In the end, adults can only watch and hope that you will succeed where we fell short.
“Wait! Don’t go!” I call out, but she keeps running.
She drops the purple light into the pouch flung across her shoulder. Her curls bounce across her tunic as she quickly disappears around the corner.
The sudden darkness nearly swallows me.
I’m forced to slow down until my eyes can adjust. The light from the scattered torches are barely enough to tell me what I can already smell—it’s damp and dusty down here, and it’s making the stone floor slippery.
I need to hurry.
The cellar is a veritable maze.
She’ll loose me if I’m not careful…so I sprint after her.
We’re taking a beating in the battle outside. The impacts of boulders smashing into the castle proves it. The foundation shudders under the soles of my feet.
The enemy’s trebuchet are relentless, the bombardment echoing through the corridors. Dust, dirt and pebbles fall from the mortar onto my head and shoulders, getting into my eyes, and I have to blink through the coughs.
Rounding the corner, I call out again, “Please! Let me help you!”
Where are you?
Come on, Wendell, run…RUN!
When I finally catch up, she’s cowering at a juncture in the tunnels.
What’s wrong with…
Her wild eyes widen like a cornered rabbit and she screams.
I mean, I may not be the most handsome guy around, sure, but it’s a bit much to scream in terror…
It’s then that I notice she’s not looking at me.
The robed figure emerges from the blackness, hunched over—the tattered cloth hanging from the boney figure beneath. The air is swallowed up by a pungent smell of rotting flesh so strong, I gag.
A flash of movement catches my attention and I’m taken back.
Hundreds of insects—cockroaches, flies, earwigs and things I can’t identify, scatter across the tiles—left behind with each step the figure takes.
Footsteps of decay.
The figure hisses, arms outstretched towards the girl, completely ignoring me.
She recoils, screaming.
My reaction is instantaneous.
Reaching out with my hands to grip the air in front of me, I look to the torches on either side of the hallway.
White light flares from my chest, the Ithari glowing beneath my tunic and I can suddenly feel the flames. Warmth ripples under my skin, traveling from my chest out to my limbs. We become one…and the fire leaps from the wall sconces at my command.
The flame expands and swirls, splitting into two forms, creating giant fingers…and then hands.
Clapping my own together, the burning extensions of my will snatch the robe, yanking it back from the girl, holding it fast. The robe instantly bursts into flame.
Shrieks scrape at my ears and spine as the creature shakes violently, trying to escape my grasp.
I hold it fast, squeezing my palms together, ever tighter.
Smoke rolls out from between my fingers of flame, up along the ceiling in all directions…until there’s nothing left of my captive but falling ash.
The Wendellizer has saved the day!
Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.
With self-assured bravado, I roll my shoulders back as I stand upright.
Pleased with myself, I prepare my ‘Prince Charming Smile’ (which I have diligently practiced), turning to the girl.
…and just about lose it.
Why do girls have to be so pretty!?! Not…that I mind, but…it always throws off my cool groove.
And I don’t get those too often.
Her features are finally revealed to me in the torch light and my heart skips a beat.
Make that two.
A rumpled mane of long, dark curls frame the gentle curves of her face, her dark eyes locked onto mine.
“You saved me!” she coos, batting her doe-eyes at me.
Jumping to her feet, she avoids the pile of ash upon the ground and draws close. Her full lips part in an intoxicating smile and I, um, can’t remember…. What am I doing?
Oh. Right. Being cool.
I smile back, “Yeah,…” but that doesn’t sound right… “I mean, ‘Why yes, I did.’”
That’s better. I sound confident.
She reaches over and squeezes my hand, her finger intermingling with my own. Without warning, my knees go weak—wanting to buckle under me, but I keep it together.
Her touch is so soft, her skin warm—even in this dank cellar.
I just smile…because, well…I have absolutely no idea what to do next.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
Those full lips could utter complete nonsense and I’d turn to butter and agree with her anyway…
An old apple shoots pineapples with a machinegun.
Ooooo, say it again….
She steps closer and wraps her arms around me.
Wow, ohhhhHHHH WOW!
She lays her head on my chest.
I bite my lip.
She’s so close I can feel her breathing and I’m all too aware of her against me.
It takes all the willpower I have not to panic. My body can’t decide whether to collapse…or melt under her warm touch.
Luckily, the decision is made for me.
She looks up into my eyes, reaches her hand around my neck and firmly pulls me closer.
Leaning in, she closes her eyes and gently presses her soft lips to mine.
It only takes me a fraction of a millisecond to decide how to respond.
I wrap my arms around her waist.
My whole world starts spinning and I can feel my heart pounding out a new rhythm.
Oh, please let this moment last forever!
Just as my own foot starts tapping the ground like Thumper the rabbit, a hiss from behind tears us apart.
She pushes away quickly, her face contorted with terror.
Luckily it’s not because of my kiss.
At least I hope not.
I can still taste the salt on my lips as she stumbles back against the wall.
“No!” she cries, “Don’t let them get me! PLEASE!!”
Oh good…it’s not because of my kiss.
The hair slowly rises on the back of my neck.
Maybe it’s her expression…but the scraping sound, echoing behind me like claws against stone, sends a shudder through the whole of my body. Turning, I see two more of the ghastly robes and I almost fall over in retreat.
The hoods are empty!
Hollow, vacant holes where faces should be…but they’re not. The things have shredded sleeves in place of hands of flesh, which reach out towards us. Like specters, they move slowly closer, crawling on all four limbs, prowling along the walls!
“Jussst a boy. Jussst a CHILD.”
They pause as if considering, swaying in the shadows.
The tops of the hoods roll forward, bending at the center of the arch—skinless brows frowning at me. Arching their backs, the robes change positions, like beasts ready to pounce upon their prey.
“Go home or ssshe will SSSUFFER!”
The shout echoes in my mind and I stumble back. My hand reaches out to the wall to steady myself, legs feeling weak.
She’ll suffer?….I am…..Wait. How can they be talking to me?
I look deeply into the gaping black holes. They’re still crouched, swaying.
Get out of my mind!!
Shaking off unsettled doubt, I jump to her side and quickly look around me. There has to be a way out.
The hallway is blocked by the vile specters. We’re cornered.
Wait—we were at a juncture a moment ago…weren’t we?
Useless shelf to my right, two wood crates and three full gunny sacks—probably grain, a pile of someones forgotten laundry.
No help there.
To my left, a stained glass window.
Window? What’s a window doing in a cellar??
Taking hold of the girl around her waist with one arm, I hold her head against my shoulder with the other, to protect her face and neck.
The creatures launch themselves, claws outstretched.
“Hold tight!” I yell, but she can’t hear me as I plunge through the glass.
The cold wind stings my flesh, the glass shards tear my cheek and forearm.
I’m all alone.
…and plummeting to my death.
The waves of the sea beckon as the rocky shore rushes up to meet me.
….and I didn’t even get her name.
Wendell’s eyes popped open.
For a long moment he just laid on his back, not moving.
It was just a dream? He sighed, Dang!
Kicking free of the bed sheets, he grabbed the pillow off his chest and threw it across the room.
No wonder she felt so soft.
He sighed again, letting the back of his head flop against the floor.
How much can one, poor mind take?
Then again, at least there weren’t any cold, stone floors, voices from inanimate objects or hairy blue legs.
Wait a minute.
Pushing himself up, his elbows sank into the plush carpet. There was cool air blowing across his face from a nearby vent. Slivers of warm sunlight peeked through the wood blinds. Scratching his head, Wendell yawned as he picked up the pillow and blanket and plopped down on the corner of the bed.
He bounced. The mattress springs squeaked.
Just like the old cart.
It was a long ride that he couldn’t remember much of…other than an overly sore backside. But he did remember that the wizard, Morphi…Morfeeo…uhhhh, Chuck, had a cart waiting when they came out of the council meeting. It was attached to a smelly, old goat.
It was huge, too, the goat. Bigger than any goat or even cow that Wendell had ever seen before. He’d flopped into the cart and dozed among a slew of clay pots during most of the bumpy ride. At some point in the night, he was guided through an open door, up some stairs, through another open door and on to…
And gratefully, until he fell out of bed, he slept very soundly.
In the daylight, this room was not what he expected. A bed, nightstand with lamp, tall dresser, painted walls, cozy patchwork quilt, fluffy white pillows…very Earthy.
Wait a minute. That’s an electric lamp…plugged into the wall. This is carpet…as in plush, fluffy, have to use a vacuum carpet! Not exactly the fantasy, medieval feel of the Keep and…mmmmmm.
It even smelled like…he took a deep breath.
And just for one, small, hopeful moment he wondered if he could be home on Earth—and that Sanctuary, the High Elder, and the green goblin had really been a crazy dream.
Stretching, Wendell yawned again.
Looking critically at the rumpled yellow tunic and trousers he wore, he frowned, annoyed.
Ok, these are not cool…and way…too breezy.
It was the same outfit the High Elder had given him when he woke up from… Scratching a scruffy cheek, he let his hand fall to his chest and felt the hard knot under the fabric.
Letting his head drop back, he stared at the ceiling fan silently going round and round and listened to the strange new beat in his chest.
“Right. What was I thinking?” he said softly. “I’m Wendell P. Dipmier—Earth-boy gone Hero.”
It’s not a dream, Wendell, so get over it. Move on.
Pulling the escaping pillow from off the corner of the nightstand, he discovered a digital alarm clock.
It blinked 1:13pm.
Yesterday had been the longest and worst day of his whole life. As reality sank in, a lump grew in his throat. It was a reality he still hadn’t figured how to accept. He’d never be able to go home again. The only life he’d ever known…was over.
I wonder how long I’ve been away from home?
The High Elder had said there was a time difference…and Wendell wondered how that would work.
Hmm. Does Evan even know I’m gone yet? And…mom. I wonder when she’ll find out? Evan will probably break it to her…. He shook his head. By saying what? What can Evan possibly tell her?
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Dipmier” he said out loud in a deeper voice. “I left him by the pool, but when I came back…he was gone.” Wendell smirked to himself, “Don’t know what happened to him, but my suspicion is that it was aliens. Green, irate, foul-smelling ones!”
If you only knew.
His fingers clawed at the thin fabric of his trousers, gripping and tugging. He’d been there for his mother when his father had died, but now she was alone.
…and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Letting go of the material, he slowly smoothed it out across his thighs.
I’m sorry, mom. I hope Evan looks out for you. Wendell immediately shook his head, feeling stupid. What am I saying? Of course he will. It’s the kind of guy he is.
His shoulders slumped and he exhaled with a shutter. He had to say it…out loud.
Accept it—but he didn’t want to.
He sat, unmoving. Say it!
“I’m never going to see my mom or Evan again,” he choked out loud.
It hurt, this reality.
I always wanted to be Evan. That’s the real joke about all this. I thought about it, dreamed about it—WISHED for it…just never thought I would have to be—literally, have to be.
He reached up and scratched his head vigorously.
Should have wished for a dog.
The pressure in his chest was starting to restrict his breathing.
Wendell, what were you thinking? Oh, yeah.
Adorable girl with a peculiar taste in guys gets killed by a…a…thing.
So I jump in to save the day…for once.
Was I having a noble moment? …or a momentary lack in judgement?
He shrugged, Probably guilt, you idiot—you just watched Kyliene die at the hands a real life monster.
He found his reflection in the mirror over the dresser. For long moments he stared at himself, studying the lines of his own face as if he were a complete stranger.
Or was it just a desperate desire to believe that I could be a somebody? Because you WANT to be somebody…more.
He shook his head at himself. You’re a fool, Wendell. You made a life-altering decision at an emotional moment and now you’ve sealed your fate.
What was the High Council thinking? I know I wasn’t their first choice…or the second. Sneering at his reflection, Alright, they probably wouldn’t have chosen me at all…but I wanted to help. He couldn’t help thinking of Kyliene’s smile, her dimples making him smile in return.
The smile faded quickly.
I had to help.
Suddenly, he was up and pacing the floor, making a path around the bed, then the dresser and back again.
Crap!…Wendell, you moron, what have you done!!? How am I going to pull this off? They’re crazy! I don’t know if I can do this. Can I really do this?
He gulped, Do what? Crud, I don’t even know what they’re expecting me to do! I mean, really?
They’ll…need me to be a leader!
He squeaked. Fight!? Wendell P. Dipmier class clown, nerd, high-school streaker, Blue Ribbon Burping Champion and macaroni sculpting master. He looked down at his hands and found them shaking. Heck, even I know I’m a geek.
He interlaced his fingers, clenching them tight, willing them to stop.
But…I don’t know how to fight. I barely know how to play miniature golf!
At that moment, Wendell took a wide step around the bed, catching the side of the dresser with his foot. There was a ‘snap’ and he bit his lip, his face flushing hot. He fell back onto the bed.
“AAAAHHH!” he yelled in agony. Yanking his foot up towards his face, he inspected the damage. His little toe was twisted, pointing straight out from the side of his foot.
It was already swelling and turning purple.
“Great,” he said exasperated, gritting his teeth, “Just flippin’ great! The Hero of the Gem has broken his PINKY TOE!!” Oh, they’re gonna love me! “And don’t forget to mention it was during his epic battle with self-confidence and a bedroom dresser.”
He looked down at his chest and growled through clenched teeth, “And I thought you were supposed to…..”
The pain immediately subsided.
Wendell stared intensely at the twisted toe.
No—it spasmed…and he could feel a warm, tingly sensation from his ankle, down to the tip of the toenail.
The digit slowly rotated, nail upwards…and repositioned itself with an audible ‘POP’.
For long moments Wendell just gawked. Then he wiggled his toes.
“Huh,” he said amazed, setting his foot back onto the floor.
“Right,” he said, looking back down at his chest, “Sorry about the complaint.”
He wondered if talking to himself was going to be as much of a problem here as it would be back home. Scenes of being chased through the park by blue skinned men waving white straightjackets flashed through his mind.
Right. Better be careful about that—just in case.
The facts were simple. Wendell had made his decision to stay on this world, for whatever reason, and to play the part of the Hero.
He had no idea how it was going to play out…and frankly, no clue how to pull it off, but he was promised help.
Not going to figure it out staying in bed all day, that’s for sure.
He snorted, If only mom could hear THAT coming out of my mouth.
Grabbing the pillows, Wendell started to make the bed.
That was…until his eyes rediscovered the small envelope leaning between the alarm clock and the lamp. Tilted sideways, it had almost been invisible.
His legs suddenly felt weak and he had to sit down.
The High Elder had pulled him aside and given it to him as they left the council meeting.
“This has rested with the Ithari since she returned to the Keep,” he had told Wendell. “It was written by the last hero. A letter intended to accompany the bestowal of the Ithari. It might help.”
“A letter to give his son direction,” Wendell whispered to himself.
A son who isn’t coming back.
Wendell reached out to pick it up, then hesitated.
He curled his fingers into a fist, his eyes lingering on the envelope with the scarlet wax seal.
It doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to Evan.
He glanced around the room again and sighed.
This is stupid. I can’t keep making excuses. These people are depending on me now! It doesn’t matter what people thought of me before today. I have to be more.
He tossed the pillow against the headboard, irritated.
Easier said than done! What would Evan do?
Wendell smiled. He didn’t have to think very hard. From all the times Evan had come to his rescue, Wendell knew exactly what his best friend would say.
“You might not have chosen this, Wendell,” he’d laugh, “but it may regret choosing you!” Then he’d tell me, “Make the best decisions you can and stick with them. No matter what, you stick to your word. That’s how you earn a good reputation with others. Always keep your word. You can do it! I know you can.” …yeah, that’s what he’d say.
Well, that…and then he’d slug me in the shoulder.
Staring at the folded cream paper on the nightstand, Wendell’s palms felt cold and clammy. The whirling sound of the fan overhead was challenged by the sudden hum of the air conditioner.
He sat frozen on the edge of the bed, unblinking. The red wax seal staring back at him, daring him.
This isn’t right. I’m not the hero’s son.
He shifted uncomfortably, rubbing his palms against the fabric of his jeans.
You should be here right now, Evan, not me. Saving all these people, dealing with all this pressure. All these expectations.
But Evan was at the other end of the Universe, on Earth—and nothing Wendell did or said could change that.
Then again, his eyebrows slowly lifted with the thought, What if the letter isn’t what I think? Maybe it has the answers to some great mystery that folks have been waiting for? Maybe he knew the gem would go to someone else?!
He didn’t actually believe that, but the thought still made him grin wide.
OOOH!—Maybe it’s instruction on how to use the Ithari!
He looked around the room, then looked over his shoulder. The door was closed.
My whole future could be in that letter!
He squeezed his eyes tight and let out a sharp breath.
“Only one way to find out.”
Snatching up the object of torment and desire, he quickly slid his thumb under the red wax seal, popped it up and unfolded the paper.
His eyes eagerly ate each sentence.
The handwriting was uniform and elegant, delicately written across the textured surface with care and precision.
My Beloved Son,
It feels like only moments ago, that I placed you in the arms of another.
I know they will love you and care for you as their own, but already I mourn my decision.
You need to know that you were never cast off or abandoned. There wasn’t any other way to keep you safe, but to send you away. I have already laid your beloved mother to rest from this war—I could not lose you as well.
Thus I had to send you away…to buy you time.
My beloved child, I love you with all my soul. One day you will understand that.
All I do…all I have done or will do, has been to provide you with an advantage over our enemy. To prepare you, for that which is to come.
Above all else, my son, you must protect the seals!
Wendell gasped, seals? SEALS!?
He flipped the paper over and stared at the mangled red wax, horrified.
“CRAP!” No, wait—that can’t be right. “How would I be able to read the letter unless I…”
He shook his head and read on.
Our enemy will eventually escape from the prison we are preparing, unless the seals are maintained. Protect them at all costs.
Should Mahan escape, he will seek to destroy you, for you are the only true threat barring his path to absolute dominion over our world.
Should he escape, you have until the shadows fall to prepare for war.
The end war.
It pangs my soul that you must bear the weight of my failure.
For this, my son, I am sorry.
I did not have the heart to kill the one called Mahan. Though he remains the blackest evil to walk these lands, he was first my friend.
A brilliant mägo who sought the praise and glory of his own people.
Only now do I see that the evil was always within him.
It is his lust for power and hunger, to be worshipped, that corrupts his heart. Nothing but godhood—placing all others under his feet, will satisfy him.
Even now, he seeks to rule over ‘lesser’ beings, destroying any who offend him.
It was by Mahan’s own hand that your mother was murdered. Yet even then, I did not have it in me to take his life.
My son, beware his power.
The Lord of Darkness is cunning and patient. His true skills do not lay in might, but in the subtleties of the mind and heart. He is a great orator and can persuade men to do his will by taking a truth and twisting it in such a fashion that the lie will seem like truth.
His influence seeps through the blood of generations, twisting and corrupting, while hiding in plain sight. I have yet to uncover the spies woven into our society, but know that Mahan has no equal upon this world but Ithari herself.
From her vision he cannot hide.
Protect the seals.
He cannot escape the frozen torment of Unrest unless they are broken.
Be patient with others, my son, for few will understand the path you will be forced to walk.
Trust no one but the Gem. Through her, you will learn the truth of all things. This is your only true protection. Listen to that inner voice that whispers to you. Not your own, but that voice which prompts you to do only what is right, what is true and just. Ithari cannot lie and she will not falter, so long as you serve her with a pure heart.
Though she manifests her power in many ways, this one lesson I give unto you—learn it well;
She will not support you in vain ambition, pride or revenge.
As you love her, protect her, honor her…through your sacrifice for others, her abilities will unfold unto you.
When your hearts become one, so will your power.
You will speak with the elements, even the intelligence within the elements and shape them to your will.
Then and only then, can you be the hero our world requires and destroy our enemy.
Until such time, protect the seals and seek Ithari’s children. Keep them safe or they will be used against you.
All of my hopes rest with you, my son, as does the future of this world.
Through Ithari, my heart is always with you.
P.S. Make haste to Til-Thorin. It is there your journey will begin.
The words lingered in Wendell’s mind as his fingers mechanically folded the paper.
He tossed it onto the night stand without looking.
Blinking robotically, “So now I know what’s expected of me.” He sat rigid, staring at the wood blinds in front of him.
His hand reached out and dragged a pillow from the bed, into his lap.
Hands casually yanked the pillowcase free of its contents.
…and Wendell promptly vomited into it.