Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Here Be Dragons, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 7

The fire seemed unable to burn low. The logs crackled and sparked in a satisfying manner, but it was like a stage performance, a show, where the flames danced to their parts, but the props were never used. The light charring that Charlie had noticed on the edges of some of the logs seemed never to progress. It was not combustion as he understood it. He was pretty certain that when they left this place, the fire would simply be turned off, just as it had been turned on at their arrival.

But the fire did give off heat and light, and a certain other comfortable warmth that couldn't quite be named. It was restful, reassuring, and patient. Just what was needed now.

"I am not surprised that you know who I am," Lewellen told them. "What Castor learned, Pollux also knew. I have been with you since you first entered Herbert's house."

"The two spirits shared every experience?" Horace asked softly. "Amazing."

The bearded man smiled. "Yes. I feel the craft within you now. All of you. But I sensed it when you were still thousands of miles from here, in North America, because Castor sensed it, and so Pollux did. And Pollux is still with me, my very good friend."

"It's been a century and a half," Charlie said quietly.

"I know." Lewellen sighed at that. "I was saddened to know that Herbert Tasker had died, but certain that was the reason he never returned to the house. He and I were able to stay in touch through Castor and Pollux. We could observe each other's worlds through them. When Herbert went off to Europe that last time and did not return, I knew what had happened." He nodded. "He had the craft, but it seemed not to be of a strength to allow him the many years beyond a normal lifetime that some can gain from its presence." He turned then, transferring his smile to Robin. "As I sense in you."

Robin nodded. "And you, apparently."

"I don't know if I would have been so long-lived had I not come back here. Living on this island has vastly increased my awareness of the craft. I feel I owe my current presence to that."

Ricky sat forward, his curiosity apparent. "You've been here for 150 years? By yourself?"

Lewellen chuckled. "You say it as if a curse, yet it has been far from that. And Herbert came back to see me every year, and stayed a month on each visit."

"He died in 1936," Robin said. "That's still 87 years alone."

Lewellen scratched his head, and his smile widened. "But I have not been alone."

Kippy looked over at Charlie a moment, and then offered Lewellen a little shake of his head. "When you first greeted us, you said, 'welcome home'. What did you mean by that?"

Lewellen's eyes appraised them. "You don't feel a certain sense that you know this place?"

"I do," Amy said.

"Me, too," Adrian added. The others nodded in agreement.

"We all have felt that, to a degree," Charlie admitted. "But we don't know what it means."

Lewellen gave a little sigh, and then leaned forward to examine each of them, one by one, until he came back to Charlie. "Save for the little one that flies, each one of you are descended from the people of this place. Two thousand years ago they went out into the world. And now, they have returned, in each of you."

Charlie felt shock at hearing that. But it was tempered by the immediate understanding that what Lewellen was telling them was absolutely true.

"We don't know their story," Charlie said quietly.

"No. I know you don't. And, there are some things I can answer for you. But it is not a story that is mine to tell, either. Another must fill in the parts I don't know."

"Another?" Kippy asked, looking around the room. "Is there someone else here?"

Lewellen closed his eyes a moment, as if concentrating; and then he opened them, and smiled. "Yes."

And then they heard footfalls in the hallway leading to the round room. Charlie listened along with the others, an amazing sense of expectancy flooding through him as his awareness sharpened to the sounds. The footfalls were slow and even, the patient sort someone might make when composing their thoughts. All eyes turned to the doorway, and only the faint crackling of the fire could be heard, as everyone seemed to hold their breaths in anticipation.

Someone came through the doorway then, but the light of the room was such that they could not immediately see a face. The figure moved closer, but even before he came into the firelight, Charlie had found a familiarity in the way the newcomer moved.

"Max!" he called, jumping to his feet, even as the elf's face became plain. Browbeat came off Charlie's shoulder, buzzing in agitation a moment, before determining that Charlie's reception was welcoming and not hostile.

"Hi, fellas." Max came towards them, stopped by the fire and held up his hands to it, as though savoring the warmth. Charlie knew that Max liked a colder climate than they did, and the move immediately struck him as one designed to gain a little more time.

Browbeat came back to Charlie's shoulder, and settled there, carefully. "What's going on?" he whispered.

Charlie shook his head. "I don't know."

Charlie realized then that everyone had jumped to their feet when Max had appeared, but the surprise was such that no one had spoken. But now their welcomes came out in a rush, and everyone crowded around the elf, clapping him lightly on the shoulders, even giving him hugs. Only Charlie stood back, his thoughts awhirl as they sought to account for Max's presence here. But nothing he could think of fit. Nothing seemed right to Charlie, and that was disturbing.

Finally, the crowd around Max parted as everyone turned to look at Charlie.

"It's Max," Kippy said quietly, as if at a loss for Charlie's reaction.

"I see that." Charlie smiled. "Hi, Max."

The elf looked relieved. "Hi, Charlie. Wasn't sure you were happy to see me."

Charlie felt himself loosen up then. "I'm always happy to see you. I're about the last person I expected to show up here now."

Max grinned. "Surprise!"

Charlie laughed, and turned to Lewellen, who was watching him in silence. "You two know each other?"

"No." Lewellen turned and smiled at Max. "I'm Ian Lewellen."

The elf grinned. "Max Pribilownakowskif. But you can just call me 'Max'."

Lewellen smiled. "That's a relief. I'm not used to speaking aloud much these days. I'm afraid my tongue might get twisted by your surname."

Max shrugged dismissively. "I'm used to it." The elf turned then, and made a sweeping motion with his hand. "Please. Sit down, guys, and we'll talk."

Charlie returned to his seat along with the others, and turned his focus on the elf, who stood before the fire now, watching them, the look on his face seeming less than a happy one. Charlie understood then that this was not an easy situation for Max, either, and felt immediate sympathy for him. "Go on," he urged, smiling. "We're all friends here."

Max smiled. "I know. That's what makes this hard."

"You talk," Kippy said quietly, "and we'll listen."

Max sighed, and waved a hand around the room. "I know you guys have questions about this place. This island, and this city. The history involved."

"We've been wondering," Horace admitted. "Some things refuse to add up, no matter how I figure them."

Max bit his lip briefly. "Elves and humans have lived apart for a very long time. But once, we were the same people."

Charlie had pretty much known that. But the split between humans and elves had occurred so long ago as to have been forgotten by the current human race, except as myths from another time.

"You've said that before," Charlie agreed.

"It was skwish that drove them apart, wasn't it?" Kippy asked solemnly.

Max smiled at Kip's intuition. "Yeah. Once skwish started to appear among the original human race, it immediately caused problems. Them primitive humans was terribly superstitious, and the ones among them with appearing skwish abilities had no ideas about caution. The things they could do were viewed fearfully by the ones that had no such powers. I suppose you can imagine what happened."

It wasn't hard at all.

"Witch hunts," Kippy said distastefully. "Death to the demons!"

The elf sighed. "Pretty much. A lot of the first people to show an ability with skwish got killed off for it. Early humans was particularly afraid of people that was strange or different."

"It's not so different today," Ricky commented sourly.

Max shrugged noncommittally, obviously not wanting to comment upon that. "So people with skwish learned pretty fast to hide their abilities. But once regular people knew they was there, some actually went lookin' for 'em, either to kill 'em off, or to try to use 'em to their own advantage." He turned to Robin. "Just like with you and your brother, there was powerful people, kings and lords, who tried to turn the abilities of skwish-users to their own benefit. And generally failed, leaving them not very happy 'bout the results."

"So, they killed them," Robin said stiffly. "Or, they tried."

"Yep." Max gave a sigh. "But that wasn't the end of it, obviously. The thing about havin' skwish - and I'm sure you fellas have noticed it - is that when you have it, you can feel it in others."

"Even I can do that," Browbeat dared. He looked at Charlie then, as if wondering if he should have spoken. "Well, I can!"

Charlie smiled, and reached up to gently rub the flyer's furry back. "You don't have to stay quiet. You're among friends." He felt Browbeat relax then, and returned his attention to Max.

"That's right," Max continued, smiling at Browbeat. "You just remind me that other people on other worlds managed the appearance of skwish a lot better than us humans did."

"For the most part," Ricky said. "Though there are the ones like the Moth, who use their powers to intimidate each other."

"That's always gonna be the case with bullies," Max agreed. "But there are a lot of races out there, like Pacha's folk, that got along great with skwish. Here on earth, it didn't go so well. Skwish was slow to take off among people. The first ones to get it were vastly outnumbered here. They either learned fast to hide what they could do, or they paid for it

Ricky whistled appreciatively. "Tough way to go!"

"Yep. But, like I said, people with skwish could sense it in others. They started to find each other, and when they did, they went off to live by themselves. For a time, the world was big enough they could do this. But just about every time a colony got well-established, regular people would find them again, and start makin' trouble. So, the skwish-folk finally looked for a place to go where regular humans couldn't get to them. And after years of study, they finally managed to open the portal to the other world, and they all moved there."

"This island was a colony of these people?" Horace asked. But then he immediately frowned. "No, that won't do at all. If people fled here to get away from the world, then why would they all go back there?"

"Something else happened," Amy agreed. She smiled at Max. "You just haven't gotten there yet."

Max grinned. "Nope. But I will." He waved a hand, and one of the smaller benches glided gracefully across the floor to a position behind him, and he sat to face them. "Let's see. Well, so about seven thousand years ago, every skwish user on the planet moved to the other world through the portal."

"The elf world?" Kippy asked. "Everyone?"

"Uh huh. 'Course, we didn't call ourselves elves back then. That came later."

"What's the elf world?" Browbeat asked.

"A sort of alternate version of this one, where humans never happened."

"Oh! It was empty?" The little flyer seemed to find the idea incredible.

"Just of people," Max said. "So a perfect place to go to get away from them."

"But if all the people with skwish left, how come there are people with these abilities here now?" Adrian asked.

Max frowned. "Regular humans, when left on their own, don't do so well. Human societies would rise, and flourish a little, and then some other one would come along and yank it down. The decent folk always seemed to be at the mercy of the predators, the greedy, and the ambitious. For every human born that had the heart of a builder, it seemed like two were born that wanted to destroy things. It was a tough way to live."

Charlie sighed at that. "Welcome to history. I remember that's why Eustace Phernackertiban, his wife, Marley, and their faction wanted to destroy the portal between our world and yours. Because they were so afraid of regular humans."

"That's how they wound up exiled, and eventually founded Twombly," Kippy added.

"That was also much later," Max said, with a nod. "But there was a lot of resentment, and even hate, among my kind for regular humans, for a long time."

"Understandable," Robin said. "Few will look kindly on those out to exploit them, or - worse - murder them, because they are different."

"Right. But at the same time, there was a large number of my people that were worried about those they left behind. In just the brief few thousand years that humans with skwish lived among those without, a clear pattern had emerged. The people with skwish were slowly leadin' the race to better things. Skwish, it seemed, was associated with peace, and progress. Once it left the world, things got worse for the people that stayed behind."

Charlie made a sudden mental leap. "Evolution?" he asked. "Was skwish on track to become dominant in the human race?"

"That's what a lot of my people thought," Max agreed. He waved a hand toward the ceiling. "Look how many races out there in space have it, and look what it's done for them. In most cases, it's enhanced their lives a heck of a lot. Some of the thinkers back home feel that skwish comes out in most intelligent races at some point. That it's the way the universe allows living beings to become a part of it."

Horace made a sound of understanding. "Ah. But here on Earth, those with skwish had removed themselves from the race in general."

"Uh huh. And from the gene pool. A few people with skwish were still born here, but they didn't usually survive to reproduce." Max nodded. "Some of my people felt that something had to be done."

Charlie felt he had an inkling as to where this was going. "This island?"

Max sighed. "Even though people with skwish had left the earth, the planet, itself, was still full of skwish life. Even today, there is more of it than even my folk know about." He smiled at Horace. "Like your Gretchen, and the skwish life that lives here. The planet creates skwish life, with people involved, or without."

Robin leaned forward. "This island was home to skwish before people came here, wasn't it?"

Max laughed. "It's so nice to be dealing with smart folk! Yes, you're right. This island was selected because skwish life had already made a home here. And it was a breed of genius loci that was social, and liked other life. They welcomed the elves that came here to talk to them."

"An agreement of some kind was made?" Robin also looked as if he was figuring things out.

Max's eyes were bright. "Uh huh. This city was built, and in such a way that humans and the skwish life here could live together."

"Where did the people come from?" Amy asked.

Max looked to hesitate for a moment. "Some came from out in the world. Special squads of my people went out and brought back decent folk from all over the planet, who shared one particular belief: that the world could be a better place."

"You said some of the people," Adrian said. "What about the others?"

"Volunteers," Max said. "From back home."

For a moment everyone was quiet, as what Max was saying sank in.

"A breeding program?" Amy was the first to ask. "Humans and elves?"

Max sighed. "It sounds kinda dirty when you say it that way. But, yeah, that's what it amounted to. But what it was, was a group of decent humans without skwish, put together in a place with a group of decent humans with the power. They were left to live together, to get along naturally, to find love when it came along, and to have babies, if that love so desired. All of which were born with some level of skwish."

"For how long?" Charlie asked.

"A thousand years," Max returned. "Long enough for the skwish gene to take a firm hold, and long enough that humans living with the skwish spirit life on this island grew strong with the power."

"And then they went back out into the world," Kippy said softly. "To return the skwish gene to the people there."

Max nodded. "And it worked. Today, we think that almost half of all humans on the planet have some form of skwish."

Charlie felt the same sense of amazement that his friends displayed. Fifty-percent!

"But why isn't it more common, then?" Amy asked. "Why aren't more people teleporting around, and levitating things?"

The elf laughed. "'Cause skwish is like any other brain function. It has to be nurtured. Taught. It has to grow in an environment that encourages it." He nodded. "That's why elf kids go to school and are taught how to use their talents, in addition to the regular curriculum. It takes years." He pointed at Charlie and the others. "As you can see for yourselves. It took years of you guys hangin' out with me, and Frit and Pip, and others, for your own talents to start comin' out."

Kippy shook his head. "You mean to say that four billion people on this planet could be taught to use their skwish?"

""No." Max smiled. "Oh, some could. A lot of them. But skwish isn't just about teleporting, and levitating things, and powers that can affect the world outside the mind. Skwish is internal. It's a creative talent, and it manifests itself in lotsa ways other than direct powers. Like in art, and science, and music. Anything of a creative nature." He nodded. "And it also manifests in sympathy and empathy for others. A willingness to accept differences and work together. Things that some part of the human race is clearly still lacking in." He held up his hands. "Reintroducing skwish to the human race here was needed, if this part of it was to survive. If my people had never left, that's what would have happened. Eventually, skwish would have worked into more people than not. Once we saw that, by removing ourselves, we had interfered with the natural development of the race, we had to act to restore what had been lost."

"Wow," Browbeat whispered. "A grand plan!"

Charlie shook his head. "We've known you a long time, Max. How come you never told us this before?"

The elf sighed. "Charlie, this was...well, you guys being here on this island just happened. You taking this particular case led you here. When we saw what was happening, it was decided back home that it would be better to fill you in than to leave you guessing about this place." Max leaned forward in his seat. "Charlie, when I first met you guys, you were kids. Now, you're young men. Adults. We felt you could be trusted with this knowledge, and would understand why it was done."

Kippy turned to Charlie. "Oh, Charlie, don't you see? They did this because they cared about the people here. Even after the way they were treated, they still cared enough to try to help!"

Charlie did understand. "I see that. I just..." He laughed then. "I just felt up to now that I knew exactly who the elves were. Now I'm seeing, maybe I didn't."

"We're all people," Max said. "Humans and elves - those are just names. We are all children of this one little planet."

"Yeah." Charlie nodded. A certain good feeling came over him at the idea. "And, I'm okay with that."

Max blew out a breath of relief. "I was a little worried there."

Charlie smiled. "About me? You know we're friends. That means a lot to me. I was just surprised. But I don't think there is anything you can tell me that would break our friendship."

"That's good, Charlie. Because our friendship means a lot to me, too."

Charlie turned to Ian Lewellen, who had remained silent all this time. "Did you know any of this?"

The other man smiled. "No. Not really, anyway. I did have some guesses about this place. None of them totally correct, as I find out now. But some were close enough to make me happy I was at least on the right track."

"I'm surprised that Pollux didn't tell you," Adrian said.

Lewellen shrugged. "He may have even tried. We communicate in pictures, not words. Not speech." He smiled. "And, we communicate in feelings. Emotions. What I did learn was that the spirit life of this island cared about the humans that lived here. And that they miss their companionship very much."

Ricky waved a hand. "Um...not to change the subject, but something has been bugging me." He pointed at Lewellen's jacket. "That little rod you carry? The one that Pollux lives in?"

Lewellen raised a hand to his breast, and nodded. "Actually, Pollux hasn't stayed there since I came back to the island. That was just transportation. But there are few places I can go on this island where he cannot accompany me on the roads below, and he only rides with me if I go to sit upon the mountain to look out to sea."

Ricky nodded. "I just wondered why Castor went with Mr. Tasker in such a large piece of wood."

Lewellen turned to gaze at the timber upon the wooden floor. "Actually--" He raised a hand, and the timber left the floor with scarcely a sound. It rose into the air, turned perpendicular to the floor, and floated around to the side of the fire pit. It was then that Charlie noticed a wooden collar in the floorboards there, exactly the shape of the timber. Lewellen lowered the timber, and the end slid easily into the collar and stopped. The bearded man dropped his hand, and the timber remained in place, looking even more like a totem pole now, next to the fire.

Lewellen sighed. "Herbert was quite taken with that pole. It's the work of the original inhabitants of the island, and is utterly unique in the symbols inscribed upon it. When Castor decided to accompany him back to the States, he decided to go in the wood of the pole, so that Herbert could take it with him and enjoy its presence."

Ricky nodded. "Castor is no longer there, I sense."

"No. He has rejoined the community, for now."

Charlie inspected the timber, decided it looked just right exactly where it was. He gazed around the room, and felt again the warmth of the place, and not just in heat. There was a sense here of happiness, left behind by the thousands of people who had lived here. People who were all possessed of the same sense of the world. People that cared about it, and everything in it.

Charlie felt a sense of belonging here.

Kippy slid closer to his side, and leaned up against him. "I love this place," he said softly. "Tell me we can come back here again."

Charlie turned to Lewellen, who nodded at him. "That which has gone out into the world, has returned. The circle is complete. You will always be welcome here."

"Me, too?" Browbeat asked.

Lewellen laughed. "Of course. You, too."

Browbeat hummed happily, and leaned contentedly against the side of Charlie's head. "You guys sure got a great planet."

They stayed a week. In that time, they learned to fish near the head of the small river that ran from the mountains into the nearby bay, and were amazed at the size of the sea trout and crabs that congregated there. They learned to like the small red fruits from the strange myrtle trees growing in the mirrored sunrooms of the city greenhouses, and to appreciate that the cooking prowess Ian Lewellen had honed in a century and a half of time eating the local foods was probably unique on the planet.

They walked through the storehouses of literature and art left behind by the original inhabitants, and lovingly cared for by the island spirits. And those spirits accompanied them, and did their best in pictures to convey explanations for the things they were seeing. The writings and the art spoke of a people in love with the world around them, and who cared dearly for each other. The folk of the island had not had to endure hardship, for their own powers, and those of the local spirits, had worked together to provide for all. The unity on display could not be missed, a show that would have made a certain French author proud: all for one, and one for all.

And, they got to know the spirits of the island, a population marked by their curiosity, friendliness, and distinctly otherworldly sense of time. That these spirits were the very same ones that had welcomed and befriended the original population of the island was clear. They made friends quickly with their hosts, and Charlie soon came to understand how Ian Lewellen could have lived here for so long without human companionship, and remained happy.

"Man, could the world use a dose of this!" Ricky commented, as they relaxed one evening in the round room. Once the meeting place of the small governing body of the island, its sense of familiarity and restfulness - and the warmth and cheer of the fire pit - drew them each evening to relax and talk.

"They wouldn't know what to do with it," Kippy said, in a cynical voice. "They'd try to find a way to sell tickets to it, or, worse, some would try to take it all for themselves."

Charlie chuckled, and tightened his arm around his boyfriend. "That's my Kip!"

Kippy turned to frown at him. "You think they wouldn't?

"No. I don't. At least, not all of them. Some, maybe." Charlie smiled. "But I suspect a very great number of people would learn to love this, and want to protect it, just like we feel now."

Kippy watched him a moment, and then returned the smile. "That's my Charlie!"

Ricky and Adrian laughed. "You guys are a riot," Adrian said, though the fondness in his voice was clear.

Charlie gave a little sigh. "I'm just wondering where we go from here."

Max, seated across from them with Browbeat happily perched upon his knee, laughed. "You go back home, and back to what you were doing. Third Planet Inquiries, and all that."

"Go back?" The idea seemed almost strange to Charlie. But...there was the office, and their friends out in space, and on Engris, and in the lower level. And...oh! Charlie's parents, and his family! Not to mention the parent's and the families of the others! For a moment Charlie was stunned, realizing that his thought process for the future had nearly stopped, as though they'd planned to stay on the island forever.

Ian Lewellen, sitting near Max, laughed. "This place has that effect on you, Charlie. But it will pass."

"It didn't for you," Charlie pointed out.

"No. But I had nothing to go back to, either. No home, no family. The sea was my home. Eclipse was my home." He sighed. "And now, this place is my home."

Charlie nodded. "I've come to realize that I have long wondered about who I was, and how I came to be the person I am." He smiled at Max. "Even before I met you, and found out that I had some skwish in my life, I felt that something was missing. Some connection to something that I just couldn't name."

Max nodded. "It's not uncommon for folk to feel that way. I think most people, at some point, look for the connection that makes their world relevant."

"Everyone needs an idea to base their life on," Kip agreed. "I found mine, when I met Charlie, because he has led me to all of this."

"I do believe we have each contributed to where we are now," Charlie countered. He looked around at his friends. "All of us. By seeking things beyond what we know in an attempt to find our place in things, we found that seeking things beyond what we know is our place in things."

Max laughed. "Spoken like a true elf!"

Ricky grinned at that. "I wouldn't mind being an elf!"

Max frowned, and then smiled again. "I'm serious, son. All of you--" he rubbed Browbeat's furry back with a finger then --"most of you, share the same blood that elves do. One day, the people on this planet will all be elves, so to speak, and then we can all get back together and move on with life. We can be the one people that we were meant to be."

Kippy frowned. "That's going to take a while!"

"Yep. I agree. But we have time."

Horace and Amy, sitting together, both smiled. "I sure hope so," Amy said. "I've certainly found the place in life I've been searching for." She picked up Horace's hand and squeezed it. "In more ways than one!"

Horace beamed, and nodded his head. "What she said!"

Adrian sighed. "So, the mystery of Oshtàpày House is solved."

Ricky turned to Charlie. "Are we going to tell Arno Coldat anything more than we have?"

"No. I see no reason to. He'll be happy that his haunted house is haunted no more. I don't think he's really concerned with more than that. Needless to say, we will not be telling him about this place." Charlie grinned. "He'd be here the next day, looking to buy land for an apartment complex."

"I like him," Kip defended. "He has a good heart. I can tell."

"I like him, too," Charlie agreed. "But we should agree now that knowledge of this island needs to be restricted. Even well-meaning people finding this place have the potential to destroy what is here." Charlie looked around the room. "Besides, it's not ours to give."

"I'm glad you said that," Ian Lewellen said. "I already felt that you would defend this place, but I'm happy to hear you say it aloud."

"We won't tell anyone," Ricky assured. "We know this is a special place."

Ian leaned forward and smiled. "The spirit life that lives here has a good opinion of the human race. I would hate to disillusion them."

"Someday, you won't be able to," Max said quietly. "Someday, every human will be an asset to all the others. We are moving in that direction. There are better things ahead."

No one said anything for a moment. Charlie watched Max, could see the happiness in the man's eyes. "Thanks, Max. For telling us."

"I would have, at some point, anyway. Charlie, you fellas are moving in the right direction. I'm as proud of you all as I am of my own kids."

Charlie felt a warmth, deep down inside, at those words. "Thank you." He sighed, and looked around at his friends. "I guess it's time to go home. Tomorrow? How about it?"

There was a group sigh, but everyone nodded.

"My mom will be annoyed with me," Kippy said, as if just realizing it. "I only called her once all week!"

Their phones had continued working, the proximity of Nekton in the harbor allowing them to use the satellite uplink onboard the ship as an interface with home. Charlie had talked to his parents, too, just saying that they were on a project in South America, and would be home soon. Their parents had become used to sons that traveled the world, and Charlie had smilingly realized that there was no surer sign than that that they had arrived.

"What will we do next?" Browbeat asked, from Max's knee. "This sure was a great adventure!" He turned, and looked up at the elf. "It sure has been fun, Uncle Max!"

Kippy laughed first, but just a mere second ahead of everyone else.

"Uncle Max!" Kippy repeated, grinning at the elf.

"Whoa!" Rick followed with, laughing.

Max's face reddened slightly. "Well...sure." He smiled down at the flyer then, and rubbed a finger across his furry back. "This one's a kindred spirit, if I ever met one!"

Browbeat looked around at the smiling faces, and loosed a titter of his own. "Friends!"

And that, Charlie decided with a smile, about said it all.

Ian Lewellen walked them to the docks, and exchanged hugs with each of them. "I have to admit, I'll miss your company, my friends. Please do come back, someday."

"We will," Kippy said, brightly. He patted Robin's shoulder. "Now that we've been here once, we can teleport back anytime!"

"Thank you for sharing your home with us," Amy told him. "It's a truly wonderful place."

"And with wonderful friends," Horace put in. "Tell Pollux goodbye again for me?"

"I will. And this island is your home, too. Please...always feel welcome."

"It was fun!" Browbeat said, from atop Rick's shoulder. "I'll be back!"

Everyone agreed that there would be many visits in the future.

Lewellen turned to Charlie last, and took him by the arm and pulled him aside. "You're the leader, Charlie."

Charlie was surprised at that. "Me?"

Lewellen smiled at him. "You are. There is no denying it. Even Robin admits it, in the way he listens to you. You have the gift, as all good leaders do."

"I do my best," was all Charlie could think of to say.

Lewellen reached into a pocket and pulled something out. "I have a gift for you, if you will accept it."

He held the object up to the light, and Charlie gasped. It was a small dragon, exquisitely carved from a dark wood, and suspended from a lanyard of braided leather. Charlie held up a hand as Ian made to hand it to him, and then stopped as he felt a familiar presence touch his mind.

"Castor would go back with you," Ian said softly. "He wishes to see more of the world, which he will share with Pollux, who will share it with all that live here. But you do not have to agree."

Charlie closed his eyes, as images of the island flashed through his thoughts. He and Castor had exchanged ideas, one night around the fire, and Charlie had been intrigued with what he had learned from the spirit. And, Castor's sense of curiosity, his interest in everything, was affecting. The spirit reminded him of Browbeat, full of life, and fascinated by everything. It made him smile.

"The conduit would be two-way, as well," Ian reminded.

Charlie opened his eyes, and smiled at the man. "You and I will be able to stay in touch?"

"Yes. Just as I was able to do with Herbert. As much, or as little, as you desire. It's not intrusive." He laughed then. "But it is better than a telegraph."

"I'll take it along," Charlie said. He let Lewellen drape the lanyard over his hand. "It's beautiful."

"You wear it around your neck," Lewellen said. "Far easier to manage than even my rod of wood." He leaned closer. "And it will serve as a reminder, Charlie."

"A reminder?"

Lewellen nodded, his eyes bright. "Yes." He waved a hand around at the island. "A reminder that here be dragons, young Charlie Boone. There are, still, many mysteries in this world."

Charlie smiled, and placed the lanyard around his neck. The dragon settled against his chest, feeling warm and alive, a reminder of the island and all it had come to mean to them. "Thank you."

Lewellen nodded. "And, now, I have one last request of you, should you find a way to do it for me."

Charlie nodded. "Just ask."

The Dirty Whisker looked much the same as the last time they had visited the place. The bar's master, Dollen, had been happy to see them again, especially after inspecting Rick and finding no holster at his waist.

"Come, come, and sit!" he said, taking them to a table large enough for their group."I know that Captain Berrick's vessel is still out of port. He'll be sorry he missed you. Does the Baron know you're here?"

"We just came from seeing him," Charlie returned. "He said he'd be along as soon as he could. He's working on some problem with one of the tors."

Dollen huffed in disgust, and clapped his hands together. "Always someone wanting trouble! A fine reality this is, and just not enough for some!"

They sat, just enough chairs for all. Dollen took their orders, and hurried off.

Browbeat, back in his own immaterial form, settled on Charlie shoulder. "It feels weird to be back here. I kind of miss my new body!"

The body supplied by the Madracorn that allowed Browbeat to leave the lower layer and visit with Charlie and company in the real universe, was safely stowed in a spirit dome, awaiting the flyer's return.

"Relax. You'll be back to it soon. We just have one thing to do here, and then we'll be leaving."

"So short a visit?" Chirka asked, looking disappointed. "I thought perhaps we might explore another reality together."

Kip beamed. "We could do that, couldn't we, Charlie? No time would be lost at home."

Charlie looked around at the others. "What do you guys think?"

Robin smiled. "That this place is still amazing. I wouldn't mind a further look around."

"I've never seen anything like it," Amy said quietly. "I'd be willing to see more of it."

Horace put an arm around her shoulders and smiled. "Me, too."

"I'm game," Rick said, smiling at Adrian. "If my guy is, that is."

Adrian grinned. "But, of course."

Browbeat hooted, and looked around at the faces above him. "You guys sure are fun!"

Charlie laughed at that. "We know."

Dollen returned, a tray full of drinks deftly carried on one open hand, and began dispersing the glasses. Charlie leaned closer to the man then. "We're expecting someone. He's of our people, tall, and bearded like Captain Berrick. When he comes in, would you direct him to our table?"

"It would be my pleasure. Anything to eat?"

Charlie smiled. "We'll let you know. Thanks."

The barkeep spun and hurried away, even as someone at another table waved him closer.

"Imagine loving this type of work so much that you'd do it for all eternity," Rick said, giving his head a little shake.

"Heaven is an individual notion," Robin said, smiling. "He looks happy, doesn't he?"

"Yeah." Ricky conceded, watching the barkeep scurry about among his patrons.

"I rest my case," Robin replied, laughing.

Charlie turned to Horace. "How about the summons? Are you sure it worked?"

The man frowned. "Sure? I think it worked. Or, maybe I should say, I sensed that it worked." The frown turned to a smile. "I guess we'll find out."

"It worked," Kippy reassured. "My skwish says it did."

Charlie relaxed. That was usually good enough for him.

They sipped their drinks and talked, visiting with Chirka. The little Kift had been happy to see them, and Charlie marveled at the realization of just how many friends they had found in their travels. Chirka launched into an explanation of the studies she was doing in two realities, and they all listened, engrossed, until Rick turned to Charlie and gave him a nudge. "At the door."

Charlie turned, just in time to see Dollen meet the man who had entered. The barkeep indicated their table, and the man squinted their way, a look of interest on his face. Charlie studied the newcomer's face, and sighed happily. It was him.

Dollen waved their way a last time, and the man nodded and headed towards Charlie's table. Rick turned, pulled a chair from the table behind them, and drew it over to their own, just as the newcomer arrived.

The man looked them over, obviously not recognizing any of them, but a certain pleasure in his eyes at seeing other humans.

Charlie smiled up at him. "Herbert Tasker?"


Charlie heard Kippy give a small sigh, and felt a warm glow take hold of him. "Won't you sit a moment?"

The man frowned. "I don't know you people, do I?"

"No." Charlie smiled again. "But we're friends of Ian Lewellen."

Tasker's eyes widened, and then filled with pleasure. "Ian! How's he doing? I've looked for him here, but he doesn't appear to have arrived."

"He's still alive," Kippy volunteered. "And still on the island."

Tasker shook his head. "Still? That's...that's amazing."

"It's one reason we're here," Ricky volunteered.

"He wanted us to see you," Adrian agreed.

Tasker nodded, and accepted the chair Ricky offered him. He sat, and leaned forward on his forearms to stare at them. "What can I do for you?"

Charlie sighed, put an arm around Kippy's shoulders, and made himself comfortable. "Actually, we came here to do something for you."

Tasker's eyes circled the table, and he smiled again. "I sense you're all of the craft!"

"We are," Charlie confirmed, returning the smile.

Tasker sighed happily. "So, tell me about Ian. How's he doing? Did he ever discover the island's secrets?"

Charlie sighed inwardly, wishing Max had been able to come along. But the elf had places to go, things to do, and he had simply told Charlie he trusted him. It's a big world, Charlie, and it needs our help.

Living up to the elf's expectations wouldn't always be easy. There were too many times when Charlie wasn't sure of anything. But he looked around the table at the eyes of his friends upon him, waiting, patient, confident, and knew that, together, they would defend that trust, forever, if need be.

There are better things ahead.

He nodded at Tasker. "We'll get there. But first...we've come a very long way to find you. And to share a story with you."

Herbert Tasker, the man who had made it all possible, settled back in his chair, and smiled. "I'm listening."

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