“It’s all your fault!”
They were fourteen – except Ralph, who had always been the baby of the group and was just turning thirteen – when the portal into Ombrion stopped opening for them.
They had known it was coming. Only children could enter Ombrion through the portals. And for the past year, the openings had been rarer and rarer. Two months had passed when the four of them huddled around the door in the old abandoned school library and called out toVerdana, who had guided them. They lit the candles, even though they knew the candles weren’t necessary. They wished on the fullness of the moon, all of it the way they had the first time.
The gates stayed closed. Verdana did not answer. And to all of them, the gates felt more sealed, more dead, than they ever had before.
“It’s got to be you.” Clarence glared at Barbara. “With your…” He flapped his hand in vague disgust.
She sneered back at him, uninterested in his squeamishness. “What about you? With your voice changing, with all the squeaking through the calling there?”
“Maybe it’s Ralph…” Clarence flopped against the old wooden doors that had, until so recently, been their portal to Ombrion. “No. They’re just done with us.”
They’d been seven and eight the first time, full of the books they were reading and playing make-believe, no matter what the other students said about growing up, when they’d first opened the portal. They’d tumbled through the door again and again, only to come back with only a few minutes, a few hours having passed.
Until now. No matter how many times they grew up in Ombrion, today they’d grown up too much in America.
“Maybe if we…” Ralph moved the candles despondently. “I can’t believe that’s it. Just – ‘thanks for saving us, go back to your world now and be teenagers.'”
Barbara put her face in her hands. “I can’t believe Verdana just abandoned us. I mean.” She held up her hand, because Clarence liked to poke at everything lately. “I can believe it, I know, she always told us she would. But it makes me angry.”
“Guys…” Diane had said nothing at all, which was, for Diane, not that uncommon. But she was staring off into the shadows with a look that had, once, presaged her saving an entire nation. “The way I see it, we have a few options.”
The rest of them settled in to listen. Of the many things they had learned over their decades in Ombrion, “listen to Diane” had been one of the first lessons.
She ticked off on her fingers. “We can sit here and complain. We can go out there and live our lives. Come on, how many teenagers have the experience we have? I tried; I don’t have the muscle memory but I have all the knowledge of swordcraft, for example. It would give us a leg up, whatever we decided to do.”
She paused, and despite the fact that dramatic pauses were far more Ralph’s purview than Diane’s, they all leaned forward. “Or we can do one better. We can find magic here. We can find other portals.”
“The portal’s closed.” Clarence’s voice was harsh and angry.
“This portal is closed. Only this one. What did Verdana say? The portal led to that world, and always has. Oh, what was it?” She closed her eyes.
Barbara picked it up. She’d had nightmares about that part. “‘I shudder to think about what would have happened, if you four had found some other door, some world that ‘needed’ you for some far more nefarious purpose.”
The words hung in the air, but it was Ralph who picked them up. “There are other worlds.” The conclusion was inescapable.
“There are other words.” Clarence breathed it out slowly. “And we aren’t the children we were, back then.”
“If you count experience,” Diane added dryly, “we’re ancients. And I do count experience. You guys remember that debate club debacle last year.”
They’d been disqualified, Barbara and Clarence. The teachers had been certain they’d gotten outside coaching. In a sense, they had – in the small room behind the throne room, in Ombrion, before the ambassadors from Fregoran visited.
Barbara nodded slowly. “Let’s do it. Let’s find another portal. Let’s find all the portals.”
If the portals needed people, let it be them, who already knew how to live two lives at once. If they needed soldiers, generals, diplomats, let it be them.
She had no desire to spend her entire life remembering what it was like to be a Warrior Queen.
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