I wasn’t responding to reason. My party had coaxed me out of a sprint into the city alone, an unknown danger, and they trailed behind my hurried steps toward the castle. Occasionally, my eyes wandered the identical, yet unfamiliar streets. I lingered at the ruins of recognizable places that felt out of place. By the time we reached the castle, I was walking slowly, my instincts trying to come to the conclusion my mind wrestled against.
I stopped at the gates and studied the emblem engraved there. The D’Arroway crest caught my eye and I pulled out my father’s signet ring, despite what I already knew.
“Taelim,” Klotonk began in a quiet voice, tugging at my shirt. “This might sound...bizarre, but I don’t believe--”
“We’re not in Illium,” I finished for him. The rest of our companions studied me quietly, as if denial was some sort of coping mechanism. “The emblems are wrong,” I explained. “The district names aren’t the same. It’s all similar, but different…”
Maziel turned her face upward, reexamining the mountains behind the city, then the coast in the distance. Indistinguishable from what we knew. But it felt off. “A mirror in placement…” she began, furrowing her brows. “As if this was some sort of--”
“Alternate dimension!” Klotonk all but screamed excitedly. His hands were pressed against his cheeks, and he trembled slightly.
A sigh of relief escaped my lips. So I hadn’t let Illium fall after all. At least not in the timeline I belonged to.
“C’mon,” I threw open the gates with the help of Yaup. “I want to have a look inside.”
Like ghosts we meandered the halls. The portraits of unfamiliar faces watched us from their alcoves, and shattered decor littered the floor. This place had already been ravaged, and I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened.
We made it all the way up to the throne room when Maziel forced us to stop. Pointing a finger, she guided our gaze toward the back door where a dim light escaped the cracks.
We approached quietly, but stopped when a bushy ginger cat meowed loud enough to make us all jump. It watched us, tail flicking, from atop the throne.
“Fluffy?” I asked aloud, instinctively squatting and calling for the cat.
“What’s a Fluffy?” Yaup demanded, folding his ridiculously muscled arms over his chest.
“Family cat,” I answered distractedly, failing to draw the feline to me. Logic already told me they weren’t the same, but I tried anyway.
“You named your cat Fluffy?” Cosmo chortled.
“I was a kid!” I snapped back, causing the cat to hiss and scamper away.
Maziel cursed our names and hurried to the door, hand on the hilt of her short sword. She leaned in, listening for footsteps before signaling us to follow.
We walked down the hall where light spilled from a study in the back . The room was empty, but a small fire occupied the fireplace. A lone armchair faced the mantle, with an open book abandoned on its seat.
“I think someone’s living here,” Dagon said, sniffing the drink in the goblet on the table. He downed it with a satisfied gulp.
“That someone is me,” said a voice from the doorway.
We all turned, drawing weapons, at the gaunt man who watched us warily. He held the ginger cat in his arms, stroking its back softly.
“Who are you?” I blurted, before remembering this wasn’t actually my home. If anything, we were intruding on him.
The old man’s eyes swept over each of us in turn. Wearily, he moved inside the study and sat down in the armchair. He took the goblet from Dagon and refilled it, taking a sip before addressing us. “Depending on where you come from, most just refer to me as the Magus of Myth.”
We failed to hide our reactions, because a smile spread across his lips. We huddled close, glancing at each other in soundless consultation.
Maziel stepped forward. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“Is that so?” He took another drink from his cup. “I’ve lost count of how long I’ve been here....Solstice was a trap. I take it you learned that lesson already?”
“A trap?” Klo repeated. “How so?”
The magus shrugged. “There’s a time distortion on the whole place, and a warp on dimensional travel.” He gestured around him. “Which is why you’re here. You can’t get back to the timeline you knew.”
“There has to be a way back,” I said, stubbornly refusing the word of a Magi I just met.
“There is,” he said after a moment. “An ancient red dragon in Solstice is the key to unlocking it.”
Again, we looked at each other.
“New plan,” I said to the group. “Find the dragon, get the way out, and bring the magus back.”
The Magus of Myth laughed. “You’re a bold one, as if I hadn’t already tried myself. Sit. Tell me, what are your names?”
We went around the group like a school lesson. He got hung up with my name, sitting up straighter, suddenly more attentive. “Taelim?” The magus repeated, recollecting a faint memory. “You wouldn’t happen to be related to Viceak?”
I winced unconsciously. “That’s right. You wouldn’t know...My dad’s dead.” I shifted uncomfortably. “He’s also not technically my father, but that’s a different matter.” I cleared my throat and tried again. “We need you back in Illium, we have to take down Primus.”
“Primus?” The Magus of Myth questioned, raising an eyebrow. “I think it best you get me up to speed on the world outside of this one.”
We did. Meticulously so, which made it slow going. We explained everything from my father’s Black Tower to the moment we realized we were racing against time in Solstice.
“So this dragon,” I resurfaced the matter. “How do we get to it?”
The Arch Magi leaned forward, hands on his legs. He looked as if he considered telling us the truth, if only to save our lives. “He's in Solstice. He lives in the volcano guarded by an army of fire giants and rivers of molten lava. There’s another caster there, but of what capabilities, I didn’t dare get close enough to find out. I was outmatched.” He ran his fingers over his short beard. “From what I understand, something prevents the dragon from unlocking this time hold. What that is, I don’t know.”
“Can you take us back to Solstice?” Maziel questioned.
The magus sighed. “If this is really your decision. Yes.”
“We don’t have a choice,” I replied. “I need to get back home. All of us do.”
“Maybe we can bunk here for the night,” Cosmo yawned. Barnaby was already out of his backpack and snuggling with the kender in the corner.
Dagon was already snoring in the adjacent seat, having been given his own decanter of wine looted from the castle’s cellar.
The magus nodded. “You probably already know where the bedrooms are,” he said to me. “I wonder,” he started distractedly, “if you inherited Viceak’s tower....then perhaps you have access to the door.”
“Door? Which door?” I asked.
The Magus furrowed his brow. “There’s locked room in this castle. Magic. I think a variant of his library. Would you like to see?”
I stood up nodding eagerly. Not for the library, but for a glimpse of what might be an asset for tomorrow’s adventure. Before I left the group, I spotted Klotonk looking up at me with wide eyes. That’s right, the word library was mentioned. “You too, Klo,” I said to the gnome, motioning for him to follow.
The Magus of Myth led us toward my father’s study. An identical path, and an identical door. Only this one shimmered with magic energy.
Unthinking, I wandered close and reached out, but the magus caught my wrist.
“This will kill you if you aren’t his intended. Do you understand, Taelim?”
“Kill me if not the intended. Got it.”
He scowled at my response.
“Taelim...” Klotonk chastised, concern in his voice.
“Trust me,” I grinned. Because that was my wish, I can unlock all dad’s secrets.
Still, as my hand reached for the knob, it shook. I hesitated at the handle before reaching out and turning it. It unlocked with a click, and the energy dispelled.
I could hear the magus sigh deeply, and Klotonk squealed at my side, clapping his hands softly. We stepped inside a mirror version of my father’s library. Oh, joy, books. I thought halfheartedly, scanning the room for anything that might catch my eye. Nothing out of the ordinary. Except for this entire place.
Klotonk was bounding off in another direction, and the magus carefully studied each row in turn.
Nerds, I smiled affectionately. I moved toward the window and gazed out at this alternative world that made my stomach twist. Just the thought of losing Illium had stricken me with paralyzing fear. I realized how I would have given anything to save it.
A scream snapped me from my musings and had me bounding toward Klotonk.
“Hoooooot!” Klo wailed, cradling a pile of feathers.
As I kneeled beside the gnome, I spotted the bizarre book that lay at his feet.
“What happened?” I asked him, arm around his shoulder.
“Something,” he sniffed dejectedly. “Something poofed him.”
I peered at the pile of what used to be the owl familiar. “Don’t cry buddy, I’m sure we can--” something brushed against me, causing me to jump to my feet with a curse.
Klotonk screamed and followed.
We stared down at the peculiar striped cat grinning up at us. It sat on its haunches and aggressively swiped the feathers floating down from air. Satisfied with itself, it sauntered near, forcing us against the shelves in response. Frowning, it vanished from sight, then reappeared on Klotonk’s shoulder.
“Hello, friend,” the cat purred softly.
Klotonk froze, growing pale.
When Klo glanced at me, I motioned for him to talk. What choice do we have?
“The name’s Mug.” It responded, yawning widely.
I smirked. “Awww, it likes you, Klo.”
Mug disappeared, then reappeared at my feet. The striped cat leaned against my leg and purred. I melted entirely, and obliged with affectionate pets.
“W-what happened to Hoot?” Klotonk asked the cat, hardly hiding the accusation.
Mug turned to glare at Klotonk, annoyed. “Gone. Obviously. I’m your familiar now.”
My mouth fell open, and my eyes immediately wandered to the book on the floor. When my gaze met Klotonk’s, I realized he had summoned Mug by accident.
By now the Magus of Myth strolled over, taking in the scene with a curious, but unquestioning expression. He clasped his hands behind his back in an elderly sort of way. “I think you both better get some rest.”
We gathered in Illium’s transportation hub the following morning. The variant of it at least. Again, it was familiar, but not the same. The Magus of Myth huddled us in this world’s teleportation circle.
“Are you ready?” He asked gravely.
“No, but what choice do we have?” I beamed back.
He sighed. “Good luck, I’ll be waiting here should you succeed.”
With that, the teleportation circle illuminated around us. In the blink of an eye, the world had gone from dark and overcast, to hot and bright. We were back where we started, in the heart of Solstice’s jungle. Only now we had a red dragon on our minds.