Chapter 34: Surreal Estate
When we left our heroes last time-- Well, let's look at the various places we've left our heroes. They have a definite penchant for obscure locales, zipping off to the sixth millennium or parallel histories and such. Their current adventure starts on Hellene, an Earth colony of 36 Ophiuchi, which most might consider a fairly exotic place. From there, they have poked around, both spatially and temporally, on a couple of generally-unknown planets colonized by demigods and raided by dragonfolk, hung suspended in trans-dimensional vortices on said planets, returned to Hellene, bollixed around with Time, and passed through a magic mirror into Faerie; and, as if that were not exotic enough, journeyed into the Chaos Marches of Faerie, to the newly-established arcane realm of Lanthil, where they've climbed a magic mountain and met up with an elven princess.
That's where we left our heroes. But they still have forward momentum.
Taking another dowsing, Tom finds that Chaos' Rim lies on a bearing straight through the mountain and somewhat down. Accordingly, we strike camp and start hiking around the mountain. (It's too rough for riding ponies, so we keep them miniaturized in their pet carrier.)
As we circle the peak, the light fades from the usual bright & iridescent overcast to serious gloaming. Looking back, we can see the lightfall streaming down from the zenith, appearing if anything even brighter by contrast, since the background sky looks oddly dark. The optics around here are definitely not normal.
The going gets even steeper. Robbie and Gannar start flying. Mirien and Tom conjure handfires for everyone. It starts to get misty. Soon, we hear gurgling noises, then come across a gully with a stream at the bottom. We descend and follow it. Dafnord pauses to note that the water in the stream is odd. It is not as shiny as water ought to be, a sort of semi-gloss water.
We continue along the stream-bed, which gets steeper, darker, and mistier, until Dafnord, who was in front, stops short. Kate, who was next, deftly avoids bumping him, which was good, because the slope suddenly gets much steeper, so that the semi-gloss stream is almost a small waterfall.
Gannar and Robbie both volunteer to explore the dark gulf ahead, and drift out on their lift motors. Gannar establishes a comm link with Robbie, just to be safe. There's rather a lot of static on it. Then it goes down and comes up a lot. Gannar and Robbie are also on the telepathy net (which Gannar forgot, not being at all psychic himself) and this stays up fine. This will be a Good Thing.
Gannar and Robbie drift downward. Salimar claims to see Things in the mist, but neither AI does, and neither, fortunately, is of a nervous disposition. But soon Gannar feels something wrong. A lot of his cybernetics is getting unreliable. In particular, his lift motor. Soon, he's quite sure that he's falling. Robbie has the same problem but doesn't realize this and falls even faster. Gannar tries to grab him as he goes by, but misses. Robbie's brain is, in fact, failing along with all the other cybernetics, but he uses his last clue to grab Gannar's leg.
Androids are stoical types. Gannar ignores what happens to his joints when a robot grabs his foot and concentrates on getting the last dynes of lift out of his lift motor -- forget all the fancy feedback functions, just pull!
Up above, the others are aware of the problems via the telepathy net -- which is still working fine, even though the local physics doesn't seem kindly disposed to electronic and psionic devices. The telepathy net also lets them realize that different people have different perceptions on how far and fast the robot and the android are falling. We are clearly creeping up on Chaos.
Kate flies out on psychic telekinesis. Tom conjures some rope for her to pass to the two below. Markel lights out on his dragon, and the gargoyle joins in by diving off into the gulf, too.
Markel had Katrina sitting behind him on the dragon, and Katrina is leery of telepathy; she was just barely on the net. As a result, she is caught by surprise when the dragon stoops, and is left flapping in the wind, barely hanging on.
The gargoyle has problems, too. It had not appreciated the difficulty of gauging distance and speed in this place. The ground is coming to meet it a lot faster than it had anticipated. It flashes past Robbie and Gannar without even seeing them. Everyone else soon hears a loud crunch and a lot of scrabbling noises, as a stone gargoyle has a family fight with the local geology, trying not to slide further down the cliff face.
Katrina, meanwhile, has regained her seating on the dragon, so Markel is free to toss Gannar a rope. Gannar secure himself, then starts in on the difficult task of tying a rope to a robot that is clinging to his right calf, its mind off-line, while he himself is suspended by an erratic lift motor mounted on his upper spine.
By the time he succeeds, the gargoyle has clawed itself to a halt, having treated the telepathy net to the experience of erosion in the first-person. (Ouch.) It flaps back up, following Kate and Markel, who is towing Gannar and Robbie.
As they rise out of the bad-physics zone, Robbie's processors start to re-boot. Randomly. He is, so to speak, groggy, but lucid enough to realize the danger he was in. He panics and starts to go into cascade failure -- perhaps equivalent to grand mal epilepsy. Markel drags him and Gannar up to the top, and Gannar manages to reach into the seam on Robbie's belly and pull the off switch. We wait a few seconds for all his capacitors to discharge, then turn him on again, for a clean re-boot. There, now, doesn't that feel better?
Meanwhile, the gargoyle rejoins us, somewhat chipped. We trust that, since it's living rock, the bits will grow back.
At this point, Tom reluctantly remembers the existence of the flying carpet that he was embarrassed to realize we had all forgotten was in our magic tent, while we wore ourselves out scaling the mountain yesterday. Since psi worked where technology didn't, riding a magic carpet is probably a safe way to travel, and much faster.
While Tom unloads the magic carpet, Salimar views the surroundings with Third-Sight (a souped-up form of clairvoyance). She penetrates the darkness and the mist, notes the gargoyle-shaped dent at the bottom of the falls, and sees that it levels out further on. How further on is very hard to say. The Terrans watching all this via telepathy also opine that the entire landscape looks damned spooky. Salimar, being at heart an Amorphous Blob from Outer Space, shrugs. Or ripples.
We head out again, Markel and Katrina on the dragon, the gargoyle on its own wing-power, Salimar in dragon-shape, and everyone else on the flying carpet. The dark mists flow by and sometimes seem to ... squirm. We descend gently. The stream in the gully levels out and gets broader, coming down to a pebbly beach that borders a dark ... sea? Pond? Too dark to tell. Whatever it is, it is all full of that semi-gloss water. If it's water.
The rocks along the shore look vaguely lunar or martian, very craggy and uneroded. There is a black and prickly forest in the distance to our right. We are now below the level of the mists, not that this gives us any more light. But the darkness is more transparent.
The dowsing still points out over the sea. Peering into the gloom, Dafnord faintly sees three island. We fly out to investigate.
The islands form a staggered line out from the shore, as if they were huge, round, footprints. The first one out has a structure like a henge on it. The second one is wooded with the same kind of growth as the forest on the shore. The third is bare except for ... a sundial?
Very curious. We were under the impression that Lanthil was new-minted, created by the Marginalia, who sure don't seem the sort to go in for henges and sundials, especially since there is no sun here. But maybe "here" is no longer Lanthil.
We decide to investigate, and land on the island with the sundial. The sundial stands in a triangle formed by three sharply-cut blocks of stone, and is the only feature on the sandy island. Tom tries to analyze the psychic signature of the place. Very powerful. Very stable. The source of ... something. He can feel the powerful signatures of the other two islands in the distance.
Now Salimar tries some retrocognition. Usually, her retrocognitive visions appear as silent images in an octarine aura, but here they work differently:
Each of us suddenly appears to be alone on the island. Our companions are not visible, though we can feel each other on the telepathy net. The sundial is not here, but the triangle of stone blocks is. Something impels us to look up. A huge form is descending, feet first. It is a giant, about fifteen feet high, built very blocky, clad only in a loin cloth, and totally matte black. Its head has three faces. It stretches out its hand toward the triangle. The sundial appears and it vanishes. The vision ends.
Well! What great reception. Comparing notes, we find that one of the side faces appeared female, the other one male, and the face in the middle was smooth-featured as an infant, or even more so, long and thin and neuter. Tom speculates that it could have been an afrit, a sub-race of djinn or mazzikim noted for great size and a taste for the grotesque in their shapeshifting. Braeta allows that it looks a little like the only afrit she ever met, though that one was a shiny black and sometimes appeared to be a void full of stars. We shrug. They're shapeshifters and glamourists, after all.
But what about the triangle of stones? We ask Salimar to try again, reaching further back. Again we get a super-realistic vision, each of us alone on the island. This time, the island is bare and rocky. Three figures come zipping in from three different directions. As they arrive -- CRASH -- the rocks of the island crumble into sand. The figures are of human proportions and tallish, but only six or seven feet tall, clad in loincloths. One is male, one female, one neuter. All matte black. They reach out their hands, the stones appear, and they vanish. The vision ends.
Markel remarks that, since that was the vision of the earlier event, it's as if those three ... people came first to make the triangle, then combined into one form and returned to make the sundial. Tom thinks aloud about people like the Fates or Norns, triples of time-related figures.
We move back to the first island, the one with the henge. This henge is in better shape than Stonehenge, but simpler, a big ring of uprights and lintels, open toward the open sea, where a "normal" henge would be open to the sunrise. The henge stands in the middle of a circle of seven hills and the island, on close examination, is covered with something black and fuzzy. Moss? Fur?! Well, the ground feels like ground, not flesh, and we suppose the fuzz is basically black moss. Salimar tries to sense its life, but is swamped; everything hereabouts feels alive.
Tom tries to analyze the psi signature again and feels the place is, as you'd guess, powerful and magical, but also somehow "central."
Salimar tries another retrocog. Again, she scores big. We see a time when this was a hill, not an island, already covered with black plush, rising out of a plain of black plush. A spire arises out of the ground, very textured and fluted. It resolves into a figure, hooded and cloaked. A wizardly-looking fellow, with a long beard, but his face and hair are the same matte gray as his cloak. His face has the abstract, unlined look of the neuter from the first two visions. He raises a hand and brandishes a staff with the other. Visions within visions flicker around his hand, and the henge arises. The vision ends.
After it is over, we realize that the sub-visions were translucent pictures of grotesque giants building the henge. And of course the henge in the vision was perfect. This one, though still pretty solid, has a few toppled stones.
That was Salimar's take on the island itself. She tries to retrocog the henge, but nothing happens. She feels her efforts were dampened, somehow.
We move on to the wooded island and land on the shore. There is little room between the water and the trees. Tom analyzes here, too, and gets the same feeling of big, powerful, central magic. This place is the origin of something alive, too. Tom then feels around telepathically for presences.
Oh, yeah. Several in the woods. Lots more in the sea and air nearby. Lots that are hard to localize. And of course, they felt him feeling for them. Throngs of them. And Salimar feels they are now approaching. Markel grabs up his bow, though Tom doubts that will do much good.
Salimar makes a hasty try at Third Sight and gets a crowded jumble of images. Tom asks Mirien about the availability of witchpaths around here. Plenty, she says, all leading out and away. Very suitable for a place of origins. Possibly very handy. We get ready to fly again, but Tom asks Salimar for one more retrocog. Uneasily, she consents.
We see a bare rock island. In the middle, a little thing like a worm comes squirming and twisting up. This unravels into many, then into a patch of branching vegetation, which turns into a kind of arboreal tidal wave, exploding toward us, seeming to wrestle within itself. We think we catch glimpses of moving forms inside, maybe one that is upright but not human, on legs with hocks.
We fly. Off and away beyond the islands, over the open darkling sea, following nothing but the dowsing toward Chaos' Rim. The semi-gloss tone of the sea changes to a shiny black. The carpet goes into a series of rollercoaster curves, up and down. It leaves us flying through a tunnel in the mists, which we seem to have re-entered. We try to slow down and pause.
Tom tries once more to feel the way to Chaos' Rim. Sure. Any way you like. It's close in any direction. And there, on the rim of the Rim, we leave them.
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.