The Writer considered calling up the Pulitzer people himself and saving them the trouble of digging around for his genius. I have your piece right here he'd say. You can put all those other books down.
The Writer penned a sticky note to remind himself to find out if the Pulitzer was even awarded to fiction writers. A nagging little voice kept telling him that it was a journalist's prize. He gave the little voice some granola and it was quiet for the nonce. The Writer needed to concentrate. His epic needed him.
"Well, little lady, could be. But furst you'll have to answer a coupla questions. Like, for example, were you aware of the pun you coulda made about me ferrying you across? You being a fairy? If anything--"
"Yes, I was."
"If anything, you'd be fairy-ing--"
"I get it."
"...You'd be fairy-ing me across! Ah-yuh-yuh!"
"What kind of questions would you have us answer, o' master of inflatable aviation?" Stubs inquired in his politest tone. He felt kind of guilty about the verbal pummeling he'd handed Becky earlier, and was feeling makey-uppy. He still planned to get the Writer back for calling him a "charred-ass dwarf," though.
Merbert tossed down an iron anchor tied to the bottom of a rope ladder. "Oh, dontcha worry! They'll be real simple ones," he said, and mumbled something incoherent about meatloaf.
"Will we each get a set, or can we answer them together?" asked Becky in her politest tone. She felt kinda guilty about the aural slapping she'd dealt Stubs earlier, and had generated a surplus of patience to dole out in atonement. Neither of them moved toward the ladder just yet.
"Ah-yuh-yuh-yuh! Fur a coupla' folks who should be answering questions, you sure got a lotta your own! Tellya what. Yuh! Whichever one'a you knows the answer, just holler out and I'll consider it a done deal. Speaking of done, you shoulda seen what the wife cooked up in the crock pot last week! Tender? You wouldn't believe your teeth, it was tender! So, anyhow, you ready for your questions?"
The two protagonists exchanged a glance and then looked back up at Merbert, floating ten feet above them in his big red balloon.
Merbert became frowny and looked hurt.
"Oh! Sorry," said Becky, and tossed a piece of glance up to Merbert who brightened immediately.
"Righto then! Question the first, as I like to say, is: do you know how to climb a rope ladder?"
"...Yes?" Stubs and Becky said together.
"Oh, yuh-yuh-yuh! Prove it then, and get on up here!" Merbert boomed jovially.
The basket was a lot bigger inside than it looked from without. The sides were lined with cushioned benches, and one of them was wide enough to serve as a bed. This was evidently its function, as a counterpane with puppies on it was draped over it. A corner of the counterpane was tucked up, and Stubs saw the door of a small refrigerator under there.
Merbert gave them each a hearty slap on the back.
"Now don't go spending that all in one place!" he hooted. "Now! Question the secondary, as I like to say, is up next: Do either of you know what that cloud is shaped like?" He pointed to a billowy cumulus cloud overhead.
Becky craned her head back. "I'd say it looks like a bunny."
"Definitely a bunny," said Stubs, twirling his hammer in agreement.
"Whoopee! Yuh-yuh-YUH! Oh, good goobers, that's a bunny if'n I ever sawr one! And here comes the zinger..!"
Stubs and Becky stiffened. Stubs leveled his hammer.
"Would you two be so kind as to fly this thing to the other side? Your pal Merbert's got hisself an attack of the naps, he does. Clouds that look like bunnies allus do that to me."
"Uh, yeah, I guess," said Becky hesitantly.
"Just haul up that anchor there, and ol' Loneos here," he jabbed a thumb up at his balloon, "will float ya the damn over to the other side!"
"I don't know..." Stubs gave the giant balloon a mistrustful look. "I've never--"
"Heeey! Mugs of mead for y'both!" Merbert boomed. He fetched two chilled tankards from his fridge. They were both filled to the brim and sported heads of frothy white foam.
"Say no more!" said a happy Stubs, taking both tankards. He handed one to Becky and immediately stuffed his beard into his own.
"Aw, I knew you two was good folks! Just wake me up when we're across." Merbert flopped onto his bench-bed and began to snore immediately. His snore was a quieter, snortier, more drawn-out version of his laugh. "Ahhhh...yuuuuhh-yuuuuhhhh..."
Becky set her tankard down and looked at Stubs. He was standing there, smiling placidly and making soft snuffling sounds.
"Stubs. What on earth are you doing?"
"I'm a science dwarf," he explained. "Have you heard of capillary action? No, I thought not." He indicated his beard, which was completely soaked in the dark brown liquid. "My beard serves as sort of a wick, like in an oil lamp. The mead is drawn up from the tankard here, and right to my mouth! And I don't even have to bend my neck or get my nose in the foam!" He giggled happily.
"How brilliant, yet how completely useless."
"You're just jealous 'cuz you don't have a beard," said Stubs, hiccuping. "Let's pull that anchor up."
As soon as the anchor touched the floor of the basket, the balloon swept up and out over the lip of the gorge. The change from stasis to motion was so sudden that Stubs sloshed some of his mead onto his jerkin.
"Well, would you lookit that!" said an astonished Writer. "First one of my characters starts cussing, and now even the good guys are wearing jerkins and drinking! Drinking!"
"What's wrong with a little drink now and then?" His Wife's voice had a metallic, echoey sound. The Writer turned in his seat and ducked as a bolt of electricity arced across the room.
"What the hell--?" He patted the top of his head to make sure it was still there.
"Oh, calm down. It's low-current, you big baby," said the Wife from inside the reactor core. "Ever heard of Nikola Tesla?"
The Writer drew himself up to his full height. This was accomplished with some difficulty, as he was still seated, but the Writer was not your average man. The Writer possessed the height-drawing skill of ten mortal men.
"I have indeed heard of him," he said, sprinkling his tone with a few flecks of haughty. "He makes this spiffy electric car in California. Nice chap."
"Mm hm. How about 'cold fusion'?"
"It's an alcoholic beverage. A quality brand of ale, if I'm not mistaken."
"Pour me a mug, barkeep!" the Wife tittered, and the bolt did its arcing trick again as the Writer harrumphed and pulled the power cord out of his laptop.
"If you need me, I'll be out in the lawn, communicating with my fans via Wi-Fi and battery power," he said, and stomped regally from the apartment.
"Nice pick-up," Becky said, impressed. "Have you ever seen a balloon do that? I mean, accelerate so quickly?"
"Yeah. Tons," said Stubs, being smug.
"It's just...disconcerting...is all," Becky said, frowning. "He called it 'Loneos.' Does that name mean anything to you?"
"Yeah. Tons," said Stubs, moving beyond smug and into televangelist territory.
"I think Loneos is a comet..." Becky said quietly, almost to herself.
The Writer giggled and squirmed gleefully amongst the dandelions. This was going to be exciting! He wondered if he was the first to name a hot-air balloon, something that under normal circumstances moved with a stately slowness, after something as blazingly fast as a comet. He ejected the CD from the side of his computer and frisbeed it at some children, and decided that he was.
Since he was already on a roll, he decided to inject even more adventure.
"Well, it looks like this comet balloon isn't going to make it all the way across." Becky was leaning out over the edge of the basket, eyeing the approaching canyon wall. "I don't think we're high enough."
"Speak for yourself!" said Stubs in a soggy, mirthful voice.
"No. I'm serious. If we don't heat this thing, we're going to crash. Wake Merbert up."
Stubs switched the tankard to free up his good gesturing hand. He gestured to the reclining Merbert. "Aw, let the poor man have his bunny sleep. I'll take care of this." He lurched to the center of the basket where a cord hung from lever on a shiny metal appliance that looked like a rocket engine with its nozzle pointed up into the balloon.
Becky held out a hand, palm forward in a gesture of her own. "Whoa! Hold on there, Stumpy Pooterson. There's a note pinned to this side of the jet that says 'For Quick Descents Only!' I think you--"
"Yeah, yeah," mumbled Stubs, pushing past her. "I deduced that myself without even calling on your wondrous reading skills. I've seen tons of these things before. Now, if you're done showing off, I'mma pull this cord, okay?"
"Descents, Stubs! Descents! We don't want to descend! We want to ascend. You know? Rise? Soar? Mount majestically into the vaulted blue expanses? Any of this getting through?"
"Clear as a bell."
"Okay then," said Becky, allowing herself to relax and breathe again.
"Probably just labeled in metric," Stubs said, and pulled the cord.
Becky screamed. The jet roared. A geyser of icy air filled the balloon, riming the inside. As bits of the glittering frost fell around the passengers, the entire conveyance dropped out of the sky so suddenly that Stubs' beard flopped out of his mead.
The Writer worked a handful of granola out of his breast pocket and picked out the lint. Oh, this story was just so cool! Not just the ice jet either. The Father told him that it was, "and I quote!" the Writer shouted at some bugs, "character-driven!"
The Writer didn't have time to find out what this meant, exactly, because he was too anxious to see what was going to happen next. He searched his laptop's screen for a few moments before he realized that he was at the helm.
"Ha ha!" He started typing again.
Merbert came awake with a guffaw.
"Ah-yuh-yuh-whuh? Holy potatoes! What's all the kerfuffle?"
"He pulled the cord!" screamed Becky.
"I pulled that cord," belched Stubs.
"Yuh-yuh-yuh!" laughed Merbert.
"Do something, please!" cried Becky, clutching white-knuckled at the basket's edge. "We're gonna crash!"
"Aw, I spilled my mead!" moaned Stubs.
The frozen balloon and its two terrified, meadless passengers plunged into the chasm, and the light began to fade quickly around them. The third merely hooted jovial laughter and raised one of his hands, fingers extended, to the balloon's throat.
"I say, calm down, you two!"
Flames erupted from Merbert's forearm with a solid whumph! and spread over his entire arm, engulfing it in a crackling cyclone of fire.
"Turnip casserole!" he thundered, and the fire shot up his arm and exploded from his hand in a storm that lit the chasm from wall to wall. The creak of straining fabric filled the air and the balloon halted fast enough to knock Becky's tankard out of Stubs' hands.
"Whee! Ah-yuh-yuh-yuh!" Merbert fired smaller bursts of flame into the envelope. The balloon climbed gently up and, as it neared the lip of the far edge, it caught a strong updraft and sailed over it.
"Y'see? We weren't never in danger, folks. I allus catch this lil' updraft right here. I named 'im Steve, I say, and Steve always whooshes me right on home! Ho, yeah!"
"Wow," said Stubs. "Can you teach me how to do that?"
"Maybe later, fella!"
"You're--you're not just a ferryman, are you, Merbert?" stammered Becky.
"Why, I guess I'm not, little missus!" chuckled the wizard. "I used'ta go by the name Merbert the Jovial, but that was a long time ago."
The Writer absolutely lost it. He set his laptop down in the grass and pranced enthusiastically. He ran over to his car and let all the air out of its tires. He sprinted down the road to a fast-food place and bought himself an ice cream cone. He sprinted back to his laptop before the bugs stole it and dribbled vanilla/chocolate soft-serve onto the keys as he congratulated himself for such an unexpected plot twist.
Like ice cream, plots were better when they were twisty.
Merbert invited Becky and Stubs to his place for dinner when he had maneuvered the balloon onto a marble platform in a forest clearing. Beyond the clearing, visible from the top of this platform, the Mysteriolith foothills loomed.
"Have another mead, my friend!" boomed Merbert, his voice rebounding from the walls of his cavernous den. His den was an actual cavern, Stubs saw as he accepted the tankard. Carved into the stone at the foot of the mountains.
"Thanks! Oh, and hey, about teaching me to do that hand-fire thing...you think I could do it? I mean, is it possible?"
"Oh, yuh-yuh-sure! It's easy! At first, you probably won't be able t'make such a crumplestorm like I did, but you can heat up your meatloafs with it, uh-course!"
"So you're one of the Mysteriolith Three, huh?" said an awed Becky, accepting a tumbler of Sprite.
"Well," considered Merbert, depositing himself in a huge armchair. "Yuh and no."
Stubs and Becky exchanged a glance. It was passed quickly from one to the other, and since it was a fair barter, Merbert didn't feel cheated or left out.
"Both? How's that? Do you have time to tell us your tale?" asked Stubs, settling his beard in preparation for storytime.
"Oh, sure! The little lady of the house left me some damn fine steak and potatoes, and I'm fixin' to heat that mess up an'...mmmm!" He rubbed his stomach in an exaggerated show of enjoyment. "Oughta be ready in a couple minutes. You folks want any?"
"Please, if you wouldn't mind."
"Dammit, that's fine! Dandy, I say, keen. Now! Lemme begin." He adjusted himself in his chair. "It weren't more'n eight year a'gone now that Darius the Crafty, Lucretius the Infuriatingly Wise and, uh-course, me, Merbert the Jovial was the force to be reckoned with 'round these parts. I mean, The force, with a capital T! Ah, yuh-yuh!
"Well, these two brothers'a mine, Darius bein' the older and Lucretius the younger, was allus on me for m'sunny outlook on things. Uh-course my penchant for meatloafs, casseroles and apple pies certainly didn't sit well with 'em neither. 'It's simply not acceptable traditional Wizard fare!' Lucretius was allus whining. Yuh! An' Darius kept tryin' t'trick me into eatin' some sludge he'd conjured up in his big dumb cauldron or somesuch. I say, folks, I tell you the truth when I say that was summa the nastiest spew I ever--"
The beeping of Merbert's microwave oven interrupted his story.
"Ho! That'll be my steak'n'spuds!" he bellowed. "Well, to make a long story short, folks, they booted me outta the wizarding business. Said I was too much of a whimsical chucklehead. They replaced me with this Maxwell fellow. Name'a Maxwell the Replacement if y'want his full title. Ah-yuh-yuh-yuh! An' y'know what? Max ain't worth a box'a nubbins as a wizard!"
"Maxwell? What kind of wizard is named Maxwell?" giggled Becky.
"He ain't so much of a wizard as he is a, uh..." Merbert paused.
"Is a..?" prompted Stubs.
"...More of a long-haul trucker. I don't like t'talk much about that," Merbert finished hastily. "Now, up'n' at them spuds, folks! Y'gotta get to 'em when they're still warm, you know. Lotta energy and vittamins in spuds, yuh-yuh! You're gonna need 'em, too, 'cuz there's this ornery little fella named Tony that lives 'round these parts. You'll probably have to have some sort of semi-climactic battle with 'im." The jolly ex-wizard paused and a look of reminiscence trundled across his features.
"Tony's a bastard too. Used to bitch all the time about my farting. That is, 'til I had my bum sewed shut."