Unexpected Company > New Discoveries > A Trouble Shared Is A Trouble Cubed

“Senior, do you have any idea what those mysterious runes might say?”

An enormous gateway stood before the trio, titanic bronze-bound portals of foot-thick wood set into a wall of grim basaltic stone. The gates were scarred by fire and bore marks of having been battered by someone who was sincere about wanting in and had a few dozen helpers with blunt instruments to back him up. The right portal hung slightly ajar on one huge and warped hinge and this one bore the heaviest marks of violence. The opening itself was an archway about ten feet high, with lettering in some angular alien script etched across its top.

“They might say, ‘Eat at Akie’s’, Ha-chan,” Excel replied. “Or they might say, ‘If the castle’s rockin’, don’t come knockin’’. Or even ‘Your tax dollars at work’, or ‘The Hounds will not come nigh the wall’. Since Excel can’t read ’em, they might well say anything. However, this being a fairly generic fantasy setting, it’s probably something like ‘Tower of Shrieking Death’ or ‘Castle of Extreme Painful Disembowelment’, or something like that.”

Sister kept blinking at the lettering, then turned her head slightly and glanced at it out of the corner of her eye. “Actually,” she said, “it says, ‘Mid-World Broadcasting Corporation’.”

“What?! You mean you can read that stuff that looks like Vikings wrote it after about six too many hits of ergot-laced ale?”

Sister nodded. “You can, too, I suspect. Try not looking at it directly. Glance out of the corner of your eye.”

Excel and Hyatt did as much, Hyatt gasping in amazement, “Oh my! It’s as if two realities are overlaying one another!”

“Cool,” was the extent of Excel’s reaction. “So, looked at from the side, this big creepy castle with all the minarets and stuff turns into a complex of office buildings.” She shrugged. “Big whoop. This place looks like a serious dump from either view.”

And so it did. Where the castle’s brooding proportions gave it an air of ancient glory long since gone to ruin and and the ravages of ages, the office block’s decrepitude seemed of a more recent but no less complete and destructive sort. The great expanses of windows were shattered and gaping, their metal frames gone to rust and the concrete that formed it all up beginning to crumble and lose its sharp edges. The bronze-banded gates were metal security doors in this idiom, fire-scarred and pocked by bullet holes, the one on the right hanging ajar on one hinge, its lock mechanism twisted out of shape.

“How strange,” Hyatt understated, looking back and forth between the two views. “I wonder which one is the real reality? Does it not trouble you, senior?”

“Nope. Excel’s never felt all that connected to any particular reality, so laying a couple of ’em over top of each other don’t make a hill of beanie-weenies to me.”

“What a marvelous self-justification,” Hyatt beamed.

Excel was already pushing at the half-open gate, forcing it inward. “Time’s a-wastin’, chickies,” she grunted. “Let’s get this quest quested like Johnny and Hadji, for the furtherance of ACROSS’s ideals!”

“How will this quest further ACROSS’s ideals, senior?” Hyatt asked as she pushed, too, not that she was much help.

“We’ll figure that out after we’ve done it.”

The door gave after a bit more shoving and a few enthusiastic Excel Flying Drop-Kicks, groaning in protest as the bent hinge was forced back. Excel lunged through first, her Big-Ass Sword drawn and ready.

Inside was a hallway of coarsely-carven stone—or, from the corner of the eye, a decayed and abandoned corporate lobby. In either view, dust blanketed the room and the artwork on the walls (faded, ravelling tapestries or yellowed and crumbling abstract paintings) had rotted to unrecognizability.

“Yoo-hoo!” shouted Excel. “Evil defending Orc-people! We’re here! Come out, come out, wherever you are!” She waggled her sword. “You can meet my friend, Mr. Pointy-Thing!”

“My files hold very little information on tactics, Excel,” Sister offered, “but I can’t escape the feeling that yours are, shall we say, idiotic.”

“So little you know,” Excel scoffed back. “This is reverse-psychololiconology. We do the opposite of what the enemy expects, keeping our foes off-balance and thus ensuring their ultimate destruction! It’s right out of the Official ACROSS Handbook, Chapter 15, Paragraph 4A!”

Hyatt raised her hand politely. “Senior, that is the chapter on venereal diseases. Paragraph 4A concerns treatment of groinal warts.”

Excel blinked for a moment, then blurted, “Yeah, exactly! You just have to know how to interpret it! Excel is not a strict-constructionist, you see, but believes that the ACROSS Handbook is a living, breathing document that is subject to—”

She was interrupted at that point, somewhat to her relief, by a booming voice echoing through the chamber. It was a powerful voice. Rich. Commanding. Kingly. With a heavy Hispanic accent.

“You must go no further, mortals!” it thundered. “This place is forbidden to you! Leave off your disturbances, and let the dead lie in peace!”

Excel’s manic green eyes widened as she brought a hand to her mouth in a surprisingly dainty and girlish gesture for such a lunatic as herself. “I… I… Excel knows that voice from somewhere. Could it be…?”

The air shimmered before them as a figure slowly faded into view. It was a tall, handsome man, deeply tanned and well-muscled, his hair short and curly and of a lustrous black. Strong chains bound his wrists, clanking as he moved, while his garb was either that of an armor-clad warrior-king or a business-suited executive, depending on which way you looked at him.

“Begone!” he wailed, thrusting a spectral finger at the girls. “Wake not the dead from their slumbers, lest doom overtake you all!”

The apparition should have been horrifying, or at least pretty doggone scary. Any group of ordinary sane people—even hardy dungeon-crawling adventurer types—would have at least carried out a minor tactical withdrawal, if not a full-fledged every-character-for-themself rout.

But we’re not dealing with ordinary, or even sane, people.

Sister regarded the figure wordlessly and without much interest. Nothing in her files indicated that she should be afraid of ghosts, so she wasn’t. Especially not when this was all some sort of role-playing game setting. If it wasn’t attacking her, she could ignore it.

Hyatt just smiled cutely, wiping a spot of blood off her chin. Not much bothered her when you got right down to it. Things always seemed to work out, one way or the other, so there was no point in getting excited over little things like threats of horrifying destruction. “Hello,” she said with a cheery wave.

And as for Excel…


The phantasm gave a little “Eep” as the blonde lunged forward, eyes ablaze and arms outstretched for a big hug…

The entrance hall to the guildhall turned out to be a circular chamber, with oak-panelled walls, an overarching ceiling, and a marble floor—as Schroedy had already discovered, to his dismay.

He currently sat in the middle of the hall, a look of affronted dignity on his face.

“This will be the safe room, I imagine,” Third said. “However, as we progress…”

“…hello, traps,” Jo finished.

“Exactly,” Third said. “And since this is where the solution is… I think we can expect our… ‘opposition’ to mislead and oppose us at each turn.”

“Still too familiar…” Amber murmured.

“So which of these do we choose?” Polly said.

“This way,” Q declared, striding off along one of the corridors.

The others followed him, looking around cautiously for potential traps.

The Brigadier appeared to be deep in thought. “Doctor…”

“Yes, Brigadier?”

“Given the setup of this place, isn’t it likely that the closer we get to this… ‘solution’, whatever it is, the more traps there are likely to be?”

“Yes,” Third said.

“That was certainly helpful…” the Brigadier muttered.

“Why doesn’t someone try a ‘detect spell’ or something?” Molly suggested.

“This is a wizard’s guildhall,” Third pointed out. “There’s no telling what magics, quite aside from the traps, still work.”

“It couldn’t hurt…” Jo suggested.

Third sighed. “Very well. Ahem. ‘Detect Magic’.”

The ceiling lights and several of the doors up ahead glowed blue—as did one or two of the pictures and statues.

“…I think we should be very careful about touching anything here,” Second advised.

“…But which of them do we choose?” Jo asked.

Q sighed. “There is always the direct approach…”

He placed his his hand on a door, and pushed it open.

Third rubbed his chin. “Hmm… a wizard’s laboratory.”

“…Should I be surprised it looks almost exactly like your laboratory back at HQ, Doctor?” the Brigadier inquired.

Indeed, the room revealed was filled with (presumably magical) apparati and equipment of uncertain and potentially dangerous use, giving the impression that the lab’s owner had just stepped out for a coffee break.

Third glared at him. “This place is shaped by our perceptions, Brigadier… still, I doubt a little investigation could hurt, don’t you?”

“…Of course, you would say that,” the Brigadier sighed. “Very well. Let’s investigate…”

Meanwhile, Evan and Zoe had not been heard from for some time.

They had drifted rather far from the group that had actually set out to do something relevant to the plot, and were instead on their own little quest to kill time until the anomaly was repaired.

Ostensibly on a quest to locate a print of the Director’s Cut of The Avengers, they were running afoul of some of the fringes of the strange roleplaying game metaphor that had taken over the realm. Evan’s extensive knowledge of the hobby, combined with the realm’s tendency to manifest the thoughts of its visitors, was creating even more strange inhabitants of the wilds.

For example, the flying, laser-beam-shooting grizzly bears. But their story is far too complicated to be summarized here.

The land was changing too. Evan and Zoe had exited the wild and forbidding forest, onto a plain of red earth. A chill was in the air, and the sky was tinged pink.

“I don’t suppose this was your thinking,” said Zoe.

“Why, just because of the hamsters, the grizzly bears, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man?” replied Evan.

“Actually, I might have to take the blame for that one.” It was a fair point, though technically it was only a matter of time until one of them would’ve noticed the Ghostbusters parallel. “Anyway, I’m not sure where this is.”

“Well, let’s see, I think we’re away from most of the D&D type stuff, but not out of the RPG realm yet. So… wait a minute. I think this is me.”

“Well, what is it?”

“I’m not sure. Let’s walk for a bit.”

And so they did. And soon enough, they saw on the horizon a river. For a river it was exceedingly straight, and the water was a few feet below the top of the smooth channel in which it ran. Or, rather, the canal.

“We’re on Mars,” Evan proclaimed.

“Oh, dear,” Zoe said, looking around. “Ice Warriors, then?”

“No, this is Mars from Space: 1889. Victorians in outer space, Mars is kinda like India to them. Martians are generally friendly.”

He looked up in the sky and saw a few dark shapes wheeling overhead. “Unless of course they’re Beastmen,” he continued.

Zoe wasn’t looking up, which was probably for the best. Instead, as she stared down the canal, she saw a ship coming up. A large sailing ship, crewed by men with pointy ears who appeared to suffer severe jaundice. Oh, wait. Aliens. Right.

“Someone’s coming up! Should we hitch a ride?”

“I don’t know, we’ll have to see if they’re going where we’re going.”

“We don’t know where we’re going.”

“Fair enough.”

The sailing vessel pulled up and dropped anchor, with all the accompanying things ships do when they dock that I can’t be bothered to look up.

“Oy, there!” said a decidedly non-alien captain. In fact he looked rather like a stereotypical mustachioed colonial person, or that guy in Kinda. (Six of one, half a dozen of the other.) “I say, what the devil are you doing out here?”

“We’re on a quest,” said Zoe.

“Oh, an expedition, I see. Just the two of you, no porters then?”

“It’s a short quest,” said Evan.

“Nonsense. You’re in the middle of nowhere, just you and… well, a woman.”

(”They were like this back then, just try not to notice,” Evan whispered quickly to Zoe.)

“Anyway,” the captain continued, “I wouldn’t mind helping an expedition along. Come, we’re docking at Karkarham, you can get any kind of vessel from there. Probably a good flying ship, make your journey much shorter.”

“Shall we?” said Zoe.

“Why not? Karkarham’s supposed to be rather lovely,” Evan replied.

The two walked on board and the ship continued off into the faux-Martian wilderness.

As they headed for the Throne Room, First and Seventh’s party kept their eyes open for anything suspicious. The magic users had appropriate spells prepared, and the fighters had their hands on their weapons1. They hadn’t quite reached the stage of getting the rogues to check every square foot of corridor for traps, but they were certainly stepping lightly.

Before long, they became less cautious, what with nothing happening. At which point Ben stumbled over a tripwire and a heavy iron portcullis came crashing down behind them. They tried looking at it out of the corner of their eyes, but that turned it into an even less penetrable-looking fire curtain.

“Well,” said Seventh. “It’s not as if we were planning on turning back just yet, anyway, is it? We’ll cross that boat when we come to it.”

Eventually they reached the door to the throne room. And all stared at it wondering what would happen if they tried to open it.

“Recce,” said Chris finally. “We really need a way to know what’s on the other side of that door before we open it.”

“Oh, absolutely,” retorted Benny. “But, correct me if I’m wrong, we don’t.”

“Actually,” grinned Chris, “we do. The magic users.”

“Indeed,” replied First. “A spot of wizardry is exactly what the situation calls for.”

Benny looked at him. “So what do you have up your sleeve, Oh Great And Powerful Oz?” Some of the others, more mindful of how responsive this place seemed to be to fiction, winced.

“Not my sleeve,” chuckled First, “Melanie here’s sleeve.”

“Mel’s a diviner,” continued Seventh. “She can scry into the throne room, while ALF checks that door for traps.”

“The High Fantasy version of information technology, I suppose,” chirped Mel. “Certainly makes more sense than being ruler of the cybrids.” She ran one hand through her Bride of Frankenstein hairstyle, closed her eyes, and began to focus. Her focus didn’t slip, not even when ALF, carefully feeling along the side of the door for triggers, suddenly fell back crying “My eyes! My eyes!” The others rushed towards him.

“Man, you people are easy,” the halfling chuckled. “I kill me!”

Roz picked him up by the front of his brightly coloured waistcoat and suspended him at eye level. “One more of those and someone’s going to kill you.”

“Okay, okay. There’s no traps, but I can’t pick the lock. I think it might be magical.”

Mel opened her eyes. “Nothing alive in there, at least not in the D&D reality.”

Florestan nodded. “And since the alteration seems to affect interpretation of reality, rather than such basics as ‘this is a person, this is a barrier’,” he guestured in the general direction of the portcullis, “we can probably assume that means no living beings in the other reality either.”

“Now all we need to do is open the door,” commented Bob the Muse. “Any of you bright buggers got a knock spell?”

Daibhid and Mel, being non-transmuter specialists, did not. Neither did any of the other magic users, although First insisted he’d tried to memorise it, but it hadn’t taken.

“And you’re quite sure you can’t pick the lock?” Sandra asked ALF. “I suppose I could go in, and report back…”

“Out of the way everyone,” said Ace. “This is a job for Lady Highcard’s smokepowder special!” And, with that, she unhooked one of the alchemy pots and began affixing a length of string to it.

“Lady Highcard?” repeated Benny, somewhat amused.

Ace looked defensive. “Back in Perivale, Midge and the guys used to play a bit, and I’d join in sometimes. They let me have alchemy as a skill, and this stuff as my main weapon. Basically, it’s magical Nitro-9. And if it can’t open these doors, nothing can. Stand back, everybody!”

They did, but not before Seventh squinted at the clay pot out of the corner of his eye. It resolved itself into a grey canister. Actual Nitro-9, he assumed. Created from local materials bought in a shop that had no real existence, before they’d learnt how to see what was really happening? Hardly. She must have had it with her all along. He shook his head and joined the others at the far end of the passageway. A couple of seconds later, Ace joined him.

The fuse burned down, at least in the D&D reality. In the other version the timer ticked. Then both realities were filled with noise and billowing flames and smoke. Nitro-9 tends to have that effect on realities.

When it cleared, the doorway was open. “So much for a quiet entry,” was Seventh’s only comment.

“The scumbag who sent Jason already knew we’re here,” pointed out Ace. “Now let’s get what we came here for.”

During the search, Amy decided to open the nearest cabinet. She found something very interesting. When she looked sideways at it, it was a fairly uninteresting, boxy piece of technology, but when she looked at it straight on…

“Hey, everyone! Look at this!” she called out. Most of the group stopped to look at her, and she held her find proudly.

“What is it?” said Third.

“It’s a magical object called a Pensieve,” said Amy. “The stuff inside it is thoughts. Wizards use these to store their old memories when they start to collect too many of them.”

“Like an external memory core?” said Nuku-Nuku.

“Exactly,” said Amy. “I guess this belongs to whoever used to live here, which means it could provide some clues to the mystery.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” enthused Q. “Let’s have a look!” Taking the shallow stone basin from Amy, he plunged his face into the not-quite-liquid within and stood very still.

“Only one person can use those at a time,” said Amy, chagrined, “and it would have to be Q.”

“Yes,” assented Third. “I should have been the one to look.”

“Sorry, Doctor. He may be rash and impulsive at times, but I am his date and I respect him for coming to the party at all. I suggest we leave him to it and keep looking around the room.”

“All right, then.” The team returned to the search.

:::…Do you want to talk about it?:::

:::…All right.

:::You’ll have to forgive me, though; my mind-speaking skills are a little rusty. It takes a while to get used to thinking about doing two things at once.:::

::: <chuckle> Tell me about it.:::

:::Well, then.:::


:::<sigh> I would have thought we were older than the ‘embarrassing silence’ stage…:::

:::It happens to all of us. And… well, this is …difficult… for both of us.:::


:::<sighs> It’s been too soon, too soon… five years since Elle died, five years, and we were married for nearly nine hundred… it’s too soon… I feel… I feel as if I’m dishonouring her, spending too little time mourning for her… that she deserved more of me… but my grief is spent. I can’t find it in myself…

:::I hurt, I always will. We were together so long… not long enough… but it never is, is it? It never is…

:::She died slowly, step by step, inch by inch… and I felt every moment of it, every last moment… and yet, if she had died quickly, the girls would have been orphaned in a stroke.

:::A quick death would have killed me.

:::A bond that long, that strong…:::

:::I know.:::

:::…It would have destroyed me…

:::And so she died slowly, died step by step, and I died with her.

:::I could feel it, feel Elle die… and I couldn’t stop it I couldn’t stop

:::My wife was dying and there was nothing I could do about it.


:::…I think I began to understand Sophia then, understood what would have driven her to do what she did… I began to understand how far she would have gone… and how far she did go.

:::And I understood, of myself… I understood I could never do that, that the lengths Sophia had gone to, the obsession within… they were not mine.

:::That I could only sit and watch my wife die.

:::I could not… I could not kill her, grant her an easy death… I could not even grant her that, that small thing… and I hated that I could even conceive of this, of killing my wife… but I could feel her death, piece by painful piece, and I wanted… I wanted to end it, end her suffering, her pain… end the girls’ pain, end my pain…

:::Not selfless, no… how could it be? But not selfish, either…

:::I hurt.

:::I feel the loss, where once I felt her, felt Elle. And I will feel that loss all of my life.

:::This is the curse of eidetic memory.

::::I remember everything. Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste…

:::…and feeling.

:::I love her, Amber. I still love her, even now. I always will.

:::…and yet, and yet…

:::…I find myself falling in love anew.

:::And I cannot escape it, cannot escape the feeling I’m betraying her… how can I love two women and yet not betray either?

:::And I look at my daughters, and I know they believe I’m betraying her. I know

:::…and what makes it worse is that I’m falling for a woman who hurt my girls, who hurt them, and I know you are not Electra… that Electra’s ways are not yours… and the girls know it too, but they know, they live with, the fact that Electra hurt them… and they will not forget that.

:::I cannot forget that.

:::In love of you, I betray my wife and my daughters.

:::I know it, the girls know it—and they will not forgive me easily.

:::But that would be an easier task, I think, than forgiving myself…:::

:::…You were not him.

:::I knew it from the moment I saw into your mind.

:::Though you bore his likeness, your mind, your soul… they were not his.

:::You were not him.

:::No fighter, no Hero, he… a poet, an elegiast, of some small renown…

:::…but his soul, oh, his soul… it burned with the fire, burned from within, beautiful and cool… he knew, he knew, he found the words, the images, the ideas, to put it as best he could… to mourn, and to remember, those gone… to preserve them as they were, had been… preserved the truth of the world as it had been…

:::…but you, you questioned the past, questioned, doubted, criticised what had been… did not seek an answer, an explanation… sought an understanding, sought what perspectives could be found, sought many truths where there should be one…

:::…and you fought me, you defied me, you wore his face and you defied me, fought to save that which you had… as I sought to return that which I had had…

:::I wanted my world back. I wanted my sisters back. I wanted him back…

:::…and I would have done anything to have them…

:::I had stagnated, my heart frozen inside me, become cold, cruel and uncaring…

:::…and then I saw you, saw your face, saw his face, saw your mind, your soul…

:::…and I hated you for that, that you could wear his face and yet defy what he had lived for, defy me…

:::…and, oh, I would have killed you if I could, killed you using Xeffy’s hands… I wanted you broken, shattered, the symbol of those who defied me…

:::…but then… but then…

:::…I was called forth, given a body my own once more…

:::…and you confronted me, faced me… you stood there, wearing his face, and you told me he would have wept to see what I became, told me he would have walked away forever…

:::…and I felt the tiniest of fractures, smaller than small, in my heart… and Eloise saw it… tried to widen it, to open my heart to feeling once more… widened that fracture that little further…

:::And then I saw the truth, saw that it had been Nyarlathotep’s machinations that had brought about our fall… and my heart fractured, but did not break, could not break…

:::…not until Ana was returned, brought forth from within Nyarlathotep… not until she gave of herself, gave up the last of what she had been, that I might become something new…

:::…and in the fire of regeneration, the ice around my heart melted, was melted…

:::…and I discovered that where there had been one heart, there now beat two.

:::And you could have… perhaps should have… walked away, having settled the accounts between us, left it at that.

:::But I couldn’t leave it. There was no-one else I knew, knew enough… and yes, perhaps it was imprinting… but I wanted to know about you. I’d seen your soul, but I didn’t know you, not as a person…

:::So I asked you for a dance, and you accepted… and I saw what was happening, what was happening between us… and saw I was hurting you, hurting your daughters…

:::And I stepped back.

:::I wanted some distance… wanted to avoid hurting you more than I could, wanted to understand what was happening—and understood that I did care for you, that I did care… not love, I didn’t know you enough, but care, yes, I cared…

:::I knew you were falling in love with me, that you still loved Elle… and if I’d really cared, I would have told you this at the start, told you that I cared, but I didn’t. I told myself I still needed to adjust to Earth, to my new position. Once that was done… then, yes, then, I could deal with this.

:::Not love, not friendship… I don’t know what this is, Dominic. I know I care for you and for your daughters, but what else it is, what it may become, I don’t know.

:::But my negligence has only aided in hurting you that bit more.

:::And I doubt you’d accept any forgiveness I could offer.:::

:::…Thank you, Amber.:::


:::I need… I need to think about this, Amber.:::

:::…All right.:::

:::We do need to talk about this, though.:::

:::All right. Later, then?:::

:::Later. I have a feeling things are about to get moving… it’s been too quiet.:::

:::…You too? <chuckles, quiets> Keep your eyes open.:::

:::And you.:::

For a moment—for what seemed a very long moment—no one moved, just stood blinking dumbly. Even from the distance, the effects of Nitro-9 need to be recovered from.

Seventh was the first one forward, being the one most used to Nitro-9. “First, Ace,” he said, “we must figure out what it is we’re looking for.”

“Indeed, indeed, m’boy,” First said, “but in either case we must stop dawdling about!”

And there was a general, well, not surge so much as a cautious ambling forward.

Seventh grumbled to First’s back, as he followed after: “‘M’boy! Humph! I’m older than you are, remember?!”

Florestan was the last of the pack. He was thoroughly unfamiliar with this game “D and D” that so many here seemed to know so well, and therefore was unable to keep a firm grasp on the world construct presented to them. Not only did he not know the game they were meant to be playing, he knew almost nothing of any of their worlds, having been trapped inside the Myth Engine for so long2.

He therefore felt himself to be the most vulnerable to slipping into his own universe and getting trapped there. And so, to keep himself tethered to reality, he spent a good three quarters of his time looking out the corners of his eyes.

It made for slow going.

It also led to an interesting discovery: each time he shifted his eyes to the front, there was an ever-so-slight decrease in the visual scope of the fantasy world. Just as someone suffering from tunnel vision sees their world through two bright circles surrounded by darkness, Florestan was seeing two circles of castle surrounded by power plant—and the circles were growing smaller, milimeter by milimeter, every time he shifted his point of focus. This was a disconcerting feeling, and seemed to have an effect on his inner ear, for he felt that he was always on the verge of, but not quite, losing his balance, and he found himself gravitating toward the edges of the room, where he could run his fingertips along a wall or piece of furniture, like a blind man. This was all very well and good in the corridors, but it left him feeling a bit at sea in a vast room like this one.

But the phenomenon was also reassuring. His best explanation for it was: the more convinced he was that the world seen out of the corners of his eyes was the real one, the more it replaced the fantasy construct created for him by someone else. It meant, in short, that whatever manipulation was being worked on their minds (and on the minds of this world’s natives, generations ago) was not invulnerable. Personal convictions still counted for something.

Now, if only he could share his discovery with the others…

“So,” said Roz, (still feeling slightly put out that her crossbow had been taken away from her), “what are we looking for, anyway?”

“For how this trick with our perceptions is being played,” Daibhid said, still studying the map. Unfortunately, it showed no more detail now than before, and didn’t give any clue as to where in the throne room they were supposed to be searching.

Roz looked as if she would have liked to fwap Daibhid, if he had been within reach, for telling her what she already knew. Lucky for him, he was not.

First ahemed. “Since this ‘trick’ seems to have been played on this world by an outsider,” he said, “I’d suggest looking for something that seems out of place.”

Seventh nodded. “Likely to be some sort of device,” he said, “planted here by whoever did this—perhaps using the power grid.”

Roz, true to her Investigator’s nature, was peering into the corners of things, and under things. “Like that?” she said, pointing under the throne. And, putting action to words, she got down on her hands and knees and grabbed it, coming up with a small, very shiny, metallic cube.

First moved suprising quickness for a man of his age, and snatched it from her. He held it very close in front of his eyes, and peered at it both sideways and frontways. “Eureka!” he said.

Seventh scoffed. “She found it—not you!”

First pressed on, ignoring him. “It’s absolutely the same,” he said, “no matter how you look at it. It is unaffected by all this nonsense, and therefore must be the origin of all this nonsense.”

“So that’s it?” Chris asked. “We’ve fulfilled our part of the quest, just like that? I dunno… it seems far too easy. No one’s come after us, or anything.”

Florestan cleared his throat. “Hardly,” he said. “Now we have to figure out how it works—and how to shut it down. If I had money to wager, I’d lay better than even odds that the trouble will start once we try tinkering with it.”

“Indeed,” said First. “So we probably shouldn’t try until we’ve had a better look at it, hmm? I think we should also wait until we have exchanged notes with the others. While each group might be solving an individual part of this mystery, I don’t think we’ll fully understand the answers untill they’re put together. After all, it’s Second and Third who are supposed to be finding out what we can do to stop this, yes?”

“Yes, you’re right,” agreed Florestan. “However, even taking it with us might have consequences, which we should be prepared for.”

“Talking about taking it with us,” said Ben, adjusting his headscarf, “is now about the time to be thinking of getting through that portcullis?”

“Yes,” said Seventh, as they walked back to the barrier. “Unfortunately I don’t have any ideas. Anyone?”

“I’ve got some more Smokepowder Special,” offered Ace.

“I don’t know about that,” said Ian, who’d been examining it. “The barrier is on a particularly unstable part of the floor. You might take the whole castle down on top of us!”

“We need something more controlled,” agreed Steven. “ALF?”

“Hardly. It’s not a lock-picking situation. We can either lift it, or break through it. Except we can’t do either.”

Daibhid, meanwhile, had been looking round in puzzlement.

“Have you seen something?” asked Chris.

“No, it’s what I’m not seeing…” He stopped, and grinned. “I think I know how to get through this. Just wait.”

They waited. Daibhid, with a look of total confidence on his face, straightened his pointy hat and tightened the Celtic clasp holding his ponytail in place. “Any minute now,” he said, not quite as confident as he’d been mere minutes before.

“Daibhid, do you have the slightest idea what…?” began Bob the Muse, then stopped, as a rumbling sound began to come down the corridor. “Is that…? Oh, of course! Everyone stand back!”

After a while, the strangers, perhaps sensing that Eloise couldn’t keep up, slowed their pace.

Before long, they turned a corner, and left the old sewer pipes for tunnels that were clearly hewn with cruder tools. The way got narrower and the ceiling got lower, and Eloise was glad for her trollish stature.

She could hear the concerned rhubarb of the others nearby and called out to them: “I’m alright! Don’t worry. I’ll be with you soon!” (For she doubted many would even be able to follow her in these narrow spaces).

“And if you aren’t?” GlitchBob asked, still sounding protective.

Eloise didn’t have time to respond, for just then, they turned the corner, and entered a large, domed hall illuminated with the yellow-green light of glow-worm-like creatures. The walls around them, and the ceiling, too, were covered in ornate carvings, depicting, it seemed, scenes from their civilization’s past.

If there was a motive behind what had happened to these people, Eloise was sure they would find it here… Now, if only one or more of the Doctors could get here, to help her interpret it…

Eloise was distracted from her examination of the carvings by a clattering sound from the hall entrance. Turning, she saw a pair of wire-haired terriers trotting out of the tunnel. They stood with their heads together, apparently conferring, and then one returned to the tunnel while the other continued toward Eloise.

“Hello, boy,” she said cautiously, trying to place the dog among the members of the party. “What are you doing here?”

“My mistress sent me to assist you,” the terrier replied primly, coming to a halt in front of her. He turned to regard the creatures who had led Eloise to the hall, his ears twitching. “Do you require protection from these beings? Although I lack my defensive energy weapon in this form, I have the ability to work minor magics of equivalent function.”

“No, thank you, K-9,” Eloise said. “Come and tell me what you make of these wall carvings…”

1 Mostly swords of various types, although Steven had a longbow. Roz had originally had a crossbow, but it had rather firmly been taken away and put in the Luggage. Ace also had two pottery jars of that alchemy stuff that everyone was trying not to think about.

2 See chapter 26 of last year’s story, Goodnight, Sweetheart.

previous - index - next

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