Noutan's body was laid out on a wooden bier in the natural chamber formed by the lower branches of the two oldest trees in the forest. While his tribe were gathered nearby, in sullen, solemn groups who muttered of the revenge they would take on the fairies of Mercia for Noutan's murder, only Matreen the Elder and Arnoute, Noutan's sister, were allowed to see the body. The wounds had not been cleaned, nor had his torn clothing been replaced.
Both gazed at the fallen Elf for a long time in silence. They had been alone in the tree-formed chamber for two hours. Eventually Matreen glanced upwards, as if he could see the sky, or the stars, through the foliage.
Arnoute nodded. She was a tall Elf, like her brother, though fairer, and some years younger. She had assumed her mother's responsibilities at a young age. Noutan's and Arnoute's parents had died many years ago. A result, it was thought, of their unusual gift to their son and daughter. She took the great sword of oak and sky, a family heirloom, and laid it on her brother's chest. Having taken care to check it was positioned exactly in the centre of his body, she stepped backwards.
After a few moments, Noutan opened his eyes. He blinked, then scowled.
'Welcome back, Noutan Five Lives,' said Matreen the Elder.
Noutan swung himself free of the wooden bier, wincing from the still-open wounds, though these were now visibly closing.
'Three lives,' he muttered.
His sister embraced him. She herself had two lives, and had so far managed to avoid losing either of them. Her brother had suffered an unfortunate fall from the forest's tallest tree as a youth, using up one of his own, but had since, for a very long time, avoided any further brushes with mortality. Until the fairy appeared.
'Where is she?' he demanded.
'Gone,' said Matreen.
Noutan's scowl deepened. 'I'd rather they'd let her live so I could have killed her.'
'I didn't mean she was dead,' said Matreen. 'She escaped by way of a most unexpected and inexplicable rescue.'
Noutan's scowl faded. 'The fairy is still alive? Good news. I'll soon put an end to her.'
'You won't do anything till you're healed.' His sister's voice was firm. 'You can't go running off the moment you come back to life. You need time to recover.'
Noutan looked as if he were going to protest, but he suddenly sagged, and was forced to lay a hand on the funeral bier to support himself.
'You're right. I need to rest. But when I'm well I'll find her.'
'We'll see.' Matreen the Elder did not sound as enthusiastic as he might have done. 'Very few Elves are granted more than one life. When you've just lost one, it's no time to be rushing into danger.'
'I need to - '
Matreen held up his hand, silencing him. 'You need to rest. Go home with your sister while I inform the tribe that you've made it back safely.'
Rainith the Red was uncharacteristically sanguine about her new surroundings. She refused to give any details of her exploits since she'd last seen them all, but whatever she'd been doing it appeared to have left her in a slightly better mood than usual. Rather than complain about the unfamiliar world she now found herself in, she learned its mechanics from Geeda Lala, and seemed content to wait till Fourteen Trees could work out a way to take them home.
Mixt and Nakishdan were suspicious. 'It's not like Rainith to not complain constantly about everything.'
'I wonder what she did while she was gone?'
'Killed someone, I expect,' said Nakishdan. 'I've always known she was a psychopath. Or whatever the fairy equivalent of that is.'
Fourteen Trees had been temporarily cheered by the discovery of her yellow hat in one of the previously hidden special menus, but her mood had changed to one of frustration as she wrestled with the difficult mathematics required to take them home through the dimensions. She'd worked out how to reach the land of the Elves but the next stage was far more difficult. She spent long hours in front of her multiple screens, moving unfamiliar shapes and figures from one to the other.
'So, are we going to attempt any more missions?'
'Just stay here,' said Geeda Lala. 'And wait for Fourteen Trees to work things out.'
'I don't like being at this low level.' Mixt was now at game-level three, uncomfortable for her both because it meant she was weak, and also because she didn't like the number three.
Rainith agreed, again surprising them. 'We should do some of these missions. Mixt and Nakishdan are really puny, if they don't get stronger they'll just let us down.'
Nakishdan bridled. 'What do you mean puny? You've just got here. You're only level one.'
'These levels don't apply to fairies.'
'Yes they do.'
'No they don't. I found my sword, didn't I?'
Nakishdan appealed for assistance. 'Could everyone tell this stupid fairy that now she's stuck in the game, she has to level-up the same as everyone else? There are no exceptions for fairies.'
'Ha.' Rainith immediately shrank to her small fairy size, and flew towards the ceiling. 'Can anyone else do this? Girsin isn't as smart as he thinks he is. When he made this game he didn't account for fairies.'
'She's still level one,' muttered Nakishdan.
'Even if I was I could still beat you.'
'No you couldn't.'
'Before you actually start fighting each other, maybe we should take a look at the list of missions?' Mixt brought up her screen. 'Maybe there's something easy we could do, just to gain experience and boost our strength a little.'
Nakishdan read the list. 'Recover weapons cache from crashed helicopter. That should be simple enough.'
Mixt, Nakishdan and Rainith lay prostrate in a shell-crater, almost deafened by the sound of artillery and the roaring engines of attack ships overhead. The night was illuminated by blinding flashes of plasma grenades and sharp, orange bursts of laser fire. Somewhere nearby there was the ominous rumbling of a mektank.
'I thought you said this mission was going to be easy?' Rainith's voice could barely be heard over the din.
'These things go wrong sometimes.' Mixt covered her head as shrapnel rained down on them.
'Not this wrong,' muttered Nakishdan.
Having elected to undertake the mission to recover the weapons cache they'd travelled there intending to swiftly load up and depart immediately, thereby earning themselves goods they could sell, as well as valuable experience points. It was the sort of mission they'd done many times while sitting on their couch with their playstation. Here, inside the game, it hadn't gone as smoothly. As far as Mixt could tell, there were four rival armed groups fighting around them.
'We need to retreat.'
'How?' Nakishdan peeked over the rim of the crater. 'We're surrounded.'
'If we don't get out of here the attack ships will blow us to pieces.'
'I knew you were lying about being good at this,' said Rainith. 'You're useless at everything. I should just fly away and leave you.'
'Fine,' said Nakishdan. 'Fly away. Save us from listening to your annoying voice.'
'What do you mean annoying voice?' demanded Rainith.
Mixt had been studying local maps on her wrist screens. These were ever-changing, as live information was updated from the central server.
'Someone just nuked the valley south of here. There's no one left alive.'
'So we could escape if we go that way right now.'
Nakishdan was dubious. 'What about the radiation?'
'If we take every anti-rad med we've got we can probably survive.'
A violent explosion shook the earth.
'OK. Let's go.'
'What about the weapons cache?' said Rainith.
'But that's what we came here for.'
'It's impossible,' said Mixt. 'We need to retreat, right now. Everyone get on the skimmer.'
Mixt and Nakishdan leapt on their small hover vehicle, simultaneously using their screens to fill themselves full of anti-radiation medicine. Rainith refused to join them.
'I'm not going. I'm going to complete the mission.'
With that Rainith shrank to her small fairy size, and flew off. Mixt and Nakishdan were not inclined to follow.
'It might turn out well,' said Nakishdan. 'We might never see her again.'
Flying over the chaotic battlefield, with shells bursting all around and laser beams piercing the sky, Rainith was curiously reminded of the time she'd flown over the heads of the audience at a gig at ULU. She, Mixt and Nakishdan had been sent back by the Department in an attempt to apprehend Geeda Lala in 1979. There, in the London university union, they had not found Geeda but had encountered the Pop Group, a strangely loud and discordant band from whom Mixt and Nakishdan had fled at the earliest opportunity. Nakishdan had been so appalled by the noise that he'd refused to stay in the main hall for more than a single minute, retreating to the bar with the observation that he didn't care if Geeda Lala brought the world to a premature end, he wan't going to listen to that racket any longer. Mixt, mostly of the same opinion, had followed him. Rainith had rather liked the band. Homing in on her target now, one of their songs popped into her head.
We are all prostitutes.
Rainith liked that. She hadn't been sure what the words meant but she enjoyed the noise.
She spotted the crashed helicopter, the target of their original mission. In her fairy form she was too small to be tracked or targeted by most of the weaponry on the battlefield, and so succeeded in landing where no other could have. The crashed helicopter was no more than a burned-out hulk. There were no bodies, or supplies, or anything of value that Rainith could see, apart from a small silver box in the cockpit. She tried opening it, using the screen commands she'd learned from Geeda Lala. Nothing happened.
Rainith studied the box. She felt it was important. It had a certain design, a look about it, that usually denoted something of value. She put the box in the small canvas bag she carried over her shoulder, then rose into the air, escaping the scene just as the Double Red Mercenaries arrived in their squadron of mektanks.
The fairy flew off, weaving her way to safety high above the battle. Having reached the scene of the crash and recovered something, she knew she'd be rewarded in the game with money and experience points, raising her level.
The song by the Pop group floated through her mind again.
We are all prostitutes, everyone has their price.
'Maybe that's what it was about,' she thought, diving down to avoid an incoming missile.