Chapter 22a

"It's a conspiracy!"
-J. Caesar

I stared back for a long moment, utterly flummoxed. Finally, I managed:

"Uh... no. Sorry. You must have me mistaken for..."

"No. You are a Klahd. You are a magician. You know the name. The name we do not tell the Deveels, certainly do not tell the Trader-Deveels. The name from the ancient times. You cannot be the true owner of the name. You can only be Skeeve the Great."

"Name?" One comment jumped out at me. "You mean Pen-"

"Gah!" He made a frantic gesture. "Please do not say the name out loud again! Not in public! Perhaps it is safe for one such as yourself, but very bad for those who may be nearby!"

"Because the... uh... true owner of the name might hear?"

He gave me an odd look, surprisingly like the one Yilla had shot me on the boat.

"No. Owner of that name went away long ago, never to return. He went off with angels, some say, to a higher dimension. The use of that name will not bring its owner. The legends say... it bring something much worse.."

For a moment I paused, overcome by the irony of the situation. Aahz's little name-dropping scheme had finally produced some results, now that I had my answers and had already decided on a course of action. I bestirred myself and addressed the immediate problem.

"OK, Ixthol. I admit it. I am Skeeve." I paused again, a thought suddenly striking me. "How.. how did you keep up with me? I changed my disguise twice!"

"I followed you when you left the Tardiz Tour dock. I saw you change. I saw you change again. These things convinced me you are the one I seek."

I sighed, kicked myself mentally two or three times and made a note to find dark alleys from now on for my switches. I once again forced my mind back on the business at hand.

"Ixthol, I'm in the middle of something very important here. What do you want?"

I snapped out the question a little more harshly than I had intended. The Daglarite suddenly seemed nervous and hesitated. I realized with a start what courage it must have taken for him to follow and then actually accost 'The Great Skeeve" right out on the street. I wondered vaguely what Yilla and Karrik's reaction would have been if I had told them my real name when I first arrived on the Tardiz. Jump off the boat and swim for their lives? While often it can be great, other times having A Reputation can be a real drag.

"I want you... I request that you... come with me, Great Skeeve. There is a meeting taking place and it is of vital import that you consent to attend."

"A meeting? Of who? Or what?"

His eyes goggled around nervously at the constant flow of fishy (or I guess ‘froggy’) pedestrians that passed us by in the street.

"No. Not here. The spies are everywhere. If I saw these things, perhaps others saw them as well. Will you come with me? Into that alley?" He pointed. "And change yourself again?"

I stifled a highly-inappropriate laugh at this echoing of my own thoughts. Whatever was so important that this individual felt he had to approach me, I had better check it out. And a sizable part of me was more than willing to put off the confrontation that appeared to be coming more and more inevitable. Still, I spoke as we started for the alley:

"Ixthol, unless this meeting is going to happen right now, I have to go. Do you understand?"

"Yes. I mean, the meeting is happening right now. It has been happening for some time. Come, please."

We stepped into the alley. I became a Daglarite again, and altered Ixthol somewhat while I was at it. A little caution never hurt...

He led me off into the warren of streets.

With Ixthol leading the way, it didn't take long for us to arrive at a low-slung discrete building, stashed unobtrusively in a forgotten cul-de-sac-cum-pier which jutted out over another large pool of water. The numbers of pedestrians on the streets and waterways (as if there was a difference in this town...) had dropped to almost nothing, although the din of the more active parts of the port was still audible in the background.

While the wooden buildings around it all looked ready to dissolve down into the water below, our destination seemed different somehow. It took me a moment, but I realized that while the building's exterior was as ragged and crumbling as its neighbors, the basic frame of the structure was still solid. I didn't realize how solid at first- the first door we passed through looked as broken down and flimsy as all of the others out on the street. In the damp hallway beyond, however, stood another, much more imposing door. As we stepped up to it, I noted how thick the interior walls actually were. We were entering a fortress. Ixthol knocked a pattern on the door, clearly some kind of code. Thinking to avoid some trouble for once, I dropped his disguise spell before someone replied.

A tiny slot slid open in the door, and pair of goggling, but suspicious, eyes peered out. There was a hasty, whispered, conversation and the door was grudgingly cranked open. Literally cranked; it was as thick as the walls, and heavily reinforced. It would have taken a battering ram to get through.

Or else you'd just tell Aahz there was a fortune in gold stacked on the other side.

What was actually there was not nearly as pleasant: a group of very tense Daglarites, all armed with crude but effective-looking weapons. I decided there was no reason to make them any more jumpy, and kept my disguise spell in place. There was another tense conversation. As the door was being cranked shut, I noticed there was a strange line of symbols hacked into the stone floor where the door would rest when closed. They reminded me of the ones that Garkin had carved into his pentagram, back in the hut on Klah. Some kind of ward? The conversation finally ended and the guards stepped aside with obvious bad grace. Ixthol silently gestured me to follow and led me further into the building, through more dimly-lit corridors. The interior walls were made of the same stuff as the rest of the town’s underpinnings- dirty-white coral. Strange lights flickered in side rooms and furtive figures darted to and fro. Several of the rooms contained pools of water, or perhaps were connected to the greater pool below...

"What is this place?" I finally whispered. Ixthol jumped like he'd been goosed with a hot poker.

"It is a secret place. A place the Trader-Deveels do not know about. We hope. Maybe." This comment worried me. Surely if he knew about me, Ixthol also knew who I was currently working for. I held my tongue.

We arrived at another guarded chamber, with an almost identical repeat of the previous performance, except that at the end, Ixthol was allowed into the room beyond, leaving me behind. There was an unbearably long wait, with the guards watching me and fingering the weapons in their webbed hands. I stared back coolly, while furtively sucking in as much magikal power as I could hold. Finally, the door was opened again and I was waved inside.

I stepped into the room beyond, and blinked, trying to adjust my eyes to the dim red light as the door was closed firmly behind me. There was several shadowy figures in the cramped, low-ceilinged chamber, sitting around a large table. Well... some of them sat. Others lurked. Or hunched. Or in one notable case, hovered in a large glass tank of water that extended out from one of the walls. I decided the time for patience and subtlety were past. I stepped forward, and dropped my disguise spell.

"All right. I'm here. What's all of this about?" I asked, crossing my arms in what I hoped was a cool and confident manner. The effect may have been someone dissipated by the fact that I was still holding the warm clothing I had purchased.

The figures shifted nervously, looking at one another. Finally, surprisingly, it was Ixthol spoke up, his gills quivering. I realized for the first time that he was sitting at the table along with the rest.

"Great Skeeve. We are among the leaders of each of our dimensions. We come to you... because we feel we have no choice. In fact, having heard stories of your prowess on all of our worlds, we had decided to approach you, even before I learned you were here. I apologize for bringing you to this place in this manner, but we know the Trader-Deveels are looking for all of us. We do not quite understand why; we have done nothing to upset them. If after we tell you why we have brought you here, you decide to tell them of this place, this meeting, we will not try to stop you."

"Assssuming we even could." This dry, analytical, slithering, comment from one of the other table-sitters. It looked like a small tightly wrapped animated mummy, one that had used sticky purple bandages instead of the traditional white. Two yellow spots glowed from among the thick strands which were wound around its 'head'.

A new chittering voice, its owner most resembling a giant green and yellow ant with multifaceted eyes:

"Yes. Wee do not know what briings you to Toros Daglarii, but wee, all of uus, face a criisis, and wee see your presence as an opportunitee. Something is happening. Something terriible. On eeach of our dimensiions."

"Each of your dimensions.." I echoed, looking at the figures more carefully, now that my eyes had adjusted somewhat. I belatedly realized one of the individuals at the table was a Gezirahan. "You... you're all from the other dimensions... the ones run by the Deveels... like Kaykay. uh.."

"Kay-may-an." A looming, almost square, creature, who looked like a crude cross between a brick wall and a very large ox. The massive chair it sat in had been heavily reinforced.

"Najran." The mummy.

"Kabayouraan." The ant.

"B'kiero." A four-armed three-eyed winged monkey with silky green fur.

"Aaaugarahhhajckkk." The blobby multi-tentacled thing floating in the tank of water. (This is a rough translation, as you may have guessed; even with the pendant, the creature's voice was blurred and distorted.)

"And Gezirah." I finished, nodding at the short furred figure who completed the group. I looked again. "Is... someone from Chirosovo here?"

"Chirosovo?" Ixthol again. "No, Great Skeeve. I have heard of that dimension, but we have not been in contact with anyone from there. Like your own race, I do not believe they travel much from their home."

"OK." I took a deep breath. "I'll ask one more time. Why did you want to meet with me?"

The Boukieron replied, its voice a squeaking chirp: "On our 'mensions, magik's... goin' wrong. Malfunctionin'. Signs n' portents fill th' air. Th’ force lines flicker in th' sky. On Boukiero, th' Quwigimu trees are dyin'. Slow at first, but now th' problems' gettin' worse. Lot worse. We don't know what is happenin'. We don't know how t' stop it. We start meetin' with others, 'cross the 'imensions, secret-like. T’ try n' figger it out."

I opened my mouth to ask why they just hadn't gone to the Deveels for help.

And closed it again. I mean, the answer to that was fairly obvious. The 'oxwall' ponderously picked up the narrative.

"But no.. one knows.. why. There are... no an-swers. So we had... just de-ci-ded to... pool our re-sour-ces... send some-one to De-va. To ask you... for help. To... hi-re you." "You want to... hire.. me..?" I stared, my jaw dropping.

"Yes. Wee realiize that ones such as uus do not have much to offer one of your stature, but aall that wee have, is yours. Iif only you can save uus. Tell uus what wee must doo."

"I... Will you give me just a moment? I... have to consider something.."

Another exchange of nervous glances.

"Of course.. Great Skeeve."

I turned my back on the assembly for a long moment. It would not do to break out in laughter or tears at this particular point. I mean, back on Deva, I was already playing two enormous heavily-armed organizations off against each other. I really didn't need to add another one, but it now looked like I'd have to do exactly that. I also thought for one hysterical moment that I could in one fell swoop just about complete the job that the Deveels had originally hired me to do. Somehow, I got myself back under control and faced them all again.

"I am willing to help you. I will not report you to the Deveels... the Traders. I think we can... reach an agreement on a fee." I flinched instinctively for a moment, expecting, even wanting, a cold scaly hand to clamp threateningly onto my shoulder. Nothing. Discarding the warm clothing as casually as I could, I stepped up, placed both hands on the table, and leaned forward. "Since I am, in fact, here on Toros Daglari because of this very problem!"



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All Contents ©1999 Robert M. Cook