Jack has volunteered to be the main character in a book written by his best friend, Tollers. As Jack maneuvers his way through the unfamiliar world that Tollers has created, he must mollify the wrath of the Editor, survive plot holes, avoid cliches, and strive to reach the climax successfully. Even with Tollers' help, none of that is easy...
As with my other interactive serial stories, JACK & TOLLERS gives you, the reader, the power to determine the story. At the end of every episode, you choose from three options for the story's next direction. When I know the most popular option, I'll write that into the story.
Episodes are posted on Fridays, and you have until midnight on Sunday to vote in the comments.
Start reading below!
EPISODE 1 - HANDYMAN
"So how, exactly, does this work?" Jack inquired. "And stop looking at me like that. It's like you're calculating how to kill me off. I really hope that is not part of the plot."
Tollers laughed. "I am always calculating. But I have no intention of killing you off." He paused, scratching at the two-day stubble on his chin, and appraised his friend again. "There's some risk, you know."
"You've been saying that since the beginning and I haven't scared off yet, have I? Just give me the summary and the rules."
So saying, Jack folded his arms. It all felt rather anticlimactic. Here he was, poised on the edge of a great adventure and the surroundings were distinctly ordinary. He stood on the maroon rug in the center of Tollers' personal library, surrounded by books with dusty pages, used mugs whose rims showed the stains of dried coffee, and scattered notebook sheets and sticky notes scribbled with ideas. In the corner of the library stood a wooden desk and a newly-sharpened pencil--the instrument of his future transformation.
"Well, the summary is subject to change," Tollers said cheerily. "Plots tend to modify themselves, especially when the story is character-driven, but here's the best I've got so far: You are the hero in an epic adventure involving fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles..."
"Hold on. True love? Is this is a kissing book? Because, if it is, I'm out of here."
"No, not if you don't want it to be! I mean, a lot of it is up to you."
"Torture? That's part of the plot too? I'm not keen on it."
Tollers sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes momentarily. "Look, this is like nothing you've ever experienced before. You are the main character. When I write you in, anything can happen. You direct the action and shape the story. Most main characters do, you know, even when the author has some plot in mind. You'll have to McGyver your way through the story. When you get into a pickle, I can help you out in little ways. Give you an idea. Ensure that you have the exact skill necessary to affect your escape. Make sure your pocket has a random key in it to unlock your dungeon door..."
"...send in a side character to pull you out unexpectedly. But if I do something too obvious or cliche, the Editor will show up and who knows what he'll do."
"So the Editor is the villain?"
"Noooo, he's more like a fairy godmother gone really wild. He can make your dearest dreams come true or he can leave you in a bog to find your own way out."
"Then the villain is...?"
"You don't know yet. Even I hardly know."
"Good gravy, you writers are so hard to pin down. You said anything can happen. Can I die?"
"Well, as the main character, the likelihood of dying is small, but it has happened before. If it does happen though," Tollers added hastily, as Jack's jaw hardened, "I can always find some clever way to resurrect you. The Editor hates that--revivals are so cliche now--but, I mean, it'd be better than staying dead..."
His voice petered off as Jack stared hard at him.
Then Jack broke into a quick, mischievous grin. "Don't look so worried, Tollers. I wouldn't have signed up for this adventure if I wasn't ready for it."
"I'm glad you trust me."
"I didn't say I trusted you. I said I was ready. But I do mean it about the kissing."
Tollers expelled a long breath and his laugh was strained. "I'm all nerves. But I always get like that when I first start out. Are you ready?"
He crossed the room to his desk, seated himself, and waved his pencil aloft. Jack lifted his hand to his brow in mock salute. "We who are about to die salute you."
"Drama and dry wit," Tollers mused. "I do think the readers will love you. And"--his pencil descended toward the blank notebook page--"here we go!"
Jack experienced a peculiar rush of movement that twisted in his stomach, as though he were on an elevator dropping twenty floors a second, then whirling round corners at break-neck speed. Then he discovered that his body was suspended in water and his lungs burned for air. The taste on his tongue was salt.
The ocean. Interesting. What was Tollers up to?
The churning bubbles around him utterly disoriented his sense of direction, so he paused momentarily to evaluate the natural drift of his body. When his belly lifted in one direction, he mentally labeled that direction as "up" and struck out toward it, spearing through the water with powerful strokes and vicious kicks. Good thing he was an excellent swimmer in real life. He had no idea if Tollers' promise that he could imbue Jack with all necessary skills would prove to be true.
Jack broke the surface with a deep-lunged gasp and was almost at once submerged by a wave. Kicking his way back to the surface, he was able to hold himself above the chopping waves and survey his surroundings.
A ship. Excellent.
It was a slender ship, with a curving prow carved in the likeness of a hawk with outspread wings. The pennant colors--black, green, white, and yellow--had no meaning for Jack. But there was something odd about the ship...
Jack could not quite place it.
Jack waved and someone on the deck waved back. Without further ado, Jack thrust himself through the water toward the ship, hopeful that the stiff wind would not carry the ship out of his reach. To his surprise, the ship shifted direction toward him almost at once and powered through the waves.
Within a few moments, Jack was close enough to discern faces amongst the ship's crew, half of whom wore only trousers under torsos bronzed with the sun. One of the men threw a length of rope to Jack and, after three attempts, Jack managed to grasp it and began to haul himself along it. The men on the ship pulled the rope hand-over-hand until Jack reached the railing, where many strong hands grasped him and pulled him onto the deck.
"Thanks," Jack gasped, leaning over his knees to catch his breath.
"What is your name, stranger?" asked the foremost of the sailors, a man with gray, close-cropped hair, a pointed beard, and a single ring of gold in one earlobe.
"Jack," Jack replied.
"Well, if you want to be proper, it's Jack Lloyd Alexander. What about you?"
"I am Ciprian Tandario Araby, son of Kirilith Ulembra Tebor, a water-skiller from Rilling-by-the-Sea of Evereet."
"Are you really? I'll just call you Ciprian." Jack spat the salt taste from his mouth and wiggled a finger in his left ear.
"You did not say where you were from, Jack Lloyd Alexander, nor what your occupation is."
"Jack will do. I'm from western Massachusetts, and I'm a handyman."
"I have not heard of this skill. What magic is in hands?"
"Uh... I'm sorry, I don't quite follow."
"I am a water-skiller, like my father. I can bend the virtues of water to my will."
Suddenly Jack recognized the aspect of the ship that had seemed so odd to him before. "No sails. You are powering the ship by your will?"
"Yes, Jack from Western Mass-Will-Choose-It."
"Massachu... Never mind."
"This handyman, what power is it?" Ciprian asked. "I have never heard of a hand-skiller, nor know what that may be. You will excuse my impertinence, but your hands look quite ordinary."
"Oh, but looks are deceiving," Jack said. The moment had come--the moment when Jack took control of his destiny and Tollers wrote the story as Jack dictated it. This should be amusing.
Jack held out his hands toward Ciprian, opening his fists like flowers. "So long as I keep my fist closed upon it, I can keep anything I like in my left hand. I can keep the wind of a hurricane, ready to be released at my will. I can keep the light of a thousand fireflies, ready to light my way. I can keep the water of a river, the roar of a lion, the smoke of a fire... All to be used as I see fit."
Jack smiled. "The power is not in my hands, Ciprian, but in the hands of others. I can, temporarily, borrow the skills of another person. For example, you are a water-skiller, so, if I wish, I can copy your skill and use it until midnight arrives. This ability to wield many skills is why some call a handyman a Jack-of-all-trades."
Jack spread his hands outward. "I can grow as many hands as I wish. Believe me, it is a skill that comes in handy when you are climbing a cliff and fighting off flying monkeys, while simultaneously trying to keep your grip on the Ancient Artifact you stole from Mount Thunder."
Read the votes here.
EPISODE 2 - THE EDITOR APPEARS
From Episode 1: Jack must invent a supernatural skill that matches the title of "handyman."
Jack smiled. "The power is not in my hands, Ciprian, but in the hands of others. I can, temporarily, borrow the skills of another person. For example, you are a water-skiller, so, if I wish, I can copy your skill and use it. This ability to wield many skills is why some call me Jack-of-all-trades."
"This is a wondrous skill, O Jack son of... Whose son did you say you were?"
"Gerald Alexander of Ace Hardware."
"You must be from a very far-away place."
"You have no idea." Jack surveyed the sail-less ship and the rugged waves chafing the waters around them. He pointed to a distant shoreline, which appeared like a smudge of brown along the horizon. "Where are we heading?"
"The port of Smorion."
Jack laughed aloud and spoke to the sky. "Tollers, you're still thinking about those s'mores we had last night, aren't you?"
The grain pattern of the boards at his feet rearranged themselves, lines sliding along one another as though they were living creatures trapped within the wood, and rearranged themselves into letters.
CHARACTERS AREN'T SUPPOSED TO ADDRESS THE AUTHOR.
"It's my story," Jack replied. "I can do whatever I want in it."
REMEMBER THE EDITOR.
"Haven't seen him yet, and I don't give a pickled fig for what he might do."
YOU WILL. TRUST ME.
Jack laughed again. Then he turned to Ciprian. "And what awaits us at the port of Smorion?"
"Why, the Festival of Heroes, of course! The champions of many lands come to do battle, for the honor of their people and the glory of their names."
"Sounds fun." Jack tried to lean casually and heroically against the ship railing and found that it was more difficult to do than he expected, since the ship pitched from side to side abruptly. "What is the prize?"
"Ah! That is the greatest test of all. There are three prizes, and whichever of the three that the champion chooses influences his destiny forever."
"Huh. What prize did last year's champion choose and how did it influence his destiny?"
"The champion chose a dagger with an eye upon it. Ever since then, when someone displeases him mightily, daggers have shot out of his eyes and slain the offender."
Jack rubbed the stubble on his chin thoughtfully, musing, "If looks could kill..."
"Yes," continued Ciprian, evidently gratified to find a captive audience. "The year before last, the winning champion was a man known as the most nosy gossip of his people. He chose a closed box, because it piqued his curiosity, but when he opened it, there was nothing in it. However, it is a mysterious fact that, ever after, whenever he sought to know other peoples' business, all the cats in his vicinity died and the rat population increased so much that they had to abandon the palace."
Jack snorted, then choked, and Ciprian slapped his back so heartily that Jack nearly tumbled over the railing into the sea. "No stomach for the sea, eh, Jack of all trades?"
It took some time for Jack to retrieve his breath.
The ship remained true to its course and Jack soon noticed other ships on the horizon, all converging upon the port. Most had sails but a few, like the one upon which he traveled, were mere hulls with figureheads. Before they cast out the anchor, an apparel-skiller kindly offered Jack a change of clothing--something a little more suited to the Festival of Heroes and little less clingy with saltwater. Jack did not care much for the large, bell-shaped sleeves that cinched at the neckline and wrists, but he did like the looks of the scarlet jerkin, a long sleeveless quilted tunic secured around his middle with a braided belt. The boots were surprisingly comfortable, but the trousers...
Jack borrowed the apparel-skill and changed them from wool to cotton.
BUT THAT'S NOT AUTHENTIC! screamed the floorboards.
"Wool is scratchy. And don't give me that blather about cotton 'not being authentic.' It's fantasy, Tollers. Own the genre."
Jack thought that the wind sounded a little like Tollers sighing.
When the sailors anchored the ship a little distance from the port docks, Jack expected that they would send out landing boats. Instead, Ciprian lifted his hand and the water rose at the side of the ship like a shining, transparent platform with a twisting stem beneath. Each passenger took up a curving board--the fantasy equivalent of a surf-board, Jack supposed--and, balancing on it, went two by two at Ciprian's command. The water-skiller sent them toward the docks on the crest of great curling waves. Then they leapt off their boards lightly, landing on the docks with a clatter of boots.
When Ciprian lent Jack a board and motioned to him to join the next pair to disembark, Jack shook his head. "I got this, remember?"
Stretching one hand out toward Ciprian, he felt the power of water-skilling enter his hand, like an electric current pulsing through his veins. The duplication of Ciprian's ability only took a moment, but it took Jack's breath away momentarily, the same way that a sharp jab with a needle had always affected him.
Jack saluted Ciprian jocularly and, lifting the board, Jack cast it over the ship's railing and leapt down upon it. The sea rose in a sparkling curve and sped him toward the shore at a dizzying speed, ripping the wind past Jack's face. At the last moment, Jack mentally released the water and it disintegrated in a spray of white as he landed on the dock in a crouching pose that, he thought, looked very superhero-like. He glanced back at the waves to observe the following message written exuberantly in streaks of foam:
WELL DONE, JACK! OH, WELL DONE INDEED! THAT WAS... AHEM... ANYWAY, BACK TO THE STORY...
At that moment, Jack noticed a man with a tasseled hat that looked like a cushion approaching him at a swift pace.
Jack blinked. The hat was approaching him, on tiny little brown feet that skittered across the boards of the dock. Its owner came behind it, his handle-bar mustache and hound-dog face giving him a mournful appearance.
Jack stared at the impossible hat until--crack!--a man appeared next to Jack. This man was even stranger in appearance than the walking hat. His hair stuck out in wild directions and changed color every few moments. He wore spectacles that looked as though two styles had been fused together at the nose-piece--rectangular on one side, and round and goggle-like on the other side. His clothing was even stranger, representing a confusing conglomeration of styles from many eras, from the stiff, Dracula-like collar to the blue suede shoes. On top of that, he possessed only the right half of a black goatee and the left half of a suavely curled mustache. He held a clipboard in one hand and a quill in the other.
"Ghastly!" cried the stranger. "Just ghastly. Oh, hello Jack," he said, turning to Jack. "Let me just review this bit here and I'll set it all right..."
"Who are you?" Jack asked. The hat nudged him experimentally with one of its little feet and Jack nudged it back with the toe of his boot.
"I'm the Editor. I try not to get involved if I don't have to, but really! A dangling modifier! Tollers should know better."
He picked up the hat by one of its tassels and beheld it with open disgust. Flinging it away, he tapped the quill down the clipboard, reading in a gravelly mutter. " 'At that moment, Jack noticed a man with a tasseled hat that looked like a cushion approaching him at a swift pace.' Ah! That's where the trouble is. Now, let me see..."
He paused, scribbled furiously, then turned to Jack and beamed. "All fixed!"
Then he vanished with another clap like muted thunder.
Jack felt a disorienting rush of wind and time, then...
At that moment, Jack noticed a man approaching him at a swift pace. The man's hat looked like a tasseled maroon cushion and his jerkin was of the same color, with his name stitched on his left shoulder in gold thread: Gavin, Memory-skiller.
"Memory-skiller?" Jack tilted his head. "What does that mean?"
"I remember everything," Gavin replied in a melancholy voice.
"Cool trick." When Gavin only looked mournfully at Jack, the main character cleared his throat and remarked, "You look very official. What do you, er, officiate?"
"I am in charge of registration. Your name and occupation, please?"
"Jack Lloyd Alexander, handyman."
If Gavin thought that "handyman" was an odd skill, he said nothing about it, for he responded only with, "In Round One, you must work with a team and your personal skill will be blocked until Round Two in favor of the team skill. Choose one of the following:
"Team Cyclops will be endowed with the greatest raw strength and stamina. However, you will all only have one eye each, with an extra, magical eye that you can swap amongst yourselves as you have need. You'll find that the extra eye has certain important abilities. And don't worry. You'll get your own second eye back at the end."
"Team Centaur will be endowed with the ability to grow any animal appendages or features that they find useful during the challenge. However, you will also be subject to unexpected swapping of those features, and end up with your teammate's dolphin flipper or wolf-jaws. As an added bonus, some heroes find that their animal features remain after the challenge, to disappear days or even decades later."
"Team Minotaur will be endowed with the ability to reason and recall on a superhuman level--very useful in challenge landscapes like labyrinths--and to see in the dark. However, you will all be unable to communicate with one another except through gestures and animal sounds, such as bellowing like a bull. You may find that you communicate better with actual animals than with your fellow humans."
Read the votes here!
Episode 3 - The Golden Fleece
From Episode 2 - Jack must choose which of the three teams he will join in order to participate in the first challenge of the Festival of Heroes.
Jack snorted. "Tollers, you've been reading too much Greek mythology. And no doubt you want me to go through some convoluted heroic thinking process calculating the risks against the rewards. But that isn't my style." He began pointing to three invisible options. "Eeny, meeny, minee, mo..."
Gavin watched him stolidly, his face frozen in a mask of melancholy. At last, Jack announced victoriously, "Mo! Gavin, m'man, I guess I'm heading for Team Minotaur."
"Duly noted," said Gavin. "I would say good luck, but most people don't have any."
"Well, aren't you bright and cheery?"
"Really? How odd. I didn't think I was much good at cheer."
"Never mind, Gavin." Jack clapped the memory-skiller on his shoulder. "Where do I go from here?"
"Your team-mates are meeting at the Minotaur tent. You can't miss it." Gavin pointed up the docks toward the carnival atmosphere just beyond the riverside shops. "Ah, just one word of advice. The Minotaur is very touchy. Be very polite."
The music of lutes, pipes, fiddles, and drums filled the air with a throbbing undercurrent of excitement, threading through the hum of voices. Jack strolled down the docks, along the main by-way between the shops, and toiled up a steep hill.
He reached the peak of the hill to discover that he stood at the rim of a natural green bowl rimmed by razor-edged mountains. At the center of the bowl, a cloud of darkness obscured all signs of the competition obstacles. Three great tents were pitched around the perimeter of the darkness, with a multitude of smaller tents around them.
"Welcome to the Festival of Heroes!" blared a deep voice. "The place here the superpowers of the world come to vie for the prize!"
Turning, Jack discovered an orange bullfrog the size of a small child, swelling and deflating the sack under its chin and blinking asynchronously.
This place was weird, but at least there was no way you'd ever be bored.
Jack descended and began a clockwise rotation of the bowl.
The first great tent he encountered, brilliant in green and gold, was dominated by the sign of a single large eye mounted on a pole. Jack blinked, looked closer. Yes, the eye was actually looking at the people scurrying around it.
"Okay, creepy magical Cyclops eye," Jack muttered. "Next?"
The scarlet and silver tent of Team Centaur was guarded by a creature with the body of a horse and the torso and head of a man, who looked unimpressed by the festivities. As Jack watched, however, the centaur extended a finger and drew three circles in the air. The backside of one of the passersby sprouted a curly pig's tail instantly. For half a moment, the centaur's face lit in a maniacal smile. Then it disappeared as quickly as it had come.
"Equally creepy centaur," Jack said. "I'm seeing a pattern here."
He made sure his backside could not present a tempting target as he passed. The tent of the Minotaur--draped in black and gray--was guarded, as Jack expected, by a seven-foot-tall Minotaur with a dark, bare human torso and a pair of black trousers, and, of course, the horned head of a bull. A ring of gold connected the Minotaur's large nostrils.
"Howdy," Jack said, raising a hand in greeting. "I'm on your team."
The Minotaur looked him up and down with menacing slowness. Then, suddenly, its hand shot toward him. Jack leapt back.
"What?" said the Minotaur. "Don't want to shake my hand? Well, fine, if you like it that way. Nobody likes a Minotaur. Someone is feeling rude and he thinks, 'Hey, I think I'll go insult the Minotaur, because he won't mind. He's big. He can take it.' One of these days I'm going to..."
The Minotaur's voice hitched and Jack realized that it was about to cry.
Jack seized the Minotaur's hand and shook it. "Pleased to meet you, bud. I gotta say, those are some spiffy horns you have there."
"You think so?" It was hard to tell if the Minotaur looked pleased. What would a pleased expression look like on a bull? "I like you, little man. May I take your skill?"
"I have to take your skill. Game rules, you know. In competition, you can only have the skills I give you."
"Oh, right." Jack had no idea how to give his skill to the Minotaur, but the creature only said politely, "Allow me," and plucked a hair from his head. Then it said pleasantly, "Please enter and prepare for the competition."
Rubbing the place where his hair had been tweaked out, Jack entered the richly-ornamented tent. His clothes turned black and gray instantly, matching that of his teammates. He surveyed the array of hopeful heroes. A few were of the Viking type, with long hair and arm-guards; others were of the suave swashbuckling type; and still others were of the generic hero type, with shirts half-ripped to display as much impressive ab as possible. A smattering of female heroes were also present, in the usual lithe suits and a degree of make-up that seemed a little ridiculous for dangerous games.
No one had any weapons and, from what Jack could see, they were all just pacing heroically and trying either to look tragic or fierce. Jack opted to sit down and watch them while eating an apple from the nearby bowl of fruit. So much for team bonding.
Suddenly, the bullfrog's voice shouted above the din of festival-goers.
"Contestants! Proceed out of your tents to stand by your team pennant!"
The heroes poured out of the Minotaur tent, half-scrambling over one another in their eagerness. Jack followed last, still peeling the flesh away from the core of the apple with his teeth and munching meditatively. They did take this thing seriously, didn't they?
The heroes of the three teams stood at the edge of the swirling darkness, unable to see more than a few feet into the smoke-like atmosphere.
"I can't go in with you," said the Minotaur, jittering nervously in place. "But I can watch you. Once you're in, you will not be able to speak except with an animal's voice, but your intelligence and wit will be amplified exponentially."
"How comforting," muttered a blond hero, sweeping back his shimmering shampooed hair. "I only chose this team because either of the other team powers would have spoiled my good looks." Noting Jack, he added derisively, "Not that any of us have good looks to spoil."
"Or intelligence to amplify," Jack replied.
Was it Jack's imagination, or did he hear Tollers busting a gut somewhere in the distance?
"Contestants, are you ready?" bellowed the bullfrog. The contestants and all the spectators roared in response. Then the sound of a giant gong reverberated through the air and the contestants entered the arena. As the darkness melted away from the advancing heroes, their battle-cries changed. The blond by Jack shouted, "For love and coun... Heehaw! Heehaw!"
Jack grinned. Poetic justice.
The tallest of the heroes twittered like a songbird, another laughed like a hyena, and one of the ladies let loose with a hippo burp. Jack tested his voice carefully.
The others looked at him sharply. Jack doubled over in a fit of laughter.
"Bark, yip, snuffle, whine, bark!"
This was better than the time he and Tollers had breathed helium.
Then it seemed as though Jack’s mind exploded like water from a dam. His perceptions heightened and his thoughts quickened their pace. Looking around, he noticed that the other heroes had halted their plunge into the arena. It struck Jack, as it did the others simultaneously, that dashing headlong into unknown danger was not the smartest plan.
"There are three stages to the First Trial," bellowed the bullfrog. "First, there are three sheep with golden fleece, and each team must find one and take its fleece. Then you must take the fleece through the labyrinth where Medusa lurks--without being turned to stone by her stare. Finally, you must take the fleece in a ship past the island of the Sirens and survive their deadly song. The first team to deliver their fleece to the judges will continue to the Second Trial. The other two teams will be eliminated from the competition."
Sounded simple enough.
The smoke cleared away entirely and Jack's jaw dropped. They stood at the edge of a giant expanse of grass, teaming with thousands of sheep of all colors.
This was not going to be as easy as it sounded.
Then the tallest of the team--the Viking who cheeped like a bird--pointed upward. Everyone understood his meaning, but no one, it seemed, wanted to be the man on the bottom. At last, Jack barked in frustration, dropped to one knee, and patted his shoulders. The crushing weight of one of the muscled heroes nearly drove Jack into the earth, but he gritted his teeth and lifted himself upright, balancing his teammate precariously. When his teammate began gesticulating excitedly and quacking like a duck, Jack dropped him.
After quacking indignantly for a few minutes, Duck-Hero began to point again and the others followed him eagerly through the milling sheep, who skittered away at their approach. Within a few minutes, they were hopelessly lost and annoyingly sweaty.
"Meow!" shrieked Cat-Hero. "Hiss, meow, brrr, growl!"
Everyone nodded. This was not working.
This time, Jack hoisted one of the ladies to his back and she directed him through the milling sheep. But this proved to be just as impossible as the previous idea, because the sheep buffeted Jack and made him lose his footing several times. When he fell and his teammate landed in a steaming pile of recent droppings, she let loose with a stream of chimpanzee screeches that needed no interpretation.
Across the sheep, Jack noticed that Team Centaur was growing wings in order to hover over the flock in search of the golden-fleeced sheep, but a few of them lost their wings unexpectedly and tumbled amongst the startled quadrupeds. If they caught the sheep that way, it would be a miracle.
Team Cyclops was blundering around blindly and did not seem to know what the heck they were doing, except for the one guy with the magic eye, who apparently had X-ray vision to see the golden sheep but was overwhelmed with the sheer number of sheep around him. He did not seem eager to swap the eye out with anyone. Lack of teamwork would finish him.
Jack considered. Locating one--or all three--of the golden sheep was no use if the sheep kept moving. They would either have to stop the sheep from moving altogether or they could use their motion to their advantage. In other words, herd them.
Authors could hear thoughts, couldn't they? A little help, Tollers? Some random sheep glue, please? No? Perhaps the Editor had considered it a cop-out. Well then, it was on to the other option...
Jack gesticulated to his teammates. Donkey Blond looked away and pretended that he did not see Jack. Apparently narcissism could diminish the results of heightened intelligence. Interesting.
Undaunted, Jack began to mime to those who would listen to him. He put his hands close together, measuring a narrow space between them. Then he wiggled two fingers between the two hands in what he hoped looked like little feet. Herd all the sheep through a narrow space. Catch the golden sheep as it came through. Simple, right?
His teammates stared at him.
Then Duck-Hero's face brightened and he dashed into the milling sheep, quacking madly. He leapt onto the back of a large ram. Jack waved at him to come back. What did he think Jack had said? Who would try to ride a sheep? When Jack waved, Duck-Hero waved back exuberantly. Then, with a sudden sharp quack, he slipped from his perch and disappeared into the sea of sheep.
Jack face-palmed and shook his head. Note to self: The Minotaur’s intelligence was overrated. Or maybe it did not have much to work with.
This wasn't working. A notebook and pencil. Perhaps if Tollers could let him sketch and write out his plan...
The grass quivered and a darker shade emerged in letters. THE EDITOR SAYS IT'S TOO EASY. CHOOSE SOMETHING ELSE.
Very well. Time for Tollers to do his magic.
Send me a dog, Tollers. The Minotaur said that we might be able to speak with animals better. I just need one high-energy dogs to help me demonstrate my plan. Make it anything but an Afghan hound. They're dumb as rocks.
Give me someone else on the team who speaks canine. Maybe if we had the same animal...
Give me someone on the team who speaks sheep. If I can somehow get that one person to understand my plan, maybe we can talk to the sheep.
Read the votes here!
EPISODE 4 - IN DEEP WATER
From Episode 3 - Jack needs a little help catching the sheep with the golden fleece in the First Trial. And Tollers knows just who to send...
Send me a dog, Tollers. The Minotaur said that we might be able to speak with animals better. I just need one high-energy dog to help me demonstrate my plan. Make it anything but an Afghan hound. They're dumb as rocks.
For a time, there was no answer and Jack thought that perhaps there had been another interference from the Editor. But suddenly the sheep began to panic and scatter. Jack rubbed his hands together in glee, anticipating the Border Collie he envisioned.
Then the sheep separated and a tawny streak of fur emerged from among them.
Jack groaned. Tollers, seriously, a PUG?! They're useless. They're...
The pug halted several feet from Jack and surveyed him quietly for several minutes through its monocle. A golden watch fob sparkled from the pocket of its silk green and purple waistcoat.
Then it opened its mouth. Part of Jack's mind understood that the dog's words were actually a series of barks and yips, and that was surely how his teammates interpreted them, but what Jack heard was this: "And whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?"
"Uh... I'm Jack." Again, Jack's tongue growled and barked, but his words were clearly doggish.
"Hmm. Just Jack? I suppose it will do. But my name is much better." The pug puffed out its barrel-shaped chest. "I am Colonel Sherwin Edward Gladdenbury Kerfluffle the Fourth."
Tollers, I'm going to strangle you when this story is over.
Jack gestured toward the milling quadrupeds. "I don't suppose you know much about herding sheep?"
"Sheep?" Colonel Sherwin Edward Gladdenbury Kerfluffle the Fourth cast a baleful eye upon the creatures in question. "Egad, they're ugly, smelly brutes, aren't they? What do they want with all that hair? No, I know absolutely nothing about herding sheep. And I wouldn't do it if I did."
"Well, Sherwin, I need a golden fleece."
"Do you now? What for?"
"Festival of Heroes. Look, we're in a time crunch. The other teams are looking for their golden fleece as we speak..."
"Yes," said Sherwin mildly, watching as a hero from Centaur Team attempted to lift his gaze over the sheep with the stalked eyes of a lobster. "I can see that the competition is fierce. And intelligent."
Frog-Hero croaked impatiently at Jack, who withered him with a glare and wondered whether there was a way to redeem the fact that Tollers had sent him a pug.
"Golden fleece, eh?" Sherwin mused. "Hmm. How do you propose to get it?"
"I was thinking of herding them through a narrow place," Jack said. "But I needed a little help. My teammates are useless. And, frankly, the other team is stirring up the sheep so much that they're making it worse. But one good dog..."
"Ah, I see. You wanted someone else to do your dirty work for you."
Jack considered and crouched by the pug. "Well, what would you propose, colonel?"
"Would you like to be chased down and stolen from? No. Behave like a gentleman and you will reap the rewards of virtue."
"Excuse me, ma'am," Sherwin turned to the nearest ewe. "We'd like very much to talk to the sheep with the golden fleece."
The sheep blinked at him, chewed her cud thoughtfully, and spoke in sheepish.
"What did she say?" Jack asked eagerly.
"She said, 'Nice day, isn't it?' And she's very right. It is."
The sheep spoke and Sherwin lifted his doggie eyebrows. "She says that the grass is sweet, though it is a little dry."
Jack snickered. Classic. A useless lap-dog and a flock of brainless sheep.
Suddenly, the sheep perked up and moved purposefully through the flock.
"What did you say to her?" Jack asked.
"Oh, I simply told her my name. I should have thought of that before. She was very impressed."
"Does she know you?"
"No, but a regal name opens opportunities like you wouldn't believe."
Jack's teammates, apparently, had had enough of Jack's delay and had concocted some plan amongst themselves. Apparently, it involved attempting to herd the sheep by flapping their arms and making their animal sounds. Jack seated himself on the grass (he made sure it was dropping-free first) and watched them make fools of themselves, then get into a fist-fight with Team Cyclops, who had just claimed their golden fleece and were not inclined to let a competing team steal it from them.
Some minutes later, the sheep parted and a single sheep emerged, its wool glittering a light champagne gold. It trotted toward Jack and bowed its head in what was unmistakably an ovine bow. Then it lifted itself on its hind legs and its body warped. The fleece fell away from its body and the sheep melted into the figure of a woman, robed in white.
"Well done, Jack-of-all-trades," she said. "Collect your team and proceed up the hill to the labyrinth."
Jack took the offered fleece and the woman disappeared in a spray of golden lights. Jack drew in a deep breath.
"Sherwin," said Jack. "I would be very honored if you would accompany me through the rest of the First Trial."
"How thoughtful of you to invite me. Yes, I should be glad to join you, Jack."
When Jack reached the top of the hill, he whistled through his fingers. His teammates arrived hastily, puffing for breath and staring at him and the dapper pug. Jack barked at them to follow him and led the way into the labyrinth.
This was no ordinary labyrinth, for its walls and ceiling were not made of hedges or stone, but of dark water, swirling endlessly and held in shape by some invisible force. As they penetrated deeper into the fluid maze, the passages shifted around them. The heroes of Team Minotaur twitched every time one of the swirling walls shifted around them, silently sealing off passages around them and parting to reveal new ones. Bird-Hero tweeted nervously.
After several minutes, Jack was not the only one who realized that there was no way to find a way out of a maze in which the layout constantly changed. Duck-Hero quacked sadly and Chimp-Heroine screeched her frustration into the water, which swallowed the sound. The passages were very dim, but here the Minotaur's eyesight came in handy. All of Team Minotaur could see in the dark.
Team Centaur was not so lucky until one of them had the bright idea of growing the eyes of nocturnal creatures. Team Cyclops was helpless except for the hero with the magical eye, who seemed very loathe to share it with his teammates. Several members of Team Cyclops blundered into the water walls and disappeared entirely.
Frog-Hero began to sob in terror, a choking, croaking sound, which prompted Cat-Heroine to hiss at him to be quiet.
"Hmm," said Sherwin. "Looks like we're in deep water, eh, Jack?"
"At least we're not in hot water," Jack quipped in reply. Even as he spoke it, the water began to steam around them, boiling dangerously, and the heroes leaped back from the walls, bleating or crowing or honking in alarm.
Jack's eyes narrowed. Colonel Sherwin Edward Gladdenbury Kerfluffle the Fourth glanced at Jack and his clear round eyes seemed to sparkle with intelligence.
"I don't suppose we'll have any luck getting out," he said. "But if you have a plan, don't let me throw cold water on it."
A spray of frigid water spat from the wall at Jack and drenched him. The heroes of Minotaur team shrieked and Chimp-Heroine jumped into the arms of Duck-Hero. Jack stood, dripping, as the heat diminished and a distinct chill shivered through the labyrinth.
"I've got it, Sherwin. It's a maze of idioms. Water idioms, to be exact."
"I know the author. There's nothing conventional about him. It's just like something he would do."
Sherwin surveyed the water and blinked thoughtfully. "Given the situation, don't you think we'd better test the waters?"
"Good idea," Jack agreed. "I'll dip a toe in it. Don't really want to jump in on the deep end."
YOU ARE SUCH A GOON, the waters said in layers of translucent letters.
"We're like oil and water, Tollers," Jack replied cheerfully, and, taking off his boots, thrust his right big toe into the water.
When he pulled it out, his eyebrows shot up. His toe had turned to water, transparent and swirling, but holding its shape. Fascinating. He touched it and it felt as solid as his real toe.
So what had happened to those Cyclops' heroes who had fallen accidentally into the walls? Were they truly gone or had they just changed essence?
"You know," said Jack. "I heard once of a rat who was forced through a maze to get to a peanut. One day, the rat realized that it was stupid to run through all those winding little halls, so he just hopped on top of the wall and ran along it until he reached his prize. I'm feeling a bit like that rat. What do you think, Sherwin?"
The pug tilted his head to the side and hunched his shoulders in the dog equivalent of a shrug. "I think it is time to get our heads above water."
"Exactly what I was thinking," Jack replied. Turning to his teammates, he demonstrated his transparent toe and pointed toward the walls, miming a dive into the waters. The heroes shook their heads, backing away from Jack. But they reckoned without Sherwin. He snarled and snapped at their heels and, driven like the sheep from earlier, they fled from his jaws straight into the waters, disappearing as they became like the walls themselves.
When the last had disappeared, Jack turned to Sherwin with a sweeping bow. "Colonel?"
"Why, thank you," said the dignified pug and jumped in. Jack followed.
For half a moment, he felt that he had made a terrible mistake. Tollers had apparently not built breath-ability into this fantasy water. It would be useful to grow gills as the Centaur Team could. But, no, each team had to have the potential of surviving. Jack thrashed toward the distant light above him, a trail of bubbles escaping his lips. Even in this emergency, his fingers clutched the golden fleece. There was a way out. There always was. He just had to find it.
What are you playing at, Tollers? Come on! You've always wanted to write something amazing. Well, now would be the time! Surprise me! Wow me! Blow me out of the water!
And just as Jack thought the words, he knew that they were exactly what he needed.
He exploded out of the water, gasping, and landed on the deck of a ship. His teammates fell around him, flopping like landed fish. Sherwin landed on all fours, gave himself a brisk shake, and dipped his head to return his monocle to his eye.
"Bree-haw," said Donkey-Hero, coughing up water and glaring at Jack. "Hee, hee, squeak, wheeze."
Jack shrugged and turned his attention to the distant shoreline over the bow of the ship. Team Cyclops had already accidentally discovered the secret and was sailing slightly ahead of them. But their ship was weaving oddly in the waters, especially as they sailed closer to the misty island that emerged blackly from the waves...
What had the bullfrog said? Oh yes. "You must take the fleece in a ship past the island of the Sirens."
Well, that was easy. Odysseus had already escaped their dangerously seductive song by plugging his ears with wax. And in the absence of wax, fingers would do. Did Tollers think Jack didn't read his Greek mythology?
Then he heard the voices. And they were not what he expected.
"Jack! You miserable, good-for-nothing cockroach!"
A second voice joined the first. "Clumsy oaf! I should take you by your ear and throw you in the root cellar!"
Good heavens, it was his Great Aunts Myra and Mona. Jack hadn't heard from either of them in many years and was very sorry to hear them now. His only consolation was that they were hopelessly out-of-date. There were no root cellars these days. But knowing Aunt Mona, she would find a good substitute.
Well, no worries. Jack would steer well clear of the Sirens' island. Or was that what they wanted him to do?
"Jack, this is your conscience speaking."
Jack snorted behind his hand. His personal Jiminy Cricket was on the loose on the Siren's island? Yeah, right.
"It's not Jiminy Cricket. It's Jumping Jehosaphat. If you don't rescue me from the Sirens, you'll lose your conscience. And then what are you? THE VILLAIN, that's what."
"Jack! Jack, you've got to help me out!"
Was that Tollers? What was he doing here?
"Look, I got lost in my own book--it was just so absorbing, you know?--and you've got to help rescue me because these Sirens are not as sweet as they look. Jack! Tell me you're out there. Say something! Bark! Oh, where is my pen when I need it? Stay back, you creepy enchantress! Back!"
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Episode 5 - A Moral Dilemma
From Episode 4: Jack's team has escaped the water maze, but getting past the Siren island won't be so easy...
"Jack, this is your conscience speaking."
Jack snorted behind his hand. His personal Jiminy Cricket was on the loose on the Siren's island? Yeah, right.
"It's not Jiminy Cricket. It's Jumping Jehosaphat. If you don't rescue me from the Sirens, you'll lose your conscience. And then what are you? THE VILLAIN, that's what."
Jack stopped laughing. He glanced at his teammates but it seemed as though they had all heard their own personal version of the same problem and were wondering the same thing as he was: Was this a trap to lure them to the island or a test to see what they were willing to risk for something or someone they valued?
What were the bullfrog’s exact words? “You must take the fleece in a ship past the island of the Sirens.” But it didn’t specify how to do so.
And every moment he spent deciding was a moment that the other teams could take advantage of. But Team Centaur seemed to be divided. Half wanted to go ashore. The other half wanted to get as quickly past the island as possible.
Team Cyclops mostly looked as though they were attempting to pin down the man with the magical eye. Who knew what they were planning. If they even knew themselves.
Around Jack, he noticed the same disintegration occurring—Duck-Hero and Chimp-Heroine were quacking and screeching at the top of their lungs at each other, and everyone else seemed eager to have their say. The whole ship sounded like a zoo.
Maybe it wasn’t about whether they stopped or didn’t stop at the island. Maybe it was about the team. Why else would this particular challenge be part of the team Trial?
“Bark!” Jack held up his hands for order. “Growl, yip, snuffle, bark!”
No one paid attention to him.
“Sherwin,” Jack said. “Would you be so kind as to get their attention? I feel that, with a deportment as impressive as yours, they might listen to you better.”
“It would be my pleasure,” said Sherwin Edward Gladdenbury Kerfluffle the Fourth. He made a beeline for Frog-Hero and promptly bit his bottom.
That got everyone’s attention very quickly and they all lined up against the railing of the ship with their bottoms to the railing, desperate to stay away from the snapping jaws of the pug.
“I thought you were going to ask them politely,” Jack said, his mouth twitching.
“Was that not polite enough?” said Sherwin smugly, adding, “Every situation requires its own actions.”
Jack faced his teammates and pointed to the island, raising his eyebrows. Over half of them looked nervously at one another, then cautiously raised their hands. Jack pointed to the distant horizon and the remaining few raised their hands immediately, including a few who had already raised their hands previously.
Jack held up three fingers and tapped his wrist. The teammates glanced from one to another, and Cat-Heroine pointed worriedly to Team Cyclops, who, of all the teams, was foremost in the competition. Jack glanced casually at the free-for-all occurring on the deck of the Cyclops ship and the drunken trail of the ship, then cast Cat-Heroine a wry grin, as though to say, “Really? You’re worried about those morons?”
A few of the heroes guffawed and Jack tapped his wrist again, emphasizing his three fingers. The heroes of Minotaur Team broke away from the railing and traveled the deck of the ship, deep in thought. Jack had no watch, so he had no idea when the three minutes had expired, but he took a guess and at last clapped his hands to get their attention. This time, when he pointed to the island, the hesitation was gone.
Clearly, whatever each teammate heard from the Siren’s island, they were not willing to sail past without attempting a rescue. The few hold-outs were clearly unhappy, but Jack hushed their protests. The majority had spoken. Now, they would go as a team. Jack tried to convey as much through signs and hoped they wouldn’t forget it when they inevitably ended up fighting for their lives.
The ship seemed to sense their consensus and sailed briskly toward the island. As they approached, the mist around the island swirled, unwrapping layer by layer.
Suddenly, they broke through the clouds into a clear space, where the water was serene as gray glass. The island rose before them, a wandering palace of stone, with several human forms silhouetted against the light of the few lanterns in the windows.
“I have a feeling we’re doing something very stupid,” Jack said.
“I have a feeling,” said Sherwin. “That you like stupid.”
Jack laughed. “Why else would I have taken up Tollers recommendation to be his main character?”
“I beg your pardon?”
One of the figures waved at Jack from the turret of a stone spire. “Jack, as your conscience, I am most gratified that you elected to make this venture a team effort. It’s very moral of you.”
“Speaking of morals,” Jack called back. “Don’t you think it would be a very bad moral if I ended up shipwrecked here or eaten by cannibalistic Sirens because I attempted to follow the dictates of my conscience? Think of the havoc it would wreak on the readers. ‘Why, look at Jack. He listened to his conscience and do you know what happened to him? He died a horrible death.’ And then you would be responsible for an entire generation gone awry because of a bad example.”
“Here, here!” barked Sherwin.
“No, no, no!” groaned the Editor, pushing his mismatched glasses further up his equally awkward nose. “When will people learn to take grammar seriously? Sherwin, when you say ‘here, here,’ to what place are you referring?”
“Place? I was only applauding Jack’s brilliant plea for safe passage.”
“Ah!” The Editor’s eyes—Wait a minute, was one gray and one brown?—lit with a half-crazed attentiveness. “You meant that you wanted others to listen to Jack, yes?”
“Yes.” Sherwin considered. “Oh! I see it now. It should not be ‘here, here’ at all. It should be ‘hear, hear’!”
“What a clever Kerfluffle you are!” said the Editor with a smile that scared Jack more than his frown. “Do carry on, Jumping Jehosaphat. You were in the middle of a discussion on tales of morality, I believe.”
With that, the Editor disappeared with another alarming crack! like a firecracker.
“Well?” yelled Jack. “What do you say? All those readers who will learn not to follow their consciences and you’re not concerned?”
“You’re not supposed to think so logically in a tale of epic heroism,” said Jumping Jehosaphat weakly. “You’re mostly supposed to dash around looking buff and try to rescue people. Like me.”
“If you’re trying to lure me into danger, what kind of conscience are you?” Jack asked. “I’m very disappointed in you, Jehosaphat.”
“Jumping Jehosaphat. And I’m not luring you. I’m… Well, I really am stuck.”
“A Moral Dilemma.”
“It hurts like anything and it won’t let me go until I make a decision. That’s why you have to help me.”
“How can I help you?”
“You have to help me decide.”
“You’re the conscience. Aren’t you supposed to tell me what to do?”
“Not when both choices are bad.”
“Great. Nothing like moral ambiguity to really mess up a reader’s mindset.”
The sky opened momentarily and the Editor’s face appeared.
“Fictional Realism,” he said smugly before the sky closed over his incongruous features.
“The choices,” said Jumping Jehosaphat. “Are these. Team Centaur has already run aground and its ship is sinking even as we speak. Team Cyclops has determined to continue on and deliver the golden fleece. Do you (A) save Team Centaur and let Team Cyclops win, thus eliminating you from the competition, or (B) let Team Centaur fight for their own survival and beat Team Cyclops?”
“That’s not even a choice,” Jack snorted. “We save Team Centaur, of course.”
“But wait, there’s more!”
“If I act now, I’ll save even more?”
“If you delay your mission in order to save Team Centaur, the ship will be too weighed down and you may be unable to outrun the Sirens.”
“Jack,” whispered Sherwin.
“You see the problem, don’t you?” continued Jumping Jehosaphat. “Save the Centaurs and doom your teammates, or save your teammates and win the competition.”
“Jack,” Sherwin interrupted again.
“What’s the point of this Trial?”
Jack glanced down at the pug, confused, then a slow smile spread over his face. “You know what? You’re right. I almost forgot.” He faced Jumping Jehosaphat. “It’s not my job to make this decision. It’s ours.”
He turned to the team and barked for their attention. They tore themselves away from the railings, where they had been conversing with their own shadows on the glowing crystal island, and gave him full attention. They respected him. They trusted him. Why?
“Because you respected them,” said Sherwin, “And trusted them when you let them choose whether or not to come to the island.”
“Well, who knew that a little nip in the rear would have such charming results?” Jack quipped. Sobering, he added, “This is a complex decision. My arsenal of ASL is severely limited—and theirs even less so. How can I communicate with them?”
“I think you will find,” said Jumping Jehosaphat. “That between those who respect and trust each other there is a communication that transcends speech.”
And, when Jack began to speak, he saw that it was true. They were not listening to his words. They were listening to the meaning behind the words. And they understood him.
Jack gave them three minutes, but they did not need it. Duck-Hero stepped forward and puffed out his chest, thumping it as though to say, “We are ready.”
Despite the personal danger, they all chose to save Team Centaur.
“Better to attempt nobility and fail than not to attempt it at all, eh, Sherwin?” Jack asked.
They sailed clockwise around the island and discovered Team Centaur’s ship, ghost-like through the mist and listing to the side. They pulled their competitors aboard their own ship, but almost immediately, Jack noticed the decrease in the ship’s maneuverability and speed.
“I’m free!” shouted Jumping Jehosaphat from the crystal wall. And for one moment, the light revealed the face of the conscience Jack had rescued.
He was a mirror image of Jack himself, grinning like a schoolboy.
“I suppose there’s a metaphor in that,” Jack muttered to himself, then shouted, “Want to come aboard?”
He gestured to the already crowded ship.
“No need,” said Jumping Jehosaphat. “I’ll always be there when you need me.”
With that, he vanished like mist.
Almost immediately, the water began to boil around the ship and an eerie, wraith-like song rose, as though the waters sang. A member of Team Centaur appeared from below decks.
“We’re taking water! We’re sinking! Help! Help!”
But, of course, there was no one to help, and the Siren song wrapped the ship in invisible tentacles, tugging it toward a watery grave.
Donkey-Hero stood at the prow and let the wind tangle his long blond hair artistically, his expression defying the Sirens even though their victory seemed assured.
“Oh, come on, Tollers,” Jack groaned. “Let’s not go down with the ship.”
The idiom struck him suddenly. They were still in the waters, weren’t they? And if the waters were the same as the waters earlier…
“I’m sorry, Tollers,” Jack said. “But look at this ship. It doesn’t even have a sail on it and it powers itself. Call this a well-constructed plot device? I’ll tell you what I think. This whole ship doesn’t hold water.”
There was a breathless moment when Jack wondered if it would work. Then, the ship suddenly bobbed up like a buoy.
“That’s more like it,” said Jack. “And, lucky for us, looks like the Sirens are dead in the water.”
The boiling water suddenly smoothed like silk and the ship turned toward the distant shoreline, leaving the Siren’s island to shrink into the distance. Jack saluted the dumbfounded Centaur Team and stood dramatically at the prow of the racing ship—that is, a little behind and to the left of Donkey-Hero, whose Fabio hair kept slapped him across the face.
When they reached the shore, they discovered that Cyclops Team was already in the harbor. The orange bullfrog who sat atop the harbor’s hill magically transported Team Centaur and Minotaur from their ship with a flick of his bulbous fingertips. They found that they stood before a giant crowd of spectators, all cheering madly and many of whom waved pennants of black, the colors of Jack’s team.
The heroes of Team Cyclops glared as the other two teams approached.
“What’s the matter?” asked Jack. “Didn’t you win?”
He realized, with gratitude, that his human speech had been restored.
“They lost,” said the bullfrog. “It seems that their golden fleece is not golden.” He upheld an ordinary white fleece as evidence.
“But it was golden!” hissed the man with the magical eye. “At least, it was until we sailed past Team Centaur.”
“Too bad for you,” said the bullfrog. “Team Centaur, your fleece?”
“We lost it,” said one dejectedly. “When our ship went down.”
Jack shrugged the golden fleece from his shoulder and the crowd went wild. The Minotaur dashed among its teammates and sobbed with joy, nearly crushing Jack in an ecstatic hug. Sherwin blinked primly through his monocle, then chewed a claw on one of his back paws meditatively.
“Congratulations to Team Minotaur,” said the bullfrog. “Now you can each move on to the Second Trial. In this trial, you’ll need a single teammate. Who will you pick from the available heroes as your partner?”
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Episode 6 - THE PLOT HOLE
From Episode 5: Jack has survived the first trial, but in the second trial, he'll need to choose a teammate.
Motivating an entire team of Minotaur heroes had seemed impossible, but Jack had done it, and now he felt almost fond of his teammates. Having managed to survive the First Trial with over a dozen teammate, how hard could it be to have just one teammate?
Well, since Team Minotaur would be split up into competing pairs, Jack should choose the one he would prefer not to have to compete with.
And that would be Donkey-Hero.
"I'm Jack, handyman." Jack stuck out his hand. "And you are?"
"I can change the body's appearance to appear more pleasant--or less pleasant--as I choose."
"Your own body or someone else's?"
"Anyone's I choose." Donkey-Hero--excuse me, Tollers, it's going to take a while to think of him as Romeo--turned toward the Minotaur and sniffed. "Phew, that beast's face is hideous! Maybe I could grow its eyelashes a little bit?"
"So you're like a magical plastic surgeon?"
"Why would anyone perform surgery on plastic? Sounds useless."
Jack decided not to comment. He glanced down at Colonel Sherwin Edward Gladdenbury Kerfluffle the Fourth, who was deep in conversation with the orange bullfrog.
"My boy," said the pug, turning to Jack. "I would love to continue accompanying you, but, as it turns out, I am due in Genovia for an appearance with Princess Mia. Special invitation."
"I wish you a pleasant journey, Sherwin. It was truly a pleasure to meet you."
"Likewise, Jack-of-all-trades. You never know. I'll probably turn up again just when you least expect it."
"You would always be welcome in my story."
The pug dipped his head in a canine salute and trotted off, his purple-and-green waistcoat shining in the sun.
Romeo, meanwhile, was scoping out the available spectators and gestured to one.
"You there! Apparel-skiller! I don't like these dreadful Minotaur uniforms. Black washes out my natural color. I want green."
The apparel-skiller, a lady who could not take her eyes from Romeo, obliged willingly, but soon became flustered as Romeo's specific tastes revealed themselves to be difficult to satisfy. "No, no, that's too kelly green. I want it more of a mid-tone garden green. I need a little white ruffle at the throat too..."
"Contestants!" bellowed the bull frog. "Prepare for the Second Trial! In this trial, you will have to survive the Plot Hole. Once you pass through that glowing crystal gate, you and your teammate must identify the plot hole and pass through it, surviving its danger."
Jack narrowed his eyes and folded his hands over his chest.
Chimp-Heroine raised her hand.
"Yes?" asked the bullfrog.
"Will we need any equipment? Like a rope? To climb out of the hole?"
"You will find all the equipment you need to fix the plot hole within the trial itself."
Duck-Hero raised his hand. "And the team that survives the plot hole and makes it to you wins, right?"
Romeo raised his hand. "Do we get to shower first? The salt-water from the last trial ruined my hair and I won't want my heroics to look less impressive because of it."
"You do not get a shower."
"Ready, contestants? Go!"
The rearranged contestants of Team Minotaur dashed toward the crystal gate, which throbbed with a lavender and azure light that baffled Jack's eyes. Remembering the last trial, Jack hung back as the others disappeared within the gate, their bodies translating into light particles as though they were being Star Trek-beamed to another location--which, for all Jack knew, was exactly what was happening. Romeo disappeared within the group, shoving one of the Viking-type heroes out of the way while muttering, "This competition is going seriously downhill. No artistic value at all..."
Following his muttering teammate, Jack stepped purposefully through the gate.
The first thing Jack noticed was that he stood at the edge of a huge earthen hole, about thirty feet in diameter and nearly full with the contestants, including his own teammate. They really should remember not to run toward unknown danger.
"Comfy down there?" Jack asked, thrusting his hands in his pockets and observing the futile efforts of the trapped contestants to clamber back out of the hole.
"Help us out!" shouted one of the heroines.
"I'm dirty," said Romeo, sighing. "Already. This is the worst day ever."
Who here had a skill that could help the company? Jack held out his hand and closed his eyes. The gesture would probably look impressive, though he doubted it would help him to review the available skills. He visualized the skills in a scrolling array.
Air-skill. Food-skill. Metal-skill. Size-skill. Bird-skill. Sight-skill. Word-skill. Breathing-skill. (That was a skill? Maybe it helped her to breathe in airless circumstances?)
Size-skill. That would do. Jack borrowed it and directed the supernatural skill toward Romeo, who suddenly began to grow, his blonde head and shoulders thrusting upward from amongst the throng of teammates.
"No, no, no!" shouted Romeo. "I already had a professional size-skiller determine that my optimum height was 6 feet, 1.2 inches! You are RUINING my perfect physique!"
"Your optimum is too short," Jack replied mildly. "Now climb up and let's get going."
"What about us?" shouted one of the contestants, as the original size-skiller caught on and began to grow.
"You're air-skill, right? Blow yourself up."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You know what I mean. And you, bird-skill: Call an eagle. Breathing-skill, dig your way out and up through the side of the hole. Really, do I have to spell it out for you?"
"I already know how to spell it," grumbled the word-skiller. "I-T. Duh."
Jack diminished Romeo to his usual size and they continued on their way as the others began more intelligent efforts to extricate themselves from the hole.
That was when Jack realized that the entire landscape ahead of him was filled with holes. Some were small, some wide, some shallow, some deep.
"It's like the sheep all over again," Jack noted. "Obscure the hole you want with a whole bunch of holes. But how would I know what kind of hole is the plot hole?"
There was nothing else to do but wander through the landscape, considering each new hole they came to. The other teammates dashed from hole to hole, working up an indecent sweat and growing increasingly irate. Romeo was impatient to win the challenge, but would do nothing that would compromise his good appearance, and sweating was therefore out of the question. Jack, for his part, had observed that hurrying did not seem to do well in the game. It was better to take a thoughtful approach.
They started at one end of the hole-riddled field and worked they way toward the other end and then back. They passed a rabbit hole in which the White Rabbit invited them to tea, a large hole in which the Forty Thieves whispered and cast dirty looks toward any potential intruders, a hole in which the word NOTHER in block letters appeared to grow from the earth, and holes of various other types.
Romeo counted them. Exactly one hundred holes. And none of them, it appeared, was the plot hole.
After a while, the heat of the sun became overwhelming and Jack seated himself by the Rabbit Hole, swinging his feet over the edge and wondering if it would be worth it to throw himself down just to find the coolness of the shade.
"Why are you sitting down?" said Romeo, sniffing. "You'll get grass stains on your backside."
"Move a little to your right," said Jack, "and you can be my shade."
To Jack's surprise, Romeo laughed and seated himself by Jack.
"What about the grass stains?" Jack asked.
"I'm already wearing green."
Romeo squinted at the various competing pairs who blundered from hole to hole. Most of them had given up the heroic expressions and were looking downright murderous.
"Look at them," said Romeo. "It's pathetic."
"I know," nodded Jack sagely. "They should have some order in which they visit the holes, so that they know which ones they've already inspected."
"No, their appearance. It's obvious that none of them uses Tru-Shine Shampoo. I'll bet you anything the man with the horrid dreadlocks uses glue."
Jack laid back on the grain, shaded his eyes, and muttered to himself, I'm certain I'm missing something."
"Yes. Good looks. I could try to improve upon them..."
Jack levered himself up suddenly on his elbows. "Ugh, it's those thieves again. What are they doing, anyway?"
A chorus of hoarse whispers rose from a hole nearby. Romeo leapt to his feet and reached the edge of the intriguing hole before Jack did.
"Hello?" he called down. "What are you all doing?"
"Shh!" said one of the masked and turbaned figures at the bottom. "We're plotting."
"Oh. Well, don't let me disturb you."
"That's it!" shouted Jack, scrambling to his feet. "That's it! The Plot Hole! Come on, Romeo!"
And without further explanation, he grasped his teammate and jerked him over the lip of the hole.
The Forty Thieves screamed and scattered, but before Jack and Romeo landed upon the bottom of the wide hole, there was a sharp fizzle and Jack felt as though his body had been dismantled into a million tiny pieces. Then he landed on his feet in...
"How odd," said Romeo. "We're back in the water maze again. Why is that?"
"Because," said Jack. "Something inconsistent happened here."
"Oh," said Romeo. "You mean the fact that there was no Medusa?"
"What?" Jack observed his teammate.
"The bullfrog said that we had to make our way through the maze, past Medusa, without being turned into stone. But I was more worried about being pushed into the water, so I never bothered with Medusa."
"But we never saw Medusa. Ah. Right. Inconsistency."
OKAY, said the transparent water-letters. I FORGOT ABOUT MEDUSA ONCE I HIT ON THE IDEA OF THE WATER IDIOMS. BUT I'M AN AUTHOR. I WORKED IT TO MY ADVANTAGE. THAT'S HOW IT WORKS.
"Obviously," said Jack. "Well, I assume that in order to fix the plot hole, we have to survive Medusa?"
YOU GET ONE OBJECT TO HELP YOU OUT.
A pair of glasses.
Read the votes here!
EPISODE 7 - THE MONGOOSE AND MEDUSA
From Episode 6: Jack and his teammate Romeo have found the Plot Hole, and they are about to face the stony gaze of Medusa...
The glasses, Jack decided. Maybe they were magical glasses that would enable him to look at Medusa without turning to stone. Not much help to Romeo, but if Romeo just shut his eyes…
“Definitely not the glasses,” said Romeo. “They would look hideous on me. I went to a sight-skiller to correct my vision so that I would never, ever have to wear those clunky things.”
Jack didn’t give a fig for Romeo’s looks, but he suddenly realized that a mirror would be the better choice. Freeze Medusa with her own look. It would serve her right.
“As for a mirror,” said Romeo. “I’m fairly certain I don’t need one. My intuition is impeccable. We’ll take the mongoose.”
ZAP! A mongoose suddenly appeared at their feet, its round nose twitching, its squirrel-like tail quirking into a question mark. Jack stared at it in horror.
Barely restraining his temper, he turned to Romeo, “And just why did you choose a mongoose?”
“Oh,” said Romeo, combing back his long blond hair with his fingers and flashing Jack a toothpaste-commercial smile. “They’re cute.”
“What the *bleep* do you think we can do with a mongoose?” Jack paused, astonished. Did he just get bleeped? In real time?
CRACK! The Editor appeared, looking more disheveled than ever. This time he wore cowboy boots with a Middle Eastern turban and a sequined jacket. He cast a withering glare at Jack through his mismatched glasses.
“You bleeped me,” Jack said.
“Yes, I did. This,” the Editor unrolled a long scroll and stabbing emphatically at it with a bony finger, “is a PG story. All obscenities, blasphemies, profanities, swear words, curses, oaths, expletives, and inappropriate comments will be promptly bleeped.”
“This is my story,” sulked Jack. “I can say whatever the *bleep* I want.”
“Apparently,” said Romeo suavely. “You can’t.”
“What am I supposed to say when I’m mad?”
“Oh, there are plenty of potential alternatives,” said the Editor. “Some suggestions: dagnabbit, holy moly, turd, fiddlesticks, criminey, cripes, good gravy, son of a biscuit, for the love of pete, for crying out loud, crud, mother of pearl, jeepers, what in the haystacks, sheesh, kiss my foot, and my personal favorite H-E-double-hockey-sticks.”
The Editor rolled up the scroll briskly. “Did you get any ideas?”
Jack stared at him.
“Personally,” said Romeo helpfully. “I use ‘halitosis’ as my expression, because there is nothing that diminishes a good appearance worse than a foul mouth.”
“Excellent,” said the Editor and pointed meaningfully at Jack. “Remember, Jack: PG!”
With that admonition, the Editor disappeared. Jack stared at the mongoose at his feet and puffed out his cheeks.
“Okay,” he said. “Romeo, I apologize for what I said.”
“I couldn’t hear it, seeing as it was mostly bleeped, but I accept your apology anyway.”
Romeo held out his hand to the mongoose, which leapt onto his outstretched arm and clambered up to his shoulder. “Shall we go?”
Jack sighed. “Lead the way.” Then, thinking better of it, he said, “Actually, I’ll lead the way.”
He might dislike Romeo, but it was a coward’s play to let the more brainless of the two of them to walk into danger first.
“I’m going to call him Percy,” said Romeo. “Short for Perseus.”
“Why?” Jack asked.
“Because Perseus was the hero who vanquished Medusa in the Greek myths. He used his shield as a mirror to see her by, so that he would not be turned to stone by her gaze, and when he cut off her head, it retained its power, so he used it to turn his enemies to stone.”
Jack glanced at Romeo. This dandy was still surprising. “But we don’t have a mirror. You chose the mongoose, remember?”
“Well,” said Romeo. “If you only do what’s been done before, how do you know what is possible?”
Suddenly, as they rounded the corner, both men stopped.
Before them stood two competitors that Jack recognized as Duck-Hero and Chimp-Heroine. They faced Jack and Romeo with blank, wide-open eyes. Every fold of their clothing, every inch of their skin had been turned to stone.
“Poor creatures,” said Romeo sadly. “They look positively petrified. I hope it didn’t hurt.”
“Look down at your feet,” said Jack. “Never up.”
“But that will make me look hunchbacked.”
Jack gave up on trying to quantify Romeo’s intelligence. “Just look at your bleeping feet, Romeo!”
“It’s cheating to use ‘bleeping’ as your swear word. And I don’t see what’s so funny about it.”
Romeo obeyed. They shuffled furtively through the hallways, wary of making eye contact with anything other than the mongoose, who leapt off of Romeo’s shoulder and pattered ahead of them, flirting its tail every few seconds and nosing at the strange, swirling water-walls inquisitively, its black eyes glittering, its rounded ears twitching. Percy the mongoose appeared completely unconcerned, even when heavy footsteps approached.
It was just the Viking-muscled Bird-Hero.
“She turned my partner to stone!” he shouted. “Run for your lives!”
When he had passed, Jack murmured, “I’ll bet he runs straight into Medusa.”
Bird-Hero missed his turn and fell straight into the water-wall, disappearing with a gasping cry. Jack turned his attention back to the floor. “Well, I was wrong.”
Suddenly, Percy’s tail flickered with alarm and he darted forward, chattering angrily.
For one half-second, Jack saw a face reflected on the water-walls at his side from one of the intersecting passages. It felt like his eyes froze in their sockets and his stomach curdled. There were no words for a creature so devilishly hideous that her serpentine face turned her viewers into stone.
Romeo and Jack reflexively hid their faces. A new feeling overcame Jack. He was used to meeting danger head-on—isn’t that what he had done the last time he was in the water-maze?—but this was one danger that you couldn’t beat by meeting it face-to-face. You had to look away and wait and wonder how close your enemy was. Instinct warred against sense.
“What happens if we just jump into the walls and swim up?” Jack whispered into his collar.
The water curled into letters at his feet: YOU FAIL.
“How do we win?”
YOU DEFEAT MEDUSA.
“How do you defeat an enemy you can’t face?”
YOU FIGURE IT OUT. Jack could almost hear the smugness in his best friend’s voice.
Fine, Tollers. Mr. Shampooed-Hair and a mongoose will help me figure it out. Without you.
The mongoose screamed at the newcomer, who shuffled closer. The weight of the footsteps shuddered the corridor beneath Jack’s feet, and it took all his self-control not to glance up and catch a glimpse of his enemy. The hiss of many serpentine tongues filled the air, as though the sound coiled tendrils around the wrists and ankles of the contestants. Jack gritted his teeth.
Percy the mongoose let out a short, sharp cry and the sound of his little feet accelerated into a flurry of activity. It was as though the creature had gone crazy.
Jack glanced up for half a moment—some reflex that somehow he had no control over—but discovered that Medusa was facing away, shielding her hideous face from the vicious attack of the mongoose. The snakes that crowned her head hissed and struck, lethal fangs snapping.
Jack dropped his gaze to the ground just in time. He sent out feelers to test the skills nearby, but the other contestants were too far away for him to borrow their skills. And Romeo’s skill was worse than useless, which meant that Jack’s skill was useless.
Then, to Jack’s astonishment, Medusa’s heavy footsteps receded rapidly, pursued by the flutter of the mongoose’s steps.
“Phew!” said Romeo, flicking back his hair and wiping a bead of sweat with a fluid wipe of his slender fingers. “We could have been turned to stone. And much as I’ve always wanted a statue of myself, I’ve never wanted to be the statue.”
Jack suddenly struck his thigh. “I’m an idiot! A mongoose! Romeo, you’re smarter than you know.”
“Are you sure?” Romeo said doubtfully. “I know a lot. Are you sure I can be smarter than my own smarts?”
“Why did you pick a mongoose?”
“Well, because it’s cute.”
“How do you even know what a mongoose is?”
“Because I read Rikki Tikki Tavi by Rudyard Kipling, of course.”
“About the mongoose who killed a pair of cobras.”
“Of course. I expect Percy hates Medusa—what with her being snake-haired and all.”
“But will one be enough?” Jack muttered to himself. “We really need a whole army of mongooses.” He paused and reconsidered. “Mongeese?”
“What would we need monkeys for?” Romeo asked.
“No, I was trying to figure out the plural of… Never mind.”
Romeo was already on another train of thought. “Good manicures, did you see that creature’s face?”
“You saw it in the reflection too?”
“Poor Medusa. No wonder she is single. I wish there was something I could do.”
Jack rubbed his sandpaper jaw. Suddenly, something flickered in his mind. Or perhaps that was just the sound of Percy’s feet as he returned. But no, it truly was an idea, stirring thoughts in his mind that added up to a crazy plan. If it worked…
“Maybe there is something you can do,” said Jack slowly.
“It would take a lot more than Sultry Cherry Blossom lipstick to improve on that female’s looks, I fear.”
“You don’t need lipstick. You just need… skill.”
Romeo looked at him blankly. Apparently the pregnant pause and significant look from Jack was not enough to cue the appropriate dramatic intake of breath and understanding of Jack’s brilliant plan. Real life in a fantasy adventure was, apparently, not like in the movies.
In the end, Jack had to explain the plan in detail to Romeo.
“Ready?” Jack asked.
Romeo smoothed his expression into a benevolent grin. “It will be my finest hour.”
“I hope so.” Jack turned to the watching mongoose. “Go find her, Percy! Find the snakes!”
Percy’s tail bristled with savage glee and he dashed ahead of the two contestants, chirring a war-song to himself. He ran so quickly that Jack and Romeo could barely keep up with him. They ran and the water-maze changed as they passed, closing off passages and opening new ones, glistening with their reflections.
Percy stopped so suddenly that Jack tripped himself to avoid kicking the mongoose. He sprawled headlong and Romeo performed an impromptu pirouette around his fallen teammate. Percy, meanwhile, whirled to face the way from which they had just come, his teeth bared and his back arched with warning.
Jack and Romeo turned their faces away, though both scrambled to their feet, ready for their moment.
The snakes hissed like water on a hot pan. The mongoose chattered back and the dance began just as before, snake against mongoose. Medusa retreated and the fanatical mongoose followed. Jack and Romeo shuffled after the mongoose, their gazes averted.
“At last” said Romeo. “He’s about to back her around the corner.”
“She’s out of sight.”
Jack looked up to discover that Romeo was right. Percy darted back and forth in the intersection of their passage with a perpendicular corridor, and Medusa was just beyond the corridor. They could not see her directly, but her face reflected hideously in the water-wall.
“I’ve got the nose!” Romeo said.
“I’ll take the teeth.”
Jack duplicated Romeo’s skill and the two flung the power outward like invisible ropes, bouncing it from the reflection to Medusa herself. Her face warped and melted, the teeth straightening, the hissing snake-hair flattening and feathering into flowing tresses, the skeletal nose curving aristocratically, the bulbous eyes shrinking and glimmering with radiant irises.
By degrees, the mongoose ceased his hissing and at last, he crouched on the ground and became still and quiet.
Medusa stepped forward and emerged from beyond the corner.
Jack’s jaw dropped.
The woman before him had skin as dark as warm earth, with hair of white and teal like a paradise beach, and eyes the color of molten gold.
“They say,” said Romeo gently, stepping forward, “that a good appearance-skiller can only bring out the inner appearance that is hidden from the eyes. My dear Medusa, you are radiant.”
Medusa burst into tears and Romeo held her gently, stroking her hair.
“To kill with a look,” she sobbed. “Do you know what that is like? I’ve been so lonely.”
Romeo spoke with dramatic gallantry. “You will never be lonely again.”
Jack turned away, feeling somehow as if he had intruded on something not meant for him.
“Tollers,” he said. “What I said earlier about this not being a kissing book… I retract it.”
And as he walked away from Romeo and Medusa, the walls melted before him and he found himself on the hillside where the audience breathlessly awaited the judgment of the orange bullfrog. But instead of cheering like last time, the spectators were dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs.
Jack sighed. “Don’t overdo it, Tollers.”
The sky seemed to laugh.
“Jack and Romeo!” The bullfrog bellowed. “Romeo, if you wouldn’t mind paying attention for just a moment. ROMEO! Thank you. Ahem. It appears that you two are the last contestants standing from the second trial. You both get an advantage in the third and final trial. The contestants who were not turned to stone will follow after you. May the best hero or heroine win!”
The audience waved their handkerchiefs in the air in a sudden rousing cheer.
“Jack and Romeo, choose your advantage. You get one skill in addition to your inborn skill.”
This time, YOU get to suggest the option and I'll pick my favorite and incorporate it into Episode 8. Get creative!
Read the votes here!
EPISODE 8 - A RAG MAN
From Episode 7: Jack and his teammate Romeo have defeated Medusa, and now they split up to face the final test...
Romeo combed his fingers through his hair and said, “Oh, I don’t know. Something light and carefree and appealing like… Well, air-skill. Yes, I think that would be rather fun.”
“Air-skill?” Jack glanced toward his former teammate.
“All things pertaining to air. Wind, breathing… That sort of thing. What are you choosing?”
“Given that you and I are polar opposites, I might as well choose earth-skill. I like my feet firmly on the ground, thank you. None of this light and airy stuff.”
Romeo extended a hand. “I do wish you the best of luck, Jack—although I expect to take home the prize myself.”
“I wish you the best of luck as well,” Jack said, and meant it. “But you’re wrong about the prize’s destination. It’s coming home with me.”
“We shall see,” said Romeo, with a twinkle in his perfect eyes.
“Contestants!” the bullfrog bellowed. “In this last competition, you must cross the field into the castle and defeat the dragon with whatever skills you possess and whatever weapons you can create. My only advice: Rearrange A Rag Man. Good luck!”
With that, he gestured toward the shining doorway that Jack remembered from the First Trial. Remembering the earlier headlong rush into trouble, the wary competitors (those who had survived Medusa’s maze) passed through the doorway with caution. As Jack stepped through, an odd rushing, tingling sensation passed through his body as the magic doorway literally wrenched him from one location to another, very different location.
Jack surveyed the area and, to his surprise, discovered a scarecrow-like figure standing in the midst of a field as though waiting just for the contestants. A Rag Man. Well, that was too obvious. Must be some trick to it. What was Tollers up to?
Unless it was an evil contestant-eating zombie Rag Man, it couldn’t hurt to ask it to explain itself. Jack reached the Rag Man first, since the other contestants, including Romeo, did not appear interested in being the first to approach the mysterious creature.
“Are you the Rag Man?” Jack asked.
“No. I am A Rag Man,” replied the figure from a mouth that Jack could not distinguish amongst the various patchwork facial features.
“So there are more of you?”
“No, I am the only one.”
Jack reviewed his understanding of definite and indefinite articles in English and came up empty. “I don’t understand.”
“Rearrange A Rag Man, and you will.” A light breeze fluttered A Rag Man’s threadbare clothing. (Or was it his threadbare self?) Then, raising his voice, he announced, “Your time starts now!”
Rearrange? Was A Rag Man’s body some kind of puzzle that should be arranged in another configuration? Somehow that seemed hideous, to tear apart the creature. Would it survive the rearrangement?
It was clear that the other contestants had the same thought, for several of them started forward, intent on ripping apart A Rag Man. Jack leapt forward.
“Tap! Sit! Ow!” he shouted. The contestants immediately tapped their foreheads, sat down, and shouted, “Ow!” in surprise as they discovered that they had sat on thistles.
Then A Rag Man said clearly in Jack’s voice, “Wait! Stop!”
Jack stared blankly. “Wait! Stop!” was exactly what he had intended to say, but “Tap! Sit! Ow!” was what had come out of his mouth.
Jack’s mind was full of nothing but question marks and he half expected the Editor to show up to explain this ridiculous phenomenon. But the Editor did not show up, and one of the competitors leapt to his feet, outraged, and shouted, “A wordage hint, you!”
A Rag Man spoke in the man’s voice, “What are you doing?”
A wordage hint. Rearrange A Rag Man. Suddenly, Jack smiled and said to the raggedy figure, “A Rag Man.” And A Rag Man seemed to smile back as he said, “Anagram.”
Anagram. A word created from the letters of another word.
Jack set out across the field, but as far as he went, the castle whose serrated profile dominated the skyline never came nearer. One of the women passed Jack, running, but fifteen minutes later, she seemed no further ahead of Jack than a few yards.
Interesting. Clearly, the contestants needed something magical to boost them across the distance. But if the words he spoke could be rearranged to make people do things, could they also create things?
In the meantime, one of the contestants had lost his temper.
“Dust his tipis!” He fumed, and suddenly all the contestants found themselves surrounded by conical tipis, feather dusters in hand, furiously dusting.
A Rag Man interpreted solemnly, “This is stupid.”
As soon as Jack realized what he was doing, he dropped the duster and his tipi disappeared. Horror chilled his gut. One false word from one of the contestants could make them all drown themselves or cut each other to ribbons. But how could he explain anagrams to the others without creating the very situation he was trying to avoid?
But it appeared that one of them had realized their danger, for he shouted frantically to the others, “Spooked ant!”
A terrier-sized black ant suddenly emerged from a hole in the field and bolted past them, waving its antennae in a mad scramble to find safety.
“Do not speak,” advised A Rag Man, interpreting the contestant’s words.
The contestants scattered from one another, desperately seeking safety from each other’s words. Next time the product of their anagrams might be scarier and more dangerous than a spooked ant. Jack was grateful when he was at last out of earshot of the others. Now he had a chance to sit down and think.
After about five minutes, he nodded to himself and said deliberately, “Hellcat Treetop Totes.”
Two large canvas totes appeared before him, adorned with the red-eyed graphic of a fanged black cat in a burning tree. A Rag Man stood in one of the totes and beckoned to Jack. “Teleport to the castle.”
Interesting. So his intended creation was also the anagram version of itself—both a teleport and a tote.
Jack was so elated that he forgot the importance of silence and exclaimed, “I’m a genius!” Well, that was what he meant to say. But what came out of his mouth was “Aiming Sue,” and the threat of her blaster gun and fierce expression sent Jack scrambling to his Hellcat Treetop Tote. He didn’t want to wait to find out if Aiming Sue also knew how to shoot.
Very funny, Tollers. Just wait until I escape your story and return to your living room. Killer anagrams, indeed!
The next thing he knew, Jack was hanging on to the handles of the tote as it careened through the air. The tote deposited him next to the castle, which crowned a steep hilltop overlooking the wide plains through which the other competitors still struggled. Climbing out of the tote, Jack made two circuits around the cluster of castle towers, observing the smoke that curled from one of the upper story windows.
Well, this was interesting. There was no door. How was Jack supposed to fight a dragon he couldn’t reach?
Jack puzzled over this for a time before suddenly he struck his forehead with his open palm. You’re an idiot, Jack. What did you choose earth-skill for? Why, of course you chose it so that you could stack the earth and stone against the castle to reach the upper-story window. The earth boiled at Jack’s feet, then shifted, pulling itself into a staircase of packed earth.
Jack decided, after some consideration, to climb the stairs now and decide upon a weapon when he had scoped out the dragon’s lair. Otherwise, he would run the chance of ordering a weapon that did not apply to the situation that he found.
He mounted the steps and, with a sudden burst, thrust himself through the narrow window and onto the floor, crouching below the smoke-level. Peering through the smoke, he could just descry an angular shape with the leathery wings and long, speared tail of a typical fantasy dragon. As Jack approached, it lifted its head, its body rattling with chains, and a bright bubble flared at its throat.
Then it opened its mouth.
Jack dodged, but what poured from the dragon’s throat was not fire. The hot liquid rushed over Jack’s ankles, cooling and hardening instantly. There he stood, awkwardly sideways to his foe, his feet completely frozen.
For a moment, Tollers’ words echoed through his head. “As the main character, the likelihood of dying is small, but it has happened before.”
The likelihood seemed a lot higher now.
If Jack died, would the story still be PG? He laughed at the irony.
The dragon crawled forward, chains clanking, nostrils spewing smoke so intense that Jack’s eyes watered.
Don’t panic, Jack. Think. What do you need to kill the dragon right now? But killing the dragon wouldn’t be PG either and anyway, you didn’t have to kill Medusa, did you? What if this dragon is more than it seems?
But he didn’t have time to think of the right anagram. Just as the dragon opened its mouth again, its eyes like black fire burning, Jack shouted, “Reveal your true self!” But, of course, what came out of his mouth was: “A truer love rules Fey.”
For a moment, nothing happened.
There, before his astonished eyes, the dragon melted into…
“At your service.” Tollers swept a low bow.
For some reason, Jack felt enormously irritated. “Seriously? ‘A truer love rules fey’? What does that even mean?”
“Fey is this land here,” Tollers’ gesture took in the whole castle, the field outside, “And you, by choosing to seek the dragon’s real self, demonstrated a truer love than simple love of yourself. You thought of someone else.”
Jack pointed at his trapped feet. “Stop moralizing and let me go. And seeing as my every word is not becoming some monstrous creature or death-trap, I assume that I’ve won?”
In answer, the bullfrog’s voice boomed from below. “Hail, Jack-of-all-trades! You have successfully passed all three trials and we declare you victor in the Festival of Heroes!”
“Look, they’re cheering for you,” Toller said, peering out the window.
“Tollers, my feet.”
“Oh, yes.” Tollers waved his pen distractedly and the amber-like substance melted from Jack’s feet. “Better hurry, Jack. They have your prize!”
“If the prize is as weird as this adventure, I’ll pass.”
“You can’t pass. You’re the hero! The people love you. Look, you even have the Minotaur in tears of joy. You can’t disappoint him.”
So Jack descended from the tower amidst a roar of applause and waving handkerchiefs. The other competitors glowered in the background, casting killing glances at Jack. Except, of course, Romeo, who had forgotten that anyone but Medusa existed the second he had caught sight of her amidst the crowd. The orange bullfrog dipped his wide head as Jack approached.
“Victor,” he intoned solemnly, “which box shall you choose?”
The box depicting an eye.
The box depicting a pen.
The box depicting a star.
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EPISODE 9 - THE STAR BOX
From Episode 8: Jack has one final choice to make--which of the three prizes will he keep?
“Choose!” Tollers rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, humming and looking unreasonably pleased with himself. “And don’t do eenie-meenie-minie-mo like the time you picked your team in the First Trial.”
“I don’t want to choose,” Jack said. “The last prizes were a little too interesting, if I recall. Ciprian the water-skiller told stories of daggers shooting eyes and cats dying mysteriously.”
“Yes, well…” Tollers blushed a little. “I think I got a little carried away with that. But these prizes will be amazing. Honest.”
“But they won’t last when you pull me out of the story, so it really doesn’t matter. Right, Tollers?”
Tollers rubbed the back of his neck and looked studiously at the grass near his feet.
Jack’s tone hardened a little. “Right, Tollers?”
“Look, Jack,” Tollers looked toward his best friend, half-pleading. “Stories don’t just evaporate once you close the cover. They stay with you. They become part of you. They change you. So, no, you can’t go back to being the Jack who began this adventure. You’re a different Jack now. The things that you gained from this story, both good and bad, will stay with you forever.” He paused, then said quietly, “I thought you knew that when you agreed to this.”
Jack stared at his friend and the tension built between them.
Suddenly Jack laughed. “You crazy son of a quill pen, you! Who knew it was so dangerous to have a writer as a best friend?”
He turned back to the boxes. “So I get to keep whatever crazy thing pops out of this box? Cool. Do I want an eyeball, a pen, or a—Okay, how in the world would I keep a star? It can’t possibly fit into this little box anyway.”
“I’m not sure what’s in there myself,” Tollers admitted.
“What? You’re the author.”
“It’s not that simple,” Tollers explained, wrinkling his brow and pushing his glasses further up his nose. “You don’t just map out a story in your head and write down every word according to the outline. A story is a living thing. It changes as it grows.”
“So you have no idea what’s in this box?”
“Nope. But it will come to me as soon as you open the box.”
“A star. I like it. Just make sure I don’t fall into the sun and fizzle. I mean it.”
Tollers laughed and etched a cross over his heart in mock Girl Scout fashion. “I promise.”
“Here goes nothin’!” And Jack opened the box with the star etched on its lid.
An intense brightness enveloped him and he felt suddenly as if he were falling through eons of time, lightyears of space. Lights flashed by him too quickly to identify, dazzling his eyes. He instinctively contracted into a ball, shielding himself from the eventual impact.
He came awake screaming.
Wait a minute, awake? When had he begun to sleep?
Jack glanced around, but the soft light was too dim to see by, and he had only the vague impression of sleek, metallic shapes softened by draping cloth. What the…?
Jack flung the covers off his legs and pressed his hand against the wall to steady himself. Light immediately flared from the walls around him. He gasped and shielded his eyes against the glare. He tapped the wall again and the brilliance receded.
Touch-sensitive light wall. Interesting. What was going on here?
Jack stood in a wide room with pulsing light-walls, a couch, a small round table with several chairs, and several locker-like cabinets on the wall, plus, of course, the bed that he had just abandoned. He noticed that all the furniture appeared to be set well back from one of the walls, which depicted a forest scene in such detail that he felt as though he could step right into it.
When Jack touched the screen, however, the scene melted into… stars? But they did not twinkle as they did from earth. No atmosphere.
Jumping Jehosaphat, did that mean he was on…?
Jack whirled and found himself face to face with a squat, burly humanoid, with a deeply undershot jaw, large round eyes, and a nose that seemed crushed into its face.
“Captain, are you all right?” asked the creature.
Jack rubbed his eyes and looked again. “Sherwin Edward Gladdenbury Kerfluffle the Fourth?”
“Of course, Captain!” The pug-like face wrinkled into a grin equally hideous and endearing. “From a long and illustrious line of Kerfluffles from the Pugnatori Tribe. But you already know that.” Sherwin peered at Jack. “Are you sure you’re all right? The ship said that you were screaming, so I came to check on you. Bad dream, sir?”
Jack ran his fingers through his hair. “The ship said?”
“Hello, Jack,” said a familiar voice, echoing ubiquitously around him as though it came from the walls itself.
Jack knew that voice. “Tollers.”
Tollers’ voice carried the sense of the excited, dangerous grin that Jack knew so well. “Welcome to your newest adventure, Captain Jack.”
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