Starspire

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Chapter 9: The Magic Word

Matt burst out laughing as his dad displayed his puny biceps. “Hey, dad. Maybe you should hit the gym some more before whipping those out in public.”

His dad lowered his arms and turned away. “You got a better idea? You already tried and you only got to 19. Look around! Everyone’s just a kid here.”

“We could split up,” said Bahati. “We still know very little about his place.”

Neil rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. “You couldn’t just wave your hands and do some sort of magic thing?”

Now it was Bahati’s turn to look like she had bitten into a stale churro. “Do you really think I wouldn’t have done it already? Let’s meet back at the Popcorn Palace in twenty minutes.”

They had passed the place earlier: the popcorn stand to end all popcorn stands, with no less than three dozen flavors of popcorn and at least as many toppings.

They each took a different direction, and Matt rummaged through his pockets, wishing he had some music to listen to. The first 48 minutes of his search didn’t bring anything. He decided that he wouldn’t play any games or eat anything else. Perhaps not everything was based on the same twisted sense of humor as the “Hammer of Hercules”, but it was best not to take any chances.

His eyes blurred from looking at so many bright lights and Matt sunk to a bench that tried to throw him off several times before allowing him to sit there. When his eyes cleared enough to see straight, he noticed the words “Bucking Bronco Bench” painted across the seat.

After locating another, tamer bench, he sat and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples in an attempt to clear his thoughts. All around him, voices of those who had not reached puberty laughed and yelled, joked and gasped. All of it combined to give him a monster headache.

Was I this obnoxious when I was 13?

At the beginning of minute 49, however, he heard something that made his eyes slap open in surprise. A deep bass voice. He’d been around enough weight rooms to know that someone with such a low voice often had the muscles to back it up.

“Step right up! Let me guess your age, your weight, or your favorite breakfast cereal! Stump me and win fabulous prizes.”

Neil glanced in the direction of the sound and saw that his assumption had been correct. The boy standing behind the counter had biceps at least twice as large as his own.

That’s only because I’m 13. Give me another few years.

Neil watched as the booth took on a new customer, a skinny blonde girl in a green coat. She wore socks striped with every color of the rainbow in alternating bands.

“So,” boomed the attendant, what shall I guess? Age, weight, or breakfast cereal?”

The girl seemed to consider for a moment before deciding on ‘breakfast cereal.’

“I bet you can’t guess,” she said, doing a little dance on the platform. “I mean, how could you know? There are, like, so many to choose from.”

The burly attendant looked thoughtful for a moment and then studied his contestant. “Hm, I’m not sure, but I think that I’m getting a good idea.” He rubbed his chin, which unlike most of the others, was starting to show some stubble. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers and then shot out a single one at the girl.

“I’ve got it. You’re a Fruit Loops girl.”

Her smile turned as soggy as a bowl of cereal left too long in milk. “How did you know?” she wailed. “I could have easily been a granola girl! Why couldn’t you have guessed that?”

The attendant shrugged. “I just know sometimes. In my mind, there was no way you could be a granola girl. Sometimes, you are what you eat.”

The attendant raised his hand and slapped a big red button on the counter in front of him. “Sorry, but you lose. Come play again sometime.”

Before the girl could respond, a sticky spray of green and blue slime exploded from above and beneath her, coating her in seconds. Surprisingly, the gunk did not stay long on her skin, but left its color on it even after it was gone.

Matt felt his stomach turn. Instead of the girl he had seen there before, there was a strange person who might be the punch line of a bad riddle, such as what’s green and blue all over and whines like a sick cat?

The girl ran off, covering her face in her hands.

With shaky knees, Matt approached the counter and leaned forward onto it. He tried to let none of the horror at girl’s fate show on his face, but he could not completely conceal the edginess in his voice. “So,” he said in the smoothest voice he could muster, “you’ve got some nice guns. You don’t think you could help us win The Hammer of Hercules, do you? My dad really wants the prize for winning 50 and, well…” Neil showcased his own scrawny arms. “I’ve only got a couple of pea shooters. What do you say?”

The attendant stared at Neil for a long minute, with nothing more than a raised eyebrow to indicate that he had heard. When he finally answered, his voice was even lower than before. “I would love to help you. I hit 50 all the time, but I’m on the clock. I can’t walk away from my post. No one can guess as well as me.”

Matt let out an exasperated breath. “How long do you work, then? Maybe you could help us when you get off.”

The attendant shrugged. “My boss said I couldn’t get off until someone beat me at my own game. I’ve had a few people try, but it didn’t turn out well for them. I know that hair eventually grows back, but to have it all singed off at one time—it wasn’t a pretty picture.”

“You mean, I would have to guess your age, weight, or favorite breakfast cereal?”

The attendant shook his head. “No, you would have to guess all three of them. Perfectly.”

Matt sized up the other boy, and knew that he had his work cut out for him. Though he could probably guess the boy’s age and maybe even his weight, who was to say if he was a granola or a Rice Krispies guy?

On the other hand, they had no alternative. All the other kids around him looked too scrawny. He would have to make an educated guess and hope the consequences were not too embarrassing.

“Okay,” said Neil, “I’d like to take you up on your challenge. We really need your help, and it needs to be before the night ends. So, what guess do you want first?”

The attendant nodded three times. “Age, then weight and then breakfast cereal. You have two minutes to think about your guess before you have to answer.”

Matt knew that the boy had to be 13 like the rest of them. However, his mind reeled at how to figure out the other two. He knew time was not on his side and that failure would mean everyone would probably laugh at him for the rest of his life, not to mention they wouldn’t get anywhere.

He studied the boy again and blinked hard as he realized how much he looked like Tyson. Just then, an idea hit him. A crazy, far-fetched one.

What if, because this was Tyson’s dream, the attendant had some things in common with Tyson? In addition to being the same age, could they be the same weight and like the same cereal? It was worth a shot and now it was the only shot he had.

Matt swallowed hard and looked the attendant directly in the face. The words tumbled out before he could think twice about them. “Thirteen, one hundred forty-two pounds, Honey-Nut Cheerios.”

The attendant’s eyes grew wide and he clutched his chest as if he had been stabbed. “Wha-what? That’s perfect. How did you know that?”

Matt shrugged and put his hands on the sides of his head. “I’ve got this crazy sixth sense, I guess.” Matt took a deep bow and then gestured towards the Hammer of Hercules. “Come on. Looks like you’ve got the rest of the evening off. Why don’t you lend me a muscle?”

“Cool. I still can’t believe you got it all right.”

Neil motioned for him to follow. “So, I’m Matt. And you?”

“Tyler,” the attendant said with a nod.

“It’s nice to meet you, especially if you can win that game.”

“Trust me,” said Tyler. “I once hit a baseball that landed on the moon. This should be no problem.”

Neil rolled his eyes and figured that he shouldn’t ask for the details on that particular incident. Without another word, he led Tyler towards the “Hammer of Hercules” and on the way signaled for Bahati and his dad to join him.

The line in front of the “Hammer” was still empty and the attendant sat there glumly. Apparently, he was genuinely confused as to why no one wanted to play his game. Perhaps flaming fruit bats were his idea of fun.

He perked up as the party of four approached. “So, you dealt with the bats,” the attendant said to Matt. “Well done. Back for another round?”

Matt gave him the evil eye. “No way. We’ve brought a new player. You’re going down.”

The attendant smiled, the starlight from above giving his face an unnatural glow. “Fire away. Though I should warn you, the Porcupine Bear and the Blitz Dragon won’t be so easy to deal with should he fail.”

Matt gestured over to the basket. “Come on,” said Matt. “Let’s get in the basket. When he hits it to the top, we can get through the weird glowing door in the sky.”

Though it was a tight fit, Matt, Neil and Bahati found their way into the basket and stared expectantly at Tyler the Strongman. He stood, shifting his weight from foot to foot, making no movement to take the hammer.

“What’s the matter?” called Matt. “Got stage fright?”

Tyler shook his head, and waved him off with one hand. “No, no. Nothing like that. It’s just that I’ve never…done this with people in the basket before.”

“I thought you were good at guessing people’s weight!” Neil cried, sweat breaking out over his forehead. “Can you do this, or can’t you?”

Tyler shrugged. “I think so. But I’ve never tried it before.”

The passengers groaned. They were either going up to the next floor, or were going to be eaten by the ominous-sounding Blitz Dragon. “You know,” whispered Neil to Matt, “You could still let me take a shot at it.”

Matt shook his head and kept his eyes on Tyler, who had lifted the hammer over his head and was now backing up for a running start. Tyler took three deep breaths, then dashed forward with a cry.

The hammer flew and landed with a resounding crash onto the stopper. The basket shot into the air, flying much faster than it had with Matt’s attempt. Matt watched the numbers light up as they whizzed past: 10, 20, 30, 40…

Suddenly, he felt the basket lurch and slow. It climbed the mid-forties, slowing with every passing moment.

Matt ground his teeth and prayed for a little more height.

46, 47, 48…49…

The basket hovered near 49 and hung for a long, tense second. Then, the basket began its return trip, building speed at a dangerous rate. He braced for impact, closing his eyes and clutching the sides of the basket.

On impact, all three flew from the basket, out towards a nearby tent. Bahati hit first, then Matt and Neil. The tent collapsed, and their adventure might have ended on the spot, had they not landed on the tent containing the stacks of rugs for the flying carpet show.

Picking themselves up from the wreckage, they stared in terror as a massive shape emerged from a trapdoor in the “Hammer of Hercules,” a horned dragon with three heads. All three heads opened their mouths wide and instead of fire, fingers of lightning shot out and scorched the ground in front of them.

“Uh,” said Neil. “I don’t suppose you could freeze this one, could you?”

Bahati shook her head, but, strangely, smiled. “No, but do not worry yet. Look at what you are sitting on.”

Matt glanced down, unimpressed by the cheap red and white Persian rug. “Let me guess, this brand is lightning resistant? Oh good.”

Bahati grinned tightly. “These are no ordinary rugs! Look.” She flipped the rug over and displayed a large tag that read “Abdul’s Frequent Flier Carpets.”

“Really?” asked Neil. “Make it quick—how does it work?”

Before he could reply, the dragon leapt forward and unleashed another blast of lightning, igniting several stacks of carpets. “Quick, grab one and run!”

Each of them managed to snag a carpet each before a third blast incinerated the rest of the carpets.

Tyler, still clutching the hammer, jumped up between the Blitz Dragon and the trio of others. His lips pulled back, he struck out at the dragon with the hammer, driving it back towards the trapdoor.

“Each carpet has a command word,” Bahati cried. “Say the right word and the carpet will take you around in the world in far fewer than 80 days.”

“So, what do we try?” asked Neil. “The usual suspects? You know, “abracadabra, open sesame”?”

Before he could get anyone else’s opinion on the matter, Neil yelled the entire gambit of magic words from ‘alacazam’ to ‘bibidi bobidi boo’. Nothing happened.

“Not too surprising,” mumbled Matt.

Snarling and growling, the Blitz Dragon took to the sky, releasing a trio of lightning bolts after them. They escaped the attack with no injuries, but with hair standing on end.

“We were so close!” Matt cried. “If you hadn’t eaten so many of those new-and-improved nachos, we’d be out of here.”

Neil threw up his hands. “They were amazing! It’s been a long time since I had a teenage metabolism.”

“Stop arguing, you two. Think of words. We need to get these things in the air.”

“Oh, great,” Neil moaned. “Let me whip out the dictionary in my back pocket and start with A!”

“Dad,” said Matt, “Didn’t you say that Tyler was a lot like Tyson? Maybe because this is his dream, it will be a word that he likes.”

Neil nodded and leapt behind a tent to avoid a crooked finger of lightning. “But what could that be? He’s always reading…man, that kid uses words I don’t even know.”

Tyler, not to be outdone, took careful aim, and launched the golden hammer at the Blitz Dragon. The hammer flew true, hitting the dragon square in one of its snarling heads. Howling with pain, the dragon tumbled from the sky and lay writhing on the ground.

The three of them leapt from cover and ran as hard as they could.

“Dad,” said Matt between deep breaths, “Do you remember that Scrabble game last week? The one where Tyson made that crazy comeback?”

Neil nodded and scrunched his eyebrows. “Yeah. Thanks for bringing that one up. Could we possibly talk about my failures later?”

“Dad, it’s important. After he placed that word on two triple word scores, he said that it was his new favorite word. What was it?”

Neil screwed his eyes shut. “Uh, it started with Q, and there was an X in the middle. I challenged the word and lost, remember?”

“I hate to interrupt your daydream,” said Bahati, pointing to the dragon. “But I think that thing is starting to wake up.”

Though one head still hung limp on the ground, the remaining two heads had dragged the body to a standing position and it looked more furious than ever.

“Try to think and run, dad!”

Matt clenched his teeth and thought back on the game. He remembered the victory dance Tyson had done and his comments about windmills.

Windmills? What did they have to do with anything? It was probably something Tyson had read in a book.

“Hey,” called Matt, “Is there a book about windmills—something Tyson might have read?”

Neil wrinkled his forehead. “Don Quixote maybe. You know, the crazy guy who tried to attack windmills?”

The Blitz Dragon thundered through the crowd, starting fires with every strike. Tyler ran in pursuit, but quickly lost ground. They could not count on him anymore to distract the monster.

“How do you spell that guy’s name?” asked Matt. “Q-U…?”

“…I-X-O-T-E,” finished his dad. “But that’s a proper noun. He couldn’t use that in Scrabble.”

Matt exhaled sharply. He knew they were on the right track, but he wasn’t thinking clearly. They dashed towards the outskirts of the fair, and the melted piles of sticky bats.

“Don’t mean to be a downer,” Matt said, “But I think last time I tried this, I reached the edge and got thrown back. We can’t keep going this way.”

Matt slowed to a halt and pressed his fingers against his eyes, trying to force his brain to cooperate.

Suddenly, his brain did a somersault and supplied the missing piece of the puzzle. His brother had a right to brag about his winning move—he had managed to use Q, X, and Y in the same word.

Though he was sure he had stumbled onto the correct letters, his brain still stumbled, trying to sort through a difficult anagram without being able to write the letters down in front of him.

Meanwhile, the dragon put on a burst of speed, bringing him back within striking distance. His two living heads reared back, preparing for another strike.

Matt shook his head a final time, and the jumbled letters fell into place. It was a word he had never heard before that Scrabble game and not one he could ever imagine saying in normal conversation. However, like his brother, it was his new favorite word.

Matt pumped a fist in the air and yelled, “QUIXOTRY!”

Three carpets leapt to life, snatching their passengers and taking them up likes leaves on a stiff wind. In the same instant, a massive fist of lightning punched through the middle lane of the carnival, obliterating everything in its path.

With a whoop of triumph, Matt soared higher, cutting seamlessly through the evening clouds.

His cry choked off as he reached the upper limits of the tower room. The invisible ceiling slammed him back towards the ground. For several seconds, he struggled for control, and when finally got it, he made sure his lips were closed tight enough to save him from any wimpy squeaks he might accidently let through.

Bahati took the lead, pointing at their destination. “Keep close to me. If you selected a trustworthy rug, you should be fine.”

Not daring to ask what an untrustworthy rug looked like, Matt fell in behind Bahati and leaned into the wind. The Blitz Dragon unleashed a volley into the sky, strafing the three carpets with intense electricity. Matt closed his eyes and waited for the end.

The carpets flew on as if nothing had happened. Bahati turned and yelled over her shoulder. “Oh, I should have told you. After you wake them up, the carpets are resistant to magic. Stain resistant too.”

Matt rolled his eyes and clutched the sides of the carpet. “Thanks for the heads up!”

The portal grew closer and closer. and It loomed bright right in front of them. Then, Matt glanced down and saw Tyler crumpled directly below them.

“Stop,” he yelled into the whipping wind. “Tyler’s still down there. We’ve got to help him!”

Bahati shook her head. “Don’t worry about him. It doesn’t matter. He’s not like the rest of us.”

Matt’s jaw dropped. “What do you mean? He’s a person, isn’t he?”

“No,” Bahati cried back. “Now come. Fly through the portal, or that dragon will find a way to get to us.”
Feeling sick, Matt set his course for the portal and closed his eyes. He hated what he was doing, but Bahati was right. A few more seconds and they all would be toast.

In another second, Matt flew through the portal and his world filled with light, warmth, and a profound feeling that everything would be fine. At this rate, they’d find Tyson in no time.

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