Without warning, a desk materialized on his right. It was littered with papers and files. A quill was stuck in a jar of India ink. Behind the desk stood the smiling figure of an old man. He was dressed in blue shimmering robes and wore a conical blue hat with golden stars and moons on it. Blue eyes twinkled behind gold wire rimmed spectacles and his long white beard cascaded over the front of his robes.
Darting around the desk with no hint of age, the old man embraced Eric roughly. “Hello my boy, so good to see you. Happy birthday, by the way. The others should be here shortly. Things are moving so quickly that I sent Stig to Calendria to get the others while I called you. Oh yes, here they come now.”
Eric turned and saw his friends hurrying down the Hallway toward him.
A girl with long black hair rushed up and hugged him. “Hi Eric. Happy birthday,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. She looked up at him with sparkling violet eyes. “I really missed you.”
“Uh, hi Kate,” Eric stammered. Kate looked even older than when he had last seen her that past summer. “Yeah, I missed you, too.”
“Hey, what about me?” a dwarf with a long red beard asked as he grabbed Eric’s hand and pumped it up and down. “I missed ya too, don’t ya know. It sure is good t’ see ya, laddie. You’re a sight for sore eyes and no mistake. Ain’t that right, birdie?”
“Yes, quite,” agreed a large white owl who had just alighted on the Gatekeeper’s desk. “How are you, my boy? I hope you’ve had a splendid birthday.”
“It just got a whole lot better, Stig, thanks,” Eric said, smiling. “Hey Hallo, how’s everything?”
“Oh can’t complain, can’t complain,” the dwarf replied. “Then again, if I did, no one’d listen more ‘n likely. Hey, birdie said it was your birthday. Congrats lad. What’re ya up to now?”
Hallo laughed. “Hey not bad, not bad. He’ll be catchin’ us soon, eh birdie?”
“He certainly is growing up before our eyes,” Stig said with the hint of a smile.
“I’ve got a long way to go to catch you two,” Eric said, laughing. Stig was over 400 years old and Hallo was approaching his 200th birthday. “But at least I’m older than one of us.”
“Hey, be nice. I’ll be as old as you in a month,” Kate said.
“Well, now that we’ve got that all sorted out, perhaps we should get to the task at hand,” the Gatekeeper cut in.
“Yes sir,” Eric said. He had been so happy to see his friends he had almost forgotten everything else.
“A bit out of the ordinary, sir?” he asked. What could be more out of the ordinary than any of the other Assignments he had been on so far?
“Why sure we do,” Hallo said. “We had t’ find that there Dragon’s Voice on the Dragon Islands.”
“Yes and you did a marvelous job. Do you remember the last time you were in the Hallway of Worlds?”
Eric remembered, too. That door was the one door in the entire Hallway that did not have a world behind it. Supposedly it was a door to nowhere and had been used to store matter from worlds that had failed. The matter, or sparkling mist because that is what it looked like, had begun to seep out from under the door and was finding its way into troubled worlds, contributing to their instability. The mist had shown up on two worlds that they had visited.
The Gatekeeper nodded. “And I told you that whatever was in there had torn a hole out of that non-world and was loose.”
“Yeah, I remember. They could be anywhere now.”
“Yes they could,” the Gatekeeper agreed. “However, I now have a bit more information.”
“What have you discovered?” Stig asked.
“Well, this creature is made from the combined matter of many failed worlds. That means its makeup is quite complex. I believe it is capable of assuming whatever guise it desires.”
“That’s gonna make him tough t’ nail down, don’t ya know,” Hallo said, removing his red cloth cap and scratching his head.
“I’ve been doing a bit of checking,” the Gatekeeper said. “As you are aware, I have a number of different teams that go out on Assignments clearing up problems on troubled worlds. I have asked them to keep their eyes open for signs of this creature. They all reported encounters with sparkling mist on their Assignments, which confirms my suspicions that the mist is at the root of the recent unrest on all worlds over the last few years.”
“So you mean it’s been going on longer than you thought?” Kate asked.
“Exactly,” the Gatekeeper replied. “This creature has been working quietly behind the scenes and I knew nothing about it—something that has not happened in a very, very long time.”
“Besides the sparkling mist, has anyone discovered anything else about the creature?” Eric asked.
“It was very elusive, although it has been sighted periodically,” the Gatekeeper said. “Finally, one team got a definite fix and I was able to put a Tracker on it.”
“What’s a Tracker?” Eric asked.
“An agent trained in surveillance and disguise. They can move easily from world to world. Once they are on the trail, they are very difficult to shake.”
“Well, that’s news to me,” Stig said, ruffling his feathers. “All this time, and you never told me about them.”
The Gatekeeper chuckled. “Don’t get your feathers ruffled my dear friend. I’m entitled to keep one or two secrets. Trackers would not be nearly as effective if everyone knew about them. Anyway, the Tracker has followed the elusive creature to an unexpected location.”
“Where is that?” Stig asked.
“Eric’s world,” the Gatekeeper said simply.
“My world,” Eric cried. The thought of a strange creature that could change itself into anything wreaking havoc in his world was scary. “Where is it, exactly?”
“The question is not where my boy, but when,” the Gatekeeper replied. “The creature has discovered a way to use the sparkling mist to punch a hole in the very fabric of time itself.”
“So he could be anywhere at any time in the history of Eric’s world,” Stig mused.
“Wow. Have ya got any idea where…er…um, when he is?” Hallo asked.
“He is on Eric’s world during a conflict known as the American Revolution, and,” here the Gatekeeper looked intently at Eric, “He’s in Eric’s home town.”
The Gatekeeper frowned. “I don’t know for sure, but I have a guess. The creature is trying to change history, most likely with the intent to tear the fabric of Eric’s world apart.”
“Why?” Eric asked.
“My information indicates that it is trying to undermine the stability of the universe. For that it needs to gain power, more specifically, matter. Destroying a few worlds would give it plenty of matter to work with.”
“Wow,” Kate said. “That’s bad.”
“Bad. Bad?” Eric shrieked. “It’s terrible. Some whacked out creature is trying to destroy my world. We can’t let that happen. We have to do something!”
“Yeah, Eric’s right, we gotta do somethin’,” Hallo agreed. “But, er, what?”
“Of course we have to do something. We can’t let worlds be destroyed if we can help it,” the Gatekeeper said calmly. “I’m going to send you all back in time to Eric’s world, as long as that’s all right with all of you.”
“I’m in,” Eric said firmly.
“We wouldn’t dream of not helping Eric save his world,” Kate said. “We’re all in.”
“Absolutely,” Stig said.
“Ya can count on me, don’t ya know,” Hallo agreed.
“Thanks guys,” Eric said, tearing up. “But it’s not just my world. We gotta stop this thing. If it gets enough power, who knows what it’ll do.”
“Splendid. Now, let’s see. My, my, this is going to take some doing,” the Gatekeeper said, stroking his beard.
“Don’t we just go through my door?” Eric asked.
Kate rolled her eyes. “Oh Eric, please. If we did that we’d just wind up on your world in the present.”
Eric blushed. “Oh yeah, true.”
“As I was saying, this will take some doing,” the Gatekeeper repeated. “Now let me see, it’s been a long time…”
The Gatekeeper approached the door and placed his right hand on its frosted glass window. He turned his hand counter-clockwise and the door turned with it, blurring and spiraling like it had been liquefied. When he removed his hand, the door was upside down. The Gatekeeper smiled.
“There, that should do it,” he said with satisfaction. “When you enter, you will find things are a little bit different Eric. Good luck to all of you. This Assignment may be your most critical.”
With that, Eric pushed to door open and they all passed through.