The first thing Astaris said after being resurrected was, "Give me a hair growth potion. Lying naked on a couch, he touched his bald, narrow head, brushed off a dusting of ash on his scalp and forehead, then sat up, grinning with surprising delight for a person whod been killed rather painfully.
His audience consisted of a highly annoyed Grunnel leaning against the wall, pursing his lips; the healer, a middle-aged female tirin elf who kept glancing at her back room, more interested in the bowl of soup shed been called away from than the miracle shed performed; and the open-mouthed John, George, and Ringo, who still couldnt believe that the elf was alive again. In fact, they hadnt known until a short time ago that such a thing was possible, for none of them had visited a healer during their stay in Taakan. Theyd seen more than their share of miracles lately, but this one, with its strong cultural cachet and vast implications, was easily the most stunning.
The healer said in a bored voice, "Hair growth'll cost three hundred golds.
Grunnel grunted and handed the woman a couple of large sapphires. Thats more than Brox had to pay.
She smiled faintly. "Death is cheap, life is expensive. After holding the gems up to the light and inspecting them for a few seconds, she stuffed them in her pocket. Then she got a vial out of a cabinet and tossed it to Astaris.
Death hadn't affected his reflexes; in one smooth motion he snatched it out of the air, popped the cork with one finger, and drank it. Fine fuzz sprouted from his head, while two smears appeared as eyebrows, and all over his body faint wisps became visible. He grunted in satisfaction and stood up, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d his naked body luxuriously, and favored the Earthmen with an almost friendly smile. My thanks, olyrr-sars. You killed me, and now I can go to Zagesevregar and join Brox!
Dont mention it, said George, who was the most there of the three. Glad to do it. Dying made your curse go away, right?
Yes, Grunnel said mournfully, pushing away from the wall. Now I have to accompany As to Zagesevregar so sar wont disappear chasing nonexistent Tayhil while Brox is in the University.
Grun, you want to join Brox as much as I do, Astaris said. He swung himself off the table onto his bare feet, testing his balance.
Yes, but not until my work here is finished! the illusionist retorted. I still owe Ardav twenty-three days of work!
The elf was unimpressed. Godsar always lets you postpone it.
Yes, at a penalty of one extra day for every two postponed!
As the two continued to argue, the healer tapped John on his cloaked shoulder. "Olyrr-sar, do you wear those glass circles because your eyes are weak? Fifty golds to cure them.
In a daze John followed the woman out. If she'd asked him to pray to her he probably would have.
Astaris started putting on some clothes supplied by the resurrectionist. Ringo was fascinated by the healthy living flesh getting dressed. Unable to use his mindsight in the heavily Protected shop, he was squinting at the elfs body, trying to find some physical sign of its ordeal, but it was as whole and healthy as it ever had been. Finally he gave up and said to As'taris, "What's it like? Being dead, I mean. George looked over as well, for this was a topic of considerable interest to him.
"Death is just life without a body. The elf slipped his feet into soft shoes. His hair was now about half an inch long, prickly and punk. But more boring.
Ringo began to giggle. "What if you hadn't had any money when she resurrected you? Would she've killed you all over again?
"Yes, Astaris responded distractedly, shaking a pebble out of his left shoe. He looked up in surprise when Ringo fell against the wall, rocking with laughter. Then George started to chortle, having just watched everything he believed about death get confirmed in the most obnoxious way possible. The two held onto each other, roaring.
"The eyes have it! exclaimed John, twirling his glasses by an earpiece as he entered the room, the healer on his heels. "Pay her, would you? he asked Grunnel. "All I've got are liquid assets.
George began laughing even harder. "Hey! Youyou know wha-what it would've been if that'd been one of us up there and we hadn't paid? A DEADBEAT!
John broke up and George slid to the floor, convulsing. Of course none of the Baravadans got the joke, nor were they interested in find out what it was, so the healer went back to her soup and Astaris and Grunnel left by themselves to go into a restaurant (Theyre dead hungry, said John, which started the three off again). Though it was now evening, and none of them had had a full meal since morning, they werent quite ready for dinnernot after watching Grunnel carrying the elfs crispy, oozing body, the stench of cooked meat that rose from it, the crackling skin, the chunks of roasted flesh that came off in the illusionists hands. Even John was slightly nauseated by the thought of food. So they made their way back to the house, alternating death jokes with speculations about Paul, whom theyd left on the beach. How strong had he become? Had he destroyed the beach yet? Would he ever be safe to approach again?
These things were also very much on Pauls mindexcept the jokes, for he was a lot more concerned with his own situation than Astariss. (THUD) Hed known all along about resurrection (one of the few worthwhile bits of knowledge hed gleaned during his many depressed, drunken forays around Taakan; amazing how little the notion of cheap n easy resurrection had impressed him at the time); indeed, hed had to yell words of comfort and wisdom to the others, whod been freaking out over the body. (THUD) But the sense of satisfaction he got from knowing something they didnt had been short-lived.
Now, with the sun setting, he was making outrageously long leaps (and large craters) up the coast along the beach, where there was nothing for him to break except waves. (THUD) As he arced along, hands clasped behind his back, he had lots of time to think between launch and land. And all he could think about was that his magic really, really, really sucked. (THUD) It felt good, but so what? He could smash someone's head open if he twitched his toe carelessly or blinked with too much force. He hadn't dared accompany the others to the city; I can just see myself knocking down houses and squashing people flat. (THUD)
Maybe I should just stay out here forever. The worst part was that hed swapped one form of loneliness for another. (THUD) He wasn't sure he could stand living at the far fringe of human relationships, unable to touch or even come near Linda and the kids; almost better to give them up altogether. He certainly couldn't go back to Earth like this! (THUD) If nothing else, he could survive any environment he wandered into. So far he had become neither hungry, thirsty, tired, cold, hot, itchy, achy, sweaty, dry-eyed, flatulent, nor desirous of using the toilet. (THUD) Unfortunately, he also seemed to be invulnerable, so unless the equivalent of kryptonite was out there for him somewhere, suicide wasn't even a theoretical possibility. (THUD)
He also had to do something. The power raged relentlessly in him, and he just could not sit still. Which was another reason why he was jumping down the coast, a melancholy figure glittering in the waning light, debating as he flew whether to keep going or turn back. (THUD)
(He would turn back; he was depressed but he wasn't crazy. Yet.)
Untold miles up the coast he finally stopped; those leaps werent bleeding off his energy at all. If anything, he was getting more restless. He had to do something more active. If hed been back at the beach around Astariss house, he could have heaved boulders into the water, but this far north, the beach was largely sand. There was piney forest within a few miles, but he had no intention of destroying it simply because he needed to exert himself. He tried hopping in place, but he soared too high to do it fast enough. Jumping jacks and skipping with an imaginary rope were just as worthless, but he didnt have much else he could do. So he hopped away, desperately trying to tire. Shit, how does Superman do this?
Then, as he watched the scenery shrink beneath him for the hundredth time, he thought of his ill-fated attempt to learn magic, and how the light spell had drained him. Wow! The thought of collapsing with exhaustion was positively seductive. How did that spell go? Right. Oh, please, let this help somehow. When he landed, he closed his eyes, tugged and pulled and directed the magic through his body as hed been taught, and
he shuddered, and when he opened his eyes he found that his hair and nails were glowing. He had specifically tried to direct the light into the palm of his hand, but either he had miscast the spell, or he had triggered something else. The sun had fully set by now, and he cast an eerie white light on the pebbles and shells that had escaped pulverization by his pounding feet. Just call me Phil A. Ment, he thought wryly, examining his arms. He could feel a tiny, tiny amount of energy dribbling away from the main mass and through his body, feeding his hair and nails. Hm, maybe I can force a bit more out. He closed his eyes and mentally tugged on the dribble of energy.
Immediately there was a very pleasurable doubling in the flow. Paul opened his eyes to a considerable shine from his body. He grinned, feeling clever, but he really hadn't made much of a difference inside; twice nothing was still nothing. At this rate it'll take years to use up. Let's see if we can't get it going a bit stronger.
Again he concentrated, but this time he focused on the main mass of the energy rather than the trickle, trying to pry it up. Sluggish as lava it stirred and crept outward, its flow gradually increasing. Come on, come on! he urged, growing excited as more energy poured from his body. He pulled and prodded and yanked, clawing with all his will at the stubborn power
"Yes! Paul screamed, flinging his arms out as power exploded from every molecule of his body in a blinding sphere of white light and thunder. Around him and below his feet the sand screamed as it disintegrated, but he heard only his own voice, shrieking with the ecstasy of release at the core of the star that was himself.
(The other three were on the beach, John and George looking quite uselessly up the coast as Ringo tracked their distant friend and reported on his activities.
Ringo staggered a little as the light filled his brain. Oh my God! My God! Tears trickled from his closed eyes.
Of course, this scared the others, who demanded, Did he blow up again? Is he okay?
Hes fine! Hes beautiful! Im lookin right at himIve never seen anythin' so beautiful!
After a moment or so of silence, George said, So does that mean he blew up?)
Paul never knew how long he blazed, only that eternity would have been too short; but much, much too soon the last of his energy left his body, the light winked out, and he dropped a long way back to the ground, landing painlessly on his stomach.
There was barely a shred of strength left in him; he had to exert considerable effort to roll onto his back to look at the stars overhead. He envied them; Do they feel like that all the time? The ground was warm and soft, like taffy. Absently he molded a pinch of it between his fingers. It was so comfortable so very, very comfortable .
("He's gone to sleep, announced Ringo.
Should we go get him, then? George said.
How far is he up the coast? asked John.
A hell of a long way, said Ringo. Farther than Ive looked before, anyway. Hundreds of miles, maybe.
John yawned hugely. Fuck it. Im starvin' and exhausted. Well meet up with him in the mornin'. He turned to enter the house.
Wait! Ringo caught Johns arm. Hes lyin in a crater right next to the seawhat if it fills up with water?
With a soft growl-groan, John mooched to the edge of the cliff, looped his hand around some invisible strings, and pulled. A thin finger of water rose from the ocean to the top of the cliff, and he stuck his hand in it. A minute or so later he withdrew it and, as the column collapsed, said Hell be fine, its already high tide where he is.)
Paul awoke to a cloudy morning sky, a smooth, shiny slope, the need to pee, and a growling stomach.
Trying to lift his head, he discovered he was stuck to the ground. He tore himself off with a shattering noise, sat up brushing glittering bits out of his hair, and found he was a speck in the center of an enormous, deep glass crater. "Jesus! Paul breathed, shaken and awed. "Thank God I didn't do that near anyone!
A person appeared at the rim of the crater: John, crouching, sans glasses. So youre up, are you, Atomicartney? he called down. He was naked save for his moccasins and cutoffs and the cloaklike appearance of his furled wings. Went down a bit of a bomb, you did.
I had a blast, Paul said. He was pleased to see John, but he was a little annoyed as wellhe wanted to concentrate on himself, for his energy was feeling quite interesting. It had slightly regenerated from the night before but was nowhere near the intolerable level he'd previously had. Carefully, he rose to his feethe had no trouble doing this, a good signand took a normal step. To his delight, he traveled only a few feet more than he should have. He tried a standing jump. A mere hop; he soared about twenty feet up. "Great! he exclaimed as he dropped to the crunchy ground, and promptly suffered a stab of regret for his lost power. Quite a price to pay for his humanity!
"Oh, come on, will you never be satisfied? he chided himself. You know youre better off. For one thing, he could now imagine embracing his family someday, and that was worth everything. And anyway, its not all gone. He still had a sufficiency of strength to make life interesting, and he was still pretty darn toughthere he was, standing barefoot on a pile of broken glass as if it was plain old beach sand.
Oh yes! Hed done the right thing.
~Good, I thought the Gods would give him a way to depower. Now we can get ready to start.~
John had backed away at Pauls first movements, but he returned when it was clear Paul wasnt going to soar out and land on him. With his jokes told, he seemed at a loss for words. Finally he said, Right, Macca, come on up and lets head for home.
But getting out of the slippery crater was tricky. Pauls first (relatively) long leap wasnt nearly enough to clear the rim, and when he landed his feet shot out from under him and he slid back down on his butt. John burst out laughing. Paul grinned with good-natured embarrassment, because hed already figured out how to proceed more competently. Rather than standing, he got on his knees and jammed his left hand into the glass, breaking himself a handhold. Firmly wedged in, he reached forward and broke a handhold with his right hand, carefully pulled himself forward. In this way he crawled out, occasionally breaking footholds when his feet threatened to slip.
Once out, he stood up and met Johns eyes. A long, knowing, approving, slightly uncomfortable look passed between them. Were unknown quantities. Were sharing an amazing experience. Were friends.
Then Paul turned his gaze down the beach in the direction hed come. How far did I come, anyway? he murmured. Not only could he not see anything even vaguely recognizable, but the visible vegetation was entirely unfamiliar. That was unsettling. He tried to remember how many leaps hed made, how much ground theyd covered, how long hed been leaping.
A fuck of a long way, John said.
Wherere the others?
Back at the house. Too far for Ringo. I suppose George couldve come, but no point, really. Anyway, I wanted to be alone for a bit.
Paul nodded, completely understanding. How long did it take you to fly here?
Now John smiled slyly. Oh, I didnt fly.
But thats all he would say for the moment, and Paul didnt press, inasmuch as he had a couple of urgent physical needs to take care of first. So he relieved himself and had a bite to eat out of Johns food pouch, all the while readjusting to his new level of strength. Now it was easy to school himself to walk normally, though he had to fight a tendency to hop around like he was on the moon, he squashed some of the food before learning how to hold it properly, and he was still afraid to move his arms much. And he was going to win any pissing contest he entered.
Munching on jerked meat, moving casually but with alacrity out of Pauls way as the need arose, John watched Pauls efforts with amusement and satisfaction. Few words passed between them, save an occasional exhortation from John (Watch your arm there . No, too far . Thats got it.) and an occasional quiet Shit! or grunt of satisfaction from Paul.
Within an hour Paul was sufficiently in control of himself to walk down the beach at Johns side, only a couple of feet separating them. He was struck by how similar, yet how different, this walk was from their beach-walk when they first arrived in Ketafa. Like then, they didnt know where they were, but at least they knew where they were going this time.
Where they were going . Paul stopped short. What am I doing, itll take months to get back this way. He looked at John, who had that sly smile on his face again. Did you bring the boat and hide it somewhere?
Not exactly . John jerked his head toward the ocean. Wondering, Paul followed him to the waters edge but balked as John walked into the water until only his head was visible.
You never swam here! Paul exclaimed.
Not exactly. Come on in, the waters fine.
Was John bullshitting him? Paul remembered the gem in his chest had something to do with water, but . well, it wasnt really skepticism that stayed Pauls step, but more of a lack of desire to see what else John could do.
However, John didnt give him a chance to overcome his objections. Two large, vaguely hand-shaped waves rose from the water and clamped down on Paul. Before he could react, he was dragged headfirst into the ocean and carried down to John, who was now entirely under water and grinning like a maniac.
Paul wasnt nearly so pleased. Hed barely had a chance to close his mouth, let alone take a deep breath. Already his meager air supply was getting stale. Panicking, he started to thrash, trying to swim upward, but he was suspended in place on his stomach, unable to move.
Go ahead and breathe, John said, vastly amused as he floated next to Paul. He wasnt having any trouble with oxygen. Do you think Id drown you? Youre in an air bubble.
Thats when Paul noticed that despite being underwater, he wasnt actually wet . He took a deep breath of delicious air and said resentfully, You could give a fella some warning.
What for? Its more fun this way. John surged a few feet ahead of Paul, not swimming but sort of gliding through the water, apparently willing himself forward. He was a strange and rather awkward sight, with his furled and currently useless wings, appendixes left over from his air-dwelling existence. Yet there was a certainthere was no other word for itfluid grace about him as well.
Then Paul found himself being carried after John. Gotta get to cruising depth, otherwise well swamp the coast, John explained without turning his head, and thats when Paul realized that John had not opened his mouth as he spoke underwater.
Handy, innit? John said, or rather thought. You can think at me if you want, but I can hear you when you speak.
Is Uh, is this something to do with your diamond? Paul thought awkwardly. He wasnt sure he liked the notion of a telepathic John.
Yeah. I connect my water-strings to yours and bang. Even if you do have bloody weird water in you.
I do? Absurdly, Paul looked at his arms. How is it weird? Am I radioactive or something?
No. I cant really explain it to you. Im not sure I understand it myself. They came to a halt. Yeah, thisll do . Right, were off!
WHOOOOSH! They torpedoed forward like missiles shot from a submarine, going faster and faster until the meager underwater scenery, sand and seaweed and small fish, became a blur to Paul. Turning his head, he could just see the huge clouds of seafloor material stirred up by their passage.
Jesus Christ! Paul exclaimed with deep and sincere reverence, and jealousy, for this thrilling display of magic. But it was good-natured jealousy, the rivalry kind rather than the painful outsiders load hed been staggering under for weeks.
Yeeeeehaaaaah! John screamed mentally. Isnt this fantastic? This is almost as good as flying!
Yeah! This is great! Paul replied. How fast are we going?
I dunnothe Kansael doesnt understand miles per hour or knots or anything like that. Pretty fucking fast, though!
The Can Sail? You mean your diamond?
Oh, right, I havent had a chance to tell you about it.
And so he did, on that long journey back home (it took them the better part of an hour to get there, even at that speed). He filled Paul in on the many events of the last twenty-four hours, so by the time they reached their private strip of beach and emerged from the water (completely dry), Paul knew what to expect when he carefully trotted up the stairs, which was a really, really cranky Grunnel wearing a backpack and watching a really, really excited Astaris rummage through their shed, gathering the last of the things the pair needed for their journey to meet up with Brox. George and Ringo were lounging on the grass chatting with Grunnel; both got up as first Paul and then John emerged from the cliff-stairs. (John, who was rather fagged out from his underwater stunt, headed directly for the house for food more substantial than the stuff left in his pouch.)
Pleased to see them, Paul started toward them, showing them how he was now able to walk. They saw this and cautiously moved in his direction. But then his foot accidentally struck a rock, which whistled through the air and by great bad luck hit Georges ankle.
George yelped and fell over, cursing, face contorted with pain. Ringo hastily retreated. Paul was stricken with remorse; it was no consolation that a similar kick yesterday would have sliced George's foot clean off.
As Paul began to babble apologies and promise gallons of healing potions, George left off complaining and went *ping*. His face relaxed, but he still gave Paul a withering glance. Then he stood up as if nothing had happened.
Paul was fascinated. "What'd you do?
"I turned into me without the break, George said sourly. "I found out I could do that yesterday when I got me hand cut. Would you please be more careful?
With another pang of jealousythis one less friendly than the one hed felt over John, for Paul remembered Georges little impersonationhe swore up and down that he would watch himself. Still, the others stayed well away from him.
Now Grunnel mooched over, carrying his large doul'kvar diamond. He peered at Paul through it and frowned. Why did this happen to you? The spell As tried to burn, while difficult and strong, could not have imbued you with power-holding magic. Nor should it have left any part of you diamond.
Just lucky, I guess, said Paul, but the illusionist was in no mood for jokes. He paced around Paul, scrutinizing him closely with the gem. Paul stood stock-still, afraid almost to breathe lest his gently expanding chest hit the man and knock him off his feet.
After making a complete circuit, Grunnel lowered the gem and said, Rusty luck that Brox is not heresar would want to study the flow of magic through your body. He sighed, then regarded Paul thoughtfully. Sar, now that youve become a power-holder, you might have the stamina to cast the light spell. Have you tried?
Paul half-smiled. Rather. He explained what had happened. And then he had to explain it again in as much detail as he could muster, because Grunnel didnt believe him.
That, from a light spell? the illusionist kept saying. He raised his gem again and started reexamining Paul.
Well, I did have a lot of power in me, Paul replied apologetically. I havent got it any longer, so it was a one-time thing.
At this point Astaris emerged from his shed, wearing a backpack and carrying a bag of something or other. He stopped short at the sight of Paul, who found himself not nearly as impressed by the elfs resurrection as he thought he would be; hed never seen the corpse, for one thing. But he was surprised at the almost hungry expression on Astariss lean face, until he noticed where the elf was lookingand Paul suddenly remembered he was stark naked. So physically comfortable was he that hed absolutely forgotten.
Um, scuse me, he muttered, turning and hurrying to the house as fast as he dared move, which wasnt very fast. Behind him he caught a phrase from Astaris to the effect that if hed known what he was missing hed never have snubbed Paul, and then mercifully he was indoors. The floor creaked alarmingly as he trod as carefully as possible up to his room.
The smell and feel of his Depression Era clothing disgusted him, so he called down to John in the kitchen and got permission to take a pair of his silky Baravadan trousers, of which he had finally bought several. Paul found a decent pair of black pants, stuck his left foot in, accidentally stepped down too soon, and tore the pants in two.
As he mournfully held up the two rags, John called up from the kitchen, You only get one pair to play with! He sounded more amused than annoyed, which was the exact opposite of how Paul was feeling. Ignoring Johns proscription, he took another pair of trousers and carefully, carefully put them on, drawing them up oh-so-delicately. But they were a little large for him (hed lost weight during his Depression Era), and when they started to drop and he grabbed for them, there was a rip and he came away with a handful of cloth as the rest of the pants settled around his ankles. Thats two you owe me! floated up from downstairs.
Well, now what am I gonna do? Paul muttered to himself. The Baravadans didnt give a damn whether anyone wore clothes or not, but he just couldnt bring himself to run around naked in public. Especially given his more valuable appearance lately. What am I gonna do about me hair and nails?
John called up, Have Grunnel put an illusion on you.
Paul was startled; was John still reading his thoughts? No, it was just those damnable ears of his. Would that work? he said in Johns general direction.
Well, when we went into Tacky to resurrect Jeez-Ass, he put one on the Kansael so people wouldnt go mad at the sight of it and try to nick it off me. That worked.
How long does it last?
Mine lasted a couple of hours, I guess.
So that wasnt the ideal solution either. Unless . Paul hurried (as carefully as he could) downstairs and outside, not caring any more whether Astaris admired him. Luckily, the elf and the illusionist were still there, going through the elfs backpack for something or other. Paul said to Grunnel, Uh, John said you hid his blue diamond with an illusion?
As Astaris resumed his interested appraisal, Grunnel said Yes. Do you want me to mask your diamond parts before we leave?
Well, that and clothesbut actually, I thought you might teach me the spell, if its not too much trouble. I kind of need something I can cast again when it fades. I reckon Im strong enough to handle it now. He regarded his body ruefully. "I can't run around in public like this. Someone'll jump me and pull everything out to sell. Not that I'm not used to that, but still....
Grunnel looked reluctant, but he acquiesced and laid his hand on Paul to convey to him the feel of the illusion spell, specifically how to use it to make himself looked normal and clothed. Ringo and George, who had no idea that Paul had dabbled in spellcasting, observed the process with great interest.
After making a few rainbow colors slide around his body, Paul got the hang of the spell and got his various body parts looking normal-ish, too dark all around but tolerable. Clothing was harder to master; the best he could manage was a black sack of a shirt and a pair of black, featureless shorts. Both articles looked completely fake, like clothing-shaped censorship bars on TV, but they were opaque, which was enough for him.
In spite of his crankiness, Grunnel chuckled. "Illusions are difficult to master quickly, especially shapes.
John, who had come outside by now, said " Eh, could you teach me the spell too? I'd like to keep the Kansael hidden, and I'd also like to ditch me cloak, it's bloody hot.
The wizard threw him a glance that said Dont press your luck, altruism only goes so far. No. Youd have to take the teaching spell first, and I have no time to do that for you.
With his source of entertainment gone, Astaris had resumed poking through his backpack. He found what he was looking for, gave a grunt of satisfaction, and returned it to his pack. Its here. Lets leave, Grun.
The illusionist sighed. Yes, As. To the four: The house is yours until we return.
Spend all our money so we have to seek more! the elf added gleefully.
POP! They were gone.
It seemed very empty on the lawn all of a sudden.
The four looked at one another, still not quite sure how to interact with one another, but growing more willing to try. If the energy generated by John, Ringo, and George had been considerable, the addition of Paul, the completion of the square, pushed the group to a new level entirely. Almost, they expected to throw off sparks when they stood near one another.
Finally Ringo broke the silence with, "Well, that's everyone we know gone.
What next? said George. It's not like we have any pressing engagements.
I could stand a bit of practice time, said Paul, to which George nodded vigorously.
I have an idea, said John.
The others looked at him expectantly. But before he could explain himself, he suddenly looked towards the forest path, or what was left of it, anyway. Someone's comin',
In a few minutes a male elf tirin came into view, picking his way through the wreckage of the forest. Catching sight of the four, he trotted over. I seek George.
George raised his hand.
The man handed him a silver envelope. From Ardav. He turned on his heel and ran off.
Shit, George said, turning the envelope over and over in his hands. I forgot all about this.
Fucking hell, Paul snapped, I just got me magic, and now we might have to leave?
His outburst was mirrored on everyone's face. No one wanted to leave any more. Not right away, at any rate. Not for a long time, really.
John sighed. Well, open it up, man, might as well get the bad news.
So George worked it open and took out a single sheet of brown paper with a few silver-ink words on it. He read it silently and started to laugh. Ringo did too. The others pestered George to read it aloud, which he did:
I regret to inform you that my researches proved fruitless.
They whooped and hollered for a few minutes, and John sent a torrent of sparkling raindrops over their heads.
When they had calmed down, Paul said to John, Right, what's this idea you have?
He looked sly again. Well, I thought we might rescue Lyndess.
"Jesus, I forget all about her, said Ringo.
I thought you were furious with her? Paul said.
John nodded. Yeah, well, she did save our lives, even if she is an idiot. Anyway, and he touched the Kansael, I think I can fulfill the conditions of her curse now. Besides, his grin became ferocious, don't you wanna go back and stick it to them fuckin' Idris?
This last little stun-bomb produced a variety of reactions among the others. George's grin became almost as wolfish as John's. Ringo looked taken aback, while Paul was frankly horrified. What're you planning, Lennon?
John correctly interpreted what he was thinking. Christ, Macca, d'ye think I'd roll in there like Hitler? Fuck, no! But I reckon between the four of us we can throw a scare into 'em
~Okay, everyone set? Got your scripts? Know your personas?~
+Shag, quit brushing your feathersthey won't see 'em anyway.+
[I'm so nervous! What if I make a fool of myself in front of them? I'll just die, I really will.]
~Do you wanna not do this? Varx and I can manage without you.~
[No, no, no, I'll be all right. Really.]
~Uh-huh. Okay, let's shake the tree.~
they won't soon what the fuck! John's voice rose a couple of octaves in shock.
Suddenly they were standing in a perfectly white room. On second glance it wasn't a room, just white space with firmness for them to stand on. Their bodies were just faint outlines, and as they looked wildly around they found themselves unable to feel each other, though they encountered resistance when they touched.
"Before I get scared, is one of you lads doing this? asked John, his wings nervously half-spread.
The others shook their heads, equally mystified. "Unless it's involuntary or something began Paul.
+DON'T WORRY, YOU'RE ALL QUITE SAFE. THINK OF THIS AS JUST A KIND OF TELEPATHIC CONFERENCE CALL.+ The huge deep voice shook the white space.
"Who's there? challenged George.
~OUR IDENTITIES ARE OF NO IMPORT, HUMAN,~ thundered a second voice, this one squeaky but no quieter.
In front of the four the space bulged with three enormous humanoid forms, so indistinct that no features could be made out. +IT IS TIME FOR YOUR QUEST,+ said the deep voice.
"What quest? This from John, Paul, and George.
"WHAT QUEST? Ringo's voice came out as loud as those of the forms, startling him and everyone.
+THE QUEST WHICH YOU WERE BROUGHT HERE AND EQUIPPED FOR: TO RESTORE THE TRUE VASYN AND FREE KETAFA FROM ITS CURSE.+
"So we did have a purpose! George exclaimed. "I knew it involved the Vasyn! Who are you? Is one of you Ardav?
+WE ARE NOT THE GODS OF C'HOU. THINK OF US AS AGENTS OF A GREAT POWER. WE HAVE BEEN WATCHING YOUR PROGRESS EVER SINCE YOUR LANDING HERE AND ENTANGLING YOURSELF IN KETAFAN AFFAIRS WITH GRYNUN AND LYNDESS AND SUNDRY OTHERUH, WHAT'S THAT WORD?+
~INDIVIDUALS,~ Squeaky hissed.
"Why is the Vasyn so important? asked Paul. We kind of know about the curse, but what does that statue have to do with it?
A feminine voice piped up, stiff and nervous as if reading from a script for the first time: [THE VASYN SYMBOLIZES BOTH THE GREAT STRUGGLE OF THE GODS WHICH OCCURRED OVER FIVE HUNDRED C'HOVITE YEARS AGO, AND THE CURSE WHICH HAS BEEN PUT ON KETAFA, NAMELY THE TOTAL INABILITY OF THE GODS TO SEE OR HEAR ANYTHING ON THE ENTIRE CONTINENT WITH NO EXCEPTIONS -] She hesitated. [THIS IS TERRIBLE. HONESTLY, I'M NORMALLY NOT THIS INARTICULATE.]
~MY COLLEAGUE IS NOT FEELING WELL,~ Squeaky said quickly. Papers rustled; there was a muffled, indignant cry. ~I WILL GIVE YOU A RUNDOWN OF WHAT HAPPENED BACK THEN.
~HUNDREDS OF YEARS AGO, C'HOU WAS COMPOSED OF MANY FRAGMENTED AND DISPARATE PEOPLES AND THEIR GODS, ALL OF WHOSE POWERS EXISTED SOLELY IN THE MINDS OF THEIR WORSHIPPERS. ONE DAY, TWO POWERFUL PANTHEONS OF REAL GODS ARRIVED HERE AT THE SAME TIME, EACH DETERMINED TO WIN OVER THE C'HOVITES TO THEMSELVES. ONE WAS THE PYAR PANTHEON, AND THE OTHER WAS THE DALNS PANTHEON.~
The four had heard the word Dalns once or twice, and nodded.
~THE DALNS PANTHEON WON, BUT ONLY AFTER A BITTER STRUGGLE THAT KILLED MANY PEOPLE AND DOOMED KETAFA TO DARKNESS. FOR THE PYAR GODS, IN THEIR JEALOUS ANGER AT LOSING, TOOK THE VASYN AND BROKE IT INTO THREE PARTS, SAYING TO THE DALNS GODS, YOU WILL BE BLIND AND DEAF TO ALL KETAFA UNTIL THE VASYN IS RESTORED BY OUTWORLDERS. THEY THEN HID THE PARTS IN THREE OTHER DIMENSIONS AND DEPARTED FOREVER.~
"Other dimensions? exclaimed George.
+YEAHI MEAN, YES,+ said the deep voice.
~YOUR PATH WILL BE FRAUGHT WITH DANGER.~ Squeaky sounded positively overjoyed at the prospect. ~THE PYAR GODS ARE AWARE THAT THE VASYN MAY BE RESTORED, AND WHILE THEY CANNOT DIRECTLY STOP YOU, THEY CAN PLACE THE PIECES IN THE MOST TERRIBLE PLACES THEY CAN FIND.~
"CAN IWHOA. Ringo felt his throat. "AHEM. UM, CAN I ASK YOU SOMETHING?
~YOU MEAN WHY ARE YOU SO LOUD? YOU ARE PROBABLY A MENTAL SCREAMER. THAT IS NOT GOOD. TELEPATHS FOR MILES AROUND WILL KNOW WHEN YOU ARE USING YOUR PSIONICS.~
"WELL, THAT TOO, BUT... WHY US? I MEAN, NOT THAT IT'S BEEN SO BAD, WITH THE MAGIC AND ALL THAT, BUT WHY US?
+BECAUSE YOU'VE PROVEN YOU CAN ADAPT TO STRANGE SITUATIONS,+ the deep voice said. +YOU'VE DROPPED ACID; YOU CAN DO THIS.+
[ALSO, WE LIKE YOUR MUSIC,] the female added.
"Lovely, said John. "Fans. Couldn't you have asked before whisking us away? We've got lives, y'know.
[WE DID. YOU JUST DON'T REMEMBER. BUT WE WOULDN'T HAVE USED YOU IF YOU'D SAID NO. IT'S AGAINST THE LAW.]
"Oh, it's nice you've got laws, said George, folding his arms. "What if we won't put the thingy together? Will you send us home?
Squeaky began his litany again. ~IF YOU SUCCESSFULLY OVERCOME ALL OBSTACLES AND RESTORE THE VASYN TO KETAFA, YOU WILL BE SENT HOME. IF NOT, YOU ARE HERE TO STAY, SO I SUGGEST YOU DO AS WE TELL YOU.~
John bowed deeply. "What is it your majesties would like us to do?
Squeaky seemed not to notice the sarcasmwhich perhaps was a good thing. ~THIS IS WHAT THE TRUE VASYN LOOKS LIKE.~ A picture burned into their minds: three intertwining, delicate strands of pink granite, very much like a DNA helix with an extra strand, standing on a square base. The fake Ketafan version resembled it about as much as a person made of Lego resembled a real person. ~UNFORTUNATELY, WE ONLY KNOW WHERE ONE OF THE PIECES IS, AND NOT ITS SPECIFIC LOCATION. HOWEVER, THIS WILL HELP YOU.~ A second image appeared to them: a rectangular platinum bar with a diamond in one end. ~THIS IS A LOCATION BAR. IT WILL FLASH WHENEVER IT IS POINTED IN THE DIRECTION OF A PIECE OF THE VASYN. IT WORKS AT ANY DISTANCE, BUT NOT THROUGH DIMENSIONS. SO IT IS ONLY USEFUL WHEN YOU ARE ACTUALLY IN THE SAME UNIVERSE AS ONE OF THE PIECES.
~ONCE THERE, LIFT THE PIECE OFF THE GROUNDYOU ALL MUST BE TOUCHING IT, OR EACH OTHERAND YOU WILL BE DRAGGED BACK TO C'HOU, WHERE YOU CAN STORE THE PIECE. HOPEFULLY WE WILL HAVE FOUND THE OTHER PIECES BY THEN SO WE CAN SEND YOU WHEREVER THEY ARE. AFTER YOU HAVE THEM, YOU MUST TAKE THEM TO KETAFA AND PUT THEM TOGETHER. ONLY THEN WILL THE CURSE BE LIFTED AND KETAFA BECOME VISIBLE TO THE GODS.~
John asked, "What about Lyndess? We were about to go off after her.
The deep voice took over. +ONCE THE CURSE IS LIFTED, LYNDESS'LL BE ABLE TO APOLOGIZE TO BANARE WITHOUT THE HASSLE OF CROSSING THE OCEAN. BANARE'LL BE ABLE TO SEE HER THEN.+
"So we'll end up rescuing her anyway.
+YEAH, THE HARD WAY.+
[DO BE CAREFUL,] said the female. [I DON'T WANT TO SEE YOU HURT.]
"Isn't that a coincidence! Neither do we. Paul was just as irritated as the others; there was something very wrong here. "If you're not the gods, what's in it for you if we put the Vasyn together?
Squeaky pulled itself up importantly. ~OUR MOTIVES AND REWARDS ARE FAR TOO ALIEN FOR YOU TO APPRECIATE, HUMAN. AND THAT IS ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW. GOODBYE.~ The three figures began to fade.
"Wait! cried George. "What if the thingy breaks or we can't get a piece for some reason?
~THEN THAT IS JUST TOO BAD. THIS IS NOT A GAME YOU CAN WIN ON GOOD INTENTIONS AND POINTS. YOU HAVE VICTORY CONDITIONS, AND IF YOU DO NOT FULFILL THEM, YOU LOSE.~
Blink! The figures were gone.
Blink again! The four were back on the beach, dazzled by the sudden shift of realities. George picked up something at his feet: the location bar. He handed it round solemnly, and nothing was said until,
"Drafted, we've been fuckin drafted! yelled John. George had to grab his hand to stop him throwing the bar into the ocean.
Then C'hou faded away....
+Okay, successful break. They're on Salthry now.+
~I wish we hadn't had to do that. It's bad to talk directly to your characters.~
[I wish we could have told them more. I'm sorry they left angry.]
~We gotta keep them confused. They can't know the gods hired 'em. Remember, the outworlders who get the Vasyn gotta do it independent of the gods, or the curse won't be broken. Besides, were you gonna tell them they started out as your psych experiment?~
+Or that what's in it for us is a million credits if they succeed? They'll understand that waaaaaay too well, since they won't get any of it.+
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