Summary: A sillyfic. (Are we astonished? We ought to be.) Chandri discovers why in Subreality, a name can have a bloody awful lot more in it than just syllables and meanings; for example, unexpected sentience.
STARSHOPS VERSUS HOT DOGS Part 1/2
Why Writers Should Never Order Magic Cleaning Appliances off of the Home Shopping Network
By Chandri MacLeod
There were certain advantages to holding sole ownership of a magical castle in the far northern reaches of Subreality. Unicorns, Dryad fictives, talking wolves, physically-represented metaphors of one's inner self, whole tribes of Elves that practically worshipped you and gave you names like "Lady of the Crystal" and "Lady of Crystallis". Not to mention the rather interesting architectural additions one could make when there were no other tenants to speak of - discounting, of course, the State of Diversion, Crystallis's only known neighbor, and that could hardly be counted as a protesting neighbor, given the activities its citizens indulged in on a semi-regular basis - the owlery was coming along nicely, and the floating airship portal that hovered ominously over the rear gates frightened away most attackers.
There were, however, certain disadvantages. For example, it was hard to get anyone to work on the grounds. The few domestic servants that had been Written into existence for the purpose of keeping the grounds upkept had either vanished abruptly, or had fled in polite terror, pleading as excuse that the woods were haunted, that the lands were stalked by monsters, that a twelve-year-old Writer and her Muse of the same approximate age were continually terrorising them. "Duh," had replied Chandri to most of this. "What did you expect?"
For she had not Written the entirety of Subreality North. Much of it had been here prior to her arrival, it had just been a little less... well, organised might be the term. Even now, there were some things in the lands surrounding Crystallis that she herself would rather not inquire too deeply into. One of them, somewhat less directly, was the fact that Crystallis, semi-sentient as it may have been, was not nearly as fond of self-cleaning as, say, the average electric stove.
A vaguely offended *push* touched Chandri's mind as she thought that. The Writer in question was currently engaged in one of her most hated activities, and was grumbling quite suitably.
"Lady of the Crystal, my foot," she muttered, shoving a sofa aside. "I still have to do all the cleaning."
The roar of the vaccum cleaner had long since caused the Island's canine residents, Chowder, Sheba and Mincha, to discreetly remove themselves from sight (discreetly meaning, in this case, running full-tilt out of the room, yelping and barking, and diving under the nearest reasonable piece of furniture) and retiring to quieter quarters. Lyra, the yellow-eyed tawny owl that Chandri had somewhat more recently acquired in Diagon Alley, had made an offended sound and retreated to the rafters of the Great Hall. She was now staring reproachfully down at her mistress while preening her feathers. Lily's snowy, Ambyrr, was huddling behind a beam further down the rafter, if anything looking more offended than Lyra.
"Note to self," Chandri said under her breath. "Owls do not like vaccum cleaners."
She kicked a final ottoman out of the way and pushed the vaccum over the last section of floor. She turned off the vaccum. "Done. Finally. Now, just dusting." She rolled the vacuum's cord around the neck and pushed it into a corner, then produced a device that appeared as if it would have done quite well for directing traffic, airplane landings, or turning princes into frogs. It was three and a half feet long, had a black handle, and was covered in what appeared to be green fur.
"And what is *that?*" asked Tris's voice from above. Chandri glanced up at her Muse where she perched near the two owls. She had offered to help with the cleaning, but both the fact that she was so good at it and the fact that she kept getting in Chandri's way had decided for both of them that perhaps Tris should watch from a safe distance (that, and the very thinly-veiled threats Chandri kept making with toilet brushes and soapy sponges).
"It's a duster. For dust."
Tris rolled her eyes. "I figured *that* part out, thank you. But why does it have... fur?"
"Not fur; plastic bristles. Static cling; I barely have to do anything. It's one of those "magic dusters". Got it off the Shopping Network."
"*Magic* duster?" Tris seemed suddenly apprehensive.
Chandri shrugged and made a dismissive gesture with the duster. "It's just a gimmick, Tris. It doesn't mean anything."
The Writer stopped dusting and looked up. "What?"
"Well..." Tris seemed to consider. "Remember what happened when you brought that "Super-Duper Magic Weathervane" up here and put it on the roof? It was supposed to answer detailed questions about the weather, the temperature, tell your fortune. Shaped like a big purple duck?"
Chandri stared off into space. "Yeah... It developed a drinking problem, got really rude, then pulled itself off its pole and flew away."
"And how about that cat-shaped "Magic Alarm Clock"? It was supposed to wake up all sleepers at the appointed time with a gentle mewing sound and a cool breeze?"
"And instead, it was putting people to sleep at random intervals, roaring like a heroin-addicted cartoon panther, and freezing people into solid blocks of ice. It went... somewhere. I think it's still hunting the Dune mice in the basement."
"And what about..."
"All right, all right, I see your point." Chandri peered dubiously at the duster. "But all those things were animal-shaped; endowed with a base level of sentience. What sentient characteristics could a duster possibly give itself?"
"Correction; Subreality's sense of humour gives the characteristics."
"Whatever. I don't see the problem." Chandri crossed her arms and stared stubbornly up into the rafters. A moment later, a resigned sigh floated down to her.
"All right. But I'm locking my door before I go to sleep tonight. That alarm clock left me with a week-long flu."
It was quiet, unassuming night in Crystallis.
Actually, it really wasn't all that quiet. It would have been quiet, but for the distant, odd thumping, clunking sound that came from an unsuspicious trunk sitting in the corner of the Great Hall. No one heard it at first but Lyra and Ambyrr, who had just returned from hunting mice and other unfortunate rodents in the great forest. Both owls glided in through the high windows, and alighted on a chair near the trunk, glancing at each other bemusedly.
Lyra and Ambyrr twitched, and Ambyrr flapped into the air for a moment, alighting on the trunk. She gave the lid a few experimental pecks, and tapped it with a talon. Nothing happened. She tilted her head to one side, nearly upside-down, and stared at Lyra. Lyra leapt into the air and joined the other owl on the trunk. She copied Ambyrr's movements of a moment before.
Lyra and Ambyrr screeched in alarm and retreated into the rafters as quickly as their wings could carry them. The trunk was silent.
The same sounds that had intrigued the owls had attracted the three dogs. They entered the Great Hall at respectively different paces. Chowder pranced, Mincha bounced, and Sheba, the most catlike of the three (having the outside appearance of a sleek, muscular, floppy-eared panther) practically slithered. All three approached the trunk, noses in the air, whiskers twitching curiously.
When they came to within a few feet of the box, the three dogs spread out and surrounded it, sniffing at its base. Mincha, the stockiest, wolflike dog with black fur and tan markings, actually climbed up onto the trunk and pawed at it, large ears twitching.
The dogs looked at each other, then glanced up at the sudden hoot from the rafters. Lyra and Ambyrr were watching them nervously.
"Hoot," said Lyra. Sheba looked at Chowder. Chowder looked at the trunk.
Mincha yelped and leapt off of the lid of the trunk, landing on all fours and spinning about to face it. In a moment, all three dogs were barking angrily at the box. Suddenly, something made them silence.
Three sets of floppy ears flattened to three canine heads.
The dogs backed slowly away. The lid was opening itself, but - they looked around - there was no one around to open it.
The lid was totally open, the lid resting against the wall behind it.
The three dogs crept slowly forward. Lyra and Ambyrr floated down towards them. All five animals reached the box at the same time, and peered down into it.
Something was looking out.
An instant later, it moved.
The entire area around the box for about three feet exploded with yelping, running dogs, and screeching, terrified owls. Fur and feathers scattered into the air as they retreated from the room.
Something had leapt out over the edge of the box and landed on the floor.
And all was silent.
*CLUNK. CLUNK. CLUNK.*
Chandri heard an odd sound in her sleep, and rolled over.
*THUNK, CLUNK, SCRIIITCHTHUMP*
She opened her eyes, sitting up, and looked around her room. She had only recently started sleeping in Crystallis again, and was still getting used to it. She sat staring, confused, for a moment, ears straining to hear the noise that had woken her. When after a moment, she heard nothing, she growled at the silent room and laid back down, pulling the covers up to her neck.
Chandri sat bolt upright, eyes wide open, now wide awake. She threw off the covers and dove for the denn'bok on the bedside table. She shook it twice and it opened with the sound of metal sliding on metal and a quiet *snap*. Holding it at the ready, she stood still for an instant, silent, waiting to see if the sound would repeat itself.
She ran to the door and wrenched it open, looking around the doorframe. She could see nothing, even when she turned on the lights.
The sound was coming from far down the hallway. She retreated into her room for a moment, pulling on an old soft pair of black ballet slippers and putting on a robe over her t-shirt and sweatpants. Then she went back out into the hallway and went in search of the sound.
A loud thumping on Tris's door woke her out of a sound sleep. She sat up, blinking away sleep, and stared blankly into space for a moment before the pounding began again. It was quickly joined by a voice.
"Tris? You awake? Open the door! Quick!"
"Chandri?" Tris pushed the covers away and stepped onto the cold floor. She flinched and reached for her sheepskin slippers, and caught up her robe in one hand as she moved toward the door. She pulled it open and her Writer all but fell into the room.
"Chandri? What's going on?"
"There's a... it's a... I... shut the door! Hurry!"
Tris obediently closed the door, and locked it, just for good measure. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Uhm... you know that... thing... I bought that you weren't sure about, because you thought it would develop semi-sentience and eat us?"
Tris suddenly felt apprehensive and a little bit annoyed. "Yes?"
"It's developed semi-sentience and is trying to eat us."
Somehow, in her mad dash between the Great Hall and Tris's bedroom, Chandri had managed to grab the packaging that the "Magic Duster" had come in. The shipping label on the oblong box read: "Universo's Emporium for Fine Goods: Starshop Interdimensional - 'Wherever you need us, when you least expect it.'"
A nasty little idea was forming inside Tris's head. That name reminded her of something, and she was pretty bloody sure that it wasn't a good something. Starshop Interdimensional... no, that most definitely didn't sound good.
"Where did you say you got this?" she asked her Writer.
"I ordered it off the Home Shopping Network. It was a sort of infomercial for one of those vanishing shops. You know, the ones Terry Pratchett is so fond of? They had all sorts of nifty stuff, but the duster was all I could afford. Why?"
Tris stared. The nasty, vague little idea was solidifying into something that was making little bumps rise up on Tris's arms, and the hair rise up on the back of her neck.
No one knows why, but all the most truly mysterious and magical items are bought from shops that appear from nowhere and, after a trading life even briefer than that of an arthritic mosquito, vanish like smoke. There have been various attempts to explain this, all of which have failed because they don't fully account for the observed facts. These shops turn up anywhere in the multiverse, and their immediate non-existence in any particular city can normally be deduced from crowds of people wandering the streets clutching defunct magical items, ornate greeting cards, and looking very suspiciously at blank brick walls.
At least, this is the case in normal cities. In Subreality City, these shops were almost more commonplace than mobile hot dog stands (theoretically because of the composition of Subreal hot dogs... after all, if the things are made out of such unnamable substances in Reality, can you even *imagine* what alternatives Subreality City manufacturers might have turned to?). In any case, people found they were less likely to contract unpleasant stomach ailments in connection to the vanishing shops (plus, there was all this really nifty *stuff*). The fact that the alternative consequences of the shops versus hot dogs ranged from mildly more exotic to unimaginably horrible was one that had, thus far, managed to completely escape most prospective patrons.
Nevertheless, either because of or in spite of all of this, the shops remained, and flourished, while the Subreality fast food market suffered. There had been union negotiations.
Tris had always, as a rule, been suspicious of those places, nearly as suspicious as she had been of the Home Shopping Network. She had never imagined that the two might be connected in any way. Now she knew, and she *could* imagine. She was not enjoying the sensation.
"You," she said, not really sure of what expression she should put into her voice, but coming up with largely astonishment, "Ordered something without even checking where it was being sent from?"
Chandri blinked. She shrugged uncertainly.
"Uh... well... yeah."
Tris facepalmed. "You didn't even read the warning on the box."
She held up the box in question. Written in small red capital letters on the side it said: "WARNING: PRODUCT MAY EXPLODE IF HEATED. MAY CEASE TO FUNCTION OR DEVELOP UNUSUAL CHARACTERISTICS IF USED INCORRECTLY. DO NOT LEAVE IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT. SHAKE IN A WELL-VENTILATED AREA - FAILURE TO SUPPLY PROPER MAINTENANCE MAY RESULT IN HEADACHE, ALLERGIC REACTION, AND/OR DEATH AND/OR ETERNAL DOOM. DO NOT FEED. DO NOT EAT. EXTERNAL APPLICATION ONLY. DO NOT IMMERSE IN WATER. SATISFACTION GUARANTEED."
Chandri threw up her hands. "Big surprise. A Subreal product has a warning of eternal doom. Catfood in Subreality has warnings of doom. Butter has warnings of doom!"
"Happens when the milk comes from cows that are capable of interdimensional teleportation," Tris said, her voice muffled.
There was a thumping noise that sounded suspiciously like something large, plastic, and with only one foot hopping along the corridor. The door and windows rattled in their frames.
"So I guess you left it in direct sunlight, neglected to shake it out, immersed it in water... something like that?" Tris looked up. "What exactly *has* happened to it, anyway?"
"Uh..." Chandri glanced at the door, which was suddenly looking a lot more fragile. "It's grown to about twice original size and is hopping around the castle."
"Is that all?"
"We think it ate the alarm clock."
Tris brightened momentarily.
"Though that does mean it's now got some sort of mouth."
The Muse slumped. "I don't want to be eaten by a feather duster, it seems like such an embarassing way to die, what with all the other things that we --"
Tris went silent, then, because Chandri had slapped her. The Muse raised a hand to her stinging cheek and stared up at her Writer.
"You were gibbering," Chandri supplied.
When she had caught her breath, she said, "Thanks. Sorry. Habit."
Chandri grinned. "No problem. I owed you one. Now come on. We've got a rogue feather duster to tame."
Their first plan had been to try phoning the one-eight-hundred number on the box. This plan failed when they discovered that the feather-duster - which Chandri had dubbed Henry - had eaten through the main phone junction, presumably having mistaken the large wires for pasta. At this point, Henry had become very interested in Tris's bedroom door. Fortunately, Crystallis being what it is and where it is, they discovered a hitherto undiscovered secret passage and spent several feverish minutes trying to pry it open while Henry made a loud effort at forcing the door.
"Why won't it open?" Chandri stood back and stared puzzledly at the wall.
"I don't know. It's a several thousand-year-old secret passage. Maybe it's rusted. Or something."
"Possibly. Or maybe..." Chandri got down on her knees and inspected the join of wall and floor, apparently looking for something. A moment later, she said: "Hah!" and there was a faint click. She stood up, watching expectantly.
Tris gave her a sideways glance when, after about ten seconds, absolutely nothing happened.
Chandri kicked the wall. "Come on, damn thing. Open."
The wall was stoic; it did not move.
The section of wall creaked outward with such speed that it knocked the Muse and the Writer to the floor. Tris and Chandri stood up, peering into the dark space beyond.
"I guess it just wanted you to say please," Tris ventured. Chandri shrugged again, then produced a large flashlight and turned it on, beaming it into the space. An open, winding, narrow stairway was revealed beyond. Very narrow.
"Oh, goody," muttered the Writer. Tris patted her on the shoulder.
"Look at it this way; at least it's not a *haunted* passage."
Chandri sighed and turned her head to stare glumly at her Muse.
Because it *was*, in fact, a haunted passage. No one was completely sure of *what* haunted it, but they could all be pretty sure that for the most part, they didn't want to know. They were probably right.
Strange noises sounded randomly from up and down the passage and either side of the stairs. A few times, something whispered past them, making a sound like steel on silk and brushing up against them ever so slightly. Once, a step crumbled out from beneath them and Chandri had to haul Tris back up to the previous step by the collar of her tunic. After that, Tris risked spreading her wings and gliding both herself and Chandri down to the bottom of the stairs.
At the bottom, the cobblestones were grimy with what must have been dust, and in places slippery with what had to be water (at least, that was what both of them fervently *hoped* it was). There were sconces in the walls for torches, but no torches to put in them. Tris walked along the passage behind Chandri, and both watched carefully for any sign along the walls that might mean an exit back into the castle. They walked for nearly a quarter of an hour before they reached what seemed to be a wood-panelled dead end. Tris slumped against this wall and sighed. "Tell me the truth," she said. "We're going to be down here forever, aren't we?"
Chandri shrugged, tapping out an idle SOS on the wood with the flashlight. "Possibly. Alternatives include being attacked by wild animals, ghosts or over-zealous rodents, and being eaten by a plastic feather duster."
Tris stared. "Oh. Good, then. Makes me feel a whole lot better about everything."
Both Muse and Writer jumped back from the wooden wall, eyeing it suspicously.
"Henry?" suggested Tris, looking around the tiny circle of light cast by the flashlight, sighting a burned-out torch against the wall and snatching it up. She hefted it experimentally while Chandri reached into a pocket and produced her denn'bok. Tris had to admit; having a five-foot-long metal pole between herself and a giant, sentient feather duster didn't make her feel *much* safer, but it helped to some degree.
"You know, I don't think..." Chandri was staring at the wall, her head tilted to one side. She seemed to be listening.
*THUMP, THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP, THUMP THUMP*
"Shave and a haircut. I don't think you can do that without knuckles." Chandri stepped up to the wall and answered the knocks with the same sequence.
"Chandri? You in there?" came a muffled voice that sounded rather a lot like Corone.
"We're here! We just can't figure out how to get out!" called Chandri to the other Writer.
"Stand back!" came Dez's voice. It was the kind of warning you listened to, because it was about to be followed with something involving high explosives. Tris and Chandri dove around the corner just as the wall evaporated with a puff of steam and the smell of burnt shelack.
"Good?" Dez asked, obviously proud of herself.
"Very good," agreed Corone. The dark-clad Writer leaned into the passage through the smoking remains of the archway. "Chandri? Tris?"
The two in question came out from under cover and approached the smoking hole in the wall.
"Can I ask a question?" Chandri asked.
"Me first. How did you end up all the way in Diversion?" Corone asked.
Chandri stared. "Ah. Never mind."
STARSHOPS VERSUS HOT DOGS Part 2/2
Odd, Mouthless, Ridiculous-looking Monsters that go Bump in the Night
By Chandri MacLeod (with input from Corone P. Elfboy)
It was one of those nights when even the grimiest henchmen of the most powerful supervillains makes active attempts to avoid being outside, and even the panhandlers and street beggars and pickpockets had retired early for the evening.
Not that most of these often existed in Subreality North. Between Crystallis, Diversion, the Black Mountains and the Northern Forest Subreality North was home to some of the most frightening, ugly, bloodthirsty, vicious and generally unpleasant creatures in Subreality. This knowledge kept street folk to the comparatively civilized City, most of the time. Every so often, though, someone would try it on the streets of Diversion. Business was always brisk - and by brisk it is not meant that business was successful, or particularly good; Diversion had few citizens and even fewer that originated from Universes with currency. By brisk it is meant short-lived, brief, and virtually non-existent, up to the point where a shuffling noise can be heard, the businessman in question wanders off to investigate. This is shortly followed by a noise best left undescribed, which is accompanied, every so often, by a scream, or more often, a rather surprised "Oh. Um...". Then there is a snap, and then there is nothing (except, on some occasions, a crunching noise).
And so, the streets were nearly deserted, and silent. It was so when a large, lumbering shape came, well, lumbering down the middle of the street. In fact, even if the streets hadn't been deserted, they would have become so very quickly, given the appearance of the individual in question.
His name was Ramo, and he was a warrior (well, in his mind, war *lord*). He wasn't a very nice warrior; in fact he spent a great deal of his time in fics robbing, pillaging, and filled the spare moments with arson. He was smelly, and ugly, and rather needed a shave. He enjoyed his life; it was a fairly eventful one, rarely got boring, and he was always jangling with gold as a result. He was jangling now. It was perhaps this sound that had attracted whatever it was that was following him.
Now, in most Universes, there is a thing called a Trump Card. No one knows exactly how this name came about, but what a Trump Card is is a sort of emergency escape plan. For most warlords, their Trump Card is a weapon of some kind (or, failing that, a whole lot of other people who were fanatically devoted to you and had their own weapons). Ramo's Trump Card was a long, nasty-looking dagger coated in a thin, dried sheen of something red and formerly sticky.
This was hind's blood. It was a substance capable of killing even most gods, and anyway, even if that didn't work, it was on a bloody *knife*, and as far as Ramo was concerned, there was very little that couldn't be dealt with by way of a bit of stabbing and twisting.
(Ramo had never calculated the fact, however, that *some* horrifying monsters cannot be defeated with blades, simply because of the slight advantage of never having evolved a cardiovascular system, let alone blood. Ramo really hadn't gotten the hang of Subreality yet, which is a pity, because his time in which to do so was rapidly slipping away.)
He carried the dagger on his belt, for easy access. He hadn't needed it for quite a long time, but was certainly thinking a lot about it now, because he was being stalked by something quite, quite large. He kept stopping every several steps and glancing over his shoulder - but every time he did this, the *SHUFFLETHUMP* noise would stop and the street would be blank and empty behind him. In reaction to this Ramo would grunt, shrug and keep walking.
It might be mentioned at this point that Ramo was also not particularly bright, for a warlord. While he was aware of the something following him, he was unaware of the fact that it was getting closer; or at least, if he was aware, it hadn't occurred to him to be concerned about it.
Ramo stopped. "Awright, who's there?" he demanded of the empty air.
Ramo grunted. "Fine, be that way, don' matter ta me."
He turned around. He was about to take a step, right hand wrapped around his dagger, ready to drive it back into whatever was about to ambush him.
He never got that far.
There was the clatter of a dagger hitting the cobbles, and the street was empty again.
Tris was having trouble understanding what was so damned funny.
"And so it... it's what?" Corone was shaking with laughter that he was making almost no effort to contain.
"It's a giant feather duster," Chandri supplied.
"And it's grown..."
"To the size of a Disneyland mascot and is stalking Subreality North."
"And it's trying..."
"To eat us."
"You... you..." he gasped.
At this point, Corone fell out of his chair. Dez rolled her eyes.
Chandri crossed her arms. "I might mention that it's escaped from the castle, and is probably in Diversion by now."
Corone continued to laugh.
"And if it is, it's going to try to eat you, too."
Corone, or at least the lump under the table that resembled him, went silent. He sat up, his face deadpan.
"Sounds dangerous... for a statically-charged cleaning utensil," Dez said.
Regaining himself, Corone stood up, "Danger is my mother's maiden name." A quick scan of the room told him his humor wasn't appreciated. "Weapons locker?" he suggested.
"Weapons locker," Chandri agreed.
Tris smirked at Dez. Dez, being much more mature than Tris, stuck out her tongue.
On the way to the weapons locker, something feathered came barrelling in through a side window and collided with Tris's head. The Muse made a surprised exclamation and fell over sideways.
As Tris sat on the floor rubbing her head, Lyra (which was, as it turned out, the feathered thing) leapt into the air, flapped a few times, and came to rest on Chandri's wrist, where she sat with her head tucked into her wings, keening alarmedly. Her talons dug into the leather gauntlet, hard enough to hurt the Writer's arm.
Chandri winced and smoothed the roused feathers along Lyra's back. The tawny owl shivered and continued to make frightened noises.
"Love, you're hurting my arm. Calm down, will you?"
Lyra peeked out from under her wing and peered at her mistress. A moment later she shook herself and sat straight, staring around as if she were expecting something.
"What's the matter with her?" asked Corone, bending down to look at the owl.
"Something's scared her badly," Chandri said, still petting the owl's head then resting her hand on Lyra's back. She closed her eyes briefly. A moment later, she opened them, and said, eyebrows raised, "Yep, that's it. It's out. Lyra just saw it on the edge of Diversion."
"Crap. We just had the outer town rebuilt," muttered Corone.
Chandri had an idea. "Hey, can I use your phone?"
Corone produced a cell phone and handed it to her. "Yeah, but I don't think beating it over whatever it calls a head with a cell phone is going to help much."
Chandri rolled her eyes at him as she dialled. "I'm calling the company's one-eight-hundred number. Maybe they can think of something." She listened. They waited. Then they waited some more. Chandri's face became more and more annoyed as the seconds ticked past. Finally, she thrust out the phone in annoyance. "Listen to this! I swear, first chance I get, I'm going to..."
They all leaned in to listen.
"We're sorry, but the number you have dialed is out of service. Starshop Interdimensional has moved... since that's what we're supposed to do, it's in the name, you know, don't be silly... the new location is unlisted. Please wander aimlessly in your nearest major city and one of our helpful salespeople might in a million years appear to answer any questions you may have. Starshop Interdimensional takes no responsibility for any damaged or malfunctioning products. Look up some good mercenaries, that's our advice. Thank you; have a nice day."
Corone scowled and threw the phone to the floor. Dez and Tris took turns stamping on it.
"Tell me again why you have mouse traps?" Chandri stood, arms crossed, watching Corone rummage through a cupboard against one wall of the large weapons locker.
"I know this sounds wild, but... mice?"
"When was the last time that any kind of mouse small enough to be
killed by conventional mouse-traps showed up in Subreality North?"
Corone stilled, and turned around, expression contemplative. "Well..."
"You just use them to catch Dez and Sycos unawares, don't you?"
Corone opened his mouth and was about to exclaim indignantly, but the grin
on Chandri's face stopped him.
"No," he said firmly. "I also take pictures."
"Figures." Chandri took a katana down from the wall. "I thought you didn't
use light weapons, Core," she said, testing the sword's weight.
Corone shrugged. "I use daggers and swords when they're necessary, but in most situations they aren't of much use for anything other than fear value... or fighting immortals." He pulled out his quarterstaff for a moment, looked at it and went back into the locker. "Y'think a feather duster has common sense enough to be afraid?"
"Funny, that's just the reason I thought you would help..."
"Charming girl..." Corone said to one of the gun-laden shelves. "I thought you had a sword."
"I do," said Chandri, "But the only thing I brought with me from Crystallis is my denn'bok, and we've pretty much established that *that* doesn't intimidate Henry much. My sword's in my room, and not currently much good. I didn't even bring a pen."
"I see," Corone said, emerging from the locker with a laser rifle big and powerful-looking enough to rival the one Dot Matrix carried in Web World Wars. It was the size of a large dog.
"Overkill, much?" Dez asked, appearing from the next room. She herself was toting a large broadsword.
Corone raised an eyebrow at her, "Remember, you can never *be* overkill. If it works, you're just 'kill' enough." At this point, Tris appeared behind the other Muse. She wore a sheathed silver sword on a belt over her robe and nightgown.
"Tris? I didn't even know you knew how to use a sword," Chandri said.
Tris shrugged. "Are we ready?" she asked, adjusting the belt.
"Pretty much," said Chandri. She looked at Corone. He nodded.
"Not a lot else we can do without an army," Corone said, pausing to look down at his massive energy cannon, and considering correcting himself, "but at the moment we don't have one. I've got explosives and weapons systems on the streets that we can activate by remote once we get out there, but I think we should use them
sparingly," he finished, definitely considering correcting himself on that last phrase, but as a responsible duke of Diversion, he decided against it. ::Damned responsibility...:: he thought.
"I agree," said Chandri.
The two Writers and two Muses looked up. Lyra fluttered back to Chandri's shoulder.
"We should go," Dez said. No one disagreed.
"You know, for something with only one leg, that thing moves pretty damned fast," Corone observed as they ran down the main street of Diversion. Henry was close behind. The uneven gait adopted by the feather-duster was loud and ungraceful, but very fast. It was rapidly gaining on the two Writers and company, and they were all running out of ideas on how to deal with the situation.
"So, blades don't work, blunt force doesn't work, explosives have no effect... what is this thing made of?" Corone asked as they ducked around a corner.
"Plastic?" Chandri shrugged. The sound of Henry's approach had momentarily ceased. The silence was unnerving. "Why do you suppose..."
The silence persisted, and Corone sheathed his weapons and looked up. "No idea, but maybe we should get to some higher ground?"
"Sounds like a good plan to me," Dez agreed, pulling down the nearest fire escape ladder and jumping up onto it. Chandri, Tris and Corone followed as quickly as they could and kept on climbing as they heard Henry start moving again.
"Is it just me, or is he getting closer?" Tris asked nervously.
"It's not just you," Chandri said as Henry appeared below, making some sort of snuffling noise. "He can't possibly be finding us by scent... can he?" She shot Corone a worried look.
He returned with a shrug. "Dunno. You'd never know to look at it... him... that he's got a nose, but it's obviously got a mouth of some kind... there are Teletubbies missing, and I'm pretty sure they were there last night." He paused for a moment, wondering if in that the feather duster had wronged him or commited an act that he would have liked to see in a FOX special. "And unless there's another giant sentient feather-duster wandering around that I don't know about..."
"It's rather like the Luggage, isn't it?" Chandri reflected.
"Luggage?" Corone gave her a blank look.
"Sort of conscious, but not necessarily malevolent... eats anything that gets in its way."
"Luggage?" Corone repeated.
"It was a sort of trunk with legs. Terry Pratchett books. Had different dimensions inside than out, kind of like how Immortals keep their swords inside their coats without it showing; it ate anything that threatened its master. It *did* come from one of those vanishing shops, like Henry did."
"They're actually hiding them in a velcro fold that goes down their pantleg..." Corone replied, as he climbed onto the third floor platform, ever a source of useless information.
Chandri raised an eyebrow at him. "You *trying* to ruin it for everyone?"
"Luggage..." Dez muttered to herself. "Those shops should be regulated. Of all people to be selling semi-magical objects to, to sell them to Writers..."
"Hey!" Chandri and Corone turned to her in unison with offended expressions. Tris just laughed.
"Maybe we should do something about that..." Chandri said, pointing downwards. Henry had somehow managed to hop up onto the first rung of the ladder.
"Keep climbing!" Corone said, activating the laser rifle and aiming it downward. A moment later, there was hot blast and the bottom half of the fire escape crashed down to the street below. A cloud of dust rose up into the air as the two Writers and their Muses climbed to the top of the building. When they reached it, they looked over the edge. From beneath the pile of ruined and twisted metal, Henry was squirming, and was soon on his foot again, and seemed to be staring up at them.
"There's something unaccountably eerie about being stared at by something with no eyes," Dez said, shivering slightly.
"I feel the same way about shriners..." Corone said quickly, about to unleash another blast. Before he could, a sharp breeze hit him and the rest of the party, and out of the corner of his eye, Corone saw something big on the roof with them. Something with feathers.
"What's up?" The giant feathered bird Sycos asked, making Tris jump.
"Chandri brought an electrostatic duster to life which grew to mammoth size and is trying to devour us all," Corone explained to his avian friend.
"Oh... I caught a raccoon!" He said happily. Anywhere but Subreality, a bird of prey catching a raccoon would mean just that - having caught a small masked member of the Canoidea suborder. In Subreality, it meant seeing a giant bird with arms devouring a cartoon relic of the childhood in a red woolen sweater.
"You're not right inside," Corone said. He peered over the side of the building to fire another shot at the feather duster.
After a moment of silence, Chandri piped up, "Is there a problem?"
"Besides being stalked by an eight foot tall feather duster that intends to consume us all?"
"Yes, besides that."
"Then yes, there is. I think it's gone inside the building to take the stairs up, and I just blew up the emergency escape."
"Oh." Chandri stared for a moment, then turned to Tris with a bright grin on her face. "Oh, Muse Mine..."
Tris crossed her arms. "When pigs fly."
As if to illustrate something terminally ironic, a flock of small, pink pigs flapped by in formation, tiny, white feathered wings pumping furiously. The lead pig squealed cheerfully at the group on the roof as they passed.
Tris glared at her Writer. "Shut up. I'm still not doing it."
"Aw, come on..."
Tris shook her head firmly. "No. I couldn't carry everyone at once, and we haven't time to ferry you all over one at a time, even if Sycos helped. He's a lot faster than -"
"Damn," said Corone, as Sycos left the roof with a derisive snort and a wash of wind.
"Told you," said Tris.
Everyone who had weapons drew them and looked nervously at the large steel trapdoor set in the middle of the roof.
"So, this Luggage..." Corone asked casually. "It ate people, you say?"
"And how did it do that... without a stomach?"
"Pratchett didn't want to know, and neither do we," replied Chandri decisively.
The trapdoor clanked ominously.
"If either of you has a secret weapon, now would be the time for the dramatic moment," Dez suggested.
"It's in my other cloak," said Corone.
At this point, most of those on the roof were resigned at least to a battle to the death - or failing that, being devoured alive by a giant electrostatic feather duster. They were expecting bruises, growling, drool, blood, maybe some shorn plastic bristles. But of all the things they were expecting, probably the last thing on anyone's list was a Something appearing behind them in a puff of magenta smoke with some diminished fanfare like a third-generation recording of a 1940's TV theme song.
As no one was expecting this, when it actually happened, Dez almost fell off the edge of the roof (being the closest to said edge), and Lyra squawked reproachfully and accidentally buffetted Chandri's head with her wings. The Writer squinted and held the owl at arm's length until she had calmed. Then she transferred Lyra to her shoulder and stared with the rest of them at the creature that had appeared before them.
"Greetings!" said the small, vaguely Hobbit-like man, clapping his chubby hands together with what seemed to be great enthusiasm. He had sparse, fluffy grey hair and tiny blue eyes, and his face seemed to be permanently pink. He wore no shoes.
"I am Tabo Underhill, proprietor of the Subreality City branch of Universo Emporium. I am here on behalf of our parent company, Starshop Interdimensional, in response to a maintenance query placed at approximately --" he glanced at a gold pocketwatch that disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, "--two AM this morning. How may I help you?"
Chandri blinked. "Maintenance query?"
"Yes. It was received in 'Help Me, You Useless Bastards' format by invisible courrier." The little man held out a crumpled piece of blue paper. Chandri took it and peered at it. Printed on it in spidery red letters was a brief paragraph in quotations:
[["Chandri? What's going on?"
"There's a... it's a... I... shut the door! Hurry!"
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"Uhm... you know that... thing... I bought that you weren't sure about, because you thought it would develop semi-sentience and eat us?"
"It's developed semi-sentience and is trying to eat us."]]
Chandri blinked again. "How did you... actually, never mind." In an aside, she turned to Tris. "Remind me to sweep Crystallis for surveillance devices, huh?"
"I was dispatched approximately one hour after we received the request, but I had to go looking for you, as you weren't at your recorded address. Not that it was any trouble, mind you. Glad to help."
"Well, see, we've had some trouble with the product we ordered."
The little man continued helpfully on; "In long standing tradition of helpful and considerate salesmanship, Starshop Interdimensional is happy to see to any of your maintenance or various (meaning any) of your starshop needs -- what sort of trouble?" Mr. Underhill seemed to have been going on as if from a pre-written script and without breath, but now the flow of his speel was interrupted.
"It sort of came to life, about tripled in size, and is trying to eat us," Corone said dryly.
Mr. Underhill briefly wore a perplexed look before he wiped it swiftly away. "And what was the product you ordered? It's probably just a simple malfunction."
The trapdoor continued to clank and clatter ominously as Henry's packaging was produced and handed to Mr. Underhill. He studied it carefully as the clanking got louder and more frequent.
"I think he's got the lock," Dez said, nudging her Writer, who half-turned back to face the trapdoor.
"Think you could hurry it up a bit?" Chandri asked the little salesman.
"All in good time," Mr. Underhill said brusquely. "Everything worth doing takes -- urk."
"Everything worth doing takes urk? Never heard that before."
Again, Corone glanced around and found his humour unappreciated. "You people have no sense of humour," he grumbled.
"What's wrong, Mr. Underhill?" asked Tris over her Writer's shoulder.
"Well... er... you see... you've been sent the wrong product for your order." The little man looked extremely flustered, and pulling a purple silk hankerchief from a breast pocket, mopped his forehead.
"What? I thought those shops were supposed to be infallible!" Chandri demanded.
"Well... you see... we usually are... it's just this one product... sort of rogue, you see... sapient pearwood is like that..."
"Sapient pearwood?" asked Dez. "I thought it was made of plastic."
"Well, *it* is... but Its offspring varies greatly."
"Well, yes. Great literary figures, you know, literary cliche, and this *is* Subreality, after all..."
"Mr. Underhill, are we discussing a certain piece of Luggage?" Chandri asked suspiciously.
Mr. Underhill nodded so hard that he appeared to stop breathing, and his head seemed to retreat into his shoulders with the effort of hiding his embarassment. "Hardly ever happens, you know, but that Luggage is an odd one... hard to keep track of, impossible to really control, and now it has... you know... offspring, and they're all as bad as their... parent."
"The Luggage had *kids*?" Chandri's tone was disbelieving.
"Parent?" Dez said at the same time.
Mr. Underhill nodded, shamefacedly.
"We're doomed," Chandri said, face in palm.
The clanking had become a background noise by now, and as such, the two Writers and two Muses had sort of stopped paying attention to it - that, and the appearance of Mr. Underhill had presented quite the distraction. But it was at this point that Chandri, hoping to convince her Muse that the unlikely plan of flying them to safety was now their best - or rather only - option, turned around looking for Tris.
"Where'd she go?" Corone too now turned away from the flustered little salesman. "She was standing right behind us."
"Yeah," said Chandri. "Was." The slightly tremulous note in her voice might have been easily explained by the fact that Henry, unnoticed by the party, had emerged from the trapdoor and was standing next to it (or, it might be argued, tottering), and seemed to be huffing. The plum-skinned Muse, however, was nowhere to be seen, and her sword was lying abandoned on the rooftop.
Henry began to approach them. Chandri stared at him, and sheathed her sword. "It ate my Muse," she said, as if she didn't quite believe it. She drew out her denn'bok. "You great green plastic-furred gluttonous excuse for a household appliance, I'll teach you to eat my Muse!" She ran at Henry, madly beating at any plastic parts that looked likely to break under duress from Minbari metal. Corone watched calmly, then looked sideways at Mr. Underhill.
"I realise we can always Write them both back into existence, but I think that would make Chandri cranky," he said, half to his Muse, who nodded.
"All the Writers get cranky when they get brought back from the dead. It's hell on the glands. Same with fictives, for future reference."
"I don't suppose you have some way of remedying this situation?" Corone inquired of the salesman, who was wringing his hankerchief between his hands.
"But it's against regulations!" protested Mr. Underhill.
"Rules are made to be broken," said the tall Writer, patting his laser rifle.
"Look; I'll make it easier for you."
Corone aimed and fired the rifle at Henry's feet - er, foot. The feather duster toppled sideways. Mr. Underhill made a dismayed noise.
"But that's valuable merchandise!" cried the salesman.
"It could be argued that so is Tris," Corone pointed out.
"I-- I-- oh, all right, all right, I'll do it!" Mr. Underhill capitulated as Corone hefted the laser rifle significantly. The little salesman pulled out his watch again and did something to the inside face. There was a noise that was a cross between something electronic and something vaguely resembling what one imagines the Vienna Boys Choir might sound like if one tried to fit them all into a HotWheels car.
The watchface flashed bright blue, and Mr. Underhill held it out, wincing. A beam of pale blue light shot out from it and collided with what by now, everyone had decided was Henry's head.
For the first time, Henry made something approaching a vocalization. He also writhed, after a fashion. Chandri dove out of the way just before Henry... exploded.
Well; he didn't *exactly* explode, to be strictly technical. But constrained to terms sayable by humanoid languages, one must revert to such a simple description. It was rather like Henry's insides became, momentarily, his outsides, and there was a foul-smelling - or at least, odd enough to justify not describing it - blast of hot air that washed out over the roof. An instant later, it subsided, and in the place of the oversized Henry, there lay a perfectly normal-looking green feather duster, a slightly twitching, cat-shaped alarm clock that had seen better days, a large, ugly man in dirty leather armour (who stood up and, looking rather confused, ambled away and over the side of the roof - no one noticed...), and Tris, who was sitting up, flailing her arms and emitting a stream of the most creatively colourful language anyone present had ever heard her utter. (There were also several dozen other objects that, covered as they were in unpleasant-looking green goo, we just won't go into.)
"This is just... it's disgusting," Tris declared, holding up her arms and looking down at herself with revulsion. Chandri took off her robe and draped it over her Muse, who looked up at her, glaring.
"When we get home, we're ripping the telephone out of the wall," she said as Corone inspected some of the unnamable, goo-covered rubbish strewn over the roof. Dez stood back, watching her Writer dubiously.
Mr. Underhill, in the meanwhile, was picking across the rooftop. When he reached the feather duster that had been Henry, he pulled a latex glove out of his pocket, put it on, and picked up the currently dormant cleaning appliance, placing it in a paper bag - which disappeared quickly into the folds of his coat.
"Well, if that will be all, I'll be going. Please think of Starshop Interdimensional the very next time you require out-of-this world goods or services. Have a nice day!"
"Hey, hold on there!" Chandri dove to catch the little man but caught only a cloud of magenta smoke. She patted the roof where he'd last been standing.
"Damn. I wonder how you lodge a complaint to a multi-Universal comany with no central offices."
Corone shrugged. "Maybe the Luggage will find out he let its baby out and eat him. Not a very good babysitter, if you ask me."
Chandri actually looked more cheerful. "Point."
"Can we go home? I'm all... slimy," Tris asked.
"Let's," agreed Dez, as Lyra dared to reapproach the roof and alighted on the Muse's shoulder before sighting Chandri and returning to her. The owl actually seemed to be looking contemptuously at where Underhill had been standing.
"Hey, Chandri?" asked Corone as the group started down the stairs through the trapdoor.
"Can I make a suggestion?"
Corone let her get a little ahead before he spoke again; she was still carrying her denn'bok.
"Next time you need to clean, hire a maid?"
Disclaimers: Subreality concept is Kielle's, all hail.
Corone is a Writer and therefore property of himself. Dez is his Muse, and Sycos is his too.
Tris is my Muse; 'nuff said.
Pratchett is Pratchett's, as is the Luggage. And the starshops.
Hobbits are Tolkien, but I'm hereby delegating Tabo Underhhill to the ownership of the first Pratchett/Tolkien ficverse that presents itself.
FOX is owned and operated by Satan.
The denn'bok is also known as a Minbari Fighting Pike, and is from Babylon 5, which is property of JMS. As is the word Minbari.
Ramo was no one's to begin with, and is no one's again, unless someone really wants to scrape him off the streets of Diversion and file suit.
The Teletubbies also belong to Satan.
I don't think I've forgotten anything, but if I have, just remember, you can't sue someone with no money. I hope.