VI. He was good deep down
The flight from the face upon Ngranek was a silent one, but not one full of contemplation. Ryel managed to get the dagger out of her wrist, but it hurt incredibly; the rope burned and chafed her waist, the cold froze her ears, especially the pointy tips; her hands froze around the bronze-ish piece she gripped with a death grip. She managed, after a few scares and pauses to truly enjoy the pain in her arm, to pull herself upright again, hugging the skinny rope like it was her mother. Above her somewhere, Arkmar had all that except for the bleeding wound, but he also had the weight of Ryel—not much to complain about normally, but the wind made it more—and the infernal itchy tickling of those nightgaunt paws.
Competing with these was the knowledge, certain in Ryel and hopeful in Arkmar, that they had pulled off another one; and the concern, growing as time passed, as to where the essentially brainless creature was taking them. This question was resolved, more or less, when Ryel and Arkmar, separated by that length of rope, each saw a black hole in the moonlit mountain side, and realized that the creature was taking them into it.
Ryel found herself looking back up the mountain at that face—not Thaeron, lost in the night on that slope, though it really was too much to expect that he had bought the farm this time, but the huge face of the God, gleaming in the moonlight, diminished by distance till it might be someone she saw across a smoky room. Composite of the Gods, perhaps: long narrow nose, long cheek bones, eyes set deep and well apart, wide mouth with narrow lips and native, disdainful frown, jaw bones strong yet fine as jewelry.
She would certainly sleep with a God, if they looked like that, and if their personalities weren’t entirely belied by their looks.
But she suspected they were. She didn’t trust the local gods. The Valar, her old Middle Earth Elvish gods, were a hard act to follow. They were rigidly upright, once such as Melkor were excluded; they were remote as stars; their love and their logic, nonetheless, were visible in everything they had made, which was everything, each leaf vein, each faint nebula in the night sky. Glosvar they had made, forsooth: not bad work. But the Gods she had encountered elsewhere never compared well to Varda Elbereth and her pals. Zeus? Don’t make me laugh. Dionysos seemed almost in the running, but none of the rest. And then there were the bad boy gods, Loki and Cthulhu and Shaitan, tricksters whose laughs rang hollow in the ears of their victims: if the joke isn’t actually funny to its listeners, it isn’t actually a joke.
The famous Mild Gods of Earth’s Dreams: they might be handsome, but they could not be much for Gods.
“Still,” said Ryel to herself, “they must know something.”
“What??” shouted Arkmar.
“Sorry, lost in thought,” said Ryel.
She waved him off with her good arm while her bad arm hugged the rope for balance. She took one more long look at the face, now seen at an oblique angle as the nightgaunt dropped toward the hole. And then, Ryel first, they were in the hole, which was perhaps three nightgaunt wingspans wide. Blackness surrounded her, the black creature above her blotting out the last view of that moonlit night.
The nightgaunt had been descending but now it was almost plummeting. The rope was not slack but it wasn’t entirely taut either. Ryel was not one to feel motion sickness, but it didn’t help the pain in her arm as she swung around on the end of her tether. The wind hissed with its hot breath around her, less fierce and loud, perhaps, but smellier and more malicious.
The great Abyss. To be back in this place. So soon. She hadn’t had a chance to miss it yet.
The flight went on far, far beyond the fifth or tenth or twentieth time each of them had wondered if it would go on like this forever. The blackness below was so dense that it came as a shock to see things there. They were descending toward peaks and ridges of rock, draped in a carpet of bones like odd clumpy snow. Then one big flat top of a mound rose up toward them. The nightgaunt, who perhaps thought it was doing them a favor, hovered about thirty feet up and let them go.
Ryel didn’t have too far to fall. But she made the mistake of putting her arms out to ward off the fast-approaching rock. She hit and rolled, but she knew she had done worse damage to her forearm: it was bleeding again, profusely, and it looked a bit crooked. Damn it!
And then the rope was coiling on top of her, and then, just as she knew it was going to happen, she got landed on by a plummeting and fully armored dwarf.
Ryel came to a minute or so later, as figures came toward them. She tried to get up, but it all hurt too much and she lay back down. “It’s okay,” said Arkmar, who didn’t sound so great himself, “I think they’re friendlies.”
“Don’t use adjectives as nouns, stupid,” said Ryel, lying on her back.
A moment later, a human shape knelt at her side. It meant well, but it stank. “No move,” it said with a rather too canine mouth. It came out as a sort of meeping, but Ryel had no trouble understanding. What she had trouble with was this thing having anything to do with her wound. “You bin hurt pretty bad. Ghoul fix you up.”
“Yeh,” said another from her other side. “Ooh. Bleed. Yup, you bad, bad, we fix. Hey, she an elfie, lookie, ears.”
Five minutes later, Ryel was sitting up dizzily, still fending off the medical attentions of the ghouls. She had managed to stash her catch in one of her many pockets. Arkmar, beside her, not at all conversant in the dialect, was all “I’m fine, really, no need to bother about me, no need really,” and so one. More and more were gathering and they at least seemed to be primarily interested in what they thought of as the healing arts.
Suddenly a sharp light cut across the scene and a male voice with an elvish accent cut through the revolting noises of the ghouls: “Boys, girls,” it said, and the ghouls all stopped what they were doing. “Let them alone, now, you know you really have done enough.”
“But she hurt bad, doc,” said one of the ghouls, a female (probably).
“We fix her,” said another.
“I can see you’ve done an excellent job,” said the elf. “Come, bring them to me, won’t you? I would like to have a talk with them myself. There, that’s good.”
With a good deal of cooing and muttering, and quite a lot of meeping, the ghoulish crowd managed to usher Ryel and Arkmar toward the source of the light. It was a door standing open, and a hallway back into a black cliff. It had, of course, only seemed bright in the extreme gloom of the Great Abyss: it was the orange gleam of a pair of small magical lanterns in a room down a short stone hall. Ryel was woozy and leaned on Arkmar, who didn’t seem especially woozy just now.
“We’re going to be fine,” muttered Arkmar. “He’s a frickin’ elf, don’t you know.”
“Arkmar,” muttered Ryel, “he’s drow.”
“Dark elf,” said Ryel. “They’re—!” She stopped as they passed through the doorway and the ghouls shut it, remaining outside in the blackness.
“That’s right,” said the elf, turning. They could see that along with blond hair, he had skin the color of a brazil nut shell. He wore as many clothes as did Ryel, but his were much less buttoned: Ryel was somewhat revived by the effect of blond chest and belly hair against dark brown chest and belly. He wore the customary daggers in his belt—three, which must mean something in drow society. He also had a leather man purse and a leather fanny pack. “I’m drow. That’s correct. Want to run off now? I could be dangerous.”
“No, no,” said Arkmar, “one elf is as good as another to me. I’m Arkmar.”
“Pleased to meet you. I am Davalon. And you are—?”
“Ryel,” said Ryel, stumbling into the room and collapsing on the floor. The other two were kneeling by her instantly. She rose to her knees and looked from Arkmar to Davalon. “I’m very sorry,” she said. “This seems to be what I do.” Then her eyes rolled up and she fell sideways on the carpet. She rolled onto her back and lay there, an exhausted and befuddled look on her face.
Ryel woke some time later in a bed. Her clothes were still on, though her left sleeve had been cut back above her elbow. Her wrist was wound in bandages, and she could feel the wound crying out in a complex of pain and stimulation. Arkmar and the drow stood a little way away chatting. They both laughed at something the dwarf said.
“Ahem,” said Ryel.
“Ah, Ryel,” said Arkmar. “We shall have to rest here a little.” He rubbed his arms and chest. “You are not the only one hurt, in case you wondered, though you were worse hurt than you thought.”
“You have lost a lot of blood,” said Davalon. “And you are fighting off an infection, but the kindreds are good on those generally. You will be able to return to whatever it is an elf and a dwarf might be up to together in a day or two.”
“You’re keeping us here?” asked Ryel.
Davalon approached her, then bent down to look Ryel in the eye. She could see right down his chest hair. “You’re staying here,” he said, “because, for one thing, you staggered in here and fell in a swoon, and I think you’ll agree it’s dangerous to go swooning about out there.”
“For another,” he said, gazing into her blue eyes from about two inches away, “you’re not going anywhere until I have thoroughly examined you.” He stood up, then turned away and added, smiling at Arkmar, “And that includes asking what it is that you were doing on top of dear old Ngranek.”
Davalon went out and shut the door. Immediately outside they could hear him talking in his clear, commanding yet patient voice to the ghouls. Ryel couldn’t tell what they were saying, but the ghouls seemed inclined to do whatever he told them.
The room was not large and seemed to have no other exit. It has a sort of desk, with a sort of magic candle burning on it and several books open including an accounts book; there were two cots, of which Ryel lay in one and Arkmar’s stuff sat on the other. Arkmar stood by the door half smiling, then came over and sat on Ryel’s bed. “You don’t like him? He seems hunky to me, but I’m no judge, I’m just guessing.”
Ryel rose to lean on her elbow. “He’s more than hunky,” she said. Grrr. But she lay back again and put her wounded arm over her forehead. “But he’s a dark elf. And he’s keeping me here, and it’s not all because of his supposed solicitousness toward my delicate condition.”
“You think he knows something.”
“I think he more than knows something. I think he wants something from me.” She raised her blue eyes to Arkmar’s dark ones. “More than the usual.”
“You think he knows our quest. Not that I or you really know our quest.”
“No. Well-put.” Ryel sat up again. She looked at her bandaged left arm. “It still hurts quite a bit,” she said, “but it hurts in that medicine kind of way, you know what I mean?”
“He put something on it,” Arkmar guessed.
“I can probably guess what he put on it, Arkmar. Except for that drow secret ingredient.”
“Which would be—?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be secret then, would it,” said Ryel, lying back down.
“So,” said Arkmar in a low voice, “are you or are you not going to—?”
“That would be yes,” said Ryel, rolling away. “Now let me rest.”
Some time later, Ryel woke up in her cot. The blanket had been removed, and her shirt was being removed as well. She looked up into the pale eyes in Davalon’s dark face. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“I should have thought that was obvious,” he replied, peeling her left sleeve off. “I need to change your bandage and you need a new poultice. And you need to be washed. You are carrying your own infections around with you.”
“Your concern is entirely therapeutic.”
“No,” he said, continuing to remove her shirt, “my concern is much more than therapeutic. If all I cared about was getting you well, I wouldn’t have bothered. The grey kindreds can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.” He looked her in the eye. “But that’s where you are now, so I needn’t be even that concerned. I could just send you on your way, infection or no infection, or I could tell my friends out there that you’re as good as dead anyway. Usually they wait.”
“I am not that bad off,” said Ryel, as she rose off the bed enough for him to take her shirt back out from behind her.
“Not anymore,” said Davalon, cutting off her bandage. “You picked up all sorts of lovely germs on the way down through the black airs. You forest folk, you assume exposure to germs is all to the good, but it’s not, not here in the Great Abyss.”
She lay back on the cot and gazed at him as he cleaned her wound. She was inclined to think he was lying, but she didn’t want to take the chance. And besides, here she was, naked to the waist.
“So what made you more concerned?” she asked.
“You’re doing something,” he said. “No one just climbs Ngranek for a lark. And elf and dwarf—do not try to tell me you’re just best buds. You are on a job.”
“And I need someone with some skills,” he said.
“I’m on a job, and you have another job.”
“That’s the size of it,” said Davalon. “Now quiet, I have delicate work to do. Your stitches need to be replaced.”
He gave her an exasperated glance, then took an obvious look at her breasts, then went back to work. “Yes. Stitches. Now may I?”
Davalon finished up the stitches with a little help from Arkmar, who gave Ryel several pulls on his little pipe; Davalon threw something of his own in it, and showed Ryel it was okay by taking a hit himself. Whatever it was, it relaxed her wonderfully, though it didn’t stop the parliamentary question time that was going in her mind. It reminded her of a full meeting of the Wood Elves she had been forced to attend. But that time, she had been flirting with Glosvar the entire meeting; this time something similar was happening.
After the stitching was done, Arkmar excused himself to go play cards with the ghouls. Davalon washed her thoroughly from the waist up, and then it was felt that the waist down also wanted cleaning. Ryel indicated that she felt he too needed to be washed: he had a good bit of blood on him. Davalon took this under advisement, and suggested that they retreat through a door hidden behind a mirror in the back wall and down a few steps to the bathroom. It wasn’t the Royal Baharna Hotel, but it served. It had hot water and soap. It had a particular wall that just begged to have Davalon pushed up against it.
Ryel wasn’t doing much to resist. At some point, kissing seemed a reasonable outlet, but as they were naked and wet and warmed by the warm water already, it progressed swiftly from there. She was not as tall as he was, but she was at least as strong. She pushed him up against that wall, raised her thigh across his hips and got a first taste of him there. Of course the mechanics were less than perfect. There was a short stair behind the bath that led up to his tiny bedroom, with a sort of mattress on the floor and not much else, but he let her go first up the steps and she didn’t get to the top before he stopped her and gave her much more than a taste.
Then they made it to the mattress and it was some time before they were done there.
Davalon proved more than satisfactory. He was good on top, he was excellent from behind, and she found him a truly superior ride when she was in the saddle. Ryel several times thought she had gotten every last bit of him, and then found him rising to one more occasion. In the end, she was doing all the work while he just lay under her keeping his end up and making sure her breasts had much more support than they needed. Smiling down on her dark elf lover, Ryel pushed down and back a few more times, sat back on him just savoring the feeling, and then peeled herself off him. She lay sprawled next to him on the mattress.
He pulled himself up, got a drink of water from a mug and then sprawled again beside her.
“You’re incredible,” he said at last. “Of course you would know that.”
“I’m a terrible slut, really,” said Ryel. “Or, excuse me, I’m very sex positive. It was not a popular pose in my home forest.”
“You are silvan,” said Davalon, rolling onto his side to look at her. He put a dark hand on her stomach. She looked down his body: nope, there was no resurrection this time. “You hide it well, but I can tell you’re silvan.”
“Is it the density of the bush?”
He smiled, his white teeth showing in his dark face in the darkness. “You are a bit of a slut, aren’t you? I do not say it as if it’s a bad thing.”
“Yes,” she said, “I am silvan, I guess. I’m from Mirkwood. My people are into feasts in the beech woods, parties in the pine woods, baths in the Forest River. I was always a good hunter, I was always good at talking to animals, at least if I wasn’t trying to kill them, but, I don’t know, somewhere as I was growing up I discovered the thrill of hunting boys.” She ran her hand across his chest hair. Mmm, blond on mahogany. “Putting them up against trees, you know, pulling up their tunics to see what was in their tights.” She pulled him to her for one more hot kiss, then one more.
“It got you in trouble.”
“Inevitably. And I fell in love with a prince, that didn’t help.”
“There are none of my kindred where you are, are there?” he asked.
“No, I would have remembered,” she said. “The sex. The moping.”
“Oh, we’re not that bad. You greenshirts have your issues too.”
“Oh, tell me all about it,” said Ryel. “We’re flighty and superior. We’re very annoying to travelers. We think we’re hot shit. We can’t imagine that the Blessed West could possibly be better than Mirkwood.”
“I do not know of these things,” said Davalon. “I don’t think the Blessed Lands could possibly be more blessed than the blessed land between your legs, Ryel.” He kissed her lightly. “You are not like the others,” he said with a laugh.
“You’re definitely not the usual drow,” said Ryel. “So what is this other job you have for us? If I may ask?”
“Well,” said Davalon, “it has to do with the Gugs.”
“The Gugs.” Her heart sank. “It had to be something huge, with huge teeth, that lives in big cities. Can’t wait to tell Arkmar. So: what is it you do for these ghouls, anyway? Can we start there?”
“That would make sense. All right. The ghouls, as you know, are alive, they’re not dead, but they’re sort of constantly decaying. They don’t even reproduce.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“Look,” he said, “you can say what you want about my kindred. Fuck my kindred. But these ghouls are—well, darn it!”
“They are,” he said with a rueful laugh. “Anyway, I got carried off Ngranek once myself, by a nightgaunt, and it brought me here, just like you. What was I doing on Ngranek? Proving myself. What else.”
“And they wanted to make you a ghoul.”
“Yes. Of course. It’s all they know, besides grave robbing and necrophagy. Anyway, needless to say, I found other ways to contribute.”
“You keep them healthy. You’re the freaking camp doctor, aren’t you?”
Davalon sat up. He looked around, framed in the dim light of the magical candle. “It’s a calling. That’s all I can say. They’re smelly and horrible and they have bad habits but they’re not evil. They need someone.” She was smiling at him, and he took a moment to determine that she wasn’t laughing at him, that she just found his dedication cute. “Anyway,” he went on, “I do keep them alive. I keep them going. I’m teaching them to talk. I’ve got them reading and writing, and not just on gravestones. I’m not saying they’ll ever be great poets or thinkers—well, who knows? Anyway.”
Ryel got up. She came over to Davalon, naked, and pushed him up against the wall. She took a long kiss from him, then another. Then she leaned back and asked, “What do you want us to do?”
“They have a book,” he said. “Well, they had a book. It disappeared, one of them lost it in the Gug city when they were taking their shortcut to the North Graveyard. They say it was a sort of guide to all the ways out of the Great Abyss, out of Dream itself. They need it back.”
“They get picked off. They have to sneak through all sorts of other things’ zones. Gugs. Ghasts. Even the Zoogs. The humans hate them. They need this book to know the secret ways. They keep telling me about it, but they also won’t let me go looking myself because they really need me. They call it the Book of Tree with Skulls. Or the Book of Skulls on Tree. Something like that. They’re not too good with prepositions, so sometimes it’s the Book on Skulls from Tree. And they don’t use articles at all.”
“Terrible. All right. So any idea where we look?”
“Yes. The Gugs would put it in their central tower, all the way to the top. Not the Tower of Koth, the City Tower.”
“And the pay, if I may ask?”
“Ryel,” said Davalon, “that would depend on what you’re seeking.”
Ryel got some sleep. She woke some time later, alone in the bed. A half-barrel tub of warm water sat a little way away. She got up, naked, and practically dove into the tub. She surfaced long enough to unwind the bandage from her wrist and discard it. By that point, the soapy water had completely seduced her. She hadn’t yet gotten the courage to come out when the door opened and Arkmar and Davalon came in with a tray of fruit and coffee.
“Well, come right in, boys,” said Ryel. “Nothing to see here.”
“I’ll close my good eye,” said Arkmar.
“I don’t think you need be concerned,” said Davalon, pulling up a rickety chair. “In any case, I suppose time is of the essence, and besides, in order to figure out what your reward might be—?”
“You need to know what I’m doing,” said Ryel. Still lurking up to her collar bone in the soapy water, she looked from Davalon to Arkmar and back. “Okay,” she said, “it’s like this. I don’t trust you, Davalon, but I trust you as much as I trust Arkmar here.”
“You don’t trust me?” they both said, but both laughing.
“Arkmar,” said Ryel, “grab my bag. I see it over there.”
He went and grabbed it, while she lifted her left arm out of the suds to look at her wound. It was well along toward healing. She took a moment to wonder about herself, her survival, her continued life. It was just a scratch, of course. But Thaeron had meant to kill her, and he had not been the first to have a go at that. Several were dead who had tried to kill her, several who had thought themselves better than her. But here she was, the survivor, the fittest competitor. And for what did she survive? What was she fit for?
But that was thinking like a human. She need not be made for a purpose. People who thought they had a purpose did not know what purposes were. They did not have a clue how much more they might be worth than some mere purpose. She had a job. That was different. When a job was finished, there was another job.
But that left her where it always left her. It left her with no idea what it meant that she was constantly reparable, restored to mint condition by a poultice and a bath and a nap and a smoke and a really, really good fuck. And it left her wondering what it was about this job.
She realized she was kneeling in the tub, her upper body out of the water, her hands out, together, palms up, and Arkmar was placing in her palms the three, no, four bronze items they had accumulated so far: the ring, the right-angle bend, the F pipe with the silvery cylinder, and then the new one: an X or a plus sign with some sort of wing nut valve closure.
“What is it, then?” asked Davalon.
“I don’t know,” said Ryel vaguely. Davalon gave her a look. “No, I don’t,” she said. “It’s just a job, lover boy. I’m just—!” But she stopped and stared at him.
Davalon let his eyes take a stroll down to her chest and back. They were serious when they returned. They were greenish brown, at least in this light. “There’s no such thing as just a job,” he said, “when the bits you’re looking for look like this. What are they paying you for this job, anyway?”
“Oh, I’m expensive,” said Ryel.
“So it must be something you really want.”
“I was wondering myself,” said Arkmar.
“Yeah, and what do you want for pay, Arkmar?” she asked. “You seem to never have actually asked that question. Just along for the fun times, are you? What do you want?”
“I want treasure, I want excitement,” said Arkmar just a little indignantly. “What else would I want? Bit disappointed with the treasure so far. Now if we help this gentleman—!”
“Yes?” She looked at Davalon. “You pay in cash?”
“No,” said Davalon. “We pay in transportation. We can put you wherever you want to go on the surface, with some exceptions.”
“Leng, sure,” he said. “You want to come out inside the monastery or outside?”
“You could put us inside that monastery?” said Arkmar. “I’m impressed, though I don’t think I’ll be taking you up on that one.”
“Well, I’m not impressed,” said Ryel. “We can get to the surface on our own. What else do you have?”
“Part of transport,” said Davalon, “is knowing the pass codes.”
“So you give us some passwords.” She held the ring and the F in her left hand, the X and the right angle bend in her right. “And you say, ‘there is no such thing as just a job when the bits look like this.’ So is it important, or not? Is it all just a deal to get another deal, or do you know something about these pieces, or is this just a bluff?”
“Maybe it is just a bluff,” said Davalon. “Are you up for my job? Looking for a lost book?”
“I’m not sure,” said Ryel. “It seems out of the way, and I don’t like gugs, their mouths open funny.”
“And it’s how they close that concerns me,” said Arkmar.
“So until you show us a little more about what you know and what you can do for us,” Ryel began, and stopped.
Davalon stood up and stepped to the tub side. He bent to look at the pieces which Ryel held out. He took the new one, the X, and the second one, the right angle bend. He tried them this way and that and all of a sudden they were attached.
“Gonna do my job?” he asked.
Not long after, Ryel and Arkmar emerged from the doorway in the cliff. They passed through what amounted to a village of the nearly dead, which Davalon showed them around in a peremptory way. “That’s the meeting circle,” he said. “That there is the storehouse. They made it into like a museum. It’s something.”
“Museum? Of what? Skulls?” asked Ryel.
“Gravestones?” asked Arkmar. “Femurs?”
“Yes, actually,” said Davalon with a slight laugh. “Hey, over there, library.”
It wasn’t much of a library: it was just a shack with some benches out front. Ghouls sat around outside reading, however, and what they were reading didn’t seem especially light. Ryel bent to look at one blue cover. The letters were familiar if foreign; presently she worked out that the language was English, which she had managed to learn a little of along the way.
“The Growth of the American Republic,” she read off. “Morison and Commager. Any good?”
“Yeah,” said the ghoul, “real good. Like it. Real—fascinating.” It grinned.
“I don’t know what I expected,” said Ryel to Davalon.
“They’re eager to learn,” he replied. “You know, I suppose it makes sense. It’s just another way of eating dead people’s brains, right?”
“Right,” said Ryel, as Arkmar said, “I can see that, sure.”
They passed on out of the sort-of village, and then they were escorted to the edge of the slope that led down from the flat-topped mound by Davalon and a gaggle of ghouls. “So let’s stop here,” said Davalon, “and take a look around at the terrain. Vale of Pnath to the left, there, you can make out the Peaks of Throk, and now to the right, the sort of drooling pillars, that’s what we call them.”
“Davalon,” Ryel interrupted, “did you say Pnath or Pnoth?”
“Pnath, definitely, with an A.”
“Anyway, down in that dark zone ahead, that’s where the road lies, and then you climb up a long slope and on the top of that is the city of the Gugs.”
“Can we see the City Tower from here?”
“No, but I believe I can just discern the darker darkness that is the Tower of Koth,” said Davalon. He smiled sheepishly. “My dark elf eyes.”
“You’re so not the typical drow,” said Ryel, turning to get close to him. “Mmm, you hardly mope at all, darling,” she said, brushing her body against him and looking up in case he bent to kiss her. “I do believe the Great Abyss suits you.”
“Ryel,” said Davalon uncomfortably.
She reached out and took his head and kissed him. He was a head taller than her, but then she often forgot that she was comparatively short even among elves. (Good old Arkmar.) They kissed, they kissed, and then she giggled as their lips parted. She had known lovers who didn’t even like the word giggle, but it was what she did.
“Don’t worry,” she said softly, “I know what you’re good for.” She backed away and joined Arkmar at the top of the steep slope of road. “Just don’t let these guys eat that part,” she said. “I mean, I like your brain and everything, but—!”
“You know me. If you didn’t, you now do. I’m a name your price kind of girl.”
“What about me?” Arkmar said with a laugh. “That’s not my price.”
“What is your price?” Davalon asked, half amused, half concerned.
“To help others is my price,” said Arkmar with a bow. “Yes, even your charges. We will retrieve this book of yours.”
Arkmar and Ryel traipsed on down the rocky bony sloping road for some time in silence. Arkmar seemed to be softly humming. The road occasionally remembered that it ought to be switching back and forth, cutting back into the bony hillside and then bursting out again into the open. Things flew about overhead, and Ryel did not have to remind herself that she was not under the open sky. Finally they came to the floor of the Great Abyss and followed the road that struck straight out toward the city of the Gugs, running in a line with bone walls rising ten or twenty feet high on either side. They marched along at a great pace, quite sure in each of their hearts that they were just about to get swallowed up by hideous dholes.
It seemed like years or it seemed like seconds before they were climbing again. They breathed a little easier: in fact, though neither of them felt safe, the dwarf was bred to walk the underparts of the world, even Dream World, with speed and care, and the elf’s step was as light and silent as it would have been in the forests of Middle Earth. They were well along the rocky, broken, winding trail upwards among the cliffs that fronted the city of the Gugs on this side before they stopped for a breath.
“So,” said Arkmar, “any better idea what these pieces actually make?”
“Nope,” said Ryel.
“Did he offer you anything other than the obvious?”
“You were there, Mister To Help Others is My Price.”
“Yes, I was there. You got yet another bath. You seem to take a lot of those.”
“You might think about it yourself, it’s something to do,” said Ryel.
“I smell fine,” said Arkmar, “at least in this miasma. Shall we?”
“Thrilled to,” said Ryel, eying the great crooked pillars that formed the gates to the city, already visible at the top of the slope. “You first? Okay. We’ll go together.”
The elf and the dwarf started up the trail toward the two pillars. When next they paused, in the cover of what appeared to be a pile of grave stones, the gateway was much nearer. Beyond, crowning the ridge top, the City of the Gugs spread out before them. It was a sort of parody of Dylath, all black towers and empty plazas, but instead of a solid ceiling of rain clouds overhead, there was the distant knowledge of the roof of the Great Abyss, hidden behind a layer of smoke and fume. In the center of the city a great tower rose taller than all others, so tall that its top couldn’t even be guessed at. Between it and the watching Ryel and Arkmar, several other towers rose with their heads tapering into the smog. Black archways yawned in many of the buildings, at ground level or further up opening into empty air. The city seemed oddly quiet.
“So that must be the Tower of Koth,” said Arkmar. “I find it quite tempting just to take a look see. I’m rather a connoisseur.”
“Of towers?” replied Ryel. “Or stupid ideas?”
“Maybe both,” said Arkmar. “I just said it was tempting. I wasn’t actually going to go. Which one do you think is the City Tower?”
“Probably one of the other tall ones near Koth, I suppose. Where is everyone?”
Arkmar thought a moment, then grinned. “Listen,” he said.
“Sounds like wind. Or someone breathing.”
“Many someones breathing,” replied Arkmar. “They’re snoring, aren’t they?”
“We’re in luck, I guess,” said Ryel with dread. “They’ve had their feast. Davalon told me about it. They’ll hunt something or other, they like ghast, of course they also like people, and anyway, they’ll make a big stew and gorge themselves and then they all sleep it off.”
“Don’t they post guards?”
“Of course they do, but supposedly everyone will be drowsy if they’ve had a good feast.”
“They eat ghasts?”
“Yes, but ghasts eat them too. Gugs are enormous, you get that, right? Like twenty, thirty, forty feet tall. Ghasts have to hunt in packs to bring down a gug, but if they manage it, they feast for days. Or whatever one feasts for down here.”
“Is there anything else I should know? You did say they eat people, these gugs.”
“Yes, be aware of that,” said Ryel. “Oh, maybe you wonder why they live in this lovely part of Dream World.”
“It hadn’t crossed my mind, actually.”
“Well, they were banished here. By the Gods. Who hardly ever lift a finger to send plagues or lightning bolts at anyone, much less banish them somewhere.”
“What did they do?” asked Arkmar.
“No one knows, that’s the thing. I mean, they eat dreamers. But that can’t be it, that’s hardly even despicable, much less unspeakable. Tower of Koth? It goes up to the surface, it opens up in the north, in the Zoogs’ wood.”
“Oh. Oh. Is that the—?”
“The slab. Yeah. They say the Gugs can’t pass that slab, but I talked to some zoogs and they’re all sure that thing rises up every so often and something sneaks out in the middle of the night. They’re idiots, of course. Fucking zoogs.”
“Oh, I agree,” said Arkmar. “I had dealings with them a few times. Now they set the moral tone around this place, and the bar is not set very high.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Ryel, “which makes you wonder what the Gugs could have done.” She looked around, then back at the two pillars. In this light, crooked things that they were, they looked like gigantic femurs. “Well, they’re sleeping like babies, let’s head in.”
“You first, me first, no, let’s go together,” said Arkmar.
“Arkmar,” said Ryel, “I like you. You’re my type.”
So the elf and the dwarf hopped up and hustled up the last slope to the neighborhood of the pillars. They did not feel like passing between, so they paused near the righthand one, then passed to its right. The city wall, such as it was, had been beaten down here, more likely by carousing than because of military action. They scrambled over its rubble and dropped quietly to the street.
The streets ran straight but bent to the left at first, and later tended to the right; the angles of intersections were unpredictable and suggestive. They ran among towers and massive keeps and odd black parks and through wide empty plazas of stone marked by dark stains and burns. They slitted from statue to statue; on about the fifth one they both noticed the statues weren’t human, weren’t even quite humanoid, not exactly.
Arkmar dashed across an open arch and got comfy in the corner between the next two towers. He looked back. Ryel started across the gap.
Just as she did so, Arkmar noticed several things. One was that the archway was not unoccupied. A giant lay sleeping in it, sleeping like a baby, a baby with a mouth that opened vertically, full of yellow teeth of a peculiar shape. Another was the distinct sense of figures flitting a block or more behind her. Yet another was the distinct sense of things not Gug, not humanoid, flitting about like mice when the cat dozes. Among the mice he was sure there were ghasts on the move, raiding the city while they had the chance, hoping for the big score, but there were others.
Yet another was the sense that something was watching, watching like nothing had watched them before. Watching and considering, watching and disapproving, watching and putting it all into its equations, weighing it all against what it knew and what it guessed, what it feared and what it desired. Arkmar reeled with the waves of malice he felt wash across him, even as part of him discounted anything he did not know for certain. There was just too much in this gloom that he could not know for certain. And when Ryel joined Arkmar in the corner, they exchanged a look that said they felt the same things.
“Let’s get this thing done quick,” said Ryel. “Okay?”
“Agreed,” said Arkmar. They turned and he waved a hand. “Any idea where we are?”
“Well,” said Ryel, pointing at a Cyclopean tower, more of an impossibly vast pillar really, to the right, “isn’t that the Tower of Koth there?”
“Yeah, it is,” said Arkmar dejectedly. “It’s supposed to be over there.” He pointed ahead and a little to the left. “And it’s no closer than it was last time we stopped, when it was over there.” He waved further to the left.
“What?? You’re the fucking dwarf. You can’t be lost.”
Arkmar let out a breath. They both looked behind them. Things were moving in the gloom, as though hidden in leaf litter. “Okay,” said the dwarf, “how about if we bear to the right a bit?”
The next hour, or the next whatever period of time, became increasingly frantic. Elf and dwarf skittered through streets made for creatures several times their size, while still the shadows fluttered behind them. Every time they stopped and looked, there was no moving thing to be seen, aside from debris blowing around in a wind partly composed of the snoring of the Gugs. Every time they stopped and looked, the Cyclopean pillar to the sky that was the Tower of Koth was in a different direction.
They started to sweat, elf and dwarf, in tiny hot droplets of dismay, cooling into despair.
Neither one wanted to be the one who called for an end to the madness. But the City was not letting up, and the things that weren’t following them were multiplying, and the Gugs were going to be waking up soon.
“Okay,” said Ryel as they flattened themselves against a wall between two of the garage-like arches, “this has got to end somewhere.”
“I knew we should have gotten a guide,” said Arkmar. “I did not want to admit it, I did not want to admit I might need help in subterranean conditions.”
“Clever,” she said, “apologizing so I won’t start griping at you. It won’t work.”
“No, it’ll just make me more pissed off because I’ll be trying to figure out what I need to apologize for.”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something. You’re a smart girl.”
Ryel was looking back the way they had come, weaving their way across a plaza littered with what looked like giant broken toys, and down a long straight street she remembered coming up. On a whim she turned thirty degrees to the right. No, that was the way they had come. She remembered it wrong.
And there was something coming that way: there was definitely some one coming that way. She even knew who it was.
“Thaeron,” she muttered. “God damn asshole.”
“Ah, great,” muttered Arkmar. “Is this coincidence or—?”
“Or,” said Ryel. “We came that way.” She pointed with both arms. “We thought we came that way, but we actually came that way, you get it?”
“And he’s been following us?”
“I’m sure he did. Maybe he got grabbed by a nightgaunt. Yes. Sure. That’s it. A different one grabbed him as he was falling down the mountain and carried him off just like us. It seems like that’s just a thing they do.” She looked ahead, then back. “Well,” she whispered, “be of good cheer, dwarf. He’s just as confused as we are.”
“How can you tell?”
“Okay,” said Ryel, sliding along the wall away from the toy-littered plaza. “We have to aim thirty degrees to the right of where we think we’re aiming.”
Arkmar looked ahead, then back. “All right, why not?” he said. “I’m up for it.”
The change in navigation seemed to do the trick: in about five blocks and two more plazas, they were groping along the edge of a huge tower and ahead of them, across a majestic plaza, was the unmistakable Tower of Koth.
“I suppose this is the City Tower,” said Arkmar, stepping out from the wall and gazing up like a tourist. “One book in all that, huh?”
“Not a problem,” said Ryel, who wasn’t looking. She was looking back. “Quick, to the Tower of Koth we go.”
“What? Why exactly? I thought it was a stupid idea.”
“It still is,” said Ryel, “but right now I think I want to be stupid.”
The two of them dashed across the open plaza, inevitably making some noise but not stopping to ring the gong that stood in the middle of the open space. They made it to the Tower’s vast footprint. Over its door was a symbol, but they both instinctively avoided looking at it. They slipped quickly into what turned out to be an empty room big enough to hold a whole town. Implements hung or leaned around the walls: what they were made to do, neither elf nor dwarf felt the need to ascertain. At the back, wide steps led up to the second level. They ran up quietly and fanned out across acres of open floor. There were thin windows all around. The steps went on up around just inside the outer walls.
“I have no idea why we did this,” said Arkmar. “I’m sure there was a reason.”
“Oh, there’s a reason,” she said, fairly loud. “Just keep looking for that thing.”
“You mean the—?”
Arkmar began looking, but almost immediately Ryel grabbed his arm and put her finger to her lips. Then she turned and walked over to one of the windows. With exaggerated care for silence, Arkmar followed. They stood looking out the window.
Things moved. Flitting things flitted, flutterers fluttered. And one thin figure in black against the gloom stole across the grand plaza. In a minute he slipped into the shadow of the Tower of Koth.
Ryel was up on the window sill. “Can you hang out with me for a minute?” she whispered, smiling.
“Don’t do that,” said Arkmar, “I might laugh.”
“Come on.” She turned, found a hold on the sill and let herself drop backward, till she was hanging by her fingers. “Hurry, you dope!” she whispered. In another moment, Arkmar, with only a few grunts, was hanging next to her. In another moment, they could hear stealthy steps up the stair from below.
What the hell do we do now? Arkmar longed to hiss at his companion, but he didn’t: he knew her answer would be wait. So they waited, while the steps paused and spent a minute almost inaudibly exploring the floor that Arkmar and Ryel had just vacated.
Ryel, hanging by the last joints of her fingers, could see Thaeron perfectly in her mind’s eye: standing in the middle of the room, his hands flexing, sniffing around, listening, mouthing the words “come out and play, Ryel” or something about as clever as that. Looking up, weighing. She wasn’t here, she hadn’t passed him, there was only the one set of steps, the Gugs had never thought to put in a fire escape or an elevator. And at the top of the steps, so very far up there, waited the hatchway to the world above, the stone lid that the Zoogs obsessed over in their forest homeland, watching for it to lift from below. Put there by the Gods with a curse upon it to keep the Gugs down, keep the underworld down. That must be the way she went, and he could wait no longer to follow or she would have worked her way out into Upper Dream World, her and that stupid dwarf. He could still catch them if he did not give them too large a head start.
And off went his soft footsteps, off up the stairs, up and up and up, because for some reason the Tower of Koth had never been able to sell office space, so there was nothing to search along the way.
“Can we climb in now?” asked Arkmar.
“No, no,” said Ryel. “Remember to land with your knees bent, and roll out of it.” Then she was gone, dropping twenty or thirty feet to the stone. She rolled beautifully: this time the dwarf was not going to land on her. By the time Arkmar did land, with a clunk behind her, she was off across the plaza. He rolled and jumped to his feet, then fell down saying “ow” softly. He hoped his knees would be okay again someday. He started to pick himself up.
GONG! Arkmar was nearly knocked over again. He got to his feet and headed after the damn elf. She whacked the gong two more times, looked back and smiled mischievously, and then took off for the tower across the plaza.
Gugs were waking up all over the city. It was a ghost town whose ghosts had suddenly met the resurrection. The Gugs did not vocalize, but they knocked over enough stuff and banged against enough doors and walls to make up for their voicelessness. One Gug blundered out of the City Tower; perhaps it was the receptionist for the local government. It was immediately set upon by the ghasts that had been following Ryel and Arkmar as they crept through the city. Now a hideous battle blew up right in front of them: the ghasts, taken by surprise by the gong, fought not just to slay and take meat but to save themselves. The thing they were fighting did not bear much looking at: Gugs are giants, but they are giants with mouths full of teeth, aligned vertically up what passed for their faces, an eye on either side. In silence this one grabbed at ghasts’ necks and legs, rending or throwing or biting off feet or heads, while the ghasts, a dozen at least, darted in to rip with their claws or their tusk-like teeth.
It would have gone badly for the Gug receptionist, but others were waking as well, and soon two more came out of the City Tower and several others came striding across the plaza. The ghasts broke and ran, the Gugs loping after them, gesturing to one another all the while.
Ryel and Arkmar were already into the tower. “Books, books, books,” said Arkmar, charging into the bottom floor. “Where do they keep their books?”
“They don’t,” said Ryel, stopping just inside the huge doorway. “They don’t read.”
“Well, where then—? It’s not like we have a lot of time here.”
“I know. I know.” Ryel suddenly took off and ran past Arkmar, to the giant-sized steps at the middle of the tower. She was up to the second floor, then the third, and there he caught up with her. “Ah, hi,” she was saying to a Gug, whose eyes gazed balefully down on her from either side of a vertical maw full of unattractive teeth.
It made a swipe at her, but then it had an arrow in its right eye, and an elf dodging between its legs. It whipped around, and now it had a pain in its foot where some dwarf was chopping like he was making firewood. The Gug turned to try and stomp the chopper, but then it got an arrow in its left eye, and that distracted it from all its other frustrations. The elf and the dwarf dashed up to the fourth floor, a disordered barrack, then the fifth.
This looked like some sort of court or museum or possibly place of worship. In the middle of the chamber, on a pedestal of polished stone, in the light of a magic lamp, sat a worn paperback book. They approached it with reverent care.
It was mostly dark grey to black. The cover showed a tree full of skulls and eyes. Its bark seemed formed of skeletal faces with gaping, screaming mouths. Elsewhere, the image might have been shocking, but here it seemed a lot like a travel guide. It bore a legend, in English, which Ryel could read perfectly well: The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, by H. P. Lovecraft.
“Book of tree of skulls and eyes,” said Arkmar.
“Hey,” said Ryel, “it’s about this place. Well, not this place. Well, I don’t know—!”
“Ryel,” said Arkmar, “let’s go.”
There were footsteps again coming up the stairs, but they weren’t Thaeron’s unless he had put on a lot of weight. Ryel grabbed the book and headed for the stairs up. Arkmar followed.
The sixth floor was home to at least three still waking Gugs. These joined the three or four coming up from below to chase Arkmar and Ryel up the next set of stairs, through huge double hatch doors and out onto the roof of the tower. Ryel ran to the edge: oh, that’s a long way down, no bend your knees and roll this time. Arkmar joined her and they looked back: six Gugs were already bursting out onto the roof. The two turned and looked down, and around, and back at the oncoming Gugs. Ryel drank in every detail of the scene in hopes of finding a sudden inspiration: the choices did not seem to include any she wanted.
Down there, more Gugs were milling about the square, rousting out ghasts who had tried to hide, gesticulating madly; more and more thought of rushing into the Tower of Koth. Poor old Thaeron: well, if he could outrun them on their own territory, he might at least escape, which was more than—wait.
Ryel ran to the left along the edge of the roof, and then climbed up onto a sort of antenna structure. What it was she didn’t know or care: soon Arkmar was following her onto the structure, and the Gugs were gathering around it, shaking it and making threatening gestures.
Tickling fingers slipped under Arkmar’s shoulders. He was being lifted up. Behind him, Ryel was being lifted as well, and a flight of nightgaunts buzzed off away from the City Tower and the city itself, swooping off toward the hill domain of the ghouls.
Some time later, Ryel lay on the mattress in the gloom of Davalon’s bedroom. Davalon lay beside her. They were sprawled, naked, their arms and legs spread out. Their legs, hers pale in the candle light and his dark as slate, crossed at the ankles, their hands loosely associated. They were covered in their combined sweat and other fluids.
“So you’re a drow,” said Ryel. “What’s that like?”
“It’s okay,” said Davalon.
They lay a little longer, and then Ryel giggled. “What?” said Davalon. She rolled toward him and gave him a smooch on the ear. She sat up and leaned over him to smooch him on the lips, her nipples dangling temptingly over him. He didn’t make any move beyond an enthusiastic share of the smooch.
“Well, you got more left than Thaeron did at this point,” she said, gazing smiling on him.
“Mmm,” he replied. Then he said, “You don’t think you’ve seen the last of him, do you?”
“No way,” said Ryel. “Gugs will be lucky to even find his footprints. He’ll be up and out the slab as soon as he can work out a way to lever it up. And the Zoogs, they’re probably already good pals of his, he’s their type. You know him?”
“I have heard of his exploits,” said Davalon coolly.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” said Ryel, laughing and bending for another smooch. This time Davalon’s dark hands were ready for a quick but gentle feel, and Ryel sighed and giggled again as she sat up. “Oh, Drow. That thief isn’t bad in bed, not at all, but he’s nowhere near being you.”
“Did anyone tell you,” said Davalon, “that you’re the best lover in Dream World?”
They sighed and smiled at each other. Presently there was a knock at the door. “Coming,” said Ryel after a few seconds pretending she hadn’t heard. She got up, bent down to search for her clothes, and came up with her shirt. There were three more knocks while she was figuring out that the sleeves were inside out. She pulled it on one arm, then the other, but before she could button it, the door opened.
“Well, well,” said Arkmar, “you do seem to be finally done.”
“We are now,” said Ryel, buttoning her shirt. She got it wrong, unbuttoned it, then decided the hell with it and flopped down on the mattress. “At least shut the door.”
“Is it time for talking yet, the three of us?” asked Arkmar. “Your associates, Davalon, required me to read to them that entire book twice. I like them, but the stench is insidious.”
“I find peppermint tea blocks it out,” said Davalon, sitting up, his lower parts covered, quite unnecessarily it seemed to Ryel, by the sheet. “I drink a lot of tea.”
Arkmar pulled up a cushion and sat down near the mattress. He found Ryel’s bag and rummaged through it, which she watched with a mix of amusement and consternation. He separated the four pieces, and put everything else back in the bag, and then got the parchment map out of his pocket and put that next to the pieces.
“There,” he said pointing to the red spot out in the Southern Ocean. “Is that an island, or is that under the sea?”
“It’s an island,” said Davalon. “I can get you there. I know you consider yourself paid, but it’s what I owe you for getting the book.”
“Which I have now fully studied. It gives me ideas. No, dark one, I will consider myself more than paid if you will tell me just one thing.”
Davalon looked at Ryel. “Oh,” she said, “I agree, if it’s one pretty major thing.”
“All right,” said Davalon. “What is it? If it’s in my power to tell, I will tell.”
“All right,” said Arkmar. “What is it? This thing? We have four pieces, out of seventeen. What would we get if we had eight pieces? Or six?”
Davalon picked up the two he had fitted together before, the X and the right angle, and put them together. He picked up the other two, the F and the cylinder, and he played with them to no effect.
“If you had all seventeen, they say you could make the world stop,” said Davalon.
“World stop?” repeated Ryel.
“We’re not likely to have all seventeen,” said Arkmar. “What about less?”
“I honestly do not know,” said Davalon. “Not with any precision. Who was it again who wants you to gather these things?”
“I don’t know that with any precision,” said Ryel. “Davalon. Tell us. What damage could you do with less than seventeen?”
“You can do things with as few as six,” said Davalon quietly. “Things helpful, things not so helpful.”
“What do you mean, not so helpful?” asked Arkmar.
“This will sound odd from a Drow, but I am not like other Drow. Are you—do you fight for the good? In Dream World, or out there in the Waking?”
“Yes, of course,” said Arkmar. “As long as I can have fun, right?” They both looked at Ryel. She sat there, troubled, thoughtful, the candle light shadowing her lovely body, which her unbuttoned shirt was powerless to conceal.
“I don’t want evil,” she said after a few seconds.
“And if the people who pay you for these pieces are interested in something you would call evil?” asked Davalon.
She met his eyes. “How evil are we talking here?”
“With the right six,” he said, “you can channel the local energies. You can make light, you can make darkness. You can channel the forces.”
“You can kill, or give life. In a small area, say this room. With more pieces, you can do more.” He looked at Arkmar, then returned his gaze to Ryel.
She watched him for several moments, then said, “And you still want to help us.”
“Yes,” he said, as if he had just checked to make sure. “I only want you to be sure you know what you’re willing to do, what you’re willing to have done.”
Ryel looked at Arkmar and said, “I’m starting to wonder that myself.”
Arkmar looked concerned. “You thinking of giving over the quest?”
“No,” she said as if it was the stupidest thing she’d heard all year. “I’m going to collect the set, it’s just a question of what I do with it afterward.”