Not long after, Ryel and Arkmar emerged from the doorway in the cliff. They passed through what amounted to a village of the nearly dead, which Davalon showed them around in a peremptory way. “That’s the meeting circle,” he said. “That there is the storehouse. They made it into like a museum. It’s something.”
“Museum? Of what? Skulls?” asked Ryel.
“Gravestones?” asked Arkmar. “Femurs?”
“Yes, actually,” said Davalon with a slight laugh. “Hey, over there, library.”
It wasn’t much of a library: it was just a shack with some benches out front. Ghouls sat around outside reading, however, and what they were reading didn’t seem especially light. Ryel bent to look at one blue cover. The letters were familiar if foreign; presently she worked out that the language was English, which she had managed to learn a little of along the way.
“The Growth of the American Republic,” she read off. “Morison and Commager. Any good?”
“Yeah,” said the ghoul, “real good. Like it. Real—fascinating.” It grinned.
“I don’t know what I expected,” said Ryel to Davalon.
“They’re eager to learn,” he replied. “You know, I suppose it makes sense. It’s just another way of eating dead people’s brains, right?”
“Right,” said Ryel, as Arkmar said, “I can see that, sure.”
They passed on out of the sort-of village, and then they were escorted to the edge of the slope that led down from the flat-topped mound by Davalon and a gaggle of ghouls. “So let’s stop here,” said Davalon, “and take a look around at the terrain. Vale of Pnath to the left, there, you can make out the Peaks of Throk, and now to the right, the sort of drooling pillars, that’s what we call them.”
“Davalon,” Ryel interrupted, “did you say Pnath or Pnoth?”
“Pnath, definitely, with an A.”
“Anyway, down in that dark zone ahead, that’s where the road lies, and then you climb up a long slope and on the top of that is the city of the Gugs.”
“Can we see the City Tower from here?”
“No, but I believe I can just discern the darker darkness that is the Tower of Koth,” said Davalon. He smiled sheepishly. “My dark elf eyes.”
“You’re so not the typical drow,” said Ryel, turning to get close to him. “Mmm, you hardly mope at all, darling,” she said, brushing her body against him and looking up in case he bent to kiss her. “I do believe the Great Abyss suits you.”
“Ryel,” said Davalon uncomfortably.
She reached up and took his head and kissed him. He was a head taller than her, but then she often forgot that she was comparatively short even among elves. (Good old Arkmar.) They kissed, they kissed, and then she giggled as their lips parted. She had known lovers who didn’t even like the word giggle, but it was what she did.
“Don’t worry,” she said softly, “I know what you’re good for.” She backed away and joined Arkmar at the top of the steep slope of road. “Just don’t let these guys eat that part,” she said. “I mean, I like your brain and everything, but—!”
“You know me. If you didn’t, you now do. I’m a name your price kind of girl.”
“What about me?” Arkmar said with a laugh. “That’s not my price.”
“What is your price?” Davalon asked, half amused, half concerned.
“To help others is my price,” said Arkmar with a bow. “Yes, even your charges. We will retrieve this book of yours.”
Arkmar and Ryel traipsed on down the rocky bony sloping road for some time in silence. Arkmar seemed to be softly humming. The road occasionally remembered that it ought to be switching back and forth, cutting back into the hillside and then bursting out again into the open. Things flew about overhead, and Ryel did not have to remind herself that she was not under the open sky. Finally they came to the floor of the Great Abyss and followed the road that struck straight out toward the city of the Gugs, running in a line with bone walls rising ten or twenty feet high on either side. They marched along at a great pace, quite sure in each of their hearts that they were just about to get swallowed up by hideous dholes.
It seemed like years or it seemed like seconds before they were climbing again. They breathed a little easier: in fact, though neither of them felt safe, the dwarf was bred to walk the underparts of the world, even Dream World, with speed and care, and the elf’s step was as light and silent as it would have been in the forests of Middle Earth.
They were well along the rocky, broken, winding trail upwards among the cliffs that fronted the city of the Gugs on this side before they stopped for a breath.
“So,” said Arkmar, “any better idea what these pieces actually make?”
“Nope,” said Ryel.
“Did he offer you anything other than the obvious?”
“You were there, Mister I just do it because I like helping people.”
“Yes, I was there. You got yet another bath. You seem to take a lot of those.”
“You might think about it yourself, it’s something to do,” said Ryel.
“I smell fine,” said Arkmar, “at least in this miasma. Shall we?”
“Thrilled to,” said Ryel, eying the great crooked pillars that formed the gates to the city, already visible at the top of the slope. “You first? Okay. We’ll go together.”