It is now the twenty-third century. So many changes have taken place that I just can't begin to name them all. You'll have to figure them out for yourself as you read
By Kim McFarland
It was a warm and sunny day. A few clouds floated in the sky, just enough to break up its vast expanse and make it seem bluer. Even the buildings and the faint haze of the city air did not detract from its beauty.
It didn't actually look that different from the skies of his home planet, Ramjet thought. The color was almost the same, and so were the clouds. Maybe it was because he was no longer looking through a bulletproof window. On his home planet Ramjet had been the crown prince of his race's empire. That had been before he had abdicated. He had expected his relief at no longer having to deal with that responsibility, but little things like the sight of the sky continued to surprise him.
It had not been that long ago, really. Only a few months ago he had taken a joyride in The Gypsy that, due to a cartographic inversion, had gone so wildly off course that he had ended up in Galactic Alliance space. He had been picked up by the crew of The Gadgeteers. After a taste of the "civilian" life he had formally renounced his position, and the Gadgeteers had allowed him to stay on as a junior member of the crew. As if that wasn't already good enough, within months they had been assigned a trip to Earth, which happened to be the home of an almost legendary - for one reason or another - ancestor of his! It was almost too much to believe. And yet here he was, staring at the clouds!
At the moment he was on his own. Gadget was visiting the Gizmonic Institute. Charmer was going to be on duty at his embassy. Everyone else had plans of their own; sightseeing, on-planet duties, or visiting their families. He felt a twinge of homesickness; his own home world was unreachably far away now. The closest thing would be the embassy that he had been told had just been finished. Well, it was nearby, so why not?
He found the embassy without much difficulty. Inside, however, he ran into an obstacle he knew only too well: bureaucracy. It appeared in one of its less malignant forms, that of polite but immovable reception guards. They did not believe that Ramjet was not an Earthling, even when he removed his cap and revealed his antennae. He did not have to read their minds to see that they thought he was a liar. They did mention that the Queen was too busy to see anyone now. Which meant that she - his mother - was here!
He did not argue any more. He did not blame the guards for not knowing who he was. After all, he had renounced his title before the embassy had been built, and he did look more like an Earthling than one of his own people. Instead, he sat down in the outside of the reception area, closed his eyes, and sent out a mental call. Mother?
The startled reply came immediately. Ramjet?
Yes. I'm in the reception room. The guards didn't recognize me.
His luck was still holding out. This wouldn't have worked with anyone but his own family. His mental powers were weak; he could communicate telepathically only with those who were attuned to him enough to read his mind. He opened his eyes. The guards were keeping an eye on him.
The door buzzed open behind the guards. The Queen stared at Ramjet in disbelief. He knelt and saluted her in formal fashion. Then he grinned broadly. "I run away from home, and home comes to me." He indicated the embassy with a sweep of his hand.
She looked at him closely, as if having a hard time believing that he was real. "I thought we might not see you again." she said softly.
"Aw, Mom... you're embarrassing the guards." he said.
"Oh." She looked at the guards. "They didn't realize you were the Crown Prince?"
He shrugged. "I was. No harm done."
"Come inside. Your oldest sister is here as well."
She led him through the warren of offices and corridors to a conference room. His sister was not as surprised to see him; their mother must have sent a telepathic message ahead of them. Still, she stared at him.
They looked at each other for an uncomfortable moment. Then he dropped to one knee and saluted her.
Startled, she said, "Ramjet! That's a commoner's salute."
He replied, "I know. I used to see it all the time. But I am a commoner now. You're the future ruler now, remember?"
He guessed the cause of her discomfort. "Good thing, too, since I never wanted it in the first place. You're stuck with it. I think it suits you better anyway. How're you doing?"
"Well... all right, I suppose. But there's so much to learn, I wonder if I'll ever be ready."
He smiled in spite of himself. "I used to think that every day! Er, about me, I mean. Don't worry, you got the smarts for it."
"I can hardly understand some of the things you say."
"Oh, er, that. Sorry, I've picked up a lot lately." he shrugged.
The Queen said, "You have done well since you've been on your own. You've adapted completely."
"Well, not really. There's a lot of stuff that still mixes me up. Little things that everyone knows, except some alien. How to fasten your shoes, for example."
"Yes..." his mother said distantly, as if she were suddenly thinking of something else. Manners prevented Ramjet from trying to read her mind. That, and the fact that she would know if he tried.
Ramjet turned to his sister. "You know, it's neat around here. I really like it. I walked around for hours today, and nobody looked at me twice. It's like I'm nobody."
He shook his head. "No, it's not awful, it's great! I look normal here, if I wear a hat to hide my antennae. Back home, I was never normal! I look like an Earthling. I can't do much telepathically or telekinetically. I'm not that smart." He rushed on, not giving them a chance to object. "Here, Earthlings are everywhere. Hardly anyone has mental powers, even weak ones like mine, so I'm not handicapped. And I don't have to be that smart, since I'm not anyone important. And I can decide what I want to do. That's what I've always wanted! I miss you, and the rest of the family, but I'm glad I'm out of there. Does it make any sense?" He asked earnestly, almost desperately.
"Yes." his mother said. "This is what is best for you."
"What's best for everyone." He said with relief. "I just sometimes get the feeling I kinda ran out on everything."
His sister spoke. "Don't worry. I learn quickly. Not that I'll need to, I hope."
"And, Ramjet, I've thought of something for you."
He looked at his mother again. "What?"
"Most of our people have found learning Earthling customs a difficult task, because we look so alien. People treat us as aliens. You don't have that problem. You probably know more about local protocol than any of our researchers."
"Yeah, but that's just from hanging around. I haven't done any studying."
His mother and sister looked at each other for a minute, exchanging telepathic messages. Then his mother said, "You can do us a great service, Ramjet-"
"I can? Really? How?" he asked in surprise.
"Learn the local culture. You've already found the best way to do that; simply live in it. Later, when you have mastered it comfortably, you can advise our ambassadors."
"You really think I could do that? I never taught anyone anything."
"You could. You will know what mistakes they might make, probably having made them yourself, and be able to guide them around them. Ramjet, you know how important it is to understand the cultures you deal with. I heard how you handled the incident with the Yatsura."
"Oh, yeah, that..." He gave an embarrassed smile. "They're scary close up!"
She nodded, sharing his distaste. "Well, Ramjet, will you do it?"
"Well, yeah, I mean, it sounds like you just want me to do what I'm doing anyway, right? Learning how to get along here without making too many faux pas's?"
"Well, sure, I'll do it. I'm glad I can do something."
"Good." She closed her eyes and sent a thought out to one of the embassy employees. Minutes later one entered the room with a small envelope, which he gave to Ramjet. Ramjet opened it. Inside was a plastic card. He looked quizzically at his mother. She said, "When you left, you didn't take any identification."
He looked at the card. "This isn't my old one."
"No. It identifies you as a member of our embassy. As a member of the royal family, you're entitled to that much."
He looked at the card again. Then he laughed. "Technicalities! I shoulda known!"
"Technicalities?" his sister asked.
Ramjet looked at her, and mentally heard her puzzlement. "Um, I meant that she was using the technical part of a rule to do what she wanted."
The Queen said, "That's an Earthling distinction, Ramjet. To us that is normal."
"Oh, yeah. Politics as usual.' Er, that's another Earth saying."
She took the card. "I had this made up before we came to Earth, hoping that we would somehow meet again. This will give you all diplomatic privileges, including the power to draw on Embassy funds, should the need arise. I trust you'll use your best judgement."
"Yeah, of course!" He looked at the card. He was dismayed to see that the holographic image showed his antennae. Maybe he could cover the top of the picture with his thumb? But, since he did not plan to use it if he could avoid it, it wouldn't really matter that much. And it wasn't as if his origin was really a secret anyway.
The Queen said, "We will be meeting with some other dignitaries soon. As you said, politics as usual'."
"Oh, yeah. Have fun." To his sister he said, "Don't worry, politics may seem dull at first. But when you get into it, it's excruciating."
"Actually, I find it interesting."
"You do?" He rolled his eyes. "It's a good thing you were next in line, then! Well, I'll see you later. I promise." He stood to leave.
"I will hold you to that." His mother said. She took his hands in hers and looked into his eyes.
He was surprised. She rarely was this demonstrative. She really had missed him. Telepathically he said Don't worry about me. Out loud he added, "If you have to worry about something, worry about the next time you have to meet with a Yatsura ambassador."
In spite of herself, she smiled. He released her hands. Grinning, he gave them the commoner's salute again. "Long live the Queens! Give my best to the King and the rest of my siblings."
He walked back to the exit. When he reached the guards they stiffened nervously. Though he was not trying to read their minds, he could still hear their embarrassment. He said "At ease." as he left.
Not far away, in the burn ward of a hospital, a young adult drake was awakening after almost a day of unconsciousness. When he moved, his skin screamed pain. Even opening his eyes hurt.
He had come down to Earth in a shuttlecraft that, he had found out too late, was not designed for atmosphere entry. Not knowing how to pilot it, or even if it could be landed safely at all, he had done the only thing he could. He had cast a spell around himself, to protect himself from the flames he had seen wreathing the shuttle. Seconds after he had cast the spell part of the hull had peeled back, and flames had streaked into the cabin. Panic. Then, nothing.
His spell must have been powerful indeed to save him from the crash! He looked at himself. He was swaddled in bandages from head to foot. Even his face was covered. He could barely move his limbs; when he tried the pain shouted at him. But, he realized with surprise, there were no casts or braces; he had no broken bones. Just cooked skin.
The next step was obvious. He could not endure this pain. He gestured weakly with one hand and spoke a few words under his breath. Then, whimpering with the effort, he balled his fist so that his fingertips touched the palm of his hand. The pain in his hand faded.
He let out a breath of relief. Then he repeated the spell and the gestures. Then he slowly brought his hand around - his arm brushed against his chest, and he nearly screamed - and touched his other hand. The pain there died down too.
He spent the next several hours repeatedly casting the spell, healing the burns that covered most of his body. Moving was an agony; even stray air currents brushing against his raw nerve endings made him want to scream. But after a few subjective years he was finished, and stripped off his bandages. There were no mirrors in the room. No wonder; who in a burn ward would want to see himself? But he must look all right by now; his feathers had already grown out smoothly over the healed burns. His hair would grow out again in a few hours. Then he realized that his clothes had, of course, been burnt away. How annoying. He was not going to wear a hospital gown! He visualized what he had been wearing, and used a spell to re-create his black robe.
That done, he mustered what magical energy he had left over and threw a force blast against the window. The wall exploded outward, revealing a drop of twenty stories. He leapt out the window and flew away from the hospital.
The city below him was positively bizarre! The buildings stood tall and thin, as if they were hanging from strings. Why didn't they tip over? But this was a few hundred years in the future, not to mention one universe over from his point of origin; they must have been made with newer, stronger building materials. They might be the same materials that held up the arches and loops that made up the roads.
Magical technology must have advanced too. If he was going to make it in this world he was going to have to get up to speed on the art of sorcery, now. But where to start? He had just enough power left to hold himself up in the air.
Then he realized something. Although the buildings that covered the landscape from horizon to horizon, and the bridge that spanned the river, were unfamiliar, the river struck a note in his memory. Of course! This was Audubon Bay! Now he knew where to go to recharge his power, and maybe where to start his magical research!
Guided by the magical force lines, he glided toward a spot he knew well. On close approach he was dismayed; he had hoped that McCawber Manor would be here in this universe too. Instead, the area was occupied by another futuristic building. From the outside it appeared to be an office complex. He alighted near a set of benches. With a mind control spell he commanded the witnesses to forget him. They looked about blankly, then hurried on their way, unable to remember what had stopped them. Essobee wound an invisibility spell around himself. Now nobody would bother him, unless someone happened to walk right into him. To avoid that possibility he levitated himself onto a building ledge, and began soaking up magical energy.
When he was fully recharged he looked around. He had absolutely no idea where to go now. There should have been some sort of coven on these grounds; any area this rich in mana should attract witches like sugar water draws bees. Maybe they did not like this modern city.
He had no contacts in this universe or time. There was only one place he could think of to start researching Pagan organizations, though it pained him. Still invisible, he flew away from the building towards the inner city.
That evening Ramjet returned to the hotel room he had rented. He was a little tired after roaming the city all day. He turned on the television to the news and opened the bag of takeout food he had brought with him, wondering briefly at the animal on the packaging. He had thought that hamburger came from cattle, but he had never seen a picture of a cow that had looked like this squat, purple, large-mouthed creature. Maybe a "hippo" was the result of genetic manipulation.
The news program started with reports from around the world. Ramjet was surprised that he actually understood most of it. Apparently the politics of trade and finance were the same everywhere. Even, he noted with regret, the disputes about the borders between countries were much the same. He ought not to expect Earth to be perfect, but it was still disappointing to find the same destructive vices here that he had heard endless mediations about on newly settled planets. People were the same everywhere.
The focus turned to local news. Tonight's featured story was "too bizarre to be believed if it wasn't so well documented." A live person had been found, horribly burned, in the vicinity of the meteor that had fallen yesterday, and had been taken to the hospital's burn ward. He had not yet been identified. Today he had escaped from the hospital, apparently completely healed, through a hole in the hospital wall. He had, they said, flown out. Ramjet watched uneasily as the damage to the hospital appeared on the television screen, and local law enforcement officials reassured the public that "the situation would be under control immediately, so there is no danger to the general populace". In other words, Ramjet translated, they had no idea what to do either. When they finally showed the jittery amateur footage of the duck in black flying through the sky, Ramjet was sure. This was Essobee, the same sorcerer that had menaced the Gadgeteers! In fact, the "meteor" was an escape pod from their ship. He was surprised that Essobee had survived the fireball that they had seen the shuttle dissolve into; but then who knew what sorcerers were capable of?
The report of the event ended with a mention of the last place he had been seen - a building on the fringes of the inner city - and then went on to other events. Ramjet shut the television off. What to do? The local authorities were obviously mystified. In fact, since Essobee was from another time, Ramjet was the only person on Earth who knew anything about him at all! And, since Earthlings were not telepathic, they had no way to shield themselves from Essobee's mind control. Ramjet could, and since he had unwillingly touched minds with the sorcerer he was now attuned to him. All this added up to one thing - Ramjet would go after him himself.
He closed his eyes and opened his mind. With his mental shield down, he could hear the shouting of the millions of people in this city. He listened carefully, sorting through them, listening for familiar ones. He heard those of his mother and sister. Then, in the distance, he heard another familiar one. He homed in on it. It was not a pleasant voice, and Ramjet could tell that its source did not know that he was eavesdropping. It was just barely within range; Ramjet guessed that he was about a mile away.
Essobee was searching for something, Ramjet could tell that much after several minutes of probing. And from the flavor of frustration in his mind he was not meeting with much success. He was in a place of research, and not moving. Ramjet could home in on him then!
Quickly he exited the building and signaled for a cab. He felt silly telling the driver to go about a mile in the direction in which he was pointing, and the driver obviously felt it was an insult to his navigational skills. But they got underway without wasting too much time.
Ramjet told the driver to stop when they reached the city library. Of course, that was where Essobee was doing his research! Quickly he paid the driver and ran up the steps, taking them two at a time.
Just as he reached the top he saw a window on the side of the façade explode outward. Something black flew out and away.
Ramjet exclaimed, "DARN it!"
Ramjet went into the library. He called to one of the staff, "The guy who just left -" he pointed at the window - "What was he reading?"
The librarian, a little too shellshocked by recent events to wonder about this question, said, "He was trying to find out about witches. He was right there." He pointed to a table near the window. On it lay a number of open books.
Ramjet looked at the covers. "The Necronomicon". "The Modern Witch's Spellbook" (copyright over two hundred years ago). A volume titled "Man, Myth and Magic". The last was open, and a page torn out. He could see from the bit that remained that the page had been a map. Ramjet skimmed through the entry just before the map. "Shambhala: Mystical City of Wisdom". The article mentioned various myths and magical phenomena associated with the city. The map must show the location of the city! And Essobee had ripped it out to cover his tracks! He asked the librarian, "Is there another copy of this book?"
"The librarian shook his head. "There's only one set." He was clearly none too happy about the damage.
Ramjet paused momentarily to remember the appropriate word. "Rats. Uh, is there a way to duplicate what didn't get torn out? These two pages?" He didn't want to sit here copying text by hand while Essobee was running free.
The librarian gave him a strange look and pointed to some coin operated machines. Ramjet made a copy of the pages and was just about to rush out when he realized something. He went back to the librarian, who was now filling out a form to report the damage to the book. "Uh, how do I get to-" he looked at the copy of the article "- Ubet'? That's a country, isn't it?" The librarian again looked at him strangely. Ramjet removed his cap, revealing his antennae. "I'm not from around here."
That startled him! "Er, go to the travel port. They have people there who'll find the best route, and sell you a ticket. But, if you're from one of the embassies...?"
"Not quite. It's kinda hard to explain. Where's the travel port'?"
"It's about a mile up the road-"
" Up the road'?"
"That way." The librarian pointed. "It's on this side of the road. You couldn't miss it if you tried, it's huge."
Ramjet thanked him and left again. Thank goodness the travel port was within walking distance; he did not want to deal with another taxi.
The travel port looked like what he had heard of inter-city subway travel stations on his planet. He had never seen them himself; royalty always used air travel. But the description fit. He found a ticketing booth and explained that he needed to get to the city of "Meddo Py" in Ubet. Unfortunately, he learned, there was no ballistic to that city; there was only one place in Ubet that was linked to the ballistic sub network at all. Hurriedly Ramjet bought a ticket for that city and listened as the ticket seller gave him directions. Gate 4711, which would take him to the northwestern US international station. Another ballistic would take him to the right geographic area, and yet another would take him to Ubet. After that, he would have to arrange for local transportation.
He followed the signs to Gate 4711. The gate was a huge room, walled on one side with airlock doors. Soon the vehicle arrived soundlessly. As he entered and strapped himself in he wondered about that. Shouldn't something that traveled at nearly the speed of sound kick a lot of wind through the tunnel? Unless the tunnel was in vacuum. It would move much faster and quieter then, just like spaceships did when they were finally free of atmosphere. His train of thought was cut off when the vehicle jerked into acceleration mode.
Hours later, Essobee was resting at the foot of a range of mountains, in front of a lake. He had started out flying towards his goal, the city of "Meddo Py". A few hours of that had exhausted him. It wasn't that it was costly in terms of magical power; he simply was not used to long flights. His next approach had been to teleport himself repeatedly in the right direction, twenty miles or so at a jump. That had taxed his power reserve, and after he had appeared above a lake his patience was gone too. Now he was waiting for the sun to dry out his clothes and feathers.
Why did that city have to be all the way on the other side of the world?! Just his luck! There would, of course, be a fight once he got there. He could not arrive like this, his powers drained! They would wipe the floor with him! He needed help.
He remembered that, more than once, he had seen his mother summon up demons. They were powerful creatures, but if one knew the proper protective spells they were not so dangerous. He had memorized the spells not too long ago, by his subjective time. Well, no better time to try it than now!
He started etching runes in the rock plateau with a hard stone. It took a long time. He was tempted to rush. But then he imagined what a demon might do if it weren't properly confined, and took his time chipping the protective runes.
When he was done he stood and inspected his work. The lines were barely scratched into the stone. After a good rain they would be unrecognizable. But they would do for now. Next, he needed a fire.
He gathered some fallen wood and piled it in the center of the pentagram. He focused his mind, then touched the center of the pile with a flick of power. The wood burst into flame.
He concentrated, recalling the proper incantations. They would have to be done perfectly, to make up for the crudity of this ceremony. Fortunately, he remembered the exact incantation. It wasn't really necessary to say the exact words to complete a spell - concentration was the important thing - but for some reason magic worked better for him when spoken in rhyme.
Staring at the fire, he began:
"Sprites of Earth and Air, Fiends of Flame and Fire,
Demons' souls, come here in shoals, this dreadful deed inspire!
Appear! Appear! Appear!"
The fire brightened, sending up sparks. Essobee continued,
"Noisome Hags of night, Imps of deadly shade,
Pallid Ghosts, arise in hosts, come lend me all your aid!
Appear! Appear! APPEAR!"
The fire brightened again. It was now a roaring flame. It would have burned its fuel out already if it were a normal fire. Essobee felt a thrill run through his bones. There was actually a demon in these flames! He commanded, "Demon, show yourself!"
The flame shifted, took on a form that could be interpreted as a body. Its face was blurrily recognizable. It spoke in a hissing crackle. "WHAT?!"
"I, uh, I have summoned you from the pits of Hades to do my bidding! I command you to show yourself!"
"Oh, do you?" The flames drew close to him. The heat became uncomfortable. But Essobee knew that the demon could not cross the lines of the pentagram. That thought made him hold his ground. "And who are you!?"
"I am not that easily tricked, demon! I won't tell you my name! To you, I am Master'. And I command you to show yourself!"
"Stupid." The flames hissed. "I am showing myself. What kind of fool doesn't even know what the demon he's summoning looks like?" It burned lower, as if crouching down. "And what a badly drawn pentagram! I could break through this."
"You aren't going to intimidate me!" Essobee shouted shrilly at the demon. "I command you to do my bidding!"
"Oh, and how are you going to command me? You didn't summon me by name! I'll bet you don't even know it. What kind of idiot are you?" The flames drew close to him. "Wait a minute... I know what kind of idiot you are!"
Essobee watched in disbelief as the flames condensed into a familiar, yellow jacketed form. The demon grinned at his expression of shock and said, "We meet again, you little son of a witch! I wondered why you never showed up downstairs."
"Negaduck?!" Essobee breathed.
"You catch on fast, don't you?"
"I was trying to summon a demon! How did I get you?!"
"What in Hades do you think I am? Saint Peter?"
"You don't look like a demon."
"Oh, I don't? What should I look like then? Solid red? With goat's legs and horns?" Its appearance changed to match its words. "Sharp claws and teeth, and glowing eyes?" Oh, and let's not forget the wings." Its cape opened into a pair of leathery, batlike wings. A tail tipped with an arrow-shaped sting flicked behind its hooves. "Is THIS what I ought to look like?"
"Oh, stop it. You look like something out of a cartoon."
"Hey, I'm a demon, I can look like whatever I want!" Negaduck said. "I like this look. I'll keep it. And, by the way, you can't command me once I leave this pentagram. You need my name to do that."
"Oh really, Negaduck?"
It grinned, baring impossibly long and sharp teeth. "That's not the name I was born with, fool. You're up the creek now, though, because I can use your name against you, Essobee!"
"Oh, sure. You never even knew it. You didn't see me until years after I was born. Essobee' is what you called me!"
The demon paused. Ah ha, he had it there! Essobee' was no more his true name than Negaduck' was for it. Negaduck finally folded its arms and said, "So cut the BS. Make it worth my while to stay up here without tearing you apart."
"I want to get to the city of Shambhala, and help getting inside."
"Where is it?"
"What? Don't you know?"
"What do I look like, a travel agent?!" The demon burst into flames, then resolidified. "I'm a fire demon. Guard of the Boiling Lake. Not a bloody genie!"
"All right, all right, you've made your point!" Essobee shied away from the heat. "I know where it is. More or less. With you I can find it in no time. You help me get inside. It's bound to be guarded."
"What's in it for me?" The same nasty grin.
"You can have whatever treasure is inside. What I want is the magic. And you'll get all the mayhem your vicious heart desires."
"When you put it that way..." The demon chuckled. "What the heck, it's a vacation from the Pit at least. So, where is this place?"
Essobee pointed. "That way."
"Then break the pentagram so I can get out."
Essobee scratched through one of the lines, nervously keeping an eye on the demon. When the line was broken Negaduck kicked the remains of the fire away and sprang into the air, beating a hurricane with its batlike wings. Essobee shied back. Negaduck grinned wickedly at his fright. The demon shapeshifted into something that looked like a small dragon. Its hooves reshaped themselves into grasping claws. It swooped down, grabbed Essobee, and carried him off.
A cargo plane landed bumpily on a makeshift runway in Meddo Py. When it came to a stop Ramjet climbed out. After an exciting trip in the ballistic subways - sudden acceleration, free-fall coasting, deceleration, just like a sub-orbital flight - this plane trip was almost frightening. It was such a primitive device that it actually used an internal combustion engine! But it had gotten him from here to there, at least. And, he had to admit, it had been exciting. Particularly the flight through the hidden tunnel behind a waterfall in the mountains. What kind of maniacal pilot had discovered that route?
He listened mentally for Essobee. In this sparsely populated area, the sorcerer's mind would be easy to sense. However, he was not within range. If Ramjet was lucky, that might mean that Essobee had not arrived yet.
What now? He would have to find out where Shambhala was from here. But, first, he had to outfit himself against the shocking cold of this country!
Fortunately he was able to buy some cold-weather clothes near the airstrip. Apparently it was not unusual for people arriving by plane to find that their clothes were not equal to the weather here. After that he looked up and down the street. It was late evening, but for him it was early morning. And, he suddenly realized, his last meal had been too many hours ago. That greatly simplified his decision. He headed for what looked like a local gathering place.
Inside it was noisy and crowded. He got a few odd glances when he entered. He found a place to sit. The people, he noticed, were not speaking English. He thought that everyone did! How was he going to manage here?
His train of thought was broken by a smiling young man who asked him something. Ramjet said, "Pardon?"
"Mister speak American? Mister need something to eat or drink?"
"Er, yes. Please." How had he known Ramjet spoke English? He had not said a word!
While he was waiting he thought about just what the heck he would do next. He needed help; that much was obvious. He did not know the language here. Using his telepathy to the best of his abilities, he could just get the gist of what someone was saying, but he was reluctant to do so. Reading someone's mind without his permission was much ruder than eavesdropping, especially if the other person was not a telepath. He only spied on Essobee that way out of necessity.
The young man came back with an odd beverage and a bowl of stew, the ingredients of which Ramjet could not begin to guess, but it smelled good. What was the saying - when in Rome'? He paid the man and asked, "Could I ask you a few things?"
"Sure. I speak well."
"Uh, yes. Where can I find someone to guide me? I'm trying to find Shambhala. Well, actually, I'm trying to stop someone from finding it."
The man looked at him in puzzlement. Ramjet couldn't blame him for being confused. "There's someone coming along who is heading for Shambhala. I have to stop him."
The man shook his head. "Mister must not worry. Legend say only those meant to find Shambhala do. All others wander in snow until they give up."
"I hope so. But this person, he's a sorcerer. He came down from space, and survived when his ship burned up! He can read people's minds and fly. And do a lot worse things. I have to stop him!"
The man was backing away now, his smile frozen on his face. "I not speak American that well. I find someone who can." He disappeared.
Ramjet sighed. Whoever that was had thought he was a fruitcake. Ramjet could not blame him. His story did sound crazy. But he HAD to do something! He'd have to try over again with someone else.
A tall, pale woman with black hair caught his eye. She had been looking directly at him since he had begun his odd conversation with the waiter. Now she walked over to him.
Sort of. She walked gracefully, almost as if she were gliding. He glanced at her skirt. It was black, and it touched the ground, so he couldn't see anything. She put her hand on the back of the chair opposite his and asked, "May I?"
"Sure." She was beautiful, he decided, in a weird, alien way. Her hair was long and black, except for two white streaks, and braided in a long rope which was in turn pinned to the back of her head in a bun. Her eyes were a shiny green. And, up close, she looked even paler than he first thought. Even the yellow of her bill was so faint it almost looked white.
"You haven't ever been here before, have you?" she asked. Her voice was low. Again, alien and exotic.
"No. How could you tell?"
"Your English. And, you have your coat on inside out."
"I do?" He looked down at it. "But it's warmer with the fur on the inside."
"Maybe. But it looks silly." She smiled.
"Oh well..." Trying not to blush, he took the coat off.
"I heard what you tried to tell him. I want to hear it."
"Well, okay. I found out that someone is trying to get to Shambhala. I guess it has to do with magic-"
"Wait. Tell me from the beginning. Who is this?"
"His name is, um, Essobee. He's a magician. And he's - nasty!" Ramjet gave her an account of his battle with the Gadgeteers, his escape, and what he knew of his actions since he landed on Earth. She listened quietly.
When he was finished she continued looking at him silently. He believed himself, she could tell. So either what he was saying was true, or he was completely out of his mind. Finally she said, "I believe you. And, you are right, you will need help if you are to defeat someone with such command of magic."
"I know. But, who will believe me? It does sound crazy. I don't blame that guy for thinking I'm nuts."
"People think of Shambhala as a myth. Few people actually know it exists. I do. And I can guide you; I have lived here for some time. But, like you, I'm not originally from around here."
Ramjet laughed. "Boy, am I not from around here!"
She did not ask what was so funny about that. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but she could not figure out just what. Had she met him before? She said, "We will need some equipment if we are going to Shambhala. You are-?"
"Ramjet. Ramjet McQuack." he replied.
McQuack? Good heavens! No wonder she thought she had seen him before! There were differences - now that she thought back, Ramjet was shorter, and quite a bit younger looking. His voice was higher and differently accented. And his eyes were odd looking - larger, and bright blue. What were the chances of this close a duplicate appearing two hundred years later, with the same last name, though? Shaking off her surprise, she said, "I'm Morgana."
"Ah. Pleased to meet you." He shook her hand.
"To get to Shambhala, we will have to go through some, shall we say, unfriendly terrain. We will need the proper equipment. To set out without it would be suicide."
"I believe it." he shivered. "Guess that means we have to wait until tomorrow morning."
"No. I have been traveling this area for some time; I have much of what I need. But what you have now - inside out or not - won't keep you warm enough. Come with me."
Several hours later, they were picking their way through a rocky landscape toward the mysterious "Valley of Light". Ramjet had little idea where they were going. He did not know what a good amount of the supplies in his pack were either - the pair of oversized tennis rackets puzzled him especially - but he trusted Morgana. It was the purest good luck that he had managed to blunder into the one person who would actually believe him, and who he needed! She must be an expert traveler, too - he noticed that she did not seem to feel the cold.
She noticed that he did. She said, "You will get used to it."
"Before or after I freeze over?" he said. His attempt at humor sounded forced.
"I forget, it's worse for you than for me. Cold does not bother me that much."
"I just wish it was Summer."
"This is Summer."
"Don't worry, we will reach our first destination before morning. It's about a mile from here, beyond those hills." She said to cheer him up.
Ramjet noticed something gliding in the sky. "Hey, what's that? I didn't think birds got that big." He pointed.
She saw it too. It circled lazily, then dropped downward, its wings beating the air. It was carrying something in its claws. Morgana said, "They don't. It's magical." with flat assurance.
"It's him!" Ramjet said after a brief pause. "Essobee! I could hear his mind! Er-"
"I understand. I think he's headed in the same direction we are. Hurry!"
The demon skimmed down low and dropped Essobee, then landed. Essobee picked himself out of the snow indignantly. "What kind of a landing was that?!"
The demon had returned to its human form. "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one. So, is this it? Kinda puny for a City of Wisdom'."
Essobee had told the demon to land when he had seen the city. That he could see it at all in the night meant that it must be magical. But he had expected Shambhala to be hidden somehow. Now that he looked carefully, he thought it reminded him of something else he had read about in the article. The city with the temple in the middle...
He found the page with the map and looked on the back. The passage he remembered vaguely was not there. It must be on the pages he left behind, drat it. But he was sure what this place was now. "This isn't Shambhala, it's Sihizzia. This temple is the temple of eternity. There's an idol inside, an idol of wisdom."
"The plot thins." Negaduck remarked.
Essobee tried to enter. When he tried to cross the threshold he was repelled by a force of some sort. Negaduck asked, "What's the problem? Losing your nerve?"
"There's a magical ward. They think that'll stop me?!"
Essobee's magical assault hit the field and was absorbed. Negaduck sneered, "Looks like they were right."
"You're a whole lot of help!" Essobee studied the area. "There's a lot of magic here. Very powerful spells."
"Does that intimidate you?"
"Will you shut up? I'm going to get inside, one way or another, okay?!"
Essobee began casting a spell. The demon perched above the door to watch. Its hide faded to the color of stone.
Morgana and Ramjet arrived at the city of Sihizzia. Ramjet, panting hard, noted that Morgana did not seem to be affected by the exertion. Ramjet said between gasps, "He's here."
"This city contains the Temple of Infinity. For hundreds of years people have made pilgrimages here to meditate."
"Temple of - waitaminnit!" He dug in his pockets, and found several folded-up sheets of paper. He skimmed the writing. "Here it is! In Sihizzia, the Temple of Infinity! Says here people come to look at The Idol of Wisdom'. Nobody'd better touch it, but it doesn't say why."
"Only the High Llama may touch the idol. If anyone else does - well, according to legend, it would be disastrous."
"I've listened to legends this far." Ramjet said, putting the paper. "Let's go."
Essobee had finally managed to defeat the magical wards at the temple. Watching out for traps, he entered. The walls of the large, dark antechamber were covered with murals. Opposite the entrance was another large door. Above it was a statue of a woman in warrior's gear. Dodalla, the legendary guardian. "How quaint." he muttered.
Morgana and Ramjet saw him enter. They ran into the temple. Morgana noticed the stone gargoyle above the door. That had not been there before. And it was magical!
Beyond the antechamber was another room, lit by torchlight. Around the circular walls were statues of warriors, their spears drawn. Essobee was in the center of the room, looking at an object like a small, jeweled obelisk on a pedestal. Ramjet called, "Stop!"
Essobee jumped and turned to face him. "YOU? What are you doing here?!"
"Get away from there." Ramjet ordered.
Essobee smiled nastily. "You know, you good guys all have the same scriptwriter."
"What are you here for, anyway? This is a temple of wisdom. I can't see what would be here for you."
"Oh, I am so wounded." Essobee replied. "Your wit just leaves me in awe."
Ramjet started toward him. If he could get to him before he could cast a spell, he could easily restrain him. Without his magic, the duck was a weakling. But, unfortunately, he was not a slow weakling. Essobee dodged behind the pedestal. He raised his hands and started speaking in gibberish. Ramjet prepared to dodge a lightning bolt. And Essobee grabbed the idol.
A crackling sound came from all around them. "Put that back!" Ramjet ordered.
Essobee opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came out. He stared beyond Ramjet and Morgana, to the doorway. A woman in warrior's armor stood there, glaring at them and brandishing a spear. She called, "Seize them!"
"You idiot! Look what you've done!" Ramjet yelled at Essobee. He grabbed for the sorcerer's arms. Essobee dodged, grabbed Ramjet's throat with his free hand, and threw him backwards with an electrical shock. Morgana dashed over to where Ramjet had landed.
The statues that had been around the walls now lowered their spears and ringed the intruders. Ramjet, who had recovered rapidly, jumped back up. "Put the idol back, Essobee! Don't be stupid!"
Essobee rose into the air and flew towards the door. Morgana spoke a few words under her breath and threw one end of a rope at Essobee. It wrapped itself around his wrists. Ramjet gave the rope a hard tug, jerking Essobee out of the air. He took the idol out of his hands and set it back on the pedestal.
And the statues did not return to their places.
The armored woman said, "Seize him! Take them to the pit!"
"What?!" Ramjet exclaimed. "I put it back! It isn't even scratched!"
Her spear tip was one inch from his sternum. "All three of you have fought within the Temple, and you and he actually touched the Idol! These sins must be cleansed!"
"Morgana-" Ramjet said as the warriors took them into another chamber in the temple through a hidden passage, "You wouldn't happen to know how to fix this, would you?"
Before she could speak the floor in the center of the room came apart. The stone slabs slid away, revealing a luminous orange substance. Waves of heat blasted upward.
Spears pricked them from behind, driving them forward. Ramjet yelped, "Wait a minute! You've got to be kidding! All this just for touching an idol?!"
"You have desecrated the Temple of Infinity!" the warrior woman said.
"I only touched it to put it back! And Morgana, she only snagged Essobee to keep him from stealing the Idol! I'm sorry we had to do that inside the temple, but if we hadn't he would've taken it!" Ramjet blurted desperately.
"That does not matter now. The desecration must be avenged." Dodalla replied, her arms folded like a judge's
Morgana spoke up. "Essobee brought a demon with him. If you destroy us all, there will be nobody to keep it from running amok."
"Demon?!" Ramjet exclaimed and looked at Morgana.
She nodded. "The statue above the temple door. There are no gargoyles in Sihizzia. Especially with magical auras like bonfires."
Dodalla considered this. Then she announced, "I will let you two live. But you must still atone for your crime."
"You must punish the criminal yourselves. Throw him into the lava pit."
Ramjet stared back at her, momentarily boggled. Then he found words for his thoughts. "Kill him? I know he ought to be punished for trying to rob the temple, but he doesn't deserve death! You have to be kidding!"
She was unmoved. Ramjet continued, "Wait a minute. This is a temple of wisdom. You said that our violence desecrated it. Killing him would be worse desecration, wouldn't it! Right?"
A heavy silence followed. Morgana broke it by saying, "Spilled blood never cleanses. It fouls."
Dodalla looked at each of them in turn. Then she looked at the guardian statues. Wordlessly they returned to their places along the wall of the previous chamber.
Morgana wrapped a few more loops of the rope around Essobee's wrists, binding them securely. She said to Dodalla, "He will be punished."
"I know." was the reply.
Ramjet, holding tightly to Essobee, walked him out of the temple. Morgana shut the outer doors after them. Ramjet said, "Um, Morgana - what just happened in there?"
"If you had obeyed her and thrown Essobee into the pit, you would have doomed yourself. You made the right decision to save us."
"What? I didn't make any decision. I just couldn't kill him! It's not right."
"Many would not see it that way. Many would only see it as an opportunity to save themselves."
The conversation was beginning to make Essobee ill. He tried to shut it out and concentrate on escaping. The first thing would be, of course, to free his hands. He tried to cast a spell, and failed; the rope had strands of iron woven into it. Iron blocked off a witch's powers. How had she known that?
Morgana said, "The statue is gone."
"What?" Essobee exclaimed in dismay. "That - that cheap -" He was cut off abruptly as the demon flew into the air from its hiding place on another rooftop. It swooped down and grabbed Essobee in its claws. Ramjet tried to hold on to him. A jet of flame dislodged him.
Ramjet fell to the ground. Morgana rushed over. "Are you all right?"
"I think so. Yeah." Ramjet said glumly. He watched the demon fly away. "I didn't know we had one of those to deal with. I didn't even know they were real. How the heck are we going to beat THAT?"
"Victory does not always go to the strongest." Morgana replied.
"Yeah, but strength sure helps." he muttered.
"Have you ever seen a karate match? A karate master can defeat someone twice his size and strength, because he knows how to use his opponent's own size and strength against him. His skill is more important than brute force."
"You haven't heard of karate?" she looked at him in surprise.
He sighed. "I'm not from around here." He pulled his hood back, then removed his hat, revealing his antennae.
The look on her face would have been priceless if he was in a mood to be amused. "It's a very long story. About eight generations long. If it's all right with you, I'd rather skip it for now."
"...All right. But, your telepathy?"
"Yeah, that's where I get it from. Mine is weak, though. Not a whole lot of use, like my telekinesis." He put his hat and hood back on.
"I wouldn't say that. You've been using it to track Essobee."
"Sort of, yeah." he said.
She wondered how he would react if he knew her "little secret". It wasn't worth the risk, she knew. Instead she said, "We can go no further tonight. Let's find a place to stay in town for the day."
"But, they got away!"
"I know a bit about otherworld creatures. Demons prefer night to day. The sun saps their energy. And, my kind have to sleep during the day." She looked uneasily at the horizon. The shy was just beginning to lighten.
Her kind? She must be some nocturnal kind of Earthling. "Okay. I guess."
The demon flew to the base of a nearby mountain. As Essobee was picking himself up from another rough landing the demon scolded, "Nice going, kid. Nearly got yourself killed!"
"Shut up. I didn't see YOU helping any."
"Oh great and powerful sorcerer, didn't you notice that there were wards to block me? I couldn't get in!"
"Some great and powerful demon you are."
A jet of fire shot past his shoulder, singeing his clothes and hair. "What was that?!"
"Nothing, nothing." Essobee muttered.
"I'm gonna forget you said that. Listen, punk. You see that cave there. I'm going knock off until tomorrow night. If you're smart - which you're not - you won't bug me."
"Yeah, whatever." He said to himself as the demon, taking the form of flame, moved far back in the cave.
Ramjet woke up, momentarily disoriented by the unfamiliarity of his surroundings. It only lasted for a few moments. He opened the window blinds. It was late morning; judging from the sky the sun had been up for a few hours. Wait, no it wasn't, it was early evening. He had gone to sleep just before dawn. "So this is jet-lag." he murmured to himself.
He readied his clothes for another fun-filled trek in the cold. They had dried out during the day, thank goodness and the radiator. He would have gone to check on Morgana, but she had made him promise not to disturb her. She would come to him at dusk. He wondered why she emphasized that so strongly, but if it was that important to her, then so be it. He would use the extra time to get them something to eat.
He stepped outside and immediately heard Essobee in his mind. He was nearby! Ramjet looked in the direction he had sensed him from. He was in a forest at the base of a mountain.
Ramjet was not about to take on Essobee and the demon without Morgana, but he could spy on them. He followed the sound of Essobee's mind.
Long before he saw either the sorcerer or a demon, he saw a faint haze rising from the forest. On closer approach, he saw an orange glow through the trees, and heard a crackling. Soon he saw Essobee through the trees. He was walking through the flames unharmed. He pointed carelessly at the treetops. Fire leapt from his fingers and ignited the branches. Ramjet was close enough to feel the heat on his face.
They were setting the forest on fire! Why?! Ramjet ran back to the village. He stopped the first person he saw. "Someone's starting a forest fire!" he said, pointing.
She looked at him peculiarly. "Forest fire!" he repeated.
Oh, great. Language problems again! He said slowly, "Does anyone here speak English?", trying to convey the gist of his words telepathically.
"Sumimasen, atashi-wa Eigo-o wakarimasen."
He had attracted the attention of a number of people now. Nobody seemed to understand him, though. He saw a stack of dried branches, and hit on an idea. He took one, found the pocket lighter among his supplies, and played the flame under the wood. When it was burning he pointed at it, then at the forest. "Fire!" he repeated.
Some of the people glanced in the direction he had indicated, and saw smoke beginning to rise. They understood now, judging from the sudden burst of activity.
He ran back to the inn to get Morgana. Though she had told him not to awaken her, she could not have known that this would happen! He knocked loudly on her door. No response, even after second and third tries. He would have to use other means. Reluctantly he decided to use his telekinesis. He looked at the door, picturing the deadbolt on the other side. In his mind he saw it slide up and to the side. He heard a faint click.
He pushed the door open. "Morgana?"
Nothing. Pitch darkness. He could just barely see from the light coming through the door that she was asleep in her bed. He touched her shoulder gently. She did not react. And she was cool to the touch.
"Morgana!" He shook her shoulder. Again, no reaction. He went to the window and removed the black cloth covering it, then opened the blinds.
The evening light streamed in on her. She woke suddenly. With a scream of rage she covered her face, shielding it from the light. Where the light struck her skin it seemed to burn and blister. She pointed her hand in the general direction of the window. A bolt of electricity hit the wall, just to Ramjet's side. Ramjet jumped away. "HEY!!" She pointed blindly in the rough direction of his voice. This time the bolt struck him in the rear. "HEY! It's me!" he yelped.
"Ramjet?!" she said, her voice tight with pain. "Shut the window! Cover it!"
He did, quickly. The room was pitch dark again. "Morgana? Why'd you do that? What happened?"
"Wait." She said, her voice strained. Then a candle was lit - he did not see how - and he could see her dimly.
"Morgana!" Even in the feeble, flickering light, he could see the damage. "What happened? I'm sorry!"
"Sunlight." she said. She looked at her forearms. On one side, where she had been exposed, they were painfully burned. The other side was unharmed.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know! I'll get a doctor!"
"No!" Her grip on his wrist halted him. "Don't do that. Just let me sleep!"
"Are you sure? You're burned really bad!" he insisted.
"YES! I'll come for you at dusk! And don't tell ANYONE what happened!" she ordered.
"Uh, okay, I won't. I'm sorry." he backed toward the door.
The candle flickered out. He closed the door behind himself. The bolt clicked behind him.
Feeling guilty, he wandered back outside. People were going off to fight the fire. He went to join them. At least he could do SOMETHING useful there.
Less than two hours later, the blaze was out. Like most of the villagers, Ramjet was dirty and exhausted. He had not seen how they had put out the blaze in the trees; he had been concentrating on his task of smothering ground fires with shovelfuls of dirt and soot.
As he trudged back to the village, one man looked at him carefully, then spoke to him. "Were you the one who saw the fire?"
"You speak English! Yes, I was." In a town this small any stranger must be recognizable.
"What started it? Did you see?"
"Yes. Someone out there, his name is Essobee, set it. He was shooting flames at the trees. He's been causing a lot of trouble. He's a sorcerer. A nasty one!"
The man said, "A sorcerer. Don't worry, we know how to handle them."
"Yeah, but he has a demon with him! What do you do about those?"
Ramjet thought he should be used to this by now. He said, "A demon. I saw it. It looks like a statue of a monster, with wings."
Ramjet could feel the disbelief coming from this man. Rather than give him further cause to doubt Ramjet's sanity, he said, "If you look for Essobee, you'll see the demon for yourself." He then left quickly for the inn.
Morgana's door was still locked. He wished he knew if she was going to be all right. He would not look in on her, of course. He went back to his room to clean the soot and grime off of himself and his clothes.
A half hour later he was still trying to clean the mess off of his clothes, at least enough so they would not leave soot on whatever they touched. He heard a soft tapping at the door.
He jumped up. Morgana was there, part of her face covered with her hand. Her arms were covered with long gloves. "Morgana! Are you all right? I'm sorry!"
"Hush." She closed the door and bolted it. She sat down. "I will heal."
"Yeah, but - ow!" He saw her face. It looked as bad as he imagined it. "Doesn't that hurt?"
"Yes. But it won't cripple me. Have you told anyone what happened?"
"No. I told you I wouldn't." And I said I wouldn't disturb her, either... "I was busy helping fight a forest fire. Essobee was up to his usual stuff."
"Oh. I was wondering why you smell like a bonfire."
"Uh. Yeah. Morgana, what happened?"
She sighed. "You haven't guessed?"
"No! Tell me!"
"I cannot live in the sunlight. It burns me, as you saw. I am a Vampire."
"And? You mean you don't know what a Vampire is?" She stared at him.
"I'm not from around here, remember?" Then he remembered an old movie he had seen.
Morgana saw the look of alarm appear in his face. "Ah, you have heard of us."
"You mean - those people that turn into bats and suck blood? You're kidding, right?"
"Yes and no. The movies and myths are only half true. Some of us can turn into bats, but that's because they're sorcerers, not because they're Vampires. And we can't stand sunlight, but the legends about crosses and Bibles are nonsense." she said in a low voice.
"But, the blood?"
"We do drink blood." Ramjet shied back. "Wait! We don't kill for it, any more than you would kill for your favorite food. Don't be afraid." He was still nervous. "If I had planned to harm you, I would have done it before now, instead of coming all this way, wouldn't I?"
"Well, yeah..." She had him there.
"We do need blood to survive. To us, blood is life. To kill its source is a crime. We can live off of animals without hurting them. We only take human blood if the donor' is willing, and never enough to harm him."
"That's really ... weird. Humane Vampires?"
"Compare it to someone who eats a steak. The animal died to provide that." she said gently.
He thought about it. It made a disturbing amount of sense. He changed the subject. "But, I thought you were supposed to sleep in a coffin."
"That's an old cliché. Anywhere we are safe from sunlight will do. Some turn into bats and sleep in caves for safety. Although I can't say much for the living conditions..."
Ramjet smiled in spite of himself. "Um, can't a doctor do something to help you? Or would that give away, er, what you are?"
"It wouldn't help me, and it would give me away. Most people still believe the old myths about Vampires. I would rather not have to deal with that."
"I hear you. It's like, I'd rather not have to explain I'm an alien." He touched his cap. "But isn't there anything you can do? That must hurt a lot!"
"Well, yes..." she said reluctantly.
"Yes, what? Come on!"
"You can guess. Blood would heal me."
After a long pause, he said, "How much?"
"To completely heal me... more than I would take from any one person."
"But, to get it so it wouldn't hurt so much?"
"Ramjet, are you serious about this?"
"Yes. After all, it's my fault."
She looked at him carefully. "It would not harm you. I would not take enough to weaken you, especially since we have a lot ahead of us."
He unzipped his collar, so his neck was exposed, and forced himself to say, "Go ahead."
"All right." She pushed the coat back a little further, baring his shoulder. At the last moment he saw her teeth, extended like a snake's fangs.
He jerked when he felt the sting. He held his eyes tightly shut, his body rigid. He remained that way until she drew back. He opened his eyes as she was whispering something and touching the punctures. The pain faded immediately. He touched his shoulder. The wounds were gone.
Morgana commented, "A healing spell. Pity it only works on mortals."
He stammered, "Uh, that's it?"
"Yes. That will heal me quite a bit." She was less pale now.
"Um, I thought Vampires went for the neck." He zipped up his coat.
"The way your heart was pounding, I didn't want to risk hitting an artery. I would've had more than I wanted."
"Oh, uh, yeah. Hey! It's working!" He stared at her face. The burns were already beginning to fade.
"Yes, I can feel it. Thank you. It takes a lot of courage for a mortal to trust a Vampire." She removed her gloves. Her arms were healing as well.
"Yeah, well..." he shrugged. "Um, we ought to be going, right? Essobee and the demon are doing who knows what now."
"Yes." She stood, and offered him a hand up. he took it. He was shaky, but only from leftover nervousness.
They prepared to leave. As they did he said abruptly, "I won't turn into a Vampire, will I?"
"No. Another nonsense legend. Making a Vampire is nowhere near that simple."
"Oh. Okay. I mean, it's bad enough having to explain my antennae. Fangs...!"
She laughed with him. It was a funny thought.
They set out towards the mountains. Morgana knew that Shambhala was in a valley within the range. It was well hidden; very few explorers had ever found it. So Ramjet need not worry about the headstart Essobee and the demon had gained. They would spend it searching.
Ramjet said, "I hear Essobee. Faintly. He's that way." He pointed southward. "How we going to get there? That's a mountain top."
"We won't. I know the way through. He's probably flying with that demon."
When they entered a pass in the mountains, Morgana cautioned, "This can be a treacherous area. There have been avalanches. Be as quiet as you can. Talk to me with your telepathy."
"I can't. I'm nowhere near that good."
He startled. "How did you do that?!"
It's a skill. Your people have a natural talent for it, but we can learn too.
"I can't talk like that, though, except with my family."
She refrained from telling him she could read his mind as well as speak to it. It would only make him nervous. Then speak softly.
Essobee waited impatiently on a mountain plateau. The demon was nowhere to be seen. What the heck was it doing? It had been gone for nearly an hour!
He saw it rise from a nearby peak and glide over to his. It landed, its wings kicking up a wake that nearly blasted him across the plateau. "They're on their way. They're going through south of here. Let's go."
"Wait a minute!" Essobee objected. "Why bother? They'll be crawling through the mountains for who knows how long. We could have found Shambhala by now if we hadn't wasted so much time!"
The demon folded its wings. Its gargoyle shape melted into Negaduck's. "Listen, brat, you don't know a thing about strategy. The people at that city can't come after us; they'll be all day at least putting out that forest fire. Scratch one nuisance. And if we clobber Ramjet and whatsername now, we won't have to worry about them ever again! So what's the problem?"
"All right, all right, don't get your tail feathers in a twist. Let's go."
Negaduck leapt upward, its shape shifting in midair. It snatched Essobee up and flew in a wide arc, curving to keep them out of the sight of their prey.
"How far along are we?"
We're past halfway.
For awhile Ramjet had found the mountains scenic. They were like nothing he had seen on his home world. But now they intimidated him. He was getting the jitters, and bad. He kept glancing upwards. It grew worse as they entered a narrow pass bordered by two cliffs. Ramjet was not usually claustrophobic, but the sight of so much rock above them made him nervous.
Suddenly he heard a sharp crack, as if a giant hammer had struck. A ledge directly above them began to crumble. He shouted "Watch out!" to Morgana.
She had seen it too. Reflexively she called a protective spell into effect. It was broken when Ramjet seized her arm and shoved her towards a crack in the cliff. He pushed her in and stood in front of her while rock hailed down outside.
Essobee and Negaduck looked down the cliff. When the dust settled, their pursuers were nowhere to be seen. Essobee said, "That's that. Let's go."
The rumble of the rockslide ceased. Ramjet said, "Uh, you OK, Morgana?"
"Yes. Let's get out of here."
"How? I can't see a thing."
She called a small glowing sphere into existence. He asked, "How did you do that?"
"The same way I healed you, and I spoke telepathically."
"If we get through this in one piece, you gotta show me some of that stuff." He said, his attention more on the wall of rubble blocking their escape. "How are we going to get through that?"
Wait a minute." The glowing sphere disappeared. There, at the top of the crack, was a sliver of moonlight.
Ramjet saw it too. "All right!" He scrambled up the debris and began pulling gravel down off the pile, trying to widen the entrance. Soon he tested the hole. His shoulders would fit through. He called to Morgana, "Can you get through this?"
He backed down, ready to help her through. She surprised him by shapeshifting into a bird and flying through.
He climbed out, pushing their backpacks before himself. Morgana caught them outside. He said, "I didn't know you could do that!"
"I wish I'd known of this cave yesterday." she said wryly.
In the middle of the range was a wide, deep valley, shielded on every side by mountains. The demon glided in and set Essobee down at the border. "Well? Where now?"
"I don't know. This must be the Valley of Light.' It's in the right place. But there's nothing here!"
"Must be hidden." Negaduck said.
"That's right!" Essobee exclaimed. "Otherwise it wouldn't be legendary!"
"Punk... you dragged me out of the nice warm underworld for a LEGEND?!"
"Keep your pants on. It's around here somewhere. We'll find it."
Negaduck shook its head. "Brother."
Morgana and Ramjet finally made their way through the pass. Ramjet had wanted to hurry; they had been losing time. Morgana had vetoed that in favor of caution. She assured him that Essobee and the demon had not yet reached their goal. Ramjet asked how she could be so confident. She replied with a smile that she had faith. He wondered what she meant, but she had been right so far, so he left it at that.
Essobee looked across the landscape for the umpteenth time. All he could see was miles and miles of snow. Negaduck landed beside him. Essobee asked, "What did you find?"
"I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with S."
Essobee considered beaning Negaduck with a snowball. But, when he took the demon's temperament and power into account, maybe that wasn't a good idea after all. He could fantasize, though.
"I don't get it. I should be able to sense the magic hiding it. I can't find a thing! It's like there's nothing at all here! Less than nothing!"
"Maybe because there is nothing here to find!" Negaduck growled.
"No! There's something here, I know there is. It's weird - usually I can sense the magic in a place. Here, there's nothing. Nothing at all."
"Just like the inside of your head."
"Shut up!" He concentrated. The harder he concentrate, the less he saw. One area, in the middle of the valley, was particularly void...
"I've found it!" he yelled. "It's hidden, but I can see the blank spot where it ought to be!" He took off running. The demon followed on wing.
Morgana and Ramjet arrived at the valley. Morgana said, "The Valley of Light."
"Why's it called that? Looks more like The Valley of Snow'."
"During the day the sunlight reflecting off the snow can cause snow blindness. Even now, in the moonlight, it's bright."
"Oh. Hey! There they are!" Ramjet pointed to two specks in the distance, one running along the ground, one above it.
Essobee ran up to the edge of the magical void. He said, "This is it."
Negaduck looked up and down, seeing only snow. "It's everything I expected it would be." it commented.
"I've got to cast a spell to reveal it. I'll need all my power and concentration."
While Negaduck watched Essobee lapsed into the kind of magical gibberish that it remembered the Negaverse Morgana doing. It looked a lot sillier from this kid. Essobee started drawing designs in the snow to aid his spells. The demon remained where it was, glaring at him as if challenging him to tell it to move. Essobee did not. Fortunately for him. Instead, he worked around the demon.
Ramjet and Morgana saw a shimmering in the distance. Ramjet promptly reacted by tripping over his snowshoes for the fourth time. As he was picking himself up he saw a pair of gates appear in front of Essobee and Negaduck. "They found it! We're too late!"
"Not yet, we aren't." Morgana answered. "The doors are still closed. Come on."
Essobee called out several spells, each designed to open locks or defeat magical wards. They had no effect. The demon stood back, grinning infuriatingly. Finally, in his frustration, he beat a fist against the gate. It opened, just enough to see one figure between the doors. It was a woman, similar to the one in the Temple of Infinity, but no longer in warrior gear. She looked at him. "I am Dodalla, keeper of the gates of Shambhala."
Essobee froze for a second. Negaduck said, "Well? Go on, kid."
Essobee turned back. "Shut up!" To Dodalla he said "I, uh - I demand entrance!"
She asked, "Why?"
Essobee had been ready for this. "If you let me in, I'll sacrifice this demon." He pointed to Negaduck. "But if you don't, I'll let it free to wreck Shambhala!"
"WHAT?!" Negaduck exclaimed. Taloned hands outstretched, it tried to make a grab for Essobee. And found that it could not. It looked down. There, in the snow around itself, Essobee had drawn a huge pentagram! It snarled, "You think you're clever, don't you, brat?!"
"Shut up. I command you by the power of the pentagram."
The demon gave a vicious snarl and dissolved into flame. It couldn't escape from the pentagram in that form either, Essobee knew. Then he was distracted by something else: two people running toward them across the snow. "Oh, cripes." he said to himself.
They were within earshot. Essobee shouted, "How did you live through my rockslide?!"
Ramjet shouted back, "That's a confession!"
Essobee said, "So what." With a gesture he created a force wall between himself and them. Ramjet smacked into it and fell back into the snow. Turning back to Dodalla, he said, "Well, what'll it be? Let me in, or let my demon burn the place?"
Ramjet called, "Don't let him in! If you do, who knows what he'll do! He set a forest on fire outside Sihizzia for no reason. He tried to steal the Idol in the Temple of Infinity. He tried to kill Morgana and me with an avalanche just now!"
"Oh, shut up." Essobee gestured at Ramjet. Ramjet suddenly found himself unable to speak, or even open his mouth. To Dodalla he said, "Well? I'm waiting."
Dodalla shook her head. "Poor fool." she said to him. She gestured. Essobee's magic was dispelled. Reflexively Essobee looked at Negaduck. It, in the form of a flame, was still trapped.
Morgana spoke a few words and pointed at Essobee. A wall of force appeared and encircled Essobee. Ramjet stared. She took Ramjet's hand. "Come with me."
Enraged, Essobee watched as Morgana led Ramjet up the steps to the gate. Before the gates closed Morgana and Dodalla turned back to look at him. Morgana waved, canceling the force wall around Essobee. Then she called out another, longer spell. Essobee felt it pull sharply at him, sucking his magical powers away. He fought the spell. It was a losing battle. He could feel himself being drained.
After a minute she ended the spell. He looked ready to collapse from the strain of fighting her spell. She showed no sign of exertion.
The doors closed. The gates disappeared.
Essobee was aghast. What the - Not only had they refused him - they had ignored him! And then drained him, leaving him unable to use any of his spells! This was unbearable! But he was still not completely helpless-
"WE ARE NOT AMUSED."
Essobee turned to Negaduck. The flame enlarged into a huge pillar of fire. A blast of heat hit him. Essobee stood his ground. "Cut it out or I'll leave you here, in that pentagram!"
"IDIOT!" The fire roared at him. "SNOW MELTS!"
Essobee looked down. The area in which he had drawn the pentagram was now a pond. He looked back at the flames. A face formed, snarling viciously.
Essobee started to back away.
Within the gates, Ramjet, Morgana and Dodalla watched as the demon expressed its wrath at its former master. Essobee just barely managed to dodge the gouts of flame. The ground was becoming riddled with puddles of water.
Ramjet was visibly distressed. He looked at Morgana pleadingly. She said, "It was inevitable. Evil and violence always come back to those who use who use them. Those who call on demons receive what they deserve."
The demon was rapidly wearing Essobee down. Running about - he did not even have enough power to fly! - was difficult in the snow. And COLD. Without his power, there was nothing between the arctic air but a thin layer of feathers and a thinner robe. The water was worse! His feet were going numb.
A blast of heat, and he smelled burning feathers. He yelped and scrambled away.
A line of fire appeared above the snow in front of him, between himself and the mountains. It encircled him and drew inward. The heat increased unbearably. And his feet were in melting slush. If he ducked down he might be safe from the fire - but even if that did protect him from the angry demon, the cold-!
The demon appeared within the flames imprisoning Essobee. Towering above Essobee, it roared, "GIVE ME ONE REASON I SHOULD LET YOU LIVE!"
Essobee gaped helplessly. The demon lowered itself and exhaled a breath at him. He gagged on the brimstone fumes. "I should kill you. You were always stupid. Double-crossing me is playing with fire!" It paused, letting Essobee squirm. Just as he was about to speak it continued. "You know what will happen to you when you die, don't you?" Negaduck walked out of the flames, holding a trident which glowed cherry red, matching his eyes. "You'll be mine, for all eternity! And I'll make that one h*** of a long time!"
Essobee broke through his paralysis to gasp, "No - no, please! I-"
"What's the matter, doesn't that sound like fun?" Negaduck thrust the prongs of the trident into the water in front of Essobee's feet. The water boiled where it touched the metal. The demon stared at Essobee. "But maybe I'll let you live. Maybe."
"Yes! Please! I promise, I'll do anything you want!" he blurted.
Negaduck waved at him dismissively. "Save it. You got nothing I want. Y'know why I'm going to let you go, brat? Because I just realized that if I kill you, I'll have to drag you down to Hades." The heated water was starting to scald Essobee - and the pool was deepening. "And then I'll have to deal with you forever. If I let you go, I'll still have a few years of peace before you find your way downstairs! So, watch yourself, because when you finally buy it you'll be MINE!"
Essobee gulped. Negaduck dissolved into flames again. It said, "I might go easy on you, if you get on my good side. If I have one. Think about that!" The flames condensed into a fireball, which suddenly dove down, burning its way through the ice.
Inside the gates, several more spectators had gathered. Among them were a young female bat and a thin, pale man who was now standing by Morgana. Ramjet notices that he seemed leached of color, as Morgana had been before she had taken Ramjet's blood, and he had similarly piercing eyes. Another Vampire? He was looking at Morgana's sunburn with concern.
Dodalla said, "The threat is ended. The demon has returned to the underworld."
Ramjet added, "Without his magic, Essobee can't do anything." with relief.
Dodalla said gently, "We thank you for protecting Shambhala. But, though you have come inside the gates, you did not find them by seeking wisdom. You cannot stay."
Morgana added, "They let us shelter inside so nature could take its course." She gestured to the outside, where the puddles were starting to ice over.
"That's OK," Ramjet said, "I got to go back anyway. My friends'll get worried if I don't come back soon."
"We will ensure that you make it back safely and quickly. And, to show our gratitude for your service to us, and to the Temple in Sihizzia, Morgana can teach you how to develop the telepathic powers that, but for an accident of birth, would have been yours."
How had she known about that? His eyes met Morgana's. She said, "Telepathy is a skill that can be developed. I can teach you, so that you will match the skill of any other of your race."
"Really?" Ramjet breathed. He had long ago given up even imagining what it would be like!
"Yes. If an Earthling can learn it from scratch, then surely I can teach you."
Ramjet did not know what to say. He looked around. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a black figure in a white snowscape. It was moving sluggishly away. He asked, "What will happen with him?"
Dodalla gazed out into the snowscape. "He no longer has his magic to protect him. The land will take care of him."
Ramjet looked at her, then at Morgana. "You're just going to leave him out there? He could die."
Dodalla turned from the gates. "Yes."
"But - why? I mean, I know he's done some really awful stuff, but - this is a city of wisdom, right? Couldn't you bring him around? Rehabilitate him?" Nobody spoke. Dodalla, the bat woman, Morgana, and the other vampire looked at him dispassionately. Desperately he blurted, "Can't you see, if he dies now, it's just a waste!"
Morgana looked out at the struggling figure. "Not necessarily. It doesn't have to be a waste." She smiled faintly. Ramjet could see her fang teeth.
Dodalla nodded and pushed one of the doors open. Ramjet, horrified, jumped in front of the opening. "You can't be serious!" he shouted at Morgana.
She replied, "He would have had our lives. Now he will lose his." Her voice softened. "I will make it painless." she promised.
Now angry, Ramjet said, "Remember when you said at the Temple that spilled blood never cleanses, it fouls'? Well, what is this?!" He felt the cold wind blowing in through the gates. If it was uncomfortable to Ramjet, it must be unbearable to Essobee. "If you want to give me something for helping you out, then just give me some warm clothes and supplies so I can take him back to civilization. He can't get away from me this time, not without his magic and his demon."
Morgana said, "If you leave now, I won't be able to train you."
"Never mind! I've lived this long the way I am, I'll do fine without the training! Look, he's going to die out there! Give me something so he won't freeze to death!" Ramjet pleaded.
Dodalla smiled and nodded at Morgana. She spoke a few words and gestured out the gates. A faint glow enveloped Essobee and lifted him off the snow. He was unconscious.
Ramjet exclaimed, "What are you doing to him?!"
Dodalla answered, "Nothing will happen to him; he is now protected from any harm, including the cold. Our adepts will take care of him."
Morgana added, "And, no, we will not kill him."
She addressed the others. "Shambhala has enemies. It always has. Many of them are more powerful and cleverer that what we have just seen. And now, because of modern transportation and communications, we are easier to find than ever before. No matter how well we hide the gates, we will be found. But, we also have allies." She laid a hand lightly on Ramjet's shoulder. "There are people who don't even know of us, but are willing to fight to protect what is right.
"Without knowing what Shambhala is, and against odds that he knew were against him, he tried to stop Essobee. Even when he knew he had nothing to gain, he continued. He refused to give in to injustice, even when it might mean his life. And he was willing to give up his reward, something I know that he has long wished for, because of his compassion for his enemy." Ramjet was staring fixedly at the ground, trying not to blush and failing. "We need to seek out people who have such a sense of justice and duty, who do not come to us seeking the legendary city of wisdom. Hiding inside here was appropriate in the past, but not any longer. Not in this age."
The other Vampire broke the silence. "Morgana is right." he said in a soft, oddly accented voice. "Times change, and if we aren't careful they pass us by. We have to live in this world, not away from it."
The bat spoke. "We can't reveal ourselves!"
"No." Morgana said. "Secrecy will always be necessary. Some of our own people should go out into the world, as I have done. We can make contact with the world without jeopardizing Shambhala."
"I'll go, too." the bat, Foxglove, chirped enthusiastically. "I've traveled outside before; I know my way around."
"And more will go later." Dodalla agreed.
The matter seemed to be decided. Morgana caused the glowing field, and the sorcerer suspended within it, to come inside the gates. She checked his pulse. It was slow and steady, as if he were asleep. Morgana said, "I know some people at the Eldritch Academy who can cure this frostbite, and handle him after he's healed. It'll take a sorcerer to control him once he's got his health and his powers back."
"I'll take him." Foxglove offered. "I know where it is."
Ramjet said, "Um, Morgana... what was all that about?"
"You have just proven my point, that we need the help of people outside the city. I'm sorry, it looks as if I've used you a bit." she said apologetically.
"I dunno about that. I mean, without you I'd probably never made it this far, and who knows what would have happened. Thanks for guiding me."
She smiled. So ingenuous. "You're welcome."
He looked at Foxglove, who was preparing a spell. He asked, "What's she doing?"
"She will go to the Eldritch Academy, as we planned."
"Is that anywhere near St. Canard? I should be getting back. My friends are probably wondering where I've gone off to."
"Ramjet, taking you back is the simplest thing. I can teleport you myself. But if I do, I won't have the time to train you. It takes time. Weeks, possibly months."
"Um, it really is OK, I get along fine. I'll have to take a raincheck, I guess. Is that all right?"
She patted him on the shoulder. "Of course. You will be able to contact me through The Eldritch Academy. Are you ready to go back now?"
"Then picture in your mind where you want to return to." He closed his eyes and imagined his hotel room. She touched his shoulder. He was not surprised when he realized that she was seeing the image too. She clapped her hands together sharply.
He startled. His eyes opened. He was back in the room! He looked around, then said, "Wow!"
She said, "My full name is Morgana McCawber. Remember it, for when you want to reach me."
"Sure." He stared. She had turned transparent.
"We will meet again." she said just before she faded away entirely. "I want to hear that eight-generations-long story."
He was alone in his room. The clock said it was early afternoon. And he was wearing a coat and pants that were slightly damp with melted snow. He took them off . His own clothes, which he was still wearing underneath, were soot-stained. As was he. "I'm gonna have to shower for a week to get all this crud off." he murmured to himself. But first he had to let his friends know he was all right, in case they had been trying to reach him. Judging from the flashing light on the visiphone, they had. He called the number left on the most recent message.
Brady answered immediately. Ramjet said, "Hey, it's me."
"Ramjet?! Where in the universe have you been?! We've been trying to reach you for -" Then he noticed Ramjet's state. "You're a mess, kid! Have you gotten yourself in some kind of trouble? You trying to cause an interplanetary incident or something?"
"Who, me? Nahh." Ramjet grinned.
Brady paused a beat, looking at the screen. Then, "There's a story behind this, isn't there?"
"Did you meet a woman?" Brady grinned teasingly.
"No. Well, uh, yeah." Ramjet grinned wider.
Brady looked at Ramjet through the screen in surprise. "I'm going to have to hear about this one. But not now, we've been holding up a mission for you since yesterday. Check out of there; I'll pick you up in the lobby in five minutes. You can make yourself fit to be seen on the shuttle."
"Okay. Meet'cha downstairs. Over."
"Roger, Ramjet. Over'n'out."
The visiphone clicked off. Ramjet wondered briefly about Brady's odd smile as he gathered up his things.
This story was inspired by "The Gates of Shambhala", a three part story by Bobbi and David Weiss that appeared in "Disney Adventures" a few years back.
Morgana McCawber and Negaduck are copyright © Disney, and are used without permission. Essobee McCawber, Ramjet McQuack, and Marius Magnus are copyright © by Kim McFarland. Steve Brady and the "Gadgeteers" are copyright © Mark Lungo. Disney characters are used without permission but with a heck of a lot of respect. However, Essobee ripped his spell from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera "Ruddigore" without asking permission or acknowledging copyrights. The little jerk.
This story is copyright © Kim McFarland. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only, provided no changes are made to the story or the credits.
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