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My Most Beautiful Story

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The number one rule for an excellent phone voice when at work is to smile when you speak. It changes your voice in an almost imperceptible way. Not only does it make you sound approachable and friendly, it actually makes you feel like talking on the phone is something you do not hate doing. That is always what you’re after when Representing A Company. The Game Master was really quite good at it.

“I see,” she smiled into the receiver. “Well, I am sorry to hear that. Thank you for calling and letting us know! You’d be surprised at how many people don’t bother.” She laughed lightly and easily, because what fun they were having. “Well, we hope to see you another time! Thank you again. Bye!”

She hung up. The smile faded instantaneously and she blew out air in a fart noise at the phone instead. She remained there for several seconds, considering her options.

No guests. It was the last escape room game of the night, and she still owed the company the full 90 minutes that remained of her shift. Couldn’t clock off early. With no people to watch, there was not much to be done. It only left her with one choice, which was to clean the rooms. Not exactly her favourite part of the job.

It had been raining all day. Though teams had been very kind to put on the blue plastic shoe protectors that were available at the entrance, all that really meant was that the rooms would now be filled with the shredded remains of said protectors, and leave the Game Master with one more thing to clean up.

She grabbed the vacuum from storage and awkwardly manoeuvred it from the lobby into the pretend prison cell that constituted the first of their available scenarios. She always enjoyed opening the doors between the rooms and seeing the three missions all lying side by side, so different from each other that it felt like she could step into other worlds at her leisure. All hidden doors opened, all secret areas laid bare. Like three universes, separated only by walls. 

Plus, they needed to be aired out anyway.

The Game Master spun a metal stool all the way around a couple of times, unscrewing it and revealing a brightly shining silver key. It was put into a crack in the wall where it fit perfectly, and turned to reveal a door leading into the next part of the escape room. It was a darker room, meant to imitate a secret office space, and all the books in here meant it gathered dust like nothing else.

So she vacuumed, while keeping an ear out for company in the lobby. Over the whine of the vacuum (it sounded a lot like a BEEEEEP), she could hear the rain tapping on the windows, and the wind still howling. Awesome. Great. That was going to make walking to the subway fun. Kind of spooky now, too. The Game Master didn’t believe in ghosts, naturally. There were none of them in the Real World (or, as she had been thinking about it for quite some time, the World—strange the things you get used to), but when your were alone in a basement late at night, you did sometimes feel the urge to call someone who loves you, just to hear their voice.

She crouched down, picking shreds of blue plastic off the floor. That was when she heard it: a low thud followed by a rumble. For a moment she thought of an explosion—they were digging out more tunnels in the subway system and controlled explosions were not an uncommon occurrence—but this didn’t sound like that. This was quiet, almost unassuming; a presence of static that made her hair stand on end. And there was someone in the lobby.

The Game Master stood up and brushed down her work outfit. It consisted of a short, black wrap-around dress and leggings, with exceptionally battered trainers that she tried never to let customers see, as well as a black work jacket with a gleaming nametag. Bespectacled, with her brown hair in a comfortable ponytail, and no make-up, she tried to give off an air of respectable professional, who just happened to play pretend for a living.

She went out into the lobby. Indeed, there was somebody there. A woman somewhere around her early twenties stood in the middle of the floor, casually reading the sign that said to wait for assistance if the lobby was unmanned. Her face was so pale and her hair was so light that they almost looked the same, but she had braided a rainbow scarf into her hair, splicing it with colour before pinning it away from her face. She wore black. Not a very fashionable or even interesting shade of it. Just black. Her t-shirt had a patch on the sleeve. Some sort of... flower. A waterlily?

There was something else about her, apart from the niggling familiarity. Something that stood out... Ah, yes. Her clothes were completely dry. There was no sign of an umbrella, and rain was still splashing down heavily outside. The air smelled like lightning.

“Hello,” said the Game Master. Her voice was guarded. “What can I do for you?”

“Hello, Ekwy.”

The Game Master looked down at her nametag. It did have a name on it, obviously, but it was certainly not that.

“...What did you say?”

“Agent Ekwy. It’s been a while.”

Silence. Outside, the rain roared. Then Ekwy, formerly of the PPC (Mary Sue Department, Potterverse), sighed. She leaned against the wall with its gold-painted foam letters spelling out the name of the escape room, and her well-rehearsed, service-minded rictus grin relaxed into more of a resting bitch face.

“It has,” she admitted. “So. You found me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Were you trying to hide?” The white-haired woman grinned toothily. Her grey eyes shone like mirrors. “You never could manage to do that.”

“Guess not. You got old, Blank.”

“You got older.”

“Time works properly around here. It’s dependable like that. What do you want? Here to buy a gift-card? They make for very popular presents.”

“I’m sure they do.” Blank shrugged. “But I’m here to get a partner.”

Partner?” Ekwy’s laugh was more of a snorting sound, like a disbelieving elephant. “I don’t do missions! Where have you been for the past, what, fifteen years?”

“Working. Drifted between departments, finally settled for the Floaters. We get to do all sorts of things. Important things. Nothing stopped just because you took off, you know.”

Ekwy sighed. “No, no... You’re right, I’m sorry. Well, if you’re here to guilt me into something, I’ll at least have to work while you talk. Over here.”

The last team still had not received photos from their experience. She could email those and listen to Blank rant at the same time, no problem. Ekwy went behind the counter, into the little control room where she could survey the teams as they were playing to make sure they stayed on task and didn’t break any rules. Blank followed her, eyeing the cramped little space filled to the brim with technology. She picked up a fake bomb used in a game. It looked like a cartoon, five red sticks of dynamite tied together with a digital countdown clock, currently blinking on all zeros.

“This is what you do now, huh?” she asked.

“It’s fun,” said Ekwy with a grin. “I enjoy it. It’s a great job, and I meet a lot of people, and...” She interrupted herself. “I thought you had a partner.”

“Zit is dead.”

Ekwy paused, looking at the half-finished email and its blinking cursor. “I’m... sorry to hear that.”

“Killed in the line of duty eight months ago. There was a funeral.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t come.”

“Sorry.”

Blank put down the bomb, shrugging. There was a pause where the only sound was the tapping of keys.

“So where’s the other one?” asked Blank, now picking up a mug filled with pencils. “The angrier one with purple hair?”

“Milano,” said Ekwy softly. “She’s married now. And a mother. We sort of... grew apart.”

“Well, that happens. And Nea?” Blank took up a pencil, eyeing the sharpened point. “I liked her.”

“Married. It’s all... very normal. It’s very nice.”

“And you?”

Ekwy copied the email address from the company backlog and pasted it into the address box. “He’s waiting for me at home.”

“So I really can’t convince you, huh?” The white-haired agent didn’t sound like she was even close to giving up. She was toying idly with the pencil, running it between her long fingers.

Ekwy shrugged, sent the email, and turned around to cross her arms over her chest. “I’m not the same as I was. I was a teenager. All... full of spit and mustard, or whatever it’s called. I don’t get angry like that anymore. Or passionate about stories.”

Blank snorted. It sounded vaguely like an affronted piccolo flute. “I don’t believe that for a moment. You can find that again. The spark and fury, for the snap and kill. Oops.”

At the ‘kill’, her hands had moved on their own accord and snapped the pencil in half. Blank looked at the two halves sort of helplessly before Ekwy took them from her.

“Anyway, I don’t think that this is what you are,” she concluded.

Ekwy stopped her from grabbing another pencil from the mug and moved it out of her reach. She pulled a pencil-sharpener closer to her and began sharpening down the broken edges of the pencil stubs.

“I didn’t fake the past fifteen years, Blank.”

“Fine; then this isn’t all you are. I don’t buy it.”

“Well, try. Ask anyone. They’ll tell you I’m the nicest person they know.” Ekwy put the pencil stubs, now restored and pointy again, shorter but two functioning writing tools, away in their mug. “I like people. And I believe in people. And I think everyone is trying their best. Does that sound like someone who would make a good assassin to you?”

“So you think everyone is doing their best?”

“Yes.”

“The world is filled... with people,” said Blank slowly, tasting the theory. “That are trying to produce something good. To the best of their abilities. All the time.”

“Yes.”

Blank leaned in. She smelled of dry heat and crackling paper, the energy from the plothole she’d used to enter the lobby still faint on her skin.

“Then explain the CATS movie.”

There was another moment of silence, this time only broken by Ekwy gritting her teeth. “That is a low blow. And I didn’t see it.”

“No?” Blank blinked sweetly. “But it’s a fandom you love. It’s all these characters you love. All these people, trying their best to make something nice for the fans. Isn’t that something you’re in favour of?”

“It was not for the fans! Nobody was asking for that! It was a ridiculous attempt at a cash-grab by the same guy who failed to do another musical adaptation properly but then inexplicably won awards for it!” Ekwy raised a finger and waggled it in Blank’s face, but pulled back before she was bitten. “I WILL NOT get into this with you!”

“They cast Taylor Swift as Bombalurina,” said Blank with a sadistic grin. “And Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots.”

“I am not listening to this!”

“Look.” Blank put her hands behind her back to show good-willing, and to stop herself from touching everything back here. “Can we skip this part? This part happening right now, when I grind you down before you agree and we can get this show on the road? You know it’s going to happen. This whole place reeks of foreboding.”

Ekwy shook her head. “Nah, that’s just frustration. It’s built into the very walls here.” She paused, continuing in an absent sort of voice. “So the mission... It’s for CATS ?”

Blank grinned. She was getting there. “Lord of the Rings. We have a Tenth Walker.”

“I never worked in that fandom. Sorry!”

“You know enough. You read the books, right?”

“Sure.”

“And you’ve gone once before. There was that huge exorcism.”

“That was one time, and I was pretty distracted.” There had been pretty Elves, as far as she could recall. “Besides, I just did what I was told.”

“Well, now I’m telling you. Plus, it’s a foreign language fic. You’re a native speaker of this one. I might get lost in translation without you. I’ll do the canon bits that you fail on, and you can do the language bits. How’s that? Good deal?”

There was silence. And then a long sigh. “I have... obligations. Things are different.”

“Well, yeah. Would be a boring old world if everything stayed the same all the time.”

“Blank, I can’t.”

“It would take literally two seconds. You know time is... something you can opt out of.”

“Well, I opted in a long time ago.”

“Right. Well, I didn’t want to have to resort to this, but...” Blank leaned in, eyes widening conspiratorially. “I have something for you.”

Ekwy frowned. “Okay. What is it?”

“I can’t tell you. But I met with a friend of yours, and she wanted you to have it whenever I ran into you. Well, here I am, running into you. So how about a quick little trip to HQ? No muss, no fuss. You could look around the place, maybe check out the old RC...”

“Well.” Ekwy looked around at the deserted lobby. “This place is not exactly hopping. And if it’ll take two seconds in this world, I don’t see how my boss wouldn’t be okay with that.” She sighed. “Alright. One trip to HQ. For old times’ sake.”

“Great! And look at you, you’re already wearing black. I’ve got an extra patch if you want to...”

“Don’t push it. This is just what I wear for work.”

Blank opened up a portal. Ekwy watched it with her head tilted and a slight smile. Something about the fizz and sparkle of it made her heart beat faster with the sheer, unbridled potential of it all, the joy of adventure and the thrill of the hunt. But it also kind of seemed smaller than she remembered. Ah well. She’d still fit through.

They stepped into a response centre that quite exceeded her expectations, but then again, her expectations were set very low. #506 had been very cramped, barely enough for two people and even less for three. This looked... half-comfortable. It was similar to a dorm room in size, and it even had a small cooking area in the corner, with a clearly often-used coffee percolator and a microwave that smelled faintly of burned popcorn. The console took up most of one wall, and someone had decorated it with a vast assortment of fake flowers: daffodils, dahlias and violets. Fake ivy had been attached along its edges. Why anyone at HQ would want to have anything in their work area that reminded them of the Flowers That Be was a bit of a mystery to Ekwy, but then again, PPC agents had never been particularly consistent. For now, the console was quiet. There was something... foreboding about that silence, like a slumbering beast that would wake and need to be fed.

Otherwise the room contained a small table and two chairs, and a half-made double bed with a knitted, rainbow cover. Between the kitchen area and the bedroom area there was a bookshelf that formed a wall between the two. Despite the size of the bookshelf, it was fit to burst with books. The overall impression of the place was a slightly odd flat for two people, a pretty far cry from the RC Ekwy had shared with Milano. You could have fit that into this one twice.

“Wow,” she said. “Seems like you’ve gotten a pretty nice upgrade here.”

“Yeah, well, we’re on the waiting list for somewhere larger.” Blank was carefully moving books out of the shelf, looking for something without collapsing the whole dangerous setup. “If we get a place in New Cal, we can have a garden. We’ve never had a garden.”

“New Cal?”

Blank grinned. “Oh, you have been gone a while. PPC City of New Caledonia. Every comfort imaginable and within portal distance to HQ. Perfect for agents who want to raise a family.”

Ekwy’s eyes widened. “You...”

“Oh, we’re planning on it. Somewhere down the line. Best to prepare, right? Oh!” Blank eased out something that had been lodged between two thick volumes of what Ekwy could only assume to be very important canon in fandoms she had never heard about. “Got it!”

She held out a knife with an ornate bone handle, its blade covered in a soft leather wrap. She handed it over to Ekwy, handle first.

“Here you go, “ she said.

Ekwy pulled out the knife and inspected the blade. It had been shaped into a wing feather, intricately carved, barbs vaning together into a razor-sharp edge. She did not have words.

“Oh,” was all she could muster, and cleared her throat. “This... Thank you.”

“No problem. Who’s...”

[BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!!!]

Blank sighed. “Ah, damn it...”

Ekwy looked surprised, pocketing the knife as she blinked back tears. “I thought you had a mission already?”

“Yeah, I put it on snooze,” said Blank absently, going to the console. “Still the same one. I’d better get you back home so I can deal with it. Bummer doing it on my own, but what can you do.”

“Can I see?”

“Don’t see why not. Mind your eyes, though; this one’s a doozy.”

Ekwy walked up to the still beeping console, skimming the print-out. She paused. Re-read a few words.

“Oh,” was all she could say.

“Yeah.”

“You... I mean, I could go with you on this one. If you’d like.”

Blank frowned. “What’s with the change of heart?”

“Just... It seems pretty bad. She, uh... she makes a whole new Elf place in Fangorn Forest. I mean, that alone sounds like a two-person job for sure.”

“Urgh, tell me about it. Well.”

Blank grabbed a backpack at her feet. It was as black as the rest of her uniform, but decorated with tons of colourful patches. Cheerful little clouds and rainbows with emoticon happy faces, as well as colourful flowers and iridescent animals, covered basically every empty space of dark fabric. It looked like a child had designed it, and without a single care for what went together, just focused on getting as much colour in it as possible.

“I’m definitely not turning down the help,” she said with a nod, and went to program their disguises. “So, sure. You’re definitely welcome to join. Want to be an Orc?”

“Sure. I guess. I’ve never been an Orc before. We should be careful with her, though... She can apparently de-Orc Orcs.”

“I know.” Blank grinned widely and whitely. “What will they think of next, huh? We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”

The portal hummed into life. Then they stepped through.

* * *

 

Hennes bleka ansikte var vått av tårar, men det måste ändå ha varit lyckotårar eftersom hon samtidigt log så strålande. Hennes ögon var slutna och armarna hängde löst utefter hennes sidor där hon satt på den lilla gräsklädda kullen.

Blank, whose colouring was visible even as an Orc and thus made her look quite a bit like Azog, blinked at the Words faintly appearing in the sky above them. They looked... weird. Distorted, like a thick wall of uneven glass covered them entirely and blocked them from view. It stretched all over the sky, fragmenting the Words and rendering them unreadable. At least, it seemed to her. Ekwy was staring at them as well, looking as if someone had hit her over the head. On an Orc-face that translated into looking slightly cross-eyed.

There was a beeping from the backpack and Blank quickly pulled out the rarely used Universal Translator. Well, rarely used was an understatement. It was used all the time to translate Westron, Sindarin and others into English, but this was one of the rarer instances when it was needed to translate one Earthly language into another.

[LANGUAGE BARRIER DETECTED. Activate translation Y/N?]

“Y!” barked Blank in relief. “Yes! Y!”

There was a creaking sound. Then a crack. Then the sky caved in. Thousands of shards rained down, reflecting hundreds of languages in dozens of alphabets, flashing like televisions with bad reception. The shards peeled away from whatever fundament they had been attached to before dying completely as they crashed and faded. After having brushed themselves off, the agents took a look upwards again.

 

Her pale face was wet with tears, but they must have been tears of joy since she was also smiling brilliantly. Her eyes were closed and her arms hung loosely at her sides where she sat on the little grassy hill.

“Okay, so the good news is that she can’t see us,” muttered Blank.

They had stepped out of the portal and into an entirely nondescript land, meaning the Word World had defaulted to some sort of plains that stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction. There was exactly one grassy hill, where the Sue was sitting. She was a very pretty brunette dressed in green, and quite obviously crying. Ekwy stared at her before Blank tugged her down so that they would be behind the Sue and well out of her line of sight when she opened her eyes. The Fellowship were approaching, so it was a matter of seconds before she did. Legolas had spotted her first.

At the sight of the Elf, Ekwy flinched.

Blank wrinkled her nose. “You didn’t have a registered Lust Object in this fandom. What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing!” squeaked Ekwy, which was an interesting sound for an Orc to make. “He just... Wow, he really looks like Orlando Bloom in the early 2000s, huh?”

“I guess?” Blank leaned in, squinting with her yellow eyes. “What, are you seriously blushing right now? Urgh, that is so embarrassing for you!”

“I am a very happily almost-married woman. I just have a fondness for the Elf, okay? I was fourteen when the Fellowship movie came out, I can’t help it. And, um, I was never assigned this fandom, so, uh, I didn’t think to register Legolas,” she added. “I can’t have registered every single character I had weird crushes on when I was a teenager, I’d never have gotten anything else done.”

“...You registered Yakko Warner from Animaniacs, and Legolas somehow slipped through the cracks?”

“Shut up!”

They watched as the Fellowship tried to decide whether or not to approach the Sue. None of them thought she looked particularly dangerous, but there was still a whole ceremony around the decision, where each member said their piece and gave their permission to walk closer.

“What is this, the Council of Elrond?” muttered Blank. “Let’s get a move on.”

The Sue asked them all to sit down.

 

“For you must be tired from your long journey.”

“We are my lady” said Sam and sat down in the grass with a pleased sigh. “But how did you know we have travelled far?”

Ekwy gestured to the empty plains around them. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, how else would you have gotten here?” She turned to Blank. “Where are we, even?”

“Somewhere... in the Wold, I think.” Blank frowned. “Very unclear. We don’t have Gandalf around and they’ve left Lórien far behind, but they’re not travelling by boat any more. They’re just, um... in the middle of this... field.” 

“So… they left their perfectly nice boats behind and started travelling on foot again, just to bump into the Sue? Seems like they’ll be late for the Breaking of the Fellowship at this rate.”

“Yup. The timeline is completely out of whack.”

Blank got out a notepad and started scribbling down charges. Ekwy focused on the scene. She was having a nasty, gurgling feeling in her stomach, and she was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the fact that she hadn’t had any dinner at work.

The Sue’s name was Moira. She knew all of the Fellowship’s names and wouldn’t tell them why, and they didn’t ask again when she told them not to. Clearly they were all deeply under her sway, and were all smiling vaguely. Then she treated them to a meal. Obviously the Hobbits trusted her immediately, since she provided them with food, and they all sat down and ate.

Ekwy gazed longingly at the food. The bread, cheese and sausage looked incredibly appetising; a cheese sandwich given to Sam had been quite lovingly described and it was making her mouth water. Maybe she could get close enough to grab something...

Her thoughts were interrupted by a time-skip in which the group had sat down to bond, with not a single murderous Orc attack in sight. The two agents grabbed a hold of it together and let the distortion pull them forward an hour, skipping the lovely little bonding session after which Moira naturally felt like part of the group and like she had been there from the start.

“Yeah, sure,” muttered Blank. “They’re just on a super-secret quest where the fate of the world is on the line. And she knows all your names. There is absolutely nothing suspicious about this.”

Ekwy was looking at Moira, shaking her head. “Oh, you little idiot,” she sighed. “You tiny, foolish infant child.”

“Feeling the anger yet?”

“No, not with this one... Worst is yet to come. She’s about to sing.”

“Oh yeah... You read ahead fast.”

The Sue cleared her throat.

 

In my hood there’s a boy making girls breathless

Serving tea at a local inn

And today even though it may seem hopeless

I go down on my stumbling feet

To speak with him, oh yeah

Ekwy gave a full-body shudder and squeezed her eyes shut.

Blank was wincing too. “Oh man... Okay, is this a real song?”

“Yeah,” said Ekwy, eyes still closed. “Lambretta’s ‘Perfect Tonight’. They, uh, were a Swedish rock group that had an album in 2001. But the lyrics are, er, a little altered. I suppose ‘serving tea down on 39th street’ didn’t sound Middle-earth appropriate. Which is why it doesn’t rhyme. But having characters sing is not exactly out of character for this fandom. They sing constantly.”

“Yeah, but not pop songs. And you’re not defending this choice, are you?”

“Oh, no, how could I possibly.” Ekwy paused. “But it was a rock song. So. Just saying.”

The Sue had launched into the chorus by now. Something about “the moon lighting up his Elfish smile” made them pause.

“That should be ‘devilish smile’,” Ekwy corrected. ”So it doesn’t flow at all. You should really make sure to count your syllables when rewriting lyrics. Trust me, I know.”

Blank gave her a disgusted look. “You are so far up your own ass right now.”

“You have no idea how far up it I can go.” I will be wearing myself as a hat before this is over, Ekwy added in her head. “But altering song lyrics, is that a charge?”

“Doubt it. Singing them in Middle-earth definitely is.”

The Sue had stopped singing. Legolas was watching her with a smile, his eyes completely glazed over. It was clear that he was the intended target here. He begged her to sing more.   

Ekwy was rubbing her temples. “Urgh, no, absolutely not, I can’t handle it. Can we skip ahead?”

“Just a little bit... There’s more action coming up.”

“Okay. Well. I’m going to cover my ears and hum if that’s alright?”

Moira sang the second verse, and Ekwy curled into a little ball, humming tunelessly to herself as she rocked back and forth. The voice of the Sue had a calming effect on the Hobbits, who basically had the characterisation of adoring toddlers around her, and eventually everyone agreed that they should be getting some rest. Legolas and Moira took first watch and sat chatting by the dimming embers of her campfire. It was made clear that Moira’s parents were dead, so some sort of tragic backstory seemed imminent, but no further information was given. This was because, after what seemed like only minutes of much-needed rest, those Orcs were finally attacking. The agents perked up a bit.

“So that’s changing the time of the Orc attack, or the place? Or both?”

“Probably both.” Blank’s hand was hovering over her notepad. “This environment is so poorly described we can’t be sure of anything.”

 

“They are coming closer” said Merry worriedly. “How many are they?”

“Twelve to fifteen, I would think” said Legolas. “We can take them with some luck.”

“Oh man, Legolas’ Elf senses are incredibly nerfed in this,” said Blank, shaking her head. “He’s basically just a prettier human. He should be able to give the exact number of Orcs, what kind they are, what weapons they have... He should be able to count their eyelashes!”

They watched as Legolas and Aragorn told Moira to run and hide, as this could be dangerous for a lady, and they made note of the flash of anger in her eyes. She did, however, take off sprinting towards a suddenly appearing dark green ribbon of trees. The whole scene had a bit of a Roadrunner feel to it.

“Hupp, she’s fast!” said Ekwy.

“Yes. Legolas does remark later on that he has a hard time keeping up with her. And she’s not even an Elf.”

“So is that overpowering herself, or de-powering Legolas?”

“Dunno. Let’s check!”

Blank grabbed the CAD and pointed it at Legolas. It beeped as if personally insulted.

[LEGOLAS GREENLEAF. Canonnoncanoncanon character. CanonNOTcharacter. Character. OOC LEVEL: 65%???? !!!!]

The CAD made a sad noise and shut itself off.

“I am going to go with de-powering Legolas,” Blank concluded. “I mean... she thinks his actual last name is Greenleaf. All bets are off.”

Frodo had shouted out a warning that she was heading into Fangorn, but the Sue was long gone.

“Well, how nice of her to give the Ringbearer a line,” sighed Ekwy. “Does Frodo know anything about Fangorn? Why is he the one warning her about it?”

“No idea. There are other characters where that line would probably make more sense. And this confirms it. They just ditched the boats long before ever reaching the Argonath and started walking again for absolutely no reason. And they have veered stupidly far west to be within running distance of Fangorn. Like, several days off course. Are we following her, or...?”

The agents spotted the Orcs, in black armour marked with the white hand of Saruman, and carrying black, curved swords. They stopped to sniff the air, even though at this distance they definitely should have been able to see the Fellowship already.

 

“We should not have stayed” said Aragorn grimly. “We should have kept going.”

“Too late now ,” said Blank, and looked very surprised when Boromir calmly stated much the same thing. “Is this fic self-aware?”

“Nope. Irony level is at zero percent.”

“You didn’t even do a reading.”

“Don’t need to. This fic is one hundred percent sincere.” Ekwy paused. “Also, we have devices for irony detection now?”

The Orcs attacked. Legolas fired arrows at them, hitting plenty, and when he ran out the others attacked with drawn weapons. The Fellowship fought quite well without the Sue: even Sam stabbed a gnarly-looking Orc with his short blade, and despite them being slightly outmanned things didn’t look completely hopeless. That was until Legolas was jumped by a very heavy Orc who sat down on his chest. There was a strange time dilation happening as well, where Gimli seemed to run in slow-motion. The Orc wanted to draw out the slaughter of the Elf, but with the battle raging around them there was no time for him to actually do that. Legolas’ eyes were wide in fear and the knife was inching ever closer, and Ekwy found herself struggling against Blank’s grip. The Orc’s teeth were yellow and full of worms for some reason.

“Stop that!” hissed Blank, shoving Ekwy down on the ground. “He’ll be fine. You know the Sue’s got this! What’s with the teeth thing?”

Ekwy calmed down long enough to scan the Words again, awkwardly running her fingers through the loose strands of hair on her head. “Um... I think that might be a translation error. The fic says the teeth are ‘worm-eaten’, which could be interpreted as both ‘affected by woodworm’ or ‘affected by tooth-rot’, but, um, it doesn’t seem to be working so well in English.”

Of course Blank had been entirely right in not worrying about Legolas. He was promptly rescued by Moira, who shot a grey goose-fletched arrow into the side of the Orc, causing it to shudder and fall away.

“Alright, so... Cool.” Ekwy looked embarrassed. “Only reason she ran off was to make a grand rescue later. Now it makes sense. She could have just told them she could help with the fighting before it started. Can we skip any of this?”

Blank scanned ahead. “I mean... you’d think. Look, we’ll skip some stuff, okay? She doesn’t technically join the Fellowship until morning. Since, as Gimli puts it: ‘We are not nine any longer,’ they seem to need a Sue to fill in their ranks.”

“Right. She’s not a Tenth Walker. She’s a replacement for Gandalf.”

“So she gets by on a technicality.” Blank shrugged. “It definitely still counts. And she’s keeping the Fellowship together when they should be breaking apart for very important story reasons.”

“So are we skipping to tomorrow? Obviously they wipe the floor with the remaining Orcs while she’s helping, and Boromir is nowhere close to dying. The Quest is still completely off the rails, and I really don’t want to watch the dream sequence. She sings in it.”

“She sings in her own dream sequence?”

“No. Legolas is having a dream sequence. Is that a thing? Do Elves dream?”

“Not that it matters. He is barely an Elf anymore. But Tolkien Elves definitely do dream, and a case can be made for them doing so in a sleep-like state. Bleeprin?”

Blank held out the bottle to Ekwy, who only stared at it.

“I don’t... I haven’t had any of that in years. I’m not sure what it would do to me at this point.”

“Well, suit yourself.”

The surroundings faded to black as they entered Legolas’ dream. It was a touch disjointed, echoing with the same butchered song that Moira had already been singing, but it ended with a disembodied voice proclaiming:

 

The one who can catch an arrow in its flight

Who can run fast with long steps

The one who laughs, weeps, fights by your side

Who has suffered so many times

Who has stained the ground with Orc blood

She is the one who soon will snare your heart

The voice laughed at him and taunted him for not figuring out what was obviously, painfully clear to anyone over the age of four. Blank burst out laughing. Ekwy was dry-heaving against a suddenly appearing tree, mortified to the point of not being able to breathe.

“Oh wow...” she whimpered. “Oh, it’s terrible... Oh, that little idiot...”

“Yeah, we should kill her just for that.”

“I don’t think we’re even close to done.” Ekwy groaned. “Oh Bast... Okay. I’m okay.”

Legolas woke up. Aragorn, cheerful like a summer camp leader, encouraged everyone to do the same, because today was all about walking. After a quick scan, the agents could confirm that Aragorn was also bordering on Character Rupture. While he officially allowed Moira into the Fellowship, and Legolas idly thought she looked pretty when she smiled, Blank was having a personal crisis about the reason.

“Mordor is that way, fellas! You’re heading the wrong way! WHY ARE YOU HEADING INTO FANGORN FOREST?”

Ekwy squinted at the Words. “They’re going to Elfhome.”

“What in the name of everything Tolkien is ‘Elfhome’?”

“It’s that Elf habitat in the middle of Fangorn that she made up.”

“Oh.” Blank considered it for a few seconds. “Well, I hate it.”

“Of course you do. It’s described as having ‘a tall tower reaching over the treetops’ and ‘though it is not as large as Rivendell, it is just as pretty and the Elves are just as nice as in Elrond’s kingdom’.”

Blank waved a hand. “Okay, I don’t even have time for all the ways that’s wrong. I mean, ‘kingdom’ alone... So, we’re burning this Elfhome place, then?”

“And everyone in it.” Ekwy tapped her finger against her lip. “Not sure how we do that without burning the whole forest down...”

The pale Orc thought about it. “Hmm. Well, I might know someone who’d know. Just hope she’s in a good mood.”

She grabbed her phone, a boxy old-fashioned kind that reminded Ekwy mostly of something her mother-in-law might use; a phone you could talk on, maybe send text messages, but absolutely nothing else.

Blank found the number and delicately placed the phone to her mangled head before thinking better of it and activating the speaker. A signal or two passed while the line crackled unpleasantly. Apparently Middle-earth reception left a few things to be desired.

Eventually they stopped as someone on the other end accepted the call.

“Hi, is this DOGA?” asked Blank.

More crackling. Then a female voice answered, sounding a little confused. “Er, no. This is Agent Selene, Department of Floaters.”

Blank groaned. “Great, my phone turned on the stupid departmental call filtering again... But hey, you’re close enough. You used to be a Pyro, right?”

“Actually,” said the voice of Agent Selene with enough acid to metaphorically melt plastic, “pyromania is not exclusive to the Department of Geographical Aberrations.” She paused. “But yes.”

“Great! Because we kind of have an issue related to that.” She briefly explained the problem. “And we thought it was best to ask a professional. You see the problem, I’m sure?”

The crackling now had an extra edge to it.

“Not a problem,” said Selene thoughtfully. “The Entwade could act as a firebreak; it should be large enough with several streams feeding it. I’d recommend incendiary charges, the exact number depending on the size of the habitat, and then use a strong wind to drive the flames through Elfhome, towards the river.”

Blank waited politely, but further instructions did not come. “Okay,” she said. “Uh. How do we make a strong wind happen?”

“I don’t know. Play to your strengths, I suppose. Any latent superpowers? Know any Airbenders? An appeal to Manwë might work. I could keep making suggestions, of course, but feel free to cut in at any time.”

“The only superpower I’m aware of having is not really wind-based,” sighed Blank. “But... thanks anyway, Agent Selene.”

“I’m quite good at finding ripe avocados when shopping,” offered Ekwy. “...But I guess that’s not great for this. Pretty useful in the Real World, though.”

Her reveal fell on deaf ears. Reception was getting worse and worse, and they could barely make out Selene’s voice anymore. Eventually Blank just hollered a couple more thank-yous into the receiver and ended the call.

“Well,” she said. “All of that sounded very hard and very risky, so we’re not doing it.”

“Oh.” Ekwy tilted her head. “So... I’ve been away a while. What are our options except burning?”

“I... don’t know.” Blank thought about it for a moment. “Nope, still don’t know. We’ll figure it out. ‘Appeal to Manwë’ indeed...” She snorted. “That’d go over well.”

“Well, whatever we do will have to wait until the Sue leaves anyway,” said Ekwy. “They stay the night. Because why wouldn’t they, right? They obviously have all the time in the world.”

There was some more very light flirting between Legolas and Moira, something about him admiring her clever mind or something, and then the Sue dramatically revealed that she had an animal companion, a fairly nondescript bird named Mellon. The agents were too bummed out about the current state of the Quest to make a note of it. The bird didn’t seem like much of a Cute Animal Friend, if they were being perfectly honest. It was probably some sort of corvid, so quite an intelligent species, but didn’t seem to have any special powers apart from having learned the trick to bow when introduced. They definitely loathed its name, though.

Elfhome was very poorly described. Apparently the Words thought it was plenty to just compare it to Rivendell and let you fill in the blanks yourself, meaning that what the agents found was a smaller copy of the Last Homely House plonked into Fangorn, with an oddly shaped tower shooting up in the middle. It was jarring, to say the least. It didn’t help that it was flickering in places, as canon was trying to reestablish itself and let the forest swallow the building.

They followed the Fellowship inside. Moira apparently had an Elf name, “Wirdith,” and was considered a friend in Elfhome, so she had a room ready and waiting for her already.

“And we have a time-skip coming up...” said Blank thoughtfully. “But I thought we could use the time for something else. I have an idea. Might need to calibrate the activator, though. I was never good at that.”

“I can do that,” said Ekwy.

“You can?”

“I used to. Mil was always better at magic. I did the technical stuff.”

Blank considered it. “It would probably be very irresponsible of me to let you have this.”

“Oh, definitely. Give it here.”

Blank shrugged and handed over the remote portal activator. Ekwy puzzled over it for a few seconds, pushed in some random buttons, and pondered the flashes of colour that sputtered out and hovered in the air without exploding into a portal.

“I think I’ve got this... Where do you want to go, anyway?”

“Deeper into Fangorn. As far away from this damn house of fools as possible. Can you get us out of Sue range?”

“I think so. Wait, what are you... Oh.” Ekwy nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think I get your idea.”

“Exactly.”

“Would solve the fire problem.”

“Yeah, that was my thought.”

“How would that work for time, though?”

“They’d have a day to think it over. But I doubt they’ll even hesitate, considering the damage to Fangorn this place is doing.”

“Alright, cool.” Ekwy pressed Execute Command and grinned at the portal materialising in front of them. “Like riding a bloody bicycle.”

They stepped through.

A few hours later they came back out again. They both looked tired, but fairly pleased. It had been quite the task explaining themselves, and they had been forced to leave before any consensus had been reached, but they still felt fairly hopeful that a seed had been planted.

“And we’re just in time for the feast!” said Blank cheerfully.

“That would be nice. I’m starving. But first we have...” Ekwy winced. “Oh no.”

Because the Fellowship, sans Moira, stood gathered at the bottom of a long flight of stairs, waiting for the Sue. Aragorn was grumping about being late, but he instantly shut up as Moira appeared, striding down the stairs. The transformation was incredible. She looked so different, elegant but modest, shyly smiling and flushed a little pink. They were all astonished to see her, staring in wonderment at this strangely beautiful woman, and the one who was the most struck dumb was obviously Legolas.

“I mean... All she did was take a bath and brush her hair.” Blank scratched her head. “And borrowed a posh dress.”

“It’s like I can hear Sixpence None The Richer,” muttered Ekwy. “It’s so indulgent, I’m embarrassed for it.”

The Elfhome ballroom was one of the most beautiful things the Fellowship had ever seen in their lives, boasted the Words. But what they then went on to describe were walls that shimmered in silver for some reason, casting weird reflections in everyone’s faces and making the place look haunted. At the end of the ballroom there was a large gate of silver and crystal, and soon a new character blinked into existence. It was such a dramatic reveal it caused a chapter change that left the agents a little light-headed.

They blinked at the new arrival. She was a tall Elf with snow-white hair and baby blue eyes, and her beauty made Pippin tear up. Why he was singled out to be the sole reactor was very unclear. The Elf opened her mouth to speak, but what came out was a series of trills and tweets, which somehow none of the characters thought was strange at all.

“What the...” Ekwy glanced at the Words. “Ah, never mind... She has a voice like birdsong. Sure.”

Blank was a little too stuck on the name of the Elf to focus on anything else.

“Queen Rondomodith,” she said slowly. “ Queen Rondomodith. Queen Rondomodith.”

“Doesn’t get better, does it?”

“It’s... I’m just trying to figure out exactly what happened here.”

“She pulled some syllables out of a hat? ‘Wirdith’ was bad enough. This is... stunningly awful. Oh, food!”

The Queen had clapped her hands, and tables laden with food had appeared from thin air. Clearly there were elements of Harry Potter in this fic, but the similarities ended there. Apart from smelling nice, the food was not described at all. The result was Generic Food™, slopped unappetizingly on golden plates, to the enthusiasm of Hobbits and disappointment of PPC agents. Still, Ekwy had not eaten all evening, so she shrugged and grabbed a plate. The Food™ tasted like... something. It was a food flavour, but that was definitely all that could be said about it. The smell helped a little.

“So it’s not great, but at least there’s a lot of it,” said Ekwy. “And the gold plates were a terrible idea. It’s gone completely cold.”

Moira and the Queen were talking in hushed tones, although the Queen’s lines sounded quite a lot like arguing parakeets. Moira looked just about to cry. They left the ballroom almost immediately for a private conversation that the agents could not care less about.

“Do you think,” said Blank conversationally, “that a shadow and a threat has been growing in her mind?”

“Oh, I assume that a shadow and a threat has been growing in her mind.” Ekwy stabbed an undefined morsel and chomped down with her Orc fangs. “That and some general grief about the Elves disappearing. She seems to care a lot about that.”

Blank grinned. “Come on. You’re having fun. Admit it.”

“I mean... I might be. Doesn’t mean anything. I can’t be a teenager again.”

Blank rolled her eyes. “You know... just because a road leads you to a place you’ve been before doesn’t mean you’re going backwards.”

“No? Kind of feels that way...” Ekwy’s eyes widened. “Where is the Sue?”

Blank stood up. “Where’s Legolas?”

The Queen had returned to the ballroom, but Legolas had left. Ekwy groaned.

“Well, I can imagine what they’re up to,” muttered Blank.

“It’s not that kind of fic,” said Ekwy, waving a hand. “It’s very chaste. But we should check it out.”

Finding Moira’s bedroom turned out to be somewhat of a chore, though. Moira herself could walk to it in her sleep, but this did not translate to easy from the agents’ perspective. They lost their way almost immediately after ascending the same staircase Moira had come down earlier and spent twenty minutes hopelessly lost before descending again.

“We missed it,” said Blank after a look at the Words. “Legolas came to comfort her, they kissed, he remembered his dumb dream prophecy thing and stopped anything else from happening, and left. And now the Sue is crying again. She really kind of does that a lot, huh?”

“Yes. She is some sort of half-warrior Sue and half-angsty Sue, and her backstory is so secret and terrible that she cannot even begin to describe it. Anyway, the Fellowship leaves in the morning. I’m assuming we’re staying the night?”

“Yup. Guess this place has a lot of empty bedrooms. I’m gonna go steal one of those gold goblet things. Want one?”

“Not really my style.”

“Really?” Blank shrugged. “Suit yourself. Pointless Sue bling really brightens up a response centre. Besides, I’m making a dragon hoard for a friend.”

“Mmm... I’ll find my own souvenir.”

They dragged themselves into a nondescript spare bedroom and crashed immediately. Ekwy stared into the darkness long after Blank had started snoring.

It had seemed like an innocent trip into the past, this weird spur-of-the-moment decision. Being in this particular fic, too... You really had to wonder if it might have been on purpose. A specific mission sent by the Flowers to spark her interest.

She hadn’t left on particularly bad terms. The Real World had pulled her in and she had gone voluntarily, safe in the knowledge that the PPC was ticking along just fine without her. Milano had gone, Nea had gone... There had been things to do, lessons to learn. The PPC had become a nice memory, and a finished chapter. The difference was, the others had stayed gone. Ekwy had really thought she would stay gone too.

Maybe it was a last hurrah. A final adventure. Was that good? She’d lived without adventures so long, had replaced them with other things, that she just hadn’t paused to consider if maybe she missed them, after all.

The Food™ sat like a stone in her stomach. Ekwy turned around in her nondescript bed and, after a lot of internal monologue about her motivation that ended up going in circles, finally fell asleep.

* * *

The Fellowship left the next day, with a very sad Sue. They were set to be walking for a few hours before any plot started up again, so the agents watched them leave from their room. Once they were gone, Blank hoisted her black bow and quiver full of arrows.

“So,” she said. “Time to clean house. We only seem to have two named Elves, so that shouldn’t be too much of a bother. The rest are faceless randoms. If Plan A works out for getting rid of Elfhome, then that should be plenty to get rid of them... They don’t really seem to be people, you know?”

“Yeah... So we have the Queen, I suppose. Who else?”

“Some Haldir-ripoff named Estar.”

Ekwy paused, considering it. “That... actually kind of sounds like Elven.”

“Yeah. My Sindarin is rusty to the point of disintegrating, but it is actually a verb. It means ‘is called.’ As in... he is literally called ‘is called’.”

“Huh.” Ekwy gave a long-suffering sigh. “Of course, yeah. We can’t have nice things.”

“So which one of them do you want?”

Ekwy’s eyes widened. “What, me? You want me to actually kill something?”

“I mean, that is why we’re here. You still remember how?”

“Well, it’s not particularly difficult, is it? Pointy end goes into the Sue.” Ekwy took out her feather knife, scanning the razor-sharp edge. “I suppose I’ll deal with the Queen.”

They agreed to meet up by the tower, since that was the only defining feature of Elfhome, and then they split up. Since Estar had only ever been mentioned as hanging out outside, and the Queen only ever as spending time in the ballroom, those were the places each of the agents went for. The Words had not given any of the Elves anything to do, and there was not enough characterisation for either of them to have personalities to continue fuelling them after the narrative had turned elsewhere.

Ekwy snuck into the ballroom. The walls continued to cast their weird reflections, like giant disco-ball funhouse mirrors. By her silver and crystal doors stood Queen Rondomodith, smiling vaguely at nothing in particular, perhaps just waiting for random travellers to welcome. The flickering lights, the tall figure dressed in white, the complete silence... it was eerie.

When an Orc stepped out of the shadows, she barely reacted. After all, nothing bad could ever happen in Elfhome, so the Queen just kept smiling. She whistled something in birdsong, perhaps a question, perhaps a welcome. The Orc sighed.

“Alright,” it said, sounding vaguely defeated. “Queen Rondomodith of Elfhome. You are charged with the following: Being a Mary Sue of some category, having a very silly and uncanonical Grelvish name, creating a bad copy of Rivendell in Fangorn Forest, being a bad copy of Lady Galadriel, and calling yourself Queen of anything. It’s not really your fault, you were just caught up in it. But the punishment is still death.”

Queen Rondomodith barely reacted. Not even when the Orc drew a knife, took two steps forward and stabbed her in the chest did she give any sound at all other than a somewhat surprised chirp. Ekwy pulled the feather knife out and used the Queen’s white dress to wipe it clean.

“Really sorry,” she told the corpse. “Try and be your own thing next time, instead of being a bad version of someone else.”

A tremble went through Elfhome the second its Queen died. Ekwy sheathed the knife again. Definitely time to go. She exited the ballroom and jogged towards the tower. Wow, it really was nondescript. Blank was already there waiting for her, picking her nails with an arrow.

“All good?” she asked.

“Yeah. They really don’t put up much of a fight when they’re just barely characters on their own, do they?”

“Nope. Estar kind of seemed to welcome death, to be honest.”

There was a rustle of wind in the trees, a murmur that rose in intensity. The agents glanced around. Somehow, Fangorn seemed more... described. A dark green, with knotted, wild and sprawling trees, with a musty scent of rotting wood and leaf-litter, ancient and deep and alive . Somehow in the midst of it there was a creaking sound, a breaking sound. A low, insistent hum.

“Is... are the trees... moving?” whispered Ekwy.

Blank sounded little and awed. “Uh... Yeah. Yeah. I think we got through to them. So. That’s good. Right?”

“Definitely good. Saves us the work of—RUN!”

A boulder the size of a car was flung out of the forest. It hit the tower of Elfhome straight on, and the tower started to crumble. That was definitely good, apart from the fact that the agents were still right next to it. They took off immediately, instinctively ducking falling debris until they were out of range enough to turn and look. In Ekwy’s case that took another solid minute. She was panting heavily and tasting blood. She was out of shape. Really and terribly out of shape.

Fangorn was definitely stirring. Ents were coming out of it, ripping into Elfhome with every available weapon they had. They kicked down walls, lobbed more massive rocks in through the roof, and smashed what was left into bits. There was no River Isen to redirect, but this felt visceral in its own right. They could hear, faintly, a rumbling voice growling, “A Wizard should know better!”

“I mean, that should be Elf, right?” said Blank, frowning. “The Queen was definitely an Elf. Or does Treebeard think that Saruman was behind this?”

“No idea!” said Ekwy a little too quickly. “I mean, we might possibly never know. So! Are we catching up with the Fellowship?”

“What’s the matter with you? How far ahead have you read?”

“Nothing. I didn’t read ahead!” Ekwy refused to look Blank in the eyes. “We should definitely keep going. Huge relief about not having to set the place on fire, right?”

“Yeah...” Blank was still looking wary. “Definitely.”

“I’ll get us caught up with the Fellowship! I think we can skip ahead a bit. The Fellowship set up camp in a few hours and the mood is just terrible. Legolas sings ‘In Dreams’ from the soundtrack, Moira starts crying again and runs off... And then Legolas runs after her. I think we might need to watch that. He makes a really dumb speech.”

She completely ignored Blank’s suspicious look and opened the portal. Blank kept looking at her the entire way, and didn’t stop even as they reached the other end and the portal faded behind them.

Her attention only snapped back to the fic when she spotted Legolas and Moira straight ahead, once more standing in a boring plain of no great consequence. Legolas was holding a piece of wood. No size had been given, but it was definitely dead, and probably rotting. They glanced at the Words to learn why that was.

 

“This wood comes from Fangorn,” he said. “I took it from the ground, it has long since been dead.”

“I don’t think that wood is any good to carve anything out of,” Blank pointed out. “I mean, I’m no expert. But wood that you’re planning to make something out of should probably not be some random stick you found on the ground.”

Legolas continued by unsheathing his knife and starting to carve something from the piece of wood. Moira watched him, her eyelashes still fringed with tears. It was like she never did anything but cry around him. The Elf, in turn, was actually starting to look more and more like a human in an ill-fitting Elf costume, which caused Ekwy to wince. He even had awkward, rubber Elf ears.

 

“For all of my long life I have felt like a piece of wood” sighed the elf quite sadly while whittling. “But lately I have felt... I don’t know. More alive.”

“Gee, wonder why,” muttered Blank. “Could it be that he’s finally found someone worth living for?”

Legolas held up his new creation. It was a little flute. He then put it to his lips and played the melody of ‘In Dreams’, which the agents didn’t mind, as such. It was canon-adjacent, and would probably have sounded quite pretty if the flute had been made out of anything other than rotting wood. As it was, he could barely get sound out of it. But that didn’t seem to matter. He just kept going.

 

“I am endlessly old, Moira. I do not look it, but the elves are one of the oldest races in existence. We never die. Very few of us can stand the infinite life.” He held out the little flute. “Those few are like flutes. They sing, they live, they are joyful in life. Queen Galadriel of Lothlórien is a true flute. But the rest of us, we seek adventure because we cannot stand the slow, immortal life. We are little pieces of wood. But in every little piece of wood there is a hidden flute.”

Ekwy’s face was flushed scarlet, and she was struggling to find any words. Blank was on the ground, helplessly convulsing with laughter, tears streaming from her eyes. She was laughing so hard no sound came out of her mouth, and she was holding her stomach as her body shook. It took a good few minutes for her to stop, and even then she was still giggling madly. She couldn’t even look at the Words for fear of starting back up again.

Ekwy was rubbing her face. “...So that was... a lot.”

Blank erupted into laughter again. “Sorry! Sorry, I just remembered that Queen Galadriel of Lothlórien is a true flute. I want that on a t-shirt so badly! What’s with this Sue and everyone being queens of everything? Galadriel is a Lady of Lórien.”

“Might be a translation thing, too,” muttered Ekwy. “The ‘Lady’ title doesn’t really exist in Swedish. I’m pretty sure we refer to her as a queen a lot in the translations. It would have been the only word she could really use that meant roughly the same thing.” She took a deep breath. “So that’s it for the chapter.”

“Oh no, we are not even close to done dissecting that nugget. Elves are not ‘one of the oldest races in existence’, they are literally the oldest. They are called the Firstborn. Why in the world would a race that has always been immortal not be able to deal with being immortal?”

Ekwy coughed. “I guess the Sue thought she was sounding very deep.” But really she just sounded very young, she added in her head.

“She sounds like an idiot, is what she sounds like,” said Blank soberly. “An idiot with a limited, human perspective.”

“Well, aren’t we all?”

Blank glared at her. “I can’t believe you’re not more angry about this! She’s being paired with your Lust Object, for one thing, and she’s infecting him with stupid! Did you not just hear the Legolas Is a Little Piece of Wood speech?” She interrupted herself. “Yeah, I want that on the back of the t-shirt.”

“No, I heard it. And I am agreeing with you. She is a Mary Sue, and she is stupid, and all of this is an obvious ploy to get with Legolas, but...” Ekwy shrugged. “It doesn’t fill me with rage. What am I supposed to do, come at her with an axe and battle for Legolas’ honour?”

“I mean, yeah. You could do that.”

“Blank, I am 34 years old. It has been a really long time since I felt like that about a fictional character.”

They heard a THUD coming from the fic and blinked in surprise. Apparently Moira had been knocked on the head by some suddenly appearing Orcs and was now being taken to Isengard. She was unconscious, meaning the lighting in the fic had dimmed considerably.

Blank made a face. “Oh great... We were just starting to get the Quest back on track, but now we’re gonna have to go the wrong way again.”

The Fellowship did indeed seem keen on saving the Sue, and quickly set off to follow the Orcs. It was reminiscent of the plan to rescue Merry and Pippin, except that Frodo was still very much part of the group and was looking a little worse for wear every day. Every second extra that was spent on derailing his mission was costing him.

“Let’s skip ahead,” sighed Ekwy. “We have Saruman asking Moira what makes her so powerful that she can kill or scare off thirteen Orcs that were too much for eight men, and when she bravely refuses to answer he throws her in a dungeon. Apparently he lives in a ‘nightmare castle’ now instead of Orthanc, so that’s an interesting charge.”

“Fine.” Blank crossed her arms. Her face was a tapestry of irritation.

“And the Fellowship is trying to figure out a plan to save her. Sam, um, comes up with something about luring the Orcs into a cave and trapping them there? I don’t know how well that would work, we are dealing with tens of thousands of them, but at least the Sue is trying to let the other characters do something, right?”

“I guess. It’s a shame she’s so stupid.”

“But they do seem to remember the Ring, suddenly, and that it’s a really bad idea to let the enemy be this close to it.”

“Oh, well, let’s give this Sue a medal, then, for remembering the whole point of the books!” Blank’s eyes flashed in fury. “You keep defending this. Why are you defending this?” It wasn’t just her eyes now. Suspicion had crept into her voice, too.

Ekwy took a deep breath. “So. I think we only have two major charges left. We should... probably get it over with. Because, well, of course the Fellowship saves her, even though she actually saves herself. Boromir dies in this fight and is buried, so... I assume we’ll have to dig him up and put him on a boat, and when they get back to camp they’ll find that Frodo and Sam have left for Mordor. That puts us... sort of on track, even though the Hobbit duo are miles away from where they’re supposed to be. Moira wanders around in the Misty Mountains for a while after that, mourning Boromir while the others handle the actual burial and... actually mourn, since they were the ones that knew him and travelled with him for months before Moira broke in. Her father, er, actually died the same way. Orc arrow to the chest.” Ekwy scratched her head, flushing before concluding, “And after that the Fellowship fractures even more, until Legolas is the only one still travelling with Moira. The rest head for Minas Tirith to tell the Steward of Gondor about his son.”

“They’ll need to be neuralyzed,” said Blank. “We’ll split up. You dig up the corpse, and I’ll run around getting people back on track. I’ll start with Frodo and Sam. The Ents too, so they’re excited to smash Isengard into tiny bits.”

Ekwy looked a little green. “...Or maybe you could dig up the corpse?”

“Oh, he’s basically fresh. You’ll do fine. The grave isn’t mentioned again, so you’ll be able to work undisturbed. We can still save this train-wreck. Go team.”

“Yes, yes,” muttered Ekwy. “Go team. Got a shovel?”

“Aw... I totally forgot to pack a shovel.” Blank didn’t sound particularly sorry, though. Her gaze had gone very steely, and her movements were harsh.

She knows. Ekwy shrank away. “Right.”

The fic hadn’t exactly caught up with her synopsis yet. Moira was still off in the mountains somewhere, moping over someone she had only known for a few days, and Legolas was on track to fetch her. They had a little goblin attack to deal with that would be another chance for the Sue to show off her fighting skills, and presumably also catch arrows in their flight and have that not be noticed by Legolas. The remaining Fellowship were hanging out at camp, oblivious to the agents. As Blank portalled out, Ekwy rooted around for something to dig with. Eventually she found an Orc shield split in half, presumably by Gimli’s axe, so she slung it across her shoulder and started walking towards the mound where Boromir was buried. She scraped half-heartedly at the dirt. At least it was still fresh. It wouldn’t be too much of a pain to dig it up.

“Who knew this would come back to bite me,” she muttered to herself between scoops. She waved a massive Orc hand around as she ranted to the world at large. “Well, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about not knowing any better. I’m sorry about ruining everything. I’m sorry about being fourteen years old and doing something real stupid.”

She dug for a few more minutes in silence. Eventually she unearthed Boromir, Captain of the White Tower, who lay still and pale with his sword laid upon him and his eyes closed.

“At least this wasn’t my fault,” sighed Ekwy with a nod to the body. “But I am sorry you died saving a Sue instead of saving Merry and Pippin. You definitely deserved better than that.”

Things were happening over at camp. Moira was bringing an unconscious Legolas back. He’d taken a goblin arrow to the side. Aragorn, who apparently was becoming more IC since some of the canon story beats had finally happened, immediately got to work with healing the Elf. Moira was vibrating slightly, like she was just barely controlling her anger.

Anger?

Ekwy glanced at the Words. Definitely anger. So Moira had stopped bursting into tears at every opportunity; indeed, while captured by Saruman she had even expressed annoyance at herself for crying so much. Her powers could be explosive when angry, but they seemed limited to one burst of energy, and then there was some recharging necessary. How old was she? Unclear. But if Ekwy knew herself, she’d probably be about sixteen. Once upon a time she had been convinced that if anything magical were to happen to her, it would be the day she turned sixteen. In a way, she had been right.

“That could work,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Yeah. That could work pretty well.”

Speaking of Saruman, where had he gone off to? He definitely didn’t seem to be in his spooky nightmare castle anymore. They should figure that out and have him reinstated in Orthanc once canon snapped back.

Moira went to sleep quickly after returning with Legolas. It would be a few hours before she woke up, and no one was planning to do any travelling until Legolas’ wound had healed. Ekwy pondered going off in search of Saruman, but there was the issue of leaving Boromir. There could be wild animals, or even goblins about. She preferred to not really think about what might happen if she left her post.

Eventually Blank returned, with a drenched trouser leg that smelled of rot and, if possible, in an even fouler mood than before.

“Well, Frodo and Sam have forgotten all about what’s-her-name,” she reported. “But the portal was acting up and it took for-frickin’-ever to get the right coordinates for Emyn Muil! I took a left turn and ended up in the Dead Marshes. It is not a place where you want to be lost for even a second, let me tell you!” She glared at Ekwy. “I am not happy.”

“You don’t really strike me as a very happy person,” said Ekwy with a shrug. “But the Hobbits will find Gollum?”

“Eventually. They’ll be fine. We can let them be on their merry way, no pun intended.” She nodded to Boromir. “Well. See you did your part.”

“Yes. And once this is done, we need to check on Saruman. He doesn’t seem to be in his castle anymore; there is no mention of him anywhere.”

Blank made a sound that was between a grunt and a growl. “Lots of little loose threads to tie up. It’s a fine mess you’ve made of things.”

“Well, I am fixing it! And I’m planning on making it up to you.”

“I don’t want an escape room gift-card.”

“You’re not getting one,” snorted Ekwy. “They’re expensive. I’m getting you a new partner.”

Blank raised a pale eyebrow. “...So you’re coming around?”

“In a way.”

“I knew I’d get through to you.”

Well, at least it had cheered her up enough. They made a makeshift stretcher to be able to carry Boromir’s body with some degree of dignity, and portalled to the banks of the Anduin. The Elven boats that Lady Galadriel had given the Fellowship (and which they had so carelessly discarded while under the Sue’s influence) were not difficult to find, having floated into a little eddy to bob up and down, as if waiting for the agents to appear.

Boromir was laid to rest in one of the boats, his sword in his hands and his shield behind him. Blank brushed some stray dirt off his clothes. The Horn of Gondor, completely unmentioned by the Sue, had in obedience with canon broken in half. Blank gently placed it in the boat with him.  

“Half acceptable,” she deemed him. “Well then. Goodnight, sweet prince. To Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, until the end of days. Sorry, I can only remember the last line.”

The river swept the Steward-prince of Gondor away, and eventually the waterfall would claim him. It seemed like this, too, was tied up in a knot.

“Still got Saruman,” said Blank upon returning to the camp outside of Isengard. “Since the plot doesn’t seem to be starting up any time soon. How long until Legolas is fit to travel?”

“Um... unclear. It says he gets better fast, but that the wound still won’t fully heal and they are staying put until he is all better. At least another night?”

“Plenty of time, then.”

As it happened, it took a few hours to discover the plothole that had swallowed Saruman, especially since the presence of Moira meant that the nightmare castle was still very much a thing. It was black, with winding tunnels and a lot of spider web, and definitely haunted, but in a childishly spooky way, which meant jumpscares and ghosts made out of hanging sheets. It got old fast.

They found the plothole at the very top of a tower that had probably been Orthanc, and pulled out a very sullen Saruman.

“I’m really sorry about this.” Ekwy talked fast to avoid being slammed into the wall by a furious Wizard. “Look over here!”

Flash.

“You are Saruman of Many Colours, and as soon as Orthanc is back to its normal self, you will go back to doing whatever you were doing before it turned into a spooky castle. You will not remember kidnapping any random women, and any dead Orcs you may run into are of no great concern to you. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

Saruman blinked, and nodded. They left him there to wait for a time when the Sue was out of range, and left the castle. As soon as they were outside and could breathe fresh air again, they both heaved a sigh of relief.

“Alright,” said Blank. “We’ll get Aragorn, Gimli, Merry and Pippin when they break away from the Sue. We’ll put the Hobbits near Fangorn; I’m sure the Orcs that should have kidnapped them are missing them. And we’ll put the Hunters on course to reach Fangorn in time to meet up with Gandalf, with Legolas set to catch up with them once we charge Moira. And that should wrap things up, I think. You said we had two huge charges coming up?”

Ekwy nodded. “Yeah. The first is just after they say goodbye to everyone who isn’t a hot Elf. Legolas will play ‘In Dreams’ at their departure, and Moira will sing. It’s like she doesn’t know any other songs. And she writes all of the lyrics out every. single. time. I would be totally fine skipping that part.”

“Fine with me. Portal us to the charge, and get this mission over and done with.”

* * *

After some shuffling around and a truly excessive use of the neuralyzer, most of the canon characters were on course to do what they were supposed to, and the agents turned their attention back to the Sue. She was sitting down with Legolas for a heart-to-heart, in which she was finally allowing him to know her no-doubt-tragic backstory. It was with great solemnity that she announced that she was not human, but an Istar. To Legolas’ credit, he questioned this immediately, saying that all Istari were male wizards. Moira modified her claim by saying that her father had been “one of the greatest Istari” but that he had perished after an Orc attack on Minas Tirith, and her half-elven mother had faded away from grief not long after.

Blank turned to Ekwy. “So,” she said sweetly. “Which Istar?”

“One of the blue ones?” Ekwy scratched her head awkwardly. “Um... I mean, we don’t know much about them, and I don’t think she’s claiming Gandalf, Saruman or Radagast.”

“One of the blue Istari died from an arrow to the heart? Guess the Valar didn’t consider his job unfinished. It’s less impressive than going down in a Balrog-fight, I guess. Care to explain your reasoning here?”

“Nope,” sighed Ekwy. “I know you’re right.”

Blank glared at her. “I don’t know what is more annoying: You trying to justify anything in this story, or you just agreeing with me.”

“I’m not justifying anything. I’m just saying, I’ve definitely seen worse Sues than Moira.”

“She is a Tenth Walker who derailed the entire plot of the story! That is worthy of assassination all on its own. She has a Cute Animal Friend, she is faster than an Elf, she is a master archer, she is ‘strangely beautiful’ and is absolutely going to be paired with Legolas. Do you deny any of that?”

“No, I know.”

“She doesn’t have redeeming qualities.”

“Yes, she does.”

“Like what?”

Ekwy paused to think about it. “She really loves them. All of them. And she wants to keep them safe. I remember feeling like that. She wants to help, but she’s just going about it all wrong.”

Blank made a face. “They all say they love them. But it’s lust. It’s obsession. It’s not love.”

“No, if it was just Legolust she’d go for him. She wouldn’t bother with the rest of the Fellowship. She wouldn’t give anyone lines, and she wouldn’t care about the Quest. But she’s trying. She’s aiming for the story beats and she lets other characters get the spotlight when they should have it. She wants to get it right, but lacks the tools and experience. She has potential, is all I’m saying. Sue-ness isn’t all about what powers they have, it’s about how they fit into the story. And I’m not saying Moira is a perfectly fitting piece, but at least she’s from the same puzzle.”

Blank was barely listening. She’d been keeping an ear on Moira’s story, and they had just gotten to the part where the Sue had met her bird friend for the first time.

“...Wait, did she just say he was ‘a crebain’ ?”

“Uh, yeah. I think so. Is that a special charge?”

“Bad grammar. Crebain is plural. The singular is craban.”

“I won’t lie, you knowing this stuff is pretty sexy. Also, I always liked this bird. Real pity about the name. It doesn’t have to die, you know.”

Blank rolled her eyes. “You want us to set it free?”

Ekwy blinked innocently. “Or bring it to HQ. You can feed it Sue-eyes and cat food, and definitely not call it ‘Mellon’ anymore.”

“I hate birds. Especially clever birds. And that one is a little too clever. It understands human speech and it was evil before a Mary-Sue got hold of it; can you imagine what it would be capable of now?”

“No, no.” Ekwy gestured to the story. “She removed the evil from him. She says so.”

“She...” Blank slowly counted to ten under her breath. “I can’t believe you’re claiming this one is not that bad.”

“It’s a perspective thing. We had a Marauder Era mission once... Three out of four Marauders possessed, as well as Lily, and she also had two exceptionally Sue-ish BFFs. That was bad. And another time we had a Sue who could turn into Fire, Water and Wind, was a master in swordplay and archery, was more powerful than any witch or wizard, and was an unregistered Animagus. That was bad. This is barely anything. Moira’s powers are limited and require a lot of cool-down before she can use them again. It’s hardly universe-breaking.”

Blank spoke very slowly. “She breaks. The world. By being here. Saruman was this close to getting his hands on the One Ring because of her!”

“Yeah... But he didn’t. Now shush, we can see her Sue-perpower in action.”

Legolas had had a hard time swallowing Moira’s description of her powers, so she decided to demonstrate. She’d picked up an Orc knife in the nightmare castle, and this she held in her hand, “murmured a few words,” and suddenly the knife had changed. Not visibly, it was still black and shining, but whatever had made it an intimidating weapon had disappeared. It was now an ordinary knife, a tool, and not a weapon.

Moira proclaimed,

 

“There is good in everything. Not even Sauron was evil in the beginning. You only have to lure the good in all things out. That is my gift. I remove the evil and replace it with good.”

“Urgh. Can we kill her yet, just because of that?”

“No. Still one more charge. And... one more major OC.” Ekwy quickly glanced ahead at the Words and frowned. “Oh yeah... I’d forgotten about that.”

Moira and Legolas were set to be walking all day, having decided on travelling to Mirkwood as there was not much of a quest left for them. The agents did not feel like trailing behind them, so they portalled to the next scene. The Sue and the Elf had just come across a number of men, somewhere between fifteen and twenty in number, all on horseback. They were also travelling with a cage that contained an Orc, but the Words did not specify exactly how the cage was being transported. No cart was mentioned, so the cage was awkwardly tied on a horse and it was only the implausibility of the story that was keeping it from wobbling dangerously to either side. As a direct result, however, all the horses in the group were terrified.

The leader, a respectable man with a blue feather in his shiny helmet, introduced himself as Leferir and asked where Moira and Legolas were headed. They instantaneously did not trust him, and even less so when he revealed the caged Orc to them. It was apparently being taken to Minas Tirith for “questioning.” It did not seem entirely likely that torture was off the cards, there. Moira was pitying the Orc, despite how it glared at her from its cage. It was unusually tall, with greenish-black skin, predatory yellow eyes and a squished-in face.

“So are these men supposed to be Gondorians?” asked Blank, squinting at them to try and see any distinguishing features at all. “Far from home. It’d be more likely to be Rohirrim up here.”

Ekwy sighed. “Yeah. And her lack of naming skills certainly extends to Gondor, I see. She really just went with something ending vaguely in an ‘-ir’ and called it a day. We’ll be able to get them soon. Moira just stops mentioning them after they fall asleep.”

Once the riders had dozed off in the grass after their meal, Moira grabbed a loaf of bread from their packs and approached the Orc. She put the bread down near the bars of the cage, so the creature could easily reach out and grab it. It did so after a moment, gobbling the bread up. It thanked her for it, quite politely, calling her “my lady.” Naturally that was a surprise to Moira, who lingered by the cage until the Orc began to break out of it.

The point of view shifted to Legolas as the chapter changed, and he woke up to a scream. Due to Authorial Intent, no one but him reacted to it, despite the fact that an undefined number of men were slumbering around him and probably would be alerted to the scream of a woman, but that’s Sues for you. Legolas ran over to the cage and found Moira there, but she was of course in no real danger. Instead she grabbed the Orc around the neck, closed her eyes and began to speak her mysterious words. The Orc stopped struggling and became relaxed, falling passively to the ground.

 

Though... it did not look like an orc any more. The black-green skin paled and assumed a more human colour. The scarred and deformed face slowly smoothed out, and the large ears shrank and became as pointy as Legolas’.  

The whole ordeal had taken a lot out of Moira. She looked very tired. Clearly it took a lot of strength for her to de-Orc someone.

Yes. De-Orc. That was the term used in the Words as well. And that well and truly marked the end of the agents’ patience, which was stretched thin at the best of times. Two Orcs, one of which was deathly pale, stepped out of the shadows and interrupted the scene.

“Who de-Orcs Orcs?” asked Blank. “I’ve never de-Orced an Orc. Have you ever de-Orced an Orc, Ekwy?”

“Stop saying deorkanork,” muttered the other Orc. “And clearly I have.”

“Orcs were Elves once,” said Blank thoughtfully, leaning in to investigate a very stunned-looking Moira. “But those original Orcs were created in the First Age, thousands of years ago. No one is making new Orcs. This is like... taking a Pomeranian, removing the evil from it and ending up with a wolf somehow. All the intermediate breeding doesn’t go away just because you remove one element.”

Legolas had raised his bow and aimed it squarely at the two. “Who are you?”

“Oh, no-one in particular. Hey, look!”

Flash.

“You are Legolas Thranduilion, last name not Greenleaf, and you are running late. You’ve never met anyone named Moira, but you are missing Gimli and Aragorn terribly. If you hurry you should be able to meet up with them just in time. Go now, get a move on!”

Legolas blinked, but lowered his bow and took off in the right direction. Moira looked sadly after him.

“We were supposed to travel together,” she said. “Why did you do that? I wasn’t hurting anybody.”

“Well, you kind of were,” said Ekwy. She almost felt sympathetic. “You nearly got it right, though. With a little bit more of an effort you could have gotten something kind of okay.”

The pale Orc was watching the newly created Elf. He was very pretty, with dark, slightly curled hair, ivory-pale skin and azure eyes.

“Noldor, I guess,” she said, and glared at Moira. “Not that I think you know the difference.”

The Elf looked up. Moira moved closer to him, putting herself protectively between him and the Orcs. The pale one turned to her partner.

“You want the honours?” she asked. “Should be you, I think. It’ll be poetic, or something. I can go take care of Leferir and co.”

She walked away to the still-sleeping men of Gondor, kicking them lightly to wake them up and flashing her neuralyzer at them whenever they opened their eyes. Ekwy couldn’t tell what she was telling them, but they started to pack up their things and leave without giving Moira a second glance.

“Right.” She took a deep breath. “Moira Magpie, AKA Wirdith, you are charged with the following: Changing the location of key canon plot events, derailing the Ring Quest for absolutely no reason, singing modern or near-modern songs in Middle-earth, causing events to happen without regard to canon plotlines but solely for your benefit, displaying magical Mary-Sue powers, creating an uncanonical Elf society in Fangorn, giving original characters mangled Elvish names, being just the worst at naming original characters in general, employing melodramatics, making Legolas pine for you within days of meeting you, being the offspring of a canon character but never mentioning which one, bad biology, and being a Mary-Sue. Anything to add?”

Moira looked just about ready to cry. “I only wanted to help.”

“Yes, dear, I know. But they were doing fine without you.”

“I wanted... to be part of something. Do something important.”

The Orc thought about it. “Yeah... Would you be willing to make a few sacrifices?”

“Like what?”

“Well... Legolas is off the menu. Can’t stress that point enough.”

Moira considered this. “I... wouldn’t know what to do there anyway, I think,” she eventually admitted.

“Yeah. Much easier to admire from afar, isn’t it? Hurts less. In theory.” Ekwy knelt down. “Okay. Want a job?”

“Excuse me?!” Blank had returned, and she was not looking happy. “You’re doing what?”

“I’m recruiting her. You’re getting that partner I promised.”

“I’m not working with a Sue!”

“She’ll be a former Sue. A reformed one. There’s plenty of them at HQ.”

“Yeah, but I’m not working with those! I thought you were...”

Ekwy rubbed her temple. “Okay, Blank, I’ll level with you. Yes, I have had fun during this mission. But being a full-time assassin is... a big commitment. It’s living at HQ, being constantly hassled, never getting paid enough, never sleeping enough. It’s dealing with insanity every single day. I’ve gotten comfortable. I have someone. I have a job. I can’t just... run off on adventures like I could when I was a teenager, okay? I can’t live at HQ. I’ve made a life in World One. You can’t ask me to leave that behind.”

“Well, I’m not asking you to.”

“Good. So you understand that I want to move forward. I want to build on what I have and make something new. Have a career. Maybe a family one day.”

“People in the PPC have families! I’m going to have one.”

“Yeah, people in the PPC are also allowed to retire! Let me go. We have a replacement right here.” Ekwy gestured at Moira, who looked very confused but also quite pleased about not being stabbed. “She’s perfect. She even has archery skills already; that’s more than I ever did!”

Blank had crossed her arms. She leaned forward to glare at Moira, and then pointed at the de-Orced Elf.

“So, young lady,” she said. “What were you going to name that?”

Moira turned a little pink. “I... His name is Othoniel. After my father.”

“That so, huh? That’s the name of an Istar, is it?”

“Could be the name of one of the blue ones,” Ekwy interjected.

“Only if one of them is female, and they’re not. Besides, they have names. Alatar and Pallando. It’s in the Unfinished Tales.”

Ekwy looked at Moira. “I mean, is it just me, or is that sexy? Maybe it’s just me.”

“It’s just you,” whispered Moira.

At this point the unconscious Elf, Othoniel apparently, woke up.

“Wh-where am I?” he murmured, rubbing his head.

“Everything is going to be alright,” said Moira gently. “You’re safe.” She looked up at the agents. “What are you going to do to him?”

Blank glowered. “He’s not canon. And he is the least equipped to be canon I’ve ever seen. He’s amnesiac, he constantly gets lost, he follows you around like a child, he can’t fight—hell, he can’t even walk without alerting everyone to his presence! Very undignified for the oldest race of Middle-earth, wouldn’t you say?”

Ekwy pressed her hand to her chest. Her eyes had widened and her mouth was open, looking absolutely adoringly at Othoniel. “Oh goodness... Protect this idiot Elf at all costs.”

The pale Orc groaned out loud. “Ekwy, no.”

“Why not? He can learn! He’s a lil baby, with limitless potential!”

“He is a hot mess. Can you even picture this guy holding a weapon? Or making decisions? He’s like a drunk toddler.”

“I work in an escape room. All the people I meet are like drunk toddlers. You really want to stab this little weirdo?”

Blank paused. “...Fine. But that is it. No more! I’m putting my foot down.”

Moira raised a hesitant hand. “Um... What about Mellon?”

“Absolutely not. No birds.”

Ekwy sighed. “He’ll be fine in Middle-earth.”

“You mean he’ll join the crebain again. Be a spy for Saruman.” Moira did not sound happy about that at all.

At the mention of the Wizard’s name, Mellon cawed loudly. He aimed a sharp peck at Blank, which she withdrew from at the last second. Ekwy was not so lucky.

“Ow! You little... Hey! Jag vet att du förstår mig! Kom ihåg vem som skapade dig!”

No use. The bird was flapping his wings, and if a creature without hands was capable of making rude gestures, Mellon was definitely doing it. He circled above them, a small black speck against the pale blue sky. It appeared that he was watching them.

“Well, I guess that settles that,” said Blank. “Okay. We’re moving out.”

“Just drop me off at the escape room,” said Ekwy. “I still have cleaning to do.”

Blank paused. “It’s really the end?”

“Urgh, don’t look at me like that... Tell you what. If you need me—like... really need me, if there’s something you can’t handle—then you can come by. But it better be really important. I won’t believe it otherwise. I think it’s very obvious that my input was never that vital for the PPC to survive.”

“Well, maybe not vital. But it was nice.”

“Yeah. It was nice. And you can, you know. Visit.”

Ekwy and Moira helped get Othoniel (he would certainly need to find a better name for himself) to his feet. He was still disoriented, but entirely content to follow them wherever they went. A portal to HQ was opened. Moira’s eyes widened. The light from the controlled plothole made her eyes shine.

What they didn’t notice, what none of them noticed, was that before the portal flickered to a close, the black speck in the sky became bigger. It let out a caw. It dove, like a bird of prey, something that should not be possible for a corvid, picking up speed... And just before the portal closed completely, the bird planed out, and disappeared into it. As the last light hung like a brilliant pinprick in the air, there was a cry of frustration that no one in Middle-earth heard.

I said no birds!”