The Steward was so furious, he was grinning, and he glared straight ahead of him in a manner that suggested he'd been getting coaching from Psycho Nyssa.
"You," he told the air in a quiet, crazedly conversational tone, "Xellos, or whoever you are behind this: mark me well. Your bill has just exceeded your UNPRINTABLE budget. And if you try that on Celia, payment's apt to fall due on the spot. Her corresponding aspect would be Zaqqum, chummy: you know, the Desolation Beyond Time, nice girl, nobody likes her. Zaqqum! You don't want to know what comes to you then, not even without her powers. And," his voice was slowly climbing as his grin spread, "just in case whatever bloated bag of maggot-meat is sitting in for your brain hasn't the soul or wit to care, hear this. If you do VERBING touch Celia or Zaqqum, and for some UNPRINTABLY UNPRINTABLE reason get away with it, I am coming after you and personally introducing your UN "
The Steward broke off his escalating and disturbingly atypical psycho-rant to have a good choke, courtesy of the Seventh Doctor's umbrella-point and an 'accidental' poke in the solar plexus. "Thanks," he muttered when he was able. I needed that." He cracked a brief and merely wolfish smile. "I'm deadly earnest, though: especially the bit about the giant radioactive mutant jalapeño... Damn, damage dammit! Xeffy..."
%Sandra!% The voice was like Nyssa's, but older, sadder, serene.
Not now, damn you! Xeffy
%A fork in chess. Let the worldlet take me for its soul: horrors and madness for all. Let I, queen, shift to escape that: IT mates Gray, through our link. You heard 'check'. Fear his 'mate'.% Sandra could hear Celia's straining to communicate clearly, through the oracular filter. %No terror. No mate. I quit the board, quit risking him, quit him. Fear no Zaqqum, no Hastur, no horrors from my undermind. Say, 'Seek me never in this world!' Say 'Cry for me!' Say, 'Farewell!'. My blessing on thee, Sandra, thee and thy kin. Have stability, respect, completeness... Oh, farewell!%
And with a sound like a glass hammer tapping a glass sky, she was gone.
Gone from the world.
The Steward blinked, and stretched, and smiled ever so good-humoured a smile.
"Gone!" he said.
Varne: "Lord, are you all right?"
[People's eyes turned to Magnus, who was leaning on his staff and gasping for air.]
Magnus: "I will be. Whoever took control used my life force to power it through the blood link."
[He pointed to the central chalice which was now a pool of molten silver. He pointedly did not look at Eloise.]
Eloise's heart sank about six feet under her feet, it felt like. She looked from Magnus to Xephanya strange and dark Xephanya to the gasping Steward (still recovering from his rant). All this was her fault. If only she had been able to put two and two together before Magnus had drawn his blood if only she had listened.
If only. If only.
Magnus: "Stow the rest of the gear, Varne, but leave the diagram, I may have further use for it. I want to check on the SKoLD. "
[Taking a hefty swig from his flask he made his way over to the group by the machine. Seeing the unconscious pair, he produced a small bottle from a pocket. Removing the top he waved the bottle under Amanda's nose.]
Doctor One: "Young man, what is that?"
Magnus :"Just smelling salts, can't do any harm, and has both a physical and symbolic function. Thanks to all those fainting Victorians, smelling salts are associated with bringing fainting maidens round."
Xephanya raised an eyebrow. "If everyone is quite done with their coping strategies...?"
"We haven't even begun." Sandra snapped.
"Yes, yes, I know, I know. Pointless ranting concerning who I am, what I want, what happened to Xeffy, who this 'Anya' person is.
"Concerning who Anya is..." Xephanya nodded at Ayna, who watched her, trembling, "seek your answers with her.
"Concerning what happened to Xeffy... a riddle for you. Two become one, yet that one is neither of those two.
"Concerning my goals... a lady must keep some secrets, must she not?" Xephanya looked around.
"Come to me."
The SKoLD came in to hover by her.
"Here, Miss Eloise, I have the secret of your Ship's beginning. And what it means, now it has returned." Xephanya patted the SKoLD.
"But that was not its main purpose, oh no.
"That, it has yet to accomplish."
The SKoLD settled back into its original position.
Xephanya nodded, turned, and headed for the doorway.
On the threshold, she turned, and regarded them all.
"Continue your quests. Seek your solution. Then will I come.
"But wherever you listen, you shall hear my voice."
She turned back to the doorway, and left.
And Dominic watched her go, grief engraved on his face.
Amanda blinked. Her nose wrinkled.
"Alan," she said faintly, "I think I'd better toodle off and oh." She sat up slowly, cocking her head quizzically at Magnus. "This must be a remarkable party. I do believe I've made an utter beast ah." She cleared her throat rather heavily, as Magnus withdrew the salts, and she glimpsed Baby, Ayna, and the unfolding Xephanya disaster. "Third time lucky. Persistent little dream, isn't it? I hate dreaming about waking. One's never quite right for the rest of the day." And her gaze came finally, ineluctably around to the tall pale man who lay still motionless at her side. She flushed, and rose, the glint of battle in her eyes.
"Erm, I don't know quite know how to tell you this," began the Steward; but Amanda had other fish to fry.
"Save it, then, would you mind? Now this," she said, "is about enough of it. Your Wizardship, mind if I borrow those salts? They're jolly handy things, when your partner in crime insists on bouncing other people's coshes off his head as often as mine does." There was an edge to her voice, not entirely in accord with her airy manner. "I'm so glad I thought of them..."
Magnus raised his eyebrows with immense but wasted eloquence, and surrendered the salts. Without further ado, Amanda proceeded to assail her "partner in crime's" nostrils with them. The operation was, on this occasion, less than spectacularly successful.
Amanda displayed increasing symptoms of tightly controlled agitation, before finally pushing the useless bottle aside, and cradling the limp Time Lord's chin between her hands. The brightness in her tone was now unmistakably born of pure fear.
"If I lose you in my dreams too, Albert you stinker," said Amanda fiercely, "I'm never, ever going to think about forgiving you! I'll get a posthumous annulment, or something; so don't, don't, don't!" She leaned right across him, to breathe something tender and inaudible in his off ear, before straightening her back and glaring up at the general company. "If there's a doctor in the house, Mr. Campion and the Lady Amanda would very much appreciate it if he'd stop lolligagging about and earn his crust!" Her eyes flashed back to Magnus. "Or if you can do anything for him without charging a soul and a leg, I suppose " She stopped dead, as the Doctor's head stirred.
"Amanda?" he said plaintively. "Did I get myself hit over the head again?"
"The interrogation's deferred," she returned darkly. Their audience was obliged politely to ignore the steady brightness running silently down her cheeks. "Do you know what, I'm afraid I'm going to have to pretend this is real, because I simply can't stand it otherwise. Can you get up, if I help you?"
"Of course," he said irritably and as just before he'd fallen, something in his voice was not quite the man they knew.
The Fifth Doctor wobbled up on rubbery legs, staggered, and put a hasty arm around the young woman's overalled shoulder. He blinked foolishly at the assembled company.
"Well, well," he blethered. "Quite a jolly assembly to see little Albert make a spectacle of himself. Entertainment guaranteed, two-and-six for the good seats, two bob Saturday matinee. Albert Campion, universal uncle and deputy adventurer, at your service complete with thumping headache. This is the Lady Amanda. She fixes things, many of them oily." He reached clumsily into his jacket pocket, extracted a handkerchief, and brushed a smudge of grease from her upturned nose. There was a natural and utter intimacy about the gesture that scandalised his other selves into next Wednesday. "I take it we're in the presence of Film Moguls?"
The Grey Steward was developing an expression of horrified realisation. The others were sticking on horror, or possibly just regretting the last twist.
"I fear the Steward triggered a metafictional exchange of counterparts," Magnus agreed, giving the culprit a hard look. Magnus didn't actually sound like he feared much; but if the Steward's response was anything less than a blench, it was surely only by grace of his great big Authorial Fiat. "I have read three of those books in idle hours, there was a play of light and dark in them that strangely appealed to me. We had better improve our precautions, while enough of us remain unchanged to recover the others!"
The Steward attempted to say three things at once, consequently uttering nothing even slightly intelligible. But the Sixth Doctor interrupted brusquely.
"Poppycock!" he spluttered. "He's got the Imprimatur of Rassilon, and he is definitely my effete predecessor. I'm hardly the man to mistake him. Albert Campion Rassilon's base and apex!" He puffed his cheeks bemusedly. "You know, if I really went cradle-snatching in my weaker days, I suppose I might have taken the trouble to forget it..."
"And I'm sure mothers everywhere honour you for it," said the Fifth hastily, seeing Amanda begin to bridle. "The thing is, you see, as I'm sure you all realise by now, you're talking complete gibberish. I'm not after any ecclesiastical documents, unless that's been coshed out of my bean as well, so far be it from me to interfere with any plans you have in those regards. Though I'm blest if I see what Hollywood, of all places, would do with those..."
"Albert," Amanda warned, "we're a long way from Hollywood. Trust me on this: it's all face-value stuff here. Don't bother about why. Think of it as like being born with two hearts, and so forth. Do you mean to say you don't know any of these people?"
"I've got the strangest feeling I ought," he admitted, regarding his former selves with particular narrowness, "but I don't quite think they're on the Social Calendar." His voice firmed up. "Since you are officially my better half, and I'm dopey as an opium-eater for the mo., I'm hanged if I shan't listen to you or at least, I'd deserve to be!"
"Personality swap!" went up the not very discreet cry in various quarters, which was followed up by a couple of resigned "Could be worse!"-s. These the Campion Doctor pointedly failed to hear; and,
"The hell you say!" cried the Steward, who as exposited in a previous episode had reasons of his own for consigning this theory to heck. "Mr. Campion, is anything recalled to your titanic intellect by the mention of the word... SPAM?"
Mr. Campion considered. "Yuck," he explained, seriously, and was overcome with a sudden and deplorably vulgar compulsion to scratch the side of his throat. Amanda flinched, in a manner suggesting her wound was more the social than the gastronomic; but she shook her fiery head loyally.
Mr. Campion, as we should probably call him until he remembers better, turned an expression upon his remaining audience which could only be compared to a genius-grade puppy smelling the prospect of some intellectual bone. "Tell Uncle Albert all your troubles. It's free, healthful, and brings you luck if taken with purple heather (nominal at 6d). What seems to be your most pressing problem, since a Trained Eye immediately descries that you're labouring under a fardel of 'em?"
RHUBARB RHUBARB RHUBARB, rhubarbed everyone at once with fatal predictability, so as to defy immediate interpretation even had Dupin, Holmes, and the Pythoness herself been present to attempt the same.
"That," said Varne in Draconic, between her teeth, "is a very annoying man. I'm so glad I accidentally used those books to soak up that bloodspill back on Obnoxa Major..."
Eloise gawped. She had commanded the SKoLD and it had ... come! Did that mean that whoever whatever had merged with Xeffy was allied with the forces attacking them?
That, she refused to believe.
And what, in the name of all things holy, did "I have the secret of your Ship's beginning. And what it means, now it has returned" mean? The secret of when Sweetheart was built? Or of Sweetheart's life before Eloise found her?
She thought back to the first hints that Sweetheart had given her telepathically (last year, when the Gods of Ragnarok attacked, and Sweetheart got spooked): emotions swept over Eloise's mind like vast fields of muted color, light and dark: Memory, Danger, Uncertainty, Empty, Silence, Loneliness, Sleep.
Sweetheart had never communicated such memories again, but Eloise kept thinking about that moment, in any case. She couldn't help it. And gradually a theory began to come together brought into sharp focus, now, due to the attack. And the theory was this:
Sweetheart and her pilot were involved in something dangerous perhaps a secret errand given them by the Time Lords, or a renegade adventure on their own. It might have been a mission involving political intrigue, or a scientific exploration (of a birth of a galaxy, or somesuch), and something went wrong.
Without her pilot, Sweetheart was adrift, and finally went into a state of hibernation (for gods know how long) until she landed near Eloise's troll bridge...
Now, someone is after whatever Sweetheart and her previous pilot learned (or gained maybe they were given [or stole] something valuable, which is still aboard the ship somewhere).
The Steward seemed to suspect Xellos. But this just didn't seem like a trickster priest's style. He might be a very willing volunteer, perhaps a mercenary whose wages are paid in chaos. But whoever was really pulling the strings here was after something much bigger, she could feel it.
A lightbulb lit up in her head.
She turned to the Steward. "That prophecy you uttered "
(He gave her a pained looked, reminded now that Celia had gone, but she didn't give him any time to wallow... if she was right in any of her guesses, time was not on their side)
"A flame, a rose, a key. You think, perhaps, these things do not refer to how to shut the SKoLD down, but rather whatever the SKoLD has been sent to find?"
"What are you saying?" Dominic demanded. And his tone was justified by allowing his daughters to come to the Hoedown, he had entrusted them to Eloise's care... And look what had happened.
"I'm saying that maybe we've I've been putting the cart before the horse. The SKoLD is a tool that's being used to find a secret... But it's also a distraction. The more time we spend trying to figure out how to tamper with a tamper-proof gadget, the more time whoever's behind it has us out of the way so that he, she, it or they can find what the secret before we do."
"But we can't just leave it here, working away and doing its evil!" the Steward protested.
"Oh yes we can. This is a quest in a quest, you hunt for something, and so far, we haven't hunted for one damned thing. And besides, if I were a betting troll, I'd say bet that the treasure we're hunting for be it knowledge or treasure (or both) is just the thing we need to shut that thing down."
"There is a lot in that," the Steward endorsed. "We'll need to do something about the unconsciou Bingo!" He strode determinedly to where Magnus was administering smelling-salts to a reviving Amanda. "While those two are finding their feet, we may learn a thing or two already. And then... and then...!"
Eloise was itching to move, to act, even if she didn't know what direction to go in, so she walked in circles.
"A rose. A flame. A key," she mused, tapping her chin as she walked. "A key is a piece of technology something that starts or opens something else. A flame is energy either man- or star-made. But a rose?" she asked herself. And then answered: "Well, a rose is a living thing usually but it can also be a visual symbol, like a 'rose' window in a church, or a mandala, or " and she forced herself to look at Magnus's diagram, and once she looked, she couldn't look away. It was still glowing, but a darker red, now, its energy dissipating. "...a magician's circle," she finished aloud.
Magnus' circle was red like a rose, burned like a flame... and it had certainly started something
The SKoLD brought aspects of the subconscious to life. When it activated Sweetheart's subconscious, it brought a dragon and this fairytale world. And all of this (including the way each of them had been transformed even that Celia was transformed to a prophecy-speaking oracle) was a manifestation of Sweetheart's relationship with her previous pilot.
Whatever else Sweetheart's pilot may have been, Eloise was certain, now, that he or she had the had a wizard for a self-image (even if it was only as a private joke).
So there was a fairly good chance that the secret was recorded somewhere using a magician's iconography. But where was that "somewhere"? And how would they decipher it when they found it?
(Amanda was starting to come 'round, and making an awful fuss... didn't she know some people had real problems to solve?)
Eloise didn't pay much attention. Her ears began to twitch, however, when she realized the Fifth Doctor had [it seemed] gotten himself a heavy dose of amnesia. And they snapped to attention when he said:
"Tell Uncle Albert all your troubles. It's free, healthful, and brings you luck if taken with purple heather (nominal at 6d). What seems to be your most pressing problem, since a Trained Eye immediately descries that you're labouring under a fardel of 'em?"
"All right, then," the troll said, "I will!" And she trotted right up to the socialite pair.
"Albert" and Amanda both jumped, their faces each bearing the expression of someone who has found a particularly nasty thing swimming in the soup.
Eloise had the good grace to ignore this. "We've been given a mystery to solve," she said, "and we're not sure what it is. All we know is that we have to find something, or find out something, and we have to do it before someone else finds it first."
"And you don't know what this thing is?" 'Uncle Albert' asked.
"And you don't know who this 'someone else' is?"
"No. Except that he, she or they are particularly nasty, and will stop at nothing to stop us.... Oh, and this is only a guess, at this point, but the person who hid this thing we're looking for had an interest in things occult, and has probably hid clues to the secret in this very landscape. So are you game? Are you willing to add your Trained Eye to our little party?"
Rather suddenly, reality decides to shift, ever so slightly, sending ripples among the assembled group of partygoers.
~Oooh. That tickles,~ Silence signed.
Part of the roof then decided to give way, tiles, splinters and dust cascading downwards. Everyone blinked, looking away for a moment to avoid getting the stuff in their eyes.
When they looked back, bemused, they beheld a coughing figure, dressed in a now-dusty Senshi outfit, standing amidst the mess. She flapped at the cloud of sawdust, her black hair and outfit an anachronism amongst the wreckage.
"koff koff... ugh... last time I take HIS word for it... I should know better by now," Sailor Gallifrey muttered.
She realised that the entirety of the party was staring at her.
"Er. Sorry I'm late?" she shrugged, an apologetic look on her face. "Uh... carry on. Don't mind me," she added quickly, stepping clumsily out of the mess.
"Sailor Gallifrey!!" Ruthie exclaimed as she bounded over to the Senshi, and hurriedly tried to help brush some of the dust off her clothes. "I was so-o-o worried you weren't coming!"
Then Sailor Gallifrey caught sight of Ruthie, Gordon, and Silence. "Oh... Dear. I take it there's been a wrench thrown into the celebrations again."
Gordon nodded. "You could say that," he said. And tried his best to explain what sort of evil they were up against this time.
Cameron's ensemble skin-tight hose, puffed doublet and trunks, gaudy pomander and decidedly immodest codpiece, the whole topped off with a brief scholar's gown and a quill stuck behind his ear might not have been so very unnerving... if it had not been for the fact that the whole outfit was tailored in shades of fluorescent green. Even for a traveller of Danik's far-flung experience, the effect was somewhat overwhelming.
It was not, however, the spectacle of the young student's clothing that had stolen the colour from the Ruritanian's face. His grey eyes were fixed upon the exquisite creature, now wide awake, floating at Cameron's side and every last vestige of laughter in them had drained abruptly away. One hand sketched the sign of the cross, instinctively. He swallowed.
"Vilja." It came out as a croak. "Vilja..."
Cassie's hair had become a silvery-gold that gleamed with a moonlight radiance. Her clothes had vanished, to be replaced by leaf-like tatters of bark-brown and dapple green that shifted, flowing, to cloak her as effectively as Tarzan's Jane. But her eyes her shadowed eyes held all the promise and the danger of the forest in which they stood.
Danik struggled as if to escape that gaze. His own eyes held the dawning realisation of one who begins at last to understand that for some time past, the joke has been on him. He shook his head at last, as if breaking from a spell, and managed a rueful grin at his own expense. "Vilja. If I had known..."
The parrot, who had been regarding him with a beady eye of amusement, let out a derisive squawk and began to sing in a hoarse baritone.
"Cassie, oh Cassie, du Traummägdelein, fass' mich und lass' mich dein Weissager sein..."
"Eh, Osman, das machst du andern weis!" Danik retorted, getting a grip on himself.
Cameron blinked. Cassie's appearance had clearly taken the self-confident stranger down several pegs. Unfortunately, he didn't have the faintest idea why.
"What's a Vilja?" he hissed sideways at his Muse.
"A wood-nymph," Cassie whispered back. "A pagan spirit of the forests."
Cameron frowned. "So what's so scary about that?"
"Remember the Wilis in 'Giselle'?" The Muse sighs as Cameron gives her a blank look. "Well, how about the Veela in 'Harry Potter'?"
She nods as his face begins to clear. "A Vilja can steal a man's mind and soul with one kiss if she feels like it." Cassie's own eyes are dancing with suppressed laughter. "I think our friend's childhood beliefs just caught up with him..."
"Yes, and just who is our 'friend' anyway?" Cameron folds his arms and stares at the offender fiercely. "Come to that, where is this, how do we get back, and what kind of 'plan' involves abducting my Muse in the first place?"
"Danny Blue, at your service," comes the prompt reply, with an automatic flourish. "Master and commander of the brig 'Avalanche' and believe me, at present every bit as lost as you are."
"You brought us here," Cameron remarks pointedly, and the other sighs.
"Indeed; to search for our hostess. But I fear she is long gone if ever she stood in this spot."
He gazes around the forest. Steep crags can be glimpsed above them, and somewhere close by the faint music of a tumbling stream comes to their ears.
The parrot follows his gaze. "Heimatlichschön," it croaks unexpectedly. Cameron tears fascinated eyes away from the spectacle of a sentimental parrot, with some difficulty, only to see a frown on its master's face.
"Very much like home indeed... why, I could swear we've hunted over this country, you and I, in our time. If I'm not mistaken, there should be a hunting lodge not two hours' ride from that peak..." He lays a hand on the hilt of his sword as if becoming aware for the first time of its presence.
Then turns back to Cameron, with a shrug of his shoulders. "As to where we are I'll wager ten crowns we're still inside the TARDIS where we began. This " a wave of the hand dismisses ancient pines and shaggy firs alike "this is a dream-land conjured up from my own mind, or from Osman here. Whatever Eloise and those with her saw, you may be sure it was some other scene they thought they knew."
He drops suddenly to one knee in the soft pine-needles at Cassie's feet, head bent as if to avoid her gaze. "Osman, I fear, for all his mockery, had the right of it. Dream-maiden Muse sweet lady I beg of you, forgive my liberties if you can find it in your heart to do so. Eloise spoke more truth than she knew when she bade me rescue you from the plot backwaters in which you were held; for your vision alone can pierce the mists of Dream, and only your wisdom can guide us now. Forgive the temerity that touched those fair lips "
He glances up; and is struck silent, as if the wood-shadows of Cassie's gaze have ensnared his tongue.
"This dream is no snare for ourselves, nor even for Eloise," the Muse says slowly, her eyes wide and unfocused like those of a sleepwalker, as if the landscape around them does not exist. "It is the TARDIS herself who is under attack. She is being pushed backwards in her own memories, to a time before she knew us all, a time before even Eloise..."
"You mean, she doesn't recognise us?" Cameron interrupts, alarmed. "But why would anyone want to do that if not to attack the Hoedown?"
"The attacker cares nothing for the Hoedown and nothing for the Sweetheart herself." Cassie's voice is dreamy and far away. "But in that dark time when she lost her Time Lord pilot there the treasure lies. Deep in her memory banks, in a time she has willed herself to forget... and now is being forced to re-live. For her pilot's death came untimely, and the secret he held was lost forever when the link with his TARDIS was broken; and the price he paid to obtain that secret cost dear to she who sent him out to bring back the prize. She has sought his TARDIS long. Now it is found, and revealed to her without mercy. And she will reclaim what is hers..."
And we're on the inside while Sweetheart's under attack, Cameron realises, looking down and swallowing hard. The shape of the Thought Recorder is warm in his hand, his interrupted fanfic stored in its recesses ready to be typed up if and when they ever they get out of this safely, and he squeezes it tighter as if to reassure himself.
"So Cassie, which way now?" he asks his muse.
"That way lies our part in events," she says, pointing the way they are to head.
"So... This secret, milady, that you speak of..." Danik's voice is careful. "Is our part to seek it out?"
Cassie shakes her head 'no'. "That quest is in the hands of those who have gone before. Already, they begin the search. No... our part is elsewhere.
"For the dark lady's avatar walks this land already not She herself, but a memory, a fragment, lost in her mind, for, oh, Sweetheart remembers that one, knows her all too well.
"Darkness and light. Sorceress and wizard. So she saw them, so he saw himself.
"A love for the myth of old Earth, that one, a love of chivalry, magic and romance but She cared nothing for such petty dreams.
"He knew her for the darkness She was, yet obeyed, trapped by his bonds by his oaths, his honour, his House. He could do naught else.
"Then..." She smiles, sharp-edged, "they discovered a gewgaw of the Nine and Ninety's. A box of tricks. The Siege Perilous before the Grail, a token on their path.
"And when he was lost, the secret with him... so too was that which had opened their way.
"She found it in a ramshackle shop, in the detritus of a thousand times... and set it on its course again.
"She has found his Ship, his noble steed, faithful servant, and set her box of tricks to find what she seeks.
"And She will have it, whether we will or no."
Cameron did not like the sound of that. Whoever this "She" was, she didn't sound like someone who would use powerful, secret things for the good of the Omniverse.
"And our quest, Dream-Maid?"
Cassie's voice is cold with forest-chill. "To restore the two who are lost, and bring them to light. To stop the dark one, before She seeks her other self out, and retrieves her prize."
Cameron sighed. Ordinary muses were hard enough to understand. But he had to get a dream muse. And dreams never spelled things out like the Oxford English especially when you most needed them to.
"Restore the two...?" he echoed. "Other self...? There are two of them here? Sweetheart's pilot is here as well?"
"I don't think that's exactly what she means," Danik said, carefully. "But if She is here because the TARDIS remembers her as 'a memory, a fragment'," he quoted, "then I wouldn't be surprised if He is here, too. As for the riddle of light and dark..." he shrugged. "Well, we won't answer that just standing here let's go."
Albert mulled Eloise's request over. "Well, since it seems to me that our social calendar is free, as of the now... what do you say, Amanda? Shall we have at it, and let slip the hounds?"
Amanda smiled. "I thought you'd never ask. However..."
"Yes?" Eloise inquired.
"Might I ask who the lady who seemed like unto the Ice Queen reborn might be? The lady who just departed?"
Eloise hesitated. How to explain it, what they'd seen...?
#Two are become one, yet that one is neither of those two.# a quiet, half-broken voice murmured. #Seek your answers with me, and answer I shall.
#Xeffy was not one, but two. Had been so, this year gone since she came here last.
#There, at the centre of all things, she found a shadow a shade, left behind, left alone.
#For how long? Longer than the shadow knew, or cared to know. Left alone, no name, no home... alone, abandoned, empty.
#Xeffy named her, gave her a home. Named her from her name. Named her Anya.#
"Xephanya." Dominic murmured.
Ayna nodded. #Gave her safety, gave her refuge, within Xeffy's own mind for such time as Anya needed.
#And then...# Ayna's voice quavered, nearly broke. #then... here, here, the shadow shattered, the walls between them breaking down...
#...and I couldn't help them, no matter how I tried...
#...and it drew them in, and made them one.#
"Two become one..." Eloise whispered. "Xeffy and Anya..."
"And yet that one is neither of those two." Dominic finished. "Xephanya. Neither Xeffy or Anya but someone else."
"Beg pardon?" Albert asked, raising an inquiring eyebrow. "Not to pretend that I understood that doubletalk..."
"It's too long to explain for now... but one of our own's been shanghaied by whatever's working against us." Eloise explained. "The lady you saw leaving. And whatever happened to her, she seems to know more of what's going on than any of us."
Albert considered this. "Then might we have to find your 'something' before yon dark lady does?"
With that line, it fell into place.
Why the SKoLD had obeyed Xephanya. What she'd meant about returning when they'd found the solution.
But she had to know. Had to be sure.
She turned to Baby... then paused, remembering.
"Varne?" she asked. "Could you ask Baby something for me?"
Eloise whispered in Varne's ear.
The shapeshifter nodded again, and addressed Baby.
The dragon growled in reply.
"So..." Varne murmured.
"And?" Eloise said.
Varne paused. "Baby knows her face, Xephanya's face... knows her enemy's face. Has seen that face before.
"And I believe it is under her influence that this happens, under her influence that Baby is cut off.
"I'm sorry, Dominic."
The Steward's jaw dropped. "You mean..."
"I mean," Varne said with alacrity, "that our enemy showed her face to us and we did not know it. I mean that our enemy is the one who works these dark magics on Sweetheart, towards claiming what she seeks. I mean that our enemy has remade Xeffy and Anya in her own image or at the very least, brought these things to pass."
Eloise glanced at Dominic's expression and was held, transfixed.
The affable father was gone.
In his place...
Eloise shuddered. Oh, she knew. She knew.
Hell hath no fury like a father hurt or a Muse scorned.
"Ayna," Dominic said quietly.
The little Siren had wrapped her wings around herself, curling almost into a ball, silent, unspeaking.
"Ayna, I need you."
#why? just... just leave me alone...#
"Ayna, I need you."
#LEAVE ME ALONE!!!# Ayna screeched.
I call you, speaker for the dead.|
I call you by sand and sea and sky.
I call you to answer our loss.
And to speak for us against our foe.
I call on you, little one, hurt one,
Will you hear my call?"
"Again I ask: Will you hear my call?"
"Again: WILL YOU HEAR MY CALL?"
"Then so let it be."
#And so shall it be.#
"Until the end."
#Until the end.#
Ayna let her head sink down.
"And so it begins." Dominic murmured, as he turned to Eloise. "So it begins.
"Where would you have us start, milady?"