Chapter 23a


"You want the bad news, or the worse news?"
-G. Reaper


The assembled creatures stared back at me in amazement. Well, some of them were amazed; with the others it was hard to be 100% sure.

"You... you know what is causssing the problem?" The Najranian's voice was that of someone about to slam their head into a wall, hoping that would help universe to suddenly start making sense.

"I- I'll be honest. I don't know exactly what's causing the problem. What I do know, however, is who is causing the problem."

"'Whhooogg' isss cauggisngg?" The blob spasmed questioningly.

"Yes." I shot an apologetic glance at Ixthol before continuing. "It is Penbrius. That, Ixthol, is why I was travelling under his name. I was hoping to meet someone very much like you."

There was a long silence.

"Penbriius? You know of Penbriiuus?" The Kabayouranian tapped the knobby tip of one of his (her? its?) thin forelimbs on the table in an strangely obvious gesture of nervousness.

'He' continued carefully, as if trying to explain something to a very powerful but very stupid child. "Great Skeeeve... Penbriiuus deeparted from thiis realm long ago. Even so, the Great Penbriiiuus would not do such a thiing. Iit could not bee hiim." There was a murmur of surprised agreement around the table and then a number of equally surprised and speculative glances back and forth.

"So Ixthol just told me. Nonetheless, he is the one causing the problems. Or least, the.. uh.. 'Temples' he built so long ago are now causing the problems you now face." A sudden thought occurred to me. "There are Temples on each of your worlds? Gray stone blocks that Penbrius... um... I imagine he is said to have built them long ago?" Cautious nods (or their equivalent) all around. "Good. Well, not good, bad actually, but it confirms what I am saying. As I say, those Temples are the problem. I'm sure that they, or the power behind them, are what is damaging the force lines on each of your worlds. And the problem will only get worse. There are similar Temples on Chirosovo and Chirosovo is now a devastated wasteland. And whatever caused that devastation came boiling up out of the Temples. Apparently quite suddenly. With no direct warning." I swept the table with my gaze. "The fact that you all know his name and have each kept it secret all of these centuries, would indicate there was even more to Penbrius than any of you suspected. If, before this meeting, any of you knew that his name was a... um... thing of power... on other dimensions, please speak up."

Silence. A few more speculative glances were exchanged. I continued.

"Now, I ask you all, what, exactly, do your legends say of Penbrius? Do you know why he built the Temples?"

"No. Iit iis not known." The ant spoke. "Hee came into the woorld. Hee worked miiracles, and thousands from the Swarms became hiis followers. Hee ordered thee Temples built, following exactly the designs hee laid before uus. Thousands and thousands more labored. Thee Temples were built. Hee warned uus that hee was fighting a great enemy and to never speak of him agaiin, lest thee enemy learn of hiis efforts. Hee departed." The others around the table nodded general agreement.

"A great enemy? Did he say what this enemy was?"

"Nah. Th' Great Penbrius never revealed much, not even t' his followers."

"And he didn't force you to build these things? He asked you to?"

"It was not... nec-es-sar-y. Any-thing he... asked... was done."

I mulled this information over for a long moment. A short time ago, Aahz had told me that he himself had pulled similar stunts in the past and I had heard stories about such things before. One carefully-planned visit to the Bazaar and a 'demon' could set himself up for life on a backwards world. And now it seemed Penbrius had done it as well, on a somewhat larger order of magnitude. To do... what? I was beginning to suspect an answer to this, but I didn't think I'd get anymore useful information out the group on that point. One thing I was curious about, however...

"What did Penbrius look like?"

"Like onee of us. Thee best of us. His armor shined thee briightest, his eyes had thee.."

"No, he had no armor, his fins glistened in the.."

"Yes, OK." I broke in. He had used a disguise spell on each dimension. No surprise there. It was probably lucky for me that he had used his real name...

I looked at the Gezirahan and sighed wearily.

"If only one us had been looking at that trouble-maker when Aahz dropped the name on Blox."

"Great Skeeve? I don't understand.."

"Nothing. Never mind." I found my mental thread and continued. "As I said, it doesn't matter what Penbrius is said to have done in the distant past. He is still alive, he is very dangerous and he is now threatening all of your worlds. After I leave this meeting, I am going to go to the nearest Temple and attempt to travel to his realm. I strongly believe that each Temple is some kind of... gateway there. I will go there and I will do what I can to stop him. I will not exaggerate and claim that my victory in this battle is assured. I suggest that each of you return home at once, or better, send someone home with a message. If after a day, you have not heard from me, or the problems don't start getting better, I would further suggest you do whatever is within your power to destroy all of the Temples."

The oxwall spoke:

"You... you do not... know what you... ask."

"I don't doubt that for a minute. I've been at one Temple on this world alone that will be horribly difficult to reach, much less destroy. Which is why I ask you to wait a day before acting. I will admit that it is even conceivable that destroying the Temples will somehow make things worse. But honestly, after what I saw on Chirosovo, I don't see how. If you wish to save your worlds, I say it has to be done. You wanted my help. This is all the help I can give. I would go to the Deveels and try and convince them that something is wrong and they should help you, but... I don't think I have the time." I spread my hands in the air.I suddenly felt very small and tired. One last idea suddenly occurred to me. "I realize that the Temples must hold a sacred place for all of your peoples and that there will be a tremendous outcry if you order their destruction, even assuming you can get around the Deveels. If this will help, I offer it. 'Penbrius' is a word of power. As I am all too often reminded these days, so also is the word 'Skeeve'. You have my permission to go to your people and use my name in whatever manner would be most effective in this situation. Say that... I dunno... I have ordered the Temples torn down. That I will rip through your dimension like a hurricane if they are not found and demolished. I won't do that.." I hastened to add, sensing a nervous shift in my audience. "I won't lift a finger against any of your worlds. But if my name is enough to get your people moving, use it. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go. I think there is very little time left."

There was a long, stunned silence. Finally the 'mummy' spoke.

"But... Great Ssskeeve... your... your fee.."

I bent over and retrieved my new garments from the floor before replying.

"The Great Skeeve never collects his fee before he finishes the job. And the amount of my fee, in this case, will be determined by how successful I am. If we ever meet again, we can discuss it. Ixthol, let's go." I yanked open the door and strode from the room, suddenly wanting very badly to throw up again.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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All Contents 1999 Robert M. Cook