"Lancelot!" Arthur queen, sorcerer and sorcerer's apprentice behind advanced on the knight now there was a break in the action. "There are Dragons here!"
"Here?" Lancelot looked around. "I haven't seen them. There's a giant serpent," he said helpfully.
"Oh?" said Merlin. "No huhu there'll be a lion along soon to polish its kettle."
"I think it's a juvenile," Nimue observed. "Too young to be pitted against a lion."
"A cub then?" Merlin speculated.
"You've been fighting on the serpent's side!" Guenevere had been bursting with malicious delight since she'd grokked the battle lines of the conflict. "You, fighting with a serpent?"
"The other side was winning," Lancelot said defensively.
Meanwhile Magnus had overhead their exchange and drifted their way. "That," he elucidated, pointing to the juvenile giant serpent, "is a dragon."
"Ohhh," said the Space Camelot contingent.
"In our universe," Arthur explained, "a Dragon is a pepperpot-shaped device with a xenophobic mutant inside, toting a flamethrower."
"And a serpent is a symbol in visions, for the evil vanquished by Christ, symbolized by a lion, I know," Magnus said. "Things are more ambivalent here."
"You see?" Lancelot said to Guenevere.
Danik located the avocado troll and bowed deeply, the Rose of Ruritania flashing at his breast. "Danny Blue and the 'Avalanche' at your service, ma'am."
Eloise paused, distracted for a moment, and let her eyes travel swiftly over the confident newcomer from head to toe. She gave him a wise look.
"Let me see... you wouldn't happen to be an expert on damsels in distress, would you?"
Danik's grin was answer enough.
"In that case," Eloise told him firmly, "I have just the job for you." She tugged on his arm until the tall Ruritanian was bent almost double and whispered in his ear until his eyes were dancing with mischief.
"But mind " she shook a finger at him "be polite about it..."
Danik bestowed a mock-horrified look upon her back view as she turned and hurried down another hallway. "My dear lady, a Schelstein is always polite..."
He flipped a corner of his cloak in the parrot's direction, stifling an incipient recital designed to reveal the stunning degree of mendacity in that statement, and began to fend off the buffets of Osman's wings, laughing.
"The plot seems to have arrived."
"I know it's early, but at least we got to the bouncy castle..."
"Ymmfsss. Wnn smmmm?"
"Ooh yeah, is there any flake left?"
"Sorry...I was hungry."
"Yff mmflllww fllllmnng rmmmph..."
Yokoi paused before scoffing the last spoonful of ice-cream.
Meanwhile, over near the food fight zone...
"Spamites? Not heard of those ones before."
Silence rummaged in her backpack, looking for one book in particular from the many to be found within. She pulled out a thick, large book and handed it to Katherine.
"The Big Monster Pop-Up Book?"
~Page 638.~ signed Silence.
Katherine opened the book...
...five minutes later, after she had picked herself off the floor and handed the book back to Silence, she politely asked Silence to warn her before doing that sort of thing again.
"It's amazing what they can do with cardboard these days."
They both looked on as a dazed and confused Gordon staggered past, mumbling something about ninja armadillos and asking why the room was spinning around like that. He was wandering vaguely towards the game room.
~I'd better go after him, make sure he doesn't hurt himself.~
"Okay, I'll help out in here, catch up with you later."
Silence went after Gordon, just in time to see him disappear through the doorway of the game room. When she ran in after him, the first thing she saw was Gordon's left foot tripping over a wire set just inside the playing field, the second thing was the strawberry flan that hit him in the face, the third was the ever-so-slightly unhappy looking dragon.
#Do we get points for that?# asked Ayna.
"Dunno, but that was a nice shot!" grinned Xeffy before suddenly remembering the dragon that was stuck in the room with them.
Gordon wiped the flan from his face, staggering over to lean against something. He heard the sharp intake of breath from the assembled assembly of people.
"What?" he asked, as he suddenly realised that the thing he was leaning against was not only scaly, but moving ever-so-slightly. He looked up...
Eloise followed Danel and the others back to Sweetheart's wardrobe room.. She knew catching a neo-nazi blue monkey was important. But with the SKoLD loose within the TARDIS, possibly still bringing creatures from her guests' subconsciousness to life (and with Delta and Xellos threatening to bring an army of Spamites down upon their heads), the menace posed by Ingo was minuscule in comparison.
And then, a horrifying thought occurred to her: The Food Fight Arena! She and Sweetheart had arranged to make it the room furthest from the main action, for the safety (and cleanliness) of those who didn't want to get glopped. But that meant that maybe Xeffy, Ayna and the gremlins didn't know what was going on, and could stumble into serious danger by accident.
She had to warn them. She dropped back from the others and went down another hallway. She reached the Food Fight Arena and peeked in the door.
"Hey, guys! I just wanted to Oh... Good... Lord... "
(No doubt about it. Ingo was definitely small potatoes now)
Then, the dragon spotted Eloise. Its eyes locked onto her. It stretched out its neck, opened its mouth and
A great, long, ear-splitting wail.
Great, hot tears rolled from the corners of its eyes and down its cheeks, splashing Gordon, and soaking him through.
A wave of loneliness and sorrow washed over Eloise, so heavy, for a moment, she thought it would crush her.
This Dragon had established a telepathic link with her much like her link with Sweetheart.
And then it all became clear. The Some Kind of Large Device wasn't large at all (on the outside), and it could continue to work through the walls of a transdimensional box. That meant, most likely, that it was transdimensional, itself.
And if it was designed to bring thought-forms of the subconscious into physical being, that could mean it was designed specifically for consciousnesses of TARDISes.
If so, that meant Ingo and Electric Charley were flukes The SKoLD only zapped Allie and Danel because they were in the line of fire when it activated. That would certainly explain why the place wasn't being overrun with all manner of fictional characters and the left-overs from nightmares.
But why would anyone design a machine to bring a TARDIS's subconscious to life?
To learn that TARDIS's secrets.
Eloise looked into the dragon baby's eyes. Now that she had recognized it, the creature (Sweetheart) was much calmer.
But why a dragon? What does a dragon mean, symbolically, to a TARDIS to this particular TARDIS?
A dragon has fire inside blazing stars.
A dragon guards treasure a treasure that is hidden deep.
Hearing her name brought her out of her reverie, even though she wasn't sure who was speaking.
"Do you know what's going on?" Dominic asked.
"No. But I'm beginning to get an idea. Come on! We have to deactivate that SKoLD!"
"Err... Allie, I realise this may not be the best time to say this, given that a) we're about to be attacked by a ravening horde of Spamites, b) we're dressing up in monkey suits to lure a neo-Nazi monkey out of hiding, c) there's a box floating around intent on causing mischief, d) Xellos was the one who brought c), and e) your family seems to have disappeared Calliope knows where, but..."
"Yes...?" Allie said dangerously.
Imran took a deep breath. "Why don't you just shapeshift your dress into a monkey suit? You can do that, you know."
"Because I prefer to rely on the tools we have." Allie said. "And besides, getting dressed up in a monkey suit is embarrassing enough without morphing into one."
"Ho there, good people!" boomed an all-too-familiar voice.
"Where are the Doctors?" the Steward asked. "I have a message I must impart to them!"
"Looking after a box in the lounge room." Allie said. "Thataway."
"Thank you." the Steward said. He turned away, then turned back.
"We're getting dressed up in monkey suits to lure a neo-Nazi monkey out of hiding." Imran said.
"Ah." the Steward said wisely.
And left, as quickly as possible.
"I don't know..." Imran said, watching him go. "Why do I get the feeling we have a seriously misplaced sense of priorities?"
"We're trying to stop the subconscious creatures," Allie pointed out. "Or at least help them out here. If we can get Ingo in check, we can deal with any others."
"What about the ravening horde of Spamites?"
Allie grinned. "Trust me on this. I can deal with them."
"You can " Imran began. "Oh. Ohhhhh..."
The Steward and Eloise's group arrived outside the lounge room simultaneously.
"Ah! Mine hostess!" the Steward greeted. "Forgive me for such a brief greeting, but there is news of import I must bring to the Doctors before any conviviality may begin."
Then he got a proper look at Eloise's group.
#We were in a food fight with a depressed baby dragon.# Ayna explained.
"I still say we were winning." Spethan muttered.
"I hope the Doctors found a way to deactivate the SKoLD." Eloise said. "Because I have an inkling as to what its purpose might just be..."
"If it's the inkling I suspect it is..." Dominic said. "Could someone want to confront you with your Ship's subconscious?"
Eloise blinked her huge eyes.
"Because it seems to me that the SKoLD, so far, has managed a number of things. It's managed to bring a part of your Ship's subconscious to life which confronts you with her subconscious, and enables anyone who knows how to learn her secrets.
"It's also managed to cause complete and total chaos which, I suspect, is just as important a reason." Dominic put his hands behind his back. "Of course, we're second-guessing whomever placed the SKoLD "
"Xellos, maybe?" Eloise hazarded.
"Maybe. And the best way to learn is to go to the source."
Dominic opened the door.
"You'd think," he said eventually, "that at some point, you'd get used to this."
Eloise peered past him, and gasped.
Behind the door was what could only be described as a fairytale landscape.
Not too far off in the distance, she could see the glittering turrets of a crystal castle rising to the sky.
"What...?" she began. "Is this the SKoLD?"
Dominic shook his head. "I don't know."
"What about the Doctors?"
"I... don't know." Dominic admitted. "But if they're anywhere, they're here."
"Stories. Stories..." Eloise murmured, almost to herself. "Why fairy stories? Dragons, castles... protection, power "
"Heroes. Quests. Discovery." Dominic said. "I know this. I know this. Subreality was like this, not so long ago when Malory wrote "Le Morte D'Arthur", the others who took on the Arthurian cycle, the romances of chivalry..." He nodded at the landscape before them. "It shaped a major part of Subreality's landscape."
"And I think I saw Arthur and Merlin among the guests, earlier," Eloise added. "I wonder if they know about this."
Dominic chuckled quietly. "It was an interesting time, while it lasted. I rather liked it."
At the rear of the line behind Magnus and Varne, a bearded man in a maroon-tunicked space-opera uniform waved above the crowd, while an old man in a long multicolored scarf sputtered with affronted immodesty at the notion that his presence could go only half-noticed. There were a redhead and a food-spattered beanpole in the same uniform, and skinny blonde in a white gown who said, "Morgan's around here too somewhere. I last saw her with Allie and Imran."
"Madame le Fey was not in their company when I saw them just now," the Steward offered. "They were occupied with the hunt for the monkey."
"So... the SKoLD's somewhere in there, and we've got to find it and the Doctors and deactivate it." Eloise finished.
"So let's get " Xeffy pushed past them, and into the landscape. " start..."
She looked down at herself. "YAAAAAGGGHHH!!!"
#I dunno, Xeph.# Ayna observed. #I think that gown looks good on you.#
"GOOD?!" Xeffy squawked. "I LOOK LIKE MAID MARIAN! AND WHAT THE HADES IS THIS ON MY HEAD?"
"A wimple." Dominic said.
"Which means it adapts the clothes of anyone inside to fit its setting." Magnus observed. "Interesting."
"Easy for you to say." Xeffy harrumphed. "You don't have to walk in this."
Eloise took a deep breath. If the SKoLD, and the Doctors, were in there, then the only way to find out what had happened to them...
...was to go in.
"In that case " She took off her vest, and held it in one hand.
The others looked at her quizzically.
"Well," she explained, "back in the day, trolls went naked. I have a lot of things in my pockets, and I don't want them to drop all over the place when my vest vanishes. But if I treat my vest as though it were a sack.." she stepped over the threshold.
Her vest had become a bundle on a stick. "Yup," she said. "Just as I suspected. I'm just glad it's transdimensional." She put her hand up to check the status of her birthday hat. It was now a jester's cap and bells. She grinned.
"Ready?" she asked.
As the line into the door shuffled forward, Guenevere grumbled, "I'm a Round Table Space Fleet knight. If we get converted into our Malory versions by stepping through this gateway, I'll become a treaty wife good for nothing but getting rescued from evil knights. Prolly have to wear something so loose and flowy Isadora Duncan wouldn't have been caught dead in it."
"Better than going naked," said Lancelot, who was doing his best not to look directly at Eloise.
"And what, pray tell," said Eloise with a tone of mock offence, "is wrong with being naked? If I had not chosen to live among humans, I'd be naked all the time, at least, where the climate was favorable."
"Pay no attention to the man behind the fig leaf," Guenevere told her drily.
Magnus: "I think I will tag along, but just a minute..."
[He muttered something under his breath and stretched his right arm out. For a moment his hand seemed to disappear. When it became visible again he was holding a pair of saddle bags.]
Magnus: "Here we are, tools for most eventualities."
[As he passed the doorway his suit morphed into a black robe embroidered with designs in blood red.]
Magnus: "Looks like I am being cast as a villain. Oh well, go with the flow."
"No reflection on you," Merlin snorted. "Modern hack authors are always casting me as the villain."
"Hack authors like Twain, and Zelazny," Arthur stage-whispered.
[He reached into one of the bags and pulled out an intricately carved six foot long staff.]
Magnus: "Are you coming, Varne?"
Varne: "As soon as I change. You will need a familiar for that role."
[Varne's form blurred and where she had been was a large red furred cat.]
"Am I going to turn into your familiar?" Nimue wondered as Merlin stepped up to the door.
"Only one way to find out." But Arthur held the sorcerer back with a hand on his arm.
"I think we'll help hold down the fort here," Arthur told Eloise. "You've got most of the party with you, but there are still monkeys and explosions to deal with."
"And Morgan is missing," Guenevere added, "or at least wandered off without letting us know where she'd be and who she was with. Coincidence?"
"My sister and I may have reconciled at this point in our chronology," Arthur agreed, "but that doesn't mean her agenda and mine have suddenly started matching up point to point."
"Go for it," Eloise said.
"You two watch the door," Arthur told Merlin and Nimue as the questors moved into fairyland. "We'll do a recce through the rest of the party."
Gordon looked down at the robes he was wearing. "Please tell me I'm not wearing a pointy hat."
~You are not wearing a pointy hat.~
"Ah, good. I like your outfit."
Silence was now clad in sleek black armour, with smooth curves and a pointed triangular helmet. Two rather large swords were held in scabbards on the sides.
"I'll just have to figure out what I'm supposed to be along the way"
Ayna looked down at herself. #Er, Xeffy...#
Xeffy turned to see and boggled.
#Someone has a very weird sense of occasion.# the winged Siren muttered.
The world had apparently decided that Ayna best fit the category of 'minstrel', and had equipped her accordingly.
To whit, a tunic and hose, with a set of pipes strapped to her side.
"Just so long as you're not a bard on the run..." Xeffy observed.
She narrowly ducked Ayna's wingslap.
Celia trotted up to the Steward as he paused contemplatively on the threshold, her eyes flashing small stars. Small external stars. "Gray! Wait for me!"
"Oh." He regarded her with some bewilderment. "You weren't ?"
She folded her arms across her chest, in a way familiar to all Nyssa aficionadoes as boding little or no good. "No; you just pounded off, and I don't have your long legs or bullish momentum. I'm just a working Demiurge, Gray, not some Keeper-banned miracle-worker! I thought this was supposed to be a Pro "
And then she broke off, really seeing the fairy-tale landscape beyond the door. "Oh!," she breathed rapturously. "Now, there's joy!" And stepped through.
"Now, where ?" the Steward fretted, and charged in after her.
She wasn't there.
He caught hastily up to the rest of the motley crew. "What ho, Dame Eloise!" he greeted his hostess."Did you just see a beautiful girl frisking happily into this reality? Starry eyes, sky-blue gown, looks a lot like Nyssa?"
"Yeah, like every other girl these fanboys bring in..." Xeffy muttered audibly.
Eloise frowned slightly. "I think I might have noticed. Was she your guest?"
"Umph, yes. My Muse Carrie sends her apologies, by the way stuck in the 1940s on an anti-Spamite retconnaisance so I took the liberty of inviting my Demiurge instead. Celia. Lovely girl, you'd like her. But I seem to have mislaid her over that threshold."
"Demiurge?" Eloise looked at him reappraisingly. "You brought a goddess as your guest?
Dominic, in the black clerical robes of a mediaeval academic, cleared his throat. "I don't think she would be, not in our fiction. Some authors have very generalist Muses who create the spark and story for the work, but subcontract the worldbuilding to specialists. Demiurges. Not common, but I've known authors get fine results that way." He raised his brows in the Steward's direction. "Am I right?"
"Celia's a special case: she's a demiurge within her story-context as well... but, basically, yes." The Steward drew himself up. "And I am certainly not one of those who believes that she who does the spadework for a milieu deserves a whit less credit for her labour than the 'higher-level' designers..."
%Before you slide back into your class struggle,% a sharp and rather strained voice sounded inside his head, %I'm afraid I have a small problem...%
The Steward froze for a moment, then turned back to the motley crew. "Friends, fun-folk, comrades, attend! Celia's gone immanent. She's her own world's indweller, and she seems to have been translated into her default role here. But this isn't her ficton: she can't seem to affect it, or for example pull out of it. However... if she can perceive... she ought to be able to guide us to the SKoLD and the Doctors!" He turned a triumphant face towards the heavens.
%My perceptions didn't make this world either... and I fear the consequences of trying to align them with Whatever did. It looks very different from the inside. Still beautiful, though.%
"So how much can you tell us, that we might actually understand?"
%From here it looks like:
Within the crystal, light and dark.|
Choose both, choose neither.
Within the present, a rose, a flame, a key.
Choose one, choose well.
And some who are true to their sweethearts shall have
A brush with unknown things, a daft one.
Please get me out of here soon, it's a lovely place but this is far too much like the day job, and being a disembodied sibyl at a party is apt to get old rather quickly.%
The sense of presence vanished. The Steward relayed the prophecy without comment.
~So,~ signed the martially-accoutred Silence. ~To the crystal castle, then?~
"That would seem appropriate." Dominic chuckled. "I think it's only fair to warn everybody that in this kind of setting, reaching crystal castles is the sort of quest one seldom achieves without a deal of colourful incident..."
"Yeah, Dad, we guessed. And then the real fun starts..."
"That may be true in an ordinary fictiverse," Eloise pointed out. "But we're not in an ordinary fictiverse. "We're still inside Sweetheart. I suspect whoever's behind this wants us to forget that, thereby leading us to search this world, and getting us thoroughly lost in her corridors in the process.
"I refuse to forget it. This seems to be a personal attack against her, and she and I are a team, if it's personal for her, it's personal for me!" Eloise reached up with one hand, and pushed her jester cap forward in 1940's gangster movie style. "And we don't have time to play some sicko's little game!" She unbristled, then, and grinned. "Besides," she said, with a wink, "I know how to find the Doctors express-fashion."
Everyone, especially the Steward and Dominic, gave her quizzical looks.
"Isn't it obvious?" Eloise asked. "The Doctors are somewhere here. 'Here' is inside Sweetheart. Sweetheart knows Exactly where they are... And she has currently manifested an avatar that would fit perfectly in this fictiverse."
The baby dragon bounded over the horizon toward them.
The troll patted the green, scaly neck. She could still feel the fear emanating through this beast the same terror that she felt, briefly, when the Gods of Ragnarok attacked last year, that had given her her first clue as to Sweetheart's past. This dragon was that fear, she realized, and the anger, and the sense of helplessness (was that why it was only a baby?) all the things the TARDIS had felt at the loss of her first pilot (whenever and however that happened).
Eloise whispered in the dragon's ear: "It'll be okay, Baby," she promised. "We'll put a stop to this together."
Then, climbing up on the dragon's back, she said out loud: "Take us to the Doctors."
A hideous toad-demon glided through the door, gave the room a lightning scan, and fixed upon Katherine and Yokoi, who had remained behind Being Silly on principle. The principle was that, as long as two or three were gathered together to Be Silly at all times, the forces of joy and righteousness could never be too many points behind.
"Earl's Court Road!"
"The Avenue of the Nines and Twenties!"
"Bleeding Heart Yard!"
It occurred to Katherine at this point that harlequin-scaled toad-demons packing ominous blasters in each hands might retort on Being Silly in a way that joyfulness might find inconvenient to refute. But years of travel with the Doctor, as well as general principles aforesaid, dictated her answer. "Good evening. Can we tempt you to some ice-cream?"
"Nay, such sugary-sweet toys be too strong e'en for my red blood; had brought you good spirits in great store for th'increase of your own, but those are exploded and expired, so must seek other means of joy's promotion." The demon's crests waved good-humouredly. "Nor may you attain Mornington Crescent from the Lost Highway..."
Katherine regarded him with a new and different fascination. "Where would you go, from there?"
"No whither; is't not lost? and how then should find one's way back to terra cognita, till's found at last? But fear not: new entertainment's provided. Shall we three fight Spam's quintessence all alone, and win immortal death-and-glory; other else bring in Doctors, Muses, Magicians and such powers more as shall drub it to very scorn, and scratch cross-posting's curse out of Life's dear book? I'd not defy true maidens in such choices!"
Yokoi decoded this while Katherine was still marvelling at the great reptile's subclauses. "If we're going to be attacked by a ravening horde of evil 'Spamites', can we do the drubbing-to-scorn thing? Gordon and the rest of the gang's that way, and I bet we've got some custard pies over..."
The reptile did a double-take, which works marvellously well when you have nictitating membranes as well as eyelids. "Custard pies versus Spam is heroism beyond e'en great Fastolf's compass! Still, cheerily: no vulgar spam-fritter-fest shall be ours, but rather great and joyous gigantomachy." He pressed a blaster into each lady's bemused hand. They were weighted towards the handle ends, remarkably like battery torches. "Hot toasty death i' hand for thee, and thee; mine own honed talons and wit for me, shall afford even chance for us all. Coming in from the patio, I did espy a Summoning-ring, and from its many $-runes did know it for spam's very matter. Trusting that great Dame Eloise has no traffic with such ills, did take the liberty of modifying the diagram: no Spamite hordes now shall disgrace her halls, nor fry worthlessly to offend her nitheling neighbours with their stink..."
"You rubbed out their magic circle? Yay!!!" Yokoi did a happy dance for several seconds, before regarding her unwanted blaster in a freshly-puzzled light.
"Then aren't we safe from them now?" prompted Katherine, strictly by way of straight-line.
"Certes, from vulgar broils with smelly bone-clawed lumps of brawn: where were glory or grace in so butcherly an enterprise? Nay, small gain were in the circle's deletion; should only be redrawn in some privy place of which we were like never to be advertised. Rather did great Fastolf alter it, so't shall perform little to their intent when called on..."
Yokoi's eyes widened spectacularly. "You're a wizard, too?"
"Why, scarce so; 'twere rude mechanical application for such an enchanter and dramaturge as I; but wrought I not Seas Incarnadine? nor yet Doctor Faustus Came to Gloster? Was never no good author but were a mightily well-versed know-all! I did duly erase all $-signs bar one, that not Spam's multiplicity but its very unity should be brought to us: e'en its wellspring and original, that Carrie and the Steward do seek with such long and comick labour. I wot well that the clown who should invoke it were sore pressed to count so high as one; he'll see naught ailing his casting, save that his spell-master looks each moment over his shoulder! Whereby we now prepare for joyous strokes and merry war, anent which this." He indicated a collar on the 'lamp' end of the blaster he'd pressed on Katherine. "Turn to the dexter, it shall throughly kill all within its orthogonal range. More sinister, and shall slightly kill all within this reflector-borne cone. Now to grave matter: do you, dear maidens, care better for an hope-bereft tragic defiance to live forever in song, else to have it away on our toes to such cameradoes as may back us in even battle?"
"The even battle bit," decided Katherine, predictably. "On that subject, what's the non-lethal setting?"
"Simple enough: dost club any vertebrate on a's occiput with handle end, our foes shall relish it little enow. But mind thy pacifism extend to no Spamites, as being homogeneous lumpish evils which comprehend naught short of frying into sooty oblivion. Well, our strategy's made. Do you two maidens guide me to our Pro-Fun's chief chivalry, and our game's afoot. Onwards to glory we go!"
Xellos, concealed behind yet another of the omnisuburban privet hedges, observed Brother Delta's abominable rituals with the detachment of a true cognoscenta. Nyssa's self-styled 'Uncle Dragon' had performed precisely according to Fallback Plan #4, though no doubt Delta would commit every kind of captious critique upon the results in the unlikely event that he ever found himself in position to do so. In a world which in Xellos's eyes was entirely populated by expendables, Delta had earned himself a very special expendability in admirably short order.
And what was the 'quintessence of Spam', anyway???
As the merry band of questing travellers made their stereotypically-dressed way into the fairytale world, a shadow darkened the door at their backs. For a brief instant it held there, then resolved into the too-familiar form of Xellos the Trickster Priest. He stood there, smiling as he usually did, surveying the magical landscape through narrowed eyes.
"I think I'm getting homesick," he sighed theatrically. "It looks just like Zefielia, Lina-chan's home country. Except that nothing is exploding, of course. Ah, well..."
An impatient chittering at his side interrupted his woolgathering and he looked down to smile at his companion, a little blue monkey in a German SS uniform. "Patience, Ingo," he admonished gently. "Your time is coming."
A long string of squeaks and chitters with a faintly interrogative noise at the end came back in response.
"Yes, yes, Gruppenfuhrer Ingo, the blue simian race will ascend to its rightful place tonight, just like I promised."
"But of course," chuckled the Trickster Priest. "After all, if you can't trust me, who can you trust? Now you go get ready for your dramatic entrance, while I set a few other things in order."
The Nazi monkey gave a stiff-armed salute and scampered off toward the food-fight arena as Xellos blurred and disappeared once more.
Had the agents of chaos the presence of mind to watch behind their departures, however, they would have discovered their conference hadn't been as private as they imagined. From between the open door and the wall poked two heads.
"Arthur ought have stuck around here if he wanted to beat the monkey," said Merlin.
"'Dramatic entrance'?" Nimue asked. "Why didn't we grab them?"
"You can't just 'grab' a teleporter," Merlin said. "Besides, now the good guys know their plans."
"Or shall when we report in," said Nimue with some of her rare irony.
"A much more effective strategy against chaos than stopping them from acting on their plans," Merlin said, "is allowing them to go forward and then thwarting them mid-plan."
"That's why you do that," said Nimue. "I thought it was because you like dramatic entrances too."
Brother Delta wasn't entirely sure what had gone wrong, but he was smart enough to realize that something had.
He had meant to conjure up a horde of standard Spamites, or possibly even a horde-and-a-half (he was feeling 'in the groove' tonight, ritualistically-speaking). He'd therefore expected to see the same normal clustering of slavering, brainless, bipedal pink monstrosities, but instead...
Well, it was pink. And it did slaver. Exceedingly well, in fact. And it was monstrous and, apparently, brainless. It was just the 'clustering of', 'bipedal', and plural aspects of his expectations that weren't being fulfilled.
"MAKE MONEY WITH HOT NAKED TEEN CABLE DESCRAMBLERS!!" the Spam-Thing roared. "INCREASE YOUR ONLINE CASINO IN XXX INVESTMENT LISTS!! IT REALLY WORKS!!"
The beast was madness made processed-meat flesh, a bus-sized Lovecraftian vision of manufactured lunchmeat. A hundred drooling mouths gibbered in its hide, chanting their hideous call. A hundred tentacular arms writhed around its edge, each tipped in a bone claw that looked like something from the Museum of Painful Medieval Things. A hundred stomping, taloned feet carried it this way and that.
For some reason, it only had one eye, though. But it was big and bloodshot and on a stalk, making up in quality of disturbing ickiness what it lacked in quantity.
Brother Delta couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he had the strangest feeling that this shouldn't have happened.
"My, what an interesting thing you've evoked, Brother Delta."
Delta turned to find Xellos standing behind him, regarding the Spambeast with something very like affection.
"Ah, yes, that's right," stammered Delta. "Sort of a, uh, special project."
"STOP SMOKING WITH NUDE COED COOKIE RECIPES!!" the Spambeast raged, rending the shrubbery around the patio.
"Very interesting. However, I believe that what I asked for was a 'horde' or 'army', two terms that usually indicate a multiplicity of ravening minions?"
Delta backpedalled, really not liking the look on the Mazoku's face. "Well, yes, so you did, technically I guess..."
Xellos's smile kicked up another notch. "But, there's no point in getting upset about it," he purred. "If one big monster is what we have to work with, so be it. It's certainly intimidating enough." He patted the Spambeast lightly on the side, chuckling wryly when it tried to bite his hand off.
"So, you're pleased with it?" Delta asked hopefully, his Fight-or-Flight-or-Grovel instincts on hair-trigger.
Xellos gave him a thumb's up. "So I am, Brother Delta. And, to show my appreciation..."
The Trickster Priest's form blurred and disappeared, reappearing a split-second later directly behind the Cross-Poster acolyte. With a manic giggle, he planted his hard leather travelling shoe with considerable force in Delta's backside.
Brother Delta squawked in pained surprise as he was sent tumbling headlong through the herbaceous borders, down a small slope, and through a holly hedge, finally rolling to a stop in the middle of the street. Cursing, he scrambled to his feet just in time to see a set of bright headlights bearing down on him. He threw up an arm to ward off the impact.
Brakes shrieked as the car slewed to a stop just a few feet from sending Brother Delta into the Great Dark Beyond. Delta blinked, blinded by the headlights, as he heard the doors being opened.
"Muse Patrol!" a brisk British voice called out. "Freeze, Cross-Poster! You're under arrest!"
Shielding his eyes, Delta could just make out the scantily-clad shapes of Officers Nyssaias and Embericles. He snarled and started to claw his death-ray zorcher out of his robe. "I'm never going back!" he yelled. "Do you hear?! You'll never take me alive!"
"Okay," replied Officer Embericles with a shrug as she aimed her Rapid-Fire Atomic Assault Bazooka at his head.
Greasy, spam-stained hands shot into the air like sweaty-palmed Patriot missiles. "On the other hand," Delta babbled, "martyrdom is a nice hobby, but I wouldn't want to make a career of it..."
In the food court, Allie, Imran, Danel and Ruthie were making last-minute adjustments to their costumes. Ruthie had obtained dyes, and so now Danel and Imran were suited in red monkey suits, whilst Allie and Ruthie were dressed in green monkey suits.
That nobody bothered to ask where Ruthie got the dye from, or why the wardrobe contained four monkey suits in just the right sizes, is indicative of how deep into crisis-mode they were kicking.
"Imran, are you sure that this will work?" Allie asked, for the thirteenth time.
The red monkey she was addressing bobbed his head, then said, "I'm Danel. Imran's over there. By the way, is there any more of that punch? The orange in it was some of the best I've ever tasted, and..."
"Allie," Imran called, from next to Ruthie. "I think..."
But what Imran thought at that moment would remain unknown. At that moment there a hideous chatter of pure rage, from a short distance behind Imran. Although he couldn't see Allie's eyes through the costume, Imran would have sworn that they just... widened.
In a strange, strangled voice, Allie managed to say: "I think I see a flaw in the plan."
Imran and Ruthie turned. Behind them, stood le singe bleu, Ingo... .. .. .. Holding the biggest gun either of them had ever seen.
"That's a very big gun." whispered Ruthie.
Danel chuckled. "Don't worry! Before I came to the Hoedown, I checked out what usually happened, and decided I ought to bring something to protect myself with, just in case. That should be more than enough to take care of that azure primate."
As he said this, he reached into the monkey suit and into the pocket of his trousers.
The replacement trousers.
Slightly more frantically, he began to pat himself down, before he said, a resigned, defeated tone in his voice:
"At least they would be, if they weren't in the quantum trousers, still in the wardrobe somewhere. I think we may be in trouble."
He looked at Ingo. "You know, when I called you an azure primate earlier, I meant it in the nicest way... you see, I've never liked being red and..."
You know, thought Brother Delta, as the car stopped for the third time, I don't think the justice system is too bad.
As the car began to rock, again, he leaned forwards against the hand-cuffs for a better view.
Heh, who needs 'HOT NAKED COEDS IN YOUR INBOX' when you can see this for free?
Inside the Wardrobe, the Trousers of Spectral Uncertainty gave yet another shimmer, and began to move. From the bottom of one leg, a single strand of colour detached itself, and swirled through the air to the nearest outfit. Other strands detached from other parts, and finally the trousers, now slightly smaller, floated in the centre of a Wardrobe full of twitching, glowing apparel.
From a pocket of the trousers floated an object but before it left it was covered by a handkerchief, which flew across for just that.
Finally, the trousers presented the protection device to the rest of the wardrobe, with all the imagery of an evil overlord presenting a new plan before his adoring minions.