rosemary edghill: The Warslayer

The Warslayer

[cover]

The Warslayer [?]
[ Baen Free Public Library ]
by Rosemary Edghill
Baen Books (May 2002)
ISBN: 0-74343-536-2

The Making of a Cult Phenomenon
(from Vixen the Slayer:
The Unofficial Journeys)
by Greg Cox

From the start, she made an indelible impression on everyone lucky enough to catch her startling debut: charging out of the misty English (or was it Australian?) countryside astride her magnificent chestnut stallion, her silver rapier catching the moonlight, her scarlet tresses dancing in whistling wind like the very fires of Perdition. "Evil wakes!" she warned us huskily, as her unsheathed blade swiftly dispatched what would turn out to be merely the first in an endless parade of hell-spawned ghouls and revenants. For those of us who tuned into that first episode out of curiosity, or even by accident, it was clear at once that this was a woman to be reckoned with--as millions of devoted fans would soon discover.

Who would've guessed that the first great TV heroine of the 21st Century would be a feisty, indomitable demon-hunter straight out of the Elizabethan era? Certainly not Gloria McArdle, the incandescent former Olympic gymnast who brings "Vix" thrillingly to life every Friday night, or so it seemed from the shell-shocked expression on Glory's face when she received a standing ovation from a veritable horde of adoring fans (many decked out in full 16th-century regalia) at the first official Vixen the Slayer Convention in New York City. I was there myself, frantically scribbling notes on the back of my program book, and can testify that the sheer amount of devotion, excitement, and, okay, out-and-out lust that filled that crowded convention center when Glory took the stage was enough to fuel a full-fledged crusade against the forces of darkness, or at least sell out every piece of licensed merchandise in the dealers' room. The Beatles may have been more popular than Jesus Christ, but Vixen has certainly got Lucifer beaten hands-down.

But if McArdle was slow to realize the full enormity of her kohl-eyed counterpart's impassioned fan following, then she was probably the last person on the planet to do so. All you need to do is look on the Internet, where you can quickly find enough evidence to fill even Father Diavolo's Book of the Damned. Fan-generated Vixen web pages abound (despite the pernicious efforts of Full Earth's over-zealous legal department), with even Adrian the Wonder Horse receiving a score of tribute sites. Pseudo-scholarly web magazines like Camrado: Ye Olde Journal of Vixen Studies publish earnest treatises on such provocative topics as "Vixen: An Inspired Fusion of Red Sonja and Solomon Kane" and "Whither the Beast?: Biblical Imagery in 'Vixen'."

Speaking of provocative, let's not forget all the fan fiction out there, an endlessly growing archive of semi-apocryphal "Vixen" adventures that are generally a whole lot steamier (and more explicit) than the exploits that actually air on the television series. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these unsanctioned narratives have Vixen and her arch-nemesis, Lilith Kane, the Duchess of Darkness, taking their love-hate relationship to a whole new level. (Sometimes Sister Bernadette joins in as well, vows or no vows.) And don't get me started on all the "Mary Sue" stories out there, in which thinly-disguised versions of the authors are mystically transported through time to join Vixen the Slayer in her never-ending battle for truth, freedom, and the way of the ninja. (I refuse to comment on all those anonymously authored stories teaming Vix with "Gerg Xoc," journeyman scribe.)

Meanwhile, in dozens of chat rooms and newsgroups, Vixites from around the world argue incessantly about what really happened in the infamous "dream" episode, or who would win in a three-way fight between Vixen, Xena, and Buffy? (The general consensus on the latter was that Buffy would win, but only if she was allowed to import a missile launcher from the 20th century.) In all, there's enough Vixen material on-line that, in theory, you could spend 24 hours a day in the world of our favorite ninja vampire hunter without ever watching the show! But who in God's name would want to do that?

Every fan has their own favorite episode, of course. Some prefer the nonstop demon-fighting action of such classics as "To Hunt the Hunter" or "Thirteen Minutes to Doomsday," while others groove on moodier, more atmospheric fare like "The Haunter of Crimson Cove" or "Behowl the Moon." Hardcore romantics pine for more episodes like "A Slayer in Love" (with Christopher Marlowe, no less!), while still others (you know who you are) can't get enough of such, er, stimulating episodes as "Corsets and Catacombs" or "The Duchess's Delights." From a strictly historical standpoint, few shows are more fascinating than "Across the Veil of Worlds," in which the ever-frugal folks at Full Earth Productions incorporated footage from the original, never-aired pilot for Ninja Vampire Hunter starring Doreen Liu, thus providing an intriguing glimpse of an alternate reality featuring a very different Slayer.

Granted, there are a few episodes that most of us would prefer to forget. Did we really need to watch a sixty-minute flashback to Sister Bernadette's halcyon days at the nunnery in "The Trouble with Anglicans"? Or watch our usually fierce Slayer baby-sit that obnoxious urchin in "Mother for a Day"? Oh well, I guess even the Anointed Champion of the Light can have an off day. Or two.

How much longer can the Vixen phenomenon thrive and flourish? From where I'm sitting, the sky's the limit. As of this writing, the first official Vixen novel, The Warslayer by Rosemary Edghill, is sitting atop the New York Times Bestseller List, while First Lady Tipper Gore just cited Vixen as "an outstanding role model for America's youth." Not bad for the bastard child of an English lord and a Japanese geisha!

Now you'll have to excuse me. It's nine o'clock and a brand new episode has just begun. On my TV screen a full moon is rising, the Duchess and her fiendish lackeys are plotting new devilment, and justice, in the form of a flame-haired female privateer, is riding into the dark and unholy night.

I may never go out on Fridays again.

* * *

GREG COX is the author of numerous books, including Vixen the Slayer: The Unauthorized Journeys. He has never missed a single episode.


CHAPTER ONE: Leather and Steel

The troll was enormous: eight, maybe nine feet tall. Its skin was a mottled bluish-purple, covered with coarse black hair and warts the size of dinner plates. Its knuckles nearly brushed the ground when it walked, and its wrists were as big around as her thighs.

Vixen the Slayer bared her teeth in a feral smile, tossing her sword from hand to hand as she moved backward in a fighter's crouch. The monster had to be stopped here, and there was nobody who could do it but her. She was just lucky that something that big was also slow....

The troll tottered forward another few steps, then wavered and fell flat on its face, exposing the two puppeteers who had been inside and the tangle of trailing air-hoses that led back to the rest of the crew.

"Cut," Megan said, sighing. "Rennie--"

"He tripped me!" Rennie said, pointing at his partner Roald, on whose shoulders he'd been sitting a few moments before.

"Maybe we should try it the other way around," Roald suggested snarkily. He was six feet three and outweighed Rennie by a good ten stone.

"It was nobody's fault," Megan said, putting on her "soothing mom" voice. "Vix, honey, we're going to have to go again. Everybody take ten!"

Vixen the Slayer, ninja-raised do-gooder and scourge of the Satanic legions that plagued the Elizabethan countryside, stretched and sighed, her hand on the small of her back. That knife-fighter's crouch looked great on camera, but it played hell with the vertebrae.

"Sure, Meg," she called back. "I'm going to be in my trailer, okay?"

Megan nodded, distracted, and Vixen--aka Gloria Emmeline McArdle--walked off. She knew from long experience that ten minutes was going to be at least forty-five, what with getting all the air-hoses and electrical cables untangled so that Truxton the Troll would be ready to go again. He was really just a nine-foot All-Purpose Creature Armature that could be dressed in any number of foam latex monster disguises; otherwise, he'd have been far too expensive for the budget of a syndicated TV series, even one filmed in The Wonder Down Under.

She walked past the camera and craft services until she got to her trailer. Closing the door behind her, she tossed her sword on the couch and sat down in front of the mirror. Vixen's masklike makeup and kohl-lined eyes stared back.

This time last year, she'd been plain Gloria "Glory" McArdle, ex-Olympian, red-headed teacher of girls' gymnastics and physical education at Ned Kelly High School in Melbourne, Australia. She'd been good enough to be on the Australian team that went to Seoul, and not good enough to medal and garner tempting offers from top coaches and sportswear manufacturers, and that was that. When her final growth spurt hit late that summer, taking her from five-five (pretty tall for a gymnast even at that) to six foot in her stocking feet and built like a Vargas pinup, it thoroughly put an end to any possibility of ever competing again.

She'd been wise enough not to go into coaching--better a clean break than being tormented with constant reminders of "might have been." She'd gotten her teaching certificate instead, and while she was relieved to find that she enjoyed teaching--molding and shaping impressionable little minds and bodies--as she settled into her new life, she found she was still hungry for...something.

Boredom is a dangerous taskmaster. Out of boredom Glory had gone to an open audition for a straight-to-cable series called Ninja Vampire Hunter. The ad had mentioned that gymnastics training was a plus, but Full Earth Productions had really just been looking for extras to stand around in the background while Doreen Liu, their Asian martial arts star, bounced off trampolines.

So she'd started fooling about, and found that a six-foot redhead who could do back flips, layouts, and walkovers had gotten the casting director's attention. She'd been hired on the spot, spent the Long Vac on the set, and thought that was the end of it. She wasn't a professional actress, and other extras with more experience had told her that most pilots didn't get picked up.

But Ninja Vampire Hunter had tested well, and with a little tweaking had gone to series, following in the fertile footsteps of such disparate role-models as Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And that was when Barry Doherty and Full Earth had offered her the lead.

"Doreen doesn't want to spend a year in Melbourne, and anyway, you look a lot better in a black leather corset," he'd said winningly.

It wasn't one of Life's Tough Choices. Playing "Orcs-and-Bush-Rangers" as Vixen (neé Koroshiya) the Slayer (even with a whoppingly sexist leather corset) was more fun--and more lucrative--than teaching high school. She signed a three-year contract with Full Earth to star in the re-christened The Incredibly True Adventures of Vixen the Slayer (TITAoVtS for short) and entered the glamorous world of show-biz on the spot. On an eighteen-hour shooting day and an average six-day-per-episode shoot, Vixen the Slayer and her sidekick Sister Bernadette wandered the villages and hedgerows of England in search of supernatural evil and religious intolerance. The Australian exteriors gave viewers a peculiar idea of the English countryside, not that anyone particularly seemed to care.

Veteran stage actress Anne-Marie Campbell was playing her co-star, the doughty ex-nun Bernadette, and American soap villainess (and former Southland Studios child star) Romy Blackburn had the plum role of Vixen's recurring foe: Lilith Kane, the Duchess of Darkness. By the time the first six episodes had aired, Vixen was international front-page news, captivating millions of UPN Network viewers every Friday night and generating hundreds of column inches. Glory became a Star overnight, and discovered that she was suddenly somehow terribly important and publicity-worthy. The usual news story portrayed TITAoVtS' star in mid-backflip beneath a banner headline saying something like: "Is this Today's Woman?"

Well, only if today's woman needs to be able to slay trolls and vampires at need, Glory thought, and kept her thoughts to herself.

When the publicity hit, Barry realized that it was important to strike while the zeitgeist was hot and had taken advantage of owning the Flavor of the Month to book the regulars for a promotional tour of the U.S. during hiatus: interviews, photo layouts, talk shows, personal appearances, the whole enchilada. The moment the season's filming wrapped, Romy, Glory, Anne-Marie, Dylan (the Duchess of Darkness's lackey, the venal Jesuit Fra Diavolo), and even Adrian the Wonder Horse (a burly chestnut with a tendency to overact) would be shipped Trans-Pacific to fame, frenzy, and a general blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality.

Such is fame, Glory thought wisely to herself, unimpressed. I wonder how long this is going to last?

* * *

Two months later:

I wish this were over. Glory sighed, and began to put on the makeup that would hide her thousands of pale-gold freckles. There were deep circles under her tiger-yellow eyes, and she looked haggard. This isn't what twenty-six and famous is supposed to look like.

And this is supposed to be my vacation.... 

Six weeks. Three dozen American cities that all looked alike. They'd done ShoWest, Letterman, Leno, Oprah, six media conventions, dozens of local shows and special appearances, and interviews for everyone from Movieline and the Sci-Fi Channel to Cosmopolitan. As the show's star, Glory bore the brunt of the publicity: she'd signed copies of TITAoVtS tie-in books at chain stores across America and schmoozed with every UPN executive they threw at her. Every single one of the people she met wanted just one little piece of her, but a million little drops added up to an ocean, and a million little pieces added up to more than one Glory "Vixen" McArdle.

Everything they've ever told you about fame is true, Glory told herself sagely. She'd had a taste of it in her Olympic days; she'd known it wouldn't be all gravy--but somewhere deep inside she'd assumed the TV star business wouldn't be that much different from the Olympics. She'd been right...and wrong. The Summer Games only lasted two weeks, and a promotional tour went on forever.

I want out, she thought forlornly.

But if you get out, where will you go? 

That was the real question. It wasn't so much that Fame had changed her. It had just changed everybody else, to the point where they yelled for Vixen and Glory answered, and she wasn't really sure how much of a difference there really was. She knew this couldn't last forever, but she didn't know if she could just go back to being a Phys Ed teacher again once it was over, and she knew she didn't want to. But if not this, and not that, then what?

She mascaraed her pale lashes and slathered on the kohl, and finished up with a liberal application of blood-red MAC lipstick. When she was done, the masklike face of Vixen the Slayer stared back at her from the mirror, yellow eyes gleaming out of Goth-black rings. She sighed, and reached for Gordon, resting her chin on his head. The big blue elephant had traveled everywhere with her since she was six and attending her first out-of-town gymnastics competition. At least he was a familiar face in a town full of strangers.

And a room full of strangers as well: her dressing-room was filled with an ever-growing collection of licensed Vixen tie-ins. The eighteen-inch stuffed Vixen doll--the full set of action figures (including the very rare Lilith Kane, the Duchess of Darkness)--the Franklin Mint limited edition sword and stake (of genuine English rowan!)--the cups and mugs and keychains and T-shirts and caps blazoned with the show's logo and her picture. She would have stopped collecting them long ago, but people kept giving them to her. When she'd started, it had all been fun.

But now...

This is not fun. I have had fun, and this is not it. 

She cuddled Gordon harder and picked up the copy of the script that was on the corner of the table. She was in Hollywood, California, to tape an MTV special en persona as Vixen the Slayer. Christina (her personal publicist, and, as far as Glory was concerned, personal devil) had set it up, as she set everything up, usually without consulting Glory. Still, Glory knew just what Christina would have said: Hey, Vix, easy money. Show up, do some shtick, a few back-flips, everybody's happy. 

Everybody but Vixen the Slayer, scourge of the soundstages.

She dropped the script unread. What did a bunch of cues and stage directions matter? They wanted Vixen. That's what they'd get.

Except that Vixen the Slayer would have cut their idiot heads off by now, and I'd be safe in a nice warm jail cell. 

Although she was too sensible to think that would be really appealing. And trying to outface the cameras in jeans and a T-shirt certainly wasn't. If she was going to be Vixen, it was time to get dressed.

Her costume was laid out neatly on the couch: a fantasy in black leather along vaguely Elizabethan lines...assuming, of course, that the Elizabethans had been into serious bondage. The main part of the Vixen costume actually came in two pieces. There was the black-leather corset (it looked as if it laced, but that was an illusion; the laces were elastic, crossing over an inset panel of stretchable scarlet brocade that allowed her to breathe and move in the thing, and entry was actually accomplished through a set of concealed speed-release clasps on the sides) with the flared mock-pannier fabric-gathers over the hips, and then below that, the puffy leather slashed-look faux Elizabethan slops, or shorts (hotpants, really, and back in the day an item of strictly male attire), because their costume designer had seen The Six Wives of Henry VIII one too many times. Thank God the costume designer hadn't been let to keep the ruff--not after the dress rehearsal, anyway. Once she had the rest of it on she could wrestle with her elbow-length handless gloves at leisure--double bracers, really, upper and lower arm, leather and studded, with another of those idiotic slashed poofy things in the middle. Had the costume designer thought her elbows were going to get cold? Or be the focus of intense perverse lust among the males of cable TV? At least the neckline of the costume--what there was of it--made sense from a ratings standpoint, if not from a martial one. Add the sword, and the stakes sheathed along the outsides of her thigh-high leather boots (there was a spike-heeled pair for the publicity stills and the odd shot of her sitting down in the show, but thank God cooler heads had prevailed when it came to the boots she actually had to move in), and she was a sound technician's nightmare.

She squirmed into her costume with the ease of long practice. She'd just pulled one boot into place and was reaching for the other when there was a knock on the door.

Oh, Christ all bloody mighty! 

Glory wriggled quickly into the second boot and staggered to her feet. Christina never knocked, and it was too early for them to want her in front of the cameras. Something's hit the fan, she told herself wisely, and opened the door in a rattle and creak of leather armor.

When she registered what was waiting for her, her mind went blank. She stared.

There were three androgynous entities standing in the doorway. The tallest of them didn't even come up to the top of her shoulder. They looked kind of like Classic Trek aliens--the weird, meddling, superpowerful kind--or maybe like really, really tall Munchkins. They were all wearing stiff shiny long-sleeved floor-length embroidered robes in virulent candy-colors--turquoise, green, and pink--and the one in front, whose receding hairline dipped into a killer widow's peak, was carrying a long stave with a glowing purple crystal on the top.

When it became obvious to both of them that she wasn't going to say anything, the staveholder spoke.

"We have come seeking Vixen the Slayer," he said.

After the last six weeks, she answered as easily to one name as the other. "Yeah, sure," Glory drawled in her hard-learned American accent, tossing her long red hair back over her shoulders and stepping back. She'd thought she was doing a solo act today, but it looked like she'd been wrong. Just like Christina not to give her all the gory details. Well, from their rig-outs, these guys looked like pros. They'd manage.

She turned back to the dressing table, reaching for her script again. If it involved strange men in pink dresses, she'd better actually read it.

"We have journeyed far from the plains of Serenthodial, through many perils, seeking you, O great warrior," the staveholder continued, stepping into the room. His companions followed, shutting the door behind them. "I am Belegir, and these are my co-Mages, Englor and Helevrin. We follow Cinnas the Warkiller, and I pray that we are not too late to seek aid for the Allimir."

"What the fu-- heck is the Allimir?" Glory demanded, dropping her script.

"We are," the little one in the green robe--Englor--piped. Suddenly Glory had a terrible suspicion that this little delegation wasn't intending to appear on MTV at any time in the immediate future, and when she saw what Englor was holding, she was sure of it.

I will get somebody for this. I don't know who, but I do know that it will be very painful for them when I do. 

"Look, I really love meeting fans," Glory lied, "but--" But how the hell did you get back here dressed like that without anyone stopping you? I thought Yanks were all paranoid. 

Short as he was--even in a silly pink robe and wearing mascara--there was something enormously dignified about Belegir and his two companions, and weary as she was, Glory couldn't bring herself to step on that. Besides, in some sense she owed Belegir and the others: it wasn't as if millions of viewers had been sucked in by her acting ability. If the show hadn't attracted followers and a fandom, if people like these hadn't liked the show, none of this fame and fortune would have happened.

Take that how you like.

And anyway, how could it hurt her to be nice? This couldn't go on for more than a few minutes. When they were ready for her in front of the cameras, Christina would certainly appear to drag her out there and send this lot packing. And Christina had a ruthless streak to which Glory could only aspire.

"Okay. What can I do for you?" she asked, carefully stifling a sigh. If I find out this is one of Barry's practical jokes, my mate Bazza's a dead man.

Belegir drew himself up proudly.

"A terrible power has been unleashed in the land of Erchanen. Long was it prisoned upon the peaks of Grey Arlinn, until foul mischance freed it once more. Now it stalks the plains of Serenthodial, and Great Drathil is no more than an abode of shadows. We are a simple gentle people, without the arts of war, and we knew that only the greatest warrior who ever lived could help our people in their hour of greatest need. You are she."

Great grammar, Vixen thought automatically, though the rest had gone on far too long. "Terrible power"? "Foul mischance"? "Greatest warrior"? Oh, no, mate. You've come to the wrong address. I get PAID for acting out other peoples' fantasies.... 

From surfing the Net, she knew there was a bumper crop of Vixen fan-fiction out there, most of it centering on unlikely encounters between her and Romy, but some of it indistinguishable from one of the show's storylines. And from the chat-rooms, she knew that there were people who took the show's slogan--Live the Legend!--far too much to heart. She'd seen the homemade props and costumes herself, and a lot of them were better than the real thing--or what passed for real in front of the cameras.

But how could she really blame them? She'd felt the allure of doing just that herself. It was just luck that made her one of the few who could turn her playgames into a living.

"I'm really sorry," she said to Belegir as gently as she could. "I'd like to come to your.. ." Convention? Asylum? She abandoned her search for le mot juste. "But I'm afraid I don't have any free days this year. If you want to write to the Publicity Department at Full Earth, I reckon Barry could..."

She stopped.

The little man was crying. He did not argue or beg. The look on his face was one of utter despair. Englor was weeping as well, and Helevrin's face was set in a stony mask.

"You're really serious, aren't you?" Glory said helplessly. Though the situation was implausibly weird, she found that she was upset for these people rather than irritated by them. She couldn't believe that such an open display of grief was faked.

But if it was not.. .

Deep inside her, a tiny spark of warning woke to life. That these three were honestly sincere was something she did not doubt for a moment--but what they were showing her was the utter sincerity of madness. Glory had been famous for six months, long enough to know the dark side of it: the obsessed, the stalkers, the people dazzled by the bright images on their movie or television screen into believing those images were real people who could see them back. So much belief could twist people in ways they never would have chosen for themselves: twist them and change them into weapons pointed at the celebrities they worshipped. These three truly believed that they needed Vixen the Slayer, but all she had to give them was Glory McArdle. When they realized the difference--when they realized there was a difference, things were going to get...ugly.

"I'm not what you need," she said, very quietly. I couldn't even medal at the Games. I'm a too-tall Phys Ed teacher who got lucky! "It's not like I-- You shouldn't believe everything you see on television. I mean-- You've got the wrong person. I'm an actress. Not even all that good an actress, I reckon. Romy's better. She plays Lilith, and..." Cut the grizzling, Glor. 

"You were our last hope," Belegir said, his voice choked with hopelessness. "We have sought through all the worlds, gone to each hero--kings, barbarians, warrior-maids, and doomed princes. Always the answer is the same: they are too busy, they will come later. But there is no later for us, Slayer! We are dying now!"

"And so we came here. This is not a world for heroes--but we did our research," Englor said despairingly. He thrust the book he carried toward her.

Glory looked down at the well-worn paperback copy of Vixen the Slayer: The Unofficial Journeys by Greg Cox. She'd spied it a moment ago and thought it meant they were fans, but if they were, they weren't the same kind of fans she'd been meeting all summer. Not by a long chalk.

"Your life imitates art," Englor added with forlorn dignity. Mascara made grainy tracks down his face as well. "We have read it." Then he sobbed outright, and Helevrin enfolded him in her arms. The turquoise-clad woman glared accusingly at Glory as she comforted her comrade, and in that instant Glory understood completely how love could turn to hate.

"We will go," Belegir said with quiet dignity.

Oh, God, yes. Just open the door and go. 

The intensity of her fear made her feel angry and ashamed. How could they do this to her? What right did they have to do this to her? Being Vixen was a part, a role, a really expensive game. It wasn't life!

She clenched her hands at her sides and concentrated on what she was going to say to Christina when she got her hands on the lazy little tart--and flinched back as Belegir raised his staff. It was of some straight fine-grained wood, silvery with exposure and handling, and banded and capped in shining copper. Strange symbols graven in fine spidery lines seemed to dance over its surface, and the strange violet jewel on its end glowed with cool radiance.

"Neddhelorn, Hambrellorn, Gathrond Megnas!" Belegir chanted in a deep impressive voice. He thumped the staff on the floor as he did, and with each blow the purple crystal glowed brighter.

"Hey, Vixy? C'mon, you're up next." Christina's voice, calling through the door. There was a rattle as she tried the knob.

The door was locked. Glory hadn't locked it.

"--Lergethil, Gwainirdel, Algoth-Angras!" 

"Yo! Vixen!" The knob rattled again.

Glory lunged for the door, forgetting she was spooked by the weirdos, forgetting to be afraid that one of the "Allimir" might be armed with more than the strength of his convictions. Christina could set things right. Everything would be fine.

Just as her hand touched the doorknob, there was a loud pop, a flash, and a wave of intense scent like burned perfume. Glory screamed and flinched in shock, but an instant later she realized she wasn't hurt--yet. She grabbed the knob tightly and jerked at it as hard as she could, willing the door to open, to let her escape.

The knob slipped from her hands, pulling and twisting until she lost her grip. The door fell free, hinges first. Could she have torn it loose in her momentary panic? She blinked. It hadn't made a "bang" as it hit the floor. Christina hadn't screamed.

And for a very good reason, so it seemed. Christina wasn't there, and neither was the hall outside her dressing room.

A wave of cold, damp, forest-y air rolled into the room, and through the now-open doorway, Glory could see trees--a birch forest that stretched into the infinite distance. She could hear the rustle of the branches as the wind passed through them, and watch the flicker of sunlight. The forest floor was covered with bright yellow leaves that began sharply as her doorway ended. As Glory stared in wonder, the leaves rustled and disgorged a chipmunk. It dashed up to her feet before realizing where it was, then turned and dived back into the leaves again.

"God's teeth!" she gasped, and just-too-late remembered it was a line from the show. Vixen's favorite oath.

She turned back into her dressing room, still blinking away afterspots from the flash that had somehow put this outside her door. When her vision cleared, she saw all three of the short guys were still standing in the middle of her dressing room, staring at each other in confusion.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," Belegir gasped. The purple crystal on his staff was slagged and melted, like the remains of an old-time flashbulb.

"It has happened," said Helevrin. "The magic went awry and took that which it ought not have. But she hasn't agreed to help us. We have to send her back."

"How?" Belegir cried in anguish. "This is the forest of Duirondel--beyond it lies Serenthodial the Golden--home! The stave's power is expended, and the rest returns to Erchane's embrace." He let go of the staff. It hit the tatty green linoleum floor in pieces, crumbling into a line of dust as Glory watched in relieved disbelief.

This is real. They were telling the truth. This is all real, or...or I'm going to break Bazza's jaw, is what.

"We'll have to get more," Englor piped up bravely. From the way the other two looked at him, Glory got the impression that getting more magic wasn't going to be all that easy.

She felt a pang of relief so strong it was almost painful. These people weren't nutters. She knew what special effects could do, and they couldn't drop a Hollywood dressing room into the middle of a birch forest that looked and smelled and felt like a birch forest, even for a goof. The forest was a real forest.

But that meant a delegation of wizards really had come to her for help.

"I reckon that I-- I just-- I'm glad this is all..." She leaned against the doorway, fighting a wave of dizziness born of shock. "What did you think I could do?"

"We did not know," Helevrin said simply. "All we know is that only a hero can save us."

If she didn't sit down soon, she was going to fall over and probably squash a couple of her guests. Glory staggered over to the couch and collapsed, breathing as deeply as she could under the circumstances. Gordon tumbled from his perch and she clutched the stuffed elephant reflexively to her chest.

This is wackier than all of last season's scripts put together.

"What will we do? What will we do?" Englor was actually wringing his hands in panic.

"We must...we must ask her to come with us. As our guest. We will consult the Oracle of Erchane to see why this has happened and how best to return the Slayer to her own place," Belegir said.

"Just like that?" Glory heard herself say.

The fact that she always got into some kind of trouble because of it had never kept Glory from speaking her mind. Today, the unreality of the whole situation made shooting off her mouth even easier. This was all so real that her mind insisted it couldn't be happening.

All three of the Allimir turned to look at her.

"I mean, you asked for my help, and now you've got me here, and you're just going to turn around and let me go?"

"The Allimir," said Helevrin stiffly, "are people of honor. Your presence is an accident. You have not offered to aid us. We have no claim on you."

If that's their idea of begging for help, no wonder everyone else turned them down. 

"Look, I-- I reckon you've really got the wrong person. There isn't anything I can do about whatever it is. But I can come and take a dekko, maybe give you some advice, hey? No promises." This is SUCH a stupid idea. God's teeth, gel, doesn't your mouth ever get tired of writing checks your body can't cash? 

"'No promises,'" Belegir echoed, as if the words puzzled him. "Come, then." He held out his hand.

Glory got to her feet, clutching Gordon reflexively. By now the temperature of the room had dropped to that of a crisp fall day, and she grabbed a sweatshirt--grey with a picture of Vixen on the back and the show's logo embroidered on the right front--and knotted it around her shoulders. After a panicked moment--knowing she ought to pack for this adventure but without the faintest idea of what to bring--she grabbed a large logo tote-bag and stuffed her street clothes, her makeup, her purse, and her script into it. She tucked Gordon carefully into the top. He was her mascot, and she wasn't leaving him behind.

"Okay," she said breathlessly. "Let's go."

The Allimir turned and filed through the doorway. Glory hesitated, then hitched her bag over her shoulder and followed them.

* * *

Her feet scuffed through a thick fall of yellow birch leaves, and the bite of the air made her glad she'd brought the sweatshirt. She would have liked to change back to her baggy T-shirt and jeans before going off with these guys, but she'd felt an odd reluctance to suggest it. While she wore the costume, she was Vixen the Slayer, and groundless though the conviction was, wearing the costume made her feel protected.

Protected or not, her arms and the tops of her thighs tingled with the cold while the rest of her sweltered under several layers of squeaking, creaking, and jingling leather, buckram, and steel, and after a minute she knew she was going to get the usual raw place under her right arm where the shoulder-piece always rubbed. At least her feet didn't hurt. Her armor was a pain in the ass to march in, but the boots were comfortable.

"Hey guys, you know what? I reckon I'd better go back and change clothes after a--"

She turned back. She'd been expecting to see the dressing room, or at least the doorway and a chunk of wall. But there was nothing there. Only a square raw spot on the forest floor where something had been.

Glory felt her stomach clench with panicky nausea. Suddenly she felt trapped, though she was in precisely the same situation that she'd been in the moment before. But now even the illusion she could leave was gone. Nothing was left but the forest, her strange companions, and her idiotic bravura.

They were staring at her again.

"Oh, well. Never mind. Look. Why don't you...um, tell me about yourselves, hey?" She still didn't know what Belegir and company thought she could do for them, but whatever it was, it had to be easier than being a Media Personality. And if somehow this still turned out to be a joke, at least it was one of the elaborate interdimensional kind.

"We are the disciples of the great mage Cinnas the Warkiller," Englor began proudly. "In every generation..."

"...there can be only one," Glory finished automatically.

"No. Three," Englor corrected her kindly.

She'd caught up to the others, and they'd started walking again. Helevrin kept glancing at her suspiciously, but Englor was frankly worshipful.

"Um. Sorry. Go on."

She'd have to remember that these people didn't watch a lot of television, though apparently they'd seen enough to have gotten her into real trouble.

"For a hundred generations the legend of Cinnas the Warkiller has been a beacon to his people. Though he died in the moment of his greatest triumph, his works live on!"

"That's reassuring," Glory muttered. Dead, then, is he? Precious little use to you now. 

"Only now--"

"If she isn't going to help us, she doesn't need to know," Helevrin interrupted brusquely. It didn't look like she was going to forgive Glory for making Belegir and Englor cry any time soon.

"I-- But-- Well-- Oh, yes, of course. You're right," Englor faltered, glancing from Glory to Helevrin.

The journey continued in silence.

* * *

Two hours later they were still walking through the same forest, and if not for the consistent presence of the sun on her left hand, Glory would have been willing to swear they'd been walking in circles the entire time. She could feel the tendons in her legs thrumming like a plucked guitar string, and her back ached, but despite her physical discomfort, Glory actually felt better than she could remember feeling in months. All the grinding weight of the show and the media spotlight had been lifted from her shoulders, and she was no longer surrounded by people wanting her to be perky and photogenic when she felt grumpy and dull. And if these people had her confused with Vixen, at least they were innocent and up-front about it--not a bunch of supposed media-savvy grown-ups who ought to know better.

Helevrin hadn't thawed, but Glory had stopped worrying about it, because it was taking all she had to keep up with her. The three mages might be short, but they scuttled through the forest at an amazing rate.

The sun had been high overhead when they'd first started out of Duirondel. Now the shadows were long and the light had a twilight ruddiness, but at last Glory began to see signs of change in her surroundings--the trees began to thin, and grass began to poke up through the drifts of leaves, the stalks growing longer and the clumps thicker until Glory realized she wasn't walking through a forest with occasional grass, but a grassland with occasional trees.

"Are we there yet?" she muttered under her breath. She'd thought she was in good physical shape from the show, but cross-country hiking used unfamiliar muscles.

She looked up, watching something besides her own feet for the first time in hours, and the vista had the impact of a blow.

There was nothing before her but kilometers of flat open plain covered with golden autumnal grasses. It stretched on in an unbroken sweep until it passed over the shoulder of the earth. She could see the wind as it gusted across the prairie, making dips and shadows in its grassy surface. If a wheat field could be a thousand miles wide it would look like this: so vast and featureless that for a moment the placid blue sky seemed close enough to crush her like an open hand. She staggered back, throwing up an arm to shield her eyes from the glare of the westering sun. A grass ocean, with no place to run to, nowhere to hide.. .

She spun around, looking back wildly the way she'd come.

Behind her was the forest through which she and her companions had walked. The birches were bright autumn gold against the midnight green of a dense pine forest that seemed to stretch for miles, climbing the lower slopes of mountains that thrust blue and jagged into the evening sky. The setting sun turned the patches of snow on their higher slopes a pale shell-pink. It was a scene as beautiful as a painting, reminding her of nothing so much as pictures she'd seen of the Canadian Rockies.

The other three had stopped.

"Behold, Vixen--Serenthodial the Golden!" Englor said, gesturing toward the plains ahead.

This is really real. This is really happening. You're not in Kansas anymore, Glor, let alone Oz. Christ--what were you THINKING? You should have stayed on that couch and screamed until somebody showed up with a rubber tuxedo! 

"There is the camp of the Allimir," Belegir said, pointing off into the distance. Glory squinted in the direction he was pointing. Halfway to the horizon she could see the smudges and dots of what might be...something. A thin spiral of white smoke rose into the sky, the only vertical in a horizontal landscape. Something with a cook fire, then, but whatever it was, it was miles away, and she'd already walked miles today.

"Since the destruction of Great Drathil, we have become refugees, outlaws in our own land, hunted for the sport of Cinnas' once-prisoned foe," Belegir added, as if that were some sort of an explanation.

She wished she'd paid better attention when they'd been talking back in her dressing room. She knew they'd been looking for someone like Vixen the Slayer, but she was hazy about the reason why. The trouble with Belegir was that he talked like a script before rewrite, and she was afraid that asking a bunch of questions now would only give him the idea she wanted to help.

But you do, don't you? And crikey, look at these guys--a housecat would give them trouble, wouldn't it? All you'll have to do is show up and fetch what ails them a good kick in the goolies, do a backflip or two, and everybody's happy. 

"Outlaws?" she said cautiously.

"Oh, he doesn't mean real outlaws," Englor assured her hastily. "Nothing involving, you know, peacebreaking." His voice dropped on the last word, as though he were saying something indecent.

"Driven from our homes. Hunted like mice in a granary--with the Warmother the cat!" Helevrin said harshly.

"Do not speak of Her here," Belegir said, glancing up apprehensively toward the sky. Glory followed the direction of his gaze, but she saw nothing but sky and a collection of very large mountains. Nevertheless, the expression on his face sent a chill up her spine.

"Send for Ivradan," Belegir said. "Best we be within bounds by the time night falls."

Not unless this Ivradan has a lorry, Glory thought.

Her feelings must have shown in her face, because Belegir smiled. "Fear not. Ivradan will bring horses, and we may ride back to our people in state--bringing a hero."

Helevrin reached into her sleeve and withdrew a little red bird. At least, it looked like a bird to Glory--she caught only a glimpse of it before Helevrin flung it into the sky. Whatever it was, it flew like a bird as well, cutting through the sky in darting swoops, its body a scarlet spark against the vast blue and gold emptiness. Glory lost sight of it almost at once, but the three Allimir stared after it as if they could still track its flight.

When nothing happened immediately, Glory dropped her tote-bag to the ground and sat down beside it with a sigh. She didn't care if she never got up. She was tired of standing. At once the world retreated behind a veil of grass that crackled as she shifted her weight. The sword on her back poked her in the ribs as it always did, while the leather corset held her in an implacable embrace. But those discomforts were homely and familiar, and her current circumstances were not.

It just didn't seem likely that she was here. Even if somehow, somewhere, there was such a thing as magic, how had the Allimir found her? How could they have confused her with Vixen? What if there were a real Vixen the Slayer somewhere and Glory was impersonating her? What if the real Vixen found out?

If there is and she does, I'm dead meat. 

It was almost more comforting to worry about that than about what she was going to do when Belegir and company found out she didn't measure up to their hopes. Vixen won her battles each week because the scriptwriters were on her side. There weren't any scriptwriters around here--just a bunch of mini-mages making cryptic pronouncements.

And looking up at the sky as if they expected something to come diving out of it.

Something nasty.

"Ah," Belegir said suddenly.

Glory twitched, startled.

"They have seen us. We should reach the camp before dark--and tomorrow we can go to the Oracle, who will tell us what we must do to return you to your home," he added, turning to Glory.

"Yeah. Right." Reluctantly Glory floundered to her feet again. Her eyes were beginning to adjust both to the light and the enormous scale of this place, and now, when she looked in the direction of the smoke plume, she could see a disturbance in the grass arrowing toward them. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that what was making it was Ivradan and the horses.

A few moments later she could even make out figures--five dun-colored critters that looked like brumbies, one with a rider, nearly invisible against the tall grass--and then she could hear the pounding of their cantering hooves. But her eyes had played tricks on her again, between the vastness of the plain and the lack of local referents. From a distance they'd looked like full-sized horses, but when they got closer, she realized they were more like ponies. All five beasts were virtually identical: black mane and tail and muzzle, long black socks, and faint grey bars along shoulders and rump, as though there were some tabby cat in their backgrounds. From a dozen yards away, you would not be able to see them in the tall grass.

As Ivradan rode closer he slowed down, and Glory could feel him staring at her. His skin was the dark tan of a man who lived his life outdoors--next to him, the three mages looked as pink and white as a bunch of roses. His eyes were black, and his hair was brown, bleached to chestnut by the same harsh sun. He looked as if he might be about Englor's age, perhaps a few years older, but she wasn't sure.

He tapped his pony's shoulder, bringing the entire string of animals to a halt before Glory and the three mages. Ivradan glanced from Glory to Belegir, his expression wary.

"Behold!" Belegir boomed in theatrical tones, gesturing toward Glory. "For it is written in the Prophecies of Cinnas, that there shall come...a hero!"

Even the sound of the word made her stomach flinch. With each passing moment she was getting in further over her head, she knew that much. Oracle or no Oracle, sooner or later Belegir was going to tell her his problem, and what was she going to say then?

Ivradan touched his forehead, bowing deeply from the back of his mount. He must be an ordinary Allimir instead of a mage, because he wasn't dressed anything like the other three. Instead of being bareheaded in long robes, he wore a soft cap--a Phrygian cap, Tricia, the wardrobe mistress on TITAoVtS had called it--tunic and leggings, and high soft boots that looked as if they were made of heavy felt. The garments were violently colorful, and Ivradan looked like a jockey who'd been dressed by a color-blind bag lady. If he and the three wizards were any indication of the general run of Allimir, she must be the tallest person he'd ever seen (not to mention the best dressed): Ivradan couldn't be more than five feet four on a tall day. The expression on his face was a mixture of joy and wariness.

Englor began to sing in a clear pure tenor. " 'In days of old was darkness bold and Evil stalked the hearthside/A hero came with hair of flame to guard the light within us/Sing hey! for our lady/Her sword and her stake/Who saves us from trouble and strife/Sing Hey for our Vixen who's Evil's affliction and will be the rest of her life!' "

It was the TITAoVtS theme song, in all its creaking mis-rhymed glory.

"It is she!" Ivradan said in awed understanding. "You have brought us Vixen the Slayer!"

Well, sort of. 

Now was the time when Belegir or at least Helevrin should have piped up to say: Nope. This is just her inept twin. This is just a peculiar accident. She isn't the hero we're looking for, and besides, she hasn't agreed to help. But oddly, neither of them did.

"Welcome, Vixen the Slayer," Ivradan said, bowing from horseback. He looked from Glory to the ponies, his face plainly indicated that he'd never expected to have to arrange transport for such an enormous creature. The only tack Ivradan rode with was a braided leather loop hooked over his mount's lower jaw, and Glory saw no sign of a saddle. None of the other ponies were saddled either. Oh, this just gets better. Horseback I can manage, but bareback? Wearing THIS? 

"Um...hiya," Glory said inadequately. She didn't know what Vixen would say in a situation like this. Usually Vixen just growled and let Sister Bernadette handle the talking.

"Well, come on," Helevrin said brusquely. The other two mages had already moved toward the beasts, unknotting the leading-rein around their necks and using it to bridle their diminutive mounts.

"There is bad news," Ivradan said. "She came again last night."

All at once Belegir seemed to shrink, as if someone had stuck a pin into him. Though he had never looked like a young man to Glory, in that moment he looked terribly old.

"How many are left?" Belegir said.

It was only a long time later that Glory would realize what had struck her as so odd about the question. Belegir didn't ask about dead or wounded or whether their side had won the fight. He only asked how many were left.

"Yesterday runners came from the other camps, bringing the New Moon tally. We are four great-hands now, and that is all. Of all the Allimir nation!" Abruptly Ivradan buried his face in his pony's mane.

"Four hundred," Helevrin whispered. She stared, shocked, at her companions, and even forgot to scowl at Glory.

Four hundred people? Out of how many?

"I reckon--" Glory's voice squeaked, and she took a deep breath and tried again. "I reckon you better tell me what you brought me here to do."

It was as if the other four had forgotten her presence until she spoke. Englor emitted a faint distressed peep.

"We did not bring you here," Helevrin said harshly.

"Someone did," Glory pointed out. "And you're not going to deny you came looking for me, right?" Or at least for Vixen the Slayer? 

"But you said...she isn't here to help us?" Ivradan asked in disbelief.

"She...we must consult with the Oracle before we proceed," Belegir said hastily.

Glory saw Helevrin and Englor exchange glances, and knew that Belegir's little white misdirection wouldn't hold up for long. But the pink mage obviously didn't want to talk about it out here, and as the shadows had grown longer, all three of the mages had become twitchier and twitchier, to the point where Glory, too, would be just as happy to get out of here rather than press the point. She unknotted the sweatshirt tied around her shoulders and walked toward the pony whose rein Ivradan was holding.

But there's going to be a reckoning real soon now. You can take that to the bank. 

"Well, Slayer?" Helevrin said brusquely. She and Englor were already mounted, and now even Belegir was climbing aboard his mount. The mages' robes were gored in back to permit this, and now Glory could see that they wore high felt boots dyed the same bright colors as their robes.

Glory sighed, squaring her shoulders. Feigning an assurance she did not feel, Glory settled the sweatshirt on the pony's back, shrugged her tote-bag firmly onto her shoulder, and took a tight grasp on the animal's mane. Then she bounced up and swung her leg over.

The pony sidestepped. But Glory had not spent an entire shooting season being bumped, jostled, and otherwise upstaged by Adrian the Wonder Horse to no purpose. She went with it, gained the animal's back, and gripped its ribs tightly with her thighs. Her feet hung inches from the ground.

When she was settled, Ivradan turned and started off. The other ponies--including Glory's--followed.

* * *

The Allimir camp looked rather like a diorama depicting "Barbie's Malibu Vardo"--a collection of ornate, fantastically painted and carved diminutive high-wheeled wagons that were drawn in a circle around a central fire. The dense grass for acres all around them had been grazed down to bristle by the Allimir's assorted livestock--large dun-colored oxen with wide glistening horns, a wary herd of striped ponies with their mounted wranglers, and the ubiquitous goats and sheep. It was dinnertime, and Glory could smell the aromas of baking bread and roasting meat, reminding her of just how very long it had been since breakfast.

The men and women of the Allimir seemed to dress very much alike, in tunics, trousers, caps, and felt boots. Some of them wore aprons, and some wore kerchiefs instead of caps, but Glory wasn't prepared to distinguish men from women on that basis just yet. As the riders approached, they stopped what they were doing, stepped down out of the wagons and away from their tasks to await the party's arrival.

Glory was so caught up in the improbable wonder of what she was seeing that she didn't remember until Belegir dismounted that they were going to be expecting him to announce that he'd brought them a hero.

And instead of a hero, he had her.

Everyone gathered around him, all talking at once, and several of them began pointing at Glory. She waved, not knowing what else to do.

Belegir raised his hands for silence.

"My friends--" he began, but they weren't listening. They'd hurried past him, to where Glory was trying to decide how stiff she was from a long jog on a short horse, and if she could dismount gracefully. All of them began talking to each other even louder than before, pointing at her and nudging each other and staring with wide round eyes.

A cold lump of anger began to grow in Glory's chest at the sight of them. These people looked to be in pretty good shape, but they were desperate all the same. Whether they had a reason to be spooked or not, they were terrified of something, and it was Glory's steadfast conviction that nobody should have to be that afraid.

What was it Belegir had said? Something about how he'd tried everyone else, and nobody else would come. Well, bugger that for a game of soldiers.

"Uh...hiya," she said. "My name is Vixen the Slayer, and I'm here to rescue you."

The Allimir cheered wildly, some throwing their caps in the air. After that, the celebrations began, and it was impossible to get Belegir alone.

* * *

The Allimir were gracious hosts. They'd provided Glory with a wagon for her own use, and she'd taken the opportunity to change out of her costume and back into jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, and to scrub most of the Max Factor off her face. Changing clothes in the cramped confines of the vardo had a number of things in common with crocodile wrestling in a phone booth, and when she came out she was hot and sweaty. Englor was waiting for her as if he were her personal assistant. He thrust a mug into her hand, and Glory discovered that no matter how short the Allimir might be, they weren't teetotalers. They brewed a strong ale (a nice change from piss-pale American beer) and an even stronger mead, as she found out when Englor led her back to where the casks were. Walking all those miles today had left her with a powerful thirst, and all of the Allimir (if Englor were any indication) seemed to have been born with a hollow leg. By the time it was fully dark and food was being served, Glory was sitting on a bench feeling pleasantly relaxed.

The Allimir, out of kindness or shyness--she wasn't sure which--were staying out of her way, but at least that meant they weren't asking questions she couldn't answer. Englor had wandered off when she wasn't looking--she could hear him somewhere in the distance; it sounded as if he were trying to teach the rest of the Allimir to sing the Vixen theme song.

She wasn't so relaxed that she wasn't keeping an eye out for Belegir, though. The two of them were going to have words. She'd found herself a nice vantage point a little distance away from the main campfire but in sight of her wagon. There was a lantern hung from the edge of the vardo's roof, and suicidal moths were flinging themselves at the small gold flame. The rest of the camp was, well, bustling. It was a peaceful moment.

"So you've decided to help us." Helevrin sat down beside her on the bench, with a quart mug of mead clutched in her sturdy fist.

Well, you are offering me this lovely free vacation and all... 

"I reckon I can at least fill in until one of your heroes shows up," Glory answered.

"No one else will come," Helevrin said flatly.

"Then they aren't much in the hero department," Glory answered solemnly, and drank. "Look here," she added, as new inspiration struck her. "You don't know what's going on here, do you, mate? Old Belegir's shy as a goat."

"He fears that to speak of Her will summon her. Myself, I don't think it makes any difference. I think She will come as She pleases, no matter what we do."

One of the children--at least Glory was guessing this was a child; it was much the shortest Allimir she'd seen so far, anyway--hurried over to them, carrying a large painted earthenware platter filled with roast meat, pancakes, and vegetables. As Glory seemed to be the largest person they had ever seen, they were feeding her accordingly: there was enough food for a family of six on the brightly painted platter.

It's like being held prisoner in a crafts fair. 

"Thank you," she said, struggling not to drop it as it was passed to her. "Run along now."

The child--Glory was more certain now--giggled and scurried off. Glory rested the hot platter on her knees and picked up a handy chunk of meat.

"So," she said, turning back to Helevrin. "Why am I here?"

"Belegir told you that when he asked for your help."

Bitch. "Well, I wasn't exactly listening. Care for some dinner?"

Helevrin was not shy about accepting. She dug in lustily, picking up one of the flat soft pancakes and using it to hold meat and onions. "You don't know why you're here--and you still agreed to help?" Helevrin asked around a mouthful of food.

"I'm stupid that way." It was a line from one of the shows, and Glory felt a guilty thrill of impersonation before quashing it ruthlessly. "But you can't deny you need help. So tell me what's going on, why don't you? It'll save me having to chase down Belegir."

Helevrin seemed to be willing to take Glory at her word.

"Five years ago we were a rich and happy people. Serenthodial was ours, from the High Hilvorns to the River Baurod. We had no reason to believe there was anything in all the world to fear--oh, there are always wolves, and winter, and a bad harvest, but those are the will of Erchane, and all must suffer them. We had no true enemies, for Cinnas the Warkiller had destroyed them all long ago...or so we thought. We did not then know that the Warmother was about to waken from her long sleep. How could we know? She had been a tale for children, to frighten them into bed, since the beginning of time. No one knew. No one believed...save Belegir.

"He had read more of the Prophecies of Cinnas than any of us, and for years he had warned us that the stars foretold that on the thousandth anniversary of Cinnas' great battle, Evil would stalk the earth once more."

Helevrin fell silent, staring into her mead.

"And did it?" Glory prompted after a while.

"Drathil burned," Helevrin said, as if that were an answer. "I was not there to see it, but that is what I heard. Great Drathil burned, and then the outlying villages, the markets and the towns, until all our people found themselves wanderers. We could not bring the harvest in from the field. We could not husband our flocks. All we could do was flee from the fires that sought us out, harrying us across the face of Serenthodial the Golden. We starved, we sickened, we died of a thousand causes. The Traveling Folk took in as many as they could, and taught us to build wagons, for the first thing we learned was that each time we tried to rebuild our villages, we made ourselves Her prey. Only so long as we move are we safe--safe to glean grain from abandoned fields and fruit from abandoned orchards, and tend such stock as remains to us, and so we have not died of hunger and lack. But when the last store of grain is gone, if any of us are left, we will die then.

"I do not think we will survive so long as that. She comes, like a wolf in the night, to take our children and our hope. She will have us all, for what Cinnas did."

"But who is she?" Glory asked.

"The Warmother," Helevrin's voice dropped to a hiss. "She whom Cinnas chained upon Elboroth-Haden of the Hilvorns a thousand years past, who now walks among us unfettered once more."

"What does she look like?" Glory asked, hoping for more information.

"Look like?" Helevrin echoed, sounding puzzled.

"Look like. Is she tall, short, what?"

"No one has ever seen the Warmother," Helevrin said, as if this were self-evident.

Glory stared at her. "You're out here running around in circles to get away from something you've never seen?"

The disbelief in her voice made Helevrin get stiffly to her feet. "You think that we are foolish children, running from shadows, yet it was no shadow that reduced Great Drathil to ash. Bide here with us, Vixen the Slayer, and you will have all the proof you require, to the last full measure." She stalked off, leaving Glory alone.

Carefully, Glory removed the half-empty platter from her knees and set it on the ground. Several of the camp dogs--big animals that looked half wolf, their golden fur stippled and barred with grey--had been sitting a few feet away, watching them as they ate. Seeing that Glory wasn't going to chase them away, they quickly made short work of the remains of the food, grumbling and growling amiably among themselves as they licked the platter clean before wandering off again.

Helevrin had left her mug behind, so Glory prudently finished off its contents, then drained her own.

This just keeps getting better. The Allimir were being chased by a monster that none of them had ever actually seen. And better yet, a monster out of their old nursery rhymes.

And exactly how am I supposed to square off against Mother Goose, hey? 

There didn't seem to be much of an answer to that.

* * *

Soon enough thereafter, the combination of a heavy meal and a long walk did their job. Her head started to droop, and Glory caught herself nodding off. Time to hit the sack. And maybe, if she were lucky, she'd wake up in some nice California hotel room tomorrow and this would all have been a really weird dream.

The wagon that the Allimir had reserved for her use had four shelf-beds, none of which was long enough for six feet of red-headed ex-gymnast to occupy comfortably. She stripped the bedding from all four and made herself a satisfactory nest on the floor. She'd slept rougher than this, God knew, back on her Dad's old sheep station. This was no hardship. She fell quickly asleep, clutching Gordon tightly to her chest.

* * *

She awoke in the middle of the night. The ground was shaking, as if beneath the impact of many hooves. Earthquake? she wondered, mind still muzzy with sleep.

Then the screaming began.

She reacted instinctively, struggling out of the wagon before she remembered where she was. The sight of the gathered vardos made her reel with the shock of recognition, as though she'd tried to mount a step that wasn't there. But the screaming--a polyphony of shouts and unearthly howls--galvanized her. She ran toward it, her bare feet pounding against the earth: six feet of red-headed gymnast wearing a Vixen T-shirt and very little else.

The night was bright with enough starlight to make it possible to find her way, and the flickering lanterns hung on the ends of the vardos provided additional aids to navigation. All around her the sleeping encampment was coming to life, but she was the only one moving. Everyone else seemed to be staying inside their wagons.

She dodged aside as one of the ponies came running at her. It had neither saddle nor rein and was running blindly, eyes wide and rolling, coat foamy with terror. When she reached the outside boundaries of the camp she saw that the herd's nightriders were all clustered together, working hard to control their frantic mounts. Some had given up trying, dismounting and freeing their animals. All were staring off into the darkness beyond the range of the torches, their bodies rigid with fear. The screaming continued now on a single maddened note; the sound a badly wounded animal might make.

Ivradan was one of those who were still mounted. A-horse, he was just above Glory's eye-level. She grabbed the front of his shirt, compelling him to look down at her.

"What's going on?" she demanded.

"She's returned. She's taken the king-stallion." She could feel him shuddering with fear, but his voice was steady and low.

"Well, aren't you going to do something?" Glory demanded. The screams were fainter now, farther apart, as if what made them was exhausted and dying.

Ivradan stared at her blankly.

Hissing with frustration and fury, Glory grabbed the torch out of his hand. If she couldn't save the beast, she could at least chase the predator away from its meal. She had no doubt that was what it was--catamount or dingo, either one capable of hamstringing a pony and then devouring it alive. She released Ivradan with a jerk that made his pony lunge and sidle, and ran toward the sound. She wished, now, that she'd asked him for a knife--she'd have to do something to put the poor beast out of its misery.

On the short-grazed grass it was easy to spot the body as soon as the light from her torch fell on it. And what she saw then stopped her in her tracks.

The gallant little pony stallion had fought--the churned earth around the body was testament to the battle it had lost. It was dead now beyond doubt.

And someone had flayed it alive. Nothing else could account for the sounds she had heard. She stood over the body. Its skin had been pulled away as a woman might remove a glove. The exposed flesh bore no mark at all, no other wound to account for its death. And the body was completely intact.

No animal killed like this. No person, no matter how twisted, could skin a healthy horse alive and leave no trace of how it was done--not in the time that had passed since she heard the first screams. There wasn't a drop of blood anywhere, just as there was no wound on the body. And around the body, nothing but hoof marks. No predator's tracks to let her know what had killed here.

Glory stood staring down at the body, her mind empty with shock, until the torch burned low and spit fat sparks onto the back of her hand. The pain made her startle and wince, and she looked back over her shoulder, to where the nightriders were clustered anxiously, staring out at her unmoving.

Her senses returned: she heard the call of an unfamiliar night-bird, the rustle of the wind through the grass. She smelled wood-smoke and dung and the ripe meaty scent of the stallion's flayed body. The world seemed vast and empty and very quiet. She glanced up at the sky, at the unfamiliar bright wash of stars, and saw, with a slow spasm of disbelief, the chain of toylike pastel moons that arced across the sky. How could she possibly know what kind of monsters stalked the night in a world where all the ground rules of Reality could be rewritten this way?

She looked back at the nightriders again. Belegir had joined them, his pink robe a bright splash of pale color. This was their world. They knew its rules. Why hadn't any of them come out to see what was wrong? They had knives--she'd seen them earlier--so they must have swords. Spears. Arrows. Some way to protect the herd animals.

But at the first sign of trouble, they'd...run. Bolted for the safety of the wagons and left the animals to fend for themselves.

It made no sense. Any stockman worth his salt would guard his herd--and from what Helevrin said, these animals were all they had. They were precious beyond price. And they had herd-dogs. She'd seen them earlier. Yet she'd heard nothing bark. Where was the rest of the herd? Where were the other animals?

Scattered from hell to breakfast, more than likely, and the devil's own job to round them up again with the few mounts they had left. But that wasn't her problem.

Was it?

She shrugged, and began walking slowly back to the ring of wagons, the guttering torch held well away from her body. All they needed to round out the evening would be a nice grass-fire, she didn't think. It was cold out here--she noticed it now--and the grass stubble was slick and sharp beneath her feet. She hadn't thought when she'd been so rudely awakened. She'd just gone barging in without a backward thought. It was just what Vixen would have done--but of course, Vixen slept fully clothed, in deference to the tender sensibilities of Broadcast Standards and Practices.

Ah, well. Likely they've seen a naked sheila in their time, Glory thought philosophically. And as for you, gel, do try to remember that you AREN'T a superhero. You just play one on telly. You keep trying stunts like this and someone's going to prove it to you sure. 

When she got back to the riders, Belegir came forward to meet her. He looked desperately afraid--and guilty, like a man who knew too much about what had just happened.

"Something got your stallion. Skinned it like a rabbit," she added brutally.

Belegir winced. "She toys with us," he said mournfully. "But you--you would have remonstrated with her." He gazed at her in wonder, as though running into the night half-cocked was right up there with Gallipoli.

"You're not right in the head," Glory told him simply. She turned away and headed for her wagon. She'd been thinking before that the Allimir had just been spooked by a run of bad luck, but now she wasn't so sure.

Belegir followed her, babbling like a man who hopes he won't be asked hard questions. "Does this mean...? You've said you would help us, but it isn't right that you should face such peril as this without-- We must go to the Oracle at once, as soon as it is light--we must discover Erchane's will in this before something bad happens to you."

"Something bad's already happened," Glory said, stopping. But it wasn't her, it was Vixen who turned back and smiled at him, lips stretched back in a mocking grin.

"Sure, I'll go see your oracle," she drawled. "And then I'm going to find whatever was out there tonight and peel it like a onion. If you're a good boy, I'll let you help."

Belegir uttered a small dismayed bleat and reached out as if to soothe her.

Vixen smiled. "Aw, c'mon, Belegir. You wanna live forever?"