"Actually, I think we're doing alright on that front." Dominic said.
The Space Camelot crew turned to look at him.
"Unconventional plot loops? Just how many different mythologies do we have here? Pro-Fun, Gallifreyan, Greek, Ruritanian, Finnish, Malorian, Celtic, superhero... to be quite honest, I'm surprised the thing hasn't exploded. Bringing all those together, bringing all of us together..." Dominic brought his hands together. "The fact we're interacting and interacting as us, not as our role in the worldlet is already distorting things... very few worlds are created to handle this kind of crossover.
"And as for Albert and Amanda... it can't fit them in. They're so totally incongruous to the basic idea of this world... they can't be squeezed in. The best storyline it can manage is along the lines of 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' and even that stretches things."
"I believe I understand what Professor Dominic's saying here..." Albert said. "Our presence itself distorts things..."
"...but it didn't prevent the SKoLD getting ready to go boom." Sandra said. "Failing that, I'm really not sure what else we can throw at it..."
"I think that would be because we were involved in a storyline it could handle the basic quest. Now we're standing around, talking about what to do about it when we should know what to do, and be doing it and that's..."
"Unconventional." Allie completed. "So what you're saying is... we have to be ourselves, as much as possible, and that'll buy us enough time to switch on the Sampo?"
"No problem there, then." Tessa observed.
"Where're Emby and Nyss?"
"Being themselves," Allie said drily. "What did you expect?"
Eloise looked over the court. "Where's Electra?"
They looked around.
The Gallifreyan muse was no longer there.
"Leave her be." Cassie's voice was unexpected, soft, gentle, halting them in their tracks. "Leave her be. She who is become mourning shall have her veil torn away... and then shall she see what truth there is."
There were voices ever at Rassilon's side.
Omega's voice, arguing for the technologies to come, for the light they would bring Gallifrey.
A voice from the shadows, the voice of that other, who perhaps had seen what was to come, advising and warning Rassilon, words given in the quiet times, shadowed hints and cloaked truths...
...but one truth he gave that Rassilon did not heed.
Do not storm the temples.
Had Omega been present, he too would have advised against it man of science he was, but saw also the ways of the Sight, believed in the legends.
Do not storm the temples.
But there was a third voice at Rassilon's ear, and so Rassilon did not hear the other's words, had other, more important things to deal with...
The serpent in the garden.
Whispers in his ear, whispers of order and clockwork and reason and so he failed to pay heed to it, that which might have been among the most important words that other told him.
They stormed the temples.
They themselves did this, chose the path.
Because she had killed the children.
Had Rassilon spoken against it... perhaps it would not have come to pass.
But he did not, and so the temples fell.
He sought to set things right, afterwards, to make the Time Lords what they could best be, seeing both the individual and the universal, going out into Time and being a part of it.
Instead, they separated themselves from time and space and from the rest of the universe. Turned a deaf ear to the ways of Gallifreya. Drew within, neither fluxing or withering or changing their state.
From that paralytic order came chaos primordial, chaos that order could not understand.
And the serpent saw this, and was satisfied.
With but a few words, he had accomplished all he sought.
Rassilon had seen him, would not be so caught again... but that is a tale for another time.
So the gods fell, and with them their best beloved.
Rassilon was responsible, this is true.
And he paid, and paid, and paid, watching the children of Rassilon sink into stagnation, into blindness and fear and corruption, worshipping the rituals of reason and science, forgetting even why the rituals should be performed.
In the end, he withdrew to his tomb, withdrew to the Matrix, and watched, waiting.
Watching them become all he had striven to free them from.
Watching his children die. Watching his world die.
Gallifrey was saved. Gallifrey was damned.
And Rassilon left the place where it had been, never to return.
But there is another who must be accounted at fault for the gods' fall, and his name you know.
"...Emby, dearest, did you hear something?"
Embericles hesitated. For a moment there, for a moment...
...it had felt as if someone had stripped her down to the bones, to the heart of what she was, and seen...
...like nothing she'd ever experienced
Had she turned, she might have caught a glimpse of white hair turning away, white light caught in the castle's reflections.
Understandably, she had other things on her mind.
"Do that agai oh... oh yeah, that's it..."
Understandable also, perhaps, that an outsider, encountering tangled limbs, might leap to the wrong conclusion.
"Ladies!" Danik sprang forward, alarmed. "Fear not assistance is at hand "
The would-be rescuer stumbled to a halt, a tide of scarlet beginning to dye his cheeks, as he was made inadvertently privy to the more precise manifestations of his mistake. Apparently there were some heights depths? of athletic ingenuity for which a dozen years' wide-ranging dockside experience (and a sobriquet to match) proved to be entirely no preparation. The one-time Terror of the Sea-ports beat a hasty retreat.
So hasty, in fact, as to be more or less at random. Which, in the case of a TARDIS even a sub-portion temporarily configured into the semblance of a crystal castle is rarely a good idea.
White eyes turned, seeing nothing.
White hair reflected from the surfaces.
White light shone, cold and bright and pure.
Truth revealed, and revealed to her.
Now she saw true, for the enchantment could do no otherwise.
She saw true. She would not so blind herself again.
And now she saw her true enemy.
Typhon heard his name whispered across the expanse and sneered. "You dare to call upon me, you worthless worm without even a patch of mould to crawl through? I shall tear your soul to shreds and chum the cosmic waters withal, to feed my sharks!" And he added the force of the call to his own desire, and hurtled himself toward the little grey house in the unremarkable cul-de-sac.
[ Standing just inside of the main gate of the castle, Magnus was looking at a glowing diagram that slowly built up in front of him.]
Varne: "Lord, what are you doing?"
Magnus: "Using seeker spheres to map this place. I should have done this to start with. I have the feeling that part of it is not accessible, and I want to find out which part."
[ Two figures wandered onto the scene. ]
Jason: "We're going round in circles. Marcus, give me that tracker."
Marcus: "The damn thing is too sensitive, it's flooded out this close to the machine."
Magnus: "Look, Varne, it's Laurel and Hardy."
Magnus: "I suppose Boreas forgot to mention I was here."
Marcus: "You can't stop us."
Magnus: "That depends on why you are here. Now if you are here to take the SKoLD away you are correct. I want that thing out of here, if you are here for any other reason you are wrong."
Jason: "Where is it?"
Magnus: "Varne, show Tweedledum and Tweedledimmer where the SKoLD is."
[ Marcus opened his mouth to start a heated retort and then thought better of it. ]
Varne: "Follow me, please."
Elsewhere something starting to take form realised what was approaching the SKoLD, reaching out with his mind he activated its defence systems, swearing in a language that was last spoken in Carcosa at the need to divert power. He did not want the SKoLD shut down.
Typhon swore obscenities even older and more potent than those spoken by his human form. The Nine and Ninety were as ants to him, though their plaything had its uses. That they had come to take it away was as annoying and distracting as the swarm of insects that they were.
Annoyed, he set up a force field around the SKoLD to keep away those who would interfere.
[Varne returned to the courtyard.]
Magnus: "Look, I was right."
[ In the centre of the glowing three dimensional diagram was a dark column running the full height of the castle. ]
Magnus: "It's about four hundred feet in diameter and three hundred feet high."
"Xaos!" he called then, in his fury. "You idiot! You <language=ancient demon; size=pt 78> %$^&!!@#?~*! </language> Why have you not dispatched the mortals as you were ordered?"
He expected a cowering, whimpering response at the edges of his consciousness, and he was looking forward to blasting that particularly annoying bit of spectral uncertainty out of existence as punishment for disobeying.
But instead, there came only the deafening silence of Xaos Not-Being-There. For a moment, this gave the Demon of Destruction pause. There was only one being who had even the slightest chance of defeating the basilisk, and she had made a non-interference pact with Xellos ... Or had she?
...If the trickster priest thought he could play his little games with Typhon, he would have all eternity to regret his hubris.
Meanwhile, Eloise, agreeing with Cassie's assessment that Electra needed to work her way through this alone, was talking quietly with Dominic and his daughters, Trader and Cassie over the grief she had seen in Electra's eyes, earlier, at the Well of Harmony.
"... I think she wants to melt," she said, "but I'm not sure she can not by herself. She has lost so much... She once was the First of Six. I fear she may also be the last."
"You mean," Xeffy said, quietly, burrowing deeper into the Wubb, "That her sisters are all dead?"
Eloise nodded. "I fear so," she said.
"But they're Goddesses! They're immortal... they can't be dead."
"Then where are they?" Eloise's voice had taken on a tone of quiet grimness. "Have you ever known the Nine to fight a cosmic battle alone? They're sisters they are always together, either fighting at each others' side, or at their throats. If this were Calliope's battle, do you think she'd be fighting it alone?" Her voice dropped even lower. "What other explanation can there be?"
Varne: "What do we do, Lord?"
Magnus: "Tell Eloise, it is her Tardis and she may be able to get in there without force. Where is Eloise, Varne?"
Varne: "This way, Lord."
Magnus: "Do not call me Lord, Varne."
[ The two of them, followed by the floating diagram, entered the castle. ]
Whilst all the above was going on, Trader Grey and Carrie had for the sake of the Universe been busily occupied in Being Themselves. In their joint case, this of course consisted of busily looking for additional complications in an already excessively contrived and difficult situation. It also appeared to have acquired a new component which required a lot of glancing, oh-so-incidental physical contact, for all the world as if each had to keep reassuring themselves that the other was really truly present. After a short, intense burst of mutual plot speculation, they hoved off urgently in Danel's direction.
"A word?" the Trader suggested.
". There's a couple of potential loose plot threads here. I'd rather we disentangled them now, than tripped over them for the benefit of what's coming." The Trader shook his head, as if to clear it. "I don't mean to be personal here, but there's no other way... Do Carrie and I understand correctly that you're a writer in search of a Muse?"
"Well, uh, yeah..."
"Dammit!" He exchanged quick glances with Carrie. "Eight and One?"
"If we're lucky..."
"If we're ? Oh, please, not that!"
"Hello there?" And then it hit Danel's predictive antennae. "You think I'm supposed to find a Muse now...?!" A horrid thought struck him. "Oh, no. No way..."
"Electra's a bit beyond any single author," Carrie assured him, "and Celia wouldn't be available if she were present. No, I don't think it's going to be an imposition. Those rarely take, anyway."
"Look, could you two unpack what you're saying a bit? Dialogue prediction is a bit beyond me, or I think I'd have gone spare by now..."
"Nine Muses, all peers," Trader Grey explained, "and one Goddess senior to all: Mnemosyne. With whom Carrie, coming whence she does, has had perhaps a bit more to do than most; hence the thought, hey?"
"Right you are, partner." Carrie smiled sombrely. "We may not have a Magic Nine here. We may have eight peers, and a higher Power. Narrative logic suggests that another peer would be needed to clinch victory."
Danel nodded glumly. Put like that, it was screamingly... predictable. "But maybe," he offered, unable to gauge the current plot's precise overcomplication factor offhand, "we're into closure phase, where loose ends get tied off as quickly as possible. It could just be that we need nine Muses, period."
He felt the strangest flesh-crawling sensation as he delivered himself of this theory. But perhaps, he told himself hopefully, that was just what you got when you spent too long wearing tight leather trousers.
Carrie slipped her left arm around the Trader's shoulder and squeezed; he slipped his right around her waist, and a short, sideways look passed between them. Then again, perhaps said flesh-crawling was just good healthy embarrassment at the former Dialectical Duo's constant PDAs, coming as they did with at least three gravely aggravating circumstances:
1) Wasn't having that kind of relationship with one's Muse a bit dodgy, to say the least?
2) Especially if she was, in point of fact, a computer program!?
3) And for a couple practically old enough to have a son his own age, wasn't this whole "shy, glowing, wide-eyed" act more than a little bit over the top?!?
and 4 for luck) If it wasn't after all what it looked like, well, that would just take the biscuit for embarrassment, wouldn't it?!?!
"Danel," said Carrie gently, "if the plot is geared to require you to find your Muse through it... and we have nine Muses here already..."
"...she's apt to turn up in the nick of time to replace one of ours," said the Trader flatly, "us being Muse Down at that stage. I prefer the Eight Plus One theory's implications, if it's all the same to you."
"Seconded," Carrie proceduralised, as of days of yore.
Okay, maybe there had been a perfectly simple paranormal-powers explanation for the flesh-crawling after all. Danel considered his own possible part in the business, and found himself wondering more than a bit.
"I can pretty well promise you that she isn't going to ride up like the cavalry at the last moment. Even this story isn't quite as gratuitous as that. But the Pro-Fun Guardian did promise me that I'd find my Muse and get to be a full-on writer, if I just "
"If you did what?"
"The Pro-Fun what?"
"Can you do that not in stereo?" Man and Muse obliged forthwith.
"Well, in a nutshell " Danel nutshelled it. Carrie and Gray gave each other another of those opaquely significant looks.
"Danel " said Carrie, in a breaking-gently tone.
" it's a crock," master-diplomatised Trader Grey, showing thereby that something of the old Steward's genius lived on in him yet. "Or, more technically, a monkey's paw. We have explored the question, Whether Any Sane Person Would Accept Fulfilment of Their Heart's Desire and What It Would Do to Them If So, at considerable angst and length in many previous posts on this thread. In my personal case, to a degree briefly though significantly fatal." Carrie... no. Danel was not going to use the word 'snuggled' in any way, shape, or form. Besides which, it was really more the suggestion of a snuggling than the deed. It did involve standing closer to her Author, however. "Wherefore we know that the character who pulled this fast one on you was rather less a Pro-Fun Guardian than anyone else here present. Speaking of which, I don't believe in any more grandiose form of Pro-Fun Guardian anyhow." He clucked irritably. "So whose oar is that one, I wonder?"
"What a dirty trick Xellos!" Danel burst out. "Oh, look," he added bitterly. "I just retro-predicted. Talk about the worst of all worlds..."
"Do you think so?" The Trader drummed his fingers absently on the hilt of his hanger. "I don't really see what he gets out of this..."
"Wait a minute..." said Carrie, her bright blue eyes narrowing.
"No, that doesn't really data one way or another about Danel's Muse-prospects, does it? What we need to know "
"They didn't just bring the Trousers through. They brought the Coat!"
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarghse! Where did Paul go with that?"
"No, er, hang on, you've got this mixed up. I dosed the thing with magical Essence of Pro-Fun. It's going to bollix up any Evil Plans that depend on it. Which I'm sure at least some of them do!"
"What I'd give for your certainty," returned the Trader admiringly.
"Dear at half the price," Danel returned sourly, before breaking into a slight smile. "That last one was one of its better moments, though."
"I don't know," Carrie said. "This enemy will be nontrivial, to put it mildly... What magic did you souse it with, exactly?"
"A Harry Potter potion, why?"
"Excellent!" The Trader snapped his fingers in high good humour. "Harry Potter material has so much mana at the moment, and the way its ficton works... yeah, that'll do nicely." He sighed. "Be thinking about this Muse business or predicting, whichever. If the culmination of your quest is the same as ours, we're apt to have to pull some truly terrifying rabbit out of a hat. Damn, this is complicated!"
Carrie disagreed. "I've got the feeling that the answer is going to be very metafictionally elegant. I doubt we'll enjoy it much, though..."
"Pro-Fun!" Danel offered.
Carrie smiled radiantly, stunning Danel somewhat, and bringing forcibly to his attention that she wasn't that durned old, buckaroo! "There is that. There's definitely that!" She turned her electric-lights expression back to the Trader, and they seemed to do their subliminal-communication thing for a moment before both nodding as one. "Let's circulate. If we find that answer before it finds us..."
"...Yeah. I'll be happier, too."
The only possible excuse for the case that it took Danik of Ruritania almost three minutes to notice anything at all odd in the fact that he had just emerged from a pair of double-doors into a busy and far from salubrious dockside street was, to put it delicately, a certain natural preoccupation with the subject in question. Admittedly, the ringing of the deck-plates underfoot, the condensation on the conduits overhead, and the neon lighting that advertised the attractions in the spacers' hells to either side all conspired to suggest that this was not, perhaps, the type of port where one might glance back across the rooftops and catch a reassuring glimpse of the red and gold Rose waving from the 'Avalanche's stubby masthead; but then acquaintance with a Time Lord can lead a chap into rather more far-flung harbours than his own milieu can provide. Appearances to the contrary, Danik had obtained a passing familiarity with varied technologies of a sophistication that would have scandalised Austria-Hungary and bemused MM Ferry and Clemenceau alike or, to put it more simply, he was perfectly at his ease in a spaceport.
All of which may have gone some way to explaining why he failed to take immediate alarm at his surroundings, but totally failed to condone the fact that he then continued to wander down the centre of the hall in a state of reverie that practically invited any passing undesirable to take advantage of his purse. The fact that in the event, the inevitable tap on the elbow happened to come from a relatively harmless scale-skinned individual with a message-slip snagged on the spines of one palm, was in no way a credit to the Ruritanian's survival instincts, but a matter of pure blind luck.
If not of something else altogether; as to which, however, we shall see...
"A messssage from a mutual acquaintansssse," a high-pitched voice whistled somewhere around waist-level.
Danik blinked and froze very still for an instant, taking in the alien architecture, the crowd swirling past, the sour tang on the air as if memory had suddenly, unexpectedly, come to life except that if this was a memory, devil take it, then it was none of his. He could almost swear to that. He'd seen a dozen docksides like it, but never a one exactly like this. Nor, he was absolutely certain, had he ever set eyes on a creature resembling the one who had just accosted him, in the Doctor's company or out of it.
Three-card brag is not a gentleman's game; but a lengthy and profitable stay in the stews of Southwark had fortuitously bestowed upon the Lord High Admiral of Ruritania a degree of expertise that enabled him now to summon a poker-face the equal, though he did not know it, of any that had ever stone-walled the southern Mississippi.
"Perhaps you'd care to name this 'mutual acquaintance'," he suggested casually, giving nothing away.
The little reptilian looked up at him and giggled, a sudden breathy sibilance that bore a disagreeable resemblance to a hiss. "The Lord will have hissss little joke..."
Spatulate, padded fingers dabbled in a pouch that rode in puckered fold across its belly. For a moment of disgust, Danik wondered if the tight-fitting hide was a trophy worn from the skin of one of its own kind; then, with a queasy lurch, he caught sight of a pair of squirming younglings within its depths, long-tailed and limbless.
The messenger retrieved a soiled scrap of document from the depths of its (his? Her?) brood-pouch, and held it out in fingers unpleasantly moist. Determined to give nothing away until he had worked out what was going on, Danik schooled himself to take it without a flinch, glancing casually down.
It was all he could do to constrain his face to a continuing polite blank. The slanting script on the slick-coated surface was not only totally incomprehensible it was also unmistakable. Polyglot since birth in his native land, more than competent in a dozen languages besides, ranging from the familiar Teutonic to Slav, Finnish and Romance, he was not likely to forget the one tongue which had spectacularly defeated him somewhat to the Doctor's amusement in the course of his recent career.
With the TARDIS around it hadn't exactly been a handicap. More of an unqualified embarrassment. The system of tense-prefixes in Old Gallifreyan was, he had come to believe, completely beyond the grasp of any merely human mind to grasp. He could have pronounced the string of words inscribed on the slip in front of him pitch-perfect... to within a tone and a half or two, at least. He just didn't have the faintest idea what they meant.
And he didn't at all want to think about who might have written them
"See, Lord, your own note, returned to you in proof of trusssst," the messenger cheeped. It gave the hissing giggle again, nervous under Danik's stare. "And now if the Lord will pleasssse to read the reply..."
It extended a hard-ridged palm, long fingers folded inhumanly back, and Danik plucked the note off the spikes without thinking, aware of little else beyond the impulse to bluff this out until he could turn and run.
But it was in English. Not the elegant, flowery tongue his tutor, a Frenchman from Aachen, had beaten into him in childhood, but the crudely-spelt lingua-franca of the spaceways that its bastard Creole descendant had become, a long time later and a long way off.
At least he frowned he could read it. Which wasn't on the face of it so odd, because he was, he had to be, inside a TARDIS after all, which meant he was seeing this in exactly the language he'd expect to see it in. Not that he was in the habit, so far as he was aware, of thinking in Terranglic or whatever name in the current century it possessed but given the surroundings, he supposed that it was not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility for Sweetheart to have pulled it out of the depths of his mind.
Either that, or No, dammit, he hadn't travelled halfway across the galaxy and half a millennium into his own future without so much as the blink of an eye. If he could stroll from a wide-beamed barn to the woods of Ruritania to the hut of Baba Yaga all without leaving Sweetheart's halls, then what he was seeing now had to be some kind of similar trick. What was the Doctor's word for it 'trans-dimensional'? no, the other one...
He stared at the note. "Welcome, Florestan," it read in approximation to the tongue of his own time. "The bearer will guide you to a place where we may meet, and, if the gods are willing, make the trade you desire. Tell your Lady her time of waiting draws now to its close. She has but to meet the price, and Gallifreya shall again reign as is her right.
"Given under my hand, this sixty-fourth rotation of the second cycle
Danik stared, again, at the note.
His future. The future of his world, his stars but dear heaven, this was a Time Machine.
His future... Sweetheart's past.
The letter, so crisp and crumpled in his hand, remembered out of a future Sweetheart and her pilot had visited long before he was born. A benumbing glimpse, for an instant, of a mind-set, of temporal relationships that could give rise to, could only be expressed in a language like Old High Gallifreyan... before the jolt that finally shook him to the core, way beyond any rational train of thought.
Staring at his own hand. His wrist. His robes...
He, Graf Danilo Ilitsch von Schelstein-Hortig zu Metterschau, sixth cousin to the Elphbergs he, Danny Blue, sea-rover, master of the 'Avalanche' he, whose abundant sense of self had carried him through the fairy-tale wordlet, uniquely, in his own persona he, Danik of Ruritania, had been clad in a Time Lord's conservative robes, with a unfamiliar beard prickling along his jaw. He couldn't see himself. Couldn't see if it was his own eyes laughing out beneath flying brows, or the dark and sombre gaze of a stranger.
Florestan. He almost laughed. Gentle, quixotic
Sweetheart was remembering was being forced to remember he didn't know which was re-enacting, Devil take it! that fateful journey. The journey that led to the 'Sampo'.
And Danik Big-mouth had walked right into it, with his eyes shut and his thoughts on... well, never mind. Walked right into the centre of the castle at the wrong moment and got himself cast as her pilot.
Her former pilot, with the emphasis very much on the former.
Which meant that it looked very much as if he was about to be instrumental in finding out precisely what the Sampo was, and where... followed, he strongly suspected, by an intimate and possibly mercifully brief acquaintance in his predecessor's footsteps with the 'Destroyer'. Of whose current nature and whereabouts, while doubtless of absorbing an academic interest to scholar's of Dominic's ilk, he was quite certain that he had absolutely no desire to become better- informed.
He looked around desperately, seeking some evidence to contradict the witness of his own senses. But the illusion, if illusion it was, remained complete.
He was on the dockside. He was following a four-foot bronze-scaled lizardman through a crowd of spacefarers from the distant future. And he was most unhappily alone.
Danik of Ruritania could not remember ever wishing more heartily for Osman's resourceful company at any time in his life.
In the antechamber...
Dominic gasped, staggering.
"That... " Dominic breathed heavily, clutching at his side. "What was "
"Dimensional distortion," Third said, eyes shadowed. "The dimensions shifted for a moment then..."
Just then, Osman flew up to them, landing with a lurch on top of Eloise's cap, then hopping to the ground before her. He was panting, bird style, but she could tell by his manner that it wasn't from the exertion of flight.
"Wo ist Danik?" he demanded.
"I..." Eloise didn't know. She glanced around at the others to see if they had any clue, but they all looked as puzzled as she. "Isn't he with you?"
Osman shook his head emphatically, in a thoroughly human way. "Ich habe überall gesucht. Danik wird verloren."
Third and Dominic groaned together.
"You don't suppose..." Dominic started.
"Unfortunately, I do," the Doctor responded, grimly.
"What?!' Everyone else demanded, more or less in unison.
"The dimensions are much more fluid than you are led to believe from geometry texts," the Doctor explained, "like currents of water or air they do have distinct boundaries, but they are always shifting in one way or another, and we never even notice."
"But Dad noticed, just then," Xeffy said, alarmed. "So did you!"
"Yes there are occasional episodes of 'turbulence'... when a dimension encounters something that doesn't belong there either tries to absorb it, or go around it."
"And you think Danik is the 'something' right now," Eloise concluded.
The Doctor nodded. "I do."
"But why did Dad feel it," Allie asked, "and not any of us?"
Dominic gulped, still catching his breath. "Because," he said, "I'm a history muse. Like the Doctor, I have a certain sensitivity to time. Never felt anything like that before, though." He shook his head in bewilderment. "Wherever he is, whenever he is, I fear Danik is giving history a bad case of indigestion."
"Let's just hope history doesn't do worse than return the favor," Albert said.
Osman squawked a primal, instinctual sound. There were no words, in any language, to express the fears they had for Danny Blue. They just couldn't imagine him being in a situation he couldn't get out of. But the unimaginable had happened.
Magnus and Varne chose that moment to enter the chamber.
"There is something you should know," Magnus said, breaking in on the uncomfortable silence that had descended upon them. He showed them the diagram, and explained what it meant.
"Inaccessible?" Eloise said.
"Not any longer," a familiar voice said.
They turned, and a collective gasp went up at the sight of the diamond-clad dragon, and the diamond-armed warrior maiden. Even Magnus looked impressed.
Eloise was the first to speak. "Sweetheart! You're ..." Eloise didn't have words to describe it.
"Celia/Zaqqum has left," Sweetheart explained, "under a pact with Xellos. But before she departed, she gave me some ... tools to help us in this battle."
She took in the diagram, her face sorrowful.
"Milady?" Magnus inquired.
"...So and so." she said finally. "I feared this.
"Danik has entered the castle's centre, and..." She hesitated. "I am... uncertain. I do not understand the Sampo, not fully, nor what it can properly do.
"But he has been sent... I do not know what it is. It is where my Zero Room, my Infinity Chamber was where one can see the entire universe, if one knows how to look. What it is now...
"Simulation? Reality? The question breaks down in such things, for the way you see things." Her glance took in the others assembled there.
"And at the centre lies the beginning, and the end."
She looked down. "Whether truth or dream... He is there, at the moment we found it. He is there, living it as Him living it with Him, living out his final days, before Xaos came upon Him."
"Oh my..." Eloise whispered. "Can we shut the SKoLD down, get him back?"
"We can shut it down..." Magnus said.
"But it will not get him back if it was that which sent him." Sweetheart finished. "Shutting it down will not return those it took where they belong."
"Why?" Eloise asked. "Why there? Why then?"
"The key. The flame.
"And the final component. The rose.
"Once Danik lays his hands upon that once he faces whatever trial he needs to claim it he will be returned, and it will show itself to him. Show itself as it is now.
"And then..." The Maiden sighed. "Then will all this be decided.
If this were a memory that Sweetheart was reliving, it was surely like none that Danik had ever had. Human memory had a way of skipping over the mundane between-here-and-there bits right to the climaxes. But he'd been following the little lizard creature for what seemed to be a very long time, trudging on foot through narrow back alleys crowded with the discarded objects of a city. Many of the alleys were unpaved, and the ground beneath his feet was thick with muck. It was clear these alleyways caught a lot of rain but not much sun to dry them out between times.
His guide, padded ahead of him on webbed feet perfectly suited, it seemed, for such terrain, while his own feet were wet and cold soaked through inside the boots of his Time Lord's uniform. The creature's speed and agility made Danik feel embarrassingly like an old man. But then again, maybe he was.
How old was Florestan, anyway? Ever since the journey began, he'd been trying to catch a glimpse of himself in any reflective surface. But for such a far time-distant place, such surfaces were frustratingly absent. Where were the polished steel walls of buildings, the dark, tinted glass of windows? Where, he thought, with a pang, were the personal hover pods? If they existed at all in this world, they certainly were not here, in the poorest section of town.
A cursory glance, in fact, might lead one to believe that this was a city from Europe's Middle Ages, if it weren't for the constant drone of unseen machines that filled the air.
His guide finally led him to a narrow, windowless building that seemed to be squeezed between its two taller neighbors as an afterthought, and opened the door.
"If the Lord will step this way," it said.
Danik had to duck, a little, to fit through the door, and he only hesitated a moment before doing so. He had contemplated making a run for it several times during the long trudge to get here, and repeatedly decided against it. Even if he had been here as himself, trying to run through an unknown city, in an unknown time, without any clear way of getting free, was foolhardy, even for him.
Still, a tight place like this might be just the place were a Time Lord could meet his end, a thought that came to him again when he heard the door shut behind him, leaving him and whoever was waiting here in total darkness.
"Welcome, Florestan," the darkness said to him.
Danik waited to reply until his eyes adjusted enough to the darkness to make out the shape of the figure waiting there, even if he couldn't make out the face.
"Thank you," he said, his voice low, hoping that whoever it was wouldn't recognize that he wasn't speaking (as far as he knew) with the real Time Lord's voice.
His 'host' chuckled a more human sound than the laugh of the first 'person' he'd met, but nonetheless just as slimey as the inside of the former's brood pouch. "Always so polite. You may regret those thanks before this is all over," he said. "You brought the price agreed upon," It wasn't a question, or a threat, simply a statement.
Danik paused. What price? But surely Florestan would have come with payment... and at the moment, he was dressed as Florestan. He padded himself down, trying to discover if a Time Lord's uniform included pockets. He found the pouch tied to his belt and reached inside.
There was only one thing there: a sphere so smooth as to be almost intangible to his fingers, if it weren't for the faint tingle of an energy field around it. He pulled it out, and held it in the direction of the trader.
"Ah, yes. That will do nicely."
The sphere was plucked from his fingers, and in its place, a narrow metallic cylinder, about the length and diameter of a hand rolled cigarette, was dropped into his palm. Whatever he was expecting, it wasn't this.
He slipped instinctively into bluff, keeping his voice level keeping all tone of a question at bay, and said, simply: "The Myth Engine."
The trader laughed that slimey laugh again. "D'f'saaluier warned me of your penchant for jokes," he said, " as if the Myth Engine were something that one could slip into your pocket! No only something as powerful as a black hole (or a TARDIS such as your own) can contain the Myth Engine itself. But I may as well have given it to you, for all of that, for I have given you a map, of sorts a very powerful map. Just replace the central link in your TARDIS's mapping drive with that, and you will be there."
The trader moved to the door and opened it, long practice enabling him to remain in as deep a shadow as ever. "Now go," he said, "I have lost my patience with this interview."
Danik stepped through into the muddy narrow street, nearly as grateful, himself, to be out of there. Once he was outside, however, his heart sank. The little lizard creature that had led him here was gone.
How was he to find Florestan's TARDIS now? And since being in the Time Lord's body didn't even give him enough of Florestan's knowledge to read his own writing, how could he manage to replace something as critical as a TARDIS mapping drive?
All he had to rely on was Danik's (his own?) native good luck and instinctive bravado. And so, reminding himself that he had been in seemingly impossible situations before (Even if they'd never seemed as impossible as this) Danik made his was as surely as he could back to the spaceport, assuming that Florestan's TARDIS would be there, somewhere.
His sense of direction, at least, was still his own.
Danik shut his eyes for a moment, picturing the route that had taken them here; then set off firmly towards the quarter that held the spaceport. Two alleyways and a concourse later, he was already quite certain that he'd never seen these streets before the people here were far too well-dressed, for a start but equally confident that he was still on the right track. His guide had taken him round through the back-streets, that was all. Doubtless it had its own reasons to avoid attention. After all, a gentle scholar like Florestan had nothing to fear from the authorities, in this or any city...
Someone laid a hand on his shoulder. Instinctively Danik looked up... and up.
Frankly, he was not accustomed to having to look up to anyone, metaphorically or otherwise. But in the case of an eight-foot lizard with an optical laser implant, it seemed like a good moment to start making an exception.
"Are you gong to come quietly?" the monolith enquired, increasing the pressure on his shoulder. "Or are we going to make trouble?" Four-inch claws flexed through cloth like ebony hooks, and began to bite.
"Anything you say, officer." Danik kept his tone studiously mild, shooting a glance round for possible allies. It was amazing the way everyone suddenly seemed to have melted off the street.
When the guard turned his head, his jaw swivelled while the black gun-muzzle in his empty socket tracked round its unswerving focus. Judging by the glint in his one yellow eye-slit, he was perfectly aware of the sinister effect.
He smiled down at his target. At any rate, his lips drew back from his teeth.
"Tell you what, sir, why don't you just hand over that contraband here and now, and we'll say no more about it?"
"Contraband?" For a moment Danik was genuinely taken aback. The claws tightened suddenly, viciously, into a ball of pain, and he felt a trickle of blood.
"Thank you, officer " drawled between clenched teeth "I think I take your point..."
Damn you, Florestan his left hand moved frantically, surreptitiously, across his own clothing, patting himself down don't you scholars carry so much as a pen-case to defend yourselves with?
He wasn't going to be able to use his other arm for a while if this went on much longer. Not that that would slow him down much, of course. It was a mistake others had made before one of the times where a Linkser did have the advantage. Heaven knew there had to be a few of those, in a world arranged for the benefit of right-handers...
And then the guard did let him go, and it took all of Danik's considerable practice at this sort of thing to avoid crumpling to the floor. Possibly a mistake, he realised a few seconds later as his opponent's gaze narrowed in suspicion. He was, after all, supposed to be a harmless scholar.
The guard was pointing something at him that might have been a weapon and might not. "Contraband," he growled impatiently, running the muzzle of the Time Lord's robes until it flashed and then reaching in, with one expert slash of a clawed hand, to seize the trader's cylinder from the inner folds where it lay hidden. He evaded Danik's instinctive grab with ease.
A gesture up at the tall gateway that bridged the street behind them, bedecked with alien filigree that Danik, who had hardly spared it a passing glance, had dismissed as some kind of primitive art.
"You off-worlders make me sick. You think you can just stroll right through a vey-f'han post with a thing like that and not get picked up?" He waved his trophy in front of his victim's astonished nose. "You think the f'hanuier detectors are too "
At which moment his words were suddenly choked off into an incongruous gurgle. For the very good reason that Danik of Ruritania, who had finally located the one item of his costume that could conceivably be used as a weapon, namely his own belt buckle, had hit him hard and skilfully across the throat, snatched the precious cylinder from slackening claws, and thrust the prong, Odysseus-like, into the eye of the falling colossus. With the first howl of the laser cannon licking at his heels, the fugitive had half-stumbled, half-run, into a doorway across the street and out of sight.