Saturday, January 23, 2010

Walking the Spiral

I.

Obediently, the librarian disappeared down the side passage. Peter wanted to maintain some distance from the monster as he led Irene along, so he was unsure as how to follow it into the new passage.

He paused and took note of the slightly shimmering trail of slime left behind in the creature’s wake. If it had any jointed bones or muscles in its body, Peter did not know about them, but he did recall a bit of invertebrate physiology from a book in general zoology that he had once been assigned to read as part of his deficient anatomy training. The term “foot” had been used to describe the single muscular structure upon which a snail or slug would traverse the terrain. The librarian, as alien as it was, did seem something like a mollusk, and Peter could easily (but not pleasantly) imagine its columnar body sliding along the ground on one lubricated muscle. Alas, there was no shell – only a shawl.

Irene kept staring at her feet, clad in shoes that were never meant for spelunking, and shuffled carefully along after Peter. Without looking up from her feet she could see that beyond the unlit corridor, beyond the resting mass of joints and legs and shells that made up the styrgae’s bodies, the faded luminescence at the end of the main passage seemed to flicker. They were unmistakable now: the grayish light and the soft sound of fluid crashing and washing upon a distant shore. That light reflected from the hard carapaces of the bugs and from the polish on Irene’s shoes. There was a homely quality in it that reminded her of early morning on a northern shore. There was something drawing her towards that place.

Having allowed the librarian to go ahead of them a little, Peter traced its path by following its slightly glowing trail of mucous. The unlit corridor described a broadly arcing curve. After a length of a hundred yards or so, Irene and Peter both realized that they were traveling at a slightly downward angle. After a hundred more, they discerned that they were walking a slowly tightening counterclockwise spiral. Peter first, then Irene following behind him with her hand in his, the pair walked the spiral down.

Two voices rang at once from the unlit path. “Down here, pardner!” they both exclaimed, overlapping only slightly.
“Halp!” yelped one voice.
“Down here pardner!” cried the other.

Irene had chalked the first pairing of voices up to an echo effect, but the two separate calls coming at once was proof enough that there was a fourth party in the passage. She barely kept her head from jerking up.

Yet Peter had been assured of the presence of another party from the moment he had heard the librarian’s new accent. Not for the first time did he wonder why the librarian had only used his own voice, and the voice of the ephemeral Henri. If it remembered or recorded vocalizations, then its limited repertoire of human speech seemed to indicate that it had only recently encountered humans at all. Though he could not say how long the creature had dwelt in the library, nor what other kinds of being it may have had encountered during its existence, the fact that its acquisition of human vocalizations seemed significant.

It was only slightly bothersome to Peter to think that he was considering the librarian now as rationally as he would any other problem. He had grown familiar with the thing, in some sense.

II.

The New Yorker had just disappeared in front of him, and the wanderer had been left with nothing but a goddamn sea of bugs. So he had done the only thing he thought he could: he had just plum taken off into, then up, and then down that chopped-out cave in the cliff face and kept going. Didn’t know which direction to run; just took to running, and that had been good enough to keep him ahead of the bugs for a few minutes.

The wanderer hadn’t realized that he was plunging deeper and deeper into a corner. He had been so panicked by the onrushing tide that he simply had been unable to understand the predicament of his surroundings until the coils of the pathway downwards had gotten so small that he had started to feel dizzy. It took him almost to the moment where he realized that he could once again see the dim topography of the cavern walls to understand his danger. Then he saw that the dark had subsided and that a silver light was reflecting from the metal of his gun, which he hadn’t been so stupid as to fire, and he finally realized that he was headed to a dead end.

So he went down anyway. This was not the first time in his life that he had felt assured of his end, but he was unhappy that death would come in the form of a bunch of clattering, squeaking bugs – a goddamn sea of bugs. He pressed on as forthrightly suicidal as ever.

When he reached the end of the line, it was beautiful. But he had seen it before, and he knew what it was. It was the very same shit that had gotten him here, what shit had made that bear go crazy. (That beast what had killed, more than killed, fucking annihilated Colonel and the horses. Shoot, then. Maybe these bug things and the loopers and the coot and the New Yorker had something in common.) What shit was now shifting and seething in a vent in the wall of the cell-like room wherein the spiral path had terminated. It was hardly what one would have called a lode. A “lode” was copper or gold pulled like taffy through rock. A lode was solid. A lode was valuable. Lodes were what prospectors wanted to find. The reason the wanderer couldn’t think of it as a lode was because it was moving. It shifted like molten metal in this concave space in the rock wall, but as light and viscous as mercury. And it shed that silver light. And it had enveloped him.

When he had found the lode, he didn’t have the time to think about what to call it. He pressed his back into it as the insects poured into the chamber. He drew his other revolver. His trigger fingers twitched as the bugs covered the floor. Flowing like oil, they swam up his boots (stolen from a dead ranger in the shadow of the great Arizona crater), climbed up the legs of his pants (bought in San Antonio), filled his blouse (sewn by a Cibecue in Nuevo Laredo), and squirmed in his britches (the only thing left from San Francisco). They had covered him like a blanket, then like a thick beard, and finally like another layer of skin. A few entered his ears and his mouth. One bold and blasphemous beetle sprawled over the business end of his revolver.

They settled on him and rested. They did not bite him. The wanderer held his position, leaning against the wall, and stayed very still. Soon they, like the tide he had first mistaken them to be, receded. They withdrew painlessly from his orifices, fell away from his clothes, tickled as they climbed out of his underwear. He did not draw a breath until they had moved away from him, until the swarm had disappeared back up into the wider regions of the spiral passage. Why hadn’t they devoured him as they had done to the looper?

A shiver ran down his spine. The wanderer hunched his back and then straightened out, hoping to shake off the cold. It remained. He crossed his arms over his chest and held himself, meaning to rub some warmth into his shoulders. He began to realize what had happened.

III.

Peter knew that he was finally nearing Agasthiya’s steed. But things were potentially becoming very complicated. Neither Peter nor Irene could be sure which voice was crying out.

“Halp!” cried the first voice. “Is someone up there?”
“A goddamn sea of bugs, pardner!” replied the other.
“Shit! Git down here fore they come back!”
“Sea of bugs pardner! And proteins, goddamn!”
There was a pause as if the first speaker was having a difficult time understanding the second’s meaning. He continued, “Come an’ cut me out!”
“Let’s go!” called the librarian in a more enthusiastic version of Peter’s voice before returning to the Western American drawl. “Goddamn sea of salts and ribbons of proteins!”
“What? Who are you?”
A holler alerted Peter and Irene to the meeting between the librarian and the man whose voice it had been borrowing. It was something like the braying of an ass and the despondent yowl of a feral cat, and it would have been an utterly silly sound under most other circumstances.
“What are you?”
“What are you!
“Nother fuckin’ step an I’ll kill you.”
“Nother step kill you. Fuckin’.”
“You darin’ me dude? Won’t be the first man I shot today. Now, get that sheet off yer head.”

Irene had still not lifted her gaze from her feet, but she noticed that there was now a light source, a dim silvery light. It was unlike the grey radiance from above, which was suggestive of an overcast day. The silver light reflected from the faint slime trail between her feet. The twinkling gave the impression of silver tinsel; Irene thought of Christmas.

Looking ahead in the tunnel, Peter saw, in the same light, the long shadow of the librarian twisting around the tightly curved tunnel wall.



(Peter and Irene can tell that they are within a few yards of the terminus of the downward spiral. If they just press on a bit more, they’ll end up in the chamber ahead, which is where the librarian and an unknown person are at this moment engaged in some kind of standoff.

Peter passed an idea roll in part I.)

32 comments:

  1. Another human being!!

    "Wait!" Peter called, hopefully loud enough for the unseen gunman to hear him, and hopefully before he unloaded a round into his and Irene's only guide.

    "Don't shoot it!" He called again, hurrying down the tunnel. We're coming! Don't shoot! It's not human, but we are!"

    He rounded the corner and skidded to a halt, his hands up. "Let me try to explain," he pleaded. "But take my word for it: let it keep its sheet. You probably don't want to see what's under there. God knows I don't."

    He continued. "Sorry. I don't know what kind of protocol is appropriate in this place, wherever it is, or however you got here, or whatever your business may be. But we mean you no harm. I'm Peter, and this is Irene. Would you like a cigarette? I don't suppose you have a light on you..."

    "It would take too long to explain our story in full, but we - Irene and I - we are not here physically. We have, um, projected our minds here by means of an ancient artifact. Our corporeal bodies lie elsewhere, but it seems that damage to one's consciousness is no less lethal than damage to one's flesh, so would you mind terribly if I asked you to please point that thing in another direction?"

    "As for that," Peter gestured at the librarian, "I'm not sure what it is or what its purpose might be, but it has said it would lead me to something I seek here, so I need it alive for now if that's all right with you."

    "I don't suppose you've seen a horse here, by chance? Or perhaps an elephant? A bull? Any manner of steed or mount?"

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  2. Irene wasn’t so sure that bullets were going to have any affect on their oozing guide; she suspected that the Librarian could easily make certain that none of them ever returned to Earth again. Maybe she was wrong and it was truly trying to help them, but she couldn’t figure out how or why. That’s what worried her. It felt like they were being used…but for what purpose?

    Peter rushed forward and Irene’s feet shuffled hurriedly in response, though eventually she was forced to test her agility and strength by jogging—else she would have to release her hold on Peter, which she absolutely refused to do. There was pain at first, as well as a strange tingling sensation as she entrusted her full weight to her legs, but she was able to borrow adrenaline from the urgency of the moment. Miraculously, she managed not to hold him back or drag him down to the cold floor.

    Her chin rose when they at last came to a halt and her dark eyes took in the scene quickly, but thoroughly. While she had no desire to examine the Librarian, whose form her eyes rolled over with haste, she did wish to know what was happening.

    "Like Peter said, I’m Irene. What can we call you? Are you here in the same way that we are? And is there anything we can do to help you?" she inquired, balancing Peter’s hurried explanations and pleas with kindness that she, at least, thought was uniquely human.

    Belatedly, she realized that the Librarian would now be able to use her voice as well; yet as much as that thought made her stomach twist, she was glad she'd spoken.

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  3. When she entered the bulblike terminus of the spiraling chamber, Irene had been dutifully averting her gaze and holding onto Peter. It was this, then, that saved her from being immediately dazzled upon her emergence from the semi-darkness of the tunnel. But Peter had rushed headlong, forcing him to reel slightly as he entered the room, and to shade his eyes.

    First, there had been the black silhouette of the librarian, a single obscene intrusion marring an otherwise brilliant light. Quickly, the initially overwhelming quality of the light yielded and an irregularly shaped patch became apparent beyond the librarian, on the other side of the room. This seam was the source of the light, and in front of it stood a human figure. The new arrivals on the scene strained their eyes to make out the man's features as they issued first warnings, then greetings to him. Yet even as the silver light revealed colors and lace-like intricacies in the librarian's cloak that neither of the travelers had detected in the orange radiation above, the American's features were washed away in the light of the silver panel.

    Two things stuck out from the man's silhouette. His hat was a Stetson, and his gun – which was pointed in Peter and Irene's direction as much as the librarian's – was a Colt revolver. Along with the man's accent, these factors gave both of the travelers the impression that they were, impossibly, speaking to a cowboy, or some other denizen of the "Old West".

    As he continued speaking to the stranger, Peter's eyes adjusted so that he could lower his hand and make do with merely narrowing his eyes. After Irene spoke, he stood there, squinting like that until, finally, the cowboy answered. "Ya still hain't given me a good reason not ta plug you, ya crazy ass."

    Unmistakably, the librarian's unseen eye was upon the stranger.

    "Chief; ma'am," the man continued (politely enough despite his failure to adjust his aim), "ya'd best tell your ape or thing ta stand back. I don't find it much appealin an you'll kindly notice that I'm already in a bind."

    Without a command from either Peter or Irene, the librarian withdrew. There was a sucking sound as it moved backwards upon its own slime trail. As the creature moved from her line of sight, Irene did notice that the man's outline was, like the seam in the wall, irregular. At certain points, it was as if the seam had broken into the human silhouette. Narrowing her eyes even further, Irene squeezed a bit more definition into the man's shape. Indeed, his shoulders were draped over with the mercurial fluid, as if he were wearing the wall as a cloak – or as if the wall were grasping him about the neck and torso.

    The American audibly sighed. "Ya got no clue where you're at. There're no horses round here."

    "Horses round here?" asked the librarian with a twang.

    "But if yer ape wants ta see an elephant let it keep talkin." His gun still did not budge. "As for yer dumb-assed question, ma'am, yes I'm right here in the flesh, same as you."

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  4. "We're not here in the flesh," Peter maintained irritably. "I told you, we projected our minds or spirits or what have you to this place by means of an ancient artifact. Our actual bodies are in Berlin, in the year 1924. I wish I could explain it better, sir, but I don't know how; either you will believe me, or you won't."

    "Would you rather we let you be? You seem fairly sure of yourself, all ensconced in the wall there with your firearm, whereas we have urgent business to which me must attend. I was very nearly devoured by insects just a few moments ago, and would rather not tarry here any longer than I must."

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  5. Dumb-assed? Irene wasn’t offended by profanity, but she was annoyed at its use in regards to her intellect. Despite her fatigue and anxiety, she felt a rich rush of anger bubbling up inside of her. It felt surprisingly good to be able to feel so strongly again, even if the emotions were negative. And since she was grateful for that adrenaline rush, she was able to maintain her patience with the stranger a little longer.

    "We have neither the desire nor the means to harm you," Irene affirmed, her eyes resting on the cowboy’s weapon before looking pointedly into his eyes as if to say 'who’s the one with the gun?' "We’ll be very happy to go on our way and take up no more of your time. However, if you wish to come with us, sir, then you are welcome."

    Irene simply could not, in good conscience, leave another human being confused and alone in this terrifying dimension. But she wasn’t going to sit here and argue with him either. It was his call, here and now. Unless he decided to shoot them, of course.

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  6. Peter was about to second Irene's offer when he felt the librarian looking at him. Momentarily he turned his attention away from the gun to gaze upon his guide. Nothing but the contours of the cloak, now slightly iridescent, appeared to his eye, but he knew nevertheless that the librarian was looking at him.

    Something pulsed beneath the shroud (and beneath a further membrane yet), and the thing spoke to him using a mixture of words stolen from Peter and the newcomer. "Here, spirits. Got yer dumb ass."

    The cowboy muttered profanity and lowered his weapon. "I need help." He let his head hang a little, concealing his eyes behind the brim of his hat. "I don't know what the fuck's happenin. I'm stuck. I can't all-the-way stand up."

    Irene moved first towards the desperado. The word had come to her mind in spite of the fact that she had no sure reason to believe that the man in front of her was a bad man, that is, that he made his living by violence. But, surely he was the definition of desperate?

    She came to almost within an arm's length of him. She could see that he was not actually standing, but leaning with his back against the panel of the silvery metallic fluid in the wall behind him. His knees were heavily bent, as if to mime the act of sitting in a chair.

    "I think," he began, "I can see . . . what happened to that bear I kilt. Goddamn it! Poor Colonel! Poor Jerry!"

    Caleb was interrupted. "What can we call you?" It was the librarian.

    "Caleb Black, ma'am." replied the man, who didn't seem to notice that he was talking to the librarian. "Sorry for the rough introduction. I thought I was under attack." He lifted his eyes to meet Irene's. They were dark, but piercing and intelligent. He smiled; it would have been cocky enough to smack under other circumstances, but now Caleb appeared sad to Irene. Posing. Macho. He ran his free hand along the bicep of his gun arm, up to the shoulder, and allowed his fingers to touch the metalloid shroud. A length of it – like a finger itself – rested on the seam of his shirt. Caleb felt around its edges, looking for purchase. "It's cold," he said. "And it's biting me."

    Behind her, someone - Peter or the librarian - uttered a single word to explain everything. "Steed."

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  7. Upon this utterance, Peter looked askance at the librarian. "Really? That mercurial substance is Agasthiya's steed?"

    He sighed. "It would seem our needs converge, Mr. Black. We will do our best to free you, though we do not yet know how."

    He turned to Irene. "He said it is biting him. Do you suppose it is a creature of some kind? Assuming you had the will, would you even dare to use your spell to attempt communication?"

    "Or should we first attempt some other way of getting its attention? Mr. Black -- Caleb -- you wouldn't happen to have any ideas, would you?"

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  8. "Er, y'all think this is a animal?" His frown deepened. "Mineral is how it seems to me. I seen it in veins like copper. It's bitin like ice an rope burns, not like a dog. Still, ain't no mineral ever grabbed me like that before." He thought for a moment, seeming to hang from his metallic cloak.

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  9. "It looks like a mineral, certainly," Peter acknowledged, "but it seems to me to behave more like a living thing. Who's to say?"

    Stymied, he thrust his hands into his pockets, as if to stop himself from making the mistake of touching the stuff. His eyebrows furrowed. "Hullo, what's this?"

    He withdrew a folded sheet of paper, recognizing it immediately, for he had read over it scores of times. Irene recognized it also as John Daniel's final message to the world, scribed just moments before Peter had murdered him.

    "Ia sha'porya budmud," he began, observing the mercurial steed for any discernible effect. "Ia budmud sha'porya. Sha'psa muder guey karkar, grad kad daliyaey rashash du..."

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  10. "Ia sha'porya budmudey toj pug guey karkare!" With the third pronunciation of Lopamudra's Harrappan name, the steed shimmered. Peter gasped ever so slightly. In that brief pause, he heard that he had an echo.

    ". . . karkare!"

    Rubbing the finger of steed that clung to his shoulder, Caleb interjected. "Now you an the ape both plannin on vanishin off ta New York? Ya just gonna leave this lady here with me?" he asked, resigned.

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  11. "What do you mean?" Peter asked the gunslinger, interrupting the chant. "What does New York have to do with this?"

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  12. "Hell if I know. I met another man, on the beach out there. Said he was from New York." Caleb finally holstered his gun. "And another fella, I shot when he came at me. He's dead enough fer bein in the flesh. But the New Yorker's done vamoosed, soon as he said sumthin like that." He gestured at Peter as if the words to the incantation were hanging in the air in front of him still.

    Some wet aperture flapped open beneath the librarian's cloak. It was followed by a long, uneven exhalation of an onion-odored gas.

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  13. "I wonder," Peter began, "if we might all be freed from this place were we to recite the incantation in unison."

    He looked sidelong at the librarian. "But certainly not all of us should return to the world of man."

    "Perhaps I asked you to stow your firearm too soon, Mr. Black. For if this creature insists on joining us, we may need your help to discourage it."

    Peter addressed the librarian directly now. "Thank you for your assistance. We have located the steed and your presence is no longer required. You must not follow us. Begone."

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  14. "Begone!" it repeated, wavering in place like a foul flower bowing under an unfelt wind. It did not give any indication that it was planning on abandoning its position.

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  15. "Go on!" Peter said more forcefully. "Shoo!" He glanced at Caleb while motioning for Irene to stand clear.

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  16. The librarian failed to follow orders.

    Caleb watched Peter and cocked his head. "I'm ta shoot it?" He squinted. "Fuck that thing - but now I'm confused an I gotta think." He drew his sidearm again.

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  17. "It's heard the incantation," Irene said softly, her tight throat restricting her voice. "It could mimic the words and break through into our world even if we leave it behind now. Peter, if you truly believe that this creature is dangerous, then I do believe we must…" She glanced at Caleb's gun hesitantly, clearly not too pleased with that option, but open to it nonetheless.

    "But it…it seems wrong to harm a thing that has done nothing but help us,” she added, frowning. Even in this strange reality, they had to cling to their humanity—and wasn’t mercy part of that? "Without it, we would never have found this place, or the steed."

    Irene bit her lower lip and looked directly at the Librarian. "Do you want something from us? Some kind of payment for your services?" She couldn't be certain it understood her, but she suspected it could comprehend more than it could convey.

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  18. "It hasn't heard the whole incantation," Peter said. "And it must not."

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  19. "Please . . . it seems wrong," the librarian pronounced, "mimic the world and break through the words even now, It could. It could." Its intonation and pitch were perfect. As it spoke, it seemed to grow slighter beneath its cloak.

    Would the librarian be capable of a long recitation? Irene hadn't heard it arrange more than a few words at a time into a meaningful phrase. It could repeat phrases, but could it say anything meaningful? She wondered if Peter had been taken in by a dumb functionary, if perhaps its speech was nothing but the babble of an alien parrot.

    "Assistance. Protein ribbons, and salts shredded on," the librarian said as Peter.

    Irene was right, it had done nothing but help them. But Peter knew what it was like walking in its shadow. He had shared its company for hours, or days. Peter had followed it; had listened to the weird rasping, sucking sounds it emitted; had breathed in its oily vapors; had touched its cloak. It had eaten his bile. Peter had found the thing so repellant that he had not given the question of whether or not it deserved consideration as a living thing any thought at all. Imagining the thing slinking about Friedrichstadt in the darkness verged upon blasphemy. He couldn't begin to consider it in England.

    Caleb guessed where the librarian's heart would be if it were a man, and pointed his pistol. He cocked it. "Not really a ape, is it?" He swallowed, looked away, and abruptly lowered his gun. "I ain't doing it. It's not pissed off – keep it that way." Licking his lips, he looked to Peter and Irene, twice each before bowing his head. "God-damn. I'm scared ta shoot it. What the hell is it?"

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  20. Peter handed the folded letter to Irene with a knowing glance and then backed toward Caleb. "Not an ape," he affirmed. "But something otherworldly and unwholesome; I have endured its foulness long enough! I have no question that it comprehends my commands, for it had no difficulty complying until now. No, it seeks to follow us."

    Reaching carefully behind his back, he put his hand around Caleb's gun, and positioned his finger upon the trigger.

    "Over my dead body..."

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  21. Caleb had sensed Peter's intentions only at the last moment. In an instant he would realize his mistake – he had confused having a pansy accent with being an actual pansy. He tried to snatch his weapon away, but Peter was far faster and Caleb was burdened by the steed. The cowboy was already throwing his punch as Peter pointed the .45 in the imagined direction of the librarian's eye. Peter fired. He saw Caleb's blow coming, but could do nothing to avoid it.

    From Irene's point of view, the muzzle flash highlighted one brief, but crucial moment in the short struggle: perfectly timed with the gun's report, Caleb's bony fist planted up to the knuckles in Peter’s cheek.

    Almost jumpily, as if someone had spun an old-fashioned zoopraxiscopic disc, the scene came back to life. Peter released the weapon and fell away from Caleb in a weak arc. Without moving his gun or looking at Peter, he turned his attention to Irene and then towards the librarian.

    But the librarian was not there.

    Caleb turned to Irene and gestured with his gun to the letter from John Daniel. "Gimme that."



    (Peter hit the librarian, effects unknown.

    Caleb has knocked Peter out cold. His damage (4) beat out Peter’s current hit points (8) in a resistance check. Peter takes one-third damage rounded down (-1 hit point), but is knocked out for 10 rounds of combat or until someone applies first aid to him.

    That was the surprise round. If Irene does
    anything other than stay still, speak, or extend her arm to Caleb to give him the letter, we will remain in combat rounds. In that case Irene has initiative and will act first.)

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  22. Irene took a small step towards Peter, but her eyes remained locked on the cowboy. Frustration temporarily overcame fear, which helped her to keep her head. This squabbling and violence was childish and counterproductive and she was sick of it. It was time for all of them to calm down and work together.

    "No," she said simply, not at all argumentatively. She didn't look angry, merely determined. "I think it's best if I hold onto the letter. The Librarian is gone, so all three of us can leave safely now. I suggest that we wake Peter up and use the spell to take us out of this place together.

    "Unless you plan to shoot me and to leave us stranded here," she added quietly, her dark eyes searching Caleb's face for any sign of his true intentions. He hadn't shot them yet, and Irene dared to hope that he would make the right choice now.

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  23. "Abandon you?" Caleb repeated. "I seen enough of this place. I drather shoot you.

    "I misjudged yer friend here. So I'm in control of the situation now. I got nowhere else ta be. Might as well be so." His tone was matter-of-fact and calm; it almost sounded like an apology. "If ya can't understand that fore he wakes up, I hafta stomp him."

    He restated his demand by shaking his hand. "Please."

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  24. Irene didn't fully understand what the cowboy was talking about, but she knew that she had no power to stop him. Peter was unconscious, she was exhausted and not too far from passing out herself, and Caleb was armed. And he would use the gun, even if he wasn't itching to do so.

    Her eyes closed, tears gathering behind the lids. It was all so overwhelmingly frustrating and upsetting, to be here in this horrible place and to be forced to put her life and Peter's in the hands of a man who was clearly not stable and who knew far less than they did about this situation.

    "Fine," Irene said at last, blinking furiously so as to ward off the tears. To her annoyance, she didn't entirely succeed. She sniffled and dabbed at her right eye, but her jaw was set when she thrust the letter out in Caleb's general direction. "Take it."

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  25. "Good." Caleb took the letter. "Now c'mere and get him outta my way before he tries anythin else stupid as tryin ta take a man's gun."

    Irene cautiously made her way to his side and in short time had dragged Peter some distance from Caleb, who was still attached to the wall. Irene briefly inspected Peter for wounds more serious than the browning bruise left across his face. She could see none, but she lifted his head and rested it on her lap, just in case. Momentarily, Peter's eyes fluttered.

    "Where I'm from, doin somethin like that will get you killed - an I'm sayin, it's a battleground there and it's still a helluva lot nicer than here. In fact," he continued, "if it weren't for my better graces an the presence of a lady, I'da done him in. Just a minute."

    Caleb read the letter. When Peter began to stir, he looked up. "This ain't the same thing as I thought it would be. Still. From what you said, I reckon this is a magic spell and our way out." He paused for effect. "Uh-huh," he said. "I saw a man do it a few minutes ago, just as the swarm of black things were comin in from the sea."

    He leaned back a little into the silvery goo in the wall. He shivered and gave a hiss. "Is this all?" Caleb asked, wielding the paper. "I don't want to leave y'all here, but I also've had just about enough with trusting people to be non-violent-like. So you tell me, is this all I need to make magic happen? Do you know anything about kooshy sawger badalapa-hunch Lopa-moodra? You ever hear that before?"



    (When she was trying to talk Caleb out of his demands, I gave Irene fast talk, persuade, bargain, and luck rolls, none of which worked for her. Just FYI.

    I pre-rolled a success for Irene on first aid for Peter. I have no idea what in the world she could do that would be therapeutic for Peter at this point, but as soon as she does it, he will get +3 hit points back.)

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  26. Peter glowered at Caleb as he gingerly felt his face. "I have heard something similar," he said, "from a Frenchman I encountered here, right before he disappeared."

    "To answer your question, I assume that yes, you only need to recite the incantation to travel elsewhere. Do with it what you will."

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  27. Peter seemed well enough, better than Irene had hoped, and so she put her hands under his shoulders and helped to raise him off her lap and into a sitting position. As his ear passed, she ducked her head in and whispered a quick: "I'm sorry." She felt deeply guilty for handing over the letter and was convinced she should have found a way to keep it. They were entirely in Caleb's hands now and Irene didn't like it one bit.

    She hadn't intended to say anything else to the thief, but his words piqued. Before she realized what was happening, she was directing a harsh glare in his direction and chastising his assumptions: "You have no conception of what this man has suffered, so I will beg you not make hasty judgments about his character. Had you been trapped in this place and fed upon by devilish creatures, I very much doubt that you would be yourself, and I think you would do just about anything to ensure your safe escape. Neither of us are violent by nature. It is this horrible place that drives humanity to desperate recourse."

    Irene sighed a little, closing her eyes for a brief moment and then regarding Caleb with a kinder, but not quite kind glance. "I'm tired and I want to go home," she said simply. "If you are going to take us with you, then I suggest you let us approach and we read the words together. There are better, safer places to bicker in."

    And if you're not going to take us, then get the hell out of here. She didn't say it, but she was thinking it so loudly that he probably got the message.

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  28. "Well," Caleb replied to Peter, more relaxedly, "I heard it from a man from New York City. It took him out of here right away. Ain't working for me, I guess.

    "I won’t drag it out. I ain't gonna take ya with me, but I am gonna leave this here for you." He slid his back down the wall until he was kneeling, in the process dragging a good deal of the gelatinous metal with him. With his right hand, he aimed his gun across his body in the general direction of Peter who was prone and Irene who was also crouching. With his left, he positioned the letter on the ground just in front of him. After reading it over once, he cleared his throat and began.

    "Iya sha-poorya budmud!" From the very first words, there was something wrong with his incantation. "Grad, cad dolly yay rashash due." The problem was not entirely clear until Caleb said the line, "ha budmud rate vam rashashsa." His vowels were wrong; he pronounced budmud with “uh” sounds and he made the “e” in “rate” silent. Instead of long "ah" sounds, "rashashsa" was a collection of muttered hisses. Transliterative conventions that were second nature to Peter were alien to the cowboy.

    "Tarry jarred-ha! Gwa agah kar-kar!" To Irene, it was a more basic dissonance. Hearing Caleb was like hearing a foreign accent tromp all over the characteristic phonemes of one's own language. It was grating.

    Suddenly Calbe was speaking with more force. "Horse dolly yay! Shush-uh geeday!" he called out. Perhaps he was raising his voice in anticipation. Perhaps the metal had already started to activate somewhere against his back, and Caleb was reacting to its tingle. By the time he reached the final, "sore-rub-A-hey!" he was exclaiming with the stern volume of a pastor. "Fun alta!"

    There was an echo. The three listened to it reverberate. "Fun alta!" rang out the cowboy's voice from the spiral cavern.

    "Stupid." Caleb concluded. "More bullshit." He cracked a smile and pushed his hat back with his gun. Then he was in the air, as if having been yanked from behind, and gone. His gun and his hat hit the ground.

    Irene, who had been a little more elevated than Peter, saw that Caleb's head had knocked against the rock wall as he had been pulled into the silvery panel ass first. In spite of everything else, she winced to think of his skull meeting with such a hard angle.

    His sudden departure had created a wind, which drew the page up into the air. It doubled over, swung on an eddy, and landed against the silver panel. There it stuck.

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  29. Peter scrabbled forward to retrieve the letter and firearm.

    "Our turn then," he said, crouched before the metallic slick in the wall. "Shall we try this together, or would you rather one of us went first? Although I would not want you to go into the unknown unescorted, I am also not comfortable with the idea of leaving you behind."

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  30. Irene swallowed hard. "We'll have to be careful, Peter. He hit his head when he went through." She almost expected to see traces of blood or skin on the rock, but didn't fancy actually looking that closely.

    "I think we should go together. But do you think we both have to say it, or could we hold hands?" She looked uncertain and also quite nervous. "I'm not sure, but I think that pronunciation might matter. If we—rather, I—don't say it correctly, then who knows where I might end up and in what state! Or perhaps I'm just being paranoid," she said with an attempted smile.

    Trusting and affectionate eyes lingered on her dearest friend. "Whatever you think is best."

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  31. "Together, then."

    Peter gave Irene the letter, and took her free hand in his. Still positioned so as to hopefully not strike stone if yanked up and forward the same manner as Caleb, he planted their entwined knuckles firmly against Agasthiya's Steed.

    "I'm sure your pronunciation will be nothing short of impeccable," he said, with an encouraging (but forced) smile. "Very well, on three."

    "One."

    "Two."

    "Three. Ia sha'porya budmud. Ia budmud sha'porya. Sha'psa muder guey karkar, grad kad daliyaey rashash du..."

    He spoke slowly and clearly so Irene's cadence could easily match his.

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  32. "Grad kad daliyaey," Irene said with Peter, "rashash du. Ia sha'porya budmudey . . ." They matched their cadences, producing between the two of them a reedy echo in the chamber. ". . . toj pug guey karkare."

    Vibrations of meaning whispered to Irene from the spaces in-between the echoes. "Faster than sound, faster than seeing." Behind – or beyond – the words, the truth and the idea of the spell appeared to Irene. It was ghostly, strung between syllables and languages as ephemerally as webs. "Iä!" Such spiderlings of truth were more tangible in Harappan than they ever could have been in English. "Sage Lost-Faces!" it rang. It came in Arabic, in came in the groping French of childhood, forgotten because it was never quite as interesting as Sanskrit. And then came a language which Irene knew immediately to be the spoken Egyptian of the Heiroglyphics. Then Harappan again: "Agastya ey ey hoti midu . . ."

    Peter had only noted the emergent harmony and the steady rhythm of their joined speech. As Caleb had said, the steed was cold. It was also viscous to the point of intruding into the crevices between their fastened hands. It slivered along the wrinkles in their palms, and as it reached the backs of their hands Peter felt it tug the tiny hairs from their pores.



    (Action continues in Berlin in "Flood".)

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