Welcome to the A JOURNEY HOME page of my website.

 

This story was written by my old friend HOWARD ALDRICH and me based on characters and concepts that I had created long ago in my early twenties. I supplied the illustrations. Enjoy!!!

 

JOURNEY HOME

 

A JOURNEY HOME

 

 

Chapter One - The Runaway

 

 

            Once upon a time, that time being now, there was a boy named Thomas.

             You’ve probably met him, or at least a boy like him, pedaling his bike past you or playing catch in the street in front of your house, his life just one of  a hundred other lives that you and l pass in and out of every day.

            “But wasn’t he special?”  you may be asking, “What ‘s the point of a  story about somebody who isn’t special?!”

            Well, yes, I suppose Tommy was special. But then again, we’re all special, each in our own way, and we all have at least  one story to tell. Your story, and my story, will have to wait until another day though, because, as I mentioned before,  this is the story about a boy named Thomas.  

 

            It was after school, and Tommy tasted the salty warmth of his mother’s tears as she pressed his face against her own, his throat tightening up like a wound rubber band.

            To the boy, it seemed as if the whole world had stopped while he stood crushed against his mother’s body, fighting back tears of his own, tears he had no reason for, other than to share in his mother’s sadness. When he couldn’t hold back the question any longer, Tommy cautiously asked his mother why she was crying.

            She replied with a faint smile and a kiss on her son’s forehead.

            Tommy’s mother, Jennifer, brushed aside a soft lock of auburn hair and dried her eyes with the back of her hand, sniffling as she did so, quietly marveling at her son,  who reminded her of his father in all the best ways. Jennifer missed her husband very much, and the year that had passed since Michael's death had done little to ease the dull ache that she felt in her heart.

            After a moment or two, Jenny let her son go, sending him off to the kitchen to set the table for dinner. She stood up, trying to brush away the cloudiness in her eyes, smearing her makeup and almost banging her shin on the thick, cracked veneer top of the living room coffee table. Tommy’s mother picked up her son’s lunch box from its nest of past due bills and repossession threats. The lunch box was Michael’s, and Tommy had insisted on taking it to school every day after the construction accident.

 

            Jennifer followed her son into the kitchen, mussing up his hair with her free hand as she passed him on her way to the kitchen sink.Tommy had just finished setting the table, and waited patiently in his chair while his mother finished reheating  leftover chicken in their small microwave.

            During dinner, Tommy listened quietly to his mom as she explained that they might have to stay with his grandma for a little while, at least until she could find a better job. Tommy nodded his head reluctantly, his eyes tracing over one of the fresh grease spots on his mother’s wrinkled waitress uniform as his fork made absent minded circles in half cold rice.

            Tommy really didn’t want to live with his grandma.

            After dinner, the boy helped his mother with the dishes, and, when they were finished, Tommy began his daily pill taking under her watchful eye. When Jennifer was satisfied, she sent Tommy bounding up to his room to finish his homework, and then climbed the creaky wooden stairs herself to shower off the smelly, grimy film her work had left all over her.

 

             Tommy trudged silently up to his room just as his mother had told him, but he hadn’t taken more than a few steps when he accidentally stepped on a black checker piece that had somehow rolled out onto the floor.

            Now you can tell a lot about a person by their room, and Tommy was no exception. And just like his thoughts, although Tommy’s room wasn’t organized in any particular way (he was a young boy after all), he still managed to find the things he needed, from stray memories to favorite toys, when he really needed them. Throwing his schoolbooks on the bed, Tommy picked up the game piece, and after one quick  look at his open closet’s stack of battered games, he found the checker box that held the rest of the squabbling commotion of the black and red plastic circles. Pulling back the torn cardboard lid, the boy stood almost hypnotized by the warring jumble of color before shoving the black piece back in the box with its fellows.

            Tommy continued to putter around his room, not really in the mood for homework just yet, and walked to his dresser. He pushed aside the two brightly painted wooden horses that his father had brought back from Japan, where Michael had been stationed as a young man with the Army corps of engineers. Behind the horses was Tommy’s ant farm, and he stared into it, tapping on the glass, even though he knew he wasn’t supposed to. To Tommy, the ants were like the problems in his head, wandering back and forth with no real place to go and no way to escape.

 

            By the way, did I mention how old Tommy was?

            I didn’t, did I?

            Well, for those of you who absolutely must know, Tommy was at the age when Santa Claus and the Easter bunny had died, but when the world was still full of magic,  the age when he listened to his friends, but believed only in his mother, and the age when his bicycle didn’t take him everywhere he wanted to go, but  took him everywhere he felt he needed to be. That was how old Tommy was.

            It wasn’t long before Tommy had finished what little homework he’d been given for the day and quickly raced downstairs, plopping himself down on the living room’s faded blue couch. Tonight was Friday, and one of his favorite movies,The Wizard of Oz,  was about to start.

            But even as the canned laughter of the early evening sitcoms rose up from the squawking television in the corner, Tommy felt as if his head was on fire. The flame had started slowly; the match lit when his mom had told him about the move to grandma’s, and now it had become the blazing center of all the boy’s thoughts. He didn’t want to go live with grandma, he was sure of that. Tommy had lived all of his life here, in this same house and this same neighborhood where all his friends were.

            It was more than that, of course, but it was especially hard for a boy Tommy’s age, to put these big feelings into the small spaces that words take up. For him, the house had become the symbol of all the good times that his family once had. It wasn’t just paint and plaster, it was walls of experiences nailed together with the love of a family. To Tommy, moving away would be the same as leaving his dad behind. Even now, he could picture his dad walking through the front door, arms held open wide, so that Tommy could jump up into them and be whisked up toward the ceiling as if he were flying. If he and his mom left , Tommy felt that they might forget his dad, and lose the thread of love they all once shared.

            He couldn’t let that happen.

            When his mother finally walked down the stairs, her trim figure covered in a terry cloth robe, and her long hair still wrapped in a soft, clean towel, Tommy sat up and practically shouted, “Mom, we can’t leave!”

            Jennifer kneeled down in front of the sofa and took her son’s hand in her own. “There’s just no way that we can stay sweetie, there’s not enough money to keep the house anymore.”

            “But mom, we’ll be leaving dad behind!” Tommy blurted, the words fumbling out out of his mouth.

            Jenny recoiled as if she had just been slapped, and tried to explain to her son that dad would always be with them in their hearts, no matter where they went.

            Tommy shook his head, the tears welling up in his eyes again. How could he tell his mother so that she could understand? He felt the weight of a hundred fears pressing down on him, fears that he just couldn’t express. Tommy just knew, deep down inside, that it would be wrong for them to leave.

            Jennifer, not knowing what else to say, sat down beside her son and held him in her arms, while on the television, the keeper of the emerald city was explaining to Dorothy that nobody gets to see the wizard.

            “Not no way.”

            “Not no how.

 

            That night, Tommy lay in his bed, eyes wide open with the rocking and shaking of restless thoughts, when he heard the soft trembling of his mother’s voice float up the the stairs.

            Slowly taking off his covers and walking on tiptoe, Tommy crept gently out of his room to the top of the stairway.

            His mother was on the phone.

            “Oh mom, I just don’t know what we’re going to do. We can’t afford to stay here any longer. There’s no way we can make it with the utilities and the car payment, not to mention the cost of Tommy’s medication, and it doesn’t look like I’ll ever get hired on full time at the restaurant, which means no health insurance.” Tommy listened uneasily at the top of the stairs. He felt as if his heart had dropped to his toes, and his head had started to hurt.

            “Yeah, he’s taking it pretty hard. Oh no, mom, you know he adores you, it’s just that he thinks that if we leave the house, that we’ll be leaving Michael behind too, and, in a way, I guess he’s right.” Jennifer began to cry. “I know mom. It’s been a year, but I just need a little more time. Yes mom, I promise to start packing this weekend. Okay mom, I love you too.”

            Tommy heard the hollow clack of the phone receiver being put down, and he quickly snuck back to his room, jumped underneath the covers, and closed his eyes.

            In a few heartbeats time, Tommy could hear his mother’s footfalls on the stairs, and the door to his room creaked open as Jenny quietly poked her head in to check and see if her son was sound asleep. Tommy waited a few minutes, pretending to be asleep, until she had left him alone. And, when he thought his mom was in bed, he sat up in the mellow glow of the moonlight and suddenly decided, then and there, what he needed to do.

            And what, do you suppose, was it that Tommy had decided, there in his bed, bathed in the moonlight? Well, maybe you’ve already guessed that Tommy meant to run away from home.

                                               

            Now, as you may or may not know, the dictionary defines epilepsy as “a nervous disorder marked by usually recurring attacks of convulsions and loss of consciousness”, and some doctors have described it as “an electrical storm” in the brain. But to Tommy, his epilepsy was like a living thing in the back of his head, a huge shadow that waited to pounce on him and drag him off into the darkness, and even though it wasn’t Tommy’s fault that he had been born with epilepsy, he felt guilty about it, and ashamed of it, just the same.

            It was that guilt, and that shame, that got all twisted up in Tommy’s head with the phone call he had heard and made him blame himself for what was happening.

His medicine was the only thing that could keep away the hungry monster that snuck up on him and gobbled up his life in brief little snatches, leaving him frightened and embarrassed.

             And now the monster was going to take Tommy and his mom away from their home and away from the memories that were all he had left of his dad. Tommy thought that, by running away, he could make it possible, for his mom at least, to stay home with the memory of his dad.

            At least, that was what Tommy told himself in his head.

            But do you want to know the truth?

            The reason Tommy was planning on running away, the real reason, the reason hidden so deep down inside such a tiny part of him that even he could barely even see it, was that he wanted to hurt his mom just a little.

            Tommy wasn’t a cruel boy, or even a bad boy, but he was just a boy, which meant he was only human after all. You see, Tommy was angry. He was angry because his mom was moving them away from home and then blaming him for it (which wasn’t really true, but that poisonous couple, guilt and shame, told him it was), but mostly, he was angry because he was just  a kid and couldn’t do anything to stop it.

            Except run away.

            Tommy didn’t want to run away from home, not really. What he really wanted to do was hide somewhere for a little while to make his mother miss him and make her understand how important it was to him that they stayed.

           

            After pulling off his pajamas and getting back into his old clothes, Tommy  opened the top drawer of his dresser, the “junk drawer” his mom called it. His hands danced over the dozens of small objects that were stuffed there inside the drawer before he pulled out a large blue marble, filled with fiery specks of colored glass and stuffed it in the front pocket of his jeans. Tommy had found the marble while he was visiting his dad at one of the construction sites, and he just knew there was some magic in it. Searching even deeper in the drawer, Tommy found his favorite dinosaur (a plastic pterodactyl), two dollars and twenty-one cents in change, and his library card.

            But what he was really searching for, Tommy found wedged somewhere between a half emptied package of Fruit-a-burst gum and a tiny, tangled platoon of green plastic soldiers. He pulled his father’s pocket knife from the drawer gingerly before opening it up in the cool glow of the moonlight. Not even his mom knew about the knife. Tommy had sworn to his dad never to tell her when his father had given him the pocket knife, just a few months before he died, telling him that he had grown old enough for it.

            “This isn’t a toy Thomas,” his dad told him, and Tommy had understood.

            His dad had passed along something more important than a small, silver, Swiss army pocket knife to his son that day, it was a little piece of the larger, adult world given to a young boy who was taking his first steps out of childhood.

            Tommy closed the knife and put it back in his pocket. Looking around the room, he tried to decide what else he would need when he got to wherever he was going. He wanted a flashlight, but he could get that downstairs from a drawer in the kitchen. He debated taking his ant farm, but decided against it, hoping his mom would remember to take care of them. After picking up the glass box and taking one last look at the busy insects inside, Tommy tiptoed down the stairs.

            Tommy went straight to the darkened kitchen and pulled his dad’s lunch box from the dish drying rack. After filling the Thermos with juice from the refrigerator, Tommy put it, and the jumble of treasures from his junk drawer, into the bulky, gray lunch pail. To the mix, he added a small plastic flashlight, taken from the kitchen’s utility drawer, and all the snack cakes that were supposed to be in his lunches for the rest of the week (although, I must add, he took an apple from the refrigerator as well, but that was mostly because he knew his mother would want him to eat something healthy).

            Hesitantly, Tommy then pulled out a chair to stand on and opened up the high kitchen cabinet where his epilepsy medication was kept. Tommy held the plastic bottles in his hands and remembered how scared he had been the first time he had taken the pills. He was young, and they had reminded him of a T.V. show he once saw where an older kid had paid a thin and scraggly looking guy for pills that looked just like Tommy’s did. After taking the pills, the older kid acted really funny, got very sick, and went to the hospital, while his brother, a detective with a really big gun, found the thin guy, punched him out, and then threw him in jail. It had taken Tommy’s dad several minutes to explain that there was a difference between “good drugs” (like the Dilantin and Mysoline his doctor had given him) and “bad drugs” (like the teenager on the T.V. show had taken). Tommy’s dad told also him that it was smart to be scared of “bad drugs”, and he made his son promise that if anybody tried to give Tommy pills, or any other kind of drugs, that the boy would walk away and tell him, his mom, or a teacher.

            Tommy looked at the bottles again. He knew his mom would be mad if he took his medication with him, but thought she might be even madder if he left it behind, so he went ahead and put the pills in his dad’s lunch box. Closing up the lunch pail, Tommy stepped off the kitchen chair and made his way towards the front door, his ears wide open for any loud creaking noise that he was afraid it would make.

            Tommy stepped out into the warm, windy night air, shutting the door tightly behind him, and savored the reminder that summer was just around the corner, as only a young boy can.

            In the icy glow of the street lamps, Tommy stood in front of his house, turning his head from side to side, watching the sidewalk wind out in either direction through the electric twilight like a great snake. He made a decision, and stepped down from the porch, onto the walk, and turned right. Tommy kept right on moving, never taking his attention away from the pitted and scarred concrete skin of the walk, from which, every so often, would burst forth a dandelion or two.

            Houses on either side of the street stood silent watch over the boy, their blinds closed tightly against the night, and at every corner, Tommy stopped to grab a hold of a stop sign, spinning himself around it until he felt the pull of one direction or another. After several turns, Tommy noticed the slow even change from neighborhood houses to small local shops, as he watched his reflection pass across their plate glass windows like a ghost.

            Bored, Tommy stopped to pick up a piece of broken sidewalk to throw at a mailbox, when he heard a faint clapping noise ahead of him. He followed the sound, aimlessly kicking an old beer bottle down the sidewalk, until the clapping had grown into a banging. Tommy grew curious and left the bottle alone to find what was causing   

the only sound in this sleepy neighborhood and followed the noise to an old metal screen door on one of the shops on the street, swaying back and forth in the breeze, hitting its frame. He stepped up to the door and grabbed the handle.

            The neighborhood was silent again.

            Tommy smiled inside at this small display of power and looked through the shop’s large glass window.

            It was a McKendrick’s toy store!

 

            Tommy had peddled his bike here a hundred times, maybe even a thousand times! And although Tommy might not have realized just how rare it was, in this day of malls and corporate mega marts, to have a small toy shop in his very own neighborhood, he loved it just the same.

             Inside the store was an entire train load of temptations that made Tommy press his nose against the thick glass of the inner door, leaving behind steamy vapor spots on its cool surface. His hand felt for the door’s knob, and there it was, its cool and brassy feeling that made his hand tingle. Tommy turned the knob, expecting it to stay frozen in his hand, and almost jumped when it turned with unlocked easiness. He pushed the door in, and its loud groan made his stomach leap into his throat, almost making him run away right then, but, in the end, the pull of the store was too strong.

            It couldn’t hurt just to take a look, he told himself.

            And “having a look” was all that Tommy really meant to do.

            As I may have said before, Tommy was pretty good as boys go, and although the thought of being in the store at a time when he wasn’t supposed to was very exciting, the thought of actually taking a toy never really crossed his mind.

            Glancing quickly for signs of life on the empty street, Tommy opened the door with silent, careful, spider-soft fingers, just enough so that he could squeeze inside. Once he was in the shop, Tommy closed the door behind him.

            Tommy touched, turned on, and tried out every treasure in the store that he could put his hands on. He marveled at each new discovery while trying to keep a sharp eye out for anyone who might be passing by the front of the shop.

            During his exploration, Tommy found a child's electronic keyboard covered with pictures of smiling, dancing musical notes. On the right side of the keyboard were several rows of  labeled buttons that he could barely make out in the gloom of the shop. Curious, Tommy pressed one of the buttons, and the keyboard sprang to life, playing a small preprogrammed melody. As a different note played, one of the keys would light up, each one a different color, until the song pierced the dark of the little store like fireworks.

            Tommy pressed first one button, than another, until the keyboard blazed with a dozen shifting, changing colors and sounds. He stood in front of the little toy mesmerized as the melody grew faster and more furious, making his head ring with the rainbow of colors that barked up at him. Tommy watched and could feel himself being swallowed up into the swirl of lights and noise until, in one sudden instant, he felt himself being pulled into numbing darkness.

 

                                                                    

  Chapter Two - A New World

 

 

            Deep in his mind, Tommy fought a silent battle to break of the clingy black tentacles that encircled him.  Slowly, he could feel himself floating up from the inky blackness as if he

            A voice he recognized.

            His father?

            “Tommy, you must find Dreamhope.”

            Tommy called out to the voice from inside his thoughts, tried to climb back down into the darkness to find who the voice belonged to, but it was useless. The light now pulled him up and up until he could feel the blood and muscle of his own body again,  being warmed by the glow passing through his closed eyelids.

            Tommy opened his eyes.

            It was dawn, and he was lying down on the ground. Only, it wasn’t the foot stained tile floor of the toy store, but a cool wet carpet of green grass, covered with glistening dew, that reflected the morning light like million tiny gemstones.

            And what a morning it was.

            Tommy sat up, rubbed his eyes, and looked up again to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Shakily, Tommy began to get to his feet, fighting the tired, drained feeling he always had after a seizure. Just beyond a distant blue-gray ridge of mountains, Tommy could see not just one, but two suns reaching out their glittering rays across endless miles of woodland and rivers, painting everything a deep gold. Tommy breathed deeply and felt the bright smells of nature filling his lungs. His shallow world of steel and concrete had been wiped away, and in its place was an ocean of green grass filled with island patches of vibrant flowers that he had never seen before, some of them as large as he was. Tommy knew he wasn’t home anymore, that much was obvious just by looking at  the two small suns, their combined light equal to the single star he had left behind.

            Was he dreaming?

            Tommy didn’t think so, but how else could he explain what he was seeing? Turning his back to the growing morning, he started down the side of the lush green hill into a small valley and skirted the edge of a stream running through it. The stream twisted and turned until it reached the edge of the forest and Tommy followed it like a road, amazed by everything around him. With a wild fascination, the boy walked towards the edge of the trees which surrounded the huge weathered skeleton of a fabulous stone building filled with huge cracked statues of creatures that Tommy had never even dreamt of, much less seen before. After he had finished exploring the ruins, the boy went back down to the stream’s bed and bent over the shore to sort through the stones which had been carried from so many far off places to rest at his feet. Tommy marveled over the small patterns of colored rocks and pebbles, worn smooth by the small river’s flow, and bent over and picked up a smooth, almost clear, stone, just barely small enough to fit in his hand, from the river and held it up to the sunlight where it gleamed dully. Thinking it would make a good lucky stone, which is something every boy needs, he placed it in his lunch pail and looked around for more like it .

            After he had followed the river through a wonderland of strange new sights and sounds for almost an hour, Tommy heard a gentle fluting ahead of him, almost as if an entire orchestra of tiny pipers was tuning for a morning performance. It was coming from a large tree whose limbs hung over a quick part of the shallow stream.

            Tommy walked over to the tree, examined it, and noticed that its stiff green leaves  were tube shaped, and, with every gust of breeze, they would whistle in pitches that varied with their size and shape, producing a small symphony of sounds. Growing very tired (which is a strange way to feel if you believe you’re already asleep and dreaming), he sat down on the riverbed under the fluting tree’s branches and watched as dozens of strange and wonderful insects flew and jumped along the banks of the river. Tommy watched the lazy day day unfold with heavy eyes and soon, lulled by the tree’s whistling, he fell asleep, dreaming of home, and how much he missed his dad.

 

                 

 

 Chapter Three - Finding strange Friends

 

ENTICUSpoet

shang tsushanifgenoa

 

            Tommy woke up with a start and jumped to his feet.

            Something had tapped him on the shoulder!

            Standing a few feet away from him, and no more than a yard tall, was a creature dressed in armor, black pieces of varnished steel woven together with leather strips, that reminded Tommy of an ancient oriental soldier. Its bright red, almost almond shaped, head brandished a large set of ant-like, pincers. The huge eyes set inside the creature’s smooth round skull glittered like black glass, and, just above them, wiggled a pair of antennae. In its small, hard shelled hands, the creature gripped a milky white sword, that grew darker in color as it reached the pommel, like the sharpened tooth of a huge animal.

            Stepping forward quickly and expertly, the ant-man touched Tommy’s shoulder with the tip of the sharp tooth like blade.

            “Ouch! Quit it!”  Tommy shouted, with more than just a speck of fear in his voice (for which he could hardly be blamed if you were to ask me).                        

            “Is this your stream?” asked the creature.

            “What do you mean, ‘my stream’?” Tommy stumbled.

            Holding the blade out in front of him, the creature stood his ground defiantly.

            “I asked if this was your stream. I have heard tales that speak of trolls that guard the lakes and rivers of the southern lands. These creatures are supposed to devour anyone who tries to drink or fish from the water they watch over. Since I have never seen a creature like you in all my days, I thought perhaps you might be such a monster. If, indeed, you are a troll, I warn you now that my Tyr-blade and I will not be easy to make a morsel of!”

            “I’m not a troll, I’m a boy, and my name is Thomas!”

            “Well, Thomas the boy, I am Enticus, a Formicida warrior of the north colony. To what colony do you belong and where are your lands?”

            “Uh, I guess you could say my colony is humanity, and my land is called Ohio,” Tommy answered a little unsurely.

            “Ohio. Hmmmm, I have never even heard of such a kingdom, it must be very far away indeed,” Enticus replied, his antennae twitching in Tommy’s direction.

            “Yes, I think it‘s probably very far away,” Tommy answered.

            The creature’s antennae twitched more rapidly.

            “Then perhaps you have heard of the city of Dreamhope, a fabled kingdom where wishes come true. The legends say that it sits on the edge of the world, and my queen has bid me to find it and act as an ambassador of our people.”

            “Dreamhope! That’s the place my dad told me to find!” Tommy shouted.

            Enticus lowered his weapon, his antennae twisting with excitement.

            “Did your ‘dad’ tell you where the city could be found?” the warrior asked.

            “No, my father died almost year ago, but just today, I thought I heard his voice telling me to find Dreamhope.”

            “A spirit of of your ancestors told you to find Dreamhope? Ah, I did not realize you were a necromancer! Please forgive my rudeness Thomas,” Enticus apologized, sheathing his blade.

            “Not far from here, my friends and I have a campsite. We are all searching for the legendary kingdom and would feel lucky to have a wizard accompany us on our journey. Can I persuade you to join us on our quest Thomas of Ohio?”

            “I guess I’d better,” Tommy answered a little unsurely, after all, he certainly wasn’t a wizard.

            “Well met then Thomas!” Enticus chimed as he filled several leather canteens in the stream’s crystal waters.

            When the warrior had finished filling the water skins, he gestured for Tommy  to follow him, and the pair began to walk over the hilly terrain until they came to a small clearing where Enticus’s friends were camped.

            As the group turned from their work to study the pair, the warrior’s voice rose up. “My friends, I have found another companion to aid us in our journey. His name is Thomas, and he is a necromancer from the land of Ohio.”

            Each member of the small band stood up, and Enticus introduced each of them in turn.

            “Thomas, this is Poet,” Enticus proclaimed, drawing Tommy’s attention to a gaunt, wizened figure with pointed ears and large, owl like eyes, sitting upon a stone near the campsite. As Enticus introduced him, Poet put down the flute he had been playing (a beautiful instrument, carefully carved out of what seemed to be a single piece of green crystal) with one long, thin hand and greeted Tommy.

            “Well met Thomas.”

            “Poet was the very first to join me on my journey and has been on a quest for Dreamhope all of his life,” Enticus explained, “and although he does not speak often, I have learned there is much wisdom in what he does say.”

            Next, Enticus led Tommy to what was the tallest member of the band, presenting to the boy a figure that closely resembled one of the crickets that Tommy had seen a thousand times in the pages of his insect handbook and, occasionally, in his own backyard. Standing upright on its hind legs, the creature greeted Tommy with a deep, formal bow, and, using two of its four arms, reached inside one of the pockets of its billowy robe. One ebony hand pulled out a stick of wood, that Tommy recognized as a kind of rough looking pencil, and the other produced a notebook, upon which the creature began to scribble furiously as it spoke.

            “Well met friend Thomas, well met indeed! Are you from the lands to the far south? I have not heard of the kingdom of Ohio, I must confess, and have never met any of your people in the flesh, but I have seen pictures and read many books on the subject. You must share with me the stories and histories of your people!”

            The strange creature had taken out a spool of string, marked with evenly spaced knots of different sizes, with its two remaining hands and was beginning to measure Tommy’s height when Enticus interrupted.   

            “There will be plenty of time for that later Shang,” Enticus interrupted, a little embarrassed by his friend’s behavior.

             “Thomas, this is Shang Tsu, a scholar in the court of the kingdom of Lao, and he has been sent by his lord to explore the realms and seek out knowledge. (This was true as far as Enticus and Shang knew, but I can tell you that the real reason Shang was sent away was because his lord, a slow witted man who found the scholar very annoying, hoped that Shang’s search would eventually lead to some interesting animals: big and hungry ones that might find the scholar quite tasty.) Shang has joined us in order to chronicle our adventure and catalog anything unusual we find along the way. Unfortunately, I fear he gets carried away at times.”

            After listening to many sincere apologies from Shang Tsu, who had somehow gotten tangled up in his measuring string and was now thrashing his arms wildly in an effort to get free, Tommy was finally introduced to the last two adventurers.

            Enticus gave the pair a deep, formal bow and announced, “Your majesties, I am honored to present to you, Thomas, a powerful wizard from the realm of Ohio.”

            Turning to face Tommy again, Enticus proclaimed, “Thomas, please greet the king of the Arumon province, his majesty Shanif Palladis and his queen Genoa. They have joined us in the hope of finding a new home in Dreamhope”

            Tommy took one look at the plump, bearded king and his wife, their wide dark eyes and small, lumpish noses nestled in furry, black and yellow faces that reminded him of a bumble bee, and did his best to imitate Enticus, bowing politely, even though the couple did not look especially like royalty to him. (Of course, you have to remember that Tommy had never seen any royalty before, except on T.V., and Shanif, dressed in plain traveling clothes covered in the dirt and dust of a long journey, was easy to overlook at first, even though his heart was as great and noble as any king’s ever was.)

            “Hello your majesty,” Tommy said, trying hard to keep from smiling.

            “No need to be so formal!” Shanif answered with a deep, hearty chuckle that made his burly body shake.

            Tommy liked the king already.

            “Although our companions treat us like a king and queen, we are, in truth, neither. ‘Shanif’ and ‘Genoa’ will certainly do to address the likes of us, Thomas!” To this, Genoa added in a voice as sweet and soft as summer honey, “Please don’t make a fuss Thomas. I have never been royalty, and I don’t feel the need to be treated as such now.”

            “Ah, but you are worthy of it, your highness,” Enticus chimed .

            “You see, Thomas, Shanif was once the king of a great nation to the east, and Genoa a healer from one his kingdom’s villages. Although it was forbidden for the king to marry a peasant woman, Shanif gave up his title and riches for Genoa’s love, and together they were forced to leave their old lives behind, and it was on the banks of the Clearfast river that Poet and I met them.”

            As Enticus told the story, Tommy looked at the couple again and began to notice little things about them. Under the layer of traveling mud and grit, the boy could see that the king’s breeches and tunic were made of finely embroidered material, and upon Genoa’s hand, a jeweled ring winked ever so slightly beneath its tiny cloak of dirt.

            “Come now, my friend,” Shanif said to Enticus, “you act as if I had made a great sacrifice, when it was, by far, the easiest decision I had ever made.” Shanif laughed as he squeezed his wife’s hand, causing a smile to bloom on her face.

            “Well Thomas,” Enticus piped up “now that the proper introductions have been made, let us all get back to making camp, so that we can sit down to a fine meal.”

 

            And a fine meal it was.

            Spiced bread and fresh fruit was divided up among the travelers, while Enticus ladled out small bowls of broth boiled from a strange, onion like root that he called “Charnith”.

            Enticus also passed out “Inch Grubs”, plump and pale worms that were about the size of  a person’s pinky, that Tommy had helped the warrior gather from under nearby rocks. Although the fat little worms looked disgusting to Tommy, Enticus assured him that they were quite delicious. After he tried one, Tommy said they tasted like salty grapes, and ate his entire share of the plump worms, because he was a guest but also because the grubs were part of his contribution to the meal.

            When they had finished eating dinner, Tommy reached inside his lunch pail and shared the snack cakes he brought with him from home. Shang was fascinated by the clear plastic wrapper the cakes came in and was disappointed when Tommy answered that he didn’t know exactly how plastic was made. Still, with Tommy’s permission, Shang collected everyone’s wrappers and began placing them in a pouch within his traveling pack when a strong breeze came up that sent several of the plastic sheets flying in the air around the campsite. As the scholar frantically chased down the loose wrappers, Enticus reached into his own pack and pulled out a small disc.

            Standing up in front of the campfire, the warrior bowed his head.

            “So that others may find their way,” he announced, throwing the disc upon the fire. The incense cake blazed brightly, releasing red smoke and a strong smell that Tommy didn’t recognize.

            “What was that Enticus?” Tommy asked, waving the thick, stinging smoke away from his eyes.

            “It is ‘Pheron-sha’ Thomas. Among my people, travelers burn it whenever they make camp across great distances, so that others may follow. It’s smell is very strong to us, and we can always tell where Pheron-sha has been burnt, even months later.”

            After he sat down again, Enticus asked Tommy about himself and his home, and the group listened in awe to what little the boy could tell them about  planes, cars, computers, and the dozens of other things that Tommy had always taken for granted in his world, but that were now lost to him, things that his fellow travelers thought were very magical indeed.

 

Chapter Four - The Tale of the Zaglossus

 

ZAGLOSSUS

 

            As the twin suns began to set, Tommy was given two wool like blankets to cover himself and a sleeping hide to place on the ground for the night. One by one, the other travelers fell asleep, but Tommy lay wide awake staring at a million alien stars and missing his mother. Missing his home.

            You see, as Tommy lay there in the dim light of all those tiny, distant suns, alone with his thoughts, he was forced to look into that tiny, deep part of his heart that knew the only reason he had run away was to hurt his mom.

            Now he was afraid that he’d never be able to get back.

            Tommy had begun to cry a little, when Enticus got up from his own makeshift bed nearby and asked the boy if he was alright.

            Embarrassed, Tommy told the warrior that it was nothing, that he was just scared and missed his home.

            Enticus reached out to touch Tommy’s face with one hand, and the boy could feel the cool, hard shell of the warrior’s fingers as Enticus pulled away a single teardrop that gleamed warmly in the glow of the dying campfire.

            “Your eyes Thomas! They’re bleeding! Are you hurt?”

            “No Enticus,” Tommy sputtered. “It’s what happens to people’s eyes sometimes when they are sad.”

            “Ah, I see,” replied the warrior.

            “Have you ever been really scared Enticus?” Tommy asked.

            “Yes, I have Thomas,” Enticus answered, and then seemed to think a little while before he continued.

             “My colony makes its home in the Northlands, Thomas, near where the Spirit of the White lives, if the legends are to be believed. It’s a hard life sometimes, so our young are taught from an early age how to survive and gather food for the colony.

Once, when I was young, I had been sent to find honeygood berries and became separated from my friends deep in the woodlands surrounding our colony. I had wandered for what seemed like hours, lost and alone in a part of the forest that I did not recognize.”

            Enticus inched closer to Thomas and his voice grew soft and grave.

             “It was then that I was spotted by a Zaglossus.”

            The warrior’s antennae, which always seemed to be moving and twitching, were dead still now.

            “Of all the dangers in the Northlands, Thomas: the weather, the wars, and the wild beasts, none is more feared that the Zaglossus. A monster thirty cubits long from the end of its long nose to the tip of its tail, the Zaglossus is covered with razor sharp spikes. The creature’s claws are very powerful, and it uses them to dig its way into a colony mountain and catch its favorite food: my people! A Zaglossus means almost certain death when you are alone, for once it smells food, it will not stop until it can corner its prey and devour it.”

            Enticus’s voice was scarcely a whisper now.

            “I knew that when the creature reared its head, sniffed the air, and then looked in my direction, that the chase was on.”

            “How did you get away?” Tommy asked.

            “I didn’t get away Thomas. I ran through the densest part of the forest, but  the Zaglossus stayed close behind, knocking over trees with a horrible crashing noise, as it slowly narrowed the distance between us.”

            “And were you scared?” Tommy asked in a hushed voice.

            “Of course I was Thomas! But I knew I had to escape somehow, or I would be eaten. I also knew that I was smarter than the Zaglossus. What I needed was a plan, and I needed it quickly. As I was racing for my life, I noticed a ravine in the distance, and I began to lead the Zaglossus toward it. In a few moments I had cleared the forest, and I ran with every last bit of my might, straight to the edge of the ravine, where I finally stopped. Then I shouted and waved my arms to get the monster’s full attention.”

            “You wanted it to see you!”  Thomas gasped.

            “Yes, Thomas, I wanted it to see me and not the ravine. I stood there for what seemed like forever as the huge monster broke through the underbrush and headed straight for me. My heart was pounding like a drum, and the earth had begun to shake as the Zaglossus crashed toward me, its red tongue darting out of its long narrow mouth in anticipation of the tasty morsel it was about to enjoy.”

            Tommy’s eyes went wide, lost in the warrior’s story.

            “Then, just as the monster was almost upon me, I dove to the side, almost falling over the edge of the ravine. I clawed and scrabbled until I was able to pull myself back up, but the Zaglossus barreled over the edge of the ravine so quickly that it struck the other side and tumbled down over a hundred cubits to the icy cold stream below. I huddled there on my hands and knees and peered over the edge of the ravine, my head threatening to burst, and stared down at the broken body of the monster. It was covered in snow and icy water, but did not move. I was almost hypnotized by the sight. When I could finally pull myself away from the ravine’s edge, I ran back towards the forest. Luckily, a scouting party from my colony had been sent out to find me, and they saw the path of destruction that the monster had left behind. At first, no one believed that a larva could single-handedly kill a Zaglossus, because, up to that time, not even the boldest warrior among us could claim such a feat. I led the party to the ravine and there, at the bottom, was the body of the monster, just as I had described it.”

            Tommy sat quietly until the magic of the story finally released its hold on him.

             “Wow, I wish I could be brave like that,” he lamented.

             “Sometimes, you just need to believe in yourself in spite of yourself Thomas,” Enticus remarked. “Always remember that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to face it. Now, you must try and get some sleep, after all, we have a long journey ahead of us tomorrow.”

            And with that, both the warrior and Tommy managed to finally find their sleep under the cold, watchful eyes of the stars.

 

Chapter Five - The Lyre

 

lyre

 

            Just as the twin suns began pushing the constellations out of the sky in a slow cascade of bright yellows and oranges, the little band of adventurers awakened and packed up their belongings for the day’s travel. When the party finally made its way towards their mounts, Tommy was amazed; in all the excitement, he hadn’t really gotten a good look at the creatures the day before. Each large, bright green beast had a body made up of three segments: a head, a thorax which carried a saddle on which

two riders could sit, and an abdomen strapped with a supply harness, from which Tommy could see a variety of hanging packs and bottles.

            As their riders approached, the insect mounts chattered and clicked with excitement, and it took the party several minutes to calm them down so that the night’s gear could be strapped onto the leather harnesses. When everything was secure, Enticus pulled the stopper from a large, skin bottle and held it before each one of the mounts in turn, which responded by sticking out a long, thin tongue into the bottle’s neck. Tommy could hear the animals sucking up liquid, as if through a straw, and Enticus explained that the sack contained a sugary mixture of water and nectar from the “Shinaloh” plant. After the feeding, the adventurers paired off and climbed on their mounts.

            Tommy sat with Enticus at the head of the group, helping him keep an eye out for trouble. Shanif and Genoa rode together and would sometimes hold each other’s hands or sing songs, while Poet played a tune on his crystal flute; the musician and Shang shared the last mount, and, every once and awhile, the scholar asked the little caravan to stop so that he could log a particular plant or animal in his notebook. They  traveled leisurely for half the day, until Enticus called the group to a halt, his antennae stiffening as if he was listening to some far off sound.

            Suddenly, a creature leapt out of the brush in front of Tommy and the warrior. The creature was out of breath, as if it had been running quite a distance, and regarded them with cat-like eyes. Quickly, it fell to its knees in front of the mount, putting its large, furry forehead to the ground as it dramatically stretched its thin arms into the air and cried out: ”Please kind travelers, you must save me! I am being pursued by bandits! Save me from these fool...ummm...I mean, save me from these foul cutthroats!”

            You must realize, that in the world of Enticus and his friends, bandits waiting to rob travelers were not uncommon, so the warrior wasted no time at all in jumping from his mount and drawing a long, wooden staff from its sling on the insect’s harness.

            Enticus motioned for the strange creature hiding behind him to stop jabbering and be silent.

            “I think I see them!” Tommy cried out.

            Sure enough, two more strangers came charging out of the woods, each one carrying a gnarled wooden club. “There he is!”  one of them shouted, pointing to the cowering figure that was frantically trying to shield itself behind Tommy’s mount.

            At the sight of the bandits, the other members of the party brought their mounts around to fence the pair in. One of the strangers lunged as if to get the figure hiding in back of Tommy, but was quickly knocked to the ground by a sharp blow to the shin from Enticus and his quarter staff.

            “Be gone, bandits!”  Enticus ordered.

            “Bandits? We’re not bandits!” the figure on the ground shrieked as he tried to stand, grabbing his leg (on which a large knot was already growing) where Enticus had struck him.

            When he go to his feet, the creature pointed to the figure peeping through the narrow legs of Tommy’s mount. “It’s that one who you should be attacking, not us! We’re just decent farmers and townsfolk who have had enough of his lies.”

            “Me? A liar? Ha!”” the accused stranger called out from his hiding place. “You had best be on your way, bandits! You can’t fool these fine friends of mine!”

            Grabbing the lapels of his thread bare jacket, as if he were a very important person indeed, the stranger began to challenge the word of the farmers. “Imagine the nerve of these ruffians to imply that I, Lyre, chief gem merchant and appraiser of unique antiquities of the fine kingdom of Trunoway, could be a common thief! Why, that is  laughable!”  Then, just to prove himself right, Lyre let out a peel of slightly strained laughter.

            “You are  a liar! And a thief!” the unhurt townsman piped up. “Our village had suffered from a terrible drought, when this vagabond walked into town. Upon hearing of our plight, he promised he could make it rain using the power of a magical amulet that he had in his possession. We housed and fed Lyre until the coming of the full moon, which, he said, was the proper time to work his magic. The liar asked for two gold coins from each family in our village to buy the precious oils and incense that he’d need for the enchantment. We agreed to pay the amount. On the first night of the full moon, I myself went to get this ‘gem merchant’, only to find he had disappeared. My friend and I have tracked him the entire night, and here we stand!”

            “Poppycock and nonsense!” Lyre shouted. “I had already performed the ceremony by the time that you had come to get me, and, satisfied that all was in order, I took my leave of you, so that I would no longer be an imposition to your fine village. I can see now, however, that my courtesy was wasted on simple minded folk like yourself!”

            “If that is true, then why has it not rained yet in our village as you promised!”,  cried the townsman with the aching shin.

            “Because,” Lyre retorted, “a spell of that magnitude takes time to work, not to mention the faith of all those involved. It is quite obvious to me now, that you people are a nasty, mistrustful lot, and I have grave doubts as to whether your poor village will ever see rain now. I don’t know how you’ll find it in your heart to explain to all your families how your numb skulls broke the enchantment that could have saved them all!”

            The limping townsman shouted and charged at Lyre, his wooden club held high above his head, but before he could take more than two steps, Enticus jumped in front of him and brought  the quarter staff cracking in upon the peasant’s legs again, spilling him to the ground a second time. 

            Enticus turned his attention to the unhurt man who had begun moving towards him. “I strongly suggest that you show more sense than your friend and stay put.”

            Then, turning around, the warrior commanded Lyre to turn out his pockets.

            Lyre protested, but Enticus informed him that unless he did as he was told, he would be left to the not so tender mercies of the townsmen. Grumbling  something about the “unfairness of it all”, Lyre did as he was asked and Tommy marveled at the number of gold coins that came tumbling out from the rascal’s coat.

            Enticus told the farmers to pick up their gold and be on their way, warning them that, in the future, they should not be so foolish as to give up their hard earned coin so easily. After scrambling for their money, the farmers quickly began to put as much distance between the party and themselves as they could. (Actually, I suppose, it would be more fair to say that only one of the farmers moved quickly;  the other townsman, trying to ignore his aching shins, barely managed to hobble away at all.)

            “As for you,” Enticus remarked to Lyre, “ Don’t you think you had best be on your way as well, before you get yourself into any further trouble?”

            “My dear sir,” Lyre pleaded, “You have done me a great service by saving me from those fiends, and although I do not quite approve of your methods, I feel honor bound to help you along on your way, wherever that may be. You will find my knowledge of these territories to be unparalleled, and I would make an excellent guide!”

            “Do you know where Dreamhope is?” Tommy jumped in.

            “Dreamhope, why of course I know where that fabled city lies my fine young friend! Although the way is fraught with peril, I could lead you there, for a small fee, not even worth mentioning really, for such fine friends as you.”

            “Don’t bother, Thomas,” Enticus said flatly. “You may join us Lyre, but I have a feeling that you could no more find Dreamhope than you could make it rain for that poor village.”

            Lyre began to protest, “Dear sir, I am shocked, why, even now, I can hear the distant sound of thunder that foretells the success of my spell!”

            At that, the party stood deathly still and listened. Sure enough, they could hear a low, regular, booming noise growing steadily louder.

            Enticus tightened his grip on the staff and pointed upward.

            “That’s not thunder!”

                                               

Chapter Six - Captured

 

keelor

 

            Let me pause in the telling of this tale for a moment.

            I know that right now, you are probably very eager to know just what it was that Enticus saw above him, but, did you ever stop to consider why the earnest warrior asked Lyre (who, by all appearances, was a liar, a thief, and an all around scalawag) to join the quest to Dreamhope?

            The answer is simpler than you might think:

            He was told to.

            Before the quest, when Enticus was first called beneath the twisting, turning tunnels of Mount Gronoth to the grand egg chamber of Queen Celestine, he was scared, maybe even more scared than the time when he was trapped by monstrous Zaglossus at the edge of the ravine. The queen was his mother, the mother of all his people in fact, and he loved her, just as Tommy loved his mother, but he was also more than a little in awe of her.

            Queen Celestine was wise as well as powerful, and, like many mothers, she could always tell when her children were lying and knew just the right tone of voice to get them to do what they were told. But like only a very few mothers, the queen was able to see into the future by snatching the visions from her dreams. When Queen Celestine told Enticus that he would be the ambassador to the legendary city of Dreamhope, he knew two things right away: one was that, if the queen had seen the city in her dreams, Dreamhope must be real, and the other was that it must be very important to the future of his people that he find it.

            Enticus was told by the queen to travel south and gather other searchers along the way who he was to protect in her name: a king and queen without a throne, a scholar in search of knowledge, a necromancer without a home, and finally, a thief in search of his gift.

             Queen Celestine didn’t say much more than that, and she certainly didn’t say anything about Enticus having to like the people that he swore to her, then and there, to protect with his life.

            And now that you are a little wiser, it’s time we returned to the brave little band of travelers left gazing at the air above them.

 

            Turning up their faces to follow the warrior’s finger, the party saw a dark blotch cut a ragged hole through the clear blue of the sky, growing larger as it moved in the direction of the group. When the shape loomed closer, they could make out the details of a large winged animal, which had begun a series of high pitched shrieks, as it began to plummet towards them.

            “Quickly now! Everyone run for cover!” Enticus shouted.

            The members of the party began to dive for the protection of the nearby trees, except for Shanif, who pulled a long skin bundle from the back of his mount.

            “Hurry Shanif!” Tommy shouted as he followed Enticus to the cover of a large tree.

            Shanif had just made it to a patch of green saplings when the creature struck, shredding through the tops of the young trees and barely missing the king with its razor sharp talons before wheeling back into the sky.

            Tommy had gotten a good look at the beast as it swooped down upon Shanif, in a greenish-brown blur of leathery wings and serrated beak. Tommy had never seen anything like it before. Not even his dinosaur books could explain the creature wheeling in the sky above him. It reminded Tommy of a bat , its long wings made of long thin fingers and huge flaps of skin, but the creature’s head was more birdlike, with great yellow eyes that were alight strange intelligence. Its skin was like a lizard’s, made up of millions of scales that joined together to form a tough, bumpy hide.

            Shanif, surrounded by the splintered ruins of the saplings, had pulled out a polished bow of jet black from the skin case he had been carrying and grabbed a wicked looking arrow from one of the skin’s pouches. The king knocked the missile, its blood red tip shimmering like glass.

             Whirling and shrieking, the creature once more dived towards Shanif, extending its keen talons in front of it.

            Dropping to one knee, the king pulled back the bowstring as the creature plummeted towards him, screeching its song of rage.

            Genoa began to scream as the monster descended upon her husband.

            Tommy heard the twang of the bowstring and watched the sky explode as the arrow struck the creature on the breastbone, erupting into a ruby red cloudburst of fire. The creature’s cry of pain deafened Tommy, as he watched the animal pulled up, its chest blackened by the heat from the enchanted arrow’s blast.

            It’s got to give up now,  Tommy thought, but his hopes were short lived as the enormous creature circled above them, only to begin its plummeting descent once more.

            Shanif knocked another arrow and waited, ready for the next strike, as Poet and Lyre held back Genoa, who was struggling to break free and reach her husband.

            Faster and faster, the monster careened toward the king.

            Tommy could see the tension and sweat on Shanif’s face as his bowstring grew taunt with another of the blood red arrows.

            The monster was almost upon the king, when suddenly, it veered to the side, deftly avoiding Shanif’s explosive missile, and slammed into the very tree that Tommy and Enticus had sought refuge under. Although the tree was so wide that Tommy could not have encircled it with his arms, the creature shattered it with a grisly crash of splintered wood. The tree’s trunk fell down between Enticus and Tommy, and almost certainly would have crushed them both if Enticus hadn’t pushed the boy to one side, knocking both himself and Tommy to the ground.

            Tommy looked up only to see the twin suns blotted out by the huge creature, covered in leaves and broken tree limbs, hopping clumsily towards him. Tommy began shouting for help, until he felt the breath squeezed out of him as if he had been thrown into a huge vice. In a matter of moments, he was tossed about by rushing wind as the creature took to the air, carrying Tommy in its clutches. The shouts and cries of his companions soon drifted away and became replaced by the whistling cold of the sky.

 

            Tommy struggled and squirmed until he realized that he was now so far above the ground that he could see nothing more than the treetops and the humble fields of the nearby village.

            I could never survive a fall from this height, Tommy thought to himself, the fear racing through him like wild fire.

            Where is this monster taking me!

            Tommy’s imagination had begun to conjure up terrible visions of the creature gobbling him up, or maybe even feeding him to its young like a fat worm, when he saw a battered tower ahead of him, the light glinting off of it in cracked spots of emerald green that poked their way through the keep’s pitted, charred surface. As the ruined tower grew closer and closer, Tommy could see a single high window, in which stood stood a silent figure. A section of the crystal tower’s pyramid like top began to move, shedding off flakes of green crystal, as it rose up and out, creating a large opening in the tower.

            The winged creature headed for the opening, and before Tommy’s vision could adjust, he was dumped carelessly onto a cold stone floor. The boy did not even have  time to get to his feet before the figure from the window came rushing towards him, brandishing a staff of twisted wood. When the tip of the knotted, gnarled staff touched him, Tommy caught a whiff of ozone and was paralyzed by a bone shattering jolt of energy.

 

            Enticus was the first to react when he saw what had happened. When the winged beast had struck the tree, the warrior pulled the tooth like Tyr blade from its scabbard, only to be knocked down by a rushing wall of limbs and branches that exploded outward from the collision. Before he could free himself from the ruined tangle of wood, Enticus was forced to watch helplessly as the monster scooped Tommy up in its clutches, and the boy’s lunch box fell to the ground at the warrior’s feet. 

            Shanif had knocked another of the blood-red arrows, but would not allow himself to set it free when he saw that the creature had Thomas, kicking and shouting, in its powerful talons.

            “We must do something!” Genoa shouted.

            “There is nothing we can do! You’re friend is dead, and in a matter of minutes, he’ll be filling the stomach of that demon!” Lyre replied, his arms waving frantically.

            Enticus fixed the scoundrel with an icy glance. “Hold your tongue Lyre. We must follow that creature. Perhaps it has a lair and has taken Thomas there.”

            “You’re a fool!” Lyre fired back. “You feel guilty because it was your simple minded plan to hide within these pitiful trees, which that creature shattered through as if they were nothing. You could have gotten us all killed. You are the one responsible for losing your friend, so you go and find him if you can!”

            “That is enough!” Shanif shouted, just as it seemed Enticus would knock Lyre to the ground in a rage. “Stay or leave Lyre, it does not matter to me, one way or another. If the rest of us are to have any hope in finding Thomas, we must act now!”

            With nods of agreement, the band quickly leapt back onto the mounts, taking Lyre with them, at his own insistence.

            Although the adventurers raced across the countryside, the winged monster carrying Tommy continued to grow smaller and smaller in the sky. Just when it seemed that they would lose the horrible beast, Shanif spotted the monster’s destination and let out a shout,“Look, a tower!”

            “Impossible,” Lyre spat, “there isn’t any stonework in this area for leagues, just the mud heaps of those dirt plodding farmers.”

            “Yes!”  Poet cried, ignoring Lyre.“I see where the monster is taking Thomas! We must hurry friends, before it is too late!”

 

 THE TOWER OF HAITAL

 

Chapter Seven - Haital the Mad

 

THE CRYSTAL GEM OF HAITAL

 

            Tommy awoke, his arms and legs in the rusted grip of heavy iron shackles, chained to the stone wall of a large room. His eyes adjusted slowly to the dim light from the chamber’s candles and what patches of daylight that managed to drift through the holes and cracks in the tower’s roof.

            Slowly, Tommy began to make out the details around him.

            On Tommy’s right, there was an immense, round table of black marble resting on a single huge pedestal of the same stone. Upon this laboratory table was a dizzying hodgepodge of vials and bottles, filled with noxious looking liquids that cooked over small open burners. Jars filled with powder glittered in the light of a dozen candles on the table, and swirling vapors twisted and turned like snakes through squiggling glass tubes. Among the bottles and jars, swam uneven stacks of dusty books, bound in the heaviest leather, as well as several cracked yellow parchments that might  turn to dust at the smallest touch.

            And everywhere; on the table, on the floor, and even places by the door, were hundreds upon hundreds of sheets of scribbled on, dog eared paper. Some of the notes were in large stacks tied with cord, but most of them were in loose piles that looked as if they could blow away in an instant.

            Tommy’s eyes moved around the rest of the chamber and were greeted by shelf after shelf of books, bones, and bottles of every shape and size, filling the shelves from floor to ceiling.

            And there, on a huge perch to Tommy’s left,  was the monster that had brought him to the tower, its wings outspread so that the tip of each one touched the walls of the tower on either side of the creature. Tommy thought to himself that with the animal’s wings stuck out like that, the monster was longer than his mom’s car four times over. And there, right in front of the creature, standing on a rickety wooden stool, was the figure that Tommy had seen in the window. Tommy watched the dark cloaked figure stretch out his hands, which grasped a shining blue orb, and glide them over the bleeding, burning wound on the winged monster’s chest. The hooded figure began a strange chant that Tommy could barely hear, and the winged creature responded by lifting its head up towards the high ceiling and letting out a raspy, humming song. The cloaked figure’s claw like fingers become enveloped in an eerie blue glow, that faded and grew like a heartbeat, while Tommy watched in amazement as the charred skin of the monstrous bird began  to fall away to reveal the softness of newly healed flesh beneath it. Even stranger still, as the creature’s injury healed, a smaller, but similar, gash appeared on the hooded figures body, until finally, that wound too, healed itself.

            When his work was done, the figure walked over to the table and placed the sphere, which had now ceased its glowing, inside a stand on the table top. Moving on to a metal pot in the room’s single, cold hearth, the shape pulled out a large bone, covered with strips and slivers of flesh, and threw it towards the winged monster which smacked and crunched greedily at the tidbit like a puppy.

            Turning to face Tommy, the figure threw back its hood.

            In the gloom, the boy could see the wrinkled face leering at him.

            It was Poet!

 

haital

 

            Or more precisely, it looked  like Poet, but twisted somehow, its furry pelt filled with gray and matted down in the dozen spots where it hadn’t actually fallen out altogether, leaving patches of puckered, mottled gray skin.

            The face leered at him with toothless glee before turning to the creature on the perch.“Look Keelor! He moves! Like us! He moves, moves, moves!”

            Tommy watched terrified as the hairy figure danced and capered about, while a disinterested Keelor gnawed on the treat given to it, its tongue licking the marrow from one shattered end.

            The figure walked up close to Tommy, until the boy could smell its rotten breath, and looked him in the eyes through a pair of bloodshot orbs underneath broad, bushy eyebrows. Tommy felt his mouth opened by filthy hands that poked and prodded, leaving the taste of dry ashes in his mouth.

            “  What are you doing?!” Tommy spat, as much to get the hands out of his mouth as to ask the question.

            “Doing? What am I doing?  Keelor, he wants to know what Haital is doing! Doing, doing, doing! Why, you’re not from around here, are you boy? Not from around here. Here, there, everywhere, that’s where Haital from! You too! Not from around here! No. no, no!”

            Tommy’s head had begun to ache.

            Crazy. Whatever this thing was, it was crazy, and it had him trapped.

            “What do you want from me?!” Tommy shouted, trying to keep from crying. “Let me go!”

            “What do I want? What do I want? Want, want, want! Keelor, the whelp wants to know what Haital wants! He moves, Keelor! Just like us, he moves! What do I want? I want to stop moving boy!”

            “I don’t understand!” Tommy shouted out, eyes creased tightly to stop the tears he knew were coming.

            “Understand, understand, understand!”

            The creature danced wildly and then, quite suddenly, stopped right in front of Tommy and began to speak in a low somber voice that was almost a whisper.

             “I move. From place to place. From world to world. From universe to universe. I am Haital, and I move. It is a punishment. A curse. I’ve been trapped here for an eternity, bound up by magic. Trapped by glyphs and wards and runes.  My punishment.  My curse. This tower moves through time and space, boy, and I move with it. Each day is a new place, a new age, a new dawn. I have felt the rain from undreamed of heavens fall through my cracked roof, and the flames from unnamed hells have scorched my walls.”

            “Why,” Tommy whispered.

             “Why? Why indeed. Was I imprisoned because I was so much wiser than my fellows? Was I shut away because I was the only one bold enough to see that we were on the brink of a new age? Was I locked up because they were too stupid to realize that it was our destiny to rule the universe? The answer is yes!Yes, yes, yes!”

            Tommy watched Haital as the creature fell into madness, shuffled over to the stone table, and pulled out a grisly pair of iron pliers from out of the clutter. Walking back to Tommy, Haital once again spoke to him again in a clear whisper. “You move boy. From one world to the next, you move just as my tower does. I know it; through my science I have seen it. There is great power in you and I mean to use it for myself. I will unlock your secrets, bit by bit.” Haital held the pincers before Tommy’s eyes.

            “I will begin by experimenting with your teeth, and I will not stop....until I stop!

 

            It seemed like an eternity before the little band reached the foot of the damaged tower in which their friend was held, their mounts whistling as they breathed heavily, through the vents on their sides, from traveling at such a breakneck speed. Enticus was the first one off of his mount and, with his blade drawn, he rushed to the pair of crystal doors set in the seared, cracked walls of the tower.

            “Wait!” Poet shouted. Slowly getting off his mount, the musician walked up to the entrance and stared at the archway in which the doors were set. “There are characters written here,” he announced as the other members of the party looked on. “If I’m correct, this inscription reads ‘The heart filled with sweet song has no room for hate.’ ”

            Enticus grabbed one of handles protruding from the door and pulled. “To the fires of Gronoth with inscriptions! We must get inside and release Thomas from this wicked place!”

            Within a moment, Shang and Shanif had rushed to the side of Enticus, and, together, they opened the heavy doors with a groan.

            One by one, the band walked into the stale air that filled the tower, their heels kicking up dusty neglect as they went.  The party could see, along the wall, the beginnings of stone steps that curved up and away into the gloom of the tower. In the very center of the circular room in which they stood was a large dome of dark polished stone which rose to a height four times that of Shang.

             As soon as Lyre closed the door behind them, the party heard a loud hum that seemed to grow slowly, oozing from the walls around them. As the noise grew in pitch and intensity, a strange change began to take place in the room’s center dome. It had taken on an eerie red glow, a glow that was mirrored by smaller stones, equally spaced from one another in a ring lining the wall of the tower’s inside, which had gone unnoticed by the party at first. The drone grew louder and it seemed as if the dome, and the stones on the wall, were ablaze with fire.

            Lyre began to throw himself back against the entrance, and suggested to the party that they really should be going, but the crystalline doors wouldn’t budge.

            “No!” Enticus shouted to be heard over the droning wail, “We came here to save Thomas!” The warrior strode boldly around the dome to the beginning of the stairway, but Enticus had not taken more than two steps before the dome erupted with a single, angry red bolt of lightning that ran to one of the smaller stones along the wall, pinning Enticus in mid air, jerking him like a puppet in the hands of a trembling master.

            “He’ll be killed!”  Genoa shouted.

            The droning had reached a fevered pitch, filled with the crackling sound of electricity, when another sound slowly wove its way through the din.

            It was a song, an ancient hymn of hope and harvest. And as Poet’s voice began to grow louder, the energy emanating from the dome began to dim. Soon, Shanif and Genoa joined in the song, and, even though he did not recognize the tune, Shang began to hum along.

 

POET

         

   ‘Neath the frigid grip

            of winter’s icy hand

            spring’s promise lies unbroken

            throughout the waiting land

            ‘til one day comes

            from soil once chilled,

            that new life’s pledge

            bursts forth, fulfilled

 

            When the song had filled the entire room, the energy dissipated utterly and Enticus was dropped to the ground, his armor still smoking. Before the last ribbons of Poet’s voice could float away, Genoa rushed to the warrior’s aid, but Enticus brushed the healer aside, telling her that the only lasting wound was to his pride.

            “The inscription, ‘The heart filled with sweet song has no room for hate.’, that was the answer wasn’t it?” Shang asked

            “Yes,” Poet replied evenly, “The builders of this tower left the key, written in stone above the door, as a convenient method of keeping out those with anger and mischief in mind.”

            “Maybe they were trying to keep something in as well.”, Lyre commented, “When I tried to open the door to free us, I couldn’t even budge it.”

            “Perhaps,” was Poets only reply.

            Suddenly, they heard a small, far off scream.

            It was Tommy.

 

            Tommy could taste the dirt and grime on Haital’s hairy fingers as he pried the young boys’ mouth open. Tommy tried to break free from the chains, to bite down on the fingers, but the filthy hands were too quick, and he could feel the cold iron of the pliers on his tongue. Hard steel had begun to scrape the enamel on Tommy’s teeth as the pincers found a hold on one of his rear molars. Tommy let out a loud cry that caused him to choke on his own dirt filled saliva. He felt as if his jaw was splitting, the pressure on his tooth was unbearable, the pain slowly building with each tug from Haital. Please let this be over! , Tommy’s mind repeated again and again until he heard a familiar voice slice through Haital’s grunting as the mad creature continued to yank on Tommy’s tooth.

            “Stay your hand monster, or be cut down!”

            It was Enticus!

            “Move away from him, or I’ll see you suffer for it!”

            Haital let out a gasp of surprise and threw the wrought iron tools at the party, missing Poet’s head only by a few finger widths.

            “You! You won’t stop me this time!”  the lunatic shouted, speckles of spit flying from his angry mouth. Haital let his arms drop to his sides and closed his eyes as if in a trance, muttering words that Tommy could barely hear. As Haital stood there motionless, a  change came over Keelor.

            Hopping from its perch, huge wings folded to its side, Keelor lurched forward clumsily toward the band of adventurers, knocking down shelves and sending stacks of books sprawling onto the floor. Keelor had placed itself between the adventurers and Haital. Although Enticus began to pelt the monster with books and bottles pulled from the room’s large table, it was to no avail. The creature wouldn’t budge, and no one could not get past the monster’s powerful jaws to free Tommy.

            Enticus refused to give up and grabbed the blue crystal sphere, the one that Tommy had seen glowing in Haital’s hands earlier, from the table and prepared to throw it at the monster. In the very instant that Enticus put his hand upon the crystal, Keelor scrabbled toward the warrior, shrieking loudly. Seeing the monster’s reaction, Enticus put the huge marble table between himself and the creature, holding the blue crystal high above his head. Slamming the sphere down upon the table top with a loud crack,  the warrior tried to shatter the crystal against the hard stone surface.

            Shanif sensed an opportunity and quickly made his way toward Tommy, but just when it seemed he would reach the boy, Keelor wheeled around and struck the king with its long, spiked tail, knocking Shanif into a heap. With an ear piercing cry, Keelor hopped upon the table, its head almost hitting the tower’s ceiling, and knocked the assortment of chemicals, bottles, and papers onto the floor with a crash. Soon, the entire table was covered with dancing tongues of flame as the overturned burners began to feed on the chemical soaked notes and papers.

            Within moments, Keelor had Enticus backed against the wall, its beak snapping and its tail lashing. Every time the monster tried to crush the little warrior between its jaws, Enticus would bring the edge of his blade across the monster’s snout  and duck quickly out of reach of the terrible creature. Although Enticus had managed to cut the creature a dozen times, the edge of his Tyr blade could barely scratch the tough hide of the monster’s head. Keelor was slow, but it did not seem to tire at all, and Enticus knew that unless he could find some way around the creature, his stamina would not be enough to save him. Keelor continued to snap at the warrior, coating Enticus and the floor with small droplets of the blood that oozed from the fine cuts the warrior had given it. Enticus knew that he would have to make a bold move soon, and, with a jump, he attempted to flank the huge creature only to slip on the bloodstained floor. In the split second it took for the warrior to regain his footing, the monster was upon him, pinning him to the floor with one huge talon.

            Helpless, Tommy watched the struggle, shouting encouragement to his friends, when the image of Haital healing the wounded Keelor came flooding back to him.

They’re joined somehow! Hurt one of them and you hurt the other one too!” Tommy shouted.

            Shanif was the first to realize the importance of what Tommy was saying, and the king quickly pulled a black tipped arrow from the quiver on his back and knocked it in his powerful bow. He blocked everything from his mind: the terrible shrieking of the monster, the cursing of Enticus, the shouting of his wife and friends as they pelted the creature with whatever they could find, and the noxious smell of the flames on the table as they licked and flickered, trying to find their way to the floor. The only thing Shanif heard was the blood roaring through his own head as he focused on the ghastly motionless form of Haital, whose will guided the brute force trying to destroy them.

            With a sharp exhale, Shanif let the arrow fly.

 

             Its head stained with crimson, Keelor let out a cry of triumph over the trapped warrior that turned into a shriek of agony. Trapped in the iron grip of the monster’s talons, Enticus watched helplessly as the creature’s eyes grew wide to match a dark, bloody gash that had sprung upon Keelor’s chest. The huge creature toppled to the ground with a crash that sent one of the massive bookshelves falling down from its home against the wall, crushing the limp form of the monster and showering Enticus with a rain of heavy books.

            Poet, Lyre, and Shang raced to the warrior and began to pull apart the claws of the lifeless prison that still held Enticus tightly in its clutches. Once he was released from Keelor’s lifeless grip, Enticus could see Shanif kneeling over the slumped form of Haital,  the wizard pierced through the breastbone by the king’s black arrow, as if it had sprouted there like a sapling. Going through the pockets of the sorcerer’s robes, Shanif found what he was looking for and tossed the iron ring of keys to his wife. Genoa worked frantically to unlock Thomas from his shackles as the tower room  filled with smoke from the fire that was now feeding on the toppled shelf of books.

            It began slowly at first, a low rumble that seemed to move through the entire tower, and by the time Genoa had freed Thomas from the tower’s chains, bits and pieces of the ceiling had begun to fall like hail. “Make haste!” Poet shouted, “The forces that hold this place together are gone. We must leave!”

            Shanif led the party quickly down the spiraling stone steps, with Lyre lagging behind everyone, as the tower cracked and crumbled all around them.

 

Chapter Eight - The Vision

 

tommy

 

            Poet was right.

            Whatever magic that had held Haital’s tower together for untold years was failing. When the party reached to the bottom of the tower, they found the dark dome splintered into a thousand pieces and the heavy entrance doors torn from their hinges. As they raced through the shattered arch, they could hear the explosive crash of the heavy chunks breaking free from the tower and slamming into the floor behind them.

            Tommy’s legs ached as he labored to keep up with the others while they ran to the mounts waiting outside, and he turned his head just in time to watch the faceted top of the tower fall inward, ripping apart the walls as it fell, forming a small mountain of crushed, charred crystal surrounded by clouds of glittering dust.

            That night, just outside the burning ruins of the tower, the party made camp, tended to their wounds, and shared their versions of what had happened. As the smoking wreckage of the tower groaned and settled, Tommy told everyone about the moments after his capture by Keelor (while Shang took careful notes, of course) in as much detail as he could remember.

             They also discussed the crystal globe that Enticus had tried to smash on the tower’s table, and everyone agreed that the warrior’s diversion had helped save the day. Whatever the blue sphere was, it must have been powerful enough for Haital to make himself vulnerable to prevent its destruction, but even Enticus himself could not remember what had happened to the globe, having dropped it as soon as the monstrous Keelor made its way over the table towards him. Shanif and Shang continued to discuss the crystal, stopping only when Lyre stood up and made an announcement to the party.

            “My dear friends, although we have shared many a brave adventure together, (Enticus shook his head in disbelief upon hearing this, but Lyre ignored him) I have decided to leave early in the morning to seek my fame and fortune elsewhere. Tonight, as I say goodbye, I hope that all of you remember me fondly.”

            Lyre made his way around the fire to each member of the seated circle, warmly shaking their hands and wishing them well. As Lyre got closer to where Tommy was siting, the boy noticed something strange. One of Lyre’s pockets was glowing!  And the closer Lyre came to Tommy, the brighter the glow became.

            Tommy quietly drew Enticus’s attention to the strange shimmering, which, as Lyre stretched out his hand to say goodbye, had grown so bright that everyone had begun to notice it, except Lyre of course, who continued to shake Tommy’s hand, telling him that he had no doubt that the boy would grow up to be a fine individual one day.

            After Lyre let go of the boy’s hand, he walked over to Enticus. “Well, my warrior friend, I must admit, that although I feel that you could make do with a perspective on life that is a little less rigid, I find you a most able traveling companion and.....” In the blink of an eye, Enticus stood up and unsheathed his blade so that the razor edge of the Tyr knife cut open the glowing pocket of Lyre’s coat. Lyre’s eyes went wide at the sight of the weapon, and he threw his hands up around his face just as the contents of his jacket pocket spilled onto the ground.

            There in the dirt, gleaming in cold blue contrast to the fire’s smoldering embers was the crystal sphere from Haital’s tower!

            Peeking nervously through his arms to the crystal globe on the ground, Lyre suddenly threw his hands into the air and proclaimed, “Surprise everyone! I had wanted to save this bauble as a special going away gift for all of you, but unfortunately, our excitable friend Enticus has seen fit to spoil the marvelous surprise that I had in store and...”

            Lyre didn’t have time to finish before Enticus grabbed him by the collar. “This thief, and I use the word in jest since he makes a mockery of even that despicable profession, has been nothing but trouble since we ran across him. If we didn’t need him, I’d take his tongue and...”

            As Lyre began to protest the indignity of warrior’s accusation, Poet walked over and placed his hands on the shoulders of both adventurers. “Please noble Enticus, while it is true that Lyre’s methods may be questionable, he tried as much to help distract the winged monster in the tower and free Thomas as any of us. I feel that, at heart, Lyre is a good sort. We must allow him this much at least.”

            “Yes, yes,” Shang quickly agreed, “Let’s put this behind us. I’m practically bursting with excitement to examine the crystal!” Shang picked up the sphere from the ground and gingerly moved it from hand to hand, using his upper limbs, while his lower hands began their incessant scribbling of notes in the pale blue glow.

            “Strange,” Shang began, “The sphere was glowing very brightly in Lyre’s pocket, but now, however, it seems much dimmer...hmmm...I wonder if...” Holding the sphere out before him, Shang walked over to where Enticus and Lyre stood, almost tripping over a loose stone and dropping the globe, which sent up a cry of alarm from the rest of the party. With each step the scholar took, the crystal glowed brighter. It was as if a tiny electrical storm was going on inside the globe, twisting and turning more rapidly the closer Shang brought it to the pair of adventurers. “Fascinating. It appears that the increased presence of life intensifies the globe’s energy. Even now, I can feel it tingling in my hands!” Everyone’s attention was on the sphere now as the scholar stepped away from Enticus and Lyre.

            The blue glow in the crystal faded.

            Shang moved towards Tommy, and the difference was incredible. Even though Shang was a still a few steps from the boy, the intensity of the glow was already brighter than the party’s dying campfire. Tommy’s eyes grew and his mouth formed an “O” as Shang almost touched him with the strange crystal, which was now blazing with cobalt light.

            “It feels as if it’s alive!” Shang shouted, writing furiously in the notebook with his free hands. “It appears that Haital was right when he said there was power in you Thomas!”

            “Can I hold it Shang?” Tommy asked.

            “Why, of course!”

            As Shang held out the sphere for Tommy to take, Enticus grabbed the scholar by the wrist.

            “Are you sure that thing is safe?”

            “Why Enticus, my friend, so far, all this sphere has done is tingle a little, a rather pleasant feeling, I might add. Perhaps it requires an incantation or something of the sort before any magic can be worked with it. I think Thomas should be fine.” Shang gingerly placed the radiant sphere in the boy’s hands, and Tommy looked with awe at the swirling currents of energy, feeling the power swirl inside the globe.

            “I can feel it Shang! It’s like electricity!”

            “There. You see Enticus,” Shang said, turning his head to the warrior, “it feels like ‘electricity’ whatever that is. No harm done whatsoever. As a matter of fact...”

            In the time it took the scholar to turn his head, a rippling bolt of blue energy came sizzling out of the crystal and struck Tommy’s forehead, transfixing him like a statue.

 

            Tommy was still staring into the swirls of energy in the crystal, when his head exploded with the familiar spiraling darkness of a seizure. Then, when the moment had passed, Tommy looked down into his hands. Instead of glowing blue, the sphere was now jet black between his fingertips. But there was more than that.

            The air was colder now, and the darkness surrounding the campfire had disappeared. A gray dawn brought a reek of sulfur, of burnt meat.

            Tommy looked up from the globe and Haital's words came back to him.

            You  move boy!

            He stood in the middle of an ashen battlefield covered in a dark, clinging fog, surrounded by the aftermath of what have been a huge struggle. All around him were the broken remains of bodies. And there, in the center of the carnage was a huge monster, an enormous beetle toppled on its back and leaking ichor from a dozen wounds.

            Then Tommy saw himself kneeling down in the mist, knees of his jeans damp from the ichor soaked earth. The boy cried out  to his own back, but his twin would not turn around. Tommy walked toward the kneeling figure and heard himself calling his friend’s name.

            “Enticus!”

            Tommy reached out to touch his own shoulder, and his hand passed right through his double. It wasn’t real. But if it wasn’t real, then what was it, and what was he looking at? Tommy walked around his kneeling twin and stared with shock at the body of Enticus lying on the ground. One side of the warrior’s body was horribly burned, the exoskeleton pitted and oozing clear liquid as if it had been melted away in spots.

            Still holding the dark crystal globe, Tommy knelt down opposite himself.

            And then, as he knelt there in the mist, Tommy’s world grew dark again.

            Up from the warm night air came the helping hands and voices of his friends. He was tired, as if the effort of what he had seen had drained the will from him. Tommy looked down at the sphere, glowing a mellow blue once again, in the dirt where he must have dropped it.

            Coming to his senses very slowly, Tommy looked wildly around for his friend.

            “Enticus! Enticus! Where are you?!”

            “Here Thomas. I’m here, right behind you.”

            Tommy turned around, feeling the firm grip of the warrior’s hand on his forearm, and realized he was back at the campsite. “What is it Thomas?” Enticus asked, his voiced edged with concern. “What happened?” 

            Tommy could only murmur his reply: “Enticus. I watched you die.”

        

            Tommy slept uneasily that night, even though the crystal had almost exhausted him, while the rest of the travelers discussed and argued over his vision. Perhaps, in the brief time that Tommy and the crystal were linked, one of the boy’s seizures was ignited, and, through it, he saw or was shown something: an illusion, a glimpse of the future, or maybe just a single window into one possible future. No one could agree exactly on what had happened to Tommy, but, whatever it was, it was powerful magic.

            With the new day came a sense of  misgiving, but no one (not even Lyre) suggested that they should turn back, and, in a few hours, the party was within sight of the Razoredge mountains. In no time, they joined the dozens of merchant caravans on their way to the city of Avariston, the most convenient gateway through the treacherous mountain range.

            According to Lyre, (who, to his credit, did actually know something about these lands) the party could continue following the caravan route which lead through Avariston. Once inside the city, they would be expected to pay a fee to the kingdom’s toll collector for passage through the mountains. After leaving Avariston, they could follow the trade routes further south to Facadia, one of the last kingdoms before the wild lands began. From there on, they would be on their own.

            During that long, creeping march to the city, as more small merchant groups continued to join the convoy to Avariston, Tommy had a moment to speak to Enticus alone. “What are you going to do Enticus?”

            “Do Thomas? Why, I intend to live of course.When the members of my colony reach the age of obedience, we stand before the queen and swear an oath to protect her and the colony. At that moment when we pledge our lives to our mother, we acknowledge our own mortality. Every night, I  pray to the Great Spirit, asking for the wisdom to live each day as if it were my last day. Everything that is blood and flesh must pass away, even the queen mother, whose lifespan is far greater than any one of our people, must die eventually. To realize this is to learn how to live. To embrace mortality is to open oneself up to the beauty of all that life has to offer. The only way to truly love anything is to realize it will be lost someday.”

            Tommy thought back to his dad, to the day when he walked out the door of their house and never came back. Tommy never even had a chance to say goodbye. “But aren’t you afraid that you won’t get  to do things that maybe you should have done, or always wanted to do?” the boy asked his friend.

            “You mean regrets Thomas?”

             Enticus paused a moment before beginning again.

            “I reflected on that last night, as I lay gazing up at the sky, and I do have one regret Thomas. I regret that I did not receive a guardianship. At any point in our lives, our queen may bestow that honor upon us. The queen is the mother of us all, and as such, she sees far and knows each of us, even those still unhatched. When the queen senses that an egg holds a special larva, she will appoint a guardian for it. It is a great honor. A guardian passes on the knowledge of all that they have learned, so that the chain of experience is never broken. My guardian’s name was Eciton, and she was the one who skilled me in the philosophy and craft of the warrior.”

            Tommy listened intently as the warrior went on.

             “On the day after my guardian traveled to the beyond, I was summoned before the queen. I was so excited Thomas, because I thought I had been chosen for a guardianship. Little did I know that I had been chosen for much more than that. In a voice as clear and soothing as summer rain, the queen told me that I was to leave the mountain, something that very few of my people have ever done in the entire history of my colony. I was told to search for the legendary kingdom of Dreamhope and gather friends along the way and protect them in her name. Our queen knows of the future, bits and pieces of it, like a puzzle, and she knew that I would meet others, but would not tell me why it was important that I should find such a city. She only knew the direction in which I should travel, and said that the city would find me.”

            Enticus kept a loose rein on the insect mount, and turned his head back towards Tommy.

            “When I left behind my people, knowing that the journey would be dangerous, I left behind the chance to be a guardian, or so I believed until last night. Thomas, if you accept, I would like to teach you all that I can in whatever time I have left. Will you allow me to be your guardian? It will be difficult, but in return, all the knowledge I have is  yours.

            “Yes,” Tommy answered without any hesitation, “I promise to try and learn as much as I can.”

            “Then Thomas, let me begin with the long history of my people...”

            And as Tommy listened, the little band finally found its way as part of the snaking caravan to the gilded gates of Avariston.

 

Chapter Nine - The Price of Passage

 

king avarice

 

            It was late in the afternoon when the six travelers rode through the center of the city, but what should have been a  market place filled with the hustle and bustle of merchants hawking a thousand exotic items for sale, was instead a mud brick city of dull and mundane buildings. In the merchant stalls, there was no silver or gold to be found anywhere, and even brass items were hard to come by. Instead, there was only shabby pottery, drab bolts of cloth, and the most basic foodstuffs. In spite of this apparent poverty, a great many human and exotic townsfolk milled back and forth around the procession of merchants, and Tommy could hear dozens of whispered business deals and promises of fine merchandise for the right price.

            One particular merchant, a lean and scruffy looking plant seller, appeared to be doing quite well indeed. As the caravan wound through the city, Tommy would occasionally catch, out of the corner of his eye, one of the shabby townspeople excitedly handing a tiny sack or two over to the trader, who then reached one pale hand into his covered cart and gave the buyer a potted, crimson flower. After each exchange, the plant seller pressed a coin into the palm of any nearby  guardsman. The guards of the city watch seemed to be everywhere, and the shine of their well kept armor, polished leather, and colorful silk made the peasants seem that much poorer.

            Eventually, the party came before the booth of the toll collectors, a flashy affair with a scarlet canopy and a long, white stone counter, behind which sat three middle aged executives of the kingdom. Tommy watched as the merchants ahead of him sent a representative to the first official, who took the toll money and placed it in a large chest, surrounded by half a dozen burly guardsmen. After the toll was paid, the spokesperson stepped over to the second cashier who produced a small slip of paper that the merchant signed, and that receipt was then stamped by the third lackey as proof of payment.

            Shanif was the group’s representative, and Tommy watched as the king placed a small sack of coins on the counter top.

            Almost immediately, Tommy could tell there was a problem.

            Both the toll collector and Shanif had begun to raise their voices, and when the king struck the stone counter top with his fist in frustration, he was suddenly surrounded by well armed guards.

            Enticus leapt down from his mount, which brought a whistle from one of the soldiers, and within seconds, it seemed that an entire army had descended upon the band of travelers. Tommy and his friends were forced from their mounts, pushed into a nearby wooden pen, and the gate was slammed shut , then locked, behind them.

            “What happened?!”  Lyre shouted, flailing his arms wildly in the air.

            “It appears,” Shanif explained, his voice edged with fury, “that the toll posted on the booth does not include the hefty bribe expected by the king’s collectors. The money I had given them wasn’t enough, and we are to be brought to the king on some trumped up charge, I assume, so that he can decide what to do with us personally. I’m sorry my friends. If I would have said nothing and just paid the extra gold, we could have been on our way.”

 

            It was nearly dusk before the guards opened the wooden cage, now crammed full of travelers, and searched each party member, taking everything of value and putting it into a large leather sack. There was a brief moment, when the guardsmen demanded the Tyr blade from Enticus, in which Tommy was afraid they might all be killed, but in the end, the warrior gave up his weapon before it was taken from him.

            The party was put in yet another procession, this time with the merchants who had failed to please the toll collectors, and they were all escorted on foot by city horsemen to the palace. Tommy watched the horses flanking him with a mild fascination. He had never seen a living horse before and was amazed by their size and their saddles made of beautifully embossed leather, set with precious stones. As the parade neared the palace, Tommy began to notice the road beneath him gradually change from wheel rutted dirt to crisp cobblestones that clapped and clattered with each strike of the horses’s hooves. 

            Looming before them, Avariston’s palace wallowed like a prize sow amidst the cluttered squalor of the city’s mud brick buildings. An overpowering collection of broad, white stone towers and bulging domes, edged in gold and precious stones, the castle glistened and twinkled obscenely in the light of the suns. As the party grew closer, Tommy could make out a dizzying rainbow of a colored banners springing from the cornices and crenelations of the palace. In between some of the flags, and slightly less festive, were three severed heads, their bulging eyes staring lifelessly down at Tommy from rust colored spikes.  When the party crossed the stone bridge that passed over the castle’s moat to the palace entrance, Tommy could hear flies buzz around the heads and felt a stinging cold in the pit of his stomach.

            A dozen foot soldiers soon replaced the horsemen and led the parade of merchants into the enormous main hall of the castle proper. Framed by two squat, grinning, golden statues, the heavy wooden doors to the castle’s tall entrance were opened by the guards, three men to a single door. As the party moved across the massive chessboard of white and red marble tiles that made up the floor of the hall, Tommy felt rather small and insignificant, as if at any second, the huge fluted columns that held up the vaulted ceilings of the palace might fall down upon him.   

            Tommy turned a look toward Enticus and saw that the diminutive warrior’s eyes were everywhere as they picked out points of defense and attack, places of entrance and escape. More and more soldiers seemed to appear like shadows from hidden corners and alcoves throughout the large hall.

            At the end of the hall ahead of them, Tommy saw a raised dais perched at the top of a dozen steps. Upon the dais sat two gilded thrones that seemed almost alive with carved relief figures and decorations. Seated on the largest of the pair of chairs was the living model for the statues that Tommy had seen upon entering the castle.

            The king sat upon his throne, alternating noisy slurps from a glass of wine in one hand and gobbles of meat shank, dripping with grease, in the other. To Tommy, the king seemed nearly as wide as he was tall, with a bulbous nose that spoiled the finery of his frilled shirt and embroidered vest, not to mention the long rich robe of deep violet. Capping the pudgy face of the king, and larger than his entire head, was a crown weighted down with jewels of every size and description. Around the king’s pudgy fingers, glistened and gleamed an assortment of rings, each one with a dozen hard little gemstones that were icy mirrors of the eyes of their owner.

            To the king’s left, sat a lovely, petite woman with a pale face like fragile porcelain, her deep brown hair shot through with sparkling white and pulled into a tight bun. The woman swam in the golden robes and crown of a queen uncomfortably, as if the waves of finery threatened to drown her, but what struck Tommy most about the woman were her eyes; they were deep, sapphire blue wells filled with a sadness that reminded him of his mother.

            After waiting their turn, the party reached the foot of the stairs leading up to the dais and two of the escorting soldiers dumped the belongings of the group at the foot of the dais. The king hopped off the throne with a gleeful little jump and inspected the objects with eager, plump fingers as the vizier to his right read aloud the charges “insufficient funds” and “surliness in the face of a kingdom official.”

            Ignoring the vizier, the king picked up Shang’s notebook, loudly condemning the scribbled information as “gibberish”, and cast  it aside. Likewise, Shanif's bow and Enticus’s Tyr blade were dismissed as being of “inferior make” (meaning there wasn’t so much as a speck of gold on them), which made the warrior bristle. Only when the king reached the party’s small sack of gold, Shanif and Genoa’s rings, and the blue crystal did he begin to show some interest. Leaving the rings and gold dumped out at the foot of the throne, the King picked up the sphere, which held the tiniest spark of light within it. The hard little eyes grew wide as the king held the crystal up to the light.

            “It’s like no gem we have ever seen. At first we thought it was merely a glass trinket, but it glows without torch or candle. Is it magic? Quickly,” the king said addressing Shanif, “Answer us! Is the stone magical in nature?”

            The hiss of the guardsmen’s steel sliding out from their sheathes helped emphasize the kings request.

            “Yes,” Shanif replied, “but it is nothing more useful than a piece of glass without a proper wielder.”

            “Ah!” exclaimed the king, “And we suppose that there is one among you that is capable of using it.”

            “I can use it,” Tommy blurted out.

            “What does it do then, boy?”

            “It shows me things.”

            “You mean things in the future, boy?”

            “Yes, but more than that too. It also...”

            “We see,” the king was chuckling now as he leaned towards his advisor, “It appears, Zathras, that we have yet another seer in our midst! Boy, do you have any idea how many so called “prophets” and “diviners” come through these halls every day trying to separate us from our wealth in exchange for their fanciful visions? Fakes and charlatans, the whole lot of them. Here...” the king threw the globe to Tommy, who was barely able to catch it before it hit the hard stone at his feet.

            “Look into the future boy and tell us what you see. Will we grow richer? More powerful? Will our kingdom continue to prosper? Tell us, and we’ll let you and your friends pass without so much as a single night in the debtor’s prison.”

            Tommy looked deep into the crystal, and he could feel a seizure building within him. Again, to the sheer amazement of the king, Tommy grew rigid as the bolt of energy reached out to touch his forehead as if it were a lightning rod. While the king and court watched in fascination, the sphere turned black as coal, and in less than a minute, Tommy came to, blinking rapidly and almost dropping the globe as he struggled keep his feet.

            The king had returned to his throne, and now leaned over eagerly in Tommy’s direction.

            “Well boy, what did you see?”

            “I saw...I saw you. Sitting in a huge room, stacked from floor to ceiling with treasure.”

            “Bah! We have many such rooms boy. Tell us something we don’t know!”

            Tommy began again, “It was a new room, built to hold the gold from the many travelers that will come here on their way to find new homes in a far off kingdom to the South.”

            Sharply, Lyre jumped into the questioning before Tommy could say anything more, threw himself at the feet of the surprised king, and held the party’s gold before the monarch with both his hands, letting some of the coins tinkle to the floor from between his fingers. “Your generous gloriousness, these piddling coins are nothing compared to the wealth which could be yours! For  passage through your kingdom, the return of our gold, and perhaps a few coins more, our associate could look into the crystal again and...”

            “Ah yes, Yes, indeed!” the king snickered. “It’s just as we said Zathras, another trickster offering more of the same vague promises of greater wealth and glory in exchange for some hard coin! An interesting bauble you have there boy, but we could tell you that our kingdom will continue to prosper ourselves. Nothing mystical about it. However, we were amused by your little parlor trick, and we’ll see fit to let you pass in exchange for your rings and the remainder of your gold. The rest of your things are really of no consequence to us and, as we are merciful, you may have them back, including your glass bauble. Guards! Give them the rest of their things and present the next group of beggars.”

 

            Tommy and his friends were unceremoniously shoved out of the palace with several other groups of merchants and escorted back out across the bridge to the city streets. After finding their way back to the center of the kingdom, the party once again met up with the caravan and were eager to leave the confines of the city walls.

            As they walked beyond the torchlit watch posts of the kingdom, leading their mounts by the reins, Tommy noticed that Genoa walked along with her head on her husband’s shoulder, sobbing gently. Tommy walked back from the lead to stand alongside the both of them for a moment or two before gently asking what was wrong.

            “Ah, friend Thomas, the rings that filthy little king took were our pledge rings. Symbols of our love for each other that I had made for our wedding day. But, they were but symbols after all,” Shanif went on, talking more to his wife now than to Tommy. “Just a bit of gold and gemstone, nothing more than that. Our love is more precious, when all is said and done.”

            Lyre grumbled and shook his head.

            “Do you see now what I keep trying to tell you?!” Monsters like that ‘king’ and his lackey’s back there will take and take, until nobody has anything left to give, just so that they can fill another room full of treasure to waste on their frivolity and finery. It’s all done in the name of ‘good government’ of course. They become richer, and stupid  hard working  folk become poorer. Things will never change. That king will enjoy the rest of his selfish life like a bloated tick on a dog. There’s no point in trying to earn an honest living with leeches like him constantly bleeding you dry.”

            And as if to prove what he had said, Lyre walked up to the husband and wife, reached into a coat pocket, and handed something to Genoa.

            “Why, it’s our pledge rings!” she announced happily. “Oh thank you, Lyre!”

            “Think nothing of it Madame,” the thief replied easily. “While that toad was busy watching my little display before his throne, it was a simple matter to slip the rings into my pockets.”

            “And what do you think of my thieving skills now, friend Enticus?”  Lyre called out merrily to the warrior’s back.

            “I think,” Enticus replied dryly, keeping his eyes to the road, “that we’re lucky you didn’t get us all killed.”

            “Pish-posh!” the thief shot back. “My hands were far too quick for that slow witted despot. Besides, I’m sure that slug is so happy with all the other loot he’s gotten, that he won’t even notice the rings are gone.”

            “That king may be happy now, but I don’t think he’s going to stay happy for much longer,” Tommy said.

            “You saw more in the vision than what you told the king, didn’t you Thomas?”, Poet asked.

            “Yes. I didn’t lie when I told the king I saw him in his new counting room. He was hiding in a corner. The door was locked and a bunch of people were trying to break it down. Then, all I saw the was the king’s cut off head on top of the castle wall.”

            “And what of his queen?” Genoa inquired sadly.

            “She’s going to run away. She’s thinking about it right now, and, in a few days, she’ll sneak out in one of the merchant caravans.”   

            “And yet, you told the king none of this?” Enticus asked.

            “No. In the crystal, I saw myself telling him the truth, just like I’m telling you right now, and he got so angry that he had his guards take us away to the prison. He wanted to believe I was faking just to get his money, so I let him. ”

            “That is good news Thomas!” Shang exclaimed.

            “Your grasp of the obvious astounds me scholar.”, Lyre proclaimed sarcastically. “I should think that even Enticus here realizes that not having to spend any time in a king’s dungeon is good news indeed!”

            “No Lyre, don’t you see? By not telling the king all that he saw, Thomas changed the future. His visions are of things that may  be instead of things that must  be! We may yet keep Enticus out of harm’s way!”

            “That’s right!”  Tommy shouted.

 

Chapter Ten - The Jester

 

THE JESTER

           

            You may be wondering why, if the crystal allowed Tommy to see things (even things in the future), didn’t he just look into it and find the best way to get the travelers to Dreamhope and save everyone a lot of running around asking questions.

            That’s not a bad idea really.

            And it was an idea the adventurers had too. After the party made camp that night, Enticus and the others asked Tommy to look into the crystal sphere and find the kingdom of Dreamhope.

            Now, as you may or may not already know, the future is a tricky thing.

            The future is always moving, like a snake constantly twisting and turning into new possibilities, making it hard to catch. Because the future is so difficult to capture, even the best seers, soothsayers, and “see aheads” make mistakes or give advice that is fuzzy or hard to understand. It’s not until you actually get to the part where the “future” becomes the “now” that you take the palm of your hand, smack yourself on the forehead, and say, “So that’s what ‘so and so’ meant by that!”

            Taking all of this into account, do you know what Tommy saw in his vision as he watched the globe turn black in his hands once more?

            Tommy saw his friends: Poet first, Shanif and Genoa second, Shang next, Lyre after that, and then, finally, Enticus.

            Now what do you suppose that meant?

            As I said before, the future is a tricky thing.

 

            The little band’s mood picked up considerably after they made camp that night out of the shadow of the greedy king’s city. In the midst of the huge merchant caravans leaving and entering Avariston, it was as if there was a festival taking place all around them. Hundreds of merchants sat around their small campfires singing songs, telling tales, or visiting with friends, old and new. Enticus even made Tommy’s lessons for that night brief ones, so that the boy could join the others as they traveled among the campsites, listening to the stories and music.

            And, of course, everywhere they visited, the adventurers asked about the city of Dreamhope. Most of the merchants good naturedly dismissed the city as mere fantasy (as one grizzled old gypsy, who went by the name of Rastauff, commented: “By the gods, even the name sounds made up!”). Still, there were a few traders who had caught wisps of rumors about a city on the southern edge of the world. A haunted city, cursed so that nothing could live  there, filled with strange noises and vengeful spirits, eager to destroy trespassers.

            Tommy and his friends listened to every story and every anecdote, good or bad, from the most finally wrought tales to the worst drunken ramblings. Finally, tired from the day, the members of the party made their way back to their own tiny fire and the smell of the Pheron-Sha.

 

THE POET PLAYS

 

             Poet played hauntingly on his flute,and stopped to sing:

 

            Though the  road was hard,

            and  the  journey  long,

            I lifted my voice

            in joyous song

            Through weathered storms

            and battles lost

            I stayed my course

            and paid life’s cost

            ‘Til  that day came,

            when lost in thought,

            I knew it was

            myself I’d bought

 

            Tommy fell asleep that night wondering whether he was hearing Poet’s voice in his dreams or whether the words were a dream themselves.

            It took several days for the party to cross the well traveled caravan road, bundled up against the chill mountain air, and during that time, Enticus instructed Tommy on use of the Tyr blade. Giving Tommy a wooden sword that he had carved from a tree branch, the warrior taught the boy how to stand and hold the weapon, to think of it as an extension of his own body. And each night, just before bed, Tommy would pick one of the merchant camps and stay awhile, talking and listening. According to the traders, if the band continued traveling south, they would reach the kingdom of Facadia, the last major city before the beginning of the wild lands.

 

            The little band was less than a week out of the Razoredge mountains when they reached the gates of Facadia and said farewell to several of the merchants that had joined them this far south from the caravan route. Even gruff old Rastauff wished them well on the next leg of their journey, although he reminded them that sometimes the trip was its own reward and not to feel too bad if the legend of Dreamhope turned out to be “stuff and nonsense”, as he put it. Everyone laughed at the merchant’s good natured teasing, wishing him well, and Shanif even promised to send the old gypsy a souvenir from the fabled kingdom when they reached it.

             It was a beautiful day, the twin suns shining crisply through the clear blue sky, and Tommy looked up, closing his eyes to let the warm summer light bathe his face.

            The city gates beckoned the party, generating more than a little excitement among the band. It would be good to have a real dinner again instead of the forage and rations that they had all been living off of for the past month. Shang had done nothing but talk about how good it would be to have a fine glass of sweet, honeyed wine again. Enticus, ever focused, reminded everyone that the purpose of their visit to Facadia was to try and find out more information regarding Dreamhope. It was important that they all stay together and avoid undo attention.

            Tommy was barely listening.

            They had just passed the sentries at the city’s gates, and spread out before the band was a bustling street of quaint cottages and shops, a tribute to the thoughtfulness of the city’s builders. Throughout the city, the streets were paved with well kept cobblestone, and everywhere Tommy looked, there was the hustle and bustle of humans going about their morning business. Commuters exchanged  greetings, food sellers peddled their wares from colorful pushcart stands, and clean, well dressed children were at play everywhere.

            Tommy felt a wave of homesickness sweep over him as he watched a group of boys, not much younger than he was, playing tag near the bubbling fountain of the town square. Why did I ever run away in the first place?

            Tommy felt Shanif’s hand clap him on the shoulder, breaking the spell the boy had fallen under. “Look Thomas,” the king said, pointing beyond the fountain. “There’s a fine castle, if I do say so myself.”

            Rising up from the end of the city’s long travel way, Facadia’s castle was a towering collection of delicate white spires and battlements that seemed to defy gravity, washed until the crisp white stone work practically sparkled. It was hard to believe that such a wonderful structure could even stand against the elements. To Tommy, it looked as if a strong wind could send the whole castle tumbling over, or maybe, if the castle wanted to, it could simply will itself to fly, rising up from the midst of the little city at its feet like a great white hawk.

            Just as Tommy stared at the castle, the townspeople watched him and his friends in return. The townsfolk were quite captivated by the little band’s strangeness, although they were quite friendly and curious. Enticus even let one of the children of the city touch the sides of his mount, which rose and fell with the insect’s breathing. The small girl told her mother it was smooth and hard “like a turtle’s shell”. Shanif talked to some of the other gawkers and was surprised to find that these people knew almost nothing of the Northlands and its inhabitants at all. What little they did know, was from the third hand accounts of the traders that stopped in the city.

            Enticus asked about Dreamhope, but the townspeople confessed that they had never heard of such a place. As one man put it, just before wiping his nose on his jerkin sleeve, “Who’d want to go galloping off to some strange city, when a body’s got all he could need right here?” Shanif humored the runny nosed man by saying that Facadia was a fine city indeed, but that he wondered if it could it be possible to get directions to a nearby inn or tavern where they could stop for a glass of honeyed wine and perhaps find some more, well-traveled folk.

            “The Griffon’s Tail”  might have the sort of folk who have the knowin’ of what you’re lookin’ for.”, the runny nosed man snorted, “It’s a fine little pub, set in the old quarter of the city. Just keep your feet on the main road and walk towards the castle, it’ll be on your right...or is that left? Ahh, to blazes with it! You're a bright enough lot. Sooner or later, you’ll run into it.” Shanif thanked the runny nosed man, somewhat dubiously, and the group bid the rest of the onlookers in the square farewell.

            With help from more of Facadia’s jovial citizens, the party finally reached the Griffon’s Tail in good time, and in good spirits as well. It seemed as if the whole kingdom had a certain spark, an optimism that had even begun to rub off on Lyre, who,  so far, kept his acid tongue firmly bottled.

            Because of Tommy’s age, he couldn’t enter the tavern, and was given the responsibility of watching the party’s equipment. Tommy sat on the mount that he and Enticus shared, enjoying the day and looking down on the procession of people that passed through the street.

            This place sure is different from Avariston,  the boy thought to himself, everyone seems so happy, and I haven’t seen an single armed soldier yet.

            Then, as if to shatter Tommy’s thought, a party of uniformed men appeared from one of the side streets, pushing before them a large misshapen lump of lumbering flesh that stumbled to keep ahead of the long strides of the men at arms. Tommy watched the scene for a moment before he realized that the creature waddling before the armed patrol was a man, his legs bowed and his back bent and twisted, so much so that it appeared as if he had almost been bent in the middle, like a doll in the hands of a spiteful child.

            Shambling and stumbling to a stop, the man, dressed in the bright colors of a jester’s motley, turned to face Tommy. Upon his face, tied about with red ribbon, was a white mask of glazed ceramic in the shape of a grinning clown’s face. Beneath the brightly outlined eyes and the exaggerated crimson smile, Tommy could catch glimpses of real eyes and a mouth, peeking through the slits of the pottery mime’s face

            One of the guards behind the jester gave the figure a sharp jab in the back with the wooden end of his pike. “Go on, then!”

            The jester began to bellow at the top of his lungs, in a sandpaper voice, what was obviously a children’s song.

            Teacups, pussycats, goose berry pies,

            these are my favorite things,

            Teacups, pussycats, goose berry pies

            these are the words that I sing...

            In a few minutes, a crowd had begun to form out in the street to listen to the singing, if it could be called that, and Tommy watched a wall of bodies spring up around the jester.

            People in the crowd had begun to hoot and laugh.

            Teacups...

            The jester’s voice began to tremble as he continued the song. Some of the people in the mob had begun to pick up large pebbles and pelt the singing figure.

            Pussycats...

            Fighting the noise of the crowd, the jester’s voice rose up, tuneless, merely shouting out  the lyrics. A street vendor threw one of his own ripe tomatoes at the jester, stimulating business, as members of the mob bought fruits of their own to hurl at the singer. The ribald colors of the jester’s motley disappeared in a gore streaked shower of red, runny pulp.

            Goose berry pies...

            Mouthing the last few words of the song, the jester’s voice had become the low whimpering of a whipped dog.

            Teacups. Pussycats. Goose berry pies.

            The mob had begun to spit on the jester now, covering him with rivulets of foamy white saliva that ran down his body and the mask, from which red rimmed eyes now looked out at Tommy. The boy watched as tears fell out from underneath the mask of the jester, traveling down his chin and neck, cutting channels of flesh through the blood red crust of juice and mash.

            “Stop it!”, Tommy shouted, jumping from the mount. “Stop!”

            Tommy forced himself between the jester and the crowd.

            “What are you doing this for?! He hasn’t done anything!”

            One of the beefy guardsmen stepped up and grabbed Tommy by the arm.

            “Are you a simpleton, boy? It’s the law, and by stepping forward and interfering with the purging, you’ve committed a criminal act!”

            “No!” the jester cried out. “Leave the boy be!”

            “Shut up you!”  the guard snarled back. “You’re going back to the castle. As for this boy, he can sit for a spell in the dungeon til the magistrate decides what to be done with him!”

            Tommy shouted for his friends, “Enticus!, Shanif! Help!”

            Enticus was the first to break through the crowd, knocking a man, easily twice his size, down to the ground in the process,

            “What’s the meaning of this?”

            “It appears,” the guard began scornfully, “that this unsupervised youngster has broken royal statute number two hundred and twenty one, pertaining to the disruption of the purging ceremony. He is to be held in accordance with King Alexander’s decree, until such time as punishment is decided by the Magistrate.”

            Shanif, who had been straight on Enticus’s heels, began to argue,”But the boy isn’t even a citizen of this kingdom, how could he be aware of this ceremony of yours?!”

            With disdainful courtesy, the guard replied, “I’m sorry sir, but ignorance of the law is no excuse, If you wish to plead the boy’s case, I suggest that you visit the magistrate’s office in the legal quarter of the city. Now, good day to you.”

            And with that, the soldiers took Tommy away, their armor clanking and ratting as they did so.

 

            Through the streets of the city, the guardsmen marched Tommy and the misshapen jester, and at certain stops along the way to the castle, the purging ceremony continued. Tommy had been warned that if he interfered with the ceremony again, he would never be allowed to see his friends again, and the boy was forced to watch as the horrible treatment of the jester was repeated over and over again.

            Eventually, Tommy was led by a pair of guards over the drawbridge to the main gate of the palace. The lofty spires and towers had lost much of their appeal for the boy, especially when he saw the large rats swimming in the moat, making their way into cracks in the foundation of the palace, their furry bodies covered in stagnant filth. Tommy wondered how such a beautiful structure could be built on such a scarred foundation as he was shuttled past the man door of the castle to a side entrance and marched down a spiraling staircase that sunk deeper and deeper below the palace. Tommy could barely see the stairs in front of him, the only light coming from torches, spaced every twenty feet or so, that struggled to cast a dim glow in spite of all the smoke and soot they left behind on the rough stone walls. The stairs finally ended in a small hallway with a row of a dozen heavy wooden doors on each side. A yawning guardsman was standing at the front of the hallway, nearest the stairs, and another was stationed at the opposite end, between the last two cell doors.

            Once Tommy had been properly turned over to the guard at the bottom of the stairs, He was led to the last door on his right. Making use of one of the keys on his large iron ring, the burly guard opened the stout wooden door, ordering the boy inside the cell with a mocking flourish and a sarcastic, broken smile.

            “It’s been quite awhile since we’ve had visitors down her boy. Most folks have got the sense enough to appreciate life in Facadia and don’t want to make trouble. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. If it wasn’t for the occasional trouble maker such as yourself, I’d be out of a job I suppose! Enjoy the accommodations boy, you’ve earned em!” And, with that, the guard closed the cell door behind Tommy, laughing as he did so.

            Once in the cell, it took Tommy’s eyes several minutes to adjust to what little light came from the hallway through the bars of the door’s single, small, high window.  On the wall to Tommy’s right, there jutted out a warped, wooden plank, its outer corners chained to the stone wall for support, that was the bed. At the far end of the room was a bucket, and Tommy walked up to it, looking inside. Although the bucket was currently empty, the boy recognized the smell and knew that he had found the bathroom.

            Tommy sat down on the hard wooden plank.

            What’s going to happen to me?

            After several minutes, Tommy could see the inside of the cell even more clearly. Its walls were made of rough hewn stone blocks, wet with condensed moisture, and some of the mortar joining them was falling away in crumbs onto the floor. Mold grew in the corners of the room, and Tommy watched a centipede, as fat as his thumb scurry along the sickly white ridges of the pale fungus. On the wall opposite Tommy’s bunk, where the stonework met the floor, there was a hole, a few inches wide, dug into a large patch of soft mortar. Tommy caught a glimpse of movement, and, after a moment, a dark shape wriggled its way out of the hole. It was a rat like the ones Tommy had seen enter the castle from the moat, its fur matted and glistening from the dampness of the cell, the whiskers on its nose twitching rapidly as it sniffed the air.

            Easily as long as a house cat, the rat followed an invisible  path along the edge of the cell. When the rat passed under Tommy’s bunk, he pulled his knees to his chest with a jolt, so that his feet didn’t come near the floor. Another, smaller rat joined its mate and the pair skittered back and forth across the cell floor, stopping once and awhile to test the air for clues as to who the cell’s newest tenant was.                

            Tommy finally lay down on the plank bed and stared into the black void of the ceiling. He could hear the pitter-patter of rat steps on the stone floor, and the crunching of one of the rodents feeding on something that Tommy hoped was the centipede. As he lie awake in the dark, the young boy prayed that, somehow, Enticus and the others would find a way to get him out of this awful place.

 

            It took several hours before Tommy’s friends found the legal quarter, and, to make matters worse, because they didn’t have an appointment, they were forced to take a numbered tile from a rack at the foot of the steps until one of the cogs in the city’s legal machine came out and called their number.

            Enticus paced back and forth, mandibles twitching restlessly, and Poet sat on the judicial building’s steps, but all around them bubbled the air of a carnival.

 Apparently, the citizens of this kingdom knew of the long wait and had brought their children, friends, and even picnic lunches. Everywhere Enticus looked, there were people enjoying themselves, laughing and carrying on until their numbers were called out by the appointment keeper.

            As the townspeople carried on without a care in the world, Enticus pictured Thomas huddled in a cell somewhere. It was maddening, and the worst part of it was that Enticus had to concentrate, had to focus his mind on his imprisoned friend, just to feel angry. If he let his attention wander, even just a little bit, he could feel his outrage slip away as if the merriment around him was draining it off somehow. Even now, Enticus saw the rest of his friends laughing and talking to the other townspeople about how beautiful the weather was, or about how delicious a piece of shared pastry tasted.

            That was what scared Enticus most of all.

            No one was asking about Dreamhope anymore. All they talked about was nonsense. It was if they had forgotten why they were all here in the first place! Only Poet seemed immune from the joviality around him, and he suggested that perhaps it was time that they looked after their fellow travelers.

            They found Shang, his scientific journal forgotten, amazing a group of children by using both sets of arms in a game of jacks until he finally tried to pick up one too many and scattered metal game pieces everywhere while the youngsters clapped and laughed. Nearby, Shanif and Genoa were talking with an older couple, commenting on what a lovely city Facadia was, and how they wouldn’t mind staying.

            Enticus couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Staying? They were talking about staying?

            Something was terribly amiss.

            Poet pointed to the figure of Lyre, who was sitting in the shade of a large tree just outside the throng of petitioners celebrating their waiting.

            Cynical, sarcastic, untrustworthy Lyre.

            Enticus was never more happy to see him.

            Poet and Enticus walked over to Lyre, and the warrior pretended to endear himself to the thief. “So, Lyre, isn’t this a laugh!” Enticus said. “Look at all these merry idiots, cavorting about with nothing better to do. Why their homes are probably left wide open, waiting to be robbed, even as we speak, and it would serve them right, I might add!”

            “You know, Enticus, I was thinking,” Lyre replied, absentmindedly chewing on a long piece of grass, “maybe it’s time I stopped wandering. Why, I could settle down, maybe find a plot of land right here, and do some farming.”

            “What! And become one of those ‘clod hoppers’ you’re always going on about?”” Enticus blurted.

            “Why not? Why, my father was a farmer, and his father before him. Then again, maybe I could become a potter, I’ve always been good with my hands, and...”

            Just then, on the street in front of the judicial building, a cloaked, stooped figure shuffled his way toward Poet and Enticus. Slowly, the other legal petitioners began to take notice of the large hunchback as well. Only a few of them at first, throwing half eaten pastries and garbage from their picnic lunches at the figure, but soon, like a growing storm, everyone was on their feet, cursing and taunting the jester. One woman even told the figure that he should find someplace outside of the kingdom to crawl up and die, so that he didn’t mar their fine city any more.

            As Enticus watched the figure approach, he began to get angry too, in spite of himself. After all, wasn’t the jester the reason that Thomas was now imprisoned?

Why, if it wasn’t for this misshapen lump, they probably would have found Dreamhope by now!

            The masked hunchback now stood in front of Enticus and Poet. Lyre had followed the travelers and began to comment on what a mistake it was that creatures like this be allowed to freely wander about the city. Enticus was about to agree with the thief when he felt the steady voice of Poet pulling him back like an anchor.  “My friend, patience in one moment of anger can prevent one hundred days of sorrow. This man, covered in the garbage of others, is not your enemy.”

            Feeling as if he was losing his senses, the warrior managed to calm himself and ask the masked figure if he had any news of their friend Thomas. Speaking in a voice that only Poet and Enticus could hear, the jester told them that Tommy was being held in the cells beneath the palace.

            “There is no more serious crime in all Facadia than the disruption of the purging ceremony. You friend will be sentenced by the magistrate in the main hall on the morrow, at the request of King Alexander himself. It has been so long since anyone has dared disrupt the purging ceremony, that the king wishes to make an example of your friend in front of the entire kingdom. You are wasting your time by talking to the magistrate. The decision to punish him has already been made, and your friend will be sentenced to the dungeons until he is rehabilitated. He will never be allowed to leave Facadia.”

            The warrior’s antennae drooped; “There must be something we can do.”   

            “Thomas is being held deep in the bowls of the castle,” the jester replied, his voice filled with remorse. “It’s impossible to help your friend escape, but I can deliver a message, and get him some decent food, if you wish.”

 

            Tommy watched in dim silence from his bunk as the two rats ate the bit of cheese and bread that had been shoved through the hinged slot at the bottom of the cell’s door for his supper. Although Tommy couldn’t tell exactly what time it was, his body was telling him that it must be getting late, even though it seemed impossible for him to go to sleep. Tommy had decided that he would wait until the rats had gone before he went to the door and got the cup of water that had been left for him, and although his stomach murmured it’s disagreement, he ignored it.

            Suddenly, the door to the food slot opened inward, sending the rat’s scurrying away to their hole in the mortar.

            “Thomas,” a voice whispered. “Thomas!”

            Tommy hopped off the plank bed and crouched down to the slot, where he could see the painted white mask of the jester.

            “It’s you!”  Tommy cried out.

            “Yes Thomas, and I have a message from your friends. They want me to tell you that you mustn't despair and that they are doing everything they can on your behalf. Enticus has sent this, thinking that it might be of some help.” The jester squeezed something wrapped in a linen napkin through the slot. “I want to thank you for what you did today, Thomas. If there is anything I can get for you, please tell me. The dungeons have been empty for such a long time that the guards are lax and often leave their posts to spend time flirting with the kitchen maids up above. As the court jester, I can usually move freely about the castle, and I can get you decent food.” And, being as good as his word, the jester exchanged Tommy’s plate, moldy rat eaten cheese and all, for a piping hot bowl of beef and vegetable stew.

            “Thanks! What’s your name anyway?” Tommy asked.

            “I’m called Ugilee,” the jester answered.

            “Ugilee! That’s an awful name!”

            “It is what they call me, and it is what I am Thomas. That is why I must always wear this mask, by royal order of the king, whenever I am among people so that I do not offend them.”

            “Why do the people here treat you so badly, Ugilee?”

            “It has always been that way Thomas. Until today, the only other person to ever show me any kindness was a woman I knew when I was very young, my mother, I think, but she’s been gone a long time now.”

            “What’s going to happen to me?”

            “Tomorrow you will be brought publicly before the magistrate and the royal court. Your punishment has already been decided, and you will be held here in Facadia until you are rehabilitated.”

            “Rehabilitated?”

            “Yes Thomas. They will keep you here until you hate me like the others do.”

            “No! I could never treat you like that!” Tommy replied in shock.

            “You will Thomas, if you ever wish to leave this city with your friends again. I promise to visit you as often as I can until you are rehabilitated, but for now I have to go. The guards might return at any moment.”

            Tommy knelt in front of the door for a moment after the slot closed before taking the stew to the plank. The thick soup was hot and delicious, and Tommy was so hungry that he burned the roof of his mouth from eating the stew too fast.  When the meal was gone, Tommy undid the cloth that Ugilee had shoved through the slot. It was the blue crystal and the pair of Tommy’s medicine bottles.

            Bathed in the globe’s cool blue light, Tommy pushed the pills aside, took the stone in one hand, and let its energy feed on the monster inside of him.

 

            Enticus stood crammed between the hundred or so gawkers that had arrived at the castle, by virtue of proclamation, to hear the king pass judgment on Tommy’s crime. As it almost always seemed in Facadia, there was a festive air about the gathering, and the citizens present talked and joked among themselves. Even many of Tommy’s friends mingled on the broad steps of the palace with those people who couldn’t find room in the packed audience hall. Enticus, however, struggled through the towering crowd of spectators until he was finally in the very front of the throng of people, out of place amidst all the children placed there by parents wanting them to have a better view.

            After a moment, the king and members of the royal court entered the far end of the room, causing a great cheer to rise up from the assembled citizens that shook the entire hall.

            The king was a tall man with broad shoulders, well suited to bear the burden of his monarchy. His face was strong and regal, framed by long, light brown hair that spilled out from underneath the simple gold band he wore around his head as a symbol of his office. Coupled with his hair, the king had a short beard that gave him an almost lion like visage.

            After the king climbed a small set of stairs and sat down upon one of two audience thrones, the tiny parade of advisors and family members made their way to their places and were greeted by polite clapping from the crowd as if they were performers making their appearance on a stage. Trailing along behind the group, Ugilee, whose welcome was a silence peppered with boos and hisses, took his place at the bottom the throne steps.

 

jester

 

            The king began the ceremony by welcoming the citizens to his hall, and to his home, on behalf of himself and his daughter, a beautiful young girl with features much like her fathers, who stood at the top most step of the dais to his left. The king also welcomed the audience on behalf of the memory of his departed queen, which he acknowledged with a gesture to the smaller throne next to him, draped in a black satin coverlet.

            “We are gathered here today,” King Alexander proclaimed,  “to reaffirm all that is good and true in our land. The laws of our kingdom were established, not so that the people should serve the law, but so that the law should serve the people. It is the law that binds us, one to another. It is the law that unites us, low and high alike. It is the law that gives us peace, now and always.”

             The king sat down and addressed the magistrate, a lean willow of a man dressed in long, billowy robes, with a snowy white beard that nearly touched his navel.

            “Magistrate Galen, please bring forth the accused.”

            At a shout from the official, Tommy was marched into the hall before the king with the guardsmen from the dungeon on either side of him, a single one of their hands clamped down upon each of the boy’s shoulders.

            Enticus clenched his fists as he and Thomas made eye contact. The warrior’s Tyr blade had been confiscated before entering the hall, and he felt almost helpless.

            Addressing Tommy loudly before the crowd, the king announced the charge. “Thomas Matthews of Ohio, you are accused of the crime of disrupting the purging ceremony. There are over a dozen witnesses, including officers of the watch, who can attest  to the fact that you did knowingly interfere in, and attempt to stop, the ceremony. If you are found guilty, you will be sentenced to imprisonment and labor for the public good until such time as you see the error of your ways. Thomas Matthews of Ohio, do you have anything to say in your defense before I pass judgment?”

            Tommy answered in a voice that seemed very small in the enormity of the hall: “Your highness, I have a request to make.”

            The king raised an eyebrow, and a few chuckles bubbled their way through the silence of the crowd. “Thomas Matthews of Ohio, you may make your request, but I would strongly suggest that you take great care in it. I will not have you make a mockery of these proceedings.”

            “Your highness, I want your court jester take off his mask and show his face to everyone here!”

            Like a clap of thunder, an uproar went up through the crowd. Enticus stood firm in the front of a storm of shocked and outraged spectators, watching an expression of fear flood over the face of the king. “Yes, Let us see the jester’s face!” Enticus shouted.

            The king was trembling now as the magistrate struck his heavy wooden staff on the floor, calling for order.

            Standing bolt upright from out of the throne the king called out in a crackling voice, “Guards! Bring the boy to my chambers immediately!”

 

king

 

 

            “Too many kings!” I can almost hear you shouting.

            “This story has too many kings in it!”

            Perhaps you’re right, maybe three kings in a single story is too many, but you must remember that the world of Enticus and his friends was full of kings and queens, (although they sometimes called themselves “emperors”, “presidents” or “prime ministers”) and that they loved, hated, and even went mad, just as other people do.

            But when a king or queen loves, hates, or even goes mad, they carry hundreds, sometimes millions, of people with them.

            It’s a tremendous responsibility.

            Take the king of Avariston, whom we have already met. He was greedy and selfish, a horrible despot if ever there was one, and it can honestly be said that his people suffered miserably because of him.

            But what about Shanif, the king without a kingdom? He was a kind and passionate man who gave up his title and power for love. When Shannif went away, his brother Jonus, who was not as kind and not as passionate, was made king. The people of the Aruman province suffered because of Shanif’s choice. Did that make Shanif a good man, a bad king, or both?

            King Alexander, “The Golden Lion” as he was sometimes called, was greatly loved by the people of Facadia. Alexander taxed his subjects fairly, ran his kingdom wisely, and put the welfare of his people above everything.

            Alexander was a good king.

            But was he a good man?

            Perhaps, in a little while, you’ll be able to tell me.

 

            Tommy was grabbed off of his feet, and virtually carried through a doorway leading out of the hall. He shouted for Ugilee to follow him, and the jester rushed after the boy, but was blocked at the doorway by three guardsmen.

            Like a shot, Enticus broke from the crowd and plowed into one of the guards, bowling him over to the ground. As the other two men rushed to pull the ant warrior off of their comrade, Ugilee shuffled quickly after Thomas, and before he could be stopped, the jester burst into the king’s private chamber and stood next Tommy before the king. The monarch sighed, dismissing the guards with a gesture, and the oaken doors of the room slammed shut, leaving the three of them alone, bathed in light from the room’s huge leaded glass window.

            “You know, of course, young man,” the king intimated to Tommy,”that I could have you killed with a word.”

            A cloud passed overhead throwing the room into gray shadow.

            “You can’t hide the truth from him any longer.”, Tommy replied, unshaken. “If I was able to find out the secret, others will as well!”

            Taking Tommy by the shoulders, the king shook the boy violently.

            “But how! How did you find out!”

            Ugilee cried out for the king to stop and rushed towards Alexander, shoving him into a heap upon the ground. Sitting up from the floor, the king pressed his face into his hands.

            “Take off your mask Ugilee, and look at yourself,” Tommy said, pointing to a full length mirror at the end of the chamber. See why you must always wear a mask! See why you can’t have a mirror of your own!”

            Slowly walking up to the polished surface, the jester began to undo the ribbon of the mask. When he could see his own face for the first time, Ugilee reached out to touch the reflection, tears streaming from his eye.

            “He’s your son, isn’t he?!” Tommy shouted at the king.

            A broken nod was the king’s only reply.

            Ugilee continued to look at his own face, a reflection of not only himself, but, in a way, of King Alexander as well. “I’m not really a monster, am I...father?”

            His eyes bolted to the floor, the king whispered, “No, you are not a monster, you are my son, Phillip.”

            The jester turned back to his reflection, telling it over and over again, “Phillip, my name is Phillip.”.

            Tommy turned to Phillip. “You are the reason this kingdom is so beautiful. All the bad feelings of everyone here are focused onto you like light from a magnifying glass. That’s why your father created the purging ceremony. That’s why everyone hates you. Everywhere you go, all of everyone’s fear and anger is drawn to you.”

            “How? Why, father?” Phillip asked, still staring at his reflection.

            Returning to his feet, the king stumbled to explain. “My son, you must understand, sixteen years ago when you were born, our kingdom was dying! Our crops were decimated from draught, and we were at war with our neighbors. Your grandfather, King Justine, had died just three months before, and the people looked to me to save the kingdom! I was desperate! I sought the aid of an enchanter who lived

high in the Razoredge mountains. I went alone on horseback to meet the man who some said was the devil himself. I didn’t care. I was willing to do anything, even sell my soul, to save my kingdom. In exchange for an annual tribute, the wizard gave me the mask that you wear now, and told me what needed to be done for its incredible power to work. When I brought the mask back, your mother would not let me put it on you, but I told her that I would not allow the kingdom to die, even at the cost of my own son. I announced that day that you had died in your crib and the people accepted it as yet one more misery on top of the many that the kingdom had already suffered. That very night, I placed the tiny mask upon your face and the effect was almost immediate. People all throughout the castle began to feel better, full of hope.”

            As the king pulled himself up from the floor, he continued the story. “I began the work of saving our kingdom by inviting our enemies to parley, and at the appointed time and place, I brought you with me, hidden in my entourage. We were able to put our prejudices aside, and, in a single afternoon, we had a treaty that put an end to the fighting! Upon returning home, I appointed a local woman to push you throughout the streets as if you were just another child, and everywhere you went, charity began to spring up. People thought of others as well as themselves, and everyone began sharing what little they had until the day came that our crops began to yield well again. Our kingdom soon knew the greatest period of prosperity in its entire history. But with each year that our kingdom grew lovelier, your mother and I watched your body grow bent and twisted, the receptacle for all the ill will, hatred, and despair of the kingdom.

Your mother died of guilt and sadness before you reached your eighth birthday Phillip.

I bear even more of the same burden that killed your mother, but I continue to endure it for the sake of your sister and our people.”

            Tommy shouted out: “Your burden! What about your son’s burden? He grew up without a father in a world where everyone spits and throws their garbage at him!”

            Tommy turned to Phillip.

            “You don’t deserve to be treated like this! Come with me and my friends. Your father can’t stop you if you decide to leave.”

            “He’s right Phillip. The enchantment demands that no physical harm come to you, and that you are never imprisoned. If those rules were ever broken, the old enchanter assured me that the kingdom would once again suffer. I beg of you, as your king and as your father, not to leave. Without you Phillip, our kingdom would be lost. Think of all the husbands and sons that you have saved from dying in battle. Think of the peace and prosperity you have brought. You have done more for this land than any king could ever hope to do. Our kingdom has become an example to our neighbors because of your sacrifice, Our people owe everything to you, and would treat you like a hero if they could. Please don’t turn your back on them!”

            Phillip shuffled from foot to foot, and Tommy could see that he was being torn apart by the decision he would have to make.

            Tommy refused to give up.

            “Phillip, you’ve done enough for this kingdom! You deserve to have friends who care about you! If the people here can’t learn to make things right without any magic, then this kingdom is just a lie!”

            After a moment that seemed to wind away into eternity, the king’s son spoke.

            “All my life I’ve dreamed of being loved and respected. I imagined what it would be like to sit on the throne, instead of below it. I have never returned the hatred of these people. I accepted it because I thought it was something I deserved. Now that I know better, I still do not hate them, or you father. I don’t know any life other than this one. If what you both say is true, what could I ever do with my life that could make it more meaningful than it is now? I will stay because my kingdom needs me, and maybe that knowledge alone will be enough to help me endure what must be endured. I wish you well on your journey Thomas, but I cannot join you.”

            And with that, Phillip put on the mask and became Ugilee once again.

            “As part of my return father, I ask that Thomas and his friends be allowed to stay as long as they like, under your protection until they decide to leave.”

            The king answered his masked son, a small grimace of disgust slowly creeping its way across his face. “Yes, of course, now come along then, you’ve already wasted enough valuable time, and I’m going to have to think of something to say to the assembly now, because of you.”

            Tommy walked in silence as the king and his men escorted him and Ugilee back out into the audience hall, where it was announced that since Thomas Matthews of Ohio was a stranger to this land, he should be granted leniency, provided, of course, that he exercised more sensibility in the future. “And, as a gesture of kindness...”, the king added, “we would personally welcome Thomas and his friends to stay as long as they like as guests of the royal palace.”, and with a nod, the king had the guards release Enticus. A murmur of approval went through the crowd, building to applause in recognition of yet another fine display of the wisdom of King Alexander, and when the applause finally died down, the king decreed with a flourish, “Let the closing ceremony begin!”

            After a pause, Ugilee stood up from his seat on the steps and began to sing, the same children’s song that Tommy had heard when he first met the jester, and was almost immediately drowned out by the waves of insults and obscenities shouted at him from the assembled crowd. As the noise rang through the hall, Tommy walked unmolested to where Enticus stood, shouting to be heard above the din of abuse.“Let’s get out of here!”  As they began leaving the hall, Thomas turned back to where Phillip stood, in unwavering song against the fever pitch of taunts and jeers, and waved goodbye.

 

Chapter Eleven - The Flower Sitters

 

flower sitter

 

            It hadn’t been easy for Tommy, Poet, and Enticus to convince their friends to leave Facadia, but as they began to put the city further and further behind them, listening to Thomas tell the story of his time in the dungeon, they all agreed they were better off far away from such a place.

            It was some time before the party entered the edge of the Everwild Forest, and once inside the great wood, travel was slow, but wild game and edible plants were plentiful. The band walked, ate, slept, and sang; and Tommy continued to learn from Enticus the craft and discipline of the warrior, so that the days seemed to pass quickly and quietly under the cool woodland canopy, until one morning when Enticus suddenly called the group to a halt.

             Everyone dismounted, and Shang immediately pulled out his notebook and begin to scribble furiously.

            It was beautiful flower like none of them had ever seen before, almost as tall as Shang, with a brilliant scarlet bloom of five huge petals, each with a single violet shaped marking at its base. The petals folded out around a bright yellow stamen, covered with a riot of small uneven bumps and lumps.

            Fascinated, Tommy made his way up to the flower, pushing his way past its large green leaves, and reached out gingerly to feel the texture of the enormous bloom when a lean figure jumped out from behind the plant, sending Tommy stumbling backward. Half naked and emaciated, the creature looked only vaguely human. It’s pale skin was covered with ugly red blotches, and its hair was a mass of mottled filth, through the creature ran its grimy hands, hands with nails that had grown into jagged, dirt encrusted talons. Through swollen lips, the thing bared its teeth and hissed at Tommy, “Keep away from it! It’s mine! One more step and I’ll tear you apart!”

            Tommy scooted back on the ground, away from the creature whose breath spilled out like rotten fruit as it spoke.“I won’t warn you again! Stay back!”  The thing moved toward Tommy threateningly, its body trembling, flecks of spit flying from its cracked lips.

            “Step no farther!” Shanif called out to the creature, knocking an arrow in his ebony bow.

            Whimpering apprehensively, the thing watched the king with rheumy eyes as Tommy got up and stood next to his friends. “It’s mine,” the creature repeated with a whimper, its energy flagging. Then, while the party closely watched the creature for signs of treachery, the thing parted the petals of the huge flower, and grabbed the stamen, squeezing it until a clear yellow sap flowed from the tip. The pathetic creature put its cracked lips to the stamen, and  began to suck up the fluid. As the thing drank, it’s trembling stopped, and with each additional sip from the stamen, a slow ecstasy crept over the creatures haggard face, softening it like waves washing away footprints on a beach.

            After a few moments, it turned back to look at the party with its glazed eyes, its voice calm and smooth like glass. “It’s mine, don’t you see? It takes care of me, and I take care of it. It takes away the pain.”

            “What pain?” Shang asked tentatively.

            “Why the pain of living of course. I take care of the flower, and it takes care of me in kind. One life for another. A most equitable trade, don’t you agree?”

            “No I do not,” Shang replied. “You are obviously quite sick and need to get help.”

            “And leave my beautiful flower? No I would never do that, could never do that, even if I wanted to. But you could have a flower to take care of! A flower just as lovely as this one, maybe even more lovely! Once you’ve tried its nectar, you’ll know. You’ll understand everything.”

            “Come along everyone,” Enticus said firmly, putting his hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “It’s time we were on our way.”

            As they warily walked their mounts through the forest past the flower tender, the creature calling after them again with the offer of their very own flower, the little band was struck silent. There in a large clearing ahead of them, forming a brilliant canvas of color, were over a hundred of the large flowers, each as beautiful as the one they had left, bobbing in the gentle breeze. Their intoxicating fragrance filled the air, and yet there was a smell hiding in the fragrance, a stench of decay that wormed and slithered under the warm morning air.

            Accompanying almost every plant was a figure in the same state as the flower tender they had left behind. Some drank, each from their own flower, and some slept, curled up around the stems of the enormous blooms. But, around the largest of the flowers, there were no drinkers or sleepers. Instead these mature blossoms sheltered the gray, rotting remains of sitters that now fed the soil of the flowers that had claimed them, and, in places amidst the bones of the long dead, smaller plants had begun to sprout from the soil, flowers that Tommy recognized from the wagon of the plant seller in the streets of Avariston.

 

Chapter Twelve - The Wars of Tarash Syn

 

TARASH SYN

 

            Many days after they passed through the field of the flowers, the little band of adventurers finally reached the edge of the Everwild Forest. It was early in the evening, and everyone was excited. Poet announced that he felt sure they had completed the most difficult part of the journey, and that Dreamhope wasn’t far behind.      As the rest of the party began the work of unpacking their supplies and building that night’s campfire, Tommy and Enticus struck out together to forage for tasty plants to add to the evening meal. During the search for food, the warrior called the boy’s attention over to a small patch of honeygood bushes at the crest of a hill ahead of them. Tommy and Enticus made their way up to the small cluster of bushes and couldn’t believe their eyes. There, in the distance, surrounded by a wild patch of woodland was a single emerald green spire rising up from the trees against the blue line of the southern ocean. Tommy was so excited that he could hardly contain himself.

      “Is it Dreamhope?!”

      “No. It’s war, Thomas,” Enticus replied grimly, pointing down into the valley below them.

 

       There, in the setting of the suns, Tommy could  see the abandoned remains of smoldering campfires, like dim stars winking up at him, from the bowl of the valley which was covered in a dark mist and the milling formations of two armies, one black and the other red. As Tommy watched, the clinking and clanking of the armored battalions died and everything grew still in a long moment of waiting.

            Then the trumpets blared, and the war drums pounded out like hard rain.

            Shouts went up from both sides as the ebony forces raised their banners high and moved out onto the field, their huge riding beetles hissing and droning, and the blood red army rushed to meet them in a banging, clanging symphony of blows played on the instruments of battle that almost overwhelmed Tommy in the sheer, unimaginable chaos of it all.

            It was hard to tell which army had gained the upper hand as the yells and battle cries rose up from the field, mingled with the shriek of steel on shield and flesh. For each swordsman, each beetle rider, each archer that fell to the ground, another seemed to rise up and take his place. On and on, the black and red soldiers fought like insects from a toppled anthill, and as Tommy stared at the struggle, he suddenly had the feeling that his was being watched as well. Squinting his eyes against the setting suns, Tommy looked across the battlefield and could see a large, white tent with a single armored figure standing in front of it. The huge warrior was watching the battle, and watching them, it seemed.

            As the struggle continued to unfold, Tommy observed an offensive of the red beetle cavalry breaking through the ranks of the black foot soldiers, who folded in upon the monstrous insects, hacking and slashing, in an attempt to unseat the riders. Some of the monstrous beetles reared up upon their hind legs, and from their mouths, streamed a sickening spray of green fluid that coated half a dozen of the black warriors, who wailed, blistering smoke rising up from their armor, as the noxious spit ate its way through their flesh.

            Tommy could taste the filthy, acrid smell that rose up from the battlefield, and as he turned his head toward Enticus, to confirm the horrible things they were seeing, he saw the warrior on his feet, wading through black mist that had risen in tendrils from the valley floor, face to face with two soldiers from the armies below. Tommy leapt up to stand beside his friend, brandishing only the wooden practice sword that Enticus had carved for him along their journey, trying to imagine the weapon as an extension of his body, as he’d been told.

 

            In front of Tommy and Enticus, stood two warriors, one black and the other red, from the armies struggling in the valley. Each soldier mimicked the fighting stance of Enticus, and Tommy could see that they not only wore colored armor, but that each creature was tinted from head to toe. When Tommy reached his friend, the black soldier turned towards him, copying his own hesitant stance.

            Tommy looked at the black warrior, a man easily three times his size, and trembled a little. The soldier was as black as if he had been cast from a single ebony ingot into a finely detailed statue that moved quickly and fluidly, his eyes glowing like two tiny coals as he stood motionless, waiting.

            Out of the corner of his eye, Tommy could see the red warrior facing Enticus. It was a mantis like creature that rose up on four thin legs, and it had two spiky forelimbs that held a long,  ax-like weapon with a thin, serrated head. Like its obsidian brother, the mantis appeared to be a living sculpture, only cast from red stone instead of ebony.
The creature’s body, weapon, and the strips of plate armor around its thorax were all shaped out of the same polished scarlet; and its large, compound eyes glowed with an unearthly light.

            Enticus spoke to the pair of soldiers. “We have no quarrel with you. Let us pass, so that we may be on our way.”

            If they heard, the warriors didn’t reply, merely remaining motionless.

            Enticus tried to move around the mantis warrior, away from the rolling edge of the valley, but the crimson soldier moved to block his every step.

            Tommy waited, his mouth dry as he looked up into the expressionless face of the ebony giant in front of him. He tried to breathe as his friend had taught him, deeply from his stomach where the Formicida believed life energy was the strongest. Tommy was terrified, and his grip on the wooden weapon had begun to feel slippery with sweat as he watched Enticus try and make his way past the mantis warrior.

            Enticus moved like fluid lightning, feinting at the thorax of the mantis, and brought the curve of the Tyr blade around to deliver a strike at one of the crimson legs, only to be parried by the large red ax. The mantis warrior’s eyes blazed as it began to press a series of attacks against Enticus, forcing Tommy’s friend back until he stood at the very lip of the hilltop above the warring valley. Thomas shouted and tried to reach Enticus, only to be cut off by the ebony figure’s gleaming blade.

            Using his size to his advantage, Enticus began to focus his attacks on the creature’s belly, until he had drawn a long, deep cut where the thorax of the mantis joined its abdomen. Black ichor poured from the wound, and the red mantis let out an ear piercing screech before lunging at the ant warrior, recklessly swing the ax in long arcs that forced Enticus backward until he tumbled through the honeygood bushes, over the edge of the hilltop, to the valley floor.

            Tommy cried out, swinging the wooden sword with all his might at the jet black warrior in front of him. Eyes flaring briefly, the giant took the huge ebony blade and shattered Tommy’s wooden sword to splinters, knocking the ruined stump out of the boy’s hand. Tommy watched in slow shock as the fiery eyed giant brought the massive long sword up and over his head, beginning the long arc that would cleave Tommy down the middle.  In that fraction of an instant, Tommy stood fixed as the long blade came whistling down, only to stop a hair’s breadth from his upturned face. The boy’s breathing came in shallow gasps as he watched the twin fires of the warrior’s eyes dim. The obsidian figure slowly sheathed his blade and followed his companion down the slope of the hill toward the valley floor. Tommy ran to the cluster of bushes on the edge of the hill and peered over the side.

 

            Hacking and slashing, Enticus was surrounded by black and red soldiers of a dozen different shapes and sizes. In a matter of moments the ant warrior was subdued, and his hands were lashed behind his back with cord.

            Rushing down the hill, Tommy fell halfway down the steep slope and tumbled into the dark mist covering the valley floor. The boy hit the ground with a solid thud and scrambled to his feet, feeling the inky fog cling to his body and drain the warmth from it.

Tommy raced toward his friend, unable to breech the wall of soldiers that surrounded Enticus and ignored the young boy as he ran beside them in their steadfast march. Struggling to keep up with the soldiers, Tommy felt the black mist at his feet ebb and swirl in thick, dark spirals, as if it were alive and reaching out for him, only to dissolve as it touched the warmth of his flesh.

            The soldiers were taking Enticus to the large tent on the edge of the battle, which was still taking place in a riot of muscle and weapons. Tommy followed, ignored by the whooping soldiers who threw themselves at each other in the heedless abandon of their own butchery. Enticus was taken into the large, ivory white pavilion which flapped and snapped in the breeze, and Tommy yelled after his friend just before the tent flaps closed, and the ant warrior’s voice rose out of the tent. “Run Thomas! You must go and warn the others!”

            Tommy continued to run toward the pavilion, his strength leaking from him, until he was able to grip the sides of the tent flaps, which felt firm and smooth, as if they were carved out of some kind of supple bone or ivory. Tommy tumbled through the flap doorway and saw Enticus being held motionless before a large, ivory table covered with maps and writing instruments. Light from a small oil lamp, carved in the shape of a rearing dragon, bathed the inside of the tent in an eerie glow.

            Tommy was immediately scooped up from the floor of the tent by one of the guardsmen who had not even acknowledged him moments before and the boy struggled against the large, gauntleted hands digging into his shoulders, unable to free himself from their grasp. “What do you think they’ll do to us Enticus?” Tommy asked through gritted teeth.

            “I don’t know Thomas, but I venture to say that we’ll find out shortly.”

            No sooner had Enticus finished when the flaps of the tent opened inward and tendrils of the cold, black mist flooded inside, eclipsing the dim twilight of the evening. Slowly, shaping itself from the mist, a figure began to emerge, indefinite at first, from the tall pillar of smoke. A pair of eyes bloomed like hot little spheres of molten iron in the mist, and, in moments, details began to become quietly apparent.

            It was the armored man Tommy had felt watching him from the valley floor.

            Upon his brow sat a great helm in the shape of a dragon’s head with two large horns on either side. Spikes traveled up and down the face of the helmet which ran across the bridge of the man’s nose, and his cheeks, so that the glowing embers of the giant’s eyes ruled his features. The figure’s armor was a massive affair, covered with the same wicked looking spikes that crawled along the helm and made of black scales that undulated slightly, just like the mist that had shaped them.

            The figure spoke, addressing the lead guardsman, with a low, booming laugh.

            “Did you see that Talamas?!”

            Talamas shook his head no.

            “Garash’s infantry unseated Alganzaron himself! Why, he barely had time to shout before his head was taken! You should have seen the look on his face!”

            “Aye m’lord,” Talamas replied.

            “Yes!” the giant figure began again, “Garish and his men have won a spot at the high table of tonight’s victory feast! So, these are the new conscripts eh?”

            “Aye m’lord,” the guardsman repeated, “although the boy has no real skills to speak of and merely followed his comrade who, if I may be so bold, appears to be a quite capable warrior indeed.”

            “Excellent!” the armored figure bellowed. “As for the boy, Talamas, he does show some pluck, not to mention loyalty to his brothers in arms, which are both valuable commodities to be sure. He can learn the finer points of the soldier’s craft later. After all, there is no shortage of able teachers here. Am I correct Talamas?”

            “Aye m’lord.”

            The general let out a laugh that literally filled the air and shook the ground.

            “Always the talkative one, eh Talamas?”

            When the booming roll of the general’s laughter had subsided, Enticus looked straight up at the figure and demanded, “Who are you?” The figure bent down low, so that he was inches away from Enticus, who shivered at the cold that rolled off of the man’s features which shifted slightly as if struggling to maintain their solidity. Whispering to Enticus, hissing like a snake, the figure answered: “I am the voice of Tarash Syn, warrior, and I was ancient before the first queen of your race hid herself deep in the mountains and spilled forth the whole lot of you.”

            And with that, the giant chuckled again, straightening himself, and looked towards Tommy.

            “And you child...I recognize your race, and yet there is something different about you.”

            The giant bellowed with shaking, rumbling laughter again.

            “Ah! How I love new recruits! Surprises and fresh blood, that’s what’s needed, eh Talamas?”

            “Aye m’lord,” the guardsman answered.

            “Aye indeed. Nothing can change the course of a battle like new blood. New ideas, new ways of seeing things; that’s what’s called for. Why there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching a battle unfold, only to take the unexpected turn, the inspired twist. War, at its best, is a fragile game boy. Why, sometimes it only takes a single warrior, the right warrior`, to turn the  tide of combat and pull victory from the jaws of defeat. That’s what I live for boy! The gift of strategy! The genius of battle! Some say that it is merely the anguish and suffering that I feed upon, but they do me no small injustice. Tis true, pain is my pudding, and anger my ale, but I have cultivated a finer palate than that after so many eons, I dare say. Ingenuity, ruthlessness, and ferocity: these things are the gravy that add spice to my sustenance! Talamas, when Alganzaron has finished composing himself, bring the new conscripts to him for training. After today’s rout, I’m sure he’ll appreciate the help.”

            “Aye m’lord,” Talamas replied and left the tent, having his men follow him with Enticus and Tommy in tow, as the laughter from the giant still rang in the air around them.

 

            Across the expanse of swirling black mist, the pair was lead past the shattered remains of soldiers and weaponry: a forest of the fallen, lying in pain and anguish as the dark mist swirled around them in eddies and currents while they moaned. Tommy saw the overturned bodies of the huge war beetles scattered about like cars after a freeway pile up. Through this maze of the broken and battered bodies of a thousand warriors from a hundred races, Enticus and Tommy were lead, until they finally came to a small clearing in the carnage. In front of a black tent, much smaller than the pavilion of Tarash Syn, there sat a man with two attendants on each side, holding him by the ears.

            Tommy watched in disbelief as the two soldiers began to twist the seated man’s head in impossible, improbable, directions. Each turn was accompanied by the slick, wet crackle of bone and gristle, until finally, the figure raised his hands to brush away the attendants. The soldiers stepped back, and Tommy could clearly see the wide, glazed eyes of the man’s face, his jaw hanging slackly and his tongue lolling out. Then slowly, Tommy could see the black mist all around them swirl and condense around the seated man, caressing him like a lover, until the gash where the man’s head had been severed slowly knitted itself back together. The man’s eyes began to clear and  blink, while Tommy watched the jaws slowly close, forcing the tongue back into its hiding place.

            Tommy looked at Enticus in shock, and the warrior motioned his head to the bodies all around them. It was happening everywhere. Around every mangled body, every severed limb, every broken weapon, the black mist danced and swirled until everything broken was made whole again.

            “It looks worse than it feels.”

            The voice snapped Tommy’s head back to the once headless figure, now standing, who addressed them in the light of the tent’s two braziers.

            “I am Alganzaron, field marshal of the black.”

            Enticus replied evenly, “You look well for a man who was just beheaded.”

            At that, Alganzaron chuckled; it was a dry sound, like a handful of sand thrown across a floor. “Indeed. You’re new to the plain of Tarash Syn. As you’ll soon find out, death does not exist here, or mayhap, it’s life that doesn’t exist here. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two.”

            The field marshal eyed the two at length.

            “Well, I could use another Formicida,” Alganzaron said, nodding towards Enticus. “Your people are fine warriors, especially in groups. And as for you boy, I would rather you have joined us ten years from now, but then again, it has been a long time since I had a squire to run my errands, such as they are.”

            The field marshal instructed Talamas to cut Enticus’s bonds, and after the captain did as he was instructed, Enticus flexed his hands and fingers to ease the stiffness that had set in.

            “What kind of place is this?” Tommy asked.

            With a sigh, the field marshal answered, “Boy, this is Tarash Syn, and it’s not a place, it’s a nightmare, and you are standing right in the belly of it. I’ve fought here for two hundred years if it’s been a day, and, no doubt, I’ll fight for two hundred more. The pair of you look like you need some rest. I’m afraid, tonight, the accommodations are poor at best. The finer quarters are reserved for this day’s victors,” the marshal commented, gesturing toward the ivory tent of Tarash Syn which had suddenly grown to four times its previous size. Tommy could see the glow of many lamps as they threw celebrating shadows on the inside of the tent walls to the tune of raucous laughter, revelry, and music.

            “Cassius,” Alganzaron commanded his aide, “give each one of these two a sleeping roll and whatever passes for rations this evening, probably stale bread judging from the way we fought today. Tarash Syn plans to move on to the southern keep of Karilesh tomorrow evening. I want these two rested up so that when we skirmish in the morning, they’ll die on their feet. After we’re through with the keep, we should have plenty more where they came from. Perhaps I’ll even get some real warriors so that I can thrash Garish and his red army! “

            Alganzaron raised his voice so that it filled the camp, “Do you hear that, you dogs?” A general grumble went up among the troops. Alganzaron sighed, speaking to himself, “It’s no wonder we didn’t beat Garish today, lackluster bunch of dung beetles, that’s what they are.”

            “Well then,” the field marshal addressed Cassius again, “see to these two and kill them if they try to escape of course. No point in tying them down. I’m sure that even the miserable hyenas in my army can keep one Formicida and a young boy from walking away.” That being said, Alganzaron wheeled around and shouted to his lieutenants to accompany him to his tent, and Tommy watched the field marshal disappear as if he were walking into the night itself.

 

            Tommy and Enticus were led to one of the hundred or so campsites that  ringed the field marshal’s tent and were instructed to enjoy the fire’s meager warmth until their bedrolls were brought. Across the fire from the pair were two warriors who introduced themselves as Caladin, a human adult, and Graxthulu, a mantis warrior like the one Tommy saw attack Enticus at the lip of the valley, although he was the of the same ebony color as the rest of the soldiers in these camps.

            “So, you two are new to Tarash Syn, eh? Tell us, how goes it in the world outside? How does the kingdom of Karath fare these days?”

            Enticus replied flatly, “I have never heard of such a kingdom.”

            Caladin dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

            “It’s just as well, I suppose. It’s been a long time since I left, and it ‘s probably leagues away from here anyway. Syn seldom tells us grunts where he’s headed, or what his plans are. I doubt if any of my family are still alive anymore since I left my wife Marta, poor young thing, without a child.”

            “How long have you been gone from home?” Tommy asked.

            Caladin tilted his head to the side thoughtfully.

            “Hmmpph. Don’t know exactly, fifty years maybe.”

            “You sure don’t look that old,” Tommy answered back.

            “No one here ages lad,” Caladin answered dryly. “And no one here dies either. We hack each other to bits for Syn’s amusement, and, at the end of the fight, we pick up those bits and put ourselves back together.”

            “But how’s that possible?!” Tommy exclaimed.

            “Tarash Syn makes it possible,” Caladin replied coldly.

            “Is he some sort of powerful spell caster then?” Enticus asked. “Is this all the result of magic?”

            “Tarash Syn not  a man!” the mantis warrior interjected, its forearms flailing wildly. “Tarash Syn everywhere! Tarash Syn, the food we eat! Tarash Syn, the fire we sit by! Tarash Syn the air we breathe! Tarash Syn, the reason we fight! Tarash Syn...”

            Caladin broke in, “You’ll have to excuse him friends. Grax gets a little excited on the subject as you can see. The man you met in the ivory tent is just one tiny piece of Syn. It’s through him that Syn makes his wishes known. I guess we’re all bits of Syn really. It’s Syn that keeps us alive and fighting.”

            “But why?” Tommy asked.

            “Because lad, that’s what Tarash Syn feeds on. Fear, strife, and anger; that’s what Syn eats, eh Grax?”

            “Tarash Syn, the reason we fight!”  the mantis warrior gibbered.

            “You see lad,”Caladin began again, “we were bound to Syn the first time we died in his clutches, and we can never escape.”

            “But for now, you’d better get some rest, and us too, I’m afraid. The generals don’t seem to need sleep anymore, but us grunts still do. You’ll find the answers to all your questions in the morning. Tomorrow we’ll be on the move again, and Syn doesn’t  wait for anyone or anything. It’ll be a long journey, I hear tell, but time’ll pass quickly enough with a red soldier at your throat.”

            Caladin lay down on his bedding and Grax pulled his forearms against his body, lowering himself to the ground.

 

            Soon, Cassius came and tossed Tommy and Enticus two bedrolls. The pair undid the thick mats at the edge of the fire’s light, and after they lay there for several moments, Enticus whispered so that only Tommy could hear him.

             “Rest for now Thomas. In a few hours we will try to escape when the others are asleep. We must not die here or we’ll be doomed like the rest of these sad creatures. Promise me that you’ll do everything you can to break free of this place and find the others no matter what happens to me.”

            “I can’t leave without you Enticus,” Tommy replied, his voice rising slightly.

            “Shhhh. Don’t worry Thomas, I have no wish of serving with these damned souls. Now get some rest, and we’ll try and sneak away from this place before the dawn arrives.”

            Tommy gazed up at the alien sky, just as he had done the first night he arrived in this strange world, and wondered what the new day would bring. Although they had not spoken of it, Tommy knew that this battlefield was the one he had seen in his vision the first time he held the crystal in his hands. His only thoughts were on the safety of his friend and teacher until sleep finally carried him away in its soft, dark arms.

 

Chapter Thirteen - The Death of Anticus

 

tarash dragon

 

            Tommy awoke to a light tapping on his shoulder.

            “Thomas, it’s time to go,” Enticus whispered.

            Tommy sat up, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

            Quickly and quietly, Enticus helped the boy to his feet, and they both made their way through the dull glow that was beginning to creep through the sky, whispering that dawn was not far off. All around the pair, there slept hundreds of soldiers, dozing in circles around their dying fires.

            As you can imagine, there was barely enough light to see by, and Tommy and Enticus walked around the snoring, snorting bodies knowing that a single false step would be their undoing. Slowly and surely, the two friends made their way toward the edge of the black camp. The ebony mist that had threatened to drown Tommy the day before was still and  quiet like the surface of a deep lake, as if it too were sleeping. They had passed the last straggling campsites when they saw a row of several guards spaced along the edge of the valley floor, their backs toward the mist choked encampment. The guards stood along the very edge of the mist that was a part of them, just as they were a part of it.

            Enticus motioned Tommy to hunker down in the cool dark fog.

            “Thomas, we must find a way past those sentries. I’m going to create a diversion. When you see a chance, run as fast as you can up the hillside. I’ll be right behind you.”

            “But Enticus!” Tommy whispered.

            “Do as I tell you Thomas! This is our only chance!”

            Stunned by the harshness in the warrior’s voice, the boy nodded silently.

            “Get ready Thomas,” Enticus whispered, and then he turned round back the way they had come.

            Tommy lay face down in the mist, the thick feel of it threatening to choke him, and his heart hammered in his chest. Suddenly, an eruption of noise came up from the camp: “To arms, to arms!”

            The guards wheeled around to face Tommy, still hiding in the mist, and rushed past him as the cries of “Sneak attack! Sneak Attack!”  rose through the air.

            Tommy could hear the clash of arms right behind him and he turned his head to look back. He saw one of the monstrous riding beetles, as big as a car, running amok through the groggy campsites of the black soldiers. Tommy could see Enticus, his Tyr blade dripping with ichor, on the back of the huge insect, thrusting his blade behind the creature’s head and sending it into a frenzy of destruction. Everywhere the creature went, it wildly squirted streams of acid that fell everywhere in hissing splatters and blobs. Tommy ran toward the hillside as a football sized glob of putrid corrosive landed next to him, searing the ground beneath the dark mist with its burning kiss.

Savoring the feel of real dew and grass, Tommy hit the bottom of the hillside and was happy to be free of the awful clamminess of the black mist of Tarash Syn. Tommy had climbed halfway up the slope when he turned to look for Enticus and saw the huge overturned carcass of the war beetle, surround by the fallen bodies of soldiers who had finally brought it down.

            “Enticus!” Tommy cried out. “Enticus!”

            No one answered, and Tommy could not tell his friend from the hundreds of other broken bodies, half shrouded in the black fog that surrounded the fallen riding beetle.

 

            I don’t think I need to tell you that Tommy was afraid. He knew that if he went back down into the valley, he might never escape again. But despite what Enticus had told him, and despite his fear, Tommy couldn’t leave his friend behind.

            He just couldn’t.

            Tommy raced back down the slope, avoiding the still smoldering pools of green acid, until he stood in the aftermath of the ant warrior’s plan. His eyes darted quickly among the bodies, which even now, had begun to repair themselves in the swirl and flow of the awakening mist.

            “Enticus!”

            Tommy heard his name croaked out from somewhere in front of him. “Here, Thomas! I’m here!”

            Tommy rushed toward the voice, tripping over the smoking bodies of soldiers, until he finally came to his friend. Tommy kneeled down in the mist, sobbing. Enticus’s entire left side was horribly burned, his exoskeleton pitted, eaten away in places, and leaking clear fluid. “Thomas...” Enticus moaned, “Don’t let me die here, I can feel the mist waiting. It’s waiting for me to die.”

            “Don’t worry, you’re not going to die!” Tommy cried out. The boy put his friend’s arm around his shoulder and began to drag the wounded warrior toward the hillside, the sounds of black troops rushing to the source of the commotion echoing behind him. Tommy struggled with each step forward through the clinging mist, and listened to the moans rise from the fallen soldiers around him as the fog breathed life back into them.

            “Just a few more steps Enticus!”

            Tommy literally fell into the hill, dragging his friend, who cried in pain.

            “We’re going to make it,” Tommy whispered as he clawed his way into the soft earth of the hillside with his free hand. He inched his way up the slope, everything else forgotten. There was no Dreamhope.There was no Tarash Syn.

            There was only the slow, crawling, clawing, and grasping climb up the hill.

            Suddenly, through the veil of his exhaustion, Tommy felt hands grab his arms.

            “No. No. Let me go. You can’t have him,” Tommy mumbled, gripping Enticus even tighter as he felt himself pulled up.

            “Actually, I don’t really want him, my young friend,” Lyre quipped.

            Tommy couldn’t believe his ears, and looked up through dirt caked eyes to see the thief and Shang kneeling over him.

            “We were worried we’d never see either of you again Thomas!” the scholar grunted as he helped pull Tommy and Enticus to the top of the hill. “We looked everywhere for you! Last night, after the battle, Shanif even confronted two drunken red soldiers and asked if anyone had seen the two of you. They pretended not to have any idea about what we were talking about, refused to let us see their commander, and then threatened everyone!”

            “I’ll say one thing for our friend Shanif though,” Lyre added. “He’s no fool. The king knew that those two bullies were lying through their teeth, and he had us split up, and then sneak around, looking for some sign of the two of you.”

            Tommy barely heard his friends. Using the last scrap of his will, he gently pushed the helpful hands away and grabbed the unscarred arm of Enticus, who now lay bleeding beside him.

            “Enticus, Enticus! You’re safe now.”

            “Thomas,” the warrior groaned, so softly that Tommy had to bend over him to hear, “thank you for saving me from that terrible place.”

            “It’s alright Enticus. It’s alright,” the boy replied.

            “Thomas. I want you to keep my Tyr blade when I die.”

            “No Enticus! You’re not going to die, don’t say that!”

            There was no reply, only the faint, faltering hitch of the warrior’s shallow breath.

            “Enticus! Pleas don’t go!”

            Tommy lay over the body of the warrior and cried for his friend, and for his father, because, in that brief moment, they were both one and the same.

 

            “Thomas!” Lyre cried out in horror.

            Tommy wiped the tears from his eyes and followed Lyre’s finger to the valley below. Beneath them, the sounds of battle raged as the black and red armies fought again, one color seeking to overcome the other for all eternity, on the fog shrouded valley floor. As Tommy watched, the misty battlefield began to rise up as if a black mountain was slowly pushing its way out and away from the grassy floor of the valley. The armies continued to struggle, heedless of the change that was taking place, until Tommy could no longer see anything of the battle at all. Instead, there was only an enormous cloud of the black that blotted out the gray dawn.  Tommy watched the dense thunderhead fill the horizon, its bulk lit up with bright flashes of lightning. As the billowy shaped grew and turned, Tommy could see the armies once more, a thousand soldiers warring upside down on the underside of the cloud. The thunderhead rose up into the sky over his head until Tommy could see the entire battlefield as if he were in an airplane looking down upon it. Changes were taking place in the dark, shifting mass.

            Claws emerged from the darkness and scraped the sky.

            Wings sprouted from the black and enfolded the hilltop.

            A tail grew from the ebony and disappeared into the distance.

            And at the end of a neck as long as a freight train, and as black as murder, sat the head of a dragon. Swinging down from the sky, the monster’s head plunged down at Tommy and his friends as if it meant to gobble them up in a single bite, which it could have done easily. Instead, the dragon’s snout stopped a few yards from where Tommy knelt next to the body of Enticus. Tommy could see the full length of the dragon’s spiked head bubbling and boiling. Its eyes raged like balls of lightning in its skull as ragged bolts of energy jittered and ripped throughout the darkness that made up the dragon’s body. Tommy watched as the monster’s lips peeled back in a smoky sneer, exposing dark teeth, each one as big as a man. The dragon looked down on Enticus, its nostrils widening as it sniffed the air for something unseen. With a long, low boom that Tommy could feel in his chest, the monster uttered a single phrase:

            “What a pity.”

            Slowly, the colossal bulk of the dragon turned and wheeled away from the dawn. Tommy watched the monster go and trembled. He was still able to see the writhing, struggling mass of warriors on the dragon’s underbelly as it passed overhead, blotting out the sky until, finally, the creature was nothing but a dark blemish in the distance.

            Tommy looked to his friends and saw Lyre down on the ground, hands over his head, his face pressed against the grass. Shang stood frozen, his unopened notebook and a pencil still clutched in one hand.

            “What...what was it Thomas?” the scholar asked haltingly.

            “Tarash Syn,” Tommy whispered.

 

            Now, in case some of you were wondering, Enticus was not dead.

            But, the possibility of him dying was very real and very close at hand.

             As I may have mentioned before, the future is like a snake, twisting and turning from one possibility to the next. If Enticus’s comrades were going to grab control of the future and save their friend’s life, they would have to act quickly and wisely.

            Because, like a snake, sometimes the future can kill.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen - Dreamhope

                       

THE POETS FLUTE

 

            Genoa turned up from the dressings, her hands dripping with mint scented salve. “He still lives, but my craft is not enough to keep him alive much longer. We’ll have to carry him,” Genoa said. “He’d never survive the ride over.”

            “So be it,” Poet replied. “Your husband and the others have almost completed the litter. If we can get Enticus to Dreamhope quickly enough, the city’s power may yet be able to save his life.”

            And so it was that the little band carried the body of their fallen friend over the gentle slopes to the far glistening of the emerald spire, taking turns bearing the litter, and moving as fast as they dared. Now that the end of their quest now close at hand, Tommy was able to push the thoughts of his injured friend away for a moment and call his mother’s face to his mind. Tommy had beckoned that face before to his thoughts many times during the past months, and, each time, it seemed harder and harder to remember. He wondered if he would ever be able to touch his mother’s face again and began to feel empty, as if everything inside him had been poured out and allowed to seep into the ground.

            As the gentle slopes began to fall off, Tommy noticed that the grass had given way to smooth bits of red stone, broken and cracked in a thousand places like a sheet of pock marked glass that was fighting a losing battle with the weeds and flowers that struggled to reclaim their earth. “It’s a road!” the boy exclaimed.

            “The road to Dreamhope,” Poet added.

            That simple statement raised the spirits of everyone, and Tommy could feel the emptiness leave his limbs as his heart race with excitement. In minutes, they had reached the top of a broad slope, and were able to see more of the city, nestled in the large grove of trees that threatened to overcome it. Beside the tallest emerald spire, which rose so high that it seemed to scratch the clouds, were other towers the likes of which many of them had ever seen before, long and graceful, with no windows of any kind and pointed tops like crystals.

            It was as if the city had simply grown from the leafy green loam of the treetops. And as they stared, a quiet shaft of sunlight broke through the cloudy gray ceiling of the sky and struck the topmost tower of the city, setting it alight with a warm  glow that reached into all of their hearts with a fire of promise that Tommy had never felt before in his entire life.

            “Dreamhope,” Shanif whispered in awe.

            “It’s beautiful,” Genoa replied.

            And both Lyre and Shang agreed with a nod of their heads, huffing and puffing, as they carried the wooden litter.

            “Keep moving everyone,” Poet remarked. “There’s not much time to waste.”

 

            When they reached the gates of the fabled city, which shone like glass (even under the dull gray sky), Poet gestured for the party to stop.

            A creature had emerged from the woods to block their path to the doorway. Easily a dozen feet tall, the gaunt skeletal figure stood in front of them, dressed in tattered clothes and a suit of plate armor that was corroded and pitted with the rust of untold ages. Through its ghastly rictus grin, the giant hissed at them, sending chills down their spines.

            “Leave here. Only death awaits you here, for this is a city of the dead.”

            Taking  two huge steps towards Poet, the ghoul brandished its huge, double headed ax menacingly and repeated its warning.

            “Leave here. Death awaits you here.”

            Shanif knocked a blood red arrow from the quiver on his back and knocked it in his bow.

            “Hold everyone,” Poet said loudly. “Let me attend to this.”

            Poet walked up to the ghoulish giant, and, without a trace of hesitation, the monster took its ax and struck at the musician. Everyone in the party cried out in alarm until they realized that the ax had passed completely through Poet and had done him no harm. Poet continued walking right through the giant as if it were a ghost, passing through the phantasm until he was hidden from the party’s view.

            “Leave here. Only death awaits you here, for this is a city of the dead,”   the skeletal warrior bellowed again. But this time, Tommy could sense that something was wrong with the creature. Its voice had begun to slow as if it were a toy in which the batteries had run down. Then, quite unexpectedly, the giant’s body blinked once and  was gone, leaving Poet in plain sight at the front of the city gates, his hand on one of a series of small bumps that made up an ornate pattern on the doors.

            “Come my friends,” Poet reassured them. “It was a mere trick to keep away intruders. A phantasm and nothing more.”

            “Intruders?” Shanif questioned.

            “Fear not, my Lord,” Poet replied. “You are all honored guests here.”

            “Poet,” Lyre asked suspiciously, “just what have you been hiding from us all this time?”

            “All your questions will be answered Lyre, I promise you, I promise all of you.”

That said, Poet pulled his flute out from his hiding place in his robe and began to play a series of notes that were not really a song, but did have a certain structure and form to them. No sooner had the last note flittered out, then the emerald doors swung in noiselessly, and Poet motioned them all to follow him inside.

            Dreamhope’s entry hall was huge, and its walls glowed dimly with the light from outside. The air smelled stale as the little group made their way into the hall, the floor erupting into tiny storms of dust at their feet. Once they were inside, the huge crystalline doors swung silently closed behind them, leaving wedge shaped paths in the dust covered floor. A tangible excitement flowed through the adventurers, and the filtered light from the walls allowed Tommy to see a zoo of shapes and shadows in the room, but no details of any kind.

            Poet began to play his flute again, and the hall hummed in response until it burst into light .

            And what a magnificent sight it was!

            Even the dust of untold ages could not hide the beauty of the dozens of sculptures and carvings that decorated the hall: a mixture of abstracts, figure busts, and panoramas of every size. As Tommy looked closer, each frozen figure and carefully carved bust,  proclaimed that Poet was a member of these people.

            In the midst of all that finery, Tommy and Shanif quickly exchanged places with Lyre and Shang at the ends of the litter, while Poet continued to lead the band through the hall.  As they walked, the group passed under ceiling murals of strange animals that seemed carved into the very substance of the crystalline ceiling itself; giving off their own golden light. Past a dozen doorways, Poet led them on until they reached the end of the hall.

            Before the adventurers stood another set of  heavy doors, embossed with a figure, robed and wizened, cradling a baby, which reached out with one pudgy, carved hand to touch the face of the old man. Poet followed the gaze of his friends and replied: “This carving represents knowledge, the future reaching out to the past which holds it dear.” Pushing open the carved doors with a single hand, Poet led them inside the next room, playing another eerie tune on his flute which brought light to the room, just as it did in the hall.

            When Tommy’s eyes adjusted to the light, his attention was drawn to a series of huge black marble tables, surrounded by chairs of the same dark stuff, before Poet’s voice told them what the purpose of this room was.

            “Shang, my friend, this is the library of Dreamhope. The knowledge of countless generations is stored here.”

            It was enormous. From the floor to the ceiling were stacked shelf upon shelf of books, books, and more books, rising up so high that Tommy had to crane his neck toward the ceiling, where the tomes on the top shelves became mere specks, just to see them all.

            Shang eagerly, but gingerly, as if he was afraid it might come alive, pulled a book from one of the shelves and opened it. The scholar nearly dropped the book in surprise. From out of its pages floated the ghostly image of Poet, or more accurately, one of Poet’s people, speaking in a language that Tommy couldn't understand. Slowly, the ghostly face disappeared and was replaced by a tiny translucent image of Dreamhope itself.

            “It’s a book about the city!” Shang exclaimed.

            “Yes,” Poet replied. “I promise you Sir Scholar, that you will have the rest of your life, if you wish, to consult this library, but for now we must hurry, for Enticus grows weaker and weaker by the moment. Please, everyone follow me.”

            Poet continued to hurry them through half a dozen more rooms, each more wonderful than the one before it, and everywhere they went, Poet’s flute sang, and each room awakened to its call. As another long hall sprang to light, Tommy could see row upon row of statues. Life size carvings in gold veined marble lined the walls and depicted figures dressed in diverse costumes, carrying symbols of their accomplishments in the form of scepters, swords, or scrolls.  Taking quick note of Tommy’s fascination, Poet put a hand on the boy’s shoulder as they walked. “This is the hall of heroes, Thomas, and it is filled with kings and queens; warriors and writers; and architects and artists. All of those who made my world better by their presence in it can be found here” When they reached the end of the hall, Tommy asked Poet about the empty pedestals on either side of them.

            “There is always room in the world for heroes, Thomas, and these empty spaces are reserved for those yet to be.”

            “Just how long have you lived here Poet?” Lyre asked.

            Poet merely smiled and opened the next set of doors.

 

            They entered a circular chamber in which a loud humming could be heard from all sides. The room was completely empty, and Tommy saw a pattern on the floor quite clearly under a single bright light set in the ceiling; a series of five golden rings set into the black stone, each one appearing to be woven together like the tendrils of a vine. Beginning along the outside of the wall, each ring grew smaller in size until they led to  a single golden circle in the center of the floor.

            Unlike all the other rooms, Tommy noticed that Poet had not played his flute to bring this room to life. It was already bustling with light and sound. The walls of the domed room were alive it seemed. Set into the sides of  the room, flashing in fits and starts, were round gemstones, each one the size of a baseball, and all a different color.

            Poet turned round and reached out his hand to Tommy.

            Pulling himself away from the lights, which had begun to bother him a little, Tommy looked at Poet’s outstretched hand, slow understanding creeping over him.

            “The blue crystal! It belongs here, doesn’t it?!”

            “Yes Thomas. Haital was one of us. For his anger, his hatred, his lust for power, we imprisoned him in the tower you saw. But, he had managed to steal a component of this room, one with which he hoped to escape. Haital’s misuse of the crystal ripped his entire prison away from the city and sent him traveling unchecked, throughout the vastness of the universe.”

            Tommy and Shanif gingerly lowered the body of Enticus to the ground, and the boy undid the small clamps of his father’s lunch box and reached for the cool blue of the gemstone that flashed and flared in his hands. He held it out to Poet, and...

                                   

            Tommy saw a pair of running, laughing children, running down the emerald green passages, through the hall of heroes, nearly knocking over Lyre, who stood in front of a single statue at the end of the hall.

             “Now children, you know better than to run in here!”

             “But uncle Lyre,” the little boy exclaimed. “We mustn’t miss the delegation!”

             “Yes,” his sister bubbled. “They’ll be here any second!”

             As the children continued to rush down the hall, Tommy saw a stranger walk up behind Lyre.  “Admiring your work, master sculptor? You truly do have a gift for breathing life into stone.”

            “No,” Lyre replied wistfully. “Nothing like that. I was merely thinking of an old friend.”

            And just before Tommy was swept on the wings of his vision after the running children, he saw himself mirrored in stone before the graying sculptor and the stranger, his hand held out as if presenting the carved globe it held to all those passing by.

            On and on the the boy and girl ran, Tommy following behind them with his sight as if he were a bird, through the library, past Shang and the other scholars who all bid the children to please hush (and be careful about running in the halls too)!

            Throwing open the doors to the main hall, the children jumped outside into the warm summer air, onto the main thoroughfare of what had become a bustling city, a city as grand and as gorgeous as there ever was, or ever would  be.

            Past the guards and the trumpeters, whose instruments had begun to blare so loudly that the children put their hands to their ears, the boy and girl ran to the three figures facing an enormous cheering crowd. From above, Tommy watched as Shanif and Genoa, king and queen, turned back to smile at their children before facing the crowd which had begun to roar its approval. And as the children rushed to stand between their parents, Tommy saw a familiar figure who had been hidden from sight in front of the royal couple.

            It was Enticus!

            Dressed in polished ceremonial armor, his body scarred but whole, the warrior stepped forward and walked the channel cleared by the royal guard, wearing their finest parade dress, through the applauding sea of citizens.

            The procession of Formicida delegates, bearing the standard of Queen Constantine, met Enticus in the middle of  the path, and the warrior threw his arms around each one of his brothers and sisters before he led the representatives to meet the King and Queen of Dreamhope. Then...

                                                                       

            Tommy saw Poet smile and pull back his hand, holding the fading blue globe within it.

            Poet walked over to a side of the circular room and placed the blue crystal sphere into a single empty cavity. Once inside the hole, the blue stone glowed brilliantly, and was soon mimicked by the other gems lining the walls, until the circular hall was filled with the rainbow wash of a hundred different colors.

            In amazement, Tommy watched as a dozen red globes leapt from their spaces in the wall and rushed through the air to hover above the litter carrying his friend.

Dancing and whirling around the litter until it  rose into the air, the red spheres whisked Enticus away through the double crystalline doors, out of sight of the party.

            “Will he be alright?” Genoa asked Poet with concern.

            It was Thomas, his head still thrumming with the vision he’d seen, who answered the healer.

            “He’s going to be okay.”

            Poet walked to the center of the hall and stood upon the golden disc. Taking the crystal flute out from the pocket of his robe once more, the musician placed the emerald instrument in a small hole in the middle of the circle on the floor. Tommy stifled an urge to cry out as the flute slid noiselessly into the hole, and Poet  blinked out of existence.

            After Poet disappeared, the lights inside the room grew even brighter and bolder, and the musician’s voice filled the entire hall.

            “Welcome my friends. I have waited a long time for you. I am Planetary Occupant and Environment Tender number twelve, caretaker of the outpost that you call Dreamhope. My fathers and mothers came from a world far away and built many such camps as this one. These facilities were built to study, to observe, and, perhaps someday, to guide the younger races my people discovered.”

            “You mean, you're a computer?” Tommy gasped in disbelief.

            “As you understand it, Thomas, yes,” the voice replied.

            “I am artificial, created with the ability to think and to reason of my own accord, but my fathers and mothers were noble people who programmed me with their values and their hopes. However, not all of the people in my care were benevolent. The one you knew as Haital  believed it was my people’s right to rule this world and take whatever they needed from it. For his aggression and his ambition, Haital was to be confined until he could be taken back to our home world. However, he had managed to smuggle the city’s blue orb with him before he was locked in his tower prison. Haital hoped that the crystal could help him escape, but his plan failed with horrible results, and his tower was doomed to roam the cosmos. When the blue orb was lost, my people had no way to return home, or even contact their fellows. They eventually left this place to explore the world that was now their home, leaving me as caretaker upon their return. At first, my people came back often and consulted with my library, even though, with the loss of the crystal, my functions were limited. As the months became years, and the years became eons, these visits became more and more rare until I never saw any of my people alive ever again.”

            “But then how did Haital survive?” Shang asked.

            “The blue orb does not have the power to extend life, but it can, under certain conditions, ‘pause’ life. Through the crystal, space and time can be twisted so that objects, people, and even thoughts, may move in and around these barriers. I believe that Haital slept in “pockets of time” where his body was protected from the passage of the years around him. I also believe that, through the crystal, Haital saw Thomas and a chance to stop moving and escape.”

            Tommy’s flesh grew cold as he thought back to the pincers in Haital’s hands, pulling and tugging on the back his mouth.

            “Thomas, the condition that your people refer to as “epilepsy” is a great power that, when harnessed, enables your mind to create its own type of gateway. Through your seizure, Haital was able to pull you here to this world, the world that Haital, in his madness, failed to realize was the very place from which his wandering started.”         

            The boy listened to the voice around him, trying to understand everything that he was being told. “Was it really my dad’s voice I heard, telling me to find Dreamhope?” Tommy asked.

            “Perhaps. As I said Thomas,” the voice of Poet responded, “the crystal can help overcome many barriers.”

            “Is that why you joined us,” Lyre remarked a little sourly, “just so that you could rescue that  precious orb of yours?”      

             “No Lyre,” the voice replied. “ I did not even know of Haital’s return until I sensed Tommy’s arrival on this world. The friend that you all knew as Poet was an energy construct, devised by my fathers and mothers to allow me to interact with them more efficiently inside these halls. During my years of isolation, I created a device, in the shape of a flute, that gave me enough substance to leave the outpost. My purpose was a simple one; to find a new community, and fill my halls with life again. I have lamented that I would never hear the laughter of children, never sense the excitement of celebration, or feel the tread of footsteps on my floors ever again. I was an empty house. A thing without joy, without sadness, and without all the other things that make up a life, that make up a home. I was alone. That was the reason I helped escort you here. Shanif and Genoa, I offer you a new kingdom. Shang, I offer you knowledge beyond imagining and the wisdom to use it. Lyre, I offer you the chance to unlock your greater potential. Thomas, I offer you a choice: you may live here among friends, in a place where your weakness can be channeled into strength, or I can return you to your own world.

 

            Do I really need to tell you what Tommy’s decision was?

            Without a pause, a hitch, or a second thought, Tommy replied:

            “All I want, is to get back to my mom.”

            “I understand,” Poet’s voice answered. “If that is what you wish, you can go back to your world right now Thomas.”

            Tommy felt the excitement tingle through him like a wild surge. He was going home!

            But, although Tommy knew where he belonged, as he looked into the faces of his friends, he began to feel a little sad. He would miss the band of travelers with whom he had shared such a fantastic adventure with. Taking each of them by the hand, Tommy said his goodbyes, one by one. Tommy wished them all well, smiling inside at the thought that, if his vision was not altered, they would find happiness here.

            Directed by Poet’s voice, Tommy walked toward the circle in the room’s center.

            He took two steps and then stopped.

            Tommy turned toward Shang and asked to borrow his notebook, and on one of the blank pages of the thick journal, the boy wrote carefully: Goodbye Enticus. I will always remember you. Tommy told Shang to give the note to the warrior when Enticus was well enough, and then stepped upon the golden disc and took a deep breath.

            “Poet, I’d like to go home now.”

           

 

                                                                        Chapter Fifteen - A Journey Home

 

 

            The lights around Tommy began to dance, slowly filling the room with blinking, dancing light. As the rhythm increased, Tommy felt his senses begin to crawl toward overload, as if a huge electrical storm was brewing in his head, until he finally felt himself slide into darkness.  As Tommy drifted away, he could hear a voice speak to him and say, “You did good Tom.”

            Tommy felt that he was on the verge of finding out if the voice really belonged to his father when he suddenly found himself racing up out of the darkness to a dim light, which grew brighter and brighter with every moment until...

            “Kid! Hey kid! Are you okay?”

            Tommy blinked once, and looked up into the source of this new voice.

            “Hey man, are you okay?”

            Staring back at him, with a look of surprise, was a bearded face and long brown hair pulled into a ponytail. The clerk’s name tag read “Matt”. Tommy put his palms to his eyes and gazed around him. He looked at his clothes, the morning light that bathed the shelves, and the child’s organ on the floor next to him. All the while, his head began to roll over the same thought  again and again:The toy store. I’m back in the toy store.        

            “Kid,” Matt said. “I think you need to get back to your parents.”

 

            Did Tommy really go to the city of Dreamhope?

            Some of you might think that the quest for Dreamhope was just something that happened in Tommy’s imagination. “Why it’s all very simple,” you say. ”Right after Tommy had his seizure, he just fell asleep without realizing it and dreamt the whole thing!” 

            Maybe you’re right, but I think you’ll agree that dreams can be powerful things.

            Some dreams, if you believe in them hard enough, can even come true.

            At least,that was the thought on Tommy’s mind when he jammed the last box from his room into the already stuffed back of the yellow rent-a-truck.

            As his mother came around from the driver’s side, she brushed the dirt from the front of her faded blue jeans and gave her son a smile. “Is that it Tommy? Last load, y’know.”

            “Yeah mom, I think that’s it.”

            “Okay then, into the truck, sport!” Tommy’s mother pulled down the heavy rear door with a loud, sliding clack as her son raced to the front of truck and hopped into the passenger seat, closing the door behind him.  After buckling himself in, Tommy fished through his pockets until he found what he was looking for.

             Jennifer plopped down in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition, breathing mechanical life into the truck. “Now you’re sure you've got everything packed and on board right? There’s no turning back now, y’know.”

            Tommy looked at the smooth river stone, vibrating slightly with the engine’s rumble, in his cupped palm and felt the warmth trickling from it as it glowed, ever so slightly, in his hand.

            “Yeah mom. I’ve got everything I need,” he smiled.

            And as the van pulled away from his old house, out into the street, Tommy knew that it was good to be home.

 

                                                                      THE END  

 

 

A JOURNEY HOME

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Header