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IX. Chaos Theory

1.

The Storm Queen turned slowly into a course that would take her down on the dark side of the Moon, dark in its lunar night and also, in this full moon, dark in facing away from the World. Arkmar chatted with Ferd at the helm, and walked the circuit of the deck. The captain and crew were busy about him; Ryel and Elena disappeared below with grim looks on their faces, to do a ritual of some sort, or perhaps several of several sorts.

Presently, gazing off the port side, Arkmar sensed Ryel next to him. “How’d it go down there?” he asked.

“It went fine,” she said. She looked where he was looking, at the growing orb of the Moon, solid in the night of heaven. “Can you see anything yet?”

“Oh, plenty to see over yonder,” said the dwarf, waving an arm at the horizon, where the sunlight of the Dream Sun blazed in jagged curves against the blackest of shadows in the depths of grey valleys, the lees of mountains and the bottoms of craters. Directly below and off the port bow, the dark land was not entirely dark, but lit with a dim grey glow.

“I see rough country. Where are we going to land?” she asked, but then she said, “Look, if that isn’t a body of water, I don’t know what it is. It’s an ocean. Or something.”

“It’s an ocean,” said Arkmar, “of something.”

The ship was now sailing the lower reaches of the space above the Dream Moon’s dark side. The seas were not wide and vast like on the side of the Moon that gazed down on Baharna and Ulthar and Celephais, but there were several large lakes, and one that extended back into hills in straits and lagoons and smaller lakes. Captain Alkwadir took the helm as his craft descended, conferring with his first and second mates on occasion, banking ten degrees to starboard, then five to port, then starboard again and flattening out into the final descent into the largest of the seas.

As they splashed down into the black sea with a viscous smack, Ferd was at the helm. He was flanked by the captain and Ryel, who in turn were flanked by Elena, her hand clutching Ali’s arm, and Arkmar, scowling at the liquid of the lunar sea.

“So what do we know about this place?” asked the dwarf.

“Never been here before?” asked Ferd.

“No,” said Elena, Ryel and Arkmar.

“It’s not like in the, um, dare I say, waking world,” said Arkmar. “There, I do believe that the seas, or maria, are actually flat expanses of cooled lava.”

“This is more of an oily substance,” said Ryel. “Eww. You can sort of feel it squelching as we, um, sail through it.”

“Hey, Mister Dwarf?” asked Elena. “Your moon have air?”

“No, I’m assured that it does not. Yours, where you’re from?”

“No, but we had four moons where I grew up. Two big and two little.”

“Get out! Four moons? Anything live on them?”

“The bigger two have lichens,” said Elena.

“Well,” said Ryel, looking through the captain’s spy glass, “this one has lichens. And some other stuff. Look.”

Elena took the telescope and looked. Then she handed it to the dwarf. She didn’t say anything but she looked repulsed. Arkmar, after looking for a few seconds, and while continuing to look, said, “That is utterly revolting, that is.”

“What, the residents?” asked Ali. “And yet we are going to have to meet them close up.”

“At least close enough to bonk them on the heads,” said Arkmar. “I did notice that they were susceptible to head bonking.”

“I hate how they hop and, you know,” said Elena, looking up into the starry sky. She didn’t look like she was finding much comfort with that view either. “Goddess,” she said, “how I love-hate this place.”

“Dream World, or just the Moon?” asked Ali.

“Dream World,” said Elena. “Dreaming. It’s supposed to all mean nothing, dreams, but it all means something, you’ll just never know what. All these menaces and dangers and enemies. All these unspeakables.” She shuddered again. “So what are we doing?”

“We’re looking for the black sloops,” said Ryel.

“Hey, Elena,” said Arkmar, still looking through the telescope, “you wouldn’t have anything useful like a cloak in your spell collection, would you?”

“Like a moving cloak, maybe?” said Elena, pulling out her little black wand.

So over the next hour the Storm Queen explored the sea where she had landed. It was not water, but it hid things that seemed alive. It had waves, but among them were unexplainable ripples, bubbles popping in unpredictable places, odd splashes heard but mostly not seen; twice a long ridge of solid stuff, like the back of a huge fish, showed just above the surface.

And then they turned along the far side of a mountainous headland, keeping their distance from a long bar where something came out of the sea and danced on the shore. And there before the voyagers, two black sloops rose and fell slightly on the black surf, moored at a dock of some sort of stone. It was the toad-slug things that now danced stupidly on the shore, and formed a procession to lead a prisoner, or perhaps a visiting diplomat, up the main street of one of the more hideous zip codes in Dream World.

“Well, there she is,” said Ryel, gazing on the shore with just her naked eye. “Ahoy, Aridel.”

“Positive on that,” said Arkmar with the telescope.

“Where do you want us?” asked Ali.

“Get us to shore here,” said Ryel. “Then be ready to fire it up and get out when we come running.”

2.

A few minutes later, Ryel and Arkmar disembarked, leaping the twenty feet to the shore in the low lunar gravity. They landed, bounded a time or two and came to a stop, looking back to the ship. Elena got one more necking smooch from her man and then she turned to the shore, took a running jump and landed nearby.

“So where to?” she asked with a grin.

“Nowhere,” said Ryel, “till you weave that moving cloak around us three. Is that too much to ask?”

“Silly me,” said Elena. She took them both by the hand and pulled them close, and then spoke the seven words of the moving cloak spell, and then they looked at one another with the smiles of children hiding under the blankets together. “I don’t know,” said Elena, “don’t tell anyone about this, because I might get in trouble with the time tech guild. I’m kind of new to the rules, and they can be kind of strict.”

“You’re doing something good for time and space,” said Arkmar. “You need not feel conflicted. Of course we would lie, cheat or steal to save the Many-verse.”

“The what did you call it?” asked Ryel.

“The Many-verse. You know about the—don’t you?”

“Sure,” she said, smiling at him curiously and then turning to look ahead. “How close do we have to stay?”

“Not that close once the spell is set,” replied Elena. “Within maybe ten, fifteen feet of me. You never heard the term Many-verse? Where are you from?”

“Middle Earth. Where are you from?”

“Not here, obviously. Not Middle Earth either. Isn’t it more important to know where we’re going?”

“Well, you asked me, I told you. We are going up the hill, children, just like Jack and Jill, to fetch a pail of water.”

Ryel led the other two up onto the high ground overlooking the sickly sea. They climbed a very steep slope, then found themselves at the foot of a longer, slightly less steep hillside, and with barely a stop to check themselves, they were starting up again. Now vegetation grew around them: giant lichens, six or eight feet tall and dozens of feet across, and curious fungi chattering and dancing and humming and muttering. Overhead the black sky hung sparkling with stars. Behind, the Storm Queen put off from shore and stood waiting. Ahead, the top of the hill receded before them as they climbed toward it. The slope around them was strewn with rocks and punctuated by half-buried boulders; the trail wound in and out among these, and among the giant lichen. Finally they climbed onto a flat rock and took a rest.

“Where’s the water?” asked Elena.

“And the pail, where’s that?” asked Arkmar.

“We’ll use your helmet, dwarf,” said Ryel. “Okay, look. There’s a temple on the high ground still a mile or so to the left and a little higher. Yes, Elena, it’s one of those unspeakable places. This whole thing is one of those unspeakable things. But that’s where I plan on us going. Are you okay with that?”

“Of course,” said the other two. “I’m not afraid of temples,” said Arkmar. “Heck, we met in a temple.”

“There’s one difference,” said Ryel. “That priest was a fake. These guys are for real.”

“So we’re going up to this temple,” said Elena. “What do we do when we get there?”

“I don’t know for sure, but all the trends seem to indicate that we’re going to be interrupting something. A ritual, a conference, a sacrifice: your guess is as good as mine. Whatever it is, I know we can’t stop it ahead of time and I know we don’t want it to go off without a hitch.”

“If it involves slicing up toad-slugs,” said Arkmar, “I’m already in. I couldn’t get any inner.”

“I know. But what if something shows up that isn’t a toad-slug?”

“You got anything in mind?”

“I don’t know,” said Elena, “something that crawls and is chaotic?”

“Oh fuck,” said Arkmar. “You aren’t seriously telling me that Other Gods are likely to start appearing, are you?”

“Would it make a difference as to how in you were?” asked Ryel.

“No,” said Arkmar, “no, it would make no difference.”

“Elena?”

“Oh, I don’t actually know any better, I’m just a foolish time tech,” said Elena.

“Well, in that case,” said Ryel, “let’s get to the temple quick or they’ll have all the fun without us.”

So Ryel led Arkmar and the time tech Elena on and to the left across the highlands, among the fronds of giant foliose lichens and curious chattering fungi, while somewhere onward and to the right a curious brownish space ship shaped like a Winnebago Adventurer dropped toward the slope of a lunar mountain and settled in the dust of a bowl-like crater, and beyond that mountain, a Persian carpet complete with living room set of sofa and two chairs settled into a forest of lunar sponges.

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 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 just yet, 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 not going in there 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?”

“It works.”

“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. She gazed at the temple. “You know,” she said, “we’re going in there at some point. Because it is in there, whatever it is. We just want to make sure we go into that temple alone.”

3.

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.”

Ryel and Arkmar and Elena crouched among the beaten-down, pathetic excuses for giant lichens and the entirely subdued and barely moving animated fungi, watching what seemed somewhere between ritual and huddled conference. The blobby beings and a couple of the senior toad-slugs got to discuss current events with the robed priest in the yellow cloak, while the other members of the parade cooled their heels or whatever they had that corresponded to heels. Aridel was in the heel-cooling group, and did not look happy about it; at any rate, the toad-slugs gave her a wide berth. Presently she became impatient. Ryel and Elena and Arkmar could hear her heckling the conferees.

“Excuse me,” she called to them in the Dream World’s common tongue, a form of English. “Hello? I have it, you want it, remember? Hey, you batrachian assholes. I’m over here. Remember? You need to deal with me.”

The toad-slugs tried to ignore her, but it was clear they were scandalized. It was hard to tell what the reaction of the blobby aristocrats was, or the humanoid priest, but they did take a gander back at the high elf to make sure she was merely voicing her opinion and not acting on it. They seemed to shrug and return to their confab.

“Am I not here?” Aridel said, loud enough to be heard a hundred yards away and despite the damping effect of the giant lichens. “I didn’t come here to get cut out of the negotiations. I mean, I enjoy parades, I always have, it’s a huge honor, I’m almost, like, the Grand Marshal, and this is a really cool one though you could use some more, like, floats and stuff, but that’s not what I came here for. Okay?”

She continued in this line for some time, on and off, but the conferees continued to ignore her. So she started putting the toad-slugs nearest her to sleep. One, then another, then several more pitched over and fell sprawling. They began to emit something between a snore and a croak. That seemed to irritate the yellow-clothed priest just a bit more than Aridel had perhaps intended. He, or she or it, separated from the group at the front and came down the line, slowly, robes trailing behind. The toad-slugs and the slaves or meat shipments from Parg withdrew to the sides of the road, but Aridel stood her ground.

“Hey kitty,” came Elena’s voice in Ryel’s ears. Ryel and Arkmar looked down and sure enough, there was a cat rubbing past Elena and coming up to get petted by the elf and the dwarf. It was big, it was an orange tabby with a thick mane, a Norwegian Forest Cat or possibly a Celephaisian Moon Cat. Ryel idly ruffled its mane while they both watched Aridel confront the priest in yellow.

“Hey, more cats,” said Arkmar. Ryel looked down: the dwarf was stroking the sides of a sleek tuxedo cat, a fat fellow with a sweet disposition and clearly a killer look in his eyes.

Ryel said to the tuxedo cat, “You look like you’re in charge of something. Puddles, isn’t it?”

“I’m in charge of the patrol force, Ryel,” he replied. “Buttercup there is the liaison to headquarters.”

“That is my function,” said Buttercup, “purr purr.”

“So,” said Ryel, “is there an attack planned or something?”

The cats looked at each other. They made a sort of nod, and Buttercup said, “Major Puddles is under strict orders to avoid unnecessary military action while on the Moon.”

“The question is,” said Puddles, “what exactly is unnecessary.”

“That is the question,” said Buttercup. “We have some tens of thousands of cats on the Moon at the present moment, and their security is uppermost in our minds, of course.”

“Besides,” said Puddles, “there’s some serious shit going down. You know what?”

“Sort of,” said Ryel. “Suffice it to say that the high elf has something that she took from us, and she’s trying to make a deal.”

“The crawling chaos is involved,” said Elena.

“You see, Buttercup,” said Puddles, “this rather changes the situation vis-a-vis the rules of engagement, as I think you’ll agree.”

Ryel looked back and noticed many more cats sitting or lounging under the foliose giant lichen. “Whoa,” she said, “you have quite a sizeable patrol here.”

“One learns not to take shit from these people,” said Buttercup, not wavering in her attention to the events before them.

Aridel was now conversing with the priest. The watchers could not hear his side of the conversation, but they could hear hers. “Seriously?” she was saying. “I’m just supposed to give it to you? You think you have that kind of leverage?”

The priest said something: they could hear his tone, dismissive, suggestive.

“That’s just disgusting,” she said. “There is no way, baby. No way.”

The priest waved a hand and Aridel began to sway and blur, but then she shook herself and said some words back.

“Valar,” said Ryel, “they’re slinging spells.”

“How big is she, anyway?” asked Elena. “Maybe I could get in some of this action.”

“She’s got to be up to seven worders,” said Ryel. “Maybe eight or nine. Still, I don’t think I’d be pushing those buttons here, myself.”

Indeed, the spell battle quickly escalated and then died. Aridel was in the middle of a long spell when the priest laughed and crashed the foot of its staff on the ground, and lightnings shot out and hit Aridel in the legs. She foundered with a cry of indignation, and then one more priestly spell and she appeared bound. The toad-slugs grabbed her and began hauling her to the temple.

Just then something slammed into the lunar surface along the side of the temple, practically right in front of the watching elf, dwarf, human and cats. It was a sort of rocket capsule, and a hatch popped open, and there, of all people, was Thaeron. “Wait a stinkin’ minute,” he shouted, “you’ve got some things of mine here, I get to be part of the negotiating team.”

4.

“What the hell is going on?” asked Arkmar. “You guys realize I have no idea what’s happening over there.”

“Shh, dwarf,” said Ryel. Buttercup gave him a dirty look; Puddles leaned closer to Elena.

“They’re arguing,” said Elena, who looked like she was trying to hear through a wooden door, not across a hundred yards of Dream World’s airy lunar surface.

“Well, I can see that,” said Arkmar and Ryel together.

“Shh,” said Elena, “I can’t hear.”

“Drop her,” said Thaeron to the toad-slugs carrying Aridel.

“What, is she yours?” one of the blobby aristos retorted. “We will sell her, if you insist, but not in her current state, she is still breathing for now.”

“You guys are going to be extremely sorry,” Aridel managed to mumble through the net of priestly power binding her.

“Why would that be?” asked another of the blobby nobles. “Kick her.” One of the toad-slugs obliged.

“Damn it,” said Aridel, “let me go. Is that Thaeron?”

“Is it?” asked one of the blobs. “Would you be Thaeron?”

“Ah, my love calls for me,” said Thaeron. “Yes, I am he.”

“Your love?” asked the blob, unable to detect sarcasm.

“She’s my wife,” said Thaeron, “and thus I inherit whatever she may possess, considering that you are planning to kill her, right?”

“It would amount to that,” said the blob.

“Thaeron!” yelled Aridel. “For Vala’s sake! What the hell!”

“What are they arguing about?” asked Ryel. “How to prepare roast of high elf?”

Elena just grinned and waved Ryel and Arkmar away with one hand, the other hand on her ear. “Maybe,” she said.

The yellow-robed priest, who had hung back up to now, joined the argument. The priest did not speak, exactly, but made its feelings known: Take them both, it seemed to be saying.

“You can’t take me,” said Thaeron. “I am an interested party. I insist on arbitration. Unless you care to make a settlement of the matter. My terms are: You may have the body, which will soon be useless to me, and I gain her meager worldly goods, you know, as keepsakes.”

“Why does anyone ever believe that guy?” asked Arkmar, who could only hear Thaeron.

“They don’t,” said Elena.

It will not matter, returned the yellow priest. Your lives are both forfeit.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Thaeron replied, pulling out his saber with his left hand while arming his right hand with a throwing dagger.

“You would take on all of our slaves?” asked one of the blobs.

“I would take on all of the knaves in the world,” said the thief, “to save my love’s honor and dignity and get her, ah, keepsakes.”

It will not matter, repeated the priest. It raised its staff and lightning stabbed up into the sky, stabbed at the red of Algol, the demon star. It raised its arms and called to the sky in a voice like a long low gong. There was a rising sound as of wind, but there was no wind.

The effect on the toad-things and their blobby masters was dramatic. The toads knelt, their big double-lobed heads down. The blobby things gibbered and babbled in fear. Even Thaeron looked around, distracted by the noise and the sense of something irrevocable coming.

“Damn it all,” said Aridel in the silence. “Let me out! What the—?”

“What the hell is that?” asked Arkmar. “Tell me what’s happening!”

“Okay,” said Elena, “what I’m getting is this—!”

“The priest,” said Ryel, “wants to take Aridel to wife.”

“Whaaat??” said Arkmar. “So what’s Thaeron saying to that?”

“He doesn’t have any idea what’s going on,” said Elena. “But this—!”

“Shit’s going down,” said Ryel, as they looked up above the temple, where night-grey billows were barely visible against the black sky, blotting out the tiny stars. The rushing sound grew louder. “Uh, Puddles,” said the elf maiden, “don’t you think it’s time to do something? I mean, that is what I think it is, isn’t it?”

Puddles and Buttercup, crouching between Ryel and Elena, looked up at the sky. “We own not him,” said Puddles, “but we kind of like Hoary Nodens instead, though he doesn’t make calls all the way out here on the Moon. Still, he is strong medicine.”

“So isn’t this the proper time to make a move?”

Puddles switched his tail a couple of times. He and Buttercup sniffed noses. Then Puddles emitted a low growl that suddenly grew to a disturbingly loud caterwaul.

The toad things, already in a tizzy, fled down the road or threw themselves on the ground. The blobby things looked completely confounded. The yellow priest grabbed Aridel’s arm and began dragging her toward the temple’s shade. Thaeron had another try at stopping them, but a dose of the priest’s odd lightning flattened him.

The thing descending on the wings of smoke from the heavens had not found a landing spot when with a long growl rising to a cry, Puddles shouted his order to the masses of his troops. Further hisses and yowls spread across the army. From the hills, from under the leaves of giant lichen, all at once a thousand, ten thousand shapes, in grey and black and white, in orange stripes, in blue stripes, in a hundred combinations. The cats of Earth were upon the moon beings, unaffected by the waves of magic crashing around them.

5.

Somewhere, someone was having a peaceful enough dream. Perhaps they were dreaming of eating chocolate cake with the Pope, or being chased through the Louvre in their underwear by King Tut riding a hot dog. Perhaps they were dreaming that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

But here on the Moon, the one that floated far above Dream World, the dream was not a happy one, nor was it one that made even a symbolic kind of sense. The Earth that lay below was not tightly bound to the concept of sphericality, the heavens above were a curtain of emptiness pulled across the distant and eternal abode of Gods who did not know their asses from holes in the fiber of space time, and their messenger was the Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep, of whom it could not be said that he didn’t care one way or the other what happened to any given sentient being; au contraire, he cared a little bit. He had a slight preference for sentient beings meeting painful and humiliating demises.

And here on the ground, creatures too horrible to really describe, the toad-slugs forsooth, living in fear and hatred of their superiors, who were even more horrible, and of the priest, the humanoid swathed in jaundice yellow, so that thank goodness its face was completely hidden, were having rather a bad time of it. Even their dreams were turning into nightmares, and they were nightmares in which thousands of small crazed predatory mammals, having leapt to the Moon from the peaked roofs of tall houses, now threw themselves upon the poor unfortunate unmentionables and tore things out of them that one would not normally expect a living being to have in the first place.

The priest in yellow tried to keep dragging Aridel, waving his staff and throwing the lightning around like a rich drunk throwing tips, but the cats seemed not to care if their fur got a bit singed. In a few steps the priest was having difficulty staying up, and when the priest foundered and lost its grip on the high elf, she made sure to give the hideous thing a good push without disturbing the hood that covered most of its features. She took only the briefest look around before dashing toward the shade of the temple.

The cats were not especially interested in Aridel, but she was only halfway there when she tripped over a couple of them chasing each other and went sprawling. The dwarf’s bag went sprawling too.

“I’ll take that,” said a redhead who looked like a college professor, dipping low on her flying carpet. Four people who looked like grad students hung onto the sofa and chair set and waved wands at anyone who came near. Behind them, the smoky column from the stars was still descending, still minutes from landing on the surface.

“Fuck you, Mandrashka,” replied Aridel, holding onto the strap as she lay sprawled. The most horrible noises were filling the air behind them. A loud motor noise and then a serious-sounding crash came from the other direction. “What the fuck is that?” cried Aridel, still hanging on grimly to the strap. The dwarves knew how to make straps. “It looks like a fucking gypsy caravan. No, wait. It’s a Winnebago Adventurer the color of diarrhea.”

“Screw you,” said Mandrashka, “you’re not going to say ‘made you look’ at me.” She raised her wand and said, “Trt sko,” and a thick tongue of flame shot out. But both Aridel and the strap resisted. “God damn it,” said Mandrashka, “well, here’s something that works—!”

But before she could get another spell off, the sofa’s three grad student denizens were firing spells of their own, and then flying through the air as a light brown Winnebago Adventurer, a 33-footer from Earth in the year 1999 in fact, plowed into the sofa. Mandrashka swore still more when the big vehicle, hardly recreational at all at this point, hit her and dumped her on top of Aridel and dumped the sofa and two chairs on top of them.

The driver’s door flew open and out came the brunette from Ngranek. Out of the side door came her newest underlings, three chimpanzees with wands. The chimps began laying down fire at anyone nearby, and the brunette dashed over to subdue Aridel and Mandrashka.

“Sek il dak ag ra, motherfuckers,” she said in triumph, and it worked the first time: under the living room set, the two victims were held fast in place.

“Fucking India,” mumbled Aridel, barely able to move her mouth.

“So where is it, babes?” asked India. “I could torch the couch. Would you like that?”

“Pls dnt,” said Mandrashka, even less capable of jaw or any other kind of movement.

“Well, where is the collection then?”

“I got your collection right here,” said Thaeron, aiming a dagger at India, who dodged. The second dagger, the one he threw half a beat after with the left hand, hit her square in the neck. India went down, but she went down pulling the dagger out and stopping the blood with a quick Stop Bleeding spell. Meanwhile the chimps were giving Thaeron the what for, just as the cats were mopping up some things that one would not normally want to mop up.

At some point in the festivities, Ryel emerged from under the Winnebago with Arkmar’s bag. He helped her up, and then she and he and Elena slipped into the temple. It was pretty horrible too, but it was uninhabited at present, what with the festivities. They found the altar, contrived to open up its hidden compartment, and made off into the giant lichens with the sixth piece just as the Crawling Chaos was finally ready to make his grand appearance in the plaza, where the festivities were already winding down.

“I don’t live an interesting enough life,” said Arkmar as they scurried among the walking fungi and giant lichens and staggered standing stones. “I don’t get invited to street parties.”

“Don’t feel bad,” said Ryel. “I always have to crash them myself.”

“So,” said Elena, just behind them, “we walk nonchalantly away?”

“Maybe we run,” said Ryel.

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