"What happened?" cried George and Ringo, gaping at the delicate crystal hairs on Paul's crystal head, crystal wrinkles in his crystal pants; even the stains in his shirt were noticeable. And his facethey couldn't look at his face.
John sank wearily to the ground. He had scratches and cuts where Pauls sharp edges had bumped him. "It's complicated. When that fuckin' bitch Aurion got me, she took me way out and set me to guardin' this hollow tree. "
"Ah, John." Aurion stroked his chest, and he shuddered in delight. "Gift of the gods, best of my slaves."
The compliment thrilled him. "I love you, Auri," he whispered. "I love you." He caught her hand, kissed it, dared to tongue it.
"Why do you taste me?" she asked, puzzled, pulling her hand away.
"Because I love you." The words were so sweet! He could repeat them all day.
Aurion shrugged. "John, what did I tell you to do?"
Snapping to attention, he thumped a hollow tree behind him. "Kill anyone who tries to steal your treasure!" He caught up in one hand the greatsword she'd given him and waved it around inexpertly, shearing off a thin branch on another tree and scattering leaf-bits everywhere.
Her laughter was every bit as musical as her touch. "Sharp! That sword be two-handed for any other wielder." Then her face grew serious, and ducking under the swordwhich John hastily set downshe stuck her hand in the tree and came up with two small drawstring bags. "These be my treasures. I'd keep them with me, but the gods want you to be entrusted with them. You will prevent them from being taken by anyone except myself or Sarekyl."
"I'll carry them in my pockets!" John exclaimed. "No one'll ever get through me to them!"
She smileda ray of sunshine!and gave him the bags. He put the flat one in his pocket and the lumpy one in his food pouch. Then Aurion wound a strand of her lush brown hair around his wrist and looked into his eyes. "I thank the gods for leading me to you," she sighed, resting her head on his chest. "Would that they hadn't told me to put you so far away! When we leave, you'll be my closest guard."
John almost fainted with joy. "Yes, yes, yes, oh, yes!"
She stepped back, whipping her hair from his wrist, and with a final wink she disappeared between the trees.
John's heart broke, watching her go, but at least he could listen to her beautiful body slipping between the trees, and if he closed his eyes he could imagine her standing in front of him. But he snapped them open again; how could he watch for thieves while dreaming? Plastering a scowl on his face, he listened. He quickly learned that the noises behind him were nonthreatening, because that's where Aurion and her other men were. (Oh, was John jealous! But he'd show them, he was her best slave, and he was never going to lose that distinction!) Her sweet voice outlined her plans to enslave Ta'akan's men one by one, until she had a force big enough to attack Focan. John puffed out his chest at being enslaved to a woman of such ambition and power (even though he didn't need the added competition that so many new slaves would bring).
But what was this? Listening to her, neglecting his duty again! He forced her voice to tune out and concentrated on the rest of the world, alert for suspicious noises. "No one gets by me," he muttered, digging the point of his sword into the ground. When hunger poked his stomach, rather than waste time digging around in his food pouch, he stripped leaves from a tree and ate them, barely chewing them so as not to distract himself. His glasses were dirty; he whipped them off, breathed on them, and wiped them on his pants, hoping no one challenged him during this vulnerable period. But no one did.
For a while the forest was quiet. Noises that might have meant something proved harmless: rabbits, leaves, a deer. He grew slack, leaning on his sword and dreaming of Aurion, wondering what she looked like naked. Her breasts were small, but they suited her; she was perfection. Her eyes, rich blue-green, could have won prizes by themselves. John sighed. Surely, as her favorite slave, he also had concubine duties?
John snapped alert, yanked his sword out of the ground. He listened.
-crack- from the right. Something was approaching! The sounds grew and grew in volume, until he heard breathing and a human cough.
A thief! At last John could really prove himself to Aurion! Rubbing mental hands together, he brought the sword up to point in the direction of the villain, readied himself for a killing thrust
Paul stumbled into view.
"Hi, Paul," John said, dejected. He let the sword drop. Paul couldn't possibly be here to rob Aurion. A faint smell wrinkled his nose. "Phew, you need to wash those clothes."
Paul apparently wasn't feeling companionable, because he just stared at John without replying. He crept forward, and John found himself forced to lift the sword again. "Are you here to rob Auri?" he asked apologetically. "I can't let you if you are."
Without saying anything, Paul stopped. Taking this for a "no," John let the sword fall again, pleased that he didn't have to kill a friend. As Paul stood doing nothing, John ignored him and listened for real intruders. He was not going to be caught napping again.
"You selfish bastard," Paul mumbled.
John hadn't been paying attention. "Huh?"
"You son of a bitch. I hate you. I hate you. I hate your fucking wings." Paul's face twisted into a ferocious, furious mask. "I hate you flying! I hate Ringo when he sits there and heheGod damn him! I hate George, I hate you all! I hate you!
Paul ran at John and battered at his chest, but he was so weak that John barely felt the blows. Astonished, John just stood and absorbed the punishment until Paul fell back, exhausted. Then he said in a kindly voice, "I think you'd better go home now. This is a dangerous place," and he hefted the sword for emphasis.
"Piss off!" Paul shouted, his eyes bright with moisture. "I can take care of meself!" A tear welled up from his left eye, trickled down his grimy cheek; then he erupted with sobs, bending almost double as he hugged himself and shuddered. "Damn! Damn! Damn! Oh, damn!"
John felt sorry for Paul, but he was more concerned with the thieves he wouldn't hear through all the noise. "Paul - " he began.
Still convulsing, Paul hit him with a wet fist. "Shut up! Leave me alone like you always do!" But his sobs did fade in volume.
"Thanks," John said gratefully. He closed his eyes and channeled his full concentration to his ears.
Suddenly, a great big roar! A thump, another roar, and then Astaris's calm, hateful voice. The frantic shout "Kill Astaris!" John almost drew his sword back and plunged it into Paul's stomach, catching himself at the last second. He whirled around, straining at the mental chains that kept him imprisoned by the tree. How he hoped Astaris would come by! He would cut the elf into many small pieces!
Hoofbeats, and Aurion galloped into view, bleeding up and down her legs, reeling in the saddle. She pulled up to John long enough to shout "Kill my pursuers!", then clapped her heels to the horse's flanks and thundered away.
"Auri!" John screamed after her. How much blood had she lost? She might grow faint and fall off! But he had his orders; he leaped into the space she had just vacated, inarticulate with fury, awaiting the villains who would die most painfully for what they had done to her. But there were none! The path she'd taken was silent; the only people John heard were moving in a different direction. Perplexed, he lowered the sword and gazed over his shoulder at the trees she'd passed between. She was well out of sight, but her horses hoofbeats rang clearly. He chewed his knuckles. He had to be with her, staunch her wounds, protect her all the time, not just now! But shed told him.
A loophole! She said kill her pursuersbut she didn't say where! He ran after her, calling "Auri, wait, I'll protect you! Here I come!"
"Where're you going?" demanded Paul as John whipped by him. He had stopped crying, and was now rubbing his arm under his nose.
"Can't stop!" John bawled over his shoulder. "Gotta be with Auri!"
"No!" Paul joined the chase, wrung out though he was. "Dammit, come back! You're not leaving me alone again!"
But John paid no attention. He ran forward, heedless of things underfoot, tripping on roots and rocks and nearly twisting his ankle when he stepped into a hole. His sword slapped the trees, slowing him badly. "Fuck this!" he screamed, leaping over a bush. The hoofbeats were leaving him behind even faster now.
("I know, I saw all this," said Ringo.
George glared at him. "I didn't.")
A thin, hoarse cry followed him: "Don't leave me alone!"
The trees thinned out. Joy! John tossed the sword away and accelerated, and was rewarded with hoofbeats that remained at a steady volume. Then the trees were behind him and he was racing through open field with only air and clouds overhead. The sky tugged at him, and he thought, I can catch up to her if I fly! Surely he could muster enough strength for her to make his first successful launch from the ground. He jumped and flapped maniacally, but fell to earth again, barely keeping his feet and losing all his forward momentum. Undaunted, he ran even harder, jumped higher, beat more wildly. For an instant it seemed he had caught the wind, but he hadn't, and tumbled back down. Yet he was elated as his feet struck the ground; I can do it! I can feel it! Just a bit harder, a bit higher, and I'll make
His legs locked! With a cry he pitched forward and slid through the grass, skinning his chest and knees and staining them green.
("That was me," Ringo interrupted.
"That was you?" said the others.
Some moments passed before John continued with his narrative.)
John was too startled to rise for a few moments; and in those moments the hoofbeats died away. He almost vomited, knowing he'd never catch up to Aurion, never see her again. He'd failed her. Tears welled up and spilled freely; he pulled his glasses off, snapping the string that bound them around his head, and cried into his arm.
A shadow fell on him, followed by a body. Paul, and whether he'd still been crying or John's tears touched him off again, he too was sobbing when he landed. John paid no attention to him, though. The world had ended....
Hey! John lifted his head and looked around in astonishment. What the fuck is going on? Where am I? Why am I crying? Rubbing his arm on the grass to dry it, he raised himself up on hands and knees; Paul rolled moistly off. "What the fuck?" John repeated aloud, as a headful of fuzzy memories shouted at him. With effort he pieced together the events of the last hour, and when they were complete he seethed with fury at Aurion. Nobody fucked with his mind! The humiliation of obeying her every whim, abandoning his strongest beliefs just to please her! Is this what rape feels like? Being made to want to kill? Christ, I almost killed Paul!
Like Ringo, John found himself momentarily unable to assimilate the wreck that was heaving in the grass. How long had Paul been like this? Why hadnt John noticed? Then he crawled over and put his arms around Paul and hugged him, hugged him, whispering "I'm so sorry, Paul, oh God am I sorry, how could I let this happen to you?"
Paul just shuddered with dry sobs, and John began to cry again, especially when he felt Paul's ribs through his shirt. "Shh, shh, it's all right, Macca, I'm here now, I'll never leave you again... I love you, man."
("You know, schmaltz like that." John smiled thinly.)
Gradually Paul's convulsions lessened, his gasping quieted. His nose dripping hugely, he pulled over one of John's wings and used it as a tissue; I deserve this, John reflected. His own nose dripped, and he had to release Paul to dry it on his arm. Feeling wet and sticky, he waited until Paul had finished and then asked gently "How d'ye feel, Macca?"
"You actually care?" muttered Paul, sniffing.
"Shit, mate, I'm sorry," John said, feeling terribly inadequate. "I let you go through hell, and I didn't even stop to look."
"No, you didn't."
John rubbed his forehead. "I wish I knew what to say to you. Is there anythin I can say that'll make you feel better?"
Paul seemed on the verge of saying no, but he caught it before it came out, and, without looking at John, said "Just keep talking to me."
("I don't think anyone had talked to him in weeks," John explained. "Idve thought Grunnel wouldve guess not.")
That was unexpected, and hopeful; John crossed mental fingers and said "Look, man, somehow were gonna get you magic. I don't know why you didn't get any" Paul flinched "but I'm gonna break me ass to get you somethin, make you" he almost said equal with us but censored those words and substituted "magical."
"Don't do me any favors." Paul plucked a few blades of grass and tossed them down again. His stomach chose that moment to growl so loudly that John winced in sympathetic pain.
"Here, let's feed you up a bit," John offered, unslinging his food pouch. At first Paul wouldn't budge, but as John piled dried fruit and hardtack-like drybread on his thigh, he broke down and tucked into the food, first slowly, then with enthusiasm.
John also pulled out the lumpy little bag of Aurion's. "Eh, I forgot about this."
"What's that, then?" Paul asked through a mouthful of drybread.
"It's that bitch Aurion's treasure. I suppose it's mine now. I've got another one in me pocket." Soon both bags sat in front of John, and he sat cross-legged and enjoyed the sight of Paul eating.
When the food was gone and Paul had turned the food pouch inside out to get the crumbs, he poked the treasure bags. "What's in 'em?"
"Dunno. Rocks or gems, I reckon. Why don't you take one and I take one and we'll open them up and see?" Then he looked sideways at Paul. "You can have em to keep if you like."
An interesting expression crossed Paul's face, and John heard his pulse quicken. "Okay."
("I was thinkin' the same thing he was." John shook his head. "It was too much of a coincidence, me gettin' them...")
Paul studied the two bags, weighed them in his hands, decided on the lumpy one. "You sure?" said John, hand poised over the other.
"I won't choose the wrong one," Paul said confidently. "George didn't, did he?"
John wasn't aware that George had had a choice but withheld comment on the subject, as he was going to give the contents of his bag to Paul anyway. On the count of three, they poured their prizes onto the ground.
Johns was a flat blue teardrop of a gem, about two inches across at its widest point and two inches long. It was well-faceted but otherwise of little note in this gem-rich world.
But Paul had drawn an egg-shaped diamond of the first water, four inches long and so brilliant they could barely look at it. Small though it was, it was the most magnificent gem they'd ever seen. The giant ruby, the doul'kvar gem, everything else in the treasure cellarnothing even came close.
"Wow!" Paul breathed. "That's a bit of all right!"
"Not half!" agreed John, sounding jealous with little effort. For a moment he genuinely regretted his hasty offer to Paul.
Paul grinned for the first time in many, many days. He flicked his fingers at the blue gem. "Here, you can keep that tiddler, this one'll do me."
John quickly put the blue gem in his pocket so he could continue to look at the diamond. The light flashing through it was almost hypnotic.
"It must be magic," Paul said gleefully, picking it up in his left hand. He stood and held it up to the sun to see if there was anything inside, like a pink panther. The jewel became a rainbow torch in his hand. "It's - "
The diamond flared.
Paul's expression changed to one of surprise. "Hey, it'shey!" he screamed. "My hand!"
It had turned to diamond.
As John watched in helpless horror, the change raced up Paul's arm like a flash fire, engulfed his shoulder and spread in every direction, swallowed his chest and head before he could make another sound, ate up his other arm and waist and legs. Seconds after his scream, Paul was cold and brilliant, a shining skeleton with his flesh burned away.
"I just sat there," John finished. "I didn't move for a whole minute, I was in that much shock." He looked up at Astaris, who was tapping Paul's outstretched arm. "Can he be changed back? Is he still alive?"
"Yes," the elf said casually. "Sar's lifeglow still burns." Sure enough, when properly shadowed Paul gave off a faint light. "Those caught by trap gems arent killed, just transformed. A good joke on them!"
That relieved more than one worried soul. "Trap gem?" asked George, staring atbut not touchingthe gem in Paul's hand.
"A gem that turns the toucher into whatever the gem is. If the toucher is alone, the trap gem's owner gains a valuable statue. I read of sars who were so caught and sold by their friends." With a malicious smile, Astaris added "I know a gemcutter in Ta'akan ."
John was in no mood for such jokes. He leaped to his feet angrily. "You bloody cannibal!" He dug into his pocket for the blue gem, held it out. "Right, you want a gem? Here, take - "
The elfs eyes widened. Every trace of mirth vanished from his face. "The Kansael!" he shrieked, lunging at John to grab the gem.
Startled, John jerked back, and the elf's grabbing hand slammed into his wrist. The gem flew from John's fingers and bounced into his chest
John's mouth dropped open. A waterfall that he had been standing in and never noticed poured into and over him through the blue gem. Thunder and waves crashed in his head, and warm, liquid approval washed over him. His awareness exploded outward; for a moment he was everything in the clearing, within George, Ringo, Astaris, the grass, even the tent (but not Paul). Then the feeling faded, and he snapped his mouth shut and stared down dazedly at his new ornament. It had centered itself neatly, pointed end up, rounded end down, very much a drop of water.
"Are you okay?" asked George.
"The humidity is fifteen percent," said John. Then: "Why the fuck did I say that? I mean, it's true, but. "
"It's true?" repeated Ringo, staring at the gem.
"Yeah." John looked up at the sky. "It's gonna rain day after tomorrow, not hard, just a nice spring shower. Jesus! What is this rubbish I'm spoutin'? No, sorry, it ain't rubbish, it's true, I mean it's comin' out on its own. Integration period. Oh, for fuck's sake!" He slapped the gem, then recoiled; it felt exactly as if he'd slapped his skin. My aim ain't that bad, he thought, touching the gem. He shuddered; it was warm, not soft but somehow fleshlike, part of him. "Why am I always gettin' new surfaces?" he complained. Then a fact bubbled up, and he blurted "Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Hard water contains in addition dissolved calcium and magnesium. Right," he sighed, "this must be Fuck With John's Mind Day."
There was a short silence.
"So what is it, now it's made you very happy?" asked George, who glanced at his ring as if it might start him babbling about animals.
The information leaped from John's lips. "It's the Kansael of Wirale, the godsar of sea and storm. Thanks, George. In the dim days when the gods first came, Wirale took the waters of the Tamrharhen, that's an ocean, and pressed them in godsar's hands until they were squeezed into one drop of water, and before the drop could run out godsar froze it into a gem. Is it over? No. Wirale then gave the gem, now called the Kansael (water-charm), to godsar's sansars, thats a mouthful, so that they might honor Wirale by imitation. And that, said John, bowing with a flourish and an ironic grin, is the Gospel according to John.
But he wasnt smiling when he straightened up, looking at Paul. Right, Ill worry about this thing later, lets get Paul fixed up, weve got more to do than just
I could have had the Kansael, Astaris interrupted behind him.
John turned. The elf was red-faced with rage, his fists clenched. He pointed a long, delicate finger at John. I could have had the Kansael, he repeated, hissing the words. It was here. Unused. Unborne. But you took it. A tirin. I cant even fight you for it because of my curse!
John regarded him with about as much sympathy as he might have given Hitler. Oh, bugger off, Asshole. Its not my fault I got the fuckin thing. I certainly didnt know what it was. You knocked it into me, remember? He batted away Astariss finger and pointed his own finger at the elf for emphasis. If you hadnt jumped at me like that
A little stream of water jetted from his finger and squirted Astaris in the face.
Hey! Johns train of thought derailed immediately. He gaped at his finger, examining the tip to see if there was a hole in it. There wasnt, it was whole, and then he squirted himself in the face. Fuck fuck FUCK! he bellowed, jerking around like a spastic until the water stopped. For a moment he just stood there, dripping and fumingliterally steaminghis mouth working, while Ringo and George broke into startled laughter. Then John started to laugh himself, and the steam dissipated. Well, how about that, then? he said to the other two, who fell against each other laughing (until they realized what they were doing and sprang away from each other in dismay). To the sodden Astaris, who was emphatically not laughing, he offered a jolly and not-very-sincere Sorry, didnt know that would happen.
Suddenly Broxs Kiss was tickling his chest, and Astaris was snarling, Will the curse let me cut it out of your chest? Yes, it will!
And almost as suddenly the elf soared backwards and landed on his butt halfway across the clearing. Try that again, said Ringo, his voice shaking with fear and excitement, and Ill drop you in the sea. Then he fell silent, and the pink sword yanked itself out of Astariss grasp and flew to Ringos waiting hand.
Next to him, George had belatedly become a tiger; he *ping* changed back and stood up when he saw that things were well in hand. Guess you didnt need me to do that, he said, impressed and rather shaken by the speed of Ringos reaction.
Guess not, said Ringo, also startled by his quick defense of John. He hefted the sword in his hand; he had a nice little collection going, except that hed left the first one in the forest.
There was a slight haziness to Johns features, a faint shimmer that vanished as he tenderly felt his chest. I think I just did somethin, but Im not sure what it was. A spot of blood came off on his finger, but no real damage had been done. Then he looked at the others with considerable awe. Jesus, Im glad you lads are on my side.
Astaris got to his feet, brushing himself off. He was doing the last thing they would have expected of himsmiling broadly. You fought! he cried, trotting over. They eyed him warily, but he seemed to have had a religious experience and had no hostility left in him at all. Youre skahs now! he proclaimed Ringo and George, and he held his hand out, obviously expecting the sword back.
Bemused, Ringo looked at the other two for help. John said You dont need another penis, do you? while George murmured, "May as well, you've never needed men, so Ringo handed the Kiss back, reflecting that he could always take it away againa thought that had an oddly disconcerting sound to it.
The elf touched the hilt of the blade to a ring he wore on his right hand. A small snap, like a large spark, sounded in the quiet air. Then the elf dropped the blade, and it vanished, just like his previous one had. Sword ring, he explained. More comfortable than a sheath. Next, he clapped his hand on Pauls diamond shoulder. To commemorate your change from tirin to skahs, Ill douse this spellfire. Carry my tail to the house." He threw his arms around Paul and tossed his head back. Silver light flared, outlining their locked forms; <POP> and they vanished in a swirl of dust and dry grass.
The three jumped back in delayed reaction. George said "Man, I'll never get used to that."
Now, alone and together for the first time in weeks, they silently eyed one another, so familiar and yet so alien. A pretty trio they made, angles on an invisible triangle separated by a distance that, though not as great as it had been earlier, was still formidable. They were almost afraid to get close to one another; somehow it seemed that if they did, their separate auras would merge and explode.
Yet who else did they have here? No one, as Paul had so miserably discovered. So they were going to have to step closer to one another a lot more quickly.
"Well, skahs," said John, breaking the uncomfortable silence, "we'd better get back before that crazy Ass makes earrings of Paul or sells him to Liz Taylor or somethin'."
"You, um, didn't wanna go back the way you came, did you?" an embarrassed George asked Ringo, who shook his head violently. "I'll go on ahead, then." *ping* George was a swift and winging his way home.
John laughed lightly and ran his hands through his hair. "Oh, Christ, who's gotta get used to what around here?" He took a deep breath that caused his wings to spread a little. "Ill ask you what he was talkin about tomorrow. Id rather not know right now. Right! He slapped his fist into his palm a couple of times. Lets get started, its a long walk back. How long is it, anyway? It never seems like much up there." His gaze traveled wistfully to the sky.
About five miles, I think. Ringo had closed his eyes and presumably was tracking George or keeping tabs on Astaris. "Aren't you gonna fly?"
"If I couldnt get it up for Aurion, I sure as hell cant do it now. Anyway, dye really wanna walk all that way by yourself?"
"Ill be okay. Id like to be alone for a bit. Here, man, I'll give you a boost."
Before John could reply, he was rising, held by nothing he could discern; it was as if his body had suddenly decided to defy gravity. Though hardly afraid of heights, he was unnerved by the sight of the ground dropping away without his participation, and it bothered him still more that Ringo wasn't even looking at him, didn't seem involved in the process at all. He swallowed. Guess I'd better get used to this, too. I've a feeling it's gonna happen again.