I followed Tim into the passage. “Just no more dragons, that’s all I ask,” I muttered as we stepped through. “And no Shelob-sized spiders, either. Anything else, I’m up for.” I glanced down, careful not to tread on the hem of Tim’s cloak in front of me. The ground was becoming rocky underfoot. I pushed my own cloak back over my shoulder as the air grew suddenly stifling. Like an oven.
I almost ran into Tim as he stopped suddenly. Questions rising on my tongue, I looked up to see what he had stopped to look at. The words died on my lips as I saw what Tim had seen.
Pock-marked pavement stretched before us across the blackened plain. On either side, charred remnants of wooden structures smoldered and sizzled. In the distance, a single volcano reared its smoking peak over the wreckage. Its smoke and ash clouded the sky and covered even the black ashes of the buildings in grey dust.
We stood there in silence for several moments. Finally, I moved forward to poke through the nearest collapsed ash heap. Tim did not move.
I picked up a charred stick to turn over the ash heap. As I thrust my makeshift poker into the pile, I hit something solid. I dug at it with my stick, uncovering broken ceramic shards that had once been a vase or flowerpot. On the other side of the pile, the remains of what appeared to have been a toy dog on wheels. The realization sunk in: this had once been a house.
I stood up, looking down the street at all the similar ash heaps. A neighborhood? I glanced in Tim’s direction. He hadn’t moved. Wordlessly, I held up the remains of the toy to show him. He didn’t even blink. He seemed numb, as though he couldn’t take his eyes off the volcano in the distance. Toy in hand, I made my way back to where he was standing. We stood in silence again, surveying the unimaginable damage.
“Tim . . .” My voice sounded small and scared in that inhospitible place.
“I just don’t understand. Who could have done such a thing...”
“What? You think this was done by a person? But look at the ash all over everything! And the volcano! You can’t blame a person for this sort of thing. Natural disasters happen.”
“No, not like this. The volcano is too far away to do this kind of damage. I’d be willing to bet that the buildings fell before the ash did. It’s hard to explain, but I can tell that this was done by magic. Someone did this intentionally.”
My eyes widened in surprise. “Someone...intentionally? Was there a war? Why would someone wantonly destroy so many people?” I clutched the little toy dog tightly, hoping its small owner had somehow escaped the destruction.
“I, I don’t know...” He let out a sigh like someone who had just given up on a dream. “Heather... Let’s go home.”
Despite the heat, I shivered. Traveling to magic worlds was not nearly as appealing to me as it had been earlier that morning. “Yeah, we should go home. Lead the way.” Tim pulled the pendant out of his pocket and began locating the passageway home. As he fiddled with the contraption, I returned the toy gently to the ash heap I had found it in. Tim waved at me when he had found the passage. As I followed him in, I glanced back over my shoulder one last time, hoping beyond hope that the little person who owned that toy would one day return to find it. The ash-filled haze faded and was gone.
Tim and I walked for several moments in silence. Finally, I asked Tim “Shouldn’t we be on the other side of the passage by now? It didn’t seem nearly this long on the way in.”
“You’re right. It should have only taken us a few seconds to get through.” We stopped and looked around. The between-world twilight seemed to stretch forever in all directions. Behind us, a dim light filtered in from the world we had come from. Ahead, Earth was nowhere in sight.
“Greetings, travelers. You’ve come far for ones so young.”
Tim and I turned simultaneously. A white-haired man appeared before us out of the dusk. His eyes were bright as he surveyed the two of us. “Don’t look so surprised,” he said, shaking his cane at us. “I’ve watched you come through here several times over the past few days. I see all who walk through my passages.”
Tim got the question out before I could. “Who are you?”
“My name is too long for your language, nor would it translate if I were to speak it. Most call me the Gatekeeper, and you may also.”
“Wait a minute,” I blurted. “What do you mean, translate? What language do you speak? And why won’t it translate into English? You speak English well enough, to my hearing anyways.”
The Gatekeeper chuckled. “You have not been world-traveling long, so I shall excuse your ignorance. These things will come in time.” He nodded at Tim. “Ask your guide. He knows.”
I turned to Tim, quizzically. He attempted to explain. “When the original Tim cloned himself, all he had to work with was magic. He couldn’t physically manifest flesh and blood. So while I look human, I’m really just made of magic. Specifically the magic that was floating around Renolia. One of the spells in the air at the time was a spell that automatically translates all languages to the listener’s native language.
“A translating spell?”
I frowned, trying to grasp the concept. “And it’s in Renolia? Or did it get wrapped up in whatever magic cloned you? How come I can understand him, then?” I motioned toward the Gatekeeper, who was smiling on.
Tim opened his mouth, then closed it again with a sigh. “As long as you’re around me, you should understand anyone we meet.”
My mind flooded with questions, but the Gatekeeper interjected. “Time is short, young ones. I have something to ask of you before you depart.” His face grew solemn and he gestured behind us at the dim light of the passage we had come through. “You saw the desolation beyond, did you not?”
Tim and I nodded silently. My gaze fell to my feet as I remembered the toy I had left in the ash heap. The Gatekeeper continued, “The world you just came from was once happy, peaceful, and prosperous. Until yesterday, they had nothing to fear. Until he came, that is.”
“Who is he?” I whispered, fearing the answer.
“He calls himself ‘The Crusher of Worlds’,” the Gatekeeper replied. “He came through last night and left this morning, just before you arrived. He’s been traveling through my passages at will, leaving destruction in his wake.” The Gatekeeper lowered his gaze. “My passages are meant only for peace. As a creature of peace, I’m powerless to stop such a mighty wizard. His magic is beyond me, and I cannot leave the passages.”
“Why not?” Tim shot me a pointed glance. I shrugged. I couldn’t help it that I was the novice here. Gimme a break.
The Gatekeeper coughed and cleared his throat. “Actually, I am the passages. And I resent being used as a tool for evil purposes. But the ‘Crusher of Worlds’ does not listen to my protest, nor can he hear my voice. He cares only to inflict suffering on any world he chooses. Such evil must not be allowed to continue. He must be stopped.” His eyes burning with righteous anger, the Gatekeeper pointed his cane at us. “You must stop him.”