“So Tony's responsible for sewing your, uh, bum shut?” Becky looked doubtful. “Somehow I don’t see you letting that happen.”
“He sorta snuck up on me,” Merbert mumbled, his mouth full of spud. “And speakin’ o’ bums, iffen I ever get ahold o’ that Maxwell, I’m gonna…but I don’t wanna ruin yer meal, so you folks go ahead and et up. Yuh.”
Becky and Stubs sat down at the table and looked at their respective plates, both of which were piled high with steak and potatoes. Stubs picked up a fork and cut off a piece of steak, tentatively nibbling one corner.
“It’s delicious!” he said, immediately setting into his food with an energy befitting a much younger dwarf.
Encouraged, Becky followed suit. The two travelers hadn’t realized the extent of their hunger and it took three helpings of food and several flagons of mead and Sprite to fill their stomachs.
The Writer chuckled. “Flagon.” That was an amusing word and he really should use it more often. He decided he’d name his firstborn child Flagon and the idea amused him even further.
He was in an exceptionally good mood. It wasn’t often a story moved along with such proficiency and grace. Although trying hard not to become overconfident, he couldn’t help imagining himself standing next to a publisher, each of them holding up one end of a giant check, made out to him, and with many, many zeroes.
Opening up his email, he fired off a message to the Pulitzer committee, telling them all about his book and including a short synopsis. At the last minute, he inserted his phone number. They might want to call up first, just to chat for a bit. Maybe pick his brain for a future study of literary geniuses.
Stubs awoke and sat up. He didn’t remember falling asleep and for a moment couldn’t even remember where he was. He saw Becky lying a few feet away, still sleeping soundly. It was dark, except for a single burning torch, stuck into a crack in the wall. Then Stubs noticed a circle of darkness not far away, with brightly lit…stars? It was the night sky and the dark circle was the mouth of a cave. Merbert!
He jumped to his feet and looked around. What time was it? What day was it? They had to be on their quest!
Becky stirred awake at Stubs’ shout and took stock of the situation. “Merbert!”
The ex-wizard had vanished. Becky walked over next to Stubs and they glanced around the cavern. No sign of their kindly host.
“Well, how about that,” Becky said. “The good Samaritan strikes again! Now I guess we’ll never know the full story behind the Mysteriolith Three. I was hoping he could at least point us in the right direction.”
A voice, echoing eerily through the cavern, spoke. “That woulda been too easy! Ah-yuh-yuh-yuh!”
Becky and Stubs looked around again, but still saw no sign of their rescuer.
“The one and only. Sorry ta run out on you all, but I’m afraid my part is done fer now.”
“How long have we been asleep?”
“Just a few hours. You folks was plumb tuckered out and without the rest, you’d never’d made it. So I letcha sleep fer a spell. But now that it’s dark, ya might wanna think ‘bout movin’ on. Yuh!”
“Can’t you even tell us if we’re headed for danger, just so we’ll know what to expect?”
“Nope, can’t do that,” said Merbert’s disembodied voice. “Iffen you folks knew the danger, you’d never carry on yer quest.”
“But why do we have to leave at night?” asked Stubs.
“Yeah,” added Becky. “And how are we to find the Mysteriolith Three? And if we can’t find them, how are we going to find the magic stick?”
“So many questions!” echoed the wizard. “First off, stop callin’ it a magic stick. It’s a staff! And secondly, you folks worry too much. And third, it’s really dark in the back o’ this cave, so iffen ya don’t mind, I’m comin’ out there with you all.”
Sure enough, Merbert suddenly appeared beside them, carrying a bucket in one hand.
“We thought you’d vanished!” Becky said. “How’d you get that echo in your voice?”
Merbert held the bucket up to his mouth and spoke into it. “Ya mean this? Yuh! Every wizard worth his salt has an echo bucket.” He tried to toss the bucket over his shoulder, but hit himself in the head. “Ouch, dammit, yuh! Didn’t see that one comin’.”
“So you won’t guide us to the wizards?”
“Can’t. Never wanna see those bastards again. An’ they don’t wanna see me. Better we keep it that way.” Merbert turned away and emitted a tiny yuh. Then he whipped back around. “But enough ‘bout misery an’ strife! You folks have a gruelin’ trip ahead o’ ya. Better be movin’ on. I’ve put some vittles in yer packs and filled yer canteens with water, so ya shouldn’t be needin’ grub. Now, then. Be off with ya.”
Stubs and Becky picked up their packs and moved toward the entrance. “Well, thanks for your help, Merbert,” Becky said. “Perhaps we’ll meet up again soon?”
There was nothing but silence from the cave, so they kept moving until they were outside and some distance from the opening. The night air was cool and, fortunately, the stars were bright. But even though the sky was clear and the moon full, deep shadows spotted the landscape, concealing who knew what. Sharp rocks, sinkholes…Tony. At the thought, Becky shivered and Stubs put an arm around her.
“Not to worry,” he said. “We’ll be fine. And if anything happens, I’ve got my hammer at the ready.”
Behind them, quiet and unseen, Merbert slipped from the cave, wrapped in a large, flowing robe. He observed the scene and smiled. If those two could stay together through the danger that was certain to come, they might just have a chance of making it.
From beneath his robe, Merbert withdrew his echo bucket and risked a single, muffled, “Yuh!” And then, walking quickly in the direction of the Mysterolith Mountains, he disappeared into the shadows.
“Now what is he up to?” wondered The Writer. “Perhaps there’s more to Merbert than meets the eye.”
A banging sound startled him and he instinctively ate some granola. His wife appeared, dragged a large shower unit behind her.
“Almost have the bathroom remodeled,” she announced. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in seeing it when it’s finished?”
“Oooh, now’s not a good time, dear,” The Writer said. “I’ve just introduced a bit of intrigue into the story and, well, you know how it is.”
“Right. Intrigue. How are you holding up on the granola?”
“I could use another box, since you’re asking.” The Writer licked a few granola crumbs from his fingers. “And if you’re not too busy, I could use a ream of high-quality paper. When I print this out to send to the publisher, I want it to look its best.”
“Sure thing,” sighed The Wife. “As soon as I finish the spackling and install the satellite dish.”
“Excellent!” The Writer turned back to his laptop, but remembered something and whipped back around. “Hey, have you heard from the Pulitzer people yet?”
“Hmm. Strange. I sent them an email with my telephone number and a synopsis of my book. I’d have thought they would have called by now. Have you checked the machine?”
“There have been no calls.”
“Maybe you just...”
“No calls, dear.”
The Writer knew that tone of voice and it scared him, so he turned again to his laptop and continued writing.
Stubs and Becky hoisted their packs higher onto their shoulders and set a course for the Mysteriolith Mountains. They could just see the peaks rising into the sky, but it was far too dark to tell the distance.
Nervously, Stubs made a practice swing with his hammer, but when he spoke his voice was steady. “Once the sun comes up, we should have a better idea of what we’re up against.”
“I’m more worried about surviving until sun-up,” Becky said, making no effort to hide her concern. “Have you noticed there aren’t any night sounds out here? No crickets, owls, frogs…nothing!”
“So this is obviously an undesirable place for wildlife.”
“So it’s probably not safe!”
“Ah. But Merbert seems to do all right for himself.”
“Merbert’s a wizard. At least, a former wizard. Not many people want to tangle with them.”
A few minutes of silence and walking ensued before Becky said, “I wonder why Merbert wanted us to leave at night. It seems like it would be even more dangerous in the dark.”
“Maybe he thought we could slip through undetected.”
“Slip through what? You seem to be forgetting we don’t really know where we’re going.”
“Or at least how to get there.”
“Precisely. But you’d think Merbert would at least have the courtesy to—” Becky stopped talking abruptly and held a hand to her head.
“What’s wrong?” Stubs was instantly concerned. The expression on Becky’s face frightened him. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“No…” Becky’s voice was weak. “Not a ghost.” She swayed and Stubs hurried to help her sit down. Her face was pale and a sheen of perspiration coated her forehead.
“What then?” Stubs tightened his grip on the hammer.
“It’s The Call. I just heard The Call.”
Stubs had never heard of The Call, but he remained quiet, knowing Becky would continue when she felt able. The fairy was bent almost double, holding her head in both hands, and was obviously in considerable pain.
“The Fairy Syndicate sends out The Call whenever they want to summon all the fairies together.”
“Sort of, but it’s more…powerful than that.”
“Is it always so painful?”
Becky shook her head carefully. “Not to everyone. Just to those fairies who’ve been disgraced or try to ignore The Call.”
“So what does this mean?” Stubs was almost afraid to ask.
“It means our time is growing short. The Syndicate wouldn’t send out The Call unless the warlord had arrived. He’s gathering them all together to give them their battle plans.” Becky struggled to her feet. “We have to hurry! It will only take the fairies a day, two at the most, to assemble. After that, they’ll march on the Dirty Forest Man. We must deliver the magic staff before they reach him!”
Their courage renewed by the direness of the situation, Stubs and Becky continued walking toward the Mysteriolith Mountains. So intent were they on their path, they didn’t notice a shadowy figure trailing close behind, flitting from tree to rock and rock to tree.