Chapter Three Plans, Stupid and Otherwise
The two newcomers both of them familiar faces from the realms of TTR walked arm-in-arm through the door, crooning softly in chorus. Since one of them bore a more than passing resemblance to the Grey Steward, Man of Lead and Champion of the Oppressed Legions of Fanfic, the fact that he was carrying the tune without recourse to a sack was itself a minor miracle. The major miracle was that his companion appeared to be (a) Nyssa, in a sky-blue and mist-patterned party dress several leagues away from her usual sartorial tastes; (b) in sweet accord with him rather than, say, in the course of belabouring him with a sharp and heavy instrument, and (c) wearing a slightly shy and positively mellow expression.
"Hiya!" the Steward greeted all and sundry, in atypically lead-free tones. He flourished a vaguely jug-shaped present, wrapped in a rather peculiar species of paper across whose surface blotches of rainbow colour pulsed slowly in and out of existence. "Here's to Gordon! Uh, anyone seen our hostess? Or the Doctors?"
A slightly stunned silence ensued, possibly occasioned by the unspeakable notion of what the SKoLD might fish out of Nyssa's subconscious if given half a chance.
Fortunately, Silence was a resilient sort of Voord, and swiftly recovered. ~We just received a suspect package~, she signed. ~They're just dealing with it now...~
The Steward nodded. "Fastolf will be here in a few minutes: said he'd bring a bottle or two. What's the package suspected of?"
~Bringing characters from the subconscious to life.~ Silence signed. ~And it's caused at least one case of amnesia.~
"Now that's odd." the Steward observed. "Because, in our own ways, aren't we all creatures of the subconscious?"
"Merlin is," Morgan murmured into her beverage. "Ever watched him pilot?"
"Oh dear God," someone in the crowd muttered. "He's gonna start spouting off again."
Imran carefully moved Allie out of range.
"Oooh..." Allie said, blinking her eyes open. "Ooh, that hurt."
"Allie?" Imran said. "Are you okay?"
"Why does this always happen to me?" Allie complained, as she hauled herself into a sitting position. "Does everything in the Universe want to knock me unconscious?"
Sandra raised her eyes heavenward. "She's okay."
"Hey!" Allie yelped, looking up. "There's a card."
"Um, we're kind of in the preliminary stage of Crisis Mode right now, Allie..." Imran started.
"But, there's a card on the Some Kind of Large Device. A birthday card, it looks like. Sort of..."
She handed the card to Imran, who switched his attention back and forth between reading it and keeping an eye on the now-amnesiac Danel. The front of the card showed a chocolate birthday cake, frosted in a disturbingly deep black, with black candles and little white frosted skulls for a border. Suppressing a shudder, Imran opened it and read the loopy, forward-slanted writing inside. It read:
'To all the Joy Trolls and the birthday boy. Sorry I couldn't get a cheerier-looking card, but my people aren't exactly known for their light-and-fluffy ways. At any rate, I hope you all have a most interesting time with the little present I've left for you. I know I will.
"I don't think so," Allie said. "Take a look at the envelope."
"'Wolf Pack Island'?" Imran read, puzzled...
Two figures glared out from the shrubbery as the Muse Patrol car rumbled past. Well, okay, one figure glared out of the shrubbery. The other figure was leaning idly on a ruby-tipped staff, smiling and appearing to watch the guests entering the Hoedown, despite the fact that his eyes seemed to be firmly closed.
"I'm never going back," the glaring figure snarled. He was a dirty, ill-kempt man with a shaven skull, clad in a filthy cassock with an eight-armed cross embroidered on the front. "Never, do you hear?"
"Pardon?" asked the smiling man politely.
"I said I'm never going back!"
"Ah. That's what I thought you'd said. That's an admirable, can-do spirit you've got there, Brother Delta. It will serve you and me very well."
"I still want to know why you helped me escape," Delta grunted, glaring mistrustfully at his benefactor. "All infidels fear and envy we of the Order of the Cross-Post, so why do you, an unbeliever, assist me?"
"Because," said the mysterious smiling man, "your goals and mine happen to coincide, to a certain degree."
"And just what are your goals, here?" Delta demanded, voice heavy with mistrust.
"Ah," sighed his 'ally', stepping out to let the streetlights reflect just ominously so off his purple hair. He raised one finger and offered Brother Delta a conspiratorial wink. "That is a secret!"
An eerie caravan began flowing down into the little side-street, despite its patent uselessness as a rat-run to anywhere. This caravan somewhat resembled a low, articulated dray with no visible means of propulsion, loaded up with obscure barrel-shaped objects. Because of the peculiar silence with which it advanced, the lurkers were first apprised of its presence by the low baritone rumblings of its driver an immensely tall yet nonetheless disproportionately fat figure clad in a heavy and archaic woollen cloak. It appeared to be wearing a hat with preposterous flapping appendages, and it was singing merrily:
"Anacreon," the smiling man noted. "We seem to have a scholar incoming..."
Brother Delta bared his plaque-stuccoed teeth, mortally offended by Fatso's obnoxious good spirits but praising the great Uncle Spam in his soul that he happened to be carrying a ready cure. "Sooner than you think, vile canting infidel!" he hissed, reaching inside the unseemly recesses of his robe for the medicine...
The smiling man cocked his head. "And he's accompanying himself by throat-singing an independent bass line. Most curious. Do you suppose you could play the innocent bystander a bit longer? You might find it a pleasant novelty."
The Cross-Poster weighed the brief pleasure of frying a noisily arrant foe of the Cause against its possible implications for several kinds of greater good, many of them involving Not Going Back. "Soon, O topic-bound threadworm!" he hissed under his breath, withdrawing reluctantly into the shrubbery. "Your time shall come..."
"Ho, skulking jackanapes!" boomed the figure, in such accents as might have caused the mighty Pavarotti to chuck in the game at first blush. "Will spy like scurvy hoard-despoilers without the feast, when all wot well that all good joyous arts are freely found within?" He vaulted, with an agility belying his bulk, from the foremost of the floating pallets which comprised his caravan.
"Nay, I misdoubt ye be strong-thieves or skulks, awaiting their chance to reap down the well Hoed-down in the grey homeward dawn! Wherefore an ye give not fair account of yourselves to me or mine honoured hostess within, shall be ripped crupper-craw by great Fastolf's own talons, and that instanter! Faugh!," advancing, "were my perfume as ill-omened as thine, monkey-lad, I'd fain bathe in camel-piss, and so benison the public "
The smiling man, having some religious qualifications himself and knowing how the gods frown on those who interrupt a really first-class rant, smiled yet more winningly and prepared to appease the approaching giant in some fashion of his own. It could now be seen that said giant was somewhat more demonic than human in nature, bearing as he did a reptilian froglike countenance, whose fine scales formed a rather pleasing harlequin pattern in gay primary hues. The excrescences on his head were no mere hat, but rather a boldly fluttering set of natural crests. His massive bulk combined with these additional features of his person to add further arguments against gratuitous interruption.
Brother Delta performed what were, no doubt, essentially similar calculations of his own. "Fry in hell, incrucipositine Terileptil scum!" he yelled, and discharged his frittergun in the alien's direction. Cat-quick, great Fastolf dived and rolled to the side and so was scarcely even singed by the thunderous chain of explosions that ensued.
What five pallets of XXX-grade Bessborough moonshine, recently liberated from Captain 'Moonlight' Sorensen in one of his rival merchant-adventurer's most audacious coups to date, will do in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac when a whole barrel amongst their number is instantaneously flash-boiled by an errant ray-gun shot from a crazy monk of Ultimate Evil, is nothing to detail here, not least because the Author is unlikely to be so arsed at any time in the immediate future. Suffice it, then, to mention that no innocents, cats, or even regular sentient-type beings were more than mildly inconvenienced in that prodigious conflagration; that property damage was minimal and principally confined to Fastolf's booze train; and that those non-Hoedown-type civilians within earshot decided, one and all, that it was probably better not to be a witness, and returned to their solemn advert-watching like good little citizens.
As Fastolf stumbled away from the great pyre of mortal hopes and aspirations in one direction, the smiling man his smile briefly but distinctly crimped led his intemperate companion to run like gomorrahy in the other. When the last blue flame had died, the great Terileptil gave one last murderous look about him; lowered the twin torchlike blasters in his claws most reluctantly; and then, flapping his crests with monstrous panache, strolled bright-eyed up to Eloise's door, singing with only the smallest hint of threnody in his marvellous opera-villain's voice,
"What did he just say?"
"He said 'What if the SKoLD teleports them here, using its victims' minds as portals?'."
"Oh. Why didn't he say so?"
"I did," the Steward noted. "Pay attention at the back, there... H'mmm: pity about the side-effects, or my esteemed Muse Carrie and I might find something like that rather handy just now. Is there somewhere I can put Le Cadeau Parfait until Gordon can get around to it?"
Directions were given, fingers were pointed, "Pretentious? Lui?" was uttered by more than one pair of lips. The Steward drew himself up with unproletarian hauteur. "Sacre bleu, gentlebeings, you don't imagine I'd speak French without dire necessity, do you? That is, and trust me, a purely factual description though obviously I can hope it would be the perfect present as well. Ah, thanks there. Well, I've got one message for the Doctors before I completely devolve to shameless bon vivantry; but that can wait until they're done defusing the Wizard-of-Id box. Unless there've been Spamite movements in the vicinity, or other signs of matters coming to an early crisis?"
"Spamite?" came one lone, unseasonably honest voice. "You mean that foul greasy pink monster that "
"RHUBARB RHUBARB RHUBARB!" explained everyone else at once. The choice between delaying the Grey One's obscure errand, and letting the psychotic beauty on his arm anywhere near the SKoLD, was not of the most difficult.
Besides, there was something distinctly odd about him. Where now the greyish skin tone, what had changed those leaden eyes to hazel, whither had fled the mind-numbing Marxist-Grouchoist rhetoric? ~I think,~ Silence signed surreptitiously to Katherine under cover of the general hubbub, ~now is not the time to bring one mystery to face another...~ Yes, she even signed the ellipses. Much more distinctly than you could speak them, and remember she was mumbling!
" wasn't here, then?" The Steward relaxed. "Splendid, splendid. Excuse my manners: Carrie is unavoidably delayed on business, but I'd like to introduce you all to Celia, now we know that the Forces of Crossness aren't liable to interrrr "
From the street outside came the sound, tremor, and fury of a rather large explosion.
"Somebody fwap my head for that," snapped the Steward testily, "and dispose yourself in suitable positions. I must get my message to the Doctors immediately. Celia, with me!" He paused. "Er, anybody, where...?"
Allie and Imran shared a look.
"Mazoku." Allie said.
"Monster." Imran said.
"Trickster Priest." Allie said.
"Xellos!" Imran finished.
Allie read the card over again. "I thought something was up. Who underlines 'secret' twice?"
"Someone who says 'That is a secret'." Imran said.
"Creatures from the subconscious..." Allie muttered. "Brilliant. Have I mentioned how much I want to meet all the creatures from my subconscious?"
"I heard that, Psyche." Sandra said from behind her.
"All the creatures, Shadow." Allie returned.
She looked around. "Er... where're Dad and the brats?"
"I thought they'd catch up with us..." Sandra said.
"I have a bad feeling about this..." Allie murmured.
The Doctors and Eloise would agree.
While their 'sentiences', for want of a better term, work in ways not even the Time Lords fully understand, they do have, well... awareness. Consciousness.
With that comes... other layers of awareness. Layers that closely map what, in a four-dimensional entity, would be called the subconscious.
The Some Kind of Large Device, quite frankly, ignores all such quibbling. It's conscious, it's got a subconscious...
...and it proceeds to make something from that subconscious real.
He considered for a moment. "Hm. I owe myself ten pounds. Or is that dollars? We are nominally in America..."
He opened the door.
"Er... DAD, HELP!!"
Dominic looked up. And up.
It wasn't a very large dragon, all things considered. A young one, about ten metres long.
But as considered relative to Ayna, Xeffy and the typo gremlins, it towered over them.
And it did not look happy.
Varne: "Lord, we have a dragon."
Magnus: "We, Varne? They have a dragon, nobody is paying us."
[Varne looked at Magnus as he drank his third gin and tonic and used his other hand to grab some crisps.]
Varne: "Free food and drink, Lord, which you are consuming."
Magnus: "You have a point. There is an implied contract. Where is it?"
Varne: "This way, Lord."
Magnus: "Don't call me Lord, Varne. You will have to do the talking. I don't have the right vocal cords for clear draconic, my accent is terrible."
[The pair headed towards the games room. As they moved, Varne's head and neck changed subtly.]
"Dragons!!" Merlin hissed to Nimue, Arthur and Guenevere.
"Where?" Arthur demanded.
"That isn't a very happy viewpoint," pouted Ruthie.
"She just means that there is no chance of us reaching them in time for anything. We'll get there just 'a few minutes too late'." Sandra explained.
"I'm sure that they'll be able to look after themselves," considered Imran, thereby dooming them all. "They should still be with the typo gremlins, and they're great when they're on your side."
"I'm still not sure if I understand any of this." Danel muttered.
"How about if Sandra goes to check up on them, while we work out how to stop the subconscious released creatures?" thought Imran aloud.
Eager to be away from the still twitching boxed-SKoLD, Sandra took off.
"What's the creature that came from Danel's subconscious, anyway?" Allie objected. "What do we know about it?"
"Not much. And he can't tell us... we need to cure his amnesia..."
"I'll hit him, that usually works."
"Imran, everything is so strange, again. Correct me if I'm wrong, but so far, I've been knocked unconscious, Xellos left us all a strange device, the Museless Writer lost his memory, creatures have been released from our subconscious..es.. and Dad and the girls are missing. Is that it?"
Imran nodded. "Yuh-huh."
Danel twitched violently. "How odd." He observed, somewhat calmly in the circumstances. Realisation rushed through Imran's mind, being slowed only briefly by his Common Sense and Sanity, which both said, clearly: "This is very, very silly."
"Of course..." he whispered. "Allie, yuh-huh!"(Danel twitched again)"It's a really minor line from Buffy, spoken by..."
"Dawn! We knew he was a fan! It's so obvious. So... all we have to do is recite Dawn-lines at him until his memory comes back?"
"Now you've repeated it, it sounds completely ridiculous. We may as well try it."
"Does anybody even notice? Does anybody eee-ven care?"
Imran joined in. "Yuh-huh, yuh-huh."
Then Ruthie. "I think it's M'Fashnik like Mmm, cookie."
"Is this blood? Is it?"
"This is the part you tell me you're not angry just disappointed?"
"Buffy, you have to let me go. Blood starts it, and until the blood stops flowing, it'll never stop."
And back to Allie again, reaching a crescendo... "Get out, get out, GET OUT!" she shrieked.
Danel gave a final, almighty shudder and slumped to the floor.
"Huh. Looks like we killed him."
Fortunately, he jumps back up again. "What's going on?"
Imran relaxed. "No time for that. What can you tell us about Ingo?"
Danel looked puzzled. "Le singe bleu?"
In Danel's mind, a plan hatched. This one managed to slip past sanity and common sense on account of the recent amnesia. It wouldn't have otherwise.
"I saw some monkey suits in Sweetheart's wardrobe! I have a plan!"
And so saying, he doomed them all.
If trousers can, indeed, look like they are plotting, these did.
"So..." Ruthie said. "This monkey hates the green and red monkeys..."
"Yes. I think the original idea was satire. At least, I hope it was satire..."
"So we'll dye the monkey suits, from the wardrobe..." said Imran. "Yes."
"And use them as bait. But who'd be stupid enough to wear the things?" asked Allie.
"Ah. You appear to have found the single flaw in my plan." Under Allie's glare, he wilted. "Okay, one of the many flaws in my plan."
Allie considered. "This is possibly the most ludicrous plan I've ever heard. Which way is the Wardrobe, anyway?"
At first it seems almost accidental; the slightest flicker of the street-lights. But it comes again... and then a third time, gliding slowly westward as if a dark web is passing along the rim of the sky.
As the shadow is borne gently in on the night breeze, the dark lines begin to take on structure and then meaning. Two great tree-webbed spires and a host of subtle curves slung between them. Lower down, dark squares, foreshortened now, that creak in the wind, and the sheeted peak of the single slanted gaff.
The brig comes in quietly; not in silence, but with the hundred soft sounds of her rigging creaking in the breeze. There is movement on her decks, and faint voices. High above, where the topsails are furled on her yards, a lookout calls down, outlined for a moment against the star-bright sky.
The dark silhouette alters. Sails shiver, and the boom swings inboard, to be caught and sheeted tightly as the gaff comes rattling down. The 'Avalanche' turns neatly on her forefoot, losing way, and glides on up to windward, asphalt rippling back in dying combers from her stem. A minute later she rides peacefully at anchor between the garages. A single riding-light sways upward along her forestay, but all else lies still as the grave.
For a moment, anyway.
"By Heaven! that was a journey." The speaker leaned over the rail, laughing, revealed in the street-lights' glow as a tall, fair man in slightly shabby shirt and breeches. He appeared to be talking to thin air.
"I've done my share of navigation," he continued with a grin, one eyebrow raised, "but I'll be hanged if I ever saw a queerer chart than this parchment of the Doctor's. If the Grand Duchess ever hears "
He broke off to enter a low-voiced colloquy with another member of the crew, which ended with a shrug of the shoulders: "Lord! I don't know. Might as well try the gang-plank, I suppose. Unless you fancy the Doctor's 'trans-dimensional' trickery took hold on the skiff ? Oh, devil take it, man, we'll make our own way over. I'll call for you if I need you."
And with that, he took two steps over to the bulwarks, slipped free a belaying-pin, and flicked the loose end of the line it held over the side of the hull. Barely a second later, he had swung himself onto the rope and was sliding down it with little regard for either clothing or dignity. A clumsy shadow fluttered down in his wake.
The new arrival pushed open the main door and checked for a moment, the flying eyebrow once more in evidence as he surveyed the expanse of the barn-like interior. Then the merry grin spreads again, revealing a crooked tooth. He glances up over his shoulder at his companion.
Now revealed to be a large grey parrot. Trailing a yellow-and-red-panelled cloak in its beak.
None of the partygoers seemed to be taking much notice of the late arrivals. He considered briefly, then reached up to relieve his companion of the cloak, swirling it round him to fasten the red-rose clasp at his throat.
"Go on then, Osman." Barely a murmur. "We're both aware that you can scarcely wait "
And indeed, the parrot takes wing almost before he gives it the nod, fluttering out to the centre of the barn where it perches deftly on a hanging streamer and opens its beak in the most stentorian squawk to be heard between the Antipodes and the outer archipelago of Ursa Minor XI.
"Meine Herren und Damen "
Practically everyone jumped. Neither parrot nor man were seen to blink an eyelid.
" His Excellency Count Danik of Ruritania, Lord High Admiral, Baron Schelstein of Bad Hortig "
" better known as 'Danny Blue, Terror of the Sea-ports'," Danik concluded, laughing. "Commander of the brig 'Avalanche', which mounts 12 guns and 2 bowchasers, and is currently the pride and joy not to mention the only vessel of the Ruritanian Navy." The parrot fluffs up its feathers, looking affronted at the interruption.
"I was trying for 'Terror of the Seas'," the Ruritanian explained, beginning to stroll forward. "But you know how it is. The charms of the dock-side are so hard to resist..."
The parrot, overhead, let out a reproving squawk, and his friend glanced up.
"I do beg your pardon. Ladies and gentlemen: it is my pleasure to introduce Osman, former chamberlain at Bad Hortig, latterly bos'un of the 'Avalanche', and the most loyal friend and servant a man ever had. I fear I'm a sad disappointment to him." He grins. "His current condition is not, I trust, permanent. Both the Doctor and I advised him against drinking that seawife's concoction, but the old meddler swore blind it would do wonders to help him lose weight..."
The parrot rips out an indignant Teutonic epithet which fortunately goes over the heads of most of the guests, though Danik winces in mock-reproof. "Ladies present, Osman!"
"That was very brave of you, attacking the infidel like that," the Trickster Priest said after a moment.
"All for the cause," gasped Delta, looking tiredly smug.
"Still..." Xellos went on, "I wish you hadn't ignored my request like that. Please don't let that happen again, or I may have to take some sort of measures." As he spoke, he scratched a quick tic-tac-toe in the dirt with his staff.
"Oh?" the Cross-Poster Monk demanded. "And what will you do if it does?"
Xellos shrugged. "Perhaps a stern admonitory lecture. Or, perhaps I'll incinerate your body and chew on your soul slowly over several days as a sort of filling but non-nutritious snack in the manner of beef jerky."
Brother Delta spluttered angrily. "You... you..."
Small flames sprang up around the Cross-Poster's feet. He jumped back, yelping, as Xellos opened his eyes and fixed him with a chillingly evil stare. "You know, I do feel a bit peckish..."
The bald man let out a slightly girly scream and began to grovel as though his life depended on it, which it of course did. "Please! I'll do whatever you ask! Just name it!"
All was sunny smiles once more. "There's that can-do spirit again!" Xellos laughed. "And since we're such good friends now, I'd like you to do a little favor for me."
"And that is...?"
"I've already drawn out a Circle of Summoning on the patio of this very house. All I need for you to do is get in there and do what you do best."
"You mean summon a horde of Spamites?" Delta asked.
"Actually, I meant for you to do a Russian Cossack Dance while juggling flaming polecats and yodelling, but if you feel that summoning Spamites is where your strengths lie, then by all means we'll go with that. In the meantime, I have some things to attend to..."
With an extra-big smile and wink, the Trickster Priest's body blurred and vanished.
"Come on, Allie," he said reasonably, "there's no point in sulking about it. We just have to let the chips fall where they may."
"Indeed, Allie-chan," purred a cheerful voice from behind them. "Optimistic fatalism has much to recommend it as a philosophy."
With a sinking feeling, the Author and Muse both turned to see a purple-haired man in a light travelling cloak standing right behind them, a ruby-tipped staff propped in the crook of his elbow as he licked at a huge ice cream cone.
"Xellos!" spat Imran.
"What are you doing here, Mazoku?" hissed Allie, glaring at the Trickster Priest as if he'd just said something about her parentage.
A look of childish hurt crossed Xellos's face. "Well, the signs did say 'All Welcome', did they not? I'm just here for the party."
"Since when do Mazoku like being around Joy?" Imran asked.
"And what's the idea of leaving that SKoLD-thing here?" demanded the Muse.
"I wouldn't be much of a birthday guest if I didn't bring a present, ne? And by the way, that is an absolutely lovely dress you have on, Allie-chan." He smiled hugely at her, reaching out to feel of the material.
"Er, thanks, er..." stammered Allie, knocked a bit off-stride.
"I bet I'd look simply smashing in it!"
Allie went slightly green as she pulled back out of his reach.
Imran did his poor best to look intimidating. "You still haven't told us why you're here, Xellos." He tried to loom a bit, but didn't really have either the height or build for it.
"Why I'm here?" Xellos stared off contemplatively. "Well, you see, Imran..."
Allie sighed and rubbed at the bridge of her nose, muttering, "Here we go. He's gonna say it..."
"...that is a secret!"
"Aaaarrrrggghh!!" aaaarrrrggghhed Imran.
"But, I can tell you some things that might be of help to you and your Troll associates. First..." He paused, looking around suspiciously.
"First..." Imran prompted.
"First, this mandrake ice cream is really good! You should try some!"
Imran and Allie facefaulted all the way to the floor, where they lay groaning.
"Oh, and second, you're all about to be besieged by a ravening army of Spamites bent on mayhem and destruction. Just thought you might like to know."
"WHAT!?" Allie yelled, leaping to her feet. "What are you "
But Xellos the Trickster Priest was already gone.
~Who do you mean?~ signed Silence, looking around in puzzlement.
"That rather handsome purple-haired man that I saw talking to Imran and Allie."
Silence fished around in her pack, finally handing the Joy Troll a rather hefty paperback book entitled, Audubon Field Guide to Crossover Villains. ~Look on page 551,~ she signed.
Eloise immediately did so, and this is what she read:
"...As long as we're sure that all he wants is to spread Chaos..."