Authors: Nils Johnson-Shelton
Long ago an old man
âa wizard in factâwas imprisoned in an invisible tower. It was built by strong magic above a snaking brown river and rolling green hills, and it shut the world away from the wizard. From this tower he could see nothing but the interior walls of his prison.
For many years he was so angry that he could do nothing but seethe at his absent, far-off jailers. But then, after much time, his anger flagged, and he realized that while he was unable to go out into the world, he could will parts of the world to come to him. And so he summoned men, women, and children; beasts, insects, and plants; stone, soil, and sand. For nearly a thousand years all of these suffered as he attempted to extract from them a means to escape, which was pointless. Escape was impossible.
But then he began to hear of a people landing in great-sailed wooden ships on faraway shores. These newcomers were outcasts and vagabonds and ministers from lands called England and France and Nederland, among others. The world that he had once inhabited was returning, and a plan took root in the wizard's mind. It would require dedication, cunning, and a lot of luck, but if it worked it would provide him with his freedom.
Once free, his gray, ancient eyes would behold the world again. Once free, his great power would be reborn.
Once free, he would set right all that had gone wrong so long, long ago.
Arthur “Artie” Kingfisherâtwelve, rail
thin, and not nearly tan enough for a kid in late Julyâhad just finished slaying Caladirth, a female green dragon with sharpened rubies for teeth and curved golden spikes for horns. One of the horns lay shattered on the ground like a splintered broom handle. Artie thought it was a pretty clever weak spot. Seriously, everyone in the Otherworld knew that dragon horns were always best avoided.
The beast lay at Artie's feet, orange blood draining from her broken horn. Her cave felt suddenly empty, which was remarkable considering it contained a dead ten-ton dragon, three huge black dragon eggs, and a trove of sparkling treasure that would hardly fit in Artie's empty shoulder bags. He had a lot of work to do.
Artie fell to the ground and examined his double-edged ax, which was named Qwon, for battle damage. It was a little nicked but nothing that couldn't be fixed by the town smithy. He let out a long breath. He felt satisfied. And totally pooped. There wouldn't be any new quests for a while.
He closed his eyes and took stock of himself. He was all in one piece and sweating a little, even though the air around him was very cool. The only sounds were his breath, the small
of dripping water, and the crackling torchlight. After the excitement of battle, he suddenly felt very alone.
But then his neck tingled familiarly, like it was being tickled with a handful of feathers.
Artie always knew when his sister got within a dozen or so feet of him, and at that moment Kay was creeping into their subterranean cave, trying to get Artie. An image of her jelled in Artie's mind: her long red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she was wearing cargo pants and that blue T-shirt with a garden gnome doing karate on it. He could see, without looking at all, that she thought she had a real chance at finally scaring him.
This was predictable. Artie knew that
knew that she'd be trying to frighten the cookies out of him. They'd spent the better part of their childhood playing this game, and it had yet to work.
They always knew.
“Ha! Gotcha!” Kay blurted as she pushed him hard but playfully in the back, knocking the 3-D virtual reality goggles off his face. Artie gasped, and Kay was shocked to see that Artie was sweating. She asked, “Waitâdid I really just get you?”
He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and smiled. “Of course not. I felt you about thirty seconds ago.” He took the Xbox controller and paused
, the game he'd been obsessed with since he'd gotten it for his birthday in April.
I felt you about thirty seconds ago
,'” Kay goofily mimicked. “Whatever, Chico. I got you good.”
Kay, already thirteen and a ridiculous six feet tall, with limbs like those of a praying mantis, cruised past Artie into the game room. “Whatcha up to?” she wondered.
The video game that Artie had been playing inside his goggles was duplicated on the flat screen bolted to the wall. Seeing the fallen dragon bleeding from her golden horn, Kay yelped, “Artie! You did it?” She leaned closer to the TV. “Holy cow! You did!” She wheeled around and beamed at Artie with her fantastically unusual eyes, one being sky-blue, the other being clover-green. “How'd you figure out how to kill her? How?
” She grabbed Artie by the shoulders and gave him a little hug.
Artie and Kay were as close as a twelve-year-old boy and his thirteen-year-old sister could beâespecially since for some reason they'd always shared identical-twin-level ESP, which was even weirder considering that Artie was adopted. Artie was happy that Kay was giving him some props. Usually it was the other way around. Kay was no slouch when it came to gamingâor anything else for that matter. She wasn't as good as Artie at
, but she was so good at
Call of Duty
that she'd already won about five grand playing in tournaments. Artie was certain that she would notch yet another win the following week when their dad, Kynder, took them to a huge tournament Kay was set to compete in.
Artie put the controller and the goggles on the floor and kicked his feet in front of him. He took a sip of Mountain Dew from an unlabeled plastic bottle and told her how he'd done it.
Basically, after a lot of tries he got lucky. There was a nook high on the eastern wall of the cave that he'd maneuvered his mage-warrior, Nitwit the Gray, into. The dragon knew Nitwit was there but she wouldn't attack because in the nook were the three black dragon eggs. Essentially, Artie was using them as shieldsâshe wouldn't dare sacrifice her unborn hellions just to down Nitwit. The dragon didn't like this and she made a big dance in front of the nook, wagging her head back and forth and slapping her tail on the ground, but Artie wasn't scared. He was, however, very frustrated because, no matter what, he just could not kill the thing. He decided to try another fireball. It was the strongest spell he had.
However, due to some clumsy button pushing, he cast Find Item, which revealed the nearest and most powerful magic item that was not in the caster's possession. Caladirth's horns were immediately haloed in a red glow. Artie said to Kay, “At first I thought that if I could kill her, a sword made out of her horns would be pretty sweet, but then it came to me. It was, like, an inspiration or whatever. Just to double-check, I cast Find Item again, and sure enough, her horns glowed red again. So I flipped to hand-to-hand, targeted her horns, and went to work with Qwon. As soon as I got a direct hit, she screamed and fell over. And that was it.”
Kay stared and shook her head. “Wow. The horns. Who'da thunk it?” She grabbed the soda from Artie and drank three big gulps. She shrugged and said, “You'll have to let the Dr Pepper heads on the boards know about that.” Artie could never figure out why, but to Kay
Dr Pepper heads
“C'mon, Sis, you know I hate the game forums.”
“Yeah, yeah, âgaming purist' and all that. Never go to walk-through sites. Whatever, Artie. You deserve the kudos. Go show off a little!”
Easy for her to say. Artie loved his sister, but the fact remained that he wasn't her. While she was a supergamer, crazy, fast runner, exâLittle-League all-star, straight-A student, who could also danceâin other words supercoolâhe was a pretty good gamer, wispy, lightweight punchingbag bully target, and straight-B-minus student, who never danced and was only somewhat cool on account of his supercool sister.
But the main reason Artie didn't like getting recognition was because of Frankie Finkelstein. Years of bearing the brunt of Frankie Finkelstein's anger issues had taught Artie that a low profile was best. Even a medium-low profile provided ample opportunities for Finkelstein to punch, kick, headlock, noogie, push, and swear at Artie.
All of which sucked big-time.
However, as these things ran through Artie's mind, he realized his sister was probably right. He'd slain Caladirth, for crying out loud! Why
gloat a little?
Artie looked at Kay and said, “Yeah, okay. I think I will.”
“Great!” she chirped. “But not yet, Chico. First you and me have to help Kynder in the yard.”
So Artie and Kay made their way up the stairs and into the kitchen. Artie recapped his Mountain Dew and stashed it in the back of the refrigerator. Kynder didn't approve of soda pop in general and especially hated Mountain Dew, swearing up and down that “it will literally turn you into a drug addict,” even though it hadn't yet and Artie had been drinking it for three years (okayâand six cavities). Then they went into the backyard to the little vegetable garden that, after his kids, was Kynder's pride and joy.
Kynder was also tall and thin and redheaded. Both of his eyes were hazel. He wore a nicely groomed mustache that gave his very-straight nose the look of an upside-down T, and on his nose rested a pair of large, squarish glasses that mightâ
have been cool in 1980. He still wore his ridiculously short running shorts from his morning jog but had replaced his sneakers with a pair of green wellies that must have been boiling, since it was nearly ninety degrees outside.