The corridor outside the meeting room was strangely dark… and somehow, it didn’t sound right, or smell right either.  Then the lights came on.

We were standing in the foyer of my new house.

I almost asked what had happened.  Almost.  But the Wanderer was still holding my hand, and I knew I’d never get a real answer to any question I asked, so instead I just said, “Welcome to my house!”

He chuckled.  “Thank you, Polly.”  I undid my mask, and as I did he said, “Nice place.”

“Thanks.  I’m kind of surprised Zoe isn’t here right now.”

“Traffic is snarled on the bridge,” he replied.  “Accident.  She’ll be about an extra hour getting home.”  I pulled off my mask and stood there, just looking at him.  “What?”

“Did anyone ever tell you how annoying you can be?”

He laughed, and it was a sexy laugh.  I can’t help it, I love a man with a deep voice.  “Yeah, I get that all the time.”  Then he turned serious.  “We need to talk.”

“Every time I hear that, I don’t like what comes afterward.”

He pointedly ignored my comment, and instead reached into his jacket pocket and took out a deck of cards.  He fanned them and said, “Pick one.”

“Card tricks?” I said, half amused and half confused.  I drew a card, and he waved me to turn it over so I did.  I wasn’t a typical playing card… the picture on the card was Death, with his scythe and everything.  “Oh, that doesn’t look good.”

He took the card and slipped it back into the deck.  “Death doesn’t signify, well, death.  Not exactly.  The Death card indicates change.  Your life is about to change in some dramatic way… the change may already be happening.”  He turned the deck over and fanned it so I could see the faces, and all the cards were just playing cards, no Death or anything else weird.  Then he put the deck back in his pocket.  “Tell me everything.  All about your trip.”

So I did.  He sat down on my couch, and I sat down at the other end, and I told him the whole story more or less as I just wrote it down.  He didn’t interrupt me at all until I got to the fight with Nemvex.

“Four black knights and the Shadow Avatar of Nemvex,” he said.  “And the three of you defeated the five of them?”  I nodded.  “That was too easy.  I’m sorry, Polly, but it was.”  He looked off into space for a moment, then continued, “There’s something wrong here.  Nemvex couldn’t have reached the Sunless City without attracting the attention of Belgor Dragos, so he must have already been there when you were freeing Dragos.  Why do that?  Why not intercept you while you were in Kroft’s ship, and stop you from freeing his rival?  No, there’s more going on here than it seems.”

“What do you think he’s up to?”

“I don’t know.  He’s not human, you know.  He doesn’t think like us, no matter how much his avatars may seem to.  He sacrificed his Shadow Avatar away from the Black Pyramid… it will take time to produce another one, possibly years.  He had to have a plan.”  He looked at me then.  “Did Nemvex give you anything, or cast any spells on you?”

“No,” I said.  “Well, not as far as I know… how could I tell?”

“Did you ever turn your back on him?”

“No,” I said again.  “The knight fighting me tried to get me to do that, but I didn’t.  Troll did, though… do you supposed Nemvex did something to him?”

Bob frowned.  “I don’t know.   Keep an eye on him, okay?  If you see him do anything that concerns you, let me know.”

“How?” I asked, with a sarcastic laugh.

“Leave a note on the counter in my shop,” he replied.  “Where I leave things for you when I can’t be there.”

“So you’re not avoiding me, then?” I asked.

“No.  Why would I do that?  You’ve been a valuable ally… if I could tell you everything, I think you could be a friend.”

I looked at him, and I saw the loneliness in his eyes.  “You don’t have anyone, do you?”

He chuckled ruefully, looking down at his hands.  “I have an apprentice, actually.  Someday you’ll meet her.  But she’s my apprentice, you know?  She can’t be anything else to me… it wouldn’t be right.”

“Bob,” I said, “look at me.”  He did, and I said, “I am your friend.  You have a thankless job… let me thank you for doing it, and say that I’m glad I could help.”

“You don’t know how much that means to me,” he said, and I saw a tear in his eye, and I slid over beside him and hugged him, and he hugged me back.

I looked up into his deep brown eyes and I said, “How long has it been since you’ve been with a woman?”

“Oh, no,” he said, pushing me away.  I let him.  “No, please, I can’t.  Relationships are just not in the cards for me, not now, maybe not ever.”

“Bob,” I said, “you’re looking at the most relationship-challenged woman you’ll ever meet, but I’m really good at ‘friends with benefits.’  Let me show you.”

He did, and it was good.  Considering how blue his balls must have been (figuratively speaking of course), he was a patient lover, and if his lovemaking skills were rusty, he was enthusiastic enough to more than make up for it.

I was watching his face as he had his third orgasm, wondering if he was using magic or something to go so long, when I heard the sound of a key in the front door.  We were still on the couch in the living room.  I figured it was Zoe… the extra hour Bob had said she’d need to get home must surely have passed by then.  Bob rolled off of me and grabbed his clothes.  He leaned close and whispered, “Thanks,” and slipped off to the bathroom, and I grabbed my costume and followed… she might, just might, have brought a friend home, and while I didn’t really care if I was caught naked, I didn’t want anyone to see my costume lying around.

“Polly?” she called.  “Are you home?”

“In the bathroom,” I said, stuffing my costume into the hamper.  Bob was standing in the shower, putting his clothes on.  I turned toward the door and said, “I was just about to take a shower.  Are you alone?”

“Yeah, for the moment,” she said.  “Frank and Sarah are coming over… everyone wants to hear about your mission.  I brought enough Thai for everyone.”

“I’ll hurry, then,” I said, and turned my attention to the shower… but of course, despite there being no other exits, Bob was already gone.  I guess there’s no walk of shame if you’re a wizard.

So I went to take a quick shower.  It was the first chance I’d had to really examine the cuts on my arms since I had received them; they had closed and were healing pretty well, but I could see I was going to have scars.  At least they didn’t sting when I showered.  I threw on a bathrobe and started some laundry.  My costume had the grit and grime of two worlds on it, after all.  Frank and Sarah came in, and while Zoe greeted them I took a moment to change into a T-shirt and shorts, and then over nice hot Thai food I told my story again.  When I got to the part where we defeated Nemvex, I said, “Bob says it was too easy, that we shouldn’t have been able to win so quickly.  He thinks Nemvex has a plan.”

Well, everyone had an opinion on that one, and I’d say that some of them were pretty far out there, except for the fact that we were talking about an extradimensional magic alien tyrant god thing.  How much more “out there” could it get?

It was well past midnight when Frank and Sarah decided it was time to go home.  Truthfully, I was exhausted, mentally and physically.  I’m tough, but I have my limits, and it had been a busy few days.

The next day was Saturday, and I decided to take it easy; I didn’t bother to get dressed until around noon.  I wandered out of my room and found Zoe in the living room, reading a book in an easy chair, still in her PJs and those ridiculous fuzzy slippers; she said, “Hey, nice to see you up and around.”

“Hey,” I replied.  “Coffee?”

“I made some a few hours ago, but when you didn’t come out of your room I dumped it.”  I scowled at her, and she grinned and stood up.  “Just kidding, it’s in the refrigerator.  You like it iced, right?”  I nodded, and she went to the kitchen and fixed me a nice tall glass, then brought it to me and sat down beside me on the couch.

I took a sip and started feeling more human.  “Thanks.  Looks like you slept good.”

“Yeah.  So what’s on the agenda?”

“How would you feel about a spa day?  My treat.”

“Oh, Polly, you do too much for me already.”

“Hah.  How many people would clean my sword in the wee hours of the morning, then drive me into the city for my alien-bashing mission?”  She laughed, and then I thought… “The sword.  Have you seen it?”

“No,” she said.  “Did you give it back to Bob?”

“No, but I bet he took it.”

“It is his, right?” she said.

“Of course.  I just didn’t want it to be lost, and be my fault.”

I took a sip of my iced coffee, and Zoe watched me, squinting just a bit.  Finally she asked, “You slept with him, didn’t you?”

“We had sex, yes,” I replied, and she grinned wickedly.  “Right here on this couch.”  She glanced at it, then giggled.  “Anyway, never mind that.  We’re hitting a spa today.  I’m sure I can find one we can get into on short notice.”

Well, I did.  My fame might have been fading, but it was still good for a few things.  And there’s nothing like being pampered to relax a girl.

That evening I put on my costume and wandered in to GHQ.  “Mystery Woman,” said Gina as soon as I came through the door.  “Your presence has been requested.”

I groaned inwardly.  “Nightwind?”

“No,” she replied, “downstairs.”

Downstairs?  Who was she referring to?  Jimmie?  Couldn’t be… Gloria, maybe.  “Well, I guess I’d better go then.”

I stepped into the elevator and it started down, under Gina’s control of course.  It stopped, and the door opened, and I walked into Jimmie’s lab.

At first I didn’t see anyone.  “Hello?” I said, but no one answered.  So I stood still and listened… the lab was organized chaos, as usual, with blinking lights and beeping, pinging machines everywhere, but as I listened I caught a few sounds that weren’t machine noises… sounds like a human would make if he was working on a piece of equipment.

I walked through the lab, picking my way over cables and hoses, careful not to touch any of the things laying on the tables, keeping clear of the strange machines.  I found Jimmie finally, sitting cross-legged on the floor, doing something to a fireplug-shaped computer thing.  He was unplugging and replugging cables, a frown of fierce concentration on his face.  I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to talk to him or not without Gloria, so I stood there and waited quietly.

Finally he yelled, “Fuck!” really loud.  It startled me, and I actually took a step back.  “Damn.  Damn damn damn.  Boot boot boot!”  He plugged in one more cable, then pushed a button that was in the very center of the top of the “fireplug.”  Lights came on all over the device, blinking randomly, and he clapped his hands.  “Boot boot boot!”

I watched the lights, and watched Jimmie watch the lights.  Suddenly I heard a voice behind me.  “Mystery Woman.”

I turned around… it was Gloria.  “Hi,” I said, feeling kind of awkward.  “Gina said you wanted to see me.”

“Jimmie does,” she replied.  I heard a noise behind me, and turning I saw that Jimmie was standing up.  He didn’t look at me, though; he was turned sideways, facing a workbench beside the fireplug machine.

“Broken,” he said, his hand moving with a jerky motion to point at a G-comm on the workbench.  From the color, I assumed it was mine.  I saw another one lying nearby which I assumed must have been Troll’s, and Jimmie’s hand moved, pointing at it.  “Broken broken.  Not broken.  Broken not broken.  How?”

I turned to Gloria, and she said, “He doesn’t understand how you broke it.  The quantum entanglement device inside is no longer connected to the QED network, but it should remain connected no matter what distance separates it from the network hub.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Does it matter if the quantum thingie is taken into another universe?  Two, actually.”

Jimmie made an inarticulate noise, and Gloria said, “It does.  Nobody told Jimmie what happened to it, and it’s been making him agitated.”

“Gina knew,” I said.  “She could have told you.”

Gloria looked a little bit sheepish.  “I wasn’t available when Gina gave him the G-comm.  I was indisposed.”

I frowned at her.  “I thought you were totally devoted to Jimmie.”  I heard a noise, and turning I saw Jimmie walking away with the two G-comms in his hands.  I turned back to Gloria.  “So do you go out much, then?”

“Polly,” she said, and I felt a chill in my blood.  “I do know about you.  It wasn’t hard to figure out, actually.  Yes, I do go out, and I date women and I have sex with them.  And yes, I’m totally devoted to Jimmie.”  She leaned closer to me… she was wearing tall heels, and being about an inch taller in the first place, she was looking down just a little.  “He likes it when I do that.  You of all people should understand.”

“I guess I do,” I said, feeling sheepish myself.

“Jimmie isn’t stupid, you know.”  She raised her hands, presenting his laboratory.  “He just can’t handle normal people.  He needs someone like me to take care of his needs, and his needs are as powerful and complicated as any man’s.”  She put her hands on her hips and smiled.  “Most of the time I do a pretty good job of it… but I’m not perfect.”

“No, I guess not,” I said.  “Gloria, I’m… I’m sorry.  Sorry I thought you were mistreating him.”

“I forgive you,” she said, in a very formal tone.  I wasn’t sure how that made me feel… a little like she was patronizing me, you know?  But then I thought about my experiences with Eagle and I realized she had adapted to Jimmie and that was just how he wanted things done.

“Thanks,” I said, and I turned to go.

“Wait,” she said, and I stopped.  “You need a new G-comm.  Here.”  She handed me a bright green one, a little thinner than the one I had before.

“Thanks.  What about Troll?”

“Here,” she said again, handing me a black unit which was larger (but not thicker) and had a bigger button.  “Give this to him if he’s upstairs, or otherwise give it to Gina for him.  If you don’t mind.”

“I don’t,” I said.  “Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied, and I left the lab as quickly as I could.  I suddenly felt like I was an intruder in a very private space.