Darkness. Light. Gasping. Sucking in air—sweet air!—like a woman near drowned, breathing again. Kate Dubois’s head spun. Her vision swam.
Talking. She heard talking.
“Where am I?” a voice—her voice—said.
“She’s gonna be sick.”
“No? You think… oh gods. Me boots!”
“Now she’s gonna pass out. Catch her!”
Kate Dubois tried opening her eyes, but didn’t like what she saw.
Two men… short men… peered down at her. They were… little people. That was the correct term, right? She never knew. Had it been the sushi? Was she hallucinating?
“Are you okay luv?” said one of the little people.
“Where am I?” she asked for a second time.
“See she’s fine!” said the other little person.
“You’re in the Realm of Story. Have you heard of the Realm of Story?”
“Of course she has! She’s Mary Kate bloody Dubois!”
The two little people began arguing, which only exacerbated Kate’s headache. Her vision was clearing. She was within a woodland. The ground beneath her was cold. A circle of stone, carved with strange runes. Trees in violet and orange bloom surrounded them. The constant buzz of a million grasshoppers filled her ears.
She tried to stand. Her legs wobbled. She fell on her rump.
“Easy lass, you take it easy. Translation between realms can be, um, jarring.”
“Who are you?” Kate asked.
“I’m Pine, this here is me brother Spruce. We’re the Travelog Twins.”
“Multiverse famous Dwarves of fortune and adventure,” Spruce added.
Kate inspected them. They did look like dwarves with large, bulbous noses, ZZ-Top like beards, chests as wide as wine barrels. Pine wore a leather cap, Spruce a chain-mail surcoat. Both carried an obscene number of knives, axes, and maces tucked, holstered, and sheathed about their squat bodies.
“And you we presume are Mary Kate Debois?”
“It’s just Kate Debois now.” Kate said trying to shake the cobwebs from her mind. Trying to recollect any stories of bad sushi causing such lucid trips.
Pine looked at Spruce worriedly.
“But you are the lass who wrote the fable ‘The Troll and the Princess’?”
Kate groaned. The Troll and the Princess… both her greatest success and greatest regret. “Yes, I wrote The Troll and the Princess. Twenty years ago.”
The book, a children’s story with crude watercolor illustrations by her first husband, had been an international success. It lead to money, book tours (to kindergartens the world over), and a comfortable life. What it hadn’t led to was success as a real author. You know, one who wrote books for people who were fully potty trained. Kate had tried changing her name from Mary Kate Debois to just Kate Debois, hoping to escape the association, but wherever she went, she was always the lady who wrote The Troll and the Princess.
“Very good. Then the incantation worked! We’ve a simple request from you madam: We need you to solve a riddle for us. One we think you’ve the answer for.”
Kate stood up. Her knees were weak. She looked down on the Travelog twins.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you. Now please tell me which way is it back to 68th street.”
“Uh,” said Spruce. “A minor problem with that.”
“The spell we cast… well you know how magic is. You gotta set up all kinds of conditions with it. Our condition for bringing you to this world was that we need to go over the Forever Bridge before we can return you to your realm.”
“Then where is this Forever Bridge?” That name sounded familiar to Kate.
“Well ain’t that the crux of it!” said Spruce. “The Forever Bridge is guarded by Bathgar the Troll. Naturally, you know Bathgar.”
It took a moment for the name to register. She knew a Bathgar. It was the name of the titular troll in The Troll and the Princess.
“From my book?” she asked.
“The one and the same. You invented him, when you wrote the book. And naturally as more and more people read the book, ol’ Bathgar became more and more real in the Realm of Story. And here is the rub: we need to get past him on the Forever Bridge, both to continue our quest—”
“—Since we are adventures and that’s our lot!” cut in Spruce.
“Right! Both to continue our quest and so we can send you back to your realm.”
“Okay… so what do you need me for.”
“Well, you know how you made old Bathgar don’t you?”
Kate tried to remember. She hadn’t read the damn book in at least a decade. The less she thought about The Troll and the Princess the happier she was.
“Course she remembers! Bathgar has a riddle, and we gotta tell him the answer to the riddle. If we gets it right, he’ll let us through, but if we gets it wrong, he’ll turn our brains into chewy taffy and eat it up. Says so in the book!”
“Bathgar always asks the same question, just like he did in your book. We just need the answer to the riddle. And that is why we summoned you. If anyone knows the answer, it’ll be you.” said Pine. He smiled up at Kate from under his leather cap.
Spruce nodded in agreement. “Yep. All yous got to tell us is the answer to the riddle: What is the Opposite of an Echo?”
“But in the book… I don’t reveal the answer. The princess finds another way across the Dream Lake.”
Spruce and Pine looked at her, a little like she was an idiot, and a little offended. “My lady,” Pine said. “We’ve read the book! We know that. But you were the author. Surly you didn’t pose a question that you didn’t know the answer to.”
Kate groaned again. “That is half of writing fantasy!”
Pine looked at Spruce, worried now. “So you… don’t know what the opposite of an echo is?”
“Of course not. Or at least not one I remember. I wrote that book twenty years ago.”
“Nuts,” said Spruce. “That ain’t good for none of us.”
“There has to be another way to get me back to New York… to my, what did you call it? Realm?”
“Yeesh, okay,” said Pine. “We’ve got another problem. If we don’t get you across the Forever Bridge by dusk tomorrow and bring the Pearl of Tears to the Fountain of Oblivioun then…”
“This realm and all its inhabitants are going to be eaten by the Big Shadow!” Spruce blurted. “Including you and more importantly, us.”
“Fuck.” Kate said.
“Err… a shared sentiment,” said Pine.
Kate wanted to cry. Part of her felt that she was still hallucinating but another part knew she wasn’t.
“Listen,” Pine said. “We’re real sorry. We just kind of figured you’d be able to help, that you’d want to help and save all these people…. anyway, hey don’t cry! Let’s maybe head down to the bridge? Perhaps seeing old Bathgar will jog your memory?”
Pine and Spruce grabbed an arm, helped her to her feet. Swaying and unsteady, Kate exited the Grasshopper forest, on her way—just like the Princess she’d invented some 20 years ago—to the Dream Lake to face Bathgar and, hopefully, remember what the opposite of an echo was.