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Chapter 8: An Unbearably Strange Companion

As I stared at the inscription, Trezzlepeg hovered over and tapped me on the shoulder, “It takes a few minutes for me to get everything prepared, but after that, I think we can safely send you on your way.”

The little man gestured to a corridor over to his right, “First things first. We need to give you a Shadow. Right this way.”

As if explanations had become suddenly obsolete, Trezzlepeg started fluttering down the aisle. “Wait!” I called after him, “What do you mean? I’ve already got a shadow--it follows me everywhere.”

“Just follow me and you’ll see.”

After a few minutes, we passed under the sign announcing “Creatures” and my ears picked up the faint sounds of growling, squawking, and creatures rustling around in their cages. As we ventured farther in, the scuffling sounds were accompanied with the unearthly stench of too many animals in a confined space.

Finally, we reached a small wooden door and steeped inside. The room was fully illuminated and my eyes took a few seconds to get used to the change in light. When they did, I gasped in amazement. The room stretched only a few dozen feet in length, but to indeterminate height. The entire perimeter of the room was stacked high with transparent cages, each containing a marvelous creature. I drank it all in, and for a moment forgot about my insane quest to rescue my brother.

Excitedly, I ran over to the first cage and peered in. Petite, feathered creatures about the color of dead leaves, darted rapidly from one side of the cage to the other, but made no sound in the process. Amazed, I glanced around for a label, and found one in bold lettering near the bottom with a name and description:

Wild Snipes. Smal,l elusive birds native of the planet Earth. Considered a rare prize by humans, but almost never seen in the wild, due to their camouflage and incredible speed.

“I thought these were just a myth!” I exclaimed, “My dad took me snipe hunting on a camping trip when I was little and we didn’t actually find a thing. Afterwards, everyone had a good laugh at my expense.”

Trezzlepeg then gestured over to a small platform in the middle of the room. As we placed our feet on it, railings and a computer control panel ejected from the floor. Trezzlepeg took out the familiar panpipes and guided the platform skyward at a leisurely pace, “Within this tower, my staff and I have gathered some of the most amazing creatures of the universe. Allow me to showcase some of our finer specimens. Off to our left we have the Crimson Tip Unicorn, capable of ejecting lethal venom through the tip of its horn.”

I stared in awe at the creature out of fairytales, and wondered if such things crept around my own planet, just out of the sight of man. Trezzlepeg, however, did not stop to let me gaze long, but instead continued our accent.

“Over here you’ll see the green-bellied basilisk, and here the gigantic wooly mammoth! Up to your left there’s a small bunch of blue mountain trolls, and there…” The little man droned on and on naming off exotic species at a dizzying rate, and I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. Any one of these animals would be the prize collection of any zoo anywhere on earth, and some creatures looked so cute and cuddly that I almost wished I could take one home as a pet, house train it, and give an endearing name like Fido or Spot.

However, as we traveled higher, the creatures became more and more menacing. Gargantuan lizards, that I could only take as cousins of the T Rex and Triceratops, gazed back at me with gleaming eyes. They roared at us with unearthly fury and gnashed their jaws, unveiling their carnivorous teeth. Apparently, life in captivity had made these natives restless. I cringed as we passed a black arachnid with red dots the size of a small car.

“TP, what are those?”

One of the creatures let out an earsplitting shriek and turned his grotesque face to peer deep into my eyes, and I noticed that both eyes glowed softly like dark rubies. Its jaws twisted in a wicked grin.

“Those, Face, are gargoyles. Extremely cunning and malicious. Able to drive their victims crazy with their screeches before striking with their claws. Several of my best men gave their lives to acquire these few specimens.”

He turned and looked me gravely in the face, “If you ever see one, you have two choices: Pray if you are religious, and run if you are not.”

I shuddered, the image of the gargoyle’s hideous face still fresh in my mind.

“Can we hurry up?” I pleaded, “If I’m subject to much more of this, I won’t get a peaceful night’s sleep for the rest of my life.”

“As you wish, Face, but first, I must show you one more thing. It’s the crown jewel of my collection!”

“Okay,” I said, folding my arms. “but just one more, all right?

The blue man grinned, “Excellent! You won’t be sorry, my friend.”

He blew a shrill blast from his pipes, and the platform shot up at a dizzying rate. My stomach heaved within me and nausea hit full force.

Just give me a bumper car.

In a matter of seconds, we reached the summit of the tower, and came to an abrupt, yet gentle, stop. The tower had widened as we ascended and I could see only blackness in all directions. Trezzlepeg stared into the darkness and once again brought the panpipes to his lips. A few mournful notes, just barely audible, escaped from the pipes and then wandered off to be lost in the void. After a full minute, he stopped playing, and returned the pipes to his pocket. I started to speak, but Trezzlepeg cut me off with finger to his lips, “It’s coming. Just be patient.”

A tiny buzzing noise echoed in the distance, and I sensed a tiny speck of light zooming towards us, just barely visible. As it got closer, the buzzing noise intensified, though it never grew unbearable. It took the form of a tiny, flying insect and then finally into a dragonfly. The insect glided over to us and lighted on Trezzlepeg’s outstretched hand.

I stared at the bug incredulously, “That’s your crown jewel! I could smash that thing with a flyswatter! What the catch?”

TP chuckled deeply, “you have such a limited way of thinking. Its apparent frailty is one of its greatest strengths. As I have said before, just watch and learn. You’ll see that a mere flyswatter would prove futile against this beast.”

Almost reverently, Trezzlepeg clasped his hands around the dragonfly and blew a steady stream of warm air into hands, while muttering some strange, imperceptible words. Then, suddenly, he cast the insect into the air where it disappeared in a flash of light.

“I’m still not convin-“

I never got time to finish my protest. A thunderous roar, like the collision of two freight trains, cut me off. One look and I forgot all about my queasy stomach. Out of nowhere, the harmless dragonfly had dropped the final three letters of his name and had morphed into the beast out of every child’s nightmare.

The immense scaly beast dwarfed even the most immense animals I had ever seen. Its dark scales gleamed as torrents of flame expelled from his nostrils and the beating of its wings drove up a whirlwind around us. Sharpened spikes protruded from its back in an incredible number, glinting menacingly in the firelight. I cowered to the floor, futilely shielding my face from the wind and flame with my hands, while Trezzlepeg remained unfazed.

“Beautiful isn’t she?” he shouted over the din, “an extremely rare find. Maybe one of only a handful left in existence. The rest of them have been systematically hunted down and destroyed out of fear before they could reach maturity. Pity.”

I rolled my eyes, failing to see the pity in the situation, “What’s keeping it from smashing us to pieces?” I asked in terror.

“Nothing,” said Trezzlepeg.

I might have fainted in shock had he had not immediately admended his statement. “Just kidding. Actually I have complete control over him with a sort of telepathy. Don’t worry, she won’t harm you.”

I nodded and gripped the handrails tighter.

“I guess she’s just too much for you. Have it your way.”

With another note on his special pipes, the dragon reverted back into its fly form and flew off into the distance. I stood up and brushed myself off.

“I’ve had enough of that for today,” I stated, “getting this Shadow is starting to sound like a pleasant idea right now.”

Trezzlepeg nodded and initiated our decent. Though the flight up had taken nearly ten minutes, the flight down took less than a minute.

Our craft touched down and we both departed. Trezzlepeg spoke first on our landing, “Now that you’ve had a crash course on amazing creatures, I think it’s time we found you a fitting Shadow.”

Feeling like a dumb sheep before the sheepherder, I blindly followed Trezzlepeg through a door I had not noticed before. Inside, saucer-sized lamps cast circles of light onto the darkened floor, revealing a dozen or more granite pedestals on which sat transparent cages. In each of the cages, sat a miniature creature. Some resembled humanoids with wings, some birds, and some bats. Trezzlepeg hovered over to the nearest cage in the center of all the others and placed his hand on it. Strangely, this cage was empty.

Always a few steps ahead of me, Trezzlepeg tapped the empty cage and spoke, “All the little creatures you see in these cages are Shadows. They aren’t all this small, but they are all specialized in a certain task and are given to people to assist them. The one in this cage will aid you in your trip back in time. He’s also quick with his hands, so he’s also handy when scratching an itch or playing fetch. Just look at him go in there!” Trezzlepeg chuckled, his head lolling back and forth as if watching a miniature tennis match.

I failed to see both the humor and the creature that was supposed to accompany me. I stepped over to the cage and peered in from different angles, squinting and blinking. Wild thoughts of a singing cricket on my shoulder popped into my head, and I caught myself humming the tune to “When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio.”

“Is there supposed to be something in there, because right now it seems to me to be as empty as my wallet the week before payday.”

Trezzlepeg whirled around startled, “Oh, how foolish of me. I selected this particular Shadow because of its capability to be invisible. You’d draw too much attention to yourself otherwise. I just don’t give these to many humans these days.”

“Surely, with all your gadgets you can give me something so that I can see this thing. If not, I’d go crazy for wondering what it’s doing and what it looks like, and that be distracting to my mission.”

Trezzlepeg rubbed his chin with his stubby fingers and seemed to ponder this tidbit for a minute. After some silent contemplation he offered, “I guess it wouldn’t harm anything. But be warned, he’s a little strange looking, and only you will be able to see him.”

Trezzlepeg disappeared, and for a few minutes, I waited patiently, but as the time wore on, my curiosity got the best of me and opened the latch on the front of the glass cage. I peeked inside, and whispered, “Hello, is anything really in here?”

The answer came not as a voice, at first, but by a small pressure on my shoulder, like a pair of tiny feet landing from flight. I stiffened, not daring to move to swipe it off. “No,” a low, ominous voice rumbled, “there is nothing in there.”

Unconsciously, my teeth began to rattle within my head, as I attempted to speak, “Who…what…what are you?”

A low rumbling chuckle emanated from the unseen beast and directly into my ear, “You’ll find out soon enough. Just sit tight, or I may have to make a hobby of nibbling on your ear.”

I detected the faintest bit of humor in its voice, but held my peace. Trezzlepeg reappeared out of the darkness and rushed over to my side. I could feel the creature shuffling about on my shoulder and beads of sweat trickled at the back of my neck. Sensing my distress, Trezzlepeg jogged over and swept the Shadow off my shoulder

“I’m so sorry,” he rattled off quickly running circles around me as if he could not shake the momentum that he had gathered while running, “I can see that this little Shadow has not been behaving himself, as usual.”

I huffed at the understatement, “You could call it that. Did you find something?”

“Yes, yes,” Trezzlepeg said. “I managed to scrape up an extra pair of these goggles from my stock in the back room. It took me a bit to dig them out, but here they are!”

He tossed me a pair of dusty, tattered goggles that might have passed for an old World War II relic.

By the sound of its voice, it’s probably a little gremlin or something I will want to look at it most of the time.

Nothing could prepare me for the sight that actually met my eyes as I slid the goggles on. The animal now perched on Trezzlepeg’s shoulder did not resemble Jiminy Cricket, Tinkerbell, or a gremlin. In fact, the Shadow looked most like a panda bear, a tiny bear with huge bushy eyebrows, stubby bat-like wings and a brilliant crimson jewel fastened to his forehead.

Andrus wrinkled his eyebrows as if sizing me up, and then broke out in a enormous grin.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Face,” Andrus spoke, his voice like that of a kindly British gentleman, “I apologize for my gruff introduction. The only time I can act imposing is before people know what I actually look like. Besides, it has been a while since I have served a human master.”

The winged bear sprung from Trezzlepeg’s shoulder and glided in a perfect figure-eight loop before landing on my own shoulder. This time I barely noticed his touch. He walked up to my ear and spoke in voice that was quiet and low.

“My name is Andrus. But I don’t really care what you call me. I’ll be your guide in case anything goes wrong that you can’t handle while we go back in time. Just in case you were wondering, no one else can see me or hear me now. Just you. If I ever become too bothersome, just take off the goggles and I’ll let that be a signal that I shouldn’t bother you. Any questions?”

My mind tried in vain to accept what my ears and mind were telling me. “Um…just…uh…what does that jewel do? Can it shoot lasers in case we run into time bandits?”

“Let’s pray we don’t run into scum like that, because this little jewel of mine won’t be able to do a thing. Its-“

Trezzlepeg cut in with a short blast from his pipes and the familiar rug shuffled under his feet, “I think we can fill him in the rest of the details latter. I would like to see you on your way as soon as possible so that we can attend to the other tasks at hand.”

For once I had to agree with him. I shut my mouth and followed onto the rug and instantly found myself back in front of the great, ornate door of time. Trezzlepeg grinned, as he pulled the handle and revealed with a sweeping gesture the turbulent sea within.

The void beyond the door swam with colors and patterns all contorting and flowing over each other at a rapid pace. For fleeting moments, I thought I glimpsed objects that I recognized: houses, animals, books, chairs, and even an occasional face, but the glimpses came and went too quickly for me to make any firm connections. Starting to breathe heavier, I glanced back at Trezzlepeg, “What’s the drill? How does it work?”

“It’s simple,” he answered, “think of the very day that you wish to return to, and you’ll wake up in your bed the morning of that day as if you were supposed to. You have 24 hours to play out events however you see fit, and then you will immediately be returned to the present.”

He went silent for a few moments and deep furrows became evident in his pudgy face, “All I can do now is wish you good luck and caution you not to look back. You might not like what you see. Be careful how you toy with the ebb and flow of time.”

I nodded to thank him for his advice, and passed a furtive glance at my shoulder to make sure Andrus still resided there. Andrus sat down and slid next to my ear, “Now or never, Face. Don’t worry about it.”

Already rock solid in my determination, I then pivoted around to face the swirling chaos. My brother’s face burning clearly in my mind, and Trezzlepeg’s voice ringing in my ears, I stepped forward and into the vortex.

Here I come, Fred. Here I come.

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