The stone was slightly cool, of unremarkable weight, and more or less fitted into my palm. I tried wishing on it, but nothing happened.
I was turning it over and over in my hand when another heavily-armed sleepwalker flickered into the room. This one seemed to have stepped out of a fantasy novel, all leather and scars, a sword in one hand and a shield in the other.
Glancing at the empty pedestal, some survival instinct kicked in; without thinking, I quickly jammed the stone into the back pocket of my jeans.
The beatific smile with which the sleepwalker had arrived faded to confusion, and then transformed to anger, as he stared at the empty space in the middle of the room. Slowly, as if only then recognizing that there was more to the room than the vacant pedestal, his head turned, and his eyes locked on me.
“Where is it?” he roared, raising the machete. “I have fought the armies of Arvadesh! I have bested the champion of the Plains of Zu-gi! I have won my way past the Guardian of All Things! WHERE IS THE CROWN?”
I backed toward the window. “I don’t know! There’s no crown here!”
“It MUST be here! The sages of Tolologog showed it to me in a vision!”
“I’m sorry, but...um, the last guy got it.”
“The last guy through. You know, we only had the one. He camped out all night.” I had a sudden inspiration. “If you hurry, you might catch him.”
The sleepwalker spun as if to leave, and I readied myself to jump after him. But he stopped, and looked at the walls. He turned backed to me and loomed. “Is this a trick, worm? Is this the final test? How do I leave this place?”
I drew myself up to my full not-quite-impressive height and improvised, “Yes...o...great hero, right...this is a test. The door will present itself to one who is...,” I scrambled for a suitable adjective, “...ah, tall.”
The hero-in-his-dreams raised an eyebrow.
“And mighty! Tall and mighty! Turn, oh tall and mighty one, and open the door!”
At last, I thought, I’m getting the hang of it. The dreamer turned, grasped the knob that was there when he turned around, and opened the door to reveal a spiral staircase descending into the tower. He ran down the steps; I nipped through behind him, just before the door slammed shut of its own accord and vanished.
There was no light; I heard the hero bellowing somewhere below me, his war cries diminishing as he outpaced me down the stairwell. I kept one hand on the wall, going a step at a time, constantly testing for loose or slippery footing. I tried counting steps for a while, but gave up when I found myself involuntarily including numbers like “eleventeen” and “mumblety-two” in the count.
Eventually, I saw light below me; the floor leveled out, and a massive steel door stood open, looking out on a narrow grassy space between the tower and the surrounding maze.
I stepped out into the odd reddish glow from the glassy sky above. The air smelled of iron and smoke. The hero was nowhere in sight, although I could still hear him shouting from somewhere off in the distance.
The walls of the maze were at least twenty feet high; a wide archway stood opposite the door of the tower. Carved on the archway was a phrase: “It Can Only Remain As A Representation Of What It Was.”
I crossed the open space to the maze entrance. The ground was wet, and my sneakers squelched in the mud. It was difficult to tell in the weird light, but from the stains on my shoes it seemed as if the earth was sodden with something other than the morning dew. In fact, it looked a lot like blood.
Then, from around one side of the tower, I heard a cacophony of scraping metal.
There was always something waiting at the center of the maze. A monster of some sort, a guardian, a minotaur...
It came into view.
...or, right, of course, a dragon.
I felt a guilty twinge, and glanced upward to the top of the tower and its windows high above. I looked back at the slavering mass of iron scales and fury that apparently made its lair at the base of the tower.
Yes, it looked pissed.
* * *
The dragon advanced in a shower of actinic light, sparks struck from the walls of the maze and the tower by the great beast’s shoulders. I was paralyzed for a moment by the sheer size of it...I’d never seen something that large that was alive. It was like being snarled at by an apartment building.
The next bellow, complete with a blinding flash of magnesium flame, snapped me out of my trance, and I bolted for the arch leading into the maze. Blood splashed my jeans to the knee. I dodged wildly as a sizzling line boiled its way across the turf, and threw myself through the entrance.
I rolled across cobblestones...the killing field had ended at the archway. I didn’t risk a look back, but got to my feet and ran through the maze, turning and turning at random, shifting my weight desperately to avoid breaking an ankle on the uneven ground as I tried to put distance between myself and the dragon.
There was a sudden hurricane wind from above, which threatened to knock me over, and a cry of boundless rage. My legs suddenly went to rubber and I cowered against the wall, as the beast tore through the sky, its iron wings slicing apart the air, its mirror-bright scales flashing red in the weird light.
The walls were flat planes fifteen feet high, and the same distance apart. There were no overhangs, no cover. If the dragon passed directly overhead, there was no way it could miss me. Unable to move, I waited for the shadow to fall.
Then, without warning, the beast folded its wings and plummeted out of the sky at least half a mile away. Another shout of rage echoed back, but it wasn’t the dragon. The beast had found the adventurer who escaped the tower ahead of me.
The battle, if it could be called that, ended quickly, with another blaze of molten light. Still, I waited until I saw the dragon fly back toward the tower, one talon clutching a smoking carcass, before I stood up and pressed onwards through the maze.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 14.3]