by Oren Otter
It was early in the morning and the sun was coming up on the far eastern horizon. Mount Sploosh still cast its long shadow over the middle of the western sandbar and on the gateway which sat there. As the sky brightened, a grey otter who was obviously long in years emerged from the channel onto the sand. He was a neotropical otter, or a lobita as they were called here, and possessed a wild litheness which belied his obvious age. On his tail, just behind his legs, two woven pouches were tightly bound. Behind him swam a chubby cape clawless towing a raft with a roll of paper and several small bowls on it.
“Where is that Picado?” said the old one. “He knows we’re supposed to be here at dawn. I’m not about to start without him, and I am anxious to get started.
“Yes, Pan.” replied the clawless. Though he came from a culture where he was taught to respect his elders, it sometimes strained his patience to hear Pan go on his rants.
As if on cue, a gigantic riverwolf emerged from the ocean on the far side of the sandbar. “I’m here!” called the giant.
“Hmmph.” grunted Pan. “You’re late.”
“How long have you and Oliver been waiting here?”
“We’ve ben waiting for...” Pan suddenly realized that he’d only just arrived. “Oh, never mind. Are you ready?”
“Ready and willing.”
Pan turned away from Picado and went to the rock which sat beside the rough, circular stone gateway. As he tapped it with his claw, the top dissolved, revealing a flat three-by-three grid with depressions in each square. He held out his left paw behind him, his gaze fixed on the grid. When Oliver was a little too slow, he cleared his throat loudly. The cape clawless rushed to place a bowl full of colored stones in his paw. “What are the colors?” asked the elder.
Oliver unrolled a parchment, on which nine colored dots were painted. “Blue.” said Oliver.
Carefully, Pan selected a blue crystal from the bowl and placed it into the first square of the grid.
With care, Pan placed an orange stone in the second square.
“Green.” Oliver instructed. “White. Orange. Yellow. Green. Red. Black.”
Unceremoniously, the view of the ocean on the other side of the gate changed to a view of a lush forest. Pan tapped the stone again and the top reappeared over the matrix of gems.
Picado was already peering through the portal and looking for danger. There didn’t appear to be anything threatening ahead, but as the safety of the group was his responsibility, he wished to insure that it stayed that way.
“Remember,” warned Pan. “Say nothing until I direct you to. We don’t know what languages we will encounter here, so it is best to avoid any mistakes.”
“Yes, Sir.” Oliver replied. A stern look from Pan and he said no more.
Stepping through the portal, Pan immediately felt the sudden increase in air pressure. Had the magic air-barrier not been in place, they might have been blown away as the atmospheres of the two worlds tried to synchronize. “According to the scouts at Insectivore City, the mines aren’t far from here. About a hour’s walk straight ahead. We need twelve blue stones and ten yellow stones to replace what the nageel stole.”
The next thirty minutes or so were spent in silence, much to the relief of the two younger otters. There was not much to see as they made their way through the brush. Only trees and shrubs and occasional small animals. Then they saw something most unusual indeed.
“What is that?” asked Pan as he stared up at the odd building.
“It’s a cafe.” replied Oliver. “A human cafe.”
“How do you know that?” queried Picado.
“I used to be a pet. I came to the island when my master died. I’ve seen places almost exactly like this back in the city.”
“Should we investigate?” suggested Picado.
Pan thought. He really shouldn’t lead the expedition into such an odd unknown. Yet despite his better judgement, he found himself agreeing with the idea.
The first thing Picado noticed as he went through the open door was that the smells were heavenly. The second thing he noticed was that the place was deserted. There wasn’t a soul in the place besides the three of them. No humans, no otters, no animals of any kind. There weren’t even any insects. Yet despite the absence of people, the place looked and smelled as if it had been freshly abandoned. It was perfectly clean and all of the places were set. On the cashier’s station were set three small mint candies.
“It’s like someone was waiting for us.” Oliver noted.
Picado reached out to take one of the candies.
“Wait!” said Pan. “It could be a trap! They might be poisoned!”
“If someone wanted to poison us,” said the riverwolf. “They wouldn’t have gone to this elaborate extreme.” He sniffed the candy, then touched it to his tongue. Satisfied that it was not poisoned, he popped it into his mouth. Seeing that Picado seemed to enjoy it, Oliver and Pan followed suit.
Out of nowhere, a dapper young human maitre D’ appeared. “Please concentrate on your desire, and place a sample of your hair in the basket on the counter.”
“That’s an odd request.” Pan stated, needlessly.
“It will assure the most efficient and pleasant service possible.” said the employee.
Now more curious than wary, the three otters did as asked. Each plucked a single hair from his body, and Picado placed them into a small wicker basket on the counter. Before his very eyes, the hairs seemed to melt away into the basket.
“Barbequed crab!” exclaimed Oliver. “I smell barbequed crab!”
“And peppered salmon.” added Pan, following his nose.
“But the hairs.” said Picado. “They just...” He looked to the Maitre D’, but the human was gone. He puzzled this for only a moment before following his comrades to a table where a plate of kalamari sushi and a side of oysters was waiting for him.
“It’s my favorite dish.” exclaimed Pan. “Right down to the peppermint tea!”
“And mine. Half-shelled, just the way I like it.” Oliver agreed.
“Mine too.” added Picado. “This is very strange.”
“Do you think it’s safe?” Pan asked, deferring to his bodyguard.
“If the candies weren’t poisoned, there’s no reason these would be.” So saying, the riverwolf picked up a chunk of squid and bit into it. It was precisely then that he noticed the waiter standing next to the table and smiling at him. The odd thing here was that the waiter was almost exactly like the maitre D’, except that his head was that of a marine otter. “I didn’t see you there.” said Picado.
Pan followed his gaze. “Who are you talking to?” asked the old lobita.
“The waiter. At least I assume he’s the waiter.”
“Picado, there’s nobody there.”
“You’re not halluscinating.” said the waiter. “They will see me in a moment, as soon as they eat.”
“He says you’ll see him when you eat.”
Immediately, Oliver shoved a pawful of crab into his mouth. “Oh! There he is!”
Not wanting to be left in the dark, Pan took a bite. “What an odd looking creature.” he said.
“I’m so glad you’ve come!” said the human-bodied otter. “It’s been so long since anyone has come to visit.”
Pan reached out a paw to touch the stranger. To his surprise, his finger passed through the man with no resistance. “What are you?” he asked with a look of suspicion.
“I’m called by many names. You can call me whatever you like.”
“But WHAT are you?”
“I am everything you see around you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I am the restaurant.”
Pan looked incredulous. Picado glanced all about. “Wait a minute.” said Oliver. “Everything around us? Even the food?”
“That’s right. Even the food.”
Pan nearly choked.
“Please don’t be alarmed! It doesn’t hurt when you eat bits of me. That’s how I communicate.”
“How you communicate? I don’t understand.”
The intangible man sat down next to Picado. “It’s fairly simple. I think about what I want to tell you, and then when you eat some of my substance, those thoughts are transferred to you. You hear what I want to say by asking questions of this representation of me. I hear your thoughts the same way.”
“Our hairs.” Picado thought aloud. “You ate them.”
“But how in the world a being like you come to be?” asked Pan.
“If you want to change topics, you need to concentrate on your question and give me more of your substance. You can put some of your hairs in the ashtray.”
Pan plucked out another hair, placed it in the ashtray which had just appeared, and each of the otters took another bite.
“I don’t know much of what happened before I became alive, but I can tell you this much. It was the magic of the portal that turned me into what I am today. It made me alive and able to alter my substance somewhat.”
Pan nodded. “Our island has a very similar origin.”
“Would you tell me of the world outside? What’s it like out there now? My only awareness comes from what people tell me, so I’ve been in the dark for years.”
Oliver started to speak, then realized that the sentient restaurant couldn’t actually hear him. He concentrated on his response, then shaved off a sliver of a claw with his knife and set it into the ashtray. Picado pulled out another hair. Pan rubbed a bit of dead skin off of his finger.
The otter-headed man seemed to listen intently for a minute as the bits of hair, nail and skin disappeared. Then each of the otters took a bite of their food to hear what the restaurant had to say.
“Oh, what a beautiful place you come from!” he said at last. “How I would love to meet this island of yours! But I see you have enemies, too. Yes, yes. The people who lived here had enemies as well. Horrible creatures, they were. Skin and bone. They stole magic stones just like yours did. I see you’ve met the insectivores. They were the last creatures I met. That must have been a hundred years ago.”
“Are there still stones left in the mines?” asked Pan, offering some dandruff.
“I believe so.” Said the otter-human. “For some reason, the skinny creatures couldn’t take the stones from the mines. I never understood why.”
“Nexicul’s zombies.” growled Picado. Almost as an afterthought, he plucked a hair to let the restaurant know what he had said.
The otter-man’s eyes widened with horror as he learned what Picado knew about Nexicul. In the twinkle of an eye, he learned of the tree-spirit whose tree had grown so large that it began to suck up all of the life force on its world, and how the creatures of that world had become part of him, their minds consumed and their bodies eternally enslaved. He saw that the greedy spirit could not enter dimensions where he was not invited, so he hired people as greedy as he to enter other dimensions with his zombies and invite them in. He would then enslave that dimension and absorb it into himself. Nexicul would have no compunctions about assimilating him, too.
“I do not believe that Nexicul himself has come here.” said the restaurant’s avatar as the otters continued to eat. “The locals killed his hireling and refused to invite him. They could not defeat his zombies, but they stood as strong as they could. If only they had known what they were up against, I wonder if they would have been so strong.”
Pan frowned. “If Nexicul’s zombies are here, we need to move quickly. We should get the stones and get back to the Island.” More skin flakes in the ashtray.
“I understand. I hope that you can return someday.”
“You can count on it.” And with that, the otters headed quickly for the door.
* * *
“I have the yellow stones.” said Oliver as he emerged from the mines, his paws full of the small, spherical crystals.
“And I have the yellow.” Pan added. “Let’s get back to the gate. Picado, is it clear?”
“There is a group of zombies about two hundred yards away, but they don’t appear to have spotted us. We can travel safely if we move quietly.”
Pan poured the blue stones into one tail pouch, then had Oliver pour his bunch into the other.
The trip back to the portal was quick and quiet. Picado’s eyes were ever alert, but saw no sign of the enemy. That was until they reached the gateway. There stood a zombied bear and lion, both standing upright in a reflection of Nexicul’s arrogant body language. Immediately, Picado signalled to the others to turn and run, but that proved to be a dead end, as the way was cut off by a zombie elf, stag and giant rat. The warrior cursed under his breath.
“So nice of you to join me.” said the zombies in unison. “I thought you’d never get back here.”
“Say nothing.” ordered Pan. “They can’t take the stones unless we give them away. Keep your mouths shut!”
“Give me the stones.” said the bear.
Pan and his companions said nothing.
“Give me the stones!” shouted the elf.
“I will have them.” said the lion.
“I can hurt you.” said the rat. “I can torture you for hours without killing you.”
There was no doubt that the being speaking through the zombies was telling the truth. Pan decided to try to distract him with a few carefully chosen words and give Picado the chance to develop a plan. “Why do you want the stones?” he asked slowly, staring the stag in the eyes.
The zombies smiled. “There is a world I desire. Would you like to hear about it?”
Careful never to give Nexicul even implied permission to do anything, Pan merely adopted an inquisitive look.
“It is called the hundredth vale. It is a land where the children have survived a terrible plague by being transformed into toy animals. When I absorb their life force, they will make nearly indestructible warriors.”
“What does that have to do with stones?”
“The code to reach this world requires seven of the blue stones. You will give me those stones, and I will watch with delight the look on your face when you realize that you sold the souls of children to stop the pain.”
Picado stepped into action. “You want the stones?” he growled. “Go get them! And with that, he threw a small handful of the small spheres into the forest. Still thinking as one, the zombies leapt after them together.
“Run!” the riverwolf shouted.
“You idiot!” Pan chided as he ponded along brethlessly on his paws and flippers.
“Don’t worry.” Picado huffed. “Those were pearls from the oysters I had at the restaurant. I’ve been keeping them in my mouth.”
“I’m not talking about that. You ordered Nexicul’s zombies to get the stones. They have permission, now!”
“Get the lead out!” cried Oliver. “They’re right behind us!”
“We can’t... outrun... them for long!”
“The cafe!” Picado breathed. “Head for the cafe!”
As the otters burst through the door, the man-otter avatar appeared. “Back so soon?” he chimed.
Picado stuffed a mint into his mouth and thrust his hand into the basket. “There are five zombies behind us.” he hastily explained. “They want to torture us into giving them the stones so that they can absorb a world of children!”
The cafe wasted no time. “Come this way, quickly.” Moving at a run, he led them to a meatlocker in the back. “The three of you stay in here. No matter what happens, keep this door shut! Eat a bit of ice every few minutes so that I can let you know when to come out, but until i do, you must not open this door!”
“Understood.” Pan replied for the group.
No sooner did Pan pull the door closed than he heard the rampaging of the five zombies outside. Then, for a moment, silence. Then horrific screaming.
“They’re killing him!” cried Oliver. “We’ve got to save him!”
“Don’t touch that door.” warned Pan.
Long minutes passed and the screaming did not stop, then, slowly, it became strangled and subdued, changing into despairing moans, then finally to silence.
Picado rubbed several loose hairs into the floor drain, then took a piece of ice.
“What does he say?” asked Oliver.
Several more minutes passed and Picado tried again. This time, the door opened. The restaurant looked the same as it had before. Still clean and inviting, if a bit more darkly lit. There was no sign of the zombies.
“What did you do to them?” asked Pan, placing one of his eyelashes into the basket. Three candies appeared on the counter. As the otters ate them, the avatar appeared at one of the tables, hunched over and sobbing.
“You killed them, didn’t you?” said pan in a soft tone.
“I consumed them. Just as I did your hair and nail clippings. I completely digested them.”
“It was the right thing to do.” Pan reassured. “You’re not guilty.”
“Oh, I know that. I don’t feel guilty. Those creatures were in a state of living death. I did them a favor by destroying their bodies.”
“Then why are you crying?”
“Because when I consumed them, I saw what was in Nexicul’s mind. I saw his plans, his memories, his lusts, and the horrible, horrible darkness in his heart. No one should ever have to see what I saw.”
“Cafe, I’m... I’m sorry.” Pan whispered.
“There is something you should know. Nexicul is in competition with several other powers who are trying to manipulate one another for control of the portals. One of them is a son of Oberon himself. He must possess twelve key worlds in order to control the multiverse. Yours is one of them.”
“What can we do?”
“Both Nexicul and the son of Oberon are trying to recruit the nageel without their knowledge. The violence against your people will be increased manyfold. You must build alliances and stand strong against the nageel or your people will be driven into the sea and your portal will be defenseless.”
“Thank you.” was all Pan could say.
“Go, now. Get those stones safely back home. But please come back again.”
Sharing in the Cafe’s profound sorrow, the otters returned home.
* * *
The first thing the three otters noticed upon their return home was the column of smoke rising in the southeast. The second thing was Flaire of the coastal patrol standing next to the portal.
“What happened?” asked Pan.
“A nageel attack on the Reef Village.” Flaire explained. “One of them used two of the stolen stones to create a magic bomb. Poffle was nearly killed in the attack. Nobody WAS killed, thank Heavens, but a number of houses were destroyed. They’re still fighting the fires.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“The queen ordered me to stand by the portal until you returned. I was upset at first. Thought it was a waste. Then I saw those five zombies on the other side. I don’t know how, but I knew they were somehow connected to the bombing, and that they were going to try to prevent your return.”
“They almost did.”
“I know. I was there.”
Picado looked taken aback. “You what?”
“When those zombies realized you bolted, I ran through the portal and made them chase me. Of course, they couldn’t follow me back through. I hoped I’d given you enough time to make a getaway.”
“You certainly did.”
“So I can see.”
“And now we have to see the King. We have very important news.”
* * *
“This is very interesting news.” said King Mijbil as he strode across the throneroom thoughtfully. “And very distressing.”
“What shall we do, your majesty?” asked Pan.
“We must establish trade with this sentient cafe that you have found.”
“But Your majesty, the nageel...”
“Are still our primary enemy. But as much as they hate us, there is little anyone can do to stir their passions any hotter than they already are.”
“But what of Nexicul and this new threat?”
“Both wish to control the portals. Our people are capable of holding this portal as we have for many years. But this isn’t merely about us. To hold back Nexicul will take a concerted effort by a number of worlds. As there are hundreds of millions of dimensions, coordinating our efforts through direct contact will be impossible. We will need to establish a hub.”
“I see now.” said Pan. “You want the Cafe to be that hub.”
“Precisely. Though the communication process may be a trifle involved, it’s the most thorough means of communication possible. We will tell all of our trading partners about this and begin the establishment of a coalition.”
Pan nodded his understanding.
“From this day on, I’m giving you a new job, Pan. I want you to be our ambassador to the Cafe. Take some gifts to it. Whatever you deem appropriate. Take also any volunteers you can find. Teachers. Craftsmen. Historians. Storytellers. It has a lot to learn about us.”
* * *
The Cafe was bustling with activity. No longer was it a deserted building, but a lively, noisy place. At every table was a party from some foreign dimension. There were insectivores, rats, elves, werewolves, androids, and even a few otters. Three candies appeared on the counter, which the otters popped into their faces as they submitted hair clippings.
“Pan! Oliver! Picado!” exclaimed the Maitre D’. “It’s wonderful to see you all again!”
“It’s good to see you too.” Pan replied. “I see you’re feeling better.”
“Oh, yes! I’ve never been this happy! By communing with all these people, I am able to explore the multiverse without ever leaving this spot! Not that I could.”
“Right this way. We’ll talk as you enjoy one of my new house specials.”
“This is something else.” said Oliver, looking about.
“Sure is.” agreed Picado. “And to think, it all started for want of a stone.”