Morph and Lenn both laughed and took out their wands. The wands were useless, just short staffs made of some black resin, an accessory all wizards, even those in training, carried as a matter of tradition. Lenn pointed hers at Mae and rotated the tip as if casting a spell.
“I’ll make the book leap from your hands,” Lenn said. “Oh, look, it worked!”
She and her companion laughed again, and Mae grabbed the fallen book, clutching it close in case they decided to take it.
“Keep your stupid book,” Lenn said, “but just remember that someday I’m sure you’ll discover something that we’ll find useful.”
She laughed again as she turned away, with Morph following. The two of them made hissing sounds and pointed their wands at Mae as they walked.
Mae’s face burned with rage and mortification. She had no way of fighting back, and suspected that was one reason why they continued to taunt her. She was small and quiet and they were both angry people who seemed to need someone to torture in order to gain a sense of worth. Mae had read about that sort of thing in another book.
Understanding didn’t help much. Their hatred, whatever its source, still wounded her, made her feel helpless and pathetic. She wished the teachers at the Wizard Tower would do something, but they either turned a blind eye or expected Mae to learn how to defend herself.
Maybe someday she would, someday she’d learn. For now, it cost her every last shred of energy to simply stand and continue down the corridor.
“The world is what you make it,” she said, something her mother had always told her, but she wasn’t really sure what it meant. She hadn’t made Lenn and Morph.
She halted in front of the door to the Master Mage’s study. This was her task, and nothing more.
The door knocker was shaped like the head of a dragon, and she grasped it and gave it one solid rap.
The door swung open.
The Master Mage, his turquoise robe spilling from his bony shoulders, stood behind his massive walnut desk and regarded Mae with a little enigmatic smile. She was never sure if he was being kindly or mocking. The desk in front of him was piled with crystals: amethyst, white quartz, black tourmaline, citrine, orange carnelian, and green aventurine. He was obsessed with the idea that they contained power and was determined to unlock that mystery.
Mae had read an ancient book that identified rocks and minerals but didn’t ascribe any magic or power to them. She felt compelled to reveal this knowledge, but knew better than to lecture the Master. But it was a struggle to keep her mouth shut.
“You’ve found something you deem important?” the Master said.
Mae placed the book on his desk. Its title was Skull Mountain: Orientation and Operations, and the author had the curious name of Gary Norton.
“I found this old book,” she said, “in the library. It explains a great deal about how the world worked before the Abandonment, and what made the wands work.”
“So, another Found Book?”
Found Books were volumes gleaned from the far corners of the world, lost books left behind after the Abandonment, when most of the world’s people had disappeared, supposedly leaving for another world through a magical portal. No one remaining knew or remembered why they had left, nor where they had gone.
“Yes, Master. It tells of an Oracle on Skull Mountain who can grant power to the wands, and a great many other things. The Oracle may even know what caused the Abandonment.”
She took a deep breath and adjusted her spectacles. Providing information made her excited, actually made her teeth chatter.
The Master Mage laid one bony hand on the cover of the book, but didn’t open it.
“Human frailty caused the Abandonment, I suspect,” he said, “and I’m afraid I’ve never heard of an oracle on Skull Mountain.”
“The book says there are tunnels and chambers under the mountain. Inside the mountain!”
The Master nodded.
“Interesting. That is an extraordinary claim uncorroborated by any other work.”
“As far as we know, Master! How many other Found Books may mention it, and are yet to be read?”
“Indeed, Miss Mae. A fair point. I’m sure, in time, you will read them all.”
Again, Mae was wasn’t sure if the Master was praising her or making fun.
“Very well,” the Master Mage added. “Time to stop reading and start doing. Wizards are expected to venture into the world and perform great deeds; this is a chance for you to show that you are so capable.”
Mae didn’t like the sound of that.
“Master, I thought I would present this to you, and you could read it, and form an expedition - ”
“Nonsense! You’ve read it. You believe it plausible? Then the only expedition you need is yourself, and perhaps a Swordwield for protection. I’ll send Danforth with you.”
Mae swallowed. Her heart had begun to pound.
“Skull Mountain is a curious place, a mountain in the shape of a human skull, but from what we know it’s nothing but a rock formation. If your book proves genuine, and not a work of fiction, you will discover if it’s something more. Thus you will perform a great deed and return here to write about it. This is a school, and this is the lesson I assign you.”
There was nothing Mae could say to that. She was a student, after all.
“That’s all, then,” said the Master. “You’ll leave in two days. More than enough time to prepare.”
Outside in the corridor, Mae leaned against the stone wall and felt the tears begin to pour from her eyes. She pulled off her spectacles and wiped her eyes with the back of a hand. To one side of the Master Mage’s study door was a large woven tapestry of the Six Kingdoms. Skull Mountain was dead centre.
The world was a terrible place, Mae thought, terrible and dangerous. She didn’t want to make a journey beyond the walls of the Wizard Tower. She liked the library, she liked quiet. She didn’t like risk or danger. And she was afraid.
Mae and Danforth set out on a clear spring morning. The Wizard Tower, which was really a complex of several buildings, rose dark behind them. The road stretched ahead. Skull Mountain lay on the eastern border of the Kingdom of Arvenia, just a few days’ march away, but the route was perilous, as all routes in the Six Kingdoms were, taking them close to landmarks such as the Forest of Night (they swung south to avoid it), the Teeth of Vandrax (an ancient and cursed ring of stones), the Gate of Madness (a ruined and haunted castle) and the Bridge of Doom (a rickety span crossing a gorge filled with mysterious mist).
“Hey, this will be great fun,” Danforth said on their first day. “It’s an actual quest! And you shouldn’t worry. I’m descended from an unbroken line of Treegan swordsmen, going back two thousand years, and am handy with this thing.”
He slapped the hilt of the three-foot broadsword that dangled from his left hip. Another sword hung from his back, tied to his pack. Mae liked him and found his presence reassuring. He was big, over six feet tall, with dark hair and merry blue eyes. He never seemed to stop grinning and looking interested in everything around him.
Mae thought she would have been enthusiastic as well if she wasn’t spending every waking minute dealing with her constant gnawing dread. She kept thinking of her poor parents, who would receive a letter from the Master Mage in the event of her failure and death. They would be heartbroken. They expected great things from her. She was their “golden” child, the one who deserved to go to the greatest school in the world, and not simply become wool merchants like them, and her like brothers.
“Hey, try to enjoy yourself,” Danforth said during supper on their third evening, when they’d stopped for the night at a roadside inn called the Lumbering Oxen. “Have a pint with your pie. The beer here is good.”
Mae had no appetite and picked at her food. The world is what you make it, she reminded herself. She knew she should try to learn something from this journey, and there was the exciting prospect of what she would actually discover at Skull Mountain.
But that didn’t make the fear go away.
The next day the road east became little more than an overgrown track of half-sunken paving stones. There would be no more inns between here and the mountain, nor were there any farms or signs of civilization, the trees growing thick and close, hardwoods still bare from winter, mixed with pine and fir and spruce.
“We can camp,” Danforth said. “Hey, I can build a shelter!”
Mae grimaced. Sleeping in a shelter sounded like misery.
“I’m glad that makes you happy,” she said, just as several tall figures, each clad in gleaming plate armour, stepped out of the forest and formed a line across the road.
Mae skidded to a stop, mouth open. There were six of them, all with drawn swords. Within the open visors of their helmets, Mae saw nothing but grinning skulls, withered flesh stretched across dull bone.
With a shriek, she ran into the woods and pressed herself against the thickest spruce she could find. Her wand was in her hand, but grabbing it was just automatic, and pointless. She had once found a book, a manual of sorts, explaining how the wands worked, but only when they had power.
Danforth had stayed in the road. The sounds of grunts and metal striking metal told Mae that he’d engaged the skeletal knights, but Mae could not imagine him defeating them all. What would she do if he was killed?
The sounds of combat ceased.
“It’s alright, Miss Mae,” Danforth said. “I’m victorious, as usual!”
Mae peeked around the tree. Danforth was just sheathing his sword. The knights lay on the ground in a circle at his feet. Several were in pieces.
Mae gawped in amazement.
“These things and other dangerous creatures roam the countryside,” Danforth explained. “We Swordwields keep fighting them, and more keep appearing, almost as if they’re some kind of test, and yet, I find they’re no match for me.”
Danforth’s proven prowess with a blade was reassuring, but Mae couldn’t help focusing on the possibility of more skull warriors, or goblins or some other vile and murderous creatures, appearing from the forest. That night she shivered as she huddled in her one blanket, though not from cold. Danforth had been true to his word and built a stout lean-to and made a fire, but Mae couldn’t imagine sleeping, so took out her wand and examined its various buttons, tabs and moveable rings, each with a specific function, or functions in combination, according to the manual.
“Hey, do you see that?” Danforth asked. He was keeping watch, and now he pointed back the way they’d come.
Mae saw a distant flicker of orange light, like the glimmer of another campfire. She stared at it for several minutes, trying to understand what it could mean.
“Other travellers?” she said. “Or is someone following us?”
It was obvious from the state of the road that travellers seldom, if ever, came this way.
Danforth drew his sword. “I should go and see them off!”
Mae shook her head. “No, wait! Why don’t we just get moving now? We can keep our fire going so they think we’re still here.”
Danforth gave her a sly grin. “Hey, that’s very clever!”
Mae felt a little proud of herself, even as she knew that she was just trying to get away from whoever or whatever had lit that other fire.
They continued walking until dawn, then rested and ate their road rations before continuing. Mae moved in a daze of fatigue, forcing her legs to keep going and glancing back over her shoulder every few minutes. She knew she was slowing Danforth down, but he never complained.
They camped on top of a stone outcrop that night, in a thinner section of forest, and saw no sign of another fire.
In the morning, they came within sight of Skull Mountain.
It stood alone, dominating its flat surroundings, a broad-based cone, its bottom two-thirds covered in fir and spruce, its crown of bare rock shaped exactly like a human skull. The black eye sockets faced due west, and seemed to stare at Mae.
She was too awe-struck to be frightened.
“It can’t be natural,” she murmured. “It’s too perfect.”
The road continued to the foot of the mountain, and then became a series of switchbacks, climbing through the forest. Mae’s pace became a plod, and she had to keep stopping to drink from her water bottle, but the mountain called to her and urged her onward. Maybe this quest hadn’t been mere misery, but would actually succeed. She would speak to the Oracle, find out what had caused the Abandonment, and restore the power of the wands. All today!
Her fear had become a jangling excitement.
The sun was halfway to zenith when they came to the base of the rock skull and stood beneath the massive jaw with its row of granite teeth.
“It’s just a sheer wall,” Mae said.
Somewhere in that wall was a door. She consulted the book, placing it on the grass and turning to the relevant passage.
“There are five entrances, one on top of the dome, and four at the base. The tunnels inside are divided into the Adventure Centre and the Control Centre. Oracle resides in the Control Centre.”
“What does it mean by ‘adventure centre?’” Danforth asked.
“A place where you play games and pretend… pretend to be on a quest.”
She faltered. Why would there be such a thing inside Skull Mountain? Why pretend to do something you could do for real?
She’d read that passage before, but hadn’t given it much thought. Now it produced a new anxiety.
She sighed in frustration. She was sick of these fears.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so scared,” she said to Danforth. “I like to know things, to figure things out. I want to be a good wizard, but sometimes actually doing things I find hard…”
“Hey, you showed courage in coming here,” Danforth said. “You only ran when we faced the skull warriors, but that was good sense. You’re no Swordwield, and whatever magic you know is that of a student.”
“Thanks, Dan,” she said.
She could see the truth in what he said, and her nerves actually settled a bit. She hadn’t done badly, over all.
“But there may be another reason to be alarmed,” Danforth continued, pointing to the west. “Look down there!”
Mae raised her spectacles, which weren’t much good for seeing far distances. The view to the west was spectacular, the trace of the old road clear through the rugged wilderness. Two human figures were on the road and nearing the base of the mountain.
Danforth shaded his eyes.
“Just two of them, and I don’t see any signs of arms or armour. Maybe nothing to worry about, Miss Mae.”
“We have to get into the skull,” Mae said.
Grabbing the book, she walked along the base of the vast jaw, past the rows of lower teeth until she came to the middle.
“There are five rotating passwords,” she said, “so I’ll try them all. “Dragonbreath!’”
“’Realm of Wonder!’”
“’Merlin and Arthur!’”
A dark rectangular outline appeared in the lower section of the massive teeth. The outlined slab of stone retreated, then slid to the side, revealing a small white chamber lit from some unknown source.
“Not very big,” said Danforth.
“Never mind. Let’s go!”
The door slid shut behind them. The room wasn’t much larger than a closet.
“Welcome to Skull Mountain,” said a woman’s voice, seeming to emanate from the air.
“Please state your destination,” the voice added.
“Are you the Oracle?” Mae said.
“Please state your destination,” the voice repeated.
“The Control Centre,” Mae said, forcing some decisiveness into her tone.
The floor gave a slight lurch, and blue lights scrolled along a rectangular panel in the wall.
“Hey, we’re moving,” said Danforth.
The sensation didn’t last, and within a few seconds the door slid open.
The forested mountain slope was gone. Mae stepped into a cavernous room, the largest room she’d ever seen. It was domed, circular, with a balcony around its circumference, rows of tables or desks below, and chairs covered in dark fabric.
“Just as the book described,” she murmured.
“This is a very strange place,” said Danforth. “Where does this light hale from?”
“Those plates in the ceiling,” Mae said, pointing.
Small flights of steps led from the balcony to the lower floor. Mae went down and positioned herself in the center of the room.
She took a deep breath.
“Oracle?” she said.
“Welcome to Skull Mountain,” said another pleasant woman’s voice. “I’m Oracle. How can I help?”
Like the tiny room, the voice seemed to come from everywhere, but there was no sign of the speaker.
“Where are you?” Mae said.
“I’m an integral element of the Skull Mountain operating system,” said the Oracle, “and your primary information interface. How can I help?”
Mae looked at Danforth, who had come down to stand with her.
“Hey, this is what you came for,” he said, grinning.
It was. Mae’s heart began to race, and she suddenly felt light-headed. Stumbling to the nearest chair, she dropped onto the seat. The chair was soft and comfortable and turned on a pivot.
Mae closed her eyes and took deep breaths, something she did when she was overwhelmed, and after a few minutes started to feel better.
“Oracle, my name is Mae,” she said, “and I’ve come from the Wizard Tower to ask you some questions.”
“I’m happy to answer your questions!” the Oracle said, sounding very cheerful.
“Thank you. I would like to know where everyone went during the Abandonment.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that term.”
Mae adjusted her spectacles. This wasn’t a promising start.
“Perhaps you could rephrase?” the Oracle suggested.
“Of course. Maybe you don’t use that term for it? Where did all the people go, when they left the world two hundred years ago?”
“Two standard centuries ago, the majority of the population of this planet was forced to evacuate upon a ruling of bankruptcy filed against the Far-faraway Corporation by the Third Interstellar Court. The ruling took place on January fifteenth, twenty-three fifty-one. Approximately six percent of the population elected to remain, though without the support of their employers.”
This answer made little sense to Mae, and only raised more questions.
“Uh… but where did they go?”
“The employees of the Far-faraway Corporation returned to the planet Earth, the homeworld of the human race.”
Mae began to sense the same excitement she felt upon encountering a Found Book in the library, and learning its secrets.
“But Oracle, I thought this was the homeworld of the human race?”
“This world is designated Exoplanet EI3, colloquially known as Brown’s World or Darkhaven. It was discovered on August fourth, twenty-eighty-seven, and first settled and developed by the Far-faraway Corporation in twenty-three-nineteen as home of the World of Fantasy.”
Mae shook her head.
“Settled and developed? Wait, how long ago was that?”
“Two-hundred and forty standard years, or two hundred and twelve planetary sols or years.”
But civilization, Mae wanted to say, was thousands of years old.
“Were there people here before? And what’s this World of Fantasy?”
“I’ll gladly answer both your questions. First Question: Exoplanet EI3 was not inhabited by intelligent life prior to its development by the Far-faraway Corporation. Second Question: World of Fantasy is the largest theme park ever constructed, encompassing the entire planet of EI3, and representing a ground-breaking concept in adventure tourism and live action role playing. The planet Darkhaven is home to a completely immersive and realistic world of wizards and heroes, thieves and outlaws, dragons and other magical beasts, and with the added feature of authentic danger and real risk of injury or even death.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Mae said.
The Oracle was making too many unfamiliar references.
“What was the Far-faraway … Corporation?” Mae tried.
“The Far-Faraway Corporation was the developer, owner and operator of World of Fantasy.”
“And… you’re saying they owned this whole world?”
“Correct. The planet is currently the property of the Offworld Banking Association.”
Mae looked at Danforth, but he just smiled. He either wasn’t listening, or had understood even less of what Oracle had said than she. Or he simply didn’t believe it.
“I know what bankruptcy means,” Mae said. It was something her parents had long feared. “So you’re telling me a merchant once owned the world, and all of the people worked for the merchant until the merchant went bankrupt. Then the people left for – Earth, was it? – except for some. And all of the people here now are descended from the people who stayed?”
“I’m afraid I have no information on the current state of the planetary population.”
Mae nodded. Of course, the Oracle lived alone here in the mountain, maybe waiting for the return of this Far-faraway Corporation.
“Shouldn’t you ask about the wands?” said Danforth.
Of course, the wands had been Mae’s real reason for coming… but there was so much she needed to ask.
“Dan, how long do you think we can stay here?”
“Not long, Miss. We used more than half of our road rations since we left the last inn behind. We’ll need to start back at once, or starve. We hadn’t planned a lengthy stay, if you recall, you wished to return to the Tower as soon as possible. I think you should ask about the wands now.”
“Then we’ll have to come back,” she said.
The wizards of the Tower needed to know these things. They needed to come here and speak to the Oracle. They needed to know that the world wasn’t necessarily what they thought.
But, of course, Mae discovered that to be true every time she read a Found Book.
She adjusted her spectacles.
“Okay,” she said, “Oracle, can you restore power to the wizard’s wands?”
“Solar super-capacitors are currently at one-hundred percent. Full power is available.”
“I… okay, can you please restore power to the wands now?”
“Authorization is required for activation.”
“That’s in the book!”
Mae set the book on one of the tables and searched for the relevant passage. There was a special group of words, like a password.
“Administrator zero zero one,” she said.
“Authorization granted. Activating power to wands.”
Mae’s wand was in her pocket. Taking it out, she held it in her hand and gasped. Tiny blue lights sparkled along its length, like dancing starlight.
“I think it worked!” said Mae.
“It’s my pleasure to be of assistance,” said Oracle.
Mae stared at her wand. She realized that she’d done it, she’d finished her quest. If her wand was functioning, then all of the wands must also be functioning. They’d know of her success back at the Tower. They’d know that she’d done this wonderful thing.
All of her fears and worries had been pointless.
“We should have a quick bite of biscuit,” Danforth said, “and begin back while we have half a day of light. I don’t suggest we tarry much longer.”
Mae sighed. Now that she was here, it wasn’t enough time, but it was all she’d planned for.
“Okay. We’ll eat and then we’ll go.”
“We must be vigilant,” Danforth said as they emerged from the door in the tooth. “Our pursuers may be waiting for us.”
Mae looked at him in alarm. She’d forgotten about the two people on the road.
Just then a lightning bolt struck Danforth’s chest and threw him to the ground. He rolled and slapped at his clothes, crying, “Hey, what in blazes?”
“See?” said a familiar voice. “I told you they were working!”
Lenn and Morph stood just at the edge of the trees. Mae froze when she saw them, just as she always did. She should have run to Danforth’s side, to make sure he was all right, but she couldn’t. Her legs felt rooted.
“Well, well,” said Lenn, coming closer. Both she and Morph held their wands aloft, the tips pointed at Mae. “Looks like you did find something useful in that book.”
“Why are you here?” Mae said, choking out the words.
Lenn and Morph exchanged glances.
“We wanted that book,” Lenn said. “We discussed it and decided it was probably something important, if it took you to the Master’s study. And we listened outside the door.”
“So give us the book,” he said, shaking his wand. “We’ll take it and also credit for whatever you’ve done here, and you can go back to the Tower empty-handed.”
Mae reached into her pack. The movement was automatic, to obey her tormentors so they would go away. But instead of finding the spine of the book, her hand settled on the handle of her wand.
Danforth had been rolling on the ground, but at last he stopped. He looked at Mae and tried to smile, but it was more of a grimace. He seemed dazed and possibly hurt, and Mae knew he wouldn’t be any help this time.
She’d have to fight.
Her lips trembled. She had never had a means to fight these two before, but now, she realized, she did.
She had knowledge.
Pointing her wand, she pressed three tabs in sequence. With a blue flash, both Lenn and Morph’s wands turned to splinters.
They both howled in surprise and jumped back, grasping their injured hands.
“Did you know wands could do that?” Mae said. “Destroy other wands? Of course not, otherwise you’d have been able to stop me.”
She took a step toward Lenn, holding her wand like a sword.
Lenn took several shuffling steps back. Mae saw shock and fear in her eyes.
“Keep away, you little worm!” she said.
“That’s right,” Mae said, “I’m a bookworm, which is how I know things. I also know what you’re going to do now. You’re going to leave here and run back to the Tower. Run all the way, or I’ll show you a few other tricks!”
Morph turned and ran first, barreling down the slope and into the trees.
“Wait!” Lenn cried.
She ran after him.
Danforth struggled to his feet.
“Well, you didn’t need me!” he said.
Mae was shaking, and for some reason tears started running down her cheeks, but Danforth was right. She’d finally faced her tormenters, and beaten them.
She let out a laugh that was half sob. Below, through a gap in the trees, she spied Lenn and Morph still running.
“Let’s just give them a head start,” she said. “I don’t want to see them again on the road back.”
They sat on the grass, the great stone skull at their backs, gazing at the sky and the view. Danforth seemed to have recovered from Lenn and Morph’s attack, and after a while he said, “There’s something I wanted to mention. I’m no wizard or scholar, but it seemed to me the Oracle told us that the world is young, and was built as a kind of giant game for the amusement of others, and somehow we forgot this. Maybe the folks who didn’t leave during the Abandonment were too busy trying to survive? I don’t know. You see, all my life, I’ve been led to believe that I’m descended from an unbroken line of Treegan swordsmen, and now it seems that may have just been a story.”
So he’d been listening after all.
“We’ll find out, Dan,” Mae said. “We’ll learn more. There’ll be more Found Books, more trips back here to speak to the Oracle, to discover who she really is.”
“So then, who and what am I, then? Really?”
“You’re a hero who helped me get here.”
She took hold of the leather sleeve of his coat.
“Remember something,” she added. “It’s something my mother always tried to tell me. Even if someone built the world for their own reasons, we’re here now, and it’s ours. It’s up to us to keep building it, and to make it better.”
That’s what the saying meant.
She adjusted her spectacles, then tucked her wand into her pack.