When Jack decided to set off on a Quest he had been fully prepared to walk for months, meeting mysterious witches and battling dragons along the way. He had not expected to find the Great Portal to the Mysterious Alternate Dimension at the back of his wardrobe while searching for his cloak.
The portal was smaller than Jack had expected. It didn’t even take up the entire back wall of the wardrobe. Still, it was definitely the Great Portal to the Mysterious Alternate Dimension, capital letters and all. It shone with an eerie green light and there was a satisfyingly ominous roll of thunder when he put his fingertips to it. Reality rippled like a curtain of water around his hand. It would take him three steps at most to go through, but he hesitated. No one knew what lay beyond the portal. The prophecy only spoke of a magical world where the hero would learn to defeat the emperor. Jack didn’t feel like a hero. He was just a simple farm boy and had been counting on a long, arduous journey to teach him valuable skills. And weren’t there supposed to be companions on these quests? An old bearded mentor or a mysterious loner with an ancient sword would be useful.
He would just have to trust the prophecy. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and squeezed himself through the portal. Nothing happened, except that the sound of thunder disappeared. He opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was his cloak, lying on the ground. He was glad to find it, because it was the only one he had. And it had pockets. He shook it out and flung it around his shoulders before looking around, and realised immediately that this was not what a true hero would have done. He had just gone through a portal into another world, for crying out loud! He should have looked first and picked up stuff later. What if there were dragons?
Jack put his hands in his pockets and tried to make up for his mistake by spending an inordinate amount of time examining his surroundings. They weren’t very interesting. He appeared to be on a sandy path surrounded by trees. Some were twisted, some straight. Some had many branches, some were entangled in great thickets of undergrowth. A wise old wizard would’ve known what type of trees they were. All Jack could tell was that they were not pine trees or oaks and that they were entirely devoid of dragons. Unless they were lurking up in the branches somewhere. Did dragons lurk? He peered up and saw only the canopy of leaves and a dull grey sky beyond.
Okay, a forest. That was good. Witches lived in cabins deep in the forest, didn’t they? Despite being rather new to this whole adventure thing, Jack was fairly certain of this. All he had to do was follow the path, find a witch, learn some ancient spell to defeat the evil emperor and his armies, and then everyone would live happily ever after. Easy.
He set off down the path, once again fully prepared to walk for months, and almost immediately found himself face to face with a young woman wearing clothes that were eye-wateringly colourful. His own grey cloak and brown tunic must seem very dull to her. In her ears she wore some kind of white jewellery with thin threads that disappeared into a pocket. She was accompanied by what looked like a walking hairball. There was no way of knowing whether she was a queen or a servant girl. Best to be polite, Jack decided.
“Greetings, fair lady!” he said with a bow. “Please, can you tell me who rules this land?”
“’Scuse me?” She removed one of the white jewels from her ears. A faint rhythmic noise came from it. A spell, perhaps?
“Forgive me my questions, great sorceress!” he said, sinking down even lower. “I wish to learn about this land.”
She just stared at him. The hairball, which was evidently a dog of sorts, began to bark furiously.
“I have travelled through the Great Portal to the Mysterious Alternate Dimension!” he said.
“That in America?”
“I do not know that place,” Jack said, straightening up. “I am new to this world.”
“Weirdo,” she muttered. She put her ear jewellery back in and hurried past him, dragging the still barking dog along by its leash.
“Damn it,” muttered Jack, once she was out of earshot.
He got another chance not long after, when a man came strolling down the path towards him. Like the young woman, he wore colourful clothes, including a pair of bright blue trousers, but he had no ear jewellery. He did have a dog. This one was large and scruffy and very recognisably a dog. It ignored Jack completely and wandered over to sniff at a nearby tree.
“Greetings, sir,” said Jack. He decided to forgo the bow this time.
“I seek the ruler of this land.”
“What, like the prime minister?”
“What is that?”
“Yes. Do you have a king, or a queen, or an emperor?”
“Er,” said the man. “We’re a constitutional monarchy.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t really know how to explain it.” The man glanced at something on his wrist and exclaimed, “Oh, will you look at the time! Sorry, gotta go.”
And he hurried off, leaving Jack alone and very confused and a little bit annoyed. How could he find the secret to defeating the evil emperor if none of these people wanted to talk to him? The answer had to be here somewhere. The prophecy could not be wrong.
A little while later, he came to the end of the forest. In front of him was a small field of grass, a long line of grey buildings, and the strangest road he had ever seen. It was wide and black and so smooth it had to be the result of some powerful sorcery. Jack promptly forgot about little old witches in log cabins. He crouched down by the side of the road to examine it.
“Are you all right, dear?” said a voice behind him.
He jumped, got his feet tangled up in his cloak and fell face first onto the road.
“Oh, I am sorry!” said the voice. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“’S fine,” he said to the road. It really was remarkably smooth and hard. A hand appeared in his field of view. He took it and pulled himself up with a smidgen more elegance than he’d had falling over. The hand belonged to a woman with a kind face and great masses of grey hair piled on top of her head. She might be a witch, but Jack thought she looked more like a kindly old grandmother.
She smiled at him.
He stared at her.
She raised an eyebrow.
That was a neat trick. He had never learned how to raise just one eyebrow. Perhaps she could be his wise old mentor and teach him.
She raised her eyebrow higher.
He continued staring.
“Well?” she said, when the staring and eyebrow-raising had gone on for a while and was beginning to grow a tad awkward.
“Are you all right, dear?”
“Oh. Yes. Fine. Absolutely fine.” He pointed at the road. “Who made this?”
“The road? I’m not sure. The council, I suppose.”
“Fascinating!” Jack said. “They must be skilled craftsmen. Or magicians, perhaps. Are they a Council of Sorcerers?”
“Hardly, dear. I’ve been complaining to them about the graffiti by the playground for months, but they’ve done nothing. Outrageous isn’t it?”
“Ye-es,” said Jack. He wasn’t sure what “graffiti” was, or a “playground” for that matter, but it was clear from her tone that the two should not be combined. Before he could ask, there was a low rumbling sound. He spun around, his hand flying to the place on his belt where a true hero would have a sword and he had nothing. Defenceless, he could only stand and watch as the rumbling thing came nearer. It was a carriage of sorts, gleaming red, and it hurtled down the road at a breakneck speed. It came closer and closer and then it went right past them. The people sitting inside looked utterly calm. Jack stared after the carriage as it travelled away.
“Are you sure you’re all right, dear?” the woman said.
“What was that thing?”
“A car,” she said. Then she clapped her hand to her mouth. “Silly me, you mean the type of course. I’m afraid I don’t know much about cars. A Toyota, perhaps?”
“Fascinating,” said Jack. “Where do they put the horse?"
“I don’t follow, dear.”
Jack scratched his head. How did you explain what a horse was to someone who had never seen one before?
“Never mind,” he said, abandoning the idea. “Could you give me directions, please, to the nearest witch or sorcerer or scholar? I wish to learn everything I can about this world.”
The woman raised her eyebrow again. It really was very impressive.
“If you want to learn things, dear, you’d best join me,” she said. “I’m going to the library.”
The library turned out to be a massive building that towered over other massive buildings, all built along a smooth black road that was full of horseless carriages in different colours. The woman had introduced herself as Mrs Ferguson and told him about her work at the library - “I only work three afternoons a week, dear, officially I’m retired” - but he was still no nearer to understanding how this library could actually help him. Everything about this world was confusing. The words, the people, the carriages, the buildings - it was all so big and fast and neat and clean and noisy and strange and wonderful.
Mrs Ferguson had grabbed him by the elbow after he ignored something called “traffic lights”. She hadn’t let go since, so now she steered him into the library. He wasn’t sure what to expect. What could possibly be more useful to him than a witch or a scholar? The answer, it seemed, was endless shelves of books. Thick, dusty books with stiff dark covers. Thin books with covers painted in red and yellow. Books bound in cloth, books bound in paper. Books with pictures rather than words. New books and old books. Books on every topic imaginable. Jack spun around slowly, trying to take it all in.
“Nice, isn’t it?” Mrs Ferguson said.
“I’ve never seen so many books in one place.” Jack turned to Mrs Ferguson, who was watching him with a smile on her face. He gestured at the nearest shelf. “Where did they all come from? We have only three at home.”
“Goodness! Well, you’re very welcome here. Read as many as you like.”
Jack plucked the nearest book off the shelf and leafed through it. It was about something called chocolate cake, and how to prepare it in different ways.
“Is there anything in particular you’re looking for, dear?” Mrs Ferguson said as he put the book back on the shelf. “You said something about learning. Is it for a school project?”
Jack shook his head. “My world is ruled by an evil emperor. He terrorises villages, destroys cities and murders everyone who opposes him.”
“But there’s a prophecy! Before she was killed, the witch of the Northern Mountains foretold that a simple farm boy would find a portal to a magical world in another dimension, where he would learn how to defeat the emperor.”
Jack nodded solemnly. “All the poor farm boys in the realm set off to find the portal. It was in my wardrobe. So here I am.”
“Can you teach me how to defeat the evil emperor?”
“Is it a game?” Mrs Ferguson said hesitantly. “What’s it called, the one about the dragon in the dungeon? My grandson plays that.”
“It’s not a game.”
“I suppose I knew that.” Mrs Ferguson patted his shoulder. “You being dressed like that. You don’t exactly look local.”
“Can you help?”
She smiled. “We’ve got books on every topic here. Let me see what I can find.”
A little while later, the two of them were sitting at a table, surrounded by books with names like Peaceful protest and Revolution or reform? while Mrs Ferguson explained how her country was ruled. It involved a dazzling number of strange concepts, like “political parties” (which were not feasts) and “votes”.
“So you choose a ruler?” Jack asked. “Just like that?”
“And everyone has one of these votes, yes?”
“All grown-ups do.”
“Even the peasants?”
“What about those who oppose the ruler?”
“They have the vote too.”
“Huh. But what if the long-lost king comes along?”
“That doesn’t change anything. Our rulers aren’t chosen by their birth, but by the people.”
“But what if the ruler dies? Who succeeds?”
“We pick a new one. We do that anyway, every few years.”
“What if the ruler is evil?”
“You mean if they break the law? Then they have to pay a fine, or perhaps go to prison. It depends on which law they break. And they usually won’t be able to rule anymore.”
Mrs Ferguson must have seen Jack’s blank look, because she dug around in her pile of books until she found one entitled An introduction to democracy and the rule of law.
“This might be useful,” she said, and went on to explain that they had written down rules in a book and expected everybody to follow them, regardless of who they were. Then came a confusing bit about taxes. While the people did pay taxes, they got things in return, such as this library full of books and the amazingly smooth road outside, because if the ruler just took the tax money for themselves that would be breaking the law.
All too soon, it was growing dark outside. One my one, the other people left until Jack and Mrs Ferguson were the only ones in the room. Mrs Ferguson jumped up as a disembodied voice announced that the library was closing.
“Goodness,” she said. “We’ve been here all afternoon!”
“I’m so sorry,” Jack said. “I didn’t mean to keep you from your work.”
“Don’t be silly, dear, this is my work!” She looked over the books on the table. “Now, which ones would you like?”
“I don’t have any money…”
“You don’t need any, this is a library. Although technically you need a library card, and for that we need your address which is a bit difficult, seeing as you are from another dimension.” She glanced around the room, then winked at him. “But I suppose we can spare a few books. Here.”
She gave him half a dozen of the books they’d discussed, hesitated for a moment, and then added a slim volume with the title Universal declaration of human rights.
“That one is very important,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Will you be all right, finding your way home? I have to close.”
“Of course. It’s not far.”
“Good luck then, dear.” She patted his arm. “And remember, the hardest part isn’t defeating that evil emperor. It’s what you do after, to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”