Chapter Fifteen Loopholes
"Later, Sandra!" The Doctor didn't look up from the battered leatherbound folio in his lap. "I begin to see what we may be up against..."
"But, Doc "
"It says here in Vidarr's Testament of Ragnarok that "
Sandra's voice was sheer cold fury. "Oh, no. Not them again!"
"Not them, Sandra. That victory was once and for all." He gurned as grimly as a Time Lord well may. "No, I think we're dealing with its consequences. Its flipside. Haven't you ever thought the Eaters of Story a strange sort of institution to recur throughout the multiverse?"
Sandra's thoughts concerning the Eaters of Story had generally been framed in less mealy-mouthed style than 'strange sort of institution', and she felt the Doctor was in any case missing the present point big-time. "Speaking of "
"He tells here how he raised them from the three aspects of the Lord of the Slain, after that Universe and most of its Powers were destroyed in the final influx of " He snatched up the book and leapt to his feet. "Ah yes. Those." He followed Sandra's agitated index finger. "Rrrright on cue!"
Within the walls of the crystal castle, a faint hum like a mortally sick mains transformer was now distinctly audible, and a deep bruise-coloured stain had spread throughout the crystal's light. Within that unclean umbra swam dimly-glowing shapes out of nightmare: a menagerie of tentacled, fanged, winged, ciliated monstrosities of outré aspect and indescribable non-Euclidean geometry, several of them making blasphemous gestures of obscene and alarming woo-woo at the appalled Doctor and Phantasm!
"Doctor, what are they ?"
"Quickly, Sandra!" Some days a girl just can't finish a sentence. "To the SKoLD! We haven't much time!" The Doctor set off at a jog-trot, Sandra at a matching glide. As they hastened back to where they'd left the Device of Doom, our hero deployed once more the kind of desperate and morally bankrupt tactic that had launched a thousand shitty threads on radw.
"I'll explain now!" he continued, puffing. "The SKoLD feeds on narrative power; a few indigestible gobs of exposition may be all that stands between our Universe and extinction!" He glared back over his shoulder at a nonplussed Sandra. "Well?"
"Feed me a straight-line!"
"Feel free to bore me corporeal!" Sandra snapped back nervously. A particularly repellent shadow in the glass semaphored at her with its tentacles in sign language: YOUR HOT FATE IS WAITING FOR YOU AT THIS SITE!!! "Doctor, don't tell me the Spamites are about to crash the Universe!"
"Spam!" the Doctor scoffed. "A pathetically botched attempt by those forces to embody themselves, yet deadly for all that. These are the Stories That Must Be Eaten, Sandra, the Ragnarok Bringers! Haven't you ever known a story that is so right, so true at some essential level, that it adds something real to the world becomes realer, even, than any number of bus-timetables and paper cups and Happy McHappiburgers?"
"Of course..." They pelted round a corner into the main corridor leading to the gatehouse.
"These are their opposite: the Big Lies, the glib inconsistencies, the noise dished up as signal. The stories that don't earn their own truth, but make us less real when we take them in! These are the stories that eat reality, that crrack Universes like nuts and gobble up their kernels of joy and truth and imagination. Chomp. Gone..."
"Then what's the SKoLD?"
"It must have been set to spin a Gödel yarn for this Universe probably only this worldlet, that'll be far easier, but that will be enough to let them in. This device should never have come inside a TARDIS! The Spam, the byakhee, the ghouls, the zoogs, the dholes, the Great Old Ones, the Dukes of Telesales... They'll strip reality to the bone, suck out the marrow, and play idiot muzak on it forever, if we don't "
He skidded to a halt before the SKoLD, as they emerged into the crystal court where they'd left it. It was thrumming like a tuning fork, glowing like St Elmo's Fire, and levitating unlike a disciple of the Maharishi. "Sandra, it's coming online! This is the end of everything!"
"Sandra, it's coming online! This is the end of everything, unless we can delay it... Do you also have eidetic memory?"
"Yes! What ?"
"I'm shorting out my memory management!" he yelled. "Malory, Sandra! The Death of Merlin! NOW!"
"And so on a time it happed that Merlin showed to her in a rock whereas was a great wonder, and wrought by enchantment, that went under a great stone. So by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under that stone to let her wit of the marvels there, but she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do. And so she departed and left Merlin."
"ZHWOONK!" added the SKoLD, zapping him with a good one.
"Doctor!" cried Sandra.
"Nimue!" objected the Doctor, rolling his eyes and keeling over.
"Oy, have you got the wrong femme fatale," remarked Space Morgan le Fey, reacting just quickly enough to prevent his falling on top of her. She regarded the walls of the castle whose bruising had faded at the SKoLD's discharge into a sort of smoky grey, wherein vaguely-glimpsed vast outlines danced fantastically to a discordant melody, probably garage. "I don't think much of the discharge, but I suppose it couldn't have needed all that much to bring me out." She gave him a quick once-over, then left him where he lay. "You'd think he'd know better than to mess about in crystal caverns by now. Well, that's bought us whole minutes..."
"You're not Nimue?" Sandra asked Morgan.
"If you're not John Boorman," Morgan replied, "but that's not important right now. Follow me."
"What about " Despite herself Sandra followed the sorceress, leaving Doctor Seven behind.
"He's done his part," Morgan declared as she marched through the castle. "He can't help now, and if the universe is still here when he wakes up he'll be all right. I think he'd want you and me to see to the universe, don't you?"
"That depends on Xeffy and/or Anya remembering what I told them earlier, or on others independently having reasoned it out. And, perhaps, on my brother being his usual suspicious self, and showing up here looking for me ..."
"Are we losing it? And no jokes."
"No... Hurry up, Danel!"
"Have you any idea how hard to run it is in tight leather trousers? Can someone else take this punch bowl? I have problems just carrying containers of liquid, let alone running with the things."
Paul took the bowl, and the speed increased. Unfortunately, animate clothes appear to be untiring. To make things worse, Sweetheart was reconfiguring herself back into her old form, and it is very easy to get lost in shifting corridors.
"Damn! I just remembered we left Ingo behind! He'll get away again and start this whole thing over!"
"We can take care of the monkey later. Let's worry about the Trousers first. If only we could get far enough ahead to dunk the Coat..."
"Hurry up, Danel!"
"Tight leather, hard to run..."
"Hah! I thought I'd stay here and keep an eye on you while the others ran!" said Donald, triumphantly. Ingo didn't look at all perturbed, but he smiled slightly.
"Brother duck," he chittered, "Why do you toil and serve for these pitiful unblue creatures? Surely you should be on our side, in the glorious brotherhood of Bluedom?"
"We are all blue creatures, not just monkeys. That is a common misperception. Join with us, in the Blue Klux Klan, help me to raise our kind to our rightful place!"
"Certes, this is a worthy amusement," boomed a voice from the doorway. "May I beg leave to join your crusade?"
Ingo looked up (and up and up) to see Fastolf, who was frowning amiably at his own hand.
"Alas, I am not in my own person well provided with that cerulean shade that marks the chosen warrior, but do thou examine this patch upon my knuckle, and say verily whether it is not blue indeed?"
The knuckle in question was presented for Ingo's inspection with, Donald couldn't help noticing, a force quite unnecessary for that purpose; indeed, Fastolf seemed unable to halt the motion before the disputed body part connected with Ingo's nose, sending the monkey flying across the room.
Donald applauded. "Not that I'm complaining," he said, "but what are you doing here?"
"The corridors are tired, it seems, of being walked upon, and now choose to walk themselves about the place," Fastolf said, crossing the room to pick up the unconscious form of Ingo. "I went ahead of our band to scout the way forward, and, seeking to return, found that the way back was not that which once it had been. I sought to relocate my companions, but instead appear to have relocated this room; though, upon my word, I have travelled only away from it since my first departure."
"The TARDIS is being reconfigured," Donald realised. "I wonder where this room will be when the reconfiguration is complete." He turned to the door through which Fastolf had entered a door that, Donald now realised, seemed to have parted company with the wall at some point, leaving the three of them in a room with no exits of any kind.
"Oh well," he said. "Looks like we're going to find out."
"We can't give up now if we do, the Trousers will win!"
Danel shook his head. "Eh. Paul, I've been (whew) meaning to ask (huh) you... where'd you get the Coat?"
"It was a shop..."
"Not far from here, very pushy shopkeeper?"
"... yeah. Same place you got the Trousers, I assume?"
"It seems that way. I bought a forcefield as well I think the trousers used it earlier."
"Who is that Shopkeeper? It must be important... I wonder..."
"... We're not. I know we're not."
On the back seat, Brother Delta sulked. There hadn't been any shows for a while the Musecops had been too busy arguing. Delta had considered telling them to "Make love, not war", but was afraid they would hurt him.
They settled the argument by stopping beside a shop, and went in to ask for directions/ confirm their correct route. This left Brother Delta, alone, in the car. He sulked some more.
Inside the shop, the shopkeeper bounced up as the two lovely Muses entered.
"Hello, ladies! Can I help you?"
"Yes, actually we're just "
"I have just the thing!" He crouched down under the counter and rummaged around a little.
"No, really, we just want to ask "
"Here they are! The moment the pair of you walked in, I knew I had just the thing!" He brandished... well, it was underwear. Not much of it... very, very skimpy underwear. The type of thing that Happosai would dream of. A matching bra and panties, in... red? blue? black? "Skimpy Underwear! Look, it changes colour! Made of the same material as..."
Embericles looked interested.
"It's... no... good..." Danel stopped, to catch his breath. Not for long unfortunately, as he did so the others passed through a doorway, and the little section of corridor he was in, between the Fleeing team and the Pro-Evil Trousers, shifted sideways. Before Danel could move, he was elsewhere.
He considered many things he could say, but in the end he just collapsed.
From behind, a purple-haired figure approached...
The Mazoku face-faulted. "How did you know I was here?"
"I'd consider saying it's a secret, but frankly I'm too tired for the italics. We haven't seen you for a while, and as I'm alone here it wouldn't matter if I was talking to myself. What are you up to, anyway?"
Surprisingly, Xellos looked interested for a second. "Can I really be in the august presence of a..."
"Yes, I'm a Fic Predictive. Can we move on?"
"That is a rare gift..."
"Gift? While those around me ooh and ahh at a spectacular plot twist, I can only think 'I guessed that a month ago'. It's an active hindrance for writing I have no idea how much foreshadowing a normal person needs. Gift? It's certainly overrated.
"But while I'm here, I might as well use it. To paraphrase a rather famous man, you misunderestimated me, Xellos I may not be much of a Writer, but I'm one hell of a Reader. It's fairly easy to read your..." He tailed off, quite suddenly. Xellos applauded.
"I'd congratulate you on an excellent plan, but I don't think you're much for celebrating right now."
"I've been a fool.
"How much of this did you plan, Xellos? I knew you left the SKoLD, somebody mentioned it to me.. but I never connected.
"That's what this is all about, isn't it? The SKoLD feeds on the subconscious, on perceptions, on stories. You've set up a number the invading Spamite horde, the attacking monkeys... tell me, are the events in the Fantasy worldlet part of your plan or did someone else interfere?"
"That is a secret."
"Of course." There was no bitterness or anger in Danel's tone, just absent-minded concern.
"I knew the SKoLD fed on stories, subconscii, perceptions...
"And I've just given it a feast.
"The Final battle, Good vs. Evil... Pro-Fun vs Pro..-Unfun?
"I don't suppose it's important. What does matter is that in a few minutes, the Trousers of Pro-Evil will battle the Coat of Pro-Fun in the middle of the console room... surrounded by all of the Hoedowners. All those perceptions, those minds...
"The SKoLD will feast.
"I don't know how powerful it is now, but after this..?
"It'd be powerful enough to reshape... to reshape far too much.
"I can't let it happen.
"And yet.." said Xellos, smirking.
"And yet as I know this, I know that nothing I can do know will let me stop it. I'll arrive just a little too late. There's no point in trying... I can't win."
He slumped. Xellos relaxed, seeing that he wouldn't have to do anything.
So far, Danel's mind had gone through a wringer. Lodged somewhere deep were the Spike-memories from earlier like fighting techniques.
Xellos didn't expect what happened from a slightly shorter than average mid-teen in unflattering leather.
As Danel raced off, in what he hoped was the direction of the console room, he shouted back: "Doesn't mean I won't try!"
"Well. Well," he remarked, eyes hard and glittering. "Finally, they get it!" He meditated his next move a moment. On the one hand, his actual principal's plans were coming to a crux; and this principal was such as even Xellos could only hope to double-cross once, almost certainly going out in a truly legendary blaze of glory in the process.
On the other hand, that tacky and cosmically conceited entity was high on the list of those long overdue for a humorous firecracker suppository and the logical end of his schemes was apt to lead to a situation resembling, from Xellos's point of view, nothing so much as being a kid locked in an infinite candy store forever. The Trickster Priest was, in fact, approaching as close right now to a moral crisis as his nature could possibly accommodate. Oy, ugh, ewwww, ych o fi! And yet, with the future of the entire universe possibly riding on his decision alone, how shall a poor chaos demon decide? Well, on the other hand
There was no other hand!
There were, however, a pair of still-throbbing goolies, and a decided preponderance of opportunity for immediate mischief involved in continuing to hassle the Hoedowners. So that was that, then.
"I do hope," remarked Xellos archly, "you don't spoil the twist behind the predictable twists for yourself, too. Let's keep that, at least, a "
His voice was mercifully drowned out by the eldritch humming, magical crackling, and rising hiss of white noise that began to emerge from the red jewel atop his staff.
Xellos, like most supernatural embodiments of the urge to kick down other people's sandcastles, was not as a rule a great one for Progress. But having spent much time lately in the media- and gadget-saturated Terran Age of Oil, he had every intention of squeezing all the new tricks he could out of it, before all was swept back into the teeming abyss of ultimate chaos by the dread machinations of
The Mazoku steadied the glow at medium-bright, the sound-effect to a painful electric hush, and wagged a chiding finger at the Fourth Wall.
"That," he informed the newsgroup, "is a "
"We," opined Callie Minet the Metafanfictional Pop Princess in a camply Australian voiceover, thus committing the cameo threatened at a much earlier date, "should be so lucky..."
Yes, possum darling. The above handy hint goes for you, too.
"Be like that, then...!"
In the console room, the team were triumphant. Things seemed good. Ruthie was even happier than usual, and even Charley didn't miss her Staff as much.
"Here we go... it's time for those trousers to be beaten!"
Paul passed the punch bowl to Charley, and shrugged off his coat. Cautiously, he lowered it into the punch.
There was a burst of bright light, and a sound as of a particularly psychedelic sixties scifi theme tune. When both faded, the punch was gone, and the coat had turned a bright cornflower blue. Or was it steel grey?
Paul put the coat back on, and stood for a moment, tugging the cuffs into place. Then, on a sudden impulse, he pulled four brightly coloured golf balls out of one pocket of the coat, and began juggling them.
"I've never been able to do that before," he said, scratching his head (while the non-scratching hand effortlessly continued to juggle). "It's a good sign, I'm almost sure."
The door crashed open, and the evil suit strode into the room. It appeared to regard Paul's midnight blue (indigo) coat for a moment. "So," it said. "We meet again."
While the others looked confused, Paul stepped confidently forward. "Indeed," he said. "Let the contest begin once more."
Ruthie tugged Paul's sleeve cautiously (and for a moment, her fingertips glowed the same colour as the coat whatever that was). "What was that about?"
"Don't look at me," Paul hissed out of the corner of his mouth. "I didn't say it..."
The suit, under the command of the Trousers of Spectral Uncertainty, raised the Staff of the Currents into a firing position...
Then, an idea came to her. "To the cliffs!" she called out, as loudly as she could while running, and they headed for the steep cliffs that rose above the Death Zone.
They scrambled up the stone as best they could, with the stronger climbers helping the weaker ones. And finally, they all made it to the ledge where they had entered this world.
Eloise turned to look behind her. It was just as she had hoped. The spamites couldn't climb. Every time they tried to grab hold of the rocks, the slimy, gelatinous coating on their skin made them slide back down again.
Spamite brains are not very big, but it didn't take them long to realize how helpless they were.
"Read Me Now!" they whined. "Urgent!" Important Information!" they pleaded.
Eloise stuck her tongue out at them. "No," she said. "Now be quiet! I have a 'delete' key, and I'm not afraid to use it."
The spamites whimpered and backed up three giant (or rather, giant for a spamite) steps. Then they turned on each other, each blaming its neighbor of sabotaging their efforts. Soon, a brawl broke out, and the brave hoedowners had to look away for the horror of it all.
Suddenly, there was silence.
Cautiously, Eloise turned around and gasped at the carnage or rather, the lack of it. For like the fearsome Kilkenny Cats, there was nothing left of the spamite horde but a few scattered scraps.
She slowly let out a relieved breath. "That was easy," she said. "I wonder why we didn't think to threaten them with deletion before."
And then her mind turned to darker matters: "'Within the present, a rose, a flame, a key,'" she recited, "'choose one, choose well.' The way it was worded, it was one or the other. The Steward chose " and here, her voice broke a little, " he chose the flame. So where does that leave the rest of us in our search for the key? Do we keep looking? And if so, what do we do when we find it?"
"But," Varne reminded her, her tone suprisingly gentle for a firedrake, "You figured out that the prophecy doesn't refer to us it was the Ice Queen talking to herself, so to speak."
Eloise nodded. "Right. So we keep going. The question is: where do we look next?"
"Up," said Amanda in a hollow voice. The party's collective gaze duly tracked zenithwards. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. They didn't really want to do that.
A vast ribbed barrel-like Lovecraft job with bat wings, ciliated tentacles, and a Medusa's cloud of writing irregular eyestalks, was bearing down on them.
Magnus groaned. "I have had exceptionally poor luck with creatures of that particular mythos, they have few powers any but a howling loon would choose to invoke, and their natures are about as consistent as a politician's promises. Now where did I put that rocket-launcher?" He rummaged same out of his pack, notwithstanding that in his current aspect it looked remarkably like a wizard's staff with a large and dodgy knob on the end.
"No, Magnus!" said Eloise, very hastily. "It's Sweetheart!"
"Aha!" said Eighth knowledgeably. "That aspect of Gallifreyan technology..."
And indeed, between the monstrosity's topmost ridges could now be seen two further passengers: a robed and cowled lady in green; and a slender blonde gowned in electric blue. Sweetheart's monster-form flapped down amongst the pathetic Spamite remnants, the Forest Sister helping a shaken Carrie off the beast's back.
#Carrie? Are you all right?# Ayna was as solicitous as only a twelve-year-old conscious of having committed a serious injustice can be and, Dominic saw with a suppressed wince, correspondingly oblivious to why this was precisely not the way to put that particular question right now.
The Muse smiled wanly. "I'm as well as I can be. We had to shunt the Time Scoop out of ouroboros mode: there's a trap in this place that just keeps pumping cannon-fodder out of the abyss unless you have the key when you enter. We'd have drowned in Spam or worse if we hadn't shut it off... but it was a hard hack, and it's taken a bit out of me. I think it was probably built into the device from the beginning."
"I didn't know it was made that way." The green-cowled Forest Sister type sounded terribly contrite. "I'm sorry, Eloise...!"
"It's all right." Eloise sighed, and scratched the S'wyhht-Haaruth creature between its batlike wings. It produced a kind of bass, space-vegetably purring.
"We need to go through now," said Carrie tersely. She turned into a cuckoo, and flapped through into the blue-skyey cave that was this side's aspect of the Gateless Gate. She veered heavily to port as she did so, and seemed to vanish not through the gate, but into the limestone wall.
"Um," said Tessa. "Was it like that for you on the way in?"
"No." Magnus's voice betrayed deep suspicion. "Possibly we need the key to get through safely..."
#Oh, no... not her too...!#
"No," said Sweetheart. "She's alright, she's simply non-corporeal. She doesn't have a body in the outside world." And everyone's minds turned to Celia's fate, and sank still further. "You should be able to pass safely. As before, we " she gestured towards the appalling Gallifreyan rendition of 'dragon', " shall meet you on the other side, in more seemly forms..."
Danik, on whom the prolonged spells of pratting about and running away had really been exceptionally hard, led the way without further ado, and strode confidently through the cave and into the clearing of the Thorn Tree.
"Who turned the lights up?" croaked Osman, as they found themselves stepping through into something unforeseen, rich, and strange.
"Ohhhh..." came from no few throats, as they blinked and recovered their bearings.
The black haws of the Thorn now burned like hot coals, with a shifting vermilion light. The great mass of flames the tree bore showed no signs of consuming it, nor gave off any heat beyond the warm, zephyrous draught which it exhaled in all directions. Ayna cocked her head at some high, faint sound it made that verged just on the edge of the younger Hoedowners' hearing.
"Ayna?" Dominic, though very far from decrepit, was necessarily well past the age at which Concerti for Three Bats and a Dog-Whistle are best appreciated.
#It's like that singing kettle you showed us, Dad. It's just a lot higher, and in more voices. It doesn't seem to be saying anything, exactly...#
"Then our course is clear." Magnus frowned. "It seems almost a pity to destroy such a spectacle, but the Steward was quite clear about that. Let us now trash the thing, kindle brands from the wood, and bear down with them upon the crystal castle!"
Danik shook his head in bemusement. "In truth, I have incited a few such parties myself, but seldom or never been a member of one. And scarcely could I have imagined ever hearing that particular suggestion from an Evil, nay even a Pantomime, Sorcerer!"
"No," said Allie firmly. "We can't destroy the tree, not yet. And that isn't what the Steward told us!"
"Sounded a lot like it to me," Katherine demurred.
Alryssa groaned. "The Time Freeze must have taken more out of me than I thought. I thought I sensed a continuity-fork a while ago, but then I lost track of it..."
"So that's what..." Imran's eyes were narrowed in rapid calculation.
"No no no!" Eighth had got the plot, and he rubbed his hands gleefully. "He said to take the flame, and then destroy the tree to secure the gate against Louhi. Which raises an interesting question of its own."
"How to take the flame..." Several eyes turned to Eloise, who had shown herself no sorry furnisher of ideas on such subjects and might hope to be struck with TARDISine inspiration.
"Uh, I don't think you guys are going to like me very much for this," said Allie diffidently, "and I'm going to have no digestion by the time we leave this place, but... I'm getting the really strong notion that we ought to take the flame. Given what it is. As in medicine, if you follow..." She licked her lips, and their faint faerie glow increased perceptibly.
"Of course!" It was visibly all falling into place for Eighth. "And whoever holds desire's flame can use it to operate the Sampo!"
Amanda looked doubtful. "Isn't that a bit roundabout? Why couldn't the Steward have just used his desire to command it, instead of going through all of this frankly foul stage-business and bumping himself off in the process? I think you're missing something big."
"Oh, no. As he said, a machine for granting heart's desire would be a monkey's paw even if it were practical. But if one person can eat the other's flame, that suggests its specificity was distilled out when he surrendered it. What you've got left "
Imran saw it, then. " is the force of heart's desire behind the form of whatever the operator commands when he turns the key? A controllable mill of wishes, limited only by the power one can put behind it?" He cast a sad glance at the flaming tree. "Yeah. That sounds more like something Ilmarinen might make..."
"Or Hephaestos, or Goibniu, or Magnus's Nin-Adad," Dominic agreed.
"The Smith of the Nine and Ninety," Magnus concluded. "This leaves the question as to who should take up the power. I personally would suggest Imran or the Eighth Doctor: the operation might well require a mage's skills. I personally have no intention of ingesting flames of heart's desire or anything like them, they might disturb things better left to slumber."
Imran regarded the burning ember-berries dubiously, as well he might. "Oh well, if it's gotta be..."
"I beg," said Eloise, "to differ. It does not have to be. Forcing us to follow her script has been the Ice Queen's strategy all along. The more we can rewrite it on our own terms, the more trouble we're going to give her."
"She can attack our minds. We know that. We don't know her limits: we don't know that she can't take you over back in the castle, just as she did Xeffy, and then use the flame to suit herself. This is the big trap, people. Maybe the Steward's last spell will stop her doing that but she could at least deny us the flame by taking over the wielder, and are we really sure we can defeat her without it?"
"Then you have some alternative in mind, h'mmm?" The First Doctor gave the impression of having already guessed it. He twinkled, and adjusted his lapels.
"A Pro-Fun alternative, a Hoedown-type alternative. I rather think I do." Eloise jingled the bells on her cap happily. "I think we should all except Magnus, I suppose, if it's going to cause him problems eat of the flame-fruit, and command the mill together. Imran might be our best spokesperson but even if the Ice Queen takes him over, the rest of us ought to be able to fire up the Sampo on our side, and undo her enchantments. And if she could take us all over at once, I'm fairly sure she'd have done it already, and saved herself the trouble."
A brief, appreciative silence followed. "I say, you know," said Albert Campion excitedly, "I have no idea what will and won't work along these lines, as you'd expect; but I have to say that sounds rather good!"
"Let's do it," said Allie. "I'm not getting any signals one way or the other here." And before anyone could stop her, she plucked one of the burning berries and popped it into her mouth.
For an instant, her expression betrayed a sudden and thoroughgoing Five-Alarm Chilli moment. Then her eyes opened again, and she smiled.
"Mmmm," she said. "Watch out on the way down, but that's quite an afterglow. Shall we get started?"
They did. Initial reactions were pretty much along the same lines, but fortunately appetite and stamina grew with each mouthful, and the thorn was soon well on its way towards being stripped. Only Magnus and the Campions still hung back.
"...awfully like cannibalism, not to mention any number of rather nasty pagan vices I thought we'd outgrown too far to need names for! Not counting Pontisbright, obviously."
"This is an unexpectedly religious tone, Amanda."
"Well, I'm not, particularly. But I'm particularly not this sort of religious, for reasons of which a fellow ought to be entirely well aware!"
"Yes, but hang it, I'm going to do it. It's proper to the place, and one never knows who's going to be last man standing."
Amanda folded her arms and glared at him. He turned away, strode up to the tree, and consumed his first berry.
It startled him for a moment. Then a great relaxation came over him, and he plucked another bunch, juggling its not-quite-heat uncomfortably in his hand as he bore it back to Amanda.
"Napoleon," he coaxed her. "Champagne Fine, 1835, unless I'm very much mistaken. Go on, you know you want to."
"One can't very well Lieu't unless one's equipped to Tenant it, I suppose." Amanda reluctantly accepted a berry, and swallowed. She had the general spectacular reaction, followed by an even more marked example of the subsequent blissing-out.
"Good honest fortification," she endorsed. "Though I don't know what's got you wittering on about your precious brandy, when it's quite plainly a rather sensational Islay malt. Come on then, let's do our bit..."
Albert regarded her mournfully. "Those dashed grease-monkeys," he said, "have plainly ruined your palate forever. I shall have words on the subject, see if I don't..." And then they busied themselves in doing that very bit proposed above.
And in a remarkably short time, considering the potency of its fruit, the great Thorn was stripped bare.
And indeed, even the mundane senses of the rest of the party could plainly see that something had gone out of the hawthorn with the plucking of its last berries. Its leaves had lost all sheen, and their mere presence was all that distinguished the tree from standing deadwood. Varne, back in human form, was rummaging cheerfully about for explosives.
One of the many trunks fell down with a mighty crash.
"Varne," said Sixth sharply, "if you've gotten hold of retroactive artillery somewhere, I think I'll have to ask "
"Ask away, though I must look that stuff up now you mention it. It looks like someone wants to steal my thunder."
"Wait," said Allie. She went over to examine the fallen trunk. "There's something... someone..."
The others gathered round. The trunk was slowly but perceptibly distorting. A crude female figure began to form on its upper side."
"A dryad," said Dominic quietly. "Maid Sweetheart, again..?"
"No," said Eloise. And as they watched, they could see that the shape was resolving into a smaller and less strapping figure than the fair maid of the woods. The bark, and the twin knots of the eyes, began to develop a blue sheen. The twisted fluting of the thorn-tree's bark swelled and relaxed into drapery. Arms sprouted as branches, hair like ripe fine hay. The crown of the trunk dropped off, the base split, and Carrie blinked up at them.
She touched one hand curiously with the other. "So this is what it's like..."
#You're real!# Ayna blurted. #I didn't think you could do that!#
Allie frowned. "Is this permanent?"
"Unless someone deprives me of it in the usual way, yes. I certainly hope so." Carrie stumbled unpractisedly to her feet. "Whoo! Strong medicine. Well, that's one question answered. Now, I've done all I can from inside, so now I find out whether I can pull him out."
Magnus coughed. "Not wishing to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I was paying careful attention to that spell. If I remember my Macravail "
"Your what?" said Cameron, hoping against hope that yet another power of world-busting puissance and dodginess was not about to be shanghaied into the storyline.
"Macravail's To Hold Forever, the classic grimoire on metafictional binding spells. The Steward's spell specified eternal parting, and he true-named his heart's desire three times to seal it. I doubt anything short of divine intervention could break that, and even a counterspell powerful enough to break the terms of the binding would surely destroy all he won for us in the process. Come, let us mourn him later, and blow away the Ice Queen by way of memorial."
Carrie smiled sunnily. "But I know something you don't. There's an ambiguity in his spell, and I may just have been able to parlay that into a usable backdoor. I won't contemplate losing him until I've tried that." She tottered over to one of the standing trunks, and draped herself about it. "Come out, Gray. Come however you like, but come. I know you're in there."
The tree responded to her appeal as trees typically will. Carrie took a deep breath, then, and in a serene computer-clear voice, she began to sing:
And Ayna came in, high and wordless and pure, to freight Carrie's second verse with all the Siren's appeal she could lend.
Ayna's note cracked.
The hawthorn-trunk cracked, bearing Carrie to the ground.
Imran, Allie, her family and Cassie checked the general rush towards her. She lay motionless, arms wrapped around the trunk, for many long seconds.
The crown of the second trunk split off, and settled with a hiss of twigs and dry leaves.
Carrie sat up beside the log, her usual cheerful detachment to all appearances restored. She was holding a wooden hand, and looking fondly down into an emerging, distinctly familiar face.
When the transformation was complete, the first thing she did was to fwap him with a rolled-up website.
"Gray," she said, "that was very close to the mark. I nearly couldn't swing it." She and the grey-cloaked not-quite-stranger helped each other to their feet, and looked long into each other's eyes. "It's good to be partners again. Who are you this time, anyway."
"You're real," he said, with most un-Stewardlike brevity. "That's new. And it is good." They looked at each other a bit longer, then kissed. Somehow the kiss wasn't unbearably embarrassing to watch; it had little of lovers' passion about it, and much of small children playing at bumping noses. They broke away, and burst out laughing as one. But the more observant of the party noticed that their hands remained firmly clasped, on both sides. Around about then they noticed this too, disengaged, and turned to face the party.
He wasn't the Steward of old: no. He was a thought slimmer, and at least an inch shorter though the change in his garments and the loss of his great lead-heeled boots might have accounted for all of that. He now wore a short many-pocketed grey cloak over tough Star Age durayon trousers and jacket of a slatey hue; a slightly rakish but nonetheless practical shirt whose colour was gunmetal; and soft leather walking shoes of elephant-grey. His grotesque lenticular watch remained, only marginally restyled; a DeLameter rode again at his right hip, and a light hangerlike blade now hung scabbarded at his left. More drastically, the unsavoury grey cast of his skin had been replaced by a space-tan, and his mild eyes had acquired a brightness and colour reminiscent of freshly-cut lead. This apparition spoke now to his fellow Hoedowners, but it was still Carrie's question he answered.
"Trader Grey," he stated, tasting the words for the first time. "Grey Stuart, I suspect: the name seems familiar from somewhere. Something for something's my motto, and liberating due value from the kleptocratic craphounds of corporate capitalism and the rank rapscallions of the rascal Revenue is my game. Viva Chico! I say 'Hot dog!', I say 'Tutti fruitti!', I say 'Money, money, money!'." He frowned slightly. "Also I appear to have a gratuitous Carmen Miranda fixation, or... no, now I think about it, just to have been channelling an unusually pertinent mission statement. Yes, well, I think I've got my bearings now. Which reminds me: we're here to deal with a body thief, aren't we?" His eyes sparkled perilously. "Now, that's just the kind of thing I can't abide. Fortunately, I do believe we have the very materials on hand to do something about that problem." He rapped on one of the withered thorn-trunks confidently. "Hello, Sweetheart!"
The dragon touched down, and Maid Marian advanced briskly across the clearing.
"Wow..." Imran murmured aside to Allie. "And I thought Igenlode's avatar shifts were incredible..."
"That reminds me..." Allie said, catching sight of the Ruritanian. "Danik? Could I have a word with you?"