John Scarlett was triumphant. His perilous experiment had succeeded. Parallel universes were a reality! He had arrived!
He stood in the clearing on the side of a hill; a short, slightly built young man with overlong fair hair and pale blue eyes, wearing a long‑sleeved coarse white cotton shirt, black leather motor bike pants and boots.
The air had the freshness and cleanness of a pre-industrial age. No combustion engines, industrial smog or even wood smoke. This just had to be the parallel universe of dungeons and dragons, swordsmen and sorcerers.
The line of the countryside was exactly the same as the one he had left, but without the suburban sprawl or freeways. The hills were high and wooded, and enclosed a densely forested valley with a river meandering through it. At the top of a far off mountain was a castle with twisting towers.
Of course the experiment hadn't been that perilous. He had only lost two stray cats, the insufferable neighbourhood poodle, and his old tomcat Quill through the latticed crystal oblong gate that opened into the unknown parallel universe.
To be fair, he had expected to be able to return his cat Quill. He had thrown the struggling cat through with the matching crystal resonator on its velvet collar. Resonating the crystal lattice twenty minutes later did cause the cat to rematerialize, but it had shot through the gate again and stayed missing.
He had built into his metal watchband a more accurate and smaller version of the resonator with a stronger control button, able to trigger his return through the crystal gate, should life become more dangerous than adventurous. Now he had, at long last, stepped through into the fresh sunny morning, hopes high, and pack on his back.
It was a pity that the opening hadn't been large enough for him to try to push a horse through. An adventurer on foot lacked the dash of someone riding a purebred steed, but then common sense kicked in. It could attract unfavourable attention to buy a horse when he was known as an academic who couldn't ride. Still, there were sure to be horses in the other universe for him to acquire.
The contents of the pack had been ready and waiting for months; survival rations, rope, first aid kit, small axe, flints, and an adapted form of crossbow. The heavy waterproofed hooded wool cloak was tightly rolled across the pack. Hunting knives were strapped to the inside of both his legs, snug under the high buckled leather boots. A serviceable sword hung in the scabbard on his leather belt. In his pouch, were dulled lumpy disks hammered flat and painstakingly smelted from a gold fencing trophy.
He watched until the shimmer of the gate winked out and vanished and breathed the clean air in deeply, elated and excited. He started walking towards the direction of the distant castle with its twisting towers. He was adventure bound, and he was never going to be a misfit ever again.
He contemplated the possibilities of another profession. How respected were bards in this world? He could compose verses and music and play an antique harp. Should he be a scribe? He had enough Latin, or was that too close to what he had been, an English tutor without tenure at a minor and unimportant university? What about being a mercenary? He was well enough along with his fencing, and he had practised with a sabre.
This world could have sorcerers. How would he go as a mighty and powerful sorcerer? He uncurled his hands and concentrated on throwing a fireball. A faint squab of smoke fluttered from his hands. The elation and triumph rose and surged through him. The parallel universe really was magical!
He gestured again. This time there was a distinct sizzle, when the squab fell. John Scarlett took a deep breath of sheer pleasure. He could see himself, a hooded and mysterious mage, manipulating kingdoms and armies like so many puppets.
The cleared patches of forest became a definite track that led in the direction of the river. He lengthened his stride more cheerfully. Tracks always lead somewhere, and it was sure to be somewhere interesting.
After a while, the back of his neck started to prickle. He sensed he was being watched. The malevolence of the hidden watcher felt almost tangible. Was he psychic as well as magical in this universe? He dropped his hand to his sword. Was he about to be catapulted into his first adventure?
The path sloped downwards, edged around another clump of trees, reached the river, turned and followed it upstream. There were a series of booming sharp coughs. John backed against a tree, his sword up and ready.
He had a confused impression of yellowed pointed teeth in the snarling long sharp muzzle and red eyes gleaming through shaggy dark hair. The four shortened legs ended in clawed feet, but the creature was still as tall as he was.
It dodged the sword effortlessly. There was something familiar about the shaggy haired monster, but John's heart pounded too furiously for him to work out where he had seen it before.
The monster let out what sounded like taunting short laughs and lunged. John ducked. The teeth shut with an audible snap over his head. The monster hurtled around the tree. John cringed hard against the tree trunk as the pointed gaping muzzle appeared around the other side of the tree lower than he expected and clamped over his left wrist.
The next second he was dragged off his feet and into the water. He jabbed blindly at it with his sword but the teeth kept their painful grip on his wrist, dragging him through the water. There was the firmness of ground again as he was dragged on to a small mud bank, still on his knees.
The sword was dropped as he reached for his left wrist to press the return button. He needed stitches and tetanus injections immediately! One of the clawed feet pinned his flailing right arm down. The sharp muzzle worried at his left wrist with low growls and chuckles. It was then that John realised that the creature was trying to take his resonator! His adventure had stopped being exciting and became terrifying. The resonator was his return ticket to his own universe. Without it he would be marooned. He might die, of tetanus, of plague, or untended wounds, even of starvation.
John struggled up, grabbing the sword. His wrist was suddenly shockingly bare. The metal of the wristband glinted in the hot midday sun between the yellowed fangs. The monster had had his resonator! It jumped away. At the other end of the monster, another shaggy black head seemed to shake in synchronised glee.
John stared more closely. He chilled in horror. He suddenly recognized the monster. It was the poodle he had sent through to the parallel universe! The taunting booming coughing was a deepened version of the irritating yapping of a small dog, horribly oversized and changed! He flung himself desperately at the giant poodle. It vanished with an audible "pop" leaving him sprawled across the mud in the space it had been.
For a few seconds, John was too despairing to move. Without the resonator he was marooned. Surely a poodle wouldn't have sufficient intelligence to stalk him and worry the resonator off his wrist? What had happened to the stray cats he had used for his experiment? What if they had turned feral? What if they had the same monstrous growth?
This chilling thought nagged him to his feet. He waded through the water back to the path. He examined his wrist more carefully, and sighed with relief. The feared lacerations were only bruises. He adjusted his pack more firmly and marched along the path clutching his sword. There was still the sense of something watching. The birdsong had stopped and the dense forest very quiet.
The path finished at a modest wood hut. A raft was tied to a tree on the bank and on the other side of the river, a rope lifted out of the water to end at another tree where the path continued. A thin stream of smoke dribbled from the top of the stone built chimney of the hut. Through the partly open door came the appetising odour of meat stew cooking. The thought of the survival rations in his pack was abruptly unappealing.
John felt himself relax. He felt more philosophical and less panicky about his situation. He would manage somehow to survive in this weird universe even without the security of a return ticket. This was an opportunity to discover if the lumpy gold disks were suitable currency for food and the use of the primitive ferry. John raised his hand to knock on the partly open door.
Gleaming eyes of green gold watched him from the shadows of the dark hut. He backed away raising his sword. By the height of the eyes, another oversize animal lay in wait in the dark hut. The eyes moved forward out of the shadows and into the prosaic glare of the midday sun.
It was a young girl. She was barefooted, with dark unkempt hair pushed back from her face and tumbling down her back to the ragged hem of her knee length shift. Her eyes were large and bright green in her narrow face, her lips soft and red, and her skin very white.
"You're wet," she announced.
"I tripped and fell into the water." John was relieved she spoke English, and not even an archaic form of it. He sheathed his sword. "What would it cost for some of your beautiful stew, and then to be ferried to the other side of the river?"
"My food and bed you are welcome to share, but I will have to charge you for the ferry ride. It is the custom," she said in a chant. She examined John's wet shirt and shining wet leather pants, and said in a more ordinary voice. "If you take off your clothes they should dry while you eat."
She stepped back into the hut. The soothing homely clatter of crockery made a pleasant accompaniment as John slid the pack off his back, spread out the contents to dry on the ferry rope, removed his wet socks and boots and stripped down to his tee‑shirt and shorts.
He still sensed something watched, but it lessened in importance against the savoury smells coming from the hut. As a compromise he kept the leather belt that held his sword and scabbard buckled around his waist, and pulled his spare dry woollen socks up to his knees, covering the two knives strapped to the inside of his calves. He waited in the sun until his shorts and tee shirt had dried on him before he knocked on the door.
"It's ready," called the soft voice of the girl.
At one end of the hut was a big open stone chimney, with its cheery fire. A clutter of iron pots and kettles hung from a swivel hook above. A table of planks took up the middle of the hut with two stools pushed against it. Wooden bunks were built into the walls.
John had several bowls of the savoury stew, slicing up an entire loaf of the fresh dark bread to eat with it. The girl's name, she said, was Shennair. John gave his name with some careful thought as Lytehead. Shennair explained she had run the ferry alone since her father had not returned from a hunting trip the last season.
"There is always danger in the forest," Shennair said. "But my father was so powerful I couldn't imagine him being the hunted and not the hunter."
Something whimpered from the darker corner behind the door. Shennair lifted a dark haired toddler from a small cot. The gleaming eyes stared distrustfully through the heavy fringe of dark hair.
"Your babe?" John was shocked. The girl didn't look older than fifteen, but the resemblance was unmistakable.
"I found Aldar in the forest." Shennair's red lips twitched in a secret little smile. She sat the child on her knee and fed him stew from her bowl. "My father said the forest people will return for him one day."
After she fed the toddler, she tucked him back in the cot with a murmured phrase. The child lay down placidly. John was uneasily aware of the gleaming curious eyes watching him through the bars of the cot.
John finished lunch with a last slice of the heavy bread. Shennair produced a curiously shaped leathern bottle, and poured liquid into two heavy clay cups. It tasted like sour ale, but it was refreshing after the salty stew.
Afterwards, John felt comfortably replete, and disinclined to move. Shennair put more wood on the fire, and placed the two bowls and the two heavy cups on the hearth. She turned and gazed into his eyes. Her red lips curled into an almost gloating smile.
"I'll check my clothes are dry," John said. That gloating smile made him uneasy.
Once outside he felt momentarily disoriented. The sun was setting! What had happened to the afternoon? He slipped his dried shirt and pants back on. He had to let out the waist buckle of his pants, a tribute to his satisfactory lunch. The boots had no trace of dampness, and the shirt and pants were comfortably sun warmed and dry.
He glanced around at the darkening forest pressing so closely against the small hut. There was something alien and dangerous about it, yet it wasn't what was causing his uneasiness. He puzzled over what had happened to the missing afternoon. He repacked and tied up his pack and slung it across his back. It was time to move on from the isolated small hut.
He stepped into the hut. Shennair's arms slid around his chest, her face turned up so the red lips were in the right position for kissing. The fire threw out a flickering cheerful soft light, making the hut suddenly cosy. A sturdy piece of wood waited ready to be dropped into the slots of the heavy door to lock out the menace of the dark forest. John reached around Shennair to push the door shut.
"I think I should stay the night," he suggested, dropping his pack.
The firelight danced on the wooden cage not cot revealed by the closing door. The gleaming eyes of the creature in the cage were red in the firelight, and pointed furry ears raised from the tousled rough-maned dark head. The muzzle grinned open showing sharp white teeth. Claws scrabbled at the bars of the cage.
"But then again," John continued smoothly, trying to quieten the frightened pounding of his heart and remove the clinging white hands from his neck. "How does your ferry work?"
"Don't let yourself get upset by Aldar," Shennair pouted. "He's only a baby and quite harmless. I told you, he's one of the forest people, a shape shifter."
"But I do want to reach the castle by tomorrow," John said, swinging the door wide and swooping up his pack. "Can I use your ferry?"
"I'll take you over," Shennair offered in a sulky manner. "Perhaps you might have more time on your return. I get so lonely by myself."
"Perhaps," John agreed.
The ferry was simplicity itself to work. Shennair pulled on the rope at the front end of the raft and the raft moved sluggishly across the water until it reached the other bank. The shadows were darker, and the sun a red ball sinking below the trees.
John studied the dense forest ahead of them. He wanted a sufficiently tall tree to spend the night in, safely out of reach of Forest People or whatever prowling monsters were around, before the light was completely gone.
The baby shape shifter named Aldar might have been a werewolf, and where there was one werewolf there could be a colony of them. Shennair had called them the Forest People. No wonder she had no windows to the hut and such a heavy door!
"What do I owe you for the ferry ride?" he asked, fumbling for the lumpy gold disks in the leather bag tied beneath his belt.
"Just a kiss," Shennair said.
She gave a gloating chuckle and her arms went around his neck. Her arms had surprising strength in them as she pulled his head down. John's head spun and his knees sagged as soon as the hot mouth touched his. She was the first to pull away with the same gloating chuckle, and then she and the raft vanished into the darkness.
John felt bereft without being able to pinpoint exactly of what. Her brief kiss hadn't gone on for more than a second, but in that second the sun had set completely, and the forest was a menacing blackness, and a morose depression had descended on to him.
He almost sprinted along the track touching the trees with his hand until one felt wide and solid enough for what he wanted. He pulled out the coiled rope and hook from his pack and swung it into the blackness of the overhanging branches.
The hook caught. Tugging to make sure it was secure, he climbed up, edging his way along the branch towards the central trunk and climbing up through the blackness until the tree swayed under his weight.
He climbed until he was above the canopy of the forest, and under a sky filled with unfamiliar stars. He tied himself to the main trunk, looped his pack beside him, and tied his sword to his wrist. He brooded over the mystery of the missing afternoon. What had happened to him during those hours? All he had done was eat lunch and drink a glass of ale. He had no memory of losing an entire afternoon. At last he fell asleep.
The light of the full moon sailing high in the sky woke him. The prickling unease had returned. He looked down.
Big, slanted, blazing golden eyes stared up at him. John's hand curled around his sword, and his other hand grabbed for his torch on top of the open pack.
"Well, John Scarlett," the voice rumbled. "You have managed to get yourself into a mess haven't you?"
John's mouth went dry. Was it a werewolf? How did it know his name? Since when did animals talk? He shone the torch beam on to a giant face. The eyes blinked in the light. The animal was as large as any mountain lion, and the branches where it sprawled swayed under its weight. Yet, there was a recognisable look about that wide animal face.
"Quill?" he whispered.
Hope flared. He pointed the torch beam at the thick golden neck, but there was no brown velvet covered collar with attached resonator. The oversize cat snickered as if it knew exactly what he was looking for.
"I'm very careful with valuables, John Scarlet, but the same can't be said for you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" John decided he was having a nightmare!
All the years he had that cat, it had never spoken before. He had never been that attached to his tomcat Quill, and now it could talk he liked it even less.
"I've been watching out for your arrival for the past ten years." Quill rumbled. "I saw that neurotic poodle managed to get himself back. Good riddance I say, upsetting the local wildlife with his silly pranks."
"Ten years," John mused. "So there is a time factor to consider." He played the torch over the sinuous heavy golden body. "You're just as big as he is and probably a lot better at fighting. Why didn't you stop him stealing my resonator?"
"I'm still nocturnal, and this place changes things," Quill said. His deep voice vibrated with the pleased purr through it. "Living things from the other universe lose their gene limits, and growth continues. In ten years I've have moved up a few steps in the great circle of being."
"What do you want for the resonator?" John wasn't going to be intimidated by an aging useless conceited tomcat, regardless of its size or the fact it could now talk.
"Nothing you've got," Quill replied. "In fact you're so stupid you've got nothing left anyway. You've let the ferry witch steal your soul, and without even a fight, and handed over your memories as an extra gift. 'My food and bed you are welcome to share,'" he mimicked in a soft growl. "Any idiot knows that you have to pay for anything that tribe gives you."
John felt his face heat. One of the first rules was to never accept a gift from a demon, and the same thing must go for witches, but how was he supposed to know a fifteen year old girl was a witch? What did a soul feel like? Was it that lost bereft ache inside him?
What did memories feel like? John tried to chant the first verse of the Iliad in Latin, but his tongue couldn't say the words. The useful chapter on sympathetic magic by Frazer was gone also.
"How do I get them back?" John didn't waste time arguing. He had forgotten his scholarship, and his aching bereftness scared him.
"I need an apprentice," Quill said. He shifted and the branches swayed. "The usual indenture until you are qualified. With your peculiar...um...lack of attributes, and the fact you will be giant size in two or three years, I might find you useful."
"You expect me to work for an overgrown tomcat?"
"And if you work well enough for me I'll get back what you have so stupidly lost, and perhaps throw in the resonator as payment."
"I don't believe this!" John yelled. Remembering he was only having a nightmare, he lowered his voice. "I've raised and fed you for ten years of your useless life and now you want me to work for you."
"You don't have to." Quill dropped lower into the blackness of the tree.
"Wait," John said. His reasoning was suddenly muddled. If it was a nightmare it didn't matter what he promised. If it wasn't a nightmare, he was going to be in trouble anyway. "I accept."
"Of your own free choice," Quill prodded.
John tried not to lose his temper. This was only a nightmare, wasn't it? Could he spend years as an apprentice to a conceited tomcat master? But the cat had a resonator. Without it he was marooned in this dangerous parallel universe.
"Yes, Master," he gritted out.
The branches swayed as Quill climbed back up to stare at John.
"Yes, Master Sorcerer," the cat corrected in a satisfied purr.