Chapter 28a


"How's that for a plot twist?"
-Rod Serling


"Oh, terrific." Gus groaned, shifting into a defensive stance. Aahz and Tanda followed suit.

"Bertie?" Chumley stepped forward. "I say, Bertie, old bean, is that you?"

The thing blinked, and peered at Chumley myopically.

"Chumley? Chumley, old sport!" Its voice caused the walls to tremble slightly. "It's been simply ages! When was the last time?"

"It must have been that day at the Regatta. We all got together to root for the old alma mater's current offering, remember?"

"Ah, yes." The thing... Bertie... sighed, causing a few chips of rock to flake off and float to the floor. "They weren't very impressive, I must say. Not at all up to the standard that we chaps set, eh?"

Chumley sighed as well. "No, but then, one must stick with the old school ties, mustn't one?" He turned and looked at the rest of us. We stared back at him, and the other. Tanda was the one who finally spoke:

"That's Bertie? I dunno, Chumley, somehow I got the impression from what you always told me that he was, well... bigger."

"Bigger?" The word slipped out before I could stifle it.

"Bertie and I were in the same House at University, you know." Chumley confided to the rest of us. "He's a good old egg." He introduced all of us to the creature, then continued. "Blast it all, Bertie, don't tell me you're working for this blighter Penbrius."

Bertie shrugged, a complex gesture that took quite a while to complete.

"It's a living, you know. Actually, I've never even met the fellow. I was in the Bazaar, rather at loose ends as it happened, and this odd little chap approached me, said he had a job for someone of my talents. All I have to do is keep anyone from passing through this chamber. Easy work, really. You're the first to come along in ages."

"Which brings up a somewhat awkward point, actually..." Chumley hesitated. "You see, we have go through here. Rather urgently."

Bertie sighed again. "I was afraid it might come to that. I'm sorry, but I simply can't allow it. It is my job, you know."

"Hmm. I understand. But I'll tell you what, old sport. How about this... We have a rematch, like the old days. Just the two of us, you and I, one on one, head to head. If I win, we go through. If you win, we turn back."

"Errrmm... Yes. It's agreed. I wouldn't do this for anyone else, Chumley, but to be honest, I've quite missed our little bouts. It just so happens I have what we need right over here."

As Bertie rummaged, I stepped up to Chumley and whispered:

"Should.. should we get out of the room while you do this? I mean, falling rocks.. or something.."

Chumley gave me a puzzled glance.

"No, of course you don't have to leave. Just tell Aahz he has to try and keep his voice down."

"Huh?"

Bertie turned back, holding an odd flat board in his hands, marked with a neat pattern of black and white squares.

"So we can bloody well concentrate. Now please be quiet." Chumley hunched down with Bertie over the board, and began placing odd little chunks of carved rock on the various squares...

"What are they doing?" I hissed as I sidled up to Aahz, who watched the proceedings with an air of intense boredom.

"Playing chess." He snorted. "Give me a good game of Dragon Poker any day."

"Amen to that." Tanda rolled her eyes.

"Anyone ever tell you two that you have the grace and culture of a pair of tree stumps?"

"Hey, Gus, I don't recall you ever turning down a Dragon Poker match."

"At least I make an attempt to broaden my intellectual horizons. You wouldn't know an 'en passent' capture if it bit you on the scaly green ass."

"They're playing chess? But why don't they have any-"

"Will you lot please be QUIET!"

We were quiet.

The two combatants, if that was the proper word, went to work in silence as well, shifting the chunks of rock around on top of the board in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. They didn't seem to hesitate even for a moment between movements, but worked with an air of grim determination. Occasionally one would remove one of the chunks from the board and place it on the ground beside him. Even so, the ritual seemed to go on for an incredibly long time. The number of chunks dwindled, and the moves, if anything, came even faster. Finally, abruptly, Chumley leaned back.

"Checkmate in three moves."

Bertie studied the board for a moment longer, then nodded, and tipped over one of the few remaining chunks in a ceremonial manner.

"Good show, Chumley. You are as formidable an opponent as I remembered. It was a pleasure sparring with you, I must say. The competition down here is simply third rate."

"Down here? Who the deveel do you find to play with here?"

"The same chap who hired me. His name's Snyth, bye the bye. Works for Penbrius. Actually a well-meaning little fellow for the most part, but an abominable chess player." He began carefully collecting the chunks and putting them in a small wooden box. "But now that you mention it, he hasn't been around in quite a little while. As I said before, no one has. Confidentially, even before you came along, I was thinking of moving on." He looked up, an uneasy expression rumbling across his craggy face like an earthquake. "I keep having the most disagreeable feeling that something nasty is about to happen."

Chumley nodded, and leaned closer.

"Strictly on the QT, old boy, if I were you, I'd think about leaving, sooner rather than later. We have strong reason to believe that you're quite right, and that something rather unpleasant may be brewing in these parts."

Bertie returned the nod. "Since you've honorably defeated me, I don't feel so rotten about deserting my post. I'll be off, then. I know a somewhat faster way out than the one you came in. Very pleasant to meet all of you, especially you, Tananda. Your brother has told me so much about you."

"Likewise, Bertie. Hope we bump into each other again someday." Tanda managed a smile, but it was a trifle wan. Bertie gave a final wave, tucked the box and the board into two deep folds in his hide, and with almost frightening agility, clambered up a nearby wall and out of sight into the darkness. I spoke as I watched him go.

"Why didn't we ask for his help with Penbrius? We're probably going to need it..."

Chumley shook his head firmly.

"Leaving your guard post after being defeated in honorable combat is one thing. Openly turning against your employer is quite another. I knew he'd never agree." He hesitated and gave a slight smile. "And in any event, while I may be the better chess player, Bertie has always had rather more sense than I."

We moved on.


After we paused long enough for Gus to blow the magik-killing powder off the rest of us with his wings, things went fairly quickly. Another row of fire traps. Another, smaller, door that like the first gave into an attack from Aahz, Chumley and Gus before quickly reforming itself behind us. A nasty sliding block trap that Chumley disabled by not being quite fast enough in moving his leg. And finally, a long bubbling pool of acid that I had to carefully levitate everyone over, while shielding them with wards, since even the fumes were eating away at the surrounding rocks.

And so we found ourselves in a long corridor made of all-too-familiar small gray stone blocks. Chumley was limping, Tanda and I both still slightly singed. Even Gus had been damaged by his encounter with the inversion field, a nasty scrape running down one of his wings. When I expressed concern, he assured me a little concrete would fix the problem. I didn't dare ask what concrete was.

Aahz, somehow, had made it through intact. He rubbed his hands, and smiled at us.

"Maybe this isnít going to be so bad after all. Compared to that little weasel Diz-Nee, Penbrius is a piker when it comes to defense spells. Letís go find him."

The rest of us looked at each other.

"I say we throw him back in there."

"Bloody well seconded."

But Aahz had already loped off down the hallway. We glumly trooped after him.

The building was a warren of identical corridors, twisting and turning and branching seemingly at random. We hiked on and on. Occasionally, there was a gentle ramp sloping up or down. Odd thunder-like noises rumbled in the distance, and there was the occasional flash of unpleasant light. But since leaving Bertie, no inhabitants.

Until we rounded yet another corner, and practically tripped over a pathetic, scrawny, figure sprawled in the passageway. Everyone pulled up in surprise.

"Is he dead?" Gus asked, peering around Chumley's bulk, with which he had collided.

"No." Tanda responded authoritatively, even before the creature sat up and looked at us. I thought briefly that it would make sense that an Assassin would know at a glance if someone were still a potential target or not...

"Is he Penbrius?" I started sucking in even more power...

"No." Aahz responded with equal authority.

"Greetings, noble intruders. You know the Master's name?" The creature abruptly spoke, his voice a shrill warble. "Did you know the Master?" He looked like a bedraggled, bipedal, short-eared bunny rabbit, jammed first into a red-and-black tiger skin, and then an ill-fitting multipocketed smock.

"Well," Aahz said smiling widely, "Your 'Master' and I met once, and we need..."

" 'DID you know'?" I cut in, killing Aahz's promising lie in mid-birth.

"Yes." The creature blinked his wide blue eyes, owlishly. "The Master is dead. Did you not know that?"

TO BE CONTINUED...

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All Contents ©2000 Robert M. Cook