Galad, ever being one to proudly demonstrate his skills, did an excellent Random Popping Up for Jeanlily and Luthy, who had nearly given up looking for Frodo and Sam, and were walking about almost aimlessly (if exploring a wonderful website in the . . . er, well, flesh . . . could be called aimless.) He got a superb jump out of both of them, and laughed when they came down, looking flustered. He was a realist (if a rather romantic one) but everyone could use a little humor now and then.
A moment later, Galad (or Níall, as he was sometimes called) became very serious indeed. Seeing this sudden change in suggestion, Jeanlily decided not to rebuke him for his ill-gone joke. Luthy, on the other hand, was not so forgiving.
“What did you do that for?” she demanded. Then, seeing his still-sober face, burst out laughing. Jeanlily joined her, but then quickly stopped as Galad just kept looking at them. In the background, a few Random People came into existence, as they so often did when Galad was around. They wandered about the halls, speaking loudly about Tolkien’s books and the movies, and everything else that was so often discussed in these parts.
“Okay, who died?” Luthy asked.”No one, I hope,” Galad answered. “But there is something WRONG with Tolkienonline.” He said `wrong’ very clearly, pronouncing each capital letter as if it was the footstep of Smaug. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s becoming harder for me to come here – in a little while, I might be totally stuck out of TORC! I don’t know what’s going on!”
“Oh!” Jeanlily said. This seemed quite a bit worse than Luthy’s fear of someone dying. Well, no, not really. But what if something really was wrong with TORC? And they were all stuck inside of it? She was about to ask Galad a question when he, with a surprised look on his face, suddenly disappeared. A moment later, the Random People followed.
“Well,” Luthy said. “Is that what he meant? Can he not come back?”
“I guess,” Jeanlily answered. “At least not until we fix whatever’s wrong with TORC.” She said this very confidently, as if, of course, whatever the problem was, they could take care of it.
It turned out to not be nearly that simple.
Boromir and Lexi sat in Tom’s House, talking, and occasionally trying out threads (they figured that the ones immediately in the café must be on the ‘front page’, for there were only a few of them there!) Some of the excitement of the TORC adventure had certainly worn off, but in its place (aside from a slight fear of anything that is so uncertain and pertained to them) came a warm, comforting feeling. Though their families and most of their friends were left behind, this . . . *place* . . . felt like home more than their houses out in the real world. After all, had they both not spent much more time here than perhaps was wise? Were they not both almost addicted to the wonderful world of Tolkien? Thankfully, yes.
So you must understand, with all their hopes, dreams, and wishes to be in Middle-earth, Tolkienonline was a fair substitute, and did not feel at all strange! Well, maybe a little. But this was where they were comfortable and happy. In fact, there was probably only one thing at that moment that could have made either Boromir or Lexi more content.
“I wonder where Frodo and Sam are,” Lexi said, leaning back in her maple chair. It was made of millions of intricate carvings which Boromir, as he peered closer, noticed were really words and numbers, each so tiny and perfectly blended with the rest, that it in itself was not particularly conspicuous. “When we saw the Ainariels together, I think they were looking for the hobbits. Do you think they’re awake?”
“Maybe,” Boromir answered, looking at his broken watch, which was forever stopped at `4:21.’ “But they looked pretty tired.” He continued to stare at Lexi’s chair until all the symbols melted together before his bleary eyes.
“You look pretty tired yourself,” Lexi noted, shifting a little in her seat. Why was Boromir staring at it? That look unnerved her. “Why don’t you take a nap and I’ll look for Frodo and Sam.”
Take a nap? Never! He was manly; he was great; and not even calculus could make him do that! “No, I’m fine,” Boromir replied, his head snapping up sharply. “Let’s go find the canon.”
“Riiiiiiiight,” Lexi said, following him and stretching out the `I’ past all previous limits. “You’re fine. You know, it is almost eleven.”
“Really?” Boromir asked, glancing again rather pointlessly at his watch as they exited Tom’s House and walked through the Reading Room (it seemed to be a short cut to everything . . . even mushrooms.) “Is it that late?”
“`Time flies,'” replied Lexi in a partial quote. “So, where exactly are we going?”
“I’m not really sure,” Boromir answered, looking up at the shelves of poetry next to him. “I figured we’d just explore until we found Frodo and Sam.”
“Boromir!” Lexi exclaimed. “We’ll never find them in this place! It’s huge!”
“So would you say it’s about a one-in-a-million chance?”
“Maybe, but -“
“Excuse me, may I help you?” It was Search. He just had a certain (and very strange) tendency to show up whenever someone was looking for something (or someone) in the Reading Room. It may have had to do with his name.
Lexi turned to him, uncertainty engraving its sorry self onto her face. “Who are you?” She turned to Boromir. “Do you know him?”
For once, it was Lexi who was ignored. “Yes,” Boromir answered Search, smiling a little. “We’re looking for Frodo and Sam from the `Back to Middle-earth’ fan fiction story. Have you seen them?”
Search’s blank look changed to one of intense concentration, and is beige features scrunched up in a searching freeze. “Yes,” he answered a moment later. “They are in `The Bird and the Baby.’ You can get there by passing through that door -” he pointed to one marked simply `Marketplace’ – “and then onto threads. From there, there is a connection to `The Bird and the Baby.’ I hope you enjoy your stay. Goodbye.” And with that, Search drifted away, perhaps in search of another who needed assistance.
“Okay . . .” Lexi said slowly, quite unsure what *that* was all about. “What was that all about?” Ah, finally someone who speaks her mind.
“That was Search,” Boromir answered, looking for the Marketplace. “He was giving us instructions. Come on!” He led Lexi through the door. This one was less finely crafted, and had the decisive air of somewhere that desperately wants to sell you something. They went through it. And stopped.
Every wall and shelf was covered with merchandise: from swords to posters, to books, clothing and games, the place seemed to have everything! Even tiny `Lord of the Rings’ action figures! “Wow . . .” one, or perhaps both of them said, though neither noticed; the `wows’ in their heads were too loud to hear another. Almost forgetting Frodo and Sam, they at once rushed forward to try on Aragorn costumes and Gollum masks. In the end, the storekeeper (also by the name of Search, only this time greener) kicked them out, saying that if they couldn’t pay for it now (by working in the store or otherwise) they would have to wait for another time. And yes, Lexi did have to put the Legolas t-shirt down.
As it turned out, the store keeper’s actions were actually welcome, because he happened to boot them directly into `The Bird and the Baby’ where Frodo, Sam, and Shannon were gorging themselves on food . . . and Ainariel not too far behind.
After standing about for a few pointless minutes, Jeanlily and Luthy came to the conclusion that doing so was irrational, and, despite the fact that they weren’t the most sensible of people, saving the world might actually involve some action. Like moving, for a start.
“Okay,” Jeanlily said, trying to look tall and heroic. It might have worked a little better if she had had the lofty countenance of an elf born to her. As it was, Luthy didn’t even bother to hide her bright grin. Jeanlily shot her a look of utter contempt. She wasn’t trying to look valorous at all. And that may have been why she also didn’t look like a puffin. “The first thing we need to do is figure out how to fight this thing.”
“But we don’t know what it is,” Luthy pointed out, for once the reasonable voice of the party. Hey, miracles can happen. “Shouldn’t we find out first?”
Jeanlily deflated considerably, back to her normal stance. Ah, that felt better – she could actually breathe properly now. “Right. Duh.” She considered this for a moment, before murmuring out loud: “If you were a Random Evil Thingy who was trying to destroy TORC, what would you be? And who would know about you?”
“Someone who knows things?”
“Like . . .?”
“Right. So what could this thing be? Maybe orcs suddenly got the internet and decided to wreck havoc on the peaceful people of Tolkienonline!” Jeanlily’s eyes lit up, as she thought of more possible demons to have invaded their peaceful land. “Or a computer hacker! Or, maybe, the Pirates of the Carribean crew has decided to drop in and throw me a party!”
“Fat chance,” Luthy rolled her eyes. That was really likely. Jeanlily looked a little hurt at this, so Luthy went on. “Well, Galad obviously knew something about it, if that says anything. But I don’t think we can talk to him any more – he had that whole `disappear-y’ thing going. So, um, we could wander around and ask Random People?”
“Works for me,” Jeanlily grinned slowly. “Hey, do you think that, totally by accident, we might see Frodo and Sam? I mean, as we’re trying to save the world?”
“Could be. I mean, we’re being very noble and everything. They’d respect that.”
“Right. Which way do you think they went? I mean, where should we search for the thing that’s taking over TORC?”
Luthy stopped, her mouth open. “I don’t know. But you’re right, Frodo and Sam might know something. I mean, they are canon characters. But right now, I think the best thing we could do,” she sighed, knowing the dear hobbits probably weren’t there, “Is consult the Reading Room. If that doesn’t work, maybe someone on the threads would know.”
“Good idea,” Jeanlily said, following her friend to the Reading Room. It was a slim chance, but it just might work. Suddenly, the whole thing seemed both more and less serious. But more than anything, it didn’t seem real. They were in danger, at least according to Galad, but it was hard to concentrate with so many distractions. Yet at the same time, a fear grew in both Jeanlily and Luthy that maybe, maybe something was really, terribly wrong.
And they couldn’t stop it.
Sam, having the sharpest ears of the group, was the first to look up from the table in The Bird and the Baby, to spot Boromir and Lexi. He immediately jumped up and looked worriedly to Frodo, then to Ainariel and Shannon, then back to Frodo, as if silently asking what he should do. Frodo, sensing his friends distress, motioned to the Ainariels, and stood up himself. At least he had met these two before, and knew them to be (at least, to all outward appearances) benevolent. But still, Frodo hesitated, not quite sure what to say to these two strange humans, who looked just as uncomfortable of the situation as he.
“Hey, Boromir! Hey, Lexi! You’re back. What’s up?” Ainariel filled the silence with her loud exclamations, both relieving the tension and creating a few more questions in the process.
“Boromir?” Sam asked, looking at him a little sideways. “Your name is Boromir?”
“Well, it’s not my real name,” Boromir said quickly, seeing the look on the hobbit’s face. He remembered the real Boromir (from the books, that is) and grimaced at what Frodo and Sam must think of him. After all, Boromir had tried to take the Ring from Frodo. They probably thought the name was cursed or something — bound to make whoever had it lust for the power of the One.
Or maybe they were just surprised to hear the name again.
“Then what is your `real’ name,” Frodo asked, perhaps a little more sharply than he had intended. But the hobbit needed sleep, so you can forgive him. The food did to Mr. Baggins some good though, as he added: “Forgive me. This place is very strange to me and I had not expected to be . . . transported . . . here. Do you know where we are, and what is going on? We are travelers, and seem to have lost our way.”
“To destroy the Ring? Yeah. You’re in TORC.” A moment later, Boromir knew he shouldn’t have let on about how much he should have said, as Frodo’s eyes narrowed, and Sam’s hand moved towards his sword.
“You speak of our Quest openly,” Frodo said, a bit stiffly. “Is everyone here so familiar with such knowledge, or are you merely more travelers from the future?”
“Well, I –” Boromir began, but Shannon interrupted him.
“It’s not like that,” she said. “I think we are in a place that I knew before I ever met you or Sam. Here, everyone knows of your Quest. They seem to be *experts* on it, in fact. I’m not sure exactly where we are, or what is going on, but I’ve been thinking about it, and with what Ainariel,” at the other hobbits’ confused looks, she clarified “The *other* Ainariel said, I think we . . . I don’t think we are in the real world. I think this is the internet. A . . . pretend place.”
“That’s not exactly -” Ainariel began, and then saw Shannon’s look. “Well, it’s close enough.” But Sam looked even more suspicious because of it. Frodo spoke.
“I take it this is another thing you can’t tell us because it’s `from the future’,” he asked. “But I wish to know: what is going on. You,” here he pointedly looked at Boromir and Lexi, “took us out of our world, and our Quest. It is imperative we leave and begin on our way again, or I fear for Middle-earth. Tell me, how do we leave this place?”
In the pause that followed, Frodo bowed slightly, then got back on his chair and continued eating in the most polite way possible. A gentlehobbit to the end, he could make even a starved-scarfing look elegant. Sam merely glared until Frodo motioned him to eat also. Eventually, Boromir began talking, as slowly and logically as he could manage.
“First of all, I must explain that I don’t really know what’s going on. But it seems that this place, this fantasy world – which we call Tolkienonline – has actually become a real place. I came here with Lexi through a door, but neither of us can leave again. Somehow, this imaginary place has become real, and has begun to . . . to trap people inside. I don’t know why. I’m kind of confused. But at the same time, it’s cool, you know? This site that I always wanted to visit . . . suddenly it’s here, and so am I. I don’t know how you, Sam, and Shannon got here though,” Boromir added, shrugging. “I don’t know much of anything, except something is very weird.”
“I think,” Lexi said, when Boromir had finished. “I think we’re all stuck here. Maybe forever – or maybe just until *something* happens. We didn’t bring you here anymore than you brought us here. I was all by chance – or by mistake. But it’s strange – all of us somehow (kind of) know each other. I mean, you don’t know us, but we know you, and the rest of have all met through writing and e-mails and such. It just seems a big coincidence. But we don’t want to hurt you, or bring you here at all. Um, sorry?”
“Look guys,” Shannon said, sounding truly miserable. I know its not your fault, and that you don’t understand it, but we *need* to get out of here. We’ve just got to find a way.” She turned to Frodo and Sam. “But after you two get some sleep. Geez – you look miserable. Just grab some food, or something, and go. And if I look even half as tired as either of you, I should probably get some rest also. I think we’re relatively safe . . . at least for now.”
“Maybe so, but you’ve got some explaining to do also, Ainariel,” Sam said, meaning Shannon. “Everything’s gone by so quickly I don’t think I know quite what’s going on.”
“You’re right, Sam,” Frodo said, wearily. “But so is Ainariel. As much as I would love to find out exactly what is going on, I think I must get some rest first, or I shall fall asleep in the middle of it all! And it does feel good again to be in a real bed. Perhaps we should sleep a bit, and then finish our business. But first,” he turned to Lexi. “I feel we have not be introduced at all. I see you know me, but what is your name?”
“Me? Oh! I’m Lexi,” Lexi said, looking a little embarrassed to be so directly addressed by the great Frodo Baggins, Ringbearer and hobbit of the Shire. “I’m Lexi.”
“Lexi, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Frodo Baggins at your service.”
“Um . . . and Lexi at your service also?”
“Right,” Ainariel said, a little put-out at Frodo not having bowed to her. “Shall we get you back to your rooms?”
Shannon nodded. “No more dawdling. Come on, this way. (It is this way, right?) You need some sleep.” She yawned loudly. “And so do I.” She started walking briskly back to the My Contents (each person’s room, that is) and quickly assorted Frodo and Sam to their room, before turning to Ainariel.
“Er,” Ainariel said, slowly. “Maybe there are two beds in there now?” She was tired to, it was late. Past one in the morning, if any of them had known it. Somehow, it didn’t seem like that much time had passed.
After all the others had gone to bed (even Lexi, who
had claimed sudden weariness at the late hour) Boromir stood out in the hallway alone. He, like the others, was fatigued. But somehow, Boromir could not find it in himself to try and go to sleep. Something was bothering him. Those markings . . . why were they on the chairs, tables, and books? They had looked almost like bug bites.
Frowning to himself, Boromir quickly paced down the hallway, staring at the walls. Nothing unusual. Well, for this place, at least. As he had noticed before, every single design was really a tiny and infinitely intricate grid of numbers – like the internet, really. But nothing was missing. Nothing was wrong. Or was it?
Boromir stopped walking as he neared the door leading to Tom’s House. Instead of entering the old café, he stopped, walked to one wall, and put his hand upon it. Then, fingers tracing the designs of the maple, Boromir looked more closely at it. Nothing. He moved closer to the corner. Nothing. How about to the right in the little niche of this bump? Ah ha!
There, on the side of the carving, was a small bit mark. Now that he saw that one, Boromir’s eyes were opened to all the other marks, and he could recognize them everywhere. What first seemed a smoothly designed wall was now covered with flaws, and Boromir fancied, just for a moment, that he could see something gnawing away at them. But, of course, there was nothing.
Mystified, Boromir continued to explore – into Tom’s House (it seemed rather newer, and had very few nibbles in it at all) then into the Reading Room. That’s when it started to get worse. Oh, it wasn’t so bad at first, but when Boromir had made his way to the very back, where there were only scrolls, no actual books, the shelves seemed to be almost falling apart, as if terminates had been working there for years.
But that was another strange thing. There were no insects, or animals of any kind at all in TORC, at least not that Boromir had seen. Everything was . . . normal.
“Hey, Boromir!” Boromir jumped (again, what was it with people sneaking up on him?) and turned. Jeanlily and Luthy beamed at him.
“What?” Boromir asked, a little cranky in his fatigue.
“What are you looking at?” Boromir pointed, but neither girl seemed to see anything. “What, the scrolls? The bookshelves?”
“Scroll-shelves,” Luthy corrected, and they both laughed.
“No,” Boromir replied. “The bit marks all over this place. They’ve
been bothering me since I first got here. It’s like something is eating away at TORC!”
“Boromir, there’s nothing there,” Luthy said in a patronizing voice. “There are no bite marks.”
“Yes, just here,” Boromir looked back at the shelves. Yep, they were covered in tiny bites. “Among the 6 and the 9.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Here, look! The 6 here and the 9 . . .” Boromir trailed off at their confused looks.
“I think the mule needs some sleep,” Jeanlily said to Luthy, shaking
her head slowly.
“Oh, I haven’t told you about the mule thing?”
“No . . .”
“Ooh, well it all started when . . .” Jeanlily and Luthy walked off together through the shelves. It didn’t occur to them until much later that Boromir might be seeing what Galad had told them about. Neither had the presence of mind even to tell him. They were too busy making fun of poor Boromir.
Boromir, on the other hand, stood alone. He sighed, a little sadly. Maybe they were right and he was just tired. He was probably seeing things. Just because it had never happened before and he had a good head for the night was irrelevant. Right?
Parts 1-3 can be found at: