Doubts & Disturbances > Moving Along > Unexpected Company

I suppose to solve the riddle is our quest.
Seems likely—does anyone have any ideas, or do we strike out at random?
You are good at random, Lord.
Unfortunately I doubt if random violence is called for here.
I wonder, maybe that is not the complete clue.
[He tapped the inscription and watched it change to cuneiform.]
Well, well—now it reads:
Direction is a state of mind
That is what, you should find.
[Magnus tapped the inscription again with no result.]

Just beyond the scene of the death of the so-called “troll”, there was a potions and supplies shop. No one owned up to being the source of its aspect as Mr. Hooper’s store on Sesame Street. The Fourth-Eighth-Nth team provisioned themselves and departed the shop with alacrity.

“So where do we start?” Gordon asked.

“At some cave entrance, I’d suppose,” Eloise answered, rather vaguely. “…don’t see any from here, though.”

“Next screen over,” GlitchBob said automatically, “—beyond the edge of the frame.”

Eloise nodded. She didn’t consider herself a game player, but she had been on modern Earth long enough to have a general idea of their structure.

“So—look for a clear boundary?” she asked.

Glitch-Bob nodded.

And they all started scanning their horizon.

Silence found it first, calling their attention with a whistle. ~There!~ she signed, ~to the North!~

They looked, squinting. Sure enough, there was a dark shadow along the northern skyline—brown-black as a charcoal smudge.

“Well,” said Eloise, “we’d better get going,” steeling herself for a long trek.

And so they set out.

But whether the world was responding solely by the ground rules of a video game, or their own collective perception that “this is the next place we are meant to be,” the shadow on the horizon quickly became the shadowy place right in front of them.

Eloise shuddered.

Massive oaks, with gnarled, twisting, leafless branches towered overhead, their trunks burned black from some long ago fire that they had never recovered from. Looking out the corner of her eyes, Eloise saw burnt-out slum tenements crowding narrow alleyways.

“This is a grand adventure!” she told herself, silently; “this is fun and exhilarating!” she insisted, and strode as bravely as she could into the wild forest / slum.

“Ah, the smell of adventure,” said Eighth. He and Fourth were leading the party with Eloise walking between them.

“Do you really smell anything?” Eloise asked.

“No,” said Fourth, “we’re just happy to be finally moving along.”

“Much as it might seem different from the rest of me’s behavior,” said Eighth, “I really do prefer action to words.”

“Now’s my chance to set things in motion,” said Fourth.

“I thought this all started back at the royal court,” Charley said (clearly having checked her surroundings as Eloise had done), “not in a place like this!”

“The illness—if that’s what it is—first appeared there,” Eighth said. “But the cause of that illness might have begun here.”

“Or below here,” Eloise said, pointing. For in the ground before them, shaped out of roughly hewn, half-rotted wood, was a trap door. “I think we found the entrance to our caves,” she said.

Just then, the motion of which Fourth had been speaking turned out to be downward, as the ground beneath them collapsed. It seemed to go on forever—then there was a general thump, and a few moments of silence.

Eloise was the first to shout, “Anyone hurt?” There was a ragged chorus of negatives.

“Where are we?” Romana One asked.

“A Pooh Trap for Heffalumps,” Sarah Jane groaned. Though there had been no outright injuries, everyone was regaining their feet rather delicately.

“You mean, they…” Adric made a hand motion that must have been an obscure Alzarian cultural referent. “In here? Yuck!”

Winnie-the-Pooh,” Sarah Jane elucidated.

“That’s not what I see,” said Sam. “I see the Tunnels from the ’80s Beauty and the Beast programme.”

“I was just making a joke,” Sarah Jane grumbled. But several people were chiming in:

“It’s the Indian caverns from Smallville,” said Grace.

“The natural tunnels on Jastanilic VII,” said Romana Two.

“Old New York from Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” said Fitz.

“I see sewers,” said Pudentiana.

“Our perceptions are beginning to diverge,” said Nth.

“That’s not good,” Eloise said. “We need to try to converge them, or we may get to a point where we can’t relate to each other. What do we see out of the corners of our eyes?”

There was a moment’s silence, and a ragged chorus of, “Sewers.”

“Yuck,” said Adric again.

Eloise looked at Pudentiana. “Have you been seeing through the illusions all along?”

“No,” said Pudentiana. “I just expect to run into sewers when I’m underground. It’s how fairies get around during daylight hours in urban areas, such as the capital city of the Roman Interstellar Empire.”

“It may mean you’ll find your way around down here best of all of us,” said Eighth. “Come up here with Eloise and mes.”

“Okay,” said Pudentiana. “Let’s all earn our crapkicking merit badges, kiddies.” She brushed past Eighth, who waved everyone forward after her.

“I knew it,” said Fourth to Eloise as they trudged on.

“Knew what?”

“I knew there’d be a weightless/falling sequence eventually, as soon as I lost my scarf at the beginning of it all. The same thing happened in Planet of Evil.”

“Ho-ho,” said Eloise.

Jonah tried the sideways trick again. It worked. She tried squinting down at her own chin; and the hateful beard had gone. She tried looking sideways at the body of the troll—and blinked. “Bits of paper?”

“I beg your pardon?” the creepy type called Magnus said. He looked like the villain off the front of one of her Mum’s rubbishy historical novels, Sir Maximilian Ponce or Lord Crookenby or whatever they were called.

“Nothing,” Jonah said automatically. She’d dealt with the troll all on her own, hadn’t she? She didn’t want anybody else finding out. “Anyway, I thought we were supposed to be doing this quest, right? Who and why and how and what… sounds like one of those old poems Keith used to read before he left.”1

She looked round, catching sight of Varne. “Didn’t you find some kind of poem just now? Something about Seven of Nine?”

Varne looked blank, although Imran, beyond, had put on one of those queer pursed-up faces that grown ups used when they thought you wouldn’t notice they were laughing at you. She gave him one of her scowls.

Varne turned to Magnus. “Seven of Nine, Lord?”

“She is referring to the doggerel verse we first encountered, Varne, and incidentally I believe this is not the costume of a lord but of a baronet.”

Varne seemed slightly surprised at this response. “Does that mean I—?”

“No, Varne, but I thought it was worth a try.”

“‘Find eight in one, or one in eight / Do not delay, lest you be late,’” Carrie recited, apparently without having to think about it. She slipped her hand into the Trader’s. “Any ideas yet, Grey?”

“Eight in one, one in eight, that’s the Doctor. That’s easy,” Jonah interrupted, without waiting for him.

The Trader coughed slightly, with an apologetic air. “Well, yes—except that we have nine Doctors here already.”

“Not counting the Lumley Doctor, the Hugh Grant Doctor—” Imran grinned. “—the Richard E. Grant Doctor… oops, that hasn’t happened yet…”

“There was also the second half of the clue.” Carrie, watching Jonah’s darkening expression, laid her free hand on Imran’s arm.

“‘Direction is a state of mind / That is what you should find.’”

“‘Down’, maybe?” Fifth hazarded. “Or ‘up’, I suppose…”

“Oh, this is just stupid.” Jonah kicked at a tussock, glowering. “Who, why, how or what—so which one of those is this supposed to be anyway?”

“Short stuff’s got it,” Candy opined. “It’s none of ’em—it’s ‘where’, plain as the nose on your Cabellian single-entendre!”

“Ay-ay-ay,” the Trader agreed vaguely. “But that one-in-eight deal is just too cute. You don’t suppose…?”

A shadow of primordial oo-er seemed to pass over Imran’s face. Occupational hazard, me dears! “If someone’s invoking canon on us…!”

Tegan smacked her lusty barbarian thigh. “Oh, it’s not like this is a contrived or artificial situation or anything, is it?!”

Turlough smacked his leery assassin chops. Tegan smacked them also.

“Point taken,” Trader Grey hastened to affirm. “One could wonder whether Nth is destined to be our get out of jail free card, or simply to be the butt of our increasingly annoying summoners’ ersatz wit…”

“Be that as it may,” said Carrie, “those two riddles ought to be different reads of the same data, if the medium is any message at all. We’re clearly looking for the ‘what’ here…”

“What? What?” came a variously worded general demand, of which the most vulgar instance set the tone as so often is the case in this dark world and wide, further illustrating the historical inevitability of the proud People’s ultimate triumph, with the corner up.

“‘That is what you should find,’” Carrie clarified. A brief silence, in honour of this subtle obviousness, ensued.

“Literalist,” Candy sneered, in the precise tone of one who accuses, “@£%$S!^&er!”. “Cut to the chase, betimes or whatever. ‘Do not delay, lest you be late’. That’s a death threat, or I’ve never had a—”

“That’s a death threat,” Sixth deduced loudly.

“Ewww,” adjudged Peri.

“It gets better,” said-booked Candy with sadistic glee. She did the Hugh Hefner shimmy. “‘I’m late, I’m late… for a Very Important Fate!’ Who does that remind you of?”

Nyssa frowned. “Not the Land of Logical Conceits again?”

“It gets better.” Candy bounced agitatedly. “‘Fate’ in manky French, please, me olde shagbarks!”

Fée,” said Fifth flatly. “You know, the only thing is—”

“—you’re obsessing about fairies again,” the Trader grated. “Will you put a sock in it—by holy Klono’s indium-antimonide invocations?!?”

“They are out to get us,” Candy stated, her cheer right bloody manic and no mistake. “And look at the supporting evidence. Have you counted the adjectival death jokes in the Alice books? I bet Dodgy-boy got that bit right. Gillyflowers. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. Necrotomania… the Great Tall Tailor… bloody fustian Sylvie!!!”

“Candy,” said Carrie.


“If they did come—”

“—I’d beat the shit out of them!”

“—I’d have a quiet word with them. And so would Gray.” A prompting kick occurred.

“Indeed,” said that lad generically.

“By Memory and Dream, we’d answer them. And the rest of the guests would pitch in: trust us. Only—”

Elsewhere, Death shook her gamine head tolerantly.

“—it looks about as relevant as the odds on Future Forest in the 3.20 at Haydock,” the Trader completed, fwapworthily but with all too telling percipience.

“Yes,” said Carrie, “but if we haven’t enough data for a ‘what’, then what—?”

“Who,” Fifth said. “As in ‘whodunnit’, before anyone speaks up.”

There was much rhubarb along the lines of ‘Who, us?’ from the assembled party.

“Ahem,” Fifth continued. “I think matters would be best served if we did the ‘whodunnit’. After all”—here, his eyes glinted—“we do have a certain amount of experience in such matters…”

Sixth caught his predecessor’s expression, and harrumphed. “Yes. This sort of thing is our particular area of expertise, after all…”

Mel raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms.

“Very well,” Fifth said.

The two Doctors closed their eyes, and concentrated.

The atmosphere around them shifted, a feeling of questioning, investigation, mystery, hanging in the air, the Doctors’ robes fluttering in an unseen breeze.

When they opened their eyes, Fifth was holding a sealed scroll.

“Ah,” he murmured. “Let’s see what we’ve got…”

He snapped open the seal, and spread out the scroll. “Hmm…”

“Allow me,” Sixth said, snatching the scroll from Fifth. “Ah. It appears we have a tower to investigate.”

“A tower?” Mel echoed.

“Indeed, my dear Melanie. It appears that the clues to who—or what—ever is behind this lie in the archives of this world’s intelligence service bureaux…”

“Well, then,” Fifth said. “I suppose we’d better get going…”

Finally…” Jonah muttered.

“Hm…” Third said, as he thought the matter over. “I believe we should focus our efforts on unearthing the solution to all this—on finding a way of restoring everyone’s connection to this world’s underlying reality.”

“Or, at least, the way we see it…” Second noted.

The Brigadier chuckled. “I wouldn’t expect anything else of you, Doctors…”

“Well, of course, Brigadier!” Third said, managing to look both offended and proud. “Now then…”

Second and Third concentrated.

The feeling in the air this time was that of a world awaiting restoration, completion, of the chance to be at one with itself and the opportunity to set things right once again.

Third opened the scroll that had appeared in his hand. “Ah. The wizard’s guild, then…”

“The wizard’s guild?” Amy said, frowning.

“Of course, my dear Amy,” Third said. “I believe, in this world’s default setting, it would be this world’s main university.”

The Brigadier frowned. “The wizard’s guild…? I may not be up on this… ‘game’, Doctor, but wouldn’t that rather suggest a certain number of magical creatures running around?”

“And am I not the great wizard Quiquaequod?” Third inquired, a teasing gleam in his eye. “I assure you, Brigadier, between the members of our party we have sufficient knowledge to confront whatever sorceries await us within the guildhall.”

The Brigadier sighed, a hint of wry resignation in his voice. “Very well, Doctor. So shall we have at it?”

“That we shall, Brigadier, that we shall.”

“Quiquaequod?” Amy wondered.

Qui, quae, and quod,” Q said. “All differing tenses of the Latin word for ‘Who’.”

“…Oh…” Amy said.

As First and Seventh’s party went en masse across the drawbridge to the castle, Florestan slowed, then stopped, and then backed off the bridge altogether.

He crouched down at the moat’s edge, and gazed at the water. After a while, he plucked a blade of grass, and dropped it in. “Interesting,” he said.

“What is it?” Mel asked, noticing that he had lagged behind.

“Have you ever heard of a moat with a current?”

Mel shook her head.

Ian, overhearing, joined them. “Current? In a moat? That’s impossible! A moat is man-made. It’s a closed system.”

Florestan nodded. “Indeed. Which means that this is not a moat—” He plucked another blade of grass and dropped it into the water. They all watched, silently, as it floated past them.

“—It’s a river,” he concluded.

“That’s nonsense!” Ian said. “Where’s its source?”

Florestan looked up, and indicated the castle before them. “Somewhere in there, I’d suspect,” he said, “or a somewhere beyond that we can reach through there”.

“That’s imp—”

“Nothing is as it appears,” Florestan reminded him, “especially here, especially to us.”

He stood, and started across the bridge at last. “Be careful,” he said, “remember how polluted the river looked, when we first arrived.”

“All right,” said Amy. “We have our part of the quest, now all we need are provisions and we can start looking for the univer… I mean, the Wizards’ Guild.”

“What a human inconvenience,” said Q.

“She’s correct, though,” said Third. “Everyone else has done it already.”

Bidding farewell to the other partygoers, Second, Third, and their followers set out to find supplies. What they found was an unmarked building the exact color of sand, with a sliding metal door.

“I know this place,” said Amy. “This is a Star Wars building. The architecture suggests that it’s from Tatooine… maybe this is Watto’s store.”

“Oh, no,” said Q in disgust. “If there’s anything in the universe more unrefined than a human…”

“What is all that?” Q asked Amy when she emerged from the store. (Along with several others in the group, he had opted to let someone else do the shopping.)

“Water, jelly babies, bread, peanut butter, cheese… and a lot of chocolate bars, peanuts, and Earl Grey teabags, even though I probably won’t get to use them…” said Amy.

“Is science fiction all you think about?”

“No. I have a real life, or something like one. But it does look like I’m the one who created this perception of this building… I’ll try to stick with the fantasy theme after this.”

Satyr’s Inn, the sign proclaimed. It swung in a gentle breeze, back and forth, and the mind’s unwary eye could suddenly be rather disturbed by what the satyr appeared to be doing on it. But, really, it was only the breeze. Certain puritanical religious sects might have been forever shocked, though.

The interior was as one might expect of something like this. Dark wood, beams overhead interlacing on top of white plaster. A large fireplace along one wall with a roaring fire coming from inside its recesses. Darker wood made benches and tables, many of them scarred by fights, fire, and spilled milk. Or ale. The floor was dusty, but liberally covered in rushes and straw to absorb any spills. The serving wenches were comely, if not altogether pleasant-looking, due to the lack of dental hygiene common in this sort of setting.

Most of the assembled guests were of the normal, carousing type. Big, small, fat, lean, or even half-asleep under a table, they all drank and made merry, trading stories, tobacco, and cheerful insults. Even the trio at one corner table seemed to be having a lovely time. Or at least making a go of it. Particularly the dark-haired man. He spoke, arms and hands gesturing wildly the more ale he drank.

“So, then, the Officer grabs me by the arm and chucks me off the balcony! I fell at least a metra, and the ground was still fast-approaching, when suddenly—” Crichton broke off to quaff his ale. He sighed happily. “Ah. Really hits the spot.”

Lyss eyed him for a moment, then shrugged, “You’re alive. I guess I can assume you were saved.”

“Now, now, darlin’, don’t get ahead of me in this tale.”

Harvey rolled his eyes. “Crichton, I’m beginning to wonder what Scorpius ever saw in you.”

“In us, you mean,” the astronaut replied, then grinned cockily. “So, where was I?”

“Falling out the window of this Inn, shortly,” Lyss said, eyeing him with disfavour.

“Ah. Right! So, then—”

“Would ye be wantin’ more ale, milord?” The barmaid who’d been serving them was beginning to get a rather suspicious look in her eyes.

Eyeing the half-empty mugs, Lyss shook her head. “Not now, thanks. Check back later?”

“If’n ye say…” The girl paused, then shrugged, “And how will ye be payin’ fer all of this?”

“Gold?” Lyss suggested, tensing ever so slightly.

Harvey waved a negligent hand, “Wench, leave us. Our accounts will be settled at the end of the night, not before.”

“Aye.” Suspicion still in her eyes, the girl left.

Lyss cast Harvey a look, then Crichton. “So. Either of you have anything vaguely currency-like in your pockets?”

They shook their heads, and the neural-clone spoke, “I believe, as Crichton would say, we are over the barrel without a paddle.”

“Ouch,” John muttered.

“What a horrible thought. The connotations produce nasty images. Rygel in a gimp suit, for instance,” Lyss said, then snickered. “Of course, that could be our only way out… hrm, wonder what you two would bring on an auction block?”

“She isn’t joking.”

“No, she isn’t.” Glaring at her, Crichton moved slightly away from the table. “And we could sell you.”

“You’re male. More exotic.” She grinned evilly. “Besides, we’ve already got half of the S&M pairing…”

“EW! Hell, no.” His hand now on Winona-the-sword, Crichton stood. “I don’t think so, Missy.”

“Ooo. Insulted by the Southern-boy. I’m sooo hurt.” She mocked him. But her hand was on the hilt of her knife. And she stood, stepping away from the table.

“Cool it, you two,” Harvey snapped.

The other patrons of the Satyr were beginning to eye their little scene with vague interest. One or two even stood and began sidling over, as if hoping the incipient violence would give them something interesting to watch.

“Shut up, Harvey,” Lyss snapped, grabbing up her tankard and throwing the contents in John’s face. “I’ve just been insulted. I think I hear the sound of a smack-down being called for.”

“By YOU??” Throwing back his head and laughing, despite the ale now in his face, Crichton stepped towards one of the rapidly expanding crowd. “I don’t think so, little girl.”

Little—” Enraged, Lyss threw the tankard at him.

He ducked. Which he really didn’t have to do. A trained observer might even have noted that her aim was so wildly off as to hit one of the larger, more volatile looking gentlemen watching the proceedings. Predictably, he wasn’t happy with having a metal tankard slam into his face. Also predictably, he missed when he tried to hit Crichton.

In the ensuing melee, which caused the Satyr to once again be reduced to muck, mud, and so much debris, the trio slipped out the front door. Not without throwing a few punches, tankards, and chairs, of course.

Lyss ended with a black eye, John had a few sore ribs, and Harvey, well, he was predictably unharmed.

As they made their way down the street, they passed incoming constabulary, two night watchmen who were wholly inadequate. Lyss sweetly, and with a note of panic in her voice, informed them that there was a bad fight going on at the Satyr.

Once they were out of sight, she sighed.

“What? We got out relatively unscathed.”

“Yeah.” She nodded at John. “Good thinking in there, by the way.”

“She was going for the landlord,” Harvey interjected mildly. “And the ale was watered.”

“True.” Crichton eyed the street. “Think there’s another Inn?”

“I bloody well hope so,” muttered Lyss as he began leading the way down another street. “I’m parched.”

The Nabeshin-like being clapped its glowing hands. There was a retina-abusing flash of light as if a dozen paparazzi had all gone for panty-shots of Hyatt at the same time (this had happened before), and the three girls found themselves dressed for some serious medieval buttkicking.

Excel’s simple, yet fanboy-pleasing shorts-and-jacket combo had been replaced by a short and moderately-revealing ensemble made up of black leather scales. A few spiky metal bits jutted out here and there to no apparent purpose other than glimmering menacingly when the light hit them just right. She was relieved to see that she at least still had some big shoulderpads, even if they were leather and brass and had little skulls etched onto them. A weight on her hip turned out to be a straight, broad-bladed sword of the type generally referred to as a ‘really big-ass sword’. She drew it from its scabbard, pleased at the nasty ‘schwinnng’ sound it made.

Sister, for her part, had gone from the nurse look to something not unlike a nun, with a long habit-like robe whiter than a Minnesota country club topped by an elaborate silver-chased wimple. A pendant that bore more than a passing resemblance to her light bee hung on her chest, pulsing a very faint glow.

“Oh my.”

Excel and Sister turned to look at Hyatt. And kept looking.

If the alien girl’s costume had been a fanservice-fest before, it was a full-blown carnival now. Her new outfit was just as tight as her ACROSS uniform, but there was considerably less of this one. A silk halter-vest strained to hold back her luscious, bountiful, globular—

[On the other side of Reality, Agent Misaki Matsuya of the F City Municipal Defense Force began industriously pounding the author’s head on his desktop until he promised to be good.]

—looking like perfect little ripe melons, so sweet that you want to—

[Seeing that the author was quite incorrigible, Agent Matsuya swatted him out of his chair and decided to just write the description herself.]

Princess Hyatt was wearing a silk halter-vest that was far too revealing and a matching set of puffy-looking pantaloons that I wouldn’t be caught dead in, myself. Typical adolescent male-chauvinist fantasy clothes, really. The sort of thing that gives pathetic losers like Iwata and Watanabe—and the author of this story, apparently—a real charge. God, the idiots I have to work with.

—M. Matsuya

“Oh my,” Hyatt repeated. “Is it just me, or is it a bit drafty in here?”

“It’s just you,” Excel and Sister chorused.

Sister fixed the afro-entity with a stern look. “So,” she said, “we’re supposed to be what? A nun, a psycho, and a harlot?”

“Senior doesn’t look like a harlot…” Hyatt muttered, sounding confused.

“Well, since it’s traditional for the genre…” The faux-Nabeshin smirked and snapped his fingers again as a character sheet appeared in each girl’s hand.

Name:  Excel            Class:  Warrior

Alignment:  Chaotic Neutral, tending toward criminally psychotic

Hit Points:  34         Armor Class:  5 (fair)

Attributes (1-10):

Strength    6
Intellect   4
Wisdom      2
Agility     8
Endurance   9
Appeal      8 (physical) or 3 (personality)
Sanity      Are you kidding?
Luck        Out of it

Weapon:  +4  Big-Ass Sword of Puchuu Slaying; does 2d7+4
damage to mortal opponents, half damage versus undead, and
automatically bisects Puchuus in extremely gory slow-motion

Magic:   None

Innate Powers:  Does a truly excellent 'Sailor Moon' impersonation.
Seriously.  You should see it.

Name:  Hyatt            Class:  Spy

Alignment:  Lawful Neutral

Hit Points:  4          Armor Class:  10 (very poor)

Attributes (1-10):

Strength    2
Intellect   7
Wisdom      4
Agility     1
Endurance   Hahahaha!  Tell us another one!
Appeal      10!! (Rrrrowl!)
Sanity      3
Luck        12

Weapon:  Bloody Spit-Up; does no damage, but victim who fails
Saving Throw vs. Cute Girl's Body Fluids must spend two combat
rounds wiping face and saying "Eeeewww!"

Magic:   Ring of Barely Adequate Disguise; can make wearer
look like any other person of same approximate size, but does not
change voice or mannerisms

Innate Powers:  Can reduce Intellect of watching males to 0 by
eating a banana

Name:  Sister           Class:  Priestess/Healer

Alignment:  Neutral Good

Hit Points:  26         Armor Class:  -6 (excellent)

Attributes (1-10):

Strength    1
Intellect   9
Wisdom      9
Agility     10
Endurance   10
Appeal      9
Sanity      7 (but may fall with exposure to Excel)
Luck        4

Weapon:  None

Magic:   Amulet of Healing and Martian Princess Resurrection;
heals 1d17 points of damage per use and can bring fragile alien
princesses back from the point of death

Innate Powers:  99% of body is non-corporeal

“All right!” yelled Excel. “Time for some swords and saucery and amoral plundering in the grand old tradition of such D-and-D-based anime series such as Record of Lodoss War and Slayers, as we sally forth into battle with somebody-or-other!”

“We are glad to see you so enthusiastic—” the doppelnabeganger began.

“Bring on your orcs!” Excel went on over him. “Bring on your trolls! Bring on your hobgoblins, and your gobhoblins, and your hobnobbers, and your gobstoppers, and your chocolate bunnies! We’ll take their heads right off! Especially the chocolate bunnies, ’cause they’re yummy! We laugh at danger! It laughs right back!”

“Good. Now, Excel—” the being tried again.

“We dangle our derrieres in the face of death! The Grim Reaper puts dollar bills in the g-strings of our hearts! We fight to the last drop of blood Ha-chan can spit! The words ‘fear’ and ‘flight’ are not in our book, because we burned that page for heat last January!”

The phantasmic anime-director-esque creature just sighed, rubbing at the bridge of its nose. It snapped its fingers again, causing a tasseled rope to appear in midair beside its hand.

“—and we fight to the bitter end, or the salty end if Ha-chan is cooking, since she uses a lot of soy sauce, and why does that rope look so familiar to Excel?” The blonde psychopath blinked at the rope which was hanging there suspended from nothing at all.

“This is why,” said the thing that wasn’t Nabeshin. It pulled on the rope, causing a trapdoor to open in the grid-marked non-ground under the girls’ feet. “Now get on with the bleeding quest, all right?!” it yelled after them as they vanished into the emptiness below.

Seventh and First’s group entered the castle. It was exactly what you’d expect, with vast, poorly lit rooms and stone floors and walls. Lord knows how anyone can afford to heat these places…

“So, what are we doing?” asked Daibhid.

“No, we’re doing ‘how’,” Chris corrected him helpfully. “Didn’t you just tell us Second and Third’s team is doing ‘what’?”

“Why?” asked Mel, who’d missed all the discussion, being somewhat traumatised about being Melaphyre again.

Daibhid couldn’t resist. “No, the Fourth, Eighth, Nth team are doing ‘why’.”

“Who’s on first?” murmered Benny.

“Yes?” responded Doctor Whozonfirst.

“Ahem.” This was the First Doctor, “If you’ve all quite finished, we have a mystery to solve, hmm?”

Ace glared at him. “How?” she demanded.

“Prrrecisely,” grinned Seventh.

“By keeping our wits about us,” Florestan said, plainly (for the truth was, he had dropped out of the universe for several millennia, and therefore completely missed the Abbot and Costello references). “And by not trusting what is right in front of our noses.”

“That’s right!” Daibhid said, “Schoedy said something about looking out the corners of our eyes…”

They all took a moment to do just that.

“A factory!” Ace said. “…Wicked!”

Several of the others shuffled their feet nervously, thinking of what Ace could do, if she were let loose in an abandoned factory.

“A power plant, to be precise,” First said, “by the look of it.”

“Of course!” Seventh said, stabbing the air with his umbrella, “In games such as the one this reality is modeled after, the ‘castle’ is the locus of power!”

“So we’re in a power plant,” Benny said. “That still doesn’t help us figure out where to start—and don’t you start again!” she said, glaring at Daibhid.

Before Daibhid could protest that he was being accused unfairly, there was a click and a quiet hum filled the air. In front of their eyes, they saw the torches blaze up spontaneously in their sconces. The corners of their eyes were assaulted with the blue glare of fluorescent lights.

Assorted versions of “What the #@$%$#@?!” came to each adventurer’s lips.

“Motion detector?” Chris theorized.

First frowned. “I doubt something like that would continue to work, after over a century,” he said.

Daibhid pointed to the surrounding balcony/catwalk. “Don’t look now, but I think we have company.”

1 Keith is Josie’s big brother who is now nineteen and studying in Manchester…

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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.