Verse 18: KNOCK ON WOOD
While Lex and the Robinettes dined on fine seafood, Buzz and Woody made do with a diet of frustration and beer. Buzz had never been invited over to the house, and thus didn't know where it was. He drove around for over an hour, looking for a pay phone with a non-vandalized phone book. When he finally found one by an abandoned gas station in Groton, he liberated it himself. Unfortunately for him, as he leaned against the cargo bed to thumb through the volume, he discovered the Robinettes had a unpublished number, hence no address listing.
Woody lifted a corner of the tarp and peered out. "Where Elf?" he asked.
"BFE, for all I know!" Buzz threw the book to the ground in disgust.
"You finish that?" Woody inquired.
Buzz retrieved the directory. "Here. Go to town." He tossed the book to Woody, who stuffed it in its face.
"More beer?" it asked.
"We're out," Buzz groused. Woody's appetite was disturbing. It had gone through over half a case, each time swallowing the entire can and commenting, "Good. Crunchy."
"More beer!" Woody insisted.
"All right!" Buzz got back inside and drove off in search of a party store with a less-than-perfect security system. "Jee-zus! This guy's worse than Thurber," he told himself.
At last they found the Robinette house through trial and mainly error. Buzz drove up and down every street off Noank Road until he finally saw a mailbox marked Robinette. By then it was a little after eight. He parked down the street and, once he was sure no one was watching, roused Woody.
"Come on!" he ordered. "I found the house."
Using the cover of trees as much as possible, they made their way towards Gloria's home. Every time he heard a car coming, Buzz told Woody to stand still, then hid behind the Troll. This added several minutes to the operation, but at long last they came to the house's seaward side. Through the closed glass doors, they could see the family eating.
"There he is!" Buzz announced in a stage whisper. "There's Elf! Go get him!" Woody, standing at the deck's edge behind three maples, refused to budge. Buzz nudged him, scraping the skin on his elbow. "What's the hang up?"
"Window." Woody pointed at the closed sliding doors. "No break." Had they been in Novagrove, where windowpanes were made of cheap, reliable, ageless diamond, that assumption would have been warranted. On Earth, where easily shattered glass was the norm, the Robinettes' deck door would have offered precious little resistance. Woody, quite understandably, did not know that.
"Sure you can!" Buzz insisted. "It's easy! I break glass all the time!"
"Go ahead," Woody retorted. It folded its branches across its trunk and embedded its roots in the soil. Buzz's further entreaties fell on deaf whatever the Troll used for ears. Woody clearly intended to wait for Elf to come to outside. Buzz, bowing to the inevitable, sat at the base of Woody's trunk, and popped another brewski. By the time the contestants reached Seoul, man and Troll were both asleep.
What roused Woody was the sound of the doors opening. What roused Buzz was his head hitting the ground when Woody climbed onto the deck to pulverize its enemy. Buzz crawled to the edge of the deck on elbows and knees so he could be ringside for the slaughter.
Lying on his back on the deck, his head still ringing from the force of his assailant's first blow, Lex cursed himself for underestimating the Forest Troll's regenerative abilities. There was no time for recriminations, though. Just before the Troll fell upon him, he cast Stone Skin on himself. At once, his outer epidermal layers thickened and hardened to the density of granite. It was a stopgap measure, to be sure, but would (hopefully) reduce the damage he sustained somewhat. Still, the force of the Troll's impact drove the air from his lungs and he felt his ribcage compress as Loud's weight drove him into the planks of the deck. Thankfully, the Troll, in trying to crush its smaller opponent, had made punching or grappling Lex that much harder.
Still, it would figure that out sooner or later, and that meant the next order of business was to get the Troll as far away from Gloria and the children as possible, before it stood back up and began flailing wildly. Repulsion Wave seemed to be the obvious choice, especially since it would get the Troll off of him and let him catch his breath, but it was a directional spell, requiring space in which to aim the palm of his hand in the Troll's direction and right at that moment he couldn't have hit fit a very thin sheet of paper between the Troll's trunk and his own chest. He considered blasting it to one side or the other, but with Loud trying to crush him he had no way of knowing where the Robinettes were standing and he couldn't risk blasting the Troll into them.
Another – admittedly insane – option presented itself and he grabbed it. "All of you! Get back!" he grunted with the last of his air, twisting away from one of Loud's punches as best he could. Placing both palms flat against the deck, and thinking, This is really, really going to hurt, he triggered the spell.
Repulsion Wave normally causes the caster's palms to emit a concussive pulse that flings whatever it touches away from the caster. The effect dissipates over a relatively short distance, but if he'd been able to target the Troll, it would have been thrown a dozen spans straight up into the air. However, upon reaching that height, gravity would have reasserted its authority and the Troll would have immediately plummeted directly back on top of the caster, to wit, the Minstrel. Whether he could have evaded this falling chunk of hardwood is open to conjecture.
By shifting the focus of the Repulsion Wave to the deck, Lex poured all that concussive force into a immovable platform. The upshot of his action was exactly that: the twin pulses, unable to move the deck, moved the caster and, with a crunching sound, both combatants shot up into the air on a parabolic trajectory. At its apex, the two separated. Woody, being the heavier, inscribed a shorter arc and crashed into the top of the chainlink fence that separated the backyard from the precipitous drop to the beach. The fence bent and Woody tumbled down the cliff face. Lex, much lighter, went significantly higher and farther, and reflexively cast Soft Landing before he struck the ground. This proved unwise. The beach, like the dumpster, absorbed the impact's force but, being sand, sprayed in all directions from the point where Lex landed. He ended up in a shallow crater that began to fill with seawater almost at once.
Panic struck like a mailed fist. In the minimal moonlight, he could only tell where the threat lay and he proceeded to claw his way in the other direction.
Light! he thought desperately. I need light! Yet try as he might, he could not remember the spell’s keyword. Calm yourself!, an inner voice commanded. It is a simple conjuration, one any Junior Apprentice could perform. Deep slow breaths, dammit!
A ball of pure radiance blazed into existence two spans above his head and at once everything became clear. Behind him lay the sea and all it represented. In front of him, barring any avenue of escape, stood one extremely unsociable Troll. He was, in common parlance, well and truly fubarred.
Gloria, Hannah, and Nate – disregarding Lex's admonition to get out of harm's way – instead chose to rush for the fence to see what was happening and offer support, advice, and warnings. Once the field of battle was illuminated by Lex's spell, they regretted that decision. The tide of battle did not favor the side for which they were rooting. Lex dodged, leapt, and generally avoided the monster's attacks, but could not get past. Laser beams and ripples of air hit the Troll, but as far as they could tell, Lex's best efforts were having little effect.
Nate cupped his hands around his mouth. "Incinerate the sucker, Lex!!" he yelled as loud as he could.
Gloria, standing beside him, her fingers tight on the chain links, shook her head. "He can't!" she cried.
"Why the hell not?" Nate demanded.
"He doesn't know any fire magic!" Gloria wailed. Hannah was in tears, barely breathing.
Nate looked at both of them. His jaw tightened, "Well, I do," he stated. He turned and ran towards the house. Gloria and Hannah didn’t even notice.
"I've got to help him," Gloria announced, running for the stairway gate.
Hannah followed at her heels. "But how?" she called.
Gloria's fingers twirled the combination lock's dial. "I don't know, honey, but I just can't stand here and do nothing. If I can get him some wood, maybe he can make another spear. That worked once. Damn!" She’d missed the combination and had to start over. "I'll tear the railing off the staircase if I have to!"
Nate knew exactly what he needed. He ran to the liquor cabinet, quickly scanned the contents, then seized a half-full bottle of Absolut. Next stop, the kitchen, where he put the bottle down, took a dishtowel from the drying rack, then threw it aside. "Too wet!" he muttered. He pulled a drawer out. It crashed to the floor and rags and cloths flew all around. He bent down, grabbed one, gripped it tight, and yanked. It refused to rip. He took a filleting knife from a wooden block and poked a hole in the fabric. The towel tore easily on his next attempt. Setting the freshly torn strip in the sink, he opened the bottle and soaked the cloth with vodka. He then grabbed a box of Calgon from under the sink. Opening the spout, he poured the powder into the bottle. Granules went everywhere, but enough fell inside for his purposes. Putting his thumb over the top, he shook the Absolut vigorously. Finally, he took the drenched strip of cloth, stuffed it into the opening and went looking for matches.
Gloria managed to get the gate open and started down the stairs but Hannah hung back, unsure of what she could do to help. Suddenly Nate was beside her, shoving a box of Blue Diamond matches into her hands.
"Light one!" he barked. "Hurry!"
Hannah started, glanced at the bottle in his other hand, and understood. Taking the box, she pushed on one end. As luck would have it, Nate had handed her the box with the tray upside down. Most of the matches tumbled into the dark grass and disappeared. Two remained inside when she righted the container. She fumbled for one.
"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!" Nate urged. He glanced below. Gloria, at the foot of the staircase, was pulling vainly at the handrail. Lex was still evading, but looked tired and out of ideas.
"I'm trying," Hannah shot back. She struck a match against the rough strip on the box's side. The wood snapped and the head flew off. "Shit!" she yelled, taking the last match.
"Not so hard this time," Nate counseled.
She bit her lower lip and slowly but firmly struck the sole remaining match. The head sparked. A dot of blue spread and soon the tip was solid flame. She held it out to her brother, who dangled the trailing end of the soaked rag in the flame. Fire flared up the length of the fuse. Holding the bottle at arm's length, Nate ran to the landing. Lex was trying to climb the almost sheer cliff and the Troll lashed at his legs and torso. Gloria was still tugging at the obstinate rail.
"Fire in the hole!" Nate screamed, then threw the Molotov cocktail.
His aim was true. The bottle hit the Troll's head and shattered. The alcohol-glycerol mixture burned bright yellow as it spread over the target's leaves and branches, and seeped down the crevices in its bark. Woody's scream was unlike anything any of them had ever heard.
The Troll thrashed about, flailing its limbs, trying to move them faster than the flames could follow. All thought of the Minstrel fled before the tidal wave of pain that drowned every cellulose fiber of its being. There were two possible methods of extinguishing the flames available, and it instinctively chose the wrong one. Instead of rolling around in the sand, it plunged into the water.
Woody's hyperefficient root system proved its undoing. The salt water coursed through every vein and capillary, searing as it went. Like salt poured onto a freshly cut tree stump, the saline content of Fisher's Island Sound snuffed out the Forest Troll's life-force, cell by cell by cell. The flames died, to be sure, but their victim followed close behind. By the time Nate and Hannah reached their sister, who cradled Lex in her arms, all that remained of the Troll once known as Loud was just so much driftwood
Buzz could not believe his eyes or ears. For that matter, he was not all that sure of his nose, tongue, legs, or bladder. He kept expecting a bearded director to descend on a crane and yell "Cut!" Dazed and confused, Buzz had missed most of the early action, before Woody's Inhuman Cannonball act. After that, things made even less sense. And when the little bastard connected with his homemade firebomb, Buzz knew Woody would definitely not be returning for the sequel. Once the Robinettes had taken the stairway down, Buzz decided to make a strategic withdrawal.
Buzz ran back for the trees where he had left the beer, which he promptly tripped over in the dark. He went sprawling, his nose missing the deck by inches. When he lifted his head, a creature even stranger than Woody awaited him. There, at eye level, stood the world's largest rat, except instead of a rat head it had saucer-shaped eyes and tentacles coming out of its mouth. Buzz knew that when it started coming down this heavy, it was time buy a cowboy hat and get out of Dodge. Abandoning the beers, he struggled to his feet and split.
Warlock put down his squeaky rubber spider and watched the smelly man's departure with mild interest and disappointment. No treat? he thought, then headed back inside the house to gather the rest of his menagerie.
Lex was, in media-friendly terms, in dire need of an extreme makeover. His shirt hung in shreds and was missing a sleeve. Mud, sand, and seaweed covered him; his exposed skin was scratched raw and streaked with blood. He clung to Gloria, his face buried in the crook of her neck, whimpering pitifully. She patted his head, offering words of solace and comfort. She sensed his guilt and shame, gratitude and anger, fear and relief, and that special emotion women will never quite fathom triggered by perceived failure to live up to the indefinable standards of masculinity. Gloria held on and let it all flow over her. Truly, she had no choice.
After an eternity, Lex lifted his head, and looked past Gloria to the children, standing a respectful distance away. "Did you – ?"
"Yeah, that was us." Nate nodded. "Hannah lit it. I threw it."
"Thank you for my life," he sighed. "You are true heroes. A better balladeer than myself would celebrate your valor in song."
Nate felt ten feet tall and somehow very small at the same time. He shook his head, flushing with pride and embarrassment. "Yeah, well… You would have done the same for us."
"I think I'll forego the ‘Playing With Matches’ lecture just this once," Gloria said with the merest hint of irony. "How did you two learn to make a Molotov Cocktail?"
Hannah deferred to her brother. "Comic books," he admitted.
"And you said they weren't educational," he added.
"Looks like I'll have to revise my assessment," Gloria conceded. She returned her attention to Lex. "Are you injured? Tell me honestly."
"Not badly," he replied. "I can stand." He tried to, then grimaced. "With a little help."
Between the three of them, the Robinettes aided Lex up the stairs and back into the family room. Hannah stopped to pick up Warlock, defiantly guarding a spider, three hedgehogs, and an octopus, all in a line. The ferret looked as if he were waiting to be given some kind of award.
Gloria pulled Lex towards the downstairs bathroom. "First we have to get you out of those wet, dirty clothes," she told him, "Then get you cleaned up." She let go of his arm and opened the linen closet. Lex lifted each foot in turn and removed his boots. Long scratches marred both and one was missing a heel. He pulled the remains of his shirt off and slid his trousers to his ankles.
Gloria turned around with clean towels in her hands. "You can use the shower in Tully's – Oh my God!" Based on all the unusual things she had seen over the past couple days, the sight of Lex standing naked in her hallway should have been way down on her ‘Oh-My-God!’ list. After all, she was a med student for Pete's sake. Still, there he was: battered, bruised, and bedraggled but still magnificent for all that.
Hannah, standing behind Lex, let out a small shrill "Eep!" which set Nate to snickering, both at the Minstrel's butt-nekkidness and his little sister's embarrassed reaction. Gloria hastily wrapped a bath sheet around Lex's mid-section and pushed him towards the bathroom. She turned on the shower, ascertained that he knew how to operate it, and gave him a few quick pointers about Americans' conflicting attitudes regarding nudity. She offered to find him a robe, but he said he had one in his purse. By the time she returned with it, wondering how the relatively small bag contained a garment that could adequately cover his lanky frame, Lex was lathering up. She left the bag where he could find it and closed the door behind her.
Lex emerged roughly twenty minutes later, still toweling his long, loose hair. To all appearances, the shower had done him a world of good. His facial abrasions were still noticeable, but less so and Gloria had to look twice to ascertain where his lip had been split. No one, though, had to look more than once to appreciate his change of dress. Lex had donned a long robe which, although it concealed all that needed to be concealed, still offended modesty, albeit in an entirely different way. Metallic royal blue in color, it was lavishly trimmed with a wavy lattice pattern of silver and gold on the sleeves and hem and emblazoned with a brilliant yellow starburst on the breast pocket. A braided gold-and-silver rope cinched it at the waist. It easily drew every eye in the room and Gloria wondered briefly if batteries were included.
Lex noticed their stares, much to his discomfort. "What? Have I transgressed some other taboo regarding attire?"
"No, no," responded Gloria. "You just look like you're graduating from the University of California at Ostentatious. That robe is quite the fashion statement."
"This?" He picked an imaginary piece of lint from one flowing sleeve. "It was a gift from M'taressa Opgar. She owns the best public baths in Yorvadan. I entertained the bathers there for a week and she wanted to show her appreciation. It is not exactly my taste, but she was very sweet and I could not refuse. It would have insulted her."
"I have some sweaters like that," Hannah commiserated.
"Sit your resplendent self down," Gloria invited. "I'll get you some coffee. Irish coffee. I think it couldn't hurt."
Lex started in her direction, but stopped. "I left my badge and purse behind. I shall be right back." He turned around, revealing the design on the robe's back: a sylvan glade where three nude buxom nymphs cavorted in a pond beneath the same starburst design. This time, it was Hannah's turn to snicker as Nate turned three shades of scarlet. Gloria could only groan.
"Are we having an invasion of Forest Trolls?" Nate asked when Lex returned and had a chance to drink some of the liberally spiked brew. "Or was that the same one you fought before?"
"The same," Lex answered. "I recognized it by its fervent desire to take my life. As a rule, Forest Trolls do not go off on such rampages. This one bore me a very specific, if wholly unjustified grudge."
"No offense, but didn't you say you killed it yesterday?" Hannah inquired.
"He did!" Gloria insisted. "I saw it explode!"
Lex hung his head. "Clearly I misjudged its regenerative powers."
"Well duh!" Nate snorted derisively. "What a rookie mistake!"
"Nate, be nice," Hannah warned. "Lex may not have read the strategy guide."
Nate continued that line of questioning. "Will it stay dead this time, and how can we be sure?"
"I will look it up." Lex rolled back his sleeve, exposing the spellengine. He mentally activated it and a large and partly transparent viewall popped into existence. At once it filled with strange writing. "Designate Language: Ganta," he commanded and the letters changed to a fair approximation of English. It read: Codex Imperia. Awaating inqwiree.
Lex addressed the screen. "How do I permanently prevent regeneration of a deceased Forest Troll?"
An illustration appeared, accompanied by text. Everyone crowded around to see the screen. "Voice output." Lex commanded.
A voice uncannily like James Earl Jones's came from all around them. "The key to a Forest Troll's regeneration lies in its heartstone, located in its trunk below the oral cavity." A portion of the picture glowed dark green. "Impervious to fire and most magics, the simplest methods of destroying the heartstone and thus preventing regeneration are as follows: (1) dismemberment with axe or other sharp implement; (2) acid, in sufficient concentration to char the inner husk; (3) crushing with a sledge or other heavy weight; (4) encasement in molten iron, copper, or nickel; (5) immersion in quicksilver. Note: Forest Trolls are proto-sentient beings and thus individuals might be deemed persons in the legal sense, possibly even Citizens of the Imperius or other polities. Unjustified destruction of a Forest Troll's heartstone is a criminal act. If the Forest Troll has papers of Personship or Citizenship, killing it is considered murder, a High Crime subject to the penalties prescribed by law. Consult local executive or theocratic authorities before executing these instructions."
"I'm on it," Nate volunteered. "The law can't touch me; I'm a minor." He left and soon reappeared wearing safety goggles and heavy work gloves and carrying a small Stihl chainsaw.
"Do you need help?" asked Gloria.
"Nah, this should be easy as falling off a log, hee hee. We should have plenty of firewood once winter comes. Get the floodlights for me, would you, brainiac?"
"Only if I can watch," said Hannah with a grin.
"Aren't you the sick, twisted little puppy!" Nate responded with a touch of admiration in his voice.
"It's purely out of a sense of scientific curiosity," she protested.
"Suuuuuure it is. Okay, you can observe from a safe distance. But no samples."
As her siblings headed off to play Destroy the Evidence, Gloria decided this was an opportune moment to check Lex's battle wounds. While he’d showered, she'd retrieved a well-stocked first aid kit from the closet. Lex might look more-or-less recovered, but some disinfectant and a sterile dressing or two might be in order. She mentioned this to Lex, who thought such attentions unnecessary, but after she insisted he capitulated. Setting down his mug, he stood before her and removed his robe.
Gloria, who had caught only a glimpse of his nudity prior to covering it up before it gave Hannah unfair expectations and Nate an inferiority complex, now had time to appreciate Lex in all his glory. He reminded her of Michelangelo's David, only moreso and without all the showy muscles. Not that Lex was anything less than perfect. His smooth gymnast's form was finely chiseled and his skin without blemish. As she examined his chest and abdomen for abrasions and contusions, she could feel the wiry strength beneath the skin. Lex did not have the classic six-pack abs or bulging pecs, but there was a tight, lithe quality to his well-defined musculature.
She recalled something Zoot had told her, hours earlier, in the privacy of her office. "Beauty is more than skin deep with that man."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Gloria had asked, not entirely certain she wanted more explicit details, but curious despite herself.
"It means that Lex is not just pretty. He's pretty great. In fact, he makes pretty great look pretty mediocre." Zoot declined to divulge any further. Instead, she insinuated that Gloria's outburst implied she must want a slice of that for herself. "Don't worry, girlfriend," Zoot told her, ignoring her protestations of disinterest. "There's plenty left."
"She got that right," Gloria mused, directing Lex to turn around so she could check his back. Despite the ferocity of the fight, she was hard-pressed to find any spot where her medical training was needed.
"Are you sure you're not part Troll?" she joked. "You seem to be regenerating before my eyes."
"I do heal quickly and almost never bruise. I doubt I’m any different in that regard than other Imperials. Tully is here."
"Where?" Gloria turned around. For a second, she felt like she was in some lame sitcom where two characters are engaged in something perfectly innocent but outwardly open to other interpretations. Such scenes almost always involve a third person bursting in, with misunderstanding and laugh-tracked hilarity ensuing. But Tully was nowhere in evidence.
"He just came in," Lex answered. "I can hear him in his room."
"You have very sharp ears; I didn't hear a thing except Nate working his own brand of magic with the chainsaw." She helped him put his robe back on. "You look fine to me."
When Tully rolled in to ask where the youngsters were, everything was quite un-sitcom-like. He seemed totally unsurprised to find Lex sitting around in a robe, but did ask if it came with one of those pinhole boxes used to view an eclipse. Tully and Gloria were discussing the next week's food order when Nate and Hannah traipsed back in.
"What's with the chainsaw?" Tully asked.
"Dead tree," Nate semi-explained and went off to return the tool to its place in the garage. When he got back, Gloria told him and Hannah that, since they were heading out on Marcy's dad's boat early in the morning, they should scoot off to bed. Hannah kissed everyone goodnight while Nate tried, without success, to get another look at the back of Lex's robe. Once they were gone, Tully said he was going to get ready for bed, too.
"Are you going to sleep, Tully?" Lex asked.
"Not for hours. It takes me a while to get myself set and then I usually read and listen to music for a bit. I just got the latest King book." Gloria went over to kiss his cheek and he tousled her hair. "You kids behave out here," he teased, then rolled to the bathroom.
Once the two of them were alone, Lex finally had an opportunity to go over his Ask Gloria list, most of it derived from things he overheard in the tavern. Most, she said, were pop culture references not worth the time it would take to explain them. The Red Sox were a sports team, not footwear, and despite the gerund that often preceded their name in conversation there was no sexual component to their gameplay. The same applied to the country's leaders. Lex expressed confusion, not over how a Ganta word meaning to dig postholes came to have sexual connotation, but not why Gloria's patrons insisted on using it as an all-purpose pejorative.
Gloria shrugged, then did her best to describe the intricacies of American government, but soon realized that Lex could not wrap his brain around even as fundamental a concept as democracy. He refused to believe that leadership roles could be filled solely on the basis of popularity rather than merit. They spent an informative, if sometimes frustrating, hour before Gloria announced that she had a big day ahead. "So do you, Mr. Minstrel. Do you want me to make up the couch for you? It's a futon and folds out."
Lex informed her that he would not need sleep for another Earth day, if that. He had plenty to do until morning, though, and was looking forward to some alone time to meditate.
"Time to get your head together, we say," Gloria told him.
"Something like that," he agreed, and bid her goodnight.
Alone, Lex contemplated his planned departure from this realm, making a mental list of the experiences and memories he would take with him. He regretted the need to leave so soon, but chaos was inherently unpredictable, and there were absolutely no guarantees that there would be more than one chance to effect a reverse transit. For that matter, he grimaced, expecting the portal to reappear ever again was a supreme act of faith on his part. Or wishful thinking. What if he was marooned here forever? It was the all-important question, but he set it aside. Tonight he had other uses for his mind.
Lex knelt on the floor, bent his head, and slowed his breathing to a level that would have been the envy of a Zen Prana Master, if Zen Prana Masters were the type of people who felt envy. The world outside fell away. All that remained was mind and spirit. Lex wandered the corridors of consciousness and sat beside a reflecting pool. He rolled in a mental pebble, then watched the ripples flow back and forth, intersecting, intertwining, and waited for the surface to return to an absolutely placid state. Only when it had did his inner avatar stand and head for the wing of his mind devoted to magic. He stopped in the room of Form first, where he emptied several small matrices of mana and dismantled them. Then, carrying the mana with him in a small crystal jug, he went down a long hall to a seldom-visited room marked Pain.
Lex had not wanted to study Pain Magic as a Senior Apprentice, but Master Roberlein had been adamant. "A Minstrel must know Pain like a child knows Wonder. It is a universal constant and music is all about the constants. Sometimes, people want to be hurt, so they feel that much better when it stops."
He opened the door, which creaked on its metaphorical hinges. He spent a long time there, building and checking and checking again before he was satisfied with his handiwork. He closed the door and walked the pathways until the palace lay far behind him. He would have to return soon enough to perform other tasks, but he was ready for what he had to accomplish in the short term.
In the material world, Lex's breath quickened and returned to normal. He opened his eyes. In purely temporal terms, less than an hour had passed, although he felt like he had labored much longer. Lex took several cleansing breaths, stood, and walked over to the glass doors. Opening one, he stepped outside into the night. He walked across the deck, stepped to the ground, and traversed the yard to the fence. He sensed the sea before him, tasted its harsh metal tang, heard its dark insistent whispers, and glimpsed but the merest fraction of its vast, unknowable peril. But more than that, he knew it was there, would always be there, and would always emerge victorious. That knowledge brought with it a rising tide of anxiety that threatened to overwhelm him. He shut his eyes tight against the fear, and standing on the precipice, invoked the Gods, asking their blessings, their support, their understanding.
Slowly the panic ebbed, until all that was left was the primal, untouchable, but mostly ignorable, dread. He turned from the fence, walked back inside, and slid the door shut. Walking over to the liquor cabinet, he chose a bottle labeled Laphroaig and took it in trembling hand. Moments later he stood before the closed door. He stood there for a very long minute before knocking.
"Come in," a voice called from the other side. Lex opened the door and looked at Tully, lit by a bedside lamp.
"What's on your mind, kiddo?" Tully peered at Lex over his reading glasses, setting down his book. "Pardon my Bulgarian, but you look like crap." By way of answer, Lex held up the bottle. "That bad, huh?"
Lex wiped his eyes with the back of one hand, closed the door behind him, and pulled up the room's only non-motorized chair. "Tully," he asked, "What do you know about pain?"