Acquainted With The Night

by the lady of shalott
* * *

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost

* * *

Sheila stared down at the books scattered around her feet and fought back the urge to cry. Ungainly in the eighth month of her pregnancy, she struggled to lower herself to the ground to pick up the texts, when a hand caught her shoulder.

"Let me," Hank said quietly, reaching down to gather the books. He didn't hand them back to her afterwards, though, keeping hold of them instead. "Where's your next class?"

She blinked hard, trying to clear tears from her eyes. "Chem lab," she managed finally, hoping her voice didn't sound as wavery as she felt.

Nearly everyone was already in class by now, leaving the halls empty and echoing. The two of them walked towards the lab room in silence, the heavy weight of arguments and heated words hanging between them.

Finally, Hank broke the silence. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine," Sheila said automatically. They walked on a little further, then simultaneously turned towards each other.



They both laughed a little awkwardly. "You first," she said.

He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he said. "I still...I still don't understand how you could--no," he interrupted himself, shaking his head. "Never mind. I don't want to get back into that. I just wanted to say that I'm sorry we fought. And I'm sorry I haven't been helping you deal with this."

"I'm sorry too," she said quietly. "I dumped all of it on you guys without any warning--and then I blew up when you didn't take it well."

"Well, we really didn't take it well," he said, sounding sheepish. "Listen, do you have to go to this class?"

She didn't even stop to think about it. "No, actually, I don't."

* * *

A short while later, they were sitting in one of the dark booths at Riley's, a small diner near the school, picking at a plate of fries between them. "So how are you doing, really?" Hank asked.

Sheila didn't say anything for a few moments, blinking back tears. "I'm scared," she admitted, her voice low. "I've been to the doctor over and over, and she says everything is normal, the ultrasound looks fine. But..." She stopped, her trembling hands clenching together on the table, not wanting to give voice to the list of horrors she'd imagined--a baby born with fangs, or pale grey skin and scarlet eyes.

"Karena looked pretty normal," Hank said. "Maybe Venger just got that way through magic."

"That's what I keep telling myself," she said, reaching for her drink. "It doesn't matter much now. I'll be finding out soon enough." Her shoulders shook violently all of a sudden, and Hank got up and slid into the booth next to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and shielding her from the rest of the room while she put her face in her hands and took deep, sobbing breaths.

He stayed beside her even after she regained control, his face drawn tight. "Sheila, I don't want to upset you, I just need to understand. Why him?"

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and shook her head a little helplessly. "I don't know what to tell you. There wasn't a reason--not like you mean. I didn't look at him and think, 'hmm, evil sorcerer, warlord, constantly trying to imprison us and steal our weapons--yep, that's the guy I want to be with!' It just happened." She looked down at the table, her fingers tracing over a spiderweb crack in the plastic tabletop.

"Are you in love with him?" he asked.

"Oh, God, Hank!" She sighed and dug her fingers into her hair, pushing it back from her forehead. "I don't even know how I feel about him. What difference does it make now, anyway? I'm never going to see him again."

"Would you want to?"

"Maybe," she said wearily. "At least he could answer some questions." Like whether this baby's going to be born with three heads or not.

Hank shifted next to her. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice tense, and when she glanced his way she saw that he was staring fixedly at the table, his jaw clenched. "I don't have any right to grill you this way, but I can't help wanting to know--" He stopped, took a deep breath. "It's just I had thought that maybe...when we got back..."

She closed her eyes and pressed her palms to her temples, wondering how much more hurt her mistake would cause. "So had I, for a while. But I thought you weren't interested," she whispered.

"I was interested. But I didn't want to deal with getting involved there," he said quietly. "I already felt responsible for everyone."

"I understand." Her smile was bittersweet. The crush she'd had on Hank seemed pale and innocent now, standing beside the passion that had gone crashing through her life. "You probably had the right idea. Getting involved hasn't worked out all that well for me, anyway. And I think Diana and Presto are both still hung up over Kosar and Varla." She laughed a little. "Bobby's the only one of us with a happy love-life."

"Maybe if we'd--"

She put a hand on his arm to stop him. "If we start on the what-ifs, we'll go crazy, Hank." He sighed and leaned back against the seat, shutting his eyes. She studied his face, close enough to see the faint lines that worry and unexpected hardship had put on his face too early. The edge that gave his features made him more handsome, not less, but her mind still called up a different face, ash-pale and stern. She sighed and looked away, wondering what was wrong with her.

"Speaking of Bobby, how is he doing?" Hank asked suddenly. "I haven't seen him in a while."

"He's okay. Our parents made him go to a therapist for a while, but he finally talked them out of that."

"A therapist?" Hank chuckled. "I can't see Bobby lying on a couch and talking about his feelings."

"Me either." Sheila grinned. "I think he was giving the therapist a pretty hard time--part of the reason my parents gave up on it was she was just about ready to quit anyway. They were just worried about how he was dealing with the pregnancy, and with--with Eric being gone." The smile faded from her face.

Hank picked up the salt shaker, turning in his hands, his eyes bleak. "It's weird," he said. "Lately, I almost forget about him, for a few days. And then, something happens--like I go to a class, and I look over at his old desk to say something to him--and it hits me all over again that he's not there. That he's not going to be there."

Sheila nodded. "I wonder how he's doing. I keep thinking about what the Oracle said..."

"'One must remain, or the circle will never be broken and this world will be under the Shadow forever,'" Hank quoted, his voice bitter. "I think I say those words when I'm asleep sometimes, I've gone over them so many times. If I'd only thought about it more, maybe Eric could've come home."

"And what? You could've stayed instead?" Sheila asked. "Because I know you too well to believe you're suggesting we should have left the Realm to whatever horrible fate 'being under the Shadow' is."

"I was the leader. If any of us had to stay behind, it should've been me."

Sheila rubbed her temples. "Oh, Hank. Eric didn't even know about the Oracle's prophecy--I don't think any of us repeated that part to him. He didn't stay behind because of that."

"Then why did he?" Hank slammed the salt shaker down on the table with enough force to rattle the water glasses.

"I don't know, and it's useless to guess," she said sharply. "All we know is what he told you--that he chose to stay behind."

He slumped back against the booth. "I know. I just can't help--"

She covered his hand with her own and softly said, "I miss him as much as you do. But we can't bring him back, Hank. All we can do is go on faith, and trust that Eric knew what he was doing." Her throat felt tight.

He nodded and looked away, his lips folded over whatever else he had been going to say. "We'd better get back," he said finally. "I do have to go to the next class; it's Calculus and I'm still way behind." With obvious effort, he gave her a smile as he slid out of the booth. "I forgot everything I'd managed to squeeze into my head about derivatives while we were away, and I've been playing catch-up ever since."

"I'm not surprised." She gave him her hands and let him help her up from the booth, only to stop short as she straightened up and the ache in her back turned into a sharp reverberating pain. Gasping, she put a hand over her abdomen just as she felt a thin trickle of liquid run down the inside of her thigh.


She looked up at him, panic rustling in her throat. "I think--I think I'm going into labor."

* * *

Diana ran up the front steps of Sheila's house, her breath pounding in and out of her lungs. Some part of her had been expecting a call like this for the whole month since Keith O'Brien had made his entrance into the world, but Sheila's cryptic if frantic message to come over had still given her a scare.

Bobby opened the door when she rang, and the excitement in his eyes calmed her heart down a little. "Hey Diana! Come on!"

She didn't bother with questions, just followed him through the house and out to the backyard. Despite the chill in the early spring air, Sheila was sitting on the porch, covering her face with her hands, and Keith was lying on his back on a thick blanket, playing with a ball and gurgling happily. Hank and Presto were already there, and their shocked expressions alarmed her all over again. "Bobby, what's going on?"

For answer, Bobby pointed at the ball Keith was playing with, and she took an involuntary step back as she realized what she was looking at. "Oh, Lord. That's--"

"--a fireball," Hank finished grimly.

"He started making them just a few hours ago," Sheila said, looking up, her eyes red. "I can't get him to stop."

"Ah, don't worry about it so much, sis," Bobby said. "The fireball's not that hot, I can touch it without getting burned. See?" He sat down and poked a finger into the edges of the fireball. "I think it's kinda neat."

Sheila just groaned, and Diana sank down on the porch next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, for now." She waved at the baby, who had left the fireball hanging in midair and was now investigating his toes. "Hank brought over that blanket--it's supposed to be fireproof. But I can't exactly leave him lying outside all the time."

"Hey, guys, look at this." Presto had knelt down by Keith and was holding his arm out over the fireball. A faint shimmer hung there in the air, and where his shirtsleeve met the distortion, it altered, wavering between the light blue of the button-cuff shirt he wore and a loose, dark green.

"Cool," Bobby said, holding his own hand out. A band of brown fur began to shape itself around his wrist.

"Hey, be careful," Hank said, reaching down to tug Bobby back.

Presto pulled his arm away as well. "Wow. It's like he's leaking magic."

"Wonderful." Sheila closed her eyes again.

"It's okay, Sheila--we'll find some way to keep this under wraps," Diana said, hoping she wasn't lying.

Sheila wrapped her arms around herself, her lips a thin bloodless line in her pale face. "Diana, you know there's no way to do that. He's not old enough to understand that he has to hide it--he's not even old enough to keep from hurting himself with it." She shook her head and straightened up. "Bobby, can you do me a favor and bring me a bottle for Keith? Maybe if I feed him, he'll stop making the fireballs for a while."

"Sure, sis. It'll just take a couple of minutes." Bobby jumped up and ran back into the house, and Sheila followed him with her eyes for a moment before turning back to the rest of them.

"I knew what I'd have to do if something like this happened," she said. "I just hoped, after he was born looking normal--"

When her voice trailed off, Hank crouched down beside her and covered her hands with his own. "Whatever you decide, we're behind you," he said. "Just tell us what you want to do."

"It's not what I want to do," Sheila said quietly. "But there's no way that Keith can possibly have a normal life here. Sooner or later people will find out, and then the best I can hope for is that he'll be treated like a freak." She looked down at her hands. "I have to take him back to the Realm."

Diana stared, then blurted, "Are you crazy? You want to go back there?"

"What other choice is there?"

"But the ride's been totaled," Presto said. "The amusement park is still closed, too--I hear Eric's dad sued the owners into the ground. How can we get back?"

"Not 'we'. I'm going back, not all of us," Sheila said flatly.

"Wrong," Hank said, quietly but with equal firmness. "We're not going to let you go back alone." Diana nodded to back him up, and saw that Presto did too.

"No!" She stood up, her hands clenching as she faced Hank down. "This was my mistake, and I'm not going to let you guys ruin your lives over it. That's why I sent Bobby inside--if he knew I was planning to go back, he'd never stay behind."

"Well, too bad, girl, 'cause neither will we," Diana said, crossing her arms. "You seriously think you can go back to the Realm with a baby, and bang, no problems? Even if Venger isn't going to be after you, it's not exactly the safest place to be."

"Besides," Presto said, "we can always get back using the Well of Worlds, now that we know about it. It's not like we'll be trapped there again."

Diana blinked. "You know, I never thought of that," she said, and heard Hank and Sheila echo her surprise.

Presto smiled at them a little wryly. "I've been thinking about it," he said. "About going back, I mean."

"But why?" Sheila asked, confusion plain in her voice. "There's no reason for you to go back."

"Well, I don't know about you guys, but making the transition from casting spells to doing homework hasn't been all that natural for me." He shrugged. "It's hard to take a lot of this stuff seriously after fighting dragons."

Diana gave a short laugh, thinking of her own struggles to get her gymnastics back into tournament form. "You can say that again. And don't even get me started on how crazy-making my parents are now. I thought they were overprotective before I spent a year taking care of myself, and now the 'little princess' treatment is really starting to drive me up a wall."

Sheila looked from one of them to the other. "I didn't think about how strange it must've been for all of you," she said slowly. "Bobby's been fine--in fact, what with Terry and all, he's probably happier than before we went. It never occurred to me that any of you would want to go back."

"I've thought about it myself," Hank admitted. "It has been tough to adjust, but more than that, I have to know that Eric's okay. I'd have gone back before now, if there was a way."

"Which brings us right back to where we started," Diana said. "How do we get back?"

"I've been thinking about that," Sheila said, glancing over her shoulder as the sound of Bobby's returning footsteps came towards the back door. "I'll tell you all about it later."

* * *

Hank tried to sigh quietly, but the secretary glanced up anyway and gave him a sympathetic smile. He smiled briefly back at her and shifted against the smooth leather of the chair for the tenth time in as many minutes, wishing he were anywhere but here in the upholstered silence of the waiting room.

A buzzer sounded on the secretary's phone. She lifted the receiver and spoke briefly, then looked up at Hank. "Mr. Montgomery will see you now," she said.

Hank forced a smile. "Thanks." Taking a deep breath, he stood up and reluctantly went through the door just beyond the secretary's desk.

The office commanded a spectacular view of the harbor, but Hank's attention immediately went to the man sitting behind the desk. Except for the dusting of silver in the black hair and the tracery of hard lines on the face, he might have been looking at Eric, and his throat clenched tight with regret.

"Have a seat," Eric's father told him, gesturing at a chair.

"I appreciate your seeing me, Mr. Montgomery," he managed, coming forward. "I know you must be busy--"

"Why don't you tell me what this is about?"

Hank hesitated, struggling with all the same questions that had gone through his head nine months before. It was one thing to know that there was no way he could tell anyone about the Realm, no way he could tell Eric's father that his son was still alive. It was another thing to sit in front of the man and keep silent. He settled himself in one of the chairs slowly, wanting every spare moment he could get to hang on to his composure.

His eyes wandered over the few things laying on the desk--a twisted chunk of what looked like solid gold sat like a paperweight on top of a stack of files next to a single fountain pen whose black-enameled surface was etched with a monogram in gold, and the rich glow of the polished wood lay beneath. All of it spoke volumes about the wealth and taste of the owner, and kept resolute silence about his character.

He looked back up at Jordan Montgomery, almost wanting to see some grief in the man's eyes for the son whose picture was nowhere to be seen in the spare, elegant office. If there had been, he might have thrown caution away and spoken, but the grey eyes were as cool and untroubled as they had been during that first week after their return. Hank still remembered lying in the hospital bed, his heart sore with loss and failure, and finding no echo of his pain in those eyes as his friend's father spoke of attorneys and courts instead of death and sorrow.

"I don't want to bring up bad memories," Hank said finally, "but you're the only person I could think of to ask. I need to get some information about the ride."

"The one in the accident?"

Hank nodded. "I need the name of the person who designed the interior," he said, preparing to give the vague story they'd come up with, of Sheila having nightmares and wanting to get copies of the artwork for use in therapy.

But Montgomery didn't give him a chance. Instead, he reached over to the telephone on his desk and pressed the intercom button, then spoke when his secretary answered. "Marie, pull the file on the suit against Richardson Amusements for Hank and let him look through it." He rang off after her acknowledgement and turned back to Hank. "Marie can make copies for you if you need them. Was there anything else?" He was matter-of-fact, his voice almost casual.

Left open-mouthed, Hank stared at him for a moment, then clamped his jaw shut and got out of the chair. "No, that's all. Thanks, I appreciate this," he said quietly, fighting to keep anger out of his voice. He remembered telling himself, after that first unemotional encounter, that Eric's father was simply reserved. Now it hurt to think of Eric living with this coldness, day after day, and it was sheer rage to think of this man not even missing the son he'd lost.

He swallowed his anger long enough to shake Montgomery's hand before walking out of the room as fast as he politely could, though his hands were shaking as he closed the door behind him. The secretary was friendly enough, helping him shuffle through the three-inch-thick file on the lawsuit, but it was a pure relief when he finally found the artist who had created the interiors of the ride listed on one of the subpoena forms. He didn't bother with a photocopy, just scribbled the man's name and address on a piece of paper and left after a hasty thank-you.

The chrome-sided elevator felt claustrophobic on the ride down, and he was nearly running by the time he burst out of the lobby into the bright sun, eyes smarting. In the parking lot, he paused by his car long enough to look back at the blue glass monolith. He couldn't connect the Eric he remembered to this sterile place, to the man he'd just left, and he didn't think he wanted to. Is this why you stayed behind? he silently asked his missing friend. Was being alone better than coming back to this? He climbed into his car and drove away, determined more than ever to find Eric again.

* * *

Sheila watched the streetlamps swoop past the passenger-side window, trailing streamers of light through the darkness. Wrapped in a blanket, Keith drowsed in her arms. The night air had turned cool, and she rolled the window up a little bit to keep the breeze from waking him. Even breathing from the back seat told her that Diana and Presto were also asleep; next to her, Hank's hands were steady on the wheel, his face remote and a little strange in the dim glow from the dashboard. A few feet of interstate stayed always just ahead of them in the semicircle of the headlights--all the rest of the world was darkness. They might have been standing still in a rushing wind except for the occasional red flare of taillights and the yellow-white of the lamp posts.

A mile marker flashed by. "Not much further," Hank said, breaking the silence for the first time in hours.

She nodded, then realized he wouldn't see it in the dark. "Yes."

"Do you want to stop at a motel for the rest of the night?"

She craned to see the clock on the dashboard. 10:35 flashed back at her in green lights. "How long do you think it'll take to get to his place?"

"Twenty minutes or so."

"Let's go on, then." She looked back out the window. The words, before I lose my nerve, remained unspoken, but they were there anyway. "Then we'll know, one way or the other."

The exit came quickly, and Presto and Diana stirred as the underlying rumble of the highway faded into the milder hum of crickets and silence. "Are we there?" Diana asked, leaning forward against the seat.

"Almost," Hank said, glancing up at the map pinned to the underside of the sun visor. At the next traffic light, which blinked redly in all directions, he turned onto a narrow road lined with rustling oak trees. The houses were few and set back from the road, peering at them through the trees with golden squares of windows. Hank slowed and Sheila counted the mailbox numbers out loud until they reached 35, and then he pulled into the driveway with a crunch of gravel beneath the tires.

Keith stirred and fussed a little as she climbed out of the car, but calmed when she rocked him gently. She saw a light behind curtains in the front room as they approached the door, and it swung open even before her hand reached the doorbell.

"Yes? Who's there? Who are you?" The man who opened the door rubbed a hand back over the receding curve of his hairline nervously, his watery blue eyes blinking at them very fast. His wary look faded into confusion as he looked at the baby, then at each of them. "Are you lost?"

"Are you Mikal Serrinson?" Hank asked behind her.


"You made the artwork for an amusement park ride--a Dungeons and Dragons ride," Presto said.

Serrinson drew back, the wariness returning. "What's this about?"

"You've been to the Realm," Sheila said flatly, and knew she was right when alarm leapt into his eyes. "You couldn't have made that artwork if you hadn't been."

"I don't know what you're talking about, and it's very late. If you need to get back to the highway--" He was backing away from the door as he spoke, starting to push it shut.

Hank reached out and stopped the door with a hand, the muscles of his forearm visibly tensing as he braced against Serrinson's attempt to close it. "Your ride took us to the Realm," he said, and there was anger growling in his voice. "It took us a year of our lives to get back, and one of us didn't get back at all. You can spare us a few minutes of your time."

He blanched, then asked, very low, "The Montgomery boy? The one in the--in the accident?"

"Eric," Diana said. "His name's Eric."

He closed his eyes. "Merciful Lord, forgive me." His throat bobbed in a swallow, and then he opened sad eyes and backed out of the doorway. "Please, come in, come in."

The interior of the little house was warm and redolent with woodsmoke, and the dark-paneled walls were covered with artwork--from oil paintings in rich color to faded pencil sketches. With the others right behind her, Sheila followed Mikal into the living room, where unicorns and dragons shared pride of place over the mantel with a tall, thin drawing of a common white flower that had littered the fields of the Realm.

They took seats around the low coffee table while Mikal stayed standing in front of the fire, rubbing his hands together. "Your friend, he was killed? In the Realm?"

"No," Presto said. "He didn't die, he stayed behind, and we don't know what's been happening to him since then."

Naked relief on his face, Mikal slumped into a chair. "Oh. Oh, good. At least I haven't that on my conscience. But, you say--you say that the ride took you to the Realm?"

Hank nodded. "We got on the ride, and halfway through a portal opened up."

"You didn't, weren't perhaps carrying some artifact? Some magical item?"

"You've got to be kidding. Where would we have gotten one? On sale at K-Mart?" Diana said.

"It's only that I, well, I don't understand it," Mikal said. "The spells I put into the paintings, they shouldn't have opened a portal for just anyone. And they never worked in the first place."

"Then you did make the ride to take people to the Realm?" Hank asked sharply.

"Oh, certainly not to send just anyone, no, not that. No, I hoped that it would take me back."

"Hang on a minute," Presto said. "Are you from the Realm? I mean, were you born there?"

"Well, yes, of course," Mikal said. "How else would I know about the Realm? This world doesn't have portals, you know." Then he paused. "Oh, I suppose you wouldn't know." He smoothed a hand back over his hair. "Yes, yes, I was born in the Realm--in the city of Carrefor, in fact." A sudden eager light came into his eyes, the first sign of animation he'd shown. "I don't suppose you heard any news of it?"

Sheila looked around at the others and saw a similar lack of recognition on their faces. "I'm sorry, I don't think we were ever there," she said.

"Ah, well." His shoulders hunched up a little in a shrug. "I doubt there's any still there that I'd remember in any case," he said, although he sounded wistful. "It must be thirty years at least since last I was home, and I'd no kin left to me even then."

"So how did you end up on Earth?" Presto asked. "Did you get here by accident?"

"No, no. I was running away, you see." Mikal rubbed back his hair again. "My master--I was apprenticed to an older mage in those days, although I'd more talent than him, to tell the truth--well, anyway, my master took it into his head to call up a minor demon. I don't even remember the reasons anymore, but to make the tale short, he didn't have his sigils done right, and, well, the demon didn't stay bound." He shuddered visibly, hands trembling. "I'd done my own warding circle--practice for me, my master said--and by some grace it held, but the demon promised he'd be back for me the next night.

"Well, not wanting to spend the rest of my nights in a warding circle, I thought I'd better get myself gone. My master had told me that there were worlds without magic, and since demons are creatures of magic, I thought I'd run to one until I could learn enough spells to fight the thing." He laughed a little shortly. "Then, of course, I landed myself here and found that no magic meant I couldn't cast spells, either. The portal in the ride was my last attempt at getting myself home, after everything else had failed."

"But if the ride didn't work for you, then why did it take us to the Realm?" Diana asked, frowning.

"Dungeon Master brought us there." Sheila did her best to avoid the surprised gazes that turned her way.

"Well, that would make some sense, at least. If a mage were looking to bring someone over," Mikal said, "it would have been easier to do there, with the spells already made on this side, that is. All he'd need to do would be to start the portal working."

"But why would Dungeon Master have done that to us?" Presto asked it, but Sheila knew she would see the same question in all her friends' eyes.

"Venger--" She stopped and bit her lip briefly, then went on. "Venger said that Dungeon Master brought us over to--to fight Venger for him. Because we were innocents." She stared down at the floor. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. But I thought that since we were home, it didn't matter anymore."

None of them spoke for a minute, their faces pale, until Hank broke the silence. "I don't know that I trust Venger, but I can believe it," he said, bitterness plain in his voice. "Dungeon Master could have told us about the Well of Worlds himself, or told us about the Oracle."

Sheila looked up and saw Diana's eyes glittering with anger, her lips set in an uncharacteristic tight line. "Instead he told us that Venger was 'the Force of Evil' and sent us right into his path," the acrobat said. "And like suckers, we fell for it."

Tentatively, Mikal said, "Perhaps--perhaps you don't know, but the Dungeon Master's role is to protect the Realm and keep the balance, you see. Lore tells us that his line was gifted with great power by the High Lord for this purpose. If he had foreknowledge that you would help to do so--"

"It doesn't make it right," Hank interrupted, his hands clenched into fists on his knees. "He could have asked. Instead he used us--lied to us." He got up from his chair and stalked over to the fireplace, leaning against the mantle. "He lied to us," he repeated, his eyes fixed on the fire.

They sat in silence for long minutes. Finally, Presto stirred. "Whatever Dungeon Master did, or didn't do, it doesn't change things now," he said. "We've still got to get back to the Realm." He looked at Mikal. "Do you have any ideas? You said you'd tried other things--"

"I did--did try, that is to say. But, you see, nothing worked. There's no magic here in your world--I can't cast a spell, or even make any of the devices I brought with me work. If I could, I'd have gone back years ago."

"Do you still have any of those devices?" Sheila asked quietly, looking down at Keith and lightly stroking his softly fuzzy head until he stirred and blinked up at her with a toothless yawn.

"Well, yes, yes I do, but--" Mikal shrugged and folded himself out of the chair to go over to a small cabinet against the wall. He rummaged around in a drawer and lifted out a pendant on a silver chain that had gone green with age. "Here, I think this--yes, this is it." He rubbed some of the tarnish away with a corner of his shirt, then handed it to Sheila. "But as I said, it didn't work..."

Sending a silent prayer winging upwards, Sheila dangled it over Keith. With a gurgle of laughter, he grabbed for the swinging pendant, catching the little silver disk in his hands. She drew in a quick breath as her fingers began to tingle where they touched the chain and a pale glow spread around the entire necklace.

Mikal was gawking at them both. He stammered, "But that's-- You can't--how can you--"

"It's Keith--he has his own magic," Presto explained. "He's been doing spells practically since he was born."

The shock didn't fade from Mikal's face. "But that's not possible! Mortals don't carry their own magic, even mage-gifted ones don't. Only--only dragons, or unicorns, or other magical creatures have their own magic, and they couldn't come to this world to begin with."

Sheila cradled Keith in one arm and stood up, jiggling him carefully to keep him from putting the necklace into his mouth. "He was born here, but I don't think that his father is exactly mortal," she said. "Now please, just tell me, how does this thing work?"

He kept staring at them. "You--you must have an image in your mind, of the person or place you want to go to," he said, sounding dazed. "Then you hold up the amulet and tell it to take you there, and it will open a portal."

Looking around at her friends, Sheila asked, "Well? Are you all ready?"

Diana nodded. "Whenever you are."

"Ditto," Presto said, standing up. "Mikal, do you want to come with us?"

Mikal blinked, some of the bewilderment leaving his face. "I-- No. No, I don't think so," he said finally. "It's been so long--this is home now, for me." He smiled a little. "I haven't even thought of going back for years now."

Hank turned away from the fire, his face set. "Then let's get going."

Sheila asked, "You left the letter?"

He nodded. "I dropped it off at Mike Aronson's place before picking the rest of you up," he said. "I asked him to give it to my parents if I hadn't called by tomorrow."

"All right then," Presto said. "I guess we're ready."

Sheila shifted Keith's weight in her arm and closed her eyes, building a picture in her mind's eye of a bearded face, tanned with sun and lined with smiles as well as sorrow. "Rahmoud," she said out loud, raising the shining amulet. "Take us to Rahmoud."

Light exploded from the disk, spinning outwards to carve a flat oval of light in the air. A speck of color flickered in the center, swimming upwards through the white brilliance and stretching itself out into a picture that gradually came clear to their eyes.

"Oh my God," Hank said, and dived through the circle.

In another heartbeat, the rest of them had followed.

* * * The End * * *