The moment he stepped through the mirror, T.J. Dalton vanished. Robbie the Robotdog cocked his head to the left and focused on his companion.
“What’s wrong?” the young man asked.
“My sensors are having trouble keeping you in focus,” the robot dog replied.
T.J. started to say something, then grinned to himself. “I think I know what the problem is,” he said. Reaching up, he pulled his hood back.
“Much better,” Robbie said. “What did you do?”
“I still had my hood on,” T.J. told him. “While I’m wearing it, it makes me invisible. Coming here must mean that things are no longer reversed like they were in the professor’s realm.”
That seemed to satisfy the dog, because he said nothing else.
“So,” T.J. asked, “do you have any suggestions as to which direction we should go in?”
Robbie glanced around. “It seems to me that one direction is as good as another. My sensors aren’t picking anything up around here except for us.”
As T.J. tried to decide which direction they should go, he took the opportunity to get his first real look at this new dimension. It reminded him of pictures he had seen in International Geography of Outer Mongolia, except harsher.
Although the land was not flat, it seemed to stretch out for miles in every direction before reaching the horizon. Sharp, jagged rocks that appeared to be a cross between onyx and lava, some of which were several feet tall, stabbed up through the lifeless dirt. Small bushes of thorny sage dotted the landscape. Overhead, an azure sun cast light, but little warmth, over the expanse.
With a shrug, T.J. faced away from where they had exited the mirror and began walking. Robbie trotted just enough to fall into step beside him.
“Do you have any idea which way we are going?” the young man asked after an hour of walking.
“Things here still aren’t completely in line with Earth,” Robbie said, “but according to the navigational system Bob installed, it appears we are heading north. I’m also detecting a gradual drop in temperature.”
T.J. adjusted the food pack, then brought his hands up to his mouth to blow warm air on them. “I guess I should have asked about the temperature before we left. Fortunately, the tunic is warmer than it looks.”
The pair walked at a leisurely pace for a few more hours. The azure sun began to drop closer to the horizon, casting long, cold shadows across the landscape.
Robbie looked up at T.J. “The temperature has dropped several degrees in the past hour. Perhaps we should find a place for you to rest.”
“Sounds good to me,” T.J. replied.
In the distance, a particularly large outcropping of jagged rocks was rising up out of the scenery. Without a word, the two travelers made a slight change in direction and headed toward the outcropping. It took another hour to reach their destination.
“It looks like a good place to stop for the night,” T.J. said after seeing an opening between two of the rocks. Slipping between them, he was relieved to see a relatively bare patch of ground.
“How are you doing?” Robbie asked.
“I’ve got to admit, it’s getting a bit chilly,” T.J. replied. He dropped the food pack, then left the confines of the rocks and began to search for some of the small bushes he had seen scattered about. “I’m going to gather some wood.”
“Get enough for two fires,” Robbie said.
“One to keep you warm all night, and the other to put at the opening,” Robbie said. “Since I don’t sleep, and I’m not planning on wandering off, I can keep them both going.”
T.J. nodded. “Thanks. I really appreciate that.”
The young man gathered as much wood from the odd sage bushes as he could find, careful to avoid the long thorns that grew on the branches. It was only after he had gathered what Robbie deemed to be enough that he had an alarming thought. “I’ve got nothing to light a fire with.”
“I can take care of that,” Robbie assured him. “Just get the wood placed where it should go.”
T.J. placed enough wood in the center of the small clearing for a small fire, then repeated the process at the opening. The rest of the wood was divided between the two spots. Hearing the crackle of burning wood behind him, he turned away from where he was piling wood at the opening to see flames beginning to dance in the center of the clearing. He was about to say something to Robbie when he let out a yell.
The robot dog spun in his direction in time to see the young man pulling a large thorn from the palm of his right hand. “Are you all right?”
“I was careless,” T.J. said, holding his injured hand close.
Robbie walked over to the other pile of branches. “You appear to be bleeding quite a bit. Go wrap your hand while I get this fire going.”
The young man didn’t need any prodding, and quickly moved to where he had dropped the food pack. As he left, Robbie opened his mouth to reveal a small nozzle affixed to his inner jaw. Had anyone been close enough, they might have heard a click and a soft gurgle as a viscous liquid sprayed from the nozzle and coated the wood. A second later, the wood burst into flame.
“How’s the hand?” he asked as he joined T.J.
“I’ll live,” T.J. said. “I found a napkin in the sack, so I’ve tied it around my hand.”
“That’s good,” Robbie said. “Perhaps you should go ahead and eat something, then try to get some sleep.”
T.J. yawned. “Actually, I’m not that hungry. Sleep does sound good, though.”
Before Robbie had a chance to suggest the young man try to eat a little, T.J. slumped over where he sat next to the food sack, and was fast asleep.
Mrs. Meng was nothing like the two men expected. Instead of a fearsome harpy with talons and wings and blood-soaked fangs, they were surprised to find a kindly looking, slightly portly, elderly Asian woman.
“Welcome,” the woman said. “Please, come in. You are just in time for tea.”
The two men looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief.
Mrs. Meng smiled at them, then glanced at Kao Chien-Li. “What have you been telling our guests, Chien-Li? That I have mottled green skin? That I would open my mouth as wide as a dragon’s and devour them whole?”
“I said nothing of the kind,” the man replied.
“He speaks the truth, Ma’am,” Doctor Fate said. “Although, nothing was said to contradict our initial impressions.”
Kao Chien-Li just shrugged, then climbed down off the wagon.
Mrs. Meng led the three men into her home. Inside the clay-covered stone building, they discovered a sparsely decorated room. The centerpiece of the room was a simple wooden table with four chairs. Against the back wall of the home’s main room sat a sideboard occupied by four wooden bowls and four wooden cups. The woman retrieved the cups and set them on the table.
“Please, be seated,” the woman instructed.
The three men did as they were told.
“You are seeking a path to your friends,” Mrs. Meng stated matter-of-factly.
After everything he had seen since he first met Richard Occult, Brian was only slightly surprised at the woman’s announcement. Doctor Fate, who had just removed his helmet to better partake of the tea, appeared to be completely unaffected.
“Yes,” the older man said.
Mrs. Meng retrieved a soot-blackened kettle from a small cook stove, while Chien-Li got the cups. After pouring tea for her visitors, Chien-Li, and herself, Mrs. Meng sat down.
“I am unable to do more than locate the Repentant One, which I have already done,” the woman said. “He should be here by day’s end.”
“Thank you,” Brian said. “My friends are capable of taking care of themselves, but since we found out about the mirrors shattering, I’ve been worried that they are in some kind of trouble.”
The four talked for several hours until there was a heavy knock on the door.
“Mrs. Meng?” The voice sounded like a handful of gravel being dragged across a chalkboard. It also held a hint of humble respect.
“Ah,” Mrs. Meng said, a grin appearing on her face. “Chien-Li, prepare another cup of tea. You know how our friend loves a good cup of tea.”
Chien-Li got up to pour the tea while Mrs. Meng went to open the door.
Brian and Doctor Fate exchanged glances as the man began pouring tea into a large bowl. Despite the amount of tea Chien-Li poured, they could still here liquid sloshing in the small teakettle as he set it back on the stove. When the door opened, they saw why so much tea was needed.
Mrs. Meng stepped back to reveal a hulking shadow filling the doorway. The Repentant One had arrived.
Kelli Lockhart stared out the tower window of the professor’s castle and couldn’t believe the scene that was playing out on the fields beyond. The bang of Lazarus Lane’s pistols reminded her that, despite the absurdity of what she saw, it was all too real.
The denizens of this fairytale realm had begun to gather in defense of their home. Man-size roses had pulled themselves from their beds and, armed with thorns as long as daggers, formed up into companies. Anthropomorphic rabbits, squirrels, ducks, and a whole host of others — each wearing exaggerated clothing and armed with oversized hammers, pitchforks, and the occasional talking blunderbuss — were gathering on the roses’ flanks. And the army kept growing.
“This isn’t right,” Professor Van Ish said, trembling and rubbing his hands together. “They shouldn’t be putting themselves in danger like this, because of me.”
“Are you all right?” Doctor Occult asked. “We can’t have you falling to pieces.”
The professor took a deep breath. “I’m… I’ll be fine.”
“Is there some way you can order them to fall back?” Lazarus asked as he squeezed off another couple more shots.
“I don’t order anyone in this realm to do anything,” the professor said. “That’s not how it is here.”
“But they call you master,” Kelli said. “They do everything you tell them.”
Van Ish walked over to the window and looked over Lazarus’ shoulder. “When I discovered this dimension, this castle was already here. The playing card men found me and brought me here. As they showed me around, I noticed that the place lacked any sense of order.
“I admit that my first thoughts were that I could rule this dimension, and also use it as a hideaway from the Marvel Family. Unfortunately — or, perhaps, fortunately — I soon realized that the card men began to look to me for leadership. I discovered that I enjoyed the position they had set me up in. I also discovered that I enjoyed the taking care of the citizens of this whimsical little dimension. One of the biggest drawbacks I have found is the lack of good conversation, hence my habit of repeating myself. Anyway, I found that I enjoyed the role of guide to that of ruler. I ask, or suggest, and they do. It is as simple as that.”
“Then ask them to fall back,” Lazarus said.
“I can try,” the professor said, “but from the looks of things, I doubt they will.”
“Please try,” Kelli begged.
Van Ish looked at the young woman and saw the concern on her face. He sighed, patted her shoulder, and gave her a nod. “I’ll try.” Turning to the window, he called, “My loyal subjects, please fall back.”
The defenders, who were still assembling, stopped where they were. Although they quit moving forward, they did not fall back.
“Get me down there,” Lazarus said. “I’ll try to lead them back.”
The professor pointed to a mirror in the corner. “Through there.”
Lazarus fired a couple more rounds at Morgauth, then ran into the mirror. A heartbeat later, he appeared on the ground between the monster and the defenders.
“Look out!” Kelli screamed as she leaned out the window. “Morgauth is heading your way.”
Mrs. Meng motioned for the demon to enter.
Dipping his horned head, the Repentant One stepped through the door. From the floor to the top of his bald head, the newcomer stood a little over seven feet tall; the addition of his horns put him right at eight feet tall. Seeing that the ones he had been called to meet were already present, he bowed his head in greeting.
Fate and Brian returned the greeting. Now that he was fully inside the room, the two men got a good look at the demon.
Aside from his height, and the horns, he appeared mostly human — mostly. Deep blue flesh covered a muscular frame that rivaled Superman’s. He wore a crimson sleeveless cotton waistcoat and formless dirty-white cotton breeches. He wore no shoes.
“Greetings, Repentant One,” Mrs. Meng said to the demon. “Please allow me to introduce the ones known as Doctor Fate and Detective Brian Walker.”
The two men stood as the demon approached. They bowed at the waist; it was a gesture that the Repentant One returned.
“Mrs. Meng informs me that you are seeking friends lost in another dimension,” the demon said in the same gravelly voice that they had heard outside.
“Yes,” Fate replied. “Master Lao Jen told us that you would be able to help us.”
The demon smiled. “Ah, yes. I remember Lao. I spent an eternity stuck in those infernal glasses of his. If I hadn’t agreed to follow the path of repentance, I would still be there.”
“Please be seated,” Mrs. Meng said. “Kao, please bring our large friend some tea.”
Kao Chien-Li rose from his seat and did as he was told.
Soon, the five were seated and discussing Brian’s missing companions.
“Do you know the dimension that your companions traveled to?” the Repentant One asked.
“All we have been able to find out is that they are stuck in a different dimension,” Doctor Fate said.
“There are innumerable dimensions,” the demon said. “It will be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“Wait a second,” Brian said. “Roarke said a ‘different dimension.’ Weren’t those his exact words, Doctor Fate?”
Fate nodded. “I believe they were.”
“For as long as Roarke and his family have been guarding the mirrors, he should have been able to give us the dimension’s name, or designation, but he didn’t. He said ‘different.'”
The Repentant One smiled. “I believe I know where they are,” he said. “There is a dimension that attached itself to this reality in recent years. I can get you there, but we will have to pass through a dimension or two to get there.”
Brian looked at Doctor Fate. “How long before we can leave?” Brian asked. He then looked at Mrs. Meng. “Please forgive my rudeness. I am grateful for your hospitality…”
“But you are anxious to be reunited with your friends,” the woman said. “At least finish your tea before you go.”
Brian smiled. “Thank you for understanding,” he said.