I. Basalt and Artery
Ryel came to the black north walls of Dylath in the middle of a stormy day. It was during an intermission in the downpour, but Ryel, who was not the sort of elf archer girl who went about in a jeweled bikini and cape, was soaked to the skin.
The horse she had borrowed just this side of Ulthar was actually sorry to part from her. “It’s fine, baby,” she whispered to it in Elvish as she stood near the end of the line for the gate. “You go now. They need you more than I do. It’s fine, darling. I’ll be fine. I’ll come see you again soon, I promise.”
But me want to stay with you, the horse practically said. She looked away, rolled her eyes, and looked back into the horse’s big face. “Silly,” she chided. “You can’t. It’s not pretty in the city. You’ll be happier at home with the little girl and your friend the hen. Now go on.” She added a word of blessing and a kiss on the nose, and the horse couldn’t really do anything else but turn and start off for home. He looked back at her and she smiled from the end of the line.
“Animals,” she said in the common tongue to the person in front of her. “Right?”
“Right,” said the person in front of her, a bald dwarf with his helmet in his hand. Oh. A dwarf. Well, excuse me.
Ryel looked around, back at the woods, off to the right where the now full-grown River Skai rolled toward the sea, back up the road where the horse sauntered away. He looked back one more time. She smiled and looked away again, not wanting to encourage any more looking back.
The dwarf caught her eye again, looking up over the six inches she had on him. He actually grinned. “Can’t abide the beasts myself,” he said.
“As long as you don’t eat them, it’s fine with me,” she replied.
“Naw,” said the dwarf. “I prefer wyvern. Moose ain’t bad.”
“Isn’t,” Ryel said absently.
“Ever had buopoth?”
A dwarf who likes to talk, she thought. “Actually, yes,” she replied. “A bit tough, I think.”
“And they’re wicked shy,” said the dwarf. “But I do have a secret sauce.” He grinned again. “Semma leaf and yak butter. Or any kind of marrow butter will do. And salt. And oregano.”
“It’s not a secret sauce if you tell about it.” She looked toward the river. He looked down, then trudged forward as the line moved. She moved up too. “Oregano,” she muttered.
“I always keep oregano with me,” the dwarf said. “Fresh if I can get it. It grows all along the Oukranos.” He laughed a little. “The singing river. Kind of puts my teeth on edge, it does. Rivers ought to be able to find a key and stick with it, know what I mean?”
Ryel, who was now trying to ignore the dwarf, could not help but laugh. “Yes, actually,” she said. “I think that all the time.”
“But with those elf tastes of yours, you probably get irritated whenever a non-elf sings, don’t you? Unless it’s a songbird.”
“They’re not always on key either, actually.”
They were quiet for a few moments as they moved up again, but the dwarf broke the silence in spite of Ryel’s prayers. “So what brings you to the City of Basalt? Not the place for the Fair Folk, I would think.”
“What I am doing here is my business,” Ryel said automatically. She felt bad as soon as she said it. Here was a dwarf who actually knew how to cook and who was friendly while waiting in line, and here she was, behaving like a stereotype. “I’m just on a wander,” she lied. “Thinking of taking ship, in fact. Ever been to Oriab?”
“Nope,” he said, “you thinking of going?” He shook the pack he had hanging on one shoulder. “Selling brass fittings. On a wander myself, wouldn’t mind making a bit of money at the same time. You come through Ulthar?”
“Love cats,” said the dwarf.
He grinned up at her sideways. “Arkmar,” he said, bowing, sweeping his helmet in front of him and along the ground. “At your service. A most unusual dwarf, I think you have to agree.”
“Ryel,” she said, not bowing but holding out her right hand. “At your service and your kindred’s.”
“That would be most unusual,” he said with that same grin.
“I,” she said defensively, “am rather unusual myself. I mean, ah, what I mean is, you do not know me if all you know is that I am an elf.”
“You talk to horses,” he said, “you find dwarves unpleasant, you are polite but you think much of your dignity, and you cannot keep your attitude to yourself. There is more?”
“Yes there’s more, you—!” She laughed. She bent over laughing. Her arrows fell out, and she picked them up, laughing, while he watched. The humans around them in line ignored her. “Nice to meet you, Arkmar,” she said, straightening everything out. She offered him her left hand, then put the rest of her arrows back and changed to right before he could be further offended and have more reason to make fun of her.
“Nice to meet you too,” said Arkmar. “I would say the sun shines on our meeting, but it doesn’t. Lucky it’s not pouring again.” With one more smile, he turned to present himself to the gate keepers.
Two minutes later Ryel too was through the gate and standing at the edge of the plaza where the River Road came in and became Main Street, and the Wall Street crossed. Dylath was a shadowy place even in sunlight, with its sky-scraping black towers and its grey-to-black cobblestones. The dwarf was right: it was more his kind of place than hers.
The rain had resumed; on the plus side, the dwarf had vanished during the minute Ryel had been deflecting the intrusive questions of the gate guards. She straightened her tunic and cape and put her formless green hat back on. The guards had insisted on inspecting it quite thoroughly and thus had missed the chance to find the secret pouch under the bottom of her pack, where her throwing stars, extra gold, Tarot cards and pipe and weed were hidden. They remained hidden as the elf maiden set off up the Main Street looking for the inn.
On the Street of Green Signs, half a block off the Main Street and six blocks in from the wall, Ryel found lodging. It was more an unorthodox hotel than an inn: it occupied one fourth of a basalt tower, going up at least ten floors. Ryel knew that, because that was the floor on which Ryel’s lodging was. Of course there was a lift, and as with everything else in Dream World, the lift did not beg to be understood. Ryel was pretty sure it wasn’t the sort of magic she knew in her waking world, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t evil, but beyond that? She was too old a dreamer to bother thinking about things which did not at least do one the favor of suggesting their own explanations.
Dwarves were in the category of things that suggested their own explanations. They came out of the ground. Maybe that’s how they are born: they push a rock out of the way and climb out of the dirt. She laughed out loud, riding up the lift. But this dwarf: she had met a few in Dream World, but to her knowledge there was no resident population, no Dwarf Kingdom in the Saskatoon Mountains. So he too was a dreamer, this Arkwad or whatever his name was. She wondered where his sleeping body lay, in what world, and she wondered whether he was an old dreamer or a newbie.
It didn’t matter. She would never see his ugly mug again. She would do her job and get out of this awful little big city. He probably thought it was wonderful, all this rock. The lift door opened on the tenth floor. She turned right, then changed her mind and guessed left, and three doors in that direction was her door, numbered 10/3.
The room was well-enough appointed: large bed, three deep windows, writing table, two chairs. A door in back let into a water closet. Magical gem lanterns lit the room in dim pastel colors. Ryel regarded all these ostentations with disdain. But then she shook it off and headed for the bath. Stopping in the doorway, Ryel sized up the tub situation: ceramic and metal, white, nothing fancy, not huge, but it would serve. It had funny little brass feet; it had cute little brass taps and a ceramic-steel plug. Ryel fitted it and turned on the taps. She went back out and began to unclothe, throwing her wet cape on the radiator, tossing her jacket on the bed and setting her little boots on the floor near the chair. She moved them to beside the bed, but she was struck with a sudden sentiment.
Boots by the bed. Why couldn’t they be Glosvar’s boots?
Where the heck did that come from? She hadn’t thought of Glosvar in, well, all right, she had thought of him several times as she rode along the Skai Road, and she had definitely thought of him last night while sleeping in that village inn. Well, while not sleeping, actually. Oh yes. She had thought of him. But that was just to serve a purpose: she could think of all sorts of males, and some females, that would serve as well. But ah, how he had served, or the thought of him.
It certainly was true that Glosvar was a hunk. But surely Ryel did not feel anything more than that about him now. He was unavailable, married to that little blonde from over the river and through the woods, and not the River Skai or the Off Key Singing Oukranos: no, over the Anduin and through the Forest of Laurelindorinan. And thither had Glosvar repaired, and he had broken no promises in doing so, for Ryel and all the other elf girls who had crushes on him had no claim on him. Well, except that Ryel had some further claim on him, oh yes. Well, except that no doubt other elf girls had the same claim.
Ryel stopped herself, shook her head, and went back into the bathroom: the tub was full and water was pouring into the overflow drain. She stopped the taps. It was wonderfully warm in here already. She glanced at the full-length mirror, but it was fully fogged. She smiled and stepped back out, undoing her green tunic and slipping out of her green pants. She sat down and managed to get her socks off her hot feet. She pulled her undershirt off over her head and placed it on the bed beside her other clothes, then stepped out of her panties.
There she stood, naked, looking at her carefully arranged clothes, crying. She picked up her shirt and wiped her face in it. She threw it down and put her face in her hands and stood there weeping bitter tears.
Just as suddenly, Ryel pulled herself together and stepped into the bathroom. Looking in the bath water, she thought to herself, I have a job to do. I am here to do a job. And if I forget that asshole ever existed, so much the better.
Smiling, she picked up a bottle of some kind of bath additive, uncorked it and poured it into the water. A minute later, she was soaking, washing her shoulder length black hair, and thinking about the job.
Ryel dried herself off and put on dry clothes from her backpack. Then she set out in search of nourishment. The hotel’s first and second floors each had a restaurant and they shared a bar. The first floor’s restaurant was expensive but of local taste; the second floor’s was expensive and peculiar, which suited Ryel nicely. She had a pasta dish with bits of some kind of mollusc, but passing her on trays borne by wait staff were various giant beetles, trilobites, lizards, six- and eight-legged mammals, and stuffed gourds of quite unnerving shapes. A glass of red wine went nicely with the pasta, and the cute little hookah they brought round left a smoky haze that kept back the smell of what everyone else was eating. What was in it was nice too, but, an elf of the woods, Ryel was unfazed.
When Ryel was down to merely toying with a few pasta curls in oily sauce, the waiter sauntered by to see if she was still “working” on her dinner. How very Dylath of him. “No,” she said in the common tongue of Dream World, “I am not still working. I will have another glass of wine, if you don’t mind.”
“Perhaps you would prefer the lounge,” said the waiter, who had a stony face bent into a condescending smile. “It will be open into the night, while we are cleaning up.”
“Perhaps I would prefer that,” said Ryel, standing up and straightening out her jacket. She finished the last drops in her glass, left three silver pieces on the table and wandered over toward the bar’s arched entrance. The atmosphere on the other side of the archway was quite different from the quiet concentration and innocent peculiarity of the restaurant. And the smells were very different as well: the hookahs were larger, and burned a wider array of herb; incense smoked here and there about the place; and in the midst of many dimly lit bodies, not all of them quite human, there was another smell: fresh coffee.
“Oh yeah,” said Ryel to herself in her native Sindarin. “Wine and espresso.”
The tavern was split between the ground floor and the first floor, with two stairways carved into the tower’s basalt, one at either end, connecting the two levels. Ryel hung about near the upstairs bar, but had no luck getting anyone’s attention until she felt something near her derriere.
“Is this yours?” she asked, after she had whipped around and caught the hand that had been trying to feel or to steal. The hand was large, much larger than Ryel’s, and the man who was attached was big, a foot taller and twice her weight. Nonetheless she had his full attention. She turned the hand steadily, slowly, until it had done nearly three hundred and sixty degrees of rotation. She let it go and turned back to wave at the barmaid.
The other big hand came down at her in a blinding slap. She caught it at the wrist with the blade of her hunting knife, and while the hand did not come completely off, it did a job on itself. Blood spurted out on either side of the blade, as Ryel stepped quickly out of the way. The big man fell back bellowing in pain, using his twisted hand to still the bleeding on his wounded one. Customers on either side cursed him for spilling his blood on them. He cursed them right back as he retreated to the stairs and disappeared, whether to die or find a doctor Ryel neither knew nor cared. What she cared about was that he did not interfere with her again. Nor did anyone else.
“All right then,” she said, as the customers made space for her at the bar. “I’ll have a mug of pinot noir and a double latte.”
“A what and a what?” asked the barmaid.
“You do have those, don’t you?”
“You want them together, honey?”
“Well, not mixed.”
The barmaid smirked. “That’ll be a silver. And a promise on the knife.”
“All right,” said Ryel, used to the ways of the Dream World, “here is a silver.” She placed a coin on the bar. Then she held up the knife, which she had already taken the opportunity to wipe off on her belt rag. “I promise on this knife not to skewer anyone who doesn’t richly deserve it.”
“Good enough for me, hon,” said the barmaid, presenting her with a mug of wine full to the tippy top. “Latte along in a minute. Take that booth in the window up front, Barkle will clear out for you, I expect.”
Barkle, a loser if there ever was one, pulled one more long pull on his stem of the big hookah, gave Ryel a somber look and decamped to the downstairs bar. Ryel took his spot and soon was sipping her wine and her latte in sequence. An old man shuffled over and sat down opposite her, and she regarded him patiently. He began to lay out cards on the table between them: three, six, nine, twelve, fifteen. She looked down.
“Ah,” she said. “One solid red diamond, two solid green ovals, three solid blue stars. Set.”
After three games, of which Ryel won two, she finished her wine and drained her latte. “Thank you,” she said to the old guy, who nodded and laughed. She went back out the archway and turned aside to find the lift, which she took to her floor. In her room, she lay down fully clothed for twenty minutes, then jumped up, got her things together, packed her cape with everything else, got her jacket and hat on and headed out. She took the back stairway, the steps plain and carven from the tower’s black basalt as if the whole thing was some sort of geological formation. Ten flights down and she was on the ground floor, not on the Street of Green Signs but on some even more subsidiary thoroughfare, possibly the Lane of Discarded Ants or the Alley of Unintended Consequences. She turned and went up it and found that it ran reliably parallel to the Main Street.
Ryel walked up the street feeling like a discarded ant among the Cyclopean towers of Dylath. The mist made them seem all the more unimaginably vast, as if they somehow connected the ground to the sky, as if, if she found a stair that went all the way up the inside of one, it would leave her in whatever sort of place the Gods had chosen to hide by putting it on top of the clouds. Still, she walked, seeming a citizen of the place: no one marked her passage through the gritty metropolis, Elf of the Greenwood though she was. Dark of clothing, black of hair, quiet of stride in her old comfortable boots: Ryel flitted through the city like she was flitting amongst so many gigantic ash trees. She didn’t even have to think about it.
And that was good, because she was thinking about the job.
This far within the walls, the towers of Dylath-Leen, as the cartographers called it, changed from square or rectangular or trapezoidal in cross section to their native hexagonal. Turning one more of those annoying 120 degree corners, Ryel melted into a doorway next to a disused dock. She peered from there at the next tower.
It faced the Main Street, surrounded and padded by little parks with enigmatic shrines and bas-reliefs. People moved up and down the Main Street but did not stray from it or enter or leave the hexagonal tower. Beyond it, fading into the black mist of night in that blackest of coastal cities, more hexagonal towers stood. Things moved about in the little parks, but those things could not be called people.
This was the place. She was sure of it.
The tower would be dozens of stories tall, but internally that would mean little. She knew much about it, because she knew it was a tower full of temples, because she had good sources, because her instructions were in some ways vague but in other ways quite specific. And then there was her odd intuition.
Many floors would combine into one, except for the stairs climbing around just inside the tower’s black shell. The ground floor would be two or three stories tall, as many were, but above that, the higher floors would be combined in sets of three or five or seven into tall halls with a troublesome degree of ornamentation. Ryel did not like it when humans overdid the symbolism, the ritual, the meaning. Nothing good could come of it.
There would be many things of value there, precious stones of inexplicable design, ware of gold and silver and platinum and iridium and lo, even mithril, statuary of the most expensive material and the most anomalous subject matter, substances solid and liquid and gaseous, rare and rarer and almost unattainable even in Dream World, coin and cloth and tome and utensil and musical instrument and work of art, animal and plant and living thing of no clear category. But that was not quite what Ryel was here for. Her mother had not raised any thieves. Not as such.
“Obtain the Map and use it to find the first Piece,” were the instructions. A certain sort of “they” would try to prevent her if they knew she was there, so she would make sure they did not. That was why it had to be Ryel and not some urban guerilla or sleek, slick cat burglar or clever sneak thief. That was why it could not have been any other of her people, or of the folk of Lothlorien or Imladris or Dol Amroth. She had the woods in her veins, but she had lived and done her work in city and on battlefield: the same things everyone else did in the forest, she did in the town. And, of course, she had suffered Loss, and that was supposed to make her ruthless. Thinking all this in a second, she smirked, a natural position for her mouth.
Of course she was ruthless. Of course she didn’t care, aside from her professional dignity. Of course she understood how very important the job was. In a distinct sense, the worlds depended on it. It had all been explained to her.
Ryel took a long breath and held it. The wine was dissipating and the caffeine remained, and the smoke smoothed it all out, but under or above all that, her mind was unaffected. Nothing moved, and then she did. She slipped across to the garden before her and into the shadow of a pillar.
There was a dripping, and it was not the rain, which had come to an end. She turned and gave a glance to the zone along the border of the little park, halfway from the tower she had left to the one she was headed for. Six pillars surrounded a little space, and their tops were connected by a thin lattice of beams of wood or metal. Below, amongst the pillars, was a pool, and something was dripping down into it. It was clear, but Ryel did not think it was water. Smirking over her disgust and a low grade of dread, she moved across to a block of rough stone of about her height. It seemed innocent enough. Of course it was covered with traceries of glyphs and enigmatic patterns of moving beetles, but they weren’t her business.
Ryel took another long breath. A half dozen drunks reeled up the Main Street. They paused, belched, laughed; one of them threw up. Then they seemed to realize where they were, and moved on quickly with a minimum of noise.
No one knew Ryel was there. No one, not even the things that Ryel didn’t know were there. She didn’t want to know about them and they didn’t need to know about her. Deal.
She let out her breath, then took in another, then flitted across to the building where her job hid, the Tower of the Minor Temples. It was surrounded by no landscaping, but weeds had grown to bushes in the lee of its straight sides. She made good friends with a particular overgrown relative of the lupine, its randy vigor not quite so intense as to make her suspect what sort of stuff it fed on. “You eat what you like,” she whispered to the burst of vegetation. “Drink deep, have one on me. Just keep me covered, okay?”
The lupine relative did not answer, although she had the feeling it was sympathetic to her situation. In its shelter, she scanned up the walls. They were not entirely unrelieved planes of basalt. There were windows, arrow slits really, vents perhaps, starting at the twenty foot level. “Doable,” she said to herself. She unshouldered her bow, pulled out the arrow with the rope attached to it, took careful aim, allowing for gravity and the density of the wet air, drew another breath and fired upwards.
The arrow flew straight and true. Of course it did, being inanimate and also obedient. It disappeared into the crack of window, and Ryel pulled the rope taut. Rope: not some inches-thick knotted clump of plant fibers wound around and around by mortal old ladies, but the product of the Elves, clean and light and strong. Just the usual, to Ryel. She pulled on it, pulled gently until the arrow caught in the crack of window and held, and then she began to pull herself up.
Things went well for the first fifteen feet. She heard distant faint sound from beyond the window, a chanting of mixed voices, and in one step more, as she reached up with her hand, from behind and below came the tread of a watchman up the side street below. He would not be curious, he would not spend effort looking up into the misty night, he might even be anxious to not see something that was there to be seen, if it was to be seen on this particular wall, but if she made a noise he would look, and if he looked he would see her, and if he saw her he would have to sound the alarm, it was just the way the rules were. And shooting him would not be an option. Both her hands were occupied.
She paused a moment, then reached out her other hand to the next foot of rope: only four feet left to the window’s edge. And a mosquito glided in and landed on her forearm.
Ryel grimaced, the mirthless cousin of her smirk. She rolled her eyes a bit too, and then, suitably emboldened, she muttered to the bug: “Listen. Freako. Listen to me. Go bite that guy down there. Down. There. That guy. Okay? I’ll give you a blessing.”
The mosquito sat there on her arm. Not biting. Its body was not mobile enough for it to give her a look, much less say anything; its brain, if it could be called that, was too simple to spend any amount of time considering possibilities. After a moment, during which the guard seemed to stop and examine something on his boot directly below Ryel, she whispered a tiny little blessing. “I can’t believe I did that,” she muttered. “Now go.”
The mosquito lifted off from her unbitten arm and swiftly dropped toward its new target. Three seconds later, Ryel could hear the watchman grumbling and turning around, then cursing. He stomped off rubbing the back of his neck. Ryel smiled and pulled herself up to the narrow window. In another second she had squeezed her skinny little elf frame through.
She was about ten feet up over a stair that wound around the outer margin of the tower’s interior. An inner wall stood perhaps four feet in front of her. The ceiling of the stair was close enough above her that she could reach up and touch it. She did, and then she smiled again: nice enough work, considering that this entire thing must have been carven out of solid rock. The whole city: she wondered if Dylath was not some sort of natural formation. That made her smirk. Natural formations. The geology of Dream World.
The sound of chanting was a blend, coming from above and below and vibrating through the rock itself, rising and falling, ceasing and beginning, faint.
Ryel dropped to the steps and landed with a spring of her timeless knees and ankles. Without a second for thought, she turned to the left and headed up the stairs. In ten steps she passed through the ceiling, or the ceiling suddenly rose up far out of sight: she was on the third story now, for whatever that was worth. The stairs immediately rounded the inside of one of those 120 degree corners. The stretch of straight stairway beyond ran sixty steps to the next corner, the ceiling dropping again toward the stairs’ level. She traversed it two steps at a time, halfway along pierced the fourth floor, and at the next turn passed through the fifth.
The stairs were just barely lit by a dim torch a few feet in from the corner at either end of the stretch of steps. The torches held low red flames, burning with a dose of oil and a dose of some other sort of power, but not much. She also passed three slitted windows on this stretch, all on the outside, to her left: the first far above near the ceiling, the next on the same height off the ground but at her eye level near the middle of the straightaway, and the third about fifteen feet above her head just before the next corner. There was no sign of window or door or ventilation duct to the right.
The next stretch was much the same. By the stretch after, Ryel was beginning to be concerned. She had not come here to climb stairs. She had come here to kill a priest and take his map.
So she slowed down and moved along up the stairs with a hand on the wall to her right. A third of the way along, she stopped, backed up and did two steps again, more observantly. She smiled. She reached up, to the left, to the right, down, along the inside wall. The panel fit very well, but it was a panel, while the rest of the inner wall seemed to be native stone, like the rest of the towers of this strange benighted city. There were three things in Dylath-Leen: the stone, the people and animals and plants who had moved in, and the things those had brought in with them. The panel was of this third category.
It was roughly rectangular, but rounded, and the bottom edge was cut at a diagonal to avoid the steps below it. Almost everywhere, it fit nice and flush with the stone of the wall. Almost. Here and there it protruded a millimeter, or it sank in a millimeter. She didn’t need to notice that to know it was a panel, however: she could smell it.
No, she could smell incense, and something, several things, else. She dropped her smirk and bit her lip. Out came her smaller knife, and in a minute she had the crack around the panel exposed on the left, the right and the bottom. Wiggling her knife into the crack on the left, the upper end, she managed to move it out an inch, then two. She peered in: it was darker inside than it was on the stairs.
Relieved, Ryel pried the panel back just wide enough for her to slip through. Using the handy hook she had in one of her two dozen pockets, she pulled the panel shut again. She took account of the immediate surroundings. She seemed to be at the back of a large room, with seating or rows of steps slanting down from here toward a better-lit area below her. She was on about the sixth floor as seen from outside; the floor of the temple she was in was at perhaps the fourth story of the tower. A faint chanting hung with the smoke of incense in the room. She made note of the curious shelves and barrels along the wall behind her, and of a peculiarly stained rug near where the panel was. It wasn’t what the stain was made of: she knew what it was made of. But the shape was oddly suggestive.
Ryel shook off such suggestions. She looked at the wall again in the very minimal light: from this side, she could see it had a handle near the right side.
Ryel slipped into the lee of one of the peculiar shelves. She looked out and down, finally ready to confront whatever it was. Ah. The priestesses. The high priest. He would be the one.
She was relieved. He really looked like an asshole.
Ryel spent a minute taking in the chamber. Having a large brain, she had room to wonder what the deal was with the temples in Dylath: did they rent space in the towers, three floors for the Thing that Flaps in the Twilight, four floors for He whose Name Cannot be Correctly Pronounced? Did any deity or cult ever become so hard up they had to be evicted? How did that work? What if the Order of the Virgin Pure and True had the sixth through ninth floors, and the Cult of He who Does Nasty Things to Maidens in the Night moved in on the tenth through fourteenth?
But this was Dylath-Leen, the City of Basalt, and its reputation was such that the Order of the Virgin would have to look out for itself; many Hes and Shes did nasty things of many types to many maidens in the night, and some in the day. And here we had the Cult of Pharukh or Farokh or something like that, and Farookh seemed to have a single male priest over a dozen priestesses; one could guess how that played out.
They proceeded with their business. The priestesses, not very attired, prepared the area below and around an altar which occupied most of the lower region of the temple. They cleaned it, they rubbed it and each other with oil, they tended the six red fires, they circled the altar waving censers and muttering gibberish and generally keeping up a low monotone of chant. The high priest seemed oblivious, concentrating presumably on what was going on in a higher plane.
The middle and upper reaches of the temple seemed to be all empty galleries and conspicuously queer symbols. Ryel could not help think that the place had seating for a hundred, which made it especially queer that the priest and priestesses seemed to be performing for an audience of zero, or possibly one, or two if she counted herself and Farookh.
The god, according to her exhaustive research at a safe distance in Ulthar, was a mound of bubbles and eyes around a tall pillar of flesh, a pillar with a huge compound eye at the top. It was half phallic symbol, half insect and half quantum foam. It insinuated itself between the spheres, so it did not need to rule anything the way Zeus or Marduk or Cthulhu or Manwe or Sauron might rule. It was simply there, whether one wished to see it or not, and the cultists were those who felt better if they knew it was there and made sure to tip well. What was the going rate for tips? Clearly the usual: the altar was stained with wine-dark dried puddles. Given the way humans were, she had to assume the currency of the tips was human in origin.
But the lack of attendance made Ryel think it was the night off for sacrifices. The Moon, somewhere behind all those rain clouds, was halfway from half to full. Perhaps they only sacrificed on full, new and halves.
Ryel could kill from here, and she was inclined to do so; the wild card was what the priestesses would do. She didn’t want to kill them too, or not many of them: it was messy. But if she killed him from up in the gallery, she would have to work out how to get down there to search him. And the map and anything else she might hope to add to her gain from the night’s work might or might not be on him: if he had, for instance, one of the pieces as well, or whatever they were, she would want that too. And that made it all the likelier she would have to search more than just the priest, who, though well enough dressed, did not seem to favor pockets.
She crept four steps down the gallery and got friendly with a black-draped pillar. But come closer? That seemed unlikely. From there down it was more open and more lit. And what would she do? Unless she was going to get right up next to him, she could kill the priest as easily from this range as from closer—her chances were as near one hundred percent as would matter already. But if she were not right there in his shadow, the dynamic would be the same no matter how close she got: priest dead, priestesses all in a tizzy, Ryel trying to rifle a corpse and then check his desk drawers, wherever they were.
She had her way of shrugging in situations like this. It didn’t matter because it mattered so much. It didn’t matter because she couldn’t compute the probabilities. She knew she could kill him, and she figured she could take the priestesses, if indeed they bothered to fight. As for Farookh, well, she would take whatever he or it gave her.
Ryel stepped around the pillar and stood against it, black against black. She took up her little bow and nocked an arrow. The priest had something to say to one of the priestesses, and she listened to him seriously while ignoring, apparently, his hand molesting her. She went off to get something, and he turned to speak to another priestess, who had watched the molestation with a blank look. Now he was instructing her, calmly and precisely, and she was calmly taking it in, while his hands ran up and down her sides, then under her small breasts, pushing them up and letting them loose and then repeating the procedure. He finished, she nodded, she went off to do his bidding, and he called to a third.
Ryel waited through one more iteration of this procedure. The priest finished instructing and molesting the third priestess, and now he was gazing into one of the fires, closing his eyes in meditation. The meditation seemed to include his hand molesting himself through his loose robe of black silk.
Around his neck he wore a chain with a pentagonal box at the end, dangling in the chest hair revealed by his robe of black silk.
Ryel drew back the arrow, took a moment, then let it fly.
The priest was quite surprised. His chest seemed to have grown an arrow shaft and green feather, sticking out an inch below that box.
The priest looked up at Ryel in astonishment, and then expired. The priestesses nearby looked up at Ryel, who was striding down the central steps like a winning contestant. They scattered to the lower margins of the chamber and vanished. The other priestesses, the ones who hadn’t been close by, looked at their colleagues departing, did their own double takes and then fled. There were little doors all along the lower end of the dais with the altar: perhaps these led to slides that would deposit them in getaway boats. So much for them.
Ryel’s experience of the dreamworld was extensive, but it still had not ceased to surprise her. As she came within a few feet of the priest, who was dead as a rock but still more or less standing, he began to spread his arms. His head went back. A spot of black appeared at his sternum. A crease grew down his chest and up to his neck, and in a few seconds he was coming open like a pea pod.
Things were coming out. They were not peas. They were, perhaps, something between bat and bug; by size they were bats, but they had a fiddly legginess that would be more appropriate among the Arthropoda, and they were a caramel brown that was not at all bat-like. And they had red eyes. And they had mandibles that chomped from left and right. What more they had, Ryel did not wish to know. Elbowing among them, she grabbed the box hanging where the priest’s chest ought still to have been. She pulled it off the chain and turned to leg it back up the stairs into the audience.
She heard lots of things, flutterings, cracklings, a ripping, a vague sound as of mirthless laughter. One thing she heard was the unmistakable sound of parchment hitting the floor. She looked down. There it was. A round flap of parchment settling to the black stone. The map.
She grabbed it and started hustling back up the steps, but now the bug-bat things were on her. They landed all over her back, shoulders and hair, and at first all she felt was greater weight. Before she could make it back to the pillar from whose shadow she had fired, she was feeling stings, bites. She tried to shake them off, she let her jacket fall from her with dozens of them chewing on it, but the swarm was not fooled. She got past the pillar and started to collapse. There must be some sort of poison, perhaps a sedative? Ryel’s elven constitution would resist things like that, but at some point—!
“No you don’t, elfie,” growled a voice. She felt and smelled a pungent smoke over her, and then strong hands got her under the armpits and pulled her back, back and up. She was awake enough to help her helper get up through a hatch in the ceiling, and then the hatch slammed shut and she was in darkness.
Ryel settled to the ground and lay there while her helper went about slapping things on the floor or walls. It seemed a few of the bug-bats had chased them all the way this far, and the figure was dispatching them and cursing happily in the Dwarvish language as he did it. Finally he stopped and heaved a satisfied sigh.
“Arkwad,” she said groggily.
“Arkmar,” he said, “at your service again.” He lit a small oil lamp. She gazed up at him. Damn him, he was smiling at her from under his stupid iron cap and bushy brown eyebrows. Damn him, he held the parchment in his hand.
Ryel rolled backward onto her back, her legs over the trap door. She groaned. Then she sat up. “I’m in a fucking fog,” she said.
“Here, then, try some of this.” He held out to her a fist-sized stone pipe, which he had lit off the lamp.
“That’ll fog me even more, thanks.”
“Have one,” he laughed, “you’ll feel better.”
Ryel sat up and winced. Everything hurt, and a weird mix of pain and numbness was spreading from a thousand points on her back and shoulders and scalp. She reached out and took the pipe, which was even heavier than it looked. She put the mouthpiece to her lips and pulled. The taste was bitter but the smoke expanded in her lungs most pleasantly.
She handed the pipe back to him many seconds later. “Not bad,” she said. “Any coming out of any holes?”
“Heh heh,” said Arkmar, “no, no smoke coming out.” He continued to grin. He clearly liked being the one with the information.
“So you grow this yourselves, in the mines?”
“We grow it ourselves,” he laughed, “but I am not going to tell you where. I also am not going to tell you where we make the whiskey. Have some.”
She took his flask, which appeared to be made of solid titanium. The liquor was surprisingly smooth and a little spicy. It did not hide its 99 proof nature. She handed it back. “So what, were you following me, or were you here to rob as well?”
“Both, my friend. I was coming here to steal a certain chunk of blue diamond cut in a way that no stone could possibly be cut, but that was supposed to be in the temple at the top of the tower, the Shrine of the Clouds. I was resting and waiting my chance when I heard you come through a window below. I became interested. Are you glad I did, or not?”
Ryel sulked for only a second and said, “All right, I am glad. So you heard me? Am I slipping?”
Arkmar grinned and pulled a little yellow gem out of his ear. “A Stone of Enhanced Hearing,” he said. “It can even be tuned to screen out the stupid incessant obnoxious chanting. So absolve yourself of the shame of being heard by a dwarf. I cheated and used Magic.”
“You did,” she said, smiling. “And the lamp? You carry oil lamps?”
Grinning, the dwarf reached out a big gloved hand and knocked the lamp over. It went out. Five seconds later, he was still grinning as he struck a spark off his tinder and got the lamp going again. “It’s very portable,” he said. “You need one.”
“I buy one,” Ryel replied. “How much?”
“Let’s look in the box first, how about that?”
“All right. By all means. Let’s look in the box.”
Arkmar put the little grey box, a pentagonal prism, between them. They looked at it. “I don’t know,” said Ryel, “I don’t feel up to just opening it.”
Arkmar picked it up and looked at it closely. “If it had a spell on it,” he said, “what spell do you think it would be?”
“Could be instant death for all we know.”
“Why would he put that on there? What else might it be?”
Ryel squinted at the box. She was feeling a little better, sitting here calming down, but she didn’t trust that the poisons in her blood were vanished. “Bug poison, I would think,” she said. “That temple’s deity was Farookh. He’s, like, this congeries of bubbles, but he’s sacred to insects. But there’s a lot of gods like that.”
“I doubt it’s a swarm of bug bats,” said Arkmar. “What else could it be? Lightning bolt?”
“Could be,” said Ryel.
“Friend of mine,” said Arkmar, “priestess of something, well, she was assistant priestess of something at the time, I don’t know if she made priestess—!”
“Okay. Go on.”
“She used to call the Flaming Oratory spell when she wanted to rouse people but half the time she said the lightning spell instead.”
“They have a word in common,” said Ryel. “Did she kill anyone?”
“No, but she came close several times.”
“This would be set to do more than come close, Arkbar.”
“Arkmar. It would be nice for you to remember it. I saved your precious Elvish life. So, what’s the likelihood, do you think?”
“I’m going with pestilence,” said Ryel. “Arkmar.”
“Very good.” He half-smiled at the box.
“What?” He looked at her with a big grin.
“With this, your one wild and precious life.”
Arkmar laughed a little. Then he turned his gaze back to the box. He put his other hand on top of it, twisted a little, and raised the top. He raised his bushy eyebrows. He set the open box down between them, the lid off to the side.
“You look in, elfie,” he said.
“Okay,” said Ryel. Gathering her limited faculties, Ryel leaned over and looked in. The box was shadowy, but that was just the low light. She felt a bit dizzy, but it passed. She reached in and took out a small, thick coin of shiny metal.
Then she took out a key, of a coppery alloy that was rather tarnished.
She peeked back in and took out a rather large ruby, carved in a complicated way. It seemed to her at a brief glance, which was all she felt like giving it, that it was somehow representational without looking like any real thing.
She looked back in, and saw one more thing: a hollow dark cylinder about an inch across and an inch high. She reached in and picked it up. It was made of a hard heavy yellowish metal, but not exactly gold. It had designs of some sort on the outside and inside surfaces, but they did not seem representational.
There was a shattering noise. She looked up, instinctively palming the cylinder. Arkmar was looking at a hammer she hadn’t noticed he had in his belt. Its head was cracked and chipped. Before him, the ruby was smashed into at least five parts and hundreds of shards.
“Okay,” said Ryel. “How and why?”
“The hammer’s got potency of smash. Had it, the damn ruby broke it. I didn’t bring a spare.”
“It was not to remain in this world,” he muttered. He met her eyes and she raised her eyebrows. “You looked at it. You know. Ach, I get it now. Elves are attuned to trees, and Dwarves to rocks. It is a rock. Well, now it’s a bunch of rocks.” He carefully picked up the bigger pieces and put them in a little bag he got out of his pack. “Still worth a pretty penny, don’t you think?”
“Oh, sure,” she said. “It just took me by surprise. I suppose you could have said something.”
“I suppose I could have. Did you disagree with the action itself? Out with it.” She smiled and said nothing. He grinned. “But you,” he said, “you do not commune with trees. No, your language is the language of knives and arrows.”
“Oh, I do pretty good with mosquitoes,” she said. “What else is in that box?”
He dumped it out. A dozen small gold coins fell out, and three modest diamonds, and a human toe bone, as both of them knew on sight.
“Smash it?” said Ryel.
“Guess so,” said Arkmar. He started whacking the bone with his broken hammer, and the bone disintegrated. “Well,” he said, “it wasn’t magic. You want the key and the coins?”
“You take the coins,” she said, holding up her hand with the cylinder in it. “I’ll take the key and this little trinket.”
“And the map.”
“Well, we can both have the map, while we stick together.” She started to get up. She swayed, gathered herself, then fell in a swoon. She came to almost instantly, and said, “I think I need a healer.” She began to swoon again. “Doctor um—!” she managed to get out, holding down her dinner.
“Here,” said Arkmar, holding out his flask, “have another dosage.”
She took it and swigged a good mouthful. “Ah yes,” she said, “thank you Doctor Arkwad. Er, Arkmar.”
“Need to get you to Doctor—!”
“Edgardo,” said Ryel foggily. “In Atyannath.”
“You use him? I use him.”
“Yeah,” she said, pulling herself up to stand, leaning on the wall. “I use him.” She leaned over. The damn stings. She felt like throwing up, and so, she threw up. Still, the thought of Doctor Edgardo checking her all over for wounds gave her renewed strength.
“You can make it, sister?”
“Yeah,” she said, “for Edgardo, I can make it.”