Chapter Eighteen Paying The Debts
She and her Author disengaged, then; but even on the dragonback, they took great and elaborately casual care not to sit too far apart.
So where was this? What was this place? They were still inside Sweetheart... weren't they? Or were they? There was so much to this ship her ship that she still had to learn.
She knew her first as a mysterious cube with a consciousness that tickled at the edge of her mind. At the time, Eloise was so new to the world beyond the parameters set by her family that it never occurred to her that a machine with consciousness might be considered impossible, and so she accepted it without question. That the cube was bigger on the inside than the outside did come as a shock, however, and for the briefest moment, she feared that it was troll magic at work, that her family was trying to trap her and bring her back. But there was no smell of troll magic about the place, and when the idea of running away flickered through her mind, there came the thought: :::Please... don't:::. Her family would never say "please".
Then, as the TARDIS grew stronger, and Eloise began to explore, the ship became a storyteller, revealing histories from her databases. And then, she and Eloise travelled together, finding new stories of their very own, finding others like herself: trolls with faces like river stones, and who could accept the gift of love. Then, last year, Sweetheart took the form of a white mare, and the consciousness that had always tickled at the edge of her mind took the form of a mind like her own an animal mind that knew its senses and had a body language, and the communication and bond between them became stronger. And just now, Sweetheart had taken the form of a woman, and spoken to Eloise in her own tongue.
She had asked the Maiden TARDIS if they would meet her in some form on this side, and the Maiden answered: "I don't know."
What did that mean? How could Sweetheart not know? Where were they? TARDISes were transdimensional, she'd learned that much, but exactly how many dimensions do they transcend? And how did a TARDIS, really, shape itself around the space it occupied?
And then it came to her (whether it was an answer from Sweetheart herself, or her own lightbulb flash, Eloise didn't know): It was like a soap bubble. The skin of a soap bubble is a layer of water one-molecule thick, sandwiched between two layers of soap film. If you were the size of an atom, you could spend a lifetime exploring the skin of the bubble, and never know that it was curved around another space. Well, now, they were inside the bubble in the dimension around which Sweetheart's form was ultimately curved a space that Sweetheart herself hardly knew (anymore than Eloise knew her own pituitary gland). Somewhere in here was Sweetheart's connection to the Eye of Harmony. ... And somewhere in here, Xeffy was lost.
Just then, she saw it: a tiny variation in the blackness of the void a difference a form that grew before their eyes with almost sickening rapidity. They heard it, too, as the sound of Allie's wing beats echoed off it's surface. Soon, it was below them.
#She's down there!# Ayna trilled. #I hear her singing!# Soon, Eloise (whose large ears were more sensitive than those of human form) heard her, too nearly directly below them, and very far down. Allie backbeat with her wings to break her flight and come in to a landing on some sort of broad plateau.
Electra was the first off her back. She raced forward with the assuredness of one who didn't need to see to know where every bump and crevice lay. By the time the others had climbed off Allie's back, the muse was already at the edge, hauling on a rope. The others stood back and watched in amazement (The scene illuminated only by Electra's own glowing form) as she, hardly bigger than Xeffy herself, worked with the speed and strength of a dozen men, wrapping the rope around her own shoulder to keep the rope from sliding back down between pulls. As she worked, Xeffy's voice got louder and nearer, until it was just below the edge of the plateau.
Electra dropped to her knees and extended her hand. "Come here!" she demanded. "Give me your hand!"
Xeffy's voice came in reply "I know you you're !"
"Yes! Yes! Now give me your hand. We don't have much time!"
"Why should I? How can I trust you?"
Allie's dragon form shimmered, and folded in on itself, and she returned to the form of a Shining One. She went down to the plateau's edge and knelt beside the muse. "Please, Xeffy "
Xeffy gasped. "Allie! Is that you? Oh...wow."
"Please, Xeph," Allie said. "You have to trust her. We don't have a choice. We made a bargain...."
"Alryssa struck a bargain with her." Allie said. "If she hurts us, Alryssa will fight her. You know Alryssa wouldn't do something like that unless she meant it "
"She's right," Alryssa said quietly. "Take her hand.
"I swear to you by lost Gallifrey, you can do this."
Then a small hand wrapped itself around Electra's.
And Electra hauled Xeffy up onto the plateau.
"Well?" Electra said, once Xeffy was standing with them.
"No." Xeffy said. "I'm keeping hold of this."
"As you wish." Electra said.
Xeffy turned away from her, looked out into the void. "Do you know how cold... how cold it was? How cold you are?"
"I never claimed to be anything else." Electra said quietly.
In the darkness, Xeffy's face couldn't be seen. "You never claimed, you never asked... you just sucked me in and took me over..."
"You were convenient." Electra said.
"That's it, isn't it?" Xeffy stifled herself, breathed deeply. "That's it. Convenient..."
#I'm sorry, Xeph...# Ayna's voice was piccolo-soft. #I'm sorry... I should've done something, I should have helped...#
"Shh..." Xeffy held her twin closer. "Shh... just don't let go.
"It was so cold out there..."
Dominic watched them, then turned his gaze on Electra.
"I cannot hurt you," he whispered. "I cannot touch you. I cannot raise my hand to you.
"Understand this, First of the Six. You have lost everything. There is nothing I can take from you.
"There is nothing more I can do to you."
He stepped closer.
"You hurt my children, Electra.
"I tell you this, and I tell you now:
"He would have wept to see what you have become.
"He would have wept, dried his tears...
"And then he would have walked away.
He turned away from her, turned to Xeffy and Ayna, to Allie, watching them all.
Dominic didn't see the mark his words left behind. But Eloise did. By chance, she glanced directly into Electra's eyes. It was like looking into the deepest, darkest part of space and seeing all the way back to the beginning of the universe itself to the beginning of time itself and seeing that every nanosecond from that moment to this was filled with grief.
"Oh my Lady." Eloise only mouthed the words for what she had seen had literally taken her breath away.
But Electra must have heard something perhaps from only inside her own head. For she snapped out of her reverie, then, and focused on Dominic. An expression of pure scorn swept over her face, and when it passed she was the Ice Queen again, cold and terrible.
Xeffy hugged him as if she never wanted to let go.
Dominic said nothing, simply held her.
Xeffy burrowed in deeper, snuggled up close. "so cold... so cold, thought i'd never get warm..."
"It's okay, Xeph." he murmured. "It's okay. It's over. She won't touch you."
"just wanna be warm..."
"Xeffy?" he said eventually.
"How's... how's Anya?"
Xeffy went rigid in his arms. "...Dad?"
"Anya." he repeated. "How is she?"
"I think... I should answer that.
In the glow Electra cast, in the faint glow Allie herself cast...
...their shadows were dark, wavering, as Electra moved.
And Xeffy's shadow regarded him calmly, eyes open spaces within it.
"I'm... still recovering. Pulling myself together." Anya said from Xeffy's shadow. "Xeffy needs the rest, though."
Dominic nodded. "I know. But this isn't over."
Anya nodded. "I know."
"There was something Varne said..." Dominic said, "After Electra pulled out. She mentioned sensing you... but she never mentioned you before."
Anya chuckled softly. "We're... a bit shaken up in here. Electra's poking around... moved things around a bit... it's a little different now. Have to see when everything's settled down..."
Dominic nodded quietly, held Xeffy close.
And let out a long, deep breath.
"You're back," he whispered to Xeffy, "You're back, and that's what matters."
Ayna sniffled, piccolo-piping.
"Come here," he said, "Come here."
"Come here," he said again, and folded her into the hug.
[ Magnus was going through his saddle bags again, he pulled out what looked like a fur coat. ]
Magnus: "Xeffy, put this on."
Xeffy: "It's far too big and it's... ugh, fur!"
Magnus: "Just try it."
[ Reluctantly Xeffy put the coat on. It changed size to fit her with the excess material forming flattering fur trousers. ]
Almost everybody: "What? How? etc?"
Magnus: "It's Wubb fur. I thought it would like you."
Xeffy: "Like me?"
Magnus: "I forgot to mention it is sentient and almost indestructible. I can't wear it myself, because it does not approve of my profession. Varne can't wear it because it refuses to change shape on demand. "
Electra: "You are cheating."
Magnus: "You mean, because the fur will block any attempt to take Xeffy over. If you mean to keep the agreement it will have no effect, it will just keep Xeffy warm."
Xeffy: "Alive? What do I feed it?"
Magnus: "You don't have to. It feeds on airborne bacteria and any insects. You might have a problem if you get head lice; it occasionally has trouble telling the difference between them and hair."
Dominic: "What is he doing?"
Varne: "Believe it or not, he likes Xeffy. He has managed to take her mind off the situation with Electra, and what he said about the Wubb fur is true. It likes Xeffy or it would never have changed to fit her."
"I think we've ended up in the Malorian fantasy after all," Lancelot observed.
Arthur nodded, looking both of them up and down. "The suits of armor ought to have clued me in. At least Guenevere's not with us, and 's been spared the abduction motif."
"We didn't exactly come here of our own intent or consent," Lancelot pointed out. "I'd be watching out for a bridge of swords if I were you."
"Everyone's clothing has changed," said Paul, somewhat redundantly.
"That happens to people who enter the fantasy worldlet," said Ruthie. "Their clothing changes to reflect who they are. Remember Gordon telling us?"
"I think that must have been before I came in," said Paul. He pulled four brightly coloured golf balls from one of the many pockets of the green anorak he now wore, somewhat incongruously, over his new outfit, and began to juggle them experimentally. A fraction of a second later, he lost control, and golf balls went flying in all directions. "It doesn't seem to have done the Coat much good," he said. "As far as I can tell, it's just an ordinary coat now. What effect has it had on the Trousers?"
"What Trousers?" asked Embericles.
A good question. A quick search of the leafy glade in which our heroes had arrived turned up no sign of the Trousers, nor of the rest of the evil suit.
"When I said we could make the story of the Coat and Trousers disappear," commented Walter, "I didn't realise I meant it this literally."
"If the fantasy worldlet changes clothes to match their wearers," said Paul uncertainly, "then clothes that are being worn by nobody..."
"Maybe," said Ruthie. "Anyway, it seems we don't have to worry about the Trousers any more. So, perhaps we'd better go and see what progress our friends are making with the SKoLD."
"This way," said the young man in the shiny silver superhero suit, pointing to one of the little forest paths leading out of the glade.
"How do you ?" began Ruthie, but he and his companion had already departed.
In the absence of a more promising alternative, our heroes followed them.
That task completed, the thing that had once been the Trousers of Quantum Uncertainty followed after our heroes...
Electra smiled coldly.
"That's simple enough.
"Follow the path."
Perhaps, even though the muse had withdrawn herself from the fabric of the worldlet, she still had some sway here. For it was only after Electra pointed that Eloise saw it: a narrow parabola of a bridge.
Its curve was more precise and accurate than any human or even computer program could draw it was ideal in the Platonian sense. Its top surface and sides glinted with the dull sheen of machine tooled steel, while its underside was thoroughly organic: stone streaked with a rainbow of mineral ores, and dripping with stalactites that could have been millennia old. The bridge slowly curved down toward the center of wherever they were.
Eloise could only hope that it led up again toward the surface on the other side.
"Come," Electra commanded, and stepped onto the arch. The others followed as quickly as they dared.
Then, suddenly, the dragicorn raised her head, ears twitching, nostrils flaring, and without a word, Maid TARDIS notched an arrow into her bow, and they strode off after the intruder as one.
"Allie?" Imran said.
Allie smiled softly. "Sorry, just thinking. Only Xeffy only Xeffy could end up with a pet coat."
Imran considered that, and started grinning himself. "Oh yeah..."
"She's been bugging me and Dad about getting a new pet for ages," Allie continued. "You should have seen what happened to her tortoise. And the stick insects..."
She grinned ruefully. "At least this one likes her."
"You think Magnus'll let her keep it?"
"Like he said: it doesn't approve of what he does, and it doesn't change shape on demand, so it wouldn't work for Varne." Allie paused. "Actually, I'm not sure it'd work for me it is alive..."
"But it changed to fit her..." Imran thought out. "Unless it's learned to adapt to differences in humanoid forms..."
"It is sentient," Allie pointed out.
A slow, crashing realisation hit Imran. "Er... Allie? Whatever you do, don't turn into a Wubb."
"Wh" Allie began.
Then the slow, crashing realisation hit her.
"Believe me," Imran said, in a dull, shocked tone, "the idea of wearing my Muse thrills me as much as it does you."
"Promise never to mention it again?" Allie said, in that same dull, shocked tone.
Magnus blinked, and stared after Xeffy as she rejoined Ayna. "Varne, did she just say what I thought she did?"
Varne nodded. "Yes."
Magnus considered for a moment. "Do you know, I cannot remember the last time someone thanked me sincerely?"
Varne eyed him suspiciously. "Does this mean we are going to join the 'good guys' now?"
"We still need to eat." Magnus pointed out.
"There is that," Varne acknowledged. "Lord... may I ask something?"
"She is not our usual type of friend." Varne said.
"Our usual type of 'friends' usually have a tendency to turn on us and start hunting us down, or die horribly." Magnus said. "I prefer to establish bonds outside of our work ones who will not feel obliged to us, or we to them.
"After all, it is the way this plane seems to work."
"That... answered absolutely nothing, Lord."
"No, it didn't, did it?"
If her guess was right, and this was the dimension Sweetheart's form curved around...
...did that mean that her connection to the Eye of Harmony was at the bottom of this?
What had Electra seen down there when she'd entered as 'Xephanya'?
What did Sweetheart's 'Eye' look like? Sweetheart didn't know what or who they'd meet in here only knew that they could reach this place.
What if this wasn't just the place inside herself she couldn't see but the area in her mind she couldn't see, didn't know about?
Eye of Harmony. A black hole kept beneath the Panopticon on Gallifrey the power source for all of Gallifrey, the power source for the TARDISes...
...perhaps even the key to the gift of regeneration?
So much she didn't know. About Sweetheart, about TARDISes, about the Pilot...
...and, oh, she'd have loved to have met him, ask him about Sweetheart, about himself and his House, spend the evening chatting about Taliesin and Merlin and Arthur...
...but if he hadn't died, then she wouldn't have met Sweetheart. Not the way they had.
Perhaps she might not even have been here.
She shook her head. If he hadn't died, then... so much would have been different. For him, her, all of them.
:::I will remember him::: she said softly to the void.
:::I will not forget him::: a faint voice whispered back. :::I cannot:::
Eloise closed her eyes, and nodded.
Then she caught sight of something further along. Could they be at the bottom?
Her eyes widened.
She blinked again, to make sure she wasn't deceiving herself.
[ Magnus gazed at the well, which was capped with a gothic spire and at the unsurprising fact the path stopped. ]
Eloise sucked in her breath and tried not to lose her balance. The vague sense of vertigo that she had felt before was now in full force. The narrow bridge they were on had suddenly stopped in midair. Far below them farther still than Xeffy had been when she hung in the basket stood a well. It almost looked as if it started out as an illustration in a Mother Goose book, except, instead of a simple roof of wood and shingle, it was topped with a gothic-styled spire ... or, at least, it seemed that way from here. It could just have easily have been a stalagmite, born from the same forces that had shaped the underside of the arc on which they stood.
Magnus: "Well Lady Electra, you either know more about me than I am comfortable with, or not enough about where we are."
Electra: "I know you are a killer and a thief, and the path should continue, something has meddled."
Eloise felt a cold stab in her belly. To think that someone, something could wound Sweetheart here, at the very center of her being.... "M-meddled, my Lady?" she asked.
Electra nodded. "It is not as it was, the last time I was here."
"When you came here with with Xephanya?"
The muse turned to her, a look of surprise momentarily breaking through her icy mask. "No," she said. "I didn't need to. I found the key " Electra cut herself off before revealing that secret.
"I've never been here," Xeffy said quietly, agreeing. "I don't remember much. But I would have remembered this."
Electra took in a deep breath, as if inhaling memories, and closed her eyes. "I have not been here since... the Time Lord." She inhaled again, this time as if she were searching for a particular scent. "I sense a spirit here a mind. It is watching us."
"The myth-engine," Eloise said, with a rush of relief. "Sweetheart said it had changed her and her pilot. That must be what you sense."
"Who is this 'Sweetheart' you speak of?"
Eloise chuckled in spite of herself. "This," she said, indicating the vast space around them with a sweep of her arm. "'Sweetheart' is the TARDIS the maiden who shot the arrow that led us here, and the white dragon that was with her...Didn't you know?"
"But a TARDIS is a machine. Machines kill the spirit. They killed they killed so many."
Eloise could sense the muse slipping back into that ageless grief, and spoke quickly, before she lost her. "Only if we will them to, my Lady. The Time Lord," she added, "did not."
Electra turned on her, her eyes blazing with the same scorn she had aimed at Dominic. "Of course he did!" she said. "He lived by the ways of Rassilon!" She spat out the name as if its very utterance were a curse.
"He lived by your ways, in the end," Eloise reminded her gently. "He searched to the ends of the universe for you, to find the myth-engine you desired. He died for you."
As if in response, a small stone dropped from the underside of the bridge, like a tear, and landed in the well below with a musical splash that filled the air around them. Eloise thought she saw the muse's face soften as she spoke. But at that sound, it hardened again into the icy mask.
Each of them held their breath, bracing themselves against the wrath of the goddess.
"It was the Destroyer who killed him," Electra said, at last, "just as he was about to bring me the prize. And the Destroyer comes again. We must go, and go now."
"How?" Varne asked. "The path is gone."
Magnus: "Oh that, we don't need it any longer. This is the heart of a Tardis, from here we can get anywhere inside it, it is just a matter of knowing how."
Varne: "Something else you never bothered to tell me about."
Magnus: "If I had thought we would ever be in this position, I would have, we would never have got here without Eloise. Outside the Crystal Castle is probably the best bet."
[ Magnus fiddled with the belt and a shimmering opening formed. ]
Varne :"So that's how you do it."
Magnus: "The opening will close when I pass it, after you people."
[ Magnus watched the group pass through. ]
Varne: "Are we going to let her keep the coat?"
Magnus: "We have no use for it, and I spent six months looking for a buyer. The problem is that anyone who appreciates it's true worth is the sort of person that Wubb fur can't stand. Besides it is refreshing to meet someone, apart from you, who is not afraid or at least cautious of me and does not want to kill me. After you Varne."
Varne: "Yes Lord."
Magnus: "You do that to annoy, Varne?"
Varne :"Yes Lord."
[ Varne followed by Magnus passed the opening. ]
"Iä Sweetheart! Hear, TARDIS true! Take, O brave companion! I did swear to quit thee, by an oath I may not break. Herewith, then, I quit thee. With my left hand, I upload my defence routines against the things of entropy, and quit thee for thy care of me and my quondam Author. With my right hand, I upload my offensive routines against those demons, and quit thee for the wounds thou hast suffered in our cause. Now thou shalt be no more their easy prey: and maybe thou shalt hold our world together in their spite, an' thy power serves to wield the tools I give up to thee.
"And it were better that fight were fought in thy fond affection than in my grief and wrath and regret, even had I here such might as could serve this deadly turn. I am Zaqqum, and I do not understand hope, and even my Author loves me not. And now I quit thee indeed, and here is an end of me..."
"Zaqqum, Desolation Beyond Time, speaking," the depressed Demiurge responded automatically, into the mobile phone she whipped out from the Cloak Called Dreams and Ashes. "I do not understand how you got this number. I do not understand why I have a mobile phone. Who is this, please?"
"I don't believe I..."
".... ...... ..... ..... ........!"
".... ....... ..... ............... .... ......."
"No, no, just dyeing my hair," Zaqqum backpedalled quickly. "It really doesn't need to be tonight. You were saying?"
"...., and a lot more ellipses where those came from."
"Why... yes. Yes, I think I'd like that." It had to be that sexy Welsh voice: it spoke directly, and in a deeply comforting way, to the very pit of her stomach. Among other loci. This, Zaqqum supposed, was what you got for descending into the authorial realms and putting on a form of flesh. She'd never had this problem as an all-present, all-knowing, all-sorrowing busybody Immanence back in her own ficton! But what the Keeper, she was at more than a bit of a loose end, not to say her tether's end, right now. "TTR, then? Eight o'clock?"
"I'll look forward to it, then." Zaqqum fought the urge to bounce on her heels, and only aeons of practice allowed her to prevail. "I'll be wearing a Cloak Called Dreams and Ashes. You can't miss it."
"Oh... Yes, yes. Source bless you, too! I'll see you soon, then. 'Bye!" Zaqqum thumbed the phone off quickly, whereupon it instantly vanished.
A date? Her? The Desolation Beyond Time? With her reputation?
Eight o'clock. That left her time to get something done about her preternaturally Bad Hair. Yes. Non-existence could definitely get back to waiting its turn, always presuming the SKoLD didn't manage to give it a free pass to the head of the queue in the meantime.
For the first time in recorded fiction, the stars in Zaqqum's eyes actually twinkled.
She snapped her fingers, clicked her heels, and disappeared from Sweetheart and from the plot.
The bow in Maid Tardis' hands, and the arrows in her quiver, thrummed, shimmering briefly with the same blue lightning, and when it had passed, the heads of her arrows had also hardened into diamonds.
Neither dragon nor maiden broke stride in pursuit of the spectrally uncertain evil thing, but Sweetheart nonetheless took a moment to materialize a small thank-you gift for Zaqqum in the form of a mobile phone. It was the least she could do. She was, after all a pro-fun TARDIS and, as such, it was her mission to make sure that no one ever quit her presence without knowing hope.
She was also a clear-headed TARDIS, and she knew, deep in her fluid links, that she never, ever, wanted to be in debt to Desolation Beyond Time.
Her debt then repaid, she turned her full attention to her quarry.
"Xaos!" the maiden called out. "Xaos, ye plaything, ye puppet of evil! Quit thy skulking in my undergrowth, and face me directly! I fear not thy icy gaze. Do you so fear mine?"
If there was one thing that Xaos, the spectrally uncertain evil, hated to be reminded of it was that it was the puppet of someone else. For millennia now, it had gotten through its days imagining itself as the puppeteer, and pretended that whatever form it happened to be in was a form of its own choosing even the ridiculously comical form of poorly tailored trousers.
Sweetheart knew this, and she trusted that her call would distract it long enough to give Eloise and her guests time to get to the Crystal Castle. Her trust was not misplaced.
"That is a bold claim," came a voice from the shadows, whose tone was the aural equivalent of spectral uncertainty. "Do you not realize the form your own worldlet has given me?"
"I do indeed," Maid Tardis answered. "You are a basilisk a serpent-bird hatched from a rooster's egg, incubated by toads."
The basilisk thrust its head out from the bushes, then. Its eyes were closed, for it was building up to what it suspected would be a very dramatic, evil climax. An array of sickly-hued colors played across its comb and wattle, swirling like the colors on an oil slick. It hoisted itself up on the first pair of its six (or was that eight?) legs, and spread its spectrally uncertain evil wings to their full span. And then, it grew expanded like a balloon until it was taller than Sweetheart's dragon body.
If Sweetheart was fazed by any of this, she didn't show it. The more it gloated over what it thought was certain victory, the less it paid attention to the band of hoedowners and how close they were to the Crystal Castle.
Finally, Xaos, the puppet of evil thought it was big enough for the dramatic effect it wanted to achieve. "Then you know," it said slowly, with its oil slick voice, "that my gaze turns all living things to stone!" And it opened its eyes, staring down at them directly.
Maid TARDIS laughed, and a low rumbling chuckle rolled through the dragon.
Xaos, plaything of evil, deflated literally. "Wh-What happened?" the crestfallen basilisk asked. "My gaze kills all living things turns them to stone! I was promised!"
"That's one of the advantages," Maid Tardis said, "of not being a living thing, exactly.
"And this body?" She turned the wrist of her free hand and extended her fingers. "It is already made of stone... Well, silicon and steel, and various rare alloys, actually. But that's close enough. That's why I have to do this myself, and not let you near my company."
She pulled back on her bow, and got ready to fire at point blank range. "The last time we met, Xaos, I was unable to oppose you directly. I had no choice but to watch as you and your master attacked. I am at no such disadvantage now."
Xaos hissed what it hoped was an evil hiss (but in truth, it just sounded very, very nervous). "You may kill me, TARDIS," it said. "But you, and all your guests will die in the process. As soon as you try to retrieve your weapon, the poison in my body will flow through you, your corridors and consoles. Your precious Eloise will never be able to touch you again."
"Who said anything about retrieving my weapon?" Maid TARDIS asked. "I've waited a long time for this. This is for Him."
Sweetheart loosed her bow.
The very instant that her maiden form opened her fingers, her dragon form let forth a blast of fire.
Just as the arrow pierced the basilisk's heart it was turned to a cinder and disappeared. The poison stored in the basilisk's veins evaporated into nothing more noxious that a foul smelling smoke.
:::Finally!::: thought Sweetheart. :::That took long enough. If only defeating the puppet master would be so easy.:::