fter what felt like several hours of retelling what had happened during the past few days, a silence fell over my living room broken only by the incessant scratching of Casey's pen as she recorded everything. The room had a decidedly somber atmosphere until a loud snore from Arc made us all jump.
Chuckling, Mick reached over and grabbed Arc's shoulder.
Arc's eyes flew open at Mick's touch. “DRAGON! There's a-”
Mick clamped a hand around Arc's mouth. “Easy, there; we're at the Saybaro, Arc. It's perfectly safe.”
Arc let out a sigh as Mick released him. “Sorry Mick … everyone.”
“It's okay.” I said. “I think today's excitement was enough to leave us all a little on edge.”
“No argument there.” Meryli said. “It's kinda funny; when I called you to tell you someone in town had seen that horror, I was kinda wishing I'd seen it myself. Careful what you wish for, eh?”
I laughed appreciatively, only to quickly stop in embarrassment. “I'm sorry; I shouldn't laugh; your rental station's in shambles.”
She let out a sigh. “I dunno; maybe it's for the best. I never liked the job anyway.”
I paused for a moment before asking, “The Immigration Employment Initiative?”
“Yeah.” She looked at me a moment later, realization in her eyes. “You too?”
I nodded. “Thirteen years ago.”
She let out a low whistle. “No kidding? Damn, and I thought I had it bad … and now, this dragon thing.”
“What I'd like to know is why you're here, One.” Bethany said, eyeing the plush doll sitting on the arm of my recliner. “It's no secret that the appearance of any Dreamer is typically tied to events of great importance, and I certainly don't need to tell you why your appearance in particular has significance to the Glyche. Is there something on the horizon with which we should be concerned?”
“Nah, there's nothing going on. Well, nothing I know about.” One said, “I just bumped into Jimmy in Wukice and thought I'd lend a hand. After all, his parents helped me out back in the day.”
Bethany didn't look convinced, small surprise considering One's track record.
Coughing, One asked, “So, what's the plan now? Our first encounter with the dragon was … er, less than promising.”
“I think we did well considering it tried to ambush us.” Terry said mildly. “We all survived, after all.”
“Thanks to Bethany.” I said, nodding at the CIC's projection. She sat beside Terry, her hologram looking much more realistic.
“I have to look out for my Inheritor, don't I?” Bethany said, blushing slightly.
“I don't know about you guys.” Arc said, prompting Casey, Bethany, and Meryli to politely cough in eerie unison. “Er, and gals. What I'm trying to say is that I don't think a frontal assault's a good idea.”
“That is surprising, coming from you.” Terry said. “You sure you don't just want to charge in and whack it with your sword?”
“I'd like to kick our liege in the butt too; that doesn't mean it's a good idea.” Shaking his head, Arc said, “Seriously, we nearly got roasted today, not to mention clawed, bitten, and possibly digested. I wouldn't even want to think about attacking that thing head-on without an army behind me … or preferably, in front of me.”
“Which will likely not happen.” Mick said, “After all, it's not armies that fight dragons.”
“Hardey-har har.” Arc said, narrowing his eyes. “Don't forget he knighted you too.”
Looking at One, I asked, “You're friends with Keysha Myssohn, right? I recall the Knights of the Star have connections with the dragon community. Perhaps he could help us.”
“Trust me; we're better off on our own. While I'm sure Mikaen would help, the Circle of Flame's bureaucracy is enough to drive a Cleftan bonkers. Even if we did manage to get their help, they'd likely just send a strongly-worded letter to the dragon in question unless there was definitive proof that he was physically harming her.”
I let out a sigh. “Okay, so there really is no one to help us.”
“So we're giving up, huh?” Meryli said, sounding defeated.
“Of course not.” I told her. “We already ruled out a frontal assault ages ago.”
“Agreed.” Terry said. “Our best bet is still to rescue the princess while the dragon's either gone or asleep.”
“Ah.” One said, his stitched grin widening. “Burglary!”
Arc and Casey both giggled as One jumped to his tiny feet and raised one pudgy plush finger to the sky.
“Before we do anything,” I said, “we need to find where the dragon actually is. Assuming it was heading back to its lair after our encounter, that puts it somewhere east or northeast.”
“I'll start a more concentrated scan immediately.” Bethany said, standing up.
“Thank you.” I paused and added, “And thanks again for the save.”
“Anytime, my Inheritor.” She said, giving me a smile.
As Bethany's image faded, Meryli asked, “Say, you got a link to the Weave here? My cellphone was in the station when the dragon flattened it, and I'd like to see if my insurance covers dragon-assault.”
“Sure.” I said, “Computer room's right next to the kitchen.”
“Speaking of which,” Arc said, “Anyone else hungry?”
A chorus of assenting voices answered him. Since I was hungry as well, I said, “Sure thing. Mick, could you show everyone to the pantry? I'll meet you there in a minute so we can all decide on something.”
“Sure thing.” Mick said, rising to his feet. He led most of the group out of the room, One perched on his shoulder.
Meryli and I left the living room as well, heading for my computer room. The name was a bit of a stretch, I suppose; the only computer I had was the same old computer that had been here upon my arrival. I'd upgraded it a little, but it was still ancient by most standards.
“Wow.” Meryli said, her eyes on my faithful little computer. “A Cortunga Express. Haven't seen one of these since grade-school.”
I shrugged. “It's all I've ever really needed.”
Shrugging, she said, “Well, whatever. I just need to make a call, that's all.”
I nodded and headed for the door to give her some privacy.
Terra was waiting outside. She smiled as I approached. “Hey, Jimmy.”
“Hey, Terra.” I said, unable to suppress a sigh. “I can't say I'm surprised to see you here.”
“Just checking up on you.” She said. “Heard you took on a dragon today.”
“Yeah.” I said with a chuckle. “Something like that.”
“Dangerous stuff.” She paused, a worried look on her face. “Are you okay?”
She took a step toward me, but I quickly took a step back.
She regarded me with a puzzled expression. “Jimmy? What's wrong?”
“Nothing.” I told her. Even if she wasn't real, what I needed to tell her made me feel uncomfortable. “Nothing is wrong. Well, aside from the dragon, the kidnapped princess, and the fact that the king's insane.”
“I don't understand.” She said slowly.
“I'm not alone anymore; I have friends. Arc, Mick, Bethany and her sisters, Narrator Number One … even Casey and Meryli.”
“I'm still not getting it.” Terra said. She tried to move closer to me, but I backed away again. I could feel her frustration as she said, “Why are you avoiding me?”
I slowly took her hand and held it between mine. “When I hold your hand, I feel your warmth; the softness of your fur, the smoothness of your palm, the sharp points of your nails. Even from this distance, I can smell the sweetness of your breath.”
With a sigh, I let go of her hand. “But it's not real.”
“Oh, this again.” She said, but her smile quickly faded as she looked at my face. “You … you really don't think I'm real?”
“I want to.” I said. “But that's the point, isn't it? I wanted you to be real, for a beautiful and strong woman to want to know me. If you'd appeared years ago, who knows how far gone I'd be at this point? Would I have imagined a whole family?”
“Do you want a family?” Terra asked, her hands slipping around my waist.
“More than anything.” I admitted, “And if it were still just me, maybe things would be different.”
“Jimmy, stop it!” She said sharply, a hint of fear in her voice. “Seriously, I'm sorry I've been so flighty lately, and I know I should've been more open about … about kissing you back at the lake. I'm sorry, and I'll make it up to you, I promise. I'll explain everything, and if … if you don't want to be with me, I'll understand, but for Creator's sake, don't just write me off as a hallucination.”
“I can't.” I told her. “Mick, Terry, even Arc have all tried to be nice about this, to indulge me in my fantasy, but seeing you in the throne room … I can't afford to let my mind wander like that, especially with the dragon. If I keep letting my mind lapse, someone could end up dead, and I'm not willing to sacrifice my friends for a fantasy. I'm sorry, but … but I have to move on.”
She grabbed my hand and pressed it to her chest before I could pull it away. The soft fur of her chest coupled with the warmth of her skin and the curves of her breasts pressing against the sides of my hand made me blush.
“If you really think I'm not real, then I only ask you give me one more night. One night alone with you, to finish what I started with the kiss. Then you'll know the truth, I promise you.”
Her eyes met mine. She was so beautiful, so perfect … too perfect to be real, I realized. As my gaze fell away, she whispered, “Jimmy …”
“I'm sorry.” I said, pulling my hand free as gently as I could. “I wish you were real, I really do, but I can't deal with this anymore.”
Her face went from angry to confused before finally settling on stubborn resolve. Grabbing my hand and holding it so hard that I could feel her nails digging into my skin, she said, “Then I'll prove it! Right now! Meryli will vouch for me! You’ll believe her, right?”
“You know Meryli?” I asked her, hope rising inside me.
“Yeah, we trained together to be Shadows before she bailed out. She’ll vouch for me, then you’ll owe me an apology!”
She pulled me through the doorway into the computer room. Meryli was sitting at the computer, her eyes facing us.
“There!” Terra said, “See? Tell him you can see me, Meryli!”
When Meryli didn't respond, Terra let go of me and took a step toward her. “Hey! Meryli! Come on, say something!”
For me, it was a moment of ultimate realization. Meryli was looking straight at Terra, but it was clear she wasn't seeing her. Saddness filled me as the last remaining bit of hope in my heart died.
Terra turned back to me, a look of shock on her face. “Jim, I'm not an illusion, I promise you. I'm real. I'm a member of the Queen's Shadows, and Princess Sera is my best friend and … and …”
Seeing tears in her eyes made me want to comfort her, to hold her in my arms and assure her everything would be okay … to give in to the delusion. I wanted to kiss her so badly it hurt, but I knew I was just making it worse for myself.
“Goodbye, Terra.” I said before turning away and heading out of the door.
The others were still looking around when I reached the pantry.
“Where's Meryli?” Terry asked.
“Still in the Weave.” I told him, feeling tired.
Terry put his hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay, sir?”
“Not really.” I said. “I just … said goodbye to Terra.”
“You … what?” He said, sounding legitamtely surprised. “Where was she?”
“Just outside my computer room.” I said, gesturing up the stairs. “Look, I appreciate what you and Mick tried do, but she's a delusion, and I need to accept that.”
“Are you sure, sir?” Terry pressed, “Just because she's avoided us-”
“I can't keep questioning myself like this. She and Meryli were in the same room, looking right at each other, and Meryli didn't even acknowledge her presence.”
“Sir, it may not be my place to say this, but-”
“Are you really going to tell me that I should give in to my delusions?” I said, my slightly raised voice catching the attention of Arc and Casey. Sighing, I said, “Look, until we finish dealing with Sera and the dragon, I'd really rather not think about … her. Okay?”
“I understand, sir, but just in case she's still there, I'd like to inform Bethany and check the area.”
“You won't find anything.” I told him more firmly than I felt. “But check if you wish. I'm going to get started on dinner.”
As he hurried up the stairs, I couldn't help but think how strange it was he now eager he was to prove Terra right.
“Thank you, Terry.” I whispered. Shaking my head, I turned away from the stairwell and walked further into the pantry to rejoin my other friends.