Chapter 14a


"I've always enjoyed 'stories' more than 'serials', myself."
-Geoduck


After slapping me, the woman returned to her position before me and proceeded to perform the rest of the proscribed ritual. Evidently she had to, or wanted to, even though I had already failed the test for the day. Looking back now, I'm not quite sure how to describe what happened next, except to say the business with the moistened fingers was just a tiny warm-up for the main event, which involved all sorts of things getting dampened, or downright soaked. As I watched or more accurately tried to watch it unfold, I noted vaguely that the members of the crowd which surged continually through the square gave the performance only the most casual of glances as they passed by. If this sort of public display drew that blasé of a reaction, then what did people do behind closed doors on this dimension? What exactly had Aahz and his partner been doing up in that room?

I decided that I didn't want to know.

I decided that I wasn't going to last three more days here, assuming that Tanda and Chumley would agree to cut me down when they finally showed up. And since even Aahz had refused to help me, I had to assume the worst.

The woman finally finished her various gyrations with a particularly dramatic flourish. (A couple members the crowd almost broke stride.) Pushing her long crinkled mass of intertwined purple and red hair into position behind her head, she slinked back to the wall and again slapped me, exactly as she had before. She then wordlessly reassembled her skimpy garments and melted into the crowd without a backwards glance. The same unseen forces quickly and unceremoniously winched me back up into position. Life, such as it was, went on. More taunting, more dirt.

Until several hours later, when a mass of thick black clouds slowly rolled in over the rooftops of the buildings and it started to rain. A few sloppy splashes at first, then a steady lukewarm drizzle. A little more verbal abuse (along with mud now, instead of dirt) was hurled in my direction and then the crowd quickly evaporated off the square into the various surrounding buildings. In minutes, I was alone in the growing darkness of evening. I could hear the thumping sounds of `music' and revelry behind the many glowing windows. The random thought flickered across my mind that Rio Paulo must be the only dimension in existence that had its entire main square ringed not with government offices and banks, but nightclubs.

Or to be more accurate, `round-the-clock clubs'.

With last of the mob vanishing from view, I arrived at my absolute lowest ebb. It was almost as if the universe had consciously conspired to bring me to this point of absolute bottomed-out futility: casually abandoned by my closest friends, magikless, on a dimension that seemed determined to repeatedly rub my nose in filth and squalor. Tied to a wall in the rain.

But then as I hung there, the large tepid drops dribbling off my naked, grimy, body, something tickled at the back of my mind. Something now bothered me, apart from the obvious physical problems that screamed out from various potions of my anatomy. Something mental. A voice, trying to get my attention. For a moment, I thought Tanda might be trying to send me another message, but after a few seconds I realized that like the moment in the ski lodge with the malfunctioning translator pendant, it was my own mental voice. Trying to tell me something. Something important.

I closed my eyes and tried to bring the thought forward. Perversely, now that it had my full attention, it attempted to slip away, and the despair swelled up again, a suffocating wave that came down like the rain. I ground my teeth and remembered that long-ago moment in Garkin's hut when I first lit that stupid candle with magik. Remembered that moment of clarity and power. The magik may be gone for now, but the mind was still there. Yes. The mind; the best weapon and tool of them all. Like most of our adventures, up until now this current outing had never given me any real chance to catch my mental breath. To just stop and think. Well, that problem had certainly been solved for once.

I forced my hands to unclench themselves. I closed my eyes. I sagged against the roughness of the ropes, which didn't really help much.

Clear your mind. Rise above all of this. The thought is there. I can find it. I am Skeeve. I helped bring down Isstvan. I defeated the greatest army ever seen on Klad. I have taken on the Mob, the Deveels, and a town full of vampires literally out for my blood. And came out on top in the end.

I can do this.

"No, you can't."

I snapped my eyes open, and looked around. The voice had been distinct, even piercing, but there was no one in sight, not even a salmon. (Although there was currently just about enough water in the air to support even a normal one.)

"What's going on? Who's there?" I croaked the words.

"That's sort of your mantra in life, isn't it?" The voice dripped with contempt. "What's going on? I don't understand. Explain it to me, Aahz. Help me. Tell me what to do. Make my decisions for me."

"Tanda? Aahz?" I craned my neck. "Is that you?"

"No. No. And no again." The voice's owner finally emerged out of the wet night, slouching, his hands jammed in the pockets of his tunic. Even though his leather boots squished in the clumps of mud, it seemed that the lights of buildings behind him shown right through him. He was a rather spindly man, with an unruly shock of strawberry red hair. "You're on your own, Skeeve."

I stared.

"Who are you? Why are you disguised as me?"

He rose up off the ground, his hands still hidden. Abruptly we were nose-to-nose.

"You weren't listening, Kladh-for-brains. I said you're on your own."

"You're saying that you're me?"

"Well what do you know. There is a brain buried under all that inert matter. Somewhere. You'd better try to find it and get it working, before you run out of time."

"I don't understand."

One of his hands emerged with lightning speed. It was a supremely odd sensation as it struck my face- as if I was made of thick pudding, and his hand passed through me directly but slowly, prolonging the moment of impact.

It was still better than getting hit by the salmon or the woman.

"You don't have time for this, kid. You're in serious trouble."

"I'm aware of that!" I almost yelled the words, as soon as his hand was free of my face. "I'm tied to a wall and now I'm hallucinating again! Is this some kind of side effect of the containment spell? Or the dust that Massha's evil twin sprayed me with?"

"Hmm. Better. At least you're asking constructive questions now." His voice was almost mild. He idly drifted backwards a few feet, his boots dangling. "The wrong questions, of course. But I suppose we have to start somewhere." He paused and sighed. "As a reward, here's a hint. You're not hallucinating. At least, not in the sense that you mean. In fact, your mind is the clearest it's been in... quite a while now. Now why don't you humor me. Take that as a starting point, accept it as truth for a moment. Then tell me what you can work out."

I glared at him, then looked down my body as I spoke.

"All right. Fine. You say my mind is the clearest it's been in quite a while. That would mean that my mind has been clouded. That I've been confused."

"Yesss...?"

Confusion.

I raised my head, and spoke almost to myself.

"Because... Before... before it almost made sense..."

"What did?" He again extracted one of his hands. This time, however, he idly studied his fingernails.

I tried to make a wide gesture, which isn't easy to do with just your shoulders.

"Everything. I mean, I didn't understand what was going on..."

"Nothing new there."

"Ha ha. But... but there was a feeling that... it could make sense. Somehow. That if we... if I just kept pushing, I could have found an answer. Could have figured out what was going on. With the Deveels. These supposed union members. Penbrius. Chirosovo. All of it."

"Uh huh. Maybe. Maybe not. After all, as you were so recently reminded, life is ultimately meaningless. But you said `before'. When did it start to go wrong?"

"When Penbrius cast that spell. The Black Containment. And Tanda showed up as that fish."

"Tanda?"

"You know who Tanda is, as well as I do."

"Yes. Tanda the Trollop assassin."

I looked up at the clouds this time, squinting against the rain. I sucked some water off my lips before speaking.

"Tanda..."

"Yes?"

"Where... where did she learn... where did she learn that spell? With the fish? She's not a real magician. She knows how to dimension hop... and some assassin tricks, but sending a message like that? She and Chumley can't do things like that."

"Interesting."

I started building up an intellectual head of steam.

"And that whole scene with Penbrius! Where did that come from? When Aahz first told me about their meeting, he said that Penbrius just... dismissed him. Like an annoying insect. Left him stranded on Chirosovo with no clothes or... or snow bunnies or anything until he apologized. But that dying man we met... he had been trying unsuccessfully to get revenge on Aahz for years."

The phantom scraped at a cuticle with the opposed thumbnail, and spoke without looking at me. "Maybe Aahz lied."

"No. I mean, sure he's capable of such things. He does it as naturally as breathing, when he wants to. But I think he was telling the truth that time. No. I know he was. So what's going on?"

I pushed on before he could answer.

"Then there's Rio Paulo. Penbrius the megapowerful paranoid magikal recluse had his secret base of operations on Rio Paulo? Aahz referred to Penbrius as having a 'personal realm'. There's no way that this... this diseased, gaudy, non-stop carnival of a dimension was his home!"

"All of which still leaves you tied naked to a wall in the rain, talking to yourself."

"Shut up. I'm trying to concentrate. This can't be his home, but when we walked out the front door of his workshop, we were right out here on the street. Sure, it could have been a magical doorway, like our place back on Deva... but no. It still doesn't make sense."

"Maybe-"

"And then there's Gus and Aahz's behavior after we got here! OK, I admit, I openly and freely admit that I don't know what the romantic life of stone gargoyles is like, but the Gus I know is too level-headed to let himself get distracted so easily. And neither he nor Aahz would leave me here to rot like this. No matter what they thought of my sex life..."

"Or total lack thereof..."

"...or how afraid they were of Rio Paulo's jails! It just doesn't add up."

I looked around, listened to the rain and the distant thump thump thump of the music. This time, my doppelganger watched me in silence until I continued.

"Just before you came... I was thinking the universe had deliberately conspired against me. What if I had been right? What if this all was a conspiracy against me?"

"An impartial viewer of the situation would probably have to reply that you have a severely exaggerated sense of your own importance."

"OK. Fine. Not a conspiracy then. But... something." I turned my gaze inward for a last time, looked for the quiet place of power. Found it. I let out a breath of tension as the light broke over me. "The runes. The runes around the doorway. Back at the ski lodge. They had to be there for a reason. Since the concealing wall got knocked down by whatever it was that wrecked the place. They were a second line of defense, to keep people like us out. They did something to me. We looked at the runes, and they did something. Sent me here. Rio Paulo, or whatever this place actually is. Got me into this whole mess. Forget about that `Black Containment' spell. The runes are the only thing that makes any sense. If I'm trapped by some kind of spell, it even explains you."

"Very good." The other Skeeve applauded sardonically. "So now what?"

I turned my head and looked at him. I'm not entirely sure what my double saw there, but he immediately stopped clapping, and started drifting further away, fading swiftly back into silence and nothingness. My voice sounded very chilly and bleak in my ears.

"Now? Well, the first thing that I do is get off this damn wall."

I closed my eyes, and settled down to await the woman's return.

TO BE CONTINUED...

 

 

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All Contents 1999 Robert M. Cook