All this and I Can Fly, Too
A Spells 'R' Us Tale
by Andy Hollis with a little help from Paul Carmichael
©2000 Andy Hollis and Paul Carmichael -- all rights reserved
The mouse clicked on the send button. I needed a break, I thought as I sent off my latest story to TSAT. For the last year or I had been writing and editing stories for the E-zine and I had developed a solid friendship with Jeff Mahr, the managing editor. Although I did enjoy the work, I was neglecting my novels, and, according to my wife, my family. And for what? Jeff could barely remember my name from second to second let alone keep up with his editorial job. And this man calls himself a psychologist?
"You spend more time with your buddies on-line than you do with me," Sharon had said, and quite frequently lately. After twenty years of marriage, I had given her enough ammunition without adding to her arsenal, but this time I was beginning to think she had a point.
My latest story, The Everchanging Gift, however, was one of my favorites, and it did make the writing worthwhile. I had actually started this as a novel around fifteen years ago, but got stuck after chapter five. The main character, Billy Preston, was a shape changer, but couldn't control the changes all the time and the story line did get interesting. I had set the novel in Bennett City, a mythical town in Northern Virginia, that had been the setting for my stories and novels for almost thirty-five years.
But this story was done, and on its way, at last. I had reams of unused material that I could pull more stories from, yet depression was setting in. I was tired of writing, and collecting rejection slips. I stretched, yawned and looked around my studio, or the Black Hole as my wife called it. I've always liked to have my stuff out where I could see it, and here, in this room I had just that. Stacks of books filled the space underneath my computer table, while papers, old mail and manuscripts crammed my desk and file cabinets.
Yes, a tornado has gone through this room and I liked it like that. I had to have at least one room that was safe from Sharon's periodic bouts of cleaning.
"I hate the name Colin."
I turned at the sound of an unexpected voice in my studio. A second later, I found myself nose to nose with a small boy who looked no older than ten. "I beg your pardon?"
"Your story, I hate the name Colin."
"Okay, but I think we're forgetting something. Hi, I'm Andy," I said and stuck out my hand. "You are?"
The boy scowled at me. Dressed in cut off jeans and a red striped T-shirt he looked impossibly skinny, He had deep brown hair, worn long and shaggy over his eyes and collar, flashing brown eyes, and could have passed for a TV star with his looks. "You know me."
"No, I can't say that I do, kidlet. How did you get in here anyway?"
"I'm Andy -- Andy Hollis," he said giving me a pointed glance. "I have a geeky twin brother named Allan, and..."
"Okay, squirt, the gag's over. Tell Mr. Carmichael I thought it was funny, really funny and he will regret sneaking you in here. Got that?"
"Who's that supposed to be?" he demanded.
"My best friend in the world until now. I've known him since I was five years old and we've been writing stories about Andy and his 'geeky' twin brother since we were ten."
"You've been writing about me since you were a kid?"
"Yes, I have. And when we were ten it made perfect sense to name my character after me and Paul's character after him. I suppose you know Paul Carmichael back in good old Bennett City?"
"No, but I'm sure he's another little wimp faggot like all the kids you write about."
"Maybe you should look him up when you get back. We made him one of the best pianists in the world, more to keep Paul practicing than anything else. Look, we both write for TSAT magazine and I no longer think it's normal to have a character named after me. Your name is Colin Davis and it's going to stay that way."
"That's why I'm here, Andy," as he emphasized my name to make it sound like a sneer. "I'm not gonna let you do that to me."
"Do what to you?"
"Call me Colin, and turn me into a wimp too. I know you've got some sort of sick thing for kids. None of your characters are over twelve -- well, fourteen to be generous -- and the only time you write about grownups is to turn them back into kids."
"I like kids, I always have liked kids and I was one once. I write for and about kids, because that is what I do. I don't think I need your permission to keep on writing about kids or adults about to be age regressed, but, young man, if you don't mind your manners I had better warn you that you are within seconds of being named Ryan."
"No, you wouldn't do that to me. Colin is bad enough. But it's not going to happen."
"What's not going to happen?" I asked.
"You doing anything else to me. Jack Korman wanted me to switch bodies with my English Teacher, but he doesn't know that the Master gave the power to me."
I felt chills running down my spine. No one had read that particular manuscript but me. Paul had asked a couple of times, but gave up on it, and I had read it a few times since I first wrote the thing seventeen years ago. I remembered the gist of the story and why I had trashed the manuscript. It was lame. Oh, there were some good bits in it, and I had used them in a different version of the story later on, but...
"Okay, Sport, suppose I believe you for the moment. What would old Ashes want with me?"
"He hates that, you know. He hates messenger crows and anyone that makes fun of his name."
"Okay, what would Arch-demon, Ashtar Astriel want with me? I never met the man, and I have no affinity for the Shadow."
"He doesn't want anything from you, Andy. He gave me the power to use as I wanted, and I'm the one that came here to meet you."
"I'm honored. It isn't often that I get a chance to talk to one of my characters, but could you do me a really big favor? Go home and send Colin back here. You're history, Andrew, tossed on the trash heap of literary might-have-beens. You're no longer the evil twin. I made you the hero."
"A wimp like my brother and all the others -- no thank you, Mr. Hollis. I know how you get off, thinking about me changing into things and all the times you thought about me turning into a girl. It's not gonna happen."
"What are you talking about? Yes, there is a certain amount of eroticism involved in transformations, especially TG, but I never dreamed of you as a girl. I don't know where -- Ashtar again?"
"The Master wouldn't lie to me. That's why I'm here. I'm not switching places with Bob Elliot. I'm switching with you."
"Me," I started laughing. "Look at me, kidlet. I'm forty something, fat, balding and flat-broke. This condo is nice but nothing compared to the Hollis -- no Davis Hotel in Bennett City. I'm married, you know, with grandchildren no less. What are you going to tell my wife? Sharon hates it when I come across like a twelve-year-old -- well, it's something I do all the time, but -- never mind..."
I placed a hand on the boy's shoulder only to have it go right through him. "Holy shit." I tried again with the same result. The boy only grinned at me. I knew I wasn't dreaming. I was sitting in my studio, in my condo at my computer wearing my favorite dragon T-shirt and my hand was going right through the kid like a hologram.
I wondered if maybe I should call Jeff, like now, and ask his professional advice. I'm delusional and he's the psychologist. Does he give discount rates for staff writers?
"See how you like never getting to curse, or to have sex, or grow up."
"I write family fare, young man," I said trying not to lose it.
"You'd love to touch me, wouldn't you?"
"That tears it, kidlet. I'm not into small boys. Ashtar does lie -- and frequently. Who would know better than me? After all, like you -- he's just a figment of my imagination."
"I've got more than enough power to fix you and your life up just the way I want, so if you want to be Colin and sleep with my brother go right ahead." He smacked his head in mock shock. "But I forgot. You're going to die Saturday at the Temple of the Light and you don't have a Lord of Light to come to your rescue."
"Oh, please. That was really lame when I wrote it, and it sounds worse now. Look, I don't need some novel I threw away over a decade ago to come back and bite me on the ass. Got that?"
"You've still got it here, somewhere in all this mess, because that's how I found my way to this universe. There are a lot of worlds between ours, you know."
"I bet. This is good, kid, really good. With your looks you could be a star, big time, but why don't we call this off now and you tell me how you got in here and what your real name is."
Why was I doing this? Either this kid was the real thing or I was in big trouble. I pinched myself on the arm. He laughed at me.
If there really were an infinite number of parallel worlds, that would mean that everything that could be imagined really did exist somewhere in the multiverse and there were worlds with magic that worked. Would I turn down a chance to go to such a world, a world that I had all but created?
"You really want to trade places with me?" After all the times I had written about age regression to have it actually happen? No, this was too much. Somehow Carmichael had to be to blame for all of this. I blamed him for everything anyway, that's what friends were for, wasn't it?
"You're going to like my brother, Andy. You really will."
The world spun around and I felt my head try to split open.
I woke with enough of a headache that I kept my eyes closed. I lay there in bed cringing over that weird dream. In some ways I was a little disappointed that it had been a dream, but the last thing I needed was to have my characters start complaining about my stories. It was bad enough that I had one rabid critic with a web site out there.
I forced my eyes open and I stared at the acoustic tiles in the ceiling. Boy, they were a mess. I was surprised that Sharon wasn't yelling about changing them... Wait a moment. We didn't have acoustic tiles anywhere in the condo. Just paint and plaster.
It began to dawn on me that I had no idea where I was. I sat up, threw off the covers, then made the mistake of looking down. I fell back on the bed laughing so I hard I almost choked. My voice squeaked in my ears, and I managed another glance at my impossibly skinny chest and arms.
I sat back up studying my hands, then the rest of me. Either I was still dreaming, or I was delusional or, the little bastard really had body swapped with me. Shades of Caleb Jones and his story about Little Jimmy. Was it getting to be Christmas time already?
This couldn't be real. I closed my eyes and tried to force myself to wake up back in my own room with Sharon next to me. Nothing happened. Okay, that meant I was delusional after all and any second now the guys in the white coats would be along to take me to a nice padded room somewhere -- somewhere quiet where I could write and... No such luck either. I pinched myself again convinced that my surroundings and my body were all too real.
I'm a kid. I'm a ten-year-old kid lying on a cot in -- where was I? Standard deserted warehouse number twenty-nine? I was, I thought as I looked around the room, in Bennett City... And I know where all the magical stuff is, too. This could be interesting.
Get a grip, Hollis, I told myself. You didn't create this world, and if the kid was right, this isn't the Bennett City that you wrote about anyway. What was going to happen next?
Damn, the plot had changed so much over the years that I wasn't sure what had happened. I remember that Bob Elliot, my hero, had been taken to a deserted warehouse by Andy -- the evil twin. Why had I made me the evil twin anyway? Oh, yeah, Carmichael was complaining that my characters were all too good. They never got into trouble, and they... Well, they weren't wimp faggots as the kid had suggested, but they were pretty tame. So, to show him and because I had intended to change the name later, I had written the entire book about me in a really bad mood. That's right, I thought with a pang, the evil twin was killed in the middle of the story, but did that mean he'd die in my body back home?
Probably not. He's not going to be coming back to this world to gloat about how he changed places with me. So how would I find him to change back? It might be fun to be a kid again, but Sharon -- what in the world is she likely to think about all of this? Carmichael would know something was wrong, and so would Sharon after twenty years together. Between the two of them they would have the new me committed, and I wouldn't have to worry about my body getting killed. It would be on ice while I was having fun with this one.
Speaking of bodies, I needed a shower, big time. My mouth tasted awful and there was a thick layer of film on my teeth... I was missing teeth. The tooth fairy at my age? What did I do, take a bath and brush my teeth once a year whether I needed to or not? I got out of bed, and walked over to a closet for the rest of my clothes. There was a full length mirror hanging on the closet door, and I spent some time getting used to seeing someone else looking back at me.
When I wrote this scene with Bob getting used to his new body, I had him getting dizzy because of the sudden lack of height. I found that I felt perfectly normal at this size, although it did take me a minute to realize that I really could fit into those tiny jeans. Curious, I quickly pulled on the rest of my clothes. Okay, not bad, I thought as I gave myself a last once over in the mirror. TV commercials here I come.
I checked my pants pocket for a wallet, remembering something about a wad of cash... Yep, there it was, too. Now, I was rich with money meant for Bobby. He wouldn't have to know about it, though. After all, I couldn't just pull up stakes from one world to the next without some operating capital, and it was in my wallet.
I tried the door, walked down the hallway and peeked inside the next room. There was old man sitting behind a large, wooden desk. He glanced up at me and annoyance flashed across his face to be immediately replaced by a plastic smile. "Ah Andrew, finished meditating early? Come in, I want to go over the schedule for tomorrow with you."
Not sure what to think, I walked inside and saw the name Jack Korman on a name plate to one side of the desk. "Yeah, you'd better."
"As of tomorrow afternoon, our Mr. Elliot will be fired from the Bennett City Middle School and on his way to interview for a job at Westlake. You need to be ready to stop him and get him here at all costs. Everything is depending on this. Once we have him, I will arrange with the Master for the switch and you will be safe at last."
"Got it. I get Elliot here. The wimp faggot is going to regret this, you know."
"I know, but this is the only way we have of dealing with him. Are you ready?"
"Yes, sir, I..." I stopped as a large crow popped into the room squawking.
"Hello? Crow Two-six-nine reporting to the Jerk. Are you the Jerk?"
"Hey, wow," I said. "Two-six-nine, great to see you. You got a shiny thing for my crow, Jack?"
"Thank you, small person," the crow said turning to look at me from one eye and then the next. "My shiny thing?"
"Andrew, it's just a messenger crow. Here, you thief, what's the message?" He gave the bird a dime.
"Arch-demon Ashes wants to know what you did with all that power he gave you for small person?"
"Nothing, I haven't used it yet. Do you know what he's talking about Andrew?"
"Not me. I didn't use any power, Jack."
"There, crow, tell the Master that we have the power in reserve for the operation tomorrow. Got that?"
"Here, crow," I said and held out a quarter. "Say, 'Nevermore.'"
"Nevermore! Nevermore!" the crow cawed out as he landed on my shoulder. I walked away from the desk. "I have a message for Arch-demon Ashes, too," I whispered. "Tell him that the chicken has flown the coop and that he left an angry hawk in his place. Got that?"
"You bet, small person. Chicken gone and hawk angry. Got it." With that he popped out of the room.
"I expect to see you both here no later than three tomorrow afternoon."
"Sure thing, Jack. I'll be here. Can I get a lift home?"
"You have good legs, use them, boy. Get going."
"Okay, okay." I ran through the warehouse until I found the exit. The whole schedule was off. Why was I here a day early and how was I supposed to find my way around Bennett City?
Outside, I trotted down the sidewalk enjoying the feeling of running again for sheer pleasure. I looked back, and frowned. In the book I had Bobby, as me, climb down a convenient tree to make his getaway, but this place was for real; a shabby building in a shabbier business park without a hint of greenery.
After a while, I spotted a Seven-Eleven, and hurried inside. I headed for the soda cooler, picked a Diet Pepsi, more from habit than anything else, and walked back to the counter to look for maps.
"What do you want, kid?" The clerk, a middle-aged man scowled down at me as if he were mad at the whole world.
"A local map?"
"We ain't got any so take a hike."
"What about this one, mister?" I said. I reached into my pocket for the money.
"I said beat it, kid."
"What did I do? I need a map and a drink. I've got money or will you be generous to a lost tourist?"
"What do I have to do? Call the cops?"
"I didn't mean to hurt your store, mister." I dropped the map and put the drink down on the counter. What was with this guy anyway? I headed for the door and the clerk resumed his bored stance behind the counter. Just a jerk that didn't like kids, I thought.
Outside, I flipped through the phone book, and dialed Robert Elliot's number. I waited for a couple of rings when a boy's voice answered.
"Hi, I need Mr. Elliot, please. Is he there?"
"No, can I take a message?"
"Charlie? It's Andy Hollis. Do you remember me?"
"Don't you play Dungeons and Dragons with Uncle Bobby on Saturdays?"
"Yeah, that's me -- sort of. I really need to talk to him. It's an emergency and it means his life and mine."
"Where are you?"
"Beats me. I've never been here before. I'm at a Seven-Eleven on the corner of West Main and Braddock Road. There's a certain Arch-demon that is trying to use me to get revenge on your Uncle."
"Oh, get real with that stuff, will you? I hate that game."
"Okay, but aren't you Prince Celrin of the Silver Forest?"
"He told you that? Okay, I played the game for a while but that was a couple of years ago, and I don't anymore. Look, can you get to the Midnight Café from there?"
"Which way is it?"
"See the Post Office, a block down West Main? Go that way until you hit Main Street and look for the city green. It's right there and I'll get Uncle Bobby to meet you there."
"Thanks, Charlie. You're a real pal for an ex-elf." I hung up and started running.
The first thing I noticed about Bennett City proper was that it was a dump -- and that was being kind. Everywhere I looked, the streets were littered with paper, beer cans, cigarette butts and broken glass. The buildings were all covered with thirty years worth of grime not to mention graffiti. Most of the shops had long since closed and the windows were broken out. The stores still in business had thick plate glass and iron fences across the windows and doors. Where was I? Brooklyn? Pottersville? How the hell did I get back to Bedford Falls?
"What are you looking at, kid?"
The man that spoke leaned against a wall on the other side of the street. There were others, all out drinking in the middle of the afternoon. I ran to the city green and then skidded to a stop wondering how I could get home. People walked the sidewalks and through the green, but all of them slumped down and slouched on their way. The kids I saw playing seemed happy, until their parents slapped them silly. I sat down on a park bench that looked like vintage World War One, and shook my head.
In my story, I was supposed to meet Chip Feldon, a classmate and fellow role play gamer, who would walk me home, but I saw no sign of any kids heading my way. Instead, I stood up and headed over to the Midnight Café to wait for Bob Elliot as instructed.
I found the restaurant to be more of a greasy spoon than the family restaurant I had expected, but I wouldn't complain. I was about to meet two of my main characters face-to-face in the eatery that was proving to be their natural habitat. People did eat in here, didn't they, I wondered as I opened the door and wrinkled my nose at the rancid smell from the grill.
"What do you want?" The waitress glared at me.
"I'm gonna meet my Uncle Bobby here in a few minutes so could I sit down?"
"Outside, feel free. When your uncle gets here then you can sit down inside. Got that?"
"Okay," I sighed and headed out the door for a fresh air. Whoa, that place was ripe, and worse than me. I looked across the street at a bakery and wondered if Bobby would go for raspberry cream donuts instead.
Looking further down the street, I spotted a sign that made my heart skip a beat -- but there it was, in a small, dirty storefront for all the world to see, Spells 'R' Us. I started to walk toward it when I spotted the closed sign in the window and trudged back to the Café. Just my luck.
Ten minutes later, Robert Elliot met me at the Café door. I hardly recognized him until he called my name, and asked me what the emergency was. This was not the hero type I had written about, but he was here, and perhaps the only one in this town that might be crazy enough to believe my story. He stood maybe two heads taller than I did which put him around five and half feet and he did wear a halfway decent suit, unlike everyone else in town. As in my book, he did have sandy brown hair and blue eyes, but his expression didn't look that friendly.
I followed him inside, without saying much more than hello. This time the waitress did show us to a booth, and I hoped I would get used to the stench.
After Bob ordered coffee and donuts for himself, and a banana split for me, I settled back into the cushions and rubbed my hands together. "This is really great, Mr. Elliot. Thanks for the ice cream."
"Charlie said you had an emergency -- 'Life or death' for both of us?"
"Okay, and I do, but this is gonna take a bit to explain. Is Charlie coming?"
"No, I think you scared him off with talk of elves and the Silver Forest. He hates that game. Anyway, what's the problem?"
"Bob? Can I ask you what might be a really dumb question? Did you ever chop off the left arm of an Arch-demon with a magic sword?"
"You mean I haven't told you about that?" Bob smiled as his eyes got a faraway look. "One of my better adventures, I'd say."
"Did you have a young elf named Erien with you at the time?"
"No, your buddy Chip was there and so was most of the gang, but that was before you got into the game, why?"
"I mean for real. Didn't you meet Ashtar in the basement of the Duke of Westlake's castle and fight him with the Great Sword of the Light?"
"Not me. I have an interview with Westlake School tomorrow, but I'm sure I would remember fighting an Arch-demon in the basement of a castle," he said with a slight sneer.
"Okay, but do you know the Lord of Light? Scotty Freeman?"
"Not really. I met him once, and I even called him a Lord of Light, but that was years ago, kid. He put you up to all of this?"
"No. I need to see him right away and I was hoping you could help me get in touch with him."
"All right, you do sound desperate, but what is this all about?"
"The Elliot fortune and my life."
"There isn't an Elliot fortune. I should know."
"I know that too, but your uncle, Jack, doesn't know it. See, he's the one that's made a pact with Ashtar, the Arch-demon to get at the money that your father supposedly left you."
"That's crazy. He took me to court years ago for that money, but he lost. I didn't even know that Jack Elliot was still alive."
I nodded. "He's here, in town but he's going by the name of Jack Korman now. See. Here's the deal. He thinks you still have all that money and he thinks that if he can get a newer and better Bob Elliot then he can waltz into your bank and make a huge withdrawal."
"A newer and better me?" He shook his head.
"Yes, and that's where I come in -- and the Arch-demon. I'm supposed to be sacrificed more or less to another Arch-demon at the Temple of the Light on Saturday morning, okay?"
"How many arch-demons are there?"
"More than you'd suppose, but two of them are operating right here in Bennett City and that rhymes with T and that stands for... well, you know the rest. Anyway, Jack wants me to take you to standard deserted warehouse number twenty-nine tomorrow, and with the help of his buddy the demon, he switches us. I become you, and you become demon chow. Isn't that neat?"
"Not something I would have thought about, really." He gave me a long questioning glare that made me squirm in my seat. But I went ahead anyway.
"Well, there it is then. But, the problem is that Jack doesn't know that I've already switched bodies. See, Andy the first, that's the kid you've been gaming with, decided he didn't want to be you. He decided that he wanted to be me instead."
"Ah, I see. Then who are you?"
"The writer. Hi! Andy Hollis, here. I'm the Story Editor and staff writer for TSAT, the electronic magazine of TSA-Talk. Don't worry if you haven't heard if it, it's in another universe. When I'm not writing stories for TSAT I've been writing novels about Bennett City in this universe. So, when you get right down to it that makes me a genuine invader from the Planet Randog -- an alien from another universe, but I'm not here to steal the secrets of the Archives, at least not yet." That was odd. He didn't pick up on the invaders from Randog reference. That was supposed to be one of his books.
"I think you lost me there. So far, if I have this right, you aren't the Andy Hollis I know, but a counterpart from a parallel universe?"
"Yes!" I said and made the appropriate hand gesture. "Now, I've written about the Lord of Light, but I've never met him face to face. But I need him to bottle up the Arch-demon on Saturday because I can't, or would you like to?"
"Not having any experience in bottling up demons, I'd have to pass Andy."
"Thought so. Hey, food," I said as the girl brought my ice cream and his snack. "That looks good." I dug in and sighed. "I've been diabetic for years and years. I can't tell you how good this is."
"But you can't cure diabetes."
"You can when you body swap. Look at me now. I bet I could eat a dozen of these and not gain an ounce."
"Rub it in why don't you." Bob shook his head as he took a sip of his coffee.
"The thing is, when I fail Jack tomorrow, he's gonna try with another kid -- this time one Kevin Robinson. You know him?"
"Doesn't matter. If it's Kevin, you won't have the demon to fight like I do, but still every thing should work out like it does in my book. You'll get the Command Chair, and I'll be the Elven Wizard."
"Ah, I guess that makes sense, but you know I'd make a great Elven Wizard too," he said this time with a slight grin.
"Sorry, that job is mine. Since you didn't run into Erien that means that my twin brother, Allan and I will find him next summer when we go to England. You know my Dad don't you? Is he an accountant or a doctor here?"
"He's an accountant and he's lived in San Francisco for the last couple of years since he divorced your mother."
"You're kidding," I said, shocked. "Mom runs the Hotel all by herself?"
"What Hotel? Your Mom doesn't work as far as I know."
"Rats and Double Rats, I was looking forward to that," I said and snapped my fingers. "Well, can't be too picky since I just got here. At least, I know where all the magical stuff is -- where the treasure is buried so to speak. Do you know Paul Carmichael? Carl Mathews' nephew?"
"No, Carl has a nephew named Jason, but that's it."
"Then who's going to wield the Real Magic?"
"The Real Magic?" Bob demanded.
"Look, it's really hard to explain, but the Real Magic is more of a feeling than a power, but in that story Paul was supposed to use the Real Magic to..." I stopped as his expression grew bored and almost glazed over.
"There's a magic shop right down the street if you like. Just opened up, too. Go there for this Real Magic of yours," he offered, clearly bored.
"Run by an old guy in a bathrobe?" I asked with a broad grin.
"You've been there already?"
I shook my head. "Not yet, but I intend to go as soon as he opens again. I know that wizard very well, and even though he has a thing for bimbos I'll risk it. What an interview that would make... But how could I e-mail it home?"
"Look Andy, actually I am glad you came to me with this. You do have the makings of a good fantasy novel here, and I'd like to read it when you get it written down. I know a couple of publishers in New York that might be interested in a ten-year-old author." Bob shook his head, and this time I would swear that his eyes did glaze over until they looked gray. He frowned for a second.
"Are you okay?" I asked him.
He started to laugh, "Yeah, right. Look, Hollis, this is the worst piece of drivel I've heard in years. You can barely write a sentence let alone a whole book -- and you called me out here to listen to this?"
"But, it's not a novel in this universe. Look. Jack is really out to get you. You're going to be fired from the Middle School tomorrow, and he's got cohorts -- actual merciless minions -- in Westlake to make sure you don't get that job either. I know. I just left his office and he told me. I mean, he thought he was telling Andy the first, but he told me and I'm warning you he is going to keep trying."
"I'll remember that. I take it you aren't going to that Church thing on Saturday after all?"
"Not if I can help it. I'd prefer not to be demon chow, if there's a choice." I got the money out for the check. "Look. I do need a ride home. I have no idea where home is or how to get there."
"Okay. Come on, then." He sighed and led the way out to the parking lot.
Disappointed, I fought to keep a big smile on my face. This sure brightened my day. This guy may have the same name as my character, but he was nowhere close to the man I had hoped to meet.
With Bobby acting as tour guide, I rode with him through several hard neighborhoods until we arrived at my house. Talk about boxes made of ticky-tacky. The place looked one step up from a shack, and a small step at that. I saw a TV antenna on the roof and a yard filled with broken toys, rusting bikes and flat tires. No way could I live here, but when I checked the address on my library card I found that there had been no mistake.
The woman that came out of the house and walked up to the car could have been pretty maybe ten years ago, but now she looked haggard, and ready to blow. "Is there a problem?"
"None at all, Marian," Bobby said quickly. "I just borrowed your son for a while."
"Yeah, Mom, we're gonna work on a novel together."
"As if. Have you seen your no-good brother?"
"Nope," I said and climbed out of the car. "Thanks for listening, Mr. Elliot, and thanks for the ride."
"Any time. Later dude." With that he took off.
"What?" I asked at Mom's glare. She kicked a rubber ball out of the way and watched it roll across the grass.
"Since when are you so cozy with your father's friends?" She slapped me right across the face. "I told you never to speak to that man, didn't I?"
"But he's my English teacher. I have to speak to him and he wanted to talk to me about an assignment."
She slapped me again. "You've been doing Andy's work for him again?"
"Mom. I am Andy and I haven't been doing Allan's work, that's for sure."
"Oh, and maybe I just really slapped the Champion of the Light silly," she laughed coldly at the thought of such an improbable event. "Saturday, when the Lord of Light takes you to his world why don't you just stay there." She took a third swing and I ducked instead.
"What was that for?"
"For not telling me which one you were when you came home. Get in the house. Now!"
I ran inside. The house had a living room with one couch and a love seat with a small TV, a kitchen and two bedrooms. Twenty years ago this might have been a nice house, but I saw no sign of maintenance in that time. Huge cracks ran along the walls while chips and chunks of plaster lay on the floor. Dingy gray paint peeled from the wall in strips. If this house wasn't infested with mice and cockroaches I would be completely blown away.
I headed for the smaller of the two bedrooms and closed the door behind me when I saw the boy's clothes scattered all over the floor. The Temple of Light, I thought, but Mom didn't sound very enthusiastic about it. Let's see, the story had them, the Hollis' promise the Lord of Light that their second son, Andy, would serve as Champion of the Light. The Lord of Light was supposed to call me to stay with him in the "Spirit World" for a week or two while I learned my duties. But, what my folks didn't know was that the Temple and the Lord of Light was really a front for the Arch-demon Ashtar Astriel who was expecting me to be a sacrifice.
I spun around. "What?" I felt dizzy for a second, then blinked as the room changed. A marble hallway spread out in front of me as far as I could see. I turned and turned until I spotted something in the distance. Thank the Light I thought as I ran for all I was worth until I reached a semicircle of twelve huge thrones built from the same marble as the floor. There, stretched out the full distance of the hall stood a table overloaded with snacks of every description and then some. I used my nose first, and then started filling my face. Ah, this was bliss. So, this is Olympus, I thought as I took a glass of icy cold milk to wash down the chocolate chip cookies. This was the one-time home of the gods, now home to the Lord of Light and his happy henchmen -- more or less.
I heard a crackle of energy behind me and turned. A spark of golden white light appeared in the air about twenty feet from the table. The spark exploded in an extensive display of multi colored lights as a small figure stepped out of the light and into the hall.
The boy pointed the business end of a large, wooden spear at me. "Andy Hollis, I am the Lord of Light. Your involvement with the Shadow has been noted, and I brought you here today to warn you that..."
"Cut!" I shouted out. I waved my arms as I said, "Okay, everyone take five." I ran over to the Lord of Light. "Scotty -- Scotty, baby, that was great, really first rate. Know what I mean? The Light Show, the Spear everything was perfection, but that bit where you come out with this 'I am the Lord High Whatever' has got to go."
"The Lord of Light."
"What-EVER!" Scotty looked about thirteen but I knew he was really around five thousand. "It's got potential, but its time we polish up the edges. Know what I mean? So, while everyone's on break, let's work on the rewrite."
"Andrew, this is a very serious matter, and we don't have time for games."
"Of course not, but if we don't get this shot done in the next couple of takes the Studio will have fits and that, too, is a serious matter. Now, where was I?
"Right, the avenging angel bit. Right. Out. What we need is kid gloves. Know what I mean?
"See, over there you've got the juvenile stuffing his face with candy. Do cute, Andy." I ran back to the table, picked up a cupcake and curtsied. I ran again to rejoin the Lord of Light.
"Great job, kid." I took a bite, and forged ahead before he had the chance to speak. "Look, the kid, in spite of his looks, isn't stupid. He knows he's in Dutch with the bad guys. He's in trouble and if you come down on him like that he might get all sullen and defensive. Do sullen and defensive, Andy."
I ran to the table and made a gesture. "Up yours, Mr. Lord High Whatever." I ran back. "Good job. See why he was hired for this part?"
"What's going on here? Andrew..."
"Now there's no need to get all formal with me. I have it on very good authority that the kid prefers Andy to Andrew any day. Got that? As for me you can call me 'Mr. Director.' I know these dual roles can get confusing but you've got to be flexible. In fact, if you ever want to grow up to be a really swell Lord of Light, like your father, then flexibility is the word for you."
"What did I do to deserve this?" Scotty demanded to the ceiling. "I was just trying to help. Okay, maybe I was a little harsh, but how long have you been with the Shadow?"
"Got it. Good work, Scotty. Okay, places everyone. Scotty you pop back off stage and get ready for the Light Show. Camera three, I want a good tight close up of Mr. Freeman as he makes his appearance. Camera two on my signal pan out to include the juvenile by the snack table. Andy, save some of those cookies for me. Places. Get ready... You aren't popping out, Scotty."
"You've made your point, son."
"Okay," I said with a sheepish grin. "Then let's get down to business. Hi, Andy Hollis, here. I'm the writer from another universe that was sent here by the power of the Shadow to serve the Light, or something like that. And you, young man, have been in most of my books. Okay, well not my short stories, except one time, but that doesn't count anyway."
"And that is supposed to mean?" he asked. By this point I did have him thoroughly confused.
"Just what I said it does. Andy, the kid you thought you called up here switched places with me this afternoon. Now he's running around on my world with my computer and my family, and I'm here, in this rather scrawny but adorable body of his talking to you.
"The whole thing started a couple of months ago when Andy got involved with Jack Korman who's running things for Ashtar in Bennett City. He convinced Andy the First that he should switch bodies with Bobby Elliot, the school teacher, so that Jack could get his hands on the Elliot fortune, and Bobby would be sacrificed to the Arch-demon Ashtar in Andy's place. Got that so far?"
"I think so. I knew Bobby years ago when he was a kid, but what happened?"
"Ashtar told Andy about me, his counterpart in a parallel universe, and Andy decided he would rather switch places with me than Bobby. See. I wrote this whole thing as a novel about fifteen years ago. Yes, I thought it was kind of lame then, and I really did fix it over the years, but Andy didn't want to be fixed so he came after me."
"So," Scotty said staring at his Spear. "You're a writer from a parallel universe that wrote a novel about Andy and me and Bobby Elliot, but Andy switched places with you so you would be the demon's sacrifice."
"Yes! You've got it. Give the boy a cigar, or should I say kewpie doll?" I asked referring to the fact that this young man once went by the name Eros.
"Very funny, and because you wrote this as a novel and fixed it over the years you think you know all about me -- even think of me as an old friend?"
"Yeah, more or less," I said ignoring the sarcasm I heard in his voice. "See, I had this really great scene worked out where you called Andy up here but it was really Bobby and he did that 'I am the director' routine and I just couldn't let it go to waste. Which is even better since Jack isn't going to stop trying so the next time you beam a kid up for dealing with Shadow and he pulls this routine on you, let him go on as long as you like, but then you can get him with... 'Bobby, must you steal all of your material from Andy Hollis?'"
Scotty cracked up laughing. "Oh, that would be perfect, I will have to say that. The look on his face would be so priceless I could even forgive you for doing it to me in the first place. 'Camera three, I want a close up on Mr. Freeman.' That was good. Okay, so now what do I do with you?"
"Save me from Ashtar on Saturday and help me figure out a way to get home?"
"I can save you from Ashtar, but getting home is going to be much more difficult. You don't have any ties to your home world now, and finding it in the multiverse is going to be next to impossible."
"Suppose we try following him. He used the Shadow to get there. Could you check on that?"
"Not really, but it wouldn't hurt to check the reflecting pool."
"Right, chief," I said as we started walking. "Where is everyone? Fidge, Charity and the others?"
"Around. I guess you would know about them, wouldn't you? And, as I'm sure you also know, my Spear will glow in the presence of a deliberate falsehood, so you are telling the truth about all this -- but it is hard to believe."
"Bobby didn't believe me one bit, so get him good."
"I intend to. You know, you were always my favorite character..." The Spear started to glow a pale white. "Man, that thing really does tell on me."
"You mean I'm not?"
"Well, one of them," I admitted and the glow stopped. "Ah, here we are. I would like to see what Andy the First has done to my life."
Nothing happened. The water in the pool stayed still.
"It doesn't quite work like that," Scotty said. "Now when did all this happen?"
"This afternoon. Maybe an hour and half ago."
This time I let Scotty try the pool. The waters clouded over and I saw myself, or rather Andy the First, getting ready for his "meditation." Not much happened but Scotty snapped his fingers. "There. Follow that tracing."
Seconds later the water cleared to show me, the old me, in my studio about to face the new me. We waited out the conversation I had, and watched him cast a spell at me. The image of the boy vanished and left me, or him rather, holding his head. Well, the brat got a headache from the swap, too. That was good news.
He stood up, cast another spell and I watched as my body changed considerably. He must have taken off a good hundred and fifty pounds just like that, and the hair... God, I looked twenty years old and in great shape.
"No fair. I tried every diet known to modern science and then some and he comes in, snaps his fingers and presto-changeo he's skinny again."
"The Shadow can do that as well as the Light. I hope he uses that power he brought with him wisely. The Shadow and the Light do not exist on that world."
"I kinda guessed that, which was why I spent so much time writing about this world. Besides, he's ten years old. How wise do you think he's gonna be?"
"True, but..." We watched as the new and improved me got up and left the studio. I grabbed the chance, focused on the computer and made a few changes while the new me was away. Next, I focused on the file cabinet next to the desk and brought out a pile of papers.
Scotty snapped his fingers and brought the manuscripts to me. "Here," I said as I sorted through the papers. "This is the one. We'll burn it after this."
I heard the phone on my desk ring, and I had Scotty bring me the receiver. "Hello?"
"Uh, Andy Hollis please."
"Speaking, and God am I glad you called, Paul. You'll never believe this, but I'm in Bennett City -- really. You remember the evil twin I told you about? He came, switched bodies with me, and stuck me here."
"Who is this really?"
"Go kiss an elf, Carmichael. It's me. I'm a ten-year-old and my voice changed back. Wait a second. Scotty, could you bring that turkey here?"
Scotty, reading the pages, shrugged and snapped his fingers again before walking over to one of the thrones. He sat down on the base. Paul Carmichael popped into the hall, and looked around, stunned. I threw my arms around his waist. "Hi, Uncle Paul. It's me, Andy -- more or less."
Paul pinched himself on the arm. "Damn, I'm not dreaming this." A second later he pinched me.
"Whatcha do that for?"
"To make sure you weren't the one dreaming this," he said and then picked me up. "My god, you are adorable, Andy. Andy, that is you in the kid suit, right? I know where I am because we've both spent enough time writing about this. But who's he?"
"Scotty Freeman, the Lord of Light, and..." I whispered in his ear, "we don't need to tell him everything we know, okay?"
"But that's not Scotty. I should know, I helped you write a lot of those stories."
"Yes, it is. That's the way he looks here, okay. Ask him for that manuscript when he's finished."
"Oh, yes, the one you never let me read." He hoisted me up higher on his shoulder and walked over to the throne.
"This is good," Scotty said with another shrug. "I don't understand half of what's going on, though."
"That's because that book doesn't really match up to this world at all. Unlike the book, in this world, you're not here, Paul. My folks are divorced and Mom's a real winner. I haven't met Allan yet, and I'm not sure I want to, but Scotty did promise to save me from the Arch-demon. I don't think Ashtar was informed of this switch either."
"Andy, what do you mean I'm not there?"
"I checked. Paul Carmichael doesn't exist on this world so I'm out a piano player and I'm holding you personally responsible."
"You can't because I'm holding you," he said and dropped me. "There, better? Okay, so this isn't the Bennett City that you wrote about, and he isn't the Lord of Light you wrote about either."
"Paul," I said jabbing the man in the waist. "This is one of those things that we talked about a minute ago. He's a perfectly good Lord of Light so let it go, okay?"
"What do you mean?" Scotty asked. "From what I've read here you've described me rather well. I guess I should be flattered."
"No, he didn't. You're not at all like the Lord of Light he wrote about. Is he, Andy?"
"Yes, he is, Paul and you can go to the Silver Forest now and kiss that elf, okay?"
"But Scotty was older than this one by a couple of years at least."
"Mr. Carmichael, this shape was never my idea. I'm the one that has been stuck at this age for the last five thousand years, and there is no need to rub it in. Andy got it right, see?" Scotty handed over the manuscript.
"I've never read this one... Small boy... about thirteen... coppery blond hair and sea green eyes..." He paused for a moment to study Scotty. "Yeah, that's you, but what happened to the other one?"
"What other one?" Scotty asked then looked at me. "Is there something you aren't telling me?"
"No, yes, well, sort of. See, Paul wrote this TG story for our magazine about a boy who really wanted to be a girl but to get her wish she became a mermaid too, and then he got stuck on the story so he left me to write the second part, and I did. But in it I had you skateboarding down a beam of Light instead riding a horse, and Zeus found your candy wrappers on his throne when he came back, and you traded the reflecting pool for a big screen TV and..."
"But that was Eros," Paul cut in.
"Duh, Carmichael. That was him five thousand years ago."
"Actually, that doesn't sound bad," Scotty said with a far away smile. "Skateboarding down the Light... Want to try it?"
"Sure," I said. "I'm ready."
"Okay, I see you were embarrassed about that story but it's okay with me, Andy," Scotty said with a grin. "I mean writers do get a certain amount of leeway. That was it, then?"
"Yeah, for the most part," I said only to see the big stick start to glow.
"Tell him, Andy," Paul said quickly.
"You worm, you. You knew this would happen. One of these days Carmichael you won't be so much bigger than me again, and 'pow, to the moon, Alice.'"
"I would like to hear this," Scotty said, tapping his foot on floor.
"Okay, it's nothing really. See, when I decided to rewrite this epic novel and remake Andy into a new character, Colin. I made Colin a good guy, and to make things interesting I made you, well... I made you a teenager. You know the type, fifteen, super sure of himself to the point of knowing everything."
"Ouch, after a while that could get old," Scotty said with a frown on his face.
"Yes, it did," Paul added. He started giving Scotty a graphic account of all the nasty things that the Lord of Light in my later manuscripts did that this one would never dream of doing. By the time he finished, my face burned a bright red.
"Andy, how could you do that to me?" Scotty asked me, hurt.
"I was just trying to make things a little more interesting, but I made a mistake, okay. It won't happen again."
I felt my body tingle. I help up a hand to watch it shrink into a clawed paw. Seconds later the rest of me shrank as a long, bare tail grew from the base of my spine. After all this time of thinking of changing into an animal it was really happening, yet as my face pushed out into a muzzle and I felt my whiskers twitch I had a really bad feeling about the change.
"Andy, you make a great rat. I always knew you would. I used to call him 'Double Rats' when we were kids."
"Yeah, but you were just 'Rats,' you worm. Okay, this is kind of neat," I said sniffing around. "Where's the big kid to give me a whole roast duck?"
"You know about that, too?" Scotty asked me.
"Sure, it was Colin and Bryan that played Rats and Double Rats in my book, but it would have to be Andy and Allan here. But Andy was the evil twin here, and that part never happened in the original version, but this is so confusing." I said at last. "Celrin didn't say anything about his quest. Did he find that missing ring after all?"
"Of course he did. I'm wearing it, but Celrin's living in the Silver Forest now with his parents. You went there?"
"No, but I'd like to. I wrote that book, too, and since Paul isn't around to borrow the keys to the Palace of Light there, could I?"
"I guess. No one else wants the place. I don't mind if you burn it down, but the Lord of the Forest might." Scotty said with a shrug.
"Nope, just want to borrow the computer some time," I said standing up again on two legs and scratching until the fur vanished. "After all, I know where all the magical stuff is."
"You would," Scotty said with a long laugh. "Okay, but what do we do with Andy the First?"
"Who cares about him, what about me? I don't have a counterpart in Bennett City, but I could move right into the Hotel."
"Nope," I said. "No Hotel. Not much of anything at my place."
"Sorry," Scotty interrupted. "But you couldn't stay in the long run. You don't belong in this universe and the imbalance would be dangerous if you did."
"What about him? He doesn't belong here either," Paul countered.
"But his body does. It was born here, and I have no way of forcing a soul swap back to his old body. The only one that could do that is the Shadow spawn that did it in the first place."
Paul took the phone and dialed a number. "Andy?"
I checked the pool to see the other me on the phone.
"Who's the babe with him?" Paul whispered. "Sharon? My god, she looks twenty years younger too."
"Who is this?"
"It's me, Paul. You don't recognize my voice after forty years?"
"Oh, Paul, right. Uh, how are you?"
I snatched the phone away from Paul. "Hey, kidlet, it's me. I really like what you did with the old homestead, as it were, and Sharon's really sweet, but you don't have that much power left. Be careful with it, okay?"
"Andy? You can't be calling me."
"Guess again, sweetheart. Paul's here with me, and from now on both of us are going to watch you like a bug under a microscope. If you mess with Sharon, or make one wrong move, you're history. Got that? We're gonna burn the rest of the Shadow right out of you. Won't that be fun?"
"I'm not scared of you, or your little faggot friend. I'm going to open this world to the Shadow but not the Light so I'm going to have all the power here. Let Paul try anything with me and... oh, I get it. You want to switch back with me, well that isn't going to happen. I like this world, and when I'm in charge it will be even better."
Paul grabbed the phone. "Not when I'm around you dolt. You switch back this instant or you will regret it for the rest of your short life."
"You can't do anything to me. I've got the power and you don't, so there," Andy the First said with all the conviction of his ten years. I saw Sharon agree with him. She took the phone.
"Paul, you're finished around here. I don't know what happened, but Andy's really got his act together again. He's got all of his old ambition back, and I love the way it makes him act. Leave us alone. We don't need you trying to spoil things."
"Sharon, that isn't your husband in that body. Andy, your Andy is stuck in the body of a little kid here in Bennett City."
"That must be like heaven for him," she said. "He never grew up as far as I could tell."
"Let it go, Paul," I said quickly. " Things aren't great in Bennett City, but I can live with that. I can't live with him doing anything to you or Sharon, okay?"
Paul hung up the phone. "Okay, for your sake, but if he can open my world to the Shadow could I bring in the Light?"
"No, he can't do it anymore than you could," Scotty cut in. " The Ancients that first harnessed the Light and Shadow did not exist in your universe, and without them nothing will happen. He will use up his power and that will be that."
"Andy is stuck here, then?"
"I'm afraid so," Scotty said with a glance at me. "By the time that one realizes his mistake he will no longer have the power to switch back, and I doubt if our Ashtar would help you out, Andy."
"No, he told Andy the First that I was some sort of pervert with a thing for small boys," I complained. "I'm gonna get him for that, too."
"You mean you're not?" Paul demanded. "And all this time I could have sworn... Don't hit me again, young man, or you will regret it too. But Andy, after all, you never write about anyone older than twelve -- fourteen to be generous. The only time you write about adults is to Age Regress them."
"He said that too, you know. Boy, is everyone a critic? I mean Keith was bad enough, but now you and the fake Andy Hollis? I ought to... No, this isn't the time to pull an otter."
"No, since I won't see you again. Or will I?"
"I can always call, or e-mail you, but would you tell Jeff that I'm going to be late with my next story for TSAT?"
"Okay, but couldn't you... Oh, you mean the new computer, I get it. Okay, I see. Never mind, but I'll tell him. Good luck, Andy. See you."
"Bye," I said as he faded out. "Thanks for letting him come here, Scotty. I really do appreciate that. I had better be getting back myself. See you Saturday?"
He nodded. "Wouldn't miss that for the world, Andy. And, you know, this world could use someone like you."
"Thanks," I said to my empty bedroom. I sighed and sat down on the bed. A second later, I watched my mirror image walk into the room. The term 'identical twins' was an understatement in this case. Looking in the mirror, I don't think I could tell us apart except by movement.
A wide, goofy grin stretched my face wide open. "Hey," I said.
Allan sat down on a chair and frowned at me. "Are you okay? You look happy to see me?" He had such a hurt puppy expression on his face and in his voice I felt my heart break.
"Are you okay? Did Mom hit you, too?"
"Mom hit you, and you want to know if I'm okay?" He sat down next to me and pressed his hand on my forehead. "No fever. You know what?"
"What?" I asked.
"You don't want to hear it anyway, never mind."
It finally dawned on me what was happening. "I know that I have to be the biggest jerk in the universe if you feel that way about me."
"No, you're not, Andy," he said quietly. "I know you've been under a lot of pressure from the Church lately, and..." He let the rest dangle.
"That doesn't mean I can just trample all over your feelings. I've been a real jerk lately, and I can't even begin to apologize."
"You don't have to, and you're not a jerk."
"Care to make a small wager on that?" I asked and let my grin turn malicious.
"What do you mean?" he asked with a puzzled frown on his face.
"You're ticklish -- right there," I said and grabbed him.
He flinched and giggled. "Hey, what are you doing? Get off me, you jerk."
"Nope, I'm trying to apologize and I'm not gonna stop until you accept it."
"Oh, yeah? Well, you're ticklish in the same place," Allan demonstrated.
I was. "No fair." I said. Seconds later he rolled on top of me.
"Give?" he asked and shoved a fist under my nose.
"Never varlet, them's fighting words. Take this."
"What's going on here?" Mom stood in the doorway staring at us.
"He started it," Allan said and tickled me harder.
"I'm Andy, Mom, I'm Andy."
"You are such a liar," Allan said. "I'm Andy, Mom."
"Oh, yeah? Then you're the biggest jerk in the universe, and I accept your apology."
Allan cracked up. "I guess I do, too."
"Okay, that's enough." She walked into the room, shook her head at the mess on the floor and lifted Allan off me. "I swear you two are going to drive me crazy, yet. Which one of you started this?"
"I did." I said and sat up. "I was trying a new experiment. Allan is ticklish right there, and..." I took a big chance and I tried the same tactic on her. She flinched at the tickle and almost dropped Allan on top of me again. "And you are, too. Chalk another one up to genetics, Allan. I could use some help here," I said as Allan hit the floor. We both tickled Mom for a moment until even she started to laugh.
"This isn't fair. There's two of you to one of me." She grabbed both of us in a bear hug. "God, it's been a long time since we've done this. Everything's been so tense and for so long..."
"It's that stupid Church thing, Mom. Do I have to be this Champion of the Light?"
Both of them stared at me. "You don't want to do it?" Mom asked.
"No way. Couldn't we just quit the Temple and go to a regular Church?"
"I guess," she said, puzzled. "But you were so hyped on it, and your father and I did promise the Lord of Light that you would be the Champion."
"Not if it means losing my brother, and you. I know I was acting like a real jerk about it, and I've done a lot of thinking about it, too. The Lord of Light can get someone else to be his Champion and leave me out of it."
"I don't believe this," Allan said. "I've really got my brother back?"
"And you won't regret it, either." Mom hugged me again, and for the moment I actually felt like a little kid. This was great.
After spending the better part of an hour searching, I gave up trying to find a good music station on the little radio/tape player in our room -- nothing. This close to DC and no WGMS? I gave up and switched the thing off entirely. I could not find anything good in the tapes in our room either -- or in Mom's collection in the living room. I was missing my daily dose of Brahms and I felt jittery.
"Where's the nearest record store?" I asked Mom over dinner.
"At the mall," Allan cut in. "Want to go with me?"
"Absolutely," I said quickly.
"Okay, but not too late," Mom added.
We rode our bikes, not much in the way of machinery, but they worked and I found that I could keep up easily with Allan. There were some advantages to being ten again. The trip wasn't long, and at least I spotted a large number of kids -- mall rats of course -- hanging out there too, so maybe the shop keepers wouldn't be so rude.
Boy, was I wrong. They were worse. We went into the only music store in the place, a large shop, and I couldn't find a single classical tape. The clerk here, at least, looked pretty young himself. I approached the counter.
"Do you have any classical music at all?"
"You know, Beethoven, Brahms anything like that?"
"What, you want to listen to symphonies, like in the olden days?" he asked with sarcasm dripping from his voice.
"Yes," I said. "So what's wrong with that?"
The kid cracked up. He laughed so hard in my face I thought I'd need a towel. "That's rich, squirt. No one is making recordings like that anymore. Hey, Mark, did you hear this? This kid wants to listen to symphonies."
At that several more people cracked up. "Try an antique store, kid."
"I can take a hint," I said and left the store. What a waste of time that was. Now what was I going to do?
"What's the matter?" Allan asked me as I joined him at the McDonalds®.
"No one listens to good music anymore. I need to get to Tower Records, big time."
"A big music store. Not gonna find Beethoven in this burg."
"Beethoven? What or who is that?"
"Only the greatest composer that ever lived. Well, one of them at any rate. I went to the record store and all they had was C&W and pop."
"Yeah," he said with a shrug. "You can ask Mom if she's ever heard of this other place, but she's not into music at all."
"Well, I know where I can find a whole orchestra if I need it. Want to come along tomorrow afternoon? Right down by Miller's Cliff?"
"No, can't. I promised that new kid I'd play with him tomorrow. Billy -- Billy Preston. He's not a wimp and you might like him."
"Oh, man, I can't wait to meet him that's for sure. We're gonna be great friends, I just know it, but this can't wait. Tell Billy I'll come over another time."
"Whatever," he said with a shrug.
If anything, Andy the First was a methodical child. I found his class schedule, and seating assignments all folded up in his desk with his locker combinations. At least, I wouldn't look like a complete fool in school this morning.
As a fifth grader, I didn't have to switch rooms as much as have different teachers come to mine. Not a bad deal, until Bobby showed up. As the class settled in, he looked around.
"Will any invaders from a parallel universe please raise their hands?"
I held up mine. "Here."
"I know about you, Andy, is there anyone else? No? Good," he said as the class laughed at me. "Class, I will have you know that Andy Hollis is writing a novel -- yes, that's right, a novel..."
The entire class broke up and I found my face flushed and I felt about two inches tall.
"In fact, he claims to be a writer from another universe, so please let's show a little respect here. Do you have a manuscript for me to read, yet?"
"No, Scotty Freeman has it, and after that I promised it to a friend of mine, if I have any friends after this. You will regret messing with me, Mr. Elliot."
"In what way?"
"I see nothing wrong with fifth graders writing books, but I see everything wrong with an English teacher trying to stop them. You should be encouraging my imagination instead of holding it up to ridicule for this class."
"Oh, that's right, you have so much experience as a teacher."
"No, but I do have some as a human being. Can you say the same?"
This time I got the laughs. I watched his face turn red. "Go to the office, Andy."
"Me? You started this." I stood up. "When Mr. Shepherd fires you this afternoon, don't say that you weren't warned."
After my first round of detention, I went back for math class. At least numbers wouldn't turn on me. The whole class clapped as I walked into the room. I gave a little bow as I took my seat.
The rest of the day went downhill. My math teacher wasn't expecting an Andy Hollis that knew how to add, and I was sent to the office again for not living up to my potential. I kept my mouth shut in social studies, and it wasn't me that started the food fight in the cafeteria at lunch, I just sort of encouraged it along, but they blamed me anyway. By the time the last bell rang I think my reputation had turned from a so-so student with a good attitude to a known trouble maker. Oh well.
I stopped by Mr. Elliot's room to find it empty. A few seconds later, he came in with Chip Feldon right behind him.
"But they can't do that, can they?" Chip asked.
"Shut up. Hollis. What did you do, come to rub it in?" Bob asked when he say me.
"Aren't you going over to Westlake School for an interview?"
"Whatever gave you that idea? I'm out the door, as of today, and Captain Stringham at Westlake won't take my calls."
"Want to go pay a call on your Uncle Jack? He's expecting us to show up at his warehouse today. I make a great bodyguard."
"Forget it. Get lost, beat it, you stupid kid. You too, Feldon. Get out."
"What did you do to him?" Chip demanded as soon as we got out the door.
"I didn't do anything to him, if you must know. I found out from his uncle that he was going to be fired today, and I warned him about it, but he wouldn't believe me."
"You actually did that for him? I thought you hated his guts." Chip commented.
"I never did, but I could learn to very easily. I'm getting out of that Church thing tomorrow but I'm not going to make it for the game either. Elliot's been acting weird lately."
"Okay, see you." Chip said and took off.
I left the school building and with my new map in hand, headed for the old Miller Estate. Jack would just have to find another patsy now. The walk wasn't bad, and I found the building in a terrible state of neglect. Yes, it was everything I had hoped it would be, a real plantation style house, with huge grounds and a beautiful view of the Potomac River. I got out a notepad, and started to write as I wandered through the building.
All in all, everything looked in good shape. The place was in desperate need of renovation but it didn't look as if there was any structural damage. I checked the fireplace, found the secret door that I knew was there, but decided I would have to get a flashlight before exploring that any further.
Finished with the house, I crossed Miller's Field and headed for the river. I held my breath as I turned the corner around Miller's Cliff wondering... Damn, I thought, and wanted to cry. There was supposed to be a dragon living here by the gate to the Silver Forest. I had written that story over and over again and I was still proud of it, but no lizard, no Paul, no dragon, no Silver Forest Tape Company and no...
Well, I thought, at least the gate to the Silver Forest was here. There, in the air about a foot from the river bank, I spotted the shimmer that marked the entrance to the last of the old fairy realms. Without hesitation, I stepped through the shimmer and found myself in deep woods, mostly birch, oak and maple. I heard the Forest come alive around me with bird calls, and chattering squirrels.
"The Palace of Light, please," I said. I felt the world spin around me and in seconds I stood before what had to be the oddest building ever built. There was no particular architectural style, just a massive palace with so many towers, side buildings and minarets that my head swam.
I crossed the courtyard and walked inside -- and felt myself surrounded by the Palace servants. I knew I would be unable to see them, but I said to the air, "Hi, Andy Hollis, here. The Lord of Light sent me. I'd like a snack, and guidance to the music room for now."
At last, this is what I had hoped to find in Bennett City. Now, I had the magic, and the music. Standing in front of Scotty's magic orchestra, I had it all: Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, and Schuman. I was the king, I was the god as I conducted the enchanted instruments as they played my all time favorite music. I must have made several hours of recordings that first session, before I settled back to eat.
I worked on various sonatas and trios first before I felt ready to conduct the larger works. When I finished my tape of Brahms' Second, I actually jumped when I heard someone applaud. I spun around to see a small boy sitting by the door, naked except for a pair of shimmery wings.
"Music good," he said. "Concert!"
I bowed to the pixie, who laughed and walked up to me holding out his hand. He gave me a couple of large, gold pieces. "Thanks! Music good."
"Thank you, kidlet." I pocketed the coins, and offered the boy a glass of soda. He took one sip, gulped the rest and asked for more. I had a fan. Once the boy left I went back to the music, Beethoven this time, and had a blast, but I found out that conducting even an invisible orchestra is tiring. My arms were growing heavy by the end of the Fifth Symphony and I thought to call it quits for the day.
The second round of applause was much louder. This time, I turned to face about fifty pixies of all ages. I bowed to more applause. One stood up. "Music good. I paid," he said firmly. "Concert! Pay."
One by one the kids dropped coins and a few gem stones -- shiny things -- in a sack the first boy gave over to me. The invisible servants were quick to bring more drinks and food for the lot, and I thought that this could be a growing attraction of the Forest. At the going rate of gold... What was the going rate of gold in this world? Not much in the Silver Forest, and I remembered why I had Paul go to that huge cast iron sale at K-Mart.
"Okay, what's going on here, and how much for a copy of that? What was it? Beethoven? I haven't heard that in years."
The speaker turned out to be a taller elf boy, dressed in Forest Green. I gave him a wide grin. "Celrin?"
"You got it. My fame has spread far and wide. So, young man, who are you?"
"Andy Hollis, with fan club. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get classical music on the other side of the gate? Not gonna happen, at least in Bennett City. Hicks, all of them hicks. I figured I had better start making my own tapes and Scotty did give me the keys as it were."
"I guessed that, but don't I know you from somewhere?" The elf frowned as he studied me. He wore his black hair long and shaggy over his tunic, but it didn't hide the sharp points of his ears or the bright emerald green of his eyes.
"No, not really and sort of. Did you ever run across a cute, black and white lab rat that loved strawberry gum?"
"That was you? Double Rats?"
I nodded. "Allan didn't want to come along this trip. He was the other rat in that adventure and he sends a big hello, Celsy, from one of your favorite vermin," In that story I had Celrin thrown into a dungeon cell while Colin and Bryan played the rats that came begging for handouts. This Celrin knew what I was talking about, so I let the rest of the questions go.
He hugged me at that point. "I searched all over Bennett City for you guys before I came back here full time. I owe you my life many times over, kid. This is great. You want to have dinner with me and my family?"
"They're not gonna throw rocks at the human, are they?"
"No. Prince Selrick got over that. He didn't have much choice when Scotty got finished with him."
"Okay, this I have to see." So, that part of the story happened, too. Selrick, the leader of Celrin's village in the Forest, was notorious for his hatred of humans. "Let me get my tapes and we're there. More concerts in a couple of days kids. See ya!" I said with a long bow to the pixies' applause.
I walked back through the gate to the Bennett City side -- exhausted. I knew that only a couple of minutes had passed on this side but I had been gone for hours. I sighed as I felt the weight of the gold in my pockets and tapes in my back pack, but then I almost choked when I saw a blue dragon sunning itself on the river bank. The reptile glared at me with yellow eyes that were larger than me. I had written that the dragon was around sixty feet long -- wrong again. This one looked like a hundred feet easy.
I regained my composure and jammed my fists into my hips. "So where have you been?"
A puff of black smoke escaped from the dragon's muzzle. "Are you talking to me?"
"Some guardian of the gate you turned out to be," I said. I figured that if I let him know I was aware of his nominal position here, he may not be so willing to eat me. "I came here looking for you and I waited and waited. I could report this, you know."
"Sorry, kid, really. I had an emergency come up in my family and I was only gone a minute. Who are you anyway? Are you from the Silver Forest?"
"Now, but before I wasn't. I could have been just anyone going through that gate for all you cared."
"I said I was sorry... Say, you're human," the dragon said taking a long sniff at me.
"Watch who you're calling human, buddy," I said firmly.
"Sorry, but I could have sworn... Even the elves can't see me..." The dragon trailed off, lost in thought, before he twisted his neck to peer into the river. "My spell is intact. I happen to appear to be a rock formation. I'm a very good rock formation so why are you talking to me?"
"Let's see. Blue scales like sapphires, huge leathery wings, long serpentine neck and teeth as long as my arm. No, I don't think so. And besides, rock formations don't move their mouths when they talk."
"Okay, then who are you?"
"Andy Hollis, and a close personal friend of the Lord of Light. You know, I haven't met any dragons before, sir, but you have to be the most magnificent dragon that ever lived. I mean you are absolutely gorgeous."
"You're just saying that. I haven't met any kids before, at least not to talk to. Do you play chess?"
"Not very well," I admitted.
The dragon opened its mouth in what I hoped was a smile. "I'll teach you. I have several sets."
"With your treasure?"
"And what do you know about my treasure?" Smoke came out of the beasts nostrils in jets now.
"Nothing. I mean I thought all dragons had treasure. I'm not gonna steal it, after all."
"Why not? Not good enough for you? I'll have you know that I have one of the most extensive hoards ever collected by dragon or human. Since you can see me you shouldn't have any trouble finding it."
"I know that, but what would happen if I did try to steal it?" I asked, although I knew the answer.
"Touch a single gold piece, kid, and I'll burn you to ashes, human or not."
"I knew there was a good reason to leave it alone," I said giving him a wide grin. "Your treasure is safe from me."
"But where's your sense of adventure? Don't you think you could outwit me?"
"Do you have a lamp that grants wishes?"
"No, but I do have a ring that will grant three."
"Not good enough, I'd have to use all of them and then some to get away from you, Nope, I'd rather play chess." I walked over to the dragon and drew a large circle in the ground, then a smaller circle and a third larger one. "See, anyway you figure it, it works out to be one dragon, that's you, plus one kid, that's me, equals one dragon."
"Of course, that's the way it always works out, but I haven't burned anyone to ashes for ages and ages." He sounded wistful.
"You could burn my dad. If anyone deserves it, he does. I could even give you directions to his house. I mean, that would be so glorious -- to see you flying over the countryside, landing on his front lawn, and burning his door open.
"You'd say... 'Mr. Hollis? You should never have left your wife and kids to fend for themselves. You're history.' Then you'd burn him up."
"Sounds tempting. You really don't mind?"
"Nope, not one little bit."
"I'll go tonight. I'll show him for deserting his family."
"Good deal. But there is a slight problem with that, you know. If you go, everyone will know you're not a rock formation."
"There is that," he agreed.
"I mean I'd never tell anyone, of course, and one rock formation looks pretty much like the next."
"That's a relief," he said with a shake of his wings.
"Yeah, but the cops would know there was a dangerous dragon on the loose, and if they caught me they'd give the third degree, you know, they'd beat me with rubber hoses and things."
"They'd do that to a little kid?"
"Yeah," I said with a shrug, "They wouldn't have a choice with a dangerous dragon on the loose. I'd hold out as long as I could, but sooner or later I'll crack and the cops will tell the military and it will be all over. Oh, there will be a lot of scientists and conservationists around who will try to save you, but once the Pentagon gets into the act no bleeding hearts are gonna stop them. That's for sure.
"It's gonna be glorious. I'm sure you could take out a bunch of their fighter planes and tanks, but when they send a couple of heat-seeking missiles after you..." I drew another large circle on the ground, followed by a second circle and a third with a line through it. "One dragon, that's you, plus two tons of TNT equals zip -- nada -- just a hole in the ground. People and scientists will be all over this place for weeks trying to collect pieces of your scales. Then it will be just me."
"To mourn my passing?" the dragon asked, weakly.
"That, and to get at your treasure. With you out of the way I can take my time going through it. I'd keep the magical stuff and turn the gold and gems over to the government for a big reward."
"I think I'd rather play chess."
"But where's your sense of adventure? Care to outwit the entire U.S. Army? I mean, I haven't had a dragon blown to pieces in ages and ages."
"Kid, are you making fun of me?"
"No sir! I'd never make fun of someone that could eat me in one bite."
"You aren't even half a bite. Remember that," he said with another toothy grin. "I'll get the set."
"Andy," Mom said from the living room as I headed for the kitchen. "Someone's been calling you all afternoon."
"Did he leave a name or number?" I asked with a frown on my face.
"No, but if the phone rings, get it."
"Okay." I pulled a gold piece from my pocket. "Hey, take a look at this."
"Did your Grandmother give you that? Okay, but don't eat it all before dinner."
"It's not chocolate. I got this..." I stopped as she left the room not listening to me.
"Hey, did I get one, too?" Allan asked from the bedroom.
"Sure," I said and started to dig for another coin. "It's not chocolate. I got this in the Silver Forest -- from a pixie."
"Right, and I'm an elf. I'm not that hungry, so you keep it."
"Want to come along the next time I go? You'd really like it there," I said quickly.
"Sure," he said with a laugh. "Next time."
I wandered into our room, put a tape in the player and turned it on. The phone rang before the tape started. Running for the living room, I grabbed the phone. "Hello?"
"Ah, Andrew," Jack said. "Where have you been?"
"Playing chess with the neighborhood dragon, why?"
"We had a certain arrangement, did we not?"
"I know, I know. I spilled my guts to Mr. Elliot, and he didn't believe me. I couldn't get him to come with me anyway. He just got fired and he was a little upset. In fact, he didn't want any kids around. But, as for me, Jack, I quit. I made a deal with the Lord of Light, and if you don't want to end up a toad I'd suggest you find another patsy. Kevin Robinson comes instantly to mind since he's going to be the next Champion of the Light at the Temple. Talk to him."
"But you have a signed contract with the Master."
"Not me, Chuckles. I'm not the one that signed them papers. The one who did used that power to switch bodies with me. He's gone, he's history and he's out of here. Get the picture?"
"So, that's it... And you are?"
"Andy Hollis, of course. Al'n'Andy, Inc., and a full supporter of the Light as always."
"Very well, Andrew. I will leave you to explain to the Master."
"Like I said, I don't have any use for old Ashes right now. I'm moving in and taking over. It's a nice little world, and I could do a lot with it. See you." I hung up the phone and shook my head.
"Al'n'Andy, Inc. I like that, but who did you switch bodies with?" Allan asked me, quietly.
"It wasn't me, Al. Your evil twin brother switched places with me. You want me to switch back?"
"Not a chance. But, if that's the case, who are you?"
"Andy Hollis. I was a forty-something writer with a family and grandkids, no less."
He started to giggle. "That's rich. You really are crazy. If you ever do change back into my evil twin brother, you're dead. Get the picture?"
"Okay, partner." I patted his shoulder.
After class on Monday, since Allan didn't want to walk with me, I took off for downtown. This time, I didn't need any help with directions as I walked past the Midnight Dump and across the street to Spells R Us. I walked in the door, amazed at all the junk I saw on the shelves and looked around. A large dog, that looked more wolf than Shepherd, gave me the once over, and soon enough I heard a man's voice say, "Hello, Andy. Welcome to Spells 'R Us."
"Okay, Mr. Wizard. What are you doing here?" I said with a laugh. He really did wear a ratty old bathrobe that might have been a wizard's gown a century or two ago.
"I go wherever I'm needed, and this world needs me quite a bit. I could say the same about you."
"Me? There really isn't that much I can do here. This isn't the world I wrote about, and I still feel kind of lost. I know there's no going back, but..."
"True, you have to make the most of what you find. The young man that brought you here made a mistake, of course. Somewhere in the vast multiverse there is an Andrew Hollis that wrote about this world, and he would be perfectly content to find himself here. But, would you trade places with him?"
"No, I don't think I could. I was hoping you were going to say you could send me home after all, and I was sort of afraid you might. There are some compensations to living here, but everyone is so different."
"True, but you now have the solution to the problem. Here, in this world, the Enemy won ages ago. The Real Magic is gone, and there is no Paul Carmichael to fight for it as in your book. But, there is Andy Hollis. You know the Real Magic, and you could begin to bring it back."
"With what?" I demanded.
"The tapes you have in your backpack as a start."
"Come on? I'm gonna save the world with classical music?"
He laughed at me. "Hardly that, Andrew, but it's a start. Or consider it a foundation upon which to build the world's renewal."
"But how?" I demanded. "The Real Magic is a feeling, it's not a power that can be brought back."
"You know the Real Magic, Andy. You always have, but you have never had a clear vision of exactly what it was. You groped for a definition in your books, but you only came close. You feel it, and you know it, but you have never named it. Maybe it's time that you did," he said.
I stared at the old man. He had a stern face, with eyes that really did seem to look right through me. "It's a feeling."
"It's hope, Andy. Hope -- and that is one of the most powerful emotions around. It's the feeling that people have that anything is possible because with that feeling anything really is possible. Yes, you can find it in the great symphonies and other works of art. People have listened to Beethoven and Brahms and felt the greatness that gave them the courage to carry on. That is the Real Magic, and that is what has been drained from this world. People here have no hope."
"I was laughed at for wanting to listen to this music. I don't think there is going to be much of a market for it."
"Yes, and you were laughed at by people that have been taught for decades that nothing matters. There are those here, however, that could make you very rich. Contact them with those tapes."
"Steve Corbin? In my book he was a great guy, one of the world's richest men, powerful, and a fantastic father to Sandy. I dread to think about what he's like on this world. Besides, I'm dirt poor in this world and I don't have a chance to get in with him. I don't have a Gramma Agnes."
"No? Have you talked to your new grandmother lately? Her name is Agnes and she is rather fond of you."
"You're kidding. I guess with the Carmichaels gone... You mean it was 'Corbin and Hollis'?" I asked thinking that in the original story Agnes had married Paul's grandfather. If she had married mine instead... That would make Steve Corbin almost an uncle. Now that really did have possibilities.
"Yes, and she has a basement worth checking out."
"Thanks, and thanks again, Mister," I said with trying not to shout. "You may have something there. I don't suppose you have anything that would change me to a fox and back?"
"Not this time, but take this," he said and pressed a medallion into my hand. "What is it?"
"A way to give the Real Magic a helping hand. You will know how to use it when the time comes."
"Ask yourself how many SRU stories you've written."
I blushed. "Well, uh, I was going to but... Got it, sir. So when do you go on to Metamor Keep or The Blind Pig?"
"If I am needed there, I will go, but I expect to stay in this location for some time to come. There's a lot of need here. Good luck."
"Thanks again," I said and headed out the door. Damn how stupid could I get. I never bothered finding out if I had any other family still living.
"Going somewhere, Andy?"
I looked way up at the tall man with the bright yellow eyes and I nodded. "Arch-demon Ashes I presume?"
"Very clever. Jack told me what happened."
There had to be something wrong here. Demons have gray eyes, and I made a big point of that in all of my stories since so many elves were taken for demons with their green eyes. Reality gives my stories still another kick in the butt.
"Well, you have only yourself to blame for this, mister," I said with a sigh. "What gave you the right to tell your kid that I was some sort of sick pervert?"
"Apologies are in order for that. Actually the writer that wrote this novel is a sick pervert and would have fit into this world quite nicely. You, on the other hand, do not."
"I also happen to be a close, personal friend of the Lord of Light so don't start making rude noises at me." I warned him.
"Just because you wrote about the Lord of Light doesn't mean you know him in person, Andrew. I know the kind of tricks you are so fond of. 'The chicken has flown the coop,' I believe you said."
"Yes, and just because you apologized doesn't mean that I'm all sweetness and light instead of an angry hawk, either. So, it's good meeting you, old scout, but I really have to go."
"Do not take my power lightly, young man." He glared at me and I felt his power gather.
"No, actually it's you I take lightly not your power, Ashes. I never killed you off in any of my stories but that could be arranged, you know."
"Oh, good, I see you two have met." We both turned to see Scotty standing there -- in street clothes at least. "Young Andy here is a close, personal friend of mine, Ashtar so I wouldn't advise you to make any more rude noises at him."
"Thanks, good buddy," I said with my "cute" grin. "He didn't believe me when I told him that."
"Then maybe we should work on his manners."
"I can take the hint," Ashtar said, and glared at me. "So it wasn't a trick, but don't count on his help the next time we meet."
"I'd say that a lesson in manners is really in order," I told Scotty, loudly.
Ashtar walked away without another word.
"He may be right, Andrew. I'd stay as far away from that creature as possible."
"I intend to. Thanks for cutting in like that, though. I'm on my way to Gramma's house," I said quickly.
"Queen takes bishop, checkmate," the dragon said with a certain amount of glee in his voice. "I win again."
"Man that's rough. I thought you were gonna teach me the game instead of going for the quick kill."
"I am teaching you the game. You lasted about twenty seconds longer than in the last game."
"Thanks, a lot, really. One of these days I'm gonna beat you and good."
"Won't happen, and besides, it would be such a shame if it did. I mean I've grown to like you, Andy, and I don't want to make a meal of you."
"You'd really eat me if I won?" My voice squeaked with the thought.
"I really would, remember that." Puffs of smoke covered my face for a second and I coughed.
"Another round?" I asked, and picked up a pawn.
"Sure, why not. You can take white this game. Say, Andy, what do you wish for?"
I started laughing. "A wish? You've got to be kidding."
"What's wrong with a wish?"
"Nothing," I said and sat up straight. "I just couldn't picture you as my fairy god-dragon. I'll take standard wish number 1 B please."
"And that means?"
"You're giving me one wish, right?" I asked.
"That's it, one."
"Probably written in the Book of Rules, too," I grumbled. "One wish per kid."
"And how did you know about that?" he asked with a hint of irritation in his voice.
"One of my better stories, actually. I loved that one. Anyway, my life is getting to be pretty good right now. My Gramma is selling the coins I've been getting from my Silver Forest Concerts, and we're starting our own recording company to sell my tapes. I don't need money so I want the other one."
"See, when you give a kid one wish he usually wishes for money, also known as standard wish 1A, but if a kid goes around with more than a buck or two in his pockets there could be trouble. Instead I wish I could fly."
"You what?" he asked almost laughing.
"I wish I could fly. You've got wings although I've never seen you in the air with them but I bet it isn't a big deal to you. I don't have wings, and I'd love to be able to fly."
"Wealth beyond compare, power to do anything, and the kid wants to fly like a bird."
"As a bird, please. I'm the one who's into transformations."
"Here, take off your shirt, and put this on."
I looked around, and stripped off the shirt. He placed a chain with a large medal around my neck. "And?"
"Think about flying."
The medal showed a stylized picture of a bird in flight on one side, On the other side it had a picture of a man holding a bird in one hand and reaching out to a horse with the other. I let the metal go and thought about flying with my own wings. For a second, I felt the medal burning into my chest. My arms felt stiff. Unable to touch the medal with my hands I bounced it away with my neck only to have the second side drop on a different section of my chest and burn me as well.
I knew what the medal was supposed to be, of course, but I never dreamed I would ever get the chance to use it. This was going to be fun, and fairly powerful magic at that.
Dizzy, I had to close my eyes. When I woke again, everything felt wrong. My mouth felt dry and so did my tongue... No teeth. I fluttered my arms feeling the feathers drag on the ground. I stood up and looked down at the pattern of bars and stripes that ran along my chest.
"You're a hawk? I didn't take you for that type, kid," the dragon commented with a snicker.
"I've always been a hawk, that is when I'm not a fox, but I wanted to fly more than have a fur coat this time around. Now what?"
"The sky is that way," he said with a slight chuckle.
"I mean how do I use these things? I've never been a bird before."
A puff of dragon's breath knocked me off my feet. With my wings flailing I felt myself leave the ground momentarily. I tried again and this time I had liftoff. Once airborne, I shot over the river like a rocket. "This is great," I shouted as I soared back over the dragon then on toward town. I veered to my left and headed over the Corbin Estate.
Steve Corbin had what was basically a private world here and at least that hadn't changed in this version of my story. His house could have passed as a baronial manor that had to have at least three hundred rooms. Miles of forest, lakes and riding trails covered the grounds between the well patrolled and secure walls around the grounds. At one point, I spotted a flash of red toward the ground. I folded my wings and dropped, but half way down I backpedaled in the air, and spared a cardinal's life.
After that I took a spin around town, and from the air it didn't look so bad. I circled a couple of times then headed back to the river. I landed a few feet from the dragon. "That was perfect, thanks." I concentrated on turning back into myself, then yelped as I realized I wasn't wearing anything. I spotted a pile of my clothes and pounced on them.
"You could have warned me about that. I thought the clothes would change with me," I said pulling on my pants.
"What would a hawk want with clothes?"
"I see your point, but..." I complained.
"Pawn to King four," he said and moved the piece with a claw.
"Hey, you said I could play white this time."
"See that, you're learning, this is white, and that is black. It's your move."
"Cheater," I said trying not to laugh.
"Please, come with me this time, Al. Everyone wants to meet you," I said for the twelfth time.
"I don't care. I told you I'm not into those stupid fantasy games of yours. I didn't think you were either." His eyes flashed as he said that.
"But it's not a game. My concerts are getting huge. Celrin and I are going to pick up my latest earnings and go on to see the dwarves about building a regular auditorium for me. He wants to see you again, too, you know. Come on, Rats. We're supposed to be a team, here, and I don't want you missing out on all of this. After that, I'm going over to Gramma's."
"I know you're hanging out there a lot, but I don't know. You know how Mom feels about her."
"I know, but she's still our grandmother no matter what Dad did or didn't do." I said quietly. "I know my tapes and CDs aren't going to make the charts, at least this year, but the business is growing, and I want you to be a part of it."
"No, you can play all the games you want, and with whoever you want but leave me out of it."
"How about one game of chess with my dragon? That wouldn't hurt anything," I said grasping for anything that might tempt him to come along. "Allan, how often do you get a chance for a Real Magic adventure? And you're turning it down?"
"There isn't any magic, and you know it. Just go, then. I don't want any part of it. You can go play with your pixies and fairies and whatever, Andrew. God, I never thought I'd say this but you're the one that's turning into a wimp faggot."
Tears burned my eyes. "Allan, it's me. I can prove it to you. I can prove all of it to you."
"Don't you understand me? I don't care. Just leave me alone," he said and I heard the genuine sorrow in his voice.
Afraid to cause any more pain, I took off. So much for my twin brother. When he found out that all of this was real he would be very hurt, but there wasn't anything I could do. I wasn't going to drag him into this screaming and kicking all the way. Then again, why wasn't I dragging him into this screaming and kicking? Sometimes with magic adventures that's the only way to start.
Turning around, I walked back into our room, and stared my brother down. I pointed at his chest. "So, you rat, you don't believe in magic. Try this." I held out my hand in the gesture that the man on the medallion had made and a second later I watched my brother shrink down to a lab rat. "Well?"
Allan squeaked for a bit, then stood on his hind legs and sniffed the air with his whiskers twitching. "What did you do to me?"
"What do you think I did to you, Rats?"
"I'm a rat. I'm really a rat. This isn't a dream, I know it. I was a rat before and you have two seconds to turn me back or..."
"Or what, rodent boy? Gonna bite my big toe?" I asked sweetly.
"You are so dead, Andrew Eric Hollis."
"Big words from a little creature, Allan. Would you like me to buy you a cage and an exercise wheel?" I asked with sugar dripping from my voice.
"Turn me back!"
"Guess what I am," I said with a wide grin.
"You're just as much a rat as I am."
"Nope, it's even better. Check this out." I shrank down to hawk and glared at the rat, predator to prey. "Stupid games, huh?"
"Okay, I give. I give. I never meant they were stupid, it's just that you've always been such a liar that I couldn't believe you this time. Hey, if you can do magic, you can turn me back, please, pretty please with a cherry on top?"
I turned back to boy first before I let him off the hook, or claw as the case might be, and gave him back his human shape. "What's the matter, Allan, did my hawk impression scare you?"
"You are dead meat, Andy. Okay, give, how'd you do that?"
"Magic. Want to go riding with Celrin and me now?"
He thought for a moment. "You mean this is for real?"
"How real was the magic I just did? Look, if I'm lying to you about this I'll let you be the hawk, okay?"
"What about now? Could we fly there?"
"I don't see why not. Oh yeah, there is a slight problem, but we could go straight to the Palace for clothes. It's okay, you're gonna love this."
"I'm going to kill you, Andy Hollis. You are so dead." Allan pulled on the last of his clothes.
"What did I do now? I told you there wouldn't be any problem getting clothes here."
"No, but you've been hanging out here for months and months and you've left me at home."
"Oh, listen to 'Mr. I Don't Believe in Magic' and 'Leave Me Out of Your Stupid Games'."
"I didn't know this place was for real. But all those kids. Doesn't anyone wear clothes around here?"
"Those are pixies, Al. They never wear clothes and you will get used to them. They will tease you unmercifully, if you let them, but they are also my best customers."
He shook his head as we went downstairs to get something to eat.
"So, it's Rats and Double Rats again," Celrin grinned as we entered the dining hall.
"Yeah, and I really had to twist his arm to get him here, at last." I said and patted Allan's back.
"Celrin?" Allan asked.
"Come here, you little rodent. I was about to go through the gate myself to find you if he couldn't convince you to come along." They hugged for a while and I grabbed a plate.
"You doing a concert this afternoon?" Celrin asked.
"Yeah, Gramma needs more tapes and I haven't touched Mozart yet."
"I don't know if the world is ready for that, but I'll be here."
We rode out on three geldings to the gate that lead to the mountain ranges. Sure enough, two dwarves were waiting for us. They had a couple of carts loaded with boxes and chests.
"Took your time today, laddie," One of the men said. "Two of you, is it? I suppose you'll be wanting double pay from now on?" The others laughed at that.
"Andy?" Allan asked. "Is all that for us?"
"Sure is, laddie. First down payment on our debt. His Majesty sends his regards and will have the second payment ready next week."
"Tell His Majesty I'm not in that much of a rush. Let's see what we've got." I opened one of the boxes. "Okay, Al, check this out."
"Those are real?" he demanded staring at the cut diamonds in the box.
"Finest in the mines, laddie."
"Gramma said we had too many gold coins to sell at the moment so I've been working out a deal with the dwarves for the jewels."
"You mean we're rich?"
"Yep, but the problem is convincing Mom about that. She doesn't believe any of this either. She thought it was a joke when she signed all those papers for the Tape Company for me."
"Are we going to move to a mansion in Beverly Hills?"
"Swimming pools, movie stars..." Celrin said before I could.
"No, but what about the Miller Place? I've already got crews doing the renovations on it."
"But, Andy, that place is huge. What are we gonna do with it?"
"Turn it into a Hotel and with Mom's cooking make it a five star restaurant, too."
"You've got this all figured out. So, how do we get all this home?"
I gave him a malicious grin, pointed at the chests and watched them shrink down to the size of a pack of gum. Packing them all into a backpack, I asked. "Any more questions?"
"I guess not," he said with a grimace. "I'm going to spend the next year kicking myself for not believing you."
"Hi, Gramma," Allan said as we walked through the door.
"It's about time you came over here, young man," Gramma Agnes said as she hugged my brother. "I was beginning to think Andy was an only child."
"Do you know what he did to me?" Allan paused when we saw three people in the living room. "Oh, sorry, I didn't know you had company."
I gave a quick nod to the young couple with a boy about my age sitting on the sofa.
"It's okay, boys. I want you to meet some friends of mine," Gramma started.
"Could it wait a second, Gramma?" I asked her. "You've gotta see this."
"I'll be right back," she told her guests, and followed me into her den. I set out the chests on the floor and let them grow back to full size. "I got the gems you wanted. See?"
"Oh, my God. Look at all of this," she half screamed. She went from chest to chest opening each one. "I know you're in a hurry to make money, Andy, but this is more than I can handle."
"Aunt Agnes? Are you okay?"
At the use of my grandmother's name, I turned and stared at the young man standing in the doorway. He was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and I could have kicked myself for not recognizing him.
"I'm fine, Steve. I really am. My grandsons, Allan and Andy. I think they could use some advice about all of this."
"Oh, good heavens, look at this. These stones are yours?"
"Yes, from a private source, you understand," I said quickly. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Corbin. We're gonna be neighbors."
"So, you're the ones that are doing the Miller Place? Winifred? Winnie? Will you please come here?"
Allan tugged on my arm. "That's the Mr. Corbin?"
"Sure is," I whispered back.
"Steve, if your aunt is having problems we can always come back?" Mrs. Corbin said from the doorway trying to figure out what was going on with Gramma screaming and everything.
"Not a chance. We're going into the jewelry business with the boys here, and I wanted you to take a look at our stock."
As the grownups went about looking over the treasure, I slipped out and walked out to the living room. The boy waiting there for his folks was about a year older than me, and I held out my hand. "Hey, Sandy. Hi. I'm Andy Hollis, and I'm really glad to meet you."
"So you're the musician? I hate your guts." He said with a slight smile. He shook hands anyway.
"And I think you're the greatest kid that ever lived," I smiled back at him. "I know your Gramma is giving you a hard time about the music, and I'm sorry, but I wanted to let you know that I'm here to help you in anyway I can. How's it going at Hayworth?" I asked remembering the story I had written about him. Hayworth was a private academy and the school to attend in Northern Virginia.
"You're serious? I hate it at Hayworth and I can't wait to get out of there."
"Yes, but how did you know about him?" He stared at me. "You don't go there, do you?"
"Nope, but I wrote the book. Look, I know what's going on between the two of you, and some day, when you're ready I can tell you, too."
He stared at me, and shook his head. "The scary part is that I believe you. I know you, don't I?"
"In a way..."
"Hi, Mom," Sandy said. "Did you meet Andy?"
"Yes, and I see you have too. You haven't killed him?" She put her hands on my shoulders.
He gave me a sheepish grin, and shook his head. "Nope. I've got the feeling that we're going to be best friends. In fact, I know it. I can't kill my best friend, can I?"
"That's probably good advice, since he is now officially richer than you are," she said, I think trying to add fuel to the fire I had just put out.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
I looked up and back at her. "I am? Cool."
"Mom, you said not to make an issue about money, but this is just plain stupid. That little -- well, Andy can't have more money than me."
"With all the gems and the money his company is starting to bring in, I'd say by a great deal too, so keep that in mind. Your father is taking us all out to dinner, but Allan asked me to ask you about your mother?"
"She's still getting over the divorce and everything and she has a real hard time with any of Dad's family and friends. But she needs to be in on this, too. Could you do me a real big favor?" I told her what I had in mind, and she agreed immediately. She took out her own phone to make the call.
"Hello, Marian Hollis, please. Hello, Marian, this is Winifred Corbin... No, this isn't a joke, Mrs. Hollis. I'm calling on behalf of the new owner of the Miller Hotel. I'm not sure if you are aware of all the renovation that is being done to the Manor House, but the owner wanted me to offer you the job of managing the place... Yes, that's right. He's a really big fan of your cooking and feels that with your expertise you could easily turn it into a five star restaurant. All the staff you will need will be provided, and you will have complete freedom to run the place... No, actually you and the kids could probably move in within a couple of weeks and get the place ready at your own pace... No, he's not concerned about that. Tell you what, Steve and I wanted to invite you out to dinner tonight with your kids, of course to talk this over... They know. Andy's right here if you would like to talk to him, and Allan is still in with Steve... Just a second."
I took the phone. "Hi, Mom."
"Andy, if this is one of your jokes..."
"Not a chance, Mom. I wouldn't do something like that to you. We have a lot of things to talk about, but since I'm richer than Sandy Corbin now, we have to go easy on him. Poor kids, you know."
"Hollis, that isn't fair," Sandy called out from the other room.
"We'll be over in a little bit. Oh, Gramma Hollis will be with us."
"I suppose I can't avoid that. I'll be waiting."
"See ya, Mom."
"Is she coming?" Allan asked as he walked into the living room.
"Yeah, but she still thinks this is one big joke."
"You never said there were two of them, Mom. I suppose he's richer than me, too? Can I have a raise in my allowance?"
"No," Mr. Corbin said as he walked Gramma into the room.
"But Dad, I can't let these two get ahead of me. I have my position to worry about."
"It's my position, kid, and at the rate Andy is going I may have to start worrying," he gave me a wide smile.
"Thanks, Uncle Steve," I said with a wink to Allan. Sandy fumed silently.
After four months my life was pretty well straight. The Hotel was doing better than anyone's expectations, restaurant critics were fighting to get in, and record sales were soaring. So much so, I was actually invited to appear on a local talk show.
Allan and I turned up at the studio an hour early for make-up and things and to get used to the lights and cameras. Also appearing on the show, was Mr. Robert Elliot who was now teaching English at the local high school.
He met us in the hallway and went so far as to sneer at us. "Okay, Hollis. This is it. We're going to have this out in front of the entire city."
"What for?" I asked. "What did I ever do to you except mistake you for a human being? I admit I was really wrong about that, so it was my mistake and I'm sorry. There, is that good enough?"
"But what was that all about how you were a writer and you had written about me?" His gray eyes seemed darker today, and I felt a chill running down my spine.
"I made a mistake, okay? I'm sure that out there in the multiverse somewhere is the Bobby Elliot I know, but I'll never meet him, so I'm stuck with you and that's the end of it."
"But you are from another universe?"
"Man, get with it, Bobby. That was months ago. Now we're changelings. Allan and I are really elven princes that were exchanged for our human counterparts in this world because we were too sick at birth to live there. Show the man your ears, Allan."
"There, Mr. Elliot," Allan said and brushed back his hair.
"Very funny. Just you wait." Bobby stormed off.
"He acts more like a kid than you do," Allan said. "What a creepazoid he turned out to be."
"Yeah, and he could have been so cool, too. Are you prepared to blast the creepazoid from the water, Captain?"
"You bet, Admiral. Let's get 'im," Allan said with a thumbs up.
"Just follow my lead, and if anyone asks we are invaders from the Planet Randog."
"Got it," he answered.
"Come over here, and sit down, boys," said the man in the gray suit. "I'm Howard Jenkins, the host of this show."
We crossed the stage and took the chairs he pointed to. "Okay, are you set? Mr. Elliot will sit next to you, Andy."
"I'm Allan," I said.
"You are such a liar. I'm Allan."
"I don't want him either, so couldn't he just sit over there by himself where no one will notice. I thought we were gonna talk music."
"We will, but Mr. Elliot has some important issues he wishes to discuss with you."
"That's a good one," Allan said, and laughed. "Asking my brother about important issues?"
"Sure, why not? I'm gonna run for President when I'm twelve and I had better get used discussing the issues now. Ah, here comes the creepazoid now."
"Welcome to the show, Mr. Elliot. I'm Howard Jenkins, the host. Have a seat there, and we will be on in a few. Do you have anything to say to the boys before we begin?"
"I want the truth out of you, Hollis."
"Me? Allan, have I ever lied to you?"
"Every chance you get. Why?"
"I have not. You are such a liar, no wait, that's me. Sorry about that. Okay, you want the truth, you're gonna get the truth."
"Good afternoon everyone. This is Howard Jenkins with NoVa Scope. Today's guests are a remarkable pair of young men who have not only set the music world on fire, but have done wonders in bringing a Four Star Restaurant and Hotel to Bennett City. May I present Allan and Andy Hollis?" We waved. "Also with us is a local teacher and who has some issues he wants to discuss with young Andy.
"Okay, let's get the ball rolling here. Bob? You had some questions?"
"Yes, and thank you, Howard. Okay, everyone, I think this has gone on long enough. I'm here today to show the world that Andy is a fake. He isn't a ten-year-old genius at all. Tell us where you're from."
"You mean you don't know?" I asked, shocked. "I'm gonna be eleven soon and even I know that," I said then frowned. I leaned over and stage whispered to Allan, "He means that whole birds and bees thing, doesn't he? I didn't think we could talk about it on TV." A couple of the stage-hands laughed at that.
"We can't and Mom will kill you if you do."
"You told me that you were a writer from another universe. Tell us about that," Bob went on ignoring me.
"But, Uncle Bobby, we told you that we finished that game weeks and weeks ago."
"I am not now and I have never been your uncle."
"But I bet you wish you were," I said with a wide grin.
"Never mind that," he growled. "Are you from another world?"
I nodded. "Of course I am." Looking straight into the camera with my most haute expression, I intoned, "Tremble before me, earthlings. I am Captain Brozshneek, Commanding Officer of the Imperial Invasion Fleet from Randog that is even now orbiting your world. Our continuing mission is to explore new worlds, conquer all life forms and boldly go where no Randogian has gone before."
"That's Star Trek," Allan pointed out.
"I know, and they got it right for the most part, except that we Randogians have already conquered most of your major space alien races. That's right, the Klingons, the Borg, and even those little green guys with the big eyes from Close Encounters? They're all Randogians now, but that happened long ago and in a galaxy far, far away."
Jenkins held his hand to his mouth and coughed, I think, Allan actually rolled his eyes. "How can you say that with such a straight face?"
"Don't let on that it's a gag, Al. Uncle Bobby really believes in all that space alien stuff. It's okay, Uncle Bobby. Allan's still mad that I went to Area 51 and all I brought him back was a lousy T-shirt."
"Say, Andy," someone called out from off stage. "What about that autopsy tape?"
"That was my poor Aunt Gladys in that tape. We had to use the K-Ray on all those people that did the autopsy. I mean, they should have let the old gal have a little privacy in her final moments."
"Is that why you're invading the Earth?"
"No, not at all. You earthlings can't help being curious. We designed you that way. The reason we're invading is the sudden cut off in music. You see, we've been listening to Earth music, well for as long as Earth has had music, but for the last couple of gleecks -- oops, that's centuries in your language -- we've been really fond of composers like Bach, Brahms, Kalinnikov, and Beethoven. I mean, on my home planet they always make the top ten in the charts. But for the last few years we haven't been picking up any more classical broadcasts. All we get is this Country and Western stuff and let me tell you that is hard on sensitive Randogian ears."
"That's Invaders from Mars or something," Allan cut in.
"So? We conquered Mars last year so any more invasions are ours, okay?"
"Sorry," Allan said quietly, "I must have forgot."
"Have you had enough of this Mr. Elliot?" I asked with a pointed glance.
"No. When you are finally going to tell the truth about yourself?"
"Yep, the truth is out there, somewhere."
"That does it," Elliot stood up and pointed at me. "I'm not going to let you make a fool of me any longer."
"Trust me on this, Uncle Bobby, I'm not the one making a fool of you."
"You're from another universe, and I can prove it. I have the power now to send you home, and I will end this right now. Ashtar! Now -- send him back where he belongs!"
A slight tingle ran across my forehead, but nothing happened. I did, however, slump over in my chair. Allan started yelling and I managed to look up at him and wink. "We've got a live one, Rats," I whispered and he nodded his head but kept on yelling. Something was wrong here, very wrong, but I couldn't place what the problem was.
I groaned as I sat up holding my head. "What happened to me? Where am I? What are you doing here, you little wimp?"
"Andy, it's me, Allan. Don't you remember?"
"Oh man, my head hurts. I was at Jack's place, meditating... Are we on TV?"
"Oh, no," Allan said with a loud groan. "What did you do to him? You've made him his nasty old self, again."
"I am truly sorry for that, Allan, but it had to be done. That wasn't your brother before, but a real invader from another universe. He's gone now." Bob said with a certain amount of pride in his voice.
"You're gonna get yours, Mr. Elliot. Why are we here?" I demanded.
"You don't remember? You went to the wrong world," Bob said quickly.
"The Andy Hollis you sent supported the Light. He got to be buddies with the Olympian, and he would have become the new Elven Wizard if he had stayed. Now you are going to try again, but this time you will bring the right one back."
"You mean I'm getting a brother worse than him?" Allan asked.
"Oh, shut up, Allan. Just think, if Jack had his way it would have been him."
"Oh, then that is worse. When are you gonna switch again? I really liked the last one." He said with a slight wink to me.
Jenkins cut in, "You mean you aren't the conductor of the Silver Forest Symphony?"
I looked at Bob and said. "Finally, you asked about music. I'm really tired of playing all these games with Uncle Bobby here. I mean the space aliens were bad enough but now he's some sort of junior warlock and demon worshiper. That's not something I'd brag about to the whole state, Uncle Bobby." I watched him visibly deflate in his chair. "I told you that you would regret messing with me, but did you listen? And would you tell that demon person -- Ashes? That he's stuck with me now, too."
He glared at me. "But the spell worked. I felt it work."
"I know there is such a thing as freedom of religion and everything, Uncle Bobby, but isn't this pushing it with the school board. Do they know you worship demons? I mean I bet your classes are a real blast. 'Young man, if you don't get your grades up you will be sacrificed to the Elder Gods.' 'That does it, young lady. I told you to be quiet now you can spend the rest of this period as a chair."
The stage crew cracked up, and Jenkins started choking back the tears.
"It's not like that," Elliot protested.
"I bet. The PTA should hear about this... 'Well, my Gertrude spilled some milk at lunch and Mr. Elliot turned her into a mop to clean up the mess and her hair has never been the same."
"I told you I don't do that. It was only a one time thing with Ashtar. I swear it." The words were right, but for a man who might have lost his job over this, he didn't sound that concerned.
"Oh, right. I know how those guys work. You get some power, just your own dirty little secret, then you find you need more and more until they get you." Allan started humming the theme music from The Godfather. I could have kissed him. I started doing Marlon Brando. "You asked us for a favor, Bobby, and some day we will ask a favor from you. Or make you an offer you can't refuse."
"I've got the power to get rid of you. You don't belong here."
I gave him my warmest smile. "Ah, but there's where you're wrong. I do. This is my twin brother, and my world, and my life. Your spell worked perfectly because I do belong here."
"You've won this round, Hollis," he said.
"Yes, and we've really got some act going here, Uncle Bobby. Next week we're gonna go on another show and you can tell the world that Allan and I are really elven princes that were switched at birth with our human counterparts. I don't know what we can be the week after that, but I'm sure you'll think of something."
After the show, Allan walked me out of the studio to look for Mom's car. "Andy?"
"What's it like on Randog or wherever we're supposed to come from?"
I saw the serious expression on his face, and managed to give him a rather sheepish grin. "I kinda wondered how long it would take you to figure this out."
"I've known for a long time that you aren't the brother I started out with, but I was kind of scared that if I asked about it you'd go home."
"Not a chance. Your first brother gave me a gift that I could never begin to repay."
"What? He wasn't that big on giving things. Getting things, yes, he liked that, but not giving."
"He gave me a twin brother and that means more to me than anything else in the universe."
"You're serious?" Allan asked, surprised.
"Absolutely. Look, I finished grieving for my family back home long ago. My wife and Andy the first are doing quite well, or so I've heard, and he isn't interested in coming back here. He's got what he wants, and look at me. I have all this, and I can fly, too."
He put his arms around me and we hugged for a second. "I know that you're my real brother, and that other Andy was just someone who looked like you -- for a while, but now you're stuck with me."
"And I'll never regret it, either. One of these days I'm gonna have to tell Jeff about you. He'd never believe me in a million years."
"One of my friends at home. I haven't bothered to tell him about this, yet. I mean, there isn't any need for him to know, and I did just send in my interview with the wizard."
"What, the old guy in the new magic shop?"
"Yeah, he's really famous at home. Come on, partner, let's get Mom to drive us down there now. It's about time we started thinking about new fur coats."
"That's bad," Allan said with a pained look on his face.
I turned, placed one hand on his shoulder and said, "Al, there are two things you really need to know about me now that I'm your brother. The first is that I've been called 'Double Rats' for most of my life for a good reason. And..."
He just smiled and waited. Finally he asked, "And what?"
"And... You're it." I said and took my hand off his shoulder.
"What do you mean, I'm it?"
"You're it." This time I bopped him on the nose. "Tag, you're it!"
"I'm gonna kill you for that," he said and waved his arms.
I dodged out of the way. "Oh, yeah, rodent boy? Look, here's my big toe. Why don't you just bite it?"
He laughed and held his stomach. He took one step toward me, tripped and fell to his knees. He moaned.
"Al? Are you all right?" I hurried back only to have him grab my knee.
"Yeah, now that you're it."
"Cheater, that's no fair. Oh, there's Mom."
"Where?" he asked.
"Somewhere," I said and tagged him. "Tag by deception, this could catch on."
"Maybe not," came a man's voice from behind me. I turned around to see Ashtar a few feet away on the sidewalk. He stared at me, then Allan, and shook his head.
"Well, Mr. Astriel, I am beginning to have serious doubts about your competence as an Arch-demon. First you pick Jack, then Bobby Elliot? I think you should ask the boss to spring for a good course on 'What to Look for in Henchmen,' if I were you."
"This is a demon?" Allan asked studying the man in turn. "What makes a demon arch, anyway?"
"Beats me. You could rub his back and see if that does it."
"I don't think so. He isn't arching now, is he?" Allan asked shaking his head.
"No, and I don't think he's arched in a long time from the expression on his face. Have you, Ashtar? What's the good of being an Arch-demon, when you don't arch?"
"You are both so very funny," he sneered, "but, as you said, you now belong on this world so you are subject to my power. Since the Lord of Light isn't here with you, I think I will enjoy giving you that lesson in manners." He rubbed his hands together. "You are so very helpful, Andrew," Ashtar said. "So I think you would really profit from being a messenger crow for the next fifty years since you seem to like the creatures so much."
"I'm Crow One, and he's Crow Two, okay? We can collect shiny things with the best of them. Hello? I have a message for Arch-demon Ashes from the Light's Lord. Go home. That message. Where's my shiny thing?" I said in my best crow voice. "See, I'm ready for the feathers anytime. Think you've got the power to do it?"
"Andy, what are you doing? I don't want to be a crow."
"Sorry, Al, but Messenger Crows rule." Reaching into the demon's pants pocket, I pulled out a silver piece. "See, my first shiny thing. I want lots more of those, too, Ashes." I shoved it into my pocket and found the medallion that the old man had given me. The metal felt warm to the touch. It was there to help the Real Magic, but how? "Help, please."
Ashtar sputtered and swung his fist at me. I ducked out of the way. "You little brat. For that I ought to turn you into a worm and feed you to the crows. Give that back."
"It's not nice to hurt little kids, mister," I said. He kept his fist clenched and I backed up a pace then two.
A ball of green light exploded in the air between us. An elf stepped out of the light, shook his head and looked around the city streets. I felt his power rise as he took a good look at the demon. "Where am I?" he demanded, and pinched himself on the arm. The elf looked about twelve, just an inch or two under five feet. Elf children take a much longer time to grow up than humans so this specimen could easily have been twenty or thirty rather than twelve, but at least he had power, and from what I felt a great deal of it as well.
"I get it," he said looking at us. "Rats and Double Rats, but which one is which?"
"We're famous," Allan smiled and poked me in the ribs.
"I'm Andy Hollis, Master Elf," I said making introductions. "My brother Allan, and this is the Arch-demon, Ashtar. I think he would like to make your acquaintance, too."
"Elf?" the boy asked with a frown as he reached up and felt his ears. "So I am. Well, this changes everything." He looked down to check out his clothing, which was fairly standard for the Silver Forest but a bit out of place here: a long, dark green tunic, with leggings, leather boots, and a wide green belt with a gold clasp. He also wore a long sword in a scabbard by his side.
"Hello, Ashtar, I've heard so much about you. Are you bothering kids now?" the elf said quietly.
"Another one who thinks he's funny. Andrew, do you really think this child could stand up to my power?"
"Oh, please," I said. "Is someone paying you to say lines that bad? Get him, kid. He deserves it for that one."
"I quite agree," the elf commented. He raised his hands and I saw the green light strike the Arch-demon on the chest. Ashtar staggered from the blow but cast his own spell. As the fight began gaining momentum, a crowd gathered. I looked around to see Mr. Elliot right up front.
Back and forth the demon and the elf fought, exchanging spell for spell, magic for magic.
"It's okay, folks. We're doing a promotion for a new Saturday morning adventure series, Ashtar's Arch-Enemies. Each week a new super hero will try his hand at bringing the evil Ashtar to justice at last. This week, as you can see, the Arch-demon is fighting a young, but powerful Elf Lord sent by the Light to protect us from Ashtar's evil plans.
"Allan and I play Timmy and Tommy Krueger, the kids responsible for uncovering the Arch-demon cults in Bennett City, and if that elf can't stop him in the nick of time we just might be demon chow after all."
As a rule, Arch-demons are rather notorious for being a humorless lot and Ashtar proved no exception. He threw a bolt of black light at me that was blocked only by the quick thinking of the elf. And yet, something felt so very wrong.
I stared at the demon, with his glowing yellow eyes, then turned to watch Bob with his flashing gray eyes. Bob seemed to be whispering to someone, but... I looked back at Ashtar, and felt my stomach churn. I stepped forward into the fray, grabbed the elf's sword from the scabbard, then spun around to press the blade into Bob's neck.
"You want to stop this now?" I asked him and watched the man flinch away from the blade. "Think I won't use this on you, Ashes? I have a feeling that while you're in that form this sword will really hurt you. Suppose I chop off your head? That won't kill you, but it could put a crimp in your style for a few hundred years."
"Okay, just get that thing away from me."
"I don't think so, demon boy, not yet. What happened to the school teacher?"
"Nothing, if you must know. He wasn't using this body much, so I borrowed it. He's fine." The construct with the yellow eyes collapsed to the sidewalk and promptly turned back into Bob Elliot.
"You grabbed him in the Café, didn't you? Just to keep tabs on me?"
The flesh on his neck kept twitching away from the touch of the sword. "That stupid urchin of Jack's made a huge mistake. As did I," he admitted. "I will say, Mr. Hollis, that I seriously underestimated your determination and abilities. We had no clues from the life you led on your home world."
"Go ahead," I said with a long laugh. "Say it. Back home I was a fat, lazy slob that wrote a few minor stories for the Internet. I had no major accomplishments in my professional life; a few in my personal life, but -- remember this, Ashes -- never, ever mess with a writer. All of my energy and my focus in life was here in Bennett City. This isn't the world I wrote about, but it's close -- close enough anyway. And I'm making it mine."
"That is the problem, Andrew. People are paying attention to your music. So much so that the Corbins are trying to reinstate the New York Philharmonic. This is unacceptable. The Shadow cannot allow this to continue."
"And your point is?" I asked and pressed the blade closer.
"Be on your guard, young man, because we will triumph against you." With that, the man vanished.
"Way to go, Andy," Allan recovered first. He slapped me on the back a few times. "You showed him."
"Thanks, partner, and thanks to you, too, Master Elf. I don't believe I caught your name?"
"I don't believe I threw it," he said. He accepted back the sword and sheathed it by his side.
"Perhaps you would care to tell all of us, then?"
Turning, I gave the Lord of Light a hard glare. "It's about time you showed up. For a while there, I thought that he had me. If it wasn't for the timely intervention of our pal from the forest here, he probably would have, too."
Scotty knelt down besides Mr. Elliot. "Has anyone called an ambulance for this man? He needs it." One young lady ran to make the call while the rest of the crowd began to disperse. Scotty turned back to us. "You are?"
The elf bowed, and said with a slight smile. "I am Paulin."
"You're kidding," I said and hugged him for all I was worth. "I wrote a story about you."
Allan sighed. "Is there anyone in this town you haven't written a story about?"
"Nope, everyone who is anyone got one."
"I appreciate the effort," Paulin told me, "but the real question is how did you bring me here?"
"With this." Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out the medallion. "I got if from the wizard a while ago to help with the Real Magic. When Ashtar started threatening me, I used that power to summon help, and here you are."
"At least I didn't turn female," the elf commented as he examined himself.
Bobby Elliot groaned, and opened his eyes. "Oh, dear God, what happened to me?" He sat up and looked around. "Andy, please tell me the last few months have been an awful nightmare."
"Sure, Uncle Bobby. The last few months have been an awful nightmare. Do you feel better now?"
"No," he said glaring at the elf. "You could have killed me, and a couple of times I thought you had. Thank God you figured this out, kiddo. Ashtar would have wasted me without a second thought." He managed to stand up. "Hello, Scotty, it's really been a while, hasn't it?"
"That it has, Bobby."
"You know, when all this started Andy came to me and I didn't believe his story. I never dreamed all that stuff about arch-demons and elves and magic was for real. That is, until Ashtar just took over. He really has a thing against you, and who is Paul Carmichael?"
"My best friend in the whole world," I said.
"If there is any way you can get this guy to this world, do it. Ashtar went ballistic when he found out Paul knew about your switch and that he spent time with you, Scotty. I swear, the Shadow is scared to death of this guy.
"And that kid you switched with, Andy the First you called him, he is really a piece of work. I never really liked him. I'm sorry, Allan, I really am, but..."
"I know," Allan said with a long sigh.
The ambulance arrived, with flashing lights and siren blaring. Bobby looked back at me. "Look, Andrew, I am not the person you wrote about. I wasn't abused as a kid, and I've never been that irreverent in my life, but I could try."
"Sure, I would like to get to know the real you, Uncle Bobby. In fact, next summer Allan and I are going questing for the Great Sword of the Light. In my book you use it to chop off Ashtar's left arm."
"I'm there," Bobby said quickly. "I'll chop the rest of him up too -- if I can."
"Whatever you need, wherever you need to go, you can count on me for this venture," Scotty said.
"Thanks, but Allan is all I really need, now."
As the medics took Bobby away, Scotty said, "Okay, Andrew, I want an explanation, and I want it now. Ashtar has been disgraced in the Shadow Hierarchy for centuries to come over this, you brought in a completely unknown elf lord from who knows where. What happened here?"
"Ashtar happened, that's what," I said, and took in a few deep breaths to relax. "It's very simple when you think about it, but here goes. The kid gave me the clue but I never picked up on it until now. Ashtar sent Andy the First to switch places with me -- well, not me, really, but that counterpart of mine out there in the multiverse that wrote this particular novel. Andy told me that Ashtar had given him the power not Jack Korman and I didn't pick up on that because I was still thinking in terms of the novel that I wrote not that other me.
"So, Ashtar knew all along that the kid was switching with me, but what he didn't know was that Andy had made a big time mistake and found me, not the other one that would have supported the Shadow. Ashtar must have been watching me, and closely when I got here, and when I decided to spill my guts to Bobby, thinking that he supported the Light, Ashtar figured out I wasn't the right Hollis counterpart. He possessed Bobby at that point, and used Bobby to keep tabs on me.
"Remember when Ashtar came after me outside the Spells 'R Us store?" Scotty nodded. "That wasn't his true shape, was it?"
"Of course not," Scotty said with a shrug.
"I didn't know that, then. I wondered about the yellow eyes but since nothing else was matching up to my story I thought I had made a mistake about that as well. When I faced the same form again just now, I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't figure out what. That is, until Paulin stepped in. That gave everything away."
"In what way?" the elf demanded. "I thought I was fighting the real thing?"
"You were supposed to. Ashtar really didn't care what happened to Bobby, but he did know enough to figure out that if he attacked me, Scotty or someone would come along to the rescue, and once Bobby was utterly destroyed and everyone else gone he could use the full extent of his power to go after me. Neat trick, but when he failed to blow you, Paulin, to atoms within a couple of minutes, it finally dawned on me what was going on. The demon you were fighting didn't have Arch-demon level power because the real Arch-demon, gray eyes and everything, was spread too thin."
"Thanks a lot for that," the elf said with an angry snort. "I could have been killed."
"Not if you gave yourself some time to learn to be an elf," I answered.
"What do you mean by that?" Paulin asked.
"Look, Carmichael," I said with a wider grin. "Do you really think that elf suit fooled me for even a second? I don't know what you're doing with those ears, but a real elf lord would have run for the hills if he thought he was facing Ashtar by himself. But you -- you just rushed right in -- like you do everything else -- without a thought. I did double check and when you didn't question who the wizard was, I knew for sure."
Paul laughed at that and nodded his head. "I guess I had that coming, Andy. But now what do I do? I can't go home looking like this. And why didn't you tell Bobby who I was if you knew all along?"
"Are you kidding? I don't trust that version of Bobby Elliot one little bit. He was the hero of my counterpart's novel and that Hollis was a real pervert. I'll give the man a chance but I'm watching my backside every second in more ways than one."
"May I?" Scotty took the medallion and examined it for a moment before handing it back. "That is some spell, and this one can't go home. He is home."
"What do you mean?" Paul asked. "I have a life, a job and... aw heck! Who needs to sell computers when I've got Real Magic right here? You know how hard it was for me thinking I'd never see you again, Hollis? You know the kid that took your place is a real winner."
"Tell me about it," Allan said. "I had to live with him my whole life before I met my real brother."
"Right," I said. "Sorry, Paul, this is Allan, Allan, Paul Carmichael, my best friend in the whole world."
"Glad to meet you, kiddo, and if you ever need any tips about how to handle this one, just ask me. That is if you can find me. Since there isn't a Hollis Hotel where do I stay?"
"There is a Hollis Hotel now, the old Miller Place, remember?" I said.
"But you said it wasn't there."
"It is now. I started the Silver Forest Tape Company and bought it with the profits. I'm a recording star now."
"But that's supposed to be me. I'm the one that owns the Tape Company and everything. What did you do with my Gramma Agnes?"
"I didn't do a thing with her, Carmichael, and she's my Gramma Agnes now. In this world she married my grandfather, Edgar Hollis instead of your grandfather and the rest is history. Now it's my Uncle Steve, and that's my dragon out by the river, and my Palace of Light."
"But all of that is supposed to be mine. What do I get?"
"Him," I said and pointed at Scotty, "and a one way trip back to the forest, elf boy. If you think I'm gonna let you horn in on any of this you are crazy." I laughed for a second. "You know something else, Carmichael? Now, when I tell you to go kiss an elf, you can really do it. So, the best of luck to you wherever you wind up -- and go kiss an elf."
Paul made a fist and held it under my nose. "You remember this, Hollis? Do you? Remember all the times I had to beat you up the last time we were kids?"
"Yep, I do, and that's why you aren't staying with me. Besides, now I've got a big brother to defend me from bullies like you."
"Uh, Andy," Allan said. "I'm your big brother."
"I know that, Al. He's been really mean to me, so beat him up."
"But he's a lot bigger than me and he has a sword and magic power and everything. Besides, I think he should stay with us so I can get tips on how to keep you in line."
"With a cage and a whip," Mom said walking up from the car. "What's going on here, and where have you two been?"
Scotty snapped his fingers and I found myself frozen in place. I couldn't even talk. He said, "So glad to meet you, Mrs. Hollis. I'm Scotty Freeman, a friend of the twins, and this is Paul Carmichael. He's going to be staying with you at the Hotel for a while. He lost his home and family and needs a place, preferably the room next to Andy's, and everything will be taken care of by the State agencies." As Scotty spoke suitcases appeared on the sidewalk next to Paul's feet.
"I see," Mom said with a blank look on her face. "Nice costume, Paul. Glad to have you with us."
Scotty produced a stack of papers. "These are Paul's. He will need them to transfer schools and to get his ID in order."
"You are a real pal," Paul said and shook Scotty's hand. "I'm really glad for the chance, Mrs. Hollis, and I won't be a problem, I promise."
"This is going to be so great," Allan said. "I can help him move in and everything. Isn't this great, Andy?"
I struggled to shrug, but couldn't move a muscle.
"He thinks it's really great, too," Scotty said. "But, I had better be running along myself. Nice seeing everyone. Andrew, if you ever need me, call my service. We'll do lunch sometime, and next summer is on me."
When Scotty vanished, I could move again. "Thanks a lot, you creep," I said into the spot where Scotty had been standing shaking from the effort.
"The car is over here, Paul," Mom said. "Why don't you help him with his bags, Andy?"
Paul looked at me and smirked, "My bags, boy."
"You're gonna pay for this, elfie. Really pay!" I hugged him. "Welcome to my world. I don't know what I would have done without you, either." I gave him a pat on the back. "Always a team, aren't we?"
"Yeah, but it's a threesome now," he commented.
"Yes, but he's worth it," I said looking over at Allan with a huge grin on my face. "He really is. Shall we?"
Together we picked up the bags and followed Mom and Allan to the car.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Now that TSAT has lost two of it's most prolific writers to Bennett City and the Silver Forest, we need your help. Please send your story submissions to TSAT Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.