Chapter Seventeen – Taking The Quick And Difficult Path

"Emby, light of my life, sweetest Muse that ever there was... we are lost."

"No, we're not! I know exactly where we are! Look, there's the Hoedown over there, and there are the TARDISes, and..." Embericles trailed off. "Oh cruk."

"You mean, after all that, we're back where we started?!" Nyssaias shook her head. "Emby, truly, I love you... but you have a sense of direction that would make Ryouga ashamed."

"I do not!" Embericles protested. "It's just... the maps are always out of date!"

"Of course, Emby." Nyssaias soothed. "Why don't we pop in and see if they've got an up-to-date map? They are new here..."

Embericles grinned wickedly. "And we can see how Allie's doing into the bargain..." She caught sight of Ruthie hurrying out of Nth's TARDIS. "Look, there's someone now!" She turned to Brother Delta. "You stay here."

Delta grumbled and sank back down on the back seat.

Through coincidence, luck, or perhaps Sweetheart's gentle influence, Ruthie managed to find her way back to the room.

"Got them!" she blurted, waving the pages.

"Got it!" Danel said at almost exactly that moment, stabbing his finger at the page. "They're called..." He peered closer. "Xaos."

"Good. Ruthie, you lay out the pages. Charley – "

Charley nodded. "I'm ready."

Arthur walked up to Merlin and Ninth, who were embroiled in an examination of a small device they kept grabbing from each other, while some tall blonde with a drink in her hand tried to come on to them. "I thought we were cut off," the king said to them. "What's that?" He indicated the new door in the barn wall.

Merlin and Ninth answered him simultaneously, drowning each other out. But Arthur got the gist: "I did it!"

"Who were the two people who went through?"

Merlin shrugged. "Couple of partiers, no doubt. Why?" Ninth grabbed the feinberger from him, and the wizard lost interest in Arthur's questions.

But Arthur had noticed that the two who'd exited the party into the body of Eloise's TARDIS had done so promptly, as if they had been waiting for the door. Arthur left them, spotted Lancelot and caught his eye, and met him at the door.

"Something's not right," he told Lancelot. "Let's check it out."


Arthur and Lancelot went through the door.

The Trousers readied another blast. "I wish I could savour this..."

Paul hauled himself to his feet. "You never could get the hang of that, could you?"

The suit shrugged. "Your illogical stupidity isn't going to last much longer, along with – "

It paused. "What was that?"

As it turned, Paul lunged for the Staff –

"There," the Trousers said. "It came from there."

And Paul watched in astonishment as the Trousers turned and strode off.

Something was going on – the other Pro-Funsters, maybe? But what...?

And so thinking, Paul followed the Trousers.

The Troll Call went out.

It went out for "Xaos", a transparent reference to the Trousers' dread Master, who was –

Oh. A secret. Sorry about that. But not for much longer, honest. Cross my heart and hope to mistake golf for entertainment.

But for a spell to have authority, it must of course imbue the blank syllable(s) with something of the named one's nature. And so Xaos had been summoned, appropriately enough, as the local representative of the forces of No-Fun. Which was all right as far as it went. For even such was the shade of the infinitely-shifty Colour out of Space with which they had been imbued at their making; and so powerful is the magic of a Troll Call that even such a partial specification was good enough to bring them at the double. Whence, then, the present outbreak of authorial waffle?

Because, and here's the thing, that shifty unspecificity caused a bit of an overspill in the enchantment. See, there was a rather more thoroughgoing incarnation of No-Fun lurking a lot nearer than almost anyone would have suspected. At present, she wore her Pro-Fun aspect; for she was that as well, and in either aspect she was at heart a good and kindly person. But it was to the essence of No-Fun, the stale breath of joylessness, that the resonances of that call spoke. And they just happened to catch her crying her eyes out in a dark broom cupboard.

They drew her to her feet like an invisible puppet-wire. Her tears crystallised into glimmers of pure light within her pale grey eyes, and her shoulders set as once they had done to bear the cares of all her worlds. She was no Power here, make no mistake about that. She was many things, none of them entirely mortal; but in this place and body and time, what she was more than anything else was a young woman hiding irreparable heartbreak in a closet.

Celia – auxiliary Muse without an Author, and Demiurge without a world – opened the door and stepped out. Some way down the corridor, she heard mystic mumblings, and smelled the hot metallic stink of transmundane chaos. She frowned a very Nyssa-like frown; reckoned all her likely resources for dealing with such a foe and found them few; and, having nothing of note to lose, advanced silently upon their source anyway.

"Seven hundred million and ninety three green bottles, standing on the wall..."

"Lift your head, my cerulean feathered friend!" Fastolf declaimed. "For even now, a way of egress opens up before us!"

Donald breathed a sigh of relief. "Great. Now if we can just find the others..."

"They're coming!" Ruthie hissed. "Everyone into position!"

The Trousers entered the room –

"Hey, sorry to bother you again, but – " Embericles double-took at the scene in front of her. "Nyss, get him!"

"What's going on – " Arthur took in the scene in front of him. "Lancelot, with me!"

"Oh my – " Paul gawped.

"DOGPILE!!" Donald yelled from a newly appeared doorway.

Everyone in the room reacted, leaping for the Trousers –

– which, in turn, shoved the Trousers over the pages of the Taliesin book.

The Trousers disappeared.

As, shortly afterwards, did everyone else in the room.

[ Suddenly Delta realised two cowled figures were looking at him. Or what he thought were cowled figures, looked at closely which brought tears to his eyes, it seemed less that the figures were there, but more that space was bent into shapes.]

Nin-Adad: "We require your services."

Delta: "What?"

Figure: "He said we require your services, and we do not like repeating ourselves."

Delta: "What do I get out of this?"

Nin-Adad: "Freedom, transport to anywhere on Earth you specify and your life."

Delta: "But my life is not in danger."

Nin-Adad: "Only if you refuse."

[One of the figures gestured and Delta found that breathing was impossible. Just as he was on the point of passing out the figure gestured again freeing Delta's lungs.]

Delta: "What do you want me to do?"

Nin-Adad: "It occurred to us that someone who could summon Spam should be able to prevent it being summoned by anything else. We want you to do just that, judging from reports from our agents, they will have enough trouble without being inundated by Spam."

Delta: "I'll try."

Figure: "Just to give you an incentive, you are staking your life on success."

[ The handcuffs vanished and Delta scrambled out of the car and started drawing a diagram. ]

[ The two agents pulled themselves off the ground and looked around. ]

Jason: "What, where and what's happened to us?"

Marcus: "No idea, no idea, and our equipment appears to have been transformed to the comic book equivalent. You look like the Mirror Master, what do I look like?"

Jason: "Believe it or not, Captain Boomerang."

{IN EXCHANGE FOR YOUR AID YOU WILL RECEIVE YOUR HEART'S DESIRE}, concluded an improbably purple-haired Guardian of Pro-Fun. He made a pass with his staff, whose light went out and whose electric hush terminated forthwith.

"That," said a crisp feminine voice from behind him, "is the least convincing imitation of an Essence of Fun that I have ever heard!"

Xellos whirled around like some kind of demon who wasn't really surprised.

"Why, Lady Nyssa! Really, these fanboys do like to see you about the place, though I'm sure I see why. I was meaning to ask... you wouldn't happen to have finished with that fairy-skirted affair, would you?"

"Celia," said the blue-gowned vision of loveliness shortly. "And you wouldn't like the only robe I have to spare: trust me on this. I'm very unhappy with you, Xellos."

The Trickster Priest smiled ruefully. "Life is so sad sometimes, don't you find it? And do you know why?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact I do. That's a secret with which I'm much better acquainted than you are. Be glad. Now, your stupid tricks have cost me my Author, and possibly even this form. We've all had enough of you for one adventure, if not for one existence, and on Eloise's behalf I must ask you to leave."

"Well..." Xellos was suffering an unpleasant suspicion, of the kind he normally preferred to reserve strictly for the use of his victims, that all could not possibly be as simple as it appeared on the surface.


"When else could you possibly be asking me?"

The... Muse? sighed. "Let's simplify this. My mother didn't react well to losing her loves, her hopes, or her chances against entropy." She swayed on her feet like a dancer. "And I've forgotten every black lesson that once taught me better. Ward yourself, Chaot!"

She was very, very fast, blurring into something in the realms vaguely delimited by t'ai chi and kung fu and capoeira. A keen dagger glinted in her outstretched right hand.


"You did ask," Xellos observed, miffed, to the flaming pile of cloth and flesh before him. Slagged steel plopped hissing to the floor. It was only the shocking loudness of its fall that alerted him to the conspicuous lack of screaming where screaming ought to be. He sketched a quick, shifting glyph on the air in front of him.

The flames burned out with unnatural rapidity. Behind them they left ash...

...A Lady of dust and ashes, a queen of undeath and rue. She still had Celia's (Nyssa's?) lovely, aristocratic features; but they were rendered with a prison pallor that made the Grey Steward's complexion look a mirror of lusty good health. Her blue dress was gone, replaced by a gown the battleship-grey of despair. This discouraging item was topped with a heavy ashen cloak whose lining glinted like oxidised iron filings, caught about her throat with a bright clasp shaped like a phoenix in flames. Her chestnut hair had coarsened and gone sepia, and stars twinkled dangerously in her black eyes. Xellos shuddered.

"You were so right, fair Celia. That isn't me at all!"


"Zaqqum?" Xellos cocked his head agreeably. "For the cheap price of one more fwooosh, I could solve all those niggling little problems for you." He seemed struck by some impulse of sudden benevolence. "And do you know, that gives me the most splendid idea... I'd very much rather you didn't do that." Zaqqum had somehow glided near enough to seize him firmly by the forearm. "Soot is a pest to launder!"

"What has that to do with anything?"

Xellos considered this suicidal straight-line and attempted to vanish from the silly location. He was not supposed to be the confused party here!

A dirty great big heap of nothing occurred, teleportation-wise.

"Thank you," said Zaqqum, in a voice like an insufficiently case-hardened undertaker, "for the thaumaturgic link. Here, demon, you are stronger than I: one bolt more could blast me into ash, as you surely see. But I was made by mental upload, tempered by war against demons, fulfilled by possessing all worlds. If your power destroys me now, I will leave my stamp on you through it. I am eternity's end; I am stability, respect, completeness; you shall never be rid of me. Would you learn my hatred that bans all chaos, my duty that bars all respite, my grief that crushes all joy? At life's cost, I may bequeath you these things, Xellos. Beware of me. You've left me little to live for, indeed."

"And yet," Xellos expounded loftily to the air, "she blasts me not." He smiled ingratiatingly down upon her. "Might it be that somebody wants something?"

"I'm also Celia. I remember hope." She smiled unexpectedly. "And I really don't want to blast you, you know. I have loved wickeder things than you in my Demiurgy, and you do have a perverted sense of fun. Losing my own... taught me to value that." The smile vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. "But for your Master and his aims... I have neither sympathy nor mercy. I'll live, and leave you with a life worth your living – on my terms."

"I am all ears."

"Tell your Master that you got the SKoLD in place and worked the double-bind with his coat-and-trousers; but a third force stirred up Zaqqum against you and him, and she would only stay out of the fight if you would be bound to do the same. Since you had set all your plans successfully in motion, and the defence was in chaos without her, you accepted. That is all even true, in case he knows what the word means and can tell it when he hears it."

Xellos regarded her in sceptical fascination. "And what do you imagine the dear boy would say to that message?"

"'Thank you'? But if he asks why you didn't simply destroy me, ask him whether he's seen the Yellow Sign lately. He'll take the point at once."

"Your point being?"

"That," returned Zaqqum with cosmic, funereal satisfaction, "is a – "

" – moot one. Very well." He attempted unsuccessfully to peel off the grey-white hand that still bound him to the spot. His gaze grew yet less innocently amiable than formerly. "We shall let matters wind to their interesting conclusion."

"Indeed." Zaqqum brushed a starry tear away from her eye, and offered her free hand to the demon. "Take this star, and make it so: we will watch, but do no more in this affair. We will each quit Sweetheart forthwith. You may trust in your plans. I may trust in Eloise's champions. I am a Demiurge. This is a word of truth. I cannot bind you. You may bind you. Will you kindle my word?"

"I did so prefer the 'watching' to the 'quitting'."

"Distance is not specified. The end will be gaudy."

"Oh, yes. Then – " Xellos made to flick the star with a fingernail, but held back at the last moment. "On, of course, one essential condition..."

"What is the condition?"

"We spoke of a fairy-skirted affair with which your 'mother' has, certainly, finished..."

Zaqqum sighed like the wind soughing through cypress. "Unless all reality is annihilated, it will be made available."

Xellos flicked the star and blew on it. It flared up like a candle. He was now officially out of the game and in the audience, and ready to settle down in the galleries misusing various combinations of fire spells and popcorn. Zaqqum's status was similar by the same binding, though probably not in such a happy-go-fubar way. She released his arm. Xellos turned to leave, and suddenly his eyes opened wide, staring directly over her shoulder. "Oh, my!"

"I am not yours."

"Indeed. This three-on-a-blanket romp between Tegan, Amina, and that rather large-hamboned ghoul is sure to cause talk, though..."

Zaqqum swirled around in deadly silence, where she saw pretty much what you'd expect.

If what you were expecting wasn't an empty corridor, nobody wants to know.

"What," said Zaqqum in a voice of rusty daggers, "was that nonsense?"

"That is a secret!"

The Steward's ex-Demiurge, Ourania Nyssaida-Sheilaida, called Celia and Zaqqum, the Desolation Beyond Time, rounded upon him angrily.

There were these ballbearings, not previously present.


Xellos smiled politely and vanished.

Zaqqum staggered gingerly up from where she was sprawled, rubbing her bruised posterior through The Cloak Called Dreams and Ashes, and proceeded to fulfil her own side of the bargain.

Electra blurred.

And was gone.

"I think I begin to see why this is 'difficult'..." Third observed.

"It is quick to travel," the Maiden said quietly. "But it is difficult to experience."

"Which is nothing new – " Dominic blurred, and vanished.

Ayna took a deep breath. #Here goes...#

One by one, the rest stepped onto the trail, and disappeared.

There was a veil between the Trader and his other life. He knew all that had happened in it, but could feel it only at a faint remove. So for him there was only the unlooked-for joy and excruciating birth-pangs that had accompanied his Muse's singing him out of the wood:

  Yet in Making must I be
All in all, and all for thee.

And with this he could deal, and deal right gladly. But the tremor in Carrie's hand told clearly that his Muse had no such miracle to shield her, nor was coping well with her new body's reactions to the journey. His hand slipped out from hers. Her unseeing electric-blue eyes flickered terribly. He replaced his arm, a little self-consciously, about her slender waist. The Steward and Carrie had not, to put it mildly, been the touchiest-feeliest team ever to ramble around the foothills of Parnassus. But the Steward was no more, and Carrie was... different.

The Trader had absolutely no idea how their partnership was going to work. Work, however, it would and must.

Carrie leaned instinctively into him, and they took the swift and difficult way as nearly together as any two were permitted.

Eloise was the last to step on. "Will you be at the other end?"

The Maiden hesitated. "Perhaps. I do not know. But we will still be able to talk."

Eloise nodded, understanding.

And stepped on.

Set accumulator NULL.

"I know," the Steward said frustratedly. "Just let me get it out of the way. She's an insistent little thing, but she'll pass."

A general protection fault occurred on page: 0x00000000.

"At your present rate," Carrie pointed out, "that will take you fifteen years or more. Your talent will rot like last month's gammon and spinach. The general foulness of the milieu will drive you insane. You have to put it by!"

Network error: couldn't find required spark or essence.

"Well, I've tried. But you know that nothing else comes, when I do. The Miller's Tale is stuck; Corey is lost in space; I can't file the serial numbers off the Fifth Age. Even the Bat Sea Coast is lost in the mists. Can't you get through to Corey or Sapphire or someone like that?"

Warning: useless use of void function.

"No. I'm as blocked as you are." And then Carrie's hologram face- faulted, and froze for long seconds.

"Carrie? Carrie! Don't do that, dammit!"

"Gray, there's only one thing that could do that to me. So blocked, I haven't even got a direction to be blocked in..."

"What in the name of Hegel's horrid hermeneutics are you talking...?"

"Oh, best beloved," said Carrie, in real anguish. "The soulless can't create..."

"Bullshit! You're no more soulless than I – " The Steward patted himself down quickly. "Just checking. No, I'm not, so you can't be eith— "

He broke off in mid-word, as the meaning hit him too. "Calliope!" he howled, furiously. "Oh, the bloody Opium High Command has gone too far this time. I'll have their"



"I'd have noticed. It isn't intervention. It's just happened."

"It's me?"

"It's you and me and Celia. I begin to see why only Topmost Authors like triads."

"The hell with that! I'll send her away, you can book us a Dream Ticket, I'll..." The Man of Lead shook his head. "Klono's iridium intestines, Carrie! You know I would if I could."

"I know. Don't let's worry at it. Time will fix it, or it won't." It is an old and exceptionally foul canard that one requires a soul to suffer. Or even to rejoice, though there was little of that in the snarling of Carrie's datastreams just then. "Maybe you just need some more creative fuel, and a rest-break to kindle it in. We can still chase up that Spam business: there's got to be a few ideas in that."

"I still don't see how I'm going to get through to my own 1940s, though."

"Yes," said Carrie, "but turn a setback into an advantage. I can get through: there are bound to be minds there that will let me hitch a ride, as we discussed earlier. If you run the game from this end..."

"Well, I'll be a spr—" He bit off the expletive and nodded slowly. "If we don't have to be in the same continuum... it might work, at that. And if we can pull that off together – " His greyish teeth provided an awful but dearly familiar travesty of a brilliant smile. "We'll fix the rest, too. It's going to be all right, me old slithy tovarishch. We'll hammer out a story to knock 'em dead yet!"

Carrie enthused appropriately. And she thought to herself:

Because I can't be with you like this. Because I can't watch you and... her, what she does to you. Oh, Gray mate, I was happy before I compounded with Calliope to share your soul; and then I was happier and sadder than ever. But I couldn't touch you as the others can; and our bond has withered and died; and is this what -INF feels like? I should go back to the City of Dreams, when this is over. Let Calliope try me there, if she dares; or here, if she cares.

Set accumulator NULL.

All we won, poured away. How could we never even have noticed?

It's gone. It died. It can no more come back than any other dead thing can live again. Don't we both know that?

And because Carrie was ultimately both practical and almost as fanatically forward-looking as the Steward himself, she turned to the new state of affairs with their usual brisk banter and her old cheerful smile. Partners in crime still. The Dialectical Duo, gearing up for one of its most formidable challenges!

But this time Carrie had a human body in which to experience all that over again. And the more chemical, less cognitive components of emotion are something not even an AI as uniquely advanced as Carrie has ever really been able to simulate in a digital medium.

It was well, then, that Trader Grey held that body close at his side as they walked the swift and difficult way.

Y'know how long it's been since the last Siren was born? Officially? the orderly said. Imagine what the Bitch Queen could do with a Siren. Best of all, a Siren who can't threaten her.

They don't want her dead. Not just yet. She's too valuable to them for that.

A power play? the medic said.

Kid, where've you been? Everything here's a power play. The question is who gets screwed and who doesn't.

The medic looked down. Eat or be eaten? Fish or cut bait?

Now you're getting it. Listen, you keep an eye on the bratling while I go tell Momma and Poppa how she's doing. You should've seen that little princess of theirs. Looked like someone just stole her favourite dolly...

The medic looked after the orderly, then down at her, at the nametag around her small wrist.


She piped, burbling gently.

Shh... he said. Shh. It'll be okay.

Poor kid. They don't want you, do they? They want a Siren. And that's what they've got.

He watched her as she huddled in the incubator, still-wet wings wrapped around her.

That's all that matters to them.

No-one wants to know what matters to you. Or me.

And it's not as if we can walk away from the board...

He reached out his hand.

Someone above, someone struggling with him, trying to stop him.

The hand – his hand – reaching closer and closer...

Reaching for the lever.

Pull the lever, and all this ends.

He looked up at the figure above him, the dark figure.

Ka Faraq Gatri. Destroyer of Worlds.


"You cut off your arm...

"...because you used it to do... this."

He pulled the lever.

No... she whispered. No.

Her sister nodded. They found him this morning. Took him outside.

And shot him through the head.

Leave me, she whispered after an eternal moment.

Leave me. I would be alone.

Her sister nodded again, and withdrew.

They are killing us, Gallifreya, she whispered. They kill them in the streets, in the houses, in the temples...

...and with each of them that dies, a part of us dies.

They kill us because She killed the children. All the children.

Condemned them – and us – to an endless, eternal living death...

You allowed this, Gallifreya, she raged. It is your power she called upon, your life she cut away.


Elle? he breathed.

When she turned to him, her eyes were sad and odd and so very, very old.

You'll take care of them, she said, her voice distant.

Elle... he breathed again.

Mum? Xeffy said.

It'll be okay, sweetheart, she said. It's going to be okay.

I know where I'm going. I always have.


Mm? the teenager sniffled.

You were always our special ones... she said. Our miracles...

I'm sorry...

I'm sorry, Allie.

And the light in her eyes went out.

"Verwuenschte – " Danik bit the words off, wincing. There was a guard barely two feet above their heads, and the caulking of the deck planks was gaping in the heat.

He rubbed his tender scalp, glaring at his companion in the dim light between-decks. Even with his face as liberally coated with soot as his captain's own, Osman managed to look as dapper and trim as if he were about to welcome guests into the great hall back home, and not engaged on a desperate raid to recapture the ship from under the very noses of the Emperor's soldiery.

"Had I not pulled you in by the hair, du armer Trottel," his friend retorted cheerfully, "that lookout would have caught sight of both of us and we would at this moment be giving an explanation of ourselves to le capitaine Buisson – "

"I just wish you wouldn't make such a verfluchte habit of it," Danik muttered beneath his breath. "You might grab another part of me now and again..." But even as he grumbled he was working his way forward, stooped almost double under the low timbers, tracing the lines of the planking with his left hand. Osman was barely visible in the gloom, but he knew the smaller man would be carrying out the same search along the starboard side of the hold, the two friends moving almost exactly in step with the ease of long practice.

Across the deck, the little bo'sun's movements stopped abruptly; and almost at the same moment his own trailing fingertips brushed across the stiff ridge of tar they'd been seeking. Three paces aft of the cable locker. He could have found his way about the ship blindfold in a gale – they all could. It was what he'd been counting on.


A satisfied hiss of breath. Osman semaphored downwards, and Danik pressed his own cheek to the deck planking in mimicry. For a moment he could hear nothing; then he caught the muffled knocking detected by the other man's quick ears. Their own movements, stealthy as they were, must have been telegraphed along the underwater timbers like the echoes in a bath-tub.

"So they had them held here all along!"

He had known the Baron was lying about something – the powdered face had been clogged with sweat. He'd played them false in the matter of the guards already – but to deceive him over the fate of their imprisoned crewmates..!

He caught the dim flash of Osman's own grin from across the deck. Now there was all to play for. Freed of the spectre of those lives held hostage up in the fort, he could strike the boldest blow yet. The Avalanche and her crew could turn the tables; all he needed was a moment's grace, to distract the guard on the hatchway.

He nodded to Osman to begin work, and crept aft...

...The man turned, at the wrong moment. He heard the Corsican's oath, and saw the butt of the musket descending in the moment before he was whirled into blackness. He hit the side of the hatch, hard. Felt himself begin toppling, rag-doll limp and heavy, as the guard made an ineffectual grab at his assailant's collar. And he couldn't move.

The last conscious thought of Danik of Ruritania, as he toppled head-downwards into the sightless depths of his own hold, was: "After all this, what a damn' silly way to go out..."

Eloise put down her armful of kindling, and opened the trapdoor under her bridge... Well, the bridge... she'd hadn't really been here long enough to think of this place as hers, yet. Still, she thought, as she gathered up the wood again, and trudged down to her smoke room, this was a good place. She liked her smoke to be made from fruit wood and rose canes, with just a dash of alder, oak, and ash, and all those woods grew in abundance, here. It was her own recipe, made up in her head, and one never shared with her family... not Them.

They liked their smoke to be made from poison ivy and buttercups – those deceptively sweet flowers whose smoke kills all but trolls.

Eloise fought to keep the memories at arm's length as she stirred the smoke in the cauldron, but it was little use.

She could still hear her aunt's chiding as the elder troll tried to teach her the art of cooking smoke: "You're a freak of nature – that's what you are! You've the face of a river stone, the personality of duckweed, and the intelligence of both! Why can't you learn to follow a simple recipe? It's only through the pride of clan that we took you in at all, (and our cousins, the Parmarindos, haven't spoken to us in years because of it), so you'd better learn that pride yourself, and respect our family traditions. Unless you want to be alone the rest of your life, you'd better learn to make a decent batch of smoke ... the stuff you come up with is barely edible."

She wiped away an involuntary tear as she caught the last of the smoke, and tightened the lid.

:::Tha-Whomp, Tha-Whomp, Tha-Whomp:::

(what was that? ... or was it only in her mind – the memory of her uncle stomping home after a raid?)

She didn't want to be alone – just the opposite. She wanted to love them – and that's all she wanted. She knew they couldn't love her in return, and didn't expect that. All she wanted was to have her love accepted as a gift – even if everyone knew it was an unwanted gift. But they couldn't even do that. They spat it back at her, as if it were a noxious thing. And for all Eloise knew, it was. And so, one dawn, after the rest of the family had gone to bed, she risked being turned to stone by the sunlight, and went away (the fact that she didn't turn to stone was just more confirmation that she was a freak).

:::Tha-Whomp, Tha-Whomp, Tha-Whomp:::

She stopped, the jar of smoke still in her hand.

For a moment there...

:::Tha-Whomp, Tha-Whomp, Tha-Whomp:::

There it was again.

A sound she'd never heard before...

(but recognized, nonetheless)

The sound of something tired, and weary...

...wanting only to rest.

Whatever it was, she decided, she needed to see if it needed her help.

She set the jar down, and hurried outside.

Eloise blinked. A cube – as high as a cliff face, and as blank and smooth as the sky before snow – stood where such a thing was impossible. She blinked again. The thing remained.

Cautiously, she approached, and reached out a hand out to touch its side. Nothing visible, nothing tangible, happened. And yet Eloise felt it... flinch. As though it had been very frightened for a very long time, and was just too tired to put up any more defenses. Her family would have torn it to shreds, if they had been there. But she wasn't her family – not any more. And she didn't have to do what they wanted her to. So she lowered her hand, sat down, and simply stared.

She felt a question tickle cautiously at the edge of her mind: :::Who are you?:::

:::I don't know,::: she answered in thought. :::Someone alone. Someone who doesn't fit:::

:::We are alike, then:::

A door appeared in the smooth face, and swung silently inward.

Eloise accepted the invitation, and stepped across the threshold.

~:Oh, my!:~


Gone without a trace.

And she left with no hint, no clue, no path, as to where he could be.

What had happened? she wondered.

Might he have learned who he was, who he truly was... forgotten Mr. Albert Campion, forgotten all of that strange, silly, wonderful man?

Or did he still remember... and had simply abandoned her?

Who had he been? she asked herself.

Two hearts, and a cool, cool body...

Wearing the form of man, yet not of man.

Had he returned wherever he'd come, whatever strange homeland might hold such as he? Might he have found some clime more amenable to his nature?

She shook herself.

Really, Amanda, she told herself, this is the most romantic nonsense. Utter rubbish.

She sighed, and looked out of the window.

And the thoughts rose up once again.

They always did. Always would, as long as he was gone.

[ Memories of his past swirled through his mind. ]

Magnus: "Been there, done that, and got the T Shirt."

[ He listened to the nothingness. ]

Magnus: " I know what I am, the only way to survive passage through the Gates is to know yourself."

[ Something replied. ]

Magnus: "I am not ashamed of my past. I have never betrayed anyone and the deaths were only mortals, I just speeded up the ending. Besides I never claimed to be one of the good guys. "

[ Again the nothingness spoke. ]

Magnus " All things considered, the only answer I can come up with for that is I don't believe in situational morality. Now go and bother something else, that is assuming you are not a figment of my imagination."

[ There was a minor movement of displaced air as the party materialised in nothing. Magnus's left hand fluttered over the studs on his belt. A faintly glowing platform formed beneath them. ]

Magnus: "Varne?"

Varne: "We are falling at thirty two feet per second and accelerating at one G. Any walls are either too far away to sense or non existent. Xeffy is about a kilometre away in that direction."

[ Magnus moved his hand over the belt studs again. The party felt acceleration. Faintly glowing spheres of energy issued from the rod in his right hand. ]

Magnus: "Seeker spheres, just in case there are any surprises here. "

Eloise: "This is all technology. I thought you were a sorcerer?"

Magnus: "I am, I just prefer to use technology. Technology works with the natural laws, magic, whatever the details of the rituals used, depends on the magician's will overriding the local laws of nature. This makes it somewhat less dependable. Varne? "

Varne: "We are approaching Xeffy at about one kilometre an hour."

Magnus: "Fast enough."

Dominic: "But can't we go faster? She's all alone!"

Magnus: "The belt uses stored power, at the current rate of use we have between twenty four and thirty six hours worth. This mode's energy use rises exponentially as thrust is increased. As I have no idea how we will get out of here I want to minimise power use."

"I may have a solution." Third said. "Ayna, a high C, please. Everyone else, quiet."

#La....!# Ayna trilled.

Third started counting off on his fingers.

When he reached the sixth finger, Ayna jerked her head. #I... I heard something!#

"Two kilometres. Good, thought so. Again."

Ayna nodded, and chirped a short, wordless trill.

Third put his finger to his lips, hushing the others.

Ayna tipped her head, grinning, and trilled again.

She turned to the others. #It's her! It's Xeffy!#

Gordon's mouth dropped open. "You've got to be kidding me. She heard her over half a mile away? What is she, Supergirl?"

Third raised an eyebrow. "It seemed a reasonable inference. Under everyday circumstances, Xeffy and Ayna's hearing is noticeably sharper than the human norm, but under these circumstances – no obstacles, no people, no background noise, nothing to get in the way, a still atmosphere – I suspected their already remarkable hearing would be vastly augmented.

"A kilometre away. A kilometre." Third considered Ayna. "Tell me, did you ever have your hearing or voice tested?"

#Standard magical/superpower tests.# Ayna told him. #They told me some of what I could do, but not any specifics – they told Mum and Dad, but...# She shook her head. #I think they just checked the 'divine origin' box in the end.#

Allie twitched. "Um... we're still a kilometre away, and it's going to take us an hour to get to her. Any ideas?"

"Why don't you do the dragon thing?" Yokoi suggested.

"The... 'dragon thing'?" Dominic inquired.

Allie winced. "...I really, really don't wanna get into that just yet, Dad... There was this really, really big SpamThing, and, er..."

"She got indigestion." Yokoi supplied helpfully.

Allie closed her eyes. "Thanks so much, Yokoi..."

"Hm. Xeffy and Ayna's gifts still work in this world..." Third said, considering her. "Why not yours?"

Allie raised her eyebrows. "Isn't that going just a little bit over the top? I'm already one of the Shining Ones – if I'm still a shapeshifter..."

"Why not?" Third pressed. "We've seen nothing to suggest that this world suppresses any powers... if anything, it may even enhance them. As regards finding Xeffy, Varne and Ayna have had no problems." He held up a hand. "And as regards finding your way back... from yours and Yokoi's allusions, I take it you can take a form large enough to accommodate all of us, yes?"

"What's the speed of an unladen dragon?" Gordon wondered.

"Chinese or European?" Alryssa said.

Allie glared at them.

"Whichever type it is, it would be significantly faster than a kilometre an hour." Magnus said. "Thirty kilometres an hour, at least. And that is a fledgling."

"Allie?" Dominic said.

Allie winced again, but nodded reluctantly.

"Then try it," Third urged. "At the very least, you should get back here unharmed."

Allie closed her eyes, then looked to Imran.

Imran hesitated, then nodded.

Allie closed her eyes again –

– and took a flying leap off the edge of the platform.

For a long, long moment, there was nothing.

Then, there came the sound of great wings beneath them, the sound of something immense breathing.

#I really, really hope that's Allie...# Ayna piped quietly.

Magnus adjusted his platform's speed to match, and slowly, slowly, it came in to rest on something solid.

Imran blinked, and looked back at the others. "It's her. I can... It's her. It is her.

"And she says..." He shook his head, a stunned smile on his face. "She says 'Hold on tight. This is going to be one Hades of a ride.'."

"Then I think we'd better do what the lady says, don't you?" Eighth said, eyes sparkling. "Here goes!"

Chapter Eighteen – Paying The Debts

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