Sunday, August 7, 2011

#SampleSunday and a Back to School Sale!

Well, I made it through a week of chaperoning band camp for the Mount Vernon Marching Wildcats! And yes, I have a bunch of "This one time, at band camp" stories, but I don't think I'll be sharing them here!  ;)

So it's been a dry week for blogging, but now I'm home and plan to get things going again!

The Door to Canellin is now on "Back to School" sale!  You can get your digital copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords for just $.99! (The Amazon and Barnes and Noble price should change to $.99 by the end of the day today).  The paperback is on sale at BN.com for just $10.07, which is almost $4 off the list price!  This sale will go at least through the month of August.  If you haven't picked up your copy yet, now would be a great time! The book has been getting rave reviews, and the sequel is still tentatively scheduled for a mid-September release!

And, of course, today is #SampleSunday!  So, since I haven't blogged at all this week, I figured it was time to go big or go home.  Today's sample includes the prologue and first three chapters of The Door to Canellin!  If you like, you can download a larger sample from Amazon or Smashwords, or even better... buy it and enjoy the whole story! ;)

Tomorrow, I plan to get back into some non-promotional blogging, and I'm looking for some interesting topics to write about here.  If you've got any requests, feel free to send me a message at ehjones@writeme.com and I'll see what I can do!

And now, here's what you're really here for... The Door to Canellin!  Enjoy!
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Prologue 
THE LITTLE MAN STEPPED OUT of the doorway and closed the door behind him.  He was dressed in a long, sturdy tunic and thick trousers, with brightly polished leather riding boots on his inordinately large feet.  He was short, barely five feet tall, and what there was of his hair flowed down his back in white wisps.  He took off his broad-brimmed hat and batted it against his hand a few times to get the dust off before giving it up as a lost cause.  His beard, also snow white, hung over his broad belly to his thick belt.  As he looked down over that broad belly, he grinned, reflecting on how paunchy he was getting in his old age.
He began walking down the long, seemingly endless hallway, musing to himself as he went. He had been away from the House for far too long.  There was always work to be done beyond the doorways, and at the moment, there was no one else to do it.  Now that he had returned, he needed to stow some things from his last few trips. Then there were the thousand other nagging little chores that had been left for later while he was away.  And he would certainly need to consult the Book.  But the most important thing he needed to accomplish was a good long rest, to recoup his strength and rebuild his waning mystical energies.
He came at last to a stairway and started down.  Entering a large sitting room, the strange little man pulled his pack off his back.  He sorted through its contents, placing things here and there on shelves or tables.  Each of the objects he removed brought a different expression to his weathered face; here a figurine that made him smile, there an ornamental dagger that brought a look of sadness.  A locket that transformed his expression to one of wistful melancholy found a prominent place in the largest glass case.  When he finally placed an antique sextant on the drawing table in the corner, his pack was empty. 
The man flopped down in one of several overstuffed chairs in the large sitting room. Gods, he was tired.  But he rested only moments before slowly rising to his feet.  There was work yet to be done, important work, before rest could come.  Ah, but rest… rest would be welcome, when the time was right.
The little man headed toward the door just past the stairway, unaware of the sinister gaze following his every step.  He shuffled through the doorway and made a sharp right turn into an abbreviated hallway that ended in a massive, iron bound door.  Fumbling with a large ring of keys at his belt, he selected the largest and inserted it into the lock.  It turned with difficulty, producing a loud click, and the door swung open on silent hinges.
Through the door was a small room, roughly eight feet wide by ten long.  Along the far wall was a sturdy bench overflowing with coils of tubing and vials and decanters, hand tools, wires, and other unidentifiable odds and ends.  In the center of the room was a lectern, and on it was a large book bound in material that gave off a faint golden glow.  The little man casually flipped the book open, displaying the first blank page.
“Show me the champion,” he said quietly, making an arcane gesture over the page.
Words appeared line-by-line, just long enough for the man to read them before fading away again.  What he read disturbed him, and a look of dismay began to grow on his face.
He read about a boy.  A boy who seemed to him the least likely prospect for a champion imaginable.  As he read on, the little man learned more about the poor decisions this young champion was making, the bad ideas that seemed to plague him.  The champion was supposed to be a bastion of goodness, a pillar of solid values and hopeful optimism.  Instead, the little man was reading about a boy who couldn’t seem to make himself do the right things in life.  A boy who was sarcastic, caustic, ill mannered, and more than a bit selfish.  Oh, the child had his good points, certainly.  He was compassionate, despite his overall selfishness, and he had a strong moral sense of right and wrong.  But the story was rife with bad choices, wrong-headed attitudes, and a self-centered streak that seemed to have grown all out of proportion in one so young.
“Oh, no…that’s not right.  This is who you’ve chosen for a champion?”  He shook his head, looking around at the walls of the small room.  “How am I supposed to turn this child into a savior?”  No answer came, and the little man looked back at the book with narrowed eyes.  With a strained sigh, he closed the book and leaned on the lectern for support. 
“Well,” he sighed, “that’s that.  I suppose we’ll just have to take the direct approach.  You have a great many lessons to learn, young man, and I have a great many preparations to make.”  Feeling very put upon, he sighed again and left the workroom, locking the door firmly behind him and looking at the walls of the House accusingly.  “So much for a nice, long vacation.”
From the shadows, a baleful gaze followed the little man, but he attributed the prickling on his neck to worry over what he must now do. 

Chapter 1 
Bullies and Brawlers 
MRS. JENSEN WAS WAITING AT THE DOOR when Wes arrived for Social Studies. “Glad you could make it, Mr. Bellamy.  You just missed the bell.  Please take your seat.”
Mrs. Jensen’s Social Studies class was a pain.  History, names and dates… dry, boring, and pointless.  And the homework and reading were completely mind- numbing, normally leaving Wes with nothing to look forward to but a drowsy hour of her droning voice.
Wes could tell right away that today was going to be different.
“All right, class, I want you all to step over here and look over the items I’ve set out for display,” Mrs. Jensen said as she gestured toward the long table that had been set up against the far wall.  “Everything is tagged and labeled so you can identify it.  You may touch, but please, be very careful, since these things are on loan to me from the collection of a friend at the museum.”  She led the way to the display, and her voice took on a dramatic tone.  “These are all examples of items that early explorers used in their travels when sailing uncharted oceans and exploring the unknown wilderness.  They range from simple methods of record keeping,” she said, pointing at a leather bound logbook, “to this complex device, sort of a precursor to the modern Global Positioning System.”  Here, she pointed at a strange looking contraption of metal dials, mirrors, lenses and telescoping arms.  The bizarre device caught Wes’ attention immediately.  He took a few steps nearer to that end of the table, trying to catch a better look.
“Your assignment is to pick one of these items, examine it, and figure out what it is and what it does.  Learn everything you can about it, especially how the early explorers might have used it to help them travel the world.  There will be a four page typed research paper due next Thursday, and oral presentations on Friday.”  Most of the class groaned, but Wes was too engrossed in trying to get a better look at the device to even take notice.  “Okay, everyone, start examining.  You have until the end of class to look everything over, decide what you want to research, and get started.”
Wes immediately headed toward the strange little device at the end of the table.  No one else seemed even vaguely interested in it, which was just as well as far as he was concerned.  He gently picked it up and read the tag.  The device was called a ‘sextant’.  He examined it minutely, swinging the arms along the gauge, looking through the lenses, trying to figure out what it was supposed to be for.  Something told him he should know this already.  He spent the rest of the class period looking up everything he could about sextants in his textbook.  The passages he found were frustratingly vague.  ‘A measuring instrument used by early explorers to calculate their position on a map using the measurement of angles of elevation between a celestial object and the horizon’.  Despite the vagueness of the definition, Wes couldn’t shake the feeling that he could almost grasp how it worked and what it was for, if only he could examine the contraption long enough.
When the bell finally rang, Wes reluctantly replaced the sextant on the display table and filed out of the room with the rest of the class, his mind still whirling as he contemplated the complex device.  He wasn’t paying the slightest attention to where he put his feet.
“Watch where you’re going, maggot!”
Wes tumbled to the floor, his books skidding away from him, papers flying.
“I told you yesterday to stay out of my way, Bellamy,” said Cameron as he stood over Wes’ prone form, Darren and Jimmy flanking him.  “You’re not careful, you’re gonna’ get yourself in trouble.”  He laughed at his own pathetic wit, Darren and Jimmy chortling at his side.
“Whatever,” said Wes irritably as he gathered up his fallen belongings.  “Hard to miss such a big target.”
Cameron was Wes’ physical opposite in almost every way.  Where Wes was a small boy, just a couple of inches over five feet, and slender, Cameron was tall and bulky.  At six foot two, he weighed in at nearly two hundred and thirty pounds, and was the largest sophomore in the school.  He was also a bully, pushing around anyone who crossed his path.  Even some of the teachers tread lightly around Cameron.
“Smart mouth, there, Bellamy,” he said with a sneer.  “Careful.  You know you don’t want any of this.”
Wes stood, still trying to arrange his books, and gave Cameron a spiteful glare.
“What did I ever do to you anyway?  Why do you have to be such a jerk all the time?”
Just then the chimes began to ring, and Wes groaned.  The sound meant he had sixty seconds to get to the band room, in the opposite wing of the school.  He shouldered his way past Cameron, beginning to trot, and then to run as Cameron, Jimmy, and Darren’s laughter followed him down the hall.
Wes sprinted down the hallway, skidding around the corner and through the double doors into the instrument storage room.  He made it into the classroom and into his seat, still struggling to open his trumpet case, mere seconds before Mr. Drummond stepped to the podium.  He let out a sigh of relief as the latch on his case finally gave way.  Out of breath, he pulled out his trumpet and prepared himself.
“Okay, everybody, let’s work on number twenty-seven, starting in measure sixteen.  Flutes, concentrate on precision during the arpeggios, and trumpets, watch your dynamics.  Forte does not mean blast me off the podium.”  Wes grinned as Mr. Drummond tapped his baton sharply, twice, and raised his hands.  “Ready?  Horns up!”
Despite having been nearly late yet again, Wes soon lost himself in the music, playing by instinct.  Cameron was immediately forgotten as the music danced around him, almost visible in the air.  The trumpet was something that just came naturally to Wes, and it was pure joy just to let it flow through him.  He was glad now that he’d let his Dad talk him into joining, way back in middle school.  This was the thing in the world that he was best at, by far.  His skill had made him the first freshman to be a soloist in the school’s history, and he’d kept that edge all the way through until now, as his sophomore year was approaching its end.  Forget about homework and tests, this was what he was meant to do.
Fifteen minutes before the end of class, Mr. Drummond called a halt, as Wes had known he would.  Every couple of weeks it happened, like clockwork.
“Okay, everybody, good work today.”  Mr. Drummond applauded them quietly, clapping his hands as he beamed at his students.  “Now, it’s Wednesday, that means challenge day.  I’ve already received one request for challenge, but is there anyone else who wants to take a shot at moving up a chair?”  He waited a few moments, but there were no takers.  “Nobody?”  Silence.  “Okay, then,” he said, sounding disappointed, “today we have Miss Stephanie Coscoe, our second chair trumpet, challenging Mr. Wesley Bellamy, our first chair.”  He gestured to Wes.  Mr. Bellamy, you’re up first.  We’ll be playing today’s selection, number 27.  Follow me.”
Wes rose with a sneer and followed Mr. Drummond.  He wasn’t worried in the slightest.  He knew beyond doubt that he was better than Stephanie.  She was good, sure, but he didn’t see any need to be concerned.  Stephanie, a senior, had been stuck at second chair for the entire semester, unable to dislodge Wes.  She seemed to take it as an insult that a sophomore could beat her every time. 
Wes entered the small office behind Mr. Drummond and seated himself in the challenge chair, arranging his music on the stand, supremely confident.
“Well, Mr. Bellamy, I hope you’ve prepared today.  Miss Coscoe has been practicing hard for the past two weeks in after school sessions.”  He grinned at Wes. “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Drummond. I got this.”  Wes grinned.
“All right, then, at your leisure,” said Mr. Drummond, flipping on the metronome.  Wes counted slowly, horn to his lips, and began to play.
The trumpet was alive in his hands, the music flowing forth in a graceful dance as he worked his way easily through the selection.  The notes came pitch perfect.  He knew he was doing well, he could feel it, and when the final note died off, he lowered the trumpet with a satisfied smile.  Mr. Drummond was making notes on his tablet.
“Good, Mr. Bellamy, very good.  Please send in Miss Coscoe.”
Wes strutted out of the office like a peacock, confident and sure of himself.  He walked back to his seat and looked toward Stephanie.  “You’re up.  Good luck!”  He smiled at her as she walked to the office.  “You’ll need it.”
The class was waiting for the challenge to be over, most people chatting quietly.  Wes turned to Doug Boerner, a freshman trombone player who sat behind him.  “I nailed it.  There’s no way she’s getting my seat.”  Doug grinned and gave Wes a quick thumbs up.
A few minutes later, Stephanie returned from Mr. Drummond’s office and took her seat next to Wes, smiling.  She obviously thought she’d done well.  Still, Wes wasn’t worried.
Mr. Drummond returned to the podium a few moments later and theatrically shuffled the papers he carried with him.  “This was a close one, ladies and gentlemen.”  He looked at Wes and Stephanie.  “Very close.  Fingernail close.”  He placed the papers on his podium.  “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to present your first chair trumpet, Stephanie Coscoe.”  There was a momentary silence, and then light applause.
Wes froze.  He had been preparing to stand up and give a grand bow in front of the class.  But this… this was impossible.  This couldn’t be right.  No one had beaten him since the beginning of the school year!  He was first chair!
Except he wasn’t.
As the rest of the class got up and began filing out of the room, Mr. Drummond put his hand on Wes’ shoulder.
“May I see you in my office for a moment, Mr. Bellamy?”
Wes didn’t reply, just let Mr. Drummond steer him gently to the office and into a seat.
“I wanted to talk to you privately.  I think there’s something you need to understand.”  He sat in his own chair and steepled his fingers in front of his face.  “You played better than Stephanie today, Wes.”  At Wes’ shocked look, Mr. Drummond held up his hand to forestall him.  “Not a lot better, son, but better.”
“Then why did she win?”  Wes’ voice was soft, despite a sudden surge of anger.  He couldn’t seem to wrap his brain around what Mr. Drummond was saying.
“Because while you played slightly better than she did, you didn’t play any better at all than you did at the last challenge.”  He shook his head.  “You haven’t practiced, and it shows.  You haven’t gotten worse, but you’re not improving, either.  You play on instinct and natural talent, which I’ll admit you’ve got.  But there’s more to it than that.”  He looked Wes directly in the eye.  Stephanie worked very, very hard for this.  And she improved, not a little but a very big improvement.  And believe it or not, that’s a lot more important to me than talent.”
The anger suddenly burst forth, and Wes shot to his feet.  “That’s not fair!  If I did better, then I should have won!”  Wes could hardly contain himself.  He was straining not to explode and get himself in trouble, but he couldn’t keep his voice from rising.
“You didn’t do better, Wes, you played better, and even at that, only barely.  In fact, I’d say if I had given it another two weeks until the next challenge day, and you still were at the level you are now, Miss Coscoe would have easily beaten you.
“It’s not just about being able to do something, Wes, and this isn’t just about band, or a first chair challenge.  It’s about everything.  Your other teachers asked me to speak with you, hoping I’d be able to get through where they’ve failed.”  Mr. Drummond stood and looked out his office window.  To Wes, the whole thing seemed staged, and very melodramatic.  “It’s not about being the best, and it’s not about being first chair in the trumpet section.  I’d be willing to bet that if you practice for the next two weeks, you’ll win, and that’s what it’s about.”  He took a deep breath and turned to face Wes.  “Not the winning, but the trying.  The striving to be better.  Or just the plain, ordinary doing what you’re supposed to do.”  He paused to let that sink in.  “Let me ask you something.  When’s the last time you turned in any homework?”
Wes was thrown by the sudden shift in direction.  “I don’t know, I just always forget it.  So what?”
“So, it’s just another example of your choice to not strive.  And it’s why you lost the challenge today.  And you do realize that if your grades don’t come up, you won’t be marching next season, right?”
Wes looked at Mr. Drummond, filled with anger, and another familiar emotion.  Shame.  “It’s not fair.”  He clenched his fist by his side as he trembled.  “So I played better than Steph, but you gave it to her because I haven’t been turning in homework.  It’s not fair!”  His voice had risen to a shout, and his eyes were beginning to fill with unshed tears.  “If I’m better, I should be first chair!”
Mr. Drummond sighed.  “Before you keep this going and end up regretting it, I’m sorry to say, you’ve missed the point entirely, Mr. Bellamy.  You’re not better than Miss Coscoe, when it comes down to it, because she will always try while you choose to coast.  But you’ve heard my decision, and my explanation, and it’s final.  You may challenge Miss Coscoe in two weeks, but for now, she’s first chair.  Now get to your next class, you don’t want to be late.”
***
Wes sat slouched at the lunch table, barely playing with his food as he doodled in his notebook.  He was still trying to shake his fury at Mr. Drummond, and this sketch he was working on was frustrating.  Drawing the sextant from memory was harder than he’d thought it would be.  He couldn’t seem to get the mirrors on the upper arm quite right, and the irritation wasn’t helping his mood.
“Gimme your pizza, putz.”
Wes turned at the sound of Cameron’s voice. The big ox was at the next table over, his two cronies Darren and Jimmy at his side as he snatched the pizza off Doug Boerner’s tray and used his other hand to shove the freshman trombone player aside.  Wes sighed. 
“Hey, come on, Cameron,” said Doug.  “That’s mine!”
“Not anymore,” said Cameron. He gave Doug another rough shove and laughed.  “Fries look good too.” He reached out and snatched a handful of French fries from the tray.  “You got my algebra homework done yet?”
“Yo, Cameron,” said Wes, rising slowly. He’d had more than enough.  He walked deliberately around the table and moved face to face with the bully.  “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
“Find me someone, I will,” replied Cameron, and Darren and Jimmy laughed uproariously.
“Seriously, can’t you ever lay off? Leave Doug alone.”
“Why don’t you get lost?” Cameron grabbed Doug by the back of the neck.  “So what if I decide to make Doogie here my slave? What’s it to you?”
“Brass section’s gotta’ stick together.  Besides, I don’t really like you all that much, so whatever I can do to screw with your day, I’m up for it.”
Cameron let go of Doug and poked his finger into Wes’ chest.
“You think you bug me, Bellamy?  You don’t sweat me even a little.”
“Knock it off, Cameron.  You’re gonna’ get us in trouble.”  Wes’ tone was sharp.
The bully grabbed Wes by the shirt and pulled him close. “You’re the only one that’s in trouble, Bellamy.  I’m tired of your crap, and I’m doing something about it.”
Wes jerked free from the larger boy, his contempt plain.  “Yeah, sure, what are you gonna’ do, ugly me to death?”
Cameron’s face clouded, and he pulled Wes close again, his hot breath making Wes wince.
“No, you little turd.  I’m kicking your butt.  Show up or shut up.  Right after school, behind the gym.  You better be there.”  He shoved Wes aside, turning his attention back to Doug.
“Yeah, whatever.  You coming alone, or you bringing your two girlfriends along?”  Wes gestured toward Darren and Jimmy.  He held his forefinger and thumb about half an inch apart, showing Cameron.  “Your cojones are about this big, and it takes all three of you to make one tough guy.”  With every word, Wes could see Cameron getting more and more angry, but he couldn’t stop himself.  “Bad enough it takes three of you to think up a comeback, but now it takes three of you to beat up somebody half your size?”  He waved Cameron away dismissively.  “You aren’t worth the time.”
“Shut up, you little…,” began Cameron as he lunged for Wes.  His voice was raised just a bit too much, though.
“All right, you two, that’s it!”  Mrs. Schultz stormed over angrily.  “Out in the hall, now!”  She took both boys by the arm and walked them into the hallway.
“Now, what exactly is the problem here, gentlemen?”
“He was insulting me, Mrs. Schultz,” said Cameron.  “He turned around and started talking nasty about my mom.”  Cameron smirked as he pointed his finger at Wes.
“Whatever!” said Wes indignantly.  “He was picking on Doug Boerner, and I told him to back off, that was it!”
“Doogie and I were just having a little chat!” protested Cameron with mock sincerity.  “What gives you the right to stick your nose in?”
“What gives you the right to pick on a little kid?” shouted Wes, his finger in Cameron’s face.  “He shouldn’t have to take that crap!”
Mr. Bellamy, you’re right, no one should have to take threats from anyone, but that doesn’t give you the right to make trouble in my lunch room!  If someone is bothering you, you’re supposed to come to me.”
“Oh, sure, that’s gonna’ work great.”  Wes’ voice still held the disdain it had when insulting Cameron.  He couldn’t seem to help it.  He liked Mrs. Schultz, but she was blaming it all on him!
Cameron, I’ve had enough of your bullying.  You have detention today and tomorrow for threats and intimidation.”  She rounded on Wes as he chuckled.  Wes, you can’t behave like this, and you know it.  We’ve had this conversation too many times.  You get a detention this afternoon.  I’ll be having a word with your parents, both of you.”  Mrs. Schultz looked at them sternly, but the boys seemed cowed.  “For now, I want you in the office.  I’ve had enough of this for the day.  Finish out the lunch period there and then go to your next class.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong!”  Wes couldn’t believe that she was sending him to the office, and worse, was going to call his father.  Again!
“Not another word, Mr. Bellamy!  To the office, now!  You too, Mr. Jacobs!”
With that she went back into the lunch room and closed the door.
“I can’t believe this crap,” muttered Wes as he started down the hall.  “She’s so stupid!  And you’re worse than she is, Cameron! I can’t believe you got me a detention!”
Suddenly Wes felt a shove from behind and was slammed face first into the wall, bumping his forehead so hard that his head jerked back.  A heavy arm settled on the back of his neck, forcing his face up against the rough bricks.
“Who’s stupid now, you little freak?” a whispered voice said directly in his ear.  “I’m gonna’ beat you so bad you won’t be able to walk for a week.  I’m gonna’ make you hurt.”  He shoved harder against Wes.  “I’m gonna’ make you wish you hadn’t got out of bed today.”
Something inside Wes snapped.  The weight of everything that had happened today, losing the challenge, Mr. Drummond’s lecture, Cameron’s bullying, Mrs. Schultz’s unfair treatment.  It was all too much.  He shoved against Cameron, hard, with strength he didn’t know he possessed.  He flung his head back and felt a satisfying crunch as it made contact with the brute’s nose.  Turning, he felt satisfaction as Cameron staggered.
Wes looked at Cameron, seeing the blood starting to run down from the boy’s suddenly crooked nose, seeing his eyes start to water, and a cold fury came over him.  It didn’t matter in the slightest that Cameron was ten inches taller than Wes, and outweighed him by a hundred pounds.  Wes’ blood boiled as he looked at the bully, and he was gratified to see astonishment growing in the bigger boy’s eyes.  When Wes charged forward, his fists flying, Cameron staggered backward in surprise.  The sheer ferocity of the attack even surprised Wes.  He landed a couple of solid blows, one to Cameron’s jaw, another to his midsection, before Cameron reached out and took him into a bear hug, squeezing the breath out of him.
“What do you two think you’re doing?”  Mr. Jarvis, the gym teacher, ran toward them from the other end of the hall, but the two boys were oblivious.  They both fell to the floor, struggling, each trying to gain advantage over the other.  Mr. Jarvis grabbed Cameron by the shoulder as Mrs. Schultz emerged from the lunch room at a dead run.  She got there just in time to grab Wes and hold him back from trying to get at Cameron, who was straining against Mr. Jarvis’ grip.
“That’s enough!”  Mr. Jarvis bellowed at the two boys.  “Both of you, come with me, now!”  He grabbed both of the boys by the back of the neck and propelled them down the hall and toward the principal’s office.

Chapter 2 
Amazing Discoveries 
RYAN SAT AT HIS DESK, his fingers drumming an unsteady staccato on his computer keyboard. He hated working under a short deadline like this, especially on something that should have been done two days ago, and by someone else at that.  But Dan was the boss, and Ryan was the low man on the totem pole. He checked his notes, grumbling, and typed a few more lines when his phone startled him out of his concentration.
“Tech support, this is Ryan.”
Mr. Bellamy, this is Mrs. Novack at the high school.  We’ve had a problem here today that we need to discuss.”
Ryan buried his face in one hand and tried to keep his voice level.  “What is it?”
“Well, Wes has gotten into a fight here at school.  Don’t worry, he’s fine, but I’m afraid he broke the other boy’s nose.”
Ryan groaned inwardly.  “What was the fight about?”
“That’s not really clear, Mr. Bellamy.  But we have a zero tolerance fighting policy, as you know, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to come and pick Wes up.  He’ll be suspended for two school days.”
“Crap.  All right.”  He looked at his computer, and the report he was supposed to have finished in less than an hour.  “All right, okay, I’m coming.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.  I’m leaving now.”  He hung up the phone.  Gathering up his papers into a decent stack and saving the file on his computer to the share directory, he left his office and walked to the door next to his, poking his head in.
“Hey, Adam, listen, can you do me a favor?”  Ryan stepped inside and waved the stack of papers.  “I just got a call from my son’s school.  He got in a fight and I have to go get him, but Dan wanted this report by lunch.  I’m almost finished with it. Do you think you could…?”
“Yeah, yeah, go.  You need to kick that boy in the pants, man.  He’s gonna’ be the death of you.”
“Thanks, Adam, I owe you.” Ryan turned to leave.
“Hi, Ryan,” came Dan’s irritating, nasally voice, and Ryan winced.  “I just came by to, you know, see if maybe you had that report ready for me?”
“Yeah, Dan, about that.  I just got a call from my son’s school, and I have to go over there and pick him up.  It’s kind of an emergency.  I asked Adam to finish the report.  You’ll have it by lunch time, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Oh, okay,” said Dan, his brow furrowed as he sauntered down the hall behind Ryan.  “Well, if you’re going to have to leave now, I’ll need you to stay over tonight and make up the hours.  That won’t be a problem, will it?”
“Uh, no, I guess not,” said Ryan in resignation.  “I suppose Wes can have dinner at my mom’s.”
“Good, good,” said Dan.  “You know, Ryan, this is the third time in three months you’ve had to leave work because of your son.  Do you really think that’s fair?”
“What do you mean?” Ryan was trying hard to hide his annoyance.
“Just that Adam hasn’t ever had to leave to deal with his kids.  If he’s supposed to be at work, that’s where he stays.”
Adam doesn’t have any kids,” said Ryan, his calm fa├žade slipping.
“Maybe not,” said Dan, “but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s here when he’s supposed to be.”  He shook his head.  “What I’m trying to say is that this has been going on for quite a while now, and it’s starting to be a disruption.  I just think you should consider that.” 
Ryan took a deep, calming breath.
“Listen, Dan… believe me, I know it’s been a pain, me having to deal with my kid all the time the past few months, but he’s just going through a rough patch right now.  I’m sure he’ll get it together before too much…”
“Maybe I should be a little more clear, so you can understand what I’m getting at,” interrupted Dan, bringing Ryan up short.  He poked his finger into Ryan’s chest. “Get it together, be here when you’re supposed to, or I’ll find someone who will.”  With that, Dan turned and walked back down the hall, whistling tunelessly.
Ryan stared after Dan, suddenly struck mute.  This situation with Wes was starting to get serious.  His shoulders slumped as he realized that Dan wasn’t out of line.  He was running out of options.  He didn’t think Wes even realized how far off the track he’d gotten.  Well, he was going to get an inkling today, that was for sure.  This was the last straw.
Ryan mulled over his options as he drove the twenty miles from his office to the high school.  What was left to do with the boy?  Military school?  Boot camps?  Grounding never worked, and Wes was way too old for spankings.  He had finally decided on talking to Wes again, trying one last time to get through to him. Not that any of the half dozen talks about behavior they’d had over the past two months had done any good.
When he got out of his car and walked into the school, Wes was waiting on a bench outside the office.
“Hi, Dad.  Sorry, I…”  Ryan cut Wes off before he got any further.
“Not now.  Enough.  Just, don’t talk right now.”
“But…”
“Enough.”
Ryan walked into the office.
“Hi, I’m Ryan Bellamy.  I need to take Wes home, I guess.”
The receptionist looked up at him.  “Yes, Mr. Bellamy, I’m Mrs. Novack.  Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“Not really, Mrs. Novack.  I’m already in trouble for having to leave work, and I have to get Wes to his grandparents’ house and get back immediately.  I’ll be available this afternoon, though, if you’d like to call me.”
“Perhaps Wes’ mother could come in for a…”
“I don’t think so. Wes’ mother lives four hours away. I’m sure she’ll have some words to say about all this, but for now, I’m all you’ve got. And I really do need to leave, Mrs. Novack, so if you don’t mind?” Ryan turned to go.
“Really, Mr. Bellamy, I think we need to discuss…”
Ryan turned back to Mrs. Novack.  “Did Wes start the fight?” Ryan was having trouble keeping his voice level.
Mr. Bellamy, that’s really not the issue…”
“I’m asking anyway.”  Ryan hated being rude, and he knew this woman was just doing her job, but for some reason this question felt very important.
“The other boy started the fight and Wes defended himself, Mr. Bellamy, at least at first.  But when Wes got away from the other boy, he kept the fight going when he didn’t need to.  Either way, though, our policy here…”
“I know your policy, and I agree with it in spirit.  I just expect my son to be able to defend himself if he’s attacked. Or for that matter, to be safe when he’s at school! If that means a suspension, so be it.  But I’d be more than willing to discuss it further, later, after I’ve had a chance to talk to his mother.  I really have to go now, so may I please sign my son out and get back to work before I lose my job?”
Moments later, Ryan came out of the office and motioned for Wes to follow him.
“Dad, listen, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now, son.  I have to get you to your Grandma’s house and get back to work.  I’ve already been chewed out for leaving, and Dan made it pretty clear what would happen if this keeps going on.  If you keep this crap up, I’m going to lose my job.”
Wes was silent for a moment. 
“I just wanted you to know I was sorry.”
“I know, Wes.  You always are.”  Ryan regretted the words as soon as he said them.  But it was too late to take them back, and he couldn’t think of any way to soften the sentiment. And at that moment, he wasn’t sure it should be softened.
The drive to the home of Ryan’s parents, Jane and Tim, was not long, but it was long enough to get the story from Wes.  Ryan’s anger cooled a bit as he listened, and he felt a little guilty.  But regardless of the reasons, the fact remained that Wes had gotten suspended again.  This was becoming a definite problem.
Ryan considered how to deal with the inevitable afternoon phone call he would receive from the school, particularly in light of his rudeness to Mrs. Novack.  And the equally inevitable call to Wes’ mom, Ruthie, wasn’t going to be pleasant either.  He really couldn’t blame Mrs. Novack for this, though.  It wasn’t a bad rule.  But after hearing Wes’ side of the story, he couldn’t help but feel a little indignant over the school system’s treatment of his son. That, and even a little pride in Wes.
They pulled into the driveway and parked, and Ryan cleared his throat.
“Listen… son…”
“I know, I’m grounded,” said Wes sullenly.  “Just about as fair as getting suspended when someone jumps you in school.  Whatever.”  He opened the door and got out, walking quickly into the house.
Ryan gritted his teeth, biting back a quick surge of anger.  He’d meant to tell Wes that it was all right.  He’d meant to tell him that stepping in to defend Doug had been the right thing to do, and that defending himself… well, he shouldn’t have to, but if he did, that was all right too.
He’d meant to tell him that he loved him, and was on his side.
With a sigh, Ryan decided that conversation could wait until Wes cooled down a little.  And finding out he wasn’t grounded after all might even be a good end to a bad day.  He got out of the car and headed inside.
“Hey, Mom, you here?” called Ryan.
“I’m in the den,” she replied.  “What are you doing here?  Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Ryan walked into the den, leading Wes.
“Yeah, Ma, I really should.”
Jane turned around to see Wes and Ryan, and noticed Ryan’s stern expression.
“Well, I take it someone got in a bit of trouble at school today.  Or is there some other reason my grandson is standing in my den in the middle of a school day looking like a dead man walking?” She put her hands in her lap, looking at Wes and waiting patiently for an explanation.
“I got in a fight, Grandma.”  Wes stared at his shoes.
“Well, that apparently wasn’t a very good idea, was it?”
Wes turned away, ashamed.  “Guess not.”
“Listen, Ma, it’s a long story, but I’m going to be in trouble at work if I don’t get back.  Can you handle Wes for me this afternoon?  I didn’t want to leave him alone after this, and I’m going to have to work late as it is to catch up.”  Ryan glanced at his watch meaningfully.
“Sure, you head back to work, we can handle things here.  I think I can find a few things to keep our favorite prize fighter occupied.”  Her grin was almost sinister.
Wes groaned.
***
Wes wiped the sweat from his forehead, looking down in disgust at the row of cabbages he’d been hoeing.  Well, at least I’m finished, he thought.
It had definitely been a long afternoon.  His grandpa had gotten home from his morning yard sale trip and joined in with his grandma in finding more chores for the boy to do.  They seemed to be of the opinion that hard work in the hot sun was good for disobedient young men.  So far he had washed both their cars, hoed the garden, weeded around the house, and washed two loads of laundry.  While he had complied with their orders without question, Wes couldn’t find it in himself to agree with their philosophy as he walked wearily toward the house.
“Grandma, I’m done,” Wes called as he walked inside to the cool air conditioning.  He entered the kitchen to find that his grandma had a glass of sweet iced tea waiting for him, a smile on her face.
“Here you go.  Good work out there today.”
“Thanks.”  He took the tea and couldn’t help but smile back at her beaming expression.
“Your dad called, and he’s talked to your teachers.  He’s going to have to work late again tonight, but he said he’d talk to you when he got here.”  She sat down at the head of the kitchen table.  “I thought maybe you’d like to tell me what happened before he gets back.”
“It really wasn’t my fault, Grandma,” began Wes, but she stopped him with a hand.
“I’m not interested right now in whose fault it was.  I want to hear what happened and how.  Give me the story with just the facts, without trying to make yourself look better.”
Wes shot her a petulant scowl.
“Fine,” he replied, and he told her the entire story, from bumping into Cameron in the hall to the end of the fight, sparing no detail.
She looked thoughtful for a moment as she considered him.
“And after you’d bloodied his nose, got him off you and away from Doug, why did you go after him again?”
“I… I don’t know.  I was mad, I guess.”
“I’d say that’s an understatement.”  She poured him some more tea.  “Well, does anything jump out at you as to what went wrong?”
“Yeah, I guess.  I probably shouldn’t have gone after Cameron in the first place.  I should have gone to Mrs. Schultz.  But that still doesn’t feel right.  Why should I have to be a rat?  What’s wrong with sticking up for myself, or for Doug?”
“Nothing at all,” she replied.  “But you should follow the rules, at least, don’t you think?”
“Yeah.  Yeah, I guess I should.”  He took a long swallow of tea.  He still felt abused, and in his gut believed that none of this was his fault, he just wasn’t about to say so to her.  At that moment, he just wanted to be out from under her understanding eyes.
“Good.  I think we’re done for the day, then, as far as your chores go.”  She smiled at him as she stood, and he found himself smiling back at her.
“Cool.”  Wes sighed.  “Mind if I go for a walk in the woods?” 
“I think that would be okay.  Try to be back before dinner.”
Wes grabbed his backpack and headed out the door, trotting down the hill and into the woods. He trudged through the little forest, following his favorite paths and slashing at the underbrush with a stick, his mind going over everything that had gone wrong in his life lately.  He was confused, his emotions in turmoil, and he needed solitude.  He made it to one of his favorite clearings and sat down in the crook of a tree root, his back against the trunk.  After a few minutes of silent contemplation, he pulled out his notebook and spent a little time sketching, still trying to draw the sextant from memory, but he just couldn’t get it right.  Grunting in disgust, he gave up and stuffed the notebook back into his backpack.
He wanted to be angry at the world, angry that everything was conspiring to turn his life into this mess, and yet the more he reflected on things, the more he realized there was only one person to be angry with.  It was his fault.  Some of it was, at least.
Suddenly, the weight of what had happened, and of how far he’d fallen, came crashing down on him.  He felt himself on the verge of tears.
There was no way to fix this.
Wes was suspended from school.  His father had almost lost his job.  All the things Mr. Drummond had said to him…
When the tears came, they surprised him, but he couldn’t hold them back.  It was too far gone!  There was nothing left for him to do.  He couldn’t stop the sobs as his body continued to shudder.  He’d been depressed before, he’d felt sadness, but nothing like this.  This was utter despair. He hadn’t cried in… well, he wasn’t sure how long. But now the tears came freely.
A sound off in the brush caught his attention and he jerked his head up.
“Who’s there?”
There was no answer.  He wiped the tears from his eyes and stood, following the sounds of brush being trampled by someone who apparently wasn’t that familiar with hiking.
“Hey, is anybody there?”  He followed the sounds further, and eventually saw a small form perhaps fifty yards ahead.  “Hey!” he shouted.  “Stop, who are you?”  It was hard to see the moving shape clearly as it struggled through the underbrush, but it appeared to be a small man, considerably shorter than Wes, but definitely bigger around.
Wes picked up speed to follow, trying to catch up to the little man.  He shouted after him a few more times, but when it was clear he wasn’t going to get an answer, Wes simply followed.  For some reason, the idea of someone violating these woods, violating his privacy, made him angry again.  He fought that off and tried to remain calm, but he couldn’t help feeling as if someone had been spying on him.
Wes followed the little man for a good distance, up and down wooded slopes, zigging and zagging between the trees.  The little man was pulling away from him with surprising speed, widening the gap between them, and then he disappeared over a rise just ahead.  Wes began to run, struggling to get up the steep rise, and he breathed heavily when he finally reached the top.
All thought of the little man was driven out of his head.  Something was wrong here.  In front of him was a hollow that memory told him shouldn’t have been on the other side of the hill he’d just climbed.  There should have been another gradual slope leading up to a large flat area with several clearings where he liked to sit.  Instead, there was the hollow, and most surprisingly of all, a dilapidated shack sitting dead center in the bowl shaped depression.  As he watched, the little man hurried up the steps of the shack and vanished inside.
Wes started forward again cautiously, looking at this little house where he knew there shouldn’t be one.  It was a small house, very run down, but all the windows seemed intact.  There was a porch across the front that leaned precariously to the left side of the entrance, and a large, solid looking door.  He walked around the house, staying back a good distance, trying to figure out how he could have missed this all these years, but it didn’t make any sense.
He made his way back around to the front of the house, looking up the three steps to the porch.  He grew more determined as he explored the outside of the house.  He wasn’t going to let the little man get away now!  He wanted to know why that house was there, where it had come from, and who the little man was.  He wanted to know how a house could appear overnight in a place where memory said it should never have been.  He inched forward hesitantly toward the porch, paused, and then made up his mind and walked the rest of the distance.  He stopped at the foot of the steps and pondered them, wondering if they were safe to hold his weight.  He lifted his foot and gingerly placed it on the bottom stair, when…
BOOOOMMMM!!!!
The lightning struck barely twenty paces off to Wes’ right, and the sound of it nearly knocked him down.  He immediately staggered back from the porch, looking around in panic, and noticed the darkening sky threatening to drop rain on him at any moment.
Screwing up his courage, he placed his foot on the stair again.
BOOOOOOMMMM!!!   Another lightning bolt struck, even closer, and Wes scrambled up the steps to the porch, his eyes wide.  It took him a moment to regain his composure.  He stepped back from the door and reached his hand up to knock.
Before he could make contact with the worn wood, the door swung open.
***
Ryan sat at the kitchen table with his father as his mother puttered around the kitchen fixing dinner.  He’d managed to get out of the office only two hours late, but he’d spent most of the afternoon mulling over Wes’ issues.
“So what do you think I should do?” he asked.
“I think you should give that kid a swift kick in the pants, is what I think,” said Ryan’s father, Tim, in a gruff voice.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Dad, and I really don’t think it’d do any good anyway.  I’m serious here.  I’m at my wits’ end.”
“Well, there’s always private school, but I’m not sure you could afford that,” said Jane, his mother.
“I’d already thought of that,” said Ryan, “and I kind of tossed it out for that very reason.”  He chewed his fingernail.  “I just don’t know.  It’s just… honestly, today, I didn’t know whether to scream at him or pat him on the back.  After what he did… I know it wasn’t necessarily the best thing to do, but I can’t help feeling a little proud of him.  He stood up for someone, and he got punished for it.”
“Then maybe you should tell him that,” said Jane.
“I tried,” said Ryan.  “In the car.  But he wasn’t in the mood to hear it.”
“Just give him time,” said Tim, gripping Ryan’s shoulder affectionately.  “He’ll listen when he’s ready to. I seem to remember another young man who had his share of teenage troubles.”
Ryan nodded. “I know, I know. It’s just… ah, well, I guess I’ll know more after I meet with his teachers next week.  I’m taking Monday off work so that we can have a conference.  We’re going to talk grades and attitude, and see if we can come up with a solution to all this.”
“That sounds like the best plan.  Now, why don’t you go call Wes for dinner?”  Jane gently patted Ryan on the hand, giving him a reassuring smile.
Ryan stepped out onto the back porch and cupped his hands around his mouth.
Wes!  Dinner!”
He went back inside to wait.  After about fifteen minutes, Wes still hadn’t arrived.  Ryan went back out on the porch and called again.
Wes!  Time to come in!”  There was no answering call, or any sign at all.  Ryan opened the back door and poked his head in.
“Hey, Ma, how long has Wes been out there?”
“Oh, I don’t know, hun, I think he went out at about five.”
“Mom!  That was three hours ago!”
“I know, but he wanders these woods all the time.  He’s not a little kid anymore! I wouldn’t worry, he’s probably just out of earshot.”
Ryan peered out into the deepening darkness, a strange sense of foreboding filling him.
“I’m going to look for him,” he called, trotting down the back steps.
The air was cooling quickly, and there were storm clouds rolling in.  If he didn’t hurry, he and Wes were going to be drenched before dinner.  He followed the path down through the hills and valleys, calling after Wes as he trudged through the tree-covered landscape.
As he wandered further through the woods, he began to get worried.  How was he supposed to find Wes?  He hadn’t been out in these woods in years.  He wasn’t really much of a hiker these days, all things considered.  Years of sitting at a desk had softened him more than he’d like to admit, not that he’d ever been terribly athletic to begin with.  He was what you would call a husky man, well under six feet tall and pudgy.  He’d only trudged through the woods for fifteen minutes, and he was already short of breath.  But he couldn’t just wait inside for Wes.  The boy was notoriously irresponsible, and wouldn’t bat an eye at wandering until well after dark, rain or no rain, and probably get lost at that.  All Ryan could do was wander through the trees calling for his son, following the hills and valleys, trying not to get lost himself.  He picked up his pace as thunder boomed nearby.
Before he knew it, he crested a rise and looked down into a bowl shaped depression with a gentle slope on one side and steep, almost cliff-like rises on the others.  The slope in front of Ryan dropped about fifteen feet at a precarious angle.  There was a rundown shack in the center of the hollow, its walls leaning at odd angles as if it might collapse at any moment.  Had there been a shack here when he was growing up?  He couldn’t remember.  It didn’t seem like it, but if not, where had this one come from?  From his vantage point, he could see the dilapidated condition of the house, although his angle only showed him the front and left sides.  The porch looked like it might be ready to fall off the structure with the next gentle breeze.
At that moment, he saw Wes.  The boy was standing on the porch, his hand raised to knock.
Wes!”  His voice didn’t seem to carry to the boy.  Wes!  Answer me!”  As he stared in disbelief, the door swung open from the inside without Wes ever touching it.  Ryan stood by in horror as his son stepped inside.
Ryan looked down the steep slope in front of him and judged the angle and distance.  He crouched and stepped forward, intending to climb down and get to that house.  What was Wes thinking, going into a strange place like that?  He stepped over the edge of the slope, and his heel caught on an exposed root.  He found himself tumbling out of control, trying to catch his balance, but it was a lost cause.  He fell the entire distance, slamming into the ground below, and felt his head strike something hard and unyielding.  And then there was only blackness. 

Chapter 3 
Of Dragons and Doorways 
WES ENTERED THE RUNDOWN SHACK with some trepidation.  He took a few steps inside and stopped in awe, not even hearing the door creak shut behind him.  What he saw inside was both impossible and wonderful, but what he felt inside was by far more astounding and profound, and even somewhat moving.  It was the most bizarre sensation he could have ever imagined, but it was a sensation that he wanted to continue.
Wes felt… safe, warm, comforted.  It was almost as if the house were welcoming him inside like a long lost son.  No, that wasn’t quite right either.  The house was conveying the sensation of a loving parent wrapping arms around him in safety and comfort.  It was giving him a hug.  There was a gentle scent in the air that he couldn’t really place at first.  Mint, and a hint of chocolate, perhaps, but whatever it was, it was soothing and sweet.
A few more steps took him out of the entryway and into a large, cozy sitting room.  The high ceiling was crossed with large oaken beams, and there was a strangely inviting fire burning in the fireplace, despite the warm weather.  Everything about the room, in fact, was inviting, and completely at odds with the house’s outside appearance.  He had been sure, on seeing it from the outside, that the house was nothing more than a small shack with an upstairs off the back of the main room.  But from the inside, it seemed much larger.  The sitting room was larger than he’d thought the entire house should be, and there were obviously other rooms in the back.  Not only that, but he could clearly see a staircase that led up not two, but at least three floors that he could make out. 
Still, the overall feel of the house was one of safety, comfort, and welcome.  From the overstuffed armchairs to the large, thick rug before the fire, the room seemed designed to evoke a feeling of hominess.  Not any particular home, or indeed any place at all that Wes had ever been or imagined, but something about this room resonated with him in ways he would never be able to explain, most especially to himself. 
The room was filled with items both strange and commonplace, none of which seemed to go together in any semblance of order.  A large glass cabinet contained hundreds of tiny carved figures of dragons, knights, warriors, wizards, all sorts of fantastic creatures and people.  In a prominent display case was a scale model of what appeared to be some kind of space ship, straight out of a sci-fi movie.  On a side table, he spied what looked to be a stack of comic books, and was absorbed in looking those over for a few moments, but he recognized none of the characters, or even the language of the text.  These and other items, all as different from each other as possible, filled the room from wall to wall.  But what caught his interest and held it was what he found on the drawing table in the corner.  A sextant!  He quickly strode over to examine it closely, picking it up off the table.
Yes, it was definitely a sextant, although the design was slightly different, more elaborate, than the one he’d seen in Social Studies class.  It seemed to be more ornate, designed to be pretty, unlike the simple utilitarian device Mrs. Jensen had brought for their project.  He walked around the room in wonder, the rest of the bizarre contents forgotten for a few moments, examining the sextant in great detail.  Just as he passed the bottom of the staircase, however, he heard a thump and the rustle of someone moving.  He had forgotten all about the bizarre little man!  Suddenly, the strangeness of the situation hit home.  He was alone in an unfamiliar house with at least one other person he didn’t know.  He almost fled then and there, but he could still feel that strange sensation of welcome, and despite his misgivings, he screwed up his courage to speak. 
“Hello?”  His voice only quavered a tiny bit.
Wes jumped back as a head appeared around the corner of the landing above him.
“Ah, good, you’ve finally made it!”  The head disappeared back around the corner, only to reappear a few moments later.  “Well, what are you waiting for?”  Then the entire figure stepped backward onto the landing, and Wes saw that the head was attached to the little man he’d followed to the house.  The man was tiny, barely five feet tall, and somewhat round.  He had a long, flowing beard and scruffy white hair stuffed up under a dusty old hat.  He wore an outfit that seemed to be out of another era, with a long robe or tunic held shut by a broad belt, a cloak thrown over his shoulder, and brightly shined leather boots.  His boots were the only part of the outfit that shined, though, as all his other clothing seemed to have been left out in a storeroom for the past hundred years.  Maybe two hundred.  The dust literally wafted from the man as he moved.
“Come, come, boy, time is wasting and days are passing and we must hurry!”  The strange little man beckoned Wes up the stairs.
Wes hesitated a moment, but he felt no danger from the little man.  In fact, he mostly felt amusement, and still that comforting hominess he had felt since entering this strange house.  He glanced back to the front door, thought for a moment, and then made up his mind.  He started up the stairs toward the funny little man, who was bouncing impatiently from foot to foot on the landing.
When Wes reached him, the little man grabbed his hand and hurried him around the corner and up to the top of the stairs.  “So slow, so slow you go, don’t you realize there are people waiting for you to save them?”  When they reached the top, Wes looked down a long, seemingly endless hallway.
“Wait a minute,” Wes said, stopping and jerking his hand free, his mind racing after hearing that last comment.  People here, people waiting for him, people he didn’t know, and him in such a strange place… he was feeling the beginnings of worry prickling the back of his neck.  “Where are we?  What is this place?”  The little man sighed loudly at him, exasperated.
“Yes, well, boy, there’s a lot to do and not a lot of time, but I know you need the details, lad, I won’t forget!”  He led Wes over to an arched doorway before the actual hall and led him inside to a small study, the walls covered with bookshelves.  There were several comfortable looking chairs and a long couch, with a couple of old tables between them.  “All right, lad, take a seat anywhere, I’ll be back in just a few moments.  There’s something very important that I’ve got to show you!”  And with that, the little man hurried out of the room.
Wes was flabbergasted.  What should he do?  Should he wait, or should he make tracks down the stairs while he had the chance, and get out of this crazy place?  He looked down at his hands and was surprised to see that he still held the ornate sextant.  Well, a few more minutes couldn’t hurt anything, just to find out what was going on.  Wes could never resist his curiosity, and maybe this man could tell him more about the strange device.  He shoved the sextant into the open mouth of his backpack and settled down to wait.
***
The little man was downstairs fumbling with his keys, trying to open the great iron bound door to his workroom.  He wasn’t quite as prepared as he’d hoped!  He had just sent out the call, it seemed, and he wasn’t ready for a smart mouthed selfish boy, no matter that he had called him here himself and needed him.  He must show him the book!  He finally found the key and inserted it into the lock, when he heard a rustling sound behind him.  He turned, expecting to see that the boy had followed him down the stairs instead of staying in the sitting room as requested.
“You,” he breathed in disgust, but no real fear, when he saw the small creature emerge from the shadows.  Its wings were held tightly against its back as it skittered forward on all fours.  He readied a spell to fling at the little beast, drawing as much power as he could manage, knowing it would be tricky.
“Yes, Pomander.  Me.”  The little creature’s voice carried nothing but contempt, and before the little man could react, the creature sprang.
Pomander’s spell hit the black shape hurtling toward him, flinging it backward to slam against the wall.  It was back up immediately, though, and rushing toward him again, zigging and zagging down the little hall.
“You must be mad, confronting me here,” Pomander said, throwing lightning and fire at the creature without much success.  “You can’t hope to prevail.”  He flung another bolt of mystical energy at the beast, missing again and leaving scorch marks on the tiled floor.
“I do as my master tells me, Pomander, as do you!”  The creature sprang the last distance toward him.  Pomander was ready, though.  His blast of pure energy hit the creature full on, bathing it in iridescence.  The small form stretched out fully, wings spreading, its small mouth opening wide in a soundless shriek.  The light around the creature continued to build until even Pomander could no longer see the thing, and then it faded, leaving nothing in its wake.
“Maybe so, Crowley, but my master doesn’t tell me to do stupid things.”  He shook his head sadly and turned back to the door as an unseen tendril of shadow fell on his shoulder.  He felt a sudden chill, and began to tremble.  Without warning, he fell to his knees, the trembling becoming an uncontrollable convulsion as he gasped for breath. He pulled his arms and legs in around his chest as the cold grew inside him.
***
Wes waited in the sitting room upstairs, not knowing whether to stay or run.  All was quiet up there, no sounds intruding from either the outdoors or downstairs where the little man had disappeared.  He had finally risen from the chair, making up his mind to leave, when the strange man appeared in the doorway.  The man looked at him blankly for a moment.
“Well,” prompted Wes, curious, “what was it you were going to show me?”
That startled the little man.  “Show you?”  He looked back at Wes, suddenly nervous, unable to meet his eyes.  “Show?  Oh, yes, oh, nothing boy.  It was nothing.”  He stepped into the room, glancing about as he did so.  After a moment, he looked at Wes, and a sly grin crossed his face.
“Well, boy, it’s time, now.  Come along!”  He grabbed Wes by the hand and pulled him from the room, suddenly very animated and full of energy.  Wes jerked his hand back out of the little man’s grasp.
“No way, I’m not going anywhere till you tell me what’s going on here.  What is this place?”
“Talk while we walk, boy, we’ve a ways yet to go!”  With that, the little man grabbed Wes’ hand and tugged him back into motion, not allowing him the luxury of delaying them.
“Where we are,” he said in quick, accented words, slightly British or maybe even a little German, “is simply the House.  Or the House of Doors.  Or the Gatehouse.  It’s not really important, and I’m fairly sure it doesn’t care what we call it.”  He quickened his pace, pulling Wes along behind him.  “As for who I am, which you didn’t ask, you may call me Pomander, and I shall call you Wes.”
Wes dug in his heels, determined to stop the little man tugging on him.  “How did you know my name?  What do you mean, it doesn’t care?  How could it care?”
“I know a great many things,” said Pomander irritably, “not least of which is your name, young man.”  He tugged again, hard, and Wes stumbled into motion lest he fall and be dragged behind the little man.  Pomander was most definitely stronger than he looked.
“Fine,” he said quickly, stumbling along behind the little man.  “But what am I doing here?  What was that you said about people waiting up here for me to save them?”
“Ah, lad, that’s the meat of the story!”  For a change, Pomander was the one to slow their pace.  “And I suppose you do need to hear the basics, at that, don’t you, boy?  Listen closely!”  And Pomander began to tell his tale.
“The Gatehouse is a very special place.  No one knows exactly who created it, or why.  What is known is that these doorways we keep passing,” he gestured to one of the many doors along the hall, “aren’t what you’d consider normal doors in your average family home.  No, no, not at all!  You see, the universe is in no way, shape, or form the place you have been taught that it is in school all these years.”  He looked back at Wes, still pulling him down the hall, though more slowly now.  “There are many worlds, you see, even worlds between those worlds.  And each of these doorways here holds a gateway to hundreds, thousands of worlds, the like of which you’ve never imagined!”
Pomander stopped walking and approached one of the doors.  He tapped the frame.
“Some of these, you see, open onto worlds in this particular plane.  For instance, I might open this door here and find that on the other side was the surface of Jupiter, or maybe a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri.”  Hearing those words come out of a tiny man dressed in clothing that would have seemed ancient a hundred years ago struck Wes as very strange indeed.  “Other doors open to worlds on other planes, other universes, if you will.”
Wes thought he finally understood what was going on here, and adjusted his thinking.  The guy was a nutjob!  But it seemed to be a harmless kind of crazy, not the homicidal maniac kind, and he was really very entertaining.  Wes decided to play along.
“It sounds like something out of a story,” he said with a wide grin.
“It is something out of a story, boy, very astute of you!  It’s the basis of stories, as a matter of fact.  Some of the greatest works of ‘fiction’ your world has produced were written by people who, well, I suppose you would say ‘picked up’ on emanations from the House.  As far as I can tell, this is something unique to your world.”  He glanced away for a moment, and said, seemingly to himself, “Your world is unique in a number of ways, it seems.”
“What ways?”
“Let’s not worry about that just yet, Wes,” he said, grasping Wes’ hand again and resuming his quick pace down the hall.  “What you need to understand is that these doors are gateways to imagination.  The rules you might find behind one of these doors are different from the rules you’ve grown up with all your life.  Maybe there’s real magic behind that door there.  Or perhaps great starships fly through the vast reaches of space faster than light behind that other door.  Maybe people run around in skin-tight, brightly colored costumes, battling evil with their amazing powers and abilities far beyond those of… well, you get the idea, child!  What I’m getting at is, think of anything a boy like yourself might have ever read or seen in your television or movies or in your imagination itself.  Any of those things could possibly, even probably, be on the other side of a doorway!”
Wes couldn’t stop himself from laughing.  “So behind that door, there might be people flying or shooting lasers out their eyes!”
“Or you might find a powerful wizard, now you’ve got it!  Now hurry, we’re almost there!”  And he quickened his steps yet again.
All this stopping and starting, hurrying and pausing, essentially being dragged who knew where, grated on Wes’ nerves for a moment.  A part of his mind kept tickling him, telling him that this situation should have been scaring him silly, and yet he couldn’t seem to feel any fear here.  Between the sense of warmth and safety he could still feel emanating from somewhere, and the little man’s odd mannerisms, he couldn’t help but feel amused by this whole adventure.
“Now, you must understand, lad, it’s not all wine and roses on the worlds behind the doors, any more than it is here.  They’re all actually very much like this world, in that they’re all filled with people.  And people, of course, come in all types.  Every world has its heroes, but every world also has its villains.”  He paused in his monologue here, as if for dramatic effect, and again stopped their forward progress.  He looked nervously down the length of the hall from whence they’d come, and then down the seemingly endless passage ahead of them, and he spoke in a melodramatic stage whisper.  “And then, there’s Crowley!”  He looked up at Wes, as if expecting the name to mean something to him.
“Ummm…” said Wes.  Crowley.  Okay.”  Wes looked at Pomander blankly.  “Who’s Crowley?”
The little man’s face showed his sudden annoyance, and he began walking again, dragging Wes along behind him with a great harrumph.
“Yes, boy, Crowley!  Even here, that name should strike terror into your very marrow!  A powerful demon, servant of the Unnamed, Crowley fills men’s hearts with fear wherever he’s found!”  His voice took on a sonorous, almost reverent tone.  “Ten feet tall, he is, with great black wings and row upon row of razor-sharp teeth!  His terrible countenance drives mortals mad with a single glance!  The arcane powers at his disposal are unmatched in all the worlds, and woe unto me, he is my nemesis!”
“So… he’s the big bad guy in the story, then,” Wes said chuckling, imagining this whole thing as a comic book or video game.  At Pomander’s crestfallen look, he quickly said, “He sounds pretty tough!”
“The Unnamed is the ‘big bad guy’, as you so eloquently put it, boy, but Crowley is his right hand, and quite enough to be getting on with.  In most cases, though, Crowley works from the shadows toward the goals of the Unnamed.”
“But you still haven’t told me what it is you want from me, and who I’m supposed to save.”  Wes was enjoying the little man’s story so much that the strangeness of the entire situation was becoming lost on him.  “What is it I’m supposed to do, defeat this Crowley guy?”
“Ah, Wes,” Pomander said, guffawing.  It expanded into a laugh so hard that tears streamed down his face.  “Heavens no, lad, you could never hope to face Crowley directly!  If you ever see Crowley, you run the opposite way as fast as you can!”  He got his laughter under control and wiped the tears from his beard, still rushing Wes down the long hallway and chuckling occasionally.  “No, you see, Crowley works behind the scenes, sowing seeds of dissension and evil throughout the worlds to try and claim them for his master.  My job, and your reason for being here, is to unplant those seeds and unravel the plans he hatches.  Ah!  We’re here!”
Wes was startled by their sudden halt.  He looked up the corridor, and then back the way they’d come, and couldn’t see the end of the hall in either direction.  “What do you mean?”
Pomander pointed proudly at the door to their right.  “This is it, the one we need!  On the other side, you’ll find the kingdom of Canellin.  Everything else you need to know, you will learn there.  There is a man there who can help you.  So, simply defeat the evil dragon and its minions and return home, job well done!”  He looked Wes in the eye and opened the door to… nothingness. 
A roiling, swirling nothingness, if you can imagine that. Wes couldn’t tear his eyes from the sight.
“Do you, Wes, accept this obligation of your own free will, and swear you’ll carry it out or die trying?”
“Sure,” said Wes absently, not really paying attention to Pomander’s words.  His mind was still trying to grasp the concept of a swirling nothingness.  Was that even possible?  At that exact moment, a bestial roar erupted from the other side of the doorway.  “Wait,” he said, “did you say dragon?”
Pomander shoved him roughly through the doorway and slammed the door.  With a gleam in his eye and a sinister chuckle, he started back down the long hall.
***
Awareness returned to Ryan in a slow wash of pain.  He struggled to sit up, causing his head to fall off.  That’s what it felt like, at least, as the pain overcame him and everything faded out again.  When the wave passed, he put his hand to his temple and reassured himself that his head was, indeed, still attached.  Much more worrisome to him, though, was the blood that covered his hand when he pulled it away.  It took him a few moments to realize that the darkness around him was due to night having fallen while he was unconscious. Rain poured in torrents, and he was covered in blood and caked with mud. Comprehension dawned, and memory slowly returned.
I fell, he thought to himself.  I hit my head on something.  I must have been out for hours!  He stood up quickly, and immediately wished that he hadn’t.  His knees buckled, and he sank halfway back to the ground before regaining his balance.  He could tell both from his grogginess and the fact that he was still bleeding freely after all this time that he must be hurt badly.
There was something he needed to do, if only he could think of it.  Where was Wes?  The house!  Wes had been about to go into that house in the hollow!  He turned his head quickly and again regretted it as nausea struck him.  When his vision cleared, he could see the house silhouetted in flashes by the occasional lightning.  There seemed to be a light on in a second story window, but other than that, all was dark and quiet, the only sound the rain and thunder, and the occasional frog braving the torrential downpour.
The light started thoughts racing through Ryan’s head, dark thoughts that chilled him to the bone.  Child molesters, serial killers, crazy murdering hermits squatting in abandoned, secluded houses.  He had to get to Wes!  The fog of confusion, though, was hard to work through.  He struggled upright and started toward the structure, his feet squelching in the muck.  He was having too much trouble concentrating, too much difficulty keeping his thoughts focused, as he took a few stumbling steps toward the shack and again fell to his knees.  Every few seconds, his vision would fade out, and when it came back, he’d be a little closer to the house.  Somehow, he found himself on the porch, lurched toward the door, raised his fist, and pounded.  Every blow sent lightning bolts through his skull.
The door slowly creaked open, and Ryan fell inside.  He was surprised that he was having so much trouble standing, seeing, concentrating.  He hauled himself to his knees once again, trying to count how many times he had fallen to get this far, trying to shake his vision clear.  Working his way back to his feet, he made his way past the entryway to the large sitting room.  He felt a strange sensation, something bizarre perhaps emanating from the house itself, but it was so vague that he dismissed it from his mind.
Wes?”  His voice sounded like a bellow in his head, but to his ears it was a whisper.  He tried again, louder.
Wes!  Are you in here?”  He shuffled forward, single-minded now that he was inside.
“Who are you?”  The voice came from the bottom of the staircase.  Squinting in that direction, Ryan spied an odd little man in archaic clothing who was staring at him in obvious surprise.
“I’m… I… who are you?  Where’s Wes?”  Ryan stood straighter and took a few halting steps toward the little man.
“How rude,” said the man.  “You didn’t answer my question, and you’re dripping blood all over the rug.”  He stared at Ryan reproachfully.  “I am, umm, Pomander, and I’m afraid Wes is gone.  Now, sir, as I said before, who are you?”
Ryan.  I’m Ryan.”  When Pomander said nothing, Ryan clarified.  Ryan Bellamy.”  Ryan’s knees buckled for a moment, but he retained his balance.  “I saw my son come in here.  Where is he?”  He felt a sudden surge of anger toward the little man.  “Where’s my son?”  He lurched toward Pomander, intending to grab him and shake the answers he wanted out of him by force.
“Hmm,” said Pomander, taking a step back.  “A father’s anger.  That could be quite dangerous.  Quite useful, too, I admit, but to be honest, I don’t think you’ll be around long enough to be either a danger or a use to me.”  He looked Ryan up and down as if sizing him up.  “You realize you’re not in the best condition at the moment, don’t you?  You’re bleeding rather badly, and you can hardly stand.  No, I don’t think you’ll be able to interfere at all, for good or ill.  Regardless, your son is not here.  He’s running a little… errand for me at the moment, and I’d really rather you be kept out of it.”
Ryan drew himself to his full height, angry now, the little man’s callous words galvanizing him to action.  He was by no means an aggressive man, avoiding confrontation at almost any cost, but not where his son’s safety was concerned.  “Tell me where he is.”  He took two steps forward, right up to Pomander, towering over the little man.  “Tell me now, or take me to him.  You do not want me any angrier than I already am, I promise you that!”  He hoped Pomander didn’t call his bluff.  It was taking everything he had to stay upright, and he was sure even this tiny little man could take him easily.
“Spirit.  You have it in abundance, don’t you, my good man?”  Pomander looked up at him, a gleam in his eye and no trace of fear.  “That and bravado.  You can’t even stand, and you’re threatening me with violence.”  He looked thoughtful for a moment.  “You love your son a great deal, I can see that.  I may be able to use you after all.  I’m not sure what you’ll be able to accomplish, even if you survive the trip.  Confusion, if nothing else.  Chaos is always an admirable goal!  Wes has been there for quite some time, and will surely be well on his way to finishing my little task by now, if he’s going to finish it at all.”  He waved his hand theatrically, and dizziness again overtook Ryan.  When his vision cleared again, he found himself standing in a hallway with no apparent end, a doorway in front of him, and the little man nowhere in sight.
“What…?”
“Quiet,” a sharp voice said in his head.  “You are about to make a journey beyond anything you’ve known, with little chance of survival and even smaller chance of success.  It will be difficult, and there will be danger to you, and to Wes.  But if you want to have any chance at all, when you arrive, immediately tell whoever you meet that Pomander sent you, and ask for Diaticus.  Your son is in danger.  It’s up to you to save him.  Now, go.”
The door in front of Ryan opened slowly, and he felt a hard shove against his back.  Then a sensation of falling… falling…
Ryan fell to his knees in the dust, hot sun beating down on him.  He rose shakily to his feet and looked around.  He was in some kind of courtyard surrounded by a high wall.  Directly across the broad court from him, a woman in strange clothing saw him and raced off around a corner with a cry of alarm.  From the other direction, four very large men wearing what appeared to be some kind of armor approached at a run, spears lowered, charging.  He held his hands palm out in front of him, unable to find words or think of anything else to do.  Panic engulfed him as danger approached.  Finally, he squeaked out, “Puh… Pomander sent me!”  And then he collapsed into oblivion.

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