Chapter 18a

"I hate it when guests drop in unannounced."
-General Zaroff

Strange mop-like trees sprouted from the sandy soil and riotous green undergrowth ran rampant everywhere, spewing clutching tendrils. The sun burned briskly overhead in a deep blue sky, but the yellow orb was the proper size and a cool breeze swept in off the water, keeping the temperature nicely balanced. Getting to my feet in a daze, I staggered slowly down to where the water lapped calmly against the white sand of the beach and hesitantly tested it with my hand. It was surprisingly warm but felt like ordinary water. I'd once heard somewhere that seawater was undrinkable and more corrosive than the fresh variety and I had always had the vague impression that an ocean would a bubbling steaming cauldron. I pulled my hand out the water, rose, and started walking numbly down the beach until I came to a small stream tumbling out of the 'woods'. After sipping it with some caution, I took a long drink, still feeling dehydrated from our hike across Chirosovo and my two ‘days’ on the wall. The stream water was clear, icy cold and far more refreshing than the dregs that Aahz and Gus had scrounged up at the ski lodge. Then my stomach growled. I looked around in a no doubt stupid fashion, hoping that some food would be lying out, waiting to be eaten.

Amazingly enough, some was. Up at the edge of the jungle there was a tree covered with large bunches of bananas, the green-yellow fingers pointing enticingly into the air. Before moving to the Bazaar I'd never even heard of this particular fruit, but many merchants there sold them, along with every other fruit you could possible imagine and a few that you couldn't. (The ones that move even after being picked off the tree are especially disquieting...) I bobbed my way up from the shore to stand under the tree and look up speculatively. All I'd have to do is levitate up and... I paused. It occurred to me I hadn't thought to see what the state of magik was here, wherever 'here' was. I closed my eyes and looked around expecting the worst..

There was a bright glorious force line arcing through the air, reaching across the entire sky. I let out a relieved breath and greedily tapped into it, felt its power flow into me. After the last one and half dimensions I had visited, it was nirvana.

Then for a split second, I felt something unpleasant. It was much like drinking a cool beverage and feeling an unexpected bit of grit go down your throat. Something was wrong with the force line. Not serious. Yet...

I tapped in again, levitating myself up into the air towards the bananas.

Starting to sweat under the sun, even with the breeze, I removed my tunic and continued on down the beach, alternately munching from a banana and a bulbous green-orange fruit from another nearby tree. (I'd seen it for sale in the Bazaar as well at a monstrously expensive price, but its name escaped me...) I now had no idea what to do. Occasionally, I'd call out for Gus, or Aahz, or anybody, with no response. If they were still back on Chirosovo, there was nothing I could do. I closed my eyes and searched for the 'doors' I had tried to step through earlier. Now that I knew 'where' to look, it wasn't at all hard to find them; they glowed in the darkness, much more strongly than before. None of them appeared to be the door to Klah and somehow I knew that I would now always recognize that door when I saw it. I opened my eyes decisively and dismissed the idea that had been forming. I had barely made it here with the two of them helping me, and even if I could figure out how to hop back successfully, there was almost no chance of popping in down in that strange room again. I wasn't up to another walk in sunny downtown Chirosovo, even if I'd known which direction in which to take that walk. More than that, however, I had the distinct impression the two of them had come at least part of the way with me. Hopefully they'd ended up somewhere where they could use the D-Hopper or The gargoyle’s natural talents. Like Chumley and Tanda before them they'd just have to fend for themselves for the moment, something they were all very good at. I tried not to worry too much.

For the first time I seriously began to consider where I was. It was obvious I hadn't made it back to Klah but had wound up on some other dimension. Thinking, I vaguely remembered Ginghe during his briefing describing at least one of the effected dimensions as an 'ocean world'. Since it was presumably close to Chirosovo, I wondered if that was where I had landed and tried unsuccessfully to remember the name of the place. Abejekerwhatsuitz? Something like that...

I was just speculating over the unpleasant possibility that I had gone to the real Rio Paulo when I looked up and stumbled to a surprised stop. I had arrived at a sharp point in the shoreline and was staring out over a vast stretch of water, uninterrupted by land. The beach took a sharp bend and thrust out a sandy finger into the sea before sliding back almost in the exact direction I had come. The vista was truly mind-blowing: the ocean stretched as far I could see in all directions, gentle blue rollers washing gently on and on. More of the winged 'birds' circled far overhead hooting occasional calls back and forth. The first force line serenely arced overhead and another one passed by not far away. A few puffy white clouds drifted by. It was almost impossible to imagine this idyllic place ending up like Chirosovo. But I had the horrible feeling down in my stomach that this was exactly what was going to happen, and sooner rather than later.

I discarded the spent remnants of the fruit and launched myself skyward once more, going much higher than before, rising above the level of the mop-trees to get a better view of my surroundings.

Which turned out to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, a better view of more ocean. Rotating slowly, my free hand shading my eyes against the sun, I realized with only a small start that I was on (or rather above) a small island floating in an endless blue sea. No other land was visible in any direction. Giving up on that search for the moment, I started scanning the island spread out below my feet for signs of my friends, or anything else.


Then I realized I was wrong. There was something on the island, crouching menacingly amidst the foliage, up among the small but steep clump of green hills that made up the island's center. The vigorous local plant life had made a concerted and enthusiastic attempt to overrun the structure but its basic gray cube shape still stood out amidst the tangle of vines.

It was a very familiar gray color. I felt a cold chill ripple down my spine. I steeled myself and began floating down towards the structure.

I settled down beside the gray building, feeling like I was lowering myself into the throat of some vast green beast. It was clear that no one had been near the building in a long time and that even if they had, they would have just about had to fly in, as I had. The building was sunk down in a narrow ravine, with no roads, overgrown or otherwise, leading to it. How had Penbrius built it? Why had he built here, on an island in the middle of nowhere?

I started picking my way through the dense underbrush, trying to circle the building and find an opening inside. Vines and shrubs clawed at me in the green coolness, and I quickly put my tunic back on. Small creatures chattered noisily from the damp green darkness, indignantly scurrying or flapping or oozing away at my approach. Once or twice I had to hack away at obstructions in my way with magik or float over a particularly bad gnarl. There were simply too many obstacles to stay constantly airborne, however.

Finally, I emerged hot sweaty and tired into something resembling a clearing. The bushes here had evidently been cut back recently; "recently" if you were dealing in terms of years at least. There was also an unadorned rectangular entrance to the building, an ominous black hole that brought unpleasantly to mind the gap left in a smile by a missing tooth. For a moment, I seriously considered turning around and leaving. I applied another layer of steel to my spine and scooped up a convenient discarded branch. It was a simple matter to wrap a small ward around it and pump in enough power that it started to glow with a visible light. Until I grew stone appendages like Gus, it would have to do.

Inside, I found the now-familiar collection of gray blocks. A few hesitant green tendrils had crept in from the outside and loitered nervously near the entrance, but mostly the stonework's cool symmetry remained unviolated, marching back and forth in relentless rows. The passageway sloped downward at a fairly sharp angle with smaller, bare, chambers leading off on both sides. A cool breeze was hitting me in the face, blowing up from down below. I started straight down, already having a pretty good idea what I would find.

Only it wasn't what I expected, exactly. As it had on Chirosovo, the main passage eventually dead-ended in a small chamber. However instead of a ring of guard symbols and a further passage going down, there was another stone wall. A wall with something wrong... it had bulged slightly, as if some great force (Chumley or Gus perhaps) had pounded on it from the other side but failed to break through. No. I decided if Chumley or Gus had attacked the wall, it wouldn't still be standing. Cool air chilled its way through the cracks knocked between the stones.

I hesitated for a long moment, studying the damage, then began prying away at the bricks with magik. Like the ones Gus had ripped out of the wall on Chirosovo, they surrendered with surprising ease, and in a few moments, there was a big enough hole for me to squirm through. I felt another Black Containment spell trying to sink its claws into me. Knowing now what was happening, it was easy to shake off. I started to clamber through the hole, but then pulled myself up short as I realized that there was also the tight netlike crisscrossing of a protective ward stretched across the hole’s entrance. It looked much like the one that Frumple had used on his shop in Twixt. I pried at it with my magik and it bent in the same way as well, admittedly with a great deal more effort than Frumple’s setup. Finally I squirmed through into the dark passageway beyond, thrusting my torch out ahead of me.

Unlike the passage on Chirosovo, this one switch-backed its way down. I realized that its builder wouldn’t have as much room in which to operate; if you dug too far in any one direction here, you’d have hit the ocean.

The room at the bottom, on the other hand, was almost identical to the one I had just left. Icy cold, with a large hole at the center and lights flashing and blinking everywhere. There were three obvious differences however; all of the lights and glyphs in this room appeared to be working, the cold was even more intense, and the 'map' on the wall had a radically different arrangement of symbols. The whole effect was vaguely clinical and deeply unsettling. Studying the last item more carefully, I noticed there were about the same number of glowing circles as had been on the Chirosovon map, and that as before one of them was blinking brighter than the rest. This had to be where I was. I scanned the map for nearby landmasses. The nearest on the map, if I was reading it accurately, was off to the east. I was in fact in the middle of a good-size ocean, but there were, it would seem, three large continents as well. Unfortunately there appeared to be absolutely no way to judge the map's scale; the nearest mainland could be just over the horizon, or three days away... Still, at least I had something to aim for, if worst came to worst.

I tried to burn the map into my memory, then checked out the central hole. The runes on this one were all glowing brightly and another ward covered the top of the hole like a porous but deadly trapdoor. I looked further down. The colors at the bottom of the hole were much brighter and more active, almost zipping back and forth and sparking nastily against one another. I thought for a long moment. I could pry the bars apart, and carefully float down there and maybe even get through those lights... Then I looked at my white-clouded breath. There was still one problem that I didn’t see how to solve. Half reluctantly, half with relief, I turned to walk back up to the surface, stomping my feet to get the feeling back into them.

I stopped. For the first time, I noticed that the same set of force lines as on Chirosovo was hidden behind the walls, reaching up and out of sight, and sinking down to evidently meet somewhere beneath my feet. For some reason, they brought to mind the image of a barbershop. I looked down into the hole one last time and shivered. I walked back up the passage.

Emerging back into the sunlight and welcome warmth, I discarded my torch and took to the air for a third time, rising carefully through the tangled growths. Once I was clear I rose to the same height as my second flight and looked down at the structure beneath my feet. Now that I was looking for them, I could see the weak lines emerging in a very wide ring from the vegetation around the structure and slicing up into the sky, beginning to split apart into smaller strands as they rose. I looked at the two 'real' forcelines I had seen before, and realized that they appeared to be slightly... bent... as if they were being slowly pulled towards the island. I swallowed and started to rise more quickly, going higher, slowly turning and staring out across the water. It felt like the building I had left behind was staring up at me, making the back of my neck itch. If something didn't turn up, I'd have to risk flying east, knowing that my power source had once again officially been placed in the 'unreliable' category. I had to find... something.

But there was nothing.

Except in one direction, roughly along the path I was planning to follow as a last resort. There, finally, was something. Not land, but a small white and blue object, moving along the horizon at a fair clip. I realized it had to be some kind of boat, although my knowledge of watercraft basically began and ended with the fact that the pointy end went first. I thought again for a long moment about that unpleasant kink in the force lines, about that hole waiting for me down below. I gritted my teeth and set off in the direction of the ship, sailing down closer to the water as soon as I wafted over the last bank of trees.



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All Contents ©1999 Robert M. Cook