V. With a face like that
Ryel and Arkmar went from the House of the Iron Kindred straight to the zebra market. It was one of those stubborn bits of local practice that one did not hire a horse on the Isle of Oriab; one hired a zebra.
“But I don’t want to ride either one,” said Arkmar.
“But I do, and you’re coming with me,” said Ryel. “It would be hard to carry on a conversation if I was miles ahead of you.”
“Obviously I can’t let you out of my sight for a minute,” said Arkmar. “You get in trouble.”
“Obviously the reverse is true,” said Ryel. “You were out of my sight for a minute and you got trapped by a bunch of ghasts on the floor of the Great Abyss. I was out of your sight for a minute twice and not only did I save your ass the first time, but the second time I managed to snag—well, more on that in a bit.” She walked away, and stopped by a nice looking zebra. “Now let me conduct an interview, all right? Just stand there and don’t go anywhere.”
So Arkmar stood there and watched while Ryel interrogated the zebra. After her third question, she rolled her eyes, thanked the animal and moved on. Four more zebras did not pass visual inspection. Then she saw a mare a couple of years old giving her bedroom eyes and she decided to try another interrogation.
This interview seemed to go much better all around. In a minute, Ryel was laughing at things the zebra was, somehow, telling her. She laughed long at one grunted remark, then shook her head, laughed some more, and noticed Arkmar giving her the eye.
“Oh, this is the one,” she said. “Aren’t you, baby doll?” She tickled the neck of the zebra, then scritched, then patted. “Let’s go drive a hard bargain.”
A few minutes later, Ryel and Arkmar were seated bareback on the zebra. They passed the west, landward gate of Baharna, where the road along the north shore of the great lake of Yath ran out. To the right rose a ridge cut into long hills by perpendicular stream beds. Many of the hills were given over to pasture and meadow and hay field, and there were farm houses, two or three to a hillside.
“Very picturesque,” said Ryel with a slight sneer.
“I couldn’t live like that,” said Arkmar. “The sky would oppress me. As would the poverty, now I think of it.”
“Ah,” said Ryel, “the Dwarven style. The piles of gems and gold. The tall chambers draped with ancient tapestries. The thrones of dragon scales. You from Erebor?”
“Moria? Um, Khazad-dum? Ered Luin? Harlindon? Forlindon? No?”
“No, none of those. Please do keep guessing, it passes the time.”
“No thanks,” said Ryel. “Something to talk about in camp tonight.”
“We stopping for lunch anywhere?”
“Yes,” said Ryel. “Next village. You’re buying.”
The elf and the dwarf stopped for lunch, something like pulled pork sandwiches with something like fried potatoes and something that was definitely beer.
“You want to show me now?” asked Arkmar.
“No,” said Ryel. “Not here. Tonight. We’re camping out. You like camping, don’t you?”
“Brought anything to eat?”
“Dude. I’m a huntress.”
“Well, if the island is all like this,” said Arkmar, picking a nice bit off his sandwich, “you’ll be hunting cow. If you bag it, I’ll drag it. And cook it. But: cow.”
“Never fear, dwarf. It gets wilder on the far side of the lake.”
“Isn’t there a ruined city or something?” asked Arkmar.
“Yes, very ruined. Pre-human. In Dream World, I don’t know what that means exactly, but I gather prior dominant species also dreamed.”
“Ryel, maybe now is the time for me to ask, isn’t it supposed to be haunted over there? And the mountain is supposed to be weird. From what the priests said at the House—!”
“I have my own sources,” said Ryel quietly, leaning close across the table. “So we don’t camp in the city. I doubt the hunting’s very good there anyway. I’m told the nightgaunts come out in those ruins and rather sweep the place clean.”
“But you’re not afraid of nightgaunts, you know how to talk to them.”
“That was closer than you think.” She looked around, then added, “Let’s just say I’m not as afraid of them as Thaeron would be.”
“You wicked girl. You stole from the thief. And now you figure you’re safer from having your throat slit in the middle of the night if you sleep in the haunted ruins.”
“You’re very perceptive. You disapprove?”
“No. No, I don’t. He’s an asshole.” Arkmar downed his ale. “Another, or need we be off?”
Arkmar and Ryel rode on for only a few more hours, until the farmlands gave out but before they approached the ruins, which they could already see on the other side of the great lake of Yath. Behind them on the south, east of the lake, lay the long ridge where the city of Baharna was draped; before them rose the enormous mountain of Ngranek, dominating the enormous island they were on, rising up through the clouds, not only its peaks but its middle parts hidden in the stratocumulus. To the right, the north coastal ridge of the isle of Oriab ran in broken folds behind and ahead of them. Above, the blue sky was crisscrossed with streaks and wavy ripples of cirrus cloud, merging into storms over the city’s ridge and into the mass of cumuli caught around the shoulders of the great mountain.
A large crescent moon loomed just an inch to the left of the clouds obscuring Ngranek.
“This should be good enough,” said Ryel, hopping down. “You make fire, I hunt?”
“You’re sure this is safe?” asked Arkmar, after he threw his leg over the zebra’s butt and slid to the ground, landing on his feet.
“Sure,” said Ryel. “It’s not close enough to the ruins to be haunted but it’s close enough that the stupid settlers haven’t moved in.”
“Why do you insist on calling people stupid? They’re not stupid. If they were stupid, they would be buying up all the best lots in those ruins.”
“Arkmar. They’re human.”
“All right. Good point. But for humans, they’re not too stupid.”
“Okay, I’ll agree to that. You make fire, I hunt?”
“I suppose I end up putting up the tent?”
Ryel just smiled, shouldered her bow, said a few words to the zebra and took off into the woods to the right of the road at a trot.
Arkmar looked at the zebra. “You think I’m going to end up putting up the tent?” he said. Darned if the zebra didn’t grin and nod at him.
So Arkmar built a fire. He built a heck of a fire. When Ryel dragged a sizeable turkey in half an hour later, they decided without saying anything that she would put up the tent and he would pluck, clean and cook. They feasted—not a vegetarian in camp—and then they sat on the shore and watched the stars dodge the flying clouds while the chill air drew mist over the waters.
“Those black things flying around the ruins,” said Arkmar, passing Ryel the pipe and taking a hit off the flask.
“They’re what you think they are,” said Ryel, taking a pull on the pipe and covering it to put out its fire. They heard a noise nearby: the zebra was practically standing between them, her butt in the fire. “It’s okay, baby doll. They won’t hurt a hair on your mane.”
“So show me what you got,” said Arkmar. “From that asshole thief.”
“Oh. Yes.” Ryel got out her pack and delved inside. She pulled out the ruby and handed it to Arkmar, and then while he was ogling that, she got out the segments they had so far. She laid them on the sandy ground between them. “Can you give us a bit of light, baby?” she said to the zebra, who looked behind her and then sidled over to the other side of Ryel. In the campfire light no longer blocked by the zebra, Arkmar could see all three segments they had managed to garner: the first one, a simple cylinder; the second, a right-angle bend; and the third, the F pipe with the silvery solid cylinder attached. Ryel set nearby the coppery key and the thick silvery coin.
Arkmar picked the F pipe and the bend, and tried putting them together various ways. It didn’t work, but the original cylinder worked on two of the F’s three ends. “I wonder what it means,” he said. “What’s the right way?”
“There are several ways, we know that,” said Ryel. Arkmar didn’t say anything, pushing the pieces around, playing with them. “What are you thinking, Arkmar?”
“What? I’m not thinking anything.”
Bullshit, she thought. Looking at him, Ryel suddenly wondered why she had ever thought he didn’t know anything. He knew something. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“Oh,” he laughed, “nowhere you know.”
“I’m from Hartway, actually, if you must know,” said Arkmar. “My ancestors came up from South Land. It’s mostly humans there, of course, in Hartway, but they like us, they need us to do their smithing. They haven’t the knack, you know.”
Ryel kept looking at him for a moment, then looked at the cylinders. “I don’t know very much,” she said, “but I know there are seventeen pieces and I know they can go together different ways and do different things.” She held up the F and the right angle. “I gather,” she said softly, “that even with only some of them, you can achieve various effects.” She looked sharply at him. “How much did you know about this?”
“Very little, Ryel. I promise.”
“Cross your heart?” She stared straight into his dark eyes, and he didn’t avert them. “Arkmar,” she said, “very little? Not nothing?”
“Well, one hears certain things.”
“One hears?” They looked at each other for a moment more, then they both looked away. Ryel didn’t want to challenge Arkmar on what he really knew. She didn’t want the subject of what she knew or didn’t know to come up. For one thing, she wasn’t entirely sure what she actually knew. She was used to knowing what she knew, but the more she talked about this little operation, the more she realized she didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. All she could do was hope she worked it out soon, as in, before she had much more of the device, or whatever it was, that the pieces were pieces of. “Well,” she said after another moment, “where to next? What’s the map say?”
He pulled the map out of his coat. “Definitely on Ngranek,” he said. “High up. Sorry.” He showed her the map. “See? Red spot. Not blood.”
“No,” said Ryel, “it’s a bit pinkish to be blood. Okay, great.” She put the pieces back in the bag, palmed the key and the coin and stood up. “Well, I still want to know what exactly went on between you and the ghasts.”
“Tomorrow,” said Arkmar standing up. “Not a tale for bed time.”
“Agreed.” She stretched. “You going to hit the sack? I think I’ll take a skinny dip.”
“In there?? Aren’t you afraid of—?” He laughed. “Only you, Ryel.”
“Yes, in there. But first I wanted to ask you something.”
He rolled his eyes. “Anything, elfie.”
She held out the coppery key and the thick, shiny little coin. “Anything on these?”
“Well,” he said, bending to look at the coin, “I think it’s osmium-rhenium alloy. Quite a rare mineral, at least around where I’m from. Not a lot of rhenium about the place.” He stood again, as tall as he ever got. “The key is probably to someone’s magic strong box or other penton-fortified portable storage unit. We can only find out by trying it in every chest we see that isn’t on the front of someone’s torso.”
“Hilarious,” she said. “And Arkmar. That ruby?”
“Ah, trusting as always,” he said, flipping it up in the air. She caught it, stuck it deep in her shirt pocket. She pulled her shirt off, folded it and set it on a rock. “Good night, Ryel.”
“Good night, Arkmar,” she said, stepping out of her boots and pants. He was in the tent when he heard the splash of her diving into the dark lake.
Ryel swam around near the surface, dove to the bottom of the shallows, perhaps twice as deep as she was tall, and then came ashore and sat naked on a rock, smoking and watching the nightgaunts flitting over the distant ruins.
They’re not going to get me, right? asked the zebra. I don’t like them.
“They are not going to get you, baby doll,” said Ryel. “Chill.”
What are you guys gonna do?
“We’re going to take you to the lava carvers, is that okay? Then we’re going to climb up the mountain. You won’t want to go up there with us.”
The zebra didn’t want to do that, but she also didn’t see why Ryel and her heavy little friend should want to go all the way up there. Why not ride around Oriab a few times with Baby Doll?
“Because,” said Ryel with a little revulsion, “we have a job to do. Well, I have a job to do. And Arkmar’s coming with me.”
The zebra didn’t see why a job could be so important, or why that heavy little fellow had to be part of it. Why not let him go up there where it’s all rocks and he’ll be happy? And you stay down here and take me for rides.
Ryel couldn’t explain why, not to a zebra. She wasn’t sure she knew why herself. But she knew there was a why. And she wondered, again, what Arkmar was to do with it all. Why had he invited himself along? She owed her life to him, but why had he saved her? Surely there was a reason, and it wasn’t her pretty face and pointy ears. But if he thought she had some clue about what the seventeen pieces were all about, he was uncharacteristically mistaken. And if he had some idea, why did he need her? She didn’t feel flattered so much as she felt uneasy. Arkmar knew something, but he wasn’t letting on. But he needed her too, in spite of her lack of information. He wasn’t making any move to leave her in the lurch. So whatever was ahead needed two people, or needed Ryel’s special skills.
Or he overestimated her. Or she overestimated him.
None of it made her feel better about her unknown paymasters. She was fairly sure they were White Stone or Star House or possibly Middle Way affiliated. They did not seem foul, and they did not seem as if they seemed fair. It was hard to fool an elf on things like that. But then what did she know? In Mirkwood, in Middle Earth, it was difficult for black evil to pretend to good, but it could be done, for periods of time. Outside Middle Earth, as Ryel knew perfectly well, it wasn’t even clear that the black evil were really evil, or that the famous heroes were really good.
She wouldn’t want the thing to herself, if she knew what it did, would she? That wouldn’t be why they hadn’t told her anything about the pieces? That wouldn’t be why the dwarf was along? What would she do, if she knew? Well, that would depend on what the pieces could be made into. And apparently that was several different things. Had they sent him to watch her? Had they sent others too? What others might be shadowing her, for what reasons?
And why, after all that, did she trust the people who had come to her and given her this job, who had told her so little and sent her off to dare so much? And why, after all that, did she trust Arkmar more every time they fought together?
Finally, worn out with over-thinking, Ryel got down, had a look at the starry sky, then pulled her blankets out of the tent and lay under the stars. She drifted into a trance, where she wandered the rest of the night, while the black shapes soared out over the lake and turned back again and again to the ruins. Oh, there was plenty to wonder about around here: Oriab, Land of Wonder.
Ryel woke in the gloaming. She was cold in a way that seemed like freedom. She got up, wrapped in her blanket, got the fire going again, and got some water heating. Then she folded up the blanket and tossed it on her pack. She went over to the rock outcrop and dove into the lake. When Arkmar came out of the tent, a few minutes later, Ryel was just climbing back out.
“Toss me the towel, will you?” she asked.
“Certainly,” he said, averting his eyes and tossing her a towel. “Always taking off your clothes, aren’t you?”
“Never taking off your clothes, are you?”
“So, not to change the subject, but how far today?”
“Lava carvers’ camps at the foot of the mountain. My stripy baby doll here will stay with them, which is what she was doing before we met her, I gather. We stay the night there and then climb the next day.”
“To find the fourth piece,” said the dwarf. “And from there?”
“You have the map,” said Ryel. “You tell me.”
He opened up the map and she, in her towel, and he, in his chain mail, and the zebra in her stripy pyjamas, all had a good look at it. A spot here, a spot there: the next one was out in the summer sea to the south of the Great Isle.
“I wonder,” said Ryel.
“If it’s underwater? Loved the last time.”
“Hey, you breathe well underwater. I mean, you hold your breath well.”
“Ah, I have a trick up my sleeve,” said Arkmar. “It doesn’t mean I like seaweed. Sharks, all that. So. Another call on your strange friends the ship captain and his wife?”
“Sure,” said Ryel. “And I don’t see why you call them my strange friends. They’re no stranger than the rest of my friends. But first we have a mountain to climb.”
In a way, the next two days went very well. Ryel and Arkmar and their zebra passed the ruins of the pre-human city on the western shore of the Lake of Yath in the midmorning, under tall clouds and ravines of sunlight. Then the weather lifted, and the road bent northwest around the lowest slopes of the vast mountain Ngranek. They began to meet villages again, after the barren patch around the ruins: farm villages, but also villages of crafts folk, who used in one way or another the lava that the mountain had spewed in aeons past. They spent the night in the stone barn of a farm family, sleeping on sacks of seeds while the zebra lady had a confab with the five mule zebras and dozen referee goats, so called because of their stripes of ivory and blackest black.
The third day out from Baharna, they began to climb the enormous mountain, on the oblique and mostly gentle roads across its north flank. By evening the elf and the dwarf rode among cliffs of black stone and dark forests of pine, and then into towns carven of black stone amid little barren gardens. People sat on their front steps chipping and carving the lava into cups and chess pieces and censers and candle holders.
They stayed the night in an inn carved into a cliff, where an ancient lava flow had lurched to a stop and frozen, and then had been cut back straight and clean by an earthquake, the shards washing away and wearing down in the rains of centuries. They had stew and ale in the common room, then went up, locked up and dropped to sleep in cots on either side of the little bedroom.
The next morning dawned beautiful, and Arkmar woke up in the room they shared to see Ryel’s bed empty and disheveled. He swung out of bed, found his leather pants (he wore his boxers to bed, as well as a sturdy tunic) and stood up. Ryel was out on their second floor balcony doing her stretches. She was in fact dressed.
“Time to get some breakfast?” he asked.
“They brought it up,” she replied, finishing one last stretch and coming in. She crossed the small room to the next room, and he followed: in the wan light of the north-facing window, he joined her at a small table with two chairs. There were plates of cut-up apple, little pastries, cheese and something like bacon. There was also coffee and juice and goat’s milk.
“On the house? Or did you order it up?”
“I ordered it,” said Ryel.
“Because of the hike today,” said Arkmar. “Got to get plenty of grub. Anything to pack?”
“There are villages up the mountain,” she replied.
They sat and ate in silence for a little. Arkmar finally said, “Good coffee.”
“I would have to agree.”
“Ryel,” he said, “did something happen in the night I need to know about?”
“Would you want to know if I thought we were being followed?”
“Uh, yes, yeah.”
“Arkmar,” she said, “we’re being followed.”
“By whom? How do you know? Are you sure?”
“That will be seen,” said Ryel. She sipped her coffee. She picked up a hunk of bacon. “It’s too much to hope for that it won’t be seen.”
Arkmar got their packs into shape for carrying, while Ryel had a last chat with the zebra. Arkmar was sitting on a boulder next to the trailhead with the packs beside him, and the sun had cleared the mist, by the time Ryel and the zebra got done parlaying. Ryel came sauntering up toward Arkmar, while the zebra, with a last call of good luck in its horsy language, took off across the road and into the fields beyond.
“Well, that took longer than it should have,” said Ryel.
“You and animals,” said Arkmar. “You just can’t say goodbye.”
“She didn’t want to go with us, she just wanted us to go with her. Anyway, she knew we were on a mission, she knew we wouldn’t just wander the island with her. I told her where to look for us later.”
“The south side of the mountain?”
“Yeah. It’s a long way, but I put a blessing on her. She’ll be okay.”
“So we’re supposed to take her with us to sea and all? Does she swim good? Does she like boats?”
“No horse relative likes boats,” said Ryel. “We’re not taking her with us. She just wanted to, you know, maybe party with us later, okay? Is that fine with you?”
“Me? Sure,” said Arkmar, getting up and pulling on his pack. “I liked that zebra. She was, you know, a cool zebra.”
Ryel headed off up the trail. It ascended very quickly through the patchy pine forest above the village’s cliff, but every time Ryel stopped to wait for Arkmar, she would smile at him and start off again when he caught up. After more than half an hour of this, they came to the top of a slope surrounded by midget pines, and then they were out on a hump of open rock. They looked northward and in the misty distance lay the Northern Sea, but to the south, they raised their eyes and all they could see was more rock sloping up into the clouds.
“Wait, wait,” said Arkmar as he caught up again. “Breather.”
“Of course,” said Ryel. “I’m only elvish.”
They stood breathing and gazing off into the cubic miles of space below them. “So,” said Arkmar, “who’s following us, how close, and so on?”
“I don’t know, but someone was at the hotel last night: someone was in the room when we were eating dinner. And don’t you think that’s someone down there climbing?”
Arkmar looked down. “I make out two people,” he said. “Maybe a third—not sure. Well, they could be lava carvers or whatever. How do you know they’re after us?”
“Just guessing,” said Ryel. She held up a little bit of black ribbon. “I stuck this in the door when we went down to have stew last night.”
“Ah. It was on the floor when we came back. Any idea who—?”
“Nope,” said Ryel. “I’m afraid at that point I am all out of ideas. Shall we go?”
Ryel and Arkmar pushed on upward with the brilliant day around them, blue sky above and, on one side at least, below. There was no sound of water, but the wind was constant; there were trees only in the dry stream beds, but between the stretches of rock were wide stretches of alpine meadow. Half an hour later they could see several steep ridges they had left far below. “I didn’t think to ask,” said Arkmar. “Did the burglar get anything?”
Ryel gave him her best smirk. “As if,” she said. “I carry my entire life in my backpack, except for my boots, my knives, my arrows and my bow.”
“Just checking. And you don’t have any guesses about—?”
“No, you?” He shrugged. She said, “Well, maybe we should keep moving, then.”
Ryel and Arkmar climbed a steady slope and came out on a gravel road, which remained a road as they passed through a tiny village of lava gatherers and minor league vegetable gardeners. The few people they saw did not greet them in any way. Then the road petered out again and they hiked on up goat trails, until they came to another tiny village. This time Ryel found a tiny store, where, in one of the fastest transactions involving cheese that Arkmar had ever seen, the elf bought a two pound chunk of hard white. They were out of the village, turning up behind a huge boulder, when two or three distant figures came around a huge boulder below the village.
Arkmar and Ryel just gave each other nervous smiles. They plunged on into a ravine, so at first they were traveling along an almost level trail, hopping from rock to rock in a stream-worn gully. Then they climbed steeply for several hundred feet. Arkmar again lagged.
“I thought dwarves were tough,” Ryel goaded. “I thought you could handle the mountains. They’re your milieu. That’s what I thought.”
Arkmar labored up to where she stood, leaning on a rock at the top of a short near-cliff. He grinned. “We’re tough,” he said, “but we also look behind us and in front of us.”
She looked onward and upward. Something vanished as she eyed the near-cliff above them.
“Okay,” she said, still looking up, “what about behind? Are they getting closer, or are they even slower than you?”
“Either,” said Arkmar, “they are slower than even me, or they are hanging back preserving their strength, as I am.”
Ryel did not look back from the cliff above. Nothing had reappeared. “Okay,” she said, “your analysis of the situation?”
“Either,” said Arkmar, “they are working together, those ahead and those behind, in which case this is a trap and we ought not walk into it, or they are not, in which case we should let them fight it out.”
“And how do we do these things? Move laterally?”
“You could say that,” he replied. “Come.” He clambered back down on his hands and knees, a bit to the right of the way they had come up. He grimaced and let himself drop a few feet to a ledge. “Come down, come down, Elf, are you afraid?”
“No,” said Ryel. She dropped down beside him: the ledge was a dozen feet long but maybe a foot wide. To the right, it ended in a thick thorn bush. “So?”
“Go toward the bush,” said Arkmar. She did, skeptically. Along the cliff, there was an outcrop at head level that the bush rested against, and under it the rock was undercut by a foot or more. Ryel ducked down, then dropped to hands and knees, and found that she could crawl under the outcrop and stand up on the other side, unscratched by thorns.
“Not bad,” she said. “You saw all this on the way up?”
“It seemed like the sort of place that might work for us,” he replied. “Trouble is, we can’t see. You want to lift me up? Or me lift you?”
“Neither,” said Ryel. “They’re going to have to pass right above us. Can you possibly sit quiet for five minutes? We’re sure to hear them.”
“You’re the talker,” said Arkmar.
“Ha! I’m the talker? You talk nonstop.”
“Face it, Elf. With us in the room, there’s not going to be a lot of dead air. Shall we play a game of first one to speak buys dinner?”
“Next time we’re in Celephais,” replied Ryel. “I know a place.”
“They came up here,” the female voice clearly said: it was the first thing Arkmar and Ryel heard that could not have been the wind or a clumsy mountain goat. “You didn’t see them?”
“I saw them,” said a young male with a local accent. “They were standing right where you are. They must have turned back.”
There was some conversation between the female voice and another male voice. Ryel did not recognize the language. The female said, “They could not have passed you?”
“No way,” said the young male.
More conversation. The female said, “All right, fine. Search around here. I don’t see prints, but they have an elf with them, maybe she’s erasing the prints.” The other male said something and laughed. “Just you go on thinking about that,” said the female. “While you’re distracted, she’s going to slip a dagger up your girdle. You take that side, you take this side, I’ll climb up to that next rock face and see what I can see.”
“I’m not taking on an elf on my own,” said the young male voice. “I’m going back up.”
“Come back here—come back or I’ll—!” But they could hear the young male’s boots pushing up the rocks, and then they heard the other male voice intone, “TRT PSIL!”
A sudden sound burst out above them, a chorus of whining buzz like a hornet’s nest shaken up good. The young male cried out, tried to push further, then cried out again and yet again, ending in a long fading wail. Ryel was holding Arkmar back.
“Stupid,” said the female voice, continuing angrily in the other language. After some argument back and forth, the female and the male seemed to come to an agreement and started on up the next climb. Arkmar and Ryel waited a polite interval, admiring the amazing views, and then clambered up, elf first then dwarf, to where they had been before.
They could see a young local sprawled out perhaps thirty feet up the trail. No one else was visible. They hurried up to him and knelt by either side. He was dead, and while the corpse was not by any means gory or disgusting, they shuddered: every square inch of exposed skin was covered in wasp stings.
“These guys are serious,” said Arkmar, shuddering a second time for good measure.
Arkmar and Ryel debated for a little, to no particular effect. Neither of them felt especially committed to a particular point of view. The spell was minor league: they both, though they were not primarily magic users, had spells well above that two word level. But on the other hand, the victim was weak enough that he couldn’t resist such a spell, and it was not a nice way to die: wasps conjured from thin air just to cause damage. The act itself was mean and petty: it was hard to believe the bastards really needed to do it, and indeed one of the two bastards had apparently felt it unnecessary or unwise. But there was always the intimidation factor: someone willing and able to do that, on the spur of the moment, to a mere insubordinate teenage hireling, would be a dangerous and unpredictable enemy.
“And then there’s what we’re looking for,” said Ryel. “What I’m looking for. I don’t know what you’re looking for. What are you looking for, Arkmar?”
“Trouble, I guess,” the dwarf replied. “Because I’ll tell you what. Whatever it is you’re looking for, those guys want it too, and if they want it, it’s probably not good for them to have it.”
“So what do we do?”
“Head on up,” said Arkmar. “Let’s try following them, what do you say?”
“Did we decide who won the bet?” asked Ryel.
“Sure. I did.”
“I doubt it. You’re probably the only dwarf loudmouth I’ve ever met.”
“Funny, that,” said Arkmar, “coming from you, the Elven Lady of Lip.”
“We make a good team,” said Ryel. They scanned the climb ahead of them. Mount Ngranek was so enormous that its sheer magnitude was hard to conceive: its footprint was roughly circular, but must have been a hundred miles across. The slope was at least twenty percent, above the tree line, which was oddly low on Ngranek. But that would make the peak ten miles high. Looking up, Ryel and Arkmar both concluded that might be an underestimate. But it was a simple ten mile peak: no need for base camps and circuitous routes. You just went up, over bare, steeply slanted rock.
So here they clung, tiny bugs on a gigantic boulder, vast volumes of air all around them, behind and to the sides, unimaginable volumes of stone beneath and in front of them. They scanned across the grey vista of rock. Far up there, perhaps a thousand feet ahead of them, two tiny figures moved, slowly, deliberately, but somehow nervously, as if sneaking up on the mountain.
“Over there to the right,” said Arkmar, just as Ryel said, “Let’s try to the right there.”
“That long outcrop,” said Arkmar. “Is that what you mean?”
“Great minds think alike,” said Ryel.
So the elf and the dwarf moved laterally until they could climb over and jump down behind a long crack in the mountain, where the rock on the left side had pushed up about eight feet above the rock on the right. Covered on their left flank, the two made good time, chatting in low voices in the Common Tongue with occasional forays into the Dwarves’ own Common Tongue or the easier parts of Sindarin for the purposes of language puns. The clouds flew above, around and below them, charging about in at least five different levels and directions beneath a sky of deep blue hinting at space or aether beyond. Half an hour later they reached the upper terminus of the rock crack and paused for water.
“We’re catching them up,” muttered Ryel.
“We don’t want to do that, do we?” replied Arkmar. “Good excuse to rest a bit.”
They stood there, elf and dwarf, sipping their water skins and looking around. They looked up, they looked out, they looked about, and then they looked down.
“Oh crap,” said Ryel. “Orc shit,” said Arkmar. “Things just got more complicated.”
“Well, it couldn’t have been simple, could it?” said Ryel, as they watched three more figures slowly scaling a long slanted face of rock a thousand feet below them.
Elf and dwarf dithered for about two minutes, and then they started seriously scrutinizing the climb ahead. A series of stone ripples might offer concealment, excepting an equal number of brief public scrambles from one to the next; a line of starved brush looked promising but ended up underneath a cliff to a very open view; scaling to the left might get them to the shelter of another shallow ravine, but they would be moving directly between the pair above them and the at least three below them.
“Valar,” said Ryel. “I think I spy with my little eye—!”
“More below the ones below,” said Arkmar. Sure enough, at least one more speck was moving far below the three.
“It’s getting crowded,” said Ryel. “Well, I hope they have their nightgaunt repellent.”
“So what is it that brings all these people up here? A nice day hike?”
“Oh, we’re not going to be at the top today. Tomorrow, maybe.”
“You don’t know, do you?” replied Arkmar. “I heard the locals at the bottom talking. No one goes to the top of Ngranek. I don’t get why, but there’s something up there. I wonder if there’s air.”
“Oh,” said Ryel, “I’ve been to the Moon and there’s air there. It’s Dream World, right? You can even breathe out in Space, while you hurtle through the uncaring Aether toward the mindless center and culmination of all things. There’s air.”
“Any idea what is up there?”
“Oh, some palace or temple I suppose. Maybe the Palace of the Gods. No, that’s on Unknown Kadath. And don’t ask me where that is, because—!”
“Because it’s Unknown.”
“Yeah. So maybe a temple. That seems right. One of those big shit places where big shit goes down. You know, where the paths of light are freaky and vast universes hide between the molecules of air. I’m picturing an altar with a great blood red gem on it, and inside the gem is our fourth piece. Something like that. Anyway, it’s going to be fun when four different groups of people get there about the same time. Great place for a showdown.” They stood there looking up and down and all around. “And it looks like we’re going to be in the middle of it.”
“So now would be a good time,” said Arkmar, “for you to say something like, ‘You know, I have an idea.’”
“You know,” said Ryel, “I have an idea.”
The elf and the dwarf turned to the right, away from the course of the other climbers, and moved a considerable distance laterally. Then they resumed their trek upward, at a reasonable pace, over a tumbled slope of boulder and beaten-up bush. The Sun was finally descending the sky, and the Moon, a bit less than half, was rising simultaneously through the lower airs. As the Sun climbed down, layer of cloud by layer of cloud, Ryel and Arkmar hurried up a little, and soon wore themselves out enough to need a breather, after hauling themselves up onto a big boxy boulder with a sort of parapet of rock debris along its edges.
“It’s no good,” said Arkmar. “We’re going to need a place to rest for the night. I mean, I suppose we could go on by moonlight, but do you think these guys are going on by moonlight? I guess it wouldn’t kill your idea if we got on ahead, but.”
“But where are they going?” said Ryel. “Do they even know? Are they following us? The two assholes ahead of us, they can’t think we’re still ahead of them, can they? They won’t have seen us for hours. Maybe they think we got way ahead of them?” She beetled her brow looking upward. “Say, Arkmar.”
“Does it look like—like a face, carved into the mountain?”
“What? Lots of mountains have—!” He took a good look. He laughed. “I have to admit, that one is very realistic.”
They gazed up at it for some time. “I thought that looked like a nose before,” said Ryel. “With those caves? But it looks more like a face the further up we go, don’t you think?” They gazed some more. There were flying things up there, just a few, high in the sky among the heights of rock. Ryel said, “There’s something about it. I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Well,” said Arkmar, “dwarves or giants might carve a mountain like that, but there are no dwarves or giants up here. The atmosphere is not exactly conducive. I don’t like those flying creatures, for one thing.”
“They probably shit all over the place,” said Ryel. She shaded her eyes with her hand. “Arkmar,” she said, “that eye. What do you see?”
“Well, it’s got quite the brow. And it’s curved, like he has his eye wide open. It’s quite good, really—I can practically see the iris.”
“I can totally see the iris,” said Ryel. She looked around below and above. The party of two was a little way ahead and far to the left; the party of three was gaining on them, still below Ryel and Arkmar and also far to the left. “Okay,” said the elf. “Let’s move it. Unless we want to spend the night up here.”
“Ryel, those flying things—?”
“Are nightgaunts. Yes. And yes, I can talk one of them into giving us a lift, maybe, or maybe not. But a dozen? And more will come out once it’s dark.”
“Ryel,” said Arkmar.
“So the map says there’s something up here, and we go up here and find it. And it’s one of those tube things, one of those pieces. So where? In the nostril?”
“Sure,” said Ryel, “stuck to a nose hair. What the hell? Let’s just go find out.”
“Ryel. This is some weird stuff. I mean, I can handle ghasts in the Abyss. But up here above the clouds—!”
Ryel rolled her eyes and started to walk away. She turned, her eyes flashing. “So what did you expect? It’d be sitting in a display case ready for us to snatch and grab? Why are you here, anyway?”
Arkmar shrugged and half grinned. “I just think it’s interesting,” he said, “this little mission you’re on. I was always into collecting.”
“You’re here because you think it’s interesting? Is that your story?” She glared at him, and he abandoned his smile for a stalwart glower.
“It’ll do going forward,” the dwarf replied.
Ryel took the lead now. Ryel, gung ho? She led him upward, bearing to the right still, at a pace that was not quite insane enough to make him overcome his natural dwarf stoicism about such things. She didn’t seem to care a whole lot about exposure, but by now they were just far enough around the mountain that they would be hard to see by someone below them. He tried to figure what they would look like to someone above them, because he still suspected the two who had passed them knew they had done so. But Arkmar couldn’t quite calculate in his head whether a mountain was more like a sphere or a cone, and whether, if, as he suspected, it was more like a cone, that made the curvature grow as you went up. He thought so, but he couldn’t quite remember his differential geometry teacher’s view on the issue. And did the fact that this mountain was shaped like a head make any difference? Most skulls were basically round, but he had certainly known people, human or dwarf or elf, with pointy heads. He snorted at his own joke.
“What’s funny? Keep up,” Ryel hissed back at him.
“I’m coming,” said Arkmar. “Just keep your pants on. For once.”
“Ah,” she said, grinning as he caught up with her, “you find my love life amusing. I get hours of laughs out of it myself.”
“Actually I was thinking about cones and spheres. It’s not all about you.”
The sun was dropping to horizontal, but the horizon still looked some distance downward. The going was getting more interesting. For one thing, there were the caves, which had disturbed Arkmar and Ryel when they were far below. Now they were passing them, at a distance, and trying not to look at them, and Arkmar still could not get rid of the sense that things were watching out of them. He found he had no trouble now keeping up with Ryel. At least the flying specks above them were still specks, and still far above them. The face, on the other hand, had disappeared around the curve to their left.
Then they clambered over a tumbled dome crossed with rising cracks and ripples, then they faced a sudden cliff, long and tall and sloping at perhaps seventy-five degrees. High up, perhaps hundreds of feet above them still, it seemed to curve back out of sight. To the left the cliff ran down very gradually toward a rounded outcrop still a good hundred feet high and undercut; to the right, it got steeper and then ended in a complicated knot of stony ripples and fallen chunks. A few gnarled pine trees hung on in these knots, which surrounded a cave opening.
“Do we have to go up it?” asked the dwarf.
“Yep,” replied the elf. She started off to the right again, and in ten minutes of fairly mild climb they were past the knot around the cave.
Looking back again, Arkmar cried out. Something had peeked out of the cave, and pulled back. Ryel stopped and glared at him. “I don’t know,” said Arkmar. “I’m pretty sure I saw something that time.”
She looked up at the knot of rock and back down at Arkmar, standing twenty feet behind her and five below her. She seemed concerned but said, “Well, it must have seen you and freaked out.”
“I have that effect at times,” said Arkmar, resuming the climb.
Ryel led him further up and to the right around the peak until the climb on their left was less intimidating and also smoother, almost like the normal rock of a bare-topped mountain. They paused in the golden glow of the Sun shining under clouds far below them and out over the Western Sea. She handed him her bottle. “Have one on me,” she said. “You’re doing great.”
“Ryel,” he said, taking the bottle. “I should feel ashamed to be praised for my doughtiness by such as yourself, but thanks. I appreciate it.” He took a drink and handed the bottle back. She grinned and slapped him on the shoulder.
“Let’s hit the bald pate on this head,” she said.
So Ryel led Arkmar again, up this time steeply, up a great shallow dome and then up a ravine. This segment seemed to go on and on, while the light began to take its leave. Presently they could see the eastern sky ahead of them (Arkmar remembered that this meant the line of ascent was now concave down) and in it stars were beginning to gather in crowds. The Moon, nearly overhead, blotted out most of the stars of the zenith, but it didn’t offer much comfort. For one thing, it actually seemed bigger, as if they had moved significantly closer; for another, both Arkmar and Ryel began to think they were seeing wings flitting across it.
Just when Arkmar thought he would just give up and forget about it, Ryel led them off to the left again. She turned to shush him, which was not necessary; but what she said was, “Down! Duck!”
Arkmar knew how to duck.
And he was glad he did so, when an arrow flew through where he had been, and flew beyond him only a few feet before embedding itself in the flesh, if that was what one called it, of a ghast. Arkmar rolled and jumped up, swinging his sword level and catching the next ghast across the stomach, slicing it nearly in half before it could get its disturbingly long claws and fangs on him. Another arrow from behind found a mark in a third ghast, and then Arkmar was hurrying to where Ryel was. “Down!” she hissed. “There’s one more!”
Arkmar dove, sure that those claws would catch at his neck any moment, if not something worse. Something worse happened indeed, to the final ghast in the party. As Arkmar dove for the rock, Ryel dropped on her stomach nearby, and they rolled just in time to see black wings sweep over them, carrying a fecklessly flailing ghast away to feed the hideous dholes.
“Well, all right then,” said Arkmar as they got up, after waiting a decent amount of time to be absolutely sure they had not already been killed or worse. “Here we are. Where are we?”
“We’re in the hair, I suppose,” said Ryel. “Down slope is the forehead, and then those brows.”
“What? What? We’re way up—really?” He looked up and around. “No wonder the Moon seems kind of close. We are above the face?”
“We are above the face.”
“And that thing below with the cave in it, that was the ear, am I right?”
“That was the ear. Complete with a bush for ear hair.”
“Comparatively,” said Arkmar, “I have a lot more ear hair than that. Okay, so what is this we’re on? The scalp? Is this guy bald?”
“Arkmar, I have never been here before. I know nothing except what I’ve guessed, and that map, and uh, a few hints. And things.”
“Hints? Wait. Hints?”
Ryel looked around impatiently. How much did he know that he wasn’t telling her? But here they were. “Arkmar,” she said, “we don’t have time for this. Okay?”
“Just one hint then? Okay?”
“All right. Well. This guy I slept with in oh, Ulthar I think, or maybe it was Nir, said that the Gods had carven the image of one of their faces on some mountain somewhere. He wouldn’t tell me where. He said it wasn’t good to know such things, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know, humans are weird. Gods are weird.”
“Really. Really.” Arkmar tiptoed toward the sloping forehead: it was slanted downward at perhaps forty-five degrees, and it looked like it was approximately a mile long. “So if one is a God,” said Arkmar, “one gets drunk of an evening and one carves one’s face on a fucking mountain. Is that it?” Ryel shrugged. “Well,” said Arkmar, “it sounds pretty believable to me. Why aren’t you supposed to know such things? Heck, dwarves do that, just not on the same scale.”
“Because,” said Ryel, as if the title stupid were superfluous in the context, “one might gaze upon the visage of the Gods and know them later when one saw them in some other context. And one might get in trouble.”
“What, interrupting them fucking your daughter? I’d think that’d be dangerous even if you didn’t know what they were.”
“No, Arkmar. I mean if—!”
There was a sharp crack from down slope, and a moment later there was a rumble in the stone. Arkmar fell back on his butt, then had to hurry to catch up with Ryel as she was running, somehow, down the forty-five degree slope of the forehead. Lightning flew up into the sky. Words of power were spoken, a little way below. Ryel and Arkmar, neither of them a wizard or anything, both of them with at least a few three-word spells in their repertoire, muttered Vas eur. Dispell magic. Healthy just in case.
But the spells weren’t being thrown at them.
The three had caught up with the two just as the two, a lithe brunette and a greasy little blond guy, were sizing up the climb up to the chin. The three would have had surprise except for their panting, and the greasy blond kicked things off with a good dose of earthquake, hoping perhaps to throw the newcomers clean off the mountain. The brunette tried her own favorite, a giant fist that was good on people who didn’t throw spells themselves.
But the three below were not such people, and the spell battle was joined. A monk chick of some Tantric sect tried Feelings; her black-robed ascetic priest pal laid in with as much Lightning as he could manage. Neither had much effect. But their leader, a red-haired woman of some standing in the wizarding community of some universe or other, took on the brunette in what became rather the war of the titans. She threw a death spell, the feared trt kar ho nin goth, the brunette reversed it with her handy kno eur reverse spell, the redhead did the same, and so it went until the ascetic managed to use his lightning to bring a tumble of rocks down on the brunette and her greasy pal, perhaps flakes of stony snot from inside the nostrils. The brunette went down under the welter, failed her resistance and promptly gave up the ghost, and the three below charged up to collect their prize.
With a laugh the greasy blond guy rose from the rubble and waved his wand in a flat arc. He was speaking words—more words than they would have thought he knew. The tantric chick, then the ascetic, took the sparks flying off the wand right in the gut and flew backwards, and by the time they hit the mountainside far below, they were dead in Dream World and waking up from nightmares in some Real World somewhere, possibly as their alarms went off and they had to get up and get breakfast and head off to their jobs in the retail sector.
But the woman with red hair was ready. The wand came around to point at her, and her own wand was already pointing. The spell washed over her. “No, Bartholomew,” she said, “you are not my equal, not just yet.”
Bartholomew laughed nervously. “Mandrashka,” he said, but he couldn’t think of anything to add.
Mandrashka, for that was her name, threw her own spell: kar trt fos mng ku goth zin. And with a flick of her lovely little black wand, Bartholomew fell back, his hands on fire, then his gut, then his eyes, until with a painful little poof he went up completely. Mandrashka finally smiled, pocketed her wand and began the ascent of the side of the neck and the left cheek.
It took her quite some time to maneuver herself around, with a hold here and a grab there, to the point that the left eye was just twenty feet above her. Twenty feet—it was that far across, at least, and ten top to bottom. Mandrashka could see the opening where the pupil would be. She smiled again.
It took all her considerable cleverness to get up onto that sector of a sphere. Then she was reaching up, splaying herself over it, grasping for that hole. There was something dark above her.
“Crap,” she said. “Fucking nightgaunts.”
“Guess again,” said Ryel, as she hung from a rope dangling down from the forehead. Mandrashka had time to swing her wand around, but she was already losing her grip anyway when Ryel’s arrow hit her in the forehead.
“Okay, all clear,” Ryel called up in a low voice, shouldering her bow. “Drop me down a little.”
“They’re all gone?” called Arkmar, letting out a few more feet of rope. From the top of the forehead he could only see the thin yet curiously strong elf rope running straight down the sloping rock to the eyebrow. Then it went over, and a foot or two below that hung Ryel. He had no idea what might lie below that.
“Lower me down another foot,” Ryel hissed. “Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“Hey!” he called back gruffly.
Ryel pulled herself up the rope just enough to peek over the brow. “Look,” she said, “they’re all dead and gone, but there may be more, so please don’t talk, is that all right?” Then she disappeared from his view again for a moment. Then she reappeared, hissed, “Two more feet please,” and disappeared again.
The rope dropped her jerkily, six inches, a foot, eighteen inches, two feet. There. Argh. She was still a foot or so above the optimal position. Ryel stole a glance upward, then stole a glance around, then opted to give it a try from here. Her dangling status didn’t allow her a lot of ability to observe the lower slopes, but though she could see no one right below her, she was pretty sure there was at least one more party on the way.
The pupil was quite dilated—the gods must have some good drugs, thought Ryel—so it was ten or twelve feet across. But most of it was covered in a glass of some sort. It was hard to tell in the oblique moonlight if the glass was opaque or transparent. In the very middle, there was a hole perhaps two feet across. Ryel was trying to reach into this hole, but the angle was not very good. She was just about to call for another two feet of rope when she heard a throat being cleared below her.
Ryel didn’t look. She knew what she would see. But she was in one of her ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ positions. She flipped upside down, the rope around her waist, the line held between her knees and her boots. Yes. This would do.
The throat was cleared again.
“Halloo, Ryel, my love,” came a man’s voice.
“Can we talk later, Thaeron?” Ryel replied, still not looking, her arm all the way up into the hole. “I’m busy, as you can plainly see.”
“That’s what I want to talk about, Ryel,” said Thaeron. “You left me in the bed with my hands tied up, that was most impolite. But then you also stole something, did you not?”
“I stole several things,” she replied, not looking still. She put her arm in as far as she possibly could and felt around, ready at any moment for it to be attacked by ravenous millipedes. “You’re a thief, Thaeron,” she said as she struggled, in the voice of someone explaining something simple to a simpleton. “Stealing from a thief is within the rules.”
“So is giving up what you’re about to pull out, Ryel,” said Thaeron. “I could hit you from here, don’t think I couldn’t.”
“I think you’re unlikely to,” she replied. “You’re not a great archer.”
“Not with an arrow. With a knife throw. You know I throw knives.”
Now she gave him a look. “Hit me with a knife? Up here? You’re nuts. You couldn’t accurately hit this high over your head. Forget about it.”
“The thing is,” said Thaeron, “I don’t want to come up there and get the thing myself. So I need you to get it out, and then you may drop both it and the other you took. I will let you keep the ruby.”
“Very nice of you,” said Ryel, going back to work. She found she had at least three inches more arm she could jam in the pupil. There was junk in there: it felt like leaf litter mixed with sand and flakes of rock. She pulled out a handful of it, checked for bronze thingies, and tossed it behind her.
“Ugh. Ryel! You did that on purpose.”
“No, I was just lucky,” she said. She reached in again and this time—millipedes. She had always disliked millipedes. There had been these giant ones when she was a child, some evil brood of Sauron or something, and she had never gotten over them even though everyone told her they were harmless. She pulled her arm out and shook three or four of them off her, then three or four more.
“Get out of the way, dickhead,” she replied. “More is coming.” She reached in, gagging, and pulled out another wad. But this time, at the heart of the wad, Ryel felt something in her hand. Something bronze-ish. She shook the wad out.
“You had better come up with something soon,” said Thaeron, “or I am coming up there, and you do not want to make me do that. Ryel, what is that in your hand?”
“Nothing,” she said, wondering how to get Arkwad’s attention. It seemed to have wandered: she was probably lucky he hadn’t completely let go the rope.
“Ryel. Just now, here is what I would like you to do. Reach into your bag, it’s just over your shoulder, and pull out the piece you stole from me. And drop it. Ryel?”
“No,” said Ryel with a pout. Something was going on up there: she slipped down a bit, then felt the rope pull taut again.
“Now, Ryel,” Thaeron insisted.
“No,” she repeated. The rope went up a quarter of an inch, then dropped three inches.
“Fine,” said Thaeron. She heard him grunt, and heard a whirring whine, and a moment later a cheap but sharp little dagger hit the pupil three feet above her, missing the rope by one inch.
“Stop that!” said Ryel. “Or you’ll never—!”
“You have it,” said Thaeron. “It’s in your hand. I know it, and you know it. All I need is to bring you down to my level.” He grunted and threw again, and this time missed to the other side by half an inch.
“Arkmar,” Ryel called.
“One more should do it,” said Thaeron, “and it won’t matter if—!”
Ryel reached in with her other arm and snagged a big handful of leaves and pine needles and flakes and a number of millipedes and centipedes, along with a few beetles and spiders, and hurled it all at her tormentor.
“Oh, just keep that up,” said Thaeron. He grunted.
Arkmar’s voice came to them from above, in an unhappy cry. He added, “Hang on elf girlie!” She pulled herself about two feet up the rope—and took the third knife in her left wrist. Then she was pulled loose from the eye and out into empty air.
She looked down. Thaeron was turning to follow her progress through space, trying to target her for a fourth and clinching knife, but, not looking, he slipped and fell and tumbled away down the steep smooth rock: she never did see how far. She looked up: there was Arkmar, twenty feet of rope above her, grinning and waving with his one free hand. The rope was still tied about his waist, and the huge gentle talons of the biggest nightgaunt Ryel ever hoped to see gripped him under the armpits as it carried him, and his elvish friend, away from all that.