Eloise closed her mouth.
She wasn't sure what Dominic had done whether it had been a rally, or a call, or a subtle magic all its own but Ayna seemed more... more centered, calmer, at ease in a way she hadn't been since Xeffy disappeared.
She let out a breath.
"Perhaps," Second suggested, "we should search the castle, learn if there are any clues to this 'secret' here... After all, this place does seem to be the centrepiece of this world."
"I'd check to see if there's a library... Our occultist ..." Eloise said (editing herself for the Campions' sake), "might have written clues to the secret in some self-styled grimoire..."
"And there's the matter of Gordon and Silence," Sixth harrumphed. "Gone wandering off again, if I'm not mistaken."
Eloise nodded, grateful for the Doctors' suggestions. "Yes. Yes. But be careful this 'ice queen', whoever she is, may try to corrupt someone else..."
Baby's stomach rumbled.
Varne's last words echoed through Eloise's mind: "Under her influence that Baby is cut off." These superimposed themselves over something Magnus had said earlier: That the baby dragon was hungry. But this wasn't a real baby dragon... It was still a TARDIS. And TARDIS didn't get hungry. But if Sweetheart, under the influence of an ancient enemy, thought she was hungry... A fat troll would be a tasty treat as would a human, dog or kitten.
"Varne," she said, "would you tell Sweetheart that I want climb on her back so I can take her hunting find her something good to eat? And would you come along, please, to translate?"
Varne growled and whined a series of phrases, and Baby, uncertain, slowly lowered herself and let Eloise climb up on her back.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Varne asked, once they were airborne.
Eloise recounted her theory about Baby's "hunger" and why the ice queen planted that belief in Sweetheart's mind. "But if we can get her to eat an animal native to this worldlet a rabbit, or a deer, say "
"Then her hunger would be sated," Varne continued, "and she won't go after us."
Eloise nodded. "And remember," she added, "each creature that 'lives' here, so to speak, is a different aspect of Sweetheart's own consciousness that has been cut off from the others. If we can get Baby to eat those aspects..."
"Then perhaps her mind will come together again," Varne finished.
"That's my theory. But it will be hard watching Sweetheart be violent against herself. I hope I have the stomach for it."
"That's what worries me," Varne said. "If the unification comes through violence, wouldn't that make her more in conflict with herself than she is now? We could have Ayna call "
"No." Eloise's tone was final. "That's imposing our will on her, from outside. That's a kind of violence, itself, and Sweetheart has enough of that right now. Besides, whomever we're up against took over when Magnus started his summoning spell. A siren's call is almost the same, and I won't put Ayna in that kind of danger."
Varne's protest was cut short by a flash of white below them.
Eloise looked down and let loose a groan of pure grief. It was the white mare. It didn't matter that a golden horn now rose from her forehead (that was only a slight variation on the ostrich plumes she wore as a team of circus horses.) She knew this avatar, and knew it well she always would.
And she knew her fate.
Dragon and Unicorn. Dark and Light. Yin and Yang. The one must swallow the other to be whole.
Baby swooped down in a long, spiral dive, her wings carrying her faster than a horse's legs ever could. Coming up from behind, the dragon stretched out its neck and closed its jaws around the white mare's withers, and swooped up again, carrying her into the sky.
A sob rose from the depths of Eloise's being, and she braced herself against an expected onslaught of sympathetic pain.
But the mare neither cried out nor struggled, and Eloise realized that the dragon did not hold her in a death grip, but as a mother cat would hold her kitten.
The change began where dragon form and unicorn form met. First, their bodies linked as when two soap bubbles touch sides and join.
There was a rush of energy. Firedrake Varne, like a butterfly caught in a gust of wind, struggled to keep her bearings. And Eloise fought to stay on the creature's back (she did not relish the thought of falling from such a height and speed).
Far below, the castle party whirled about, startled by the flash. What they saw transfixed them. Amanda, not yet through the castle gates, squeezed Albert's hand tensely. Dominic looked grave. The Steward swore softly and repetitively, expressing himself in an obscure dialect of Velantian to save the People's blushes.
The changes after that came too quickly for her mind to process into any sort of chronological order, but Eloise imagined that this is what it must feel like to ride a tidal wave without a surfboard.
When it was over, the baby dragon was no longer a baby and no longer a dragon.
She heard a whisper from Varne one word. But that said it all: "Wow!" Dragon and Unicorn had merged to become more than either had been before. But unlike poor Xephanya, this creature was totally itself.
:::Sweetheart?::: Eloise put out the question telepathically, not daring to hope for a reply.
:::Yes::: the answer came. :::I am here. I missed you:::
The avocado troll felt so much joy that she nearly burst out laughing. But she forced herself to calm down, and take stock of the avatar she was now riding.
In outward form, and only in that, she was still a dragon though mature, now, and much stronger than before. The dragon's dark green scales had been replaced by the rippling silk of the unicorn's hide the row of armored plates that had stood at attention down the length of her neck were replaced by a flowing, white mane. And the single gold horn now grew from the creature's forehead.
Eloise feared it was cheating, but now that the telepathic link was back, she couldn't help asking. :::Sweetheart, what is the secret we're searching for?:::
And she was answered with a profound, telepathic silence.
At first, she feared the link had been lost, again. And then, she realized: If Sweetheart told her, The Enemy would know the secret in that instant, as well. Better to gather the clues piecemeal, so that it remains a riddle for as long as possible.
Sweetheart circled once, as if pirouetting on the tip of her outstretched wing, and hovered there. Eloise looked down. They were now miles above the ground.
For a moment, she was confused (and dealing with a hefty case of vertigo). Then she realized that Sweetheart, with her mind at least partially restored, had simply changed the perspective, as a camera man switches from a zoom to a panorama lens.
Reassured that even if she fell, she would not really plummet to her death, Eloise craned her neck to see over Sweetheart's shoulder, and take a closer look at what her TARDIS was showing her. Mountain ranges, forests, rivers, even coastlines were spread out below her as though this whole world were an exquisitely drawn map.
(I suppose it is a map, Eloise thought. All of this was coded as information, after all, somewhere in Sweetheart's data banks)
Eloise stared and stared, trying to find the detail that would reveal the secret. She stared until her vision blurred. And it was only then that she saw it: This worldlet itself, with its boundaries and landmarks, was in the shape of those fancy compass designs on old maps: a 16-pointed star.... And those were called Compass Roses!!
She chanted that part of Celia's prophecy again, but this time, she changed the punctuation in her head. Instead of:
"Within the present: a rose, a flame, a key."
She played it back as:
Within the present: a rose.|
A flame, a key
Choose one, choose well.
Which meant, if she interpreted rightly, that this whole worldlet was the rose, and that somewhere here they'd find a flame and a key, and would have to choose between them.
The first part of the prophecy was passed or at least ongoing:
"Within the crystal light and dark: |
Choose both, choose neither"
That was clearly Xeffy and Anya. But neither of them got the chance to choose anything ... it was all
Eloise felt a prick at the edge of her thoughts, like a biting fly, and had a very nasty feeling about who was doing the pricking.
She abruptly tried to change the subject, and think about how they would surprise Gordon with his prezzies when this was all over. She just hoped did it quickly enough.
Amanda regarded the departing dragon with an expression like that of some profound believer on entering their first great cathedral.
"If I could get a plane to do that," she remarked, alluding to some aspect of Baby's flight that escaped the lay company entirely, "the Luftwaffe would all run away and sulk. I'd follow suit on the magic bit, but I've had doubtful results with that..." She shivered like a cat, and cut straight to practicalities. "There goes our lucky shot, anyway. I don't know about the leg-work schedule. I mean, serendipity is very well in its way, but I'd hate to count on having that much!"
Albert Campion had stepped back a little, and the expression on his lean face was of such perfectly composed vagueness as to approach social invisibility.
"Oh, I don't know," the Fourth brushed the objection aside. "I've always done rather well with serendipitous drunkard's walks, myself..."
The First's response was dryer, lighter, and more to the point. "But are you offering an alternative, h'mmmm?"
"I'm aware that Albert and I are babes in the wood here," Amanda conceded blithely, "but it all seems fairly straightforward to me. We've identified our Villain. That's always a good start. She's got a start on us, and she's working a particularly rotten hostage trick on us, so we can't just lob havoc at her. That's against us. She has a good idea what she's looking for: we don't. Rats again.
"Unless the mythological mob " Her gaze flickered briefly skywards, " come up trumps, she's naturally going to arrive first. So we need to up our speed, or cut our distance. Upping our speed will work if the dragon can spot her and ferry us ahead of her; cutting the distance means we need a shortcut, which means a better idea of what we're looking for than she has. It's either that or follow her and hope to catch up, which I suppose is one last resort. So we shouldn't go wandering about until we've got a definite lead as to where Sweetheart put the McGuffin, or we'll most likely end up further away from happy-ever-after than when we started." She clicked her tongue judiciously. "Now, if there's some tremendous magical reason why I'm talking about this through the hat I han't got, consider me piped down!"
"Amanda," said Albert distantly, without appearing to interrupt his train of thought, "I know, believe me, how much the chance of stopping for a crack at that contraption must be appealing to you; but that's officially right out, so do Boldly Exercise Temperance..." He drifted back into his reverie.
"Maybe," returned Amanda to the company at large, quite unabashed, "but I'm just trying to bring a bit of logic to bear on a fundamentally scatty situation. Anyone?"
"It's very logical," admitted Third, with a smidgen less patronisation than those who knew him best had expected. "Unfortunately, I don't think it's true. You're assuming that space, time, and chance are constants within Sweetheart's demesnes, and that's unsafe. Whoever is winning the battle for her sympathies, we can expect a lot of meaningful co-incidence." His white brows bristled. "I'd normally be all of your persuasion, Lady Amanda; but now we're travelling through mind as much as space, our best bet might actually to be simply to pick a direction that feels right, and stick to it."
"Another thing," the Grey Steward put in heavily. "If Eloise's bond is still holding on enough levels, we might not have to pick so straightforward a path as 'Xephanya'." He spoke the usurper's name as if with tongs. "We're all wandering through landscapes of Sweetheart's desire, one way or another and if that desire, even unconsciously, should favour us... ! Argghh, we've been stalled here quibbling for too bloody long: time to make our march!"
"By George," said Albert, shifting from one foot to the other and stepping back from the social shades. "I think I've got it!" The change in his manner was startling, from a negligible earthed passivity to an electric, nervous energy like a quick, skilfully-penned caricature of the Fifth's own erratic swings between languor and activity. He did not actually laugh aloud; but the impression was so strong, that one actually had to listen attentively to make sure. "We're going on a life-or-death quest through 'faery lands forlorn', and like a chump I overlooked it as thoroughly as everyone else." His smile was thin and bewitchingly light. "I mean, really, what else could we and the Villain possibly be racing to attain? What jumps out at us, when we consult the Pink Fairy Book for the wisdom of our elders and betters?"
"You don't mean ?" Amanda and Eighth gasped simultaneously.
"Well," allowed Albert, wavering a self-deprecating hand in the Steward's general direction, "I had to hear it spoken first; but there it is, you know, flame and rose and key and all, without tripping the excess-penalty clause on your basic Poetic License. "But I'm fairly sure that the prize we're all after answers pretty well to no meaner name than... well... Heart's Desire?"
A brief, stunned silence followed this statement, though a distinct prospect of rhubarb with scattered storms could be detected in the offing.
"I bet it does," the Steward returned at last, in bitter and disgusted disappointment, "but at least mine has bells on it..."
The big red stalky stuff broke out, right on schedule.
Magnus: "There is another thing we can try. People forget that links work two ways. Whoever corrupted the summoning spell will have left a trace and I want to meet them."
[He moved over to the still glowing diagram and stood just outside it.]
Magnus: "Batun, by your bond I summon you, come hither in a pleasing form."
[ A column of fire appeared and then shrank and changed into a foot high man.]
Batun: "And what fell deed shall I do, and whose life shall pay?"
Magnus: "Silence, demon you will serve!
Bound you are and bound you be|
Until will be broken or eternity
Take the scent from the circle and find the interloper."
[ The little man changed into a miniature bloodhound, which snuffled round the circle and than barked.]
Magnus: "I am not sure which scent it has picked up but it will lead me to either Xephanya, or whoever changed the spell. Varne will always be able to find me, our link will only be broken with my death."
"Somehow, I don't think he should have done that..." Eighth said, looking in the direction Magnus had taken.
"If anything goes wrong, it's only going to make him lose his temper." Seventh pointed out.
"That's what worries me."
"So... our hostess has left via the aerial route, whilst our enemy and His Wizardship have taken the north road," Amanda reflected. "Barring those of our number who can just walk through walls..."
Sandra bowed mockingly.
"...it seems to me that our path is best suited by going south. Shall we?"
"Thanks, Dad." Sandra said quietly, as the motley troupe trudged out of the castle.
"Mm?" Dominic said.
Sandra nodded at Ayna. "What you did for her."
"She's my responsibility." Dominic said quietly. "As are you. As is Xeffy."
Ah... Sandra thought.
"My responsibility... and then she came here the first time. Surrounded by a storm on all sides, and she jumps straight to its heart." Dominic shook his head. "And I didn't know, didn't know what had happened... I searched the house, top to bottom, I ventured out in the storm, fearing what could have happened... but nothing.
"No sign of her.
"And I couldn't think where she'd gone. This wasn't like her it wasn't like her to run out in a storm, no matter what..."
Sandra ahemmed. "Well, it was my fault, in a way... I mean, if I hadn't reached out to her, she'd never have tried to get to me."
"But she would never have reached you if Dream's bag of sand hadn't opened the way." Dominic paused. "What did Xeffy do with that, anyway?"
"I think she's still got it in her bedroom."
"Come on, Dad, it wasn't your fault. You couldn't have expected that that that any of that would happen." Sandra gave him an ironic look. "We weren't expecting any of that to happen.
"And if it hadn't been for Xeffy, I don't think any of us would have got out of that one..."
Dominic nodded, eyes closed. "But I still lost her. I still lost her... and I was almost beside myself, I couldn't think...
"The actions of higher powers come with a human price all too often.
"I could claim circumstances beyond my control for that one... could... but this time..."
"She took Xeffy. She took her with as much thought or concern as someone squashing a bug. She took Xeffy and Anya and made them in her image, made them over to do her bidding, to find this thing." Dominic turned to Sandra. "What kind of mind... what kind of mind would do that?
"'Ice Queen'." Dominic's chuckle was hollow. "I think Amanda spoke truer than we knew a heart of ice, a heart that cares nothing for others, no matter the face she shows to the world. She has no concern for the Hoedown, no concern for Eloise, or for Sweetheart, or for us..."
Sandra wished truly wished she could put her hand on his shoulder then.
"We'll get her back, Dad." She smiled ruefully. "Allie would kill us if we didn't."
"Oh, yes." Dominic's voice was dark. "We will. And then shall we see whether this 'Ice Queen's' heart can melt..."
And Sandra was horrified but not unsurprised to realise she'd happily join him.
"You know," the Steward broke out in renewed dissatisfaction, "this 'Heart's Desire' theory won't wash." He turned for support to the most habitually dark and cynical of their present party. "Doctor, bear me out here: if it's " He did a double-take. "Now where's he got to?"
The Seventh Doctor had slipped off unnoticed, none knew whither.
"I salute the short fellow's willpower," Albert remarked, "under all the circs... but I wish he wouldn't have. Or is he more the type to take alarm at the scent of a monkey's paw, anyone who knows?"
Eight cut Sixth's eruption off with admirable artlessness. "Bert, Bert, Bert: a Heart's Desire for one might really be a monkey's paw for another, don't you think?" Those who wotted of such things tried to imagine candidate Desires for the Seventh Doctor, and what it might mean to be in their vicinities; and with one accord elected to zip the lip. "I know him as well as anybody, and I expect we'll find him in the castle library if he doesn't catch us up before then."
Dominic nodded, slowly. "It's probably well that someone's followed Eloise's plan, after all. Here, of all places, her intuitions aren't to be despised; and if he does find anything, she can pick him up there and pool what they learn." His jaw set. "Which still leaves the rest of us free for what we need to do..."
Amanda looked a bit doubtful. "If we're going to split up, it's a shame if one of us leaves themselves without any back-up at all."
The others exchanged meaningful looks. Back-up? The Seventh? Another one of them peeling off to look for the first one who went missing? In Dr Who, my dears? With its reputation?
The decision took but an instant.
"I'll do it." Sandra volunteered. "If it's one of you," here, her gesture included the Doctors "you're only going to spend your time arguing, he'd probably be in 'manipulative, inquisitive little git' mode with Albert and Amanda, and as for the Steward..."
The members of the party thought over the idea of the Seventh and the Steward in the same room together, and quickly assented to Sandra's decision.
"Sandra..." Dominic said.
Sandra grinned. "Don't worry about me. I got your eidetic memory, remember? And Sweetheart is a TARDIS if anyone can recognise what we're looking for, it'll be the Doctor." Her face sobered. "Dad... take care of her."
Dominic nodded, catching Sandra's double meaning. "Watch yourself."
Sandra nodded, and slipped back inside the castle.
"Was that wise, my boy?" First murmured under his breath.
"Would it have been wiser for anyone else?" Dominic said, equally quietly. "She knows the dangers as well as any of us. And I think you, of all of you, know what's at risk."
First nodded slowly. "It was a hard thing, to bring Susan with me... and a harder thing to let her go. To trust she would be safe."
"The rose, the flame, the key..." Dominic quoted. "I wonder if our pilot or Celia read the Dark Tower."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Xeffy reads them. Stephen King's 'Dark Tower' sequence, based on 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came'." Dominic shrugged. "Since our pilot seems to have been a reader of the Romances... The Tower is their goal. The flame reveals the key. The key opens the way to the rose... and the rose is the Tower..."
"Choose one, choose well..." First completed. "Hm. This bears thought, m'boy. This bears thought. Revealing...
"And it seems to me that we've been thinking in far too unified a fashion. The riddle does say 'choose one' which suggests that only one of those three things is truly what we seek."
#That's it!# Ayna blurted.
Dominic and First blinked, and looked over at her.
#That's why he went back.# Ayna continued. #One of the things must be at the castle...#
"While one of them lies to the north, where our enemy headed." First realised.
"And one of them to the south, where we're headed." Dominic finished. "The logic of a fairytale."
"Exactly, m'boy. Exactly."
#Then let's go!#
It was a long hike across gently rolling green fields, as far as the eye could see to a low wooded ridge that blocked the horizon. The Steward wasted no time in driving home the latest proof of his theory.
"That's it!" he exclaimed. "If they're not the same, your whole Heart's-Desire theory goes out the window!"
"I don't think so," the Eighth Doctor demurred. "It's hardly likely that Desire should be the same for all people..."
"And it's a damned sight less so that there should be exactly three of the buggers!" The Steward stomped righteously forward in vindication. "Desires are as various as hearts..."
"...But they come in different modes," Dominic noted. "The flame of truth, the key to freedom, the rose of love? The flame of destruction, the key of power, the rose of creation? The fire of virtue, the key of knowledge, the rose of pleasure? The symbolism's too overloaded: we'll need to look at their contexts when we find them. But I shouldn't wonder if different modes needed different instrumentalities... and it would behove each of us to be very careful which we chose, if it came to it."
"Or it got taken apart, and the pieces hidden," said Amanda dubiously. "Maybe it's like an engine: the rose is a stator, the key is a rotor, the flame is the power-source. That's as good as anything else I've heard yet."
"A universal wish-granter," the Steward insisted, "which is what you're talking about, is just obscene and ridiculous in any reality." ("Says you," pouted Eighth.) "And even if we accept it has that kind of god-power, even that is hopeless as far as achieving your heart's desire by fiat goes! I used to know a girl who could tell you all about that first-hand. I don't seem to any more, so I suppose she can't. The hell with it all: what's the use? We pick up the plot tokens, we boil the Ice Queen, we get Xeffy out. Let's just democratically redefine that as our heart's desire, keep everyone as happy as we're going to be, and go for it. Maybe the milieu will give us extra points that way, h'mmm?"
"Not over it yet, is he?" Sixth stage-whispered to Fourth. The Grey Steward's back stiffened, and he slowed.
Albert said offhand, without breaking stride, "Another thing about engines is that they run themselves to pieces when they don't have anything to work on."
"They do, don't they?" agreed Amanda. "There isn't much weather. It can't be as much as two miles to that wood."
"Point," said the Steward, caught between a snarl and a smile, "taken. Let it be, then. Looks like the gorse-bushes come in about half-way or less. Goodness, that's pretty mica in that boulder by the wayside." He fell silent again. But Second narrowed his eyes at that, dashed forwards to examine it, and turned back to the party with a distinctly wry expression.
"Yes, yes, it's certainly mica." He gestured agitatedly. "Do come and see for yourselves! Er it seems to be forming golden letters. In English." His lips pursed. "Bad English."
The company pressed around. The veins of mica, gleaming in their reflected sunlight, spelled out in PLAIN ROMAN CAPITALS:
IT IS NOT FOR NO HONEST SOULS TO ADVENTURE THE SAUVAGE GARD.An arrow had thoughtfully been provided beneath this text. It pointed towards the forest. There was a thick, deep slash through it, manifestly of the official 'Do not do this bloody thing!' persuasion.
Cameron shifted uncomfortably for the umpteenth time, trying to hitch up his mediaeval-style hose surreptitiously, without breaking stride. He wasn't sure how this whole costume fastened together, but none of it was elasticated and parts of it were starting to feel alarmingly insecure. The hose were tethered somewhere around groin-level where he couldn't decently get at them; and from having started off skin-tight they were now displaying distressing downward tendencies and beginning to bag around his knees in long wrinkles. If this dream, or whatever it was, was going to fit him out in day-glo colours, then it might at least have had the decency to provide some matching Lycra in the lower regions...
The good thing about it, on the other hand, was that the constant wriggling at least helped to keep his mind off the route Cassie was leading them. She'd set off in a very definite direction without taking the slightest heed of the local topography. He stole a glimpse up front... just as Cassie waded obliviously through a tree-trunk and then began to walk into the hillside, which turned grey and shrivelled back around her feet in a stomach-turning fashion. Even if you knew that none of the landscape was real that the Dream-Muse was leading them confidently through the corridors of the TARDIS to wherever-it-was she was trying to get to it was still much easier on the eyes not to watch the process too closely. He bit his lip, fixed his gaze firmly on a point between her shoulder-blades, and started wading into the flanks of the mountain in her wake.
Even the parrot seemed subdued. After an initial burst of noisy fluttering around their heads he didn't seem particularly experienced at flying, Cameron had noticed he had settled for riding quietly on his master's shoulder, with only the occasional guttural remark.
'Danny Blue' himself seemed somewhat preoccupied, but Cameron wasn't sure it was the weird behaviour of the landscape that was worrying him. He was following Cassie into the grey nothingness that was the interior of the dream-mountain without a second glance, moving swiftly and easily in the shabby shirt and breeches that fitted him like a glove, with an infuriating confidence in his stride that suggested he could keep this sort of thing up for twenty miles or so without breaking a sweat.
But his attention was plainly elsewhere. One hand was toying unhappily with his sword-hilt.
"The dark lady..." It is barely a murmur. "She..."
Cameron frowned. "What is it? Do you know her?"
The other man looked round sharply, having evidently forgotten Cameron was even there. "Know her? Nay, but... a lady..."
A sigh, fair brows knitted in perplexity. "Does not the prospect weigh heavy on your heart, as it does on mine? Never have I drawn blade against woman or child never yet wronged the fairer sex of more than a kiss. Even l'affaire Vaubecq, when the Marquise held to those letters and would not yield "
Here the parrot put in an appreciative comment in the vernacular that sent a reminiscent grin chasing across its master's face in spite of himself. "True but ungallantly said," he murmured. "Would that the lady's discretion had equalled her gratitude..."
Cameron sighed, and ploughed on after his Muse as the other two fell to swapping stories of past exploits. He hoped his companion's unexpected scruples weren't going to resurface at an awkward moment.
Eloise rubbed the back of her neck as if a fly really had bitten her there. There was no physical pain, per se, but the sensation was real enough without that. Flies bite to feed, and Eloise was sure there was someone trying to feed on her thoughts... And there was only one "person" here who would do that.
"Are you all right?" Varne asked.
"I don't know," Eloise answered truthfully. "I hope so. The Ice Queen is here, too," she said, cautiously. "Somewhere like Celia was inside the fabric of this world she can see everything"
"Well..." Varne said, in the tone of a teacher who wants to coax the correct answer out of a student, "But she can't see the physical world."
"Huh?" This was the most surprising thing Eloise had heard in a long time.
"Why else take over Xephanya?" Varne asked, simply. "It could only be because she needs a set of eyes and ears, most likely to find the whatever-it-is."
"She can read our thoughts, but can't hear our voices?"
"That's what I expect."
So if we do our thinking out loud, we may keep what we know away from her..."
"At least, I think we'd have a slightly better chance of that."
"Then let's find the others, because I have a lot to think about over what I just saw."
It only took a few swift strokes of Sweetheart's wings to bring them to the small cluster that stood at the edge of the forest, where the gorse bushes blazed yellow. They were all staring intently at something on the ground, and chattering about it.
"Good," Eloise said under her breath. "No brooding."
As they came closer, the troll overheard Amanda say: "I've heard of double negatives but that must be treble negatives, at least."
Sweetheart slowed her descent with a great down beat of her wings, prompting the group to turn, look and gasp as one.
"Sweetheart is whole again," Eloise said, stating the obvious, "at least, her sense of self is. But that's not what I came to tell you: I found the rose... or rather Sweetheart showed me what the rose is.
There was a mass eyebrow raising at this.
"This whole place is the rose a compass rose!" And she explained about what she had seen from the perspective of miles up. "The major landmarks," she said, all point in 16 different directions, all precisely and evenly laid out around a central point just (and I mean "just") like the compass roses on old fashioned maps."
"So that means " the Steward began.
"We're searching for two things: a flame and a key within the rose, and in the present"
"No 'heart's desire'?"
"I'd say not."
The Steward stuck his tongue out at Eighth.
"Oh, and if a thought comes to you especially if it is out the secret " Eloise added, "say it out loud."
Varne retold her theory about why the Ice Queen took over Xephanya. Dominic's face darkened as she spoke.
"I guessed as much myself." he said finally. "The Queen may be linked to this world but believe me, I think we would have noticed if she were at the Hoedown. Sweetheart, at least, would have recognised her."
"Which means she's watching this influencing this at a distance." Varne concluded. "She can't see the world but she can manipulate its fabric."
"And see our thoughts." Fourth said. "But why Xeffy and Anya?"
"Vanity. What else?" Dominic's voice was sharp. "Baby recognised her face. Recognised it as our enemy's. But it was Xeffy's face too the woman she might be. A few minor modifications..."
The disgust in his voice was evident. "A few minor modifications, and she walks this land once again.
"I imagine it was Xeffy's concern for Anya that caught her attention feel them out, see how they see themselves...
"And suck them in."
"One of your family?" the Steward suggested.
He quickly regretted it as he found himself under Dominic and Ayna's cold gaze.
"I think not. None of my family look like the Ice Queen. Believe me, I would know."
"And if she's a Time Lady," Sixth added, "it's no Time Lady we know after all, we don't know every renegade or traitor Time Lord out there."
"Although it seems like it, sometimes..." Eighth murmured sotto voce.
Charley remembered that. Just after all that, they'd decided to enter the fantasy worldlet. Then they'd been captured by the clothes, and Ingo had remade the console room in his image... she groaned and opened her eyes. Then closed them again in disbelief.
"Nay, fair Princess, close not your eyes! We must escape from the evil dictator!"
Imran has lost his mind. Charley thought.
What else could she think?
"Please, listen to Imran." It was Allie's voice. She sounded slightly more stable than Imran. "Princess Charley of the Valley, open your eyes!"
Or perhaps not.
Even if they had gone mad, she should still get up. Where was she, anyway?
She opened her eyes. Again. In a prison cell, she concluded. A horrible, metallic prison cell. Everything was metal. Interesting. She looked around.
The only ones there were the prisoners of the clothes still clad in the garments, but no longer held in place by them, it seemed. Perhaps they were possessed?
They certainly seemed crazy enough. Essentially, everyone seemed to be controlled by the costume. Imran, in his Phantom of the Opera garb, paced and declaimed a lot. Allie was unfailingly courteous.
Thankfully, Yokoi wasn't a giant rabbit, but appeared to be a young woman who dressed as a giant rabbit normally. The same with Katherine and her outfit. Danel lurked, which seemed oddly suitable in the Spike outfit.
From the frenzied chat in which they occupied themselves, she deduced that they were a rebel group, captured by the Evil Dictator Ingo after a failed attempt to destroy his base.
This world seemed harsh and cruel. For all their eccentricities, the rest of the group were no different. Imran, the leader, seemed fully prepared to sacrifice anyone to achieve his ends.
"Sinister, isn't it?" Charley jumped. She turned around. This was the first time Danel had spoken since the... Change. "But from the way you've been acting, I think we can assume that you aren't feeling the same as all the rest, 'Princess'... or rather, Magical Electric Girl Charley. Surprised?"
He gave a somewhat evil laugh. "Don't worry, you aren't the only one who retained their mind. It seems that the changes Ingo made have completely altered their personality."
"But why were we immune?" Charley asked, honestly puzzled.
"In your case, I think it's because you were brought forth by the SKoLD originally. Ingo's attempts to, ah, tap the powers of that wondrous gadget had no effect on you because it couldn't change what it had already created. Myself? Ingo used his link through me to use the SKoLD, and so I remained conscious throughout. I managed to retain my essential personality." He then disproved this by giving another evil laugh.
"But why the clothes? Why are we all dressed so oddly?"
"Clever of you to notice... tell me, have you ever heard the phrase 'the clothes maketh the man'? In this case, I believe it is more 'the clothes UNmaketh the man'. Each of us is dressed almost entirely contrary to our usual personalities. That's important, because this world, this reality, is shaped by our mutual perceptions of it. I don't think Ingo could be powerful enough to control everyone indeed, the presence of rebels supports this. He'd hardly place opposition in his own created world, would he?
"But most of the people here are fans of Doctor Who and the rebels are a vital part of the corrupt regime.
"On the other hand, whilst we are dressed in clothes like this, we are off balance. We can't control the world around us when our perceptions of ourselves are changed. It's very clever. I have no idea whose idea it was.
"But the important thing at the moment is to get out of here, and stop Ingo. Maybe the others will stop the SKoLD sooner rather than later, but we can't count on it, and we have to try to find the rest of the partygoers in this nasty little worldlet and get out. Fortunately, I've discovered that my link to Ingo gives me some control..."
He concentrated, and the cell doors vanished.
"Time, I believe, that we were leaving. Come on people."
Charley hardly knew Danel at all. So far, however, what she had seen of him was entirely at odds with his actions in here, so she found herself wondered if he was as immune to the effects of the clothes as he himself believed.
Probably not, as he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and smoked it, before brusquely leading the team to freedom.
This could be very bad indeed.