Chapter 2 – The Opposite of an Echo

Author’s note: This piece is part of a collaboration with Ludwig Reina! You can read the first installment over at his website, plus check out some cool art that goes along with this story.

Kate resented the entire concept of fantasy. Dark fantasy, high fantasy, low fantasy, children’s fantasy—you name it, she stood against it.

Why would anyone voluntarily walk twenty miles a day in ill-fitting boots, choking to death on your own dust? The fashion, atrocious—you try pissing in the woods in four different wool layers, see how you like it—the food, even worse. Ale flowed everywhere, but it all had about a 2% alcohol content and would have made the most IPA aficionados back home curl their lips.

Fantasy, in Kate’s opinion, smacked of overcooked Ren Faire aesthetics that lacked some very necessary logistical necessities.

Trailing behind the dwarves three hours into her foray into the Realm of Story, Kate ran over the options once more in her mind. Analyzing, like she’d do when a customer described the sins of their MacBook.

Option 1: Go to the dream lake and make up some shit for Bathgar and hope it was good enough. Since this was a fantasy, and she the author of said fantasy, perhaps anything she say would go. Death of the author? More like Deus Ex Author.

Option 2: As in the book that had unfortunately come out of her own brain twenty years prior, they could try to find a way around Bathgar. In her story, the princess charmed a turtle-prince into carrying her across the lake on the back of his shell, leaving the troll furious on the shoreline.

Option 3: Murder Pine and Spruce for their ill-advised summoning, take over the country wicked-witch style, until she could find a way to defeat Bathgar in single combat. Would the death of the dwarves break the realm of shadow pact? Fuck if she knew.

Scuffing along the road, Kate scowled at the violets and butterflies lining the roadway. Everything was so goddamn perfect here. She hated it. It stood against all the truth she knew of this world and the next.

Because if there was anything Mary Kate Dubois knew better than anyone, it was that nothing ever turned out perfect.

The transition from children’s book author to Client Services Representative at a tech giant had cost her some pride, but she’d done it. Liberal arts degree, for the win. Turned out, writing for books for children and emails for persnickety adults took much the same skillset. And, well, her dreams of traveling the world as a distinguished and respected adult novelist lay in the dust either way.

Might as well get paid well to be a failure.

Life, as she understood it, was an exercise in compromise and scaling down your ambitions to something depressing and attainable. Like a 9-5 with a window seat.

This business with the temperate air, cloudless sky, and butterfly-ridden meadows? Bullshit.

She kicked at the road, and her office-appropriate footwear raised a picturesque cloud of dust.

“So, what’s the quest?” she said aloud, in the tone that she used with itinerant customers.  

Better to know the problem at hand than waste time complaining about it.

“What?” said one of the twins, craning over his shoulder. Pine or Spruce, she couldn’t remember which.

“The quest. You said you had a quest. Thus,” she waved at herself, “This.”

“Ah,” said the other one. “That.”

“It’s a little embarrassing, frankly. Spruce here should start,” said, presumably, Pine.

“Must I?”

“It was your idea.”

“You summoned her!”

“Yeah, but that was after you-know-what.”

“Fine.” Spruce took a deep breath. “We’re businessmen, of sorts.”

“Okay,” said Kate, raising an eyebrow. “That doesn’t seem too unreasonable.”

“Essentially, we buy a bunch of stock from the Dwarven Collective of Bits, Bobs, and Other, and resell it to other traveling merchants, who in turn resell it to other merchants in their areas.”

“We’re entrepreneurs!” threw in Pine, in what may have been a sarcastic tone.

Spruce puffed his chest out and stood tall. At four-foot-whatever, that wasn’t really very tall, but it was the thought that counted.

“We,” he said, very carefully, “Are our own bosses.”

Kate’s other eyebrow snuck up to meet the other one.

“Hang on. You’re in a—”

Pine sighed. “Don’t say it.”

“This is a legitimate business venture,” said Spruce stiffly. “There are no pyramids, triangles, or other morally-objectionable shapes involved.”

Kate felt her heart sinking deep down into her extremely uncomfortable boots. It’d been a slow day at the office, and she’d felt a little adventurous that morning. Now, the red heels dug into the arch of her foot with every step.

“This doesn’t answer my question about your quest.”

“Ah, right, the quest. Well, the short answer is that we’re running low on attendance to our Scrap Metal For Fun and Profit parties on this side of Dream Lake—”

Pine elbowed Spruce very hard in the side, and he coughed on his words for a moment.

“—that is to say, we need to make it to the other side of Dream Lake for reasons related to our business. The, uh, king requires metal of the very sort we have on hand. Quite a lot of it on hand, actually. And we need to move that stock, pronto.”

“You need. To Get. To the other side of the lake. To sell. SCRAP METAL.”

Kate heard her own voice coming out of her throat in an octave higher than usual. She wondered if she had steam coming out of her ears.

“I told you it was embarrassing,” muttered Pine, hunching forward and not looking at her.

“You have no vision,” said Spruce, looking confidently back at Kate, as if expecting her to agree with him.

“Uh,” she said, eloquently.

Overhead, the sun beat down, and she could feel her makeup running, sweat slowly trickling down her temple as she searched for a satisfactory response. She couldn’t think of anything but a string of expletives, followed by a lesson in the dangers of MLMs. Maybe everything wasn’t quite perfect in fantasy-land, after all. Clearly, grifters were a universal pest.

In that moment of social awkwardness, something bright and blue caught her eye, twinkling through the trees up ahead.

“What’s that up there?” she said, grasping at the distraction. Maybe it’d be a portal back to New York, designed specifically to free her from the ghosts of dead dreams and gullible dwarves.

Both the dwarves turned, their packs jangling hideously, like several accordions bouncing down a spiral staircase. Or at least what Kate imagined such a thing might sound like.

“That,” said Pine, with a deep intake of breath, “Would be Dream Lake.”

“Fuck,” said Kate.

Dream Lake lay at the bottom of a steep incline, filling the whole valley with a bright, crystal-clear surface that perfectly reflected the cloudless blue sky. The grass leading down to the lake was as perfect as the lake itself, each blade perfectly green and healthy, and as smooth and unblemished as if a thousand gardeners trimmed it by hand daily.

Kate half-expected a unicorn or two to go frolicking across the perfect hills—but she was afraid to ask lest the dwarves share far too much information about the taxonomy of such creatures. Because, of course, they would be real.

Her sore feet had become well and truly blistered by now, and every step down to the water scraped painfully against her raw heels.

“Hey now, all right there?”

The dwarves had gotten rather substantially ahead of her, and Spruce turned to look up the incline at her as she gingerly picked her way down.

“Fine,” she said, through gritted teeth.

Spruce held out his hand to her, like a very small, very short chauffeur.

“At your service, madam.”

Kate twisted up her lips in a smile that might have been more of a snarl to the educated observer, and shook her head. Over my dead body.

“Oh, thank you but—” she stopped, preparing a short speech on the freewill and agency of womankind.

In that brief pause, she looked at Spruce, and the unpretentious smile on his face, and the trailing green grass behind him. That grass… Perfect, unblemished, probably smelled like rose petals and hadn’t come within 50 miles of an allergen or an anthill.

Did The Troll and the Princess feature such well-manicured landscapes? She couldn’t remember, but she sent a silent thanks to her illustrator nonetheless.

Oh, to hell with it.

She slid off her red boots, one at a time, slid out of her too-thin socks, and curled her toes in the turf. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone barefoot. Or seen grass this green outside a golf course.

“That’s better,” she said.

The grass felt like velvet.

She strode past Spruce, pausing only to press her discarded boots into his still-outstretched hands. The blue lake glittered ahead of her, and she felt herself seized by the sudden urge to leap in and swim.

Since logic didn’t apply here—maybe she’d find an amphibious giraffe under those gentle waves. Or a bottlenose tiger. Who could say? The absolute freedom from the rules of her own world had begun to feel a little intoxicating.

She broke into a jog, and felt the wind start to whip against her face as she hurtled downhill.

Up ahead, Pine whooped and jumped up and down a few times, rattling his pack to the high heavens.

“Now you’re getting the hang of it!”

Kate raced towards the water, faster and faster, halfway convinced she’d dive in without hardly stopping her run.

The blue lake glittered, perfect and picturesque, just like the cover of a storybook. Tantalizing perfection, dangled just out of reach. Just like everything she’d ever wanted.

She grit her teeth. If she could have just one thing in this land of implausibility, it was going to be a swim in that lake.

She ran, faster and faster, leaving the dwarves far behind, until her side ached and all she could see was that glittering expanse of water stretching out to the feet of the mountains on either side. Close… So close…

When she pulled up short, panting and giddy, the water winked against the shoreline just a few feet away.

Far behind, she could hear the dwarves shouting, but she didn’t feel inclined to listen.

She stripped her blazer off, tied back her hair, and stuck a single foot out over the cool water. A breeze brushed over her skin just as she dipped her toe closer, closer, closer to the cool, surely-delicious lake—

A thick voice, heavy as pudding and slow as rocks, barked out behind her, and she froze.

“Hey! You there! What do you think you’re doing?”

Stay tuned for chapter 3 over at, coming soon!

Photo by Mark Koch on Unsplash.

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