From the topmost branch of an oak tree that had stood untroubled for a thousand years in the heart of the forest, Rainith studied her surroundings. All around the trees stretched out in an unbroken array of green but ahead of her, no more than five miles, she could make out a darker patch among the green. A clearing in the forest. Her exceptionally sharp eyes spotted a tiny wisp of smoke drifting up from the clearing. She had almost reached the settlement where she'd find Noutan.
The fairy smiled. Then, taking infinite care to move as silently as possible to avoid detection, she dropped below the level of the trees, descending all the way down to the forest floor, creeping from tree trunk to tree trunk, from bush to bush, mostly on foot but sometimes flitting in an instant to a low branch, stopping to look and listen. The forest was quiet. Rainith, always alert, did not have the feeling she was observed. She'd successfully avoided all of the Elves' outer defences and was certain that they didn't expect her to be so close.
Such was her confidence that it was a terrible shock when she was suddenly confronted by an elderly Elf who seemed to appear from nowhere, just as she hurried over a narrow forest path. Rainith could have sworn he wasn't there a second ago but now he stood in front of her; tall, white-haired, wearing a dark green cape with the hood thrown back, a carved and polished staff in his hand. The fairy quickly drew her sword. The Elf inclined his head very slight towards her.
'You must be Rainith the Red.'
Rainith scowled. He sword was balanced in her hand, ready for action.
'I am Matreen the Elder.'
'Step out of the way.'
Matreen the Elder looked at Rainith. He seemed calm. Not hostile, even though Rainith was an invader, known to be violent.
'You've taken the wrong path, Rainith. You should leave.'
Rainith was surprised. She'd expected the aged Elf to call for assistance.
'I have business here,' she said.
'No business that needs to be done.' The Elf pointed northwards. 'If you travel that way you could slip out of the forest and leave Wiltunscir. It would be best for you, and for us.'
'I'm here for Noutan.'
'What for? Pointless revenge? Followed by your own death? Go away and live your life in a more fitting manner, Rainith the Red.'
Rainith bridled. She'd never taken kindly to advice from elders, neither fairy nor elf. 'You won't save Noutan that easily. I'm here to kill him.'
Matreen the Elder shook his head. 'I'm not trying to save Noutan. He can take care of himself. I'm trying to save you.'
Rainith couldn't think of a reply. There was a moment's silence.
'If Noutan's hiding he's a coward,' said Rainith, purposely searching for something insulting to say, because she didn't like this Elvish Elder giving her advice. 'I'll run him through.'
Matreen gazed at the fairy. 'You didn't manage to do that when last you fought.'
'He took my by surprise. This time will be different.'
The forest was silent. Matreen gazed at Rainith for some time.
'I see you have a concealment cloak and a bow. Is that your plan? To hide, and shoot an arrow in his back?'
Rainith didn't reply. That was exactly her plan. The Elvish elder shook his head. 'Origath the Wise would not regard this as a worthwhile endeavour. Nor would your friend Princess Sorena.'
'Fairies are none of your business,' growled Rainith.
'You seem to be, here in our forest. You should leave, Rainith. Noutan has many friends. They'll kill you before you even see him.'
Rainith's patience had worn thin. She raised her sword. 'Get out of my way or I'll kill you.'
Matreen the Elder gazed at her. Rainith shifted uncomfortably, not liking his examination. Abruptly he turned to leave, walking back up the path. Rainith felt her heart pounding with rage. She hated the Elves. She hated all of them. The fencing master who'd given her her scar, his brother who'd fought and defeated her, their spying owls who couldn't be trusted, and this Elder who thought he could give her advice.
'What if he tells the others I'm on my way?'
Rainith's bow slipped easily into her hands. With one smooth movement she sent an arrow straight into Matreen the Elder's back. To her dismay it passed right through him, having no apparent effect. The Elf turned round. For the first time he look angry.
'You are an evil creature to attempt such a thing,' he said. 'You'll die here in Elvish Wiltunscir and no one will mourn you.'
With that, he disappeared into the bushes. Rainith cursed, and vanished into the undergrowth in the opposite direction.
Mixt stood in front of a cabinet in their bunker and pressed a button on the screen that extended from her wrist.
'You just know there isn't going to be any decent alcohol in here. Games never do alcohol properly, I've always found it annoying.'
Nakishdan was in the process of trying on every piece of clothing in their possession, attempting to find something he liked. The cabinet slid open. Inside were rows of bottles full of colourless liquid.
'Is that gin?' Mixt picked up the first bottle and studied the label. 'Bombay Gin? Really? Here, in Star Metal City?' She unscrewed the cap and took a sip. 'It's real! I take it back, this game really isn't so bad. Nakishdan, can you pass me a glass?'
Mixt poured herself a glass of gin. She offered some to Nakishdan, who refused. 'Gin is awful on its own. Is there anything to mix it with?'
Mixt hunted in the cabinet. 'There's some lime juice. We can make gimlets. Look, here's a bottle of Smith's over-proof. That's a good brand. Reminds me of London in the 50s. The 1750s I mean. Strong gin everywhere.'
Fourteen Trees arrived in the room. It was unusual to see her without one of her home-made hats, but none of them had survived the tradition from the real world to the world of the video game.
'I've been trying to work out a way to send a message to your world but the mathematics is really difficult. Girsin has set this reality up so it's quite a long way from your own. I'll have to go through three other dimensions before I can - ' Fourteen Trees paused. 'Are you listening?'
'Wasn't all that eighteenth century gin home made, and poisonous?' said Nakishdan.
'Not if you knew where to go for the good stuff. Of course there was a lot of anti-gin feeling at the time. Hogarth was doing these engravings where everyone was dying from drinking too much but he was just the sort of blowhard that doesn't like the working classes having a good time.' Mixt paused, fondly remembering. 'Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two. I must have spent about ten years in a gin-soaked haze. Good times.'
'About this message and the fantastically complicated mathematics I'm attempting - '
'What's this?' Mist dragged another bottle from the cabinet. 'Space gin? What idiot named it that? Couldn't they have thought of something better?' She sipped from the bottle. 'Actually, it's not bad. Good flavour of juniper. And orris root, I think. And some lemon peel. Maybe angelica root. Try it?'
Nakishdan sipped from the bottle. He winced. 'It tastes like perfume.'
'You just don't appreciate a good gin. Do you think they have any angostura bitters?'
Geeda Lala arrived. 'What's happening?'
'I'm trying to give them an update but they keep talking about gin,' complained Fourteen Trees.
'Mixt is quite obsessive about the subject,' said Nakishdan.
'There's nothing obsessive about appreciating a decent spot of alcohol. I really wish they had some angostura bitters. We could make pink gin. I haven't had much of that since I was rescued by the Royal Navy from France about 1870.'
'Were we at war with France in 1870?'
'Not quite, but I had been spying for the Prussians. Look, there's a bottle of Plymouth gin at the back. You know, whoever stocked this drinks cabinet knew what they were doing.'
'Stop talking about gin! I've been trying to tell you about my message!'
Mixt looked round. 'Have you sent it?'
'No. It's very complicated. I've been working all night on the mathematics - '
'Probably best to relax for a while. Some gin?' Mixt offered Fourteen Trees one of the three full glasses she was holding. Fourteen Trees didn't reply, and went off scowling.
'What's wrong with her?'
'Fourteen Trees has a strong work ethic,' said Geeda Lala.
'I've always felt that was a mistake.' Mixt refilled her glass. 'Could you check the kitchen for lemons? If I can find a bottle of vermouth we can make martinis. That'll probably cheer her up.'
'Won't it? Well, I tried my best.' Mixt studied the alcohol in her glass. 'The principal cause of all vice and debauchery among the inferior people, according to the authorities in 1750. But again, they didn't really like to see the working classes enjoying themselves.'
Fourteen Trees sat cross-legged on the concrete floor, studying the transparent screen that projected from her wrist. Around the screen were other, fainter screens. Shapes and figures flowed between them as she attempted to find out exactly which dimension they were in, and how they might escape.
Next door in the underground bunker, Mixt was sleeping off the effects of too much gin. She had postulated that alcohol may not have the same effect inside a virtual reality video game as it had in the real world.
'Might be able to drink bottles of gin without feeling much at all.'
This had turned out not to be the case. After she collapsed in a drunken heap, Nakishdan had carefully laid her on her side on the bed to sleep it off, something which he'd done quite frequently in the past. Mixt was fond of gin, and prone to overindulgence.
Nakishdan wondered out loud if they should carry out any missions. 'That's how you usually make progress in these games,' he informed Geeda Lala. 'You defeat enemies and get rewards and so on.'
'Why would we do that?'
'Because then you can level up and you have better stuff.' Nakishdan looked at his basic armour. 'Nicer clothes for instance.'
'Wouldn't it be dangerous?'
Nakishdan shrugged. 'Maybe. But it's better than sitting here in inferior clothes.'
'I don't think this basic space armour is so bad,' said Geeda Lala. 'It looks a bit like something Eno might have worn with Roxy Music.' Geeda's brow wrinkled. 'I wish we'd been able to stay in London for a few more weeks. We had tickets to see Roxy music in 1972. That would have been good.' Her frown deepened. 'I wish Rainith hadn't disappeared when she did. I think she'd have liked glam rock.'
Rainith was making her way along the underside of a tree branch, sneaking past an Elvish Guard posted above. She was almost within touching distance of the village where Noutan lived. All the Elvish guards in the Elvish world could not stop a determined fairy from getting through.
Fourteen Trees looked up from the multiple screens in front of her. 'As far as I can see, there are three or four different realities between us and Earth, and several more between us and Kesh.'
'Can you get us back?'
'Not yet. No equations exist to make that travel possible. I'm trying to invent them.'
'What's in the other dimensions?' asked Geeda Lala.
'Not sure. I think one of them might be where the fairies and elves live. That overlaps with the Earth but it has its own space as well.' Fourteen Trees brushed the top of her head absent-mindedly with her hand, something she'd been doing a lot since arriving here. 'I miss my hat. I really don't like not having a hat.'
Ms Darben was dissatisfied. 'The Kesh say they can't trace any of them. Mixt, Nakishdan, Rainith, Geeda Lala - they've all vanished without trace.'
'Do you believe them?' asked Agent Duluth.
'I'm not certain. Probably. The Kesh are still worried about all these intruders, I don't think they'd lie to us. But for whatever reason, they can't find any of them.
'For a highly advanced civilisation they often manage to be not very helpful,'
'If that really is the fairy dimension I might be able to make contact.' Geeda studied her screens even more intently.
'What good would that do?' asked Nakishdan.
'It's one step closer to London. If I could locate Rainith she might be able to help us.'
'Rainith? Whatever she's doing it wont be any help to us.'
Rainith dropped from the branch to the ground and crawled through the undergrowth. Ahead of her she heard soft Elvish voices.
'I don't think the fairy's anywhere near. She probably ran off after Matreen the Elder spotted her.'
'I don't know about that. She hasn't backed down so far. She might be close. What's Noutan doing? Is he safe?'
'Noutan isn't worried about being safe. He's sitting in front of his tree with his sword in his lap, hoping she shows up.'
Rainith silently ascended a tall oak tree in the centre of the forest. It was a long, difficult climb for a small fairy but she daren't fly for fear of being detected. Already she'd slipped past several watchful Elves, evading them with infinite care. Dusk was only an hour away. At night, the Elves' senses would be sharper. They might detect her even without seeing her. Rainith kept on climbing.
Rainith was still fuelled by rage but as she'd neared the centre of the forest she'd found herself distracted by unhappy, brooding memories which she struggled to repel though they threatened to make her lose concentration, something she couldn't allow. Confronted by memories of her parents early death, she shook her head, and tried to dispel the thoughts. She felt once again the Elvish swordmaster's blade slicing into her face, giving her the scar which now showed lividly red on her face. Then there were memories of the King's fury at her, and her banishment. She cursed silently and kept climbing.
Now she was so close to Noutan's tree the troubling memories were becoming worse. Rainith wondered if there were some sort of magical Elvish defences set up in the heart of their territory, to bring misery to intruders by plaguing them with unwanted thoughts. Once again she felt the Elvish swordmaster's blade cutting her face. Immediately after that she remembered Noutan's blade running her through, and her long fall from the sky, bleeding and broken, crashing into the ground, mortally wounded, saved only by her fortunate possession of a few drops of the Fairy King's special nectar.
The fairy winced. She kept climbing though it was becoming more and more difficult. The pain of the blade going through her had been intense and now she was almost reliving it. She tried to banish the black gloom which enveloped her, by bringing to mind something cheerful, but she couldn't think of anything. The few happy memories she had seemed to have vanished in the Elvish forest.
Near the top of the great oak tree, still concealing herself in the foliage, she sensed the presence of Elves. There were two on the topmost branch, green-clad and armed with swords. Rainith froze, and looked around her. On the top of the nearest tree to the left were two more Elves. There were three on the tree to her right. She gazed forward, through the leaves, into a small clearing ahead of them. There was another oak tree, smaller, sturdy, very old looking. The fairy could just make out a figure sitting in front of the tree. It was Noutan, with his sword in his lap.
Rainith glanced upwards. The patrolling elves were no more than three metres away. The slightest sound would warn them of her presence. She looked back towards Noutan, wondering if she could shoot an arrow into him from here. There was too much foliage in the way. She needed to be on the topmost branch, where the Elves were.
Moving slowly and in complete silence, the small fairy drew out her concealment cloak. She slipped it on. It would hide her for eight seconds. She flew to the topmost branch, her bow in her hand. The elves looked round, confused by noise from something they couldn't see. Rainith swiftly notched an arrow in her bow and aimed. She fired at Noutan, sending an arrow hurtling towards his heart. Then, with her cloak still concealing her for a second or two more, she leapt from the tree, extending her wings and swooping towards Noutan, her sword in her hand, to deliver the death blow.