Diomedo Obron and the Archon Filidor passed the evening and much of the night in the latter’s study, discussing the next day’s journey into the wastes of Barran and the expected confrontation with whatever survivor of the Nineteenth Aeon wizards’ cabal still lurked in the Seventh Plane. Erm Kaslo struggled to try to understand the concepts the two thaumaturges threw onto the table — sometimes literally, as the Archon’s integrator, Old Confustible, rendered their ideas in diagrams, mathematical formulae, and even in three-dimensional models whose planes and curves mutated into shapes that caused the op’s brain to overheat.
Eventually, he went back down the corridor to the landing outside the palace, where the dragon Saunterance — formerly Obron’s space yacht — squatted, wings folded, beside the shining dome of Testroni’s Impervious Conveyance that had brought them here from Novo Bantry. Kaslo had no experience of reading the body language of dragons, but he sensed that Saunterance was at ease with the circumstances in which it found itself — but peace of mind was so far from Kaslo’s grasp that he could not even see a path toward it.
“What is it like for you?” he asked the dragon. “To be so changed?”
The creature spoke as it would have when it was a ship’s integrator, so that its voice seemed to emanate from the air beside the man’s ear. “I am not so changed,” it said. “Before, I was a core connected to the systems of a spaceship. My function was to travel. Now I am a mind enclosed in a body that performs much the same function.”
“Are you content?”
The dragon’s features momentarily formed an almost human expression. “I suppose I am,” it said. “It is not a question I am disposed to ask myself.”
“You are fortunate,” said Kaslo. “You retain your function as well as the ability to perform it. I, however . . .” He finished the thought in a sigh.
“Obron values you,” Saunterance said. “You may have more worth than you allot yourself.”
“I used to know my worth to an exact measure,” Kaslo said. “And it was considerable. Now — ”
“Now you are in the business of rediscovering it, using a different set of calibrations,” said the dragon. “Why don’t you wait and see what turns up in you?”
It wasn’t bad advice, Kaslo thought, especially from a dragon. He bid Saunterance a good night and found his bunk in the Conveyance. He expected to lie awake, but instead fell quickly into a dreamless sleep.
He was awakened by the sounds of voices, footsteps, and the movement of bulky objects, and came out of his cabin into the vessel’s common area to find it being loaded with cabinets and chests by men and women in green and black livery. Filidor was supervising the business, with advice from Obron.
Kaslo’s employer turned as the op entered. “I was telling the Archon,” he said, “about how your spring-gun shot a nouble into one of the preyns and destroyed it utterly.”
“True,” said Kaslo.
Filidor said, “How large a missile will it take?” When Kaslo made a circle with finger and thumb, the hole about the size of a child’s marble, the Archon said, “I was hoping for something larger.” He put two hands together, the space between them the dimension of a fist-sized ball.
“No one ever had a need for a spring-gun of that caliber,” the op said.
“Too bad,” said the Archon. “It might have been useful.”
Kaslo’s practical mind furnished a suggestion. “How about a sling?”
Both wizards gave him a blank look.
The op said, “One of the skills of a confidential operative is the ability to make a deadly weapon out of the most basic materials. A sling is one of humanity’s oldest death-dealers, and the second-most basic — the most basic being a hand-thrown rock.”
He explained the mechanics of the weapon, and the simplicity of its parts. “I could throw a fist-sized nouble almost as far as I could shoot a pebble from a spring-gun.”
“With lethal effect?” said Filidor.
“Simple centrifugal force doesn’t apply in the Seventh Plane,” the Archon said. “You would have to add your will to the operation.”
“Then I would need some practice.”
“We’ll try to arrange that.” Filidor returned his attention to what he and Obron had been doing: ordering the contents of a triple-shelved bookcase. Kaslo went into the galley and made a breakfast out of their supplies. When he came back into the common room, the new furnishings had been arranged to the wizards’ satisfaction. A footman came in, made a subtle gesture that attracted Filidor’s attention, then handed over a coil of leather cord into which a wide patch of the same material had been fitted.
Filidor showed the item to Kaslo. “Will this do?”
The op took it, stretched out the cord, examined the slots where it passed through the patch, and tested the strength. “Yes,” he said.
“Then we’re ready,” said the Archon, “except for . . .” He turned and made a summoning gesture through the Conveyance’s open hatch. The entrance darkened as an oddly shaped figure stepped through. At first impression, Kaslo thought it was a small man in a coat of rough fur, then he took in more detail: the too-long arms, the short, splayed legs, the long, prehensile toes, and of course, the face — a combination of great ape cross-bred with some other creature that had supplied pointed, tufted ears and a protruding muzzle that ended in a somewhat feline snout.
The newcomer turned a pair of lambent yellow eyes on Kaslo, and the op felt himself intelligently assessed. At the same moment, he knew what he was seeing. “Old Confustible,” he said.
“I’ve never cared for that name,” the creature said.
“Accustom yourself to it,” said the Archon. “It suits.” Then to Obron, “We should leave. It’s a far distance to Barran, even by dragon.”
Obron gave orders. The Conveyance sealed itself. Saunterance, long since freed from constraint, positioned itself on top of the dome, talons grasping the carrying ring. Then the dragon threw itself skyward, its vast leathery wings digging into the air, and the expedition was off and away.
Old Confustible wandered into the galley and began rummaging through the food stores. It came back into the salon, carrying a karba fruit, found an out-of-the-way spot beside a cabinet, and hunkered down to peel the purple rind.
Kaslo exercised his curiosity about the ancient creature. “Have you had other names, in your previous incarnations?”
“‘Iterations’ is the term we prefer,” was the answer, delivered in the even-more-neutral-than-usual tone that Kaslo remembered as the way integrators expressed deepest indignation.
“My apologies,” he said. “This is all new to me, and much of it inexplicable.”
“I have had other names, and have them still,” said the familiar as its flat-nailed fingers separated a segment of the karba and popped it into the black-lipped mouth. “But to use them would disharmonize the basal fluxions.”
“I see,” said the op, though he did not. “I have seen, in Obron’s texts, a creature similar to you, called a ‘grinnet.’”
Old Confustible’s jaws closed with a snap and the yellow eyes gazed at a point over the op’s shoulder. “I am no grinnet,” it said. The tone was so neutral as to alert Kaslo that another apology was advisable.
When he had delivered it, he said, “I am only trying to understand.”
The creature consumed another segment of fruit and regarded him sideways. Then it sighed and said, “I am to a grinnet as you are to the lowest ranked tyro in whatever profession you followed before your present employment.”
“I was a confidential operative,” Kaslo said, “of high standing.”
“Then a grinnet would be comparable to a youth you hired to sweep the walk and make a pot of afternoon punge.”
“Ah,” said Kaslo. “Then, if not a grinnet, what are you?”
Old Confustible swallowed the last of its meal and said, “I am . . .” — there was a discernible pause, which Kaslo imagined ought to be filled with a flourish of trumpets — “a groffet.”
“A groffet,” he said.
“A groffet, first-magnitude. Nothing less.” It withdrew its attention from him, closed its eyes, and began to doze.
After the Conveyance had lifted off, Obron gestured to the wall and one segment became a forward-facing window. Now Kaslo went to look out and down, saw the cityscape below give way to green countryside: fields and woods, isolated farm houses and small hamlets wherever the infrequent roads intersected. He saw diminutive figures in fields, wagons drawn by draft animals.
“It can’t be that simple,” he said to Filidor. “The whole universe changes and life goes on.”
The Archon looked up from the papers Obron had spread on his workbench. “It wasn’t simple,” he said. “When I knew the change was coming, I encouraged a new trend in old-fashioned ways of life. The aristocracy immediately followed suit, had themselves drawn about in carriages and told their servants to plow fields and plant vegetables.
“The middle classes copied their social superiors, as they often do. When the moment arrived, the elements of a pre-machine culture were already to hand. It eased the transition.”
“Here, perhaps,” Kaslo said. “Why didn’t you spread the word to other worlds? You might have saved countless lives.”
“Would you have believed me if I had?”
The op remembered the man he had been. “No, I wouldn’t have.”
“Nor would one in a million,” said Filidor. “In a rational age, sympathetic association is ridiculous. Anyone who argues for its merits is either a loon or a purveyor of bunkum, and therefore liable to be locked up on either count.”
Obron spoke up. “My friends and family called me a noddy and a nibblewit. After a while, I stopped trying to make them see.”
Kaslo turned back to the window, then a thought brought him back to the two wizards, now bent over their calculations again. “But why does it happen?” he said.
Obron’s face said the query was nuncupatory. Filidor, however, took the question seriously. “We don’t know,” he said. “We must assume that the demiurge, when making the multiverse, had some goal in mind — and presumably, the alternation of reason and magic plays some part in achieving that end. But that knowledge has not been vouchsafed to any of us who must make our lives in it.”
He went back to the diagram Obron had spread on the workbench, then he stopped and turned back to Kaslo. “If it’s any consolation,” he said, “an operative of mine claimed to have met one of the demiurge’s helpers, imprisoned in a cave far, far down The Spray. The assistant said that the Nine Planes and all within it are not the real multiverse.”
“Then what is all this?” Kaslo gestured to the land and sky beyond the window. “Just a fiction meant to deceive us?”
“Nothing like that,” said the Archon. “There’s no evidence that the purpose of phenomenality has anything to do with us at all — just as the meaning of your own life has no relationship to any particular cell in your liver or any of the microscopic plant-like organisms that live within that cell.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” said Kaslo, though he would have preferred another answer. “But if this is not the real multiverse, what is it?”
“According to the assistant,” said the Archon, “we’re part of a rough draft, a preliminary sketch that should have been thrown away once the true, perfect creation was achieved.”
Kaslo blinked. Not for the first time, he felt a sad longing for the life he had used to have: when all his problems were practical, and, once he’d solved one, he could go fishing.
“Is the operative who made this melancholy discovery still around?” he asked. “I would like to speak with him.”
“Hapthorn?” said Filidor. “I’m not sure. Old Confustible might know.”
The creature by the cabinet spat a karba seed into its pink-palmed hand and said. “I do not. He disappeared during the confusion. Or he may have gone off-world.”
Filidor shrugged and returned his gaze to Obron’s papers. The wizards discussed some point with lowered voices. Saunterance flew on, now carrying them over a dark forest. Kaslo went back to his cabin and calmed himself by practicing the combative arts.
• • • •
By midday, they had overflown a vast forest that had gradually given way to open grassland. As the faded orange sun sank toward the horizon, the grass thinned and became desiccated earth dotted with thorny scrub and ground-hugging dryland plants. Finally, even the hardiest vegetation admitted defeat and they were flying over bare rock and sand.
Filidor and Obron had been working together throughout the flight, consulting texts from both wizards’ libraries and performing incomprehensible operations with odd-looking instruments and apparatuses that the Archon had had brought aboard in the various chests and cabinets that crowded the salon. Now, as the sun turned blood-red and began to disappear behind the planet’s edge, he straightened, stretched, and came to join Kaslo at the viewing port.
“There,” the Archon said, pointing toward the farthest horizon, “where the land rises and throws a shadow. That is the rim of the crater.”
Kaslo looked as they swept toward the huge landmark. It took a moment for his mind to adjust to the scale of the thing: a low-rimmed circle so immense it was hard to discern the curve, its floor stretching flat and level to the horizon.
“Smooth as glass, beneath the dust,” Filidor said. “The first time I crossed it, we had to skate half a day.”
“Why didn’t you just fly in?”
“I was then apprenticed to my uncle, the Archon Dezendah VII. He had a decidedly idiosyncratic approach to training his successor.”
Once they had passed over the rim, Saunterance descended until the base of the Conveyance was just above the flat surface. The dragon’s wings threw up vortices of dust that spiraled behind them, like an aerial wake. Kaslo assumed the proximity to the surface created a ground effect that made for easier flying. Filidor said he was probably right.
“How long can a dragon keep it up?” the op asked.
“That largely depends on the dragon,” the Archon said.
“And what about energy?” Kaslo said. “What do they eat?”
“That,” said Filidor, “depends entirely on the dragon.”
The sun was now completely below the crater’s rim. Darkness rushed across the sky and filled it, except for the cold pinpricks of the stars.
Kaslo had been on planets that had moons. “They can be useful things when you’re out at night, far from the nearest lumen.”
“Indeed,” said the Archon. “Majestrum and his cronies had a lot to answer for.”
Obron had come to join them. “And you’re certain they’ve done so?” he said.
“Then whom are we coming to deal with now?” Kaslo’s employer said.
“That’s something we’ll have to find out.”
It was full dark now. Filidor consulted a book, then spoke several words. A globe of light appeared in front of the Conveyance and rose until it was above Saunterance’s scaly head. The orb narrowed its output until it was casting a bright conical beam of light far before them.
They flew on, the beam illuminating nothing but uniform emptiness, except once when it suddenly swept over a flock of sting-whiffles nesting on the ground, causing them to explode into the air and scatter in all directions, their leathery wings raising a cloud of obscuring dust, their barb-tipped tails lashing at nothing and everything. Later, the light also fell upon a fand — probably out hunting for sting-whiffles — that crouched and bared its needle-like incisors at Saunterance.
“That might be a descendant of the one that chased us when we came and turned off the interplanar device,” Filidor said. For a moment his face softened under the influence of nostalgia, then he said, “We can’t be far now.”
His estimate proved correct. Not long after, the light revealed a square object that Kaslo first took for a low, featureless building set in the middle of the emptiness. Then, as Obron bade Saunterance to circle the structure, the op realized that he was seeing the top side of a great machine sunk into the dust-covered smoothness of the glassy plain.
On one side there was a panel with studs and levers that must be controls. Before it lay a scattering of human bones, picked clean by scavengers and polished by wind-blown dust.
“Majestrum’s golem,” Filidor said. “Once it had performed its function of reactivating the device, it fell apart.”
“The device is not active now?” Kaslo said, contemplating the power of a machine that could create the nothingness in the middle of which they had arrived, not to mention obliterating a moon.
“That is all over and done with,” said the Archon.
“Then, again, whom have we come to confront?”
Filidor shrugged. “Might be a who,” he said, glancing at Old Confustible dozing in his corner, “or perhaps a what.”
The night journey ending with the sight of the interplanar evil-capacitator had not given Kaslo an appetite for mystery and ambiguity. But before he could try to reset the mood, Obron was telling the dragon to land and they were descending into a dust storm raised by Saunterance’s wings. The two wizards busied themselves gathering materials and Obron’s green book, so that the moment the Conveyance touched down, Obron had the hatch open and the two wizards went out onto the plain, followed by Kaslo and the Archon’s yawning assistant.
Filidor ordered the globe of light out over the emptiness, then stopped it to hover over a space a few dozen paces from the Conveyance and the interplanar device. Then he and Obron began laying out noubles in a manner the op recognized. Kaslo’s employer had his green book open and was directing the work, forming a larger circle than the one that had created the whimsy through which Saunterance had returned from the Seventh Plane.
The operation required precise placement of the pearlescent orbs, and the two wizards were continually conferring and squatting to sight along invisible lines between the points the noubles made on the rim of the circle. Old Confustible was also pressed into service, to move a little globe here or there, back or forth. At some point, Saunterance, squatting with wings folded beside the dome, uttered a hiss and clacked its jaws twice. Obron looked up from what he was doing and called to Kaslo.
“There is an outside compartment on this side of the Conveyance.” He gestured complexly and a part of the shining surface slid aside. “Would you give Saunterance one of the bundles inside?”
The dragon’s jaws clacked again and Obron amended the order. “Two of the bundles.”
Kaslo went to the space that had opened in the side of the vehicle. Inside were packed several large, cubical masses wrapped in heavy brown paper. He wrestled one free — whatever was in the paper was dense and heavy, and there was a pronounced odor of fish — and tossed it toward the dragon. Saunterance picked up the cube in one huge paw and raised it to its mouth. The jaws bit and flakes of fish-meat sprinkled down as the creature swallowed half of the bundle, paper and all. By the time the dragon had eaten the remaining half of the cube, Kaslo had thrown a second parcel at its feet. Saunterance ate that one in three bites, then folded its arms across its scaly chest and closed its eyes. After a moment, the jaws parted again to emit a rumbling belch that enclosed the op in a miasma of fish stink.
Kaslo fanned the air and moved away from the dragon. Obron and Filidor continued their measuring and positioning, an activity to which he could make no useful contribution. He noticed Old Confustible become suddenly alert, eyes turned toward the darkness, ears cocked forward.
“What is it?” Kaslo said.
The creature half turned its head toward him, then refocused on the plane. “It is difficult to judge because of the energies being built up here in the circle, but I thought I detected the . . . call it a chime . . . of an interplanar fistula, very faint and short-lived.”
Kaslo looked out at the darkness beyond the cone of light shed by the globe, then went into the Conveyance, found his spring-gun, and made sure that its magazine was filled with the steel-shelled lead balls it was designed to shoot. He cranked its energy-storage mechanism up to maximum.
He went out beyond the circle of illumination, his back to the hovering globe, and let his eyes adjust to the darkness. After a couple of circuits of the illuminated circle he heard something. It sounded like a flood of ball bearings falling and bouncing on hard stone, a rapid clickety-clicking sound that came suddenly out of the distance and grew louder by the second.
“Preyns!” he shouted and back-stepped into the light, raising the spring gun, already set for repetitive fire. As the clicking grew louder, he aimed at the direction the sound came from and depressed the weapon’s activation stud. A stream of missiles spewed out into the darkness and Kaslo heard them strike something. But the clicking tide came on.
Kaslo frantically worked to recock the spring-gun. But now Obron and the Archon were on either side of him. His employer pointed the black wand, spoke a string of guttural syllables, and a beam of silver sprang from its tip and lashed at the night like a whip as Obron moved the instrument back and forth. Filidor clasped his hands together at chest height, sang a chant of four tones, then showed his palms to the darkness. A fan of purple light, harsh and flat, spread out from the Archon’s hands.
The clicking onrush ceased. Kaslo heard other sounds: the cracking of shells, the breaking of armored limbs, wetness splashing into dust. Obron discontinued his lash and Filidor closed his hands to extinguish the purple fan. The Archon moved a finger in the direction of the overhanging globe and it both brightened and extended its reach. Kaslo, looking around for Old Confustible, saw the groffet peeking out of the Conveyance’s open hatch.
The extended illumination, a few paces out on the plain, showed a score or more preyns lying broken and crushed. Those farthest out bore the circular wounds that spring-gun missiles made. A couple of these were still alive, one still trying to drag itself forward on broken legs. Kaslo shot them both, in the place where he figured their rudimentary brains must be, then turned back to see that the two wizards had resumed their nouble-placement.
“That seemed a waste of his forces,” the op said to Filidor, “whoever he turns out to be.”
Filidor glanced up from where he was setting down a green nouble. “It had the odor of an act of desperation,” the Archon said. He moved the orb a little to one side then compared its position to two others. “Interesting. But we’ll know for sure in a little while. This is almost ready.”
He was right. Soon after, Obron placed the black nouble in the center of the arrangement and pointed his wand at it. Moments later, a round hole appeared in the night, tall and wide, swirling with eye-searing non-light and colors Kaslo could not name.
“Wake up, Saunterance,” Obron said. “We’re ready to move.”
The men went back into the Conveyance and Obron sealed the hatch. Moments later, Kaslo felt the floor rise and they were in motion, the whimsy visible through the transparent front panel. He flinched involuntarily as they swept toward it, the peril of entering non-space without medications to cushion the mind long inculcated in the veteran space traveler.
But they passed through the interplanar portal without ill effect, though the sights the op saw through the viewport outraged his vision-processing neurons and caused him a wave of vertigo that made him look away. He saw Filidor putting on a close-fitting leather helmet that set two large round circles of opaque crystal over his eyes, the cusps far larger than the ones Kaslo had worn in his previous visits to the Seventh Plane. The headgear also had something in the places where the ears would be covered: They looked like puffs of wire wool.
“Here,” Obron said. He held two of the helmets, and offered one to the op. Kaslo pulled it on and snugged it down, fastening a chin strap to hold it securely to his head. The crystal cusps left him blind, until he turned toward the transparency and saw the Seventh Plane as he had seen it before.
A vast, colorless plain stretched in all directions under an equally vast, equally colorless sky. Kaslo squinted through the now transparent crystal cusps, trying to make out the line of a horizon, but without success. Indeed, as he focused more closely on where the apparent sky should have met the supposed earth, it seemed to him that the ground curved upwards to meet the overhanging celestial dome.
He remembered his previous visits to this nonspace, and how he had willed color and definition into what he had seen. He did this again, making the plain red and the sky the color of cream, but still he could not make out a place where one gave up and the other took over.
Frustrated, he complained of its noncooperation to Obron, who said, “You are trying to make the Seventh Plane meet the expectations of a Third Plane sensorium. Because it responds to your will, it will do so to a certain extent, but you haven’t the will to make it perform to your satisfaction. Better to let it be what it is, and adapt your experience of it to the terms of its own reality.”
“What does that mean?” the op said.
“It means stop insisting on the impossible. Things are as they are.”
Filidor had been looking through the viewport with the air of a man who sees no more than he had expected. Now he summoned the groffet and said, “Let us get on with it.”
Obron caused the hatch to open and they went out onto the seeming plain. Kaslo stooped and examined the “soil,” finding it again composed of hard, smooth spheres of various sizes. He selected enough of the right dimension and filled the spring-gun’s magazine. And when the weapon was fully charged he picked out more of the pearlescent orbs and stowed them in the pockets of his singlesuit until they bulged.
The task completed, Kaslo felt a little less apprehensive about being in a situation he knew he could never really make sense of. He went over to where Obron and Filidor were in conference. He could not hear what they were saying — the physics of sound did not apply in this place — but then Obron turned toward him and somehow spoke without moving his lips, the words sounding in the op’s head in the recognizable tones of the wizard’s voice.
“Tell the Archon what Phalloon’s ba told you.”
Kaslo opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Filidor held up a hand and now his voice resonated in Kaslo’s mind. “Just think it and, at the same time, want me to hear it.”
Kaslo tried it, thinking the words, “Nineteenth Aeon, a face of black iron, and the blood of a dragon.” Along with the words came the images that had formed in his mind when Phalloon’s shade had spoken them.
Filidor nodded. “Nineteenth Aeon,” he said, “takes us back to Majestrum’s time.” As he said the words, Kaslo saw his own vague conception of what Old Earth had been like in the distant past be replaced with a panorama of sharply realized images: manicured landscapes, verdant and criss-crossed by roads of smooth white stone and canals of still blue water; cities of pastel domes and soaring arches; elegant citizens strolling through sun-dappled arcades or seated on marble benches beside grand fountains, conversing with languid gestures and ironic quirks of lip.
Kaslo’s image of a face of black iron had been that of a mask, such as a mummer might wear. Now, as Filidor repeated the phrase, he saw instead an immense visage, rising like a black sun over a horizon, the hard metal features set in a rictus of divine madness: the face of a demented deity bent on capricious destruction.
“It was,” the Archon’s voice spoke in his mind, “an attribute of Majestrum — a manner in which he presented himself to those who had displeased him. It promised not only death and destruction but told the victims that they would be pursued even into the Underworld, to be harried and tortured even beyond death.”
“That was the fate Phalloon feared,” Kaslo said.
“He needn’t have,” Filidor said. “The pursuer would not come for him unless Majestrum sent it. And Majestrum is not here to do the sending.”
There now came a pause and Kaslo had a brief glimpse into the Archon’s mind as Filidor sorted through a quick flicker of thoughts before saying, “Now, ‘the blood of a dragon’ has me puzzled. I can imagine the substance — dragons do have blood, after all — but I cannot see how it correlates to Majestrum or the iron face or — ”
“Excuse me,” Kaslo formed the words and projected them over Filidor’s mental voice without knowing how he did it — only that he needed to do so.
“What is it?” said the Archon.
“You said that Majestrum sent some entity wearing an iron mask to destroy his enemies, and you said that Majestrum is no longer around to do the sending.”
“Then who is sending that toward us?”
Kaslo was pointing into the seeming distance, where it was now possible to infer a horizon. It was possible because there was clearly a dividing line between plain and sky, and above it was rising a huge black face, its eyes wide with madness, its lips curled in an insane smile that revealed tusks protruding from both upper and lower jaws, with a long, dagger-shaped tongue reaching down to the sharp-pointed chin.
As the chin cleared the horizon, the mouth opened then clashed the tusks together. The eyes squeezed into a squint of deranged glee, as the face rose higher into the non-sky, looming ever larger as it came toward them. Behind the mask was an amorphous shape of no particular color, with only the suggestions of limbs and torso.
“Good question,” Filidor’s voice said in Kaslo’s mind.
But instead of answering, the Archon went into conversation with Obron and the groffet. Kaslo was left to watch the great mad face loom toward them. It came at a measured pace, the same as he remembered from his own passage from the whimsy in Novo Bantry’s ruined Connaissarium Square to the hills that had turned out to be alive.
The memory brought an idea. He formed words in his mind and sent them to Diomedo Obron, but the wizard waved a dismissive hand and continued his colloquy with Filidor.
“Master,” Kaslo tried again, “I think — ”
But just as, in this place, one willed another to hear one’s thoughts, that other could will not to hear them. The result was the Seventh Plane equivalent of a palm over the mouth.
Kaslo reached out a hand to Obron’s shoulder, but the touch never landed. The Archon and his employer turned and moved swiftly toward the Conveyance, the groffet sailing after them. Obron’s voice spoke in Kaslo’s mind: “Come, now!”
Saunterance had roused itself from where it had been squatting beside the dome, which in this place did not shine but showed a dull surface. The dragon looked toward the oncoming thing and the mask it wore and, if the former space yacht showed any fear, it was not apparent to Kaslo. Saunterance spread its wings and flexed its forepaws, the talons flicking out like great curved knives.
The op saw his employer pause at the hatch and look up at the dragon. Saunterance looked down at Obron, and it was clear that some communication was passing between them — and that the dragon disagreed with what it was being told. The wizard raised both arms in a gesture that expressed angry frustration, then pointed one index finger in the opposite direction from the approaching threat.
Saunterance shook its head the way a man does when he is doing what he doesn’t agree with, then leapt up into the air and, wings spread, flew off in the direction Obron had ordered. The wizard looked back toward Kaslo and did not need to use the mental voice to urge the op to hurry. Then he climbed the ramp and entered the Conveyance just behind Old Confustible; while Obron had been arguing with the dragon, the groffet had smoothly slipped up the ramp.
Kaslo had gone the farthest distance from the Conveyance and was now still several paces — though here one did not actually pace — from whatever safety it offered. He willed himself to travel faster, while looking over his shoulder toward the masked creature that came relentlessly toward them.
But Kaslo’s will was overthrown. Instead of going faster toward the open hatch, he felt his progress slowing. Then it stopped altogether. He saw Obron looking at him from the opening in the dome, and knew that his employer was projecting some thought to him. But no voice appeared in his mind. Just as Obron had willed himself not to hear Kaslo earlier, another more powerful will was now interposing itself between Kaslo and Obron. And that will was canceling Kaslo’s determination to flee into the Conveyance.
The op had had no real experience in focusing his willpower, and knew he could never match the skill wizards acquired through innate talent augmented by dedicated practice. Still, he strove to move himself forward, against the power being exerted against him.
The effort availed him nothing. He slowed, then stopped completely, an arm’s length from the base of the ramp. He saw Obron beckoning him on, then the wizard looked up and beyond Kaslo. And now the op saw anxiety replaced by regret, as Obron lifted a hand in a gesture of sad farewell.
Then the ramp rose up and fitted itself seamlessly into the curve of the dome. Another segment became transparent, and Kaslo saw the three occupants regarding him and the huge thing coming from behind him. There was nothing to do but turn and raise the spring-gun; he would go down fighting.
The iron face was descending toward him from the non-sky, house-sized, implacable, the tusked mouth opened wide, the dagger-shaped tongue lengthening and vibrating. Kaslo had no doubt what fate the creature behind the mask intended for him. In his mind, he formed the word “No!” and projected it at the entity. His thumb found the weapon’s activator and he shot a stream of noubles into the open mouth.
He was hoping for the same result as when he had shot the preyn and seen it dissolve. Instead, the effect of the several missiles that entered the iron maw was simply . . . nothing. The face came on, the mouth opened wider, the tongue protruded even further until it reached Kaslo and wrapped him in an iron grip. Then he was pulled into the gaping mouth, which closed behind him with a final clash of tusks.
Behind the mask’s mouth was a cavity, behind the cavity a fleshy tube. The tongue curved and threw the op back into this gullet. He flung out his hands to prevent his being swallowed, but it was yet again a matter of will, and he did not have enough of that vital quality.
He slid down a frictionless slope. Moments later, he fell into a wider space, a place he recognized: the curving walls of nonflesh, the place where the preyns had crammed the still-living bodies of the stolen people, the gap that led to the seeming plain — and, of course, the preyns themselves. There were only two of them in the cavern, but two was more than Kaslo could handle. As he hit the floor of the open space, they were waiting for him. One extended its pincers and tore the spring-gun from his grasp; the other seized Kaslo in its tooth-edged claw, the tines entering his flesh, and carried him, despite his struggles, toward where the scab clung to the wall.
He was spun around, jerked back and forth by the arthropod’s odd locomotion. It was hard to keep his eyes focused on the scene around him. But he caught glimpses of another figure in the cavern, just within the opening through which he had entered that first time, the aperture out of which he had blasted the preyn that sought to block his escape.
The shape, silhouetted against the non-light, was not human. But nor was it unfamiliar. Kaslo’s thought was that help had arrived, though he could not imagine how, nor even if it would be, could be, anything but futile.
He struggled again, but the claw’s grip was unbreakable. It had not brought him all the way to the edge of the scab. It reached out with its free pincer and peeled back some of the fibrous mass, exposing the covered wound. Then without pause or ceremony, it stuffed Kaslo through the gap and resealed the opening.
It should have been dark, but this plane was beyond physics. Kaslo could see, through the crystals still covering his eyes. And what he saw was cause for despair. Beneath the scab had been a cavity, and the preyns had stuffed that cavity with the living bodies of the people stolen from the village beside Obron’s castle. They were all still there. He could see the shapes of limbs, heads, shoulders and hips, feet and hands, beneath a kind of thick membrane that pulsed slightly.
The sheet of tissue also had the property of glue: Wherever it touched Kaslo, it stuck. The preyn had thrust him against the stuff sideways, so that the left side of his body, his left arm and leg, and that side of his head, was firmly attached to the membrane. He tried to pull away, but the effort was useless.
There was no sensation. Contact with the membrane was neither hot nor cold. It did not press against him nor he against it. But as he tried to discover some piece of information that might prove useful, Kaslo found one that was disheartening. He was not just stuck to the layer of tissue; he was sinking through it. By dint of what passed for osmosis on the Seventh Plane, he was being drawn through the membrane. And at an accelerating rate.
It was like a water level rising. His left arm and leg disappeared into the stuff. Then it reached his left cheek and smoothly progressed over his eye and nose. His right eye and mouth went next, then he was suddenly on the other side of the tissue. Now he was no longer stuck to it; instead, he was pressed against the jumbled body parts of the people compressed into the cavity, with the membrane forming a stiff barrier between him and the cavern.
There was nowhere to go. He could not move. But he saw that the wall of the cavity where it met the membrane was now bulging toward him, the bulge becoming a kind of pseudopod that wriggled toward his helmeted head like a blind worm. He tried to pull back as it neared his face, but the back of his head was hard against some unknown person’s anatomy.
The helmet covered his head down to where his nose met his upper lip. The tip of the pseudopod made contact with the headgear at his temple. It paused there, as if the leather was not what it expected. Then it moved down to the top of his cheekbone, paused again, and kept going. A moment later, it reached the skin of his cheek.
The touch was light, and with it came the same flood of emotions as when Kaslo had touched the fleshy wall on his previous visit: sadness, regret, despair. But now he could not break the contact, and so the sentiments swept through his being, a flood of feeling that almost drowned Kaslo in his own mind.
But he struggled against the tide. They were not his emotions. He did not have to be deluged in them. He fought back, forming words and feelings and projecting them toward wherever this stream of pain and remorse was coming from.
“I have done no wrong. I have always striven to do right. I have helped the oppressed and fought those who menaced them. I have been faithful to my oath and true to my clients. Why do you inflict your guilt on me?”
The tide of remorse and pain continued to flow over him. He felt a flash of anger, followed immediately by a sense that anger would do him no good. The source of the emotion flooding against him was so immersed in self-reviling that Kaslo’s antagonism was like a thimbleful added to a waterfall.
He purged his mind of animosity, sought a mood of nonconfrontation, and when he thought he had achieved as dispassionate a state of mind as possible, he projected the same thought as before: “Why do you press your guilt on me?”
And then he added a question: “What did you do that was so wrong?”
The flood of sorrow coursed on. But it seemed to Kaslo that it was losing some of its strength. After a few moments, he was sure of it. The tide became a softer flow, reduced itself to a trickle, and now it died away altogether.
Kaslo put the question again: “What did you do?”
No answer came, yet the op had the sense that he was in a conversation, and more than that, he was experiencing a pause in that conversation. And the pause was meaningful.
The caesura continued, and then a new flood crashed into Kaslo’s consciousness: an overwhelming spate of knowledge, wisdoms, concepts, realities, meta-realities, images, emotions, visions, and epiphanies.
“Stop!” he projected, with all the force he could muster. “It is too much, too fast!”
The kaleidoscopic torrent ceased as swiftly as it had begun. A new tone of remorse entered his mind.
“Never mind that,” he thought back. “Just give it to me at a pace I can handle.”
The information stream returned, but this time at a slower rate. And it was organized, so that one concept led to another, one realization opened the door to the next. On and on it went, and Kaslo’s mind was strained to its limits — then forced to expand those limits — to take in all that was shown him.
The process might have taken moments or hours or a lifetime. But as it had had a beginning, so it had a middle, and eventually an end. And when that end was reached, Kaslo said, “I understand.”
It was the truth.