Becky and Stubs reached over to knock on the door. The ground shifted beneath them. A crack appeared between the ledge they were standing on and the side of the mountain. The fissure, at first a mere spiderweb, widened quickly, sending a shower of small rocks down the face of the cliff.
“Stubs, don’t move!” Becky braced herself against the mountainside. “This ledge isn’t quite strong enough to hold us both if we shift our weight at the same time. Lean back and I’ll try to reach forward enough to open the door.”
Stubs obeyed and leaned backward. Becky reached out, grasping for the doorknob. Her fingers brushed against it and she gasped when the knob giggled and moved to the other side of the door.
“Oooh! That tickles!” the doorknob said, its voice high and wavering.
The ledge collapsed. Stubs, thinking quickly, used the head of his hammer to catch the broken cliff edge. With his right hand grasping the hammer, he reached his left down and snatched Becky’s wrist as she slid past. Groaning with exertion, he managed to haul her up far enough to grab the lip of the cliff. They hung there, gasping for breath and gazing up at the wooden door with its ridiculous doorknob.
“Well, I guess this is it,” Becky said. “Teehee. Oh, well. It could be worse.”
Stubs looked at her. “How could this possibly be worse? We’re going to die!”
Becky chewed her lip. “Sorry. The turd taffy is slowly poisoning my mind. I can feel myself growing increasingly optimistic even as the situation worsens. Here we are hanging from a cliff above an open chasm and all I can think of is what a wonderful view we have from up here. It’s driving me crazy, too. Tee-friggin’-hee!”
Stubs felt sorry for her and tried to shrug, but found this impossible to do while dangling from a cliff. “How about we split that last swine wad? It’d be a shame to let it…”
The door burst open, its frame immediately filled by an immensely fat man who looked at Becky and Stubs with delight.
“Well, blimey, if it ain’t Becky and the dwarf!”
“Tiberius!” Becky recognized the portly man from Sticky Jake’s gopher ranch. “What are you doing here? Where’s Sticky Jake? Have you always had a Cockney accent?”
Tiberius looked bashful and rubbed his toe in the dirt. “I was thrown out of ‘is lordship’s service,” he said mournfully. “’e caught me over-polishin’ ‘is pogs one mornin’ and ’ad me flogged. Then ‘e tied me to an ‘erd o' gophers and ‘ad ‘em drag me into the wild. So ashamed, I was, that I set meself up in business ‘ere in the mountains away from folks.”
“And the accent?” asked Becky.
“It’s part o' me new identity.”
Stubs looked around at the desolate landscape. “Seems in your effort to escape the shame, you might have also limited your customer base.”
Tiberius grimaced. “Yes, well. Me business model’s a work in progress. Ain’t you the dwarf what couldn’t hold ‘is—”
“That’s also a work in progress,” Stubs interrupted. “I’m improving. You’ll notice I’m hanging from a cliff at great peril and haven’t…how about just helping us up?”
Still miffed, Tiberius paused.
“We might be able to use your services,” Becky added.
Tiberius pulled them both to safety and led the way inside. He made a grand sweeping gesture. “Behold Tiberius Airways, the only dirigibibble comp’ny in the Mysteriolith Mountains! This fine craft you see ‘ere is the mothership. I call it the Zepeppelin.”
“That’s a dirigibibble?” asked Becky and Stubs in unison.
The contraption was smaller than the Loneos and not nearly as appealing. It floated a few feet off the floor and was made from gopher pelts, all stapled together (the obvious influence of Sticky Jake) to form an oblong balloon shape. Underneath the balloon hung the passenger compartment, which was actually a cardboard box reinforced with massive amounts of Duck Tape. Some of the ducks were awake and quacked menacingly.
Tiberius looked crestfallen. “Disappointed?”
“I…kind of thought it would be bigger,” Becky said.
“And more air-worthy,” Stubs added. “Are you sure this is safe?”
Tiberius bustled forward and caressed the dirigibibble. “Quite safe, quite safe! Tiberius Airways ‘as never ‘ad an accident.”
“Has it ever had a flight?”
Tiberius ignored the question. “Will you be needin’ me services?”
Becky and Stubs exchanged glances. Becky sighed. “It would appear we have no choice. It’s either employ Tiberius and reach the wizards quickly or I go crazy and the Syndicate takes over the world.”
A loud yawn interrupted the Writer’s concentration. The Wife, who was again reading over his shoulder, removed her Impacto Anti-Vibration Air Gloves™ and flexed her cramping fingers.
“I hate it when you use obvious dialogue to explain the plot. Do you think your readers are morons?”
“I’m just trying to make sure they understand the seriousness of the situation,” the Writer said. “After all, if there’s nothing at stake, there will be no tension.”
“If you have to keep stopping the story to explain what’s going on, then perhaps you have some editing to do.”
The Writer paled. “I’ve asked you not to utter that word in my presence. You know I abhor foul language. Now go back to your…whatever it is you’re doing.”
“I’m building a bomb shelter in the basement. But it requires that I remove a portion of the foundation. Hence the gloves.” She waved them in his face.
“Bomb shelter!” The Writer bounced a little in his chair and jerked his head toward the Wife, accidentally filling his ear with granola. “Do you really think that’s necessary?”
“Are you planning to send this story to your agent?”
The Writer nodded.
Backing slowly out of the room, the Wife pulled on the gloves. “In that case, I have work to do.”
Tiberius performed an excited jig. “Well, then, I suppose you’ll be in a hurry to be on your way!” He walked to the Zepeppelin and peered into the passenger box. He reached inside and appeared to be shaking someone awake. “Come on, mate! You’ve got passengers!”
They heard a long yawn and saw two arms extend out of the box as its occupant stretched. The arms were stick thin, the hands scaly, and the webbed fingers were tipped with sharp, talon-like nails. Slowly, a head appeared. Large, bulbous eyes blinked sleepily and a mouth, lined with tiny, pointy teeth, gaped in a giant yawn. The creature hopped out of the basket and surveyed the visitors. He appeared to be quite bad-tempered.
In spite of herself, Becky grinned. "He's adorable!"
Tiberius patted the creature’s head. He wasn’t more than four feet tall and had reddish skin. His face was creased with a perpetual frown. “Meet my best pilot,” Tiberius said. “His name is Ember and ‘e’s quite the little demon.”
“Misbehaves, does he?” asked Becky.
“No, ‘e’s really a little demon,” Tiberius said. “Found ‘im wanderin’ through the mountains. Apparently, ‘e’d been sent out to cause mayhem and got lost. He tries to act fierce, but ain’t really such a bad sort.”
Ember made a clawing motion toward Becky and Stubs. “Rowr,” he said.
“Well, let’s get the dirigibibble onto the launchin’ pad,” said Tiberius. “These folks ‘ave important business to attend.”
“Is it really safe to travel through the mountains at night?” Stubs asked. “It’s hard enough to see where you’re going in the day.”
“Actually, I’ll think you’ll find it much more to your likin’,” said Tiberius, grabbing hold of a towing rope.
Together, he and Ember managed to haul the Zepeppelin forward and tie it securely to anchor pins sunk deep into the rock. Tiberius pulled a lever and piece of the wall slid aside, revealing a stunning view of the Mysteriolith mountain range. The sky was dark, but the moon was out and bathed the mountain sides in silver light. It reflected off the snow on the peaks, sparkling and almost festive.
“I’ve never been in the mountains after dark before,” said Becky. “Why is it so much clearer and, well, nicer at night? Isn’t that sort of backwards?”
Tiberius looked around as if searching for spies and lowered his voice. “It's all the Fairies' doin'."
"They make the mountains all scary and dangerous? Isn't that a little contrary to their core value? Optimism, I mean?"
At Becky's words, the floor began trembling. The clear sky filled with storm clouds, blotting out the moon. Lightening flashed and raised the hair on the back of their necks. Tiberius paled and ran to shut the sliding door. It was almost closed when something appeared in the opening and blocked it. A fairy, grinning horribly, perched on the cliff edge and held the door open. It was smiling, but the expression was sinister. This fairy seemed different, somehow, not the normal sickeningly cheerful nymph Becky was used to, but dark and threatening. Looking over the fairy's shoulder, Becky could see several more on the way, their whirring wings reflecting the flashes of lightening.
The wind had picked up and the Zepeppelin strained at its anchor pins. Tiberius was struggling with the fairy, trying to push it from the ledge so they could shut the sliding rock door. Becky and Stubs joined the fracas and together managed to push the intruder out of the opening. The fairy gripping the edge of the door with his hands and, reversing his wing motion, used the backward thrust to hold the door open.
Ember leaped forward and, grabbing one of the fairy's fingers, chomped down with his tiny teeth. Startled, the fairy yelped and let go, but forgot to adjust his wing strength. With the speed of a rocket, he shot backward down the mountainside and out of sight.
"Rowr!" said Ember.
Tiberius wasted no time slamming the door. He turned to Becky. "You're one of them, aren't you! On your way to join them!"
Becky shook her head emphatically. "No! I'm not! I'm trying to stop them. Teehee!" She clamped a hand over her mouth.
Tiberius began dancing about, pointing at Becky accusingly. "The Call! That's 'ow they knew where you were!"
Stubs looked at Becky and she nodded. "He's right. If anyone with the Call begins questioning the Syndicate, it immediately sends a warning to their headquarters. It's their way of eliminating opposition before it can spread."
There was a pounding on the front door. Having abandoned their efforts to pry open the rock wall, the fairies were concentrating on the wooden door. They could hear giggling and knew the doorknob was giving the fairies a difficult time.
"Bed of roses!" swore one of the fairies. "I can't catch it! Sit still, knob!"
"Quick!" Tiberius said. "That door won't 'old 'em long. While they're busy, we might be able to make a run for it. Everyone to the dirigibibble!"