"Theorising that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator, and vanished.
"He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.
"And so Dr Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home."
The familiar blue light streaked inward, forminfg a divinely bright aura that condensed into a crackle of energy. Doctor Sam Beckett had taken another quantum leap through time.
Sam still felt a little displaced as he rolled his gaze around the room - a cold blue room made airy by a shaft of light from a lofty window, but not without the stony symptoms of a prison. Sam caught a glimpse of his outfit - a bold patchwork of yellow and red which didn't complement the décor. Further examination was sharply interrupted by a loud, angry voice from behind.
"Intruder! Turn and face me."
Sam felt the words slam into him, and he thrust himself around, crumpling against a nearby table. With his heartbeat like a drum roll, he tilted his head upward. A giant face on the wall was glaring at him.
"Explain yourself! While I give you the luxury of speaking."
Sam searched his head for a way to express his cocktail of disorientation, shock, fear and bemusement.
Sam stared up at the wrathful, twitching image on the wall and tried to get his mind to work. I must have leapt into a dream, thought Sam. Once before he had arrived while the subject was dreaming - a salacious dream as it turned out - but this was more of a. maybe not. Maybe he'd leapt into a heavy drug user. that didn't seem right, either. What the hell was going on?
With a dry scraping, the monstrous face began to change. The stone around his eyes crinkled; the mouth broadened, baring more teeth. It paused; then it began to laugh. The walls shuddered as raucous echoes swept the room. This was good-natured laughter; it took the edge of Sam's fear, but did nothing for his confusion. He kept his guard up.
The guffawing drifted off, and the face smiled at him. "So," it boomed, as loudly as before, "you're not the only joker in the Dungeon!" In response, Sam took a closer look at his clothes, and saw that he was dressed as a very traditional jester, as if he'd been grafted from a playing card. He felt he should say something. "You caught me by surprise."
"If you'd seen your face!" chortled the wall. This set Sam wondering when he would get to a mirror to do so (his customary method of assessing the person whose body he'd leaped into). "So rarely do I get to see the expressions on my victims' faces. This is all a pleasant change of pace for a so-called wall monster."
'Wall monster'? Sam managed a crooked smile.
"But, to the point, I hear you are in line for congratulations."
After some hesitation from Sam, "Yes. I am."
"I never imagined that of all the things to sprout in the Dungeon, love would be one of them. Well done indeed. Please, help yourself to an item from the table. A gift from Golgarach." Stilted, yet sincere.
Did this mean Sam was safe? "Thank you, Golgarach."
"Good luck, Motley. And remember: the first step... is communication!" The creature laughed thunderously, then faded abruptly, leaving a blank wall. Sam blinked, an action which made his situation no clearer, and raised himself to look at the table. It had on it an apple, a tarnished key, a red gemstone, and a shiny dagger. Sam didn't fancy carrying a weapon that might get him out of frying pans and into fires, but he lifted the dagger and angled it to catch his reflection. He saw a plain but friendly face nestled in an outlandish headpiece that put his role as a jester - Motley - beyond debate. The gem, bulky though it was, stood out as a potential gift, so Sam stowed it in his outfit, where he found a set of juggling balls and a chicken drumstick. He spotted a doorway in the corner of the room. Beyond, it was dark, but Sam didn't want to loiter. He needed to know more about this 'Dungeon', so he took a breath and walked through the portal.
He heard and felt a whistling gust of wind, that seemed to clear the blackness, to reveal a long, clean corridor lined with uniform blue arches. Sam couldn't see the other end, but began on his way. "Where am I?" he muttered.
"Good question, Sam," chimed Al, whose hologram had appeared next to Sam. (Al was Sam's colleague and friend on Project Quantum Leap, who tuned into Sam's brainwaves via Ziggy, the PQL computer, and was projected as a holographic observer, in order to help Sam.) Al had dressed in the dark again, clad as he was in a paisley shirt, purple tie, and white jacket and trousers, but next to Sam he looked almost conservatively dressed for once. "Ziggy's had a heck of a time tracking you here. She thinks this is somewhere in England."
"England?" Barring a leap to the Vietnam War and an archaeological expedition in Egypt, Sam rarely leaped outside the US. "That doesn't help, Al. I'm dressed like a jester and I just spoke to a living wall. When was England ever that crazy?"
Al averted his eyes from Sam's costume, afraid of laughing or getting carried away with wisecracks. "Well, Sam, this is during your lifetime, like the rules say; Ziggy says around 1989." He jabbed his computer handlink, which whirred and squeaked. "But we ran a check, and there are no theme parks or attractions in England that came close to this. You're not dreaming, Sam, or stoned. This is real-" a bat-like creature made of computerised polygons flapped by, above their heads "- but at the same time, not quite real."
"Well, if you spot the Yellow Brick Road, or the Mad Hatter, let me know," said Sam, dryly. The bells on his head were tinkling as he walked, and he was hoping in vain that Al wouldn't notice. He moved the conversation on. "So what about Motley, the guy in the Waiting Room?" (Whenever Sam leaped into someone's body, that person was displaced into Sam's body at PQL in the future, and held in the Waiting Room, where, if they weren't too disorientated, they could offer clues.)
"Our visitor is pretty Swiss-cheesed," replied Al, describing the amnesia that leaping often brought on. "He thinks he's under a kind of spell, and he's not saying much useful. He's been making Gooshie laugh - not a pretty sight." (A reference to the odd and malodorous PQL programmer who worked with Al.) He paused, on the pretence of listening. "Are you wearing stilettos, Sam?"
"Look, just have Ziggy run a check on Dungeons, and Motley. and Golgarach, and tell me what I do to leap out of here!" Sam exclaimed. Al nodded, and vanished, as Sam reached the end of the passageway and slipped into darkness again.
Sam arrived in a wide kitchen, more rustic and quaint than he'd braced himself for. A young woman was occupied at the cooking range to one side, and turned around to look at him. She had an air that seemed at worst naïve, at best playful. Buoyed by a natural smile, she skipped over to Sam, her white dress dancing around her, and took his hand.
"Well, about time! Don't think I don't miss you when you're out and about, jestering!" She fixed him with big, brown eyes. "We're going to have to see about settling you down when we're Mr. and Mrs.!" Her mock chiding switched to histrionic disappointment. "And I thought we agreed - the 'coming home' routine. So come on, out with it: 'Melly, I'm back! How was your day, my love?'" Under her long hem, she tapped her foot.
Sam, no more bewildered than usual upon meeting his new partner after a leap, hesitated for a second, then repeated the greeting, pleased to know his fiancée's name.
"I've had a fine day, thank you, darling. Why not sit down and I'll tell you all about it," recited Melly, guiding Sam to a table at the centre of the room. She placed a bowl of soup in front of him and went on. "I managed to track Merlin down, and he said yes, he'll marry us. But we knew he would, didn't we? He's such a sweetie. And on the way back I bumped into Olaf, who wants to be best man, but I'm not sure. I mean, he knows how to throw a party - he's a Viking of course - but what kind of speech would he make? So I'm wondering if we should ask McGrew. Just as long as he doesn't sing! Now, you: did you get the ring from Mrs. Grimwold?"
Sam, transfixed by the rise and fall of her voice, was taken by surprise at his cue. Faltering, he almost said 'Ring?' but thought better of it, and mumbled that he couldn't find Mrs. Grimwold.
"Oh, Motley!" cried Melly in exaggerated annoyance. "Did you even try? Now I'll have to go or she'll change her mind about giving it to us," she huffed. "Sometimes, it's like getting blood out of a stone!"
Sam felt compelled to do a little method acting. "Blood? A stone?" he chirped. "A bloodstone. like this?" He thrust the gemstone into Melly's small hands. She grinned, then giggled.
"Thank you, Motley. It's lovely. Huge!"
"Golgarach, the Wall Monster. helped me choose it."
"Wall Monster? That's not very PC, is it?" She giggled again. "I remember why I'm marrying you now!" She bent down to kiss him, a stray ringlet brushing his cheek. "But there's no marriage without a ring! So I'm off to see Mrs. G. right now. Enjoy your soup. And to help you clean up" - Melly indicated a mess on the cooking range - "Merlin gave me a one-use spell for you. It's called WASH." She tapped him lightly on the nose. "So get it done, and I'll see you soon." Melly took a step away, then turned back. "After all," she said, smiling sweetly, "I don't plan on being a maid forever." She waved vigorously, and bounded through the rightmost of the two doors at the far end of the kitchen. Al watched her go, his head tilted. He fingered his cigar and turned to Sam with raised eyebrows.
"You know, under that flowing gown, I bet she's got more curves than a Coke bottle," expounded the hologram.
Sam knew where he was with his friend's chauvinist banter; and yet, in another sense, he didn't. "Al, where am I? What have you found out?"
To signify the move from biology to physics, Al began to pace across the room. "Sam, Ziggy searched high, higher and low for an explanation. The best she can come up with: all this. is a TV show."
"A TV show?" echoed Sam incredulously. "How can I be in a TV show?"
"Just wait a minute. Sometimes a TV show becomes more than just a way to pass the time. Sometimes it's momentous enough to grab people's imaginations, inspire them, make them happy. Books are written. Friends are made. When the quantity and quality of the minds it's touched is great enough, a TV show becomes a world unto itself."
"So I've leaped into an alternate reality, fuelled by the immense popularity of a television show?"
"If you wanna put it like that. yes," responded Al reluctantly. "This is a series called Knightmare, with a K. It ran from 1987 to 1991, and I think you'd like it."
Sam took a mouthful of soup. "Go on."
"Well, as you've guessed, this is a kind of fantast dungeon. Wizards, goblins, the works. And young adventurers from the outside world, Dungeoneers, jump in to carry out quests. Going room by room, and they can't take the entrance back out. No vending machines, no bathroom, no mercy. They each have three friends observing them, who only they can hear, giving them advice as they go. At the end of the quest, succeed or fail, they jump out. It's tough, but exciting, by all accounts."
Sam smiled. "You make it sound like leaping."
"With the exception, Sam, that it's not an illusion for you. Ziggy says that because you're not a Dungeoneer, this is real life or death for you.," said Al grimly.
Sam took this in his stride; such was the norm with leaping. "OK, so I'm Motley the neighbourhood jester."
"That's right, and that wedding kitten who just went out is Mellisandre the maid, your future wife." Sam listened. Al tapped his handlink for prompts. "She got lost in the Dungeon a while ago, but the Dungeoneer who was sent in to rescue her - Ross - didn't succeed. So Merlin the wizard, with Motley's help, found her. She bounced back with a carpe diem outlook, and you two got engaged." Sam listened.
"So Melly and Motley tie the knot. The lovebirds spend more and more time together... poking fun at each other." Sam grimaced at the double entendre; Al kept a straight face. "And less time helping out visiting Dungeoneers, in the early stages of their quests. By the fifth season of Knightmare, the quests are an impossible challenge, and no fun at all. No one's watching, no one's playing. The series gets the axe." Sam took all this in, as Al meandered back to the table for the final part of the briefing.
"The upshot being, Ziggy says that there's a 92% chance you're here to stop Mellisandre from marrying Motley. They remain free agents, giving crucial support and help, the series goes on longer, more people are happy."
Sam put his spoon in the empty bowl and stood. "She gone to collect a ring for us. I'll find her and... let her down gently. And hopefully leap out without doing any washing up." Sam had reached the right-hand door. He walked forward.
Sam stepped from the darkness into a tall shadowy chamber with four archways, vacant except for an austere man with his arms folded across his chest like a dormant bat. He approached Sam's vague idea of a British eccentric, recuperating between hunts and soirees. His hair was a potent white, rendered comical by red streaks from front to back, which came to remind Sam of catsup trails on mash potato. Noting the man's glistering scarlet robes, Sam guessed that he had encountered a wizard. The wizard - could it be Merlin? - turned his eyes towards Sam, and looked at him with an inscrutable gaze, perhaps like a bird of prey who was not at that moment seeking prey.
"Ah, the jester," he intoned, in a rich voice. "You were not expected. News has reached one of your forthcoming nuptials and... one offers one's congratulations." He said this in a tepid voice; but after giving Sam a pause in which to offer thanks, and maybe fathom his pronoun usage, his voice cooled. "One is here to meet the Dungeoneer. If you wish to speak to her, one permits you to wait to one side."
Feeling like a pupil who would be testing the school Principal's nerve if he disobeyed, Sam walked to the edge of the room. Soon, he saw a small figure materialise in the entrance, wearing a large leather shoulder bag and an oversized helmet that looked somewhat Norse, but mostly timeless. It obscured her vision.
"Where am I?" the girl called out, more petulantly than inquisitively. Sam kept quiet. As if making a phone call, the Dungeoneer muttered to invisible voices, then moved in a series of shuffles toward the waiting wizard. Sam recalled his sister Katie gossiping to her imaginary friend, Elaine, and his own conversations with Al's hologram, that only he could hear and see (most of the time). In a different room, Al was crouched behind the Dungeoneer's three Advisers, watching the Dungeon on a screen and waiting to see what would happen. According to the trio's notes, the wizard - an ambiguous character called Hordriss The Confuser - had earlier asked the Dungeoneer, Sara, to bring him a key. Confirming that she'd found it, Sara was told to hand it over by her Advisers. Hordriss addressed her.
"Now, your... reward. One has detected a powerful wizardry rising within the Dungeon. One cannot speak of the origin of this magic, or what threat it may pose. But to guard against an unforeseen attack of this power, I gift you a spell called TARGET. You may retain it on Levels 2 and 3, should you reach them, but it is only for use at a moment of absolute crisis." The observers spattered notes across the paper on their clipboards. "And now," the enigmatic sorcerer concluded, "one will leave you in the company of this. jester." Hordriss swept from the room.
Sam peered on as the Dungeoneer had a discussion into the air, and then stepped toward him in short, straight lines. What should he do? Tell a joke? Give the girl a second spell? Juggle? He had his own mission to take care of. but part of that was acting out his role.
"Hello there, Dungeoneer. I saw you talking to that wizard. Oh, the Dungeon: have you ever noticed how hard it is to find the bathroom? Ha-ha!" Sam regretted this stand-up quip immediately; the British say toilet, not bathroom. He didn't pause for laughs. "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Motley - the joker to your poker face!" Sam was more pleased with this one; it seemed to suit Motley's unsteady Cockney accent better. He decided not to rely on his past leap into a stand-up comedian, in this unusual setting. "But enough of my wit. Who are you?"
"I'm Sara, and I'm a Dungeoneer on a quest for the Shield," declared the girl, her face covered down to her lips.
"That's good, Sara," replied Sam. It was the prelude to an awkward silence.
Sara ended the pause. "What do I say to him? ... Shall I... Do you have any information about Level 2?"
"No, I'm afraid I haven't. I'm just a humble jester." Sam considered a more reasonable answer. "I have to find Mellisandre the Maid; but when I do, I'll tell her that we should find you and give you a hand." Sara consented, offered parting, and proceeded somewhat mechanically to one of the exits. As she walked, Sam heard the fading sound of ringing in his ears, and realised that Al was standing by him, looking anxious.
"Sam? Sam? Have you come round now?" Sam couldn't reply - the Dungeoneer was still in the room and would overhear him - so Al continued. "Believe it or not, you've just been frozen for nearly a week." Sam gaped. "A bell rang out, and everything stopped moving. I was in the observation room, and even the three Advisers seized up. There's a guy in there called Treguard, kind of the umpire of all this - he's the only one who doesn't freeze. He just goes off somewhere for a while."
Sam was shocked. "I didn't feel a thing, Al. One week! Is it dangerous?"
"Ziggy says it's a hiatus linked to TV transmissions. It shouldn't be a problem for the leap," Al explained.
"OK. Tell me who I've just been talking to."
"First there was Hordriss The Confuser. He's a dark horse, pretty powerful sorcerer, but doesn't take sides in this season. And Sara Deacon, the Dungeoneer - the place gets the better of her. Of course, she isn't actually harmed."
"I'd better get going." Sam surveyed the room. "Which door, Al?"
"The Dungeon's an ever-changing labyrinth, Sam. Ziggy can't scan a room ahead of you entering it. It won't make a lot of difference which one you take." Sam nodded, and grimacing, he chose a portal.
Emerging onto the precipice of a grim rock face that rose and fell into darkness, Sam's gaze was grabbed by the irate, scantily-clad woman crouching several metres away. Competing for Sam's gaze was the excruciatingly huge, furry, arachnophobic's nightmare clambering down the rock face toward her. Sam was reminded of an unspecific 1950s monster movie he'd probably never seen.
"You! Motley!" screamed the woman. "My blade will not stop the creature. I require assistance!" She sounded reluctant to ask for help, but Sam doubted that his costume inspired confidence. The Dungeoneer wasn't here. Sam's second of hesitation has been too long for the unfortunate woman, who shouted at him again. She was surprisingly imperious.
"Jester! I demand assistance! Have you no magic?"
Yes; Mellisandre has bestowed the WASH spell. But how to cast it?
"WASH!" Sam exclaimed. No effect.
Al had appeared, supplied with a knowledge of Dungeon magic.
"It's a spell, Sam! Spell it! W, A, S, H!" Al called out, with Sam joining in. Immediately, they heard a dull hissing, getting louder; then a torrent of water spewed down the mountainside, at high speed. Sam lunged for a handhold in the rock face and avoided being removed as the eruption of water shot past, but he glimpsed the spider, legs flailing frustratedly, spinning downward and out of sight.
When the cascade had exhausted itself into a trickle, Sam saw the woman, hanging off the precipice. "Get up and help me!" she rasped. Sam almost preferred to remain where he was, and ruminate on the fact that he had just cast his first spell, but chose to help the green-clad Amazonian. Ignoring a certain lecherous hologram, Sam helped the soaking brunette, who offered him all too grudging gratitude, onto the ledge. Al quickly filled Sam in on her identity, Velda, the elf, adding sotto voce, "Sam, you wanna get dis damsel outta dis dress?"
"That is the first time the faeriekind have met aggression from Ariadne," said Velda, referring to the departed spider. I believe the balance of power in the Dungeon is being tilted somehow. I was intended to meet the Dungeoneer, and tell them that the second step is the ladder, but they were put on a different path."
Would this affect the leap? Sam wasn't certain. "I need to find Mellisandre."
"Indeed," said the elf demurely. "You are headed in the right direction. Whereas I must hasten back to Vanburn and warn my kin of what has happened. Farewell." Miraculously dried, they headed off in opposite directions along the path.
This could have been another pale, stony chamber; but instead, a flurry of carnage had booted it awake. Several small, green corpses lay twisted across the floor, only some of them whole; blood; a portly, hirsute man was slumped against the wall, his paw holding down a club that had clearly seen recent, heavy use. Next to the fighter crouched an amorphous, androgynous character in rags; there was also an ancient wellway, with a scratched red gemstone lying next to it. If ever there were a room in need of a jester, Sam thought... Then he recognised the gemstone.
"Oh, it's you, dearie, squawked the crouching figure, apparently a woman. "She was 'ere, your Melly, to collect the ring. Then, all of a suddenly, them goblins appeared, carried 'er off, they did. They-"
"Where have they taken her?" interrupted Sam.
"Somewhere down below. They didn't 'arm 'er, just took 'er. If you wanna find 'er, you'll 'ave to take wellway to Level 2 now." Mrs. Grimwold paused to stroke the man's head. "My 'usband did 'is best to stop 'em, but there was just too many, dearie. Oh, and Festus got a few, didn't you, Festus?"
A moment later, Sam received a memory that, no matter how Swiss-cheesed he became on future leaps, would never be lost. With a rabid snarling that went beyond stentorian, a colossal dog, with two heads and one neck stump, bounded into view. A haggis-like melange of goblin body parts hung and leaked from its mouths. In true Cerberus fashion, it positioned itself between Sam and the wellway, and growled. Mrs. Grimwold seemed incapable of helping, and chided her pet only mildly. By this time, Ziggy had pinpointed Sam for Al, who appeared in a green and blue ensemble as Sam was preparing to throw the chicken drumstick he'd found earlier, in order to distract the hound.
"That's not gonna work, Sam," spluttered the wide-eyed hologram. "He's too fast." Festus noticed him and roared; animals, even this unclassifiable one, could see Al. "Alright, he can see me, and hear me. This better work. Gimme that tune, Ziggy!"
A note of ultrasound whistled out, turning the canine hydra into a writhing, howling mass, incapacitated. With its anile owner dubiously shouting "Festus!", Sam darted across the room and, encouraged by Al, vaulted into the well, and fell.
When Sam's vision cleared, he was sitting in dried clothes on a large revolving disc, rimmed by a set of identical archways. As his head stopped throbbing, he realised that there was nothing else - just a ubiquitous blackness with a pinch of stars. And Al. Scowling at his handlink, and a little lost for words.
"You made it. To Level 2."
Sam put his palm to his head, but set his bells jangling, and dropped his hand with a sigh. Al's eyes wandered, then focused on Sam. "Ziggy's a bit strung out by all this - there's a load of new variables come into play - but she's kinda certain that you have to find Mellisandre to sort this out."
"Kinda certain?" Sam stood up. When Ziggy annoyed Sam with a less than scientific appraisal of the situation, he tended conveniently to forget that he himself had programmed the computer at Project Quantum Leap with Barbara Streisand's personality.
"Kinda certain," returned Al. "You may run into Merlin, one of the good guys. He could help. As long as we can track you through this maze, I'll be here." Although Al was little more than Sam's passive observer at times, his dog whistle idea was an exception.
"Thanks for your help with Lassie up there," Sam said, turning to face Al. "Now, what's behind door number one?"
"Exits are located thataway, thataway and thataway," offered Al. "Hey, Sam!" he dropped his voice. "Did I ever tell you about the air stewardess I met in Washington?"
Al hadn't, actually; but this was no less an incentive for Sam to head out. After a few more words to Al, he waited at the edge of the disc, hopped into one of the doorways, and vanished.
With no corridor, Sam stumbled straight into the next room. Its only light source was the luminous image of a skull, palpitating in mid-air and splashing haphazard patches of brightness around the bland room. It reminded Sam a little of Pac-Man. Sam's eyes picked out a low rectangular doorway cut into the wall directly opposite him; his ears picked out a horrendous dry clicking noise from the cloak of the shadows. A rhythmic snapping added to the growing cacophony, Sam's cue to bolt through the exit. But he had no chance, as a creature at the boundaries of conception lumbered from the murk to be illuminated by the ghostly floating lamp. A smooth, gargantuan skull, carried by two pairs of skeletal legs, moved forward, its sharp, perverse grin making it a memento mori like no other. Sam shook with ripples of nausea. Pure agility would never get him to the exit unpunctured. Neither magic, nor Al, nor time.
Sam risked another look at the approaching beast. Within its eye sockets he saw tiny red irises, black pupils, and grey eyelids like detritus. I hope those eyes aren't merely decorative, Sam thought, as he rummaged around in Motley's pockets with dancing fingers. He brought out one of the five juggling balls. Steadying himself, he stared at the looming face, took aim, and threw. A hit in the left eye. With a hoarse cry, the creature lost its balance, then regained it, and resumed its advance, the left socket dripping bloody eye-jelly. Sam darted sideways, the monster turning toward him. Sam grabbed another ball and flung it at the right eye socket. It thudded against the rim, and dropped. Sam tried to stay calm, but he could feel the beast's rancid breath. Again, he threw. The ball landed in the right socket, but didn't hit the eye. Sam threw again. The same result. But the two balls were enough to obscure the sight in that eye. The monster was blinded. It showed no anger, just the same sickening smile.
Sam looked at the exit. He glimpsed the floating skull arcing downward in his direction. As the bony mutant paused in confusion, Sam dashed forward, grabbed its front left leg, and swung himself past the rear leg and through the exit.
After the familiar dark wind, Sam skidded along the cold floor of a long passageway. Flushed with adrenalin and relief, Sam stayed for a moment, eating some of Motley's chicken and replaying his escape from the undead adversary. As with many of his leaps, incredible situations had incredible solutions. Feeling mighty, Sam silently added his name to a catalogue of giant beaters - David, Jack, Ulysses, Sam - with a smile. But how long could he be complacent in a place like this? How long would it take to rescue Melly? Sam got up and hastened along the pristine passage. Al hadn't appeared; it was probably getting harder for him to track through the Dungeon. Sam went onward, into the dark.
Sam emerged in another corridor. This one had some brickwork missing, revealing mechanisms which conspired to thrust two sets of slender spears periodically in and out of the thoroughfare. A glowing skull hung at one side, for effect. Sam gave a thought for the sightless Dungeoneer, coordinating a dash through this room with the Advisers; but he had little trouble dodging the moving weapons and the skeletal apparition, to reach the arched exit.
Traversing the next red corridor, Sam convinced himself that he had merely faced the calm before the storm. So he was surprised to step into a chamber which didn't look homicidal. A modest, unoccupied throne was on the far side; a broad window framed a perpetual night; a huge section of the grey flooring was absent, with a black void revealed beneath. A few metres from Sam, Sara stood, muttering to her colleagues and trying to make something of the broken pathway of tiles that didn't quite bridge the chasm. She turned and came over to Sam.
"Hello, Sara, we meet again. How goes the quest?" Sam asked, merrily. He sensed that Motley was employed to boost morale at times like this.
"We're trying to get across the gap, but we're missing one step," responded Sara, a touch blandly. The space in the path was the size of one floor tile. This was Sam's opportunity to help, as it seemed they were expecting him to.
"Well, I might just be able to help you there," Sam said chirpily, pleased at this potential alliance. "It looks like you need a second tile, and I happen to know that the second step is the ladder!"
As Sara moved confidently away to process this information, Sam saw a translucent hologram flicker into view. Al started to speak immediately, in a vexed tone.
"Sam, we're having trouble locking onto you down here. There's a lot of interference. But we're gonna transfer some juice when we can and tr..." With a gesticulated protest, Al faded and was gone. Sam sighed, knowing that it would be a while before Al could be boosted through to him again. He imagined for a moment having three observers: a trio of Als feeding him counsel and counterpoints, and competing over their latest crush. With a smirk, he returned his attention to the Dungeoneer, who now had a complete pathway before her. She walked forward, then halted, as lightning fork whipped harmlessly across the room, and an incumbent phased into place on the throne.
Sam had no doubt that Merlin had just arrived. Except for the lack of a pointed hat, he looked like he had risen from a storybook illustration, if not from legend itself. He appeared old without seeming aged, his modest, white beard and kind, avid eyes highlighting profound power tempered by unswerving wisdom. He smiled gently, like a person savouring the moment just after a refreshing sleep before the day's problems scuttle in, then extended his arms and spoke with gusto.
"Ah! Well done indeed, Sara, for braving the Dungeon thus far. But I see it has taken its toll on your health. Spellcasting: V! I! M!" he declared.
She looked quite healthy to me, thought Sam. Then he made eye contact with Merlin across the room. He raised his hoary eyebrows.
"Motley! You too have done exceptionally well under unusual circumstances." He commanded respect; perhaps like an elderly teacher who invites admiration for not being senile, when by rights at his age, he should be. Then the wizard's face darkened, and he beckoned Sam; he crept over to the throne. "Before any general business, we must discuss a situation of great severity." He paused, allowing his face to accommodate his deep concern. Then he resumed. "Mogdred, a man of menace and malevolence, has formed an allegiance with Hordriss. This spells great danger for all, even the Dungeon Master."
A vague recollection of Arthurian legend filtered to the foreground of Sam's mind. Mordred - nephew and enemy of King Arthur - usurper of Camelot?
"They have joined forces against a new magic of great power and mystery that has entered the Dungeon."
Sam swallowed, and felt himself go tense. 'A new magic' - him and Al! Their presence had been interpreted as an invading sorcerer! Listening from the antechamber with the Advisers, Al came to the same realisation. Melly's abduction - it was basically their fault. Al blurted out the name of a famous crucifixion victim, and withdrew to check data from Ziggy. Knightmare now lasted 3 seasons.
"I too have detected this anomaly, but do not regard it as a threat. Hordriss and Mogdred are not so easily persuaded," continued Merlin, grimly. "I'm afraid that together, they are powerful enough to take over the Dungeon and forbid Dungeoneering - and I fear they will." His voice faltered. "They are already relocating more goblin and hobgoblin squads to Levels 1 and 2." The wizard focused on Sam and Sara in turn. "I believe the keys lie in your respective quests. Motley: you must find Mellisandre. Sara: you must locate the shield. Both are intact, so to speak, on Level 3.
"I fear that if I enter the fray myself, it will be my last. I must remain here, as a bastion against the rising evil." Sam remained hushed with guilt, listening meticulously. Merlin lifted his head. "However, in these... desperate times, I have the power to send one of you in a giant leap safely to Level 3. The other must proceed through the mounting obstacles of Level 2, with far less aid."
"Send Motley." Sara's statement was immediate; no one had fed it to her. Sensing disbelief, she repeated it, firmly. "I came here to take on the Dungeon, and... with the others' help, I'll get to Level 3." She lowered her voice. "Please."
Sam prepared to argue. But a wild, vivid picture had entered his mind: a picture of countless children staring at blank television sets, red-eyed, walking with despondent stoops, sleeping without dreaming, forgetting how to share laughter. As the picture dissipated, Sam found himself looking up at Merlin, nodding at Sara's request.
"Such chivalry is a power in itself," said Merlin warmly. "Very well! Now, Motley, are you comfortable with leaping?"
"Yes, I... I am."
Merlin unfurled a sagely smile across his face, then took a breath. "Brace yourself. Spellcasting: L! E! A! P!"
Watching the Advisers' screen, Al saw the jester disappear in a twinkling cloud. "Ziggy! We got work to do!" he shouted, and turned off his hologram.
The mage's face blurred before Sam like the view through a rainy windshield, and he drifted in a cool white haze for an uncertain length of time. Then his feet met the ground; he was deposited in a murky cavern that felt more subterranean, and sinister, than any place he had been so far. But his duty to untangle the problems he had unwittingly caused, gave him ardent determination. Stepping with care over the bones on the floor, Sam made it to two dark exits, and onward through one of them.
A corridor later, he was propelled into a dimly lit space, swimming with an interlaced odour of decomposition and dung, with a heap of shaggy blanket s lying in the centre that were nothing if not suspicious. And indeed, as Sam edged over to the open doorways behind them, they rose; a huddle of haggard creatures with grimy talons and long droopy noses that were guiding them swiftly in Sam's direction. Too swiftly for him to outrun them. Sam backed away, scrabbling for the faintest fragment of a solu... it came. He took out the remains of Motley's chicken, which had grown pungent in his pocket, and threw it just past the fiends. The distraction worked; they were pausing, and turning. Sam skirted by, and got out.
He followed another long, beige passageway into a tall room with chequered flagstones and a huge cobra silently poking out from a central pit. It seemed oblivious to the intruder, and, with a vision of Motley's bride-not- to-be suffering unearthly torture, Sam crossed hastily to the nearest portal.
The next corridor gave way to a blackened, angular chamber. The far wall was emblazoned with a writhing mural of a snake-haired face - Medusa. Sam couldn't help looking straight at her as he entered, but the cursed eyes weren't staring at him. He followed their gaze to a beautiful woman with a majestic gold-webbed headdress and dominatrix-black robes. Her manifest fairytale queenliness was compromised by the fact that she was kneeling on the elaborate patterned floor, her legs and arms immobilised with a misty, grey colouration. 'Statuesque' was an ironic summary. Accounting for the anxiety on her face, so was 'petrified'. She turned her neck painfully, and trying in vain to sound imperious, called out to Sam. After some hesitation, he moved closer to her.
"This... is their doing," she choked contemptuously, as if her throat were frozen too. She inhaled. "Mogdred... and his pretentious little familiar. They rejected alliance with me... claiming I would undermine them, betray them to my brother's old advisor."
Sam picked over his recollection of Celtic myth again. Could this woman be an incarnation of the enchantress Morgan Le Fey, treacherous half-sister and repentant pallbearer of King Arthur? Either way, she had fallen foul of an altogether greater sorcery.
"Together, they have empowered the Gorgon, and imprisoned me here. She is focused entirely on me. I can do... nothing." She shut her eyes, against an onslaught of either pain of impotent rage. "I urge you to proceed, and use whatever means you possess... to disrupt their plans." Her voice had taken on a plaintive waver that seemed to surprise her. "If... the balance of power is restored, I give my word that I, Morghanna, will never trouble a Dungeon phase again."
Sam mumbled his assent and hurried to the door. Just before he departed, Morghanna raised her head.
"Mogdred's intentions towards the Maid are... dishonourable. Go!"
Another corridor; then an obstacle involving giant cats and energy discharges that Sam made little note of, except to time his dash to the exit and avoid a fatal fall. He rushed into the darkness, and out into the final chamber.
Sam was in a familiar room - except for the unbroken gold-coloured floor and walls, and the crimson vista visible through the window, this was a replica of Merlin's room. Mellisandre was kneeling next to the throne at the far end, tied up. Sam called her name and started out toward her - but stopped, as she shook her head and screamed protests at him, that were, through some kind of hex, silent.
"Alright, I'll wait," said Sam reluctantly. Even if this were a trap, Sam was prepared to fall or even dive into it, if it would summon Mogdred and contribute to a resolution. He noticed something at Melly's feet; a fruit; a pomegranate, unbitten. So, she had refused to play Persephone; but she was still a hostage, and in need of rescuing from a power glutton who did not favour civilised negotiation, as Morghanna's fate illustrated.
Hearing the phrase "Where am I?" shouted breathlessly behind him, he turned his head to see Sara standing in the doorway. She had caught up, either via a shorter, speedier path - or by design. Instead of addressing Sam, she was being directed over to the side, where, propped against the window frame, Sam noticed a shield - she had completed her quest. She bent down to pick it up...
Hordriss appeared next to the throne. "One would suggest that you remain as you are," he cautioned, in a tone dripping with rehearsed smugness, "and prepare to pay homage." He straightened his posture, as Mogdred appeared on the throne.
Had Sam met this man at a fancy dress party, he would have paid little attention to his blanched skin, his uninspiring hairstyle, and his bland smock. But this was a place that redefined power and fear - and, like a nightmare itself, Mogdred was inexplicably, unnaturally, scary. Hordriss seemed just a shadow to his shadow. Mogdred began to speak, his high voice simmering with disdain and anger.
"How unexpected. The jester has come to play. Well, the games shall begin, presently." He erupted with a sardonic cackle, echoed weakling by Hordriss. Mogdred stared now at Sara. "And you: though declining to pledge yourself to me earlier, you have still... vanquished the Dungeon. Far be it from me to prevent you from claiming your prize, and joining the Dungeon Master's hallowed annals." He waited for a moment - perhaps to listen for heartbeats - then continued sharply. "But know this: if you raise the Shield against me, the career of this jester will come to a colourful, yet abrupt, end."
"Mogdred!" Hordriss interrupted the pallid villain's scornful laughter. "Might one... commence the games?" Sam could see that Hordriss was not really at ease with the hierarchy. Mogdred gestured his consent. "Gladius Damoclis!" Hordriss exclaimed, relishing the arcane mystique.
A gleaming broadsword was hovering above Sam, its whetted point a short distance from his scalp. It looked as unconvincing as the floating skulls had, but was somehow more alive, more instinctive. Sam assumed that if it didn't decide to drop immediately, it would shadow him through any evasive moves first. The room became motionless, except for some twitching from Sara and Mogdred's delighted chuckling.
"MOTLEY!" The girl's scream cracked open the near-silence. "Take the Shield!" Sam caught sight of Sara, her foot knocking the armour to the floor. He called out, giving her an aural beacon. She kicked the Shield, and it scraped across the tiles, toward him. It slowed down a few metres away. Glancing away from he descending sword, he rolled to intercept the Shield. The sword swept in the same direction. Sweating, he grabbed the back of the Shield and thrust it above his prostrate body, parrying the blade with a jarring clang. The sword clattered innately against the Shield every few seconds, like a wasp at a windowpane. Mogdred's tone, saturated with acerbity as it was, betrayed no rise in irritation.
"An enterprising move. Such... hubristic audacity. And now, shall I sit here and watch, while you and the jester struggle across my parlour to free the Maid? Hordriss?" This was a rhetorical question, and when the sorcerer smiled and began to reply, Mogdred cut him off, calmly and firmly. "Perhaps. But first... Ensis Pendens."
A double-headed axe appeared, and lurked, airborne, next to Mellisandre's quailing form. Sam frantically tried to revaluate his chances, but Mogdred hadn't finished. "Silva Securium." A second sword was hanging above Sam. Then a third. Two were poised next to Mellisandre. One rested in the air in front of Sara. Mogdred stared straight ahead, appalled at either the pathetic surrender or the foolhardy retaliation which he expected was to follow.
Sam looked at each weapon in turn, and felt light-headed. The Shield felt like a cheap umbrella. He saw Sara, muttering frenziedly under her breath.
"Yes, YES I can hear you... well then we have to c-... I know! ... of course it is, but we have to use it! Now!"
A pause. Then a boy's voice rang out nervously from Sara's position. "Spellcasting: T, A, R, G, E, T."
The swords and axes glided upwards, then converged on the Dungeoneer in a collective flash. A short scream, a bloody haze, then nothing. The weapons and their target had gone. Sara's quest was over.
"One did not foresee that, exactly," stuttered Hordriss, quietly. Mogdred ignored him, and lifted his head to bellow.
"Are you listening, Dungeon Master? This was your infants' last foray into my Dungeon." Sam began to stand, and prepared to speak, but Mogdred denied him the chance. "The games are over! Now, let us quell all opposition!" Nostrils flaring, he had turned to Hordriss. They breathed in, and at the same time, shouted out,
A bell pealed, more loudly and ominously than ever before.
The viewing screen in the anteroom depicted two men gloating before a motionless maiden, and a paralysed jester. Al looked away, scrutinising the three Advisers, frozen worriedly in time. Their gaze led over to a chair where a pensive, dignified man with a dark beard sat. Not moving. Al darted across the room, hoping in his panic to rouse a sign of life - but there was none. Standing still, in his most outlandish outfit, Al cleared his mind, and addressed the Quantum Leap programmer with vehement conviction.
"Gooshie, get ready, and get me into that chamber of horrors, now!"
The two mages broke from their discussion of enslavement and redecoration, to eye the intruder who had materialised in the centre of the room. A man stood there, clad in his white US Naval Admiral's uniform, which was peppered with large silver stars, crescent moons and a few ringed planets. His pointed hat was adorned in the same way. Glancing anxiously at the immobilised jester and maid, he looked toward the throne. "Over here!" he barked.
An expression of perplexity crossed Mogdred's face, but quickly went, like ripples in a puddle; he stood. "Ah! Our rival has shown himself. A most... uninvited guest."
Yes! thought Al. They can see me. Time for the show... "I... am Admiraliban!" he declared with an exaggerated flourish. (He'd been in a similar situation once before: Sam had leaped into the butler of a miserly millionaire who could see Al through some quirk of brainwaves, and Al had paraded as the Ghost of Christmas Future to turn the guy around.) Standing in the Imaging Room of Project Quantum Leap, the Dungeon appeared as a hologram to Al; but the importance of this performance was very real. "I'm here to stop Knightmare being trashed by nuts like you."
Mogdred, either due to overconfidence or underconfidence, laughed tersely. "You may regard yourself as a powerful force, but I am not convinced. Since you have dropped in unbidden, I suggest you... drop out." Mogdred stretched his left hand out toward Al. The chamber shuddered, and the tiles beneath Al cracked and showered into the black void below. Al's floor in the Imaging Room was of course undamaged, and he stepped pointedly forward, approaching the throne, where he stood, smirking at the enraged sorcerer.
"If I can defy your time-out, do you think that a bit of floor-smashing would bother me? I think your reign of evil has gone far enough, Mockdread. So free the prisoners, get back your box, and fix the Dungeon. NOW!"
Al thrust his hands towards the ceiling, pressing a button on the handlink hidden up his sleeve. At once, the room seemed to pulsate with tempestuous booms and flashes. It was a holographic pyrotechnics display which Gooshie had cooked up earlier - an effort to intimidate the bad guys. Al stopped the display. He could see that Hordriss was flustered, as if he'd run out of tea. Mogdred wasn't.
"Your powers are indeed considerable," said Mogdred slowly, "but somehow remote. You are no threat to my regime, Admiraliban. Hordriss! Ignore this apparition, and address the jester infestation in this room."
Al started to panic. Did he have any tricks left? He needed time.
"Hordriss! Listen, you're a fine wizard. Do you really wanna spend the rest of time being bossed about by Wacko Jacko here?"
A raised eyebrow indicated that Hordriss was not quite immune to Al's flattery. "Mogdred and I have together formed an invincible dominion," he felt compelled to assert. "We are the rightful rulers of the Dungeon, and we will make it our own. No trespassers-"
"-Will be allowed," Mogdred finished.
Al had found it. The hope of a chance. If Ziggy could keep him powered up for one more minute...
"If you do that, Hordriss, you. you'll never get to meet your daughter."
"Yes. You have a daughter. And in three years, she's gonna come looking for her father."
"Silence!" screamed Mogdred. "Iam tacitissimus." But Al was beyond the reach of a muting spell.
"Is this what you want her to find? Daddy running around Disgraceland, kissing ass?" The pun was unintentional, but Al went with it. With a deep, shaky breath he pointed at Mellisandre's cowering effigy. "You know what Hellvis here would do to her!" He waited for a response.
Hordriss shook his head and stepped closer to Mogdred. "Your falsehoods have no sway, intruder. One cannot be- IGNIS LIBERTATIS!"
Flames seized Mogdred's throne. Before he could voice his outrage and counteract the magic, Al shone a dazzling beam of light from the handlink into his eyes. As the fire spilled over onto Mogdred's clothes, he toppled forward, plunging into the measureless abyss with undignified thrashing and furious protests.
Hordriss waved his hand, the throne burnt out, and the floor was replaced. At that moment, Al ran out of power and his hologram sputtered out.
The red-clad wizard raised his head as Merlin appeared, heralded by a fork of lightning. "Merlin, I..." he called out immediately. "One was wrong to pledge one's allegiance during this phase. Perhaps one will move towards the Powers That Be, one day. But for now," he said, regaining his resolve, "one shall remain independent." Mellisandre and Sam were beginning to stir.
"Indeed, you were foolish, Hordriss," uttered the wiser wizard. "But you saw reason in the end. Mogdred will remain subdued, for a time. And now, please assist me in restoring the equilibrium. Spellcasting: UNTOUCH!"
They spoke together. "U, N, T, O, U, C, H!"
Sam stared at the smooth tabletop. He was back in the kitchen where he'd first met Melly. With a smile, Al stepped over, picking foil cut-outs off his uniform. He felt no guilt about using the cliché, "Well, Sam... we did it."
"I remember... Mogdred and Hordriss casting a spell, a bell ringing..." mumbled Sam, feeling burdened by his Swiss-cheesed memory.
"Everything got frozen, timed-out," Al explained, "except me. I paid the magic men a little visit, and managed to split them up. Old Darth Mogdred's gone AWOL for a while, and the Dungeon's been put back together." Al poked a few buttons on his handlink, his tone brightening. "Ziggy says there's a 93% chance that Knightmare's gonna run to 8 seasons... at least 8."
"What about Sara?"
"Sara and her buddies are all OK. But it seems that with all the magic flying around, her quest got forgotten outside of the Dungeon. But there's this great scene on the third DVD..."
Sam was pleased, but not altogether settled. And not because the washing-up still needed doing. "And Mellisandre?" he interrupted?
"Ziggy says she'll be fine, but you've still gotta break it off with her before you leap, and before anything else can happen." Al paused. "Sam, I gotta go now - Ziggy needs to cool off a bit." With a thank-you from Sam, Al disappeared.
A moment later, Sam saw a fork of lightning, and the tall figure of Merlin appeared, with Mellisandre next to him. Sam stood up as the maiden, a huge grin sparkling on her face, ran over and locked him into a hug. Sam rested Motley's arms around her, and realised with sly gratification, that Al's earlier speculation about her was right. He sifted through his mind in search of a 'let her down gently' speech.
Melly drew her arms away, and edged back. "Motley... I've had a think," she said sweetly but sheepishly, as if thinking was unbecoming. "Merlin says the Dungeon's safe now - well, as safe as it ever was - but if it does turn nasty again, I don't want us drawing ourselves into every danger. So... I think we should call off the engagement, and stay friends... free spirits." She touched his arm.
Sam hid his relief. "That makes sense, Melly."
"OK!" she said exuberantly. "I'm off to see the Grimwolds, while Merlin has a word with you. See you!" She waved energetically, and skipped towards the doors.
Merlin walked over to the table. "Motley, I'd like to thank you. Your courage and resourcefulness have stabilised the Dungeon for years to come. The Dungeon Master thanks you too."
Mellisandre had left the room. "Godspeed, Sam," whispered Merlin.