|"A funny thing happened on the way to the Temple..."|
-T. G. Skeeve|
"Great Skeeve? Is it really true? Is it Penbrius who is causing the problems?"
"Yes." I forced myself to slow down and let him catch up. "I realize that this is something hard for any sane being to believe, that a semi-mythical religious figure from your distant past is on the verge of returning and causing the destruction of your world, but it is what is happening."
"And will you... you will kill him?" Spoken in the same tone as if I had confidently said I was going to fly off and kill the sun.
The question seemed to reverberate inside my mind. Would I kill Penbrius? It wouldn't be first time I had used my Magik to kill someone; to this day, I can still see vividly in my mind a soldier nicknamed The Brute being hacked apart by his own men on a Klahdish battlefield. But could I walk into a room, face Penbrius, or any man, and kill him if it came to that?
"I hope it won't come to that, Ixthol. I honestly do. Perhaps he can be persuaded to stop doing whatever it is he is up to. But if he can't... yes. I will kill him." And I knew I was telling the truth, both to my guide and to myself. However, since in any potential confrontation between Penbrius and myself there was a good chance I wouldn't be the one doing the killing, I changed the subject:
"Ixthol? Are you telling me you're one of the native leaders? For Toros Daglari, anyway?"
"It is my honor to serve my people in that fashion, yes."
"Then why do you work for a crummy... er... well... not ‘crummy’, but small-time tour operation?"
He shrugged. "Despite what the Traders have done to our world, helping travelers in an honorable profession. Also, I learn much about what is happening in other dimensions. It was there, as a matter of fact, that I first heard of you, Great Skeeve. Also, it is the best place to hide; out in plain sight. The Traders not expect to find me there. The honorable Karrik and Yilla do not know my secret. There is little danger."
"But you said something about spies..." My mouth asked the question, but my mind was considering something else. If Ixthol had heard my real name while on the Tardiz, then surely Karrik and Yilla...
"Ixthol is not the name I use when leading my people. On Klah, would you have recognized your leaders if they swam past you in the stream, not wearing the symbols of their authority?"
I forced myself to concentrate on what he was asking. "Well... before I became a magician and started... No. You're right. I wouldn't have." I wondered how much of this 'cloak and dagger' talent the Daglarites had come by naturally and how much came from being in contact with Deveels for who knows how many centuries... Now was not the time to ask, however.
I also had a sudden strange realization, something that had never occurred to me before. Klah could have very easily ended up like Toros Daglari and all the rest, if there had been anything there the Deveels had wanted. Instead of being Magician In Residence on Deva, I could be working as a spider-bear wrangler so Deveels would have fur coats, or mining gold down under the Impass Mountains.
It wasn't a pleasant thought.
We stopped again in the guarded chamber near the front door. The guards were still there and they all stared at my changed appearance, but I ignored them now and focused on my guide.
"Ixthol, I need a couple of things from you. I've been told approximately where the nearest Temple is, but if you could send someone along to direct me, I would appreciate it."
"I will lead you there myself, Great Skeeve. I know the most direct route there from Ie'ennismoou'thh."
"Thank you. Secondly, this is a long shot, but it's something that's worth trying. Could you pass the word around among your people and try and find for me some visitors who will possibly be arriving here on Toros from off-dimension, or are already here? I realize there must be a lot of comings and goings around here, but it's important. If any of these people can be found, I need you to get them in touch with me. Tell them... The Kid said he needs to meet with them. Direct them to wherever this Temple is."
"We will do what we can, Great Skeeve."
"Thank you. There are four people: a Troll, a Trollop, a Pervect.."
"Is that anything like a Pervert, Great Skeeve?"
"Yes." I said, trying to keep the ice out of my voice. "..and a stone gargoyle. It's very likely the Troll and Trollop will be together." I gave him everyone's name, and as good a description as I could. I wasn't sure, for instance, how much different than any other Troll Chumley was.
Ixthol indicated his understanding, and gestured to a couple of the Daglarites who hovered nearby. There was another brief whispered conversation, and the recipients of his words vanished back into the building, moving in different directions. We left through the front door. As we did so, I re-established our disguise spells.
"Oh... there's one more thing I'm curious about, Ixthol. It's not important, but does the name of this city mean anything?"
"Great Skeeve? Oh... it a word from one of the older dialects. It means... 'place where the fish are gathered for sale'."
"I should have known."
Even with Ixthol leading me through various back alleys and shortcuts, it still took us a while to get to the edge of Ie'enn.. the city and on up into the green hills beyond. Several times I saw what had to be the main road, full of gray bodies and carts trundling back and forth. Evidently having a central off-dimension transfer point for goods was common on most Deveel worlds. The path we followed, however, was narrow and obviously low-traveled, winding and switch-backing its way along through the dense green brush. We passed no one along the way. Overhead, the clouds continued to rumble and gather. A few splops of rain pattered down out of the sky. We walked on in silence, both wrapped up in our thoughts. Finally...
"The Temple is up there." Ixthol stopped and pointed up the side of the next hill before us. "That trail leads directly to it."
I looked up the 'trail', which was a somewhat grandiose label, I thought. The faint trace wound upwards between the 'palm trees' (somewhere in last day I had picked up their proper name) and jagged chunks of black rock that poked skyward, an unpleasant match for the clouds that continued to roll overhead.
"Thank you Ixthol. Thanks for everything. I can take it from here. You'd better get yourself under cover."
"Under cover, Great Skeeve?"
"Well, it looks like it might rain and I didn't want you to get... Ah. Never mind."
"I will wait here for you. I would come further, but few risk going any closer."
"Thank you, Ixthol. And I understand. But don't wait forever. If I don't come back, remember what I said." I started to levitate myself, but a particularly vivid flash of lightning caused me to reconsider. I was going to be risking electrocution as it was; no point in doing it outside the building. Waving goodbye to Ixthol, I started climbing the hard way, sweating with my load of padded clothing.
More switch-backs wound slowly up the hill. At one point, I stopped to catch my breath, and study the local forcelines. Like the ones near the island, I could see where they were starting to bend. If anything, the phenomenon was more pronounced. I continued on. I had toiled along for perhaps an hour, when I rounded yet another sharp bend in the trail, and almost literally bumped into two Daglarites coming down. They both looked extremely grim. Surprised, I stepped aside into the tall grass to let them pass. They did so, hardly glancing at me. As the second walked past, I caught a strange odor wafting around him: it smelled like... like... something I'd smelled recently... burnt... rock?
"Gus?" I asked, disbelievingly.
They both stopped dead, and turned to face me.
I dropped my disguise spell.
So did they. It was Gus and Aahz. We all stared stupidly at one another for a minute. Then I almost burst into tears, and reached out to grab them both in an embrace. Gus immediately danced backwards out of reach.
"No! Don't touch me! I'm still a little juiced!"
"What? I don't underst... gak!" Aahz grabbed me both shoulders and pulled me towards him, showing all of his teeth
"You know something, kid? That was the MOST MISERABLE EXCUSE AT AN ATTEMPT AT D-HOPPING I HAVE EVER SEEN!"
"I- I'm happy to (urk) see you, too, Aahz..."
"What Aahz is trying to say, Skeeve, is that it wasn't your fault." Gus stood nearby, grinning. "I've never felt anything quite like that trip before. Something... hijacked us during the hop. I think it was something to do with that setup of Penbrius'; these buildings he's built are.."
"Doing something... to the force lines on all the.. wheeze.. dimensions.. Aahz? C-could you maybe..." The world was starting to go strange colors...
"Oh, right.." Aahz eased up a little but didn't let go entirely. "Gus is right, kid. It wasn't your fault." He paused and winced. "Please tell me you ended up here on Toros. Please tell me you didn't make it to Klah and try to D-Hop back here on your own."
"No. I arrived here. On an island out in the ocean. Near one of the Temples. Where.. where did you guys land?"
They exchanged glances, and a nasty feeling crept into my stomach. I repeated the question. "Where did you guys land?"
"Well, Skeeve, we didn't so much land as..."
Aahz sighed, and his smile dissolved.
"Kid, we came into Toros about a half-mine above the ocean."
I stared at him in absolute horror.
"It wasn't your fault and everything turned out OK." Aahz continued earnestly. "Gus caught me and he flew us back to the mainland."
"But if Gus hadn't been there.. if you two had been separated.."
"But he was and we weren't. Maybe I shouldn't have told you, but hopefully now you'll wait until you can get some proper training before you try anything like that again."
"I... OK." I took a deep, shuddering breath. "But... what are you doing here? At this Temple?"
"What are these 'Temples'?"
"I- I mean Penbrius'.. whatever it is. Force line dohicky. That's what the natives here call them."
"You've been talking to the natives?"
"Yes. Both kinds. All kinds. It's a long story. What are you doing here, at this Temple, Aahz?"
Aahz released my shoulders altogether.
"I imagine the same thing you are, judging from those clothes you're hauling there, which would have been a good idea, if going after Penbrius alone wasn't so suicidally dangerous. After we landed, we nosed around for a while over at the Resort." He paused for a moment, overcome by some deep emotion. "We have got to go back there sometime when the fate of the universe isn't hanging in the balance..." He shook himself. "We couldn't find you, but after a lot of persistent questioning we finally heard about this place and tried to go down the tunnel. Get into Penbrius' personal realm."
"Gus? You went down the tunnel? How did you get past the ward over the mouth?"
"The Temple I visited had wards covering both tunnels. Like the one that Frumple had over his shop, Aahz."
"Huh. They weren’t there on this one. Something must be happening to them, like everything else. There weren't any on Chirosovo, either."
"So you had to turn back because of the lightning?"
"No. Since I could take it slow, I was able to handle the lightning, as it turned out, at least as far down as I could go."
"As far as...?"
"The tunnel narrows towards the bottom. Narrows too far for any of us to fit through. And the magik flowing through there.." He shook his head.
"Oh." This announcement was simultaneously a horrible disappointment and a vast relief. "But... but why did you do that at all? Why didn't you just D-Hop there? I mean, I understand that Penbrius' realm wouldn't be on the D-Hopper, but couldn't Gus just..."
They both looked grim. Gus spoke.
"I can't find it. Penbrius' dimension. It must be adjacent to this one, but I can't see the doorway."
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