Starspire

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Chapter 23: 1001 Arabian Fights

Matt put one foot in front of the other, again and again. These stairs were worse than the time he’d hiked up the tiny spiral staircase inside the Statue of Liberty. His dad had taken him once, without Tyson, of course. They didn’t want to be the ones responsible for destroying Lady Liberty.

The other portals had seemed so easy—like the old Star Trek “beam me up.” He found himself hoping desperately that they were not on their own from now on.

In the course of the day, they passed through a land where everything appeared animated, even themselves. His dad nearly leapt from the stairs at the sight, but Matt snagged him by the shoulder at the last second, knowing that he’d probably never see him again if he let him loose there.

“I don’t know what got into me,” he muttered Niel dragged himself up the next flight. “I haven’t watched Saturday morning cartoons in years. Just brought back memories, I guess.”

A few flights later, Matt’s knees gave out and he slumped against the side of the stairwell. The others followed suit, groaning and sighing. After a fitful power nap, Matt dragged himself up and stared into the world beyond.

They had arrived in the world’s biggest sandbox, or at least, that what it looked like. Miles and miles of desert in every direction. Sand sculptures, huge castles and towers, broke up the monotony of the dunes at random intervals.

“Humph,” grunted Bahati. “After all we have seen, you two are impressed with a few oversized sandcastles? Are you sure they are not merely mirages?”

His dad raised his hand, and Matt noticed that he shifted constantly from one foot to the other. “I don’t know how the rest of you have held out this long, but I for one hear nature calling. I really wanted to try it in the cartoon world, but you spoiled that one for me.”

Matt scanned the horizon in all directions and couldn’t see a thing. It did appear to be the safest floor they’d yet seen, but then again, it could be full of quicksand or huge sand monsters.

“Go on,” said Matt, waving him away. “Find a dune, do your business and let’s keep going. I’m really not liking the idea of this tower growing taller by the minute.”

His dad stuck one toe into the sand, and when nothing happened, he dared an entire foot. No giant sand worms rose from the deep and so he dashed out, locating the nearest dune. Matt slipped back to the floor, closing his eyes. His mind wandered, back to his home, his normal life, to a world where some things didn’t make sense, but most things did. A nudge on his shoulder startled him from his daydreaming.

“Matt,” said Bahati, “are you awake? I’m not sure how long it usually takes him to do his business, but it seems a bit excessive. Do you think we should check on him?”

Scrambling to his feet, Matt blinked the sleep from his eyes and nodded. “Dad?” he called. “Everything working like it should over there? Or are you trapped in some bottomless pit or something?”

After a few seconds, his dad called back, still hidden behind the dune. “No problems or pits. Come over here—there’s something I want you to see!”

Matt turned to Bahati, who shrugged. “You really can’t just tell me about it?”

“I could,” said Neil, “But it’s more fun this way. Just hop on over. There’s nothing out here.”

With a shrug of his own, Matt wandered out into the sand and behind the dune. Luckily, Neil had already pulled up his pants, but now dug in the sand with both hands.

“Dad,” said Matt, backing up a step, “you’ve got exactly five seconds to explain to me why you’re digging under a dune when we’ve got a tower to climb.”

His dad flung up his hands and raised his prize in his hand. Matt’s protests died away. He clutched an ancient oil lamp in his hand, straight out of “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights”.

“Is that…?”

His dad grinned, revealing a gap in his front teeth. “A magic lamp? What else would you expect from this tower? Change of plans, we give this lamp a little rub and we split the wishes. One of us could wish us to the top of the tower, one of us could wish to defeat the wizard, and the last one could wish Tyson awake. Happily ever after, world peace and all that.”

Neil raised his hand to the rub the lamp, but his hand paused at the sound of Bahati’s shouts. “Wait, Neil, drop that thing. I sense a powerful evil presence. Not every lamp holds a good-natured genie.”

Rolling his eyes, his dad tossed the lamp from hand to hand. “Haven’t you ever seen ‘Aladdin’? I don’t care if the genie’s a little grumpy. I know how it works—he has to give us three wishes and that’s that.”

Bahati approached, brandishing her staff as though she expected a boogeyman to leap out at any moment. “You have proved more than once that you do not know how ‘it’ works. While you were off on your jolly adventures on the last floor, I crossed paths with some of the darkest villains this tower can produce. Do not rub that lamp if you value your life.”

Neil clutched the lamp with both hands and started running one finger over the surface. “You know? I think you’re just jealous that I figured out a way to get us to the top of the tower before you. All your magic couldn’t top what I can do on a bathroom break.”

Rushing forward with staff raised, Bahati shouted a final plea. “This will not get us to the top of the tower! Drop it!”

Neil shook his head and rubbed with gusto. “Next stop—top floor!”

A brilliant light shot from the spout of the lamp, accompanied by flurries of red and yellow sparks. The desert air rang with the sound of maniacal laughter as the sparks drew together into three separate forms.

All three turbaned spirits wore their weight in gold bracelets and amulets with salt and pepper beards that trailed out like tails. They stretched and chortled, slapping their ample bellies. Each one had a different color of skin, red, purple and blue, and their malicious grins showed no sign of gratitude for being freed.

“Look Tyger,” said one, rubbing his hands together. “Someone did fall for it. I told you they would.”

The blue-skinned one slapped the side of his head, expelling copious mounds of sand from his ears. “But was it really worth three thousand years in that dingy, old lamp? Seems like we did it the hard way.”

“Brothers,” said the third, “it is worth the looks on their faces! See! I will never forget them as long as I live.” All three spirits stared at Matt and then burst again into laughter.

Suddenly, all three shot up into the air, and a surge of roiling clouds blotted out the sky. The purple genie pointed at Matt and yelled “Kaboom!”

A web of lightning bolts raced at Matt and his friends, and before Matt could do anything, Bahati jumped in front of them, her staff raised. The lightning curled around it, knocking Bahati to the sand and charring the staff through. The magician stumbled to his feet and gestured away toward the stairs. “Run!”

A huge bolt of fire slammed into the space in front of the stairs, melting the sand into glass. One of the genies whooped and cackled. “Target practice! I forgot how fun this was.”

“Split up!” cried Bahati. “Give them more moving targets, emphasis on the ‘moving’!”

Matt circled a dune and then changed direction, heading for another. The first dune exploded with a crackle of electricity, and a wave of sand slammed into her back. He barely managed to rise when another even larger impact struck the ground directly to him left, sending him airborne.

When he landed, a torrent of sand rained down on him, burying him up to his neck. His eyes remained above ground, pointed in the right direction to give him a full view of his oncoming doom: the purple genie, his open mouth baring dripping fangs and a spiked tongue.

Matt dropped his jaw, but then clammed up, as a sudden tremor shook the sands. The ground rippled again with the sound of a low drumbeat, and Matt turned to see Bahati shaking something over her head. A tiny shape flew from Bahati’s hand and then shot directly into the sand with a final boom.

For a moment, all stood still and quiet, even the genies as they stared at the spot where the black shape had disappeared.

An instant later, an enormous figure burst from the ground, a stone creation in the form of a man easily three or four times as large as Matt. Every surface on its body gleamed with the polished shine of a mirror and a swarm of tiny creatures flitted about it with buzzing wings like dragonflies.

“Attack!” yelled Bahati. “Stuff those three back in their lamp.”

The mirror golem Bahati had summoned raised its arms and bellowed a war cry, wasting no time at taking a swipe at one of its opponents. The genie dodged and sent a scathing lightning bolt directly into the creature’s chest.

The mirrored surface reflected the bolt, sending it ricocheting back to its sender. The genie’s beard caught fire, and it only succeeded in dousing the flames by stuffing its head into the sand.

With a massive fist, the mirror golem gestured to another genie, and a swarm of the dragonfly creatures shot forward, enveloping it. The fat genie swatted, cursed, and then finally burst into flames in an effort to burn away the creatures. Many of the bugs disintegrated, but Matt noticed when the flames subsided, that the genie’s skin had paled, and its skin now hung more limply from its face.

Seeing nothing else to do, Matt cheered the golem on, whom he took to calling Reflector Man. The golem turned every attack of the genie’s back in their faces, calling on his tiny minions to sap his enemies of their strength. He became so engrossed in the fight that Matt didn’t notice the person next to him until the creature practically stepped on him.

He let out a squeak as he looked up and saw the hulking dark shape looming over him and squirmed desperately in his sandy prison.

“Calm down,” came a familiar voice. “I’m here to dig you out.”

Dad. It was lucky for him that his front row seat at the Genie Royale match had distracted him from coming up with insults. “Make it quick! It’s the least you can do after getting us into this mess in the first place. It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway—you would have probably wasted one of the wishes on some toilet paper or something!”

Muttering a thousand and one apologies, his dad freed him and joined Bahati back at the stairs. Matt started up without hesitation, but saw his dad lingering at the entrance. “What are you waiting for? No one is granting you any wishes today, including me. Come on before you get eaten by killer mosquitos.”

His dad sighed and turned. “I just wanted to see how it all ended,” he said. “Entertainment like that only comes along once every three thousand years.”

Matt clutched the guardrail, comforting himself with the image of tossing his dad face first into a dune.

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