"They'd given up on the crowbars and pickaxes by the time I went past," Donald said, "and were trying to break it down with the what did you say it was again?"
"Heavy-duty mining laser," said Paul. "They had one like that in Shadow Raiders."
"Right," said Donald. "But note that the door in question is completely unmarked. Not a scratch on it, let alone a great big smoking hole through the middle."
Paul felt the wood of the door. The tips of his fingers tingled.
"I don't think it's the door," he said. "I think the door happens to be just inside the field generated by... whatever it is on the other side... and that's protecting it somehow."
"Meaning what?" said Donald.
"Meaning that we're not going to get any further trying to open this door by ourselves than the monkeys did, and we should try to find someone who can tell us what the heck's going on."
"Fair enough," said Donald. "So do we follow the enraged monkey, or do we try to track down Imran and co.?"
A group of people poured out of a door farther down the corridor, raced past Paul and Donald, and disappeared in the direction taken earlier by Ingo, le singe bleu. Paul didn't have time to notice many details, but he did spot Imran and Alryssa in the middle of the group.
"Well," said Paul. "Isn't it nice when somebody makes a difficult decision for you?"
"Is it just me, or are we back in Sweetheart?"
"...Hey, wait up!"
The others continued their headlong rush.
Allie took a deep breath. "WAIT UP!!"
The group skidded to a halt.
"Hey..." Katherine said. "we're back in Sweetheart. When'd that happen?"
"I think it was when we ran through the toilet door, remember?" Yokoi reminded her.
"Ah, there you are." Paul said, finally managing to catch up. "Caught up with the little SS monkey yet?"
"Ingo? We're after Danel."
"You're going in Ingo's direction." Paul pointed out. "I don't know where Danel is..."
"Wait a minute..." Katherine said. "If we just left Ingo's world, where's the little blue git going?"
Ruthie looked around. "This is the way to Sweetheart's wardrobe."
"The Trousers!" the group chorused.
"Excuse me," Paul said. "While this is fascinating, could you explain what's going on? Preferably while we chase the monkey."
"Okay... Um, Paul, you do know your coat's Spectrally Uncertain, don't you?"
"Quantum Spectral Uncertainty." Paul said. "At least, that's what the shopkeeper said."
"O-kay..." Allie said, "brief rundown.
"My family, Eloise, Magnus, Varne, and the Steward have apparently plunged into a fantasy worldlet that's opened up in the lounge a manifestation of Sweetheart's psyche to find the Doctors, and shut down the box of tricks that's caused all this."
~Er, Allie...~ Silence signed nervously. ~Something you should know.~
Allie stopped. Silence's signing suggested something the Voord most definitely did not want to tell her. "What?"
~Before we got lost in the forest, Xeffy... well, Xeffy...~ Silence took a deep breath. ~Xeffy got sucked in by the worldlet. Absorbed.~
"What?" Allie's voice was deathly cold.
"We were in this crystal castle trying to work out how to shut down the SKoLD, and Ayna ran in, screaming that the castle had absorbed Xeffy." Gordon was careful to avoid Allie's face. "We were working on a way to shut down the SKoLD, get Xeffy back, and, er..."
~We got lost.~ Silence signed.
"And then, er, we managed to get back through a book. 'Asterix and the Roman Agent'. Got us back into Nth's Ship, and er..."
~You know the rest.~
"Stop." Paul told Allie quietly. "Stop right there."
"My sister "
"If the Doctors can't find her, no-one can. And the rest of your family's in there." Paul watched Allie simmer. "There's also the fact no-one can get into the lounge at the moment the monkeys were using a heavy duty mining laser on it, and it didn't leave a scratch. The door's just inside the field I think this 'SKoLD' thing's generating." He frowned. "What is a SKoLD?"
"Acronym for Some Kind of Large Device." Imran explained. "Well... that's what it is."
"Hm... Wonder why the monkeys were trying to get in..."
"But... the secondary console room's past the lounge..." Ruthie breathed. "Eloise or one of the others must have found it!"
"Okay. That explains the lounge. What about the monkeys?"
"They were being generated by the main console... at least, I think they were." Ruthie said, looking to Alryssa, who nodded. "Er... long story short, the first time the SKoLD appeared, it used Danel's subconscious as a gate to bring a neo-Nazi monkey called Ingo to the Hoedown and then it used Allie's mind to bring Charley here."
"And then Ingo turned around and used his link to Danel to create a neo-Nazi worldlet in the console room." Alryssa finished. "We also seem to be dealing with some Trousers of Spectral Uncertainty, too. Danel bought them from some shop."
"As in Coat of Spectral Uncertainty." Paul said. "Wonderful. Go on."
"The Trousers helped Ingo maintain the worldlet by skewing people's perceptions but it could only skew the perceptions of those who were wearing clothes it controlled. Thanks to some lucky guesswork on our part and to whoever was tinkering with the console everyone managed to snap free."
"Unfortunately..." Imran said, "Danel's still out there, probably even more confused than I am" he gestured at his toga "and he's got a gun."
"Yes..." said Katherine, "But if the trousers' mind control is broken, then at least should be back to relative normality...just like we have. What would 'normal' Danel do with a gun?"
The others looked at each other with raised eyebrows. "Shoot himself in the foot, most likely," someone muttered.
"We'd better stop him!" everyone said, together.
"And the console room's still a neo-Nazi worldlet." Charley pointed out.
"Wait a minute..." Allie said. "Gordon... you said you got out of the worldlet. Which means there's a way back in somewhere."
"And if Ingo's headed for the wardrobe, he's gonna want a talk with some Trousers." Katherine said.
"And then there's Danel."
"Okay. I think I actually understood all that and please, no-one try to explain it again." Paul said. "So who brought the SKoLD in the first place?"
Imran and Allie stared at each other. "Xellos!"
"Now then, gentlefolk, is the time to divide and conquer." Fastolf declaimed. "Some of our party shall seek out Danel, and ease his troubled mind, whilst others shall hasten a confrontation with yon azure simian and the Machiavellian leggings, others still shall work on returning Sweetheart's console to its original splendour for hath no doubt, she mislikes it as much as we and yet others will discern what has become of those bold fellows questing within the lounge.
"And should I read this Xellos aright, we do not need to seek him he shall seek us."
"What?" Donald said.
"He means split up and take care of everything." Yokoi translated.
Ruthie gasped. "Oh no! The hoedowners! No-one's checked on them!"
"Including that." Yokoi finished. "That okay with everyone?"
"I think," Imran said, glancing over at the seething, hurt muse by his side, "the lounge group should be us the Odd Trio. Gordon's already been in there, and knows his way around "
"Not really," Gordon reminded him. "We got lost, remember?"
"Yeah, well, you know it better than the rest of us," Imran said. "And I know Allie won't be able to help with the other stuff, if she's worried about her family."
Allie looked ready to be insulted by this, then conceded Imran was probably right.
"Just let me change first," Imran said, and stepped in the direction of Sweetheart's wardrobe.
"No! Not that way!" the others shouted, blocking his path.
~You can all borrow clothes from our wardrobe~ Silence signed.
"Oops..." Imran winced under the others' glare. "Sorry, forgot..."
Ruthie cocked her head to one side. "You say you got into Nth's TARDIS through a book?" she asked Gordon.
"Yup. It was a book from his library."
"Then I'll get a book from Sweetheart's library," she said, and trotted off.
Gordon followed her, and Imran, Alryssa, Allie, Yokoi, Katherine and Silence struck out for the exit and the Nth Doctor's TARDIS.
"I suppose I should try to stop the trousers, seeing as I have the coat," suggested Paul. "I'm fairly sure that Ruthie is the one best able to attempt restoring the console room, and Fastolf can go with her for backup and moral support. Donald can come with me, and M.E. Charley too, in case we run into Ingo. Everybody else can do whatever they want I don't know your names, or even if you exist. We really should have done a roll call earlier."
And so the quest began, an epic voyage through the darkest recesses of something or other. But little did any of them now that on the other side of the console room-worldlet, a great battle was about to begin...
"I wish I could get a change of clothes," Charley sighed, looking down at the ex-possessed outfit she was still wearing.
"You could nip off and borrow some clothes with the others, then come back," suggested Paul. "It's not like we're ready to leap into immediate action here."
"That's no good," said Charley. "I want my costume back. And my staff."
"Costume? Staff?" said Paul. "You're not the normal Charlotte Pollard, then?"
"Charlotte Pollard? Who's that?" said Charley automatically. "I'm Magic Electric Charley."
"I think I'm getting the picture here," said Paul. "You're another of these anime-style heroines in the unnaturally-abbreviated schoolgirl outfits, yesno?"
"It's extremely convenient, and doesn't get in the way during fights or dramatic acrobatic displays!" said Charley hotly.
"Good, thought so," said Paul. "And this staff of yours, it'll be magical, right?"
"Good, thought so," said Paul, in the voice of one running down a mental checklist. "And you last saw it...?"
"In the wardrobe, when we were attacked by the clothes."
"So it's still in there? In the wardrobe? With the reality-bending Trousers?"
"As far as I know."
"Good, thought so," said Paul. "It's a good thing that a pair of trousers has nothing with which to wield a magic staff, or I expect we'd all be in a lot of trouble."
Back at the wardrobe, the Trousers had tired of listening to Ingo's ranting. Amusing as it was to calculate how long the monkey could run on without taking a breath, it had better uses for its time. It called on certain of the clothes still in the wardrobe.
Directly beneath the hanger supporting the Trousers stood a pair of shoes, each with a sock stuck limply in it. At the Trousers' call, the socks stood at attention; the Trousers slipped off the hanger and dropped down, the lower end of each trouser leg slipping over a sock. Now presenting the aspect of a person whose top half was mysteriously missing, the Trousers walked over to a black tuxedo coat, which levitated off its hanger and settled itself on top of the Trousers. The next stop was a dressing table on which a pair of white gloves lay abandoned; the tuxedo coat reached out to them, and the gloves attached themselves one to the end of each arm.
The animate suit now moved over to a dark corner, where earlier the Trousers had, using the same assemblage, constructed the device with which it had been able to manipulate reality. Mostly, it was constructed out of long-forgotten stuff the Trousers had found in the pockets of various outfits the device it had found in its own pocket had been particularly useful but the vital finishing ingredient had been the Staff of the Currents unwillingly donated by Magic Electric Charley.
The suit reached out and, taking hold of the staff in both gloves, pulled it free of the device. The device's hum became a descending whine and died away, and all its lights went out. (And, elsewhere, the neonazi wordlet collapsed in on itself and disappeared but since everyone had left it by now, that was all right.)
The suit straightened up and struck a villainous pose, outlined in blue-white fire as the staff's anti-theft magics attempted unsuccessfully to fry the suit's non-existent occupant. After a moment, the suit, apparently unsatisfied, hunted through the wardrobe room until it found a Captain Zero CyberVillain Play-Mask With Real Electronic Voice Distorter, which it perched on the collar of the tuxedo jacket.
"That's better," said the mask, in a grating villainous tone that testified to the many hours the toy company's designers had spent reverse-engineering Darth Vader's voice. The suit turned toward the door of the wardrobe room. "Playtime's over, boys and girls..."
"You can really hold your ale," Nimue observed to Arthur. Merlin was on hosting duty, and Lancelot and Guenevere were dancing again.
"No," said Arthur. "I' very drunk right now. I just had a tutor who emphasized elocution."
"But you're still so self-possessed," Nimue objected. "If I didn't watch my intake I might do things I'd regret later." Because she had been watching her intake she didn't add, "Like allowing my resentment of how Guenevere treats you to manifest itself in an attempt to seduce you."
"It is an error," said Arthur crossly, "to assume that every fellow with a reserved manner is imposing it on himself."
"You mean ... you're really, naturally that mellow?"
"Exactly," Arthur showed off his elocution.
"An anti-inhibiting effect has no apparent effect on you because you haven't any inhibitions?"
"Not that come to bear in public, anyway."
"Oh." The song was ending. A new one started. Guenevere and Lancelot were still dancing and Merlin was still hosting. "Would you care to dance?"
"I don't think I can stand up," said Arthur.
Nimue frowned. "I thought you just said that the booze doesn't affect you."
"Mode of behavior and motor control are two different things," said the king.
[Magnus walked round the door to double check. Unsurprisingly the view through the door was different from that behind it. Magnus returned to the door and gave the path leading to a cottage a suspicious look.]
Magnus: "Hmn, a path leading to a fence made of bones surrounding a cottage perched on chicken legs. Seems appropriate, Baba Yaga's cottage is bigger on the inside than the outside. Of course this is Russian not Finnish. Watch out for the horses."
Varne: "You are being a bit cryptic Lord. Her horses are man eaters and the fence is made up of human bones."
Dominic: "So this is the third trial, first find the way into the hut and second find some way of getting something useful from the Baba Yaga."
Magnus: "Easier said than done."
Varne: "Yes Lord, the fence marks a protective spell and the hut is sentient."
Magnus: "If this was set up by the previous pilot, the spells Prince Ivan used should work, or an equivalent of course."
The Steward regarded the abominable scene with the ocular equivalent of tongs.
"Magnus," he said very carefully, "may I for one just suggest that we think again about this one? Baba Yaga makes sense in that even Louhi couldn't expect to beard her in her own domain and walk away afterwards but exploited eight ways to market if I like our chances either. The way I recall it, Ivan needed lots of outside help, and it was a pretty lengthy processes. Xeffy doesn't have time for us to faff about herding her gee-gees all day, or days, or however long that particular endurance test went!"
The sorcerer shrugged. "I see no alternative. Even I am not up to blasting through that particular character without unpleasant consequences I have no wish to court. And nor do you. Varne, it might be handy for you to turn into a grey wolf..."
"Alternatively," said the Eighth Doctor, skipping up, "how about this?" And he shut the door.
#But we have to !#
And opened it again.
The Steward smiled savagely.
"What do you know," he remarked. "Minas Morgul."
"And once for luck...?" The Eighth Doctor did the business, and got a dark riverside idyll with a big three-headed dog.
"Hell, no!" and "No, Hell!" came a various chorus. Nice Doggie's fury and slobber was hastily shut away in its turn.
"Ayna," Dominic said quietly, "after all this is over, I think we need to go over your Mythological History..."
Ayna blinked in confusion. #Er... Okay, Dad.#
"I suspect," said the Steward heavily, "that we can keep turning up deathtraps all day like this. This is no good. There has to be a way through!"
"Bet you a strawberry float?" Eloise's doubts were returning apace, and they hadn't exactly been off to the ends of the earth in previous episodes.
"Excuse me!" she called out, trying to make herself heard over the background noise coming from all sorts of hellish landscapes. "Excuse me!"
"Not as bloody sure as all that!" The Steward scowled mightily, in heroic thought.
"What," Dominic wondered aloud, "would Louhi not do, that a friend of Sweetheart's or her pilot's might?"
The Second Doctor coughed. "Ask nicely?"
"Oh, that's " The Steward broke off. He looked at the unorthodox construction of their door, and its sylvan surroundings. "Sometimes, of course," he said between his teeth, "I am just differently perceptive of the bleedin' obvious..."
"Mielikki, forest maiden,|
Mistress of the trees and... more trees...
Also, sure, a shard of Sweetheart,
Since I also am of Woodland,
Kin I call "
"There is but one way." She was young and beautiful and clad all in green: Maid Marian, not as Xeffy had found herself sartorially afflicted, but as might have lived with outlaws in the greenwood. She carried a short but formidable-looking bow. She had just stepped from a place that didn't exist behind the oak sapling. "And the way is the thorn, and the way is surrendered desire, and the way is embraced death."
The Steward, surprisingly and perhaps even somewhat less than sanely, appeared to perk up.
Danik stepped forward, chivalrous charm oozing from every pore.
Sixth groaned theatrically. "I wonder if it's too late to re-locate Baba Yaga..."
Eloise put up her arm to stop Danik's advance, and bowed her head in as dignified manner as she could while wearing cap and bells. "My Lady," she said, "If I may, I'd like to address those assembled here."
Maid Marian nodded her assent.
Eloise turned to the others. "Personally, I don't think we should try to go through that door at all," she said.
A chorus of "but "s rose from the others, until it sounded like someone's model T had stalled in the clearing. She again held up her hand to quiet them.
"After all, this is Sweetheart who is putting these barriers before us," she reminded them, and she's on our side. She's also the one being here who knows our enemy, and knows the secret our enemy is after. She may not be able to tell us what she knows in the same language we use... But don't you think it's in our own best interest to mind what she Can tell us? And how in many ways does she have to tell us 'Don't go there'?!"
"Well," said the Steward, a little huffily. "We have to do something. What do you propose?"
"That we ask the one being who knows what's going on directly."
#Ice Queen, Witch of the North #
The others span around.
The little Siren stared back, eyes teary. #What? WHAT?! I thought you meant her!#
"Oh, Ayna... Come here, come here, sweetheart..."
"She will at least have heard that." Magnus remarked.
"As if she didn't already know." Sixth said.
Eloise closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and turned to Maid Marian and the Dragicorn.
Dragon and the Maiden... she realised. Of course...
"Sweetheart both of you you know what's going on. You know what it is the Queen wants, and what our enemy is." Eloise looked between both of them. "And you know what will happen if we don't get the flame."
The Dragon's nostrils flared.
Eloise took a deep breath. "Tell me. Please. Who is she? Who is the Ice Queen?"
"One of his," the Maiden said.
She pointed to Dominic, Ayna resting against his chest.
He looked up sharply.
"One of his, though he knows it not. One of the Six of those who oversaw Pythia Gallifreya.
"Who nurtured its creative spark, its guiding flame, and saw the Empire come to fruition.
"Who, in the last, saw it fall as Reason took hold, and the Watchmakers claimed the throne.
"They escaped it... but at oh such a cost. Lost all but that which they were and they were lucky to have that.
"Nothing left. Nothing left of what they had been, what they had meant, but fragmented jottings, hints and shadows and clues...
"And He " they all heard the capital letter fall into place. "found them.
"Curious, He was. Had heard the myths of Earth, learned of the Muses...
"And sought to learn of Gallifreya's own.
"And He did. Found the myth come to life, the legends made real...
"And she claimed him, by oath and honour. Claimed him as hers the first in so long a time.
"She charged him to seek out that which would restore her a myth-engine, for there are no better words.
"To bring her all that she had lost. To restore her to grace and make her, in the last, a true Goddess.
"He found the key to it the box of tricks..." The Maiden paused. "And... it remade us.
"Remade us in ways even she could never have expected.
"I became something other than my kin, other than Shipkind and not until Compassion came did I meet another like me.
"He was remade, too. Subtle changes, textures of light and shadow, ways of thought... different, yet still the same...
"The key led us to the engine, and then..." The Maiden shook her head then, in sadness and grief. "Ask me to go no further, for I will not.
"But He was lost untimely, the engine lost in me...
"...and now she has found us, and soon enough, her prize."
"Milady," Dominic said formally. "you keep us from the flame, but still and enough, you know what shall happen should she use her key."
The Maiden nodded sadly. "I had hoped... had hoped that another path might make itself known, that her key might be destroyed, that she might be stopped before she found it... that someone would succeed where we had failed.
"But the wheel turns, and once more we are lost."
"Never," Dominic said. "That I promise you. As long as we live, it is not lost."
Eloise pondered Sweetheart's words, but not for long. "So that's why," she said, "you were not called back when He died, as others of your kin were, to be remade. The Matrix the Watchmakers' own myth engine recognized in you some of the power that they had banished at so high and bloody a price... and so you were banished in your turn."
The Maiden gave a slight nod. "I would not have gone back," she said, "even if they had called."
Eloise smiled, a little sadly. "I understand," she said, "Some things should never be forgotten, however painful. He understood that, didn't he? He started out with a watchmaker's curiosity simply wanting to take the old myths apart to study their mechanics. And in so doing, began to see the treasure that his people had destroyed, and wanted to bring it back to restore the balance. She " Eloise tried to find the right words, " she had seen too much war, felt too much pain, for that. She wanted to bring back war to the Time Lords, and destroy their world as they had destroyed hers."
Eighth sucked in his breath, sharply.
The Maiden and Dragon nodded as one they were one, yet two.
"And so the wheel turns," the Maiden said again.
"Sailor Gallifrey should be here," Eloise said, "She would be fascinated!"
"She is here," the Maiden told them. "She and her comrades now seek a way to meet you on the path."
Eloise brightened. "Really?" she said, "That path, there?" and she pointed toward the door.
The Maiden nodded.
"Then let's go!"
"Milady," Dominic said to the Maiden, "do you know her true name?"
She shook her head. "That she kept hidden from us for a name limits, a name traps, and that she knows full well."
"Milady," Dominic said again, "Will you show us the way?"
"You know the way, for the way is the thorn, and the way is surrendered desire, and the way is embraced death."
"Then shall we take it."
She nodded once more, sadness written deep in her.
To the door she went, and rapped once, twice, thrice.
"Go," she said. "I shall not stop you."
She opened the door, and the questors walked through.
Eloise paused on the threshold, waiting for Sweetheart the dragon to come walk beside her as she always had. But the beast held back.
"We will stay here," the Maiden explained, "and guard the door from those who would do you harm. You shall meet us, in other forms, on the distant side."
Eloise nodded, and stepped through to the darkness.
They stood in the shadow of a high blank cliff, beneath a burnt-orange sky, looking out on an arid and rocky wilderness.
"Now that's what I call interesting," observed the Fourth. "There's no place like home, is there...?"
"It seems we did well to summon the genius loci of the wood," Magnus agreed. "If you mean to say this is your homeworld, and the description certainly fits, then at last we're heading somewhere relevant!"
Albert faltered and turned pale, then pulled himself together and said in a low, agitated voice to Amanda,
"Mine too, by the Lord Harry! I know in my bones I've run away from here, before... before the Talbots. It's worse cursed than your old 'Valley of Cain', I know that much. 'Arid, aloof, incurious, unthinking, unthanking, gelt...' I don't know about taking you here. I don't know but what we should stay and mind the door. I'll not be part of this again..."
"You've got nothing out of six on their list," she returned coolly, "and I'm here to remind you, in case you start displaying tendencies. Look here, we have to brave the Deadly Secret out, or it'll only sneak up on us. That's no news to you, is it?"
He produced a ghastly grin, and straightened. "No," he said ruefully. "I think I must just be developing a taste for being KO'd from behind. It's scarcely more repulsive than Guinness and oysters, I suppose. Well, let's tootle along..."
"The Citadel," Sixth was saying confidently, "is our obvious mark. There's little enough of interest in the wastelands outside. Vandals, ascetics, eccentrics and madmen who wander around dressed like animate rummage sales.." He puffed himself up. "And there I rather think we shall demand some explanations!"
"And have a few demanded, I'm afraid," Nth cut in, indicating the Time Lordly monoculture of their company with a sharp hand-gesture.
"In any case," began Eloise, "I'm not sure how good an "
"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Third, as they came out from under a spur of the cliff and acquired an abruptly wider view. "Unless my memory plays me false, some of us have been in this particular area before..."
Second inhaled sharply, and pantomimed his agitation. "The Death Zone???"
"This is surely only a simulation or a memory," First said tartly. "Do any of you really suppose that a direct connection is possible?"
"But an illusion in this context," added the Steward, "is quite real enough for most purposes, as I believe we've just established."
"'The harsh prison...'" Eloise quoted, appalled.
Amanda nodded sagely. "He did ask for a Workers' Paradise. Full marks for accurate conjury by the sound of it so far, wot, old duck?"
"I've got a feeling it wasn't quite like that. Er, I don't suppose any of you splendid chaps feel like taking pity on my ignorance and telling me what a Death Zone might be?"
"It's how the local, and specifically non-socialist dictator, used to get his jollies," the Steward told her, removing a torch-like weapon from his jacket. "Dump a lot of dangerous sophonts in a closed wilderness, and watch them blow each other up. How polite society laughed. The survivors get loaded with blood-money and booted off back to whenever they came from. Gladiators to the Nth!"
"Although I've heard another tale," Dominic noted, "that Rassilon stopped the game or restricted it, and that it used to be viewed as a blood-sacrifice to the Mothers. It's not really my field but blood-magic and death relate to the old goddesses of earth, as often as not..."
First paused to snuff the air. "Well done, my boy! This air smells... fresher. Clearer, sharper than I remember. I wonder, yes, I wonder..."
The party continued to make their wary way out of the shadow of the cliffs, eyes peeled for sights of potential interest.
The effect remained, for some way, remarkably like walking out of a limestone quarry across the Sussex downs, with a dodgy filter applied to the sky. But the grass was clumpy, stiff, and dagger-leaved; the earth of Sussex has a less rusty look to it; and if anyone had ever seen so many small scuttlers of a scorpionoid persuasion in that part of the worlds, this had surely been preceded by the consumption of many pints of Old Stingo. On a linked but brighter note, there was as yet no manifest sign that even Gallifrey had stooped to inventing barley wine.
"The overall effect," Albert summed up presently, wanting to be sure because he suspected it might be rather important, "making this the kind of place where we're liable to deadly attack at any moment, by gangs of raving ray-gun-waving Space Aliens who have no useful connection with the job in hand?"
"Give that man a monocle."
"In that case, I don't suppose any of you relieved me of my revolver whilst I was off for my beauty sleep?"
"You didn't bring it with you," explained Varne.
"My hat," said Albert neutrally. "I must be getting careless in my dotage."
"Doting's bad for you," Sixth returned.
"I'd keep away from it, if I were you," Amanda advised the clangorously-dressed Doctor, sympathetically. "It's rather a putrid habit, really."
"Cake?" suggested Albert, incomprehensibly.
"I shall ignore that remark," said Amanda, coldly.
"Makeitstopmakeitstopmakeitstop!" prayed most of the party, subvocally. Or in Sixth's and the Steward's cases, vocally. Elsewhere in Subreality, the Manners Fairy awarded the Muses, Eloise, and Danik each an exceptionally shiny gold star.
"Hot naked singularities with NO HAIR!" added a voice of pure, bestial vileness from over the next ridge. Instantly, as the brave company of Hoedowners halted in their tracks, it was joined by others, equally gratuitous and unappetising.
"Make AeonsAeonsAeons trading futures 3.09780985^16!"
"Hashamendavarkantimagloracidocius, this REALLY WORKS!"
"Visit my cool reality!!!!!!!!"
Over that ridge and, worse yet, down the sides of other hills to left and right they came: great frothing pinkish-grey masses of fermenting Gallifreyan dole yeast, spitting bone-spikes and popping loathsome lytic vacuoles from their nightmare wealth of blasphemously amorphous Shoggothy pseudopodia!
"Paradoxical centenarian Lolitanabokovakubrickitrelundars!!"
"DO NOT BREAK THE CAUSALITY 3.249875^12 - 9.297509^14i"
"These would be the cross-purposed but deadly denizens of the Death Zone," Eight clarified. He rummaged in his Wonder Pockets for a plot device.
The Steward's DeLameter flamed briefly. It was a good shot at extreme range. It baked a whole sub-pseudopodium.
"There are, Lord," Varne observed, "a very large number of them."
"Do not call me Lord, Varne, but let us instead postpone this bootless conflict by all having it away on our toes to a more defensible position."
Danik, the Eighth, and the Steward looked least happy with this admirable plan. The People's Hero, Man of Lead, tossed his DeLameter to Sixth and laughed in the face of impending doom!
"Wrong approach," he observed. "I could get really used to this. Watch this one, it's going to be fritters for dinner. Ayna back me up! LO !"
And wrapping his 'Kari Salomaa' Kalevalan personality around him like a cloak, the great hero began to declaim:
"I know the Origin of Spam.|
Shit! We never did find out the origin of Spam! RUN AWAAAAAAAAAYYYYY!"
[Magnus was frantically rummaging in his saddle bags.]
Varne: "Now would be the time for a micro nuke."
Magnus: "One kilometre lethal radius, Varne. Besides, we are still in Sweetheart... Ah, this might help."
[He pulled a small tank out of the bags and placed it facing the horde.]
Varne: "What's a seeker charge going to do against that lot, Lord?"
Magnus: "Nothing much unless I can come up with a spell, and don't call me Lord."
"A model of devastation have I here|
A model that holds an image of fear
Let model be image and image model
And kill the spam as they hobble
Varne: "Ouch, that was a lousy rhyme."
[Where the model had been was a large metal object. It ground forward into the spamites opening fire, from several guns.]
Magnus: "Still it worked, looks like a Bolo IX."
Steward: "Will that stop them?"
Magnus: "I doubt it, but it will give us a head start. Now run away, run away."
"What now, oh Fearless Leader of Men?" Amanda considered for a moment. "And Women. And Parrots."
"Erk." was the Steward's eloquent response.
"I don't think this is a coincidence," Eloise thought out loud. "Sweetheart told us about the Ice Queen's Gallifrey and about her own. Which one of those this is... I wonder..."
"I take it there's more to this place than simply the raving hordes of Space Aliens," Albert observed, huffing as he kept up. "After all, to be dropped into a Quest with no Grail is passing strange..."
"Oh, assuredly there is," Sixth said, huffing rather more. "At the centre of this place lies the Dark Tower, tomb of Rassilon himself."
"Except he's not quite dead," Eighth pointed out. "He seems to have made himself at home in the Matrix. Mellowed rather, over the years..."
"May I remind you you're not supposed to remember 'Neverland'?" the Steward retorted.
"'Neverland'? Who said anything about that? No, I was remembering 'The Final Chapter'." Eighth replied calmly. "DWM comic. Caused a lot of fuss, what with its fake regeneration. Still, Shayde was willing to go along with it..."
#Can we stop the fanboy riffing and get on with it?!# Ayna hmphed, wheezing like a bellows.
"Yes, yes, my dear. Quite right." Third said. "Anyway, the first time we were here that was First, Second, and myself we found that old Rassilon had claimed to find the secret of immortality, and that any who wished to follow him would find it in his Tomb. However..."
"It's a trap." Sixth explained. "Designed to remove any tin-pot tyrants who'd like to try their chances at the whole 'mastery of Time' business."
"So what you're saying is that the Grail at the end of this Quest is a poisoned chalice?" Amanda said.
"Or it would be, if this were the real Gallifrey." First said. "However, as has already been pointed out, this is a simulation, or a memory not the real thing."
"So what we're looking for's in this Dark Tower? Rather 'Childe Roland', wouldn't you say?"
Dominic raised his eyebrows. "It makes a twisted kind of sense. A crystal castle out there, a dark tower in here...
"...You know, I've just realised something. Ever since Allie met Imran, I seem to have accumulated a disturbing storehouse of Gallifreyan history...
"But I never came across anything which even hinted that other worlds might have Muses of their own..." Dominic scowled. "And somehow, I do not see the irony in our current situation."
"So we get to the Tower, find the flame, and poof?" Cameron said.
"Yes..." Eloise frowned. "Except Sweetheart said we'd meet her in 'other forms' on this side... And I wonder why she called this the way of thorn, surrendered desire..."
"...and embraced death." Magnus completed. "Yes, I had been wondering that myself. Paths are rarely named without some meaning..."
"I think," Second said, "we'll find out at the Tow oh, my giddy aunt!"
They crossed a ridge and stopped.
Before them, the Dark Tower rose into the sky.
"...That's it?" Amanda said in a small voice, as she stared up at its looming bulk.
"That, as you say, my dear, is 'it'." First said. "Our goal lies within and the path awaits! Onward!"