|"Hail, hail, the gang's all here..."|
"Yes. Ah! Mr. Troll! Please do not touch the walls! Very dangerous!" Snafyu spoke sharply, and Chumley snatched back his hand with matching suddenness. "Please touch nothing unless I say. Safe to touch floor, at least mostly..."
Aahz spoke. "Are you telling me you and Penbrius ran this thing all by yourself?"
"No, no. The Master had many servants. All gone now, except me."
"Where are they?" Tanda.
"Dead, I know. Or I suppose." There was a squalling sound and without even looking, Snafyu reached out a long thin arm and knocked sharply on the side of one of the pillars with the tool he still held. There was a tinny clang, and the sound stopped. "When the Master died, of those who survive, many fled in fear. Others stay, like me. Try to keep things running. Is our job to keep things running, no? And... and I do not wish to die. Is that wrong?" His voice became a bit plaintive for a moment, then returned to briskness. "But dangerous now. Well, it has always been dangerous... More dangerous. Some killed maintaining machine. Others try to go for help. Find real magician to help us. Only way. None have come back. Very difficult for one to get in and out of Device, as the honorable intruders must know; in fact, I have never been outside Device. Device may be breaking down, but many defenses continue unabated. Now, only I remain."
"Why didn't you ask Bertie for help?"
"Bertie? Oh, Mr. Guard." Snafyu paused, unhappily. "Master told only Snyth how to get past acid pit, and Snyth died when Master did. Snyle and Synrf thought they had figured out way... Hadn't." He finished bleakly.
"Well, there's no time for regrets now. You said needed a magician? Well, you've got one. What's the problem?"
"I can fix everything, shut off Device safely, with Mr. Magician now here to help me... except..."
"Need more. In addition to Magician, need other people to run controls. Here, here, here..." He pointed at various spots around the room, all widely separated. "Master may have been able to run Device all alone, but I doubt it. I certainly cannot. This is the way it has always been. Servants run controls, the Master stood on the platform." He pointed a low stone podium that stood nearby. It was surrounded by rings of more of the evil runes, but they were all currently dark; no light, no aura. "Wore specially-constructed suit, into which was channeled magik. Everyone not working watch." He further pointed at a row of low stone benches which lined one wall, then looked at Aahz. "This is what you saw, Mr. Pervect."
"What? You were here when I came here before?"
"No. But grandfather was. You say you once meet Master? Only once Pervect come here. Interrupt transfer procedure. Must have been you, yes? Master very annoyed. Install Scrambling Field afterwards. Then Mr. Frogman somehow find his way here. Master very annoyed. Seal up all but one maintenance tunnel. Install more defenses. Hire Mr. Guard."
"See, Aahz? Told you."
"Shut up, Tanda. Look, Snafyu, this is all fascinating, but what do you need Skeeve for?"
"Skeeve? Oh, Mr. Magician. He protect operators from Device with wards and whatnot."
"What do you mean, I'd have to protect you from the Device?"
"Device has safeguards. Protects itself when unauthorized ones such as ourselves attempt to access important functions like main shut-down. Slash. Cut. Chop. Zap. Very nasty. Even to Mr. Stone there. Realized early on wards only way to protect."
"Fine! So you need Skeeve and some other helpers!" Aahz snarled. "Just show us what to do!"
"Aahz? You're actually volunteering to run mechanical magik? This really is serious, isn't it?"
"You'll note he said 'us', not 'me'."
"No. Not work." Snafyu ignored the extra commentary. "Need..." His head swiveled, as he obviously again ran inventory on everyone in the room. "...six people, in addition to Mr. Magician. Five simply not enough."
"But there is something we can do. We can bring someone else here!"
"Could we get Massha here, or Guido and Nunzio, or even Skeeve's Daglarite friend?" Tanda asked urgently.
Aahz gave a grim shake of his head.
"That's what I was just thinking. But there's a problem. If what Snafyu is saying is true, we can't do it in time. We'd have to fight our way all the way back outside the Field to use the D-Hopper, or have one of you dimension-travel back to Deva. And from the look of things in this room, if I'm reading those monitors correctly..."
"Yes! No! I mean, yes, no time to go and come!" Snafyu hopped from one powerful foot to the other. "But you misunderstand! Device have many powers, only some of which I know. Capable of much. One thing, we can bring someone here, to the control room, using the Device! It was one of the things I learned how to do, although the Master would have been very displeased if he knew I knew... But there is a problem. Reason I not bring help to here before, and turn off Device."
"Of course. There's always one more problem." Gus muttered, eyeing the pillars as a particularly vivid light show flashed across them.
"We must have something the person recently owned, for extended period. I didn't have something. You have something, hopefully? The Device finds them with thing, turns Scrambling Field.." he uncharacteristically groped for a word... "inside out... for less than a second and brings them here, wherever they may be. Whenever they may be. Or so the Master once said when he thought I was not listening. But we need something they once owned! Otherwise, it won't work!" He paused. "Also not work on anyone who die inside Field. Have tried. That's why I can't bring back any of the Master's other servants."
"Yeah, I've heard about similar magik gizmos." Aahz commented. "Trackers and stuff like that. Own something long enough and it starts to pick up a bit of your aura. But we don't have anything of Massha's or even the hoods. Terrific. Looks like we don't have any choice but to fight our way back out after all..."
Aahz looked at me, saw my expression and immediately groaned, holding both hands to his forehead.
"I'm not going to like this, whatever it is, am I?"
"Well, actually, it could be worse..." I reached into my pocket, looking for the map that Karrik had given me...
It was gone; I had already managed to lose it.
Even as my heart gave a lurch, my hand closed around something else, further down in the pocket. It took me a moment before I realized what it was. I winced, and pulled the Official Assassin Travel Sustenance bar out into the light.
Unnervingly, even after having been cooked (twice), frozen, dunked in seawater and who knows what else, it still looked exactly as it had when I had stuffed in my pocket back on Gezirah. It wasn't even chipped or crumbled, except the missing corner where Aahz had sampled it. My stomach gave a little lurch. I had actually eaten one of these?
Aahz looked as well, then threw back his head and screamed, the sound bleeding out oddly into the cramped space that surrounded us. As if it wasn't so cramped at all...
"AGGGGGHHH! 'Could be worse'? How could it be worse!? An Imp! I have to trust my life to a zarking Imp!" He broke off and looked wistfully back at the door through which we had entered the room. "Maybe we could go find that passage Bertie was talking about..."
"Aahz, old boy," Chumley spoke up. "You yourself said we simply do not have the time. Are you saying that this... er... object... belonged to that Brockhurst fellow? If this infernal contraption can bring him here, we'd better do it and do it quickly."
Aahz ground his teeth, which is always an impressive spectacle.
"All right. Do it. Get it over with."
I handed the bar to Snafyu, who examined it with professional curiosity for a moment, then scuttled over to one of the numerous control banks at the center of the room. He carefully positioned the bar on a squat, eight-sided pedestal, and made adjustments to the various protuberances surrounding it. Symbols glowed. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then, abruptly, something grabbed me, a dozen strong invisible hands yanking me off my feet, up into the air. Only, unpleasantly, I wasnít yanked at all. I was a piece of taffy, being stretched... stretched...
And in an instant I was across the room, standing by the pillar and Snafyu. I staggered a little and coughed, realizing somehow that the Device had latched onto me as someone who once owned the bar. I felt its attentions grudgingly turn elsewhere, stretching out across the dimensions, painfully, agonizingly, the whole room seeming to be pulled now, not just me...
Something was in the air above Snafyu and I, and we both looked up. Everybody looked up.
Several somethings were in the air.
"AAAIE!" I instinctively threw up a protective ward over all our heads.
The giant mud-encrusted boulders came raining down, surrounding the plummeting Brockhurst. Both they and he hit the ward and careened off towards the walls. With the massive power still flowing through me, I was able to snag the Imp magikally just before he made contact.
The rocks weren't so lucky, if that particular word can be applied to inanimate objects. They went smashing into the walls.
But they didn't smash at all. They splatted in, half-disappearing as if it was now the walls which were made of warm taffy. The boulders hung there for a moment, and then started vibrating. Slowly at first, then faster. And faster.
"GET DOWN!" Snafyu cried. I hastily yanked Brockhurst into the protection of the ward and redoubled the shield's strength.
The boulders exploded. Violently. Smaller but still sizable chunks of rock went splattering off from the point of impact. Those that hit a wall plowed in, buzzed and exploded again, repeating the process. The din was horrendous. We hunkered down, wincing as the ever-smaller bits of shrapnel continued to bounce and ricochet and explode. Finally, mercifully, there was nothing left but dust and gravel rattling noisily to the floor. We all took our hands off of our ears. There was an new, unpleasant tone in the Device's throb, and the walls were wavering, water now instead of taffy..
"That doesn't sound good." Tanda commented as I lowered Brockhurst back to the floor and dropped the ward.
Snafyu was staring around him in horrified fascination.
"Miss Assassin is correct. This is not good. The Device couldn't handle that. Device not working properly! Should not have happened at all. Should not have been rocks, too! Device now teetering on the brink. We have even less time!"
Brockhurst dropped to the ground, looking both dazed and perhaps an inch or two taller than I remembered. What appeared to be wisps of pure white smoke floated off his badly mangled clothes. He staggered around in a small circle, and almost tottered against the wall again. Gus calmly pulled him back to safety. Clutched in the gargoyle's grip, Brockhurst coughed violently, blowing out more reams of the 'smoke'. He looked around in bemusement.
"Skeeve? Aahz... Gus!?" The last word was directed at the grinning stone face looming overhead. "Are... are we dead? That avalanche..."
"You're not dead." Aahz growled. "When that happens, you and I are not going to the same place. If we do, someone's going to be in a lot of trouble."
Snafyu blurred his way across the room. How someone who was so gangly could move so fast...
"Mr. Brockhurst! Pleased to meet you." He grabbed Brockhurst's unresisting hand and shook it. "We need your help. Now. Very soon. Mr. Stone? Please bring Mr. Brockhurst over here.."
Gus shrugged and carried Brockhurst's dangling body across the room.
"Right here, Mr. Stone. Thank you. Mr. Magician? Stand here, after you have set up wards. I will be at these controls. You need to protect me and the others with wards, surround us closely on all sides, yes?"
"Miss Assassin, Mr. Troll? Over here..." He bounded off.
As he did so, I was aware that Aahz had appeared at my side. "Kid? We can't do this! Something about this whole set-up stinks."
I replied out of the corner of my mouth. "I don't see that we have much choice, Aahz. There's so much magik bouncing around here, we have to something. Besides... I trust him. I think he's telling the truth."
Aahz frowned. "Actually, so do I. Think he's telling the truth, I mean. Iím not sure our furry friend there could lie if you held a loaded Iolo laserbow to his head and ordered him to. What I meant was..."
"Mr. Pervect! Over here, please!"
I shot a helpless glance at Aahz What else can we do? and he rolled his eyes and stalked off, disappearing around behind the central pillars. The team was now positioned around the room, Chumley hunched in small alcove, Tanda clung halfway up the side of one of the pillars, Gus along with Aahz had gone out of sight around the pillars. Brockhurst clung to the station at which he had been positioned. Slowly circling the room, I started putting wards around each person, bending the fields back again and again so they were triple-strength. Keeping each in place was tricky; if anything, all the extra power made it harder to keep everything under control. It was like trying to keep your bar drink in your glass after suddenly being dumped in the ocean. I ended up back in the center ofthe room, next to Snafyu as he had indicated. I covered the two of us and croaked: "Whatever you are going to do, Snafyu, do it fast!"
"Yes, Mr. Magician." He studied the controls before him and began barking orders in a surprisingly authoritative voice, pushing and pulling at things as he did so. "Mr. Brockhurst! Push third button from the top! Square red one!" Brockhurst looked at me and I managed a nod. Like Gus before him, Brockhurst shrugged and touched the button. He frowned for a moment as if feeling something odd coursing up his finger, then pushed down. Snafyu continued.
"Miss Assassin, push small green, first row! Now the blue one, next to it! Yes...! Mr. Rock, Mr. Troll, both of you, pull large violet lever on far left edge of panel!" There was a ragged zapping sound, and a stream of unhealthy-looking lights gushed out of one of the walls, splashing against Tanda's ward, which smoked and sizzled, but held. Then a different section of the wall bulged and lashed out, a crackling stone fist, pounding down on either Gus or Aahz. It felt as if the blow had hit me, but again the ward held. Countless snake-things rose up from the cracks in the floor and battered their fangs against the sides of the wards, while multiple bolts of lightning commenced blasting down from the darkness above, hitting every ward and then arcing between them. I crashed to my hands and knees, my fingers trying with no small success to dig into the floorstones. The commands and fruitless counter-attacks went on for what seemed like an eternity, hopping from one team member and back again. It was mind-boggling that Snafyu could remember all this. Finally...
"Almost there.. Mr. Pervect! Large triangular button with the yellow sign...near the bottom... Yes! Now! Everyone! On three! Push big black button in the very middle of your panel! One labeled 'Do Not Push'! One... two... threee!"
And nothing more. It was all oddly anticlimactic, but Snafyu sagged with relief.
"Yes! Power should now drain off in..."
There was a horrific shift which slapped Tanda against the side of her pillar and knocked all the rest of the group off of their feet. (I was ahead of the game for once.) The Device's wail cranked up yet another notch on the 'urgency' scale. Every light in the room came on, and started flashing insanely. Dozens of screens blew out, leaving black mouths that belched smoke and were ringed with glass fangs.
"And that sounds even worse." I shouldn't have been able to hear the dangling Tanda's ironic comment, but somehow I picked it up quite clearly.
Snafyu looked around in wild despair.
"Don't understand! Should have worked... should..."
"ssssSSSNNNAAFYYYYYUUU!" The disembodied voice rumbled through the room, starting low but slowly and relentlessly building like a vast avalanche. We all froze. Finally Snafyu spoke from his sprawl on the floor:
"WHAT HAAAVE YOU BEEEEN DOINNNG SNAFYUUU?" The voice blasted its way across my brain, rattling my back teeth. I somehow lifted my head and looked at the platform. Something was forming there... a shimmering white shape...
"That" yelled Aahz, quite unnecessarily in my opinion, "is Penbrius."
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