The elf and the dwarf started up the trail toward the two pillars. When next they paused, in the cover of what appeared to be a pile of grave stones, the gateway was much nearer. Beyond, crowning the ridge top, the City of the Gugs spread out before them. It was a sort of parody of Dylath, all black towers and empty plazas, but instead of a solid ceiling of rain clouds overhead, there was the distant knowledge of the roof of the Great Abyss, hidden behind a layer of smoke and fume. In the center of the city a great tower rose taller than all others, so tall that its top couldn’t even be guessed at. Between it and the watching Ryel and Arkmar, several other towers rose with their heads tapering into the smog. Black archways yawned in many of the buildings, at ground level or further up opening into empty air. The city seemed oddly quiet.
“So that must be the Tower of Koth,” said Arkmar. “I find it quite tempting just to take a look see. I’m rather a connoisseur.”
“Of towers?” replied Ryel. “Or stupid ideas?”
“Maybe both,” said Arkmar. “I just said it was tempting. I wasn’t actually going to go. Which one do you think is the City Tower?”
“Probably one of the other tall ones near Koth, I suppose. Where is everyone?”
Arkmar thought a moment, then grinned. “Listen,” he said.
“Sounds like wind. Or someone breathing.”
“Many someones breathing,” replied Arkmar. “They’re snoring, aren’t they?”
“We’re in luck, I guess,” said Ryel with dread. “They’ve had their feast. Davalon told me about it. They’ll hunt something or other, they like ghast, of course they also like people, and anyway, they’ll make a big stew and gorge themselves and then they all sleep it off.”
“Don’t they post guards?”
“Of course they do, but supposedly everyone will be drowsy if they’ve had a good feast.”
“They eat ghasts?”
“Yes, but ghasts eat them too. Gugs are enormous, you get that, right? Like twenty, thirty, forty feet tall. Ghasts have to hunt in packs to bring down a gug, but if they manage it, they feast for days. Or whatever one feasts for down here.”
“Is there anything else I should know? You did say they eat people.”
“Yes, be aware of that,” said Ryel. “Oh, maybe you wonder why they live in this lovely part of Dream World.”
“It hadn’t crossed my mind, actually.”
“Well, they were banished here. By the Gods. Who hardly ever lift a finger to send plagues or lightning bolts at anyone, much less banish them somewhere.”
“What did they do?” asked Arkmar.
“No one knows, that’s the thing. I mean, they eat dreamers. But that can’t be it, that’s hardly even despicable, much less unspeakable. Tower of Koth? It goes up to the surface, it opens up in the north, in the Zoogs’ wood.”
“Oh. Oh. Is that the—?”
“The slab. Yeah. They say the Gugs can’t pass that slab, but I talked to some zoogs and they’re all sure that thing rises up every so often and something sneaks out in the middle of the night. They’re idiots, of course. Fucking zoogs.”
“Oh, I agree,” said Arkmar. “I had dealings with them a few times. Now they set the moral tone around this place, and the bar is not set very high.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Ryel, “which makes you wonder what the Gugs could have done.” She looked around, then back at the two pillars. In this light, crooked things that they were, they looked like gigantic femurs. “Well, they’re sleeping like babies, let’s head in.”
“You first, me first, no, let’s go together,” said Arkmar.
“Arkmar,” said Ryel, “I like you. You’re my type.”
So the elf and the dwarf hopped up and hustled up the last slope to the neighborhood of the pillars. They did not feel like passing between, so they paused near the righthand one, then passed to its right. The city wall, such as it was, had been beaten down here, more likely by carousing than because of military action. They scrambled over its rubble and dropped quietly to the street.
The streets ran straight but bent to the left at first, and later tended to the right; the angles of intersections were unpredictable and suggestive. They ran among towers and massive keeps and odd black parks and through wide empty plazas of stone marked by dark stains and burns. They slitted from statue to statue; on about the fifth one they both noticed the statues weren’t human, weren’t even quite humanoid, not exactly.
Arkmar dashed across an open arch and got comfy in the corner between the next two towers. He looked back. Ryel started across the gap.
Just as she did so, Arkmar noticed several things. One was that the archway was not unoccupied. A giant lay sleeping in it, sleeping like a baby, a baby with a mouth that opened vertically, full of yellow teeth of a peculiar shape. Another was the distinct sense of figures flitting a block or more behind her. Yet another was the distinct sense of things not Gug, not humanoid, flitting about like mice when the cat dozes. Among the mice he was sure there were ghasts on the move, raiding the city while they had the chance, hoping for the big score, but there were others.
Yet another was the sense that something was watching, watching like nothing had watched them before. Watching and considering, watching and disapproving, watching and putting it all into its equations, weighing it all against what it knew and what it guessed, what it feared and what it desired. Arkmar reeled with the waves of malice he felt wash across him, even as part of him discounted anything he did not know for certain. There was just too much in this gloom that he could not know for certain. And when Ryel joined Arkmar in the corner, they exchanged a look that said they felt the same things.
“Let’s get this thing done quick,” said Ryel. “Okay?”
“Agreed,” said Arkmar. They turned and he waved a hand. “Any idea where we are?”
“Well,” said Ryel, pointing at a Cyclopean tower, more of an impossibly vast pillar really, to the right, “isn’t that the Tower of Koth there?”
“Yeah, it is,” said Arkmar dejectedly. “It’s supposed to be over there.” He pointed ahead and a little to the left. “And it’s no closer than it was last time we stopped, when it was over there.” He waved further to the left.
“What?? You’re the fucking dwarf. You can’t be lost.”
Arkmar let out a breath. They both looked behind them. Things were moving in the gloom, as though hidden in leaf litter. “Okay,” said the dwarf, “how about if we bear to the right a bit?”