The Shadow Dragons (Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica Series #4)by James A. Owen
The Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica are at war. The Imperial Cartological Society, led by Richard Burton, have collected all of the doors from the Keep of Time, and are building a new tower in our world at the request of an old enemy: The Winter King’s Shadow. He has a terrible weapon – The Spear of Destiny – that can be used to… See more details below
The Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica are at war. The Imperial Cartological Society, led by Richard Burton, have collected all of the doors from the Keep of Time, and are building a new tower in our world at the request of an old enemy: The Winter King’s Shadow. He has a terrible weapon – The Spear of Destiny – that can be used to command the shadows of anyone it touches…including the protectors of the Archipelago, the dragons. With a ship called The Iron Dragon, the Shadow King regains passage to the Archipelago where he uses the power of the Spear and the portals of Time to enlist an unstoppable army of Dragon Shadows. And after the Archipelago falls, he intends to betray the Allies in our world – but not to align himself with the opposition. The Shadow King intends to use the turmoil of WWII to take over BOTH worlds.
All the legendary Caretakers, past and present, come together on a great island in the northermost part of the Archipelago to decide the ultimate fate of the Imaginarium Geographica, as a terrible battle ravages the lands around them. And their only hope lies with a small group of companions who are on the quest for the broken sword Caliburn: the Grail Child Rose Dyson; her mechanical companion, the owl Archie; a mouse with an attitude; a dead Professor of Ancient Literature; and the mythical knight, Don Quixote.
They must sail beyond the ends of the Archipelago in search of the sword, and the only being alive who can repair it: a scholar, who, once upon a time, was called Madoc.
Read an Excerpt
"We are definitely lost," John said with decisive authority. "I haven't the faintest idea where we are."
"How can you be lost?" his friend Jack asked with a barely concealed grin. "You're the Principal Caretaker of the Imaginarium Geographica. You're probably the foremost authority on maps in the entire world. How is it you've managed to get us lost not two hours' walk from Oxford?"
"I wasn't paying attention," John said irritably. "I was enjoying the conversation and the company. After all, this is the first time in almost twenty years that the three of us have been able to come together as friends out in the open. I like secret societies as much as the next man, but actually having Charles participate as a formal member of the Inklings is going to be delightful."
"Agreed," said Jack, clapping Charles on the back. "The ability to share things with Hugo has been a blessing, but I've been itching to discuss your work at length with Arthur Greeves and Owen Barfield."
"It was fortuitous that Greeves sent you a copy of my new book," Charles agreed, "at the same time that you sent your own to the Oxford University Press. It was just the sort of coincidental happening that's interesting enough to sound truthful."
"That's because it is true," Jack insisted, "and all the more significant for it. Although we're going to have to work on our timing for these private walkabouts I had to bow out of a walking tour with Barfield and Cecil Harwood to come out today."
"And I suppose you never get lost?" John said, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
Jack made a dismissive motion with his hands. "Never," he said primly. "We always bring a map, and I am, after all, the best map reader. Honestly, it's a mystery to me why I wasn't made the Caretaker Principia in your place."
John laughed. "I'll gladly give you the job right now," he said, pretending to remove his pack as Jack whistled and looked the other way, pretending to ignore him, "unless we can find someone better qualified, like a badger or a faun."
"I think you're both looney," said Charles, "and it's starting to rain."
They all looked up at the overcast sky, and as one, had the same thought. It had been raining on the night they first met in London the night their lives were irrevocably changed.
It had been nearly two decades since the three men were brought together at the scene of a terrible crime. John's mentor, a professor of ancient literature named Stellan Sigurdsson, had been killed by a man called the Winter King, who was searching for the book known as the Imaginarium Geographica. John was being trained to become the next Caretaker of the great book, and Jack and Charles, as much through circumstance as by design, became Caretakers as well. With the help of another Caretaker called Bert, who became their trusted mentor, they managed to keep the Winter King from using the book to conquer the Archipelago of Dreams, the great chain of islands for which the atlas was the only guide but at great cost. Friends and allies were lost, hard lessons were learned; and even then, their nemesis returned again and again like a persistent nightmare at the edge of the waking world.
At the end of their first conflict, a great Dragon called Samaranth had dropped the Winter King over the edge of an endless waterfall. But nine years after that adventure, the three companions returned to the Archipelago to search for the great Dragonships that had vanished along with all the children only to discover that his Shadow had survived and was as deadly as the real Winter King himself.
Five years after that, they found themselves drawn into yet another crisis, when rogue Caretakers who had allied themselves with the Winter King tricked their friend Hugo Dyson into going through a door to the past where he changed history itself.
Only by traveling through the events of two millennia and discovering the identity of the Cartographer of Lost Places, who created the Geographica, were they at last able to set things right. But what they discovered was disturbing: The Cartographer, who was once Merlin, was in large part responsible for the Winter King his twin, Mordred becoming the twisted, evil man he was. And the Caretakers would not have succeeded at all without the help of a young girl, Mordred's daughter Rose, also called the Grail Child, who returned with them to the present as Hugo's niece.
That was five years ago, and other than a few flurries that necessitated the counsel of the Caretakers usually just John there had been no reason to return to the Archipelago. The rogue Caretakers, led by the adventurer Richard Burton, had remained hidden, and there was no sign of the Winter King's Shadow. There were still difficult problems to deal with: The Keep of Time, where the Cartographer resided, had been crumbling apart since their first trip to the Archipelago; and the king, Artus, had tried to replace the monarchy with a republic, to only limited success. But the years of the Great War were far behind them, and all was right enough with the worlds here and beyond to set aside duty and responsibilities for a few hours to better enjoy a pleasant spring walk in the English countryside.
"It's a shame that Hugo could not join us," Jack said. "We've had too few occasions as of late to catch up with him."
"Uncle Hugo wanted to be here," came a voice from somewhere above them, "but he had some obligations to attend to in Reading that could not be delegated elsewhere. He sent me along anyway, because he knew you needed to discuss the Problem."
Rose Dyson dropped down from the birch tree she'd been climbing and dusted herself off, then moved to stand next to Jack.
The "Problem" she referred to was evident to all three Caretakers. When she returned with them to the present from the sixth century, she was barely an adolescent. Tall, perhaps, but the auburn-haired Rose was still obviously a child and that was, as Hugo put it, the "Problem."
He had placed her in a boardinghouse near his teaching post in Reading, where she was enrolled in school as his niece. And over the course of five years, she had not visibly aged a day.
"It's a natural law without a demonstrable basis," Bert had told them once. "Denizens of the Archipelago age more slowly than we do in the Summer Country. Days and nights are the same as those here, but they're often out of sync."
This much they had witnessed for themselves on numerous occasions. Night in Oxford turned to day upon crossing the Frontier, and vice versa. And once, even the seasons had been reversed: Jack had traveled from Oxford in late summer, only to find the Archipelago in the grip of a terrible winter. So it wasn't just a matter of slight temporal differences there were rules of time at work between the worlds that no one had as yet been able to decipher.
"Is the fact that she was born there, and brought here, the reason she hasn't aged?" Jack proposed.
"Not necessarily," offered Charles. "She hadn't aged normally on Avalon, either. But given her peculiar lineage, there may be no precedent for the kind of person she'll become."
"I'm a conundrum," Rose said from a few feet up the path, where she was using a branch to lever up a large stone. "Or an enigma. I forget which."
John nodded in agreement. "That's for certain. I've been thinking of contacting Aven and Artus about continuing her schooling on Paralon. At least there she'll not be questioned, no matter her age."
"Plus, she's family," said Jack. "She and Arthur were cousins, so that would make her an aunt, or second cousin, or some such."
"Twenty generations removed," added Charles.
"All of which doesn't change the fact that you've managed to get yourselves lost," came an irritated voice from above. "Of course, I know exactly where we are."
John rolled his eyes. "Of course," he said drolly, looking sideways at the others. "Having him up there is like having a conscience that won't shut up and won't take suggestions."
Complicating matters further was the other teacher the companions had brought forward from the past as a companion for Rose the great owl Archimedes. That he was in fact a clockwork construct was the least of the problems he caused Hugo Dyson in Reading. He wasn't a predator; he wasn't dangerous; but he was irredeemably sarcastic and wickedly smart and more than one local had been surprised by an encounter with a talking owl that could insult them while spouting jokes about Plato's Cave.
Archimedes, called Archie for short, stayed in Hugo's rooms, mostly but it was inevitable that he and Rose would be seen together, and a talking owl combined with a girl who wasn't getting older was a recipe for disaster.
A month earlier they had transported the bird to the Kilns, the residence near Oxford that Jack shared with his brother Warnie and adopted mother Mrs. Moore. Warnie had already been initiated into some of the mysteries of the Caretakers, but it was a more delicate process with Mrs. Moore. However, once she recovered from the initial shock, and once she had accepted the need for secrecy, she and the owl became affable companions. Archie apparently got on very well with females.
Warnie was another matter entirely. The first hour they met, he had made a sudden move that startled the bird, and Archie bit his arm. It left a nasty welt, and thereafter Warnie persisted in referring to the bird as "Lucifer," which didn't endear him to the owl once Jack had explained the reference. The pairing made for a very lively household.
Moving Rose to the Kilns was a second option but again, they would be risking the same kind of exposure there as they had in Reading. And keeping all knowledge of the Geographica, the Archipelago, and the denizens within a secret was the prime rule of the Caretakers the very rule that caused Burton and others to rebel. There would be no easy answers which was why it was important for all three Caretakers to discuss the move as soon as they were able.
Archimedes lit atop a shrub next to where Rose was digging a hole and cast a disdainful eye at John. "Don't you have the atlas with you, Caretaker Principia?" the bird asked. "Isn't it full of maps?"
"Yes, I have it, and yes, it is," John said irritably. "But I don't have any maps of England in it."
The owl hooted in derision. "Only a scholar would go on a hike with a book of maps that are of absolutely no use."
"It's immensely useful!" John shot back. "Just, ah, just not here and now."
It was not all that unusual for a professor to carry books with him wherever he went even on a walkabout holiday such as this one so John simply carried the Imaginarium Geographica around with him. Too many times in the past circumstances had called for its use, and through misfortune, or lack of preparation, he had found himself without it.
Even after the badger Tummeler had begun publishing an abridged and annotated edition in the Archipelago, and copies were freely available, John still preferred to keep a light hand on the actual atlas. It was impossibly old, and had been written in by some of the greatest creative minds in human history. There were notations that were to be read only by the Caretakers or their apprentices, and so were not available to Tummeler. And there were maps that were left out of the popular edition because the little mammal saw them as unimportant.
What Tummeler didn't realize was that it was often those out-of-the-way places where the turning points of history occurred, in the same way that the men and women who changed the world were not always the ones who seemed to have the power to do so. No one understood this principle quite so well as two professors from Oxford and their editor friend from London.
The owl launched himself back into the air as a stone tumbled into the hole Rose had been digging.
"There," she said, dusting her hands. "That's much better."
"What's better?" Charles asked.
"The stone," Rose replied. "It was in the wrong place. I put it back."
John and Jack blinked at each other in consternation. They couldn't decide if the girl was too simple or too complex to really understand.
"Are you certain he's not going to, ah, rust?" Charles said, casting a glance upward at the bird circling overhead. "Hugo would be quite put out if something befell the owl."
"He hasn't rusted so far," said Jack, looking around the small clearing, "but we're going to be soaked to the skin if we don't find a place to bed down for the evening. We'd best be going, and quickly. It's getting dark."
"Any suggestions?" said John.
Jack indicated a faint footpath to the northwest, which veered off the main walking trail. "There's a faint glow coming from over there. With any luck, it's an inn or at least a farmhouse where we can get directions and our bearings."
There was indeed a light emanating from somewhere behind a grove of trees. The roadway must have been on the other side, as the path was sparse enough that it could not have seen many travelers. Nevertheless, the companions followed Jack's lead and pressed their way through the trees.
As they walked, the path opened up into a proper road which crossed another going east-west, and there, at the junction, stood the source of the light a tall streetlamp, which looked as if it had been plucked out of Oxford and dropped here in the countryside.
Underneath it, dressed in a battered topcoat, a man was standing as if he were waiting for a bus, or unwary passersby. Moving closer, John was startled to realize that he recognized him. Or at least, he thought he did.
Jack had the same flash of memory, and both looked back to note that Charles was right behind them.
At first glance, it looked as if Charles another Charles was standing at the crossroads, waiting for them. The man was tall and had Charles's bearing but as they walked closer, it was apparent that he was a stranger to them. The three men and the girl nodded politely and began to move past, taking the path to the right and away from the lamp's comforting glow.
"Pardon me," the man said, raising a hand in greeting, "but do you have the time?"
"What?" said John. "Oh, uh, yes, of course," and he turned, pulling his watch from his vest pocket. It was a distinctive sort of watch: silver, untarnished, with a red Chinese dragon on the cover. "It's half past five," he said, snapping the watch closed, "or half past drenched, depending on your point of view."
"Mmm," the stranger mused. "Well put, John. But actually, I also need to know the year, if you don't mind."
At the mention of John's name, he and the others froze in place. Had the man merely overheard them talking? Had one of them uttered John's name? Or was something more sinister afoot?
"Why do you need to know the year?" John asked cautiously, as Jack and Charles moved protectively closer to Rose.
"Because," replied the man stiffly, "I've come a long way, and I seem to have lost track."
"Lost track of the years?" Charles exclaimed. "If you don't even know what year it is, should you be out and about in the woods all alone?"
"Actually," the man replied, "I came here to protect you, Charles. The year, if you please?"
"It's 1936," said Jack. "April, if you couldn't tell."
The man surprised them by slumping against the waypost in obvious relief. "Thank God," he said, running a hand across his head. "1936. Then I've not arrived too late after all."
"What year did you think it was?" asked John. "And pardon my asking, but how is it that you know our names? Have we met, perchance?"
"You are the Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica, are you not?" the man replied. "Let's just say we are in service of the same causes. And I was fully expecting to arrive here in 1943."
"You were expecting to arrive in the future?" said Charles. "That's not really possible, is it? I mean, not unless the circumstances are extraordinary."
"You've been in such a circumstance, I believe," the man said. "And it wasn't the future I was aiming for, but the past. I just seem to have overshot my mark, to our benefit, I hope."
John and Jack exchanged worried glances. The man knew enough to be dangerous to them but he had so far done nothing more than talk while leaning against the post. And he did say he was there to help them.
"Forgive our hesitation," John said mildly, "but we've heard credible stories of every stripe and color from the best of them. How are we to know you are indeed on, ah, our side, so to speak?"
In answer, the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver pocket watch. On the back was the clear image of a red dragon. It was identical to the watch John had just pulled from his own pocket. "It was given to me by Jules Verne," the man said, "as, I suspect, he gave yours to you."
"Good enough," John said as he and the stranger compared timepieces. "I've only ever seen one other like it."
"That would probably be Hank Morgan's," said the man. "His is used a bit more frequently, I'm afraid."
"So are you also a time traveler?" asked John.
"Not so much a traveler in time, as in space," the man said, "although thanks to the watch, I have the ability to do so when the need is dire. My mentor has a different set of goals for me than he had for Hank."
"Verne," said Charles. "So he's the one who sent you?"
"Indeed," the man replied. He pulled at his collar and looked around. "We should find a place more suitable to talk, unless you have an objection."
"That was our plan anyway," Jack said, offering his hand. "Do you have some place in mind?"
"I do," said the stranger, shaking Jack's hand, then John's and Charles's in turn. To Rose he gave only a long, appraising glance.
"You know all of us," Charles said amicably, "but you've not yet introduced yourself."
"Ransom," the man said as he turned and began leading them down the path to the left. "My name is Alvin Ransom."
Copyright © 2009 by James A. Owen
The Inn of the Flying Dragon
"I'm a great admirer of all your works," Ransom said as they walked briskly along, "especially your latest, John. That book about the little fellows with the hairy feet, and wizards, and whatnot. I particularly liked the part where the giants turned into stone. Very moving."
"Actually, those were trolls," John said. "And..." He stopped walking. "Hang on there," he exclaimed. "How could you have read that? I haven't even finished that book yet and I've barely touched it in years!"
Ransom slapped his forehead. "Apologies, my good fellow. I forgot it's not due to be published until next year. That's what I get for trying to curry favor with you by coming up with compliments."
"Oh," said John. "So, ah, you didn't really like it after all?"
"I haven't finished it," Ransom admitted. "But it is on my nightstand, and I fully intend to, as soon as I have the opportunity."
"What is your profession, Mr. Ransom, if I may ask?" said Charles.
"I'm a philologist," he answered evenly, "at the University of Cambridge."
"A philologist?" said John. "Really? A languages specialist? How odd that we haven't met before."
"Not particularly," said Ransom. "The Cambridge that I come from isn't the Cambridge you're familiar with."
"Different country?" asked Jack.
"Different dimension," replied Ransom.
"That sounds exactly like Cambridge," said Charles.
"Bert has alluded to the concept of different dimensions once or twice," John said, "but we never got into specifics. Charles is our resident expert in that particular field."
Charles beamed with pleasure at the compliment. "I've actually devoted quite a bit of attention to the topic," he said brightly, "even wrote a book about it."
"I know," Ransom replied, his voice suddenly somber with respect. "It's one of our most important theses on the subject of multidimensionality."
Charles blinked at him. "It was, ah, a work of fiction, actually."
Now it was Ransom's turn to be surprised. He started to make a comment, then paused, his expression softening. "I keep forgetting what year I've come to," he said mildly. "There are things I take for granted that you won't actually know about for a few years yet, God willing."
Jack and John exchanged a glance of concern. God willing? Just what was that supposed to mean? That they wouldn't discover the knowledge Ransom referred to too soon, or that they might not have the opportunity at all?
"You seem to know a great deal more about us than we know about you," Jack said. "I don't know how comfortable I am with that discrepancy."
"That's one reason my Anabasis Machine I mean, my pocket watch was fashioned in the manner it was," said Ransom. "There are too many double agents afoot in the lands, and too many allegiances built on the sand. It's difficult to know whom to trust and so Verne made certain to give those of us who are loyal to the Caretakers' trust an unmistakable symbol."
"A silver pocket watch," John asserted, "with a depiction of Samaranth on the casing."
Ransom nodded. "Exactly."
"Couldn't that be easily duplicated, though?" Charles opined. "I mean, it's a very nice watch, but there are a hundred watchmakers in London who could make a replica in a day."
Ransom almost stumbled as he spun about to frown at Charles. "Haven't you realized by now just how deep a game Verne, and Bert, and the others are playing?" he said with some astonishment. "When the Dyson incident occurred, didn't you think it significant that Verne had already prepared for the eventuality by arranging the Lanterna Magica for you to find, fifteen centuries before it was needed?
"These are the people who invented the idea of a secret society," Ransom continued, "so of course there would be safeguards." He snapped open his watch. "The first is the engraved inscription."
Jack and Charles moved closer to peer at the watch cover, which bore two words: Apprentice Caretaker, and the Greek letter omega.
"Only the Caretakers themselves, their apprentices, and those like myself who have been recruited to the cause know that Bert chose that letter as the Caretaker's mark," said Ransom. "That's the first safeguard."
"And the second?" asked Jack.
Ransom glanced at him in surprise before grinning broadly and turning to resume walking down the path. "I'm surprised that you don't know, considering you are one of the actual Caretakers," he said with a trace of amused smugness, "but then again, the use of the watches and the safeguards didn't really become critical until nearly 1938."
He looked over his other shoulder at John and tipped his chin. "But you know, don't you?"
John glanced around to make certain they were alone, then rolled his eyes heavenward. Of course they were alone. They were lost in the English woods following someone from another dimension. If there were anyone lurking about to hear them, it would have to be a stroke of remarkable luck and accidental timing.
"Yes," he said quietly, arching an eyebrow at Ransom. "Bert told me just a few months ago. 'Believing is seeing.'"
"Believe," the philologist replied.
"That's it?" said Charles. "That's a bit simple for a secret code." "Simplicity is best in cooking, personal combat, and secret codes," said Ransom. "And that statement and response are both more simple and infinitely more complex than you can possibly imagine."
"I can imagine a great deal," Charles huffed.
"Oh, I meant no offense," Ransom said quickly. "That was just a turn of phrase. Of the three of you "
"Four of us," said John, nodding his head deferentially toward Rose, who smiled.
"Five," came a voice from somewhere above them in the gloom. "Couldn't count in Alexandria, can't count now. Some scholar you turned out to be."
"Sorry," Ransom said, peering up at the owl that circled overhead. "Uh, sorry," he repeated to Rose, with slightly less enthusiasm.
"As I was saying," he continued, "of all of you here, Charles is the one most likely to be able to comprehend what we're about to do. Because, strictly speaking, the place I'm taking you to isn't in our dimension."
Without explaining further, Ransom removed a small leather case from inside his coat. It was thick, and about as tall and broad as two decks of playing cards placed side by side. He untied the binding, and inside the companions could see a sheaf of thick, handmade paper with scrawled notes and sketches.
"These pages are for practice," Ransom said as he removed a dozen loose cards from the back of the case, "but these are the real cat's pajamas."
The cards were yellowed with age, and more akin to parchment than paper. Most of the sheets had intricate, nearly photographic drawings on them; only the last few were blank. All of them bore a remarkable pattern on the reverse side: an interweaving series of lines that formed an elaborate labyrinth, at the center of which was the symbol for eternity. Along the borders were symbols of a more familiar nature.
"Elizabethan?" asked John. "These appear to be some kind of...I don't know. Royal stationery?"
Ransom smirked. "That's a closer guess than you realize, John," he said, nodding. "Queen Elizabeth commissioned them, but hers was certainly not the hand that made them."
"John Dee," Charles intoned, drawing in a breath. "It had to have been Dee. We know he was an early Caretaker, but his books are missing from the official Histories, and Bert will not speak of him."
Ransom nodded again. "One of the dark secrets of the Caretakers," he said somberly. "Burton was not the only one of your order to betray his oaths of secrecy."
Before the companions could inquire further into what that meant, Ransom fanned the cards out in his hand. "As the Anabasis Machines the pocket watches can be used to travel in time, so can these cards be used to travel in space.
"We don't know enough about time travel to do more than journey to what Verne called 'zero points,'" the philologist continued. "We can make educated guesses, but anything outside the zero points is basically gambling without seeing our own hand of cards, so to speak."
"That's how you miss a target date by seven years," said Jack.
"Yes," said Ransom, "although seven isn't bad. If you have the chance, you should ask Hank Morgan about the time he tried jumping to 1905 and accidentally ended up becoming the sixteenth-century Indian emperor Akbar the Great."
"You mean meeting the emperor?" asked John.
"No," said Ransom. "Becoming the emperor. Like I said, it's a really good tale to dine out on."
"So I'm inferring from what you've said that these cards allow for a bit more precision?" asked Charles.
"Exactly. We actually call them 'Trumps' in honor of your book, Charles," said Ransom. "Dee made them as some kind of literal otherworldly tarot at least, that's what Verne believes. Only a hundred of the original sheets were discovered intact, and we realized their usefulness when Verne found two with drawings on them."
"And what are they used for?" said Jack.
"Simply put, they are used to travel between places," Ransom replied. "Whatever place is drawn on a Trump can be traveled to."
"Without limitation?" asked Charles.
"As far as we know," said Ransom. "Distance is no barrier, and neither is the ether that separates dimensions. In fact, the only limitation we know of is the number of blank Trumps that can be drawn on. We don't know the process Dee used to make them, and so Verne parceled out the ones we did have with a stern instruction to use them sparingly. Of the dozen given to me, I made nine that I use most frequently, and have three that can be created in case of grave emergency."
"Nine, ah, portals isn't very many," said John. "It seems like a much bigger limitation than you imply."
"Not so," said Ransom. "Verne recruited several agents like myself, and we all have at least six Trumps that are completely unique. The other three are points of conjunction, where we may meet up and then travel together when necessary. They can also be used to communicate although that risks detection, so we try to do so sparingly."
"Does Hank Morgan have a set?" asked John. "That would explain how he was able to send messages to Jules Verne when we were stuck in the past with Hugo."
"Well deduced, John," Ransom said with a smile of approval. "He does indeed, although we had not worked out all the mechanics of using them at that point."
"Wait a moment," said Jack, confused. "If Hank had these Trumps with him in Camelot, why didn't he just use them to get us out of there as soon as he realized who we were?"
"Two reasons," said Ransom, with slightly less approval. "First, if he had been able to use them to take you out of Camelot, it would not have helped your situation. Trumps don't traverse time, only space. So you'd still have been in the sixth century just somewhere less useful."
"I'm betting the second reason has to do with time travel," said Charles. "There was already enough damage done by them just being there, and events had to take the proper course to be repaired. Am I right?"
"Eminently so," Ransom replied. He selected one of the cards, then replaced the others in the book, which he put back in his coat. "Everyone, now, if you please stand behind me and give your attention to the card."
Archimedes dropped down from one of the beech trees and landed lightly on Charles's shoulder. Rose, Jack, John, and Charles moved behind Ransom and stared at the card he held in front of them.
It depicted a cozy-looking, multigabled tavern set in a wood exactly like the one that surrounded the crossroads just ahead of them. At arm's length, the drawing was nearly photographic in nature, so real and precise that it almost seemed to...
"Oh!" Rose exclaimed, startled and delighted at once. "The flames in the lanterns! They're flickering!"
The lamps were indeed moving with the light of active flame. The smoke from the chimneys also moved, as did the leaves stirring in the gentle breeze that blew them across the tableau...
...and onto Ransom's outstretched arm.
The philologist smiled, then concentrated all his attention on the card, which began to grow bigger.
The patterns around the border began to glow with an ethereal light, and they pulsed with a rhythm very much like a heartbeat.
In moments it was the size of an atlas, and now hung suspended in the air of its own accord. It continued to expand, and within a matter of minutes it was a life-size looking glass that could be stepped through with ease. The only thing that was different about the wood in front of them was that five minutes earlier, there had been no tavern there but otherwise, every tree and leaf was exactly the same.
Ransom stepped through the frame of the card and beckoned to the others. "Come along," he said with a wry grin. "I assure you, it's perfectly safe."
Charles and Archie went first, with no hesitation. Rose was next, followed by Jack, and finally John, who inhaled sharply, checked his bag for the bulk of the Imaginarium Geographica to make sure it was secure, and stepped through.
Once on the other side, the portal shrank rapidly, until it was once more just a drawing on an old sheet of parchment, which Ransom carefully replaced in the book in his coat.
The philologist then turned about and flung out his arm as if he were the host of a party. "My friends," he said brightly, "welcome to the Inn of the Flying Dragon."
"That's fantastic," said John. "I think I like those even better than the doors in the Keep of Time."
"It takes a certain knack to get the hang of them," said Ransom as he walked toward the inn. "We've got our eye on a young fellow named Roger to become my own apprentice. He shows great promise, I think."
Charles stroked Archimedes and frowned. "I'm sorry, old fellow," he said placatingly. "I know it's a bit dreary still, but we'll need you to stay out here."
Ransom stopped on the front steps of the inn and turned around. "Why is that? Bring him in. I'm sure they can accommodate him."
The companions exchanged confused looks. "I don't know how it is in your Cambridge," said John, "but where we come from, an oversized talking mechanical owl tends to attract a lot of the wrong kind of attention."
"Really?" Ransom said as he opened the door, a knowing smile spreading across his face. "Perhaps in Oxford that's true, but it isn't the case here. Please come inside and see for yourselves."
Stepping through the door into the Inn of the Flying Dragon was, on first glance, very similar to stepping inside one of their usual gathering places like the Eagle & Child. There was a burly proprietor tending the bar, and scattered patrons seated at the tables, with a few in the back playing a game of cards. The room was well lit and not terribly smoky. There was a scent in the air of charred spices, possibly from a curry being burned in the kitchen. The kegs of ale were stacked high, and the taps flowed freely.
A mop boy scurried over to the companions and offered to show them to a table, taking special notice of the pretty girl in their company. "May I take your owl, sirs?" he offered, trying not to look as if he had noticed Rose. "There's a good spot in the stable behind, where he'll be well looked after."
Before any of them could reply, Archie opened his mouth. "I have very particular needs, boy. Are you prepared for a guest of my composition?"
John sighed. "He means he's not a typical owl," he explained as Rose and Charles both scowled at Archie. "He doesn't really require the normal sort of food and shelter."
"Well," the boy said, "if it helps, there was a wizard here last week who brought a phoenix with him, and they seemed pretty happy when they left."
"A wizard?" asked Jack. "Really?"
The boy nodded. "I forget his name Bumble or Humble something-or-another. But I took excellent care of his phoenix."
"This bird is, uh, not exactly natural," said John.
"Ah," the boy said. "A clockwork. We've had unusual birds before, and we'll do our best to make him comfortable."
"If that's the case," said Archie, "I want a copy of Einstein's notes on relativity, and a stuffed gopher to chew on as I read."
The boy squinted an eye and pondered this. "I can get you the Einstein notes, but only in German, unless you'll be staying the night. And the only gophers we have are in the stew but I can get you some mechanical mice instead."
Archimedes beamed and hopped over to the boy's outstretched arm. "Lead on, MacDuff."
"Actually, my name's Flannery."
"Whatever you say, MacDuff."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," said John.
They took seats around a table near the front corner, where they could watch the door and make use of it in a pinch. A stout, ginger-haired man in a floppy hat brought several mugs of ale over to the table.
"There are several such refuges throughout the world," Ransom explained, gesturing around at the inn. "A good term for them might be 'Soft Places,' meaning places where the boundaries are not as solid as elsewhere, and where one might cross between them, with the right knowledge and training."
"Is it luck or good planning that one of your Soft Places just happens to be a tavern?" asked John. "Not that I'm complaining in any way, mind you."
"Not luck," Ransom replied. "It's essentially the power of the crossroads made manifest. A crossroads is important for what it represents, and what it in fact is a junction between paths. Establishments such as the Inn of the Flying Dragon are much the same junctions between places."
"I've completely overlooked what may be the most appealing aspect of interdimensional travel," Charles said jovially. "Are there more taverns like this, then?"
"A few," said Ransom. "I've heard of one that's supposed to be at the End of the World, but I can't seem to locate it. All that's on Terminus is a bunch of rocks and a gravestone."
"Well, yes," Jack harrumphed. "Where else?"
"There's a nice place that was once called Harrigan's Green, which is difficult to get to, but worth the trip. You can tell stories to pay for your room and board, so essentially, it's merit-based. The best stories get the best room, and the best ale."
"I'll drink to that," said Charles, rising from his chair. "I'll get the next round, gentlemen. Same for all?"
They all nodded. "And you, Rose?" Charles asked.
"I'd really like a glass of milk, thank you," said Rose.
Ransom frowned for just an instant, then started to speak before John interrupted him.
"Pardon," John said, turning to Rose. "I think Charles might need some help with the drinks. Would you be so kind as to give him a hand, Rose?"
"Of course," the girl said cheerfully as she stood, pushing back her chair. "That will also give you and Uncle Jack the chance to ask Mr. Ransom why I make him so uncomfortable."
"She's a smart girl," said Jack as Rose walked over to join Charles at the bar.
"More than smart," said Ransom.
"So, since she brought it up," said John, "why does she make you jumpy, man? Surely you know who she is."
The philologist bit his lip and thought a moment before answering. "I know who she is," he said finally, "but what she is is a conundrum."
"Or an enigma," Jack chimed in. "Or both."
"What I mean," said Ransom, "is that she isn't supposed to be here at all. In practical terms, the girl doesn't exist."
"But clearly she does," said John.
"What's clear to you and me is not so clear to others," Ransom pointed out. "Did you notice that when we entered, the barman didn't bring anything for her, or even ask?"
"I just assumed that he wasn't accustomed to dealing with children," said John.
"No," said Ransom. "There are children in here all the time, especially during the day. He didn't see her. Couldn't see her."
Jack sat up straighter in his seat. "This isn't the first time that's happened," he said, gripping John's arm. "Remember? After we returned to England with Rose and Hugo? At the Bird and Baby?"
John frowned, then glanced over at the bar. "That's right Burton couldn't see her either."
"But that boy, Flannery, could," said Jack. He eyed Ransom appraisingly. "But why would you say she isn't supposed to exist?"
"Because," Ransom replied, "in the original History, she actually did sacrifice herself to save Arthur. It was a life for a life. She was supposed to die."
"It wasn't necessary," John said, leaning over the table. "She was willing, but that was enough."
"You know that because you were there," said Ransom, "but it wasn't the way history recorded it. And when you chose to bring her here, you somehow removed her from history altogether."
"Then why would some people see her while others can't?" Jack asked. "It doesn't make any sense."
"I can't tell you that," Ransom replied. "But since you returned, everything has been in flux that's part of the reason I came to find you."
"What's that?" said Charles as he and Rose returned with their drinks. "Hope we haven't missed anything good."
"Just chatting," John said as he took a mug from his friend. "Seems like a fine sort of pub, doesn't it?"
"Yes," Charles agreed, sitting. "But," he added in a hushed voice, "I think the barman has a tail. And I'm all but certain that he has donkey's ears tucked in around that ginger hair under his hat."
"Oh, Lampwick's a good enough fellow," said Ransom as he took a drink, "but I wouldn't mention the ears if I were you. He's a bit touchy about them."
"To your good health," John said, lifting his glass in a toast to his companions. "May all our travels end in such favorable places."
"Hear, hear," said Jack. "This is almost like the Tuesday night meetings with the fellows back at Oxford."
"Except for the fact that we're at an inn named for a dragon, which we can only get to through a drawing on a card," said Charles, "and we're being served drinks by a barman with a tail and donkey ears."
"Well, yes," said Jack. "Except for that."
Copyright © 2009 by James A. Owen
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