Staggering, Vamps emerged from the gleaming crystal pillars. He stumbled across the cold, dusty ground, fell to his knees, and vomited. He looked back over his shoulder when he was done, his eyes haunted and lips quivering. Muradin was nowhere to be seen. Confronted with a truth the likes of which Vamps had seen, he wasn’t sure he was better off escaping. Maybe it would have been better for him to stay in the ter’angreal and be cremated, or whatever. He wouldn’t have had to live with … with that laughter. That awful, merry, mindless laughter.
He straightened, and looked around with his new eyes. He saw a strange thing slumped under the Tree of Life. It was strange and awful. Only upon creeping closer did he realise that it was Chucky, with his head embedded in the bloated bag of a brand-new set of bagpipes. He was motionless in his fluttering gleeman’s cloak, and the spidery lengths of the drones extending over his head were somehow terrifying. His hands were clutched in the dark tartan of the bag itself, and he looked to be completely dead.
“Chucky?” Vamps whispered, wondering if there was anything he could do. The question was, did he want to do anything?
But if he didn’t do anything, and left Chucky here to die … well, to remain dead, could he ever forgive himself?
But if there was something he could do, wasn’t it his duty as an American to do it?
He looked down at his arms, and shuddered. No.
If he left Chucky here, wouldn’t it just look like he’d left him here out of spite?
Well, yeah. But who cared? It was no more than the asshole deserved.
“Are you going to mutter to yourself all day, or are you going to let me out of here?”
Chucky drummed his fingers on the tartan. Vamps looked down at the stricken gleeman for a long time.
“Was I … talking out loud just then?”
“And you heard me?”
“Whether or not to leave me here. Yes.”
Vamps sat quietly for another few moments, an internal struggle between Puddin Taim’s horrified embarrassment and Muffin Vamps’s towering ego rendering him briefly nullified. Then he leaned forward.
“How do I open this thing?”
“There should be a loop of hemp sealing the bag around my neck. Just unpick it.”
“Hemp? You mean like the drug?”
“No, like waxed string. You can’t smoke it. Well, you can, but it’s bad. Trust me. Just unpick it, without the externalising this time if possible. Thank you.”
Vamps did so, and Chucky lurched upright, breathing deeply and wiping thick brown bag-dressing off his face. He turned and looked at Vamps. He looked at Vamps’s arms.
“Why have you got Union Jacks-”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Can we go now?”
Together, the gleeman and the Car’a’carn stumbled out of Rhuidean.
“Agh! Take it off! It burns! It burns us!”
Mister C of 9 looked back at Gollum with haunted shadows in his sunglasses. The skinny creature was making a terrible scene, of course, but it was only to be expected. Sam had pulled a rope from his pack, and managed to tie their struggling attacker. It was obviously some sort of Lothlorien rope, because it was having the expected effect.
Or it might have been the little collection of trinkets Sam had fixed to the rope, so that with every sudden movement, several of them brushed Gollum’s skin with nasty little hisses.
“It burns us! It freezes!”
“Us?” Sam – Logain – said in a puzzled, irritated voice. “What do you mean, ‘us’?”
“Us! Gholam! Gholam! It burns us gholam!”
“Man, even for Jordan this is derivative,” Mister C muttered.
They hadn’t been making very good time, considering their prisoner. However, the pathetic Cooper Two (the ‘Two’, Mister C thought, clearly representing the twinned personalities of Sméagol and Gollum in some clumsy plagiaristic manner) had redeemed himself in a small way, by delivering several useful things to the troubled hobbits. Mister C of 9 had taken possession of what was clearly the Horn of Gondor, and Logain had been thrilled to find a glitzy crystal sword slung across Gollum’s back. When he touched the glossy sword, a lot of his despondency seemed to slide away and he became his usual cheerful, optimistic self. He’d pulled out his other sword, which was more or less exactly the same, and looked at them both for a while. Then he’d decided to keep them both, just in case. He’d offered them to his master, of course, but Mister C of 9 had his trusty Stormbringer Sting Snaga, and needed no other weapon.
So even though they were lost, tired, hopeless and in grave danger, they were well-provisioned.
“He’s going to bring every trolloc in … every orc in Mordor down on us, Mister See,” Logain said carefully, remembering his Great Lord’s instructions about what certain things were called. “Even before we get to the Bli … the Black Gate.”
“If you take these things off me, I’ll stop yelling about the pain,” Coop said slowly, “on account of there being no pain anymore.”
“He’ll try and kill us,” Logain said. “I don’t trust this slinker one little bit, Mister See.”
“We just have to appeal to his better nature,” Mister C of 9 stepped over to Gollum, and looked down at him with pity. Gollum looked up hopefully. A little trinket that looked like an 8-ball on a chain slid up the rope and settled on his neck with a hiss. He yelped and slapped it away.
“If I untie you, will you help us, Sméagol?” he asked quietly.
“Look, I think I can see my way to forgetting about my mission protocols for now,” the lanky creature said. “I mean, he’s not even my primary target, being a Dragon impersonator and all. The real Dragon’s over there somewhere,” he waved a hand vaguely northwards, “in Tar Valon, I think. Lots of interference, and I haven’t got access to intel from base command. In fact, there is no base command, hah. Anyway, we’re both heading in the same direction, aren’t we?”
Mister C gave Logain a glance, and his faithful servant nodded.
“North,” he said stoutly. “Over the Mountains of Dhoom.”
“I’ll let you go, Gollum,” Mister C said, “if you swear not to harm us. And if you swear to guide us on our way.”
Cooper Two seemed to weigh up the choices.
“Sure, I swear,” he said. “Whatever. You can even call me Smearballs, or whatever it was.”
“That’s not enough, Sméagol,” Mister C said heavily. “You have to swear on the precious.”
Cooper Two glanced at Logain, wondering if maybe the comparatively stable male channeler would protect him from the clearly Thakan’dar-feverish myrddraal. Logain just frowned balefully and fingered the two Callandor hilts. “The what?” Coop asked.
The gaunt halfman pulled the One Seal from his robe. Since leaving Tear with the howling Gollum dragging along behind, he had figured out a way of wearing it as a sort of medallion, with a lot of string wrapping and loops around his neck and back around the awkward disc-shaped lump. Coop looked at the mass of twine warily.
“What’s that, then?”
Mister C tugged away some of the string. Cooper Two gasped.
“That looks like cuendillar. Do you want me to swear on it?”
“It’s the only oath that will mean anything from you, Gollum.”
Coop shrugged again, and lifted his hand. “I swear on the, um, precious then,” he said, and added helpfully, “may my oath last as long as this piece of really hard shit from the Age of Legends does. Now, where are we going? Mountains of Dhoom, did you say?”
“Yes,” Mister C sighed. “We are taking the One Seal to Mordor.”
“Ahhhhh,” Gollum nodded. “He a cuendillar dealer?”
“Shayol Ghul,” Logain said gently. “We’re taking it to the mountain of fire.”
“Ah. Giving it to the Great Lord, eh? Good plan. Best thing to do with it, really.”
“We won’t let it fall into Sauron’s hands,” Mister C disagreed sternly.
“Right. Good idea. What’s he look like, this Sauron? Is he a cuendillar dealer?”
“You’ll know him if you see him. We’re going to take the Seal to Shayol Ghul to be destroyed.”
“Great. If anyplace can destroy cuendillar, it’s Shayol Ghul. And this Sauron guy’ll try to stop it from happening. Probably doesn’t want the Seal to be destroyed, is my guess.”
“He’ll want to take the Seal for himself, and use its power to subvert all the other Seals.”
“Sounds like a bit of a twit to me, this Sauron.”
“We’ve lingered long enough,” Mister C tucked the One Seal back into his robe and straightened. “Take the rope off him, Sam.”
Logain dutifully released Cooper Two, who stretched and rubbed at his burns.
“You know a good quick way to get to the Borderlands?” the gholam remarked. “Portal Stone.”