Why the worldgate had landed Tom Swale and Carl Romeo in the middle of a large field by a lake, they didn't know, until the bands started showing up.
There were legions of them, and it was clearly the first wave of many. The Unaccountably Peckish, the Applied Mechanics, the Judean People's Front, the Department of Redundancy Department, the Most Famousest of Hobbits, Aperture Science, the Voynich Manuscript, the Uncanny Valley, Tlön, the Muted Post Horn, the Singularity, and the Pallid Mask crowded in behind them. Staff began to tack up stages as the vans and buses and, wow, did someone just kayak across the lake? turned up one after another. "You have to move," someone said in German. Tom translated.
Rude and Finally Ginger, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the Rihannsu, the Last Outcropping of Reality, Experiment IV, the Verbed Noun, the Department of Redundancy Department, the Glued-On Gears, the Dukes of Hell, the Occupation, the Moveable Feast, Wintermute, and the Epistle to be Left in the Earth were all on the approach. Tom and Carl moved.
When you are a wizard, you start to notice when some things, like band names, are obviously anachronistic. Especially backwards-anachronistic. It was one of those little aberrations that let them know they'd come to the right place. But it was clear that Tom and Carl were a little anachronistic themselves. Carl's manual stated clearly: errantry, going active in T-minus four days.
"Did you feel that?" Carl asked.
"You mean the gate?" Tom frowned. "Yeah. There's something... stuck. Undone. It's like the transfer energies..."
"...didn't dissipate properly," Carl finished. "But with all those buses and RVs setting up in the middle, I can't get a fix on it."
"It looks stable to me, at least," Tom said. "I think tinkering in the middle of a crowd could be worse than not. It doesn't seem to be sucking anybody in, or letting anything /out/. And it's not giving signs that it's going to do so any time soon."
"I suppose we'll just have to leave after everyone else, and get it sorted then," Carl sighed.
They left to find a hotel room, and in the ensuing long search didn't make it back until things were reaching a middle.
--Everything was starting to look decidedly strange. And his teeth were dizzy. Or... at least that was the only way he could think of to describe it. He knew he'd been slipped something, just as, apparently, everyone else here had. Then again, he had also been told by very reliable sources that other people look high when you're high.
"I didn't actually expect," said Carl, "to be on errantry, and drugged out of my everloving mind, at the same time."
"Funny," said Tom, "That's the sort of thing I would normally expect to be saying to you."
Carl gave him a look. "It bothers me," he said. "I don't know that I'm fit for Working, in this state. I think there was something in that Kool-Aid..."
"Breathe," said Tom. He reached for Carl's hand, squeezed it. "You're going to be all right. I'm almost jealous. I didn't drink any, and now I won't."
"Why not?" Carl knew Tom remembered his earlier experiences fondly; further, that he was one of those types who could handle a wizardly crisis in any state of consciousness. That was Tom for you. His facility with language never faded.
"Because you haven't done this before, and I have, and I need to keep a clear head, for you." Tom smiled, gently, and looked him in the eye.
Carl wanted to be sarcastic, a little, to say something like how generous, but he looked at Tom and saw his eyes, really saw them; saw into him, all the way down into the roots of his soul; and it wasn't the drug alone or wizardry alone that showed him such indescribable vistas.
So he said nothing at all. Lost, lost, lost in Tom's eyes, and in the music, and it was like being a sunbeam hitting the water from an unaccustomed angle and finding an entirely new scene awaiting you there...
Interesting choice of metaphor, Carl. Morgensheutegesternwelt, much.
Where did those words come from? He frowned, distracted a little. A more familiar voice, then, Tom's, coming to him slowly and through a strange mental echo:
"I take back my jealousy," Tom said. "I think I'm getting your time dilation. And what does Morgensheutegesternwelt mean?" He parsed it, himself, frowning. "Tomorrow...today...yesterday..."
"...world," finished Carl.
"I don't know what's happening, but it's something big. Carl, Carl, wizardry can't live in an unwilling heart, but what about unwitting?" Tom asked, his lips hanging open a little in breathless wonder. "Some huge force is being mobilized..."
"I think we're in another universe," Carl said.
"...Carl, you're tripping."
"I'm also right. Check your manual."
Tom did. An aeon passed, while he turned its pages. And then there was the sound of an incredulous exhale. "Aaaaand... the possibility coordinates are off by one digit. One digit. And one point to the power of your reasoning while completely blasted. Carl, you should consider doing this more often."
"I'll pass, thanks. I prefer it when up is up, down is down, and I know whether the little blue people I'm seeing are real or not..."Carl said. Up was Tom's face right now, and the spine of the manual. He was lying in Tom's lap.
"...Actually, some small aliens from Ixcathra did pass through here, not that long ago."
"Was there a sort of glowing tornado following them?"
"No, that part was all you. So, how did you guess, anyway?"
"The wizardry," Carl said. "All this wizardry and scarcely a word in the Speech... And it's not like the things here don't understand it, when I speak to them. If that was true, we would have figured it out sooner."
"And freaked out completely."
"But everything is still online, and our manuals are still updating normally... but... there's all this conversation going on. In music, in..." he gestured toward a nearby tent where some number of people were having loud sex. "..All these other ways. And there's something unmistakably..."
"Spell-like?" Tom said. "Yeah. So you thought: other modalities are in place. But how did you get from other modalities to another universe?"
"Simple," Carl said. "If there were this many... practitioners of other modalities... in our universe, we'd know about it."Then he was silent, and time stretched. The memories of all his failures assailed him. Something was very wrong, and he couldn't put his finger on it; couldn't articulate it, couldn't speak.
"What's wrong?" Tom was asking him, and he didn't know; the memories had something to do with it, but were also somehow beside the point, mere scenery like the music. There was a long tunnel and something was at the bottom of it, and Carl felt himself dwindle as he descended toward that place, and knew what the thing was, suddenly; it was the absence of him. He felt like he was dying - and yet he knew by the knowledge of the Art that he was not. It was scarier than that. He had long ago accepted his own death, as an eventual consequence of slowing Entropy on a larger scale.
This was not a foreshadowing; here he must coexist with his nonexistence. It was like looking into his own soul and seeing through the glass doors into the light of a party he was standing outside, where the laughter did not include him.
A kind of merry-go-round sickness came over him and he covered his face with his hands and curled into himself tightly.
Then words came from everywhere and nowhere at once, through the tumbling vortex of it, echoing and warping strangely: DON'T WORRY. I'M HERE. YOU'RE SAFE. A cadence, repeating, like a call-sign, like music. A hand on his head, holding him up.
And Carl was still a frighteningly small thing; but now he became the cadence of the words, became a mote of light that rode the notes of it. The music on stage faded to mere background static; the only real song was Tom, and his words, and - opening eyes again - his face that had a boyish grin imprinted into it even when it was serious and grave like this. All the meaning in the world had spun out into a thread and woven itself back into don't worry, I'm here, you're safe.
Sometimes all of life comes down to being held.
He let go the burden, for a moment, and relinquished himself to the bliss. Another aeon passed that way, melodious and strange.--
When another band came on - a very different one -
"There's something wrong with that music," Tom said.
"You're right," Carl said. He could see clearly now; whatever was wrong with his own world had resolved itself neatly. But something that reeked of the Lone One was gathering in the distance.
They looked at each other. This was what they must be here for. Right?And the confrontation began. But somehow, it seemed to be washing past the two of them, missing them. Somehow, the songs sung and the chants chanted and the invocations invoked all belonged to someone else's kind of wizardry.
So why were they here?
"To witness something?" Tom said. Carl knew he hadn't thought aloud, either.
--Then he saw her, and he knew why they were on errantry then.
Peripheral to the manifestation of Eris Discordia, peripheral to the larger battle between chaos and entropy, to the shouting and the crying, coalescing out of a cloud of drifting musical notes and summer insects and hookah miasmas... Thence she came.
He knew her face, though it was a different face every time; the eyes were two different colors and they weren't always the same two colors, and the only time he'd seen her before in life was when he was a small child and ill with a fever high enough to land him in the hospital and make three days of his life disappear into a patchwork of dreams and half-remembered faces. He had asked about her, afterwards; and his family had worried over him until he stopped asking; and when he found his wizardry, and found her described in the appendices of his wizards' manual, it had been wonderfully vindicating.
"You're here," he said.
"Of course I'm here. Here is me." Definitionally, Carl thought. "You're here. You're not usually here."
"No, I'm not," he acknowledged. He was sitting cross-legged now, next to Tom on the blanket.
"It's like the phenomenon of someone not usually here being here," she said. "Phenomenomenomena... phonemes...How odd. There was a girl who knew how to spell banana, but she didn't know when to stop. Did you know that one?"
She began to turn and go, without waiting to hear his answer, and Carl said, "Wait!"
"Carl, who are you talking to?" Tom asked.
He said her name, in the Speech, and then he said an older name for her, and Tom's eyes widened. "Oh."
At once the first name got her attention, and the second... She froze, for a moment, which had a strange appearance in that cloud of motion: her hair, which normally remained in motion, stood mid-swirl like a still photograph of smoke.
"Sometimes people have names," she said. "Sometimes people don't have names any more. Sometimes people bring old names from... somewhere else? Why does that happen? It makes there be... pieces of things that don't belong."
And her face turned stormy. Tom was staring right through her, couldn't see her at all, but he noticed that, somehow. They both knew her wrath could be terrible. His hand tightened on Carl's.
"I don't like that," she said.
"I have something to give you," Carl said.
That did not just placate her; it switched the tone entirely. "People never give me things! But sometimes I take things," she said. "And sometimes I give things to people. And they don't always like them." she frowned.
"I have something to give you that belongs to you," Carl said, and called her by her name in the Speech, a complex portmanteau of what she was now and what she had been. "Or did, once."
Tom's eyes widened.
And Carl began to sing his piece. It was a piece of knowing, a piece of something often lost and rarely found; a spell, perhaps, but more than a spell, the imparting of an experience. Of losing and finding, of that perfect bliss when he had lost himself and Tom had brought him back - no, he had brought himself back; Tom had done better than that, had waited patiently for him to return and accepted what was there while he was missing.
The peace and beauty that was indescribable because the ability to describe was gone from it: now returned, in words, from that abyss. The hand that caught his hand; the voice that let his soul rest there and be free for an infinite moment, be unafraid, be allowed to be nothing...
He wove her old name into it, and her new name, and added a syllable, a fragment, a missing piece.
"Oh," said Delirium, who was Delight: sometimes, and once, and also. "Oh my."
There was perfect stillness for a moment.
Then; "I have to find. Something with feathers," she said slowly, and walked away, ever so slightly changed.
--The world tied itself back together, in some slapdash fashion; and days passed. Enough days that the bands had cleared out and they could get back to the worldgate. Well, most of the bands had cleared out.
"Dear Powers," said Tom. "Even after the zombies, and the police, and everything, there's still a band. There's not even a stage and there's still a band on."
Indeed, there was; a couple of brunettes with guitars, sitting on top of a picnic bench. A small crowd of those festivalgoers who just wouldn't leave sat in a half-circle, on blankets, at their feet.
"But they're not blocking the gate any longer," Carl said, with some satisfaction. They moved into position; spoke and sang the words in voices that knew exactly how to wind around each others' frequencies.
The shimmering gate opened to send them back home as the Afikomen sang a song about one little goat.