I ran down the avenue, lined with tiny white shells that crunched under my feet. Gleep galloped behind me, Markie clinging to his back. He was rapidly pulling ahead of us. My two legs, long as they were, couldn’t match the speed of his four. Aahz, whose legs were shorter than mine, would be left even farther behind. I lifted us both into the air and sped after Haroon.
Only by his baying could I tell where he had gone. We flitted up the near side of the headland, hoping to catch sight of him. The trees were too thick on this side of the beach.
Soon, I spotted the Canidian. Even with his nose to the ground, he was able to emit deafening whines and bays. I put on a burst of speed and caught up.
“There you are,” Haroon said over his shoulder. “Thought you’d never get here.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Wherever the scent leads me, boy. Always a mystery. I love a mystery.”
Haroon snuffed at the air, then took a sharp left turn to run down a long path in between hotel buildings. Surprised holidaymakers gawked at the sight of a large Canidian running, a Klahd and a Pervect flying, and a dragon with a Cupy on its back thundering down upon them. They jumped to one side or the other, snatching their children up to get them out of our way.
“Sorry!” I called as we passed.
“Forget it, kid,” Aahz said, lying back on the air as if he was on his favorite chair. “We’ll be the most exciting thing to happen to them all day.”
Up hill and down slope we rushed in Haroon’s wake. I did my best to keep my internal supply of magik charged up from the force lines, but though they seemed to my mind’s eye to be large and powerful, I had trouble extracting magik from them.
“Hold on, Haroon,” I called. “I’ve got to set us down!”
The Canidian lifted his nose to the air.
“I don’t think he heard me. Markie!”
But she and Gleep had hammered out of sight in Haroon’s wake.
“What’s the matter, kid?” Aahz asked.
“The force lines are blocked!” I said. “Or it’s me. I can’t get any power from them. I’m running out of magik.”
He frowned as we dodged a rose-covered hedge and a fairground ride full of laughing children.
“How close are you to running out?” he asked.
Just then, the image I kept in my mind of a tank full of magikal power tipped over. The last drop dripped out of it, leaving the vat empty. I felt myself losing control of my flight spell. Immediately, I threw what tiny bit I had left into forming a soft cushion for Aahz and me to fall on. We dropped out of the air, hit the cushion, and kept rolling down a short incline. We tumbled into a sand pit where three small Deveel children were throwing handfuls of wet sand at each other. I fell on top of a clumsy sand sculpture with a wet squish. Aahz landed on top of me.
“Really close,” I said, apologetically.
“Why didn’t you say something sooner!” Aahz shouted.
The children started crying that the big, mean Pervect and the lanky Klahd had destroyed their sand castle. The father, a huge red-skinned Deveel wearing a pair of plaid, knee-length shorts, dropped the crystal ball he was reading and stalked over to us. His barbed tail lashed back and forth in annoyance.
“Who the Erebus do you think you are, disturbing my children’s serene play?” he demanded.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said, getting up and brushing myself off. I patted the nearest tot on its horned little head. It stuck its tongue out at me. “I was just trying to follow a scent. I’m on a job….”
The Deveel looked outraged.
“You’re working? You don’t belong here! What are you doing in Winslow? Get back to Klah and leave the rest of us alone!”
Aahz shouldered in between the two of us and poked the Deveel in the chest.
“Listen, pal, don’t pick on my partner, or you’re going to have to take a piece out of me, too!”
The Deveel planted both hands on his hips and glared down at Aahz, who was a good head shorter than he was.
“Listen, Pervert, I could bury you head first in the sand so far you’d be standing on an upside down mountaintop.”
“I could use that pointy tail of yours to spin you around until you took off,” Aahz said.
“You try it, you sawed-off excrescence.”
“Overgrown faun,” Aahz leered. “Where’s your panpipes?”
“Heap of rotting scales. Dung-eater!”
“That’s no way to talk about your mother’s cooking!”
By now, they stood nose to nose, staring into one another’s eyes. I held up a finger.
“Uh, fellows, there’s no need to start a fight. All I want to do is apologize for scaring the kids,” I said. They ignored me. .
“How dare you even mention my mother!” the Deveel snarled at Aahz.
“Why not? Her name’s on the lips of everybody in the Bazaar. Just like her lipstick.”
“Jealous? Just because you sprouted from fungus?”
“Please, guys,” I said. “Let’s just back away and keep calm. How about a round of drinks? My treat!”
“Shut up!” they both bellowed at me. I edged around them, trying to slip in between them. Aahz never backed down from a confrontation he thought he could win. The Deveel had more at stake: his children were watching him. Aahz knew it. But rescue came from an unexpected quarter.
“What’s going on here?” a shrill voice split the air.
Aahz and the Deveel jumped apart as though a lightning bolt had struck between them. A wrinkled, female Deveel bore down on us like an approaching avalanche. She was elderly and very small, standing no higher than the middle of my chest, but she managed to reach up and grab the Deveel’s ear. She dragged it down to her level. His head, naturally, came with it. She tilted the ear so he had to look her right in the eye.
“This is a fine kind of family vacation, Sonny Boy! You’re supposed to be relaxing! Tonka Sue went to get her nails done. What will she say if she comes back and finds out you’ve been fighting?”
“Mom…” the Deveel began, weakly.
I thought it wise to intervene on his behalf. After all, we had been the offending parties.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” I said, assuming a respectful pose. “We accidentally crushed your grandchildren’s sand castle…”
Quicker than I could have reacted, she reached up and grabbed my ear, too. She pulled my head down so she could scrutinize my face up close.
“A Klahd? I should have known! They just let anyone into this dimension, don’t they?”
I freed my ear from between her pointy fingertips and stood up.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. Look, would this help?”
While we had been speaking, I started gathering energy again. My internal stores were still nearly depleted, but I had enough to do a small trick. I gathered imaginary sand between my hands and patted it into shapes. Before me, the real sand in the sandbox whirled in a miniature windstorm. When it settled, it formed an elaborate castle complete with a battlemented shield wall, turrets, a drawbridge and a moat.
“Hurrah!” the children yelled. They threw themselves on it, demolishing it in seconds. Just as before, they began throwing handfuls of sand at each other.
“All right,” the old Deveel woman said, dragging her son back to his deck chair. “Just don’t do it again!”
“No, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am,” I said. We retreated hastily over the next rise. Haroon was nowhere in sight. I tried to listen for his cries.
“Listen, kid,” Aahz said, “next time do you think you could give me a little more notice before you dump us like that? It’s a little more inconvenient than if I just need to hurry up and find you a place on the side of the road to tinkle.”
“What’s tinkle?” I asked, bemused. “Is that a magikal term? Do I have to let you know before I make a sound like a Fairy?”
Aahz gave me an exasperated look.
“No, it’s… never mind! I thought I trained you better than that!”
“You did!” I said. “I didn’t expect to run out of magik. There are plenty of force lines here, big ones. It’s just that when I try to reach into them, I can’t seem to pull up any of the magik.”
Aahz stroked his chin.
“That’s different. Describe one to me.”
I closed my eyes. It was easier to concentrate on the unseen if I didn’t have to cope with the distractions of the visual.
“There’s a really big blue line beneath us. It’s wavy, not jagged, and about as thick as my leg.”
“Sounds like nice, clean water magik,” Aahz said. “You can fill up from that without a problem.”
“Yes, but when I reach for it, it seems to wiggle away from me. Not wiggle, I guess, but my touch misses it every time.”
“Sounds like it’s overcommitted,” Aahz said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “There are some powerful magicians drawing on it in this dimension. Take in what you can. You can economize if you make me fly. I’ll carry you. It’ll save some of the magik.” He picked me up. I tried to kick free, but Aahz held on. A Pervect is a lot stronger than a Klahd. “Hold still! That howler is getting away from us. Let’s move it!”
I subsided and let myself be carried like a baby, my long legs dangling over his arm. I felt foolish, but I had to trust my partner. Aahz’s plan didn’t sound as if it would save me any power, but he was right. Making two people fly consumed more of my internal storage. One did use less.
With Aahz doing all the heavy lifting, I could concentrate on finding viable lines of force. As I had noted before, Winslow was full of them. The blue line had given me all the magik it had to spare. I spotted a spiraling yellow line overhead that gave off sparks. The line itself was blocked, but those sparks were free for me to pluck and save. With my mind’s eye, I could see my supply of magik increase slightly with every yard. It was half full when I spotted Gleep’s long green body and Haroon’s shorter black and tan coat off to the right of the path we were on.
“There he is!” I shouted, pointing. Aahz did a three-point turn and followed.
Haroon slowed to a halt at a round building similar to the one in which we were staying, though it was painted pale yellow instead of lilac.
“Help me!” a feminine voice cried from the other side of the door. “Oh, won’t someone help me?”
Somebody was in danger!
Haroon leaped up and scratched at the door with both front paws.
“Lemme in!” he howled. “The scent’s in there!”
I tugged the door latch. The metal tongue inside didn’t move at all. I put my finger into the enormous keyhole and hit an obstruction.
“Open it, kid!”
I threaded magik through the keyhole and wrapped it around the wards. Every time I tried to take hold of a ward and arrange it so the slot was facing downward, another wisp of magik spun it again.
“It’s bespelled,” I said.
“Then DISpell it,” Aahz said.
Gleep added his strength to the Canidian’s. He shook Markie off and butted the door with his head.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
Aahz and I arrived a moment behind them.
“Stop that!” I told Gleep. “You’ll break it!” He backed away, his head low. I scratched between his ears. “I’m sorry, fellah, but I feel bad every time we damage something and the management says it’s all included.”
“Nice of you to be concerned about that,” Aahz said, dryly, “but the management jacks up the fees so we DO cover every breakage, whether we cause it or not.”
“True,” said Markie. “Might as well get our money’s worth. One side, boys. Let the little lady through.”
I jumped hastily to one side. I had experienced Markie’s form of elemental magik a couple of times, and didn’t want to get caught in the backwash. No sooner had Gleep, Haroon and I cleared the way, Markie rolled up a huge ball of crackling magik in her hands.
An enormous lightning bolt flashed from her pudgy little fingers. The door burst into pieces. We jumped over the burning remains of the threshold and rushed into the room.
“Intruder alert! Intruder alert! Intruder alert!” howled the magik mirror above the chest of drawers. “Oh, why is no one listening to me?”
The spirit of the mirror, its face contorted in horror, was not looking at us. Instead, it stared down at a slight figure that was ransacking the drawers, throwing their contents onto the floor. The spirit turned its hollow eyes to us as if beseeching us for help.
“Hey, stop!” I shouted.
The figure looked up. Its eyes met mine, and widened. The mouth dropped open in shock.
To my amazement, it was the girl from the beach. I started to speak, but she threw up a hand.
BAMF! BAMF! BAMF!
We were surrounded by cold blackness. I opened and closed my eyes several times, but I couldn’t see a thing. I reached out blindly. My hand came to rest on scaly skin. I patted it.
“Gleep, are you all right?”
“That’s me,” Aahz growled, throwing my hand off impatiently. “Your stupid dragon landed on my chest.”
In the darkness, my dragon stated his agreement.
I felt my way over toward the cheerful sound. This time I found the right ears to scratch between. A stinky tongue somehow found its way in the darkness and slimed my face. I wiped off the goo. The breeze was cool and clammy, as if we weren’t far from the sea. I smelled nothing but cold stone.
“Where are we?” I asked. “Is this Limbo?”
“I sure as heck hope not!” Aahz snarled.
Haroon sniffed around suspiciously. “Don’t like this place. Full of dangerous smells. A lot of fires going on.”
“Fires? Where?” Aahz was suddenly concerned. Pervects are tough. They’re invulnerable in so many ways. You could hardly drive a knife into Aahz’s skin, but fire was dangerous to him. We were nearly burned at the stake once (see the situation described in Mything Persons, another fascinating account, available from your reputable and even your disreputable booksellers.). It was only through chance and a lot of magik that we survived. He had avoided the place ever since.
“Oh, my hierarchical imaginary friend,” Markie moaned, close to my hip. I patted my way down and helped her to sit up. She slumped against me. “Where is this?”
“No idea,” Aahz said.
“Smells old,” Haroon’s voice said. “Lots of old bones around here. Lots of blood’s been spilled. Rusty iron. Limestone gravel.”
“How come we can’t see anything?” I asked.
“Cause it’s night, sonny,” Haroon said. “Starless, though. Not anyplace I been before. Your girlfriend there has a nasty streak.”
“She’s not my girlfriend!” I protested, with more heat than I intended.
“Well, she’s a magician,” Aahz said. “Pretty powerful, too. A magician turned thief.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because she was robbing the room we were about to, er, investigate,” Aahz said. “Must be looking for the Loving Cup, too.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked. “She could have been looking for anything!”
“Occam’s razor, kid,” Aahz said, wearily.
“Was he a barber?” I asked.
“Could have been. I never met a barber who wasn’t a philosopher. Occam believed that the simplest explanation was the most reasonable one. Look, Haroon followed the Loving Cup to that spot. Your girlfriend was there. She was looking for something. Did you see anything else of value in that room?”
“A magik mirror,” I said.
“Hah. Two silver pieces at the Bazaar, tops. Forget the furniture. That was an ordinary hotel room, not a storage facility or a treasury for collectible artifacts.”
“That doesn’t mean she is a thief!” I exclaimed.
“You give me another good reason why she was throwing everything on the floor.”
“She wanted something at the bottom of her drawer.”
“All the clothes in that room were for a man. A tall man.”
“Uh… her husband?”
I heard sniffing sounds near me.
“Haroon, what are you smelling?”
“I ain’t doin’ the smellin’, son. Somethin’ else is smellin’ us.”
I’m not very proficient at many forms of magik, but making light was something I was good at. I reached for some power from a dark red force line deep below us, and made a globe between my hands. With a mere thought, I illuminated it. I had meant only to create a candle flame, but instead I got a ball of light half as tall as I was.
Dozens of pairs of red eyes glowed back at us.
I dropped the globe. It flickered, but I lifted it again. Whatever the eyes belonged to began to growl low in their throats. More threatening rumbles rose from behind them. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of beasts surrounding us. The creatures near us lifted their front lips, revealing long, sharp white teeth embedded in black gums. Those teeth weren’t as impressive as Aahz’s four-inch fangs, but he and we were completely outnumbered.
“This,” Aahz declared, “THIS, kid, is why I told you that dimension traveling was dangerous!”
“What do we do?” I asked, trying not to panic.
Aahz stood up, moving very, very slowly. He turned his hands palm out toward the creatures of the night.
“Not trying to hurt anyone,” Aahz said. “We’re strangers here. We come in peace. I want to talk to whoever is in charge.”
GRRRRRRR! came the sound from a thousand throats.
“Are you growling at me? ME?” Aahz demanded, thrusting his face into the nearest cluster of red lights. “Do you know who I am? I’ll tear your faces off and glue them into my scrapbook! Now, back off and take me to your leader?”
To my amazement, the glowing eyes did recede slightly.
“Good,” Aahz said, folding his arms.
Then they charged.
There was nowhere to run, since the beasts surrounded us completely. I struck at the bodies that leaped on me, finding them covered with wiry, greasy pelts too thick to land a punch. The beasts bit and tore at my arms, my legs, and my face. I howled with pain. They rammed me with their skulls. My ribs were bruised, but I couldn’t get out of their way. Gleep practically wound himself around my body to protect me, but we were overwhelmed.
“Use the force, kid!” Aahz bellowed.
I reached for the line of magikal power not far below the ground. It was jagged and deep purple, the kind that Aahz had always warned me against, but it was the only one within reach. I filled my internal reserves. Unlike Winslow, this magik flowed freely into me. I felt powerful and dangerous, like an evil overlord. Imperiously, I willed the creatures to go away from us and stop biting me.
Immediately, they all flew backward. Yelping, they vanished into the darkness. I picked myself up from the ground, feeling the sting of ripped skin underneath the shredded sleeves of my favorite tunic. I dashed blood off my cheek with the back of my hand. Those cuts hurt. I hoped I wasn’t going to catch something from them.
Of the five of us, I was the most scratched up. My left arm had been bitten several times, though it didn’t feel as if anything was broken. One of Haroon’s ears had a half-circle of puncture marks along the edge. Aahz’s tunic had been half torn from his back. Markie looked almost entirely untouched, though her hair was mussed up. Gleep seemed unmarked and unperturbed. He licked my face. I ruffled his ears and tried not to wince at the smell of his breath.
Markie glanced at me with respect.
“You’ve come a long way since I saw you last,” she said. “I was ready to toss those creatures into next week, but you beat me to it.”
“It wasn’t me,” I said. “I mean, I threw a spell at them, but it was a dozen times more powerful than I expected. I thought I’d gain us some space, not clear the whole area.”
“Really?” Aahz said, tugging the rags of his shirt up over his shoulders. “Where’d you get the magik from?”
I described the line of force. Aahz’s scaly eye ridges rose.
“I warned you about those lines for a good reason, kid,” he said, “but if you can control the megalomaniacal impulses, or if they don’t poison you outright, the power shouldn’t amp you up any more than magik from other force lines.”
“But it does,” I said, pointing to my light globe. “That was supposed to be a candle.”
Markie turned away from us and thrust her small hand outward. A lightning bolt shot out. It lit up a bleak landscape before exploding into a grove of trees at least a mile away from us. She looked up at me with shocked eyes.
“Don’t try any spells,” she said. “Not a thing. Don’t use any magik at all unless it’s a matter of life or death. I was at the top of my class in Elemental School. That,” she added, aiming a small thumb over her shoulder, “was the Dancing Sparks demonstration I did to earn my Fairy Tales badge in Magik Sprouts. It shouldn’t have tickled a fly’s behind. There’s something about this dimension that amplifies power to the nth degree.”
I gulped. With magik flowing freely, I had filled up my internal reserves. I was a walking arsenal.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Control,” she said. “Try not to get into a situation where you have to use magik at all until we can get out of this dimension.”
“That might be easier said than done, little missie,” Haroon said, one ear cocked high. “We’re about to get some company.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Aahz said. “Markie, can you hop us back to Winslow?”
“I don’t dare, without a whole lot more experimentation,” Markie said, worriedly. “A transference spell could shoot us all the way through the dimensional vortex, or blow us to pieces right here.”
“What about your D-hopper?” I asked Aahz.
“Same problem, kid,” Aahz said, reluctantly. “Two problems, in fact: It’s not that great a model to start with. This place could overload it like a Christmas-shopper’s husband.”
“And the second?” I asked.
“It’s back in the hotel room,” Aahz said, sourly. “It’s too big to keep on me all the time. It never occurred to me that I would need it exploring a luxury resort!”
“Then let’s start runnin’,” Haroon suggested. “I’m in no hurry to meet any more locals.”
“Me, either,” Aahz said. “Come on!”
With my globe of light bobbing ahead of us like a drunken Fairy, we ran. The plain ahead of us was fairly level, though the ground was a scree of small, loose stones that made running tricky. Gleep galloped ahead, then doubled back to run with us, covering twice the distance the rest of us did.
“Here they come!” Haroon announced.
The Canidian’s ears were as keen as his eyes. Soon, even I could hear the clink of bridle tack and the distant hammering of hooves on the stony ground. Within moments, a line of black-coated steeds appeared to either side of us and cut off our escape route. We thudded to a halt. The riders trotted around us in a circle. I readied a wisp of magik – all I hoped I would need.
“Who are you?” the lead rider asked. His voice was deep and gravelly, laden with menace and power. A scarf hid the lower part of his face, as a wide-brimmed hat concealed the upper. All I could see was a pair of burning silver eyes.
“Just travelers,” Aahz said, casually, gesturing to me to keep silent.
“Gleep!” added my dragon, refusing to be suppressed.
Swords crackling with blue energy zinged as they were swept out of their scabbards. One nudged toward my throat.
“You don’t belong here.”
“We know!” I said. “We’ll get out of here just as soon as we can. Please, just let us go.”
“You’re trespassing,” the lead rider said. The swords drew close enough to us to nick flesh. “And trespassing in Maire means death.”