by CSyphrett and Martin Maenza
At Zatara Hall, the students sat in the common area of the dormitory, going over their night’s homework. The dorm comprised a mixture of students from various years. Headmaster Gallowglass preferred to keep the housing done in such a manner, in part so that the younger students could learn from their older counterparts. He did not believe in segregation by age, but merely by gender, though the boys and girls often interacted in many of the common areas and in most classes together. Of course, this hall of residence was also unique in that it comprised a mixture of students from all five participating Earths. Most of the students in this hall were from Earths One and Two, which were referred to by the professors as Earths Aleph and Bet.
Joshua Cantrell finished his schoolwork as rapidly as possible and then closed his books firmly. As he rose from his seat and headed toward his room, his departure did not go unnoticed by Timothy Hunter. The young lad merely adjusted his spectacles and followed Josh with a curious eye as he left the room.
Retiring to his chamber, Josh donned some dark clothes and slipped into his bunk early. The other boys went about their own business as Josh pretended to read his textbook for the next day.
Eventually, the others had washed and changed for bed. “Lights out,” Kirk Pike remarked as he flipped off the light. The others exchanged words in the darkness.
Josh waited, counting the minutes by the glowing hands of the wall clock he could just barely see from his bed.
Eventually, about an hour later, everyone finally settled into a peaceful quiet as the boys dropped off, one by one. Josh could hear Alfred Twitchell starting to snore, a sure sign the boy sound asleep. There were no complaints from the others, so they, too, had to be fast asleep.
Good! thought Josh as he slid out of his bunk. He snuck over to the window he had chosen earlier. A gentle pull opened it, and the warm January air of the South Pacific filtered into the room. He realized he would need to make this fast, before anyone noticed. He slid through the opening and hung from the ledge by one hand, allowing his other to close the window mostly behind him. He left it open just a crack so that he would be able to get back in later. He then dropped the ten feet or so to the ground outside.
Josh turned back to the wall. He was a decent enough climber and figured that getting back up to the second-floor window wouldn’t be so hard. Right now, though, he had other things to think about. Time to go exploring! He moved out across the quad, the moonlight shining down through the clouds above.
From a darkened window on the first floor, a slight reflection of the light glinted off a pair of glasses. Josh did not notice it, for his back was to Zatara Hall. Someone had seen him leave.
Once his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light at night, Josh crept along the route he had laid out earlier. He moved quickly, keeping mostly to the shadows, just in case. The clock tower chimed in the distance, half-past eleven. Better hurry!
Josh smiled when the main doors of the administration building came into sight. He found them unlocked. The staff never felt a reason to lock them at night, for all the students knew the rules about curfew and staying to the dorms after hours. Josh was glad of that. He slipped inside the building and headed for the stairs that led to the basement.
All the while, the young man had not noticed that he had a shadow tracing his steps just as stealthily as he was trying to be himself. This new shadow moved down the hall just after Josh did, around the same corners and down the stairwell. Both of the skulkers slipped along until Josh paused at the blank wall marked on the blueprint.
“What are you doing down here?” said the shadow in a firm voice.
Josh jumped, startled by the sudden voice after reaching his goal in silence. “Hunter?” he said when he recognized the other boy. “Why are you following me?”
“Why are you breaking curfew?” Timothy Hunter countered. He was dressed in his striped pyjamas with a school sweater over it to keep warm. “Couldn’t this wait until daylight?”
“Just doing some looking,” Josh said, turning to the wall. “Wondering what’s behind this wall.”
“I am sure Miss Eve or Mr. Peril would be glad to answer any question,” said Tim. “A personal inspection is probably not required.”
Josh wasn’t happy having a first-year question his motives. “Not so loud, Hunter,” Josh said irritably. “You’ll get us caught.”
“Heavens forbid,” the younger boy said sarcastically.
Josh pulled something from his back pocket and spread the precious blueprint out. He felt along the wall, looking for a door panel of some type. Tim read over his shoulder quietly, adjusting his glasses.
“Do you mind?” Josh said, irritable and a little frustrated at not being able to find some kind of key hole.
Tim turned. Pressing several bricks in the wall at random, he caused the wall to swing open, revealing a room beyond.
“How’d you do that?” Josh demanded, gathering up the prints and stepping through the door.
“It’s easy, if you just think about it,” said Tim with a smile as he followed the older boy.
Josh scanned the room that the two boys had entered. Books and various objects lay everywhere. He found a small lantern and lit it with the matches in his pocket. It gave the room a slight glow as he turned the filter down to a lower setting. He didn’t want too much light to attract any attention.
Most of the book spines Josh could not read at all, beyond some simple Latin words. The items were strangely decorated. Josh did not know what to make of it all. Tim had been strangely quiet, drinking it all in.
In the center of the room, a circle holding a cross was inscribed in the floor. Small letters ran around the outside of the circle.
“Can you make out what these letters mean, Hunter?” Josh asked.
“Maybe,” said Tim Hunter, moving over to the spot and crouching down. He concentrated on the symbols. “Nothing I’ve ever seen before. Maybe one of these books has a translation to help.”
“Let’s start looking for it, then,” Josh said. The two boys began to carefully go through the books in hopes of translating the enigmatic symbols. After a number of tries, Tim let out a slight cheer as he found the right book. He handed it to Josh, who then began flipping through it. “Let’s see what you found!” After some searching, Josh smiled. An English description was beside the symbol version of the same word.
“Let’s see,” said Josh Cantrell. “The symbols say Unbind the menace of C’lar, unbind the army of Ken, open the gate of S’pre, open the portal of Mon. “
“Um… I don’t think that was a good idea, Josh,” said Tim Hunter, stepping back cautiously to the wall. A noticeable vibration had crept into his speech.
“What are you talking about?” Josh said.
The circle in the floor began to glow in an ominous red as Josh had spoken. From it a small hole appeared, and steadily the hole widened like the action of a whirlpool. The two students took a step back from the strange event that was unfolding before them.
“Since you seem to know what you’re doing, what do we do now?” Tim asked.
Thoughts rushed through Josh’s head as he tried to think of who to report this to. Who would punish him least for this mishap?
Just then, something erupted from the hole in the floor. It was a large mass, barely lit by the light in the room and the glow on the floor. It had too many eyes and too many tentacles to count. It howled like a screeching bear, but a few octaves higher and a hundred times louder.
“Trouble!” exclaimed Josh as he looked around for a weapon to use.
“Really? No kidding!” Tim said.
“I’ll distract it, while you get help!” said Josh, though his brave words could not hide the shaking feeling in his knees.
“We both go, or neither does!” said Tim, grabbing a staff from an umbrella holder.
Josh had to admit that the first-year was a lot braver than he would have given him credit. There was something more to this Tim Hunter, perhaps something he had overlooked because of his young age and scrawny appearance. If they got through this, he knew they would have to talk some.
A shadow fell upon the boys from behind. A white-gloved hand moved like lightning and picked up the book from where it had fallen from Josh’s frightened fingers. The pages flicked quickly. “Ah, a containment spell,” said the voice.
“Bind the menace of C’lar, bind the army of Ken, close the gate of S’pre, close the portal of Mon,” said the newcomer. Josh recognized the voice as belonging to the man from the path he had encountered the other day at twilight. The whirlpool stopped expanding as the Phantom Stranger’s will tried to reverse the effect against the body of invaders already trying to cross over to Grimoire Island.
“What’s going on here?” said a harsh voice from the vault door.
Josh looked over his shoulder and winced as Headmaster Gallowglass himself entered the room, his one right eye almost white with fury. The headmaster looked enraged by the whole situation, and his look was enough to make both boys pause.
Something then erupted from the closing portal. It moved through the air and headed right for Josh. The young lad ducked his head beneath his arms, as if that would be enough to protect him.
Suddenly, the attack exploded in midair, and purple blood fell on the boy in a spray of slime. “Oh, gross,” he said, trying to wipe the discharge off his dark clothes and such.
Grabbing the staff from Tim’s hands, Gareth Gallowglass moved toward the portal. The tentacle thing merely shredded under his psionic gaze.
Gallowglass looked down into the gaping pit in the floor. Screams sounded in a rising chorus, with the sound of ripping and tearing accompanying the awful cries.
The floor abruptly returned to normal stone with the sound of a heavy door slamming shut. The circle and cross redrew themselves on the floor, with different symbols running along the outside edge.
The headmaster turned to face the trio, the expression on his face making Josh want to crawl under a rock and hide. “The book!” he demanded of the stranger. The tome flew from the mystery man’s hands to land in Gallowglass’ own. “Now get off my island!”
The Phantom Stranger turned to Tim. “Zatanna sends her best,” he told the boy before vanishing with the sound of flapping cloth.
Josh, still wiping away slime, turned to the youth. “You actually…?”
“Yes,” Tim said, nodding.
“Go back to your hall!” Gallowglass ordered the boys.
“I can explain,” said Josh, trying to think of a way to shift the blame all on the stranger and escape punishment.
“Now!” said Gallowglass. The boys vanished from the vault, only to appear in their own separate dormitories in Zatara Hall.
Josh retrieved his pyjamas and headed to the bathroom for a quick shower. Gallowglass’ harsh tone of voice was still ringing in his ears.