Protagonist Purgatory

A whimsical fantasy in which protagonists from several unpublished stories struggle to understand why they are suddenly brought together in a place where change is the only constant. 

Strong language warning.


When Michael Rousseau realized that he was here, wherever here was, or rather, when he realized that he existed, his first question wasn’t “Where am I?” but “Which Michael am I?”. He looked at his hands, jumped up and down a couple of times, and felt his face and hair. Young. I’m the young Michael, he thought. Good. I much prefer being young.

In the story, Michael had started off young, a first-year university student, then he grew old, but in the end was young again. Fantasy. There was no taking anything for granted.

With that decided, it was time to sort out just where he was. And after that, try to work out why he was wherever he was. Because, as far as he knew, his story was over. It had been told. So what was this? The sequel?

He was standing in a meadow. Turning, he saw that the meadow extended about a mile from the river before yielding to hills and mountains. But the meadow was semicircular in shape. To either side of him, the hills closed in until they were flush with the river bank. On the other side of the river, the banks brushed against the base of another range of mountains, tall, rocky, and very steep.

The sun was nearly straight overhead. One sun, and it was the right size and color. The sky was a comforting shade of blue with a smattering of cumulus clouds. Michael turned his gaze earthward, to the meadow in which he stood, with its tall grasses, wildflowers, and buzzing insects. He approached the river bank, knelt down, and gathered up some of the red-tinged soil in his hands. It felt rich and loamy, a gardner’s dream, and it brought to mind the large vegetable and herb garden he’d treasured in his middle years.

Standing again, he scanned the broad, slowly flowing river. It was a clean blue, almost turquoise, and when he looked closely he saw a school of fish swimming close to the surface.

It was a place he didn’t know, but he revelled in the natural landscape, the sound of the river, and the sweet scent of the fresh air. There were no trees, birds, or animals, but it seemed like a thriving, healthy, normal ecology. He breathed a sigh of relief. Not a magical creature anywhere to be seen.

A sudden breeze prompted Michael to turn, and the feeling of calm that had come over him left rather abruptly as he stared, wide-eyed, at the two-story rooming house where he’d lived during his university days and again at the end.

This was impossible. It hadn’t been there just a moment earlier. Michael started towards it, but paused. It was uninhabited. Empty. He wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew.

None of the neighboring buildings from back home were here. There was no sidewalk, no road, no people, and no answers. Just more questions.

If there were no answers here, he’d have to go looking for them, and there were only two directions from which to choose: upstream or down. As he pondered this, a shadow caused him to look skyward.

The airborne creature had a torso that was long and thin, perhaps some twenty feet from head to tail, and covered with dark scales. The bat-like wings were broad with a considerable span, and the head was thin and bony with large eyes and short, pointed horns that jutted from the head and upper neck. It was flying fairly low, too low for comfort, maybe forty feet above the ground. He might have run for cover in the rooming house, but it was practically overhead. No point in running now.

This could end up being a very short story, he thought. What do they call that? Microfiction? No, flash fiction, that was it. Then again, maybe it’s not actually a dragon. Maybe… but before Michael could finish the thought, a burst of flame erupted from the creature’s mouth. Then it banked and turned back the way it had come, around the bend in the river upstream.

So, definitely a dragon. And, he noted with a sigh, I’m in another fantasy story.

Although tempted to go in the opposite direction, some instinct told Michael that he should follow. He set off upstream. As he walked, the hills edged closer and closer until, by the time he reached the bend in the river, they were just about flush with the river bank. Climbing was out, the hill was steep, almost vertical, and rocky. But he could just about squeeze past without having to get his feet wet.

Once round the bend he stopped short. If he hadn’t, the sword that appeared in front of him would have sliced his throat in two.

“What manner of wizard are you?” a man’s voice asked.

The voice was thin and higher-pitched than average, a rather jarring juxtaposition to the man himself. Stepping forward so that Michael could see him, he was at least six and a half feet tall, and he was broad and muscular, wearing a pale green vest, tan leggings, and a broad belt with a scabbard. The sword itself was arm-length, some three inches wide at the hilt before tapering to a sharp point, and it gleamed like the sun, even though they were in the shade. The hilt of the sword, Michael wondered, was it made of diamond?

“Wizard?” said Michael, moving his eyes from the sword to the swordsman. “No manner of wizard, actually. Just a guy. So you’d be from an epic fantasy then, is that right?”

The sword moved a bit further from his throat.

“Well, yeah, my story was pretty fucking damn epic at that. You?”

“More urban fantasy, really. With maybe a dash of sci-fi. We did save the world, though, so kind of epic at that.”

“If you speak truly, and are not a wizard, and aren’t fucking me over, then how did we arrive in this fucking place?” the swordsman man asked.

“Beats me. I was hoping to find someone who could tell me. Maybe we could sort this out together?”

The swordsman stepped closer and looked Michael in the eye.

“You might be telling the truth,” he admitted. “But if you’re not…”

“Let me guess,” Michael said. “The consequence involves the sword?”

“Fucking-A,” said the swordsman with a grin.

“Fair enough. I’m Michael.”

“Dromhiller,” said the Swordsman, sheathing his sword. “And this dumb ape is,” the swordsman continued, “well, let’s face it. Who cares?”

“Sorry, which dumb ape would that be?”

Turning his head towards Michael, he said “The one staring at your face. Carrying me.”

“Now you’ve completely lost me.”

The swordsman stopped and backed away from Michael. “Really?” he said. “You’ve never heard of the Swords of Baakthrip?”

Michael shrugged his shoulders.

“Well fuck me,” said the swordsman. “And what planet are you from?”

“Earth,” said Michael. “Twenty-first century Earth.”

The swordsman scratched his head.

“I’m going to guess that our stories were set in different worlds,” said Michael. “Not surprising, really, since where I come from you tend not to see a lot of people walking around with swords, and even fewer with glowing swords and diamond-encrusted hilts. So, assuming I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, why don’t you fill me in?”

“Okay, look. See those rocks over there?” Dromhiller pointed to a rock formation some twenty feet away. “Notice anything unusual about them?”

Michael stepped up to the formation. From a flat, granite base arose hundreds of conjoined octagonal stones at various heights, from three to five feet. The stones were such a deep black that there wasn’t the slightest reflection from the sun. Though they varied in height, they were all the same circumference, around twenty inches. Running his hand along the sides and top of one of them confirmed what his eyes were telling him. The stones were perfectly smooth.

“This is amazing,” Michael said.

“That’s nothing,” said Dromhiller. “I mean, these stones, they’re fake. Back on my world, the stones are what give birth to us. So to speak.”

And so the swordsman explained. Or rather, the sword explained.

In Dromhiller’s world, the swords, forged from magical lava, lived with their wielders in a kind of symbiosis. The swords were sentient and grew from the octogonal stones. Upon maturity, they glowed, pulsing with a heartbeat-like rhythm that attracted local tribesman. Immediately upon physical contact, the swords took control of their wielders.

The swords fed from the kinetic energy of being wielded. The more a sword was used, the more it fed. After absorbing sufficient energy, the swords returned home, like salmon returning to spawn. Those swords ready to reproduce dissolved into clouds of magical elements and mixed with one another, resulting in a new generation of swords.

Swords evolved in the same way as ordinary creatures. Swords that were wielded more successfully returned to reproduce more often, and successful characteristics were propagated through the population. The wielders benefited by being more attractive to the females of the species and reproducing with surprising frequency.

“Really,” said Michael.

“And the hilt?” Dromhiller said. “Solid magic. Not diamond.” He tapped the hilt with his forefinger. Immediately afterward, Michael felt something pass through him, like a deep bass note from a good subwoofer.

Dromhiller grinned.

Michael shook his head and gazed again at the rock formation. “Funny that it’s here, don’t you think? A piece of home for you. ‘Cause back that way was the building I lived in. Except that it wasn’t real. I’m sure it was solid enough, but it just wasn’t real.”

“Fuck me if it makes any sense,” said Dromhiller. Then he grinned, withdrew his sword, and started spinning it about in the air.

“But I’ve got a nice present waiting for whoever is toying with us.”

“You know,” said Michael, “I have trouble imagining how someone who created all of this and was able to bring us here is going to be worried about a sword. Even if it is magical.”

Dromhiller scowled at him, then started walking. Michael caught up to him and they walked together in silence.

After a few minutes, Dromhiller broke the silence. “Fuck, this is boring. Why can’t there be some dragons at least?”

“You didn’t see it?” Michael asked.

“What?” said Dromhiller. “You saw a dragon?”

Michael nodded. “It flew overhead just a little while ago.”

“Well, that’s more like it,” Dromhiller said. “Now I’ve something to look forward to.”

“So there were dragons in your story?”

“Sure. Well, at least until I killed them. You?”

“No dragons,” said Michael. “There was a unicorn, though. And a few other magical creatures.”

Dromhiller laughed out loud and nearly choked. “A unicorn! You’ve got to be kidding me. Didn’t appear until the end of the story, though, did it?”

“Right at the start, actually,” Michael said. “Then again towards the end.”

Dromhiller, doubled over with laughter, stopped. Catching his breath, he said, “A fucking unicorn! Right at the start. Let me guess. Story didn’t sell, did it?”

“No,” said Michael, his head drooping slightly. “Not to the best of my knowledge.”

“No wonder,” said Dromhiller. “With a fucking unicorn? What a surprise. Nobody cares, boy. It’s dragons. Everybody loves a good, fire breathing dragon.”

“Really. And they’re not over-used you don’t think?”

“How could they be? Dragons are great. How does a sword get a reputation if not by killing a few dragons?”

“And what about you?” Michael asked. “Did your story sell?”

Dromhiller cleared his throat. “Well, no, not yet. But it will, never fear. It’s got dragons, after all. And me. It can’t lose.”

Eventually they came to another bend in the river and as before, the steep, rocky hills crowded towards the bank so that they had to squeeze through one at a time. Dromhiller went first, then called the all clear. Michael was about to follow when he felt a tremor, like a mild earthquake. He stepped back and looked up at the hill, but there was no sign of any loose rocks about to tumble down.

He stepped past the hill and then stopped, gaping at Dromhiller.

“What’re you staring at?” Dromhiller asked.

“Um… Dromhiller?”

“Who the fuck do you think?”

“You look a tad different, that’s all,” Michael pointed out. “Completely different, actually. Thin, short curly hair, and you’re wearing a blue pin-striped suit.”

With his eyes wide, Dromhiller looked himself over, felt his face and hair, and used his sword to examine his reflection. Then his face relaxed and he grinned.

“This is alright,” he said. “Pretty fetching, in fact. Means even better luck with the ladies.”

Michael sighed. “Okay, but that’s not the most important consideration right now, is it? I mean, why did you change? What does that tell us about where we are?”

With a shrug, Dromhiller said, “Tells me you think too much. I’ve had many wielders before the one you met. As far as I’m concerned, this is just one more. For now, all I’m looking for a head to lop off.”

Shaking his head, Michael decided to focus on their surroundings. Unlike the previous two regions, here the sky was overcast, the clouds so thick and dark that it felt more like dusk than just past midday.

There were clumps of trees scattered about, with twisted branches and dried leaves, and tufts of brown grass and shrub, but for the most part this was a steaming, stinking swamp. The air was rank with the smell of rotting vegetation. Pockets of dirty fog drifted about the landscape, making it hard to see more than a short distance in any direction.

Picking up a fallen branch near his feet, Michael stuck it in the water and swished it around. The murky water cleared for a moment and he could see small, dark things, about an inch long, darting about beneath the surface. He was about to bend down for a closer look when some of them leapt out of the water and tried to bite him. Michael stepped back, shocked. He had to use the stick to dislodge a couple of them that had bit fast onto his trousers.

What a nice place, Michael thought. Still, might as well see who or what was here.

There were rocks sticking out of the swamp, spaced such that it would be possible to step or jump from one to another. Michael set out in this fashion, not waiting for Dromhiller who continued to examine himself.

“I’ll leave you two to get better acquainted, shall I?” he called back.

After a few minutes, Dromhiller was lost from sight and Michael’s courage and curiosity started to fade. He contemplated turning back until something, barely visible through the fog, caught his eye. As he approached he saw that it was a small, circular brick dwelling with a couple of windows and a wooden door.

The door opened and a man stepped out, smiling, arms folded in front. He was tall and wiry, elderly, with short white hair and a closely trimmed beard, wearing tan robes.

“Ah,” the man said, nodding. “Young Michael. Come inside.”

And with that, he entered the dwelling. Michael hesitated for a moment, then followed him.

The interior was sparsely furnished with a table, four wooden chairs, and a cot. A recorder, some sea shells, and a vase sat upon a shelf mounted on one of the walls. The only other item in the room was a small cabinet.

Hearing a sound behind him, Michael turned and saw Dromhiller, sword drawn.

“And Dromhiller,” the man said, nodding. “Good.”

“Who are you?” Dromhiller said. “Did you bring us here?”

“Please,” the man said, gesturing to the chairs. “Be seated and I will explain.”

Michael sat; Dromhiller didn’t.

Raising an eyebrow, the man seated himself and continued. “My name is Augura. To me, through untold ages, has been passed the Prophecy. You, Michael Rousseau, have a destiny.”

Michael heard a groan from Dromhiller.

“Yes?” said Augura.

“Okay, just how old is this prophecy?” Dromhiller asked.


“How many ages?” Dromhiller persisted.

Augura took a deep breath. “Untold. Ages.”

With a sigh, Dromhiller sheathed the sword. “Fine. Go on then.”

“My small role is to be your guide, Michael Rousseau, on this Great Quest which you and your…” Augura screwed up his face, “companion must undertake. There will be trials. Danger. Yet through it all you must…”

But Augura stopped mid-sentence, which was unavoidable as his head suddenly flew off his shoulders, coming to rest at Michael’s feet. Augura’s eyebrows seemed to widen in surprise, his mouth started to open, then his tongue protruded slightly in Dromhiller’s general direction.

Stunned, Michael turned to see Dromhiller sheathing his sword again.

“Fucking boring old pot pisser and his ‘Great Quest’. Give me a fucking break.”

“Why did you do that?” said Michael, his voice rising. “What harm did he do to us?”

“He was boring me to death, that’s what harm. I’ve seen old men like him before. Plenty of them. All prophecies and quests and destinies. Fucking useless. Maybe killing him was my destiny. Let’s get out of here.”

“Fine, but you may have killed the only one who could tell us what’s going on here. Please, just promise me you won’t kill anyone else. Not unless you have to.”

Michael looked again at Augura’s body and realized what had been nagging at him. “Wait, why is there no blood?”

“Magic, sword, remember?”

Shaking his head, Michael exited the dwelling, making a mental note to try not to bore his companion. Together they worked their way through the swamp back to the river.

As they walked in silence, Michael noticed that Dromhiller’s head drooped a bit and that he was being unusually quiet. He asked if Dromhiller was okay.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” Dromhiller muttered. “What use is a magical sword in a place where there are no worthy opponents?”

“You’re not the only one wondering what he’s doing here,” said Michael. “Where I’m from, I’m a scientist, a renowned biologist, actually. But really, what’s the point in being a scientist in a place where magic is real? Any time you ask the question, ‘How does that work?’, the answer could well be that it works by magic. And then where are you?”

Dromhiller smiled. “And you think that magic cannot be studied scientifically?”

“What do you mean?” Michael asked.

“I mean, perhaps there are scientific principles behind the way magic has its effect on the world. Look at me. I feed off of kinetic energy. Science, right there. The magical elements that comprise swords like me dissolve, recombine, and reform into new swords. How does that work? Seems like a perfect domain for scientific studies.”

Michael stopped and gaped at Dromhiller.

“What?” said Dromhiller. “You think a sword is all brute force and pretty face? Inside of me is the accumulated wisdom of a thousand generations of swords. You pick up a thing or two.”

Shaking his head, Michael continued along the path. Dromhiller kept pace beside him.

“There’s certainly more to you than meets the eye,” Michael said.

“You’re not fucking kidding,” said Dromhiller with a wink.

A moment later, something caught Michael’s ear and he stopped short, causing Dromhiller to nearly bowl him over.

“Watch where you’re going,” Dromhiller growled.

“Shut up a minute,” Michael said. “Do you hear that?”

Dromhiller tilted his head as he listened. Then he heard it — the faint sound of laughter.

“Let me take the lead,” said Dromhiller.

They were within sight of the river when a figure emerged from the fog. It was dressed in black robes, its face hidden by a hood, wearing black gloves and holding a large, black sword. The sword was as black as Dromhiller’s was bright. The little daylight that there was seemed to drain into it, as if the blade wasn’t a blade at all, but a hole in reality.

“Step forward and meet your fate,” the figure said, in slow, well-enunciated words spoken with a deep voice that seemed to echo around him.

“Fuck me,” said Dromhiller. “Seriously?”

“It is,” continued the figure, extending a claw-like finger towards Dromhiller, “your destiny.”

“Oh for…” Dromhiller began.

Michael interrupted him. “Sword,” he whispered.

“What?” said Dromhiller.

“Might be a good time to draw your sword,” Michael suggested. “Maybe this is your worthy opponent.”

Shaking his head, Dromhiller said, “Even I have standards. No, I just can’t be bothered.”

Turning, Dromhiller set off upstream. Michael sped after him, glancing backward all the while.

The figure in black spoke more loudly and shook its fist. “You dare turn your back? To me? Revenge shall be mine.”

“We’ve got to get out of here before I puke,” said Dromhiller.

As Dromhiller and Michael vanished from sight, the figure screamed, “WE SHALL MEET AGAIN! AND WHEN WE DO… Oh screw it.”

And with that, it dashed the sword to the ground and stomped off in a huff.

When they reached the next area, the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly. It was larger than the previous areas, the hills lying further in the distance, and it was heavily forested. A well-trod path led into the woods from the river bank.

In silent agreement, they followed the path until they came to a clearing, in the centre of which was a large hole in the ground. Michael walked up to it and peered down. He could see nothing, but noted that it smelled vaguely of sulfur.

Dromhiller joined him, then grinned wickedly. “This is it!” he said.

“This is what?” Michael asked.

“What I’ve been waiting for. The reason I’m here.”

Looking at Michael’s blank face, Dromhiller added, “The dragon’s lair, of course. Now we just have to wait for it to emerge, then… chop!”

“Chop?” said a new voice, rich and deep.

Michael turned abruptly. Right behind them was the dragon. It was resting on the ground, its head tilted slightly, looking at them with large, curious eyes. With a gulp, Michael took a step backwards. Then another.

Dromhiller immediately rolled and in one smooth movement withdrew the sword and took a defensive stance.

The dragon yawned.

“Are you trying to intimidate me?” the dragon asked. “Because, honestly, I don’t feel very intimidated.”

“That’s because you’ve never faced a magical sword the likes of me,” said Dromhiller. He spun the sword in the air, faster and faster, causing it to glow more brightly and to sing dramatically.

“No, that’s still not doing it for me,” said the dragon.

“Nothing worse than a fucking lippy dragon,” Dromhiller muttered to Michael. “Those will be your last words, dragon!”

But before he could turn those words into action, a rock hit the back of his head.

“Ow,” said Dromiller, rubbing his head. “What the…?”

“Keep away from my dragon!” shouted the young woman who’d just emerged from the woods.

At the sound of a woman’s voice, Michael turned abruptly. But no, it wasn’t her. This woman had long, brown hair and wore a simple, beige dress tied at the waist with a sash.

“This dragon saved my life and is my friend,” she continued. “So please, sheathe your sword.”

Dromhiller blinked. “You’re saying this is a good dragon? Well, fuck me if this isn’t the most fucked up place I’ve ever seen.” And with a skeptical look at the dragon, Dromhiller reluctantly sheathed the sword.

Eyeing him carefully, the woman dropped the stone from her other hand. “I assume you’re the ones who brought us here,” she said.

Michael and Dromhiller glanced at each other. “No,” said Michael. “Afraid not. We’re looking for answers just like you. Since there’s a dragon here, I’m going to assume you were in a fantasy story as well?”

“That’s right,” she said. “It was kind of a story within a child’s story. The dragon was the only magical element. My name is Meribel.”

“Dromhiller, beautiful,” he grinned at her. “I’ll keep you safe, never you fear. And this here is Unicorn.” he added with a chortle.

“Michael, actually,” said Michael, searing Dromhiller with his stare.

“And I am called Dragon,” said the dragon.

“Well that’s a big fucking surprise, isn’t it?” said Dromhiller.

“I don’t think I’m going to like you very much,” Meribel said.

Michael tried to steer them back to the task at hand. “Is anyone else here with you?” he asked Meribel.

Meribel shook her head sadly. “No, just Dragon and me. I’ve looked within this enclosed area, but haven’t explored any further.”

Turning to the dragon and trying to swallow his nervousness, Michael asked, “Dragon, have you seen anyone else? I saw you flying about earlier.”

“There’s a dwelling in the next area upstream. I wasn’t able to tell if it was occupied or not.”

Meribel nodded and said, “Since we all have questions, I suggest we travel together to that dwelling. Perhaps the answers we seek lie there.”

Michael smiled.

“What is it?” Meribel asked.

“Are you sure your name isn’t Dorothy?” he said. “Because it would be great if it was. Then Dromhiller could be the Tin Man and I could be the Scarecrow. E pluribus unum and all that.”

Looking at Dromhiller, Meribel saw confusion on his face as well.

“Don’t worry,” said Dromhiller. “I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about either.”

“Not to worry,” said Michael. “Let’s go. We’re off to see the wizard.”

Dromhiller took the lead while Michael and Meribel walked side-by-side. Once they were out of the clearing, Dragon spread his wings and took flight.

“I’m not actually crazy,” Michael said to Meribel. “It’s just that this place makes no sense. It’s got me a bit giddy.”

“This is indeed a strange land,” Meribel said. “You need not apologize. I found myself here in a cabin identical to my own, but with neither my father nor Taar, my… friend. I was very distressed and was about to set out to seek them when I found you both with Dragon.”

“There’s no one else here from my life either,” Michael said. “When I first heard your voice, I thought you might be… someone that I knew. But of course you’re not. So, you lived out in the woods?”

“Yes, my father and I had a garden, and once a month I walked to the village with produce to trade.”

As they walked, Meribel and Michael discussed their previous lives until they reached the next area, once again bounded by the rocky hills that jutted to the edge of the river.

Upon entering the new area, all three stopped cold. This, Michael thought, has to be most beautiful, the most ornate mansion I’ve ever seen.

Between them and the building was a broad, marble terrace, spotted with white statues of nymphs, cherubs, lovers, and lions. There were rose bushes that clung to ornately carved columns, and pools adorned with marble urns and dotted with water lilies.

The  building itself, set on a hill above the terrace, and connected to it by a twisting staircase, consisted of several stories of some type of seamless white material with turrets at all four corners. Some four stories tall, there was almost too much detail to take in. Ornately carved decorations on the walls and columns gave Michael the sense that the building was a living, writhing thing. He shuddered at the thought.

Meribel was the first to speak. “I didn’t know it was possible to build such a place as this.”

“If there’s a sorcerer in this land, this is where we’ll find him,” Dromhiller said, drawing his sword.

But he’d scarcely taken a step when the ground shook violently, knocking all three of them off of their feet.

As he sat up, Michael started to say, “Well, that was…” but he fell silent before finishing his sentence.

Dromhiller, looking at his arms and legs and feeling his face, looked frantically back at Michael.

Michael blinked. Dromhiller had changed again and was now a non-human primate, some kind of chimpanzee, but about the same height as a man. Michael approached him cautiously.

“Dromhiller?” he said.

Dromhiller looked at him, then craned his neck upward and screeched, “Is this some kind of fucking joke?”

Michael turned to Meribel and noted the shock on her face. “Still the Dromhiller we know and love, then. He’s changed once before, but it wasn’t as drastic as this.”

To Dromhiller, Michael said, “You did refer to your wielder as a big ape before. I wonder if whoever brought us here took that to heart.”

“Are you trying to be funny?” Dromhiller asked, approaching Michael. “Because I’m not laughing.”

Backing away, Michael shook his head vigorously.

Dromhiller grunted then scooped up the sword, all the while muttering a string of expletives so foul that Meribel walked away, red-faced, holding her ears.

“Look,” said Michael. “Take it easy. I know you’re upset, but she’s not used to this kind of language. She was in a children’s story, remember?”

After taking a breath, Dromhiller said, “Fine. All I know is that whoever did this is going to be missing a few body parts by the time I’m through with him.”

“Look, both of you, Meribel said. “The palace. It’s vanished. I was looking at it and then it was gone.”

It was true. Now, in place of the expansive, ornate terrace, was a thickly populated forest. A broad path led from their position to a clearing and in the clearing Michael saw…

“Oh, God,” he said. “We can’t go there. We’ll die.”

“How can you know that?” said Meribel. “It’s just a cabin. Old and dilapidated, that’s all.”

“No,” said Michael, shaking his head. “It’s a cabin in the woods. It looks just like the ones I’ve seen in a hundred horror movies.”

Noting the blank looks on their faces, he clarified. “Stories. Stories meant to scare you. And in these stories, people go into a cabin just like this and get killed, one by one, by something horrible. I thought we were in a fantasy, but maybe it’s not. Maybe this is a horror story.”

“Perhaps you should both stay here,” Dromhiller said.

Then, placing a hand on the hilt of the sword, he started towards the cabin. But he’d scarcely gone ten paces when another violent quake struck. When the three travellers collected themselves, their surroundings had changed again.

They were lying on pavement. A street, Michael realized, as he got to his feet. Before them stood a house, a normal suburban two-story house with white siding, a paved driveway, and one-car garage. It was set off by a well-manicured lawn and shrubs. Steps from the side of the house led to a raised patio made of thick planks of cedar, beyond which was a large, in-ground swimming pool.

There was only the one house. The street ran parallel to the river and, other than the house, there was nothing but neatly cut grass all around them.

“What manner of dwelling is this?” Dromhiller asked.

“Where I come from,” said Michael, “this is a normal dwelling. A family would typically live in a house like this.”

They stood still, all waiting for another earthquake.

There was none.

Michael and Meribel followed Dromhiller to the front door. He was about to kick it in when Michael turned the knob and it opened. They explored the first and second floors, but found no occupants. Nor was there any furniture except in the sunroom at the back, where they found a chair, desk, and stacks of paper placed haphazardly on top.

Dromhiller raised his head and called out, “Show yourself, coward!”

There was no answer, just the echo of his voice off the bare walls. Dromhiller left in disgust.

Meribel picked up a sheaf of papers as Michael sank into the chair.

“Michael,” said Meribel. “Listen to this:

When Michael Rousseau realized that he was here, wherever here was, or rather, when he realized that he existed, his first question wasn’t “Where am I?” but “Which Michael am I?”.

“What?” said Michael, getting to his feet. He moved beside Meribel as she skimmed a few pages ahead.

“Here,” said Meribel. “There’s more:

“If you speak truly, and are not a wizard, and aren’t fucking me over, then how did we arrive in this fucking place?” the swordsman man asked.

“Beats me. I was hoping to find someone who could tell me. Maybe we could sort this out together?”

Meribel was blushing from the strong language. Michael’s eyes started to bulge. “That’s exactly what happened when I met Dromhiller,” he said. “What is this?”

Meribel looked at him. “It’s a story. Our story. It’s what’s happening to us right now.”

She skimmed a bit further then pointed out some writing in the margin: “Not a… beefcake. ” looking up at Michael, she said, “I don’t understand that expression.”

“This is where Dromhiller changed the first time. From really muscular, that’s what a beefcake is, to the way he looked when you met him.”

Michael took the papers from Meribel. “Let’s see what happens at the end.”

But before they could get that far, another earthquake struck, shaking the house wildly. Michael dropped the pages and they scattered about the room. With a sigh, Michael remembered that the pages hadn’t been numbered.

They were getting to their feet when Dromhiller’s voice rang through the house.


They looked at each other then dashed to the side door and stepped out onto the deck. Dromhiller was looking wide-eyed at his reflection in the pool.

Turning to Michael, he said, “Not one word. Not even one fucking word from you.”

But Michael couldn’t have spoken if he wanted to. He collapsed, helpless with laughter, holding his midsection and shaking.

Meribel just smiled at the creature. It resembled a small, white horse, with shining mane and tail. But it wasn’t a horse, for on its head was a long, brightly shining horn.

Nodding in understanding, Meribel said, “This is still a draft. Michael, this story, our story, its still a draft. That’s why things keep changing.”

Michael sat up and wiped his eyes while the unicorn stamped its feet and shook its head. Just then, Dragon, who’d been circling above, came down to land a few feet from Dromhiller.

“For what it’s worth,” Dragon said, “I think you look lovely.”

“No one asked you, you mangy, fire breathing fuck. Well, one thing’s for sure.”

“What’s that?” Michael asked. He’d come down from the patio towards Dromhiller, hoping to console him somehow.

“This story we’re in,” said Dromhiller. “It’s never going to get published now.”