by Brandy Dewinter

(c 2010, All rights reserved)

Chapter 1 - "RPG"

"I won one!" Lucas Danner yelled as he approached his friends.

"One what?" Tristan Knight asked.

"A new CyberX game system, complete with virtual reality headsets!" Lucas answered. "I told you guys I'd entered the contest."

Tris looked confused, but the third member of their triumvirate, Joshua Kinnison, nodded his head. "Oh, yeah. I remember now. Something about a new RPG."

"RPG?" Tris repeated. "You got a rocket propelled grenade weapon add-on for Deathmatch?"

"No, dork," Lucas said. "Deathmatch is old. Geez, V5 has been out for, what, 6 months now?" He quickly went on, "This RPG stands for role-playing game. You create a character and go on quests and stuff."

"Oh, boy," Tris said unenthusiastically. "Pretending to be fairies riding unicorns. I can hardly wait."

Lucas bridled in irritation, but Joshua stepped in first, "It can be fun, Tris. I've done a few RPG things. If you're willing to let your imagination loose, it can be cool."

"Yeah," Lucas confirmed. "I'm bored with first person shooters. And the new game system is supposed to be awesome!"

"Yeah?" Tris challenged, but not aggressively. He was obviously willing to be convinced.

"Oh, yeah," Lucas confirmed. "It's not even available in public yet. This is a 'beta test' setup. I saw an ad on a gaming webpage and sent in to try it out. And I got this last night."

He waved an envelope at them. Inside were a couple of flashy brochures and a three or four page letter with the rules and conditions for some sort of test use license. The important information was that Lucas would be receiving a new computer gaming system, complete with headsets that were supposed to provide "an unmatched, total-immersion, virtual reality experience."

Despite his attempt to appear uninterested, Tris had to admit it looked pretty cool. "What's this 'total-immersion' stuff?"

"It means you put on this headset thing," Lucas explained, pointing to a picture in the brochure, "and it sends signals directly into your brain. It makes you feel like you're really in the game."

"Dude!" Tris said, now definitely impressed.

"It only works for this one game, a role-playing game like I said," Lucas explained, "but that can be cool. Swords instead of shotguns, magic blasts instead of BFGs. And you get a new body."

"What?" Tris asked.

"Yeah, in the game, you get a new body. You roll - well, actually, it's a computer-generated random number - anyway, you get attribute points for strength and vitality and things like that. Then you get a body that corresponds. You could be He-Man . . . for once," Lucas said, ending up with a teasing poke at his slight friend.

Lucas Danner was, at age 16, already 6 feet tall. And he was heavy for his height, though too much of that weight was the result of time spent in front of a computer eating candy bars. Even with his less-than-athletic lifestyle, Lucas was a lot stronger than Tris, who was waiting for his promised growth spurt. So far, Tristan hadn't justified being named after the second greatest knight in all chivalry - not by a long shot. Joshua was more average - boringly average in his own appraisal. None of the three were jocks even by the standards of high school sophomores. The idea of being physically capable was a lure that definitely worked well on all of them.

"Okay, I'm in," Tris said. Joshua nodded.

Lucas took charge, as he typically did. "Okay, we meet at my place Sunday right after lunch. According to the game data, parties have 6 players, but the computer will fill in as required with NPCs."

The other two nodded, but Joshua asked, "So, how are the points set? Do we reroll until we get what we want, or what?"

"Nah," Lucas said. "I've been in groups that did that. You can spend all day getting the roll you want. I want to get into the game. How about this? We'll do 'Appearance' first - nobody wants to be too gross - and if you don't get at least . . . let's see, scale is 1 to 20 . . . if you don't get at least a 10 you can reroll. But for the rest, you take what you get. Okay?"

"Good enough," Joshua agreed. Tris just shrugged since he didn't really know what they were talking about, but Joshua seemed comfortable with the idea and that should be enough to keep Lucas from screwing things up too much.

Then Joshua asked another question, "Character types?"

"Standard human," Lucas said cryptically, at least to Tris. "Except, you select profession after you roll. Just like real life. If you end up with a body like Tris, you don't play linebacker."

"Jerk," Tris muttered before turning away to go to class.

On Sunday, they experienced the truism that no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Or in this case, with younger siblings. The Knight and Kinnison parental authorities had agreed to let Tris and Joshua play video games inside on Sunday afternoon. Despite the September date, it was forecast to be nearly 100 degrees and they didn't want their children getting heatstroke. But the price for that agreement was that Tris and Joshua both had to allow their younger siblings to play as well - Tris brought Landon, age 12, and Joshua brought Charlotte, age 14.

It wasn't the first time. The trio of sophomores had long practiced a bit of discreet 'data selection' in describing their video games. The violence and other parental-squick factors were 'overlooked' when the guys solicited permission for a new game, but that meant they had no good reason for excluding younger players. Landon and Charlotte - Charly - were used to mega-gore shoot-'em-ups and if they hadn't been warped already, it wasn't for lack of trying. Charly was actually pretty good, and while Landon tended toward stealth and ambush rather than mow-'em-down mayhem, he was still an acceptable teammate when the older boys had no choice.

The game console had a big CyberX(treme) logo on it, with a single mini-joystick and just a couple of buttons. There was also a fairly small video screen with buttons around the perimeter. The rest of the system consisted of half a dozen spidery headsets with what looked like attached sunglasses. Lucas had apparently already straightened things out enough to get the first character-building screen up, bypassing all the legal stuff they always stuck on the things. He had Tris go first, fitting him with one of the headsets - apparently for 'calibration' - but letting him leave the opaque lenses up. "Okay, we agreed that we all get at least a 10 in appearance, and after that we take what we get, so roll your first number."

This was accomplished by clicking a button on the screen next to "Appearance". It came up 16.

"Not bad," Lucas said. "You may not be . . . hell, I don't even know who's considered good looking, for a guy. Anyway, you may not be maximum studly, but you'll look good. Roll the next number."

Tris clicked the button next to Strength, and got a 4.

"Too bad," Lucas said with a smirk. "There goes being a warrior or any other sort of jock. I guess you being a wimp is just fate."

"Jerk," Tris snapped. "I want to do that one over."

"Nope," Lucas declared. "We agreed, you get a do-over on Appearance only, and only if it's less than 10. Otherwise we'll be here all day."

Joshua tapped Tris on the shoulder and nodded. "C'mon, Tris. It really will take forever if we don't get on with it. It's just a fantasy game. Whatever you end up being in there doesn't really matter. I want to try the virtual reality thing."

Tris frowned, but shrugged and pushed another button, this one marked "Dexterity."

"Oh, shit, this is stupid," he said when he saw the blank button replaced with a 7.

Landon interrupted his brother's building tirade with, "That's okay, Tris. It just means you won't be a thief. I don't think you want that anyway."

The next score was for "Vitality" and came up 15.

"Excellent," Landon said. "That means you won't get tired as fast, and that you'll heal really good."

"How do you know all this, shrimp?" Charly asked.

"I do RPGs with friends," Landon said. "I do have friends, unlike you, Loser."

"Oooh, does 'ittle Landon play pattycake with other 'ittle boys?" she teased.

"Knock it off," Joshua ordered his sister. "If he's right, then he's right. I'm glad he knows something about this stuff, too."

"Right," Lucas said, trying to take charge again. "Keep going, Tris."

The next couple of factors were "Intelligence" and "Wisdom," and Tris just got average scores.

"Well, that rules out Mage," Joshua sighed.

"What's left?" Tris asked grumpily. "I can't be a warrior or a thief or a mage."

"There are several other things," Lucas promised. "Just finish up."

"What the hell is charisma?" Tris asked, irritated enough that he didn't care if Landon tattled on his language.

"That's a cool one," Landon offered. "If you get a good score there, it means that people will like you, and do what you say."

Tris shrugged and clicked on another button, then smiled in spite of his anger. "Sixteen, huh? That's pretty good."

"Right," Joshua agreed. "You may end up being team leader, or at least our negotiator."

Lucas had twitched at the idea that someone else would be team leader, but he just motioned at the screen for Tris to get his last attribute score. It was for "Empathy" and it came up with a maxed-out 20.

"Uh, oh," Landon and Joshua said almost in unison.

"What's wrong?" Tris asked.

Joshua scanned back up the list of Tris's scores, then looked at Landon. The younger boy nodded, then looked at his brother. "Well, the good news is that you're going to be a really strong asset to the team."

"And the bad news?" Tris demanded.

"With that high of an empathy score, you'll be a healer."

"A healer? You mean, like a medic?"

"Yeah, sorta, except . . ."

Tris waited for a second, then started to reach for his younger brother to shake the rest out of him when Joshua continued the thought.

"Except that empathic healing means that you take the damage into yourself. At least you have a good Vitality score. Empathic healers with low Vitality scores just die a lot. But you should be able to heal yourself quickly enough that you'll be fine. And a good healer makes a team way powerful."

"Oh, joy," Tris sighed. Then he tried again, "Okay, that was so we can see how it works. Now let me roll for real."

"No," Lucas said quickly. "We need a good healer. It just turned out to be you."

"But I don't want to be a healer," Tris complained. "It's just a damn game. Let me be somebody big and strong for once."

"Next time," Lucas promised. "Now let's get on with things."

The other players took their turn at the keyboard to get their own list of attributes. Lucas either had really good luck or had figured out a way to cheat because he came up with a good warrior mix, though his own charisma score meant he wasn't going to be the obvious team leader. Somehow it seemed fitting that the bookish Joshua ended up with high Intelligence and Wisdom. The results for the others didn't seem to indicate a particular character type to Tris, but he figured that would sort out when they got in the game. He had to admit that by the time they were all done determining their own stats that he was getting bored and could understand why the others wouldn't let him reroll. Still, he felt he had gotten the worst set of stats even though his average across all the numbers was higher than anyone else.

Everyone had arranged themselves in comfortable chairs. All wore their 'calibrated' headsets, laughing when Tris tried to sneak a trade in for Charly's. He didn't get away with it. They flipped down their obscuring eye shields and waited. Lucas called, "Everybody ready?" When no one said anything, he asked again, "Is everybody ready? I can't see you nod, so say something."

This time they gave him a string of affirmatives, and he fumbled around for the big button on the top of the game console that engaged the virtual reality system.

Chapter 2 - "Reality 2.0"

The first sensation Tris had after he heard Lucas push the 'Engage' button was of a blinding, roaring, almost-painful burst of static. But just when he was ready to pull the headset off to make it stop, it cleared and he found himself standing in featureless, infinite dimension white room like in the Matrix.

Then it was no longer featureless. A blur appeared before him, not so much fuzzy as pixilated into chaos. Then the pixilation gradually reduced until he could see a classically kindly old geezer complete with what looked like monk's robes, though he was bald so Tris couldn't tell if he had a tonsure.

"Welcome to CyberX, Reality 2.0," the man said, and you could hear the copyright or trademark, or whatever it was that went with that sort of pronouncement.

"Who are . . .?" Tris started to ask, then stopped as his voice surprised him. With the shock, he realized that he was not aware of his own body. He looked down to find it pixilated as well, at least to his vision but somehow in reality as well. As he watched, this distortion also faded, to be replaced by a very clear - very, very disturbing image.

"What the hell?" Tris gasped.

"Hardly Hell," the man corrected kindly. "This is your virtual body."

"But it's a girl's body!" Tris said, stating what was all too obvious. What he saw was a shapely, slender body clothed in a white gown of some sort, more classic than - Thank you, God - anything looking like a wedding dress, but tailored to fit very snugly.

"Obviously," the man said with a wry smile and a nod as though he had read Tris's mind and was accepting the thanks.

"I don't want to be a girl," Tris said.

For some reason, the man didn't comment on that claim. He just smiled and said, "At your strength level, all available body avatars are female."

"Yeah, right," Tris snapped. "Okay, I want out."

"Very well," the man said placidly. "The exit is always immediately behind your left ear."

"What?" Tris asked, turning around.

"Immediately behind your left ear," the man repeated with perfectly matching tones.

Tris turned again, and then again, and there wasn't anything in that infinite whiteness. After yet another twist he found himself looking again at the man.

"What?" Tris repeated.

"Immediately behind your left ear," the man repeated in turn, still with the perfect reproduction of a recording.

Tris clenched his teeth to keep from screaming, and stamped one foot on the ground. He looked back over his shoulder, to no avail, and then looked back at the man.

"Listen, jerk, no more games. How do I get out of here?"

"The exit is always immediately behind your left ear," the man repeated unhelpfully.

Tris balled up a fist and was about the smack the stupid jerk clear to the edge of the infinite room, when he realized that the real stupid jerk was the dude in the girl's body, not the guy in the monk's outfit.

::Idiot,:: he yelled at himself. ::Every time you turn your head, your damn ear moves, too.::

Instead of turning his head, Tris reached up with his left hand and felt around the space behind his ear. Seemingly hanging in space, a few inches from his hair, he found a little disk. He poked at it a little, and pushed on it, but nothing happened. Then he thought to squeeze it between two fingers, and was rewarded with another almost-painful burst of static.

When it cleared this time, he couldn't see a thing, but he could feel the pressure of the headset and ripped it off as soon as he could feel his arms again.

The others were twitching a little as they seemed to go through their own transition, and it was a couple of minutes before they had all removed their headsets and blinked their eyes clear.

"What went wrong?" Joshua asked. "Who brought us back?"

"I did," Tris snapped.

"Why?" Lucas asked. "Didn't you get to the room with the game master?'

"Yeah, I got there," Tris said. "But the dude told me that at my level of strength, all the avatars were female."

"Oh," he said. Looking over at Landon, he asked, "Don't I remember that you had a low strength score, too? Is that what you found?"

"I'm not sure," Landon replied. "I may not have gotten that far. The dude did the welcome bit, and was telling me that I would now choose a profession, and weapons and stuff. Next thing I knew I was back here."

"Was your body a guy or a girl?" Tris demanded.

"I guess I don't know," Landon said. "If it was a girl's body, she wasn't very well . . . y'know . . . padded."

"Well, mine was," Tris said.

"What was your Appearance stat, Landon?" asked Joshua.

"Eleven," Landon said. "With high Dexterity and decent Intelligence and Vitality."

"Well, if you were a girl in the virtual world, you might not have been . . . y'know . . . "

"Padded," Tris repeated with a snort.

"In any event," Joshua continued. "It might not have been as obvious as it was for Tris. You were, what, a 16 in appearance?"

Tris nodded, then Lucas looked at Charly. "You were next lowest on strength. What did you find?"

"Actually, I was offered a choice," Charly reported. "The dude - what did you call him, the game master? - told me that my attributes permitted either male or female avatars. I was about to choose when we got yanked back."

"Shit," Tris snarled. Then he shrugged, "Sorry guys, but I'm gonna have to reroll. I can't be a girl."

"Why not?" asked Joshua. "It's only a game. Most RPG players do both girls and guys some of the time. It's part of the roleplay thing. It doesn't mean anything."

"Yeah, well it does to me," Tris insisted.

"We can't spend the time to reroll," Lucas insisted. "And you agreed to take what you get."

"I never agreed to be a girl," Tris said.

"It's just a game," Joshua said again. "C'mon, give it a try. It might be fun."

"Great, then you be a girl and I'll be a guy," Tris said. "Swap headsets and I'll take your numbers."

"Can't do that," Lucas said. "I looked that up, too. Once you . . . what did they call it? Tune? Calibrate? - the headset to your, y'know, brain you're the only one who can use it. Unless you reset the whole system and flush everyone's character. I think it's a trick to make you buy more headsets."

"Shit," Tris said again. He looked around at the waiting faces of his friends. At the waiting, impatient, and accusing faces of his friends.

"You did promise," Joshua said softly.

"Damn," Tris said, then sighed. "Oh, hell, like Josh said, it's only a game. But I'm warning all of you, if this gets out at school, I won't care who said something. You're all toast. Every one of you. Even you, Charly. I mean it."

"Right." "Sure." "No problem." A chorus of answers promised to keep his secret.

There were a few minutes of readjustment to get the headsets back in place, then Lucas pushed the 'Engage' button again.

It was as though Tris had never left. There was the moment of static, but this time as soon as his vision cleared the monk dude was standing in front of him again. This time Tris ran his hands down his new form, to find it was definitely his, and definitely curvy. And sensitive. He was tempted to explore the more interesting curves a bit more, but then he realized the man was watching him.

"What are you looking at?" Tris snapped.

"I am waiting for you to resume your character definition," he answered reasonably.

"Okay, okay," Tris said. "What's next?"

"Coloring," the man responded immediately. "There is nothing in your attribute set that limits your color choices, except that your clothes are restricted to pale shades."

"What do you mean?"

"Your clothes can be white, or pale shades of any color or combination of colors, except that there cannot be a distinct pattern such as checks, plaids, and so on."

"Great," Tris said. "Okay, how about blue?"

With that, a pastel blue flowed down the white robes he wore as though dye had been spilled over his shoulders.

"Oh, god," Tris said, looking at the results. "This looks like a damn prom dress or something. How about . . . black?"

In response, his gown changed from pastel blue to a pale, pearlescent gray that looked like drifting smoke.

"Damn," Tris muttered to himself. "That would be hot on a girl."

The man stood patiently while Tris looked at his revised gown, flipping the full skirt around to watch the light flow across the smooth waves of material.

"Oh," Tris said, realizing what he was doing. "Look, I'm not wearing a dress. Give me some pants."

"Female characters of the culture of this quest do not - in general - wear pants."

"'In general?'" Tris repeated, picking up on that phrase. "What are the exceptions?"

"Rangers can be male or female, and thieves. They are permitted to wear pants."

"Okay, fine, I'll be a . . . what's a ranger?"

The man's voice took on a lecturing cant. "A ranger is a hybrid profession, part warrior and part magic user. Rangers are highly attuned to nature and are good at tracking, hunting, and nature magic."

"Cool. I'll be a ranger," Tris declared.

"Your attributes do not permit selection of ranger as profession," the man replied.

"Then why did you give me that stuff on what rangers are?" snapped Tris.

"Because you asked," the man replied.

Tris felt his hands ball up into fists again, but he took a deep breath and repeated his hard-learned mantra. "Only an idiot argues with a machine. Only an idiot argues with a machine. Only an . . ."

After a moment he was able to relax his taut jaw and say, "Okay. I understand that I need to be an empathic healer. I got that. But I still want to wear pants."

The monkish man said nothing, seeming to freeze in place. Then his eyes refocused and Tris felt his gown wrap itself around his legs, forming into shiny tights that were right out of Robin Hood, except for being that beautiful pearlescent gray instead of green. Then another layer of material flowed out of the snug bodice that had made his gown fit his new body so well. It grew until it provided what amounted to a short skirt that was at least partially concealing of his new shape . . . or lack of it.

Tris gasped, because the new outfit was . . . well, if he'd have seen it on a real girl he would have thought it was really hot. For some reason, it needed something, though.

"Um, could you, um, make the sleeves a little fuller, and, maybe white?" he asked, remembering the Robin Hood look. "And how about a vest?"

The requested changes occurred as soon as he voiced the desire, and soon he was standing in at least a reasonably close approximation of the old Robin Hood movie look. It would have to do. Except . . .

"Look, I can't wear these silly slippers," he complained. "We're going on a quest, right? Can't I have some real shoes? Or boots?"

Knee-high boots in a light, dove gray appeared on his feet, the vest modifying to match. A medium-gray belt appeared at his impossibly tiny waist, along with a pair of leather pouches, both of which seemed to have significant weight.

Tris looked inside the pouches and found that one had a few rudimentary medical supplies, scraps of cloth that might make a bandage, and a folded up scarf that might make a sling. There were a couple of tiny bottles that might hold some sort of healing potions. The other pouch had money, or at least pieces of metal that looked like gold and silver.

"Cool," Tris said. "What's next?"

"You may, if you wish, change your hair, skin, and eye color," the monk reported.

"Oh, yeah," Tris said, pulling a lock of hair forward. In real life, Tris's hair tended to be a bit long - his dad was always on his case about it - but he hadn't really noticed how long his new hair was. The mass of it had been gathered into a ponytail out of his way, and the weight had been lost in all the other sensations that were saturating his processing ability. When he pulled it around into his field of view he realized there was almost two feet of hair hanging below the clasp.

Pure white, snow-at-the-North Pole hair.

"Oh, this has gotta go," Tris said, then took a closer look at his hands. "Can I get a mirror or something?"

A full-length mirror appeared next to the computer-generated man, and Tris really saw himself for the first time.

"Ohhhh . . . . shit," he said softly. The vision in the mirror wasn't the prettiest girl Tris had ever seen, though that white hair was certainly distinctive. But she was way over the line into hot. Cheerleader hot. Curves and all. And older. She looked like a college girl, maybe 20. But the part of the image that grabbed his attention most were legs that ran on forever and ever amen.

"I shoulda stayed with the dress," he whispered.

Tris shook himself and said, "Look, I can't deal with this white hair, and I won't be a bimbo blonde. Can I at least have dark hair?"

In response, the image in the mirror showed another of those dye-flowing moments, and his white hair changed to a deep sable color as he watched.

"I need something other than almost-white eyes, too. That looks spooky. How 'bout a dark . . . um. . . violet?"

When that had also appeared, he said, "Okay, now the skin tone. Give me a decent tan, not dark enough to look like all I do is suntan, and y'know, sort of shaded so that it doesn't look . . . flat."

With that request, his skin changed from pasty white to a healthy, vibrant tone with shadings that made his eyes look large and expressive, brought cheekbones into prominence, and accented his lips into soft fullness.

"Cool," Tris said. "This is really weird, and I am gonna have to figure out some really effective death threats for the other guys so they never tell anyone what I look like, but this is actually sorta okay."

"Anything else?" he asked the old man.

"You have already recognized that your combination of attributes basically requires that you be an empathic healer. You can, however, select and employ a weapon against party foes. Alternatively, you can select a wand or staff that enhances either your empathic power or your vitality."

"Okay," Tris said. "If I'm gonna do this, I might as well do it right. My, um, Empathy rating was maxed already, so give me a staff that adds to my Vitality factor. I'll just have to hang back, and if all else fails, I'll whack somebody with the thing."

With his words an oak or ash - something not too dark in color, but natural-looking - staff that had enough heft he felt it could be used as a club appeared in his right hand. It was most of six feet long, and an inch or so thick, with intricate carvings everywhere.

"Good enough," Tris said. "What's left?"

"You must select a character name," the man provided.

"What's wrong with Tris?" asked Tris.

"Tris is a masculine name. However, acceptable variants include Tricia, Tryxie, Tina . . ."

Tris interrupted when it was clear the man was headed off on a long list of names. "Stop. I'm not gonna take a name that those guys can make over into Tryxie. What else do you have?"

"Names for empathic healers often invoke their abilities. Candidates include: Peace, Harmony, Respite, Solace . . ."

"Stop," Tris said. "Solace is . . . okay."

"Very well," the man said. "You are now ready to proceed to the first quest."

"Wait!" Tris - now Solace - said. "What do I call you?"

Once again the man seemed to freeze for a moment. Then he said, "You can call me . . . Odin." With his words, long white hair and a beard sprouted from his head and face, a patch appeared over one eye and there was a pixilation region near one shoulder that quickly resolved into a dark, brooding bird.

Chapter 3 - "At Least There's No Unicorn"

The man no longer looked monkish. He now wore a cloak with a hood, and had a gnarled old staff about as long as the one Solace carried. There was another pause while the old man's eyes - eye - lost focus, then his attention returned to the game player and he smiled paternally at her.

"Very well, are we ready?" he asked.

"I guess so. It's not like I have any idea what's going on," Solace replied.

The man smiled again, an expression made just a bit creepy by its absolute match to the previous smile, and he waved his hand.

The infinite white room pixilated into chaos, then cleared to reveal a generic forest glade with gentle shafts of soft sunlight and an unobtrusive murmur of underlying sounds of life. There were five other characters standing around talking.

"Finally," a huge, armored man snapped. "What took you . . ?" He interrupted himself to stare unbelievingly at the attractive woman.

"Oh my god," said a tall figure concealed by the cowl of a deep maroon robe. He held a long staff with a strange head that seemed to be constantly moving, yet she couldn't really make out any details to be sure. "Is that you, Tris?"

"Yeah," the young woman answered, "except . . . I guess I'm supposed to be, um, Solace, now."

"Wow," someone said from a shadow. Solace had to look closely to see a slim figure garbed in what looked like dark leathers. And she had to look a second time to decide that the figure was female. But not - as Landon had previously reported - a very well 'padded' woman.

"Is that you, Landon?" Solace asked.

"Yeah, except like you, I have a new name. I'm 'Shimmer' now."

"So you, um, defected to the other side, too," Solace asked as much as said.

"Yeah," Shimmer confirmed. "I guess my strength number was too low."

"Not mine," the man-mountain said smugly. He was dressed in a strange combination of heavy mail overlying thick leather on his head, chest and arms, while his legs showed corded muscles through what was obviously much thinner leather. Too thin to be much use at all as defense. There was a ridiculously large sword slung in a scabbard over his back, and a round shield that looked too heavy for Solace even to lift. He puffed up his impressive muscles and said, "I'm a warrior."

"Is that so? I would never have guessed," Solace said, unconsciously batting her wide eyes at him. "And from the chest-pounding testosterone flood, I take it that you're Lucas?"

"Yep," Lucas replied. "Didn't even need to change my name."

Solace looked at the other three people she didn't have a name for, and lifted a shapely brow in question.

"Joshua," the cowled figure said, "only now I'm 'Rhialto' and a mage."

"Charly," a taut-muscled, sinewy man said. His outfit was tight brown deerskin pants, soft fur boots, and a vest that left his chiseled abs in full view. There was a longbow slung across his shoulder, along with a packed quiver of arrows. "Now Oakheart, a ranger."

The final figure in the glade stood silently until the character Solace knew as Odin made a gesture, then that final figure seemed to come to life and he faced the rest of the party. A deep, grating rumble of grinding rocks worked to clear his throat, and he growled, "Mattock, warrior." He was armed with his namesake weapon, though it was about twice as large as Solace had ever seen a real man use.

Lucas looked at the man who had appeared with Solace and asked, "Who are you?"

"I am the game master," the old man replied.

That triggered the others to chatter for a moment, until the man held up his hand for silence. "You all saw me as a deliberately inoffensive old man with the appearance of a monk or priest to invoke connotations of pacifism. Only Solace asked for my name. To establish a name, I had to establish a distinct character just as you all have done. Now I am Odin. And, like the All-Father, I am the creator of this world."

"What took you so long?" Lucas asked Solace again, then before the pretty girl could reply, he continued, "not that I'm complaining. At least, not any more. You're hot!"

Solace blushed, then looked at Joshua . . . Rhialto. "So all the rest of you have been done for a while?"

"Just a few minutes," he replied, and though Lucas twitched a bit, no one disagreed. "It would appear you had more to do get ready, though like Lucas, I think it was well worth the time. You are wonderfully attractive. And tall, for a girl." Rhialto concluded as he realized her eyes were on a level with his.

"Yeah, good for her," Shimmer said, prompting a moment of confusion on everyone else's face as they tried to find the source of her voice. She seemed to have moved when no one was looking. "I'm a girl, too, but I didn't get the package you did. Oh, and I'm a thief."

"Be grateful," Solace said. "You should have seen the first outfit he tried to get me to wear. It looked like a damn prom gown, complete with dainty little slippers and about 9 acres of skirt."

"Oh, that would have been a crime against humanity," Lucas said. "Legs like yours should never be hidden."

"Down boy," Solace said with a grimace, self-consciously putting her hands in front of the abbreviated hem of her tunic/vest. "You're not making this any easier."

Lucas continued to stare at the young woman character, then shook himself and looked again at Odin. "Okay. I figure, um, Mattock is here to complete our party. I presume this is where we get our quest?"

"Yes," Odin replied. "As you go along, you'll find opportunities to learn to use your new abilities. Each of you has a weapon or other devices to assist you, and each of you will find more powerful aids as you proceed. One note of advice: Do not try to be what you are not. You will all find that your particular skills are needed to complete the quest."

He waved his staff and the dark bird on his shoulder flew up to roost in a tree, while a tan bird flew down from somewhere in the forest to hover in front of Rhialto. The thin wizard held out his hands and the bird morphed - with only a suggestion of pixilation during the transition - into a sheet of parchment.

The party - less Mattock - crowded around the wizard to see the parchment and as a result, none of them noticed Odin begin to fade away. His last words seemed to hang after he was gone. "Remember, the exit is immediately behind your left ear."

"What does that mean?" Oakheart asked, looking up at the now-missing game master.

"I'll tell you later," Solace said. "What does the parchment say?"

She tried to figure out what it was. Other than being a map, with a classic "X" on what must be the destination spot, it was covered in markings that made no sense to her.

"It's a map," Lucas said.

"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Oakheart said. "Can you tell what it says?'

"No," Lucas replied.

Rhialto looked at them in surprise, "The words describe clues along the way. Can't you read them?"

"Nope," Shimmer said, holding the parchment up to a shaft of sunlight.

"Hey, give it back," Rhialto said, twitching in surprise because somehow he hadn't even realized the slim girl had taken it.

Shimmer handed the parchment back to Rhialto and he pointed at items on the map, reading the accompanying text to make the meaning clear.

"I guess that's what you get for a high Intelligence attribute," Lucas said dismissively. "I'd rather be a warrior."

"Shoulda called you, Ox," murmured Solace, grinning at her friends. "Strong and dumb, just like the real Lucas."

"Hey," Lucas said, but then he shrugged. "Whatever. Let's get going."

He took armored gauntlets from his belt and slid his hands into them, though he left his sword in its sheath covered by the shield on his back. Mattock already wore thick wraps around his hands. Oakheart and Rhialto apparently didn't need gauntlets, and Shimmer had been wearing gloves so thin and tight they looked like black skin on her slim fingers. She flicked twin knives into position, then made them vanish with a shrug.

Solace didn't have any gauntlets, either. She grasped her staff in her bare hands and gave it a whirl around her head.

"Hey, watch out!" Lucas said, ducking.

"Sorry," Solace said, blushing. Whirling her staff was clearly not going to be a strong skill for her. But at least the carvings seemed to provide a reliable grip. :I'll probably get blisters if I try to use this thing without gloves . . . but at least I'm supposed to heal fast.:

Rhialto gestured toward a path out of the glade, and the little party set out. Without any real decision, they seemed to find places that suited them. Lucas set a steady, if somewhat ponderous pace in the lead, with Mattock close behind him. Rhialto followed, paced closely by Solace. Oakheart set a much quicker pace and soon left them behind, and Solace lost track of Shimmer almost as soon as they started. After a few minutes, she realized that the dark bird - a raven or very large crow - was pacing them through the trees.

"Hold," Mattock ordered sonorously after a few minutes. "Vibrations in ground. Trouble coming."

"Indeed." Oakheart's voice came down from the over-hanging branch of a tall tree. There was a note of wry humor in the quiet tones. "I've been waiting for you. I think our first challenge is upon us."

"What is it?" asked Lucas.

"You'll never guess," Oakheart replied.

"Oh, god, I am ssooo out of here," the voice of Shimmer said from somewhere.

"What is it?" Lucas asked again, this time with real concern in his voice.

"I suppose this is my fault," Oakheart said from his tree perch. "The first glade was so cliché I was expecting we'd see giant rats first. We should be so lucky. Get ready."

The two warriors unlimbered their weapons, and Rhialto did something to charge up his staff so that the blurry end glowed. Solace realized that she knew how to do something equivalent, and in a moment her own staff had a glow along the entire length.

And then the trouble arrived. It was not giant rats. They would have preferred giant rats.

About a dozen furry, black and white animals appeared around a bend in the path. They were the size of large dogs, and sported prominent, rodent-style teeth.

And upraised tails. Their attackers were giant skunks, and much too quickly it was clear they possessed - in giant degree - the primary armament of skunks. Sprays of horrifically bad odor encompassed the ground party, and it was a good thing that Oakheart was in the tree. The others were barely effective at keeping the skunk teeth from doing significant damage, mostly too busy blinking away tears and trying not to vomit. Oakheart, on the other hand, was above the worst of the spray and in short order there were eight or nine dead skunks in the middle of the trail. Lucas managed to take out another one, and Mattock, who seemed least affected of those on the ground, killed two.

Solace was trying to keep from throwing up whatever she'd eaten in the last year, trying not to breathe any more than absolutely necessary, and trying . . .

Moving without conscious thought to each of the other members of the party, she found herself reaching out to touch their - thankfully minor - wounds, and wave her staff over their - literally - stinking bodies. The scratches and in the case of Lucas, one significant gash on his leg, faded away to be recreated on Solace.. Scratches and bruises appeared within her own outfit, with no external sign except for seeping blood stains. In moments her pearly gray clothes were darkly accented with uneven splotches.

And she smelled unbelievably bad. The others recovered from the dazed aftermath of the mini-battle, and without a word moved rapidly upwind from the reeking woman.

"Oh, god, I am ssoo out of here. This is not worth it," wailed Solace.

"Wait, Solace, please," Rhialto said. From a small pouch hanging from his own belt he withdrew a tiny book not more than half the size of an ordinary playing card. He opened it up. Then opened it again. Then again. Each time the book seemed unremarkable, with a clearly defined spine, multiple pages, and smooth, uncreased covers. When it was about the size of a typical college textbook, Rhialto quit unfolding it and instead opened to what was obviously an index in the back.

He studied it for a second, his eyes seeming to glow as they absorbed whatever content he discovered inside. He nodded and looked again at Solace. "Okay, I can help you with the smell, but apparently not with the scrapes and things."

"Fine. I'll take it," Solace snapped.

"If I can make a suggestion," Oakheart said from a place about twenty yards further down their path. "Move out of the area sprayed by the skunks first. The foliage is saturated with that oil and you'll just have to do it again."

"Fine," Solace said again. "Just . . . get rid of this stench before I puke all over what's left of my clothes."

They hurried along the path, thankfully in an upwind direction, until only Solace was carrying a burden of intolerable smell. Rhialto looked at Oakheart and at the ranger's nod held up a hand to get Solace to stop.

"Okay, this spell is supposed to deal with evil miasmas and other lingering auras. And if that stink doesn't qualify, I'll quit the game with you."

He grasped his staff in both hands, murmured something under his breath, and then pointed the indistinct glowing end at her with a complicated flourish.

To their immense relief, none more intensely felt than Solace, the foul order vanished so utterly even the memory if it seemed to fade away.

"Oh, yeah," Lucas said. "Thank you, um, Rhialto."

"Yes, Joshua," Solace said softly, with real gratitude in her tones. "Thank you."

"Rhialto," the wizard corrected gently.

"Right," Solace said, bestowing on him a smile that sent warmth to places Rhialto didn't think were going to be part of this . . . experience.

Then Solace looked at her clothes and sighed. "Oh, hell, this is just ruined."

"Never mind the clothes," Shimmer said, appearing next to her. "What about your wounds?"

"Wounds?" Solace repeated. "Oh, yeah." She looked at the scratches and bite marks on her exposed hands. She knew all too well that there were other wounds beneath her tunic that didn't show. All had been taken from the warriors. They appeared to have healed completely, leaving their skin flawless and gleaming with health. As she watched, the damage to her hands faded away and she could feel the gash on her leg healing under the stain of blood leaving her skin was as perfect as before the battle.

"I guess that answers that," Shimmer said, watching her hands clear. "Did it hurt?"

"Hell, yes, it hurt," Solace said sharply. Then she paused thoughtfully. "Yes, it did hurt," she repeated. "But somehow it seemed like I just had to . . . do whatever I did. It was like I was on autopilot or something."

"Lucky you," Shimmer said, reaching out to give a quick hug of sympathy to her still sibling.

"Oh, god, this sucks," Solace moaned.

Rhialto grimaced in sympathy as well, then started paging through his book again. "Okay, everyone with torn clothes line up over there."

They did as they were told and he went through another ritual. At the end of it, all were garbed as they had started, in clothes that did not look new, but certainly did not show the rents and tears - or stains - of their recent combat.

Lucas nodded as though it were only to be expected, then shrugged to set his sword and shield more comfortably on his broad shoulders. "Okay, let's get moving. I don't know if our time perception in here matches the real world, but if it does, we need to get on with it."

"Just a minute," Rhialto said. "I think we need to talk about this first."

"What's there to talk about?" asked Lucas.

"Whether we continue," Rhailto said. "Solace got a bum deal on her character, and maybe we should just start over."

"But we need a healer," Lucas protested. "We probably won't make it through without one."

"So let's go back and reroll until you end up as the healer," Shimmer suggested.

"But I'm the warrior," Lucas declared. "I only got this game so that I could be a warrior."

"Too bad," Oakheart said. "I'm okay with starting over so that Solace has a better deal."

"Does that mean you want to be the healer?" challenged Lucas.

"No," Oakheart answered directly. "But I'm willing to take my chances. It's not fair to force Solace to do something that she really hates."

"What about the rest of you," Lucas said. "Other than Solace, does anyone really hate their character?"

In the face of the direct question, even Solace's defenders avoided meeting Lucas' eyes.

"Shimmer . . . Landon, do you like being a girl?" Solace asked.

"Not really," the thief answered. "But, well, I didn't get a particularly 'girly' package. And the thief skills are totally cool. I'm sure none of you noticed, but I hamstrung two of those skunks, and didn't even get sprayed. It was like they couldn't see me. It's cool." Then she sighed and said, "But I'll start over if you want."

"Charly, do you like being a guy?" Solace asked next.

"Actually, I do," the lean ranger admitted. "I've always been a bit of a tomboy so this is fine with me. And the ranger skills are awesome."

Solace looked finally at Rhialto. "Josh?"

"It's up to you, Sol . . um, Tris. I'll do whatever you want."

Lucas started to say something, but a quickly raised hand from Solace made him stop. "Josh, and Landon, you two have done these RPG things before. Is it really as important as you say to have a healer?"

"Absolutely," Rhialto said, with a confirming nod from Shimmer. "If we don't have a healer, we might as well just quit. But if we reroll, maybe the NPC will be the healer."

"NPC?" asked Solace.

"Non-player character," supplied Rhialto, pointing at Mattock.

"Will that be as good?" she asked.

Rhialto sighed, then shook his head. "Probably not. You maxed out the Empathy attribute, and have a really good Vitality as well. An NPC healer is likely to be just good enough to have that profession as an option, which the GM, um, Odin will choose only if no one else goes that way."

Solace looked at the other players and sighed. "Okay, dammit, I'll do it. But you all owe me big time."

Her party offered a chorus of agreement, then they arranged themselves again to move along the trail. They had taken only a dozen paces when Oakheart raised his hand.

"Hold, there's something new on the trail ahead. I swear it wasn't there a moment ago."

"Check it out," Lucas ordered, waving Shimmer ahead as well. The slight thief vanished into the shadows beside the path, while Oakheart made a similar move a few feet further along.

A few minutes later, Shimmer returned, walking along the path. "It's okay. Come see!"

The rest of the party hurried around a couple of bends in the trail to find Oakheart sitting on a fallen log, one arm draped around the neck of a huge, nearly black wolf.

At the sight of the monstrous canine, Lucas pulled his sword into position, triggering a warning growl that seemed to resonate in their bones.

"Lighten up, dude," Oakheart said. "I found him - I'm going to call him Akeela - near the pile of stuff. His name is from . . ."

"We know, Charly," Rhialto said, emphasizing his sister's mundane name. "We read the book, too."

As he spoke, the others saw a set of knapsacks near the trail. Solace immediately moved toward one that had a pale gray cloak or cape draped over it, and the others had no more difficulty in determining the ones applicable to each.

In her knapsack, Solace found a few more mysterious potions, plus a change of clothes. Pulling out the main garment, she held it up to herself. "Oh, hell, that bastard just won't quit."

"Wow, that's pretty," Shimmer said. It was, of course, the princess gown that Odin had first offered Solace.

"Yeah, then you wear it," Solace offered with a sneer.

"Not my size," Shimmer countered with a smirk.

"Oh, god, Solace, you would look just awesome in that," Rhialto said.

At her archly lifted brow, he quickly added, "But I understand why you don't want to. It's just, y'know, it . . . it would look good on you, okay?"

Solace just shrugged and stuffed it back in the pack. Actually, the wispy thing didn't weigh much, and it didn't take up much space in the mostly empty bag. The only thing of volume in her personal reward stack was the gray cloak that had drawn her to that particular bag in the first place. She ran it through her fingers and wondered if it was really the soft doeskin leather it seemed. If so, then in the real world it would have cost a fortune. Or maybe . . .

"I wonder if this is chamois," she said.

"What?" asked Lucas, pulling a heavier version of the same cloak about his shoulders, though his was dyed a deep scarlet.

"Chamois," Rhialto repeated, picking up on Solace's idea. "To be waterproof. Which, now that I think about it, is not particularly good news."

"Why not?" asked Shimmer.

"Because, it means we're likely to get rained on," provided Oakheart.

"Indeed," a voice agreed. In a moment the old man had reappeared at the source of the comment.

"Well, adventurers, you have done moderately well on this first step of your quest. As you proceed, you will find greater challenges, and greater rewards." He turned to the cloaked wizard and said, "Yes, Rhialto, you can expect unpleasant weather ahead. But if you wanted an easy challenge, you'd be sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a video monitor instead of experiencing Reality 2.0."

"I will offer another word of advice: Consider how your characters would react, not how your mundane world personalities would react. You will gain more rewards if you truly immerse yourself in your new lives."

"Wha'd'ya mean?" demanded Lucas.

"Well, for one thing, in the culture represented by this setting, very few people say, 'Wha'd'ya.'" Odin replied. "And to call someone a 'bastard," he continued, smiling at Solace, "is usually the start of a battle to the death."

"So we're supposed to get all 'forsooth' and 'verily?'" she asked.

"That is up to you, but I don't recommend it," Odin replied. "You need to make your characters as real as you can, yet within the context of this reality. I expect it will be unworkable to sustain truly foreign word choices. Perhaps the best way to put it is that you should speak as though your parents were listening . . . because I shall be listening."

"However, I was not joking about insults. Be careful with that, or you will find yourself in needless battles with those who could be allies."

"I will leave you with an opportunity," he said. "You will gain points that can be applied to your attributes as you complete the quests. In addition, if your attributes do not reflect your actual game performance, then I may adjust them accordingly. If Rhialto, for example, who has the highest wisdom score among you, consistently behaves in a foolish way, then his Wisdom attribute will reflect that. Consider it an incentive to behave as your new reality indicates."

With that, he faded away. All except for the large black bird that had been perched on his shoulder. Once again the bird flew up to rest in an overlooking branch. Apparently, that was how Odin would be watching.

"Oh, joy," sighed Oakheart. "We might as well have our parents looking over our shoulders."

"Yeah," Rhialto agreed. "Or, um, yes. But it's really a pretty good idea."

"Why?" the ranger challenged.

"Because from Odin's warning, we will be meeting people at some point. And manners were invented to provide the lubrication to make interaction with others smooth and inoffensive. And, I guess, there's the fact that others will treat us the way we seem to deserve. If we act like a bunch of smart-mouthed kids, that's the way we'll be treated. But if we act like mature adventurers on a noble quest, well . . . you get the picture."

"And so our wise mage picks up another wisdom point," Oakheart said, but he smiled and patted the thin figure on the shoulder.

Solace sighed and shrugged her way into her backpack. "At least there aren't any unicorns," she said with a wry grin. "Though right now I'd be happy for a pack mule."

"Careful what you wish for," Oakheart offered, then turned to head out, the wolf quickly joining his easy trot.

"Okay," Lucas said, taking charge again. "Is everyone ready?"

At the chorus of nods, he set off along a trail that was showing a definite climb toward a set of craggy rocks.

Chapter 4 - "A Dragon?! Are You Kidding?"

As they walked along, Rhialto was studying the map. He was frowning and Solace noticed.

"What's wrong?"

He held out the map to her. "Are you sure you can't read this? It looks like English to me."

"Nope," she said. "If I had to guess, I'd say the alphabet looks like the elven characters in the Lord of the Rings movie."

"That's what I was afraid of," Rhialto said. "There is a word here, one that has a particular meaning if spelled this way in English, but I'm not sure it means the same in whatever language anyone else sees."

"Is that important?"

"Maybe. What I see is 'wyrm', with a 'y', but the same word could be 'worm' with an 'o' and, well, you can see the difference."

"Not really," Solace replied, then she grinned. "But I'm not the one with the high intelligence score."

"You should read more," Rhialto said, grinning back. "In any event, 'worm' with an 'o' might be fairly easy, but 'wyrm' with a 'y' is another word for dragon. At least in English."

"A dragon?! Are you kidding?"

Solace's voice had raised at her surprise, and the others heard it.

"What's this about a dragon?" Lucas asked officiously.

Rhialto sighed and pointed at the map. "This says that the, um, object of our quest is guarded by a 'wyrm' which might mean dragon."

"Shit," Lucas said.

"Watch it, Lucas," Solace cautioned. "You heard what the old man said."

"Yeah, yeah," Lucas said. "So what makes you think a worm is really a dragon?"

"It's the spelling."

"Dude, that's a different language. There's no telling what that spelling means."

"I know. But I see it in English," Rhialto explained. "So I think we should assume that whatever it looks like to me is what we're supposed to read it as - at least if we understand the references. Like that a 'wyrm' with a 'y' is a dragon."

"You may be right," Oakheart said, stepping out from behind a tree.

Lucas jerked and said, "Man, don't do that."

"What's the matter, warrior man, are you getting worried?"

"Yeah, so?" challenged Lucas. "That gash I got in my leg hurt. I don't want to get hurt again if I can avoid it."

"Tell me about it," sighed Solace. "I think we'll need a plan. Jos . . . um, Rhialto?"

"Well, we'll need a bit of reconnaissance first," the wizard said. "I suppose that's up to Oakheart and, um, Shimmer."

"I may not be much help," Oakheart explained. "My skills are best in a natural, and preferably wooded environment. In a stone setting, like I think dragons like, I may not be able to hide very well."

"Sounds like something I need to do," said the voice of Shimmer. They looked around to see the small woman standing there as though she had been part of the discussion all along.

"Sounds like," Solace agreed. "Thanks."

"If I get in trouble, y'all come runnin' hear?" Shimmer said with an artificial accent, obviously trying to cover her own nervousness.

"Count on it," Oakheart said, gripping the thief's arm for a moment. Then the ranger turned to Rhialto and said, "So, when can we expect to meet this thing?"

"Pretty soon, I think," Rhialto explained. "This path has been pretty obvious so it's not like we really needed the clues, but the map has indicated some landmarks along the way that we've already passed, and if it's anything like to scale, then we must be almost there."

"Oh, joy," Solace sighed. "Does it say anything about any other obstacles? Traps and things?"

"Not that I can tell," Rhialto replied.

Solace nodded and said, "Okay, how about this? Oaky-Dokey, you and your pony scout ahead to check for traps and things that aren't on the map. Shimmer, why don't you stay back with us until we see what kind of lair this thing has? Then we can decide which way to approach it."

Lucas started to say something, but the others were moving out as though the decision were a done deal, so he nodded and took up his place at the head of the ground party. Oakheart and Akeela vanished into the forest, then reappeared almost immediately.

"I wonder if the game-master is, um, adjusting things for us. Because as soon as we decided we must be almost there . . . we were. The place is just over the next hill. A honkin' big castle."

And so it was. And as they came out of the shadowy trees, they also found that the sun was setting.

"Well, we're either in deep trouble with our parents for playing this thing so long, or this is all playing out faster than real time," Lucas said.

"Yeah, I mean, yes," Rhialto agreed. "Still, let's get on with it."

Despite their desire to move along, they spent the next few minutes looking down on the castle from the crest of the hill.

"Well," Rhialto said after their period of observation, "it looks like a standard curtain wall with inner keep."

"Yeah," Lucas agreed. "So, dungeon crawl or do we think the dragon likes high places?"

"Hard to say," Rhialto replied. "If it's a flying dragon, I'd say high. But if it can't fly, then . . ."

"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Lucas said, but he smiled and pointed a 'gotcha' finger at the wizard. "I know. No way to tell, except . . ."

"For where I come in," Shimmer said. She looked in her pouch for a second, then held up a little stub of candle. "Okay. If I get in trouble, I'll try to show a light. If not, then come looking for me in, oh, half an hour or so."

"I, um, forgot to bring my watch," Oakheart said with a smile and his own 'gotcha' shot.

"Oh, yeah. Well, whatever. Come when you get too bored to wait," Shimmer said with a matching grin.

Their patience was not really tested very hard. Shimmer climbed what looked like a smooth wall with ridiculous ease, finding handholds and toeholds in tiny irregularities in the structure. She slid over the top of the wall so quickly that they weren't entirely sure she wasn't still crouched on the outside, except that they had sometimes been able to see her dark leathers against the cold gray stone as she climbed, and then they were gone.

In about ten minutes, plus or minus whatever distortion their senses were experiencing, a small sally port near the main gate opened and they saw a flickering light move back and forth. Oakheart slung his bow over his back and pulled a wicked looking long knife from his boot. Akeela vanished into a nearby shadow, almost as good at stealth as Shimmer. The others had their normal weapons ready, including Mattock with his huge bladed pick.

"Okay, this thing is a flyer," Shimmer reported when they reached the sally port. "And the good news is, if he - or she, or whatever - can breathe fire, there's no real evidence of it."

"That's good news," Solace said. She was beginning to understand the nature of her own power, and the idea of taking burns into her own skin was way past merely scary.

"The bad news is that the thing is wrapped around a pedestal, and it's obvious our target is on the top of it."

"What is the beast like?" Lucas asked.

"Oh, yeah, sorry," Shimmer said. "Well, it's more like a snake than a lizard, I guess. I couldn't guess how long the body is - likely a hundred feet I suppose. But it doesn't have any arms or legs. It does have two humongous wings. I can't tell how big they are because they're folded."

"Oh, wonderful," Lucas said.

"So, here's the deal," Shimmer said. "I can get the stone - oh, did I tell you that the obvious target is a gemstone, a ruby the size of a chicken egg? - but you guys are going to have to get the dragon, or wyrm, or whatever, out of the way."

"Wait a minute," Rhialto said, studying his map. "It says here that the target is the heart of Ymir, but he was a giant, so even an egg-sized stone may not be the right thing."

"Well, it's up on a pedestal, on a pillow actually, and there are any number of bigger gems lying around where the dragon is sleeping. If it's not important, then it's a trap for sure."

"Yes, that's the point," Rhialto said. "Was there anything else? A chest, or some sort of panel in a wall?"

"Nope," Shimmer said. "I'm sure that's it."

"I think she's right," Lucas said. "I think we'll see more traps and things in later quests, but this one isn't supposed to be all that hard."

"Right, just fight a dragon. Not hard at all," Oakheart said sarcastically.

"Actually, we don't have to fight it," Solace said. "We just have to lure it away."

"Ah, good idea," Rhialto agreed. "I think that's the deal here. If we try a straight-up fight, we'll get creamed, but if we try something more subtle, we can do it without too much power of our own. This is mind over matter. Later, well, that's for later."

"Agreed," Lucas said. "Okay, what's the plan?"

Solace looked at Shimmer. "Were there any other guards at all?"

When Shimmer shook her head, Solace said, "Well, since there's 5 of us - Mattock will probably just charge in and get killed - and only one of the dragon, it seems to me that we need to try to get him to switch his attack around. Find a good hiding place, pop out when the dragon is after somebody else, and then hide again when he comes after you. Okay?"

The group nodded, even Mattock, and Solace wondered for a moment if the NPC were sophisticated enough to play hide and seek with a dragon. :Probably not,: she decided. :I just hope my empathy thing doesn't force me to heal him if he's not playing smart.:

Shimmer led them toward the dragon's lair, pointing out likely hiding places in corridors leading off the central room just in case the wyrm started chasing someone. That would actually be in their favor, because it would mean it had left the gemstone they were after. When they got to the dragon's lair, the good news was that there were additional hiding places. The bad news was that they were all on the perimeter of a single giant cavern that seemed to occupy the entire inner keep.

:No wonder Shimmer was sure there weren't any guards. There aren't any rooms in this thing,: thought Solace.

Another battle plan did not survive contact with the enemy. The wyrm seemed to have an alarm system, because as soon as they crossed the threshold of the room, it roused and snapped toward the closest adventurer.

Luckily, that was Shimmer, who moved with amazing speed to dodge the clashing jaws and slip into a mere crack in the wall of the inner chamber. Then the dragon started after the other members of the party.

After a couple of minutes, Solace took stock.

:Note to self: Wyrm uses tail as effectively as teeth.:

This observation was based on the sight of Oakheart, crumpled against a wall, unmoving since the dragon's tail had clubbed him as he tried to shield the also-flattened wolf.

:Note to self: Wyrm uses wings as effectively as teeth, too.:

This observation was the result of Mattock's smashed form against another wall.

Then Lucas joined them in oblivion. Lucas was close enough that Solace could get to him without running across the main part of the room, so she slipped as quickly as she could to his side. She gasped with the pain of the warrior's injuries, but tried to keep from crying out and attracting the attention of the dragon.

:Well, this plan sucked,: she decided, gritting her teeth and trying to breathe through broken ribs. A trickle of blood spoiled the purity of her white shirt when she coughed, and she decided she didn't really like this game very much.

The cavernous room pixilated around Solace, and her first thought was that she had died. The stories of a bright light from near death survivors were supported by the glare that stabbed at her eyes, but when the chaos cleared, she found herself back in the infinite white room.

So was Odin.

"Congratulations," the old man said. "You have completed the first quest."

"Completed?" Solace repeated through her pain . . . then realized she was tensed for nothing. Her pain was more memory than real, probably caused by her own muscle tightness.

"Yes," Odin confirmed. "Shimmer retrieved the Eye of Ymir just as the wyrm was finishing off Rhialto."

"Did anyone actually survive that thing?" she asked.

"Shimmer survived," Odin reported. "And for that she will receive an extra attribute point to spend."

"Good for Shimmer," Solace said tiredly.

"Good for you, too," Odin said. "You also receive an extra point to spend. You healed Lucas without hesitation, despite knowing that his pain as well as his injuries would transfer to you."

"That's my job," Solace said, managing to sit up, then finally to stand.

"Yes, it is," Odin agreed. "But that doesn't make it an easy job. Good healers always achieve an acceptance of their role, but few make that step on the first quest."

He smiled that eerily repeated paternal smile and began to pixilate away. "Remember, the exit is always immediately behind your left ear."

"Thanks," she said, reaching for the invisible button.

The nearly intolerable burst of static seemed like an old friend, and hardly worth mentioning after the pains of the quest. When Solace . . . Tris opened his eyes and pulled off the headset, he saw the others blinking and readjusting to life in a different body. Just as he knew he was doing.

"Holy shit, that was awesome!" Landon crowed. "Totally the coolest thing we've ever done."

"Yeah," Tris said, "you didn't get killed by a giant snake. And if you don't watch your language, Mom will make mere death seem like an easy way out."

"Oh, yeah, well, it was still the coolest thing I've ever done."

"Spoken from the rich treasure of life experience of a ten-year-old," Josh said, wincing a little and holding his head like he had a headache.

"Twelve!" Landon corrected sharply, then blushed when Josh hit him with another gotcha.

"Well, Luke, we did your beta test," Tris said, standing up and feeling ribs that still felt sore. "Tell 'em thanks, but no thanks."

"What?" the others chorused.

"We can't stop yet. It was great," Lucas said.

"Even getting killed?" Tris asked.

"Yeah, even getting killed," Lucas confirmed. "Oh, it hurt all right, until you made it go away . . ."

"It didn't go away," Tris interrupted. "It just followed me home."

"Whatever," Lucas said. "It was amazing! It really is like a whole new reality. And we'll get better."

"Couldn't hardly get any worse," grumped Tris.

"Hey, we won," Charlotte said, standing up and stretching.

"Only because Landon snuck the gem out while the rest of us were getting killed . . . literally."

"Whatever it takes," Charly replied. "That's sorta the point. You need to decide what it takes to get the job done, and do it."

"Hey," she continued, "that's a good life lesson. I can tell my parents and they'll let us do this again!"

"Again? Are you crazy?" Tris said.

"Oh, we have to do it again," Lucas declared. "We just have to."

"Josh, help me out here," asked Tris. "At least you had some brains, unlike this Ahnold wannabe. This is just too much."

Tris did not receive the support he expected from his best friend. Josh looked at him for a few moments, then shrugged. "Sorry, Tris. If you don't want to do it again, I'll understand. You did get a tough character to play. But I had a really good time, and I'd like to do it again."

"Without me?"

"I guess," Josh said, shrugging.

"All the rest of you, too? You all got killed. Didn't it hurt?"

"Yeah, some," Charly admitted. "But it wasn't too bad. I guess I just remembered it wasn't real." "Or maybe," she said, smiling ruefully, "when that thing hit me, I died so fast I didn't have time for it to hurt. I just couldn't move and my point of view sort of . . . hung around, hovering over my body so I could see what was happening."

Josh said, "Could be worse next time."

"I'll take my chances," Charly said.

"Please, Tris," Landon pleaded. "If you don't play, then Mom won't let me play. Not without really checking the game out, and I don't think she'll go for it if she does."

"Probably not," Tris agreed. "If you told her that you played a girl, and that you were a thief . . . well, she wouldn't need to hear much more than that."

"No shit," Landon said, then looked defiant when Tris frowned at him. That only lasted a second, and a guilty look followed. "Sorry."

The circle of friends looked at Tris, waiting for him to make up his mind.

Finally he did. "Crap. This is gonna be a mistake. I just know it."

"But you'll do it," Lucas prodded.

"Yeah, I'll do it," Tris agreed.

Chapter 5 - "Fight A Dragon, And All We Get Is A Lousy Point?"

The adventurers, complete with younger siblings, gathered again a week later. Tris was complaining as he walked into the room with Landon.

"I'm gonna get grounded for coming over here again," the older brother was saying. "When Dad finds out I didn't get my hair cut yesterday, he's gonna go through the roof."

"What does that have to do with coming here?" asked Lucas while he set up the CyberX(treme) system.

"Nothing, maybe," Tris admitted. "But there are always chores to do, and if I'd'a done something 'productive', as he says, instead of 'wasting time' doing this, maybe he'd let me off."

"Why didn't you just get your hair cut?" asked Josh.

"I woulda," Tris said, "except I didn't have the money. I just got it cut a couple of weeks ago, and it's growing so fast I don't know why I even bothered."

"Just ask Dad for some more money. For a haircut, he'd give you some," suggested Landon.

"Yeah, right, a $5 haircut. That would work," Tris replied with a snort. "The way this week has gone, that would be about right. Geez, I almost think this game thing is worth it, if only because it's not my real so-called life."

"At least school went fairly well," Josh said. "I aced my biology test, and I didn't think I'd do that well."

"Yeah, Braniac, like there was any doubt," Lucas said. "But I aced the phys ed test, which was pretty cool. I've never done so many pull-ups before."

"Not me," Tris grumped again. "I blew that bad."

"Didn't I see you celebrating after the run-til-you-puke thing?" asked Josh.

"Well, yeah," Tris said. "I did pretty well there. Hah, that's part of the reason we're here. When I told Dad how well I did, he quit snarking about how I should be getting some exercise instead of sitting around playing video games."

"Like this is just sitting around," Lucas said.

"Yeah," Charly agreed. "I wonder if this has some of that, um, muscle stimulation thing. Where they send electrical impulses through the muscles of comatose patients to keep the tissue from atrophying."

"Wow, sis, where did you pick up on that?"

"Get off my back, Josh. I'm almost as old as you are, and probably smarter."

"Not in the game," Josh said smugly.

"Yeah, well, we'll see about that," Charly promised.

They arranged themselves . . . and their carefully distributed headsets - no one wanted to take the chance of accidentally getting the one for Solace even if it wouldn't work anyway - and Lucas groped for the engage button on the game console. This time when the pixilation cleared they were all standing together in the little forest glade, complete with Mattock and Odin.

"Welcome to Reality 2.0," Odin said, the trademark symbol almost hovering in the air as he pronounced the claim. "Congratulations on a successful quest. You may now claim your rewards."

Sitting on the floor of the glade at each adventurer's feet were knapsacks, cloaks, and weapons. They looked quickly inside the bags to see what else they had gained, and each found gems from the dragon's horde, plus some other things that they didn't always recognize.

Solace pulled out a bottle of liquid and asked, "What's this?"

Odin just smiled that identical paternal smile. The closest thing to help he gave them was to glance at Rhialto.

Rhialto took the hint and started unfolding his book of spells. After a few minutes, he started waving one of his hands in the air and then pointed at the little bottle held by Solace. Then he laughed.

"That is an identifying potion," the wizard reported. "You put a drop on something, and you'll know what it is or does or whatever."

"Oh, okay," Solace said. Digging a little further into her bag she found a small book much like Rhialto's. And like the wizard's book, this one could be unfolded into a much larger tome. Unfortunately, most of the pages were gibberish.

"What's up with this?" she asked, showing the useless pages to the game master.

"Those are for abilities you haven't mastered yet," Odin explained. "As you progress through the quests, those pages will become clear to you."

"Oh, joy," Solace said. "Lotta help that is."

The others were examining their own prizes, including some armored bracers for Lucas to wear on his wrists and a heavier composite bow for Oakheart. Shimmer didn't share what she received, but her grin said she was happy with it.

Odin raised his hand for their attention, then said, "Also, with each successfully completed quest, you receive a point to be allocated among your attributes. Based on their performance, both Solace and Shimmer have been awarded an extra point. You may declare them now, or hold them in reserve.

"I doesn't make much sense to hold them," Lucas said. "I expect we'll need the skills to get through the quest. We barely made it through the last one."

"Right," Rhialto said. He was ready with his own selection. "I feel clumsy doing some of the spells, so I'd like to improve my Dexterity."

"A wise choice," Odin said. Nothing else seemed to happen until Rhialto suddenly smiled and started to exercise his fingers on an air piano.

Lucas and Oakheart chose Vitality after only a moment's thought. That left the two female members of their party.

"I choose to put mine on Strength," Solace declared. "Me, too," Landon echoed.

"Very well," Odin said, "but you should know that no matter how high your Strength attribute becomes, you will never change gender. The only way to do that is to start over - for the entire party."

"Oh," Solace said, disappointed.

"You also have a bonus point. Would you like to spend it now?" asked Odin.

"Oh," Solace said. "Yeah, I guess so. I think . . . well, I guess I don't know. Rhialto, any suggestions?"

"In the early levels, it's probably best to work on your lower attributes first," he said. "Or Vitality, which is always good. That way, you won't have a really bad weakness. Later, you can pump up the ones that make you more effective. But you were already maxed on Empathy, and pretty good on Vitality, so you're good there."

"Okay," Solace said. "I guess I'll go with, um, Dexterity. That was my next worst, I think."

"Good choice," Odin said.

Shimmer quickly chose Vitality as well, and Odin concluded the briefing. "Your next quest is to obtain the Staff of Skadi. Good luck."

"That's all?" asked Lucas. "No map, no clues, nothing?"

Odin just smiled that maddening smile and pixilated away. His voice hung in the air for just a moment longer, "Remember, the exit is always immediately behind your left ear."

"What is that, a dare?" Lucas snapped. "If we don't like the rules, we can just go home?"

"I suppose," Rhialto said dismissively. He was deep in thought about something.

Lucas continued his complaint. "We fight a honkin' big dragon, and all we get is a lousy attribute point and some trinkets?"

"What did you expect?" asked Oakheart. "Your bracers look like they'll be useful."

"Yeah, well, I was expecting . . . I don't know . . . maybe horses so we don't have to walk the whole way?"

"Now there's an idea," Shimmer agreed. "You high-vitality types can run all day, but I get tired."

Solace moved over to Rhialto and asked, "Do you have any ideas, oh wise one?"

"What, huh?" he asked, blinking as his concentration was broken.

Then he smiled and said, "Maybe." Calling over to Shimmer he asked, "Hey, Little Miss Thief, do you still have the Heart of Ymir?"

"What if I do?" Shimmer replied. "It's mine."

"I don't want to keep it," Rhialto said. "I just wondered . . . could I have a look at it?"

Shimmer frowned, then turned away from the others. She quickly ran her hands over her body, touching several potential hiding places, then turned back with a glowing red jewel in her hand.

She reluctantly handed it to Rhialto, and all the others - except Mattock of course - crowded around to look at it. The stone was carved into a classic valentine heart, with a pointed end opposite a double-lobed curve.

"I get nothing," Rhialto said after holding it for a minute. "But the fact it has a pointed end seems like a heck of a coincidence. I was hoping this one of those quests where each quest object helps you with the next one."

"Let me try," Lucas demanded. He was no more successful than Rhialto, but it did trigger a round of attempts by all the other adventurers.

"Do you want to try it?" Shimmer asked Solace after the others were done.

"I don't see why it would do anything different for me. I was expecting our ace tracker Oakheart to make it work," Solace said. But she accepted the glowing jewel. It felt warm to her touch - not hot, just pleasantly warm, as though it were happy to be with her.

:That's silly,: she thought to herself. :A stone can't have emotions. My Empathy skill has me thinking everything has feelings.:

At first, she felt nothing more than that welcoming warmth, but then she felt a faint buzzing as well. Closing her eyes and holding the jewel with the point away from her body, Solace slowly turned in a circle.

"Are you getting anything?" Lucas asked.

"Maybe," she said quietly. "Let me concentrate . . ."

After a full turn, she continued to rotate slowly until she was pointed in the same direction as their previous exit from the glade. Swinging her arm back and forth, she finally settled with it pointed toward the path.

"I feel a buzzing," she reported, "and I think it's a bit stronger in this direction."

"Meaning we're supposed to take the only path out of this place. Great secret," Lucas said.

"I suppose all of us could have seen that," Rhialto said. "But it may be that Solace's Empathy power is allowing her to perceive something that we cannot. Maybe it will be more helpful later."

"Wait a minute," Solace said. "Are we gonna find those giant skunks again if we go that way?"

"Oh, no," Oakheart said, laughing. "Well, if we do, we know how to handle them."

"You guys can get rid of your own stink then," Solace said. "I'll hang back . . . a long ways back."

"Oh, no, Miss Pretty," Lucas said, sketching a flourishing bow, "we need your grace and skill to combat such awful beasts."

"Besides," he concluded. "Rhialto will only have to cast one cleansing spell if all the, um, aura is on you."

"God, I hate this game," Solace said with a sigh. She was about to put Ymir's Heart in her pouch when Shimmer's hand intercepted her.

"That's mine, I believe," the thief said. "If you need it later, well, I'll know where it is."

"Whatever," Solace said, handing the stone over. She tried to hide her reluctance to let it go and lose that sense of welcoming warmth.

Sure enough, the pack of skunks were waiting for them. The fight went much like the last time, minus a few scratches and a gash or two. But the stench was as bad as ever. At least this time Rhialto could get rid of it quickly.

"I guess I memorized that spell when I studied it," he reported. "In any event, I didn't have to look it up again. I wonder how many I can keep, um, handy like that."

That was enough to get him to unfold his magic tome again and study as they walked along. For want of anything better to do, Solace tried the same thing, but she kept tripping over roots and things and put it away. The only spells she seemed to understand were cosmetic things anyway. :Stupid game-master is still trying to get me to be a girly-girl. Well, he's going to be very disappointed.:

Oakheart was waiting for the party a short distance past the skunk pack. In a coincidence none of them accepted as real, it was in the place where they had found the knapsacks and cloaks on their first quest.

"Look around," he suggested. "Notice anything different?"

"Was this trail here before?" Solace asked, pointing off to the side of the main trail.

"Not that I remember," Oakheart said, "and I'm finding that I have a very good memory for terrain and trails."

"Okay, that sounds like a clue, then," Lucas said. "Shimmer, come out, come out, wherever you are!"

The thief stepped from a nearby shadow and asked, "What do you want?"

"Give Solace your sparkly again. See if she can tell anything about this side trail."

"Why not just take a look down it? Why does she need my prize?"

"Because she's the only one who was able to get anything out of it," Lucas said. "And ease up on that 'your prize' thing. We were all in the battle against the wyrm. If we wouldn't have been getting our butts kicked distracting it, you'd never have gotten close enough to steal the thing."

"I coulda got it," Shimmer insisted. "Maybe after it got really dark or something, but I'd have figured something out."

"In which case, it truly would have been yours alone," Lucas said. "But as it is, we all earned it. Now give it to your sister."

"I'm not her sister. I'm . . ," Solace said, then ran down. She shrugged, and looked at Shimmer.

"Okay," the smaller woman said grumpily. Once again she turned away, then turned back a moment later with the stone.

This time when Solace held it, she felt the buzz almost immediately. And there was a definite increase in the buzzing when she pointed it at the side trail. "I guess this is the way we're supposed to go," she said.

"Shimmer," Oakheart said, "I really think we should let Solace keep the gem for now. Okay?"

Shimmer looked rebellious for a moment, but then nodded. Without a word she vanished into the shadows around the massive trees.

"She probably figures she can steal it back anytime she wants it," Solace said with a wry grin. "She's probably right."

"Probably," Rhialto agreed.

The party set out in their standard formation. The two scouts were . . .wherever. Even the wolf, Akeela, moved without sound through the thick forest. The two warriors led the main party, watching ahead and to the sides. Rhialto and Solace walked together behind the fighters, Rhialto still studying his spells.

They found Oakheart a few minutes later, legs dangling from a low branch over the trail. "Fork in the road," he reported. "Get out the rock."

"Another right fork," Solace reported. "I wonder if we'll end up back where we started."

"No," Oakheart said. "We've been moving mostly South this time. The castle was to the East. This turn gets back to almost due West."

"Really?" asked Rhialto. "How can you tell? Here in the forest the trees are so thick you can hardly see the sun, and even if you could, we don't know the time very accurately."

"Oh, I know," Oakheart promised. He dropped down from his thick limb and moved silently down the indicated trail.

"Trouble," reported Mattock, his first words all day.

"Not more skunks!" Solace complained.

"We should be so lucky," Oakheart said, returning to the group. "I shoulda kept my mouth shut when I wondered if we'd see giant rats."

They weren't really all that giant, maybe the size of large housecats. But that was big enough, especially considering that there were about fifty of them. The two warriors seemed virtually immune, swinging the weapons with deadly effect and ignoring the bites and scratches. The two magic users were not so lucky. Solace felt a sharp sense of pain from Rhialto and turned to him without conscious thought. She even ignored a pain that was apparently a bite to her own leg as she pulled Rhialto's injury into herself. The tug of weight on her leg went away before she turned to look at it. All she saw was a glimpse of dark leather slipping back into shadow.

"Thanks, Shimmer," she called out. Deciding that the bites that had gotten through weren't as bad as the threat of even more attacks from the remaining rats, she started swinging her staff like a club. "Hey," she announced, "that Dexterity stuff is cool."

Rhialto ignored her. He was concentrating on a spell in his book, ignoring also the attacking rodents. Finally, his eyes seemed to glow as he memorized another spell. Putting the book carefully away, he took up his staff and began to chant.

It took about ten seconds before he finished, the final act being a sweeping twirl of his own staff, though well above the swarming rats so it wasn't any sort of defensive swing. But when the head of the staff swung completely around to a sort of en garde position, a flare of heat flashed out all around him. In a heartbeat, all the rats were on fire, and in a few seconds all were dead.

"Wow, cool," Shimmer said.

"Yes, that was a very good spell," Oakheart agreed. "Thank you."

"If I understood the language correctly," Rhialto reported, "that's a once-a-battle sort of spell, and it takes - what? - 10 or 15 seconds to cast? In any event, I'm not going to be able to use it all the time, but it worked this time."

"Good for you," Solace said. "Now, let me get those bites."

She walked up to the wizard and laid a slender hand on each mark. They disappeared beneath her fingers, reappearing on her own smooth skin if they were in a place that would show.

"Don't, Solace," Rhialto said. "I'll heal up okay on my own."

"It's okay," Solace said tiredly. "It's what I'm supposed to do."

"Not for every little scratch," Rhialto insisted. "It's . . . just wrong to have a pretty girl like you get . . . hurt."

"Why thank you, kind sir," Solace said with a gentle laugh. "But it's not like this is . . . well, it's not that bad."

"Where's Akeela?" Solace asked. Oakheart pointed at the wolf, just visible under the shadowy trees near the path.

"Is he okay?" she asked, not sure if she could heal an animal as easily as she healed the human members of the group.

"Yes," Oakheart answered. "I realized I have a healing skill. It's not empathic healing like yours, exactly. Akeela's wounds don't end up transferring to me, but I get a sense of fatigue when I like, send energy to him. I can sense when he's hurting, and just . . . do it.

"Okay," Solace said. "Let me know if you need any help."

None of the others seemed to need anything, and after Rhialto had repaired everyone's clothes, they set out again. Solace was limping for a while, but she refused to slow down, and in a few minutes she seemed as good as new. Maybe even better.

"Oh, that's it," Rhialto said. "You let down your hair."

"What?" Solace said. Then she reached up and realized her thick sable tresses were cascading down her shoulders and back. "I never even noticed," she said. "I wonder where my clasp went."

"Here is another, milady," said Oakheart, stepping out behind a tree with a twist of leather. "But I could hope that you would leave your hair flowing free. It is very beautiful."

"Smooth," Lucas said with a sneer. "You, ah, interested in girls now, Charly?"

"Oakheart, while we're here," the ranger corrected, with a smile that didn't touch his eyes.

"Solace and Oaky, sittin' in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g," Shimmer's voice rang out.

"Grow up, shrimp," Oakheart said.

"Wake up, *dude*," Shimmer countered, emphasizing the masculine label. "We're here."

They looked toward the sound of Shimmer's voice, which was further along the trail, to find the slender girl leaning on a tree. She pointed around a curve in the trail, and when they rounded it they all saw a jagged cavemouth.

"Wanna bet the staff thingy is in there?" she asked.

"Oh, joy," Lucas sighed. "A cave crawl. Well, we should have expected it."

"Indeed," Oakheart agreed. He moved his bow to his shoulder and pulled the long knife that was his close-in weapon.

"Wait a minute," Rhialto said. "What was the name of the staff we're after?"

"I don't know," Lucas said. "Does it matter?"

Before Rhialto could explain his concern, Mattock made his gravel-crusher throat-clearing sound and said, "Staff of Skadi."

"Right," Rhialto said. "Do any of you remember who Skadi was?"

"Yeah, right," Lucas said sarcastically. "I spend my time memorizing obscure things like that. God, what a geek."

"Well, this geek may just save your ass," Rhialto said sharply. "As I recall, Skadi was the goddess who imprisoned Loki underground, and just for fun, she had snakes continually drip poison on his face. Now, if we're about to go underground after the Staff of Skadi, what are the odds we'll find poison snakes?"

"Man, I hate this game," Solace sighed.

Chapter 6 - "I'm Ugly!"

Shimmer led the way, moving with absolute silence . . . and a lot more care than she normally demonstrated. Which, considering she was usually the most cautious among them made her pace seem almost painfully slow. Not that anyone complained.

"Wait a minute," Rhialto said. He flipped furiously through his spell book until he found something that was apparently satisfying. A few seconds of chanting and whirling his staff resulted in a cool green glow from the distorted end and they had a torch.

"I wonder . . ," mused Solace, opening her own spell book. In it she found something similar, though in her case it involved laying hands on one end of her own staff. After a moment there was a feeling of heat and she quickly moved her hand back to a more balanced grip near the middle. The end continued to heat up, though, and they soon had another torch, this one with a hot, yellow color.

"Cool," she said, waving the glowing end around. "I think that end is hot enough to use as a weapon."

"I expect we'll find out," Lucas said, moving carefully forward. Shimmer didn't seem to mind the dark so she stayed ahead of the overlapping circles of light. At least for a while.

"Trouble," the thief reported a moment later, stepping back into view.

"Snakes?" Lucas asked sharply.

"What's the matter, Warrior Man," teased Shimmer. "Afraid of some overgrown worms?"

"What is the problem?" Lucas demanded. "Quit screwin' around."

"Well, it's not snakes," Shimmer replied. "At least not yet. There's a wider space up ahead, with multiple exits."

"Oh, a maze," Oakheart said. Then he smiled at Solace. "I guess it's lucky we have our seeing eye damsel."

"Lucky for who?" she countered, but she smiled coyly at the lean ranger - an expression she did not intend and would have been horrified to see on her own fair features.

The Eye of Ymir indicated one of the four passages from the transit space, and they moved toward that opening.

"Wait a minute," Rhialto said. "How are we going to find our way back out?"

"I will know," Oakheart promised.

"So will I," Shimmer said from a shadow ahead of them.

"Good for you," Lucas said, "but Rhialto is right. We need to mark our trail. We might get split up."

"'Got any breadcrumbs handy?" Solace asked Oakheart.

"I wouldn't trust the inhabitants of this place not to disturb a trail like that," he replied.

"Lucky for us, we don't need to leave breadcrumbs," Lucas said. He was about to swing his heavy blade at the passageway that had delivered them to the transit chamber, when he paused and looked at the shiny edge. "Mattock, how about cutting a mark on that opening?"

The squat warrior nodded and swung his pick at the wall at about his shoulder level. A head-sized chunk of rock split off and fell in the opening.

"Good enough," Lucas said. "Mattock, do that every time we come to a branching."

The never-talkative henchman just nodded.

They wandered deeper into the maze of tunnels, guided by the heart-shaped stone.

"Do you hear anything?" Lucas asked. As usual, he and Mattock were leading the party - everyone except Shimmer of course.

Then Shimmer appeared, running with no attempt at stealth. Her feet still made no noise at all, so that wasn't what had troubled Lucas. He found his answer soon enough. Behind Shimmer was a twisting, roiling boil of snakes. In their slither mode, they weren't impossibly fast, but they were coming with an unwavering aggressiveness that said the party wasn't getting by them without a fight. Lucas slid his long blade out of his scabbard and grabbed Mattock by an arm. Together they took positions at a narrow place in the passage.

"Get your fire spell going," he ordered Rhialto. Then the snakes were upon him.

The good news was that the snakes weren't constrictors. None of them tried to wrap themselves around the warriors and drag them in to the hissing tangle. The bad news is that, like most non-constrictor snakes, they were indeed poisonous as Rhialto had warned.

Worse yet, was that they were able to spit their poison, with a range that put them nearly out of reach of Lucas's long sword and Mattock's pick. And worst of all, the poison seemed to be corrosive, so that even if they missed eyes or mouth, the poison still ate at the warrior's skin and armor. Akeela sounded a rolling thunder snarl and leaped past the warriors into the web of snakes - to disappear within seconds into a nightmare worse than any had ever imagined facing.

Lucas was immediately bellowing with pain, though to his credit his scything blade never wavered. Solace reached out from directly behind the huge swordsman and placed her slender hand on his shoulder. Closing her own eyes, she opened herself to his pain and injuries, pulling them into herself. Her high, thin scream of agony echoed off the walls, but she held her place and tried to keep the warrior alive.

Ten seconds spent contemplating a sunset or listening to a babbling brook seems like less than a heartbeat. Ten seconds spent running a race are over almost before they are begun. Ten seconds spent burning in the corrosive fires of serpents' poison echoes down long hallways of memory, defining eternity . . . and then redefining it as inescapable damnation.

When Rhialto's fire spell finally flared past them, Mattock was dead. Lucas was barely able to stand, and Solace collapsed in indescribable pain. She huddled into a twisted fetal position, fingers gnarled with spasming muscles, voice a mere whimper, begging for release from her nightmare.

The other adventurers stood around helplessly, understanding for the first time the demands of the role that Solace had so reluctantly - yet without wavering - embraced.

"That does it," Shimmer said. "We're out of here. This isn't worth it."

Lucas looked like he was going to argue for a second, then nodded his head. "She did the exit thing last time. Has anyone else figured it out?"

There were a few minutes of fumbling as the players looked behind each other's ears, turned their own heads, and waved their hands by their heads. By the time one of them figured it out - Rhialto, as might be expected - Solace's weak whimper had turned into gasping sobs.

"Don't you dare," she ordered. "After all this, there's no way I'm giving up."

"Don't be silly," Rhialto said. "This is only a damn game. It's not worth it."

"It's not the game," Solace groaned through clenched teeth. "It's giving up. Once we finish this quest, you can burn that damn game console for all I care. But I'm not giving up in the middle. Particularly not after all we've been through."

"That's very noble, Solace . . ," began Rhialto, but Oakheart interrupted him.

"No, Rhialto, she's right. I never would have believed how real this world is to the senses, but maybe the fact it's only a game is part of the reason we can't give up."

"What?" Rhialto asked in confusion.

"Maybe I understand, too. At least a little," Lucas said. "The fact we have a choice, means it says more about us than about the game if we make the easy choice. In real life, what happens when the going gets tough? I think this game goes too far, but I don't want to let it beat me. Not when the obstacle is my own . . . determination."

He shrugged and looked at the body of Mattock. "If the things in the game kill us, then okay. We lose. Any game master can set it up that way. But if we choose to quit, particularly when the cost has been so high, then . . ."

"Exactly," Solace gasped. She started to unwind herself from her huddled crouch, then paused when the others gasped in shock.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing," Lucas said. She tried to raise herself to a sitting position, and looked toward the sound of the warrior's voice.

"Oh, god, I'm blind," she reported.

No one said anything. She looked around in her darkness, waiting for a comment. The only sound she heard was a stifled retching sound coming from several feet away.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

There was another long pause, and she opened her mouth to ask again when Rhialto said, "Your, um, face is . . . it, um, isn't fully healed. Yet."

"Oh, great," she sighed. "Blind and ugly, too. How bad is it."

"Not too bad," Rhialto claimed, and the lie was huge in his voice.

"Help me up," Solace ordered. As they lifted her up, she shrugged out of her knapsack and blindly held it out. "Someone look inside this thing. There should be a scarf or something. A shawl. Whatever."

Rhialto took the bag and searched it for what she requested. He found a soft cascade of pearly silk and placed it in her waiting hand.

"Thanks," she said tersely, then wrapped the scarf around her head so that no one could see whatever had become of her once-beautiful face.

"I'd appreciate it if someone else will carry that backpack," she said. "And my staff is round her somewhere, too." Reaching inside one of the pouches still at her belt, she found the glowing heartstone and held it in her fist. Turning, she ended up with her arm pointed down the passageway that had once been filled with angry snakes - though she couldn't tell that - and shrugged.

"We might as well keep going. We obviously couldn't fight another battle like that, but the longer we wait here the more likely something will find us."

She took a step forward that she hoped looked casual, only to find herself bumping into Lucas's massive frame.

"Oh, sorry," the warrior mumbled. "My fault."

"No it's not, dork," she said. "I'm the one that's blind. I guess someone will have to lead me until my eyes heal."

"I'll do it," Rhialto offered. But smaller hands took Solace's arm and gently urged her on.

"I'll take care of her," Shimmer said. "She's my sister."

"Thank you, sis," Solace said, though if her small accent on the feminine label indicated an awareness of the humor of that label, there was no sign outside her veil.

Even blind, the tingling of the heartstone led her in the right direction. One time, Solace heard a scuffle up ahead and tried to pull Shimmer along more quickly.

"C'mon," the healer said. "It sounds like they're fighting!"

"It's okay, Solace," Shimmer replied. "It was no big deal."

"Yes it was," Solace argued. "I may not be able to see, but I can still feel, and Lucas is hurting."

"It's okay," She heard the strong, confident voice of Lucas. "Next to what happened earlier, it was nothing."

"But if you have poison in you . . ," Solace started.

"Then my own Vitality will have to take care of it. I may not have as high a score as you, but it's enough for this."

After a few more moments even Solace got tired of her whiny insistence, so she just fell silent and allowed herself to be led along.

"Uh, oh," Shimmer said.

"What?" demanded Solace.

"Remember that dragon wyrm?" the thief asked.

"Yes," Solace said.

"Well, it's little brother is slithering around in the room ahead. This one is only about 15 feet long, but that's bad enough."

"Actually," the voice of Oakheart intruded confidently. "This is not a problem. Although I suppose it could be if we had no ranged attacks, or if it was armored like the wyrm."

Solace heard a rustling from the ranger, and then a sharp twang.

"Good shot!" Lucas exclaimed.

"Shimmer," Oakheart said, "why don't you let me take car . . . spend some time with Solace for a few moments while you take a look around. Make sure that big snake was the last obstacle."

Solace felt her 'sister's' hand replaced by the larger, harder hand of the ranger, and then it seemed to the blind woman as though nothing happened for a long time. Perhaps it was only a few minutes, but for a newly-blinded person, silent darkness grows heavily with each passing heartbeat.

"Got it," she heard Shimmer's soft voice declare. There wasn't much of the jubilation the thief had enjoyed after the first quest, but there was a sense of quiet triumph - of important success.

"Does anyone know the way out?" Solace asked into her darkness.

"Yes," Oakheart's steady voice declared. True to his word, he took her arm and gently led her onward.

Solace in her distress cast an unavoidable gloom on the party so there were no joyful predictions of the sort of rewards they might expect. Instead, they just forged onward, separately hoping that Odin would allow this quest to end as soon as possible. But there was no immediate completion. Instead, as they finally exited the broken cavemouth, they found Odin waiting patiently at the edge of the forest.

"Congratulations," he said easily. "Few parties make it through this quest on the first run."

"Lucky us," Solace sneered tiredly, leaning on Oakheart's strong arm.

"Less lucky than skillful, and brave," Odin corrected. Unseen by Solace, he lifted his staff and invoked an eldritch glow that fizzed and popped along the length. Suddenly, lightning flickered from the upraised end to touch each of the adventurers in turn.

"Oh, thank you," Solace gasped. "I can see again."

She unwrapped her face and looked around the small clearing, blinking in the light. It took her a second to realize that the others players were looking at her with continuing distress.

"What's wrong?" she asked. Then she remembered something that was in her pouch and pulled out a small piece of polished metal.

"Oh, god, I'm ugly!" she cried. "I'm still ugly."

Chapter 7 - "Reality 1.1"

Her plaintive cry brought the team to her side. Lucas wrapped his massive arms around her and helped her stand. Looking over her shoulder at the game-master he demanded, "How long before her Vitality restores her beauty?"

"Actually," Odin replied, "her Vitality alone will not restore her beauty. It provides rapid healing, but only that. She is now fully healed."

"But . . . the wounds she took from me . . . if all she does is heal rapidly, then why don't I have the scars instead of her?"

"She does not affect your own healing," Odin explained. "That is the result of your own Vitality. She absorbs your wounds into herself, leaving you nothing to heal. And since she is thereby the one who is wounded, it is her Vitality that heals . . . and leaves her with the scars of her honorable sacrifice. She will find that her body can heal without scarring from most wounds, but not from all."

"Fuck that," Lucas snapped. "I don't care about honorable sacrifice. Make her beautiful again."

"She's still beautiful," Rhialto said quietly. "She's just not as pretty."

"What?" Lucas snapped, turning to the wizard. "Oh, yeah, right. But you know what I mean."

"I expect I do," Rhialto agreed. He looked at Odin and continued, "Game-Master, Odin, whatever you want to be called, destroying that pretty girl's looks is an intolerable shame. Is there nothing we can do?"

"She already possesses what she needs to restore her appearance," Odin said.

"What, where?" demanded Lucas.

Odin just smiled that maddeningly constant smile.

Solace pulled herself from Lucas's arms, gently, without any sense of rejection. She took her scarf and wrapped it again around her head to cover her scarred face, leaving only her eyes exposed. "Who has my knapsack?" she asked.

Oakheart brought it forward and handed it to her.

She rummaged around in the bag for a moment, coming up with her folded book. After expanding it, she flipped through the pages until she found something that caught her attention. She studied it for a while, then fumbled in her pouch for the little bottles of potion that she had been provided.

"One of these does it," she said. "I just don't know which one."

"Which one is it?" Lucas demanded of Odin. His wide shoulders seemed to grow even larger as he loomed over the old-appearing man.

"Luke, no," Rhialto said. "This is the game master. Pissing him off will just make things worse."

Odin seemed to be ignoring Lucas completely. His attention was focused on Solace. She looked back at him for a long moment, then said, "Odin, I'd like to spend my attribute point now."

The man smiled his paternal smile and nodded.

"I'll use it for Intelligence," she declared.

"Wait a minute," Lucas interrupted. "Use it for Appearance. It will make you better looking again."

"One point wouldn't be enough," Solace said. "Look, I don't know how I know, but I just, um, feel like this is the right thing to do."

"Indeed, Odin declared. "For with intelligence, you will better understand how to use the skills and tools you already possess."

Odin made a gesture that seemed almost like a benediction - perhaps that's exactly what it was - and Solace closed her eyes as though she could feel a physical pressure from his action. In a moment she opened her eyes again, and then searched quickly through her pouches. She pulled out a small bottle with what looked like a thick, red gel inside.

"Is this the Firebalm gel?" she asked. When the game master nodded slightly, she worked the gel like a lotion into her scarred skin. Her eyes asked a question of the old man and he smiled that repetitious smile again.

"Be patient," he said. Then he addressed the group as a whole. "Each of you has a similar potion in your equipment. Use it carefully, because it will not be replenished if it runs out. You may, however, find supplies of it in your journeys, or in your quest rewards. Of course, Solace may choose to take your wounds from you, leaving you with no scars or other residual effects, so you may find yourself using your potions on Solace."

"Oh, yeah," the others said, each searching within his own pouch for the red gel.

"That should not be necessary," Odin said. "The amount that Solace has applied should be sufficient to her needs."

"However," he continued to Solace directly, "you will need to be patient."

With that, Odin stepped back and waved his arm over an array of additional quest rewards. He did not volunteer to any of them that they might redeem attribute points. After a moment Rhialto remembered that Solace had claimed her own without Odin's prompting so the wizard approached the old man and asked for his own attribute boost. His example triggered a mini-stampede of others requesting their most important reward.

Only the two women, Solace and Shimmer, stood back.

"Aren't you going to get your point?" Solace asked her sister.

"No," Shimmer said. "I'm through with this game."

"What?" Solace asked. "You're the one who was most enthusiastic about it, and you've been doing very well."

"It's not worth it," Shimmer said. "When you were hurt, and blind, and then when it looked like you would go from so beautiful to so scarred and . . . well, ugly . . . It stopped being fun."

"Oh, hell, shrimp, it's just a game. As soon as we get out of here, I'll just be me again. I admit this becomes a lot more real than I had expected when you get involved in it - but that means it has real challenges to overcome as well as 'fun' things. The price makes the challenge a real accomplishment."

"Yeah," Shimmer said, "but . . . it hurts."

"Yes," Solace agreed. "But, like a hard workout, it feels better afterward."

She sighed, and patted her sister on the back. "Or at least, I expect it will. Particularly if this Firebalm potion does its thing. Go get your attribute point."

Sorting out the details of the latest round of rewards took only a few more minutes, and then they were all looking expectantly at Solace. She reached behind her ear to find the exit button and the static roar carried them away.

"Uh, oh," Tris heard Joshua say as they removed their headsets.

"What's wrong?" Charly asked, blinking her eyes to refocus.

Joshua didn't say anything, but his eyes were obviously focused on Tris, and that drew everyone else's attention as well.

"Uh, oh," Lucas echoed. "Dude, that's weird."

"What?" Tris demanded, aware of the others' stares. He reached up to his face and felt lumps and pits that, while not as bad as the scars Solace had felt in the game, weren't there before their latest run in the game. Moving quickly to a mirror in the hallway to the Danner home, he looked at what had bothered the others.

"Oh, shit," Tris said. "That just . . . sucks."

His face betrayed a moderate case of the teen curse - acne. It was well within the range for high school sophomores, particularly sophomore boys. "Oh, god, Mom is just gonna kill me. She's just . . . death on zits."

"But . . . why are they there?" Josh asked slowly. "I mean, it's just in the game that you were scarred. Why here?'

"Huh?" Tris said, then his eyes widened in surprise. "Oh, yeah. What's up with that, Luke?"

"Damned if I know," he replied. Lucas dug out the never-reviewed instructions for the game console and started skimming through them. "Shit, none of this makes any sense."

"Let me see," Josh suggested, reaching for the manual. After a few minutes he nodded his head and said, "Well, at least one of our beta-test feedback comments is gonna be that the manual sucks. But I did find this . . ."

He pointed to a set of notes under the heading "Reality 1.1."

"In some cases," the manual reported, "the intensity of the 'Reality 2.0' experience may result in residual effects after exiting the game environment. These are generally transient in nature."

"So my zits are not real?" asked Tris.

"Oh, I think they're real," Josh said. "They're just a reaction to the game situation. Your body . . . maybe it's like it 'remembers' the game situation and is trying to like . . . bridge the gap between the two memories."

"Geez, get real," Tris said. "My pores don't remember shit. There's gotta be something else."

"Find it yourself," Josh said, pushing the manual at Tris. While Tris was flipping through the pages, the taller boy walked over and picked up a headset. "Y'know, it just might . . ."

"Might what?" asked Lucas.

"Well," Josh said, "there are psychosomatic symptoms that, y'know, seem real to people. Like, 'phantom pain' from amputated limbs and, um, I've heard of hysterical paralysis or blindness. And the experience is so total when we're in the game. I wonder . . ."

"So, my mind is giving me zits?" Tris challenged.

"D'you have a better explanation?" Josh countered.

"Well, I better find one," Tris said. "My mom will never buy that as a reason for going all pizza face."

"Hey, Tris, It's not that bad," Charly said. "I have some cleansers you can use."

"Makeup?" Tris said with a snort. "Just because I'm a girl in the game does not mean I'm going all poofter in real life."

"I said cleansers, not makeup," Charly said. "And yes, there is a difference. Just forget I asked."

Tris shrugged. "Sorry. I guess I'm just bummed about the . . . what did it say? . . . residual effects."

The girl nodded acceptance of the apology, but she did not repeat her offer.

By Wednesday, Tris's face had cleared up. The three older boys got together on a break and talked about the game.

"I think we should quit," Josh said bluntly. "That thing is just too intense. I mean, who wants to play a game that hurts?"

"All the football players, for one," Lucas said. "And the wrestlers, and the long distance runners, and . . . hell, Rick Hanley broke his hand playing baseball. It happens all the time."

"Yeah, but that's sports. For jocks. That's not for me."

"Well, in the game, we're jocks."

"You're a jock," Josh said. "I'm a nerd there, too."

"Yeah, you are," Lucas said, laughing.

Josh looked at Tris and said, "Back me up here, dude. I figured you'd want to quit, too."

Tris looked thoughtfully at his friends for a moment. Then he asked a question that seemed to head off on a tangent. "Luke, when you were injured - like, when the dragon from the first quest hit you - how bad did it hurt?"

"Wow," Lucas said, remembering, "it was like every bone in my body was broken. I felt totally smashed."

"Really?" Tris asked. "Have you ever broken a bone? Did it hurt as bad as that?"

Lucas said, "Yeah, I broke my arm once. It . . ."

He interrupted himself. Looking at Tris, he nodded. "I think I see what you mean. Breaking my arm for real hurt a lot worse. In the game, it was sort of . . . annoying is all. And it wasn't really the same sort of hurt . . ."

"Sort of like an electrical buzz, like when you get a shock?"

"Yeah," Lucas said. "And now that I think of it, it faded fairly quickly, even before you healed me."

"What about the snake poison?" Tris asked.

"That was more like . . . really bad itching, I guess," Lucas said.

"Right," Tris said. "Josh, you're the brainiac, but it seems to me that all the CyberX does is give your nerves a sort of jolt, and it's not really that bad. At the time, I thought it was horrible, but . . . well, that's the mind thing again. I was really into the game and I guess I made it real."

"Okay, so?" asked Josh.

"So . . . I guess I don't like being a quitter," Tris said. "I'm not a jock, not even in the game, but this is more about . . . being tough than being strong. Mentally tough. And I guess I want to believe that I'm that tough. Or at least find out."

"Right," Lucas said.

"Oh, bullshit, Luke," Tris said, with a smile to take away any real attack. "You just like being a jock. But for me . . . this has become about who I am on the inside."

"Um, yeah," Josh said doubtfully. "But what difference does it make? If we finish all the quests and get our name written in some book of heroes for the game, so what? Nobody else will know."

"I will know," Tris said. "And for the first time, I think I'm beginning to understand what my parents meant about that."

He sighed and gathered up this things. "Don't get me wrong. I'd rather be a big, whackin' warrior like Lucas, or a cool wizard like you. But I guess, after seeing myself as ugly - and realizing how important that had become to me - I just don't want to quit. This game is a real challenge now."

"So, are we on for Sunday?" Lucas asked hopefully.

"I'm in," Tris said, "and I'll bring Landon."

"I guess I'm in then," Josh said. "I'll have to check with Charly, but I expect she'll come, too."

When the adventurers gathered again, Josh and Charlotte were a little late. When they entered, they found the others gathered around the game console itself.

"Hey, Josh, come look at this," Tris said.

"What?" the tall young man said.

"Our attribute points, they've changed," Tris explained. "Here, look at mine."

The table of his attributes was displayed on the small screen that was part of the game console. The displayed numbers were different from those originally applied to his character.

"Well, sure," Josh said. "You've been racking up basic quest points, plus bonus points."

"It's more than that, and in areas I didn't apply any of my points to," Tris said. "Look, my Appearance stat is up 2, and my Charisma is up 1. I used my points on Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. It also says I have an unallocated point."

"Hmm," Josh said. "Who has the manual?"

Landon handed it to him and he scanned through it.

"Geez, Josh, you are such a geek," his sister said when her brother's first response was to bury himself in a book.

"Yeah, and my SAT scores are gonna get me into any college I want," he replied casually, not really paying attention to what was clearly an old argument between them.

"Here it is," he said. "It looks like the game master can raise specific attribute points based on game play. For some reason, he seems to think that you deserved some additional points in those areas. Hey, I remember now. He said he can take some away, too. If we act stupid all the time, he can downgrade our Intelligence score - or something like that. Anyway, he can make your game character match the way you actually act in the game. That's in addition to the bonus points you can decide how to apply. That 'unallocated' one must be from the last quest. Did you ask Odin about that?"

"No, I guess not," Tris admitted. "I asked for the basic one for the quest, but I figured I'd screwed up enough getting so scarred and all that I wouldn't get a bonus."

"Did anyone else get an extra point - one that was already applied?" asked Josh.

"We all did, in one place or another," Lucas said. "I was reviewing my stats so that I could decide where to use my next point and found it. Nobody got as many as Tris, but we all got at least one and Charly - Oakheart - got two. I don't know why they're split up the way they are, though. Why did Shimmer get a plus up on Appearance? Or me on Empathy?"

"I guess we'll have to ask Odin about it," Charly said. "Are we ready to start?"

They shuffled through the now-familiar headsets and Lucas engaged the game system. After the static cleared, they found themselves in the same forest glade that started all the quests.

:Oh, crap,: Solace thought to herself. :I bet we have to fight those skunks again to get out of here.:

Then she had another thought. :It looks like Odin has been waiting for us - if waiting has any meaning for a computer-generated character when the power is off. This whole thing is so real it seems like he must still be around somewhere, even when we're not.:

"Welcome to Reality 2.0," he said again.

"Wow!" Lucas said, looking at Solace. The others turned to see what he had noticed and they showed their own amazement in wide eyes and soft whistles.

"What?" Solace said. "Am I still ugly?"

"Hardly," Rhialto said. "You were really pretty before, but now . . ."

"Wow, sis, you're . . . gorgeous," Shimmer said.

Solace dug out her bit of shiny metal and tried to see what they had found so noticeable. Odin noticed and with a wave of his hand conjured a mirror effect in mid air.

The woman in the mirror was clearly Solace, but she was also clearly more beautiful than ever. Some of that was a more shapely figure, approaching the artificial extremes of body-sculpted movie stars with an almost-fragile waist between 'padding' that was anything but fragile. Part of that was an even prettier face with larger eyes, a cuter nose, and fuller, pouting lips. And part of that - a major part - was wonderfully alive hair. It was still sable dark and shiny, but now it flowed in thick, graceful curves that accented her face and slender shoulders.

And part of it was that her grey and white outfit was now definitely more feminine. The tunic vest still fit very snugly which was a celebration of femininity in itself, but it was now accented with lace and embroidery. And her boots had gained a bit of slightly tapered heel to make her ankles slimmer and her legs longer. Solace found herself turning a bit back and forth in the mirror, admiring her new look and enjoying the heavy yet sensual feel of her thick, lovely hair. Then she gasped in shock and felt at her ears.

"I've got earrings," she exclaimed, stepping forward to see them. They were dime-sized disks of fairly plain gold, but the way they caught light when her hair revealed them called attention to her long, slender neck.

Shimmer came to stand next to her, and there was another factor that she noticed. While Shimmer was less well endowed than her bigger sister, there was still a clear family resemblance. Shimmer, in fact, looked like a younger Solace, one whose promise of beauty was yet to be fulfilled.

"You're looking mighty fine yourself, shrimp," Solace said. "Is your hair longer? And I swear you're taller, too."

Shimmer leaned close to Solace and whispered, "Don't tell anyone, but I used my attribute point from the last quest for Appearance. I decided I'd like to be prettier."

"Good for you, sis," Solace said. "Enjoy it while you can. And you're already awesome on moving silently and hiding. You must have a maxed-out Dexterity."

"It's not bad," Shimmer said with a grin. "So I'll do what Josh . . Rhialto said and work on my lowest attributes - even though I don't think he meant Appearance when he said that."

"Go for it," Solace said with a tinkly laugh that she realized too late was actually a giggle.

As they were sorting through their packs and Oakheart was being reunited with an apparently healthy Akeela, Rhialto approached Odin, "We noticed that we have been given extra attribute points in specific skill areas. Can you tell us the criteria for obtaining those points?"

Odin smiled his machine-generated smile. The old man seemed so real that when he would do something that showed he was really a machine - or at least a machine avatar - it was jarringly discordant.

"There are two main criteria I use in increasing specific skills," he explained. "The first rewards an adventurer for demonstrating skills higher than the attribute would indicate. For example, someone who shows noticeable intelligence or wisdom will find that his or her attributes align more closely with the demonstrated actual abilities. This allows for an increased sense of reality in the environment."

"Oh, got it," Rhialto said. "So even if someone has, say, a low Intelligence score and can't read spells or whatever, if they show that they're smart they get credit for that. Let's see . . . for Vitality, if they tough it out when they're injured, working through the pain, they'll eventually get a higher Vitality score?"

"Yes," the game master confirmed.

"You said there was another way to get, um, specific skills?" Oakheart asked.

"Yes," the game-master said with another of those too-perfect repetitions. "An adventurer who is willing to sacrifice for the common good will find that sacrifice rewarded if the sacrifice is effective."

"'If it's effective,'" Rhialto repeated. "So Solace picked up an Appearance point because she was willing to sacrifice her appearance to heal the warriors, and it worked. But if it hadn't worked, then she'd still be scarred?"

"No," Odin replied. "With the Firebalm potion, her scarred skin would still be restored. However, once restored, she would not be more attractive than before."

Oakheart said, "Do I remember that I have an extra attribute point coming? Why did I get that? I wasn't all that effective in the quest."

With a coincidence that Solace didn't believe for a second, considering their highly scripted environment, Akeela chose that moment to nuzzle a cold nose into Oakheart's hand.

"Oh, stupid me," the ranger said. "This point is because of Akeela's sacrifice against the snakes."

Odin nodded placidly, then stood waiting while Oakheart considered how to spend the point.

"Use it on the wolf, Wood-for-Brains," Shimmer said.

"Oh, can I do that?" Oakheart asked.

"Yes. Wolf companions already possess the maximum allowable attribute for Appearance, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma. Wisdom is not relevant. That leaves variable attributes for Strength, Vitality, and Empathy."

"Oh, cool," Oakheart said. "I mean, good. I think it would be good to increase his Vitality."

Odin nodded, and in a moment Akeela's coat shown with new richness and the huge wolf started playfully nipping at Oakheart's fingers before bouncing away with overflowing energy.

"Mighta made a mistake, there, Butch," Lucas said. "He seems to have Vitality to burn."

"Maybe," Oakheart said happily, "but I'll take it."

"I suppose I should consider my extra point, too," Solace observed. When Odin's attention was firmly on her - which meant that his one eye was looking at her, though it seemed as though there was a deeper inspection - she pulled out her folded book again. "I think I need to catch up on more Intelligence, please."

The old man made his gesture of benediction again, and when the pressure had eased, she quickly looked at her book of spells. After a moment she slapped her own forehead. "Ohmigod, I am such a dummy. These cosmetic spells are not just about girly makeup. They're about appearance. I have a spell that does the same thing the Firebalm potion does."

"Yes," Odin confirmed in his utterly repetitious way.

"Why?" asked Lucas. "If we can just use the potion, why do we need a spell?"

When Odin made no response, Rhialto answered. "Well, the gel stuff can run out."

With at least the obvious rationale provided, Odin offered an extension. "You will also find that the spells of a healer work more quickly than potions that anyone can use, and with greater effect."

"Man, I wish I'd have started with a higher Intelligence score," Solace said. "This would have been a lot easier."

"Or not possible at all," Rhialto offered. "If your actual points hadn't made you such a good healer, we might have been wiped out several times by now. It's always nice to have maxed out everything, but you've been awesome so far and I wouldn't change a thing."

"Thanks," she said, blushing.

"Is your party ready?" Odin asked. At the nods of some and silence of the rest, he laid out the next quest. "Ahead, somewhere, you will find the Fist of Thor. When united with the Heart of Ymir and the Staff of Skadi, you will have a scepter of great power."

"Right," Lucas said. "So, let's get moving. Where's the heart thing?"

"I've got it," Shimmer admitted. "Let me try it."

As before, none of the others could get any sensation from the stone, but Solace quickly identified a direction of travel, not surprisingly the only apparent exit from the glade.

The skunks were again waiting for them.

And then it started to rain.

Chapter 8 - "You Know, I Hate You"

"You know I hate you," Oakheart said to Solace as they walked along in the storm. The ranger had returned to the group after one of his many scouting trips, and with Akeela at his side was pacing the tall girl for a while. Solace had her gray cloak on with a hood covering her hair against the rain, while Oakheart walked along without seeming even to notice the streaming cascade.

"What?" asked Solace in surprise.

Oakheart grinned to show that he didn't really hate the shapely woman. "If I were Charly and in the rain like this, I'd look at best like a drowned rat and at worst . . . well, don't even go there. But you . . ."

"What's wrong with the way I look?" Solace demanded.

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing," Oakheart said with a sigh. "If your blouse gets any tighter it's going to split a seam, and every damn one of the guys is waiting for that to happen. Those strands of wet hair look just vulnerable enough to bring out the protector in any guy with an ounce of testosterone, yet at the same time it looks like an advertisement for an uninhibited beach resort. And somehow - even though the rest of us look like we've been making mudpies all day, your clothes are as clean as spring rain. It's absolutely, criminally, unfair."

"Oh, you," Solace said once she finally realized that Oakheart was teasing. "The rain doesn't seem to be bothering you, with your - I swear to God, the first time I saw you the word that came to me was 'chiseled' - abs and the corded muscles in your arms . . . you're not so bad in the rain yourself."

"Why thank you, pretty lady," Oakheart said, bowing as they walked. "I guess being a, um, member of the new-plumbing club has given me a pretty unique perspective. As Charly, I can appreciate how bad this rain can make women look and therefore how amazing you are, and as Oakheart . . ."

"Yes?" prompted Solace.

"Well, let's just say that at least in some degree, function follows form in this new universe."

"Goodness, Sir Ranger, are you making a pass at me?"

"Perhaps, Lady Healer . . . perhaps," Oakheart said with a hearty laugh. Before Solace had a chance to reply, he moved out on yet another quick-paced scouting foray.

"What was that all about?" Shimmer asked, slipping silently to a position next to Solace. The smaller girl had her own dark cloak about her, but hers was short enough that her leather leggings gleamed like polished iron below the hem.

"I wish I knew, Shimmer. I really wish I knew," Solace said thoughtfully.

"Can I ask you a question, Sis?" Shimmer said quietly.

"Sure," Solace replied. "Though I'm not sure I have any good answers. You might need to ask Rhialto."

"It's not that sort of question," Shimmer said. The slender girl said nothing more for a few minutes as they walked along, and Solace thought her not-very-encouraging response to Shimmer's request may have made the younger girl change her mind about asking whatever question troubled her.

Then Shimmer pulled the hood on Solace's cloak down so that their heads were close together and whispered, "Is having a girl's body . . . affecting you?"

"What do you mean?" Solace said after a moment, but she knew very well what Shimmer meant. She had been denying it to herself, but Shimmer's question had forced her to confront the issue.

At some level, Shimmer picked up on that. The lithe thief just walked along beside Solace for a while, waiting for a real answer. Solace sighed, and said, "Maybe."

"In what way?" Shimmer pushed.

Solace blushed within her hood and hoped no one noticed. They trudged along a little further, and then she sighed again. "In that I'm noticing how hot that shiny wet leather looks when it's stretched across a tight set of buns," she said, her eyes going ahead to where Lucas led the party. As chance would have it - though Solace was not sure how much chance played a part in Reality 2.0 - a gust of wind lifted the warrior's scarlet cloak to reveal all too clearly what had captured her attention.

Shimmer giggled inside her own hood, then added, "I guess I noticed that Oakheart has incredibly tight abs, and that his vest shows them almost as well as your blouse shows your boobs."

"Shimmer!" Solace said sharply, then she giggled, too. "So, Little Sis, you've been noticing Oakheart, have you?"

Shimmer didn't reply right away. When she did, her voice had a plaintive, yearning note. "Do you think he. . . noticed . . . either of us?"

"Either of us?" Solace asked. "Or noticed you?"

Shimmer didn't reply, but Solace would have taken a large bet that her companion's cheeks were hot with an embarrassed flush.

The smaller woman's shoulders rose and fell in an obvious sigh. "I don't suppose any of the guys notice anyone but you. You're so pretty, and I'm so . . . blah."

"Shimmer . . . Landon . . ," Solace said carefully, "why do you care?"

Shimmer twitched for a moment, then shrugged. "That's what I was asking about. Even though I'm just a kid in real life, in this game, my body feels like it's all grown up. And there are times when I feel . . . funny."

"Particularly when Oakheart looks at you?" prompted Solace.

"Maybe," Shimmer admitted, which they both knew meant a definite yes.

Then the thief sighed again and said, "But I think he still sees me as a little kid - a shrimp, as he says."

"Hang in there, Sis," Solace advised. "And keep using your points for Appearance. You'll get there. If you want to."

After a moment, she added, "Oh, and maybe spend some on Charisma. I think that's part of it - part of why they think I look okay even though I'm soggy enough to squish when I breathe."

"Yeah, right," Shimmer replied with a sniff, but Solace noticed her dark eyes had become thoughtful. The slim girl increased her pace and disappeared into the surrounding trees without disturbing a leaf.

"Is there a formal holding pattern, or can I take a turn now?" asked Rhialto as he took Shimmer's vacated place.

"Oh, Josh . . . um Rhialto, we were just talking," Solace said.

"Popular girl," the wizard said with a smile.

"Yeah," Solace said. "It's . . . kinda nice."

"Even being a girl?"

"I guess," she admitted. "It's kinda part of the package, I guess. I don't think the others would be as interested if I was ugly."

Then she laughed and punched the tall wizard in the arm. "Except you, dude. You're always there for me even when I'm ugly, boring, Tris."

"Glad you noticed," Rhialto said wryly. "Though I think the truisms of human existence apply here, too."

"What?" she asked. "Geez, dude, you sound like some arcane wizard."

He smiled and made a flourishing gesture, causing a spark of light to dance around the head of his staff. "Think Lucas could do that?"

"Probably not," Solace answered quizzically. "But he's a warrior, not a wizard."

"Exactly," Rhialto said, as though that was important. They walked along in silence for a moment, then he said, "I, um, saw you . . . watching him earlier. Watching his . . . I mean, when his cape flew up. What's up with that?"

"What?" she asked again, but her cheeks lit with fresh fire. This time it was her turn to pause for a long moment. "I don't know, Josh. Honest. There's something about being in this body that affects me. Like, it's becoming as real as my other life, y'know?"

"Yes, actually," Rhialto said, then sighed. "And in both lives, Lucas is a big, strong guy and I'm a nerd."

"Oh, Josh, that doesn't matter," Solace declared.

"Actually, it does," he insisted quietly. "The pretty girls go for the macho guys, whether it's cheerleaders and football jocks, or healers and warriors. It's in the genes."

"Genes?" she repeated. "Do you think there's some sort of genetic effect here?"

"I don't know," he said. "But . . . look, Solace, I know you're Tris on the inside - somewhere - but what I see is the most beautiful girl I've even known, and the most noble and brave person - man or woman - that I've ever known. I . . . can't help what I'm feeling."

Solace put a slender hand on the wizard's arm. "Oh, Josh, or Rhialto, or whoever you are here. I guess I can't help what I'm feeling either." She blushed and ducked her head. "All I can say is . . . macho isn't all that . . . important."

"It isn't?" Rhialto asked.

"Nope," she confirmed, smiling in a way that set his pulse racing.

In another reality, the fact the rain stopped and the sun started to shine down on them just as she made her revelation would seem like an impossibly perfect coincidence. It was still perfect, but nothing seemed to be impossible in this new and wonderful world.

:Oh, god, what's happening to me?: Solace thought. :Two guys have been flirting with me . . . and I liked it! And I encouraged them! This is too weird.:

But she had to admit to herself . . . she didn't want it to end.

"Hey, guys, how about some lunch?" Oakheart called from a surprisingly dry clearing ahead. He had a fire going and a couple of small animals roasting over the blaze.

"Cool," Lucas said enthusiastically. He approached the simmering meat and quickly hacked off a leg with a sharp dagger from his waist belt. He didn't eat it, though. Instead, he held it out to Solace. "For you, Milady."

:Lucas, too,: she thought, sighing silently.

"Um, thanks," she said, trying to keep the dripping meat from ruining her clothes. She nibbled at the meat and looked up in surprise. "This is good!"

"Thank you, Milady Healer," Oakheart said. "I found a few herbs and spices in the woods."

"Hope none of them were poisonous," Lucas said darkly as he sawed off another - and even larger - haunch of meat for himself.

"If they are, I'm sure Solace can fix it," Shimmer said, appearing next to the fire and carving off a much smaller portion for herself.

"Here, shrimp," Oakheart said, carving off a larger piece, "there's plenty."

"Not interested, Wood-for-Brains," Shimmer replied. "Haven't you ever heard that good things come in small packages?"

"That always seems to be said by someone with a small package," Lucas said, laughing at his own joke.

Shimmer frowned and moved off to sit by herself. Oakheart looked at the big warrior and sneered, "Remember, Idiot, that Odin said you can lose points, too, and if that's not the dumbest thing I've heard anyone say, it's definitely in the top ten."

"What?" Lucas said.

Rhialto added his condemnation. "Look, even though Shimmer looks like a girl, in the real world that's Landon, and telling a boy that he doesn't have a big enough 'package' is really harsh even if he hasn't been turned into a girl. Lighten up."

Lucas looked at least a little chastened, and the group imposed a penance of solitude on him, at least for the meal.

Solace started to stand up and move toward her sister, but Oakheart was already heading that way. They spoke quietly for a few minutes, then Oakheart sat next to her and they ate in silence - but it was a companionable silence, with occasional whispered confidences that caused one or the other to laugh. At one point, Shimmer caught Solace's eye and smiled with wonder and happiness.

:Oh, man,: Solace sighed to herself. :Landon is only 12 years old and there is no way I can let him, or her, or whatever get involved with someone at that age. This is getting way too real, and way too weird.:

The day warmed up quickly now that they were in the sun, and Solace shed her overcloak, then searched her knapsack for a moment. In it she found a remembered hairbrush - a strangely familiar shape in not-too-familiar materials. Running the brush through her long, thick hair was relaxing and she lost herself in the feelings for a few minutes, letting her eyes close in sensual contentment. It was only after she finished and shook her hair into casual tumbles down her back that she realized no one else was speaking.

"What?" she demanded.

No one replied, at least not directly. The guys busied themselves with whatever food was to hand, concentrating on gnawing each morsel of flesh from the bones. Shimmer, on the other hand, sent a look at Solace that should have shriveled her on the spot. Then Solace realized that Oakheart had been staring at her as well.

"Sorry," she mouthed to her sister, and shrugged. Shimmer's eyes shifted from anger to sadness as she concentrated again on her own food.

Oakheart and Shimmer threw their bones to Akeela, and only Mattock seemed unconcerned with the opportunity to eat. When they had all finished and resumed their trek, they kept a wary watch. Instead of a threat, the next event in their quest turned out to be a small town complete with trade fair or shopping bazaar, and a signpost that read, "Torvald." It wasn't quite what they might have expected, though. At least, only the players who were experienced in Sword-and-Sorcery role playing games thought it was normal. There were a few food vendors, mostly for sweets and treats rather than staples and travel fare. But there were any number of vendors for armor and weapons and magical implements. And spells.

Rhialto moved quickly to one of the spell vendors and the wizard treated the merchant like he was a potential source of real magical abilities. Lucas was just as quick to look at armor. Solace and Shimmer looked around in confusion. Oakheart - and it was interesting that no one seemed particularly concerned that a loose wolf was walking in their midst - stepped up next to the women.

"Are you going to buy anything?" Oakheart asked the women.

"We can do that?" Shimmer asked.

"Sure," he said. "I thought you read up on this."

"Only the game console, not the game itself," Shimmer explained.

"Well, in RPGs like this, the markets are a place to cash in your quest treasures - we all got some gems from the wyrm, for example - for things that help us in our quests."

"So the magic spells are real?" asked Solace.

"Yes, at least as real as this world itself," Oakheart said.

"Solace, come over here," Lucas called. The three adventurers joined their warrior companion as he talked with an armor vendor.

"I really need that shield," Lucas said, "but this guy wants, like, all I've gotten in the entire game so far, plus my cape and stuff that I'll need."

"So what do you want me to do about it?" Solace asked.

"You see if you can deal with him," Lucas said.

"Why me?" she asked.

"High Charisma," Oakheart whispered in her ear. Then he laughed quietly. "Careful, you may lose a Wisdom point for that."

"Well, sh . . . shoot, I've never done this before, and I certainly haven't had high Charisma before," Solace explained.

"Well you do now," the ranger confirmed. "Negotiate for Lucas."

Lucas had pointed out a shield that was more elongated than the heavy round disk he bore. More than that, it was clear the shield had a glowing aura of some sort. The warrior whispered in Solace's ear. "That shield has a +20 armor rating against physical threats, and it weighs half what my current shield weighs, so I'll be able to attack more quickly. It'll make a huge difference in my effectiveness."

"What do you think is fair?" she asked.

"Hell, he can have all my money, including the wyrm jewels," Lucas said. "But I can't give up the things I'll really need on the quest like my cloak and whatever potions I have."

"Did you check the shield out? Are you sure it's not a fake?"

"Oh, shoot, no I didn't."

"Rhialto," Solace ordered, pointing at the shield.

"Hey," the merchant said. "No magic in here. I sell honest armor."

"That's what we're going to find out," the wizard promised.

He cast his reveal spell on the shield, and the aura seemed to fade just a bit. The merchant looked worried for a moment, then he tried bluster. "Okay, okay, it's actually a +10 armor, but the aura makes it look like +20, and if you fight someone that's what they'll think it is."

Solace looked at Lucas for a minute, and he nodded. "Give me your jewel pouch, but keep all the rest," she said. The warrior passed her a heavy pouch and stepped back.

Before she spoke to the merchant directly, Solace brought her staff around and caused it to glow. She kept at it until one end got hot enough to shine with a hot, torch-like light and then she waved the staff around the merchant's goods.

"I wonder how many other items are fakes," she said casually to her sister. Shimmer reached out and took an extravagantly jeweled dagger and threw it at a tent pole. It stuck in the pole for a moment, but then it fell to the ground.

"Fake or not, this stuff is more show than substance," the lithe thief said.

Leaning casually on the table of wares, Solace looked at Mattock. "Is there a sheriff or guard or something around here? Someone to arrest this criminal?"

Mattock's rock-grinding voice barely managed to get out an affirmative, while a thick arm pointed at a flag flying above a particularly large pavilion.

"I'm not a criminal," the merchant said, worry in his voice. "That aura is part of the shield. I didn't put it there."

Solace finally decided to take pity on the nervous vendor and smiled a gloriously beautiful smile at him. "It could still get you in trouble," she said. "Maybe we can help you out."

"Thank you, Milady," the merchant said. "The price I quoted your companion was quite reasonable, I assure you . . ."

At this, Solace's flawless features took on a most endearing pout. Before she could say anything, the merchant continued, " . . . but perhaps I could make a special deal, for such noble adventurers as you and your party obviously are."

That brought the smile back to Solace's face, and a corresponding - though vastly less attractive - smile showed on the armor vendor's grimy visage.

Solace looked in the gem pouch for a moment. She poked a long, elegant finger inside, not letting the merchant see any of what the bag contained. Finally, she pulled out something and - keeping it hidden within her hand - she held it out to the man. "We nearly lost our lives obtaining this," she explained, still not showing him what her hand contained, "and I'm sure it will gain in value once our fame spreads throughout the land."

"Of course," the man said, greedy eyes fixed on her delicate hand.

Solace finally turned her hand over and showed him a gleaming red gemstone the size of an olive. It wasn't cut as a jewel, but fire showed within the depths.

The merchant's eyes widened in spite of himself, but then he tried to shrug off his interest. "That's a nice stone," he admitted casually, "but it won't even pay the rent on this space for the day."

Solace laughed, and her staff flared brightly. "That's another lie you've tried to tell us, armorer. I think we'll send for the guard after all."

"Milady, please," the man said. "I have to make a living, too. I've got a wife and three . . ," he interrupted himself when Solace's staff flared again, " . . well, two and several poor neighbor children that we take care of. I need at least a little profit, and I paid more than that stone . . . as much as that stone . . . a lot for that shield when I bought it."

"You know," Solace said thoughtfully, "I actually support people making profits. It gives them incentive to deliver goods and services that others value. I'll tell you what . . ."

At this she rooted around in the pouch again, this time coming out with a near match for the first gem, though a bit smaller. "I'll add this one to the other. Find yourself a decent jeweler who can cut the gems to bring out the fire, and the matched set will be worth 5 times what each alone is worth."

"But I'll have to find a jeweler, and pay him," the armor salesman said, but he couldn't take his eyes off the pair of gleaming red stones.

"Yes you will," Solace agreed easily. "See? More profit, and everyone benefits."

The man looked up at his shield, as though bidding it good-bye, and nodded his head.

He even gave Lucas a few broken bits of silver for his old shield, and Lucas used that to buy them all a bit of pastry. "Wow, Solace, that was awesome. I tried something almost like that and he just laughed at me. Yet for you . . ."

"Geez, dude, get a grip," Shimmer said. "You follow her around with your tongue hangin' out, why not some merchant?"

"Whatever," Lucas said. "It worked. From now on, you're our negotiator."

"That's probably a good idea," Rhialto said. "What else do we need?"

It turned out there were several things that offered improvements on what they had. But what Solace herself really wanted were some spells that would aid in healing herself. There were so many potential hazards - each of which seemed to need its own counter-spell - that she ended up using most of her own quest rewards gaining special spells and potions for each type of threat.

With just a little left over for another pair of earrings.

Chapter 9 - "You Get What You Pay For"

After the party finally left Torvald, the game seemed to give them some practice runs with their new toys. The first encounter was with a wild boar, and a single boar was no real challenge for the group. The only problem, if it was a problem, was that Lucas and Mattock had killed the thing before Rhialto even got time to get a spell in edgewise. The good news for Solace was that no one got a scratch.

The next attack was from a small group of boars. When the scramble settled out it turned out there were four. This time, Rhialto put one down for the count with a blast that stunned it and Shimmer finished the job with a lightning-quick slash across the immobile boar's throat. The warriors, with Oakheart's long-distance help, quickly took care of two of the attackers, and when the final boar swung in from the side to slash at Lucas, his new shield seemed to move into a blocking position with magical quickness . . . which, after the fact, didn't seem like much of a surprise.

Things grew from there. When the bears started attacking, Solace got back into the action. With unthinking reflex she sent a bolt of searing light from her staff to blind one attacker before it reached the warriors. After that she was too busy keeping the warriors healthy for many attacks of her own, but it was nice to know she wasn't totally defenseless. With the help of a couple of the new spells she had learned in town, she was now able to heal the warriors quickly enough to keep them both effective and for the first time in a significant battle, poor Mattock didn't get killed.

"There, are you satisfied?" Lucas said, calling up to the always-watching black bird. "Tell Odin that we're ready for the first team!"

The bird looked bored, also as usual, but he did seem to nod. He stayed in his watching position, though.

Another sign of progress for Solace was that any residual scarring, once her absorbed wounds were healed, was fixed with the help of spells she was now able to understand.

"That's really working well for you," Shimmer observed as they walked along again. "You look as beautiful as ever."

"Thank, Sis," Solace said. "You'll get there. I think you'll get an extra point after this quest. You usually do."

"Maybe," Shimmer said doubtfully. "So, are there other cosmetic spells in your spell book?"

"I think so," Solace said. "I don't understand them all yet, but some of them seem fairly mild - more superficial than the ones that remove scars."

"Thieves are not really big on magic," Shimmer said with a sigh. "At least, not the spell kind. It seems my magic, like being able to hide and climb and so on, just makes what I was going to do anyway more effective."

"Good for you," Solace said. "It means it won't run out, and it doesn't take any time to cast, and . . ."

"Yeah, I know," Shimmer said.

The bear attacks were limited to groups of four or five at a time, and they used the time to experiment with new tactics and skills. Oakheart started taking pelts - he was the only one who could do it without making a useless rag of the skin - and they worked their way along the path until they go to another small town that Rhialto said was labeled Badin on a signpost near the gate. They sold the pelts to a merchant and split the loot, then looked at the path out of town.

"I think we need to call it a day," Solace said. "We've done pretty well, but if the buzzing of this stone is any clue, we're not all that close to the, um, 'Fist of Thor.'"

"Probably a good idea," Rhialto agreed. "I think we've made good progress, particularly in using our skills."

Lucas looked disappointed, but he shrugged and nodded. Solace found the exit button and they endured the moment of crashing static.

"Whoa, dude," Joshua said, looking at Tris after his eyes refocused. "Lookin' good."

"What?" Tris said. He twitched, and reached a hand to see what was wrong.

"Nothing much," Joshua reported. "Just your hair."

"What?" Tris repeated. His exploring hand found that his hair was gathered up in to a neat, snug ponytail.

"Dad is gonna go ballistic," he moaned. Taking the band out of his ponytail, his hair seemed fuller and darker, with a rich, thick texture. It was longer too, and after a moment he pulled it back into a ponytail.

"Hey, dude, don't sweat it," Lucas offered. "Lots of guys have ponytails. It's on the approved list for school and everything. The school even said they prefer it for those who don't have - what was the phrase . . ?"

"Well-structured hair styles," Joshua supplied. "That's to make it so that girls can do what they want while guys have to keep theirs tied out of the way."

"Hey," Charly said. "If guys were willing to put up with as much trouble as girls, they could wear their hair loose, too."

"Yeah, right, Miss Boy's-Haircut," Lucas said.

"That's allowed, too," Charly said. "You should try it some time, instead of just hacking it with garden shears whenever the moon is full."

"Hey!" Lucas started to argue.

Moving to the mirror but not taking his hair down from the band that held it, Tris asked, "What made my hair change?"

"I wonder . . ," Josh said, musing. "You spent a while brushing it out in the game - y'know, after it quit raining - and I wonder if somehow that, um, carried over. Like, maybe you were doing it with your real hands to your real hair at the same time."

"That wouldn't have made it get darker, and longer."

"Now that I can't explain," Josh admitted. "But it's a question for Odin, the next time we see him."

"Oh, yeah," Tris said. "Okay. Hey, shrimp . . . I mean, Landon, are you ready?"

"Yeah," Landon said, coming out of the wash room and wiping at his face.

"Okay, guys, see you later," Tris said, and the brothers left.

As they walked home, the younger brother was deep in thought. After a few silent moments, Tris prodded him on it.

"What's up, Landon? You're not usually the brooding type."

"Did you pierce your ears?" the younger brother asked.

"What? No! Dad would have a stroke!"

"Well, they sure look like they're pierced," Landon reported.

Tris felt his own ears and realized there were indeed small indentations on his lobes - ones that he was sure would go all the way through.

"Man, that is too weird," he said.

"Yeah," Landon agreed. "And there's more. Maybe the others didn't notice, but I think your chin is a little smaller, and your nose is different."

"Really?" Tris asked, touching his own features and wishing for a mirror.

"Well, I think so," Landon said. "There's more that I guess I don't know how to describe, but you look better. Neater, somehow. And more . . . happy, I guess, or excited or something."

"Well, maybe that's just because the game is fun, and you sorta get caught up in it."

"Maybe," Landon said. "But whatever it is, I wish I was looking better."

"C'mon, dude," Tris said, laughing. "You're twelve years old. Give it a chance."

"Not in the game," Landon said, sighing again. "In the game, everyone is grown up. And all the other guys look good. Even Rhialto is tall and trim. I'll bet if he ever took off that cloak, he'd have a tight body like Oakheart does."

"What are you saying, Landon?"

"That Shimmer is the only one who looks so drab," Landon said. "I got the lowest Appearance score - barely enough that I didn't get to re-roll. All of the others go from somebody that looks good to just awesome - that would be you, or Solace anyway. And now you're looking better here, too."

"Um, Landon . . . don't get me wrong, dude, but . . . geez, you're only twelve. Are you telling me that you're starting to notice girls?"

"Maybe," Landon said. Then he actually smiled a bit. "Hey, maybe that's a carry-over for me. In the game, I'm an adult, and in the real world, I'm starting to, um, be interested in the difference between boys and girls."

"Good for you, bro," Tris said cautiously. "But . . . don't get ahead of yourself. You can get hurt that way. And not just physically."

"Yeah, I know," Landon said, with a maturity that neither one noticed. "But I'm telling you, if I get a chance to look better in the game . . . and maybe something that will carry over to here . . . I'm takin' it."

"Sounds like a plan," Tris said. "But . . . in the game, when I was Solace and you were Shimmer, and we were talking about, um, Oakheart. I probably shouldn't have told you to, well, go for it; work on your appearance and maybe charisma because that might make you more attractive to him. I mean, you're too young to get involved with someone. In the game or not. And certainly not with a guy. Unless . . ."

"I don't know," Landon said, answering Tris's unasked question. "I don't think so. I mean, like you said, I'm beginning to notice that boys and girls are different, and I'm not feeling any, um, urges, except . . ."

"Yes?" Tris prompted.

"Well, does it make any difference that Oakheart is, y'know, really a girl? I mean, Oakheart is really Charlotte, right? Just like Shimmer is really me."

"Oh," Tris said. "I hadn't thought of that."

Landon asked, "So, does that sort of . . . I don't know . . . cancel out or something?"

"Geez, bro, I don't know. This is all too complicated for me. Just . . . remember you're only twelve, okay?"

"Can't help it, dude," Landon said. "Everybody else still sees me as a kid, I'm sure."

With that way-too-deep conversation over, Tris steeled himself for what his parents would say about his new 'style.' That turned out to be a lot less problem than he expected. For some reason his father didn't have much to say about his ponytail. And his mother was even stranger. She gave him a new hair brush, which was not too unusual since things like that - shampoo, combs, toothbrushes - seemed to appear whenever needed. What was surprising what that she gave Tris a pair of simple gold posts for his newly pierced ears and a bottle of rubbing alcohol to keep them clean.

"Geez, Mom, I thought you'd . . ," he said.

". . . Be upset because you pierced your ears?" she offered.

"Yeah," Tris said.

"Well, I wish you'd have told me about it first," she said. "But I guess you seem more mature lately. I like the way you're looking out for your brother, and letting him be part of your group. Consider this a reward for being . . . responsible."

"Um, thanks," Tris said. :Oh, hell, that means I really need to keep him out of trouble.:

Joshua had a concern, too, and one day he caught Tris on a break between classes. "Hey, dude, are you okay?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Why?" asked Tris,

Joshua shrugged, but it was clearly a delay. In a moment, he said, "Well, there's the earrings. Maybe that's what's bugging me. Did you really buy another pair of earrings in Torvald?"

"Yeah, sure," Tris said. "They were kinda neat. And they were called, 'Angel of Mercy,' which seemed to fit Solace."

"But why?" Joshua asked. "Why bother to do something so that you look prettier? Do you want to be pretty?"

"Well, dude, in the game I'm a chick with a high Appearance score. Not much choice there."

"Maybe not," Joshua said. "But you didn't have to, y'know, do even more unless you wanted to."

"I guess not," Tris said. "Look, if it bothers you, I won't wear them."

"No, dude, that's not the point. Why did you get them in the first place? I think you're getting into this game a little deep."

"Lighten up. It's just a game."

"Yeah," Joshua said, "yet all the sudden, in real life you've got pierced ears and a ponytail, and . . ."

"And what?" demanded Tris.

"Dude, you just look better. I don't know what it is, but you look neater, and . . . alert somehow."

"Well, I haven't done anything special," Tris said. "I brush my hair now that it's longer, and my mom gave me the posts for my ears, which is no big deal."

"Well, it looks like you did," insisted Joshua. "Like I said, I think you may be gettin' into this game too much."

"Give me a break," Tris said.

Joshua said, "I'm just sayin'."

"Well, quit sayin'," Tris said, walking off.

Despite all the external - which means, real-world - turmoil, the group gathered again for their Sunday adventure. When Tris and Landon walked in, they were immediately noticed.

"Whoa, guys, what's up?" asked Lucas.

"What?" Tris asked.

"Your clothes," their host explained.

Tris wore a pair of gray jeans with a white shirt and a gray vest. And Landon had on all black clothes. As though they were just noticing, they looked down and then at each other.

"Hey, it's no big deal," Tris said. "I didn't even think about it. Mom said we needed to get some new clothes and I guess these just looked good to us, right Landon?"

"Right," the younger brother confirmed. "I guess I just like dark clothes. I'm not flamboyant like you, Lucas."

"Flamboyant?" Lucas asked in surprise.

"Yeah," Charly confirmed. "Not many guys wear a deep scarlet shirt to a computer gaming session."

Lucas looked down and saw that his t-shirt was indeed a dark red. "Hell, this musta been at the top of the stack this morning. It don't mean nothin'."

"Then don't give me any grief about my clothes," Tris said. "Are we gonna play or what?"

"Right, less talk, more monster bashin'," Charly said.

They arranged themselves and engaged the game. When the static cleared, they were in Badin and they started out on a new path on the far side. Other than a few mobs of attackers at about the threat level they were already handling, there were periods of relative quiet. during one of them Shimmer faded into the shadows for while. No one noticed her going - which was not unusual - or immediately noticed her returning - which was a good thing this time.

Solace pulled her sister aside and whispered sharply, "Shimmer, what did you do?"

"Nothing," the small thief claimed, but her face showed her lie, and it wasn't because of guilt. The lithe young woman's face showed garish makeup.

"Don't give me that," Solace said, shaking her sibling's arm. "You know what you did, and it looks . . . stupid."

"Really?" Shimmer said, worried. "I just . . . well, you do it!"

"I do not," Solace said.

"Don't give me that," Shimmer said in a deliberate parody. "You use makeup all the time."

"No I don't," Solace insisted. "It's just . . . part of the game."

"Well, so is what I did," Shimmer said. "I got a spell from a vendor in the market that he said the young women use to look better."

"A cosmetic spell?" Solace asked.

"I guess so," Shimmer said. "What happened?"

"I'm sorry, Shimmer, but you look like a clown. Your cheeks are bright red, your eyes are almost black, and your mouth looks like you painted on lipstick three times as big as your real lips."'

"Damn," Shimmer said. When Solace started to complain about her language, Shimmer just went on. "I thought that merchant was smiling funny, like he was pulling something on me. I oughta go back and slit his . . ."

"Forget it," Solace said. "I'm not letting you go off and murder someone for cheating you."

Lucas called back to them and said, "What's the hold up?"

"We're coming," Solace said. "Go ahead. We'll keep up."

They started walking again, but stayed well back from the rest of the party.

Solace said, "For all we know, he was being fair. It may be that only, y'know, cheap girls use makeup in this world."

"Well, it looks like you do," Shimmer insisted. "You definitely have something on your lips, and your lashes are long and dark."

"That's gotta be part of the game," Solace insisted.

"It was worth a try," Shimmer said. "I didn't pay much for the spell, and even though you say it didn't work . . . I'm desperate."


"Just because," Shimmer said, looking ahead at Oakheart who had just rejoined the men after another scouting foray.

"Well, it looks like you got what you paid for," Solace said. "Let me try something."

First, the healer called out to the men and said, "We need a quick break. Five minutes."

"Why?" demanded Lucas.

"Because we do," Solace said unhelpfully. She pulled Shimmer into the woods near the trail and then pulled out her spell book. She unfolded it enough to get to the index, then paged through to the healing spells that seemed to have something to do with appearance.

"I don't like experimenting on my sister," Solace said. "But here goes."

The healer cast a spell at the garishly made up thief, and was gratified when Shimmer's face was cleaned of all the artificial colors. Unfortunately, that spell had the added effect of making it look like Shimmer had been drenched in a waterfall. Her hair was plastered to her face and her clothes looked as wet as when it had been raining.

"Sorry," Solace said as Shimmer started to complain. "That's step one."

She tried again, with a different spell, and at first all that seemed to happen was that Shimmer's hair and clothes dried. But then Solace realized that her not-so-baby sister looked both happier and a bit older. Looking more closely she could see some of what Shimmer had reported about Solace's own appearance. The thief's eyes seemed larger, and darker. Her lips were full and just enough darker to call attention to them. And the contours of her face were both smoother and more defined.

"Wow," Solace said.

"What?!" demanded Shimmer.

"That's the way you should look," Solace said. Fishing in her pouch, she found the small piece of shiny metal that she used as a mirror. Shimmer took it and tried to find an angle to show the various parts of her face.

"Wow," she repeated softly. "Thanks, sis."

"You're welcome," Solace said. "Now, don't play around with things like that again. I'll help you when I can. That's gonna have to be good enough."

"Deal," Shimmer said. An uncharacteristic smile lit her face and she looked down the trail toward the waiting men.

"Shimmer," Solace said cautiously. "Remember what I said about . . . going too fast. You are still only twelve years old."

"Yeah, I know," Shimmer replied. "But at least now I won't look drab. That's a start."

"I guess so," Solace said, but she frowned as the lithe thief slid silently away through the woods.

Chapter 10 - "Would You Do That For Me?"

When the walking party caught up with the scouts, they found the advance pair seated together, laughing at some shared joke.

"What's so funny?" asked Lucas as he walked up.

"Oh, nothing," Oakheart said casually, but he looked at Shimmer and smirked in a way that said their humor had been real. Then the ranger grew serious and stood up to address the entire party.

"We've got trouble," he reported. "There's a really big group of bad guys ahead, including some that look vaguely human."

"Vaguely human?" Rhialto repeated.

"Yeah," explained Oakheart. "Two arms, two legs, standing upright, but the proportions are wrong and some of them have horns, or big claws."

"And then there are the magic users," Shimmer said.

"Mages?" repeated Rhialto again.

"Yep. I guess the good news is that the bad guys don't all get along. Some of them attack each other, and I saw one of the almost-human types blast an oversized lizard - looked like a Velociraptor."

"Can we sneak by them?" Lucas asked.

"No," Shimmer said flatly. "I could, especially after dark, and maybe Oakheart could. But not all of us. Basically the trail widens out into a little valley, but it has high walls and it's not all that wide."

"Great," Lucas said. "So, how big is this group?"

"About 50, and from the looks of it, any dozen of them would be enough to wipe us."

"Great," Rhialto said. He looked at Lucas and muttered, "You had to go and taunt Odin, through his bird. Next time keep your mouth shut."

"Get off my back," Lucas growled. "The bad guys have been getting tougher all along. Hell, if anything, this means we're making progress."

"Yeah, right," Rhialto said, but he let the issue drop while they all considered the problem that the scouts had found.

Lucas looked thoughtfully down the trail for a moment, and then said, "You said that they sometimes attack each other. Could we, um, start a feud or something?"

"I don't think so," Oakheart said. "The fights have been at the boundaries between areas each group patrols. As long as they stay in their own areas, they don't quarrel."

"Okay," Rhialto said. "That means we'll have to pull."

"Pull?" asked Solace.

"We need to draw a group of them away from the others, kill that group, then pull another group."

A few minutes of Monster-Bashing Tactics 201 and the team knew what to do. Oakheart would send in some long-range arrows, and if that didn't work, Akeela would streak in to trip the mobs to attack. Once a single group was attacking, the ranger and wolf would withdraw within range of Rhialto's spells. Any bad guys that survived the wizard and archer's ranged attacks would be met by the warriors. The only real problem was that it was slow. After each group was killed off, Solace had to heal their wounds, and then her own. Rhialto also had to restore his spell array, waiting for some to reset. As any experienced gamer can tell you, slow progress - particularly if you're winning all the battles - can be a real problem for newbies.

And for computer-controlled non-player-characters.

"Get back here, Mattock, you dickhead," Lucas called as their warrior companion charged ahead.

They had finished off three of the groups and had about 15 various monsters left to tackle. They were more or less divided into two groups, but Mattock's aggressive charge had tripped both groups to attack.

"Great," Lucas said as he followed their henchmen into the melee.

"Patience is a virtue," Oakheart said as he sent shaft after shaft into the milling mobs.

"I oughta let the big doofus die," Solace said through gritted teeth, but the wounds appearing on her arms and legs showed she was healing the warriors despite her own pain.

In the end, Mattock's charge might have been a good thing. They did kill off all the bad guys, and didn't get any of their own party killed. They discovered that the semi-human enemies were even dropping loot ranging from bits of gold and silver to gems and even spell scrolls or weapons. Rhialto cautioned the others to use a reveal spell or potion on everything in case of curses, but they found they had a tidy pile of things to sell at the next town.

"Okay, so maybe having Mattock go stupid on us was because I poked at Odin," Lucas admitted as Solace tended to their wounds.

"Maybe," Rhialto said. Then he sighed and said, "And maybe Odin always had this planned. We don't know."

"Right," Solace agreed. She poked Lucas in a restored-to-health arm and said, "But don't go asking for trouble again, okay?"

"Yeah, okay," Lucas said with a sheepish grin.

:I wonder if he'd have agreed so easily if I'd have been ugly, or a guy,: Solace thought. :Well, whatever it takes.:

"Okay, are we ready to go on?" asked Lucas.

"I guess so," Shimmer said. The path re-entered the forest at the other end of the valley and she did her disappearing act as soon as they were once again within the shadowing trees.

Oakheart shook his head and smiled wryly, "That girl can sneak with the best of them." Waving Akeela to make his own scouting foray, the ranger's long strides quickly left the others behind as well.

As the rest walked along, the forest path began to descend and climb at irregular intervals, but with an overall trend to a lower elevation. It also became damper, with muddy spots and - eventually - low-lying patches of fog. The fog was intermittent and never very thick, but it was occurring more frequently and they wondered what their scouts were discovering in the obscuration.

Then they found their scouts. Oakheart was bent over Shimmer, his lips touching hers, his arms around her as she lay prone on the forest floor.

"Geez, guys, get a room," Lucas snapped, gasping a bit for breath from the effort of climbing a just-passed hillock.

"Shimmer!" Solace said, gasping at the thought her young sibling had forgotten the need to be careful.

"Damnit, Charly, that's a twelve year old kid," Rhialto said, walking forward to push at his own sibling's shoulder.

The crouching ranger toppled to the side.

Rhialto looked down at the unmoving man, and at the equally still thief. "Something's wrong," he gasped.

Solace reached the two unconscious figures and her staff glowed with power. "It's the fog," the healer reported. "It's like a poison gas. We need to get them to a clear space!"

Lucas quickly picked up Shimmer and at his motion Mattock picked up the ranger. They looked around and found that the highest nearby place, and the only one that was clear of the drifting clouds, was up a side trail. The warrior led the way up the hill, grunting a bit with the strain of carrying even the petite woman. Mattock made no noise to reflect his own effort with the heavier ranger, but the henchman's motions were slow enough that he fell behind Lucas on the climb. The others struggled up as well, leaving them all short of breath after their brief climb.

"It's affecting us, too," Solace said. "Everyone touch my staff."

Those who were conscious laid a hand on her still-glowing staff, and they placed the limp hands of Shimmer and Oakheart on it as well. Closing her eyes, Solace gripped the long rod in both of her own hands, and a furrow of concentration marred her smooth brow.

Then she collapsed bonelessly to the ground.

With a gasp of their own, Shimmer and Oakheart began to breathe again, first desperate, short pants and then smoother, deeper inhalations. Rhialto and Lucas took their own deep breaths, recognizing now by contrast that their previous shortness of breath had been due to the gas, not the effort of hiking on the forest trail. It took a few seconds for them to realize that Solace was not joining them in their recovery.

"Oh, shit, she's not breathing," Rhialto announced.

"She's got good Vitality," Lucas said. "She should recover in a couple of minutes."

"Not if she dies first," Rhialto snapped. He bent down and moved Solace's unresisting body to a prone position and bent over her face.

"Hey, dude, that's sick," Lucas said.

"Geez, you are stupid," Rhialto said. "I'm just going to give her mouth-to-mouth."

"Yeah, exactly," sneered Lucas.

"Up yours, pervert," Rhialto snapped, then bent to the unconscious healer. He held her nose and breathed into her mouth to inflate her lungs, then leaned back to allow her to exhale. With a steady, determined rhythm he kept breathing for her until he was rewarded with a gasp that was not due to his own forced demand for air.

Solace gasped again, then started to pant with a reprise of the breathing pattern that Shimmer and Oakheart had first shown. Even as her breathing stabilized, her eyes flickered open to find Rhialto's face only inches from hers.

"What . . ?" she asked groggily.

"After you healed us, you passed out," Rhialto said. "You weren't breathing, so I . . ."

"Oh," Solace said quietly. "Thanks."

"Any time," Rhialto said with a grin, then leaned back. Solace blushed at his comment, but then she smiled at him with an unintended enticement as her eyes looked at his lips.

"That didn't work as well for me," Oakheart said, rolling to a seated position against a rock. "I found Shimmer passed out and not breathing, so I started resuscitation on her. That's the last thing I remember."

"We found you on the trail," Lucas said.

Shimmer, though she was breathing easily enough, was the last to rouse. When she did, she looked around groggily and asked, "What happened?"

"The fogs are poison gas," Rhialto reported. "You and Oakheart passed out. Solace healed you."

"Thanks, Sis," the thief said.

"Thank Oakheart," Solace suggested. "He was trying to revive you, and passed out himself. Without his help, you might have died."

"Really?" Shimmer said, eyes widening and looking at the lean ranger.

"Just in the line of duty, you understand," Oakheart said with a smirk. "I wouldn't have kissed you unless, y'know, I had to."

"Kissed me?" Shimmer repeated.

"Close enough," Oakheart said with a continuing smirk. "And I must say, you do have the softest lips . . ."

"Kissed me?" Shimmer repeated again, this time in a whisper.

"I'm sure you'd have done the same for me," Oakheart said. "Just like Rhialto did for Solace."

"Rhialto kissed Solace?" Shimmer said in confusion.

"No," Rhialto said. "Well, not a, y'know, a real kiss. I just did mouth-to-mouth resuscitation the same as Oakheart did for you."

"Just like you'd have done for me, right?" Oakheart said again, raising an amused eyebrow at Shimmer as he pushed for a confirmation.

"Only in your dreams, Wood-for-Brains," Shimmer snapped, but she blushed and couldn't meet his eyes.

At least, not for a long moment, but then her eyes sought out his with a sidelong glance, to find the ranger's amused smirk waiting for her.

"Oh, you jerk," Shimmer said, looking away with a renewed flush to her pale cheeks. But she couldn't help smiling.

Lucas snorted and slapped Mattock on the shoulder. "Geez, buddy, it looks like you and I are the only ones who aren't going to get any on this trip."

"Yeah, right," Solace said, but she wouldn't look directly at Rhialto.

The wizard tried to change the subject. "So, how are we going to get through the poison gas. Do you think we can all just hold our breaths when we see some?"

"I don't think so," Solace said. "I'm afraid that the patches might get too big, and even if they don't, we couldn't fight a battle if we were holding our breath and the bad guys probably know that so they'll attack when we're in it. We need to find some way to dispel the mists."

Rhialto started to unfold his spell book with reflexive speed. Solace found her own and started trying to understand spells that still seemed beyond her abilities. Then Oakheart stood up and laughed.

"Y'know, shrimp, you may be right," he said to Shimmer.

"What?" she asked. "And don't call me shrimp."

"I may actually have wood for brains," the ranger said, digging in one of his own belt pouches. "I think I've got spells of my own and I didn't even realize it."

He pulled out a tightly wrapped bundle of soft skins, and started to unroll them. "I looked at these when we started and thought the markings were just decoration, but maybe they'll make more sense now."

"Got it," he crowed after a moment. "'Favorable Winds.' I'll bet that will help. I should have remembered that Rangers have nature magic, more than just good tracking skills and empathy with their animal companions."

Then he pulled up short. "Oh, damn, where's Akeela?"

"We haven't seen him since we found you two passed out," Solace said.

"Oh, no," Oakheart said. "I'll bet the gas got him, too!"

"Maybe," Solace said. "But if so, then we'll still need to be able to dispel the fog before we go looking for him."

"Right," Oakheart said. He studied his spell for a moment, then started to chant a repetitious, sing-song verse. In a moment, he began to dance around, stamping his feet and bouncing his shoulders in time with the tune.

Softly at first, and then with increasing vigor a breeze began to blow across their little hill. It was nicely cool, but not so strong that it would whip their clothes or make Oakheart's marksmanship difficult.

"Good job," Lucas said. "If that fog acts anything like real fog, the wind should disperse it, not just move it around."

"We need to be careful," Rhialto cautioned. "If any of us start to feel out of breath, let someone know."

"Looking for another makeout session with ol' Babelicious over there?" Lucas sneered.

Neither Rhialto nor Solace favored that with a response, but almost by accident their eyes met and both blushed.

With Oakheart's breeze banishing the fogs of dangerous gas, he led them quickly to the still body of his wolf companion. "I can't believe that I didn't realize he was gone as soon as I woke up," the ranger complained. "I can usually tell where he is all the time."

Solace knelt down to touch the silent animal, and then ran her staff over his body. "I'm sorry, Oakheart, but I'm not getting any sense of injury that I can repair."

Oakheart looked stricken with an agony worse than his own wounds had ever caused. "I just . . . left him to die," he said bitterly.

Shimmer came up and put her arms around his shoulders. "We know he'll come back," she said. "He did after he saved us from the snakes."

"I know," Oakheart said, "but I should have been there for him."

Shimmer hugged the kneeling ranger and said, "Would you be too upset if I say I'm glad you chose to help me instead?"

Oakheart looked up at her quickly, eyes widening. "I, um, well, I did try to help you, I guess."

"No guess about it, from what they tell me," Shimmer said. "I'm in your debt, and . . . well, I think Akeela would understand. Don't you?"

"Maybe he would at that," Oakheart said, reaching a hand up to squeeze Shimmer's hand. He stood and smiled, then looked at the others. "I guess we need to be moving on."

"Only now, we need to stay a little closer together, I think," said Rhialto. "So that your breeze keeps this stuff off of all of us."

"Sounds like a plan," Lucas said. "Solace, do you still have the guide stone?"

The healer nodded and took it from her pouch. After a moment, she pointed at one of the paths leading from the base of their little hill, and they set off again. Oakheart found that he could recast his Favorable Winds spell each time it wore off, so they made steady progress toward their objective. After a while, the path led back up to higher and dryer elevations and the fog was no longer an issue. When they were fairly sure that hazard was behind them, the scouts set out on their independent paths, this time short one courageous wolf.

Chapter 11 - "Achilles' Weakness"

The "Fist of Thor" was in another cave. They weren't really surprised. No one expected an important item of power to be lying in a meadow, surrounded by songbirds and bouncy little bunnies. As caves went, the one the guidestone led them to was fairly typical - a bit damper than most, with an unending array of stalactites and stalagmites. The multitude of columns would have made it a whole lot easier to get lost than to find the correct way, but the guidestone took care of that.

The first sign of trouble was a deep rumble; distant thunder in a place that had never known rain. Shimmer confirmed the bad news a moment later, running toward the group as silently as ever, though clearly in a hurry.

"Man, I hate caves," she gasped out as she caught her breath. A moment later she was back to normal and gave her report. "There's an army coming, and as best I can tell they're all made of stone."

"Stone?" Lucas repeated.

"Yep, like that underground army in China," confirmed Shimmer. "I don't know if this is gonna be easier or harder than the snakes. I didn't see any signs of poison or anything, but there are an awful lot of them."

"Like, how many?" Lucas asked, shifting his sword and shield to a battle position.

"Like, maybe a million, for all I could tell," Shimmer said. "They're marching into a passageway that leads to here, and I couldn't see the end of them."

"Great," Oakheart said. "Oh, that reminds me . . ."

He busied himself in his spell skins, prompting Rhialto and Solace to follow suit. The rumble of thunder turned out to be the sound of the stone army, gradually resolving into distinct, repetitive booms as they marched at a slow but relentless pace.

Then they heard another pattern in the rumble.

"Uh, oh," Oakheart said, looking up from his scrolls. "Is that what I think it is?"

Shimmer didn't say anything, just disappearing in the direction of the new sound. In moments she was back, nodding her head. "Yep. Another army, coming from behind."

Just about then the vanguard of the first horde appeared and Rhialto sent his first spells winging their way. It didn't do much good.

"Damn," the wizard said. "Fire doesn't affect them. I guess I should have known. Let's see . . ."

He waved his staff and conjured up another attack, which didn't seem to have much effect. "They don't seem to be subject to electric shock, either," he reported.

"Let me try something," Oakheart said. He did a brief chant and dance, then fired an arrow at the wave of attackers. It exploded like a hand grenade, fracturing half a dozen stone warriors with one blow.

"Cool," the ranger said, then started his chant again.

"I think this is our cue," Lucas said, nudging Mattock toward the first rank of the approaching army.

The two warriors waded in with great swings of their weapons, and seemed to have no trouble with their initial targets. Mattock was especially effective. A dozen stone figures seemed to explode with each swing of his heavy tool. Lucas was nearly as deadly, sweeping through 3 or 4 attackers with each swing of his long, shiny sword. For a while, they held their ground, doing enough damage that a mound of pebbles and dust built up before them as the only remnants of scores of the enemy. Oakheart's explosive arrows took down nearly as many, reaching well back down the advancing column.

But there were just too many of them. The human (more or less, counting Mattock) warriors weren't making any forward progress at all, and there was no apparent end to the ranks of stone moving toward them. As though they needed even more challenge, the first elements of the second army were just appearing along their back trail.

"We're going to be trapped in a couple of seconds," Rhialto observed.

Solace looked around and spied a high ledge. "Shimmer, can you get up to that ledge?"

"Sure," claimed the agile little thief. "What's your point?"

"If you can get up there, then . . . oh, hell, that won't work," Solace said.


"Well, I was thinking that if you could get up there, and then haul the rest of us up, maybe we could get past these guys. But we don't have a rope."

"Actually . . ," Shimmer said with a grin, pulling out the end of a line from her own backpack. "Thieves never leave home without one."

"Where'd you get that?" Solace asked, then shook her head. "That doesn't matter now. Will it be long enough that you can tie it off somewhere up there and still reach us?"

"You bet," Shimmer said, already reaching for a stone column. In moments she was moving up it like she had velcro hands and the column was felt. She disappeared for a few long seconds, then the end of the rope came sailing down into their midst.

"Mattock, you keep the guys in front off us," Solace ordered. "Lucas, you hold off the ones behind. Oakheart, you go up first, then cover us with your exploding arrows. Rhialto next, and I'll go before the warriors. Okay?"

"I think I should stay until . . ," Rhialto began.

"No," Solace said abruptly. "Sorry, Rhialto, but I'm going to be healing them until the last second."

The wizard nodded, and since Oakheart had already disappeared up the line, he started to climb toward Shimmer and the inviting ledge.

Mattock stolidly maintained a wall of steel in front of a growing wall of rubble in front of the first column of stone men, and Lucas danced back and forth trying to block the later-arriving array. The few that got through were surprisingly fragile, enough that Solace was able to dispatch them with swings or stabs from her seemingly unbreakable staff.

At least, most of them.

By the time Rhialto was calling down for Solace to climb the rope she figured she had at least three broken ribs, and one arm was scored with a gash she had healed from Lucas. The warrior was himself reeling from a blow to his head, and they both had to be careful because their defended area had gotten so small that Mattock's backswings were as likely to hit 'good guys' as his main strokes were to hit the stone fighters.

"I'm not going to be able to climb that rope," Solace gasped. "You go on. I'll . . . catch up after you find the doohickey."

"Meaning, you'll die down here," Lucas said. "No way. Climb on my back and I'll carry you up the line."

"You'll hardly be able to climb it by yourself, let alone with me on your back," Solace said, ducking from a slashing stone axe. "Just go."

"Never," Lucas said so flatly that she knew there was no purpose in further arguing.

"Grab the damn rope!" Oakheart shouted. "The three of us will pull you up!"

"Oh," Solace looked at Lucas, and despite their peril they both grinned sheepishly.

"Mattock, ol' buddy, I'm afraid we're going to abandon you again," Lucas said. "Good luck."

He picked Solace up and threw her over his shoulder with her head hanging halfway down his back and her hair reaching almost to his knees. Lucas grabbed the rope but only managed a single lift before howling with a new injury.

"Pull!" Solace called to those waiting above, then her staff glowed behind Lucas' back as she waved the end near his ankles.

The three above had a hard time hauling up the big warrior even without the added weight of the shapely healer, but after a few moments Lucas was again climbing the rope on his own. Somewhere below, Mattock was overwhelmed by the converging columns of stone men, going down with a mighty fight but not a single complaint.

When they reached the top, Lucas tried to place Solace on her feet, but she collapsed instantly.

"Sorry," she said from her sprawled position on the dusty ledge.

"What's wrong?" Rhialto asked.

Solace sighed. "Just as Lucas was starting up the rope, one of those stone warriors sliced right across his ankles from behind."

"I was too beat to climb with just my arms," Lucas admitted. "When my feet started flopping around uselessly, all I could do was hang on."

"But you were climbing at the end," Shimmer said, then gasped. "Ohmigod, Solace, did you . . ?"

"Yes," Solace said. "It will be a while before I can walk. Why don't you guys go get that thing and come back for me?"

"No way," Lucas said. "I'm fine now, thanks to you. I'll carry you."

He scooped the crippled woman up in his arms and started along the ledge.

"Hold up, you idiot," Solace said, but she smiled. "I appreciate the gallant knight thing, but if we meet someone, your arms need to be free."

"Oh, yeah," Lucas said.

"I should be okay in a little while," Solace said. "Why don't I just, um, ride on your back until then?"

With help from Rhialto and Oakheart, Solace was draped over Lucas's broad back, her arms around his neck. After a few steps, her own flopping feet were both too painful and too ridiculous, so she pulled them back and braced the tops of her feet against Lucas' thick thighs, pointing her toes down his legs. Despite her pain, she found it oddly . . . interesting to fell his supple muscles flex and bunch against her feet and she tried to focus on the way ahead instead. She still had the guidestone, and used it to choose a path each time there was an option.

By the time they reached the final chamber, fighting only a few stone sentries along the way, her ankles had quit feeling disconnected.

"I'm okay now," Solace told Lucas. "You can put me down."

"Oh, are you still up there?" the warrior grinned. "I didn't even notice."

"Yeah, right," Rhialto sneered. "Quit braggin'."

"Boys, boys, let's stay focused," Solace said, but she couldn't quite stop a giggle.

Touching her feet to the ground stopped her mirth, though.

"Oh, ow!" she said, then stood on her toes.

"What's wrong?" Shimmer asked with concern.

"My feet won't straighten out," Solace reported. "My Achilles tendons must have knitted up too short."

"Can you walk?"

"Yes," the healer said. "But my feet will get tired. I'll have to walk on my toes until we get done with this. Hopefully, either Odin will fix them or they'll be restored after we exit the game and come back."

The thief nodded, then slipped ahead in the darkness. A few minutes later she was back with her report.

"Well, we don't have another stone army to fight," she said.

"Good," Rhialto said.

"Not so much," Shimmer replied. "There's only one dude, but he's a giant who must be at least twenty feet all, with legs that are bigger than tree trunks. Hell, his arms are bigger than most tree trunks."

"Sounds like we could really use Mattock," Lucas said, more than a little guilt in his tone.

"Yeah," Oakheart agreed, then put a comforting hand on Lucas' shoulder. "You . . . we did what we had to do, dude."

"Yeah, I know," Lucas said, shrugging but not rejecting Oakheart's encouragement.

The group worked up to where they could all see the giant that Shimmer had reported. He patrolled a fairly large cavern, walking endlessly around a central stone that reminded them of the original Indiana Jones movie set, with a golden box in place of the golden skull from the film.

"I wish . . ," Rhialto started, then ran down without saying anything. But he was clearly thinking.

"Yes?" prompted Solace. She looked at the wizard, but winced and rubbed one foot while trying to stand on the toes of the other. When she almost fell, Lucas put his arm around her waist and held her up. The curvy brunette smiled in gratitude at the tall, blond warrior.

"I wish my staff had a real blast, not just the fire or the shock/stun blasts," the wizard said. "That giant may be big, but that means the load in his ankles must be incredible. If we could . . . chip away at one a little . . ."

"How about Oaksie's explosive arrows?" Shimmer said.

"Oaksie?" Solace said, trying to frown but finding Shimmer's slip too cute to remain angry - especially when Oakheart blushed.

"That might work," Lucas said. "Maybe we . . . I mean, I could lure him away a little, then if we could make him fall over, even if he could get back up there might be time for Shimmer to lift the box."

"Okay," Shimmer said. "I'm up for it."

"I wonder if there's some sort of, y'know, trap?" mused Rhialto. "Like in the movie. Do we have a bag of sand?"

"We've got a rock," Shimmer said. "Lots and lots of rocks."

"I guess that will have to do," Solace said, and her words seemed to put the team approval on the plan.

They did find one thing out right away. Shimmer tied her line off to a high outcropping of rock, directly above the target box, and started to spider down with her usual total silence. The giant saw her anyway, and picked up a boulder the size of a car and hurled it at the dangling girl. He missed, but she had to retreat back up the line.

From behind a rock wall, she called out, "Well, we know he's fast, and that he's smart enough to use missile weapons. Goody, goody."

"If he'll stand still again like he did when he threw that little pebble," Oakheart said, "I could take off one of his feet."

"I guess that's my cue," Lucas said, letting Solace take her weight back on her own feet. He moved around to a position about as far away from the altar thing as he could get, and stepped out into the giant's view.

"Memo:," Rhialto said to Solace. "The giant is not limited to throwing rocks. He moves fairly quickly on his own feet."

Like an elephant, it didn't look all that fast, but the giant's legs were long enough that even something that looked like a brisk walk covered a lot of ground. In a hurry. The stone monster reached the crevice where Lucas had shown himself and used his refrigerator-sized fists to slam at the rocks protecting the human warrior. Lucas couldn't even get a good swing with his sword and his protection was quickly falling down around his head.

But it accomplished the purpose of fixing the giant's location for a moment. That's all it took for Oakheart to put a grenade-arrow into his left ankle. At first it didn't seem to matter, but when the giant stepped to the side, his foot stayed where it was. The giant almost stumbled and fell, but steadied himself with a huge hand on a wall of rock, in the process dislodging even more of Lucas' hiding place. That moment of stability was another opportunity though, and soon another arrow was exploding near his right foot. That was enough to matter. The giant struggled with his balance stepping along on his stumps and still trying to get at Lucas.

"I know exactly how he feels," Solace said, stepping carefully on her own toes.

Lucas and the distraction of missing feet provided all the cover Shimmer needed. The dark-clothed thief seemed like a dot on a string as she slid rapidly down to the waiting golden box. Swapping the small chest for a rock was done quickly, and she flowed smoothly back up to the top of the chamber. Lucas used that as his sign to retreat, which was easier said than done since his hiding hole was not directly connected to the way out. But the giant was spending most of his attention on his own balance and couldn't move quickly enough to get to the warrior as he ran for the passage back to Solace and Rhialto.

In moments the party was back together, and for expediency Solace climbed up again on Lucas' back. The guidestone seemed to have gone dead, for all Solace could tell, so Shimmer and Oakheart set off to find a way out that didn't just retrace their steps through the chamber with the stone armies.

Rhialto was examining the golden chest as they walked. He used every reveal spell in his arsenal to no avail. "If this thing has a trap, I'm not good enough to find it," he reported.

"Can you open it?" asked Lucas.

"Yes, easily," Rhialto said. "It's actually not even locked. It's a kind of puzzle box, where you have to push pieces this way and that in sequence, but I figured that out already."

"Then open it," the warrior urged.

"And what will happen when I do?" asked Rhialto. "I can't believe it's that easy."

"'Easy,' he says," Lucas snorted. "Mattock is dead. I'm dead beat. And Solace can barely walk. I don't think this has been easy."

"And it's not getting any easier," Oakheart said, returning to the group. "We can't find a way out that doesn't go through the chamber of the stone army."

"That's not all of it," Shimmer's voice came from the darkness. "They're coming at us again. I guess I wasn't as good at replacing that chest with the rock as I thought."

"Are you saying we're trapped?" asked Lucas.

"Either that, or we might as well be," Shimmer said, stepping from the shadows. "Neither of us can find a way out."

"Well," Solace observed, "we didn't get whisked to the finish line like in our first quest, so getting past this has got to be part of the quest. And that means there must be a way out."

"You're welcome to look for it," snapped Shimmer, then she frowned. "Sorry, I guess . . . I just don't know what to do."

"For one thing, I guess we better open this box," Rhialto said. He fumbled in his robes for a moment, then handed Solace a knobbed stick about three feet long, but not heavy enough to be a good club. There was an overall taper to the staff, with one end being thumb-thick and the other as wide as Solace's wrist, and there was a curious recess within the thick end.

"What's this?" she asked.

"That's Skadi's Staff," Rhialto said like it should have been obvious.

"Doesn't look like much," Solace said. Then she looked at Rhialto, "And if you recall, I was blind when we got this thing. I've never seen it before."

"Oh, yeah," the wizard said, apologizing with his eyes. "Well, in any event, it's a wooden stake, so if opening this chest turns me into a slimy green flesh-eating zombie, you can stick it through my heart while Lucas is lopping off my head. And if something else happens, you can at least use it for a cane."

"You really think that thing is a trap?" she asked.

"No," Rhialto replied with a wry grin. "If I did, I wouldn't open the damn box. But I just don't know." With that he stepped a few feet away from the others and started to manipulate the edges of the box. In a few moments he had finished sliding and pushing the various panels, then took a deep breath. "Here goes."

When the lid opened on the box, a coruscating shower of sparks enveloped the wizard. At first, he squawked in dismay, but after a moment they could hear his voice from within the obscuring shower. "I'm okay. It . . . tingles like crazy, but it's . . . okay."

They could see his hands move into the box and withdraw what at first looked like a silvery icicle. However, it showed no signs of melting and within the cascade of sparks they could see him turn it over. After a moment he closed the box lid and slid the chest into his pack, holding only the short, silver rod.

"I think I know where this goes," he said. "Give me the staff."

Solace tiptoed over and handed it to him. Rhialto took the rod that was supposedly the "Fist of Thor" and slid it into the recess in the staff. He had to twist it around a few times, and at one point was apparently pushing as hard as he could, but in a moment it snapped into place and the sparks flowed from his body to envelop the staff.

Within the sparks, the staff was writhing as though it were alive, and growing.

Rhialto offered an explanation over the hissing static. "Since Thor is the god of thunder and lightning, I thought his icon might be the power source for the staff - especially when I remembered that hole in one end of it."

"Looks like you were right," Oakheart observed.

After a few seconds, the shape of the staff stabilized. It was now at least seven feet long, and intricately carved throughout its length. And, like Rhialto's staff, one end seemed constantly moving, with glowing lights orbiting within a basketball-sized sphere around the busy end where the Fist of Thor was installed.

"There's something missing," Rhialto observed.

"What?" Lucas asked.

"There's a . . . depression in the end of the Fist of Thor, and the lights aren't circling the end of the staff. The center is a bit higher. Oh my god!"

The last exclamation had the group looking around in concern, but Rhialto's face lit up in a smile. "I know what it is. Solace, give me the Heart of Ymir."

She had just been thinking of the stone as the guidestone for so long she had almost forgotten the gem's name. But with Rhialto's words she remembered and fished it out of her pouch. Rhialto set the jewel so that the point of the heart shape fit within the recess he had observed in the Fist of Thor, triggering a soundless blast of light that swept through the chamber.

"Is everyone okay?" Rhialto asked.

"I will be when I can see again," Lucas said, blinking his eyes.

The staff was no longer sparking along its length, but there were miniature lightning bolts and tiny shooting stars flickering around the busy end, which was even harder to look at.

"Man, this thing is powerful!" Rhialto said. He swung it around in a complex arc and one of the little lightning arcs grew enormously, discharging to powder an inoffensive stalagmite.

"Is it gonna be enough to blast the stone army?" Lucas asked.

Rhialto regarded it for a moment, then shook his head. "The amount of power you draw determines how long it will be before you can hit something again. I think this has about one good blast in it, and then it'll be no better than my other staff for at least an hour. Even the maximum blast won't kill one of those armies. For all we know, there's no end to them anyway."

"So we're still stuck," Lucas said grimly.

While they were assembling the staff, the stone armies had advanced until the drum of their heavy feet was causing small pebbles to bounce.

"It won't be long, now," Oakheart observed needlessly.

Without deliberate plan, they began to retreat up their ledge away from the menacing sounds. They glanced around anxiously, wondering if there would be at least a narrow place where they could defend themselves. Solace tried to energize her staff enough to heal her ankles, but nothing seemed to help. She tiptoed along with an arm around Shimmer for support.

The healer stopped walking for a second, then looked at the petite thief. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurt?" she asked.

"It's nothing," Shimmer replied. "Just a scratch. I tore a nail on one of the rocks I was climbing."

"It hurts, though," Solace said. "Let me fix it."

She energized her staff again and then paused. Shimmer thought it meant she had changed her mind and said, "It's okay. Really."

"Hush," Solace said abruptly, then louder, "Everyone, be quite for a second."

She closed her eyes in concentration for that requested second - and a few more - then looked at Rhialto. "Just how strong a blast can you get from that thing?"

"I don't really know. A lot more powerful than anything I could do before."

"What's up?" asked Lucas.

"There is . . . life above us. Lots of it. With my staff tuned up, I can feel an abundance of living things. Some are happy, some are worried, some are just plain hungry. Nothing is intelligent, that I can tell, not even the intelligence of some of the semi-human types we've fought. I'm just wondering if maybe . . . there's a way out."

"You mean, use the staff - the one charge we'll have - to blast a hole straight up in to the cavern roof instead of using it on the stone guys?" Lucas asked.

"Do you have a better idea?" she challenged.

After a moment, he said, "I guess not. Anybody else?"

"Works for me," Oakheart said. "I've been down this way, and we're not getting out unless we can get past the armies, or make our own exit."

The rest nodded too, and then stepped back as Rhialto regarded the stone over their heads. Shrugging, he picked a spot where the ceiling was a little higher than anywhere else, and started to move the staff through a complex set of curves, holding positions for a moment now and then, and chanting with increasing volume. As he did so, the glowing end of the staff seemed actually to contract, but the lights whirled with ever greater speed and brightness.

With a final swirl he struck the floor with the low end of the staff as though he were setting it for recoil and shouted something no one else understood. A jagged streak launched up at the recess in the roof and a wave of sound so loud it was felt as a pressure pulse rather than heard knocked all but Rhialto off their feet.

When they gathered their senses, they realized they were sprawled in their forest glade with a smiling Odin, a placid Mattock, and a patient Akeela watching benignly.

Chapter 12 - "Charisma"

Solace got to her feet - actually, to her toes - and said, "I guess this means we finished the quest."

"Yes," Odin confirmed. "It was clear that Shimmer could get you out of that hole and into safety."

By now the other adventurers had stood up, with Oakheart moving quickly to Akeela and checking out the now-healthy wolf.

Odin continued with his explanation. "You are now without exception the best team ever to have participated in Reality 2.0. No other team has ever succeeded on the first run at that quest."

"Lucky us," Solace said, wincing at her still-tight ankles. "So, can you help me out here?"

Odin smiled his machine-perfect smile and raised his staff. In a moment, Solace felt comforting support at her heels, but not in the way she expected.

"What's this?" she asked, turning to look at the back of her boots. Instead of letting her ankles relax, Odin had caused her boot heels to extend to the ground.

"You will find those boots comfortable, I believe," Odin said.

Solace took a few steps, then stopped. "No way. This is stu . . . I mean, this is not very practical, Lord Odin. I can't wear high-heeled boots on quests."

"Do you feet or ankles hurt? Is your balance unsteady?" the old man challenged.

"Well, not really," Solace reported. "But . . ."

"Um, Sis," Shimmer said. "The heels are just as big around as they were before." The petite thief sighed and added, "It's sorta like you got taller."

"Isn't there anything else I can do?" Solace asked Odin. The game master smiled his paternal smile and said nothing.

"Oh crap," Solace said, then blushed. "Sorry about that. But you're telling me I just haven't figured out how to fix my tendons, so it's up to me, right?"

Odin nodded slightly, then addressed the group as a whole. "As I said, you have performed extremely well. I have great hopes for you . . . unless you found that quest to be too easy and are getting bored. . . ?"

The chorus of negatives triggered another of his repetitious smiles. "Very well, as a special reward for your exemplary performance, each of you has been granted bonus points, some to be selected by you, and others selected by me based on your demonstrated abilities. Congratulations."

There were physical rewards as well. In addition to gold and jewels, all but Rhialto and Solace received better weapons. It was understood that Rhialto would now use the assembled Staff of Skadi. Solace was wondering if something special would be provided to her when she felt a fluttery rustle in her hair, then heard the gasp of her companions.

"Man, I really hate you," Shimmer said, but her sigh said it was more envy than hate that motivated her.

Odin bestowed on them his paternal smile and conjured a mirror. In it, Solace saw a golden crown woven through her dark tresses. "That is a Circlet of Perception," explained Odin. "It will allow you to sense life and danger more effectively than even your Empathy score provides. Think of it as the equivalent of additional attribute points in that skill."

"Wow," Rhialto said, "it's . . . beautiful. Just like a princess."

Instead of showing joy at a gift that sparked envy in her friends, Solace frowned. "Look, um, Odin, I don't care what you do to me, I'm just not cut out for the princess look. No flowing gowns, no glass slippers, and no tiaras."

Odin said calmly, "If you choose to use that reward, you will be a more effective team member. Is that not desirable?"

The frown marring Solace's brow did not vanish, but after a moment she shrugged and nodded. "Thank you," she said finally, nodding at the old man.

"Noble adventurers," Odin said grandly, "will you claim your skill rewards now, or will you contemplate them first?"

"I'd like to claim mine," Lucas said, but before he could tell the game master what he wanted, Shimmer interrupted.

"Not right now. I want to think about this for a bit."

Oakheart nodded. "I think we all need a break."

"Okay," Lucas said grumpily.

"Ready?" Solace asked, and when no one disagreed she pushed the exit button.

When the static cleared, they were all seated in the Danner game room, apparently unchanged. That was shown to be wrong as soon as Tris tried to stand up.

"Oh, crap," he said. "My ankles are screwed up here, too."

"Really?" Joshua asked.

"No, Sherlock, I just felt like lying about it," Tris snapped. He tried to walk around the room and could only manage if he stayed on his toes. "What am I gonna do?"

"Maybe it will work out after a bit," Charly offered. "The manual said that this sort of thing fades, right?"

"Yeah, but what am I gonna do in the meantime?" Tris repeated.

After a moment, Lucas shrugged and said, "I, um, may have a way to help, dude, but I don't think you're gonna like it."

"Man, that's a great way to offer help," Tris said with a sigh. "Whatcha got?"

"Wait here," Lucas said. He vanished into the main part of his home and came back a few minutes later with a wide box about 4 or 5 inches thick.

"Linda left these . . ," he began, opening the box.

Inside were a pair of boots in pale gray leather. At first, Tris thought they were cowboy boots, with tall, tooled shafts accented with white inset panels and moderately pointed toes. Then he saw the heels."

"Those are girl's boots," he said.

"Yeah, I know," Lucas said. "But except for the tooling on the shafts, these look like the ones in the game - after Odin got done with them. You should be able to walk in them, if they fit. Try them on."

"I don't want to wear girl's boots," Tris said.

"Suit yourself," Lucas said. "Good luck walking on your toes all week."

"Crap," Tris said, then moved to a seat. "Give 'em to me."

The boots fit well enough. Tris was wearing fairly heavy socks and the boots were a bit tight but he knew he had some other socks at home that would work. Then he stood up and found that they solved the more important problem.

"Crap," he repeated. "I was hopin' these wouldn't work, but they do. I guess I don't have a lot of choice."

"One thing, Tris," Landon said. "D'you have any longer pants at home?"

"I don't think so," Tris replied. "Why?"

"Because those look . . . kinda stupid," his brother said. "They look like they're too short, and they really, um, show the heels on those boots."

"Great, just great," Tris said.

"Man, you're not gonna like this, but I can probably help with that, too," Lucas offered. "Linda left some other stuff here, and you're about the same size. She may have something you can wear."

"God, I hate that game," Tris said. Then he sat down and started to pull the boots off. "Let me see what you got."

What bothered Tris the most, once Lucas had provided some white and stone-washed gray jeans for him to try on, was that they fit really well. His own jeans had been really tight lately, at least across the butt, and Linda's leftovers were actually pretty comfortable. And they were long enough to hide most of the boots. They even had a bit of flare so that they hung neatly.

"Crap," he said again, then shrugged and looked at Lucas. "Thanks, dude. I guess I owe you."

"This is just until the game effects wear off," Joshua said.

"Yeah, right," Tris said. "Probably wear off just about the time we get back into the game."

He was worried that his new attire would be the cause for comment - and not complimentary ones - from parents and students. Neither turned out to be a problem. If anything, it was the other way around. On Monday, he wore the faded gray jeans to school and was walking up the steps into the building when he was surprised to hear a musical soprano saying his name.

"Hi, Tris," Megan Andersen said.

"Um, hi," Tris replied, not expecting any recognition from a cheerleader he wasn't sure even knew his name.

"I was wondering," Megan began diffidently, walking along with him, "if you had any time to talk about the History paper."

"Um, sure," he said. Then, his caution insisted on being heard. "Um, Megan, don't get me wrong. I'll be happy to help, but . . . we haven't worked together before. Is there a reason you're asking me?"

"Well, it's just that you seem to like, explain things so well. Last week in class when you did your report on the League of Nations, it just made sense."

"I'm glad to hear that," Tris said. "What can I do to help?"

"Well, I'm just having a hard time picking someone to write the paper on. It's gotta be somebody who was never famous, but was involved in something important. I just don't know where to start."

"Yeah, I'm having trouble with that, too. I guess I was gonna start by finding someone to talk to, and then figure out what to talk about. Maybe an election they voted in, or a protest, or maybe find a veteran. There are some veterans in Edgewood Retirement Home, I think. Anyway, if I find someone who's been around a while, I figure we'll find something they did to talk about."

"Oh, wow, that's just awesome," Megan said. "Thanks a lot."

"Sure," Tris said, then shook his head as the energetic young woman bounced - and jiggled, and swayed - to her class.

:Wow. I wonder what brought that on,: Tris pondered.

Apparently, his work over the last few weeks had been noticed by several people. None were as interesting as Megan Andersen, but when the Geometry teacher asked him to explain his proof for one of the theorems - thankfully one that Joshua had helped him with - the whole class seemed to pay close attention. And Mrs. Gretchen even complimented him on it, which was definitely out of the ordinary.

It bothered him, in fact, so he had to explain, "Well, Josh Kinnison helped me on it."

"Good," Mrs. Gretchen said, not withdrawing her praise. "Working together will be good for both of you." Then she actually smiled, though there was a veiled threat in her smile as she regarded the class as a whole, "Working together is only permitted on homework, of course. Anyone 'sharing' ideas on the quizzes will not find that a good idea at all."

Tris' confidence increased as the week went on and the response remained positive. Most of the time he forgot about his attire, or at least forgot about how unusual it was. He even made it to the mall one evening and bought another pair of jeans that fit over his boots, finally deciding to go with the same style as the pair that Lucas had loaned him. It was funny, but being taller - whatever the reason - made him feel more confident. He found himself making eye contact with more people, including the 'cool' people, instead of ducking away. Or maybe it was just that they were more likely to make eye contact with him. The tightness in his ankles gradually reduced, but never enough that he felt he needed to quit wearing his borrowed boots.

"Was that Megan Andersen who I saw talking with you?" Joshua asked at their more-or-less regular lunch on Wednesday.

"Yeah," Tris said. "She wanted some help on a History paper."

"Dude!" Josh said. "Man, her picture is in the dictionary next to 'hot!'"

"She is good lookin'," Tris said with a grin.

"You know why she's interested in you, after ignoring you all these years, don't you?" challenged Josh.

"Um," Tris replied eloquently, "I was sorta thinkin' it was because I'm . . . taller?"

"That helps," Josh admitted. "Has anyone given you any trouble about your boots?"

"No," Tris said. "I was afraid I'd get - I don't know - at least crapped on by the jocks or something."

"Welcome to a textbook demonstration of the value of Charisma," Josh said.


"You heard me. Charisma," Josh repeated. "It's not only your tight ankles and longer hair that carried over from the game. Your Charisma works to make people pay attention to you, to listen, to believe what you have to say and think it's valuable. All that good stuff."

"You really think so?" Tris asked with a frown of concentration.

"Absolutely," Josh said. "And it's working for me, too. Except in my case it's Intelligence and Wisdom. Man, I've been acing all my tests since we started that game."

"I'm not sure I like that," Tris said. "I mean, if the only reason I'm becoming more popular is because I rolled a good number on a game attribute, what does that say about the real me?"

"Still a geek," a deeper voice added as Lucas sat down next to his friends. "I, on the other hand, am becoming . . . a jock! Next I'll be joining the football team, and getting all the cute cheerleaders."

They looked at their once-sedentary friend and it was clear that his form was now much more solid that soft.

Lucas continued, "I had to go out and buy a bunch of new clothes, mostly jeans. I lost a ton around my gut, but my shoulders are wider than ever. I can do a lot more pullups and pushups, and I don't get out of breath as easy."

"Good for you," Tris said thoughtfully. "I guess the game really is changing us. But why, and why do we change to match what was essentially a random number?"

"I'm not sure it's all that random, at least, not any more," Joshua said. "Remember, Odin said he would adjust the attribute scores to match what we demonstrated in the game. I guess what I'd say is that we're, um, converging toward our scores. I mean, we got bonus points in some areas, and if he didn't take anything away, then we must at least have the potential to reach whatever our score is in other areas."

Now the erstwhile wizard looked thoughtfully for a while. "Y'know, I wonder how random that was in the first place. I mean, I've always been a bookworm, and I end up basically pushed into being a wizard. And Lucas has always been a jock wannabe, just too lazy to work out. So he ends up being a warrior. Oh, and Charly has always been a tomboy, and an outdoors type. She ends up a ranger. See the pattern?"

"Are you saying that I wanted to be a girl?" challenged Tris.

"I don't know, dude, did you?" Josh asked seriously.

"Hell, no!" Tris snapped. "I hate that damn game. Being a girl sucks. Being an empathic healer sucks big time. The whole damn game sucks."

"Then quit," Josh said quietly.

"I'm not a quitter," Tris countered. "We're halfway through and I'll stay with it until we finish. But once we finish, I'm done with all of that."

Josh just nodded, not arguing for the moment. Then he saw Megan Andersen walking a little further down the hall and raised an eyebrow at her.

"She just wanted help with some homework," Tris insisted. "And even if what you say is right, it's only the Charisma thing anyway. It's not real."

"It's a real as you make it," Josh said. "Like Lucas can be a jock if he wants, even after the game, if he keeps working out. If you keep . . . being sensitive to others, and take care of your appearance, you might find that your Charisma score is just a way to describe who you really are. I sure hope my better grades don't tank after we finish the game."

"But . . . I'm not a girl," Tris insisted softly.

"So?" Joshua challenged. "Look, in the damn game we're all just friends, right? Unless you intend to drag Mattock off into the bushes and have your wicked way with him, then it doesn't really matter what's inside your pants. And in real life . . ."

Josh interrupted himself and put a friendly hand on Tris' shoulder to take away as much sting as possible. "In real life, you're never going to be as big as the Inedible Bulk here. At your size, you can look good without looking like a Neanderthal. Thick, dark hair, slim waist, fine features, poise and refinement . . . don't knock it, dude, if it's workin' for you. Being graceful is not all bad. Just ask Megan."

"Um, guys . . . I already did," Lucas said.

"What?" asked Tris.

"I asked Megan out, and she said yes," Lucas reported. "It's just for a snack and a movie, but she said okay. Her boyfriend, apparently he was . . . impolite and she dumped him. I guess I picked the right time to ask her."

"Great, just great," Tris sighed.

"Hey, dude, you'll do okay," Lucas said. "Maybe not Megan, but you really are looking better, and you do have the Charisma thing going for you."

"Spoken by the lumbering behemoth of muscle who got what he wanted," Tris said bitterly.

"Look, I have to get to class," Joshua said. "Take it easy, Tris. It'll all work out."

"Yeah, right."

Chapter 13 - "Empathy"

Friday morning, Tris pulled on the white jeans Lucas had provided. It wasn't actually a conscious decision while he was still half asleep. They were just clean and he had worn the others enough. By noon he had realized that was a mistake. The hems were long enough to brush the floor and had picked up a dingy fringe. Somewhere, he had bumped his knee on something red, and after seeing that, he was afraid to sit down without a very careful examination of the chair - which didn't always work anyway.

But, as before, no one seemed to notice. Or at least, no one seemed to feel it was worth taunting him about. Feeling dingy bothered Tris enough that after his last class he spent a few minutes in the rest room trying to clean up the spots that had appeared. Quite a few minutes, as it turned out, because when he finally reached his locker the hall was deserted.

As he was changing out his books, he heard something in the empty hallways.

"Is someone there?" he asked.

No one answered, but the sound came again . . . and then he realized it wasn't really a sound, so much as a feeling that someone was . . . crying. He closed his locker and started walking down the hall, listening for the sound he couldn't really hear. The click of his boot heels on the tile floor echoed in the empty space, but he couldn't shake the feeling that someone nearby was in pain - deep, wracking, emotional pain.

He found her under a stairway, huddled with her back against the wall. Tris had known Caitlyn Saunders since junior high school, though they had never been really close friends. She was just another of the generic high school girls - moderately attractive with an average figure for teen girls, though that was pretty good as the budding women stretched taller with slimming waists and highly-anticipated curves. Most women over thirty would kill for the body of a sixteen year old girl. Caitlyn had worn the generic long, medium-brown hair, the generic as-revealing-as-parents-would-allow skirts and tops.

At least . . . she had been fairly typical. A few months ago she had cut off most of her hair and started wearing increasingly shapeless and concealing clothes. Other than a slight sense of disappointment that yet another girl had 'given up' on trying to look good for guys, Tris had barely noticed.

"Hey, Catie, what's up?" he asked softly.

She didn't say anything, just turning away to hide her face.

Tris moved over to put his own back against the wall, then slid slowly down to crouch next to her, his left shoulder barely touching her right one.

"God, I hate allergies," he said conversationally, looking at the far wall. "They make my eyes all red, and my nose run. It sucks."

"Yeah," whispered Caitlyn. "Allergies."

"You know what I'm allergic to?" Tris asked, then answered his own question. "Nobility. Honor."

"What?" she said, turning to look at him.

"Yep. Y'know, out at the airport there's a gate where the troops arrive when they're returning from overseas," he explained. "And there's this old guy in a powered wheelchair. He has this hat that says 'World War II Veteran,' and a small American flag. He waves it at the troops, shaking hands with anyone who comes close."

"See?" he said, pointing at his glistening eyes. "Even thinking about it makes my eyes water and my nose run."

"That's not allergies," Caitlyn said, smiling just a little at his silliness.

"Really?" Tris asked in wide-eyed shock. "Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Allergies are always a good excuse for tears."

That brought the discussion back to the real issue, and Caitlyn knew it. "I . . . can't talk about it."

"Okay," Tris said. "Let's talk about something else."

"What?" Caitlyn asked, then added, "Why?"

"Why not? You got somewhere to go?"

"No," Caitlyn required bitterly. "Not any more."

This time, Tris sat silently, patiently, waiting for Caitlyn. He settled in a bit lower on his heels and used that as an excuse to let his shoulder press a bit more into hers.

They sat silently for a while, contemplating the blank wall in front of them. Caitlyn's eyes silently filled and spilled, leaving tracks of tears and smudged mascara down her cheeks.

Finally, she turned to Tris and asked, "Can you keep a secret?"

He nodded, but she pushed further. "No, I mean, really, really keep a secret. Can't tell anyone, anywhere, ever. Especially not . . . any adults."

"Okay," Tris said slowly. "I promise."

Caitlyn looked away and buried her head in her hands.

"I killed my baby today!" she gasped out, almost muffled through her fingers.

At first, Tris wasn't sure he had heard her correctly, but again he waited silently, only moving to put an arm around the sobbing girl and pulling her head to his chest. He felt a stab of shared loss at the life that could have been, and in moments his own tears were soaking into Caitlyn's hair.

"He was a real jerk, you know?" Caitlyn said bitterly. "After he used me he tossed me away like trash. Just like . . . . just like . . ."

Her sobs robbed her of breath for a few long moments, then she said, "Just like I threw away the tiny baby that was growing in me."

"He?" prompted Tris.

"Just a jerk," Caitlyn said. "I met him outside of school, not someone you know."

Tris nodded into her hair and let her continue in her own time.

"When I told him I was pregnant, he disappeared. I haven't seen him since. Not that I want to, any more."

Something no longer seemed like a coincidence to Tris. "Is that when you cut your hair, and, um, changed your . . . style?'

Caitlyn nodded on his shoulder. "I didn't want to be little miss teen queen any more."

Tris let her feel a shrug. "That's too bad. I always thought your hair was pretty, but I guess I'm not much of a fan of . . . well, y'know."

"Butch hair on a girl?" offered Caitlyn. "Well, at least it kept the guys away. And then when I started getting fat, I just wore clothes to hide it."

"I guess that worked," Tris said. "I never, um, knew."

"Yeah," Caitlyn said. "Nobody did. Mom doesn't care. When I was puking every morning she either didn't notice or decided to ignore it. My Dad would kill me if he found out, so it's obvious he didn't know."

"So what happened?" Tris asked cautiously, afraid that this critical question might push her away.

But apparently she was ready to talk. At some level he knew that, because she had already shared more than he had expected when he first approached her.

Caitlyn took a deep breath, almost a gulp of air, and then blurted out, "I went to an abortion clinic today. I told the school that I had a doctor's appointment. I guess that's even true."

She paused, then the bitterness rose in her voice again. "I decided that I didn't want any part of that jerk to . . . live on. I mean, I'm sure not ready to be a mother. It wouldn't be good for the child. Let alone not having a father - or worse, having that bastard as a father."

She sighed and seemed to collapse. "But if I kept the baby for long enough to put it up for adoption, my Dad would have found out. And . . . some part of Ste . . . of him would live on and I'd have . . . rewarded him for being an asshole."

She looked up to meet Tris' eyes, a challenge in her own. "So I decided to kill my baby - mostly because it was his baby, too. So tell me I'm an evil, heartless bitch."

The challenge left her eyes as quickly as it rose. "I should have killed myself instead. Except - here's the crazy thing - that would have killed the baby anyway."

Tris held her, stroking her hair softly as her voice dissolved into further sobs. His own tears soaked her hair under his cheek, and he wasn't sure he could speak even if he thought saying something would help.

"Why am I telling you all this?" Caitlyn whispered.

"Because I care," Tris said. "And I respect you enough that I'm not gonna judge you for something no one else can truly understand."

"Do you? Care?" she asked.

"Yes," he said directly. "That and a buck will just about get you a coke, but I do care."

She looked up at him and smiled at his joke. A weak smile - but then it was a weak joke. He smiled back and squeezed her shoulders.

"So," he asked, "what are you gonna do from here?"

"I don't know," Caitlyn said. "Just sit here, I guess."

"Let's go get that coke I promised you," Tris offered. "I may just about have a buck to spare."

"You, and me?" Caitlyn said.

"Sure," Tris replied easily.

"But you're . . . I mean, you may not be as big as some of the football jerks . . . jocks, but you're so much better looking than I am. You're slim and fit, with a tight bod like I haven't had since . . . haven't had for months. And you're so, I don't know, confident somehow, not in a bad way, like full of yourself, just like . . . you know you can do whatever . . . needs doing. I mean, you don't need to do some sort of mercy date with me, even if it's just for a coke."

"You're right," Tris said, "and wrong. It won't be any mercy date so I don't need to do that.. Catie I've known you for - what? - five years now? We can go get a coke together without it affecting our coolness score. Besides, thanks for the nice words but I'm the geek the cheerleaders talk about to scare their friends on sleepover stories. Just because I'm scrawny instead of fat doesn't make me cool."

Caitlyn laughed at least a little at the artificial bitterness in his voice, but she started to gather herself to stand up. Tris flowed to his own feet beside her and was about to step away from the wall when she wrapped her arms around him and squeezed so hard he remembered the broken ribs from the last game quest.

"Thanks, Tris. More than I can say."

He hugged her back, not nearly so fiercely, and when she finally released him and looked at the stairway, he moved to stand beside her.

"Do you ever read Spider Robinson?" he asked out of nowhere.


"Spider Robinson," Tris repeated. "He has this theory that shared joy is multiplied by the number who share it. Like, if you tell a joke, and 5 people hear it, then your own amusement is multiplied by 5."

"Okay," Caitlyn said, not sure of the point. "So?"

"Well, the converse of that theory is that shared pain is divided," he explained. "If you're hurting, and you let friends share the hurt, it gets reduced. I think that might be true."

"Really?" Caitlyn said thoughtfully. "Maybe so. I, um, feel better than I did. Thanks for listening."

"Any time," he replied. "I mean it. If you're hurting, find someone to talk to. The school's counselor or . . . a friend."

He paused, then swept his hand down his own form, "Me, if you think I'm your friend. I hope so."

"Oh, Tris, you're a lot better friend than I ever knew," she said firmly.

"Okay, then do me a favor," he challenged.


"Start letting your hair grow out again. I think you have beautiful hair - or did - and I'd like to see it again."

"Oh, Tris," she said, slapping lightly at his arm. "You guys are all alike. Y'all want girls with long hair, short skirts, and high heels."

"And what's wrong with that?" he asked, smiling.

Caitlyn laughed and then pulled up sharply. "You know, that may be the first time I've laughed about, y'know, looking attractive to guys since . . . the jerk told me to get lost."

"So is it a deal?" Tris asked.

"What? Oh, you mean growing my hair out? Okay, I will," she said.

They started walking again, but only for a few steps. Then Caitlyn pulled up again. "Hey, you're sneaky!"

"Moi?" Tris asked innocently.

"I guess I won't be able to, um . . . do anything drastic if I'm committed to several months of growing my hair out," she said.

"I guess you won't," he agreed.

It wasn't really late when Tris got home, just late enough to miss supper. Mrs. Knight was not amused. "Tris, you're supposed to call if you're going to be late."

"I know, Mom. I'm sorry. Something came up."


Tris paused and then said, "I'm . . . not sure I can say. I promised someone to keep a secret, and it's really important that I do."

"I see," his mother said cautiously. "Is it likely to get you into trouble?"

"No," Tris replied quickly. "It's someone else who is in trouble, or maybe, was in trouble, and sh . . . she is hurting right now. We just talked."

"Someone you know?"

"Yeah, but not, y'know, close or anything. Just someone from school."

"And she told you a secret, that you can't tell anyone?" his mother said.

Tris nodded. "I'm sorry, Mom. I don't want to keep things from you, not really. But this isn't really my secret to share, and I did promise."

"I see," Mrs. Knight repeated. "Can you tell me how this came about?"

"I found, um, someone crying and I just . . . listened for a while."

"Did it do any good?"

Tris nodded. "I think so. When I left, she wasn't crying any more, and she promised not to do anything, um, drastic."

"Sounds serious," Mrs. Knight said.

"I guess so," Tris agreed. "I was worried for a while."

Mrs. Knight urged Tris to sit down and started to prepare a plate of leftovers for him. She sat down across from him, not eating anything herself, and looked more closely at his face.

"Have you been crying, too?" she asked.

Tris shrugged, but nodded. "She was hurting so bad, and I guess I just . . . felt some of her pain."

"Indeed," Mrs. Knight said. She reached out and patted her son on his head, smiling. "I expect I'll forgive you this time," she said. She sat for a few more minutes, then said, "You're really growing up, Tris."

He had to swallow quickly so his mouth wouldn't be full, but then he said, "Thanks."

She continued. "I don't remember you being so sensitive to others, but it seems lately you've . . . opened up more. Tried to be helpful. I'm proud of you."

"Thanks," Tris repeated, blushing.

"And I'm proud of what you've done with Landon, too. He's grown up so much lately, but not in a way that makes me think he's losing his childhood. He's bright and enthusiastic and full of energy. I think it's because he's spending time with you, and I wanted you to know I appreciate it."

"Oh, he's okay," Tris said.

She laughed and said, "Okay, so who are you and what have you done with my son? A few years ago - goodness, even earlier this year - forcing you to spend time with your brother was a fate worth than death."

Tris shrugged, then hesitated before speaking. "Mom, I know you think we spend too much time in video games, but this new game we've been playing is pretty interesting, and Landon is pulling his weight in the game. I guess he doesn't seem so much like a pain in the . . ."

"Pain in the . . . neck?" his mother offered with a smile when he stalled.

"Yeah," he agreed, grinning at her.

She smiled, but a moment later she was frowning. "I hope you don't start to feel like you have to take on everyone else's problems, though."

When she said that, Tris thought about the game and how that was exactly what he did, and it caused him to twitch but he tried to cover it up by reaching for a glass of milk.

She didn't seem to notice and continued, "I have to say, I'm a bit worried about you getting involved with troubled kids like this girl you talked about. I wouldn't want you dragged into the same sort of trouble."

"That's not gonna happen," Tris said firmly, and his mother's eyes narrowed as she interpreted that as a sign of the sort of trouble the girl was in.

"You didn't . . . have anything to do with getting her into that trouble, did you?"

"No way," Tris said quickly, then he blushed and said. "Honest, Mom, no way."

"Okay," she said, seeming to close that discussion.

After a moment when she said nothing, Tris felt her eyes on him and looked up from his plate. She was looking carefully at him, and frowning just a little - more concern than anger.

"Is there anything else you want to tell me?" she asked.

"I don't think so," Tris said.

"I won't be upset, no matter what it is. At least, not this one time," she promised.

"Honest, Mom, there's nothing really."

She waited a moment, then sighed. "Tris, why are you wearing girl's jeans? And boots with an awful lot of heel?"

Tris twitched again, then decided to respond with a question. "Why are you asking?"

Before she could respond, he explained his question. "I mean, I've been wearing them for a week. Why are you just asking now?"

"I guess I was hoping that you'd explain without me pushing," she said.

Tris flinched a little at her response. While he was trying to gather his thoughts, she expanded on her question. "In the last month or so, you've changed your hairstyle to something much longer, and you're taking much better care of it. You've gotten your ears pierced, and now you're wearing girl's jeans and boots. I think that's something we should talk about."

He winced again, but then he nodded. He knew she wouldn't believe it if he told her it was because of a video game, and if she did that would be even worse because for sure she'd make him stop playing it.

:And what's ironic is that I don't even like the damn game,: he thought. :But I don't want to quit, or make my friends do the same. So what do I say?:

"As you might guess, that's a long story," Tris said. "It's actually two or three stories that just happened to come together."

"I'm listening," his mother said.

"Well, my hair has just started growing faster lately. I don't really know why," he began. :That's true,: he told himself. ::Just because I think the game causes it doesn't mean I know how or why it causes it.: "Anyway, I just started pulling it into a bunch at the back of my neck rather than spending all my money on haircuts."

"You know your father would be glad to give you money for haircuts," Mrs. Knight said, then before Tris could respond she laughed. "And we both know that what he considers adequate for a haircut would not really work for a handsome young man in high school."

Tris blushed, but smiled his thanks at her understanding. "I guess I got my ears pierced because . . . it was something different. I don't guess I'll ever be big enough to be a jock, and it seemed I either needed to like, apologize for that by hiding or strut around trying to out-macho the big guys despite my size or . . . I don't know. I didn't want to do any of those sorts of things, so I decided I'd do something that would like, provide a focus so that anyone who wanted to give me a hard time would have something to pick on. That way, I wouldn't be like, looking for trouble, but I wouldn't look like I was afraid of it either."

"Has anyone bothered you about your ears?"

"No," Tris said. "If anything, it seems to have scored some 'cool' points with the jerks, um, jocks. Enough guys have pierced ears now that it was more like they were envious that I had the guts to get them done than like, whatever."

"I suppose it was worth it, then," she said, then waited with apparent patience.

"So, the jeans and boots," he said, recognizing her silence for a request. "It's not really related. I hurt my ankles, and Lucas had some boots that were more comfortable than flat shoes."

"How did you hurt your ankles," Mrs. Knight asked.

"I'm not really sure," Tris said. :That's another true statement. I know how Solace hurt her ankles, but not how that affected mine.: "We just got done playing the game, and it hurt to put my feet flat on the floor. I must have been holding them wrong while we were involved in the game." :Yep, flat up against Lucas' thighs.:

"That was Sunday, right," she asked. "Do your ankles still hurt?"

"Oh, no," Tris said. "That faded after a couple of days."

"So you're still wearing the boots because . . ?"

Tris shrugged. "Well, they're comfortable, but mostly I guess I just like being taller. You wouldn't believe the way guys at school are treating me. It's like all the sudden I'm cooler or something. All I can figure is that it's because I'm taller."


"Yeah, I mean, guys and girls both. Some girls that I didn't think even knew my name have come up and talked to me," he said, smiling at the memory.

"And the jeans?"

"Well, the boots are a little . . . unusual, and Lucas also had some jeans that fit better. Y'know, longer, mostly."

"Lucas has some . . . unusual things," she observed dryly repeating his phrasing.

"Oh, they're actually his sister's stuff. But she's away and didn't want these any more anyway. At least, that's what Lucas said. She - Linda - is at college and Lucas said she said that she was going to give away all the stuff she left behind. I'll give them back later."

Mrs. Knight sighed and said, "Well, if it's really that important to you, maybe we can find you something similar for your own."

"Thanks," Tris said again. "I know that being all worried about my height is sorta shallow, but I guess high school is sorta shallow anyway, and . . . something seems to be working."

"Tris, I have to say that I'm still concerned about your new . . . choices," his mother said. "But you've shown a lot of maturity lately, and I guess I'll trust your judgment for a while. But I do hope you'll talk with me before you take this any further."

She stood and walked around the table to give him a hug. "And if there's . . . more to this, I just want you to know that your father and I will love you no matter what you might . . . discover about yourself."

"Thanks, Mom," Tris said, then smiled. "But, just so you know, I'm not gay. I may be screwed up in lots of ways, but that's not one of them."

Mrs. Knight's shoulders relaxed and she couldn't help smiling herself. "Well, I meant what I said. Your father and I will love you no matter what you discover about yourself, or Landon discovers about himself. But I have to admit, I'm glad for you."

"Yeah, me, too," Tris said, finishing up his delayed supper. He put his dishes in the sink and walked toward his bedroom.

As he moved away, his mother looked at her son with a renewed frown of concern. :He fills out those girl's jeans way too well for a teen-age boy. And I really think he's been doing something to shape his brows and make his lashes longer. I'm not going to push him any more right now, but I am going to watch him. His orientation may be toward girls, but I'm afraid that his body - and maybe his subconscious - may have something to say about how he fits in society. I think I have some research to do on the internet after the boys are in bed.:

Chapter 14 - "On The Road Again"

Sunday, Tris and Landon were the last to arrive. They found the others clustered around the CyberX(treme) game console, studying the small screen.

"We thought we'd see if we can pick our attribute points before we get in the game," Lucas said. "And guess what. Your Empathy is now above the max!"

"What?" Tris asked, pushing through to see the screen. His attribute scores were listed, and Empathy was now at 22, with a purple color instead of the yellow-white all the other scores showed.

"That must be what the Circlet of Perception does," Josh said.

"Oh, yeah, I guess so," Tris said. "Odin said it would help. I guess, since I can't get any more regular points, he did that."

"Good for you," Lucas said, then changed the screen to his own scores. "Most of us plan on spending our points wherever we're lowest." Then he returned to the menu screen and pointed out a new tab. "Look, we have a map now."

He clicked on the map icon and the screen dissolved into a postcard-sized map of their travels. Places they had been were reasonably clear, while other areas were fuzzed into obscurity except for apparent area names like "Parched Rocks" and "Gas Swamps."

"Is this accurate?" Landon asked, crowding in.

"Yes," Charly said. "I'm sure of it. Or at least, Oakheart is."

"Cool," Landon said. "Too bad we won't have it with us in the game."

"Yeah, but I'm sure I can remember it," Charly said.

"Okay, since we agreed we'd take care of our points before we get in the game, we'll all get a few minutes at the screen. While we're waiting . . ."

Lucas waved at the sodas and snacks on a nearby table in a general invitation, then started assigning his own attribute points. The others cycled through fairly quickly, then they were arranging their headsets and engaging the game. The burst of static quickly cleared and they found themselves once again in the forest glade.

"Welcome to Reality 2.0," Odin said in the standard greeting.

Oakheart was the first to notice one of the more significant changes in their group. "My, my. Little Darlin' has gotten all growed up."

He was looking at Shimmer, and her appearance had indeed changed. She was taller, and a "hard to tell" figure had given way to one that was unmistakably feminine. The thief was still tautly slender and smaller than any others in the party, but she no longer looked like an androgynous child. Shimmer was definitely a young woman now.

"Oh, hell, did you use your points for Appearance?" Lucas said in disgust.

"So what if I did?" Shimmer challenged. "Or at least, one of them. It's my choice."

"But that's a waste," Lucas said. "You should have put your points into something that would benefit the group."

Solace moved to stand by her sibling. "Spoken by someone who got what he wanted to begin with," she said. "It's her choice, and she hasn't come up short on any of the tasks we've set her yet."

"Besides," Shimmer added. "My appearance score is still lowest in the group. I'm just catching up."

"Whatever," Lucas said, still obviously dissatisfied with her choice.

Shimmer, already standing close to Solace, whispered, "Your boots lost most of their heels. They look about like they did before - more than any of the guys, or me in my thief boots, but less than when we left."

"Yeah, I could tell," Solace said, looking down at her own long legs. "Too bad. I kinda liked them."

"Really? Is that why you wore Linda's boots all week?," the smaller woman said with a grin. "I'd'a never guessed." Then Shimmer sighed. "I need my soft-soled boots for when I'm sneaking around. Too bad, because I'd like to be taller."

"Hang in there, Sis," Solace suggested. "You're getting better fast."

"Oh, I hope so," Shimmer sighed, and her big sister noticed that the lithe thief's gaze spent a lot of time studying the lean ranger and his 'chiseled' abs.

Odin reached into his robes, capturing their attention, and he pulled out a rolled-up scroll of parchment. "I have one further gift, for the group as a whole," he announced. Unrolling the parchment he displayed a map similar to the one they had seen on the game console screen. On it, there was a glowing 'X' overlaid on a spot labeled, "Forest Glade."

Rhialto accepted it from Odin's hands and said, "I assume this 'X' will follow us as we travel?"

Odin nodded his head and stepped back from the crowding group.

"What is our next quest?" Lucas asked officiously.

Odin began a data download in pedantic tones. "You have obtained and assembled the staff of offensive power. Now you must obtain and assemble an item of defensive power. The first step is to obtain the Belt of Hlin."

Odin stopped there, abruptly, yet with a sense of finality.

"Um, okay," Lucas said. "And where do we find this Belt if Lin?"

"I think that was, 'Hlin,'" Rhialto said. "I think that is the Goddess of Protection."

"Geez, geek, how do you know all that stuff?" Lucas said.

"Geez, dork, when the game master calls himself Odin and we're going after things from Ymir and Thor, it might make sense to do a little research, don't ya' think?" Rhialto countered.

"Guys, guys," Solace said, stepping between them. "Save it for the monsters."

Turning to Odin, she asked, "Do you have any advice on how to find this item?"

The old man smiled his perfect machine-controlled smile of paternal benevolence and said, "With most artifacts of power, rumors make their way into local legends. Perhaps someone you meet will have some suggestions."

"Perhaps," Solace repeated, bowing slightly in respect.

Odin repeated his smile and then started to fade. "Remember, the exit is always behind your left ear."

"What good is that?" Lucas said once the game master had disappeared. "Maybe we'll bump into someone?"

"Lighten up, dude," Oakheart said. "This is a game, remember? What d'ya wanna bet that we 'bump into someone' who 'just happens' to remember some old legend about this belt as soon as we get to a town? For all we know, we'll bump into said person on the road before we even get to the town."

"Oh, yeah," Lucas said. "Sorry. I guess I was getting caught up in things. But . . . what if we don't? I mean, just because the game master can like, make things happen doesn't mean he will."

Rhialto was studying the map and waved it around a bit. "Look. We've been East, West, and South of here a good ways. I'm betting that we need to go North, and that we'll find a town up there. And if they don't know anything about the Belt of Hlin, then they might at least know about a town further along where we can get some information."

Shimmer nodded, then said, "We have some loot we need to sell anyway, so getting to a town makes sense."

"Right, well, let's get started," Lucas said, looking at the familiar path out of the glade.

"Oh, crap," Solace muttered. "More skunks."

The plan - such as it was - worked pretty well. They reached Torvald and sold their disposable loot. With a recent boost in Intelligence, Solace was able to identify a potion that could help with internal injuries, especially in conjunction with a "laying on of hands" and a spell chant. If her ankles were messed up again, or someone broke a bone, she now knew how to fix the problem. All of the other adventurers - except Mattock of course - found something to spend a little money on as well.

Including a new pair of earrings for Shimmer. She must have crossed a threshold in Appearance, because she noticed that her ears were now pierced and took advantage of the opportunity to buy some silver hoops that winked in and out of her now-longer light-swallowing dark hair.

"Lookin' good, Sis," Solace said with a laugh.

"Thanks," Shimmer replied. "You need to get some of your own. Those little angels are . . . cute, but . . ."

"Oh, wow," Solace said, laughing. "That was wickedly catty. You're really getting into this girl thing, aren't you?"

"If you say so," Shimmer said with a little laugh that was still more girl than woman. She started moving off more quickly on another scouting foray through the market, leaving her light-hearted giggle wafting in the air behind her.

No one in the market knew of - or at least, admitting to knowing of - the Belt of Hlin. But the team did find out about another town further north. So after their trading was finished, they set out into the unknown area on their map. The monster mobs were - as usual - a little tougher than they had faced before. But - as usual - their new skills were more than up to the challenge. It was essentially practice, and they fought their way from mob to mob with more patience than thrill.

"This is taking forever," Lucas complained.

"Well, time does not flow the same here as in the real world," Rhialto reminded them pedantically. "But I do think we're taking long enough that we won't complete this quest today. I wonder how we'll work that. I mean, if we leave, do we come back here in this forest, or back in the glade? And does that mean starting over?"

"I'll bet we find some place - a town or something - and then we can start from there," Oakheart suggested, appearing from behind a tree where he had listened to them approach. "Otherwise we might never get this quest completed."

"I hope so," Solace said. "If we have to get this all done in one session, we may need to arrange an all-night session, and I'm not sure my parents will go for that. Particularly with . . ."

"Yeah, blame me," Shimmer's voice sounded from somewhere in the trees around them.

At least a potential solution appeared to them as dusk was setting in their world. The turrets of a medieval castle clearly modeled after the one that had held the wyrm began to show through the trees, and the setting sun showed the entire structure as the trail widened out. This castle, though it had the curtain wall and inner keep, was much more inviting than the wyrm's lair. There were proud banners flying from several towers, and torches just then being lit near the lowered drawbridge.

The gate had guards who appeared as human as the people who populated the market towns. Without any specific planning, the party rearranged from the normal march formation that had the warriors leading and the scouts roaming separately. Instead, they consolidated into a tighter group with Lucas and Solace in the lead.

"Good Even, Milady," the guard officer said. At least, he looked like an officer with a crested helmet and better armor. "Welcome to Resolute Keep."

"Good Even," Solace replied, nodding her head politely. The officer did not reply, but after a moment she realized he was expecting her to explain her purpose.

"We are adventurers on a quest," Solace explained. "And find ourselves in need of shelter for the evening. I am Solace."

"You are welcome, Milady Solace," the officer said. "Particularly if that is a Staff of Mercy you bear."

"It is," Solace declared.

"Yo, smart dude," Shimmer whispered to Rhialto, with Oakheart close enough to hear, "what's with all the 'of' stuff? Y'know, Fist of Thor, Belt of Hlin. Haven't these guys ever heard of apostrophes?"

"Maybe not," Rhialto said, smiling at the irreverent comment. "Or at least, the language may not have developed possessives."

"Why not?" Shimmer persisted. "I mean, we can talk with them okay."

"Actually, it's kind of habit-forming," Oakheart said. "We may have just fallen into the same speech pattern when we talked with people."

"Shhh," Solace turned and hissed.

"Yes, Mother," Shimmer said. Then she grinned and shot her sibling with a 'gotcha' finger.

"I am Lucas," their blonde semi-giant declared. "Warrior."

"Indeed," the officer replied, sizing Lucas up warily. "I am Tarn, Guard Captain. It appears you bear weapons of power."

"Is that a problem?" Solace asked.

"Not for yourself or the warriors," Tarn replied. "And rangers are always welcome."

He looked pointedly at Rhialto and Shimmer.

"Is there a problem?" Solace repeated.

"As I'm sure you're aware, Milady, some mages draw their power from . . . dangerous sources."

"Wait a minute . . ," Rhialto began. "I'm not a sorcerer, I'm a wizard mage. And I gained my staff of power from quests assigned by Odin himself!"

"Indeed?" Tarn said again, then he dryly continued, "That is a very strong claim, and would certainly assure us of your good intentions. Except the only way to be sure you're not . . . being over familiar with the All-Father's name would be if he chose to, ah, show his displeasure directly. And he's not really in the habit of doing that."

"Are you accusing me of lying?" demanded Rhialto.

Tarn shook his head, but without apology. "No, Sir Wizard, I actually believe you. But I cannot allow you into the Keep without proof. And frankly, I'm not expert enough in your . . . art even to determine how to prove or disprove what you say. I'm sorry, but those are facts we must address."

Rhialto's staff had begun to spit sparks, with crackles of energy that had no place to go. In a moment, it looked like he was going to offer proof of his power, if not of his integrity.

Then the guard captain made things even worse. Pointing at Shimmer, he said, "And I'm afraid that we cannot allow . . . that sort in at all."

"She is my sister," Solace said.

Tarn smiled ruefully and said, "I believe you. Unfortunately, my own sister had the poor judgment to marry someone who has never worked an honest day in his life, to my knowledge. Your sister's . . . skills are all too obvious. I'm sure you see my problem."

"It doesn't matter whether I see it or not," Solace said. "We are a group. If you turn away any of us, you turn away all of us."

With her emotions building, her own staff had begun to glow. The fiery end had brightened enough to make the torches seem feeble, to be joined by the blue glow from Rhialto's staff once he remembered to add his contribution to the light.

"Sir Tarn," a strong, masculine voice called down from the top of the wall. "I think we need to find a solution here."

"Yes, Highness," Tarn said immediately. He thought for a moment, then offered a compromise.

"Milady Healer, if you will promise to do your best to heal our good Queen Florence, and further promise to remain with us until any . . . problems arising from your companions are resolved equitably, and further, if your warriors and ranger agree to take personal responsibility for your other companions . . . perhaps that would work."

"So, I'm to help your Queen, but I am further hostage to their behavior?" Solace said to clarify the guard's offer.

"Yes," Tarn said. "And your warriors and ranger are themselves responsible for their behavior, though perhaps hostage is not the right term."

"What would be the right term?" Lucas demanded.

"Replacement," Tarn offered. "If it is determined that your mage has used . . . forbidden techniques, then you would serve his sentence in his place. Or if the thief steals anything."

"And the sentence for, ah, forbidden techniques?" asked Solace.

"Death, of course," Tarn supplied. "I am not so foolish as to believe that we can overpower a mage whose powers are unknown. But my men know how to handle warriors and rangers."

"Fine," Lucas said. "Rhialto is a good guy, and Shimmer will behave. Right Shimmer?" he asked, fixing her with a glare.

"Up yours," Shimmer said. "I don't answer to you."

"But you do answer to me," Solace said softly. When Shimmer began to bristle, the healer went on, "Not because I'm your older . . . sibling, but because I am your sister, and if you do anything, I'll have to stay here until it is made right - whatever it is."

"Oh all right," Shimmer said. "I wasn't gonna do anything anyway. I just don't like being treated like some sort of . . . criminal."

"Well, Little Darlin'," Oakheart drawled, "you are a thief, after all." He looked at Solace and said, "I'll ride herd on her, if the muscle-bound ones will watch Rhialto."

"Very well," Tarn said, taking that for agreement. "Now, if you will come with me?"

"If we had a free choice, we would move on," Solace said sharply. "Your conditions are unnecessary and insulting, but I am a healer and I will not turn away from those in need."

:Which could be a very, very bad promise to make,: she thought. :If this queen is too close to death, my Vitality may not be enough to sustain me until I heal myself after taking on her problems.:

Rhialto was thinking about a similar problem and approached her as they entered the castle. "Don't take on too much," he said.

"Easier said than done," Solace replied. "Sometimes, I just feel . . . compelled."

"Well, try to control it," the wizard offered unhelpfully. "Maybe you can just use your potions and things to heal her directly - not by taking whatever bothers her into yourself."

"Oh, good idea," Solace said, kicking herself for overlooking the obvious. "I'll try."

As soon as they were through the gate, a tall, trim man in rich dark-blue colors approached them. "Thank you, Tarn, for working something out," he said.

"Yes, Highness," Tarn said. "Allow me to introduce the Lady Solace, a healer who has agreed to help your mother."

"Milady Solace," he said, turning to the woman, "allow me to introduce His Royal Highness, Prince Frederick."

"Milady," the prince said, bending to kiss Solace's hand.

"Oh, um . . . Highness," Solace said, flustered at the intensely feminine act of having her hand kissed. "I am, um, honored . . ."

"The honor is mine," the prince declared. Then he looked up at a light high in the inner keep and frowned. "Milady Healer, it is rude and unmannerly, but I am so worried about the queen. Do you suppose . . ?"

"It's what I do, Highness," she said. "If you would like to lead?"

The prince took her arm and wrapped it about his own, then walked briskly into the keep, pleased that Solace's long legs allowed her to keep up with him. Inside, they ascended a wide stairway to a second level, and then continued up additional stairs. Behind them, the rest of the party stood ignored as irrelevant. This did not sit particularly well with the rest of the party.

"Who the he . . . who is that?" Shimmer said.

"He's apparently the crown prince," Rhialto provided.

"Oh, give me a break," Lucas snapped. "Handsome prince, beautiful lady . . who writes this stuff?"

Solace found herself enjoying the prince's attention, despite the sense of unreality. He was attentive, yet unquestioningly assured that it was right that he control their ascent - guiding her gently, but directly. She felt both protected and in need of it at the same time. That sense of needing protection grew as they ascended. There was a . . . darkness that thickened the air about her, making it seem hard to breathe. It was formless and unspecific, but it was frightening in a desperate, near-panic way that had her clutching at the prince's arm more and more tightly as they moved toward what must be the queen's rooms.

Chapter 15 - "Vitality"

As soon as they entered the sickroom, the aura from Solace's staff glowed with a golden light that reached out to blanket the apparently sleeping woman. It took hardly a moment for Solace to realize just how far gone the comatose queen was. She would die within hours from metastasized cancers that had attacked the woman's lungs, pancreas, and liver.

At the last second, Solace forced herself to pull back. Her heart reached out to take the disease away from the unconscious woman, but she knew that her own life would be forfeit if she did. And it might not even be effective, for with less cancer than consumed the queen she might lose consciousness herself and be unable to continue. She blinked her eyes as though trying to see through a thick fog, and slumped against the prince's arm.

"Can you help her?" he asked anxiously.

"I don't know," Solace whispered. "She's . . . quite ill."

It took an annoying amount of Solace's concentration to keep her power from sucking the cancers out of the dying woman. Instead, she pulled her folded book from her pack and went through the steps required to get to readable pages.

:The key,: she thought, :is to figure out what I'd do to heal myself after absorbing that cancer. Then maybe I can do it to the queen first.:

With her latest boosts in intelligence and wisdom, using hard-won bonus attribute points, a large number of spells and skills had become readable in her spell book. It took her a while to find what she wanted, and even then the results weren't easy to accept.

"I will need the aid of Rhialto," she said.

"The mage?" Prince Frederick asked with a frown. "You want me to allow an unknown mage to cast a spell on the queen?"

"No," Solace said tersely, fighting to keep her concentration intact and not willing to spend the effort to be polite. "I need him to keep me alive after I've done what I can for the queen."

Prince Frederick's eyes widened at the claim that Solace's own life was in danger, but there was more than surprise in his expression. Or perhaps . . . less surprise than there should have been.

"You've had other healers die trying to heal her, haven't you?" she challenged.

He nodded. "A few managed to help her for a while, but the consumption returned. It was a hard decision, but this is the queen even aside from my own feelings for my mother. Every citizen of the kingdom is sworn to do whatever they can to help the queen. This illness is a greater threat than invading armies, and if there is any judgment for the loss of healers' lives, it is balanced by the knowledge that even more would die in battle. Under Queen Florence's rule, we have had peace for a generation. The cost is hard, but . . ."

"But justified, for members of your kingdom," Solace completed his sentence, then added, "which I am not."

"That is why we asked for your aid, rather than demanding it as a duty," Prince Frederick replied. Looking up at the handsome prince, Solace saw desperation in his eyes, and determination. And love for his dying mother. It was clear that if he could give his own life for her, he would do it, and be glad for the trade.

That triggered a thought in the back of Solace's mind, something that she couldn't quite grasp. While they were waiting for Rhialto, she asked one of the hovering sickroom attendants, "Can the queen swallow?"

"A little, milady," the lady-in-waiting said diffidently. "A few drops of soup, or water."

Solace nodded, and moved once again to stretch her staff over the somnolent woman. The idea that had been tickling at the back of her mind became clear when she moved her staff back to her side. In order to keep it well clear of the queen, she had swung it into line with the prince before lowering it, and the aura had flared with sharply increased brightness. As a test, she pointed her staff in turn at the other attendants in the sick room. There were minor flickers when it was focused on some of the more elegantly dressed courtiers, but only the prince caused a significant flare.

"Are there any other members of the royal family about?" she asked. "I see a few of these are of the family line, but the relationship seems to be distant."

Again, Prince Frederick's eyes widened in surprise, but this time there was no sense of concealment. "No," he replied. "I am an only child, as was my mother. The king died several years ago. He has a brother who still lives, but Duke Alred has his own estates well distant from here."

Solace nodded thoughtfully, concentrating more now on a possible solution to her problem than on the captivating compulsion to draw in the dying woman's ailments. She found the appropriate potion in her bag and offered it to the lady-in-waiting who had spoken. "These are the Tears of Eir. Give her as much of this as she can take."

Flipping through the pages of her spell book, she found the appropriate skill and studied it. There was a chant on the page, in no language that Solace knew, but it still seemed to resonate within her. She memorized the lines quickly and started to recite them almost to herself, trying them out on her tongue to see how they would sound. With the first syllable, her staff flared a new color, more red than gold. Without a conscious decision, she started to speak louder. The inherent rhythm of the chant caught her voice and she began to pace her words into something more like a song than a recitation. As she continued, her voice grew stronger and more musical until a clear, soothing melody danced around the room like a cooling breeze.

At some point Rhialto had entered the room, accompanied by his 'guards' Lucas and Mattock. They stood silently until Solace finished her song. At the end of it, the red aura left her staff and flowed to cover the queen, who had apparently been able to swallow a few teaspoons of the potion Solace had provided. Solace shook herself as the spell completed, looking around in a daze for a moment.

"Rhialto?" she said uncertainly.

"Yes," Rhialto said, moving to her. "You needed me?"

"Yes," Solace said with more clarity. She shook herself again and stood a bit straighter. Her staff showed only a muted glow, almost as though it were expectant. :Just how alive is this thing?: she wondered. Again she shook her head to regain a sharper focus on the task at hand.

She included Prince Frederick in her attention, and said, "Healing your queen has three elements. I must, of course, remove the basic disease which consumes her. It is widespread and it will not be easy."

Solace grimaced at the thought, then continued. "This I must do by taking her consumption into myself."

Rhialto, though he knew that was required, still gasped at the thought. Frederick frowned with a different sort of concern. "Will you be strong enough?" the prince asked.

"I don't know," Solace said directly. Before either of the men said anything, she moved on. "Your mother will also need to heal the damage caused by the consumption, even when the disease itself has been removed. The potion and spell I have performed will aid in that, but the third element of her cure is an infusion of Vitality to keep her alive while she heals, and to accelerate the process."

She looked directly at Prince Frederick. "I believe, Your Highness, that I can tap into your own Vitality to reinforce your mother's weakened abilities. If you are willing."

"Of course," he said without hesitation. "I could ask no less of myself than I have asked of those who have gone before." He squared his shoulders and took a deep, calming breath. "Please allow me a moment with our cleric, then I will be ready."

"You are welcome to consult your cleric," Solace said, "but I may have been unclear. I do not believe your life will be at risk. Certainly it is not my intention to sacrifice one life for another."

:Geez,: Solace thought, :this is all becoming so real. It's like this is truly life-or-death. And I'm falling into those stiff speech patterns that the others - the Non-Player Characters - use in this setting, like it's really important to . . . fit in this world. I'll have to talk with Rhialto about that.:

Solace sighed and reached into her pouch again. She withdrew another vial of the Tears of Eir and handed it to Rhialto. "I expect that when I'm done with all that I need to do, I won't be in very good shape. Try to get me to take this."

"Can't you take it now?" Rhialto asked.

Solace smiled sadly and shook her head. "I'm not sick, now, and I don't want to waste it on minor things."

:Man, this is just a game, but I'm really afraid to do this,: she thought. :It's different when I'm like, reacting to damage to one of the guys. I just do that, and don't think about the results. But here, I'm deliberately doing something that will be really unpleasant, and that I could avoid. I should just grab the exit button and leave. But I won't.:

"Oh," she added out loud, smiling a bit wryly at Lucas, then looking back to Rhialto, "I may have trouble breathing, but you know what to do."

She looked again at the woman whose life was dangling by all too thin of a thread. Even though in her head she knew this was all artificial, in her heart she couldn't stand to let the woman die.

"Okay, here goes," she said. "Prince Frederick, please touch my staff." Solace held it out over the queen on her sickbed and motioned the prince to stand beside her. The staff flared with renewed golden light and Solace blinked at the brightness.

"Is something wrong?" the prince asked.

"It's just that the aura is bright in this dim room," Solace said.

"Aura?" he repeated.

"I'll explain later," she said with a small smile. :Hopefully I'll have a later.:

She focused her mind and drew the first of the cancers into herself. Almost immediately she felt unbelievable pain and truly frightening weakness. She felt a sense of renewal flowing through the staff, but instead of taking it for herself, she directed the flow toward the queen. Solace couldn't have described how she did that, how she directed that sort of flow, but it seemed to happen as soon as she visualized the need.

By the time she had pulled all the cancer from the queen, she was barely conscious. Despite her best intentions, Solace realized she was selfishly pulling some of Prince Frederick's strength into herself, just before she passed out.

Her next awareness was of someone removing the CyberX headset from her temples. Only it was Tris's temples that were being freed. He gasped and wrapped his arms around his midsection. "God damn, that hurts."

"How bad is it?" Joshua asked.

"Bad enough," Tris said through gritted teeth. "It hurts to breathe, and my guts are cramping worse than you can imagine."

"You . . . um, Solace collapsed, and turned really pale, and was gasping for breath," Joshua said. "I poured some of that potion into your, um, her mouth and it didn't seem to do any good, but she did swallow it. But she, um, you were totally out of it."

"I pushed the exit button," Landon said. "I was afraid that you'd die."

"Might have been better off," Tris whispered. "Man, this sucks."

"What should we do?" Charly asked. "Will you heal faster in the game if we get back in for another hour or so?"

"I don't know," Tris said, trying to stand up. It didn't work very well. He go to his feet - barely - but he stayed bent over like he was holding his stomach in by clutched arms and willpower.

"I better get home," he said, taking a tentative step.

"Can you?" Lucas asked. "I can try to get my mother to give you a ride."

"How will we explain how sick he looks?" Charly asked. "They'll make us quit the game."

"Right now, I don't really care," Tris gasped, but he turned to his brother. "C'mon, Landon, let's get home. If I can get into bed before Mom sees me, I can just claim that I've got some sort of bug. I don't have to say when the, um, symptoms started."

By the time Tris and Landon reached the Knight household, Tris was able to stand up straight. His face was ashen pale, and he was sweating with the effort. He was also so sick that he had thrown up twice, thankfully in a little ravine where it wouldn't leave a highly visible result. It was when Landon was helping him get into bed that he realized he was still wearing the boots with the tall heels. :Too bad,: he thought. :I liked the boots, and for damn sure would rather have sore ankles than this gut-twisting.:

"Okay," he said to Landon. "Go tell Mom that I'm feeling sick."

When Mrs. Knight entered the room her breath caught and she rushed to Tris's side. "Honey, what's wrong?"

"I don't know, Mom," Tris said. :God, I'm getting tired of lying to her. I know it's the truth because I sure don't know why what happens in the game affects me here, but that's an excuse. I know the game caused this somehow.: "I guess I just caught something. My chest feels all tight, and my stomach is really queasy."

"Do you need to go to the emergency room?"

"I don't think so," Tris replied. "I just want to rest for a while."

"Okay, I'll bring you something to eat."

"No!" Tris said quickly, then he explained. "If I eat anything, I'll throw up."

"Maybe later then," Mrs. Knight said. "I'll check on you."

"Thanks, Mom," Tris said, giving up on the need to keep his heavy eyelids open.

"Open up," his mother's voice said. Tris felt a thermometer go under his tongue, and felt his mother's hand on his forehead, then on his wrist. From the look of the light coming in the window, he hadn't been asleep long, if at all.

"Well, it's not as much of a temperature as I expected," she reported, "but your pulse is too fast, and I don't like the sound of your breathing. I think we should go to the emergency room."

"Please, not yet," Tris gasped out. "I just need to rest. Let me have until the morning, and then we'll see."

Mrs. Knight paused a long time, then nodded. "Okay, honey. But I'll be here."

"Thanks," Tris whispered as he faded out again.

He woke to darkness, but it was the comforting darkness of a still night. Unfortunately, the reason he woke was not comforting at all. He threw back the covers and ran to the bathroom he shared with Landon, reaching it in time - but barely. Apparently, since there was nothing left in his stomach, his body had picked another path to expel the . . . undesirable. Of which there was plenty.

"Are you okay, dear?" his mother called through the door. A mental replay showed Tris that his mother had been dozing in a chair in his room when he had flown to the bathroom.

"Yeah," he replied, hoping it was true.

He felt weaker than ever when he returned to bed. But better, too, in most of the other ways. His queasiness had abated, and the pain was so reduced that it was only when he moved that he realized he still had some pretty good twinges. Mrs. Knight used the opportunity to take his temperature again, and she seemed pleased.

"You temperature is almost back to normal. How do you feel?"

"Not too bad," Tris reported. "More weak than sick, now."

"Good. Would you like something to eat?"

At the thought of food, Tris's immediate reaction was rejection as he remembered how even the idea had been intolerable. But before he could form the words to decline the offer, he realized that the current problem in his stomach was not the same as before.

"Um, maybe," he admitted.

"Good," Mrs. Knight repeated, already heading for the kitchen.

Her solution was time-honored - if a bit trite - when she returned with some chicken soup and saltine crackers. But new technology was part of the solution as well, with an electrolyte-filled sports drink.

"You need to be careful not to get dehydrated," she said, "if the sounds I heard are an indication of your troubles."

"Eww, Mom . . ," Tris said.

"Listen here, sonny," she said, laughing, "I've been there, done that with you since you were born."

"Mom! I'm trying to eat here," Tris said, but he laughed, too.

"Your breathing sounds a lot better," his mother informed him. "I was worried about that, which is why I stayed here to listen while you slept."

"Thanks, Mom," Tris said.

"It's what moms do," she said. "If you're feeling better, I'll just let you sleep."

"What time is it?" he asked, trying to focus on his alarm clock.

"Almost three," she reported. "I don't expect you to go to school today, but hopefully you'll be well enough by tomorrow."

"Yeah," Tris said, then grinned. "On the other hand, if I mope around and maybe run to the bathroom a lot, can I talk you out of another day?"

"We'll see," she said, but they both knew that meant no - at least, not if those were all the symptoms he showed.

By the end of the week, Tris seemed almost back to normal. The differences weren't due to incomplete healing. He was a bit thinner than before. And he was pleased to note, just a bit taller. :Late growth spurt,: he told himself, but he knew that wasn't really the explanation. It did mean that his neck looked longer and his waist seemed smaller, as though his body were being stretched out rather than just growing. And his face seemed to be better defined, yet not heavier boned. He noticed Landon seemed a bit taller, too. The younger brother's hair was growing quickly as well, and Landon was letting a bit of it hang down to cover his ears, hiding the tiny holes from anyone who didn't know what to look for.

The role-playing adventurers quickly assembled on Sunday afternoon, enduring the flash of static to begin another session, then looking at their surroundings in the world of Reality 2.0.

"No glade," Oakheart announced, and they realized they were in an enormous bedroom, lounging in richly upholstered chairs around a huge central bed decked with tapestries and thick quilts.

And occupied by one of their players. As her own static cleared, Solace realized she was lying in that opulent - and very comfortable - bed.

"Wow, cool," she said, snuggling just a bit into the comforting warmth.

"Hey," Lucas said. "We need to get going."

"Oh, yeah," she said. Flipping back the quilts she got out of bed - and realized she wasn't wearing her trail outfit.

"Holy sh. . . sugar, you're hot!" Lucas said. Rhialto coughed and turned away, his face hidden by his cowled robes. Oakheart quickly stood and walked around behind the chest-high back of the chair he had been using.

Solace was wearing a very elegant, floor-length nightgown in a rich brocade fabric that was softly comfortable.

And extremely well fitted.

"Geez, guys, give me a break," she said. "Where are my clothes?"

"Like we knew," Lucas said, not bothering to hide his appraisal of how well that so-feminine gown celebrated the woman within it. Or his physical response.

"You are such a jerk," Solace snapped. "Get out. All of you. Go find some mud to wallow in. Shimmer, you stay."

She waved them out and the force of her indignation was enough to get them to move. Shimmer didn't join the exit rush, but as soon as the door to the bed chamber was open ladies-in-waiting came bustling in, acres of fabric in their arms. Shimmer sent Solace a look of apology, but she let the attendants push her toward the door as well.

"Find my staff and bag," Solace called, and Shimmer nodded. However, as soon as Solace made her request, one of the women moved to a cupboard and opened it to show Solace her implements.

The healer moved to her pack and took a swallow of Tears of Eir, and then lifted her staff which immediately began to glow with a warm yellow light.

"Aren't you healed?" Shimmer asked, pausing at the door.

"Not fully," Solace said, waving the staff down her shapely form. "But I will be as soon as I finish this."

She was about to get her spell book out of her pack, but then she realized that she still remembered the chant. Her musical voice filled the small room, turning the aura red - though only she could see it - and then flowing over her body as the spell concluded. Filling her lungs with a heaving breath that she was glad the guys weren't there to see, she smiled. "Okay, now I feel better."

"Yes, Milady," an attendant said. "May we help you get dressed, now?"

"May I ask your name?" Solace said politely.

"Shayla, Milady," the woman replied.

"Well then, thank you, Lady Shayla, but I'll just wear my own clothes. And I don't really need help."

"But Milady, the Queen wants to see you as soon as you are able, and one just does not approach the Queen in . . . leggings." The last word earned a sneer that would have made the most aristocratic blueblood cringe.

Solace was about to make a very sharp reply . . . but then she stopped, and thought for a long moment. Smiling ruefully, she looked at her sister who hadn't quite been pushed into the other room. "Y'know, I feel a sense of responsibility. My patient needs me. And it just feels wrong to upset her, or act in a way that might upset her. This is like a . . . compulsion."

She sighed, and looked over at the mounds of fabric. "And the really funny thing is that I . . . want to do it."

Solace blushed and looked at Shimmer. "Not wear a fancy dress. I'm not that far gone. But I do want to look . . . appropriate. To do whatever a, um, reputable healer would do in this setting. Does that make any sense?"

"I'm not sure," Shimmer admitted. "I understand the desire to look, y'know, competent and reputable and like, respectable. I guess I just don't see the difference between fancy clothes and durable trail clothes on that. We are on a quest, after all - despite this long diversion."

"Oh, hey, that's an idea," Solace said. "I expect these guys owe me a favor. Maybe they know something about this Belt of Hlin." Then she thought about the other part of Shimmer's statement. "I guess I don't know why I think that dressing up is right for this meeting with the Queen, but I do."

Shimmer shrugged. "Probably that Empathy thing again, so who am I to argue?" The slim woman frowned, then asked a question with her eyes, glancing at Lady Shayla.

"I don't expect you'll have to get all dressed up, too . . . unless you want to," Solace said.

"No, thank you," Shimmer said quickly, grinning at the ordeal she figured would be inflicted on her sister.

"Then get out of here," Solace said, affecting a regal air and a dismissive wave of her hand. The effect was spoiled by an inelegant giggle, but Shimmer's echo of the laughter floated in the room as the darkly clad woman seemed to disappear.

It was indeed an ordeal to get outfitted in the dress of an elegant court woman in a medieval setting. Solace had a good enough figure that the corsetting was not insane, and the medieval culture had not invented high-heeled shoes so all she had to put up with was tight little ankle boots with a bit of built-up heel - which she liked anyway.

But the hair! There were three hairdressers working full time for what seemed like hours brushing and swirling and pinning and weaving flowers and jewels and ribbons and bows through it all. The center of focus was the Circlet of Perception, which the hairdressers managed both to highlight and integrate at the same time so it seemed an intrinsic part of the entire creation.

The dress itself was the heaviest garment that Solace had ever worn - in either reality. A lot of that was due to the fact it literally seemed to be made out of silver. She had never seen a dress that sparkled and shimmered and shown like that gown. And with a silliness that she had never understood even in Reality 1.0 history books, all the weight was below the waist. Her shoulders and a lot of her - what had Shimmer called them? - padding were disturbingly visible. With her hair up in a castle of dark towers, and her shoulders bare, her neck looked like it belonged on a swan.

That was before it was draped with necklaces and long, cascading earrings. Solace was afraid to move her head for fear that all the weight would cause her to tip over with the inexorable acceleration of an axe-cut tree. :Maybe that's why the lower part of this gown weighs so much,: she mused.

Finally, she was ready. With some signal that she didn't notice, the ladies-in-waiting parted to create an aisle pointed at the door, and with perfect timing there was a knock.

Lady Shayla hissed to Solace to answer.

"Yes?" she called out uncertainly.

"Prince Frederick, Milady," a familiar voice announced.

"Come in," she invited.

Someone swung the door open. It obviously wasn't Frederick because he was standing in the entrance with too much dignity for manual labor like pushing on doors.

And he just kept standing there.

"Yes?" she finally repeated.

"Merciful God, I never imagined . . ," Prince Frederick whispered with heartfelt reverence.

"What's wrong?" Solace asked.

The prince said nothing for a long moment, then he shook himself and a look of true remorse came over his handsome features. Sighing, he walked up to Solace and offered his arm. "What's wrong, Milady, is that now that I have seen you in all your glory, no other woman will ever be more than a tawdry imitation of perfection. Yet the paths of our lives may part almost as quickly as they joined."

:Wow!: thought Solace. :That is way too much . . . but I have to admit, that boy does know how to make a girl feel appreciated!: She smiled at his compliment and found her hand taking its place lightly on his arm.

"I came to find out if you were well enough to see the Queen," Prince Frederick explained as they walked from the bed chamber. "Since you are obviously the very image of perfect health, that answer is obvious."

It was actually the first time that Solace had been out of her bed chamber since her collapse. What she found was that her apartment had several rooms, one of which was a comfortably appointed sitting room into which they stepped as they passed through the door. The rest of her companions were there, waiting for her.

"Wow," Oakheart said softly, alerting the others to look in Solace's direction.

"Wow," Lucas and Rhialto repeated in unplanned unison.

"Man, I hate you," Shimmer's voice said, then she stepped from an alcove that had appeared to hold only a life-size marble statue.

"Hey, guys, it's still me," Solace said. "C'mon, we need to see the Queen."

Chapter 16 - "A Reward . . . With A Price"

When Solace entered the throne room on the arm of the prince, the assembled nobles and notables broke into spontaneous applause. It overwhelmed the majordomo's attempt to announce them, but that obviously was unnecessary anyway. Thankfully, Prince Frederick was fully familiar with the requirements of formal court fashion, and set a very stately pace so that Solace could keep up in her impossibly wide gown. He held his hand well away from his side, allowing her to put her own delicate fingers on his wrist without reaching out awkwardly, yet it kept his feet clear of the skirts of the amazing silver dress.

Queen Florence was seated on a moderately ostentatious throne that displayed gold leaf on intricate carvings, but the cushion was quite simple and there weren't any gaudy gems or highly colored coats of arms worked into the design. She waited patiently for the procession to approach, waving them forward when Prince Frederick paused at the foot of stairs leading to the dais. With practiced timing, she rose from her seat as the prince and Solace climbed the stairs, keeping her own regal head always above those of the approaching courtiers.

There was a wide stair down two steps from the throne itself, and the prince paused again when they reached that point. He bowed and Solace fumbled trying to decide how to do - of all things - a formal court curtsey. After a moment of panic, she remembered what the other women were doing as the prince passed, and made an attempt at the same sort of movement, no doubt clumsy and inelegant.

It did involve her bowing her head, so she held her breath as well as holding her position in what passed for a curtsey, hoping all the while that the tower of piled-up hair wouldn't like, fall off or something. After a long moment, the queen's gloved hand lifted her chin.

"My goodness, young lady, I had put down the descriptions of your beauty to two parts awe at your power and three parts jealousy at the prince's attention," the queen said, "but now I find them to be merely attempts to capture what is too glorious for words."

"Um, thank you, Your Majesty," Solace said, blushing. :Great! Game or not, my first word to an honest-to-god queen was 'um.' Just great:

Solace's chin was lifted further until her eyes met the queen's, who showed rich blue gems undimmed by apparent age. The older woman regarded the younger for a long moment, the appraisal frank and unapologetic. Then she smiled and moved her own huge skirts with practiced ease so that she could sit again on the throne.

Solace concentrated for a moment, and felt within the queen some residual issues though no sign of the devastating cancers that had so nearly killed her. It was only after her perceptive investigation was complete that the healer realized she had been appraising the queen with bold directness, as though she were a peer of the monarch and allowed to judge her.

Queen Florence recognized it for what it was though, and smiled. "So, aside from my own amazed joy at how wonderful I feel - better, and in fact younger, than I have felt for more years than I like to remember - what is your opinion of my health, Lady Healer?"

Solace smiled, but then frowned. "I'm afraid nothing I have done, or can do, will make you any younger, Your Majesty. In fact, there are some remaining effects . . . call them 'internal scars' that will always be with you. But the disease I know as cancer that was threatening your life seems to have been banished, for which we are all grateful."

"Yet not so grateful as I am, I assure you," the queen replied. She again looked appraisingly at Solace, then smiled. "So, how can We show Our gratitude to you?" she asked, but in a tone that said she was not really asking it of Solace. "Healers of your ability do not practice their art for pay, but . . ."

Queen Florence paused and looked at her son. Out of the corner of her eye Solace saw Prince Frederick give a tiny nod, and a small smile before his own eyes flicked to Solace.

The Queen stood and nodded at an attendant who brought forward a scepter on a velvet pillow. She took the scepter and held it tilted toward the pair in front of her. "We do now declare that whatever Lady Solace desires, even if it extend to half of Our kingdom, shall now be hers."

There was a gasp through the audience in the chamber, though not exactly shared by the rest of Solace's companions. They looked at each other and grinned instead - all except Rhialto.

"Cool," Lucas said. "I'll bet this place has some magic armor, or a weapon or two I can use."

"More gold than I can count," Shimmer suggested.

"I think there's more to this than we understand," cautioned Rhialto. Leaning toward Lady Shayla, he whispered, "Was there something specific in that offer?"

"Of course," Shayla replied. "When Queen Florence passes - god forbid it is any time soon - Prince Frederick will gain the kingdom. His wife would, in essence, receive half of the kingdom. To gain that reward, Lady Solace would become Princess. The Queen has bestowed her blessing and consent to their marriage."

"Princess Solace?" Lucas asked in shock. "Ohmigod, that would be . . ."

"Pretty tough on us," Oakheart said. "We won't be able to complete the quest without her."

"Well, no, but . . ," Lucas said, then. "Oh."

"Yeah, 'oh,'" Shimmer repeated.

"I sure hope Solace sees the hook in that offer," Rhialto said.

"Yeah, right, like she's gonna want to get married. I mean, don't you remember who she really is?" Lucas said.

"It's not that simple," Shimmer said quietly, and no one but Oakheart saw her eyes flicker toward the tall ranger. "This personality can become incredibly . . . compelling."

"Indeed," Oakheart said. "And we know it has captured Solace. Why else would she have wasted a day from our quest on this side issue?"

"Maybe it's not a waste?" Rhialto said, but it was more wishful thinking than confidence.

Solace had smiled when the queen made her announcement, then a moment later her smile turned to a frown. Rhialto noticed, and sighed with relief. "She gets it," he said.

The healer bowed her head again to the queen. "I am flattered, Your Majesty, and honored . . ."

She paused and smiled at Prince Frederick. "Extremely flattered," she continued, but then she frowned again. "But we are on a quest given us by Odin himself. I hope you understand that I must continue with our assigned task."

Solace looked back at the queen and said, "I hope and believe that Odin will accept our diversion from our quest to attend to you. But we must return to our duty."

Queen Florence sighed and nodded. "I thought that would be your answer, which does not diminish my disappointment . . . and no doubt Frederick's as well."

Frederick smiled wanly at his mother, and at Solace, nodding his agreement.

"Is there nothing we can do for you?" the queen asked. "Gold and jewels are yours for the asking, but surely there is something more than money that you desire."

Solace was about to deny any need, then her eyes widened. "Perhaps, Your Majesty, there is. We are searching for the Belt of Hlin. Do you have any knowledge of it?"

"I seem to remember hearing something about it, but . . ," she said. Then looked at her son, "Frederick, do you remember?"

"I'm not sure," he said. "There is an ancient legend, but the details escape me."

"Well then," the queen said briskly, "let us make a gift out of this problem. I will have the palace historians and storytellers consulted. Any knowledge we possess will be yours by morning."

"By morning?!" Lucas repeated to his friends. "That means we have to spend another night here."

"Which would probably be better than pointless wandering," Rhialto said.

With a new schedule for the adventurers' stay in the castle, the formal audience moved on as others moved forward to offer their appreciation of the queen and joy in her recovery. Prince Frederick escorted Solace to the side and down a separate part of the steps supporting the throne.

"I hope you will give me the pleasure of your company at dinner," the prince said, bowing to kiss Solace's fingers.

:This is just . . . weird,: Solace thought as she tried to hide a gasp. :I'm getting shivers up my spine, and a tingle in my fingers when he does that. I shouldn't . . . like it when he . . . treats me like . . . a girl.:

To distract herself from Prince Frederick's attention, Solace looked around the huge chamber. She saw that the audience had broken into small groups for separate conversations. It wasn't hard to see the Lucas. The tall, blond warrior stood out in any crowd. He was laughing with Tarn, the guard captain, while Mattock stood placidly nearby. Rhialto was talking with a bald man in simple robes, and after a moment Solace realized he was an exact duplicate of the original form worn by Odin as the inoffensive priest. That left Shimmer and Oakheart, who were just then disappearing through a portal into what looked like gardens.

Finally, when Solace thought she had her reaction to Frederick's touch under control, she looked back at her tall escort. Despite his flattering attention, he seemed to be under some distress. His eyes were wide, his breathing was somewhat labored as though he were panting slightly, and his normally fluid grace seemed stilted and awkward. Without conscious thought, Solace let her perceptions flow through him to find out what was wrong.

:Ohmigod, he's . . . aroused!: she realized. :He thinks I'm hot and . . . ohmigod!:

While she never received anything so clear as an image or thought from her empathic perceptions, it didn't take magic to discern where Frederick's thoughts were going. And the thing about being an empathic healer was . . . that she was empathic. It meant she could share and even absorb the feelings of another.

In the space between two heartbeats, she felt herself become aroused. Places she shouldn't even have . . . became hot and achingly in need of . . .

:Ohmigod, don't even let yourself think about that!: she ordered her mind - which didn't help at all. The intensity of the need that filled her caused her knees to feel weak and she felt a tremor that wasn't only on the inside.

"Are you all right, Milady Solace?" Frederick asked. "Your face seems flushed and I felt you tremble."

:Trembling is good,: she thought. :And quivering . . . lots of quivering.:

"I'm . . . fine," she lied. Fighting for breath from her frozen lungs, she whispered, "Perhaps, some fresh air . . ?"

"Of course," the prince said, leading her toward the portal through which Shimmer and Oakheart had departed.

Outside was a pleasant, cool garden with flowers of all colors and scents. Solace looked around frantically for Shimmer, but her sister was no where to be seen. Nor was Oakheart, nor any of the others of her companions.

Prince Frederick let her have a few minutes of silence, then he resumed the role of host and pointed out some of the specific features of the inviting region of the castle. "In honor of the queen's restored health, there is a faire today. The garden irrigation system provides a source of water for food stalls and craftsman's tents, so this is both convenient and pleasant."

"Yes, it is," Solace agreed quietly. With the distraction of the garden and faire, she was able to pull back a bit from the empathic link with the prince, and finally - after who knows how long? - draw a bit of air back into her straining . . . heaving . . .

:Oh, no, don't go there!: she commanded herself, but herself was not listening terribly well.

They passed within a shaded arbor and the prince led them to an artfully placed bench. Solace's mind desperately reran the image of Queen Florence seating herself on the throne and once again tried to copy a movement that looked so graceful on another and felt so clumsy when she did it herself. The only redeeming success was that she managed to get the skirts all settled without having the whole hem fly up to reveal whatever the ladies in waiting had inflicted on her earlier. She hardly remembered, it seemed so long ago.

Prince Frederick did not seat himself. In part, that was because there wasn't room for him on the same bench that held all of Solace's ballooning skirts. But more importantly, he didn't want to be that far from her.

Leaning forward, he asked softly, "Is there no way I can convince you to stay, and be my princess?"

"No," Solace whispered, so softly she wasn't sure she had spoken at all.

"Are you sure?" the handsome prince asked, letting a roguish grin show in his deep, warm eyes. He leaned forward, and his intentions were all too clear.

No knowing what else to do, Solace reached up behind her ear and pushed the exit button.

Chapter 17 - "I Was This Close!"

The static exploded as usual. When it faded away, the team pulled the headsets off and blinked at each other for a few minutes. Then Lucas scowled and stood up.

"Dammit, who pushed the button?"

"I did," Tris admitted.

"You jerk!" Lucas said. "Tarn had introduced me to a couple of, um, servants. Really . . . friendly servants, if you know what I mean, and I was this close to second base with a more-than-willing blonde."

As Lucas described his interrupted activities, Tris looked for support to Landon, who was instead looking down and blushing fiercely. Charlotte leaned back in a nearby chair with a leonine stretch and a very smug expression on her own features. Only Joshua seemed to be sympathetic to Tris's decision. Tris asked with his eyes for some sort of reinforcement, and Joshua nodded before standing up and twisting in a muscle-relieving stretch of his own.

"Actually," he reported, "I was just about to push the button myself. Larrow, the priest/record-keeper that I was talking with, had a map to the Belt of Hlin. We're ready to move on from the castle, and I didn't want to spend the whole night there."

"Well I did!" Lucas snapped. "Geez, that girl had a rack like you wouldn't believe! This was my chance, man!"

"Let me get this straight," Joshua said wryly. "You're upset because you didn't get laid . . . in a video game? Wait'll I tell everyone at school about that. I'm sure Megan Andersen will be glad to hear you threw her over for a computer-generated bimbo."

"You say a word and I'll bust your butt clear into next week," Lucas promised, balling up his fist and getting in Joshua's face.

"Calm down, Jerk," Charly said. "If getting laid - in a video game - is that important to you . . . then just go back on your own and knock yourself out. We don't need a game for our fun."

"But we'd lose all the progress we've made," Lucas said.

"Yeah, big deal," Charly said, still smiling smugly. "I've got . . . other options."

She glanced toward Landon as she spoke, but he was still avoiding anyone's eyes.

Tris stood up and moved to Joshua's side. "Look, Lucas, calm down or we quit. I won't be the reason we don't complete this, but I'll sure join in with the others if they want to stop. I don't need this game. I just want to . . . to prove that I have the . . . guts to do something once I've committed to it. But if you change the objective from accomplishing the quests to some sort of fantasy whack-off thing, I'm outta here."

He was aware that he was stammering a bit, but his mind was in such a turmoil about what he had been feeling when the bailed from the game that he had to fight his own desire to return to his interrupted opportunity . . . and it scared him. Tris looked at Joshua and added, "And none of us - none of us - tell anyone about what happens in the game. It's just between us or I'm done for that reason, too."

"Agreed," Joshua said, looking at Lucas. The tall blond teen scowled but he nodded as well.

The visitors gathered up their things and headed out. In a few minutes, Tris and Landon were walking together toward their home. Once they were out of earshot of the others, Tris looked at his younger brother.

"So, you wanna tell me what happened?"

"Nothing," Landon claimed, but he still wouldn't meet his brother's eyes.

They walked along in silence for a while, then Landon said, "I let him kiss me. I mean, Oakheart kissed, y'know, Shimmer."

"Oh," Tris said, keeping his tone as neutral as possible.

Landon's explanation, once it got started, flowed out with increasing speed. "We were walking in the garden, looking at the flowers and the people, and . . . a young girl came up and offered Oaksie a flower. He took it, and it . . . bothered me. So I picked one, too, and gave it to him. He like, made a big deal out of taking it. He put his big hands around my hand - where I was holding the flower - and . . . he didn't let go. I mean, somehow, he ended up with the flower, but he also kept on holding my hand."

"Oh, god, Tris, I liked it! He's so tall and strong and it made me feel . . . precious, somehow, to be . . . claimed by him like that."

Landon's voice dropped to a whisper. "And then we saw a little shaded area, with a bench . . ."

Landon didn't notice the way Tris twitched at that report.

". . . and he pulled me into it - I mean, he was holding my hand, so I couldn't really not go unless I made a real like, scene or something - and as soon as we were sorta private . . ."

"Oh," Tris repeated, still very neutral.

Landon looked up at his brother with fear warring with amazement in his eyes. "I even . . . I don't know what, um, 'second base' is for sure, like Lucas mentioned, but I let him . . . touch me. Y'know . . ."

Landon waved his hand vaguely over his chest.

"Oh, god, Tris, I liked that, too! It felt . . . amazing! I felt so alive! Every nerve in my body was . . . on fire. Oh, Tris, what am I gonna do?"

Tris walked along in silence for a while, glad for once that it was so far from the Danner house to their own.

"Well," he said finally, "the first thing to remember is that you're twelve years old."

"Not in the game!" Landon protested.

"No, which just makes things worse," Tris said. "If you were as old in real life as you are in the game, then you'd know how to like, handle things like that."

:Yeah, right, like I handled things so well myself,: he thought.

"Even Charly is not really old enough to know what she's doing - as Oakheart. But both of you can get hurt if you forget it's just a game."

Landon started to say something, but Tris held up a hand to interrupt him. "And believe me, Landon, I know how hard it is to remember that it's just a game."

They walked along for a little while further.

Tris sighed, and continued. "I know because the reason I pushed the exit button is that the prince was just about to kiss me . . . and I wanted him to do it. Big time."

Landon looked even more guilty, and muttered, "I guess I shoulda pushed that button myself."

"Maybe," Tris said, but he reached out to put his arm around his brother's shoulder. "But it was just about the hardest thing I've ever done. Believe me, Bro . . . I really, really wanted to be kissed right then."

"So, what are we gonna do?" Landon asked.

"I don't know," admitted Tris. "But you and Charly - or Shimmer and Oakheart - will need to be careful. I mean, dude, you're twelve years old!"

They were just about to their own house when Tris stopped, "And dude . . . you're a dude. Be careful about doing something with a guy in the game, unless you're . . . sure."

"Yeah, but Oaksie is really Charly, and she's a girl," protested Landon.

"Yeah, but we're not talking about soulmates forever, where the mind is what counts and plumbing doesn't matter. This is lust, dude, and that's about the bodies. You might find that you're like, training yourself to respond to, y'know, certain signals. If that's really who you are, then okay, but . . ."

"But I'm twelve years old," Landon said bitterly, "so what the f. . . . what do I know?"

"Hey, dude, I'm sixteen and after what just happened, I'm not sure that I know what the hell to think," Tris said. :But for sure I'm not gonna let that prince get me alone again.:

The good news, if anything could be called good news, is that there weren't any physical holdovers from the game. Tris wasn't sick, didn't have tight ankle tendons, and didn't have any acne. They chose to believe - and to hope, really hard - that the other changes were real and not something that would fade. Tris was trimmer, with a taut waist and longer neck. Landon was taller, too, with thicker hair and finer features. Those might have been due to a growth spurt of some sort rather than residual effects of their game personas. It was possible, anyway, and they didn't know what else to think.

Best of all, at least for Tris, he seemed to have some real charisma and empathy. Other students he hardly knew seemed to want his advice on various problems, and somehow he seemed to be able to find the right thing to say to put their minds at ease, or give them a path that offered hope.

Or maybe the true best-of-all discovery of the week was that Caitlyn Saunders had changed her style again. Her hair was still pretty short, but she started to wear clothes that weren't an apologetic denial of any value in her appearance. She confided in Tris late one afternoon that she had started to work out to recover her figure, and when she did she was going to get out some of her old skirts and fitted tops.

So Tris and Landon felt they were ready for the game on Sunday afternoon. Part of that readiness was a determination to keep the responsiveness of their game bodies under control.

Charlotte and Joshua had arrived before Tris and Landon, and Charly was apparently lying in wait for them. Or at least, waiting for Landon.

"Hey, Shi . . . I mean, Landon, you never called back," she accused. Charly was sprawled in one of the easy chairs, slugging back gulps of soda.

"I was busy," Landon said lamely.

"C'mon, guy, too busy to text me?" she challenged.

"I'm already over my text limit for the month," he claimed.

"Geez, what's the matter?" she asked.

"Nothing," Landon replied, but he knew he was avoiding her eyes.

"Let's get started," Lucas said, and Josh nodded.

They donned their headsets and endured the burst of static to find themselves at the point in the trail where the drawbridge of Resolute Keep was just becoming visible. They were all dressed in their trail clothes, complete with weapons and backpacks. Akeela was there, and moved to stand beside Oakheart as soon as the ranger came alive.

"Oh, man," Lucas whined. "Do we have to go through all that again?"

"No way," Solace said. "It's morning. We can just bypass the place if we have to."

"Wait a minute," Rhialto ordered. He dug around in the folds of his robes and pulled out a roll of parchment.

"Yes!" he said. Unrolling it he showed them the information on the document. "It's a map to the Belt of Hlin," he declared. "It's more a sequence of landmarks than anything with a scale, but it should get us where we need to go."

"Great," Lucas said. "Point the way, oh wise and powerful sorcerer."

"Don't call me a sorcerer," Rhialto said sharply. "Sorcerers get their power from dark magic - death and curses and truly . . . evil things. I won't do that."

"The dark side you must avoid, padawan learner," Oakheart intoned.

"Yes, I must," Rhialto said seriously. "And more than that, we can't let anyone think that I have gotten my powers from dark magic or they'll kill me on sight. It's not something they joke about here."

"Fine," Lucas said. "You're a magician, not a sorcerer. I got it. Let's get going."

Rhialto studied the map for a moment, then pointed past the castle to the north. As they sorted themselves out into the trail formation, Solace had a hunch and pulled her pack around where she could look inside.

"Geez," she gasped. "Look at that!"

Inside her pack were all the jewels she had worn with her silver gown. Rhialto checked his and found additional scrolls which held spells that he immediately began to study.

"I wonder what the others got," Solace mused. "Maybe we should tell them."

"Let them figure it out for themselves," Rhialto grumped.

"But what if they need whatever is inside for the next battle?" asked Solace. "You know how the game keeps testing us, or letting us practice, or whatever whenever we get something new."

"Oh, all right," Rhialto said, but he buried his nose in his scrolls and made it obvious he wasn't going to tell them.

"Hey, guys," Solace called out. "Check your packs. We got some rewards."

Apparently Oakheart and Shimmer were close enough to hear, because in a moment Solace heard their shouts of joy from somewhere nearby. Once Lucas had looked in his own pack, the warrior stopped walking and started to fit armored greaves to his legs and pauldrons to his shoulders.

"Check these out, will you?" he asked Rhialto. It wasn't bragging, so Rhialto cast a reveal on them, then whistled.

"Pretty good stuff, dude. That probably adds 20 points to your overall armor level."

"Cool," Lucas said. "And they're light, too. They won't get in my way."

"Light to you, maybe," Solace said with a grimace. "I don't think I could even lift them."

"Good thing I'm so strong, then. Right, little lady?" he replied with a leer and a wink.

"God, what a pig," she snapped. "Rhialto, why don't you turn that jerk into the swine he is . . . or maybe into a toad. That would work."

"Hey," Lucas said. "I was just havin' fun. Playin' my character and all."

"Whatever," Solace said. "Let's get moving.

Later she found that Shimmer had received bits of gold and silver, which fit her desires pretty well, and a long black whip which Solace didn't want to think about just then. Oakheart was even happier with his gift. It was a fine silver whistle that didn't seem to make any sound. But when he blew on it, no matter what was going on, Akeela came running.

"It's an ultrasonic dog whistle," he explained unnecessarily. He dug out the leaves of soft leather than were his own spell book and flipped through them. "Cool," he said in a moment as he studied. "I have another spell to heal Akeela from like, poisons and things as well as from physical damage."

With his example, they each checked their own skill set and found additional abilities revealed or implied.

"What's with the whip?" Oakheart asked Shimmer. "You goin' kinky on us?"

"You wish," the slim thief said, giggling. "Haven't you ever seen the Indiana Jones movies? I can use this in lots of ways," she claimed. Proving her point, she flicked it up to anchor on an overhanging branch and in an instant had swung up out of sight.

"I believe you," the ranger said, laughing.

They all took a few moments to play with their new skills, then sorted themselves out again.

The new challenge was orcs, or something near enough.

As they made their way further north, they were attacked by bands of toad-like pseudo-men. The orcs were disorganized brawlers rather than real warriors, and they were fairly easy to kill. But there were a lot of them and the bands were big enough that even careful pulling to get a single mob at a time usually meant odds of two or three to one.

They were never in any real danger of being killed, but Solace was kept busy and they often had to pause between groups long enough to allow Rhialto's spells to reset. That meant their progress was slow. On the other hand, the orcs seemed to have a greater tendency to drop valuable items. Shimmer picked up an improved set of knives, and Oakheart gathered up several special-purpose arrows that he immediately tried out on other attackers. As he learned which ones worked best, he started to save them for later battles rather than consume them.

Eventually they came to a town and cashed in most of their loot. Solace was thinking about selling the jewels she had worn in Resolute Keep, but the jewel merchant had a mirror near his counter. That turned out to be a problem because as she brought each item out, she couldn't stop herself from holding the earrings and necklaces up to her face, or trying on a ring again. In the end, she didn't sell any of it, and actually ended up replacing her little - 'cute' as Shimmer had said - angels of mercy earrings with some much larger teardrop-shaped silver loops hanging from just-short-of-gaudy diamond posts. A necklace just seemed right, particularly with a pendant that nestled provocatively - she didn't consciously think of it that way, but that didn't make it any less interesting - and so did a couple of matching rings.

Shimmer laughed, and then whistled when she saw her sister's new 'trail' jewelry, "Geez, Sis, believe me, you don't have to look like you're made of money to attract guys. Just take a deep breath every now and then."

"Look who's talking, shrimp," Solace replied, laughing herself. "If you ever fall in water over your head you'll drown with all the bling you're wearing."

"Well, you sure won't sink," Shimmer replied. "You have plenty of flotation. On the other hand . . . I don't."

"Geez, sis, be patient. You'll grow up . . . someday," Solace said with a giggle, putting her arm around Shimmer and pulling her toward the rest of the group.

Their trek became a bit of a treasure hunt as Rhialto told them of each succeeding clue from the map, which they then had to find the real world. Most of the time the clue seemed to refer to a rock formation, but not always. Sometimes it referred to a particularly gnarled tree. Once it was a vein of color in the bottom of a clear stream. They started a silly little points game where each one kept track of how many clues they resolved. That quickly became a contest between Oakheart and Shimmer since they were the scouts and ranged beyond the core party, but that was okay with the team. It helped make a long trip seem shorter . . . and even fun.

"Y'now, I sorta forgot this was supposed to be a game," Lucas laughed as he beheaded another orc. "But now that I'm getting good at it, this is fun."

"Speak for yourself, Ox," Solace said, reaching out to heal a long scratch on his upper leg, but she smiled and it was clear she was having a good time, too.

"Heads up!" Rhialto announced, and then he finished the fight - yet again - with another massive area blast from his staff of power. "Too bad I can't do that as often as Rockhead swings his sword."

"Rockhead," Lucas said, pointing at Mattock, "swings that big pickaxe thing."

"Not the one I was talking about," Rhialto said, grinning.

"Yeah, you brainy types ain't got no sense," Lucas said, puffing out his chest and flexing his thick, corded muscles.

"Right," Solace said, unaware that she was licking her lips. At least, she didn't realize it until Oakheart laughed from the trail ahead.

"Do you two need to get a room?" he asked. "Or can we get on with our next cave crawl?"

"Cave crawl?" Rhialto repeated dryly. "Oh joy of joys."

"I've got some good news and some bad news," Oakheart reported as the group reached his position. "I don't think we need to worry about snakes in this one."

"That's good news," Solace said gratefully.

Oakheart smiled ruefully and continued. "Because I saw really big spiderwebs all over the entrance to the cave."

"I expect that explains this last pictograph, then," Rhialto said, pointing to his map. "And it means we must be in the right place."

"Goody for us," Shimmer's voice said from a nearby shadow. Then she stepped onto the trail and moved to her sister. "I need your help."

The thief's arm and hand were blistered and oozing clear fluid - wherever they weren't red and oozing blood - through the rents in her tight leather coverings.

"Oh, dear," Solace said, reaching out to touch the smaller woman. In seconds it was Solace who had the injured hand. She grunted with the pain of the burned and seeping flesh, using her other hand to reach into her bag.

"Wha'd'you need, Sis?" Shimmer asked.

"The Firebalm gel," Solace said through gritted teeth. "The red gel, remember?"

"Yeah," Shimmer said, and found some in one of her own pouches. She helped Solace pull back her sleeve, wrinkling her nose at the mess inside the externally-pristine material, and began to spread the gel on the injured healer's arm.

"What happened?" Rhialto asked, working his spell magic to restore - and clean - their clothes.

"Those spiderwebs are either poisonous or something like acid," Shimmer explained. "I tried to push through and . . . well, you can see what happened."

"Not good," Lucas said, frowning. "Could you see how thick they are?"

"Thick enough," Shimmer replied. "I don't think we could just get a stick and knock them down or anything. At least, not without getting some on us.

"Crap," Lucas said, leaning against a sloping tree trunk to think. That was not his highest skill, so the others decided to help him out.

"Well, I guess we'll need to see if the webs will burn," Rhialto said. "If they will, then I can set them on fire."

"Yeah, and we'll make about a hundred yards an hour at the pace you can do that," Oakheart said. "Maybe I can get a fire arrow to work."

Each contributed what they could to the team plan. Solace caused her staff to heat up with a fiery light, and even Mattock motioned pulling the webs down with his heavy metal tool. With that as a plan, they entered the cave.

Like a lot of plans, it was a better idea in the imagination stage than in the implementation stage. The webs, as they soon discovered, were more acid than poison. Mattock's pickaxe started to sizzle and show pits as soon as he tugged on the first wall of dusty silk. That kept Lucas from even trying his shiny sword on the stuff. So it was up to Rhialto, Solace, and Oakheart to burn a way through the barriers. They developed a rhythm to their penetration. Oakheart would send a fire arrow forward and start the main mass of a web barrier on fire, then Solace would use the burning tip of her staff to widen the opening. Every few minutes, whenever his skill reset, Rhialto would send out a fire blast that literally blew away a segment of web, and then they'd start over.

Of course, just after Rhialto used a fire blast on what turned out to be the last line of acid web, they were attacked. The web-spinners were dark, unhealthy beasts with bodies about the size of a basketball and legs that reached about four feet when the spiders stretched them out.

:In the spirit of looking for the pony in any pile of . . . stuff,: Solace mused to herself, :I guess the good news is that these things don't actually spit their acid.:

She winced as a lash of fire burned her neck. Using her apparently invulnerable staff to brush the dangling web away, she checked above her head.

"They're coming in from above again," she announced.

:But there are a freaking lot of them, and they spin those damn webs really fast, and . . .:

Her analysis was interrupted by a shriek of pain from Lucas. Solace moved quickly to his side and drew the injury from a bitten leg into herself.

:And if they do manage to bite you,: she concluded as a screech of fire followed by creeping numbness flowed up her leg, :you get poisoned anyway.:

It was all over in a few minutes. Some uncounted - and nobody really cared anyway - number of spiders joined the corpses of their kin as Rhialto finally unleashed a blast of power.

Just before Solace passed out.

Chapter 18 - "Habit Forming"

Solace woke to the feel of lips touching hers.

And then a hot breath of air into her lungs. She opened her eyes to see those of Rhialto looking at her from a few inches away. Solace twitched at the image, which caused Rhialto to lean back and stop what he had been doing.

"This is getting to be a habit," she whispered with a smile.

"I don't mind if you don't," Rhialto replied, matching her smile.

"What happened?" Lucas asked, intruding into their moment of closeness.

"The spider bites are poisonous," Solace explained, accepting Rhialto's offer of a hand to help her sit up. "I healed you, but I could feel the poison spreading and causing my leg to go numb."

She looked at Rhialto and concluded, "Apparently it spread to my lungs?"

"Apparently," he agreed. "When you collapsed, I could tell you weren't breathing so I, ah, helped until you healed enough to breathe on your own."

"Right," Lucas said dryly. "Hating every second, I'm sure."

"Actually, dork, I did," Rhialto said. "I was afraid for her. One of these times she's not going to come back."

"So, how is everyone else?" Solace asked, looking around.

"We're mostly okay," Shimmer said. "Lucas and Mattock have a few minor acid burns, but I think Oaks . . . Oakheart must have been bitten."

"Just a scratch," Oakheart claimed, "but my left hand is numb."

"Let me see," Solace said, rising the rest of the way to her feet. She passed her staff over Oakheart's hand and nodded. "I think the poison itself must have, um, spread as far as it will spread, or broken down, or something, because I don't sense any continuing damage. But if your hand is numb, there must be a residual effect."

The healer started her song/chant, changing the aura on her staff from gold to red, and then sent it to settle onto Oakheart's limp hand. In a moment he started to flex the fingers. "Good as new," he reported, smiling thanks at Solace.

They started to sort out into a travel formation, but Solace called them back. "Wait a minute," she said. "I don't think this will be as easy as the other quests."

"Easy?!" Lucas said. "Geez, we almost didn't survive some of them."

"Yeah, but if we went back now, I'll bet we could do any of them without much trouble," Solace said. The others nodded and waited for her to make her point.

"So, the quests before have mostly been a bad mob like the snakes or the stone army, followed by a really big version of whatever we were fighting."

"Right, so?" asked Lucas.

"Well, outside the cave crawls, we've fought multiple groups of similar types of monsters, not just a single big mob. I just think we're heading into several groups of the spiders - before we get to whatever is at the end of this."

"You may be right," Rhialto said. "But . . . what do we do about it? Just fight our way through?"

Solace replied, "I think we're fighting too much like individuals. Our skills are different so we don't all do the same things, but there's no overall plan."

"Like what?" Lucas asked impatiently.

"Like . . . maybe we need to set a trap and draw them to us, rather than go where they can lay traps for us. Those acid webs hurt when the drop them on us, and if we get surrounded, we may all get poisoned by bites."

"Make sense to me," Oakheart said. "Out in a forest environment I could set any number of traps. But here . . . ?"

The team thought about the problem for a few minutes, and then they all stepped on each other when their ideas seemed to come at the same time. Then they all stopped, waiting for the others . . who were all waiting as well.

"Geez, this is like a damn comedy show," Lucas said, but he grinned, and so did the others.

"Ladies first," Rhialto said, bowing to Solace.

"No, let me go last," she murmured, still thinking.

"Then, ladies first," Rhialto repeated ironically, looking at Shimmer.

"I think I can move around this place without getting caught," the slim thief said. "Maybe fast enough to explore side ways and so on without really slowing down the rest of you. And I don't get lost. So if there are groups, I should be able to find them. But I'm not sure about, y'know, leading them on."

"Good," Oakheart said, adding his part to the discussion. "With Akeela's help, I can keep track of where you are even when I can't see you. When you find a group, you can pull back and I'll see if I can get them to chase me. This cave has some decent lines of sight, and I can shoot around the pillars. I don't get lost either, so after I sting them, I can run back to the rest."

Rhialto identified an opportunity. "We need to get them to bunch up so that my blasts are as effective as possible. Maybe the 'trap' is to find a narrow place where we can hold them for a moment - but next to a wider place so that they gather up rather than stringing out in a long line."

"Well, I guess holding them for a moment is up to Mattock and me," Lucas said. If we find a place that is just wide enough for both of us to stand together, we should be able to hold for a while."

"Now we're thinking like a team," Solace said. Then she blushed as she looked at Rhialto. "But I'm afraid that . . . someone will still get poisoned, at least some of the time."

"Meaning you'll have to absorb the poison, and then you'll . . . die?" Rhialto said.

"Maybe," Solace said.

"Hey, dude," Oakheart said, laughing. "She'll only die if you don't wake her with a kiss."

"That's CPR," Rhialto snapped, but he blushed as well.

"Yeah, right," Shimmer said, poking her sister in the side.

Lucas shrugged, then grinned as well. "Damn, I'm gonna have to learn how to do that."

"Well, you're not practicing on me," Oakheart said, laughing as he waved to Akeela to move down the dirt path that showed the prints of uncountable poison spiders.

Their plan worked about as well as could be expected . . . meaning none of the encounters followed the plan entirely, but overall it seemed to get the job done. At least they managed to survive. The good news was that the poison from the bites progressed through their bodies slowly enough that Solace could absorb the damage before one of the others died. The bad news was that she couldn't heal herself before the poison deadened her lungs and sometimes even her heart.

"Thank you," she whispered to Rhialto as she revived yet again.

"My pleasure," he whispered back, his lips hovering so close to hers that she wasn't sure if they were just brushing or if it was her imagination.

:Screw it,: Solace decided, and lifted her mouth to kiss Rhialto in a way that had nothing to do with medical necessity.

"Thanks," she said again - a long moment later.

"My pleasure," he repeated, smiling in a way that was more than a mere grin.

A single person's applause - slow, ironic clapping - interrupted anything more. "I'd like to thank the Academy, and my high school biology teacher, and . . ," Lucas said. "Great acting, right? After all, this is just a game, and so you guys don't really have anything going. Right?"

They both blushed, but they both moved back and stood up. Shimmer moved to Solace, holding out a small vial. "Here, you need this."

After she looked at it, Solace realized that the bottle held the Firebalm gel. With that hint, her slender fingers explored her own face, feeling ridges of scar and perhaps even a missing tip to her nose.

"Oh, God, I'm ugly again," she sighed. But she didn't reach for Shimmer's vial. "We probably better save that," the healer said. Instead, she reached in her pack for her scarf and wrapped it around her head and face to conceal the damage. Solace did energize her wand and work a chant spell to cause the glow to change from gold to red and settle on her face. "I'll be okay in a while."

Shimmer shrugged and replaced the vial in a belt pouch.

"How many groups is that now?" Solace asked.

"I make it seven," Oakheart reported, "counting the first one. I sure hope we're getting close to the end. Akeela is limping and I think Mattock has a problem with his leg."

"We've all got problems," Rhialto said. "But I don't think Solace should take them all away. She's getting pretty weak."

"I'm okay," Solace said, but she knew she was lying even as she said it.

"Do you have any idea how much farther it is?" Lucas asked Shimmer.

"Maybe," Shimmer said. "There's a bigger cavern just past where I saw the last group. A lot bigger than anything we've seen so far. Maybe that's the treasure room."

"I hope so," Solace said, her fatigue sounding in her voice even though her face was covered.

:Be careful what you wish for,: she thought a few moments later.

They had reached the large cavern without any additional battles, and they could see a dark shape that was almost certainly the target of their quest. That target was suspended high above the cavern floor on a network of acid webs.

That wasn't the worst part. Their trail brought them out half way up the side of a cavern wall, and it was a good thing because the bottom of the cavern seethed and roiled with an incredible number of the poison spiders. They weren't attacking, perhaps because they were so far away that the eyes of the spiders couldn't recognize that they had intruders.

"Well, we're sure not going to get there across the floor," Lucas observed.

"Not likely," Shimmer agreed, already reaching to pull a rope from her pack. "I'll see what I can do."

"Be careful," Solace said.

"Careful is my middle name," Shimmer said, then she giggled. "Or it would be, except I don't have a last name, so there's nothing to be in the middle of." The thief's eyes traced out possible paths to the suspended treasure . . . and kept looking.

"Shit," she whispered.

"What's wrong?" Oakheart asked.

"There's no way I'm getting at that thing without help," she reported. "Every path has at least a few acid web barriers, and I'm not very good at clearing those."

"I can help with that," Oakheart offered.

"Thanks, Oaksie," Shimmer said, "but . . ."

The others gave her a moment to continue, and after that moment - and maybe a few more - she did. "Look at the thing, guys, don't you see?"

"See what?" asked Lucas.

"If we just burn that web, the doohickey will fall into the pit below. And if it does, I'm not going after it."

"So you need to cut the web away," Lucas said. "You have knives."

"Yeah, I've noticed how quick you are to use your blade on that stuff," Shimmer said. "Guys, you know I'd do that if I thought it would work, but . . . look at all that web! My knives will be toothpicks before I even get close."

"If I try to blast the web away, it might make the Belt fall," Rhialto said.

"So would a fire arrow, if it caught one of the main strands on fire," Oakheart added.

All of the sudden everyone seemed to be looking at Solace . . . and at her staff which had an end that could heat up enough to burn the web with near-surgical precision.

"Okay, okay, I get it," she said, looking up at the high, high ceiling above the suspended prize. "So, what do I have to do?"

"Just follow me," Shimmer said. "I'll lead you right above it, and then you can go down the rope."

"Um, sure," the healer said tentatively. "Okay, lead the way."

Shimmer threw the coiled rope about her slender shoulders and started climbing up one of the stone columns.

"Wait," Solace called. "I can't climb that."

"Sure you can," Shimmer said. "There's plenty of handholds, and you can get your toes into the ridges."

"Maybe you can," Solace said. "But I don't see that happening for me."

Shimmer looked like she was ready to argue, but Rhialto interrupted her.

"Look, Shimmer, Solace is right. I couldn't climb that either. You're the thief, remember?"

"Shit," Shimmer muttered. She looked up and said. "Okay. I'll find someplace to tie the rope off and you can climb that."

Solace looked dubious, but she nodded. After a few minutes, a coil of rope landed at their feet. The other end led up into darkness, with no way to tell how far.

Rhialto put an arm around Solace and led her to the line. "You can do this, beautiful. Just hold on with your hands and lift with your feet clamped around the rope. Remember, you have great Vitality and you won't get tired."

"Yeah, right, and the worst Strength in the group," she grumped, but she adjusted her staff on her back and grabbed the line. She managed to get the thing wrapped around her feet and started up . . . slowly.

"Geez, Sis, you move slower than . . . than Mattock," her sister taunted.

"Shut up, brat," Solace said, carefully not looking down.

The rope climb was the easy part.

After Solace reached the top, Shimmer recoiled the line and draped it across one shoulder. She led the taller girl along a fairly wide ridge of rock to a sheer wall. The next obstacle - or opportunity - was a narrow ledge running parallel to and about 5 feet below an even smaller crack in the huge rock wall.

"You have got to be shitting me," Solace said breathlessly. "I'm not going out there."

"It's easy," Shimmer insisted. "Look."

The petite thief walked along the ledge, her fingers hooked in the crack, until she was about six feet away from Solace. "See?" she prompted. "Just work your way across."

"Yeah, right," Solace said. "Look, shrimp, even if I was a human fly, my boobs won't let me flatten against the rock like you do. So there."

"Geez, give me a break," Shimmer said with exasperation. "At least give it a try."

"No," Solace said, backing away. "I just . . . can't. Honest, Shimmer, I can't."

Shimmer worked her way back to the wide spot that held Solace. "But you have, too, Solace. It's the only way to get through the webs without losing the belt thingy."

"I don't care," Solace said, backing even further away. "I just can't. I'm not you. I can't . . . it's too high."

The real terror building in the healer's eyes finally convinced Shimmer that nagging her sister into motion was not going to work.

"Shit," she muttered, then started uncoiling the rope again. She moved back to the spot above their waiting friends, and sent the line down again.

"Lucas!" she called. "You gotta come up. Solace needs your help."

"On my way," the big warrior's voice floated up. In moments he was standing beside Shimmer, making the small woman seem even tinier by comparison.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Solace is afraid of heights," Shimmer said. "She can't make it across a spot where you basically have to hang by your fingers and toes."

"Oh?" Lucas said. "So the perfect woman has a flaw? Imagine that."

"Give her a break, jerk," Shimmer said. "At least she's got enough brains to be scared."

"Hey . . ," Lucas began, but he interrupted whatever he was going to say when he saw Solace.

The shapely brunette, her face still wrapped in a scarf, was standing there with her arms wrapped around herself for what little comfort they could provide. She was looking at the high wall and even as they approached Lucas could see that she was having trouble breathing.

"Are you okay, Solace?" he asked.

"Yeah, sure," she said bitterly. "Just a coward, that's all."

"Hey," he said. "It's not bad to recognize a risk and approach it carefully."

Shimmer snorted and looked at the huge man. "Yeah, right, like you ever looked before you go charging in."

He shrugged. "Well, maybe I just, y'know, make my assessments faster than Solace."

"Oh, I've assessed this all right," Solace murmured. "And I'm sure I'm dead if I go out there."

Lucas shrugged and looked at Shimmer.

"There are some more columns on the other side," the thief explained. "Ill go over and wrap the rope around one so I can hold her weight. You can pay it out from this side, and we'll tie her off in the middle so she can't fall."

"Works for me," Lucas said casually.

"Then you do it," Solace snapped.

"Calm down, Sis," Shimmer said. "We'll make sure you don't fall, and the rest is easy."

"That's what you said when I was still safe down on the ground level," Solace said. But she waved her hands in something that might have been intended to send Shimmer on her way. In any event, that's how the lithe thief interpreted it. She approached Solace and began to tie the line around her waist and legs.

"I didn't know you knew all those knots and things," Solace said.

"I'm a thief," Shimmer replied with a smirk. "I do this for a living."

Handing one end of the rope to Lucas, she moved to the tiny ledge. In moments she was clinging to the rock wall like one of the spiders they were trying to avoid. In a few moments more, the line grew taut and pulled Solace a step closer to the edge.

"Your turn," Shimmer called. "If you fall, my end is tight around a column, and I expect Lucas could pick up the whole damn column, so he can hold you. We'll just lift you up until you get your hands and feet placed again."

"When I fall, you mean," Solace muttered through gritted teeth.

It wasn't much satisfaction for the buxom healer to prove that she was right. But without the steadying support of the rope, she wouldn't have been able to stay close enough to the wall to retain her balance on the little lip of rock that was all that her feet could use no matter how brave she was. On the other hand, it was immediately obvious that there was no purpose in looking down. She couldn't see her feet on a normal floor, let alone when she was pushing as tightly as she could into the rock. She decided she might as well just close her eyes, which was small enough comfort.

And she did fall. Three times, all together. But Lucas merely lifted her up until she got her fingers back on the crack, and with a little scrabbling of her flailing toes, she resumed her desperate journey.

She nearly lost it again when she felt a hand grab her foot. Even as her reflex was telling her to scream, her mind was telling her that the sound she heard was Shimmer attempting to be comforting.

"Just move your foot over a little further," Shimmer said. "I've got it, just relax your leg and I'll put it on this wide, flat spot."

"Liar," Solace grunted. She managed to open her eyes and see that what Shimmer considered a wide spot would barely hold both of her feet together, but it was a lot bigger than the ledge she had just traversed, so she let her foot be guided to the intended location. Shimmer was still pulling on the line to keep tension on Solace's body, so the taller girl's narrow waist was urged to follow her foot, and in a few minutes Solace was completely on the 'wide, flat spot.'

"God, I can't believe you made me do that," she gasped. She looked back and said, "And there's no way in hell I'm going back that way."

"We'll see," Shimmer said. Calling out to Lucas, she asked, "Can you make it across? We may need you further along."

"Not without some help," Lucas said. "But if you'll let me have some more of the line back, I think I can work something out."

A few minutes later Lucas joined them on the wider portion of the trail. He had wrapped the line around a pillar on the far end and controlled it himself. When he slipped - and he did, several times - he just clamped the rope in one huge hand and held on until he could get started again, with Shimmer and Solace together straining on their end to hold his weight.

"Not too bad," he said, looking down into the bottomless depths of the cliff.

"Speak for yourself," Solace muttered, but a moment later she looked at her two companions. "You guys are amazing. I was so scared that the only reason I didn't crap my pants is because this is a PG game and probably doesn't have those functions. Yet the two of you treat it like an amusing little challenge. I'm impressed. With both of you. You're awesome."

"Wal, thanks little lady," Lucas drawled. "Ah shore dew 'perciate that sent'ment."

"It's what I do," Shimmer added with a grin.

"And very well," Solace said, smiling at her sister. "I have to admit, I just accepted that you can do this sort of thing without really thinking about what was involved. I couldn't do it, even if I had your skill set."

Shimmer preened a bit at the praise, but she was coiling the line as they talked. As soon as she was ready, she threw it over her shoulder and they moved on. Their ledge actually widened a bit as they travelled, and by the time they were essentially over the acid web tangle that they believed to hold the Belt of Hlin, even Solace felt almost comfortable.

That is . . . until she looked down at their target.

"No way!" she hissed.

"No other way," Shimmer replied. "If you can burn away the web, I'll get the doohickey. But you're the only one who can get the stuff out of the way."

"Yeah, right, I'll be soooo precise when I'm swinging on the end of a half a mile of rope!"

"Then don't swing," Lucas said. He looked at Shimmer. "Can you tie this line off so that she can drop straight down on the Belt?"

When the thief nodded, he said, "Then just go down easy, burn that crap away, and come back up."

"Right. Easy," Solace said, gulping and looking down again.

"Crap," Lucas said, obviously losing patience. He looked at Shimmer and pointed at the line. "Just tie her off again like you did before. I'll lower her down. She can keep her eyes closed until we tell her she's there."

"Would you do that?" Solace asked, too afraid of the long drop to care about the condescension.

Lucas didn't answer, except to point at the rope. In moments Solace was being lowered toward the mass of acid web, eyes closed, a death grip on the line, and her staff carefully looped through the straps on her backpack.

"Okay, that's far enough," Shimmer announced, her voice loud enough for both Lucas and Solace to hear.

Solace carefully opened her eyes, then slowly looked down. :Well,: she decided, :at least the height isn't likely to kill me. I'd never make it through those webs in one piece, and if I did, the spiders are probably 50 feet thick. They'd cushion the fall . . . just before they ate me.:

That morbid thought actually served to stabilize her screaming nerves, and she smiled ironically at the thought. With more than a little care, she managed to get her staff free and began to warm it up. I wasn't long before she was using the white-hot tip to singe threads covering the indistinct lump in the middle. As she cut away the cover, she began to make out the shape of the object.

"Hey, this isn't a belt," she called up. "It's like, rolled up or something, but it's way too tall for a belt. If it was unfolded, it would be . . . more square than any belt I've ever seen."

"Oh, no," Shimmer said. "This has to be the right place."

Rhialto heard their calls and added his own contribution from the side passage. "Sometimes a 'belt' refers to something we might call a girdle or even a corset. Think of those gaudy professional boxing belts."

"Oh," Solace said as she continued to work. "Well, it's still way too tall for a belt, but it's about clear."

"Come back up and I'll get it," Shimmer ordered.

"Oh, hell, I'm already here," Solace said. "I'll bring it myself."

True to her word, after a bit more careful singeing, she gingerly pulled up a roll of material that was flexible in one dimension and quite stiff in the other. The color was a pale yellow or cream, with intricate tone-on-tone brocade on one side and what looked like smooth silk on the other. She managed to get it into her pack and get her staff securely linked through her straps, then called to Lucas. "Can you pull me up?"

Demonstration provided an answer and she was soon standing by her two companions.

"Let's see," Shimmer demanded.

Solace pulled out the object of so much effort, and unrolled it.

"Geez, it is a corset," she said.

"Well, it won't go around anyone's waist," Lucas announced. "Hell, I could wear that thing on my leg."

"Tell me about it," Solace said, fitting the material about her own waist. It left several inches of gap. Shimmer found that despite her smaller overall size, her waist was not appreciably smaller than Solace's.

"There aren't any laces anyway," she said. Rolling the material up again, she handed it to Solace. "You might as well keep it until we figure out what to do with it. Didn't Rhialto tell us that Hlin was a healer?"

"I guess," Solace said, putting the garment away. She looked around expectantly - or perhaps hopefully - then sighed.

"I guess we don't get a free ride home this time," Shimmer said, recognizing what her sister wanted.

"I'll just keep my eyes closed," Solace said with a grimace.

As might be expected, once Solace knew for sure she could manage the tiny ledge safely, she didn't slip at all. She still needed the support of the rope, because the center of her weight was held way too far from the wall for a reliable perch. But she never lost her footing. Lucas even lowered her to where Rhialto and Oakheart waited so that she didn't have to climb down.

As they exited the cave mouth, they found an old, one-eyed man and a couple of ravens waiting for them.

Chapter 19 - "That's What Mothers Do"

"Congratulations, Noble Adventurers," Odin said grandly. "You continue to please and surprise me with your resourcefulness and skill."

"Um, thanks," Solace said cautiously.

Odin displayed his machine-perfect smile and waved his hands at piles of loot near color-coded banners. "I am pleased to grant you additional attribute points as a recognition of your demonstrated abilities. Use them wisely, and prepare yourself for your next quest."

"What would that be?" Rhialto asked.

"You must find the Eye of Heimdall," Odin replied.

"Any chance we could get a hint on where to find it?" Lucas asked.

"A hint?" Odin repeated, along with his benevolent smile. "Of course. You have already demonstrated the way to find treasure."

He stopped talking, and though the rest waited expectantly, it didn't seem likely that he would say any more.

"That's our hint?!" Lucas said. "That's bogus!"

"Calm down, Lucas," Rhialto said. "Let's think about this for a moment."

"While you are thinking," Odin said, "let me offer a few . . . signs of how much I appreciate your hard work."

He looked first at Solace, which surprised none of them but Solace. "Young woman, you who have the most to lose in surface beauty are also the most ready to give it up for the benefit of others. It pleases me to reward you with even greater beauty."

"I, um, don't understand," she said, but in a moment she slipped a hand up under the scarf still hiding her scarred face, and then she was pulling the scarf down. "Oh, thank you, Odin. I was afraid that it would take such a long time to restore . . ."

"Restore?" Lucas said. "You're way past restore, and I couldn't believe how pretty you were before!"

"Before?" Solace repeated, then started to dig in her pouch for the bit of shiny metal she carried.

Odin gestured and a full length mirror materialized in the clearing. It showed Solace, but she was indeed an unimaginable step higher in beauty. Her violet eyes glowed with warm depth, her elegant neck defined grace and style, her ripe lips demanded a sensual caress, her dark hair tumbled with thick waves of glossy shine. Each feature showed an improvement, yet each was so perfectly compatible that it seemed fully natural. Only her figure was unchanged, which actually enhanced the perfection of the image, since it was clear any more curviness would deny her beauty was natural, and so reduce the wonder of it. The fact her curviness was natural was all too apparent, because her revised outfit also showed an amazing amount of cleavage.

And then she absorbed the rest of the change.

"Ohmigod, that's . . ," she started, interrupting herself to strike an unconsciously sensual pose in the mirror.

"The most beautiful pair of legs I've even seen," Lucas finished for her.

The pearly, Robin Hood tights that were Solace's only leg covering between her tunic and her calf-high boots had thinned down to the point of pale pantyhose, retaining just enough soft shine to accent flawless pillars of pure alabaster.

"Cheerleader outfits have more coverage than this!" she cried.

"Yay team, . . Sis," Shimmer said with a giggle. "But you do look awesome. Those boots are to die for!"

Solace tilted a sleek leg to see that her boots once again showed the higher heels she had needed when her Achilles' Tendons were injured. They actually looked like cheerleader boots, with a broad enough heel to allow her to run and jump, yet enough lift to slim her ankles and shape her legs. It added to the shining highlights of her sleek thighs to make them look improbably long, yet tautly toned. "Odin, look, it's not like I don't appreciate, um, how nice you've made me look . . ," she said, to be interrupted by a snickering Lucas.

"Nice? Not hardly. Hot? For sure. Awesome? Definitely. But nice . . ? I don't think so."

"Shut up, jerk," she snapped, but when she looked at the big warrior, she saw the rest of her friends and found no sympathy at all.

"Some of us have to be slugs," Shimmer said. "Nobody said you had to."

Mattock cleared his throat with a rock-crushing grumble, but once everyone was quiet he merely looked at Odin.

"I have also chosen bonuses for each of you based on your demonstrated skills on this last mission. Shimmer: Your ability to lead Solace through her fears shows you possess additional Charisma. Lucas: Your ability to negotiate the cliff face shows additional Dexterity. Each of you has demonstrated abilities or a willingness to sacrifice that has earned you my personal reward. And each of you has earned both the normal reward for a completed quest, and a bonus for efficiency. So, you will find, once you choose where to apply the available attribute points, that your overall abilities have grown by at least three points. Again, congratulations."

"Thank you," Rhialto said, bowing at the powerful old man. The others came to something like a position of attention - even Solace - and bowed as well.

All but Rhialto hurried to examine their piles of loot. He remained standing near Odin, looking thoughtfully at the old man. "You said we've already demonstrated the way to find treasure. In each case, we've either had a map, or were guided by the Heart of Ymir. Can we use the Heart to find our way again?"

"The Heart of Ymir longed to be reunited with the Staff of Skadi. It has no other goal."

"So, then we need a map, right?" asked Rhialto.

Odin said nothing, merely looking placidly at the young wizard.

"Get out your map, dude," Oakheart suggested. "Maybe there's something on it."

Rhialto retrieved their map from his pack and studied it. "Nothing new," he reported.

The others crowded around him, trying to find some clue in the parchment. After a few minutes, Lucas started to get impatient. "This is a waste of time. I wanna try out my new gear."

"Later," Rhialto said, unconsciously taking on a leadership authority that he hadn't previously demonstrated.

"Maybe there's something connected with the, um, style of the last quest," Shimmer suggested. "Like, a theme or something."

"What theme?" Oakheart asked.

"I don't know," admitted Shimmer. "I'm just looking for an idea."

"You may be right," Rhialto said. "Let's see . . . first, we went to an unexplored area of the map. Then we asked around . . . and ended up doing what amounts to a side quest to heal the queen. That's when we got our map."

"Oh, no, not another cancer healing," Solace said. "I was sick for days in real life after that."

"I know," Rhialto said. "But I don't think it will be that, um, copied. I'm thinking that the common theme will be to find people who we can help in some way, and then see if they can help us in return."

"Oh, yeah," Solace said in relief. "That may work."

A moment later she looked around and said, "But not today. I think we need to exit and study up on our attribute points. Whatever the next phase is, we need to be at our best, and I don't remember all my current scores."

"Right," Rhialto agreed.

Solace directed the team with such natural authority that no one questioned her orders. "Gather up your loot, do a quick reveal on everything so that we know what our new strengths and needs are, and then we'll exit. Whatever time we have left in the real world can be spent on reviewing our attribute points on the game console."

The clearing static allowed them to sense their real bodies, and with a few blinks and stretches, they were back in the Danner game room in both body and spirit. Unfortunately, the setting sun seen through the game room windows showed they were already late. The group dispersed quickly and Tris started the familiar walk home with Landon.

"You did good on that mission," Tris said. "I never woulda made it without you."

"Thanks," Landon said, blushing a little but standing a little taller at the same time.

"Hey, dude, you're really getting tall," Tris said, poking his brother in the arm. Then he laughed and added, "But I can still whip your butt, so don't go getting any ideas."

"Only if you can catch me," Landon said, laughing himself.

Then he disappeared.

It was well into twilight, with lots of fairly deep shadows. And their route took them near an undeveloped area with native trees and shrubs. Landon needed only a heartbeat to step off the path and out of sight, and then he was just not there.

"Hey, Landon, where'd you go?" Tris called. "Quit playin' around. We need to get home."

"I'll be there before you are," Landon promised . . . or at least his disembodied voice did.

Tris watched and listened carefully for any sign of movement, but there was no sign of his younger brother.

"Dude, quit screwin' around," he said. "If you get hurt, we'll both be grounded for like, the next century."

"I won't get hurt," Landon's voice said, and while Tris couldn't identify a precise location for the sound, it was clearly ahead of him so he hurried to catch up.

All the way home, Landon's voice taunted him, but the younger boy was nowhere to be seen when Tris finally reached their house.

"Shit," he muttered. "We're going to be in so much trouble."

"Why?" a calm voice asked . . . from above his head.

Tris looked up to find Landon perched on the roof over their front porch, lying flat against the dark shingles as just another shadow. Landon swung down and dropped without a sound to stand next to his big brother.

"Dude," Landon said, laughing, "if you're gonna play hide and seek, at least wear dark clothes."

"Geez, you idiot," Tris said, trying to be mad. "If Mom or Dad catch you on the roof, you'd end up counting the dots on the ceiling in your room until like, college or something."

"But they didn't catch me," Landon said smugly. "And they won't."

"Man, if they do, I don't know you," Tris said, but he punched his brother in the arm again and held the door for him.

After dinner, Tris helped his mother with the dishes. As they worked, they talked about inconsequential things. At one point, the end of Tris's ponytail, which had gotten fairly long, dipped into the water.

"Oh, shoot," he said, squeezing the ends as dry as he could. He took the rubber band out of his hair, wincing as it pulled as it always did, and complained, "I wish I had something better to hold this hair. Rubber bands are always breaking, and if they don't, they take half my hair when I do try to remove them."

"You could just cut your hair," his mother said quietly.

"Yeah, but . . ," Tris said, then shrugged. "I guess I just don't want to."

"Okay," she said, with a sigh. Tris knew what that meant, but he still didn't want to cut his hair. Mrs. Knight shrugged herself, and then made the problem a little easier. "At least you do keep it quite neat. It's clean and shiny, and wonderfully soft."

"Mostly I guess that's because I brush it a lot," Tris said. "I kinda like that."

"I remember when I had longer hair," his mother said with a smile. "And now that you mention it, I did like the feel of long, slow brushing."

"You should grow your hair longer again," Tris said. "It would look good on you."

"Oh, Tris, I'm a mother with two teen-age boys," she said, laughing. "It wouldn't be right for me to try to look like a teen-angel wannabe."

"Oh, Mother," Tris snorted. "Nobody said you had to look like a teenager. Lots of grown up women have longer hair. Yours is still dark and full. I'll bet Daddy would love it."

"Probably," she agreed. "Men do seem to like long hair on their women."

She leaned against the counter. "Tris, do you remember when we talked about, ah, your clothes and things? When you wore those boots?"

"Yeah," he said, shrugging.

"Have you given any more thought to that?"

"Not really," he said. "I guess I'm just . . . doing what feels comfortable."

"And are you comfortable, with your longer hair and - I have noticed - your eyebrows, um, cleaned up?"

"My eyebrows?" he repeated. Then he tried to cover up his surprise by making it seem like his confusion was on another topic. "I didn't think it was like, all that noticeable."

"It's not, really, except that it does make you look neater. And a little more alert, as though your eyes were wider. I guess a mother just notices that sort of thing."

Tris didn't reply, so after a moment, Mrs. Knight continued. "Look, Tris, if there's something you want to tell me . . ."

"Not really, Momma. Honest," he said. "I'm just . . . trying to be myself, not a copy of anyone else. And I guess I like being, um, neater than I was." :That's probably because I feel messy so much of the time in the game. I'm either dusty from trail dirt, or itchy from someone else's injuries that I've absorbed, or just plain grungy from working so hard. But I can't tell her that.:

"Good for you," she said, but she still frowned. After a moment she reached out to touch his hair. "Why don't you go up and wash your hair to get the dish soap out of it? I'll bring you a clasp of some sort . . . something you could wear to school tomorrow."

"Would it be alright if I took a bath?" Tris asked. "I guess I'm feeling a little - I don't know - tense. A hot bath sounds good."

"Of course, dear," she replied. "If you want something to relax you, why don't you put in some of the bath beads that are under the sink in my bathroom?"

"Sounds great," Tris said.

It didn't really help Mrs. Knight's peace of mind when she realized as Tris lounged in front of the TV before bedtime that her son had apparently shaved his legs and his underarms while he was in the bath.

The next morning when Tris was getting ready for school, he experimented a little with different ways to brush his hair and make it look nice with the clasps his mother had provided. After a frantic set of options, he found something that he liked, even if it did hold his ponytail a bit higher on the back of his head than usual. Styling his hair made him late, so he just grabbed a toasted breakfast pocket on his way out the door.

"Bye Momma," he called, not hearing her response . . . nor seeing her worried frown.

:Well,: she sighed after her oldest child had hurried away, :I've done my pushing for this week. I'll have to let him have some space for a while, but I am going to check out his computer when I clean his room. Sorry, Tris, for going behind your back, but . . . I guess sometimes that's what mothers do, too.:

Chapter 20 - "He Followed Me Home"

The team assembled on a Sunday afternoon, as usual. And as usual, Tris and Landon were the last to join. When they arrived, they found that someone new had been added to their group.

Charlotte had a puppy.

She was playing with it on the floor, patting the floor near the puppy's paws in a mock fight. The little black and brown dog was happily growling at the massive mitts that every now and then knocked him on his tail - which was merely an opportunity for a new rush.

"Ouch!" Charly said, pulling her hand back. "Hey, mutt, your teeth are sharp."

"Cool," Landon said, sitting down next to the crestfallen dog. "Hey, it's okay. She wasn't really hurt."

"No, Blitzkrieg, I'm all right," Charly confirmed, putting her scratched hand down for the dog to sniff.

"Where'd you get him?" Landon asked.

"He followed me home," Charly claimed, then blushed. "No, really! I was walking home from school on Thursday, and he was just . . . there, y'know?"

"Are your parents gonna let you keep him?" Tris asked.

"If no one else claims him," Charly said. "The paper will let you have a free ad for lost dogs, and I put some signs up around the neighborhood."

"He looks like he might be an expensive dog," Tris said.

"I know," Charly said with a frown. "I'm hoping that no one shows up, but . . ."

"So, what kind do you think he is?" Landon asked, trying to change the topic.

"Well, he's not too big yet, but I think he's like a Doberman Pinscher. I looked them up online, and the only thing is that his ears and tail aren't done."

"Done?" asked Tris over his own shoulder as he moved to look over Lucas's shoulder at the game console.

"Yeah, most people dock the tail and trim the ears so that they stand up," Charly said. "I don't think I'll do that."

"Eeeuw," Landon said. "Why would they do that?"

"Well, it makes them look more alert," she explained, "and the docked tail keeps it from, like, slapping on things and giving them away if they're sneaking up on someone."

"Wow, that's pretty hard core," Landon said. "Do you think he'll get mean?"

"Naw," Charly said confidently. "I looked that up, too, and it's all in how you train them. I think he'll be fine."

"Blitzkrieg, hmmm?" Tris said, looking at the dog again. He laughed and said, "I'm sure with a name like that, he'll turn out meek and gentle."

He squatted down to the floor level and said, "Hey, Blitzy, y'wanna invade Poland this afternoon?"

The dog yipped cheerfully and bounced over to chase at Tris's finger. The fight was on, but it ended pretty quickly. "Damn, his teeth are sharp."

"Yeah," Charly said. "Those are his baby teeth. When they fall out, his others won't be so bad."

"You'll still have to keep him from nipping at people," Joshua warned. "Or else get used to having hands that look like they've been through a meat grinder."

"He'll be fine," Charly said defensively.

"What are you gonna do with him while we're in the game?" Landon asked.

"Oh, he's house trained already," promised Charly. "He'll do okay. When I get busy, he just takes a nap."

"Speaking of getting busy . . ," Lucas said pointedly. "I picked my attributes, and Josh has his. But the rest of you . . ."

Tris slid into place next and made his choices. He didn't make a point of it to the others, but it looked like he had been awarded specific improvements by Odin; one in Appearance as the old man had promised, but also one in Vitality.

:I guess that's because I kept letting myself get killed with the spider poison, yet kept coming back,: he thought, then tried to keep his face hidden from the others as he realized his cheeks were glowing with the memory of how he - or Solace - had been revived. He picked Intelligence for one of his attribute improvement choices, hoping to be able to understand more spells. The other was used on Strength, which he - or Solace - certainly needed.

The others took care of their own ability enhancements, and with practiced skill they readied themselves for another session in the alternate reality. Once there, Rhialto pulled out the magical map.

"We've been at least a ways North, South, East, and West," he pointed out, noting the detailed areas of the map. "Any suggestions?"

"What's the target this time?" Oakheart asked.

"The Eye of Heimdall," Rhialto said while Mattock was still clearing his throat.

"Do we know anything about this Heimdall dude?" Lucas asked.

"He's supposedly the guard on the rainbow bridge Bifrost that spans between Asgard, the home of the gods, and Midgard, or Earth," Rhialto said, slipping into a lecturing cadence. "Supposedly he can hear grass growing from like, a zillion miles away, or see to the ends of the earth. We're not going to sneak up on him."

"You don't think it's a real eye, do you?" Solace asked. "I mean, it's gotta be a stone or something, like the Heart of Ymir or the Fist of Thor."

"I suppose," Rhialto agreed. "But somehow I think that whatever guards this thing will be different. Like maybe there won't be any way to sneak into wherever it is, even if we get past any bad guys."

The wizard looked thoughtful for a second, and then said, "Y'know, several of these have been mostly unguarded right at the spot where the treasure was. We - mostly Shimmer - either snuck around behind the bad guys, or we were able to lure them away leaving the doohickey there for the taking. I wonder . . ."

"Don't go looking for trouble before it shows up," Lucas said. "We don't even know which way to go."

"I think we'll need to find some sort of local problem, and help the people solve it," Solace said. "I hope it isn't another disease thing. Maybe there's a monster who is terrorizing villagers, that sort of thing."

"Oh, joy," Shimmer said. "So, how do we find our monster?"

"Well, I guess we ask around," Solace said. "Is there any like, pattern to the towns on the map?"

"Um, maybe," Rhialto said, looking at it again. After a minute he pointed to one particular spot. "The other towns were all near one of the quest sites, except we didn't see a town near the wyrm's castle. I suppose we could head out that way."

"Works for me," Lucas said. "We'll want to sell loot anyway."

No one else had any objections, so the party sorted themselves out into their normal trail formation. That left Solace and Rhialto walking together in the rear.

Rhialto looked around and said, "After all the time we've spent in this, um, reality, it seems as real as the mundane world sometimes."

"I know what you mean," Solace said. "It seems like the carry-over things are happening more and more . . . like the two realities are merging, somehow."

"That would be cool," Rhialto said, then looked embarrassed. "Sorry, I just meant, y'know, for me. Doing magic is awesome, but . . ."

"That's okay," Solace said. "To tell you the truth, I sorta like this world better, too."

"Really?" Rhialto asked. "You said you hated it."

"Yes, and sometimes I do," Solace said. "But the other reality - what did you call it, the mundane world? - isn't always perfect either. At least here I'm good-looking."

"I'll say," Rhialto agreed with a bit too enthusiastic a tone. But Solace just laughed.

After a minute, Rhialto said, "Tris is actually looking pretty good, too. But . . ."

He stalled out. Solace waited to see if he knew what he wanted to say, but when the wizard remained silent, she offered a completion. "But Tris is looking just a bit too . . . pretty?"

Rhialto didn't answer in words, but his evasive gaze was an answer in itself.

"I just don't know why I feel like it's important that Tris look good," Solace said. "I mean, when I'm Tris, I spend a lot more time brushing my hair and trying to make it look nice in the morning, and I know that some of my jeans are really girl's jeans. But . . . it just seems like, right somehow."

"It does, you know, Rhialto confirmed. "It looks good for Tris, and even though some of the details are kinda . . . surprising, you really make them work. Has anyone been giving you any grief about it?"

"No," Solace answered, "which is kinda surprising in itself. I know some of it is really over the line, but no one seems to care."

"Oh, I think people care," Rhialto disagreed. "But they don't seem to mind, which is not the same thing."

"Do you mind?" Solace asked.

"No," Rhialto answered quickly. "I think you, um, Tris looks cool. And if it works . . ."

"Yeah, I guess that's the way I see it, too," Solace said.

That seemed to close that topic off, but before too long, Solace had another question. "What about you? Are you seeing any carry over? I mean, you always seem to be wearing that hoody sweatshirt so that it looks like you have a cowl, but other than that . . ?"

"I don't wear a cowl all the time," Rhialto protested . . . from within the depths of the cowl on his wizard's robes. Then he laughed and said, "Well, maybe some of the time."

Then he continued, "But the most important thing is that I seem to be doing better in science and math. I mean, I'm really beginning to get Physics, and Pre-Calculus is a lot easier than I though it would be . . ."

"Speak for yourself," Solace moaned.

"I guess I am," Rhialto said. "That's the point. It's easier than it would have been, before we got involved in this game. Your looks and, um, Charisma seem to be carrying over for you. But my Intelligence and Wisdom are working for me."

They walked along in silence for a few minutes, then Solace asked, "Do you . . . sometimes . . . dream about this world? I mean . . . dream about being the person you are in this world?"

"Yes," Rhialto said.

"What sort of dreams?"

"Oh, different things," Rhialto replied with a bit too casual a tone.

"Like what?" Solace pushed.

Rhialto blushed and looked away from the impossibly pretty girl. If he'd have looked back, he'd have seen a matching blush on the healer's flawless face.

It was actually a relief - amazing though that was - when they were attacked and prevented from continuing that conversation. In the region they traveled the attackers were mixtures of animals and beings that were too tall and thin to be orcs, but were clearly not human. They were more likely to be magic users than previous mobs, but that tended to mean they made more treasure drops as well.

Coincidentally - not that any of them really believed in coincidences in Reality 2.0 - Rhialto had some new spells that were shields against magic. They developed a new set of tactics on the fly where Rhialto created a bubble of protection against the magical attacks until they could advance to where the warriors could reach the humanoids while still remaining inside the bubble. In the meantime, Oakheart and Akeela were taking on the animal attackers, assisted by Shimmer. Or at least, that's what they decided must have been happening, because no one actually saw Shimmer attack anything, but there were more dead bodies afterwards than any of the other fighters would claim.

Shimmer just looked smug when they asked her about it . . . but they noticed that her pack seemed to be bulging a bit more than anyone else's. The lean thief took a minute to pull her sister aside.

"Solace, do me a favor," Shimmer whispered. "Do that cosmetic thing for me again. I forgot to ask you last time, and . . . .well, my body is getting better, and my hair is longer, so maybe . . ."

"I don't really think you need any help," Solace said. "Your Appearance score must be high enough now to include the same sort of thing. Your face looks fine."

"Not as good as yours," Shimmer said. "C'mon, just . . . boost me a little."

Solace sighed, but she nodded. She had to consult her spell book again, but she found something that she thought would work with Shimmer's style, adjusting the spell chant even as she recited it so that the dark thief's face still looked natural and the makeup subtle. Yet Shimmer definitely looked better, with just enough enhancement to bring out her improving features. Shimmer had to look in Solace's shiny bit of metal to see the effect, but she smiled and thanked her benefactrix.

:At least that magical makeup won't run if she sweats,: Solace thought as they were set upon by yet another mob of bad guys. The team was working pretty well together and she didn't have all that much healing to do. In particular, none left her with scars or other enduring problems like blindness. So they continued with steady progress toward their first goal.

They found a village called Tal Adler a little past the wyrm's castle. There was a more-or-less typical market. Their transactions took a bit longer than usual because the reward drops each had gathered included a higher percentage of locked treasure boxes than they had before. Shimmer had to pick the locks - and soon learned that she had to be watch out for traps. The healer was able to sense a lot of trouble, and Shimmer's hands were wonderfully deft, but even with as much care as they could employ, Shimmer still triggered some traps instead of picking all the boxes cleanly. Solace was able to heal broken and cut fingers, but they still hurt. They were both more than happy when all the boxes were done.

The treasure boxes usually held gold or loose jewels which could be converted into gold. Solace was finally able to make herself give up some of the jewels from her reward for healing Queen Florence, and altogether the adventurers were gaining a fairly hefty bankroll so they went in search of bargains. Solace found some hair clasps not too different from the ones her mother - that is, Tris's mother - had given Tris, and some pretty combs to wear when she didn't want a ponytail. She also took Shimmer's advice and bought a pair of golden earrings to go with her Circlet of Perception. Shimmer found some flashy bracelets that somehow stopped making any jangly sound the moment she draped them on her wrist. And they found some Firebalm gel to replace their supply. However, none of the weapons or armor were better than what they already carried, so they moved out again to the location where they hoped to find another town, based on comments from people in the market.

It was there, and when they found it - a place called Guildston - they could see that it completed a pentagonal pattern of villages on the map. However, this town was not as successful as the last. There was no market, and the townspeople - the few that were about - were guarded and moved away when the adventurers approached.

"What is your business here?" a gruff voice demanded.

They turned to see a warrior garbed in what apparently passed for a uniform in this locale.

"We are on a quest," Lucas announced, "given us by Odin himself."

"Of course you are," the guard said. "And I'm Thor."

"Really?" Shimmer said, appearing out of nowhere and giggling at the man. "Maybe Solace can help you. She's our healer."

"Healer? I don't need a healer," the man said.

"Then why did you say you were sore?" Shimmer asked, batting her eyes at him.

"What? What are you talking about?"

"Our quest, I thought," she replied innocently.

The guard stared at her for a moment, obviously far, far behind the conversation. Solace struggled not to giggle herself, and shared the guard's relief when another voice intruded.

"That will be all, Hnador. Thank you for your diligence."

"Yes, Milord," the guard said, bowing at the source of the words.

They all looked and saw a tall, very thin man with sharp and unfriendly features moving toward them. "I am Rendell," he said, bowing. A smile showed on this thin lips, but no where else. "And who might you be?"

Lucas went through brief introductions, mentioning again that they were on a quest. When he mentioned the object of their quest - the Eye of Heimdall - the man's eyes narrowed though what he used as a smile never wavered.

"You must dine with me this evening," he declared, moving to take Solace's arm - letting his eyes enjoy the view his closer position provided down the front of her blouse. "It may be that someone has heard of this . . . thing, and if so I will have that information for you by the time the meal is complete."

"Where have we heard that before?" Oakheart whispered to Shimmer.

"It worked last time," she whispered back.

Rendell was drawing Solace with him toward what looked like a gatehouse set by the farther break in the curtain wall around the hamlet. His words drifted back to the others, but they were clearly only intended for Solace.

"I hope you don't mind, Milady, but I would so look forward to a more refined dinner than the cretins in this place can appreciate. I'm sure it would be just the thing to spark my memories of . . . whatever it is that you're looking for. Of course, since you're travelling I understand if you need a nicer gown. In the course of my customs office duties, I have accumulated some that I'm sure would be most . . . appealing."

:I'm up here, creep,: Solace thought, since he had been talking only to her too-prominent cleavage. It didn't take a lot of empathic insight to realize that if she let him pick her gown for the evening, it would be tasteless, uncomfortable, and way too revealing. :But I got the other part of it too, Jerk. We have to 'dine' with you or you won't tell us about Heimdall's Eye.:

Then she realized she had a solution, and even though she figured it was no coincidence, she was still grateful to Odin for providing it. "That's all right, Lord, um, Rendell. I have something nicer to wear. I'll look forward to dinner."

"Oh," he said, imagination warring with lust and frustrated plans in his expression. They had already crossed the small hamlet, and it was clear that the customs building held only offices and his own quarters. Next to it was a modest inn though, and he delivered Solace to that door. "Very well, then. Shall we say, in one hour? I'll call on you."

He bowed, keeping his eyes fixed on their seemingly irresistible target, and barely nodded at the rest of the party.

"Geez, what a creep," Solace said as he vanished into his own building.

"Another damn dinner," Lucas said. "Why don't we just, y'know, keep looking?"

"Where?" Shimmer asked. "It's clear this dude knows something. I think we need to hear what he has to say." Then she giggled and looked at her sister. "And Solace gets to dress up as the beautiful princess again, to be ogled and probably groped by the local lordling."

"If he touches me, I'll break his arm," Solace snarled. "But I agree that we need to hear what he has to offer. Did you see the way he looked when we mentioned Heimdall's Eye?"

"Yes, I picked up on that, too," Oakheart said.

Rhialto had been negotiating with the innkeeper and they soon had two rooms. The girls claimed one of them, and Solace looked in her bag for the gown that Odin had originally intended for her. She pulled it out and held it against her, looking at her reflection in a surprisingly good mirror that decorated the room.

"Ohmigod, Sis, that looks awesome," Shimmer said.

"Do you think so?" Solace asked softly, swaying her hips to make the material flow and dance.

"Totally," Shimmer insisted, "except . . . it would look just perfect if it were darker . . . maybe a deep red."

"Oh, god, don't I know it. But Odin said healers have to stick with pale colors. Can you see me in pink?"

"No way," Shimmer agreed, laughing. Then she got quiet as she searched through her own pack.

"What's wrong?" Solace asked.

"Nothing, I hope," Shimmer said. She pulled a long piece of dark material from her pack and held it up to her own figure. Blushing, but determined, she asked, "Do you think this will look okay?"

"Ohmigod, Sis, that looks awesome," Solace said, giggling as she copied Shimmer's phrase. "Oakheart . . . 'Oaksie' . . . is gonna have a heart attack!"

"Do you really think so?" Shimmer asked plaintively. "I, um, wanted to be able to, y'know, look nice sometimes."

"Nice? Not if that thing fits as well as I think it will," Solace said, poking her sister in the arm and sending them both into almost helpless laughter.

But not quite helpless. In fact, they each helped the other to dress, reaching impossible fasteners - no zippers in that reality - and brushing each other's hair into elegance accented by flashes of jeweled combs, including the gleaming Circlet of Perception in Solace's midnight depths. Solace took care of the final touches with a slightly scandalous cosmetic spell and they took one last look at themselves in the mirror.

"Ohmigod," Shimmer whispered. "Is that really us?"

"I think so," Solace said with equal wonder.

Solace wore a pale gray gown with softly draped skirts that did not have the concealing fullness of the petticoat-supported spread of her silver dress. This dress caressed rather than compressed her figure above the skirt, and the effect was much more modern than the formal court attire. It could have been a bridesmaid's dress, though the cut displayed enough of her endowment that it might have been more appropriate on the red carpet at the Oscars. Surely no bride would have wanted an attendant to look so sensuous.

Shimmer had shown an unexpectedly expert sense of fashion in her own dress. It was quite snug down to a nice flow of skirt, in a dark color that celebrated her taut form as much as Solace's worshiped her fuller figure. The cut of Shimmer's dress demonstrated her rule-breaking nature with asymmetry and strategic lace that implied more than they actually revealed. It definitely belonged in a showy entertainment venue.

Solace gave a low whistle as Shimmer turned to look over her own shoulder at the way her dark dress flowed over her trim derriere. Then the healer frowned. "Oh, Shimmer, it was so much fun getting dressed up with you. Just like real sisters. I'm gonna miss it so much when this is all over."

"Me, too," Shimmer agreed softly. "Me, too."

They couldn't quite resurrect their levity when the time came to go to dinner, but their solemn poise was not a bad substitute. It was probably a good thing that Rendell - who, as promised, knocked on their door when the time came - was leading them to the inn's dining room instead of being part of the group. Because Lucas, Rhialto, and above all Oakheart, were unable to stop staring at the two young women and it would have seemed strange for them to be so unfamiliar with that aspect of their companions.

Despite his desire for a more formal meal, Rendell had not really made any more special preparations than to have the innkeeper arrange a table for them in a private room. He was again fixed on Solace's décolletage so he didn't notice the shuffling when the three men - Mattock wasn't particularly interested - tried to find places next to the two women. It sorted out with Lucas next to Solace on the other side from the customs official, and the other two flanking Shimmer. Oakheart was not disappointed.

"Wow, Shimmer, you're . . . beautiful!"

"Thank you," she replied quietly. "Not next to Solace, but thanks anyway."

"What? Oh, she's okay, but you're . . . awesome," he insisted. He dropped his voice to a whisper and added, "Look, she's nice and all, and our team really needs her, but she's kinda . . . passive, y'know? I mean, she stays back and heals people - and that's her job, so I'm not really complaining - but you get in there and battle as well as any of us. You're so much more . . . complete than she is."

He chuckled and said, "I mean, after the first night . . . what would we talk about?"

Shimmer blushed, then giggled and slapped the lean ranger on the arm, but she smiled her appreciation at his flattery. She still sighed and looked at her buxom sibling. "I'll never be as pretty as she is."

"Maybe not," Oakheart said, surprising her. "But you'll always be a lot more . . . vivid. And I'll take that any day."

"Would you, really?" she asked, looking at him with soft, glowing eyes.

"Ohhh, yeah," he sighed.

Just then a serving girl put platters of meat and vegetables in front of them, interrupting anything further. Lucas launched into a story about their adventures, speaking in a loud enough voice that the others were more or less forced to listen. Oakheart felt compelled to embellish the warrior's record with a few examples of the contributions of others - notably himself and Shimmer. By the time the declamations of prowess were winding down the meal was finished.

And Rendell was well on the way to being drunk. He leaned over until his nose was almost in her dress and asked, "So, Milady . . . do you get as lonely out on the trail as I do in this miserable little town?"

"Probably not, I'm sure," she said, leaning back from his pungent breath. She tried to steer the conversation into a more-productive path. "So, Lord Rendell, you told us you knew something about the object of our quest?"

"It gets very lonely here," he said, apparently oblivious to her question. "Yet the money is good . . . or was, before . . ."

"Before what, Milord?" Rhialto asked.

The customs official twitched upright, and then looked back at Solace. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at her eyes for the first time in a long time and asked, "Milady Solace, could you consider settling down in a small town like this?"

"Perhaps someday," she said cautiously, "but only after our quest is complete."

"That damn quest," he snapped. "What difference does it make?"

He staggered to his feet, and scowled at the whole table. "I can make you rich, if you'll just . . . If you'll . . ." He turned to look at Solace directly and said, "If you'll stay with me, I'll make you rich."

She blushed, but then she frowned, "Really, Milord, I'm not that sort of . . ."

"Oh, no offense, none intended," he interrupted. "I meant that with all propriety. We'd announce the banns, and you could stay here in the inn until . . . until . . ."

Solace tried to keep the look of disgust off her face. The man still had not helped them on their quest. After a moment, an answer came to her.

"I'm sorry, Milord, but I'm already, ah, spoken for. Thank you for your offer, but I'm afraid I can't accept."

"Spoken for?" he repeated. "Who?" Rendell looked at the table and fixed his attention on Lucas. "I assure you, Milady, that muscles are not the only - nor even the most important - measure of a man."

"It is not Lucas who has my, um, who is my, um, intended," she said, stammering as she tried to find a way to get out of the situation without revealing things she wasn't ready to consider. Yet.

"The ranger?" Rendell guessed next. "You ought to look a bit closer, Milady. He is already half in bed with the little thief."

"Milord Rendell," Solace said, more sharply than she intended. "Shimmer is my sister."

"Well, that would be interesting," Rendell replied with a leer. "Ooh, sorry, no offense, none intended."

He looked finally at Rhialto and sneered. "A mage? What does he look like inside that hood? Do you even know? How deep is your commitment to him?"

"Deep enough," she said cautiously.

"Have you acknowledged his claim publicly?" Rendell demanded. "With an actual kiss, in front of witnesses?"

Solace blushed, and Rhialto, who had thrown back his hood to face the insulting man showed a matching blush. The truth was plain on their faces, and even the drunken customs official could see it.

Rendell slumped back into his chair, and sighed. Picking up his wine glass once again, he muttered, "Nothing for it, then. I suppose."

He took a deep swallow of wine, then looked back at Lucas as though the blond warrior were the obvious leader of their party. "Go Northeast by North out of town. I don't know if the treasure you seek is out there, but the area has been invaded by direcats. They have cut this town and its artisans off from all the northern mines, which is why the town is dying. If there is a treasure anywhere around here, it is in the Widowscream Mountains. You'll probably be killed by the direcats anyway, but that's the best I can do for you."

He struggled to his feet once again. Looking at Solace, he muttered, "What a waste," and turned away from the table.

His quick revelation had caught them by surprise, and for a long moment no one spoke. Then Solace shrugged and reached up behind her ear. She looked around the table, and seeing no objections, pushed the exit button.

Chapter 21 - "I Think We've Got This Down"

As soon as Charlotte began to stir, her puppy was in her lap and urgently requesting some attention. She blinked her eyes as she removed the headset, then laughed. "Okay, Blitz, I'll take you out."

She made good on her promise immediately, calling the dog to follow her out into the Danner back yard. The other adventurers put away their own headsets and stretched as they prepared to go.

"Same time next week?" Lucas asked.

"Sure," Tris said, and the others nodded. Josh went to track down his sister and her companion, which left Tris and Landon to make their own way out.

As they walked toward home, Landon drifted to the side and disappeared.

"C'mon, Landon, don't be a jerk," Tris said.

"Sorry, but I just feel more . . . comfortable in the shadows. I guess that's another carry-over."

"Yeah, maybe," Tris admitted, "but sometimes you just gotta, y'know, fight the urge. I mean, it's not an excuse to do like, whatever you feel like."

"Yeah," Landon's voice said from the darkness, but he didn't reappear. After a moment, Tris resumed his walk. They hadn't gone much further when Landon's voice came from the darkness again. "Man, this life just . . . sucks, y'know?"

"Yeah," Tris said, then he looked a little guilty, and shrugged. "Still, it's not so bad. At least we're guys here, instead of girls."

"Yeah," Landon said, but his voice held little real agreement. Then he added, "What really sucks is being 12. God, I'm just a kid here, but there I'm like . . . somebody."

"You're somebody here, too, somebody real," Tris said.

"Not really," Landon said. "I mean, here . . . I just don't know who I am. Nobody does. Nobody thinks twelve-year-old kids know anything about themselves, or about anything else. It's like I'm a blank spot waiting for something to fill it in. I don't feel . . . real."

"That's not so bad," replied Tris. "It means you can choose whatever and whoever you want to be."

"Can I?" Landon asked plaintively. "Can I just choose? What if I choose . . ?"

After a long pause, when Landon didn't complete his comment, Tris said, "Hey, dude, you still there? Choose what?"

Landon's voice was quiet, just barely audible over the rustling night sounds. "What if I choose to be . . . Shimmer?"

"You mean, be a thief? No way, man, that's just a game."

"Not a thief," Landon said firmly. "I don't want to do anything illegal. But I could be like, a spy or something. I really am good at sneaking into places."

"I suppose," Tris said cautiously. "But . . . I'm sorry, dude, I know this bugs you, but you're only 12, and . . . don't you think wanting to be a spy kinda shows that? I mean, yeah it would be glamorous and all, but a spy? Geez, that's like wanting to join the circus or something. It's okay for little kids, but it's not like, for real."

Landon didn't say anything for a while, and Tris considered stopping again to make sure he little brother was still there. But he decided that if Landon wanted him to stop, he could always call out. After a few minutes, the younger boy did say something.

"I wasn't really thinking about being a thief anyway," Landon said, again very quietly.

"What?" Tris said. When his brother didn't reply, he considered the statement and it stopped him in his tracks. "Ohmigod, you mean . . . being a girl?"

"Maybe," Landon's voice said.

"You think you really want to be a girl . . . that you're really a girl on like, the inside?" Tris asked.

"I don't know," Landon said. "I mean, I don't think I'm really a girl or anything. But it was so much fun to get all dressed up and look . . . pretty. Not just, y'know, good looking like, oh, Oaksie or Lucas, but graceful, and . . . pretty. You felt it, too. I know you did."

Tris resumed walking, slowly, while he considered his brother's claim. "Maybe," he said after a little while.

"So what are we gonna do?" Landon asked, appearing again at Tris's side.

"I don't know," Tris admitted. "I mean, it's not like we can tell Mom or anything."

"Oh, god no," Landon said.

"Maybe we can . . . do something in private," Tris said. "Y'know, in my room or something. When Mom and Dad are out."

"Like what?"

"Well, your hair is getting kinda long, too. And maybe we can, um, borrow some of Mom's stuff - rollers or something, and do each other's hair."

"Oh, cool! That would be awesome," the younger boy said.

"Maybe," Tris said cautiously, but his eyes lit with the idea.

When the Knight boys reached the game room the following Sunday, the first thing they each did was pull the clasp from their hair and brush on it until it flowed around their shoulders.

"Whoa, dude, getting into this a bit, are we?" Lucas asked.

"What difference does it make to you?" Tris challenged.

"Nothing, dude, do what you want," the big blond boy said, retreating to his space, but he gave the brothers a funny look.

Charlotte, looking up from playing with her energetic puppy, glanced at Landon and said, "Looks good. I like it."

No one else felt a need to comment, so they quickly donned their headsets and Lucas engaged the game console. When the static cleared, they found themselves in their travel clothes, just north of the gate to Guildston. The ubiquitous raven perched in a nearby tree as they looked out over another rocky valley, this time leading quickly into fairly rugged mountains.

In the rain.

"Oh, joy," Solace said as she pulled her cloak from her pack. The others found their own rain protection, except of course for Oakheart.

Shimmer shrugged into her shorter cloak, then followed the ranger on a scouting foray. She hardly needed her stealth abilities as she vanished into the misty drizzle.

The first direcat hit them hard.

Neither scout provided them with any warning - not surprising in the obscuring rain - so the first they knew of the attack was when an overgrown lion slammed into Mattock. The stolid warrior got his pick up in time to block the beast's teeth, but he was nearly disemboweled by claws that looked at least 6 inches long.

It appeared that the direcat couldn't feel pain of his own. Lucas has his sword out and thrusting into the massive feline with reflexive speed, slicing deeply into the cat's thickly muscled shoulder. Even a lion would have snarled, or bit at the sword but this direcat was too focused on Mattock to notice distractions, even deadly ones. It added a long gash up Mattock's leg and was trying to get around his flailing pick for another attack when Solace's staff flashed with a ray of intense blue-white light.

The light was directed into a tight beam that focused on the cat's head. Immediately the cat pulled back, blinking and yowling. It swept a huge paw through the space where Mattock had stood, missing as much because the warrior had collapsed as because of any dodge the wounded man could make. The apparently blinded cat tried several more undirected slashes but they were able to avoid the blows. Lucas aimed a slash of his own at the blinking eyes of their attacker, missing when the beast stumbled when it tried to put weight on the shoulder the blond warrior had already wounded. By then, Oakheart and Akeela had returned to the main party and joined Lucas in finishing off the screaming feline.

Solace moved immediately to Mattock. Unlike her normal magical healing, her first steps were more conventional first aid. She drew cloths from her pack and bound up the bleeding wound in his leg, then steeled herself to push a loop of entrail back into the not-quite-human warrior's ripped abdomen. Only when she had the gross wounds dressed did she pick up her staff and start her healing chant. The glow settled on the prone warrior and in a few seconds they realized there was no new blood leaking past the bandages.

"Here, drink this," she ordered Mattock. The thick-bodied warrior swallowed a dose of the Tears of Eir potion and leaned back.

The sound of crushing rocks heralded his few words. "Thank. You. Milady."

"Thank you, Mattock," Solace said. "If not for you, that thing would have killed us all."

He shook his head, but Lucas added his own assessment. "Likely so. I never saw something that big move that fast."

Oakheart frowned as he worked on skinning the huge beast. "I know, and the customs guy said this area had been invaded by direcats. Not just one. I think this is gonna be tough."

Solace took up her staff again, and moved it over the reclining form of their faithful NPC ally. She frowned in concentration, then sighed.

"Okay, Mattock, I'm going to try something. I think your Vitality is pretty good, so I'm going to try to take part of your injuries away, but leave the rest for you to heal on your own. That way, it won't take either of us as long to get back to normal.

"Not. Needed. Milady," Mattock rumbled. "Be fine."

"Yes, I think you would be," Solace confirmed. "But I don't think we should wait until you're healed if you have to do the whole job yourself."

She smiled and said, "Listen to me. I'm your doctor."

Kneeling beside Mattock, she stretched out her hand she placed the palm on the mound of dressings on his leg. In hardly more than a heartbeat, a long slash showed under her shimmering tights and she almost stumbled as the strength left her leg. Solace used the staff to catch herself, a moment before Rhialto's arm supported her.

"Thanks," she whispered, face tight with pain. "I should have realized that would happen."

With an uncharacteristically jerky motion, as though she were rushing to finish, she pushed her hand under the bandages on Mattocks abdomen, then curled up into a tight ball as she did collapse over him. Rhialto carefully moved her to lie beside Mattock, her slender form looking almost frail beside his thick body.

"At least Mattock isn't going to die this time," she whispered through gritted teeth.

"What can we do to help?" Rhialto asked.

"I could use a sip of the Tears potion," Solace said. The wizard helped her to take a swallow of the restorative, and she laid her head back.

Then she tried to sit up, falling back when her tortured stomach muscles wouldn't provide the needed force. "Where's Shimmer?" she asked.

"Right here," a voice said. "I came as soon as I heard the noise, but I was too far away to help."

"Good," Solace said. "It's not your kind of fight anyway."

"Yes it is," Shimmer said bitterly as she walked into sight through the mist. 'I coulda crippled that thing before it knew I was there."

"Maybe," Rhialto said, "but maybe not, and if it would have sensed you . . ."

"I still shoulda been here," the slim woman declared.

"Coulda, shoulda, woulda," Lucas said. "Let's look forward. What are we gonna do about these direcats? If we ever meet more than one - and I'll bet we do - we'd be finished."

Solace took another sip of the Tears of Eir potion and sat up. Twisting her waist, she checked to see if her abdomen was healed, and despite a wince she nodded more to herself than to anyone else and got to her feet. Mattock rose silently beside her and picked up his namesake tool, taking a ready stance to signify his own successful healing.

"Yeah, and I'll bet they don't line up, either," Rhialto said. "Unlike the spiders, I don't think we'll be able to funnel them into a killing ground."

"That's what we can't do," Lucas said. "Does anyone have a positive idea?'

"Maybe," Solace said quietly. She closed her eyes and frowned in concentration for a moment. Surprisingly, after a few seconds the frown left her brow flawlessly smooth, but her eyes didn't open.

"I think I've been, um, underusing the Circlet of Perception," she reported after a moment. "I can sense more than just injuries or illness, when I concentrate."

She looked at Shimmer and Oakheart. "I don't have anything like the range of you guys when you're out scouting, but I don't think we'll be ambushed in the rain again. As long as it stays drizzly, I think we should stick together."

"Okay," Oakheart said. "Akeela and I missed that thing completely. We might have walked right by it, and been direcat food before anyone else even knew we were in trouble."

Shimmer shrugged, but nodded that she had also missed the lurking danger.

"Well, that's one step," Rhialto said. "Now what do we do when we get attacked?"

"Step one would seem to be that Solace blinds the beasts," Lucas offered. "Even though those cats are strong and crazy fast, I think I could dodge the claws if they were blind."

Mattock pointed at the long point on one side of his pick and mimed a swing and twist maneuver that looked wicked even in demonstration.

"And what if we get hit by two?" Oakheart asked.

"That's where we'll need to be really careful," Solace offered. "If I sense more than one at a time, we'll have Rhialto prepare an area blast that can be cast in just a couple of seconds."

"I can't use that very often," Rhialto reminded them.

"I know," Solace said. "So I'll just have to be really careful not to let any get close unless we're ready."

The party set out again, this time with much greater caution. Solace led the way, pausing every so often to close her eyes and try to sense what was just beyond sight in the fog and mist. Or just around the next bend in the trail. Or lurking behind a looming boulder. Or just, in any and every fashion, waiting to kill them. The tension seemed to ratchet up to unbearable . . . and then higher.

"There's something on the right," she reported in a whisper. "Only one, so far as I can tell."

"We need someone to trip it to attack," Rhialto whispered back.

"Okay," Solace said, taking a deep breath.

"Not you!" Rhialto hissed urgently. "You need to stay here and prepare your blinding light spell."

"Oh, yeah," Solace said with relief she didn't even try to hide.

"I'll go," Shimmer said.

"No!" Solace whispered with her own urgency.

"Yes," Shimmer said quietly. "I'm faster than anyone here, and chances are I can hide well enough that even a direcat won't be able to find me. But if I show myself deliberately, it will get him moving this way."

"No," Solace repeated, but her tone showed her defeat.

Shimmer didn't even bother to reply. She just pointed into the gloom and lifted a questioning brow.

"About that way," Solace said, pointing. "I don't know how far, except I think it's close enough that it's time to try something."

"Okay," Shimmer said. She looked around the group. "Is everyone else ready?"

"Should I warm up my blast spell?" Rhialto asked.

"Better not," Solace replied. "I'd hate to spend it on a single direcat, then get hit by several at once. That's our emergency measure . . . even though you have to have it ready in advance."

"Right. Easy," the wizard said, sighing. "Well, at least I have some spells that reset reasonably quickly."

Solace nodded at Shimmer, who took two steps and vanished into the mist.

A few moments later, they heard a fog-muffled, "Here, kitty, kitty."

And a few moments after that - very few - Shimmer appeared, moving with concentrated energy. "Right behind me," she gasped.

True to her word, a blurred shape resolved itself into a shaggy direcat as least as big as the first one. Solace lashed out with her blindness spell and the cat skidded to a stop, blinking and yowling. He - this one showed enough differences from the first to imply it was male - tried to swipe at it's blinded eyes, which was all the time it had before Lucas stepped forward to slice through the upraised paw. In another instant Mattock drove the narrow point of his pick into the beast's ribs, then twisted it to do the maximum possible damage.

It was a good thing that the direcat was alone, because he disarmed both of his attackers in less time than they took for their own assaults. Lucas had his sword hammered out of his hand by the direcats flailing foreleg, despite the fact the paw was missing and blood was spurting from the stump, and a leaping body twist pulled Mattock's weapon out of his hands, leaving it embedded in the huge animal.

The two warriors jumped back, and for good measure Solace sent another blinding flash at the confused direcat. It twirled around, stumbling on its partially missing limb, then made a prodigious leap to attack.

Fortunately, the leap was aimed at Akeela, who apparently had a scent the monster could recognize. It was fortunate because Akeela was more than fast enough to avoid the rush.

And then, just that quickly, it was over. The direcat stumbled and fell, coughed up a flood of hot blood, and then was still.

The team approached it very carefully. Lucas retrieved his sword, and Rhialto built up a charge in his staff - not the full blown Hammer of Thor blast, but by demonstration it was enough to kill a hundred spiders or poisonous snakes. None of them thought that was too cautious.

Solace scanned the direcat for signs of life, then sighed as it was clear there were none. "It's okay."

She looked at the still very nervous adventurers and said, "Well, at least no one got hurt this time." That reminded her to do a scan of the team as well to confirm her impression, and another sigh of relief when it was clear they were all okay.

"We need to work on that," Oakheart said as he bent to skin the carcass. "If he'd have had one more good swipe at us, we'd have been in trouble."

"Yep," Lucas said, taking out a stone to work on a nick in his sword. "But we did it."

"What are we gonna do if there's two of them?" Shimmer asked.

"Pray," Solace said dryly.

As though their defense against a single direcat attacking from the fog were a test they had successfully passed, the drizzle started to lift. In a short while they were walking in cool sunlight, climbing into increasingly rough mountains. Solace still led the way, sensing for lurking danger, but when she got a feeling of presence they didn't need Shimmer to trip the cat's attack just to find out where it was.

That made it easier in several ways. They were better prepared, for one. For another, it allows Oakheart to play a much more effective role, using arrows as the beast streaked toward them. Ordinary arrows didn't seem to have much immediate effect, but then nothing else did, either. Other than Solace's blinding spell, nothing seemed to deter the direcat from all-out, vicious attack. But the effects of warriors and ranger combined to slow the beast down, at least, and they were able to stay clear of blindly flailing claws.

"I think we've got this down," Lucas said confidently.

"Oh, god, I wish you wouldn't have said that," Solace said. "You're just asking for trouble." She glanced up at the always-present raven and sighed.

Sure enough, the next danger was an apparently mated pair of direcats - at least one was male and one was female - who converged from opposite sides of a narrow pass through jumbled boulders. However, Solace sensed them, and once again Shimmer did a pull to draw them out while they were still to one side of the adventurers. That allowed Rhialto do nuke them with a single bolt from his enhanced staff, leaving them only the problem that the hides were not worth removing.

"Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?" Oakheart asked Rhialto.

Rhialto grinned, pleased at the power of his attack, if not with the efficiency.

"What are you talking about?" Lucas asked.

"Old movie," Oakheart explained. "Our mom and dad like it."

"Y'see, it's from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," Rhialto began. "They want to open a safe, and . . ."

"Fine. Good for them," Lucas interrupted. "I guess I'm not into movies that old."

"Well, I'm glad you found out you can do that," Solace said, taking Rhialto's arm and smiling at him.

Lucas started to get red in the face, then realized she was just teasing him. So he smiled - a fairly forced smile without a lot of humor in it - and looked further up the trail.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm goin'," Solace said, then she looked again at Rhialto. "How long will it be before you can do a shot like that again?"

"Maybe ten or fifteen minutes," he replied after holding the staff in both hands and concentrating for a moment.

"Okay. If we find a group instead of singles, we'll just wait out of range," Solace said. With that plan in hand, she moved past the tangled boulders and the party arrayed behind her on the cart-wide road.

Chapter 22 - "Aelurus"

In another Reality 2.0 non-coincidence, as soon as they had demonstrated that they could reliably overcome one type of obstacle, another presented itself. In this case, the narrow trails through the rocky mountains gave way to a bowl about a hundred yards across. After the cart-wide rocky trail, the bowl looked enormous, and beautiful. The floor flowed with grass and wildflowers, and a cheerful waterfall about ten feet wide and twenty high provided enough sound to fill the space with life and energy.

Not that it needed any more life. The bowl was already filled with at least fifty of the direcats.

They were arrayed in an arc focused on the point the trail entered the bowl, just outside Solace's perception range. Reflexively, she stepped back when she saw them, bumping into Lucas and starting a domino of minor collisions among the team.

"Uh, oh," she whispered.

"Should we try to run?" Rhialto asked in a matching whisper.

"No," Lucas said firmly. "If we run, they'll only pull us down from behind."

"Can you get the whole group at once?" Oakheart asked Rhialto.

"I don't think so," the mage answered. "Not unless they crowded together in a big pile."

In fact, none of the direcats had moved at all. Each sat in a classic upright cat pose, front feet just in front of hind paws, with a long tail wrapped around their toes. They might have been carved statues, except each was staring directly at the humans, and every now and then one would show a long tongue, licking its muzzle as though in anticipation of a particularly tasty morsel.

"I thought cats didn't like water," Oakheart said. With his words the others realized that one of the cats was lying in a Sphinx-like pose, but with one forelimb under the frothy waterfall. Even through the obscuring spray it was clear that the reclining direcat was substantially larger than any of the others.

"Man, that's gotta be cold," Lucas observed.

"So, what are we gonna do?" asked Shimmer.

"I wonder why they haven't attacked," Oakheart said. "Do you think we could just withdraw? Not run, but just . . . leave?"

"No," Solace said. "In the first place, I don't think this is the time to show weakness. And in the second . . . that would mean giving up on the quest."

"Maybe that's not such a bad idea," Lucas said. "I'm not particularly looking forward to being eaten."

"Well, we are supposed to be testing out this new game console," Rhialto said with a very quiet chuckle. "I suppose that's one function that needs to be . . . verified."

"You first," Lucas said.

"Quiet," Solace ordered, then closed her eyes in concentration.

"Okay," she said after a moment. "They're definitely aware of us - no surprise - but they're . . . waiting for something. I need to go down there."

"What? You're crazy!" Rhialto said.

"Look, Rhialto . . . and the rest of you . . . there's no way we're fighting all those direcats. We can barely handle two at once. And I'm not turning back."

"Why not?" Shimmer asked. "We may be on a false trail. Maybe we should ask around at the other towns."

"No," Solace said firmly. "This is the right trail. If we'd have been on the wrong trail, Odin would have done something to let us know."

"Oh, great," Lucas said. "Now you're expecting signs from a god to guide us. Think much of yourself?"

"This is a fricken beta test, dork," Rhialto said. "It doesn't do them any good for us to just get lost. I think Solace is right."

The beautiful brunette sent the wizard a smile that had more meaning than she intended, but she didn't say anything. She looked at all the deadly beasts arrayed in ranks to either side of the waterfall and bathing direcat, and sighed.

"I think this time we need to try charm rather than force . . . and I'm the one who's supposed to be charming."

"I'm coming with you," Shimmer declared.

"No," Solace said.

"At least let me come," Rhialto pleaded. "I can blast the big one, and they'll know it, so it will keep them from just . . ."

"No," Solace repeated implacably. "No threats. No force. I'm just going to see what they want."

She stepped forward without another word, not even looking back to make sure that no one followed. Behind her, Shimmer took two steps from the trail and vanished into the combined shadows of rocks and scrubby trees. No one even noticed she was gone for a moment, then Oakheart looked around but he only frowned in added concern.

Solace made her lone way to the dominating presence of the largest direcat. As she approached she felt her senses reach out to the cat - marked as a female despite her great size - and was shocked to sense pain and an incredible sense of fatigue.

"Oh, what's wrong?" she asked reflexively. Then she thought, :Stupid. She can't answer. She can't talk!:

[Perhaps not speech as you know it, but I can communicate,] the direcat said with an accent that sounded European to her Texas ears. Or in her head, because Solace realized that the cat hadn't actually made any sounds.

"What? How . . ?"

[I am Aelurus,] the direcat explained. [And while I am not as powerful as Odin - particularly in what he calls Reality 2.0 - I still retain many powers in this universe.]

"Oh, um, okay," Solace said tentatively.

[However,] Aelurus continued. [I am not native to this . . . setting. This meta-world is defined by the Northern European mythology, and my roots are in Egypt and Southern Europe.]

"Um, okay," Solace repeated, feeling stupid but very confused.

[I have become trapped here,] Aelurus concluded.

"Oh, so that's why you're hurting?" Solace said. The massive demi-god nodded solemnly.

"So . . . what can we do to help?"

[You offer help so easily?] Aelurus said. [You have been fighting my followers since you left the village - deadly battles with no quarter asked or given. Why do you offer to aid me?]

"Well, I'm a healer, not a fighter. I guess I just hate to see anyone in pain - at least, anyone who is not attacking me, um, us. Our group. After all, the direcats . . . your followers? . . . attacked us first."

[So they did,] Aelurus agreed. [When I became trapped here, the members of my pride came to bring me sustenance. And to protect me. They have by necessity been scouring the local area for food and potential threats.]

"So why aren't they attacking us now?" Solace asked, swallowing a gulp she tried to hide. :Man, if I blow this they are going to eat me.:

[You are the first group of humans who has both survived and continued to this place. When that came to my attention, I wondered if you might actually be able to do something about my predicament, so I did not dispatch a large force to destroy you.] Aelurus grinned a very toothy grin and added, [That can, after all, still be done.]

"Right," Solace said, hoping the cat did not see the sweat on her brow. :Stupid! She can smell it even if she can't see it.:

[Yes, I can,] Aelurus said. [Though neither is necessary.]

"Right," Solace repeated. :No secrets from a mind-reader. Duh!:

The healer squared her shoulders and looked at the huge feline. "So, what can we do to help?"

[I do not know,] Aelurus said. [But I do not understand what holds me, so perhaps there are opportunities that I do not perceive.]

"What holds you?" Solace repeated, looking at the foreleg that disappeared into the water. "Could you, um, describe what happened?"

[I was wandering through universes,] Aelurus said casually, as though everyone did that, [and was drawn to an item of power in this vicinity. When I saw it within the water . . .] The demi-god paused, and there was almost a sense of chagrin in the thought, if not on the massive head, [. . . my curiosity led me to investigate it more closely.]

She shrugged, and looked at her captive paw.

:An item of power,:: Solace thought. ::I wonder . . .:

[I do not know if it is the object of your quest,] Aelurus said. [But if you can free me from it, then I will grant it to you, with my blessing.]

"Um, right," Solace said. :Easy.:

She looked back up at her companions and said, "I'll have to get my friends."

Aelurus nodded with regal permission and the healer made her way back across the bowl to the rest of the team. She explained what she knew of the situation and they followed her back to the trapped direcat, Shimmer reappearing with as little warning as she had disappeared. They did the normal stand-around-and-look-serious thing for a few minutes, but no one seemed to have any particularly good ideas.

"I wonder if we could block this waterfall for a while," Solace said after a while. "It would be easier to see what was going on without all the water."

"Warmer, too," Shimmer said. She had pulled off one of her tight black gloves for just long enough to test the water temperature, then pulled it back quickly and put the glove back on her hand.

"Well, Mattock ol' buddy," Lucas said. "Looks like it's time for the brawn to earn their keep, while the brains look important."

For just a second, Solace wondered if she had seen Mattock smile . . . or maybe just sensed humor in the compuer-generated character . . . but that was impossible. In all their time together, even when dying or wounded enough to die unless Solace healed him, she had never seen the NPC express any emotion at all.

The two warriors climbed up the rocky hillside beside the waterfall and explored their options. After a moment, Lucas called down, "I think we can divert the water. It'll still come down, but not right over the cat."

"Her name is Aelurus," Solace reminded him.

"Whatever," Lucas called back, his voice strained as though he were exerting himself.

They heard a few thumps and cracks, the source indicated by glimpses of Mattock's huge pick arcing into and out of sight, and then a grumbling rumble that sounded like Mattock clearing his throat - only louder.

As the sound crunched to an end, the stream of water soaking Aelurus parted to either side, splashing some of the arrayed direcats who grumbled and moved to a drier position. Revealed by the parted waters as a shimmering field penetrated by Aerulus's right paw to just short of the elbow. It still looked as though a sheet of clear water were falling down the face of the rock wall, distorting what was beyond without hiding it completely as the frothy bubbles of the real waterfall had done. But there was no falling water, only a continuing shimmer that tantalized with a not-quite-clear sparkle of frozen blue-white fire beyond the shimmer.

None of them had any good ideas on how to proceed after that, not even the warriors when they had made their way back to the floor of the bowl.

"Can she push further in?" Rhialto asked, walking around to consider all the angles that he could reach.

[Yes,] Aelurus replied to Solace, [but I am loathe to do so.]

Solace nodded an answer to Rhialto, but added, "She doesn't want to, though. I can't say that I blame her."

"Yeah, right," he said, not really paying attention to her answer or his own response.

"Well," he declared after a moment, "it's obviously a trap. Sorry, um, Aelurus, but I have to say I'm glad it caught you instead of us."

He pointed at the gleaming artifact behind the shimmer shield and said, "I'll bet that's the target of our quest."

"No bet," Solace said, looking as well. She took the end of her healing staff and pushed it at the force field. A spark jumped from the shield to the staff as it approached, and when she got close there was resistance.

"Okay, stand back," she ordered. Heating the end of her staff up to a white-hot flame, she pushed that toward the force field. That didn't work any better. If there were a spark, it was lost in the glare of her own flame but the resistance was just as great.

Lucas looked thoughtfully at the offending limb. His left hand came up to rub his right forearm a bit below the elbow, almost as if he were imagining his own arm held in a trap. He grimaced at some internal image, then looked at Aelurus. "How bad do you want to get free?"

"What are you thinking?" Solace asked with a frown. At some level, she knew even without asking.

[Tell your companion that he is welcome to try,] Aelurus told Solace. She didn't bother to explain what she expected the warrior to try.

Solace cried, "No, you can't do that!"

But Lucas had seen the nod that accompanied Aelurus's silent message to Solace. His sword flicked out like a lightning bolt, pulling a spark from the force field wall as it flashed down.

To shatter against the forelimb trapped by the shield.

Shards of shining steel sliced through the air. One slashed Shimmer's cheek, just missing her eye. Two stuck into Mattock like thrown knives. And several bounced off Aelurus's hide to whine off into other directions.

"Great move, genius," Rhialto snapped as he moved to help Shimmer while Solace helped Mattock with his own wounds.

It took several minutes for Solace to take the wounds from her companions and then heal herself. During that time, no one said anything further to Lucas. His frustration built until he finally snarled, "Look, she said I could do it. She shoulda known it wouldn't work."

Aelurus slowly blinked her eyes in an expression that would have been a shrug in a human. [Your weapons are unfamiliar to me. It was clear his sword had magical enhancements. It seemed useful to try.]

When Solace reported this explanation, Lucas snarled again, "Yeah, and now I've lost my weapon. That was a quest reward. You can't just buy those, y'know."

"It's done, Lucas," Rhialto said. "We'll have to try something else."

The wizard pushed his own staff at the shield wall, watching as the orbiting flashes and sparks of his item of power reacted to the forces in the wall.

After a moment he withdrew his staff and looked at Solace. "I don't think we're going to overcome this barrier with force."

"No shit, Sherlock," Lucas said bitterly, still holding the useless hilt from his sword.

"Quiet," Solace ordered, not looking away from Rhialto. "What did you have in mind?"

"Well, we know you can absorb injuries, and . . . didn't you tell us you pulled Vitality from that prince to give to the queen?"

"Yes, but those are living forces," Solace said. "You can't want me to pull Vitality form Aelurus."

"No," Rhialto said, "but . . ." He pointed his staff at the wall again.

"No," Shimmer said. "If she touches that thing, she'll get trapped, too."

"Maybe," Rhialto said. "But I don't want her to touch it. Just . . . drain it."

"Right," Solace said. "Easy."

She stepped up to the shimmering wall and carefully extended one hand, palm first. Unlike the staff, there was no spark when her hand approached the shield. However, she was clearly picking up a massive charge. Her hair began to stand on end; a wide halo of darkness as each strand repelled all the others.

"Ohhh, this is . . . bad," she groaned, but she remained in place. "I feel like I'm gonna throw up."

Rhialto moved to her, reaching for her shoulder to make sure she didn't fall into the trap represented by the force field. When his hand got close, there was a spark, a nasty one that bit at his hand and caused him to pull it back out of reflex.

Solace twitched when the spark jumped between them, nearly sticking her hand into the shield as she pulled away in her own direction from the pain of the spark. She had her eyes closed, gritting her teeth and trying to do something that would make a difference. All that had happened so far was that her stomach had twisted in knots as the energy flowing into her looked for a way to escape.

But Oakheart noticed a change.

"Solace," he called to her. "Your hair drooped when that spark jumped, like some energy was released. See if you can ground yourself with your staff."

The healer held her staff out to her side and rapped it sharply on the ground. There was a loud pop when the staff touched the ground, and cracks flowed out in several directions, but her hair settled down and her eyes flickered open.

"That's better," she murmured, trying to keep her concentration.

It was hard to tell for sure if she was having any effect, but to Rhialto it seemed as though they could see more clearly through the barrier, so he moved around to whisper to Aelurus. "Try to pull your . . . limb back."

The huge direcat leaned backward, frowning. She tried a rapid jerk, which caused Solace's hair to rise again with an quick snap. But the long, dark hair settled again in a few seconds. Aelurus began to pull steadily against the wall, but slowly. For a while - a minute can be a long time in a tense situation like that - nothing seemed to happen. But Solace kept concentrating, and kept the tip of her staff firmly planted in the ground.

Finally, Aelurus growled softly, deep in her throat, and it was clear that more of her foreleg was appearing.

Then Solace started to waver. Shimmer grabbed her hair to keep her from falling forward, then collapsed under her as the taller brunette tumbled backwards on top of the petite thief.

"Ouch," Solace said, tugging her hair out of Shimmer's grasp. "Why'd you do that?"

"Because you looked like you were gonna fall into the wall," Shimmer said.

Solace started gradually getting to her feet, grunting and twisting with what were obviously some aching joints. Then she was moving very quickly indeed. Leaving her staff and backpack behind, she found the minimal privacy of a car-sized boulder and rushed behind it. They could hear the sounds of retching, followed by dry heaves as the healer's stomach emptied.

Oakheart moved to one of the diverted streams and pulled off his vest. He caught some of the cool water in a makeshift pouch and had it ready when Solace came staggering into view again.

"Thanks," she whispered as she dipped her hands into the water. She took a sip and used the rest to wipe off her face.

"Are you okay?" the ranger asked.

Solace smiled wanly, then smiled where only Oakheart could see it. "Did I mention that you have chiseled abs?" she whispered to the shirtless man.

He blushed, but took a deep breath and tightened his muscles in an isometric flex.

"Oh, god, that's not fair," Solace gasped, then the giggled. "Okay, you win. Stop, before Shimmer hyperventilates."

"Turnabout is fair play, Milady," Oakheart said wryly. "Now you know how the rest of us feel whenever we look at you."

"Thanks, but . . . Just thanks," she said, dipping her hands for another small drink of water.

"Well, that was unpleasant," Solace said as she walked back to the others.

[But useful,] Aelurus informed her. [I have gained half a claw-length in retrieving my forelimb.]

"Really? Great," Solace said, then she sighed "I guess that means we need to try it again."

Time was a variable thing in Reality 2.0, so they didn't have any accurate way to measure its passage. And whatever happened there had an even more tenuous relationship to time passing in their mundane world. But it seemed to the others as though it took about two hours before Aelurus was able to pull her paw free. For Solace, it seemed more like two days - long days punctuated by all-too-frequent trips behind the boulder to expel a few swallows of water and a lot of what was no longer there to lose.

She was so tired when Aelurus was finally freed that she collapsed where she stood, nearly unconscious with fatigue. She realized only dimly that the direcats were roaring a booming approval that echoed off the walls of the bowl until it could be felt in the bones as much as heard by the ears. A cool compress on her forehead helped to return her to a wider awareness, and she looked up gratefully to see Shimmer dipping a soft cloth in cool water and placing it back on her fevered brow.

"Thanks," she whispered.

"Are you okay?" Shimmer asked anxiously.

"More or less," Solace said, still very tired.

Shimmer helped her taller sister to her feet, and they turned to look at the patiently waiting demi-god direcat.

[Thank you, brave healer,] Aelurus said in her mind. [You have my gratitude, and you will find in the fullness of time that is no small reward.]

"Thank you, Aelurus," Solace said. "But I couldn't stand to see someone suffering like that. I'd have done it anyway, as long as we weren't ourselves attacked."

[I know this,] Aelurus said. [Which is why I did not try to bribe you when you first arrived. Yet my gratitude is equally mine to give, and it will honor me when I can someday be of service to you.]

Solace shrugged, but nodded. She looked at the still shimmering wall of force and sighed.

"I'm glad we got you out, but that doesn't seem to have helped us much on our own quest."

[Perhaps. Perhaps not,] Aelurus said. [Good luck in your task.]

With that, the huge cat walked a few steps out into the main part of the bowl and gave a commanding cough that brought the entire pride of direcats to attention. Rearing up on her hind legs, she opened her frightening mouth and let out a building roar that seemed louder than that the rest of the direcats combined had produced at her release. It caused the human adventurers to cover their ears in pain, ducking away from the intolerable noise.

The assault faded out, not diminishing in tone, but becoming quieter as though the sound were receding into the distance. When they looked, Aelurus and all of the direcats were gone.

"Cool," Rhialto said into the following silence.

"Oh, god, you are such a geek," Solace said, laughing at his appreciation of the magic.

Then she slumped, allowing the relaxation to take her to a seated position. "Man, I am beat. I need a break."

"Okay," Lucas said. "Then you can keep draining the wall."

"Keep draining it?" she said.

"Yeah," the warrior confirmed. "I think it's mostly down, but . . . well, look at it."

Solace did look at the force field, and it was obvious that they could see more clearly into the chamber behind it. "Oh, joy," she muttered.

"Not right now," Shimmer insisted. "I think we need to try this like, next week or something. After you rest."

"But if we quit now, we'll lose the progress on the quest," protested Lucas.

"Maybe. Maybe not," Rhialto said. "I'll bet we don't need to fight the direcats if we do start again, and we won't have to free Aelurus."

"Okay, I'll buy that," Lucas agreed, "but what if the wall like, regenerates itself. Solace will have to start over."

"So be it," Rhialto said. "I think she needs a break."

He moved to stand beside the seated woman, putting his hand on her shoulder in a way that was half possessive and half comforting. Shimmer moved to stand beside him, and Oakheart was only last to join them because he was farther away to start with.

"Okay, okay," Lucas said. "But don't blame me if she has to start over on the thing."

Solace shrugged, and since it seemed they all expected her to do it, reached up behind her ear to push the exit button.

Chapter 23 - "Girl Friend"

Back in the Danner game room, everyone stirred as normal after the static died; removing their headsets, blinking a bit, stretching and starting to move around. Charly accepted a sloppy kiss welcome from Blitzkrieg and took him outside.

Everyone stirred but Tris.

"Hey, Tris, whassup?" Josh said, poking at his friend.

Tris shrugged off the touch, but he did slowly reach up and remove his headset. Even after that though, he just sat there. He didn't even open his eyes.

"Hey, dude, you're startin' to worry me," Josh said, nudging his friend's shoulder again.

"Leave me 'lone," Tris muttered. "Jus' need t' res' for minute."

"Hey, bro, we need to be getting home," Landon said.

"Inna minute," Tris replied.

His friends looked at each other, looking for silent suggestions. No one had any ideas . . . except Blitzkrieg.

When Charly brought her puppy back inside, the little Doberman made a direct line for the somnolent boy and launched himself into Tris's lap. Not waiting for any permission, Blitz insisted that Tris pay attention to him - nudging his hands, licking his face, and squirming all over.

Even half dead with fatigue, Tris couldn't resist the enthusiastic puppy's energy. He opened his eyes and caught the rapidly moving target in his hands, holding the quivering dog so that he could pet it.

"Okay, okay," Tris said with a wry smile. "I get the message."

He stood up and stretched, finally showing the signs of life that the others had displayed the minute they were back in Reality 1.0.

"Man, that draining stuff takes it out of you," he observed. But then he smiled at his friends and said, "I'll be okay. But I think I'm going to sleep for a week."

"Plus or minus the Physics test tomorrow," Josh reminded him.

"Oh, crap," Tris sighed, but he looked at Landon and they made their way out of the Danner house and headed toward home.

"Was it really that bad?" Landon asked.

"I guess," Tris replied. "It's funny, but the . . . memory of what happened in the game - I mean, the physical, y'know, residual stuff - is never as bad in real life, once you get your mind around it, as it is in the game. I was so dead beat when the static cleared that I could hardly breathe. But now, it's. . . not so bad. I'm just tired."

The older boy looked thoughtful for a while as they walked. "Y'know, I think there may be a way to beat that force field, sort of like . . . in reverse. No matter how tired I get in the game, if I can just remember that my real body is like, okay, then I should be able to last longer. Anyway, I'm gonna give it a try."

"Man, you sure have changed," Landon said. "When we started, you hated that game. Now you can't wait to get back into it."

"Yeah, Go figure," Tris replied. "And what's really stupid is that I really like being the healer. I'm important in the game. You all need me. Even Aelurus needed me. That's . . . kinda cool."

"You're important for more than just the healing stuff," Landon said. "That customs dude was so hot for you he couldn't think straight."

"Don't remind me," Tris said with a grimace.

"No, really, it's cool," Landon said. "You're the real leader on the team, and part of that is because you're so pretty that all the guys just can't say no to you."

"All of them but Oakheart," Tris said, poking his brother's shoulder.

"Hell, Oaksie would jump off a cliff for you," Landon replied, but he blushed and smiled a little. "But it's more than that. It's like, being so pretty, everyone just . . . pays attention to you, and to what you say. You could blow it if you came across all, y'know, dumb blonde and all . . ."

"I’m not a blonde," Tris interrupted.

"You know what I mean," Landon said. "If you acted like an airhead, then they'd all blow you off, but they still pay attention first. At least they give you a chance. And since you're really smart . . ."

"Rhialto is smarter," Tris interrupted again.

"Yes, he is," Landon agreed. "But he's sort of book smart. You have this . . . confidence, and I don't know . . . determination that makes everyone think that if they go along you'll get things done. It's cool."

"Okay, who are you really and what have you done with my brother?" Tris asked, laughing. "I can't believe you're actually saying nice things about me."

Landon laughed, but then he looked directly at his big brother. "Seriously, dude, you're great. Really like, brave. And I don't think that's just the game character. I think that's . . . real."

Tris looked at his brother for a moment, then said quietly, "Thanks, Landon. I appreciate that."

Landon nodded, then got a mischievous grin. "Only don't tell Mom I said that, or she'll have us both in front of the school shrink."

"Deal," Tris said.

The Physics test was not as hard as Tris expected it to be, and the rest of the week went surprisingly well. The simplest way to describe what went on was that he felt accepted by everyone. He wasn't really part of any of the typical cliques, and that meant that he could interact with anyone. He even got a date for Saturday night . . . sort of.

"Mom," he called out as he entered the house on Friday after school, "can I go to a movie tomorrow night?"

"You may go to a movie, depending on what, when, and with whom," Mrs. Knight said, smiling at her son even as she corrected him.

"I don't know which one we'll go see," Tris explained. "I'd . . . um, like to meet some guys there."

"Guys?" she repeated. "Who? Your friends from the game?"

"No," Tris replied, a little too sharply. "Just . . . a friend."

"Tris, you know I won't let you hang around with the wrong sort of crowd . . . and yes, that's based on my definition of the wrong sort of crowd. You'll have to do better than that."

Tris looked at nothing for while, then finally looked back at his mother. "Mom, this is the girl that I told you about . . . that I told you I can't really tell you about. Remember?"

"The girl that was in trouble?"

Tris nodded, looking guilty. "She's, um, trying to . . . get her life back on track, and we were talking. And she asked me if I'd like to go see a movie on Saturday."

"A girl asked you out on a date?"

"It's not really a date, mom," Tris insisted. "She's just a friend. I think she wants to talk some more and not just at school. I think going to a movie is just, y'know, an excuse."

Mrs. Knight looked away for a long moment. :Oh crap, what do I tell him? On the one hand, I'm glad he wants to date a girl. That's not politically correct, but I want my son to have the greatest chance for happiness in life, and that means heterosexual. And I'm proud of him for wanting to help a girl who's obviously hurting. But . . .:

She sighed, and looked directly at her son. :But he's wearing his hair in a style I can't see as anything but feminine, and he's wearing girl's jeans and . . . what sort of girl wants to go out with a boy who looks so . . ?:

:And it bothers me that he can't tell me who this girl is, even though I understand the reasons. But God forgive me is this girl does something . . . hopeless just because I wouldn't let Tris talk to her.:

Tris reached out and patted his mother's shoulder. "It'll be okay, Mom. Really. I'm not, y'know, ready to get involved with someone. And if I did, it wouldn't be Ca . . I mean . . ."

Mrs. Knight nodded, putting her other hand on top of Tris's. "I really am proud of you, Tris, for trying to help this girl. And I do trust you. But I'm worried, too. You can understand that, can't you?"

"Sure," he said, and he knew it was really true. Whether it was some carryover empathy from the game or something that had always been in him, he could see her honest, loving concern for him.

His mother smiled - a bit sadly - and nodded. "Well, I really wanted your first date with a girl to be a bit more special than this, I guess . . ."

"Aw, mom, it's not a . . ," Tris said, but his mother smiled again and moved on.

"But if you really want to meet a girl, then I expect you'd find a way even if I told you not to do this. And going to a movie at the mall is fairly . . . innocent, I suppose."

"So I can go?" Tris said.

She nodded, and patted his cheek. "But I think we need to talk about this girl some more. I know you promised, but I want you to try to get her to allow you to talk to me. Or both of you together talk to me. I mean that. Now I want your promise that you'll ask her about that."

Tris looked at her and saw that she was serious. After a moment, he nodded. "But I can't promise she'll say yes."

"Of course not," Mrs. Knight said. "But maybe she'll realize - because I've asked you about getting her permission - that we treat confidences seriously and we're not going to blab her secrets around. I just don't like having this between us - you and me. It makes me very uncomfortable."

She sighed, and concluded, "But I won't force you to tell me what you promised you'd keep to yourself. You can tell her that, too."

Even though he told his mother that this wasn't a date, Tris found himself spending a lot more time than he expected getting his hair right on Saturday afternoon, and picking the right clothes. Lately, he only really felt comfortable wearing grays or white, and the jeans that fit best were a pale gray that were the right length for the heels on the boots that Lucas had loaned him. He had found a white shirt with fairly full sleeves that was sorta like the shirt he wore in the game, and it was really comfortable. The weather was cool enough to add a medium-gray sweater vest, which was at least a deliberate decision. It wasn't until he was out of the house that he realized he was wearing some hoop earrings that he'd gotten as a joke when Landon had talked about dressing up in real life. They were too big, really - maybe an inch across . . . or even a bit more. But they looked so nice . . .

:I should just take them off,: he thought, but he never quite talked himself into it before he got to the mall, and by then it didn't seem to matter any more. No one seemed to notice, or at least no one seemed to care.

Except for Caitlyn, when she saw him. "Wow, Tris, you look nice."

"Thanks, Catie. So do you."

"Hardly," she sneered at herself, but it was clear she was trying. She wore some jeans that fit - maybe even a bit too tightly at the waist, but he knew she was working on that. Tris figured they were leftovers from before she had started gaining weight with the baby. And she wore a blouse that was kinda like the one Tris wore; soft, white, with long, full sleeves.

"I like your blouse," he said, snickering.

"I like yours, too," she said, answering his laugh with a giggle of her own.

"It's not a blouse," Tris claimed. "It's just a shirt I found."

"Yeah, where?" Caitlyn challenged, but she didn't wait for an answer. Grabbing Tris's hand, she led him away from the main entrance to the mall into a side aisle.

"Thanks for coming, Tris," she said, serious now.

"Sure," he said easily. "I told you I'd be glad to talk, any time you want."

"Yeah, but . . ," Caitlyn started, the interrupted herself. "Look, Tris, I may have . . . misled you, maybe. I just wanted to spend some time out today, and not by myself. None of the other girls will . . ."

"Cool," Tris said. "I'm glad to just hang around, if that's what you want."

:That still doesn't make it a date,: he told himself.

''The word gets out, y'know?" Caitlyn said bitterly. "But it's not like, contagious y'know?"

"Um, yeah," Tris said awkwardly. He tried to change the subject. "So, is there any particular place you want to go? I told my mom I was going to a movie."

"Not really," Caitlyn answered. "What movie do you want to see?"

"I don't even know what's on," Tris said.

So they started toward the megaplex to check the listings. As they strolled along, Tris was trying to figure out a way to ask Caitlyn about letting his mother in on her problem. In a nervous habit he didn't realize he'd developed, he took the clasp out of his hair and started running his fingers through the extended locks. When he found a tangle, he pulled out a comb and started trying to work it out.

"Oh, don't do that," Caitlyn said when she saw the comb. "You'll ruin your hair."

"What?" Tris said, looking at the comb in his hand as though he didn't know where it had come from. "Oh, sorry. Just a habit I guess."

"Well, get some better habits," Caitlyn scolded good-naturedly. "Use a brush, not a comb."

"I don't have a brush," he said. "I mean, not with me. I have one at home."

"Well, you need one. Let's stop in here," she said, pointing toward one of the large department stores anchoring the mall.

Tris allowed himself to be led through the wide opening and immediately found himself in the cosmetics section. Caitlyn headed for the hair care section and started examining a bewildering array of brushes.

She sighed and said, "I wish my hair were long enough to use these." Looking at Tris, she grinned, "It will be, one of these days. I promise."

"Good for you," Tris said, smiling at her commitment.

"Get this one," Caitlyn commanded after a minute. She pointed out a round brush almost two inches in diameter.

"That's too big," Tris complained. "I don't have any place to, y'know, carry it."

"We could fix that," Caitlyn said, pointing toward the shoe department, which also had handbags.

"No thanks," Tris said.

"Oh, you're no fun," Caitlyn charged, but she relented quickly. "They'll give you a store bag. No one will care if you've taken the brush out of the plastic and used it, then put it back in their bag."

"Oh, yeah, I guess so," Tris said. So he bought a brush and then had to accept Caitlyn's instruction as he tried to brush his hair into acceptable order. In the end, she took the brush herself and added a few tucks and twirls that he didn't really understand.

But he had to admit he liked it, as soon as Caitlyn let him look in the mirror.

That was, however, the start of another problem. The mirror that had been closest, when Caitlyn finished, was near the cosmetics counter. Tris was admiring his reflection in the mirror when a salesclerk came over.

"Looking for anything special, girls?" the clerk asked. She was about thirty, redhead in a tone that looked just uneven enough to be real, and the artistry of her own makeup made it clear she was an expert.

"I'm not . . ," Tris started, but Caitlyn interrupted.

"I need a new look," Caitlyn said. "I've been into . . . dull for a while, and I'd like to, y'know, do something . . . fun."

"Great," the clerk said. "My name is Melanie and I'm a representative from Vivid Cosmetics. We're offering free makeovers in our new "Timeless" line, if you've got a few minutes."

"Cool," Caitlyn said.

Melanie pointed to a chair - to two chairs, actually - and waved to another clerk. "We might as well do you both. It won't take any longer," she said.

"But . . ," Tris started, to be interrupted by a hand on his arm. Caitlyn looked at him and he didn't need any game-enhanced empathy to see the pleading in her eyes.

"Okay," he shrugged, taking a seat on the second stool.

The second clerk, a twenty-something brunette with "Sam" on her namebadge, redundantly introduced herself. But she missed part of Tris's answer to her own question.

"Okay, Trish," Sam said. "Are you happy with the, um, natural look?"

"Um, sure," Tris said, deciding it was easiest not to try to explain.

"Well, we can still enhance it," the girl promised.

Which she proceeded to do. She explained each step, but Tris had no hope of repeating the magic that he saw played out in the mirror on the counter. Nothing was individually obvious. But the sum of all the 'enhancements' that Sam produced was awesome . . . the most unreal part of it was that Tris realized at the end of it he looked like Solace.

Way, way too much like Solace.

Or maybe a younger Solace. She was twenty-something and even with the enhancements Tris still looked like a teenager. But with a few enhancements in other areas - two in particular - and the Circlet of Perception, he'd have been able to pose for a picture as Solace and not had anyone question the identification.

"Ohmigod," he whispered.

"You like?" Sam asked, justifiably proud.

"Um . . ," Tris started, but he didn't really know what to say.

Luckily, Caitlyn was done as well and she provided enough answer to satisfy the clerk.

"Oh, god, I hate you," she said, but she laughed as she said it. "You are totally gorgeous."

"Um, thanks," Tris said cautiously, still turning his face in the mirror.

"So, what time is the movie?" Caitlyn prodded, motioning the clerks to gather up what they had used and put them in bags. Tris was stunned enough he didn't really argue when Caitlyn told him the bill - probably a good thing, because he would really have been shocked if he'd have been paying attention.

"This is . . . unreal," he whispered as they left the store.

"Yeah, dammit," Caitlyn said. "Even after my hair grows out, I'll never be as pretty as you."

"That's not really a good thing," Tris said. "After all, I'm . . ."

Caitlyn pulled him down a side aisle again and said, "Please, Tris . . . Trish, just for today, can you be my girl friend? I'm not . . . ready to be with a guy, yet. And I've been so . . . alone."

He looked at the desperate girl and could see more than fear of rejection in her brimming eyes. It was beyond fear. It was a panic that said she thought she'd never again be accepted, a panic that Caitlyn was barely keeping in check.

:Well, now or never,: Tris decided. "Okay. I'll be . . . whoever you want this afternoon, but you have to do something for me in return."

"What?" Caitlyn asked cautiously.

"You need to let me tell my mom about what we talked about. She only let me come today because I promised I'd ask you to let me tell her. Or for both of us to talk to her."

Tris put his arm around Caitlyn's shoulders and said, "She's cool, Catie, honest. She won't take it any further unless you say okay. But . . . you've been through some really tough stuff - stuff that adults would find really hard. She's worried about you, and . . . well, she's worried that maybe I'll get in trouble for helping you."

"How much did you tell her?" Caitlyn asked suspiciously, but she didn't pull away from Tris's arm.

"Nothing, really," Tris promised. "I told her that I had been talking with a girl in school who was like, really down, and that I was worried about her. And that she - you - had asked me to hang around this afternoon at the mall. She doesn't even know your name. But the fact that I wouldn't tell her . . . that makes her more than curious, y'know?"

"I guess," Caitlyn agreed. She sighed and leaned into Tris's shoulder. "It must be nice to have a mother who cares."

"Oh, Catie . . . I'm so sorry," Tris said.

"Not your fault," Catlyn said quickly.

"Doesn't mean I can't feel sorry about it," Tris said. "Hell, I can be sorry it rained on a sunny day, can't I?"

"I guess so," Caitlyn said, smiling through tears that weren't quite ready to fall.

She hugged Tris, hard, for a long moment, then let up. "So, what movie do you want to see . . . girlfriend?"

"Not a chick flick," Tris said. "I don't care what we look like, I'm not goin' to a chick flick."

"Deal," Caitlyn said. "I'm not ready for some weepy romance anyway. I've had too much of the weepy and I'm not ready for another fake romance."

"It wasn't fake," Tris said quietly. "At least, not on your part."

"Takes two," Caitlyn said bitterly. Then she shrugged and said, "So, let's go look at the listings."

"Works for me," Tris said. But as they moved toward the megaplex, he leaned toward Caitlyn and whispered, "So . . ?"

"So what?" Caitlyn said.

"So, can we talk to my mother?" he prodded.

Caitlyn frowned, but after a moment she nodded.

"When?" Tris said, smiling to take any real accusation out of it, but making it clear that he wasn't going to be satisfied with vague intentions.

"Right after the movie," Caitlyn said, squaring her shoulders. "My parents don't know when I'll be home . . . if they even care."

"Great," Tris said, not noticing a reflection in the store window they passed - a reflection that showed two pretty teen girls.

After a thoroughly forgettable movie, they wandered toward the food court, but as they were considering their options, Tris had an idea. "Why don't we see if my mom will make us something - a sandwich or whatever - and we'll talk with her while we eat?"

Caitlyn took a deep breath at the thought, but Tris could see a sense of relief in her eyes as well. He was reaching for his cell phone even as Caitlyn nodded her agreement. Mrs. Knight found them at the designated entrance a few minutes later, but she actually drove by and then stopped so quickly she chirped her tires.

The two teens walked to the car and looked in as Mrs. Knight rolled the power windows down on the curb side. "Tris?" she asked incredulously. "Is that you?"

"'Fraid so, Mom," Tris admitted. "This is Caitlyn Saunders. Catie, this is my mom."

"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Knight," Caitlyn said politely.

It took a minute before Mrs. Knight answered. She was still staring at Tris. But then, with a twitch, she realized she had been staring, and she blushed. "Sorry, kids. I'm pleased to me you, too, Catilyn. Please, get in."

Chapter 24 - "It's Not So Much Being a Girl"

After her less-than-suave response to seeing her son wearing makeup and what was clearly a deliberately feminine hairstyle, Mrs. Knight made a determined effort to be polite and casual on the trip to their house. She asked about the movie, and complimented Caitlyn on her appearance - not mentioning anything about Tris's similar look. It was artificial, of course, and all of them knew it, but that made it something they could all take advantage of to postpone any awkward topics. The trip to the house wasn't all that long though, and Mrs. Knight fell silent as she pulled the car into the garage.

"Do you need to, um, tidy up before supper?" she asked, looking at Caitlyn but catching Tris in her glance as well.

"Yeah, that would be, um, a good idea," Tris said, but Caitlyn caught his arm.

"Please don't, um . . . y'know," she asked.

Tris looked at his mother, who frowned. But after a moment she sighed and said, "Do what you think is best." Looking at Caitlyn she added, "There's a guest bathroom down the hall, first door on the right."

When the teens returned a few minutes later, the only real change was that Tris had bound his hair up in a clasp again. That wasn't altogether comforting to his mother, because with his hair pulled back, the golden loops in his ears were even more noticeable. She sighed again, but busied herself with soup and sandwiches, making more small talk on Caitlyn's preferences while she worked.

Finally, when the excuses ran out and they were eating, she couldn't hold it in any longer and said to Tris, "That's a different look for you."

"Yeah," Tris said. "Things just sorta . . . happened."

"It was my fault, Mrs. Knight," Caitlyn said. She looked like she wanted to say something else, but instead she buried her face in her hands and started to sob. "Everything is my fault."

Tris was out of his seat even faster than Mrs. Knight, and he comforted the sobbing girl with meaningless little sounds that had been used since before human history. With about as much effectiveness. Mrs. Knight put her arms around both of the teens for a moment, then gave them a parting squeeze and sat back down.

After a few minutes, Caitlyn's sobs started to ease and she finally managed to wipe her eyes and look up at Tris. Through her tears, she laughed and said, "Ohmigod, if I look as bad as you do . . ."

"What?" Tris said, looking frantically around for a mirror.

Mrs. Knight joined Caitlyn in her quiet laughter, and then said, "Now I think you do need to go wash up . . . both of you."

Caitlyn nodded, and Tris was already on the way to the bathroom.

When he came back, a little before Caitlyn, his face was scrubbed clean and his earrings were the simple little posts that his mother had provided. He had also taken off his long gray pants and heeled boots in favor of sloppy blue jeans and track shoes. His mother noticed, of course, and was about to tell him that they needed to talk when Caitlyn returned.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Knight. I hate to be such a bother. Maybe I should go."

"I won't keep you if you want to leave, of course," Mrs. Knight said, "but I certainly don't think you should go. We clearly have some things to talk about."

She composed herself on her seat, reaching for her own sandwich in a message of patience and commitment. Just before taking a firm bite, she added, "Or actually, you talk and we'll listen."

Caitlyn didn't say anything right away, but just as when Tris had first found her in the stairwell, silence was a more-than-adequate incentive. In a few minutes she started - slowly, with long pauses as she hunted for words - but eventually she found her pace and the words started to spill out, stumbling on each other and holding just to the borderline of making sense.

It was enough. By the time she ran down, Mrs. Knight was weeping as hard as Caitlyn or Tris, and long before Caitlyn ran down, Mrs. Knight had moved to her side of the table and wrapped her arms around her. They sat in silence for a while, a different silence, rocking together in their now-shared grief.

"Oh, dear child, no one should have to go through what you've been through," Mrs. Knight said.

"You won't tell anyone, will you? You promised!" Caitlyn said. "My dad would . . . ohmigod, he actually might kill me!"

"I won't, on one condition," Mrs. Knight said. "How old was the father?"

"The father?" Caitlyn repeated. "Why?"

"Because you're below the age of consent," Mrs. Knight said. "I'm not ready to destroy a boy's life if he was about the same age as you - there's been enough pain already - but if he was an adult . . ." The don't-mess-with-the-mama claws had come out and woe to anyone who got in her way.

"Oh, Mrs. Knight . . he's a jerk, but I was just stupid. He's a junior at . . . another school."

She nodded, still holding the heartbroken girl. They just sat there for a while longer, then Mrs. Knight stirred and patted Caitlyn's head. "Eat your sandwich, dear."

She moved back to her side of the table, and considered her own food for a few minutes. Finally she looked up at considered Caitlyn. Though there were unshed tears in her eyes, Mrs. Knight's voice was calm and firm. "Caitlyn, what you're going through is too much to take on alone. I think you need to talk with a counselor. Someone trained. I've met Dr. Simmonds, the counselor at your high school. He's a good man and I promise you that he won't divulge your secret . . ."

Caitlyn shook her head violently and Mrs. Knight sighed. "Or if that's not acceptable to you, we'll find someone else."

"We?" Caitlyn said.

"Yes, we," Mrs. Knight said. "Mr. Knight and I won't leave you alone in this."

She smiled at looked at her son, "Nor will Tris, I'm sure."

Caitlyn looked at Mrs. Knight for a time that stretched to the breaking point, but when it snapped the energy dissipated harmlessly in a shrug. "Can I . . . think about it for a while?"

"Of course," Mrs. Knight said, then smiled. "But I'll nag you about it. Just ask Tris. That's a mother's privilege."

"But . . ," Caitlyn began, her eyes filling up again.

"Close enough, dear, close enough," Mrs. Knight said. She looked at Tris and said, "I assume the two of you share at least a couple of classes . . .?"

Tris nodded, and Mrs. Knight nodded in response, as though finalizing a decision. "Which of the two of you gets better grades?"

"I used to," Caitlyn said, "but lately . . . I don't know. Maybe Tris."

"It doesn't really matter. But you are now tutoring each other in whatever classes you share. I'll expect to see you at least two nights a week, here, for supper."

"Thanks, Mrs. Knight, but I couldn't . . ."

"You can and you will," she said. But she softened the order into a gesture of love by standing up and putting her arms around Caitlyn again. "Truly, dear, come by. Use the excuse of tutoring . . . not that it's much of an excuse - Tris needs the help, I'm sure . . . but come by. We don't always have to have deep, painful talks, but it still helps to have someone to listen when you want to talk. And I'll be here."

She stood back up and smiled down at Caitlyn. "Besides, it will give me a chance to nag at you about seeing a counselor."

Caitlyn ducked her head and blushed, but she couldn't hide a smile.

"Thanks, Mrs. Knight. Really. I'll . . . try."

"Not good enough, young lady," Mrs. Knight said with mock sternness, but she smiled again. "I expect a young woman with your strength of character will find a way."

"Me, strong? I'm a mess!" Caitlyn protested.

"As are we all," Mrs. Knight declared. Then she put her hand on Caitlyn's shoulder. "Anyone who can hurt that bad about an unborn child, yet still has the strength to do what she feels is right no matter how bad it hurt, is a very strong woman indeed. I wish you hadn't had to face that choice, and thank God I never had to face a similar one. I'm not going to judge whether it was right or not. It's done. We'll work through it."

"We?" Caitlyn said again. She stood and hugged Mrs. Knight, sobbing again, but this time it was a different cry, and they all knew it.

After a few minutes, they ran down again and Mrs. Knight held Caitlyn back a little. "Well, this has been tough. Can I interest anyone in some ice cream . . . with chocolate syrup?"

"Oh, wow, that would be awesome," Caitlyn said.

"I don't even have to ask Tris," Mrs. Knight said as she moved to cupboard for bowls. "If I don't hide the chocolate syrup, he'd squirt it straight into his mouth."

"Hey," Tris said, "I haven't done that for like, years."

"Because I hide the syrup," his mother repeated, smirking.

She fixed the dessert and passed it out, not saying anything as she savored the rich, complex tastes. It was another silence, but a comfortable one. When they finished, she gathered up the plates and looked at the clock. "How late can you stay out?" she asked Caitlyn.

"I don't really know," Caitlyn said. "Sometimes . . . no one cares. Other times . . . I just don't know."

"Then we need to get you home," Mrs. Knight said. "I'll get my keys."

"Oh, you don't have to do that," Caitlyn said. "It's only a few blocks."

"I suppose you're right," Mrs. Knight said. "I don't have to do it. Now, get your things."

"Is she always like that?" Caitlyn asked Tris with a giggle.

"Don't get me started," Tris warned, but he laughed as well.

"Seriously, Mrs. Knight, I think I should walk," Caitlyn said. "If I show up with someone else, I'll get interrogated."

Mrs. Knight sighed, and looked again at the time. "How about if we compromise? I'll give you a ride near your house, but you can do that last block on our own."

"Thanks, that would be great," Caitlyn replied.

"Are you coming, Tris?" his mother asked.

"I guess so," Tris said. He patted reflexively at his hair to see if how snug it was within the clasp.

"Oh, Mrs. Knight," Caitlyn said. "I forgot. It really was my fault that Tris got y'know, made up and all." She ducked her head, but they could still see tears forming again. "I just . . . part of it is that I didn't want to be with a . . . with a boy today. I mean, Tris is so nice, and he's killer good-looking but it's a kind of . . . gentle look that I guess I envied, not some craggy macho thing, and it just seemed like . . . I mean, when the girl offered to do him, too, I just . . ."

"We'll talk about that some other time," Mrs. Knight promised. :Another time with you, dear, but I'm having that talk with Tris as soon as we get home.:

Caitlyn really didn't live too far from the Knights, so the ride was consumed primarily with giving and confirming directions. Mrs. Knight and Tris were quiet on the way home as well though, and Tris knew the discussion for the evening wasn't over.

"Get yourself a coke if you want, Tris," his mother offered as she put her keys and purse down. That took him into the kitchen, and he knew that's what she was really saying.

It was a few minutes until she appeared, though. "I just checked on Landon. It's Saturday night so you and I can stay up for a while, but I wanted to make sure he was asleep."

Tris just nodded, waiting for the next gambit.

And waiting. His mother took her time getting a drink for herself, which happened to be a decaf tea since it was approaching midnight.

Finally Mrs. Knight sat down, but instead of focusing on Tris and starting a pointed discussion, she sighed and looked out the kitchen window into the dark.

"I'm sorry, Mom, but . . ."

She interrupted him with a twitch and a smile, looking directly at him but still avoiding actual eye contact. She looked out the window again, and said, "I wish your father were here. But his business trip isn't over until Thursday . . . well, Friday, actually, considering how late he gets in."

"I'm sorr . . ," Tris started again, but she reached out and touched his hand.

"First, you don't have anything to be sorry about. At least, not for anything I know about. I'm proud of you for helping Caitlyn. I know it hasn't been easy."

"Well, no, but . . . she's hurting."

"Yes, she is. But for a lot of people that wouldn't be enough. I truly am proud of you."

Tris ducked his head, embarrassed. But in a moment he raised it again, because he knew there was more coming.

Mrs. Knight finally made eye contact with him, and said, "But we need to address the fact that you're dressing like a girl - a very pretty girl, I might add. We've danced around this before, but when I saw you at the mall . . ."

"I'm sor . . Sorry, I mean . . . oh, hell," Tris stammered.

Mrs. Knight waited for him, sipping her tea.

"Okay," Tris said, taking a deep breath. "This is complicated . . ."

She smiled at him, arching a brow.

:Well, duh, doofus. Of course it's complicated,: he thought.

"I guess, I'll start with what happened tonight, even though that's sorta the end of things," he said. "We were at the mall, and my hair got tangled, and I was combing it . . ."

His mother interrupted gently, "You really shouldn't use a comb on your hair, Tris. Especially as long as it's getting."

"Exactly!" Tris said. "That's what Catie said, and she told me we needed to get a brush, and so she dragged me into a store for a brush and they were giving away free makeovers, and Catie wanted one, so . . ."

"So . . ?" Mrs. Knight prompted. "I'm sorry, Tris, but most boys don't get makeovers just because their girlfriend is getting one."

"She's not my . . . look, that's not important. Here's the deal, I think Catie is kinda afraid of guys right now. She was trying to get me to look more like a girl - brushing my hair different and stuff - and when the sales lady asked if we 'girls' wanted anything, she just . . . ran with it."

"So the sales clerk thought you looked like a girl even before your makeover?" his mother clarified.

"Well, yeah, but it was after Catie had brushed my hair different."

"I see," she murmured. "And was this before or after you put those hoops in your ears, and wore a nice blouse, with high-heeled boots?"

"Well, after, but . . . you know I like to be taller, and stuff."

"Yes, but I don't think I understand all the 'stuff' you want to do," she said. "Tris, remember what I said before. Regardless of what you discover about yourself, your father and I will always, always love you. So please, trust me with as much honesty as you can . . . as much understanding as you have of what you're trying to do."

"Geez, Mom, I don't know!" Tris said. "Things just sort of . . . happened. For damn sure I don't know what it all means."

"Tris . . ," Mrs. Knight said with a warning tone.

"Oh, sorry, Mom," he said. :Well, I guess I have to tell her the whole thing. There goes our quest.:

"Look, Mom, this all started with that new game we've been playing."

"I wondered about that," she said.

"Yeah, the guys talked me into playing a girl character. Believe me, I didn't want to, but it was supposed to be just for a trial run."

"A girl character. Why did they need a girl? And isn't, um, Joshua's sister in the game with you? Charlotte?"

"Yeah, but . . . well, it's like this. The game . . . Lucas has a new game console . . . generates random numbers for different attributes; things like Strength, and Vitality, and Intelligence. Based on the scores, you can choose different game avatars. My scores meant I had to be a girl."

"Why not try again?"

"Believe me, I wanted to do that, but it does take a while to get that together. The first time, that's about all we did. And some of the other guys got low scores in things, too. If we'd have all kept trying over until we got like, great in everything, we woulda never got to play at all."

"So . . . did some of the others get girl characters too?"

"Yeah," Tris said, blushing. "Landon. And, um, Charlotte is actually a guy in the game. Look, the guys who do this a lot - apparently Joshua has done this, and Lucas, and even Landon with some of his friends - say that most players play both guys and girls some of the time. Some alternate, some only do a few of the opposite type, but what they told me is that just about everybody who is serious does the other, um, gender at least some of the time. I mean, they told me it was just a game and I didn't want to wimp out on them. It's just in this game, sometimes the choices are forced based on your attributes, particularly Strength."

"I see," she said. "So, what does playing a girl in a game have to do with real life?"

"I don't know," Tris said. "The game is pretty realistic, and you get like, bonuses if you play your player really well - really, um, realistically. So in the game, I'm like a real girl."

"A girl . . . and do the boys treat you like a girl?"

Tris blushed, and in fact he managed to find a grin. "Well, yeah, but it's just a game, Mom. And it's like, rated PG for - what did they call it? - simulated violence against non-human characters. It's not like there's anything like, romantic or anything. I mean, it's only PG because we kill monsters. Geez."

He could see his mother relax a bit with that. :I won't tell her about the time I kissed Rhialto, or wanted to kiss the prince, or the time Landon . . .:

He blushed again with his memories, but she didn't pick up on the exact source for the heat in his cheeks.

"Okay, I guess I understand about this game, but what does that have to do with real life?"

"That's a good question," he said. "It's like, when you play the game - we're all adults, and we have to like, solve problems and talk to people - it's like it . . . teaches you how to act more grown up, and . . . well, you mentioned that."

"Yes, I did. I can see improved maturity both in you and in Landon. I didn't know it was the game that did it."

"Well, I'm not sure if the game does it so much as that you sorta learn how to do it. And, Geez, Mom, but it's kinda neat to be all grown up in the game, to be treated like heroes. I guess I sorta like it, and . . . maybe that's why . . ."

"Why you wear girl's clothes?" she asked.

"Well, maybe," Tris admitted. "I guess, looking a little more like my game character helps me feel like her, and maybe act like her. Like you said, more mature, more, um, charisma. And it works! Or at least, it seems to. I mean, at school people treat me like I was more grown up, and cooler. No one seems to mind that I keep my hair neater and all. It's like, the boots make me taller, and being taller helps, but it's not just being taller. It's . . . a lot of things."

"So, it's not so much being a girl that . . . interests you. It's being this particular girl, the character from your game?"

"Kinda. I don't want to be a girl-girl. I mean, not for real. Like I said, it's a PG game and no one is going to like, undress or anything and I still want to be a boy where it counts. But my game character - Solace, that's her name - she's pretty cool. And, well . . . she's good, Mom. She's noble and brave, and she helps other people. Is it bad to want to be more like that?"

"Not at all, dear," she said quickly. "But couldn't you be helpful even if you dressed like a more nor . . . I mean, typical boy in real life?"

"I guess," Tris said. "But it seems to be like, a package deal. I mean, when I think of how Solace would do something, it just makes me feel more . . . complete if my hair is nice, or I'm wearing kinda similar clothes. I guess the things that feel right are more like girl's clothes now, but guys used to wear shirts like this, too. And even boots with heels."

Mrs. Knight nodded. "Yes, I see your point. So this game is in an ancient setting?"

"Yeah. I guess this is what they call 'Swords and Sorcery.' There's magic and things, so it's like, pre-scientific."

"I see," she said, not sure if that were true but stalling for time. Finally she said, "So, in the game, do you wear a dress?"

"No!" Tris said sharply. "The computer tried to make me wear a dress in the beginning, but I flat said no. I wear, well, I guess it's kinda like a Robin Hood costume, except it's mostly light gray colors, or white."

"And Landon?" she asked. "You said he plays a girl, too. Does he wear a dress?"

"No. He has a pretty neat leather outfit. It, um, looks good for that setting, but it would be kinda like, biker-chick if he wore that around here," Tris said with a laugh. "In fact the closest thing to a dress is Josh's wizard robes. I mean, we're always hiking over mountain trails, or through forests. A dress would be silly."

"Indeed," Mrs. Knight said.

She sipped at her tea, and looked out the window again. Tris waited for her to decide whether they'd be able to keep playing the game, and he couldn't entirely clamp down on a bit of anxiety. :Geez, once upon a time I'd have been happy to get out of the game - if I could do it without being a quitter. Now, I really, really don't want her to tell me I have to quit.:

"Are you expecting to play this game again tomorrow?" she asked.

"Well, yeah. We play on Sunday every week," he said, hoping.

"What will you be doing?"

"Well, there's this force field - a magical one - that's between us and this quest treasure. It's - the treasure - is called, 'The Eye of Heimdall' but it's probably a big jewel of some sort. I'm hoping we can complete this quest tomorrow - it's like, number 5 of 6. After Quest 6 we're done with the game, I think."

"Done?" Mrs. Knight repeated, looking up sharply. She held Tris's eyes for a moment, then sighed and smiled ruefully. "Well, in that case, you better get to bed."

"Yes!" Tris said, then he blushed. "I mean, thanks, Mom. I hate to be a quitter, and the way things are, if anyone quits, then everybody has to quit."

"I'm not surprised," she said. "This game seems to be pretty well thought out as a lure for kids."

"Um, maybe," Tris said, still smiling.

Mrs. Knight watched as he walked away, still seeing a swing to his hips that bothered her, but not sure what to make of it. :This is certainly not what I expected. I've been reading up on transgender conditions, and cross-dressing. Maybe I should have been reading up on video games. But he is more mature, and the empathy he showed to Caitlyn is wonderful. I 'd hate to take that away from him. I guess I'll have quite a few things to talk about with their father when he gets home.:

Chapter 25 - "It's Mine!"

"Man, my mom gave me the third degree about the game last night," Tris announced as soon as he entered the Danner game room with Landon in tow.

"Ruh, roh," Joshua said. "But you're here, so . . ?"

"We got a reprieve, but I'm afraid it's only until my dad gets home on Friday," Tris said.

"What did you tell her?" asked Lucas.

"The truth, dude," Tris said sharply. "Not every detail, but the basics."

"So, on the night of the crime, did you or did you not tell her you kissed the handsome prince?" Lucas asked in a pedantic, lawyer tone.

"I didn't kiss that prince," Tris protested. "I didn't even let him kiss me, remember? I pulled the plug instead. You're the one who was ready for action with the serving wench."

"Right," Charlotte said. "Y'know, I never got around to telling Megan Andersen that you were all hot for another girl - in a computer game."

"Hey, nobody talks about what happens in the game. We agreed," Lucas protested.

"Exactly," Joshua said. "Meaning no one gives anybody a hard time about it, either."

He turned to Tris and said, "But just in case we get interrogated too, what did you say?"

"I told her that my character in the game is a good person who helps people, and that the game sort of makes us act more adult, which is good even outside the game."

"Why'd she start in on you?" Lucas asked.

"Geez, dude, I have long hair and earrings, and you're the one who loaned me some of your sister's clothes. I told her that it's easier for me to act like Solace if I look a bit like Solace, so I tried a few things."

"That means you told her that you play a girl in the game," Charly said. "What did she say to that?"

"I told her about the attribute things, and how my Strength was so low that I had to play a girl's part but that you guys convinced me that switching gender in game characters is pretty common. Which is the truth, like I said."

"So, she's cool with all that?" Joshua asked.

"I don't know," Tris said. "I'm sure she's gonna talk about it with Dad when he gets home. I don't know if we'll be able to play next Sunday."

"What do you think he's gonna say?" asked Charly.

"I don't know. He's pretty cool, but . . . well, I looked sorta over the line Saturday night. I don't think he'll buy the bit about 'getting in the mood' to act more mature. I was with . . ," Tris interrupted himself before he said anything about Caitlyn. After a moment to think, he continued, "But my grades are better lately, and the shrimp is acting more grown-up too, and . . . maybe there are a few other things as well. I just don't know."

"Bummer," Lucas said. "We're getting so close."

"Yeah," Joshua agreed, "and speaking of which . . ."

The donned their headsets and waited for the static to clear. When it did, they found themselves at the gate to Guildston - the wrong gate, as though they had never been to the town.

"Shit," Lucas muttered. "We gotta go through this whole thing again."

"That doesn't make sense," Rhialto said. "Before when we got out of the game here, we returned on the road out of town, not into it."

"Hey, dude," Oakheart said to Lucas, pointing at his empty scabbard. "Your sword is gone."

"Sh . . . shoot," Lucas said, reaching behind his head. "I was hoping that it would like, reset or something."

"I guess that means we aren't starting over completely," Rhialto said. "Let's see what happens."

When the approached the gate, Hnador came out to meet them. "Welcome, brave adventurers! Welcome!"

"Not quite the reception we got last time," Oakheart murmured to Shimmer.

Hnador's greeting was not the only difference in the little village. There was now a bustling energy to the town, accented by the sound of at least a dozen blacksmith hammers resonating in and out of synchronicity.

Rendell was there to meet them as well as soon as they passed through the gates. "Welcome, noble heroes."

He shook Lucas's hand, used the occasion to embrace Solace, and waved cheerfully at the others. "As you can see," he explained, "since you have vanquished the direcats, ore shipments have resumed and our little town is prospering."

"I'm glad to see it," Solace said.

Rendell took her arm and led her through the busy market. "Anything we have is yours. Anything."

"See if you can find a sword, Lucas," suggested Rhialto.

"And pay for it," Solace called after him.

Rendell shook his head. "No, Milady, we insist. This town would have died, and all the people in it would have been made paupers except for your bravery."

He snagged the collar of a running youngster - about Landon's age, actually - and told him to have the town prepare a feast.

"No, I'm sorry, Milord Rendell," Solace said. "But we really must be on our way as soon as we replace Lucas's sword."

Her tone was friendly but implacable, and Rendell sighed. "If you insist."

"Duty calls, Milord," Solace said, smiling to make it clear they were not rejecting the town but had no real choice.

"Rhialto!" Lucas called. "Come check this out."

The wizard walked over to where Lucas held two bright, gleaming blades. "Which do you think I should get?" the warrior asked.

Rhialto cast a reveal spell on each, and shrugged. "Both are pretty good. It would take magic to break them, but we know that can happen. The longer one has an enhancement for the point - it will penetrate any armor you're likely to find. The heavier one has an enhancement for the edge that's not quite as clear. I think it adds to the energy of a swing so that it acts more like a really long axe. I imagine both could be useful."

"Then you shall have both," Rendell declared. When Solace frowned, he added, "And I shall pay for them out of the newly acquired customs duties, so that the money is truly due to your endeavors."

Solace looked at the customs official, and then smiled. "Very well, Milord Rendell. Thank you."

She turned toward the main part of the market and called out, "Thank you all, for your generosity and good will."

The townspeople cheered as they moved toward the other gate. Despite their claim that they could not stay matrons brought fresh bread or meat pies to eat on their way.

Two young men approached Solace and Shimmer with garlands of flowers. The women blushed, but nodded that they would accept the gift - not knowing until it was happening that the customs of this town allowed the boys to steal a kiss while they placed the garlands. It wasn't much of a kiss, just a peck on the cheek, but it was enough to fire the cheeks of the suddenly-shy boys so much that Solace and Shimmer were able to see the humor and keep their own embarrassment under control. Or perhaps it just looked less by comparison.

Once they were clear of the gate and on the trail again, they set a good hiking pace to get back to the mountain bowl. Odin's raven paced them, as usual, and Oakheart scouted ahead with Akeela. Shimmer held back a little to walk with her sister.

"What did Mom say last night?" the slim thief asked.

"Oh, god, it was . . . weird," Solace said. "First off, I went to a movie with a girl last night . . ."

"A date?" Shimmer said. "Ohmigod, a real date?"

"No," Solace said. "It was just, y'know, meeting a friend. It coulda been Josh or Lucas."

"But it wasn't," Shimmer said, smirking.

"No, and that's part of the problem," Solace said with a grimace. "The girl - I can't tell you her name for reasons I also can't go into - got a free makeover at one of the cosmetics counters."

"Yeah?" prompted Shimmer.

"Well, while she was getting hers . . . she talked me into getting one, too."

"A makeover? You mean, full makeup?"

"Yeah," Solace said.

"How'd you look?"

"Too good. If I'da had my Circlet of Perception, I woulda looked like Solace. A few years younger maybe, but . . . damn!"

"Ohmigod, I am ssoo jealous," Shimmer said, raising her voice out of a whisper.

"What?" Rhialto asked.

"Nothing," she snapped, then dropped her voice again. "Ohmigod, Solace, I am ssooo jealous. Why can't I do that?"

"Oh, yeah, that would work," Solace said sarcastically. "Mom's ready to send for the shrinks for me already. If you started wearing makeup too, she'd totally go ballistic."

"God, that is sssoo unfair," Shimmer pouted.

"Well, I didn't wash it off before I got home, and when she saw it . . . I got the 'we need to talk,' big time."

"So you said she's going to talk to Dad when he gets home?"

"I'm sure of it," Solace said. "So we need to be on our best behavior this week. We need to be as mature and polite as we can be. Got it?"

Shimmer nodded, but she added, "But on Wednesday, when Mom has her Book Club meeting and we're home alone . . . can you show me what they did?"

"I don't remember much of it," Solace said. "I was so shocked that it was happening, and the girl was pretty good. Like I told you after you did that clown thing on your face, a good makeup job looks real subtle. I'm not sure I could do it as well."

"But you could try," insisted Shimmer.

Solace frowned, but then she remembered that Caitlyn had bought the makeup from the sales clerk, so she did have some that she could use.

"Maybe," she finally agreed. Then she met Shimmer's eyes and they both started to giggle.

"It'll be sssooo cool," Shimmer said.

"Yeah, if Mom gets home early, we'll be ssooo dead," Solace said, but she was looking forward to it, too.

"So, Sis, since we're talking about makeup . . ?" Shimmer said, pointing at her own face.

"Oh, okay," Solace said, pretending to be reluctant. She had learned the correct spells well enough that she didn't need to look them up, so it was just a minute's work for Shimmer to have her enhancements, and not more than that for Solace to have a bit of further enhancement of her own.

When they reached the mountain bowl, the direcats were all gone, but the boulders that Lucas and Mattock had used to divert the stream were still in place. So was the shimmer of the force field.

"Does that look like it's stronger again, or about the way we left it?" Solace asked Rhialto.

"I think it's about the way we left it," he judged.

"I sure hope so," Solace said. Then she groaned and added, "I shouldn't have eaten those rolls."

"Things always taste better the first time," Lucas said with a very unsympathetic grin.

Solace turned out to be right. She should have passed on any food. But it only made a difference the first time. By the time she finally had the force field down, she was looking like death warmed over . . . and felt worse.

"Man, I hate this game," she said, accepting Shimmer's cool cloth for her forehead.

"So, is it down?" Lucas asked excitedly.

"I think so," Solace said. "I can't sense it any more, and . . . well, see for yourself."

"Right," Lucas said, and ran into the chamber, anxious to find the Eye of Heimdall.

"No, wait," she called, but it was too late.

As soon as Lucas passed the point where the force field had been, a rumble started deep in the mountain. It quickly escalated to a sharp crash as half the mountain came down on the reckless warrior.

"Lucas!" Solace called, struggling to rise to her feet.

It was too late. Even if she'd have been fresh and alert, it would still have been too late.

"Mattock," she called, "can you find him?"

"Yes," the powerful warrior said. He let his pick do his talking for him after that, and quickly moved massive boulders out of the way, either by levering them out directly, or by cracking them with accurately aimed blows of his namesake tool.

But it was too late. When the found Lucas, his body was recognizable more for his armor and clothes than by what was inside them.

"Oh, hell," Solace said tiredly. "I shouldn't have told him to go look. I should have known there'd be more traps."

"We all should have known," Rhialto said. "Including Lucas."

He put his arm around the weeping, aching woman. "I heard what you said, and I would have cautiously approached the location of the force field, probing it with my staff, before I ever touched it with my hand. And I never would have gone beyond it until we knew for sure it was safe. Or at least, did our best to find out if it was safe."

"Yeah, well, you're smarter than Lucas," she said. "I shoulda . . ."

"Stop," Oakheart said. "I agree with Rhialto. Lucas did that to himself. It's not your fault. Now, do we go on, or do we quit?"

"Quit, now?" Solace asked. "That would mean Lucas died for nothing."

"Exactly," Oakheart agreed. "What's next?"

Solace sighed, and squared her shoulders. "Well, even though it's just in the game, I think we should bury Lucas. I don't know now long it will be before he gets resurrected, and it just doesn't seem right to leave him there."

"Yes," Mattock said again. He picked the broken body of Lucas up in his arms and moved him clear of the cave. In a few minutes, he had gathered up enough of the fallen rock to cover the dead warrior's body.

"How bad is the cave-in?" Solace asked next.

"Not too bad," Oakheart reported. "It was more of a deadfall than a cave-in. We can get over the pile without much trouble."

"All of you, search for traps," she ordered. "Rhialto, you and I will look for magical traps. Oakheart, you said you were good at natural traps. Shimmer, you just stay back for now."

Despite their care, none of them were able to find anything that looked like a threat. From the top of the pile of rubble they could see a box that was centered on a pedestal. They figured that was the target of their quest. It seemed to be just sitting there, waiting for them.

"I don't trust this," Solace said. She looked at Oakheart, and then at Akeela. "I hate to ask, but . . ."

"Yeah, I've been thinking about that, too," Oakheart said. He called his companion forward and pointed at the passageway. "Okay, Akeela, I need you to scout out this passage. Go slow, and stay low."

It was clear that the wolf understood, either the specific words or the tone, because the big black animal slid over the pile of rocks with total silence, not disturbing a single stone. His belly was just brushing the floor, and each step was taken carefully, not putting his weight on it until he had checked for stability and firmness.

It was just enough. All of the sudden the passageway, in all directions, was full of zipping arrows. Some headed right for the waiting adventurers, and only Mattock's quick deflection kept Solace from being hit. Other's banked from floor to wall to rocks sweeping out the entire space - except for a foot-high space near the floor.

That was enough for Akeela. He looked like he had gone two-dimensional, with even his ears flattened against his neck.

When the arrows stopped, he looked back at Oakheart. The ranger encouraged him and sent him further along. They waited - very patiently now that the danger had become real again - until the wolf had walked completely around the chamber, nudging up against the central pedestal from all sides. And then waiting again as the wolf returned to them, this time walking normally.

"Well, I guess that's that," Oakheart said as he rubbed his faithful companion. "If it's something that can be tripped physically, he should have found it."

"Right," Rhialto said. "Now it's my turn."

"No, Rhialto," Solace said. "I think we need to do this together."

She made her way over the piled debris and waited for the wizard to join her. Closing her eyes, she focused on the perceptions that came from her circlet instead of her eyes.

"I think . . . there's something . . . over there," she said, pointing with her eyes still closed.

Rhialto nodded and set the whirling end of his staff into an even more active pattern. After a moment, a bolt of energy jabbed out at an innocuous looking column.

The resulting explosion made them retreat for a moment to avoid dust so thick they literally couldn't breathe. When it settled they tried again. Solace found and Rhialto triggered three more magical traps before she felt there were none left. Looking at Rhialto for confirmation, she shrugged and stepped into the chamber. Rhialto was right beside her, and she took his arm. Closing her eyes again, she took another step, feeling with mind and physical senses in a repeat of the careful exploration conducted by Akeela.

"I wonder why Akeela didn't trigger the magical traps," Shimmer asked Oakheart as they watched the cautious pair.

"Could be because he's not human. Could be because he's not magical. Maybe you and I could have walked into the room without triggering those extra traps either."

"Maybe," Shimmer said quietly as she maintained her watch on her sister and friend.

Finally, Solace reached the pedestal with the treasure box and waved to Shimmer. "I think you need to take it from here," she told the thief. "I can't see anything, but you're the one who's good at alarms and things."

"Right," Shimmer said. She spent a few minutes looking at the box from all sides, even getting some dust from the floor and blowing it so that it settled over the box. It was apparently made out of darkly stained natural wood, about six inches square by four inches deep, and had brass hinges and clasp.

"There, do you see that?" she asked.

"See what?" Rhialto asked.

"The spider webs," the thief explained. "I don't think they're natural."

"I'm not even sure I see what you're talking about," Rhialto said. "Your eyes must be fantastic."

"Why thank you. A girl tries her best," Shimmer said with an artificially bright giggle. It made Rhialto blush . . . and Oakheart frown. Solace just sighed.

"Spider webs can be really strong, even if they're not acid like the ones in that cave," Shimmer said. "These could be setting a trap."

She looked around for something to use, then did her disappearing act in the dim chamber. In a moment she returned, carrying Lucas's longer sword. "Everyone stand back," she ordered. With delicate grace, she let the sharp tip slice through the nearly-invisible threads.

And Lucas, if he were still alive, would have needed another sword.

A huge blade dropped from the darkness overhead with eyeblink speed. Actually, as they saw in a second, it was four blades, each of which aligned with an edge of the pedestal. In one instant, the gleaming sword reached across an empty space to prick lightly at some threads. In the next, Shimmer held half a sword, and four walls of steel surrounded the pedestal. They didn't reach high enough to keep them from seeing the box, but they would have guillotined anyone close to the pedestal itself.

"Well, that was interesting," she said. Looking at their remaining warrior, she said, "Mattock could you like, nudge the box a little?"

The rest stood back while the thickly muscled man reached out with surprising delicacy, considering that he held at arm's length a tool that weighed more than the observing Shimmer. They all held their breath when the point of Mattock's pick pushed at one corner of the box.

Then held it a while longer when nothing seemed to happen. Mattock nudged it again, and again nothing happened.

"Okay," Shimmer said. "I guess the trip threads were all there was as a location trap. Now let's look at the box itself."

Again, she studied the box carefully. This time, with her gloved hands, she felt along each of the edges, the hinges, and the latch. "Ah ha," she said. "Gotcha."

Pulling a slim pick from her pouch, she worked it into a seam well away from the clasp. Snagging something inside, she called to Solace. "Here. You hold this just like this."

The healer took her assigned position while Shimmer worked another pick into the opposite side. Then, holding that pick quite still, she reached out and flicked the clasp.

The box lid sprang up and a wickedly toothed steel band slammed toward the clasp . . . until it lost its power when the two little picks delicately unhooked the motivating springs as the trap passed by.

"How did you know how to do that?" Oakheart asked in amazement.

"I'm not sure, actually," Shimmer admitted. "I think it was a lot of little things that I, um, picked up - no pun intended - when we were opening the boxes dropped by some of the monsters. In any event, I just knew what was needed."

"Good for you," Rhialto said. "Can we open it?"

"Should be able to," Shimmer said. She reached out and flipped the box lid fully open.

Inside, lying on a bed of dark velvet, was a palm-sized clear jewel that made the Hope Diamond seem small and dull. It caught rays of light from the various dim sources in the room and seemed to amplify them into bright, focused flashes.

"Wow, that's awesome," the petite thief said, reaching for it.

"No, Shimmer," Solace called urgently.

"Hey, I found it. It's mine," Shimmer said "You can't have it."

"A magical item of that much power . . . I think it needs to be in the care of a magic user," Rhialto said, reaching for it himself.

"No," Solace said. "Nobody touch it."

"It's clear that they'll just fight over it," Oakheart said, reaching for it himself. "As a neutral party, neither thief nor mage, I think I should hold it until we decide who gets to keep it."

Solace reached out with her staff and rapped all the extended hands. "Stand back, all of you."

"You just want it for yourself," Shimmer said, trying to get around the annoying stick. "I saw it first, and it's mine."

Rhialto didn't say anything, but he was frowning and the end of his staff started to whirl with snappish, irritated energy.

"Stop it, all of you!" Solace yelled. "Don't you see, this is the last trap!"

Oakheart nudged Rhialto out of the way, trying to get around the end of Solace's staff. She threw it at them, and while they ducked she quickly shed her knapsack and looked inside. She found the first item from this set of quests, the Belt of Hlin, and snapped it out flat. The corset-like belt was curved with stiffening stays so she covered the gleaming jewel with the outside surface, allowing the curve to droop down on all sides of the gem. There was a flash of intolerably bright lights that left spots dancing before their eyes, and then the belt sat there as still as if it had been tossed casually on the pedestal a week before.

Chapter 26 - "Stupid Is As Stupid Does"

"Don't you see?" Solace asked the others. "That was another trap. This thing has a . . . compulsion about it. In another minute you'd all have been going on about, 'My preciousss' and looking for ways to kill each other."

Now that the gem was covered by the Belt of Hlin, the greed it had sparked seemed to dissipate. The other guys blinked again, this time more from confusion than the residual from the flash, and then looked at each other.

"I have to admit, I think you're right," Rhialto said. "I know I wanted that rock awful bad."

"Me, too," Oakheart confirmed.

"How come it didn't affect you?" Shimmer asked petulantly. She kept glancing at the wide belt covering the gem and I knew she was far from over the pull of the stone.

"It did," Solace said. "I think if I hadn't been so tired from draining the force field, I'd have beat you all to the thing. But the flush of . . . need felt so artificial that I just knew something was wrong. Man, what I really want is a hot bath and a long nap, not a sparkly bauble that won't help with my aches and pains. It just didn't seem right."

"I think we all owe you - again," Rhialto said with a smile. He put his arm around the tired healer and squeezed.

"Yeah, me too," Shimmer admitted, smiling finally.

"What are we gonna do?" asked Oakheart, looking at the Belt of Hlin but not touching it. "If you uncover it, are we going to feel the same compulsion?"

"I don't know. Why don't the rest of you go back down the cave a little and I'll see?" Solace suggested.

They suited their actions to her words, and when they were well back she lifted up the covering material.

To find nothing. The jewel they thought was the Eye of Heimdall was gone. There was an indentation in the velvet interior of the box that was the right size and shape, but nothing else.

"Where'd it go?" Solace asked plaintively.

"You mean it's not there?" Rhialto asked. The others all came running back to the pedestal and looked at the empty box.

Solace thought to look at the side of the Belt of Hlin that had covered the stone. At first, she thought it was unchanged, but then . . .

"Does this look more . . . sparkly to you?" she asked Shimmer.

"I don't know," the thief replied. "Maybe."

"Maybe," Oakheart seconded. "It's like the material . . . like the threads are crystals or something."

"Let me check," Rhialto said, but when he cast his reveal spell, there was no effect. "It seems to be impervious to my magic. But I think it's shinier, too."

"Wrap it around your waist and see what happens," Oakheart suggested.

"It's too small," Solace reminded them, but she held the wide belt up to her waist and pulled the ends behind her. As before the rear was at least 3 or 4 inches from closing.

"Look at the pattern," Shimmer said. The others moved so they could see what Shimmer had noticed. Solace tried to look too, but with her shape - or shapes, to be precise - there was no way she was going to see the middle of the corset-like belt when it was in place at her waist. She started to move it to where she could see, but the others stopped her.

"I see it, too," Rhialto said - unhelpfully, because he didn't say what "it" was.

Finally Oakheart described the situation. "There's now a pattern in the front panel, sort of like a sunburst, or maybe a star. It looks like it's laid into the material with diamonds, and the belt itself looks like . . . gold?

"Yeah," Rhialto agreed absent-mindedly. "Is it heavier?"

Solace shook her head. She held it up so she could see. That triggered yet another gasp from the others.

"As soon as it was away from your body, the pattern disappeared," Rhialto reported. "Now it just looks a bit shinier, and maybe a bit more . . . yellow? Not as golden, for sure."

"Let's check it in the sunlight," Oakheart suggested. He picked up Solace's staff and the others checked to see that they had all their things, then they moved out of the cave.

Once again, Odin was there waiting for them. A somewhat-sheepish Lucas stood beside him, dressed in a rough tunic that might have been made from a burlap sack, if they used burlap sacks in Reality 2.0.

"Congratulations," the game master said. He glanced sideways at Lucas, then said, "Most of you have done very well on this quest."

"Can I get my clothes now?" Lucas asked Odin.

The old man nodded and Lucas went to the pile of stones that covered . . . or at least had covered his body. When he pulled them away, the clothes and armor were there, but all traces of a body had disappeared. Lucas gathered up his things and moved behind one of the boulders - not the one that Solace had used to hide the results of her force-field-induced nausea - and returned a few minutes later looking as good as new.

"Tell me, Solace, did you feel anything when you held the Belt of Hlin to your waist?" Odin asked.

"Feel anything?" she repeated. She frowned as she remembered. "Maybe. I'm not sure I noticed at the time, but when I removed it, I thought maybe one of the glowing things in the cave had gone out. And . . . I don't know . . . maybe things got quieter?"

"The Eye of Heimdall should enhance your perceptions in various ways," Odin said. "Anything else?"

"Well, maybe. I guess I didn't feel quite as tired. But maybe I was just excited."

Odin nodded. "Actually, the Belt of Hlin should provide you with a Vitality boost as well as enhancing your ability to heal others."

"Provide me?" Solace said. "So you're telling me that I'm supposed to be the one to wear this belt?"

"Unless someone else thinks they have a better claim to an item of power combining healing and perception," he said with his machine-perfect smile.

"It's yours, Sis," Shimmer said. "It was obvious from the moment you wrapped it around your waist. Heck, it wouldn't fit any of the rest of us anyway."

"It'd fit you," Solace said. "Or at least, it would fit you as well as it would fit me. It's way too small for either of us."

"Not really," Oakheart said. "You just need to get it laced right."

He reached into his pouch and pulled out a rolled strip of thin leather that would obviously fill the need he had identified.

"No, thanks," Solace said. "I'm not wearing a corset, too."

"Don't knock it 'til you've tried it," Rhialto said with a grin. "I think you'd look great."

"Totally," Shimmer agreed, smirking again.

"We'll see," Solace said. She looked at Odin and asked, "What is our next quest? And is it the last one?"

"Your next quest, and the last for this cycle of Reality 2.0, is to find the Cunning of Loki."

As usual, he stopped after naming the item, not providing any additional clues. After it was clear they were not going to get anything more from the game master, the team all looked at Rhialto.

"I'm going to have to think about this," he said. "And study the map for a while."

"I'm not surprised," Solace said. Looking at Odin she asked, "I don't want to seem . . . greedy, but have we earned anything from this quest?"

"Yes, indeed," Odin replied, showing again his standard smile. He proceeded to point out piles of loot, each with an identifying color. Solace noticed that there was yet another sword on the pile belonging to Lucas. Her own pile included some potions and spell sheets, plus various jewels and precious metals.

"I suppose we should go to one of the markets," she said aloud as she looked at her pile. "Which town do you suppose had the best? Particularly with magical items that we may be able to afford now."

That started most of them talking, arguing the merits of the various places they had been. Only Rhialto said nothing, though he studied the map with an intensity that made it seem like he was forming an opinion about where they should go.

But he shook his head and put the map away along with the rest of his things.

Solace was very tired, and even if Rhialto had an immediate suggestion, her own plan was to exit the game and recover. She put her hand behind her ear and looked at everyone to see if there were any complaints, and seeing none pushed the button.

As usual, when the static cleared and they were back in the Danner game room, none of their sensations from Reality 2.0 were quite a 'real' to them. Tris still felt tired, but he stood and stretched, then looked at the clock.

"Man, I would have said it was a lot later than that," he observed.

"Me, too," Joshua said.

"Hey, maybe we can do our attribute points right away," Lucas suggested.

That started a discussion on what they needed to do. In general, they were split between building up their weak abilities and making themselves as strong as possible for the last quest. The discussion ended with a shout from Lucas.

"Hey, I lost a point!"

"What?" asked Joshua.

"Yeah, look at my Wisdom," Lucas said. He showed the notes he had from before the last quest, and it had been reduced by one point.

"You can get it back," Landon pointed out. "You have two points to spend."

"Yeah, but you all have two points to spend. I'd have to waste one catching up to where I was."

"Well, dude," Joshua pointed out, "it was pretty stupid to run into that cave. I mean, there had already been a major trap on the entrance."

Charlotte added, "And you broke your sword."

"Hey," Lucas protested. "That giant lioness said that I should do that."

"Yeah," Charly agreed, "but nobody said you had to do what Aelurus said. There was no reason to expect her to be looking out for your best interests, just hers."

"Give me a break," Lucas said. "I still think it's unfair."

"You haven't said anything," Joshua pointed out to Tris.

Tris shrugged. "Wisdom is one of those things that you've either got or you don't. It seemed obvious to me that we needed to be careful at the cave, but I can't really tell you why. I don't really understand how points work on that, aside from things like being able to understand spells or something. What difference does it make to a warrior?"

"Well, if he'd have been wiser, he might not have run into the cave," Joshua said.

"Yeah, I got that," Tris said. "But a number on a game attribute wouldn't change that. That's like, basic. It's the real Lucas, not the game Lucas."

"Yeah," Josh agreed. "I guess I don't know, either."

"Maybe we ought to ask Odin the next time we see him," Landon suggested.

"Or maybe Josh should read the manual some more," Charly said, laughing.

"Maybe," Josh said, smiling without guilt at his tendency to study.

"Well, screw him," Lucas said. "I'm not putting my point back into Wisdom. My points are going for Strength and Dexterity so that I'm ready for the next quest."

"Makes sense," Tris said. "I think I'll do the same, but mostly because those are my weakest attributes."

"Yeah, like you have anything to worry about," Lucas said after he paged through the small display on the game console to see Solace's attributes. "It looks like Teacher's Pet got two bonus attributes from Odin."

"Really?" Tris said, leaning down to look. "Hmm. Vitality . . . maybe I can understand that. I kept going when draining that field was draining me, so I guess I can see him rewarding me for that. But Charisma? What's up with that?"

Landon laughed and punched his brother's shoulder. "Geez, Dude, you walked down into the valley of death with fifty direcats, and convinced the leader - a queen and some sort of goddess - not only to let you live, but that she owes you a big favor. That's Charisma with a big K."

"Charisma doesn’t start with . . ," Charly said, then blushed as Landon zapped her with a gotcha shot.

While most of them worked through their points, Joshua was studying a hand-drawn version of the map from the game. Tris joined the erstwhile wizard once he had his points entered, and asked, "So, where do you think the last item is?"

"I just don't know," Joshua said. "Look, this is what the map showed. It's not all that complicated. There are five towns, and there was a quest treasure near each one. "

"Yeah, so?" asked Tris.

"That's just it. Five towns, five treasures. Where's the sixth treasure? There isn't a sixth town anywhere."

"Maybe it's just off the map," suggested Tris.

"Yeah, maybe," Joshua said. "But where? There's no town to head toward for the last part. Do we just wander around?"

"That doesn't make sense," Tris said. "All of the other quests have had at least a clue on where to go."

"Right," Joshua agreed. He sighed and looked over at the game console. "Well, I guess I better get my points straightened out. We'll have to think about this during the week."

Tris nodded, and patted his friend on the arm. "Well, Brainiac, if anyone can figure it out, you can."

Josh shrugged, but he smiled his thanks for the vote of confidence. While he was at the console Tris and Landon gathered up their things and headed for their house.

While they walked along, Landon asked his brother, "What do you think Dad is going to say?"

"I wish I knew," Tris said. He pulled his ponytail over his shoulder, stroking the sleek strands of hair. "I really don't want to cut my hair."

"I know," Landon said. His ponytail was not as long - only a couple of inches past the clasp that gathered it - so he couldn't really pull it around like Tris did, but he still reached behind his neck and felt his own hair. "I don't know why, but I just feel more . . . comfortable being a little more like Shimmer."

"Yeah, that may be the problem, not the solution," Tris said.

There wasn't anything they could really do about the situation until their father got home at the end of the week, and while they didn't forget about it, they were still a little surprised when they got home from school on Friday.

"Boys, why don't you come into the living room?" they heard their father's voice say as soon as they entered the house.

Chapter 27 - "Disappointment"

When they reached the family room, Mr. and Mrs. Knight were sitting in comfortable chairs but their body language was far from relaxed. Mr. Knight, like Tris, was slender and not too tall. But he had a presence and insight into the mood of the public that had made him much in demand as a business consultant. Lately, his clients had included an increasing number of politicians - or at least politician wannabes - and he was used to the respect of powerful people. He expected no less from his sons. Mr. Knight had been out of town for three weeks on business, and usually that meant a joyful reunion when he returned. But this time . . .

At first, Mr. Knight didn't say anything. After a moment, he motioned for the two boys to turn around. What he saw was definitely a girl's ponytail, at least on Tris. It was too soft and too full for a guy who just gathered it up to keep it out of his face. And Mr. Knight could see what his wife had mentioned about other changes to Tris's appearance as well. And the earrings. Landon wasn't as . . . dramatic, but the copycat flavor was strong and it seemed more like he just hadn't had the chance to match his brother than that he didn't want to.

"When was the last time I asked you to get your hair cut, Tris?" he asked.

"I did get it cut," Tris insisted. "But it's been growing so fast that it seemed like . . . a waste of money to keep cutting it. And anyway, I really like it longer. Is that so bad?"

"You mean, aside from the fact you knew it was going against something I'd asked you to do?" Mr. Knight asked softly, but implacably. "And the fact you should have known that if you went against what I asked, then Landon would, too? You should know that he's going to copy you, so you have a responsibility to be a good example for him."

"I'm sorry, Dad," Tris said, but he ran down with just a repetitious, "It just seemed . . . such a waste."

"And earrings," Mr. Knight continued. "And your mother tells me that there have been a few other . . . changes?"

"Yes, sir," Tris said.

Mr. Knight stood and motioned the boys to sit down. The boys found seats as directed, sitting with erect postures that made it clear they were not relaxing despite the courtesy.
Their father walked over to the window to look out for a moment - at nothing, as far as the boys could tell - then looked back at Tris. "These changes . . . no one of them might have been that big a deal but all together . . ."

"I'm sorry, Dad," Tris repeated.

Mr. Knight moved back to sit on one arm of his big chair. "I know, son," he said gently. "But I'm sure you can understand our concern. Several changes, all of which are pointed arrow-straight at looking more . . . like a girl?"

He sighed and looked at his wife, then said. "I understand this is related to a video game you've been playing. I don't see how that connects. Why don't you explain it to me?"

They looked at each other for a moment, and it was clear that Tris as the older brother would need to be the one to speak.

"Well, the game is what they call a virtual reality or role-playing game. In it, we, um, direct characters - they're called avatars - who go on quests and fight monsters and things."

Landon jumped in to the description. In fact, he could hardly contain himself. "Oh, yeah, Dad. It's really cool. And you should see the way Tris is in the game. He's really noble. His character - Solace - is so brave. She's our healer, and heals our injuries by taking them into herself - and that hurts her! And sometimes it makes her sick. She was blinded for a while, and scarred, but she just kept doing her best for the team. It's awesome. And my character is really agile. I can climb almost anything. It's called Dexterity, and I'm nearly at the maximum."

"But it's just a game," Mr. Knight said.

Landon said, "Yeah, but it's a very realistic game. You have to face real, hard choices - like an adult has to face. And depending on what you do, there are consequences. Sacrifices. Or a price to be paid. No one is braver than Solace - that is, Tris."

Mr. Knight continued to frown, and it was clear that he wasn't seeing that the game was more than an idle pastime, and likely a waste of time.

Tris tried again, "You get pretty immersed in the game, Dad. It's like . . . well, people cry when they see a movie, or they get tense, or scared. I mean, Mom, haven't you ever cried at a movie?"

Mrs. Knight smiled at the validity of his point and said, "Yes, many times."

"Well, it's like that, only more so," Tris claimed. "Because you're not passively watching it. You're doing it. When you make a bad decision and someone gets hurt . . . it bothers you. And if you do something good . . ."

Mr. Knight nodded at his explanation, but only gave Tris's point limited credit. "So, the game teaches you something about real life. That's good. But it's still just a game. It doesn't change who you are in real life."

Tris shook his head, not so much arguing with his father as trying to find a way to make his explanation clearer. "Actually, Dad, it does. I mean, you learn things in the game. Or maybe it's better to say that the game trains you - based on what works in the game - to respond to people."

Tris's voice grew more animated as he continued. "In the game, our characters are grown-ups, and there are . . . rewards for acting mature, and, um, honorable. For being brave and being willing to sacrifice to help others. For being part of a team. It's a lot of good things, Dad. Things that, well, we thought we should try to do in the mund . . . I mean, in real life."

Mr. Knight nodded, but he frowned as well. "I guess I can see that, but it seems that you could have learned all that playing the part of men. Yet I understand both of you are playing the part of girls?"

Landon was more experienced in role-playing games, so he went into an explanation of the attribute system, and how they ended up too low on Strength to be male characters. "Tris really didn't want to be a girl," he concluded. "He even bounced us all out of the game when he found out that was his only choice. But the rest of us convinced him to give it a shot. Lots of gamers play girls as well as guy parts."

Mr. Knight nodded, at least that he understood Landon's explanation. But he looked at Tris and said again, "But that's all just part of a video game. Not something to do in real life."

Tris blushed. "I guess I just wanted to be more like Solace I hoped that, if I did a few things that make me more like her - little things, that don't really matter in themselves - then some of the other things would like, be easier to . . . to see. To recognize when they come up. It's like, um, what they told us was called method acting, where if you want to act like you're angry, you do things that angry people do - yell, and throw things - and before long you're angry. Only I didn't want to be angry. I wanted to be . . . helpful, and . . . sensitive to the feelings of others."

"And Dad, it works! When I started paying attention to my hair, and trying to get outside the typical guy macho thing, I was more . . . in tune with others. I could feel their hurts - really feel them! And I could . . . see what to do to help them. It just . . . worked."

Mr. Knight was still frowning, but he nodded. "Your mother mentioned that you had helped someone in your class. She wouldn't share the particulars because of a promise you made . . ?"

Tris nodded, but he didn't offer any more. He did look at his mother for another reassurance, which she gave with a nod.

Mr. Knight stood up from his own chair and moved over to look out the window again. It was clear he wasn't all that interested in what was outside, but the others gave him the space to think. He looked back and said, "Okay, I can understand that. I also understand - because we've talked with some of your teachers, and with your school counselor - that your grades are improving - both of you, and that you're well-mannered in class, and contributing in ways that show you're paying attention."

He looked back to see his sons' surprise that he had contacted their school, but also to see their nods of agreement about their grades and attentiveness.

Their father continued, "But you still ended up on a path that has my eldest son coming home from the mall looking like a pretty young woman instead of a handsome young man. Complete with makeup. That's not just 'a little thing.'

"You know as well as I do that young men who are . . . different are at risk. They can be bullied by other boys who think they're weak. And worse . . ," Mr. Knight said. Before he continued he looked out into the darkness and his voice got so quiet they could barely hear him. "You don't know - you can't know, until some day when you have kids of your own - how scary it is to think of the . . . predators who are out there. Predators who prey on . . . confused young men."

He paused a long time, then turned back again. They could see the shine of tears in his eyes, though his quiet voice never wavered. "There's a reason we ask you to do certain things. To be home at a certain time. To stay away from certain websites and chat rooms. Not to make yourself any more . . . vulnerable than you can avoid."

He walked over and pulled his boys to their feet, wrapping an arm around each. "No matter what, we - your mother and I - love you. If you had come to us with . . . whatever you're feeling, I hope you know we'd have listened. It's disappointing that you didn't . . . trust us with your questions, and your feelings."

He squeezed Tris with the arm that was around him. "I won't say that I agree with your choice of what sort of explorations to make. But I'm truly proud of the way you two have performed in school. And of you, particularly, Tris for helping that girl."

Then he released them from his hug and sat back on the arm of his chair again. "But what I can't accept is that you didn't talk with us about it - if for no other reason than to keep us from worrying about where you were heading. You could be hurt by the way some people would react to what you've done. Yet you just did what you wanted. That's . . . a problem."

"I'm sorry, Dad," Tris repeated.

Mr. Knight nodded, but he continued to frown. "So, what do you think we should do from here?"

"What do I think?" Tris asked.

"Yes," his father confirmed. "Since you're so sure your judgment is good enough you didn't need to consult with us, then what does your judgment say is fair?"

"I don't know," Tris said. "I'm sorry, but . . . things just . . . happened. It wasn't like I planned it."

"I believe you," Mr. Knight said. "But one of the lessons adults have to learn is that allowing themselves to be swept along without a plan can create problems. So?"

"I really don't want to cut my hair, Dad," Tris said.

His father nodded, but said nothing.

"Me, neither," Landon said quietly.

Mr. Knight nodded again, but still didn't say anything.

Mrs. Knight, who had been quietly feeling tears roll down her cheeks at the tension in her family, finally spoke. "I have a suggestion."

The three male members of the family looked at her expectantly.

"Other than letting it grow long, they've both done a surprisingly good job of keeping their hair neat and clean. I would be in favor of letting them decide for themselves how long it should be, as long as they keep it neat."

Mr. Knight nodded. Tris suddenly had an insight, and he wondered if it were because of his increased Empathy. Was it another game carry-over? Regardless of the source, he knew his parent were working to what amounted to a script. All the decisions had been made before hand. But since his mother was the one handing out the sentence, Tris began to hope that it wouldn't be too bad.

"High school boys today often get their ears pierced, too. I'm not as comfortable with Tris wearing makeup, but I think I understand what happened and I'm not sure that he had a better choice, as the actual situation developed."

"We always have choices," Mr. Knight said, disagreeing but not arguing. "But sometimes we find ourselves in a place where all the choices are unpleasant."

Mrs. Knight nodded. Then she sighed and said, "But what I just can't . . . forget is that so much was done without talking with us about it."

"That is the main point," Mr. Knight agreed.

Mrs. Knight looked at her sons and said, "So I think an appropriate . . . restoration of trust means that we need to be a bit more involved in your lives."

"What does that mean?" Tris asked.

"Well, for one, I think you should stay at home for a while. Your father will be home for the next two weeks, and I'd like you here when you're not in school," she said firmly.

"Grounded? Aw, Mom," Landon said.

Tris sighed, then looked at his father. "I was wrong not to talk to you about some of the things that have been happening lately. I'm sorry, truly sorry. But . . ."

He looked at Landon, and then back at his father. "But I think you should know that this is not just punishing us. If we can't play in the game on Sunday, it will mean that Lucas, Joshua, and Charly can't play either."

"I'm not too worried about a video game," Mr. Knight said dismissively.

"It's more than a game, Dad," Tris said. "It's . . . a test. A test of whether we're quitters, or tough enough to put up with . . . things we don't like. It's a test of whether we're team players or selfish. Believe me, I'd have quit a long time ago, except I don't want to be a quitter."

"It's just a game, Tris," Mr. Knight said again.

Landon said, "Yeah, Dad, it is just a game. But it's a game that forces you to be part of a team. That's no different from being on a football team and quitting just before the big game. And I've learned that I really don't like to let my teammates down."

Mr. Knight frowned, then looked back at the boys. "How long does this game go on?"

"We play every Sunday afternoon for a few hours," Tris said, then he realized that he had misinterpreted the question. "Oh, overall? Well, we've finished 5 out of 6 quests. I think we may have only one or two more sessions to finish the whole thing."

"And then what?" Mr. Knight asked.

"Well, I guess then we can quit without letting anyone else down," Tris said.

Mr. Knight looked at his wife, and saw agreement in her eyes. He smiled at her, then smiled at the boys as well. "Okay, then here's what I think is fair. You're grounded until you get the game finished. That means any time you're not in school or playing the game, or directly between here and there, you stay in the house. You don't get to watch TV - this video game will have to do for that sort of entertainment. And . . ."

He paused dramatically, making sure that both boys were paying attention, " . . . And, we're going to talk when you're home. I want to understand all the things you feel like doing, and why you think they help. And I want a chance to explain to you why we're so worried about some of the . . . risks out there."

He waited for a second to see if they would complain. The two boys looked at each other, frowning, but neither said anything.

"Okay?" Mr. Knight asked, pushing for a commitment.

"Okay," Tris said, then he saw a problem, "Except . . . I'm not sure I really know why I wanted to do some of the things. I just . . . do. All I can tell you is what I was thinking. That may not be, um, very clear."

"Even better," Mr. Knight said, surprising the boys. "That will certainly give us something to talk about."

The boys shrugged, but they nodded. Then Tris frowned again.

"What about Ca . . .you know?" he asked his mother.

"She can still come over to study, as we talked about," Mrs. Knight said. "But I'm afraid we're going to have to push her to accept your father in on the secret. I'll try to explain that to her - to make the point that a real family is stronger because of what each brings to the family. I'll want you to support me in that."

Tris nodded, but still had a concern. "What if she says, 'No'?"

"Then she will be here for a study session, just as we have told her own parents - and by the way, you will be studying when she's here. I won't lie to her parents. But I think it's reasonable to expect that we can talk during study breaks and so on. However, your father won't be part of that until she agrees."

"Who are we talking about?" Landon asked.

"None of your business, shrimp," Tris said, but he punched his brother in the arm in a friendly way. "Sorry, Landon, but I really can't tell you."

"I'll see who it is if 'she' comes over here."

"Yes, you will. And you'll keep your mouth shut about it, too," Tris said firmly.

"Tris . . ," Mr. Knight cautioned. Then he looked at Landon and said, "But I will expect you to respect this young woman's privacy. Even if you overhear something. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Landon said.

Mr. Knight helped his wife up from her chair, and then pulled the boys together into a family hug. "Guys, I know this hasn't been easy for you. I appreciate your honesty. Let's all decide to do better in the future. I promise that I'll listen to what you have to say, and even if - in the end - I can't agree to what you want to do, I'll try to explain why. Will that work for you?"

"Yes, Dad," they boys said together.

"Good," he said, releasing them.

"Goodness, after that, I feel the call of some ice cream," Mrs. Knight said. "Any other takers?"

It wasn't a question that needed an answer - at least, not any more answer than the quickness with which the boys headed for the kitchen.

Chapter 28 - "Auras and Arrows"

Joshua and Charlotte were the last ones to reach the Danner game room on the next Sunday afternoon. They were a bit surprised to see the Knight brothers there already, and even more surprised to see the Knight brothers looking so . . . ready. Tris wore pale gray jeans and a soft white shirt with full, blousy sleeves. His hair was down, and he wore small loop earrings instead of studs. It was about as close to his character as he could get without makeup and shimmery pantyhose. Landon also had his hair down, and was wearing hoop earrings. Like his game character Shimmer, his outfit was all black, including tight gloves.

"Hey, guys, what's up?" Joshua asked.

Tris pulled a lock of hair behind one ear, and smiled in a wry, subdued way. "We're grounded."


"We're grounded, except for the game," Tris repeated, then he explained about the family discussion. "So we spent a fair bit of Saturday talking, just as Dad said we would. And he agreed to let us . . . explore what it would be like to, um, do a few things like our characters. "

"Wow," Joshua said when Tris finished. "Did you tell him that your ears just ended up pierced after one of the game sessions? How did you explain that?"

"We didn't," Tris said. "If we'd have told him that the game is changing us - physically - even in real life, he'd have gone after the game console with a sledge hammer. We just let him think that we had done it ourselves. So it's like, since he thinks we really wanted longer hair and earrings, he's 'letting' us - meaning, expecting us - to wear styles more like our characters."

"Do you really want to look like Solace?" asked Charly, but her eyes were really on Landon.

"I don't know," Tris said. "Sometimes, it just seems like I do things on like, autopilot or something, without thinking about it. So I guess as some level, I must want to be more like her."

"I don't know either," Landon said, looking at Charly and blushing. "In the game, I get . . . involved in being Shimmer, but outside the game . . . I just don't know."

"So why are you grounded?" Charly asked.

"Well, they're upset that we just did some things on our own, without permission," Tris said. "But it's more than that. They're worried that if we're, y'know, different, people will pick on us."

Lucas looked like he swelled up in his seat and growled, "If anybody picks on you, just let me know."

"Thanks," Tris said, smiling appreciatively at his big friend. "But some of the things they're worried about are . . . worse than bullies. Even if you pounded them afterwards, it would still be a . . . very bad thing for us."

"Man, I didn't really think about that," Joshua said.

"I guess that's what parents do," Landon said. "Worry about things like that. He gave us a ride over here, and he wants us to call for a ride back."

The others nodded, then Lucas asked, "So, how long are you grounded for?"

"Until we finish the game," Tris said. "Or maybe until Dad leaves on his next trip. A couple of weeks, I guess."

"Then I guess we better get started," Lucas suggested.

Before they donned their headsets, Joshua set the CyberX game console to show the map of the Reality 2.0 worldspace. "Look at this," he said, zooming out to show the entire explored area. "Notice anything?"

"What are we looking for?" asked Lucas.

Joshua just paused for a moment, and it was Landon who finally made an observation. "The towns look sort of like a pentagon."

Charly nodded. "You're right. The sites for the quest rewards are scattered around a bit, but the towns are pretty much in the right places."

"Yes," Joshua agreed, "and each quest was fairly near one of the towns, even if they were on different sides of each town."

"Yeah, so?" asked Lucas.

"Well, 5 towns, 5 quests . . . where do we go next?"

"I don't know," Lucas said. "You're the brain."

Joshua shrugged, and then asked, "Do you remember what this last quest is for?"

"The Cunning of Loki," Charly provided.

"Right," Joshua confirmed. "Think about the ones we've done so far. What were we after?"

"Well, there was the Heart of Ymir, the Staff of Skadi . . ," Landon said repeating the list.

"Notice anything about those, that's different about the last one?" asked Joshua.

Lucas shrugged. "Man, if you got something to say, spit it out. I'm not into guessing games."

Joshua nodded. "All of them, except the last one, are things you can touch, or hold in your hands. But 'Cunning' isn't. And Loki was the trickster god in Norse mythology - somewhere between pranks and flat-out nastiness. I'm thinking that finding this is going to be more puzzle than battle, and that there's a trap in it somewhere, maybe several."

"You're probably right," Tris said. "But how does that help us find it?"

Joshua pointed at the map again. "Well, if we appear in the glade again, I'm betting it's somewhere nearby. That's the only place in the whole area without a quest - yet we've been there over and over. Maybe there's a hidden path out of the glade, or maybe there's some sort of magical clue that we have to puzzle out."

"Works for me," Lucas said impatiently. "Let's get on with it."

The others nodded and went about the familiar motions of donning their headsets. Without asking if the others were ready, Lucas hit the activation button and they endured the static of transition. When it cleared, they were indeed in the quiet forest glade, with Odin, Mattock, and Akeela patiently waiting.

"Welcome to Reality 2.0," Odin said with mechanical precision. Then, as was often the case, he fell silent.

"Any hints?" Rhialto asked, but it was clear that he did not expect a useful answer.

He was surprised. Odin said, "As a reward for your progress, new spells or skills are now available to you."

"Da . . . darn," Rhialto said. "I shoulda thought of that."

He, Solace, and Oakheart started immediately burrowing into their spell listings. Lucas frowned and looked bored, but Shimmer started looking through her own equipment.

"Hey, Shimmer," Lucas said. "We don't use spells."

"No," Shimmer replied, but . . ." With a flourish, she pulled out a close-fitting, soft helmet.

"What's that?" asked Lucas.

"I don't know," Shimmer said. "But it wasn't there before."

That sent Lucas looking through his own gear. When he looked up again, Shimmer had disappeared - which wasn't unusual.

"Cool," the warrior heard a voice say.

Looking at the apparent source of the sound, he saw Shimmer appear under the soft helmet, as though she had just lifted it from her head.

"That would be a tarnhelm, I think," Rhialto said, smiling. "You're really going to be hard to keep track of now."

"Cool," Shimmer said again, but she put the helmet away. "So, what did you guys get?"

Lucas came up with a helmet of his own, but when he put it on his head, nothing seemed to happen. At least, nothing from his point of view.

"Whoa, dude!" Rhialto said. Solace looked up and her eyes widened as well.

"What?" Lucas said.

Rhialto was busy casting a reveal spell, and in a moment he had his report. "Man, it looks like that helmet gives you about +20 armor, on everything. Your aura just glows."

"Yes!" Lucas said, grinning behind the T-shaped eye-and-nose slit.

The magic users found new skills of their own, but the crowning discovery was from Rhialto. "Oh, wow, look at this," he said. Of course his spells were indecipherable to any of the others, so he quickly blushed and reported. "With this, for a few minutes, everyone I cast it on gets +1 on all of their attributes. This could be awesome."

"I expect you're right," Oakheart said. "But does that show us how to find this last quest thing?"

"Maybe," Rhialto said thoughtfully. He walked around the little clearing, looking at Odin for any sign of encouragement. The old man saw his glance, and smiled.

"I will leave you to your search," the game master said. He faded away, leaving only one of his ravens perched in a nearby tree.

"So what does that mean?" Lucas asked.

"I actually think it's a good sign," Solace said. "If we were really wasting our time, I think he'd have given us another hint of some sort."

"Maybe," Lucas said doubtfully, but he didn't have any better idea so he walked over to a fallen log and sat down. "The one bad thing about all this armor is that it's heavy."

"Tell me about it," Solace said, grimacing. "I don't think I could stand up if I wore all that."

"Probably not," Lucas said smugly, his good humor restored by the chance to brag indirectly about his strength. As Solace knew it would be.

"Okay, let's try this," Rhialto announced. He motioned Solace and Shimmer to come to the edge of the clearing opposite the only apparent way out. In a few moments, he had the three of them arranged in an inward-facing circle, each with one hand on the next person's shoulder.

"Here's the plan," he explained. "Solace, you have the Circlet of Perception. See if you can get any sense of where the Cunning of Loki - whatever that is -might be found. Shimmer, you're good at finding treasure and loot, you do the same. I'm going to cast the enhancement spell on us."

His staff energized into a more frantic whirling, and in a moment an aura settled about them. It crackled and buzzed, but in a way that almost seemed to have a message in it rather than as distracting static. They concentrated fiercely for several minutes, but then the aura started to dissipate.

"No luck?" Rhialto asked.

"Nothing for me," Shimmer said, and Solace shrugged her own lack of response.

"Darn," Rhialto said. "I really thought that would work."

Oakheart walked over to the discouraged trio and said, "What about the things from this round of quests? Maybe the Eye of Heimdall will help."

"It disappeared," Solace said.

"Not entirely," Oakheart replied. "I think it got . . . merged with the Belt of Hlin. Maybe whoever wears the belt has like, enhanced perceptions or something."

"That's a good idea," Rhialto said. "Solace, you're the one with the belt, right?"

"Well, yeah," she said. "But it's too small for me, and it doesn't have any laces. I mean, the thing is a corset, not a belt!"

"I can handle the lacing thing," Oakheart suggested, pulling from a belt pouch a long line of thin leather.

"Your waist is smaller than mine, even though you're taller," Shimmer pointed out.

"Oh, all right," Solace said. "But I'm telling you, it's too small."

"Maybe we won't have to close it all the way," Rhialto said. "We'll try with it just snug."

She pulled the Belt of Hlin out of her pack and held it up to her waist.

"There it is again," Shimmer said, pointing at the front of the tall belt. "A star or sunburst pattern in the material."

"I wish I had a mirror," Solace murmured, trying to look down at her hidden waist. There was no hope to see past her very curvy figure, so after a moment she sighed and said, "Okay, Oakheart, try your lace."

"You might want to take off your vest," the ranger said as he approached. "I think you won't want the bulk between you and the belt."

"Oh, right," Solace said, taking off the embroidered garment and putting it in her backpack. The soft blouse was actually more concealing than the sharply-tailored vest, but the hints of shape within the flowing white material caused Oakheart's breathing to stop, and he dropped the lace.

"Sorry," he said, blushing fiercely, and carefully not looking - not staring, at least, because he couldn't entirely look away - at the hinted-at motion within her thin blouse when Solace looked down at him. He picked up the lace and walked around behind her.

The ranger quickly threaded two laces through the grommeted holes in the back of the belt, starting one at the top and one at the bottom, then moving toward the middle. When he had the back of the corset-like belt laced fully, but loosely, he said, "Here goes."

His strong hands pulled evenly and steadily at the ends near the middle of the corset-like belt for a while, leading Solace to gulp but not complain. With one hand, he held the slack he had gained while with the other he started working more slack to the middle.

"How'd you learn to do that?" Solace asked, just a bit breathlessly.

"I had . . .that is, Charlotte had to wear a costume in a play, once. It was a southern belle sort of thing, and we had a costume expert explain what to do."

By this time, Solace was more concerned with the sense of pressure around her waist than with historical accuracy, but she didn't complain.

:It actually feels kinda interesting,: she thought. :More like a full-body hug than a pinch.:

"Wow!" Rhialto exclaimed. "The belt - as it gets tighter - it looks like solid gold!"

"Really?" Solace asked, trying to look down - again - at her hopelessly hidden waist.

Solace tried to look down at her hopelessly hidden waist

"Is it hard . . . I mean, stiff . . . I mean . . . oh, hell, you know?" Rhialto asked, blushing so intensely it seemed to light up the interior of his cowl. "It looks like solid metal plate."

"Not . . . any more . . . than I expected," Solace gasped out. "I've never worn . . . anything . . . like this before . . . so I don't . . . really know."

"Is it heavy?" Shimmer asked. "If it's real gold . . ."

"Just about . . . like before," Solace said, closing her eyes and breathing carefully. Not that her attempt at calm helped any of the others. She was forced to breathe in a way that celebrated her . . . charms.

Then they were interrupted by Lucas falling off his tree log.

"Dude, I know who you really are in there," he said to Solace, "but that is soo hot! You look like . . . anyway, you're smokin' hot."

Oakheart pushed at the material with one lean finger. "I think this is still like, fabric. It's tight as a drumhead, but not hard like real metal. Man, this thing fits like it was made for you. Imagine that."

"How much more?" gasped Solace.

"How much can you stand?" Oakheart asked in turn. "It's not closed yet, but I don't know how much it needs to make a difference."

Shimmer looked at the front again, "Maybe all it needed was for the starburst pattern to appear."

"That's tight enough," Solace said, her breath coming in quick, short pulses.

"There's only about an inch left," Oakheart announced.

"Close enough," Solace insisted.

Oakheart tied off the laces and stepped back. "Whatever you say, milady. But I have to agree with Lucas. You look . . . awesome."

Rhialto asked, "You want to try again? I can see a golden aura about you."

"Thanks, I think," she said with a smile, then looked away with a renewed flush that wasn't all due to her breathing challenge.

"I, um . . . yeah, sure," Rhialto said, panting just a bit himself. He was certainly at least as red in the face as Solace was.

The three who supposedly had some magically aided ability to sense thing stood again in their close group. Rhialto recited his spell, and once again an enhanced aura descended about them.

"Wow," Oakheart said from outside the circle. "That star design on your belt is really bright."

Solace, eyes closed in concentration, didn't say anything at first. After a moment, she murmured. "I'm . . . getting something."

"Me, too," Shimmer whispered. "Maybe . . ."

"Try to join your perceptions," Rhialto said. "Like when you sent Vitality from that prince to the sick queen."

Solace nodded, her eyes still shut. A silvery shine from the starburst design on the belt started to focus on Shimmer like a spotlight, creating a halo around the dark thief's head that would have been too bright to look at if her eyes were open.

Shimmer's free hand, the one that was not resting on Solace's shoulder, began to lift in an almost lazy motion, drifting back and forth like a bit of cottonwood seed. It might not have been obvious to her even as it was happening, but Oakheart soon saw an anchor in the pattern . . . that despite the apparently aimless drifting, there was a center that drew Shimmer's hand back every few moments, every few movements.

Then the aura from Rhialto's spell began to fade. With it, the shine from Solace's belt also faded, and while it didn't go away, Shimmer's hand no longer seemed to have a focus.

"Da . . . dog gone it," Shimmer said. "I was close. I could feel it. I almost had a line on the thing. Or at least, on something."

"Actually, I think you did," Oakheart reported. "I was watching, and I think you were drawn to something over here."

The ranger walked over to a rocky wall. It was hard to tell if there were several rocks with trees and plants growing between them, or a single rock with enough dirt in the cracks to support the plants. But in any event, it didn't look like a passageway to treasure.

"I think this is my job," Shimmer said. She climbed the rock wall faster than Solace could have climbed a ladder. After a few moments, the lithe thief was calling down from above.

"Well, the best I can tell, this is one big boulder. There's no way in from the top, and unless there's a cave hidden under an overhang, there's no opening."

"I guess that makes this my job," Oakheart said in a deliberate copy of Shimmer's phrase. In moments, the ranger had disappeared into the thick forest at what they were calling the south side of the clearing. They couldn't hear the woodsman's silent passage, but Akeela's head slowly turned as they waited, until it was looking at the north side of the boulder. A moment later, Oakheart stepped back into the clearing. He looked at the others and shook his head. "There's nothing on the other sides. In fact, the dirt is piled higher on the other sides, so if there's a way in, it's probably here."

"I suppose we should try the sensing thing one more time," Rhialto said. "Only on the other side, or off to the side a ways so that we could triangulate on the location."

"Yeah," Shimmer said, "but I'll bet it's connected to this rock. Like you said, this place should be good for something."

"Let me try something," Oakheart said. He motioned the others back and pulled a special arrow from his quiver. "That one section of rock looks different. See how the largest bush on this side is right at the top of it? I wonder if the roots have worked down behind a thinner slab." With a quick chant, he energized the arrow and sent it at the massive boulder.

The arrow bounced back with even greater energy, striking straight at the ranger. It lodged in his stomach, and he just had time to grunt out an, "Oh, crap," before he curled his body around the shaft and fell on it.

Then the arrow exploded.

There wasn't enough of him left for Solace even to try to heal.

Chapter 29 - "Knocking On The Door"

Akeela started a mournful howl that hovered in the glade before flowing out into the surrounding forest. As though it were answered, an echo that seemed to be deeper and almost human came back. Akeela howled once more, then moved with his accustomed swift silence into the forest and disappeared.

"Not good," Lucas said, kneeling by the dead ranger. Then he stood and said, "Well, so much for that being the way in."

"Actually, it might be," Rhialto said. "Oakheart's logic was valid. And in fact, if it's protected by some sort of force shield - or whatever make the arrow bounce back - then it must be more than just a rock."

"Let me try something," Shimmer said. "All of you find cover."

When the team - at least the remaining members of it - were protected behind some of the massive trees surrounding the glade, the thief picked up an egg-sized rock and hurled it at the suspect part of the rock.

It was a good thing she had taken her own cover behind a thick trunk, because the stone rebounded like a bullet, burying itself inches into the tree.

"It amplifies the energy of the attack, and sends it back," Shimmer said.

"Then I don't think it would be a good idea to try a blast from my staff," mused Rhialto. "But I'm more convinced then ever that this is the right place."

Mattock, who was usually very placid unless directed to do something, marched up to the rocky wall and lifted his pick.

"No, Mattock," Lucas cried. "Don't hit it."

"Will. Not. Hit," the big computer-generated character said. "Will. Pry."

He carefully inserted the point of his pick into the roots of the bush at the top of the slab, and then put his shoulder to the other end of his massive tool. At first, nothing happened. And at second nothing happened either. A more imaginative person might have given up. But Mattock had never demonstrated much imagination. He kept straining at the handle of his pick, looking like he was ready to be a taut statue until the end of time.

And then it began to move.

The problem was that so did half the rest of the huge rock.

Lucas ran forward and jammed his shield into the crack what was appearing as the visible slab tilted slowly away from the wall. He managed to bridge the gap between the rocks on either side of the one that Mattock was moving, but it was clear that the shield was under a lot of strain - and not particularly happy to stay in the gap. The strong blond warrior's muscles knotted into twisted ropes, and his veins began to emerge from his arms like thick blue worms.

"See what's behind it," Lucas grunted.

Shimmer was already moving toward the slim gap, and though it looked too small to allow her past, she vanished into the darkness.

"There's room in here, but it's dark," her voice sounded, distorting enough with echo that they had to imagine as much as hear what she said.

"Should we go in?" Rhialto asked.

"That's my sister," Solace said simply, and pushed her way into the cave mouth. Rhialto started to follow, but Lucas interrupted him.

"I'm not going to be able to hold this much longer," he said through gritted teeth. "Let them get whatever is in there and get out."

"Hurry," Rhialto shouted. "Lucas can't hold it much longer."

Mattock finished moving the first rock out of the way, at least far enough that the opening would be wide enough for more than the women, and put his wide shoulder under one part of Lucas's shield.

"There's a passage in here," Solace's voice explained. "It leads down into . . . well, we can't see."

"Better get back out," Lucas called, his voice tight with strain.

"No," Shimmer said. "It's in here. I know it is."

Rhialto looked at his warrior companion and shrugged, then moved through the opening. He was barely inside when they heard a sharp crack. There was just enough time to see Lucas's shield split and a hopelessly huge pile of rock fill the opening they had just passed through.

Solace concentrated for a moment, and the end of her staff took on its fire-bright glow. Rhialto followed suit with the bluer glow of his own staff, and they looked around. The cave filled most of the space within the main rock they had seen - perhaps 30 feet across and a dozen high. The walls were uniformly massive, but there was an obvious enticement in the form of a hole covering about a quarter of the floor space.

"I hope Lucas and Mattock got free of that rock fall," Solace said, looking at the pile of stones that blocked their exit.

"Yeah," Rhialto said. "And I hope we can find another way out."

"I think that's my job," Shimmer said. She pointed at the hole, and pulled the rope out of her own pack. In moments she had made it fast to one of the uneven rocks jutting from the floor of the little cave, and positioned herself to descend down the open hole.

"Any idea how deep this is?" she asked, looking down into the darkness.

Rhialto made a few passes with his hands, and a ball of light appeared. It started to descend into the inky depths, illuminating unbroken walls far enough down that the distance became hard to estimate. Then it splashed.

"Oh, joy," Shimmer said quietly. "I knew I shoulda learned to swim better."

"Be careful," Solace said quietly, touching her sister on the shoulder.

"Careful is my middle name," Shimmer said. "Or would that be my last name, since . . ?"

She left the last part of the joke unsaid, smiling grimly at her healer-sister as she lowered herself down into the abyss.

"You may need to keep dropping those light balls," Shimmer said as she slowly lowered herself.

"I can do better than that," Rhialto promised. He made another series of gestures, and a new ball appeared. This one lowered to hover a foot or so above Shimmer's head.

"Thanks," she called, now down a dozen feet into the hole. She continued to lower herself until she was just above the swiftly flowing water of the underground stream. Shimmer twisted around, looking in all directions, until she found something.

She called up to her waiting friends. "Well, over to the side is a little ledge, and it looks like a passage leading off somewhere. I don't suppose that's a coincidence."

The petite thief started to swing on the end of her line. At first, it didn't do much good. Rhialto spotted the problem and called down. "Don't fight it. There's a characteristic frequency for the rope, and you need to work with it. It's gonna be real slow."

True to his analysis, Shimmer needed to be patient. Eventually she was able to find the right rhythm and get enough of a swing to reach the ledge. With her typical agility, as soon as she had a toehold she was able to lift herself onto the ledge, though she did get one of her boots wet.

"Doggone it," she complained.

"What's wrong?" Solace called down to her.

"Just got my feet wet," Shimmer replied. "Okay, the rope is secure, come on down."

The other two remaining team members made their way down the rope, ending up standing precariously on the small ledge with help from the casually balanced Shimmer. They started off down the passage, led by the nearly invisible thief.

"I wonder what the next trap will be," Rhialto said as they felt their way along. "It's been too long since the last one."

"I think you're right," Solace said. "Getting down into this tunnel was just difficult, not dangerous."

"Let me try something," Rhialto said, calling to Shimmer. The dark-clothed thief nodded and held her position. Rhialto consulted his spell book, and then went into a series of motions with both his hands and his staff while saying something that the others couldn't have pronounced even if they knew what it was intended to do. When he finished, something like a wave of pressure flowed out ahead of them, except they didn't really feel it as much as sense it in some other way.

As it passed, places on the tunnel walls started to glow with a sullen red hue. They faded after a moment, but the three explorers tried to note the positions.

"What were those?" asked Shimmer.

"Trap triggers, I think," Rhialto said. "I tried an identifier spell, but set to identify danger rather than value. I think those spots are places where some sort of magical sensor will trigger a trap."

"Can you disable it?"

"I don't know," Rhialto said doubtfully.

"I may be able to, now that I know they're there," Shimmer said. She approached the first spot cautiously and examined the apparently normal rock.

"There's something . . ," she said softly. "But I can't quite . . ."

"Let's try the attribute enhancement again," Solace suggested. Rhialto nodded and they formed their small circle. In a moment, the aura settled over them, and then the white glow from the Belt of Hlin focused on Shimmer's dark hair. Eventually, the thief nodded and took a small knife from her pouch.

"Stand back," she ordered, and when they were well clear she lofted her knife through the air, passing in front of the suspect patch of rock. As soon as it did, the space between the tunnel walls was full of phhttts as arrows criss-crossed to bound into the opposite side.

"Wow," Shimmer said. "Good thing you found those spots."

"Good thing we found those spots," Solace said. "We work better when we work as a team."

"Yeah, right," Shimmer said distractedly. She wasn't arguing, just focusing on the next spot down the wall. It was slow going because she needed to study each trigger and find out how to trip it. It wasn't always as easy as sending something through the magical equivalent of an electric eye. Once she made the others wait well back and flattened herself against the wall, doing a sort of snakelike crawl that seemed to support her off the floor despite the near-vertical slope of the side of the tunnel. It was only when she was past the trigger that she stood, took off her glove, and touched her bare fingers lightly on the spot.

After which another rockslide filled the passageway, nearly to the top, and all but the last foot or so of the distance back to the waiting Solace and Rhialto.

"It should be okay now," she said. "And I think there's enough space to get through."

Solace and Rhialto squirmed their way through the opening into Shimmer's side of the passage. The thief looked at them and said, "I think these traps are intended to be difficult, but not impossible. So when there's a rockslide, we should still be able to get past it. At least, I hope so."

"We wouldn't have made it this far without you," Rhialto said.

"Thanks," Shimmer said, smiling. "But that's what a thief is for." She looked at her big sister and said, "Remember to tell Dad that in the game, a thief is more like a spy or maybe a Mission: Impossible agent."

"Right," Solace said, smiling. "I'm sure he'll believe that."

"He probably will," Shimmer said, already studying the way ahead. "After all, he thinks this is just a game."

She moved cautiously forward . . . but it wasn't cautiously enough.

All of the sudden, Shimmer was just gone. One moment, she was flowing down the tunnel, not even seeming to leave tracks in the dust. And the next, there was a gaping hole that spread nearly from wall to wall.

"Shimmer!" Solace called, rushing forward.

It wasn't pretty. The little dark-haired thief lay sprawled on spikes of some sort of black glass. Solace slipped down to the floor next to her sister, trying to stay clear of the dangerous shapes.

"It was my fault," Shimmer said, gasping in pain. "I got so used to checking for magical traps, that I forgot to look for a simple fake floor. It was spider webs coated with dust, see?"

In her gloved fingers was a tiny scrap of woven threads.

"My fault," Shimmer said again, then closed her eyes.

"Help me," Solace called to Rhialto. "We have to get her off these things."

Rhialto slid down beside the healer and the managed to lift the small woman off the impaling spikes. Then they had to make their way out of the pit, with Solace first boosted by Rhialto, then - once the healer was on the more-or-less level floor - pulling her sister up beside her. Solace energized the healing aura from her staff and settled it on Shimmer.

"C'mon, sis, take a sip," Solace begged, putting her Tears of Eir potion to the unresponsive girl's lips. She coughed up a bit of blood as she tried to take Shimmer's damage into her own body, and other spots of blood seeped into her pale clothes from stab wounds on arms, legs, and shoulders.

"Solace, stop," Rhialto said softly, finally making his way out of the pit on his own.

"No," Solace snapped. "She's my sister!"

"Yes," Rhialto said gently. "But she's . . . not coming back."

"She has to," Solace said, coughing up more blood.

"Solace, she's not breathing, and if you take her damage into yourself, you'll just die, too."

"Fine," Solace snapped. She winced as she took more damage from the body of her sibling. In moments, her face was very pale, and showing a sheen of sweat that was at odds with the shivers that wracked her body.

"Solace, no!" Rhialto said more urgently. He tried to pull the healer away from her task. Solace resisted, but with a twisting moment to get away, she cried out in unbearable pain and then slumped over Shimmer's body.

Chapter 30 - "It's Alive"

The next thing Solace felt was the almost-familiar and not unpleasant feel of another's lips on her own - followed by the also familiar and not at all pleasant feel of her lungs inflating from the breath of another. Particularly since the Belt of Hlin encased enough of her waist that the inflation of her lungs showed in a dramatically heaving bosom. Her eyes flickered open and she saw Rhialto leaning over her, preparing to breathe for her again.

"Thanks," she said softly. "Again."

Rhialto nodded. "You stopped breathing after you passed out, but your heart was still beating. I don't know how to do any healing, so I just . . . tried to keep you alive until your own body healed."

As Solace became more aware of her situation, she realized that her head and shoulders were actually in Rhialto's lap, with his arms holding her in position. It probably wasn't the optimum orientation for CPR, but she didn't feel like complaining. In fact, she squirmed just a bit into a more comfortable position and smiled again at her rescuer.

"Oh, Rhialto, you are such a wonderful guy. I mean, Lucas tries. He wants to be a hero, not a bully, and he really tries to be honorable and brave, but he thinks with his . . . muscles. And Landon and Charly are still just kids. But you're wise and caring and kind and generous and helpful and all those Boy Scout things."

If she expected her compliments to please the wizard, she was surprised. As she listed his virtues Rhialto's brow wrinkled in a frown.

And then he leaned down and kissed her. At first, Solace was shocked, and the surprise lowered her defenses enough that it broke through her self-imposed rule not to 'snoop' on her friend's feelings - at least when he wasn't injured - and it came to her that Rhialto hadn't really been injured for a long time. Rhialto's true feelings flooded through her. There was naked, rampaging lust that threatened to consume her like a prairie wildfire. But there was also steel-hard control, and a sense of honor that did not diminish the physical explosion as it showed no matter how much the body desires raged, the mind was stronger still.

Then she forgot about Rhialto's emotions as her own devoured her. Places she hadn't even had until they started the game became hot, and hard . . . and moist and achingly empty. She arched up into his chest, burning points on her heaving breasts demanding to be touched. Her hips writhed against his leg, sensually yet with implacable demand.

Until Rhialto leaned back. He looked into her eyes for a long moment. "I'm not a 'Boy Scout,'" he said bitterly. "And I'm not a little puppy you can pat on the head, say, 'Nice Boy' and expect me to keep coming back for more."

With that he slid out from under her, not quite dumping her onto the floor of the cave, and moved over to pick up his staff. He looked into the pit that had claimed Shimmer, but it was clear that he wasn't really interested in whatever was down there.

Solace gasped and sat up, looking with new eyes at the wizard, trying to see the face that was so often hidden by his cowl.

She pulled her knees up and rested her chin on them. "Oh my god. I never knew . . . oh, god."

"Good," Rhialto said, a bitter twist to his smile as he looked back at her. He sighed and sat, letting his feet dangle in the pit. His gaze returned to the sharp shapes in the dangerous hollow, and when he spoke, it was as though he were talking to the floor of the depression. "Tris is my best friend, and a really good friend. He's creative, but he's willing to go along with another guy's ideas. He's cheerful and generous of whatever he has to give. And he's the kind that would back you without looking at the odds. I think his friendship is one of the most valuable things in the world . . . the real world. And I didn't want to do anything that might . . . risk it."

"Lately, when he's become more popular - thanks in part to the carry-over attributes from this game - I've been feeling like maybe I'm gonna be . . . left behind. Like he's gonna be some sort of famous leader that changes the world, and I'll still be the geeky kid in the hoody."

He looked at the seated girl and sighed again. "And you are all that Tris is . . . plus a whole lot more. Where Tris is loyal, you are noble and incredibly brave. Where Tris is generous you are self-sacrificing even to the point of death - and worse, even to the point of real, continuing pain."

Rhialto stood up and walked to one of the cave walls, leaning his head against the wall as though what he really wanted to do is slam his forehead into the unyielding stone. "Oh, god, Solace, you are so incredibly beautiful - both pretty beyond belief and truly beautiful in a way that only starts with what shows on the outside. I can't even . . . look at you without . . . or sleep without . . ."

His voice trailed off in despair. Solace closed her eyes and rested her cheek on her knees, not knowing what to say, yet knowing that she understood all too well.

Finally, with a voice that was barely above a whisper, she asked, "Rhialto, when you go back to being Joshua, what's different?"


"What sorts of things are different? How does it feel to be Joshua again?"

He shrugged, but he turned away from the wall. "I guess I feel pretty much the same, except that Rhialto is a bit stronger. And there's a sense of power from the magic that Joshua doesn't have."

She nodded, and stood up. Walking over to the wizard she looked him directly in the eyes. "And how do you feel about Tris. Does he . . . interest you like I do?"

"No!" Rhialto said sharply . . . then his eyes widened and he repeated, "No."

"It's the same for me, only more so," Solace said. "When I'm Tris, I do like looking better. Some of that is because when I feel closer to Solace I feel more in tune with others around me - that's the Empathy thing, I think. But I just like the feel of long hair, the way it swirls and the way it smells when it's washed clean and shiny. I like the sense of gracefulness I get when I wear boots with a bit of heel, and I like the sense of flowing curves I get when I wear jeans that fit and a soft blouse with full sleeves."

She reached up and touched his cheek with her palm, looking softly into his eyes. "But when I'm Tris, I truly don't feel . . . aroused like I do when I look at Rhialto."

"Aroused?" Rhialto repeated in a whisper.

"Oh, god, yes," she breathed, her eyes drooping. "Look, I don't know what all this means. But I do know that my sexuality is . . . consistent with my body. When I'm Tris, I may be a bit of a wimp, and I may dress . . . ambiguously, but my desires are all about girls. But when I'm Solace . . ."

She didn't say anything more. At least, not with words. But her palm slid behind Rhialto's neck and pulled his head toward hers. This time, their kiss was all tenderness and sharing, but it was richer and deeper than either could have imagined.

"Oh, god, what are we gonna do?" Rhialto said . . . after a long moment with more magic in it than the mage had ever cast.

Solace smiled, and leaned forward to kiss him again, but just a quick promise of what the future might hold. "I guess we need to see if we can find the Cunning of Loki. But first . . ." She gestured at the blood-stained parts of her outfit.

"Oh, yeah," Rhialto said. He cast his cleansing spell and all the blood stains disappeared, along with the dust in her hair and a smudge of dirt on her cheek. Her eyes seemed to sparkle with new life and energy, which he noticed first with pleasure and then with building distraction. "Y'know, I might just . . ."

He walked back over to the pit and looked down again. Now concentrating on the solution to a specific problem, his mind focused sharply. "Solace, go shine your staff light from the other side, will you?"

The healer did as requested, holding the bright end of her staff down in the jagged-toothed pit.

"There, do you see it?" Rhialto said. He pointed the end of his own staff at one side of the pit. "Over there . . . no, there. Geez, it's moving."

"What?" Solace asked, and then she saw a sparkle in the depths of the pit. "What is that?"

"I don't know," Rhialto said, "but I wonder . . ."

He looked across the pit at Solace and said, "What do you think the Cunning of Loki looks like?"

"I don't know," she replied.

"Think back on the first set of quests," he said, waving his staff. "The three parts joined together to make an item of power."

"Yeah, so?" Solace prompted.

"What's missing from the Belt of Hlin?" he asked.

"Nothing, except . . . are you talking about the laces?"

"Yes," Rhialto said. "And there's one more thing. All the other items have been 'things' that you can touch or hold. But 'Cunning' is an attribute of life."

"So you're saying that the Cunning of Loki is alive?"

"Maybe," he said. "Or maybe it's a sort of magical construct that's like life . . . something that can move."

They looked down into the pit again, moving around to one side where they could see the glittering movement more clearly. Rhialto poked the butt end of his staff at a bit of dusty web still clinging to the side of the hole. "Y'know, if Shimmer would have been more careful, enough to have made it past this trap, we might never have found the thing. I think that might be part of the 'trap' as well. If we're so careful we avoid this trap, we also miss the prize."

"Yeah, and maybe this pit is the 'trap' for the Cunning of Loki. I wonder if we should, um, let it out? I mean, if it's really in this pit for a reason . . ."

"Good point," Rhialto said. "So, what do you want to do?"

Solace looked thoughtful for a moment, then shivered with fear and a bit of disgust. "I guess I go down there - so the thing stays in the pit until . . . whatever happens - and . . . see what happens when I get close to it while I'm wearing the Belt."

"I'll come with you," Rhialto said.

"Maybe you need to stay up here, so you can, um, be ready in case you need to, um . . ."

"Not gonna happen," Rhialto said. "If something bad happens to you, then it's gonna happen to me, too."

"Thanks," Solace said, smiling at him.

She slid down the side of the pit, careful to avoid the sharp edges of glass, and moved slowly over to the slithering sparkle. Rhialto made his way to the other side so that they could surround the thing, and then slid down as well. When they were close, with their staff lights illuminating the dark hollows of the hole, they saw that the glitter looked like a rope or thread of flexible crystal.

"Well, I guess that makes it clear that it's supposed to be part of the belt," Rhialto said.

"Yeah," Solace agreed. As she spoke, the tangle of thread twitched, then an end raised up like a searching cobra. "Uh, oh. It looks like it knows we're here."

"You, anyway," Rhialto said. The twist of line that seemed to be the head of the thing stayed focused on Solace, so he moved behind it and reached down. When his hand was still several inches away, a spark jumped out and snapped at his fingers.


"Are you okay?" Solace asked.

"Yeah," Rhialto reported. "It just stung me."

"Well, I guess that means I need to be the one to reach for it," Solace said. When she approached, the snake-head curve raised even higher, but it stayed fairly passive, neither threatening to strike nor withdrawing. Solace closed her fingers where the neck of the thing would be, which prompted it to start flowing up her arm.

"It's okay," she said quickly when she saw Rhialto start to move toward her. "It's not too tight. It's just . . . using my arm for support."

The crystalline rope finished settling on her arm, and though Solace never let go of the part she held, the opposite end raised up in a repeat of the snake-head motion, as though the head of the thing were now at the other extremity. It continued to crawl up Solace's arm and shoulder until it reached the back of her corset- belt. When it reached the leather lace, it drew back, and then it struck at the leather two or three times in rapid succession - to no avail.

"Oakheart's laces are blocking it," Rhialto reported.

"See if it will let you take them out," Solace suggested.

Moving slowly, and keeping his hands low so that he could get to the laces in the middle of Solace's waist without getting too close to the animated string that rested on her shoulder, Rhialto undid the knot and started to loosen the tie.

"Oh, god, that feels good," Solace sighed. She tried to look back over her shoulder, conscious of the almost-living thing so close to her face. "It's not really that bad, y'know," she said, looking for something to say to fill the tense silence. "It's sort of like a long, constant embrace. But it is nice to be able to breathe easier."

"I hope the thing doesn't make it too tight," Rhialto said. "You had about an inch to go along most of the length."

"Don't remind me," Solace said with a wince.

This time, when Rhialto's hands got close to the waiting artifact, there was no spark of rejection. Solace put her hand to the front of the Belt to keep it in position without the support of the laces, and finally Rhialto pulled the last of the leather free. As soon as it was gone, the diamond-bright Cunning of Loki started to thread itself through the grommets, both ends at once, as though there were two heads on a burrowing snake or worm. It was hard to tell if the length of the thing was constant or whether it was stretching, but it seemed to be just long enough when it reached the bottom.

Then the two ends of the thread, both of them emerging from the lowest grommets on the corset, joined seamlessly.

"That might make it hard to take off," Rhialto said.

"What?" asked Solace.

While Rhialto was explaining his observation, it became clear that the artifact could indeed change its length. The sides of the corset-belt began to draw together.

"Oh, god, here it comes," Solace said grimly.

She wasn't really as ready for the Belt to be completed as she thought.

The Cunning of Loki maintained whatever tension was required to pull the edges together uniformly from top to bottom. Solace began to gasp with the increased compression, finally adjusting her breathing with a motion that Rhialto found both provocative and disturbing. He had to look away and so missed the direct impact of the final closure of the back of the garment. When the edges finally touched, they touched along the entire length simultaneously. An intolerably bright flash lit the space, blinding Solace and causing spots to jump in Rhialto's eyes.

His vision returned first, but when he looked at Solace, he looked away as quickly as he could.

"Sorry," he muttered.

"Wha . . ," Solace said, dazed, then she screamed.

"OhmiGod! What happened to my shirt?"

"I, um, don't know," Rhialto said, carefully looking away. Not that he really needed to look again. The image of Solace . . . displayed . . . over the top of the Belt of Hlin, was locked into a replay loop in his brain and wouldn't go away quickly.

"Can you help?" Solace begged, her hands trying valiantly to cover way too much feminine pulchritude for their dainty size.

"I can't, um, create clothes," Rhialto said. "Just, y'know, clean them up."

"Well, my vest is in my pack," Solace said.

"Oh, yeah," Rhialto said. He climbed out of the pit, carefully not looking in Solace's direction, and walked the long way around to her backpack. "I guess it, um, didn't want anything between you and . . . it."

"Ya' think?" she replied dryly.

Rhialto walked back, trying to avoid the pit without looking where he was going since where he was going was toward the most beautiful woman he had ever seen . . . who happened to be topless. Well, not really topless. Not by a very . . . large margin. Or two. Shirtless, though, and that was . . . more than . . . enough. He tried to extend the vest to the nearly-naked girl without looking, and almost lost his footing to fall into the spear-lined pit.

"Oh, hell, don't be an idiot," Solace said. "If you fall on the spikes we're both in trouble. Look where you're going."

"Sorry," Rhialto said, but he did look in her direction. In fact, the space around the edges of the pit near the cave walls was narrow enough that he really needed to watch where he was going, but he couldn't help looking at the more-provocative-than-nude form of the woman he knew he loved.

"Like what you see, Big Boy?" she teased, still holding her hands in front of her as best she could, but unconsciously letting a sensual hip sway out to increase the suggestion of her pose.

"Yes," he said bluntly, and with her tease he quit trying to pretend to be a gentleman. He looked boldly and unapologetically at her beautiful form, though a wince showed on his forehead even as he enjoyed the view.

"What's wrong?" Solace asked, sensing pain in the wizard.

"You should be able to figure that out," Rhialto answered. "Here."

He handed her the vest, then politely turned his back. After a moment, she cleared her throat, and when he looked back at the impossibly-pretty girl, she was covered - more or less. The vest was cut a lot deeper than her blouse had been, and it was more open on the sides as well. It seemed to fit her as perfectly as ever, though she was very aware that her body had been forced into a new shape. She pointed at a wide spot on the floor and motioned for him to help her up.

"Do you think it's okay to take that thing out of the pit?" he asked.

"Well, if we don't, then I'm going to be here a long time," she pointed out. He winced when she pointed out the inanity of his comment, then reached down a helping hand. Solace climbed out of the pit with surprising grace, considering that the belt of Hlin looked like solid gold plate and it was a wonder that she could move at all.

"So, how does it feel?" Rhialto asked, blushing a bit at the fairly intimate question.

"Not too bad," reported Solace. "It's quite a bit tighter than before, but it's pretty . . . even. More of a giant hug than any points that pinch or anything."

"Good," the wizard said.

Solace nodded. "I think if it didn't fit right, it would be torture, but I can handle this. Except . . ."


The pretty girl blushed - prettily - and looked down. "This vest is too . . . rough. It, um, itches."

"Oh," Rhialto said carefully. He couldn't help looking down, but then he raised his eyes to meet hers, and in a second they were both laughing so hard they could hardly stand.

"If you ever . . . ever . . . tell anyone . . ," Solace said, shaking a slender finger at him.

"Never," he said. "I promise."

Then he blushed, but he laughed again, "But I'll never forget, either."

"Oh?" she challenged, then giggled. "I guess I can't blame you for that."

She twitched with her own laughter, then sighed. "I think I need to put on that gown instead. Give me a minute."

"Your wish is my command, Milady," Rhialto said gallantly, then once again turned his back.

When Solace told him to turn around, he looked at her . . . and just froze.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing," he whispered reverently. "Not a single, solitary thing."

Then he shook himself, and looked carefully around the chamber, taking a few deep breaths and leaning on his staff. When he finally looked back, he asked, "Do you feel any, um, different because of the, um, magic of the thing?"

"Meaning, do I feel more cunning?" she asked with a grin. "No. I do feel a bit more aware of my surroundings. I think that's the Eye of Heimdall. And I've been thinking that the Belt has some armor or health properties ever since I put it on. But . . ."

She looked thoughtful for a moment, then went to her backpack. She retrieved her spell book and opened it up. "Whoa, cool. I can make out lots of new spells. Maybe that cunning thing has an effect after all."

"Good," Rhialto repeated, not really noticing the repetition as he looked around the cave. "Now what? I don't see a way out."

"Well, we've either just fallen for the worst trap of all - because this isn't really the Cunning of Loki - or . . I don't know."

Solace caused her staff glow to flare up even brighter and explored the limits of their stony chamber. Her inspection was not rewarded with any obvious escape. After a few minutes, she shrugged and looked at the wizard. "Any ideas?"

"Not really," he said. "Except . . ." Rhialto waved his hand by his ear, and Solace nodded.

"I hope this doesn't undo the quest, somehow," she said. "But we have what we came for, as best we can figure out, so . . ."

She pushed the button and the static took them away.

When they found themselves back in the Danner game room, the others were coming out of their own game immersion. Tris twisted in his seat, then frowned.

"Did you get it?" demanded Lucas.

"Yes," Tris said. His hand went to his waist, and he stood up.

"What's wrong?" Landon asked.

"I just . . . it's almost like I still have that stupid thing on. Does my waist look smaller to you?"

"Well, yeah," Landon said. "But you've been eating less, and just . . . I mean, you've been getting slimmer lately."

"But . . ," Tris said, feeling his waist. "Well, I guess it's nothing."

"What happened?" Lucas asked. "We got caught by the falling rock - or at least, nearly caught. Mattock and I got out, but just barely. My shield was wrecked, and I had a broken leg."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Tris said. "I, um, we couldn't get back to you."

"I died," Landon said flatly. "And it wasn't pretty."

"Oh?" Charlotte said, prompting more.

Landon described their adventure until he - that is, Shimmer - died. Josh picked it up from there, not including all of the details. When he got to the point where the crystal snake-thing joined with the belt, he left out the way Solace ended up dressed. But he couldn't help looking at Tris when he skipped over that part, and they both blushed.

"I wonder if this thing has a carry-over effect," Tris concluded. "I still feel . . . funny. Not as bad as it was when I was wearing the Belt of Hlin, but still . . ."

"Well, you look great," Joshua said, briskly. He started to gather up his things.

"So, are we done?" Lucas asked. "I mean, did we win?"

"I guess," Josh said. "We got the last thing, and it fit into the corset thingy, and . . . well, I don't know what else we need to do."

"Maybe we can get back into the game and ask Odin," Tris suggested. The others nodded and reached for their headsets.

After a few minutes, Tris said, "C'mon, Lucas, push the button."

"I did," Lucas reported. "Three times. Nothing's happening."

That started another round of reconfiguration within the group. Next they crowded around the game console, where they found a single screen with nothing they could change.

"Congratulations, Adventurers," the screen displayed. "You have successfully completed this beta test of the Cyber(Xtream) video game system. You will be contacted soon with prizes and additional opportunities."

Chapter 31 - "Summer Job"

Monday started out pretty well, for a Monday. Tris didn't have any real trouble hiding his slim waist from his parents Sunday evening, though his appetite was a bit suppressed. And he felt a bit stiff, but maybe that was just his mind playing tricks. Anyway, the sense that he still wore the Belt of Hlin was one issue that turned out to be a non-event.

When he was in the shower, he decided to clean up his legs and armpits again, even though it had only been a couple of days. It just felt better to be neat and tidy. Then he even had a good hair day. His hair dried thick and soft and shiny and it seemed like a shame to tie it up into a ponytail, but he managed a style that wasn't too severe around his face. He even tricked a little 'Superman' curl down on his forehead to make it more interesting.

School was no problem. Two of his classroom teachers and another in the hallway complimented him on his good posture - like he had any choice. And two tests that he had been dreading turned out not to be too bad. :Cunning of Loki?: he wondered, but he decided to take what he could get.

Monday evening was back to normal - more or less - at least through dinner. Then things got interesting.

Mr. Knight was helping him research some American History questions on the Internet when the doorbell rang.

"Are you expecting anyone, Caleb?" Mrs. Knight called as she moved to the door.

"Not tonight," Mr. Knight replied, joining her.

Tris's room faced the front of the house so he snuck a peek out the window. Pulled up at their curb was a big, black limousine. It wasn't one of those absurdly stretched things that look like they should have 4 or 5 doors down each side. It was one of the really high-class limousines used by top business or government executives. :Government,: Tris decided. :It has those little flags on the front bumpers that mean this guy is some sort of official. I don't recognize the flags though - some kind of black birds - so he must be a foreigner.:

There was even a driver in a Men-In-Black uniform standing by the car. Complete with dark shades. For a minute Tris thought it looked like . . . :Nah, not possible,: he decided.

But it did make him curious, so he went down the hall to see who wanted to see them, yet was powerful enough to rate a fancy car like that.

The man was stepping into the house, obviously at the invitation of Mr. Knight, and Mrs. Knight was taking his coat. Mr. Knight was looking at a business card the guy must have handed him.

:That almost looks like . . . nah, it can't be,: Tris told himself again. The man was obviously rich. His suit was tailored perfectly, and had a somewhat old-fashioned vest with pocket chain. He had a neatly trimmed white beard to go with a full, but also well-trimmed head of white hair.

"Mister . . . I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I know how to pronounce this," Mr. Knight was saying. "I'm not familiar with the, um, type font."

"Odin Aesir," supplied the man, with a smile that Tris recognized instantly. As a confirmation, the man turned enough that Tris could see his full face, revealing that he had a neat patch over one eye.

"Odin?" Tris repeated.

"Tris, you know better than that," Mrs. Knight said.

"Oh, I'm sorry, sir," Tris said quickly. "I was just . . . I mean, I've, um, heard that name before."

"Yes, I'm sure you have," the man said, repeating his smile - only this time it wasn't the mechanical perfection that the first one had been. It was even a bit lop-sided, with a wry twist that made it seem like he was sharing a secret with Tris.

"What can we do with you, Mister, um, Eezer?" Mr. Knight asked.

"Actually, it's something that I hope Tris will be able to do for me," the man said. "Along with Landon."

"Indeed?" Mr. Knight said. "Excuse me."

He called up the hallway to his other son, "Landon, why don't you join us?"

Landon flowed down the hallway with deceptive speed - until he pulled up abruptly when he saw their visitor. "O . ."

He was interrupted by a swift elbow from Tris, who exchanged a warning with a glance.

Mrs. Knight led them into the family room, where she invited Mr. Aesir to sit in her chair. The boys joined her on the couch, while Mr. Knight took his usual place.

"So, what can we - or my boys - do for you?" Mr. Knight asked again.

"Are you familiar with the game that Tris and Landon have been playing?" Odin asked.

"A little," Mr. Knight replied cautiously. "I understand the boys, along with a few of their friends, have been participating in a beta test of a role-playing game."

"Exactly," Odin said, smiling again with another original and distinct expression. "Let me start with the news I'm sure you will find pleasant."

He pulled out an envelope from his inside jacket pocket and handed it to Mr. Knight. "Tris's team - I'm not sure you realized that Tris was the team leader for the game test, but he has demonstrated excellent leadership abilities - his team has succeeded beyond my most optimistic expectations."

By this time Mr. Knight had the envelope opened and took out two checks. His eyes widened at the amount on each, and at the names on the payee lines.

"I think you will find that their game reward will pay for at least a semester of tuition at nearly any school they choose to attend," Odin explained. "More if you choose to go to a state university."

"Yes . . ," Mr. Knight said, a bit dazed. He handed the checks to Mrs. Knight, who had her own eye-opening moment before passing them along to the boys.

Odin turned to look directly at Tris and Landon. "The next best team, comprised in part of semi-professional gamers who are very experienced in virtual environments, has been unable to complete the quests so far, and your team did each one without a single failure. I think that is rather remarkable."

He turned back to Mr. Knight. "It is so remarkable, in fact, that I want to offer your sons a job."

"A job?" Mr. Knight repeated.

"Yes," Odin confirmed. "A summer job, of course. I would not want to interfere with their education. However, if you agree, I'm sure you'll be satisfied with their compensation. As a rule of thumb, I would pay them enough to cover a full year of university tuition, books, etc. for each summer they work for me."

"What would they be expected to do?" Mrs. Knight asked.

"Just what they have been doing," Odin said with yet another smile. "They'll be going on quests, solving riddles, defending the innocent against monsters and evil-doers. All in what we call Reality 2.0, of course."

"How much time would this take? So far, they've been doing this on Sunday afternoons. Will that be enough?" Mrs. Knight asked, frowning.

"No, I'm afraid not," Odin said indulgently. "In fact, this will be a full-time job over the summer. I'll expect them to come with me to my homeland, which is a minor province in Scandinavia. They'll be able to call or write to you as often as they want, of course, and they'll be able to come home if they change their minds about the job. I'll post whatever guarantees - return tickets and such - that you desire. And I can provide proof of my good faith through any of several embassies."

"I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the boys going out of the country," Mr. Knight said. "Particularly Landon. He's only thirteen."

"I'll be almost fourteen by then," Landon claimed.

"Almost fourteen," Mr. Knight said, accepting the correction with a smile though Landon had just passed his thirteenth birthday.

Odin was smiling sadly, but shaking his head. "I'm afraid that it must be both or neither," he said. "In fact, I will be contacting the other players and their families, and it is all or nothing for the entire team. I am sure that a major contributor to their success is their excellent teamwork and unexpectedly well-balanced set of skills. If the team cannot remain together, then I don't think it would be a productive use of their time."

"I see," Mr. Knight said. "Have you talked to any of the other parents?"

"No," Odin said. "Tris is - as I said - the cornerstone of the team. If you are not interested, there is no point in contacting any of the others. Yet I feel confident that if you allow Tris and Landon to participate, the other parents will be guided by your example."

Tris started to raise his hand, then blushed at the school-honed reflex. But he had their attention so he asked, "Will we be playing the same characters as we did in the beta test?"

"Of course," Odin said. "As I said, it is the unique balance of your team, as well as the courage and skill of the individual players, which made you so successful."

"That means I - that is, we - will still have to be girls, right?" Tris asked.

Odin nodded. "For the time you are in the game, you will be Solace, just as Landon will be Shimmer."

"You expect my sons to pretend to be girls all summer?" Mr. Knight said in surprise.

"Only for the time they are in Reality 2.0, of course," Odin said. "And if you're thinking that this might lead to . . . unwanted situations, then let me assure you that Reality 2.0 is intended to be a PG, or at most PG-13 environment. None of the situations will require a full realization of the differences between young men and young women. It is important to the development of Reality 2.0 that we have a balance of male and female avatars, but nothing more than that. Furthermore, they will have - as they have had so far, though they did not know it - an adult player as a full-time member of their team. And as a chaperone "

"Mattock!" Tris said. "I thought that was him outside."

"Yes, it is," Odin confirmed.

Mrs. Knight looked at her sons -particularly at Tris - and frowned. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with Tris pretending to be a girl - or a young woman, as you say. There are already . . . influences in his real life."

"Are they undesirable?" asked Odin.

"Not all of them, certainly," Mrs. Knight said. "But he has adopted some . . . ambiguous elements that might lead to difficulty."

"Hmm," Odin said. "Well, you can consider this a sort of training period. The boys, and the others on their team, will return to you fit from an abundance of healthy exercise - mostly hiking, some martial arts, some community assistance projects. They will find the work mentally challenging and educational. You can consider this a combination of something like your "Outward Bound" programs, or perhaps the Peace Corps, except that they will be paid quite a bit better than any government program. If they immerse themselves in their roles, I'm sure the boys can deal with any residual effects, right?"

His last question was directed at Tris, and Odin's eye twinkled as it focused on the young man's erect posture and unseen waist. Tris twitched in his seat, but he didn't object.

Odin stood up. "I don't want this to become a crass, mercenary situation. I think the boys will have a good time, and return to you more mature, with cosmopolitan experiences shared by few of their peers. They will have excellent resumes when the time comes to select a university, or seek employment. And I truly believe that any . . . discoveries they make about themselves along the way will be worth knowing. Don't you?"

"I suppose so," she said, rising with her guest. Mr. Knight stood as well.

"When do we have to let you know?" he asked.

"I will contact you for your decision one week from today, if that is acceptable?" Odin replied.

"Very well," Mr. Knight said. "And regardless of what we decide, thank you for your generous offer."

Odin nodded, and smiled at Mrs. Knight, who had retrieved his overcoat. As he was putting on his outerwear, he asked, "Would you mind if the young men walk me to my car? I'm sure they would like to talk to their friend Mattock in his normal mode."

"Of course," Mr. Knight said. "And again, thank you for your offer."

Odin shook his hand, and then surprised them with an equally practiced kiss of Mrs. Knight's hand. Nodding again to them both he stepped from the doorway, escorted by Tris and Landon.

As soon as they were away from the doorway, which closed behind them, Odin's eye sparkled again and he asked Tris, "So, how do you like wearing the Belt of Hlin?"

"I thought I still had it on!" Tris said. "I mean, it's not quite as tight, and not as stiff, but . . ."

"Yes," Odin agreed. "The carry-over is not complete, but you will receive much of the benefit - and of the . . . challenges - as would result if you actually wore it in this reality."

"I've got to get out of this thing," Tris said. "When my mom sees my waist, she's gonna have a fit."

Odin smiled, and lifted an eyebrow in gentle reproof. "Has anyone noticed yet? They can be looking right at you, and not see anything except an erect posture and a trim waist. In fact, anything you do that makes you more like your avatar characters will seem unremarkable to anyone who is not associated with Reality 2.0."

"How do you do that?" Landon asked. "Is it really magic?"

"That creates an opportunity, young man," Odin said. "Look up the writer Arthur C. Clarke. He has formulated what are known as 'Clarke's Laws,' one of which addresses magic. You will find it applicable enough."

Tris nudged Landon and said, "Or just ask Josh. I'll bet he knows without looking it up."

"Yes," Odin said, smiling paternally again. "I expect you're right."

Mattock took off his dark glasses as the boys approached and offered his hand to each as though they were peers. "Solace usually is," the big man agreed. "She makes a good team leader."

"I can't believe you were pretending to be a dumb ol' computer character," Landon said.

"I thought I overdid it frankly," Mattock said with a smile. "I mean, if characters like the customs official were computer-generated and seemed like real people, then I thought I could have made a bit more positive contribution. But the boss said no."

"As I'm sure you will understand when you think about it for a few minutes," Odin claimed. Then he became more serious. "So, my young friends, what is your decision? Will you continue to be Shimmer and Solace?"

"Sure!" Landon said enthusiastically. "Even though I got killed in that last mission, and believe me that was no fun, the whole Reality 2.0 is way cool!"

"What is Reality 2.0, really?" asked Tris.

"It is really . . . another example of the Clarke's Law I mentioned," Odin said. "In short, it truly is another reality. And you truly do travel there when you are in the game. That is why, when you come back, there are sometimes residual effects. Reality itself is being redefined. And there truly are problems to solve in that Reality. Problems that require a team of your demonstrated competence. It is as easy to say 'magic' as explain in terms that are any more meaningful than that."

Tris nodded, looking thoughtful. He looked at Landon and said seriously, "Landon, don't you ever repeat what I'm about to say. Not to anyone. Especially not to Mom and Dad, okay?"

The younger boy nodded, but that wasn't good enough for Tris. "Promise, out loud, and in front of Odin and Mattock."

"I promise," Landon said, eyes wide and expression serious.

Tris turned back to Odin. "Yes, I want to go back to Reality 2.0. Maybe too much. I really like being Solace, even though sometimes it hurts. But on the last quest . . . I may end up . . . losing myself in Solace, and it scares me."

"A wise observation," Odin said, patting Tris on the shoulder. "And I won't tell you that the risk is not real. All I can tell you is that any changes you make will be because you want to make them. And in the end, I promise that whatever you choose - whatever you think will be best for you, and for your loved ones - I will make possible to you."

"Wow," Tris said. "That's a lot to think about."

Odin nodded, and motioned for Mattock to get the door to the limousine. He entered the limousine and allowed Mattock to close the door. As the big man walked around to the driver's door, the window slid down between Odin and the boys. "Now I will be unfair, but you will find that life is often unfair, either in Reality 1.0 or 2.0. Consider what would have happened to Caitlyn if you had not . . . stretched your empathy skills. Both Reality 1.0 and 2.0 have need of your special skills. Think of that as you decide. If need be, remind your parents of it."

With that, Odin leaned back in his seat and nodded to Mattock to drive.

"Wow," Landon said. "That's serious stuff."

"Yes," Tris said thoughtfully, watching the car pull away.

Chapter 32 - "Abuse"

School was pretty anti-climactic the next day. The worst part was that Tris and Landon couldn't tell anyone else about the job offer. No one outside the team could be told in any event, and after a couple of minutes they knew that Odin had not contacted either the Kinnisons or the Danners yet. So the brothers went through the day chewing on their tongues to keep from blurting out their amazing opportunity.

Tris remembered to get with Caitlyn after school and bring her along for their study session. She didn't exactly hide from Tris, but she waited for him to approach her, and she was even more quiet than usual when he did.

"Hi, Catie," Tris said.


"Are you ready for our study session?"

"I guess so," she said tentatively. "I wasn't sure we were . . . I mean, isn't your father home now?"

"Yes," Tris said. He dropped his voice and continued. "And I really think you should tell him, too. He's a really great guy, and he listens well, and he just . . . figures things out. I'm sure he could help."

"I don't know," Catie said, backing away a little. "I mean, I told you and then it was your mother, and now you want to tell someone else . . ."

"Actually," Tris said gently. "I don't want to tell anyone. I want you to tell my Dad. Mom won't tell him, and neither will I. We promised to keep your secret and we have - and we will. But I think you should tell him. Geez, Catie, Senators and like, really important people come to him for advice. I'll bet he can help. And I know he cares. But he's careful, too. He won't get you in trouble."

"I don't know," Catie said again, but she didn't back away any further. After a moment, she shrugged. "I guess, if it's just your family . . ."

"Good," Tris said. "But I'm not letting you off the hook about talking with the counselor, or maybe an outside counselor."

"I don't have the money to go to anyone outside," Caitlyn said. "It took me three months to scrape up enough for the . . . y'know."

Tris nodded, trying to keep his expression neutral. "Well, that would be something to talk about. Maybe Dad knows about some sort of program, or free clinic or something. I know he works on that sort of thing all the time. But the school counselor is free."

Catie frowned at the repeated suggestion, but then she shrugged again and looked a little more hopeful. "I'll think about it."

"I'll expect more than just a vague promise," Tris said sternly. Then he laughed. "But not right away."

They arrived at the Knight home in time for Caitlyn to help prepare supper. Tris was not spared, nor was Landon. It was a family task, and no one noticed - they were very careful not to notice - the times when Caitlyn would stop for a moment to look at Mrs. Knight, or at the boys, and wipe at her eyes.

She had been politely introduced to Landon as soon as she arrived, but the younger boy was ushered out of the dining room after the meal was finished so that it could be transformed into a study hall. The topic was geography, and Tris worked with Caitlyn through a series of 'puzzles' to identify some feature of the world through clues. The teacher had made it clear that working together was acceptable, but that the same sorts of questions would be asked on upcoming quizzes so that anyone who just copied would have a very hard time.

After an hour or so, Mrs. Knight re-entered the room, "Are you two about ready for a break?"

"Sure," Tris agreed quickly, sitting back and stretching. "We're about done with this anyway."

"You're really good at this," Caitlyn told Tris.

"Me," he asked in surprise. "You're the one who found all the answers."

"Oh, that was easy," the girl said. "It was figuring out the clues that was tough. Once we knew what to look for, the rest was easy."

"I'm glad you two work well together," Mrs. Knight said, smiling. Then she looked more serious and sat down at the table.

"Caitlyn, have you thought about letting Mr. Knight in on your situation?"

"Yes, ma'am," Caitlyn replied quietly. She smiled a quick smile at Tris and added, "Tris was pretty convincing. I guess . . ."

She ran down into silence, and started to blink rapidly. Her voice came out in a whisper, "I guess . . . I've never been able to . . . trust my parents . . . that . . . much."

By the time she finished, tears were running down her cheeks and Tris was holding her shaking shoulders.

"I guess that's what we need to talk about, then," Mrs. Knight said. She stood, patted Caitlyn on the shoulder gently, and left the room. In a moment, she returned with Mr. Knight.

He sat at one of the chairs in a relaxed, casual posture that showed lots of patience, yet with attentive, inquisitive eyes. It was the first time that Tris had seen his father 'at work.' At least, it was the first time when Tris had not been the subject of his father's focused attention. Tris could see how people would believe that his father was a good consultant. He looked like he would listen rather than try to force a preset idea on someone, and before he said a word Caitlyn was being encouraged to speak freely.

He did start the discussion, though. "Caitlyn, I understand you have a problem. I truly think we can help, whatever it is. Why don't you tell us what's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" Caitlyn repeated softly. "I killed my baby, that's what's wrong!"

Her voice rose in volume as she made her claim, becoming a wail that left her rocking in anguish, her arms wrapped around her waist even as Tris's wrapped again around her shoulders.

Mr. Knight's face had become professionally neutral as Caitlyn gasped out her revelation, but he didn't say anything. His silence was a vacuum that pulled an explanation out of Caitlyn - more, in fact, than she had shared with either Tris or Mrs. Knight. They finally found out the name of the boy who had rejected Caitlyn and her child, though true to her earlier claim, the name itself meant nothing to any of the Knights.

After the heartbroken girl's voice trailed off into silence, Mr. Knight gave her a while to recover, and to see if there was anything more she wanted to say.

Her silence finally drew words from Mr. Knight, but it was a question. "Are there any problems from the . . . ah, procedure?"

"No, not really," she said. "I mean, not physically. And . . . well, it's done. I know that. Maybe I shouldn't have done it, but being with Steve was the real mistake, and if . . . . getting an abortion was wrong, it's part of that bigger mistake."

She tried to square her shoulders and sit up straighter, accepting the situation. "It's done. I know I need to go forward - and for da . . sorry, for sure not to make a mistake like that again."

"That's a . . . wise attitude," Mr. Knight said. "But I know it's not as easy as that."

"Yeah," Caitlyn said, shortly, looking down at her twisting hands.

"Caitlyn?" Mr. Knight said, pulling her eyes away from her hands and back to him. "If you have, ah, accepted what has happened, then . . . what do you think the problem is now?"

The girl blushed and looked back at her hands. Silence stretched on so long that Tris was desperately trying to think of something to say, but his parents sat there with what seemed like infinite patience. Finally, Caitlyn started to speak, her voice low and her attention apparently on her hands alone, as though she were talking to them.

"I'm afraid, that if I . . . move on, and like . . . do what Tris wants . . . that my father will start . . . . spanking me again."

The Knight parental units spoke together, though each had focused on a different aspect of Caitlyn's revelation.

Mr. Knight's voice was a fierce growl, "Your father spanks you?!"

Mrs. Knight's voice betrayed hurt and worry, "Just what did Tris ask you to do?"

Caitlyn flinched at bit at the sharp questions, but then she smiled shyly and looked at Mrs. Knight. "Tris just asked me to let my hair grow out again, and y'know, not to dress like I was . . . ashamed of who I am."

Mrs. Knight looked relieved, yet even as her initial worry was resolved another worry replaced it. "I guess I'm confused, then. Your father doesn't want you to look nice?"

"No," Caitlyn said, "I mean, that's not it. He complained when I cut my hair, and when I started wearing loose clothes to conceal . . . you know. Except he didn't know that's why I was doing it, of course."

"So, what's the problem with doing what Tris asked?" Mrs. Knight said.

All she received in answer from Caitlyn was a fierce blush and an even more tense strain at the white knuckles of the young girl's hands.

Mr. Knight returned to his question, but in a very soft, very neutral tone, "You said your father spanks you?"

"He used to," Caitlyn confirmed. "Me and Mom, whenever he decided we were bad."

"Your mother, too?" Mr. Knight confirmed.

Caitlyn nodded. "Mom has a, um, back problem, and she takes pain pills - prescription pills. Sometimes that makes her like, forgetful, and if she forgets something, Dad, y'know, spanks her."

"And you?" Mr. Knight asked.

"Yes," Caitlyn said, blushing fiercely again. "Or at least, he used to. Once I cut my hair and started getting fat - at least, that's what he thought - he didn't do it as much. He hasn't done it for a while, but . . ."

Caitlyn made a helpless gesture down her improving figure.

Mr. Knight looked at his wife, and pointed at the young girl with his eyes. Mrs. Knight took over the questions in a gentle voice, almost as though only the two of them were in the room. "How does he spank you, Caitlyn?"

"With his hand," Caitlyn replied, looking at Mrs. Knight as though she were grateful for a chance to look away from the males in the room.

"Does he . . . do anything to your clothes?" Mrs. Knight asked carefully.

"Not any more," Caitlyn said. "Not since I was little. I mean, if I had a jacket, or a loose skirt that could be pulled up - like Momma wears most of the time - he'd, y'know, get that out of the way, but he doesn't like, make me take my pants down or anything."

"I see," Mrs. Knight said, still very careful. "And he, ah, stopped this when you started dressing less . . . attractively?'

"Yeah," Caitlyn confirmed. "Maybe it's because I was, um, sorta quiet. I was . . . pretty down for quite a while, and so I wasn't doing much of anything that he could complain about."

"I see," repeated Mrs. Knight. This time it was her turn to send a message to her husband with her eyes, and without a word Mr. Knight gathered up Tris and they left the kitchen.

"Tell me the rest of it, dear," Mrs. Knight ordered once the men - young and old - had left.

Caitlyn's eyes filled with tears again, and she seemed to shrink in on herself.

"It's nothing," she whispered.

Mrs. Knight showed more of her seemingly infinite supply of patience, but with that she also showed determination that Caitlyn knew was just as infinite.

Caitlyn's whisper was so soft that Mrs. Knight had to lean close to hear her. "When he spanks Momma, he . . . rubs her . . . her rear. He says it's to see if she's . . . 'done.' Spanked enough. Hot enough, I think."

She paused, and took a deep breath, then words started to spill out - still very soft, but very quick. "When I . . . grew, he started rubbing me, too. And I noticed that . . . I mean, I was laying across his lap, and I noticed that he got . . . aroused."

Mrs. Knight gasped, but she turned that into a deep breath, and then another.

And then another.

Finally, she whispered to Caitlyn with almost as quiet a voice. "Did he ever . . . do anything . . . more?"

"No," Caitlyn said quickly. "But . . . there were times when - after he spanked Momma - he would send her to bed . . . and then follow her."

She finally looked up to make eye contact for the first time in what seemed like a very long time. "I didn't really make the connection, not like . . . really understand, y'know? Until I realized that he wasn't doing it when I was . . . fat. Now that I'm . . . now that my figure is getting better again . . . I wonder if he was only spanking me because I was bad, and if not . . ."

That started her tears again, and a shudder as she pulled her legs up and wrapped herself up into a ball.

Mrs. Knight held her for a time that neither cared to end. But eventually Caitlyn's shoulders quit shaking and she was able to look up at Mrs. Knight. "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Knight. I shouldn't be such a bother. I'll be all right."

"Oh, you'll be all right," Mrs. Knight said firmly. "But you're not a bother."

The woman held Caitlyn's shoulders in her hands, forcing the young girl to look directly at her. "Do you remember when I asked if your, um, boyfriend was your own age?"

Caitlyn nodded, so Mrs. Knight continued, "I accepted what you said, but that's the only reason I didn't pursue something a lot more dramatic. You're underage, Caitlyn, and anyone - anyone! - who touches you sexually is committing a crime. A crime. And I won't stand for it!"

"But, what can I do?" Caitlyn asked plaintively.

"Well, for one thing, we need to tell Mr. Knight."

"Oh, I couldn't do that," Caitlyn said quickly.

Mrs. Knight looked at her sympathetically and nodded. "I can understand that. It would be very hard for me, too. But I want your permission to tell him."

"My permission?"

"From the time I had him leave with Tris, this became just between us," Mrs. Knight explained. "It's still our secret, and I won't break your confidence without your permission. But I want you to let me tell him. I think it will be easier if I do the talking this time, but I think you should be here when I tell him."

"What will he do?"

"Something effective," Mrs. Knight promised. "I don't know what, but I'm sure it will be useful, and that you will agree."

Caitlyn looked up at her, hope warring with hopelessness in her eyes. She looked at the doorway that the Knight males had passed through, then back at Mrs. Knight. Finally, she nodded.

"Caleb," Mrs. Knight called out, "would you come in here, please?"

Mr. Knight arrived quickly, though with no sense of hurry. He broadcast comfort and quiet confidence, nodding at his wife and taking his seat again. Tris followed him in.

"Tris," Mrs. Knight said, "I don't think you should be here for this. I'm sorry."

Tris looked at his mother, then at Caitlyn. "Catie, I'll leave if you want me to, but if you're about to tell them that your father has been abusing you, I already know."

"You know?" Caitlyn repeated in surprise. "How?"

"Maybe I should have said that I figured it out," Tris said. "You've told me several times that you were worried that your father would kill you - that's exactly what you said, that he would 'kill you' - but I didn't get the sense that it was physical danger that bothered you. That leaves . . . a different kind of abuse."

"Is this true?" Mr. Knight asked Caitlyn.

"Pretty much," Caitlyn said, then she looked at Mrs. Knight.

Mrs. Knight looked at her son, then sighed. "Well, if you're that sure you figured things out, you probably better hear the real story so that you don't over-react." She proceeded to tell them what Caitlyn had recounted to her. Through it, Tris looked as though his own heart were being tortured with Caitlyn's pain. The expression on Mr. Knight's face started out sympathetic, but it was well into anger before Mrs. Knight was finished.

The first thing he said was to Caitlyn, "First off, young lady, you are not a 'bad' girl, and spanking of grown children - let alone adults like your mother - is neither effective discipline nor acceptable behavior. Your father is wrong. I'm sorry to undermine his parental authority like that, but this has to stop. How long has it been since he has spanked you?"

"A few months," Caitlyn said.

Mr. Knight's frown didn't lessen, but it seemed to turn inward. "I'm afraid that it would be very difficult to get you removed from that . . . person's household on the basis of what you've told us so far. Not that I doubt a word of it. But courts move slowly even with evidence a lot more compelling that you can provide."

He sat and thought for a few minutes. Then he surprised them all with what seemed like a non sequitur. "What are your best subjects in school?"

"School?" Caitlyn repeated. "I guess . . . social studies of one sort or another. Geography, or Civics, or maybe History."

"Good, good," Mr. Knight murmured, more to himself than to her.

After another moment, he looked up.

"Okay, here's what I suggest. Now Caitlyn, you recognize this is just a suggestion. There are a lot of things we can do, but this is one of them."

He stood up and started to pace around the room a little. "I'm worried about sending you home - even for the night - but if it's been some time since the last time you were . . . spanked by your father, then perhaps we have a little time. First point: If he lays a hand on you again - if he spanks you even without the, ah, sexual element - then you come here, directly and as soon as you can. Okay?"

"Here?" Caitlyn repeated.

"Yes," Mrs. Knight said firmly. "I'll protect you if it comes to that. I'm hoping that it won't, but we need to be prepared."

He turned to his wife, "Rachel, I want you to find a way to contact Caitlyn's mother. What is her name?"

Caitlyn supplied, "Tammy."

Mr. Knight nodded and turned again to his wife. "You need to get her where you can talk with her, alone. Tell her that we can help. Tell her that we are going to help Caitlyn, but that we can help her, too."

Looking again at Caitlyn, he continued, "Caitlyn, in a couple of weeks - when school lets out - we're going to get you a summer job; one out of town, where you can be safe from your father while we work things out."

"Dad," Tris said, "I'm not sure that she'll be allowed to come with us."

"I didn't think she would," Mr. Knight agreed. "What I was thinking was that Caitlyn can become an intern for our congressman. I know him and he owes me a few favors."

"An intern?" Caitlyn repeated.

"Yes," Mr. Knight said, and for the first time since he heard of her family situation, he smiled. "You'll have to learn a lot about the Capitol building, because a lot of what interns do is give tours. You'll also help the Congressman with his constituent correspondence, and so on. Think you can handle that?"

"I, um, sure," Caitlyn said, gulping a little. "But when they told us about interns, they said that they - I mean, the teacher said that interns don't get paid. How will I . . .? I mean, my dad won't pay anything."

"Don't worry about it," Mr. Knight commanded. "As I said, there are a few people who owe me favors."

"Oh, Mr. Knight, I couldn't . . ."

"You can and you will," he said firmly, but he smiled and it was clear that he was not going to force her into something against her will.

He didn't get the response that he expected. Instead of matching his smile, Caitlyn drew her knees up again and started to sob behind their small protection.

"What's wrong?" Mr. Knight asked his wife.

"Nothing, you big - but dumb - lug," Mrs. Knight said, laughing. "Sometimes girls cry when they're happy, too."

She still put her arms around the sobbing girl, but her comfort was more validation of the young woman's emotion than an attempt to make it go away.

Chapter 33 - "Be Careful What You Wish For . . ."

The day they were to leave for Odin's land - of all days - was a bad hair day for Tris. His hair was still thick and soft and almost as long as Solace wore, but it just wouldn't do what he wanted it to do. He had parted it over his left eye, and was trying to arrange a graceful sweep almost down to his other eye, but it just had to end up in a ponytail because anything else would freak out his dad, when what it really needed was to be held back with barrettes.

"Boys, it's almost time!" his dad called from downstairs.

"Yeah, I know," Tris muttered under his breath, still trying different ways to curl some of it around his brush.

Then he was interrupted again, when his younger brother ran into the room. "Tris, you gotta hide these for me."

Landon was holding out some bracelets, and three or four pairs of earrings ranging in size from more-or-less acceptable to . . . flashy, at least.

"Put them in your own stuff," Tris snapped.

"But what if Dad goes through our stuff?"

"Then you'll have to explain why you packed them," Tris replied without a bit of sympathy. Of course, the fact he had several pairs of fairly showy earrings secreted in his own bags didn't leave much room for sympathy.

Landon frowned, but then he looked furtively down the stairs. "Did you pack the . . . you know?"

Tris twitched a bit, then sighed. "Yes. The makeup is in the smaller duffle."

"What are you gonna say if you get caught?"

"Well, Mom knows about it, so I'll just . . . act like it's no big deal, I guess."

"Oh, okay," Landon replied, then he looked at the glittering accessories in his own hands and decided he had better solve his own problem.

"Boys!" the call came up from downstairs.

"Screw it," Tris muttered. He just pulled his hair back into a way-too-tight ponytail, clamped it into one of the first clasps that his mother had provided, and moved on to the other remaining items.

Odin had provided a checklist of sorts on what to bring - mostly by informing them of things that would not be necessary. His instructions said they would only need one or two casual outfits, plus underwear and sundries to last for a few days. Apparently laundry would be provided, and most of their clothing would also. Of course, when they were in Reality 2.0, that was a given, but if they needed hiking boots or whatever when they were in the mundane world, Odin promised they would be supplied.

Tris just couldn't leave his own boots behind - the ones with the too-high heels; at least, too high for a guy. And they took up so much space that in the end he decided he needed to wear the boots and put his running shoes in his bags. That meant he needed to wear one of his longer pairs of jeans - the pale gray ones looked best - and that just called out for a new shirt he had found in the mall. It was almost silver and had the full, soft sleeves that added grace to every arm motion. Then there was a gray belt, and . . .

"Boys, the limo is here!" Mr. Knight called, his voice now showing irritation.

"Coming!" two younger voices replied together.

The Knight family was more-or-less used to good-byes. Mr. Knight spent a lot more time on the road than he liked. And though it was different for the boys to be the ones leaving, they knew how to avoid the trap of long, awkward pauses. By the time Mattock had the bags in the trunk of the limousine, they were as ready as they were going to be.

Odin was waiting for them at the car. He had provided Mrs. Knight with a file containing contact information, and then retired out of the way. When the boys entered the spacious passenger compartment, he smiled and complimented them on their outfits.

"Thanks," Tris said, patting uncomfortably at his hair.

"Once we've picked up the others, it won't be long until you can, ahem, 'fix' your hair the way you like," Odin promised.

Tris nodded, sneaking a glance at Landon who was also looking thoughtful at the prospect.

When they got to the Kinnison household, there was another potential problem. Charlotte had Blitzkrieg - now well on his way to full growth - by her side.

"Oh, Odin, you just have to let me bring Blitz with me!" she pleaded.

"Of course," he replied easily. "In fact, I was counting on it."

With that problem solved, Charlotte and Joshua were quickly accommodated. The only further issue was a grunt from Mattock as he put one of the boxes in the trunk.

"What have you got in this thing?" he asked.

"Some books," Joshua replied.

"A little, ah, light reading?" Mattock teased.

"Mostly lore and mythology," Joshua explained.

"Reading up on Thor and Fafnir?" Odin asked.

"Some," Joshua admitted, "but also other myths and legends. If we meet another person like Aelurus, I hope to be able to understand the situation a bit better."

"Ah, a wise choice," Odin said.

"Teacher's pet," Charly taunted. "Bucking for extra points already?"

"Hey, it if works . . ," Josh replied unrepentantly.

That left the Danner home and Lucas. He didn't wait for Mattock to grab his bags when the limo showed, up, but he put one down as soon as the chauffeur was close. They grasped forearms in a strangely natural gesture, as though a handshake would have been the unusual exchange. It was only when Mattock picked up the bag that Lucas had dropped that his expression changed. "Goodness, boy, what do you have in here?"

"Some books," replied Lucas, in an unknowing repeat of Joshua's comment.

"You? Brought books?" Tris said. "On what?"

Lucas looked down shyly, then lifted his eyes to meet Mattock's gaze. "I have some stuff on medieval fighting techniques. I figured there might be some, um, tactics and things that others have developed that I might use, and I figured I'd study on them when we're not, y'know, in the game."

"A wise choice," Odin said, smiling at Charly.

"Teacher's pet," she snickered, poking Lucas in the arm, then doing the same to Josh. Finally she looked at Tris. "It looks like you're not the only one bucking for extra points."

"Me?" Tris said in surprised innocence. "I never bucked for any extra points. I paid too high a price for the ones I did get."

"Another wise insight," Odin said, his formal tone belied by a twinkle in his eye.

They arrayed themselves within the limousine and it pulled smoothly away from the curb. The quite ride had covered less than a mile when Landon's curiosity became too much for him. "How long will it take? I mean, to get to your, um, country?"

"That will depend on you," Odin said, another twinkle showing in his single eye.

His last word was almost lost in a crash of all-too-familiar static.

When it cleared, they were back in Reality 2.0, on a wooden, sail-powered ship surging gently over a limitless sapphire ocean.

"This is cool," Shimmer said, leaping to the rigging and climbing to the top of the nearest mast.

The others gasped and looked at Solace.

"Wow, Solace, where'd you get that?" asked Lucas, then looked sheepish. "Oh, stupid me. That's the Belt of Hlin, but . . . geez, it looks like solid gold."

"Yes," Solace agreed. She was examining her own outfit and was surprised - and pleased - to find that her white blouse was back, only . . . different. It looked like the Belt of Hlin was over the blouse, but it felt like the belt was still against her skin - like the top and bottom of the blouse 'grew' out of the belt somehow, changing color to a silver-white at the edges of the tall, corset-like constriction. Solace's eyes asked a question of Odin, and he nodded.

"That should be more . . . efficient for adventuring than the, ahem, style you wore when the Belt manifested itself fully."

"Oh, man, don't remind me," she said, blushing fiercely. She couldn’t stop a sidelong glance to Rhialto, who - she was somehow gratified to see - had a matching blush.

Any further comment was lost in Oakheart's astonished cry. "Blitzkrieg?!!"

They turned around to see what had caught Oakheart's attention, and were immediately reaching for weapons. A huge direcat crouched under an overhang of the stern castle, looking ready to pounce and kill.

"No!" Oakheart shouted, a hand grabbing out to hold Lucas before he could draw his sword. "That's Blitz!"

"Blitz?" repeated Lucas.

"Yeah, can't you . . . no, I don't suppose you can sense it like I can. But that's Blitzkrieg."

"You turned him into a cat?" Rhialto asked, looking at Odin.

"Perhaps it would be better to say that Aelurus provided an . . . avatar for Blitzkrieg, just as I have provided avatars for the rest of you."

"But a cat?" Lucas repeated, smirking at the huge feline. "Well, at least he's still male. Turning a dog into a cat is almost as bad as turning a guy into a girl."

When Solace started to bristle up, he laughed and hit her with a 'gotcha' shot. "Just kidding. You've pretty much made it clear that being a girl can be okay, at least for some people."

That pulled another frown into the healer's brow, but before she could say anything Oakheart interrupted, standing in front of Lucas. "Hey, dude, lighten up. Rule Number 1: When you're in a hole, quit digging."

"I just . . ," Lucas began, but when he saw the firm disapproval on Rhialto's face as well, and maybe even on Mattock's blunt features, he just ran down into silence.

Odin filled the gap, turning to Solace. "This is her way of showing her gratitude to you - at least in part."

"But, didn't you like, set that all up?" she asked.

"No," Odin said seriously. "Reality 2.0 is a true reality. It's not the one your parents inhabit, but this is real. I merely created the setting. It was your fortune, and her misfortune, that Aelerus found that particular trap before you did. She accepts that."

He leaned on his staff and looked thoughtful. "I wonder what would have happened if one of the other beta test teams had found her first."

Then he shrugged and looked at the team, taking his traditional cyber-character stance, he intoned, "Welcome to Reality 2.0."

They all snickered at what they now knew to be a truth buried in the wheels-within-wheels of Odin's prior tests. Odin relaxed back into a more-human, though still solemn demeanor and said, "You are now moving into the second cycle of this reality."

He looked up at Shimmer, perched easily at the intersection of the mast and a sail yard. "If it were a game, this would now be rated PG-13, since you all now meet that criterion. You will fight human foes this time, and the . . . strength of this reality will increase. Wounds will hurt more, and death will be even more unpleasant. You must be careful, yet the challenges you face will be worth the effort."

"Indeed?" Solace said, unconsciously moving to place herself between the powerful man and her team. "And what if we don't think so? I don't like the idea of fighting - of killing - real people."

"Nor should you," Odin said. "I will set you tasks, and if you can overcome them without battle, then so much the better. If, on the other hand, you feel the battle is worth fighting - as I believe they will be - then do as you think is best."

"What sort of tasks?" Rhialto asked.

Odin looked at the wizard, but his attention included the others. "My challenge, and my reward, for creating a new reality is to identify and implement a set of 'rules' for the universe that are both necessary and sufficient for a viable eco-system. You might consider it a very high-level jigsaw puzzle, except that I not only need to put the pieces together, I need to make the pieces themselves."

"You mean, this whole thing is just a game to you?" asked Lucas.

"In a way," admitted Odin. "But it is also real to me. There are people here, and I want them to . . . grow, just as you have grown in winning through the first cycle of this reality. I want my . . . children, to become more than mere instinct-driven insects. My goal is to create a reality where people can rise to their full potential."

He sighed and lifted his staff to point toward the far horizon. "This reality had stagnated. It was too . . . clean. The inhabitants have not grown for generations. That is why, despite the opportunity of what your world would consider 'magic', they are less developed than your world. In fact, they were falling into the trap of all utopias, and degenerating into complacency. They were not even reproducing enough to keep their numbers stable."

He squared his shoulders as though taking on a burden. "I have introduced the serpent into this particular garden. There is now evil here - not as bad as described in your Bible, but still enough to turn the garden into a place of challenge. And of triumph, when the challenges are overcome. You've seen the sorts of monsters this reality now contains.

"But the people have a long way to go to recover to their potential. Some fall into the ways of evil, becoming brigands and pirates. Some are too weak-willed and cannot even defend themselves. You are my agents, sent to defend them until they learn again how to defend themselves. And, like heroes of old, you will find true villains that need to be . . . vanquished."

Lucas looked confused. "If you just, y'know, made this whole place, why don't you just like, make the people smarter? Make them be what you want them to, um, grow into."

Odin didn't answer. After a moment, Rhialto spoke slowly, and thoughtfully. "I think it's like our quests, from the first, um, cycle. Odin said that he had other teams doing beta testing - semi-pros who were really into this. But we did best. We, um, 'grew' more than the others. If he fits everyone neatly into some slot in his reality, then all they ever do is fill that slot. They need to be, um, 'forced' out of their comfort zones to find their full potential."

"Exactly," Odin agreed. He straightened and looked at the team. Somehow, his gaze led them to gather together, to be the team he wanted. Even Shimmer suddenly appeared in their midst, though no one had seen her climb down. "I need you to be in this reality, but not of this reality. The people of this world need to see others like themselves overcoming challenges - and see them pay a price for the triumph. It can't be too easy, or they will not learn."

"Too easy, right," Lucas snorted.

"Tell me about it," Solace said, wincing at remembered pain. She looked at Odin. "That's a . . . big responsibility."

"Yes," Odin agreed. "But I have confidence in you."

His form began to fade, and his voice seemed to grow more distant. "Your first quest is to find Asgard. Good luck, and watch out for the stobor."

His last words lingered after his visual image had disappeared. "Remember, the exit is always behind your left ear."

Rhialto turned to look at Mattock, "So what do we do next?"

"I . . . pound . . . rock," Mattock said slowly, with his grinding stones growl.

"C'mon, dude, we know you're not a computer character," Rhialto said.

"No," agreed Mattock, once again speaking normally. "But I'm not going to try to force you into - what did you call it? - a particular slot, either. You'll have to find your own way." Then he smiled and added - looking at Solace and Rhialto, then at Oakheart and Shimmer, "And I'm here to keep this thing no more than PG-13."

Those he had looked at blushed, and Lucas frowned, but they didn't argue any further.

"Do you at least know how to sail this boat?" asked Solace.

The big man shrugged unhelpfully.

"Any of the rest of you?"

"Well, I read a book on it," offered Rhialto.

"Big surprise there," snarked Oakheart.

The wizard ignored him and looked around their vessel. "A boat, or ship, or whatever, like this can only sail mostly downwind. The closest they could get to the wind was maybe 60 degrees off, about like we're doing now. You can swing the yards like they are, or the other way, or something in between if the wind is more behind. I don't think we can even tack. So wherever we go, the wind has to be somewhere from there to there." With is last comment, he pointed from just forward of their starboard beam, where the current wind seemed to be coming from, through the stern and toward an equivalent point on the port side.

That didn't help their confusion, but since he seemed to have at least some idea of how to work their vessel, the next question was where they should try to sail it.

Solace looked at her sister. "Did you see anything when you were on top of the mast?"

"Well, maybe," the smaller woman said. "There's some land off that way." She pointed a little forward of their starboard beam. "Maybe that's where we're supposed to go, but it's right into the wind."

"It's as good as anything," Solace said. She looked around and not finding any argument, she started assigning tasks. "Lucas, why don't you go see if you can figure out how to steer this thing? Shimmer, I think you're our lookout. Rhialto, maybe there's something in one of the cabins or whatever that can give us a clue."

"What about me?" asked Oakheart.

Solace grinned at him. "I seem to remember that you can do something about the wind?"

"Oh, duh," the ranger said, smiling. He consulted his hide notes and started his weather dance. In a moment, the wind started to shift around. But the sails weren't set right and they started to flap.

"Rhialto," Solace called, "we need your help!"

The wizard came back on deck and studied the rigging. "I think we need to let that line out a little, and pull on that one. And maybe we can raise the other sail, too."

They followed his instructions, until the time came to raise the large sail on the other mast. Mattock leaned his massive bulk into the line, and it moved just enough to demonstrate that it wasn't actually locked somehow, but not enough to raise it. Rhialto and Solace added their weight to the line, to no apparent effect.

"Oakheart, why don't you help?" Solace asked through gritted teeth.

"Oh, I'll help," the ranger said, grinning. He chirped a funny little sound that was about half whistle and half hum. The big direcat came sauntering over at his call, and the ranger put the end of the line in the animal's mouth. "Don't bite it through," he cautioned, then pointed down the deck.

With contemptuous ease, the big feline pulled the line away, raising the sail quickly until it hit the stop.

"Show off," Solace said, but she grinned and gave a thumbs up to Oakheart.

"Um, guys," Shimmer called down from above. "There's another ship out there, and . . . it looks like . . . yeah, they're attacking someone."

"Pirates?" Lucas said from the wheel. "Do we really have to fight pirates?"

"Looks like," Rhialto said. "I seem to remember this was all your idea anyway."

"Oh, yeah," Lucas said, but he was grinning fiercely.

"Be careful what you wish for," Solace muttered, as she warmed up her staff.


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