Grunnel had a few more (anticlimactic) things to show the four when they emerged from the treasure cellar, pockets stuffed with coins and Ringo sporting a matched set of three platinum-and-sapphire rings that fit him perfectly. In the corner of the kitchen opposite the trap door stood what appeared to be a pink granite chopping block, about waist-high. Each Earthman had to lay his hand on the blocks cool smooth surface for five seconds, which, according to Grunnel, keyed them to the houses protective spells so they could open the front door and windows without being killed. Of course, his statement instantly made the four crazy, as none of them had felt anything special, any confirming tingle or surge of power, while touching the stone. They pestered Grunnel constantly with Are you sure? until, in an uncharacteristic display of impatience, he grabbed Georges hand (he was surprisingly strongno surprise, actually, given how easily he'd tackled the stairs) and slapped it against the front door, snapping Are you dead? George had to concede that he wasnt.
The man next took the four down the forest path, showing them that it connected to a road that led warm (down the coast, presumably south) to farms and, eventually, Taakan, and cold (up the coast, presumably north) to wild-looking higher country. If you dont want to walk to Taakan, said Grunnel, the naba-aban comes past and will take you there and bring you back for two golds each way. There it is now. He pointed to a four-horse wagon just visible on the warm end of the road.
Walking more than five miles to the city and back didnt appeal to the four, but the naba-aban didnt look terribly attractive either. Cant we use the boat, then? Ringo asked.
After Ive taught you how to use it, the man promised. Suddenly he jerked his left hand up. One of the rings he wore had started to vibrate. He watched it for a moment, then nodded. Olyrr-sars, Im summoned early to the Temple of Ardav. I have to travel there quickly to learn what job they have for meas I told you, I help maintain the spells that make Taakan more comfortable.
You mean like the hot tubs in that gold hotel? said Ringo.
The baths at the dead Golden Pillow? I dont maintain those; another of Ardavs sansars does, a water wizard. I'm an illusionist. I resurrect the lights on the streets and in some of the deserted buildings. Grunnel made a face. Its a dull task, but Id rather kill time performing it than sit endlessly in the taverns or fight other skahs to no purpose. Er-ho, have I forgotten to tell you anything? Hmmm . Choose bedrooms for yourselves dont go into our bedrooms .
Wouldnt dream of it, said Paul.
Wouldntthats a pleasant expression, I must remember it. Hmmm . Youre keyed to the house you know where the money is . ah! We have prepared food delivered from the Travelers Delight inn, warm the road. You can buy and cook your food, if you prefer, or you can stop at the Travelers and increase the amount they deliver.
Do they deliver vegetarian meals? Paul asked eagerly.
What are those? But the wizard held up a hand as Paul started to explain. Sar, tell me later. I could meet the years death speaking with you, but the temple wants me now. I dont know when Ill return; if too many lights are dying, its easier to sleep in Taakan than to return here. But Astaris will be back by sundeath. You can ask sar any questions you might have.
On that dubious note, Grunnel put his hand on his belt pouch, furrowed his brow in concentration*pop*! He vanished, air rushing into the space hed occupied and stirring up a little whirlwind of leaves. The four were badly startled by the wizards abrupt disappearance, but they recovered pretty rapidly; they were beginning to get used to Taakan and its magical ways.
The hell with the boat! said Ringo, admiring the empty space where Grunnel had been. Lets get him to teach us that!
Almost before Grunnels leaf litter had finished settling to the ground, the four were running for the naba-aban. No way were they going to be hanging around the house when they had a city of wonders to explore and unlimited funds to make it even more interesting!
The wagon was much more comfortable than theyd expected, with cushioned seats along the sides and clean multicolored rugs on the floor. Either because of good suspension or good magic, it didnt jounce at all but drove as smoothly as a Rolls-Royce on ice. Along the way to Taakan, they picked up half a dozen long-haired tirin armed with baskets for the days shopping. Every one of these individuals asked the four the usual question, and every one ignored the four when they admitted to having nothing for sale.
For an extra couple of coins, the female tirin driver waited for the four when she stopped for passengers at the Travelers Delight, which was about two miles down the road from Grunnels house. To much relief there were plenty of nonmeat items available, though Paul and John had a brief tiff when Paul tried to place an all-vegetarian order and John insisted that his triple portions contain lots of meat. John had become an omnivore with a vengeance, and the why of it was too touchy an issue to bring up, so Paul backed down. Still, they didnt talk to one another much until they got to Taakan.
The naba-aban dropped its passengers off right at the boundary between Almost and Old, in an area with many occupied buildings and the Stomach nearby. And off they went shopping!
They left a number of shop owners dazed by the speed at which they could spend money on clothing, shoes, candy, magic, magic, and magic. They all but cleaned out "Laetar's Tirin Magic Shop"; spoons that reddened on contact with poison, fire- and extinguish-stones, always-warm bowls, always-cool cups, healing potions... if it had a spell on it, they bought it.
They discovered, rather to their dismay, that Baravadans had no concept of underclothes, though they were easily able to get magic brushes that automatically cleaned clothing, so at least they could look forward to some mileage out of the sole pair of boxers each had.
And the others had to pry George out of a gardening store, cradling a bag of mixed flower seeds and babbling "They're totally new kinds! I'll be the only one in the whole world to have them!"
During their peregrinations they encountered Astaris, watching street fights along with the usual skahs crowd. As two women feinted and lunged and never quite hit each other, the teenage elf squatted close by, watching their feet with complete concentration. When the four drew closer, they saw his lips moving, though whether he was providing himself a running commentary on the fight, taunting the combatants, or just twitching his mouth in excitement, they couldnt tell.
When the fight ended after one woman pinked the other in the arm, Astaris stood up and glared around, looking into every skahss eyes. But everyone who met his glance said No, or Not this day, or just ignored him as they turned away from him and moved to another fight that was just starting up. It was easy enough to figure out that the elf had been trying to get someone to fight him, despite Grunnel's admonition to the contrary, but it was hard to understand why the other skahs were refusing him; no one seemed angry, mocking, or condescending, just uninterested.
Astaris stood where he was for a few moments, staring at the ground, hands clenched, body trembling from the effort of that clenching. Then he relaxed slowly, and his gaze traveled up to meet those of the four. Again, he said nothing, and his face contorted in frustration and anger for a moment, then hardened into pride as he spun on his heel as gracefully as a ballet dancer and trotted over to watch the new fight.
I bet he does this every day, said Ringo.
He's got to be lonely, said Paul. There's hardly anyone his age round here.
Oh, well, that was his problem; and they resumed their shopping, though by this time their pocket money had mostly run out and they were reduced to looking, which was all right with them, because the sun was beginning to set, and as yet they werent comfortable enough in Taakan to want to prowl around at night. They used the last of the days funds to buy prepared food at the Stomach, and they ate it on the leisurely naba-aban ride back to the house, feeling relaxed for the first time since theyd come to Chou.
Their mood was almost spoiled, though when they emerged from the forest into the clearing around the house, they saw Astaris shoot an arrow into the breast of a large black bird that was flying over the lawn. They cried out in disgust and indignation at this horror, then fell silent as the bird kept flitting about as if nothing had happened. Two more arrows thunked into it in rapid succession, and still it flew, and the four finally realized that it was a magically animated target. They were still pretty shaken by it, though, and none of them could bring themselves to greet the elf.
For his part, Astaris gave the four a brief, annoyed glance, then resumed his shooting. He was quite good; nine arrows shot found a spot on the target, with a tenth arcing past the thing and burying itself in the grass near the edge of the forest. At this point Astaris whistled, and all the arrows fell out of the target, which now sped up a little, flying a little more erratically.
Wishing only to avoid the young elf, the four half-ran behind him to the front door of the house, bumping each other with their packages in their haste. Astaris shot one more arrow into the target before pivoting to watch as John reached for the doorknob. His face fell when John didnt drop dead; with a sullen growl of Dont go into my bedroom, he resumed his archery.
Glad to be alone again, the four chose their bedrooms from the five remaining and spent the evening talking and playing with their magical toys. Eventually they went to bed feeling comfortable and relatively hopeful; at least the problem of day-to-day existence had been solved pretty definitively.
After a good nights sleepexcept John, who had barely sleptand an awakening to a gorgeous morning, they donned their new Taakanian clothes, colorful and silkyexcept John, who came down in the same drawstring pants and magic cloak hed worn for several days. To their considerable pleasure, Astaris had already left for the day, but Grunnel had come home. The wizard was eager to chat, and they spent the morning around the big table talking about Earth, trading unfamiliar concepts, and generally getting to know and like each other. Except John, who spent most of his time gobbling down food delivered earlier that morning. Even when he wasn't eating, he didn't talk much; he seemed a bit abstracted, with his gaze settling on some imaginary far point every few minutes.
They conversed on such subjects as technology, music, human rights, animal rights, religion, politics, sports, entertainment, even transportation. Grunnel was fascinated by what he termed Earth magic, such as planes and radio, but he couldnt grasp how more than a handful of people could work together toward the same goal; elections and politics were such foreign concepts to him that the four had to give up trying to find the words to explain them; and nothing Paul could say to him could make him believe that animals, and by extension monsters, were deserving of respect and had as much a right to life as sars did.
In return, Grunnel told them more about Baravadan culture and ethics: no skahs would ever harm a tirin because no tirin could put up enough of a fight to make the conflict entertaining; nothing was forbidden, taboo, or sinful (the illusionist barely understood the first term and had no conception of the others), though if you did harm to someone you could expect retaliation from that person and their friends; marriage was one of those archaic terms; and the gods authority was limited to those who freely chose to work for them, and even then the gods didnt punish anyone who didnt push their patience to the limit. Apparently, Lyndess had been warned five times before Banare got fed up and exiled her.
Around noon (or sunspear), Grunnel suggested that they go to the Temple of Ardav to see if the god would send the four home. This had the effect of simultaneously reminding the four about their predicament (just when they'd managed to back-burner it for the first time), and throwing a bit of terror into them at the prospect of really speaking with a god. But it was the only lead they had, so they plucked up their courage and agreed. Ringo hoped Grunnel would teleport them to the city, but the illusionist couldn't affect much more than himself and wanted to take the boat anyway, so back to the cliff stairs they wentit was twice as nerve-wracking going down, and not much less exhausting. John went last and stood on the first step for a few minutes, staring out at the horizon with his thumbs hooked in his waistband, before clattering down to catch up with the others.
As soon as the boat had pulled away from the beach and started on its journey to Taakan, Grunnel resumed his conversation with the four. Rather, with the three; John stared into the sky a lot and replied to anything said to him with short sentences or even monosyllables. He didnt seem to be in a bad mooda faint smile played about his lips most of the timeso the others let him alone and took up the slack.
The conversation didn't die down until they were standing in front of the Temple. It was a small, brown, wooden, square building about the size of a McDonald's, fantastically decorated with silver-inlaid curlicues and abstract designs reminiscent of those on Lyndess's teleport plaques and John's cloak. Grunnel stepped up to the ornately carved door and looked back at the others expectantly.
The four had done many peculiar things in their lives, but talking to a real god was way outside their ken. Their collective nerve failed. I'd better not go in, said Paul, imagining that lightning blast again. You know how I feel about this stuff....
D'ye reckon he heard what I said back at Stal's? said John, glancing nervously at the sky above the building.
You go, Ringo said to George. He should like you.
George was none too happy about facing the god alone, but he squared his shoulders, took a huge breath, and marched towards Grunnel, trying hard not to project the aura of a man going to the electric chair.
Grunnel didn't even ask why the others weren't coming, just pushed the door open and trotted in. George followed, to find himself in a pleasantly furnished room that looked very much like the waiting room of a prosperous doctor, complete with silver-upholstered chairs, plants, crappy paintings on the walls, desk, secretary, and filing cabinet. All it lacked was magazines. It didn't look in the least holy or religious. If Ardav had a special symbol beyond the color silver, it was nowhere in evidence.
As George reflected that the Baravadans had an amazingly mundane attitude towards their gods, Grunnel said to him, I have to talk to the assignment sansar. You speak to Taradas at the desk. Tell sar what you need. After which he disappeared through a door to the right.
The nature of the room had calmed George down a bit, but he was still extremely nervous as he approached the desk. Taradas, a thirty-something tirin woman with loose black hair down to her waist and a silver chain around her neck, had been watching him since he came in. She greeted him with I don't know that any olyrr-sars have ever come here. What do you want from Ardav?
Er.... George stammered. Look fear in the face, look fear in the face! I'm... I mean, me friends and I... we... we're stranded here from our world, we didn't come here under our own power, we don't know why we're here, and, uh, we'd like to go home, please.
Taradas wrote all this down. You want Ardav to break universes to send you home.
Yeah, I guess. He fidgeted nervously. Look, I don't know if this makes a difference, but I don't worship Ardav... none of us do....
The woman gave him a funny look. You don't what Ardav?
Uh.... George was thrown; that was not a word he'd expected her to have trouble with. Um, pray to, obey, follow.... She continued to look at him blankly. In some frustration he said, You really don't know what I mean?
I don't think I do. Unimportant. You have an interesting problem. She gestured at a chair. Sit there. I'll take this to Ma'ar.
George plumped down obediently as Taradas went through a door just to the left of her desk. As he waited in what turned out to be an extremely comfortable chairthe folks in this city really liked their creature comfortshe began to wonder if maybe these gods weren't really gods after all. He didn't doubt that there was something, or some things, calling themselves gods; everyone' assertions about them were too matter-of-fact to believe otherwise. Maybe this was one of those weird science-fiction situations where some people had set themselves up as gods but couldn't really do anything miraculous besides fire a laser or beam people up to their spaceships. Otherwise, how could there be gods without worship or prayer involved? Gods that spoke directly to you and took your money (or whatever) to get things done? Gods that placed people in jobs? They sounded like an employment agency-cum-shopping mall. Still, if this god could send the four home, who cared what it really was?
George mused on the subject for about ten minutes before the door opened again and Taradas came back out. Sitting down, she said, Olyrr-sar, Ma'ar has sent your request. Small time will die before Ardav responds to sar. If you can't wait we'll send a message to you.
Oh? Both relieved and disappointed, George stood up. I thoughtI mean... I had heard.... doesn't he want to talk to me directly?
The woman shrugged. If godsar decides to help you. If your request's denied, there would be no need.
Leaving was tempting, but.... I'll wait. I have to go out and speak with me friends, though. The woman didn't care, so George went outside to find Paul and Ringo people-watching and John gazing up at the sky while eating a sandwich. He related what had happened so far and tried to get them to come in with him, but again they refused, even when he emphasized the temple's businesslike atmosphere. Feeling both annoyed at them and somewhat superior, he went inside again and sat back down. He was going to meditate for the duration but was corralled by Grunnel, finished with his business and full of questions as usual. The illusionist wanted to hear more about that strange animal television, which turned out to be an excellent distraction for George.
He was just starting to explain about sitcoms when the door near Taradas opened and a short, rather fat tirin elf woman came out. She had notably long silver fingernails. You're George? she said. I'm Ma'ar. You have an interesting problem. Ardav will speak with you. Come.
All of George's fear came rushing back, but this time it was tempered with hope, for hadn't Taradas said that the god would speak with him if he could help? Grunnel got up and went outside, presumably to chat with the others, and George (after another big breath) followed Ma'ar through the door.
The walls of the small room they entered were entirely covered with silver leaf, but George only had eyes for the softly glowing, slightly transparent, androgynous humanoid figure sitting in a chair in the center of the room. It wasn't beautiful, or wise-looking, or anything much; it just was. Still, George froze.
Why are you standing there? Ma'ar said, annoyed. Ardav's time is valuable.
Oh, sorry! Sorry! Sorry! George lurched into the room. I'm so sorry!
A strange staccato hissing noise issued from the glowing figure. Was it laughing? Impossible to tell. Then it said in a high, emotionless tenor, Olyrr-sar, sit.
Eyes locked on the figure, George scrambled into the nearest chair and sat rigidly. Ma'ar sat in another.
Ma'ar told me of your problem. It is an interesting problem.
Rapt, nodding, George couldn't help but wonder if It is an interesting problem was some kind of mantra for Ardav and his (her?) followers; he'd now heard it four times.
I don't know if I can help you.
Ma'ar made a little grunt of surprise. Clearly, this was not a standard answer. In any event, it wasn't what George had been hoping to hear.
I don't know if I can restore you to your own universe.
You don't? George said unhappily. He hadn't meant to talk, certainly not to say anything that might be construed as critical of the god, but the words slipped out anyway.
Ardav, however, didn't seem to notice or care. I do have the ability to break universes. I could bring you to the Dalns universe. That would not solve your problem.
The difficulty is that I do not know the... position of your universe. I cannot send you there without that information.
Oh. George could feel his heart sinking into his feet.
I know you are incapable of giving me that information.
Yeah.... He wanted to burst into tears.
The god stirred in its chair. Do not despair yet. There is a slight possibility that my... researches can supply the necessary information.
George perked up a bit. There is?
Yes. It may be possible to trace a path back to your universe based on your entry point into this one.
What will the fee for this research be? Ma'ar piped up.
I will perform this research for no fee because it interests me, and because the knowledge I will gain from it will benefit me regardless of the result.
Ma'ar looked stunned.
If I do find a way to return you to your universe, we will discuss a fee at that time.
Thank you! Thank you! George cried. It wasn't much, but at least it was something.
This research will take an unknown amount of time. The Temple will contact you when I arrive at a conclusion.
And with that, Ardav faded away.
Ma'ar gazed at George with new respect. Olyrr-sar, I have never heard Ardav speak as godsar did. I have never known godsar to work without payment.
Really? George was still a bit mesmerized by the god's empty chair. As he came back to himself, he found he was damp with sweat. I suppose I must have really interested him, then.
Your problem did. Come sex with me.
That came totally out of left field. Eh?
I've never sexed with an olyrr-sar. Ma'ar began to remove her clothing. Call your friends and Grunnel in and we'll enjoy one another.
She wasn't unattractive, though she was a bit chubby for George's taste, but he wasn't particularly in the mood, and he really wanted to tell the others about his encounter with Ardav. And did he really want to cheat on Olivia? On the other hand, did he dare refuse Ma'ar's advances? She seemed to be a person of some importance to Ardav, and would he be jeopardizing the god's goodwill, i.e., their chances of getting home, if he turned her down?
It really wasn't that difficult a decision. Okay, he said, starting to remove his shirt, but if you don't mind, let's leave the others out of it for now.
She didn't mind.
It was an exhausted and disheveled George who rejoined the others about twenty minutes later. Sorry it took so long, but
Ringo cut him off with a delighted Ha! We know why. Grun said she was a nympho.
George gave the illusionist a bleak glance. You might've warned me. I think she carved her name in me back with her nails.
Took one for the team, did you? grinned Paul.
Grunnel gazed back at George with that innocent-mischievous look he'd used on them at the top of the cliff. Pain adds spice to sex, He chuckled. Ma'ar uses a dagger on me. Sar's the most dangerous tirin I know.
You've been branded, me lad, John said, playful for once that day.
Yeah, well, you will be too, George said sourly, she said she's gonna have all of us eventually. Right, let's just shut up about this so I can tell you what happened with Ardav.
As he talked of the encounter, he realized he was unable to actually describe the god beyond Hesheitwas a person. When he tried to recall any of Ardav's physical details, he remembered only something akin to a dressmaker's dummy. (A very subtle and beautiful flame of magic, explained Grunnel. One of the many spells the gods can cast that Baravadans can't.) But he recalled the god's words well enough.
Grunnel was almost as stunned as Ma'ar by Ardav's willingness to work for free, but the others were pretty dismayed by the result. That's the best we can hope for? exclaimed John. What do we do if it turns out he can't help us, then?
At least it's a bit of hope, Paul pointed out, though even he couldn't muster up much enthusiasm. And at least we have a decent place to stay while we wait.
Thank you, John said rather ungraciously to Grunnel. He turned away and started looking up at the sky again.
Ringo asked Grunnel, How long will it take until he gets back to us?
The illusionist shook his head. This is very different. I never knew that godsar did research. I can't estimate the time it could burn.
Splendid, muttered John.
Considerably dispirited, they decamped to the nearest restaurant for a late lunch and a lot of booze. Grunnel tried as usual to get them talking about Earth, but when it became clear they were more set on getting drunk than conversing, he recommended a drink called, plainly enough, Happy Wine. It'll cheer you without fogging your brains, but have healing potions ready at sunbirth, or you'll want to be dead. Of course that wasn't the point of drinking for them, but (because misery is really not fun) they took his advice and ordered the wine. Sure enough, it perked them all upexcept John, who drank quantities of it without noticeable effect on his mood. In fact, if he'd been quiet before, he was positively inaudible now, aside from the sounds of eating. After he finished, he excused himself to go take a pee, but he was gone for a long time; and everyone finally went to look for him, only to discover that hed been pacing back and forth behind the restaurant, staring up at the sky. When they asked what the matter was, he merely said,
I feel premenstrual.
Although this got a laugh, it wasnt much of an answer. Dye wanna go back to the house, then? asked Paul.
John contemplated a fat, fluffy cloud. Yeah. You lads stay heredidnt mean to spoil your day.
But the others were worried about him now, and they insisted on accompanying him back, which seemed to annoy him, though he didnt say anything about it. Grunnel apologetically asked them to take the naba-aban, as he needed to stay in town to pick up some supplies, which he had to bring home in the boat. So, after making a quick stop in a nearby store for a large supply of healing potions and some random sundries, they went in search of the naba-aban and hopped on when it arrived.
In the cart, by unspoken agreement, the others left John to his own devices, knowing that to force the issue was to assure no answer (and, by now, having an inkling of what might be bothering him, but not wanting to go there). Instead, hoping to draw him out by talking about interesting stuff, they discussed the things theyd learned from Grunnel that day, especially the public works performed by the various temples. Although the gods'... followers? Adherents? Employees? did most of the work for free, the temple occasionally sent out collectors to request money from the populace. If enough cash came in, the municipal spells continued to be cast. If the amount wasnt sufficient, the Ta'akanians suffered through dark nights, befouled wells, and mounting garbage on the streets until they got tired of the inconvenience and paid to restore services.
They were still discussing the implications of this system when they were dropped off.
"The thing is, I don't think voluntary taxation'd work on Earth," Paul said as they walked through the forest to the house. "There's just too many people who don't look far enough ahead and see the problems that'd come up if they didn't pay."
"But if they stopped the schools and the hospitals and everything else for a couple of days, people would start to realize it," argued George. "Wouldn't you rather pick and choose what you pay taxes into? We could make all the crap vanish just by not paying for it. We could get rid of armies and useless government rubbish and
"I would, but the trouble is, there's lots of good stuff that needs money, and what happens to the poor if the rich decide not to pay that month?" Paul looked at John to see if he had anything to add, but John didnt seem to have been listening. He was walking a few paces ahead of the others.
Ringo, whose interest in this topic had been exhausted some miles back, took a glowstone from his canvas shopping bag and closed his fist around it so that light sprayed from between his fingers. "I wouldntve believed Idve been bored by magic, but man, this stuff is trivial. Its really not much different from technology stuff. Just the power source is different. Still, d'ye think we can take any of it back with us?"
Paul shrugged. "I dunno. You read stories where a chap brings technology to a magic place and it doesn't work, and vice versabut wouldn't it be smashing if we could?" He grinned.
John stopped suddenly, forcing the others to stop as well or plow into him. He turned to face them and said, with a tiny smile, I'll have to.
There it was.
The tension level among the four skyrocketed. Paul attempted to bring it down with a little chuckle. "Dont worry, I'm sure you'll find some way to get fixed up. They've got just about everything here, yknow."
Johns smile faded away. "I don't need fixin' up, Paul," he said softly.
Dismay crept into Pauls voice. Oh, come on, you're never going back like that."
"I am." Leaf-shadows bobbed on Johns reddening face. His hands tightened on the bag he was carrying.
Paul was definitely alarmed now. "Be reasonable, man. If you show up on Earth like that, a hundred scientists'll take you apart. They'll put you in a bloody jar. You've got to have them removed."
"The fuck I do!" John erupted, throwing his bag at Pauls chest. Luckily there wasn't much in it and didn't hurt, though Paul staggered back a few steps as the bag slid down his body and softly plopped to the ground. "How dare you even suggest such a thing! John screamed. Jesus fuckin' Christ! You can't stand it that you can't fly, so you try to fix it so I can't! Well, piss off! Leave me alone!"
John tore his cloak off and flung it on the ground at Pauls feet, then turned around, waggled his wings at him, and stomped towards the cliff. The others watched in mounting horror as that wrong body with John's head on it, which had been kept safely out of their minds by the black cloak but was now back to disturb them, approached the edgeand sat, kerplunk! on the ground, hugging his knees, staring at the sky.
Paul mopped his forehead with a shaking hand. "Oh God, God, I thought he might really jump off."
George had the horrid thought that John looked more like a god than Ardav had, but he kept that one firmly to himself.
"I don't wanna see him fly," said Ringo, looking at the ground. "I really don't."
"If I thought he could I wouldn't have been so scared." Paul picked up John's package but left the cloak where it lay.
"You don't think he can?"
"Nuh-uh. You can't put wings on a man and expect him to fly, y'know. He's balanced wrong. That's why that deal with Lyndess didn't work out. He probably cracked when he first got the wingscan't blame himand decided he could fly. He led Lyndess on as long as he could, but she figured it out in the end. And deep down he knows they're useless," Paul added. "That's why he wasn't crazy enough to jump off now. Believe me, if he could fly, he'd've been doing it since we got here."
Ringo gazed at the still, exotic figure, dark against the blue of the sky and ocean. "Should we do anythin', then?"
"No, let him come to us. That'll mean he's ready for some help."
John heard every word, and if he hadn't been speechless with rage and longing he would have explained that no, he wasn't crazy enough to jump off the cliff, not for any of Paul's stupid reasons, but because it was too low. How far had he fallen that night before he caught the wind? An eighth of a mile at least. And this cliff was probably no more than a hundred feet high. He was going nuts with the yearning to flyall day the desire had been building, the claustrophobia mounting, until he couldnt keep up the pretense of civility any longerbut he was not suicidal.
He also hadnt slept much in three days, because the same ears that allowed him to hear the conversation fifty yards away were also real good at picking up and magnifying every stupid trivial sound into a cacophonous choir that woke him every time he started to doze off. When awake, he could regulate the noises somewhat, focus on the important ones and tune out the trash, but this ability fled as soon as his consciousness did. Healing potions removed the physical discomfort of sleeplessness but left him with pervasive exhaustion and an emotional fragility that were probably contributing to his moodflight-fever, for lack of a better term.
Anyway, he would never forgive Paul, never stop hating him for what he'd tried to take away and for being so right, so damnably, painfully right; he could not return to Earth with wings.
[I can't look. Is it working?]
~Course it is. It wasn't a fatal bug, just a glitch in the program. It'll take a moment for the picture to come up, but all the indicators are on, see?~
[Phew. How much time passed? Oh, Gods, almost two C'hovite days. What did they do for all that time? Are they all right?]
+All alive and uninjured.+
[I see that, but mental trauma doesn't show on the status board.]
+Shag, would you watch your tail? You keep whapping my legs.+
[Sorry. Oh, why doesn't that picture hurry up?]
+Really, you worry too much about them. They're pretty competent, at least to the extent of staying out of fights.+
~Here comes the picture!~
[Get your head out of the way, Jeoh! oh, Oh, OH, OH! What from the Seven Holes of Hell is THAT?]
Midnight, or thereabouts. Naked, Paul lay on his bed, hands clasped behind his head, knees thrust into the air. He couldn't sleep for thinking; a nasty idea nagged at him. He might not go back with us. If he has to choose between Earth and those wingsPaul was going to change the name of his band the second he got homewould he stay?
He propped himself higher on the pillows. If he does stay, how will we explain it to Yoko and everyone? (For that matter, they were going to have fun explaining where they'd been and why they were young. But that was irrelevant right now.) Oh, sorry, he grew wings and stayed behind. Right. God, they might think we killed him or something. I know I would.
At least that crazy elf didnt freak out when he saw John. Indeed, Astaris had given John one long look and gone about his own business. That wouldve been all we neededhim thinking John was a monster and attacking him. He's horny for fighting. Man, these people are weird. I can't wait to get out of here.
A glimmer of hope: Maybe John'll come to his senses. Maybe we can get someone to convince him he can't fly, like Grunnel, who ought to knowI guess he had to stay in town tonightor maybe we could slip him a mickey and have the wings removed while he's under.
Paul shifted guiltily. He'd hate me for the rest of his life. But which is worse, that or him getting carved up in a lab? Or worshiped? Now there's a lovely thought! Some religious Beatles fan -
That one he heard. What the hell was that? He sat up and peered into the gloom, right hand fumbling for the cover of the always-lantern on the nightstand by his bed. Sounds like my guitar is sliding down the wall.
He got the cover off the lantern. Light flooded the room. The guitar wasnt sliding down the wall; it was three feet from the wall, straight up, and sliding along the floor.
He stared at it, rubbed his eyes, stared at it again.
No, the angle wasn't deceiving him.
The damned thing was coming towards his bed!
Paul froze, barely breathing. What the fuck? Is it haunted? Jesus, its haunted! His hands gripped the blanket tighter and tighter as the instrument approached.
It stopped and rotated, bobbing back and forth as if looking for something. When it faced Paul it snapped straight up, then jerked to a start again, approaching the bed purposefully.
Help, thought Paul, too frightened to scream. He began to inch to the other side of the bed.
Closer and closer it came, three feet from the bedtwo feetone foothalf a foot(Paul teetered on the edge of the bed now)
and it halted, apparently thwarted by the height of the bed.
Paul held his breath.
Noiselessly the guitar rose into the air, glided over the mattress, and settled itself next to Paul.
"Yaagh!" Paul toppled off the bed, yanking the cover with him. The guitar slid across with the cover and jutted over the side of the bed, looming over Paul like the fist of God.
Unparalyzed, Paul scrambled away on hands and knees, then sprang up and wrenched his door open and lurched out of the room. Was it following him? He dared a peek back. It hadn't moved from the bed. "Jesus!" he panted, leaning against the wall as he shuddered with fear and nervous laughter. "What a crazy thing. Jesus!"
A door creaked. Paul twisted round violently, but it was only Ringo standing in his doorway, clad in his underpants. "Paul?" he whispered. "Are you okay? I heard you fall - "
"The guitar jumped into bed with me," Paul said, and he outlined what happened.
Ringo listened sleepily. "You sure it wasn't a nightmare?"
"It's in me bed now, if you'd care to look."
So Ringo looked, and there it was, and he scratched his stubbly chin and said "Well, that's weird."
"I know," Paul snapped, testy now that the shock had passed.
"Did it try to hit you, then?"
"I didn't stay long enough to find out." Cautiously Paul poked the instrument, but it was as inert as it was supposed to be.
Ringo yawned. "Maybe that crazy elf is playin a joke on you."
"Why? He doesnt seem to give a shit about us."
"Maybe hes tryin to scare us away. Look, Paul, I'm real tired, I can't deal with this right now, can we discuss it in the mornin'?"
What if it starts up again?
Go tell Ass to stop it, I guess. And wake me up. Id like to see it.
Ringo shuffled back to his room while Paul wondered if Astaris really had been responsible for the whole episode. It was such a crazy, pointless thing to dobut then, the Baravadans definitely had different criteria for sanity. Still, the elfs bedroom door was shut; and when Paul crept over to listen at it, he could hear lusty snoring. Unless Astariss prank was really elaborate, he likely wasnt responsible. Could it have been Grunnel, who had already pulled several jokes on them? Unlikely; the illusionist wasnt even home to enjoy the results.
So. What was going on? Still tense, Paul hovered in the hallway outside his room for a while, trying either to get up the nerve to go back in or to spend the night on the couch in the big, empty, shadowy, drafty main room downstairs. Dammit, why didnt he ask Ringo if he could stay in his room? He really, really wished Grunnel had come home for the evening.
Finally he forced himself back into his room. However, there was no way he was falling asleep or even getting back into bed. Grimly, he sat himself down in a chair and stared at the bed. If that guitar moved so much as a millimeter, he was going to yell loud enough for them to hear him back on Earth.
Some hours later, as the first feeble smear of dawn lit the sky, a gentle internal tugging awakened George, lying with his face buried in the pillow. "Mmph," he mumbled. "Damn." He had to pee. And he just didnt feel like wandering around the house. Think I'll just pee out the window, he thought sleepily. He pushed himself
No, he did not push himself up. He pushed through empty air, his arm going straight down. Startled into more wakefulness, he drew it back up. Man, I'm closer to the edge of the bed than I thought. He slid his right leg off the side of the -
Where's the side of the bed? His leg jutted out as far as he could stretch it, and it wouldn't fall. George groped for the bed's edge,
and his hand slid under his thigh and dangled loosely.
There was nothing under his leg except air.
But his leg wasn't falling.
With his other hand George pushed on the pillow. That seemed solid enough; what was going on? He propped himself up, elbows on the pillow, and clunk! "Ow!" He rubbed his head, looking angrily at the ceiling.
Refusing to comprehend, George goggled at it and then he felt his blanket slip off him and *plooomph* fall down.
His eyes were going to stay exactly where they were, he was going to look at the ceiling until everything became normal again, his head turned, nonono, stopitstopit, look down there the floor and the night table and the blanket and the bed he was floating six feet above the bed.
George yipped and tried to hurl all of himself on the pillow, but his legs flailed about, finding no purchase. In a panic he thrust his knees down, something stopped existing, and his lower half dropped! "Aaaaah!" he shrieked, clutching the pillow for dear life as he swung down like Tarzan on a vine. His feet slammed into the wall, pain lanced up his ankles, and he swung back, shuddered to a stop.
For one timeless moment George hung from a pillow suspended in mid-air. Then:
"GET ME DOWWWN!" Urine ran down his legs, soaking his underpants and dripping on the bed, but he hardly noticed as he thrashed, a hooked fish on an invisible line. "GET ME DOWWWN!"
The pillow gave way! George dropped, landed on the bed on the balls of his feet, and bounced forward into the wall; only the pillow saved him from a bloody nose. Stunned, he slid down the wall on the pillow, landing on his knees.
His door burst open and people rushed in, crowded round, turned on the light. "What happened? Are you hurt?" (Ringo) "Did something get into bed with you?" (Paul) "Whyre you so noisy, tirin?" (Astaris)
George couldn't answer; he knelt pressed against the wall with his face buried in the pillow. "I'm down," he whispered, looking slowly back at the mass of people, the naked elf and the other two. His marbles, scattered but not lost, began rolling back to their assigned places. "Did you see?" he said to the air. "I was floating."
"Theres something in this house!" Paul said triumphantly to Ringo as they helped George into a chair. It had tove been the same thing that moved the guitar!
Before Ringo could reply, Astaris swung around to them. For once he was animated. "Something else happened?" he demanded. "Tirin, tell me everything that happened!"
As Paul and, shakily, George told their stories, the elf smiled for the first time since they'd met him. Suddenly he started jumping around the room, waving his arms and shrieking like he'd scored the winning goal at the World Cup.
The three gaped. There wasn't a whole lot that could have turned their minds from the bizarre events of the night, but Ast'aris had found a way. "Is what happened tonight good?" Paul asked when there was a lull in the noise. "We'd rather like to know what's going on."
"Brox has returned!" Ast'aris laughed as he danced into the hall.
"And arent we just looking forward to that," said George, wet, unhappy, embarrassed, and mystified.
Better than something else, thought Paul, abruptly suffering from an obnoxious idea in which John played a central and terrible role.