|Works by Bob Stein on Shifti|
Waking up to a hard slap on the butt was something of a shock, given the fact that Lindsey lived alone. As his eyes popped open, a gruff male shouted “Rise and shine, my beasties!” The wall of dark, battered wooden planks in front of him didn’t belong to his bedroom. Neither did the strong sweat/urine stink that filled his nostrils, or the mix of groans, whinnies, and brays in his ears. “Come on, Lind.” A younger voice came from directly behind, and he looked back to see a scruffy-looking young man with matted brown hair scowling at him from the far side of a large, black horse’s butt. The teenager was wearing a stained tunic tied at the waist with a piece of rope, and hefting a black leather work harness. “Market Day. Let’s get you hitched up.” Market Day? Lindsey stared blankly at the kid, his mind still catching up to the barrage of strange input. Stall. Animal sounds. Horse’s butt. He stopped there, eyes widening as he realized the equine back end belonged to him. That realization was confirmed when he both felt and saw the boy give him another hard slap. “I ain’t got all morning, you lazy beast!” Lindsey struggled to stay calm, thoughts in a whirl. He seemed to be on all fours – four legs, not hands and knees. And his head stuck out way too far from his body, swinging in a huge arc as he twisted around to look at his other side. Black hide, hooves, and a long tail that he could flick from side to side. As he stared at the equine body, a gray horse walked past in the main stable. For a moment, it looked like a human head was floating alongside – then he realized that it was all one creature. The animal had human features instead of an equine muzzle. Though he’d never seen one before, Lindsey recognized it to be a facehorse. Problem was, the strange creature should not exist outside the pages of Mithril’s Quest, his friend Terry’s new fantasy novel. The kid had called him Lind. That was the name of one of the minor characters in the novel, another facehorse who provided occasional comic relief in the form of bad puns and generally stupid actions. Hooves, hide, and the name all matched up with his memories of the character. He clenched his eyes shut. This had to be a really intense dream – or nightmare. Time to wake up. A sharp crack and sudden pain made him jump and cry out. “Get your arse out here now, Lind!” A heavyset older man with enormous sideburns was coiling a whip that he had obviously just used. “But…” Lindsey was shocked by the stinging welt – you couldn’t feel pain like that in a dream! He tried to think of something to say, searching for explanations. However seeing the man’s scowl, he decided to back out before another welt joined the first. “Sorry. Guess I was stall-ing for time.” He grinned, then blinked in astonishment. Where had that come from? “Oh, please, Lind.” The boy started throwing on the harness. “Not first thing in the morning.” “Why not? If he’s gonna use the whip, I can deal out some pun-ishment of my own.” The dopey smile returned before he could stop it, as if someone else were using his voice and face. “Shut up, Lind.” The man was still scowling. “You’re trotting along a very fine line. More than one customer has said they’d rather hear you whinny. And you know what that means.” “Yeah, I’m gonna talk myself horse.” The words were out before Lindsey could stop himself. Horrified, he clenched his eyes shut as he tried to shut out whatever had control of his mouth. The stable master shook his head and sighed. “Maybe sooner than you think, you fool animal.” Then something caught his attention further down, and he strode off. “What’s the matter with you?” The stable boy whispered fiercely as he pulled a bridle over Lindsey’s face. “You really want to end up as a normal animal? He means it! One gesture from a magic user and you won’t be talking or thinking no more!” “Yeah, but I’ll gain a lot of horse scents.” Where was this crap coming from? The lack of control was even more terrifying than being a freak creature. It was more than just the puns - he had backed out of the stall and made all the right movements to take the bridle and harness. “Real funny, Lind.” The boy shook his head. “See if you feel like laughing tonight. You’re at the end of the line. Go on.” He gave Lind’s butt a firm pat. End of the line? Even as Lindsey wondered at that, he saw what the kid meant. There were a half-dozen other animals already standing lined up at the door. The last was a large brown facemule with badly scarred hide and a sour expression. He looked back at Lindsey with a sneer. “Bet you end up with the shit wagon. See if you can find something funny about that.” “Guess I’ll be really pooped by the end of the day.” Lindsey felt helpless as his mouth worked on its own, ending with the same goofy smile. God, he was being forced to play the character. Granted, Lindsey liked a good pun, but not this constant barrage. It wasn’t so bad in the novel, since the facehorse didn’t show up often. Not surprising, since Terry hated puns himself. You’d think a writer would appreciate wordplay, but the fantasy author made no effort to hide his dislike of Lindsey’s efforts. No wonder Lind wasn’t a very sympathetic character. Lindsey. Lind. He felt sudden resentment. The similarity of names hadn’t occurred to him before. Terry must have used him as a model for the annoying beast – perhaps as a form of revenge. Lindsey’s gut clenched at sudden memory. Revenge was right. In Mithril’s Quest, his character’s puns eventually get him turned into a normal animal. But that was just words on paper, given substance only in the reader’s minds. How could he be here, not only in a fictional place, but as a fictional creature? Lindsey flicked his tail in annoyance, and blew through his nostrils. The flies weren’t so bad today, but he hated it when they got in his nose and... He shook his head suddenly, alarmed by vague memories of similar mornings, memories that belonged to a facehorse. Lindsey blinked as he stepped into the morning sun, automatically following the facemule outside. Bung moved to a two-wheeled cart piled high with casks. Bung. That was the facemule’s name. The rest of his stable mates were already harnessed up and pulling a variety of battered, wooden-wheeled vehicles down the busy, deeply-rutted street. It almost looked like a scene from a movie. The buildings were wood and plaster, many with thatched roofs. People wore medieval costumes, with small children running naked amid a scattering of chickens, goats, and other livestock. However, both his eyes and nose informed him that the general level of filth wasn’t part of any movie set. Where was this coming from? There was a stable in Mithril’s Quest, but only as a vague backdrop for a few scenes. Granted, it had been a week or so since Lindsey had finished the book and some of the details were a little fuzzy. Still, he was sure Terry hadn’t provided anywhere near this level of background description. “What the Hell is wrong with you, Lind?” The heavyset man was back, scowling at him from the side of a large, empty, and badly stained wagon. Mr. Daly, the owner of the stable. And more importantly, Lindsey’s owner. “Get in the traces, now! I don’t like using the whip, but if you keep giving me trouble I’ll make your hide match Bung’s.” “You can’t do that, Mr. Daly! My fur is the wrong color.” The quip couldn’t be stopped, but thankfully, Lindsey backed into position at the same time. Daley glared at him a moment, then sighed deeply and finished harnessing the wagon. As he yanked the last strap tight, the man patted his side. “OK, Lind. Get going. The route hasn’t changed since last time.” Lindsey thought furiously as he began plodding down the street, easily pulling the empty wagon. It would be much more work later, piled high with reeking slops and waste collected as he worked his way up and down the streets. While the buildings and people mostly matched up to what little he knew about medieval Europe, there were certainly no facehorses depicted in history books. And the locals sounded more like Los Angeles than Merry Olde England. This had to be the world of Mithril’s Quest. Either that or he’d suffered some sort of serious mental breakdown. At this point, he wasn’t quite sure which answer he preferred. Still, as long as he couldn’t tell hallucination from reality, it was safer to believe his eyes, nose, and ears. That left an even bigger question – how the Hell had he gotten here? Not even quantum physics and time warps explained waking up in a fictional setting. The only logical connection, if logic could be applied at all, was that Terry had used him for the facehorse. Somehow, the story had come to life and pulled him into it. If that was the case, there had to be others in the same situation. Most of the main characters were probably based on people Terry knew in the ‘real’ world. Though Lind was a ‘maned’ character, not major player. He winced, not sure if the play on words came from his own thoughts, or the increasingly complete facehorse. It was no secret that Terry had written himself in as Duke Tarran Boldheart, the novel’s handsome and incredibly skilled hero. He’d even gotten the artist to use his face for the cover, though the rest of the muscle-bound fighter was pure imagination. Lindsey blinked. Of course! If he was here, maybe Terry was too! And the person who created all this had to be able to figure a way out! Where were they in the story line? The stable appeared a few times in the book, but it was obvious that the city went on whether its creator was visiting or not. This could be months before the adventure began, or the last chapter. Lindsey struggled to recall the plot. Most of the action centered around an evil wizard named Nightshade plotting to take over Boldheart’s lands. Then there was the romance between Boldheart and Lady Melody Swann. And of course, the inept and comical facehorse. The first time Lind appeared in the book was early on, where he provided comic annoyance as the hero tried to overhear critical plotting between two thugs working for Nightshade. Of course, Lind hadn’t known about any of that – he was just being friendly, trying to cheer the serious-looking human up with some light banter. Only to get the point of a sword at his throat and threats of gelding. Lindsey’s gut constricted at the memory. Not that he had much opportunity to court mares, but it was nice to have the capability. He frowned, realizing that the incident was far too detailed in his mind to be just from reading. Damn! The first encounter must have already happened! Not too long ago, but then, the book didn’t cover a long period of time. What? A week overall? He glanced up as he got near the Milliner’s Shop. Sure enough, the brats were hanging out the window, planning to hit him with the contents of the family bedpan. He maintained his pace until the last second, waiting until they actually dumped the toilet with shouts of glee. Luckily, the wagon was still light enough that he was able to stop dead and shove back in the traces just enough to have the foul mess splatter all over the walk in front of him. The milliner came running out, then shook his fist at the horrified children and stalked back inside. Lindsey grinned up at his would-be attackers. “I’d say you’re in a shitload of trouble.” Rather pleased with himself, Lindsey resumed the route. He’d have to tell Bung – those rotten kids had scored hits on the facemule more than once. The next street was an easy run, mostly storage buildings, and he was able to go back on automatic. OK. What was the next appearance? Tarran catches up with the henchmen, and defeats them with a dazzling show of swordsmanship. That’s when he finds out that Melody Swann is being held captive in the heart of the Wizard’s keep. He returns to town to enlist the aid of trusted Elven companion Arion Quicksilver, and chooses the stable as a meeting point. Lindsey felt a touch of indignation. He’d only been trying to help. After all, it sounded like the whispering human and elf didn’t know the direct route to Nightshade’s fortress, and he’d delivered supplies there many times. So he’d stuck his head out and offered directions, having to shout over the din of the busy stable. How was he supposed to know they didn’t want anyone aware of their destination? Oh, crap. Scratch encounter number two. So they were at least halfway through the novel! Lindsey made the turnaround absently and headed up the next street, remembering to swerve around the big pothole in front of Whitney’s Apothecary. The shops were busy today, but shoppers gave him a wide berth as he approached. Not surprising, considering what was being flung down into the wagon behind him. What came next? Tarran and Arion fight through heightened security because the evil Wizard is expecting them, eventually defeating the entire force of the Count’s elite guards and a half-dozen magically-created monsters. Then… His attention was drawn by a crowd of people directly ahead. They were gathered around a large, heavily loaded wagon that was angled sharply towards the right. Looked like a front wheel had broken. “Might as well move skip around.” One of the spectators had seen him stop behind them, and shook his head in disgust. “Streets gonna be blocked for hours.” Luckily, there was an alley between the two nearest buildings that he could just squeeze the wagon through. It would force him to cut through the Market Square, which wouldn’t make him too popular given his cargo, but he could work his way back to complete the pickup route. What had he been thinking about? Oh, right. The novel. The Wizard escapes with Melody Swann as his hostage, and there’s a wild chase through the city streets, scattering people and carts in the Market Square. Just as Tarran is about to catch up to the fleeing Wizard, he gets cut off by.... Lindsey stopped just short of the Square, eyes wide and legs trembling. In the story, Lind appeared from a side street, pulling a cart full of wine casks, cutting off the heroes long enough for the Wizard to get away. And here he was, about to cut across market Square. But Bung was pulling the casks today. Lindsey’s late start had changed the order of things. Yeah. Maybe Bung was the one who would mess things up this time! Then he heard the shouts and screams. Peeking out from the alley, Lindsey saw a monstrous black warhorse charging towards him, its rider scattering the shoppers with fireballs that seemed to shoot from his fingertips. A much smaller figure was sitting in front of him, held tightly by the rider’s free arm. It had to be Nightshade and Melody! In the book, this scene was described from Tarran’s point of view, but there was no mistaking the action. Where was Bung? The evil Wizard would be through in seconds. Unless. Lindsey felt a rush of hope. The mule would pop out any second and ruin the chase, but only if Nightshade escaped. This was his chance to be a hero! He could change everything – if he stopped the Wizard here and saved the day, the story would be over! He had to time it carefully – too soon and the Wizard would be able to swerve around him. The villain was close now, his blood-red cape flowing dramatically behind him, holding his helpless prisoner tight against his chest. Lindsey noted that the Wizard had chosen an interesting hand-hold. Just a moment more. Now! Lindsey threw himself forward, but the wagon had gotten considerably heavier since that first street. The extra weight took time to get moving – just enough time for the Wizard to get in front of him. Lindsey’s face hit the black stallion’s hind end with a painful thud, but didn’t even cause the massive animal to break stride. Dazed, Lindsey stumbled further out, then heard a violent shout and heavy thuds as something struck the side of the wagon. Twisting around, he saw a severe-looking elf with silver hair and ice-blue eyes on a lathered white horse and a riderless gray animal. The missing rider was easily located by a stream of painfully familiar profanity coming from the day’s collection of waste. As the figure pushed himself up, dripping with feces and garbage, someone in the crowd started to chuckle. In a moment, the entire Market Square was dissolving into laughter. Duke Tarran Boldheart, hero and alter ego of the author, glared at the crowd, but only succeeded in looking even more ridiculous. He spun and squinted at Lindsey, his face contorted with rage. “YOU!” He yanked his sword from its scabbard, but the sudden movement was a mistake given his slippery footing and he went over backwards into the muck again. The elf, who had to be Arion Quicksilver, jumped from his horse and ran to Lindsey’s side with his own sword high. Held fast by the harness, Lindsey screamed and shut his eyes, expecting a death blow. Only to feel the wagon’s traces fall away. Quicksilver shouted “Run! Before he gets up again. Run, you fool animal!” Startled, Lindsey looked back to see the elf, whose mouth trembled with barely suppressed mirth. Then Tarran’s screamed curses spurred him to bolt free and gallop across the square as fast as he could move. The crowd parted for him, still finding the situation hilarious. It seemed that the only two not laughing were Lindsey and Tarran. Oh, God! Trying to change things had accomplished nothing. Nightshade had escaped with Melody Swann, and Tarran… Lindsey grimaced, realizing that there had been changes. All for the worse. The one person he needed to get out of this nightmare had suffered horrible humiliation in front of the whole town! Lindsey finally stopped in a narrow alley, sides heaving and hide flecked with foam. His facehorse body was obviously not built for speed. There was no sign of pursuit – the need for a bath must have outweighed the need for revenge. He shuddered at the memory of Tarran’s rage and the glint of sunlight on the edge of his sword. That couldn’t have been Terry in control! Yet the violent reaction didn’t fit the character of the Duke, either. Did changing the story line change the people? A facehorse standing alone would catch someone’s attention. He needed to get moving, go back to the stable… but he couldn’t go back! Tarran had recognized him, and knew where the facehorse belonged. Even if he was over his killing rage, the hero/author might have made arrangements to have him locked up to prevent further issues. Or worse, paid Mr. Daley to turn Lind into a real horse. The stable master had already spoken of the possibility, and today’s disaster was more than enough to justify the transformation. He needed to go somewhere to hide and think things out. At least having the character’s memories proved helpful there. Lind usually traveled to contracted jobs on his own – facehorses had the ability to follow verbal directions. Edging out of the alley, he found himself on one of the high-end business streets. The crowds here were much thinner, allowing him ease of movement. A few gave him curious glances, but it was likely that none of these well-dressed aristocrats and merchants had witnessed the events a few streets over. One marked difference between these shops and the ones in the lower class areas was the presence of large windows. In addition to giving the whole area a more modern look, they provided something that Lindsey hadn’t seen before here – a reflection. He shuffled over to one of the bigger panes, some sort of book store from the display, and got his first real look at Lind. The broad, coarse-featured face peering back at him was more a caricature of Lindsey than an accurate likeness. His mouth was especially distorted, with thicker lips and the large, equine teeth needed for eating hay and grain. Still, there was no doubt it was supposed to be. Lindsey frowned, tilting his head slightly. Terry had given him had dull, oversized eyes and a drooping lower lip that made him look a little dimwitted. Lindsey’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t quite so sorry about the wagon incident now. A rich baritone voice spoke pleasantly beside him. “You won’t find ‘Mithril’s Quest’ in there.” Startled, he twisted around and saw a handsome older man, dark haired with a manicured mustache and van dyke beard. He was dressed in solid black, with tasteful and expensive silver jewelry and clasps. Up close, it took a moment to recognize Nightshade. Lindsey gasped and started to back away, only to stop when the man smiled and raised a hand. “You have no need to fear me, facehorse. Though we both know you are more than that.” He pulled out a small, leather-bound book and flipped to a page about three-quarters back. “After all, you were just pondering how all of this was too real.” He glanced at what looked like handwritten text and read. “He shuddered at the memory of Tarran’s rage and the glint of sunlight on the edge of his sword. That couldn’t have been Terry in control! Yet the violent reaction didn’t fit the character of the Duke, either. Did changing the story line change the people?” “An interesting question.” Nightshade snapped the book shut and smiled at Lindsey’s astonished expression. “My own copy of Mithril’s Quest – but not the one you are familiar with. Something of a special edition.”
“So my life is an open book to you?” Lindsey flinched as the pun forced itself out, but the Wizard’s smile only broadened. “Ah! Humor in the face of adversary.” Nightshade raised an eyebrow. “Oh, come on. Adversary instead of adversity?” Then he sighed. “I suppose my character isn’t written to be funny.” “You know you’re not…? I mean…” Flustered, Lindsey stared at the Wizard. “About all this just being a story?” “I assure you that this world is just as real to me as your own is to you. Unfortunately, events here are being controlled by the same person who wrote you here.” Lindsey frowned and looked around the Square. “This isn’t Mithril’s Quest?” “It is, but also far more.” Nightshade pursed his lips. “We should continue this discussion elsewhere. Come with me. I have a safe place for you to rest, and we can exchange information.” Nightshade headed across the street, where his own black charger was waiting patiently. Having little other choice, and more than a little curious, Lindsey shuffled along behind. The Wizard swung up into the saddle and trotted off without another look back. Lindsey stared after the wizard, totally adrift. Whatever concepts of reality he might have had were shattered. There seemed nothing left for him to hold onto save the slender thread of reason this supposed villain was throwing out. He lunged forward suddenly, moving quickly to catch up. If Tarran was an enemy, then perhaps Nightshade could be – what? A friend? Hardly. The man was a kidnapper, at least. Which reminded him – where was Melody Swann? Her absence was conspicuous. In the original story, Tarran had caught up with them on the outskirts of town. The girl had gotten free during the ensuing battle, which ended with Nightshade vanishing in a cloud of smoke. Come to think of it, Nightshade was awfully calm for someone on the run from justice. He had certainly made no attempt to hide in town. Why wasn’t Tarran giving chase? Oh, right. The hero was probably busy cleaning up. Lindsey pondered that. What impact would that have on the rest of the story? Or were they really in a story at all? Sighing, he gave up trying to figure anything out for now. They headed out of town on a wide dirt road that wound through hilly countryside. The scenery was picturesque, and thanks to Lind’s memories, curiously familiar. At least he wasn’t pulling a wagon - distances were a little more troublesome when you were using your own horsepower. Lindsey grinned to himself. One horsepower. One horse power. The silly word play amused him far longer than it should have, but there was little else to do. Nightshade seemed lost in thought, occasionally pulling out the book and flipping through a few pages before putting it away. They finally turned off on the narrow, rutted path that led to the Wizard’s keep, winding. through thick forest. Dark shapes moved in the woods on either side, probably some of Nightshade’s forces on guard. Lindsey’s ears twitched, following the sounds nervously. Then he stopped dead as they emerged into a mass of men, minotaurs, and other creatures that parted to let the Wizard through. This was the invading army! Lindsey hurried to catch up with Nightshade, staring at the different monsters. Some of them looked back with equal curiosity, and he realized a facehorse was probably even stranger than a satyr or centaur. Even so, it was interesting to see Terry’s interpretations of the ‘mythical’ creatures. Centaurs were bigger than he expected, with human parts enlarged to be proportional to their horse bodies. Their features were much like Lindsey’s, broad and coarse, with the prominent teeth and jaws. In contrast, the goat-like Satyrs were short and stocky, with pointed faces and thick body hair that blended smoothly into the coarse fur covering their animal hindquarters. He was a little surprised by the minotaurs. Usually depicted as fierce monsters, Terry’s versions looked more like humanoid buffalo. They were huge and covered in shaggy fur, with massive horns curling from their foreheads. Most were armed with swords and longbows, though a few had the more stereotypical clubs and axes. As they passed through the Wizard’s army, Lindsey found his fear easing. While part of that was due to the knowledge he had safe passage as Nightshade’s guest, the soldiers themselves did not really look threatening. This wasn’t the snarling, cruel horde of an enemy – they were laughing and talking, a few even playing some sort of game with what might be crude dice. Nightshade’s fortress had high stone walls and a deep, dry moat full of sharpened stakes. A mix of human and non-human guards were visible patrolling along the top, a pair of black minotaurs stood just outside the main entrance on the far side of the drawbridge. The bull-men stepped aside when the Wizard was halfway across to allow passage, then moved back as soon as Lindsey passed them. Nightshade stopped just inside the courtyard. A young man came running out to take the stallion’s reins as the wizard dismounted, and a satyr emerged from what looked to be the main building. Nightshade exchanged a few words with the goat-man, then frowned slightly and turned to Lindsey. “Wait in the stable until I have time to talk. Eeon, get our guest cleaned up.” Then he walked off with the satyr. Lindsey followed the young man he assumed was Eeon and Nightshade’s horse through a large set of open doors. The stable was a pleasant surprise after waking up at Daley’s, clean and well lit. Only a half dozen or so of the thirty-plus stalls were occupied, all with what looked like normal equines. Eeon stripped off the stallion’s tack and led him to a slightly larger stall near the back. After throwing in some fresh hay, the young man returned and started to remove Lindsey’s harness. “Hey!” Lindsey felt a touch of alarm that he couldn’t explain, and twisted his head around. “That’s…uh, never mind. Go ahead.” “Oh, thank you, your majesty!” The boy snorted and continued unbuckling straps. Probably wasn’t used to having his charges talk back. Not that the reeking filth on both harness and Lindsey’s back helped any. Eeon frowned again as he looked Lindsey over, but led him directly to a stall close to the entrance with fresh fodder and a bucket of clean water. It was a vast improvement over his own cramped and dirty stall, even if he didn’t like having the gate shut and latched behind him. Lindsey mulled over his situation as he ate, mildly surprised at the sweet taste of hay. Daley never got them the good stuff. The facehorse had one final appearance in the book – a scene that ended with his transformation into a dumb animal. Had he managed to change events enough to escape that fate? Being here was certainly not part of what Terry had written. But then, most of the facehorse’s life was ignored in the book. If Melody Swann had escaped the Wizard in town, then all of the major elements were still following the plot as he remembered it. Which meant that Nightshade was about to attack Tarran’s castle with an army of mercenaries and monsters. Lindsey hadn’t been too interested in the mass mayhem, and skipped over However, although the battle was dramatic, the actual climax of the book was a fight between Nightshade and Tarran. The stall gate opened, and Eeon came in with a bucket of soapy water and an open wooden box that he set down on the floor. He poured some of the cold suds over Lindsey’s rump, and then used a stiff brush to work out the ingrained filth. Afterwards, he scraped the excess water out with a stiff leather squeegee and finished up with a final grooming that put Lindsey in a blissful daze. “A remarkable improvement!” Both of them were startled by Nightshade’s voice. “Eeon, why don’t you go out and help get the wagons loaded?” The young man nodded. “Yes, sir.” He grabbed his box and scrambled out. Nightshade remained outside the stall, leaning casually on the gate after Eeon shut it. “I trust you enjoyed the attention? Believe me, you are much easier on the nose as well as the eyes.” A slight flush crept into Lindsey’s cheeks. “Uh, sorry about that. Yeah, it is really nice to be clean. Thank you.” The Wizard chuckled. “I have to admit it was as much for me as for you. My eyes were watering back in town. So, have you given any thought about what you are going to do now?” Lindsey sighed. “Not really. I don’t know anything about what is supposed to happen, except I end up as a neigh-sayer.” He winced and dropped his head. “Sorry. All I really want to wake up back in my apartment, and have this be some strange dream.” “What makes you think there is a way back?” That brought Lindsey up short. “Uh, I don’t know. I just sorta assumed…” His voice trailed off. “I was hoping I’m not the only one. Stuck in a character, I mean. If Terry is here as Tarran, maybe he can fix things.” Nightshade shook his head. “I doubt you will get help from our esteemed Duke, especially after his baptism in the town waste wagon. No, it is time to think about whom your friends are in this world and do what you can to keep the story from playing out. You may be property as a facehorse, but you still have your mind. Unless I win, you lose even that. We both know how our fates are written.” “How did you find out? About the story, about being a character?” “Because I am not stupid!” The Wizard’s eyes darkened with sudden anger, though it did not seem directed at Lindsey. “And I found myself doing stupid things. The whole world was suddenly ridiculous.” Nightshade leaned on the top of the gate. “There were little things at first, temper tantrums and acts of cruelty that believe it or not, were not part of my normal behavior. Kidnapping the Swann girl set off the alarm bell, though. I am powerful, wealthy, and of good visage – I hardly need to force women to my bed.” “And then came the trouble with Duke Tarran Boldheart.” He sighed and regarded Lindsey with a look of disgust on his face. “Do you realize how ridiculous this whole situation is? I am a Wizard of no small power. Tarran is little more than a figurehead for the King, collecting taxes and making sure laws are enforced. His lands and so-called power are worthless to me.” “So don’t attack.” Lindsey turned around to face the man fully. “If you don’t storm the castle, there’s no battle.” That brought a bitter laugh. “You think I have a choice? I told you I have been doing stupid things. Saying stupid things. Somehow, your friend’s cursed book has connected to our world and made us all part of his personal puppet show. I can’t control myself at critical moments.” Given the problems he’d had with the facehorse’s personality, Lindsey had no trouble understanding that. “But you get away! In the book, you disappear from your cell. So it all ends, and you are free again. Isn’t that what you want?” Nightshade clenched his fists. “Yes. I get away. Think about it. Why would the so-called ‘villain,’ the single most powerful figure of the story, be allowed to escape?” “Well, I guess so he can use you again.” Lindsey looked up at the Wizard with sudden comprehension. “Oh! A sequel! Terry is planning to make this a series.” The Wizard nodded dully. “And once that starts, any chance of a real life ends for all of us. This author has managed to turn our world into his personal puppet show. That’s why I have to keep jumping back to the beginning of this charade. It’s the only way I can keep him from doing more damage.” “Jumping back? You mean, like time travel? So that’s how you know!” “This is my seventh run through this charade.” Nightshade scowled darkly at the book and set it down. “Right after I escaped the first time, I used a very difficult and powerful spell to reset events. I thought I could correct my mistakes and win. After two more failures, I realized something else was going on. That’s when I found the link to your world. And created this.” He reached down and pulled the Special Edition from his robes. “My connection to Mithril’s Quest. I used it to bring the bastard author.” “Terry?” Lindsey stared at the Mage. “You pulled Terry into this world?” “Like you, I figured that the man who wrote this could change things. But when I tried to explain what he was doing to us, the pompous fool laughed at me! It was a grand amusement for him – women, wine, and adventure. And the next time I reset events, he ended up reverting to the Tarran mindset completely. The same thing happened with both of the other central characters – Aslan turned out to be a low-ranking clerk and Melody Swann was some sort of servant called a waitress. This is a dream world for them.” Lindsey blinked as realization hit. “Then you’re the one who brought –me- here!” “Yes.” The Wizard raised an eyebrow. “I needed someone who would want to change things. And I found the link between you and Lind. A sad, silly character doomed to end up a mindless animal. You have every reason to want the story to end differently, and for the first time there is a real chance it may.” “How?” Lindsey thought back over the major points. “Maybe Tarran didn’t chase you out of town, but Melody escaped anyway and it’s all just like before.” Nightshade smiled grimly. “No, it isn’t. This time, I let the girl go on my own and met with you instead of running away like a pathetic coward. More importantly, I was able to meet with my commanders just now and address some problems that have never been solved before. Things are definitely different this time – thanks to you.” “And this is my reward?” Lindsey’s ears pressed flat against his skull. “Stuck as Lind or transformed into a real horse?” A flicker of annoyance passed across the Wizard’s face. “Those are not necessarily your only choices. Tarran wrote you into this book as a buffoon, an ugly fool that everyone is happy to see devolved to a common animal. Another author might be kinder.” “Another author?” “In this case, perhaps maybe more of an editor.” Nightshade regarded him a moment. “I could do many things for you, if I win. Are you quite sure you want to go back? This world obviously attracted you as a reader. I could improve your lot in life dramatically. Give you a finer body, perhaps make you a facehorse version of my stallion. You’d be sought after for breeding, perhaps even desired as a mount by nobles.” “But still property!” Lindsey pawed at the ground angrily. “I want to be human again, not an animal.” “That is beyond my ability. I can only enhance or expand what is already present. If I could transform others at will, I would simply turn Tarran and his friends into common animals and be done with them.” “Then send me back! As long as I am here, I’m nothing more than a beast of burdern!” “Yes, you are.” The Wizard smiled, but there was a coldness to the expression that made Lindsey uneasy. “Which is another reason you should consider staying. When you became Lind, your memories blended. That is what allowed you to change things here. Unfortunately, returning to your world won’t change the mix.” Lindsey frowned. “So? It’s still me. I know a lot more about pulling wagons now, but that won’t hurt anything.” “What is ten times ten?” The question caught him off guard, but he opened his mouth to answer – and found that he couldn’t. Ten. That was a number. A mark. What did it look like? What did it mean? He jerked his head up and stared at Nightshade, who nodded. “Facehorses can follow verbal commands, but have no comprehension of numbers of letters. Your brains just don’t work the right way. Blame your friend Tarran for that.” The Wizard tilted his head slightly. “Even if I could send you back, which I can’t until the story concludes, you would arrive totally illiterate.” Lindsey paled. Searching his mind desperately, he discovered that Nightshade spoke the truth. He remembered what writing was, but the actual meanings of the funny marks and how they could possibly be used to convey information no longer resided in his mind. “You’ve screwed me! No matter what happens, I either end up a stupid animal here or an illiterate human back in my own world!” Nightshade straightened, anger clouding his face. “I did what I had to do! And you should remember I am the only person in this world who can do anything to help you now!” “Help?!” Lindsey glared at the man, overcome by hopeless rage. “You’re the one who put me on four hooves!” “Terry made you a facehorse, not me. Now I see why. You were typecast!” “I wanted to play the conniving, evil bastard, but that part was already filled!” Lindsey regretted the bitter sarcasm even as he shouted, but it was too late. Nightshade’s face contorted in rage and he yelled something, thrusting a hand out. Searing agony ripped though Lindsey’s body. Screaming, he staggered back, only dimly aware that the stall was expanding around him. “Ungrateful fool!” The Wizard clutched at the top of the gate, breathing heavily. “You don’t like your character? Fine! Let someone else play Lind!” After a moment, he stood unsteadily and stalked out of the stable. The pain faded slowly, leaving Lindsey drained and shaking. He leaned against the wall, afraid he might fall over. Thoughts were confused, and dull aches remained after the transformation was over. Let someone else play Lind? But HE was the facehorse! Lindsey shook his head, trying to clear it, and froze. His ears flopped back and forth with exaggerated movements. A rush of fear helped clear his mind, and he twisted around to see what Nightshade had done to him. His draft horse body had been replaced by a more compact form covered with scarred, matted brown hide. Fresh horror gripped Lindsey’s heart, and he made his way over to the water bucket and stared at the surface. Bung’s face looked back at him. No! The abused facemule wasn’t even mentioned in the book. How could Nightshade turn him into a creature that didn’t exist? Because Bung –was- real here. Perhaps his existence had no impact on the story, but he lived, breathed… and would die here. The facemule’s short and miserable life would now be Lindsey’s when and if the novel came to a final ending. He didn’t even have the dubious hope of returning home illiterate – Bung was just a sad shadow in the background with no link to Lindsey’s world. “Please, come back!” He cried out, the facemule’s voice alien in his elongated ears. Who cared what happened in this place? Lindsey wanted to get out of this nightmare. “I’ll do anything! Please!” Tears streamed down his face. Part of him was sick with shame, but this was more than he could bear. He dropped his head, face nearly touching the straw. “Don’t leave me here.” A rattle from the gate made him look up with sudden hope that evaporated when he saw Eeon. The stable hand looked at him curiously. “What are you so worked up about? You’ll be on your way as soon as they finish loading the empties.” Lindsey laid his ears back sullenly. “Are you blind? Look at me!” “Look at what?” Eeon looked puzzled, but opened the gate and entered with a clay pot in one hand and his box of grooming equipment in the other. “I told you I’d do what I can. This will help.” He scooped out a handful of greenish-brown paste and smeared it over Lindsey’s scarred back. Though the stuff had a bitter metallic stink, it immediately began to soothe his welts and scars. The boy’s casual acceptance of his new appearance was bewildering. As was the healing salve. There had been no time for the Wizard to explain what had happened, even if he’d wanted to. So Eeon shouldn’t have known about the transformation, much less the condition of Lindsey’s back. Unless the facemule had been here all along. Alarmed, Lindsey tried recalling the day’s events. Everything seemed clear and unchanged. The meeting with Nightshade, Tarran’s rage, lugging the cart full of wine casks – he blinked. Wine casks? He’d been pulling the shit wagon – how could he have started off hauling casks? Bung had gotten that job this morning! Yet Lindsey could clearly remember being hooked up to the cart, and sneering at the wisecracking facehorse. The recasting must be retroactive to the point that Lindsey appeared. For now, memories were clear enough to keep track of what he knew to be the truth. But his thoughts were already being invaded by Bung’s character. Even if Nightshade didn’t reset events, Lindsey would probably end up taken over by the facemule’s identity. Eeon gave him a cursory brushing and then pulled the harness off the wall. Though it should have been expected, Lindsey was mildly surprised that the straps fit his new body perfectly. The boy made short work of getting the harness buckled up, and opened the stall door. “OK. Head on out to the courtyard and we’ll get you on your way.” Lindsey started shuffling out glumly, only to stop dead as he spotted a familiar black rectangle on a hay bale just outside the stall. He stared in amazement. The Special Edition! Nightshade must have forgotten it in his rage. “Go on!” Eeon gave him an annoyed swat. There was no way to take the book without the stable hand seeing as soon as he came out. Unless – Lindsey grabbed the Special Edition with his mouth and bolted out of the stall. Stupid! He realized there was no hope of escape even before he got out of the stable. Eeon was close behind, and the minotaur guards would make sure he did not escape the keep. As he emerged in the courtyard, Lindsay was startled to see the two-wheeled cart just outside, piled high with kegs. Hoping desperately that none of the guards noticed the book in his mouth, Lindsey stuck his face over the edge and let the Special Edition fall. “You’re awfully anxious to get back.” Eeon came out of the stable right behind him. “Got a hot Jenny waiting for you back in town?” Lindsey turned and quickly moved in front of the cart. His heart was pounding, and every instinct was telling him to run. “Sorry. Uh, if I’m late, some of the others will steal my grain.” That seemed to satisfy the boy, who nodded and buckled him into the traces. As Eeon finished up, a figure dressed in black armor emerged from the main building and walked towards them. Nightshade! A minotaur and centaur followed, also dressed for battle. His gut clenched as the Wizard smiled coldly at him, showing no sign of his earlier fatigue. Lindsey trembled helplessly. Even if the gate was open, there was no way to get past the various guards. “Enjoy your new life, fool. I hope I don’t have to reset things again, so you will always remember that you had a better choice.” Nightshade turned back to the minotaur and centaur, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. “Get this stinking creature out of here.” Was the Wizard actually letting him go? Lindsey hesitated as the gate creaked up, then leaned into the traces and headed out. His ears were laid back tight to his neck, eyes wide and frightened. He expected a sword to strike any moment, or a spell to engulf him in fire. His hooves echoed hollowly on the drawbridge, followed by the rumble of wooden cart wheels. The minotaurs stood silently on either side, watching him with impassive, liquid-brown eyes. He was surprised to find the area in front of the keep almost deserted – perhaps a half dozen soldiers were gathering weapons in the now-empty field. Nightshade’s army must have already started for Tarran’s castle. A few of stragglers watched him plod by with the cart, though none drew a weapon. Even so, every movement made Lindsey tense and the fear of attack didn’t ease until Lindsey reached the main road. Why had Nightshade spared him? Some lingering gratitude for Lindsey’s unwitting help earlier? More likely because there was nothing Lindsey could do. The sun was already on its way down, and it would be nearly dark before he could make his way back to town. Adding another hour back, plus more time getting to Tarran’s castle, any possible help would arrive too late. The Wizard had every angle covered. Even if he lost, all he had to do was trigger his reset spell and start over. Unless – Lindsey realized there was one possibility that Nightshade hadn’t considered. Terry! Although the author was immersed in Tarran’s character, there might be a way to make him remember who he was. But how? Even if he could find Terry in time, who was going to listen to a facemule’s wild stories in the midst of battle? Lindsey stopped dead, twisting his head to look back at the cart. The Special Edition! It was useless to him, but Tarran should be able to read. Nightshade’s own words were probably recorded there, quite possibly his plans for the attack. That might be enough to restore Terry’s memories. And as the author, Terry should be able to save Lindsey from spending the rest of his life as a facemule. Getting free of the cart was a challenge, but he got enough buckles opened with his teeth to twist free. Only to discover that the book wasn’t in the cart. Had Nightshade removed it somehow? Then he spotted a dark object on the road about fifty feet back. The book must have bounced out of the cart just seconds before he stopped. Such phenomenal luck seemed unlikely. Then again, having Nightshade leave the Special Edition behind was even more improbable. Had it been intentional? Lindsey stared at the book a moment. This version of the Special Edition apparently focused on Lind. Now that Lindsey was the facemule, it might useless to the Wizard. However, it was still dangerous to him in the hands of his enemies. Why leave it behind? Then he remembered something Nightshade had said about being a puppet. He couldn’t control himself at critical moments. Hopefully, this was one of those times. Whatever risk there might be, Lindsey needed to get the book to Tarran/Terry if he wanted to change his own dismal future. And he had little time to do it – Nightshade was already preparing for the attack, and Lindsey needed to get ahead of the Wizard’s forces. He picked up the book with his teeth, wrinkling his nose at the taste of grit. Tarran’s castle was South of the town - he had been there in both faceanimal forms. Actually, if the plot of Mithril’s Quest was still intact, Lind would be at the castle now delivering supplies. As usual, the facehorse’s mouth gets the better of him, and some stupid joke about being a spy for Nightshade gets him silenced permanently as a security measure. But that was Lind. He was Bung now, independent of Terry’s control. Or was he? Hundreds of unnamed men and monsters would be engaged in battle soon – perhaps the facemule was supposed to be there. But not with the Special Edition. As long as he had the book, he was operating outside Terry’s plot. Lindsey found strength in that. He got his bearings, and began heading cross-country towards Tarran’s castle at a brisk trot. Perhaps he was rushing to his own death, but one way or the other, Bung was going to become a memorable character. Nightshade’s army would mount a surprise attack just after sunset, charging out of thick forest that bordered the river. That detail, combined with Bung’s and Lind’s knowledge of the area, was enough for him to reach Tarran’s lands without encountering any of the Wizard’s forces. However, Tarran’s defenses almost proved to be his undoing. As he approached the castle from a side road, an arrow thudded into a tree inches from his head. “Hold, beast!” A large, older centaur stepped out from the woods with a crossbow aimed at Lindsey’s forehead. “State your business!” Startled, Lindsey spit the book out onto the ground, but had to work his aching jaw a moment before he could speak. “I have to deliver this to Tarran. Directly. It will help him against Nightshade!” A grizzled looking human appeared in the road behind Lindsey, hefting a huge sword. He scowled at the book. “Who sent this, facemule?” “I… “ Lindsey looked back and forth between the two fighters, trying to come up with a plausible story. All that came to mind was the truth. “I stole it. From the Wizard.” There was a short silence as the human and centaur stared at him incredulously. Then the man laughed. “What do you think of that, Yuli? A facemule who is a good enough thief to steal something important from Nightshade himself, and is also on a first name basis with the Duke!” Yuli reached down and picked the Special Edition up, keeping the crossbow aimed the whole time. “This?” The centaur flipped it open and glanced at the pages. “What’s it supposed to be? Some sort of journal?” “No! It’s a magic book that writes out what is happening right now. Like a story, but what people are really doing and thinking! I took it from Nightshade. Barely an hour ago. He’s on his way to attack right now!” That got both fighters’ attention. “What!?” Lindsey nodded enthusiastically. “From the woods by the river! He was getting ready for battle when I left his keep!” The point of the human’s sword was suddenly at Lindsey’s throat. “You expect us to believe Nightshade let you escape? Alive and with a voice to tell what you know?” “Hold your blade, Kal.” The centaur slung his crossbow and flipped through the pages of the Special Edition, stopping every now and then to read. As he got close to the back, he blinked and looked closer. “By the Gods…” He looked at Lindsey, then back at the pages. “There was a short silence as the human and centaur stared at him incredulously. Then the man laughed. What do you think of that, Yuli? A facemule who is a good enough thief to steal something important from Nightshade himself…” Kal’s sword lowered slightly. “That’s in there? But I just said that!” “Everything we’ve said is in this.” Yuli flipped further back. “It’s just like he told us. It’s writing out what we are doing and saying… right … now.” He stared at the Special Edition as more writing appeared, then snapped the book closed and scowled at Lindsey. “I’ll take you to Quicksilver. He’ll decide if we should take you to Duke Braveheart, or simple gut you and give your carcass to the cooks.” Lindsey felt a surge of hope. Arion Quicksilver had saved him in the Market Square - though that incident involved Lind, not Bung. He was also another trapped reader, if Nightshade could be believed. “What if he’s lying?” Kal scowled, his sword still dangerously close to Lindsey’s neck. “Nightshade could be setting us up.” Yuli nodded. “That’s why I am taking him myself. We can make better time, and he can’t outrun me or my sword. I’ll have someone else sent to back you up.” Then the centaur spun and charged for the distant castle, looking back to make sure Lindsey followed. Tarran’s defenses were not as impressive as the Wizard’s. Everything matched up – well-armed men, centaurs and even an occasional satyr or minotaur stood guard around the castle. However, there were no massive ranks of soldiers here. The fighters were in small groups spread evenly around the castle, some barely visible in the fading light. It did not take long to realize this was a more effective layout. They were challenged as soon as they reached the first group, even though it was obvious that Yuli was well known. As the centaur spoke with the leader, Lindsey looked around and saw that nearby squads had crossbows out and aimed at them both. The weapons were lowered only after some hand signals that apparently cleared them for passage. One of the soldiers ran back the way they had come, apparently Yuli’s replacement. Two others took off in different directions to pass on the warning of Nightshade’s impending attack. The leader, a lean older man with a scarred face and white hair, came over to glare at Lindsey. “Be warned. The Duke has no patience for your kind right now – if this is trickery, you will suffer long and painfully.” Just then, there was a shout from below. Two figures came running out of the trees waving their arms – one stumbled and hit the ground face-first with an arrow in his back. Then more shapes appeared, shooting toward Tarran’s forces. The attack had begun! “Go!” The leader gestured at the castle, then grabbed up his helmet and ran to join the fight. Nodding wordlessly, Yuli charged up the hill with the Special Edition. Lindsey hesitated, staring at the violent clash. He could hear monstrous roars and bellows, human shouts and screams, and the metallic clang of swords. Lindsey felt a thrill of excitement. He’d succeeded in becoming an important character! He couldn’t help but grin. That moron facehorse might have been written in, but Lind was just an animal now, while Bung was finally getting the attention he deserved. For the first time since he’d woken up in Mithril’s Quest, Lindsey was a real part of the story. Then a soldier running past was suddenly knocked backwards by an arrow. The sudden death jolted Lindsey from his reverie, and he galloped after the centaur in a blind panic. More arrows rained down, some hissing close enough that he flinched. As other fighters fell, cold fear clutched at his gut. Just being outside the castle didn’t change anything! Until he actually interacted with Tarran, he and the book were still part of the unwritten back story. All it took to keep Terry’s plot intact was to add another centaur and a facemule to the list of unnamed casualties. He just barely managed to keep from slamming into Yuli’s hind end when the centaur stopped abruptly at the drawbridge. Soldiers were running out of the castle to join the battle, weapons drawn. As they passed, Lindsey spotted a familiar face. “Quicksilver!” The elf halted, looking first to Yuli before realizing who had spoken. He scowled at Lindsey. “I have no time for banter with facemules!” “Sir!” Yuli held up the Special Edition. “He says he stole this book from Nightshade. It records things that are happening, what people say and think. I’ve seen it work!” Quicksilver took a step toward the centaur, fierce anger in his eyes. “You brought a tool of magic here?” “No, I did!” Lindsey almost regretted the outburst, which brought the elf’s blade an inch from his face. “Wait! Please! There’s more going on than just this attack! Nightshade is trying to change things, change what is supposed to happen!” The elf lowered his sword, frowning. “Change what is supposed to happen? What are you talking about?” “You and Tarran are supposed to win, and he gets caught. But Nightshade is going back in time and repeating this battle over and over, trying to find a way to beat you. And he’s brought some of us into this world from outside. I’m not really a facemule! And he brought you and Tarran and Melody into the story, too!” The centaur stared at him. “What nonsense is this? Sir, he didn’t say anything about this before!” “It’s all in the Special Edition!” Lindsey saw the centaur’s hand drop to the hilt of his sword. “I know it sounds crazy! But I’m from a world where all of this is just a fantasy story, and all of you are just characters. Terry – he’s stuck here as Tarran, now – wrote the story. And Nightshade found a way to capture us, make us into our characters!” Quicksilver looked uncertain, but held his hand out to Yuli. “Give me the book.” After the centaur complied, he read from the first page. “Lind?” He frowned and flipped further back. “Why is this about that idiot facehorse?” “Because I’m Lind! Well, I was.” Lindsey saw the elf’s expression harden. “Nightshade switched me with Bung – that’s who I am now! And now Lind is a horse and I’m stuck as a facemule!” “What did you say about Lind?” Quicksilver’s eyes widened. “You guys turned him into a horse because he made jokes about spying for Nightshade! Anyway, Tarran was probably still mad about the other times he screwed things up.” The elf stared at him a long moment. “No one outside of the castle could know about the facehorse being turned into a horse – it just happened. You say Duke Boldheart is the author if this fantasy of yours? Perhaps you can explain it to him.” He turned to Yuli. “You did well to bring him here. Report back to your post.” Lindsey followed Quicksilver into the castle. His hooves echoed loudly down the long stone passage, alerting a pair of human guards flanking heavy wood doors. They put hands to weapons and looked at the elf curiously “Sir?” “It is OK, for now.” The elf paused in front of the doors, then looked back at Lindsey. “However, until you here otherwise from me or the Duke, kill him if he makes any attempt to leave.” Quicksilver knocked once and then opened the doors into a large, windowless room lit by a fireplace and some flickering lanterns. As Lindsey entered, he saw Tarran looking at maps spread over a huge wooden table. The man glanced towards the door, then did a double-take, his eyes narrowing. “Another facebeast? Get it out of here now, before I add a mule to the stable.” The hero was as charming as ever, it seemed. “You need to look at this.” Quicksilver held the Special Edition out, already opened to a point near the middle. “This facemule claims he stole this from Nightshade.” “Oh, really?” Tarran snorted in disgust. “A beat-up pack beast managed to outsmart a full-blown Wizard?” The elf shook his head. “He also claims he isn’t really a facemule. And that we are all characters in the middle of a fantasy story that you wrote.” “What?!” Tarran glanced at the book, then shook his head incredulously. “This is absurd! Nightshade is attacking us, and you bring me an animal claiming this is all some silly folk tale?” “Read the page!” Quicksilver thrust the Special Edition in front of the man’s face again. “The conversation written here was between you and me. There were no witnesses. Yet it even describes the wine we were drinking.” Tarran grabbed the book in obvious annoyance – only to drop it with a curse. “The bloody thing stung me!” Before anyone else could react, there was a blinding flash and a sudden pressure wave that staggered Lindsey and knocked both Tarran and Quicksilver backwards. Lindsey was the first to recover, blinking as vision cleared to reveal a too-familiar figure standing next to the Special Edition. Nightshade. Lindsey backed away, eyes wide and heart pounding. Nightshade shouldn’t be here – he never got inside the castle in Mithril’s Quest! The attack failed, and Tarran tracked the Wizard back to his own keep for a final confrontation. Twisting around, Nightshade made a quick gesture towards the doors, then grinned and winked at Lindsey as the two fighters scrambled up with swords drawn. There were shouts and muffling pounding from outside as the guard tried to get in. “I thought I’d ensure a little privacy.” “Bastard!” Tarran glared at the Wizard, sidestepping warily with his weapon out. “Do you think we need help to beat the likes of you? You will never claim this Dukedom.” “I couldn’t care less about a foolish title.” Nightshade chuckled. “You’ll be pleased to know I am here to surrender. In fact, my forces should be retreating even as we speak. There’s no point in spilling any more blood when victory is already mine.” “What?” Tarran’s blinked in bewilderment. “You’re surrendering. And you still claim victory? How?” “I’m here.” Nightshade turned to face Lindsey. “Thanks to my friend here.” Lindsey shook his head. “No! I tried to stop you! I brought the book, so they’d know.” “Yes.” The Wizard bent down and picked up the Special Edition. “The book I conveniently ‘forgot.’ You handled that much better than I expected. Though I did have a bad turn when it fell out of the back of the cart.” “You saw that?” Lindsey felt sick, though he still didn’t understand how it had made any difference. “My only real goal this whole time has been to get this here.” Nightshade smiled as he hefted the book. “Entertaining to read, but not really all that useful. It’s real purpose was serving as a teleportation key. It activated as soon as Tarran touched it. And finally, after seven tries, I can cut myself free from this cursed puppet show.” “You expect us to believe that we are characters in some fairy tale?” Tarran glared at the Wizard. “I don’t know what game it is you are playing, but a plea of madness won’t save you from my sword.” “Believe what you will.” Nightshade shrugged. “The fairy tale is almost over. I only have one minor edit to make before I turn the last page.” He turned to Lindsey, still smiling, and thrust a hand out as he shouted a spell. Lindsey cringed back as the magic hit, expecting to end up a full animal. But there was no pain this time, and when the heat passed he still seemed to be a facehorse. More importantly, his mind was clear of the confusion that had plagued him earlier. However, that was not the extent of Nightshade’s transformation. Bung’s scarred body had been transformed into the sleek and powerful form of a white Arabian stallion. “A mount fit for a king.” The Wizard nodded in approval. “I am genuinely sorry that you are stuck in this world, but I think you’ll find that life as a facehorse can be quite pleasant. I owe you that much, at least.” “I don’t understand!” Lindsey blinked in confusion. “What good was all this? If you are surrendering, that means Tarran wins! The story ends up the same way as it did before!” “Not quite. I needed to be here at the moment of victory. Which is now.” Nightshade tossed the Special Edition at Tarran’s feet. “I surrender to you, Duke Braveheart.” Then he smiled. “And so the story ends.” Quicksilver stared around the room, then down at himself. “What the shit? Where the hell am I?” “In Mithril’s Quest!” Tarran backed against the wall, eyes wide. It was much easier to recognize Terry with the hero’s confidence stripped away. “We’re in my book!” “It’s not your book any more.” The Wizard thrust his hand out suddenly with an unintelligible shout. Tarran gasped and staggered back, but the Nightshade seemed hit even harder. The Wizard screamed and collapsed to his hands and knees, then stared at Tarran. “Oh, crap! What did you do?” “I’m leaving you to your fantasies.” Tarran knelt down by the the Special Edition and yanked a dagger from his belt. “Or more accurately, to mine.” Then he drove his blade deep into the pages. There was a brilliant flare of reddish light, and the Special Edition vanished. At that moment, the doors burst open and a half-dozen of Tarran’s soldiers spilled into the room. Lindsey backed away as they quickly surrounded Nightshade, who cringed back from their blades. The Wizard’s arms were yanked forcefully behind his back and bound securely. One of the men saluted Tarran. “Sir! The enemy has retreated! They just stopped fighting and ran off.” Quicksilver scowled. “At least he was telling the truth about that. Lock him in the Dungeon. Unless you want to kill him and be done with it.” Tarran stared at his dagger in puzzlement, then scrambled up and regarded the captive. “It’s tempting. A dead Wizard is no threat at all.” Lindsey realized that this was the hero again, not the author. “No!” Nightshade looked paniced. “I’m not the wizard! He did something, changed places with me!” “Oh, really?” Quicksilver gave him a scornful look. “Just who are you supposed to be?” “Him!” The Wizard turned his face towards Tarran. “But not really him. I mean, I’m a writer, and this was all a book I wrote called Mith-“ His panicked explanation came to an abrupt halt at Quicksilver’s knife pressed against his throat. Lindsey stared, suddenly remembering the terrible pain of being recast as Bung. No doubt the facemule had felt the same agony. Everything fell into place now – the Wizard hadn’t been after anything in this world after all. He’d switched places with Terry and gone back in his place! Which meant that the former author was now stuck in Nightshade’s body with no knowledge of magic. “Forget your silly tricks.” Quicksilver scowled down at his prisoner, and for a moment, Lindsey thought he was going to go ahead and cut the former author’s throat. “It’s obvious you aren’t going to say anything useful, so don’t say anything at all.” “What about you?” Tarran walked over to Lindsey. “Seems a waste to send you back to the city stable like that. I’m not a king, but I would be happy to have you as a mount. It could be dangerous sometimes, but I promise the best food and treatment available. And mares.” Lindsey blinked, surprised to have a choice. It seemed that the ‘real’ Tarran was a better man than Terry had made him. “Uh, I’d like that, sir. Have some adventures, see the world.” He grinned suddenly as Tarran smiled and nodded. Mithril’s Quest had turned into a kind of Cinderella story – from pulling the shit wagon, he’d risen to become the hero’s steed. It seemed that he might even live happily ever after. But he wouldn’t know for sure until Nightshade wrote the sequel.