"Kid? C'mon kid, open up..."
The worried voice seemed to be coming from some vast distance, echoing down the long hot red tunnel. Then something wet sloshed against my mouth, tepid streams trickling down my dust-caked throat. I coughed, and reluctantly cracked open my eyes. Maybe it had all just been a horrible dream... time to get up and go to the Huffball tournament..
No such luck. Blinking the last of the sand and grit out of my eyes, I realized I was looking up at an unfamiliar dark wooden-beamed ceiling. The green blob that hovered over me finally came into focus as Aahz, holding something up to my face. A cold scaly hand was gently slipped behind my neck, holding up my head.
"Don't try to talk, kid. Just sip at this. No! Sip!" I unintentionally took a large swallow of the lukewarm water and started coughing violently. It still felt wonderful. I cleared my throat and tried again to speak, or rather croak, this time with somewhat more success.
"Aahz? Where are we? What happened? The last thing... I remember... was walking towards those mountains.."
"We made it. Barely." I'd never heard Aahz sound like this. Open relief was a rare enough emotion for the Pervect, but his voice was a close match to my own rasp. "If Gus hadn't been here..." He shook his head. "It's a good thing gargoyles don't need water."
"I... I've never known you to need water, Aahz." I tried to smile, but it was too painful with my chapped lips. I eased myself up off the wooden-planked floor on which I had been sprawled, and coughed again, bringing up another wad of dust.
Aahz managed a somewhat feeble grin in return and pushed the ornate wooden mug he was holding into my hand.
"Yes, but I've never had to hike halfway across the newly christened Inferno Capital of the Known Dimensions before, either. Keep sipping at that."
"I passed out... didn't I?" I took another small swallow of flat water, savoring it. "I'm sorry, Aahz."
He put his hand on my shoulder, and grinned, this time with more enthusiasm.
"Like I said, kid, if Gus hadn't been here, maybe neither of us would have made it. He was practically carrying both of us towards the end there."
"Towards the end..?" I looked around with more curiosity. An astute reader may have noticed that the word 'wood' has already cropped up several times in my description of the room. That's because that's all that there was. Wood. An interlocking wooden floor, elaborately polished and carved wooden walls, leading up to the heavy beams I had seen upon first opening my eyes. Pieces of sturdy-looking wooden furniture were scattered around the large dim room, which was lit only by the remorseless sun beating in through some distant opening. The only stones in sight were those that made up an enormous unlit fireplace looming against a nearby wall. It was surprisingly cool. Dust mites floated everywhere. I looked back at Aahz, who was sipping from a mug of his own, scowling with obvious distaste at the contents.
"This isn't quite (cough) what I pictured a gas mine as looking like..." I ventured cautiously.
"No. It's a ski resort. Remember what our old buddy Ginghe said? Resorts. The Deveels' main business on Chirosovo is... was... the gas mines, but they had also turned it into a big draw for the winter sports crowd." Aahz paused and looked at me, a more typical expression filtering across his face. "You do know what skiing is, don't you?"
"Of course." This was actually true. During the winter months on Klah, people had often used skis to get around. I paused myself for a moment, then said, somewhat incredulously: "But a skiing resort? Are you telling me people actually ski for fun? They strap on skis and tramp around in the woods because they want to?"
"Woods? Well, I suppose some of the cross-country set may have come here, but I imagine it was mostly the downhillers. I think I saw what's left of some chair-lifts.." Aahz broke off and shook his head in disgust, a movement which was clearly aimed at the universe in general, not me. "Why couldn't all of this been here when I was stuck on this miserable dimension before? If there had been a few ski bunnies around, I wouldn't have wanted to leave. At the very least I could have kept warm."
"Ski bunnies? Do their pelts make good fur coats or something?" The only response to this comment was a groan from Aahz, which actually made me feel a lot better; we were back in familiar territory. A thought suddenly struck me, and I looked around again.
"Say.. where's Gus?"
"Once we found some..." (mild grimace) "...water, he went to see if he could raise anyone. The place appears to be deserted." He cocked his head. "He's headed back this way now. Alone." We both got slowly to our feet, still clutching our mugs of brackish water. I settled weakly onto a stool that stood in front of a nearby wooden counter as the gargoyle abruptly appeared from around a corner. Even in the dusty gloom, I could see he was thoughtful, even worried. (How someone whose face is permanently locked in an ear-to-ear grin can display such a wide range of emotion has always puzzled me.) He spoke:
"Skeeve! I'm glad to see you're all right. Didn't find anyone. But there's.. something you should both see..."
"I wanted to say thanks, Gus. Aahz said.." I fell silent and stared at him. Thanks to Aahz's linguistic training, I had understood the words, but still..
"Gus, why are you suddenly speaking Deveelish?" Aahz cut in suspiciously, beating me to the punch.
Gus looked back with equal suspicion, but replied in Kladish. "I've been speaking Deveelish since we D-Hopped into Gezirah. I figured it would be simpler." He 'frowned'. "Oh! Must be your translator pendants have finally stopped working, just like the D-Hopper. Until we get out of here, nothing magikal will work."
Translator pendant? I reached up and felt the amulet's lump under my tunic. The gadget was such a standard part of an experienced dimension traveler's gear that I had forgotten about mine. As I traced my finger around it, a faint voice began jumping up and down far back in my mind, trying to get my attention...
Showing his usual resiliency, Aahz appeared to have fully recovered from the Pervish version of dehydration, and was again ranting about magikal devices: "Stupid inferior gizmos! Let this be a lesson to you, kid! Learning a language the hard way is always safer than relying on some piece of junk that can let you down at a moment's notice. Remind me when this is all over to start you in on more language lessons!"
"Aahz." Gus sighed. "You know as well I do, that unlike many mechanical magik items, translator pendants are always totally reliable. There has to be something wrong with a dimension's basic magik structure, like here, for one to ever fail."
The mental pieces fell into place, and I looked up in sudden alarm. "Aahz!"
"That may be true, Gus, but becoming too dependent on anything, especially a machine, is a bad idea. All it takes is one moderately competent pickpocket and you're in serious trouble."
"Aahz! When I.."
"No, kid, you're not getting out of this again. It's an area of your education that's been sorely neglected. But that's for later." He turned back to Gus. "What was it you wanted to show us?"
"AAHZ!" My heat-damaged voice cracked and I took another hasty swallow from the mug.
"Kid, we don't have time for..." He trailed off when he saw my expression. "What is it?"
"I had forgotten I was wearing it, but back on Gezirah, remember when that Gezirahan at the lumber camp thought that I had accepted... thought that I was... um... there was that little misunderstanding? I couldn't understand what he was saying! The pendant didn't work on Gezirah!" I looked at them, and they stared back. I continued, slightly more calmly. "Well... mine didn't work. You understood what he was saying. Maybe yours..."
Aahz gave his head an absent shake. "I learned non-magikally to speak Gezirahan... somewhere..." He scratched his temple in brief puzzlement. "Where did I pick that up? Berlitz?" He shook himself. "Not important. The important thing is, you're right. Neither of us noticed at the time, but the pendants didn't work there. You didn't have any trouble doing any spells on Gezirah, did you?"
"No. But I wasn't doing anything very complicated either. And Brockhurst... didn't seem to be having any trouble..." Before the two of us buried him in an avalanche... a voice added from somewhere down inside of myself.
Aahz glowered at Brockhurst's name. "I doubt that imp would have noticed if anything was going wrong with his equipment. But I bet the Deveels did."
"Dierack! At our meeting, that oily little worm Dierack made a comment about someone 'sabotaging' the Deveels' operation. Remember? We all assumed at the time it was these so-called labor agitators. Maybe it wasn't sabotage at all. Maybe things were going wrong because the force lines on Gezirah are... in the process of doing whatever the force lines here did."
"And not just Gezirah. Dierack was talking about all of the dimensions we've been assigned to fix." Gus's voice was calm, but I could see the worry in his eyes.
"Yes." Aahz was grim. "As soon as we arrived here in Desertville, we could see that whatever is happening is a lot bigger than any penny ante labor dispute. This would just seem to confirm it. We have to get off this dimension, fast, and hit one of the others. See if they've been having the same problems."
When Aahz refers a labor dispute that involves billions in gold as 'penny ante', I start to worry. I opened my mouth to speak, but once again someone got there first, this time Gus:
"That's part of what I was going to tell you; I didn't have an opportunity before, Aahz. I didn't find this place by chance; there were some strange lights flashing around it. They had died down by the time we got here. I think its been the site of magikal activity, fairly recently. Maybe we can use that fact somehow..."
"Lights?" Aahz frowned, and turned to me. "Kid? You see anything unusual now? In the room here. Look for an aura."
I took another slurp of water to steady my nerves, and looked around the room, squinting. There was.. something.. colors flickered at the edges of my vision..
"Yes. There's something. I've never seen anything quite like it. It's like... like..."
"Like there are colors, but you can only see them out of the corner of your eye?" Aahz queried intently. "They disappear if you try to look straight at them?"
"Yes! Exactly! What does it mean?"
"It means that not too long ago, a big surge of magik washed through here. I've heard about this sort of thing happening, but never seen it myself." Gus: "A surge of magik big enough to wipe out an entire dimension?"
"No. That's what I don't understand. A blast big enough to do what we saw outside would have leveled this place and left a crater a half-mile wide."
"Maybe. Maybe not. That's the other thing I wanted to show you. C'mon." Gus clumped off in the direction from which he had just appeared, his stone footsteps loud on the wooden floorboards. Standing up, I started to follow him, but wobbled slightly as I stepped away from the bar. Aahz wordlessly stepped up next to me and helped me walk.
We left the 'lounge' area in which I had been set down, and passed though a series of smaller rooms of various sizes. There were cafes, and meeting rooms, and storage space for racks and racks of skis. (Seeing the pairs of slim, polished, strips of brightly-painted wood made me realize once again how far up in the world I had come: 'skis' on Klah are battered, chunky, slabs...) The function of most of the other chambers was totally obscure, at least to me, but all were dim, silent and still. Harsh light still trickled in irregularly from somewhere up in the rafters. Then I noticed that all of the rooms were showing signs of damage- splintered wood, holes blown through walls, scorch marks, each room worse than the one before... Suddenly I shivered.
"Is it just me, or is suddenly getting.. cold in here?"
Gus shook his head. "You're not imagining it. But it gets stranger."
Dodging a fallen beam, we rounded a corner, and all stumbled to a halt. In the long corridor before us, the architecture of the building took a radical change, or perhaps revealed its true nature. Most of the wood paneling on the walls and floor had been peeled and splintered away, as if it had been attacked by a giant chisel. Or a giant wind. What now stood revealed was square methodical blocks of ugly gray stone. Aahz studied them for a long time in silence, then spoke:
"That's not Deveel architecture. All of that overdone wood scrollwork back in the lobby, that's the sort of thing they'd do. But this.."
Gus nodded in agreement. "This place is built into the side of a hill. I think we're already almost underground. It looks to me like the Deveels found an existing, abandoned, structure, and just renovated and added on to it to build their lodge. So who built it originally? The native Chirosovans?"
"No," Aahz declared decisively. "When I was here before, the things the natives threw together made that hut you and Garkin lived in, kid, look positively palatial. No way they could have built this."
"You did say it's been 500 years since you were here, Aahz. Maybe they learned.."
"No. It just doesn't feel right. Let's see what's at the end of this corridor." Something about Aahz's tone suggested he was holding something back. I didn't press him.
We reached the end of the corridor which opened out into a small chamber, which still had fragments of wood stuck to the walls. Remnants of doors swung in passages to the right and left. The temperature had dropped so far I was actually able to see my breath, and the magikal afterimages swirled more thickly than ever, seeming to flow along the walls, outlining the blocks. None of this was what captured my immediate attention, however. The entire far wall had collapsed in a jumble of beams and rocks, revealing a circular stone tunnel that led further down into the blackness of the hillside. It was clear that the collapsed wall had, until fairly recently, covered the tunnel's mouth. The cold breeze that had been hitting us poured steadily out of the tunnel, and ghosted away behind us.
Carved around the rim of the tunnel mouth was a series of squiggly, unpleasant-looking, symbols. Each of them glowed with the first real aura I had seen since arriving on Chirosovo, a sickly red color. I glanced at Aahz out of the corner of my eye. He had that dangerous expressionless look that I had seen in the past in moments of great tension and crisis. I spoke, my voice very thin in the cool silence:
"You've seen symbols like that before, haven't you, Aahz? And walls like this, too."
"Yes," replied Aahz, his voice very flat. "But only once."
Somehow, I managed to swallow and speak. "At a religious ceremony about 500 years ago?"
"Yes. Penbrius. Penbrius built this place."