The city of the toad-slugs was horrible enough to an outsider, but perhaps the worst thing about it was that the toad-slugs were not its ruling class. It was ruled by some cousin of the shoggoth, Sogothus antarcticus forsooth; these were somewhat smaller than their terrestrial relatives, and of somewhat more fixed form, staying generally in a blobby opaque shape with a couple of legs and some number of short arms. They were scientists, scholars; they knew well the stars and what was likely to come down from among those stars.
They built tall buildings clustered in the broad valley mouth just inland from the oily sea. They saw little need for windows, and conducted much of their business and their scholarship on the rooftops. The streets lay deep in black canyons of edifice, and they were used only by the toad-slugs and their pathetic captives from Parg, black men and women destined to make the transition from slave to meat. The buildings themselves must have been full of odd chambers and galleries and closets and attics and side passages and priest holes; many interior realms must have lain centuries unlit, for the toad-slugs really couldn’t care less if it was light or dark, the slaves had no voice in the matter, and the master race did not, unless they felt the need for them, have optical sensors.
A procession that wound among those streets, and they were a city that loved a parade, if it was done to their taste, would have passed no windows but many a black, arched, empty doorway. From some of these, noxious smokes and vapors emerged: the toad slugs did love a noxious vapor. From many, further additions to the parade came, toad-slugs, various guests, slaves on their way to being meat, and the occasional blob with legs and some number of arms, though most of that race preferred to watch from the tops of towers. Above the revelers, winged things soared and glided among the towers, winged things that, on closer observation than most observers would be willing to hazard, seemed a tad too bloated for flight even on the Moon.
Then the procession would emerge from the black city at the point where a slanted stream of some liquid well described as viscous or even pustulant oozed down a V-shaped valley cut into the highland. A royal road ran up along the righthand side of this stream and up onto the top of the ridge to the right. There stood a temple, gleaming pale black in the starlight.
“It looks wonderful,” said Ryel, peering out from the stalks of a very peculiar sort of tree, or giant fungus, or possibly very slow-moving and colossal insect. “The parade route.”
“Do you see them?” hissed Arkmar.
“Yes, actually. They’re coming out from the gate of town. Man, that place looks like it is not such a great tourist attraction. You’ve never been there, Elena?”
“No,” said Elena, shivering.
“Okay,” said Arkmar. “And what is our tourist doing right now, in this parade?”
“She is walking free with her head held high,” said Ryel, “but she’d be doing that whether this was her bright idea or not. They’re definitely headed for the temple. There’s nothing else up here. Hope she brought her credit cards, because I don’t think they take cash.” She looked back at the other two, and both of them seemed to get the reference. How interesting.
“So does your plan involve us being down there in the temple?” asked Elena.
“Yes, yes, I told you. You can’t talk me out of it.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to go in there,” said the time tech, “but I don’t want to go in there. I know we have to. I just feel a little revolted right now, that’s all.”
“You are not the only one,” said Arkmar. “Those buildings down there. That’s no kind of architecture for a Dwarf, that is not. It’s so plain.”
“And black,” said Ryel.
“And gelatinous,” said Elena. “I’m ready.”
“Kay then,” said Ryel. “Go.” She stepped out, looked around, and then started slinking down the side of the hill and up the next one, coming in among a boulder field just below the temple. They moved up from rock to rock, from crag to standing stone to pit to up-heaved lava pile, until they were close by the temple. It was perhaps octagonal, with a base of what seemed to be a single huge chunk of obsidian; inside, it was a forest of pillars, possibly in some sort of arrangement. They did not feel up to going inside, so they crept along among the stony cover just this side of the thing.
“This should be good enough,” said Arkmar. “Given that we’re not going in there.”
“It wouldn’t be worth the risk,” replied Ryel. “What do you think, Elena?”
“Go in there? Thank you, no,” said the time tech. “Any rationalization you come up with for that is just peachy by me.”
“Okay,” said Ryel, “I’m just afraid that the place harbors things we can’t see from out here. Is that a good rationale?”
“Besides,” said Arkmar, “if we do our work properly, they won’t even get to the temple.” He grinned, then looked at Ryel. “What is our work, anyway?”
“I’ll tell you when I work that out,” replied Ryel.
The procession wound out of the city, which contained no single street that ran straight for more than three blocks, and up the road to the high ground. Presently they were in sight of the temple, the little church on the hillside, and the toad-slugs in the vanguard were happy and showed it. Gradually the enthusiasm spread back through the parade, with toad things dancing little odd dances and the masters and slaves keeping time with their hands, or whatever, on their thighs or whatever. Aridel strode along in the middle of them, unaffected, her head high and flat of trajectory like a cat’s back as it skitters across a road. She had traded her relatively sensible assassin spy outfit for something with gauzy veils over not much but jewelry.
They came to the area below the temple, which was laid out as a sort of amphitheater with bench seating on rocks laid down along the ascending path. More of the slug-toads and the shoggoth-like masters sat or lolled on the benches watching with pride, no doubt, as the party reached an open platform right in front of the temple. Aridel was led forward, or went of her own accord and her escort kept up with her. Down from the temple came a single figure, neither a toad thing nor one of the master race: this was a skinny humanoid draped in a jaundice yellow cloak.
“She’s still got my fucking backpack,” said Arkmar.
“That wouldn’t be interesting,” said Elena, “except it’s obvious they gave her new clothes.”
“Yeah,” said Ryel, “there’s lots here that’s interesting. Starting with, there are three of us and about five bajillion of them.”
“Glad you noticed,” said the dwarf. “Got a plan?”
“I did,” said Ryel. “Not so sure I still do. But we’re here. Might as well attempt the impossible.”