|There he is, waiting for me at the table in his fantastic museum of a home. Alan, my dear friend, and my host, my landlord and mentor. I have wronged him, taken foolish risks and done cowardly things I can never tell. I wonder how I can steady my conscience without confessing, without arousing Alan’s legendary ire. "Hey, Alan, how's it going? Them diamondbacks seem kind of off, don't they?"
Alan looked at me for a moment, then checked his watch and his phone. "I suppose," he said, unsatisfied with what his modern were telling him.
"You suppose?" I said, laughing, putting down coffee and a donut. "That's hardly like you. Usually, you've got several comments to make."
"Ah, it just doesn't seem that important," he said, shrugging.
Oh no, I thought. I wonder if he knows, about his son and daughter-- if he suspects my role in their death by misadventure? "Well, it never does to me," I quipped, taking a sip of cappuccino. The self-serve, Seven Eleven kind, none of that Starbucks stuff for me-- not after the misfire last week. I looked about the room, all the deadly relics, including swords, spears and maces, each one enchanted, preternatural and deadly. Alan had forgotten more about their proper use than most men ever imagine.
"It‘s suspicious, both of them going dark at once," Alan said. "It's been days since Claire and Richard called. Not normal, not at all."
My fears were coming to fruition. I studied his face for blame, a hint of accusation. I didn't see it, not yet, but Alan always was so guarded, calculating. Nobody ever beat him at poker, or anything else for that matter. "Well, you know. They're young, they have busy lives, adventures even..." I hoped I could convince Alan to think they went on their own. Surely, he expected them to find out about the portals eventually. The suspense seemed too much to bear; I was never one for keeping secrets.
"I suppose," he said, not convinced. "One of them, yes, maybe. But, they always call me." Then he just fell silent for a time, staring off into space.
I drank down my cappuccino, begging silently for him to say something, anything. Nothing.
No matter the cost, I could not take it. I would have to get him to see reason, or take his punishment. In a low voice, I said, "I'm so sorry, Alan. It's my fault."
He looked at me, shock and confusion on his face. He had had no idea.
"I'm the one that talked them into going there, confronting it," I confessed. "I am the one that failed in the research, didn't understand. The Oneira beast, it was immune..."
"Jack, what are you talking about?"
"Nothing," I said, regretting my impulsive speech.
"No, Jack, you're not going to get away with that," he said, his eyes boring into me like the barrel of a gun, only far worse. I had stared down many a gun, but none of them had quite the power this one had. "That's not the kind of a confession you can take back."
I grabbed my forehead in my hands, squeezing my temples in regret. "We did a treasure hunt," I said. "One of the portals of the Maze. It didn't go well."
"You took my children on a treasure hunt in the Maze? Are you insane?" he said, standing up and knocking the table over. "You know what kind of danger there is in the other worlds?"
"I- yes," I said, struggling not to cry. "You’ve taken me on hundreds of expeditions.”
“I knew what I was doing,” he said. “I did several kinds of research in addition to your own. I made sure nothing could go wrong.”
My jaw dropped.
“What was it, Jack? Did you need some money?” He said, pulling a wad of hundreds out of his pocket and throwing them at my feet. “I can practically print the stuff. You could have come to me.”
“I never saw anything like it, it was so beautiful."
Alan grabbed the lance from the statue to his right. "I cannot believe you got my children killed. Where is this 'Oneira' anyhow?"
"It's in the thirty-seventh, no, thirty sixth portal," I said, counting on my fingers. "The one with the silver runes."
"You got my children killed by an alternate beast and you don't even know what door you went through?" He huffed, and stamped away, swinging the magic lance as he did. "I cannot believe what a clown you are, acting without thought for consequences."
"I don't know what happened, Alan. I'm not even sure they're dead. It all happened so fast. I don't expect you to ever forgive me," I said.
"You're darn right I don't forgive you," he said, laughing, standing across the cavernous room, waving his lance. "Not during your lifetime, anyhow. Kal edestern, mal Kolok," he incanted. The lance in his hand flared to life, with sickly yellow blobs of light.
"Wh- what are you doing?" I stuttered, backing away. I eyed the statue that held Alan’s lance, a bony, robed figure with his face covered by a sculpted hood.
"Some debts cannot be repaid," he said, pointing the lance at me. There was a strange glint in his eyes, reflected from the shining lance no doubt. "This one, however, I mean to collect."
It was my turn to be shocked and confused. "I don't understand."
"You didn't merely get my children killed. You abandoned them, and kept the secret, denying me the right to help. Now, I intend to get their lives back." I noticed that the lance's blade now curved like a sickle. It dawned on me that was a reaper's scythe. The statue must be a depiction of 'Death' himself. Alan intended to trade my life for that of his slain children.
"No, Alan," I said, trying to hide behind the fallen table. "No matter what I've done, I don't deserve this."
"The hell you don't," Alan said, running up to me.
I dodged at the last second, jerking left. Alan turned left a second before, catching me on my right side. Just a nick.
But I was bleeding golden light, which Alan was gathering with the scythe.
My grip tore the steel table, pulling off a hunk of it. "Please, Alan," I said, stumbling toward the rack of healing potions. I begged him, "It's not too late. I can help. I can change!"
Alan laughed, a laugh that echoed terribly in the huge room. "Oh, yes, it is," he said, looking impossibly far away.. "Far too late for you. But you will: you will help, and you will change-- for the worse, I fear."
I saw my hands begin to shrivel. As I flexed my fingers, the flesh fell away, leaving naked bone. I looked on in horror, my heart tightening in fear as I, too, began to lose touch.