“Bobby!” Sheila screamed as the air elemental swallowed her little brother, from his horned helmet to his furry boots. It swelled across the grass. Uni bleated and kicked, but her hooves had no more effect than had the barbarian’s club.
The sunny meadow had delighted them all when they’d first stepped out of the forest. Halfway across, they were under attack.
“This is crazy!” Eric raised his shield between Presto and the looming water elemental, while Presto pulled a roll of paper towels out of his hat. The wave crashed over them, drenching the cavalier's armor and soaking the magician’s robes — not to mention the paper towels — before reforming itself on the other side. “Our weapons gotta have something to work on! There’s no there there!”
Hank shot energy arrows to encircle the fire elemental. The creature blazed up, absorbing the glowing bolts.
Diana thrust her javelin at the earth elemental. Fully extended, her weapon went all the way through the creature. She pulled back in a shower of sand, and the hole her javelin had made sealed behind it. “Phooey!” Diana somersaulted out of the creature’s reach. “They’re just — emanations with eyes!”
Sheila wasn’t sure what an ‘emanation’ was, besides an SAT vocabulary word. But with eyes, there usually came sight. Sheila pulled her cloak’s hood over her head; invisibility trilled down to her toes. She took a deep breath, held it, and ran into the spreading cloud of the air elemental. Bobby had begun to cough and choke on the heavy air. With her hands out to find his shoulders, helmet, or club in the haze, Sheila instead stepped on something soft.
“Hey!” Bobby wheezed from the ground. “Watch. It.”
Sheila almost breathed in relief. Bending her knees, she crouched down to her brother. She expected a token fight to walk on his own even if he recognized her, but Bobby relaxed against her. He stopped coughing. He stopped everything. Stinging tears filled Sheila’s eyes as she got her arms under him, braced herself, and stood. What if Bobby were running out of time? He was heavy. Really heavy. And she’d lost track of the way back. Visibility: zero.
“Over here, Sheila!” Hank shouted. “It’s thinner on this side!”
She couldn’t run with Bobby in her arms. She couldn’t even walk fast. But she moved toward Hank’s voice. Again. And again.
It wasn’t the first time that Sheila had followed Hank’s voice to freedom. But while they all put their lives in Hank’s hands as their leader, sometimes Sheila worried that she might find that she’d spilled her heart into his hands, too. He gave so much. If she let her feelings show, would she became the straw that broke the camel’s back? Right now, though, she knew only that she trusted this voice above all others to bring her and Bobby home.
“We’ve got to mix it up, guys!” Hank kept talking. “Diana, you get this cloud off Sheila and Bobby. I’ll take the dirt over there. Eric and Presto, think you can rain on these flames’ parade?”
“Will do, Hank!” Diana’s confidence pierced the pasty air to Sheila.
A blessed wind blew the air elemental back, back, and away. The gusts blew Sheila’s cloak’s hood back, too, and she could almost hear the return to visibility trill around her. With Diana’s javelin whirling like a giant fan, the acrobat’s dexterity extending to the very tips of her fingers, Sheila heaved in a lungful of fresh air, and another. Was Bobby breathing? His eyes were closed. Sheila sank to her knees. Then the wind stopped, and Diana was helping settle Bobby to the green grass. Uni galloped up, snorting anxiously.
“Bibbity-bobbity-botter!” Presto pushed up his glasses and then reached inside his hat. “Give us a way to handle water!” He pulled out a warehouse club multi-pack of cherry Jell-O mix.
Eric rolled his eyes. “That hat is one fry short of a Happy Meal.” He tried to ladle the water elemental toward its fiery comrade with his shield. “Mmmm, fries…”
Sheila saw that Hank’s crisscrossed energy arrows had drawn in around the earth elemental, fusing its sandy bits into lumpy glass. Now, Hank faced the fire elemental, the ranger’s bow held undrawn between them, like a staff. Before, energy arrows had made it stronger. If Eric and Presto couldn’t get water to it... what else put out a fire?
Suddenly, Bobby coughed. He panted shallowly and opened his eyes.
“Bobby!” Diana exclaimed. “Aah-eeh!” Uni echoed. Sheila gasped in relief.
The fire elemental grabbed at Hank’s bow. Hank ducked and dodged, but slowly, with flourishes Sheila knew he didn’t need to make. He was drawing its attention to himself, away from the rest of them.
Stop, drop, and roll, Sheila’s mother said in her memory.
Sheila reflexively checked that Bobby was safe with Diana; he was. Sheila swallowed hard. Then she leaped up into a run. Unfastening her hood, she swirled her cloak in front of her.
“Sheila!” Hank yelled as she passed him.
She closed her eyes at the last second. With her cloak between her and the fire elemental, Sheila crashed through the creature. She fell forward, carrying it with her as it strove to ignite the magic fabric. Rolling on her burning cloak, Sheila smothered the elemental like any other flame.
When she caught her breath, Sheila found herself sitting on her singed violet cloak over a patch of smoldering green grass. Both her arms hurt. One side threatened to bruise from ear to ankle. She looked around the broad meadow. In one direction, the water elemental had become a puddle of soggy red gelatin. Eric and Presto were comparing the expiration dates on the empty Jell-O boxes. The other way, Bobby was sitting up and scratching Uni where her tail didn’t reach, pausing only for an occasional cough. Diana gave Sheila the A-OK gesture and a wink behind her brother’s back.
Hank gave Sheila a hand up. “That was very brave.”
“It just had to be done.” Sheila squeezed his hand. The angle of the smaller suns made a halo behind Hank’s wavy blond hair, and his kind blue eyes looked admiringly down at her. Blushing redder than her freckles, maybe as red as her hair, Sheila feared, she released his hand and bent over to pick up her cloak. “If there’d been a safer way, believe me, I would have taken it!”
“That approaches the very definition of courage. Well done, my pupils!”
“Dungeon Master!” Bobby and Presto exclaimed in unison at the little man’s sudden presence.
Eric groaned. “Not again.”
“Again and again, Cavalier,” Dungeon Master said, “for a lesson so important. Bravery lies neither in heedlessness, nor in ignorance of danger.” Dungeon Master leaned forward from where he sat cross-legged on the turf near Bobby. He raised one finger for emphasis. “Courage comes when one grasps the costs of helping another, yet nevertheless dares to give that help freely. The greatest heroes are not necessarily those who wield a—” Dungeon Master looked around at each of their weapons “—sword, for example. The Thief underrates her courage.”
“You know, there’d be a lot less need for that kind of courage if we were back home in modern civilization, not marooned in monster central here.”
“Such elementals are hardly monsters!” Dungeon Master raised his white eyebrows to his bald crown. “They are as natural as you, me, or the little unicorn. Or, perhaps,” Dungeon Master’s eyes twinkled, “as a swarm of mosquitos. These were dormant before you stumbled through their nest.”
“Nest? Where?” Eric’s head whipped around. He rose onto his tip-toes and flung out his arms for balance. “Why doesn’t this place ever have street signs and warning labels?”
Everyone except Eric laughed. Eric sniffed at Uni, who had laughed last.
“You mean that Venger didn’t send those creatures to take our weapons, Dungeon Master?” Diana asked.
“No, my dear Acrobat. Venger’s attention is presently ... elsewhere. Indeed, be of good cheer, Cavalier! For in Venger’s distraction, I have discovered a possible passage to your home.”
Presto clapped his hands. “You’ve found a portal?”
“Alas, Magician, I’ve found only a rumor. But, some say, where there is smoke, there is fire. This smoke first billowed up when you witnessed Venger’s violation of the hallowed Hall of Bones, where rested the mortal remains of many of the Realm’s greatest heroes. That shock pierced this land to its core. As you saw, it shook the very mountains!”
Sheila remembered the fall of the Hall of Bones: the Skull of Power, the heroes’ spirits, and the awful destruction at their heels as she and the others had fled across that crumbling stone bridge. Diana almost hadn’t made it. Sheila folded her cloak over her arm and fingered a burned spot. Already, the damage was much less than it should be, than it would have been back on Earth. She’d bet that Eric’s armor was drying without rust, too.
“Now, it seems that sorceries as well as stones may have shifted in that cataclysm. To the north, on the border of Caledland, Venger marshals his forces. For the first time since the golden days of Siora the Wise, whose relics had long ago been transferred to the Hall for the good of all the Realm, the people of Caledland are afraid.”
“Afraid of Venger, Dungeon Master?” Hank asked.
“Only partly, Ranger. More, they fear that they are alone — that Venger’s desecration cost them Siora’s patronage, that she no longer intercedes on their behalf from eternity.” Dungeon Master’s gaze seemed to rest beyond the meadow and the moment. “The sign of Siora’s protection was ever her wand; its seat, the heart of the three councils of Caledland. Find Siora’s wand, my pupils, and you will have found the key to many a lock.”
“Oh, yeah?” Eric sniffed. “Like, the lock keeping us in this loony bin?”
“Did I not say so, Cavalier? But be warned, for not all locks are in doors, and an exit in one direction is an entrance from another.” Dungeon Master got to his feet and patted Bobby’s shoulder. “I’m happy to say that a good night’s sleep will fully restore you, young Barbarian.” With a smile, Dungeon Master stepped around Bobby’s back.
“Speaking of restoring, Dungeon Master—” Sheila held out her cloak. It was almost back to normal. “Oh! He’s gone!”
“Typical!” Eric sat down with a clank. Setting his shield aside, he rested his chin on his hands. “Did anyone hear ol’ D.M. say that this wand would send us home? I didn’t!”
Diana crossed her arms. “I heard him say that the people in Caledland need our help.”
“Diana’s right, Eric.” Hank opened his hands. “Dungeon Master admitted that he had only a rumor about a way home. But he had facts about what Venger’s up to. It sounds like a package deal.”
“I don’t know, Hank.” Sheila looked at Bobby.
Hank wrapped his free arm around her shoulders in a half-hug. Sheila let herself feel reassured.
Then Hank squinted at the two smaller suns nearing the horizon. “Let’s pitch camp here, guys, and make sure Bobby gets a long rest. Tomorrow, we’ll turn north — to Caledland.”
— < O > —
Bobby slept well that night. Sheila knew, because she woke and checked on him, even when it wasn’t her watch.
If they were home, Bobby could go to a doctor, a real doctor, with a stethoscope and x-rays and penicillin. But at home, a night’s sleep didn’t cure wounds, mend rips, or prevent rust. Sometimes, especially after a battle in which one of them could have died, or when she couldn’t avoid how they were all growing up, missing her parents grabbed Sheila like a stitch in her side. Other times — more often than not, these days — she could hardly remember what it was like to not spend every day and night with these specific friends… to never be forgotten, overlooked, or alone.
The people of Caledland worried that they were alone. Sheila guessed that this Siora was like a kind of saint to them, or a parent, or something. Sheila sympathized.
Was it cowardly to want to go home? Was it selfish to want to stay?
Was it crazy to want both?
— < O > —
“Ho, there!” A big man stepped onto the earthen track. He planted his feet and crossed his arms. His stance barred them from the pack mules on the riverbank behind him. “Who comes?”
North of the meadow, Sheila and the others had found a well-maintained route, wide enough for a wagon, even boasting stone distance markers. The track had converged with a river flowing down from the jagged mountains. Spotting muleteers ahead on such a road had been no surprise — and not only because Eric had complained about the, uh, fertilizer for miles.
“Travelers,” Hank answered. His bow was on his back; he spread his empty hands wide. “Is this the way to Caledland?”
“It will be, when it turns up into the highlands.” A woman with gray braids, a white apron, and a wide smile pushed out behind the big man, patting each mule as she passed. “Oh, stand down, Drust,” she told him. “Can’t you see they’re hardly more than children?”
Drust’s eyebrows rose. “They’re armed, Alane.”
“And who isn’t these days, with Venger threatening Siora’s peace?”
“Oh!” Diana exclaimed. “You’ve heard of Siora?”
“Well, of course, dear! Siora the Wise, who won back Caledland from Venger, and sealed it against him ever after? Some whisper that her seal shattered with the Hall of Bones, but I say that kind of talk is Venger’s work.” Alane looked at each of them, bemused. “How could you never have heard a ballad of Siora? Why, that’s her sigal, on the distance marker there!” To Sheila, it looked like a circle with horns, or wings — or a kind of creepy eye. “You probably just know her by a different name.”
“Did she have many names?” Presto asked.
“Her mother called her ‘darling.’” A woman as short and stocky as Dungeon Master and his friend Zandora appeared through the mules’ legs, with more confidence than Sheila would have had among all those hooves. The woman wore a pink dress, and her cropped, curly, rose-gold hair reminded Sheila of her own maternal grandmother. Out of a hidden pocket, the woman drew a wad of scoured wool, from which dangled a long, narrowing strand, with a top-shaped weight on the end. “One of her brothers called her ‘blister,’ but that didn’t make it into the stories, which is probably for the best.”
“Hello, Mabina.” Alane brushed off her apron. “I’d begun wondering whether you might be along.”
“I’m rarely far.” Mabina smiled up at Sheila and the others. “You all come a little upstream with me for a drink and a wash, while these folk care for their mules and packs. What brings you to Caledland?”
“We heard that Venger is on their border,” Hank said. “We may be able to help.”
“Oh, sure, step right up with the bleeding heart.” Eric rolled his eyes. “Look, ma’am, Dungeon Master sent us to find this Siora’s wand. Apparently — fingers crossed, knock wood, break a leg, shamrocks as far as the eye can see — it can send us home. Do you know anything about it?”
“Oh, a little,” Mabina chuckled. “You must be Dungeon Master’s latest pupils, then. Well!” She gestured them toward the river, while she climbed up on top of a nearby boulder and let her weighted thread dangle longer than she was tall. She rubbed the top of the wool strand between her fingers. “It’s been a long time.”
Bobby and Uni headed straight into the water under the midday sun, but the others exchanged glances. By unspoken consensus, Eric went to keep an eye on Bobby and fill everyone’s waterskins, sighing and scuffing his feet only a little. The others gathered around Mabina’s boulder.
“Latest pupils?” Sheila repeated. They’d come to suspect as much, but Martha had relentlessly changed the subject, and Dungeon Master always disappeared before they could ask.
Mabina spun her hanging wool, from thick at the clump in her hands down to thread-thin at the weight. “Once upon a time, my young friends, after Venger’s forces slaughtered Siora’s family, and so many others, while she was still just another refugee hiding in the hills, Siora fell in love. The bards like to say that his name was Corwin the Bold. Really, it was Corey. What the bards get right is that he and his friends bore mighty weapons from the Dragon’s Graveyard.”
“Our weapons are from the Dragon’s Graveyard!” Presto breathed.
“I think she knows that,” Diana said. “What happened, Ms. Mabina?”
“With the help of Corey and his friends, Siora raised the resistance against Venger. She learned that her rogue’s talents could be as vital as those of a fighter or mage. In some ways, it was the happiest time of her life… certainly, it’s the period in which the bards set most of their tales. Then, just as Siora and they together drove out Venger and freed Caledland, Corey and his friends returned to their world.”
Presto frowned. “Corey didn’t stay with her?”
“They both knew that she couldn’t leave her people to come with him. When the portal opened, perhaps he wanted her to run after him, pull him back, beg him to stay.” Mabina watched the weight at the end of her wool turn. “Siora wanted to do exactly that. But she thought it better, for his sake, for everyone else’s sakes, to let him go.” Mabina plucked her wool. “The bards say that the portal closed too quickly. Tsk! The bards have no idea how long Siora stood before that portal, torn. She missed him the rest of her living days.”
Sheila blinked hard. She wondered whether Presto were thinking of Varla, and Diana of Kosar. She wondered whether Hank might take her hand; and she wondered whether it might be okay for her to take his.
Hank cleared his throat. “How long ago was this?”
“Oh, a thousand years?” Mabina smiled. “Before Tiamat tore off Venger’s right horn, anyway.”
From among the mules, a portly man in a black felt hat approached. Evidently jarred out of her thoughts, Diana whirled, her javelin expanding to its full length between him and them. He raised his hands and his eyebrows.
“This is Leigh, Alane’s husband,” Mabina introduced them. “Leigh, these are Dungeon Master’s pupils.”
“Ah!” Leigh’s eyes lit up. He hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his tooled leather vest, and his gaze lingered over their weapons. “In that case, I must doubly extend Alane’s invitation to accompany us to Aiberton, Caledland’s capitol! I was going to ask you to contribute some chores along the way, but as you’re Dungeon Master’s pupils, perhaps protection—”
Hank raised a hand. “We’ll be happy to help however we can, sir, and happier yet for good company and directions.”
“Good! Good. Thank you, my boy! I must admit, we’re down two hands on this trip.”
Alane came up behind her husband. “It’s because of this bunk people are stirring up about Siora’s protection being gone, and Venger invading. You know it is.”
“I know that people are frightened.” Leigh patted Alane’s shoulder. “I don’t know that their fears are bunk.”
“If we run into trouble, we couldn’t ask for better allies than pupils of Dungeon Master.” Mabina coiled her thread, tucked it away in some pocket, and stood up on the boulder. “On the other hand, if Dungeon Master sends you his pupils as allies, you’re running into trouble.”
— < O > —
The track wound up into the mountains. Early summer turned back into spring, and spring into the last gasp of winter. The route began running more often between a hewn rockface on one side, cleaved to a wagon’s width, and a ravine drop on the other.
“Are you children warm enough?” Alane worried as she unpacked sheepskin wraps for herself, Leigh, and Drust.
Diana caught Sheila’s gaze and rolled her eyes. Sheila smiled wistfully.
“Don’t you know enchanted wares when you see them?” Mabina chuckled. From her perch on top of a mule’s load, her ever-busy wool swayed with the animal’s gait. Sheila had learned to call the tool a ‘drop spindle.’ “That’s another Siora story for you, my young friends. Even though her rogue’s talents didn’t lie in a magical direction, she was inspired by her lover’s and comrades’ weapons to teach herself how to enchant objects. And so, her wand! Caledland has been a center of such mystical manufacture ever since.” Mabina pursed her lips. “Of course, it never hurt the trade that it was beyond Venger’s reach.”
“Ms. Mabina is right, ma’am,” Diana told Alane. “We figured out a long time ago that our clothes are magic, like our weapons. They make a kind of invisible armor in fights. They mostly wash themselves. They usually keep us comfortable, no matter the weather—”
“Except in deserts,” Eric interrupted. “This world has way too many deserts. Also canyons, volcanoes, swamps...”
“—and we’re pretty sure that they grow with us, too.”
“Which isn’t to say that Diana and I wouldn’t love to have more, um, complete clothes,” Sheila said. Given a fur bikini and a micro-miniskirt, respectively, the girls had often reminisced about jeans, t-shirts, and tennis shoes. But clothes in the Realm followed a code they hadn’t figured out. “We always mean to ask Dungeon Master, but I guess it’s never the most important thing when he’s with us.”
“Ah, you’re just wimpy.” Bobby pointed at the leather harness across his otherwise bare chest. Sheila would love to see him in jeans and a t-shirt again, too. But Bobby really was still a kid, and a boy, and a barbarian, Sheila thought. All of those made differences for him from the uncomfortable ways that too many strangers reacted to Diana and her these days.
Or did it? Sheila started. Was that another thing from which she had to keep Bobby safe? At home, that would have been the job of their parents, teachers, police… Swamped by a wave of homesickness, Sheila wanted to worry about applying to college, getting into yearbook photos, and whether Hank might ask her to prom. Not quests for portals, battles against monsters, or the behavior of adults who should know better. Her stomach hurt.
Eric said, “You’ll understand when you’re older, little man.”
“Who ya calling ‘little,’ jerk?” Bobby bristled. “Yaaaaa, erk!” Uni bleated.
“Oh, don’t be so sensitive.”
“Who ya calling ‘sensitive,’ jerky jerk?” Bobby planted his feet in front of Eric and tapped his club against his palm.
“Fine. Ahem.” Eric bowed. “You shall comprehend more fully in an era subsequent to the present, oh respected sir. Better?”
Sheila hid her grin.
“Incoming!” Hank shouted. Energy arrows arched over the company, weaving a temporary awning.
Sheila looked up; a huge boulder tumbled down at them. Eric threw up his shield over Bobby and himself — and the nearest mule’s face. Diana extended her javelin and started spinning it over all their heads. The others backed up against the rocks. One mule tried to stampede, but his trailmates were having none of that.
The boulder hit Hank’s energy net. Slowed but not stopped, it curved the glowing bolts down toward them. Lower. And lower.
Bobby stepped out from under Eric’s shield and jumped, swinging his barbarian’s club up with him. The boulder flew off across the ravine. After a silence, the thud of its landing boomed back to them.
Bobby planted his fists on his hips. “When I’m older, hah!”
Sheila hugged him.
— < O > —
The track widened out again. The sheer rockface bent back and subsided under stubborn, scrubby trees. The ravine rose up toward them, revealing its roots as the bed of a rushing river.
“The bridge is up ahead,” Drust said. “It’s another day to Aiberton, city of the three councils. But across the water is Caledland.”
Leigh hooked his thumbs in his vest pockets and smiled ear to ear. “I’m happy to admit that you’ve been right all along, my love,” he told Alane. “It seems Siora’s seal is indeed intact.”
Sheila looked doubtfully at the rapids rushing beside them, crashing and churning against sharp rocks.
“It’s a sturdy stone bridge,” Alane assured her. “There’s no ford, so the trade guilds generally take very good care of it.”
“Generally,” Drust repeated. He squinted into the distance. Then he jogged to the front of the muletrain and a little way up the side of the roadcut. He groaned.
Sheila asked, “Is the bridge flooded?”
“Is it Venger’s forces?” Hank reached for his bow.
“How about a lion?” Eric guessed. “Tiger? Bear? Giant purple worm with teeth?”
Drust snorted. He stepped down from the rocks and resumed walking on the track, but his enthusiasm had drained away.
Everyone but Drust and Mabina wove their way to the front of the company. And everyone groaned, as Drust had, when they saw the huge boulder that had smashed through the bridge where it met the shore on this side.
“But I hit it the other way!” Bobby protested. “You saw!”
Diana nodded. “And the time of the sound of impact means we’ve walked farther than where it landed.” She cocked her head. “At least, it would mean that back home.”
“It would normally mean that here, too,” Mabina said, appearing abruptly next to Presto, her wool and drop spindle wound up into her hands. “But that boulder has been enchanted. Can you sense it, Magician?”
“No, ma’am,” Presto said apologetically. “I’m only a conjurer — I just pull things out of this hat.”
Mabina pursed her lips. “Dungeon Master is a good and perceptive man. But, my young friends, you mustn’t limit yourselves to the names and implements that he gave you when you entered the Realm. You were not made by Dungeon Master! And it is not he who will weigh your worth in eternity. You can be anything, learn anything, love anyone! Here as well as where you came from.”
“Yes, Ms. Mabina.”
“Did any of us ace calculus?” Eric put his hands on his hips in front of the smashed abutment. “I remember something about bridges, but that class was right after lunch.”
“And so you napped your way to another ‘gentleman’s C’?” Presto laughed. “Ahem. ‘F’ equals ‘mg,’ where ‘F’ is force, ‘m’ is mass, and ‘g’ is gravitational acceleration.”
“In other words,” Diana said, “we need a beam and pilings that can hold up under the mules and packs.”
With Bobby’s club for a jackhammer, Diana’s javelin as a lever, and cement powder from Presto’s hat mixed with water from the river, they reshaped the boulder to temporarily substitute for the broken bridge access. Leigh assured them that the trade guilds would repair it as soon as they heard — and not levy a fine for the damage.
While they worked, everyone quickly agreed on who had enchanted the boulder. But why? Hank, Diana, and Drust suspected Venger of targeting the border and any who would help Caledland. Presto, Eric, and Alane suspected Venger of targeting them and the weapons from the Dragon’s Graveyard. Leigh insisted on the possibility of accident. Sheila worried that it could be all the reasons at once, but after looking at Bobby’s unconcern and Hank’s determination, she didn’t say anything.
Neither did Mabina.
Early in their construction, Sheila saw Mabina pick up a shard of the broken boulder and frown, concentrating. Later, when the muletrain reached the other side of the bridge, Mabina solemnly threw that shard back across. Then she picked up a new stone from the Caledland side and smiled.
Sheila thought that she felt or heard something like the trill of her cloak’s invisibility. Startled, she looked around. Presto, seeming equally startled, met her eyes.
— < O > —
“You’re very quiet, dear,” Alane said to Sheila across the campfire. “This should be our last night on the road. Aren’t you excited to reach Aiberton?”
“Oh, of course!” Sheila plucked at her cloak, draped across her lap. “You’ve made it sound very lovely. And of course we hope that Siora’s wand will take us home.”
Diana, sitting next to Sheila, bumped Sheila's shoulder with her own. “But?”
Sheila looked down at her hands on her cloak. “I think that it’s time that we learned how Siora ended up in the Hall of Bones. It has something to do with her wand, doesn’t it?”
Mabina heaved herself to her feet. “These old bones need a stretch before sleep. Will you accompany me, Barbarian?”
“But I wanna hear the story!”
Mabina raised her eyebrows at Sheila. Sheila said, “Bobby, could you please protect Ms. Mabina on her walk?”
Hank added, “There could be anything in these woods.”
“All riiiiiight. C’mon, Uni, Ms. Mabina…”
“Are you sure you want to hear this, children?” Alane asked. “Siora didn’t have her wand with her when — when she died. All the stories agree. That’s probably why… well.”
“It sounds like we’d better hear it, ma’am.” Hank looked around at each of the others. Presto and Diana nodded. Sheila pursed her lips. Eric frowned.
It was Drust who eventually broke the silence. “In the days after Siora and Corwin drove Venger from Caledland, while her own heart longed for her lost love, Siora built up her people. To fairly distribute the necessities to all, Siora convened the council of the Skilled, and the council of the Elders. Peace graced the valleys and health the highlands.”
Drust spoke in a rhythm, Sheila thought, but it never got around to rhyming. The rise and fall of his words made her wonder again how the people here spoke English, or whether she just thought she heard English while they really spoke other languages.
“In time, Siora gave lessons to whomever would learn of her, and learned of any who would teach. Her students took on more students, in every art and matter under the suns. They were Siora’s new heart, and they became the third council: the Scholars. Thus dawned the golden days.”
Drust stopped. He looked away into the woods.
Alane sighed. “It was one of Siora’s own students… well, surely you’ve heard of Kareena the Traitor?”
Sheila gasped. Diana moved closer to her on one side, and Hank on the other. Sheila’s memories snapped and flickered like the campfire, between the vibrant girl who had pretended to be her friend, and the fearsome woman revealed as Venger’s sister. Both were the same user. Liar. Bully.
How Kareena must have envied Siora’s humbling of Venger.
“Then you won’t be surprised that Kareena sought the secret of the magic that had worked against her hated brother. Siora … wouldn’t give it to her.”
Sheila made herself stop smoothing her cloak across her knees. Kareena wasn’t evil anymore; Dungeon Master had said so. But Kareena had rivaled Venger in every way. Selfish. Wicked. Vicious. How could someone ‘wise’ have fallen for Kareena’s two-faced tricks? Sheila had never felt stupider than under Kareena’s thumb.
Sheila remembered Kareena’s twisted expression when Kareena had thought Sheila no longer any use to her. If her friends hadn’t come...
“So Kareena betrayed and murdered Siora.” Eric spoke in the gentlest tone Sheila had ever heard him use. He looked sad and sorry. “I guess we don’t need the details, after all. And I’m guessing that the wand itself hadn’t actually been seen in public since the time of, what’s-his-name, Corey and his friends — when they chased Venger out of Caledland. Is that right?”
“Yes.” Alane nodded. “How did you know?”
Eric rolled his eyes. “Oh, D.M. and me, we go waaay back. ‘Key to many things,’ hah!”
Bobby, Uni, and Mabina returned.
“Bedtime!” Sheila announced brightly.
— < O > —
“It wasn’t your fault, you know,” Sheila said to Eric, in the dark before dawn. It was his turn to take the last watch, and hers to grab a nap before breakfast.
Eric started putting on his armor. Practice had made the task smoother and quieter than they once would have believed. “I could pretend that I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You won’t. Not this early in the morning.” Sheila helped him settle his yellow tabard and red cape over his mail tunic, which went over his wool tunic and trews, which might be hot in deserts, she thought, but still beat a miniskirt day-to-day. “When I ran off with Uni, I was trying to prove that I wasn’t a coward.” Even then, she’d brought Uni rather than go alone. Sheila shook her head. “We ran into Kareena because that’s the kind of thing that happens in this world.”
“But if I hadn’t kept making fun of you—”
“And Kareena is redeemed, because that’s also the kind of thing that happens in this world.” Sheila stood on her tip-toes and kissed Eric’s cheek. “I forgave you, Cavalier. Don’t forget to forgive yourself.”
Sheila wrapped herself in her cloak. She checked on Bobby, and then Hank, Diana, and Presto, and found a spot by the remains of the fire.
— < O > —
If Sheila dreamed herself back in the Hall of Bones, in that last moment before the Skull of Power had whisked them away, and if in that moment a regal spirit who just had to be Siora — red-haired, wearing a pink gown, holding a wand or scepter with that sigal on one end — caught Sheila’s eye in wry recognition, well, Sheila wouldn’t remember when she woke.
Siora, in eternity, would.
— < O > —
The track zig-zagged up to a foggy ridge. The mules and the adults stuck with the road. But first Bobby and Uni, and then, one by one, Sheila and the others, struck off cross-country, forging up through the brown, prickly brush, straight to the top.
“Ah, it’s just the same.” Bobby let the heavy end of his club fall to the ground. On the other side of the ridge, as far as the mist showed, came more mountains, more valleys.
“No, over here!” Presto pointed. The track turned onto the spine of the ridge itself, running through a deep natural cleft. Out on the other side, the sun picked out whitewashed buildings, slate roofs, and even an occasional spire. “This must be Aiberton!”
Eric rubbed his hands together. “Town means inn, inn means bed, bed means pillow, pillow means—”
“Lizardmen!” Hank shouted, looking to the right of the pass.
“Orcs!” Diana echoed, looking left.
Sheila pulled up her hood and felt the invisibility trill. Venger rarely mixed his troops, so she was often able to trick one sort into attacking another. This time, though, they stood side-by-side on the route, one lizardman and one orc, each with his comrades lined behind him around the sides of the mountain cleft.
Sheila looked up into the misty sky, scanning for Venger himself on his nightmare, poised to take their weapons. She saw only mist. Dungeon Master had said that Venger was distracted. Could he really not know — or care — that they were here?
“C’mon, Sheila!” Diana ran, planted her javelin and vaulted over the troopers. “Flanking maneuver!”
Invisible, Sheila dodged through their foes, tripping a few on her way. She pulled back her hood, and she and Diana confronted Venger’s troops from the other side. Now, the lizardmen and orcs had to watch both ways.
Hank shot energy arrows that wrapped around the individual troopers on the track itself, but their comrades just replaced them. Bobby’s club and Diana’s javelin swatted off the mountain any that advanced, but the lizardmen and orcs kept coming. Eric braced his shoulder to his shield and plowed through to Sheila and Diana, evening the sides.
Usually, Venger’s troops attacked to take something — like their weapons, the treasure of Tardos, or Zandora’s box. Other times, Venger’s troops guarded his mines and prisons, and the poor people in them. These seemed to want just the road to Aiberton, Sheila thought, and they seemed to be on their own. Where was Shadowdemon? Or even an orc general? This didn’t look like the front rank of Venger’s army.
“Alaka-zend, abra-kadorses!” Presto said. “Send away Venger’s forces!” Plunging his hand into his hat, he pulled out a stack of self-addressed, stamped envelopes. “Private Scaley? Ensign Oinker?”
“Hey, crocodile face!” Sheila taunted the latest orc. Raising and lowering her hood, she stole his helmet and ran for the Aiberton side of the cleft.
In the middle of the pass, the pursuing orc smacked into something that Sheila hadn’t.
“They can’t get into Aiberton!” Hank recognized, still methodically firing energy arrows to pin each trooper. “Siora’s seal may have shrunk, but it’s still here!”
“Shrunk, bah!” Mabina appeared on the track behind Hank, Presto, and Bobby. “It’s tilted off at an angle, is what it is, knocked askew. Shaken, when the Hall of Bones fell.” She reached into one of her pockets and brought out the stone she’d selected at the border.
Again, Sheila thought it trilled, somehow, a little like her cloak.
Mabina threw the stone between the lizardmen and orcs. It flashed. Venger’s troops all stumbled back off the track, some clawing at the empty air, others tumbling down the ridge.
“Oh, don’t worry about them,” Mabina chuckled. “The route is now tucked under the seal again, all the way back to the border. If they’re clever, this is their chance to defect from Venger.”
“Orcs and lizardmen aren’t the sharpest tacks on the chair,” Eric said.
“But aren’t you glad to give them the choice? What they do with it is up to them.” Mabina brought her wool and drop-spindle out of a mysterious pocket and strolled toward the cleft in the ridge.
When Sheila went to ask about the stone, she couldn’t see Mabina anywhere.
— < O > —
With the whole muletrain finally on the Aiberton side of the cleft, Sheila found a pleasant bowl of a valley opening before them. Many buildings were whitewashed, with steep slate roofs. The three largest buildings, all in a row, had domes, painted in bright, interwoven murals, probably best appreciated from up on the sides of the mountains. The building at the center had two lobes and a point, like a heart. Together, the three looked a bit like the sigals on the distance markers along the track.
While Sheila looked down, Hank looked up. She heard his sharp intake of breath. Calmly, Hank asked, “Presto, do you know anything that rhymes with ‘binoculars’?”
“Maybe! Um. Supercalifragil-eee-ing, bring a tool for far-seeing!” Presto handed Hank a kind of short telescope.
Sheila looked opposite them, at the matching ridge ringing the valley, with the city cradled between. Something was moving.
Hank handed the spyglass to Diana and readied his bow. After looking, Diana handed the glass to Eric; she expanded her javelin. Eric looked, handed the glass to Presto with a shake of his head, and hitched up his shield.
A speck rose from the opposite ridge and hung in the air on wide wings. A thread of magefire arched in front of the hovering speck. The movements on the far ridge concentrated and funneled through that arch.
“Looks like we just ran out of time, gang,” Hank said. “The angle of Siora’s seal goes all the way through the mountains, and Venger’s coming in from the other side.”
“But we’re supposed to find the wand!” Sheila protested.
“You light an alarm flare,” Drust told Alane and Leigh. “I’ll carry the news to the Heart.” He spun on his heel and sprinted down the track.
“Wait! The what?” Eric asked.
Alane pointed at the lobed building in the center of the city. “Scholars’ Hall. We call it ‘the Heart,’ because—”
Eric groaned. “Dungeon Master said — and I quote — ‘The sign of Siora’s protection was ever her wand; its seat, the heart of the three councils of Caledland.’”
“C’mon, gang!” Hank took off after Drust. “The seal that kept out Venger must be in Scholars’ Hall!”
“And the key is the wand,” Eric muttered. “Or the sign is the wand. Or the wand is the sign and the key. But the lock may not be on a door, and some doors open two directions — I don’t know why I even try.”
“Venger’s armies! The north rim!” Drust called out to the people of Aiberton as they ran past. Parents hustled children indoors. Workers dropped tools, or changed their grips so that shovels and shears became pikes and daggers. By the time the runners reached the cluster of domed buildings, a militia had mustered to one side. Drust peeled off the track in that direction. Sheila and the others continued up the steps into Scholars’ Hall.
“Now what?” Presto asked. The large central chamber was empty of people, who had probably rushed outside, but books and scrolls climbed the shelves on the walls and cluttered every surface. Presto craned his neck up at a stack of parchment sheets taller than him and his hat together. “It’d take years to find anything in here.”
“This would be a great time for a clue,” Diana said, tapping the walls between shelves for hidden compartments.
Before Tiamat tore off Venger’s right horn, Sheila remembered Mabina saying. “Hey, guys,” Sheila asked, “what do you think was here before this building?”
Hank’s eyes widened. “If the wand hasn’t been seen since Siora sealed out Venger—”
“And it was dislodged by seismic activity when the Hall of Bones fell—” Diana added.
Eric asked, “Does this place have a basement?”
They rushed back outside and examined the building’s stone steps. Around the far end, away from the people assembling to defend their homes and families from Venger, Sheila found Siora’s creepy eye sigal carved into a single slab. They all poked and pressed and prodded. Nothing happened.
Sheila sighed in defeat. She leaned against the slab with one hand open flat on the sigal.
Hank took her other hand in sympathy.
And then the slab swung in.
“Alakazite! How ‘bout some light?” Presto pulled a long-handled sparkler out of his hat and led the way inside. After a curving, downward passage, in which everyone but Bobby and Uni had to duck, Presto raised the firecracker high, revealing a natural cave with a giant version of the sigal carved on the far wall. It reached almost from floor to ceiling. This time, a pupil marked the middle of the ‘eye,’ and several hollow niches lined up beneath. On the ground before those niches, a sword, a mace, a jar, and things Sheila didn’t recognize had all tumbled into a pile.
“Look at the fault plane!” Diana exclaimed. She pointed at the steeply dipping line angled through the center of the sigal, along which the rock layers had slipped. “This must be where the crust broke, when Venger destroyed the Hall of Bones.”
“So did these fall out then?” Bobby stepped toward the pile on the ground.
The wall sigal blinked, suddenly alive. Beams of white light and firm force shot at the barbarian’s feet.
“Bobby!” Sheila yanked him back. The beams stopped.
Diana poked her javelin forward. The beams smothered her weapon’s green glow until she withdrew it. Eric tried to cross the room behind his shield, but the beams pushed him back.
The cave shook. The hall above must have shaken even harder. “Venger,” Hank said. His lips thinned. “We have to do something!” He drew his bow, aiming for the sigal.
“Wait!” Sheila said. “Mabina said that Siora had a rogue’s talents. That means that Siora was a thief, right?”
“Oh!” Presto gasped. “Yes! She had to be able to get in, herself!”
The cave shook again.
“All right,” Hank disengaged his bow. “Do it.”
Sheila tipped up her hood. Invisibility trilled around her. The others stepped back. The giant eye... closed.
Sheila glided across the room. Scouting. Sneaking. Silent. She could do this. Siora had meant her to do this, the strange thought came.
At the wall, Sheila found that the pupil of the ‘eye’ was a round shaft bored into the stone. Below it, in the pile of items, sheltered under a sword, a rod of just that size waited. Sheila drew it out.
The others stayed silent. Sheila didn’t know whether they could see what she held with her hood still up, but she could see it. She raised the wand of Siora the Wise. The sigal molded onto one end glowed. With its magic trilling up her arm, Sheila replaced it into its hole in the wall.
The giant sigal opened. Under the lifting eyelid, a portal unsealed. Sheila jumped backward; her hood fell down onto her shoulders, leaving her visible. Split by the earthquake fault’s slippage, one side of the portal opened on the amusement park.
“Earth,” Eric breathed.
“Home!” Bobby cried.
The other side opened on Venger’s invading army. An orc looked their way and pointed.
“Turn it off!” Eric shouted. “Off! Off!”
Sheila grabbed at the wand. “It won’t come back out!”
The cave shook again, and again. Venger must be raining down magefire on the council buildings, Sheila thought. She hoped that all the people had gotten away. Ordinary people with ordinary weapons could fight lizardmen and orcs, but never Venger’s dark spells.
“The other weapons!” Presto dove for the pile. “I’ve got it! Everybody, put the other weapons in their places, too! They’re like ours, from the Dragon’s Graveyard — Corey and his friends’ weapons!” He stuck the sword into its niche on the wall.
“If they’re from the Dragon’s Graveyard, they can beat Venger!” Diana put the mace into its slot. “That must be how Siora did it!”
Bobby, Hank, and Eric rushed to the other weapons. Sheila got the last, a stoppered clay bottle with liquid still inside. When she set it in its place, both sides of the portal flipped upside down. The ground showed where the sky should be. A thick, white glow connected the weapons to the wand, and then grew out from the wand over the divided portals, pushing out from the cave, out against the orcs and out into the amusement park.
The cave stopped shaking.
The split portals were again one giant eye. It looked at Sheila. And then it closed, peacefully, and was only a design on a cave wall.
From aboveground, faintly, Sheila heard both cheers and grief.
Sheila looked at her friends, safe, and at the portal, closed. When Presto’s long-burning sparkler fizzled out, leaving them in the dark while Bobby and Eric argued about how to find the exit, Sheila let herself cry. She thought her tears were silent.
But then Hank’s arms were around her, holding her safe. And when she reached up to touch his cheek, she found that he’d cried, too.
— < O > —
Sheila sat on the hillside in the morning mist. High enough on the bowl of the valley to be well out of the traffic of Aiberton, low enough so that she didn’t face the scaffolding over the shattered dome of Scholars’ Hall, she was just right for Bobby and the others to see her from the second-story windows of the inn where they’d been staying. She wasn’t alone; she wasn’t lost.
With a flying drop-in by Dungeon Master, the people of Aiberton had embraced the explanation of Siora’s seal as a reversed portal, which had instantly transported Venger’s forces beyond the Caledland border, as it must have when Siora had first activated it.
Activated it by herself, Sheila couldn’t stop thinking. Siora’s friends had to have gone through and left her behind, with their weapons and her wand. And then Siora had sealed herself away from them forever, in order to seal Venger away from her people. Siora had enchanted that door to open only under the joined hands of a thief and a pupil of Dungeon Master. Siora had never opened it again. And then when Siora had thought that she’d found a friend in Kareena...
Mabina walked out of the mist on the hillside. Instead of her ever-present drop-spindle, she held a parcel wrapped in coarse cloth. “You make yourself easy to find, don’t you, dear?”
“I don’t like to be lost,” Sheila shrugged. “How are you, Ms. Mabina? We worried when you didn’t come back after the attack.”
“Oh, I’m rarely far,” Mabina smiled. She sat down by Sheila and offered the parcel. “This is for you. I just delivered one like it to the acrobat at the inn. The ranger offered to bring yours to you for me.”
“Hank always takes care of everyone,” Sheila said, opening the parcel. “I worry that he forgets to take care of himself, sometimes. It doesn’t help that Dungeon Master picks on him if he relaxes from being leader even a little.” Inside the parcel, she found a skein of fine thread, the wool that Mabina had been spinning throughout their journey. Sheila held it up. Her fingertips sensed something, not unlike her cloak’s trill. “This is magic, isn’t it?”
“Garments sewn with my thread grant at least as much protection as those that Dungeon Master gave you. The next time that you and your friends stay in one place long enough, you and the Acrobat should hire a seamstress. And have her teach you, if she will. Never miss an opportunity to learn!”
“We can wear whatever clothes we want…?” Sheila breathed. “Thank you!” She gave the little woman an impulsive hug. “But, Mabina,” Sheila set down the thread, “how come I know it’s magic?”
“Because you and your friends are more than the sum of your weapons.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mabina interlaced her fingers at her waist. “Your Magician friend once asked whether Siora had many names.”
“Long before anyone called Siora wise, they called her spy, and scout. After Venger’s defeat, some wanted to make her queen. She put a stop to that nonsense, and was one councilor among many. She was a student and a teacher. Before and after she knew Dungeon Master’s pupils, she was a friend. The right tool for the task. The right role for the responsibility.” Mabina laughed. “All the loves for the life!”
Sheila played with the corner of her cloak. “Before we found the muletrain, we fought these elementals. It seemed like our weapons wouldn’t work against them. Then we switched around.” Sheila picked up the skein of thread again. Its trill felt like when she’d walked across the cave to Siora’s seal, in Siora’s footsteps. Sheila suddenly remembered that the eye had closed as she’d crossed that space. Siora’s enchantment had measured her, not her cloak. “Our talents are in us, is that it? Not in our weapons, any more than in our clothes.”
“Dungeon Master is clever at recognizing what’s in front of him. You are you, my dear, whether in this world, your own world, or eternity.”
Sheila looked out at Aiberton, putting itself back together after Venger’s incursion. Sheila couldn’t stop herself from being afraid, from seeing all the dangers arrayed against her and her friends. Maybe she didn’t have to stop? The fears made her stay ready — to fight for Bobby, for her friends, and for all the people who would otherwise be alone against Venger. It just had to be done.
And, maybe, if she allowed that being afraid wasn’t wrong, and determined never to let it stop her, then life didn’t have to stay on pause until — unless — they got home.
“Mabina,” Sheila asked, turning back from the city in front of her, “do you think that Hank, that is, the ranger—”
But Mabina was no longer there.
Sheila sighed. And then she laughed, because she sounded just like Eric after Dungeon Master’s visits. She rewrapped her gift of enchanted thread, stood, and headed back to the inn.
The morning mist had almost burned off. They’d be setting out east soon, seeking a waterfall that, under a certain alignment of moons, became a portal that might take them home.
For today, though, Sheila’s heart and home were wherever her brother and friends were. Together was enough.
— < O > —