Questions and Arrogance > Quests and Answers > X Marks the… What?

“There is a map,” Trader Gray continued, “but it must be quite out of date by now.” He spread it out anyway, and they all craned to look.

Bob the Muse tapped it thoughtfully. “‘Troynovaunt’,” he said “That’d be Archetype London, right? So ‘Gotham’ must be Archetype New York? Hmm, and the original ‘New Purchase’ is there, so, if there is now a sci-fi area, it must be somewhere around here.” He jabbed the map, just south of the “New Purchase” label. The Quadrillers were impressed, especially since, unlike the narrator of this scene, he hadn’t spent the best part of an hour researching the topic. Of course, they’d no way of knowing if he was right or not, but to be able to bluff like that is just as impressive as to be able to work it out.

Just then Daibhid, who’d disappeared off somewhere as soon as they arrived back at Sweetheart, re-emerged, wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt emblazoned with the crest of the Ceanaideaches. Incredibly, despite the fact it had just been pulled, clean and pressed, from the Rucksack, it was also emblazoned with three different kinds of sauce and two different fizzy drinks.

As he tied his hair back, he asked “So, what’s happening now?”

Imran and Trader Gray quickly filled him in.

“Right,” he said, doubtfully. “Um, not to start throwing bricks in the path, now we’re actually moving, but, well, firstly, we’re still not sure we’re actually going to the Commonwealth, or what we’re supposed to do when we get there.”

“That’s why our plan must contain an awful lot of imprrrrovisation,” retorted Seventh, making the last word run as long as possible. Improv was what he was best at, and after years of setting up the dominoes in advance it was a relief to get back to it. “And second?”

“Well, I hardly like to mention it, but what did happen to the nutters in the lobster suit?”

“‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar, sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’”


“‘I can’t explain myself, Sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’”


Excel looked up from the book to see Sister standing behind her, hands on hips. “Oh, hi, Sister. Hi, Ha-chan.” She gave them both a little smile then turned back to her novel.

“Excel,” said Sister with admirable patience, “you can stop reading now. The L33t curse has worn off.”

“Oh, I know! But this book is really good. It’s the first one Excel’s ever read that she can thoroughly relate to!”

“Then feel free to keep the book, dear. But for now, we should try getting out of here, don’t you think?”

“I dunno,” Excel said abstractedly. She turned to Hyatt for help. “Ha-chan, do I think? Is there any definitive philosophical or mathematical proof to demonstrate concretely that Excel thinks?”

Hyatt smiled sweetly at her, wiping a bit of blood off her chin. “Descartes said that you think, therefore you are, senior. Are you?”

“You bet I am! Ten thousand percent, baby!”

“Then, there you go.”

Sister just looked back and forth between them. The only thing she could think of to say was, “Eh, what?” So she said that.

But Excel wasn’t paying heed to her any more than she paid her phone bill, which was why Excel and Hyatt’s apartment was currently sporting a cordless, fully digital PCS soup can with a string nailed to it. “And so, having freed the innocent from her forgotten prison, cured Ha-chan of thinking she’s in another series, broken the curse that bound Excel’s little pink tongue, and firmly established Excel’s existence and sentience through logical deduction, it’s Miller Time! No, wait. I mean, it’s Escape Time!”

There was a brief pause as Excel tried not to be too obvious about not seeing any doors. Hyatt, ever-gracious, declined to point out the obvious to her, so it fell to Sister.

“Why don’t we go back the way you two came, dear?” she suggested with mildly-forced diplomacy.

“Right! That’s just what Excel was thinking about thinking about!” The blonde started toward the dumbwaiter, then turned to regard her compatriots with some concern. “The only thing is, there was barely room for Excel and Ha-chan. If we fit three people in there, we risk not only Ha-chan suffocating and keeling over dead—or rather, failing to keel over due to lack of space but still being most definitely deceased to the point where she wouldn’t ‘Voom!’ if you put four thousand volts through her—we also risk becoming far more intimately acquainted with each other than Excel really cares to, especially in view of the fact that Sister appears to have really pointy elbows, which I never could stand in a bedmate, er, dumbwaiter-mate, or whatever, you know?”

“That’s not a problem, dear. Just put me in your pocket.”

Excel took a step backwards. “Aheh heh… Perhaps you didn’t catch Excel’s earlier comment about getting too intimately acquainted? And besides, those elbows look painful enough without putting them that close to Excel’s ‘reserved parking area’, if you catch my drift—”

Sister put a semi-substantial finger against Excel’s lips to shush her. “I’m a hologram, remember? Ho-lo-gram. You know what one of those is, right?”

“Of course! It’s one of those messages you send people where the little guy in the pansy-looking uniform comes by and delivers it—”

Sister made her hand just a bit more substantial and bapped Excel lightly (a pun! a hologram pun! ha ha!) on the nose. “No, that’s a telegram, you relentlessly silly person. A hologram is a projection, made of controlled light. That’s all this body is, remember? I can turn it off, and the light bee is the only solid part that remains.” She flickered off for a moment, leaving the thumb-sized light bee floating in mid-air. When she flickered back on, the light bee was again invisible inside her body. And, Hyatt noticed, Sister’s elbows were a bit less bony-looking now. “Please tell me you understand, Excel,” she pleaded, “because I don’t think I can set my communication program to any lower a level of intellect without risking permanent mental impairment.”

“Excel understands perfectly, Sister!” the blonde shouted, snapping out her arm in a vaguely fascist salute. “Except for the part about the wombat, it’s all perfectly clear to your old buddy Excel!”

“I… didn’t mention any wombats…”

“Well then, that clears that right up, doesn’t it? Right! Ha-chan, into the dumbwaiter. Sister, into my pocket.” Excel held open her jacket pocket as Sister winked out of existence again and the light bee zipped quickly inside.

Once the two real girls had packed themselves onto the dumbwaiter platform, Excel stuck out a hand and slapped the button on the wall, which was, of course, marked ‘down’.

The dumbwaiter immediately began sliding diagonally sideways, carrying the three of them into the darkness again.

Eloise wandered shyly into the console room, where nearly everyone had gathered, and leaned against the doorway, trying piece together what had been happening while she was away. She was out of her ballgown, now, and had her fishing vest (waistcoat) back on. She had one hand in a pocket, turning a stream stone over and over between her fingers. Genny was right—it did seem to help.

The second Doctor turned at her approach and smiled. “Feeling better, Eloise?” he asked.

“A little,” she said quietly, nodding.

Trader Gray had a map spread out on one side of the main console, and many were reading it over his shoulder and chattering about something called ‘The Commonwealth of Letters’, whatever that was.

Florestan shouldered them out of the way, barely seeming to notice they were there. His brow was furrowed in concentration and puzzlement as he read data from various monitors, and made notes, mumbling to himself, and scratching his temple with the end of his pen, the way Eloise had seen him do, sometimes, when he was trying to figure something out.

Finally, he looked up, staring at some invisible point in mid space. “It makes no sense,” he said aloud. “But data gathered through a dozen different instruments… and it all corresponds. I can’t find any malfunction, anywhere. So it must be accurate… It makes no sense,” he said again.

What makes no sense?” Sixth demanded, in an exasperated tone.

“Beloved was continuing to receive and analyse information from the world we were in,” Florestan explained, “while we were in the club. According to her analysis, we were the only living things there—and yet, the signal she had picked up during the start of our quadrille was continually being sent.” He tapped a monitor showing lines of Arabic numbers and Greek letters. “According to this reading here, it’s being machine-generated—the kind of thing that can be turned on automatically, if the machine generating it detects a certain trigger.”

“The sonic wave interference pattern from the Doctors’ sonic screwdrivers,” Evan said.

Florestan nodded. “The whole thing could have been set up generations ago, and set into standby. The people who actually built the machine, and composed the message for it to send, might have all died by now—or moved on to somewhere else.”

“A message in a bottle,” Dom said, “—a warning for those who come later.”

Florestan nodded again. “Perhaps.”

“But all those people at the club—” Sarah Jane protested, “the riddle, the Queen shouting: ‘Get them!’ All that was real—not holographic images. Nobody faded away, after all…” she let her voice trail off. “Right?” she added, uncertainly.

“We perceived them to be real,” Florestan said. “That doesn’t mean they were real—at least, not by our definition of the term.”

“And we know by now,” Eighth interjected, “that our perceptions there were decidedly dodgy.”

“But that telepathic control device,” Barbara asked, “what about that?”

“I imagine,” Florestan said, “that that was how their translation technology worked—by communicating with us telepathically—attempting to communicate new ideas by reminding us of ideas that were already in our heads. That’s why we each saw (or heard) something different: no two people have the same ideas.”

“A rather uncertain way of communicating, then,” Trader Gray commented, “especially if your message is so important that you’d go to such lengths to send it.”

“Not if only one person responded,” Fifth pointed out. “There’d be no reason for one person to doubt what he was seeing. Maybe even two or three could get by without noticing anything amiss—but,” he scanned the room, mentally counting heads, “nearly a hundred? I don’t think any communication engineer in his right mind would’ve predicted this lot responding.”

There was brief rhubarb as those assembled acknowledged the validity of this point.

Eloise piped up at last. “Has Sweetheart worked out what the original message meant?” she asked.

Florestan shook his head. “Not yet,” he said. “She’s had to divide her attention between deciphering the message, and translating for all of us.” He looked up at the assembled guests. “So I’m going to divert her translation circuitry to focus solely on the message. I ask that you all refrain from talking for the moment; I do not need to contend with a ‘Tower of Babel’ in the background. Doctor?” He signalled for the nine to gather around. “I take it you can understand a little of my Gallifreyan?”

The nine nodded, and came in close, gathering around the monitor to peer at the arrangement of numbers and letters. Florestan flipped a switch, and they all began to hear the peculiar lilt and accent of Old High Gallifreyan—slow but fluent from Florestan, slow and halting from the Doctors.

All watched in strained silence for several minutes as the Time Lords discussed the message unfolding before them. First and Third ruffled each others’ feathers at one point, and Florestan snapped at Fourth at another. But then, they settled down, and began to confer with each other, and ask questions, and glance between each others’ notes and the display on the screen.

As they worked, Eloise watched Florestan especially. This was the kind of thing he loved to do best, and now that his attention was focused on the task at hand, rather than on the quirks in the Doctors’ personas, he seemed more relaxed in their company. And for their part, the Doctors’ Old High Gallifreyan seemed to become more fluent as they went along. Eloise’s hope that they would become good friends returned.

Finally, they all nodded, satisfied. Florestan straightened, and flipped the switch back.

“This is pretty much a confirmation of what ‘the Queen of Clubs’ told us,” he said, “considering how confused that conversation was… Approximately some hundred and fifty years ago, the inhabitants of this world began to notice a strange madness spread among members of the royal family, which then spread to persons of the court, and all the servants, and from there to the villages—spreading like a contagious disease, or so it seemed.”

“The divergence of perception,” Allie said.

First nodded, and took up the tale. “… Until people started disappearing. In their madness, they started to wander off—and not come back.”

“Their private, perceptual worlds became real, separate universes,” Florestan continued, “and people were wandering off into them. The message says they suspect this was the result of deliberate sabotage, for the madness began shortly after a diplomatic visit with a foreign king. What kind of sabotage, the composer of the message did not know.”

“And we were called to find out—and fix it,” Zoe said.

“So how do we do that? Eloise asked.

“We go back out there,” Florestan said, quietly.

Once again, the intrepid partiers went through the ballroom and out the doors where the mirror once stood.

This time, the world beyond the door was not a run-down dead city, but simply an array of blank, metallic structures—thoroughly mechanical, thoroughly square.

“Hey!” Nuku-Nuku said. “Where did Wonderland go?”

“We weren’t expecting it,” Amber explained quietly, “so it isn’t here. Since we now understand that the message came from a machine in a world with no people in it, that’s what we see.”

Glitch-Bob had followed this exchange intently, an expression of concentration evident on his face. He frowned a moment, then decided to add his two cents.

“I… I think I get it,” he said, slowly.

The Doctors all turned to face him, along with most of the assembled crowd. Bob began to instantly regret saying anything, a slight flush of embarrassment turning his cheeks an interesting shade of purple (blue skin being what it is).

“Well, my boy?” prodded First. “Spit it out!”

“Uh, well… it’s just a thought…”

“All input is welcome,” Eighth interjected. “We Time Lords don’t always have the answers, you know.”

“It’s a Game,” he blurted out.

The blank stares didn’t help his confidence level. “Uh. Where I come from. We play games. We… temporarily download attributes from the, uh, game’s database… to enable us to play, to beat the User. Er… the opposition. I think… I think we’re being asked for help to find something. And they’re putting it into terms we can process. Like a Quest, or something. It’s a Game.”

There was silence for a few moments. Silently, the reality around them melted away, spilling over into green grass and rolling hillsides. The group now found themselves standing atop the battlements of a large, ancient stone castle.

“Oops,” Bob said.

Alryssa raised an eyebrow. “You were thinking Quest in terms of knights in shining armour, weren’t you?”


“Well, you’ve got the shiny armour, at least,” Lyss chimed in.

Eloise took in the new landscape. Even the gentle breeze that snapped the castle’s banners tasted fresh and authentic. “I think a more appropriate question at this juncture would be… what are we looking for, and why?”

“And the game thing would explain this here +3 Longsword,” said Evan, hoisting a very impressive-looking sword-and-scabbard.

“Not to mention all these Bolts of Slaying,” said Zoe, who now held in one hand a small crossbow, and on her back a quiver full of metal bolts.

“I hope this doesn’t mean things will get all hack-and-slashy.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry. If the Carroll influence is still floating around it won’t get worse than a few snicker-snacks from a vorpal sword.”

Dammit, Evan thought. Now I want a Snickers.

“Besides,” Zoe continued, “it’s still a game, a fantasy.”

“Like when Ian and Barbara play—”

“No, no, I mean, well, still fictionish. Nothing gritty or bloody, I’d expect.”

“I hope you’re right.” There was a pause. Evan thought of something. “You know, it’s comforting to think that tabletop role-playing survived at least as far as whatever era it is you come from.”

“Well, the real resurgence came when they found out you could get mono from playing too much EverQuest.”

“Not again!” Imran screeched. “Not another damn fantasy setting again!!”

“Well, my boy…” First noted, “it appears that young Glitch-Bob is defining our present reality at the moment…”

“…So does that mean we could all define reality as we like?” Sandra said.

“And is this the same reality as Beloved?” Florestan inquired.

Bob shook his head. “I think we’ve entered… er, we’re in the reality of the Game—or the Quest, or whatever. I think.

“As for whether we can shape reality…” He nodded to Zoe and Evan. “But you have to play by the rules of the Game.”

“Could that have been an Invocation?” Carrie murmured to Gray.

“Perhaps… though it seems oddly casual for such,” Gray murmured back. “For the moment, it’s best to play along, and get the lie of the land…”

“Oh no…” Imran murmured. “If that means what I think it means…”

His gaze alighted on a small, clear patch of ground below.


True to his word, a fireball erupted in his hand, and blasted into the ground below.

“The mage. Again, with the mage!”

“Um, boss…?” Trella said.

Amber turned, and facefaulted. “Wonderful.”

Trella’s skin had turned green, and two little horns had sprung up from her forehead.

“Er…” Gordon said.

“She’s a demon—a Lilim, to be precise,” Amber said. “And when I say that, I mean she’s one in our reality, too. Apparently, this Game has demons as a PC option.”

“…You couldn’t have mentioned that?” Gordon said.

“Amber saw fit to inform me of Trella’s true nature when she came in,” Florestan said quietly.


Amy blinked at Trella, then pulled herself together.

“Sorry,” she apologised. “For a moment there, I thought she was an Orion dancing girl…”

Someone tugged at the Fifth Doctor’s elbow. Jonah—who, in common with a large number of the others present, had been unnaturally quiet and confused-looking since their abrupt transition—now wore a determined expression.

She also wore a horned helmet, a large battle-axe, and a chainmail hauberk that emphasised a physique that had become even more barrel-shaped than previously… not to mention the plaited beard. In fact, judging by the way she was tugging at it, not mentioning the dwarfish beard looked like a very good idea…

“You know what you were saying, back there? Worlds of perceptions, losing yourself, all that stuff?” Her face was screwed up in what looked like a fierce effort of concentration, and a slight expression of alarm crossed Fifth’s own features as she pulled at him again. But he bent down obediently, carefully avoiding a helmet-horn that threatened to take out his eye, and nodded.

“Perceptual divergence, yes. You see, the world each of us thinks he lives in isn’t quite the same as the world his neighbour sees; and the truth is neither, and both—”

“Shut up—” Jonah tried to put her hand up to his mouth. “No, no, don’t talk—you’ll make me forget it again—”

The “Please” was clearly appended as an afterthought. But to do her justice, she did remember it.

Fifth, cut off in the middle of the explanation on which he’d apparently been asked to embark, looked decidedly perplexed. “What is it?”

“I think I’ve got it worked out so it makes sense to me,” Jonah told him. “So you just listen and tell me if I’m wrong—OK?”

Exchanging a surreptitious raised eyebrow with several of his other selves, the Fifth Doctor donned his most amiable and patient expression… and waited.

“What you’re saying,” Jonah said loudly and slowly, “is that dreams are coming real—right?”

She shot him a look. The Doctor seemed to be temporising with himself.

“Day-dreams… nightmares… stuff you make up, I dunno. Only it sounds to me like that thing in Narnia, where they found that island where dreams come true, only it turned out it was horrible. Lost in your own world—stuff you think you see starts coming true.”

She shivered. “Do you know if rats dream? Only, when we were back there, Biggles got hold of some cherries…”

“Why, sirs, I nearly think that WOW!,” bounced Candy, holding up two rather scanty sheets of mithril links. “Chick chainmail!!!” She ducked under the bar and proceeded vigorously to change, causing formal garments to fly out across the room at a rate worthy of a Benny Hill sketch.

Fastolf flickered his nictating membranes painedly. “It scarce becomes a gentledrake to quibble in matters of a damosel’s comportment and fashion; and yet meseems that ZOUNDS! ODS SODKINS! OUT HARROW ALAS ALACKANAEON!! I’M A SHOGGOTH-SWIVEN APE!!!!(…)!!!!”

For indeed, certain subtle changes had crept over the great reptile. His harlequin-enamelled scales had morphed into an eye-wateringly rich and gaudy doublet-and-hose outfit; his crests into a high neck-ruff and an outrageous swan-feathered hat; and himself into a tall and brawny human of noble port, purplish complexion (probably from all that noble port), and truly majestic girth. With nictating membranes his eyes—now large and of a deep, liquid brown—were notably unprovided. As if in a trance, he reached downwards and picked up a lyre not previously observed.

“I think your natural translation would have been a dragon,” Amber explained helpfully. “They… tend not to be allowed as player characters, for some reason.”

“Now I know how bully Bottom felt,” Fastolf grumbled, making such a nod of thanks as his starched ruff would allow. “’Tis a judgement on my old incarnation’s dramatic cruelties; shall ne’er change my ways no whit, save as it persuade me to redouble ’em in despite!” He fell to plucking at the lyre; discovering it to be already tuned, he began picking out a tune upon it. A bone-deep, thrilling fear insinuated itself into the very souls of the assembled company, as if terrors viewless and unnameable thronged the very air about them.

“Er, Fastolf,” said Gordon, through chattering teeth, “I wouldn’t play ‘Brave Sir Robin’ on that any more, if I were you…”

“How not?” The Bard spoke mildly enough, but in the way of one at the very end of his tether.

“’Cos you’d rather not owe us all some really heavy laundry bills in about fifteen seconds?”

“Ah.” The sweet fall of the melody fell abruptly off, as it were. ’Twere. “Too eloquent mine art for the ravishable souls of mortals, e’en in this strange guise of me. Well, ’twas to be thought on. Haply shall find occasion to further our quest, anon.”

As the dire sounds of the Bardic lute died away, at least one interrupted conversation was not resumed.

“I’m sorry,” the Doctor said politely, turning back to Jonah, “you were saying—?”

But only the rear view of the erstwhile Dwarven Warrior was visible, scrambling rapidly into the seclusion of a bramble-bush. Noises of distress suggested that Fastolf’s air had threatened to turn her bowels to water in a manner not entirely metaphorical. After the first startled glance, the Doctor tactfully averted his eyes.

“Do you know ‘Virgin Sturgeon’?” Candy inquired, scrambling out from under the table in two wisps of elven-wrought Metallic Cloth of Proof, such as would readily turn the fangs of even a Shelob by its cunning workmanship, or the heads of anyone remotely attracted to girls by the manner in which she filled it out, which unfortunately cannot be described here or in any other newsgroup this side of Salacia. A vicious set of spiked rings adorned her left hand; her cat-o-nine-tails swung jauntily from a gilded swordbelt. Here, in the flesh and stylishly little else, was the face and more that launched a thousand covers for Extruded Fantasy Product, to say nothing of rather a high proportion of D&D modules, cast figures, and gratuitous would-be eye-Mrs-Candia-Harcourtage!

THUNK, went an overstrained conceit as it slumped dead to the floor. Everyone mercifully ignored it.

“Candy!” said Carrie sharply. “Basingstoke!

“In this?” Candy did a twirl.

“Perhaps not…”

“Besides, you’re hardly the one to tell me to lay off the nymphing now, huh?”

“What are you talking about?” the Trader demanded.

“The tender green flush of your silky sun-browned skin,” Candy cooed, “the viridian sheen of your summer-kissed hair…”

The Trader flushed violently, though not greenly in any way. “Stop trying to get around me, woman! This ‘coming between me and Carrie’ routine is a miserable old joke—”

“Yeah, but it might be a nice new exp—”

“CANDY!!!” Carrie exploded furiously. And, extending a monitory finger, became aware of its charmingly verdant tint.

“Oh dear,” said the AI-Muse, with all her old self-control. “This comes of getting my body from the Thorn last year, I suppose. I seem to be something very like a dryad!”

Trader Grey frowned. “Wait a minute. If you’re a dryad, where’s your tree?

Carrie whispered briefly and rapidly into his ear, of which the only word caught by the general company was the unlikely ‘stock’. His flush markedly failed to abate at this cryptic confidence.

“Ahem,” he remarked rather weakly, once he’d regained the ability to breathe. “Well, that’s all right, then!”

“Doctor,” said an elven Nyssa curiously, as the above farcical evolutions played themselves out, “why do you suppose Gray looks exactly the same except for his blaster? That’s rather anomalous, isn’t it?”

“Yes…” Fifth’s expression, often suspicious of late when directed at certain Authors, acquired a meditative cast.

“Er…” Adric broke in apprehensively, “I think he’s probably a Thief of some kind. Most likely a Charlatan, if it’s a higher edition with the proper supplements!”

“I doubt he’d react well to learning that,” the Doctor noted.

“Like he’s got problems!” said Tegan indignantly, still looking for somewhere about her skimpy Austral Barbarian togs to put the Boomerang of Hitting Things That Are Possessing You At The Time, +4 vs. Snakes and Dodgy Special Effects.

“I think,” the Doctor went on, “that we should… choose the moment rather carefully. For his own good!”

“Bonzer plan, Doc!” chorused Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan.

“Excuse me!” Tegan huffed, a heartbeat later.

“What in the name of Rissole-on has happened to us?”

Daibhid turned to see two very short, rather plump figures in bright clothes and bare, fuzzy feet. If it hadn’t been for their still-outsized noses, he wouldn’t have recognised them at all. “Ah. It would appear the game inexplicably lacks Melmacians as well as Terileptils. It looks like the closest it could come to you and ALF were Halflings. I wonder what the trolls have become?” Looking round to see them, he spotted Bob the Muse. Looking almost exactly the same as he had when he’d been poring over the map.

“So how come you don’t look much different?”

“Ah. That’s exactly why I wear a long, shabby coat, covered in pockets. Fits in anywhere, y’see. Shame the guitar turned into a lute, though, ’cos I’m hedgehogged if I know how to play one.”

Daibhid nodded, and ruefully looked down. He’d scarcely changed into his own clothes, and now he was wearing a green robe, covered in mystic symbols. It was belted with a stout belt of vegetable fibres from which varous pouches hung, containing mysterious substances. Beside him was a stout staff with, inevitably, a knob on the end. “I think I’m a wizard,” he hazarded.

Really?” said Bob with the wide-eyed surprise only achievable by the truly sarcastic. “Well, we seem to have a surfeit of them. Makes sense, I suppose. I mean, Time Lords are hardly the sword-swinging type. And I can’t see Florestan or most of the Doctors as rogues, either. Fifth seems to be a Cleric, though.”

“Well, of course he is. Lawful Good, I’ll bet, as well. And it looks like Second’s another bard. Anyway, from the look of this spellbook, I’m not a Mage, I’m a specialist. Abjurer.”

“Heh. Also makes sense,” grinned Bob. Daibhid looked up sharply.

“What? What makes you say that? I mean, granted, I’m a bit shy, but that hardly means I’ve got a personality you’d associate with wanting to repel things, does it? Abjurers are… are…”

“Defensive?” asked Bob the Muse innocently.

“Er, yeah.” Deciding to change the subject, Daibhid asked, “Has anyone seen Schroedy or the Rucksack?”

“Schroedy’s still with me,” Lorill reassured him. “I haven’t seen your bag, though.”

“Um, you aren’t going to believe this…” said Imran. He pointed.

Barreling across the glade towards the castle was a wooden chest. On hundreds of little legs.

Gordon and Imran exchanged glances. “Well, that’s all we need…”

“Okay, Iz, you’re our resident RPG geek. Any ideas?” Sam said.

Izzy took a deep breath. “Okay… I’m just guessing, but I think Stacy’s a Cleric.”

“Which’d explain these damn robes…” Stacy said, gesturing at the ankle-length golden robes she now wore.

“I think it’s thanks to Placebo Effect,” Izzy explained. “Ssard… well, his translation would be easy. Lizardman Paladin, I think. Or holy warrior. Paladin equivalent, anyway.”

“Hm.” Ssard looked down at the leather mail he now wore.

“Not plate armour,” Izzy hastened to add. “Too bulky for a lizardman.”

“…I see,” Ssard said. “A honourable title.”

“Me… I think Rogue, at a shot. Jack of all trades thing. Maybe Commoner, if this is 3rd ed…” Izzy frowned. “Destrii… Sahaugin Fighter.”

Yes!” Destrii punched the air, making her skimpy chainmail bikini jingle in the process. “Go me!”

Izzy rolled her eyes. “Okay, Sam, you’re an elf… probably a Druid, unless I miss my guess.”

“Sidhe blood strikes again,” Sam said, matching Izzy’s eyeroll. “Let me guess: the whole ‘Friend of the Earth’ thing didn’t help, did it?”

“Nope,” Izzy said apologetically. “Fitz is a Bard—well, that’s a ‘duh’, anyway.”

“Great…” Fitz said, eyeing Fastolf’s outfit, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the one Fitz now wore, but for the fact that Fitz’s looked significantly more shabby and down-at-heel. “…What’s a Bard do?”

“Spell-songs, musical effects, rogue skills, some skill at fighting, that kind of thing,” Izzy explained. “Your basic all-rounder.”

Fitz straightened, looking a bit more confident. “Gotcha.”

“Charley…” Izzy frowned. “Edwardian Adventuress… Rogue. Easily. Maybe a Swashbuckler, if they’re using that…”

“That explains the tunic and jacket…” Charley noted, hand unconsciously going over the rapier by her side.

“…I think it classed C’rizz as a lizardman, too,” Izzy went on. “The whole reptilian thing again. I think Rogue again, in his case—the whole urbane, down-to-earth thing’s usually associated with that class.”

“I love stereotyping,” C’rizz observed to no-one in particular. “All right. Why’d it do Ssard and me as lizardmen, and Fastolf there as a human?”

Izzy ahemmed. “I think because you two are closer to the lizardman ‘look’. Fastolf’s… um… closer to a dragon.”

“Ah,” C’rizz said.

“Trix… only one class it could be. Illusionist. Probably an elven one, what with those eyes…”

“Gotcha,” Trix’s voice said from thin air.

“Anji… got a ‘duh’ here, too. Diviner.”

That’s original…” Anji muttered, pulling at her plain grey robes.

“Fey’s a Rogue—possibly a Ninja, if they’re using an Oriental expansion…”

Fey raised an eyebrow. “Not surprising. I suppose the black bodysuit matched, too.”

Izzy nodded. “And as for Compassion… well, like they said, TARDIS’s right out, and so are shoggoth and dragon. So… let’s see, tactless, blunt, direct, to-the-point… sorry, Cam… your basic standup Fighter.”

“Obviously,” Compassion noted, crossing her arms. “What did you expect?”

“I refuse to answer that on the grounds of serious bodily harm,” Fitz said, eyeing the sword strapped to her side. “And our boy?”

Izzy gave him a patented Look. “Did you ever have any doubt? Mr Elemental Force of Nature himself? Evoker.”

As one, they eyed Eighth, who turned and raised an eyebrow.

“…Oh, wonderful…” Sam muttered.

The others nodded in agreement.

Amber checked Nuku-Nuku’s wrist, whilst the catgirl watched her nervously.

“What is it, Amber-san?” Nuku-Nuku said with concern. “What’s wrong?”

“…Er,” Amber said finally. “I think you’re now completely human.”

“…Nuku-Nuku is what?” Nuku-Nuku gawped.

“Completely human,” Amber’s expression started reddening in embarrassment. “Er, one with exceptionally high levels of strength and dexterity, but, er…”

“Oh,” Nuku-Nuku said. “So… this is why Nuku-Nuku’s sensory input has been reduced? And why Nuku-Nuku is no longer getting input from her internal systems?”

Amber nodded. “Yes.”

“Oh,” Nuku-Nuku said again.

She considered this.

“Nuku-Nuku is not sure what the big fuss is about.”

“I think Q might agree with you about that…” Amber said.

“I thought that when I got my first Vessel,” Trella observed. “Not the Q thing, but the whole big fuss thing…”

“Ooh! Are those horns real, Trella-san?” Nuku-Nuku experimentally poked at them.

Trella shuddered at the touch. “Er… Nuku, I wouldn’t do that.”

“Why not?” Nuku-Nuku wondered, poking at a horn again.

Trella looked pleadingly at Amber.

Amber winced.

“Er… they’re kind of one of my erogenous zones…” Trella tried to explain.

She looked at Nuku-Nuku’s blank expression.

“They trigger a… ooh… a thrill if you touch them the right way.” Trella wriggled a little as Nuku-Nuku kept poking. “Trouble is, the pleasure you get from it distracts you from what’s going on around you.”

“…Oh,” Nuku-Nuku said. “You mean like the sort of thing that happens to someone whenever Nuku-Nuku touches their breasts?”

Trella winced. “Yeah. But a bit more… intense.”

“Okay. Nuku-Nuku will stop poking.”

Trella let out a long, shuddering sigh of relief. “Oh yeahhhh… Thanks, Nuku.”

“Any time, Trella-san,” Nuku-Nuku said.

“Although,” Trella said, “I wouldn’t mind if you tried it again— Not now,” she added hastily, for Nuku-Nuku’s benefit, “but when we get some quiet time.”

“Okay, Trella-san!” Nuku-Nuku said happily.

Amber raised an eyebrow. “I thought you said you’d never worked for Lust?”

“I didn’t,” Trella said. “But I haven’t had my horns tickled in a long time…”

Amber gave Trella a Look. “Just so long as I don’t have to say anything to Nuku-Nuku’s father, alright?”

Trella sighed, a little regretfully. “Okay, boss.”

Nuku-Nuku’s forehead furrowed. “Why would Amber-san have to say anything to Papa-san about Nuku-Nuku touching Trella’s horns?”

“It’s along the lines of the breast-touching thing,” Amber said. “But as long as Trella says it’s okay, it’s okay.”

Trella nodded.

“Oh. Okay,” Nuku-Nuku said. “As long as it’s okay with Trella-san.”

Amber eyed her PA. “I think you could say that…”

Trella turned an interesting shade of greenish-red.

“So when he talked about the Game…” Allie said.

Florestan nodded. “I would guess that in Bob’s interpretation, Wonderland was a way for our minds to interpret the reality underlying it. We were seeing things in terms we could understand. He concluded we were being asked to find something, to search for something… and once he reached that conclusion, his perceptual reality said that ‘Wonderland’ should redefine itself to fit those terms.”

“…Er… oops?” Bob offered, his cheeks purpling with embarrassment.

“I suspect if I had done that Invocation Carrie spoke of, we would now have found ourselves in the Commonwealth.” Florestan frowned. “However, that still doesn’t answer what we’re looking for here. I suggest, since this group is large enough, that we split up and search the castle.”

“What’re we looking for?”

“A scroll, maybe?” Tessa suggested. “That usually tells you what you’re looking for in this sort of thing.”

“Hmm…” Florestan said. “Very well.” He rubbed at his beard. “But given the nature of the situation, I would also suggest we search for anything to do with perception—crystal balls, mirrors, reflecting pools… anything of that sort. If what we perceive is the problem, then an object that deals with perception would seem to be our goal. However, I doubt it would be so easy as to find it here…”

Bob nodded. “It’d make the Game too easy.”

“And we wouldn’t want that, now, would we…?” Katherine muttered.

previous - index - next

Story copyright © 2003 the original authors; this compilation copyright © 2003–2005 Igenlode Wordsmith and Paul Andinach; HTML modified by Imran Inayat.