In Which the Quest is Made Up
the Fool said, “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” it almost certainly
followed a disaster of exceptionally interesting proportions. Whenever he said “I have an idea!” it would
inevitably lead to the former phrase being spoken. The Wanderer knew it like he
knew that the sun would set and the moon would rise. And yet somehow, the Fool
knew, he still managed to be surprised on occasion at what happened between the
two phrases. Really after all this time, he shouldn’t be so surprised. Perhaps
it was because the Fool meant it earnestly and honestly each time.
"You crashed a plane,” Owain, repeated, looking right at the Fool and his accomplice this time – the Piper. They were an odd pair, the Fool in his motley patched coat and top hat which tended covered his amber –sometimes glowing – eyes in shadow and The Piper with his clear gray eyes that shifted in shade with his moods and his fingers nearly constantly moving up and down his plain wooden pipe.
“Well… yes,” Alexander admitted. “I didn’t mean to do it.” That phrase also came out of the Fool’s mouth far too often, but again, he did mean it.
“And yet you still did it.” He looked at Loren and raised his eyebrows; he usually got something better from the Piper. “And what is your excuse in this matter?”
“It… seemed like a good idea at the time?” the Piper said slowly as if trying to convince himself as well.
“No one was hurt,” Alexander added, looking hopeful. “That’s a good thing, right?”
He could see Owain resisting the urge to bury his face in his hands. Instead he just rubbed his temples. “I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered and sat back in his vine covered chair. Alexander could remember when it was made of the finest wood with antlers attached to it, not this broken and decrepit thing. But as humanity scoured the globe and discovered all the empty places, he’d slowly found less and less places to wander. He spent most of his time in the Caves now, nearly tied to his chair. Which was sad, he missed walking with the Wanderer.
“Nonsense. You’re as old as I am,” the Fool said, “And I don’t feel at all old.”
“That is because there are plenty of fools still around. Now get out of my sight before I thrash the both of you like the children you were acting like!” he growled.
The two of them took the hint and headed quickly back to the fires.
“I don’t see what the problem is,” the Fool said, his footsteps making a clicking noise as his walking stick hit the stone floor. He limping just a little bit more than usual. His leg hurt and not from the plane crash. It always did. But now it ached with the pressure of having nothing to do and having used up too much luck to prevent someone from getting hurt with the airplane crash. Now he felt as old as the Wanderer did as the idea of just sitting “No one was hurt. Well… the plane was. But other than that, it was fine.”
“The sheep were bothered.”
“They were sheep.” He dismissed it out of hand. Sheep didn’t count unless they were for dinner. He missed having sheep for dinner. Perhaps they should have taken one. No. He shook the idea from his mind. They were not thieves.
Loren shrugged and dropped onto a broken couch by one of the fires. Alexander dropped next to him and poked at the fire with his walking stick. It wouldn’t burn; after all it was his stick. “I wish I knew why the Wanderer cared so much about the plane and sheep.”
“He gets bothered by things. He thinks too much,” Loren said
“And you two don’t think enough.”
The Fool looked up and saw There standing by them. Dressed in military fatigues; camouflage pants and jacket, a knife and gun on his hips, the only thing that ruined his soldier look was his long curly brown hair which he had tied into a small tail. There and his brother Here (who Alexander didn’t see) were the guardians of the Ways, which is why they looked like soldiers. If they had other names, he didn’t know them. Perhaps Loren’s father did, for he knew all secrets. But since the Thief in the Night never told his secrets, he couldn’t find out that way. There looked a bit on the singed side, now that the Fool took a closer looked at him.
Because of this, Alexander asked, “What happened to you?”
“Nothing you two need to worry about,” he said sitting across from them, on a carpet by the fire. He poked a stick into it and rolled out a potato. “Just things from the Ways.”
“You’re not hurt, are you?” Loren asked.
“No, not really.”
“Where’s Here?” Alexander asked, trying a different tactic. He could feel the potential for something now, something exciting and he wanted to uncover it.
“Not here.” He unwrapped the potato from its paper covering and bit into it.
The Fool sighed at the unhelpful response. “You’re no fun.”
“I’m not supposed to be.”
“Come on, just a little hint?” Loren begged.
“No, because you’ll go and do something stupid.”
The Piper glanced at the Fool and laughed.
“Right. I forgot who I was talking to.” Shaking his head, There got up and wandered over to Owain, still eating his potato.
Alexander glanced at Loren and then gestured with his head. Loren grinned and snuck after There. Alexander couldn’t go. The Fool would get caught and his leg hurt too much. The Piper on the other hand would be fine, or at least have a better chance of not getting caught as quickly. So he grabbed himself a potato for himself and hummed as he waited. Bells rattled in his mind, stirring in anticipation.
The Piper lasted about three minutes before the Wanderer grabbed him by the ear and yanked him back to the fire and the Fool.
“Ow!” Loren cried. “Ow. Ow. Ow!”
“And stay put, you little sneak, or I’ll be telling your father you’re listening into other people’s business.”
Loren’s eyes went wide and innocent. “I’ll behave, I promise!”
The Wanderer snorted in disbelief and walked back to his chair. The Fool waited until he’d sat down again before gesturing to Loren that they should go to his niche in the cavern away from the Wanderer and There.
The small hallow in the wall barely held his bed with its patchwork coverlet and trunk filled with odds ends and other things that caught the Fool’s attention over the years. He kept the entry way blocked by a curtain of colorful stringed beads he’d found in a flea market. They reminded him of his motley. Sitting down on his bed after resting his walking stick against the wall Alexander looked at Loren expectantly.
With a grin, Loren said, “There’s a dragon in the Ways! An honest to God dragon! There says that Here is looking for the Ashling in the Fire Ways. He was hoping the Ashling might be visiting the caverns but he’s not.”
“A dragon! There hasn’t been one in the Ways in…” Alexander paused to try and think of how long it’d been. “In… a very long time,” he finished lamely. Sometimes being alive for as long as he had meant that years just sort of blended together. Still, that didn’t matter! A dragon! A real adventure! Not some shenanigans with a plane and sheep, but something really, truly foolish for him to do! The bells rung louder as the drive built within him. A dragon! “We should go and see it!”
And there once again was one of those sentences that would later end up being explained away as “well it seemed like a good idea at the time.” But the Fool didn’t care. It was a dragon! Dragons were fascinating. Dragons were exciting! He needed to go see this dragon.
The Piper, on the other hand, looked a bit reluctant. “I don’t know… I mean, what do we have to protect us from a dragon?”
“Oh, we wouldn’t get too close. And if we did, you could play for it,” the Fool said confidentially, his amber eyes glowing.
“I don’t think it would work.”
“Why not? You’re the Piper! Your music can sooth the savage beast.”
“Dragons aren’t savage.”
“They can be.” Then, “Come on, it’ll be fun!” Alexander pleaded. He needed to go and find this dragon and he needed the Piper to come with him. Quests always required companions.
“Let me think about it,” Loren conceded after a long thoughtful pause. “I’ll let you know in the evening.” And with that, he left the Fool alone, the beads swinging behind him.
The evening came quickly. The Wanderer and There left sometime before to go into the Ways, leaving the cavern empty except for the human derelicts and homeless that lived there. Alexander limped to one of the fires that had a pot of oatmeal cooking on it. Mad Sadi, an old woman who had been with the Forgotten since the 1940s, gave him a quick look as he scooped a glop of it into bowl, before shuffling away mumbling to herself about missing pigeons and pot stickers. Alexander wasn’t sure exactly what pot stickers were, but they seemed to be a favorite topic of the woman’s.
Sitting down, he started to eat, rubbing the texture of the oatmeal over his tongue thoughtfully. He wished that there were some apples around, but it was the wrong season for them. About half way though the bowl, the Piper showed up, eyes bright and face flushed from having been outside in the cold. He sat down next to Alexander, but didn’t partake in any food. Instead he just fiddled his fingers on his pipe staring into the flames.
“So? Are you going to come?” he asked Loren.
“I guess so,” he said after a long silence.
The Fool beamed at him. The fact that Loren suddenly looked uncomfortable didn’t bother him at all.
In Which the Trials are Named
While some of the Ways required permissions or sacrifices of some sort or could only be traveled by a certain individual, the Forgotten Ways just required knowing how to get into them. But once shown how to get into them, it became easy to find an entrance by finding the right kind of shadowed doorway. Here and There constantly protected these Ways from monsters and the Way itself.
Getting around the Forgotten Ways once inside was a different matter all together. The path started out looking like a fairly normal walk in a garden with grass and trees on the side. The further it went the stranger it got. The path narrowed to just the gravel as the grass and trees fell away into nothing. Branches in the road spread out at random intervals going in any which way possible and paths sometimes spread out into an island of some sort. The features on the islands varied with no particular pattern whatsoever. One could look like a tropical island complete with a warm watery cove; another could look an alley in some poor neighborhood in India. Hundreds of thousands of possibilities and all of them stretched out before the Piper and the Fool.
The Fool tapped his walking stick lightly on the ground. The sun … well there wasn’t any sun but it looked like it was around noontime had there actually been any sun.
“Out there be dragons!” he declared dramatically sweeping his walking stick out around them. Every bit of him tingled in excitement; every movement brought a jingle of bells in his mind. Those maddening bells that drove him to do these things.
“And fairies, hobgoblins, wild socks and roaming barrows.”
“Yes, but we’re only interested in the dragons.”
“If you say so,” Loren said drolly, but he looked just as excited as Alexander.
“And how will we find it?”
The Fool looked out before him thoughtfully, before inspiration hit. They were on a quest for dragons just like in the stories of old. “There will be three trials! One of wits! One of panics! And one of – "
“Sundaes!” Loren butted in with a grin.
Though it squeezed some of Alexander’s pomp away, he took it in stride. “And some of sundaes!” he agreed. “And now we must venture forth!”
The Fool started walking down the path, swinging his walking stick around. The Piper joined him, humming softly.
In Which the First Trial is Faced
It took them a half hour to reach the first island. It looked further away than that, but as in most places like the Forgotten Ways, what it looked like and what it actually was tended to vary. The road had turned into a glittering white marble stairwell at some point and Alexander’s walking stick clicked on the stone with every step. He was glad they were reaching an island finally. The stairs were killing his leg. Many years ago, when he was still human, he’d broken the leg and it never healed right. Even if he wanted it to heal correctly now, he couldn’t because it was part of being the Fool. Just as he could never completely depend on his luck to save him, he could never completely depend on his body to hold him up.
Which made it a serious pain – to forgive the pun – to go up long, steep, narrow flights of stairs. He barely managed to not fall over when they finally reached the top, which he really wanted to do since there were all sorts of comfy chairs spread out before him. It looked like a cross between a waiting room and a chair store, he decided leaning heavily on his walking stick. The Piper noticed his wavering and put an arm out to hold him up.
“For wits?” Loren asked, looking at the chairs. They had an air of waiting about them. They wanted something.
“I think so. Though it could be sundaes or panic.”
“It could be,” Alexander said, giving the chairs a look, even if he didn’t say which it could be.
“Should we take a rest?”
“Perhaps. We might as well see what is laid out before us.”
Carefully he stepped completely onto the island, eyeing the chairs and couches around him as if expecting an attack. The couches looked uninterested in their existence, though the Fool was certain that the plush red couch with pink pillows was eyeing him suspiciously. The Piper appeared to be more worried about the wooden rocking chair that creaked and moved without anyone sitting in it. What didn’t help was the fact that the chair only had one runner to rock with and yet wasn’t lopsided. The air around them went still.
The chair kept on rocking with its steady creaking noise.
Loren and Alexander pressed close together as the baby high chair in the back of the island fell over with no provocation. As they dragged their eyes away from it they came to the horrible realization that the couches and chairs had surrounded them. Neither of them saw the furniture move, but they were now surrounded. The path that had been, if not relatively clear, easy enough to maneuver around, rather like chairs on display had vanished. Now the only way out looked to be over the chairs.
The Fool didn’t relish that idea at all. His leg hurt badly and climbing would be difficult. Loren would be fine, he knew, but would also stay back to help him.
The question then became: What did the couches want?
Did they want to be sat on?
Did they want to eat them?
Did they want new upholstery?
They didn’t say anything!
Of course they didn’t. They were furniture. Furniture didn’t talk.
The Piper and Fool said nothing anything either. They just eyed the seats warily.
A voice did drift out from somewhere though. It was pleasant and feminine. “Please take a seat. The doctor will see you in a few minutes. Have you filled out these forms yet?”
A stack of paper dropped on their heads.
“Ow!” Loren cried as it thunked against him. The Fool had better luck because his hat deflected it. Still the pages shifted the hat over his eyes so he couldn’t see.
Shoving his hat back into the proper position he knelt down carefully and picked up a sheet. “Name, age, gender, date of birth…” he read off.
“Have you ever smoked? If so how often do you smoke? Are you pregnant?” Loren continued looking at another piece of paper. “Do you wear glasses?”
"How tall are you? What’s your blood type? Do you prefer cherries or strawberries?” Alexander blinked at that last one. While he wasn’t up on most medical advances or practices, most of these seemed to be things a doctor might want to know if they were going to be looking after you.
The last one on the other hand…
“Would you rather die from drowning or burning,” Loren read. “Neither.”
Loren took a step back and bumped into Alexander. The space around them appeared to have gotten smaller. Alexander still hadn’t seen anything move beyond the high chair and the rocking chair.
“Please fill out the forms so the doctor may see you,” the voice said, still coming out of nowhere.
“But I don’t want to!” Loren cried out.
Again a creak.
Did one of the cushions move like a mouth, or was it just Alexander’s imagination?
“Which do you like better: the Beatles or Elvis?” Alexander read. “I don’t know who those are.”
“They’re musicians.” Being younger than the Fool, the Piper was more up to date on popular culture. It also helped that he was fascinated by musicians in general. “I rather prefer the Beatles.”
Nothing creaked this time.
They relaxed just a little.
“Wrong answer,” the cheerful voice said.
“Wrong answer!” the Piper repeated in shock. “How can it be the wrong answer? It’s my opinion!”
At least he started to say that. The couches started to move visibly now and so Alexander grabbed him by the hand and yanked him hard. He didn’t want to have to deal with arguing with mysterious voices on the Ways.
One hand clutching his walking stick, the other hand holding onto the Piper he scrambled onto the closest couch towards the path. It was a chinchy purple velvet loveseat with heart shaped pillows. His foot started to sink into the cushions as he stepped on it and he stumbled over the back onto a plastic lawn chair. This snapped at him, closing itself up. Alexander rolled out of the way, losing his grip on Loren’s hand, and landed on the tiled floor.
Now metal and wooden foot stools rolled at him, trying to batter his feet and trip him. He swung his walking stick in front of him like a sword crying, “Get back! Get back or I will burn you!”
Which was an utter lie, of course. He didn’t have any way to cause a flame on him. The chairs seemed to know this. A barstool rolled in front of him causing him to trip. He fell hard on his face his chin smarting and hat covering his eyes again. The bells rung shrilly in his mind like frightened horses.
“Come on!” Loren said, nearly falling on top of him. The Piper scrambled to his feet and this time yanked Alexander up. The two of them managed to get reach the edge of the island dodging and stumbling but they couldn’t see the pathway. They hesitated, not sure what to do.
The decision was made for them when a pair of rolling chairs slammed into them and sent them screaming and tumbling over the edge.
They fell for about ten maybe twenty feet before landing on a heap of abandoned mattresses. Alexander bounced twice and accidentally hit himself on the head with his walking stick.
“Ow,” he said.
“Ow,” Loren agreed.
“I think that was panic.”
The Fool flopped backwards and lay on the mattress staring up at the black nothingness of the sky. A flock of books flew by, their pages rustling as their covers flapped. “I wonder if we should mention that island to Here or There when we get back.”
“They probably know about it. Though I suppose it doesn’t hurt to mention it,” Loren said. It was hard to know what Here and There knew in regards to the Ways.
“Yes.” The Fool took a deep breath. The bells quieted in his mind. “Yes. Let’s be off. At least we know that we just have wits and sundaes left for us.”
“Except you lack wits as the Fool, so I will have to be the one to save us.”
The Fool snorted irritably. “Come on, the dragon is waiting.”
He levered himself up and settled his hat properly onto his head. The path before them looked like glass but felt like rubber under his feet. As there weren’t any other branches around, it was the only one they could take. The walk was much easier on his leg than the stairs were, for which Alexander was grateful for.
In Which the Second Trial is Discovered?
Both of them were still catching their breath so they didn’t speak much, however the Piper started to hum a little as they climbed. At the apex of the bridge the Fool glanced down and saw a waterfall. The way they were positioned on the bridge, anyone at the bottom of the waterfall would think that he and the Piper were on a rainbow. Below the waterfall was a huge river that twisted through a red rocked land dotted with harsh scrub trees that looked more like rocks than trees. He stopped to look at it, standing near the edge despite the lack of a guard railing, while the Piper continued walking.
At least the Piper continued walking for another ten to fifteen feet before making a startled squeaking noise. This caught Alexander’s attention immediately and he jerked his head up to see what had frightened Loren.
Down at the bottom of the rainbow bridge stood the Wanderer and There. The two of them were talking to each other; There looked highly upset about something while the Wanderer looked his generally composed self. The squeak however must have caught his attention because he turned around and stared right at Loren. There glanced up at his movement and frowned.
Suddenly There appeared right between the two of them. “What are you two doing here?” he snapped grabbing them both by their shirt collars. He gave them a harsh shake and let them go.
“Walking the Ways, what does it look like?” the Piper said, crossing his arms.
“You’re not looking for the dragon, are you?” he asked, staring at him suspiciously.
“Of course not. That would be stupid. We’re not stupid,” the Piper said.
“Foolish!” the Fool added, “But not stupid.”
“Then what are you doing out here?” the Wanderer asked, coming up to them. He didn’t sound angry at them like There did. Just curious.
The Fool tried to think of a response to this. Before he could say something, the Piper said, “Sundaes.”
“Sundaes,” There repeated doubtfully. “The ice cream?”
“Yes,” The Piper said earnestly. “There’s a place in New York that I heard uncle talking about that has fantastic sundaes. We decided to go and check it out.”
There and the Wanderer glanced at each other. Karren did have a sweet tooth. The Wanderer looked at the Fool. Biting his tongue, Alexander just smiled and nodded. He didn’t want to say anything. He knew if he said anything he would screw it up. He could feel the Wanderer waiting for him to say something. Loren was standing behind him, his expression pleading for him not to say anything. The bells rang in his mind begging for him to say something. He just kept pressure on his tongue even though it started to hurt.
“Is that so,” the Wanderer asked slowly.
“Yes, it is. And it’s not like you could prevent us from going anywhere,” Loren said. “These are the Forgotten Ways. We are the Forgotten and we’ve not done anything wrong to break the laws.” He finished that up with a smug look and a crossing of his arms.
There gave them both a mistrusting and reluctant look. “Very well.”
“Did you know there is an island that way that has evil furniture?” Loren said jerking his thumb back the way the two of them had come.
There glanced in that direction and nodded absently. “Yes. We do. It’s not so bad. You just have to sign the forms and they leave you alone.”
“Do you have to sign them?” Alexander asked, his eyes widening perhaps a bit over dramatically. He couldn’t stand being silent any more. From the Wanderer’s expression, it was.
“Of course not,” There snorted.
“Very well. I suppose we must be on our way now,” Loren said and grabbed Alexander by the hand. Alexander tipped his hat to them and let himself get pulled away.
They hurried as fast as they could, considering Alexander’s leg and didn’t look back. You never looked back in the Ways. You never knew what might be behind you. It could be something that wasn’t there the last time you looked and it might notice you. There and the Wanderer might not even be there any more.
In Which the Third Trial is Fallen Into
The path twisted down transitioning from the smooth glass to rough cobblestones. Only once they were on the cobblestones did the Fool speak. “I think that might have been wits.”
“Possibly. Or sundaes.”
“Possibly,” the Fool agreed reluctantly. It would be impossible to tell until the end of the journey. Annoyingly. At least they did finish with panic. He didn’t wish to go through that island ever again.
“Sometimes I wish I was a Ways’ guardian so that way I wouldn’t have to deal with all the things that they throw at travelers. But then I’d have to stay here most the time,” Loren said only slightly wistfully.
“I would rather be occasionally inconvenienced than a guardian,” Alexander agreed.
As he spoke they reached a fork in the paths.
Loren looked at him and he looked back at Loren. “Which way, Fool?”
“Why do you ask me, Piper?”
“Because this is your quest. You took me on it.”
“Very well. We shall go…” he hesitated staring at the two paths, his mind suddenly deciding to rattle on in Fool’s logic. He could go to the left because he was the Fool and a non-Fool would go on the right path. However it would be expected of him to go on the left path because it would be foolish of him to avoid the right path...
And he was thinking about it too much and it was making his head hurt. Closing his eyes he spun himself around widdershins three times and then jabbed his walking stick out. “That way.”
“You’re pointing over the side, Fool.”
“Oh.” He opened his eyes to see that he was, in fact, pointing over the edge. The drop looked discouraging. He turned some more and found himself facing the right fork. “This way.”
Confidently he started down the path.
The cobblestones became rough dirt with bits of weeds and shrubs along its side. It curved gently back in the direction they’d come. This didn’t bother Alexander. Such things happened all the time in the Ways. You just didn’t end up where you started. At times it made Alexander’s head hurt. Most of the time he tried not to think about it.
Strangely they ended up right where they started.
Loren looked at Alexander who shrugged back at him.
“What did you do?” Loren asked.
“Me? I didn’t do anything!”
“We were following your directions.”
“My direction was to walk off the cliff. You were the one who said we shouldn’t go that way.”
Loren threw his hands up. “Shadows forbid that we do something that doesn’t involve bodily harm.”
That earned the Piper a flat look. “We’re looking for a dragon. How much bodily harm do you think that’s going to cause us?”
“If we’re careful? Not much.”
“Right.” And taking a deep breath he walked off over the side.
Behind him, Alexander heard Loren screaming his name in panic. The Fool did not fall. Instead he walked easily on a path of nothingness. Now that he was on it, he could see the glinting of nearly transparent tiles. Turning on his heel he waved at the Piper. “Come on! The dragon is waiting!”
The Piper screwed up his face and closing his eyes, stepped off the visible path and onto the other one. Finding his feet on something solid, he opened his eyes carefully. A shaky laugh escaped him and he walked over to the Fool.
“Don’t do that again!” Loren said.
“I can’t promise that,” Alexander replied. “You know that.”
“You’re right. Lead on, Fool. Lead on.”
Twirling his walking stick, the Fool marched on, bells ringing in time to his steps. They walked for a few minutes, the Fool feeling exceptionally smug about everything. This lasted up until the point he found that there was no more path beneath his feet. He let out a scream of real surprise and fell. The Piper didn’t have a chance to stop and so he too tumbled down after the Fool.
They landed in a heap on a heap of bones and furs, the Piper on top of the Fool. Alexander’s walking stick had gone sprawling away from his sight and his hat rested just out of his grasp. Next to it was the Piper’s pipe.
Alexander scrambled up as quickly as he could, making a dive for his hat. He wouldn’t be hatless. He would stay the Fool. If they were to survive this, he would need to keep his motley at all costs. His heart thumped loudly in his ears until he felt it in his hands once more. Once he settled the hat back on his head, letting it slide over his eyes before pushing it back, he felt much more like himself, eyes glowing. Absently, he rubbed the side of his bad leg, trying to work out the ache that told him he was using up his luck. He then hobbled over and retrieved his walking stick. Loren waved his pipe and smiled, indicating that all was well.
“It seems,” Loren said, “We were both right.”
“Perhaps.” He rolled his shoulders, getting some kinks out. For the briefest of moments he felt far too old for this. The moment passed quickly and he surveyed the area to see where they had landed.
It looked to be one of the larger islands. It was so large that the Fool couldn’t see the end of it. Perhaps, he thought, it wasn’t an island at all, but instead they had left the Ways all together. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference right away, especially at crossing points.
Be it in the Ways or out of them, they were in a large, cold cavern. It felt much larger than the one at home and Alexander could only see a few feet ahead of him. He stepped closer to Loren, watching as his breath appeared in little clouds.
“Where do you think we are?” Alexander asked.
“In a cave. It’s cold.”
“Yes. And thank you for stating the obvious.”
“I know about as much as you do,” the Piper snapped.
“I know that.” He took a deep breath. “Well, there is no where else to go but forward.”
“We could go back.” Loren turned around. “No. We can’t. There’s a wall here. It’s very solid. It feels like ice.”
That didn’t make the Fool feel comfortable. He tugged his coat tighter around him as the cold started to bite through. “Right. Like I said. No where else to go but forward.”
In Which the Dragon is Found
Taking a careful step, in fear of slippery ground, Alexander started walking. He used his stick to keep his balance. It wasn’t too slippery but he still felt nervous as he walked, even his bells were silent. They were definitely out of the Ways. He could tell now that they’d walked further away from their entry point. This cavern didn’t feel hospitable at all. It didn’t echo with their footsteps or voices. Everything felt dead and cold.
“It’s,” the Piper said softly, “It’s almost as if something is leeching the heat from everything.” More frost hung in the air, thicker now. “Even the light.” He’d pulled his own coat tightly around him, hands stuck into his pockets.
The Fool wished he could do that, but he needed the stick to keep his balance as his leg ached even more from the cold. “Yes,” he said just as softly. “Still, forward and forward we must go.”
They walked until it felt so cold that the Fool would swear that his breath became solid blocks of ice. And then they walked some more, though all he wanted to do was curl up.
Just when it felt like his own blood would freeze, they crossed some sort of line and found themselves blinking in a brilliantly golden light, the air around them thick and humid. The sudden shock of temperature change and brightness caused them to stumble as they tried to reorient themselves.
“What…?” the Fool gasped out. Everything around them shined in pure gold, reflecting of some light source that he couldn’t see.
An eye blinked at them. The eye was about as wide as he was tall, with a molten red-orange iris and tall black pupil.
“Dragon,” the Piper said.
Without any further conversation, the two of them turned and bolted back the way they came.
At least they tried to.
A large tail slammed down in front of them, cutting off their escape. It radiated heat much like a furnace, and the Fool took a nervous step backward, pulling the Piper with him.
The dragon’s long head with obsidian sharp teeth jutting out between its closed lips snaked into view. It gleamed gold, the reflections nearly blinding the Fool. The dragon looked intelligent, but it didn’t speak a single word to them. Instead it opened its mouth wide and a gout of flame burst forth.
“Oh shit!” the Piper cried out.
The Fool pushed him down, hoping that his luck would protect them.
Fire bathed the area around them, but didn’t touch them.
His luck held. But why? He couldn’t stop fire from hurting them.
Confused, the Fool looked up to see the Ashling standing on the dragon’s tail where it had blocked the entrance. The Ashling held out his hand at the dragon and silently directed an angry look at the two of them.
Alexander’s hair stood on end as the air crackled around them signaling Here’s arrival. The other Guardian, completely identical to his brother, appeared with his crystal sword point pressed against the dragon’s chest, right where its heart beat underneath it. From the way the dragon suddenly went still, it knew that Here’s sword could easily pierce the tough scales that protected it from most things. Slowly it pulled away, but Here followed it, the sword sheering through the air as the edge moved, causing sparks to flicker across the nearly invisible blade.
As the tail moved, the Ashling jumped off it to land next to Alexander and Loren. His eyes burned the glowing red of dying coals.
“Uncle!” Loren squeaked.
The Ashling grabbed the Piper by the scruff of his neck and gave him a rough shake. “You, young man are in trouble.” To the Fool, the Ashling then said, “As are you, though I will leave you for the Wanderer to deal with.”
The Fool gulped softly. Getting yelled at by the Wanderer twice in one day was not something he looked forward to at all.
“And here he is,” the Ashling said.
The Wanderer appeared with There at his side. Without a word There ran off to help his brother with the dragon, his own crystal sword crackling in his hand.
“And here I am. Alexander.”
“I believe we four have business elsewhere and must leave the Guardians to do theirs,” the Wanderer said, leaning on his staff.
“What if they need help?” Alexander asked.
“Then I will help them,” the Ashling said. “You two go with the Wanderer.”
Alexander didn’t have a chance to protest for the Wanderer yanked him by the ear and dragged him back into the cold cavern, herding Loren ahead of him with his staff. “You two are very lucky, you know that?”
“Of course!” the Fool said, sounding hurt. Fools were lucky. He could hear the sounds of combat behind him: the crackling of swords and the screams of a very angry dragon. It sent shivers down his spine and the bells rung weakly.
“That’s not what I meant.” The Wanderer gave a sharp yank on his ear.
The Fool yelped in pain.
“Then what?” Loren asked.
Owain didn’t give an answer. He just tapped Loren sharply on the legs to get him to move faster.
In Which the Fool is the Hero
They quickly found themselves in the Forgotten Caverns as the Wanderer could get to any path he wished just by walking. Most of the time he took forever to get anywhere by walking because he enjoyed it, but clearly he was angry enough that he just went to where he wanted to go. He let the Fool go with a shove sending him stumbling to the ground. Fortunately he didn’t land on his bad leg.
“You are damn lucky, Fool. Damn lucky we decided to follow you.”
“You were following us?” the Fool said in shock.
“You didn’t think we actually believed you two weren’t looking for the dragon, did you?”
The Fool glanced at the Piper who shrugged.
“… Maybe?” the Fool asked hopefully, though he didn’t even believe himself.
The Wanderer snorted. “No. When we saw you, we figured we’d best let you go. Only the Fool would be able to find the dragon’s lair, after all.” From the tone of his voice, Alexander realized that he and the Guardians had trouble finding the dragon once it was off the Ways.
He felt used and slightly abused. “Then why are you angry at me? I was helpful!”
“Because you could have gotten yourself and the Piper killed, that’s why!” the Wanderer snapped. “It’s one thing for you to go off and do your foolish things out in the sunlight; it’s another thing to go dragon hunting! I would have hoped you’d have…” he trailed off realizing what he was about to say. With a sigh, he pinched his nose and looked like he had a headache coming on, once again. “Never mind. Just… go. You’re dismissed.”
The Fool scrambled to his feet with the help of his walking stick. It was, he felt, time for a nap. Every part of him ached and he didn’t want to deal with anything. The Piper started to follow him, but the Wanderer grabbed him by the collar. Alexander paused to watch.
“You, my lad, aren’t going anywhere,” Owain said. “Your father will be here soon and he will have some stern words for you. Unlike the Fool, you are supposed to have some sense in that head of yours.”
That earned a wince from the Fool. The Thief in the Night was rather protective of his only child and wouldn’t take too kindly to him endangering himself like that.
“No buts.” He said and then turned his glare at Alexander.
Taking this as a sign to leave, Alexander hobbled off to his corner of the caverns. He wasn’t too worried, but then again he rarely was. The bells had quieted and the pressure over him lifted. Yes, he’d certainly did something foolish enough to last for a bit. He’d earned his sleep.
In Which Nothing Was Learned
Several hours later, after the Fool had his nap, the Piper poked his head into the Fool’s niche. He looked rather unhappy with everything in general.
“What happened?” Alexander asked, gesturing for Loren to come in.
Loren shuffled in and sat on the other side of the bed. He fingered his pipe briefly before speaking. “Father grounded me. I’m not allowed to go anywhere with you or leave the cavern for three months.”
“Three months? That’s… not too bad,” Alexander said. Admittedly, he’d probably go mad with boredom if it was him who got grounded, but Loren was better at that sort of thing than he was. Still…. He thought about it for a moment, trying to figure out how to turn this into a positive thing.
Then it came to him: “This will give us plenty of time to figure out something else to do!” he announced proudly.