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Michael was the first to enter the verse, at least as far as I've ever heard. He has been through the scriff maybe more times than I've been to the grocery store. As painful as it is to be so ripped apart by death, he normally goes through it awake and aware, and arrives in the next world on his feet. So waking up in a new world has become an unusual experience for him. Opening his eyes to find himself lying on green grass in an open wood, he very quickly realized that he had died in his sleep. It was time to start again, in a new world.
Assessing his surroundings, he first noted that there were three familiar people with him--people being used in the rather loose sense he had come to apply. Lima, of course, was a person by anyone's definition; the woman he had met at the other end of a gun was becoming quite fond of him, and he of her, and he was not displeased to have her along. Gor was a bear, but was a person in his mind, intelligent, capable, lacking only speech in his abilities. Kubak, the Knowing One as he was called, was the most aware owl perhaps in the entire multiverse, and quite intelligent as well. They made a good team.
They were on a wide ledge on the side of a steep cliff face. Along the face of the cliff it appeared to run many miles, but was only perhaps a hundred yards wide. Looking out from the cliff face, there was open sky as far as he could see. Far below were clouds, and below that a blue sheet which might have been an ocean, although its appearance was reminiscent of satellite photos.
He could hear the sound of splashing water not far off, and decided that while he waited for his companions to awaken he could clean up and perhaps get a drink. He headed in that direction, and soon found the source: a small stream splashed down from far above, filling a pool, and then running nearly straight to the edge of the ledge, and fell into the distance below. It looked fresh, clean; but there was a snag. Resting quietly beside the water was the largest lion he had ever seen. It looked at him; he froze in his tracks.
A lion is a lion; but sentience takes many forms in many worlds. Michael was not going to draw on a creature which might be a friend. Nor was he going to drop his guard around a monster which might rip him limb from limb. He hesitated, not certain how to proceed. The lion did not move.
It was the lion who spoke first. "Would you like a drink?" it asked.
"I don't mind waiting, if you're not finished," he replied, carefully.
"As you like," said the lion. "I brought you here because I have a job for you, if you're willing to do it."
"No, you didn't bring me here. That's not how it works--I'm a verser," Michael ventured.
The lion got very serious, and looked directly into his face. "You would not have come here had I not called you," it said. Michael felt it better not to argue the point, and allowed the lion to continue.
The lion explained that he had just sent two children on a mission. Their names were Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole. He did not want Michael to interfere in that mission in any way. However, he wished for the children to press forward, and not to look behind them. Therefore, Michael's job would be to follow the children, and make sure that nothing they passed attacked them from behind. His companions could go with him, and they could take such equipment as they wished; however, they should leave the jeep behind, as it would be more trouble than use in this world. Michael found the job interesting, and agreed to take it. There was one other instruction: if for any reason Michael or his companions were to talk with the children, they were not to mention the lion's name--and the lion made a point of not mentioning his name, lest Michael would make a mistake.
Michael was sent to retrieve his companions, and bring them back. While he was by the jeep, he stowed some of his more complicated equipment, and grabbed a book. I hadn't mentioned this book before, but I knew he had it. It was called the Book of the Dead, or something of the sort. He had stolen one of three copies known to exist in a world filled with demons whose power was in part drawn from the book. Taking possession of it and allowing them to kill him, he managed to pull the book out of that world and into another. But since then he had been saddled with this book. Its evil was so great that he dared not leave it in any world, lest someone there foolishly summon the monsters into their world. He dreaded what would happen to him were he to reach a world in which they could again find him while he still had the book. His efforts to destroy it had come to naught--he had even left it at ground zero of a nuclear explosion on one occasion, but it had come through unscathed. He took the book to the lion, and told him of the demons from whom he had taken it.
"I know them," said the lion. "I do not permit them to come here." These words impressed Michael even more than the comment about having brought him there; he gave the lion the book, and with one tap of its forepaw, the lion reduced the book to a pile of dust. Michael had no further questions.
The lion said that it had gifts for each of them. To Michael he gave a fine broadsword, and a shield bearing the image of the lion. Lima received a bow and a quiver of arrows. For Gor and Kubak, the lion said there was a special gift: the gift of speech. The animals of this world included many who could speak, and some who could not; speech was what distinguished the intelligent ones from the others, and it would be necessary for them to have this ability. Also, Gor was told to go into the woods and pull a dead branch from one of the trees just beyond view, which he could use as a club. Indeed, the branch seemed to have grown in a shape which proved ideal for that purpose.
Once this was done, the lion instructed them to stand near the edge of the cliff, so that he could send them after the children. They would arrive shortly after the children did, and would be able to pick up their trail. A moment later, they were floating in the air, as if carried by the wind itself, high in the air above the ocean.
It was clear that the ground here by the water had been trampled recently. Tracking two children was not going to be easy. Michael decided to look for wood to start a fire. Grabbing hold of a branch from a tree, he had quite a surprise: the tree reacted.
The tree wasn't angry, just startled. Seeing Michael with his shield, the tree immediately greeted him--and again Michael was surprised. "Your majesty", the tree said, going on to offer him several dead branches which would make excellent firewood. Michael decided he had been mistaken for someone else, but the tree was insistent that it was in the presence of King Michael, Queen Lima, Lord Gor, and Lord Kubak--and since he needed help, he wasn't going to argue the point. The tree--actually, the dryad, the spirit of the tree, which to Michael was a familiar idea he had not yet encountered in any world--was very helpful. The children had gone to the castle at the top of the hill, just a few miles away. They had left shortly before sunset.
Thanking the dryad for the information, Michael decided to follow before the trail was lost. He took his group along the road indicated, and soon reached the castle. Asking entrance at the gate, he again was greeted with surprising respect: King Michael had come; open the gate! He was soon brought in, fed, and offered accommodations. He was also brought to see a very old dwarf, whose hearing was less keen than his eyesight, but who was apparently in charge, and quite willing to allow them to stay as long as they wished. The dwarf had no idea what they were saying. They were able to learn from others that the children had arrived, and had gone to bed; and that the King had left to sail east looking for his lost son, who had disappeared some years before after the death of his mother; and that the dwarf was regent in the King's place. Then they were given rooms. As Kubak preferred to be awake at night, Michael asked him to keep watch outside and let him know what was happening.
Several hours later Kubak was back at Michael's window. The children were not in the castle. They had been taken by owls to a distant tower, where there was a long meeting about what they were to do. Apparently the dwarf had strict orders that no one was to look for the Prince, but that's what the lion had sent the children to do. So the owls were taking the children north that night, and they would be heading out of this country from there.
Michael wasted no time. The children were moving, and he was lying around doing nothing. He determined to wake the others, and get moving. Of course, this was easier said than done. He had had to teach Lima and Gor how locks worked, and now their doors were locked, and they were sound asleep. He woke Lima easily enough, but Gor was quite a task. Waking a bear when winter is coming on is not an easy thing. Still, after trying several ideas for getting the door open, he managed to rouse his companion, and get him organized.
The castle staff was responsive and helpful. They had a couple of horses--talking horses--ready to go in short order, along with some provisions for the trip. He had instructed Kubak to keep track of the children, and to let him know where they went; he would strike out north along the shore until he heard something from the owl. (Kubak, of course, would have little trouble finding his companions if he could get within a few miles of them.) Out of the castle they went--ostensibly on a hunting expedition--and off to the north.
To some degree, their haste was unnecessary. The children were carried not more than about a dozen miles, and dropped in the middle of a swamp in the care of vaguely humanoid creature, where they promptly went to sleep for the rest of the night. Michael reached the edge of that marsh within a couple hours, and waited. But the children would stay with their host for a day and another night before striking north, during which time there was little to do but wait.
They did talk to some of the creatures in the marsh. These creatures seemed extremely depressed and pessimistic. When asked for help, they offered a stack of thick, warm, well-made blankets, and apologized for the poor quality and lack of durability. Michael would often joke thereafter about the opinions of the marsh people. Caviar would be too salty, and champagne too bubbly. Filet mignon was undoubtedly tough, and peppers and onions bland. Nothing they offered was ever very good, in their view, although it was always excellent. Michael expressed his gratitude for everything (as well as parting with a few coins which were made of genuine precious metals brought from other worlds), and when the children moved north the next morning, he crossed the marsh to keep up with them.
For the next week, things went rather smoothly. There was a day on which giants from the valley to the east were throwing rocks at pile of stone to the west, and it seemed the children might be in some danger; but this ended without incident before Michael was close enough to get involved. On another day, a couple of giants got in a fight with each other; but they stayed where they were. Finally, two giants came out of the valley onto the plane. They were carrying large stone clubs, and seemed intent on catching up with the children. Michael, Lima, and Gor closed the gap, and then opened fire with simple missiles. The giants were huge, and terrifying to look at; but they were almost impossible to miss, and although they took quite a lot of damage before they were brought down, they weren't able to get close enough to reach the team before collapsing. The children were safe.
From the edge of the plateau, they could see another plain ahead and below, continuing north into the distance. At this distance, there was also clearly the remains of an ancient road, a perfectly straight line of paving stones, although it was broken up and spotty for the full length. At the near end of the road was a bridge, also ancient and made of stone. It had once been a great piece of engineering, curving high into the sky over a gorge; but time had been cruel to it, and there were portions in such disrepair as to cause Michael to wonder why it was still standing. From the bottom of the gorge came the roar of water, echoing between the sheer sides.
Michael was not eager to cross the bridge; the children and their marsh guide were already near the peak (he feared even then that they might fall), and he and his companions would have to climb down the rather steep slope to the ledge from which the bridge began. He had decided that this was a very magical world, and had thought about what sort of magic he might be able to perform here; but he had never relied on magic, and knew precious little at this point. He wanted to create a platform to carry them across the gap to land on the other side. This he envisioned would be quicker, easier, and far safer than attempting to cross the bridge. He took some time to think about how he might accomplish this, gathered a few things together, and devised a ritual which focused on calling on the lion who had sent them. However, the only result of this at the moment was that the children widened their lead. Giving up, he led the way to the bridge, and began to cross it.
Near the top, that which he feared came upon him: Lima slipped, and fell through one of the gaps in the stone. He rushed to the edge, but she was plummeting below toward the now visible raging torrent far below. He was desperate. Once more he tried to create a magical platform, this time below the falling girl--and this time it worked. She landed on the platform, which slowed her fall, and then raised her back to Michael. He helped her back onto the bridge, and the platform dispersed.
They carefully finished crossing the bridge. Lima was trembling, but Michael was elated--he had tapped into the supernatural, and done something magical.
It didn't last. Now that they were over the ridge, there was a cold north wind in their faces constantly; and winter was closing, so the days were getting colder, and the nights were starting to freeze. Those warm blankets from the marsh men were little help against the wind at night. Making things worse, there was little that would count as food or shelter on this side of the gorge. All was flat and desolate. There were many nights when they would have given much for so little as a boulder between them and the wind; but there were none. Every morning, getting up was a chore. There was no fire to warm them, no breakfast waiting--only more cold wind in their faces. On several mornings, they got a late start because Michael wouldn't come out of the blanket--or worse, because they couldn't wake Gor. What with the days getting colder, Gor was less and less likely to get up the next morning. But they kept pressing forward.
On one or two days, they managed to build a scrap of a fire; they had learned to pick up sticks and such as they walked. They did a bit of hunting, although there was not much alive in this wasteland. On one occasion, Lima brought down a goose with her arrows. Michael cooked it (he had been a cook in the army), and saved every piece that wasn't food.
Finally they reached the end of the plain. There was a row of high hills with a pass between, followed by a grove of evergreen trees before an open stony area; on the other side of this was a large castle on a low mountainside. Michael didn't like the look of it, but the children were camping along the edge of the trees, cooking a goose their companion had brought down, and Michael's job did not include interfering with their progress. He, too, managed to get some meat for dinner, and there was plenty of wood here. It would be the first time they were near warm in longer than he could think.
Michael was not willing to enter the castle, so he made camp in one of the holes in the ground. There were several of these, which seemed to have been cut in the level stone which formed the ground in the center of the area, but in the midst of what had become a blizzard, they were more interested in the shelter than the design. Michael pulled together a bit more magic to keep them warm, and they weathered the night adequately.
By daybreak the storm had ended. As the sun warmed the ground, the melting snow began to pour into their campsite. They were up, like it or not. Michael began assessing the situation, making observations, considering options. The children had entered the castle; and his forebodings concerning the castle were being proved out: a party of giants came out of it and headed into the hills, accompanied by a number of hunting dogs. The situation looked serious.
But just as he had decided to assault the castle to free the children, they came out entirely on their own. Dressed in bright colors, they sauntered out and headed down the road; but the group of giants who had left earlier made an untimely return. The marsh man got them running directly down the mountainside, headed straight for Michael's group, with the giants in pursuit. Not dropping a step, Michael, Gor, and Lima were running to meet them, arming weapons on the fly.
Then suddenly the children were gone. They had reached the bottom of the mountain, and were coming up the slope to the rocks; but they never got that far, and they were nowhere to be seen. Still, Michael opened fire, killed several of the giants, and drove the rest back.
Never one to overwork, Michael decided to try some more magic. He had heard of a mythical creature called an earth elemental. If such a creature existed, clearing a large hole would be like playing in a sandbox to it; and given the number of mythic creatures he had seen, this world was a likely place for such a creature to be found. He decided to summon one.
No matter what you try in life, there is always the possibility that you will botch it. You might flood the engine on the car. You might blow up the grenade at the wrong moment. You might give yourself a splitting headache trying to levitate. Even when you're walking, you could trip over your own feet and fall on your face. The more dangerous the thing is which you attempt to do, the more serious the consequences if you botch. And Michael botched this one in a big way. The ground came alive; rocks began walking, flying, moving all around. An area about the size of a football field was full of living stone, as the stones became animate, moved to new positions, and settled back to being stone.
This clearly was not what he wanted; but he loved it, and wished he had time to spend watching it. Unfortunately, he had to dig out a tunnel with a folding camp shovel, and without the help of an earth elemental.
Once this was accomplished, he led the way into the darkness, and wound through a narrow passage. Nervous about what was ahead, he dared another bit of magic, and created a little bit of light--and none too soon, as he found himself at the top of a steep drop of loose stone.
This seemed like an opportune moment to recreate that magical platform which had caught Lima before. Repeating the words and motions which had worked that time, he brought it into existence, and the three of them stepped on it. Kubak, of course, could fly down; the rest of them took this magical elevator.
You may remember that in the world from which Lima, Gor, and Kubak came, there were levels, floors in an artificial complex designed to look like worlds. They frequently spoke of going above the sky or below the ground. To them this was just like that--they were going to a lower level below the ground. Michael quickly realized that it was useless trying to explain to them about caves. Besides, Kubak reported that the children and the marsh man had been taken by a large group of creatures which did not sound quite like any he had ever heard. They were moving very quickly; Kubak could tell them which direction to go, but by this point no one knew what direction that was.
The things they passed, the world they saw--that was fascinating, and I've had Lima tell me all that she remembered several times; but the short version is that they hurried in the direction Kubak indicated, staying on the move as much as possible. Eventually they reached the edge of a vast underground body of water, and Michael experimented with several ideas for how to follow the vanishing point of light which was the boat that took the children. In the end, he built a raft out of some kind of strange plants that grew in the caves; but he still used magic to make it move across the water.
M. J. Young Net