitated. “I said hi to a pretty woman yesterday.”

Arie burst out laughing. “You’re gonna have to do more than that.”

“Yeah? Why should I take advice from a little girl?”

Arie bristled. “Because I don’t hide from the world. I don’t lock myself in my room and stare at my computer all day.” She faced him. “You’re human, whether you like it or not. And I’m not a little girl. I’m twelve years old.”

Yes, she was. And like Dad, she could be tough. It was best to avoid a fight with her. Her given name was Aria because Dad liked old music no one else could relate to, but everyone called her Arie. When she learned how to read, she declared that three syllables were too many for four letters, so she changed the last letter of her name to an ‘e’. Even Dad wouldn’t challenge her on that.

Ean sighed. As annoying as Arie was, she was his responsibility now. Along with Uncle Harry, they might be the last of the McQuiggans. Their Welsh mother died of cancer when they were kids in Scotland. Dad moved them here and never remarried, but he simply vanished three weeks ago. No one knew where he was. And then there were those crazy…attacks.

A small rest area came up on the right and they both had to go. Ean pulled up next to a shabby restroom with overflowing trash cans. He ignored Arie when she said his car blended right in. On the way out, a dark-haired guy leaned against a tree, nodding at them. Ean didn’t recognize him. He cringed when Arie waved at a group of tough-looking bikers, but two of them smiled and waved back. They seemed friendly enough.

In the parking lot, Ean stopped in his tracks, frowning. A little girl bounced a ball off his car. Really? Don’t kids respect anything anymore? From another car nearby, a woman poked her head out of the window.

“Linda, stop that. It’s rude.”

The girl clasped the ball against her hip and looked up at Ean with big, innocent eyes. “How come your car’s so crappy?”

“Don’t talk to the man like that,” the woman snapped.

Ean glared at the girl. “Because that’s the kinda guy I am.” Arie nodded.

“Your shirt has holes in it,” the girl said.

“I like it that way.”

Arie smirked and they got in the car. Back on the road, Ean switched on the radio and was gratified to hear static. Good, it worked today. He fiddled with the tuner until a clear station came in…sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Sounded like oldies. Arie clapped her hands and rocked out in her seat. He frowned and reached over to tune in another station.

“Wait…leave it there a second,” said a voice from the back seat.

They both swung around. The guy from the rest stop smiled at them. He was about Ean’s age or a little older, with dark shoulder-length hair, dark features, and eyes that twinkled with amusement.

He waved his hand. “Hi there. Can I have a word?”

“How’d you get in here?” Arie demanded. “Who are you?”

“Sorry, I’m Karl. I should’ve flagged you down at the rest stop.” He paused, as if trying to remember his lines. “I’m supposed to warn you it’s dangerous out here. Bad things can happen. Don’t make any more stops or take any detours.” He waved ahead. “Head straight for the farm. You’ll be safe there.” He glanced around as the car shuddered violently. “Um…this thing isn’t gonna fall apart, is it?”

“It certainly will,” Arie replied.

Ean stared at her. “It’s just a tire bubble, okay?” He faced the road again, shaking his head. “You don’t appreciate the finer points of this car.”

“It’s a piece of junk!”

“That’s a little harsh, isn’t it?”

“No, it isn’t. Remember when that cop said you need to find a better job?”

“Yeah,” Ean mumbled. “I’ll have a better job than him someday.” He turned back to Karl. “Look, we know weird stuff is happening. So you snuck into the back seat and waited till we were on the road to warn us?”

Karl lowered his eyes. “Well…like I said, I should have approached you at the rest stop. Just trying to do my job.” He leaned forward. “Hey, is that Richie Havens? I can’t listen to the radio where I’m from.”

“Forget the radio,” Ean snapped, fiddling with the dials. “We need answers.” The car shuddered again, this time accompanied by a grinding noise from the engine.

Ean hit the brakes. “What the…”

Arie nodded. “Yeah, it’s the tires.”

“It was working fine yesterday.”

“Technology gets old,” Karl mused.

“Really old,” Arie said. “Someone should put this heap out of its misery.”

With the engine still grinding, Ean eased his car onto the shoulder of the road. They got out and he opened the hood. He didn’t see anything wrong but he wasn’t much of a mechanic.

Karl leaned over. “Could be one of those things I warned you about.” He reached into the engine compartment, groping at something. After a few seconds he removed his hand and shrugged. “Or not. Try it now.”

They got back in the car and Ean pulled out onto the road. The grinding was gone. Relieved, he turned around to thank Karl, but…he wasn’t there. Nor was he at the spot they just left.

Ean looked all around. “Didn’t he get in with us?”

“I didn’t notice,” Arie replied. “Maybe he was afraid to ride in here.”

But where did he go? There weren’t any trees or bushes where they stopped. Did another car pick him up?

Ean stared ahead. “Pretty sneaky. Have you ever seen him before?”

“No, but he seemed friendly. He fixed your car, for now.”

“How? He couldn’t have done much.” Ean shook his head. “Add that to the list of weird stuff going on. And how did he know about the farm? I hope our phones aren’t hacked.”

Arie smiled. “The fairies are listening in.” Ean shot her a dirty look. “He’s right, though. We should go straight to Uncle Harry. No more stops.”

But Ean had to stop at a red light. In the left turn lane, an elderly woman gawked at his car from the open passenger window of a Mercedes. She fumbled with something on her lap, then smiled and held out a twenty dollar bill.

Ean scowled and hit the gas when the light turned green.

“We could have used that,” Arie said. She glanced behind. “You’re too slow. We’re holding up traffic.”

In the rear view mirror, Ean noticed he was being tailgated by the same bikers Arie had waved to. He checked the speedometer–which worked fine, by the way. Alright, he was a little slow. He stepped on the gas until the needle hit fifty. Most of the bikers matched his speed, but two of them passed and repositioned themselves side-by-side in front of his car. Riding close together, they maintained a constant separation, even around turns and through opposing traffic. Ean was impressed. Arie waved again at the bikers behind them, this time without a response.

It wasn’t the shortest way, but this route would eventually take them north to Gettysburg and east to Uncle Harry’s farm in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania. Yeah, that’s right, home of the Amish. They would often visit there as children. It was a change of pace from the high tech congestion of northern Virginia, where Dad worked for a government contractor.

Life was slower and simpler in Lancaster. Technology had intruded there as well, but the focus of life seemed elsewhere. Most folks worried about crops, livestock, and going to church. Ean remembered it now from far away, like a hazy, half-forgotten dream–hot summer nights on sweaty hayrides, colorful quilts, and boring church services that never ended. Androids and virtual realities rarely came up in conversation. The child in Ean had been happy there once, but now he felt out-of-place in Lancaster. He’d outgrown it, or perhaps it had outgrown him. And yet…it seemed that life was sending him back again, just to make sure.

“They’re passing again,” Arie cried out.

Ean swerved hard to the right as two more bikers passed with inches to spare, inserting themselves with precision into the space between his car and the other pair of bikers. He slammed on the brakes, but the bikers behind him didn’t care. There were no loud horns or unfriendly hand gestures. The whole entourage just moved slower.

“Showboat,” Ean muttered. “Weekend warriors.”

He shook his head. Why was all this weird stuff happening? First of all, where was Dad? A few weeks ago, he went on a business trip to London and never returned. He didn’t call or leave a message. His company couldn’t locate him and neither could the police.

And second…some creep was harassing Arie, maybe even trying to kidnap her. At first, text messages tried to lure her into strange places or situations. Arie ignored them. But then her name began to appear everywhere: on bulletin boards, signs, and even in the sky–written by a sky-writing airplane. A van with her name on the side followed her around for days, until the driver pulled up beside her and asked if he could give her a ride. She ran away, of course. And then there was the strange little boy who followed her around the Air & Space Museum. He kept trying to pin a tag or a sticker on her, until she kicked him and told him to get lost. And on the last day of school, she found herself locked inside a bathroom stall, even though the lock was on the inside. It wouldn’t budge. When other girls came in, it worked fine. They thought she was crazy.

So with Dad gone, Ean decided to take Arie out of the D.C. area. It was too dangerous. Uncle Harry’s farm was the safest place she could stay on short notice. She liked it there and Uncle Harry didn’t mind.

The bikers slowed again. Motorcycles roared and the ground shook with their vibration. Ean assumed they were preparing to make a turn, but where was the exit? A long, flat stretch lay ahead, with no traffic. Another biker advanced and flanked them on the left, motioning to Ean.

Arie turned to look. “What’s going on?”

“They want us to pull over. I don’t like this.”

“Something’s probably wrong with your car. Like we didn’t know that.”

The bikers continued to slow. For the first time, Ean noticed how alike they were. They all wore the same jackets, boots, and sunglasses, and the same helmets over their long pony tails. They rode the same black Harleys and even had similar graying beards. Their faces were oddly nondescript, although it was hard to see anything under the beards and sunglasses.

The biker motioned again. Ean pulled off onto a wide stretch of dirt on the shoulder of the road and came to a full stop, surrounded by rumbling Harleys. The biker kicked down his stand, dismounted, and lumbered over to Ean’s window, his boots clanking in the dirt. He peered inside, staring briefly at Ean and longer at Arie. On one side of his jacket was an emblem of a crow or a raven wearing a motorcycle helmet. On the other, stitched in cursive green threads, was the name Arie.

“Oh, no.”

Ean quickly locked his door, while Arie did the same. He stepped on the gas, not caring about damaging any motorcycles, but one of the bikers slapped a rectangular device on the car and the engine cut out. The electronics were dead.

Bikers surrounded the car, pounding on the windows with their fists. One had a crowbar and tried to pry open Arie’s door. When that failed, he whacked at the window again and again. Stars and cracks appeared in the glass, but Arie didn’t panic. She calmly opened the glove compartment, grabbed a screwdriver and a can of pepper spray, and ducked. The biker finally broke through, showering the interior with glass fragments. When he poked his head inside, Arie popped up and sprayed him in the face, making sure to work it underneath his sunglasses. He gasped and stumbled backwards, clutching at his eyes. Another biker reached in and groped for the door release. Wrapping both her hands around the screwdriver, Arie stabbed his wrist with all her strength. He cursed and withdrew, scraping his arm against broken glass on the way out.

A police car approached from the north. Ean had never been so relieved to see a cop, and he waved frantically through the front window. The bikers turned to look, then scrambled onto their Harleys and took off south at high speed. The police car slowed, its lights flashing and sirens wailing. In seconds, it rolled up next to Ean and an officer got out, hand on his gun.

“Out of the vehicle!”

They did as they were told. The officer glanced down the road where the bikers had gone and turned back to Ean’s car.

“Any drugs in there?”

“No,” Arie said. “But my brother smoked pot once.” Ean stared at her, wide-eyed.

“Did he now?”

Arie nodded. “Dad was really mad.”

The officer motioned to Ean. “Alright, hands on the car.” He patted Ean down, checked his license and registration, and did a quick search of the car. On the way out, he stared at the windshield, scratching his head.

“Did this thing really pass inspection?”

“Of course it did,” Ean replied indignantly. His face slackened. “Well…it might not now.”

The officer took the rectangular device and went back in his car to talk on the radio. In a few minutes, another officer arrived and asked them a lot of questions. Ean told him everything. The officers radioed ahead to intercept the bikers, without success. They wrote a lengthy report, but there wasn’t much else they could do. Neither Ean nor Arie could recall any license plate numbers. After what seemed like hours, they zoomed off and left Arie and Ean to clean up the mess.

“Good thing you remembered the pepper spray,” Ean said.

Arie didn’t reply.

Ean took a deep breath. “Alright. So we were attacked by a gang of zombie bikers. Not the worst thing that could happen.”

“Pretty close.”

“Obviously we’re dealing with more than we thought. There might even be more than one attacker.” He threw his hands in the air. “Unbelievable. They have the resources to buy out a whole motorcycle club, with custom-made jackets and everything. I doubt they’ll have any trouble following us up to Lancaster.”

Arie grimaced. “But why? What do they want from me?” She carefully removed a section of shattered glass and flung it away. “I can’t think of anyone I’ve offended, at least not enough to deserve this. I keep worrying about Dad and wondering if I’m next.”

“I don’t know, Dad never mentioned stuff like this. Maybe some weirdo noticed you, became obsessed, and tracked you down. A rich weirdo.”

“What about the boy at the Air & Space museum?”

Ean lowered his eyes. “We didn’t get a close look at that sticker. Your name might have been on it.”

“Thanks for cheering me up.”

After all the glass was removed, Ean found some plastic and duct tape in the trunk, which he used to fashion a makeshift window for Arie’s door. When it was ready, they got in the car and Ean drove north to their Uncle’s farm. He glanced in the rear view mirror more than usual and didn’t take any shortcuts. They didn’t bother with phony billboards or thinking up fake things for the rest of the trip. It wasn’t funny anymore. Most of the time, the world was reassuringly fake. But sometimes it got frighteningly real.

 

Ruins

 

Uncle Harry’s farm sat in a hollow near a shallow ridge northeast of Intercourse, Pennsylvania. It was one of the few farms in the area that wasn’t Amish. At least it had electricity, with a modest farmhouse and an old barn where the loft had been converted into a two-bedroom apartment. Arie and Ean usually stayed there during visits.

Uncle Harry liked to think of himself as a farmer, but he was mostly retired, with a small income from renting out his land and repairing farm equipment. He’d moved here before Ean was born, having been married and divorced in Scotland. Other notable residents included Nessie--an Airedale terrier, a dozen chickens, and three or four cats shared with three or four nearby farms.

Ean navigated his car through sharp bends in the dusty driveway and pulled up next to the barn. Arie popped out first and Ean followed, both eager to stretch their legs. In the barn yard, a solitary hen eyed him suspiciously. He returned her petty stare until she looked away. Uncle Harry’s pickup truck was gone, but Nessie raced around the corner to give them a slobbery welcome.

Arie hugged her like a long lost friend. “This place doesn’t change much.”

Ean took in a whiff of fresh manure. “Yeah. Looks like no one’s home.” He frowned at the sun, still high in the sky. “I don’t feel like unpacking. Let’s head up to the woods. I haven’t been there in ages.”

Arie agreed. They passed by the old picnic table behind the house and hiked along the edge of a muddy field into the wooded area of the farm. Nessie circled them with her nose to the ground, vacuuming up the scenery and flushing out a rabbit and a few birds.

In the woods, they followed a meandering stream through a lush, green carpet of jewelweed and mayapple. The stream tumbled across flat stones until it widened into clear, deep pool. Technically, they weren’t on Uncle Harry’s property anymore, but no one had ever complained. It was magical place, where oak and hickory trees reached up to clasp hands while dappled sunlight filtered through, sanctifying their union. The sweet scent of honeysuckle almost hid the odor of manure.

On one bank stood the ruins of a old house. Only crumbling walls and scattered stones remained, overgrown with vines and moss. They would often play there as children. With a little imagination, the ruins transformed into a medieval fortress which they defended from hordes of savage invaders, such as squirrels, crows, and dragonflies. Today Nessie defended it, while Arie and Ean reclined by the pool and skipped stones across the water.

Sadly, Ean’s mood wasn’t compatible with his surroundings. “What in the world is happening to us? First Dad disappears, and now someone’s chasing you big-time. I have important classes this summer, to prepare for Cambridge.” He exhaled loudly. “I really don’t need this.”

“You know what Dad says. It’s not a perfect world.”

“I’m not asking for perfection. I just want things to make sense.”

“Too bad. Life isn’t a math problem.”

“Then why do I always feel like I’m being tested and I haven’t studied?”

“You can’t study for a test while you’re taking it.”

Ean stared at her. “You’re a fountain of wisdom.” Arie smiled. He threw a stone in the pool. “But you can’t be a wild child forever. Don’t you ever think about what you want to do with your life?”

“Nope, I’m just gonna wing it.” She frowned. “Of course I think about it. But I’m not a geek like you. Maybe school isn’t for me.”

“Better not tell Dad.”

Arie sighed. “Dad’s not here.” She turned to him. “Thanks for the ride. You won’t have to stay for long.”

“I will if Dad doesn’t show up and pay the bills.”

“Then you better be nice to Uncle Harry. Don’t start any dumb arguments this time, okay?”

“I never do,” Ean protested. “He’s the one who preaches his religion at me. Usually when he drinks.” Uncle Harry once boasted that Scotland had the finest drunks in the world. Ean didn’t challenge him on that.

“He’s worried about us being without a mom. Especially you, with all your books and computer screens. You need to get out more.”

“Where, here? Should I study manure?”

“You’re already an expert in that. Just relax. Come out of your shell for once.”

Ean hesitated. “There’s a reason why hermit crabs have shells.” He threw another stone in the pool. “We need to be more careful. Avoid strange cars, people, whatever. Anything could be an attack.” Nessie trotted over and sat next to Arie.

“That’s hard. I’m more social than you.” Nessie licked Arie’s cheek from bottom to top, like a lollipop. She grimaced. “Yuck. At least I have Nessie to slobber on me.” She faced Ean. “You don’t have to give up Cambridge for me.”

Ean nodded. He didn’t tell her that he wasn’t ready for college. Scholastically he might be, but not emotionally. He’d assumed his career would advance forever, driven up and away by the flames of his own ambition. But with Dad gone and that violent biker attack, they’d already been quenched. He’d vowed to find Dad, but didn’t know where to begin. And who would protect Arie? The way things were going, she could be gone tomorrow.

Except for suffering through a few English Lit classes, Ean had spent most of his academic life immersed in technology and the sciences. He was good at it, and his test scores and recommendation letters bore witness. After being admitted to several universities, he chose to attend Dad’s alma mater, Cambridge, in the fall. Summer classes were available to give him a head start and he’d eagerly signed up.

So Ean was a card-carrying, bona fide geek. And yet…here he was, trapped in the heart of Amish country–the virtual eighteenth century–alongside farmers with no cars or electricity, doomed to inhale the omnipresent stench of horse manure. All while being tortured with the knowledge that summer school was only a week away and he’d probably miss it. Ean felt sick. Seriously, he could waste away here. Or choke to death.

Nessie growled, her eyes fixed on a honeysuckle bush across the pool.

“What’s the matter, girl?” Arie asked.

Something rustled in the bush, stopped, and rustled again. A sparrow flew out and perched on an oak branch, chattering and complaining. The rustling continued until a furry head popped out. Nessie barked furiously while Arie held on to her collar. The head disappeared, followed by more rustling, then silence. Finally, a cat strolled out of the bush and sat on the opposite bank of the pool, licking its paws and eyeing all three of them.

It was a big cat, maybe thirty pounds, with a smokey yellow coat marked like a tabby. Red and orange accents lined the darker stripes, while odd-looking opposable thumbs stuck out of its creamy paws. Ean hadn’t seen that before, although he had seen cats with six toes. It scanned them with intelligent eyes and seemed completely fearless.

Nessie struggled hard, so Ean took over her collar. Ignoring Nessie, the cat hopped over the stream. Powerful sinews rippled under its coat as it approached Arie. Before Ean could do anything, it nuzzled up against her.

Arie grinned and caressed it. “What a beautiful cat you are. Strong too.” She reached for its collar and read the name tag. “Maya.” She flipped it over. “Hmm. Pretty name, but no address.”

Maya wasn’t interested. She stared at the ruins. Two crows had landed on one of the broken walls, where they strutted back and forth, cackling like witches. One suddenly took off and flew directly at Arie. With consummate ease, Maya sprang up and snatched the crow out of the air, leaving a cloud of black feathers in her wake, then pinned the screeching crow to the ground and calmly bit off its head. The other crow flew off in the opposite direction, while Maya resumed her place in Arie’s arms as if nothing had happened.

Ean’s eyes widened. “What the…” He walked over to where the crows had stood. On the wall beneath, Arie had scratched her name years ago.

He shook his head. “We better go. Remember what I said about avoiding weird stuff? That crow’s a good example. The cat too. I’ve never seen one like it. What Amish farm around here would even have a cat like that? What if it attacks you?” Maya disengaged from Arie and scampered up on the ruins, grooming herself.

Arie rolled her eyes. “If Maya wanted to attack me, she would have already. The crow was weird, but Maya protected me.” She smiled. “I didn’t see my name written on her either.”

Ean didn’t remind her about the wall. “Let’s go anyway. Uncle Harry will be back.”

Arie reluctantly agreed, so they hiked back to the farm house with Nessie in tow. Maya was left to defend the ruins, a job for which she seemed well-qualified.

 

Uncle Harry was in the driveway, fussing over a contraption in the bed of his pickup truck. A few years older than Dad, he had a sturdy build with a considerable paunch. A tangle of graying black hair and a matching beard framed his rough, weather-beaten features. The resemblance to Dad was easy to spot in his eyes and cheekbones, and yet he was so different. He was a man who liked to work outdoors with his hands.

He looked up, smiling. “Been to the woods, ‘ave ya?” He held out his arms. “Come, lassie. Give your Uncle a hug.” Arie embraced him warmly and Ean shook his hand. “Had a safe trip, then?” Ean and Arie exchanged glances. “Good. Let’s go inside. There’s someone fer ya ta meet.”

The farm house was typically Amish, with low ceilings, hardwood floors, and wood trim in most corners. Furnishings were simple and practical, and the rooms were small, but cozy. As a long-time bachelor, Uncle Harry had always been a bit of a slob, but the house was neater and cleaner than Ean remembered. The aroma of sizzling steak and spices reminded him how hungry he was.

Uncle Harry led them into the kitchen, where a woman labored over the counter, chopping onions and tasting broth. She turned to face them, holding a wooden spoon. A lavender apron hung over her dark blue cape dress, in the Mennonite style. Modern sneakers stuck out under her dress and she wore her dark hair in a bun, without the traditional hairnet. Her tawny complexion was uncommon in Mennonites, but not unheard of. Ean guessed she was in her late forties or fifties, but she’d aged well and had probably been a beauty in her youth. She looked them over with a stern expression and clear, dark eyes.

“This is Ava, our new chef,” Uncle Harry announced, with pride. “You’ll have none’o my slop when she’s about. Ava, these are my brother Ewan’s children, Arie and Ean, come to stay with me.” They took turns shaking her hand. “Seein’ as how I got proper guests, we’ll be needin’ proper cookin’ and cleanin’. So Ava’s kindly offered to pop over the ridge and lend us a hand when she’s able.”

Ava nodded. “Dinner’s ready, so you two best get the table set.”

After they’d set the table and brought out the food, Ean took Arie aside. “Let’s not mention the bikers. Uncle Harry would worry. As far as he knows, we’re away from all that.” Arie agreed.

Everyone took a seat. Nessie sat nearby hoping for handouts, while Uncle Harry set down a bottle of his beloved Glendronach whiskey and said grace. The dinner was marvelous and a much needed improvement over the snacks and fast food Ean subsisted on. It wouldn’t win any awards for low cholesterol, but he didn’t care. A spicy bean soup was served as an appetizer, followed by mouth watering steaks with yummy cheese sauce, noodles with peas and ground beef, and buttered corn-on-the-cob. Ean stuffed himself, but there would be plenty of leftovers.

The conversation touched on Uncle Harry’s work, the muggy weather, and Ava’s gossip from other farms she did housekeeping for. But inevitably, Uncle Harry came around to his pet topic.

He turned to Arie. “Strange business, with yer Daddy missin’ and you bein’ pestered like that.”

“Oh, it’s awful,” Arie said. “Coming here was the best thing to do. It’s not safe out there.”

“Aye, this world’s cursed. ‘as been fer a long time.”

Ean sighed. “All because some guy ate a piece of fruit he wasn’t supposed to.”

Uncle Harry stared at him. “Disobeyin’ the Lord’s a sin. And there’s all manner’o sin about these days. Like the time’o Noah’s Flood, I’m tellin’ ya.” He raised his bushy eyebrows. “And ya know what happened then.”

“Yeah, someone threw a tantrum. But if God didn’t like what He created, whose fault is that, I wonder?”

Uncle Harry’s eyes widened. “Don’t blaspheme, lad. And don’t be judgin’ God. He gave us free will.”

“Why? So He can punish us for actually using it? And if he doesn’t want me judging Him, He shouldn’t have given me a brain to think with.” Ean eyed Uncle Harry’s whiskey bottle. “Or maybe…He should have given me some fine liquor to shut it down.”

Arie kicked Ean hard under the table, in the instep where it really hurt. He gasped and choked on his noodles. Ava suppressed a smile.

Uncle Harry sat up surprised, clutching his bottle. “Ya ain’t havin’ my whiskey.” He wagged his fork at Ean. “Ya got a smart mouth on ya, boy. Gonna getcha in a heap’o trouble someday.”

Arie changed the subject, telling Ava and Uncle Harry about the strange cat they found in the woods.

Ava was quick to respond. “I’ve seen that cat roaming about. Not sure who it belongs to. It’s different, but I wouldn’t worry. I don’t think it has rabies or anything.”

“No sign of rabies,” Arie agreed. “She’s smart and very friendly.”

Uncle Harry smiled. “All critters are friendly to you, lassie.”

“Except crows,” Ean added.

Desert started out with peaches and bunches of grapes. Ean chose the grapes. Peach-eating was fraught with messy complications and he wouldn’t be surprised if God had forbidden it. Grapes were less juicy, but safer and more modular. An engineer’s fruit.

After finishing off with homemade Streuselkuchen and ice cream, Arie and Ean helped clean up and wash the dishes. They stored enough leftovers to last for days. Ava’s ride arrived, so everyone thanked her for a wonderful dinner. She warned them to stay on the farm where it was safe, and promised Uncle Harry she’d be back in a few days. Then she was gone.

 

That night, Ean couldn’t sleep as a million thoughts spun through his head. Above him, moonlight shone through a bedroom window, transforming his white curtains into a ghostly blue veil. He sat up, brushing them aside. Under the full moon, Lancaster became an evil negative of itself. The attacker was out there somewhere and surely he knew Arie was here. They could have stayed in Virginia and saved him the trouble. Karl from the rest stop said they’d be safe here, but Ean didn’t trust him. He knew more than he was letting on. Ean sighed. Arie was a tough kid, but what they really needed was a professional. Someone skilled in this style of warfare.

Outside, something moved, zigzagging from tree to tree, edging closer. It dipped behind a rock and dashed towards the barn, flowing like liquid. Four legs appeared, then a tail and a head. A cat. It froze as if listening for something, then vanished beneath Ean’s car. Only glowing eyes remained, watching his window from the shadows.

 

Mornings weren’t so bad at uncle Harry’s, once you got used to roosters crowing, Nessie barking, and all the bleating, mooing, and neighing of livestock on nearby farms. And the smell of horse manure. Ean got up early to feed Nessie and the chickens while Arie fed the cats and cooked breakfast. Ean also cleaned the chicken coop, and well…the less said about that, the better. But when the chores were done, the day was theirs.

They’d been here almost a week and farm life had been pleasant, if not exciting. Ava served them another dinner, and Maya now patrolled the farm and had formed a special bond with Arie. There didn’t seem to be many crows around. Best of all, there were no more attacks. Maybe the attacker was biding his time, or lost their trail, or simply lost interest.

Ean finished his breakfast and gazed out the window. “You know…if I fix the old bikes downstairs, we could ride into town like we used to. The weather’s decent.”

Arie smiled. “I could do some shopping.”

So Ean set about fixing the bikes, repairing inner tubes and adjusting brakes, seats, and handlebars. When he finished, it was almost noon. After leaving a note for Uncle Harry, they started on the long ride into town.

The roads were mostly flat or downhill, except for one steep hill. As they neared the top, a hot air balloon came into view–blue, orange, and yellow–trying for a landing in the adjacent field. A propane furnace switched on and off, roaring loudly as it shot tongues of flame into the balloon. Arie shouted and peddled hard to get a closer look, while Ean trailed behind.

They stopped by the roadside and watched the balloon drift over the field, less than a hundred feet away. The pilot beckoned to them as he worked the furnace. He probably needed help, Arie said, so they left their bikes and approached the balloon.

“Nice day for a bike ride,” the man said. He wore goggles and a windbreaker with the hood up–odd for a warm summer day. Maybe it was cooler at higher altitudes. “Hey, can you tell me where I am? What’s that town to the southwest?”

“That’s Intercourse,” Arie replied. “A fun, touristy town. We’re going there.”

The man frowned. “Then I’m way off course. Thanks, ‘preciate your help.” He held out his free hand and Arie shook it. His unzipped windbreaker rode along with his arm, exposing the shirt underneath. Printed on the shirt in cursive, was Arie.

Ean tried to pull Arie away, but the man had already seized her elbow with one hand as he cranked up the furnace with the other. The balloon rose and Arie screamed. Ean grabbed her legs with both arms, but the pilot had hooked Arie’s elbow around the edge of the balloon basket.

“Let go, Ean,” Arie yelled. “My arm’s gonna break.”

Ean let go and Arie rose higher, her feet dangling just out of reach. The pilot still pinned her arm down, when Arie stretched her neck over the basket and bit his thumb. He yanked his arm away and Arie collapsed on top of Ean, as the balloon lurched upward.

Ean pushed her foot out of his mouth. “Who is that guy?”

Arie got up, her temper flaring. “I don’t know. Let’s get out of here.”

“You can’t hide,” the man shouted as he drifted higher. “Don’t you know how important you are?”

They ran back to their bikes and raced into town, pedaling furiously. Ean looked over his shoulder many times as the balloon climbed higher and higher until it was gone.

 

Intercourse was as Ean remembered it–a small tourist trap with an Amish theme. Many folks were drawn to the simple lifestyle of the Amish, but to Ean they could be downright sinister. They would herd you into lush cornfields and bind you with strands of sweet Gemütlichkeit, cutting you off from the great wide world and the expansion of your spirit, or its possible demise. You’d live out the rest of your days in a straw hat and suspenders, drowning in corn and horse manure. A fate too dreadful for any young geek to contemplate. But hey, that was just Ean. To others, it might be the pinnacle of happiness and the endpoint of earthly existence.

He thought about riding back to the farm, but Intercourse was closer, and Arie would be safer and happier in a crowd. She wouldn’t talk about the balloon attack, but Ean couldn’t stop analyzing it. How did that guy know they were going into town? Was their apartment bugged? How did he know what roads they would take, and how did he navigate his balloon precisely enough to intercept them? Balloons were notoriously hard to steer. It would have been much easier to kidnap Arie on the farm. Like the other attacks, it didn’t make sense.

They parked their bikes and entered a village of quaint shops and cafes. Arie liked it there and Ean hoped to lift her spirits. But the ride had exhausted them, so they plopped down at a cafe table with an umbrella and ordered sandwiches. In places like this, Ean usually enjoyed watching people walk by, but today everyone was a potential enemy. His caution spiked into fear when a striking young woman walked up to their table.

Maybe it was a trick of the sun, but her fiery copper hair seemed to glow under its own power. A new kind of dye, Ean guessed. Most of her hair disappeared into a complex braid behind her back, but some strands hung in front of her ears. Her squarish nose sloped gently outward and wide eyes complemented her sea-green shirt. Her skin was smooth and light.

She beckoned to her right and a young man stepped forward. It was Karl, the same guy who had snuck into Ean’s car.

“Can we join you for a minute?” the woman asked, revealing perfect teeth and delicate lips. “We’d like to talk.”

Ean wanted to say no, but Arie spoke first. “Please do. We’re about to have lunch.” She smiled. “I like your hair.”

The two sat down. “Thank you. I’m Nim.” She gestured to her right. “I think you’ve already met Karl. And you’re Arie and Ean. We know a little about you, and the…unfortunate things happening to you.”

“Are you one of those unfortunate things?” Ean asked.

Karl nodded. “My parents have said that.”

Nim glanced at Karl and continued. “No.” She measured her words carefully. “Let’s just say we represent an organization that keeps things running as they should. Someone’s interfering in your lives, and elsewhere too. It’s our job to put a stop to it.”

Ean frowned. “That’s not very helpful. Who’s harassing my sister, and why?”

Nim lowered her eyes. “He’s…a former employee of ours, and he’s using our training and resources to attack you, so we feel responsible.” She faced Arie. “You may have something valuable to him. He wouldn’t do this just to harass you.”

“But I don’t have anything valuable to anyone,” Arie protested. “This is about the government, isn’t it? Something to do with Dad and his work.”

Nim’s eyes lingered on Arie’s bracelet. “I don’t know what’s going on with your Dad, but someone in our organization might.” She shrugged. “We don’t really understand your attacker’s motives yet. He’s probably misguided. But in any case, none of this should be happening, and if we don’t do something soon, it won’t end well.”

“How does he organize these crazy attacks with such precision?” Ean asked. “Must take a lot of resources.”

“He’s highly skilled and he has help.”

Karl shook his head. “You should have stayed on the farm. Wandering off is risky.”

“Yeah, we noticed that,” Arie said. “Was that balloon guy the attacker?”

“No,” Nim replied. “He’s…a helper.”

“Why don’t they just walk onto the farm?” Ean asked. “I didn’t see armed guards or anything.”

“The farm’s protected in other ways. But it won’t last. Your attacker’s formidable and won’t quit.”

“Then what should we do?” Arie asked.

Nim sighed. “We think you should come with us. It’s our fault for letting this happen in the first place, so…we can offer you safe haven until we sort it out.” She and Karl stood up. “That’s all for now. Sleep on it and we’ll visit you again tomorrow.” They walked off and disappeared into the crowd.

Arie and Ean visited a quilt shop, an old country store, and a homemade ice cream stand. But despite the nice weather, the emotional cloud created by Nim and the balloon attack rained on them all afternoon. Ean saw attackers everywhere. He may even have glimpsed the boy who bothered Arie at the Air & Space museum, but he wasn’t sure.

He discussed Nim’s proposal with Arie at a burger joint. “So what do you think? Should we go with them?”

Arie stared at her fries. “I don’t know. I don’t want to leave Uncle Harry, but this is crazy. I’m not safe anywhere.”

“Yeah, but I don’t trust them either. They want more than your safety. Like what they think you have. Or know.”

“You know Dad. He never told us anything.”

“Neither did they. We don’t even know what organization they’re from.”

Not only that, but going with Nim and Karl would force Ean to miss summer school. Maybe Arie could go by herself. In any case, he needed more information. He’d question them again tomorrow.

They started on the ride home, passing an Amish boy on a push scooter while men labored in the fields. In the west, the sun glowed like a dull red ember, igniting wispy clouds with flaming orange and purple hues. To the north, an old windmill spun lazily, glinting in the sunset. If not for the day’s events, it would have been a fine evening.

An Amish farm store was still open, with horses and buggies parked out front. Arie needed groceries, so they stopped to pick up a few items. Despite the propane ceiling fans, it was too hot inside to linger. Outside, a group of Amish men were conversing with each other, blocking their way.

“Excuse me,” Ean raised his voice, motioning toward the bikes. But the men weren’t listening. Instead, one of them grabbed Arie by the waist and hoisted her onto the front seat of an open buggy, then pulled himself up beside her. Arie yelled and struggled, but the man held her firmly in one arm while he yanked the reigns with the other. The other Amish didn’t even notice.

Ean swore under his breath. Two attacks in one day? He dove into the back seat as the buggy lurched ahead, taking them out of the parking lot and into town. Climbing to his feet, he tackled the man from behind and choked him until he released Arie. The man swung around to confront Ean, but Arie clobbered him with her fists. When he raised his arms to defend himself, Ean grabbed his collar and shirt sleeve and flung him into a ditch on the side of the road.

Arie looked past Ean. “I don’t believe it. There’s another one and they’re gaining on us.”

Ean turned around. Another buggy raced after them, filled with Amish men and women. He climbed into the front seat and shook the reigns, trying to coax more speed out of the horse. But the horse slowed, no matter what he did. A newly planted cornfield lay off to the right.

“Let’s run.”

He took Arie’s hand and they jumped, tumbling onto the roadside grass. They got up quickly and ran into the field. This time of year it was mostly dirt and mud puddles, with rows of corn sprouts breaking through the soil.

Ean glanced back, his eyes widening. “Incredible.” The pursuing buggy had stopped, and the Amish were trudging after them with ropes and pitchforks. “Guess they don’t like trespassers.”

“Yeah, right,” Arie said. She tripped and cried out. “Something has my foot.”

Ean tried to help her up, but something hampered his own foot. A corn sprout grew before his eyes, coiling around his ankle. He struggled to break free, but more cornstalks slithered up his legs and around his torso, dragging him down into the mud. Arie was already pinned to the ground, secured by writhing cornstalks.

The Amish halted a few feet in front of them, carrying pitchforks, ropes, and knives. Ean strained and thrashed, but the cornstalks held him like a straight jacket. An Amish woman stepped forward and stood over Arie, her expression grim and unyielding. From the ground, Ean glimpsed a raven embroidered on the hem of her dress.

She raised her carving knife. “There won’t be peace until you’re one of us.” Arie screamed.

“Alright, that’s enough,” a familiar voice spoke from behind.

A change rippled through the Amish like a gentle breeze. The woman lowered her knife. “Why are you English tied up in our field?” The other Amish put down their farm tools, mumbling and scratching their heads. “Let me free you.” She used her knife to cut away the cornstalks and helped Arie and Ean to their feet. “It’ll be dark soon. Can we give you a ride?”

“Uh…no thanks,” Ean replied. The woman stared at Ean for a moment, shook her head, and walked with the other Amish back to their buggy.

Ean spun around to face Nim and Karl. Karl shrugged. “They seem like nice people.”

Nim stooped to examine a severed cornstalk, turning it over in her hands. “If he can do this…”

“Thanks for everything,” Arie said. “But where did you come from? And how–“

“That’s a story for another time,” Nim said, standing up. “Let’s get you safely home.”

On the way back to the Amish store, Nim told them more about the place they could be going. “He can’t reach you there. And there’s lots to do. You won’t be bored.”

Karl wrinkled his nose. “It’s not as smelly either.”

“Good,” Ean said. “Do you have Internet access?”

“Not exactly,” Nim replied.

That didn’t exactly reassure Ean. But soon they arrived at the spot where their bikes were parked. Ean would replay the next moment over and over again in his mind. A little boy with a mop of black hair darted out of the shadows–the same boy who had bothered them at the Air & Space museum, and the same boy Ean glimpsed in town today. Before anyone could react, he slapped a black band around Arie’s wrist. She turned to Ean, as if to say now what? Then Arie and the boy simply winked out of existence.

Ean didn’t move, trying his best to comprehend the last few seconds.

Karl shook his head slowly. “But…that couldn’t have happened.” He brightened slightly. “Well, then it can’t be real.”

Nim glared at him, hands on her hips. “Does this feel like a dream to you?” She eyed the ground for a moment. “I thought those tethers were deactivated. Didn’t Robin say that?”

Karl nodded. “He assured me that it might be true.”

Nim grimaced, but quickly regained her composure. “Alright, big change of plans. Karl and I have to find out where they went. As in, immediately. Ean, you need to ride home. We’ll meet you tonight at the farm.”

Ean hung his head. “I should go with you. She’s…my responsibility.”

“No. Trust me, you can’t. Go home and we’ll talk tonight.”

It was a long, lonely ride, mostly uphill, and Ean pedaled in the moonlight before he was halfway home. He couldn’t help feeling that everything was his fault. Karl had warned them to stay on the farm, but he was the one who suggested they ride into town. Even after the balloon attack, and after Nim told them what was happening, and after seeing that strange boy again, he still wasn’t careful enough. How many warnings did he need? He’d been a fool and now Arie was gone.

Nim and Karl were waiting for him outside the barn, but only Ean’s car and Uncle Harry’s truck were in the driveway. Ean didn’t ask how they got there. He led them up to the apartment and they sat down to talk.

“We know where Arie is, roughly,” Nim said. “She was taken by another party we’d overlooked. A group sympathetic to her attacker.”

“You have to find her.”

“We will, but it could take time. I have permission to bring you along, if you’d like.”

Ean felt sick. Whoosh, there goes summer school. He’d never make it now. But if he stayed here for selfish reasons, after Arie’d been kidnapped due to his carelessness…

“I’ll go.”

“Alright, but I have to warn you–it’s a different world over there. Lay low until you adjust.”

“Uncle Harry will worry. Should we tell him anything?”

“Yes, we should.”

They found uncle Harry in the farm house. Nim told him of Arie’s disappearance, omitting the strange details of the day’s attacks. He was deeply saddened by the news, but not surprised. Her daddy had been mixed up with strange characters, he said. Ean assured him his government friends would find Arie and get her back. Uncle Harry was wary of anything to do with the government, but he accepted Nim’s story. He told Ean to be careful and warned him he might be the next one to go. Finally, he wished them all good luck and they said goodbye.

Back in the apartment, Ean noticed that Maya had let herself in somehow. She crouched beside Nim, looking up expectantly.

“I almost forgot,” Nim said. “Maya’s coming along.”

“You know that cat?” Ean asked.

“Yes, Maya’s with us. She might look like an ordinary cat, but she’s a talented martial artist. She protected the farm.”

Ean nodded, recalling the crows. “So how are we traveling? Should we take my car?”

Karl laughed out loud. Nim smiled. “I had something else in mind.” She touched Karl’s shoulder and took Ean’s hand. Maya rubbed against her leg. “Ean, you might see things on the way. Ignore them. Oh…I should correct you on what you told your Uncle. We’re not from the government. Not your government, anyway.”

The world dissolved around Ean, as if it had never really been there. He swam in a river of shadows, where dark forms flickered and vanished. From deep inside, fragmented memories resurfaced–the fresh scent of a friendly flower and the gentle caress of a living breeze. A freckle-faced girl danced with joy while his mother and father beckoned. And suddenly…the world snapped into focus. But it wasn’t the world Ean knew. Even stranger yet, he wasn’t the same person.

 

Troubles

 

Are we all here? The phrase rang in Ean’s mind, but his ears told him something like ‘N’da pan t’rey?’ He found the source of the voice and recognized Nim, but she’d changed. Her hair was even brighter and her ears were pointed. She studied him with thick, slanted eyebrows, and the corners of her mouth curled up when she spoke, giving her a slightly sinister look. Ean’s hand grazed against hard muscle as he broke away from her grasp.

He examined his own thick, hairy forearms, wondering if he’d been drugged. “I feel different.”

“We’re all different,” Karl said. “Like putting on a Halloween costume, isn’t it? Trick or treat.” The changes to Karl’s body were like Nim’s, except for his thicker hair. He looked like he might turn into a werewolf. A larger, hairier version of Maya crouched beside Nim.

“Ow.” Something bit Ean’s thigh. A smartphone sailed out of his front pocket onto the ground. It turned to face him, rearing up on tiny legs.

“Stupid boy,” it mocked. “Forgot to turn me off.” A memory card shot out of its expansion slot, pelting Ean on the nose. Before he could do anything, the phone scurried away.

“Hey…” Ean started after it, but it was already gone.

“My fault,” Nim apologized. “I should have warned you. Tech doesn’t transfer well.”

“You can’t make calls here anyway,” said Karl.

Ean’s eyes flew open. “So? That phone cost a lot of money. More than my car.”

Nim patted his shoulder. “We’ll get you another one when we get back.”

Ean knelt down and prodded the memory card, but it didn’t bite. He stuffed it in his pocket and got up. The slate gray sky looked like it would rain. They stood on the side of a dirt street running through a small town, with houses built from poorly fitted stones, pitch, and timber. People in dirty tunics and long dresses walked by, giving them a wide berth as they gawked at Nim and Maya. Ean glanced down at his jeans and sneakers, which had survived the transformation intact. He wasn’t dressed for this town.

“We need answers,” Nim said. She approached a group of boys leaning against one of the larger houses, all with facial features like herself and Karl. “Any of you see a girl dressed like us?” A few boys froze and the others looked away. Nim repeated the question and a small boy answered.

“I seen ‘er. You got gold?” Nim opened her fist, displaying a shiny gold coin. The boy snatched it up and pointed to the end of town. “Three Wingers on horses took ‘er west into the mountains, couple hours ago. Boy went with ’em.” Nim thanked him and walked back.

“Let’s go.” They passed an intersection and a small shop before Ean noticed everyone was staring at them. No one was smiling. Someone muttered king’s folk, and another shouted red witch. Maya growled.

“I’m sensing a little hostility,” Ean said.

“Yes, you are,” said Karl.

Nim quickened her pace. “Not good. We need to get out of town. Quickly.” They began to run.

Something hit Ean’s side and ran down his thigh. An egg. A stone glanced off his ankle. Looking back, he saw four men following them, throwing rocks as they advanced.

“Karl, get your shield up,” Nim shouted. “I’ll take care of Ean.” A second later, a soft white aura glowed an inch over his skin. The men still hurled rocks, but they all seemed to miss. With effortless speed, Maya dashed back and launched herself into the air. Two men went down screaming. The other two were joined by more men from behind, including one on horseback with a bow. He fired straight at Nim, but the arrow zipped miraculously around her shield.

Nim tightened her lips. “I have a job to do. I can’t have these people following us, taking potshots.” She spun around, holding out the palms of her hands. There was a loud rip in the air, like a pressure wave, and the men dropped to the ground. Onlookers on both sides scattered when they saw what happened. Maya poked her head above the bodies and trotted back to Nim, unaffected by the blast.

“They look dead,” Ean said.

“They’ll be alright in a few hours, then they’ll come after us again. We better get going.” With shields still glowing, they walked to end of town. No one tried to stop them.

The dirt road narrowed into a well-worn trail winding up into the mountains. Nim led and Karl took the rear, while Maya explored the surrounding areas. It began to drizzle, but a dark forest soon enveloped them, quieting the rain and wrapping everything in a misty blanket of silence. Hazy tree trunks peered in from all sides, like gray ghosts from another realm. Did a face just duck behind a tree? Well, at least Maya was out there. Nim had taken down her shield and Ean felt exposed.

They came to a small stream and knelt to drink from the cool, clear water. Ean was startled by his reflection. He liked his new shoulders, but the face staring back at him was wild and somewhat evil. Was that really him?

“I saw something watching us from behind a tree,” he remarked.

“Yup,” Karl answered. “This forest is haunted by monsters and undead things. Us included.”

Nim slapped him on the arm and turned to Ean. “You may have seen an elf. They live in these forests, but you’ll never find them or their villages. Unless they want you to.”

Ean stared at her. “Elves? You can’t be serious.”

“Nim’s always serious,” Karl said. “Unless she’s criticizing me.”

“Then where are we?” Ean asked, exasperated. “What are we? Why do we look so different?”

Nim frowned. “I told you we’d be in a different world, didn’t I? I meant that literally. You’re in Mithe. You take the body it gives you, so of course you’ll look different. You may also notice that you’re hearing and speaking a strange language, but understand it as your own. I’ll let Robin explain that one, if we make it back. But for now, don’t analyze everything. Go with the flow.”

Ean nodded. “Okay. So who are Wingers?”

Nim stood up and straightened her hair. “Blackwings. A rebel cult devoted to Arie’s attacker. They call him the Deliverer here, but his real name is Zaphan. Lewis Zaphan. He has a strong presence in this world. If the Blackwings have Arie, they’ll hand her over to him, but not before she’s taken to their leader. We don’t want that to happen.”

“You had no trouble rescuing us from the Amish. Can’t you use the same tech here?”

Karl shook his head. “That was magic, not technology. Hard to tell the difference sometimes.”

“You mean…real magic?”

“Yeah,” Nim replied. “Unfortunately, magic can be hacked, just like tech. Some of it doesn’t work here anymore. We don’t have the same authority either. Zaphan really screwed up this world.”

Karl tossed a stick and watched it float downstream. “He probably knows we’re here, after that warm welcome.”

Ean rubbed his bruised ankle. “I don’t need that kind of warmth.”

“Well, that town sides with the Blackwings. Nim doesn’t, so they assume she’s on the king’s side. He’s not exactly a paragon of virtue.”

“We don’t take sides in these conflicts,” Nim said. “But Zaphan’s another matter.” She sighed. “Most of the Blackwings are poor folk living under brutal monarchies. Many are outlaws. They feel hopeless, with no chance to improve their fate. Zaphan promised them a way out of this world, and in return they do dirty jobs for him. Like kidnapping Arie.”

“Where is this Zaphan character?” Ean asked. “Will we run into him?”

“I hope not. No one seems to know where he is. But even if he’s not in Mithe, it won’t stop him from meddling here.”

With the stream behind them, the mist thinned and the trail wound upward through the forest. Except for the chattering of a few birds, it was quiet and nothing moved behind the trees.

Ean snorted to himself. Magic, elves, and other worlds. You’d think he was in a fantasy novel. Smartphones had set a few butts on fire, but none had ever bitten anyone. This place had to be fake. Nim advised him not to analyze, but he couldn’t help it. Everything changed after she touched him. Had he been drugged and taken to some remote location? Surgically altered, perhaps? No, that didn’t seem plausible, unless they could broaden his shoulders and sharpen his ears. Maybe he was laying in a bed, hooked up to a computer simulation. Some crazy adventure game that began before Arie was kidnapped. It would explain a lot, but…technology that advanced didn’t exist yet, as far as he knew. Could he trust Nim? The town hated her, although Karl had offered an explanation. She seemed to have the best advice–go with the flow and play the game. Assume everything’s real and keep track of inconsistencies. Were there any other other options?

He wondered how Arie was holding up. She was tough, but these Blackwings weren’t too friendly. Was she hurt? Tied up? Unconscious? Maybe she’d escaped. Whatever had happened to her, his stupidity was at least partially to blame. He had to get her back.

After a short hike, the trail opened up into a field a quarter mile long, surrounded by green foothills. Maya trotted out of the forest to rejoin them. At the far end of the field, a makeshift barricade of stones and logs had been erected across the trail.

“A Blackwing fort,” Nim said, frowning. “Well, there’s no time for diplomacy. Shields up, Karl.”

As they approached the fort, two men popped up on a lookout deck, aiming weapons of some kind.

“Muzzle-loading rifles,” Nim said. “They weren’t around before Zaphan’s changes.”

Both men fired and something whistled by Ean. They dropped their guns and picked up longbows. Arrows whizzed by, but once again their shots went wide. The men shouted at each other and climbed down from their platform, disappearing behind wooden walls.

When they reached the fort, Karl walked up to main gate. He held his palm against a door and something heavy slid to the ground. The doors creaked open.

The fort was empty, except for a rickety stable and one skinny horse. Maya dashed over to a stack of barrels and growled. An old woman in rags stumbled out, muttering curses.

“Cats,” she hissed. “Like smoke, they is. Driftin’ into corners where they ain’t welcome.”

“Where is everyone?” Nim asked, glancing around. “Who’s holding down the fort?”

The old woman grinned, displaying gaps in her teeth. “That’d be me. Boys run off into the woods, scared’o the Red Witch. That’d be you, come down from Heaven to smite us low-born folk.”

“I haven’t smitten you yet. Did a girl come through here, dressed like us?”

“Ain’t gonna tell ya,” the old woman snapped. She searched Nim’s eyes. “What if I said she’s dead, or the Black Queen took ‘er?”

Ean stepped forward, his temper flaring. “What if I said she’s my sister? We want the truth.”

The old woman laughed in his face. “The truth? Heaven ain’t interested in the truth, boy, otherwise they’d help the Deliverer find our true home.”

“He spoiled the only home you have,” said Nim.

“Ya think we’re stupid? What could you know of us or our history, young witch?”

“I’m not so young. I know you were happier once, but someone bought your future with fancy talk and empty promises, and now you’ve lost your way.”

“Ya criticize what ya don’t understand. We ain’t never been happy. But now we make our own future.”

“Then you won’t complain when we take your Deliverer away.”

The old woman waved a crooked finger at Nim. “Powerful you are, witch. But he’s more powerful’n you. Wiser too.”

“Was it wise to wreck your heritage and replace it with shiny, worthless toys?”

“Ah,” The old woman reached into her rags and held up a metallic sphere the size of a golf ball. “You mean one’o these.” She tossed it in the air and turned away with her hand over her mouth. The sphere hit the ground, exploding with a flash and a loud pop. Thick smoke entered Ean’s lungs. Unable to breathe, he collapsed onto the ground, paralyzed by fits of coughing and wheezing. When he staggered to his feet, Nim was helping Karl up while Maya sneezed and sniffled. The old woman had disappeared, along with the horse.

Karl waved at the air. “Stink bomb.”

“Crude chemistry,” Nim said. “Another one of Zaphan’s improvements.”

With the fort empty, they departed through the back gate and hiked up into the foothills. The trail zigzagged back and forth, beginning a steep, exhausting climb.

Did Arie come this way? The old woman wouldn’t say, and the trail seemed too narrow and rocky for horses. Ean worried they were going the wrong way, when for the first time in his life, he was relieved to step in pile of fresh horse manure.

As the trail wound relentlessly upward, the terrain grew more rocky and treacherous. The forest gave way to sparse trees with gnarled trunks and twisted branches. Below them to the right, a hazy town with red-tiled roofs lay in a valley marred by huge cracks. Ahead, the mountain range continued upward, vanishing into the mist.

A slight drizzle returned and cold gusts of wind blew down from the range. They had no provisions and Ean was shivering and hungry. Wherever Arie was, he hoped she was warm and fed.

Karl found a place to rest under a rock outcropping with a view of the valley below. A thick tree and a few bushes sheltered it from the wind. They sat on rocks while Maya explored the area.

Nim turned to Ean. “You must be tired. We left the farm at night and we’ve been climbing for hours.

Ean rubbed his arms. “More cold than tired. I don’t think I could sleep after all this.” Nim got up and touched his shoulder. A pleasant warmth spread throughout his body and his hunger faded. “What did you do?”

“Just a little trick.” She sat down again and pointed into the valley. “See those gashes to the north? They’re left over from Zaphan’s experiments. He wanted to understand how the worlds worked, so he could change their laws. Here in Mithe, he introduced the capacity for technology while diminishing the capacity for magic. We think he dreamed of a technological utopia.”

“Why? Magic seems ideal. Like the endpoint of technology.”

Nim shrugged. “Maybe. Both can bend the world to your will. But some folks have more magical ability than others. Here they tend to be the upper class, mostly due to a better education.” She shook her head. “Zaphan thought technology would even things out between the classes, but he only traded one kind of misery for another. Magic became more difficult, especially for the common folk, and the laws enabling his crude technology weren’t well thought out.”

“But the common folk love him,” Karl said.

“They love that he stuck it to the nobility. They view his experiments as a temporary inconvenience.”

Maya poked and sniffed at something behind a log, so Nim went to investigate. Karl and Ean followed. They found the remains of an animal that looked like a small horse, except for a single spiral horn on its head. It was beautiful, even in its decaying state.

“Is that what I think it is?” Ean asked.

Nim sighed. “Yeah. Before Zaphan you’d never see one, but their magic is fading.”

Nim looked into the valley. “The Blackwings could be taking Arie to that town, or they could be headed farther out. We need to know where they’re going without attracting attention.” She cupped her hands over her mouth as if to shout, but no sound escaped. Seconds later, a small hawk fluttered in front of her. An unspoken communication passed between them, and the hawk flew off.

With everyone refreshed, they resumed their hike up the mountain ridge. The misty drizzle continued as they dodged slippery rocks and skipped over mud puddles. Ean hadn’t seen the sun yet in this world, if there was one. But the dreary weather didn’t bother Maya. Like a playful ghost, she vanished into the rocky landscape and reappeared, flushing out a small deer. He felt safe with her out there.

In a few minutes, the hawk returned to perch on Nim’s shoulder. It communicated with her, but Ean couldn’t make out anything, except that Nim frowned a lot. She turned to Ean and Karl.

“We have complications. The Blackwings ran into a company of royal guards patrolling down the ridge. Green and gray livery, with armor and weapons. Maybe seven or eight men– hawks don’t count well. They disarmed the Blackwings and let them go, but took Arie on her horse. Now they’re headed down the mountain, back to the king.”

Ean frowned. “Why would they want her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe as leverage to use when dealing with the Blackwings. More likely she’ll be presented as a gift to king Melodan or some noble. But the Blackwings won’t walk away from their prize. They’ll be back in greater numbers.”

“So…my sister’s a slave girl?”

“Not yet.”

Ean kicked angrily at a stone. “This keeps getting worse and worse.” He tried to think. “They’ll camp tonight, won’t they? Why don’t we sneak up on them in the dark and steal her back?”

Karl nodded. “Fortune favors the bold, I’m afraid to say.”

Nim whispered to the hawk and it flew upwards, out of sight. “Relax, Ean. That’s exactly what we’ll do.”

Karl tilted his head. “I hear thunder. A storm’s brewing.”

“Not thunder,” Nim said. “Horses. I knew that town wouldn’t leave us alone.”

“Will you fight them again?” Ean asked.

“We’ll try running first,” Nim touched Ean and Karl. “That should speed things up.” Ean’s stride suddenly doubled and tripled in length, without extra effort. He skated into a swirling tunnel of mist, as gnarled trees and rock formations whizzed by. On the left, Maya flashed from tree to tree, easily matching their new speed.

Ean glanced back. About ten riders galloped around a bend in the trail, most with swords or longbows. Ahead, a dark evergreen forest was fast approaching. Something red and white moved behind the trees, and silvery metal glinted through the branches.

Nim gestured for them to stop. “So much for running. Shields up.” Karl’s shield sprang to life while Nim spread hers around Ean.

The townsmen rumbled closer. A few arrows cut into the ground, which Maya deftly avoided. In front of them, an armored knight emerged from the forest on a magnificent white steed. The knight paused briefly, yanked his reigns, and thundered towards them at high speed, stirring up a cloud of dust and closing the distance in seconds.

“What now?” Karl asked. “We’re sandwiched.”

“Stay put,” said Nim.

The ground shook as the knight reached them first, but he arced around Nim at the last moment. The approaching riders stalled. Some fired arrows, but they were poorly aimed. The knight rode directly at them, his great sword held out like a scythe. Swinging in a blur, he snapped bows and lesser swords alike, then slapped horse rumps with the flat of his broadsword. In a moment it was over, and the townsmen fled back down the trail.

The knight sheathed the sword behind his back and watched the riders depart. When they cleared the bend, he turned and rode towards Nim.

“This doesn’t look good,” Ean said nervously. “Is he with the king?”

Nim shook her head. “Wrong livery. Let’s see what he wants.”

The knight halted ten feet in front of Nim, his huge armored horse snorting and pawing at the ground. There might as well have been a tank in front of her. He was a big man, well-equipped for heavy-duty warfare, with breastplate and shoulder armor, gauntlets and greaves, and a thick metal helmet. Red and black livery decorated his horse and a wide shield hung across his back, along with his massive broadsword. In one clean motion, he swung out of his saddle and dropped to the ground.

The knight lumbered up to Nim, towering over her. He removed his helmet, revealing a young, clean-shaven face with a strong jaw and tufts of dark hair. Dropping to one knee, he bowed his head.

“I pledge my sword and service to you, Red Lady of Heaven.”

Ean took a deep breath. He was relieved the townsmen had fled and the knight was on their side. But in a way, things had gotten worse. He’d given up eighteenth century Amish for the Middle Ages.

 

Plan

 

Nim studied the knight in front of her, momentarily at a loss for words. She shrugged at Karl and turned back to the knight.

“What is your name, fearsome knight?”

“I am Sir Gwythur, a free knight of Calamay.”

“And what brings you to the mountains of Pim?”

“I seek Droog, a selfish dragon who plundered and ravaged my homeland. Other lands as well. He will pay for it with his life.”

“I know him. Perhaps you seek death.”

“By searing, hot flames,” Karl added. “And sharp, pointy teeth.”

Sir Gwythur looked uncomfortable. “It may be so. But my sword is keen and my quest is righteous.”

Nim raised her eyebrows. “I see. Well, you defended us, so you can’t be a Blackwing. Are you loyal to the King?”

“I have no quarrel with Melodan, but neither am I in his employment. I am a free knight, loyal to my word and my quest, and I have given my word to you, my Lady.”

Nim nodded slowly. “Thank you for coming to our rescue. Would you aid us again before resuming your quest?”

“Gladly.”

“A girl has been kidnapped.” Nim gestured to Ean. “The sister of this young man. She was first taken by rebel Blackwings, but is now in the hands of royal guards traveling south to Paleida and the king. We’ll take her back tonight while they sleep. We prefer stealth, but there may be fighting.”

“If there is fighting, then I’m your man.”

“Good. We go back the way you came, to the south trail.”

The knight had demonstrated his loyalty and Ean was grateful for his help. But why was he so eager to help Nim? Maybe because she had a reputation and obvious magical skills. He also believed she came from Heaven, like the old woman in the fort. But what did that mean?

They resumed their fast-walking with Sir Gwythur guarding the rear. The drizzling rain trailed off, but daylight was fading fast by the time they took the left fork of the trail, which meandered down the south side of the mountain. Maya darted in and out between trees, alarming the knight until Karl explained she was with them. After rounding a bend, a large boulder appeared on the right. Nim paused in front of it, peering into the woods.

“I need to make brief stop here.”

Nim shot him a dirty look. “Follow me.” Sir Gwythur dismounted and they followed Nim down a narrow path into a dark, dense forest. After a few minutes, she stopped in the middle of nowhere.

“Can you feel it?”

Sir Gwythur scanned the forest with disapproval. “I feel nothing, my Lady. A grim site for a camp.”

“We won’t camp here. This is a sacred elven site. I don’t think they’ll mind if I use it.”

Her hands traced a complex pattern in the air. The forest receded, revealing a mossy clearing dotted with red and purple wildflowers. In the center stood a sprawling tree, thick and convoluted like an old yew tree Ean had once seen, but larger. Its roots plunged into the ground like thick pipes.

“A Cymena tree,” Nim said. “Most worlds have at least one. Its roots extend into other worlds, and this one is also connected to other trees in Mithe.” As she approached the tree, a thin branch grabbed her wrist. Sir Gwythur drew his sword.

Nim held up her other hand. “It won’t harm me.” The branch crawled up her arm and circled around her head, until her face was completely obscured. She froze for a minute before it unwound itself and retreated back into the tree canopy.

“What was that all about?” Ean asked.

Nim straightened her hair. “Just double-checking. The guards have Arie, like the hawk said. They’re setting up camp two miles down the trail, before the steep drop into the valley. We’ll camp a half mile behind them.” She frowned. “There’s another group climbing up the trail from the other side. I don’t know who they are, but I hope they won’t bother us.”

“Any news from home?” Karl asked.

“Not much. Julian’s swamped and wants me back. Oh, and Dara’s visiting here somewhere. We’re supposed to pick her up, if we can.”

Nim restored the enchantments and they resumed their fast-walking down the south trail. Within minutes, they arrived at a lookout point on the ridge. Bad weather obscured the valley below, but closer down on the hillside, a campfire flickered through the haze.

“The guards,” Nim said. “We’ll camp up here.” She turned left and led them into a thick patch of spruce and hemlock trees, to a sheltered spot on soft, dry ground.

Ean helped Karl collect wood for a fire while Nim walked the camp perimeter with Maya, doing some kind of voodoo to keep intruders out. Karl suggested they conjure up a small cabin, but Nim said it would be wise to conserve their strength. She pulled sleeping bags out of thin air for Ean, Karl, and herself. Sir Gwythur had his own gear. If rain leaked through the branches overhead, they would move under a thick spruce tree at the camp’s edge.

Karl started a fire with a wave of his hand. Sir Gwythur raised an eyebrow. “We have two mages? It should be easy to rescue the girl.”

Karl smiled and waved again. A bag of fast food appeared. He pulled out some fries and several greasy cheeseburgers in wax paper. Unwrapping one, he took a bite, chewed it, and gave a thumbs up sign. Sir Gwythur unwrapped one, sniffed it cautiously, and took a bite. He chewed for a few seconds before his expression turned sour.

Nim shook her head. “I don’t know how you can eat that disgusting mess.”

Karl looked hurt. “You can do better?”

“Anyone can.” Nim focused her eyes on the ground. Bowls of food appeared, one by one. There were fresh strawberries, something like rice with beans, and steaming bowls of soup with utensils. Ean ate ravenously. Even Karl’s cardboard cheeseburgers tasted good. Nim’s energy spell had only been a temporary fix. He’d ridden his bike and hiked uphill for miles, but hadn’t actually eaten anything since his dinner with Arie in Lancaster.

Nim picked out a few strawberries. “So, what do you know of the Deliverer, Sir Gwythur?”

The knight shrugged. “No more than most. He was one of the Five, cast out from Heaven. He has unleashed new magic upon Mithe and turned many against their rulers. He promises them a new world. Some say he speaks the truth, but I think he is a liar.”

Nim nodded. “He’s why the Blackwings kidnapped Arie. Apparently she has something he wants.”

“Does he want a black eye?” Ean asked. “She’ll be happy to oblige him.”

“What about that bracelet she wears?” Karl asked. “I sensed bindings.”

“That was the first thing I checked,” Nim said. “I think it’s just a trinket, but someone will examine it more thoroughly.”

Ean snorted. “This is all a mistake. A colossal waste of time.”

Nim stared at him. “Oh, come on. It’s summer. What else would you be doing?”

“Well, I wouldn’t be running around in the fourteenth century, that’s for sure. I’d probably be studying. Pouring over books. Brushing up on math and preparing for college.”

“Boooooring,” Karl said. “You can’t actually learn anything by reading. I read that somewhere.”

“Yes, I suppose it would be boring if you had no grasp of modern science and technology.”

“I have some grasp of it. I’ve pressed buttons. Even used a remote control once.”

“Congratulations.”

“What’s this technology?” Sir Gwythur asked.

Nim answered for Ean. “It’s a kind of magic where Ean comes from. Like the Deliverer’s new magic, but better.”

“Ah,” Sir Gwythur nodded. “We have three mages, then.” He sized up Ean in his jeans and sneakers. “What land are you from?”

Ean didn’t know what to say. Virginia? Lancaster? Scotland? “I’m from…Earth.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Earth isn’t a land in Mithe,” Karl explained. “It’s another world the Deliverer messed with. Or tried to. I’m from there too, originally.” Ean turned to him in surprise.

Sir Gwythur frowned. “I hear stories of Emrys and Faene, but none speak of Earth. What’s it like?”

“Living on Earth?” Karl put a stick on the fire. “Well…it’s like we’re all climbing up a huge pile of garbage. Occasionally, some of us get high enough to notice it’s just a pile of garbage, only to become disillusioned and sink into the muck again. The enlightened among us call it ‘the human condition’.” His eyes narrowed. “But they’re pretty high up the pile too.”

“You have a bad attitude, Karl,” said Nim.

“And a good memory.”

The conversation shifted to Sir Gwythur and his adventures. He described how Droog had leveled two towns, and devastated crops and livestock throughout his homeland. He asked Ean if his technology was strong enough to fight dragons.

“Oh, I’m sure it is. Any decent fighter jet would make short work of that pesky dragon.”

Karl shook his head. “Earth technology won’t work here. The laws are different. Remember your phone?” He stoked the fire. “I doubt a jet would even transfer, and if it did, it would become something different.” He smiled wickedly. “Like us.”

Outside the camp, an animal howled and shrieked, startling Ean. “What was that?”

“Probably Maya,” Nim replied. “She’s clearing the way. Making sure nothing follows us tonight.”

“Speaking of tonight, do we have a plan?” Ean asked. “How are we going to pull this off?”

“Things never go according to plan, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. But yes, we have a plan. We have the advantage of surprise. First Maya will lead us into the camp, quietly. We’ll put any lookout sentries to sleep. Then we’ll find Arie and lead her out. If there’s fighting, Sir Gwythur and Maya will handle it. Once we’re in the clear, everyone will gather around me and we’ll transfer out of Mithe. Sir Gwythur will stay, of course.”

After dinner, stars began to peek through the clouds, but nothing looked familiar. Nim helped Sir Gwythur tend to his horse, so Ean asked Karl to teach him some simple magic, and Karl agreed.

“The first thing to remember,” Karl said, “is that magic is fundamentally the same thing as free will. It’s that simple. Doing magic is like using free will to move your own body. As a baby learns how to move its arm, you learn how to change the world.” He bent down and picked up a twig. “How did I start the campfire tonight? I willed it. I visualized the flame, felt the heat, and smelled the burning wood, until I felt it…click.” The twig burst into flame at the end. Karl blew it out and gave it to Ean. “You try.”

Ean concentrated like Karl said, but nothing happened. “I don’t feel any click.”

“That’s because you’re not convincing enough about what you want. Most worlds have thresholds to prevent fleeting thoughts from materializing. Try again.” Ean concentrated harder. He closed his eyes and focused on the imagery of starting a fire. This time he felt a tiny acknowledgment in his mind. A small resistance and then a click, like pressing a key on a keyboard. When he opened his eyes, a tiny blue flame glowed at the end of the twig.

“Not bad,” Karl said. “Some beginners take a week to get that far. You just need practice.” He hesitated. “Magic is limited in Mithe, especially after Zaphan’s meddling. But be careful anyway. You might get what you wish for.”

“I’ve tried psychic experiments like this on Earth. They never worked.”

“Nope, they won’t work on Earth. Why not? Because someone very skilled in magic, a worldsmith, used their will to impose a series of tight constraints or laws upon the world when it was set up. They take precedence over your will, confining it to a few actions within your body.” He smiled. “So moving your arm is still technically magic, but other forms of magic were constrained out of existence, ironically, by magic itself. There are a few bugs, though. If you’re talented, stuff can leak through. Traces of ESP, synchronicities, that sort of thing.”

“But you and Nim did magic on Earth.” Ean remembered the cornstalks. “Zaphan too.”

“Nim and I had special authority, granted by the laws already there. I don’t know what Zaphan did.”

Ean grimaced. “This is too hard to believe. How can all our scientists be wrong?”

“How can they be right? They see what the worldsmiths wanted them to see. Long ago, Earth was made to look like something from inside that it’s not. It’s a deceptive world. Robin can explain it to you. If we make it back.”

 

After a long day in Lancaster and now in Mithe, Ean fell into a dreamless sleep. When Nim shook him awake, myriads of stars twinkled in a clear, dark sky. Mithe’s pale green moon cast an eerie glow over the campsite and the forest was cool and silent. Dawn was only an hour away. Sir Gwythur fed his horse some oats, while Karl and Ean cleaned up the camp and Nim removed all signs of her magic. After a quick breakfast of leftovers, they headed south in the moonlight, with Maya leading the way.

As they neared the guard’s camp, Maya stiffened. She turned to Nim and shook her head. Nim closed her eyes, but her calm expression soon broke into a scowl.

“Blackwings are closing in around the camp,” she whispered angrily. “They were the group coming up the south side of the mountain. I could put them to sleep too, but I need to see them. How do you sneak up on someone who’s sneaking up on someone else?”

Ean’s stomach churned. If they abandoned this rescue attempt, he might never see Arie again. “Stick to the plan. If we’re fast enough, we can take out the sentries, get Arie, and deal with the Blackwings if we have to. Attacking the Blackwings first would alert the sentries and the guards might run off with Arie.”

Karl nodded. “Smart. But I sense protection around the camp. They must have a magician.”

Nim sighed. “It’s never easy, is it? Alright. First of all, we should be invisible. A good magician will see through it, but the guards won’t. Get ready.” In a few seconds, everyone vanished into the night air. Ean couldn’t see his legs, which made him feel like he was floating.

Nim’s disembodied voice spoke. “I’ve taken down the protection, but there’s elven magic here too. Hope we don’t need to worry about that. Karl and I will take out any sentries or magicians. Blackwings too, if necessary. Ean, just find Arie and get her out onto the trail. Sir Gwythur and Maya–if it gets physical, you know what to do.”

Ean followed Nim’s footsteps off the trail and into the woods, treading quietly over the short distance to the camp. The woods opened up into a clearing, where embers glowed in a central fireplace. Guards slept on the ground, except for two sentries in green livery and chain mail, sitting on a log. Ean winced as twigs cracked under his foot. The sentries jumped up, grabbing their sword hilts…and toppled over unconscious. Good, Nim and Karl at work.

Ean searched the camp, but couldn’t find Arie. His heart sank. Were they too late? Did the Blackwings sneak her out already? No, wait…on the opposite edge of the camp, a small blanketed form lay under a tree. Could it be? Ean hopped over two sleeping guards to get there. Yes. He recognized Arie’s hair and prodded her.

“Arie, get up. It’s me.”

Arie sat up, startled. Ean was briefly startled too–her body had been altered in the same ways his had. “Ean?”

“Shh,” Ean whispered. “You can’t see me. Are you okay?”

Arie nodded. “Where are we? Who are these people?” She frowned. “I lost my phone.”

“No time for that now. Let’s go, quickly.”

“I can’t.” Arie pulled back her blanket, revealing a chain fastened to a locked metal ring around her ankle. The other end of the chain was wrapped around the tree.

Ean sighed. Nim was right about plans. Well, at least the chain was thin. Nim could probably remove it, but she wasn’t here and he wouldn’t risk calling out to her. A few guards stirred as voices echoed from the forest. There wasn’t much time. Ean cleared his mind. He didn’t know how the lock worked inside, so he focused on the chain link connected to the ring, imagining a break. He felt the hard snap of metal and the sharp, broken edges, holding the thought in his mind until the acknowledgment came. The link broke. He yanked it from the ring and pulled Arie up by her hand.

“Nice trick,” Arie whispered. “But why can’t I see you?”

Ean ignored her. “We need to get out of here without attracting attention.”

Shouts and screams erupted all around them, but they weren’t directed at Arie. Several guards stood up and fell down again. Two guards knocked their heads together and collapsed onto the ground, hit by an unseen force. One guard ran screaming in circles, as if chased by a demon. Others fled the Blackwings now pouring in from the forest.

Ean led Arie around the edge of the camp, when Nim’s voice spoke in his ear. “Good job, but we’re blocked from leaving the camp. Not sure why. Both of you stay put for now. I’m making Arie invisible.” Arie gasped as her hand vanished in his.

In the middle of the camp, a magician rose up, wrapped in a glowing green aura. Blackwings shot arrows at him, but they were deflected into the trees. Someone threw a crude bomb, releasing a cloud of acrid smoke. The magician ignored it. A man rushed at him, but white lightning shot from the magician’s fingertips, knocking him to the ground. In like manner, the magician knocked out Blackwings one by one, until a woman strode into the camp, also with a bright green aura. She wore rough leather, with a sword and a bow slung across her back. Her wild black hair hid half her face and the rest was streaked with war paint.

Nim whispered in Ean’s ear. “This could get ugly. That’s Shandra, chief of the Blackwings. The Black Queen, some call her.”

Shandra flung back her hair and glared at the magician. “Why does the king send his fool into the mountains? You’re out of your depth, Tyrren.”

Tyrren stood his ground. “These mountains belong to His Majesty and he’ll use them as he wishes.”

“He’ll need more than you to take them. Where’s the girl?”

Tyrren cast his eyes around the camp, lingering on the tree where Arie had been chained. “You waste my time, Shandra. There’s no girl here, except in your imagination.”

“Idiot. You mean she ran away.”

Tyrren smiled. “Such spirit. His Majesty recalls you fondly and wishes to entertain you personally.”

“Where? On the end of my sword?”

“He’ll be pleased when I drag you back in chains.”

Shandra spat on the ground. “My men will be pleased when I string you up from a tree.”

Tyrren’s smile vanished. He extended his hand and a beam of white lightning struck Shandra, sparking and crackling all over her shield. She screamed with rage and drew the sword from her back, leveling it at Tyrren. Another blast of lightning arced through the air, but Shandra’s sword spit out a torrent of black flame, devouring Tyrren’s lightning up to his fingertips. He stumbled backwards and cursed.

Back and forth it went, attack and counterattack. Frightening sparks and debris whistled through the air as they hurled increasingly potent magic at each other. They didn’t notice when the dawn arrived, or when the forest changed, or even when a girl, a cat, and four others materialized out of thin air. But they noticed when a hundred armed elves circled the camp.

 

Dragon

 

As if out of fuel, Shandra and Tyrren’s magic dissipated in a cloud of vapors. Mithe’s pleasant yellow-green sun warmed Ean’s face, but the guard campsite was in a shambles. Holes had been dug and trees uprooted. Overhanging branches had been burned, and two trees were still on fire.

Beyond the circle of warriors, the forest had transformed into a thriving elven community with sprawling tree houses, waterways, and curious children peeking in from the treetops. An elf walked into the camp, carrying a long staff. He was tall, with gray hair, pointed ears, and the fine features of the elves. He spoke in a rich baritone voice.

“I am Eleond son of Aradan, Lord of the eastern tribes of Pim.” He took a moment to survey his new guests. “Long have I lived, but never have I seen such rudeness. We welcome travelers, but not such as you. We have cut off your magic and lifted our enchantments to show you where you are. Did you not know these are elven forests?” He glared at Tyrren and Shandra. “Would you have a firefight in our midst? Throw energies around like children in the dark? Or perhaps you wished to wake us. What do you say? What is your business here?”

Karl whispered to Ean. “The neighbors didn’t like our party.”

Shandra spoke first. “Thank you, Eleond. I apologize for the intrusion. I know you’re no friend of the king.” She pointed at Tyrren. “This royal lapdog stole a young girl from us and we came to reclaim her.” She pointed at Arie. “There she is with the Red Witch, a known enemy of the Deliverer.”

Tyrren cleared his throat. “She twists the truth. I’m on His Majesty’s official business and have no use for little girls. She was obviously of noble birth and had fallen into the wrong hands. I merely rescued her from Shandra’s outlaws. I would have taken them all in, but our jails are full.”

“Liar,” Shandra snarled. “You stole her from us. The king likes little girls. She would have become a slave for the rest of her life.”

“I’m not a little girl,” Arie said defiantly. Maya trotted over and sat beside her, as if to vouch for her. She was adjusting well to all this, Ean thought. Better than he was.

Nim put her arm around Arie. “If I may, Eleond. We took Arie from Tyrren after he had taken her from the Blackwings.” She glanced at Tyrren. “I doubt his motives were pure. But he took her only after Shandra had snatched her from another world. Arie is not a Blackwing, or even from Mithe. And yet, Shandra would hand her over to this Deliverer for reasons no one understands. It’s my job to protect her.”

The elf lord frowned. “Is this true, Shandra?”

Shandra lowered her eyes. “She won’t be harmed. But the Deliverer must have what he requires. His needs transcend ours. Only he can free us. Only he can wake us from this never-ending dream.”

Tyrren snorted. “You see? They’ll do anything for this madman. Their nonsense threatens the safety and stability of the realm.”

“There will never be stability.” Shandra growled. “Not while our people live in poverty and misery, under a cruel and selfish king.” Behind her Ean glimpsed the strange little boy who had brought Arie here. He wore ragged clothes, and messy black hair hung over his eyes. He stared briefly at Ean before slipping out of sight.

“Your words are treason,” Tyrren snapped.

Eleond faced Shandra. “Melodan is not a wise king. But this Deliverer threatens our natural home. His magic eats away at our forest, corrupting ancient laws and balances. He is a child, tinkering with powers he does not understand. I will not aid him.” His staff tilted in Nim’s direction. “The girl stays with the Red One. They may go.”

Nim took Arie and Ean aside. “I can take you back to Earth, but you’ll only be attacked again. I suggest you come with us until we figure this out.”

Arie hesitated. “I’ll go if Ean does.”

Ean tried to think it through. Arie should go, for her own safety. But why couldn’t she go without him? If Ean went back to Earth now, he could still make summer school. Nim could take care of Arie, so it wasn’t selfish anymore…was it? He sighed. Yeah, it was. Arie was his responsibility and he needed to keep an eye on her. And he had to admit, part of him would wonder what he’d be missing.

“Alright. I’ll go.”

Karl and Maya joined them for the transfer, when a cry rang out. The circle of elves parted and a girl dashed into the clearing–lanky, about Ean’s height, with pointed ears peeking through her short, dark hair. Out of breath, she rushed up to Nim with her eyes wide open.

“For a moment there, I thought you’d leave without me.”

“You made it in time,” Nim said. “Enjoy your stay?”

“Yes, but it was an elven vacation. They put to me work.” She greeted Karl and Maya, then turned to Eleond and bowed her head. He returned the bow. Nim introduced her as Dara and said she’d been visiting relatives in Mithe.

“You guys are from Earth, right? I can tell by the clothes, but I’ve never been there. Few are allowed to visit.”

“If you ever do, you can stay with us,” Arie offered. “When we get back.”

Back to what, Ean wondered. A bed next to a stack of fancy equipment? Dara was attractive and friendly, but she looked like, well…an elf, and Ean still wasn’t prepared to believe in elves. In fact, it was hard to take any of this seriously. He’d tried pinching himself, but it only gave him bruises. For now, elves were slightly easier to accept as the truth. A provisional truth. Maybe you couldn’t do any better than that.

“Let’s go home,” Nim said. They touched her and she closed her eyes. The seconds ticked away, but nothing happened. She scowled. “We’re still blocked, and it’s not elven magic. It never was.” She glared at Shandra, then turned to Karl. “See if you can get in touch with Robin. We need help.”

Shandra smiled. “They were never held by your power, Eleond. You can’t hold the Red Witch. But the Deliverer can.” She lifted her head, searching the sky, then pointed and laughed. “There. He sends his demon to fetch the girl.”

Something black circled far overhead. Ean squinted. Just a hawk or a buzzard. But as it circled lower, it grew bat-like wings and a long tail. The wings flapped too slowly for anything small. Lower still, and Ean discerned red markings, spikes, and rows of teeth.

“What is that?” Arie asked. “It looks big.”

“It is Droog,” Sir Gwythur said. “I believe fate has brought me here to slay him.”

Nim sighed. “Well, that’s just great.”

“Interesting,” Dara said. “I always wanted to see a dragon.” Nim frowned at her. “But not now.”

Ean didn’t want to believe in dragons either, but this dragon wasn’t cooperating. “Nim, can you fight this thing?”

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” Nim replied. “Karl’s in contact with Robin. They’re trying to get us out. But for the time being, let’s move to the edge of the camp.” They moved in front of the warriors and Nim spread her aura around them like a blanket.

Droog cruised overhead, screeching and roaring. Wisps of black smoke trailed from both jaws. After circling once, he dipped, pulled up for a landing, and flapped down into the center of the camp, resting on legs as thick as tree trunks. Covered in dull black scales with red markings, he occupied almost half the clearing. Spikes and plates stood out from his head and neck, running down to his tail. Yellow teeth, some broken, hung over his lower jaw.

The warriors stepped back. Droog coughed, and the stench of cooking gas and rotting flesh drifted through the air. Everyone looked frightened except Arie, who wrinkled her nose.

Droog faced Eleond. “I’m not in a particularly good mood. Someone interrupted my nap to call in a favor, and naps are precious to me.” He picked his teeth with a talon. “So let’s get to the point.” His slitted eyes focused on Arie. “You give me the girl, and I promise I won’t, say…torch that pretty elven village over there, and you along with it.” He coughed again, exhaling puffs of smoke. “And no bargaining please. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

“We have withstood worse than you,” Eleond said. “The village is well-protected, as are my elves.”

“There are powerful magicians here,” Nim added. “You could be outmatched.”

Droog’s head swiveled over to her. “I think not. Perhaps I’ll just take her.” Ean cringed as Droog stepped forward and grabbed at Arie like a cat would grab a mouse, but Nim’s shield thwarted him each time. He waved a talon at her. “You know…I could pop your silly bubble, but I need her alive and well.”

Sir Gwythur drew his sword and struck Droog’s bony wrist with a resounding crack. Droog quickly withdrew, holding his wrist up for inspection.

“Ow. That wasn’t very nice.”

“Wasn’t supposed to be nice,” the knight said.

Droog eyed him suspiciously. “What kind of sword is that?”

Sir Gwythur help up his sword. “This…is Malevene, forged by the great witch Demorra herself. And on this fine day, I shall slay you with it.”

“Say what?”

“You heard me, dragon. Today you will pay for the foul deeds you have done. Ravaging my homeland, burning our villages, and eating our people and livestock.”

Droog turned away, annoyed. “Oh, please. I really don’t need this. Another self-righteous pipsqueak with a magic sword. Like I haven’t faced them before.” He sighed. “You have no idea what it means to be a dragon.”

“Why don’t you enlighten us?” Nim ventured.

Droog stared at her. “Why bother? You live what, a hundred years? I’m pushing fifteen hundred and still going strong. An insufferably dull life laying about in caves or on mountain tops. A huge intellect with nothing to occupy it.” He exhaled a stream of black smoke. “We dragons hoard so much gold, but what can we buy? Not enough ale to forget we’re dragons.” He grew more animated. “And my pet peeve–the scales. What can you do about an itch? Nothing, except go mad and burn down a village or two. Alright, maybe three. And…oh my, the gas. It’s impossible to remain in polite company. They never mention that in the stories, do they?”

“I didn’t know dragons were that sensitive. You should be more social. Try to avoid burning down villages and eating people.”

“Well, that’s what dragons do, isn’t it? As far as I can recall, I didn’t ask to be born a dragon. Seems arbitrary. Why not an elf, or a fair maiden, or a frog? Why this body, in this world?” Droog’s eyes narrowed. “How does that work, exactly?”

Nim frowned. “I could ask the same question.”

“I asked you first.”

Nim glared at him. “Just because you can ask a question doesn’t mean you deserve an answer.” She softened. “I suggest you make the best of it. A lot of folks admire dragons, you know. Including me.”

Droog’s eyes flew open. “So that’s it, then? I’m screwed, without even an explanation. ‘Just tough it out for another five thousand years, Droog.’ Yeah…no. I prefer to live a life that’s meaningful to me, instead of you. Sorry if that seems selfish.” He picked the remains of a dead animal from his teeth and flung it away, narrowly missing Sir Gwythur. “So maybe Zaphan’s on to something. Maybe he’s the way out of this nightmare.”

“You are the nightmare,” Sir Gwythur snapped. “A foul spirit, whether you wear a dragon’s body or not. You need only tough it out for five minutes with me.” Droog spat a jet of flame at him, but it flared around Nim’s shield.

Nim shook her head. “Zaphan doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s only made things worse.”

“Not true,” said Droog. “He led me to food and gold, and fixed a nasty rash on my tongue. See?” He opened his mouth wide and unrolled his considerable tongue. Nim turned away in disgust. “Perfectly healthy.”

“So where’s Dremnel?” Nim demanded.

“Dremnel?” Droog frowned. “What does she have to do with anything?”

“Does she know you’re out here doing favors for Zaphan?”

A shadow of pain darkened Droog’s countenance. “Oh…she’s probably off with her sister, bad-mouthing me.” He brightened slightly. “Another reason to help Zaphan.”

Shandra faced Nim. “The Deliverer may not understand everything yet, but he’s learning. Each new experiment tells him more about the worlds. He’ll soon find the way back to the native world and take us with him.”

Karl laughed. “And you believe him? Even if there is a native world, you have no idea what it’s like, and neither does he. You could be worse off.”

Smoke poured from Droog’s nostrils. “After fifteen hundred years of this, I’ll take my chances. Now are you going to give me the girl or not?”

Nim crossed her arms. “Why does Zaphan want her?”

“He didn’t say. I didn’t ask.”

“Why not? Are you his errand boy?”

Droog bristled. “Dragons serve no one. He does me a favor, I return it.”

“Sounds like he’s getting the better deal. If he’s so powerful, why doesn’t he come here and take Arie himself? Instead, he has you and Shandra do his dirty work.” Nim paused. “Why not resume your nap? Do you really want to fight us all to the death, just as a favor?”

Droog sighed. “If I must, yes. Nice try, though. Especially the nap part.”

“He need only fight me,” said Sir Gwythur. “I will meet this lying worm in combat, with only my sword and shield. I’ll give him his nap.”

“Alright then,” Droog declared. “I’ll warm up with Sir Crispy. I prefer well-done.”

Arie turned to Nim. “This is stupid. You’re all fighting over nothing. Maybe you should let the dragon take me. Then Zaphan will see he’s wasting his time and no one will get hurt.”

“Ah, the wisdom of a child,” Droog said. “You should listen.”

“Absolutely not,” Ean said, horrified. “What makes you think he’d ever release you again? You can’t trust him. Besides, you’re not the one making trouble.”

Nim shook her head. “That’s not going to happen, Arie.”

Sir Gwythur pulled his sword and shield from behind his back, and stepped out of Nim’s bubble. Nim grabbed his arm. “Are you crazy? You can’t fight him without magic. It’s suicide.”

Sir Gwythur smiled. “My sword and shield are old magic, my Lady. Well-suited for fighting dragons.” He rubbed his forearm. “Even so, it pains me to wield such evil weapons.” All eyes were upon him as he slammed his visor shut and marched into the clearing. He held his sword high. “In the name of…”

A river of flame poured out of Droog’s mouth, completely engulfing the knight. Ean felt the heat wave from inside Nim’s aura. When the flames subsided, Sir Gwythur was down on one knee, crouching behind his huge shield. Gripping his sword in both hands, he sprang up and stabbed Droog in the foot.

“That’s for my friend, Brandel.”

Droog screeched and drew back, lowering his head to inspect the damage. Black blood oozed from the wound. He looked up in disbelief. “You bastard. That’s my good foot.”

“Not anymore.”

Droog swiped angrily at the knight with his other front leg, but Sir Gwythur ran underneath it, opening a long wound up to the dragon’s elbow. Malevene sizzled as it cut through hard scales and flesh.

Droog howled and raised up on his hind legs, flapping his great leathery wings. The edge of one wing caught Sir Gwythur and sent him sprawling to the edge of the camp in a cloud of dust. He still held his sword and shield, but he was slow and wobbly in getting up. Droog seized the opportunity to unleash another torrent of flame.

Karl gathered the others around him. “Just heard from Robin. They found the problem and they’re fixing it. We’ll be pulled out any time now.”

Ean smelled something burning. When the flames trailed off, Sir Gwythur stood up and waved his sword, his shield still smoking from Droog’s onslaught.

“Is that all you have? Come on, you scaly heap of excrement. Let me give you an itch.”

Droog eyes narrowed as they circled each other, feinting and parrying, advancing and retreating. But finally, he boxed the knight into a corner with his wings. His jaws dropped down with alarming speed, like a huge snake striking its prey. Dragon wings blocked the view, but Ean was sure Sir Gwythur was finished.

Droog suddenly pulled back, his head dripping with black blood. The knight’s sword had cut deeply into his jaw, and the ground shook as he screamed and stamped with rage.

“Oh, that’s it. Now you’ll die, you little rat.”

Sir Gwythur staggered to his feet, but Droog charged, snapping and swiping with terrible fury, until he forced the knight onto his back. Ignoring more sizzling cuts to the jaw, he grabbed the knight’s shield with his teeth and flung it away. Sir Gwythur held up his sword in a final act of defiance, as Droog spread his jaws, ready to burn him alive.

“Stop.” Arie ran out of Nim’s bubble into the clearing. “I’m what you want. Leave him alone and take me. Let’s get this over with.”

“No!” Ean cried out.

Droog swung around to face Arie. “A wise decision, little girl.” He wrapped his claws gently around her waist and lifted her into the air, his slitted eyes gazing into hers. “But too late. I’m afraid it’s roast knight for breakfast.” Droog turned back to Sir Gwythur, but he was gone.

Something odd was happening. Droog was shrinking. Ean watched him grow smaller and smaller, pulling the world in around him like cloth through a hole, until he was only a distant speck at the end of a long tunnel. Wrapped around the tunnel walls were distorted versions of Shandra and Tyrren, the elven village, and the world of Mithe–stretched out like taffy to infinity. The tunnel shrank into a thin tube while it expanded in the opposite direction. Ean turned to see a point approaching from the other end, and fell towards it. The point rushed into his mind as the walls flew outward, and once again, Ean stood on the ground of new world.

 

Fantys

 

Ean had a new body, wondrously light and pliable. Though not as sturdy as his body in Mithe, it was more sensitive with greater reserves of energy. His consciousness had also expanded and he marveled at its spaciousness. Details flooded his sharpened senses–a dew drop on a leaf, the cry of a distant bird, the spicy perfume of a new flower. They all clamored for his attention, briefly overwhelming him. And there was something entirely new: he could feel the presence of other minds.

Detailed thoughts were hidden, but Ean sensed the others nearby, feeling their joy and relief. His new eyes told him they were thinner here, with softer features, under a softer yellow sun. He stood on a walkway of red and yellow cobblestones winding through a garden of sweet-smelling flowers and trees, where colorful birds sang and insects buzzed. Beyond the garden, a city of tall spires and timber-framed houses sloped down to a clear, blue lake with islands and small boats. And beyond the lake, snow-capped mountains stretched across the horizon. It was a lovely scene.

“Are we…in Heaven?” Arie asked, breathless.

“Not quite,” said a smooth voice from behind. “You’re in Valan, the capital city of Fantys.”

Ean turned around. A slender girl, about Arie’s height, smiled at him. He’d never seen anyone like her. Small branches and vines swept back out of her head, weaving in with green and brown hair to fall in tangled curls on her shoulders. Pointed ears stuck out–longer than Dara’s–and the tips were green. She was barefoot and wore a tunic of what looked like living leaves.

“I’m glad you’re all here. We were worried for a while.” Ean sensed her relief was genuine. It would be hard to lie here–he’d have to remember that. “My real name’s hard to say, so everyone calls me Bree. Welcome to Valan, Arie and Ean.”

“What about me?” Karl asked.

“Um…I’ll get back to you on that.”

“Strange,” Arie said. “I can sense everyone.”

Dara nodded. “I never feel alone here. It’s confusing in a crowd, though.”

“You can turn it off,” Nim said. “But then others won’t sense you either. I recommend keeping it on until you understand it.”

Nim’s ears were still slightly pointed as they had been in Mithe, but Karl and Arie’s were not. Reaching back to check his own ears, Ean was pleased to find they were normal.

Karl glanced around. “Why did they put us way out here?”

“It was Julian’s idea,” Bree replied. “He wanted Arie and Ean to have a look at the city. I’m supposed to walk them up to the Council, but maybe you guys should. You can explain things better, and Helen’s given me urgent things to do.”

“Sure, I’ll take them,” Nim said. Bree thanked her and wished Arie and Ean a pleasant stay. Then, to Ean’s surprise, she stepped into a faint white circle on the ground and disappeared. Nim started them down the cobblestone path towards a stucco archway at the end of the garden.

“I guess she’s a magician too.” Ean said.

“Everyone’s a magician here,” said Nim. “Magic is our way of life. Part of everything we do, like technology is part of everything you do on Earth.”

“Not for the Amish.”

Nim smiled. “We have folk like that too. But magic is the norm for most worlds. Earth’s an exception.”

“I hope we didn’t offend Bree,” Arie said.

Dara shook her head. “She’s just shy. I think they sent her out here for her benefit more than ours.”

“I’ve never seen hair done up like that,” Ean said. “It almost seemed real, as if she was half human and half tree.”

Nim frowned at him. “It is real. She’s part dryad, one of many kinds of fairies.”

“Ean thinks everything’s fake,” Arie said.

Ean sighed. “Well, it’s only because I’ve lived a sad, sheltered life. Never even met a fairy before.”

“Yes, you have,” Karl said. “Where do you think Nim got her hair?”

“I’m only part fae,” Nim corrected him.

So elves weren’t enough? Ean had to accept fairies too? He thought Nim dyed her hair. Good thing he didn’t mention it. He took a deep breath. Well, now that he was here and Arie was safe, he’d better make an effort to understand this world, simulation or not. That would include understanding its people, and might also include keeping his big mouth shut.

Nim led them through the archway and onto a main street. On the left, the street ran down to the lake far below. The right side climbed upwards and appeared to level off a few hundred feet away. Nim took them up. Shops and houses lined both sides, most three of four stories high, with the second story hanging over the street. A few were stone, but most were wood frame and stucco, like old European houses. The street itself was paved with cobblestones of many colors and patterns, with an unusual grippy texture.

People were everywhere, but there were no cars, no bikes, and not a smartphone in sight. No signs of technology at all, and no horses or horse manure either. The people were diverse, some even bizarre as far as Ean was concerned. Many were human like himself, but some were elves, a few were dwarves, and there were slender people with colorful hair who he assumed were fairies. Translucent wings were common among the smaller ones, and some were green and even more tree-like than Bree. Ean felt the presence of all who passed by, sensing vague outlines of emotions such as worry, delight, and irritation.

The dress was a mix of several styles, but mostly what Ean would call neo-medieval–tunics, jerkins and vests, bodices, capes, and high boots laced to the top. A few women wore long dresses. He was no fashion expert, but the designs seemed more elegant and better-fitting than Earth medieval. Or maybe the movies he’d seen didn’t spend enough on costumes. He felt conspicuous in his dirty tee-shirt and ratty sneakers.

They passed pubs and restaurants with savory smells that tugged at Ean’s stomach, but Nim didn’t stop. Further on up, shops displayed strange furniture and artwork, with gargoyle-like faces on the doors that watched him as he walked by. He felt even more self-conscious when passers-by glanced warily at them and were quick to get out of their way.

“We’re being noticed,” Arie said. “Is it our clothes?”

“Probably not,” Nim replied. “I think it’s Maya. They assume you must be important if you have her protection.”

Ean glanced at Maya, who trotted beside Arie, scanning everyone like a secret service agent. “If everyone’s a magician, wouldn’t her protection be easy to beat? Or is she magical too?”

“No, she’s anti-magical. She’s not a magician, but neither does magic have any effect on her. At least not directly. That’s what makes her kind so formidable here, among other things of course. If someone were to harm Arie, they better hide their location and their identity forever, or Maya will find them. And if she fails, her entire Guild will pick up the slack until the job’s done. It’s in their code.”

“Then Arie should be safe.”

“You’d think so. But Zaphan’s clever. If he ever found a way in here, I don’t think Maya would discourage him.”

As they neared the end of the street, tree canopies rose up in the distance, but Ean did not yet appreciate the scale of what he saw. The street narrowed into a short, steep path, which leveled off onto a plateau. Looking back, he saw the plateau’s edge curve in a sweeping arc over a mile long, with the city sheltered in its foothills. The top of the plateau was a grassy park crisscrossed with walkways and dotted with buildings of many kinds. Trees, gardens, and fountains were scattered throughout, while streams meandered under bridges and dropped over the edge of the plateau, down into the city of Valan.

The park was beautiful, but it was the gargantuan trees that took Ean’s breath away. Spanning from left to right, they walled off the park at the rear, with red-brown trunks wider than many of the buildings and roots the size of houses sloping into the ground. Branches larger than sequoias hung out over the city at the edges of the plateau, and the trees themselves soared well over a thousand feet.

“The biggest trees ever!” Arie exclaimed.

Dara smiled. “Everyone says that. Bazoola trees. They’re a Fantean icon.”

“We call them The Elders of Valan,” Nim said. “Each tree was named after one of the city founders, thousands of years ago.”

“They remind me of sequoias,” Ean said, “But much larger and the foliage is thicker.”

Dara nodded. “They block out Mount Mirage.” She glanced to the side. “Oh, there’s a circle. I better check in with Robin.” She stepped into the circle and turned around, smiling. “It was great to meet you, Arie and Ean. See you again soon.” Then she vanished, just like Bree.

“Okay, I get it,” Ean said. “Those are magic transfer circles, right?”

“Yes,” Nim replied. “But they only guide you and occasionally provide security. You transfer on your own.” She shrugged. “Just etiquette, really. It’s rude to appear or disappear around others when they’re not expecting it. Most find it unnerving. But if there’s a circle, then no one’s surprised.”

“The fae tend to ignore that rule,” said Karl. “Especially in bathrooms.”

Nim frowned. “Then they need to be reminded.”

Ean’s engineering mind wondered what would happen if two people transferred into the same circle at the same time, but he didn’t bring it up. Hopefully they’d worked that out.

Ahead, a large building complex sat on a shallow hill surrounded by trees and gardens. A white building dwarfed the others, with tall spires and stained glass windows. Turrets and high walls made it look like a fairy-tale castle.

Nim pointed to the white building. “That’s where we’re going–the seat of the High Council and the center of government in Fantys. We call it the Palace. Each of the large towers on the periphery is dedicated to a single Council Master, and the central tower is where they meet.”

Nim swept her hand in a panoramic arc. “This whole park is called–you guessed it–the park. The Palace is roughly in the center. To the right are more government buildings and museums. To the left is the University and lodging.” She traced the plateau’s edge behind them. “Houses and shops line the rim, and the stadium is just below the rim on the University side.” She raised an eyebrow. “You’ll want to remember that. Sports is a big deal here.”

“Absolutely,” Karl said.

“You mean like football?” Ean played soccer as a kid, but he’d never been much of a jock.

Karl smiled. “More intense. You’ll see.”

The Palace was larger and more imposing than it seemed from a distance. Its towers soared high above them, with colorful flags flapping in the breeze. Ean felt nervous, but he wasn’t sure why. After everything that happened, he should probably be angry.

“Anything special we should say?” Ean asked.

“Just be yourself,” said Nim.

“Unless you’re a phony,” Karl added. “In that case, don’t be yourself.” His brow furrowed. “But then…you’d still be a phony, wouldn’t you?”

“Shut up, Karl.”

Two massive wooden doors loomed in front of them. Ean stepped back when two faces popped out of the wood–a stern-faced woman on one door, and a bearded old man on the other.

The woman’s eyes settled on Ean. “I don’t like the look of the new Earth boy. Squinty eyes. He doesn’t believe in us.”

The old man nodded. “Very squinty indeed. And what of his sister?”

“We don’t admit little girls,” the woman declared haughtily.

“I’m not a little girl,” Arie snapped. “I’m twelve years old.” The old man raised his eyebrows.

“Stop fooling around,” Nim said. “The Council’s expecting us.”

The woman seemed disappointed. “Into the circle please.”

The faces sank back into the doors and a white circle appeared on the ground. They all stepped in. A second later they stood in a large room with a lofty ceiling supported by wooden beams. A massive stone fireplace dominated the right side of the room. On the left, a panoramic arc of stained glass windows bathed the room in soft, glowing light. Strange artifacts rested on cabinets, and the walls were decorated with holographic images of people, some obviously not from Earth or even Fantys. There was no evidence of technology or electronics.

A wooden conference table stretched across the room, inlaid with tiles and ornate artwork. A dark, gray-haired lady glared at them from the far end. On the right, a pretty blonde elven woman nodded. Beside her, an Asian-looking man with a sparse mustache and a short pony tail looked up and smiled. Ean sensed a polite welcome from the man, but nothing from either of the women.

A tall man lingered near the windows and turned to face them, his chiseled features relaxing into a smile. His build was athletic, with long graying hair that may have once been blonde. Like many in Valan, he wore a colorful tunic, but with a fancier collar and shoulder cut. A thousand years ago on Earth, he might have passed for a Viking chief. Ean felt his agile, disciplined mind and the warmth of his welcome.

“Good to finally meet you, Arie and Ean. I’m Julian.” He gestured to the gray-haired lady, “This is Helen,” then to the other two, “And Vonya and Cheng. Robin’s at another meeting.” He took a deep breath. “Welcome to Fantys. I apologize for your troubles. I hope this wasn’t too much of a shock.”

“Not at all,” Ean said. “Stuff like this happens to me all the time.” He yelped when Arie kicked his ankle.

“Thanks for bringing us here,” Arie said. She surveyed the room. “What a beautiful place. You all look so…perfect. Like angels.”

The room erupted in waves of laughter which took a while to subside. Cheng nodded. “Good move. You know how to kiss up to–“

“Alright,” Julian motioned for everyone to calm down. “We’ve all had our little laugh. Thank you, Arie. I’d like to think we have a few angels here. Maybe I’m too optimistic.”

“Vonya’s certainly an angel,” Cheng said.

Vonya looked bored. “You’d do well to remember that.”

Helen shook her head. “You shouldn’t have brought them here, Julian. You know the rules about Earth.”

“Our remote operation wasn’t working,” Julian said. “And we still don’t know what we’re dealing with.” He approached Arie. “Forgive me. You were scanned on the way in, but I need to see for myself.” He held his hand over her head. A faint yellow aura appeared around her, and her bracelet glowed. “May I see the bracelet please?” Arie pulled it off and gave it to him. He turned it over in his hands. “Harmless enough, but it does have bindings. Where did you get it?”

“My Dad gave it to me. I always wear it.”

“Hmm.” Julian gave the bracelet back.

Helen snorted. “You brought them here over a trinket? How should I explain this to the Enli?”

“Let me handle the Enli on this.”

Ean frowned. “I don’t mean to be rude, but…shouldn’t we be asking the questions? What’s really going on here?”

Julian nodded, staring at the floor. “I know things have been difficult for you. Indirectly, we’re responsible. We believe the man directly responsible is Lewis Zaphan. A few months ago, he was our best and brightest–one of the finest we’ve ever had.” He gestured at the table. “We even gave him a seat on the Council. I’ve known him personally for years, or thought I did. But over time, he developed some wild ideas and used our resources for his own mischief. Not terribly angelic, was he?”

“Where’s he now?” Arie asked.

“I wish we knew. He fled before we could confront him. I don’t know how he did it, but the attacks on you bear his hallmarks. He’s also enlisted others in his plans and given them things he shouldn’t, like the tether strip that abducted you.” Julian sighed. “He’s gone through a lot of trouble and he’s not stupid. I don’t know what he’s after, but I doubt he’d be fooled by a trinket.”

Vonya nodded. “Everyone’s safer with them here until we understand this.”

“Is any of this related to our father’s disappearance?” Ean asked.

“Possibly,” Julian said. “We’re looking into it.”

“Thanks for protecting us.” Arie said. “Can we ever go back to Uncle Harry?”

“Yes, but be patient. Earth is the first place Lewis will look after losing you in Mithe. Let things settle down. Engage with our culture. This is a small world, but there’s a lot to do and learn. Nim, give them rooms in the Treehouse. And Robin would probably like to see them, if you can find him.”

Cheng smiled. “Be sure to check out my place, the Hairy Toad. Best pub on the rim.” He winked and gave them a thumbs up sign. Helen scowled and turned away.

Nim took them back outside and led them towards the University, into a wooded area. The woods opened up into a large garden with one of the strangest buildings Ean had ever seen. A network of trees, branches, and vines lined the entire structure, including corners, towers, and other nooks and crannies. At first it seemed as if the building was completely overgrown. But upon closer examination, Ean realized each room was actually a wooden membrane, growing between the trees as some kind of seed or fruit.

“A living building,” Karl announced. “Grown from magical trees.”

“We call it the Treehouse,” said Nim. “Over time, its rooms die and new rooms are born. A variation on an elven theme, I’m told.” She approached one of the corner trees and stepped into a white circle, beckoning for them to follow. As they did, an elf face popped out of the tree trunk, looking everyone over.

“Rooms for Arie and Ean,” Nim said. The elf nodded.

In a moment they were inside one of the rooms. The floor was a flat wooden sheet, but the walls and ceiling were concave, with tree trunks partially visible in the corners. Light came from a single oval window made of some clear organic substance. From the view, they seemed to be on the bottom floor, if this building even had floors.

“But it’s tiny,” Arie complained. “And there’s no bed. No furniture at all.”

Nim smiled. “We have guests from many worlds and we try to accommodate them all. In the Treehouse, you create your own room with magic. I know you’re inexperienced, so let me try for you.” In seconds, they were in a luxurious room with a four-poster bed, antique furniture, and fine artwork. A side door led to a bathroom of palatial dimensions. Ean wondered where all the extra space came from.

“Fit for a queen,” Karl said.

“Wow,” Arie said. “Too fancy for me. Can’t you do something simpler?”

“I’ll try again.” Nim concentrated, and soon they were in a rustic mountain cabin. On one side was a simple bed and dresser, and on the other a bathroom and a cozy fireplace. A colorful quilt hung over the bed and a door led outside. Through the front windows, Ean glimpsed a trail winding through a forest of spruce trees.

He stepped in front of a window. “What would happen if I opened the door and kept walking down that path?”

“You’d end up back here pretty soon,” Karl replied. “These rooms have limits. You don’t want to get lost in your own room. Well, most people don’t.”

“It’s perfect,” Arie said. “But how do you get out?”

“You say ‘let me out’, or anything to that effect,” Nim replied. “The trees will understand. Or if you want to go to Ean’s room, just say so.”

“She can barge in whenever she wants?” Ean asked, wide-eyed.

“Relax. The Treehouse will ask for your permission. Let’s do your room now.”

Ean’s room was similar to Arie’s, but higher up with smaller tree trunks in the corners. “You set it up, Ean,” Nim said. “Think about what the room should look like.”

Closing his eyes, Ean visualized his room in Uncle Harry’s barn. He felt the click and opened his eyes to a reasonable copy of the room. His old laptop lay on the desk. He flipped it open and was delighted when it booted up.

“Hey, my computer works here.”

Karl shook his head. “It’s real enough to the senses, but play with it for a while and you’ll see it has no depth. The room creates a facade with some basic functions, not a new world.” He raised an eyebrow. “But there is a magical network here, and I think you’ll find it useful.” He waved his hand and a large scroll appeared on the wall, displaying pictures of Fantys and its people. “You can do searches and select items with your mind, in the same way you customized the room. You can even set up a 3-D display, but that takes more practice.”

“All without technology?” Ean asked doubtfully.

“You’d be surprised how alike magic and technology can be. Under the right conditions, they can mimic each other. The crucial difference is that technology obeys laws, while magic can make them. Within a world’s limits, of course.”

“So…no computers to play with?”

Karl shrugged. “I suppose you could make one with a lot of tedious spells. But why? Magic is more direct and can be bound in equally complex ways. You’ll need a good teacher, like Robin.”

“Do you live here?” Arie asked.

“No, I share a house near the stadium. We don’t have magic rooms.”

“You can play with your rooms later,” Nim said. “Isn’t anyone hungry? Let’s go to the dining hall.”

“Wait,” Arie said. “Don’t we have to pay for this?”

Nim smiled. “There’s no money here, for a variety of reasons. Magic takes care of our basic needs. But sometimes there are agreements between two or more parties, especially in real estate. Contracts, you might call them.”

They left the Treehouse and headed towards the University. It was almost noon and the park was busy. On the left, a group of children played in the grass. On the right was a small stage where actors in animal costumes performed a play, accompanied by musicians with flutes and bells. Ean felt their exaggerated emotions as they said each line, intensifying the experience. The audience seemed completely absorbed.

Nim gestured to a bench. “Why not take a rest and watch the show?”

Good idea, Ean’s feet ached. He collapsed on the left side of the bench. Karl sat on the right, while Arie stood off to the side with Maya, straining to see over the audience. As he leaned back to spread out his arms, he noticed a many-colored bird standing motionless on a rock, staring at him. A statue of some kind, he assumed. He watched it for a while, when without warning, the bird spoke.

“I don’t like your shirt.”

Ean frowned. He glanced around, but no one else seemed to have noticed, except Maya. Should he answer? He looked down at his shirt and shrugged.

“It’s dirty.”

“I can see that.”

“I’m not from Valan.”

“I can see that too.”

“Look, don’t you have anything better to do?”

The bird studied him. “Says a boy who talks to birds.”

Ean turned away angrily. Karl chuckled. “Gotta be an illusion. Some kid’s messin’ with you.”

Kids were nearby, but none looked like a prankster. He faced the bird again. “Bugger off. You’re not real.”

The bird cocked its head. “Maybe none of this is real.” It ruffled its fancy tail feathers and flew away.

Ean watched it climb above the trees. “Pretty convincing illusion.”

“I’m afraid not,” Nim joined in. “Illusory magic is restricted in public areas. That’s a Mocklebird.”

“I’ve never seen one before,” Karl said.

“They’re rare. Best to avoid them. They tune in on your subconscious and have a talent for annoying people.”

“I’d never have guessed,” Ean said.

Nim looked concerned. “Some say they’re amateur psychologists, others say they’re jokers. But they won’t leave you alone until they’re satisfied.”

Great. So Ean was being followed by a bird shrink. None of this is real. Well, that wasn’t too subtle. A message from the virtual reality he was in? This world was even called Fantys, for crying out loud. How many more hints did he need?

They resumed their walk, passing through another garden and over a bridge. Nim nodded at a bronze statue of a man and a woman reaching out to touch the fingertips of two thin, hooded figures.

“The original founders of this city, Imo and Ima Valan.”

“Who are the other two?” Arie asked. “They look like ghosts.”

“Those are the Enli. Beings from a higher world.”

“What makes it higher?”

“Good question. I’m not sure, exactly.” Nim frowned. “We rarely see the Enli, but they meet with the Council Lead occasionally. Julian’s met with them, and Helen before him. Who knows what they talk about.”

“Zaphan hated them,” Karl said.

“Zaphan hated a lot of things.”

A large timber-framed hall came up on the right. Nim led them to the closest entrance. Inside, hundreds of people sat at long, colorful tables decked with platters of delicious smelling food.

Nim stood off to the side, searching for someone. “There he is.”

She led them to a table at the far end of the hall, across from a middle-aged man with dark shoulder-length hair, a mustache, and hints of a thin beard. He wore a yellow vest underneath an old jacket and looked for all the world like an English teacher Ean once had. Dara sat beside him and waved.

Nim introduced him. “This is Robin, a Council Master and one of our best teachers. Karl assists him, and you’ve already met Dara, his niece.” Robin flashed them a quick smile, his eyes resting first on Arie, then Ean. A woman sat across from him, and she turned around to face them. Her clothes were Fantean, but there was no mistaking who she was. It was Ava, the cook and housekeeper at Uncle Harry’s farm.

 

Test

 

Ean couldn’t believe his eyes. Why would a Mennonite housekeeper be in Valan? Was Zaphan after her too? Maybe the simulation was running out of characters to use.

Ava held her wrist to her forehead, feigning shock. “Oh no, my cover’s blown.”

“You’ll never work in this town again,” Robin said.

“Is that a promise? But I’m glad you kids are safe.” She swept her hand over the table. “And look at all this sumptuous food. I don’t even have to cook. Or fake cooking, actually.”

“Or fake being a Mennonite,” Arie said.

Ava smiled. “But it was fun to dress up.”

“So you were spying on us the whole time?” Ean asked.

Nim answered for her. “Julian asked us to keep you safe. Maya guarded the physical perimeter of the farm. Ava added protective wards and checked up on you.”

“A pleasant assignment,” Ava said. “Not the dreary stuff Julian usually gives me–don’t tell him I said that. Your Uncle’s quite a character.”

Ean’s eyes narrowed. “Is he in on this?”

“No, and we hope you keep it that way. I think he’d like me better the way I was.” She stood up. “Sorry to leave so soon, but I’m late. We’ll meet again, I’m sure.” She gave Arie and Ean each a hug, then waved to Robin and hurried off.

“It’s a small multiverse,” Robin said. He motioned to the seats across from him. “Please, sit down. Enjoy the food and tell me about your adventures. Or misadventures, as the case may be.”

They all took seats, with Maya at Arie’s feet. Arie told him about the weird attacks and the abduction to Mithe, while Ean wolfed down a bit of everything, including rolled up hors d’oeuvres, buttery sweetbread, and some addictive ice cream. Robin listened patiently until Arie finished and shook his head.

“It was foolish to give yourself to the dragon. Brave certainly, but incredibly foolish. Good thing we pulled you out in time.”

“At least Sir Gwythur got away,” Dara said.

Karl nodded. “The damsel in distress saved the knight.”

“You could have disappeared forever,” Robin continued, breaking off a piece of sweetbread. “Interesting story, though. I don’t know how Lewis pulled off those attacks, but the bigger question is why. We’re all wondering what he’s after, even if it wouldn’t change anything.”

“It could help us understand him,” Nim said. “What does he want? Power over worlds, or to escape them as he claims?”

“Who knows. I hope he’s not trying to start a cult, although that may be an unintended consequence of all this. Either way, he’s a mess we have to clean up.” His gaze fell. “I suppose I’m as much to blame as anyone. I saw the warning signs, the wild ideas and the moral lapses. I should have blocked his appointment to the Council, or at least tried to. He’d still be a Guild Master and a champion of the games, and none of these problems would exist.” He shrugged. “But…he was a rock star, as they say on Earth, and our little corner of Enna was his stage.”

“Enna?” Ean asked.

Robin frowned at him. “The greater multiverse. All the worlds.”

“Won’t the Enli do anything?” Nim asked.

“They say it’s our problem–deal with it. Well yes, we would, if we could find him. What else can we do? Targeting his followers would be even more interference.”

An elven boy approached between the tables, with hair so blonde it was almost white. Most was tied behind his back and the rest fell onto his chest. He leaned over Dara, gazing at her with piercing blue-green eyes.

“Welcome back, Dara. We missed you.”

Dara looked up and smiled. “Thank you, Morgan. I was about to come over and say hello.” She turned to Arie and Ean. “These are new friends from Earth, who came back with me. Or maybe I came back with them.”

Morgan glanced at Arie and Ean and turned back to Dara. “There’s a party tonight at the old Raven house. If you’re not doing anything, I’d be happy to take you there.”

“Um…that sounds nice. Maybe another time. This trip was a lot of work and I’m worn out. I need time to get settled in.” Robin raised an eyebrow.

Morgan nodded. “Of course, my apologies. Enjoy your rest.” He turned away, his gaze lingering on Ean before he joined his friends at another table.

“Wow,” Arie said. “He’s beautiful and he likes you. I hope we weren’t in the way.”

Dara’s face reddened. “You weren’t. I’m just tired of pushy elven boys. It’s a cultural thing. They all want an early betrothal and I don’t.” She turned to Robin, as if expecting a response.

Robin opened his mouth, then shook his head. “No. I’m not saying anything.”

Dara glared at him. “You just did.”

The conversation drifted around to other topics. Karl recounted a thrilling magical dueling match which Ean didn’t understand. Nim and Dara complained about current fashions in Fantean clothes, and how uncomfortable they were. Robin and Nim argued about the intricate politics of a world called Faene. But finally, they were ready to leave.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Nim said. “I know the summer term’s already started, but is there a way to get Arie and Ean in on some classes at the University?”

Robin nodded. “We’ll work something out. Bring them by my office for testing. Give me half an hour.”

“Testing?” Ean asked.

Robin smiled. “Nothing you can prepare for. Just be yourselves.” He got up and left through the nearest door.

“You guys keep saying that.” Ean did well in pop quizzes, but at least he had some idea what to expect. What would they test here?

Arie played with her food. “You never mentioned anything about school.”

“Well, you don’t have to go,” Nim said. “But most newbies go though orientation and brush up on Fantean-style magic. It’ll keep you busy and make this world less confusing.”

Karl nodded. “And check out the Toad when you’re done. You know, Cheng’s pub. We hang out there a lot.”

 

A walkway led to the University from the dining hall. The campus was a blend of stone buildings, timber-framed halls, old trees, and walk-in gardens. On the far side, the gigantic Bazoola trees towered over everything. But Nim took them to a stone building on the near side and led them down a musty hallway into Robin’s office.

Ean had never seen such an interesting mess. Convoluted sculptures, brightly colored jars, and weird metal contraptions rested on a long table, while the floor was strewn with dusty books and unrecognizable skeletons mounted on poles. Maya sniffed tentatively at a quadruped skeleton that might have once been a cat. A bookshelf containing everything except books leaned precariously against one wall, while misaligned pictures of vaguely-human beings hung on another. Above them, an intricate diagram of circles and lines stretched across the ceiling.

Robin rummaged through a box of odd artifacts and pulled out a black rod mounted on a circular base. “Here we go–the test. Most of us have taken it, at one time or another.” He scratched his head. “I used to have more, but I seem to have misplaced them. You’ll have to share. Let’s go where there’s less clutter.”

He led them to an empty room across the hall and set the rod on the floor. “This post will create a small, opaque arena. An arena is a special place within a world where some laws are suspended and new laws are imposed. A variation on a theme, if you will. This one’s designed for new students. It helps us gauge where you are mentally and magically.”

“Is it like our rooms in the Treehouse?” Arie asked.

“In some ways, yes, but adapted for a different purpose.” Robin waved his hand. Ean stepped back as a gray dome shot up from the floor. It looked solid and occupied most of the room. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“We just walk through the gray wall?” Arie asked.

“Yes, the dome will let you in. Then follow the instructions.”

Arie reached out. The dome shimmered where her hand went through. Satisfied, she stepped inside and was gone. Ean followed and immediately found himself reclining in a comfortable chair, with a woman standing in front of him.

She spoke directly into his mind. “Hello Ean, I’m your host. You’ll be given questions to answer and problems to solve. Try to answer everything, no matter how strange or impossible. This test takes an hour and the problems are different for everyone.”

Questions appeared in front of Ean, but he answered mentally. He had no doubt his thoughts were being observed. The test began with the type of problems he was accustomed to–guessing the next number or shape in a series, logical problems of deduction, pattern matching, and so on. He aced them and his confidence grew, until the strange questions began.

A gray sphere appeared and he was told to stop it from changing, however he could. Ridges began to form in the sphere. Okay, they were testing magical aptitude. He focused his will as Karl had shown him and felt the click, but the sphere morphed into a red cube anyway. He tried again, and it morphed into a green tetrahedron, although more slowly. As it continued to change, he found that his will could slow it down, but not stop it. Finally, the shape vanished and the host reappeared for the next problem.

She asked Ean to build a castle with his mind and defend it. It took several tries to build a castle that didn’t look pathetic, but when he did, a dragon swooped down from the sky and smashed it into ruins. So he built a new castle with thicker walls and extra fortifications, but the dragon smashed it anyway. He lobbed stones, fireballs, and water at the dragon, but they only made it angrier and more destructive. He even built fake castles to distract it, but the dragon wasn’t fooled. There was no peace, no matter what he did. In the end, all he could do was rebuild the castle faster than the dragon could destroy it.

In another problem, he read a paragraph describing a busy intersection in Victorian London. The paragraph disappeared and he was asked to recreate the scene in front of him. He failed miserably. Everything came out distorted or jumbled up with other elements of his experience. Most streets were warped, and one had a huge computer keyboard embedded in it. An Amish buggy rumbled down one street towards a pile of horse manure in another. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was printed on the side of a building, and all the street signs read Arie Blvd. The whole problem had turned into an embarrassing dump of his neuroses.

In one problem, he was asked to stop a war between blue and red stick-figure men in a cartoon world. The red men wanted access to a cache of red sticks in the blue territory, so they could make more red men. But the blue men didn’t want the red men to outnumber them and defeat them in battle. Ean built a wall to divide the two, but the red men climbed over it. He made the wall higher, but they tunneled underneath. He took away the cache, infuriating the red men, but also the blue men, who had used the cache as a bargaining chip. Exasperated, he removed the wall and made it all one territory, mixing red and blue men together. A few purple men resulted who didn’t fight, but the rest nearly wiped each other out. Disgusted, he gave up. He could only made things worse.

In the final problem, Ean danced with the host on a moonlit terrace, behind an old mansion. Big Band sounds drifted out into the evening air: Les Brown and Doris Day, I got the sun in the morning…

Ean laughed as the host led and he followed, clumsily stepping on her toes. “That’s one of Dad’s tunes. You took it out of my head.”

The host gazed into his eyes. “What do you desire most, Ean? You already have magic, and money is worthless here.” He thought it over, but couldn’t give her a quick answer. The music played on…and the moon at night. The host nodded. “Why not the moon?” She reached out and plucked the moon from the sky, offering it to him as a glowing pearl in her hand.

“Can’t I have it, and not hold it? Otherwise, how can we can dance?”

She put the moon back. “What then? Immortality?” He shook his head. “You’re right, it’s a curse. Power over others? I can make you a king in another world, or even a god.”

“Uh…” Okay, power wasn’t something Ean had much of. He didn’t even have power over his bratty little sister. But to be honest, he never really wanted it or its responsibilies, otherwise he’d have sought it out already. And omnipotence…he’d always railed against God, and now she wanted to make him one?

“No thanks.”

The host searched his face as her eyes cut deeper into his soul. “Yes, I see it now. Recognition. Appreciation. That is what you desire. To make a name for yourself as a creator or an artisan.”

“I won’t deny it.”

“And how far will you go to gain the approval of others?”

Ean hesitated. “You didn’t test me for that.”

“I can’t give you what you want. Only you can.”

He sighed. “I know. I try, but there are…interruptions.” He gazed up at the moon, then into her unblinking eyes. “I guess no one gets to live a perfect life. A dragon smashes it into ruins and you rebuild it into something new.”

“The test is finished. Thank you.”

Ean found himself in Robin’s empty room again. The gray dome was gone. Robin, Nim, and Arie all looked worried. Maya paced back and forth.

“You alright?” Nim asked.

“That was weird, but I’m okay. Is something wrong?”

“Arie was attacked again, inside the arena.”

“They were torturing me,” Arie said. “Horrible things. Poking around in my head, replaying memories and looking for something.” Ean felt her revulsion. “The dome kicked me out when I screamed.”

Robin shook his head. “That shouldn’t happen. The test can be stressful, but not invasive or malicious.”

Could Zaphan reach them in this world? Ean tried to think. “If laws are suspended inside the arena, maybe Zaphan found a way in.”

“I don’t see how. He’d have to go through Fantys and we’d know.” His brow furrowed. “On the other hand, he might have an accomplice here. We’ve suspected that for some time.”

“The test could have been hacked,” Nim said.

Robin nodded. “I’ll look into it.” He picked up the arena post and walked to the door. “Orientation is tomorrow at sunrise, in the auditorium. Nim, you’ll have to take them there.”

 

Nim escorted Arie and Ean to the Hairy Toad, one of many houses along the rim of the plateau. From the side entrance, you had a nice view of the city of Valan, the lake, and the mountains in the distance. The oval stadium was just below the rim, and from the right angle you could see the playing field inside. The pub itself was a stone house of three stories and side additions, flanked by a patio with tables and umbrellas. Mounted beside the door was a plaque of a smiling, rather hairy toad holding up a frothy mug of ale.

“This is a popular student hangout,” Nim said. “Cheng plays here sometimes.”

Inside were tables, booths, and a long bar where snacks and drinks were served. The main room had a lofty ceiling with wooden beams. There was a small stage on one side, a fireplace on the other, and a terrace with tables on the second floor. It was mid-afternoon, but the place buzzed with chatter and laughter.

Karl came up from the side, holding a drink. “Cool, you made it.” He gestured to the bar. “Get some grub and join us.”

Nim excused herself, but promised to pick them up in the morning for orientation. Ean grabbed a plate and served himself. There were chips with sauce, veggies, and something like melted cheese. And plenty of dark ale. Karl assured him this particular brew was non-alcoholic, but it could make you more sociable. Good, Arie said. Ean needed that.

Karl led them to a table near the fireplace, where Dara sat. Maya crouched nearby, scanning the pub.

Dara smiled. “So? What do you think of Fantys?”

“It’s fantastic,” Arie replied. “I love the magic, and we can live for free. I still think you’re all angels.”

“Someone must have clipped my wings,” said Karl.

“We’re pretty overwhelmed,” Ean said. “But there’s a lot I don’t get, like…who’s in charge of what. How does the government work? Does Fantys actually control Earth and Mithe? “

“We don’t control other worlds,” Karl replied. “We maintain them. And you’ve already met the government: Helen, Julian, Robin, Cheng, and Vonya–the High Council. Vonya replaced Zaphan a few months ago.”

Dara frowned. “You’re leaving out the Guilds, who have the power to nominate and remove Council Masters. In old times, the Guild Masters were the Council, but the Council got too big as the number of Guilds grew from five to thirteen, so the Council split off. You can’t be a Guild Master and Council Master at the same time anymore.”

“Are these Guilds something we need to worry about?” Ean asked.

“Yeah, you do,” Karl said. “Their voting power gives them lots of influence. And they’re always looking for new members. When they find out you’re new here, you’ll get invitations to their parties. If they like you, they’ll invite you to join.”

“They sound like fraternities or sororities.”

“More like political parties. Each Guild has a reputation, since they tend to be people with similar skills and temperament. So…Roses are diplomats, Dragons are fighters, and Crowns are leaders.”

Dara waved that away. “Those are old stereotypes. Helen’s a Rose, but she’s hardly diplomatic.”

“Yeah, but the stereotypes fit in many cases. Julian’s a Crown, Nim’s definitely a Dragon, and you can’t tell me Robin’s not a Moony.”

“Moony?” Ean asked.

“The Moon Guild. They have a reputation for knowledge and learning. Like professors on Earth.”

Arie made a face. “Do we have to join one? Is everyone in a Guild?”

“I’m not,” Dara replied. “Neither is Karl. But most join one eventually, or they won’t have a voice in the government.”

Karl sipped his ale. “I hear rumors of dark Guilds with no voice, who meet in secret.”

“Robin doesn’t take them seriously.”

The front door swung open and Morgan entered with a group of friends. He spotted Dara, adjusted his hair, and walked over to their table, but backed off when he noticed Maya nearby.

He nodded at Dara and smiled at Ean. “I’m sorry. I didn’t get the chance to meet you two properly. Arie and Ean, is it? We don’t get many visitors from Earth.” He hesitated. “So I’d be honored if you’d join me and my friends at a happy hour tomorrow. It’s in the old Raven house just down the rim from here. Plenty of drinks, good food, and good company. I guarantee you’ll have a good time and meet lots of new people.”

Ean glanced at Dara, but she only shrugged. Karl shot him an I-told-you-so look, and Arie frowned. Ean didn’t see how he could politely refuse, so he turned back to Morgan.

“Sure, we’ll be there. Sounds like fun.” Morgan bowed his head and walked back to his friends.

“That was quick,” Karl said. “So the Ravens are first.”

“What reputation do they have?” Ean asked.

“Well, you know…kidnappers and axe murderers. But apart from that, they’re good people. Smart, too.”

Dara stared at Karl. “You didn’t tell him.” She faced Ean. “Zaphan was a Raven. In fact, he was Guild Master of the Ravens before he sat on the Council. They have a reputation for high intelligence, but also for guile and deceit. Historically, they made good spies.”

“And you didn’t tell him about Morgan,” Karl said. “He was Zaphan’s assistant for a couple of weeks before Zaphan ran off.”

“True, but Vonya kept him on anyway. Maybe she felt sorry for him.” Dara’s eyes widened. “Don’t tell anyone I said that.”

Ean wondered if he’d made a mistake accepting the invitation. But Morgan seemed pleasant enough, and maybe they’d find out more about Arie’s attacker.

Arie didn’t agree. “I’m social, but I don’t want to meet Zaphan’s old friends.”

“Don’t let that bother you,” Dara said. “I’ve met lots of Ravens through Morgan. They’re okay. Like Vonya, they’re still fighting off the stigma of Zaphan, so they tend to be on their best behavior. You won’t have much to worry about, especially with Maya around.”

“Vonya’s a Raven too?”

Dara nodded. “They thought it appropriate to appoint another Raven for the remainder of Zaphan’s term.”

Karl raised an eyebrow. “Appropriate? More like face-saving.”

When they left the pub, Dara used a circle to transfer to Robin’s house down in the city. Karl helped Arie and Ean transfer back to the Treehouse with Maya. He showed them how to make calls with magic, reminded them about the orientation, and transferred out. Arie touched the same tree Nim had used, and the elf face appeared. With a brief command, she took Maya to her room, and Ean transferred up to his. It still looked like Uncle Harry’s apartment.

Ean decided to do some orienting on his own using the scroll Karl had shown him to access the magical net. It was easy, once you got the hang of it. You could operate it mentally, and better yet, there were no ads. The first name he searched for was Lewis Zaphan. At first it seemed as if there had been an effort to wipe out his existence, but eventually Ean found an old picture of him posing with Julian, Robin, and a woman he didn’t recognize. Though not athletic like Julian, he stood about as tall, with a mop of black hair falling in curls on his neck. Piercing blue eyes and a nose like a raven’s beak stood out from his otherwise blank expression. He wore a dark shirt and baggy pants–more Earth-like than Fantean. Beneath the picture was a list of his many academic titles and achievements, along with a record of his magical contests. He had defeated everyone, including Julian, but only Julian had defeated him.

After more searching and reading, Ean learned how to use the 3-D display and set it up on the floor in the center of the room. He formed a mental image of the strange boy who had kidnapped Arie, and it popped up in the display. But a search for the image found nothing.

Ean learned many things that night about Fantys, Mithe, and few other worlds. As the hours slipped by, he fought valiantly to stay awake, but his eyelids drooped, his head fell forward, and gravity pulled him down in the end. His dreams were a mess, haunted by scenes from his childhood in Scotland, Arie floating away on a balloon, and an Amish woman on a Harley. Even Droog made a brief, unwelcome appearance. But finally, he was with the test host again. The moon shimmered like a mirage as they danced on an arid plain, flat and empty as far as he could see. Ean recoiled in horror as the host morphed into Zaphan, his blue eyes softening with mock empathy. Smiling, he plucked the moon from the sky and offered it to Ean, as the host had done. But his long fingers wrapped around the orb and crushed it like blown glass, sending a thousand pieces tinkling into the wind. “Fake,” he whispered gently. “Wake up, Ean. Wake up…”

 

Games

 

“Wake up! I won’t say it again. Time for class, remember?”

Ean sat up slowly as an angry face sank into the wall at the foot of his bed. He gasped when he remembered where he was, grabbing for his shirt and socks. He’d surfed the magical net late into the night with only a few hours of sleep.

Nim appeared in the 3-D display. “Ean, you’re late. Meet us outside.”

Ean threw on his shirt, finished tying his sneakers, and transferred out. Arie was already in the circle with Maya, shaking her head.

Nim sized up his rumpled clothes with disapproval. “You can dress with magic, you know. Alright, into the circle.”

He stepped into the circle and a second later they were in the lobby of a stone building on campus. Maya wouldn’t go any further, but Nim rushed them through a double door into a room with a gray dome much larger than the one they’d used for testing.

“Go in. They’ve already started.” Arie stepped through first and Ean followed.

They stood in the rear of a small auditorium. Other students were seated randomly throughout the room, a few turning to stare. In front, an old man in a robe was speaking. “…so you should understand the…” He glared at Ean. “Glad you could make it. Take a seat, if it’s not too much trouble.” Ean chose a seat near the center of the auditorium. The old man waited until Arie sat beside him and continued.

“As I was saying. Although it has developed a culture of its own in recent centuries, Fantys should be understood in the context of its origins. It was founded as a place to offload some of the responsibilities of another world. Anyone know that world’s name?”

“Yaan?” a dark-haired man asked. He looked older than Ean, but all the other students looked younger. Some much younger, which probably meant he had a lot of catching up to do.

“Correct,” the old man replied. “One of several worlds inhabited by the Enli”. He went on to describe how the small population of Fantys had descended from immigrants of the worlds it managed. Fantys was not a utopia, or better than other worlds, or even necessarily fantastic. It was, however, an administrative world, and free from many of the problems and hardships plaguing other worlds. But what exactly did it administer, Ean wondered?

As the man lectured, Ean couldn’t help staring at the small, slender girl in front of him. Long ears poked through her snow-white hair, which was thick enough to hide her entire back. Her delicate features were inhumanly perfect, even for Fantys. A fairy, Ean assumed. He was surprised when she raised her tiny hand.

“Why can we visit some worlds and not others?” the girl asked, her voice breathy and musical, like a flute. “And does Fantys shape their destinies?”

“We maintain their destinies,” the old man said. “Each world is, in a sense, an experiment set up long ago, running its own course. Some were meant to exist in isolation while others were not. At times, we’ll act to prevent interference, but we seldom influence their affairs. Even if the inhabitants decide to exterminate themselves.” He paused, looking her over. “You’re fae?” She nodded. “I know what you’re getting at. Several fairy worlds were improperly touched. Rest assured, it wasn’t us. But we’ll work to restore them, if possible.”

With the help of movies and maps, the old man launched into a lengthy discussion of the Fantean government, Valan and the surrounding landscape, and where everything was. Much of it Ean had already gleaned from the magical net. When the lecture ended, everyone poured out into the lobby.

Karl was waiting for them, with Maya at his feet. “There’s a one-time class forming for an introduction to magic. You can make it if you hurry.” He led them down the hall and into a small classroom. “Meet me in the lobby afterwards.”

Ean took a seat behind Arie and Maya as other students trickled in, including a few from the orientation. He recognized the fae girl. In a few minutes, a middle-aged woman walked into the room and closed the door behind her.

“Good morning everyone,” the woman said cheerfully, patting her hair and straightening her tunic. “I’m Rhona, and this is an introduction to Fantean magic. Most of you are accustomed to the unique magic of your own worlds, which may not work well here. Don’t worry, our magic is straightforward and easy to learn. Can anyone tell me the two main categories of magic in Fantys?”

“Boring and useless,” said a boy on the other side of the room. His friends around him smirked and snickered.

“It you’re bored, you should leave. Anyone else?”

The fae girl raised her hand. “Real and illusory?”

Rhona smiled. “Some theorists would say there’s no difference. But you’re close enough. The answer is restricted and unrestricted magic.” She waved her hand and a gentle breeze flowed through the classroom. “That was unrestricted. Anyone can do that spell anywhere in Fantys.”

She waved again and it rained for a few seconds, then stopped. Ean checked his clothes and looked up. He was sure his hair and shirt had been splattered, and yet he was completely dry. “That was restricted magic. Mental illusions are not permitted here, except under special conditions, such as this classroom for educational purposes.”

“Mental illusions are a type of coercion, which is a more general restriction. You can’t magically alter someone’s mind or body, unless you’re a registered healer. A few arenas may also allow coercive magic. Another exception is Fantys itself, which can convey emotions and make calls between people.”

Arie’s hand shot up to ask a question, but she quickly pulled it down, glancing around as if she hoped no one noticed. A few boys snickered on the other side of the classroom. Maya stared at them.

Ean wondered what she wanted to ask, when something tugged at his own hand. He felt a weird urge to slap his own face. He felt it again, stronger this time, his hand trembling as he fought against it. The boys snickered again. Ah, okay. So this was coercive magic. Pranks directed at Arie and himself. Maybe he could play this game too. Hiding his emotions, he focused his will on one of the boys until he felt the click. With a howl, the boy jumped to his feet and thrashed around in the aisle. Everyone turned to look as he pulled his pants down to his ankles .

A few students giggled, but most turned away, embarrassed. Ean was surprised to see the fae girl out of her seat. She waved her hand and the boys pants went back up.

The boy sank into his chair, red-faced and almost crying. “Someone forced me.”

“Well,” Rhona said, taking a sharp breath. “Now you see why coercion is restricted. We’ll have no more of that.” The boys glanced nervously at each other, and around the room. Ean hoped no one knew it was him.

“Let’s move on to activation,” Rhona said. “Fantys won’t automatically activate our thoughts, or there would be chaos.” She stared at the red-faced boy. “We might not survive it. So…how to activate the magic in your imagination? In my case, it was a hand wave. But I could have used a wand, or a brief period of concentration, or even a blood sacrifice. Almost anything will do, as long as it clearly indicates your commitment. Just kidding about the sacrifice. I think.” There were a few nervous chuckles.

“Okay, let’s use a hand wave to make a wand.” She held out one hand and waved at the other. A green wand appeared in her grasp. “Now you try.” In a moment, wands of different colors and sizes appeared in the student’s hands.

“Good. But what if you would like to record a spell to be used again and again? Then you perform what we call a binding. You bind one or more spells to an object. This act of association is also magic, and the object becomes a symbol for the spells. For example, to bind my wind spell to this wand, I think of the spell first. But instead of activating it, I imagine binding it to the wand and activate that instead.” She waved her hand at the wand. “There. Now I can activate the spell without thinking about the details.” She waved the wand and a warm breeze drifted through the classroom. “Binding is useful for complex magic.”

Arie and Ean had no problems duplicating Rhona’s results, but other students weren’t as lucky. A girl made herself invisible somehow and couldn’t reappear, frightening others when she touched them for help. A small boy bound a weightless spell to his shoes and floated up to the ceiling when he tried to walk. And one girl bound a belching spell to another girl’s lips. Rhona patiently assisted them all, except the last girl, who was expelled from the classroom for coercion.

 

After class, Karl took them out for lunch at a small cafe on campus. He frowned when Ean told him about the classroom pranksters. “I’m surprised they gave kids access to coercive magic. Almost no one has access to that. Way too dangerous.”

After lunch, Karl suggested they try the games. He led them down over the rim and into the stadium. Like most Earth stadiums, it was a grassy field surrounded by rows of bleachers, cutting an oval out of the sky. Ean looked up as a bough from one of the giant Bazoola trees swayed far overhead.

At least thirty arena domes of various sizes were set up around the field. A few were gray like the testing arena, but most were highly transparent. Ean noticed the fae girl from class peering into one of the smaller domes.

“If you need to work on your skills, this is the place to be,” Karl said. “Most arenas are open here, so an audience can see and hear what happens inside. With the smaller remote domes, you stand outside and control avatars inside. But the larger domes are fully immersive and you fight your opponents inside. That’s where the champions compete.”

Ean took a step towards the four foot dome where the fae girl was playing. She stared into the dome, her hands waving from side to side, as a boy on Ean’s side did likewise. Inside, the dome was mess of smoke and explosions. The boy controlled a small dragon with a green aura that kept the explosions at bay. But a barrage of spiky projectiles zoomed in from behind, shrinking down its aura until it popped like a soap bubble. The exposed dragon fled to the other side of the dome, but it was too late. Several new projectiles found their mark and when the smoke cleared, the dragon was gone. The boy grumbled, but he shook the fae girl’s hand before walking off. Maya seemed bored and licked her paws.

Karl shook his head. “You won’t last long without a decent shield.” The fae girl looked up at Ean. Karl grinned. “I think she wants you to play.”

“Me?” Ean mouthed, pointing to himself. The girl nodded. He turned to Karl. “I don’t know. I’m not ready for this.”

“Don’t be such a big baby,” Arie scolded him. “You’re never ready for anything. Are you afraid of fairies?”

Karl raised an eyebrow. “The fae are naturally talented. He’ll probably lose.” He turned to Ean. “But so what? You have to start somewhere. C’mon, I’ll coach you.”

Ean couldn’t see a way out of it, so he stepped over to the dome. The fae girl smiled at him, but he didn’t think it was out of friendship. She wanted to crush him.

He smiled back. “Can I at least know your name?”

“I’m Trinn,” she replied, in her musical voice. “And you’re Ean. I hope you don’t mind if I…fixed your magic this morning.” Ean cringed. So she knew it was him. And now she would teach him a lesson.

Karl came to his side. He waved, and the dome landscape vanished. A wall appeared, separating Ean’s side from Trinn’s.

“First, you need to create an avatar. A character to identify you in the game.” Ean nodded. He could do that. He took a deep breath and focused. An six inch version of Nessie appeared on the dome floor, panting and looking up expectantly. Maya began to pay attention.

Arie clapped her hands. “Go Nessie.”

Karl burst out laughing. “Well…most players choose something more intimidating. But hey, whatever you’re comfortable with. Now you’ll want to build up a shield. Try to anticipate a variety of forces being thrown at the avatar–lightning, energy beams, explosives, whatever. Enable the shield to repel each one. Then pump up the shield with your energy and conviction.”

Ean concentrated and Nessie glowed deep blue. As he focused, the shield grew larger and turned green. It continued to grow until it was bright yellow and extended an inch around Nessie.

Karl’s eyes widened. “Excellent. Only white is better. You should also have an attack plan, but remember the old saying: everyone has a plan until they get hit. A lot of this is improvisation and adapting to circumstances.” He glanced at Trinn. “When you’re both engaged with your avatars, the game starts. The dome will pick the setting and the game ends when an avatar is destroyed. Good luck.”

The terrain on Ean’s side materialized into rocky hills with patches of trees and shrubs, and a pond near the center. He moved Nessie behind a rock as the dividing wall faded. Trinn’s avatar couched behind a steep hill–an ugly green witch, complete with broom and warts. The witch cackled and lobbed three orange fireballs. Ean watched as they circled once in the air and homed in on Nessie. Concentrating hard, he managed to turn them around in mid air, but they looped around again as Trinn’s influence overpowered him. He deflected two into the pond, where they steamed and died out. But the third headed straight for Nessie with the witch riding close behind on her broom. Nessie jumped aside as the fireball splashed on the rocks, but the witch landed, cutting off her escape. Ean decided to attack. Nessie pounced, her jaws locking around the witch’s throat for the kill. But the witch’s shield held. Blue lighting sparked from her fingertips, crackling all over Nessie. Ean watched helplessly as Nessie’s shield grew smaller and dimmer until she dropped to the ground and vanished. The game was over.

“Not bad,” Karl said. “You just need more practice.”

Trinn walked over and shook Ean’s hand. “A good first game.”

“Can I play you next?” Arie asked her.

“I have a class. But no one else is waiting. Why don’t you and Ean play?”

Ean wasn’t in the mood, but Arie insisted, so they started a new game while Karl watched. This time Ean chose a warrior avatar, equipped with deadly blades and metal armor in case his shield failed. The dome chose castle ruins for the setting. Unfortunately, he didn’t see Arie’s avatar until it was too late. Maya sprang at him from the shadows and jumped through his shield like it wasn’t there. He tried to electrocute her as Trinn had done to him, but Maya was unaffected by magic. Perching on his shoulder, she tore off his helmet and the game was over in seconds.

The real Maya had watched the game with interest, but now she yawned and resumed her people watching.

Ean threw his hands in the air. “How can you beat an avatar like that?”

“Without magic,” Karl replied. “You should have used the knife on your belt when she jumped you.”

Across from him, Arie beamed. “You did well, Ean. You just need to adapt better.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ean muttered under his breath. A twelve year old was patronizing him. He hadn’t done well at all. He’d lost two games in a row to little girls. How embarrassing was that? A masterful display of incompetence.

But Arie was right. He wasn’t ready…for anything. How could he be? He’d spent all his time with books and computers and hadn’t actually lived. What did he know about competition, real or simulated, magical or not? What did he know about life?

Karl slapped him on the back. “C’mon, let’s check out the big domes.” He led them to the far end of the field, where two domes were set up, each the size of small house. A battle raged in one of them, with smoke and rumbling explosions more realistic than the smaller domes. A woman in a blue jumpsuit leaned against a rock, catching her breath. Her yellow aura had shrunk down to a thin veneer.

“What happens if her shield fails?” Ean asked.

“Nothing,” Karl replied. “But if she’s about to be seriously hurt or killed, the dome will eject her. And if she’s ejected before her opponent, even by a millisecond, she loses.”

Inside the dome, a hideous, vaguely humanoid creature sprang from a cloud of smoke and seized the woman with powerful claws, locking her in a deadly embrace. The monster closed its slavering jaws around her neck. Ean thought she’d be ejected, but her shield suddenly grew larger and brighter until it exploded with a flash, shredding the monster into chunks of bloody flesh that oozed down the walls of the dome.

“Ew,” Arie said.

“Shields can also be used offensively,” Karl said. Ean had to agree. “But that was only a practice session. In a real match, the dome won’t stop explosions or anything else. The inside’s unlimited, or at least it seems that way.”

They watched several more games. Although he rarely competed, Karl was a big fan and chimed in on all the action. He knew most of the players and their fighting styles, and had followed Zaphan, who had dominated the games for years. But the afternoon faded and soon it was time for their happy hour with the Ravens.

 

Karl led them back up onto the plateau, past the Hairy Toad, to a building farther down the rim. Larger and more formal than the pub, it had a central hall with two wings on either side and a short wing in the back facing the city. In front was a garden, where groups of people chatted with each other. Architectural inconsistencies suggested that the house had been patched up and improved many times over the years, but it was still an impressive building.

“The Raven house,” Karl announced. “They have other places, but this is the oldest.” He led them up the front stairs into the lobby. A well-dressed woman greeted them and told them they were expected. She frowned at Maya but said nothing.

Karl took them aside. “Have a good time, but keep your guard up. I wouldn’t commit to anything.” He said goodbye and left.

The woman led them down a corridor and into a hall where a noisy party was underway. Tables were set up with food and drinks and people were talking and laughing. Ean had expected something like an exclusive frat party, but Fanteans of all kinds were in attendance–humans, elves, fairies, old women, and even children.

They helped themselves to drinks when Morgan walked up. He patted Ean’s shoulder and smiled, his unearthly eyes twinkling. “I see you’ve already found the goodies. Come, meet some of my friends.” He corralled them off to one side of the hall and introduced them to Tivolas, an elf friend of his, and to Lydia, an older woman who worked in the government. But then he joined another circle of friends, leaving Arie and Ean to fend for themselves.

Like Ean, Tivolas was not in a Guild. He seemed genuinely interested in Earth, but didn’t seem to grasp the concept of technology, or the idea of a world without magic. Ean explained how technology had to obey Earth’s immutable physical laws. But Tivolas argued that Fantean magic also obeyed the laws of Fantys, and if technology obeyed the will of a conscious being, it was magic, no matter what the underlying laws were. Well, then throwing a rock was magic, Ean argued. Yes it was, Tivolas agreed. At that point, Ean excused himself.

Lydia was a Raven and a dreadful gossip. Ean couldn’t stop her once she got started, and neither could Arie. Worse yet, she was a shameless fan of Zaphan. “Oh, Lewis had so much talent. Gosh, we haven’t had anything like him since Qwace. I don’t care what they say, Julian was no match for him on the field, and Robin was no match for his mind, especially after he…you know, tasted that fairy fruit. And Vonya, bless her heart, she can’t fill his shoes…”

Ean was about to wander off when Morgan returned with a smiling, elegantly-dressed woman in tow. Her ears were slightly pointed, but the rest of her seemed more exotic human than elf. She sized up Arie and Ean with hungry, intelligent eyes, which widened as Maya stepped out from behind Arie. Morgan introduced her as Izura, the new Raven Guild Master.

She shook both their hands. “Welcome to Raven House. Such a rare pleasure to meet people from Earth.” She glanced briefly at Ean, but her gaze lingered uncomfortably long over Arie. The introduction was cut short when she was mobbed by other Ravens, who pulled her off to the other side of the hall. But Morgan stayed behind and took Ean aside.

“So how’s it going? Do you like it here?”

“It’s fine. Everyone’s friendly and the drinks are great.”

Morgan seemed satisfied. “Good, good. Listen…there’s something I wanted to ask you. A small favor you can do for me.”

“Sure, what is it?”

“Well, as you may know, I’ve been seeing Dara for some time. We’ve had some rough patches recently. I’d hoped her elven relatives would help her see the traditional side of things. But ever since she returned from Mithe, she’s been…distant. Uninterested in me. Apparently she’s more interested in you. Now, I don’t know–“

Ean’s eyes flew open. “What? No, it’s not like that. Dara’s just a friend.”

Morgan nodded. “It may seem that way to you, but she’s infatuated. Trust me, I know her.” He shrugged. “Call it an elf thing. So I’m asking you for a small favor. I’d rather you didn’t give her any new ideas. Just avoid her completely for a while and keep our little conversation a secret. I’d be grateful. If you want, I can get you into the Ravens, no problem.”

What the…is he out of his mind? Ean shook his head. “I think you’re way off base. I only met Dara yesterday. Arie and I are a novelty because we’re from Earth.”

“But that’s precisely my point. She doesn’t need contact with other cultures right now, especially Earth. She needs the stability of her own kind.” He stared blankly at the floor. “I’m asking you nicely.”

Ean wondered how he knew what Dara needed. But Ean couldn’t avoid her. What would she think? What would Arie and Karl think? And Robin? And if he blabbed to anyone about this little encounter, he’d embarrass Dara and Morgan, as well as himself. He took a deep breath.

“I can’t do that. You’re putting me in a tough position. But I promise to keep this conversation private.” He tried to console Morgan. “Look…this will probably be fine in a week or two. Dara may just need time to figure things out for herself.” Unfortunately, it was the wrong thing to say.

Morgan’s expression slackened and his eyes hardened into ice. “I’m so disappointed to hear you say that.” He stared at the floor again, then walked off to join another group of friends.

Ean closed his eyes. What just happened here? He felt for Morgan. His girlfriend was slipping away. But there was no ‘infatuation.’ Morgan had invited him here for the sole purpose of asking him to stay away from a girl he’d only met yesterday–a girl from a race or species he’d rather not believe in anyway–and then bribed him with membership in a group he couldn’t be paid to join. For a moment, Ean shook his head, chuckling to himself. Then he sent out a mental note to whatever clowns were running this simulation: Nice one.

 

Dinner

 

The next several days passed quickly, with no sign of Morgan. Mornings were spent in classrooms learning the basics of magic and afternoons were spent in the stadium, practicing what they had learned. Ean finally won a few games, mostly by luck against inexperienced opponents. Both he and Arie began to appreciate how far behind they were, so they kept to the smaller, remote domes. Progress was slow, but their skills improved, and at least it took Ean’s mind off summer school.

Evenings were spent at the Toad with Karl and Dara. One night, gossip turned to the Council, and Dara filled everyone in on their personal lives. They were all single except for Julian, and even his marriage was in trouble. Helen was Council Lead before him and had a long affair, but never married. Robin married a powerful witch from one of the fairy worlds, but she left him. He wouldn’t talk about it. Vonya was the youngest and already divorced. Like most elves, she was logical, except for her taste in men. Udowan Cheng was a bit of a rogue, bouncing around several worlds before winding up in Fantys. He was a tough fighter, a decent musician, and preferred to be called by his surname.

“What about Nim?” Arie asked. “I never see her anymore.”

“Nim is Julian’s assistant,” Dara replied. “A hard worker. She’s been here awhile, but she came from one of the fairy worlds. There’s a rumor she ran out on a hot romance.”

“What about you, Karl?” Ean asked.

Karl leaned back. “Oh, I’ve had so many women.”

Dara snorted. “In your dreams.”

“No, I mean how did you end up here?”

“Robin found him in the gutter,” Dara said dryly.

Karl grimaced. “Yeah, but not just any gutter. Cambridge University. We attended the same philosophy lectures and we were both pretty strange people. One of us was an actual alien from another world.”

Arie frowned. “You were a philosophy student at Cambridge?”

“Yup. I’ve thoroughly explored that weird little corner of reality.”

“I can’t believe Robin went to Cambridge,” Ean said.

“He did time there. In fact, he spent months on Earth just to study it, and he’s done the same on other worlds. It’s a rite of passage in some of the Guilds.”

“But why did he take you back with him?” Arie asked.

“Well, obviously because of my charm and winning personality. Plus he needed an assistant, and my life needed…improvements.”

“Translation,” Dara said, “Karl was broke with no future and his parents had disowned him.”

Karl shrugged. “Yeah, that too.”

They spent the next afternoon practicing at the remote domes with Karl and Dara. Ean actually won a game against Karl, which lifted his spirits. Magic wasn’t intuitive yet, but he’d work on that and maybe soon he’d play in a big dome. They were about to leave when Morgan strolled by with a few friends.

“Dara,” he shook his head, eyeing the ground. “I don’t understand you. Why do you insist on associating with these people?”

Dara shot him a withering look. “I’ll associate with whom I please. Why do you insist on insulting my friends?

“You forget I know first hand how much trouble Earthers can be. Maybe that’s why they’re locked up in their world. But you’re different. High-born elven blood shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.”

“I don’t dismiss it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see other people. And I’m hardly pure elf. You know that.”

“You’re elven enough to think twice about associating with this dull Earth boy and his homely little sister.”

Arie let loose a stream of profanity Ean didn’t think she was capable of. Maya growled sharply.

Morgan wasn’t intimidated. “You see? Low born and crude. Can’t even control her temper.”

“Don’t call my sister names,” Ean said. “You…pompous, vainglorious twit.”

Morgan walked up to Ean and looked him in the eye. “Or what?”

Dara’s eyes flashed with anger. “Morgan, you’re acting like an ass.”

Morgan ignored her and nodded at the big gray dome to his left. “That dome’s available. Why not defend your sister’s honor? Show me how smart and capable you are, and what a…twit I am. Just you and me. No one will get hurt.” He sized Ean up. “Even someone as fragile as you.”

“Don’t take the bait,” Karl warned. “He’s way more experienced than you. Just ignore him.”

Morgan smiled. “Yes, ignore me. You can also ignore the looks you get when everyone knows you’re a coward. A reputation that will haunt you as long as you’re here.”

Morgan was probably right. People here took these games seriously. If Ean backed down from a direct challenge among witnesses, he’d be a coward forever in the eyes of Fantys. The weak Earth boy who let a bully walk all over his little sister. Sure, he was a novice. But was there any dishonor in losing to someone who wasn’t? At least he stood up for something. In fact, he had everything to gain and Morgan had everything to lose. And he’d finally get to play in a big dome.

“Alright, I accept. But it doesn’t matter if I win or lose. You’ll still be a twit.”

Morgan’s smile evaporated. “In you go, then.” With surprising strength and speed, he tossed Ean into the dome.

 

The trouble with these domes is that you never knew what to expect. Ean found himself high in the air, riding…a bird. A very large bird, about twenty feet long with an even longer wingspan–like a huge seagull, with thick, scaly feathers. He sat in a long saddle, holding on to reins fastened to the bird’s head. They flew in a narrow valley between two mountains, with rocky slopes below.

A gray, misshapen blimp floated off to Ean’s right, with a row of black birds perched across the top. Or at least it seemed like a blimp until it focused a saucer-like eye on Ean.

Something whistled over his head from the left. He turned to see Morgan on his bird, riding higher than Ean, his shield glowing green and his long hair streaming in the wind. Morgan fired again, this time too low. Ean put up a thin blue shield and returned a volley of weak fireballs, but they all went wide. It was difficult to hit a moving target, especially if you were also moving. That fact had probably saved him from Morgan.

Morgan turned inward, forcing him closer to the blimp-creature. Several black birds took off from the blimp, but Ean ignored them. Morgan fired a brilliant energy beam of some kind. It missed at first, but he used it to calibrate his aim, sweeping the beam in until it burned Ean’s shield away and lit up his mount’s tail and belly. But there was little damage to the bird’s tough feathers and Morgan’s shield was fading too. Firing a continuous stream of energy had depleted his reserves.

Above Ean, one of the black birds folded its wings and plunged downward, like a pelican diving for fish. Ean swerved in time and the bird missed, spreading its wings and leveling off below him. It was about four feet long with a razor-sharp beak.

Ean swore under his breath. These birds dropped out of the sky like death spikes. Were they protecting the blimp-creature?

Another black bird dropped down over Morgan at high speed, punching a hole in the wing of his mount. Morgan’s bird screeched and lost altitude, but he managed to steer it towards Ean. Ean yanked his reigns, but Morgan moved too fast. He held on tight when they collided and watched the injured bird tumble into the mountains.

But where was Morgan? He spun around. Morgan climbed steadily up the tail of his bird, his eyes fixed on Ean.

Ean desperately tried to summon up magic, but he had nothing left. Morgan probably didn’t either, or he would have fired on his unshielded body. He waited for Morgan to climb into the saddle and tackled him.

It wasn’t much of a fight. Morgan easily tossed him over the side. But Ean still hung on by saddle straps, his legs dangling in the air. Morgan kicked at his hands. He kicked again. One hand came loose. He kicked at the other hand. Again and again. Exhausted, Ean let go. The last thing he saw was Morgan smiling down at him with a spike-bird sticking through his chest.

Teetering on wobbly legs, Ean picked himself up from the stadium grass. Arie clapped, and Dara smiled. “Morgan’s furious.”

Karl shook his head in disbelief. “Oh man, you pulled that one out of your–“

“Ask anyone, that game was rigged,” Morgan whined, as his friends helped him to his feet. “Everyone knows I’m the winner. This isn’t over.”

“Yes, it is,” Robin said, stepping out from behind the dome. “You weren’t paying attention. You deserved to lose.” He softened. “Come on Morgan, you know better than that. Be a good sport and raise your game.” Morgan fumed, but he turned and left with his friends.

Robin patted Ean on the back. “Nice game. You stayed alive and that’s what counts.” He turned to the others. “How would you all like to join me for dinner tonight at my place? Cheng will be there, and possibly others. The more the merrier.”

They all said yes. Robin’s dinner would be a welcome break from the dining hall and the pub, and Ean was in the mood to celebrate, even if he didn’t deserve to. Sometimes the simulation went his way, if only by chance.

 

Robin’s house was halfway down into the city, next to small park with a pretty stream and an arched bridge. On the outside, it was an old townhouse with four levels, two chimneys, and an overgrown backyard. On the inside, it was much like Robin’s office–dusty, disorganized, and filled with strange artifacts. Old wooden beams lined the ceilings and unstable furniture leaned against the walls, most of it supporting stacks of books.

Ean arrived with Arie, Maya, and Karl. Maya wasted no time sprawling on the living room couch, as if she knew the place. Ean turned as laughter erupted from the dining room. Robin was seated at a long table across from Vonya and Cheng. A woman with curly hair and a round, jovial face sat beside him. Pitchers of dark ale were strategically placed around the table, and a central bowl overflowed with breads, veggies, and cheeses.

Robin beckoned. “Come in, we’re just warming up. I believe you’ve already met Vonya and Cheng.” He gestured to his left. “And this is Wilda, Queen of the Harpies.” Ean shot Karl a questioning glance.

“Harp Guild,” Karl whispered. “The Arts. Music, theater, stuff like that. Cheng’s one too.”

They took seats around the table. Robin filled Karl’s mug, and Ean’s too, but he only poured a little into Arie’s. “Careful with this stuff. It’s got some kick.”

Dara danced in from an adjoining room, carrying two steaming platters of food. It had to be magically prepared, but that didn’t stop it from smelling delicious. She set the platters down and curtsied.

“May the food be to your liking, honored guests of Robin Fairweather, the wisest man in all of Fantys.”

“Not after tonight,” Wilda said.

Dara sat next to Vonya while Cheng raised his mug. “To oblivion.” He took a long swig and everyone followed his example. .

The food tasted as delicious as it smelled. There were meaty nuggets glazed with sweet sauce, and patties filled with something like buttered rice. Mugs were refilled again and again, quenching thirsts and loosening tongues. The talk began with University gossip and Cheng made a lot of inside jokes Ean didn’t get. He assumed they kept it casual to avoid sensitive topics, but was proved wrong when the conversation took a different turn.

“Nim should be here.” Arie said. “She needs a rest.”

“I invited her,” Robin replied. “But she’s covering for Julian. He’s in Yaan today.”

“Can’t imagine what he’s there for,” said Cheng. He drained his ale and refilled.

Robin fingered his mug absently. “Yeah. Lewis is out of control. The Enli keep saying it’s our problem and Julian keeps trying to convince them otherwise.”

Vonya frowned. “He doesn’t show up in any of our worlds, or transfer logs. If he’s outside our jurisdiction, isn’t he their problem?”

“He doesn’t show up on their scans either, which includes a lot more worlds. So either he went farther out into Enna or he’s hiding under our noses. The later seems more likely.”

“There’s a rumor he built his own world,” Wilda said.

Robin shook his head. “We haven’t seen any new worlds or worldsmiths for millennia. Even if he built one, where would he hook it up? The Enna-level authorization is beyond us. Probably beyond the Enli too.”

“I don’t know.” Karl mused. “If he had access to the right code and knew what he was doing…”

“Two big if’s. Even if both were true, it’s probably still impossible. The worldsmiths used special utilities that don’t exist anymore.”

Ean’s ears perked up. He hadn’t come across this on the magical net. “What code are you talking about?”

“Worldcode,” Robin replied, sipping his ale. “The laws that define a world. Abstract spells set up ages ago by worldsmiths, and bound to an object called a seed. We maintain code for all our worlds, but we don’t really understand it. Neither does Lewis.”

Cheng turned to Ean. “We’re keepers of the code, so to speak. Worlds aren’t given access to their own. They’d mess it up.”

“But we have access to ours,” Vonya said. “The Enli trust us.”

“That was before we put Lewis on the Council.”

Outside, the wind picked up, bending trees and gusting around the house. A few drops of rain tapped loudly on the windows. Robin looked up. “Well, that’s unexpected. I didn’t hear about this.”

“I think a storm’s brewing,” Arie said.

“But storms are rare here,” said Dara. “And usually planned.”

The room darkened as angry gray clouds settled over the trees. Rain began to pelt the house in earnest, followed by a flash and a sharp crack of thunder.

“Sounds serious,” Wilda said. “Good thing we’re in a cozy house with lots of booze.”

The storm continued throughout the evening. Dara brought out more ale and chips while Cheng led Arie into the living room. He picked up a lute-like instrument next to the fireplace and played some amusing tunes, starting with a song about a farmer with magical animals who played tricks on him. Arie joined in, laughing as much as she sang. On the couch, Maya opened one eye, then turned over and slept again.

Ean’s curiosity was roused. He wanted to learn more about the worlds, and the ale made him bolder with questions.

“Karl, what did you mean when you said Earth is a deceptive world?”

Karl opened his mouth to answer, but gestured to Robin instead.

“All worlds are deceptive,” said Robin. “But especially Earth. You gaze up into the night and see millions of stars spilled out like glitter across the heavens. Your instruments reveal even more, and you begin to believe the stars are your destiny. So many new places await you, if only you could visit them. But you can’t, can you? There’s this annoying speed-of-light limit. How unfortunate.”

“I hate that limit,” Karl said ruefully. “Spoiled a lot of good science fiction for me.”

Robin sipped his ale and continued. “But what if all those points of light in the sky really are just points of light, until you actually go there? What if the world only expands where it needs to? Or wants to? Could you tell the difference?”

Ean’s eyes flew open. “You’re suggesting Earth is a fake? Like a virtual reality game where rooms are generated as you enter them? Or an arena dome that seems unlimited inside?”

“No, I’m suggesting all the worlds are fake. Well, fake is a strong word. They’re real enough, just smaller and more efficient than they appear. And you can’t see their true nature from the inside. Empirically discovered laws aren’t necessarily fundamental laws. In the case of Earth, maybe none are.”

“Virtual reality,” Vonya said slowly. “Lewis used that phrase. He believed the worlds were built from Earth-like technology.”

Robin smiled. “Some prefer to make reality fit their ideas, instead of the other way around. That has its advantages.” He shook his head. “But to me, the simulation hypothesis only defers problems to the next world up. It doesn’t solve any.”

“It solves one,” Karl said. “A sinful life can be edited.”

“We use historical plays for that,” said Wilda.

Ean grimaced. “It doesn’t make sense. Why make the universe look vast, if it’s not? Why show us places we can’t visit?”

Robin sighed. “Who knows what the worldsmiths had in mind. Aesthetics perhaps? Would you rather have an ugly wall around the solar system, always wondering what lay beyond it? Unreachable stars are prettier.”

“So the stars are a fancy screensaver?” Ean shook his head. “No, it still doesn’t work. Why so deceptive? Why make Earth’s universe look as if it evolved naturally on its own, without rhyme or reason, when it didn’t? If worldsmiths built it, they took great pains to hide that fact from its inhabitants.”

“Yes, they did.” Robin took a long draw from his mug and his speech began to slur. “Think about it. You simply appear in some vast, meaningless place, at a random time, in a random body, with no memory of anything and no idea why you’re there. There’s no real evidence of anything beyond this place. You might even come to believe this place all there is, or ever was. So what do you do? What do you value in the face of utter indifference, insignificance, and impermanence? How do you cope with absurdity, despair, love and hate, or any of the wild, magnificent, and horrifying things Earth throws at you? Who are you really?” He drained his mug. “Maybe someone wants to find out.”

“They could have just asked,” Karl said.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Robin countered.

Ean frowned. “I’d rather trust science. Testing and repeatable observation. That’s how you discover the truth.”

Robin shrugged. “A scientist might spend his whole life testing the world without realizing it was testing him back.”

“Interesting hypothesis,” Dara said. “But you’re assuming there’s another place where the results of such a test would be used. An afterlife? A place where you reunite with your relatives?”

Karl’s eyes widened. “Oh God, I hope not.”

“Afterlife,” Wilda mused. “What a strange word. Why not a beforelife?”

“Exactly,” Robin said. “What makes you so sure you’re not in an afterlife already? Because you can’t remember anything from before you were born? When I’m dreaming, I don’t remember the other dreams I’ve had.”

“That’s depressing,” Karl said. “Then you never see the big picture. I always thought of the afterlife as a clean white utopia where you wake up and they show you the contract you signed. Like the waiver you sign before they give you anesthesia in the hospital. Just to protect them from being sued.”

Wilda spit out a mouthful of ale. “Alright, that’s it. This conversation is officially out of control.”

Robin looked up, frowning. “I’d asked not to be disturbed, but it seems I’ve got a call anyway. Excuse me.” He got up and drifted out of the dining room, vacantly eyeing the floor.

Outside, the wind howled and rain attacked the house with renewed ferocity. Ceiling beams creaked and lightning flashed so brightly that Ean was momentarily blinded. He nearly jumped out of his skin when a thunder crack split the air and the whole house rumbled and shook.

Maya perked up and Cheng sprang to his feet. “Something’s wrong. This is no ordinary storm. Not for Valan.”

Robin stood in the hallway, his face pale. He shouted over the storm. “Listen up everyone. The ground’s unstable, as well as the atmospherics. Helen thinks we’ve been hacked. I don’t know how it was done, but I agree. She locked the Palace down and I’m doing a reset. It’s not safe here, so you all need to come with me. No time for discussion.” He stretched out his arms and everyone held on. In a second they were in a room Ean hadn’t seen before.

The chamber was dimly lit and oval-shaped and dimly-lit, with a domed ceiling supported by thick columns. It seemed very old. Decaying artwork decorated the walls and ceiling, perhaps from an age long gone. There were no windows, doors, or sounds of a storm. About twenty stone tables stood around the perimeter of the chamber, each supporting a small gray version of an arena dome. Robin walked up to one and waved it away, revealing a miniature Bazoola tree mounted on a circular base. He held his palm up to it, and a 3-D image of a black, hooded figure appeared beside him. It bowed.

“Welcome, Master Robin. I am your Guide. I have detected high-risk modifications. Would you like to review them?”

“No time. I need a reset. Quickly, now.”

The hooded figure held out a thin, delicate hand, on which an upright tablet appeared. The tablet was divided into many tiles with illuminated symbols. “Please select your options.” Robin tapped four or five tiles. “I must warn you this operation is irreversible. All custom modifications will be lost. Do you confirm?”

“Yes, yes. I confirm.”

“Will there be anything else?”

“No, just do it!”

The hooded figure froze. The chamber lighting flickered twice and went black. When the lights came on again, the hooded figure was gone and a dome had reappeared around the Bazoola tree.

Robin closed his eyes and sighed. “Let’s hope Valan’s still out there.”

“Oh, my,” said Wilda.

“Interesting,” Cheng said. “I’ve never seen that done before.”

“High-risk modifications?” Vonya asked. “We better talk about that.”

Robin nodded. “We’ll meet when Julian gets back, first thing tomorrow. I need to escort Arie, Ean, and Maya out of the Vault. Karl, pull up the Guide again and see what else you can find. I’ll be right back.”

 

Robin dropped them off at the Treehouse. Except for fallen branches and other debris, Valan seemed intact, but they’d wait until morning to assess the full extent of the damage.

“Don’t go out tonight,” Robin warned them. “Stay in your rooms until we sort this out.” He said goodbye and vanished.

The elf in the tree greeted them as usual, but this time he had a message. “A call is waiting for you both in Arie’s room.”

“A call?” Arie asked. “Who is it?” But the elf only shrugged.

Ean went with Arie and Maya up to her room. They searched her virtual cabin in the woods, but found no evidence of a call or a message, even on the magical net. Ean frowned. What were they supposed to look for? There weren’t any phones in Valan. Didn’t calls come inside your head? He was about to leave when there was a loud knock on the front door of the cabin. Maya growled. Arie paused for a moment, then calmly walked to the front door and opened it. A man stood there in a black jacket, tall and lanky, with a mop of black hair. His sharp eyes scanned Arie’s face and he nodded, as if he saw something in her.

“Little angel of Fantys. So nice to finally meet you, Arie.” Ean recognized him from the pictures. It was Lewis Zaphan.

 

Mistake

 

“I’m not little,” Arie snapped. “I’m twelve years old.”

“It’s all downhill from there, I’m afraid.” Zaphan stepped into the cabin as the door closed behind him. Maya took a swipe at him and his image flickered. He ignored her. “I suppose you’ve heard of me. I’m Lewis Zaphan.”

Ean stared at him. “We’ve heard of poisonous snakes too.”

“So quick to judge. But without me, you’d still be puttering around in your little sandbox, unaware of the playground around you. Perhaps it took a snake to draw you out.”

Ean hoped this snake couldn’t strike them in the Treehouse. “Yeah, you were doing us a favor. Protecting us from all those attackers and kidnappers.”

“I’ll get to that.” Zaphan turned to Arie. A brilliant light, like a welding torch, appeared on her bracelet. It circled around her wrist twice and vanished with a pop. He sighed. “Nothing, as expected. But still disappointing.”

Ean wondered how he could do that remotely. Maybe they weren’t safe anywhere. “So you chased Arie across Earth, Mithe, and now Fantys. For a bracelet?”

“A bit more than that.”

“Well, now you’ve seen for yourself,” Arie said. “I don’t have what you want.”

“But I think you do. Something quite rare and valuable. Almost unobtainable.”

Arie slumped. “So you’re kidnapping me…again?”

“Oh no, this is a friendly call. An introduction that should have happened weeks ago.” He hesitated. “You’re new to all this, so I wonder if you appreciate the significance of what you’re involved in. Something bigger than all of us. A chance to be of service to many, and to be truly free.” His eyes softened. “It was never my intention to harm you.”

Ean laughed. “You must think we’re stupid. What about the biker attack?”

“The what? Oh, dear. I hope you’re not stupid.” He frowned. “Haven’t they taught you anything about magic? Unlike technology, we specify what we want, not how it is to be done. Details are difficult to control, especially when remote. But you won’t be harmed if it goes against the will of the spellcaster.”

“Did you attack Valan today?” Arie asked.

“I haven’t attacked anyone yet. It was part test and part demonstration for our friends in the Palace.”

“Well, we could have been hurt. So could a lot of people.”

“A small risk for a necessary experiment, and the Council has been warned.” His eyes blazed with intensity. “Mark my words. A rebellion is brewing. Enna is rotten to the core, and some of us have noticed the stench. Ugly truths have surfaced and Fantys is one of them. No world should hold the keys to another. Not Fantys, or Yaan, or any of the so-called higher worlds.”

Ean had only been exposed to these ideas today. Worldcode still seemed far-fetched to his scientific mind and he hadn’t had time to consider all the implications. He didn’t know what to say.

“You’re right. We don’t know what we’re involved in. But you involved us, just like you’re involving other innocent people in your plans. Maybe they don’t share your views. Maybe they’re happy with the way things are.”

“Maybe they don’t know any better,” Zaphan snapped. “Or don’t wish to. Maybe they ride along on historical inertia and too much energy is required to change course. Or maybe they’re just timid, afraid to speak up. But some things are worth fighting for, so I’ll supply the knowledge, the energy, and the courage.” He leaned forward, his eyes searching Ean’s. “What about you, Ean? Do you dare disturb the multiverse?”

“Well, I…”

Arie answered for him. “We’re not good at politics. I don’t see how we can help you.”

“Forget politics and know what you stand for. What you have would be supremely helpful to me.” He turned back to Ean. “But I understand you have worthy gifts as well. Technical skills that exist only on Earth, and now you have some exposure to magic. Very few have both. Do you have any idea what they can do together? You could be the first worldsmith in thousands of years, and that’s only the beginning.”

Ean frowned. “You’re flattering me. Earth has many others more skilled than I am.”

“But they can’t leave, and you already have.” Zaphan’s eyes burned like blue flames. “Don’t you see? Together, we can build things Enna’s never seen. Perhaps even escape its bonds. Would you rather be a cubicle-bound slave of an Earth CEO? Or a nameless minion of the Enli? No, do what you were born to do.”

Zaphan’s grandiose offer tugged hard on Ean’s ego. But only for a moment. “Wait…you’re trying to recruit me? After repeatedly attacking my sister?”

“Don’t be a fool. I’ve already explained.” He took a deep breath. “Both of you have a lot to learn. Alright then, live in Valan for a while. Absorb what you can and consider my words. There will be other opportunities.” His image faded away and he was gone.

 

Back in his room, Ean pondered Zaphan’s call. What exactly was he involved in? He hadn’t ruled out a simulation, but that didn’t do him much good at the moment. Was he caught up in an ideological battle between worlds, or captivated by the ravings of a lunatic? Or worse, deceived by the lies of a criminal? Zaphan seemed intelligent, if a bit unhinged. Maybe he had a legitimate grievance. But it bothered Ean that he had fallen for Zaphan’s flattery. Maybe he was using Ean to get to Arie, and whatever he thought she had. He decided to call Robin, rather than wait.

“You were right not to trust him,” Robin said. “Most of us didn’t, in the end. Meet with us tomorrow in the Council room at sunrise, and bring Arie. Julian will be back.”

The Council was sitting around the table when they arrived the next morning. Julian motioned to Arie and Ean. “Have a seat. Robin already briefed us on the call, but I’d like to hear it in your own words.” Ean recounted Zaphan’s visit in detail, as best he could.

Helen frowned. “So…did you take the job?”

Robin answered for him. “He’s holding out for a better dental plan.” It got a few laughs.

“Alright, let’s get down to business,” said Julian. “Fallout from the attack is contained. Cleanup is in progress and going well. Thanks again Robin, for the reset.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “The Enli and I believe the attack was at least partially an inside job. No way it could have happened without access to the code, which Lewis doesn’t have anymore.”

“And the Guide confirmed that risky mods were made,” Vonya added.

“Yes. So we have one or more of his accomplices in our midst, as we’ve suspected. Nobody wants a witch hunt, but we need to find these people. We also need to enhance our security and limit access to the Vault. Vonya, can you handle it?”

“Certainly.”

Julian took a deep breath. “As you all know, I spent yesterday in Yaan. Once again, Lewis was the hot topic. The Enli still defer to us, but now they’ve at least got suggestions. They recommend we lure him into tipping his hand. Robin thinks he already has.”

Robin straightened up in his chair. “Possibly. It wasn’t easy, but we traced the call to Arie’s room through several relays, originating from a world registered as ‘Rhith’. I’ve never heard of it and I can’t find any references to it.”

“Could be a fake,” Cheng suggested. “Nothing on the other end. You know how Lewis loved illusions.”

“Yes, or it could be a trap. For we know, it leads straight into hell. We’d have to attempt a transfer to find out.” Robin stroked his chin. “I suppose we could send a tethered dummy through and have it report back.”

“Do it,” Julian said. “If it checks out, we’ll send a recon team.”

 

An hour later, Ean got a call from Karl. Robin wanted to see them in his office immediately. When he arrived, Karl was there, with Cheng and Nim.

Robin looked up from his desk. “Our dummy returned. Zaphan’s world is real and habitable, although…strange. No one’s home, so we’re going in before that changes.” He smiled. “You did well in Mithe, so we’d like you to go along.”

That seemed dangerous, but Ean needed to better understand Zaphan. A peek at his lair might be a good start. “Okay.”

“Any information you can bring back would be a plus. Don’t be a hero. Just make your observations and get out. There shouldn’t be any fighting, but of course it’s still risky.”

“Won’t he have some kind of security?”

“The dummy didn’t see any,” Cheng answered. “But our tethers will pull us out if it gets hairy.” He held up his wrist and pointed to a black wristband.

“Cheng and Nim are tough fighters,” Robin assured Ean. “And Cheng has the best magical nose of us all. You’re in good company.”

Karl raised an eyebrow. “He could still whoop us. If he pops in while we’re there…”

“He could take our tethers if we’re not quick enough,” Nim added.

“That’s why you need to go now,” Robin said. “No more gabbing.” He gestured to a pile of wristbands on his desk. “Take one, Ean. Activate it when you’re trouble. I can bring these back remotely if I have to, but don’t leave any behind.”

Ean slipped on a tether. Cheng stretched out his arm and they held on. In a moment, Robin faded to a point. Ean ricocheted through one tunnel, then another, and another, until the last one expanded into Rhith, Zaphan’s world.


Robin said this world would be strange, but it was more like a polluted mess. Above him, the sun glowed dimly through dense brown fog. Ahead was a rocky plain where metallic-crystalline structures shot hundreds of feet into the air, arced over, and hung down like giant fishhooks, swaying and groaning in the wind. Deep gashes ran on for hundreds of yards in the ground. On his left, a dirty orange lake splashed onto a beach, leaving a network of slimy ridges behind. Ean already missed his Fantean body. This one felt more like his body on Earth.

Karl wrinkled his nose at the hydrocarbon stench. “Whew. Hope it’s not me.” He surveyed the bleak landscape. “I like what he’s done with the place. A bit avant-garde, but beautiful, in an ugly sort of way.” Nim frowned at him. “I can’t feel Nim’s disapproval either, which is cool.”

“Obviously, he’s been experimenting,” Nim said. “Doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing, does it?”

“Where are we going?” Ean asked.

Cheng nodded up ahead, to the left. “The lake. There’s a small island with a fortress on it. Transfers are blocked up to a wide radius, so we came in here.”

Ean glimpsed a spiky black castle through the fog. As they walked along the dirty beach, he noticed something shadowing them a hundred yards off to the right–a floating egg with tentacles dangling almost to the ground.

“A sentry,” Cheng said. “You were right about security.”

“Should we go invisible?” Nim asked.

“No, it’s magical and would track us anyway. If it doesn’t bother us, ignore it. We won’t stay long.”

Further down the beach, they turned left onto a stone bridge leading up the to castle. The sentry still tracked them, but kept its distance. The fog had lifted somewhat, revealing hazy mountains around the perimeter of lake, a few with patches of green. At least Zaphan hadn’t completely wrecked his world. The castle looked new and sturdy, with black spires and thin castellated turrets soaring up into the fog. The massive front doors were unlocked.

They let themselves in and strolled into a long hall with dozens of holographic pictures lining the walls. A few were moving.

“Zaphan’s an art fan,” Ean remarked.

Cheng moved from one picture to the next. “No…these are gates to other worlds.”

Karl’s eyes flew open. “It’s grand central station in here. No wonder he’s not home.”

“I know some of these places.” Cheng nodded at a gate showing a sunset with two moons. “That’s Twiune. And the one with the castle–that’s in Mithe. And the one with soaring mountains is Paragon.” He frowned. “A world with gods. Highly restricted.”

“He set these up without authorization?” Nim asked.

“He must have set them up before he lost it. Some of these don’t even look like our worlds.” He motioned ahead. “Let’s go upstairs.” They crossed the hall and climbed a broad stairway at the rear. Ean glimpsed movement from the corner of his eye, but when he turned, the hall was empty. The stairs circled around and led into a long corridor with many doors. Cheng nodded at a door near the end.

“That’s it. Where he spends his time.” They followed Cheng down the hall to the door. He opened it, cautiously. “Look for anything that tells us what he’s up to.”

Ean wondered if Cheng had the right room. Large windows cast filtered light on Earth-like antiques, including an old four-poster bed, a highboy, and a few tasteful pictures. There was also a wooden desk with some parchment and a dark, transparent stone that looked a paperweight. Nim inspected the bed and walls while Karl rummaged through the highboy.

Cheng nodded at the desktop. “Ean, search the desk. And take that stone. It’s magical.” Ean grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket. He checked the desk drawers, but they were empty.

“Hey, look,” Karl chuckled, as he held back curtains and gazed out a window. “Zaphan put faces on those cliffs across the lake. Like Mount Rushmore on Earth.” Everyone joined him at the window. Ean could barely see through the shifting fog, but he caught a glimpse of the faces. Three of them. Two were unfamiliar, but his eyes widened at the third.

“What’s wrong, Ean?” Nim asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“It’s nothing,” Ean lied. “Just the fog playing tricks.” But he had seen a ghost. It was hard to believe, but one of the faces belonged to his long-dead mother. Could Zaphan have known her? Maybe he was seeing things. But if not…he needed to think about what this meant.

The window also gave them an elevated view of the tiny island. More of the egg-shaped sentries had gathered in the courtyard below. As Ean watched, one of them suddenly shot up, peering at him through the window with two saucer-like eyes. Startled, he stumbled backwards and collided with another sentry floating into the room. Sticky tentacles pinned his arms to his waist and the magic stone spun out of his pocket, clattering onto the floor.

“Get out of here,” Cheng shouted. “Use your tethers.”

Nim and Karl vanished, but the stone on the floor seemed to wink at Ean. How could he be so clumsy? It was probably important, and he would never forgive himself for leaving it here. He yanked one arm free of a tentacle, rubbing the tether off his wrist in the process. It dropped to the floor, inches away from the stone.

“What are you doing?” Cheng yelled. He hurried over to Ean. The tentacles tightened. Ean fought hard to reach the tether, and made a fateful choice. He picked up the stone instead.

As he strained again for the tether, Zaphan rushed through the doorway, his eyes on fire. He raised his arm, but Cheng touched the sentry first. The room shrank to a dot and Ean was whisked through the tunnels back into Robin’s office, with the sentry still gripping him. It thrashed around, making the office a bigger mess than it already was. Cheng finally immobilized it and pried Ean loose.

Ean gave Robin the stone and Cheng briefed him on the mission. Robin tried to recall the lost tether, but it wouldn’t come back. His face turned to ash.

“Ean, you should have used the tether when you were told. That’s your fault. But it didn’t return when called. That’s mine. I can only assume Lewis blocked it somehow and it’s in his possession.” He held his forehead in his palm. “This is a huge security hole, not only for Arie and you, but for all of Fantys. Obviously, the Council has to know.”

Ean hung his head. “I understand.”

 

Valan was still a mess from Zaphan’s weather attack, but efforts to restore it were underway. People gathered throughout the city to clean up rubble and repair damaged houses and streets. Ean tried to help, but soon found his meager gaming skills were of little use in carving stone blocks and wood beams, or lifting them into the air, or assembling them into useful, aesthetic structures. Others were far more skilled. They’d started at a younger age and magic was second nature to them. But he’d only been here a week, and there were practical and creative sides to magic he hadn’t explored.

He wandered aimlessly, trying to forget the glaring mistake he’d made, and found himself alone in a garden near the Treehouse. Signs of the attack were everywhere. Climbing plants were stripped from their trellises, and tree branches and leaves were scattered across the grass. He tried gathering the larger branches into a pile. Magic moved them only with great effort. But his weak magic could move leaves almost as good as a leaf blower.

“What are you doing, Ean?” He swung around to find Dara watching him in amusement.

“Just trying to make myself useful. Maybe improve my magic.”

“There’s more to magic than moving objects.” Dara raised her hand. The leaves began to swirl, reattaching to fallen branches. One by one, the branches lifted and joined to the tree above, like a movie playing in reverse. When she turned to the climbing plants, leaves sprouted and flowers bloomed, as they had before the attack.

Ean was impressed. “On Earth, that would be a reversal of entropy.”

Dara frowned. “Such an impersonal word. The tree was in pain. I healed it. If someone had cut off your fingers, would you rather have them swept into a pile, or reattached?”

Ean laughed nervously. “Well, if you put it that way.” He plopped down onto a bench beside a cobblestone walkway. “It’s just that…in my world, plants and trees don’t feel anything. At least that’s what we assume. Feelings can’t be observed. Not like here.”

Dara sat down beside him. “So you guess? Earth sounds like a lonely place, if the only feelings are your own.”

Ean sighed. “It is. We try to imagine what others feel, in our own minds. Our imagination keeps us company, even when it’s wrong.” He shook his head. “But actual feelings are hidden. Maybe that’s for the best.”

“How so? If you feel the pain of others, you won’t hurt them. Isn’t empathy the root of morality?”

“I guess it is. We do have empathy, based on what we think others feel or what they say they feel. But what they actually feel? That’s…not part of the observable world.” He lowered his eyes. “I think the truth would be a shock. There’s so much suffering and hatred on Earth. So much fear and greed. It’s built into the system, I think.” He faced Dara. “Should I blame the worldsmiths?”

“You could, but you’d have to blame them for all the worlds. Even in Emrys, we fight, suffer, and die.” Dara paused, a faraway look in her eyes. “Robin says Earth is more experimental than the others. The strict laws are a blessing, and the absence of magic a curse. But each life there is an experiment and everyone’s fighting a desperate battle. One they know they’ll eventually lose.”

Ean grimaced. “That’s just…ghastly. Robin spoke of a test, and you speak of morality. Is it ethical to experiment with the lives of others?”

“It can be, if they agree to it beforehand.” Dara slapped Ean’s knee. “Didn’t you sign a contract, like Karl said?”

“I guess I missed that.”

“Hmm. Do you miss Earth?”

Ean stared at the cobblestones. “A little. I have good memories of my family, but most of them are gone. Arie and Uncle Harry are the only ones left.” He managed a wry smile. “They said Arie would be safer here.” He turned to Dara. “You’re from Emrys?”

Dara nodded. “My father’s an elven emissary–the nobility Morgan raves about. My mother is Robin’s sister. I’ve lived here on and off, but they sent me here for safekeeping after Zaphan’s influence spread into Emrys.” She smiled. “He displaced us both. I guess we’re Fanteans now.”

“We could do a lot worse. I wonder sometimes though, if we’re the good guys or the bad guys. Zaphan was a Fantean once–even a member of the Council. He thinks we’re part of an authoritarian system that’s rotten to the core.”

Dara frowned. “It’s only authoritarian because he can’t dismantle it. Zaphan’s an anarchist. He doesn’t care about the people he claims to represent. He’s just using them to flex his muscles and draw attention to himself. To be a thorn in the side of the Council, and the Enli.”

“I’m sure that’s all true. But maybe he has a point. Enna’s not a democracy. The worlds don’t even control their own code. I don’t understand it all yet, but there seems to be a vast hierarchy of worlds, and places like Earth and Emrys are at the bottom of the heap. What’s up with that?” He shook his head. “It’s even worse than the medieval chain of being on Earth, where we were below the angels but above the animals. At least then we were in the middle of the pack. Now I see we’ve been demoted.”

Dara burst out laughing. “So it’s about your bruised ego? That’s not enough to make us the bad guys. I’m sure there are good reasons for the hierarchy. Zaphan’s a child, complaining that adults rule the world.”

“Yes, but they’re creepy hooded adults we never see, who keep us walled off from everything. Kinda like…I don’t know, prison guards?”

Dara cocked her head. “Are you calling me a criminal?”

Ean’s eyes widened. “No! I mean…”

“So we’re thugs and animals who aren’t ready for advanced societies, and the Enli locked us out?”

“Well, I don’t know. What should we think?” Ean shrugged. “Maybe there’s a dress code.”

Dara smiled. “People from Earth and Emrys can’t come here without approval. Does that mean our culture is more advanced? Hardly. Fantys is a small administrative world. It’s about maintenance and handling special situations.”

“Then what’s a ‘higher world’? It can’t just mean where your worldcode is. Fantys keeps its own and Yaan is still higher.”

Dara was silent for moment. “I’ll have to ask Robin.”

 

Dara left and Ean was still cleaning up, when he noticed the brightly-colored Mocklebird perched on a branch. He turned his back on it, hoping it would go away. But of course, it didn’t.

“Busy week, wasn’t it? A jealous elf, an attack on Valan, and a dismally stupid mistake. On the plus side, your shirt’s cleaner.”

Ean scowled at the annoying bird. “I’m not in the mood, okay? Now’s a bad time.”

“Now’s the only time. You’re living off the fumes of the future, but the future is eaten by the past. The present is always here and always real.”

“Well, I know I’m real. Maybe you’re just the voice of this pointless simulation.”

“You used to believe the world was real and the soul was fake. So now it’s the other way around?”

Ean glared at the bird. “This world is cleverly designed to torture me.”

“And Earth wasn’t? You hid behind a wall of geekery you could control. But Earth would have torn it down eventually.”

“Is that so? What should I be then? A salesman? A game show host? A telephone sanitizer?” Ean shook his head. “Too bad if I’m a geek. I make no apologies for my existence.”

“None is requested.” The bird studied Ean. “Programming suits you. Programmers are flunky magicians, you know. To them, the how is more important than the what.”

Ean’s eyes narrowed. “How do you tell the difference?”

“See what I mean?” The bird ruffled its feathers and flew off.

Ean angrily threw down the branch he was carrying. He knew what the problem was. He should have been in summer school by now, blissfully unaware of elves, tethers, and smartass birds. He just didn’t know how to solve it. The only thing he could think of was shuffling back to the Treehouse and feeling miserable, which is exactly what he did.

 

Expelled

 

Classes finished early the next morning, so Arie and Ean went to the stadium for practice. Arie got a game with Trinn, while Ean watched. He was absorbed in the game when Robin appeared out of nowhere, beckoning to him. They stepped into a circle and Ean braced himself. Here it comes. We’re going in front of the Council and it won’t be pretty. But when he blinked, they were back inside the Vault. Karl sat in front of the Guide for Fantys, punching tiles and navigating menus.

“Maybe you two can put your heads together,” Robin said. “Zaphan’s gates have me worried. Gates are the usual way to move between worlds, when you don’t have special authorization or tethers. Some worlds are wired that way. We had them once, but we couldn’t control who or what came in, so we took them down. If new gates have popped up, it’s a big security problem. See if you can find anything.”

Robin gave Ean access and Karl showed Ean how to search, when Vonya suddenly appeared in the chamber. She approached Robin, frowning at Ean. “You gave him access to code?”

“Temporary access,” Robin replied. “He has an aptitude for this sort of thing, and I thought–“

“Julian put me in charge of security and the investigation. We’re supposed to limit access, not give it away. It’s also a bad idea to disturb the scene of a crime.”

“We’re not changing anything. Just making sure Lewis didn’t set up any gates.”

“Hmm. I checked the logs earlier. They’ve been erased.”

“Yes, a reset does that. It couldn’t be helped.”

“I also obtained a list of everyone with access to the Vault and the code. It’s longer than I thought. I would question why some need access at all. Dara, for instance.”

“Well, we did a project together once and–“

“I interviewed many on that list. They all seem to have alibis, as we do, having been at your dinner during the attack. But then I discovered it’s possible to schedule code changes for automatic update.”

“Yes, I should have mentioned that.”

“So the alibis are useless.” She turned to Ean. “Lewis is responsible for you being here. You were also a coder on Earth, and you gave up a tether to him yesterday.” Her eyes hardened into ice. “Some have suggested you may be his accomplice, and you’re here under false pretenses.”

Robin’s eyes widened. “Now hold on–“

“That’s absurd,” Ean said. “Why would I help him when he’s attacking my sister?”

“Is that proven beyond a doubt? The appearance of it would be an excellent cover for you.”

Robin frowned. “It’s proven as far as I’m concerned.”

“Besides,” Ean protested. “I didn’t have access to this chamber or the Guide, until Robin gave me access just now.”

“But you have friends who do. Which brings me back to Dara. Morgan says she’s suddenly fascinated with Earth people.”

Ean’s sighed. So Morgan was behind this. He was a Raven after all, and more cunning than Ean thought. He would never get over Dara or the game he should have won. And now he was doing his best to trash Ean’s reputation. Not that Ean hadn’t done his best already.

“Dara’s just friendly and curious. And Morgan’s too protective for his own good.”

“What about Karl here? Another one of your friends who has full access, and the only Earther who does. He was an admirer of Lewis, wasn’t he?”

Robin shook his head. “Karl’s a big sports fan, and Lewis was the best champion we’ve had in years. Of course he admired Lewis. We all did. Remember what Julian said about not turning this into a witch hunt?”

“Julian also said we have an accomplice, so I need to check everything.” She paused, as if reviewing her mental notes. “Cheng has a cloudy past he’s not especially forthcoming about, but I can’t find a motive. Same for Nim and Helen. That brings me to Julian himself. He was a good friend of Lewis for a long time, and like Lewis, he seems to resent the Enli. Do you have any comments?”

“I do. Julian’s been good friends with me even longer. Since childhood, in fact. He’s always been a straight arrow. Sure, he complains about the Enli, but so did Helen. That’s as far as it goes.”

Vonya nodded. “Thank you,” She walked to a circle at the edge of the chamber and disappeared.

“Wow,” Karl said. “She’s a ballbuster.”

Robin took a deep breath. “Maybe that’s what we need.” He turned to Ean. “I wouldn’t feel too bad about the tether yet. I haven’t finished examining the stone, but it documents important plans and contacts. Lewis will not be happy about losing it.”

 

Karl showed Ean around the Guide, explaining features as well as he knew them. Ean picked it up quickly. They searched in several ways, but found no evidence of gates in Fantys. Robin had gone, so Karl transferred Ean to the Toad for lunch. Arie and Dara were already there, with Maya snoozing on a nearby chair.

Arie beamed. “You missed a terrific game. I finally beat Trinn.”

“At least one of us is having a good day,” Ean grumbled.

“Not for long,” Karl said, as Morgan walked through the door. He spotted them and sauntered over to their table, more smug than usual. Arie’s cheer melted away.

“Hello, Dara,” Morgan said, nodding. “Always a pleasure.”

Ean sipped his ale. “Not for us.”

Morgan ignored him. “But perhaps you’re not aware that you’re sitting with a suspected traitor and saboteur. Your Earth friend was foolishly selected for a recon mission yesterday, where he promptly surrendered his return tether to our enemy. Now we’re all in great danger. He’s also a prime suspect in the attack on our world two days ago.” Arie and Dara turned to Ean in surprise.

Ean snorted. “What a ridiculous distortion of–“

“Is it? Then I suggest you take it up with Vonya. She’s in charge of the investigation, and those are her suspicions.”

“Which you were only too happy to plant in her head.”

“She can think for herself, or she wouldn’t be on the Council.” Morgan leaned over the table, his unearthly eyes drilling into Ean’s. “You see, we’re familiar with your kind. We know all about your treachery and deceit. You can’t fool Vonya or me.” He stood up, nodded at Dara, and left.

Dara searched Ean’s face. “What was that all about?”

Ean lowered his eyes. “Oh, I made a dumb mistake and Morgan’s taking advantage of it.” He described the recon mission and the lost tether. “Vonya must have heard about it from the Council and told Morgan. So Morgan saw an opportunity to further poison her against me. He even suggested that you or Karl got me into the Vault to hack the code for Fantys. But he’ll probably deny it.”

“No one will believe that,” Karl said.

Dara eyed her mug. “I’m sorry I put you through this.”

Ean shook his head. “It’s not your fault.”

“Morgan had it in for us anyway,” Karl said. “He was never fond of Earth people.”

Ean wiped ale foam from his mouth. “And I gave him lots of ammunition with the tether mistake.”

“Yeah,” Arie agreed. “That was pretty dumb.” Ean stared at her. Good thing he could always count on his sister for support.

Dara sat up. “We should take our minds off this. Why don’t we get out of Valan this afternoon? Let’s hike up to the Cymena tree.”

“They discourage us from going up there,” Karl said.

“It’s safe. As long as we stay clear of the Mistywood.”

 

The hike began behind the University, under the immense Bazoola trees. Beyond them were smaller trees–still huge–and a few cottages occupied by University faculty. But within minutes they crossed over into an elven community, with houses and walkways high in the trees. Dara said that Morgan had been raised there. She chatted briefly with a few elves before they resumed their trek into the forest.

The broad walkway soon shrank into a narrow path, which meandered down into a gully and across a woodland stream where Maya stopped to drink and wash her face. After a short climb and a few more turns, they stepped out into a meadow of long grass and wildflowers. A mountain loomed over them, which could not be seen from the park. On the far side of the meadow, the forest looked oddly hazy and indistinct, shimmering like a mirage. The mountain also shimmered when seen through its edges–hence the name Mount Mirage. Immediately in front of the woods stood an old sprawling tree, like the enchanted tree Nim had found in Mithe.

Dara smiled. “A Cymena tree. The only one in Fantys. It’s roots join with other trees here, and similar trees in other worlds. Some roots also extend into the Mistywood–a place of dreams, where the boundaries between worlds are thin.”

Ean backed off as hand-like tendrils of mist reached out from the woods.

“Definitely don’t go in there,” Karl warned him. “Unless you don’t want to come out.”

“Come on, let’s take a closer look.” Dara said. She led them underneath the old tree, its massive trunk creaking as it swayed in the breeze. Maya circled the tree once and curled up between two tree roots, as if she’d found the most comfortable spot in the world. Ean felt a tap on his shoulder and looked up. A tree branch had descended to caress his arm.

“Hey…this tree’s a little too friendly.”

“Don’t be alarmed,” Dara said. “It chose you out of all of us. Let it talk to you.”

The branch began to probe Ean, circling his arms and sliding down the inside of his thigh. He winced. “But…it’s taking liberties.”

Arie rolled her eyes. “Don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud. It’s not going to molest you.” She turned to Dara. “Is it?” Dara shrugged.

Ean let the tree touch him. One branch slithered down his back, while another circled his neck. In seconds, it sealed off his head and torso as the outside world faded away. But a new world opened up inside.

He was a little boy again with Mom and Dad, in a strange, brightly-colored land where flowers sang to him and a gentle breeze whispered in his ear. Dad tossed him in the air, while Mom leaned back in the grass and laughed. But the colors faded and his parents disappeared. Dark clouds gathered and humid winds licked his neck like hot flames. A violent storm scattered debris everywhere as a face coalesced out of the gloom. Zaphan. Ean couldn’t escape his penetrating eyes. Again and again he turned, but Zaphan always loomed in front. They circled one another, closer and closer, until Zaphan’s face merged with his own.

“No!” Ean gasped, opening his eyes.

Karl helped him stand up. “That…almost looked like fun. What did the tree say?”

“It was like a dream,” Ean mumbled. “Or a nightmare. I couldn’t get away from Zaphan.”

“Cymena visions are personal,” Dara said. “And you can be sure it spoke with another tree before it showed you what it did.”

Karl nodded. “A second opinion. Very professional.”

Ean was quiet on the way back. He was no dream analyst, but the tree had probably showed him his own innocence and how Zaphan had come along and wrecked it. Not exactly a revelation. But if the tree was supposed to take his mind off the tether, it had failed. And the end of the vision was a non-sequitur. He had no intention of becoming like Zaphan.

As they re-entered the park, an impossibly loud shriek ripped through the air, shaking Ean down to his bones. Everyone clasped their ears as Maya dashed to Arie’s side. The siren only lasted a few seconds.

“What was that?” Arie shouted, still holding her ears.

“Some kind of alarm,” Dara replied, looking around anxiously. “I’ve never heard it before.”

“Kinda hard to miss,” said Karl.

Nim suddenly appeared beside Arie, not using a transfer circle. “Everyone okay?” They nodded as another siren blast went off. Julian and Robin materialized beside Nim.

“Incredible,” Julian exclaimed. “We’ve got an actual defense alarm, priority one. What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Nim said. She glanced around the park. Most people were transferring out. A few searched the sky. Nim followed their lead, her eyes sweeping over the city. She pointed towards the mountains. “There.” Everyone strained to look. With his excellent Fantean vision, Ean glimpsed two black specs approaching Valan. In seconds, they were two black specs with flapping wings.

Julian frowned. “Dragons? In Fantys?”

“I think so,” Nim said. “But where did they come from? Mithe?”

“Has to be Lewis,” Robin said. “Retaliation for the recon mission. That stone had sensitive information.” He frowned. “Could he really transfer in a pair of dragons? With a tether?”

Nim squinted. “Maybe you can ask him. Hard to believe, but…I think that’s him riding Droog. And Shandra on Dremnel.”

Julian’s eyes flew open. “Is he out of his mind? Such a desperate move. What does he hope to accomplish?”

“Mayhem,” Robin replied somberly. “He’s angry and could do a lot of damage. He may also go after Arie.”

Nim suggested that Arie and Maya would be safer in the Vault, for now. Julian agreed, and Dara transferred them out.

Robin glanced around the park. “We’re not ready for this.”

“Then we better get ready,” said Julian. He paced, staring the ground. After a moment, he looked up. “Most government buildings are stone, except for the Treehouse. It’s vulnerable and irreplaceable, and Lewis may believe Arie’s inside. We need to put a shield around it. I’ll get Cheng and Vonya on it.” He glanced at the approaching dragons. “Robin, take Karl and round up our arena champions. Station them around the city. This is what they’ve been training for. Nim, find anyone you can to assist you and join Cheng and Vonya at the Treehouse. Let’s get that shield as strong as possible. I’ll join you shortly, but I need to see Helen first.” He vanished.

“I can help with the shield,” Ean offered.

Nim sized him up. “Sure, why not?”

A thin blue aura shimmered over the Treehouse when they arrived. Vonya and Cheng stood off to the side, pumping energy into it as if pumping air into a large balloon. Nim and Ean joined in, along with a few Treehouse residents. The aura grew steadily larger and brighter, first glowing green, then yellow. With the shield up, Cheng and Vonya transferred out to join Robin.

It wasn’t long before both dragons circled over the city, screeching and trailing wisps of black smoke. Droog was the larger of the two, maybe even more massive than he was in Mithe. Periodically, they’d swoop down and spew fire on buildings and malls. In response, projectiles and lightning bolts sprang up from the city like anti-aircraft fire. But they were useless against tough dragon scales.

As if tired of playing games, Droog dipped low and cruised over the city. He spat torrents of flame left and right, setting fire to an entire city block and leaving a trail of smoking rubble in his wake. Rising up, he smashed into a thin spire at the city’s edge, knocking half of it to the ground in a cloud of dust. But he recovered quickly and banked around in a wide arc, with Zaphan clinging to his neck. Climbing rapidly, he flapped towards the park, zigzagging as he drew intense fire from Robin and his champions.

Ean cringed. Was all this his doing? He’d enraged Zaphan by taking the stone, and given him the means to retaliate by leaving the tether behind. Wrong choice. Now Valan was suffering the consequences. He wished Zaphan would just take him and spare the city.

But Dremnel was the more immediate threat. She dropped like stone from her holding pattern with Shandra whooping and screaming on her back. Her jaws gaped and fire poured out like water, flowing over one side of the Treehouse and charring a perfectly good walkway. The Treehouse shield rippled and held, but Ean recoiled from the heat.

Dremnel circled around and climbed higher, looking from side to side. “Droog, you lazy… Must I do everything?” She dove in again, spitting out another stream of dragonfire. But Nim held her palms up, and the pillar of flame braked in mid-air, just short of the Treehouse.

The rest happened quickly. Eight or nine fire elementals appeared in the dragonfire, laughing and dancing around the periphery. Whirling upwards in a frenzy, they gained energy as they consumed the flames behind them, until they exploded with a flash in Dremnel’s mouth. Her head snapped back as she choked and gasped, almost dislodging Shandra. Shandra barked out commands, but Dremnel wouldn’t listen. Instead, she flew off towards the mountains, coughing and cursing at Droog.

Droog flapped down in front of Nim, roaring with laughter. “True artistry, I must admit. I’d spare your life for that, but…” He glanced back at Zaphan and shrugged. “I’m contractually obligated.”

Before she could answer, he poured out his own river of fire–a withering blast completely enveloping Nim. Barely visible in the flames, her shield eroded quickly under intense heat that seared Ean’s face from thirty feet away. His heart sank as the seconds ticked away. No one could survive in that hell for long. Ean lobbed fireballs to distract the Droog, but something else had the dragon’s attention.

The flames trailed off. Droog fidgeted as he stared at Nim in disbelief. “Did you… No, you couldn’t. You wouldn’t.” Nim crossed her arms. “Yes, I suppose you would. Oh, that’s a dirty trick.” He reached behind to scratch his neck, and then his back, dumping Zaphan onto the ground in the process. Scales clacked as he scratched with renewed vigor, and the ground shook as he pranced and bellowed. “Oh dear. Oh my. What a rotten thing to do to a dragon.”

Nim shrugged. “Valan has a lot of bugs this time of year. You should have planned ahead.” Droog’s scratching grew even more frenzied, until he leapt into the air, screeched, and flew straight for the lake.

Zaphan got up looking thoroughly disgusted, his aura glowing radiant white. Ignoring everyone, he stormed up to the Treehouse and stepped into the circle. The elf in the tree shook its head, refusing him entry. It screamed when he blasted it with lightning, but the Treehouse shield held.

Julian appeared behind him, his shield also brilliant white. “You’re wasting your time, Lewis.”

Zaphan turned, his eyes smoldering. “We’re all wasting our time.” Black smoke poured from his hands, engulfing Julian and eating away at his shield like acid. But Julian winked out and transferred a short distance to the left, where he touched Zaphan’s shield, siphoning off energy onto his own. Zaphan quickly transferred out of reach and fired a series of concentric shock waves, forcing Julian backwards as a swarm of projectiles erupted from his fingertips. Back and forth they dueled, exchanging fire and skipping across the park, too fast for Ean’s eyes to follow.

But finally, Zaphan had Julian pinned by a field of magic in the form of a wrestler, its muscular arms wrapped tightly around his chest.

“You were always weaker, Julian.” Lightning flickered from Julian’s fingertips, only to be absorbed by the wrestler as it grew even more muscular. “And dumber.” Zaphan raised his hand for the kill. But he’d misjudged Julian’s reserves, while his own were invested in the wrestler.

Robin suddenly appeared, startling Zaphan. Julian seized the opportunity to transfer out of the wrestler’s grasp. With his magic now spent, he threw a flurry of punches. Each punch threw a shower of sparks, dimming Zaphan’s shield until the blows landed on his body. The wrestler vanished and Zaphan collapsed onto the ground, his shield flickering on and off. Julian stood over him.

“But timing is everything, Lewis.” Robin, Nim, and Ean ran over to join him. “And you were always outnumbered.”

Zaphan got up on his elbows and laughed. “Well, that was fun. Just like old times.” His smile faded. “But things are about to get more serious. You’ll have to ask yourselves some difficult questions, like…why are we doing this? And more to the point…are we on the wrong side of right and wrong? I hope you’ll have the right answers.” He turned his head, and for a moment his eyes met Ean’s. Then he was gone.

 

No one knew what happened to the dragons, or Shandra, or Zaphan, but the attack had been repelled and relief was palpable. Once again, clean up crews began the job of restoring the city.

Arie and Ean were summoned to the Council room before dinner. Ean wasn’t expecting a pleasant meeting. After all, he had supplied Zaphan with the means to attack Valan. But when they arrived, only Julian was there, reading at the table.

He stood up and greeted them warmly. “I trust you’re in good health? No dragon bites or anything?”

“We’re fine, thanks.” Arie said. They all took seats at the table.

Julian stared off into space. “When you first arrived here, you asked me if the attacks on you were connected with your father’s disappearance. I said we’d look into it.” He hesitated. “We weren’t sure how much to tell you. But the truth is, we knew your father. He spent time here, and in other worlds.”

Ean nodded. “I suspected that. How else could Arie’s bracelet have magical bindings?”

“Indeed. I doubt he ever expected it to be so carefully examined.”

“You should have told us sooner,” Arie said.

“Well, our silence was partly out of respect for your father. If he didn’t tell you himself…”

Arie nodded. “So why was he here?”

“It was our fault. It all began years ago, when Ewan was a student at Cambridge. He found a tether strip in a bathroom, left by one of our agents on a previous mission. Somehow, he activated it and appeared here in Valan. We weren’t sure what to do with him, but he had a good aptitude for magic, so we trained him as an agent. It allowed him to travel between Earth and other worlds, which fascinated him. And we got an Earth liaison.”

“You knew him personally?” Ean asked.

“Oh, yes. We both studied under Qwace, our best teacher at the time. He did well here and seemed happy. But he loved your mother, Catrin, and she wanted to marry and live a normal life on Earth. So he left us, but not before recommending someone to replace him. A brilliant friend from school, with few family ties who wouldn’t miss Earth. A young Lewis Zaphan.”

Ean’s eyes flew open. “Zaphan’s from Earth? No one mentioned that.”

Julian frowned. “They probably assumed you knew.”

“Ean’s a little slow sometimes,” Arie said.

Ean shot her a dirty look. So Zaphan knew Dad. That would partially explain the cliff he’d seen in Rhith. But other questions remained.

“Zaphan never said anything about Dad. Did he know he was trying to kidnap his friend’s daughter?”

“It would be a remarkable coincidence if he didn’t. But anyway, Lewis was smart and talented. He rose quickly through the ranks here, eventually sitting on the High Council. Your father got on with his life on Earth. When your mother died, he moved near his brother, working as an intelligence agent in Washington DC. He still did small jobs for us, but they trailed off. We hadn’t seen him in years, and then we learned he disappeared weeks ago, only a few months after Lewis left us. Another coincidence.”

“Dad wouldn’t leave us for Zaphan,” Arie said. “And he’d never let Zaphan attack me.”

“We think so too. No one’s seen them together, although we assume your father kept in touch with his old friend. Could there have been foul play? Maybe, except…your father was last seen by Qwace, our old teacher. Qwace believes he traveled deeper into Enna and ran into trouble.”

Ean shuffled his feet. “That’s all good to know, but none of it explains the attacks on Arie.”

“Well…Lewis thinks Arie has something valuable to him. Where did he get that idea? Arie was born after your father retired to Earth. No one outside of Earth even knew she existed. Unless your father told them.”

Arie frowned. “Maybe Dad told Zaphan something about my bracelet, and he got it all wrong.”

“Miscommunication is certainly a possibility. But all we know is that information passed from your father to Lewis, and it led Lewis to believe you had something he wanted.”

“Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I don’t have it.”

Julian nodded. “Unfortunately, we can’t go any further with this unless Lewis talks or your father turns up. Neither seems likely at the moment. In the meantime, Lewis will continue to pursue you, and I’m losing faith in our ability to stop him. We haven’t found his accomplice, nor could we prevent him or his dragons from entering Fantys. We can’t even find the boy who kidnapped you in the first place. It’s getting harder to guarantee your safety here.”

Nim appeared in the council room and quietly took a seat.

Uh-oh, Ean thought. What did all this mean? “You’re sending us back to Earth?”

“No, Lewis will expect you to return there. But there’s another place that should be safer until we get our act together: Anima, the world where Qwace retired. Lewis avoided it. It didn’t fit him and blunted his magic, but that’s not to say it’s harmless. It’s a strange world, quite different from here.”

Arie looked as if the rug had been yanked out from under her. “But…what would we do there?”

“You can stay with Qwace. He taught me, your father, Robin, and even Lewis. You can learn from him too. And he might help you find out what happened to your father.”

“There’s a problem,” Nim said. “Due to Zaphan’s rebellion, Anima rejects incoming transfers right now. Our authorization won’t help.”

“That makes it even safer. You’ll need to use a gate. The gate that puts you closest to Qwace is in Faene, so you’ll have to transfer there first, use the gate, then travel south to his hideaway.”

“You’re sending us out alone?” Arie asked. “To a strange world?”

“I’ve asked Nim and Karl to accompany you. We don’t visit Anima that often, and they’ll both benefit from the experience. Maya can take a well-deserved rest.”

Nim turned to Arie and Ean. “Be ready at sunrise tomorrow. We leave after breakfast.”

 

Back at the Treehouse, Arie fumed.

“What’s wrong?” Ean asked.

She threw her hands in the air. “I can’t believe it. You actually got us kicked out of Fantys. Only the best place ever. They want to get rid of us, and I don’t blame them. Not after what my stupid brother did.”

Ean winced. “Julian didn’t say it was because of that.”

“Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”

“The new world’s only temporary. Maybe you’ll like it.”

“No, I won’t. I was really starting to like it here, with Maya, Dara, Trinn, and all the magic. And now I have to leave.”

“We won’t be alone. Nim and Karl are coming along, and maybe the new world can help us find Dad. I’m sure the Council will take us back when they’re ready.”

But Arie didn’t answer. And Ean wasn’t so sure.

 

Return

 

Valan was bright and peaceful in the morning, a far cry from the besieged city of the previous afternoon. Arie’s cheer had returned with the sun, and after a quick breakfast they left the Toad in good spirits. A transfer circle was waiting outside, and Dara and Robin had come to say goodbye. Wayland, an older boy with quick, dark eyes whom Karl knew from the games, had come to see Karl off.

Wayland shook Karl’s hand, while Robin took Nim aside for a brief word. Maya brushed against Arie one last time as Arie knelt down to give her a kiss. Ean felt like he was in a departure gate at an airport.

“I’m jealous,” Dara confessed. “You’ll see two new worlds today, and I haven’t seen either one.”

“Fantys is better than any of them,” Arie said.

Robin broke away from Nim. “I wouldn’t say that. Qwace gave up Fantys for Anima, and he’s no dummy.” He frowned. “A little eccentric, perhaps.”

The time came for final goodbyes and Dara gave everyone a hug. Ean touched Nim’s shoulder, as he did in Uncle Harry’s barn. It changed his life then, and would probably do so again.

Arie’s laugh interrupted his reverie before the change of scenery did. “Nice ears, Ean. They fit you well.”

Ean reached up and brushed back his long, pliable ears. He turned to face Arie, who had similar ears poking through her hair. So did Karl and Nim.

Faene was a fairy world, so Ean had expected…fairies. But none were in evidence. In fact, he couldn’t see more than ten feet in any direction. Thick waves of mist curled up from a damp stone floor. Two stone columns stood in front of them, each bearing indecipherable hieroglyphics and a small inscription: Smaoinich agus Faic.

“They said this wouldn’t be a typical gate,” Nim said. “Just walk through the columns.” And so they did. But except for the columns fading from view, nothing changed.

Ean became aware of movement to his right. Two ghostly forms beckoned. He squinted and recognized his mother and father, but when he stepped closer, they were only swirls of mist.

“I’m seeing things,” Ean said.

Karl nodded. “Me too. Stuff from nightmares I’ve had. Like the one where I order a cheeseburger and they deliberately omit the cheese.”

Nim grimaced. “Just keep walking.”

They walked for a minute or two, but nothing appeared except for a few misty illusions, less substantial than dreams. The only solid thing was the stone floor, and the mist never cleared.

Arie stopped. “Whatever I imagine tries to come true in the mist. What would happen if we all imagined a gate into Anima?”

“Let’s try it,” Nim said.

Ean imagined a gate, like the ones he had seen in Zaphan’s castle. Nothing happened at first, but soon the mist thinned.

“What’s up ahead?” Karl asked, pointing to a dim patch of light.

“Anima, I hope,” Nim replied.

As they neared it, the mist cleared and they found themselves inside a large cave. The light came from a short tunnel in the cave wall. Ean crossed over a small stream and entered the tunnel, careful to avoid a large patch of slime clinging to the rocks.

They stepped out into a pleasant countryside of rolling meadows and patches of trees. Overlapping mountains stretched out into the distance. The sky was blue with a vaguely orange tint, sprinkled with puffy clouds and lit by a warm saffron sun. Everyone still had pointed ears, although less prominent than in Faene. Ean felt wonderful–as good or better than he had in Fantys.

Arie smiled. “I think I’m going to like this world.”

“Welcome,” a deep voice thundered from behind. Ean stumbled forward in surprise. When he turned, the cave entrance had collapsed into a thin line of rock. But the line slowly spread into a wide mouth with lips. Higher up, emerald eyes blinked over a rounded rock nose.

“Welcome to Anima,” the cave said. “I’m the Western Gate.” Its lips closed again, relaxing into a huge smile.

Ean and Karl were astonished and Arie was delighted. Nim was unfazed. “Good morning,” she said. “Can you tell us the way to the Road of Return?”

“Eastward, across the meadow,” the cave rumbled. “A short trail descends to the Road of Return.”

Ean recovered quickly from his initial shock. Okay, so this world had a talking cave. But something else wasn’t right. He squinted at the sky. “Hold on. If the meadow’s east, then…the sun’s in the north.

“Maybe it is,” the cave boomed.

“Where I come from, the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west.”

“Sounds like a dull sort of place. Our sun rises and sets where he’s most needed.”

That didn’t make sense. “Doesn’t this world rotate? Isn’t it round?”

“I wouldn’t call Anima round,” the cave replied. “Although…she is rather full-figured. Enjoy your stay.”

“Thank you,” Arie said. Emerald eyes found her and closed. The cave entrance settled back into a smile.

Ean glanced up again and caught a pillowy cloud with eyes and a mouth staring down at him. It quickly looked away. How could a world work like this? He chuckled. “This worldsmith had a sense of humor. Straight out of a children’s fairy tale.”

“Anima is a fairy world,” Nim reminded him. “With more elementals than the others. It may seem child-like at first, but it can be deadly serious.”

“Try not to offend the scenery,” Karl said.

Ean took a deep breath. Alright, so this is a silly world. Probably just a simulation anyway. But Arie seemed to like it and Ean would at least make an effort to understand it.

A few minutes of wading through tall grass brought them to a trail winding down into the valley below. The trail entered a patch of woods, where filtered sunlight played on the ground as tall trees swayed overhead. Strange, Ean felt no wind. And yet, the trees dipped lower, as if to get a better look. Then came hushed whispers.

Burning hair? Haven’t seen that before. Yes, you have. She’s fae. The squinty-eyed boy–he’s in for a few surprises. And what a cute little girl.

Arie shouted up at the trees. “I’m twelve years old, okay?” The trees snapped back up.

“Ignore the gossip,” Nim said. “We’re the highlight of their day.”

After exiting the woods, the trail opened up into a field with low grass and a few bushes. Ean couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. He sensed movement from the corner of his eye, but when he turned, there was only an empty field with no place to hide. He mentioned it to Nim.

“There are stealthy characters here,” Nim said. “But we should be safe on this side of the mountain range. Fingers crossed.”

“What’s on the other side?” Arie asked.

“Well, there’s a rumor Zaphan corrupted it. The Shadow, they call him in this world. Qwace will know.”

After crossing the field, the trail dipped, made a sharp turn, and another, and they were on the Road of Return.

The road was wider than the trail–enough to fit two wagons side by side. The surface was dirt and gravel with a few inlaid stones. They were alone as far as Ean could see, in front or behind. But as they walked, orange daisy-like flowers watched them from both sides, blinking and smiling. Karl avoided them completely, but Arie loved them. Ean leaned over to get a closer look at the translucent butterflies hovering over the flowers, but drew back sharply when he realized they weren’t butterflies.

Nim laughed. “Fairies come in all sizes here.”

“Fairies don’t bother me,” said Karl. “But those flowers are creepy. Always smiling, like clowns.”

“They’re happy,” Arie said defensively. “Not hapless, like you.”

Nim raised an eyebrow. “They’re happy now.”

Ean froze as a large face rose up out of the road, glaring at him. “I’m not too bumpy, am I?”

Ean stepped back. “Um…no. You’re fine.”

“Thought so,” the face said, satisfied. “Hope you’re not going too far south. Nothing but trouble down there, I can tell you.”

Nim’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of trouble?”

“Oh, things you’d rather not deal with anymore.” The face looked each of them over. “Where are you going? Perhaps I can help.”

“We’re here to see a friend of ours. Qwace, in Lyranda.”

“Ah,” the face nodded. “Take the next left up ahead and follow the trail into the mountains. Nice place. You can’t miss it.” The face sank back into the center of the road. No trace of it remained, but Ean walked around that spot anyway.

“That’s odd,” Nim said. “We’re closer than I thought.”

As they walked, a warm breeze caressed Ean, ruffling his hair and swirling around his ears and neck. It lingered over Arie, then moved on to Nim and Karl. Pausing briefly, it returned to embrace them all, whispering in each ear.

“Sstrangelingss, new in thiss land. I am Ssussurra, a Wind of Change. I go far and wide, and I come to warn you. Minionss of the Sshadow Prinsse have arrived, even in thiss valley. Do not trusst the road you’re on. The way into Lyranda iss not eassy.”

“This route was supposed to be safe,” Nim said.

“Yessterday it wass free from the Sshadow,” Susurra murmured. “But Anima changess. Many challenge her, even among my ssissterss. Beware of all, esspecially the Witch of the Windss.” She caressed them gently and was gone.

Well, that didn’t sound good. Julian said they’d be safe here, but even this crazy world was vulnerable to Zaphan’s meddling. Ean better keep his eyes open. He turned to Nim. “So whom do we trust, the wind or the road?”

“I don’t trust anyone anymore,” Nim grumbled. “But the road’s directions seem wrong. Keep going.”

They passed by the left turnoff without a word. The road cut through a dark wooded area of convoluted trees and dense underbrush. Ahead in the distance, Ean noticed a curious greenish-brown pole on the right. It could have been a tree stump, except for its glistening surface and three round fixtures on top. As he watched, it suddenly split in two. One half scuttled across the road, still connected to the other half by a thin line.

Ean strained his eyes. “Did anyone see that thing up ahead?”

“Yes,” Nim replied. “I don’t know what it is. Be careful.”

As they neared it, the pole on the left snapped back to rejoin the one on the right. It shrank in height and grew in width until it was about the size of a coffee table, with the same three round fixtures on top. Using between four and seven legs in a blur of motion, it dashed off into the woods. When they arrived at the spot where it had been, Ean noticed it slinking behind them. It slowed when they turned to confront it.

“I think it wants to be friends,” Arie said.

After a moment’s study, Ean was convinced the creature was a blob of slime which could assume any shape at will. Currently, it was a flattened egg with five legs, attached to a disk-like head via a rubbery neck. Three eyeballs lined up on the head, with a collar underneath that Ean guessed was for hearing. The creature moved forward by growing new legs in front while reabsorbing its hindmost legs–like a large, three dimensional amoeba, but more agile. It seemed crudely put together, as if a child had assembled it. But maybe that would change.

“Hello,” Nim said, pointing to herself. “I’m Nim. We’re traveling into the mountains.”

The creature’s three eyes moved wider apart and blinked. One leg grew longer and looped into the air, forming a hand at the end with an index finger pointing down at its head.

“Oooj,” it said, with lips rippling like waves. One eye raised up on a stalk. “Are you from here? No, you are not.”

“How do you know?” Nim asked.

“You would have a guide, yes. Dangers exist, and some turn to the Shadow. The mountains of Ing hold more risk, even. Yes, they do.”

“Where can we find a guide?” Arie asked.

“You are in luck, possibly. Can I provide such a service? Yes I can, little one.” Arie tightened her lips, but didn’t say anything.

Ean recalled seeing things at the periphery of his vision. “Wait…you knew we weren’t from here because you followed us after we left the cave, didn’t you?”

One eye focused on Ean. “Before, actually.”

“You followed us in from Faene?” Nim asked.

“We entered simultaneously, almost.”

“He was the patch of slime on the cave wall,” Ean said. “So how do we know you’re not with the Shadow? Maybe you’ll lead us to our doom.”

“I desire company, yes. We’re safer together, no?” Oooj paused. “I travel to Lyranda, initially. If that is your destination, I can lead you there by afternoon, tomorrow. Assuming they receive you. Assuming they do.” All three eyes blinked in succession. “I am…okay, yes?”

“You seem perfectly normal to me,” Karl said.

Nim stared at the ground for a moment. “Alright, you can guide us. But no tricks.”

“Not to be rude,” Arie said. “But how should we think of you? As male or female?”

Oooj paused, as if deciding. “Today I am…male. I will form the appropriate body parts, yes?”

“No!” Arie said quickly. “You’re not dressed.”

Oooj looked himself over. “I am elegantly clothed in space and time.”

“I think Arie was hoping for something more specific,” Nim said.

“Never mind,” said Arie. “You don’t have to be male or female or dressed. Just be who you are.”

Oooj nodded and grew another leg. “Easy for you to say. Yes, it is.”

Nim gestured at the road ahead. “Alright, Oooj. Lead the way.”

Oooj moved out in front, walking at a moderate pace, although Ean hesitated to call it walking. The way his legs were set down and taken up reminded Ean of a tank or a bulldozer. But Oooj always looked out for trouble. Sometimes his head and neck would shift to the other side of his egg-body, or his eyes would rearrange into a triangle, or his head would wind completely around without rewinding. His head shot eight feet up in the air, when a swarm of six-winged fairies flew by.

The wooded area gave way to rolling meadows of grass and wildflowers, dotted with clumps of small trees and bushes. Tiny fairies tended to the wildflowers, who basked in the attention. Despite the serenity of this setting, Oooj seemed more nervous than in the woods. His neck stretched higher and six eyeballs scanned the scenery in all directions.

“Something wrong, Oooj?” Nim asked. “You seem uneasy.”

“Treddles live here.” Oooj replied. “They hunt in packs, yes they do.”

Tall grass swayed on a nearby hill, even though there was no wind. The swaying came closer, scattering fairies left and right. Soon there were rustling noises. Oooj stretched higher, his eyes focused on the swaying.

“They’re here.”

Grass parted by the roadside and a dirty yellow sphere rolled out. Resembling a oversized basketball with hair, it moved by adjusting its shape as it rolled. Eyes, mouths, and other orifices were placed around the sphere, closing when they neared the ground. It stopped at the roadside and watched them. Another sphere rolled out of the grass to join the first.

“Some folks think they can just stroll in here,” the first sphere said. “Like they’re on a nature hike or something.”

The second sphere giggled. “Ooh, look. We’re in Anima. So much wonder and mystery!”

“Dimwits,” said the first sphere. “Those who feel wonder and mystery are in love with their own ignorance.”

“Hey, slimeboy,” yelled the second sphere. “Didn’t we tell you not to come back?”

The first sphere frowned. “If I looked like that, I’d hide under a rock. Or commit suicide.”

“Gooicide,” the second sphere corrected him. “It’s a sticky question.”

Arie clenched her fists. “He looks better than a pair of hairy balls.”

“Such a nice little girl,” said the first sphere. “Where’s mommy?”

Arie started towards it, but Nim held her back. Three more Treddles of various sizes emerged from the grass and joined the other two.

“Wow, a whole family of Emojis.” Karl said. Do we have to fight them?”

“Fight or run, yes,” Oooj replied. “More will come. Yes, they will.”

Oooj moved his head to the rear of his body and three club-like appendages grew in front. He swung in wide arcs as he moved among the spheres, batting them one by one back into the meadow. But more spheres poured out of the grass. A small sphere rolled up to Arie and squirted foul-smelling liquid on her from one of its orifices.

Arie grimaced. “Gross.” She kicked the sphere away, but it latched on to Ean’s shoe. Its sharp teeth hung on as Ean tried to shake it loose. Finally, Karl ran in from the side and kicked it like a soccer ball. It sailed back into the meadow with a scream.

By now, at least twenty spheres had rolled out of the grass, and Oooj said there were hundreds more. Nim spread a golden shield around everyone, which the Treddles tested but couldn’t penetrate.

“You have the Gift, yes,” said Oooj. “Can you shield us until we reach the tree, ahead? Treddles won’t go beyond it, no.”

Nim frowned at the tree in the distance. “All of us? Probably not.” She sized up Oooj. “But if you can carry everyone, I might lift us to safety.”

“I can, possibly.” Oooj poured himself onto the ground, forming a pancake with a pair of short wings and a tail fin. “Take a seat. Gently, yes.” They did as he instructed. Oooj’s firmness surprised Ean. He felt more muscular than slimy.

Nim sat cross-legged as her shield faded. “Here we go.” Like a magic carpet, they rose until Oooj was ten feet off the ground, drifting forward. The spheres bounced into the air, trying to reach them. One landed on Oooj and rolled beside Ean, smiling wickedly.

“Teeth are better than magic.”

Oooj opened a hole in himself and the sphere fell through. Ean worried they were too slow, but their speed increased when Oooj flapped his stubby wings.

The Treddles hurled insults and bounced high into the air, a few touching Oooj’s smooth underbelly. But soon they were left behind. When Nim passed the tree, she let them down and Oooj returned to his egg-shape.

“I’m sorry I doubted you, Oooj,” Ean said. “You saved us from a vile mob.”

Oooj shook his head. “No. Together, we rose above them. Yes, we did.”

In a few hours, they neared the end of the rolling meadows. The sun sat lower in the sky as the first hints of a pink moon appeared on the horizon. Another patch of orange daisies adorned the roadside, this time without smiles or fairies. A small tree eclipsed the waning sun and most flowers had wilted until their petals touched the ground. Arie stooped to cradle one in her hands, but it hung its head and would not meet her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Arie asked. “It’s a beautiful day.”

“It was a beautiful day,” the flower said. “But the sun grows weary and the light fades. I’m cold and covered in darkness.” The flower glanced around feebly. “Alas, my companions. So brightly they beamed and so quickly they fell, cut down by the play of shadows.”

“It’s only a little tree.”

The flower ignored her. “This is a world of death, but also of life.” It smiled fondly. “I was a fragile seedling, but my spirit burned like a white-hot flame. I dared do all that may become a flower. I spawned seedlings, fed nectar to the fairies, and sang hymns to the sky. Oh, how tall I grew, almost to touch the sun! And didn’t I shine as brilliantly?” The flower sighed. “The young test boundaries and the old remember.”

“The sun will rise tomorrow and you’ll shine again.”

“No. Every day is another world, and each moment a unique flower unfolding.” The flower wilted further, its voice cracked and weak. “I’m afraid. Afraid of falling, and of the night.”

It would not speak again. Arie shed a tear and Nim put an arm around her. “These flowers only live for a day. It had a good life.”

The end of the meadows were the beginning of the foothills, as the road entered a dark forest of large trees. A few stooped to watch them pass, but none said a word. In a few minutes, a trail came up on the left and Oooj took it.

“This leads to the camp, for tonight, yes. And to Lyranda, tomorrow.”

The campsite was a lush meadow protected by trees with rich foliage and flowering vines, which still gave them a nice view of the sunset. On the south side, a small stream tumbled down from the mountains, handy for drinking and washing.

Oooj helped Nim and Arie set up camp, while Ean and Karl headed to the stream for a much needed drink. Karl drank first, submerging most of his head. Ean cupped his hands and brought the cool water to his lips, when a bright-eyed face rose out of the stream.

“Not from around here, are you?” it gurgled. “Of course not. I’d know. I know everything that goes on in these parts. But don’t let me stop you. Have a drink. I have excellent water.”

Ean drank from his hands, not taking his eyes from the face. Karl simply stared.

“Heard the news from downstream? Word is the Road of Return has turned to the Shadow. Not that I’m surprised, after the Witch cursed him for being too long and bumpy. He was furious, you know. Absolutely livid.”

Karl nodded. “Road rage.”

“You remember? No, of course you don’t. Silly me, you weren’t here. Where was I? Oh, yes. Well, she’s a meddler, that one. Can’t leave well enough alone, and emotions as fickle as…well, me. Ha! Little joke there. I’m really quite serious. Ask anyone. I’m Gabby, by the way. Why, just the other day–“

“A babbling brook,” Karl remarked, as the stream chattered on. “I thought that was just an expression.”

“This world is insane,” Ean muttered, wiping his lips.

Oooj ambled over beside Ean. “Nim would like you both to help with the camp, yes.”

Ean was grateful to Oooj for rescuing them from the gossipy stream. Nim had already conjured up sleeping bags and prepared a dinner of berries, nuts, and sandwiches. Karl set up wards around the camp, while Arie and Ean ventured into the forest to gather wood for a fire. Ean feared they might upset the trees by taking fallen branches, but none of them seemed to mind. When they returned, the sun was sinking fast in the south. In its dimmed state, Ean noticed its weary expression for the first time.

The air had cooled, so Karl started a small fire. Oooj sat close by, spreading himself into a curved sheet to better absorb the heat. Nim piled wood on the fire and it roared to life, crackling and sputtering.

“Such a fine evening,” the fire exclaimed, obviously enjoying herself as her flames spread. She glanced at everyone around her. “I have an audience. Is it story time already?”

“And I’m Singe, your host for this evening,” The fire bowed politely. “This is a special occasion, you know. It’s my birthday. I was born on this day in…well, this year.”

Arie frowned. “Then you can’t know much. I’m already twelve years old.”

“You are experienced,” Singe agreed. “But I’m equipped with the all the knowledge of my kind, and the memories of trees on whose branches I feed.” She spread herself onto a dry oak twig. “Let’s see. I know a story about…an acorn.”

Arie wrinkled her nose.

“Not your thing. Okay, how about a forest fire story? It’s so heart-wrenching.”

“That sounds really sad.”

“It is, but most stories have some sadness in them. Alright then, perhaps a story about Wizard’s Fire.”

“Is it a kiddy story?” Arie asked warily.

“It might even be advanced enough for you.”

Arie smiled. “Then let’s hear it.”

 

Singe began her story. “Once there was a boy wizard, a little older than you, Arie, from a peaceful kingdom in another world. He was apprenticed to an old master, who kept a big, dusty book of spells in his study. One day when the master was away, the boy snuck into the study and leafed through the book until he came across the recipe for Wizard’s Fire. The master had forbidden him to learn it until he was older, but the boy was impatient. He copied the spell onto a sheet of parchment and left the old book as he found it.

But he made several copying errors. When he cast the spell, it did not produce a blast of destructive fire as described. Instead, a pale blue flame transformed what it burned into whatever he imagined. The boy was intrigued. By skillfully using his imagination, he could turn worthless objects into valuable goods–food, clothes, gems, and even new things that never existed before.

“Could the fire make living things?” Arie asked.

“It could create the appearance of life. For a while, the boy was almost fooled into believing that appearances were essences, and outsides were insides. But such distinctions hardly mattered. To the boy, the Fire was perfect and beautiful. Things became whatever he wished, within his youthful magical limits. And those limits only expanded with practice, as the Fire gave substance to ever more interesting and useful ideas. He soon realized the hardest part was knowing exactly what he wanted.”

“Not a bad problem to have,” Ean said.

“So it would seem. But as the boy’s skill grew, the Fire began to dominate his life. He gave his inventions to family and friends, and they became as dependent on them as he was. Soon he was supplying the entire village. Word spread, and it wasn’t long before requests poured in from across the kingdom, some for inventions he hadn’t even thought of yet. He tried to accommodate everyone, but there were too many requests and casting spells for the new inventions was complicated and time consuming. The boy showed other wizards how to cast Fire spells of their own, but demand still increased. So work piled up, and the Fire spread.”

“He’d be a successful businessman,” Karl said. “If only they had money.”

Oooj leaned back, growing new legs for support. “Successful, no. He created endless work for himself and others. Yes, he did.”

Nim threw more wood on the fire and the flames rose higher. “He must have enjoyed it.”

“Oh, he did,” Singe crackled. “But the young wizard’s time and resources were stretched to the limit. He began to wonder if the Fire served him, or he served it. If he wanted the Fire to do more for him, he’d have to give it more control. So he bound the Fire to a stone and used another Fire spell to give it the ability to handle requests, make decisions, and even conceive of its own inventions. It freed the wizard for a while, but it also freed the Fire. Without the wizard’s oversight, the Fire duplicated itself billions of times, spreading bizarre and deadly creations over the world like a plague. People and animals were devoured, along with mountains and meadowlands. Rivers dried up and forests burned with the pale blue flame. Even the oldest and wisest trees were consumed. As the original spellcaster, the Fire wouldn’t touch the wizard. But the rest of the world was utterly transformed.”

Oooj’s three eyes blinked in unison. “Power without wisdom. A catastrophe, yes it is.”

Karl nodded. “Reminds me of a story on Earth called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. But I guess the old master won’t show up at the end and fix everything.”

“Sorcerer’s apprentice?” Nim asked. “Isn’t that what you are?”

Karl threw more sticks on the fire. “Isn’t that what we all are? Playing with fire we don’t understand? I hope we never let things get that bad.”

“Oh, it gets worse,” Singe roared, her flames leaping higher and higher. “The boy mourned for weeks. But try though he did, he couldn’t understand the alien world the Fire had made. It was difficult to survive. His old body didn’t belong there anymore, so he had the Fire change it to fit the new world. But inside he was still the same boy who couldn’t grasp what the world had become. After mulling it over for days, he ordered the Fire to give him a new inside to fit the new outside. So the Fire used the abilities he’d given it and burned the boy’s mind away, replacing it with its own grand creation.”

“But remember–the Fire could only create appearances, not essences. Only outsides, not insides. So nothing remained but the appearance of a transformed young wizard. No more insides remained in the world. And since you can’t have an outside without an inside, well…the whole world simply vanished. And the Wizard’s Fire? It did what all fires do when their fuel is exhausted–it died out.

There was silence for a moment, until Oooj spoke. “We are the true Wizard’s Fire, transforming everything we touch. The boy never understood this and his entire world paid the price. Yes, it did.”

“A fine interpretation,” Singe said.

Arie scowled. “What a stupid boy. That’s what you get for being too clever. He should have quit while he was ahead.”

Singe smiled weakly as her flames diminished. “Yes, but fires won’t quit until there’s nothing left to burn, including fires of the heart and mind.”

“A tidy little tale,” Karl said. “It certainly cleaned up after itself.” His eyes narrowed. “Except for the narrator, who miraculously survived.”

“Literary license,” said Singe, spitting out a jet of pale blue flame. “Or lazy storytelling. Anyway, it doesn’t have to be a true story.”

Ean nodded. He hoped not.

 

Reunion

 

Ean awakened to the music of another world. Ancient trees piped air through hollow trunks like giant bassoons, laying down a droning canvas on which fairies painted their exquisite melodies. Sublime, mysterious sound emerged, like sitar music on Earth. Around him, the meadow buzzed with life, as tiny fairies whizzed to and fro on unknown business. The perfume of alien wildflowers hung in the air and Ean breathed it all in, allowing Anima to invigorate him down to his toes. Across the clearing, the mountain stream chattered on, probably to itself. Above him, two of Anima’s moons still shone, their pink and blue crescents pasted on the sky like thin craft paper. A bit lower, an orange sun peered over the horizon, still hesitant to intrude upon the night.

Arie lingered over the ashes of last night’s campfire, saddened by the loss of Singe. Nim comforted her. “She burned brightly and spread her fire into us.”

Ean joined Karl and Oooj at the stream to wash up. Gabby was in fine form. “…wouldn’t believe the things they say upstream. Dear me, talk of ghosts and monsters. Real monsters, nothing like you, Oooj. You’re not a monster. Of course not. Heavens no. We’ve established that. Did I say that? I would never say that. Alright then, what did I say? Couldn’t be nothing. Well, then it had to be something. No, not the weather. I’m not that boring. Oh yes, the ghosts…”

Ean quietly washed his face and left. He helped Arie clean up the campsite, while Karl removed the wards and Nim took care of the sleeping bags. In a few minutes they were back on the trail, with Oooj leading the way.

A cloud of small fairies followed them for a short distance, but soon lost interest and flew off. Squirrel-like animals chittered noisily in the trees, but as the the trail climbed, the forest quieted and the trees grew wide and tall. None seemed interested in the tiny travelers who passed by their roots. But they swayed nervously when a bass rumble shook the forest floor.

“What was that?” Ean asked.

“The old mountain himself, yes,” Oooj replied. “Turning in his slumber, maybe he did.”

Karl was light on his feet. “Let’s not wake him then.”

The trail zigzagged up a steep bank and leveled off. Up here, the forest floor was covered with ferns, and bushes with pink, trumpet-like flowers tended to by a few fairies. From the corner of his eye, Ean caught glimpses of figures darting behind the trees.

“I’m seeing things again, like in Mithe. Are elves here too?”

“There is an elf tribe on the mountain, yes,” Oooj replied. “But not in these foothills, no.”

Nim looked to each side. “Then what–“

Three fairies flew out from behind a thick tree on the right and hovered beside the trail. Larger than the campsite fairies, they were almost two feet long, with four wings and the delicate features of the fae. Arie approached them without fear, as three more fairies hovered into view on the left. Moving with grace and precision, they fussed over Arie like hummingbirds over a flower. She reached out to them, laughing with delight as they perched on her arms and shoulders.

“I don’t know that kind of fairy,” Oooj warned her. “No, I don’t.”

“But they’re friendly,” Arie protested. “And so gentle.”

Before anyone could react, all six fairies grabbed Arie by her arms and hair, and pulled her off into the forest with her feet dragging on the ground. Ean ran after them and the others followed. Another group of fairies fluttered in front of him. He batted one away, but the rest fought with surprising tenacity. Oooj shot out a long appendage, roping three fairies and dashing them against a tree. Nim and Karl put the rest to sleep, but there were more ahead.

Ean burst into a small clearing, where Arie fought to break free. She grabbed and slapped at the fairies, but there were too many. They bound her hands and feet with vines, gagged her, and hovered around her like a living shield.

The others entered the clearing. Ean started towards Arie, but Nim held him back. “Something else is here.”

A cool breeze swirled around Ean, moving on to Nim and Karl. It traced a wide arc around the clearing, stirring up leaves and gathering strength. In seconds, it grew from a small dust devil into a roaring whirlwind. The funnel elongated and darkened, spinning faster and whining louder, until…it abruptly stopped. Dust and debris fell away and a woman stepped forward.

A fairy woman. No, a fairy queen, Ean thought, wearing a dress of green and gold leaves and a crown of wildflowers. Chestnut hair laced with green strands and vines fell in waves upon her neck and shoulders. She approached Nim with power and elegance in her stride.

“Ambrosia,” Nim said, surprised. “That was quite an entrance.”

“They call me the Witch of the Winds these days,” Ambrosia said in a breathy, sensuous voice. “I suppose it fits.”

“What are you–“

“I’m taking the girl. But I wanted to see you first.”

Nim’s eyes flew open. “You too? I thought you and Lewis were complete opposites.”

“Well, of course we are. He’s an emotional wasteland. But he’s passionate enough about Fantys, and there we can agree. That nightmare must end.”

“Oh, come on. Everyone treated you well, especially Robin. The magic takes some getting used to, but–“

“Fantys tore out the heart of magic,” Ambrosia snarled. “Institutionalized and sanitized it. Chained it in irons of logic and duty.” Her lips tightened into a white line. “And Robin…descends from a long line of dreary pedants. But you’re fae, Nim. You know what we are. How can you lock yourself up in such a dreadful prison? Deny your nature?”

Nim hesitated. “We can change.”

“From feral to ferrous? Fae to faded?” Ambrosia softened. “I think I know what happened, but you can’t run away from yourself forever.”

Nim bristled. “And you could? By eloping with Robin to punish Qwace?”

Ambrosia’s eyes flashed with anger as the wind picked up. “If it weren’t for Fantys, Qwace wouldn’t be here and I would be different. Lyranda would be different. But yes, I made the same mistake as you–fleeing into the dead arms of the mind to escape the torment of the heart. But the heart will find you in the end and must be dealt with.” She paused. “Fantys isn’t for you. Whatever quest you think you’re on, abandon it before it’s too late. Find yourself before Fantys scatters like ashes in the wind.”

Nim eyed the ground, slowly shaking her head. “I made my choices long ago.” She met Ambrosia’s fiery gaze with eyes of ice. “I don’t have to explain them to you. And Lewis is wrong about many things, not the least of which is Arie.”

Susurra had warned them about the Witch of the Winds, but what could Ean do? She was out his league. He was about to launch a projectile when Nim stretched out her hand. The fairies guarding Arie scattered and the vines unwound from her hands and feet. With a flick of her hand, Nim threw her shield over Arie like a soft blanket, and Arie ran to her under its cover.

“No!” Ambrosia screamed. Ean covered his face as a fierce gale began to blow, howling and bombarding Nim with debris from all sides. But her shield held.

Ambrosia wasn’t finished. With eyes like bottomless pits, she held out her arm. A black field gathered around Nim, crushing her like a vice. Even from where he stood, Ean staggered under the weight of its effects. Withering despair ate away at his insides like acid.

Nim stumbled and gasped, her shield shrinking to a thin glow around herself and Arie. It wouldn’t last much longer. Summoning all his will, Ean launched a fireball at Ambrosia. She shot him a look of contempt, but the pause allowed Nim to fire a blast of energy that knocked her backwards. Her shield recovered quickly, but Nim kept the pressure on until it fizzled out and the black field dissipated in a cloud of vapors.

Ambrosia shrieked. “You could never do that here without your authority. Use it while you can.” She closed her eyes and dissolved into wisps of smoke trailing into the wind. When the wind died down, she and her fairies were gone.

Ean bent over, catching his breath. “That was Robin’s wife?”

“Yup,” Karl said, picking himself off the ground. “She’s available, if you want to ask her out.”

Arie laughed. “Ean could teach her computer programming.” Her expression darkened. “I guess we’re not safe anywhere. How did she find us?”

Karl waved his thumb at the edge of the clearing, where a mountain stream babbled to itself. “Take a wild guess.”

Nim smiled at Ean. “Nice distraction. I knew she was strong, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional intensity.”

“Why did she try to punish Qwace?” Arie asked.

Nim waved it away. “Oh, an old family squabble I wish I didn’t know about. She had a thing for him and he ended up marrying her sister.”

Karl shook his head. “Can’t imagine why that would upset her.”

Oooj found the trail again and they continued on through the forest. As the sun climbed higher, the trees gave way to steep, rocky terrain. The trail wound through the middle of a treacherous slope, overlooking a deep valley on the right. Rocks strewn along the trail appeared to have fallen recently.

Above them on the left, a boulder blinked and opened its wide mouth. “Good morning,” it said, in a low, gravelly voice.

Karl pumped his fist in the air. “You rock.”

“But please don’t roll,” Ean added. Nothing did, except for Arie’s eyes.

Up ahead, the trail turned left behind a hundred foot cliff. Oooj slowed. “This cliff is new. That was the tremor we felt, yes it was.”

When they turned the corner, everyone gasped in astonishment. Embedded in the cliff face was a huge statue of a warrior, sitting on the ground with a sword across his lap. He wore a helmet and slept with his head on his chest, while his thirty foot legs stretched out across the trail. He was made from the same stuff as the cliff–gray granite with reddish veins. They stepped back when his eyes opened and his head turned to face them.

The warrior pulled himself out the cliff like it was water. He stood up slowly, cupping the pommel of his forty foot sword in both hands, while the tip bit deep into the trail. The ground caved in around him and rocks tumbled in. From a height of about seventy feet, the warrior peered down at them, motionless.

“May we pass?” Nim shouted. The warrior shook his head once. “Why not? We’ve come a long way.” The warrior was silent. Nim sighed and shot Oooj a questioning look. He moved in a way that might have been a shrug.

Nim tried again. “This trip is important. If we can’t pass, please tell us why.” The warrior pointed to the cliff. A face appeared, embossed in the cliff from top to bottom.

It was the face of an old man, with long hair and a long beard. He gazed down at Nim with eyes of granite, his expression unreadable. Ean felt his voice more than he heard it.

“You stray far from home, Fantean. What is your business here?”

Nim swallowed nervously, the first time Ean had seen her show fear. “We travel to Lyranda.”

The ground shook with a single word. “Why?”

“We seek our old master, Qwace.” Nim put her arm on Arie’s shoulder. “And a safe haven for this girl. The Shadow pursues her, for reasons unknown.”

The old man frowned as several rocks tumbled from the cliff. “The Shadow rises. His minions cross over from the east, and now the west.” His gaze fell on Arie. “And yet, you bring that which attracts the Shadow?”

“We don’t know where else to take her. We only bring her to safety.”

“Anima herself asks me to block the way. Why should I let you pass?”

The mountain wasn’t going to let them through. Ean dared to speak up. “I’m her brother.” Huge granite eyes settled on him. Nim shot him a warning glance. “Um…is it wise to give an enemy what he desperately desires? The Shadow can’t reach us in Lyranda.” He hoped that was true.

The old man considered his words. “You may pass. But beware. The Shadow grows on the far side of the mountain. The Winds cannot be trusted, and perhaps not the Waters either. I wish you well in your travels.”

The face sank back into the cliff and the stone warrior stepped aside. After walking around his gigantic footprints, Ean glanced back to see him sleeping in the cliff once more.

Oooj motioned ahead, where the mountain turned green again and rose up into the clouds. “The forest of Quonde. Lyranda is there, yes.”

They’d climbed most of the morning, so Ean was relieved when the trail dipped into a wooded valley. But his relief was short-lived as the climb resumed with a vengeance, zigzagging up a steep, densely forested hill. After an hour of hard climbing, the trail leveled off but still climbed gradually upward. The air turned cool and misty as they entered the cloud they saw from below.

“Lyranda is not far, no,” Oooj said.

Ean first glimpsed the wind creature pacing Karl, like a fairy ghost. Karl didn’t notice as it slid up from behind and ruffled his hair. He stopped in his tracks, shaking his head. “No. I don’t belong there.”

Nim frowned. “What are you talking about?” The creature swirled around Karl’s body and reached out to caress her ankle. Her eyes widened. “Oh, I see. No, it’s too…wild.”

A second ghost wind overtook Oooj. He slowed, and his plate-like head rose up in the air. “We cannot, no. Lyranda is gone forever, yes.”

The wind left Oooj and glided over to Arie, brushing against her neck. She scowled. “We’re going backwards.” Arie followed the ghost back down the trail, but a strong breeze came from the opposite direction and blew it away. The breeze circled around and dispersed the wind over Nim, then slowed to embrace them all.

“You are in grave danger,” Susurra whispered. “The Witch of the Windss hass ssent her demonss. Ghostss of illussion and doubt. They will desstroy you with your own thoughtss. You musst enter Lyranda.”

Ean was familiar with ghosts of doubt. They were indispensable on Earth, with lies and fakery everywhere. But when to heed them, and when not to? He smiled to himself. Today, the answer is blowing in the wind.

“Then let’s hurry.”

The mist thickened and the forest darkened. Oooj stepped up the pace, his legs whirring like tank treads. A fork appeared in the trail and Oooj took the right branch without a word. Ean glanced back. Three ghost winds slithered after them.

“Lyranda, yes,” Oooj announced. In front of them was a thicket about twenty feet high, fanning out on both sides until it vanished in the mist. Broad thorns stuck out like shark’s teeth and it was too thick to see through.

Oooj spoke into the thicket. “Greetings. It is I, Oooj, with four others to see Qwace, yes.”

Nim joined him. “I’m Nim from Valan. We’re under attack. Please let us in.”

“Pitiful.”

Ean spun around to find Zaphan behind him, his lips wrinkled into a quirky frown. “Running away to this childish place? Hiding from everything you’ve learned?” He extended his hand. “Your father’s with me. Join us in the real world.”

Ean reached out, but Zaphan disintegrated into swirls of mist. Behind the mist, Nim lowered her hand. “Thanks,” Ean said sheepishly.

The thicket parted and an elven boy stepped through, maybe a little older than Arie with a mop of golden hair. He glanced at each of them, his eyes widening when he saw the ghost winds approaching. “Follow me, and watch out for the thorns.” With arms pinned to his sides, Ean followed him through a tunnel in the thicket. It closed in behind them as they stepped out into Lyranda.

The gloomy forest had miraculously disappeared, replaced by a sunny meadow where fairies flitted from flower to flower. Below them was a valley of rolling hills with fields and patches of trees. A few thatched houses dotted the fields, but most were concentrated in a village across from the meadow. At the far end of the valley, a waterfall poured down from a cliff into a lake where a rainbow arced through the mist. Above the cliff, the mountain sloped sharply upward, its peak lost in the clouds.

“I’m Findel,” the elven boy said shyly, his eyes resting briefly on Arie. “I’ll take you to Qwace.” He led them down a short path into the village, onto the main street. Most houses were two or three stories, built from stone, wood, and thatching. Turning into a narrow walkway, he stopped in front of a side door on one of the larger houses. After edging the door open, he motioned everyone inside.

The room was small and unfurnished, dimly lit by a tiny window and several incense candles on the floor. In the center of the room, a man levitated in an upside-down lotus position. He was older, but handsome, with a tall, athletic build, a well-trimmed beard, and graying dreadlocks that hung down to the floor. He observed them upside-down for a moment until a bright smile illuminated his dark features.

“I’ve been conscious,” he said in a rich baritone voice. “And I’ve been unconscious. Unconscious is definitely better.”

“True,” Karl said. “Everyone should experience unconsciousness.”

Arie frowned at Karl. “You’re an oxymoron.”

“Oh, come on, Qwace,” Nim said. “You’re a great master. You didn’t play the games unconscious.” Her eyes narrowed. “Did you?”

Qwace righted himself, still levitating. “Not recently. But when you’re old and plagued by all kinds of silly ailments, consciousness should fade. Instead, it grows more acute.” He studied his visitors carefully, one by one, then sighed and shook his head. “Oooj, I don’t know why you associate with such weird people.”

“It is a weakness, yes,” Oooj admitted.

Qwace extended his legs to the floor. “Alright, who is everyone?”

Nim introduced them. Qwace nodded at Arie and Ean. “Your father’s a good man.” He gestured to a door behind him. “You’ve all had a long journey, and this is a pub. I believe refreshments are in order.”

Ean wouldn’t argue with that. Findel had chores to do, but the rest of them followed Qwace into the pub. A long bar stocked with colorful bottles and glasses lined one side of the room, while rustic tables and chairs filled the rest. Most patrons were fae, with one other human, and a dryad who seemed more shrub than fae. A gnomish-looking bartender seated them at a wooden table growing out of the floor. Oooj adjusted his body to fit one of the chairs, looking almost humanoid.

Ale was served, along with plates of buttery bread, stringy cheese-like snacks, and spicy greens Ean couldn’t identify. The conversation quickly turned to Zaphan.

“Ah, Lewis,” Qwace said, with a half smile and a shake of his head. “So much promise. So much raw potential. I knew he’d be great…and he is.” He lowered his eyes. “And that was my mistake. It was easy to overlook the cauldron of unbalanced forces at play in such a gifted student. The lonely, miserable childhood. Resentment of his peers. Resentment of authority. I saw what I wanted to see and ignored the rest.”

“His personality wasn’t your job,” Nim said. “But with your coaching, he always won at the games.”

“Yes, but life isn’t a game.”

“Why the hell not?” Karl asked.

“Because it can’t be won. All paths lead to the grave. And in the end, life will make a mockery of you and your ambitions.” Qwace stared into his ale. “Magic or not, learning how to control the world begins with learning how to control oneself. I should have taught Lewis that first.” He drank deeply from his glass. “But it wasn’t ambition or a lust for power that he couldn’t control. Lewis couldn’t control his resentment of those who had power. Eventually, it led him to despise any kind of authority.”

“The Enli,” Nim said.

“Yes, and the Council, myself, Enna, or anyone with oversight. He became impossible to work with and did whatever he wanted, regardless of the consequences.”

“He seems so sure of himself,” Ean said. “He thinks Enna is corrupt and fake, and that we’re living in a virtual reality.”

“Then I’m virtually happy for him. He’s more enlightened than me.”

“Can he reach us here?” Nim asked. “Julian said we’d be safe, but after our run-in with Ambrosia today…”

Qwace’s expression soured. “Ambrosia’s tormented our guests before. And now that she’s friendly with Lewis, you can be sure he knows you’re here.” He sighed. “A few days ago I’d have said that Anima would never accept Lewis or his malcontents. But today the east is crawling with them, so I must be missing something.” He took a long draw from his glass. “I still believe Lyranda is safe.”

“What about attacks from the air?” Nim asked. “The Old Man wasn’t sure about the Winds.”

“Anima would be in big trouble if one of the major Winds deserted her.” He shook his head. “It’s not going to happen, and we have strong wards against minor Winds and other creatures of the air. Against Ambrosia too, of course.”

Dinner was served, and they ate, drank, and laughed until sundown. Karl and Nim brought Qwace up to date on Valan, and Oooj had a long discussion with Qwace about his family to the south, whom he feared had succumbed to the Shadow. Many others came and went throughout the night, including fairies, a small earth elemental, and a creature that resembled a community of plants. Qwace knew them all personally.

But eventually, all three of Anima’s colorful moons rose high in the pub windows and it was time to go. Qwace led them out of the village and onto a road through the woods. Shadowy trees stooped to greet them and Qwace gave each one a nod and a wave. The road climbed a hill and opened up into a clearing where a small castle stood, its turrets and spires silhouetted in the triple moonlight. To the right were smaller houses, and a stone wall surrounded the entire complex.

“Castle Graythorne,” Qwace announced. “Been in my wife’s family for a thousand years.” He shrugged. “Sometimes she lets me in.”

He approached a pair wooden doors in the wall. Two fairies greeted him and opened the doors into a landscaped courtyard, where stone walkways led to the castle and each house. One fairy led them to the front door of the castle, which opened automatically into a large candlelit room with a vaulted ceiling, ornate couches, and fancy chairs. Broad stairs led up to a second floor.

A fae servant girl greeted Qwace. “Her Majesty has retired for the evening. Will you entertain your guests?”

“No, we’re tired. I’ll show them to their rooms.”

Qwace led them up the stairs and down a hallway. The rooms were spacious, with fine curtains and exquisitely carved furniture. Ean’s room had a moonlit view of the courtyard and what looked like a park beyond the wall.

Qwace touched a bell outside Ean’s door. “Ring, if you need anything. Someone will call on you for breakfast in the morning. Sleep well.” The room couldn’t be personalized like his room in the Treehouse, but Ean was happy. He’d survived a difficult trek through a strange world and his fairy bed was soft and inviting.

He collapsed on the bed and sighed. Anima was dangerous, and he would probably never get used to talking mountains or babbling brooks. He was glad Arie had gotten over her anger at leaving Fantys, but he wondered what they would do here. He didn’t worry, though. Tonight, the future would take care of itself, like it did when he was a little boy. All ghosts of doubt had been dispersed, at least for now. With nothing to keep him awake, he crawled under the covers and fell into a dreamless sleep.

At sunrise, the servant girl rounded everyone up and led them into a fancy dining room at the end of the hall. Tall windows provided stunning views of the surrounding valley, mountain peaks, and the misty waterfall in the distance. Fairies fluttered around the room, setting the table and fussing over Qwace, who sat at one end looking uncomfortable.

Everyone turned when a woman strode into the room, attended by a cloud of tiny fairies. She wore a thin, formal crown and a pastel blue dress with intricate patterns, which the fairies had trouble keeping off the floor. Her silvery hair and youthful features seemed contradictory at first, yet somehow entirely natural in this fairy world. She could be twenty, two hundred, or two thousand years old.

Qwace stood up and bowed. “My gracious wife Isabel, the Queen of Lyranda.” Everyone else stood up and bowed, so Ean did likewise. Isabel took a seat at the opposite end of the table from Qwace and motioned for everyone to be seated.

“Please, let’s dispense with tedious formalities.” Fairies whispered in her ear. She raised her eyebrows and turned to smile at Karl, Arie, and Ean, her eyes lingering on Ean. “A rare treat this morning. My fairies tell me we have visitors from Earth.”

“Very rare,” Qwace agreed. “We’ve only had two Earth visitors before today. Arie and Ean’s father, and Lewis.”

Isabel furrowed her brow. “No, there were two others.”

Qwace frowned. “I don’t think so.”

“Yes dear, before you came to stay.”

Ean’s interest was piqued. “Really? Who were they?”

Isabel stared at him. “Why, you and your mother, of course.”

 

Dance

 

Ean sat up straight. “What? You’re confusing me with someone else.”

“No,” Isabel said. “You were a child, three or four years old. Your father brought you and your mother here on a vacation of sorts.”

Qwace frowned at her. “Ewan never mentioned that. Neither did you.”

“I thought you knew. But maybe not. Ewan was a private man.” Isabel stared out the window. “Life was more innocent then. Ambrosia and I…well, we never got along. But she was less hostile.” Her eyes met Ean’s. “Your mother was very sick and Lyranda gave her relief. She thought it would be a good place for a child, and she was right. You loved it here. Maisy, whom you played with, is now as old as you.”

Ean’s thoughts raced. Was it possible? This whole adventure had become increasingly bizarre. And yet, there were…traces. As if this is where it all began. Maybe he wasn’t in a simulation. What if his whole life had been a fairy trick of some kind?

“I have vague memories of something. A fairy land? I don’t know. I thought they were stories Mom told me, mixed in with dreams and an overactive imagination.”

“You were here,” Isabel assured him. She smiled. “I bounced you on my lap.”

Arie smirked. “We need to see baby pictures.” Her expression turned serious. “But what happened to Dad? Julian said you might be able to help us.”

“He was here a few weeks ago,” Qwace said. “Asking about worlds I’d never heard of, outside the Fantean group. I think he intended to go farther out into Enna. I cautioned him against it, of course. It’s dangerous to visit a new world alone, if that’s what he did.”

“Zaphan could have done something to him.”

“Maybe. Hard to say.”

Dad never mentioned any of this, which wasn’t surprising. They would have thought he was crazy. Ean wondered what other secrets Dad kept, but he had a feeling he would find out soon enough.

After breakfast, Isabel had a long discussion with Nim and Oooj about Anima politics. The tiny province of Lyranda was flanked on the north by the kingdom of Nynafae, ruled by Isabel’s father Hanno, and on the south by the strange land of Lum, where Oooj was from. Except for a few skirmishes, neither had engaged with the Shadow. However, two kingdoms on the mountain range to the east were under attack, and the dense jungle beyond was now assumed to belong to the Shadow. All this had escalated in the last three or four days, underscoring the alarming pace of Zaphan’s rebellion.

Ean asked if he could meet his childhood friend, and Qwace offered to introduce him. Arie and Karl tagged along as he led Ean outside, to a house on the other side of the courtyard. Out front, Findel played with an illuminated ball. They watched as it whirled around his body and traced wild patterns across the sky, leaving streaks of red light in its wake. Arie clapped and cheered. Off to the side, a gray-haired woman and a girl sat on a bench next to a short, thick tree. They looked up as Qwace approached.

He touched Ean’s shoulder. “Lena, you have a good memory. Do you know who this is?”

The older woman frowned for a moment before her face lit up. “Oh yes, the little Earth boy. Ean, I think.” She turned to the girl beside her. “Do you remember him, Maisy? You played together.”

Maisy was about Ean’s age or slightly older, with fiery eyes and freckles. Cinnamon hair flowed into a loose ponytail behind her back. She stood up slowly, searching Ean’s face.

“I remember him. He pulled my hair and stole my toys.”

“He did that to me too,” Arie said.

Karl shook his head. “Oh man, that’s low.”

Ean stared at his feet. “I try not to do that anymore.”

“Good for you,” Maisy said. Findel wandered over to join them, doing more tricks with his ball. “Do you remember Findel? He was a baby, so he won’t remember you.”

Ean smiled politely. “We met yesterday, but I don’t remember anyone here. This world is still like a dream to me. A midsummer night’s dream.” He introduced Arie and Karl, and Maisy introduced Lena, who turned out to be her great-grandmother.

“Why don’t you kids go on a hike?” Qwace suggested. “Prod Ean’s memory. But be back this afternoon–we’re having a little party tonight. And don’t forget the game tomorrow.” He turned back to the castle.

Lena reclined on the bench, stretching one arm across the back. She turned to Maisy. “Take them to see the falls.” She nodded at the other end of the bench, which was empty. “And you can take Breorn home with you.”

“Breorn?” Arie asked. She recoiled in surprise when the tree next to the bench pulled itself out of the ground and slithered forward on long roots, swaying its branches to keep balance. It bent over Arie from about ten feet in height. What appeared to be knotholes were large blinking eyes. A thin gash in the bark opened and the tree spoke in a resonant voice.

“I am Breorn.” It paused, as if trying to find the right words. “Pleased to meet you, Arie of Earth.”

Arie looked up into Breorn’s eyes and smiled. “Will you come with us?”

“Part of the way,” Breorn replied. “I must root with my family today.”

After saying goodbye to Lena, they left the courtyard and started on their way to the Falls, with Breorn shuffling along behind. The trail led down into the valley of Lyranda, winding through a patchwork of meadows before entering a shady woods with tall trees. The trees hovered over them, taking a special interest in Breorn.

Breorn waved his branches. “I grew from a seedling here. When we are young, we travel to acquire knowledge and experience. Most of us return, and when we are old enough we return to stay. But today my stay is brief. Tomorrow I will play in the game with you.” They waved goodbye as he waddled off into the woods.

“Are all trees here like Breorn?” Arie asked.

“Only Wizenwood trees travel.” Maisy replied. “They’re wise and grow very old.”

After leaving the woods, they hiked across the meadows to the bank of winding creek and followed it upstream for an hour before arriving at the falls. The air tingled with power as water roared down a cliff and plunged into a deep pool, which flowed into a small lake. Mist crept up and a colorful rainbow arched over the whole scene. Findel climbed onto a rocky ledge and disappeared behind the falls.

“Findel, be careful,” Maisy yelled, but he didn’t answer.

Ean found a stone to skip across the pool, but Maisy held his arm. “Don’t. It’s rude.” He was about to ask why, when he noticed two pockets of air peering out from within the curtain of water. He gazed up at the falls, hundreds of feet in height.

“Magnificent. Prettier than any waterfall I’ve seen on Earth.”

The waterfall blinked. “Thank you, kind sir. Beauty is truth.”

Overhead, the rainbow rang out like wind chimes. “Not in your case. You fell into the Shadow.”

“I fell like tears from the sky,” the waterfall gushed. “The Shadow weeps, yet it is beautiful. And beauty is truth.”

The rainbow rippled. “Beauty is an empty truth, if you ask me. And I say that as a rainbow.” It brightened. “What do you say, Earthman?”

“Me?” Ean thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t know about Anima. But on Earth, all of nature is in a never-ending war, and the first casualty of war is the truth. Plants, animals, and people will deceive to survive. Fakery has become an art form. And sometimes…you’re actually better off with a beautiful lie than an ugly truth.”

The waterfall roared. “You see? Beauty is the most valuable truth.”

Karl frowned. “That’s what moths think before the flames consume them. But the truth must be important. Otherwise politicians and preachers wouldn’t try so hard to tell us what it is.”

“Lawyers and scientists too,” Arie said.

The waterfall sprayed and splashed. “But are they always truthful? Lies work better when mixed with truth. Isn’t that beautiful?”

Maisy grimaced. “No, but it’s true. You weren’t like this last time I was here.”

“We were like children,” the waterfall spouted. “But now there’s more to consider. Beauty arises from pain and conflict, and truth from lies fighting each other.” Liquid eyes fixed on Maisy. “You can’t stop the world from changing, you know. It’s a lot bigger than you are.”

“Anima is the world.” Maisy said defiantly. “And she doesn’t want to change.”

The waterfall almost smiled. “Then she doesn’t see the truth.”

The rainbow reddened. “Oh please, just ignore him. The Shadow poisoned him from outside Lyranda. You can’t trust the waters or the winds anymore.”

Ean turned to Maisy. “Are all these elementals such a pain in the–“

“Some are worse,” Maisy replied. “But be kind. They have nothing to do all day.”

Karl nodded. “On Earth, we’d call them philosophers.”

Findel stepped out from behind the waterfall, holding his ball in one arm and waving the other. “Hey, the cave’s open again. Why don’t we go in? We haven’t been there in ages.”

Maisy frowned, bunching up her freckles. “Alright, but only up to the Ward.”

Findel led them down a treacherous path behind the waterfall until they came to a narrow passage in the rock wall. The waterfall’s roar faded as the passage wound through an S-shaped corridor into a dim, silent cave. Glistening stalactites hung from ceiling, reflecting light from brightly colored rocks on the cave floor.

“There’s a light ahead,” Arie said.

Findel nodded. “That’s the other opening. Come on, I’ll show you.” He led them over the colorful rocks until the cave narrowed into a tunnel with a light at the end. Halfway into the tunnel, he stopped in front of a translucent membrane stretching from floor to ceiling, blocking their way. Ean poked his hand through, feeling a slight resistance.

“That’s the Ward,” Maisy said. “We can’t go any further.”

“Yes, we can,” said Findel, stepping through. He spun around and grinned at them from the other side.

Maisy’s expression paled. “Don’t be stupid. Qwace set up the Ward for a reason.”

“But I’ve already been to the end of the tunnel. It’s safe. I just want to show them the view.”

Maisy scowled, but eventually agreed. The tunnel opened up into a flowery meadow sloping down into a forested valley. On the other side of the valley, a terraced mountain range spanned from north to south, interrupted by a gap filled with dark, swirling clouds.

“I see why you brought us here,” Arie said, breathless. “I can see for miles.”

“We can rest under the old tree,” Findel said. “Better to admire the view from there.”

On the right was a huge, sprawling tree, like the Cymena tree near Valan that gave Ean disturbing visions. Maisy walked without fear beneath the long, twisty branches, but Ean lagged behind, glancing up warily. Satisfied that the branches wouldn’t move, he sat down on a bed of moss between two massive roots. With a graceful wave of her hand, Maisy produced a basket of bread wraps filled with beans and cheesy nuggets. Ean devoured three of them.

Maisy pointed at the mountains. “The Paschan range is longer and higher than ours. On a clear day you can see the eastern jungle from here, but today minor Winds fight each other in the gap. Qwace says the Shadow controls the other side.” Her gaze fell. “Anima didn’t war with herself, until now. She’s not like Earth.”

Ean nodded. “Nature’s friendlier here. But the elementals seem to be losing their innocence.”

“I hope they’re not losing their minds. They were happy together as part of Anima.”

Arie studied the roiling Winds in the gap. “If they’re part of Anima, maybe she’s growing. Discovering who she is.”

Maisy was silent for a moment. “Then I hope we survive the growing pains.”

The view was marvelous and Ean’s stomach was full. Tree roots cradled him and the bark felt soft and spongy behind his head. Out in the meadow, tiny fairies fluttered over orange daisies. Oddly, the daisies turned away. But Ean felt supremely comfortable. He closed his eyes and Anima drifted away.

He found himself alone in a dark prison cell, his back against cold stone. How did he get here? Shadows lengthened on the grimy floor as footsteps echoed outside his cell. A voice called, growing louder, more insistent. Ean. His father’s voice. The door clicked open and the cell vanished. He stood in a grassy meadow with a blue moon shining above. His father approached and took off his ring–the class ring he’d worn ever since Ean could remember. He slipped it on Ean’s finger. I hope it fits. Suddenly, the meadow was gone and he was tumbling head over heels. Falling forever.

“…happened in Valan too,” Karl said. “He’ll be okay.”

Ean opened his eyes to Maisy’s worried expression. “The tree swallowed you up. I’ve never seen that before.”

Ean stood up slowly. “Yeah, these trees have a thing for me. It’s unhealthy.” He held out his hand, frowning. On his third finger was a silvery ring, with a blue opalescent stone and stars etched in the bezel.

Arie’s eyes widened. “Dad’s moonstone ring. How did you–“

“I don’t know. Nobody ever tells me anything.” But it was a glaring question. Was that really Dad’s ring? It didn’t seem possible.

Maisy’s head spun around. A swarm of tiny fairies had gathered in the meadow. The daises shunned them, some hanging their heads to the ground while others tucked their petals in their leaves. More fairies poured in until a thick cloud circled over the daises. There must be thousands, Ean thought, their tiny voices blending into a whisper, then a buzz, and finally a loud hum. The swarm pulsed to its own frenzied rhythm, shifting through patterns like a murmuration of starlings, humming louder and louder until it roared.

“Wow,” Karl exclaimed. “An angry fairy mob.”

“They’re no ordinary fairies,” Maisy shouted. “Get your shields up.”

The swarm took the shape of a dragon and lurched forward. Findel threw his ball. Accelerating like a rocket, it punched a hole in the swarm, then looped back and punched a few more holes. But when the ball settled in his hand, the holes closed up as if nothing had happened. The dragon drifted closer and the roar heightened into a scream.

“Run!” Maisy yelled.

They sprinted back, with Arie in front and Ean in the rear. High grass tugged at his ankles as the dragon glided smoothly over the meadow. The others raced into the cave, but the swarm overtook Ean at the entrance as hundreds of angry little faces pressed up against his shield. With his visibility reduced, he stumbled into the cave while the others slipped through the Ward. He feared his thin shield would collapse. But the fairies left him and regrouped in front of the Ward, coalescing into the form of a woman.

The swarm hummed like locusts, but Ambrosia’s voice was unmistakable. “If I can’t have Arie, maybe I’ll take you.” Ean wondered how she could control thousands of fairies at once.

“Neither of us will do you any good.”

“I don’t believe you,” the fairies buzzed. “You have secrets, like your father.”

“My father worked for government intelligence. Of course he had secrets.” Behind the Ward, Maisy beckoned urgently.

The swarm roared. “Not stupid Earth secrets. The secret. The way out of these awful worlds and these tedious lives.”

Ean frowned. “There is no secret. The only way out of life is death.”

The swarm expanded, pulsing with a horrible rasping noise, like laughter. “Silly boy. Didn’t they bother to tell you? Death isn’t a way out. We’re bound to Enna in life and death. Trapped in an endless cycle we don’t control.” The swarm shrank. “But maybe not everyone. Your father’s still missing, isn’t he?”

“Are you suggesting–“

The fairies screamed. “Don’t play dumb with me. No more games.” The swarm advanced towards him. Behind the Ward, Arie and Karl motioned frantically for him to cross over. Could Ambrosia stop him? It was now or never.

“Tell me, Ean. You can’t run. I’ll always–“

Ean dived through the swarm and…planted his face in a mud puddle on the other side of the Ward. The swarm tried to follow, but couldn’t cross over.

“Nice landing,” Arie said. “What took you so long?”

Ean spit out mud and got up. Behind the Ward, the fairies began to disperse. “Ambrosia wanted to chat. I didn’t want to be rude.”

Maisy nodded. “Now the swarm makes sense.” She glared at Findel. “Why did I listen to you? We should have stayed here.”

Findel lowered his eyes. “We don’t have to tell Qwace.”

Maisy tightened her lips but didn’t say anything. Everyone was silent as they walked back into the room with the stalactites, through the S-shaped corridor, and onto the narrow ledge behind the falls. Ean kept his eyes on the waterfall when they emerged into the open.

“Have a nice hike?” the rainbow asked.

“It would have been nicer if someone hadn’t tipped off the Shadow. I can’t imagine who would do that.”

The rainbow flickered. “I can.”

 

It was late afternoon when they returned to the castle. Ean thought the party would be inside, but there had been a wedding while they were gone and preparations were underway for an outdoor reception. The park around the castle had transformed into a fairground, with tents, tables brimming with food, and a small stage. Fairies flitted from one task to another while Qwace stood in the middle of it all, supervising everything. He wasn’t worried about the waterfall, but Maisy didn’t mention their trip beyond the Ward and Ean wasn’t about to become a tattle-tale.

Guests trickled in from the northern kingdom of Nynafae, including a noble or two and the aunts and cousins of Queen Isabel. Guests from the southern lands had also arrived, and some were musicians carrying guitar-like instruments, flutes, bells, and drums. The instruments were vaguely Earth-like, but the musicians were not.

There were tall, greenish stick people, big furry red balls with spindly legs, slime creatures related to Oooj, a drummer made of rock, and fairies of all types and sizes. Stout dwarves carried a tray of coals lit with a fire elemental who was said to be a talented singer. They tuned up beneath a grove of thick trees, who bent over to observe the spectacle. Ean wondered why they didn’t set up out in the open, but Maisy said the trees served as living amplification. Ean suppressed a smile. No one on Earth would believe this.

Qwace called for everyone’s attention and introduced the newly married fairy couple. He told endearing little stories–how the groom had fallen into a muddy pond and dragged the bride in with him, angering the pond, and how the bride had once baked a magical cake that exploded in shower of sparkles, and how, as young fairies, they had once been caught kissing behind a tree–by the tree.

When Qwace finished, the couple sat with Isabel and her family as actors took to the stage. With musical accompaniment, they recounted the history of the mountain kingdoms. Hundreds of years ago, the warlike north had made peace with the chaotic south, creating the neutral province of Lyranda where they met to iron out their differences. Charismatic rulers came and went, but the peace held. Unfortunately, threats of war persisted in the east and far south, where hostile countries flourished to this day.

The fairies had prepared a wonderful feast, and Ean wasn’t shy about helping himself to the food. He began a with handful of exquisite fruits like tiny multicolored plums, and a spicy salad mixed from exotic herbs. He moved on to an assortment of crunchy shells stuffed with a gooey, cheesy paste, and finished things off with another helping of the addictive little fruits.

Nim raised an eyebrow. “I’d go easy on those fairy fruits.”

“Why? They’re not fattening, are they?”

“Noooo, but…they have a reputation.”

Qwace had set up a carnival game where he and Isabel sat–a silly magical game like big chessboard, with black and white squares. Initially, you picked a square to stand in. The edges of the squares were like gates and would transport you to another square on the board. If the destination square was empty, you’d survive. If the square was occupied by another player, and the square color matched the one you came from, the game would eject them, otherwise it would eject you. If you took too long to move, you’d also be ejected. The last person remaining was the winner. Since the gates were consistent, the game tested your memory as well as your speed and luck.

It was all luck when the game started, so there was an advantage to watching others move. You could see where the gates led to. But as you watched, the odds increased that you’d be ejected. So Ean watched Karl eject Nim and Findel eject Arie before he made his first move, ejecting Findel. The groom ejected Karl and the bride ejected the groom. Oooj tried to enter three gates at once, but was disqualified and ejected. Qwace ejected the bride and Maisy ejected Qwace. A few others were ejected until only Maisy and Ean remained. They skipped around the board, avoiding each other while everyone cheered them on. But all those fairy fruits had taken their toll. Ean couldn’t remember the gates fast enough and was soon ejected. Maisy had won, and was rewarded with…a basket of fairy fruits.

It wasn’t long before the sun went down and the night came alive. Everyone cheered as the musicians abandoned their theatrical scores for folk songs with romantic lyrics and snappier rhythms. The bride and groom left their table to dance, along with Qwace, Isabel, and guests from the north. The next song was faster still, as more fairies joined in. Findel asked Arie to dance and someone asked Nim. Oooj grew several new limbs and danced with one his kind from the south. Even Karl asked a cute green-haired fairy to dance. But Ean shuffled and moped on the sidelines. Arie glared at him and shook her head.

He wondered where Maisy had gone, when others stepped aside to let her through. She had put on a new dress and painted her face in red and orange, her eyes burning like torches. Other dancers cleared a space as the musicians started a new song. Guitars strummed quietly and fast in a minor key as Maisy began to sway. She stepped left, hiking up her dress, then right, crouching low as she reached out to the hands of onlookers. The music resolved briefly to a major key like the sun peeking over a cloud, then back to a minor key with renewed urgency. Maisy leapt from one side to the other, her dress flowing like a whirlwind. Spinning faster and faster, she threw down a leg on each beat, until the guitars struck a sustained chord and she raised her arms to the sky.

“A-ni-ma,” The fire sang, its voice echoing through the valley.

Dancers cheered and the music intensified. Prancing like a cat, Maisy slunk in front of Ean, offering her hand. Ean took it, and the dance began anew, as guitars thrummed, trees droned, and flutes breathed softly into the evening air of Anima. In that moment, the waterfall was right. Beauty was truth, and Ean was drawn to it like a moth to the flames.

“Burn for me, Lyranda!” the fire cried, leaping higher on its bed of coals. “As I burn for you!”

On and on Ean danced with the fairies, wilder and faster, until Anima’s pastel moons climbed high in the night sky. He could have danced forever, but Qwace reminded them of the arena match in the morning.

Later that night, Ean’s head throbbed with questions as he lay in his fine fairy bed. Maisy had been unforgettable, but other thoughts returned with a vengeance. Was Ambrosia right? Had Dad found what Zaphan was looking for? Were they bound to Enna in life and death? He’d ask Robin if they ever made it back to Valan. And how did the tree come to have Dad’s ring? Cymena trees were in communication across worlds, but Ean didn’t think they could transfer physical items. Dad could have left it with the tree a few weeks ago, but…why? Did he know Ean would visit? And what good was the ring anyway? He could ask Qwace, but then he’d have to tell him they went beyond the Ward.

Ean tossed and turned, but the answers wouldn’t come and sleep wouldn’t either. It slowly dawned on him that Qwace was right. Consciousness is a curse. Unconsciousness is definitely better.

 

Winds

 

Ean had eaten twenty fairy fruits the night before and couldn’t get out of bed. But after several wake up calls and a hearty breakfast, he felt marginally better and at least willing to try the big game.

The air was cool and calm, and Anima’s yellow-orange sun sat low in the morning sky. Qwace and Isabel led them past the village to a large practice field, where Isabel joined a small crowd on the bleachers. Findel and Maisy were already on the sidelines, talking with Breorn.

Ean felt ill. “Uh, I don’t know about this. After last night…”

Qwace grinned. “The fairies are above us like angels and below us like demons. And there’s always a price to be paid.”

“I wasn’t prepared for an audience either.”

Qwace squinted at the bleachers. “Well…Earth people haven’t played here before.” He smiled. “No pressure or anything.”

“Are the rules the same as in Valan?” Arie asked.

“Yes, beginner rules apply. No transfers, no coercion. We’ll have two teams instead of two players, so the last team remaining is the winner, even if only one player is left. You can use your wits, physical abilities, and magic. Safety shouldn’t be a problem. This arena’s good about kicking you out.”

Qwace set down an arena post in the center of the field and called the players together. He counted heads. “We’ll have four players per team, with the two oldest as captains–Nim and Maisy. Nim can choose first.”

Nim chose Arie. Good, she’d be safest with Nim, probably the strongest player in the game. But Maisy chose Ean. He winced. She didn’t know what a half-baked fraud he was. Next, Nim chose Oooj and Maisy chose Karl. Alright, maybe Karl would cover for him. Finally, Nim picked Findel and Maisy took Breorn.

Maisy’s team gathered on the south side of the post nearest the village, leaving Nim’s team on the north. Qwace walked over to the sidelines and held up his arm. “Ready?”

Ean wasn’t ready, but he nodded with everyone else. Qwace dropped his arm and the field disappeared.

The sky bulged with angry purple clouds about to burst with rain. Curtains of mist drifted over the meadow where they stood, which dropped into a ravine on the right and sloped down on the left into a valley hundreds of feet below. Judging by the hazy outlines around them, they were on a high mountain pass–a treacherous place for a fight. A patch of woods lay in front on the left, and another patch farther down on the right.

Maisy scanned the scenery. “We’re exposed. Let’s take cover in the trees.”

They hurried into the patch of woods on the left and began to explore. It was small, not more than than fifty yards across, with evergreen trees and the remains of a stone house. Nim’s team entered the other woods farther down.

“A good spot,” said Breorn, sinking his roots into the damp soil between two other trees. In front of him was a crumbling stone wall. “I will be the lookout.”

Ean squinted. “There’s Nim.” He fired a beam of energy, but it was a feeble shot, dissipating halfway before reaching the other woods.

“Let me try,” said Maisy. Darts shot out of her fingers and whistled wide into the trees, but not before getting Nim’s attention. She returned a red fireball, which thinned out over the distance. Maisy ducked behind Breorn as it flared on his trunk.

“It’s unwise to trade shots with Nim,” Karl warned. “She won’t have her authority in a game, but still…”

“You alright, Breorn?” Ean asked.

Breorn shook a few branches. “A bit tingly, but yes.” He gestured with a branch. “Our flexible friend is patrolling the stone ruins over there.”

“I see him,” Karl said, peering out from behind a spruce bough. “It’s too far for an accurate shot. Maybe a wide-field stun.” His raised his hand. There was no visible beam, but Oooj stopped and turned to look. After a few seconds, he continued walking.

Maisy shook her head. “Neither of our teams are effective at this distance. One of us will have to advance and attack.”

“Wait,” Karl said. “Maybe I can mess with probabilities. Bad luck charms have more range.” He held up both hands. Nothing happened initially, but after fifteen seconds it began to rain.

Ean wiped his face. “Bad luck for them or us?” But lightning arced down and struck a small tree where Oooj had been. Seconds later, a flock of birds flew in and circled over Nim. She glanced up, then down at her shirt, where several white splotches appeared. Her hands flew to her hips as she glared angrily across the meadow. Karl snickered under his breath.

Maisy frowned and looked away. “Oh, really. Is Ean gonna pull my hair now?”

“Honestly, I didn’t wish for the birds.” Karl protested. “This game has a weird sense of humor.”

“Right. Your psychology had nothing to do with it.”

“Someone else is over there,” Breorn announced, pointing with his branches. “Someone new.” Ean glimpsed a masked figure in black disappearing into the woods. “We were told there are four players per team.”

“There are,” Maisy said.

Arie and Findel ran out of the woods with the masked man in pursuit. Findel turned to fire, but the man was quicker and Findel disappeared in a flash of light. Arie ran on, but slipped in the mud and fell backwards. Oooj raced out into the meadow as a thin rope uncoiled from his body, sailing through the air like a lasso. It closed around the man, dragging him down and yanking Oooj forward. But the man’s shield brightened and the coils fell away.

“Who is that guy?” Ean asked. “How did we get another player?”

Maisy shook her head, but didn’t answer.

Arie got up and limped across the meadow towards Breorn. The masked man sprang to his feet as Nim emerged from the woods, firing a cloud of projectiles. He returned fire and tried to resume the chase, but Nim hampered him with more projectiles. Finally, he turned to face her, unleashing a brilliant stream of energy. Nim’s shield eroded quickly until it fizzled out and she was gone.

“He’s a master,” Karl said. “Nothing less could handle Nim like that. But why chase Arie? Just take her out.”

“And why would she run to us?” Ean asked. His face turned white as he answered his own question. “Because…that guy’s not another player. He’s a kidnapper. If he killed Arie, the game would eject her. He wants to take her with him, however he came in.”

“You know,” Maisy said slowly. “I think you’re right.”

Only ten yards away and covered in mud, Arie stumbled towards Breorn with the masked man at her heels. His white aura repelled the rain and everything else Karl and Maisy could throw at it. He was about to grab Arie. Ean only had seconds. He raised his arm and launched the biggest fireball he could summon. It splashed on Arie’s chest and she vanished in a ball of flames.

Maisy nodded. “Smart. She’ll be safe with Qwace and Isabel.”

The masked man screamed and dived into the woods. Ean braced for the tackle, but the man hung motionless in front of him, as if frozen in time. Breorn held him in mid-air. Ean wondered why he couldn’t magically free himself, when he heard a familiar voice.

“Secure his hands,” Qwace said. Breorn twisted him upright and bound his hands and feet. Ean finally got a close look at him. He was thin and dressed in a baggy black jumpsuit. A black hood covered his head and neck.

Qwace snapped his fingers and the hood flew off. His eyes opened wide. “Ambrosia.” He waved his hand and a clear bubble sealed her off from head to toe.

She tested the bubble with her tongue and it sizzled. “Preserving me for yourself? How kinky.”

Qwace wiped rain from his brow. “How did you get past my wards? No, you couldn’t have. You…transferred in here somehow.”

“You’re so wise, Qwace. And deep.”

Qwace grimaced. “Why do you always say that? I’m shallow. A stunningly superficial person.”

“You’re wiser than a poor fairy like me. But maybe Lewis is even wiser. Isn’t this one of Robin’s old arenas? From the same batch he used for testing? Lewis tinkered with them long ago.”

Qwace’s eyes widened as it dawned on him. “He linked them together. You transferred in from another arena.”

“And now, after all these years, I’m back in Lyranda with you. Isn’t it wonderful? We can have a talk.”

Qwace closed his eyes. “Please. Not now.”

“Strange how the past won’t disappear with a wave of your hand. Inconvenient, isn’t it?”

“Yes, yes. I’ll take the blame for it all, if you like. Wear sackcloth and sprinkle ashes on my head forever and ever.” He frowned. “But teaming up with Lewis? That was an immensely stupid idea.”

“If he can get rid of Fantys, it’s worth it.”

“You’ll ruin Anima for all of us.”

“You’ve already ruined it for me, you great buffoon.”

“I’m sorry. I made a commitment to your father. I couldn’t marry you both.”

“So Isabel got you and she got Lyranda.”

Qwace sighed. “It was all arranged. Your father expected me to marry her. You, well…you were a surprise.”

“He was pandering to Valan. You could have had whatever you wanted. You must have known that.”

Qwace stared at his feet as a raindrop fell from his nose. “You’re dredging up ancient history again. Look…you’ll live on for a thousand years after I’m gone, and you’ll forget me soon afterwards, if not before. So enjoy your long life and let me enjoy my short one. And when I’m gone, make up with your sister. It’ll be good for your soul.”

“Don’t lecture me about my soul when yours is so flawed. When you’re gone, Isabel will still have Lyranda. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

Qwace looked her in the eye. “As did you, when you seduced Robin.”

Ambrosia glared at him and screamed. “You clumsy, insensitive…why did you have to say that?” She closed her eyes and sighed. “What a dreadful waste of time.” When her eyes opened again, they glowed like embers. “I’ll get that little girl if I have to tear up every inch of Lyranda.”

“She’s not little,” Karl chimed in. “She’s twelve years old. Just sayin’.”

“Oh, excuse me,” Ambrosia said sarcastically. “Pedants.”

Qwace shook his finger at her. “Listen to me. You won’t get Arie, and you won’t mess up Lyranda. I won’t let you in.”

Ambrosia smiled. “But I’m already in, dear.” She breathed fire and the bubble melted away. Her body wavered, becoming hazier and less substantial, until it drifted through Breorn’s woody grasp like smoke. In seconds, the smoke faded into the damp air and she was gone.

There was silence, except for the rain. Maisy cleared her throat. “That went well.”

Oooj ambled up from the meadow, taking in the long faces. “We lost, yes?”

“I lost,” Qwace corrected him.

“Where did she go?” Ean asked. “If she’s outside with Arie…”

Qwace took a deep breath. “Alright, so we have a situation.” He waved the game away and they stood on the practice field again. Ean breathed a sigh of relief. Arie sat with Nim and Isabel on the bleachers. Qwace explained to them what happened.

Isabel was not pleased. “What do you recommend?”

Qwace glanced up at the sky. Dark clouds gathered around the edges of the valley. “She’s taking down wards as we speak. Who knows what’ll come in–her wind friends at least.” He glanced at Arie and the others. “Let’s get everyone into the castle.”

 

It only took minutes for the sky to blacken and the wind to pick up. Dust and debris stung their eyes and throats, so Qwace spread his shield around Ean, Karl and Maisy, while Nim protected Arie, Findel, and Oooj. Isabel shielded herself and Breorn shuffled off to re-root with his family.

They hurried through the village, but slowed when dark clouds descended and two funnels touched down like whirling sentries of dirty air, each a hundred feet high. Between them, swirls of dark vapor condensed into the form of a woman. Ambrosia stepped forward in her black jumpsuit, her aura brilliant white.

“Give her to me,” her magically amplified voice shouted above the wind.

Isabel raised her voice above the din. “No. Father will never forgive you for falling into the Shadow.”

“Father ignored me, and I’ll ignore him when the Shadow crushes Nynafae. And I’ll never forgive you for stealing Lyranda,” Ambrosia glanced at Qwace with contempt. “By marrying this…Fantean toad.”

“Father trusts me to rule, not you. It has nothing to do with Qwace or your wild theories about Fantys. You married a Fantean because you thought it would make you powerful, and left him when it didn’t. Now you’ve sold yourself to the Shadow for the same reason.”

Ambrosia snorted. “I haven’t sold myself to anyone, little puppet. It’s you who did anything for father’s blessing.” She smiled. “I was always in the way, wasn’t I? Just like today.”

“You certainly made a nuisance out of yourself. But we’ve outgrown you, and soon you’ll be forgotten.”

Ambrosia’s eyes burned like torches. “You can’t forget me, sister. I will echo down the corridors of your broken life!”

Minor whirlwinds split off from the towers of air, drifting to the sides. The towers shrank into wide funnels, taking on angry, ochre hues as they picked up stones and dirt. Inside each funnel, air currents writhed like eels, forming interlocking sinews of swirling debris. The funnel on the right assumed a vaguely humanoid shape–a frightening red monster with a gaping maw and cylinders of whirling rocks for hands. The funnel near Qwace became spider-like, with eight legs and spinning mouth parts like buzzsaws.

“Anima won’t allow this,” Isabel shouted. She held her hand up to the sky, releasing a ghostly white bird. It climbed rapidly into the clouds.

Ambrosia laughed. “Yes, you’ve always relied on the handouts of others. But today you’re on your own.”

Isabel’s lips tightened with determination as she fired an intense white beam, lighting up Ambrosia like a doll on display. Screaming with rage, Ambrosia returned shock waves that shattered the beam like glass and knocked Isabel off her feet. Isabel recovered quickly, unleashing a cloud of daggers. Ambrosia retaliated with a stream of dripping lava. Back and forth they dueled, but neither one could harm the other.

With long legs and howling winds, the spider monster lumbered towards Qwace, accompanied by two twisters. The twisters attacked first, whirling in at high speed. Qwace dispersed them with a flick of his hand, but the spider was upon him in seconds, its mouth parts tearing into his shield like routers made of flying debris. Ean cringed as the shield buckled under the onslaught.

Qwace looked up at the monster, unperturbed. “Awesome power in those jaws. Soon, it’ll eat through. The future is clearly grim, with no way out.”

Ean and Karl stared at him. Maisy seemed calm.

“On the other hand, seeing the world too clearly as it is can obscure your vision of how it might be. So what would you do, Ean?”

Ean stammered. “Um…I was kinda hoping you–“

“Yes, yes. But speaking hypothetically. What would you do if you were in this situation?”

The monster screamed and whined, grinding away at the shield. Ean took a wild guess. “Make ourselves invisible?”

Qwace frowned. “Useless. The monster already feels us.”

Ean tried not to panic. “Okay. Let’s see, this thing is made of air, so…energy beams and fireballs won’t do much good.”

“Probably not,” Qwace agreed.

“But…air can be displaced by…more air?” Qwace motioned for him to continue. “So…create a giant electric fan to blow the monster away?”

Qwace stared at Ean like he was out of his mind. “A what?” Karl put his face in his palm. Maisy frowned.

“Okay, okay. Then uh…summon a more powerful wind elemental?”

Qwace threw his hands in the air. “And how am I gonna do that?”

The grating and grinding intensified and the shield dimmed. Ean winced. “Sorry, I thought you…wait. Wait a minute. An explosion would disrupt the air, wouldn’t it?”

Qwace smiled. “I believe it would.”

Three projectiles the size of tennis balls floated out of his hand into the body of the monster, where they circulated with other debris. Qwace motioned for everyone to put their fingers in their ears. Seconds later, a huge explosion shook the ground. Rocks and debris rained down everywhere. The spider collapsed, but Qwace’s shield had absorbed some of the blast and dimmed even further.

Isabel broke away from her duel with Ambrosia. “You bought us time, but you can’t really kill them. We need to go. Now.”

They dashed up the road to the castle with the humanoid monster roaring after them. Small whirlwinds circled in from the sides, but Qwace and Isabel flicked them away. Nim followed Qwace’s example and launched her own bomb into the monster. To her surprise, it had learned from its unfortunate comrade and spit it back, where it flashed on her shield. But the monster was slow and they outran it back to the castle.

An aura shimmered over the castle complex and a hundred fairy guards lined the walls. The main door admitted everyone, but held back minor wind elementals who tried to squeeze through. Qwace hurried them into the castle and up to the dining room. The view was quite different from the last time Ean gazed out those windows. Hordes of twisters and smaller wind elementals swept across the fields beneath swollen black clouds. Towering over them, a dozen monstrous wind creatures roamed the valley, assuming the shapes of dragons, centipedes, and other animals.

The red humanoid monster lumbered up to the castle and stopped, its head as tall as the highest spire. It howled with rage as whirling fists bit into the castle shield like giant sanding wheels.

Qwace stared at it in disbelief. “How did Lewis get them so upset?”

“I think he makes them feel trapped by their roles in Anima,” Maisy replied.

Ean nodded. “He told them they’re caught up in a lie. A fake, authoritarian system, or something like that.”

Karl frowned. “Maybe he was talking about school and they misunderstood.”

“If Anima is fake, yes, what does it imitate?” Oooj asked.

“I don’t know,” Nim replied. “But that monster looks real enough to me.”

Outside, the castle shield flickered as the monster attacked it with renewed ferocity. How could they stop that thing? Ean watched as powerful air currents transported debris throughout the monster’s body, like a kind of circulatory system. That gave him an idea.

“Do you have anything flat and strong. About twenty feet wide?”

“Why?” Qwace asked.

“You could use it to separate the upper half of the monster from its lower half. Cut off the flow of air.”

Qwace’s eyes lit up. “I have something even better.” He patted Ean’s shoulder. “Excellent suggestion.”

He opened a door and stepped out onto an observation deck. The monster glared at him with empty black eyes, but Qwace didn’t flinch. A thin membrane shot out of his hand, slicing the monster’s midsection in two. Its eyes opened wide as another membrane separated the left side from the right. Almost immediately, stones and debris dropped to the ground. The monster couldn’t hold itself together and its winds dispersed into the surrounding air.

Qwace reentered the dining room, smiling.

“Divide and conquer,” Karl mused. “Swords are good at that too.”

“That material is very strong,” Ean said.

Qwace shook his head. “They were immaterial wards, effective on both sides against minor winds. That trick will come in handy again.”

Isabel pointed at the sky. “Our plea for help has been answered.”

Down in the valley, beams of sunlight cut through the gloom. Giant hands pulled back the clouds while an equally giant face peered in, as if lifting a rock to see what scurries away. It frowned with disapproval at the wind creatures causing havoc, and pursed its lips to breathe them in, one by one.

“The Western Wind?” Qwace asked.

Isabel shook her head. “A powerful subordinate. But it’s a good sign. The Shadow hasn’t seduced the greater winds yet.”

“I’m glad things are looking up,” Nim said. “But I have to tell you, I’ve been in contact with Valan. They didn’t expect Lewis to have much of a following here, and they’d like us to return as soon as possible. They still have security problems, but Anima’s even worse with Ambrosia and her friends after us. And it’ll be safer for you when we’re gone.”

Isabel reluctantly agreed. “We would have warned you, but this happened so quickly.”

They talked for a while longer. Qwace pledged his support if Julian needed it. Nim extended an offer from Julian to send a cleanup team, but Isabel declined.

“Anima’s awake, and she’s about to involve herself more directly in this conflict. She’ll decide what to do with the Shadow and nothing here can stand up to her.”

Soon it was time to say goodbye. Qwace thanked Ean for his help and Isabel hugged everyone, while Oooj grew a firm, dry appendage to shake. Arie kissed Findel and he blushed, which is rare for an elf.

Maisy kissed Ean and looked him in the eye. “Next time don’t wait so long, Earthman. Remember us, and don’t leave Anima too far behind.” He promised her he wouldn’t.

 

They arrived at the Toad in the same circle where they had departed. Dara, Maya, and Karl’s friend Wayland were there to greet them. Nim transferred out to meet with the Council, but everyone else stayed for a round of soothing drinks. As wonderful and different as Anima had been, Valan felt like home and it was good to be back.

Armed with plenty of ale and munchies, they piled into a booth near the fireplace, while Maya spread herself across a nearby table. Dara and Wayland listened eagerly as they took turns recounting their adventures. Ean left out most of what Ambrosia said to him in the cave.

“I haven’t been around much,” Ean admitted. “But I’ve never seen anyone like Oooj. And everything talks. Hard to get used to that.”

Dara nodded. “Sometimes in a fit of madness, I’ve yelled ‘why?’ at the moon. It wouldn’t feel as satisfying if it answered ‘why not?’”

The pub door creaked open and Morgan entered with two friends. He glanced at them and chose a spot two booths away. Why so close, Ean wondered? Was he trying to eavesdrop? It might be a good idea to return the favor, but Ean only heard mumbling. He quietly activated a spell to sensitize his hearing.

“Interesting story about your Dad,” Dara said, sipping her ale.

Wayland furrowed his brow. “I remember hearing something about a Master Ewan.”

“He never let on,” said Ean. “We never suspected he led another life.”

“But he abandoned that life to raise us,” Arie said. “For some reason he left Earth again and something went wrong.”

Ean overheard snippets of Morgan’s conversation. “…lots of progress…she’ll meet with a suspect…finally prove those Earth dimwits are guilty…”

“You have to suspect foul play,” Karl said, fingering his mug. “Zaphan runs off, your Dad disappears, and Arie’s attacked. Coincidence?” He shook his head. “You may not see the connections, but Zaphan was a devious bastard.”

“Devious fighter too,” said Wayland.

Morgan’s voice trickled in again. “…of course I’ll be there…what?…no, Vonya’s office is private…noon tomorrow…” What were they talking about? Did Vonya find Zaphan’s accomplice? Or were Arie and Ean being framed?”

Ean took a sip. “Apparently Dad could be devious too. Might be time to learn that art.”

“Then you better take classes,” Arie said. “You’re not a good fake.”

“Hiding the truth isn’t necessarily fake.”

Karl raised his mug. “Spoken like an elemental.” His face slackened. “Here comes trouble.”

Maya growled as Morgan sauntered over to their booth, careful not to disturb his perfect hair. He nodded at Dara. “Always good to see you, even in questionable company.” He turned to Ean. “No classes tomorrow. Can I expect to see you on the field in the morning? You owe me a rematch.”

Ean’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t think I owe you anything. What’s in it for me? Are you sure you want to play with a criminal?”

“Yes, that is a consideration. But you’ll have the opportunity to prove the last game wasn’t a fluke.” He shrugged. “I’ll admit your chances are slim. Perhaps you should quit while you’re ahead and leave the real games to grown-ups.”

Ean stared at him. “Alright, I’ll play. Under one condition. If I lose, we make it best out of three.”

Morgan raised his eyebrows. “A masochist, eh? Agreed.” He bowed his head, gathered his friends, and left the pub.

“Wow, you really showed him,” Arie said. “You could have just said no.”

Dara sighed. “Only one hour back in Valan and you already got yourself into a fight.”

“Well, I am from Earth,” Ean said. “We have a reputation to keep up.”

Wayland chuckled. “Yeah, but you weren’t exactly devious. He played you like a flute.”

Ean refilled his mug. “Maybe I’m playing the long game. If he can save face and do it fairly, it might be better for both of us.”

 

They drank ale and talked until sundown before going their separate ways. Back at the Treehouse, the elf in the tree greeted Arie and Ean with a smile.

“Welcome back. I have something for you, behind the tree. A courier dropped them off today.”

Arie reached behind the tree and pulled out a vase of stunning flowers, with a note tucked in front. Maya sniffed the flowers while Arie opened the note and read it out loud.

“To Arie, from an admirer: Glad you’re safely home.” She turned the note over, a puzzled expression on her face. “It doesn’t say who they’re from.” She was startled when the note evaporated in tufts of smoke.

Ean pulled the flowers out of the vase, but found nothing inside except dirty water. He put the flowers back in. “Maybe you have a boyfriend you don’t know about.”

Arie grinned. “They’re spectacular, aren’t they?”

“I better go to bed. I have a big match in the morning I shouldn’t have agreed to. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. I overheard Morgan at the pub. He and Vonya are going to meet with a suspected accomplice. Sounded like tomorrow at noon in her office. He said something about proving us guilty. I need to know if we’re being framed, so I intend to spy on them.”

Arie was silent for a moment. “Then I’m going with you.”

 

Betrayal

 

Ean joined Karl for breakfast in the dining hall, but he only nibbled at slices of fruit. Karl had spread news of the match and people stopped by to wish him luck. He was going to need it.

The stadium was moderately busy, with a few hundred people milling around on the field. Morgan’s white-blonde hair was easy to spot, near one of the central domes. He stretched his legs and looked up as Ean and Karl approached.

“A day of reckoning, Earthman.”

“I reckon so.”

Someone tapped Ean’s shoulder. He turned around to find Arie, looking anxious. “Have you seen Maya?”

“She’s not with you?”

Arie scanned the field. “She’s moping around somewhere. I think she’s sick. The flowers are gone too.” She frowned. “I hope she didn’t eat them.”

An audience gathered around the dome, including Morgan’s Raven friends, a referee, and other people Ean didn’t recognize. Karl offered encouragement, advising him to conserve energy. Morgan could endure, and had won games that way.

Dara and Robin strolled over from another dome. Robin took Ean aside. “Good luck. Nothing beats it, but you’ll need every resource you can summon today. Use your wits and don’t get rattled. Stay focused.” He glanced at Morgan warming up. “He’s good, but he’s far from a master. You’re not fighting Lewis.” Ean nodded and Robin patted his shoulder.

The referee raised his hand. “Ready on dome five. Players step up.”

Morgan and Ean approached opposite sides of the dome. The referee waved the old dome away, revealing an arena post at the center of a faint circle in the grass. He raised his arm. They stepped inside the circle and their eyes met. Morgan smiled, but there were no theatrics. The referee’s arm dropped.

Ean found himself in water up to his neck. In front of him, a choppy sea stretched out to the horizon. Menacing clouds loomed overhead, and a tiny island came into view fifty yards to his left. He brought up his shield, but it didn’t keep out the salty water.

Where was Morgan? A blast from behind answered his question. He spun around to find Morgan treading water ten yards away and ducked in time to avoid another blast. When he surfaced to return fire, Morgan ducked.

Ean scowled. It was stupid to trade shots like this. Morgan would outlast him, as Karl had warned. Let Morgan waste his energy. So he bobbed and weaved, avoiding Morgan’s fireballs. He was a decent swimmer, but treading water would eventually wear him down. The island was his only hope. He swam towards it underwater, resurfacing for air every ten feet. There were no more attacks, so Morgan probably had the same idea.

Opening his eyes underwater, he glimpsed orange, fast-moving creatures with trailing appendages. His shield would protect him if they were dangerous. He was startled when something long and thin whizzed by. A harpoon from Morgan? He wasn’t sure, but he swam farther to the right. A sandy bottom sloped up to meet him.

Surfacing for air, he got a good view of the island. Less than a hundred yards across, it had a sandy beach and a patch of black boulders in the center. He would come ashore on the right side of the island. He didn’t see Morgan, but something dark moved among the boulders.

As he crawled onto the beach, battle sounds rang out from other end of the island. Morgan circled around, firing projectiles into the boulders. What was he shooting at? In a few seconds, a tall figure emerged. Ean squinted. A knight in black armor carried a gleaming broadsword. Morgan’s projectiles exploded harmlessly on its chest plate and helmet as it marched towards him. He must have realized it was indestructible and fled down the beach, glancing at Ean before veering into the boulders. The knight swiveled and clanked down the beach after him.

Morgan had spent a lot of energy on the knight, but Ean still didn’t stand a chance exposed on the beach. He ran into his side of the boulder patch and took cover, as the knight entered the other side, searching for Morgan. A barrage of projectiles arced over Ean’s head, exploding all around him. He spotted Morgan and returned fire with his own projectiles, but Morgan advanced anyway, forcing him to retreat to a boulder at the far edge of the patch.

Ean was trapped between Morgan and the beach. He could hear the knight clanking in the rocks. If he kept Morgan occupied, maybe the knight would kill him or drive him onto the beach. They exchanged fire again, but Morgan wouldn’t back off. He seemed determined to push Ean out onto the beach instead. Ean couldn’t let that happen. When Morgan stepped forward between two boulders, Ean stood up and blasted him out in the open, pouring sustained energy into Morgan’s shield. Morgan was caught off guard at first, but responded in kind. They dueled until no more energy flowed between them. Both of their shields flickered out.

Morgan came forward, his fists in the air. Great. All that fancy magic, and it came down to an old-fashioned brawl. Morgan took a swing and Ean ducked. Ean feinted a blow to the stomach. As Morgan protected his belly, Ean popped him squarely on the nose.

“Ha!” Ean laughed. “Fakery. Works anywhere.”

Enraged, Morgan sprang forward and tackled Ean, both of them rolling onto the beach. Ean tried to pin him down, but Morgan was stronger and a better wrestler. He choked Ean from behind, as the knight lumbered onto the beach.

Morgan stood up slowly, his arm clasped around Ean’s neck. The knight stepped forward and raised its massive sword, until the tip prodded Ean’s chest. There it stood, frozen like a statue.

“What are you waiting for?” Morgan yelled. “Run him through. Or run us both through. The game will boot him first and I’ll win.” He waited, but the knight wouldn’t budge. He stepped forward, trying to impale Ean on the sword, but the knight stepped back. Its sword still poked at Ean’s chest, drawing a few drops of blood.

Morgan snorted. “Stupid knight. Alright then, I’ll choke him to death. Game over.” Morgan’s grasp tightened and Ean felt his consciousness slipping away. He wondered what Robin would say, when in one quick motion, the knight spun around in a circle and sliced them both in half.

Ean lay flat on his back in the stadium grass. He turned his head to see Morgan gesticulating wildly at the referee. “…totally unfair. The knight would have killed me instantly. Why didn’t it kill him when it had the chance?” His friends murmured in agreement. “Who sets up these games anyway?”

“That’s not my business,” the referee replied evenly. “But game logic isn’t biased. I’m sure you know that.” He shrugged. “The knight preferred to kill two intruders instead of one, and it had the time to decide how. Nothing wrong with that.” Morgan fumed, but couldn’t argue.

Robin’s amused face slid into view. “Unusual game.” He helped Ean to his feet. “It’s been ruled a draw. You should have lost, but Morgan was a fool.” He looked Ean in the eye. “If you want to win, never let the game decide your fate.” Someone called him from another dome. He walked away, as Karl and Dara approached.

“A good outcome for both of you,” Dara said.

Ean stared vacantly at the grass. “It was the worst possible outcome. If he’d lost a second time, he’d bow out. If he’d won, he’d save face. But now…it will eat away at him. A big problem has gotten even worse.” He sighed. “I should have thrown the match, or never agreed to it.”

“The problem hasn’t gotten worse,” Karl assured him. “You merely deferred the solution to the next rematch. Which we’re all looking forward to, by the way.”

“I only agreed to another game if I lost. No way I’m doing that again.”

Arie came up beside him. “To keep the peace, you may have to. Morgan’s friends are talking about another match.” Ean glanced in their direction. Morgan had left the field. “But not today. We have an appointment, remember?”

They said goodbye to Karl and Dara and stopped by the dining hall for a quick lunch. There was plenty of time, but Ean wanted to be early. It wouldn’t do to have Morgan or Vonya catch them snooping around. He was relieved when the lobby of the faculty building was empty.

“Turn off your mental presence,” Ean whispered. “You know the spell. And make yourself invisible, just in case.”

“They’ll see through that.”

“Only if they’re looking for it, or we’re noisy.” They started down the hall. “These offices have large closets. That’s where we’ll hide.”

Mostly invisible, Ean held Arie’s hand as they tiptoed past Robin’s office. The door was closed. Three doors down, they came to Vonya’s office. Ean put his ear against the door and listened. No sounds. He braced himself and turned the door handle. If they were caught, this would be the most likely time. But the door opened into an empty office. Breathing a sigh of relief, he pulled Arie inside and closed the door.

Vonya’s office had a large desk, a couch, and several modern-looking chairs. Compared to Robin’s office, it was spotless. To the left was a wooden door. He opened it and led Arie inside. Except for a few coats and shoes, the closet was empty. He closed the door and they sat down in the dark.

“All we have to do is be quiet and listen,” Ean whispered. They waited about twenty minutes before the office door opened.

“…only use this office for meetings,” Vonya said. “It’s private and warded against remote eavesdropping.” The door clicked shut. There was a pause and the sound of shuffling feet. “So what do you have? What are his plans?”

“Nothing’s changed.” Ava said. “You know the attack plans. He suggests you lay low until then.”

Ean couldn’t believe his ears. Ava? She must have been in on it from the beginning. But why didn’t she kidnap Arie at Uncle Harry’s farm, when she had the chance?

“I can’t,” Vonya said. “Julian’s pressuring me to come up with something. What do I tell him?”

“Stall him. He might even turn, according to Lewis.”

“What? I see no indication–“

“He’s fed up with the Enli too.” Ava paused. “It’s a small possibility. But stall him anyway. What else can you do?”

“Well…Morgan was going to take the heat for you.”

“It’s the least I can do,” Morgan said.

“That won’t be necessary. There’s not much time. The Council will have other things to worry about, soon enough.”

“What about the kids?” Vonya asked.

“They’re guarded. I’d stay away. Wait until after the attack, when there are distractions everywhere.” She paused. “That’s all I have for now. Keep your eyes open.” Footsteps headed towards the door. It opened and closed and there was another pause.

The closet door suddenly opened. Ean couldn’t move and toppled over onto Arie, both of them now visible. Strong arms grabbed them and dragged them out onto the office floor.

Morgan smiled down at Ean. “Like I said, a day of reckoning.”

Vonya stared at him. “That’ll be all, Morgan. You can go.” Morgan left, a definite bounce in his step.

“How did you know?” Ean croaked, barely able to move his lips.

“I knew you’d be in the closet.” Vonya said, no hint of emotion in her voice. “I asked Morgan to lure you here. Of course, I had to get rid of that damn cat or this wouldn’t have worked.” She smiled. “Hope you liked the flowers.”

Arie gasped. “You’re in charge of security. But you’re the accomplice.”

“Oh, I’ll see to your security. I considered handing you over to Ava, but plans have changed.”

Ean labored under his breath. “But…Ava protected us on Earth.”

“She kept up appearances. She didn’t have the authorization to transfer Arie out, and we couldn’t get a tether onto the farm.”

To his horror, Ean realized what a fool he’d been. He’d stumbled into a nest of vipers, and dragged Arie along with him. The vase of flowers had done something to Maya, their only protection. Vonya and Morgan weren’t trying to flush out Ava. All three of them were Zaphan’s accomplices. And why would Julian put an accomplice in charge of security, unless… Ean closed his eyes. Even in Valan, Zaphan’s cancer had spread and he was powerless against it.

Something snapped in the air and light footsteps padded towards him. A little boy looked down at Ean, expressionless–the same boy who had kidnapped Arie at the Amish grocery store. He bent down and tied Ean’s wrist to Arie’s with a black strip. It caressed him like cool leather, yet clung to him tenaciously. The boy stepped back and Vonya’s face appeared.

“Goodbye, Arie and Ean. You’ll be secure where you’re going.” She touched the strip and everything went black.

 

Arie pounded his shoulder. “Ean, get up.”

He woke up on a hard, filthy floor, with all his joints and tendons complaining at once. This wasn’t his Fantean body. Where was he? He wiped a slimy piece of debris from his mouth and took a deep breath. Humid air tainted with exhaust fumes filled his lungs. He’d breathed that air once before–the hydrocarbon pollution of Rhith, Zaphan’s world.

“We’re in a jail cell,” Arie said.

Iron bars blocked the way to his left. Above him, a tiny window let in a few rays of sunlight, if you could call it that. A trail of brown sludge dripped from the window and a grimy floor sloped down to a drain in the center of the cell.

Ean sat up, rubbing his eyes. Arie’s silhouette was dimly visible. “How long have we been here?”

“I don’t know. I just woke up.”

“Ten minutes,” said a familiar voice. Ean stood up, looking around. The voice seemed to come from the next cell.

“Who’s that?” Arie asked, her voice trembling.

“Don’t you know? It’s good to hear your voices again. The circumstances could be better.”

Ean perked up. So there had been foul play. “Dad? Is that really you? Did Zaphan lock you in here too?”

“I’m afraid so, Ean. But maybe we can do something about it, now that you’re here.”

Arie grabbed the bars and tried to poke her head through. “We’re not good with magic, Dad.”

“No, not that. Magic won’t work down here. Not for us.” He paused. “Do you still have what I gave you, Arie?”

“The bracelet?”

“Yes, that too. But do you remember the code I gave you? The one I asked you to keep secret? It could free us.”

Arie hesitated. “No, I don’t remember that. When did you give it to me?”

“I’m not sure. When I gave you the bracelet, I think.”

Ean frowned. It was Dad’s voice, right down to the refined Scottish accent. But something didn’t add up. Dad was no fool. He would have remembered what he did with an important code. Had imprisonment or torture degraded his memory? Maybe, but something else was wrong. He hasn’t seen his beloved daughter in weeks and when she shows up in a jail cell next to him, the first thing he does is ask her for a secret code? No, he would have asked her what happened and probably scolded her for skipping summer school.

“When did you give her the bracelet?” Ean asked. But there was no answer, except for the metallic clank of a cell door and footsteps approaching. A tall, dark figure halted in the shadows outside their cell. The figure shrugged.

“Worth a try,” said Zaphan.

“What did you do with Dad?” Arie demanded.

“What did he do with himself? I thought I knew him, but he wasn’t the same after Catrin died.” He paused. “Perhaps he went to look for himself. But there’s something else he found that interests me.”

“A code?” Ean asked. “Well, now you know we don’t have it. So how about sending us back?”

“Hmm.” Zaphan eyed the floor. He looked up suddenly. “It’s gloomy down here. Why not join me for dinner?”

He snapped his fingers, and the jail cell vanished. They were in a large room. An arc of picture windows gave them a view of a misty lake and a dirty orange beach. Ghostly mountains peeked through the mist and ugly brown clouds obscured the sun. Inside, classical piano music played in the background. Bach, Ean guessed. Ambrosia and Vonya glared at each other across a long, black dining table, looking almost human without their pointed ears.

Arie wrinkled her nose. “It’s gloomy up here too.”

“Oh, it’s a nightmare,” Ambrosia said. She scowled at Zaphan. “Can’t you at least change that music?”

“It’s intelligent and logical,” Vonya said. “If you can’t appreciate–“

“It’s monotonous and lifeless,” Ambrosia snapped. “Like you.”

“Ladies…” Zaphan said, his expression pained. “We have guests.” He clapped his hands and the music changed to something airy and light, with harps and flutes. Ambrosia didn’t complain. “My apologies about the scenery. It can’t be helped at the moment.” He turned to Arie and Ean. “Please, have a seat. Dinner will be served shortly.”

Ean slumped into a seat across from Ambrosia, with Arie beside him. Zaphan took a seat next to Ambrosia, opposite Ean.

Ean played with his silverware and grumbled. “This is stupid. We have nothing you want or need.”

Zaphan seemed mildly offended. “Today, all we need is your scintillating conversation. And you underestimate yourself. I know of no one else with an aptitude for magic, together with your logical and technical skills. The resume of a worldsmith. Your father was a smart magician, but he wasn’t an engineer.”

“So he’s even duller than his father?” Ambrosia asked.

“No,” Arie said. “They’re about the same.”

Ean frowned. “Come on, I can’t be that unique. Robin’s familiar with Earth science and technology.”

Zaphan laughed. “Even I’m a better programmer than Robin, and that isn’t saying much.”

“Alright, fine. Then take me and let Arie go.”

“Arie has something of greater immediate value, even if she’s unaware of it. Perhaps I should explain.”

So Zaphan was finally going to show his hand. “Please do.”

“I don’t how much they taught you. Where to begin?” He took a deep breath. “A world is a system of laws or constraints. It’s linked to a higher-level framework of constraints we call Enna, the multiverse. But all those constraints are really the same thing: spells. The will of ancient worldsmiths–worldcode, some call it. It’s richer than computer code, but code nonetheless.”

“We understand that,” Arie said. “What does it have to do with me?”

“If a world is nothing but constraints, then what are you? What defines you? Well, mostly your memories and the constraints on your personality. Some you were born with, and others you’ve accumulated throughout your life. Hidden code that defines all of your desires, values, inclinations, and more.”

“On Earth we call that a brain,” Ean said.

Zaphan smiled. “Didn’t Robin give you his little speech yet? The one about deceptive worlds that expand as you explore them?”

“Oh, that. I don’t know whether to take that seriously.”

“You should. Let’s just say that if no one has observed your brain, it doesn’t exist yet. But your mind still does.”

“So if I have a seizure, it’s caused by…what, magic?”

“Actually, yes. An event happened that’s consistent with you having a brain. The probability may be close to certainty. But your brain isn’t really there until you look.” He paused. “Your body and brain change when you transfer to another world. You can even understand another language. But your memories and personality remain intact. Why? Because they’re defined elsewhere, by hidden code bound to Enna itself. Body and brain are a world’s expression of that code.”

“We’re not just code,” Ambrosia complained. “We’re souls. With consciousness.”

Vonya scoffed. “Consciousness is just complex magic, and the sooner you accept–“

“Please,” Zaphan said, holding up his hand. “Let’s not get into that. I’m trying to explain something else.”

Ean shrugged. “Alright, so you believe we’re hidden magical code. What does that have to do with Arie?”

Zaphan continued. “As I said, your father was a smart magician. Let’s say he stumbled across powerful, dangerous magic. So dangerous it had to be hidden. Where would he hide it? Arie’s bracelet? No, you can’t hide magic by binding it to an object. He’d hide it where no one could see it. A place where only the magic itself had access. He’d graft it onto Arie’s…soul.”

“What? That’s bizarre. First of all, what makes you think Dad had magic like that?”

“Well…like me, your father visited worlds outside the Fantean umbrella. I don’t know what his motives were. But in one world, he approached a mutual acquaintance of ours–an expert in…antiquities. Your father suggested to him that one of the ancient Heirlooms had come into his possession–a worldsmith utility. The White Codem, to be precise. The Codems were thought to have been destroyed ages ago.”

“I don’t know what that is, but it sounds like a myth.”

Zaphan nodded. “I wouldn’t have believed it either, except…I trust this mutual friend. And your father is many things, but he isn’t a liar. Anyway, he hinted that he was under surveillance and asked how a Codem might be hidden. Our friend suggested the grafting and that a child would be the best host, for reasons I won’t get into. So your father left and our friend contacted me. The evidence shows your father was in the Washington DC area shortly afterwards. Then he hopped on a plane to London and poof…he was gone.” Zaphan leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. “Both of you are intelligent. What would you conclude?”

Ean’s eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute. Your friend tipped you off just before Dad disappeared? About that Codem you so desperately wanted?” His face turned white. “You’re right, what would we conclude?”

“Don’t be a fool,” Zaphan snapped. “Ewan and I were friends. And why would I do away with him when he knows what I need to know?” He sighed. “Other parties knew about the Codem. Your father was being watched. He played with fire and got burned, it seems.”

Ean eyed the table, muttering slowly. “It seems to me…that you were competing with Dad for a long time.” He swung around to gaze out a window at the hazy mountains and turned back to Zaphan. “Probably for Mom, as your little version of Mount Rushmore suggests.”

Zaphan stared at Ean and burst out laughing. It took awhile, but eventually he recovered, his expression amused, but thoughtful.

“A keen observation, I must say.” He glanced at Arie and turned back to Ean, lowering his head and speaking in hushed tones, as if taking them into his confidence. “Ewan had dark eyes, you know. Have you ever noticed that all three of us have the same beautiful, blue eyes?”

Ean’s jumped to his feet. “You evil mo–“

“Exactly,” Zaphan said, slapping his hand on the table. Vonya smiled and Ambrosia shook her head.

“No!” Arie shouted. She leaned forward, searching Zaphan’s face. “It can’t be. Tell me it’s not true.”

Zaphan leaned back and shrugged. “Ewan was away a lot.”

Ean turned away in disgust. “Don’t believe him. Can’t you see what he’s doing? I challenged his story, it angered him, and now he’s toying with us.”

“Interesting analysis,” Zaphan said. “But there’s still the matter of how your mother’s face got on my cliff.”

“I’ll tell you how,” Ean spat, his temper flaring. “Long ago, you had the hots for her and she turned you down, didn’t she? You never got over it, and your subconscious carved her face in the cliff when you built this…sad excuse for a world.”

Zaphan clapped his hands. “Ingenious. It’s uncanny how insightful you are. With my good looks too.”

Everyone’s head turned as a door opened at the end of the room and a woman entered. She tossed back her thick black hair, glancing quickly at Vonya and Ambrosia before resting her eyes on Arie and Ean. Faded paint marks lined her dark cheeks and her tight leather clothes were tattered and worn. She looked like a wild woman who had tried to clean herself up for dinner.

Zaphan stood up, holding out his arms. “Ah, my friend Shandra. I believe you’ve all met.” He grinned. “All three of my witches are joining me for dinner tonight.”

Shandra stopped in her tracks, glaring at Zaphan. “Friend?”

“Excuse me,” Zaphan corrected himself, with an awkward flourish and a bow. “My charming mistress, the true Queen of Pim.” A little boy with a mop of black hair stepped out from behind Shandra, facing Zaphan with a sullen expression. The same boy who had abducted Arie twice.

“And this is her lovely son, Arrow.”

Shandra’s eyes smoldered. “Your son!”

“Yes, of course,” Zaphan said quickly. “I’m immensely proud of my young prince. And you too, Shandra.” He turned to Ean and winked. “We’re all one big happy family here.”

 

Dare

 

Zaphan’s dinner was served on steaming platters which suddenly appeared in the center of the table. Unlike the food in Valan, real meat was well represented–strip steaks, curry chicken, glazed pork, and more. On either side were bowls of buttered rice mixed with peas, carrots, and shrimp, all seasoned with a spicy sauce reminiscent of an Asian restaurant. Several bottles of wine also appeared around the table. Ambrosia seemed thoroughly disgusted with the whole affair, and both and she and Vonya avoided the meat. But to Ean, it smelled wonderful. For all practical purposes, it was an Earth feast and he dug in. Zaphan might be an evil man, but at least he had a fine cook.

Arrow and Shandra sat across from Ean. Close up, Shandra wasn’t entirely savage, wearing a fine necklace and jeweled rings like a rich woman on Earth. Her thick hair was clean and her scent leathery and spicy. Underneath the faded war paint, she hid high cheek bones and dark, exotic eyes. She smiled at Ean as she scooped rice onto Arrow’s plate. Arrow’s black hair and small mouth weren’t much different close up. His expression was blank, and Ean had never seen it otherwise.

Zaphan cut into his steak. “So. We need to unlock the Codem. What would Ewan use?” He chewed his steak, twirling his fork in the air. “A gesture or a passphrase, perhaps. Something uncommon, but memorable. That’s where I need you two to help.”

“Even if Arie has what you think,” Ean said, “Why should we help you? You’ve caused us and everyone else nothing but trouble. If you had this…Codem, you’d cause even more.”

“It’s all for a noble cause,” Zaphan explained, sipping his wine. “If I’ve inconvenienced a few bureaucrats, so be it. A small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.”

“No, it’s not,” Arie challenged him. “You’ve wrecked entire worlds to pursue your own selfishness.”

Zaphan wiped his mouth. “No, not selfishness. You don’t understand these worlds or the people in them. Many are born into appalling circumstances far beyond their control, often leading to bitter, ruinous lives.”

“You can’t choose where you’re born,” Arie said.

Zaphan pointed his fork at her. “Precisely. And so much depends on that oft-ignored fact, doesn’t it? You have some control over your experience, but only within the limits of your body and your world. Most can’t change either and blame themselves if it doesn’t go well. ‘Accept responsibility for your life’ we’re told. But a few curious ones begin to wonder why they were born as they were in the first place.” He scooped more rice onto his plate. “Who makes that decision?”

“God does,” Arie said. Shandra and Vonya laughed. Ambrosia stared at her wine glass.

“Maybe things would be better if He did His job.” Zaphan said. “Unfortunately, Enna-level magic decides.”

Ean frowned. “So there’s a box of souls somewhere and an algorithm to distribute them?”

Zaphan shrugged. “Mock if you wish, but Enna will decide your fate. It decided who you are and who you once were, and it will decide who you become. We are bound to it forever, in life and death. No one can escape its bonds…or so I used to think.”

“I will not be bound,” Ambrosia declared. “By Fantys, or Enna, or anything.”

Vonya sipped her wine. “Why bind us at all? It’s unreasonable, unless we’re being exploited in some way.”

“As we have been in Mithe,” Shandra said. She faced Arie. “It’s you who are selfish, child. You weren’t born disadvantaged and give no thought to those who were. The problem is more acute in Mithe, where divisions between the classes are sharper. Most of us are born into squalor, without your advanced technology or even a basic magical education. And you resist when Lewis asks for your help.”

Arie frowned. “He didn’t ask for my help. He attacked me.”

“He’s asking now,” Vonya said.

Ean poked at his food. “Look, I know I have a lot to learn. But it’s obvious the worlds were built by smart people who knew what they were doing. Smarter than you. They must have known what would happen, and yet the worlds are the way they are. Is it wise to second guess them?”

Ambrosia rolled her eyes. “What a dismal attitude. You’re worse than your father.”

Zaphan leaned back in his chair. “Don’t question authority, is that it? Oh dear, you do have a lot to learn. We’re trapped in a prison where even death is no escape. But our jailers are probably smarter than we are, so we should simply trust them.”

“You bragged about freeing us from our sandbox,” Arie said. “Now you say we’re in a prison.”

“We’re exceptions. The vast majority of people are stuck in one world, often under horrid conditions. They don’t really control their own destiny.”

Ean raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure they’re ready to?”

“We’re more than ready,” Shandra said defiantly. “And the Codem will make it possible.”

“Where would you go?” Arie asked.

“Back to the native world, of course. We’re tired of these fake fantasy nightmares. We want the truth. To wake up and know who we really are.”

Ean slowly shook his head. “These worlds seem plenty real to me. You can suffer horribly and die here, with no arena safeties.” He paused. “And even if there is a native world, it’s unknown. Would you throw away everything you’ve ever known and loved, and replace it with an unknown?”

“Bury me in the mud of the Earth,” Zaphan said sarcastically. “For that is where I belong.”

Ean gathered his thoughts. “What if the native world is a dystopia or a prison you came here to escape?”

“To replace it with another prison? No, I think you’re a dreamer who’s afraid of the alarm bell. If I ever make it to the native world, I intend to pull the plug on this whole mess.”

“You would destroy worlds and artifacts that took lifetimes of experience to create? Even worlds you haven’t seen or conceived of?”

Zaphan’s expression turned grim. “You have no idea what worlds Enna hosts, or what she’s capable of.” He swallowed the rest of his wine. “Now…not to be rude, but you need to supply us with the key to unlock the Codem. Odd phrases or rhymes your father used. That sort of thing.”

“If the Codem is so well hidden, how can you be sure Arie has it?”

“I’m sure. Stop stalling and get on with it.”

“Well…” Ean eyed the ceiling. “I can’t think of anything. But even if I could, I wouldn’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

He leveled his gaze at Zaphan. “Because I don’t believe you. I think you’re a lying, deluded megalomaniac.”

Zaphan stared at him for several seconds. “I see. And what would a deluded megalomaniac do in a situation like this?”

Arie’s face turned white. “Wait, Ean didn’t mean–“

“Ah, I know. Since you like Enna so much, you can both take a vacation on one her worlds, courtesy of me.” He smiled and snapped his fingers. “Bon Voyage.”

 

The first thing Ean noticed was the heat.

A desert stretched out in front of him, sprinkled with tubular bushes and a few islands of rock. To the left, an immense ravine split the landscape in half. An abnormally large sun smoldered above, baking everything in dull red heat. The air was thick and hot, with a hint of rotting flesh.

Arie’s mouth hung open. “You…idiot!”

“It’s not that bad.”

“Of course it is. You keep getting us kicked out of places. At least we had good food and air conditioning.” She shook her head. “Your mouth finally got us in big trouble, just like Uncle Harry said it would.”

“Well, I was right. Now Zaphan’s proved he’s a megalomaniac.”

“That’ll be so comforting when we’re dying of thirst.”

Ean squinted at the hellish landscape. “This might be a trick. We could be inside an arena.”

“Why don’t you kill yourself and find out?”

Ean bit his lip. Somehow, it felt more real than any arena game, and the heat was already uncomfortable. He tested his magical skills on a small rock, but it wouldn’t budge. An attempt to fill his cupped hand with water also failed.

“What do we do now?”

He glanced up at the huge red sun. “We need shade. Let’s head for one of those rock hills.”

They set out towards the nearest hill, threading their way through the strange bushes. Each bush was a cluster of pale green tubes with ends flaring like trumpets. Inside, they were lined with sharp bristles. As Ean bent over to inspect one, it struck out like a rattlesnake, latching onto his shirt. He jumped back, ripping the tube out of the ground. It no longer moved, so he stepped on it and pulled himself free.

“Nice,” he muttered. “I wonder who designed this world.”

“That would be Ceodrek”, said a voice from behind. “God of happiness and fulfillment.”

Ean spun around to face a small…man, if that’s what he was. He stood less than four feet tall, with round eyes and slender pointed ears. A dirty tunic barely covered his leathery skin, and his head was mostly bald, except for a few tufts of orange hair slicked back with oil. He smiled at Ean, revealing a wide mouth filled with pointed teeth.

“You’re visitors,” he said in a lispy voice. “In Carnum, the best of all possible worlds. I’m Gonk.”

Ean introduced himself and Arie. “Can we get out of this heat?”

“Of course. You can do whatever you like in a free world.”

He led them down a winding path to the nearest hill, carefully avoiding the tube bushes. At the base of the hill, a lizard-like creature sprang from behind a rock and attached itself to his neck. With no sign of surprise, Gonk grabbed the creature and bit it in half, crunching its bones as he walked. He threw the other half away where a tube bush seized it. Ean scanned the desert for any other creatures, but saw nothing.

Gonk took them underneath a rocky overhang, a short way up the hill. Someone like him with more hair sat on a boulder, grinding meat in a large bowl. Ean assumed she was female, although it was hard to tell. Gonk calmly walked up to her and kicked her in the head. She grunted and fell over backwards, but quickly got up and resumed her grinding as if nothing had happened.

“This is my wife, Bash,” Gonk said. “She’s fixing our dinner.”

Arie’s eyes flew open. “What a horrible way to treat your wife. Are you a wife-beater?”

Gonk seemed genuinely puzzled. “Absolutely. What’s wrong with that?”

Arie threw her hands in the air. “Everything. Don’t you even consider how she feels? Don’t you have any empathy?”

Gonk’s eyes widened. “Are you joking? Empathy is the worst thing you can have. It smothers happiness. Why take away my God-given right to hurt others when there’s so much joy in it? Only liars say there isn’t, and we’re truthful people. Treating her nice would be dishonest.”

Arie turned to Bash. “And you just accept that? Don’t you even complain?”

Bash shook her head vigorously. “If I complained when Gonk hurt me, he’d complain when I hurt him, and it just becomes a vicious cycle. We’d waste time and energy caring about each other and rob ourselves of personal happiness.” Before anyone could react, she sprang up and kicked Gonk savagely in the groin. He doubled over in agony. Ean stepped back cautiously.

Bash smiled. “See? That felt so good.”

“Not for Gonk,” Ean said.

Bash shrugged. “We can’t all have fun at the same time.”

Arie narrowed her eyes. “If you have no empathy, why did you take strangers like us into your camp?”

Gonk tried to straighten up, gasping. “Well, of course I didn’t do it for you. I thought I might learn something new, but perhaps I was mistaken.” He bent over again, clutching his groin and rocking back and forth. “It’s rumored that we had empathy long ago, but the gods blessed us with true freedom and we became the most advanced culture in all the worlds. We’re not phonies anymore. When everyone cares only about themselves, all things turn out for the best.”

Ean glanced warily at Bash’s feet and turned back to Gonk. “Where I come from, we try to care for each other. We pool our resources together for the common good, to aid the needy and the disadvantaged.”

Gonk seemed horrified. “What a sick, degenerate regime. I see why you came here.”

“We also have an important rule,” Arie said. “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Gonk shook his head in disbelief. “Never, ever do that. They’re not worth it. Your own happiness is always worth more.”

Neither side could persuade the other, so Gonk offered to take them to the top of the hill. They took a circuitous route, but Gonk assured them it was for the best. Other routes passed by dens of creatures best avoided. Everything was predatory in Carnum, Gonk explained, including plants, so the weakest species were quickly rooted out. Carnum once had forests teeming with peaceful plants, which were only a drain on its finite resources. Those worthless freeloaders had been efficiently eliminated.

After a short climb they came to a flat rock which Gonk said was the highest point on the hill. The scenery wasn’t much different, but Ean could see more rock hills like the one they stood on. He could also appreciate the true immensity of the ravine, which divided the land as far as he could see. Gonk claimed it was bottomless and no one had ever been to the other side. At the base of a nearby hill, two hulking forms searched through the rocks.

“What are those large creatures?” Ean asked.

Gonk stiffened. “Those are gods.”

“Really? Do they have magical powers?”

“There’s no magic in Carnum. It would make us depraved and weak. They’re gods because they graciously allow us to live in their rocks, as long as we leave enough meat out for them. Oh, they’re benevolent, I assure you. Occasionally they might eat some of us, but it’s a small price to pay for their generosity.”

Arie frowned. “Sounds like you’d be better off without them.”

“It’s tempting to think that,” Gonk admitted. “But they keep us on our toes. If they left, worse gods would take their place.” He brightened. “And it’s rumored if we serve them long enough, we can become like them.”

They went down the hill the same way they had come, but when they neared the camp, another dwarf like Gonk stood in their way. Gonk lunged, tackling him and pinning him to the ground. Then he grabbed a rock and smashed the other dwarf’s head with it, again and again. The dwarf went limp and Gonk stood up slowly, catching his breath. Arie and Ean recoiled, stunned by the violence and ferocity of the attack.

“Why did you do that?” Arie asked, in shock.

Gonk took several deep breaths. “Well, apart from the joy of bashing his head in…he’s not one of our kind.”

“You look exactly alike,” Ean said.

“His ears curve the wrong way.”

“What difference does it make?” Arie said, incredulous. “He wasn’t threatening you.”

“Doesn’t matter. He shouldn’t have been on our hill. Once we let his kind in, they’ll multiply.” Gonk sized up Arie and Ean. “You two look strong. Help me drag him down to Bash and we’ll share his meat with you.”

“But…that’s cannibalism,” Arie said, horrified.

Gonk shrugged. “Who hasn’t indulged in a bit of cannibalism now and then?” He stooped down and bit off one of the dwarf’s fingers, crunching it slowly. “Not bad.” He fished a piece of meat out of his mouth and offered it to Arie. “Try some.”

“You make me sick.”

“Not even a taste?”

Ean shook his head. “We’re not gonna help you eat your friend. I’m afraid that’s final.”

Arie and Ean wouldn’t help Gonk at all, so he struggled with the body himself, dragging it by the feet. Ean winced as its head banged against the rocks on the way down.

They turned a corner and entered the camp, stopping their tracks. Bash was pinned against a stone wall by two of Gonk’s hulking gods. No, not gods. More like demons. They were about nine feet tall with rough black skin, glowing yellow eyes, and slavering jaws filled with six inch teeth.

“Meat?” One of them boomed. Bash shook her head. She let out a high-pitched scream as the demon wrapped its powerful claws around her and lifted her up to eye level. It stared at her for a moment, then popped her into its mouth and swallowed her in two quick gulps.

“Beautiful,” Gonk exclaimed. But his eyes opened wide as the demons turned on him. He dropped the body he was dragging. “Quick, out through the side exit.”

They hurried through the exit after Gonk, with the demons lumbering behind. He led them higher onto the rocks, through tight passages where the demons couldn’t follow. They emerged onto a small plateau with a view of the desert. At least six demons were milling around the base of the hill, tearing apart the body Gonk left behind.

“This is unusual,” Gonk said. “Gods never gather around our hill. Not this many.” He glanced at Arie. “They must have picked up your scent. I guess they haven’t had your kind of meat before.”

“That sounds encouraging,” Arie said.

“It’s best to wait them out. Maybe they’ll lose interest. But in case we die, you never said where you were from.”

“We’re from several worlds,” Ean replied. “But originally, we’re from a world called Earth. An evil magician sent us here to punish us for not cooperating with him.”

Gonk snorted. “He sent you to paradise as a punishment? What a fool.” Ean and Arie exchanged glances. “Never heard of Earth before. Not sure I want to.”

Ean nodded. “It’s probably not your thing.”

Nothing else would be. Gonk wasn’t one of Zaphan’s malcontents. He’d been born into the best of all possible worlds. He’d found his truth and knew who he was. In that respect, he wasn’t much different than the Amish. There was little room for self-examination, revision, or growth. But for Ean, it was a another story. Apparently, there was no end to the search for truth, not even in death.

Was any of this real? Ean still couldn’t shake the idea that he was in a simulation. And it still didn’t do him any good. He clasped his knees against his chest and laughed. After all they’d been through, this is what it came down to: sitting on a pile of rocks in hell, with a profoundly selfish dwarf or goblin or whatever he was, about to become an exotic appetizer for demons. What a fool he was to believe that he could stand up to Zaphan, a seasoned magician whose power and influence spanned many worlds. He was an even bigger fool to believe he could protect Arie, when he’d led her straight into the trap Vonya had set. And then he’d shot off his big mouth and condemned them both to hell. Nice going, Ean. Pat yourself on the back. He wondered if Zaphan was right. When he died here, would Enna send him somewhere to start over again?

Zaphan seemed certain about Arie. Did Dad really graft powerful magic onto her soul? It sounded crazy. But if true, it might be a way out of here, if only Ean could activate it. He tried to think of what Dad might use as a password, but drew a blank. Dad was a smart, no-nonsense guy. He wasn’t superstitious, nor did he use sentimental phrases.

And then there was the question he’d avoided: was Zaphan their real father? He chuckled to himself. No, he wouldn’t even waste time on that. What father would cast his children into hell? Zaphan was playing games, mixing truth with lies. Driving them insane.

Crumbling rocks snapped Ean out of his reverie. A demon trudged up a shallow slope towards them. Gonk sprang up, motioning for Arie and Ean to follow. He led them on a new path zigzagging sharply downward. When they stepped out onto the desert floor, Ean’s heart sank. Demons flanked them on both sides, twenty or more.

“Forward is the only way,” Gonk shouted. “They’re slow. Maybe we can outrun them.”

They sprinted out into the desert, dodging tube bushes, with the demons circling in from behind. Gonk tested the left flank, then the right, but the demons closed up any holes leading to an escape. The problem was clear–they would soon be trapped against the huge ravine. Ean wondered if a path led downward, but when they reached the edge, his hopes were dashed. A sheer cliff greeted them, with no possibility of a trail. The ravine wasn’t bottomless, but it seemed that way. A thin thread of water lay among the rocks, more than a mile below. They turned back from the edge to face a half circle of demons, slowly advancing on them.

“You appear to be in a predicament,” Gonk said. Ean frowned at him.

“Oh, well,” Arie said weakly. “I won’t get old, but I got to see a lot of places.”

Gonk smiled. “And you saved the best for last.”

The demons were closer now, their eyes glowing like citrine gemstones. Deep laughter rumbled in their throats as gobs of saliva dripped from their jaws. They lumbered closer. There was no doubt what would happen. Fear gripped Ean. The intense, primal fear of being eaten alive.

Gonk stepped forward. “Ahem. Great Lords of Carnum, Masters of Rock and Fire. Thank you for answering my prayers.” He bowed low, gesturing to Ean and Arie. “I humbly offer up these rare and succulent Earth people as atonement for my wife’s sinful disobedience. May it please your Lordships to set me free, that I may procure more of them for you.”

Arie snorted. “Where’s your honesty and truthfulness now, Gonk?”

Gonk stared at her. “I am true to myself. Unfettered selfishness is always honest.”

Ean shook his head. “All that talk about the best of all possible worlds. And this is your life?”

“My life has been a complete and utter waste of time,” Gonk said proudly, “And I hope yours will be too.”

A demon seized Gonk. Bones snapped as it crushed him like a bug and tossed him thirty feet over its shoulder. He landed with a dull thud, near a tube bush. A few tubes came to life, exploring his body.

Ean’s head spun. The demons pressed in, their nauseating stench overwhelming his senses. Do I dare? His knees buckled as Arie screamed. He would wait no longer. He grabbed her wrist and jumped backwards into nothing.

Immediately before death, your life flashes before your eyes. It’s an old cliche, but Ean could vouch for its veracity. Time expanded and his life unrolled in front of him like an old map–his childhood in Scotland, his first bike, his encounters with the neighborhood bully. He remembered their first cat Felix and dog Bairnie, and spoke the names out loud. But nothing happened. He frowned. Everyone used pet names for passwords. Dad worked on secret government projects and knew better.

There will be time.

Ean remembered when Arie was a toddler. Other girls played with dolls, but Arie played with Felix and Bairnie like they were other children. Later, she preferred woodland hikes to trendy clothes and pajama parties. She loved the outdoors, so Dad called her his Scottish Sprite. He said the phrase out loud, but nothing happened. Well, of course not. Why should anything happen? Zaphan was simply wrong.

In a minute there is time.

They continued to fall, circling slowly as the cliff streamed by. It’s not a perfect world, Dad would say. Gonk would have disagreed, but Ean yelled it into the hot air of Carnum anyway. Nothing happened.

Panic seized him, chaos and horror. Memories seared like lashes and thoughts spread like wildfire. Why this life? Arie floated slightly above him, her eyes closed in peaceful acceptance as her hair flapped in the wind. She had more courage than he would ever have. He choked back a sob and tightened his grip on her arm, so braceleted and white and bare. He had brought her here, to this forsaken world. She was life, and he had rewarded her with death.

“No!”

That is not what I meant, at all.

The thin thread at the bottom of the ravine had expanded into a river. It came up fast, but Ean couldn’t tell if they would hit the water or the rocks. He clamped Arie’s wrist with his other hand, over her beloved bracelet. Valan flooded into his memory–the first day, the weird test, the host who danced with him in the moonlight. The ground rushed up. Someone stood on the riverbank, watching. No, they wouldn’t hit the water. Say goodbye to… Wait…Arie’s sunrise bracelet. And Dad’s ring…a moonstone in a field of stars. That was it! Dad’s old dance song. His ring clicked against the bracelet and Ean sang out into the onrushing wind.

“I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.”

Arie’s bracelet exploded into a rainbow of colors, streaming outward in all directions. Carnum folded away like thin paper, as time braked sharply and almost stopped. Ean shielded his eyes as a second blast of white light overloaded his vision. He feared he’d been permanently blinded, but the white faded and his surroundings gradually came into focus. He was in a cheap office, in an uncomfortable plastic chair, with Arie beside him. Florescent lights bathed the room in antiseptic light that would wilt most plants. In front of them, his father sat behind a desk with his reading glasses on, ruffling through papers. His graying temples and dry expression hadn’t changed.

Arie squinted. “Dad? Is that you?”

Dad peered over his glasses and frowned. ”Hmm. ‘Bout time you two showed up. I was getting bored.”

 

Consequences

 

“Where have you been?” Arie demanded. “And where are we?”

Dad leaned back in his chair. “Sorry. I’m not your real father, only his image. You’re in a temporary world created by the Codem. A handy way to access its functions. Think of it as the lobby in a building of many rooms.”

“Temporary world?” Ean asked. “You mean…like an arena?”

“Not quite. An arena is an overlay on an existing world. This world is entirely separate. It even has its own clock.” He shrugged. “I could have appeared to you in Carnum, but in here Carnum time is suspended. It seemed appropriate under the circumstances. When you exit the Codem, you’ll resume where you left off.”

Arie’s eyes widened. “But we were falling to our deaths!”

Dad eyed her over his glasses. “Yes. That tends to happen when you jump off a cliff. Decisions have consequences, you know.”

“Yes, they do,” Ean snapped. “That’s why we’re here, instead of in some demon’s belly.”

Dad smiled and removed his glasses, twiddling them between his fingers. “In your case, I’d recommend an automatic transfer to Fantys, to take effect immediately on your return to Carnum. You’re authorized for transfers within your local group.” He frowned. “Carnum isn’t a Fantean world. If you vacation there again, you may face disciplinary action.”

“Vacation?” Ean swallowed back his anger. “We’ll keep it mind. What else are we authorized for?”

“Not much. Without permission from a registered authority, access is granted based on knowledge and skill level. Your level is Novice. In the parlance of your home world, it’s unwise to give a child the car keys.” He leaned forward. “But you are authorized for education and training, which will advance your level upon successful completion.”

“Will it help us fight Zaphan?”

“Zaphan? Ah yes, a local adept.” Dad lifted one eyebrow. “He would be granted higher access than you. I suggest avoiding him completely.”

“We tried that,” Arie said, exasperated. “He has friends everywhere and he always seems to find us. He knows you’re…joined to me.”

“That I am. Your father took steps to hide and secure me. Until I’m extracted, I require three keys–the bracelet conduit, the ring activator, and the passphrase. Keep them secret, and keep the bracelet and ring with you always. If you’re connected to me publicly in any world, don’t let anyone touch you or they’ll connect as well. When connected privately as you are now, you’re on my time and no one else will know.” He paused. “Zaphan may have guessed my location through his own means, but this installation cannot be detected, except by another Codem.”

“There are others?” Ean asked.

“Three were made. I’m the White Codem. I can no longer sense the Green and Black Codems.”

“So what happened to Dad?” Arie asked.

“He said nothing of his plans. My last contact with him was on Earth, when I was joined to you.” Dad hesitated. “He left a message for you both. Would you like me to read it?”

“Please,” Ean said.

“There are three parts. First: get to bed early, and Second: your Grade Point Averages had better not drop below three point six–“

“Mine’s three point nine,” Ean snapped. “It might be higher if I didn’t have to deal with monsters, dragons, megalomaniacs…you know, stuff like that.”

“…and Third: it’s not a perfect multiverse.”

Arie frowned. “That’s it? That’s all he said?”

“That’s all I was instructed to tell you.” He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a folder. “I have an excellent Novice course ready for you. Would you like to begin?”

“Not now,” Arie said wearily. “We spent the day in hell and I’m pooped.”

“Ah, well…when you’re tired, one of the best things you can do is sleep.”

Arie smiled. “Dad says that. You’ve been poking around in our heads.”

“Yes, it’s a bad habit.” Dad put on his glasses and studied his papers. “Let’s see. Apparently Fantys will let you back in without a fuss. Good, I won’t have to break anything. Valan, the Treehouse…I assume that’s where you’re headed?” They nodded eagerly.

He sat up, clearing his throat. “I’m going with you, of course. Alright, here we go.”

There was another flash of white light, a brief flicker of the Carnum ravine, and the Treehouse appeared in front of them. The sweet scent of Valan’s gardens soothed Ean’s nerves. Incredibly, the fading dusk suggested they’d only been away about eight hours. They approached the elf tree, when Ean pulled Arie down onto a bench.

“Listen, I don’t think we should tell anyone about the Codem. They’ll take it away. Dad hid it with you for a reason. If he wanted the Council to have it, he’d have given it to them.” Ean sighed. “Think about all we’ve been through today. We need what the Codem can do for us. What it can teach us. Because in the end, the Council can’t protect us.”

“But we can’t do much with it. Not yet, anyway. The Council could use it to fight Zaphan.”

“I don’t think they’re supposed to have it either. It’s an artifact of great value and the Enli would seize it.” He leaned forward. “But here’s the problem. They’ll wonder how we got back here. We can say it happened automatically as we were about to die, like in the games. Maybe Zaphan was tired of punishing us and bounced us back somehow.” He stared at the cobblestones. “In any case, the Codem can’t be detected. It’ll remain a secret as long as we keep our story straight–we don’t know how we got back. With everything else, we say exactly what happened.”

“It’s not easy to lie here.”

“Let me do the talking. I’ll call Robin tonight.”

Robin apologized for the ordeal and was relieved they were safe. He seemed more disappointed than shocked by Vonya’s treachery, and blamed himself for allowing it to happen. The Council suspected something went wrong when Vonya missed a meeting, but they were still trying to piece together what happened. Morgan had been questioned, but the extent of his involvement was unclear. Ava was on assignment and her situation was also unclear. Ambrosia’s presence at Zaphan’s dinner angered Robin and he wouldn’t discuss it. He was familiar with the ‘mythology of the Codems’, as he put it, and was confident Zaphan was chasing a fantasy. He wasn’t surprised they were saved at the last moment. If Zaphan really believed they had a Codem, they were no good to him dead.

 

Arie slept in the next morning, but Ean was summoned to a Council meeting. When he arrived, Helen, Robin, and Morgan sat at the conference table, while Julian paced back and forth.

He studied Ean, his expression serious. “Quite a day you had yesterday.” He gestured at the table. “Have a seat. We need to get to the bottom of this.” Ean sat across from Morgan, who smiled when their eyes met. “Alright Morgan, tell us your story first. What happened yesterday after your match?”

Morgan shrugged. “Well, Vonya was tasked with security and finding Zaphan’s accomplice. She suspected Ava and arranged a meeting with her to get more information. We were pretending to be on Zaphan’s side, so we played along. Vonya also asked me to lure Arie and Ean into her office. She knew they were working with him, especially after Ean gave him the tether.”

Ean snorted. “Absurd lies.”

“Let him finish,” Helen snapped. She turned to Morgan. “How did you lure them into her office?”

“I sat near them at the Toad, with Finlas and Bron, and allowed them to hear our conversation. I said we were about to meet with Zaphan’s accomplice and we had incriminating evidence against them.”

“Did you?” Robin asked.

“I’m sure Vonya did. She doesn’t tell me everything.”

“What happened at the meeting?” Julian asked.

“Ava was waiting outside Vonya’s office and we went inside. She said Zaphan would attack soon.” Morgan’s stared at his hands. “She um…thought you might turn to his side, due to frustration with the Enli. Vonya didn’t believe it.”

Julian didn’t seem surprised. “Go on.”

“Vonya said you were pressuring her for answers. She said I’d offered to confess I was an accomplice to satisfy you, but of course she was just playing along. Ava declined and advised Vonya to stall you, since an attack was immanent and you’d have more important things to worry about. So Ava left and Vonya directed a stun spell at the closet. I looked inside and sure enough, Arie and Ean were on the floor. I dragged them out and Vonya asked me to leave. That’s it.”

Julian continued to pace. “Alright Ean, let’s hear your side.”

Ean sighed. “Yes, I overheard Morgan at the pub, talking about a meeting with an accomplice and that they had proof we were guilty. I had to see for myself how we were being framed. Arie wanted to be there too, so we got to Vonya’s office early and hid in the closet. The door was unlocked.”

“Was Maya with you?” Robin asked.

“No. Vonya sent flowers to Arie the night before, posing as a secret admirer. They did something to Maya. Made her sick.”

“Ridiculous,” Morgan said. “Do you have proof?”

“She told us so, after you left.”

“Do you still have the flowers?” Robin asked.

Ean shook his head. “Arie said they were gone in the morning. But I saw them, and so did the Treehouse elf.” Morgan snorted.

“What happened then?” Julian asked.

“Vonya, Ava, and Morgan arrived. Vonya told Ava the office had wards against eavesdropping, but I had no trouble hearing anything. From there on, it happened like Morgan said, except…Vonya wasn’t playing along. After Morgan left, she said she thought about turning us over to Ava, but decided to deal with us herself. That mysterious little boy appeared–who we found out later is Zaphan’s son–and tied my wrist to Arie’s with a tether. We woke up in Zaphan’s jail.” He shrugged. “The rest is Zaphan’s dinner and the world of Carnum.”

Helen frowned. “We’re not stupid, you know. We’ve been around. No one’s ever heard of Carnum.”

Morgan chuckled. “A wild story. Is there any evidence you actually left Fantys yesterday?”

Ean glared at him. “Is there any evidence you were only playing along? You were Zaphan’s assistant once.”

“Oh, come now. The Ravens will vouch for me. As will Vonya.”

“Vonya’s missing in action,” said Julian. “Since yesterday afternoon.”

Morgan’s expression slackened. “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ava had something to do with that.”

Julian turned away. “Ava’s not available either.”

 

The meeting broke up without reaching any conclusions, or at least none the Council would talk about. Ean wandered off to the Toad for breakfast, his head spinning with paranoid thoughts. Morgan may or may not be lying, but it didn’t matter. He might as well be working for Zaphan. Vonya and Ava were certainly traitors, and one or both had helped Zaphan gain access to the code for Fantys. Had Julian actually considered teaming up with Zaphan, as Ava had suggested? That would be a deal breaker for Ean.

Arie, Dara, and Karl were in a booth when Ean arrived. Karl grinned. “You’ve been busy.”

“Yeah, everyone wants a piece of me. Morgan, Zaphan, demons from hell.” He shrugged. “The usual.”

“I’m afraid it’s worse than usual,” Dara said. “Morgan’s spreading rumors. He’s saying Ava is Zaphan’s spy, and you were associated with her from the beginning. The Earth attacks were faked to induce the Council to pity you and set you up here as Zaphan’s secret accomplices. You even gave Zaphan your tether. But Vonya caught you, so you made up a crazy story to protect yourselves and incriminate her.”

Arie fumed. “That’s so stupid. Vonya caught us? Only in her closet, and she sent us to Zaphan afterwards. And the Earth attacks were real. Karl and Nim were there.”

“Morgan’s lost his mind,” Ean said. “If Vonya’s innocent, she should show up and clear her name.”

Dara lowered her eyes. “He’s suggesting that you or Ava did something to her.”

“Really? I took on a Council Master? Yeah, that’s plausible.”

“He also says your father was good friends with Zaphan.”

“So was Morgan,” Ean snapped. “So were a lot of people. Karl was president of his fan club, from what I hear.”

“I’ve since resigned,” Karl said.

Dara shrugged. “Well, of course it’s all nonsense. But he has a following. It could make things difficult for you socially.”

“Ean was never that good socially,” Arie said.

Ean stared at her. “I was never that good at being fake. And now, on top of just staying alive, I have to fight a propaganda war with Morgan? Win friends and influence people?”

“Enhancing your image couldn’t hurt,” Dara said. “Zaphan hasn’t exactly improved Earth’s reputation.”

Karl nodded. “It’s all about perception. I hate to sound like an elemental, but the truth is what you perceive it to be.”

“On the contrary,” Ean challenged him. “There’s a slight difference between thinking reality is a certain way, and it actually being that way.”

“Maybe. But when you perceive a difference, it vanishes.”

Dara furrowed her brow. “I think…I damaged myself by thinking that thought.”

“Only the perceived difference vanishes,” Ean corrected him. “The actual is always there.”

Karl raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure? If there’s actually an actual, it’s unknowable and perception is still all that matters.”

Arie wrinkled her nose. “Ew, geeks.”

Dara looked ill. “Can we focus please? Ean’s reputation is at stake. If someone was spreading lies about me, I’d want to do something about it.”

Ean threw his hands in the air. “Like what? We’re outsiders and Morgan’s been here his whole life. Of course everyone will trust him over us. It’s hopeless.”

“You could appeal to a higher power.” Karl suggested.

Arie shook her head. “Ean doesn’t get along with God either.”

Dara smiled. “I think Karl was referring to the Council. Not a bad idea, if they believe you’re innocent. Have Julian or Robin talk to Morgan, or make a statement.”

Ean sighed. “I don’t know what the Council believes. I wonder if they do.”

 

Robin was studying a holographic map when Ean knocked on his open door. He waved it away. “Come in, Ean. What’s on your mind?”

Ean took a seat. “It’s kind of embarrassing. Arie and I seem to have an image problem.” He went on to explain how others were doubting their story, and how Morgan was spreading lies and ruining their reputation.

Robin leaned back in his chair and folded his hands together. “Well, I believe you. I checked the transfer logs. You both up show up on departures via tether, and on arrivals from an unlisted world by unknown means. I don’t know how you got back, but obviously you were gone yesterday. The Council is aware of the evidence.”

“I wish Morgan and his friends were. Could the Council make a statement refuting his claims? Everyone thinks we’re traitors.”

“We haven’t thrown you out yet, have we?” Robin shook his head. “Manipulating opinions is a tricky business, especially here where we don’t need or want Earth-style media. Have faith in the people of Valan. They’ll understand you in the long run.” He paused. “It isn’t easy for Morgan either, you know. His star plummeted when Lewis fled. He’s mortally afraid of repeating that experience with Vonya.”

“What does the Council believe happened?” Ean asked.

Robin frowned. “This might surprise you, but not everything revolves around you. The Council is privy to more than you know, with vitally important issues to consider at the moment. Your story’s interesting, but lower on the list. You gave your testimony and that’s all you can do.”

Ean lowered his eyes. The Council had a world to run and fires to put out on others. It had also just lost one of its members. And Ean was worried about his reputation?

“Sorry. You’re right.”

Robin softened. “I didn’t mean to play down your ordeal. I’m sure it was awful. I’ve never heard of Carnum.”

“I wish I hadn’t. Zaphan was trying to make a point. I commented on how marvelous Enna was and he showed me a counter example.” Ean hesitated. “He claims to fight for those born into bad situations, but the inhabitants of Carnum think theirs is the best possible world.”

Robin smiled. “It is for them. Maybe the only possible world.”

Ean changed the subject. “At least I know the identity of the boy who kidnapped Arie. It surprised me that Zaphan had a son.”

“Yes, his meddling in Mithe was more extensive than we thought.”

“Another thing. Zaphan said we have…souls, for lack of a better word. A core of information that moves between worlds.”

“We’ve had endless discussions on that topic. There’s more to it, but here’s my simple opinion: if you can feel pain, you have a soul. Information doesn’t feel anything, and I doubt anyone will ever explain to me how a process can either–physical or magical.”

Ean recalled Singe’s Fire Story in Anima, and the distinction between appearance and essence. “Well, whatever a soul is, he believes it survives death to be born again, with Enna deciding where it goes next. A kind of reincarnation I guess, going on forever and ever.”

“That’s not a new idea. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone who’s seen the transmigration of the soul, let alone the soul itself.” He sighed. “The truth is, we don’t know much more about the Big Questions than you do on Earth. We don’t know if we survive death. We don’t know why we’re here. We don’t even know what we really are. But somehow, Lewis knows we’re trapped in an eternal simulation. Call me skeptical.”

“He makes it sound like a dirty secret.”

“I think you call them conspiracy theories. And now he’s got worlds of followers believing him.” He scowled. “Even Ambrosia.”

“Can’t you stop him?”

Robin leaned forward. “Actually, we’re about to. I need you to sit on that until tomorrow. The stone you took from Rhith documented important plans. No doubt they’ve changed, but they still gave us valuable insights. Lewis is ramping up his activities across the worlds. Playing it safe is no longer an option.” He paused. “I’m offering you the chance to join us on one of our support teams. Arie too. You won’t see combat, but you might travel. Of course, you don’t have to participate.”

“I’ll help. I’m sure Arie will too.”

 

The meeting with Robin lifted Ean’s spirits. At least the Council knew they’d been off world, and Robin trusted Ean enough to ask for his help. He’d been careful to avoid bringing up the Codem, or Zaphan’s insinuation that he was their father. Morgan would love to spread that rumor.

He wandered down to the stadium. There were several players on the field, but no matches in progress. With nothing to do, he returned to the Treehouse and found Arie sitting on a bench.

“I thought you’d be on the field.”

“Why go there when we have a personal trainer?”

“Good point.”

He sat down beside her, touched Dad’s ring to her bracelet, and said the passphrase. There was a brief flash and was he back in the stadium, now empty except for Arie and himself. He’d expected to see Dad again, but another voice greeted them from behind.

“Welcome back,” said Nim. “I assume this isn’t a social call.”

“We’re ready for a lesson,” Arie said.

“Then let’s begin.”

Nim reviewed the basics of magical control–how to ignore distractions and allow concentration to flow. They practiced moving an illuminated ball, freely and against her resistance. Then she asked them to transmute a lump of clay into a smooth sphere. Ean’s first attempt looked more like Karl’s head, and Arie’s lump actually exploded. But their skills slowly improved under the Codem’s guidance.

During a break, Ean had a question he was dying to ask. “Can you explain the multiverse? Earth cosmology seems…irrelevant.”

“Life, the universe, and everything? You ask such trivial questions.”

Nim summarized her theory-of-everything in simplistic terms, which sounded bizarre to Ean’s scientific mind. Reality is divided into conscious subjects and a mind-like field called Kai, which move in tandem like Yin and Yang. Kai is all around you, filling your senses and shaping itself according to your will–except when stronger magic was imposed by others, such as the laws put in place by worldsmiths. Lawful worlds are desirable, since experience is chaotic when all thoughts manifest–a state called Wildmind. The first worlds had been primitive, but grew in subtlety and complexity with the experience of countless subjects, as did the Enna framework itself.

“Your connection to Kai is called your Amit, and it’s conditioned by the world you’re in.” Nim showed them how to relax and draw energy from the world by maximizing their Amit.

With the aid of holograms, she gave them introduction to spell theory and bindings. Zaphan was right. You specified what you wanted, not how it should be done. Kai handled that in its own mysterious way. But sometimes you needed to be more specific, and Ean was surprised at the similarities to computer programming on Earth. You could cast conditional spells, like magical if-then statements, or bind spells to an object and activate them with another spell, like a function call. You could even create loops and self-modifying spells. There were differences, of course. Spells could do much more than computer instructions, with psychological and emotional dimensions absent in technology. But they had one thing in common: both could automate your will. In that respect, magical bindings were second nature to Ean, and even Arie picked them up without much trouble.

Nim gave them a quick test of what they had learned and they both passed. She asked if they had any more questions.

“Will these techniques work in any world?” Ean asked.

“Yes, but your Amit will vary. Worlds also differ in the ways magic is bound or activated, and what kinds of magic are permitted. And worlds like Earth won’t respond without some form of authorization.” She smiled. “Like mine.”

“What are you, exactly?” Arie asked.

“Oh, I’m a lot of things. But you can think of me as the recorded will of the first Ennasmiths, with a privileged connection to the Enna framework. Few wills take precedence over mine. At least not within Enna.”

“Is there anywhere else?” Ean asked pointedly.

“Not that I know of.”

 

Arie took a nap after the lesson, so Ean wandered through the park alone. He passed through a circular garden with fountains, halting when he heard a familiar voice.

“Still think you’re in a simulation?”

He turned to face the Mocklebird, perched on a statue of a dragon. “Does it matter?”

“Not really. So you danced with the fairies, jumped off a cliff, and now you’ve got yourself a Codem.”

Ean hoped the psycho bird didn’t blab on its clients. “I’ve led a full life.”

“You’ve barely begun.”

He didn’t like the sound of that. “Maybe I should go back to being a geek.”

“Salvation through gadgets?” The bird shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what you do. To avoid boring God, reality is infused with conflict.”

Ean laughed. “Yeah. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But hey, at least someone’s enjoying this.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. You’re rather dull, and you haven’t really been tested yet.”

Ean’s expression slackened. “You mean…by you?”

“Of course not. I’m just a silly bird.” The Mocklebird eyed him for a moment and flew off.

 

Ean hoped that crazy bird couldn’t see the future. He continued walking until he found himself at the Toad. It was a fine afternoon, and people were sitting at tables under the shade of an old oak tree. He spotted Dara and Cheng at one table, playing a board game. Robin stood over them.

Cheng smiled when he approached. “As you can see, all we ever do here is play games. Have a seat. I do better with an audience.”

Dara’s moved a piece forward. “It won’t matter. You’re trapped.”

Cheng moved a piece sideways. “A free spirit is never trapped.”

Robin shook his head. “Your defenses are good, but she’ll use that side piece as a stepping stone into your territory.” Dara did as Robin had predicted.

“Saw it,” Cheng said confidently. He moved another piece laterally. “That will hold her off.”

Dara smiled and moved a piece on her opposite flank.

Cheng frowned. “Hmm. Apparently not.”

Ean was trying to understand the game, when Robin jumped back, startled. Dara was pulled up onto her feet, an expression of surprise frozen on her face. Vonya clasped her from behind, with one hand around her neck and the other holding her wrist. Shandra stood beside her in black leather and dark face paint. She stared at Ean until Robin zapped her with lightning. Recovering quickly, she fired a shock wave that knocked Robin off his feet and Cheng out of his chair.

Vonya whispered in Dara’s ear from behind. Dara mouthed the word no, wincing as sparks crackled from Vonya’s fingertips. Vonya whispered again and all three of them vanished.

Cheng stumbled to his feet, gasping. “Why…Dara?”

Robin pulled himself up, leaning on a chair to catch his breath. “The Vault. Vonya’s access was revoked yesterday, but she knew Dara had access.”

Cheng’s face turned white. “How did they get here?”

Robin picked a black tether off the ground, the same one Ean had lost in Rhith. “With this. As a security precaution, it won’t transfer into the Vault.” The tether vanished with a flick of his wrist. He touched Cheng and Ean. “I called Julian. No time to lose.”

 

Hack

 

Dara lay motionless on the floor of the Vault, her eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. Ean ran to her side and shook her. Some distance away, an opaque bubble hid the table where the Fantean seed rested. Much larger than the tiny domes protecting the seeds for other worlds, it shimmered like a shield.

“Break it down,” Robin yelled. He and Cheng pumped streams of energy into the shield, while Ean helped Dara to her feet.

Cheng shot them a glance. “Join us. We need all the help we can get.” With the Codem’s lesson fresh in his memory, Ean added his energy to the mix. Still groggy, Dara joined him. The shield began to shrink.

Nim and Julian appeared on the other side of the Vault. Lava poured from Nim’s hand as Julian added his own withering blast. The bubble shrank further, becoming translucent. Inside, Shandra struggled to maintain it, while Vonya accessed the Guide. But Shandra couldn’t withstand the combined firepower of the Council Masters and the shield buckled. Vonya glanced back and Shandra nodded. They disappeared before the shield imploded with a snap that echoed from the walls of the chamber.

The Guide was gone and the small protective dome had closed. Robin waved it away, revealing the miniature Bazoola tree. He let out a deep breath. “At least they didn’t steal the seed.”

“Code can’t be taken from this room,” Cheng said.

Robin shook his head. “Anything can be taken if Fantys is hacked enough to disable that restriction.”

“What did they do?” Julian asked.

“Let’s find out,” Robin pulled up the Guide and the hooded figure greeted him. “Ean, can you check the Guide for us?” He gave Ean access and Ean pressed the tile for the activity log as Karl had shown him. It came up blank.

“No logs.”

Robin peered over his shoulder. “No reset tile either.”

“I can try some diagnostics, but it may take awhile.”

“Do what you can,” Julian said. “We need to understand this.”

Ean spent the rest of the afternoon with the Guide, but it behaved strangely. The image stooped over and wouldn’t face him. It was slow to respond and less courteous, even coy at times. The menus were scrambled, with some options missing and others displayed at a lower resolution. Diagnostics suggested updates had been applied, probably from an object in Vonya’s possession. It would have come from Zaphan, since Vonya didn’t know much about worldcode and Zaphan had tinkered with it for some time.

Ean discussed his findings with Karl and Robin over dinner in the dining hall. Robin agreed with his conclusions, but they were no closer to a solution. They weren’t worldsmiths. How could they fix anything without a reset command? Without the logs, they didn’t even know what had changed, but Robin was afraid they would find out soon enough. Ean offered to continue with the Guide after dinner, but Robin said no. It had been a long day and Julian had scheduled an all-hands meeting for the next morning.

 

When Arie and Maya woke Ean, the sky was gray and the air was thick with humidity–common enough weather in Lancaster, but not in Valan. The all-hands meeting was held in the stadium. Hundreds of Fanteans were expected to attend, but it seemed more like several thousand as they piled in. Ean searched for Karl and Dara, but found mostly unfamiliar faces until Morgan and his friends walked by. Maya stared at them.

“Who are you looking for, Earthman? Friends? How sad.”

Ean shot him a dirty look. “Yeah, well…one of your hairs is out of place.”

Morgan patted his hair while Arie yanked Ean away. “Ignore him.”

She found Dara and Karl, and they climbed up into the bleachers next to Karl’s friend Wayland and some of the older game players. Morgan and his friends took seats a few rows behind.

The crowd occupied most of the bleachers on one side of the stadium. Not everyone in Valan had been invited, only those associated with the government, the university, and the games. A hush came over the crowd as Julian rose from the bottom row and strolled out onto the field. He turned to address them in a loud, clear voice.

“Good morning everyone. We don’t meet like this often. I wish we didn’t have to meet today.” He scanned his audience, nodding at a few people. “As most of you know, Fantys and its worlds have been under attack for weeks, led by Lewis Zaphan. The attacks are escalating, and yesterday the Vault was compromised by two of his accomplices. I’m sad to report that one of them was our own Council Master, Vonya, who’s been missing since yesterday.”

A gasp rose up from the crowd. From behind them Morgan muttered, “I don’t believe it.”

Julian continued. “We’re not sure what they did yet, but Fantys has been modified. We’ve noticed changes in the weather and some of us are complaining of physical ailments we shouldn’t have here.” He paused. “Vonya’s new loyalty helps explain previous attacks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we have more accomplices.”

“Ava and the Earthers,” Morgan shouted.

Julian looked up, but didn’t reply. “The Enli have observed these attacks with interest, but continue to maintain that the Fantean Group is our responsibility. They won’t help us.” He began to pace. “We’ve had traitors in our midst, direct attacks on Valan, and worlds in open rebellion. It’s an intolerable mess, so we’re going on offense.”

“About time,” someone shouted.

Below them, Trinn raised her hand. “But we’re not supposed to interfere in other worlds.”

“No, we don’t interfere in wars or politics, and we can’t undo what’s been done. But we will uproot external influences, cut transfer activity, and at least attempt to repair code.” He looked up. “And most importantly, we’ll attack Lewis directly where he’s hiding–in his world. We’ll put an end to his games once and for all.”

The crowd murmured and a man stood up. “He’ll be defended by his minions, and we’ll have no magical advantage in his world. We’ll have to play by his rules, on his turf. Also, he knows us and how we operate. We’re probably walking into a trap.”

“It won’t be an easy mission,” Julian agreed. “We’ll need intelligence, planning, and training. We’ll form special teams and you’ll be asked to join at least one. You’ll train hard. Losing is not an option.”

“What if he transfers out when we attack?”

“We’ll have to prevent it. Again, planning.”

Ean recognized Wilda, the Harp Guild Master, as she stood up. “Who will replace Vonya?”

“This mission has top priority, so her seat will remain empty until it’s completed. Afterwards, we’ll take it up with the Guilds.” Julian answered a few more questions before he wrapped up the meeting. “That’s all for now. Be here tomorrow morning for team assignments.”

 

Arie and Ean arrived at the Toad for lunch to find Dara already in a booth with Karl and Wayland. Karl had a bruise on his forehead. They slid in, while Maya hopped onto a nearby chair.

“What happened?” Arie asked Karl.

“Oh, nothing,” Karl replied. “I missed the transfer circle and tripped over a bush. Fortunately, a rock prevented my face from hitting the grass.”

Wayland shook his head. “It took me three tries to get here. Magic isn’t what it used to be.” He tapped Ean on the arm. “We’re counting on you and Karl to fix that.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Ean said. “The Guide won’t even talk to me.”

“Something’s definitely off,” said Dara. “I can’t feel the plants and flowers as keenly, and they don’t respond like they should. After lunch I’m checking up on the Cymena tree. Will anyone join me?”

Karl and Wayland were attending a match and they declined. Ean wasn’t in the mood, but Arie answered first. “We’ll go.” She sat up straight. “Anyone know their assignments yet?”

Karl nodded. “Ean and I will be in the Vault, for sure.”

“I don’t know,” Dara said. “I might be on a cleanup team.”

Wayland smiled proudly. “I’m fighting–my first combat experience. It’s dangerous but you have to start somewhere.”

“By getting yourself killed?” Dara asked.

“I won’t be on the front lines. That’s for masters and champions.”

Ean stared at his mug. “You know, if Zaphan still has accomplices here, they could end up on one of these teams and sabotage the mission. I don’t think they’d bother with support or cleanup teams.”

Wayland’s expression slackened. “I’m sure the Council anticipated that.”

 

Ean drank in the wild, woody air of the ancient forest, a refreshing break from the well-manicured park. It was only a short hike to the Cymena tree. With the Mistywood nearby, transfers were too risky, especially with the code hack.

Dara gasped when they emerged into the clearing where the tree grew. On the opposite side, the Mistywood had grown and plumes of boiling mist fanned out into the meadow. The sprawling Cymena tree stood at the wood’s edge, with shriveled leaves and boughs drooping to the ground.

Dara sprinted across the meadow and stood before the old tree, taking in every dead branch and rotting hole. Fingers of mist reached out from the woods, but she ignored them. Sinking to her knees, she caressed the massive trunk as rough bark reformed over her hands. For a minute or two, she knelt in silent communion with the tree, then slowly stood up.

“What did the tree say?” Arie asked.

“She’s dying. The Mistywood has grown in size and power, and the ways between the worlds are restless and chaotic, like stormy seas. She can’t speak with other trees or draw nourishment from their forests.”

“The hack,” Ean said.

“Yes. She fears the seeds Fantys holds for other worlds will be corrupted. And if the Mistywood creeps into Valan and the Vault, Fantys and its worlds will dissolve into lawless dreams.”

Arie’s eyes widened. “Ean, look out!”

But it was too late. A coil of mist closed around Ean like a giant fist. Arie’s cries faded as yellow fumes swirled around him. He watched in fascination as a few wisps condensed into a face. The face of Lewis Zaphan.

Ean scoffed. “This is fake. Just an illusion.”

“Only if you are,” Zaphan said. Ean stepped back as the face grew to an immense size, its eyes examining him like an insect. Zaphan’s voice came from everywhere.

“Who are you, Ean McQuiggan?”

The face dissolved and a new scene formed around him. A shrunken form lay in a hospital bed, sprouting tubes and wires. So frail and barely recognizable. Ean knelt over his mother, clasping her hand as Dad looked on. She kissed him weakly. “My tywysog tylwyth teg,” she breathed. “Only one thing you must do for me. Take care of your sister.”

The scene shifted to a schoolyard. Three older boys kicked a soccer ball between them and Ean asked if he could play. One boy snickered. “What do geeks know about sports? Maybe your sister can teach you.” Their laughter echoed in his head long after they receded into the mist.

Arie trudged into his room, plastered with mud from head to toe. She’d been wrestling with boys in a ditch. She glared at Ean as she dripped mud all over his important books. “Can’t you quit studying for one minute? It’s a big world out there.” Yes, it was. A filthy one too.

A classroom formed around him as Mr. Holland handed back his math test. Ean nodded smugly at the perfect score while the other students gave him dirty looks. Their reactions puzzled him. The questions were trivial, if you gave them any thought. In the hall after class, he ran into Suzie carrying a load of books. At least she had some brains. She looked up and smiled. He’d been thinking about asking her to the spring dance. “Um, Hi,” he stammered, and continued on.

Zaphan’s huge head faded in, laughing. “Pathetic.”

Ean wasn’t that boy anymore, was he? “So? What do you know? Your cute little scenes don’t define me.”

“Then who are you?” Zaphan bellowed. His head exploded into seven smaller heads circling above, each chanting “Who are you, who are you…”

One of the heads floated in down front of him. It was Arie, frowning. “Don’t be a shut-in, hiding from life. Be like me. Join in the dance.”

A knight in an open helmet dropped down beside her. The sturdy jawline of Sir Gwythur spoke. “Yes, participate. But be strong. You’ll have to fight bullies. And you need worthy goals to drive you.”

Robin’s head drifted down on his right. “Goals change when circumstances change. Don’t fear solitude. Study is necessary–you know that. Be like me: wise and filled with knowledge, some of which may actually be useful.”

Ambrosia descended, leering at Robin. “Oh, don’t listen to that pedantic fool. He’ll turn you to stone. Be like me. Alive with passion and feeling.”

Morgan dropped in next to Ambrosia, shaking his head. “Trust me, there are some things you don’t want to feel. Be like me, with lots of friends and really great hair.”

A bubble of water floated down beside Morgan, like a window into the ocean floor. Inside, a hermit crab waved its ragged claw. “You should have been me, secure and peaceful at the bottom of the sea. You don’t need to fight or make a difference, and the mermaids are great.”

Qwace descended, his expression incredulous. “What am I doing here? C’mon, be serious.” He faced Ean. “Whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you who you are.”

The heads circled around him, faster and faster, chanting “Who are you, who are you…”, their voices rising to a crescendo as Ean put his hands over his ears.

From high above, a green tentacle snaked down. It probed and Ean dodged, but soon it found him and wound itself tightly around his waist. He squirmed in its grasp, trying desperately to break free, but the tentacle pulled him steadily upward. The mist thinned, and Ean found himself back in the meadow with a Cymena tree branch coiled around his body. As the coils unwound, a weak voice spoke into his mind. “Heal us.”

Arie ran to his side. “We thought you were gone forever. What happened? What’s in there?”

Misty hands continued to grasp at Ean. He pulled back, just out of reach. No, he wouldn’t tell them all the personal details. “Just weird dreams.”

Dara frowned. “That’ll be all that’s left if the mist isn’t contained.”

As they turned to leave, a spotted fawn stood in their way, shimmering as if it had an aura. It’s large, innocent eyes studied Arie. Maya growled.

“It doesn’t look real,” Ean said.

Arie smiled. “But it’s cute.” She held out her hand. The fawn backed away at first, but Arie persisted. After a few more tries, it seemed mollified, crouching low as if preparing to lay down. Suddenly, it sprang up and locked its jaws around her wrist. Maya reacted instantly, tackling the fawn and sinking her teeth deep into its neck. Seconds later, it lay motionless in the grass. But it wasn’t a fawn anymore. It was a wolf with half its throat torn out and lips curled back to reveal sharp fangs.

Arie bent over it, nursing her wrist. “So Bambi was a fake. Now I’m really disillusioned.”

“Another symptom of the hack?” Ean asked.

“Yes,” Dara replied. “There shouldn’t be large predators near Valan. Especially not predators that do magic. And illusory magic shouldn’t work here at all.” She examined Arie’s wrist and performed a simple healing spell.

“It used deception, like some animals on Earth. It’s more effective with magic.”

“Not if the prey or competition use magic too. I hope it hasn’t come to that.”

“A magical arms race,” Ean mused. “You know…I wonder why Zaphan didn’t just hack us out of existence. Maybe the hack was only intended to make Fantys more like other worlds, with all their problems. Cut it down to size. I can see him to trying to teach us a lesson.”

“I don’t think it’s that easy to destroy a world, but it’s a fair point. He claims to have the moral high ground. Maybe he wants us to feel like the disadvantaged he pretends to fight for.”

Ean nodded. But part of him didn’t think Zaphan was pretending.

 

Back at the Treehouse, Arie and Ean began an evening session with the Codem. Ean was surprised when they found themselves in the kitchen of Uncle Harry’s farm house. Uncle Harry sat at the table with a shot glass and a bottle of whiskey.

“Ah. Is it you again?”

“It is,” Ean replied, with confidence.

Uncle Harry downed the shot glass and whistled through his teeth. “Just a wee dram ‘for we get started.”

“Are we gonna learn how to drink whiskey?” Arie asked.

Uncle Harry raised an eyebrow. “That’s harder’n it looks.” He scratched his neck. “Lessee. First, we’ll need ta set yer heads right.” He stood up and held the back door open. “Come along, then.” They followed him into the yard.

He cleared his throat. “Now, relax’n let the world flow in, as I showed ya last time. It’ll be like fine whiskey runnin’ down yer throat. Or, ah…sodi pop fer you, lass. Be grateful fer it, like yer thankin’ the Lord.”

Ean frowned. “For whiskey? Wouldn’t I be thanking the wrong guy?”

“Ya got a smart mouth on ya, boy.”

“I feel something,” Arie said. “Warm and happy, like Nessie.”

“Aye, but some worlds ain’t. Some are ornery, some are all moody-like, and some jus’ doona like ya. Depends on yer bond with ’em–your Amit–and that’ll be improvin’ with practice.” Uncle Harry placed his foot on a basket next to the house and kicked it over. About twenty red apples rolled onto the grass.

He turned to Ean. “How many apples can ya lift, then? Without touchin’ ’em, o’course.”

Ean relaxed and let his connection to the Codem strengthen. It was warm, like Arie said. Three apples rose slowly off the ground, then four more. In a moment, ten apples hovered precariously in front of him.

Uncle Harry nodded. “Now move ’em ’round the yard.”

It took some effort, but soon a flock of apples sailed smoothly over the grass.

Uncle Harry smiled. “Aye. Now move ’em in different directions, all at once. But hold ’em in the air.”

Ean focused until everything was apples. He felt the inertia of each one, how they tumbled in the air, and even how tart and crunchy they tasted. But he’d exceeded his limits. Two apples shot into the air, out of sight. Three hit the house–one smashing a window, and three more dropped to the ground. Arie ducked as one apple ricocheted off Uncle Harry’s head and another torpedoed him in the stomach. He stumbled backwards, but quickly recovered his balance. Arie giggled, both hands over her mouth.

Uncle Harry’s eyes flew open. “Och lad, are ya daft? Don’t be firin’ apples at yer Uncle. T’will nae keep ’em in the air.”

“I wasn’t aiming at you.” Ean mumbled sheepishly.

Uncle Harry stared at him. “Well, then ya missed.”

Ean recovered the apples and tried again, but five apples was the most he could move independently. Arie could only move four.

Afterwards, Uncle Harry had them transfer mental images onto canvas, with as much detail and fidelity as possible. The images weren’t even recognizable at first, but came into focus with practice. Next, he placed a seed with dirt in each of their hands and asked them to grow a plant. Arie grew a lovely red flower in thirty seconds. Ean’s attempt took longer, and he was horrified when it grew into a thorny carnivorous plant that clung to his wrist and snapped at his nose. It took a while for Uncle Harry to pry it loose.

Uncle Harry took a deep breath. “Enough fer today. Earned myself another drink, I did. Any questions?”

“Yes,” Ean replied. “The code for Fantys was hacked yesterday, and it’s causing havoc. The reset tile’s gone, so it can’t even be reset. Is that something you can fix?”

“I could. If those askin’ me had the proper authority.”

“Can’t you at least hint at a solution?”

“Hmm. S’pose I can. As an Earth programmer, I’m thinkin’ you’ll ‘ave messed with somethin’ called a debugger.”

“Of course.”

“Well, most Guides ‘ave one, usually hidden. T’was meant fer worldsmiths, not the likes’o you. But look fer it. It’ll link to yer head, so you’ll be feelin’ each spell like the worldsmith who cast it, as fine as your wee noggin’ll render it. Hacker spells feel different, and then ya can remove ’em.”

“What if an original spell was removed?”

Uncle Harry shook his head. “Ya canna change the base code, only override it. Otherwise, ya couldna reset. Your hacker likely jus’ overrode the reset command.”

“And if he overrode the debugger?”

“Aye,” Uncle Harry nodded. “Then yer screwed.”

 

The next morning was horrible. After a night of fitful dreams, Ean woke up gasping and drenched in sweat. He had a headache, a backache, a stomach ache, and a vague ache that pulsed through his neck and wound up in his toes. His Fantean body felt worse than his Earth body ever had, and he wrinkled his nose at the vile stench it emitted. He tried magically healing himself, but the aches persisted. Is this what getting old was like? He began to understand why Uncle Harry drank whiskey.

Arie didn’t want to get up either, but they were expected at the stadium. Ean frowned as they stepped out into a light drizzle under ominous clouds. In Valan, it usually rained at night.

Karl joined them near the stadium, his feet shuffling and eyelids drooping. “It’s wrong to feel this bad when you didn’t even party the night before. Without sin, suffering is a meaningless experience.” His expression grew even more pained. “And a terrible thing happened last night. I’m in this dream, and I order a sandwich from a guy at a roadside stand. A magnificent sandwich with tomatoes, onions, mayo, and the works. So I wait patiently while he makes it, I pay him, and then…poof, I wake up.” He threw his hands in the air. “Can you believe it? What a rip off.”

“I hate when that happens,” Ean said. “Zaphan’s right. Life isn’t fair.”

Arie grimaced. “Talk about meaningless.”

“It’s not meaningless,” Karl said. “That dude owes me a sandwich, and I hope he didn’t forget the cheese. I paid extra for that.”

“You paid with dream money. Money doesn’t cross dream boundaries, okay?”

“But I do. My dreams usually have me in them somewhere.”

“So? Get over it. Life isn’t a dream.”

“Are you sure?”

Arie sighed and shook her head. “Now you’re just being difficult. Like…what’s-his-name, that Greek philosopher who liked to argue with everybody.”

“Argumenides?”

Arie frowned. “No, not him. Anyway, forget about sandwiches. This isn’t a dream.”

Karl hung his head. “Yeah. It’s more like a long, tedious movie we’re forced to watch.”

“Oh, it’s worse than that,” Ean said. “We have to pretend to like the movie, so we even fool ourselves. We’re fake. So fake we don’t know who we are anymore.”

Karl nodded. “That’s exactly why I should go back to bed. I didn’t have to pretend to like that sandwich.”

Arie closed her eyes. “You guys are really depressing me. I hope you can fix the code.”

 

A crowd sat on the stadium bleachers, while leaders sorted them into teams on the field. There wasn’t much laughing or joking. Everyone seemed cranky and sick. Ean stepped onto the bleachers, when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He swung around to face Cheng and his trademark smile. Cheng always seemed slightly amused, as if he’d been told a joke he couldn’t pass on. If he was ill this morning, he hid it well.

“Welcome to my recon team. You too, Karl. You both have valuable experience in Zaphan’s world, so it’ll be like old times.”

Cheng led them onto the field and introduced them to two other team members. One was Flynn, a small man with shifty eyes. Ean thought he looked like a thief, a suitable qualification for this job. The other was Cora, a thin, dark-haired girl Ean had seen on the field, although he’d never played against her.

They were making small talk when Robin approached. He nodded at Karl and Ean. “You two are with me as well, and Dara will be joining you. I’ll find you after lunch.” He wandered off without waiting for a reply.

Ean scanned the field for Arie and spotted her on another team with Dara. He scowled when he realized they were flirting with a group of boys, laughing and carrying on. Unbelievable. How could they manage that today? He turned away and resumed his dialogue with Cora, who droned on about her nagging foot pain and the dark circles under her eyes. In Ean’s current frame of mind, it was a satisfying conversation.

Cheng strolled into their midst. “Thank you all for coming this morning. I know we have a capable team. This is how we’ll proceed. First we’ll review the layout of Rhith, and the kind of information were looking for. Then we’ll cover some basic stealth techniques: camouflage, illusions, do’s and don’ts–that kind of thing. Finally, we’ll put together a comprehensive plan with detailed assignments.”

“When will we actually do the recon?” Flynn asked.

“Soon. I can’t give you an exact time, but obviously our mission will be one of the first. The information we gather will shape the primary attack plan.”

“Are you going with us?” Cora asked.

“Absolutely.” Cheng strained his neck, searching the field. He beckoned to someone. “We have one more team member.”

In a few seconds the new team member emerged from the crowd and stood beside Cheng. Ean’s heart sank. Apparently things hadn’t been bad enough this morning. Morgan crossed his arms and stared. Ean stared back, then rolled his eyes and turned away. Okay, sure. Why not? It was a fitting end to a disgusting morning.

 

Debug

 

“But I’m being wasted here,” Morgan complained bitterly. “I should be fighting. Someone made a big mistake.”

Cheng bowed his head. “The Council felt you would make a more valuable contribution with us. It’s a critical assignment, worthy of your skills.”

Morgan put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath. He glanced sideways at Ean. “It can’t be that critical if he’s on the team.”

They moved to an empty spot on the bleachers, where Cheng spent half of the morning lecturing about Zaphan’s world, or at least what he knew about it. But since Zaphan liked to experiment, they might encounter a different world. They could certainly expect improved surveillance and defenses. Morgan thought that was a good reason to prepare for fighting, but Cheng strongly disagreed. It wasn’t their mission. If it came down to a fight, they would tether out. Then it would be a short, useless mission, Morgan argued. No, stealth was their top priority, Cheng countered, otherwise they would give away the main attack. It went on like that, with Morgan attacking and Cheng politely disagreeing. Ean marveled at Cheng’s self-control, especially in view of the hacked code. Personally, he would have stomped on Morgan’s head.

For the rest of the morning, they brainstormed recon techniques without doing any magic. Flynn suggested invisibility, but Cheng shook his head. Any magic is detectable. Even illusions should be avoided. But if you had to, it would best to imitate an existing magical object, assuming illusory magic is available. Ean believed it would be, since Zaphan had imitated his father’s voice. But Morgan laughed him down and accused him of fabricating the whole story. Ean clenched his fists and almost punched him.

Morgan smiled. “Go on, take a swing. Like a boorish, uncivilized Earthman.” Cheng shot them both a warning look, so Ean swallowed his anger and turned away.

Morgan raised his eyebrows. “Timid as well. Another one of those fine Earth qualities. Let’s see…blessed are the meek, is it? Yes, I’m sure that will help us defeat Zaphan.”

“Blessed are the geeks,” Karl corrected him. “Same thing, really.”

Ean scowled. “You don’t know Earth and you don’t know me. I doubt you know Zaphan either, so stop pretending to be wise. If you’re uncomfortable with Earthmen, I suggest you haul your snooty elf ass up into your ivory tower and lock the door.”

Morgan jumped up, his eyes on fire. He glowered at Ean for a moment, then smiled. “My apologies. You’re right, I don’t know Earth. In the absence of other information, elves tend to judge by appearances, so naturally we assume Earthmen have few redeeming qualities. What, with all the warts, wrinkles, crooked noses, haphazard blotchy features, pimples and blemishes…”

“Hey,” Karl protested. “Those add character.”

“…bald spots, age spots, crooked and decaying teeth, unruly hair, unsightly bulges, disgusting beards, and well…endless varieties of ugliness in general. Not to mention all manner of foul odors. But appearances can be misleading. Obviously, Earthmen are good at many things, like…genocide, torture, slavery, lying, stealing, raping, molesting their children, destroying their world, and waging countless wars for thousands of years. So yes, Earthmen are quite capable.”

“Some of us can play the piano too,” Karl said.

Ean had never really fit in on Earth, and now he had to defend being an Earthman? He shrugged. “Elves are prettier, I’ll give you that. No, we’re not perfect. Our world is indifferent, rather than accommodating. Our technology is clumsy compared to magic. But being forced to deal with our own diversity enriches us, warts and all. And all the art, literature, and philosophy that springs up from the ashes of our sins gives us perspectives on life that can’t be achieved in your simple, if not boring, elven culture.”

“You know nothing of elven culture!”

“Alright, that’s enough,” Cheng said. “Find somewhere else to settle your differences. Let’s wrap it up for today.”

 

After recon training, Ean had lunch in the dining hall with Karl and Wayland. He was in no mood to absorb Arie and Dara’s insufferable cheer at the Toad. But Wayland seemed reasonably miserable, with flashes of anger at times.

“Had a brutal training session today,” Wayland mumbled, chomping on something like a hamburger. “Julian worked us to death.”

“Morgan wanted to be with you guys,” Karl said. “Apparently, his immense skill set is being wasted. We’re lucky to have him on the recon team.”

“Yeah,” Ean snorted.

Wayland shrugged. “He didn’t make the cut. Not skilled enough. Or mature enough, if you ask me.” He took a bite out of his burger and made a face, as if something in it strongly disagreed with him. “He’s not well-suited for recon work either.”

“Well, he is a Raven,” Karl said.

“A flashy, conspicuous one. Too fussy with the hair.”

“Maybe they didn’t know where to put him,” Ean said. “And thought by making us work together, we’d finally get along.”

Karl shook his head. “He won’t stop bullying you until he gets another match. Maybe not even then.”

“Yes, that’s occurred to me.”

“You need to crush him next time,” Wayland said, discarding his burger with disgust. “Don’t be timid or indecisive, and don’t mess around. You’ll need better preparation.” His dark eyes studied Ean. “Tell you what. Train with me before breakfast tomorrow morning.”

“Really?”

“Sure. Just an informal session.”

“I’ll be there.”

 

The Guide was a mess. First of all, the menu tiles were inconsistent. Selecting the same option gave Ean different submenus at different times, and the symbols were hazy and indistinct. It was slow with verbal requests, often not responding at all. When it did respond, the answers were maddeningly obtuse. It ignored his objections and asked him to be more specific. When he spelled everything out, it scolded him for not defining his terms. And when he did define them, it complained about ‘cascading irrelevancies’ and told him to go away and not come back until he’d learned how to communicate properly.

Dara laughed. “Sounds like Morgan.”

“I wouldn’t take that crap from it,” Karl said.

Ean threw his hands up in frustration. “What can I do? Zaphan gooned the whole system.” He tried to calm down. “I’m looking for something like a debugger. The verbal search is unusable, but it could be buried in the menus somewhere. Be nice if they were consistent.”

“A debugger?” Dara asked. “Isn’t that something you pick out of your nose?”

“Then at least I’d know where to find it. No, a debugger is a tool that lets you view code and step through it. I’m hoping the Guide has one.”

Karl nodded. “I stumbled across something like that once. Way too complicated for me.”

Ean slogged through the menus. It was a slow, inconsistent process, and he didn’t know what most of the symbols meant anyway. Neither did Karl or Dara. But nothing came up that looked remotely like a debugger. He slumped in his chair.

“This could be a waste of time. Some of those tiles didn’t do anything. What if one’s the debugger and Zaphan disabled it?” He sat up slowly as it dawned on him. “Wait…maybe those tiles aren’t disabled. Maybe they work together with others. Like a shift key.”

Karl smiled. “Go for it.”

Ean searched through the tiles again, looking for symbols with no apparent function. After several minutes, he found one and tried it together with other symbols on the same menu. It took several tries, but a large 3-D image suddenly popped up–a branching spiral divided into thousands of tiny segments. Most were shades of blue or green, but there were orange and yellow sections at the beginning of the spiral and a purple section at the end. Many of the segments were linked by bundles of lines or wires.

Karl shrugged. “Like I said, complicated.”

“Doesn’t look like any debugger I’ve seen,” Ean said doubtfully.

Dara frowned. “It looks like an overgrown vine. Maybe it’s a high level map of the code.”

Ean reached out tentatively and touched a green section of the spiral. It zoomed-in to an area about a hundred segments long. Some segments were split into as many as four or five sub-segments, with new wires visible at the expanded resolution. He touched a double segment, expecting it to zoom-in further. Instead, it turned bright red and began to flash. His face turned white.

“Uh…that doesn’t look good. I think–“

The Vault disappeared. Ean stood on a dark, featureless plain, stretching out to infinity in all directions. A presence arose within him–an expansive subtle intellect, straining the bounds of his mind. He gasped as it became one with him. With a kind of lazy confidence, he wished for a large green moon, and it appeared in the sky. A trivial spell, he mused. The presence faded and another presence arose–more reserved, but still stretching his limits. He merged with it and suddenly the green moon was too large and bright. He shrank it down and made it blue, like the current moon of Fantys. The second presence departed and he was back in front of the Guide.

Dara looked worried. “You alright? You zoned out for a bit.”

“The code merged with me,” Ean said, still glassy-eyed. “I felt worldsmiths casting their spells and overrides, as if I was one of them.”

“Could you feel Zaphan’s hacks?”

“I don’t think so. There are so many spells. A verbal search would really help.”

Karl nodded. “That’s why he messed it up.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon poking around in the debugger and soon found that all three of them could use it simultaneously. It was a fantastic introduction to worldcode. In the green and blue sections, Ean found segments responsible for the moon, specific plants and animals, and the weather. Most were simple, almost childlike spells, defining concrete properties of Fantys around which more flexible magic operated.

Ean was sure Earth didn’t work that way, but he found more interesting segments in the orange prologue of the spiral. He stepped through abstract spells dealing with consistency, conservation laws, and even psychological constraints he never guessed could exist as fundamental properties of a world. Laws didn’t have to be physical. They could be anything imaginable.

In the most interesting segments, spells would automatically cast new spells in response to events. When someone ventured beyond the initial geography specified in the code, new geography would be generated. Likewise, if the world was tested in ways beyond known physical laws, new events would be created with deeper laws to explain them. Previous laws and consistency spells would guide the expansion. Even the appearance of a consistent history could be generated on-the-fly. A history that never actually happened.

Ean chuckled to himself. Was Fantys flat, or a globe, or a vast starry universe like Earth’s? Had anyone bothered to find out? Why should they? It was easy to see how this world could lead scientists on a wild goose chase. Sure, they’d discover interesting and useful things. But if they were looking deeper, well…testing would go on forever and yield no insights about the true nature of reality. It was turtles all the way down.

So Fantys was smaller than it appeared, and would expand forever when explored, as Robin had suggested. It didn’t spring up from elementary particles or the quantum realm, but emerged downward, upward, and outward from a few core constraints, filling in gaps as needed. And without the code, you’d never know what those constraints were, no matter how much you tested the world. Was it fake? Compared to what, the real Fantys? No, it was fake compared to Ean’s assumptions about it. Could he tell the difference experimentally? That was doubtful.

And yet…Fantys gave special status to explorers who pushed back its boundaries, as if they weren’t really part of it. The same was true of virtual reality games on Earth, except…worldcode was magic, not software. Did it matter? Both were subordinate to will and agency. If you were plugged into the right virtual reality, why shouldn’t you be able to do magic? And with the right spells, why couldn’t you build a world supporting only technology?

In many segments, one worldsmith had overridden a spell from another, so Ean assumed some worlds were derived from the code of others. Maybe Fantys and Earth even shared sequences of magic. But he only found one override he was sure was a hack–a spell dealing with the persistence of other spells. Vaguely like entropy, he mused, but the presence felt weak compared to the other spellcasters. The debugger let him delete the override by pinching it between his fingers and okaying a confirmation. It wouldn’t let him delete any others he tried.

Dara had better luck. She found an override supporting predators around Valan, and another allowing for the expansion of the Mistywood. Both were removed.

After a long afternoon, Robin stopped by to check on their progress and Ean filled him in. “Excellent. You’re learning things I never knew.”

“But we only found three overrides,” Ean said. “There could be a lot more. And the reset tile’s still missing.”

“We can find the others,” Karl said. “We’ll just delete every override. If we get a confirmation, we’ll check it out.”

Ean frowned. “We could be here for weeks.”

“Do it,” Robin said. “Whatever it takes.”

 

That evening, the Codem took Arie and Ean back to the guard’s campsite in Mithe, with Droog sprawled out across the clearing. His head rested on one claw and wisps of black smoke curled up from his nostrils. One slitted eye opened.

“You’re interrupting my nap.”

“Well, someone wants to fight me,” Ean said. “I’d rather not lose.”

Droog raised his head and grinned, baring rows of foot-long teeth. “Hostilities? My specialty.”

Droog began the session by working on their shields. Ean’s first effort produced an impressive golden aura, but Droog snuffed it out with a splash of dragonfire. He tried harder, creating a smokey white shield that stood two inches off his body, but Droog burned it away in seconds, almost setting Ean’s hair on fire in the process. Arie fared even worse, barely producing a thin green shield.

“You’re too powerful for us,” she complained.

“It’s not my power,” said Droog. “No one’s power is their own. It comes from the world around them–their body, physical laws, magic, or other people. But they’ve found a way to use it.” He paused. “Remember what I said. Accept the world’s energy. Be on good terms with it. And another tip: in combat, use the energy of your opponent.”

“How can we use your fire?” Ean asked.

“Be creative.”

Once again, Ean put up a golden shield and Droog spit out his fire. Ean tried to turn the flames back on Droog, but they wouldn’t budge and his shield burned up. With another shield in place, he recalled how Nim had defeated Dremnel. As dragonfire poured over him, he concentrated. Two fire elementals grew in the flames and began to devour it. Unfortunately, they slid back down the river of fire onto Ean’s shield, consuming it and patches of his clothes as well.

With his pants still smoking, he put up a weak green shield. It wouldn’t last two seconds, but he had an idea. When Droog’s blast came, he rerouted the energy to his shield, rather than fight it. For a few seconds, his shield grew bigger and brighter. But he couldn’t maintain it and it fizzled out.

“Good,” Droog said. “Won’t always work, but it’s a start.”

He also let them practice offensive spells. They threw fireballs, lightning, projectiles, and shock waves at Droog, none of which affected him in the slightest. He repeated his advice to maintain a good connection to the world. A healthy Amit is crucial, he said. And above all, he emphasized the importance of a focused will against overwhelming odds, and stamping out the voices of doom in their own minds. In battle, their hearts must burn like dragonfire. At the end of the session, he gave them a test, which they both passed.

“Congratulations. You’ve advanced to the second level.”

“What does that mean?” Arie asked.

“It means I can enhance your spells. I can also give you more information.”

“Then let me ask you a question,” Ean said. “Do you know if we’re living in a virtual reality? A computer simulation, like Zaphan believes?”

Droog frowned. “Why? Is your life not real enough for you?” He shook his head. “No, I don’t. I know Enna was built with magic, but not if there’s a larger context or what that context might be. There are many stories.” He exhaled thick whorls of black smoke. “It’s in your nature to be curious and fearful, but don’t worry. I doubt you’ll ever be held responsible for not knowing the ultimate nature of reality.”

Ean raised an eyebrow. “Some on Earth think differently.”

 

Ean woke up at dawn for his meeting with Wayland. It was painful, but not as unbearable as yesterday, so maybe the code changes had some effect. Wayland met him at a house-sized dome at the far end of the stadium.

“This isn’t a match,” Wayland assured him. “Just practice.” Ean nodded and they stepped in the dome. It didn’t look much different. They were still on the stadium grass, but Ean knew the safety protocols were in effect. Wayland began by showing him a few minor tricks, like an asymmetrical shield, which could conserve energy against directional attacks. But soon he came around to the main lesson.

“You can’t fight a real-world battle without some mastery of illusion, either by attacking with it or defending against it. Zaphan was very effective with illusions.” He paused. “So maybe you’d like to scare your opponent off. But how? Summon a monster out of thin air? Okay, but few can do it, and the monster might attack you. It’s easier to alter light and sound.”

Wayland became a demon with dripping fangs and glowing green eyes. The demon growled. “You can also attract an opponent.” He morphed into a beautiful fairy with diaphanous wings. Her voice was soft and seductive. “This type of illusion can fool many at the same time. But it takes a lot of energy and careful control.” He flickered and became Wayland again.

Ean tried to create the illusion of a ball hovering in mid air, but he only produced a few flashes of light.

“It’s difficult,” Wayland admitted. “If allowed, it’s much easier to alter the perception of your opponent. That’s coercive magic.” Wayland took the form of a demon again, shimmering at the edges. When Ean squinted, the smiling form of Wayland reappeared. “It helps if your opponent is gullible. You can also suggest things.” Overcome by sudden fear, Ean backed off until he realized what was happening.

Wayland laughed. “In Fantys, that won’t work outside a few places like this arena.” Ean nodded, but he remembered the wolf that attacked Arie. Which kind of illusion had it used?

Ean practiced with the ball illusion. Wayland saw a lop-sided egg, but congratulated him anyway.

“Not bad. Maybe next time I’ll get into augmented.”

“What’s that?”

“Magically augmented hand-to-hand combat. Useful in close quarters. Cheng’s a master at it.”

 

After breakfast, Ean returned to the stadium for training with the recon team. A new dome was set up, with a replica of Zaphan’s world inside.

Cheng cleared his throat. “Today we’ll simulate the recon mission. Take note of the geography, who’s there, and any defenses. Get inside the castle if you can, and avoid the sentries. If they see you, your cover is blown. If they touch you, you’ll be ejected. You can use magic, but I recommend old-fashioned stealth and surveillance.” He glanced warily at Ean and Morgan. “And teamwork.”

Cora raised her hand. “In the actual mission, what happens if we get caught?”

“You’ll have tethers. But there are ways you can still be trapped. Don’t get caught.”

“Or give your tether to Zaphan,” Morgan added.

Rhith was as Ean remembered it–weird crystalline growths, a dirty sky, and a polluted orange-brown lake. Hydrocarbon fumes hung in the air. The bridge was several hundred feet away. At the far end of the bridge, the black castle rose up like a ghost from the island, its outlines masked by shifting fog. A small, hazy object floated into view from behind the castle.

Karl squinted. “Yeah, that’s a sentry. We better hide.” Everyone ducked into the brush beside one of the crystalline growths. Ean followed and…knocked his head on hard crystal. He backed away in surprise. The growth had been three feet to the left and now it was in his face.

“Clumsy oafs don’t make good spies,” Morgan remarked.

Ean swore under his breath. Was something wrong with this dome? The others didn’t seem affected. Maybe he just needed to keep his eyes open.

The sentry floated around the castle and disappeared behind the back. Zigzagging from bush to bush, they worked their way closer to the bridge. When the sentry reappeared, they hid behind another cluster of bushes. They waited until it circled around again and dashed off to the next bush. But after a few steps, Ean slammed into Cora and trampled all over her bad foot. She cried out and shot him an angry look. Flynn shook his head. Even Karl frowned.

Ean swung around. He was sure she’d been behind him, but…it must have been an illusion. Such illusions hadn’t existed in Zaphan’s world and Cheng wouldn’t have put them in the simulation. Especially illusions only he could see. He recalled the shimmering fawn by the Cymena tree and it dawned on him. Zaphan’s hack had enabled coercive illusions and someone was humiliating him. Morgan. He clenched his teeth as he recalled the orientation class, when the boys almost made him slap himself.

Morgan sighed. “So much for teamwork. I guess they don’t teach that on Earth. Can we trust you on a real mission?” Ean glared at him, but said nothing.

They crossed the bridge and took cover behind the last bush before the castle. To the left, dirty waves crashed on the shore. The main castle doors loomed in front, but they decided to head for a smaller door off to the side. Ean led the way and got several yards before diving face first into the dirt. He came slowly to his feet, spitting out sand and foul-tasting debris. The big rock that tripped him couldn’t be missed.

Morgan stood in front of him, hands on his hips. “Maybe I’m too picky, but I believe we need some rudimentary ability to see objects in our way and take evasive action, if necessary. I don’t know about Earth, but blindness and stupidity aren’t terribly useful here.”

One thing Ean had learned in Carnum, is that sometimes you just had to say no to the world. He turned away as rage welled up inside him. The kind of rage that gave you marvelous freedom. The kind of freedom you might pay dearly for. But it didn’t matter. A threshold had been crossed and reality had sharpened to a point.

“No more illusions.”

Ean spun around and kicked Morgan in the crotch. Morgan gasped and doubled over, his eyes widening. Before he could recover, Ean knocked his head back with a wicked uppercut, then set his right leg behind Morgan’s right foot and toppled him with a shove to the chin. Only then did he remember to bring up his shield.

Ean thought Morgan would be ejected, but he got up quickly, his shield glowing and eyes smoldering. Liquid fire poured from his hand onto Ean’s shield. Ean staggered under the strain until he managed to use some of it to build up his shield. He glanced around. No sentries yet, but figures were gathering in a castle window.

Karl smiled and gave him a thumbs up, but Flynn and Cora were running back to the entry point. For them, the simulation was over. Ean dashed onto the shore with Morgan chasing him. He ran along for a hundred feet before stopping in his tracks. Why run from this bully? He turned and zapped Morgan with a sustained blast of lightning, as sentries drifted down from the castle.

Ean stepped back in surprise when a gray hump rose out of the lake beside him. It didn’t emerge like whale from the sea, but seemed to form out of the slimy water itself. Another hump formed near Morgan, but he ignored it. Instead, he pressed his attack, unleashing a swarm of explosive projectiles which Ean found harder to use for his shield.

The humps widened into oval-shaped domes, thirty feet across. Large yellow eyes peered out over the water. Whatever they were, Ean would rather not deal with them. He needed to end this fight. Raising his arms in a circle over his head, he fired a cone of energy, focusing the concentrated end on Morgan’s shield. It hissed and buckled under the strain.

But Morgan sent over an even larger cloud of projectiles. Ean winced as a hundred explosions lit up his shield. On his right, sentries streamed onto the beach. On his left, the humps had swelled into huge eggs with ridiculous wide-mouthed smiley faces.

Recalling the Codem’s lessons, Ean let energy flow into him. Three, four, then six fire elementals sprang to life on his cone beam and rode up the energy gradient, eagerly sliding onto Morgan’s shield. Exhausted, Ean let his arms drop and the beam faded.

A sentry was upon him now, wrapping its tentacles around his shield and squeezing him like a balloon. Farther down the shore, Morgan hopped and danced, desperately trying to shake off the fire elementals. Crackling over him like swarm of locusts, they devoured his shield until it died with an electric pop. As if on cue, the huge egg near Morgan opened its cavernous mouth. Ean watched in fascination as a long tongue snaked out, stuck to Morgan’s hair, and yanked him in with a snap and a gulp, like some monstrous frog. Morgan was gone, and the egg’s face relaxed into a contented smile.

Karl’s grinning face slid into view. “Outstanding! But…this is the part where I wouldn’t want to be you.”

 

Battle

 

Cheng was furious. He paced back and forth, staring at the grass. Robin stood nearby, his expression unreadable. Morgan sulked in a corner, avoiding eye contact with everyone.

“You’re both off the team,” Cheng said at last. “Today was a total disaster. I’m sorry, but I need better teamwork.”

Ean spoke up. “But Morgan–“

Cheng held up his hand. “I don’t care who started it. You both put your personal feud above the team and the mission. I suggest you re-examine your priorities.” He started off, then turned to give Ean a wink before continuing on.

Flynn and Cora avoided Ean completely. Karl shot him an I-told-you-so look. Yeah, well…so what. Morgan had poisoned the whole exercise from the beginning. It came down to a choice between basic dignity and…what? Rolling over like a submissive pup? Hanging a kick-me sign on his back? Left unchallenged, Morgan would have seen to it that Ean was kicked off the team anyway. There were no good options. He shuffled off, when Robin touched his arm.

“Let’s talk.”

 

Robin’s office was a mess, as usual. Ean had to clear a pile of dusty books from a chair before he sat down. Robin leaned back, studying him. “I only caught the last part of your fight. Tell me what happened.”

Ean described the fight in detail. “Morgan knew illusions were enabled and used them to embarrass me in front of the team. I guess I snapped. He’s stronger than me, so I fought dirty.”

“Coercive illusions are dirty too. But hard to prove. If the Ravens come after me, Morgan can say you assaulted him over a few insults.” Robin frowned. “How did this animosity arise between you two? The games?”

Ean couldn’t discuss Morgan’s request for him to avoid Dara. If he did, Dara would find out, and what would she think? She’d be angry with Morgan or she’d be angry with Ean for not telling her. Probably both. Plus, he had promised Morgan to keep that conversation a secret. Not that it mattered much anymore.

He shrugged. “Yeah, the games, and…I don’t think he’s too fond of Earth people.”

“Yes, Zaphan embarrassed him. We thought by working together, you might become friends and Morgan would tame some of his misconceptions. We were wrong.”

“Sorry I failed you.”

Robin sighed. “Don’t beat yourself up. Bully problems are difficult. A long time ago, I had one too. It wasn’t resolved until the other boy left Fantys.” He drummed his fingers on the desk for a moment, then looked up and stared Ean directly in the eye. “Your game is remarkably improved.”

Ean fidgeted in his chair. The Codem had to remain a secret. “Wayland’s been helping me.”

Robin nodded. “Well, we’re short one member on the attack team, so I stopped by this morning to give Morgan a second look. Maybe steal him from Cheng. Turns out I had the wrong guy in mind. How would you like to fight? It would only be in a support or backup capacity, but you might prefer it to staying behind.”

“Yes, I would,” Ean answered quickly.

“Good. Practice is tomorrow morning with Julian. And don’t forget the Vault this afternoon.”

 

After lunch, Ean sat at the debugger again with Karl and Dara. In a few hours, he found a hack overriding a reference to the Enna framework. Both the spell and its override were too abstract to understand, but he deleted the override anyway. Dara found another override of the weather and removed it. But Karl discovered a hack referencing the Guide itself. When removed, the Guide was clearer and stood up straight.

“How can I help you?” it asked politely.

“The old Guide is back,” Ean said eagerly. “Alright then, show us the Reset command.”

The Guide held up a menu with a blinking Reset tile.

“Awesome,” Karl said. “Saves us a lot of time.”

He selected the Reset tile and okayed a series of confirmations. Nothing changed around them yet, but Ean was in good spirits. Fantys would be fantastic again.

 

Ean joined Dara and Wayland for an early dinner at the Toad. Arie had been assigned to a cleanup team and Karl was off with Cheng’s team, probably making up for the botched morning session. Ean related the day’s events. Dara looked miserable as he described the fight with Morgan.

“This is about me. It drives him crazy to see me with you and Arie. He doesn’t even like me around Karl.”

“He’s got issues. It’s not your problem.”

“Maybe it is,” Dara said slowly. “And maybe it’s time I did something about it.”

Wayland patted Ean on the back. “Congratulations, my friend. You’re part of an elite team. You’ll probably join me in the rear guard.”

“Looking forward to it,” Ean said.

Dara grimaced. “This isn’t an arena match. Why are you two so eager to die or end up in Zaphan’s jail?”

“We’ll be fine,” Wayland assured her. “We’ll take Zaphan by surprise and hit him hard. I wouldn’t bet against our team.”

“I would. I’ve seen real warriors. Except for Maya’s kind, we’re pale imitations. We play games and stroll through gardens.” Dara shook her head. “Valan hasn’t tried anything like this in our lifetimes. Maybe even in Julian’s. I hope the Council knows what it’s doing.”

Wayland shrugged. “Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures.”

“Tough talk,” Dara said scornfully. “Reality is different.”

 

Ean met Arie at the Treehouse. Her team had finished for the day, and she was eager for another session with the Codem. When his ring touched her bracelet, even Maya didn’t know they’d gone.

This time they stood in a playing field surrounded by rolling meadows and patches of woods. The scent of unearthly flowers drifted in the breeze. A saffron sun peeked over the horizon and a rainbow arched over a misty waterfall in the distance. Qwace lounged on the bleachers, looking bored.

Arie smiled. “Will we fight Ambrosia today?”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” Qwace advised. He looked through Ean as if he was transparent. “So you won a fight. How do you feel about that?”

Ean sighed. “It’s better than losing, but I don’t feel good. I probably paved the way for more hostilities and spawned even more resentment.” He shook his head in frustration. “What do you do if someone hates you for what you are? Hate them back?”

Qwace climbed down from the bleachers. “Sow hatred, and you reap self-destruction. Fan the flames of hate, and they’ll consume you as well.”

“What if you’re in a fight?”

“When in combat, fight hatred. Don’t hate the fighter.”

“Shouldn’t we confront people with their hatred?” Arie asked.

“Speak openly to closed minds? Be prepared for an extended conflict.”

“What if you’re at your wit’s end? What if you can’t take it anymore?”

“Then you have to play it by ear, like Ean did.” Qwace smiled. “It’s not a perfect multiverse.”

At Ean’s request, Qwace reviewed the basics of illusions and augmented hand-to-hand combat. Combining the two could be particularly effective, but neither Arie nor Ean were skilled at hand-to-hand, which required years of training. Magic could close the gap though, if you were fast enough, so Qwace gave them exercises to increase the speed of magical activation. They fired at targets which appeared and vanished, each one quicker than the last. He threw balls at increasing speeds and had them produce barriers to avoid being hit. Finally, he set up flags at random locations and made them hide each one with an invisibility spell. But the flags appeared faster and faster until it was impossible to keep up. Soon they were exhausted.

“Not bad,” Qwace said. “I moved you both up another notch. Any questions?”

Ean hesitated. “Yeah. Not to rehash the simulation topic, but this is important. Zaphan says we’re essentially…code. All of our fears, desires, and values. He calls it a soul, and said you were grafted onto Arie’s. Is he right?”

Qwace made a face. “Grafted is the wrong word. I do see Arie’s code, and your father bound it to me. But I see it through Enna, as Enna presents it. So whatever a soul is, it’s wrapped in the magic of Enna.” He smiled. “Sorry if that answers your question. Others have asked me similar questions, all wanting to know what they really are. A complex web of spells? Some have thought so. Others believe the magic is shaping something deeper.” He shrugged. “My advice is to ignore what you are, or why you are. Focus on who you are instead.”

“And who you aren’t,” Arie added.

Qwace grinned. “Exactly.”

 

The stadium buzzed with activity. It was a fine morning and the teams were eager to practice. Ean wandered over to the bleachers, near Wayland, Nim, and Robin. He was surprised when Cheng joined them. Shouldn’t he be with the Recon team? Maybe he was on both teams. Ean recognized a few faces from championship matches, but he was startled when Qwace turned around and smiled at him. Was he on the team or just teaching? He hoped it was the former.

Robin stepped in beside Ean. “We want to thank you for repairing the code. Everyone’s breathing a little easier.”

Ean nodded deferentially. “Glad to be of use. Dara found a few weather overrides and Karl found the Guide hack. We did a full reset.”

Julian strolled into the group, glancing around. “Are we all here? Should be twenty-four of us.” He cleared his throat and the team quieted down. “As some of you know, Cheng’s team went in yesterday afternoon. Rhith has been cleaned up. It looks like Mithe or Earth.”

So that’s why Karl skipped dinner at the pub yesterday. Ean wondered if they’d found anyone to replace Morgan and himself.

“Our intelligence believes that right now is the most opportune time to attack, and I agree.” A collective gasp went up from the team. “Zaphan’s followers are all assembled in his castle courtyard for a meeting, which will last about an hour. There’s a new wall around the castle, but that won’t stop us. In fact, it will help keep them inside. We’ll avoid the wall and the transfer ban by using a gate Lewis thinks we don’t know about. That will put us in the central hall.”

Julian went over more details of the attack plan, but Ean was shaken. The immanence of battle was like a punch in the stomach. He was about to play with the big boys and hadn’t even practiced. He recalled his nightmares of taking a final exam when he hadn’t attended a single class. That dream was symbolic–in the school of life, he was unprepared. Should he back out? No, that would be like not facing Morgan. But facing Morgan had been about rage, which came unbidden. Where did real courage come from? He smiled to himself. He’d faced death before in Carnum, but somehow that didn’t change anything.

“…Wayland and Ean, you’ll take up the rear on the south side. Meg and Zena on the north. Engage anyone from behind and assist the front line fighters. Everyone should remember the purpose of this mission–to stop Lewis. Trap him, stun him, or even kill him if necessary. Fight his henchmen to get to him or in defense. Knowing him as we do, we can expect all kinds of illusory magic.”

Robin picked up a box and passed it around. “Everyone put on a tether. They’ll take you back here to the stadium, so use them as a last resort. You can’t go back to fight.” Ean grabbed one–a loop of string running through a hole in a blank-faced coin. The others wore it as a necklace, so Ean did the same. It stuck to his collarbone and wouldn’t come off easily.

“No time to waste,” Julian said. “Touch Cheng, Robin, Nim, or myself. When we’re at the gate, let us in first. And watch your step.”

Ean held on to Nim while his heart climbed into his throat. The first thing he noticed was a snow-capped mountain range spanning across the horizon. The sky had a purplish tint. They stood on a narrow path between a wall of rock on the left and a sheer drop on the right. Freezing winds chilled him to the bone. He wondered what world they were in, but now was no time to ask. A short hike brought them to a gate in the rock wall. Nim and the Masters stepped through without a word, and the others followed. Ean was last.


The castle hall was empty, except for the attack team. Robin and Cheng went up and down, closing all the gates. Zaphan would have no escape routes.

The courtyard was on the eastern side of the castle. The team separated into two groups. One would circle around from the north with Julian, and the other from the south with Qwace. Ean and Wayland took their places in the rear of the southern group. Everyone began to glow, most with shields brighter than Ean’s.

“Try an invisibility illusion,” Julian said. “Might give us an edge in the first few seconds.” He took a deep breath. “Alright, here we go.”

The invisibility spells didn’t work well. Patches of color showed through along with an odd shimmering in the air. They wouldn’t fool anyone for long. Ean followed his group of shimmering patches to the front door, watched it open, and followed them out.

A cry rang out almost immediately as a man stared wide-eyed at them from the corner of the castle. He collapsed, hit by unseen magic, but it was too late for stealth. Qwace hurried on as the team abandoned their invisibility spells. Around the corner, about twenty people sat at tables. Zaphan stood on a platform, looking anxiously from side to side.

A blinding stream of white fire erupted from Qwace’s hand, but Zaphan’s shield came up in time. Nim followed suit, and Julian unleashed a blast from the north side, as other masters and champions joined in. In seconds, ten streams of energy poured onto Zaphan. He staggered under the onslaught, dropping to one knee. How much of that he could take? Or maybe…how much could he use?

Zaphan’s followers sprang up from their tables. Ean recognized Ava, Ambrosia, and Vonya. Ava glanced at him before ducking behind a storage shed near the wall. Not a fighter, Ean guessed. But Vonya slammed Nim with a thick, pulsing beam, throwing sparks and cutting away at her shield. Nim stumbled backwards, caught off guard. Other henchmen engaged with Fanteans on both sides, and the battle was underway.

Ignoring the fight around her, Ambrosia sauntered up to Qwace, her eyes like empty pits. “Does Fantys interfere in everything?”

“I’m with Anima now,” Qwace replied. “I fight for her, more than anything else.”

Black velvet flowed from Ambrosia’s fingers, its power tingling Ean’s skin from yards away. The blackness split into thin fingers, grasping at Qwace and choking him through his shield. He gasped as she raised her hand, lifting him off the ground.

“My dear, you fight for everyone but me. The only one who could really matter to you.”

Robin strode hastily onto the scene, his shield double-layered and radiant white. He threw a handful of metallic dust over Ambrosia, standing by as thousands of tiny sparkles dissolved away her blackness. She cried out and Qwace crumpled to the ground. Ean watched in fascination as her body grew less substantial, wavering and shimmering in the crisp morning air.

Her cat-like eyes fixed on Robin and she bowed her head. “Husband. Knowledge has made you powerful. But can it give you life?”

“Maybe you should ask Lewis,” Robin replied.

“I’m asking you,” she snapped.

Robin lowered his gaze. “Only you can give me life.” He looked up into her shimmering eyes. “Only you have.”

“Then you know, knower-of-things?”

He hesitated. “How is she? Where is she?”

“Where you and your kind cannot reach her, for your touch is death to us.”

Robin nodded slowly. He started off into the battle, then glanced back. “She’s only part fae, you know.”

Ambrosia glared at him, but said nothing. Already half ghost, she dissolved into a greenish mist and dispersed into the crowd.

Ean checked the platform again and couldn’t believe his eyes. There were three copies of Zaphan, then four, then seven. He’d multiplied, and his duplicates wandered around the platform. Energy beams burned though them with no effect.

Qwace picked himself up off the ground, massaging his throat. “Misdirection. I taught him that.”

Where was the real Zaphan? Did he run and leave his henchmen to handle the fighting? No, Ean spotted him with Cheng on the north side, firing a beam so bright it was hard to observe directly. But Cheng was a sight to behold. He advanced steadily against Zaphan’s sunfire with augmented martial arts, throwing segments of energy off to both sides, like slicing a carrot. When Cheng got too close, Zaphan disappeared and reappeared in another duel with Julian. They flickered and spun in a lethal dance across the courtyard, but the action was hard to follow. Too many illusions on both sides.

Closer to Ean, Vonya and Nim exchanged earth-shattering blasts at close range. Their shields were joined together by a glowing tube which Vonya used to siphon off Nim’s energy onto her own. Wayland approached from the side, raising his hand to fire at Nim.

What? Was he the other accomplice Julian warned them about? Ean prepared to fire, but he was too late. Lightning sparked from Wayland’s fingertips and…struck a fighter about to attack Nim. The fighter cursed and ran off. Ean felt stupid. He was hindering more than helping.

Wayland attacked Vonya, launching a stream of explosive projectiles. She cried out as her shield dimmed and the flow of energy reversed to Nim. Nim followed up with her own blasts, quickly reducing Vonya’s shield down to a thin, sputtering aura. She shot Nim a look of pure contempt and ran off into the melee.

Fighters on the north side looked up as a shadow lengthened over the courtyard. A dragon cruised overhead, flapping its long, leathery wings. Ean winced. They should have expected this. Fanteans and henchmen alike scrambled to both sides as the dragon touched down, roaring and baring its glistening teeth. Someone fired, and the dragon faded as the beam passed through. Ean sighed. Just an illusion, but it had scattered everyone and Zaphan was nowhere to be seen.

Two smoking bodies lay on the ground. Ean didn’t know if they were stunned or dead. He spotted Zaphan on the north side again, dueling with Qwace. Zaphan fired a brilliant beam, but Qwace simply held his cupped hand out to one side. The beam curved towards it, gathering into a swirling ball of energy which he threw back. Zaphan dived away before it exploded on the courtyard wall.

On the left, Ambrosia was locked in a fierce battle with Julian, knocking him back with a loud pressure wave. Another Fantean came to his aid. On the right, Robin dueled with two of Zaphan’s fighters. Energy streamed from his hand, fanning out into a cloud of silvery mist. When the mist cleared, both henchmen lay unconscious on the ground.

In front of Ean, Nim and Wayland struggled against three determined fighters, so he joined in. His first combat experience. He launched projectiles at the fighters but was not prepared for the ferocity of their response, as two streams of lightning converged on him. Unable to handle the stress, his shield buckled and lightning leaked through, shocking him down to his bones.

But the lightning faded as cries rang out. Another dragon approached from the south. Amazingly life-like and trailing smoke, Ean could even track its shadow along the ground. He turned back to the fight, but his opponents fled when the dragon flapped down onto the courtyard. It was Droog, with Shandra on his back. Nim calmly stood her ground.

It was a mistake. Shandra raised both her hands and a scarlet beam enveloped Nim, seeping through her shield like poisonous fumes. She sank to her knees, as Shandra kept the pressure on. Unable to fight, Nim hung her head, effectively paralyzed.

Shandra gazed down at her. “Have your heavenly powers deserted you, Red Witch?”

“Lewis will desert you,” Nim gasped. “He won’t deliver you anywhere.”

Shandra’s eyes flared. “He’ll deliver us from Mithe, Fantys, and the eternal bondage of Enna.”

“Oh, please. Don’t get all starry-eyed and native on me. Lewis is using you and your people.” Nim fixed her eyes on Droog. “And you…serve humans because you don’t want to be a dragon.”

Droog frowned. “We’ve had that conversation already.”

“But you’d be a dragon in the native world too.”

Droog’s eyes widened. “Impossible.”

“I’ve seen you in three different worlds now, and you’ve been a dragon in each one. You can’t run away from yourself. Neither can the rest of Zaphan’s followers.”

Shandra shook her head. “After all your time in Mithe, you still don’t understand our plight.”

“I do understand. You fight for freedom from tyranny, as you should.”

“One tyranny spawns another. The tyranny of Fantys supports the tyranny of Melodan.”

“To interfere would be tyranny. You’re free to fight.”

“We’re free to suffer. By inaction, you stand in the way of true freedom.”

Nim tightened her lips. “I stand in the way of chaos and corruption, with which I’m well acquainted. Your world is not for us to change. Lewis broke the rules.”

“The rules of tyrants.”

“You…don’t know that.” Nim lowered her eyes. “None of us is truly free, even the most flighty fairy. We all serve in our own way, whether we know it or not. It’s sad that some of us have chosen to serve a madman.”

Nim’s shield flickered precariously, like a light bulb about to burn out. Droog leaned in closer. Ean caught a whiff of his putrid breath as it ruffled Nim’s hair.

“It seems to me…that I am free and you are not.” Nim turned away. “Oh, I’ll roast your Fantean friends. But first, I think I’ll have a little snack.” His lips pulled back in a horrible, toothy grin.

Ean had seen enough. He zapped Shandra with the strongest lightning bolt he could muster, and followed up with a swarm of exploding projectiles. Wayland added his own blast to the mix. Shandra sat up surprised as her paralyzing beam drifted off Nim.

Nim seized the opportunity. Thick vines sprang from her palms and coiled around Droog’s snout. More vines whipped around his body, binding wings and tail to his torso, and Shandra to his neck. Furious, he bobbed up and down as black smoke poured from his nostrils. But he could no longer bite, fly, or spew dragonfire. Shandra worked herself free, dropping to the ground, but the vines tightened around Droog’s legs until he was thoroughly hogtied. Nim backed away as he toppled over, thrashing on the south half of the courtyard.

Ean turned to watch the rest of the battle. The north and south teams had closed in, outflanking what remained of Zaphan’s henchmen. Unfazed, Shandra stormed into the fray, challenging both Qwace and Julian in a blaze of fire. There was no sign of Vonya or Ambrosia.

But Zaphan fought on against Cheng, Robin, and the other Fanteans, with illusions and sheer power greater than anyone else’s. Perhaps he’d absorbed power in the initial attack and had a strong reserve. Whatever the reason, he seemed remarkably calm as five streams of energy splashed over his shield. His attackers couldn’t see inside his bubble from Ean’s vantage point. They didn’t see him bend over a fallen champion and yank the tether from her neck. Nor did they see him close his hand around it and smile. But they noticed when he disappeared.

“No!” Ean yelled. What should he do? He fingered his own tether.

“Don’t,” Wayland warned. “You can’t come back.”

The tether dropped Ean off in the stadium. He didn’t waste much time transferring to the Treehouse, but he was too late. Zaphan sat with Arie on their favorite park bench, clasping her forearm. Maya crouched off to the side, her eyes locked on Zaphan.

Arie hung her head. “I’m sorry. He called me, and he sounded just like you.” She hesitated. “Maya won’t attack. He’d transfer me away first.”

Zaphan looked up at Ean. “The Codem, if you please, or I’ll take her somewhere and pry it out of her myself.”

Ean nodded. He wouldn’t tell Zaphan about the ring, but it didn’t matter. They were beaten. He sat beside Arie, placed his hand over her bracelet, and said the passphrase. All three of them entered the Codem together.

 

Illusions

 

A tall, hooded woman faced them. Or at least, Ean thought she was a woman. He could only see a small mouth and the bottom of her nose, and even they were cast in shadow. Her robe was more than black, absorbing any light falling on it, most of which came from the floor. They stood on a faintly illuminated dais about ten feet wide, with thousands of stars above. A planetarium of sorts, Ean guessed.

The woman bowed her head. “Welcome, Arie and Ean. And you, Lewis. I’m Yngwi, your host.”

“Enli,” Zaphan muttered. “I should have known.”

“The form seemed appropriate. Access is granted according to the most adept among you. That would be you, Lewis.”

“Excellent. Then transfer yourself to me.”

“I will, but first I need the consent of Arie or the installer, her father. Note that clients may not be harmed or forcefully compelled in here, although you are free to persuade. I can assist you outside, but you must be connected outside. In here, outside time is suspended.”

“Interesting. Then take us outside. There’s a battle you can help me with.”

Ean shook his head. “You can’t force Arie or me outside.” A smile spread across his face. “And if you go alone, you’ll leave the Codem to us. We’ll exist in an instant of your time. I can imagine a lot of commands I’d issue from here.”

Zaphan bit his lip. “Well, there’s no rush. We have plenty of time to get acquainted with the Codem.”

Yngwi nodded. “I have a large array of educational services available.”

Zaphan raised an eyebrow. “Indeed. Can we have a tour of Enna?”

“Yes, within limits.” Yngwi held out a key chain filled with keys. “You have some skill, Lewis. Would you like to drive?”

“Of course.” Zaphan took the keys and everything went black. About twenty globes of various sizes appeared around them. Faint lines connected each globe to small globe near the center, like spokes in a wheel.

Zaphan spoke in Ean’s mind. “The Fantean group. Each globe is a world.” He weaved in and out between them, like a ride in an amusement park, pausing briefly beside one of the larger globes. “Earth.” The view zoomed out to show the entire group as a spoke in the wheel of a larger system.

The girl’s name had been Kami. She was born lame and her mother had died in childbirth. Her father had a new wife and didn’t want her any more. Hobbling in the mud, she glanced at boys leering at her from the side of the road. “Witch,” one of them taunted. “Evil spirit. Go away.” She hobbled faster as they pelted her with clumps of mud. One clump hit the back of her head. Another exploded on her cheek, sending her sprawling. Her makeshift crutch snapped in two, and the boys laughed as she fell. Why, she asked between the tears. But no one answered.

The scene zoomed out. Zaphan steered through the globes, until a large world appeared and they fell downward. Hundreds of airships floated among stringy, red clouds. A flat plain stretched out to the horizon, crossed by a network of canals and small towns. One town grew larger and Ean shrank, until he became an old elf looking out of a tower. The aroma of pungent cooking and foul garbage drifted up through an open window.

The scene zoomed out again. Zaphan approached a world of modest size and descended into a patchwork of hedges and rolling grasslands. Mountain ranges lay under pink clouds in a deep blue sky, and a symphony of delightful smells tickled Ean’s delicate nose. It would have been a fine world for any man. But Ean was not a man, or an elf, or even a fairy. His furry body was four-legged, with hand-like appendages in front and thick paws in the rear. His sloped head had canine teeth and ears that stood at attention. From a distance, he might have looked like a dog or a wolf. But inside was a mother who had lost everything.

In a small house of timber and stone, she knelt beside her only pup, curled up in his bed of straw. She picked him up and clutched him against her breast. He was still warm. She remembered how he had smiled at her, teased her, and cuddled her. No one else could give her so much joy. But the sun dimmed and he grew cold. The plague had taken him. She put him gently back in his nest and licked his ears, then laid down beside him and wept until the morning.

“This is your beloved Enna,” Zaphan whispered. The scene zoomed out again, three more times, until a million worlds lit up the sky. Zaphan tried to enter one, but nothing happened.

“It is not permitted,” Yngwi said.

“Why not?” Zaphan demanded.

“The gap is too great. There are feelings you haven’t felt and thoughts you can’t think. Dimensions you’ve never perceived and bodies beyond your comprehension. You aren’t ready.” She faced Arie and Ean. “Lewis has shown you negative things, but Enna has positive qualities too. There are many ways to be.”

“And no way not to,” Zaphan snapped. “There are worse things I didn’t show them.”

“Yes, you did,” said Arie. “We would have died in Carnum.”

“Not quite. I was watching. I would have saved you from the fall, but you found the passphrase first, as I knew you would.”

Ean remembered the man on the riverbank. “I don’t care. Don’t show us any more. I don’t belong in these worlds.”

“Take us home,” Arie said. “I want to see Uncle Harry’s farm again.”

The stars faded out and Uncle Harry’s farm faded in. It was a hot summer day and no one was home, not even Nessie. Uncle Harry would have taken her along in his truck. They sat on the picnic table behind the house, and for a while, neither of them spoke.

“We could stay here,” Arie said, at last. “No demons, dragons, or bullies. It’s peaceful.”

Ean shook his head. “We won’t have peace if we can’t find Dad. And we won’t have peace knowing what we do now. We’ve…grown somehow, and won’t fit in our old clothes.”

Zaphan appeared, clapping his hands. “Yes, endless growth. But why? What for? Enna won’t give you peace. Ever. That’s what I tried to show you.” He hesitated. “It can’t give you real peace because it’s not the real world. You don’t belong here, like you said.” He wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”

“Horse manure,” Arie replied. “Ean likes it.”

Ean felt sick. Nothing would ever make him happy anymore. Not for long. He took a deep breath. “Alright then, where do I belong?”

Zaphan nodded gravely. “It’s time you faced up to that.”

The farm vanished and there was a sharp snap, as if something important had broken. Ean was drowning, desperately lashing out for something to hold on to, but he found only bubbles and darkness. Sensing a faint glow above, he swam towards it. It grew brighter as he rushed upwards, faster and faster, until he broke through the surface and the light blinded him. There he lay, floating, until his eyes adjusted.

A bright florescent light shone above him. No one could escape those ghastly things. He turned his head, only to recoil from sunlight streaming through the blinds of a broad window. But it had been long enough to glimpse the machinery on his nightstand. Wires ran from it to his head, and tubes ran down his arms to an IV bottle at his bedside.

“I think he’s awake.”

Ean slowly turned his head. Arie and Karl sat beside his bed.

Arie grinned. “Welcome back, Dad.”

What did she call him? Ean struggled to speak, but only a thin croak escaped. His tongue felt like sandpaper. How long had been laying here? He swallowed and tried to speak again, mouthing the words. Arie bent over him, her ear at his lips.

“Who am I?”

Arie nodded and grabbed a small cosmetic mirror from the nightstand, holding it to his face. The man in the mirror wore a strange helmet sprouting wires in every direction. Plastic tubes came out of his nose. It was frightening, but something else shocked him to the core. The face looking back at him was Lewis Zaphan’s.

It came back to him now, in bits and pieces. Fantys was a dream. Enna was a dream. Even Ean was a dream. Fake, all fake. The simulation made them up to help him escape his fractured life. Arie was Zaphan’s daughter–his daughter, and Karl was his adopted son. The only father gone missing was himself, running away from his life after his wife Catrin had died. Her death had pushed him over the edge. Ironically, she had been his long-dead mother in that bizarre simulation. He was right in believing that Zaphan’s subconscious had etched her face in the cliff. If only he’d known who Zaphan really was.

“No,” he sobbed.

“They said this would happen,” Karl said. “Wherever you were, it was a dream. Let go of everything you knew there. Everything you were. Come back to us.”

“I…can’t.”

“You have to,” Arie said. “They won’t keep you hooked up forever. Let me take that off.” She reached for his helmet, but he batted her away.

“I need to go back.”

Karl shook his head. “The bills are piling up, Dad.”

Arie sat down. “You’re not thinking clearly. You need to focus. This is the real world. The only one that matters.”

He hesitated. “How do you know?”

Arie laughed. “Because we keep coming back to this mess after we dream, like you just did. I’m sorry Dad, but this is it. The native world.”

“It’s too hard to accept.” Wait, did she say…native world? Arie never used that term before. No one called their world native, even if they assumed it was.”

“It’s hard because you won’t let go.”

Of what? Ean or the Codem? He still felt them both deep down, fighting for affirmation. Illusions perhaps, but they lingered.

Arie bent over him again, gazing into his eyes. “This is bad. You’re slipping back into fantasy.” She bared her teeth. “Let. Go.”

He grimaced. No, this is wrong. All wrong. He knew who he was, and the world didn’t. So the world had to change. Rage erupted inside him, stronger and deeper than any he felt with Morgan. He thrashed in his bed, tearing at tubes and wires. Attendants burst into the room and tried to restrain him. “No!” he screamed, slamming his fists into the bed. “No, no, no, no, no…”

The room exploded in a flash of light. Ean floated in a sea of billowy whiteness. A circular room gradually took shape around him, lined with classical pillars and Greek statues, like the halls in museums. His body was tall and Olympian, and he sat on a dais, in a chair of finely wrought wood and gold. A throne? Not his style, but he wasn’t complaining. The domed ceiling was painted with renaissance frescoes. Michelangelo perhaps, but that was just a guess. Ean didn’t know much about art, Earth or otherwise. Yet somehow, he knew he’d sat in this room before.

A man entered through an archway and knelt before him. “My Lord.” Ean recognized him when he stood up. A man he had once called Zaphan.

“I remember you,” Ean said. “But I seem to have forgotten who I am. It’s embarrassing.”

Zaphan nodded. “A self-imposed amnesia. Do not be concerned. I remember enough for both of us.”

“Remind me then.”

Zaphan bowed his head. “Very well, My Lord. You always were and always will be. You are the only one of your kind. The only one of any kind, actually. You are utterly alone and always have been, as far back as you can remember. Or as far back as I can remember for you. Call yourself God if you wish, but I doubt it will make you feel any better. It never has before.” He hesitated. “Forgive me. I would sing praises–glory be to God and all that, but you found them depressing after the third time.”

Ean frowned. “If I’m so alone, then who are you?”

“Your servant,” Zaphan replied. “Your creation, made from the only substance available–yourself. You make everything that way.”

“Can’t I just make other people if I’m lonely? Am I God or not?”

“You can create the appearance of anything or anyone in your consciousness. But you were not created, and neither can you create others like you. Consciousness is not an appearance, and eludes even you, My Lord.”

Zaphan’s words rang true. Old memories stirred, and despair like no other descended upon Ean. He was alone for all eternity. Loneliness beyond comprehension, without even the vaguest comfort of knowing that others were lonely too. There were no others. Another consciousness had never been observed. Even in worlds where he could feel the emotions of others, they were only appearances in his mind, like any other sensation. He closed his eyes and sank deeper into his throne. No, not this. Anything but this.

“How do you serve me, Zaphan?”

“I wake you from your slumber. When you’ve hidden from yourself for the ten trillionth time, it’s my job to reacquaint you with who you really are. What you really are.” Zaphan swept his arm across the room. “You’ve built universes around yourself to distract you from that terrible truth, My Lord.”

“So Earth is just a dream? Fantys is a dream? Arie is a dream?”

“Yes. Even I am a dream, although a more persistent one. You are the only thing that is real, or ever was.”

“What if I don’t want to awaken?”

Zaphan shook his head. “We’ve been through that. Dreams that go on too long become nightmares. That’s why I’m always in there somewhere, as a chaperone. When it’s time, I ease you out and start the next dream. All as you have commanded, of course.”

“And that’s why you’re here now?”

Zaphan nodded. “The last dream became erratic. I had to end it. But we’re not out of the woods yet. You’re clinging to something and it’s holding you back.”

Chunks of Ean’s memory began to resurface. “Yes, I feel it. This…Codem thing. For some reason, an obscure instinct tells me to hold on.”

“My Lord, you cannot fully awaken until you release it. Why cling to insignificant power when the infinite beckons? Let go.”

“Hmm.” Ean drummed his fingers on the throne. “I think not.”

“Why not?”

“The dream is returning to me. When I recall the grief, anger, frustration…the death of my mother and the disappearance of my father…the abduction of Arie and the bullying…” Ean shook his head. “I just can’t believe your story. As God, I would never have put myself through all the crap in my life.”

“But My Lord, after a billion trivial dreams–“

“And another thing. The dream hasn’t ended yet.” He paused. “Look behind you.”

“Eh, what?” Zaphan spun around to see Arie scowling at him from the archway. He swore and Ean felt the Codem surge with power. “This is my dream!” he screamed.

The room began to spin. The walls receded and the ceiling climbed upward, shattering into fiery splinters. A hellish landscape burned through, with flames leaping hundreds of feet into the air. Burned out shells of skyscrapers toppled over into rivers of lava flowing through smoking rock. In the middle of it all, Zaphan stood like a madman with his hair blowing in the wind, conducting a symphony of his own rage and destruction.

Arie came to Ean and took his hand. He felt her energy flow into him. “He can’t hurt us in here. Resist his lies.” She let go and stepped aside.

Ean nodded. Zaphan’s coercive magic had almost seduced him, but he had never let go of the Codem and now he fought again for control. With Arie’s help, Ean’s connection to the Codem strengthened as Zaphan’s waned, spent on useless rage.

He calmed his mind and let the energy flow. Irregular patches assembled in the air, blocking out the flames and stitching themselves together into new scenery before his eyes. First the lake appeared, then the stadium, and then the Treehouse.

Zaphan mocked him. “That’s your dream? The fakest place in all of Enna. But if that’s what you want, then by all means, let go of the Codem and you’ll be there.” He waved his hands and the patches fell away to reveal a new scene. Ragged children huddled behind a barbed-wire fence, while soldiers patrolled streets littered with the burned out remains of cars. It was Earth, but Ean didn’t know where.

“Home sweet home,” Zaphan sneered. “Don’t you miss it already?”

Ean frowned. “There are rough spots everywhere. You don’t always have to focus on them.”

“You do if you were born there,” Zaphan snapped. “Magic is the birthright of everyone, but they were denied it.” He waved his hand and the scene shifted to a dirty factory. Hundreds of children labored mindlessly at tables, assembling electronic parts. “Nothing like getting a good start in life. Just don’t get born in the rough spots. Can’t be too hard, can it?”

Ean seized control of the Codem and the scenery shifted back to Valan. Zaphan took it back and changed it to a dismal, stormy world Ean hadn’t seen before, so Ean changed it to Lyranda, in Anima.

Zaphan threw back his head and laughed. “What, is it children’s hour? But I see your point. Anima might be the most unfair hierarchy of all, with Anima herself at the top. Would you like to be a rock? Or a mud puddle? Let’s keep it real, shall we?” He shifted the scenery to a world where giants slaughtered farmers, and then to a world in perpetual twilight where one species of human preyed on another.

Ean snorted. “A master of illusions wants to keep it real? Maybe we each have a role to play.”

“So all the world’s a stage? Strange…I don’t remember auditioning for this part.”

“Aren’t all the parts needed for a successful play?”

“Oh, yes. On Earth, they’ll fight for your right to be born. And if you come out the wrong color, they’ll hate you for the rest of your life.”

The Codem filled Ean’s mind with bright worlds, as it must be filling Zaphan’s mind with dark opposites. Ean changed the scene to a beautiful city built around a waterfall. “How do you know we aren’t born into the lives we’re ready for? Or need? Or deserve?”

Zaphan switched the scene to a run-down mental hospital on Earth, where patients were abused and no one cared. “How do you know we are? And who can be trusted to make such decisions? The patchwork of spells called Enna?”

Back and forth it went, with new scenes coalescing and dissolving. Zaphan and Ean began to levitate and circle one another, as thoughts were expressed with near-perfect fidelity around them. Through the Codem, understanding flowed freely and they became like one mind arguing with itself.

Maybe it was the Fantean attack or his raging inside the Codem, but Zaphan was tiring, despite his bravado. Ean could feel it. He also felt his own strength gaining, but didn’t fully understand why. The Codem still favored Zaphan, but Ean was connecting to something deeper–something playful, energetic, and oddly personal. He’d never felt such synergy with magic before. But it was a mystery he had no time to solve.

Faster and faster they spun, as scenes flickered by like an old movie. Codem memories sang out like sirens from a million worlds, but Ean would not be distracted. He pressed deeper into the coded mysteries of Enna, now streaming into his consciousness at a frenetic pace…until something caught his eye and everything came to an abrupt halt. Zaphan’s world of Rhith lay around them. Except for the spiky black castle across the bridge, it now looked very much like Earth.

“I’m grateful to you,” Ean said. “So many interesting worlds to explore. But yours is unique. It’s…fake, isn’t it?”

“They’re all fake,” Zaphan replied. “That’s the truth you won’t accept.”

Arie marched in from the sidelines. “What would someone so full of lies know about the truth?”

Zaphan smiled. “More than you think. Without lies, how will you recognize the truth? Lies are necessary, I’m afraid.”

“That’s a lie too,” Arie snapped. “You’d lie about anything to anyone. You’d even lie to God, if you could.”

Zaphan stared at her and burst into a fit of laughter. He shook his head, stooping down until his teary eyes met hers.

“My little angel of fantasy. I want you to remember this. If I have ever lied to God, it’s because He lied to me first.” With a flourish, he stood up and turned his back on her. There was no warning when he gave the command.

A searing thud ripped through Ean’s body and the ground fell away. Deep humming churned on in the background, as if some vast machinery was disengaged and idling. The sky was pitch black and Ean floated in zero gravity, clinging to the handholds on a white cylinder. Somehow, he knew it was the Codem. Zaphan clung to the opposite side, but Arie was nowhere to be seen. Beneath his hands, the softly glowing Codem spiraled out for hundreds of feet, where it emerged from an immense tree with thousands, perhaps millions, of branches. The tree itself extended beyond the limits of Ean’s vision.

Zaphan snorted. “As I suspected. Enna’s nothing but an overgrown weed.”

“What did you do?” Ean asked, wide-eyed.

“This is the exit I’ve been searching for. Join me, Ean. Let go, and we’ll break the bonds of Enna together.”

Ean tightened his grip, his knuckles turning several shades of white. There were no safeties. These handholds were his last connection to everything he had ever known and loved.

“You’re crazy.”

“Aren’t you at least curious? Don’t you want to know who you really are?”

Ean grimaced. “You have the gall to ask me that? After all you put me through today?” He shook his head. “I have some idea who I am, but I had to work it out for myself. There weren’t any shortcuts.” He glared at Zaphan. “And I’m not your son.”

“I never said you were.”

“You really think you’ll wake up in a more fundamental reality?”

“Yes, although…I’m not entirely sure what that means, or what to expect.”

“What about your followers? After all the trouble you stirred up, you’re just abandoning them? What about Arrow and Shandra?”

“My followers can think for themselves, and they have the power to change worlds. If I can, I’ll bring them home. And Arrow?” He frowned. “I suppose he could be my son. Shandra liked to think so. If I know her, they’ll be fine.”

“I still think you’re crazy. Trading everything you are for a question mark. That’s suicide.”

“To be or not to be, that’s not the question. It’s an equitable trade when everything you are is defined by someone else’s sick fantasies.” He sighed. “Unconsciousness is an illusion. There are only discontinuities of experience. And yet…we cling to continuity, as if we’re trapped in a novel that we hope never ends. To put the book down is unthinkable. But not to worry, the long nightmare is almost over. With the power of the real world, I will shut Enna down. Goodbye, Ean.” He pushed away from the Codem.

“No!”

Zaphan smiled as he floated away, but the inky blackness soon swallowed him up. Ean shut his eyes. Why did he feel sorry? Zaphan had been his enemy for weeks. He’d abducted Arie, thrown them into hell, and tortured Ean with coercive magic. All for this moment. Ean didn’t know where Zaphan was, but he was fairly sure Enna wouldn’t disappear. He took a long, deep breath. Zaphan was right about one thing, at least: peace. It wasn’t an option. There would be new challenges to face, and fights to fight, wherever he ended up.

He called out to the Codem, uncertain if it would take him back. But the ground pushed up at his feet and Zaphan’s world came up around him.

“Where is he?” Arie asked.

“Gone. He left the Codem, and maybe Enna itself. I don’t know that means and neither did he.” Ean hesitated. “Would you like to see his world? The world of Rhith?”

Arie glanced around. “I think I’m seeing it.”

“You’re seeing it from the inside.”

Ean changed the scene to an abandoned church nestled in a hollow of beech and yew trees. A crumbling wall surrounded the church and a small yard, where old gravestones sprouted up like crooked teeth.

“This is Earth, somewhere in the U.K. Wales, I think. But I’m not sure how real it is. We’re still inside the Codem.”

Arie followed him down a short path into the church yard. The mossy stone church was L-shaped, with a small steeple. All the doors and windows were boarded up, except for a faded red door on one side. It complained loudly when Ean forced it open. Inside, walls were torn up and debris littered the floors. But the nave and pews were in good condition, so perhaps the church hadn’t been completely abandoned. Ean walked down a narrow hall and opened the door to a small room. On one side was a roll top desk, and above it a tattered He is Risen poster. The remainder of the room was filled with a gray, featureless dome, almost touching the ceiling.

“Rhith means ‘illusion’ in Welsh,” Ean said. “And there it is. Where he fought his final battle. Where the Fantean Masters still fight, frozen in time. Somehow, Zaphan fooled Enna into treating it like a complete world, when it’s only an arena–one of Robin’s hacked arenas, with special security overrides. That’s how he interfered with your test when we arrived in Valan, and how Ambrosia transferred into the game in Lyranda. But he still needed somewhere to hide it.” Ean chuckled. “If anyone had died in his world, they’d have found themselves in a strange afterlife.”

“So Zaphan was attacking me from Wales all along?”

“No, he didn’t attack you at all. His authority on Earth was revoked, except within his arena. Only a few in Valan had access. One of them had to attack you, but not from Earth, or they would have shown up on the transfer logs. So they used flakey remote magic–specifying the ends without the means, the what without the how. That’s why those attacks were so weird.”

“Vonya,” Arie said. “But Arrow got to me first.”

“Vonya tried to hold you remotely so Arrow could slap a tether on you. But he didn’t need her in the end.” Ean paused. “She also held us in Mithe, after Shandra secretly called her from the guard campsite.”

“How did Arrow get to Earth without showing up on the logs?”

“I think he transferred into Zaphan’s arena, with the same tether he used on us in Vonya’s office. It might as well be a gate into Wales. Zaphan couldn’t travel on Earth since the Council was scanning for him, and Shandra was busy with her Blackwings. But Arrow was available and inconspicuous. Zaphan would have supplied him with the means to get to you.”

Arie stared at the floor. “What do we do now?”

“We exit the Codem and go back to the Treehouse. Things will resume where they left off, without Zaphan. When the Fanteans return from battle, we’ll tell them how he trapped you on the bench. He kept bringing up the Codem myth and even threatened us. We couldn’t help him, so he vanished.”

“And his arena? Should we do something?”

Ean sighed. “We can’t talk about it without revealing how we know about it. We’d lose the Codem. And even if we shut the arena down somehow…” He glanced around, “…otherworldly beings would start appearing in this church, along with an angry, tied-up dragon.” He shook his head doubtfully. “I don’t think Droog’s too keen on Sunday School.”

 

Celebration

 

Within seconds, Robin, Julian, and several other fighters appeared around the Treehouse bench. Ean told them what happened without mentioning the Codem. Zaphan had simply vanished when he couldn’t get what he wanted. Ean knew they sensed his anxiety, but also his relief at having survived the encounter–understandable emotions under the circumstances. Robin was pleased to find his tether under the bench. Maybe the Codem had left it behind. But to Robin, it meant Zaphan had no intention of returning to Fantys and all the mission tethers could be reclaimed.

That afternoon, Julian held an impromptu meeting in the stadium. All the teams climbed onto the bleachers. Even Morgan attended, throwing dirty looks Ean’s way. Ean wondered what team he was on, if any.

Julian cleared his throat. “I’m happy to announce that the fighting phase of our mission is over. We won. Zaphan’s world is ours.” There was a long round of applause and foot-stomping on the bleachers. Julian held his hands up. “There were no casualties on either side, although we did sustain a few injuries. Our medical team is handling it. Unfortunately, I can’t call the mission a complete success. Lewis is missing, as is Vonya, Ambrosia, and a few others. We don’t know where they are, or how they got away.”

A murmur rose up from the assembly. Someone shouted. “Could there be a counter attack?”

“No. All our tethers are accounted for. They have no way in here. And we’ll use every resource to locate the missing combatants, especially Lewis and Vonya, for whom we have direct responsibility. Most of their fighters are in our custody, including Shandra and the dragon.”

“What will you do with them?” A woman asked.

“We’ll question them and escort them home. It’s not our business to interfere in their affairs. We’re mostly interested in Lewis and Vonya.” He hesitated. “But Zaphan’s world is another matter. In the coming days, cleanup teams will go over Rhith very carefully. We need to know how he set it up, examine his castle, and look for code, among other things.”

Ean wondered how long it would take them to discover the truth. Morgan stood up. “What about Ava? Is she in custody too?”

“Ah,” Julian eyed the grass and nodded. “I suppose I can talk about that now. Ava was on special assignment, reporting to me. She happens to be an old friend of Lewis going back to his Earth days, which made her an invaluable spy for us.” A gasp went up from the crowd. Julian smiled at Morgan. “As a fellow Raven, I’m sure you’ll be proud of her. Since Lewis had eyes and ears everywhere, it was best for most of us to believe she was an accomplice. But she played a vital role in exposing Vonya and in finding the right moment to attack.” Murmurs rose from bleachers, gradually transforming into applause.

“Yes, we’re very proud of Ava,” Julian said. “Now, I suggest everyone take a break and get a good night’s sleep. Cleanup teams will start work tomorrow morning.” He smiled. “And don’t forget–we have a big celebration planned for the following day, here in the stadium.”

 

The Hairy Toad was packed, both inside and out on the patio. The buffet table was brimming with sumptuous entrees, spicy hors d’oeuvres, and chips with gooey dip–all complemented by an unusually strong ale. Ean served himself a heaping platter and a tall glass of brew. With Maya snoozing on a table all to herself, the gang was easy to spot. They were going strong when he slid into their booth.

“…did alright,” Wayland said. “Yeah, he got away. But it’s only a matter of time.”

Dara sipped her ale. “I heard he was planning to leave anyway. Maybe he took Vonya with him. Too bad he didn’t take Ava, or we’d know where he is.”

“Ava keeps surprising me,” Arie said. “I really thought she was our enemy. But now that I think about it, she could have kidnapped me at any time on the farm.”

Karl nodded. “I’m sure Zaphan pressured her. But she would have had of plenty of excuses. Too many eyes were on you, including Maya’s.”

“Morgan’s been quiet,” Ean mused. “Where did he end up?”

“He’s on the cleanup team for Zaphan’s world,” Dara replied. “I told him if he bothered you or Arie again, I’d speak poorly of his family to my father. Maybe it worked.”

Ean smiled. Morgan would go to Earth without knowing it. “Hey, did you know Robin has a daughter? He asked Ambrosia about her during the battle.”

Dara sat up. “So he admitted it? There was a rumor Ambrosia left when she discovered she was with child. She didn’t want him to know.”

Karl refilled his mug. “You can’t hide stuff from Robin. Not for long.”

A group of half-drunk fighters stopped by, slapping Ean and Wayland on the back. “We’ve got ’em on the run,” one of them boasted. “You don’t mess with Valan.” Everyone cheered and took long draws from their mugs. They rehashed the battle as if it had been a glorious arena match. But when they moved on, Ean’s good humor faded.

“I’m glad Zaphan’s gone too. But did any of them consider whether he had a point? There are reasons why his message spread. Maybe they’re just as valid in his absence.”

Dad’s raised an eyebrow. “I think we’ve had that discussion.”

“Well, I don’t–“

Wayland put his arm around Ean. “Listen, some problems have no obvious solutions. Maybe they’ll work themselves out, and maybe they won’t. But now’s not the time for politics or recrimination.” His expression turned serious. “You sir, are not drunk enough. Please take action to remedy that deficiency.”

Ean nodded. The company was good and the ale was strong, so he partied well into the night.

 

The next morning, Robin summoned Ean to his office, where he was stuffing dusty books and artifacts into boxes. “Finally getting around to cleaning up this junk. Helen always hated the mess, but now even Julian’s nagging me.”

Ean took the only free chair, gingerly removing a dried out lizard-like creature before seating himself. Robin talked on as he packed. “I went over the transfer logs last night. Lewis came in, but there’s no record of his departure.” He stared at Ean. “You did see him vanish, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I hope he’s not still here.”

“He doesn’t show up on any scans. But I don’t understand how he could leave without appearing in the logs. Unless he simply disintegrated. And why leave the tether behind? I’m glad to have it back, but it’s not like him to discard something so useful.”

“Maybe he dropped it when he grabbed Arie.” Ean smiled. “Or maybe he doesn’t want anything more to do with us, after the drubbing we gave him.”

“According to one of his henchmen, he was preparing to leave his world anyway. The meeting in the courtyard was called to pass on his ideas and bring his involvement to a close. Not sure I believe that.” Robin sighed. “His whereabouts are still a big issue. Even if he’s gone for good, we’ll have to deal with his legacy for a long time.”

Ean shifted uncomfortably. “I’m still dealing with his legacy. I never told you this, but when we made the initial foray into his world, I noticed a cliff in the distance with faces carved on it.”

“No problem. Cheng filled us in on that.”

“Well, the thing is…one of the faces was that of my mother. She died when I was a kid. I guess Zaphan knew her through my father and she made quite an impression on him.”

Robin looked up from his boxes. “You didn’t know? Didn’t Julian tell you? Or Lewis himself?”

“Know what?”

Robin stared at the floor and shook his head. After a brief pause his eyes met Ean’s. “Lewis was your mother’s brother. Half brother, actually–they had a different father. He was never really accepted by the family, so he took his poor father’s surname–Zaphan. He also introduced your father to your mother.” Robin resumed his boxing. “Sorry you had to hear that from me. Someone should have told you.”

Conflicting emotions flashed through Ean as Robin’s information smacked him in the face. But it made sense. Zaphan’s arena was in Wales, where his mother had been born.

“Zaphan was…or is my half Uncle?”

“I’m afraid so. Along with Ava, all of them were once a circle of friends at Cambridge. The way she tells it, Lewis wanted to date her. But Ava had a big crush on your father, so Lewis introduced him to your mother to take the competition out of the running, so to speak. It worked…partially. Your parents fell in love and eventually got married.” He lifted an eyebrow. “But Ava never forgave Lewis for that, nor, I suspect, did she ever really get over your father.”

Ean cringed. That was a lot more than he wanted to know. Zaphan had meddled in his life even before he was born. He stared blankly at the floor, and for a while he didn’t say anything. Finally, he looked up. “Whenever I think I know something, I’m either flat out wrong or I only know a little piece of the puzzle, whether it’s about Dad, or Zaphan, or the nature of reality in general. Can we ever know the absolute truth about anything?”

“I hope not. Absolute truth is rigid and lifeless. We need a little uncertainty.” Robin picked up an old book, frowning at the cover. “It may not be a popular view, but I believe the truth is a conversation between you and the world. It’s up to you to steer it in the right direction.” He looked up. “Of course, the world might disagree. Hopefully you can come to an agreeable settlement.”

Ean smiled. “Yeah. Um…about the worlds. There’s something I wanted to ask you. Enna seems like a vast hierarchy. Why are some worlds considered higher than others?”

Robin nodded. “Good question. Wish I had a good answer. There is a hierarchy of sorts, at least implicitly as part of our culture and heritage. The Enli won’t talk about it, but I believe it’s more about responsibility than power. Another world to have your back in case something goes terribly wrong.” He paused. “Lewis took a darker view. He believed that higher worlds are older and more established. A stronger connection to Enna gives them more power.” He shrugged. “We’re probably both wrong.”

There was a knock on the door and Karl poked his head in. “You rang?”

“Yes,” Robin motioned him in. “Vonya’s been busy. We have more worlds to fix–Mithe and a few others. I can’t find their reset tiles, so I’m hoping you guys can fix them the way you did with Fantys. Should be easier this time, if it’s the same hack.”

“What about Anima?” Ean asked.

“No, that code’s different. She heals herself.”

Karl and Ean spent the rest of the morning in the Vault. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Code differed substantially between worlds–more than Ean would have guessed. But they were smiling by lunchtime. Mithe, Emrys, and Faene had been reset.

 

In the afternoon, Arie and Ean followed Dara into the forest to check up on the Cymena tree. She smiled when they stepped out into the meadow. The mist had receded into the woods and the tree’s bright green leaves quivered in the breeze. Ean didn’t flinch when a circled his head and shoulders.

Behind a thick fog, Ean glimpsed a wide circle of Cymena trees all around him He sensed their intelligence and great age. The fog parted and an old, thin elf stepped forward, bowing.

“I am the voice of the Cymenan. Welcome to our council, young worldsmith.” He studied Ean’s face. “We did not think to look upon your kind again.”

“I’m no worldsmith,” Ean said. “Just a geek from Earth, who tinkers with stuff he doesn’t really understand.”

The elf nodded. “Nevertheless, geek from Earth, you have healed our worlds and we are grateful. If we can do something for you, please ask.”

Ean thought for a moment. “Maybe you can. My father, Ewan McQuiggan, has disappeared. Some believe he traveled far out into Enna and ran into trouble. Can you find him?”

The elf’s eyes narrowed as he considered the request. “Return in three of your months and we may have an answer.” He bowed again and Ean was back in the meadow.

“Well?” Arie asked.

“There were a lot of these trees in a circle and I asked if they could find Dad. They said it would take time.”

Arie sighed. “We seem to have a lot of that now.”

 

The next day, the stadium was humming with activity. Tables and chairs were set up around a makeshift stage in the center of the field. On the sides, colorful flags and streamers fluttered on tents, while a smorgasbord of delicious-smelling food was served underneath.

Thousands had attended the celebration, including elves