The Map of All Worlds

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Quill 149 Map of All Worlds Image 1 Final RealI have seen the tears of a unicorn.  I have squinted through shielded lenses to watch bright white stars spinning out plasma.  I have seen the battle of mouse armies.  I have seen the glowing green heart of the oldest oak in my home realm.

A map led me to all of these and more.  Not a static map drawn on a scroll or printed on glossy pages in an atlas.  Not even the sometimes-changing ethereal maps created on the worldwide web.  This map was ever-changing.  It drew itself.  It did not learn or know.  It simply appeared when commanded to, if the commands were the right commands.  Technology, enchantment.

It all started with a scavenger hunt.

*****

A lot of people my age wanted to work for the company.  I’d have the chance to advance, to craft my own career path if I wanted to.  I’d get paid an equal wage compared to my male colleagues.  I heard the cafeteria food was amazing.

I thought I’d have a chance.  “Technology” and “Research and Development” were the “hot” divisions.  I wanted to work in the public outreach section.  I was qualified, but it was competitive and I thought I’d give myself an edge by volunteering for a trial study the company was conducting.  There were hundreds of volunteers on the first day.  The study participants would be compensated and the rewards increased with each stage of the study.  Those who provided real feedback critical or favorable were invited to return.  All others were given their money, thanked for their time, and showed the door.

Rumor had it that the company’s owner, heir to a long-standing business empire, had been personally involved in the development of all the components of the prototype devices that I and the other volunteers were testing: the Argos sensors that gathered data from the environment, the advanced voice recognition and translation software, the proprietary chipset and processors, the vibrant and crisply colored holographic display.  It didn’t have a name yet.  He wasn’t good at that.  He called it the Map of All Worlds, or M.A.W.  One of our day trainers (literally the trainer assigned to orient us to the task of the day), called it the Map of All Realms In Existence, which made for the far better acronym, M.A.R.I.E.

Marie, and the glorified tablet-like device on which Marie operated, had gone through rigorous alpha testing.  Now it was time for the beta tests.  We few hundred who were chosen found the opportunity in different ways.  A survey was sent out in a popular science magazine.  Some, like me, were chosen from a pool of hiring candidates.  A few had been pulled from the street when passing by the company by recruiters who ventured out on a recent rainy day.  We were informed that we comprised a focus group.  All of us were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements before we were even told what we would be looking at.

A lot of folks seemed disappointed when the device we were presented was said to contain nothing but a sophisticated map application.  But then we started playing with the devices, bringing up holographic images of topography, and the associated encyclopedic knowledge of the area.  I looked up my street and all the flora and fauna surrounding it.  It turns out there was a rare species of butterfly that had been sighted in a nearby park in recent years.  Someone else was looking up all the public information about the people who lived in his building, which was troubling.  But he stumbled onto historical information about the building, where a few famous stage actors once hung their hats.  One woman looked up the terrain and the projected weather conditions over the entire route of a half-marathon she would be running that weekend.

We were all shown a taped presentation and given demonstrations by some impressively knowledgeable wares-hawkers.  They did all the usual things: showing the device’s basic capabilities, dropping it from a height to show its ruggedness so it could be used by outdoorsy types, taking one device apart to show all the materials it was made from, among other things.

That first day, all who played with the device onsite and watched the presentation earned fifty dollars and an invitation to return the next evening if they wished to continue.  We returned our devices and were all given reminders about not speaking of Marie outside of those who likewise knew about Marie.

The next evening, about half the people returned.  We were given the same devices we had the day before, still registered to our names.  That evening, we were assigned a specific address and tasked with using Marie to find our way to the address within two hours.  Still simple stuff.

The third night we were broken up into teams, but each individual still had his or her own device.  It was set up like a scavenger hunt.  The team that arrived back at the company first after completing their tasks would win the top cash prize of five hundred dollars for each person.  Subsequent teams would earn a hundred less.  There were seven teams, so those who returned last received no payment.  It was no surprise that most of those people did not show up the following night.

As the study progressed and demanded weekday evenings and weekend days, more and more people dropped off.  There were about a dozen of us left in the last few days.  Two, maybe three challenges remained.  Even if I didn’t make it that far, I had already earned half a year’s salary.  If I did make it to the end of the study, I would have a claim to fame that I hoped the company recruiters could not deny.  Besides, I had worked up too much pride to quit unless I was asked to do something I really could not do, like scale a wall or drive a motorcycle.

***

We were just told to use our imaginations and get creative.  It was Saturday and the dozen of us were gathered in the downstairs cafeteria on that frosty autumn morning with various cups of tea and mugs of coffee and hot chocolate.

“This is supposed to get you a map to anywhere, right?” a woman named Elise said, tapping a forefinger on the screen of her device.  “So…Marie, get me the directions to the moon.”

Marie needed more information and asked Elise to clarify which moon and what mode of transportation she would be using.  Elise smiled and shook her head.  If she said anything other than “vessel capable of breaking Earth’s gravitational pull,” Marie told her the route was unavailable.  When someone else countered by asking where one could find such a vessel, Marie led them to a desert in Nevada.

Another person asked Marie for directions to a different dimension.  Marie informed him that no travel was necessary in that case, for many different dimensions lay atop our own.

“Marie is getting philosophical,” someone joked, and the group gave a chuckle, though we were growing tired, and admittedly, progressively unimpressed with Marie.

“Marie, get me directions to fairyland,” someone commanded, smiling around the table.

Marie informed the gentleman that fairyland did not exist.

Again there was a mixture of chuckles and good-natured groans.  The map application, Marie, had proven to be quite accurate and versatile, useful and quick.  The device was collapsible yet sturdy.  It was all-around a winner, with a few glitches here and there.  But we had two days left to test it.  And we would not receive our next round of payments unless we completed the challenge before us.  The challenge of challenging Marie.  Could she really find anything and anywhere in existence?

I sensed the soft-spoken girl in the corner smile from the corner of my eye, so I looked at her.  Her name was Lyn and her eyes were wide in that way that eyes get when the mind behind them has a bright idea.

“Marie, can you pull up the directions to the nearest living unicorn?” Lyn asked.

Marie didn’t answer right away, which led to a few raised brows.  Either Marie was glitching or trying to process the request and provide an adequate response stating that there was no such thing as a living unicorn.

After a few minutes, when the conversation had moved on, Marie answered that the directions were ready.  Small gasps and expressions of disbelief spread around the table.  But they were followed by the realization that the directions were probably to some merry-go-round with plastic unicorns.

Lyn asked the map system to clarify.  “Marie, I asked for a living unicorn.  Are the directions still valid?”

Marie answered right away this time.  The directions were valid.

***

It was an obvious malfunction.  We had encountered many and we had filled out many a form and bug report, answered many a question during verbal interviews.  For the moment, everyone wanted to see where Marie would lead us—or rather, where Marie would lead Lyn.

We had to drive for a few hours, so we all split up into carpools.  Lyn was a passenger in the lead car and she directed us where to go.  The unicorn was moving after all.  Slowly.  Maybe it was grazing, someone joked in my car.

By the afternoon, we found ourselves entering one of the state’s national forests.  Some of us followed Lyn’s map in, but a few stayed behind to hit the general store at the visitor’s center and gather water, food, and supplies.

Seven of us moved deeper into the forest, off the trails.  The devices we were using were directly linked to satellites, not to cell phone towers, but it still made us nervous as we walked deeper and deeper into the woods.  It seemed to be getting darker, chillier.  Idiots that we were, we didn’t even have flashlights.  Not a single one of the seven of us.  One of us tried to call the smaller group that had stopped at the supply store.  She had trouble getting through and in the spreading silence of the forest, her piercing cries of “hello!” as she tried futilely to get a connection seemed more than intrusive.  They seemed profane.

I was about to turn around and say something to her, but she gasped and stopped of her own accord.  No one else made a sound, but as I glanced around, I could see that everyone else felt it.  The presence of something…pure.  We all stopped.  We heard a rustling ahead.  And I could have sworn, I saw a glow of luminescence, dim and suffused like a firefly’s light, only this was a white light.

Then, as in a painting from a book of fairy stories, it emerged from a thicket.  He had a coat as black as a starless night.  Eyes just as black.  But the horn, the horn was white and glimmering like marble or pearl.  Wisps of powdery light puffed and flowed from that horn.

A unicorn.

He turned his head to my right and peered at us, assessed us.  When he looked at me, I could swear I could read or feel his emotion, and it was something like amusement.  Then he turned aside and sauntered back into the thicket.

I let out a breath that I only then realized I was holding.  I stared at the thicket.

***

Someone laughed.  “Good one.  That’s a good one, Marie.”

“We should go after it!” someone else said.

“It’s a hoax.  Those jokers are probably watching us on some screen.  This isn’t a beta test.  It’s a social experiment.”

“Then we should go after it so we can debunk it.”

“If that creature was fake, it was a magnificent fake.  I just touched the singularity.”

Everyone was talking then and arguing about the unicorn, or as some believed, the “unicorn.”  It was, of course, more plausible that the company and that trickster Marie had indeed deceived us.  It was maybe ten or fifteen minutes later that the rest of our party joined us and were brought up to speed.  While everyone else debated, a few of us stood aside, watching and wondering.

Elise, the one who’d ask for a way to the moon, handed me a water bottle.  Lyn, the one who’d wanted to find a real living unicorn, walked over to us.

“I’m going to keep going,” Elise said.  “See if I can find that unicorn and settle this debate.  It looks like a good chunk of the intrepid explorers are tired and ready to head back to headquarters.”

Lyn smiled.  “What if it is real?”

“Do you think we’ll get any extra pay out of taking this further?” I asked.  I had a one-track mind in those days.  And we were being given bonuses for uncovering flaws and bugs that the developers had not anticipated.

“I’ll come with you,” Lyn said.

“You don’t have to.  I’ll find my way back, or stay overnight if it gets late.”

Lyn shrugged.  “I’m the one who wanted to see him.”

The larger group had also come to a consensus.  They were done for the day.  They would head back to headquarters.  Elise and Lyn explained they would keep going.  I glanced between the two groups.

“Ladies,” I said to the true intrepid explorers, “let’s go hunt us a unicorn.”

***

“There’s something on the map,” Lyn said.

Elise and I had put away our devices.  We were using Lyn’s, because it was still following that unicorn.  Yellow dashed lines appeared connecting our present location to the location of the white-horned stallion we had just witnessed.  Elise seemed tense and eager, and did nothing to hide her irritation at having been stuck buying granola bars while everyone else was having a spiritual experience.  She wanted to see that unicorn.

We had been following the unicorn still deeper into the woods for half an hour.  It was actually starting to get dark now, and though we had plenty of supplies for an overnight stay, I was not an outdoors person.  Especially not without a tent or sleeping bag.  But the map displayed camping grounds not too far away, and paths.  And if Lyn’s map ran out of juice, we had two more.

I leaned over to look at the map.  Our designated path led us to a spot that was marked with a large fuzzy purple dot.  Lyn couldn’t find the meaning of the symbol in the quick reference guide.  For the next few minutes, we watched and moved closer to the dot.  The unicorn had been displayed on the map as a non-distinct four-legged animal.  We didn’t know why we were now being led to the purple dot.  But if that was the final destination, our adventure was close to its end.

***

We found the spot with the big purple dot.  We carefully tiptoed around the area, searching for the unicorn.  Lyn stood in one place with her device held out, circling the spot marked on the map.  It looked as if she had some futuristic device and was taking readings from an anomaly.  By some strange instinct, none of us had walked through the spot.  I remember now that there seemed to be some pressure, not physical, but intangible, pressing us away.

But then Lyn walked right through it and vanished.

I called out to Elise, who was turned away.  I explained what happened and before I could blink my eyes enough times for my mind to comprehend what my eyes had seen, Elise walked through the spot and vanished.

For a split second, I had the urge to scream.  I breathed out instead and then I did that thing I’d seen in shows and movies.  I reached out with my hand and my arm, cringing and hesitant.  I expected my hand to disappear into whatever portal my two fellow travelers had vanished into.  But it didn’t.  Then in a moment of recklessness, I took a deep breath, and passed through the spot.

***

Elise and Lyn suddenly reappeared before me.  They were hunched over Lyn’s device.  Elise had her hands on her hips and was frowning.  Lyn was wide-eyed.

“It says it’s ‘retuning’,” Lyn explained as I walked toward them.

Elise shook her head.  “That should only happen if we’re in a different state or country.”

I looked at the screen.  At the top, where the acronym M.A.R.I.E. should have been displayed, it showed M.A.I.R.U.K.  The explanation of the acronym below it read, “Map of All Imaginable Realms, Unknown and Known.”

“What the hell?” I said.  “Then what realm are we in now?”

Lyn grinned.  “The realm of possibility.”

“The trees look different,” Elise said.  “Not to sound paranoid, but I think they are different.”

Lyn held out a hand.  “Okay, well, whatever has just happened, let’s wait for the map to reload and have Marie send us back home.”

Elise pointed to the screen.  “That’s not Marie.  That’s Mairuk, whoever that is.”

The screen blinked and a male voice answered, addressing Elise’s question.  Mairuk was the map.  He was Marie’s counterpart to wherever we now were.

I walked back through the spot I’d just passed.  Nothing happened.  I suddenly felt the tiredness that I hadn’t felt when I knew that camping grounds and paths and car rides home were relatively close by.

***

When the map reappeared, there was no purple spot.  Elise and I tried our devices, but ours displayed the same map.  There were no camp grounds, no hiking trails.  There was forest and more forest.  There was no purple dot.  There was no unicorn.

Elise noted that the moon of the encroaching evening was full.  But it wasn’t supposed to be a full moon that night.  Not even close.  It should have been a half moon.

We heard strange noises in the forest.  A loon.  That didn’t make sense to me.  I thought loons lived in swamps, but I wasn’t an outdoors person, so I didn’t really know.  Our phones didn’t work, naturally.  There was no signal to connect to.  There was a “distress signal” button on our devices.  All three of us pressed the button on our respective maps.  But that didn’t mean we had to stay in one place.  The devices could be tracked.

We asked Mairuk to map our way back to the general store and to display any dangers along the way, angry bears, angry wasp nests, scary cryptids.  We were afraid we would get an error, but Mairuk came through, after a fashion.  The map Mairuk generated would have us traveling for weeks.

So we asked for something simpler.  The nearest place we could find shelter.  We were hoping that place would also have a wired phone.  But someone’s cabin would do, provided that someone didn’t have any creepy horror movie villain vibes.

***

“I suspected it before, but now I’m sure,” Elise said.  “We are in a simulation, girls.  I don’t know when they did it.  I don’t know how.  I don’t remember, and I’m sure you don’t either.  But this…this has to be a simulation.”

The three of us stood atop a wooded hill looking down at a village that looked like something out of a video game, medieval-ish but clean and prosperous and bustling with general good will.

“What if our short-term memories were erased?” Elise said.  “What if we’re actually here, but the environment is virtual?  Or what if we’re lying on beds or in some stimulation chamber and it’s only our minds that are here?”

“What if it’s real?”

I glanced at Lyn.  She had spoken in a hushed and calm tone.  She had the air of someone who didn’t quite believe, who regretted her sensible skepticism, but who was ready to be convinced if the proof was good enough.  I thought she was only testing the device when she asked Marie for a unicorn.  But maybe she really had hoped that the ultimate map would actually take her to a real unicorn.

The logical explanation for the village was that it was some kind of convention, or maybe one of those live action role-playing situations.  That made far more sense than Elise’s virtual reality theory.  Some of the creatures looked convincing, but that wasn’t surprising considering the incredible talent possessed by so many of the costume-makers.

In any case, the village didn’t look too dangerous, especially with a name like Flowerhaven.

The plan had been to go inside the village and ask what the place was about and find out if they had a phone anywhere.  But as we walked through the gates, our senses informed us.  We breathed in the aroma of exotic foods.  Foreign tongues were spoken, languages I didn’t recognize.  And while we might have been able to convince ourselves that the nine-foot giant man was a costume someone was wearing, we couldn’t say the same for the four-inch fairies that were flitting around.

Elise mouthed the word “holograms” to me with questioning expression.  I shrugged, but shook my head.  Then one of the fairies landed on my shoulder and whispered in my ear.  The actual sound was whisper-slight, but my mind heard the words loud and clear.

“Fairy dust in stall seventeen.  Come and see.  Come and see!”

I leaned toward Elise.  “If this is a simulation, it’s a darned good one.”

“We’ll have to acquire clothing that matches so we don’t draw attention to ourselves,” Lyn said.  But no one really seemed to notice them.  There were men, women, and creatures adorned in many different kinds of garb, trousers, cloaks, boots, jewelry, loincloths, bodices, armor.

“Mairuk is displaying in English,” I said.  “Maybe he can help us figure out enough to get a room for the night.”

Elise and Lyn looked at me.

“This may still be part of the challenge.  This may be real.  This may be fake.  We’re supposed to use the map right?  So let’s use the thing and get back to our lives.  And they’d better have those checks ready when we get home, or wake up, whatever applies.”

“Well, I’ve got one night to give,” Elise said.  “After that, I’ve got to get back to work.”

“People are looking for us,” Lyn said.  “We can’t just let them worry.”  She looked down at her map.  “Mairuk, find us a place where we can contact our loved ones back home.”

“And then find us a place to stay for the night,” Elise added.

It was supposed to be one night, less so if the beacons we set off were detected and help was sent.  Mairuk didn’t find us any phone.  He found us a shop where a man traded us my twenty-dollar wristwatch for a magic mirror that could look into other worlds.  At least that’s what we thought he said.  We didn’t speak anyone’s language and no one spoke ours.  But we managed to find an inn and pay for food and a night’s stay with some of the items from our packs.  The next morning, we asked Mairuk to find us a translator, or device, or book, something that would help us get by in the town.

Mairuk found a fairy who could speak a hundred and one languages.  Among them was French, which Elise spoke well enough.  The fairy’s eyes lit up (literally) when she saw Lyn eating a granola bar, and she agreed to help us until our supply of granola bars ran out.

***

 

One of the first things we asked Mairuk to find was a power source.  The map devices were meant to last for several days even on full power, but Lyn’s had already failed.  Then we realized the real first thing we had to find was ways to make or acquire funds, so we wouldn’t have to barter away more precious items, like Lyn’s engagement ring.

It was strange.  Running around town doing errands for people actually did earn some money and items.  Not only that, but it felt good to help people in that immediate way.  When we realized that the people in town were mostly content to stay there and loathe to travel, we realized that the biggest paydays would come from delivering goods.  We kept asking Mairuk in all the different ways we could think of to find a shorter way home.  But the map remained the same.  A purple dot, another portal, was weeks away by foot.  If we could manage horses, or a carriage, that would cut the journey down a bit.  None of us were riders.  But we did manage to gather enough funds for a carriage bus to a town along the route to our portal.

So we traveled.  As we traveled, we used the map to acquire items to trade or barter with, clothes, medicine, even weapons, though none of us were that athletic and none had been in any profession or organization where we would have learned how to fight.  We were foreigners though.  That seemed to afford us an air of both mystery and menace.  We could just carry the weapons with confidence (something Elise and I really had to hammer into Lyn) and we would mostly be left alone.

And we had these magical devices like enchanted maps and a communication mirror.  Never mind that we couldn’t figure out how to get the mirror to work.  We thought our fairy guide might know, but she was insulted when we asked.  Elise later figured out that fairies, being magical beings, looked down on any means of wielding magic that didn’t come from a living source.

The little daily things are what made me hope that we were not in some simulation.  Perish the thought that some technician was watching us brushing our teeth, relieving ourselves, laundering our undies, or picking our noses.  It didn’t take long for suspension of disbelief to kick in.  It didn’t take long for a belief in fairyland to kick in.  Both out of necessity.  I started feeling as if I were in a real life video game.  Mairuk was our world map.  We could see our path, upcoming towns and cities, special locations like temples and monuments.  We could direct the map to show us dangers and resources.

One night became fifteen.  Fifteen before we got to the portal, in less time than expected.  Never in my life have I managed to learn and do so much in just fifteen days.  Befriend a fairy.  Learn how to make a lightburst potion (it’s like fireworks, only not dangerous).   Outrun a bridge troll.  Pick something called a marigold lock (a useless skill though, in most realms).  Make my own soap.

Elise and Lyn were just as productive.  Elise learned how to read the stars for weather omens.  Lyn bought a wand and learned how to use it to purify water.  Elise fell in and out of love with the most handsome (too handsome) farmhand any of us had ever met.  We were in that region for all of three days.  I’m not sure why they broke it off.  Lyn and I were too afraid to ask.  Lyn, sweet Lyn, found herself in a shoulder-wrestling contest with the village bully, while Elise and I were at the apothecary upgrading our medicine kits.  The contest meant that both people had to stand with their opposite shoulders against each other and their arms behind their backs.  The use of feet and legs was likewise prohibited.  Whoever knocked the other over first was the victor.  We didn’t think we had time for what seemed like an even match and an impossible way to knock someone down.

That evening, Lyn bought us three rounds of grog, which in that realm was the most amazing drink I’d ever drunk in my life.  And strangely, it didn’t intoxicate us, so Lyn spent the rest of the night knocking that pitiful woman again for picking on someone, until Elise and I pointed out that she was the bully now.  Lyn frowned and knocked back another pint of grog.

In the morning, we moved on.  We kept our eyes always on the map.  We asked Mairuk every day, to assure we weren’t going to the wrong portal.  And every day he answered the same.  At last, we arrived at the purple dot.

***

“Of course, there’s a dragon,” Elise said as we lay on the boulder at the edge of the clearing.

The portal was in a forest, as the first one had been.  Deep within a forest.  But instead of a beautiful unicorn, the creature we now faced was a sleeping dragon.  It wasn’t one of those giant dragons who had teeth that were taller than I am.  It was maybe twice the size of a full-sized bull.  Its scales were earthen brown.  Its dark claws glinted sharply in the morning light.  Its membranous dusty wings were wrapped lazily around its body, which was curled around something we could not see with our eyes, but could see on our map, our way home.

“I thought dragons were supposed to sleep in dark hidden places, like caves, on top of treasure hordes,” Lyn whispered.

I peered through the spyglass I’d bought a few stops back.  “Maybe that portal is its horde.”

Elise dropped behind the boulder and began rummaging in her sack.  “Surely we can distract the little guy and then we can all run through the portal.”

“What if the portal doesn’t work?” I said.  “We’d be out in that clearing with a dragon.  I see a long tail with horns along the ridge.  And I’m pretty sure that’s steam drifting out of his nostrils, so we should assume he can spit fire.”

“When has Mairuk ever guided us wrong?” Lyn said.  “Not a single glitch on our whole way here.”

“Except, we asked him to show us dangers and he never showed us this dragon,” I said.

Elise pulled out her map device.  “Mairuk, display all dangers to travelers.”

“Maybe we can throw a stone through the portal, to see if it vanishes,” I said.

Elise sighed.  “It’s not showing anything in the clearing.”

“Maybe the dragon can make itself invisible to maps,” Lyn said.  “Like your farmhand friend did when you tried to find him that one night.”

I wasn’t looking, but I could feel Elise frowning.

“Wait!” she said then.  “Something is changing.  Crap…there’s a dragon on the map.  What the hell, Mairuk?”

“I know why,” I said.  The spyglass showed me what the others couldn’t see from that distance.  Subtle changes of color, cracks forming in the earthen covering.  Pieces of earth and stone falling away.  And iridescent purple beneath.

“It was hibernating,” Elise said.  She must have brought up the information display.  “That’s why Mairuk couldn’t see it.  But if he’s seeing it now…”  She scrambled back up the boulder.

“It’s waking up,” I said.  It must have sensed that someone was after its horde.

***

The dragon woke fully, stretching out her tail, shaking off bits of the earth and stone that had encased her, protected her as she slumbered.  Mairuk had a good amount of information on the purple dragons.  They were drawn to portals and served as guardians for them to assure there wasn’t too much movement through them.  It seemed there was little hope of luring the dragon away from the portal so we could skip on through.

“I was hoping,” Lyn said, taking the spyglass from me, “that when Mairuk didn’t display the dragon, it meant that she was a friendly dragon and that maybe we could reason with her to let us pass through.”

“So much for that,” Elise said.

A notion occurred to me.  “Lyn, you just gave me an idea.  We can’t reason with the dragon, but what if we bargain with her?  What if we can give her a treasure that’s worth more to her than that portal?”

“What would that be?  According to the only information we have, portals are the ultimate treasure for a dragon like this.”

“What if we can give the dragon a better portal?  A bigger one?”

“It would probably already be guarded or horded by another dragon, a bigger one,” Elise said.

“Mairuk would know, wouldn’t he?”  I pulled out my own device.  “And maybe we can even give him the right commands to search for hibernating dragons.”

“Why would she believe us?  What if she isn’t intelligent enough to understand?”  Lyn asked.  She looked between Elise and me.

I shrugged.  “Then we go with plan B and cause a big distraction and make a mad dash for the portal.”

“I don’t think that dragon’s going to move,” Elise said.  “We should take our time and come up with a real plan.”

It was then that the dragon started to lope toward us.

***

In the end, it was not strategy or heroics.  It was not human outsmarting dragon.  It was sheer dumb luck and maybe good reflexes and stronger leg muscles.

When the dragon came at us, we split in three, knowing it would follow one of us, and that the other two might make it through if it didn’t turn.  I handed a vial of the lightburst potion to Elise and another to Lyn.  I only had two, so I took the heavy but probably fire-resistant shield.  We jumped off the boulder and ran toward the portal.

The dragon turned toward Elise.  There didn’t seem to be a reason.  None of us made any noise.  No mighty war cries.  No screaming at the beast to distract it away from allies.  From the corner of my eye, I saw the lightburst go off and hoped it was enough to disorient the dragon.  Lyn and I reached the portal at the same time.  We both wanted to wait, and Mairuk had not steered us wrong so far.  But if the purple dot on the map wasn’t really a portal, despite the dragon’s presence, or if something was wrong with the portal, then we would be stuck there fighting an angry two-ton dragon.  Elise was past the dragon.  Her distraction had worked, but she didn’t have enough distance.  The dragon was quick for such a big beast.  She whipped around and snapped at the air.  Elise wouldn’t make it to the portal.  I grabbed the bottle of lightburst from Lyn and shoved her through the portal.

Throwing wasn’t one of the skills I had learned in my fifteen days in the fairy realm.  I reached back and flung with all my strength.  As the bottle arched through the air, I saw the boiling red-orange ball forming in the dragon’s open mouth.

Elise was angrily waving me back, back through the portal.  The lightburst portion fell on the ground before the dragon, but she ignored it this time.  The explosion of brilliant colored lights was ineffective against the dragon’s closed eyes.

I didn’t know what else to do.  Elise was the one who needed the shield, not me.  But it was too heavy for me to throw. I was wearing metal bracelets.  I saw them in a bazaar after our first week and thought they would look good on me.  I banged one of them against the shield to get the dragon’s attention.  She turned her head toward me, just before she spit a ball of fire.

There was no time to brace myself.  I dropped to the ground and hid behind the shield and felt myself propelled backward.  Backward through the portal.

As soon as I hit the ground, I felt the heat moving through the shield.  I shimmied my arm out of the shield grip.  My sleeve was singed.  Someone pushed me back to the ground and started slapping me with something.

It was Lyn.  She said I was on fire and she was using her cloak to put it out.

We waited.  It couldn’t have been even a minute, but I felt my lungs bursting from the held breath.  And that’s when Elise, brave Elise, popped out of the air still in forward motion and rolled to a stop on her knees in a hero pose that neither Lyn nor I had managed on our arrival through the portal.

“The dragon!” Lyn said.  “What if it follows us?”

“We should have asked someone to teach us how to close a portal,” I said uselessly.

“Move out of the clearing,” Elise said.  “Let’s hide, or climb a tree.”

We were all pretty good at climbing trees now.  We got up high, high enough to be out of the dragon’s spitfire range from the ground, and positioned within enough branches to tangle up a flying dragon.  We watched for a few minutes, but nothing happened.

Elise pulled out her map.  “There’s no purple dot in the clearing.”  Her brow was creased in concentration, but then her gaze was drawn to the top of the screen and her face relaxed.

She flipped her device around.  The display had changed.  The logo at the top read M.A.R.I.E.  And a status message in the corner indicated that the device was finished retuning.

“We’re home,” I said.

“Welcome back,” Marie replied helpfully.  And I remembered how she had helpfully informed us that fairyland didn’t exist.

We climbed out of the trees and assessed our status.

“The beacons are active,” Elise said checking her device.  “But I don’t think we need them.  We have a map.”

“We’ve been gone for two weeks,” Lyn said.  “We’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.”

I shook my head.  “I’m not sure about that.”  I had pulled out my own device and according to Marie, it was still the same day we left, only a few hours later.

We hadn’t bothered charging our phones while we were away.  We’d saved the energy crystals we acquired for the map devices.  So we didn’t see the calls and messages from the company as we started heading toward the nearest path under the light of a half moon.

I laughed, startling my two fellow adventurers.  “I wanted to be in public outreach for the company.”

“So..we’ll tell them the truth?” Lyn asked.  “Was it real?”

“This friendship is real,” I said.

Elise frowned and shook her head, but then she chuckled.  “I just want to go home right now.”

Marie answered.  “Acquiring map.”

 

Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel

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