|"Take a memo; I want to know how many people I had to step on to get to the top."|
"But what..." I broke off and looked upward from my spot on the floor. We all did. I suddenly had the distinct and quite horrible feeling that a vast hand was reaching down from somewhere, getting ready to squash all of us... it had already blocked out the sun...
A moment of absolute clarity arrived. Lowering my eyes, I looked at the platform on which Penbrius had evidently stood so many times, getting his doses of power. He had been a mechanic; he had needed this 'suit' of his to draw the power in...
While our efforts had failed to turn off the Device, we had evidently reactivated the platform; the runes were glowing brightly, and a piercingly bright aura glowed around both the platform and the vast, slowly forming, shape at its center... what if a real magician got on the platform...
I didn't stop to think anymore, but sprang to my feet and jumped for the platform. Aahz’s cry seemed to come from very far away.
I felt his grasping nails rip uselessly through the fabric of the back of my already-tattered tunic.
I landed on the platform.
And the connection was made.
Power, unimaginable power roared into me, power beyond comprehension, power that made the sea that I had been swimming in seem like a single drop in comparison. And something more. More than raw power; raw knowledge. I have often thought since that day that perhaps, ultimately, they are the same thing. While everything that next happened still seems vivid and sharp in my mind, I know in reality my memories are only the tiniest fraction of what I actually saw, actually touched. My brain just couldn't hold all of it; it started leaking out almost as soon as it was poured in.
Because the instant my feet landed on that platform, suddenly I was raised up, swelled to gigantic size and I could see everywhere. See inside and underneath and beyond and through... everything. I could follow the forcelines of magikal power, their masses stringing and tangling off into the endless distance, connecting, being, dimension after dimension after dimension. I could see and touch and smell the rain-soaked forests of Gezirah, and Chirosovo's charred remains, and the Bazaar and Klah and Rio Paulo and Trollia and Perv and Gus's stony home dimension and further, even stranger, places on and on seemingly forever, places where the air is sweet green poison, places where the stars sing at night and the sun howls all day long, places where down is up and out is in and every triangle has four sides, all of these simultaneously overlapped and reflected and spread out at my feet like a map, the countless inhabitants all swarming back and forth like masses of ants. In many of these dimensions, storms raged, lightning and thunder booming, the rain coming down in torrents.
And 'beside' me, also standing on that infinite moutaintop, was another figure, somewhat tall and skeleton-thin and bipedal now but still mostly vague and shimmering.
And 'above' us, something more. An incredible new realm that glittered and flashed and arched across the infinite colorless sky, a place, an endless ideal built of force lines and more than force lines, a thing of glory and wonder that made the Resort on Toros Daglari look like Fishtown after a fire, a typhoon and three good-sized riots. The endless beauty of it pierced and burned.
And because in that instant I knew everything, I finally understood what the figure beside me had been trying to do, trying monomaniacally for all of these centuries, building his power up and up, unbeknownst even to his non-magician servants, storing it in the very framework of the Device until the critical point had finally been reached, a short time ago. I understood why he hadn't bothered to act when the Deveels used his ‘Temple’ as the basis for their ski lodge. For a moment, even with all the power now at my command, I had to struggle to wrap my mind around the concept revealed in my mind. In all of my adventures with Aahz, even dealing with Isstvan, we had never really faced anyone who... who was so relentlessly evil. Someone whom you couldn't finagle, or sweet-talk, or con, or trick with a dose of drugged wine. Someone who was going to do what they wanted, get what they wanted, not caring... about anything else. Ignoring everything until it got in his way, then crushing it ruthlessly...
I looked at the enraged shape wavering beside me, and yelled, screamed without words:
"Having all this power! Being able to do things most 'real' magicians never even dreamed of! Being able to bring the dead back to life, seeing all of this.. even all of this wasn't enough for you, was it? You wanted to separate from your body, rise to here, and then ride the biggest blast of magik ever beyond this point, up... up there! Into that!" I pointed "above" us. "That's all you’ve ever cared about!"
The thing that had been Penbrius the master mechanic glared at me without eyes, unspeaking. I plowed on.
"The Device wasn't a device anymore, after you saw that! You rigged it to explode! Snafyu and all your other servants were supposed to have died in the blast, while that thing down there ran wildly out of control, creating a bomb... a Bomb, a rocket.." (in the white-hot split second in which all of this occurred, I knew exactly what a rocket was; Aahz has tried to explain it to me since, and lost me totally after two sentences.) "...for blasting you away from the world, and leaving a pile of smoking wreckage behind. Wreckage that would stretch across a dozen dimensions... But it didn't work. Snafyu lived, and, not knowing his was defying your wishes, somehow managing to keep the Bomb from going off. You trained him and the others too well!"
The shape began to flicker... stretch... reach out both of its ragged edges/hands towards the crowds below us. I realized that was what it had been doing all along, blotting out the sun... With a tremendous effort and focusing of will, I searched among the vast throngs of ants that scurried madly around my feet, and found my friends, huddling in a tiny stone chamber whose paper-thin walls and ceiling were collapsing around them. Somehow closer to the ground than the bodiless thing floating right beside me, I reached down ahead of it, pricked a hole in the flimsy net that pinned the tiny figures down, and gave them a gentle nudge with my fingertip, shoving them all an eighth of an inch into a new dimension. Even as I did that, the groping corner of Penbrius smashed into the space that they had just occupied, and the miniature chamber finished collapsing. I felt something break loose beneath my 'feet'; the magik that Snafyu had somehow contained for so long was finally free...
Possession of absolute knowledge certain improves your reaction time. I snapped erect, turned and grabbed Penbrius, wrapping his long twisting form in a grim bear-hug. It was like trying to hold onto a vast shredded blanket flapping in a high wind, a strangling living blanket that didn't want to be held. Countless edges slashed at me, slicing viciously through both my remaining clothes and my remaining bits of skin. My arms ripped down through layer after layer of rotten nothingness, my grip failing. I looked over my shoulder, as screaming strands of Penbrius found my throat and limbs and wrapped themselves, tighter... tighter...
All in all, the woman on Rio Paulo had been a lot more pleasant.
I jumped off the platform.
Something tore free at my feet, spurting scalding ichor and dissolving my boots.
Beneath us, around us, the Bomb went off. But now it had a place to go, no longer backed up behind the vast bulk of Penbrius, not pushing him upward into whatever waited above while backwashing out along the tunnels below, scouring dimension after dimension... An enormous column of raw magikal power roared 'sky'ward unchecked, and quickly spread out into a vast thin cloud, behaving much as one of Gus’s disgusting bottles of cola does when shaken vigorously. The place up in the sky, whatever and wherever it actually was, soaked it all up without a flicker. A drop of water thrown into a deep, endless sea...
I pulled on Penbrius, tumbling off the remains of the platform, instantly shrinking back down into the remnants of the control room. Even as I fell, I found the only key I knew, slammed it into the only doorway, and Hopped, feeling the heat of the magik wash over me, as the Device/Bomb continued to crumble around us, millions of pieces of stone and smashed magikal machinery being sucked up into that endless 'sky'. Already the knowledge that had been crammed into my mind was melting away, leaving me...
My shoulder hit a gritty surface, followed rapidly by the rest of my body. I let out a 'wuff' and wrapped my arms tighter around the thing that lay crumpled between them. Only it was already disintegrating as well, blowing apart, melting down between my fingers, sliding away from my neck, my arms and legs. With a great effort, I swallowed some air and uncramped my digits. Released the last remnants. They fluttered mournfully away in the warm breeze, a thin scream of rage still cutting the air. For a moment, there was a shape there, tall, with piercing black eyes, and long dangling things which may have clumps of hair, or maybe garments... But only for a moment. Unlike me, Penbrius had no body to return to and thus was gone, in both sight and sound. I wondered vaguely if he was finally headed towards the place he had been trying to get to all along. I thought again of the corrosive clawing beauty of the place up in the sky, and was able, almost, to feel a momentary stab of pity. Then I thought...
Warm breeze? I rolled slowly onto my back, and groggily sat up, fully expecting to find myself sitting on the shore of that stupid island again. Maybe Karrik and Yilla could use a new deckhand...
I'm not sure if I was happy or disappointed to discover that I was sitting in the middle of a disused gravely path. Weeds sprouted around me in abundance. At the edge of the path, grass grew tall and rampant. And beyond the grass...
Stood the inn that Aahz and I had lived in after defeating Isstvan. It looked about the same as we had left it; evidently no new squat... er... residents had come along since our departure to Possiltum. I sat, my shredded pants and legs spread out before me on the ground and stared at the structure for what seemed like a long time. I had absolutely no idea what to do now. Then...
I didn't even turn to look.
"I'm sorry, Aahz. I broke my promise."
After a moment, a cold hand came to rest on my shoulder. I could have been mistaken, but it appeared to be trembling.
"That's... OK. Skeeve. I'll let it go. Just this once." Screwing up my nerve, I finally looked around. The entire gang stood there, all looking somewhat battered, but alive. Aahz continued, looked down at me expressionlessly.
"After you jumped on the platform, we were suddenly back on Toros Daglari. Outside that... 'Temple'. We watched it just cave in on itself, and collapse, like it was being sucked down into the ground. There was nothing left but a hole."
Chumley spoke up.
"Aahz couldn't see it, but something... several somethings... ripped free from the local force lines when the Temple imploded. They were sucked down the hole as well. After a moment, there was a quite large blast of magik back out of that hole. Not nearly as bad as it might have been, I imagine. Quite impressive, nonetheless. And then nothing. The clouds started clearing away almost immediately." I nodded, and scanned the group.
Along with the rest of them was an equally banged-up Snafyu, who was staring around quizzically, but particularly up at the sky.
"What's the matter, Snafyu?" I croaked. "Is something still wrong?"
He looked at me and blinked.
"No, Mr. Magician. The Device is gone. Destroyed. I can feel its absence inside of me. But..."
"Yes?" Tanda asked, standing nearby and casually holding her badly torn and singed costume in place with one golden-green hand. With the other arm, she propped up a noodle-limp Brockhurst.
"I... I have never been outside the Device before. Never seen the sky before. Knew it was blue.. but never.. Is this what fresh air smells like?" He looked like he was about to cry.
"Well, old chap, you know not all of the dimensions have blue skies." Chumley copied Aahz's gesture with the Penbrian standing next to him. Snafyu looked up at him.
"No, Mr. Troll. I did not know that. Perhaps I will now learn..."
Aahz helped me to my feet. He smiled.
"Let's start by showing him Deva's sky, shall we? I want to get home and go talk to Ginghe and his friends real bad."
"Can we possibly take a bath first? And maybe-" I shot another guilty glance at Tanda, then looked down at my own (essentially) bare feet. "change our clothes?"
"I keep telling you, kid, you'll never get anywhere in this world if you keep letting yourself be distracted by all of these irrelevancies."
"Shut up. And Skeeve?"
"Do you mind telling us exactly what just happened?"
"Well... it's a long story... and I've already forgotten a lot of it."
"You can tell us on the way to Ginghe's office." Aahz flipped some dials and punched the button the D Hopper.
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