Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Eleven: A Chain of Worlds
“. . . hell are you doing here?” I finish once we reassemble. But when my mouth runs out of momentum, I snap it shut, because I can’t think of a single thing to say.
The bubble is still there, or maybe it’s re-there—shimmering, oscillating like it was before whatever just happened to us happened—and the air between my friends and I looks vague and pinkish.
Then the air contracts with an uncomfortable popping sound that echoes all around me, as if a bottle of champagne has just been uncorked behind each eardrum. I squeeze my eyes shut against it, jamming the meat of my palms against my ears.
When I realize the pain is gone, I open my eyes.
The pink haze is gone, too. The bubble is gone. The air is suddenly too clear, sounds too harsh, and only now do I realize the dampening effect the bubble had had on us.
My eyes lock onto Bradley, my creepy clingy, undo soon-to-be-very ex-boyfriend. His mouth is dangling open, but he’s not looking at me. He’s looking past my head, in the direction of where I’d parked my car, and one hand is gripping his shock of black hair in an almost Tristan way.
His eyes are still round, maybe even rounder, but the guilt I’d just seen in his eyes has been replaced by something new. Something I’m not totally sure I want to investigate the cause of. Because, if the horror slowly contorting his face is any indication, I am at the very least not going to like it very much. But I take a deep breath and a long, protracted blink, then turn around slowly to check on my car.
There is no car. That’s my first thought, and it’s a pretty logical one: my car is gone.
But there is no road, either, and also no street lamps, curbs, or carefully pruned trees. The two houses ordinarily visible from the backyard of No Dragons Press are—and I think I’m starting to catch the pattern here—also gone.
This is when a not-insignificant part of me begins to suspect I may never have another logical thought again.
I take a deep breath. Then, I turn back around to look at the No Dragons Press building that Duc, Nate, Tristan, and I had all run out of just moments before.
Which is gone. Surprise.
“Tristan,” I breathe. “What did you do?”
When I turn to look at him, I immediately I wish I hadn’t. He looks absolutely, dismally terrified.
“I . . . I don’t know, exactly.”
And there it is: Tristan—boy genius, literary detective, and amateur time-travel mechanic—doesn’t know what he did exactly. I mentally wave goodbye as the final fiber of logic holding my reality together shudders, snaps, and fucks off, leaving me to my own devices.
I close my eyes. “Tristan,” I tell him in as even a voice as I can. “My car is gone.” If I can focus on that first, if I have a chance to anchor myself to that fact, I won’t panic. Cars go missing all the time. Commonplace, really. “Where’s my car, Tristan? What happened to my car?”
I don’t like what’s happening to my voice. It’s rising like a balloon with every syllable, becoming thinner, reedier in my ears, as if I’m breathing helium. As if the atmosphere is full of it. I’m choking on it; there isn’t enough oxygen here. Or there’s too much, and it’s engulfing me, overwhelming me, forcing my lungs open beyond a comfortable capacity.
When Tristan says nothing, I open my eyes to see him looking somewhere between confident and bewildered, blinking largely behind his frames. One hand lifts in the air, about to leap into a three-dimensional presentation of the facts, but it stills, as if it forgot what it was doing.
“I connected the ends,” Tristan finally says by way of explanation.
Because that helps.
I throw my hands into the air in a way the expression very accurately portrays and turn to Duc, appealing for help—but Duc is looking at Tristan with something like . . . awe?
I spin back to Tristan. “But what does that mean, Tristan? What did you do to us?” My missing car can’t save me now—I’m spinning out of control. Someone has cut the tethers and I’m floating, floating away. “What are we going to do? How will we—”
But when the look on Tristan’s face finally cuts through my rampage, I clamp my mouth shut against the tirade pouring through it. His entire body is a cringe, as if he’s waiting for me to hit him. I feel like a monster. I feel like an idiot. I feel like I might explode.
I breathe in, out. In, out.
“Tristan,” I try again. “How is it that three minutes ago we were standing outside No Dragons Press looking at a weird pile of metal, and now we’re standing here on a giant rock? Without the pile of metal?”
But Tristan isn’t listening. He’s looking around, his face a complex formula of elation, confusion, and joy, at the trees surrounding us and the sky above us and the grass underneath us.
Then, to my right, a calm voice says, “What happened, Tristan?”
It’s Nate, routing the conversation in a more productive direction. Did I mention I feel like an idiot? (Did I also mention how very glad I am that Nate came with us?)
I send Tristan a sheepish smile, letting him know I’m done losing it—which may or may not be the case, but confidence is everything—and he visibly relaxes. His forgotten hand, suspended in midair, resumes its course. “I think . . . I think I created a portal.”
“To where?” Bradley says.
I whirl on him, spear him with what I’m hoping is a stony glare, and seethe. “You,” I growl. “Why are you here?” While a head-on collision isn’t usually my style, dealing with Bradley’s abrupt arrival and apparently not-so-imminent departure is a hell of a lot easier than dealing with whatever happened to Madison Street. “Speak,” I demand.
My anger flares when I recognize the look on his face—that infuriatingly calm expression that says he has no intention of letting me draw him out. He’s not a total idiot, I’ll give him that. He knows when anything he says will count against him.
“Addie,” someone says gently. Duc. “Maybe now isn’t the—”
“No,” I say, sweeping his words away with an angry arm and marching the few steps toward Bradley, almost lunging at him. I feel like I’m spinning again, but this time it feels pretty good, almost like . . . relief. “Were you following me?” When I fled from the bar to the No Dragons Press building—had that really only been a few hours ago?—I’d taken all the evasive maneuvers I could think of. I’d even lost myself once or twice. If Bradley had managed to tail me all over town, that makes either him a master spy or me a terrible mark. Or both.
“So did you follow me from the bar, or were you just waiting outside the Press until I showed up at some point?”
I’m furious; I see nothing but my fury. I hadn’t actually seen Bradley in person since before the Giant Asshole Soldier incident—a scheduled break-up chat seems slightly less crucial when your day is interrupted by a gun-wielding maniac and friends—but following me like a total creep and crashing the unscheduled office time warp was not an excellent way to smooth things over between us.
His expression turns sad, defeated, but he doesn’t deny either of my accusations. “I was worried about you, Addie.”
Then, I catch a glimpse of Nate. He is studying Bradley shrewdly, a look of determination gleaming from somewhere underneath, along with something else. Possibly . . . rage?
Well, this is interesting.
Then Duc is standing between Bradley and me, giving me the eyebrows he uses to pull Tristan back into lower orbit, and it’s at this point I realize my hands are so tightly balled into fists I’m jamming my fingernails into the flesh of my hands.
The calm, cool, appraising look on Duc’s face is like a lifeline, and I’m able to use it to steady myself until I’ve got my footing. Anyway, intense rage isn’t helping with any of our actual problems, least of all making Bradley go away, so I dial it back to a low simmer for now.
But I’m not about to give it up entirely. Like my missing car, rage is a pretty good distraction from the immensity of what has just happened. An anchor to sanity. Plus, it seems to be fantastic armor against that sad lost puppy thing he does.
Funny I’ve never tried it before.
Welcome to the dark side, asshole.
“Tristan?” Nate prompts, stepping in again. “Where’d we go?”
“Here, I think,” Tristan says. When I snap my narrowed eyes from Bradley to Tristan, probably splattering him with spillover rage, he quickly adds, “I mean, as opposed to somewhere else. Like another, you know, planet or something. We’re still here, we just . . . shifted.”
“Like . . . time travel?” I venture.
I’m trying very hard to keep the skepticism out of my voice, but I must not be doing a very good job, because Duc sends me a little frown.
Tristan shakes his head, but slowly. “Not exactly . . . more like dimensional travel.”
“You mean we’re in a parallel universe?”
This time I don’t even bother trying to hide my incredulity. Duc did say my theory about dragons and multiverses had given Tristan an idea, but this? Although, in retrospect, when a guy rigs together an entire pawn shop’s worth of electronics from pieced-together secret messages only he can decode, I guess it makes as much sense as anything else.
But if Tristan notices my tone, he doesn’t show it. “Not exactly . . . parallel implies even lines, continuity. This is more . . . circular. Like a loop.”
“A closed time-like loop?” I say without thinking, not because I think that has anything to do with it, but because I think I read the term in a physics book once, and because when I get anxious I tend to engage in this sort of verbal dominoes. And right now, anxious only begins to describe it.
“Not exactly,” Tristan responds firmly.
Okay, clearly straying from the point. “Sorry,” I mumble under my breath, suddenly very aware of the range of odd looks being directed at me.
“No,” he continues, “I think we’re in a . . . sort of a chain of worlds, and we’ve moved to the next link.”
A chain of worlds.
I shiver, despite the warmth of the afternoon. Despite how completely bonkers the idea is. For some reason, I’d assumed he’d built some sort of transporter technology, taken us somewhere else. (Because that’s any more plausible, right? I watch a lot of Star Trek. Sue me.) But a new world? A chain of them? What the actual—
Nate clears his throat. “Uh, Tristan? Looks a lot like our world to me.”
We look around. It certainly does look like our world: trees, rock, sky—all those, you know, worldly things. I can’t swear the air isn’t a touch thicker, richer than what I’m used to (results from a stealthy lungful are inconclusive). But then we are standing in the middle of a grassy meadow next to a thick tangle of woods that would make Tolkein poop himself. Which my little town of Myrick definitely doesn’t look like anymore, if it ever did.
“So . . . how do we get home?”
Without hesitation, Tristan turns and angles his arm in the direction of the northern portion of the forest. He holds his arm absolutely straight, like a statue, and the certainty in his voice is unmistakable.
“We go that way.”
I frown. “Let me get this straight: you don’t know how your portal got us here.”
He shakes his head.
“But that”—I angle my own arm—“is the right direction.”
He nods, looking a little more confident.
“Is it another portal?”
Tristan shrugs, looking a little less confident.
“You don’t know.”
“Maybe that’s where we’ll find more parts,” Duc offers, “and he’ll be able to build a new one.”
Tristan looks hopeful and doubtful all at once, which I’ve only ever seen Tristan manage.
When no one adds any insight to this, I cast my gaze around us at the wild, pristine wilderness, tangled with trees and thick with vines and bursting with grasses and conspicuously devoid of man-made objects of any kind. As I look in the direction Tristan had pointed, trying to peer into the sprawling, wild, nearly impassible terrain, I consider Duc’s words.
I blow out the breath I’d been holding, suck in another, then turn to face the only four people I know in the entire world.
“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that.”