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Robert Asprin & Jody Lynn Nye

The dark green roof of the forest stretched out endlessly in every direction. To most, it would look like an idylic paradise. To me, it was a major problem.

I gazed out over the massed pine trees, wondering what kind of wilderness we’d gotten stuck in. A few bare crests, like the one I was sitting on, protruded above the treeline, but they were miles away. None of it looked familiar, but no reason why it should. There were thousands of dimensions in existence, and I’d only been to a few.

At the very least, it was an embarassement. Here I was, considered publicly to be a hotshot magician, the great Skeeve, utterly lost because I’d tripped and fallen through a magic mirror.

I went through my belt pouch for the D-hopper. I was sure it was there somewhere. I wasn’t alone, of course. Behind me, my partner and teacher Aahz paced up and down impatiently.

“I told you not to touch anything in Bezel’s shop,” the Pervect snarled. When a native of the dimension called Perv snarls, other species blanch. The expression shows off a mouth full of 4-inch razor-honed fangs set in a scaly green face that even dragons considered terrifying. I was used to it, and besides, I was pretty much to blame for his bad mood.

“Who’d have thought anybody could fall through a looking glass?” I tried to defend myself, but my partner wasn’t listening.

“If you had paid attention to a single thing I’ve said over the last however many years it’s been…” Aahz held up a scaly palm in my direction. “No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Garkin at least should have warned you.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s my fault.”

“It’s just basic common sense when it comes to magik. Don’t eat anything that says “Eat me.” Don’t drink anything that says “Drink me.” And don’t touch Klahdforsaken magik mirrors with barriers around them that say “Don’t touch!…what did you say?” Aahz spun around on his heel.

“I said I know it’s my fault. I was just trying to keep Gleep from eating the frame,” I explained, sheepishly.

“Gleep!” the dragon added brightly, beside me.

“So why didn’t you tie him up before we went in?” Aahz said.

“I did tie him up!” I protested. “You know I did. You saw me knot the leash around a post.” But we could both make an educated guess as to what had happened.

My dragon was not allowed in most reputable places ? or what passed for reputable at the Bazaar at Deva, the largest trading area anywhere in the multitude of dimensions. It often happened that unscrupulous Deveel shop proprietors ridded themselves of unwanted merchandise at a profit, by arranging for accidents to occur. Such as having a convenient fire during for which time the owners have an unshakeable alibi. Such as leaving the door ajar while they just run next door to borrow a cup of sugar. Such as loosening the tether on a baby dragon whose reputation for clumsiness was almost as impressive as its masters’ reputation for magical skill and deep pockets. Said dragon would go charging after its beloved owner. Merchandise would start to hit the tent floor as soon as it entered. More goods, not even close to being in range of said rampaging dragon, would shatter into pieces. Outraged shopkeeper would appear demanding reimbursement at rates inflated four or five times the true worth. Unlucky customer would be forced to shell out or risk expulsion (or worse) from the bazaar. All genuine valuables would have been removed from the shop ahead of time, of course.

“Maybe one of Bezel’s rivals let him loose,” I suggested hopefully, not liking my skills at tying knots to be called into question.

“What were you doing looking at that mirror anyhow?”

I felt a little silly admitting the truth, but it had been my curiosity that had gotten us stranded out here. “Massha told me about it. She said this was a really great item. It shows the looker his fondest dream.…Naturally, I wanted to see if it was anything we could use in our business. You know, to scope out our clients, find out what it is they really want…”

“And what did you see?” Aahz asked quickly.

“Only my own dreams,” I said, wondering why Aahz was so touchy. “Daydreams, really. Me, surrounded by our friends, rich, happy, with a beautiful girl…” Although the mirror had been a little sketchy about the actual physical details I remembered vivid impressions of pulchritude and sex appeal.

A slow smile spread over Aahz’s scaly features. “You know those dream girls, partner. They never turn out like you hope they will.”

I frowned. “Yes, but if it’s your own dream, wouldn’t she be exactly what you want? How about yours? What did you see?”

“Nothing,” Aahz said flatly. “I didn’t look.”

“But you did,” I insisted, grabbing onto a fleeting memory of Aahz with an astonished expression on his face. “What did you see?”

“Forget it, apprentice! It was a big fake. Bezel probably had a self-delusion spell put on the mirror to spur someone stupid like you into buying it. When you got home you’d have seen nothing reflected in it but Bezel’s fantasy of a genuine sucker.”

“No, I’m sure the mirror was real,” I said thoughtfully. I knew what I’d daydreamed over the years, but those wishes had been piecemeal, little things now and again. I’d never had such a coherent and complete vision of my fantasies. “Come on, Aahz, what did you see?”

“None of your business!”

But I wasn’t going to be put off that easily.

“C’mon. I told you mine,” I wheedled. Aahz’s wishes were bound to be interesting. He had seen dozens of dimensions, and been around a lot more than I had. “You probably have some sophisticated plan about an empire with you at the top of the heap. in charge. Hundreds of people begging for your services. Wine! Women! Song!”

“Shut up!” Aahz commanded. But by now, my curiosity was an unignorable itch.

“There’s no one around here for miles,” I said, and it was the truth. “Nobody could get up here in hearing range. They’d have to build a bridge to that next peak, and it’s miles away. There’s no one here but us. I’m your best friend, right?”

“I doubt that!”

“Hey!” I exclaimed, hurt.

Aahz relented, looking around. “Sorry. You didn’t deserve that, even if you did make a boneheaded move by touching that mirror. Well, since it’s just us… Yeah, I saw something. That’s why I think it’s a delusion spell. I saw things the way they used to be, me doing magik ? big magik ? impressing the heck out of thousands ? no, millions! I got respect. I miss that.”

I was astonished. “You have respect. We respect you. And people in the Bazaar, they definitely respect you. The Great Aahz! You’re feared in a hundred dimensions. You know that.”

“It’s not like in the old days,” Aahz insisted, his gaze fixed on the distance, and I knew he wasn’t seeing the endless trees. “Time was we’d never have been stuck up here on a bare mountaintop like two cats on a refrigerator…”

I opened my mouth to ask what a refrigerator was, then decided I didn’t want to interrupt the flow. Aahz seldom opened up his private thoughts to me. If he felt like he wanted to unload, I considered it a privilege to listen.

“…I mean, it ain’t nothing showy, but time was I could have just flicked my wrist, and a bridge would’ve appeared, like that!”

He flicked his wrist.

I gawked. A suspension bridge stretched out from the peak on which we were standing all the way to the next mountain. It was made completely out of playing cards, from its high arches down the cables to the spans and pylons that disappeared down into the trees. We stared at each other and gulped.

“That wasn’t there before,” I ventured. But Aahz was no longer looking at the bridge or at me. He was staring at his finger as if it had gone off, which in a sense it had.

“After all these years,” he said softly. “It’s impossible.” He raised his head, feeling around for force lines. I did the same.

The place was full of them. I don’t mean full, I mean FULL. Running through the ground like powerful subterranean rivers, and overhead like highly charged rainbows, lines of force were everywhere. Whatever dimension we’d stepped into was chockablock with magik. Aahz threw back his head and laughed. A pretty little yellow songbird flew overhead, twittering. He pointed a finger at it. The bird, now the size of a mature dragon, emitted a basso profundo chirp. It looked surprised.

It had nothing on me. For years I had thought only my late magik teacher Garkin could have removed the spell that robbed Aahz of his abilities. I didn’t know a dimension existed where the laws of magik as I had learned them didn’t apply. It seems I was wrong.

Aahz took off running toward the bridge.

“Hey, Skeeve, watch this!” he shouted. His hands darted out. Thick, fragrant snow began to fall, melting into a perfumed mist before it touched me. Rainbows darted through the sky. Rivers of jewels sprang up, rolling between hills of gold. I tripped over one and ended up in a pool of rubies.

“Aahz, wait!” I cried, galloping after him as fast as I could. Gleep lolloped along with me, but we couldn’t catch him. As soon as Aahz’s foot hit the bridge, it began to shrink away from the mountainside, carrying him with it. He was so excited he didn’t notice. Once when I hadn’t really been listening he had told me about contract bridge. This must be what he meant. This bridge was contracting before my eyes.

“Aahz! Come back!” I called. There was nothing I could do. Gleep and I would have to jump for it. I grabbed his collar, and we leaped into space.

I was pushing with every lick of magik in my body, but we missed the end of the bridge by a hand’s length. A card peeled itself up off the rear of the span. It was a joker. The motley figure put its thumbs in its ears and stuck out its tongue at me, just before the bridge receded out of sight. I didn’t have time to be offended by its audacity, since I was too busy falling.

“Gleeeeeeeep!” my dragon wailed, as he thudded onto the steep slope beside me. “Gle ee-ee-eep!”

“Gr-ra-ab so-ome-thi-ing,” I stuttered, as we rolled helplessly down the hill. Where had all those force lines gone? I should have been able to anchor myself to the earth with a bolt of magik. We tumbled a good long way until my pet, showing the resourcefulness I knew

was in him, snaked his long neck around a passing tree-stump, and his tail around my leg. We jerked to an abrupt halt. I hung upside down with my head resting on a shallow ledge that overlooked a deep ravine. We’d only just missed falling into it. As soon as I caught my breath, I crawled up the slope to praise Gleep. He shot out his long tongue and affectionately planted a line of slime across my face. I didn’t flinch as I usually did. I figured he deserved to lick me if he wanted to. He’d saved both of us.

I studied my surroundings. If there was a middle to Nowhere, I had unerringly managed to locate it. The remote scraps of blue visible through the forest roof were all that was left of the sky. Once my heart had slowed from its frantic “That’s it, we’re all going to die now” pounding to its normal, “Well, maybe not yet” pace I realized that the ledge we almost fell off was wide enough to walk on. I had no idea where it led, but sitting there wasn’t going to help me find Aahz or the jokers who had carried him off.

“You lost, friend?” a male voice asked.

I jumped up, looking around for its source. I could see nothing but underbrush around me. Out of reflex I threw a disguise spell on me and Gleep, covering my strawberry-blond hair with sleeked-back black and throwing my normally round and innocent-looking blue eyes into slanted, sinister pits. Gleep became a gigantic red dragon, flames licking out from underneath every scale.

“No! I’m just…getting my bearings.”

A clump of trees stood up and turned around. I couldn’t help but stare. On the other side of the mobile copse was the form of a man.

“Well, you sure look lost to me,” said the man, squinting at me in a friendly fashion. He was dressed in a fringed jacket and trousers, with a striped fur cap perched on his head and matching boots on his feet. His skin was as rough as bark, and his small, dark eyes peered at me out of crevices. Hair and eyebrows alike were twiglike thickets. The eyebrows climbed high on his craggy forehead. “Say, that’s pretty good illusion-making, friend! You an artist?”

“Huh?” I goggled, taken aback. How could he have spotted it so readily? “No. I’m a master magician. I am…the Great Skeeve.”

The man stuck out a huge hand and clenched my fingers. I withdrew them and counted them carefully to make sure none had broken off in his solid grip. “Pleased to meet you. Name’s Alder. I’m a backwoodsman. I live around these parts. I only ask because illusion’s a major art form around here. You’re pretty good.”

“Thanks,” I said dejectedly. An illusion was no good if it was obvious. I let it drop. “I only use it because I don’t look very impressive in person.”

Alder tutted and waved a hand. “It don’t matter what you look like. It’s only your personality anybody pays attention to. Things change around here so often.” He lifted his old face, sniffed and squinted one eye. He raised a crooked finger. “Like now, for example.”

Alder was right. While I watched, his leathery skin smoothed out a little and grew paler. Instead of resembling a gnarled old oak he looked like a silver-haired birch instead. I was alarmed to discover the transformation was happening to me, too. Some force curled around my legs, winding its way up my body. The sensation wasn’t unpleasant, but I couldn’t escape from it. I didn’t struggle, but something was happening to my body, my face.

“Gleep!” exclaimed my dragon. I glanced over at him. Instead of a green dragon with vestigal wings, a large, brown fluffy dog sat looking at me with huge blue eyes. Once I got past the shock I realized the transformation really rather suited him. I pulled a knife out of my pocket and looked at my reflection in the shiny blade. The face looking back at me was tawny skinned with topaz-yellow eyes like a snake and a crest of bright red hair. I shuddered.

“What if I don’t like the changes?” I asked Alder.

Meditatively he peeled a strip of bark off the back of one arm and began to shred it between his fingers. “Well, there are those who can’t do anything about it, but I’m betting you can, friend. Seeing as how you have a lot of influence.”

“Who with?” I demanded. “What’s the name of this dimension? I’ve never been here before.”

“It ain’t a dimension. This is the Dreamland. It’s common to all people in all dimensions. Every mind in the Waking World comes here, every time they go to sleep. You don’t recognize it consciously, but you already know how to behave here. It’s instinctive for you. You’re bending dreamstuff, exerting influence, just as if you lived here all the time. You must have pretty vivid dreams.”

“This is a dream? But it all seems so real.”

“It don’t mean it ain’t real, sonny,” Alder whistled through his teeth. “Look, there’s rules. The smarter you are, the more focused, the better you get on in this world. Lots of people are subject to the whims of others, particularly of the Sleepers themselves, but the better you know your own mind, the more control over your own destiny you’ve got. Me, I know what I like and what I don’t. I like it out in the wilderness. Whenever the space I’m in turns into a city, I just move on until I find me a space where there ain’t no people. Pretty soon it quiets down and have things my own way again. Now, if I didn’t know what I wanted, I’d be stuck in a big Frustration dream all the time.”

“I just had a Frustration Dream,” I said, staring off in the general direction in which Aahz had disappeared. “How is it that if I have so much power here I couldn’t catch up with my friend?”

“He’s gone off on a toot,” Alder said, knowingly. “It happens a lot to you Waking Worlders. You get here and you go a little crazy. He got a taste of what he wants, and he’s gone after more of it.”

“He doesn’t need anything,” I insisted. “He’s got everything back at home.” But I paused.

“There’s got to be something,” Alder smiled. “Everyone wants one thing they can’t get at home. So what does your friend want?”

That was easy: Aahz had told me himself. “Respect.”

Alder shook his head. “Respect, eh? Well, I don’t have a lot of respect for someone who abandons his partner like he did.”

I leaped immediately to Aahz’s defense. “He didn’t abandon me on purpose.”

“You call a fifty-mile bridge an accident?”

I tried to explain. “He was excited. I mean, who wouldn’t be? He had his powers back. It was like…magik.”

“Been without influence a long time, has he?” Alder asked, with squint-eyed sympathy.

“Well, not exactly. He’s very powerful where we come from,” I insisted, wondering why I was unburdening myself to a strange old coot in the wilderness, but it was either that or talk to myself. “But he hasn’t been able to do magik in years. Not since my old mentor, er, put a curse on him. But I guess that doesn’t apply here.”

“It wouldn’t,” Alder assured me, grinning. “Your friend seems to have a strong personality, and that’s what matters. So we’re likely to find your friend in a place he’d get what he wanted. Come on. We’ll find him.”

“Thanks,” I said dubiously. “I’m sure I’ll be able to find him. I know him pretty well. Thanks.”

“Don’t you want me to come along?”

I didn’t want him to know how helpless I felt. Aahz and I had been in worse situations than this. Besides, I had Gleep, my trusty…dog…with me. “No, thanks,” I said, brightly. “I’m such a powerful wizard I don’t really need your help.”

“Okay, friend, whatever you want,” Alder said. He stood up and turned around. Suddenly, I was alone, completely surrounded by trees. I couldn’t even see the sky.

“Hey!” I yelled. I sought about vainly. Not only couldn’t I see the backwoodsman, but I’d lost sight of the cliffside path, the hillside, and even what remained of the sky. I gave in. “Well, maybe I need a little help,” I admitted sheepishly. A clearing appeared around me, and Alder stood beside me with a big grin on his face. “Come on, then, youngster. We’ve got a trail to pick up.”

Alder talked all the way through the woods. Normally the hum of sound would have helped me to focus my mind on the problem at hand, but I just could not concentrate. I’m happiest in the middle of a town, not out in the wilderness. Back when I was an apprentice magician and opportunistic but largely unsuccessful thief, the bigger the population into which I could disappear after grabbing the valuables out of someone’s bedroom, the better to escape detection. Alder’s rural accent reminded me of my parents’ farm that I had run away from to work for Garkin. I hated it. I forced myself to remember he was a nice guy who was helping us find Aahz.

“Now, looky-look here,” he said, glancing down as we came to a place where six or seven paths crossed in a knot of confusion. I couldn’t tell which one Aahz and his moving bridge had taken, but I was about to bolt down the nearest turning, just out of sheer frustration. “Isn’t this the most interesting thing?…What’s the matter?” he asked, noticing the dumb suffering on my face. “I’m talking too much, am I?”

“Sorry,” I said, hiding my expression too late. “I’m worrying about my partner. He was so excited about getting his powers back that he didn’t notice he was getting carried away ? literally. I’m concerned that when he notices he’s going to try to come back and find me.”

“If what you say is true it’s going to take him a little time to get used to wielding influence again,” Alder said. I started to correct him, but if this was the way the locals referred to magik, I wouldn’t argue. “Right now we’re on the trail of that bridge. Something that big doesn’t pass through without leaving its marks, and it didn’t. He lifted a handful of chocolate colored pebbles from the convergence, and went on lecturing me.

“Now, this here trail mix is a clear blind. Those jokers must have strewn it to try and confuse us, but I’m too old a hand for that. I’m guessing that bridge is on its way to the capital, but I’d rather trust following the signs than my guesses. We have to hurry to see them before the winds of change blow through and mess up the tracks. I don’t have enough strength myself to keep them back.”

“Can I help?” I asked. “I’m pretty good at ma—I mean influence. And if my partner packs a kick here, I should, too.”

Alder’s branchlike eyebrows rose. “Maybe you could, at that. Let’s give it a try!”

Let’s just say I wasn’t an unqualified success to start. Dreamish influence behaved like magik in that one concentrated hard picturing what one wanted to achieve, used the force lines to shape it, then hoped the committee running the place let one’s plans pass. Like any committee they made some changes, the eventual result resembling but not being completely like my original intention, but close enough. Over the several days it took us to walk out of the forest, I attained a certain amount of mastery over my surroundings, but never enough to pop us to the capital city of Celestia or locate Aahz. I did learn to tell when the winds of change were coming through. They felt like the gentle alteration that had hit me and Gleep the first day, but far stronger. They were difficult to resist, and I had to protect the entire path we were walking following. This I did by picturing it, even the parts we couldn’t see, as a long rope stretched out in front of us. It could have knots in it, but we didn’t want it breaking off unexpectedly. I might never find Aahz if we lost this trail. I did other little tasks around the campground, just to learn the skill of doing two things at once. Alder was a great help. He was a gentler teacher than either Garkin or Aahz. For someone who had little influence of his own, he sure knew how to bring out the best in other magicians.

“Control’s the most important thing,” he said, as I struggled to contain a thicket fire I had started by accident when I tried to make a campfire one night. “Consider yourself at a distance from the action, and think smaller. What you can do with just a suggestion is more than most people can with their best whole efforts. Pull back and concentrate on getting the job done. A little effort sometimes pays off better than a whole parade with a brass band.”

I chuckled. “You sound like Aahz.”

“What?” Alder shouted.

“I said…” but my words were drowned out by deafening noise. The trees around us were suddenly thrust apart by hordes of men in colorful uniforms. I shouldn’t say ‘horde,’ though they were dressed in red, black and gold, because they marched in orderly ranks, shoving me and Alder a dozen yards apart. Each of them carried a musical instrument from which blared music the likes of which I hadn’t heard since halftime at the Big Game on the world of Jahk.

I picked myself up off the ground. “What,” I asked as soon as my hearing returned, “was that?”

“That was a nuisance,” Alder said, getting to his feet and brushing confetti off his clothes.

“No kidding,” I agreed, “but what was it?”

“A nuisance,” Alder repeated. “That’s what it’s called. It’s one of the perils of the Dreamland. Oh, they’re not really dangerous. They’re mostly harmless, but they waste your time. They’re a big pain in the sitter. Sometimes I think the Sleepers send them to get us to let go of ourselves so they can change us the way they want. Other people just plain attract them, especially those they most irk.”

I frowned. “I don’t want to run into any more of them myself,” I said. “They could slow us down finding Aahz.”

Alder pointed a finger directly at my nose. “That’s exactly what they might do. Stick with me, friend, and I’ll see you around the worst of them, or I won’t call myself the finest backwoodsman in the Dreamland.”

*   *   *

Using the virtually infinite reservoir of power available to me, I concentrated on keeping the trail intact so that Alder could find it. I found that the less influence I used, the fewer nuisances troubled us. So long as I kept my power consumption low, we had pretty easy going. It would have been a pleasant journey if I hadn’t been concerned.

It was taking so long to locate Aahz that I began to worry about him. What if the contracted bridge had trapped him somewhere? What if he had the same problems I did with influence? He might have trouble finding enough food, or even enough air! He wasn’t as

fortunate as I had been, to locate a friendly native guide like Alder. Visions of Aahz in dire straits began to haunt my dreams, and drew my attention away from admiring the handsome though sometimes bizarre landscape. Gleep, knowing my moods, tried to cheer me up by romping along and cutting foolish capers, but I could tell that even he was worried.

One day Alder stopped short in the middle of a huge forest glade, causing me and Gleep to pile up against the trees growing out of his back.

“Ow!” I said, rubbing my bruises.

“Gleep!” declared my dragon.

“We’re here,” Alder said. He plucked a handful of grass from the ground and held it out to me. It didn’t look any different from the grass we’d been trudging over for the last three days. “We’re in Celestia.”

“Are you sure?” I demanded.

“Sure as the sun coming up in the morning, sonny,” Alder said.

“All this forest in the midst of the capital city?”

“This is the Dreamland. Things change a lot. Why not a capital made of trees?”

I glanced around. I had to admit the trees themselves were more magnificent than I’d seen anywhere else, and more densely placed. The paths were regular in shape, meeting at square intersections. Elegant, slender trees with light coming out of the top must be the streetlights. Alder was right: it looked like a city, but all made of trees!

“Now, this is my kind of place,” Alder said, pleased, rubbing his hands together. “Can’t wait to see the palace. I bet the whole thing’s one big treehouse.”

Within a few hundred paces he pointed it out to me. What a structure! At least a thousand paces long, it was put together out of boards and balanced like a top on the single stem of one enormous oak tree. The vast door was accessible only by way of a rope ladder hung from the gate. A crudely-painted sign on the door was readable from the path: “Klubhse ? Everywun welcm. The King.” In spite of its rough-hewn appearance there was still something regal about it.

“No matter what shape it takes, it’s still a palace,” Alder said. “You ought to meet the king. Nice guy, they tell me. He’d like to know an influential man like you. Your friend has to be close by. I can feel it.”

A powerful gale of changes prickled at the edge of my magikal sense. I fought with all my might to hold it back as Alder knelt and sniffed at the path.

“This way,” he said, not troubling to rise. Unable to help himself, he became an enormous, rangy, blood-red dog that kept its nose to the path. Overjoyed to have a new friend, Gleep romped around Alder, then helped him followed the tracks. The scent led them directly to two vast tree-trunks in the middle of a very crowded copse. Alder rose to his feet, transforming back into a man as he did.

“We’re here,” he said.

“But these are a couple of trees!” I exclaimed. Then I began to examine them more closely. The bark, though arrayed in long vertical folds, was smooth, almost as smooth as cloth. Then I spotted the roots peeking out from the ground. They were green. Scaly green. Like Aahz’s feet. I looked up.

“Yup,” said Alder with satisfaction. “We’ve found your buddy, all right.”

A vast statue of Aahz scratched the sky. Standing with hands on its hips, the statue had a huge smile that beamed out over the landscape, Aahz’s array of knife-sharp teeth looking more terrifying than ever in twenty-times scale. I was so surprised I let go of the control I was holding over the winds of change. A whirlwind, more a state of mind than an actual wind, came rushing through. Trees melted away, leaving a smooth black road under my feet. White pathways appeared on each side of the pavement. People rushing back and forth on foot and in vehicles. Across the way the palace was now undisputedly a white marble building of exquisite beauty. But the statue of Aahz remained, looming over the landscape, grinning. I realized to my surprise that it was an office building. The eyes were windows.

With Alder’s help I located a door in the leg and entered. People bustled busily around, Unlike the rest of the Dreamland where I had seen mostly Klahds, here there were also Deveels, Imps, Gremlins and others, burdened down with file folders and boxes or worried expressions. Just as I had thought, given infinite resources Aahz would have a sophisticated setup with half of everybody working for him, and the other half bringing him problems to solve. And as for riches, the walls were polished mahogany and ivory, inlaid with gold and precious stones. Not flashy ? definitely stylish and screaming very loudly of money. I’d always wondered what Aahz could do with infinite resources, and now I was seeing it. A small cubicle at one end of the foot corridor swept me up all the way to the floor marked “Head-quarters.”

A shapely woman who could have been Tananda’s twin with pink skin sat at a curved wooden desk near the cubicle door. She spoke into a curved black stick poking out of her ear. She poked buttons as buzzers sounded. “Aahz Unlimited. May I help you? I’m sorry. Can you hold? Aahz Unlimited. May I help you? I’m sorry. Can you hold?”

I gazed into the room, at the fanciest office suite I could imagine. I knew Aahz was a snazzy dresser, but I never realized what good taste he had in furniture. Every item was meant to impress. The beautifully paneled walls were full of framed letters and testimonials, and every object looked as though it cost a very quiet fortune. All kinds of people hurried back and forth among the small rooms. I found a woman in a trim suit-dress who looked like she knew what she was doing and asked to see Aahz.

“Ah, yes, Mr. Skeeve,” she said, peering at me over her pince-nez eyeglasses. “You are expected.”

“Gleep?” added my dragon, interrogatively.

“Yes, Mr. Gleep,” the woman smiled. “You, too.”

*   *   *

“Partner!” Aahz called as I entered. He swung his feet off the black marble-topped desk and came to slap me on the back. “Glad to see you’re okay. No one I sent out has been able to locate you.”

“I had a guide…” I said, looking around for Alder. He must have turned his back and blended in with the paneling. I brought my attention back to Aahz. After all the worrying I had done over the last many days I was relieved to see that Aahz seemed to be in the very best of health and spirits. “I was worried about you, too.”

“Sorry about that,” Aahz said, looking concerned and a little sheepish. “I figured it was no good for both of us to wander blindly around a new dimension searching for one another. I decided to sit tight and wait for you to find me. I made it as easy as I possibly could. I knew once you spotted the building you’d find me. How do you like it?”

“It’s great,” I said firmly. “A good resemblance. Almost uncanny. It doesn’t…put people off, does it?” I asked, thinking of the seven-foot fangs.

“No,” Aahz said, puzzled. “Why should it?”

“Oh, Mr. Aahz!”

A small thin man hurried into the office with the efficient-looking woman behind him with a clipboard. “Please, Mr. Aahz, you have to help me,” the man said. “I’m being stalked by nightmares.”

Aahz threw himself into the big chair behind the desk and gestured me to sit down. The little man poured out a pathetic story of being haunted by the most horrible monsters that came to him at night.

“I’m so terrified I haven’t been able to sleep for weeks. I heard about your marvelous talent for getting rid of problems, I thought…”

“What?” Aahz roared, sitting up and showing his teeth. “I’ve never heard such bunkum in my life,” Aahz said, his voice filling the room. The little man looked apprehensive. “Pal, you’ve got to come to me when you really need me, not for something minor like this.”

“What? What?” the little man sputtered.

“Miss Teddybear,” Aahz gestured to the efficient woman, who hustled closer. “Get this guy set up with Fazil the Mirrormaster. Have him surround this guy’s bed with reflectors that reflect out. That’ll scotch the nightmares. If they see themselves the way you’ve been seeing them they’ll scare the heck out of themselves. You’ll never see them again. Guaranteed. And I’ll only take a…thirty percent commission on the job. Got that?”

“Of course, Mr. Aahz.” The efficient woman bowed herself out.

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Aahz!” the little man said. “I’m sorry. You’re just like everyone said. You are absolutely amazing! Thank you, thank you!”

Aahz grinned, showing an acre or so of sharp teeth. “You’re welcome. Stop by the receptionist’s desk on the way out. She’ll give you the bill.”

The little man scurried out, still spouting thanks. As soon as the door closed another testimonial popped into existence on the already crowded wall. Aahz threw himself back into his chair and lit a cigar.

“This is the life, eh, partner?”

“What was that about?” I asked, outraged. “The guy was frightened out of his life. You gave him a solution without leaving your office. You could have gone to see what was really going on. He could have someone stalking him, someone with a contract out on him…”

Aahz waved the cigar and smoke wove itself into a complicated knot. “Psychology, partner, I keep telling you! Let him worry that he’s wasting my time. He’ll spread the word, so only people with real troubles will come looking for me. In the meantime, Fazil’s an operative of mine. He’ll check out the scene. If the guy just has some closet monsters that are getting above themselves, the mirrors will do the trick. If it’s something worse, Fazil will take care of it.” He pounded a hand down on a brown box on the desktop. “Miss Teddybear, would you send in some refreshments?” Aahz gestured at the wall. “Your invisible friend can have some, too. I owe him for getting you here safely.”

“It’s nothing, friend,” the backwoodsman said. He had been disguised as a section of ornamental veneer. He turned around and waddled over to shake hands. “You’ve made yourself right at home here.”

“You bet I have,” Aahz said, looking around him with satisfaction. “I’ve been busy nonstop since I got here, making connections and doing jobs for people.”

The efficient aide returned pushing a tray of dishes. She set before Gleep a bowl of something that looked disgusting but was evidently what every dragon wishes he was served every day. My pet lolloped over and began to slurp his way through the wriggling contents. My stomach lurched, but it was soon soothed by the fantastic food that Aahz’s assistant served me.

“This is absolutely terrific,” I said. “With all the information you’ve gathered, have you figured out a way to get us back to Deva?”

Aahz shook his head.

“I’m not going back.”

“We’ll tell everyone about this place, and…what?” I stopped short to stare at him. “What do you mean you’re not going back?”

“For what?” Aahz asked, sneering. “So I can be the magic-free Pervert again?”

“You’ve always been Pervect without them,” I said, hopefully trying to raise his spirits with a bad joke.

It didn’t work. Aahz’s expression was grim. “You don’t have a clue how humiliating it is when I can’t do the smallest thing. I relied on those abilities for centuries. It’s been like having my arm cut off to be without them. I don’t blame Garkin. I’d have done the same thing to him for a joke. It was just my bad luck that Isstvan’s assassin happened to have picked that day to put in the hit. But now I’ve found a place I can do everything I used to.”

“Except D-hop,” I pointed out, slyly, I hoped. “You’re stuck in one dimension for good.”

“So what?” Aahz demanded. “Most people live out their whole lives in one dimension.”

“…Or hang out with your old buddies.”

Aahz made a sour face. “They know me the way I was before I went through the mirror. Powerless.” He straightened his back. “I won’t miss ’em.”

I could tell he was lying. I pushed. “You won’t? What about Tanda and Chumley? And Massha? What about the other people who’ll miss you? Like me?”

“You can visit me in here,” Aahz said. “Get the mirror from Bezel, and don’t let anyone else know you’ve got it.”

“You’ll get bored.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve got a long time to get over being powerless. I can’t do anything out there without magikal devices or help from apprentices. I’m tired of having people feel sorry for me. Here no one pities me. They respect what I can do.”

“But you don’t belong here. This is the world of dreams.”

“My dream, as you pointed out, apprentice!”

“Partner,” I said stiffly. “Unless you’re breaking up the partnership.”

Aahz looked a little hurt for the moment. “This can be a new branch office,” he suggested. “You can run the one on Deva. You already do, for all practical purposes.”

“Well, sure, we can do that, but you won’t get much outside business,” I said. “Only customers with access to Bezel’s mirror will ever come looking for you, and you already said not to let anyone know we’ve got it.”

“I can stand it,” Aahz assured me. “I’m pretty busy already. I’m important here. I like it. The king and I—we’re buddies,” Aahz grinned, tipping me a wink, “he said I was an asset to the community. I solve a few little problems for him now and then.” The efficient aide leaned in the door. “ ’Scuse me, partner.” He picked up a curved horn made of metal and held it to his ear. “Hey, your majesty! How’s it going?”

If there was ever a Frustration dream, I was living it. For every reason I presented as to why Aahz should return to Deva, Aahz had a counterargument. I didn’t believe for a moment he didn’t care about the people he would be leaving behind, but I did understand how he felt about having his powers restored to him. He’d get over the novelty in time.

Or would he? He’d been a powerful magician for centuries before Garkin’s unluckily timed gag. Would I be able to stand the thought of losing my talents twice? He did seem so happy here. He was talking with the local royalty like an old friend. Could I pull him away from that? But I had to. This was wrong.

“I’d better leave, sonny,” Alder said, standing up. “This sounds like an argument between friends.”

“No, don’t go,” I pleaded, following him out into the hallway. “This isn’t the Aahz I knows. I have got to get him through the portal again, but I don’t know how to find it.”

Alder cocked his shaggy head at me. “If he’s half the investigator he seems to be, he already knows where it is, friend. The problem you’re going to have is not getting him to the water, but making him drink. Right now, things are too cushy for him. He’s got no reason to leave.”

I felt as though a light had come on. “You mean, he hasn’t had enough nuisances?”

Alder’s rough-skinned face creased a million times in a sly grin. “I think that’s just what I do mean, youngster. Best of luck to you.” He turned his back and vanished.

“Thanks!” I called out. Using every bit of influence that was in me, I sent roots down into the deepest wells of magikal force I could find, spreading them out all over the Dreamland. I didn’t try to dampen Aahz’s light. I brightened it. I made every scale on the building gleam with power, both actual and perceived. Anyone with a problem to solve would know that this was the guy to come to. Aahz would be inundated with cases, important, unimportant and trivially banal. There would be people looking for lost keychains. There’d be little girls with kittens up trees. There’d be old ladies coming to Aahz to help them find the eye of a needle they were trying to thread.

Most important, unless I had missed something on my journey here, with tht much influence flying around, every nuisance in the kingdom would converge on the building. If there was one thing my partner hated, and had lectured me on over and over again, it was wasting time. If I couldn’t persuade Aahz to leave the Dreamland, maybe nuisances could.

My gigantic injection of magik took effect almost immediately While I watched, things started to go wrong with the running of Aahz, Unlimited. The files the efficient employees were carrying to and fro grew so top-heavy that they collapsed on the floor, growing into haystacks of paper. Some of the employees got buried in the mass. Others ran for shovels to get them out, and ended up tangled with dozens of other people who came in to help. Framed letters began to pop off the wall, falling to the floor in a crash of glass.

Then the entire building seemed to sway slightly to the right.

“What’s going on here?” I could hear Aahz bellow. He emerged from his office, and clutched the door frame as the building took a mighty lurch to the left. I grabbed for the nearest support, which happened to be Gleep. He had become a giant green bird with a striped head and a flat beak and curved talons which he drove deep into the wooden parquet floor. “Why is everything swaying?”

Miss Teddybear flew to the eye-windows and looked down.

“Sir, giant beavers are eating the leg of the building!”

“What?” Aahz ran to join her, with Gleep and me in close pursuit. We stared down out of the huge yellow oval.

Sure enough, enormous brown-black creatures with flat tails and huge square front teeth were gnawing away at the left leg of Aahz, Unlimited. As each support in the pylon snapped, the building teetered further.

Aahz leaned out of the window. “SCRAM!” he shouted. The attackers ignored him.

“Everyone get down there and stop them!” Aahz commanded. Miss Teddybear hurried away, following the flood of employees into the moving-box chamber.

As Aahz and I watched, his people poured out of the building. They climbed the leg, clinging to it in an effort to keep the monsters from burrowing any further. The beavers turned, and swatted them off with flips of their flat tails. Wailing, the employees whirled out of sight like playing cards on the wind. The monsters went on chewing. I felt bad about the people, though Alder has assured me that Dreamlanders were not easily hurt or killed.

“Call for reinforcements!” Aahz bellowed. I stared in amazement as white circles whirled out of the air, plastering themselves all over the leg, but the beavers chewed right through them. In no time they’d whittled the leg down to a green stick. The building was going to fall. Aahz’s empire was crumbling before our eyes. Gleep seized each of us in one mighty claw and flew with us to the elevator. The floor split under us as we crowded into the small cabinet.

The ride down seemed to take forever and ever. Aahz paced up and back in irritation, dying to get out there and do something to stop the destruction. I could tell he was trying to focus his magik on driving the monsters away and keeping his newfounded empire intact. I concentrated all my magik on keeping us from getting hurt. The forces I had stirred up scared me. I didn’t know if I’d get us killed trying to bring Aahz home.

“Come on,” he snarled, leaping out of the chamber as it ground to a stop. “We’ve got to hurry.”

It was too late. Just as we emerged from the front door, the enormous Aahz-shaped structure wobbled back and forth, and crashed to lie flat in the park. I gulped. One second sooner, and we’d have been inside when it fell. Aahz stared at the wreckage in dismay.

“Oh, well,” I said, trying to look innocent. “Easy come, easy go.”

“Yeah,” Aahz said, with a heavy sigh. “It was just a dream. There’s always more where that came from.”

A boy in a tight-fitting uniform with a pillbox hat strapped to his head came rushing up. He handed Aahz a small package the size of his hand. Aahz gave the boy a coin and tore open the paper. Inside was a small mirror. I recognized the frame. “It’s the portal back to Deva,” I said in surprise. “You were looking for it after all.”

“This was supposed to be for you,” Aahz mumbled, not meeting my eyes. “If you had wanted to use it. If you had wanted to stay, I wouldn’t be upset about it.”

The change of tense made me hopeful. “But now you want to go back?” I asked encouragingly.

“I don’t need to be bashed over the head with it,” Aahz said, then looked at the fallen building, which was already beginning to be overgrown with vines. “But I almost was. I can take a hint. Come on.” He took hold of the edges of the mirror. With a grunt of effort, he stretched the frame until the mirror was big enough for all of us.

Through it, instead of the reflection of our dreams, I could see Massha, my apprentice, my bodyguards Nunzio and Guido, and Tananda, our friend all surrounding the hapless Bezel. The Deveel, scared pale pink instead of his usual deep red, held his hands up to his shoulders, and his face was the picture of denial. Terrified denial. He might not be guilty for setting us off on this little adventure after all.

Aahz grinned, fearsomely.

“C’mon. Let’s let him off the hook.” He took a deep breath and stepped through the mirror.

“Hey, what’s all this?” Aahz asked, very casually. “You trying to raise the roof?” He lifted a hand. In the Dreamland the gesture would have sent the tent flying. In this case, it was merely a dramatic flourish. Aahz looked disappointed for less than a second before recovering his composure. I experienced the loss he must have felt, and I was upset on his behalf, but relieved to have gotten him home. He didn’t belong in the world of dreams. Some day we’d find a way to undo Garkin’s spell.

“Aahz!” Tananda squealed, throwing herself into his arms. “You’ve been gone for days! We were worried about you.”

“You, too, big-timer,” Massha said, putting a meaty arm around me and squeezing just as hard. The embrace was a lot more thorough coming from her.

“Thanks,” I gasped out.

“Gleep!” my pet exclaimed, wiggling through behind us. The trip through the mirror restored him to dragon-shape. In his joy he slimed all of us, including the trembling Bezel, who was being prevented from decamping by the firm grip Nunzio had on the back of his neck.

“Honest, I swear, Aahz,” Bezel stammered. “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything.”

“Altabarak across the way let the dragon loose, Boss,” Guido said, peering at me from under his fedora brim.

“Okay, Bezel,” I said, nodding to my bodyguard. If he was positive I was positive. “I believe you. No hard feelings. Ready to go get a drink, partner? I said. “Everyone want to join me for a strawberry milkshake?”

“Now you’re talking,” Aahz said, rubbing his hands together. “A guy can have too much dream food.” Bezel tottered after us toward the door flap.

“I don’t suppose, honored persons,” the Deveel said hopefully, the pale pink coloring slightly as he dared to bring business back to usual, “that you would like to purchase the mirror. Seeing as you have already used it once?”

“What?” I demanded, turning on my heel.

“They ought to get a discount,” Massha said.

“Throw him through it,” Guido advised. Bezel paled to shell-pink and almost passed out.

“Smash the mirror,” Aahz barked, showing every tooth. Then he paused. “No. On second thought, buy it. A guy can dream a little, can’t he?”

He stalked out of the tent. My friends looked puzzled. I smiled at Bezel and reached for my belt pouch.

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