Quests and Answers > X Marks the… What? > Smells Like Team Spirit

Crichton shook his head. “This just gets weirder and weirder.” He turned to Lyss and Alryssa, who had also managed to change in accordance with the new surroundings. “Hellooooo nurse.”

“Careful, or you’ll be saying hello to some forged steel,” Lyss smirked, brandishing her bejewelled dagger around for effect. Gordon made a sound approximating, “Eep!”, moving out of arm’s reach.

“Great,” he said. “Two women with sharp pointy things.”

Alryssa assessed her dark green clothing, overlaid with leather armour, and the finely crafted bow in her right hand. “Woo! I get a bow!” She reached over her shoulder to pull an arrow from its quiver, admiring the handiwork. She glanced up at Bob. “I knew it was a good idea to bring you along.”

Bob looked at her, hopefully. “Does this mean you’ll write me with less angst in your next fic?”

She seriously considered this for a moment. “We’ll see,” she replied, then went back to testing the string on her wooden bow.

Imran grinned. “Some things never change,” he said.

“So we’re looking for something that affects perception,” Eloise mused aloud.

“That’s a lot of potential objects,” Lyss replied. “Mirrors, crystal balls… even enchanted lakes, and objects one can wear…”

“The Aurora Chair…” Harvey murmured, to glares from Crichton and the rest assembled.

“Well, I’d hope it was something we could actually lay hands on. Er. If anything here is real, that is,” Glitch-Bob sighed.

“I’m personally more interested in why whoever this is wants us to find this… object,” Florestan interjected. “Why indeed it is lost to them, what kind of power it wields. I do not like to enter into… Quests… without some kind of foreknowledge.”

He took the notepad on which he had scribbled the translation of the message out of his pocket.

“Hmm,” he said. “Since the inhabitants were going mad by the time this message was sent, the person composing the message might also have been mad. It’s the old question of how do you trust someone who tells you he always lies… Still, one has to have trust in something, and start somewhere, so for the time being, I am going to trust this message, and take it on face value.”

“There’s no Game without a User,” Bob said, without thinking to translate from Sprite to Human terms. “Uh. I mean, the opposition.”

Florestan nodded. “Indeed. In this case, we seem to be dealing with an opponent from the past—whoever it was who planted the sabotage in the first place, 150 years ago.”

“And how do we even know we’re on the right side?” Eloise added. “I mean, how can we be sure we’re not the ones who’re the opposition?”

“We can’t,” Florestan answered, “not entirely. But as I said, we have to trust in something. Maid TARDIS could not translate the message when she was first aware of it, but she sensed it was an honest message, and not a trap—one does not need to know a language to pick up on the intent of the speaker. Besides, Beloved’s mind is not like ours—or any other. A device—or a poison—designed to affect organic brains, would not affect hers. And so I trust her judgement… I always do, but in this case, especially.”

“Does that mean Bob’s immune, too?” Alryssa asked, grinning at him and nudging him with her elbow.

Bob ducked his head and shuffled his feet in the grass.

“I suspect so,” Florestan said. “And Delirium, too, I imagine, for the opposite reason—she already lives in a world where her… unique… perception is made manifest.

“As for the rest of us, we face a grave danger. We must always hold on to the Real, like a guide rope across a raging stream.”

“But how do we know what’s real?” Eloise asked.

“By focussing on what we perceive together. Usually, we take that for granted. We can’t, this time.”

[Magnus coughed; people near him turned. He was still wearing Regency dress; the only thing that had changed was his sword, which now looked much more useful than the average dress one.]
I believe people are making several dangerous assumptions here; the fact that neither Varne or I have not been forced into a role supports that. This seems to be one of the border lands of the Commonwealth. Lands that have acquired a limited reality of their own. They are mutable to an extent, unlike the Commonwealth.
The assumptions?
If your quest takes you into the Commonwealth proper, which is likely, conditions will not be the same. First, most of it is governed by someone or other; they will not take kindly to people walking in and breaking laws. Second, you will not have the normal edge of rolegamers: the rules will not be bent in favour of player characters. Third, anything that has made it into the popular subconscious can be found, not just fictional characters. Fourth, some literature is dangerous and was popular; you could find yourself in conflict with someone from a ghost story or Gothic horror.
So are you going to suggest what we should do?
I can give advice based on my experience, and help you achieve something when you have decided to do it, but I can not tell you how to conduct the quest.
Why? You seem to know the areas better than us.
He did say he has been to the Commonwealth before. There is only one quest allowed per person. We count as supporting characters—you know, the ones who say something cryptic at intervals and sometimes pull out unexpected talents to bail out the hero in badly written fantasy.
The basic rules of this place mean that there should be a way past every encounter; that way may need cleverness or force or even just running—it is up to the questor to decide. I have never heard of a quest with this many principals, though.

Florestan nodded. “Very few people have, I’m sure,” he said, with a touch of humor. “Certainly, the people who sent out that automatic signal weren’t expecting it.”

He reached into a vest pocket and pulled out something that reminded Eloise of a navigational compass, and apparently that was what it was, for he consulted it with a sniff and said: “We are neither in the Commonwealth of Letters nor a computer game, as such, but still somewhere in the inner dimensions. Since Beloved has not moved or reconfigured her doorway, I’d say that we are still, physically, in the exact same spot we were when we stepped out onto the roof the first time.”

Eloise looked at him, goggle-eyed. “That compass can show us where we are in the inner dimensions?” she asked.

“No,” Florestan, said, “it can’t. As a matter of fact, it is thoroughly confused at the moment—all three needles are spinning around quite freely.” He winked down at her. “That’s how I know we are not anywhere in the outer five dimensions. If we were, this little gem would show us exactly where we stood in space-time.”

Florestan had no spectacles, but he still tilted his head as though he were looking over a pair, as he spoke to Magnus. “It is my firm opinion that you, sir, are ninety percent bravado, and nine percent bluff,” he said. “None of us have any reason to take your word as fact simply because you say we should.”

He turned, and bowed slightly toward Glitch-Bob. “I have as much reason to trust this young man’s opinion, as trust yours,” (Glitch-Bob blushed again at this). “In fact, I have more reason to trust him, as you have shown yourself to be devious, holding on to all your powers, despite our wishes, as hosts, that you would not.”

Magnus opened his mouth to protest, but Florestan cut him off. “Oh, you are obeying the letter of our law, I’ll grant you that. But you are certainly not honoring the spirit. Nor do I like these Nine and Ninety of yours,” Florestan added, with emphasis.

“They are not my Nine and Ninety!” Magnus managed to spit out. “I hate them, and they hate me!”

“A mangy dog hates the fleas on his back,” the Nth Doctor muttered under his breath, “Doesn’t mean he can go anywhere without them.”

“Besides,” Glitch-Bob added, quietly, “There are games where players can play themselves. The fact that you haven’t changed your appearance proves nothing.”

Florestan nodded. “However, Magnus has reminded us of an important point: assumptions are dangerous things. I think, in fact, that there is only one assumption that is safe for us to make and that is this: that none of us can be sure of anything we think we know.”

With that, he returned the compass to his pocket. “Shall we begin?” he asked, and strode off toward the castle.

“Good thing Lazarus Long isn’t here,” observed Seventh to no self in particular. “His lot think normal spacetime has six dimensions.”

“What?” First snapped at Fourth.

“Oh,” Fourth grinned, “it’s just that with the beard and the long blue robes you’re indistinguishable from Space Merlin.”

“He looks like me, rather, as you well know,” First retorted. “You, on the other hand, look rather like Dumbledore—or would, were your beard not as straggly as in ‘Leisure Hive’.”

“Did the King Arthur in Time and Space lot ever show?” Sixth asked, but Second cut off any otherwise forthcoming response as may have been.

“Look! Look!” he was hissing with excitement at those of himself who weren’t circulating among their companions with words of encouragement and character class description. T(he)y gathered around Second who pointed some distance away, where Florestan and Magnus were exchanging heated words.

“What of it?” Fourth asked.

“Don’t you see?” said Second. “It’s a couple of scholar-sage-heroes taking the piss out of each other—and for once neither of them’s any of me!”

“Ah!” said Fourth, and they all hunkered down to watch.

“Over already?” said Seventh as Florestan turned his back on Magnus and his attention onto the castle. The Doctors began to break up.

“Wait!” said Second, pointing Magnus’ way again. “The Trader!”

Magnus’s expression was unreadable.

“Careful, Lord,” said Varne, “remember the Marie Celeste incident!”

“That is the way to go, Varne, always eager to put me in a better mood.”

“Yes, Lord, but it would never have happened if you hadn’t insisted on beating the captain at quoits.”

“That is an interesting position, being wrong in so many ways that I doubt even the ability of sorcery to count them, though it has the minor merit of being technically true. Still, it is hardly the first time my honour has had no profit in another’s country, so to speak.” He made a sinister noise which might possibly have been a chuckle. “I fear that we are cast as the Misjudged Mysterious & Ambivalent Stranger kind of Plot People for these shenanigans. Gray,” he said, as the approaching Trader made to speak, “would you care to wager that events will bear me out?”

“Am I not the champion and exemplar of all Traders?” Gray swirled his cloak gaily. “Do I resemble Kenny Rogers in any detectable way? Do I care to gamble with you, on a proposition so widely drawn that one could probably drive Cthulhu’s own battlebus through it?” He cleared his throat. “Let me answer this question with yet one more: how would you feel about an excellent opportunity to invest a huge kazooma of moola on the Alaskan-Kalonian cigarette run, rewards commensurate to risks?”

“Alas,” admitted Magnus, “our operating capital is tied up for the foreseeable future in important things that go ‘bang’ and ‘mwahahaha, foolish mortal, you know not what you summon, oh crap, it’s you again!’. Your point, such as it is, is taken. Nonetheless, surely a ‘freetrader’ so wide-ranging in other people’s fictions must recognise the borders of the Commonwealth when he sees them?!”

“I suspect that may be one way of looking at it,” the Trader acknowledged, “the amount of foreshadowing appearing somewhat disproportionate otherwise; but I doubt it’s a wise way of looking at it until we’ve completed the quest. My guess—backed up by the timeless wisdom of the Doctor himself!—is that without some infallible means of controlling our own perceptions, any entry into lands with strongly fictional roots is apt to result in our ‘softly and suddenly vanishing away’ into our own private realities—just as per the inhabitants’ own problem!” He awarded Magnus a small, neat bow. “And my further guess, sir, is that you, we, and indeed the universe in general would rather you in particular did not undergo that doubtless illuminating experience. Am I wrong?”

Magnus considered this one briefly, expressed his feelings in a language which perhaps fortunately was in fact an exceptionally archaic form of Sumerian, and then scowled. “I cannot say so for definite; at any rate you are right that the prospect does not especially please. But this is a notion or two to be pulling out of mid-air!”

“Guilty,” said Carrie steadily. “I wondered why we were being shovelled into such a stereotyped game and made so painfully aware of it. Then I thought there must be a good reason to bind us into something… mechanically demarcated from fiction. If we find ourself in a trap-ridden dungeon-crawl, full of ridiculous plot contrivances and lame action-jokes such as Game Masters love—” She shot a look of affectionate exasperation at Trader Grey, who appeared to sense no possible reference, “—then that’s points for our theory.”

“Oh, yes,” said Varne innocently. “Did the Doctor have anything to add?”

“He said, ‘Quite so, dear boy, quite so!’” the Trader informed all and sundry proudly.

“Quite so,” returned Magnus, one corner of his mouth twitching half-against his will. “How much of this rigmarole do you actually believe, and how much was purely diplomatic?”

“Diplomatic?” said Trader Grey. “I don’t know the meaning of the word, as my charming amanuensis, comrade, and longtime companion will surely, in her pretty and superhumanly (though in no way mechanically) witty way, conf—OW!!!” He bent down to rub his injured ankle.

“He doesn’t, you know,” Carrie confirmed, slapping him between the shoulder-blades.

“‘Champion and exemplar of all traders’?” Trella snarked. “I’d like to have a Seraph get a listen of that one…”

Carrie raised an eyebrow.

“For reasons I hope should be obvious to all and sundry, I do not entirely care to bargain with others’ souls,” the Trader informed Trella. “That should not, however, detract from the truth of my statement.”

Trella snickered. “That’s certainly true… Trust me, that’s one of the biggest piles of Balprop I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a few…”

“‘Balprop’?” The Trader raised an inquiring eyebrow. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of encountering that delightful term before…”

“You wouldn’t,” Trella informed him. “Not unless you’d ever actually met a Bal…”

“Hmm. ‘Lilim’. ‘Seraph’. Might I take it, then, that you are from a Judeo-Christian–based cosmos?” the Trader asked.

“You might say that…” Trella said.

The Trader waved it off. “I’ve encountered some particularly unusual variants on Judeo-Christian myth in my time; one more wouldn’t shake my Universe.”

Trella looked around at the Quadrillers, now in various stages of progression down from the battlements. “Probably not…”

“So would I be correct in assuming that you are one of Lilith’s fair Children?”

“Daughters,” Trella corrected. “Mom only has Daughters. Even the boys.”

The Trader’s eyes momentarily crossed. “‘Mom’? This is Lilith we’re talking about here, correct? First Woman, First Wife of Adam, Mother of Demons, et cetera, et cetera? That Lilith?”

“Yeah,” Trella said, enjoying the look on the Trader’s face. “That Lilith. But we just call her Mom.”

“…I dread to think what the family reunions are like,” the Trader murmured.

Trella shrugged. “Oh, I dunno. Pretty much like your average sorority—back-biting, deal-making, feuding, trying to get one over on everyone else, you get the idea.”

“I certainly do…” Carrie murmured.

“Meanwhile, Mom gets the chance to show off her new boyfriend, and he gets to do that bland knowing smile of his at everyone…”

“I can imagine,” the Trader murmured in turn. “Her new… I dread the response I am assuredly about to get to this next, but as has previously been made clear, I have no idea what the word ‘diplomatic’ means, so… I shall press onwards, regardless.”

“It’ll cost you,” Trella said.

Carrie shot the Trader a Look.

“A question for a question,” the Trader said.

“Done,” Trella said.

Carrie let out a tiny sigh of relief.

“Who is her boyfriend?”

“The Archangel of Lightning,” Trella told him. “Jean.”

The Trader… gawked.

There was no better word for it.

The smooth, polished, urbane Trader actually gawked.

“The Archan— Lilith? Archangel? Lightning? Jean? Lilith?! How— When— Why— Wha—”

Carrie gave him another slap between the shoulder-blades.

“Thank you, Carrie,” the Trader said.

“You’re welcome,” Carrie said, eyeing Trella.

“A question for a question,” Trella told her. “That was the trade.”

“…Very well,” Carrie said. “Your question?”

Trella looked at Carrie’s expression, and wisely plumped for the second question that came to mind.

“Why didn’t you change to fit the setting?”

“Hm…” the Trader said, some semblance of his former composure returned. “Perhaps Magnus was correct, and some of us aren’t being forced into roles. Perhaps Florestan was correct, and I am simply playing myself. On that, I fear, we shall have to wait and see…”

“…Okay,” Trella said. “Thanks.”

“A pleasure,” the Trader said.

Q took the change of scene in stride; he had done such things many times himself. However, he was surprised by his changed appearance. Amy’s clothing had not changed, as it had been designed for just such a setting, but Q was wearing an elaborate blue outfit with lots of gold adornments and a black cap with a feather in it.

“You’re the Sheriff of Nottingham again,” observed Amy.

“Indeed,” said Q. “The question now is why.”

“It suits your personality. Your original role was that of the bringer of justice.”

“Yes, but that won’t help on this quest!”

“Oh, it might. You never know.” Amy then turned to one of the other guests. “So, Nuku-Nuku, you’re a full human now. What do you think of it?”

“Nuku-Nuku is… confused, Amy-san,” said the catgirl. “Nuku-Nuku does not know why everyone is making a big deal over it, and she was told that Q-sama might agree with her about it.”

Q looked very pleased at being called ‘-sama’. “I do,” he said. “To be human is to be both limited in abilities and prone to emotions that cause you to do irrational things. So I can’t say you’ve gained anything by becoming a full human.”

“Nuku-Nuku understands, but wasn’t it an emotion that caused Q-sama and Amy-san to end up on a date?”

“Yes, it was,” said Amy when Q did not respond. “So you see, there are good points to being human, too.”

“Don’t worry,” said Q, intent on getting the last word this time. “We’ll all get back to normal in the end. I’m sure these writers will see to that.”

“Who, us?” retorted Daibhid, who was rummaging around in what, for the duration of the High Fantasy setting, we shall call the Luggage rather than the Rucksack. “We’re just here for plot exposition and occasional comic relief. You’re the main characters. Oh, darn!”

He pulled out what appeared to be a larger version of the travelling spellbook attatched to his belt. Inscribed on the cover were the words The Abjurations of Daiyebhiyedd mac Chienneiennedelgh.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Ace, who did not feel inclined to sympathy, what with being dressed like Xena and everything.

“Well, firstly, I was hoping never to have to spell that name again, and secondly I was hoping whatever happened might not have affected the interior dimensions of the Rucksack.” He sighed. “Useful though this might be, there were five or six back issues of Dragon Magazine in there that might have been even more so.”

“And they’ve gone?” asked Benny.

“Yep,” said Daibhid. “Nothing in here but adventuring stuff: lamp oil, iron rations, ten foot pole, mysterious scroll…”

“A mysterious scroll?” said Benny eagerly. “Let’s have a look! Apparently my archæological expertise translates to the Loremaster prestige class—”

“Not the Bluff skill?” asked Ace, sweetly.

“—and I might as well put it to use,” Benny finished, as if no-one had said anything.

Daibhid handed her the scroll. She unwound it. “It’s a map,” she announced. “It shows where we are, this castle, and the other castle over there, that we’re going to, is marked with an X. I think it means we’re on the right track.”

“Gordon Bennett! How do you do it, Holmes?”

“Yes, all right, Miss ‘Armour By Ann Summers’, it’s not my fault it’s a stupid bloody map!”

Chris, in full plate armour and gleaming white surcoat, stepped between them. “Could we stop arguing? There’s a quest to be fulfilled!” His face was shining.

“Goddess, someone slap him,” muttered Roz, who was in identical plate, but with a decidedly less gleaming surcoat.

“A nice, convenient map,” Allie murmured. “Why do I get the feeling that it’s not going to be that easy?”

“Because it never is?” Imran said.

“Mm-hmm,” Allie said. “…Wonder if the castle’s supposed to be ours—well, the group’s—in-game? Might explain why we started off here…”

“Interesting…” Imran thought this over. “Let’s see. Game’s premise: group of successful adventurers, who’ve managed to complete a number of big adventures and establish a castle of their own, find an old map in one of their magical artifacts which points to another, nearby castle…” He trailed off. “Hold on. Given that premise, the other castle’s going to be tough to take out. If it were that easy, the adventurers would’ve taken care of it already. Hmm…


“Yeah?” Daibhid said.

“Any clue on the map what we’re looking for?”

Daibhid shook his head. “Nope. The other castle’s just marked with an X.”

“Yep, it’s going to be a toughie…” Imran muttered. “I think this’s because they didn’t know what had happened to them…”

Daibhid frowned. “…Hold on. Is what’s in the other castle the problem or the solution?

“This’s the trouble…” Imran said. “They knew what was happening to them, but not what’d caused it, or how to fix it. So we don’t know.”

“…So how come we know where to go?” Daibhid asked.

“Well, it could be where they managed to locate the quest-object—or the solution, to put it another way—but if none of them could get to it…”

Allie, Daibhid and Imran shared a look.

“…it’s not going to be easy,” Daibhid concluded fatalistically. “Never is.”

Imran frowned. “Allie? Remind me on this. What did Florestan say about this whole madness thing? How it started?”

“He said a strange madness spread among the royal family,” Allie supplied.

“Right… so if that’s the case, we might be going where it all started. Or its equivalent in the quest-world.”

“Er,” Daibhid said. “Do we really want to do that?”

“Depends if that was the case,” Imran said. “The message said they thought it was sabotage—not what kind of sabotage, though—and, given our current situation, I think we can guess they didn’t get to the solution, even if they knew about it. The big question is… did they?”

“I think they might have guessed at the solution…” Dominic noted. “As Florestan said—if the problem was perception, then something that dealt with perception would be the solution. In terms of the game-world, such an object would be the quest-object.”

“Hmm…” Imran said. “Okay… so, Game scenario: A hundred and fifty years ago, an entire kingdom of people disappears.

“A hundred and fifty years later, a group of adventurers sets up shop in a nearby castle, just outside the borders of the kingdom, and discovers ancient message-spells and maps relating to the disappearance, and explaining what happened.

“The band of adventurers—being basically Pro-Fun—sets out into the kingdom to find where it all began, what really happened back then, and how to put it right.”

“Sounds about right,” Allie said. “Of course, everything that’s happening is in terms of the Game, so it’s not necessarily what really happened.”

“But it’s a place to start from,” Imran completed.

He frowned. “Question is… which is right? Are we being pointed to where it started, or to its solution?”

“…If I say ‘Well, at least it’s not going to be a dungeon crawl’, I’m probably going to regret it, aren’t I?” Daibhid said.

“Yep,” Allie said.

The dumbwaiter ride was even longer than the first time had been, nearly fifteen minutes, and Excel was more grateful than she’d ever been for anything except for Jimmy Buffett’s last album to finally be out of the blasted thing.

Open spaces!
Feel the wind in our faces
Now that we’re out of those low places
Where whiskey flows and beer chases—

The light bee zipped out of her pocket and Sister once again took shape before her. “Excel,” the hologram interrupted, “has anyone ever told you that you sing just like Loretta Lynn?”

Exel blushed. “Why, no, they haven’t.”

“Well, there’s a reason for that. And, incidentally, when was the last time you washed that jacket? You should have seen the lint ball I was jammed up against!”

Hyatt just blinked at their surroundings in total confusion, which was a state so normal for her that it usually doesn’t even get remarked upon. “Senior, Miss Sister? Do you have any idea where we are?”

They were in a smallish room with roundeled walls of a dull sepia color. The dominating feature was a six-sided pillar set squarely in the middle of the floor, each of its sides bearing an angled surface covered with buttons, switches, and readouts. A tall crystalline column rose out of the center of the pillar, nearly touching the ceiling.

“Ooh, pretty!” Excel chirped as she ran over to examine the arrays of buttons. “Excel loves personal electronics! Where’s the treble? Where’s the bass? Where’s the ‘re-heat’ button?”

“Sister?” Hyatt prodded again.

The nurse was staring about in deep concentration, chewing at her lip. “I almost have it,” she muttered. “I almost know…” She shut her eyes and rubbed at her temples for a moment, but then blew out a defeated sigh. “I can almost remember where we are, Hyatt, but not quite. Only a very few of Beloved’s memories were downloaded into me, and those are fragmentary at best. Certain things seem familiar about this place, certain details, but there is nothing beyond that vague sense, like déjà vu, that I should know where we are. That, and the word ‘backup’ seems somehow appropriate.”

Hyatt smiled gently at her. “Well then, that will have to be enough, yes? Since you say the word ‘backup’ fits, and since it is a room with a large console in it, let’s just call it the ‘Backup Console Room’.” She turned to look at Excel, who was still poring over the console controls. “Senior, perhaps it would be a good idea not to operate any of those controls until we know what they do.”

“Relax, Ha-chan.” Excel waved her off. “Old Excel is an electronics whiz-kid! I fixed our multimedia entertainment center, didn’t I?”

“That was a lava lamp, senior. And you fixed it by smashing it open and refilling it with live red ants.”

“Yeah! Excel didn’t just fix it, she upgraded it!” Still, she paused and gave the console a wary look. “But perhaps my unhealthy, yet still too-stacked-for-her-own-good partner has a point. Excel can’t help but think that upgrading to Red Ants Millennium Edition™ would probably not help to operate this high-technology eyesore.”

A long hissing noise that Excel at first took to be an attacking Peruvian Hissing Parrot turned out to be just Sister sighing again. “As much as I’ll probably come to regret saying this, I think we’re going to have to try operating some of those controls, if we’re to get out of here. I, for one, don’t see any doors, and my perceptions are 2.35 times that of a standard humanoid’s.”

“We could try the dumbwaiter again,” Hyatt suggested, which immediately set Excel’s skin to crawling.

Sister merely pointed at the opening to the dumbwaiter shaft. The empty dumbwaiter shaft.

“Apparently, the dumbwaiter car went back to another floor as soon as we got off it,” said Sister.

“Oh no!” Hyatt moaned. “We’re trapped!” The sudden onrush of emotion proved a bit much for her and she swooned to the floor, eyes glazed.

“Take care of Ha-chan!” Excel delegated. “Excel will apply all her spongy little brain cells to the task of working this control panel!”

Sister used her light bee’s power system to deliver some low-yield impulses through Hyatt’s heart to keep it beating. “Did you know,” she said conversationally to Excel as she ran a series of diagnostics on her patient, “that according to my scans, this girl has over 800 different pathogens in her system, some of which were thought to affect only rodents— What are you doing, Excel?”

“Scientific method. Don’t distract me.” What Excel was actually doing was spinning around and round with her hand over her eyes, all the while chanting, “Help me, Lord Ilpalazzo, you’re my only hope,” over and over and over. And then, just as she was beginning to lurch and reel from dizziness (and not the kind she was born with, the other kind), she blindly thrust out a hand and yanked on the first control it touched, which happened to be a large, red-knobbed lever.

It also just happened to be the exact thing she was looking for.

As Hyatt began to revive again, the wall across from them split open as a pair of large and almost undetectable doors swung into the chamber. Whatever lay beyond, though, was hidden by a blinding glare through the doorway.

“Hah! Excel does it again! Victory for ACROSS!” Excel tried to pump her fist, but was staggering too badly and ended up tripping over Hyatt, who was just trying to rise again.

“Oh my. Are you okay, senior?”

“Okay?! Hell, Ha-chan, Excel ain’t just okay, she’s da bomb! She’s the top of the heap! She’s smarter than the average bear! She’s—”

“—almost ridiculously lucky,” Sister inserted.

“Not normally, no,” Excel went on in a more normal tone as she shook off the dizziness. “Blind luck of a good sort is usual Ha-chan’s forte. Excel’s luck usually involves starvation and expensive things exploding for dubiously-justified reasons. But maybe my luck is changing!”

“Or maybe senior just has a sympathetic author this time, yes?” Hyatt suggested sweetly.

“Poking holes in the Fourth Wall like that is a no-no, Ha-chan. And, speaking of walls, let us see what lies on the other side of that one there!” She pointed at the open door as all three got up and marched resolutely to it.

“So that’s what’s on the other side,” Excel exclaimed as she stood in the doorway, gazing into the brightness beyond. “Just one question left, now. Namely, what the Hell is that…?”

“So, it’s a quest,” Evan sighed.

“Appears so,” said Zoe. “At least on a general level.”

“Dammit. And it’s my fault. I’m the one who’s always thought the fantasy genre had too damn many of these things to begin with… damn travelogues with the maps in the front…”

“Well, that’s not quite—”

“And what’s with the trilogies? Can’t you tell a complete story in one book anymore? And most of the time you can’t even find—”

“Will you listen, please?”

“Oops. Sorry. I guess I got a little worked up there.”

“Well, we sort of pushed it closer to a fantasy/roleplay type quest, but obviously it’s a quest on some other level—this is just a manifestation. The question is, what do we do?”

“It always comes down to that, doesn’t it? I swear, every year I know less and less about what course of action I should be taking.”

“Well, I say we explore. We’re inside a metafictional realm, and there may be any number of fantastic things happening that would make it jam together with the Quadrille. And if not—we’ll certainly find something to occupy us until the others fix everything.”

“Now there’s an idea.” Evan tied the scabbard on him. “Let’s make sure not to get too caught up in the environment, though—we need to maintain our real selves.”

“Right. I’m a mathematician from Earth, you’re a writer from my past who nonetheless wrote about me once.”

“And don’t forget my undying adoration for the Avengers movie.”

“I don’t think that’ll make much difference.”

“Metafiction, Zoe, metafiction. Maybe I could make this a quest for the Director’s Cut.”

Magic weapons in hand, the two finally detached themselves from the crowd and set off in the direction of the Commonwealth.

“Don’t tell me,” Alryssa said. “I can see the Scooby-Doo from here.”

Gordon sniggered. Bob looked confused. Delirium was busy watching a butterfly alight on her denim jacket.

“‘Scooby-Doo’?” Eloise asked.

“The part where we split up and look for clues,” Crichton offered, fidgeting with the strap that held a somewhat heavy sword around his waist. It had once been a pulse pistol named Winona; now it was a decently-sized weapon of rather less mass destruction.

Harvey suddenly produced an overly-large magnifying glass for effect, a deerstalker now perched on his head. Which, for a half-Scarron wearing a somewhat kinky leather getup, was no mean feat.

“That isn’t a bad idea, all things considered,” Florestan mused.

“There are rather a lot of us,” Alryssa added. “I think we’d cover more bases faster that way.”

“And maybe slay some Orcs,” Lyss grinned.

“Don’t say things like that!” Gordon yelped. “They’ll turn up!”

“Oh, come on. There’s no fun if you can’t slay a few random Orcs,” Lyss pouted.

“I would suggest, people, that we now organise ourselves into at least four groups and attempt to tackle this situation,” Florestan interjected.

At this, the rabble appeared to calm down somewhat, and the sorting of people into groups began.

“Right,” Third barked to himselves, “let’s spread the wealth, shall I?” Each quarter of questors acquired at least two Doctors with attendant companions, less Zoe who’d already wandered off with Evan.

(Both of whom, incidentally, had figured out that they were not in the Commonwealth after all, but some weird intermediary realm that the author didn’t quite understand the nature of.)

“A brave plan, i’faith!” Fastolf boomed, underlining his opinion with a bold chord on the lyre which magically swayed the minds of all present to the sentiment ‘what a poser!’. “Thus shall all our great deeds shine severally in glory, nor be lost in the blind thronging of this grex nobiliorum—!”

The Third Doctor winced. “Jo, have I ever been so presumptuous as to twit you on your chronic imperviousness to Latin?”

“Yes, Doctor, actually you—”

“Next time, remind me that I must never do this again.”

“We’ll all bear that in mind, Doctor,” the Brigadier rejoined crisply. “I wonder that you’re surprised, though. ‘Small Latin and less Greek’, you know!”

“Brigadier, how you can give the slightest credit to such an arrant bit of irrealist Terileptil braggadocio, I have no notion!”

The Brigadier raised one eyebrow in that annoying way he has. “Rather fascinating that you of all people should so resolutely oppose the noble truth of reincarnation governed by karma-vipaka, I’d say.” He cast a cool glance over in the direction of Fourth, neglecting Sixth out of an old habit of chivalry that deprecated the dynamiting of goldfish in buckets.

Liz nodded judiciously. “One for his side, Doctor.”

“Liz,” the Doctor complained, apropos of changing the subject in a hurry, “what is that thing you are almost wearing supposed to be?”

“I believe it’s a mini-monk’s habit,” Liz told him. “Very practical for the high-kicking bits in the martial arts…”

“Martial arts? You? Be serious!”

“My dress sense is not that alien to Purdey’s out of the New Avengers,” Liz reminded him, “and besides, you don’t think I’ve known Ann Talbot all this time without picking up anything, do you?” With which she quickly picked up the toes of her kinky boots with both hands; turned a swift treble somersault in the air; trashed a passing crossbow quarrel that some git had inadvertently released in the general direction of the Doctor’s noddle whilst trying out their new kit; healed herself of a whole passel of sprained neurones she had incurred earlier in the day whilst solving an Einstein tensor in her head; and spontaneously generated the fundamental insight behind a supremely elegant kata which embodied the final and conclusive proof of the long-controversial Goldbach Conjecture about prime numbers or some such johnnies, although unfortunately this joke is too cheap to contain the details.

“Grand Mistress of Chrysanthemums, eh?” she observed, alluding to a tag she had observed at the back of her habit’s collar during the abovementioned evolutions. “If this weren’t all a very silly abstraction of reality, I believe I could get used to this…”

“Let’s get to work,” Third proposed, in the tones of one for whom the Cosmos now holds no more horrors. He should be so lucky!

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