Rainith rested in the deep undergrowth, not setting off again till twilight. She was now some way inside Elvish Wiltunscir and she'd have to travel at night if she hoped to remain unobserved. The area close to the western border was heavily forested so remaining unseen wasn't too difficult for the small fairy, but there were tracts of open land ahead of her that would be more difficult to traverse. So far the journey had gone well. Rainith was in good health, and might even have been in good spirits, had not her murderous rage overwhelmed all her other emotions.
She navigated by the stars, something all fairies could do automatically, without thinking. When the trees thinned and she found herself in an area of tall grass she kept on going, flying low, skimming the grass, circumventing bushes and stopping only briefly to rest in the shelter of a river bank. She ate a morsel of the fairy food she carried for energy, then set off again, heading for the next wooded area which she hoped to reach before daylight. It was a long period of flight for a fairy, but Rainith the Red was hardier than most fairies. By the time the first rays of the sun were creeping over the horizon, Rainith was in sight of the next forested area of Wiltunscir, Blesswood. Around the western edge of the wood ran the River Bless. She headed towards the bank, to replenish her water supply before taking shelter in the shadow of the old, tall trees, and the thick undergrowth.
No one observed her, but she was not as an anonymous visitor as she'd hoped. Behind her, on the western border, the owl she'd killed was discovered, its body hidden by leaves. It was unfortunate that an Elf, a friend of the owl, had noticed it was missing so soon, and gone looking. When the Elf found the corpse she was immediately suspicious. The owl's chest had been pierced by some sort of weapon. She couldn't be sure, but suspected it might have been an arrow. A very small arrow.
Who could have shot this owl dead with an arrow?
She looked around, but found nothing. There was no trace of any intruder, but when night fell, and the darkness allowed her enhanced Elvish sight to function fully, she thought she could see the faint aura of a fairy on the branch. The Elf alerted her village, and the tribal head sent messages out to the surrounding area, warning them to be on the lookout for a hostile fairy who might have penetrated their borders.
Rainith landed silently by the river. As she stooped to fill her leather flask a young duck paddled by. She frowned. The sight of the duck caused an odd feeling to appear, a feeling she couldn't put a name to. Rainith banished it, and filled her flask. As she rose, two more ducks floated by. Rainith scowled as she was once more struck by an unfamiliar emotion. This time it was more powerful, almost overwhelming. Rainith didn't know what the feeling was but she didn't like it.
Suddenly it struck her. It was a memory of her childhood. When she was very young, aged two or three, her mother had taken her to play with the ducks in the river. As the memory overwhelmed her, Rainith felt as if she were temporarily turned to stone. Normally she had almost no recollection of either of her parents. They'd died before she was four years old. She could never have consciously recalled the day out with her mother, but the sight of the duck, so close, paddling by, had brought it back. The power of the unexpected memory, mixed with, and struggling against, the murderous rage inside her, left her temporarily paralysed.
She tried to shake it off. She had to cross the river and enter the forest for cover. Already the dawn was turning into daylight.
'There she is!'
Rainith was brought back to life by the sudden call. She whirled round to find two elves charging along the riverbank towards her. Both armed, both taller than her. Rainith spread her wings, planning to escape by flight. Elves couldn't fly, as a rule, though Noutan had somehow taken to the air when they'd fought above the Isle of Wight.
She'd barely made it over the river when she was brought down by an arrow through her wing. It pinioned the wing to her shoulder and she crashed to the ground. The Elves charged across the shallow river with their swords in their hands. The scrambled up the bank, ready to confront the fairy invader. When they reached the top, they halted in confusion. The fairy was nowhere to be seen.
'Where did she - '
The first Elf never finished his sentence. He was cut down by an invisible assailant, killed by a thrust of a sword he never saw. The second Elf saw him fall, and turned, looking for his assailant before he too fell, dead by an invisible hand.
Rainith appeared as if from nowhere as her eight-second concealment cloak wore off. It had proved to be a very effective garment. She could use it once a day. She yanked the arrow from her shoulder and wing, wincing in pain. Blood poured from the wound. Ignoring the pain, she dragged the Elves' bodies in to the undergrowth, labouring to complete the task. She took a tiny purse from her bag, and from within the purse, her precious supply of the Fairy King's Special nectar. She dabbed a little on her wounds. Still unable to fly, she hurried into Blesswood, to hide in the darkness.
Mixt and Nakishdan were experienced in the ways of Star Metal City. They knew that any inhabitant was in continual danger without some sort of refuge. Rather than discussing how their current predicament had come about, they set about solving this problem as quickly as possible. They sold the spare laser pistols they'd taken from the mercenaries for enough credits to rent a room in a small hotel. The hotel was staffed and populated mostly by aliens but, if this reality held true to the same rules as had operated during the game, it should be a safe space. Attacks in hotels were not permitted in Star Metal Planet
Mixt looked around their sparsely furnished room. 'The designers of the game never paid much attention to interior decoration. The rooms are always bare.'
'They might have put a painting on the wall, or a vase of flowers on the table.'
'That's not really our most pressing problem,' said Nakishdan. 'How could we possibly have ended up inside the game? I can't imagine how it happened. It's impossible. No possible solution presents itself.'
'I know how it happened.'
'It's that idiot Mathematician Girsin. This is just the sort of ridiculous thing he'd do.'
'How could he make a whole world like this?'
'He's a genius at alternate realities. He probably just plugged the source code for Star Metal Planet into some fancy Kesh machine and made this one.'
Nakishdan found this hard to process. 'It must have been a lot of trouble making a whole new world. Why would he do that?'
'Probably because I wouldn't go on a date with him.'
'This seems like an extreme reaction.' Nakishdan frowned. 'This all started when you went to Venice with him. I knew that was a mistake.'
'I didn't go to Venice with him! He kidnapped me!'
'You both seemed quite friendly when you got back. Had a nice little chat at the Beatles shop.''
'Don't start that again!' cried Mixt. 'You were the one who kept flirting with that Roman woman Flavia. In quite a sickening manner, now I think about it.'
'I was just being friendly to gather information.'
'So you say.'
They glared at each other. Outside the window a small drone flew past, advertising off-world holidays.
'We seem to be getting off the main point,' said Mixt. 'Which is getting out of this place.'
'Why would Girsin send us here?'
'Knowing him, he has some ridiculous plan wherein we have to fight our way out or else I have to go on a date with him.'
'Maybe he's given up on the date. Maybe he just wants to kill you.'
Nakishdan looked down at his chest. 'I'm healthy. My wounds have healed. Are these our real bodies? Or are we in another virtual reality?'
Mixt shrugged. It was impossible to know. 'We should investigate the area. Maybe there are some clues about what we're meant to do.'
'How about if we talk to that nice blue-skinned barmaid at the Asteroid Tavern?'
'I wondered how long it would take you to remember her.'
'What's that supposed to mean?'
'It means when we were playing Star Metal Planet you spent all your time bribing her with laser pistols in the hope that she'd sleep with you. She always rejected you. Some of the most pathetic game playing ever seen, I'd say.'
Nakishdan flushed. 'That's not how I remember it!'
'We had to keep reloading the game so you could try again. I don't think I can bear to watch you have another humiliating conversation with her.'
'She might have evaluable information.'
'You just want to flirt with her.'
'I have no intention of flirting with her.' Nakishdan looked at himself in the wall mirror. 'I need better clothes before we go there.'
When Captain Lir burst into the kitchen and pointed a gun at Geeda Lala, she thought her time had come. Six trees and Two Rays of Sunlight screamed as they were brushed out the way by his companions from 102 Woo.
'Finally,' said Captain Lir. He squeezed the trigger.
Geeda Lala didn't hear the gunshot. Instead, she found herself enveloped in a sphere of yellow light that moved very rapidly before coming to a halt, hanging in space, surrounded by nothing. Standing beside her was Fourteen Trees. The other two girls were clambering to their feet.
'What happened? Where are we?'
'47 Jeng emergency temporal escape pod,' said Fourteen Trees. 'Constructed after countless hours of calculations, for use only in the direst of emergencies. For use one time only, unfortunately.' Fourteen Trees looked disapprovingly at Six and Two. 'And now we've had to use it because you acted really stupidly and attracted 102 Woo.'
Six Trees and Two Rays of Sunlight looked sheepish. 'Sorry,' they mumbled.
'Sorry? Sorry you almost got us all killed? And now we've had to use our emergency escape pod which took us forever to build and we can't use it ever again?
'Sorry,' they mumbled again.
Fourteen Trees was not satisfied by their apology. '47 Jeng is not pleased about this. There will be repercussions. Wanting money to buy T Rex merchandise is not sufficient reason to endanger us all.'
'You wanted to buy stuff too,' protested Six Trees.
'But I controlled myself.' Fourteen Trees motioned with her hand. A yellow path of light appeared outside the sphere. 'I'm sending you home. Once there I expect you to diligently carry on with your duties until I arrive. Then I'll decide on disciplinary action.'
Looking quite miserable, Six Trees and Two Rays of Sunlight trooped out of the sphere, disappearing along the yellow path.
'You were quite hard on them,' said Geeda Lala.
Fourteen Trees was unrepentant. '47 Jeng after school hat-making club does not allow indiscipline.'
'You were pretty mad on T Rex yourself.'
It was Fourteen Trees' turn to look sheepish. 'Yes, I'm sorry about that. I seemed to get carried away.' She looked down at her platform shoes and winced. 'I don't know what came over me.'
'Are we safe now?'
'We're safe while we remain here. But any re-entry into reality will be dangerous. Unless we go back home to Kesh.'
'I don't want to do that.'
'I'm not sure I can keep hiding you from 102 Woo,' said Fourteen Trees. 'That was very close. If it happens again. I don't have another escape pod.'
Fourteen Trees made a screen appear and started making calculations. 'Maybe I can find somewhere safe to land.'
'Can you see anywhere from here?'
'Could you find out how Rainith is? And Mixt and Nakishdan?'
'I have a feeling they might need help,' said Geeda Lala. 'And I owe them all help.'