+I hope you don't mind, we've already gotten things started.+
[Is Paul all right?]
~He didn't keep. Ow, don't! I'm kidding! There he is, he's fine.~
[He's not fine. Oh, I knew this was going to happen! Look at how thin hes gotten! And his clothes are filthy!]
+Listen, you shouldve seen him before we convinced him to take a bath and shave. At least now he looks halfway civilized.+
[Why didnt you put some clean clothes on him while you were at it?]
+Believe it or not, those are his cleanest clothes. We didnt have time to have him get them cleaned or get new ones.+
[Oh, Paul, Im so sorry I promise well make it up to you . Wheres he going?]
~Trace a line up to the top right corner of the screen and you'll see.~
[What's that strong magical focus?]
+That, Shag most feathery, is called the Kansael. Here's the printout on it, if you're interested.+
~It can do a few things.~
+And it's not attached to anyone. It's Paul's for the taking.+
[I can't believe something this powerful isn't being used.]
~We couldn't either. The people who have it are vacuum heads, they don't know what it is. But that's good, it'll be easy to make them lose it.~
Of late Ringo had developed a taste for spending the day in bed while his mind soared round the countryside. He rarely left his room to do other than eat, use the toilet, and wash up a little; he had quit shaving a while ago and was starting to get pretty hairy. But he barely noticed his appearance any more. There were so many more interesting things to look at!
Every day he extended the boundaries of his mental map, first visualizing the edge of an area he'd become familiar with, then panning beyond it, memorizing trees and boulders, ponds and bushes. After so much practice, he was now adept at radical shifts of vision; he could fill his mind with a bee, flit with it from flower to flower, examine a single hair on its leg, then pull back and watch it as a tiny golden thing in a huge meadow. Sometimes he would reach a hand to touch his surroundings, to pluck a four-leafed clover or a blade of grass, and he would touch his leg instead; it was a delicious shock to remember that his body lay in a bedroom miles away.
The only thing he found disappointing about his magic was that he had a pretty feeble range on his sense of touch and telekinesis. He'd long established that they stopped dead after about fifty feet; his mental arm was only so long, apparently. At least within that range he could look at something with his mindsight and touch it or pick it up. He knew he had no business being dissatisfied with something so miraculous. Still, he nursed a vague annoyance that he could see for miles and miles without being able to do a damn thing about it.
One lovely morning, tired of trees, he decided to see if the others were doing anything interesting. Flash to Paul, trudging down a dusty roadhe was never fun to watch. Ringo didn't always care to look at George; his supposedly instantaneous changes were disgustingly detailed when viewed by mindsight. Ringo had never seen anything so creepy in his life, and it was no mere lack of opportunity that the two hadn't spoken since That Day.
But then there was John! Elegant, graceful, and always so happy; watching John fly was like watching his own thoughts dance in the air. Flick, there was John in Ringo's head, blissfully riding the winds. Oh, he was nice. Ringo settled back on the pillows and sighed happily, noting offhand that John was farther up the coast than usual, perhaps four or five miles north of the house. The land there was extremely uninhabited, all dark green forest and rocky beach, and there was something very appropriate about John against this lonely wild backdrop, brushing the treetops with his bare toes and then curving out to soar over the shining sea -
Oops, not so lonely backdrop. At the edge of Ringo's perception appeared a small figure, standing at the edge of the woods and looking up at John. Curious to see who would be wandering around such a remote area, Ringo zoomed in on hisno, her face.
A young woman in her twenties or so, she had the narrow face and boyish body characteristic of elves, but the round tops of her ears and stubby fingers indicated a measure of human blood in her veins. She was lighter-skinned than most Baravadans and wore a sober brown cloth shirt and black trousers, not the festive silks so common in Taakan. Another anomaly: her long brown hair, bound behind a silver headband, bespoke a tirin, but she bore a short sword with a red hilt.
As she watched John, she licked her lips. Then she tugged out the sword. The blade was hot pink.
For the first time in weeks Ringo found himself not happy, even a bit worried. He peered into John's face to see if he'd noticed the woman, but John was as blissed-out as ever. I hope he doesn't land, Ringo thought. Not that there was much chance of that, but still.
John blazed pink! His half-lidded eyes snapped open, the pink faded, and Ringo flashed frantically back to the woman, who was lowering the outstretched sword. "You bitch, whatd you do to him?" Ringo demanded out loud, zooming back to John, whose eyes were very wide as he continued to dip and soar like nothing had happened: much too oblivious to suit Ringo.
The woman sheathed her sword, cupped her hands around her mouth, and called to John.
His face twisted into a foolish smile, and he dropped out of the sky and landed next to her!
She pointed at a fallen branch; Ringo saw her say Get that for me. John leaped to the branch, picked it up, and presented it to her eagerly, a dog fetching a stick for its master. Letting the branch fall, she said something else. Ringo's small skill at lip reading was inadequate to follow this command, but John nodded vigorously, gathered her in his arms as if she had a broken leg, and trotted off into the forest.
Ringo made a desperate mental grab for John, but he was way, way, way out of range. With a cry Ringo dissolved the scene, fell out of bed, scrambled to his feet, and ran downstairs yelling "John's in trouble! Someone just cast a spell on him! Where is everyone, we've gotta help him!"
[What's he talking about? Quick, zoom in on John.]
~Okayuh, something very weird has happened.~
+Hey, she's the one with the Kansael! What's she doing with John? She's supposed to meet Paul. What a great coincidence. I love it!+
~It's not a coincidence. Our script for her was wiped. Someone else is running her!~
No one else was in the house, not even Astaris. "Shit, shit, shit," Ringo moaned, looking wildly around -
Wait. Calm down. I can find them. All I have to do is - He closed his eyes and Paul bloomed in his head, but far away, useless anyway. George: no picture, something else, unfindable, useless. Much bloody good this is doing me! Grunnel: somewhere in Taakan, useless. Astaris: just about to enter the house! Ringo ran outside, grabbed the startled elf, babbled what he'd seen.
"Release me," said Astaris, prying Ringo's hands off. He stepped back, looking extremely interested. "The sword was - "
*ping* "What's this about John?" said George, stepping from behind the house. "What happened?"
Suddenly thinking of protoplasm and distorting body parts, Ringo quickly looked away from George and mumbled what happened.
"How'd you seeoh," George murmured. He became very interested in kicking at a stone in the grass.
"The sword," Astaris prompted eagerly. "It was pink and red?" Ringo nodded, and the elf startled him by crying "Brox's Kiss! Why does sar have it? Where is sar? Tell me where sar is!"
I like your priorities, Ringo thought, closing his eyes. He saw John in a camp in the forest, being displayed to a crowd of men by the woman. He pulled back from the scene until he looked down at a large area of land and sea. "They're up the coast in a clearing in the forest.
'Up' the coast?
That way! Ringo pointed. There's a big round rock on the beach near them."
You mean cold the coast, deadbrain!
"Jesus," George said softly. "You can see all that stuff? Just like that?"
"Stop talking!" Astaris commanded. "Were going now!" To George: "Tirin, do you know what a pegasus is?"
George replied automatically "Isn't that a horse with wingsoh!" He caught his breath as he realized what the elf wanted. He'd not thought of becoming fantasy animals; simply being an animal was fantasy enough.
Ringo's stomach did a little lurch. He opened his eyes and looked at the elf pleadingly. "Can't we use the boat?"
"I want to impress them!" Astaris fluttered his hand at George impatiently. "Why do you wait? Change!"
George threw an apologetic-eager glance at Ringo, who turned his head as
and looked up to see a magnificent white stallion, gold of hoof and black of eye, with huge feathered wings that sprang from its shoulders. Bloody hell, thought Ringo, swallowing, that's George, that's George! He'd never seen George change in the flesh, so to speak. The transformations in his head were surreal silent movies, not reality. George wasn't really the animals.
+Whoa! Did you see that power spike?+
~Hey, he shouldn't have been able to do that! That ring's supposed to only be good for ordinary animals.~
~Sure I'm sure. You saw the ring's Field percentage! What's going on here?~
With a graceful leap Astaris mounted George; George snorted in surprise, preoccupied as he was with furling and unfurling his wings. "Mount!" the elf snapped at Ringo.
"Uh-uh," Ringo said, backing away. "Oh, no! I'm not, I won't do that, no way!"
"Why? Have you decided not to rescue John?"
"Not this way," Ringo pleaded. "It's just too bloody weird."
"I don't know what wiehd means, nor am I interestedmount now, or I wont even attempt to rescue John!"
If Ringo had even been stuck between a grayer rock and a harder place, he couldn't remember when as he crept forward until he was looking at George and breathing through his mouth, avoiding the horsey odor that took George even further from humanity. It didn't help that he had no idea how to mount a horse without stirrups and a saddle (and wasnt much of a rider even with those articles). He raised an arm feeblyand Astaris grabbed it with both hands, hauled him onto George's back with unexpected strength.
"Ow!" Ringo protested, scrambling around behind the elf until he fell into a sitting position. For a moment all he knew was the pain in his arm. Then Astaris said "Go!" George galloped off and Ringo lurched backwards. Terrified, he threw his arms around the elf's waist. He looked down at the broad white back he sat on, felt George's short stiff hairs and body heat, warmer than a human's. This is George under me, he marveled as they thudded along the yard, picking up speed. Jesus, I'm sitting on George, I'm bloody riding him. Riding him in more ways than one; George surged between his legs, and embarrassing and unwanted sensations shot up his crotch. Ringo buried his flushed face in Astaris's back and thought hard about cold showers and ice.
All at once George LEAPED! and they dropped sickeningly as they plunged over the cliff. Ringo almost lost his grip and tumbled off, but held on literally by the thickness of the elf's shirt. George's huge wings thrashed, unsteadily at first, then with greater confidence as he caught the breeze and rose.
Astaris, ignoring the life-or-death struggle that had nearly lost him a shirt, flattened himself across George's neck, forcing Ringo to do the same or get blasted by the wind. He heard the elf shout directions to George, but they didn't register; he was too busy clamping his arms around Astariss body and cramming his bearded face into the elf's back.
As George made a wide, frightening left turn that had his riders almost horizontal, Ringo caught a glimpse of the coastline hundreds of feet below. He clamped his eyes shut and buried his face in the elf's back again. Finally George leveled off, stretching his neck out, and they arrowed forward, bouncing up and down with each beat of the wings. George pitched and yawed, always having to correct for a tilt somewhere, so that on top of everything else Ringo wanted to throw up. He gritted his teeth and visualized the nice unmoving house, wishing he'd never looked at John or become magical or gone to this world or even been born at all.
Then Astaris squirmed; and Ringo found his hands slipping down to clutch legs as the elf rose, gripping George with his calves alone. The wind hit Astaris full on, and George whinnied in surprise and broke cadence for a moment as they abruptly slowed. A jarring shock ran through him and his riders. Ringo held on for dear life, and opened his eyes to stare between the elf's legs at George's outstretched neck and mane and perky little ears flat against his skull. With a surge of horror Ringo realized that if he lurched backwards or slipped sideways Astaris was off to kiss the ocean, to be followed shortly thereafter by... He visualized the elf's face: suffused with a wild joy, Astaris laughed and spread his arms, embracing the sky. His right hand shimmered and a sword appeared, a silver shaft of light against the golden sunshine. "AAAAAAAAH!" the elf screamed, brandishing his sword overhead. "I am the Farbound! The Farbound!"
"Sit down, you maniac!" yelled Ringo. "We'll fall off!"
"I will never be killed! Never defeated! I am the Farbound, and I am coming!"
Ringo grabbed Astaris's legs with his mind and yanked.
The elf lost his leg-grip on George, plopped back down, teetered, and slipped to the right. Ringo wailed, clawing half at Astaris and half at the hairs on George's back, ripping out clumps of the useless stuff. George screamed and involuntarily bucked a little, and the two riders slid further.
Astaris scissored his legs hard around George's back, simultaneously grabbing George's mane. They stopped falling! and Ringo welded himself to Astaris as the elf slowly worked them back to vertical.
Ringo laughed weakly when they were stable again. Thank you thank you thank you God! He braced himself for some abuse from the elf, but Astaris said nothing. A quick glance at his face showed it to be grimly satisfied; he got his jollies from danger, after all.
They had made good time despite their aerobatics; already they were over the beach where John had been taken, and the tent-filled clearing was visible ahead. Astaris shouted "Land there!" and with a snort George began his spiral down. Ringo was nauseated afresh, and in his efforts to stave off puking did not notice men on the ground scurrying out of the way as George backwinged (blowing hair and light litter about) and made a jarring four-point landing amid the tents.
Before George could fold his wings he was neck-deep in skahs men, tall and small, wiry and beefy, elvish and human and mixed, all wide-eyed and somehow identical. John was nowhere among them. No one said a word or did anything, just breathed at the two riders as Astaris slipped and Ringo sprawled to the ground. "Don't change back," Astaris muttered to George, then bellowed "Im Astaris Farbound! Who wields the Kiss? Is Brox here?"
Ringo just stood there, breathing deeply, letting his stomach put itself to rights; he was so happy to be down that he wanted to fling himself to the ground and hug the earth. He could only think one thing: Im not going back that way. I'll crawl all the way back, hop on one footwell, not that, but I'm not -
"I be Aurion Ba'arabec. Who be you men, why be you here, and where got you that winged horse?" a husky contralto demandedgood God, was she Ketafan?and every mans face lit up with a goofy smile as they flowed from the path of the woman who had kidnapped John as she strode to meet the visitors. She sized up Astaris, gave Ringo a long quizzical glance, then turned such a proprietary gaze on George that he grew annoyed and lightly stepped on her foot.
She yelped. Weapons sprang out of their sheaths, hands raised to cast spells, and faces frowned terribly at Georgebut Aurion, extricating her foot, made an irritated noise and waved the men back. "Do not kill this animal. It has not harmed me."
The men put their arms down and weapons away in perfect unison, better than any Broadway chorus line.
Astaris leaned against George, arms folded. (George was tempted to walk away, but forbade.) Casually he asked, "Whered you get Brox's Kiss, tirin Aurion? Did you kill Brox?"
She drew back in alarm. "I killed no one! If this sar touches my sword, rend him to pieces!" The chorus line of homicidal skahs readied itself again.
At the words I killed no one, Astaris pushed away from George. Unconcerned by the glowering men, he grinned like a wolf. "I don't want the Kiss. But I will know why you have it. Did you steal the Kiss from Brox? A good joke if you did, tirin Aurion! I'll trade you the pegasus for the information." He slapped Georges side.
A snort of surprise and indignation came from George, and Ringo said angrily "You can't do that! Hes not"
"Cease, tirin!" Astaris turned on him a look of such fury that Ringo fell silent, grumbling to himself that the elf was being way too close-mouthed about his plan, if indeed he had one. "That be all you want?" Aurion said cautiously. When Astaris reassured her, she smiled. "I like that offer. Come to my tent and I'll tell you all you would know. My skahs will continue their usual activities," she called to the men, who promptly dispersed and resumed their chores, chopping wood and so forth. Then the woman spared Ringo another curious glance. Who be you, hairy face? Came you from Ketafa?
She was Ketafan! That would explain her atypical looks and behavior, but why was she collecting men? Was it wise to admit to having been in Ketafa? As Ringo fumbled for a reasonable answer, Astaris rescued him: This tirins an olyrr-sarfrom another world, he added when Aurion looked puzzled. Sar owns the pegasus and owes me money. Sarll pay the debt by surrendering the pegasus to you and teaching you how to ride it. Sar will tend the pegasus while we talk.
Yeah, Ringo agreed, trying to look like a combination of Charles Lindburgh and Willie Shoemaker. At last the elfs plan was making sense. Once Ringo was left alone, he could concentrate on searching for John. Besides, he didnt want to be anywhere near that pink sword if Aurion suddenly decided to add to her man collection. If George was still deeply disturbing, he could at least be relied upon not to enchant or kill Ringo, and he offered an escape route (albeit an awkward one) if things got ugly.
Aurion seemed satisfied with the explanation, but then, pondering George, she frowned. The tirin seemed reluctant to give me the horse. What if he flies away while we talk? I want him with us in my tent so this doesnt happen.
Oh, I wouldnt do that, said Ringo, but maybe his face betrayed him or something, because she insisted he accompany her to the tent along with Astaris, who was observing the interchange with sardonic humor. With considerable misgivings Ringo mooched after the others. At least the woman hadnt zapped him to make him behaveyet.
George followed and almost walked right into the tent, at the last second remembering that he shouldn't. He retreated and managed to look sullen. Aurion stroked his nose and then beckoned to a couple of eager men. "Hobble and tether it."
"Oh, you don't have to, he's tame," Ringo said hastily, but the men were already advancing on George. George wasn't having any of that; he beat his wings at the men and led them a merry chase round the clearing until Astaris snapped "George! Stand!"
With a whinny that was nearly a wail, George stopped and let scratchy ropes be tied around his forelegs and neck. As a skahs tugged on the rope to get him to walk to where the other horses were tethered, he turned his head and gave Ringo a long look that said quite plainly, This better get John back or Ass is grass.
Aurions tent was circular, about fifteen feet in diameter; a single pole in the center supported its top. It was furnished mostly with large silk pillows. Ringo gratefully sank into one as far away from Aurion as possible. She and Astaris settled themselves so that they faced one another, and Aurion snapped her fingers three times. A short, well-muscled, well-scarred, unsmiling Ketafan man, light-skinned and of the same race as Stal, came in with mugs of wine on a silver tray. Aurion introduced him as Sarekyl. He nodded at Astaris and Ringo, handed them mugs, and asked Aurion, Should I stay?
No. Theyll do me no harm, and you must see to the comfort of the winged horse, said the woman, taking the final mug for herself. Clearly not pleased with this instruction, Sarekyl nevertheless grunted assent and left the tent.
As soon as the man was gone, Ringo took a huge swig of the wine. It was one of the many excellent vintages available in Baravadathe natives could profitably have competed with Europes finestbut he put the mug down thereafter, wanting to maintain a clear head for his task. (It occurred to him then that this was the first alcohol he'd had since discovering his magic. Hmm. A subject to ponder later.) As Astaris and Aurion started talking, he closed his eyes and visualized .
John, standing next to a tree in an anonymous bit of forest, looking grim and responsible, wielding a five-foot sword in one hand. He seemed to be guarding something, though Ringo saw nothing that deserved guarding, not even a path; just trees.
" call me tirin. I be not Aurions voice drifted in.
" your hair " Astaris.
myself a Ketafan skahs
Well, whatever, John's okay, that's what's important. Ringo pulled straight up and out of the forest, trying to relate John's tree to the tentand went too high, found himself staring down at a solid mass of trees, with no idea which one was John's.
"... steal it from Brox?"
" bought it from Brox. Sar wants my quest to succeed "
Ringo tried again, envisioning John and backing slowly away from him, trying to memorize an ever-widening circle of land that he hoped would intersect with an area he already knew. Butdammit! He went too far again, zooming past the treetops practically into orbit. Cursing quietly, he moved back in, and zip! found himself inspecting the pores on Johns nose.
"... quest? Whatwhatre you seeking? Monmonsters?"
Youll know very soon.
Jesus, what the hell is the matter with me? Ringo thought in frustration. Even on his first day of magic his control hadnt been one-tenth this crappy. Had he gotten drunk on one lousy mouthful of wine?
The shout startled Ringo; his eyes shot open, and Johns nose changed into the tent so abruptly that Ringo reeled a bit and did not immediately comprehend Astaris rolling sideways across the pillows, wine from his mug splashing onto them; the fading pink smear on the wall of the tent; Aurion rising gracefully from her seat with Brox's Kiss out and ready.
Astaris leaped to his feet, stumbled, recovered, and flung his mug at the woman, who dodged it. "Whywhywhyd you drug me?" he said, sounding wounded rather than angry. His own sword appeared in his hand. "I don' wan thKiss, an Ive no inrest in your quest. I only wanna know abou Brox. An Id skif teb with you willingly, but I dont wanna figh while stew-brained!"
"I know," she said softly. "I hoped the drug would sleep you." For a moment her face got all hungry. "Drop your sword, Astaris Farbound. Dont fight me, fight for me. We will" but she broke off when Astaris's sharp answer sliced at her face. She parried the wobbly blow just in time. Sparks flew as the two swords clanged together, and the two had at it in earnest, leaping over pillows and dancing round the center pole.
Outside the tent there was a yell of concern, and the tent flap was drawn back to reveal hurriedly massing angry skahs.
The action in the tent paused for a moment. "Are you such a coward tha you need drugs an a group tdefea me, Ketafan skahs?" Astaris said mockingly, as he dashed his hand across his mouth to wipe away a bit of drool.
Aurion only smiled. "I be Ketafan. I fight any way I must, to win. But I wont have my skahs come in here; there isnt enough room. So will you have your skif teb. Skif teb!" she sang to the charmed men. "If I be defeated, capture Astaris and the winged horse tirin." And the fight resumed.
The words penetrated Ringos drug- and startlement-fogged consciousness. Panic filled him as he realized that he was screwed whether Astaris won or lost the fight. I gotta get outta here! He scrambled to his feet and, staggering a bit, pressed against the back of the tent, but the tent flap was miles away through endless flashing blades, opened onto acres of hostile baddies"Shit!" he cried as Astaris's foot slipped on a pillow and the elf fell backwards. A pink bolt sizzled just over his head; Aurion cursed her overeager aim and readied for a second zap. Ringo had to do somethingthe center pole! He wrapped a shaky mental hand around it and pulled.
He lost his concentration and his grip almost immediately, but that one jerk had been enough. The pole shot out, Aurion made a startled noise, and the tent subsided in slow motion around them.
Ringo found himself standing in a tiny closet of fabric, heavy layers of material pressing uncomfortably on his head. He dropped to his knees and groped for the edge of the tent, found it, crawled through into the sunlight. He blinked up at a couple of Aurions skahs standing over him, but their mindless attention was riveted on the center of the tent, which boiled as the woman and Astaris jabbed at the fabric. Ringo crawled past them and into the forest.
[Have you found out about the people running Aurion yet? What do they want? Are they hostile? Did they increase the power of George's ring? Do you know where they're monitoring from?]
~No, I dunno, I dunno, I dunno, and no. Gimme time, Shag!~
George had just been about to nibble some grain left him by Sarekyl when the tent erupted in chaos. As every skahs within earshot ran past him, he strained at his rope until he choked, knocking the bucket of grain over in the process. Bugger this! he decided, and *ping* became a cat standing in the now-huge hobbles with the tether hanging around his little furry body. He spent a moment adjusting to blurry vision and the sudden largeness of things, then leaped out of the rope just as the tent subsided to the ground with a great sigh of air. Two people inside jabbed at the cloth with swords. Where's Ringo? George thought in alarm. He streaked to the tent, weaving between a forest of still legs, and squirmed into the folds.
His vision improved immediately in the silky tan darkness. In the vast cavern where Astaris and Aurion stood and hacked at the tent, he ran right between them; they never noticed. With no idea where Ringo had been sitting, he rooted around with all his senses. Momentarily distracted by the ripping of cloth as the two combatants freed themselves, he finally sniffed out the pillow that Ringo had been on. A little more sniffing led him to the edge of the tent where Ringo had been, and George stuck his head out under the side to sniff-confirm that Ringo had indeed gone that way. Good, so he's safe at least.
The clanging of swords began again. Temporarily blinded by the sunlight, George wondered whether to go after Ringo or watch the fight. The fight piqued his curiosity; he wriggled the rest of himself out of the tent. When things simmered down to their normal feline blur he cautiously prowled nearer the fight, until he was standing between a couple of quivering skahs slaves who were perspiring heavily in their efforts not to disobey Aurion and join the attack. Although everything was big and lacking in most colors, he followed the action without much trouble; in fact, the near-motionless skahs were harder to look at than the lively combatants. To his inexpert eye Aurion seemed to be the better fighter; her parries of Astaris's thrusts and swings were easy and casual, while Astaris seemed to be pushed to the limit of his abilities. Not that George wanted him to lose, but he couldnt help hoping that Astaris might be humiliated.
Suddenly Astaris swung, overbalanced, and stumbled forward. Aurion whirled around as his back passed her and pointed the Kiss at him. Astaris tried to turn and knock the sword aside, but before he could it glowed bright pink and spat the glow at him. He gasped as the light engulfed him; as it faded, his eyes widened and his face twisted into a ghastly smile. His sword dropped from his hand and vanished.
Grinning, Aurion put her arm around Astaris's shoulders. "You've been chosen, Astaris Farbound, to aid me in my liberation of Ketafa. Together shall we drive the Idri'en Tagen into the sea, turn the palace of the kapse into flaming ruin, and destroy their fake Vasyn! When our feet touch the shore, all who hate the Idris will join us! All who love them will be killed! She raised the pink sword and laughed. The watching men, including Astaris, cheered. And I will personally smite each Idri into the dung from which they sprang! The Raleka will prevail!"
Good God, thought George, his tail lashing back and forth like a reed in a tornado. Hed practically forgotten about the Idris and the Raleka, but now everything came rushing back. I thought we were well out of that madness. And shes a RalekaI thought they didnt really exist. I wonder if they all came over here to escape the Idris. Oh, hell, it doesnt matter right now. Gotta rescue John. That probably means getting the pink sword. Maybe if she loses it, the spell will wear off the people. Which meant freeing Astaris too, but oh well. If Ringo was here I suppose he could make it fly out of her hand or whatever, but hes not, so its up to me. George crouched to spring.
Just as Aurion said, "Where's my pegasus?" George *ping* swelled into a lion (knocking over the two sweating skahs he stood between), sprang across the clearing (I love this! he exulted, soaring through the air) and thud, knocked Aurion on her back, arms akimbo. He expected the sword to go flying out of her hand, but she kept hold of it. Making sure his claws were sheathed, George sat on her legs, put his front paws on her chest, and growled at her. Come on, drop it.
Aurion hacked awkwardly at his front leg. He roared with pain, then pressed down on her stomach and showed her his teeth.
Her charmed skahs watched in agony, quivering to protect her but ordered not to engage in any fighting unless she so requested... which she couldn't do, straining for breath as she was.
And George found himself in a very peculiar position. His whole plan had revolved around shaking the sword off the woman, and that had failed. So what exactly was he going to do next? He wasn't about to chew Aurions face off; he couldn't risk grabbing the sword in his mouth, the way she was waving it around; she was suffocating, but if he got up she'd sic thirty skahs on him; and he was too excited to think of something more useful to become.
Before he could get to work on the problem, however, a familiar and unexpectedly welcome voice laughed, and Astaris bent down and twitched the Kiss out of Aurion's hand. There was nothing charmed about him any more, though he was still a bit glassy-eyed. "Get up, George," he ordered, and George, glad for some direction, backed off.
"Huh - huh - huh," Aurion gasped. "How?" she finally managed, looking at the elf with frightened eyeswhich, George noted sourly, she hadn't done to the lion staring in her face. Why werent you enslaved?
Astaris tossed the pink sword end-over-end and caught it by the hilt. "Deadbrain. Didn' you wonder why I knew of Brox's Kiss? I'm Brox's realchild. I helped Brox maket. Its magic doesn burn me. I thought it was funny to preten it did." He transferred the pink sword to his left hand, and his old sword appeared in his right. This he handed down to Aurion. "Let's finish our skif teb. Attack me, because I can figh till you attack me. Jus don attack me with drugs again." He switched the pink sword back to his right hand and offered the woman his left. Ill give you back the Kiss when were done.
She stared at him resentfully but allowed him to help her up. Limping as she backed away from him, she took a couple of deep breaths and inspected the sword hed given her. Suddenly she lunged at the elf, grabbing for the pink sword, but he sidestepped her and she stumbled past, then broke into a run for the horses. "Kill Astaris!" she cried, slashing a horse's hobble and tether and leaping onto its bare back. She kicked it in the side and thundered off as best she could through the trees.
There was a great shout of anger as thirty men flooded toward Astaris, who sensibly cut and ran for it, right past George.
Again George found himself completely ignored, as the last command had neglected to include him. As the men streamed around him, vaulted him, and even cast spells over him, he reflected that being in command of such an army left something to be desired. Also that Astaris was not a bad actor, though his sense of humor was questionable. (But then, so was Grunnel's.) More worrisome was that the charming effects of the pink sword hadnt vanished with its transference to a new owner; what was he to do if John was irrevocably enslaved to Aurion?
Soon he was alone except for the remaining horses. They had noticed him, all right, and were straining at their ropes, trying to escape him. Should he chase Aurion? Nah; since separating her from the sword hadn't broken the spell, there seemed little point in running her down. Besides, his paw stung where she'd cut it. He lay down and licked the wound, wondering whether they'd be able to break the spell on John, and where was he anyway, and where was Ringo, and Why am I staying like this?
*ping* George was himself again, lying on his stomach on the grass. He felt naked without fur, and shivered though the sun was warm and bright. Better go find the others. Since he had a vague idea where Ringo was, as opposed to no idea where John might be, he *
He'd intended to become a dog, and nothing happened!
Shaken, he tried again.
George wagged his tail. Didn't feel like it hard enough, I guess.
Incident thus dismissed, he loped over to the forest behind the tent and put his nose to the ground. He was always amazed at the huge number of scents that seemed to come out of nowhere when he became a dog, yet how easy it was to zero in on the one that concerned him. Yup, Ringo had gone that way
but so had someone else.
With increasing firmness of step as the drug wore off (thank God hed only had a little), Ringo first ran, then trotted, then walked through the forest. When he judged himself safely far away, he sat down on a fallen mossy tree to catch his breath and rub his head. His thoughts were back to normal, but the weight of the tent pressing on his skull had left a sore spot up there. Nothing a healing potion wouldn't -
A twig snapped.
Ringo looked up. Twenty paces away stood Aurion's friend Sarekyl, longsword in one hand, a coil of rope in the other. "Promised you to teach Aurion how to care for and ride that flying horse." His smile was quite humorless, and he didnt look tired at all for all the running he must have done.
"Uh," said Ringo, eyeing the sword. Possibly the man had it out for him to autograph, but he doubted it. He got to his feet.
Save yourself some pain and return with me," Sarekyl said conversationally. I wont hit you, and Ill leave your legs free when I tie you up so you can walk back. But if you run, Ill catch you and hit you on the head and drag you back. He advanced toward his quarry. We dont usually take tirin, but you be useful to care for that winged horse.
Ringo stepped backwards over the log, knowing he couldnt outrun the man, defenseless
He stopped and laughed as a barrier dissolved, even as the flat of the man's sword tapped him lightly on the side of the head as a warning. Giddy, grinning, Ringo waved at the man. "Bye-bye."
Sarekyl gave him an amused look as, lowering his sword, he began to shake the coil of rope, unlooping it for his seemingly acquiescent prey. "Be you trying to sell me someay!" he bellowed as his feet left the ground. He kicked and twisted, but he was nothing, nothing! in Ringo's mental hand, as helpless as a kitten in its mother's mouth. The sword and the rope slipped from his fingers, and he snatched at the air as the rope snaked down to splash in a pile while the sword plunged point down into the turf. Up he flew, white-faced, until finally Ringo dropped him on a branch of a huge oak, forty or fifty feet up. The man squealed and wrapped his arms and legs around the branch. "Skahs liar!" he screamed, shaking his fist and almost losing his balance. Ill kill you when I get down!
"Fuck you!" Ringo shouted back joyfully, giving him the finger. He wanted to dance from excitement. How easy it had beenjust a sustained thought, effortless, invisible; just a thought, and he'd incapacitated the man.
Just a thought!
Oh, he'd known he could move things even heavier than people. But hed only used his little mental skyhook for frivolous reasonsto see if he could do it, to show off, to fool around. Thing goes up, thing goes down. Thing goes up, thing goes down. Cool, but big deal. Even yanking Astaris down and collapsing the tent had been nothing; he could have done those things manually.
Now his toy skyhook was a bit more than a charming novelty.
And damned if he didn't feel a little powerful.
The sword caught his eye; it leaned at a crazy angle, slowly falling over in the moist turf. A flick of his mind and he was King Arthur at a distance, thinking the sword out of the loam and into his hand (though he had to quickly grab the hilt with his other hand as well because it was heavy). It's a great souvenir, he thought, awkwardly waving the weapon around. I'll get another one and cross them and put them over my head, I mean bed.
*ping* George popped up from behind a bush. "Hi."
Jesus! Ringo was so surprised he dropped the sword. "Don't do that!"
"Sorry." George's gaze strayed up to Sarekyl, who was complaining at the top of his lungs. "Not bad," he offered, looking back just in time to see the sword jump into Ringo's hands. He winced.
"Yeah," Ringo said uncomfortably, sitting on the log and dropping the sword. Hed only picked it up again because he knew it would disturb George; he was more than a little annoyed at George for startling him. He waved in the general direction of Aurions camp. Arent you supposed to be, uh, back there doin the, uh, horse thing, then?
Ass didnt need me any more, George said, and he gave a short synopsis of what had happened in the camp. Maybe theyll chase him all the way to Ketafa, he concluded hopefully.
Ringo nodded. I hope John didnt join in the chase. I'd better find him." He closed his eyes and saw .
John racing through the forest, dodging between trees, calling to someone ahead and chasing that person with all his might. Someone was behind him, dirty, stumbling, gasping, falling behind
"Paul?" Ringo said in disbelief. "Whered you come from?" And then, horrified: "What happened to you?"
For he had at last awakened to Paul's wretched condition, straw-thin, filthy clothing, face red and contorted as he staggered after John, blinded by tearsPaul crying? That was like England being conquered, barely conceivable, and Ringo was struck with the odd sense of watching some kind of alternate universe. He couldn't assimilate this strange, ruined Paul.
"What's happened to Paul?" George demanded. But Ringo, caught up in the vision, wasn't in the neighborhood and didnt reply.
If John hadnt been ignoring his feet and tripping at every other step, he would have put miles between himself and Paul. But only for Paul was it a race, because John was clearly oblivious to the man behind screaming in frustration as he fell farther and farther back.
With a painful lurch of sympathy and guilt, Ringo said "Oh Jesus, Paul, you've been runnin' like that for weeks."
"Like what?" George asked. Again his query went unnoticed.
The forest abruptly thinned out, and John emerged onto a grassy plain. Ringo expanded the picture, and far ahead of them he saw a horse and rider going hell-for-leather: Aurion, scratched and torn and bitterly angry, carrying Astaris's sword. "So that's who John's after! She's really got him, hasn't she."
If John was superior while stumbling through the woods, he was positively superhuman on clear ground, pulling away from Paul so fast that Ringo wondered absurdly if they could enter him in the Olympics. But he was doing more than running; his wings bloomed and he leaped into the air, flapping like mad. He fell and landed awkwardly, but righted himself and sped off to jump again and again, each jump a bit higher and longer, each burst of wing-beats harder. Ringo had never seen John successfully launch himself from the ground, but hed also never seen John so desperate to do it. Was it possible that a transcendent effort could carry him into the air?
"He can't do that!" Ringo cried. "If he makes it up we'll never see him again! C'mon, Paul, c'mon!" He pumped his fist, feeling absolutely impotent. Just like the first time Aurion took John! "Catch up to him, grab him, do something! Youre our only hope!"
But Paul, doggedly and exhaustedly following, might as well have been on Earth for all the good he could have done.
In helpless desperation, Ringo made a mental grab for John's legs, knowing he was much too far away to
and he yelped as his imaginary hand closed around legs and John pitched forward like a tackled quarterback.
+Whoa! Power spike!+
~At least this one is understandable.~
Ringo almost fell over too. He couldnt stop looking at John, who just lay where hed fallen, crying. Tentatively, Ringo touched John again, his skin and feathers, the grass around him, his glasses, the soil. He started to babble softly, "Howhow did II justI mean, I wasn'tI couldn'thes too far! God, hes miles away! It never worked that far before! But I got him! I got him!" One more test: next to John's body, he plucked a handful of grass in his mental fist and let the blades sprinkle down to be wafted away by the breeze.
Ringo was trembling now, and he broke off the vision and returned to himself and George. He felthe didn't know how he felt. The something was beckoning to him again, enormous and magnificent, terrifying and overwhelming did he want it? Was it a good thing? What if it wasnt? Oh, too much! Too much! With a noise that was half sigh, half groan, he put his head in his hands.
George, meanwhile, had settled on the fallen tree next to Ringo, dying to know what had affected Ringo so profoundly, but too tactful (and too uncomfortable) to ply him with questions just then. Instead, he thought of Paul, and discovered no specific recent memory of him, except for that one day when. "He has no magic," George suddenly said. "Paul didn't get any magic."
Ringo looked up. It was good to have something else to think about. "No, he's... powerless." The word came from nowhere, and both men were surprised at how much it said about Paul, and about themselves.
"I wonder why." Unconsciously (no, be truthful: consciously), George slipped his ring hand into his pocket.
Ringo stood up, an odd, sad, vaguely frightened look on his face. "Come on, let's go meet up with them. Theyre a couple miles northwest of here."
)'Scuse me, are you three monitoring someplace called Chow?(
+That's Cuh-how. Yeah, we arehow did you know about C'hou?+
)A letter came to the SysAdmin for the Chow Monitors. Heres a copy.(
~Darn! Mystery Being beat me to it. I wanted to find it first.~
[Read it out loud, Varx.]
+Greetings. We have noticed your presence and manipulation of various C'hovites, as well as the four outworlders who we hope are in communication with you. Why do they hope that? We have business to discuss concerning these outworlders. Our UE-mail address is SANFAR.466%%.009CHSTR@39773529.UNV. Please contact us immediately. It's signedgods!+
[Who is it? Is it someone we know?]
+No, like I saidgods. The gods of C'hou.+
Silent, lost in thoughts that swirled with guilt and strangeness, George and Ringo reached the clearing, where they found everything gone except Aurion's deflated tent. Astaris sat on a stump polishing Brox's Kiss. He was in a very good mood and held the pink sword up for them to see. "Ugly thing. Brox used it to sex with males who didnt want to sex with sar."
"Nice guy," said George.
"John's still under its spell," said Ringo, but the elf shook his head. "The enchantment died a small time after I took it from Aurion."
Ringo was just about to close his eyes and find John and Paul when he was interrupted by crashing through the brush. A few moments later, John staggered into the clearing, lugging a crystal statue that blazed with rainbows as the sun hit it. But where was Paul?
A dreadful thought leapfrogged between George and Ringo as John eased the statue to a standing position in a shadow and straightened up, panting. "Lads," he said, his voice light and hysterical as he brushed an invisible speck of dust off the crystallized Paul, "we've a bit of a problem."