[Something that looks vaguely like a cowled monk, though trying to actually bring it into clear focus brings tears to your eyes, is confronting Xellos outside the hoedown.]
Figure: "I thought I asked you to recover the device, instead you send it here and with your partner."
Xellos: "I did, it is in there. I don't remember anything about delivery, all you have to do is collect it."
Figure: "Ha bloody ha."
"Here at last!" Paul proclaimed happily as he swung the shiny black convertible into the cul-de-sac. The headlights briefly illuminated something that looked vaguely like a cowled monk.
"Did you see that?"
"See what?" asked Donald the small blue duck, emerging from under the front passenger seat.
"Never mind. I probably imagined it, anyway." Paul maneuvered the convertible into a parking space and got out. "Oh, good, Eloise's TARDIS is still here. We're so late, I was worried that the hoedown might have taken off to save the universe again."
"I'm glad it hasn't," remarked Donald, waddling after him. "Saving the universe is a terrible habit to get into."
Reaching the front door, Paul threw it open. "Sorry we're late! Have we missed anyth Oh, hello. My, that's a big gun you have there. Goodbye." He quickly slammed the door shut again.
"What's up?" asked Donald, arriving at the door late by reason of his shorter legs.
"You know how Eloise always does her front room up as a barn when there's a hoedown on?"
"There's no barn in there, just a room full of Albert Speer architecture and a horde of heavily armed small blue monkeys in bedsheets!"
Donald considered this. "Looks like the universe has come to the hoedown this time around."
"Looks like it. Which means our friends are almost certainly in deadly peril in there. Pop in and see if you can find them, there's a good chap."
"No chance," said Donald firmly. "It's probably instant death for anyone but a small blue monkey to go in there."
"Two out of three isn't bad. Stick a bedsheet on you, and I'm sure they'll never notice the difference..."
The Space Camelot contingent was carrying fresh snack trays to the table when Guenevere's eye was caught by the TV over the open bar in the corner of the barn, where a trailer for 'Blue Crush' came on. "Say, that looks like fun!" She poked Merlin with her elbow. "Can you get us a beach out of the architectural configuration?"
"No," said Merlin, "because the last time I jiggered it this room stopped being the control room. There's no console here now, disguised or otherwise."
"Pity." They all set down their cracker plates, and Guenevere asked, "Does that mean we can't get out of this room ourselves Eloise'll have to let us out from the console room?"
"What's the matter?" Lancelot said grumpily. "Don't think you can party that long?"
"Longer than you!" Guenevere grabbed Lancelot and pulled him out to the dance floor.
"I'd say, this time," Merlin told Arthur and Nimue, "Lancelot is the weaker side in the contest ..."
Danel strode down the corridor, away from the detention area. The others scurried along behind him, and a part of Danel smiled(no, smirked) knowing that the Glorious Leader Imran was being forced to follow him. He brushed the cigarette out of his mouth casually and threw it behind him, smirking wider as he heard Imran swear and dodge the butt. He heard an angry noise from Allie he cared little, because he knew full well that for all her manners, she was just as ruthless if not worse than Imran. He didn't stop to consider that all of this knowledge really gave the lie to his claim to be completely unaffected.
So far, so good they'd not encountered any blue monkey goons, though Danel was divided as to whether this was good or bad. He really wanted to hurt some of them for locking him up.
Of course, at that moment he turned the corner and almost tripped over the small blue uniformed shape moving in the opposite direction, and as he stumbled, the others drew their weapons behind him.
Donald gave a mental sigh of relief as his infiltration of the Blue Base proved successful. So far. Most of the monkeys barely seemed to notice that he wasn't even a mammal. At least he was blue, as opposed to red or green. This was a major point in his favour.
At this moment, (which, for those interested, actually happened at the same time as the last 'bit') a monkey bluetenant chattered behind him.
The essential point of what he said was "Hey, new guy! It's your turn to check on the prisoners!" which was a stroke of luck. Previously, Donald hadn't even known that there were prisoners.
Having extorted a general direction from another monkey, he was on his way or at least he was until a guy in leather came charging around the corner and nearly tripped over him.
Ah! thought Imran. This was perfect. That clumsy oaf Danel tripping over a guard... in the firefight that follows, isn't it just a tragedy that one of their own is sadly hit by friendly fire.
Unfortunately, not only was the guard unarmed, but it actually had the nerve to throw itself at his mercy. Exceptionally foolish, especially when 'his mercy' had no real existence. He strode forward. "Okay, ape scum, where is the Great Dictator?"
Imran heard Danel's derisory laugh before it came. "Are you blind as well as stupid, Imran? That's not a monkey, it's a bleeding duck. It's got feathers and everything." Insubordinate little... Imran got himself under control barely. Now was not the time to settle the score with his unruly subordinate, for the duck was talking.
Yokoi gave a squeak and bounded forward. "Small duck, on behalf of the rabbit people I salute an ally." Imran rolled his eyes the only reason he put up with the freak's quirks was her exceptional mind, when it was on the same planet. Unlike now clearly. "Anything you can say to help us in our glorious struggle will be duly rewarded."
Donald (for it was he) gave another sigh of relief. He didn't know why everyone was acting so strangely, but leading them out of the base seemed wise. There was no way he could lead them to the front door, but maybe a side as it swung open, Imran bounded forward, checking for perimeter guards, and taking the opportunity to regain his rightful position as leader.
"It's clear let's head back to the base and report there's no time to lose!" He turned around. "Farewell, citizen duck come the time of the freedom you will be well rewarded by my name, I won't forget what you have done for us, and for the whole resistance. I shall see you again, upon that glorious day!"
As he ran, Imran allowed himself a small, wolf-like smile. Perhaps they would even run into some guards, and Danel would be... eliminated, once and for all? That would be a glorious day indeed.
Donald could do little but stare and gawp as the Hoedowners turned and charged off into a massive city. Perhaps he should follow them, try to help them get their memories back that Charley girl had seemed more stable than the rest, but he didn't know her...
Yes, he'd find them and
The argument became moot as with a glimmer of pure CSO, a energy barrier shimmered into existence between the base and the city. He was trapped in the monkey base, and the others were trapped out away from the only door out of this madness.
Plan B, he thought. Report back to Paul.
In an alley not too far away:
"The console room's been turned into the base of the Evil Dictator Ingo, whilst Imran and the gang were taken over by clothes under the control of Trousers of Spectral Uncertainty, and got taken prisoner by Ingo's goons." Alryssa Sailor Gallifrey summed up. "Meanwhile, the Doctors and everyone else have ventured into the fantasy worldlet in the lounge to deal with the McGuffin that's caused all this."
Gordon nodded. "Yep."
"Business as usual, then."
"How doth it come to pass that we retain but some vestige of our true selves?" Fastolf inquired. "For it seems to me that we should be like unto these other poor souls caught in the tyrant's web."
"Ah..." Alryssa ahemmed. "That'd be me. Shifted reality so I'd come crashing through a normal barn roof rather than a TARDIS roof which would've been even more painful, believe me and apparently managed to keep you guys from getting hit by whatever just happened."
"You know," Ruthie said, "I didn't think that Ingo was powerful enough to maintain all this."
"Oh, he's not." Alryssa said. "I think this place's shaped by everyone's mutual perceptions and something here's skewing those perceptions." She winced. "Feels like something buzzing inside my head. Ingo's may be the dominant perspective, but as long as the others're buying into this reality and what they are in this reality it helps Ingo maintain control."
"Something in here...?" Ruthie repeated. What could that be?
"This console room has been reconfigured in the name of the blue simian race and their noble ally, the Trousers of Spectral Uncertainty."
Quickly, she poured out her speculations to the others.
"You're telling me all this is being helped along by a pair of trousers?" Gordon echoed.
"And I think even that's being stretched thin." Alryssa winced. "Sorry."
"How came it to pass that you came by this knowledge, milady of Gallifrey?" Fastolf wondered.
"Um, how can I put it? I'm the spirit of creativity, defender of the Omniversal balance, yadda yadda... so if something goes massively wrong in a universe even a TARDIS's set of dimensions I'll feel it."
"So basically, what's happened is that this place's been turned into something straight out of 'Doctor Who'." Gordon said. He considered. "Er... well, you know what I mean. Big bad regime, plucky rebels..."
~And no Doctor.~ Silence signed.
"Hm. That could be a problem." Alryssa mused. "Usually, he turns up, and everything starts going the rebels' way..."
"Maybe if we had Imran here?" Ruthie suggested. "You are the Odd Trio... and if we got Allie and Yokoi back, we'd get the Odd Muses too..."
"And then get ready to do some serious monkey arse-kicking." Gordon finished.
"Odd Trio? A menage a trois, perhaps?" Fastolf inquired.
Alryssa stared at the Terileptil. "What are you on? No, don't tell me, I don't want to know."
"It's more sorta this 'Three Musketeers' thing," Gordon explained. "Once together, always together."
~Except with Alryssa, Gordon and Imran, instead.~ Silence signed, smirking wickedly.
"Hey, don't knock it, it works."
"Okay. First thing we do," Alryssa decided, "we find Imran and the gang. Then "
What she was about to say was left unfinished, as Imran and the gang in very bizarre outfits came racing round the corner at high speed
and crashed into the little group.
"It is not for a dishonest soul to risk the sauvage gard..." Albert murmured. "A dishonest soul. Hm. Who among us counts as an honest soul?"
"Well, that lets us out, me old mucker!" Amanda's eyes sparkled derisively. "Dominic might be a bit more the article, wot?"
"I hate it when you're vulgar," Albert said plaintively. "People will keep thinking I'm corrupting you with Low Company. It's defamation by proxy, and it's not right."
"Well aincher?" She gave his forearm a brief and ineffably bawdy squeeze, before breezing back to the 'main question'. "A compass rose, and by golly I think I did have something! A stator..."
"...Celia," the Steward was suggesting, with a glare. "A Demiurge can't lie: it riddles her worlds with inconsistencies. Oh, wait, there's a problem with that, isn't there...?" But his rant had been eclipsed by their Moment, and the detective duo appeared not to perceive it.
Sixth muttered back to Eighth, "I hope we find those two a room soon with an outside bolt! What could anyone do even to my Previous to turn him into that?"
"More drastic than traumatic amnesia, obviously," Eighth agreed with a quiet smile. "I'm inclined to agree with them about the blunt instrument..."
Fourth mugged at, appropriately enough, the Fourth Wall. "Of course," he informed his virtual audience, "it might be a Time Lady we do know in a copyright-breaking regeneration, mmmm? If Romana could clone her looks from the Princess..."
"...then another Time Lady might have pirated one of our family's forms?" Dominic scowled, and considered. "Do we know of any who have enough different kinds of power, are that desperate for more, and use people with such spiteful arrogance?"
A fistful of Doctors considered the Rani's track record, put the tape back in the charity crate, and shook their heads. Eighth looked briefly sick.
Dominic eyed him narrowly. "You have a suspect?"
"I've had traumatic plot amnesia since whenever I stopped travelling with Compassion," the Doctor confessed. "I know I've forgotten something highly unpleasant, and that sets me starting at shadows at times like this. It's probably nothing, but..." His smile returned, abruptly feral. "If anything does come back, I'll let you know at once."
"Do." The History Muse sighed heavily, and turned to Eloise. "The Sauvage Gard... Pure Malory pastiche, by the look of it. 'Castle Savage'. 'Wildergarth'. Something like that. The golden letters are usually an alarming sign, but their message "
"A Merlin marker!" The Steward came alive. "By Groucho, maybe we can get through this without her!"
"Excuse me?" The Nth Doctor was now desperate for a line, even a straight one.
Dominic allowed himself a small, wintry smile. "I haven't heard them called that before, but it's to the point... In the romances, finding a marker like that is a sign of serious trouble ahead. Merlin seems to have written most of them..."
Eloise now recalled this annoying aspect of Malory, which she had tended to skim lightly over and forget about at first opportunity. "...Seldom where they do any good, if I recall..."
"Sir Balin had a curse," the Steward noted, citing the most spectacularly prophecy- and graffiti-pestered knight in the entire cycle, "or was fey at best. But the kind of messages he kept ignoring were all worded like..."
"IT IS NOT FOR NO KNIGHT TO RIDE THIS WAY ALONE," the three chorused. "Shakespeare," added the Steward. "Longfellow," returned Eloise, for there are some rituals that not even direst necessity may put off. "Ahem," suggested Dominic, restoring order. "But the meaning is a single negative: don't do it."
"So only a dishonest soul should enter the Gard," translated the Fourth. He waved a blasé hand around the general company. "Well, I'm sure we can work easily around that..."
"Indeed," Amanda agreed, her eyes sparkling. "Some of us better than others..."
"Don't even think about it, you young viper," said Albert Campion, very hastily.
"Mind you, my Previous did knock around with Tegan for as long as she'd let him," the Sixth murmured, as the party prepared to set forth into the woods. "That was more than enough like having a wife, only without the fu"
"Nnnn, nnn, nnnn," returned the Eighth Doctor tightly.
"Do your teeth hurt?" The Sixth was alarmed, or concealing some other emotion with this exceptionally pachydermal sequence of bluster. "Take care of them, they'll be mine some day..."
"Fun. Without the fun of a marriage of true minds, you were observing." The vicious edge that had entered Eighth's voice with the mention of his late EDAly misfortunes glinted out once more. "And even that's cheaper than it is accurate."
"I thought you had traumatic amnesia?"
"I do. For instance, I don't at all recall driving my future self to break my own nose in defence of a lady. Possibly I remembered in time that a man who picks a violent quarrel with himself has no logical way of winning..."
"You," observed Sixth, with a curious mixture of scorn and respect, "need a reset switch. But have it your way." He huffed officiously to the forward ranks of the party. Eighth regarded his delusional Fifth incarnation and his pretty blaze-haired 'wife' with a brief wistful pang, before shaking it off and skipping over to Eloise and the Muses. The forest was an open woodland hall of tall stately elm and beech, rankly suckering lindens oozing with honeydew, and gnarled ancient oaks as broad as a good-sized room near the base. The brambles, dog-roses, and other such impediments to motion were obligingly confined to picturesquely impenetrable thickets, where they couldn't interfere with (say) any need for sudden, gratuitous, and lovingly described mounted combats that might arise.
The party disappeared into the woods, in search of the Sauvage Gard.
"Good!" said Eloise. "Someone to talk to. There's a big part of this puzzle I need to puzzle out, but everytime I think about it, I can feel the Ice Queen trying to eat my thoughts."
"'Eat your thoughts?" Eighth echoed.
Eloise nodded. "Started as soon as the telepathic link between Sweetheart and me got re-established. And it's not a pleasant feeling."
"So what's the puzzlement?"
"The first part of the oracle: 'Within the crystal: light and dark choose both, choose neither.' At first, we thought the whole thing was a set of instructions for us to follow... But back there, within the walls of the Crystal Castle, there was no choice for Xeffy and Anya. Now, they are both light and dark as one, and neither Xeffy nor Anya."
"Choose both choose neither," Eighth recited. "When I first heard that, I thought it meant 'choose both or choose neither."
Eloise nodded. "Me too. But it's choose both and neither only the choice was the Ice Queen's, not ours, to make. I would have told this to Dominic, but... I'm not sure he could hear it right now."
Eloise looked around her, and tried to think of something else to think about. With the Ice Queen hovering around her thoughts like a swarm of blackflies, she couldn't afford to think about any one thing at a time. "We've turned," she said, trying to remember the map view of this worldlet. "I don't remember seeing any Savage Gardly-like thing in the east.
"Maybe it was hidden under the canopy of trees," Eighth ventured.
"Maybe," Eloise said, but she wasn't entirely convinced. And to keep herself from thinking too much about it, she decided to see if she could remember all 57 verses of the ballad Tamlin.
She was singing verse 47:
They turned him to a bear so bold |
Then to a lion wild.
She held him fast and
The Protean Gift!" she exclaimed, suddenly. "That's why Xeffy!... Well," she answered herself, "I know it's Allie who really has the protean gift, but Allie isn't here, so Xeffy was the next closest thing... As the sister of the protean muse, her form her face, is more malleable than the rest of ours. Right? Right!" Eloise let the words pour out of her in a torrent, not to allow a moment of silent thought, barely aware of whether anyone else was listening or even still around. "Before, we were thinking that face-shifting power came from the Ice Queen. But maybe it doesn't! Maybe it never did Maybe she was jealous, maybe that's why she changes the world around her or at least, the appearance of it 'cause, ya know, Tamlin was never really changed to a lion and a bear, and all that the fairies just made it seem that way, so that Lady Margeret would get scared and let go of him. So this Ice Queen is like the fairy queen, who fell in love with Tamlin, and stole him away for seven years, and is about to hand him over as a human sacrifice to the Devil then, but Margeret breaks the spell, and the fairy queen curses her... and
"and Guys?! Guys! I think I have an idea about the Ice Queen's motive!"
Eloise looked around her. She and Sweetheart were alone, and not in the open plains of the forest, but in the rocky crags and ivy-draped trees of a steep mountain gorge... Somewhere between "if my love were an earthly knight" and "The night is Hallow e'en" she had wandered away from the others.
"Oh help! Oh bother!" she said, having a Pooh moment. "Oh help and bother!"
Just then, she heard a loud, raspy-edged squawk behind her
This was followed by a war-like yodel that made the hairs in her tail tuft prickle.
There was a clumsy clatter of wings, and something large and green came out of the trees and almost knocked her over. Eloise gave a sort of squeak and backed away as it tried to land on her shoulder, and Sweetheart reacted with a warning dragon-hiss that brought her neck snaking protectively in front of the little troll.
Their attacker collided with Sweetheart, slid off down to the ground with a frantic scrabble of claws, and just about managed to flutter up onto a low branch before it quite hit the ground. The parrot surveyed her reproachfully out of one wrinkled black eye, settling its ruffled feathers, and bobbed its head in a strangely un-bird-like gesture.
"Gnaedige Frau " Osman began in a hoarse voice.
Of course! Eloise thought with a jump, recognising Danik's friend. After all, they'd all changed clothes when they entered the worldlet the parrot had simply changed his feathers.
She wondered what he'd looked like before he'd got turned into a parrot. Bos'un, Danik had called him. Tattooed and broad, with a peg-leg and a stocking cap... no. Whatever else Danik and his crew might be, they weren't pirates. And Osman had been a castle chamberlain, before taking up the seafaring life...
Sweetheart nudged her.
"If you will please follow?" the parrot was repeating for the third time, bouncing up and down in an irritated way on its branch until a shower of dead needles fell off.
"Yes, of course," the avocado troll said quickly, scrambling up onto Sweetheart's back. Without being urged, the dragon took off into a swift trot through the trees in pursuit of the fluttering green wings ahead.
Eloise tried not to think about where they might be going, because of the Ice Queen, but she couldn't help remembering how she'd sent Danik (and Osman) off to find Cameron and his Muse, back before she'd stepped over the inner threshold in search of the Doctors. When she'd thought about it at all, she'd assumed that Cameron and the others had stayed behind with Space Arthur, Allie and the rest to take care of the Spamites.
But what if Danik had come looking for her and somehow found his way into the worldlet, bringing Cassie and Cameron along with him? If the whole place was created out of the dreams and fairy-tales in their minds (and from the brooding Romantic scenery around her, lacking only the figure of Lord Byron asleep beneath one of the crags, in Albanian dress, she guessed that this part of the landscape had come from Ruritanian legend rather than Western European myth) then what would become of a Dreaming Muse?
But before she could frame this thought into words, Sweetheart came to a sudden halt, almost pitching her off, so that the avocado troll had to clutch at the dragon's mane to save herself.
:::Sweetheart, what is it?::: Eloise said, alarmed. But the avatar had reared back indignantly, levelling her horn, and it was all she could do to hold on.
She scrambled up onto Sweetheart's shoulders, long troll toes wound securely into the silky mane, and peeped cautiously forwards. For a moment she couldn't believe her own eyes. Then she nearly burst out laughing.
Count Danik of Ruritania Baron Schelstein, Lord High Admiral, dressed precisely as she had last seen him stood poised in the mouth of a cleft between two crags, his companions swept back protectively behind him. In his left hand he bore a drawn sword, a slender ivory-handled rapier that seemed barely more than a toy. In his right he swirled the folds of his cloak. His eyes were dancing with challenge.
And he was advancing with levelled blade on the dragon, step by step, like an impudent mouse squaring up to a puzzled Aberdeen Angus bull. Sweetheart could have swatted him into the ground with a single twitch of her claw.
"Unhand our gentle Hostess, you fearsome beast!"
"Danik Danik!" Eloise cried out. "I'm fine! Put up your sword!"
She suppressed a relieved giggle as he slowed uncertainly and came to a walk beside her. Nothing throws a gallant hero off his balance like having the fair damsel tell him she doesn't need rescuing.
"This 'fearsome beast', as you put it, is our own good and faithful Sweetheart."
"Your TARDIS?" Danik asked. "How can that be?"
"I don't know how simply what is. She can take the form of animate beings, and focus her consciousness into an animate mind. This is the dragon that was in the food fight arena. This is Sweetheart."
For once in his life, Danik was struck dumb.
"I'm glad I met you here," Eloise said, breaking the brief silence. "I was worried you weren't able to get in. Have you seen any trouble here?"
"N-No," Danik said, finding his tongue at last "I have seen no trouble; but I have been sore troubled, to think that our foe is one of the fair sex."
"Here we go, again!" Cameron said, finally making it over the crest of the hill (and Eloise could see why right away it's hard to rock climb with a set of hose threatening to slip around your ankles at any moment.
"Oh, trust me, Danik our foe may have been woman, once upon a time, but there is nothing fair about her now either in appearance or manner!"
She told him about how she had crushed Xeffy and Anya together, and then taken over their minds, how she had would have done the same to Celia, if the demiurge hadn't left this world, and how she had tried to eat the thoughts right out of Eloise's mind..
"Now, hurry!" she said. "We have to find the others, I fear they are all blithely wandering into a trap."
"At your service, Milady!" Danik replied smartly, his confidence returned now that he was back in the Dashing Hero roll. "In which direction were they travelling?"
Eloise scratched her head. "Last I remember," she said, "we were heading east... but when we started out heading south... I think...."
"Widdershins is the dark path," Cassie said, in her echoing, sleepwalker's voice, " the path of death."
Eloise started. She hadn't seen the muse there. Danik and Osman and Cameron (especially Cameron) stood out like neon due to their clothing. But Cassie was thoroughly camouflaged in mosses and leaves. "You're right," Eloise said, uneasily, "Going from south to east is going widdershins, isn't it?"
"The skein of light, the weft of the world, shall be ravelled."
"Ahem, yes... well..." Eloise shifted her weight uneasily on Sweetheart's back. "Let's just make sure we're not going widdershins, at least. Let's see moss grows on the north side of the tree " she looked down. "Except here, it seems."
For indeed, the trunks of all the trees were completely and evenly ringed in moss.
Eloise sighed. "Nothing for it," she said, "but to scout from the air. Climb up!" She held out a hand for Danik and then for Cameron.
She'd expected Cameron to be the shy one not Danik, who climbed masts and swung from rigging with a knife in his teeth. But it was the captain of the Avalanche who held back for a split moment.
"Fair ladies who are villains?" he asked under his breath. "Dragons who are allies?" He shook his head. "I don't understand this world."
Eloise fought to hold back a chuckle at his expense, and succeeded just barely.
"Have you noticed the layout of this place? Fascinating, isn't it?"
Seventh was seated in the courtyard, hands resting on his brolly handle.
"Well, if you like fairy tale castles, I suppose..." Sandra sat down next to him. "Personally, I stopped trusting fairy tales after Allie read Terry Pratchett's 'Witches Abroad'... this isn't doing much to help things."
"It's perfectly symmetrical in at least sixteen directions..." Seventh continued. "And keep talking our enemy can only hear us if we start thinking about something."
"Got you. Which would make this place almost a circle, right?" Sandra said.
"Circular design. Four main points in each of the cardinal directions, four secondary points one between each of the main points and two tertiary points, each side of a secondary point." He traced the design on the ground with the tip of his umbrella. "Sixteen points in total."
Sandra looked down at the image. "That looks familiar..."
"A compass rose."
Sandra's eyes widened. "You mean..."
The Doctor nodded, and stood up. "This place and I suspect this whole world are mapped out as a compass rose."
"If this place is the rose..." Sandra matched him as she stood, "In the present, a rose, a flame, a key. Choose one, choose well. It can't be the rose this place is the rose. Which leaves the key and the flame."
"More than that," Seventh said.
He headed off towards the castle.
Sandra just managed to keep up.
"This castle is the centrepoint of this world." Seventh continued. "That applies in more ways than one."
"Physical... and spiritual?" Sandra hazarded.
Seventh didn't respond directly, but nodded and carried on. "Here, we stand at the heart of things..."
"And the centre of the castle is the centre of this world. The heart of this world." Sandra finished.
"The SKoLD remains here, building up power for its main purpose."
"Uh-oh." Sandra said. "But if the others find the right thing they're looking for, it'll shut down, right?"
"If only because the SKoLD's main purpose or something close enough to it has been fulfilled, yes."
"Hold on. Hold on a moment. If only because its true purpose has been fulfilled. I mean, these things are still out there, and the SKoLD hasn't shut down yet. They bring it back here, they make the choice, so the SKoLD shuts down... and it boots up." Sandra glided ahead of Seventh, turned to face him. "And reveals the secret. But what happens if they choose the wrong thing?"
"Then the SKoLD fulfils its purpose."
"And one way or another, the secret is revealed." Sandra finished, her voice heavy. "It's just a question of which way is less devastating to the surrounding landscape."
"If you use landscape to refer to Earth and all associated realities..."
"Which means we'd better hope the guys make the right choice..." Sandra murmured.
"Light and dark within the crystal. Choose both, choose neither." Seventh mused. "But whose choice? The Queen's, or...?"
Sandra stared after him as he opened the library door, then hurried to keep up.
Some time afterwards, in the library...
"Listen to this one," Seventh said, looking up from the pile of books he'd accumulated in front of him.
"Hmm?" Sandra said, looking up from the book she was levitating in front of her.
"It might prove interesting. Here goes..."
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful queen.
For all her beauty, she hid a terrible secret, for her heart was ice, and could not love.
The queen's wizard was a good and noble man, who loved his queen though her heart was frozen, and strove to find some way that her heart might melt, and she might love.
He did not care whether she loved him only that she could love.
Then one day, a messenger came to the queen.
He told her that he had heard tell of a great and powerful secret in the Lands Beyond, one that could bring the queen everything she desired.
When she heard this, she dismissed the messenger, and summoned her wizard. She asked him to tell her what he knew of this.
The wizard could only shake his head, for in all his years, he had never heard of such a thing.
He kneeled before her, and asked that she send him to learn the secret, and bring it back, for his secret hope was to learn the secret and melt her heart.
The queen agreed, for she only cared as to what it might bring her.
And the wizard called on his magical steed, who could bear him anywhere he desired, and set off.
Seventh flicked through the next few pages. "The book goes blank after that."
"Not surprised." Sandra remarked. "That'd give away the secret."
"Where does it start... ah." Seventh murmured. "The last page. Why am I not surprised..."
...Tired and alone, the horse came to rest beneath a bridge.
This bridge was home to a good and kind troll, who wished only that she could bring joy to the hearts of others.
She took the horse in, and nursed her back to health once more.
And when the horse was well again, the troll asked her what she would do.
Remembering her rider, and the kindness the troll had shown her, the horse bent down, showing to the troll that she should get on.
Nervously, the troll did so.
Then the horse stood, and carried the troll where she might truly bring joy to others.
But the trials and adventures the troll and the horse were to find along their way are a tale for another time...
Seventh sighed. "I hate these 'To Be Continued...' taglines..."
"You're the sort of person who flips to the end of a book first, aren't you?" Sandra remarked. Off his glare, she put up her hands. "Sorry, sorry... So what now?"
"Well, that confirms a few suspicions of mine..." Seventh considered, as he put the book back on the pile. "I think finding the centre of the castle is next..."
And with that, he left.
The pile promptly fell over.
"How can someone so short be so fast?" Sandra wondered as she hurried after him.
"Long practice!" came the Scottish voice from up ahead. "Come on!"
[Magnus had followed the scent for what seemed hours when he saw some one. Batun was doing an impression of a pointer, the dog that is.]
Magnus: "Greetings Battle Lady, it seems you are the one who interfered. What does the Morigan have to do with this?"
Morigan: "You are interfering in the affairs of your betters, the Tuatha bid you cease!"
Magnus: "Batun, begone to whence you came."
[The dog disappeared in a cloud of foul smelling smoke.]
Morigan: "Was it wise to dismiss your ally?"
"No ally that but a demon bound,|
safer by far to send it from this round."
Morigan: "Cease this meddling in our plans mortal, or die!"
"Mortal I am and mortal I'll stay,|
But die, no way!"
Morigan: "I mean it and stop that damn doggerel!"
[The energy blast threw the Morigan back thirty feet and left her in a smoldering heap, Magnus readied his staff for the next attack.]
Magnus: "Everybody I meet is a critic."
[The Morigan drew herself to her full height only to be struck by a bolt of lightning from a clear sky.]
Magnus: "You did not want to do that, did you."
Morigan: "What are you?"
[As the earth erupted round her feet and started to drag her under she heard Magnus reply.]
"I am not what I was|
And I'm not what I will be
But am what I is
And that suits me
[The Morigan screamed and vanished.]
[Magnus muttered to himself.]
Magnus: "I wish I knew why the Tuatha de Danu were allergic to bad poetry, still time to find the others."