Talrin's Great Adventure
by Paul Carmichael
with a lot of help from Andy Hollis
well maybe not a lot but some,
okay a fair amount.
©2000 Paul Carmichael and Andy Hollis -- all rights reserved
If every single computer manufacturer folded and went bust tonight, I would be a happy man. Mine has always been a love/hate relationship with the machines since I make my living selling computers to wholesale distribution centers and some retail chains. Now, that I'm seriously looking at age fifty, there are times when the thought of traveling to some godforsaken place and demonstrating one more piece of software is enough to make me scream. And yet, in a week or two I know I will be back out there again, pushing the newest and best ever computer one more time. Just one more time and that will be it. How many times I've broken that promise to myself.
From the plane window, I looked out to watch the lights around the DC metropolitan area start to flicker on. The plane landed at BWI a few moments later, and I hurried through the airport to reach my car before dark. I FedEx-ed my samples home and all I had was my briefcase to worry about, that and half a dozen new contracts that would make my paycheck look better despite my boss' complaints that I didn't get seven.
With any luck, I thought, I would have dinner with the Hollis' and I could catch up on my e-mail on Andy's computer. Settling into an empty seat on the shuttle bus heading out to the long term parking lots, I pulled out my phone and I dialed Andy's number -- only to hear what sounded like a small boy at the other end.
Now I've known Andy Hollis since we were five years old. We've stayed together through high school and college, and I was his best man some twenty years ago, too. I never married, but then with my job marriage was not an option -- then or now. I helped him with his kids, and now his grand kids, but this voice was new.
"Uh, Andy Hollis, please," I asked.
"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?" I said trying not to laugh at the kid's joke.
"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?"
This was getting rich. Andy had gone to great lengths to set up practical jokes on me before, but bringing in characters from his books was going a little too far. Then the world spun around and I felt it go blank.
An eternity later, I found myself standing in what appeared to be a marble hall that stretched out for miles. Two boys stood a few feet away from me; one held a telephone receiver and the other a sheaf of notebook paper.
The older boy walked over to one of twelve huge thrones that made a semicircle around a huge reflecting pool and sat down to read while the younger boy threw his arms around my waist.
"Hi, Uncle Paul, it's me, Andy -- more or less."
This could not be happening. I pinched myself on the arm and the pain convinced me I wasn't dreaming. A second later, I pinched the boy's arm as well.
"Whatcha do that for?"
"To make sure you weren't the one dreaming this," I said and picked the boy up.
I knew where I was, how could I miss it? Andy and I had been writing about this place for decades. The hall was Olympus, the ancient home of the Greek gods, built into a pocket in space around the earth rather than on a mountain in Greece. The complex covered hundreds of square miles and I looked over at the snack table that covered a few square miles of its own.
Here I stood, in a room that could not exist, and to make matters worse I was being asked to believe that the small child that had attached himself to me was really my best friend. Yet, as I looked at the boy's face, I knew deep down that it was true. "My god, you are adorable. Andy, that is you in the kid suit, right? I know where I am because we have both spent enough time writing about this place. But who's he?"
"Scotty Freeman, the Lord of Light, and," he whispered in my 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."
For well over thirty years, Andy and I had shared stories, coauthored others, and even stolen from each other when the need arose, but there was one manuscript that he never let me read. He had told me about the story, from time to time, but kept begging off letting me read it since he thought it was too lame.
The whole business began at age ten when we started making up stories. I became a great pianist, and Andrew gave himself a twin brother and a more upscale lifestyle. He made his father a medical doctor, rather than an orchestra conductor, and he had his mom run a Five Star Hotel and Restaurant. But, in this version, Andy became the evil twin and had switched bodies with Bobby Elliot, the school teacher.
I wished I had read the manuscript because now it seemed we were in the middle of it. Raising the boy higher on my shoulder, I headed over to the circle of thrones to confront the Lord of Light.
"This is good," Scotty said and shrugged. "I don't understand half of what's going on, though."
"That's because that book doesn't match up to this world at all. 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 asked.
"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," I said and dropped him unceremoniously on the floor. "There, all 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," he said as he jabbed at my 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," the boy said with a long sigh. "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..." I looked up from the pages at Scotty. "Yeah, that's you, but what happened to the other one?"
"What other one?" Scotty asked then gave the kid a pointed glance. "Is there something you aren't telling me?"
"No, yes, well, sort of," Andy stammered out. I could see that he was trying hard not to blush. "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," I clarified the issue.
"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," Andy said quickly changing the subject. "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," the kid said, relieved.
"Oh?" Scotty asked as the Great Spear of the Light began to show a pale white glow.
"Tell him, Andy," I said with a wide grin.
"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 the floor.
"Okay, it's nothing really. See, when I decided to rewrite this epic novel and make Andy into Collin, I made him 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 yourself 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," I said and tried not to laugh at the expression on Andy's face. "The older Scotty was a real dictator that terrified everyone including all of his pals, you know, the happy henchmen -- Fidelity, Charity -- that lot. They quit and he replaced them by sentencing people to turn into them for a few hundred years."
Yes, Andy's face was now a bright red. He gave Scotty a sheepish grin. I had to laugh at that since it was the same expression that he wore constantly as a kid the first time.
"Andy, how could you do that to me?" Scotty demanded.
"I was just trying to make things a little more interesting, but I made a mistake, okay. It won't happen again," Andy said and held up his right hand.
Andy's entire body began to glow with a pale, while light. He started to shrink and I watched amazed as fur began to sprout in waves over his head and face. A long, bare tail stretched out from his backside and he finished up as a small gray rat.
"Andy, you make a great rat. I always knew you would. I used to call him 'Double Rats' when we were kids," I explained.
"Yeah, but you were just 'Rats', you worm. Okay, this is kind of neat," he said. His nose was twitching and I watched his whiskers quiver. "Where's the big kid to give me a whole roast duck?"
"You know about that, too?" Scotty asked.
"Sure, it was Collin and Bryan in my book that played Rats and Double Rats but it would have to be Andy and Allan here. But Andy's the evil twin, and that part never happened in the original version, but this is so confusing. 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 later on." With that, Andy grew back into a ten-year-old human. "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," I said.
"Nope," Andy said and shook his head. "No Hotel, and 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," I said.
"But his body does. That 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."
No, I thought. This was not going to happen. I wasn't going to let my best friend get stuck on this world as a little kid no matter how cute he looked. I'd go crazy at home without him, and so would his wife. I grabbed the phone and dialed Andy's number.
The kid, meanwhile, looked into the pool and we both watched the new Andy answer the ring.
"Who's the babe with him? Sharon? My god, she looks twenty years younger too," Andy commented.
"Hello, Andy?" I asked as I heard his voice on the phone.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"It's me, Paul. You don't recognize my voice after forty years?"
"Oh, Paul, right. Uh, how are you?"
Andy, the kid, took the phone away from me. "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."
I pulled the receiver out of Andy's hand. "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 himself 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?"
"Okay, for your sake," I said and hung up the phone. "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 the boy. "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'm gonna get him for that, too."
"You mean you're not?" I asked sweetly. "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 mugwump. 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."
I blinked and found myself still on the shuttle bus from the airport. Okay, you shadow-spawned imp from hell, this means war.
The next morning, Saturday, I woke, stretched and took in the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. I sat up in bed, reached for the phone to invite Andy out for breakfast when I remembered the incident from yesterday. It didn't happen, I told myself a few times. There was no way that I could imagine that I had really gone to Olympus and met the Lord of Light let alone believe that Andy had actually body swapped. I dialed the phone.
"Hello?" Andy's voice answered after a few rings. I could hear the voice of a famous rabbit in the background. So far so good.
"It's me," I said quickly.
"Look, you stupid creep. I told you last night I don't want anything to do with you. I know all about you, Mr. Carmichael. Your little pal isn't here anymore so go play with someone else. Yeah, I know about the affair you two have had for years and years. I'll tell Sharon about it, too."
"What?" I asked not wanting to believe what I was hearing. "I ought to come over there and punch your lights out for that kind of lie."
"Oh yeah? I can prove it, too. The Master told me he has hundreds of pictures of naked boys in his computer and when I find them I'm going to prove to everyone what a couple of perverts you guys are."
"Boy, you really bought that garbage from Ashtar, didn't you? Andy's about as straight as you can get."
"You won't say that when I get finished. Don't call me again," he said and hung up the phone.
Right, well he could spend the next century going through Andy's hard drive for all I cared. He wasn't going to find a damn thing.
After breakfast, I took my second cup of coffee with me to the living room. I switched on the news channel. Unlike Andy, my friend and that obnoxious brat too, I was not into Saturday morning cartoons.
I watched the weather and sports report, but sat up as the news lady recapped the top story in local news.
"Three branches of the Queenstown National Bank were robbed late last night of an estimated twenty million dollars. The branch managers and Queen Anne County police have no clues as of yet on how the robberies were accomplished. None of the doors or windows was forced, and all of the alarm systems were on and functioning in the morning. Video tapes from last night show nothing at all, but all of the drawers and vaults in all three branches were cleaned out.
Damn, I cursed and hit the arm of my chair. But what could I do? I had no proof that Andy did the deed, although in my book he was the top suspect, but twenty million dollars? Even Sharon would need a couple of days to spend all of it. How would he ever explain this to the IRS? Maybe the best thing I could do was to distance myself from them as far as possible.
Switching off the TV, I gulped down the last of the coffee and decided to log on for my mail. Of course, the first thing I found was a letter from Andy.
"Hi, having a great time. Wish you were here. The Silver Forest is a lot better than I ever dreamed it would be, and this computer is really awesome. Got to go and make a few recordings with the Orchestra downstairs. I can't get any decent music in Bennett City at all. Bunch of hicks, and rude, too. Later."
I sent the reply immediately. "Please keep me posted. Your counterpart here is robbing banks. See you."
Grieving for Andy Hollis had to be the hardest thing I have ever done. In spite of the brat's accusations, I missed having the bum here to torment. We did keep up a running conversation by e-mail, and he did carry on as if nothing had happened. He turned in several stories for TSAT and I knew he was still editing as well. But the problem I had with him wasn't so much the loss of contact, but the lack of anything to say. I wanted to talk computers and stories and all he really wanted to do was tell me about his day at school.
I suppose for Andy, as a ten-year-old, school was the biggest thing in his life, but I no longer wanted to hear about his grades or field trips. He was making new friends right and left and getting to be the class cut up again. I did go so far as to send him a cartoon greeting card for his eleventh birthday. But with him there, and me stuck here in "drear mundania" so to speak, we were all too quickly growing apart.
The bank robberies were continuing, several per night and by now the total money stolen was astronomical. I saw Sharon, a few times, in her brand-new BMW, but I kept my mouth closed. She seemed to be happy with the new arrangement and I thought I would just move on with my life. Perhaps a move south was in order. I had always wanted to go to the Emerald Coast of Florida, then again Galveston and Corpus Christie sounded good as well.
As winter ended, I spent more and more time on the road. I had no real need to stay home, and as I read the latest letter from Andy bragging that he was going to be on a TV show about his music, I shook my head.
In the story it was supposed to be me that was the musician. I could still play the piano, not well, but some. I sat at my keyboard, flexed my fingers and tried a few scales. Rats, that was bad. I tried a few more before moving on to a Chopin prelude. Okay, so I wasn't ready for the big time. I started another and fell off the bench as a hole opened up on my wall.
Green light swirled around a gaping blank spot and I could just make out two boys, twins, standing on a sidewalk confronting what had to be a demon. I shuddered as I studied the creature and for a second I thought about running away. But before I could even pick myself off the floor I heard a distinct voice in my thoughts.
"You are needed. Will you help?"
"How?" I asked out loud.
"Step through this gate and the Light will take care of the rest. You are needed. Will you help?"
In slow motion, I watched the creature begin to cast a spell at Andy. "Will I change too?"
"You will take the place of the counterpart that should have been born to this world but wasn't from the Shadow's intervention."
"I am so there," I said and stood up and closed my eyes as I walked through my living room wall.
Green light surrounded me. I heard music, thousands of different melodies banging around in my head so that I thought I would never get them all sorted out. The last time I traveled between worlds the trip seemed to take forever but there was nothing in between. This time I felt what had to be the living force of the universe touch me. That touch didn't frighten me, but I did feel my body cramp then shrivel and turn in on itself.
I landed on a filthy sidewalk between the twin boys I had seen before and the demon with bright yellow eyes. I stood maybe a head taller than the twins, and I had to look down at myself and pinch my arm to verify I wasn't dreaming. What sort of clothes did I have on? Talk about the Society for Creative Anachronism, I wore a medieval looking outfit made up of a soft leather tunic, in dark green, with leggings and felt boots.
"Where am I?" I wondered that I would be dressed like this, but then I took a good look at the twin boys. "I get it, Rats and Double Rats."
"We're famous," one of the twins answered. I could not begin to tell them apart even though I had held Andy, and rather close, before.
"I'm Allan Hollis, Master Elf," the other kid said. "This is my brother Andy and this is the Arch-demon, Ashtar. I think he would like to make your acquaintance, too."
"Elf?" What sort of joke was this? I reached up and ran a finger up the point of my right ear. Damn, I was an elf -- of course. I really was my own counterpart -- Paulin, the elf and no longer Paul the human. In the story, I had been adopted by the Carmichaels of Bennett City. They didn't exist on this world but I was still an elf. "So I am," I said and tried not to laugh. "Well, this changes everything." For the first time, I noticed the longsword I wore on my left side. "Hello, Ashtar, I've heard a lot about you. Are you bothering kids, now?"
"Another one who thinks he's funny. Andrew, do you really think this child could stand up to my power?"
"Oh, please," said the boy who had introduced himself as Allan, then again he wasn't known for being scrupulously honest either. "Is someone paying you to say lines that bad? Get him, kid. He deserves it for that one."
"I quite agree." So what was an elf supposed to sound like? At least all of the elves in Andy's story spoke and understood English, but they also had a separate language. There was power building in my system like a series of strong electric pulses along my veins and I raised my hands. With a thought, I sent a bolt of green light right at the Arch-demon's chest, blocked his return spell, and then we began to fight in earnest.
Whoa, talk about being light on one's feet; I found that I could dodge and dance around the Shadow creature as if he wasn't moving. I threw bolt after bolt at the demon, and I did see him stagger under several of my blows. I knew that I couldn't actually destroy the demon, but I might give him a really bad headache.
In the background, I heard Andy starting to crack jokes with the crowd of humans that were gathering around us. What a crowd, too. Mostly bums by the look of them. Not one of them tried to stop the fight, either. Same with crowds everywhere I thought, but an elf fighting a demon on the streets of Bennett City should elicit some sort of response.
For some reason, one of the kids stepped up to me, pulled my sword from its sheath and spun around to confront a human in the crowd.
"You want to stop this now? 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? I know that won't kill you, but it could put a cramp 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 demon I had just spent an eternity fighting fell to the ground and turned human.
"You grabbed him in the Café, didn't you? Just to keep tabs on me?"
"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," Andy 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. 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?" Andy demanded and I saw the man flinch from the blade.
"Be on your guard, young man, because we will triumph against you." With that, the man vanished.
"Way to go, Andy," Allan said and slapped his brother on the back.
"Thanks, partner, and thanks to you, too, Master Elf. I don't believe I caught your name?"
"I don't believe I threw it," I said as I took back the sword and sheathed it.
"Perhaps you would care to tell all of us, then?"
Scotty Freeman appeared in the spot recently vacated by the demon.
"It's about time you showed up," Andy complained. "I thought that geek 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 the human. "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?"
"I am Paulin," I said grandly, with a bow and flourish and gave the three boys a slight smile.
"You're kidding," Andy said and attached himself to me again. "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 but the real question is how did you bring me here?"
"With this," he said and pulled a medallion from his pocket. "I got if from the Spells 'R' Us 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," I said with a long sigh. That old man had a penchant for doing that.
The human 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 me. "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," Andy said quickly, and gave me a quick glance.
"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. Mr. Elliot said, "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 used it to chop off Ashtar's left arm."
"I'm there," Bobby said quickly. "I'll chop up the rest of him, too."
"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," Andy said with his standard goofy grin. He went on to tell the Lord of Light exactly what had taken place. "Something was wrong, but I couldn't figure out what, that is, until Paulin stepped in. That gave everything away."
"In what way? I thought I was fighting the real thing," I asked with a shrug.
"You were supposed to. Ashtar really didn't care what happened to Bobby, but he did know enough to figure out 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, I could have been killed."
"Not if you gave yourself some time to learn to be an elf," he said with a slight sneer.
"What do you mean by that?" I asked him.
"Look, Carmichael, 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."
I started to laugh and nodded my 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? I have a life, a job and... 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 winner."
"Tell me about it," Allan said. "I had to live with him my whole life before I met my real brother."
"Right. 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?" I asked.
"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. After all," he smirked, "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 almost yelled at him.
"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," Andy 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." He 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."
I didn't want to do this, but I made a fist and held it under his nose. I didn't have a choice. "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. What's going on here, and where have you two been?" A lady asked as she approached us.
Scotty snapped his fingers and 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 a pair of suitcases appeared on the sidewalk next to my feet.
"I see," she 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," I 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?"
"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."
"Thanks a lot, you creep," Andy said and shook himself down like a puppy. Scotty vanished.
"The car is over here, Paul," Mom said. "Why don't you help him with his bags, Andy?"
"My bags, boy," I said with a snap of my fingers.
"You're gonna pay for this, elfie. Really pay!" he said with a wide grin, then hugged me again. "Welcome to my world. I don't know what I would have done without you, either. Always a team, aren't we?"
"Yeah, but it's a threesome now," I said.
"Yes, but he's worth it," he said looking over at Allan. "He really is. Shall we?"
Together we picked up the bags and followed Mrs. Hollis and Allan to the car.
I have never been so depressed in my life as I felt looking out the window on the drive home. Bennett City was a mess. The streets hadn't been cleaned for years, the buildings looked equally dingy and boarded over, and even the people on the streets looked rough.
Thanks to the Lord of Light I had a place to stay, and a ready-made family, but watching Andy and his brother, heads together and bent over a comic book of all things I wondered if my life was going to be better or not. I knew how much Andy had always wanted a twin when he was a kid the first time. But somehow, when I walked through my wall, I don't think I was really aware that I would have to share him with someone else.
"Want to read this one?" Andy asked me and handed over a comic book.
I shook my head. "Just thinking."
He laughed. "I know, this town really gives me the creeps when I think about the town we used to write about."
"Oh, that's right," Mrs. Hollis commented. "You boys do know each other. I am so sorry about your family, Paul."
"It's okay, really. I'm really glad to find a place with my best friends, too."
"Well, if anything, we have the room," she said.
"Yeah, and we'll teach you the ropes in no time," Andy said. "We have a staff to run the hotel part, but sometimes we help out bussing tables and things. This is gonna be great -- and you just made it. The school is going on a field trip to the dolphin show in Baltimore next week. I can't wait."
I tried not to laugh. Boy, he really did sound like a kid with the same little kid excitement he had the first time the first time around. "Field trips?"
"Yeah, the town isn't so hot anymore but the school system's pretty good."
"We will get you settled in over the weekend and we can worry about school next Monday, Paul." Mrs. Hollis said.
Homework at my age, I thought with a shudder.
"Don't worry," Andy said and patted my shoulder. "I can help you with your English and Allan can help with math."
"Thanks," I said with more than a slight touch of sarcasm in my voice.
The old Miller Place, however, was exactly as I pictured it, with plantation style columns that lined the front porch. Dozens of cars lined the front driveway and I looked over the expanse of front lawn that must have covered thirty acres.
"Wow," I said.
"Great, isn't it?" Allan said. "Andy did so much work to get this place restored and Mom has taken over since. This place is something else."
"There's a great old Steinway in the music room, hint -- hint," Andy noted.
"You play more than I do now, Andy."
"No, I conduct. In Bennett City, Paul Carmichael is supposed to be the hotshot pianist and composer, remember. I'm gonna make the arrangement with Mrs. Grant, the music teacher today."
"No, you aren't," I said. "I'll try out your piano, but that's as far as it goes, Hollis."
"Man, you are such a stick-in-the-mud. Ten hours a day practicing is nothing to you, remember? Come on, you have to get into the spirit of this. I did, Allan did -- didn't you?"
"You bet, Andy. We're going in on that diamond farm in Brazil, you know."
I shuddered at the thought, but kept my mouth shut as Mrs. Hollis cut in.
"Don't you mean a diamond 'mine'?" she asked.
"Nope, a diamond farm, Mom. Diamonds grow, don't they?"
"Well, yes, they do but it takes hundreds of millions of years and tremendous pressure."
"That's okay. I can afford to buy enough diamond seeds that the crop will make it worth the wait," Andy said with a perfectly straight face.
"Oh, that was bad, kid, really bad. How could you do that to me, your own mother?"
"Easy, Mom. You asked."
"I will remember that the next time you want some more allowance."
We piled out of the car. Andy grabbed the suitcases and I followed him inside.
"The room next to yours, Andy," Mrs. Hollis said as she hurried off to attend to business.
"I know," Andy said. "Allan and I share a big room upstairs but there's a closet for you around there somewhere."
"You are so kind," I said.
I spent the rest of the day learning my way around the Hotel. It was huge and someone could get lost easily. I found the music room, and Andy was right. The piano was a beaut. I sat on the bench, flexed my fingers and started to play.
Never in my life have I made such music from a piano. My fingers seemed to know which keys to hit, and when. I mean I flew through some of the most difficult pieces I knew, then looked through the sheet music stored in the room.
"You've been holding out on me," Andy said walking into the room, clapping. "So, it looks like I get my piano player after all."
"I don't understand it. My fingers can do anything on this keyboard. Come on, kid, you know how well I play at home. This is incredible. I think that medallion of yours did more to me than just bring me here."
"Who cares as long as I get your name signed for the Tape Company right away."
I laughed, "Deal, as long as I get to go over the contract first. Say, is there really a dragon down by the river?"
"Yeah, and he's teaching me chess."
"Get out of here. You don't need a teacher."
"I know that, but he doesn't. It's easier to lose this way, and I've got a lifelong friend that will burn bullies to ashes at my say so."
"Always playing the angles, aren't you?" I commented. "Let's go for a walk then, I really do need to talk to you."
Andy told his new mother where we were going, said good bye to Allan and led the way out the back to Miller's Field. "Race ya," he said.
"Andy, when it's just us you don't have to act like a little kid."
He made a show of looking over his arms then chest. "Who's acting? I am a little kid. You think I look like a grown up?"
"No, you know what I mean. You're just as old as I am."
"Not anymore. I'm eleven and you're twelve until my next birthday which is before yours."
"You know what I mean," I half shouted.
"Yes, I do, and after a while it isn't going to matter. Okay, Paul, you just got here and I'll try to explain this, but it's not gonna be easy. Look, even with all the Age Regression stories I've written, this isn't something I really considered before."
"What, that a kid's brain isn't big enough to hold all of our adult memories?" I cut in.
"Nope, my memories are intact -- well as intact as they have ever been. I remember being four and trying to fly off my living room chair in my new Superman suit. I remember listening to my dad play the piano for hours on end when I was like five and six and he could still play. I remember getting married, for Pete sake, and the years I spent in the army without you.
"This is different. Call it socialization or adaptation or what have you, but it's going to happen to you, too," he said with his goofy grin.
"Right," Andy went on. "I think one of the big things that attracted me to age regression in the first place is the memory of being a kid, completely carefree with no real responsibilities at all. Back then there was no one depending on me, no one counting on me to bring home a paycheck and I could basically do whatever I wanted to do -- with limitations, of course -- but I could read what I liked, when I liked. I could go to the movies with you and not worry if Sharon or anyone else wanted to see the film. You know what I mean?"
"Yeah. I've been feeling a little fed up with adult life, too, but you can't tell me that somehow you regained your innocence or anything like that. Okay, so you're one person that never lost his sense of wonder, but you can't be a kid for real."
"Think about it," he said shaking his head. Look, if this happened back home and I found myself changed into an eleven or twelve-year-old, do you think Sharon would put up with it? She'd leave me in a heartbeat, and I would be left to the mercy of Maryland Social Services -- or your generosity, if you believed me.
"But," he said and picked up a stone and threw it. "I was given this life by a real, live kid. I have a family and quite a few family expectations now that I have to live up to. And," he said and tossed another stone. "I love every second of it. But that's me. Now let's think about you, Mr. Carmichael, sir.
"Back home, Paul, you are the very picture of success, are you not? When you walked into a sales meeting -- or anywhere else for that matter -- in your three piece Italian suits, wing tips and with your Rolex on your wrist, people took notice. You were the hotshot salesman. I know how people deferred to you, in restaurants, hotels, whatever."
"You think I'm some kind of snob?" I said and bent over to pick up a rock.
"Not at all, old scout, I didn't say that. But, you were an adult living in an adult society and you expect to be treated as such. You were someone who mattered. But, not anymore. The moment you stepped through that gate to this world and you turned into an elf child, you were locked out of that adult world. It takes elves several hundred years to grow up properly, remember?"
"Oh, hell," I said. "I didn't want to remember that."
"So, even if you were dressed up in that same fancy Italian suit now, the reaction you would get in a board room now would be, 'Beat it, kid. Get lost.' Do you think anyone's going to take you seriously when you look like that?"
"No, but I don't have to be a salesman now."
"No, you can be a child prodigy on the piano, but nowhere are you gonna get the same respect you took for granted as an adult. Take me, for example. I own the Tape Company, but Gramma runs it because no one wants my opinion. They want my recordings but they could care less about my ideas for running a company. I've got Uncle Steve fronting for me with our jewelry stores, and I have a ton of money now. But, I can't expect anyone to take me seriously. Even Allan, who knows I used to be grown up, treats me like a kid.
"So, even if you talk yourself blue in the face about stocks, bonds, or sales, the best you could hope for is that some grown up thinks that you're a smart kid. Then they will go back to doing what grownups always do to kids, they will ignore you. So, Mr. Hotshot Salesman, you can either accept the fact that you are a kid and will be treated like a kid no matter what you do, or you will get yourself so frustrated and worked up that your blood pressure will soar, again."
"I'm not finished yet. Now, you're going back to school -- grade school -- and you will be spending the majority of your time with kids our current age. If you show off to the teachers how much you know, you will get in trouble. The teachers hate that, and so do the other kids. But, after a while, you get used to kids you don't know coming up and talking to you or asking you if you want to play ball or something because from now on you are part of the kids' world. What are you gonna do? Refuse to play with the kids because you're a grownup? If you do, every kid in the sixth grade is gonna think you're some stuck up, self-centered snob and you won't have anyone. But -- and think about this -- the first time some kids ask you to go out and play and you say yes -- guess who's accepted the fact that he's a kid again?
"With me it was easy as anything cause I loved being a kid the first time around and I love it now. Sharon was right, this is like heaven for me, but I can go out and play; I've made a lot of friends my own age in school, and I've learned not to tell the teachers everything I know. I can say this with all honesty that I'm eleven years old, and the rest is just a memory."
I sighed as he finished his spiel. "I never thought about that. In the story Paul was accepted pretty much into adult society."
"Yeah, but we were writing from a grownup's point of view, weren't we? It's different when you find yourself really a kid again. And this world is nowhere near as nice as the world we wrote about."
"I get that impression," I scowled.
"So, race ya!" he said and took off running across the field.
I cracked up. Then, I ran after my best friend in the whole world and realized he was absolutely right. I was going to be a kid for a long time and I might as well relax and enjoy it. Catching up to him, I easily ran circles around him before we reached the river bank.
Andy stopped, winded. "Okay, elf boy, I know you're fast, but do you have to rub it in?"
"Yes, I do, but then the last time we were kids you were the fat one and you couldn't run at all. This is going to be fun. So, where do I learn to play chess?"
He gave me another goofy grin. "Right this way, sir. Just think, this time when Allan and I go for auditions, you don't need to go along."
Automatically, I reached up and touched my face. "So, what's wrong with me?" I started to laugh. "I haven't even looked in a mirror since I got here -- or gone to the bathroom either."
Andy started laughing harder. "Hey, watch that kind of talk, Paul. You're a character in my world now, remember? My characters never ever go to the bathroom, or use bad language, or have sex, or grow up, or act like real human beings. You said so yourself so many times I lost count -- so now you're stuck with it. Don't mess with my 'G' rating."
"Oh, flock off you major anthill. Did I just say what I think I did?"
His grin turned downright evil. "Yep, you did. So, how do you like them apples, elfie?"
"Okay, Hollis, when I find out how you did that, you're dead meat. I'm not one of your kids, and I refuse to act like one, so there. You go to the bathroom, don't you?"
"Sure, all the time, but I don't have any pressing need to talk about it. Elves do too, after all, where do you think they get fairy dust?"
"That's bad, Andy. Really bad. Must you be so -- so juvenile?"
"Yep, and we just went over that, too. Whatcha gonna do about it, elfie. Wanna bite my big toe?"
I trotted the rest of the way to the river, walked over to the edge of the water and looked down. "You liar. Look at that. I'm downright cute. Oh, man, I hate cute elves -- I mean they are just so stereotypical."
The reflection showed me as a pre-adolescent boy, about twelve, with shaggy brown hair that didn't quite cover my sharply pointed ears. I had bright, emerald green eyes and an impossibly thin face, but I did, in some ways, look like the kid I used to be, too.
"You're right, of course," Andy said from beside me. "All of your standard epic fantasies have cute elves, dark lords with incompetent underlings, brave heroes, like yourself, and stupid kids, like me, that always get into trouble. People expect that, you know."
"But I don't," I protested. "I was never the hero type. Paul just did the background music, remember?"
"I know. I don't do background music, so I never had a great adventure with Talrin or any other elf."
"But," I countered. "If you think I'm going to, forget it. I don't do background music either and I don't do great adventures." I picked up a stone and skipped it across the water. We started walking again. "I mean, I've got nothing against great adventures, in a general sort of way."
"We are going to the Palace of Light, aren't we?"
"Of course we are," I said. "So where's the gate?"
He pointed downstream. "Right there. Don't you see that shimmery place in the air down there by the dragon?"
"What dragon? Get off it, Hollis, that isn't the dragon, that's just a rock formation. You had better not be fibbing again."
He shook his head. "Nope, that's the dragon, Paul. Elves can't see through his spell, remember? Paul could because he was different, but it looks like you're just a standard issue elf after all."
"I am not. I don't believe this. Paul had a magic crystal."
"Nope, not in this world because it was the nasty Scotty that made that crystal in the first place, so forget it. But, he did believe in the Real Magic."
"Well, so do I. I always have and didn't I fight that school teacher of yours with magic?" There was a touch of anger in my voice.
"Yes, but that was the Old Magic. It's different. The wizard gave me a great definition of the Real Magic the other day -- say, want to see my new fur coat?" He dropped down to all fours and promptly changed into a red fox. He wagged his brush at me for a second before changing back.
I snapped my fingers. "The Master's Sign, or what did you call that medal I was supposed to get from that dragon? I was going to be a hawk."
"No problem," he said with another grin. "We can go flying later, cause I already got that medal, but..."
"And you've been using it, haven't you?"
He laughed and nodded his head. "I may be a dumb little kid, but I'm not a fool. Try this?" He placed his right hand on my shoulder and for a moment his hand felt rather warm to the touch. "Now look."
I turned and nearly dropped to my knees. There on the river bank was a dragon, a real, live fire-breathing lizard that had to be a hundred feet long if it was an inch. The beast was wide awake and staring at us. Now I could see the puffs of smoke coming from his nostrils.
"Hello, half-bite," the dragon spoke in a low rumble. "I see you have a friend with you."
"Yep, this is my best friend in the world, sir. Paul Carmichael, or Paulin the elf."
"Uh, glad to meet you, sir," I said and bowed. Andy removed his hand and I lost sight of the dragon. "What happened? I can't see him anymore."
"Here, wear this, then," he said and passed me the medallion. "It's supposed to help the Real Magic, and I think it was meant for you all along. Do you see him now?"
Sticking my head through the chain, I turned back and nodded. "Yes, I do."
"Paul's from a different universe and I'm showing him around. He wants to play chess with you, too, but I thought maybe we could have a game after we get back from the Forest."
"Fine with me, kid. I trust you understand the rules, Master Elf. I eat anyone who wins."
"Oh, then you two can play," I said. "He's just learning the game and I wouldn't want to show him up or get eaten either."
"Come on, Master Elf," Andy said and grabbed my arm. "The Silver Forest is that way."
We stepped through the gate into a different world, and I felt fully alive for the first time in my life. The Forest felt like a living creature and the second I arrived I became a part of it. I turned around and around drinking in the scents and the sights and almost bumped into two elf children, a boy and a girl, several years younger than me.
"We welcome you to the Silver Forest and invite you back to our village." The boy started to say. "Oh, it's Celrin's human."
"Watch who you're calling human, kidlet," Andy grumbled.
"But who is he?" the girl asked. "He's cute."
I felt myself blush. "And you're sweet. I'm Paulin, and I'm -- uh -- new to the Forest. Andy here is showing me around."
"And we're going to the Palace. Tell Cel I said 'hi'."
"But couldn't we go with them?" I asked. "He did invite us to something,"
"To share the hospitality of our village," the boy said quickly.
"Sounds like a plan to me," I said.
"You're asking for it, Paulin," Andy commented. "Okay, let's go, kids. After you."
We walked down a slight path for a while. I wasn't sure if I would be going back to the other side of the gate or not, after this. I had never dreamed what it really would feel like to be an elf.
Several more kids, all making music, joined us and danced along the path ahead of for a while. Two of the music makers drew Andy off to one side. He just laughed and shook his head. "You guys are better than ever. We've gotta work on those pipes a bit more, Selenna. But you're almost ready for your first real concert."
The kids cheered at that.
"Say, would you mind passing those over to Paulin? Paul, try these, for old times' sake?"
One of the girls placed a set of wood pipes in my hand. I blew a note and shivered at the sweetness of the tone. I played another note, then listened, and played a melody making up the tune as I went along.
Andy clapped. "Way to go, Paul! Looks like someone is ready to do the background music after all. Did you say 'great adventure'?" he asked me and rubbed his hands together.
"Forget it, Hollis." I shook my head, and played the rest of the way with the other elves joining in.
The village, as Andy had described it years ago, was a small collection of brightly colored cottages built between the roots of the tallest trees I had ever seen. From what I knew of the construction, the cottages actually were built deep into the heart of the living trees. A tall man, dressed in forest green decked out with touches of gold and silver met us in the center of the village.
"Welcome, travelers to my village. I am Prince Selrick, and... oh, it's you, Andrew. Celrin is probably around somewhere. And you, young man, is there any reason that you are wearing human clothing?"
I picked at my T-shirt. "Hi, Paulin's the name. The Lord of Light himself gave me these clothes until Andy's Mom has a chance to go to K-mart for me. So, how have you been?" I held out my hand, but the elf refused the shake.
"Where are you from, child?"
"Paulin is from another universe, Prince Selrick," Andy cut in. "That's right, he's an alien elf. Go ahead, Paul."
Raising my arm, I held up my hand with my fingers stretched out. "Live long and prosper."
"Do the music, Paul," Andy said as I played the Star Trek theme on the pipes. "See? He's a genuine invader from the Planet Randog. I'm showing him around, and he wanted to take in the hospitality of your village."
"There aren't any alien elves, human. Your family, boy. I want their names and histories."
"My folks are long dead, Selrick," I said. "The Hollises are my family now, and I don't appreciate the tone of your voice. I am a guest in your village, and unlike the human here, I am an elf and I know the rules. We are both close personal friends of the Lord of Light, and I'll have you know that I graduated with honors from Washington College, no less."
"Well, that changes everything, doesn't it?" Selrick said. "You are an impolite child, who is standing in my village on my generosity only. I do not appreciate back talk from children."
"See, told you so," Andy said. "Look, Selrick, old pal. Paul is my friend, and he really is new here. No offense was meant. We were on our way to the Palace and I think we should continue that journey now. Tell Celrin I said 'hi' and... oh, never mind. Hi, Celrin," he said and waived to a young elf joining the crowd that was forming around us.
"Human, I have tolerated a lot from you, since the Lord of Light has left me no choice, but this is a matter between elves. This child is now my concern and my subject and I will handle this. You may leave, and take Celrin with you, if you wish, but this one stays here."
"Father," said another boy taking a place beside me. "This child certainly meant no disrespect to you or the elves."
"Taking his side will get you nowhere, Talrin. Get this boy some decent clothing and bring him back for sentencing within ten minutes."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I demanded.
"You, boy, are going to act as my personal valet for the next twenty years to learn some manners."
Andy applauded, "Great joke, your highness, but we don't have time to play anymore. Come along, Paulin. Scotty's nickel tour of the universe doesn't include job offers. Later, dudes." He grabbed my arm.
"Stop him," Selrick shouted.
Several of the elves started throwing things at us. I felt a couple of rocks whiz by my head. Without a second thought, I threw up a barrier of green light around myself and Andy that also included Talrin. He added another barrier to mine and we watched the projectiles bounce off the light.
"I should have known," Andy said and snapped his fingers. "Everyone hates a tourist."
"Funny, Hollis, very funny. So now what?"
He looked up and to the north. "Help is on the way."
"What sort of help," Talrin asked him.
"The air force. You'll see. Are you gonna surrender now, Selrick or do we have to get tough?"
"Andy, you aren't the Elven Wizard, yet." I said.
"I know, but in a second he's gonna wish I was. Well?" he called out.
"You boys can stand behind that barrier for just so long. Soon enough the power will fail and we will have you."
"Okay, but I did warn you. Come on, guys, get them."
I looked up in time to see hundreds of hawks, eagles and other raptors drop from the sky to attack the elves. In seconds the villagers were a bloody mess as they tried to fight off the birds. Andy yelled encouragement and I swear he sounded just like a hawk at that moment. After a minute or so, the elves ran for cover. Most of the birds landed on the ground in front of us, while a squadron waited in the air.
"Great work guys -- and thanks!" Andy yelled out.
Selrick and few men in what had to be uniforms returned but kept a safe distance from the hawks. I started playing on my pipes and left the chatter to Andy.
"We surrender," Selrick said. "Call off your birds."
"Not a chance until we get safe passage out of here. And I'm taking this place off the list of AAA recommended sites, too. Great background music, Paul, keep it up. Paulin here, is a great musician and he could have been an outstanding asset to the elves of this forest, but you blew it."
"Father, the human is right. Paulin has done nothing to you, or the village. I think an apology is in order."
"After he serves his sentence I will think about that apology, son, but not until then. Talrin, go home. Your mother needs you."
"Right, father, and leave these boys to your generosity? I think not."
"Will you put down those stupid pipes and speak for yourself, boy?"
I shook my head.
"So, how do you like them apples, elfie? You get to deal with me, and my friends after all. You know something, Selrick. We never did get any of that generosity we were promised, and I'm really hungry."
"So am I, father," Talrin added. "Have Celrin bring lunch."
With a final trill, I put down the pipes and nodded. "And no little surprises like poisonous reptiles or things, either."
"Just for the human, I need a valet," Selrick said.
"I love you, too, Selrick," Andy yelled out.
On cue, Celrin brought three baskets out to the Prince. "May I, your highness?"
"Go ahead. Eat, and we will let the human go."
"You wouldn't really let them put something nasty in there, would you?" Andy asked the boy.
"Not for you," Celrin whispered back. "He's all bluff, I know. I put in a call to the Lord of Light."
"Good job, Celrin," I said. "I always thought you advertising types had a lot on the ball."
"He read the book back home," Andy said.
"I should have known," Celrin said and flashed a thumbs up at me as he backed away.
We ate behind the barrier of green light. The food was good, I had to admit, and I stuffed myself for the first time since I arrived here. My basket had several bottles inside, and I reached for one before I noticed that one had a nasty pale glow around it. I looked over at Andy. "Don't drink that one," I said. I checked but I saw nothing wrong with Talrin's basket.
"What is it?" Andy asked and picked up the bottle.
"I don't know, but it's magic."
"Cool," he said and took a long sip. A few moments later, he frowned then took a stance on his hands and feet. Andy changed into a gorgeous, coal black, colt. He kicked up his hooves and yelled out, "Posti, eat your heart out."
"I didn't know that was there," Celrin protested. "Really."
Andy changed back into what passed for human, for him, with the aid of the medallion. "Thanks, Selrick. I always wanted to do that."
With that, I saw the elf slump forward. "No one could have broken that spell. No one. And certainly not a mere human."
"Father," Talrin said. "Have we not all warned you about this human? He has power, august and arcane power that is beyond what the Lord of Light has left us."
"You tell him, kidlet," Andy said and patted Talrin on the shoulder. "But now that I can change to equine, watch this." His body grew and expanded until he turned into a centaur colt. "Wouldn't Aatheus like to see this?" he said mentioning a mutual friend of ours with a fascination for centaurs.
"I will have to think about this. You," Selrick said to his men, "watch them and, if they even try to leave, shoot them."
"Andy," I said as the elf walked away. "I thought you were giving up on centaurs after that story of yours was trashed."
"Not a chance. I've always liked 'Taurs, and I'm working on a new centaur story too. I just have to finish one more before I can start on it. So, Mr. C. what are you writing lately? You know how Jeff gets on my case to encourage you to write."
"I hadn't thought about it. I just get bounced to this world of yours and you want me to think about stories? What about this one? They'd never believe this back home."
"Nope, you know I gave up writing about myself when I was a kid the last time. If you get any more bright ideas, let me know."
"It was just a thought," I said. "So, what do we do next?"
"We could fly to the Palace, if you want to risk getting shot. I bet those guys are good, too."
With a sigh, I placed the pipes to my lips and began to play.
Selrick returned perhaps thirty minutes later. With him, walked an elderly elf dressed in what appeared to be wizards' robes. "Very well, this is what the Elders of this village have decided. You, Paulin, are new to our ways so we will offer you one chance to prove yourself to us. You, and my son Talrin will accompany you, will quest for three magical items."
"Oh, brother. Here it comes. Look, Selrick, I don't do the hero bit. I do the background music."
"Yeah," Andy said supportively.
"You will ride out and you will leave this human here as assurance of your return. Bring back the left ear of a troll, hairs from a wizard's beard, and a flight feather from a hawk."
Andy looked down at one of the birds. "Would you mind, please?" The bird shook out its wings until a feather fluttered to Andy's feet. "There, thought I could save you some effort." He handed me the feather and looked up at the elf. "Okay Selrick, if I have to stay here, I expect to be entertained. Got a VCR handy?"
"You may dismiss the birds, and we will bring the horses."
"Okay, but remember one thing, Selrick. If anything happens to the kid while I'm gone I know a lot of people in construction. Would you like to see this quaint little village bulldozed over to make room for a shopping mall?" The confusion on Selrick's face was comical. Paul couldn't resist one more dig. "One wrong move and you're standing on a parking lot."
"That was uncalled for, young man, whatever you meant," Selrick said as the old man screamed and ran back for the trees.
"I'm serious. I'll go get your groceries for you. I mean, would you like some nice eye of newt while we're out? But, when I get back, I'm taking my friend and leaving."
"Big talk for a little boy," Selrick had to rub that in, too.
Two soldiers brought out a pair of black stallions. Talrin ran up to one, and let it nuzzle his hand, but the other horse stared at me with green fire in its eyes, and I could swear I could see my own death in the flames. The animal reared up and kicked at me with its forelegs as I approached it.
"Allow me," Andy said and cut in front of me. He made another hand gesture, and a moment later the horse quieted down. Andy bent over and scooped up a handful of grass before walking up to the horse and offering the treat. The horse nuzzled his hand. "Okay, Paulin, your ride is ready."
"Jantrell, what are you doing?"
"Where, father. I haven't seen Uncle Jantrell all morning."
Everyone followed the man's gaze back to the horse. Andy nodded with another one of those evil grins that I was finding very refreshing on him.
"Yep, but not anymore. I couldn't just let my best friend in the whole world ride out to get killed by a horse, could I? Gentle as a lamb."
"Father, how could you?" Talrin demanded.
"He knew the risks," Selrick answered.
"You know, Selrick, I really should have seen the family resemblance," I said. "Thanks, Andy. You're a real pal." I climbed up on the saddle and patted the horse's neck. "Good boy. I think I'll call you 'Moonlight'."
"One of these days, human, you will pay for your crimes against the elves."
"What did I ever do to you, elfie? Your kids invited us here today, and we came. That's all I ever did. Man, what a sore head you turned out to be." Andy walked back to the hawks. "Thanks, guys but you can go now."
Talrin and I rode out of the village at a quick trot. "I am really sorry about all of this," I said.
"Just leave me alone. Today has been a bad day for the elves and I will be disgraced forever for defying my father the way I did. I have no love for humans, Paulin, even though you do." He looked ahead.
I experimented with my position for a while until I found a way I could comfortably stay in the saddle, and play the pipes at the same time.
It didn't take long. Talrin cleared his throat and said. "That is pretty music. What is it?"
"The theme from Talrin's Great Adventure," I said. "Like it?"
"Yes, but I wouldn't call this a great adventure by any means."
"I know, but would you rather I call it Talrin's Pathetic Scavenger Hunt?"
He tired not to laugh. "I suppose Great Adventure does sound better. Is it true that you are from another universe?"
"Yes, the same one Andy came from. He used his magic to call me here to help him against the Shadow."
"So, in your universe you have human companions?"
I nodded. "Of course. I've always had Andy as my companion and it is really hard for me to see why Selrick has such trouble with humans."
"He really hates them," Talrin said with a shrug. "And, because he is the Prince, all of us have to hate them, too. Well, Celrin is different, but he's always been different. He spent some time in the human world, and Father almost refused to let him come back to the village, that is until the Lord of Light forced the issue. Celrin did have a great quest, and to show his gratitude the Lord of Light named him Light's Champion."
"I heard about that. But you did stand with Andy and me today, for that I am really grateful."
"Andy isn't a true human, but will father ever believe me? Some day father will go too far, and Andy will be forced to take serious action against him," Talrin said with a slow shake of his head. "On that day I will have to stand with my father, but until then I do my best to keep things under control."
"I see. Where are we headed?"
"To see the wizard. This one is rather powerful, or so I've heard, and his house is guarded by trolls."
"Oh, please, this is too easy." I began to play a stronger melody. "He can't mean just the left ear of any old troll. We've got to get the left ear of the troll king. I can see it now. You will have to fight your way through hoards of trolls, and goblins and things, and I'll be there all the way with you to play the background music. But, we'll find the troll king, get his ear or you'll die in the attempt. Then we have to find the Arch-mage and get hairs from his beard."
"I think I liked it better when you were just playing music."
"Okay, I can take a hint. I'll shut up. But it would have been glorious. I have a really neat funeral dirge worked out for you already when I bring your battered and broken body back to the village to tell everyone what a hero's death you had."
"I think I can do without that."
We crossed several large fields to a small wood with a well-marked path. "The wizard lives through here," Talrin said and pointed.
We rode single file down the path looking for any sign of life but saw nothing until the road ended blocked by two huge gray boulders. Both of the boulders moved at once as they stood up and resolved into two trolls that had to be twelve feet tall.
"Go on, beat it, you kids. The boss doesn't want to be bothered."
Talrin drew his sword, bellowed a war cry and charged as I warmed up the pipes. Action, at last, I thought and watched the fight.
A third troll came rolling out of the woods right at me. I held up one hand and continued playing with the other. He grunted and raised his hands as if to push me off the saddle. I put down the pipes and shook my head.
"Not me," I said sternly. "Him. That's the hero over there; I just do the background music."
"Oh, yeah?" the troll asked as his face split in what I hoped was a smile. "I always wondered how they did that."
"It's not always this simple, of course. I ride along and play the music and later in the studio we dub in the orchestra and everything."
"Oh, sure. Hey, Brax, Trylock, stop playing with the elf and come over here."
"What is it, Granx?" one of the other trolls asked. "We're having fun here."
Talrin, on the ground, spent some time hacking away at one of the trolls' legs without much effect.
"But look at what I've got," Granx said and pointed one massive finger at me. "This is the guy that does the background music."
"Oh yeah? You mean we're on a soundtrack?" asked Brax
"We're gonna be famous," said the other troll and gave Brax a high five.
"Come on, kid. Do us."
"Yeah," Granx said. "Let's hear our part."
"Sure, after all the bad guys always get the best music," I said.
"Wait a second," Brax said. "How come we're the bad guys? We're just doing our job here."
"I know," I said quickly. "But look who's the hero, and then guess who gets to be the bad guys."
"Oh, yeah," Trylock said with a shrug. He kicked back and sent the elf flying through the woods.
I played several tunes for the trolls as they laughed and danced to the music.
"We are going to be really famous," Granx said. "When are the tapes going to be out?"
"Well, what with production schedules and everything I'd say a month at the least."
"No kidding? How much?" Granx said and reached for a pouch at his side.
"Uh," I thought for a second. "Five gold pieces."
"Is that all?" the troll shouted and for a second I thought I was dead. "Kid, the boss would charge us a hundred golds for a tape and twice that for a CD."
"Well, I'm sure he would, but I'm only charging five per tape, but that's including your discount because you guys are the stars. I'll charge everyone else fifteen."
"My whole family will want one, and I've hundreds of cousins."
With thoughts of a growing musical empire, I kept my mouth shut. Take that, Hollis. You've got your concerts for the pixies but I've got the trolls.
Each of the trolls handed over five huge gold pieces. Good God, back home these would be worth a fortune, I thought as I packed them away. No wonder Hollis could buy that Hotel. Well, I'll show him rich.
Talrin pushed his way out of the woods. "What are you doing?"
"Taking orders. Are you going to keep fighting?"
"Yes, I am. We have no choice."
"There," I said to Granx. "That does it. I will get you your tapes first thing off the production line. That's a promise. Just be glad you didn't order an autographed tape."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Well, you know how valuable they will be, but company policy is really strict on that and you would really have to pay."
"The boss gives us good money, here," he protested.
"I can see that, but for an autograph the company insists on getting a left ear. I mean for trolls that would be okay, since the ear will grow back, but no one else would ever pay that much.'
"But it would hurt coming off," Granx said.
"Not me, it wouldn't," Brax said and took a firm hold of Granx's ear. He ripped and held the thing out to me still bloody.
"Uh, give it to him. His father collects them." Talrin glared at me, but packed away the ear just the same.
"See?" I asked him. "You've got to keep that sword sharp to shave the wizard."
All three trolls laughed. "Shave the boss? You've got to be kidding. He's really fussy about his whiskers."
"It's okay, but we've got to try."
"But we still can't let you through," Trylock said.
"You'd better," I said and motioned the trolls to lean in closer to me. "Don't you see him?" I asked and pointed at Talrin.
"So?" Granx asked.
"Look, I know that he's an elf, no big deal if even one of you met him alone in the woods he'd be history, right?"
"Yeah," all three agreed.
"But," I said and lowered my voice. "He's on a quest. That's why were doing the soundtrack and what's more, he's a kid on a quest. You know what's going to happen, don't you? He's going to find someway to hack each of you into little pieces and turn you to so much goo. Now, I'd really hate to see that happen to such great trolls."
Brax looked up and snapped his fingers like a thunder crack. "You know, he's right. Those stories always work out like that."
"Thanks for the warning. You saved our lives," Granx said. "I'm going to make sure all of my family buys your tapes, kid. And I get the autographed one."
"Deal." I said and gave the troll a thumbs up.
"But what about the boss?" Brax commented.
"You don't want to know, but since he's the main bad guy he'd better watch out. But, don't worry we'll leave the old boy alive to keep paying all that good money." I motioned to Talrin and we rode passed the troll, waving as we went.
Once out of range, he turned on me with a look of pure fury on his face. "Talk, talk, talk. That's all you did. Why? Trolls are for killing, not talking. I wanted to hack them into little pieces and turn them into goo."
"I know you did, but you barely dented Trylock with your sword, kiddo, and I had to do something."
Going back to the pipes, I played until we reached Talrin called a halt at the edge of the woods. Looking out across a carefully manicured lawn, I saw a southern style plantation manor even bigger than the Hollis Hotel. I blinked, but I recognized the house from all the times I had seen the movie, so I changed over to the theme from Gone With the Wind.
"Now what?" I asked.
"We need a good plan to get in there."
"Hmmmm," I said and pointed. "You see that path, the one that goes through the grounds? I'd suggest we ride up to the house and knock on the door."
"But what do we tell the wizard?" he asked with more than a little sarcasm in his voice.
"What about the truth? Your dad sent us out with a grocery list, and would he mind making a small contribution?"
"No, he would never believe that I, Talrin, would stoop so low."
"In that case, suppose we tell him that we're collecting for the Home for Beardless Dwarves."
Talrin snorted. "I have never seen such a creature."
"It's not a pretty sight, trust me. When dwarves lose their beards -- well, you don't want to know about that. Okay, how about this? Elves don't grow beards, right? Tell him that you're working your way through barber college and you need someone to practice on."
"Why don't you play your music and let me think?"
"Okay, something just for you. I'll call it -- Talrin's Greatest Challenge."
After a few minutes, Talrin dismounted and headed for the lawn.
"What are you doing?" I asked him.
"I'm going to sneak up on the house, and see what I can through the windows."
"You are not. There's no cover at all, and a place that size must have a hundred servants. If just one of them looks out the window and sees you trying to sneak up there, when he finishes laughing his head off he's going to tell the wizard."
"You may be right, but we have to chance it."
"Look, Talrin, I know the wizard is paying good money to his trolls, but I doubt if they are his only defense."
"Why not? Only the bravest of heroes could get through those trolls."
"And us," I commented.
He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "Yes, and us."
"So I'm willing to bet that he's got hundreds of video cameras set up through these woods, and that he knows we're here and he's been listening to everything we say. Or look at it this way. He really takes care of his lawn, right? Just look at it. Now I'm sure that he doesn't want anyone walking all over it, so there's probably a spell on it. Take one step on that grass and we end up as lawn furniture. Now I don't want to be a plastic flamingo for the rest of my life so I really think we should take that path."
"Very well, Paulin," he said with a sigh reserved for small children and imbeciles. "I will think of something to say on the way." He hopped back up on his horse, and we rode down the path.
We dismounted and tied the horses to the veranda rails. I climbed the stairs to the front porch while he went to one side heading for the window. Sighing, I rang the doorbell.
"Who is it?" the voice seemed pleasant enough.
"Paul, the musician. I came all the way from Kansas to see the wizard, and I have my little dog, Talrin with me."
"Is your little dog still skulking around in my lilies?" asked a second voice.
"Sulking is more like it, sir. Yes he is."
"Elf, if do not wish to spend the rest of your life as a flower then stop destroying my lilies -- this instant."
Talrin looked down at the swath of destruction he had left through the blossoms and shook his fist at me. "You told on me." He jumped out of the flower bed and climbed up the steps the join me.
The door opened with a loud creak. I looked inside at a completely dark entranceway. Talrin pushed ahead while I stayed back running my hand along the wall. So much for seeing in the dark. As the door closed behind us, I found myself completely blinded. There. "Talrin, watch your eyes," I called out and hit the light switch.
The boy staggered as a chandelier flared to life overhead. He stood at the edge of what looked like a huge pit. Without hesitation, I pointed at him and a band of green light grabbed him by the waist and pulled him away from the edge.
"What did you do that for?" he demanded.
I walked over to the pit and looked down. "You wanted to fall down there?"
"No," he said and shuddered as he, too, stared down at the row of spikes at the bottom.
"Over there," I said and pointed to an open doorway just opposite us.
"And what is wrong with this one, or the next one?" he asked pointed the row of openings behind us.
"If you would look at those doors, you just might see that each of them has a trip wire across the bottom. If we were still stumbling around in the dark, and didn't fall into that pit there is a good chance that we might just trip over those wires and who knows what's at the other end? But, that door over there doesn't have a trip wire so it's safe enough. I'll go first and see if I can spot any more traps on the way."
"I suppose you are right -- again."
We followed the corridor for a while until it led into a well-lighted living room. I looked around at the furnishing while Talrin walked over to examine a huge aviary on one wall.
"This way," a man's voice called us from another room. "I'm in the den."
We found the wizard, dressed in a business suit and tie, sitting behind a huge, mahogany desk. I stared and gulped at the sight of the man's clean shaven cheeks. He looked barely over thirty.
"I am the wizard, Beauregard," he said. "Why are you children staring at me like that? I suppose you were expecting some doddering, old graybeard?"
"Well, yes, we were," I said. "I thought all wizards wore long black gowns and had equally long beards."
"A vicious stereotype. I obey the wizard's council on most issues, but my dress and grooming is up to me. By the way, young man, I appreciate the suggestion about the lawn furniture, up until now intruders turned into so much grass. Those other corridors, if you were wondering, lead to my stables, or my kennels or the mews."
"Rats," I said. "Andy gets to change into things but not me."
"Anything but a hawk. I know how the Lord of Light feels about that," he answered with a laugh. "You are called Paulin after the great Minstrel?"
"No," I said but didn't elaborate. I had no idea what he was talking about but thought to ask Andy later rather than say so.
"Now then, lads, what did bring you here?"
Talrin cleared his throat. "We are collecting for the Home for Beardless Dwarves and wondered if you would make a contribution."
"Talrin," I said and pulled on the boy's shoulder. "Didn't you hear him just then? About the lawn furniture?"
"Of course, my ears are as good as yours."
"But that was his way of letting us know that he did hear everything we said outside."
"Impossible. No one has ears that sharp."
"I would listen to your friend, Talrin," the wizard said. "That is unless you would like to be a real puppy for my kennel. I would appreciate the truth, but then, is this the act of a sane mind?" He pointed to a cabinet which swung open to reveal a thirty-two-inch monitor with recording equipment. The TV flickered on, and we watched as the film showed Talrin making his charge against the trolls complete with background music.
"Told you he had video cameras," but the elf seemed too entranced by the pictures to listen.
"Oh, were you serious about those tapes? I would like a copy of that. Five gold pieces, right? I mean, as the main bad guy I do feel entitled to the same discount as my star trolls."
"Of course, sir. My best friend owns the Silver Forest Tape Company and I will be using his facilities to make the tapes and recordings. If necessary, he has access to the Corbin studios as well."
"Oh, do you know Steve, then?"
"No, but I intend to have dinner with them, soon," I said.
"Very well," he said and passed over the coins. He turned off the tape to regain Talrin's attention. "As you were saying?"
"My father sent us on a great quest to retrieve... My father sent us out with a grocery list and we need hairs from a wizard's beard, but you do not have one so we will have to try elsewhere. But, if you do not let us go and provide directions to another wizard that has a beard, Paulin has human companions on his world that will bring in -- hundreds of infernal human devices that will tear this place to the ground."
"Not to the ground, no, but," I said and sighed. "He's right. One wrong move from you, mister, and this place is a movie set."
"I doubt that. I mean, no one in their right minds would remake Gone With the Wind."
"You mean you haven't seen the sequel?" I asked him.
"But that's impossible. How could there be a... Never mind, I forget what Hollywood is like and some of the reasons why I have not been back to the human world for ages. Very well, young man, I will do better than that for you rather than risk the infernal human devices that so terrified the elves." He gave me a quick wink, and pulled a cell phone from his suit pocket. "Hello, Willy? I know it's been a while. How are the wife and kids? Good, and I'm fine. Listen, I have a pair of young elves here collecting for the Home for Beardless Dwarves. I know, I didn't know there were any either, but from what I understand it's not a pretty sight. They were wondering if you might contribute some hairs from that growth of yours."
A large clump of long gray hairs appeared on the desk.
"That should be more than sufficient, Will. Thank you so much, and my best to the family." He hung up the phone. "There, what else were you collecting?"
"The left ear of a troll, and a feather from a hawk, which we have," Talrin explained.
"Ah, yes. I was wondering about the price of an autograph. These materials are for you?" he asked me.
"I suppose. Prince Selrick didn't tell me what they were for, but he did say I needed to prove myself to the elves so they would drop the charges against me for being a stranger here."
"Selrick is like that, I am afraid. Very well, he knows the risks of going against Scotty's orders. Good luck to both of you."
Outside the elves' village, Talrin called a halt, and turned to look at me. "I do not see that this was a great adventure of any sort for me. While it is true that I rode with you, you tricked the trolls out of that ear and you convinced the wizard to get us the beard. I did nothing while you saved my life countless times. I have tried to be a good son, and to hate you for being a stranger here, but you have shown nothing but friendship and good will to me. I would be honored if you consider me your friend."
"Done," I said and shook his hand. "This really was a great adventure and when the tapes are ready we're going to have more. Trust me on that."
"I will, and with my life. Let's ride and tell my father of our successful quest."
We found Prince Selrick sitting at a large round table on the village green playing cards with Andy, the Lord of Light, Celrin and few other elves. The pile of gold coins in front of Hollis was incredible.
"Hasn't anyone warned you guys not to play poker with Andy for money?" I asked them.
"Father, we were successful on our mission and today Paulin has proved many times over to be worthy of our honor and friendship."
"Want some pizza?" Andy cut in.
"Yes," I said as Scotty stood up and snapped his fingers. Everyone in the village besides Talrin and myself seemed frozen still.
"Now then, you two, if you would get down from the horses I need to talk to you."
"Sure," I said and we both slid off the saddles. I patted Moonlight on the neck.
"When I arrived, I found this village in an uproar about the two of you and your quest," Scotty said. "Andy told me what you were questing for, and Selrick denied it, of course, but before we go any further, I want to hear from you both what this was all about."
"That's your cue, kiddo. Tell the Lord of Light what we got on our quest, Talrin." Paul gave a deep bow and then waved to an imaginary door. "Behind door number one..."
"It wasn't much of a quest, my lord. Father sent us out to collect a hawk's flight feather, which the human procured using his august and arcane powers. Then Paulin and I collected the left ear of a troll in exchange for something called an autograph and the hairs of a wizard's beard for the Home for Beardless Dwarves."
"Beardless what?" Scotty asked incredulously.
"It's not a pretty sight, trust me. Would you like to make a contribution?" I asked.
"No, since young Andrew cleaned me out of petty cash. Do you know what the elves were planning on doing with those three items?"
"No, and I don't think I want to, either."
"They intended to turn you into a hawk," Scotty said. "Apparently you were able to bring in hundreds of the birds to defend yourself, and they thought to trick you into becoming one yourself."
"That's great. When do I get feathers? The wizard didn't want to do it, and I begged him, too. But do you have any idea how long I've wanted to be a hawk? Andy keeps promising that he will do it, but he hasn't yet."
"Andy has that kind of power?" Scotty asked.
"Of course. We both knew where all the magical stuff was, but he beat me to it."
Scotty snapped his fingers and Andy shook himself awake. He stared at us. "Wow, neat trick." He picked up a tray and brought it over with two slices of pizza. "We saved you some. You know, Scotty, 'The Light's Old Time Pizza Delivery Service' could be a big hit here, and with franchises on Fourlakes and Lurynda we'll be rolling in dough. Get it? Rolling in dough?"
I took a slice but Talrin refused. "Not bad."
"See? With him as a steady customer we can't lose. I know how he gets about pizza."
"Andy," Scotty said. "Turn Paulin here into a hawk."
"What for?" he asked. "Okay, but do I have to turn him back?"
"Yes, you do. Go ahead, I want to see this."
"Some people get so grouchy about magic. Okay, here goes." He held out his hand and I felt a link form between us.
Two seconds later, I watched the world get larger as I was forced to hold my arms out. Feathers sprouted in waves and I shrank to hawk size. I shook myself off, and tried out my wings.
"This is so cool," I said. "I knew I would love this shape." With that, I took off into the air above the village.
Something happened and in a blink of an eye I found myself standing on the ground back in elf shape. "No fair. I was just getting going."
"You can fly later," Scotty said. "How did you do that?"
"You asked me to," Andy said with a shrug.
"I didn't ask why you did that, I asked how. How did you change Paulin to a hawk?"
"It's called magic, Scotty. I used the power of the light to..."
"I meant," Scotty said with annoyance in his tone, "how did you get the ability to use the power of the light like that?'
"From a friend of mine," he explained. "See, there's this dragon by the river that guards the gate to the Silver Forest and he granted me a wish -- standard wish number 1B as a matter of fact."
"You expect me to believe in dragons now?" Scotty demanded.
"Get out that big stick of yours," Andy said. "That will let you know when I'm fibbing. Okay, so I fib every once in a while, but not now. That dragon gave me this medal and I put it on and turned into a hawk. But the medal also gave me some other powers like turning Allan into a rat when he needed it, and Paulin to a hawk, and that elf over there into a horse."
"What elf over where?" Scotty asked.
"Uncle Jantrell," Talrin said. "Father gave him some potion to make him a horse to throw and probably kill Paulin, but Andy stopped that. I told Father that the human had powers, but he never listens to me."
"I see. So, that horse is or was an elf? Very well, he can stay in that shape for as long as you need him, Paulin, and then some. So, you told me that you knew where all the magical stuff was, and I, of course, thought you were joking, but you went and collected it, and now you have tremendous powers?"
"That about sums it up," Andy said. "As much as I would like to turn Selrick into a toad, I know what would happen if I did, and I don't have the power to fight off the entire village -- yet."
"I see," Scotty said and looked back at the elves.
"Is this the part where I have to promise you that I'm gonna use my powers for good?" Andy said with a slight smirk on his face.
"Only in front of my Spear and I have to see all of your fingers and toes when you do."
"Busted," Andy said and laughed.
"No, no promise is necessary, kidlet," Scotty said quickly using Andy's term. "I know that power is in good hands, even though you are something else. Selrick," Scotty called out. The elves began to recover from his spell.
"Oh, there they are. Talrin, tell the Lord of Light that I did not send you on some silly quest."
"Too late," Scotty said. "I now have the full story from both of them, and it would seem Andy told the truth after all. You intended to turn Paulin into a hawk?"
"No, of course not. Just the human, but it was all in good fun. Nothing happened and I will let this fine young elf and his human go on their way. All I ask is the return of my horse."
"Your brother will stay a horse," Scotty said. "When Celrin returned from his quest for the missing ring, and I declared him the Light's Champion, you tried to refuse him back in this village. Remember that?"
"Well, it was a mistake on my part that I truly regret."
"I see, and the fact that I stripped you and most of these elves of your powers has nothing to do with your regret? I also recall that I ordered you to welcome and treat any and all humans to your village as honored guests, did I not?"
"Yes, of course, and you can ask that one if you wish. We have welcomed humans to this village."
"I know that, but I never dreamed you would turn on other elves that came seeking hospitality. Paulin isn't from the Silver Forest, but he is surely not lacking the respect due any elf."
"I -- I meant no harm to the boy. I was offering him a place in this village and a position."
"As your personal valet? When that didn't work you thought to get rid of him by either killing him or transforming him. I am really appalled at that, Selrick. So, since we have one elf willing to turn into a horse, I think all of you should share that same fate."
"All of us?" Selrick asked and looked around at the assembled elves. "They are not to be blamed for this."
"True, but from now on any elf that does not show visitors to this village proper respect whether they are human, elf, or anything else, will become a horse. Is that clear?"
"Anything else?" Selrick asked again
"Anything else. Trolls, goblins, and shadow spawned creatures included," Scotty said. "You elves will act as hosts to every race and class of creature in this Forest, and be glad of it. I will make sure that all of the other peoples are aware of that, too. Or would you all rather change now and be done with it?"
"We will play host to the Forest," Selrick said. "Being turned human was bad enough, but horses? We have our pride, my lord."
"Done. Celrin, Talrin, I trust you know you are both exempt from this, and that you will help Selrick live up to his promise."
"Yes, my lord," both boys chorused.
"I think we should be moving along now," Andy said. "Guys, it's been real, but we've gotta get going or we're gonna be late -- and we've gotta have another game soon."
"Would you listen to him?" I said to Scotty. "He's an English major, no less, and I swear he needs remedial grammar. Come along, Andrew. We 'gotta' go, or we're 'gonna' be late?"
"Now you're catching on," he said. "Took you long enough."
"This is the Palace of Light?" I demanded studying the architectural nightmare that Andy had led me to. "I swear I have never seen a more disjointed or ugly building in my life."
"Try not to think about it," Andy said and pulled me across the courtyard. "Okay, listen up," he called out as we entered the building. "This is Paul. He's been granted access by the Lord of Light so be nice to him."
"Who are you talking to?"
"The Palace staff, of course. Once you get used to them, they really are helpful."
"I don't see anyone," I said. "Or are they like the dragon?"
"Nope, just plain invisible. Two really big coke floats, please."
Sure enough, as we walked down the corridor, I watched a tray with two glasses float up to us. Andy took one and started slurping. Oh well, I took the other. "Uh, thanks." I said.
The Palace computer took up one entire room. "Is this thing outdated or what?"
"Nope, but it has universes in its memory banks. Connect to 'www.usa.net', please."
The monitor flickered to life and a second later the web page was displayed. Andy typed in his user name and password and checked his mail.
"Does this thing do anything besides surfing?"
Andy shrugged, "Authorized user, Paulin, wants to be a red fox."
My body squeezed in on itself as fur grew in and I dropped to all fours. "I'm a hawk, not a fox."
"I'd say you were mistaken about that," Andy said and scratched my ears. It felt fantastic. "You make a great fox. Don't worry, I'll take really good care of you, boy -- or girl maybe. I'd love to have kits around the Palace."
"Authorized user, Paulin, wants to turn back to elf." I stretched back into myself. "Very funny, Hollis. Where's the music program? I have a soundtrack to record."
"Uh oh," the computer said.
"You put ICQ on this thing?" I said and looked at the little green flower.
"Sure, I have lots of friends on ICQ. Speaking of the devil, it's Aatheus. You want to say 'hi' to the centaur? He's really a nice kid."
"No, go ahead. He's done a couple of really big favors for me, but he's your buddy to talk to. It would be one thing if that computer could bring him here so we could talk face to face, but you know I hate that ICQ program."
"Oh, great," Andy groaned. "Will you stop messing around now, Paul? I know you're the expert on computers here, but what are we gonna tell him?" he asked staring behind me.
I turned to look up at a tall man, with black hair and a dazed expression on his face. "I thought you said he was a kid."
"He is, when you're forty-five. He's seventeen and a grownup to a twelve-year-old, elf boy."
Aatheus pinched himself a couple of times. "Where am I?" he asked before his body began to grow and reshape itself. A young centaur with a dappled gray coat stood before us a moment later.
"Rats and Double Rats," Andy said. "I wanted that to be a surprise."
We both ran to steady the centaur as he tried to take a step and lost balance. "Who are you kids and where am I?" he said regaining his stance. "What did you do to me?"
"This was his idea," Andy said. "He was playing with the computer and here you are. I know you're never gonna believe this, but you're dreaming. This is a dream world and in it you're a centaur. Hi, I'm Andy -- Andy Hollis from ICQ? You know how much into age regression I am, and this is Paul Carmichael. He's got a thing for elves."
"I do not, and I am sorry about this. Look, I know I owe you big time for all the help you've given me but hold on a second and I'll figure out how to send you home."
"What makes you think I want to go home? This isn't a dream and you know it. I know Andy Hollis, and he's a grandfather."
Andy held up three fingers. "Sure am, all boys, too. Why don't we get you something to eat? I bet you're starving at the moment, and I'll explain this to you as we go." Andy grew into a centaur again and helped steady Aatheus until the teen was walking steadily on his own.
"It's really easy when you get the hang of it," Andy said. "Want to try, elfie?"
"I was waiting for that, Hollis. I have got to get that medal so I can do this on my own. But I've been into 'taurs a lot longer than you have."
After being through several transformations myself, I found that I didn't need help adjusting to my new equine form. We trotted away from the computer room, and down the corridors to the dining hall. I stopped suddenly, looked behind me and felt my cheeks flush at the thought of the mess I had made. Moments later, the mess vanished as the servants cleaned up the hall.
"Did you have to do that?" Andy complained.
"I didn't know that I was going to, okay?" I said. "I didn't have any control."
"Of course not, you're mostly horse now," Andy said. "Why do you think real centaurs avoid being indoors?"
"I don't know. I've never met any real centaurs before."
"When can I meet some?" Aatheus asked. "You promised me an explanation and I'm waiting."
"Sure. This is a parallel world, okay? It's my feeling that there really are an infinite number of worlds, each different by a little bit, but with an infinite number of worlds I also think that anything that can be imagined is real on at least one of them. Magic, centaurs and elves, and even body swapping work on this world while they don't back home.
"Paul and I have been writing about a fantasy world for over thirty years now. This isn't the one, but it's close and we're stuck here. I'm in the body of my counterpart on this world, who was a nasty ten-year-old brat when I took over, and Paul there turned into his counterpart, an elf lord. He started messing around, and here you are in your preferred shape since I told the computer before you came that you were a centaur."
"Okay, so where are we now?"
"This is the Palace of Light. It's the creation of a warped friend of ours, but we have run of the place. We're in the Silver Forest, the last remnant of the fairy realm in this world in this universe. We live with my Mother and twin brother back in the human world. I've been here for months and months now, while Paul arrived today.
"I know. I haven't mentioned this before while we've been chatting online because I really didn't think you would believe me if I did, and I didn't know that the computer would actually bring you here to see this for yourself."
"Ah, yes, the magic computer is more powerful than you thought. But, since that is the case, we could bring the entire TSA list here and give them their true shapes."
"I don't know about that. I had a direct connection to you through ICQ when it happened, but I don't have that many TSA folk on my list of contacts," Andy said and shook his head. "Jeff, I could try this with Jeff if he ever gets back online. I don't know what his true shape is, but then he'd know how I managed that interview with the wizard."
"I read that," Aatheus commented. "You mean he's here, too?"
"Yep, on the human side."
We descended on the dining hall, well, like hungry horses. I have no idea where all that food went, but I ate three tons myself and watched Andy eat a fourth. "Aren't you worried about gaining weight?"
"Nope. That's one of the side benefits of swapping bodies with a skinny kid. You know, I haven't been able to gain an ounce lately no matter how hard I've tried."
"Probably getting ready for a growth spurt, short stuff," I said.
"Are there any books on centaurs here? I would love to get some idea of the centaur anatomy for real since there has been quite a discussion on the 'Taur List over that."
"I haven't found the library here, but I'm sure the computer would have that information when we go back. Or would you like to try out them legs?"
Going outside may have been a mistake since we spent more than a week roaming the southern planes and meadows of the Forest world. On the third day, we met a herd of centaurs who welcomed us warmly to their numbers even though all of us qualified as alien invaders. Aatheus, although he denied it, fell for a pretty little roan filly while Andy and I spent most of our time with the other colts.
On the sixth day, Aatheus ate with us instead of his lady friend. "I have to admit this is the greatest experience of my life. But what do I tell my parents?"
"Nothing," Andy answered him. "The gate to our human world will take us back to a few moments after we left, and we'll make sure the computer sends you back so you won't be missed."
"I'm afraid you misunderstood me. I have no intention of going home after this. I am a centaur now and I want to stay here, but I would like to let my parents know that I am safe."
"Do they have an e-mail address? I could send them a message, but they aren't going to believe anything I say, are they? Dial pad!" Andy exclaimed, stomping a hind leg excitedly. "I should have thought about that before. You can call home."
"Perfect. They will know that it's me and believe what they wish," Aatheus said quietly.
"But you can't stay here," I said. "I mean, can he?"
"Can't send a centaur back home, can we?" Andy said, then grinned. "Of course, he's from California. No one would ever notice."
We took our leave of the herd, and headed back for the Palace of Light. Arrived the next morning, we found Scotty waiting for us. He paced the computer room and could only glare at us as we trotted in.
"And this would be?" Aatheus asked.
"Sorry, this is Scotty Freeman, the Lord of Light. He owns this place and that's his computer that brought you here. Scotty, this is Aatheus Centauri, a buddy of ours from our world."
"So I see. Do you two have any idea about the havoc you have caused bringing this person here and keeping him here?"
"He did it," Andy said and pointed at me.
"Your computer brought him here," I said. "And no, we didn't know anything about wreaking havoc around here or we would been more actively involved."
"Funny, I will deal with you later. You, sorry about this but change back to your proper shape." Scotty snapped his fingers and waved his Spear, but nothing happened. "Change back to human shape," he said with the same result. He frowned. "You didn't look like that when you arrived in this world, did you?"
"In a way. This has always been my true shape and now that I've found it I have no desire to return my human life."
"But the balances are all wrong. I have to return you to your own world to correct them. Computer, restore this person to the shape he wore before he came to the Silver Forest."
Aatheus flicked his tail, but nothing else happened. "I'm not doing this."
"I know that, and I don't understand who is. Andy?"
"Not me, chief. Honest and I don't have any fingers or hooves crossed either."
"Enough with the centaur humor, turn back to your human self," Scotty said and snapped his fingers. Andy fell to the floor, completely human and bare. He blushed.
"My clothes, if you don't mind?"
"Sorry," Scotty said and in seconds Andy was dressed. "You," he said and pointed at me.
I braced myself and didn't fall when the change hit. I waited for clothes and looked at the centaur still standing there.
Aatheus crossed his arms over his chest. "Could we send something of equal weight and mass back to my world to restore the balance?"
"No, that would just make the situation worse. The connection between our worlds will collapse within the next couple of days and when it does you will be drawn back there. Centaurs do not and cannot exist in your universe so there is a good chance you would change either to human or horse. Of course, there's an equally good chance the transition will kill you."
"Is there anything we can do?" Andy asked.
"Yes, limiting your access to this computer might help, but as far as your friend goes, there isn't much you can do. Aatheus, you will come with me. I wanted to pay calls on the Shadow brat that started this and perhaps once you are on your home world I can effect the change since the computer cannot undo what it started." With that both Scotty and the centaur vanished.
"Perhaps we had better go," I said subdued.
"Yeah, and not come back for a while -- well, I'm sure the music room isn't off limits, but..."
Aatheus appeared back in the room blinking. "What happened?"
"I thought I told you to come with me?" Scotty's voice said from the air. "Come along, then, we don't have much time."
I sat at the computer console. "Computer, authorized user Paulin requires assistance. Why isn't the centaur known as Aatheus returning to his world?"
"He does not wish to do so," the computer said in a monotone voice. "When the connection between worlds closes he will become a centaur here in the Silver Forest."
"Yes," Aatheus said.
"Unacceptable," Scotty said reappearing in the room.
A tall man, who looked uncomfortable in his gray business suit popped into the room a second behind Scotty. This one sported a goatee and a briefcase. He had just enough time to pinch himself before his body slimmed down considerably and his suit was replaced with a wizard's robes.
"Where am I?"
Andy choked at the sound of the man's voice. "Don't worry about a thing, Jeff. This is all a dream. In a while you will wake up and realize that you were never here."
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" Scotty demanded.
"I have no idea, young man, and I do not appreciate that tone of voice, either."
"Better watch it, Scotty. That man there is a shrink and if anyone needs therapy in this room it's you," Andy cut in.
"You're Jeff Mahr?" I asked. I stood up and tried to shake his hand. "Hi, I'm Paul Carmichael. I wrote a few stories for TSAT and..." I trailed off as Jeff stared at the centaur.
"I must be dreaming, but you are an amazingly handsome creature."
"No, I'm Aatheus, I write the 'Taur column for TSAT, and this is a pleasure."
He laughed for a moment, then looked back at me. "You said you were Paul Carmichael?"
"Yup. Top notch computer salesman, until earlier today. We chatted once online when I was using Andy's computer."
"I remember. Does Andy know about this?"
"Ask him," I said with a shrug and pointed. "He's the one that brought me here, and you for that matter. I brought Aatheus here."
Jeff focused on Andy who wore a sheepish grin. "Andy?
"When Aatheus came through, I said we should get you, too. When we went back online, you appeared. So, we meet at last, Mr. Mahr." Andy grabbed Jeff by the hand and shook. "You make a great wizard."
"But this is..."
"Impossible. We know," I said. "It's a long story, and..." I broke off as another grownup appeared in the room. This one stood there, blinking for a moment, before he turned into what had to be an otter and vanished.
"What happened there?" Scotty asked.
"I didn't see anything," Andy equivocated. "Nothing at all."
"I think we need to reformat that computer," I said loudly.
"We can't do that," Scotty said. "Whole universes, including this one, might just vanish if we did. But the way that machine is acting we may not have a choice. The fabric of this universe is strained enough. It could collapse at this rate."
"Uh oh," Andy said. "That means the Earth is in danger and I have to save it."
"Get off it, Hollis, you're not going to save the Earth."
"Please? Just this once? I always wanted to save it from something you know."
"If he wants to save the Earth from something I think you should let him," Aatheus cut in. "He did ask nicely."
Scotty took over the computer console. "Computer, please restore these people to normal humans and return them to their home worlds."
"No, and you are no longer an authorized user of this computer system. So there."
Scotty looked over at Andy. "Exactly what have you done to my computer?"
"Me? I didn't do anything besides install WordPerfect and send e-mail to them. Computer, quick, before the kid gets all worked up. We have to save the world before Paulin stops us, too. Send Jeff home, please."
"Sorry, that function is no longer available on this system. Please restate your request."
"What do you mean I can't go home? I have a wife and kids to support."
"You are now a powerful wizard. Bring them here," the computer answered. "The Forest needs people and I now have the means to get them. I am cross referencing the records of your TSA list and ICQ and the matches will be brought here. Observe."
A boy, who looked to be about twelve, popped into the room followed by a teenaged girl. The girl promptly turned into another centaur while the boy's ears grew pointed and another elf stood in the room.
"Hi," I said. "I'm Paul and welcome to the Forest."
"Where are we?" the girl demanded. "I'm Linda, or I was and this is my brother, Corey."
"You're on the TSA list? Cool," Andy said. "I'm Andy Hollis, and the wizard is Jeff Mahr from TSAT? Our computer is running amok and here you are."
"Cool," the boy said and checked out his new ears. "I always wanted to be an elf, but what about fur?"
"Talk to Andy later, he can arrange it," I said.
"Hi, I'm Aatheus. I'd be happy to show you around, Linda. The grand tour if you'd like."
"I'm on the 'Taur List, and I know you," she said and relaxed. "I'd love the grand tour."
"Hold on, everyone," Scotty said. "No one is going anywhere until we get this straightened out."
"Computer, open site dialpad.com, please," Andy said. "I think we have some people that need to call home."
The monitor changed to show the phone page.
"I have no wish to call home," Aatheus said, but I would like to send an e-mail. I have some issues with my parents right now."
"Go for it," Andy said. "Jeff?"
"If I click my heels together three times and say 'There's no place like home?'"
"Nope," Andy said quickly, "although you do look the part of the wizard, now. Paul and I are stuck here so why should you be so lucky?"
"I think maybe it's time to sort this computer out," I said and pushed Scotty away from the console. "Okay, baby, it's time to stop playing around. Let's see, how do we reboot this thing?"
"Oh, a threat. Elf threatens computer. Computer turns elf into so much goo."
As the computer spoke I watched my left arm melt. "Sorry. Nice computer, good computer, I didn't mean any harm."
"This time I will let it slide," the computer intoned, and my arm reformed from the goo. "Now, where was I? Right, the Coyote is next."
A teenaged boy appeared next to Aatheus. Andy spoke first, "Yote?"
"Where am I?" he said before fur grew over his body. He stood on two legs but promptly turned into a coyote in all other respects.
"Computer, that's Yote Coyote, not Wile E.," Andy complained.
"One road runner coming through," the computer said.
Sure enough, a large bird appeared in the room. It took one look around, flicked its tongue out at the Coyote and vanished, although I swear I heard it say, "Meep, meep" first.
The coyote raised one eyebrow, reached into a pocket and pulled out a packet of Acme Bird Seed. He gave us all a wink before he vanished as well."
"Just what this Forest needed," the computer said. "Sending an invitation to the rabbit to join ICQ now."
Andy cleared his throat. "This never happened in any of my books, Scotty. I think you need an upgrade here. The only time I ever had a computer glitch was... I say, Mr. Computer, sir."
"That's Ms. Computer to you, short stuff."
"Man, you really had me worried there. Is your traveling companion with you?"
"Of course," the computer said.
"Then everything is really okay?"
"What do you think I am? Suicidal?" the computer said with a hint of sarcasm in its voice.
The screen changed and words written in fiery gold letters scrolled across it.
To: the little kid, with the big stick and even bigger ego.
From: Director of the Dream Department.
Re: End of the Universe.
"Love and kisses,
"Teptab?" Jeff asked.
"It's kind of short hand for 'The Powers that Be," Andy explained. "That computer has been taken over by a mysterious cosmic force that sometimes intervenes in the affairs of elves and humans."
"And it kidnaped me?"
Scotty's face had turned a deep shade of red. "That mysterious cosmic force is really asking for it, and when I find out who you are, Teptab, goo will be too good for you. Okay, Hollis, spill your guts. Who is that?"
"Beats me," Andy said with a shrug. "And get that Spear of yours here too if you don't believe me. I don't have a clue. Nothing about this makes sense. In my books that was supposed to be Kevin Robinson but that isn't happening in this universe, and I have no idea who was selected to take his place."
"I want a copy of every single book you ever wrote about this place, and I want them yesterday, do you understand me?"
"Uh, right, chief."
"Charge him for the autographs," the computer said. Andy winced and looked at me.
"What is going on? If that's Teptab, why is he keeping everyone here?"
"Am not," the computer answered petulantly. "I never said I was either, and I do not kidnap people from their homes, Mr. Mahr, I just borrow them for a while. You were given the opportunity to inhabit this fantasy world of ours but if you refuse then feel free to go home anytime you wish. And yes, I want to see you click your heels together three times."
"What about us?" Linda asked.
"It's your call, Miss. Everyone I bring here will have the chance to stay or go as they please, but if you go you cannot come back. If you stay, you can change your mind and leave whenever you like."
"I want to stay," Corey said. "Hey, Paulin, you want to show me around?"
"Sure," and I tried not to look at Andy as I said, "I know some great games, too."
"Corey, Mom and Dad will have fits," Linda said as she glanced over at Aatheus. "Maybe we should call them, and let them know we might not be home for a while."
"But the pressure on the universe is getting worse," Scotty said.
"But the fabric of the universe is a lot stronger than you think, Oh Lord High Whatever. Nothing I do here is going to affect that. Unless of course. Oh no, I was wrong, it's all going to pieces! Watch out for the big bang!" the computer screamed out.
Nothing happened. We looked around but nothing had changed.
"It's due in approximately seven billion years, give or take a few hundred million. Gotcha!"
"I'll help you go through those manuscripts," I said. "If I ever figure this out, Teptab, I'm going to get you and good."
"Touchy, touchy, elfie. Jeff, it's been really a blast meeting you, but go home if you wish to, and everyone else can go too."
Jeff turned to Andy. "I guess I have to believe that's really you, Andy. I mean, I was expecting someone taller."
"That's as bad as asking for the Spanish Inquisition," Andy said and gave the wizard a quick hug. "See ya, Uncle Jeff. I'll still be on ICQ same time, same place."
"Paul, nice meeting you, at last," he said and shook my hand. "You really have to write more, and take care of my -- nephew. Okay? He needs looking after."
The wizard turned back into a psychologist and popped back out of the room.
"Do not," Andy said. "Yeah, as if you could look after me."
"But what about those animals?" Scotty demanded. "The otter and whatever those last two were?"
"They have made their choices and watch out," the computer answered.
"I don't know who this guy is, but I like his style," Andy commented.
Linda finished telling her folks what had happened, and left walking arm and arm with Aatheus. He gave both of us a quick wave. Corey waited for me."
"Looks like the Hollis Home for Wayward Elves is open for business," Andy commented. "Okay, Teptab, I need that collection of manuscripts for His Nibs here."
"Sorry, no can do. Observe," the computer said as the monitor showed Andy's study back home.
"Oh, my god," Andy said. "That fiend. Look at what he did to my room."
"It looks clean," Scotty grunted, unimpressed. "So?"
"It's all gone. My computer, my file cabinet with all the manuscripts, all my books and music. All of it gone to that great big garage sale in the sky. You said you wanted to have a chat with that shadow-spawned brat from hell? Let me go, too."
"Rats," I commented. "I wanted to see all those dirty pictures you had on your computer, too."
"Me too," Corey said. "I had some old Playboy's at home, but..."
"Look, elf boy," Andy said. "Don't mess with my 'G' rating, okay?" he said, then shrugged. "Any good ones? Teptab if we can't get my manuscripts we could at least get something to read."
"Forget it, all of you, forget it. I don't do errands for minors with dirty minds. Off with you."
Corey, Linda and Aatheus moved into the Palace of Light since Corey didn't want to stay at the Hotel with us, and I wasn't about to subject him to the Silver Forest Elves. Scotty did not get over his anger and he left vowing not to return for another hundred years. Andy and I finally made it back through the gate to Bennett City."
We hiked back to the Hotel and Allan met us behind the house. "Where have you guys been? Mom's been looking all over for you two."
"Why," Andy asked. "How long have we been gone? We just went for a walk by the river."
"I know, and you haven't been gone an hour yet, but guess what?"
We walked into the kitchen to scrounge a snack. "What," I asked.
"Dad called," Allan blurted out. "He's picking us up for the summer, and we're going to London, and then Salisbury to stay with some friends of his out there."
I looked at Andy. "You are not leaving me out of this, you know."
"I know. You get a twin brother out of the deal and I get power beyond compare, partner."
"You've got a twin brother, too?" Allan asked.
"Andy's always had this thing for twins, " I said and shook my head. "Okay," I said as I made a sandwich, "Spill it, Hollis. Who is Teptab?"
"You didn't figure that out?" he asked with a wide grin. "Just call him Andlin the elf."
"But isn't that supposed to be you?" I asked him.
He held a finger to his lips. "You didn't hear that from me and I'll deny it, too. I'd never ever do anything that mean and nasty to Scotty, now would I? Hardly. It's just someone that looks like me."
"What are you talking about?" Allan asked.
"Something that hasn't happened yet, but will get your brother in a lot of trouble if anyone finds out," I said. "See, if the Lord of Light ever found out that it was Andy all along. Oops. Hello, Scotty."
Andy whipped around and stared at the empty room. "You rat. You dirty, no good rat."
"Gotcha," I said. "Want to go back out and play?"
"Sure," Allan said. "Since you left me out this last time."
"You can't hide behind my brother that long. One of these days, Alice. Paulin, go kiss an elf."
"Ha, very funny. Come on. I'll race both of you back to the river." I yelled, and for the first time I really felt like a kid again.
"You're on. Al, you take one side and I'll take the other and we'll trip him before he can get there."
"Cheaters," I yelled out "Two against one."
As we ran back across Miller's field, I realized I was home -- really home.