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An island off South-western Italy, 1997
It had been a long quest, but then it should have been: the occasion demanded it. This was the Big One, the Quest to end all Quests. El Dorado, Atlantis, Shangri-La, all found and now flourishing tourist resorts. The sacred relics, forgotten shrines, and entombed alien artifacts had all been located, retrieved and shipped off to museums around the world (except those sold to fund the next expedition, and the astonishingly large homes most adventurers seemed to require). The likes of Indiana Jones and Alan Quartermaine were enjoying a comfortable decline in their university offices, with a glass case of priceless arcane antiquities on one side and a display of pilfered German uniforms on the other.
Now Doctor Eric "Boston" Schneider had almost reached his goal. The trail had led through many an exotic location, fraught with puzzles, fights, and intrigue. There had been a hairy moment in Peru with the Nazis, and a run in with hired thugs in Cairo. There'd been that big fellow, very deft a sword. Eric had simply grinned - the thug hadn't seen Prophet sneak up behind him and he definitely didn't see the devastating hind kick that had thrown him two hundred yards into a brick wall. Through the brick wall.
There had of course been some attrition of his party. The traitors and the unfortunate porters had all succumbed to various hazards along the way - well, he'd warned them about the water... Then there had been the usual double cross and betrayal by their guide, who had stolen the only map to their goal, but had then run afoul of a nasty booby trap and saved Eric the trouble of defusing it. Now all that remained were himself, his three horses, and his attractive female companion, Kara Loft, who would be so much more appealing if she didn't have those psychotic tendancies toward any wildlife unfortunate enough to cross her path. He'd confiscated her pair of Uzis. Now she sat riding Lance, who was rolling his eyes a bit. Eric couldn't blame him.
The narrow, cliff-hugging trail they had been following through the mountains suddenly ended at a wide ledge. Set in to the side of the cliff itself was a massive pair of stone doors.
"Finally," Eric breathed, removing his broad-rimmed hat and wiping trail dust from his brow. He loosened the coiled bull-whip at his belt.
"According to the map," said Kara, peering at a crumpled and brittle piece of stained parchment, "our goal lies on the other side of that door." She nibbled absently on the end of her long pony-tail. "Looks pretty solid. How do we open them?"
"We don't," Eric said, dismounting and stripping Prophet's tack from him. Kara did the same for Lance. Eric walked to Sugar and removed some items from the pack saddle on her back, then undid the girth and slung the rest with the other tack. "We have to take the high road, up the cliff face. These will be barred from the other side. We can get back out that way, all being well."
The two humans began to ascend the rock wall. Lance and Prophet exchanged glances and Sugar whinnied anxiously.
"Wait here," Eric called. "If we're not back by tomorrow morning, make your way back to the last camp. Bob and Matthew and Geoff will be along in a couple of days."
"I hate it when you do that," Kara said. "I wouldn't mind it half as much if they didn't understand you."
The ascent was fairly straight forward: the rock face was rough and replete with small ledges and numerous hand-holds.
"This is too easy," Kara called over the wind.
"It wasn't designed as a fortress," Eric shouted back. "It was designed for concealment from the authorities of the time. But wait until we get inside: that's when the fun will start."
Cresting the top of the cliff, they found themselves looking over what appeared to be an old crater, high on their side, low on the eastern side which looked out over the sea. "There should be an old steamer dock over there," Eric said.
"Why couldn't we have landed there?"
"The approach is really dangerous unless you know the safe path through. The map only covers the island."
The flat bottom of the crater was a jumble of old wooden buildings and derelict-looking frameworks, severely damaged by centuries of storms. Around the landward rim, built into the crater walls were more permanent structures, and openings hinting of subterranean dwellings.
"Not a sign of life. Where do we go from here?" Kara asked.
"I don't know. I'm making this up as I go along. I need to get a look around."
"Not here. Later, yes, but outside all we need to fear is something collapsing on us."
"Swell," said Kara, unenthusiastically.
The place had an eerie, foreboding feel. The high walls and a leaden sky made for a distinct sense of enclosure, entrapment. The dark windows in the cliff face made threatening mouths that could have vomited forth any number of fell creatures. The place was echoingly silent, even the wind moving stealthily to swing a loose plank or ruffle an old tarpaulin with malicious glee. The two adventurers jumped at every sound.
"I'm sure glad we left the horses outside," Eric said, after a swinging door had slammed shut a few feet behind them and caused near heart-failure. "Sugar gets nervous in places like this."
"Poor Sugar," said Kara, breathlessly.
Closer to, they could see the wreckage strewn across the crater more clearly. Though weather and decay had faded paintwork to a near-uniform grey, they could still make out old lettering and traces of gilt.
"House of Fun," Kara read. "'Open for destruction'? Well they got that right. What is this? It looks like a fair ground."
"It is," Eric agreed. "Or was during the last few years of its operation. Over there: there's the beginning of an old roller-coaster track. That's what we're after."
"A roller-coaster? I thought this place had been abandoned for centuries?"
"Two at least. It was a long way ahead of its time."
"You're not kidding."
"Hey, we're not talking Space Mountain here: it's just a trolley on a wooden track. They ran down under gravity and then got pulled back up to the top by donkeys."
The ride wasn't hard to reach. Twenty feet above the crater floor, elevated tracks, rickety and sagging in places, vanished into a tunnel mouth disguised as a huge dragon head. Carefully, they made their way up rotting wooden steps to a small room leading to the platform. At the entrance to this, a neat but faded sign read, "Spell SCHOOL and enter!" The floor was composed of a number of lettered panels.
"What sort of stupid..?" Kara demanded. "Is that supposed some sort of test?"
"Yes," Eric answered as she stepped onto a panel marked 'S'.
"Who for?" She stepped across to 'C'. There was a tired groaning noise and a slender wooden arm descended rapidly from a hatch in the ceiling. Attached to the end was a shallow dish which contained something dry and brown. Kara ducked hurriedly but needn't have worried. The ancient mechanism broke halfway down, and the dish clattered to her feet. Something like a fossilised cow-pat fell out.
"A two-hundred year old custard pie, or something similar," Eric noted.
"Why?" demanded Kara. "I spelt it right!"
"But in the spelling of a truant, 'school' is spelt with a 'K'." He hoped nimbly from tile to tile: S, K, O, O, L.
"We're dealing with a twisted mind, doctor," Kara muttered, carefully following in his footsteps.
Next was a section like a green house: all glass on a wooden frame. Most of the glass had gone, but Eric carefully broke one of the remaining panes.
"Vandal," said Kara Death-to-Furry-Animals Loft.
"That's the idea," Eric agreed cheerfully. He crossed unscathed to the far end.
Kara squinted at the thin wooden frame of the walls and ceiling. There was no room for any kind of mechanism. She marched boldly after Eric.
The floor collapsed.
Only her leather palm-protectors saved her from severe lacerations as she desperately flung herself to one side and grabbed hold of the splinter-studded wooden frame. It groaned protestingly and sagged with an ominous splintering noise. A dreadful stench of damp decay rose from below in a cloud, and she gagged. Dreading what she might see, she slowly turned her head to look down. Five feet below her was a bed of what looked like moss, but of a revoltingly sickly colour. She thought it might be a solid surface until part of the ceiling broke of and fell into the mass with a wet splot. It vanished below the surface. The smell was appalling.
"You know, I think that was whipped cream once," Eric observed. "About two hundred years ago."
Kara's fragile support groaned and dipped a few inches. "Boston!" she screamed. "Help!"
Eric began to uncoil the long bull whip at his belt. "Or maybe shaving cream. No, definitely cream."
"No time to argue! Throw me the whip!"
With an expert (and entirely unnecessary) snap, Eric cast the whip. The leather strip snaked out, catching around Kara's waist and conveniently winding several times around her waist. "Okay! Let go! I've got you."
It was a good plan, spoilt only by geometry. Kara really should have realised that a person at the end of fifteen feet of line with no intermediate support is hardly safe from a peril only five feet below her boots. There was a shriek of "Oh Sh...." and a corpulent splash of foamy slime.
"Oops," Eric muttered, and began to haul in the whip. The green surface suddenly heaved and vomited forth a hideous monster, vaguely humanoid, seemingly composed entirely of decaying slime. It shambled toward him with an inarticulate moan, chunks and gobbets of green spilling off it as it came. He held his breath as a fresh - uh, no, not fresh - wave of nauseating miasma rolled over him.
"Kill you!" it hissed, reaching ill-formed arms towards his neck.
Eric danced back nimbly. "Hey, I think you're over-reacting slightly. I just saved your life! You could have suffocated in that stuff."
The slime-monster waved its arms disgustedly and wiped at its head. Kara's features emerged. Eric kept a firm hold on her Uzis.
"Lava," she wailed, spitting. "Acid. Pools full of piranhas. Pits full of snakes! An adventurer expects to fall into these! Not two-hundred-year-old whipped cream!" She wiped ineffectually at the clinging goo. "Look at my hair! Do you know what stuff like this does to your street cred?"
"Hey, come on," Eric said consolingly. "We made it. Look: we're on the platform now. All we have to do is follow the tracks until we reach..." - he paused for dramatic emphasis - "the Fountain!"
"The Fountain of Youth," Kara sighed.
Eric coughed uncomfortably. "Uh, sorry?"
"The Fountain of Youth, you said."
"Youths," he corrected. "They used to throw little boys into it."
Kara digested this bit of information in silence. Finally she said, "I've travelled three thousand miles, through countless ambushes, traps, monsters, and God-know-what-else, and now you tell me this."
"I'm really sorry," he said awkwardly. "I thought you knew."
"Boston Schneider, you are dead!" she screamed. "When we get what we came for, I'm going to cut you up and feed you to your own horses!"
"No, no, anything but that!" he exclaimed, genuinely frightened.
"That's better," she gloated, satisfied with his reaction.
"Prophet gets terrible colic if you give him any rich food," Eric explained.
Kara collapsed and began to weep softly.
"Come on," he said softly, patting her on the shoulder. It made a quiet splatting noise. "I'm sure we'll find a pool of water or something you can clean yourself up with. And I won't tell a soul about the whipped cream. Come on."
There were no more booby traps, though making their way along the ancient roller-coaster tracks hardly needed any further hazards. Time after time, the old wooden sleepers broke beneath their feet, requiring them to leap forward or back while rotten planking vanished echoingly into unseen depths. Finally, deep underground, the track levelled out somewhat, and followed the floor of the tunnel. Going was easier.
"Ah! What do we have here?" Eric announced. "Look!"
"Water!" Kara yelled, running ahead with squelching footsteps. The tunnel dipped slightly before rising again, and a few yards of track were submerged in a couple of feet of water.
"Kara, don't!!!" Eric yelled, darting forward, but it was too late. With a glad cry, she flung herself into the water, submerging and surfacing again.
"Cold!" she gasped, blowing water from her mouth, "But clean! Clean! Ah! That's better!"
Eric reached the edge of the water. "Kara, that's..."
Something in his voice alerted her. "What? What have I done now?"
Eric pointed. Set in the wall was a grinning gargoyle. From its pursed lips, a thin trickle of water dribbled.
"The Fountain," he said, awed.
"That's it?" Kara said. "That thing?" She looked apprehensively at the water she now sat in. "Uh, what does this stuff do exactly? I presume it has some kind of magical quality?"
"It's okay," Eric said. "It only effects you if you drink it."
Kara wiped her lips nervously. "But it's safe, yes? I mean, you said yourself, you were going to drink it."
"Ah, yes, but the effects..." he shrugged helplessly. "Let's just say that not everyone will appreciate the benefits."
"Schneider. What does it do?" she hissed through gritted teeth. She seemed not to have noticed the long black ears that had just sprouted to either side of her head. Or the tufted tail that emerged over the rim of her shorts. "I'm waiting, Doctor Schneider." She frowned as her voice wavered, briefly rising in an odd, rusty squeak. "Uh... was that meeeee-haaaaw!!!"
She clapped her hands to her mouth, discovering as she did that her mouth was now several inches forwards of it's previous siting. Cautious fingers felt their way over the unfamiliar territory of a furry muzzle. "What's happening to me!" she managed, voice briefly human again, though it sounded strained.
"I thought you'd read the book!" Eric exclaimed.
"Only the first couple of chapters!" She brayed again. "It's just about a puppet that becomes a boy isn't it?" She fell forwards, her weight coming to rest on two neat black hooves. Silky black fur covered her body now which was growing rapidly. She tried to say something else but only unadulterated donkey passed her lips now. And in seconds, she was just that: a beautifully formed black donkey. With her shaggy mane in a pony-tail.
"Not bad," Eric said admiringly. The jenny brayed angrily then dipped her head to stare at her reflection, shaking her equine head in obviously disbelief.
Eric felt weak-kneed. At last! After so long! All that research: the chance finding of the scrawled comments in the border of Carlo Collodi's original Pinocchio manuscript. The quest itself, that had cost him almost everything but his horses. And before him the graphic proof that the fountain of transformation really existed: really worked!
Well, the moment wasn't to be wasted. He dug in his pack and brought out a small, padded bundle. Carefully unwrapping it, he produced a beautifully crafted wooden mug. Inscribed in flawless gothic script, painstakingly chiselled into the surface, was the name, Geppetto.
"That's the cup of a carpenter," he said approvingly, and filling it to the brim, began to drink.