Chapter 15a

"Retconning?! We don't need no stinking retconning!"
-J. Taylor & B. Braga

The day dawned bright and clear, the clouds having finally finished their appointed task and moved on during the early hours of the morning. The partying that surrounded me, on the other hand, never really went away. There was a period just before sunrise where the general traffic and noise dropped to a grim, detirmined trickle. During this stretch, a few twisted, slimy figures straggled by. I was unsure if they were Rio Paulites crawling home to recover their strength for the coming nightís festivities, or streetsweepers cleaning out the gutters. The end result was the same, so I suppose it didnít really matter.

Finally, the multi-colored mobs reappeared in full strength, bursting forth like a guady flower as the sun rose, flopping and oozing and scuttling by in all of their glory. That hadnít changed.

But something had. It took me a moment to realize what it was, but finally I realized that it was the women in the crowd.

At first, they resumed their activities of the previous day, but like my nocturnal vistor, when they met my eyes, they seemed to see something there, and most of them moved off after only a token mud clod or a quick gesture. I also sensed rather than saw that crowd members of both sexes were beginning to eye me in a speculative fashion, instead of ignoring me like before.

Then as the hours crawled closer and closer to noon, I realized that I was definitely acquiring an official audience; a wide semi-circle of figures was forming around me, a couple hundred sets of eyes were settling in for the long haul. Street vendors appeared so suddenly they may have been teleporting in magikally. They were working the edges of the crowd, selling food and other less identifable items. It made me vaguely homesick for the Bazaar.

And, finally, noon arrived once again. The ropes lowered me back towards the ground. The crowd smoothly parted, and the woman stepped into view, walking towards me.

Arriving in her position, she licked her fingers, and began the ritual.

Her body moved, twisted, flowed. Arranged its various shapely parts in ways that seemed to simultaneously defy both gravity and physics. If this was magik, it was a type that I had never heard of before. Pieces of clothing came free, and twirled around her body as if they had a mind of their own. (And who knows, maybe they did.) Never completely revealing, never completely concealing what was underneath. A profound silence spread outward from her body, filling the square.

I watched. I watched it all without flinching. The feelings of nausea and queasiness were still there, as strong as before. Problems like that are not something you can just dismiss overnight.

But this time I clamped down on them. Clamped down like Aahz grabbing my shoulder in mid-negotiation, and never letting go. I stood on some high, chilly, mountaintop, looking down at the scene before me with cool detachment. I had climbed that mountain during the night, and had no intention of falling off.

I watched as she danced. I watched her, and the crowd watched me.

There was a final spinning climax, and she stood before me, her clothes swirling to rest, her arms raised and her fingers carefully pointed. She looked at me.

She dropped her arms, and walked to the wall. We were looking at each other, nose to nose, as I had stood with myself during the night. There was a brief, endless, pause.

The crowd sucked in its collective breath.

She slapped me, the sound echoing across the square.

The crowd let out the breath. I noted out of the corner of one eye that a great deal of money was changing hands as people on the losing side of wagers paid up.

"Nothing has changed." She spoke flatly as she stepped back. "You watched every minute, yes, but you just bottled everything up. You felt nothing. You have learned nothing. We still have a long way to go. I will be back tomorrow." She turned to go.

"No." I spoke the word, still very far away, still very cold. She froze, and turned her head, the movement looking as if an invisible giant had grabbed her skull and was twisting it around. "This is over. Now." I had never felt this way before, as if I had tapped into some primal force line, filling me with power.

(It was the first time, but not the last I found myself in this type of position. But weíll get to that in time...)

With one quick jerk, I snapped my arms away from the walls. The ropes broke around me, dissolved like mist. The magic held me for a moment, then I slid down, landing on my feet with a squish in the half-dried mud. I staggered, but somehow kept upright. I heard a gasp from the crowd, and coins were hastily snatched back on all sides.

The woman watched me. I have no idea what she was thinking. She could have given unreadability lessons to Aahz.

I walked to her. (Well, if I am brutally honest with myself, it was more a stagger than a walk.) We stood, both of us more or less naked, looking into each otherís eyes once again. The crowd went away, the world went away.

I kissed her, and she responded, grabbing the back of my head with both hands. I hadnít been kissed like this since my first meeting with Tanda.

Actually, I had never been kissed like this. Tanda was very good at this sort of thing, but this nameless woman... it felt as if she planned to rip off my lips after she was done with them and take them home as trophies. Her tongue did things that I had never dreamed possible.

She responded, and I responded right back. I seemed to remember a time when this had seemed so much more possible, more desireable. Where had it all gone so wrong?

The world was dark, and now it began to spin, faster and faster, louder and louder, collapsing in on itself.

I was falling down, spinning into a bottomless hole. The womanís lips, her entire body collapsed in on themselves as well, leaving me holding mist, holding nothing. I spun down and down

and down

and with a tremendous white-hot crash, slammed into something hard and unyielding, splattering the remnants of my body far and wide.

All was blackness.

I jerked into an upright sitting position, my head bobbing like a Jahk-in-a-box.

I was sprawled on a chilly stone floor, made up of ugly gray blocks. Nearby, a black tunnel mouth loomed, surrounded by unpleasant-looking red symbols. I stared at those symbols. The rest of the room seemed to go dark, the wood pattern on the walls began to simplify, lose cohesion..

"No!" I snapped my head away from the symbols, and looked at a nearby wall. The wood pattern didn't change, because there was no wood. Why had I thought that there was any? It had all been blown away by... whatever it was that had blown it away. I looked around the room, being very sure to keep my eyes averted from the symbols.

Aahz and Gus both lay sprawled on the floor, unmoving. Rolling ungracefully onto my hands and knees, I scuttled over to where Aahz lay.

"Aahz!" I yelled, and shook him. There was no response- his eyes remained closed, his mouth locked in a unpleasant snarl.

"Aahz!" I shouted louder, and slapped his face. All this accomplished was almost breaking my wrist. I held it, grimacing. As I did so, I fleetingly realized that while I was again wearing my battered, dusty, clothes, the wounds from the ropes still bit into my skin in several places, and there was mud congealing inside my boots. I forced my mind back to the immediate problem. Finally, seeing no alternative, I picked up a nearby chunk of rock, and repeated the proceedure on Aahz, with a slight modification.

"Aahz! Wake ugggghhhggg...." Aahzís reaction was blindingly fast, and this time, it wasn't my wrist that was almost snapped.

"No!" Aahz sat up, snarling, lifting me off the ground. "It's mine! You can't take it away from me! Not again! Not..." He broke off and looked up his arm at me, his clenched hand still cutting off my air supply. "Kid? Skeeve? I saw them ki..." Again he stopped, and stared around the room. My vision was starting to waver, and the world began to go dark (in a very different, but equally unpleasant, way then before...), but I saw him stare at the symbols for a moment then snap his head away, back towards me.

After a moment's careful deliberation, I decided now was a good time to pass out.

"Kid? C'mon, kid, quit doing this to me! Wake up!" The endless tunnel was dark and chilly this time, but the voice echoed just as much as before.

Reluctantly, I opened my eyes. Once again, Aahz was crouched over me, looking down. "Kid, what's the matter with you? Twice in one day!"

I thought for a moment, then jacked myself up onto my elbows, and spoke with continued deep deliberation.

"If I were to be completely honest with myself, Aahz, I would have to say that I have a really bad case of the mocha jive talking Saturday night blues."

Aahz stared at me, and I sighed.
"It's a song, Aahz. It's..."

"I know what it is! When the zark were you ever on Rio Paulo?"

Now it was my turn to stare.

"Rio Paulo actually exists?"

Aahz seemed to realize something. He turned to where Gus was laying, and started poking his fingers somewhere in the gargoyle's many cracks and crevices. He spoke as he did so. "Of course it exists. It's a well-known tourist dimension, sorta like Toros Daglari. Well... no, not really like Toros..." He seemed to find what he was looking for.

"But it was all just an illusion..." As I said this, I again felt my rope burns, and trailled off.

Aahz jabbed his fingers sharply. Gus gave a surprised yelp, and bolted upright, his eyes wide. Aahz spoke apologetically.

"Sorry, Gus. I know you'd rather it was your poonana doing that."

Gus looked at him, his tone faintly wounded:

"What happened?"

"Black Containment is what happened. When we came in here, we tripped some kind of automatic defense spell. Those runes there. That tunnel is protected with the spell."

Like Aahz and I before him, Gus glanced at the glyphs, and looked quickly away.

"Oh. Nasty. How did you break out of it?"

"I didn't. The kid did. Somehow."

"Aahz? What's-"

"Black Containment, kid, is a spell that constructs a sort of prison around your mind. No." Aahz corrected himself as he and Gus got their feet. "That's wrong. It creates a prison out of your mind. It takes your memories, all the things that you fear most, and binds them together, makes a dream world and traps you there. Unless you can get out,the things you experience just keep getting worse and worse, more and more unbearable. Finally you die just to escape. Unless you can face those things, and beat them."

"But how did I visit..." I trailed off, then inanely repeated myself. "Rio Paulo actually exists?"

"Itís actually a bit more complicated than Aahz said." Gus replied, coming over to me and offering me a hand up. "You know how all dimensions are reflections of the same base?"

"Uh... Yes."

"Black Containment can use this fact to make the prison more.. realistic. It is able to take a reading of a nearby dimension, and then use it as a template for your torment. Rio Paulo is a real dimension, and itís actually fairly close by. If thatís where you went, so to speak, any people you met will actually live there. And if you met them in real life, they would find you oddly familar."

"Yeah, kid. Where do you think Deja Vu comes from?"

I thought, and spoke cautiously. "So was it real?"


"And no."

I thought further about all of this, and then asked the only question that came to mind.

"Have you been to the real Rio Paulo, Aahz?"

"Yeah. Once or twice." He and Gus exchanged a quick, in-jokish, glance. "And before you ask, I wouldn't take you there if the Gnomes offered me the combination to the Central Vault on Zoorik. The Rio Paulites would eat you alive." He frowned. "Or you'd end up somehow finding a way of destroying the place. Either way, I couldn't live with myself."


"Yeah, kid?"

"Where did you go? Just now?"

Aahz was silent. It was who Gus replied, gently.

"Do you want to tell us what you went though? Exactly?"

I thought, and deliberately turned my attention to the tunnel mouth.

"What do we do now?"

Even as I asked the question, I already knew the answer. Aahz merely confirmed it.

"We go down."




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All Contents ©1999 Robert M. Cook