Breathless, he rushed to the front desk. "I'm John Goldberg. My wife, Mary Goldberg, was brought here after the accident."
Keyboard clicks. "Ah, Mister Goldberg. Do you have contact information for Mary's family?"
"I'm her husband."
"Not legally. A routine exam determined that Mary is a virgin. An unconsummated marriage isn't recognized by law. So you're just her roommate."
"I, er, have a condition. So we've remained celibate. But our sex lives are none of your business!"
"Sorry, sir, the state constitution says differently. Now, do you have contact information for Mary, um, Jefferson's family? We need their insurance information."
Barry peeked through the curtain. "It's full! How many are out there?"
"Two hundred," the manager answered.
"That's what you wanted, right? Are you ready?"
"As I'll ever be." Barry stepped onto the stage.
* * *
Barry left the stage, smiling and bowing. "I murdered 'em!"
"Yes, they really seemed to enjoy it."
"They loved the bit about the mashed potatoes."
"The duck was a stroke of brilliance."
"Thanks! So, what's the total?"
"At $10 per head, after the house's cut, $4000."
"It was worth every dime," Barry said. "A dream come true." Grinning, he wrote the check.
"No!" Zarnak screamed.
Grognar's foot hovered in mid-step.
Zarnak stared down the corridor, remembering a click, a soft grinding of stone on stone, whoosh of missiles, impacts to his shoulder, belly, leg. His life draining away. The pool of flaming lamp oil, illuminating Grognar's ruined face. Blackness.
Grognar returned to where Zarnak stood trembling. He put a finger to his lips. "Zarnak no do that. Wake monsters."
Zarnak looked down, wondering why there was no blood. "Yeah. Yeah. Sorry. That was weird. Um. Let's check for traps."
* * *
"Wow, wasn't expecting that."
"Yeah. Good thing we'd just saved."
The sunstone didn't merely sparkle. It flared inside with answering fire, blazing challenge to the early morning sun.
"Cover that up!" Mason said. "Someone will see."
Lydia nodded, put it away. She looked downhill at the rough timber buildings, barns, pens, the little riverboat dock. One tiny stone shrine.
"What if they're right?"
"What if it really is the source of their prosperity?"
"You kidding? This look like prosperity to you?"
"I've seen worse."
"Bah. It's bad luck to be superstitious."
"Maybe it's not magic. Maybe it's just something to share."
"Hey! Where you going?"
"To put it back."
"Tell me a story, Daddy!"
"Okay. Once there was a world of adventure and wonder. Its people traveled faster than wind. They spoke to each other across seas and continents. They made light from the ground and music from the air, and spires that scraped the sky. They had ancient works of beauty and wisdom, studied only by an enlightened few. Great heroes protected them from famine and pestilence and war, so they outnumbered the stars."
"What did they call the world, Daddy?"
"Well, it didn't seem amazing to them, so they just called it Dirt."
The time machine winked out.
"I told you to stay inside!" Molly wailed.
"I wanted to see Lewis Carroll too," David said. "What just happened?"
"Someone must have bumped the controls on the way out."
They looked at Percival.
"Who's Lewis Carroll?" the puppy asked.
Molly sighed and started walking.
"Where are you going?" David asked.
"The fuel will run out in about a million years, so plate tectonics will carry it about fifty miles this way. Maybe we can find the remains."
"Walkies!" Percival acclaimed.
"As long as we're here," David asked, "Aren't we going to meet Lewis Carroll?"
Guided by the ancient prophecy, the heroes had discovered and infiltrated the necromancer's lair.
"What does the prophecy say to do next, Zarnak?" Grognar asked.
Zarnak consulted the crumbling scroll.
"12. Proceed along left wall, avoiding pressure plate traps.
"13. In the antechamber, smash lion skeletons with blessed hammer before they animate.
"14. Kick open throne room door. Immediately stab left to kill hidden guardian.
"15. Do not attack necromancer directly: smash bone jar hidden under throne cushions.
"16. Escape before castle collapses."
"Now that's a prophecy Grognar can work with!"
"I don't know. It feels like cheating," Zarnak replied.
"Sir Galivale, I hear Sir Malegant calling after us."
"What avails the scoundrel, Gregor? He was fairly and soundly defeated."
"Something about 'offering,' 'widows,' and 'orphans.'"
"Perhaps he's finally repented his wickedness. Go back and investigate, good fellow."
* * *
Gregor took the bound knight's purse, then drew his knife.
"I don't understand!" Sir Malegant said. "Sir Galivale spared me!"
"Aye," Gregor replied. "He always does what's right, and it'd be a fine world if all were like him. Unfortunately the world also has cutthroat bastards like you and me. I, at least, try to employ my tendencies constructively."
Molly entered the laboratory, then stopped. "David, what is that unsettlingly adorable creature?"
David, busy, didn't look up. "He's a golden retriever puppy, the pinnacle of cuteness in all of evolution and selective breeding. This one is named Percival."
Without conscious direction, Molly's hand stroked the puppy. Percival wriggled in delight, but the wires on his head kept him mostly still. "What's that device he's hooked to?" Molly asked. "Are you doing something horrible?"
"Of course not. I'm stimulating his cognitive and speech centers, to see if he can talk."
Percival's tail wagged furiously. "I hope it works!" he said.
"I demand a refund!"
"Why?" Jakob asked.
"She joined a nunnery!"
"Obviously this was not the result I desired!"
"It's neither obvious nor relevant. Our contract guaranteed efficacy, not results."
"Efficacy! It didn't work!"
"Unlikely. What happened, precisely?"
"When she drained the cup a light filled her eyes. Amazingly, she became even more beautiful. Then she said she couldn't believe how vain she'd been, how meaningless her life. She would go serve God and man and make the world better. She even begged me to do likewise."
"It appears, then," Jakob replied, "that the love potion was entirely effective."