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Chapter 11



[Oh, gods, not again! George! Oh, gods!]

+So what do you think, Jeft?+

~Well, they're sure not the kind of characters I'd run. Can they do anything?~

[They're excellent musicians. And very intelligent, too.]

~I mean combat-wise. Is their music magical? Do they change people's emotions with it, put 'em to sleep, stuff like that?~

[Oh. It's not magical, but sometimes it seems like it is—where's Fi'ar going?]

~You mean you put 'em down there with no combat skills at all? Fertilizer!~

+Is that how you swear on your world?+

~Nah, that's gamer slang for a character who's gonna die quick. I mean, you want your character to have noncom skills, but they gotta be able to defend themselves too. I got this one guy, Jim Hunter, humanoid like your guys, real smart, got science and stuff like that, except he's also a martial arts expert, so he was able to get born, you know, live past his first SEx.~

+Sex usually kills characters!?+

~Not that kinda sex—Stress EXperience. Actually, that one guy you changed, he's born. I bet he could wield Blackfire.~

+What's Blackfire?+

~Jim Hunter's sword. It's a female prezili, that's an energy being, bound into a sword shape and flaming black. Blackfire can cut through four feet of rock, deflects missiles, and absorb all spells cast at it. Jim can cast 'em whenever he wants. It also multiplies his strength by three. But the wielder has to start out strong to - ~

[Excuse me, Jeft? I'm sorry to interrupt, but are you going to let us use some of your computer time? There are problems developing down there.]

~Sure, glad to help fellow runners. We got enough problems with people saying how immoral we are, without not having computer time too. You know, running's banned on my home world.]


~They never give you a good reason, just hassle. We gotta do it in secret. I've heard of guys who hadda give up their - ~

[Jeft, excuse me? I'm really grateful for your help, but could we use the computer now?]



"Oh, Macca’s not happy," John murmured after the door closed. He picked his cloak up and squeezed the material in his fists before putting it on again. "No, Macca’s not a happy lad at all."

Lyndess took the inlaid plaque off the wall and grinned at it. "An unexpected use, but a year and a half of strength wasn’t wasted," she murmured, running her fingers along the silver again. Then she put it on the folding table and dashed into her bedroom.

John watched her go, feeling the morning's tide of euphoria roll back, leaving in its wake bits of disappointment and annoyance and loneliness and fear. He glared out the window at Paul's retreating back and thought at it, Fuck you for ruining my mood. Jealous little sod. Can't have it yourself so you spoil it for me. Well, you'll just have to live with it. I'm gonna fly again, and if you don't like it you can bugger off. Thank God Ringo's a human being, he won't give me that kind of rubbish, and George -

John rolled his eyes. Oh, Jesus, what if he thinks I'm an angel or whatever they have in Krishnianity? Suddenly burdened with unpleasant scenarios, he sank down on a chair—only to spring up again when he mashed his wings against the back of the chair. With a noise that was half growl, half whimper, he swung the chair around and straddled it backwards. Reality wasn't just intruding, it was rampaging out of control.


Paul and Ringo hurried through the main hall, ignoring stares from Idris (it was too early in the morning for normal citizens to be there), saying nothing to each other. Actually, Paul kept muttering things, but when Ringo said "What?" he got no answer. Ringo didn't press, but concentrated on his steps to settle his churning thoughts. He felt like he was whipping around on the tail of a kite, an inch away from losing his grip and being flung shrieking into the void. Life hasn't been normal for a long time, but does it have to be this weird? he complained to himself.

"... don't know why he bothered," Paul muttered, audible at last. "He was certainly quick enough to - "

"What?" said Ringo.

"Oh," Paul said airily, "I said it was charming, the way John was ready to abandon us."

They mounted the steps to the next floor. "Well, he did agree a bit fast," Ringo admitted, "but I don't think he meant to do that. I mean, he's still John, under the—under the everythin'."

The look Paul gave Ringo said, I doubt it. "It's not just that. You saw the way Lyndess hung all over him. Fuck, man, they slept together last night! He's found himself another Yoko—better than Yoko, she can really do magic. She's probably the one who grew the wings on him, as some kind of weird reward. He said Remlar did it, but why would Remlar do it? That doesn’t make any sense. They haven’t even met! I can’t believe he’d think we’d believe that!"

They reached the second floor. Out of habit, Paul looked down the hallway to Grynun's room. The door was closed, and Ralin the guard was gone. This was strange, but Paul didn't stop to wonder what was up. They continued up the next staircase, and he resumed his bitter narrative:

"I wouldn't be surprised if they planned this, and once she zaps us away we'll never see them again, they'll just fly off in the other direction. He doesn't need to go back to Earth any more. He doesn't need us."

Ringo looked doubtful, but before he could respond, a door slammed on the lower level, and someone mounted the stairs behind them and started rapidly up. They turned and saw Grynun climbing towards them, very angry. They stopped, thinking she wanted them, but she barked "Move!", so they flattened themselves against the walls and she clattered past with nary a glance, just a waft of urine-perfume smell and a flutter of her red robe.

Paul and Ringo shared a puzzled look and started up the stairs again, cautiously in case the Idri-head screamed at them to stop following her.

And as they reached the third floor, they saw her pull a dagger and stride into their bedroom.


As John brooded, Lyndess came back, dressed for travel in woolens, a black cape like John's (without the silver patterns), and a black fur cap. She carried a stack of the inlaid plaques, which she put on top of the one on the table. "This is my teleport spell," she said cheerfully. "I've fed a plaque each day since I arrived, and now they hold enough magic to take me to Ta'akan, rather than merely to the Rust Coast."

John's eyes narrowed. "You said you couldn't teleport yourself."

"True," she snapped, catching his tone. "I didn't lie about that! I hoped a spell of sufficient power would defeat the curse. I would have burned it soon, when the plaques brimmed—another five hands of days, perhaps. It likely wouldn’t succeed, but I had few other options."

"Um." Still cranky, and starting to get nervous about his task—it was beginning to sink in that he wasn't just crossing the street—John muttered, "What, no luggage, then? Or are you gonna shrink the house and carry it along?"

Lyndess laughed, in too good a mood to stay annoyed. "The house would be useful, but I haven't the strength for that. I took only my money, my spellfuel, and some powders and potions I learned to make here. I’m going to sell them in Ta'akan so I won't have to go to a god for money again."

"How long is this gonna take, then? Crossin' the ocean, I mean."

"Fifteen days on ship. I don't know how long on you."


"You won't need to rest," Lyndess assured him.


"Shit!" Paul said, and they dashed in after Grynun.

And froze.

George lay unconscious on the floor, stripped of his pants, damp with sweat, smelling of sex; and Grynun crouched over him, searching for the best place to start cutting.

"What - what - " stammered Paul, absolutely unable to absorb what he saw. Grynun was his chum, she gave him presents, loved his music, loved him -

The old woman paused to look at him bleakly. "Decided my idiot child Fi'ar and this fodder—" she nudged George "—that my authority be meaningless. They sexed. Fi'ar was drunk enough to tell me. Fi'ar now has nine fingers." A severed pinky, white and pasty, flew through the air, bounced at Paul's feet. "This fodder will soon have only ten."

Gaping at the grisly thing, Paul babbled, "Don't, please don't—she must have got him drunk, or - or - he can't have agreed, he wouldn't, he knows better, he’s married—"

"Broke him the law," the Idri-head said firmly, and she turned back to her task, gathered a handful -

"No!" shouted Ringo. He grabbed George's guitar from where it was propped against the wall and swung it as hard as he could at Grynun. She threw up the hand with the knife to shield herself, but too late—THWACK! She emitted a raspy fart and fell over.


~This is boring.~

+A last-second rescue is boring?+

~Aw, it's just a domestic spat. Why don't you have a dragon attack the city? John could fly up and engage it in combat.~

[No! Absolutely not!]

~Why not? It'd sure add some color to this campaign.~

[Yes, blood-red! Where did you get the idea that John is a warrior? Do you think he can start killing as if he'd done it all his life?]

~Jim Hunter did.~

[Then Jim Hunter is a psychopath. John Lennon happens to be a non-killer and a - ]

+Hey, that's a good name for an assassin: Anon-Killer, the unknown death. When they ask him if he likes to kill, he'll say ‘I'm a non-killer’ and they'll ignore him.+



[Look, Jeft, these are my people. I do not want anything like that to happen to them. If you won't respect my wishes, I'll find some other way to run my program.]

~Jeez, don't chew my ear off! It was just a suggestion to spice up the adventure. I don't care what you do.~

[So you won't put a dragon in there when I'm not around?]

~Nah. I got my own characters, I'm not gonna waste time on this fertilizer.~

+It was a good idea, though.+

[Shut up, Varx. I'm sorry I snapped at you, Jeft -]

~No problem. I'd've said stuff like that too if I thought you were gonna mess with my characters. You shoulda heard me when my stupid cousin Jeki ran my lesbian D'fernite Ealdo and got her pregnant—D'fernites have three sexes, but Ealdo's one of the baby-bearing kind, so she's a she. It took me forever to arrange an abortion. What I had to do was….~

[Uh, that's really, um, interesting….]


Like a man in a dream, Paul shut the door. "Oh, God, everything's coming apart," he murmured, angry at the paralysis that still gripped him, at Ringo for doing what he should have done, at George for being irresponsible, at Grynun, at Fi'ar, at John, at Lyndess.... He forced his thoughts away from this track and went to help George.

Stunned by what he'd done, Ringo stared at the old lady sprawled on the floor, chest moving just enough to assure a spark of life. Guilt? Not when his gaze traveled to the guitar gripped in his hands like a baseball bat, the knife buried up to its hilt in the side. His hands stung from the shock of the blow. Numbly he leaned the guitar against the wall again. "Is this mornin' really happenin'?" he asked plaintively.

"He doesn't seem to be hurt," Paul announced from where he knelt over George. "Come on, help me wake him up."

Ringo hesitated, imagining Grynun rising and chunking the knife into his back while he was distracted. "Oughtn't we tie her up or something?"

This made sense, but with only shoelaces available they could do nothing but dump her behind a bed and hope she wouldn't wake soon. Then they busied themselves with George, gently shaking and coaxing, until George mumbled "Mrumm... um?" He opened his eyes and stared dully up at his friends. Then: "Uh!" He twisted his head, looking around the room. " 's Fi'ar gone?" he mumbled. "She 'ttacked me, made me horny with some powder…."

"She's gone," Paul replied, quickly shelving an irritated Why did you do it? "We should go too, can you stand?"

George could—barely. His footing was none too steady, and he had to sit on the bed while he put his pants back on. "Oh God, it hurts...." George winced as he rubbed his head. "Feels like a hangover... Oh, lord!" He caught sight of Grynun's prone body and started to shake. "She was here? She knew? You killed her?"

"Yes, yes, no. Will you hurry up!"

And then the door opened and Remlar rushed in, entirely naked. "Mother, cease!" he bawled, a second before he realized he didn't have to. The stocky, bejeweled Arm stared at the foot poking out from behind the bed, at the three—mostly at George, and especially at George's crotch. "Killed you Grynun?" he whispered in horror.

"No! No! She's just knocked out!" Ringo said hastily.

"Listen," pleaded Paul, "it's not what it looks like, we were just trying to stop her from— "

Remlar heaved a deep, relieved sigh and held up a hand, whereby Paul fell silent. "I understand. Acted you in self-defense to save your friend. Please, put my mother on the bed." The Arm closed the door as they laid her out, and, after a quick check of her condition, he said quietly, urgently, "Terdan made my sister drunk and gave her the lust dust. And it was he, not me, who attacked the other bard. He do secretly be a Hiddenwizard and a Raleka. I have evidence. When Grynun wakes I will ask her to put you before a full Head-and-Arms Lawgiving. Then I can expose Terdan's treason before the Idri-body, and you will be forgiven."

Something about the man didn't rub Paul the right way, but he couldn't figure out what. "Why did he do these things to us?" he asked carefully. "What did we do to him?"

"Learned him that you preferred me as Idri-head—I will reward you for that—and decided him to take revenge on you and sully me in the same orbit." Remlar laughed nastily, making his nipple-rings jiggle. "Forgot him that I have as many spies as he has."

Paul didn't have a chance to ponder the implication of this statement, for the door burst open again to reveal an absolutely furious Terdan, wearing only a pair of trousers and looking like he'd just been roused from bed. "Treason!" he snapped, taking in the scene in a glance. "Listen not to the lies of this Hidden-Raleka, bards! Everything he blames on me, he did! All that he claims I am, he is!"

"Fishrot!" Grynun's son snarled at the taller man, their faces just inches apart. "Shall I lead them to your hidden magic-room?"

"Certainly! And Lyndess will confirm that every table, every half-finished spell within, shouts ‘Remlar’!"

"Who will Grynun believe—a god-exiled wizard who hates Ketafa, or her loyal daughter, who will remember that Terdan's hand gave her the lust dust?"

"Just as the bard will remember that Remlar's man enchanted him with metamorph powder!"

John told the truth, thought Paul.

"To no effect, it seems," Remlar said smugly, and Terdan scowled. The shorter Arm continued: "With you as Idri-head, Focan would be depopulated in your quest to eradicate the Raleka!"

"With you as Idri-head, the Raleka would take Focan while you sexed in your room and curled your chest hair!" Terdan sneered.





After that the argument grew too faint for the three to hear as they hustled downstairs, having seized their chance and snuck out of the room behind the Arms, Paul bringing his guitar, just in case.


Oh, was John nervous now. How could he have agreed to such a crazy thing? Two weeks of constant motion, never eating, sleeping, or even landing! Not that the idea of so much flying was entirely unpleasant... but now he could only recall the less enjoyable bits: his awkward landing, his long search for his cloak/shoes and glasses/trousers (thank GOD there had been a breeze to make the clothes flap so he could hear them), his hunger on the way back—his hunger now, for that matter. After several sausage rolls less than an hour ago? He reached through the open back of the chair and kneaded his stomach. "Right, I reckon I've changed more than just grown wings."

Lyndess smiled tolerantly. "The mirror told you that."

"No, I mean, I seem to have this enormous appetite."

"That was due to the energy your body used in changing. It only happens once."

"You should've told me stomach that after I flew. I was so hungry when I landed, I ate grass."

Instantly Lyndess was alert. "Ate grass?"

"Tasted dreadful, but it kept me goin' until I got back to the city. Then I had a few things in the market. I thought that'd fill me up, but.... " John grimaced. "If the wings had been a free lunch, I wouldn't be hungry."

"How much did you eat out there?" the woman demanded, real panic in her face. "Enough to normally satiate you?"

"Yeah," he answered warily, for he knew that wasn't what she wanted to hear. "Actually, the way I feel right now, I think I may have to eat as much at each meal as I ate when I woke up. Or eat all the time."

"Rot!" she shrieked. John was so startled by her sudden outburst that he almost fell off the chair. She whipped off her cap and threw it at him. "Curse you! Were you sent by Banare to torment me? To take my starveling hopes and feed them and then kill me?"

John awkwardly rose from the chair. "What's the matter?"

"Clean your brain, rustmind! A single spell of nourishment won't sate you, and I won't have enough strength to cast it multiple times on the journey!"

"What? Are you sure?" Simultaneous relief and disappointment welled up in him. Rather lamely he said, "Well, maybe we should go on a practice flight, you might've underestimated yourself."

"I know my limitations, deadbrain!" she wailed, burying her face in her hands. "So close! I could see Baravada through your eyes, and now...! Trapped, trapped!" She began to sob.

John looked vaguely around for a box of tissues. He wasn't good with crying women to begin with, and the rapid turn of events had left him a little bewildered—

Suddenly he jerked his head up, hearing something that reduced Lyndess to background noise: the shout of an incensed old woman, muffled by walls but magnified by the cavernous main hall:

"Kill the bards! Kill them, kill them!"

Pat on the words he heard three pairs of running feet, by the grace of God already outside the castle; and he dashed to the door and flung it open, saw the others haring past startled citizens and Idris who hadn't heard the command. Inside the castle he heard people scrambling around, thumping down stairs, yelling "Where are they? Saw you them?" Then he jumped back out of the others' way as they tumbled into the house, breathless and terrified. He slammed the door behind them, locked it, barked "What the fuck’s goin’ on?"

George moaned. Running had drained what little strength he'd had, and Ringo had to grab him before he fell.

For all his fright, Paul's tone was remarkably cool and even as he caught his breath and explained. "We'd just got outside when she started yelling. I reckon we'd best be off now," he said to Lyndess. Then he noticed her condition. "What's the matter?"

"Oh, Christ!" groaned John. "The fuckin' deal's off!"

"What? Why?"

"She won't be able to feed me! I eat too much now!"

Paul almost screamed, but mastered the impulse. "All right, then," he said softly, hoisting his guitar. He looked like Sgt. Hudson at Jallalabad, his face drawn and tight. "I know it's a cliché, but... not without a fight."

"Shut up!" barked John, hearing Idris streaming toward the house. He ran his fingers through his hair and looked frantically around. "Jesus, we're trapped like rats in here, we don’t dare go out to the fuckin' door in the wall - ah!" His gaze fell on the pile of inlaid plaques. "Lyn!" He rushed to the woman in a great flutter of cloak and grabbed her shoulders. As she slowly lifted her flushed and damp face, he cried into it, "Lyn, Lyn, you've gotta help us! There's ninety billion Idris out there who wanna kill us! You've gotta teleport us away, please, please!"

"What's… what?" the woman stammered. For a long moment she stood motionless, blinking at John—and then his request sank in, and her confusion shifted to rage. "I owe you nothing!" she screamed, and spat in his face.

"Hey!" he yelled, recoiling, and she slipped from under his hands and darted into her bedroom, slammed the door. The knob glowed briefly.

"Christ!" John dashed the back of his hand across the spit and raced to the bedroom door, rattled the doorknob, knocked hard. "Fuck you, Lyn, you can't do this to us! Let me in!"

POUND, POUND, POUND at the front door. "Lyndess!" barked a man outside. It sounded like Terdan. "The bards were seen entering here! Grynun wants them dead! Let us in!"

"Jesus Christ!" John delivered a savage kick to the bedroom door.

CRASH! The bedroom door burst open, sending bits of wood across the room and startling Lyndess into sitting up from where she had flopped across the bed.

John gaped at the wreckage of the door—he surely had not expected his kick to do that. Then, collecting himself, he ran to her and grabbed her by the arms, hauled her up. He raised his hand to slap her, but paused as the other three tumbled into the bedroom, their faces so white they looked dead already; and something shifted in him. His grip on the woman softened, and he babbled at her, "Please, Lyn, please! I'll do anything for you, I'll be your slave for life, I'll find some way to get you over -"

Resentful, accusing, she stared back at him; if his pleading was touching her, she wasn't letting him know.

Heavy thuds from the front door: the Idris were trying to break in.

"Nice knowing you," Paul whispered. "Didn't expect to go quite this way.…"

"I don't want to die here," George said brokenly. Ringo nodded, not quite believing that he could die in Ketafa; he would just awaken on Earth from a very bad nightmare.

"Fuck!" said John, letting go of the silent woman and looking around for some kind of weapon. Could he fly the others away? Escape through the chimney? Figure out how to activate the spell plaques? Why hadn’t they at least tried to slip out Lyndess’s private door?

Behind him, Lyndess said slowly, "I have a plan."

John whirled around to look at her, and the others crowded closer. “What, what is it?”

The wizard had a strange glimmer in her eyes, like a gambler about to risk it all on one hand of poker. "My plaques contain more than enough magic to transport five sars to Ta’akan under normal conditions. I was filling the plaques to the brim only because I hoped that putting maximum power behind the spell would overcome the curse. But another twenty-five days of power won’t add much to what’s already there. I’m going to try to send all of us to Ta’akan now. I suspect that you’ll go but I won’t. If that’s what occurs, then you must swear that when you arrive there you’ll put your quest for your world aside until I am rescued from Ketafa.” She stood up regally. “If you don’t swear so, I’ll let the Idris have you.”

They would have promised much more to escape the coming slaughter. Better a delayed return than none at all! So the four swore by God, Krishna, Yoko, Elvis, everything they could think of that they would break their asses to get Lyndess out of Ketafa.

She sighed, then said “Sharp. Stand there," and pointed at a clear space on the floor. The four gathered there at lightspeed.

Wincing at the sound of metal shrieking—one of the hinges on the front door was giving way—but otherwise unconcerned by the Idri invasion, Lyndess went to get the teleport plaques. When she returned with the pile, she had the four press as tightly together as possible—John had to stand with his back facing outward, and Paul had to put his guitar between his legs—and arranged the plaques in a wide circle around them. Stepping into the empty part of the circle, she fumbled under her cloak and unhooked a clinking beltpouch, which she handed to Ringo, saying, "If I arrive with you, return it to me when we appear. If not, you’ll need this to live. I suggest you start by looking for my friends, who’ll have resources that you don’t have." She rattled off some names. "I don't know if they're still there. They may have gone seeking. Ask at the skahs taverns. If you find them, tell them I'm here and how I must be rescued."

A door crashed; people shouted in anger and triumph. "Find your friends?" a distracted Paul repeated.

"If they’re gone you’ll have to find some other means of rescuing me. Such as restoring the real Vasyn so I can make my apologies to Banare." Lyndess chuckled bitterly. “I think finding my friends will be easier.”

She spread her arms so she was touching John and George, closed her eyes, and began breathing as if she were giving birth.

Silver columns of light blazed up from the plaques, pulsing as Lyndess inhaled and exhaled. It was gorgeous, powerful, blinding, and alien, and it scared the hell out of the four.

It also froze in place Terdan and Remlar, at the head of a mob of Idris that had spilled into the house and Lyndess’s bedroom. The Arms shielded their eyes from the glare with hands that held pistols. "What are you doing?" Terdan snapped.

"I'm killing them for you," Lyndess grunted. "Don't interrupt or you'll die too."

"No! Wait!" cried Ringo.

"Don't!" shouted Paul.

George just stared at Lyndess.

And John thought, That was kind of clever of her, actually.

The silver light engulfed them.




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