|Conan knew he had heard a voice, but he turned to find himself facing...no
one. The corridor was dark. The torch on the wall behind him sent out yellow
probes that danced with the shadows but revealed nothing.
"Where are you? Show yourself!" Conan moved so that the solid wall was
to his back and held his sword raised.
"You have reached the top level of my dungeons, that is why you can
hear me." The voice echoed with menace, but also broke at the comma as
if uncertain of its proper octave.
"You are the Wizard of Shadows?"
"As ever. And these last few corridors I created just for you." There
was a pause and a cough and the voice hit its low octave again. "But I
have other players who need my attention now. I will release you on the
condition that you and your furry leave my valley and not return. So, like,
name your destination and I'll send you there."
Conan answered immediately. "My destination is the Third Kingdom that
lies in the middle of the Wide Web of the Worlds."
A sigh came from the darkness. "You would. That link is beyond even
my powers. But never mind, take this one and find your heart's desire."
The wall to Conan's left began to glow a warm gold. Instinctively he
reached for it. The air swirled around him and the sharp scent of ozone
prickled his nose. The world vanished for an instant, then Conan found
himself in an open air market, surrounded by people and noise and a dizzying
array of colorful advertising. The ground was steep and the air cool and
thin. There were no trees, but in the few vacant spaces not claimed by
vendors' stalls, Alpine grasses and meadow flowers clung to the rocky earth.
No one else seemed to notice the flowers, as each vendor vied to outdo
his neighbor in the color and animation of banners.
Everything was for sale. There were plush idols of a round, white dog
that Conan recognized as the demi-god of a reactionary cult. The same booth
offered the black leather clothing favored by his followers. The next offered
a similar effigy: a white dog with black ears. Conan recalled it as a benign
deity, fabled for its ability to fly on the roof of its thatched cottage.
Not knowing which way to go, Conan walked uphill. A sharp, sweet odor
caused his mouth to water. It came from a bright red booth with red and
yellow peppers strung above it. These were not snacks to be dared on their
own. Conan put his hunger aside and walked on.
At last a vendor he knew. In the largest booth he had yet seen, giant
warrior women tended their stock of intellectual property in codex format-reputed
to be the largest on earth. Across from them was the dull yellow booth
of their flannel-clad arch-rivals. Conan hesitated. I could just browse,
thought. Just for a moment.
Just a familiar voice barked his name and he saw a white horse tied
to a post in front of a café. It was First Search with Reynard stretched
out across the saddle, his pink tongue panting from his black muzzle in
a canine grin, black front paws crossed and red fur glistening in the sun.
Conan pushed his way through the crowd.
The fox smiled. "I knew you had escaped the dungeons when the link appeared
and I found myself here with your horse. Isn't this a grand market? Watch
out for that bright red booth over there. If they offer you a sample, don't
take it if you value your tongue. Do you realize you can buy real codex-style
books over there? How is your credit?"
Conan almost reached out to ruffle the fur behind Reynard's ears, but
thought better of it. Instead he checked the saddle bags. The last copy
of the AACR2-the one he must deliver to the temple of the Third Kingdom-was
"There is nothing we need to buy," he said. "Sending us here must have
been the Wizard's idea of a joke, for this is the Mountain of Dreams. And
the largest dream it sells is myth that one can buy happiness."
"Well one can at least buy a full stomach," said Reynard, "I am told
this café serves the best java and cookies on the mountain. If you
check the outside pouch of this saddlebag, you will find that not all the
Wizard's gifts turned to mud when you left the dungeon."
He was right. Conan retrieved a coupon good at the Mountain Top Café
and realized just how tired and hungry he was.
© 1997, by Hadley V. Baxendale