Chapter 21a


"When you go to town, you always meet such interesting people."
-John Q. Bumpkin


"Land" in this case turned out to be a much larger version of the island I had first arrived on: a long strip of vibrant green rising slowly from over the horizon. Once we were in sight of it, Karrik ran the boat parallel to the shore for quite a while and gradually a large collection of buildings came into sight, poking up over the trees in the same way that the land had poked up out of the sea. They were enormous glitteringly white structures, dozens of them flowing and rising up in graceful interconnected profusion along the shoreline, the whole mass seeming almost to float a few feet above the ground. Hundreds of ranked windows reflected the glare of the sun back out to the sea. Dozens of brightly-colored sails flitted back and forth close to the shore. Others of the latter objects, to my surprise, appeared to be soaring up in the air and making slow circles above the buildings. I wondered to myself what kind of magik was used to keep them aloft.

"That's the main resort complex." Joining me at the rail, Yilla responded to my unvoiced question. She and Karrik obviously couldnít stay angry with each other for long, but she was still somewhat subdued. "Tropical playground of the rich and famous from a hundred dimensions." As she said this, I speculated silently about what kind of reception 'The Great Skeeve' would get there, both before and after our recent legal problems. Maybe I would be getting a chance to find out...

But if so, it wasn't going to happen right away, since we sailed on past staying well out to sea. As it had blossomed, the resort shrank back into the greenery.

Upon seeing our true destination a ways further down the coast, two things immediately struck me. The first was the squalor. The new buildings were a sagging, sprawling, collection of unpainted wood and mossy stone, smeared along the shores of a deep bay. The second thought was how oddly similar the basic set-up was to that of the resort. The structures hugged the shore and were all interconnected, with rickety-looking gangways and scaffolding and bridges running every which way, often one above the other. Many of the bigger buildings had the unwritten word 'warehouse' all over them- large, square, with two or three rows of small windows set high up on their sides.

As I have already noted, all of the buildings, warehouses or not, had a seriously seedy look to them and looked like they'd been thrown together with little talent and less enthusiasm. In short, I was strongly reminded of buildings back on Klah, although these were a lot bigger. A steady stream of dilapidated vessels, large and small, put in and out of the multitude of run-down docks that stuck far out into the bay like a bunch of thin wooden tongues. None of the ships had colorful sails.

I also got my first glimpse of the 'real' natives: they were skinny gray bipeds, a little shorter than me but taller than Gezirahans, with white stomachs, lots of fins, large goggling eyes and wide mouths full of small sharp teeth. As had already been hinted with Karrikís comment about the coral, they were amphibians, which made their fishing operations a great deal easier. They swarmed everywhere, on the boats putting out to sea, loading and unloading cargo, agilely swimming around in the water, just hanging around on the docks, watching the coming and going of the traffic.. There were a few undisguised Deveels intermixed with the crowds, all working and yelling and pushing just as hard as the Daglarites. The smell of fish was everywhere.

Karrik and Yilla were quickly consumed with the complex, almost mystical, operation of getting the Tardiz up to one of the docks, leaving little time for conversation, although I had a thousand new questions. I found a corner and tried to be unobtrusive.

Then the vessel finally nosed up to the one of the docks and a Daglarite abruptly appeared from somewhere on shore, wearing a striped jersey much like Karrikís. The newcomer and Karrik started tossing ropes back and forth and tying them down, lashing the Tardiz tight in much the same manner as a spider-bear stringing up a victim in one of its webs.

Watching this, I suddenly realized that someone was standing beside me. Yilla. I turned to her in surprise and she studied me silently for a long moment before speaking, looking at me from under the brim of her hat.

"Youíre going up there, arenít you? To the Temple." Her tone was sad and resigned. I decided lying would serve no purpose. "Yes. Yes, I am. If I can find something I need first..."

"Why?"

"I have to. You were right. Itís a dangerous place. More dangerous than even you realized, probably."

"Are you going to do... something... about it?"

"Yes. Well. Iím going to try. Itís part of the reason Iím here."

She thought for a moment, then nodded firmly.

"Good." She gave me a brief sisterly hug and a peck on one cheek. "Do it. Be careful, but do it."

"Thank you. Thanks for everything."

She nodded again, and slipped back to her post.

The boat was secured and I prepared to make my departure. Yilla remained behind on board, waving a short goodbye to me and disappearing below deck. Karrik watched her go with obvious puzzlement.

"Itís all right, Karrik. We said goodbye just now."

"Oh. OK." Despite his words, he glanced again.

We stepped off onto the dock, where the Daglarite was waiting for us, coiling up a last piece of stray rope.

"Ixthol!" Karrik called and waved. The Daglarite turned and gave what I assumed to be a smile in return. We walked closer as Karrik continued. "This is Ixthol. He helps us out here on the dock and sometimes on the boat, when the guests want to see more of the native customs.."

"And this..." Karrik addressed his friend/employee and gestured at me with mock-grandeur, "...is a poor wretch we rescued at sea. Ixthol, meet Mr. Penbrius."

The Daglarite paused in his labor and looked at me with his goggling eyes.

"Perhaps you've heard of me?" I asked, without much hope. I hadnít disguised my features, but I had made my clothes look presentable again.

Ixthol blinked (a startling sight) and spoke in a pedantic and slightly burbly tone. "I am sorry, honored guest, but I do not know many Klahds. I have never heard of one called that name."

He dropped his gaze and began coiling rope once again.

"Oh. Oh well..." I followed Karrik down the dock back toward (relatively) dry land. As I walked along the boards, I noted that the structure was in much better shape than many in the port. The tourist business must do better than Karrik and Yilla had let on... Snapping my attention back into focus, I increased my pace and caught up with the Deveel. As I did so, I glanced back over my shoulder. The Daglarite was gone, as if the earth (or rather water) had swallowed him up. I blinked myself. "They sure can move fast."

Karrik glanced as well and nodded vaguely.

"Around the water, yes. Many a fish has learned that lesson the hard way."

The back of my neck itched and I looked behind us one last time. The dock was still empty.

The two of us paused together for a final moment at the start of the dock, standing under an arching sign that read ĎTardiz Toursí in neatly-painted Deveelscript.

"Thank you again, Karrik. As promised, I owe you a favor and more. If you ever want to collect, come to the Bazaar and find a restaurant there called the Sign of the Yellow Crescent. Ask for Gus and tell him who you are. He'll get you in touch with me." The crowd surged around us, several of its components shooting off a friendly greeting to Karrik as they passed by.

"I'll remember. But to be honest, Penbrius, that favor may never go collected. We both enjoyed having you on board. It's so rare to get someone out there, or anywhere, who is honestly curious and eager to learn more and even pitch in and help. The world could use more people like you. Take care of yourself." He hesitated for a very long moment, then pulled something out from under his jersey: a folded piece of paper. He thrust it at me almost defiantly. I took it between two fingers and looked down at it.

"What's this?"

He shuffled his hooves against the wood planks and again glanced in the direction of the boat, the tip of his tail lashing back and forth nervously.

"It's a map to that Temple you were asking about. It's not exact, since it's been a while since... since I was up there. I donít know. I didnít want to admit it, because I donít like it when she worries about... unimportant things, but this time... Yilla was right. That Temple... Anyway, I just figured that might be where you're heading now." He looked at the sign overhead.

"I..." I smiled awkwardly. "I guess I need to work on my 'subtle questioning' skills a little more, huh? Thanks one last time."

We shook hands again and I started to walk away. And stopped. I owed him this much and more..

"Karrik. I'm probably going to be very... busy the next couple of days. If Gus isn't there when you go looking for him, that probably means your favor will have to go uncollected."

He said nothing for a moment, then:

"It's bad, isn't it? Whatever you're trying to stop. Out on the boat, I was complaining about the Traders coming in and wrecking everything, but... there's something worse happening. Much worse. Itís not just the Temple. I haven't mentioned it to anyone... even Yilla... but... I can feel it... some days lately out on the Tardiz, I can almost taste it on the wind... Is that why you are here?"

As if the scene was being deliberately directed for greatest dramatic potential, there was a sudden crack of thunder and we and everyone else on the pier paused and looked skyward, the sudden silence almost more disturbing than the sound of the thunder. Ominous black clouds were suddenly scuttling across the sky, scattered for the moment, but still casting a shadow over the town. I again thought of the cart ride on Gezirah and felt a sudden chill. Another storm. I looked back at him.

"Yes. Something bad is happening. In fact... you and Yilla... might want to consider taking a real vacation for a few days. Go visit the Bazaar, or something."

"I see." He hesitated for a long moment. "But this is our home. I'll ask Yilla, if she wants to go, but... no. Unless she wants to, we're not leaving. Good luck... Penbrius. I imagine you're going to need it." He paused again and almost smiled.. "And the way I see it, it's self interest. If we stay here, you have added incentive to fix whatever it is that needs fixing." He smiled for real, turned and walked back down towards the Tardiz and Yilla, his form framed by the sign and its two support posts. I watched him go, then slipped into a Daglarite disguise, carefully stowed away the paper, and headed into town. Overhead, the thunder rumbled.


Karrik and Yilla had explained that 'Fishtown' wasn't this place's original name, but the nickname had stuck, the same way the odor stuck to everything within a five mile radius.

And not just the odor. Everywhere there piles of dead fish, fish parts, fish skeletons and fishing equipment: nets, pots, lines, reels... (I often wonder why no one catches fish using the sensible method that we practiced back on Klah...) Since the town's original inhabitants were equally at home on land or in the water, there were also canals and pools and locks and water-filled shoots everywhere, flowing murkily in the deep ancient shadows between the tall spindly buildings. There was so much water around, in fact, it could still be said with a fair degree of accuracy that I still hadn't reached the actual shore.

Crowds of Daglarites, still sprinkled with a few Deveels, surged by me on all sides and large wagons pulled by barnacle-encrusted Cristotles rumbled past, most loaded down with a wild assortment of fish, or at least slimy dead things pulled out of the ocean. Occasional splatters of rain came down, adding to the damp atmosphere. I wandered through the crooked, narrow, algae-coated streets, beneath the sharp overhangs and over the countless stone bridges, carefully studying what kinds of shops were available. In countless places there were unreadable signs pointing down under the water, and shadowy gatherings of Daglarites could dimly be seen flowing in and out of submerged doorways, many of which appeared to be made of some substance other than wood or stone; coral, I assumed. I realized that there must be literally a whole other city down under my feet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the above-water selection was somewhat limited: lots of stores selling what I gathered to be fishing and boating gear, lots of decrepit taverns and inns and a few tacky-looking tourist shops. What was surprising was that I eventually found what I was looking for.

As I had said to Yilla, I didn't have much choice. I had now been on two (probably three) dimensions where Penbrius had constructed buildings with large tunnels leading... somewhere. I had no concrete proof, but my gut told me what, or rather, who, I was going to find if I was able to make it down one of those tunnels. (After all, I currently lived in a house that used a very similar principle.) Prompted by the clouds that continued to roll intermittently overhead, my gut went on to tell me that I no longer had time to try and find Aahz and/or Gus and/or anybody else. I had to go after Penbrius. Now. Alone.

Which, as always, was easier said than done. I now had access to magik again, solving the lightning bolt part of the problem of possibly getting through the tunnel alive. The other part...

I approached the cramped, narrow, shop that had caught my eye. I couldn't read the sign overhead, but the objects hanging in the window drew me in like a magnet. I hesitated for a moment, then did a quick change to my disguise spell, becoming a bland non-descript Deveel, or as close as you can get to such a being, wearing a striped jersey. I entered the store.

"Good afternoon... sahr..." The Daglarite behind the counter greeted me with his race's version of a smile. (Additionally, I wouldnít have thought it possible for a member of a race equipped with bulging fishlike eyes to wear a shifty expression, but somehow this individual managed it.) I breathed a small sigh of thanks for functioning translator pendants and slipped into my 'indifferent world-weary' pose, one that I had been practicing on Devan merchants with varying degrees of success.

"Good afternoon. Tell me, my good man, that is foul-weather gear you've got in the window there, isn't it?"

"Ah, sahr has a discriminating eye! Yes, we sell the finest weather-protection clothing in Ie'ennismoou'thh." Ie'enn...? I thought. No wonder the Deveels just called this place 'Fishtown'...

"This is something of an odd request," Taking a cue from my subconscious, I studied my fingernails. "...but do you happen to have anything in that line for... cold weather? Really cold weather?"

"Ah, sahr is going out on one of the icefish expeditions in the northern regions?"

"Uh, you might say I'm planning to go on a little expedition, yes."

"Right this way, sahr..."

As he led me into the dimness of the rear of the shop and continued his sales pitch, I noted clinically that at least some of the natives had adapted without apparent trouble to the Deveels' methods of doing things... Somehow I had come through the events of the last couple of days with a few gold pieces still in my pocket. Now was the time to use them.

After a bit of haggling, I left the shop with one set of heavy, insulated pants, a matching hooded jacket and a pair of heavy boots, which, while admittedly not nearly as cheap, all fit me much better than the furry monstrosity that Aahz had forced on me a couple of days before. If I hadn't been wearing a disguise spell, it would have definitely been worthy of being worn by the Great Skeeve.

Tucking my purchases under my arm, I took two steps away from the shop and felt someone tap me from behind on the shoulder. Startled, I spun around.

It was Ixthol. You may be surprised I was able to recognize him again so quickly after such a short meeting, especially in a town filled with people who all looked just like him. I don't claim any special powers of observation: he still had on the jersey and the coil of rope he'd been assembling was now draped neatly across his thin torso. The brief thought flickered across my mind that he had somehow gotten off the dock without getting either the rope or jersey wet.

"Yess...?" I asked cautiously.

He stared at me.

"You are Skeeve. Skeeve the Great."

It was not a question.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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All Contents ©1999 Robert M. Cook