Trying again on Chapter One… (This would come before the the scene with Victoria in the woods.)
Chapter One: The Dreamers Whose Dreams Come True
“The evil magician won’t help us. We have to save the world by ourselves,” Bernard announced. He breathed in the stew-laden air and rubbed his hands together. “But first…let’s have dinner.”
Bernard strode to where Victoria Woods sat on her backpack at the foot of a great redwood. His voluminous cosplay cloak billowed in the mountain breeze, revealing glimpses of his t-shirt and jeans beneath.
Rising, Victoria stepped around the freeze-dried stew bubbling on Bernard’s propane stove to greet him, but Freki beat her to it. The big black dog had lunged to the end of his lead, where he barked ferociously. The moment Bernard was within range, Freki leapt up and repeatedly licked his master’s face.
“Yuck! Freki!” Bernard laughed.
He bent down and rubbed foreheads, so that his black curls blended into the large dog’s shaggy coat. Only once Freki had calmed down and was sitting happily upon his master’s foot, did Bernard, belatedly give Victoria a friendly hug.
Bernard Starr was not tall, and the muscle from his high school wrestling days was turning to flab. Yet, his dark wavy hair and smooth olive complexion gave him a charm that still drew feminine attention, though not from Victoria. She had known him since they were both in kindergarten; he might has well be her brother.
Behind Bernard, Thomas Fairweather rounded one of the huge trunks. He was tall, slender, and dressed totally inappropriately for hiking. Under his fedora and trench coat, he wore a pinstriped Oxford shirt with a tie, gray slacks, and loafers. Loafers to hike through Sequoia National Forest. Victoria shook her head, certain he would soon have blisters.
Thomas joined them and stood leaning on his bronze-handled cane. The grip sported the head of an eagle, and Victoria knew there was a sword hidden inside, but he had never sharpened it. Thomas did everything with an elegant style, yet there was a touch of the ridiculous about him. The absurdity of his affectations amused Victoria, but it also made him seem more dear. He, too, was like a brother. Both men treated her like “one of the guys,” which suited Victoria just fine, as neither of her two friends was the right man for her.
As a child, Victoria had vowed she would find true love, and she was determined to remain true to this promise, no matter how many times she might stumble along the way.
“Victoria, you made it!” Thomas glanced around at the enormous redwoods and the clearing beyond. “We are in the middle of Sequoia National Forest. How did you find us?”
“With this.” She grinned and held up the GPS unit she had borrowed from her father. “And, when that failed, with this.” She waved her orienteering compass through the air.
“The wonders of modern technology,” Thomas stated wryly.
“And, in then end,” she continued, “because you guys weren’t anywhere near where Bernard’s message said you would be – I shouted until Freki barked back.”
“See, I told these guys you would come in handy!” Bernard chucked the dog underthe chin. “As if I would go camping without my favorite pooch.”
She stepped over and hugged Thomas as well. He took it stiffly, as always, though he did smile awkwardly as he gave her a return squeeze. It had been nearly a year since she had seen either of them, as Bernard went to a different college, and Thomas was now in law school. She was thoroughly delighted to see them again.
“What’s this about the Archmage?” Victoria asked excitedly. “You’ve already been to see him? He really exists?”
“Oh, Lessingham exists all right!” Bernard exclaimed.
“You were right about that.” Thomas admitted.
“After all these years of imagining…” her eyes glittered with wonder. “Did he look the way Bernard described him? Oh! Why didn’t you wait for me?”
“We didn’t know if you were going to make it,” Thomas stated. “The fate of the earth is at stake.”
“What happened?” Victoria asked eagerly. The idea that she had missed it was excruciating.
“Lessingham was not interested in saving the world,” Thomas said.
“Not interested!” She objected. “Doesn’t he live here, too?”
“Bernard shrugged. “He said he doesn’t care whether the mortals are conquered or not, and if the sun goes out, he’ll just move somewhere else.”
“Somewhere…that’s not the earth?” Victoria’s heart leapt.
“Yeah,” Bernard said, but his voice did not hold the ring of enthusiasm she expected. “But we don’t get to go.”
“Or rather, he said we were welcome to leave,” Thomas stated, “if we could find our own way out.”
“He’s supposed to be our Archmage!” Bernard sat down and ruffled his dog’s ears, his voice resentful. “He’s supposed to help!”
“Oh, that’s too bad.” Victoria’s hopes faded, leaving a dull ache where her enthusiasm had been. This had been her plan – to find the Archmage and get him to solve the world’s current problem. It was gut wrenching to have it fail.
“Yeah, it sucks,” Bernard sniffed the stew. “Mmm. So…what’s for dinner?”
* * *
“If we did not thank you for preparing food, I’d like to do so now,” Thomas stated as he finished off his bread and beef stew. The three of them sat cross-legged upon the pine needles, their camping kits spread out around them.
“You are welcome.” Victoria inclined her head, pleased. The stew smelled good, but she did not eat meat. She made do with a cheese sandwich. “So…what now?”
“Now we go home,” Thomas replied. He had been reading a paperback while they ate. He closed the book and stuck it in his back pocket. “Unless the two of you want to finish your original camping trip. There’s nothing else to do.”
Victoria glanced from one man to the other. “But…what about: ‘We have to save the world ourselves?’”
“I just said that to cheer you up, but, idea-wise, I got nothing.” Bernard took a large bite of bread but kept speaking regardless, with the result that neither Victoria nor Thomas could understand his subsequent words. He tossed Freki another milk bone from a bag in his backpack. The dog caught it joyfully and ran off behind the men’s tent to enjoy it.
“There must be something we can do!” Victoria objected. “Guys, the earth is at stake! Thomas, you told me Lessingham was an imaginary character who existed only in stories written by Bernard! Well, Lessingham’s not imaginary, is he? You just spoke to him!”
“I admit I was wrong about that.” Thomas put his bowl down.
Bernard took a sip from his canteen, clearing his mouth. “She’s right. She’s been telling you for two weeks that the creature that devastated our troops at the Battle of Virginia – the dragon-thing that is now wrapped around the Washington Monument – was one of the Dread Space Leviathans from your “Conquered Stars” stories. And you kept telling her that it was coincidence; that our stories were not coming true; that she was drawing analogies where none existed.” He added sheepishly, “To be honest, I didn’t believe her either. I thought she’d gone bonkers.” He finished fondly. Leaning over, he rubbed Victoria’s head as if she were the dog.
“I take it back,” Thomas said. “ There is something we can do. We can write down everything we know – print out what we have of our various half-written manuscripts – and turn it all over to the new Department of Supernatural Affairs. We should not be the only people who know this information.”
“Oh, no!” Bernard shied, “Not unless a lot of other people’s stories start coming true! I don’t want the government dissecting me!”
“Look, I have nothing against sharing what we know,” Victoria argued, “but I want to have a part in all this, too. I don’t want just to be left sitting around.”
“Contributing knowledge is doing something,” Thomas stated.
“But it’s not the same as being there.” Victorian continued. “I want to meet the magicians and smell the dragon! When I was a child I used to hear about some disaster or World War Two, and I would think: ‘If only I could have been there. I would have been brave enough to run into that burning house and save the baby! I would have stood up to the Nazis!’ Well, this is my chance! And I don’t want to miss it!”
“This is not about you, Victoria,” Thomas stated. “This is about doing our duty in a time of crisis.
His words smarted, and she could think of no good counter. Yet, Victoria felt in her heart that she was meant to be in the midst of this. These story ideas must have been sent to them for a reason.
She tried again. “But why can’t my duty include helping in person?”
“Ask that of the folks who died in Wheeling, West Virginia and at Arlington,” Thomas stated severely. “We have been invaded upon our own soil. Our weapons are failing. Hundreds of our troops have been slaughtered. We have no idea what else the extra-dimensional invaders are capable of. They could have two of those dragon-creatures, or ten, or a thousand. Even now, they could be on the move, heading up and down the coast, devastating our families. It is our duty to do what is needed not what would be most interesting to us.”
“True, but…” She sighed. “Even if I wrote down everything I could think for the DSA people – not that we have any evidence that my stuff is coming true – I could never write down everything. We’re talking about stuff I’ve spent my whole life making up. There would always be more details I had not thought to commit to paper.” She poured some hot water from the propane stove into her tin hiking cup and added a tea bag. “Maybe the DSA will take us on as consultants. That would not be so bad.”
“Not me! I don’t want to be stuck in any glass cage and poked with electrodes!” Bernard shook his head fiercely. “Me and Freki, we need to be free!”
“This is not about you, either, Mr. Starr.” Thomas stated dryly.
“Didn’t you watch the X-Files and all those spooky government conspiracy shows?” Bernard pressed. “Aren’t you afraid of what the DSA might do?”
“Not really,” Thomas replied. “But I admit I could be wrong. Trusting the government could go badly, but any number of things could go badly, even things that a reasonable man should be afraid of. However, this is not a matter of fear. Our decisions must be ruled by logic, not by our emotions.”
“Easy for you to say, Mr. Spock-wanna-be, but some of us still think it’s healthy to run away from things that might kill you or experiment on your brain. Still, a guy does not abandon his buddies, ever. If you and Vicky want to walk into the maw of the DSA, I’ll be right there with ya, all the way!”
Thomas gave him a dry smile. “I don’t understand you, Bernard, but you’re a good man.”
“You, too, Man.” Bernard gave him a friendly punch to the shoulder that caused Thomas to wince.
Victoria beamed at both of them. The world might have gone crazy, with dragons and invading sorcerers and dangers to the sun, but it was still good to be back with one’s friends.
Finishing her last bite of sandwich, she stood up. “Let’s go watch the sunset. It’s supposed to be really beautiful up here.”
* * *
Ahead of their camp, the forest thinned, with cedar and ponderosa pine growing in among the giant sequoias. Just beyond, the trees parted to form an open field where tall blue meadow lupines hung over a gurgling stream. Beyond that, the setting sun painted the peak of the next mountain with rosy golden hues.
The three of them stood wordlessly by the brook watching fluffy tendrils of cloud turn from peach to burgundy.
“Is it my imagination?” Victoria’s voice caught in her throat. “Or is it dimmer than it should be this time of day?”
Thomas leaned on his sword cane. His gold-rimmed glasses gleamed in the dying light of the afternoon sun.
“It’s your imagination,” he stated. “The damage would not be visible yet.”
“That’s assuming magical death of the core of the sun works like the scientific version, which it mightnot.” Bernard crossed his arms. Beside him, Freki sat quietly, leaning on his leg.
“Even ‘magic’” Thomas made quotes in the air, “would need to have a system, a cause and effect to it.”
“Sure, a magic system,” Bernard responded, smiling the bland smile he always used when he wished to be controversial but to pretend he was not. “Like the one in my novel.”
“Your system only explains how to manipulate it. Not how it works.” Thomas stated.
* * *
They stood until the sun sank behind the mountain peak. Returning to their camp, they helped Victoria set up the second tent.
“So, you really saw Lessingham? That’s so unbelievable! Oh, I wish I’d gotten here earlier.” Victoria pushed in the last tent pin and straightened. She looked back and forth between the two men. “And you couldn’t find any way to change the Archmage’s mind? What did you offer him?”
“Offer him?” Thomas snorted. “What would we have to offer an Archmage? We’re just a law student and a college student. What would we have that Lessingham might want?”
Victoria gazed at the two of them in astonishment.. “Come on, guys…We’ve all read Bernard’s stories. We know what kind of a guy Lessingham is.”
“Yeah,” muttered Bernard, “He’s an arrogant SOB who commits human sacrifice to gain the favor of dark gods. I guess we shouldn’t have expected much.” He pouted, an exaggerated puppy-like pout that she knew was calculated to tug on her heart strings, which it did. Then he flashed a quick grin. “At least we didn’t get sacrificed.”
“We had nothing to offer him,” Thomas added.
“What about all the stories we’ve written?” she cried. “All the secrets we know?”
“We know nothing,” Thomas stated. “All we have is conjecture.”
“If you told him what you knew came from the same source that led you to find him, he’d probably have found it quite interesting!”
Thomas frowned. “You make a good point.”
“Oh, I wish I had been there!” Victoria sighed as she untied her sleeping bag.
“Be glad you were not,” Thomas stated gruffly. “You would have been eaten alive!”