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Volume 3167b
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN
DETOUR

 

Without thinking, I grabbed Japh Leah, wrapping my arms around him and yanked him away from the creature.  We stumbled backwards together.   After that first scream, Japh Leah, bit his lip, hissing.  He was so brave, my wounded hero.

Aspar Aguus stepped forward with his mighty broadsword and chopped the thing in half.  For a second, it did not even seem to react.  Then he kicked one half away, and the other curled up.

“What in the name of the abyss,” Aguus swore, “was that?”

“A mollusk,” the Archivist said.

“That’s a mollusk?”  I said, shocked.  “Yuck.”

“What’s a mollusk?”  Vadak Eth asked.

The Archivist and I stared in astonishment.  But then, glancing around, the Orguz and the other red men seemed equally ignorant.  Even Ton Sabat had no idea.  It seemed Mollusks did not exist in the outside world.

“A mollusk,” the Archivist explained, “Is a flat wormlike creature whose locomotion organ is also its organ of feeding.  Literally, its foot is its mouth.”

Aspar Aguus thought it over, “Its foot is its mouth?  How does that work?”

“Well,” I said, “in theater, it’s represented by the notion of a creature whose mouths are in its hands and feet.   Usually, it’s a faceless man who speaks and devours through his palms, or essentially the popular character of the Mollusk-Man.  There are a number of plays about the character -- The Mollusk Man, Son of the Mollusk Man, Ghost of the Mollusk Man, Revenge of the Mollusk Man, Attack of the Mollusk Men, the Mollusk Woman, Beneath the Valley of the Mollusk Man, and Bride of the Mollusk Man, which starred that fat, no-talent slut Can Day Kayan.”

I noticed they were staring at me a little too strangely.

I shut up.

I should have had that part, I thought bitterly.  Just because someone is willing to slide a thisp all the way up to its untra, in her coymal, didn’t mean she could handle the role.

Talent ought to count for something.

“Thank you for that excursion into gutter culture,” the Archivist said presently after an awkward pause.  “It feeds upon whatever it crawls over, its foot surface exudes digestive enzymes, and it draws up the dissolving nutrients into its body.  Thats why it’s flat, so as to maximize its digestive surface.”

“You’ve seen these things before?”  Japh Leah asked.

“No,” the Archivist replied, “but they exist in the underground lakes and rivers beneath the Jagged lands.  Now and then, some are drawn up by the gravity wells in Az-Lium.   I’ve never heard of one so large as this, though.   Most are tiny.”

He indicated a span between his hands of less than a foot.

“You’ve got it right, I think,” Japh Leah said.  “When I felt its touch on my bare flesh, it felt like burning and melting at once.  I think that to have one of those crawl on your body would not be a good way to die.”

We inspected his leg where the creature had touched him.  The flesh was raw and inflamed, it looked as if layers of skin had peeled away.  We cleaned and bandaged the injury as best we could.  It was painful, but did not impede him.  He was so brave.

“Should we go back?”  the Archivist asked hopefully.

That sounded like a wonderful idea.  I had no special urge to be devoured by some predatory carpet.

“No,” I said.

They looked at me.

Surely, I thought, I wasn’t the only one to work it out.

“These things belong to the deep waters far below.   For something this size, to be this far up...  It must have been drawn by the well.  Which means, that the well still functions.   This thing has done us a favour.  It tells us water is close.”

I watched their eyes light up.  They hadn’t worked it out yet.  I shrugged.  They would have, in another minute.  That I had done so first won me a little respect.

“As the Princess says,” Aspar Aguus said, “we go down.”

“But what if there are more of them?”  the Archivist complained.

Aguus shrugged.  “As long as you don’t stand there and let them crawl up you, they pose little threat.”

“Unless they drop onto you from the ceiling,” Vadak Eth pointed out.

We all eyed the ceiling warily.

“Or unless they come in vast numbers,” the Archivist said.

“Then we run,” Aguus replied.  I appreciated his sensibility.

“What if they gather behind us and block our way?” Vadak Eth asked.

“How could that happen.”  Aguus said.

Vadak Eth shrugged, “How many chambers have we passed?  How many will we pass?  Do these chambers connect with tunnels?  We don’t know what is down here, only that humans have not been here for a very long time.  They might well mass behind us as we go further.”

Aguus shrugged.

“Then we die,” he said, and laughed.   Which wasn’t sensible at all I thought.  At least no one else laughed.

Passing down the next levels we moved warily, shining our lights in every direction.  From time to time, our lights touched on flat gelatinous shapes, but most times, these quickly moved away.

I walked beside Japh Leah, supporting him as he limped.

“How does it feel?” I asked unnecessarily.

“Better than being dead, I suppose,” he said.

“But I thought your people believed that beyond death was paradise.”

He shrugged.

“I am something of an agnostic in these matters.  What if those beliefs are wrong?  Best to wait as long as we can before we’re forced to find out.  It would be difficult to fix a mistake like that.”

I laughed a little at his joke.

“I should feel terrible if you died,” I said.

“So would I.”

We walked in silence, navigating the ancient steps.

“Thank you Princess,” he said, “it means a lot to me.”

I kissed him.  But only briefly and quickly.

“I am noticing something quite odd,” Vadak Eth said, disturbing our moment.

“Yes?”

“Remember the very stylized carvings on the tomb faces?”  He said.   “We’re seeing them on the walls of the stairway.”

Ton Sabat shrugged.  “So?”

“So, why is it, that the further down we go, there seem to be more and more of them?”

There was no ready answer.

Some time later, he spoke again.

“These.... mollusks,” he asked. “Are they edible?”

The Archivist did not know.   For my part, Sadoks and Spiderlings had been repulsive enough. I had no wish to try these.  People of the outside world seemed obsessed with eating the most disgusting things.   No one seemed moved to discuss it.

Looking back, perhaps we should have considered it more.

The great staircase narrowed, divided into branching corridors, the corridors became a labyrinth.

“The first platform,” I said drawing on the play, “chambers and storage, the machineries were here, the well workers, the engineers and architects, the technicians.”

“Machineries?”  Japh Leah asked.  “I thought there were no moving parts.”

“To dig the well, to build the chambers,” I replied.  It was a guess.  The play had a throwaway reference to machinery, without saying what the machinery was for.   But it seemed reasonable.

At each branch, Aspar Aguus carefully marked the way, carving a sign into stone, to ensure we could find our way back.

We continued to see smaller mollusks, but as before they fled from our presence, crawling slowly.  We scanned the walls and ceiling, careful to light the way back as well as the way forward.    Perhaps we were too focused on watching for mollusks.

Suddenly, the flashing light illuminated a manlike figure.   Vadak Eth gave a grunt of surprise.  Then something seemed to fly through the air, wrapping around Aguus.  He roared and fell, dropping the torchlight, as shapes rushed towards him, bounding on two legs.  From my peripheral vision, I saw a shape opening above me.  I screamed and threw myself away, colliding with a warm body that should not have been there.  It wrapped its arms around me, its flesh rubbery and clammy, its voice full of strange clicks, and we fell together.  The torches had fallen, or swung wildly, providing random bursts of illumination.  As I struggled with my attacker, I saw more shapes bounding among us, things falling over the rest of our companions.  Not mollusks, I realized, nets.

Aguus roared, struggling with the net, bodily throwing his attackers off, but they simply piled back on.  Japh Leah and Vadak Eth were overwhelmed.  Only Ton Sabat held his own, his demonic strength seemingly more than a match for any number.

Another attacker joined the one who held me, his hands rudely running over my body.  I was offended, not only were we struggling for our lives, but I had to be groped in the process?

What was this, a casting session?

I reached down, finding that this attacker was shaped like a man in certain respects and grasping firmly, in the approved manner of the Regency Concubines.   The creature gave a gratifyingly human whimper.   The first attacker then joined the struggle, his fingers as agile as a producer’s math.

The ensuing battle was fierce, and I must confess that there were moments when their combined efforts brought me to the edge of surrender.  But then I felt the wave of shivering weakness that men are heir to, and pushed one attacker off.  The second succumbed a moment later, and I was able to break away.

The sounds of struggling, grunting, and strange clicking filled the air.  In the beams of the torches, I could see naught but quickly moving shapes.  Ahead of me, there was a fallen torchlight, its beam shining off as things barely seen flitted through its light.  I crawled toward it as quietly as I could.  Reaching it, I grabbed it, bringing it with me as I rose.

Suddenly, a male figure appeared appeared me, illuminated in the light of the torch.  Manlike in shape, but of strange proportions, short bandy legs and long torso, with long thin arms and strangely elongated fingers, naked and utterly hairless, his flesh was rubbery and of the whiteness of bleached bone.   But it was the head of this creature left a scream dying in my throat, left me unable to breath, to even utter a sound.

It had no eyes, simply a smooth expanse of flesh where features might be seen.

It had no face!
 


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