Xanth kept me sane in high school, with Pern, and this time I really wanted to finish it and couldn't.
Strange Times Indeed
Derek looked out over the railing of the rented house and smiled at the two men walking on the beach. "Alex," he said into his phone, "could you please run a few names for me? Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison."
[Okay, coming right up.] A short pause. [What's a cop from up near Seattle and his pet
Anthropologist doing interfering in your case?] she asked thoughtfully.
"One of the local sheriff deputy's down here knew him and asked for his help since he's down here on vacation." Derek hugged the phone closer and sank back into the comfortable chair. "I just keep getting these feelings and images when I look at Ellison."
[Hmm, bad or good ones?]
Derek closed his eyes and focused his mind to the picture his Sight kept conjuring up whenever he looked at Jim so he could study it for threats. "Neither, just strange. I see him in tribal dress, war paint and the like."
[Do you get the same from his partner?]
"Are they? Partners I mean." He waited while Alex punched up some more information on the pair. "There's something very strange going on with those two and I would like to know what *before* I step into it."
[I can understand that fully. Okay, here it is. Blair Sandburg is Detective Ellison's partner on the force. Seems he's a consultant and Jim guards him while they work cases together. The Seattle house has some very interesting things to say about the pair. Do you remember that academic scandal a year or so ago? That was those two. Fortunately, Doctor Sandburg managed to find a way out of academic exile by giving some extraordinary examples to his dissertation committee that have since been ruled as classified. Hold on, there's a personal message attached to the file.] The sound of more keys clicking. [Yes, here it is. One of the members in Seattle and one in London, William Jr. by perchance, were called in to verify his findings and the experiment that got him his doctorate. They both sent notes out that 'his diss was real and valid and they both felt that the pair needed watching'.] The sound of a hum. [This is interesting, his dissertation topic was on Sentinels.]
"Sentinels? I thought they were a myth." He snorted.
[Derek, with what you've run up against in the last few months, are you going to throw the idea away just because it's *supposed* to be a myth? I mean, come on. You've had vampires and a serial killer or two come back recently. Not to mention that unicorn that showed up on the back lawn for that one *week* and grazed through the garden. Are you really ready to forget about the possibility?]
"Goot point. I'll take it under advisement and be very careful around him. Sentinel's are
supposed to have a shaman with them and it looks like Doctor Sandburg fits all the
[You have no idea. His mother was the original flower child and still is. She's the one that William Jr. was fawning over a few months back.]
Derek laughed. "Well, at least that gives us something to discuss while we go over the former member's house." He hung up after a quiet, "Gootnight". He laid down the phone, picking up the former member's folder again. "Turnkey," he said quietly, "where did you go?"
Jim knocked on the railing. "So, how's San Francisco?"
Derek raised an eye and sat up straighter. "You know, eavesdropping is considered impolite in most places."
Blair came around Jim's side. "Yeah, and so is checking others out and withholding information in an investigation." He smiled his most winning smile, the one that had devastated most of Cascade and most importantly Jim. "Don't you think we should share?"
Derek closed his eyes and thought. This could be dangerous for the houses, but they're not likely to come after them, their own secret makes them too vulnerable. He quietly handed over the folder he had in his hand, waving at the other chairs. Derek stood up, whistling very loudly to get his teammates' attention to get them to come back. Nick and Philip waved.
Nick Boyle jogged up the short flight of stairs and stopped at the top, eyebrow raised in question at the two men reading a Legacy file. Derek nodded so he shrugged before going inside to get a drink. Philip Callahan, former Catholic priest and now full time member of the London Legacy house followed closely behind him.
Derek sat back down and waited.
"So, he's a member of your organization?" Jim asked, handing the file over so Blair wouldn't have to read over his shoulder anymore.
"He was. He left with a calling a few years back. None of us were sure why he ended up here." He waved a hand around the lands. "It's beautiful, but I don't see any resemblance to the calling his father said he had to fulfil."
Blair looked up momentarily. "Well, that depends. It says here he's a guard of some sort of portal. One of your other members apparently checked it out." He handed it back.
"But of what portal?" Derek looked out at the rampant flowers growing along the walkways. "I haven't found one yet." He looked at Jim. "Have you?"
Jim shook his head, then nodded. "Maybe. I have found something strange. In his workshop are instruments and devices no one has ever seen, or at least us two or the native detectives. Not to mention some awesome fruit that no one's sure of what it is."
Blair nodded. "That was the biggest melon anyone had ever seen." He shrugged. "Maybe it had something to do with those."
Derek closed his eyes and pictured the things clearly in his mind. "You might be right, but we still don't know what it means."
"Well, I have a theory," Nick said, coming out and handing a bottle of water to Derek. "That melon is of a strange species, could be some sort of experiment or some other form of genetic manipulation." He took a deep drink. "Or it could be alien. The botanist had never seen it before."
Blair smiled. "Have you dealt with any aliens?" he asked them. All three Legacy members shook their heads. "Well, I know someone who has, and it's been proven before you give me that look, and he had detailed drawings. None of which looked like that thing."
Jim patted Blair's leg. "Blair, calm down. I know he wasn't lying and so do they probably. They probably know him too." He looked at Derek and smiled. "Aren't I right?"
Nick blushed and nodded. "Yeah, kinda. It was one of us that picked him up after he got back but no one from our house." He finished his water. "So, do we start back there tomorrow?"
Jim looked at Derek, who nodded at him. "We could, but it looks like it's going to storm soon." He looked up into the inky blackness.
Philip looked at Jim, opening his mouth to say something, but the gentle hand on his shoulder stopped him. He turned to look at Derek, who gave him the clear "I'll tell you later" look he was so famous in the houses for. Philip nodded and went back to his water.
Blair laid hand on Jim's arm. "Man, you all right?" he asked quietly.
Jim nodded and looked over at him. "We all need to get to someplace safe. It's a tropical
thunderstorm coming and it's going to be here in a few hours." Blair nodded and stood, walking back to their tent to make sure it would withstand the torments of the storm. Jim stood and smiled. "We might be pounding on the door tonight to come sleep in the living room, but you should bar the windows." He left the porch, going to help his Guide.
Philip turned to Derek and asked silently. "He's a Sentinel," Derek said quietly. Philip nodded and went inside, but Nick stopped Derek before he could follow.
"A what?" he asked quietly.
"A person with enhanced senses, a tribal guardian with special skills."
"That would explain the weather report then, huh?" Nick asked, standing up and brushing his shorts off. "So, is Blair somewhere in that equation too?" he asked as he followed Derek inside to help check all the windows.
"He's his Guide," Philip said, locking a shutter. "They protect the guardian and help ta balance him ta reality." He turned and looked at his two friends. "At least if I got the right one."
Derek nodded and finished locking down the last shutter. "Indeed you do. Doctor Sandburg was also at the heart of that controversy last year in Cascade, and William Jr and a member of the Seattle house both said to watch for them." He left to check the upstairs rooms.
Nick grinned at Philip. "Guess that means we should probably be quiet tonight."
Philip just shook his head and walked away. They might have been an item when they were at the same house, and Nick might be the reason he had left his calling, but there wasn't any way he would start that again when they only had a few days together. "Then what?" he asked. "I go home ta London and ya stay in Frisco. Where does that leave us, what good would it do?"
Nick put his head on Philip's shoulder. "Oh, I don't know, pleasure is it's own good." He
grinned and licked the side of the older man's neck, targeting a spot that used to get him his way all the time. "And I don't want you to sleep alone during the storm; none of us need to remember the reason for your nightmares. All I'm offering is the other half of my bed for your unconscious body." He walked up the stairs, wiggling his hips just a bit.
"Sure it is," Philip muttered and sighed. "Oh, all right," he called gently, making his former lover laugh in joy. "But that better be all it is. None of your cuddling in the night." He followed the younger man up the stairs, smiling at the body in front of him. "Kristen's been teaching me things and ya don't want ta know what."
Nick frowned and muttered, "I'll kill her if she doesn't learn how to keep her hands to herself." Philip laughed from behind him so he turned around to grin. They finished heading to Nick's room arm in arm.
Jim felt the tent shudder and tried to get himself and Blair up, but they had become entangled in the sleeping bags. He had gotten Blair's unzipped and his mostly undone when the first tent stake came out and went flying away.
"Blair, come on, we've got to get into the house. NOW!" Jim grabbed a firm hold on Blair as the tent blew around, the fortunately full tent with bottom staying together very well.
Blair woke up enough to scream as the tent flipped over and was picked up by the wind, but the thrashing kept slamming things into he and Jim, knocking them mercifully unconscious before they got the full effects of the ride.
The tent drifted away, across a border no one in their world knew existed - or at least one not many knew of. They landed with a splat on some firm ground and the tent caved in finally, gracefully fluttering inward to cover the two men inside.
Neither would have any idea of what happened in the morning, but they were unaware of that too for a while longer.
The storm was still raging the next morning when the three Legacy members got up. Nick looked outside and swore, running for his coat and Philip's. He tossed Derek his as he headed out the door.
Derek looked outside and hurriedly put on his coat, running outside also. Where a tent had been last night now stood a bare patch of very wet grass. The three men searched quickly over the estate, going farther and farther away from the house with each passing minute. When Derek stopped to look around, the hairs on the back of his neck and arms standing up, Nick gave him a funny look and pulled him onward to find the two lost men.
Jim fought his way out of the collapsed tent, pulling the still unconscious Blair with him. He sat down in the grass, pillowing the younger man's head on his lap, and looked around. Something was different, but he wasn't sure what. "Blair, come on man, time to rise and shine, the storm's over."
Blair groaned and looked up. "Hi," he said weakly. He tried to sit up, but had a little help from a firm hand on his back. He looked around. "Jim, do you get the feeling we're not home anymore?"
"Chief, this isn't Kansas and we haven't gone over the rainbow. See, no yellow brick road," he said waving a hand around. "We're still in Florida. Where else could we be?" Jim heard a snort from behind them and turned up his hearing.
//Mundanes, again. Someone really *must* fix the barrier to prevent this from happening every time a storm comes through.// He heard the sound of hooves, coming closer.
"Company," Jim said quietly.
Both the men turned to greet the person coming closer, but only Jim's mouth dropped open.
"Oh, my God," Blair said quietly. "Jim, do you know..." Jim placed a hand over his mouth.
"Please tell us you're not only friendly, but helpful," Jim asked the creature.
The centaur male snorted and then started to laugh. "All that and intelligent too," he said.
Blair shook off Jim and walked slowly over toward the man/horse. "How... May I..." He ran a frantic hand through his hair. "Excuse my curiosity, but I've never seen anyone like you before and I was wondering if I could touch you to make sure you're not a hallucination from an extreme blow to the head I got last night."
The centaur started to laugh again and waved him on. He and Jim watched in fascination as Blair hesitantly touched the boundary of skin to coat.
Jim watched Blair's face light up with the same look he got whenever he discovered something new about his abilities. "Um, Blair?" When there was no answer, not even the hint that the younger man had heard him, he stood up. "Blair, leave the poor...man alone, you can ask him a lot of questions later," he said quietly, walking over and pulling the resistant man away. "I'm sorry but he's a scientist at home and he's always like this when he finds something new," Jim apologized.
Blair looked up at him. "I wasn't bothering him or else he would have said so." He chewed on his bottom lip and turned to the man. "You are real, right?" The centaur nodded and he turned to look at him partner. "You were saying something about Kansas and rainbows Jim?"
Jim shook his head as he walked back to the tent, starting to get their things organized. "Can we get some information from you after I get this stuff settled?" he asked over his shoulder.
"Of course. We wouldn't want you to wander around our island and get lost now, would we." He smiled and walked calmly over to Jim. "May I help?"
Jim looked up and smiled. "I don't think you'll fit inside in it's present shape." He looked over at Blair and nodded. "But he will." He crooked a finger and Blair walked over. "You toss stuff out and I'll pack," he told him. Blair nodded and crawled into the tent. "Could you hold it open for us?"
Jim organized and packed their things quickly, wanting to get back to what passed as normal for them before something else showed up. When everything was done, he handed Blair his pack and shouldered his. "Okay, done." The centaur nodded.
"By perchance," Blair asked, "would you know the way for us to get home?"
The centaur shook his head. "I'm sorry, the only way I know of is through the gourd and back to Turnkey's. I'm not really sure how you two or the others got here."
"Others?" Blair asked.
"Yes," the centaur said. "We've had others visitors, including a family in a moving house." He scratched his head thoughtfully. "And when I was sent out to bring you back to the village, someone else was sent out along the border in case someone else got blown over also."
Blair snapped his fingers. "Derek and those guys," he said.
They all looked up as a group came crashing through the underbrush. "Hale and well met
humans," a young filly said. She walked over and kissed the young male centaur on the cheek. "I came to find you as my mate is constantly late." She smiled at him. "It's a good thing not all of us get lost like him."
Jim laughed. "Yeah, Blair has the same problem. If he's not involved in some project and
forgetting to come home, he's lost our way again." He looked down and brushed a leaf out of his mate's hair. "But you have to love them for it."
The filly smiled. "Definitely, there's no other excuse for it." She sighed and nipped her mate's shoulder. "Come, your friends' are already headed for the village and we should get going also. Do you have everything?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah. Oh, I'm Jim and he's Blair," he said, pointing a thumb at the younger man, who waved.
"I'm Chera," she said, "and this is my mate Seamore." She patted his mane and pulled his hand so he followed her. "Come, food will be picked by the time we get back."
Jim and Blair followed along behind the two of them, calmly accepting this for now. After all, Blair would be able to ask as many questions as he wanted to back at the village and Jim could protect him better there while ignoring it all. There was no telling what other strange things would happen to them out in the wilderness but a village sounded safe, even one full of mythical creatures that shouldn't exist. Besides, maybe once they were there, Blair would quit staring at Chera's bare chest.
Blair had his mouth covered for the fifth time in under an hour and the rest of the table fought not to laugh. He calmly removed Jim's hand and stormed off into the wooded area.
Jim looked at their hosts and shrugged. "I better go after him, there's no telling what he might get into." He hurried off after his mate, already calling an apology. "Blair, come on. I didn't mean it like that..." followed him into the light covering of brush.
Derek shook his head and smiled at his colleagues. "See, you thought I was bad."
Philip snorted and Nick smiled. They shook their heads in tandem and said, "No, we never thought that," together.
Their hosts cracked up and smiled at each other, quickly stopping and making way for a senior member of the village.
"I thought there were two more," he asked them quietly. Both the youngsters pointed at the brush and the sounds of loud yell of 'Blair, I'm sorry, how many times do I have to say it.' "Ah, yes. Don't you think you should go after them Chera, just in case?" She nodded and headed into the brush, following the heavily trampled trail easily. "I must apologize for not getting here sooner. I was caught up in a meeting and calling for someone to come and help you." He bowed his head to Derek. "I understand you are the leader of those two?" he nodded toward the brush.
"No, I'm the leader of these two," he pointed at Nick and Philip. "Those two were with us when the storm started and were helping us figure out where Turnkey went."
"Ah, that explains much. How long has he been missing?" the elder centaur asked, getting comfortable and crossing his arms over his chest. "I had heard he had to pass through the gourd gate to come here for some reason, but not that he was missing and the gate unattended."
Derek nodded, then his eyes brightened. "You mean that large melon that no one knows what it is or where it came from is the gate?"
The elder centaur nodded. "He's the guardian of it." He sighed. "But if he's missing then someone else will have to be appointed, someone either mundane or in exile from here."
"That won't go over too well," Nick said. "If he's here, or on his way here, is there some way that we could check and see? Make sure he got here and left again?"
"Well, the head of your kind might know, or more precisely his daughter and her husband might since he was supposed to be on his way to see them. We can steer you in that direction, or have him come and meet you on the mainland." He shrugged and rippled his coat to knock off a fly. "But traveling over there is dangerous, even on the enchanted paths."
"Enchanted," Blair asked, coming back to the table and sitting down, ignoring Jim still. "As in magic?"
The elder frowned. "Yes, human's all have magic if they're born here or are from here. We don't participate in that vileness, but the human's use it to make their areas safe."
"So, if there are humans, what other species are over there that they need protected from," Jim asked. He held up a hand to forestall the argument from Nick. "It's best to know what you might be up against."
"Well, on the way I'd have to say your biggest threat would be trolls. They've recently encroached onto some of that land. There are dragons and harpies and ogres along the way also, they have the main territories off the paths to the castle. Most of your problems, though, will be from the wild fauna and flora; some of it can be very dangerous if you're not careful." He held up a piece of wood. "This in itself looks harmless, but it's one of the most deadly and dangerous things you can run into, just because of it's unpredictability."
"What is it?" Blair asked, picking it up from where the elder man had laid it down. He studied it carefully and handed it to Derek for him to pass it around to the others.
"Reverse wood. It reverses magic and in that lies the problem." He shivered all over, his coat rippling. "It's handy to have around in case you need it, but some of the things you don't want reversed. Like the enchantment on the paths to the castle." He looked up and shook his head. "You must decide soon, the barrier will be closing shortly." He got up and walked away, leaving them in the care of the two younger centaurs.
Jim took the piece of wood when it was his turn, upping his sense of touch to feel it better. He started to zone on all the pathways through the wood but shook himself out of it as Nick reached over to take it from him. "It's like circuits in there, little pathways."
"Magic would have to be a current too," Blair reasoned, "so it would need pathways like electricity would."
"Not necessarily," Derek told him. "Magic is an energy but it's not like electricity." He stopped to think. "The closest I've seen it described is the Force in those Star Wars movies the boys watch."
Nick snorted. "Me? That was Philip. I've only seen each one once, he's the fan king of the house. Or was while he was there."
"Isn't he there now?" Blair asked. "The way the folder read, you were all in the same house and he was there."
"There are many houses," Derek told him, "but Philip has left ours for London."
"Ah, London. Beautiful town if you ignore the fog." He grinned at the former Priest. "So, how do you like the East End? That was always where my favorite hangouts were."
"I don't venture down there often," he admitted, "but it's nice to visit." He took the wood back, looking at it. "Maybe we should bring some if we can." He looked at Derek. "Home or checking on him?"
"We need to find him," Derek reasoned, "but Jim and Blair can go home if they want to."
"Derek, we might need someone with Jim's abilities to help us cope," Nick reminded him. "We're going into strange territory and no one knows what's going to come for us." He turned to look at Jim. "Want to continue our outing or do you and Blair want to go home?"
"I want to stay," Blair said quickly. "I'd love to study some of the systems and societies at work here." He blushed when Derek stared at him in open mouthed shock. "Didn't you ever feel like that? I know you're an Anthropologist too."
"I have, but not recently. It's just enchanting to me to see someone not worn down by the academic world yet. You have a wonder for the whole world that has been beaten out of most of the people in the field."
"In other words, he's still naive and ready to jump onto the next culture," Jim interpreted. His arm was hit, making him rub it and glare at Nick. "Hey, he's mine, I can say that."
"Jim, shut up," Blair said quietly. "Do it now or go back to the house." He glared at him. "I'm not changing my ways just because you think I'm too eager to jump into new things. Those new things keep saving *your* life so you don't have a right to argue." He turned to look at Derek, his whole face softening. "If he doesn't want to go on, may I?"
"I'd be happy to work beside you," the older man told him. "Such enthusiasm is addictive to me and reminds me why I went into this field."
"To dig around old temples," Nick told him, grinning slightly. Until his own arm was hit by Philip. "Ow! It was! He never wanted to go study people, he wanted to study dead people." He glared at his former lover. "Just ask him."
"He has a point," Derek told Philip, "but he still needs to be beaten on occasion." He looked at Blair again. "Since you two have the tent, why don't we let them sleep outside and we three take it? At least none of us snore or argue with blankets when they get tangled up in them." He glanced at Nick, who was blushing.
"There's no need," Chera said, walking over to them with small gourds. "We have pillow and blanket trees all over the mainland." She handed the gourds out, sipping at hers. They all watched her then looked down at their own.
Blair tried it first, grinning. "It's milk," he said, guzzling it as fast as he could.
"It's milkweed pods," Chera told him. "They grow over there too. Most of the food you'll want is on plants." She smiled at Philip, nodding at his torn shirt. "You should be able to replace that over there too. I know there's a clothing bush near the beach somewhere."
"That's convenient," Jim said. "I wonder if they have flannel." He smiled at Blair, tugging on his shirt. "Maybe you could pick up a few more."
"Jim, leave him alone," Derek said. "This is what he's trained to do and it's an experience of a lifetime for him." He looked at Chera. "We've decided we should go check on Turnkey ourselves and get back that way."
"I can understand that. It's important for him to be there."
Nick held up a hand. "Shouldn't one of us go back and guard the gate?" Derek smiled at him. "I wasn't suggesting me. Philip maybe."
"Nick, shut up, I won't get into trouble." Philip looked at Chera. "Will the gate be all right without us there?"
She nodded, brushing back her hair/mane. "It should be, it needs to be activated to let someone across." She shook herself. "Hate fly season." She flicked a particularly large one off her flank, frowning at it. "Shoeflies especially."
They all looked at the flying shoe looking creature then at each other.
"Literal," Blair commented to Derek.
"Puns," Nick groaned, laying his head on Philip's shoulder.
"Poor Nick," Philip told him, pushing him off. "We'll just have to make sure you don't get addicted to them and that curse doesn't come back." He looked at Jim. "You're awfully calm about this."
"I'm dreaming," he said simply. He looked at Chera. "We should be going. Thank you for the food and the information." He stood up but Derek caught his arm across the table.
"You don't have to stay, Jim, you could go back and guard the gateway."
"No, I have to stay with Blair. It's my duty to guard him no matter what he pulls me into." His Guide snorted. "Or the other way around," he amended.
"So, we go," Blair said, standing up. "Which way to the bridge or whatever?"
"I'll lead you to the raft," she said, smiling and taking his hand. "You're exceptional for your kind. Most mundanes don't accept things this readily."
"Yeah, but I'm odd there." He smiled at her, stepping away to get onto the raft. "Straight across?"
"Yes," she said, helping Nick on since it shifted. "There's a dock over there." She pulled something out of ...somewhere, handing what looked like a letter over to Derek. "If you see Seamore's brother over there, Seacrest, give him this please." He nodded, looking confused. "I can't tell you why, just please deliver it." She walked away, standing a few feet away to make sure they got off all right.
Jim and Nick steered the raft across the small bay, pushing off each other's rhythm easily.
Derek smiled at the ordinary young man waiting for them. "Hello, I'm Derek and this is Blair," he said, pulling him forward. "The two young ones are Philip and Nick and our other companion is Jim."
The man shook each of their hands. "Gray Murphy." He looked at Blair for an extra long time. "Are you mundane?"
"As far as I know," Blair said slowly.
"That would explain some things," Jim said, backing away from his Guide. Until he fell onto the shifting sand that is.
"Good," Blair said, leaving him there. He looked back at Gray. "Will it eat him?"
"Not for a while. It'll bury him first. It's a sandman." He walked over, pulling Jim out. "Please be careful where you step and what you touch. Xanth is a very dangerous place for those that know the dangers, but people like you have a short life span here." He waved a hand at the path. "Lets go this way, it'll lead us to Castle Roogna."
They all started off in an easy comfort, Jim getting over his embarrassment quickly as they proceeded.
It was almost noon by the sun, Blair had already figured out that his watch didn't work, when they stopped at a small grotto. Gray picked a pie off a tree, eating it as he looked for a milkweed pod. "Dirt," he muttered, grabbing a different looking bottle off a tree and tapping into the trunk. "Boot rear it is." He turned to look at them. "Be careful with this. The more you drink at once, the harder the kick you get." He sipped then jumped.
Jim tapped the trunk next, tasting it to make sure it was safe. He rubbed his backside, frowning at the tree. "Okay," he said, handing it off to Blair and getting out of the way.
"Jim, no chocolate," Blair told him, taking that pie from him and eating it. "Eat something healthy." He turned around, missing the tongue that got shown to him.
Derek snickered, taking a sip of the boot rear himself and wincing. "I thought you were kidding," he said. He looked at Blair, who was shaking his head. "Most extraordinary."
"Please, no thesis talk," Jim begged, actually getting down on his knees beside Blair to do so. "Please, no academics here and now. My mind can't take that and all this."
"Jim, you just have to relax," Nick told him, patting the top of his head. "Let all the new things flow through you and don't fight the absorption of it." He looked at Derek. "Or at least that's what the bossman keeps telling me."
Derek rolled his eyes, pulling Blair over to where Gray was. "What do you do here?"
"I'm a magician's assistant," he said. "I've got the power of null magic." He smiled slightly. "I was born in Mundania but was ordered here." He got a confused look so laughed lightly. "Here, that fairytale about storks is true. My wife and I have triplets." He stood up, eating the last bit of his pie. "We should be going, it's a good four hours to a good camping spot." He walked out of the clearing, listening to the slow steps following him.
Derek looked at the tree then at the people around him. "We need to sleep in there?"
"Yeah," Gray said, climbing up a conveniently offered limb. "This is a Ministree. It'll minister to you but it will also shelter us. It's perfectly harmless as long as you agree with it's viewpoints." He settled down on the branch, reading the leaf that brushed his cheek. "Yes, I believe the Goblins should stop uprooting trees." The tree sighed and the leaves left him alone.
Blair climbed up, boosted by a hand from Jim on his rear. He looked at the nearby leaves, smiling. "I like this tree, it's quite intelligent and knows what to protect." He looked down at Jim. "Don't even think about me pulling you up. I'm not Superman." He settled down on his branch, closing his eyes. "Night guys."
"Goot night, Blair," Derek said. He looked at Jim, patting the tree as it let him and Nick up then lowered the branch again so Philip could walk up. He watched them all settle down for the night, talking quietly to the tree.
Blair was the first one that realized he had to go to the bathroom, wiggling off his branch and down the tree. He read the leaf that came down, smiling. "Thank you," he whispered, walking over to the edge of the clearing and doing what he had to do. He turned around, running into Derek. "Sorry," he said quietly, walking past him.
"Not your fault."
They ignored each other until they got back up in the tree finding themselves again on facing branches. Derek smiled at the younger man, leaning forward. "I'd like to see your notes on this place."
Jim rolled over and fell out of the tree and promptly swore but it was beeped. "Huh?" he asked, still very sleepy as he looked around. "Censorship?"
"There's one nearby," Gray muttered. "Get back up on your branch, Jim, and go back to sleep. We can fight the censorship in the morning."
Jim looked at the old ship sitting in the bay, the smoke billowing out of it and being picked up by the breeze. "Censorship?" he asked. He turned to see Gray nod and mutter something about some sort of water while digging into his pack.
Blair looked at the ship then at Derek, grinning. "So, do we let the big, strong, athletic people go fight this or do we do our duty as academics and take the water to douse the censors?"
"Let them do it, it'll help them bond," Derek told Blair, pulling him over to a rock, smiling slightly at the frown Nick gave him. "Besides, if they fail then we can back them up." He got a brilliant smile from Blair, making the whole world light up around them. When he could see something besides the younger man, he looked up to see Gray looking at him.
"Hmm, very powerful. I want to take you to Humfrey's instead. There's something odd about you." He handed the water to Jim without looking at him. "We'll be here, just pour a little on each of the censors to make them quit smoking." He sat down in front of the young man, pulling his backpack off and rummaging through it.
Jim and Nick looked at Philip, who waved them to go first. "I'm not letting you guys do this alone."
Nick stopped, staring at him. "Philip, your voice." He walked closer, brushing a hand through the dark, short hair. "Where's your accent?"
"Gone," he said flatly. "Been this way since we crossed over."
"All the human speak the same language here," Gray told them. "It would take accents away." He looked at Derek. "Except for yours I've noticed."
"Let them deal with the strange stuff, it's food to Blair," Jim said, getting into the rowboat and taking the oars. They started over to the decrepit ship, talking quietly.
Gray waited until they were alone. "You both sure you're mundane?" Blair and Derek looked at each other and smiled.
"Not with what we do," Blair said. He rubbed over Derek's arm, noting the strength in it. "Actually, I've always been different." He brushed his hair out of the way, pulling a long leather cord from his pocket and tying it back. "Is there a possibility of my coming from here?"
"It looks like it," Gray said. "I didn't realize anything was different about me until I got here and everything snapped into focus." He got a small confused look from Derek. "When I was in Florida, everything seemed drab, dreary. Almost like my name." He smiled. "When Ivy brought me over with her, everything snapped into focus, my life had color again." He looked at the flora and fauna playing together, playing tag with the sunbeams. "See, like them." He pointed at them. "Home doesn't have them and it's good to me to see this." He looked back at Derek. "None of us are sure of anything, much less of what's going to happen to you. Your arrival sent Humfrey, the Magician of Information, into snits." His smile got bigger as he leaned closer. "Those are ghastly little things but I think he deserved them this time."
Jim looked over the rail, frowning at the dead men dancing on the deck. He climbed over, taking the first skeleton out by tossing him into the water. He felt Nick beside him, helping in the brawl he started to give Philip some time to douse the censors.
Philip carried the little bottle toward the first smoking pot, but an odd thing happened. Time seemed to slow the closer he got, his feet felt heavier and he couldn't walk as well. He looked at the little green leaves scattered around the base of the mast then back at Jim and Nick, who seemed to be moving too quickly to be human. He started for the censor again, moving as quickly as he could in the lethargy that was trying to overtake him.
Jim looked over his shoulder at Philip and shook his head. "Why's he just standing there?" He punched the next skeleton, wincing when his hand started to hurt. He turned down his sense of touch, choosing to ignore it.
"What's scattered around the base? That might be it." He watched as Philip's foot moved an inch. "He's moving, just really slowly." He turned to punch another skeleton that came toward him. "Think this was the skeleton crew?"
"Yeah, probably," Jim said, backing up against the rail as his opponent charged him but ducking aside at the last minute. "Think that they have brains?"
"No, I think that they're stripped zombies." Nick tossed the last one over the side too, then turned to watch Philip. "Jim, what is that scattered under his feet?"
Jim zoomed in on the leaves. "Looks like some type of herb."
Nick snapped his fingers. "Literal. Xanth is literal. It's Thyme." He walked closer, taking the bottle from Philip's outstretched hands while Jim dragged him back. He handed off the bottle, taking off his shirt to knock the leaves away so he could get to the censor. He still felt slowed down as he walked up to it but it wasn't as bad as what Philip must have been feeling. He backed away after pouring some of the purple liquid into the smoking pot.
Jim took the bottle back from Nick once he could grab him again, his arm tingling with the heaviness Philip had explained to him. He walked toward the other censors, picking up a mop as he went. He shoved as many of the leaves as he could away from the base of the mast and started forward.
Philip helped Nick out of the thyme field then walked over to where Jim was trying hard to pour the purple liquid into the censor. When it was done, he reached in and took the bottle, walking to the last one. He and Nick walked in together, each one taking a step and handing the bottle off as the other got in front of them so they could rest. By the time they were done, Jim was free and it was nearly noon.
Gray looked at the ship then blinking up at the sun. "Looks like the people running it got smarter and put some thyme on board."
"Thyme? Like cooking or like watches?" Blair asked. He pulled out a notebook, writing something down. "Wow, this is great."
Derek just smiled fondly at his associate, then at Gray. "He's incredible," he noted. "I remember being like that when I first joined the field."
"Yeah, but that was when?" Blair looked up. "You could have studied the swingers, right?" Derek's smile got a little wicked. "Thought that was you." He leaned against his arm. "What say we leave them there and go on?"
"Jim is really annoying to you, isn't he?"
"Yup, and getting more so every day. It's not that I don't like being his Guide, ‘cause I do, it's the attitude that he gives me. I'm trying to figure out if we can be Guide and Sentinel without being lovers but I can't find a source."
"It may be that the tribe would have insisted that they be together. All the references say that, right? That the tribe accepted them as partners because it had to be so?"
"Yeah," Blair said, smiling. "They do." He grinned at Gray. "I need a man like him."
"Well, I could offer you a job. The Legacy has need of more members like you." He touched a curl that had escaped, wrapping it around his fingertip while he pushed it behind the small ear. "We could offer both you and Jim one. He would have someone to play with in Nick and we could talk more often." He raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure you'd be thrilled to be in less danger."
"Oh, yeah." Blair rubbed his thigh, the one with the scar from his gunshot. "I really would like to get away from sociopaths." He glanced over at Gray. "We okay to talk about this now?"
"Sure," Gray said, "I'm not going to go back and tell anyone and yes, there is a Legacy member here. Or at least there is usually."
"Turnkey was one," Derek said.
"No, I mean that the Legacy sends a member over to live in a house over here and keep an eye on things in case we can't handle it and we need help from Mundania. I think right now, it's some guy named William that Humfrey pulled back from Hell by accident." He shrugged. "He's on our way." He picked up the tingling mirror beside him, frowning as his wife's face showed up, upside down. "Okay, Ivy, enough tricks." She righted it, smiling at him. "Thank you, you were making me woosy." He smiled at her. "I've got the strangest mystery here. Two supposed mundanes. One that somehow kept his accent and the other that I swear has magic floating around him."
She frowned. "Gray, do you know what you're saying?"
"Yeah, that some of the last wave went home." He handed the mirror to Blair. "Tell me what you see."
She looked at the man now holding the mirror, smiling at him. Her smile got just a little sexy, uninterrupted by the wail of a screaming child behind her. "Hello," she said softly, seductively, "welcome to Xanth."
Gray snatched the mirror back. "See?" He smirked at her as she shook herself out of it. "So, what is it?"
"A very strong attraction spell?" she guessed. "Let me look it up." She started to turn but immediately turned back. "Humfrey just gave me a look. Are you thinking he's a Magician class talent?"
Gray shrugged. "I have no clue, you're the native and you have that judgement."
"True," she said. She held up a finger, leaving the line of the mirror's sight. She came back with a little gnome of a man. "Give the mirror back to him."
Gray handed the mirror to Blair, who smiled at the older man. "I had a teacher once that looked just like you. He was an English teacher if I remember right." He smiled at Derek, who was looking at him with the most happy and peaceful look on his face.
"Gray, get that boy under control," Humfrey shouted. Gray took the mirror back. "Yes, son, he is. Now where's the other one? I don't like the sound of that either." He waited while the mirror was handed to an older man, who was looking at the younger one. "Move the kid away, Gray. His field is corrupting things."
Gray got up, pulling Blair away from Derek, getting sounds of protest from each of them. "You act like you've just drunk an entire love spring." He smiled at the sound of laughter from the mirror. "Well, your friend seems to have amused Humfrey, something very rare." He walked back over, listening to the conversation.
"Yes, I knew your grandfather. He was a very good magician too. The man's talent helped me many times," the troll said.
Derek smiled at him. "I never knew him. He died before I was born. Does that mean that I'm a citizen here?"
"Well, we don't do citizenship here in Xanth," Humfrey said, "but you would be considered a resident."
Gray looked over Derek's shoulder. "The rest of their party is fighting on the censorship. When they get back, do you want me to bring them to the castle?"
"Please. I'll have that William fellow here by then. Derek said he was a friend." He hung up abruptly.
"Well, that solves one mystery," Derek said, handing the mirror back. He smiled at Blair, making him come back to sit beside him. "My Grandfather was the Magician of Scribes here in his youth. He left because he couldn't find a woman for him and because Humfrey told him to. He brought my grandmother back for a honeymoon, which was when my father was conceived according to family history." He looked over his shoulder. "But why does Blair have a talent?"
"He must have been summoned here." Gray looked at the water as the rowboat started back. "They're done, we should start toward the castle, it's another day's trip."
Nick walked back onto the shore slowly, laying down a small green leaf before going back to normal speed. "Thyme?" he guessed, pointing at it.
"Yup," Blair said. He smiled at Philip. "Guess what I found out?"
"That you have a talent for attraction?" the former Priest said, coming over to sit beside him. "I'm immune, or able to ignore, it from my training." He rubbed down a firm arm but Derek pulled the young man away from him.
"No you're not," he told Philip. "I've seen that look on Jim's face."
"And yours," Gray told him. "Blair, I think we need to take some precautions about this. It could get bad." He looked around then frowned. "Dirt. We don't have anything here to shade you with."
"I knew I should have covered him with a sack," Jim muttered, walking over to pull his Guide up. "What did you touch?"
"Nothing, Jim, I have a natural ability here. It just happens to be attraction."
"Gee, and it doesn't go home with you?" he said as he let him go. "Does this mean I don't have to remind you of your harem at home waiting on us to get back?"
Derek stood up, getting between them. "Enough. James, please don't insult Blair, this isn't something he can help." He looked at Philip. "I found out one of my grandfathers was from here also, which explain's my accent staying while yours didn't." He got a small shrug. "And I found out that William was pulled out of Hell. By Gray's boss no less."
Nick choked. "No, tell me he isn't here!" he pleaded, hiding behind Philip. "Please?"
"I'm afraid he is," Derek said with just a hint of a smile. "I know you're....fond of him Nick, so I asked for him to come see us while we're here." He got big green puppy eyes for it.
"Oh, stop it," Philip said, stepping away from Nick. "The man's not that bad and we should check in with him in case the Ruling house doesn't know." He looked at Derek then at Blair. "Why don't you two become one part of the party and the rest of us will be the other." He waved them to the path. "Shall we?" Blair grinned at him, walking over to the path and getting on it. "Don't do that to people," Philip called after him. "You don't want kidnaped."
Jim muttered something like, "So that's why they come after him," and followed his Guide, just in case.
Nick looked at Philip. "You think I'll be sharing a house with them soon?"
"Yes, I do. I think Derek's wise enough to see the merits of getting them both to the house." He waved at the path and Nick walked ahead of him. "I just hope you can deal with Jim."
"Seals, Rangers, we have a friendly competition thing going." Nick turned to smile, running into Jim's chest since he'd turned around to look for them. "Sorry," he said, stepping back.
"That's all right. And yeah, he offered, he and Blair are talking about it right now."
Nick patted Jim's arm. "Don't worry, man, he'll be fine with us and so will you." He smiled up at him, just a hint of his usual playful grin coming out. "I won't let them hurt you."
"Gee, thanks," Jim said dryly. "Does that mean we can't bring our usual psychos with us?" He raised an eyebrow. "I don't think you guys are set up to deal with sociopaths." He turned, or tried to since Nick had laid a hand on his arm.
"You'd be surprised what we deal with, Jim. Just give us a chance to prove you belong there." He gave him his best saucy grin and started walking after the quickly retreating backs. "Come on, you never know what sort of trouble those two will get into."
Jim jogged after him, after shaking his head at the jiggling butt in front of him.
Philip just shook his head at Nick's performance, having seen it himself once before.
Blair looked at the little hut, wrinkling his nose at the smell of moldy thatch. "Someone needs to fix the roof," he muttered. He walked up to the door, behind Derek, who was knocking.
"What?" William Sloan yelled, throwing open the door, and taking it off the hinges. "Derek," he said, mouth open. Then he fell into the waiting arms, sighing in relief. "Thank God it's you," he whispered. He got himself pulled back together after a minute, stepping back to look at the rest of the people. "Magician Gray, thank you for bringing them to me." He nodded at the two men he didn't know and Philip. "Oh, and you even brought me an annoyance, how thoughtful, Derek." He smiled at Nick. "I'm sure Mr. Boyle and myself will get along well while you go check in with the Good Magician Humfrey." He waved then in. "Come on, I keep forgetting what normal people do."
Derek sat down at the table, looking around at the small hut. "Very cosy," he said.
"Derek, it's a dump, don't even pretend otherwise." William sat down across from him. "It was great at first but I don't know how to care for it. I can barely manage to keep it clean."
Philip looked up at the roof. "I could fix that, easily. Do you have any other thatching materials?" He looked back, seeing the shock. "The border takes the accents," he explained. "Derek's just part native."
"You are?" William asked, looking back at his old friend. "When did you find this out?"
"Earlier today," Blair said. "Blair Sandburg," he held out a hand, smiling at the firm handshake. "You know, your son looks just like you."
"Are you a house member too?"
"No, my mother was dating him." He grimaced at the look. "She's a free woman and he's an adult." He sat next to Derek, looking around. "I'd die without books."
"I borrow some from Humfrey," William told him. "Derek, are you recruiting him?"
"I'm trying," the Precept told him. "Jim seems to not be too big on the idea so far."
"Let Nick wear him down," Blair said softly, watching them talk about how they'd fix the place. "As a matter of fact, can we leave them here to fix this place while we go talk to Humfrey? I'm sure Jim would be more thankful not to be in a large castle for a while."
"I heard that," Jim said, "but I wouldn't mind. It's a shame to see a house go to pot like this." He looked at Nick. "Blair suggested that we stay here and fix this while they talked to the Good Magician."
Nick nodded. "Sounds good to me. I hate matters of protocol." He grinned at Derek. "Bossman, you want a say in this?"
"No." Derek shook his head. "Have fun, boys." Philip raised an eyebrow at him. "Your choice," he said.
"I'd come with you but I want to do something about the roof." He walked out, heading for the nearby sounds of Jim and Nick playing.
"Blair," William said, "did you wish that or think that?" He got a confused look. "I got a call from Humfrey about your abilities. If you wish or you think it, in relation to a couple, it could happen if your talent works like he thinks it does."
"So I made Jim and Nick attracted to each other?" He wrinkled his brow up. "Didn't know I could do that." He looked at Derek. "Are they going to be a problem for you?"
"Not at all," Derek said, taking his hand, "but I would like to know if you thought of us. If that's why I'm like this with you."
"No, not really anyway." He tipped his head to the side. "I remember thinking that you were about everything I've ever wanted in a mate but nothing else, and that was before we crossed to Xanth ."
"Jim said you had a harem at home," Gray asked. "It might have some cross over."
"How?" Derek asked.
"Not a clue. I'm the wrong person to ask."
"Well, I seem to attract people to me. That might be why I'm such a popular teacher too, but I don't think that I have that sort of power out there." He grimaced. "If I did, I'm really sorry, Derek, and I'll find some way to take it off you."
"No," Derek said, squeezing the hand he held. "I've thought the same about you since I really started to talk to you. I'd like to continue this when we get home, just to make sure it's real but otherwise, I believe you were coming to San Francisco to work for my house." He smiled. "We'll take it slowly."
"Sure," Blair said, leaning over to hug his arm. "If you're sure I can break myself from Jim and not send him into an instant and permanent zone then I'm yours." He smiled, leaning up for a kiss.
"Please don't," William groaned. "It's bad enough all I get are demonic visitors but now I have to see you two make out?" He looked at Gray. "What's up with that Jim guy?"
"He seems to have a talent but he's mundane." The Magician shrugged. "Not a single idea. He's Blair's."
"He's a Sentinel," Blair said, not looking away from Derek's eyes.
Gray sighed and walked over, nulling both of them for a minute. "Better?" he asked once they were released. They both nodded, blushing lightly. "Good. It won't last that long." He walked around the table to sit near William. "As you can see, Blair's talent is quite powerful as, I suspect, is Derek's. They just keep getting caught up in the eddies of each other."
"Their house will be quite a trip then, won't it," William said snidely. "Stop looking at him like that, Blair. You'll get caught again." He looked at Gray. "Would one of the Gorgon's veil's work?"
"It might. Humfrey's getting her up to the castle tonight so we've just got to deal until then." He looked over his shoulder as Jim and Nick walked in, talking about where they'd been while in the service. "At least they like each other."
"I don't think I did that to them," Blair said quietly. Jim looked at him, giving him a dirty look. "It appears my talent may work on the wish principle but I don't think I wished you two together so yours is a real like." He smiled at his Guideling. "Don't argue, Jim, we're going to live with them and work beside them."
"I like Cascade."
"But which do you like more?" Nick asked. "Psychos or sanity with only the occasional strange thing?"
Jim took a deep breath. "You have a point. I'll come down as soon as I can and talk to our boss and check things out."
"For a weekend?" Nick suggested, walking behind him but close enough to rub against him.
"We can do that," Blair agreed as he took Derek's hand in his again. "Jim, we still need to have a serious discussion about your abilities. Derek posed a point I'm sure could work for us."
"That we don't have to be together? That the tribes would have pushed it as a reasonable option?" He nodded. "I can see how that might work."
"Stop it, Blair," Derek said, leaning over to talk next to his ear. "Whatever you're doing to him."
"I'm not." Blair turned, kissing him on the cheek. "I wasn't thinking of it at all actually. I was thinking about how you'd look in midnight blue silk." He grinned then looked back at Jim. "We okay with the concept now?"
"Yeah, fine," Jim said. He grabbed Nick, kissing him hard. "Just fine."
"Wow," Nick said, looking at Jim. "Are you always like that?" He got stereo head shakes from the former lovers. "Good, I'd never get anything done." He looked at Derek. "Will you be okay with this? I know you protested to Philip every time he came home to leave me alone so I could get stuff done."
"It'll be fine," Derek said, "as long as you don't ignore your work." He leveled a 'look' at his associate and friend. "No stealing my office this time, either."
Philip snorted as he walked in. "At least you all have this worked out. Now can we work the rest out?" He motioned Nick over. "When are we starting? The thatching material needs to dry for a few days."
"I'm sure you'll be here for a few days," Gray said. He stood up. "I best get Derek and Blair to the castle. William, you stay and help so you can learn to do this then bring them two days from now to either the castle or to Roogna. We'll send you a message to tell you which." He waved at the door, prompting Derek and Blair to walk out in front of him.
Philip walked up behind Jim. "I'll do what I can to help as a Guide. I've studied his work." He got a small nod. "Not to take over all the time, but to get you used to alternate people so you don't freeze when he's out of town."
Jim smiled at him, wrapping an arm around his shoulder. "You really want to be a Guide?" He grinned his most evil smile. " We'll see if you can handle it. Nick, come here, let me zone on you to see if Philip can do this."
Gray looked up at the castle door, frowning. "It's not supposed to be locked and I'm not in the middle of the tests," he muttered. He pounded, frowning at the woman that answered. "Mare Ann? Where's the Gorgon?"
"She's had to go back for a few minutes. She had an emergency dream to act in." She waved them in, smiling at the two men. "Are these the two rogue Magicians Humfrey said he was going to help free of charge?"
"Charge?" Blair asked.
"Usually a year's service but he's waved it for you two since you're both mundane and probable Magician's." Gray led them into the house and up the twisted stairs to a small, dark room filled with books.
"Gee, this looks like my room at home," Blair quipped. He noticed the troll looking at him sideways. "Hello, Magician Humfrey, Blair Sandburg." He held out a hand then winced as the other man was shocked as he shook it. "Sorry, I didn't know I could do that."
"So I can tell. Magician Derek," Humfrey said, shaking his hand. "Don't worry, it's not a product of it." He smiled, a terrifying sight. "Shall we adjourn down to a more suitable room to help you both get control? Before Blair enslaves the whole of Xanth?"
"I could do that?" Blair squeaked. He got nodded at, with a smirk, from Humfrey. "Wow. I guess I need to put a down knob on it or something." They followed the gnome down the stairs to a living room.
"Or something," Derek suggested. He sat down on a couch, looking at the new man in his life. "Blair, focus on something inanimate, lets see if it works on that," he suggested.
"Hey, it worked on Jim." He gave him a look then smiled a come-hither smile at a chair, getting out of it's way as it slid toward him. "Wow," he said softly, sitting down in it. "This is a real chair, right? Not some pun?"
"No, it's normal," Gray said. He sat down on the other couch, smiling at the little girl that came up to him. "Hello, sweetness. How are you?" She smiled, showing off an empty spot in her mouth. "Ah, lost a tooth. You're getting so old!" He hugged her tightly, settling her in his lap. "This is one of my wife's nieces, Dawn. Love, this is Blair and Derek." She smiled at them, showing off her missing tooth.
"Hey, looks like it's time for the tooth fairy." He covered his mouth then looked at her father. "Is there one here?" Gray nodded, smiling tolerantly. "Okay, just checking."
"Oh, yes, he's a pudgy little man with wings. Pink tutu and all." Gray smiled. "About seventeen inches high." He tickled Dawn, watching as she slid off his lap and ran out. "Marrow and Bones must be back."
"No," Humfrey said as he walked in, "she didn't want to have to make me make her leave." He sat down in the chair opposite Blair. "Decided to redecorate?"
"No, I smiled at it and it came over," he confessed. "It doesn't just work on people."
"There are two forms that this can take. You can be like your mythological Cupid and affect others, or you can attract things to you."
"Not both?" Gray said. He frowned. "I had to null them both to get Derek out of his field of influence." He smiled as Ivy walked in carrying something. "One of her veils?"
She nodded, handing it to Derek. "Only he or one he loves can put it on or take it off him," she told them. "It's spelled that way so nobody can remove the Gorgon's." She sat down on her husband's lap.
Derek got up, looking at how the material was folded. He placed it in the middle of Blair's head and unfolded the back then the front, covering all of him in it.
"No more bad hair days," Blair quipped as he looked down at himself. "But I look like a ghost."
"No you don't," Derek said. "I've not seen one yet that wore a sheet." He sat back down. "It is much less of a pull now," he noted, "but I still feel that I could come to care for you, Blair."
"Okay then," he said, the veil just hinting that he was smiling. "Do I need to keep this on all the time?"
"Until we can figure out a way to let you control it, yes." Gray nodded at Humfrey. "I'd have to defer to him on this part, Ivy trained me." Humfrey got up, walking out of the room. Derek started to get up. "Sit, he's gone to check on something."
Humfrey flipped the pages of his Book of Knowledge but couldn't find anything to account for the two men downstairs. He uncorked his bottle of last resort. "Come out," he called down into it. The demon formed in front of him, scowling as it held the towel around it's waist. "Sorry, but I need an answer I don't have." He pointed down. "A Magician of Attraction, with the whole package? The grandson of the Magician of Scribes with a language talent? I can't find a clue as to why they're here."
"They're here to find Turnkey. The Magician of *Written* Languages used to have Turnkey working for him but then he disappeared. As for the other? Not a clue. Not even Grossclout, who would like to see them both by the way, has any idea where he came from. Maybe the tapestry can tell you."
"I called Prince Dolph and asked him to track backwards to find his mother but all it showed was flash." He frowned. "You don't think..." He got a small shrug. "Well, that's helpful. Begone with you and I'll send them all down to Grossclout as soon as I've taught the young man some control."
"He'll need more than that," the demon said as he turned back into smoke and disappeared into the bottle. Just before it was corked, a few more words came out. "Check the prophecy journal. The older one is in there."
"Thank you," Humfrey called down into the bottle as he corked it. He pulled out the journal he wanted, flipping through it to find the one he wanted. When he did, he sat down frowning at the book. "It can't be," he said quietly.
Jim snickered. "There are actually nymphs around here?"
"Not that close by but yes. Very invigorating to sit and watch, just remember not to stay in their valley overnight or you'll forget the prior day." William hammered in a nail, the last one to hold the door still. "Okay, done. Want some lunch?"
"Hamburgers?" Jim asked. "Or don't they have a bush for that here?"
"I think I've seen one hamburger pie but not anything resembling that recently." He looked up to where Nick and Philip were working on the roof. "Hey, guys, lunch?"
"Sure, I could eat," Nick said, right before sliding down the ladder.
"Like that's so new," Philip said with a snort. He climbed down the ladder, wiping off his forehead. "We got a lot of it done but not all of it. It'll take another day at least to move the good thatch around and for the other to dry enough."
"That's all right, Father," William said, patting his arm. He got a wince. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize. I thought Derek had just called you back to his side."
"No, I'm in London, your son called on me, but I have left the church." He smiled sadly. "They couldn't accept my failure to resolve my issues of love." He looked at Nick, accepting the hug he was given. "I loved more than my calling and it didn't sit well with them."
"I'm sorry," Jim said. "I'll back away..." Philip shook his head, stopping him. "You sure?"
"Yes, I'm in London and he's in 'Frisco. Besides, you can understand him like I never could." He patted his best friend's back, letting him go. "Go to him, love, and be good to him."
"I'll try harder than I did with you," Nick promised, kissing him one last time before going over to hug Jim. "I should have told you but I didn't want to hurt either of you."
"We discussed this on the roof, Nick," Philip chided gently. "I'm not hurt or angry. I accepted long ago that we weren't meant to be more than casual lovers and great friends. And brothers." He walked up behind his former lover, hugging him and Jim. "Nick and I accepted each other as brothers in spirit so if you hurt him, I'll come back to the house and beat you." He leveled his most impressive glare at Jim. "Do you understand me?"
"I'd never hurt him if I could help it." Jim looked down, kissing the back of Nick's head. "I'll protect him as well as I do Blair, if not more so."
"Oh, give it up," William said, walking back into the hut. "I hate weddings." He slammed the door, and the three men cracked up.
"It worked," Nick said, grinning up at Jim then at Philip. "Thank you." He squeezed him extra hard then stepped back. "I meant it."
"So did I," Philip said, looking at Jim.
"Hey, fair warning, I get possessive." He grinned, wrapping an arm around each of their shoulder's. "Food?"
"Sure," Nick said. "Oh, and I cook."
"Good, I don't," Jim said. "That'll come in handy." He looked at Philip. "If you come back, ever, we'll work it out, okay?"
"Sure, Jim, we'll work it out. I'd never take him behind your back."
"Oops, we have a problem then." Jim frowned at Nick. "If you and I like the same thing..." His face flushed lightly. "Then what?"
"Then I'm both so don't worry about it. I'll just expect you to reciprocate occasionally." Nick slid an arm around the firm waist. "I guess rescuing Blair keeps you in shape but would you like to start running with me when you get to the house? I won't expect you to do twenty miles with me at first but it'll be nice to have someone to work out with."
"Sure, I jog now. About five miles twice a week." Jim led the way into the house, smirking at William. "Food?" he asked.
Blair looked at the mirror and concentrated but nothing happened. "I can't do this," he said.
"Relax," Derek said as he walked up behind him. "You seem to do better when you don't try. Think of it as picking up women. You act disinterested and they follow you around. You hit on them and they get snotty and run away." He smiled as he kissed the back of the now sweaty head. "Try it again, Blair."
"Oooh, say my name like that again," he said softly, leaning into the hard body. He winked at the mirror and it started to melt. "Ah-ha. Just have to ooze sex at it." He looked over his shoulder, smiling at Derek. "Are you sure you can resist me?"
"Yes, pet, I'm sure." Derek stepped back, looking around the room they'd been set in. "Try to firm it back up."
"Oooh, a *firm* mirror," he purred, walking towards it. The mirror immediately firmed back up, becoming very shiny and clean. "Thank you." He played with his hair. "I need a bath."
"Later," Derek told him. He looked at the books that had been placed in here. He sat down at the small desk, reading the first one. "I wonder what else we're supposed to be doing." He felt a warm body at his back, shaking his head. "We shouldn't, Blair. Gray's not here to cancel the field between us."
"So?" Blair asked as he leaned down to nibble on the seductive neck. "Who needs Gray? I don't like threesomes." He squeaked as he was pulled into the older man's lap and kissed hard. "Hmm, like you like this."
"You make me like this. Usually, I'm more of a hearts and flowers sort." Derek smiled, patting him as he stood him back up. "Go over there and practice some more, Blair. I want to see how my talent works." He didn't watch the seductive walk across the room, but could feel the heat as the wood in the fireplace lit by itself. "Blair, do be careful. I don't want to burn these books."
William looked at the bodies snuggled together on the sleeping bags on the floor and sighed. His house was mostly fixed and he had company but something was wrong. He knew something was wrong. He walked outside, looking up at the stars. "Why are they here?" He flinched as a puff of smoke happened beside him. "I asked you not to do that, Professor."
"Sorry," he said, very unapologetic. "You're right, they're here for a reason. The older new Magician's father screwed some things up and he has to fix it."
"Winston," William sighed in frustration. "What did he do and how does Blair play into this?"
"Him we can't figure out. Your friend's part is well mapped out but that younger man's position has most everyone who's in the know up in arms." Professor Grossclout frowned, wilting the nearby vegetation. "All we know is that he's the strongest one we've ever seen and if he doesn't learn to control it soon, all Xanth could come crawling to sit at his feet."
"Then the veil won't work?" William turned to look at the demon, telling himself mentally not to react to him.
"The Gorgon's veil will work, as long as he's able to keep it on. But," the demon held up a finger, "ask the man in there about people coming for him." He smiled, scaring the mundane terribly. "Oh, and don't worry, you'll have more company soon." He ‘poof'ed out, leaving behind just a smell and a cloud.
"What was that about?" Philip asked as he walked up behind his host.
"That's the demon that saved me from myself." William turned around. "Not all of them are bad, Philip. He's the head teacher at the Demon University. He taught Humfrey." He shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you to make you feel better."
"I know not all of them are bad," the former priest said, smiling slightly. "I had to help a fallen angel recently who fell because she was bored." He walked back inside, laying back down on the other side of Nick.
William walked into his room, smiling at the cloud floating over his bed. "Bauch, I don't think it's time for you to do that," he said softly, laying down on top of the covers.
She giggled as she became solid, running her sharp nails down his chest. "I saw your guests but I can make sure they don't hear us." She licked over the side of his face.
"No, my dear, you can't." He pushed her hand off. "Go bother someone else." She pouted at him, forming herself into a new image. "Oh, stop it, I'm not in the mood to play with you tonight."
"Poo, you make teasing no fun." She popped out.
"Want us to go sleep outside," Jim said from the doorway.
"No, that was just my usual tormenter, D. Bauch." William smiled, just a little. "One of the nicer demonesses I've met recently." He rolled onto his side. "Night, Jim." He closed his eyes, faking sleep.
"Night William." Jim kept his laughter inside until he was snuggled back in beside Nick then let it by stifling it in the firm flesh of his new friend's neck.
Blair looked up from the bed as the door opened, slipping out of Derek's arms to go talk to the veiled woman in the doorway. "You're the Gorgon, right?" She nodded, leading him down the stairs. "Thank you for the veil. I'll have someone give it back when I leave."
"Don't worry about it, Magician Blair. I don't want your power to be spread over the land either." She sat down, offering him a plate of Gogonzola cheese. "I petrified it myself," she told him.
"That must be handy if you're building a rock garden." He smiled, tasting a piece of cheese. "Very good," he said with his mouth full. "What can you teach me?"
"I can teach you how to keep the veil in place, how to work it so it's a natural part of yourself. I can also tell you how to control yourself better, or actually who to talk to." She ate a piece of cheese herself, making a face. "Needed to stare at this longer, still a little sharp." She put her clasped hands on the table. "I want to tell you what Humfrey didn't but I don't want to scare you." He nodded. "No one can find out where you came from or why you're so strong." Her veil lowered some, looking at the table. "There have been rogue talents from Mundania before but they were always minor and very far in between. Gray was a special case." She looked back up at him.
"Isn't there some way to track my mother or whomever it was that was my father?"
"We tried with a tapestry that can track people back through time but you disappeared off it with a flash. Now, that's happened three times before and it's worrisome for us. Those other three people were very strange creatures. We don't know how to make sure that you're not one of them."
"What sort of strange creature," Derek said, walking up behind Blair to put his hands on the younger man's shoulders. "And how can I help determine this?"
"If we can find one of them, then we can see if he reacts to *either* of you."
"Then there's a strangeness about me?"
"The strange flash that we saw when we were looking for him, we found in your past. Your father is the reason you're here, Magician Derek."
"Please, just Derek."
"Derek then," she said, her voice filled with a smile neither could see. "We know why you were pulled here. Your father, or the man who claimed to be your father, destroyed a spot of balance here and you need to fix it." He nodded. "It's not going to be easy to do, it'll take much of your personal strength to do so but you'll have Blair with you and he can help."
"Hey, whatever I can do to help."
"Ah, but that's the catch. Someone already knows that you're here and that your power is great." The veil swished as she shook her head. "We have to guard you closely while you're here else they'll take you."
"Hey, people trying to snatch me I'm used to." He smiled, snuggling into Derek's arms. "Jim and I deal with that all the time." He looked at the new like of his life. "You won't let me be snatched, will you?"
"No, Blair, no one will take you from me." He dropped a kiss onto the soft curls. "What should we do to guard against it?"
"Your friends will be here in another day. When they get here, you'll have to travel down to Demon Professor Glosscout's classroom so he can figure out what you both are." They nodded. "He's not a threat but he is very scary when he wants to be."
"Hey, I deal with psychopaths and freshmen all day long," Blair said, chuckling lightly. "A demon won't bother me that much." He looked at Derek. "Will it bother you?"
"No, I've had my share of demon encounters but I believe these are nothing like the ones I'm used to." The Gorgon nodded. "What do we need to do until then?"
"Blair needs to learn how to live in the veil. You need to learn that beside him and how to harness your own abilities. Your talent is powerful enough to cause problems if you read the wrong things to the wrong people. You must be careful what knowledge you hand out to the common people who may not want it."
"I do that normally so I'll easily adapt." He stood up, kissing the top of Blair's curls again. "I'll let you two talk."
"Goodnight, Derek," Blair said, leaning back to watch him walk back down the hall. He looked at the woman across the table from him, smiling slightly. "He's a sweety." She nodded and he just knew she was smiling. "What do I need to do now?"
"Sleep," she said. "I'll make sure you have some appropriate clothes to wear under the veil and another few in case you tear it." She stood up. "And don't argue about my clothing choices, I'm an actress and I *know* what will look best under a full length veil." She walked out, going down the hall.
Blair stole a few more pieces of cheese before hurrying back to the warm bed and the hotter body that was helping him inhabit it.
William looked at the magic mirror, a present from the Professor. "Gray!" he said cheerfully. "What news of the happy couple?" It had been four days, longer than they had anticipated the group being separated.
"They're doing fine. Blair was dressed by the Gorgon in clothing that matches his full veil." He frowned. "She's enjoying him too much. Humfrey is tolerating it but he's pissed." He smiled. "He looks cute in what she gave him." He looked over his shoulder as a veiled person walked behind him. "As you can see, he's working it for all he's worth." He looked at Jim as he walked up. "You're to come up to Humfrey's castle tomorrow morning to gather them then travel to Grossclout's part of the demon residences. But I'm supposed to warn you, someone will try to steal Blair to use his powers."
Jim snorted. "Gee, that would almost be normal for us." He shrugged. "That'll make fifteen times in the last three years." He looked at Nick. "You up to that challenge?"
"Sure, I can help you guard your Guide." He leaned against the wall of Jimness. "Anything else we need to know?"
"Yes," Gray sighed. "There's a strange current running through their lives here and we're looking into it but the people at Demon University might have more answers." He shrugged. "See you guys tomorrow. Ivy wants to redecorate our rooms." He rolled his eyes and the connection was broken..
"Gee, you guys lead an interesting life," Nick said, looking up at the slightly taller man. "Fifteen kidnapping attempts?"
"Ten of those worked." Jim shook Nick off, shaking his head as he headed for the roof. "Philip, want me to come help?"
Blair smiled at Gray as he was stared at. "Told you so." He shrugged, tugging at the pants the Gorgon had gotten for him to wear. "These need something under them."
"Blair, you can't wear boxers under those, it'll look funny."
"We could travel to the pantry but that's mostly women's clothes." He shivered. "I'm going to go find Ivy." He hurried out of the room.
"Panties," Derek said, smiling. "Why do I detect a hint of Adult Conspiracy here?"
"Because it is," Humfrey grumped. "Which I might add you two seem to violate a lot." He sat down in the nearest chair. "How are you doing?"
"I'm okay, the clothes your wife gave me are a bit tight."
"She said it was only temporary." Humfrey looked at Derek. "What do you do in Mundania?"
"I hold a lot of knowledge in check to deal with paranormal events."
"Ah, then you're used to this sort of talent."
Derek nodded, wrapping an arm around the thinly covered shoulders of his friend. "I'll do my best to protect him."
"I'd hope so. He seems to need it after listening in on Gray's conversation." He smiled, scaring both the men. "So, Magicians, as long as Blair isn't attracting things and he can control his mind then I'd say we were fine." He stood back up, not much taller than he was when he was sitting down. "You can go walk in the garden or around the castle. I'll tell her to give you better fitting clothes and the things to go under them, Blair."
"Gray said you were usually unhelpful," Blair said, tipping his head to the side. "Why be so helpful to us?"
"Because, my dear boy, I can use you to gain more knowledge and I'm finally getting one up on my former teacher." He smiled, walking away.
"Oh," Blair said, looking up at Derek, "okay." He nodded. "That actually makes sense. I had hoped that I hadn't affected him."
"I'm sure he has a charm somewhere to let him resist you, my dear," Derek said, leaning down for a kiss. He sighed as someone popped into the room, the cloud of smoke obscuring the veiled figure. "What?" he said in frustration. The cloud giggled.
"D. Bauch!" Humfrey yelled down the twisty stairs to his roost. "Get your smoky behind up here!"
The cloud floated up the stairs, surrounding the Gorgon as she walked down the stairs and making her laugh. "Get your flimsy butt up there," she said, walking into the room where the two Magicians were. "Ah, Blair, I found something in your size and the problem you've been having will be fixed with this." She handed over the pile of clothes. "There's a few extra pairs of everything in case you need it."
"Thanks," he said, taking them and running up the stairs to change into something that fit better. It was almost two whole minutes later when he yelled, "Derek! It's even flimsier!"
Derek laughed as he walked up the stairs to see the new clothes.
Jim looked up at the Good Magician's castle. "Wow. I never expected you guys to live like this." He looked at William. "How many people live like this?"
"Most of the major Magicians." He smiled, walking over the moat to knock on the door. "Morning," he said to Ivy as she opened it. "Is the rest of our party ready?"
"Sure, why don't you come in and wait." She waved them inside, smiling at Philip. "Very nice to meet you, Philip, I've heard some nice things about you." She led them into a nice reception room, sitting down. "I've had the chance to talk to William on many occasions and he was most complimentary on your skills."
"Yeah, he's like that," Nick said, grinning. He winked at William, who just rolled his eyes. "Nick Boyle," he said, holding out a hand.
"Ivy." She shook it. "Thank you for not following that protocol stuff. I'm not a Princess when I'm here."
"Princess?" Jim said. He bowed his head. "I didn't know." He glared at William.
"I'm just a normal person here, Jim. Don't worry about all that. As long as I'm not at court, there's no protocol between my friends and myself." She smiled lightly, getting up to kiss Gray as he walked in. "Are they packed?"
"Blair's fussing over the clothes he doesn't want to really wear." He smiled, sitting down next to her on the couch. "The Gorgon has dressed him to suit her tastes and he feels uncomfortable in it."
She rolled her eyes. "That man." She started to get up but Derek and a fabric covered figure walked into the room.
"Yeah, that man but he feels like a concubine in these." The fabric lump turned to look at Jim. "Yes, it's me. I have to wear this to protect you all."
Jim snickered, clearing his throat to hide it. "Hey, Chief, do you dance too?" Nick started to laugh, only to be swatted across the back of the head by Philip, who also smacked Jim's arm.
Ivy got up to hug him. "I know it's embarrassing but it's necessary to protect the people around you." She pointed at the mirror and the chair that were slumping because he wouldn't be around to pay any attention to them anymore.
"I know," he sighed, "but I still feel ridiculous in this get-up." The veil looked up at Derek. "Promise you won't laugh, all right?"
"Of course I won't laugh. I haven't yet, have I?"
"No, you haven't." They could all hear the smile in the younger man's voice. "Okay, let's go so we can get Derek to wherever he needs to fix something and to figure out where I came from." He picked up the pack Gray handed him, sliding it up under the veil and putting it on without removing the veil or letting it ride up much, then headed for the door. "I'll call when we get there," he called over his shoulder. "Kiss the kids."
"Of course," Ivy called. She smiled at Jim. "We've already said goodbye."
They all hurried out after him, catching up to him on the other side of the moat. Derek took his arm, leading him down the path. "Do we have an escort to the demon's residences?"
"Me," William said. "I was brought up from there." He smiled at the happy couples. "We have to go down into the Gap and bypass the dragon to go down a deep hole."
"Then we should gather the things we might need on the trip," Nick said, frowning at the vegetation around them. "Food, light sources if it's that dark. Are we walking or is it water?"
"Water but Grossclout is sending a boat to meet us with Metria, one of his favorite demons." William rolled his eyes. "You thought Bauch was bad?"
Jim snorted. "I didn't think she was that bad at all. You two sounded like you were having fun." Derek make a disapproving sound. "Sorry, but sometimes I can't help it."
"Jim, you've had dials now for almost five years, turn it down." The fabric lump of person looked at the man he was walking beside. "Do you remember the plan?"
"Of course, Blair, I helped plan it." He rubbed over the top of the lump. "Hopefully we'll even get them exposed enough to not need the veil when we travel back to Mundania."
"Gee, you sound native," Philip remarked, frowning at Nick, who was cuddling into Jim's side, "but I think some people have had enough exposure."
"Wasn't me," Blair said quickly. "I had no part in Nick and Jim's thing." He turned to walk backwards, managing not to trip. "I had Humphrey check, that's totally natural."
"Ah," Philip said, nodding. "Primal attraction at it's finest then."
Derek nodded. "So it seems."
"Whatever," Nick said. "Blair, please don't trip. From the looks of the furniture in the castle, I don't want to have to face you."
"It was mostly an accident," Blair complained as he turned around. "We were testing it and they just liked me."
"At least we found your limits," Derek said, wrapping an arm around Blair's covered waist. "We know now that you have to actively call them to you. That you have to think about it and want it for anything to happen."
"Hmm, then why do the psychos like him?" Jim asked.
"Because they know you," Blair said calmly. "Jim, I actually have to *want* it to happen for my ability to work. This isn't a mix or match thing. What happened when we first got here was a matter of my mind wandering."
"Please keep it on a short leash," Nick said. "I really don't like trees that much."
"Nick, shut up," Derek ordered. He looked over his shoulder. "Leave Blair alone. He can no more help it than I can mine."
"Oh. Sorry, Blair."
"S'okay." The rest of the trek to the first breaking point was silent, each couple thinking about their newly found other half and Philip considering what was going on.
Philip looked down in the large crevice, then looked up. "We're definitely not in Florida anymore." He turned to look at William. "Dragon?"
William looked over the edge and pointed at a small cloud. "Stanley Steamer. He was Ivy's pet for a lot of years." He headed for a path, walking down it. "Come on."
Jim cleared his throat. "Six hundred yards away from here that dead ends. We need to take the one beside it." Jim started down the path, taking the lead to make sure nothing could hurt anyone. At least he had hoped so until someone started throwing strange blobs over the edge of the gap. "Hey!" He walked around, getting back up to glare at the people standing up there. "Don't throw things at people, it's not nice."
"But it is to us," the little girl said, running away laughing. Her brother followed her, giggling also.
Jim walked back down to where the group was waiting on him. "Kids. Even here they're a lot of trouble."
"It's the way they are," Philip said sagely. He pointed at a nearby cave. "Which hole, William?"
"The shiny one," floated up from the bottom. "Down here."
"Follow the voice," William said, waving that way. "She'd know. That's Metria, our Guide." He walked down into the hole, hugging the woman standing there. "Ah, D. Metria, how nice to see you again."
"William, you old debutante."
"Debutante?" Derek asked.
Her face scrunched up, a very not-pleased look coming out. "Belle, queen, enchantress..."
"Charmer?" Blair suggested.
"That's what I said," she sighed, pointing at the boat. "Get on."
Blair looked her over, then shrugged. "Ate a thesaurus?"
"Stepped on by one," she said with a evil smile. "I was just minding my own business and it sat down on poor little me." She changed forms so that she was now a pitiful looking orphan child. "See?"
"Enough," echoed around them.
Metria pouted. "So truculent."
"Cruel?" Derek suggested as he climbed onto the boat. She glared at him. "Sorry, some of us aren't that literary."
"Whatever," she agreed, getting on after casting the line off the boat and resuming her normal form. "Home, Hobart."
"Hobart?" Jim asked.
"It was this nasty man named Hobart at one time. He challenged a demon about who could hold their breath longest." She smiled again, fading her outfit out. "He confounded."
"Lost?" Philip suggested. Then he had to duck the screeching attack of her new form, something that had very sharp claws and teeth. "Sorry!" he said as he backed into Nick.
"What are you?"
"Huh?" Jim asked.
"Beau, admirer, passion." She shook her head. "No, not those. A fervor, conflagration, blaze."
"Flame?" Blair suggested. She nodded. "Okay, so you're a *flamer*! Okay. Had a few of those." Everyone looked at him in confusion. "It's an internet thing."
Nick nodded and snapped his fingers. "Okay, got the reference now."
"I'm sorry," Philip said again. "But if I may ask, why not attack Derek and Blair?"
"Because they're magicians and there's no telling what they could do to little, harmless me." She gave him a big-eyed look.
Jim just nodded, in time with Derek, and then sat down on the boat, jumping back up at the grunt. "It made noise," he said as he checked the floorboards.
"It's a former human, of course it made noise," she sighed, rolling her eyes, then putting them back in their proper place. "Decrease and posture."
"Um, sit and relax," Blair translated, doing just that.
"Whatever," she agreed, her eyes starting to burn.
"Might not want to do that," Nick told her with a grin. "You might need those eyes later."
She waved the flames away. "I can always make more."
"Must come in handy," Jim said diplomatically.
Blair backed away from the creature walking into the room they were waiting in, stepping back into Jim's protective grasp. "Yeah, not a person I want to see," he muttered.
William frowned at them. "Professor Grossclout, may I introduce Magicians Blair and Derek?"
"I know," the demon said, sitting down, staring at Blair's veiled form. "Sit!"
Jim and Nick sat, Jim pulling Blair down with him. "Yes, sir," they said together.
"Ah, military training," Blair said as he got free. "So you're going to figure me out?"
"I'm going to try," the demon corrected. "Metria, go play with some unsuspecting people." The demoness pouted but left in a shower of perfumed smoke. "Good, now the rest of you, sit."
Blair frowned at him. "I can't. Whenever I do the veil rides up, that's my last problem with the thing."
Grossclout waved a hand and a comfortable love seat appeared. "Sit, both of you." He watched as Derek sat down and pulled Blair down beside him, staying protectively close. "We know why you're here, Magician Derek, we only have a doubt about Blair's appearance." He tossed over a book. "This is an account of what your father did, Clio was kind enough to lend it to you." Derek nodded, leaving it in his lap. "Read it now so you can ask questions, I'm between classes."
Blair shook his head. "Why are you such a grouch? Lighten up, man."
"Blair, he's a demon," William reminded him. "They're not known for their easy-going
"Yeah, well, he's acting like I'm a plague or something. I never asked to be like this." He held out his arms, the veil draping them flowing out with them. "This is *so* not how I want to spend eternity." He slumped in on himself, accepting the hug Derek gave him. "Sorry, but this is a bit much. I can't even do the normal things without worrying now."
"I understand that," Grossclout said, relaxing. "It's good that you're worried, it means we don't have to worry about you." He grimaced slightly. "I'm very pleased."
Jim shuddered and held up a hand. "Why are we here if you know about Derek and can't find out about Blair?"
"Because we need to solve this mystery. Xanth is too fragile to leave it running." He looked him over. "What are you? You're Mundane with a talent."
"A Sentinel," he said proudly, "Blair's my guide."
Grossclout rubbed his face, stretching it some. "Okay. Whatever." He stared at Blair. "Do you know where you came from?"
"My *mother* doesn't even know where I came from," Blair said in derision. "I doubt you're going to find out." He stood up. "I'm going to go for a stroll. Stay," he told Jim, who was starting to get up too. He walked out the door, heading down a hall.
Grossclout looked at Derek. "Are you going to let him wander?"
"He's used to Universities," Jim said, "he works in one and has been in one for almost twelve years now." He shrugged at the dirty look. "This is as close to home as Xanth'll have for him."
"Point," Grossclout muttered. "All we know is that his father came from here, we think." Derek frowned at that. "All we see is a flash when we check the histories. Even Clio, the Muse of History, can't find a mention of his appearing."
"So what was he?" Philip asked quietly from his position against the wall near the door. "Another demon?"
"Not one from here," Grossclout admitted. "We have our ways of backtracking our demons and he wasn't from one of them. He is Xanthian in nature though. I have no doubt he could take up residence here if it wasn't so dangerous."
"Could his talent start to weaken with exposure to the magic?" Derek asked.
"No, but I can tell you it won't reverse, even with reverse wood. His talent is one way, that's one of the limitations of it. Another is exposure."
"We can be exposed and build immunity?" Philip guessed. The demon nodded at him. "That's good to know. Derek must be building it up right now."
"Oh, some," he said with a scary smile at the Magician. "These two's exploits shouldn't be mentioned, it would violate the adult conspiracy to tell you about how he got his immunity." Derek blushed a little, making the demon laugh. "Oh, I'm glad to see you're a lot like your grandfather was. He was a decent man, unfortunately most decent men are followed by people like your father."
"Winston was a bit...focused," William agreed. Grossclout frowned at him. "He was and it got him killed."
"Be that as it may, he left a big hole that's sucking energy. It started to absorb magic and began to pull things into it when you crossed over, and when Blair first manifested, it started to pull it faster. If you don't stop it soon, it'll end up sucking most of the region of madness, and the magic dust it produces, into it and Xanth will be finished."
"What about the Demon..." William started, then had to stop when tape went over his mouth.
"He's still out wandering and isn't aware of it." Grossclout frowned. "That would be the best solution but I can't find him so I can't send a message." He watched Blair as he walked back into the room. "You do need to find Chlorine and Nimby, but I can't find them to even give you a direction." He shrugged as Nick stared at him. "All knowing I am not. I just teach the classes." He disappeared.
"Uh-huh," Blair said as he sat down next to Derek again. "Where are we going?"
"To find a striped donkey-headed dragon and his woman," William said after succeeding at pulling the tape off his mouth. Everyone looked at him. "Really, not a joke. She's the only one that can cure it." He stood up. "We should go. Metria," he called, looking up.
"Take Hobart," rolled down the hall in a tone that made everyone shudder.
"Okay," Nick said, standing up. "Let's go. We'll talk on the surface." He gave William a dirty look. "All of us." He headed for the door, followed by Philip, Derek, Blair, then Jim. William strolled out after them, a big smile pasted on his face.
Blair looked around the clearing they were in, then back at Derek. "What did I miss?"
"We have to find this woman to fix the hole my father created when he slipped into Xanth," Derek told him, wrapping his arm around the veiled shoulders. "And she may have the answer to your appearance also."
"Okay. Where are we supposed to look?" Blair asked, looking around at the others.
"Not a clue," Nick told him. "The guy didn't have an idea where they are."
"So how do we find them?" Blair looked around but everyone was shrugging. "Okay, any ideas? Jim?"
"Do they smell different?" Jim asked. William shook his head. "Okay, so I'm out for most of the time."
"If we don't know, we could try asking," Philip suggested. "Surly someone's seen something as strange as a dragon-ass." He looked around but everyone still looked lost. "Then who else has an idea?"
"I'd just like to know where we're at," Blair sighed, looking around at the tall weeds around them. "Where is here? A map would be nice."
"Just as long as you don't hold it," Jim quipped.
"I'm not that bad with directions," Blair said, glaring at him, though it didn't get much farther than the veil.
"Looks a lot like the Everglades," Derek said, looking around.
"Oh, no," William groaned, looking around. "If this is, we're in very bad shape." Everyone looked at him. "Think about it people, *Ever*glades?"
"Oh, no," Blair sighed. "Okay, how do we get out of here? I have a feeling this could get literal if we try to walk out."
Derek sighed and sat down. "I have no clue. My talent isn't any good here."
"What about Blair's?" Nick asked.
"I have to know what I'm attracting and it's line of sight or knowledge," Blair said as he continued to turn around. "And it's not reversible."
Philip jumped as something ran across his foot with a snarl. "Holy...." He took a closer look then closed his eyes and shook his head. "Crocodiles."
Jim, Nick, and Derek all looked at the little running crock with a sundial over the mouth and groaned.
"Maybe we can follow it out," Blair suggested, trying to follow it. But it disappeared into some water a few minutes later. "Okay, never mind," he said as he walked back into the clearing.
Metria reappeared and dropped a bundle of dirt next to them. "Sorry," she said as she faded back out. "Have to go do something for Sim. Use the magic dust."
"Why?" Nick asked where she had been but there was nothing there to answer him.
Derek stood up, coming over to look at it. "In the book the head demon..."
"Professor Grossclout," William reminded him.
"Yes, him," Derek said with a frown at his former comrade, "said that the Demon Xanth was the reason that magic existed in the realm." William choked and held his mouth shut, giving Derek a desperate look. "What?" William walked over to whisper in his ear. "Yes, that may help," he said with a smile. "Blair, come hear this story."
"What story," Blair asked as he walked over to sit in front of Derek.
"All right," Derek said, sitting down in front of him, tugging on Nick's and William's pants to get them to sit too. "In Xanth, the source of all magic is the Demon Xanth, it radiates from him and infuses the ground in a certain region." Blair nodded. "There are people who dig up that region and grind it up, this is where the magic dust is from, that's what it is, the pure form of his leaked powers."
"Oh, wow, so we could theoretically use it to enhance something to get us out of here," Blair said, looking at the pile. "Now if only we knew what to put it on to make it really magical and then we could follow it out."
"No, it gets better," William said, smiling cruelly at Derek. "The Demons all do betting to keep occupied. A while back, the Demon Xanth had to take mortal form here in the realm. As a donkey-headed dragon."
"Um, okay, isn't that what we're looking for?" Jim asked.
"So, then Blair could focus on the Demon Xanth because we have the dust and that would technically be knowledge, right?" Nick asked.
Blair hopped up, grabbing handfuls of the dust, concentrating on their owner. "What color is the dragon?"
"It has pink stripes. Chlorine is always with him," William told him. "If I remember right, it was green with pink stripes."
Blair concentrated, sending out his powers to the as-of-yet unseen dragon-ass, feeling a little spark after a few minutes. "Whoa," he said, dropping the dust, wiping his hands off on his veil. "That was wicked." He looked at Derek and gave him a slow smile. "I felt him. The dust enhanced me and I reached him."
"Good job," Derek said, getting up to hug him. "We should camp here for the night." He looked at Nick and Jim. "Get the camp set up, I'm going to make sure the dust is cleaned off Blair so we don't have any accidents with either his powers or with the dust." He walked him behind some bushes next to the stream they were parked beside, helping him out of the veil. He stuck the material in the water, watching for things to come up and grab it, which something did. He shook the animal away. "What are you?" he asked it.
"A loan shark," it growled. "You owe me."
"I owe you nothing," Derek told it, "I don't take out loans. I'm independently wealthy."
"You are?" Blair asked, looking at him, giving him a big-eyed look. "Does that mean that our wages when we come to work for you will be really great so I can pay off all my student loans?"
"It should," Derek told him, leaning down to kiss him. "Rinse yourself off, Blair, ignore the loan shark."
"Hey, I'm owed," it said again, snapping at Blair's foot. "Give me that!"
"Hey!" Blair smiled at it, giving it a little hint of dazzlement. "You really don't want *me* do you?" He blinked at it and the loan shark went soft.
"Nah, I don't want your arm or your leg, I'll let you pay it off a different way." It made another grab for Blair but Derek pulled him back before he could be drug into the water.
"No, don't enchant them, Blair, it'll only cause problems." He glared at the shark. "Mine."
"And who're you to stiff me?" it asked, looking him over. "You look and smell like a mundane."
"He's the Magician of Written Information," William said as he walked around the bushes, making sure not to look in Blair's direction. "Leave before I roast you."
"Fine," it spat, swimming away. "I'll get what I'm owed later."
"Go ahead and take a bath, boys, just be careful of things like that." He glanced at them, making the mistake of noticing the look Blair was giving Derek, getting enthralled by it. "No," he swore, heading back to the camp, "not happening. I won't let it happen." He sat down on one of the harvested pillows, holding his head. "God, make it stop," he pleaded.
Philip sat down in front of him, pulling William's head up to look him in the face. "What?"
"I ... Blair's still enhanced by the magic dust on him," William said softly, leaning closer to him. "I just caught him looking at Derek without his veil."
"And now you're caught." Philip sighed and stood up. "I'd suggest a cold shower but we don't have one of those around here." He headed back to where Nick and Jim were gathering supplies for the night. "Got any buckets?"
"Yeah, one," Nick said, handing it over. "It's a nut."
Philip looked at the shell. "Okay." He headed for the stream, making sure to make noise before walking in on them. "Derek, you have to get that dust off him, it enhanced his abilities," he called as he dipped out water.
"Why?" Derek asked, getting out to walk down to where Philip was. "What happened?"
"William caught him looking at you." Philip gave him a glance. "He's almost snared."
"We'll be more careful then," Derek said, going back to where Blair was bathing. "We have to keep you veiled until we're sure you're not infected with the dust anymore, Blair," he said quietly, sitting down on the bank next to him. "You enchanted William."
"Oops." He giggled.
Philip hurried back to William's side. "What other effects does the dust have," he said, shaking him.
"The region it's mined in is called the Region of Madness," William said softly, looking up at him. "Just get it off him and it'll wear off."
"Derek!" Nick called, having heard as he and Jim were dragging things back into the clearing. "Blair's going to go insane."
"What?" Derek stepped around the concealing bush, looking at them. "Mad?"
"The dust creates madness," William sighed. "I just remembered what the region it's mined in is called. The Region of Madness. Blair's going to be loony for a while."
"Oh, gee, great," Blair called. "Can someone please get me some clean clothes so I don't have to wear these again? That way no old dust can get me." He started to laugh again. "Oh, guys, the flowers talk!"
"No," Jim sighed, sitting down, "they aren't. At least not out loud." He looked at Derek. "You want to take control of him or me?"
"I think you could both do it," William said dryly. "He is your Guide."
"Yeah, he is," Jim said, taking the pack with the clothes to pull out something for the young Magician to wear, handing it over to Derek. "Here, get him decent and we'll let you forage for food."
Metria popped back in, waving at them. "Sorry about that but the Smurgh was being obstinate." She shrugged. "How'd the call go? I know some of the demons boosted it, just in case Nimby might be attracted to him."
"I would have thought Nimby could have gotten himself free," William said, leaning back. "What's new with the kids?"
"Oh, Vore's watching them. He lost the venture."
"Bet?" Nick asked, ducking in case she attacked him.
"Yeah, that. Cheating can be a good thing." She looked around. "Where's happy boy?"
"He's talking to the flowers," Derek said as he came back around the bushes. "Was the dust supposed to do that to him?"
"Depends, did he get any on him?" Derek nodded, pointing at the butt-shaped mark in the pile. "Oh, yeah, I'd say the flowers talking to him would be the least of his worries." She smirked and faded out. "This should be *very* interesting, it's a good thing I'm free tonight."
"Wonderful," Nick said dryly, glaring at Derek. "Didn't know that part?"
"Do I look native?" Derek asked, glaring back.
"Well, I'm not. William may be, but I am certainly not native, Nick. I've not been here before and I've never even heard of this place. It's not like I was given some instruction manual on Blair's care."
"Hey!" Jim said, glaring at them both. "You don't treat my guide that way."
"Shut up," Nick and Derek said in unison.
"Hey," Blair said as he walked around the bushes without his veil. "Give it up, guys, this is totally my fault and if you don't quit fighting I'm going to introduce you to some knotholes."
"That would be not-holes," William said softly. "Small regions of the void that have traveled or wandered and attached themselves to things like trees."
"Whatever!" everyone said together.
"That's the spirit!" Metria called as she reappeared. "Blair, steady, shouldn't you have on your obfuscate? Before you enslave Xanth?"
"Yeah, dear, I should have on my veil," he said as he looked at her, "but isn't this *so* much more fun for you?" She nodded, bringing a bag of food to nibble on. "Okay, guys, let's deal here," he said as he walked into the middle of the scowling people. "You guys are going to get a crash course in 'why Jim is overprotective' as well as some exposure. Jim?"
"Yeah, Blair?" Jim said, head popping up. "Why don't you have your veil on?"
"Because it's time you guys got to know what's going on and you need exposure. Tell them about any of the people that have taken me hostage, except Lash. I don't want to hear about him tonight."
Jim grimaced. "Are you sure?"
"Do you really think you're that lucky?" Blair asked sourly, heading over to Derek. "Help me put this on half-way. I'll draw it down if I need to."
"Poo," Metria said, fading back out. "Not as interesting as I had hoped."
Blair sighed, leaning against Derek's side. "I really didn't want her to know about how the woods are alive with voices," he whispered.
"Exposure to dust leads to madness," Jim said, looking thoughtfully at the pile. "We should bring some with us, just in case we need it."
"Goot idea," Derek said, helping Blair into his veil, pinning the center line to his hair. "How are you going to expose them, dear one?"
"Just by being my loving self," Blair said with a slightly lopsided grin. "Oh, Jim."
"Yes. I intend to listen to the pretty music the stars are sending down to me while you guys bleep like bunnies. Now get over here."
"Hey," Nick protested, but Blair just looked at him, making him shiver.
"What makes you think you aren't getting it next?"
"No," William said, breaking in between them. "Blair, there has to be a better way."
"Magician Humphrey said so," Blair said, pouting at him. William shuddered, backing away from him, hands held out to ward him off. "You really don't want to fight me on this, do you, Willy?" he purred, moving closer to the native. "Come on, I'm *harmless*."
"No, you're not," Jim said, stepping in between them, "you're psychotic. Pull down your veil or sit down."
"Humphrey told him to do it," Derek sighed, coming to Blair's rescue. "We have to get you acclimated to his powers in case they slip out of his control during a crisis."
"In other words, someone's going to take him hostage to try and use him, or to have him, and we're going to end up saving him," Jim said dryly. Blair nodded, giving him a grin. "That's why you wanted me to tell them?"
"Yup, tell them everything, Jim. It may well come in handy. I'll start Nick with the Guide exercises in the morning in case it happens. Humphrey's book only gave a percentage."
"What sort of percentage?" Philip asked.
"Sort of like the percentage of two sunny days in Cascade in a row," Blair said dryly, looking at his partner.
"Less than five percent, enough for me to worry," Jim said, shoulders slumping. "Okay, so exposure?"
"I'm supposed to sit around you without my veil on all the way, partway on as an emergency procedure, and when we all go to bed, I'm supposed to lightly use it on you all. That way you get to know what it feels like and you get rampant exposure to it."
"What about those of us who are unpaired?" Philip asked, stepping away from William. "The demons said it wasn't reversible."
"Oh, it's not. Humphrey called me a walking love spring."
William choked. "He doesn't have much of a sense of humor."
"Well, he does, it's just very dry," Derek said, smiling at him. "For all I care, Philip, you can do what pleases you most. You have to have it used on you or else you could become a liability if Blair were to be captured."
"I'd rather be alone," Philip muttered, heading for his chosen seat. "All right, Jim, tell us about his past and propensity for getting himself taken."
Blair fell backwards onto the ground, smiling up at the stars. "You make such pretty music," he sighed, closing his eyes to listen to it.
Jim and Derek shared a look across the camp. "The first time I worked with Blair was on an arson case," Jim said, turning back to the rest of the group. "He helped me get new ideas about the bomber. Taught me how to distinguish what should and shouldn't be at a scene. As we were going to catch her, she got on a tour bus, and me being up about thirty floors, I couldn't catch her. So who should happen to get on the bus with her so I'd know where she was headed? Blair."
Philip coughed. "Got caught?"
"Just as she was about to set off the bomb. She heard him talking on his cellphone." Jim shook his head. "Five minutes after I got there, I had to throw the bomb off the bridge, destroying half of it."
"And that was the start of our reign of destruction," Blair said, grinning at his Sentinel. "Gee, what are we up to now? Two bridges, sixteen buildings that need structural help, another thirty or so that have minor damage, and Simon with three ulcers?"
"Close enough," Jim sighed. "It was never like this when I was alone."
"Hey, I didn't know terrorists before I met you." Blair winked at Derek before laying his head back down so he could watch the stars. "At least not until my first day at the station."
"Yes, who should decide to pick that day to take over the police station but a group of so-called freedom fighters. Who Blair convinced he was a detective."
"With Narcotics," Blair pointed out, lifting a finger up to point.
"With Narcotics," Jim agreed. "I got to ride on the outside of a helicopter to free him and he got to save a bunch of hostages."
Derek shuddered. "I'm not sure you won't destroy the house now."
"No, we don't ever destroy home," Jim said, giving him a slight smile. "A few break-ins and a fight or two, but we never trashed the loft."
Blair giggled, reaching for one of the stars. "Yes, you're very pretty," he sighed, seeming to grab something and hold it to his chest.
Jim rolled his eyes. "This was before he was drugged though. Someone we had been after decided to get us back by sending my department a few drugged pizzas. Of which only Blair ate a piece." Blair gave the nothing in his arms a sultry laugh and a kiss. "He ended up in the garage, on top of a car, firing at Golden Fire people that only he could see."
"Hey! They were mean," Blair said, turning his head to smile at Jim. "They were. If you hadn't been blind, you'd have seen that."
"I'm sure I would have," Jim said, leaning over to give Blair a kiss.
"Hey," Nick protested. "I thought you two were over."
Jim blushed as he sat back up. "We are, I don't know what that was."
"It was his talent," Derek said mildly, giving Nick an indescribable look. "Haven't you ever had a lover you traded kisses with after you had broken up?"
"Yeah, but still. Not like that one was."
"Nick, it was nothing," Derek told him, shifting so Blair's head was in his lap and he could stroke through the dark curls. "I'll make sure it doesn't happen again."
"Hey, I can't see my stars," Blair said, pouting up at Derek. "Kiss?"
"Of course, but only if you pull yourself up here," Derek told him, giving him a smile. "I can't bend like you can."
"Yoga, it fixes all that," Blair said, lifting his head for a kiss. "Thanks. Now let me talk to my stars."
"Yes, dear," Derek sighed, turning to look at Jim. "I do understand, and so does Nick."
"It was Blair doing it," Nick said darkly. He glared at the young man as he burst out laughing and cooing at his stars. "See?"
"It's the dust," Philip said softly, putting a hand on his arm. "Blair won't take Jim back, they don't get along well together, they're blocking each other from life."
"Like you and I were?" Nick asked. Philip nodded. "So I can yell at Blair when he's sane again?"
"Yeah, do that," Jim told him, pulling Nick closer. "You and me both." He glanced around. "What else would you like to know about? Blair taking on some techno-terrorists that were his students and getting beaten up? Blair getting taken hostage by a few different serial killers? Blair and Jim romp through Cascade and cause damage?"
"That much damage?" Derek asked hesitantly. "Are we going to have to worry about being sued?"
"Not really," Jim admitted. "The police department took care of all that for us."
"Yeah, they're great about the insurance premiums not going up too," Blair giggled.
Jim looked over at Derek, who nodded at one side of the clearing. As soon as Derek could get free, they met over there. "This is serious, Derek," Jim said quietly. "Blair's only done hallucinogenics once and he had a *very* bad trip, that was how he described it to me when he told me about it." Derek nodded. "Just watch him carefully." He went back the other men, letting Derek set them up for the night, even letting them have the tent. Philip eventually joined them in there, letting Nick and Jim fashion a lean-to attached to the tent for the rest of them.
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