The priest looked up at Ryel in astonishment, and then expired. The priestesses nearby looked up at Ryel, who was striding down the central steps like a winning contestant. They scattered to the lower margins of the chamber and vanished. The other priestesses, the ones who hadn’t been close by, looked at their colleagues departing, did their own double takes and then fled. There were little doors all along the lower end of the dais with the altar: perhaps these led to slides that would deposit them in getaway boats.
Ryel’s experience of the dreamworld was extensive, but it still had not ceased to surprise her. As she came within a few feet of the priest, who was dead as a rock but still more or less standing, he began to spread his arms. His head went back. A spot of black appeared at his sternum. A crease grew down his chest and up to his neck, and in a few seconds he was coming open like a pea pod.
Things were coming out. They were not peas. They were, perhaps, something between bat and bug; by size they were bats, but they had a fiddly legginess that would be more appropriate among the Arthropoda, and they were a caramel brown that was not at all bat-like. And they had red eyes. What more they had, Ryel did not wish to know. Elbowing among them, she grabbed the box hanging where the priest’s chest ought still to have been. She turned to leg it back up the stairs into the audience.
She heard lots of things, flutterings, cracklings, a ripping, a vague sound as of mirthless laughter. One thing she heard was the unmistakable sound of parchment hitting the floor. She looked down. There it was. A round piece of parchment settling to the floor. The map.
She grabbed it and started hustling back up the steps, but now the bug-bat things were on her. They landed all over her back, shoulders and hair, and at first all she felt was greater weight. Before she could make it back to the pillar from whose shadow she had fired, she was feeling stings, bites. She tried to shake them off, she let her jacket fall from her with dozens of them chewing on it, but the swarm was not fooled. She got past the pillar and started to collapse.
“No you don’t, elfie,” growled a voice. She felt and smelled a pungent smoke over her, and then strong hands got her under the armpits and pulled her back, back and up. She was awake enough to help her helper get up through a hatch in the ceiling, and then the hatch slammed shut and she was in darkness.
Ryel settled to the ground and lay there while her helper went about slapping things on the floor or walls. It seemed a few of the bug-bats had chased them all the way this far, and the figure was dispatching them and cursing happily in the Dwarvish language as he did it. Finally he stopped and heaved a satisfied sigh.
“Arkwad,” she said groggily.
“Arkmar,” he said, “at your service again.” He lit a small oil lamp. She gazed up at him. Damn him, he was smiling at her from under his stupid iron cap and bushy brown eyebrows. Damn him, he held the parchment in his hand.
Ryel rolled backward onto her back, her legs over the trap door. She groaned. Then she sat up. “I’m in a fucking fog,” she said.
“Here, then, try some of this.” He held out to her a fist-sized stone pipe, which he had lit off the lamp.
“That’ll fog me even more, thanks.”
“Have one,” he laughed, “you’ll feel better.”
Ryel sat up and winced. Everything hurt, and a weird mix of pain and numbness was spreading from a thousand points on her back and shoulders and scalp. She reached out and took the pipe, which was even heavier than it looked. She put the mouthpiece to her lips and pulled. The taste was bitter but the smoke expanded in her lungs most pleasantly.
She handed the pipe back to him many seconds later. “Not bad,” she said. “Any coming out of any holes?”
“Heh heh,” said Arkmar, “no, no smoke coming out.” He continued to grin. He clearly liked being the one with the information.
“So you grow this yourselves, in the mines?”
“We grow it ourselves,” he laughed, “but I am not going to tell you where. I also am not going to tell you where we make the whiskey. Have some.”
She took his flask, which appeared to be made of solid titanium. The liquor was surprisingly smooth and a little spicy. It did not hide its 99 proof nature. She handed it back. “So what, were you following me, or were you here to rob as well?”
“Both, my friend. I was coming here to steal a certain chunk of blue diamond cut in a way that no stone could possibly be cut, but this was the temple at the top of the tower, the Shrine of the Clouds. I was resting and waiting my chance when I heard you come through a window below. I became interested. Are you glad I did, or not?”
Ryel sulked for only a second and said, “All right, I am glad. You heard me? Am I slipping?”
Arkmar grinned and pulled a little yellow gem out of his ear. “A Stone of Enhanced Hearing,” he said. “So absolve yourself of the shame of being heard by a dwarf. I cheated and used Magic.”
“You did,” she said, smiling. “And the lamp? You carry oil lamps?”
Grinning, the dwarf reached out a big gloved hand and knocked the lamp over. It went out. Five seconds later, he was still grinning as he struck a spark off his tinder and got the lamp going again. “It’s very portable,” he said. “You need one.”
“I buy one,” Ryel replied. “How much?”
“Let’s look in the box first, how about that?”
“All right. By all means. Let’s look in the box.”