~Okay, now we've gotta equalize the others.~
[Why did I know you were going to say that?]
~This is a printout of a scan I did. It lists all the decent magic items within a mile of Ta'akan. Divert a few, and presto! Instant equality.~
[There are nothing but swords on this list.]
~No there aren't. Keep looking.~
[Oh, you're right. There's a mace, there's a dagger, and there's a longbow. Are you planning to turn them into Jim Hunter clones so you can send them off to sack temples and kill people?]
+Well, this crossbow of instant death - +
~Shut up, Varx. No, I'm not. Each campaign is different. Remember I was telling you about Ealdo, my D'fernite? She hardly ever - ~
[I don't remember Ealdo and I don't want to hear about her and I don't want you to touch them!]
+I don't think we have a choice, Shag, unless you want half of our heroes feeling real inferior to the other half.+
[Oh, Gods.... All right, I give up. I've lost them. But no weapons, and nothing that does unpleasant things to them, like take over their minds.]
~That's it, take the fun out of magic.~
+Hey, how about this?+
[Isn't that a little strange?]
+Maybe, but look where George is. He can get it right away.+
~Well, lemme roll.~
~Dice. These're percentile dice. The red's tens, the white's ones. If I roll under fifty, we'll give it to him.~ CLATTER ~Twenty-three! It's his.~
+That's how you decide things?+
~Sure. It saves time.~
+Whatever. Shag, should we give it to him?+
[Do whatever you want.]
George abruptly awoke to the fact that he was walking in Ta'akan; his mind had shut down at the house, and he had no memory of making the journey. But there he was, and really it wasn't such a bad place to be right now. No weirdness, or at least weird stuff is natural here, whereas.... He couldn't finish the thought, and massaged his temples to try and rub the memories out. But no luck. Within a matter of minutes hed watched two people ascend to a higher plane of existencetwo people whom he knew like brothers and about whom he had deep, complicated, and often contradictory feelings. Knowing full well what John had been hiding under the cloak for the last few days hadnt made an atom of difference during that Moment of Truthno, it hadnt! Ringos metamorphosis was even more disturbing, because Ringo was well, good ol Ringo. There wasnt supposed to be anything strange or brilliant or transcendent about him.
(And beneath all these layers of discomfort and weirdness, a tiny voice whispered sardonically in Georges ear, At least it wasnt Paul.)
Trudging along, watching his feet so he wouldnt accidentally see a bird flying in the sky, thinking of John and Ringo at every step, George almost bumped into a woman looking sorrowfully at a crawlspace under a house. Taller than him, she had long black hair, vaguely Arabic features, browner-than-average skin, and a shirt seemingly made out of spun silver, which shimmered and reflected George in it. He saw a tear trickle down her face and, glad of the distraction, he asked, "Can I help you?"
Her expression changed to astonishment, and she stared at George before answering. "Do you follow Ardav the Silver God?"
George was so out of it that he had to work to remember the whole bit about Ardav and altruism. "Um, no." Another one? There must be a million of them if we keep running into them.
The woman grew cautious. "Why do I concern you, olyrr-sar?"
I'm not in the mood for this, George thought wearily. "Look, if you don't need help, I'll go away."
She caught his arm. "I do!" she cried. "I dropped my channel, it rolled under there, I don't want to damage my shirt, I know no useful spell to retrieve it. Can you get it?"
It took George a moment to sort all this out. The gap was dark but not terrifying, and he needed to feel competent, so he dropped to his stomach and wriggled in. It stank of mold and rot, and the ground stuck to him in huge lumps, but soon he emerged brown and triumphant with a slender silver rod. She took it eagerly while he stood up grimacing, trying to brush off the worst of the muck.
She touched his forehead and said "I am Ardais Silverlife, sansar of Ardav, and for your altruism you will be rewarded."
~Jeez, why didn't you have her mention glass slippers and three tasks to fulfill while you were at it?~
+I was in a hurry, okay? You want literature, go read a book.+
At least this one looked more the priestess part. In fact, with her wand and glittering shirt Ardais looked rather like a fairy princess, and George half expected her to sprout gauzy wings and hover above him, dripping magic sparkles. "You don't have to," he said, stepping back. "I really don't want - "
"You are not Ardavian, but you acted Ardavian, and Ardav encourages all who do." Ardais smiled beatifically and touched George on the shoulder with her wand. He winced, the smell of soap filled the air, and suddenly he was clean. Then she beckoned him to follow.
He tagged along, wondering if he was making a mistake by accepting her reward. Probably wants me to screw her, he thought sourly. But before he could slip away, they had arrived at the Temple of Ardav. She opened the door, saying "Wait here."
That was fine with him; he had no urge to encounter Ma'ar again, and he hoped that crazy woman wouldn't come out while he was there. He sighed, leaned against a nearby tree, and felt all alone in the world until a tap on his shoulder made him look up. Ardais held out a carved wooden box, which he took and opened, forcing himself to show interest. Inside lay a malachite ring, green and black swirled together, pretty but hardly exquisite. There were a hundred more beautiful and valuable rings in Grunnels cellar. "Its a Tribune ring, said Ardais. "If it fits, its yours."
George slipped it on his left ring finger. "It fits. Thanks."
"I cant wear it," Ardais explained. "It doesn't fit me. And you deserve it."
"Thanks," George said again, wondering how he could get away from her without seeming impolite. He'd been around enough Baravadans to know that you just walked away from them when you were done talking, but something about Ardais kept him there, waiting for her dismissal.
She smiled and half-opened her mouth to speak, lifted her arms to gesture but nothing came out, and her arms dropped to her sides. George got the impression she'd come to the end of her script and couldn't ad-lib. Her smile was empty now, sweet and plastic and a bit bewildered.
After a few seconds of this pose, George grew fed up and bold. "I've got to go, thanks for the ring, glad I could help," he said, moving off. No cry of "Wait!" followed him, and his last glimpse of Ardais caught her stretching and yawning. He gave his new ring a bored once-over, reflecting that the cheap thing was probably an adequate reward for the small service hed done the woman. He thought about transferring it to his right ring finger, since leaving it where his wedding ring was supposed to be seemed a bit blasphemous, but he wasn't in the mood to worry about it right then. Thereafter he ignored it and concentrated on returning to the house, sternly reminding himself that John and Ringo were two of the only people he had in the world, and that it did him no good to run away when he ultimately had to come to terms with them; there was no way he was going to try to make it on his own.
He did a good enough job on himself to get home without dawdling much, around mid-afternoon, but was horribly nervous walking up the forest path. Could he stand the sight of John up there? As he emerged from the trees, though, he was relieved to see no one. John was probably down on the ground, eating. George steeled himself and went in the house.
Nobody was in the main room, either, but he could hear someone pottering around in the kitchen. Upstairs it was too quiet.
All at once George sat down at the main table and rested his head on his arms, spent and lonely. He'd envisioned a momentous encounter, where everything could be felt and said in one giant surge of emotion. But to search out each person... he didn't have the energy for that right now.
The kitchen door creaked. A thrill of anxiety ran through George, but it was only Astaris carrying a pitcher of juice and a glass. The elf acknowledged George's presence with a cool glance, took three steps, and stopped, staring at Georges hand. "Where did you get that?"
"What, the ring?" George mumbled. Astaris was the last person he wanted to talk to. "A woman gave it to me."
Astaris set his things on the table and picked up George's hand to look more closely at the ring. "Why?"
George was too apathetic to reclaim his hand. "I helped her."
"A Tribune sansar rewarded you?"
"She said she was, um, Ardavian. You know, like Grunnel."
The elf dropped George's hand. "Where did sar get a Tribune ring?"
"How should I know?" mumbled George, laying his head back down. He closed his eyes, wanting to sleep and wake up in bed next to Olivia, laugh with her and find someone to translate his dream into a movie.
A scrape as Astaris picked up his pitcher and glass. "Even if sar was Ardavian," he said thoughtfully, "a Tribune ring was a large reward to give a tirin. It must be dead. Have you tried it yet?"
"Tried it on?" George repeated. "I've worn it all day. It fits."
"I didn't say tried it on, deadbrain, I said tried it."
Something crawled into the back of George's mind. He sat up, horrified and fascinated at the same time. "Is it magic?"
Astaris was amused. "Yes, tirin, it is a Tribune ring."
"What the hell is a Tribune ring?" George exploded. His left hand throbbed.
"It was made by the sansars of the Tribune of Nature, and duplicates their gods' magic by allowing the wearer to become anything that the gods can become."
"Become?" squeaked George. "Become what?"
"Mirem became animals, Kselaka plants, and Feran all else. Most of the rings only duplicate Mirem's power."
George stared at the innocent little ring. The elf said something. "What?" George mumbled. His mouth was dry.
"Try it. If it's dead, it's worthless."
"Oh. Oh, yeah." George lurched to his feet. "Howhow do I do this, then?"
"You feel yourself becoming whatever you want to become." The elf stepped back, waiting.
George held his left hand in his right, keeping the ring near his eyes. Its swirling colors seemed to move, mingling and breaking apart like oil on water. He was so scared he almost tore it off and tossed it away, but powerful curiosity stayed his hand: What's it feel like?
He looked at Astaris leaning against the door, the elfs catlike yellow eyes regarding him evenly. A cat, thought George. I'll try to be a cat.
So he felt like
He tumbled forward, flailing his handsbut they were already on the ground. No! he yelled. "Reee-owww!" it came out, impossibly shrill and feline. The world had gone mad! Blurred forward, clearer to the sides, huge, so huge! The tablemiles above him! And gray, black, white, a few faint colors, but smells! Hundreds of smells, strong and faded, choking him, inescapable, and sounds! a quiet house turned into a cacophony, crashes from upstairs, small creatures singing under the floorboardsno hands! He clawed frantically at his left hand (left paw! left paw!), pull the ring off, end this chaosno fingers! No ring! He blundered forward, his four feet wildly uncoordinated, and collapsed with them splayed in four different directions, his terrible alien tail swishing madly back and forth. Change me back! "Mr-aaaaah!" he screamed at Astaris. He curled into a tight ball, seeking to escape himself. Make it stop! I want to be me again! I want to be
The sound of his own human voice made him pause, blink, and uncurl.
Handsbeautiful pink stars! And his senses were normal, his legs were two, the table was above him only because he lay on the floor. He ran his hands over his face, arms, body, legs. He was back.
Astaris said "It lives," and went outside.
George pulled himself up, even more wobbly now, and fell onto the chair. Madness, he'd touched madness, and infinitely more sat on his hand. He yanked the ring off and threw it on the table. It just sat there, not crawling back to his hand or changing into something by itself and attacking him. It was nothing but potential. And madness.
I'll throw it away, George decided. I'll smash it, never have to see it again! With the air of a Temperance Leaguer he scooped the ring up and hurried outside, intending to hurl it into the sea.
But he had not gotten more than a few steps from the house when he slowed, then stopped, opening his hand to look at the ring. "Look fear in the face and it won't bother you," he murmured, a dictum that had so far served him well in this crazy place. More to the point: Years ago, taking LSD had completely altered his life, helped him find God, realize how much more to the universe there was than mere material things.
What would the ring reveal?
Besides, as the terror of being a cat abated, George found himself thinking I wish I'd paid more attention. He couldn't remember what it was like, except for a blur of altered senses and fear. He had to admit, the idea of being something else was starting to fascinate him as much as it repelled him; and as the seconds slipped by, the fascination grew stronger than the repulsion, until he had a strong desire to try the ring again. Just once more, he promised himself. This time I'll be expecting it, it won't be such a shock.
He took a deep breath and slipped it on, imagined a tingle when it settled, though in truth it felt perfectly ordinary. Once more. But not a cat again, too recently traumatic. Closing his eyes, he steeled himself for the change, then felt like a birda sparrow.
Again he fell, again he reached out to catch himself; this time he had arms, but they came from the wrong place, they were too short and didnt bend right, they fought the air rather than slipped through it. Every muscle in his face had changed, and he had no words for the sensation of having a beak rather than a nose and mouth. So strange!
He settled down, folding his arm-wings on his feathered little back, and cautiously opened his eyes. Wow! His field of vision had expanded tremendously; he could see almost behind his head, though except for directly in front of him everything was flat and two-dimensional. And how clear and detailed his sight was! The grass just below his beak was razor-sharp. And everything was so big now! In fact, if he hadnt known where he was, he would have sworn that hed been projected into another world of head-high grass. He also couldnt see the house as a house; it was a startlingly huge thing whose features were too far apart to resolve into anything recognizable.
He had the correct number of feet, thank God, though hard and naked and scaly and devoid of most feeling. His hearing seemed normal, although being so close to the ground he caught odd noises from the bugs below, and he could hear better by cocking his head at them. He was tiny and plump and compact, and it felt unpleasant when the wind ruffled his feathers from behind.
Good lord, I'm a bird. In growing excitement, he spread his wings; for such a small fellow he had quite a wingspan. Let's see if John's been having fun. He flapped; nothing happened. Where's the motor on this thing? He beat harder, but raised nothing but dust.
Something crashed! Startled, he sprang into the air, and just like that he was flying. The ground dropped away as he soared upwards, diving into an ocean of sky. He pumped his wings furiously, while his tail constantly adjusted itself to keep him perfectly balanced in the air. His scaly little feet had retracted flat against his feathered stomach, and he could feel the wind flow around him. Instinctively, he shifted wing angles to take advantage of a small breeze, gliding on it to conserve energy until he decided to rise above it.
Ahhhh! This is great! Chirp! he sang, a gray bullet shooting forward. Did all birds feel like this when they flew? Or was flying as ordinary and dull to them as walking? It couldn't be! Was this what John felt when he flew? Lucky John!
He arced over the house, and behind it was Astaris, lounging on the grass and sipping from a cup. George spiraled down and flew right past the elf's face as he was lifting the cup to his lips. Soaring away with the image of Astaris jerking back in surprise, George laughed, making a peculiar unbirdlike noise that changed to a squawk as the cup hurled by just inches away. "Do that again and I won't miss, tirin!" Astaris shouted after him.
Fuck you, you schmuck, George thought angrily, zooming away from the backyard. That could've killed me! His mood spoiled, he decided to land, but well away from Astaris. He fluttered down to the beach and perched on a piece of driftwood, where he regained his composure. I wonder how he knew it was me. Maybe it's my eyes. There are all these stories where the guy gets recognized because he always has the same eyes. I'll have to get a mirror.
He watched the waves crash on the shore and marveled anew at his vision. It fascinated him to see a fly land on the cliff way to the right, without moving his head. One annoyance: he couldn't move his eyeballs. He had to turn his head if he needed to focus elsewhere.
A flutter of movement: a gnat. George snapped at it, caught and ate it with relief. He hadn't noticed how hungry he was, and
Ugh, I'm gonna be sick. But only mentally; his stomach would not churn. The bug had tasted too good. How could he, a bird, rebel against his most basic food? And he was a bird, not a human looking through a bird's eyes. His wings, his feathers, his beak. This was impressed upon him with such clarity that he began to weird out, and
became himself again, crouching on the small wooden lump. He lost his balance and fell backwards in the pebbles. "Shit!" he said, large, slow, and clumsy, all naked limbs and stringy hair. The beach stank of rot and salt. He sat up and knocked some stones out of his hair, then took off the ring and stared at it, wondering if it really wouldn't be better to heave it into the sea. The shock, the confusion, the utter alienness of it all.
The exhilaration of flight, the thrill of using magic .
"Well, I'll try it just once more." He slipped it on again and stood up, stumbling before getting his balance. He was so far from the ground now! So large, so loose!
A strong wave ploshed on the beach, splattering him with fine mist, and he wondered if fish knew they were wet. It was one of those silly questions that had occasionally entertained him between takes or in the shower; and now the solution was at hand... literally. He moved to the boulders at the far left of the beach and stripped, piling his clothes on a flat rock and weighing them down with his shoes (Where'd it all go when I was a bird? he wondered). Then he stepped gingerly across the lumpy gravel and soon stood thigh-deep in the water, wondering what sort of fish to become. Somehow, being a tuna didn't hold much appeal. In fact, he was becoming turned off by the whole notion, and looked longingly at his clothes. But he wasn't eager to shred his feet on the rocks again, so he stopped stalling and faced seaward.
God, I feel stupid. Like that picture of Venus on the shell, except I'm going the wrong way. Is that a shark? No, just a wave that had taken the shape of a fin for a second. But it gave him an idea. He waded out some more, until he was chest-deep and couldn't go any farther without stepping off a small underwater ledge. Then he shut his eyes, held his breath, dove forward, and *ping* became a dolphin.
First he noticed the sounds. Beeps, booms, croaks, clicks, whalesong. it was as noisy as a jungle below the waves. His arms were truncated, ineffectual flippers, and his legs had merged into a horizontal tail, a flick of which sent him shooting forward. He felt compact, though his size had almost doubled from beak to tail; nothing hung loosely to impede his progress in the water. Tension at the top of his head reminded him that dolphins had blow-holes like whales; and as he concentrated on that phenomenon, the plug that kept the air in and the water out began to twitch rapidly, rubbing the inside of the hole, producing a clicking noise
And suddenly he could see, though his eyes were still shut. No, it wasn't sight; color was nonexistent. It was sonar, but of such advanced design that he perceived with pinpoint accuracy everything around him, from the seafloor to seaweed to tiny objects floating on the surface. As he focused on the seafloor, the clicking grew more rapid and he found himself actually looking through things. He knew where the seafloor was, but he also perceived a second bottom to it, a denser layer of material. A passing fish was both a fish and an x-ray of itself.
Well! George thought, too overwhelmed to be eloquent.
His air supply was growing stale; a human-sized breath didn't last long in a dolphin's lungs. Not having moved much, he rose only a few inches before breaking the surface and exhaling through his blow-hole, a most peculiar sensation. His sonar didn't work well above water, so he opened his eyes and found his vision excellent, though not as sharp as when hed been a bird. Then he sucked in a vast quantity of air through his head, which was another indescribable experience, and dove without closing his eyes, which adjusted automatically and proved more than capable of scanning the depths.
He began to swim, thrashing his powerful tail and shooting forward with impressive speed. His click-maker worked at triple time, and this coupled with his open eyes resulted in an unbelievably precise awareness of his surroundings, so precise that he was distracted from the full enjoyment of his speed. He solved the problem by closing his eyes, and then he was a sleek torpedo cutting through water like air, his excitement and his acceleration mounting, until he exploded out of the water for sheer joy, soaring up twenty feet before curving and tumbling back down with a tremendous splash.
This is great! This is great! he cried silently, diving down to explore the seafloor again, twisting some kelp around his nose. I'd like to be, under the sea, in an octopus's gard-
He stopped in surprise. The song wasn't confined to his head; he was really singing! Not with words, though some of the noises he'd made were quite close to human speech; he had sung with a huge variety of dolphin noises, clicks and whistles and creaks, and produced something very like the song.
So he sang and cavorted through the waves, freed from the tug of worry and time, until he found himself so hungry that he chased fish, once almost catching and gulping one down before his human squeamishness at eating live things could curtail his bestial instincts. He was frightened by his lack of self-control, and realized that he had to be in command of himself when he was an animal; he could foresee some dreadful results otherwise. Lions and tigers and bears, forsooth! So, drooling at the distant taste of fish, he forced himself to turn back and swim to shore, where he could fill up on human food.
George swam back to the beach and as far into the shallows as he could go, and he *ping* became himself, face down in the water. He scrambled to his feet, sputtering, and promptly fell down again. Dismayedhad he forgotten how to walk?he rose on hands and knees. He kept wanting to wiggle his legs and shoot up the beach. But the desire soon passed as George reasserted his humanity, flexing his arms and legs to remind himself how they worked. When he stood up and stayed up, he splashed back to the beach and picked his way back to his clothes. (And oh damn, he hadnt noticed if he felt wet while in the water. Well, hed try again later.)
He sat for a while to dry off, then dressed and went to the cliff-stairs. As his foot hit the bottom step, he thought Why am I doing this the hard way? and *ping* became a sparrow again. After acclimating, he fluttered up, diving and looping, and *ping* changed back on the top. But going back to the house, staying human for even a minute, seemed so dreary! Surely he could find an inoffensive way to eat while something else.
The answer was so simple he laughed, and, moving away from the edge of the cliff, he prepared himself and *ping* became a horse, a glorious black stallion.
At once he found himself staring at lunch. First he tried to uproot a handful, but he couldn't do that with hooves, so he dipped his long neck down and applied strong teeth to the tender plants. They were edible, if bland; he resolved to get some apples for dessert.
As he chewed, he explored his senses. Again his field of vision was enormous, even larger than the sparrow's; he could see straight behind himself. Most colors were gone, though a few remained, the green of grass being the most obvious. Everything was clear and sharp until he tried to refocus on things farther away; then there was a noticeable blurry pause before clarity returned. Oddly, things in his peripheral vision that moved made him nervous. Taste and smell were both excellent, and he could easily hear what few noises the field had to offer.
When he was sated, he essayed a walk across the lawn. Coordinating four legs was difficult; his tendency was to move both left legs and then both right legswhen he remembered to move all of themwhich resulted in a peculiar, rocking gait that made him feel silly. But moving diagonal pairs took more concentration, and he often got tangled up by forgetting one or more feet. It helped to detach a bit and let his body do most of the work, but he wanted to have full control over himself; he sensed that relying too heavily on instinct for such basic stuff would be problematic. So he persevered and eventually was rewarded with a slow-but-sure gait as he plodded round the lawn.
It wasn't fast enough for him, though. He wanted to run, tail flying, poetry in motion, etc. Well, I've got time to practice. His laugh took the form of a whinny; he bared his teeth and tossed his head, letting his mane whip around. I'll be doing this tomorrow, and for the rest of the week, and forever!
He *ping* became a squirrel and bounded for a tree; when he got there he *ping* became a robin and flew up to perch on a branch before descending and *ping* becoming a cat again, all springy muscles;
*ping* next a dog, noticing the different smells of two leaves;
*ping* a mouse, lost in a jungle of weeds;
*ping* a bear, huge and ferocious (but his eyesight was awful);
*ping* himself, dizzy from the barrage of shapes and senses. Think I'd better just get comfortable with one for now. Choosing *ping* the stallion, he walked back to the lawn, careful to use all four legs, and cropped some grass to get back into the being of the beast.
A movement behind him startled him into lifting his head and turning to better see what it was, his ears swiveling (whoa! Unexpected!) to hear the soft sounds being made.
Hello, whats this? Where did you come from, then? John, wearing his cloak again, was approaching him cautiously. He looked strained but no longer out of it; obviously, flying had cleared his head. "You're a pretty lad. You just wander in, then, or did someone buy you? Are they startin' a stud service?" From a pouch full of food that he now wore all the time, John took an apple, which he threw to George. It landed with a soft thud in the grass, and George involuntarily shied away from it just a little. "Here, boy. Dont be afraid."
Quickly overcoming his startlement, but enjoying playing the shy beast, George sniffed it, throwing suspicious glances at John. Then he crunched it up. Yum! Definitely better than grass!
"Good, eh?" John grinned, but his grin faded as he looked back at the house. "Fuck it, he's not home. Why didnt he stay with Paul? Where the fuck did he get to? I've been all over town. I hope he's okay. You haven't seen George, have you?" he asked George, then half-smiled. "Didn't think"
George nodded vigorously, causing John to start and look at him more closely. "Jesus! Are you trained?"
*ping* "No, actually," George began, standing up carefully and wiping his hands on his trousers, "I'm - "
AAAAAGH! John jumped back, fell, leaped up, ran for the cliff, shed his cloak and glasses on the way, and flung himself over.
George never saw him rise; he couldn't bear to look. He'd had enough trouble accepting the change in himself; the change in John was still more than he could take. He couldn't go back to the house, either, because Ringo was there; more intolerable change.
So he ducked into the forest.
~These guys are getting almost as interesting as Jim Hunter. Did you know Jim's had ten kids from nine different women? They -~
[Jeft, will you shut up about Jim Hunter? We don't care a lick of flame about Jim Hunter!]
~Well, jeez, excuse me. I just wanted to - ~
#Hey, you students!#
+Huh? Uh, yes? What can we do for you?+
#You can get off the computer, that's what.#
~Just a moment. My name is Jeft Indle, and I have second priority on any computer. Here's my ID.~
#Kid, I don't care if you have first pri. The networks shutting down for maintenance over the Winter Solstice vacation.#
+Winter Solstice! Oh Gods, we forgot all about it!+
[But we can't get off now! Our program]
#Shoulda started earlier, kids. Networks down in six decis.#
[But we haven't done Paul yet! We can't leave him like that!]