Nickelan was running again. It seemed as if he had been on the run ever since landing on the outskirts of Thunder World. He missed his parents. But would finding them ruin the pleasant thoughts of family that had recently found a home in his head? And once he found his folks would they hug him or criticize his dirty hair?
There were a lot of questions rolling around in Nickelan’s mind as he raced through the thick underbrush, but whether his parents would order him to bathe was of very low priority.
The Fire was overhead, but little light filtered through the moist, dense forest. From the shadows Nickelan sensed figures watching, but when he turned there was nothing but darkness staring back at him. He heard twigs snap and exhales of hot breath but saw the same darkness. Nickelan’s chest tightened, it was hard to breathe, but he wouldn’t stop. Selwyn Harris told him to carry on through the woods until he reached the Gatekeeper and that’s what Nickelan planned to do.
When he broke through the outer edge of the forest Nickelan collapsed. He panted and coughed and his muscles burned, but he had made it through without ending up chewed and digested by a prehistoric beast. Nickelan wondered if Selwyn fared as well, but didn’t concern himself too much. When Selwyn found himself between a rock and a hard place he was neither flattened by the rock nor smashed into the hard place. Selwyn had a talent of finding the unseen third option between a rock and a hard place, that being an exit, and he always managed to safely pass through that exit, however deadly his situation appeared, without a piece of his gaudy outfit out of place.
Nickelan looked up and up and up. He sat up and continued looking up. As up as he could see was a wall, rising up to the dripping network of piping in the sky. The wall stretched so far around that it appeared to shrink in the distance until disappearing from sight. Nickelan stood up to put the wall in proper perspective, but the wall’s perspective remained improper. Standing, Nickelan was merely a tiny blemish lost on the endlessly sprawling wall. Only moments ago “dwarf” was a word whose meaning had forever eluded Nickelan. It was casually used in conversation to mean comparatively small, but when he heard dwarf Nickelan didn’t think small, he thought of a magical creature that mined mountains for buried treasure. That had confused Nickelan. He was no longer confused. Not now, dwarfed by the great wall surrounding Kid City.
The wall was as smooth as it was tall. There was no way Nickelan was going to climb over it, and the thought of digging under it made him tired. He would have to seek out the Gatekeeper. That made him anxious.
Nickelan began walking around the perimeter of the wall. It was uniformly tall and smooth. The dense foliage of the forest stopped feet away from the wall, as if awed by its presence and fearful of getting too close. The dinosaurs and whatever other creatures, big and small, scurried in the shadows of the dark woods also feared to tread into the clearing. The dry moat surrounding the wall was reverentially quiet and still.
It was nightfall, the Fire long since extinguished in the west, and Nickelan had not come to one irregular mark on the wall, let alone a gateway into Kid City. He was tired, his body ached, but Nickelan knew better than to rest. There was no time for rest, and even if there were all the time in the world, only a madman would nap so close to a rain forest teeming with meat-eating dinosaurs. No, sleep would have to come later. Nickelan kept walking.
The nights underground were blacker than pitch. There was no moon or stars shining in the sky. There was no sky, really, just a dark ceiling of rusty water pipes. Nickelan guided himself around the wall by touch, feeling the wall he was unable to see. Then he saw his hands, not clearly, more like two gray forms in front of him. The wall also took on a gray cast in the twilight. But it couldn’t be twilight. Dawn was hours away.
Further along, Nickelan could see an orange light dancing over the exterior wall. It was a flame from a torch, two torches that marked the gate in the great wall. At first they looked like matches being blown by a powerful wind, but the closer Nickelan got the bigger the flames swelled until they were the size of meteors and the wind, however strong, only aggravated the crackling fire. The torches were set in metal fittings bolted into the wall on either side of a massive gateway made up of two thick wooden doors tall as the walls surrounding them and locked by a fallen tree trunk that rested horizontal and heavy, supported by steel slats across the entrance. The Gatekeeper was not visible as Nickelan approached. The high torches bathed him in a menacing glow that would have been frightening if Nickelan wasn’t exhausted and eager to finally reach the fabled Kid City.
Nickelan pushed on the double doors. They didn’t budge. Nickelan stepped back and ran towards the double doors. His shoulder collided with the immovable lumber, which threw him back, rolling over the rough ground. The door still didn’t budge and now Nickelan’s shoulder hurt.
“You’ll not get in that way,” said a deep voice behind him.
Jumping up, Nickelan turned to face only the black curtain of forest opposite the closed gates. “Who’s there?” Nickelan said, unable to hide the fear in his voice.
“It is I,” responded the baritone voice, “the Gatekeeper!”
“It is I,” Nickelan echoed the seriousness of the mysterious stranger, “Nickelan Wand seeking entrance into Kid City.”
“Do you mock me?” the Gatekeeper asked, bellowing in disbelief.
“No,” Nickelan’s voice cracked, “no, I just want to get into Kid City. My parents are there.”
“Your parents?” the Gatekeeper questioned. “There are no parents in Kid City.”
Before Nickelan could explain to the Gatekeeper the long and difficult trek that had brought him to this place and why it was critical that he pass through the gates into Kid City, before he could tell the Gatekeeper that he was the Redeemer and the future of Kid City, Thunder World and the Lands Between rested on his unrestricted passage, before Nickelan could say anything, the night exploded. Trees splintered and tumbled and were crushed under an avalanche, but an avalanche of what? Nickelan couldn’t see beyond the circle of torchlight. A violent, ugly, nauseating aftermath shook the night air. It was an unforgettable sound, and having heard it once Nickelan never wanted to hear it again. Shadows darkened the perimeter of the torchlight, which trembled as if whatever was coming terrified the inanimate and animate equally. Those shadows came together to take shape and form, assembling into what looked like a silhouette of a Carnotaurus, which is because it was a Carnotaurus. A Carnotaurus, its hungry jaws open to expose rows of vicious teeth, loomed over Nickelan Wand, repeating its chilling roar.
Before Nickelan could move, before Nickelan could faint away, before Nickelan could cry or scream or even be scared, a figure leaped up to engage the enraged dinosaur.
What Nickelan saw was hard for him to describe, so he didn’t try. Instead, he imagined more of a cartoon fight than a real flesh-and-blood fight, nothing more graphic than a dirty fluffy cloud rolling over the ground with a couple of arms and legs awkwardly poking out, symbols—exclamation marks, stars, pound signs—hanging above the battle like a coded sign. Nickelan held onto these animated images like the funnies his father let him read in the daily newspaper. He was familiar with that world. Nickelan knew that when an anvil crushed a grinning caricature it snapped back like an accordion, a ring of tweeting birds circling a dazed head with crosses for eyes until, shaking it off, the comic character moved on to the next panel. Nickelan understood cartoons. He loved their indestructible slapstick. Who could blame him now for retreating into fantasy when reality was a ferocious carnivore that should have been extinct for millennia, but was alive and hungrily eyeballing a bedtime snack of Nickelan Wand?
Before Nickelan could process the thought of becoming dinosaur food, before he could even shudder a sigh of relief at not becoming dinosaur food, the battle was over, the cloud dispersed and the Carnotaurus was yelping as it ran back into the forest to lick its wounds. Nickelan was alone again.
“If you don’t want some of the same you’ll skedaddle.”
Nickelan wasn’t alone. The authoritative voice, which he had assumed belonged to the vanquished Carnotaurus, the legendary Gatekeeper, was back, ordering him to leave. But he was wrong. The Carnotaurus wasn’t the Gatekeeper. Then who was the Gatekeeper?
“You hear me, bud?”
“I hear you,” Nickelan answered truthfully, “but I don’t see you.”
“What are you, a wise guy?” The Gatekeeper was annoyed with Nickelan, who wasn’t being rude, he really had no idea where the Gatekeeper was hiding.
Nickelan felt dirt land on his toes. Looking down he saw a dinosaur no bigger than a housecat, less than ten pounds and maybe three feet long from the tip of its pointy tail to its tapered head. It was standing upright, kicking dirt on Nickelan with its long back legs and making antisocial gestures with its smaller front legs.
“You’re a Compsognathus,” Nickelan observed, “from the Jurassic Era. The smallest known dinosaur.” Nickelan was reciting what Mr. Wand told him many years ago. Father and son had bonded over their love of dinosaurs. They used to take stacks of books out from the library and study them like paleontologists. Nickelan couldn’t wait to show his dad a real, live Compsognathus, that is, if he could ever get to his parents, who were behind the seemingly impenetrable gateway under guard of the surprisingly tiny Gatekeeper. “You’re the Gatekeeper?” Nickelan asked.
“Don’t you sass me, boy,” the Gatekeeper shot back. “You want a piece of me?” The Gatekeeper hopped back and forth on his right and then left hind leg, his little front claws curled into fists, ready to box.
“I don’t want to fight,” Nickelan said. “I want to gain entrance into Kid City.”
The Gatekeeper looked disappointed. His tail fell limp and he lowered his arms. “Oh,” he said, “then you’ll have to prove yourself worthy.”
Nickelan braced himself, stood erect and spoke assuredly, “I am worthy.”
“Hubris!” the Gatekeeper cried.
“What does that mean?” Nickelan asked.
The Gatekeeper twisted his long neck and buried his narrow head in his spiny back. “I don’t know,” he finally said, “but I like the sound of it. I find definitions too restrictive. I prefer the sounds of words, don’t you? For example, I love the word nude, the way it slips out from between the lips like a smooth bar of butter. Yet, I hate the word dude. Only one letter difference and still it sickens me. Yuck!” He snapped his head aggressively forward and addressed Nickelan sternly. “You’ll never call me dude, will you? Not if you ever want to see Kid City.”
“I wouldn’t think of it,” Nickelan said.
“Think,” the Gatekeeper repeated. “No, that word isn’t right. It’s too short and sharp, rude even. No, I prefer ‘consider.’ You wouldn’t consider it. Right? Sounds more sophisticated.”
“I wouldn’t consider it, then.” Nickelan adjusted his vocabulary.
“Consider what?” the Gatekeeper asked. Despite the Compsognathus’ unusual strength and fierce personality, it was still the smallest known dinosaur with the smallest known dinosaur skull that encased the smallest known dinosaur brain.
“Calling you dude,” Nickelan responded curiously.
“Don’t you ever say that word!” the Gatekeeper shouted, annoyed.
“I wouldn’t think—consider it,” Nickelan said again.
“Good.” The Gatekeeper was appeased. “Then let’s get down to business. You want into Kid City, but I don’t recognize you. Are you a citizen of Kid City?”
“No,” Nickelan answered honestly. “But I was with Gelsomina Gillespie and the Red Team. We broke out from a Thunder World jail together and were making our way through the Lands Between when—”
“Nickelan Wand,” the Gatekeeper said knowingly. “You’re the subject of great hubbub—don’t you love that word? The grapevine is…grapevine…” Nickelan could see the Gatekeeper’s eyes glaze over. “Grapevine. Informal. It originates from when telegraph wires were first used. The grapevine is information passing as if on the twisted stems of a real grapevine, the fruit one. It means hearsay, gossip, rather than straight talk over the untangled lines of the telegraph. Yes, grapevine. I do like that word. Makes me hungry. Are you hungry?”
Nickelan was hungry, but he was more anxious to get into Kid City. “A bit, yes,” Nickelan said, “but maybe we can eat after you open up the gates for me.”
“In a hurry, are you, Redeemer?” The Gatekeeper smiled. “Yes, I know who you are, or rather who people think you are.”
“Who they consider me to be,” Nickelan said. “Right?”
“Well done, Nickelan.” The smile remained on the Gatekeeper’s face. “But flattery won’t open these gates.” The smile vanished.
“What do I have to do, then?” Nickelan was getting annoyed.
“Just answer a riddle.” The Gatekeeper’s smile returned. “Do you believe you can answer a riddle, oh, great Redeemer?”
Nickelan wasn’t much for conundrums. When confronted by a puzzle, he took a scissor and cut the odd parts off the puzzle pieces until they were uniformly square. So what if his puzzle didn’t matched the picture on the box? Nickelan wasn’t much for games or jokes. He never remembered how to start a knock-knock joke. Brain twisters, cryptograms, enigmas, labyrinths, quandaries, word games, all mental stumpers were a mystery to him. Of course, they were mysteries by definition. It was unraveling that mystery where Nickelan ran into problems.
“I’ll try,” Nickelan said, for he had no other options.
“Good!” the Gatekeeper replied. “Then answer this: what goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon and on three legs in the evening?”
The Gatekeeper’s smile broadened. He stood back and crossed his arms, waiting for Nickelan to give up.
“Man,” Nickelan said without hesitation.
“Yes.” The Gatekeeper kept smiling. “Man, it’s hard. I know. No one said it would be easy. By the way, did anyone tell you that if you are stumped, if you give up, if you are mistaken and can’t answer my query correctly, well, then I get to kill you. Sorry, I should have pointed that out earlier.”
“No,” Nickelan said.
“Yes.” the Gatekeeper smiled so broadly that his self-satisfied grin was the largest part of his little body.
“No,” Nickelan continued. “My answer is ‘man.’ A man crawls on all fours when a baby, walks on two legs as an adult and walks with a cane in old age.”
“It could be a woman too, you know.” The smile fell off the Gatekeeper’s face again. “That’s rather sexist of you!”
“Man,” Nickelan added, “as in mankind. That means men and women.”
“It’s old-fashioned usage,” the Gatekeeper argued.
“Did I answer your riddle correctly?” Nickelan asked.
After a long pause the Gatekeeper reluctantly conceded, “Yes. But how did you know?”
“Everyone knows that one,” Nickelan said. “I learned about the Riddle of the Sphinx when I studied Greek mythology. The Sphinx sat outside of Thebes and asked the riddle of travelers who passed by. As I recall, the Sphinx killed those who couldn’t answer the riddle. But if the riddle was answered correctly the Sphinx had to kill herself.” Nickelan locked eyes with the small Gatekeeper.
“I’m not the Sphinx,” the Gatekeeper objected. “I’m the Gatekeeper!”
“Still, you were going to kill me,” Nickelan reminded him. “It seems only fair that you should accept the consequences of your own riddle.”
“I never said anything about killing myself,” the Gatekeeper said.
“Either kill yourself or open the gates to Kid City,” Nickelan said. “I answered your riddle. I won fair and square.”
“What does that mean, fair and square?” the Gatekeeper asked.
“None of your tricks,” Nickelan said, remembering Selwyn Harris’ warning. “Let me in!”
“The fair part I understand,” the Gatekeeper said to himself, “but square, perhaps it refers to something being exact, as in having all right angles, you know, being square. I don’t like it though.”
“You don’t have to like it.” Nickelan began to bang on the thick wooden gate with his fist. “You just have to let me in.”
“Don’t make a ruckus,” the Gatekeeper said and then lost focus again. “Ruckus, perhaps it’s a blending of ruction and rumpus, meaning a violent fight and noisy disturbance, respectively. Yes, I like the sound of that.”
For the smallest known dinosaur, with the smallest known brain, the Compsognathus liked to clutter it with trivial semantic pursuits. That gave Nickelan an idea.
“How about a deal?” Nickelan asked. “You don’t deserve it, being a cheater—”
“Cheetah?” The Gatekeeper was about to lose himself in another loose end.
“Let’s try and stay on task,” Nickelan scolded the Gatekeeper. “As I was saying, you don’t deserve it, but I’ll allow you one more riddle, only this time I get to ask it of you.”
“Riddles!” The Gatekeeper was gleeful. “I love riddles. Yes, I’ll answer your riddle, but know beforehand that I’m the greatest riddle-maker of all time. Do you really think you can stump me?”
“A great riddle-maker,” Nickelan conceded, “but let’s see how you fare as a riddle-solver. There’s a car. A father is driving. His son is in the back. It’s a rainy night. The car loses control on a wet patch of pavement and crashes into a ditch. The injured father and son are rushed to two different hospitals. The son needs an operation, but the doctor says, ‘I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son.’ How can this be?”
“Wait,” the Gatekeeper said anxiously. “I know this one. The boy has two fathers!”
“No,” Nickelan said.
“Then it’s impossible,” the Gatekeeper said, frustrated.
“Do you give up?” Nickelan asked, holding back a smirk.
“No!” the Gatekeeper cried. “This is some kind of trick. The father and son are hurt. They need an operation. The doctor can’t operate. Is the doctor the boy’s stepfather?”
“No,” Nickelan said.
“Adopted father?” The Gatekeeper was frantic.
“No,” Nickelan said.
“I know!” The Gatekeeper jumped for joy. “The doctor is the boy’s heavenly father!”
“You mean, like, God?” Nickelan asked. The Gatekeeper nodded his head. “No. That doesn’t even make any sense.”
“Curse your trickery!” the Gatekeeper spat. “I give up, but only because you cheated.”
“You want to know the answer?” Nickelan asked. The Gatekeeper begrudgingly nodded his head. “You’ll keep your end of the bargain?” Nickelan asked. The Gatekeeper kept nodding. “You’ll open the gate and let me into Kid City?” Nickelan asked.
“Yes!” the Gatekeeper shouted. “Yes! Just answer the riddle! It’s driving me crazy!”
“The doctor is the boy’s mother,” Nickelan said. “Now who’s sexist?”
“Mother?” The Gatekeeper pondered the answer. “The doctor is the boy’s mother? Well, yes, I guess that could happen. You got me, Nickelan, and now forevermore you shall be known as the greatest riddle-teller of them all.”
“It’s an old riddle,” Nickelan said.
“You’re too modest,” the Gatekeeper said. “You must be the Redeemer. The stories are true. Who else could defeat the Gatekeeper at his own game?”
“Really, everyone knows the answer,” Nickelan said. “I’m surprised you didn’t get it.”
“No,” the Gatekeeper continued, “it is you who doesn’t get it. You, Nickelan Wand, are the greatest riddle-teller in the history of riddle telling, for you have composed the greatest riddle of all time. I shall add it to my collection, it’s that good.”
“It’s actually pretty lame,” Nickelan said. “I mean, the riddle is so dated, it’s all I could come up with—”
“No,” the Gatekeeper interrupted. “It’s the greatest riddle of all time and you’re the greatest riddle-teller of all time. End of story.” The Gatekeeper, true to his word, however confused his words may be, slowly opened the large wooden doors. “Now get out of here before I change my mind!” he shouted over the creaking hinges of the heavy gate.
Nickelan Wand entered Kid City.