The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Some More Yark For You...

Here's a second Yark Excerpt...As You'll recall Snash just got away from Glolob...If you'd like to see all the illos here's a link to a slideshow I posted on Youtube...

Yark is available on Amazon, by the way.

Chapter 3: Postal
Snash wandered some and got more directions that he didn’t trust but followed anyway, for lack of a better plan, but as luck would have it, he’d gotten them from a bull who wasn’t trying to trick him, and they weren’t bad...he passed several runts all running the same way, carrying either scrolls or packages, with motivators laboring to keep up with them; guessing they must’ve come from the mail room, he went the way they’d come, and presently he was eyeing a pointed arch with an inscription above it that spelled out Mail Room in runes. Two lofty iron-shod doors stood open; a guard with a pike was leaning against the one on the left. The activities that Snash could see inside appeared to be perfectly consistent with the notions of postality implanted in his head…but when he tried to go in, the guard lowered his weapon, squinting at him.
Snash pointed to the grease mark on his chest. “I was assigned here.”
“What’s the password, you quarter cup of piss?” the bull demanded.
Snash bit his lip…had they given him one?
“They didn’t say anything about a password,” he replied.
“Then you’ll just have to go back and ask ’em---”
Wearing a long hide apron and elbow-length gloves, looking very tired and stressed, a brain with huge bags under his eyes stepped up behind the guard. “Stop that shit, Grutnug.”
“Just having a little fun, Nizhnikh,” Grutnug said, and raised the polearm… but when Snash started to go by, Grutnug suddenly bared his long yellowish fangs and barked, and Snash flung himself back against one of the doors.
“Let him through,” Nizhnikh told the guard wearily.
Grutnug just laughed, and turned. Snash slid sideways along the door, into the room.
“Report to Postmaster Khuttarh,” said Nizhnikh.
“Where can I find him?” Snash asked.
Nizhnikh pointed, said: “Up those stairs,” and started to head off.
“But,” cried Snash after him, “I don’t have any breeks!”
Nizhnikh kept going---undoubtedly he didn’t give a damn about Snash, or his all likelihood, and if he and Grutnug hadn’t already been at odds, he’d never have intervened on Snash’s behalf. Even so, Snash called:
“Won’t I make a bad impression if my ass is hanging out?”
But even this argument failed to get a response from the brain.
Feeling very naked, Snash headed towards the stairs, which led up to a shelf far up along the lefthand wall. Everywhere he saw yarks looking about as hectored and harried as Nizhnikh...scrolls, parcels, packets, and packages of all sizes were tumbling out of openings in the walls and landing in large bins attended by bulls with big flat shovels; driven by brains, carts drawn by creatures rather like giant horned toads pulled alongside the bins, whereupon the bulls shovelled mail into the vehicles…once the carts were full, the brains drove them away…as Snash mounted the steps, he saw that they were all converging on an area in the center of the room, where, he guessed, the mail was being sorted…he glimpsed all kinds of other arrangements for doing other postal things, and many comings and goings, but before he could make much sense of them, he was at the top.
In the wall at the back of the shelf was a deep torchlit recess, the brands set in a wheel that depended from the ceiling on a chain; along the sides of the cave were tall racks filled with piled scrolls. Towards the rear was a black stone writing desk, carved with intricate motifs of grotesque horned demonic scribes drafting and sending missives, and other demons, having received these communications, grinning as they gleaned undoubtedly sinister information from them. Behind the desk, a black-hooded swarthy man with a long hooked nose was scribbling away furiously with a four-foot long quill pen whose black plume swooshed through the was some moments before he became aware of Snash, and gave him a glare that was worse than anything Snash had ever seen on a yark…still, even though the man was no longer looking at the page, he continued scratching at it, and didn’t stop for a while.
“Come closer,” he said at last, and beckoned with a long bony sharp-nailed finger.
Snash stepped nearer…depositing his quill in an inkwell shaped like a fat little yark who was getting something thrust into its head, the man asked:
“You realize I’m the Postmaster?”
Snash nodded.
“Why then have you come to see me with no breeks?” Khuttarh asked.
“I’m sorry, sir---”
“As well you should be. It makes a very poor impression, let me tell you.”
“Nizhnikh sent me up here---”
“Like that? With your yark-crotch clearly visible, and most offensive to my delicate eyes?” Khuttarh leaned forward, pointing emphatically with inch-long fingernails to the dark-rimmed offended orbs.
“Yes, sir,” said Snash, wondering if he’d been the victim of yet another joke.
“Well, perhaps it’s true…Nizhnikh gives every sign of being thoroughly burnt out. It is very stressful, working down here. Still…”
“Still, sir?”
“I am the Postmaster of Mount Adamant, the Lord of the Mail, and will not be mocked. No one shows Khuttarh their crotch and lives. Stunkrog! Smazhgug!”
All at once, two cunningly-concealed trapdoors opened in the floor, on either side of Snash, and two huge bulls in lamellar armor leaped out…Snash started to backpedal out from between them, but they were very quick, and reached out with their long, long arms, snatching him before he got too far.
“Stunkrog!” Khuttarh said. “Fetch Nizhnikh.”
One of them grunted and left, whereupon Khuttarh, acting exactly as though there was no one else in the cave with him, started a new letter…shortly Stunkrog returned with Nizhnikh, whom Khuttarh immediately asked:
“Did you send that runt---” he pointed at Snash, “---in here starkers?”
“Never seen him before,” said Nizhnikh.
“How did he know your name?” Khuttarh asked.
“How should I know?” Nizhnikh replied.
“He’s lying!” Snash squeaked.
“Why would I send a naked runt up here?” Nizhnikh asked.
“Because you’re burnt out, and you don’t care any more,” answered Khuttarh.
“If I don’t care any more, why would I lie?” Nizhnikh asked.
“Because you’re too burnt out to think things through.”
Nizhnikh shrugged. “I need a vacation.”
“As your superior, I take your vacations for you.”
“That’s why I need one,” said Nizhnikh. “At full pay.”
“As you know full well, your pay is held in perpetual trust, to make sure that you invest in the future.”
“I think,” said Nizhnikh, “that I’d rather get paid in the present. But---” He reached suddenly behind his apron and yanked out a miniature crossbow, “I could just start killing everyone, and settle for that!”
He aimed the weapon at Khuttarh, but Stunkrog tried to grab it; Nizhnikh ducked, there was a moment of struggle, the crossbow thapped! and Stunkrog fell with a bolt in his knee. Even as Smazhgug let go of Snash and drew his scimitar, Nizhnikh pulled a knife from somewhere and slipped round the desk, getting behind Khuttarh and putting the blade to his throat.…Smazhgug halted.
“All right,” Khuttarh said. “Now what?”
“Catch!” cried Nizhnikh to Snash, and tossed him his miniature crossbow. Snash plucked it from the air. “Pull the cord back!”
Snash pulled it back till the mechanism clicked. Then Nizhnikh threw him a quarrel. “Load it!”
Snash laid the missile in the groove.
“Maggot!” cried Stunkrog from the floor, gripping his knee.
Snash lifted the weapon, and pointed it at Khuttarh.
“You wouldn’t dare!” cried the Lord of the Mail.
Wouldn’t I? Snash thought, then decided: No, and shifted his aim a bit to the side, towards Nizhnikh’s face. He had, of course, no experience with crossbows, (although he did have some ideas about them) and he fired a bit before he should’ve…the bow jumped in his claw and rather startled him. But the quarrel went right through Nizhnikh’s ear, and that was good enough as it turned out; Nizhnikh yowled and dropped his knife, Khuttarh slid away, and Smazhgug got behind the desk and put Nizhnikh down with a slash to the jaw, giving him several more blows after he hit the floor.
Rubbing his throat, Khuttarh looked at Snash.
“You still going to kill me, sir?” Snash asked.
Khuttarh shook his head. “Since you saved me just now, I’ll forget about seeing your’ll be snuffed out soon enough. Find someone to tell you your duties. And get some clothes.”
Snash started off, but Khuttarh said, “wait,” and scribbled something on a small parchment, then handed it to Snash. “Show that to the outfitters.”

Snash went back downstairs, but no one wanted to help him, even after he brandished Khuttarh’s name at them; eventually, though, while he was making his fourth circuit of the mail room, one of the brains, saying he was “sick of seeing his bum,” directed Snash to the chamber where the post-yarks (including the runners and their motivators) were outfitted.
There he was issued mail room runt-gear---a tunic, light shoes with treads on the soles, a belt with several scabbards with knives of different shapes tucked into them, and a leather helmet with a moveable visor. In addition, he was given a sack of small wooden blocks with parchment along one side, which could be peeled away to reveal some kind of very sticky stuff. However, when he asked what those, and various other items, were for, he got answers that were obviously false. Moreover, some of his gear was defective; when he tried to fasten the belt, the buckle fell apart, and the helmet’s visor came off one of its hinges when he tried to flip it down. The brain behind the counter didn’t want to hand out any replacements, either, so Snash just had to settle for a visor that hung down on the left, and a belt that he had to knot---luckily, he was so thin that there was enough slack.
Back in the main chamber, he finally attached himself to another runt, who, as it turned out, was also named Snash, although he was somewhat older and had a vile temper, having been, apparently, considerably soured by his experiences…even after Snash explained that he was simply trying to learn what a mail room runt did, the other Snash simply went about his business in a surly fashion and tried to be unhelpful, frequently in some very dangerous ways.
Even so, Snash learned quite a bit. The primary function of a mail room runt was to climb (chimney, actually) up inside the mail chutes----there were scores---and rectify the frequent blockages. Thanks to small pockets of luminous material embedded at intervals in the walls, there was just enough light for yarks---who didn’t require much---to see; during his first shift, Snash followed the other Snash up five separate chutes, and the other Snash, prying parcels and packages loose, made every attempt to send them straight down at Snash and dislodge him at the very least.
But Snash kept at it, and made some close observations---it was very important to remove the bottommost parcels with the utmost care, so as to keep the whole blockage, which was sometimes quite large, from falling down all at once. To this end, the other Snash made use of those sticky blocks, which he attached to the walls, to hold certain items in place until he was ready to remove them. Even so, in the fifth chute, everything came loose too suddenly; thrust downwards by a great mass of mail, the other Snash landed on Snash, and the two of them slid down hundreds of yards before they finally spilled out into the bin at the bottom…having had a good deal of time to think about what he was going to do when he reached bottom, Snash rolled out from under his alter ego before the other Snash could really settle, and the packages could really settle on him…Snash was over the rim of the bin before he knew it, looking back at the stuff coming down, the other Snash already completely buried…the whole bin, which had been mostly empty when the avalanche started, just about filled up.
Snash looked to a shoveller who was standing beside the bin.
“The other Snash is under there!” Snash said. “Dig him out!”
“No hurry,” said the shoveller. “That was a lot of mail….Might as well wait till the next wagon comes up…” He grinned. “That was a neat trick, you getting out of there like that…never seen one of you runts survive a mailslide that big.”
Snash looked past him, saw another shoveller beckoning. “Hey you, runt!” said the bull. “Blockage!”

Fortunately for Snash, it wasn’t too high or too much, and when he came back down, it was shift-change…the day crew (Snash knew what day was, abstractly, although he never expected to live long enough to be blinded by one) was coming in, smaller than the night crew---even though Lord Serpentar did his level best to keep things shadowy in Tenebria, things simply slowed down when the sun was abroad, and less mail arrived.
Tagging along with the other members of his crew, Snash, simply famished, was delighted when their motivators whipped them directly into the mail yark’s mess hall. Even though he was barely tall enough to slide his pig-iron tray along the railing, he managed, and stayed well back with the other runts...having tucked their whips into their belts, the motivators were up front, pushing trays themselves.
There were two main courses---fell beast-flesh, and the clawed scaly feet of some kind of great bird. Word was that there was man-flesh from time to time, but that was rather a delicacy, and today, at any rate, was not the day. There was also fell-beast cheese, and extremely hard tack, which came with small hammers and chisels. As for drink, there was, in addition to filthy brackish water with oily aftertaste, fell-beast milk and blood; Snash had the flesh, the fell-beast cheese, some tack, and fell-beast blood, and went to sit at one of the runt trestles, which, like all the other tables, was made of rusty rivetted iron.
But even though he was among his own kind, dinner was fairly nerve-wracking; if his tablemates weren’t trying to play practical jokes on him, the other, bulls and brains were trying to play jokes on them, or each other, and there were several eruptions which were quelled only by mace-bearing guards. Snash ate as quickly as he could, although chiselling the hard tack into bite-sized chunks was quite a project…
Upon finishing their meals, the yarks headed off for the mail room barracks. The chamber was very long; five walls ran down the middle of it, looking as though the room had been carved out around them. Two hundred feet tall, they went floor to ceiling, honeycombed with tubelike excavations, sleeping-slips, into which yarks were climbing.
At the front, a couple of brains behind a stone counter assigned spaces and lockers; even though they switched numbers on Snash, he figured out that his locker-number was a tube-number in short order, and after stowing his gear, climbed up to his tube, using handholds that had been gouged into the stone---his berth was the next to last before the ceiling.
He paused before going in; there was a sour smell, but that wasn’t why. Just below the number (which was graven next to the entrance) a chisel had been applied to some other inscription, which was only partially obliterated. Snash thought he could make out the words Hrag-Urshathur, or, roughly translated, He Who Is Much Better.
“Than what?” he muttered.
Than Serpentar, he told himself. Of course…
But he was far too tired to go further with this train of thought, and he climbed into the tube. The smell was, unsurprisingly, much thicker inside; little biting things were all over him in a matter of moments. There was no blanket, although that hardly mattered since it was so hot. All of his neighbors seemed to be snoring, each of them doing it differently, some even barking or hooting. Still, none of this was enough to keep him from falling off, which he did in a matter of moments.

When a horn began to bray, rousing him from his (insufficient) slumber, he realized that he’d been so tired that he’d forgotten to stow his belt, and had fallen asleep on two of his knives, whose scabbards had dug cruelly into his hip; sitting up, he banged his head on the top of the tube. When he took his belt off the scabbards seemed a bit reluctant to leave the dents they had impressed into his flesh. His eyelids felt swollen, and his mouth was vile---he could still taste the fell-beast blood, which seemed to have clotted on his tongue; bits of meat were wedged rather painfully between his fangs. He scratched at his bites, dislodging critters---lice? fleas?---that were still at him.
Outside, the horn stopped braying, but a grating voice started up from beneath:
“Get up, you tapeworms, you dungbats, you earwax pies! Rise and shine! Mail never sleeps!”
It occurred to Snash that mail actually did sleep, sort of, at least during the day, but since there was no one in the tube with him, he didn’t say anything, and forgot all about it as he hung his belt around his neck and climbed down the handholds to the bottom, where the motivators were warming up, doing knee-bends and cracking their whips, some flicking each other just for sport.He was hoping for breakfast, but the whipwielders drove everyone right past the cafeteria and straight to the mail room, where he began another long, dangerous shift. Very much like the night before, the worst blockage saved itself till next to last, and he had to climb very far to find it.
The cause was a large leathery egg-case that someone had simply slapped an address and postage on; how this thing had gotten so far through the system, Snash hadn’t the foggiest, but it had hung up on a couple of sticky-blocks that some other runt had left on the sides of the chute…Snash couldn’t see very far past it, but there appeared to be all sorts of things piled up above it, some of them leaking.
Worse yet, even as he approached, whatever was in the egg started to wake up, and snarl, and push the sides of its flexible prison, bulging them out in one spot after another. A rip opened; a long continuous string of goo streamed out, much thicker and smellier than the other stuff that was leaking down; suddenly the tear got wider, and something long, dark and glistening that Snash never got a very clear impression of came slithering out, blurring past him down the chute.
Looking up, he saw the egg-case yielding to the pressure from above, slipping from the sticky-blocks now that it was emptied; he heard things sliding and shifting…the egg-case came sliding down, followed by two small packages. Flattening himself against the side of the chute, he helped them on their way.
After that, things seemed to have stabilized themselves up there; he had just begun to chimney back up when he realized that something was biting his left shoe. Looking down, he saw it was that long glistening thing. He whipped it back and forth at the end of his leg, smacking it against the wall…it let go, slid down a few yards, then came back up at him. He climbed a bit farther, halting right under the sticky-blocks, the other packages jammed right over his head…wedged against the walls, he pulled a knife and stabbed at the creature…it refused to die and got up past the knife, sliding all over him wherever he wasn’t pressed flush against the chute, pausing only to take little bites. All the while he was trying to stab it, although he got himself half the time; ultimately, he jabbed one of the sticky-blocks by mistake, and between that thrust, and all the weight pressing on it from above, the block came loose, and the mail just started to fall. A long rectangular box, sliding past Snash’s head, swept the creature away; then something came directly and painfully down on his helmet, hurting him even through the lacquered leather, dislodging him…he blacked out for what seemed a few moments.
When he came to, he was jammed sideways in the chute, the mail having coagulated above him; wincing at the pain in his head, he shifted a bit, found that the blockage was pretty solid, and didn’t require him to support it. He went down the chute a bit, waited for his head to stop throbbing, then chimneyed back up, planted some stickys, and worked his way carefully up through the jam, which was not all that big. Then he removed his blocks, went farther and removed the ones the other fellow had left, and headed back down, feeling an odd sense of accomplishment.

During the nights that followed, he struck up conversations with his fellow runts, and even some of the brains, and between that and his own observations, he got a clearer sense of how the mail room (and indeed the whole mail system of Mount Adamant) operated. Urgent messages were passed by runner-motivator teams; less urgent posts were moved in huge lots, on slowly moving service lifts powered by fell beasts. Much of the mail originated inside the fortress, and passed between floors and departments; but the majority of it came from outside Mount Adamant. Serpentar had many vast armies in the field, and pretty much lorded it over the whole world, with the pesky exception of Merriador; all manner of tribute, dispatches, and strange goods and specimens were constantly being received.
Snash proved good at his job, and when he survived thirty shifts, there was much comment on it, since few of the blockage-rectifiers had ever lasted that long before. He managed to get a belt with a functioning buckle and a helmet with a visor hinged on both sides, came to know each and every one of the chutes, and was well aware of their individual peculiarities and particular dangers; judging by the kind of material that came down, he even could even tell which department was using a tube. After a time, he began to develop ideas on how the system could be improved, and tried to share them with anyone who’d listen to him.
But the runts and bulls had no interest whatsoever in making the system work better, and the brains thought runts were too stupid to have any good ideas, and the upshot was that he decided to speak to a higher-up, one of Serpentar’s human servants, and that meant, of course, Khuttarh. It took Snash some time to work up his nerve, but one night while Khuttarh was making his rounds with Stunkrog and Smazhgug, Snash raised his helmet-visor and presented himself to the Lord of the Mail.
“Back to work, you!” snarled Smazhgug.
But the Postmaster raised his hand; Smazhgug subsided, and Khuttarh asked Snash:
“Aren’t you the runt who reported to me naked as a drunken slug?”
Snash nodded. “I also saved you from Nizhnikh, My Lord.”
It was a few moments before Khuttarh answered, almost as if he had forgotten that. But then he said: “Ah, yes…Do you have something to report?”
“I have some suggestions, sir,” Snash replied.
“Meaning no disrespect, sir…things run very smoothly as it is. But anything can be improved, and---”
”What makes you think I’d be interested in your...advice?”
Snash answered: “I’ve survived a hundred and twenty shifts, three times more than any chute-runt that anyone’s ever heard of.”
“I’ve never heard of one lasting that long,” Khuttarh conceded. “Well, then…what is your name, by the way?”
“You and half the yarks in here.”
“About a third, sir.”
Khuttarh’s dark-rimmed eyes narrowed at this impertinence; but he seemed to be in a good mood, and let it pass. “So then, Snash. How could we do better?”
“The chutes are too narrow,” Snash replied. “That’s why there are so many blockages.”
“But if we enlarged them, it would be harder for you runts to get up inside.”
“Meaning no disrespect, sir, but that’s not quite true. They could be reamed out a good deal, and we’d still be able to chimney on up. Might even be easier---it’s kind of awkward as it is.”
“Is that so?”
“Also, the chutes seem to have been carved out at different times by different hands, and some of them aren’t well-carved. There are narrow places, and bends, and even places like corkscrews. It’s the worst towards the bottom, where everything feeds in…the main chutes aren’t much bigger than the feeders.”
“Widening the mains would be very expensive,” Khuttarh said. “Have you given any thought to that, little Snash?”
“I have,” Snash replied. “The fact is, a lot of treasure comes in through the ducts. But the ducts are stopped up a lot of the time. Slows the whole fortress down.”
“Does it?”
“Stands to reason, sir. Sand in the works. Orders don’t pass, departments don’t pay each other, blokes don’t get their gear...”
“Very true.”
“Also, I’ve given some thought to those lifts, the ones that carry most of the mail upstairs…why not make smaller, faster ones, and reserve them for the runners, the way those stairways are reserved for them now?”
“What do you know about those stairways?”
“I’ve only heard about them, My lord. But it got me to thinking---”
“Just bursting with ideas, aren’t you?”
“If you say so, sir.”
“Odd for a runt…maybe there were more brains than usual in your compost.”
“Maybe, sir.”
Khuttarh puts his hands on his knees. “Tell you what…why don’t you come with me, and you can tell me every clever idea you’ve ever had?”

Khuttarh brought Snash up to his office, and listened to him attentively for about an hour, even taking notes. At the end, the Postmaster said, “Care for a bit of manflesh?” and opened a steel box graven with etchings of men being roasted on spits; taking out a strip of dried meat that might well have been human-jerky, he waved it in Snash’s direction---it was a few moments before Snash realized he was expected to catch it with his mouth, but then he opened up, and Khuttarh flung it to him. Snash snapped it out of the air, seized an end with his claw, and wrenched off a bite. It was very salty, and tasted little different from Fell Beast…he wasn’t quite sure what the fuss was.
“Now off with you,” said Khuttarh.
“My Lord,” said Snash, bowing, and left.

There was still about an hour left to the night-shift; one of the shafts that brought outside mail was clogged---“unproductive” was the term, and Snash promptly went up to see what he could do. The blockage wasn’t very far up, but it was pretty big---it took him quite a while to get through it, and during that time, he heard the shift-change down below. By the time he got back down, there was practically no one nearby; most day-mail was internal, and most of the internal chutes were some distance away.
He looked around for a motivator to whip him to the cafeteria; spotting one far off who didn’t seem to have anyone to lash at the moment, he was just heading in his direction when a largish box came thumping down onto some mail in a bin off on his left….Snash thought he heard a soft voice inside it say something like: “Ach! Scheisssss!”
He moved closer, listening, and stopped by the rim. The box was motionless, and quite silent now.
His stomach, however, was anything but quiet, and he needed to get to the cafeteria before it closed. Still, he decided to wait a bit longer, and crouched down, just peering over the rim, even as he told himself he really didn’t need to bother with this---
He picked up a packet and threw it edgewise…as it struck, there was a strange, strangled-sounding cry from inside the box, which tilted up as if something had hurled itself against the far wall of it; then the box slid partway down the far side of the small mound of mail.
Snash went round to the other side of the bin and crouched down again, saying:
“I know you’re in there.”
The box was wrapped in twine, and had a lid, which raised about a half-inch before a white bladelike thing, a piece of sharpened bone perhaps, came out and proceeded to saw through the cords. Once the strands were all snapped, the bone retracted, and a brace of long skeletal yellow-green fingers came out and hooked the underside of the lid, pushing up.
“Glargle, glargle,” said the voice from inside.
“Come on out,” said Snash, drawing his favorite knife, the one with the longest blade.
Up rose a noseless round green face with big bulging slimy-looking eyes and a very wide mouth…on the upper lip was a small, square, bristly moustache. A single grey hair tilted up and forward from the front of the scalp, several inches long.
“Glargle,” said the thing again, “Vas ist, mein liebchen?”
None of this meant anything whatsoever to Snash.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Glargle,” the thing replied.
“Is that your name?”
The thing nodded, turning its face, showing a large flat circular area on the side of its head, some kind of strange ear perhaps, a slightly darker green than the rest of the creature’s skin.
“Who mailed you here?” Snash asked.
Glargle just shrugged again, and kind of laughed, in a glotty, mucousy kind of way.
Snash squinted at the return address---it was smudged.
“Who mailed you?” he asked once more.
“Meinself, meinself, I did, I did,” the creature answered. “No uzzer vay in, I’ve tried, I’ve tried---” Suddenly it clapped both hands over its mouth, as though it had said too much.
“Get out of that box,” Snash said. “You’re coming with me.”
“Ach, sss, don’t sink so.”
Snash looked around for reinforcements, but they were as far away as ever---when he glanced back at Glargle, one of those green hands had balled into a fist (which looked rather like a dead spider, all curled up) and was shooting right at Snash’s face, which it connected with an instant later. Snash rocked back and landed on his bum, whereupon Glargle sprang high into the air on long unfolded skinny green legs, and landed on the bin-rim, saying: “Vhere bist du, mein liebchen?”
He rubbed his hands together and glanced about, the bones in his skinny neck crackling, then galloped off on all fours---Snash, holding a bloodied nose and very dizzy, turned to see him heading in the direction of the internal mail-chutes. But just then a motivator, pulling his breeks up, came out of a garderobe on the left; Glargle swerved round him, went on a ways with the motivator running after him and shouting, then bounded into a bin and vanished up inside a chute…Snash was stumbling towards the motivator as the bull turned and asked:
“What was that?”
“I don’t know,” said Snash.
“Well go up there and get him!” the motivator answered.
Snash remained where he was, shaking his head...the bull cracked his whip.
“All right, all right,” Snash said, and went up the chute. He could hear Glargle glargling and “ach, sss-sing,” some distance above, but even though Snash did his level best (which was not very much at the moment) to catch up, the sounds faded steadily as the creature widened his lead…Finally Snash went back down. The motivator was squatting next to the bin at the bottom.
“Got away, eh?” he asked.
Snash nodded.
“Well, you’ll have to file a report, and I don’t want to be you.”
“You didn’t catch him either.”
“I was in the crapper.”
“As if anyone would buy that excuse---what say neither of us saw anything?”
The motivator considered this, then laughed. “I’m going back in the can,” and returned to the garderobe.

Chapter 4: Runner
Not long after, Snash was switched over to the day-crew; arriving in the mail-room, he discovered that part of it had been shut down so that the chutes could be widened out; great rotary stone-reamers with extendable shafts had been brought in, and two were already in operation, their long cranks manned by teams of extremely burly ogres, overseen by men from Engineering. The air was cloudy with rock-dust and everyone was coughing, but even though that was so annoying, Snash felt a distinct pride, and congratulated himself on having one of his recommendations adopted; he thought perhaps he’d been put on the day-shift as a reward.
One of the chutes that hadn’t been shut down had a blockage; he spent a good long time taking care of it, way up out of sight. When he came back down, he saw Khuttarh, rather to his surprise because it was the day-shift, and went right over.
Looking back, Snash would wonder why he’d been stupid enough to approach him again, but that was the future, and this was now; Khuttarh had listened to him before, and had given him a strip of manflesh; Snash thought he had good reason to expect a pat on the head, and thought further that Khuttarh might even be inclined to listen to a few more ideas, which Snash had come up with in the meanwhile.
The Lord of the Mail, a large packet under one black-sleeved arm, was speaking with a motivator...Snash noticed a scar on the bull’s upper lip and recognized him as the very first driver who’d driven him, down in the pits, Slagbag...he was much less heavily armored now.
But, as though he were seeing someone whom he didn’t want to be reminded of, Khuttarh gave him one brief glance, then told Slagbag:
“Take him.”
“Take me where, My Lord?” Snash asked.
“Slagbag’s just been transferred from the breeding-pits,” Khuttarh said. “Needs a runner to motivate, and that would seem to be you….You’ll need new gear.” Eyes still averted, he handed Snash a blank requisition slip.
The runt bowed. “My Lord.”
Khuttarh started to head off, robes rustling, then seemed to realize he was carrying an envelope, and held it out beside him, never stopping. “Take this over to Engineering,” he said, and Snash ran after him to get it….Slagbag came up, glowering down at the runt.
“Don’t you remember me?” Snash asked.
“Why should I?”
“You whipped me after I was pried out of my pit.”
“I’d wager there are about four thousand runts who could say the same, you not especially choice morsel of toejam...why did you remember me? The scar?”
“First one I ever saw,” said Snash. “And it’s a good one. Deep and mean-looking.”
Slagbag seemed flattered...but cracked his whip. “Get moving!”

Keeping ahead of the lash rather effortlessly, Snash raced off and exchanged his blockage-rectifier gear for a runner’s kit, while Slagbag waited outside. After turning in his tunic, shoes, helmet, knife-belt and stickies, Snash got a belt without knives (nowhere near as good), a skin bottle, a map, a pouch for carrying dispatches, and a tunic without a back, for greater ease of whipping. Standing on a runt-block, which lifted him high enough for the brains behind the counter to deal with him, he donned the new tunic and tried to put on the belt---the buckle worked just fine, but the strap snapped. Rather to his surprise, he was given a replacement immediately, although he leaped straight to the conclusion that he was being set up for something...when one of the brains glanced at the skin bottle, and showed the barest hint of a smile, Snash shook the bottle, sloshed the contents, and asked:
“What’s in here?”
“Juice,” said the brain.
“Those fruits they grow us in. Has everything a yark needs to keep him going...”
But Snash was barely listening by then...he was looking at the map, and he didn’t like it. Supposedly, it showed the level he was on, with the main routes marked in red...they all ended up at the central shaft of the Spike, the vast chimney-like tower that had been raised on the rim of Mount Adamant...there was a cross-section of the Spike on the other side of the sheet. But the paper was poor ratty stuff, and much of the printing was blotted...moreover, a lot of details were very much at variance with what Snash knew already.
“Give me a real map,” he told the brain.
The brain smirked. “That is a real map. Get out of here---”
Suddenly he glanced over Snash’s shoulder, and the smirk dropped from his thin lips…Slagbag stepped up to the counter, saying:
“What’s all this then?”
“He gave me a fake map,” said Snash.
One of Slagbag’s long muscly arms shot out, and he grabbed the brain by the throat, jerking him partway up on the counter.
“Stop wasting our time, you twenty-gallon jar of fell-beast diarhhea,” he said, then flung him back. The brain barely kept himself from falling, staggered off and got a real map, which Snash immediately perused…it appeared to be the genuine article. He almost got down from the runt-block, but then, all at once, found himself wondering about what might be in the bottle…opening it, he took a sniff, then recoiled.
“What is it?” Slagbag asked.
“Not sure,” Snash replied, closed the bottle back up, then laid it back on the counter. “But whatever leaked it had very bad kidneys.”
Slagbag grinned, and shook two fingers at the brain. Then he brought his fist down on the bottle, which was pointed right at the trickster…out flew the cork on a blast of stinking whizz, dousing the malefactor.
“You, lacewing!” cried Slagbag to the other brain. “Bring my runt here another bottle, with something better in it!”
The brain rushed to comply, and momentarily Snash had a bottle whose contents smelled exactly like yark-fruit.
“Let’s go,” said Slagbag.
Snash stepped down from the block and headed for the door.

Engineering wasn’t far from the mail room, and all the way there and back, Slagbag didn’t succeed in whipping Snash once; he was grumbling as they reached the sorting-station in the mail room.
“You know, it makes me look bad, you staying so far out in front,” he said.
“I don’t need motivating,” Snash replied.
“That’s what you say now,” Slagbag answered. “Wait till they send us up into the Spike. I did some pounding around up there, before they had me driving newborns. Running on stairs is way worse than runnin’ on the flat...once you slow down, I’m really going to take it out of you.”
“No you won’t,” said Snash. “It’ll be just the same. I’m faster than you, and I’ll still be faster on the stairs….if they’re going to have someone whip us, it should be other runts.”
“But who’ll whip them?” Slagbag snarled.
“Who whips you?” Snash asked, just as one of the sorters handed him a scroll and said:
“Slogans, Fifteen Hundred and Sixty Two.”
“The fifteen hundredth floor?” Snash asked.
“They had to put it somewhere,” the sorter replied, whereupon Slagbag, who had apparently been contemplating Snash’s back all along, gave him a good hard snap right between the shoulderblades.
“Got you!” Slagbag cried, even as Snash squealed and took off, circling wide round Slagbag, determined not to let him tag him again.

Up till now, Snash’s only ventures into the Spike had been up inside the chutes; this time, however, his route was the Great Spiral---finding his way with the map as he outpaced Slagbag, he came at last to the mighty stairway that wound its way along the interior of the chimney. Knowing he’d better not lose Slagbag entirely---regulations stipulated that messengers had to be accompanied by their motivators---Snash halted on the landing to give him a chance to catch up, and while he was waiting, looked over the edge, down the shaft. A hot sulphurous wind swept his face…it was hard to lean out over it, and it gave him a precarious, off-balance feeling, even though he was in no danger from it, since it only would’ve tipped him backwards.
The view itself was dizzying, an awesome plunge into a distant glowing lake of lava, with the spiral staircase descending some distance below the chimney and along the wall of the crater the Spike had been built upon…there were hundreds of landings with archways opening upon them, and thousands of figures, some of them in columns, were coming and going through the doors, and up or down the steps, or across the many bridges, some narrower, some wider, that had been thrown across the gulf. Great banners with slogans like, “If It Hurts, You’re Doing It Right,” “The Whip Is Your Mate,” and “Abasement IS The Answer” were fastened to the curving wall.
Snash straightened and looked up. There was much less light, and it was more sullen red than orange---the farther things were from the lava-lake the less illumination they received. Still, there were torches, and enough red from beneath for him to see the underside of the bridges above, well up into the shaft…he thought he could just make out the mouth of the chimney, a black circle above the bridges. He had never seen the sky before; he’d been told that little lights shone in it sometimes, when rents opened in the dark clouds that covered Lord Serpentar’s realm. But there was only murk tonight.
“What are you waiting for?” came Slagbag’s voice.
Snash turned to see him charge out onto the landing.
“You,” said Snash, and headed up the steps.

During the early part of the ascent, he got so far out in front of Slagbag that an officer from Burning Curiosity stopped him, and asked what he was doing without a motivator---when Slagbag came toiling up, the officer let them both go, but after that, Snash decided it would be best if he didn’t press his advantage so much, lest Slagbag be replaced with someone faster. Besides, he really couldn’t see the harm in allowing Slagbag the dignity of an occasional near-miss.
But after a while, Slagbag ceased to be a concern--- the climb itself got to be the only thing on Snash’s mind, sheer torture after a couple hundred floors or so, even for a fit little fellow like himself. The hot air rising from the lava far below really took it out of him, drying his thin lips till they cracked, his nostrils till they started to bleed, his tongue till it felt like a piece of leather in the bottom of his mouth---he drained the juice in his bottle before he got halfway up, and his ankles, calves and knees grew terribly sore.
Yet bad as it was for him, it was obviously much worse for Slagbag; Snash had to stop constantly just to stay in his vicinity, and by the time they were closing in on the Fifteen Hundredth floor, Slagbag could barely stay on his feet, and was weaving back and forth from one side of the steps to the other, banging into the wall on the left, and teetering near the edge on the right.
Reaching 1500 at last, Snash sat down on the edge of the landing, panting, watching Slagbag, his tongue hanging out, slog towards him…coming up over the top, the motivator simply collapsed beside the runt, and there he lay until Snash noticed a couple of I and E boys approaching along the hallway. Standing up immediately, Snash nudged Slagbag with his foot until the motivator rose as well.
Snash was expecting the Inspirational Exhorters to say something, but they were too busy chewing the rag with each other, jawing about “victory,” “Merriador,” and how “the whole lot” were “in the bag now,” although one did direct a quick sneer Snash’s way. But Snash knew that he and Slagbag would not, in all probability, continue to be so lucky, and he tugged on Slagbag’s wrist, leading him towards 1562, the motivator stumbling behind him.
There was a great deal of scribbling going on at Slogans, and brains mumbling lines under their breath, or testing them out on each other, with variations...everyone looked very tense and jumpy, and it seemed that no one’s efforts were being well-received...Ritragh, the Sloganeer-in-Chief, looked at the scroll in Snash’s outstretched claw as though it were going to bite him, and after reading it, said:
“Bad enough that I’ve got the whole weight of the world on my shoulders...Now this!”
He waved the missive and shook his head.
“What is it, sir?” an underling asked.
But the motto-honcho just shook his head.
“Excuse me, sir,” said Snash.
“What?” Ritragh asked.
“Might we have some water?”
“Water? This is Slogans. We deal in spiritual refreshment up here.”
“Can’t do without that, sir. But---”
“Here’s my latest: ‘Serpentar---Bow to the Inevitable.’”
Is that new? Snash thought.
“What do you think?” Something about the question left Snash with the impression that the slogan had already gotten a lukewarm response from Ritragh’s flunkies.
“Sir,” the runt said, “I bow to the inevitable every day---”
“But does it make you want to bow even lower?”
“Yes, now that you mention it, sir,” said Snash, and bowed very low indeed. “But could you give us some water?”
“Why do you need water when you have a new slogan?”
Slagbag tapped Snash on the shoulder. “Let’s go.”
Ritragh’s voice suddenly sharpened: “Stay right where you are.”
They froze.
He said: “I detect… a lack of enthusiasm.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Snash. “But we just ran up fifteen hundred floors, and---”
“We just spent the night coming up with a new slogan,” the officer replied. “And you act as though it’s nothing!”
“I never meant to---”
“Don’t you realize what you’re part of here?” the brain broke in. “What we’re all part of? We are arrows in the quiver of history! Hobnails on the boot of the future! We wear the road down! We make what happens happen! What is replenishing one’s bodily fluids compared to fulfilling Lord Serpentar’s Five Thousand-Year plan?”
When Snash and Slagbag continued silent, the brain, quivering with indignation, continued:
“I’ll tell you what! It’s only a tiny little thing!”
To illustrate this point, he held his taloned thumb and forefinger right in front of Snash’s nose, the miniscule gap between them representing, with great clarity, the relative size of replenished fluids in proportion to the Five Thousand-Year Plan.
“You’re quite right, sir,” Snash replied.
“Don’t give me that,” said the brain. “You’re not inspired---I can see it in your whiteless slitty black eyes.”
“Sorry sir.”
“Why do I even bother?” The brain’s shoulders slumped.
But seeing that, Snash suddenly realized how to handle him, and said: “Well sir...if you fellows were to give up, how could the rest of us get on?”
The officer shot him a glance.
“Did Lord Serpentar ever give up?” Snash asked.
The brain shook his head.
“Well, you mustn’t either, sir,” Snash went on. “And really, I think you came up with quite an excellent slogan. It’ll be running through my head the whole way back down, all fifteen hundred floors, I’m sure of it. I also was very moved by, ‘We make what happens happen.’ Did you come up with that just now, on the spur of the moment?”
The officer’s look brightened. “I did.”
“Excellent work, sir,” Snash replied. “‘There is no I in Tenebria,’ wasn’t one of yours, was it?”
“It was indeed,” said the officer, although one of his assistants got a look on his face that suggested otherwise…reminded of the situation between himself and Khuttarh (and well aware that there was, in actuality, an ‘I’ in Tenebria), Snash said:
“That slogan has quashed my self-regard on any number of occasions, sir.”
The officer turned to the actual originator of “There is no I” and said: “Get them some water.”

Once Snash and Slagbag were heading back down the steps, side by side, their fluids replenished and their bottles filled, Slagbag said:
“I really hate those I and E bastards.”
“Same here,” Snash replied.
“Tarting everything up,” Slagbag said. “All that shit about ‘History’ and the ‘Inevitable.’ ‘We make what happens happen.’ What the Hell is that? I mean, there’s those that whip and those that get whipped…”
And those that those that whip can’t catch, Snash thought, although he knew just what Slagbag was talking about.
“Nice and simple,” Slagbag went on. “Everybody knows where they stand.” He poked Slash with an elbow. “Thought you played him nicely, though.”
“I did at that.”
“Let’s go find ourselves some spot where we can hide for a bit.”
“Sounds good.”

Going down below the I and E floors, they came to a level that was vacant due to construction, although there was no work going on at the moment; working their way well back through the corridors, they’d just found a likely spot in a dark empty chamber when Snash asked Slagbag:
“Ever seen the outside?”
“Outside of what?”
“The fortress. Mount Adamant.”
“No,” said Slagbag.
“I’d wager, if we keep going, we’ll come to a window or something. Let’s find some place where we can look out.”
“Why would we want to do that?”
“I don’t suppose we’ll know until we give it a try.”
“What if we’re spotted? You know who’s out there, don’t you? The bleedin’ Black Thirteen, flying around on their nasty great fish?”
Snash nodded, thinking: Gage Ghouls. Princes once, of Humanor, they’d accepted magical gauntlets from Serpentar, only to fall under the power of the master gage, the Gauntlet of Dominion, and their mounts were giant winged sharks; after mountains had risen beneath the ancient oceans of their ancestors, the fish, adapting over long eons, had taken to the air...Snash didn’t know why that particular fact had been imparted to him, although he thought it was intriguing...
“I saw a sharkrider once,” Slagbag went on. “This was before my stint as a baby-driver...I was way down in the main shaft, motivating some hod-carriers...sometimes the ghouls fly down there, just to spook everyone. Down comes this bastard on his fish and just hovers in the chimney, staring at us...we all just about wilted, but once he left, everyone worked like mad…Have to admit, it was just what was required. No slogans, just good old honest fright.”
“I could do without the fright too,” said Snash.
“Who wouldn’t? Fright’s clean, that's all. Compared to slogans. More honest…Of course, if I could get away from the whole lot, I’d do it in an instant. Go off and set up on my own. But there’s no chance of that, is there?”
“Isn’t that the same as saying you do have to bow to the inevitable?”
“Maybe. Just between you and me. But I don’t need some pus-sucking fatskull to tell me. Or to tell me I’ve got to like it. Or that it’s better than water. Got it?”
“Got it,” Snash said. “I’m still going to try and take a look outside, though.”
Leaving Slagbag behind, he headed farther in the direction that they’d been going…he began to hear great cracking and rumbling sounds, and saw a hanging hide sheet, a gap in the middle of it with red light (and intermittent white flashes) coming through...Snash went and looked out.
Up till then, his only glimpse of sky had been that dark circle at the top of the Spike's central shaft, but there was a lot more to see now, a solid ceiling of red-lit cloud. The glow was coming from below, lava, he guessed, although his view was blocked by the semi-circular court extending before him, the top of a large bartizan. Smallish black creatures---the name grawks came to mind--- on two legs were moving about or sitting, but as Snash thrust his way through the gap in the hide, they all grawked, bounded into the air, unfolded pinions and flapped away.
Flinching at the thunder, grimacing at the lighting-flashes, he went some distance out onto the bartizan, then turned and looked back towards the tower, which, looming up against the red-lit sky, seemed to lean over him, thousands of tiny red openings showing in it sides, like eyes. Every time the lighting flashed, the red lights seemed to go out, turned into little black holes in blanched stone. Clinging to the Spike’s sides, or rising beside it, were many lesser spikes, some rising to a point, others with rounded tops…as for the top of the main tower, it was lost in the clouds, which were going round in a slow swirl.
He turned once more…a rim enclosed the court, and he went out to that. It came up about chest-high on him, and he rested his arms on it and his chin on them. Even though there were truly some vast expanses inside the fortress, he had never seen anything that could approach the vista he saw now, a tremendous flat area studded with small volcanoes, outcroppings and huge boulders, and crawling with huge glowing streams of lava, which were flowing down Adamant’s slopes, tingeing masses of drifting vapor. Bounding the plain were serrate dark mountains, fringed by bluish-grey light.
He heard movement behind him...rather to his surprise, Slagbag came up alongside him and rested his palms on the rim.
“I wouldn’t have thought it,” he said.
“What?” asked Snash.
“That the outside could be bigger than the inside,” Slagbag replied.
“Outsides have to be bigger than insides.”
“I suppose. It’s just that it’s so big inside, you know….but this…it’s really amazing. I’m not sure I like it, but I’m not sure it matters. Look at that color off there!”
“What color?”
“There, behind those, what do you call ‘em, mountains!”
“That’s called blue.”
“Yeah, I know, it was just on the tip of my tongue…Don’t see it too much inside.”
“No,” said Snash. “Not much of it out here, either. Although, I’ve heard that the sky’s that color.”
“That’s the sky,” said Slagbag, pointing.
“Those are fumes,” said Snash. “And they’re between us and the sky. Lord Serpentar makes them. To keep everything shadowy. They come up from the lava, but they’ve been treated---”
“So they don’t darken till they hit the air up there. And most of the poison’s drawn off below, by big wheels.”
“Big wheels?”
Snash nodded. “They’re connected to machines, which turn them. There are shafts that run out from the chimney, and the poison’s drawn sideways by the wheels. Serpentar lays spells on them…the poison’s full of gold, and it forms a crust on the wheels…When the machines are stopped, teams go and scrape the gold off. Sometimes, Serpentar lays different spells on the wheels, and then he gets diamonds instead of gold. That’s why the mountain’s called Adamant. Adamant’s another word for diamond.”
“Diamonds are jools, right?” Slagbag asked.
“How come you know so much?”
“I listen to the brains, down in the mailroom.”
“They talk to you?”
“Not much. But they talk to each other…”
“I’ve never met a runt like you.”
Snash replied: “Lord Khuttarh said there must’ve been more brains than usual in my compost.”
“Want some flesh?” Slagbag said, taking out his flesh-wallet.
“What’s it from?” Snash asked, accepting a strip.
“Who knows? At least it’s got a lot of salt on it.”
They ate a while in silence.
“Glad you wanted to come out here,” Slagbag declared, and proffered his wallet again. “Want some more---”
He broke off as a loud screech tore the air.
Looking up, Snash saw a tremendous flying shape swooping round the outside of the main tower, a black shark with fins so big they amounted to wings; steel gleamed on the appendages, out near the tips---blades had been fastened to the edges. Mounted on the monster was a black-hooded figure whose cloak was whipping well back over the dorsal fin, almost to the tall, rudder-like tail.
“Down, down!”Slagbag said.
He and Snash cowered behind the rim…Snash was sure the sharkrider must’ve spotted them, but whether he hadn’t, or had some more pressing errand than punishing a couple of slackers, he didn’t come after them…they heard the cry again, but much more distant this time, and when they got up and looked over the rim once more, the rider was nowhere in sight.
“We’d better get inside,” said Slagbag.
They headed back across the bartizan, but as Snash neared the arch with the hide hanging from it, he paused, noticing some scratchings on the wall beside.
“‘He Who Is Much Better,’” he read aloud. “I’ve seen this several times.”
“And a lot of gouges where it’s been chiselled out?” Slagbag asked.
“I think. What do you know about this?”
“That I’m not going to work myself up over scratchings on a wall. You can get yourself a one-way trip to the torture chamber for even talking about it.”
“Who’s he supposed to be?”
“A yark. Someone like us. Obviously, it’s complete shit. Serpentar’s real. Hrag Urshathur isn’t.”
And with that, Slagbag stepped through the gap in the hide.
“Coming?” he asked.
Snash eyed the scratchings for a few more moments, then followed.

They never did get used to running messages up the central shaft, although it got to be less of a torment for them, eventually; they brought more juice and water, and extra salt, and figured out ways to go more slowly without drawing any sanction, such as placing themselves behind columns of heavily armored yarks, men, or ogres. Not that they were always running the Spike; a lot of their deliveries were on the flat, or mostly, down inside the volcano. But one result of all this was that they were acquiring a good working knowledge of the entire fortress, and it was getting harder and harder for anyone to give them bad directions any more.
When Snash was handed a scroll marked “Extremely Urgent,” and “For Your Glowing Eyes Only,” addressed to the “Lord of the Gage Ghouls, Two Thousandth Floor,” he knew that was the very pinnacle of the Spike, even though he’d never been up there---even Serpentar’s chambers (which Snash had never been to either) were a level down, but due to the take-off and landing requirements of their flying sharks, the gage-ghouls were stationed right at the top.
Since Snash had never been the whole way before, the ascent proved a very sore trial, even though he and Slagbag had a very slow column of ogres to follow for much of the distance---ogres were always smelly, but these were so awful that Snash had trouble breathing. Moreover, once the beasts turned aside, a column of eastron men came pounding up, not very heavily armored ones, either, and those fellows set a brutal pace. As soon as the eastrons got where they were going, Snash and Slagbag simply stopped and sat down on the steps, and it was some time before they could even contemplate starting on up again…Barely forcing their legs to bend and straighten, they managed to get up ten more floors, and still weren’t at the top.
They were, however, on One Thousand Nine-Hundred and Ninety-Nine...a huge brazen plate on the wall said so.
Serpentar’s floor, Snash thought.
A tall pointed arch was set well back in a semi-circular recess, but he couldn’t see a door, try as he might---if there was an entrance, it was blocked by what appeared to be a gigantic tangle of steel thorns, interwoven with great bronze snakes. Before the barrier a troop of ogres stood at attention; Snash had never seen ogres, who were generally slouchy, standing erect that way before; armed with huge two-headed axes which they were clutching across their chests with both mitts, the beasts were most intimidating. Blazoned on their armored chests was Serpentar’s device, The Prying Eye, a round red orb looking through a magnifying glass.
As Snash and Slagbag stood swaying and panting, a pale tall very thin man with a shaved head stepped out from behind the ogres, blue eyes glinting under his lowering brows…he was clad in a long curious assemblage of studded straps. Attached to his shoulder was a lacquered red-and-black Prying Eye Pin.
“What’s your business?” he asked.
“Message for the Shark Lord,” Snash said, using one of the ghoul chieftain’s many honorifics.
“Then why have you stopped here?” asked the man.
“Tired,” said Slagbag.
“The Inevitable,” the man replied, “does not believe in tired…Don’t you know where you are?”
Slagbag just blinked and wobbled, but Snash nodded.
“Would you like to see what’s on the other side of those thorns and snakes?” the man inquired.
Snash shook his head.
“Then I suggest you keep going,” the man said.
Snash plucked at Slagbag’s arm, and they resumed the climb. Even though it wasn’t very far, that last stretch was murder, after all they’d endured, but finally they came stumbling up onto the broad flat ring that bordered the mouth of the shaft. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t the very top of the tower---thirteen smaller towers (one for each sharkrider, Snash guessed) were set at intervals around the circumference of the ring like tynes on a crown. Serpentar had been laying off on the smoke a bit---the cloud ceiling wasn’t swirling so low, and only swept the points of those smaller spires.
There were yark-sentries at the stairhead, but they were content to let Snash gulp water and suck air for a bit...capping the bottle once he got his spit back, he took the scroll from its pouch, saying:
“For the Shark Lord.”
“That’s his tower,” the guard said, indicating a spire which stabbed so high into the clouds that the top disappeared...Slagbag waited outside as Snash announced his errand and was admitted through a postern.
Floating on the other side was a mass of black fabric…Snash wasn’t quite sure he was looking at a figure at first, until he made out a dim sad hooded face, grey behind a veil…on the apparition’s chest, if chest it could be rightly said to have, was the sign of a black fin against a red circle….recalling that the Shark Lord’s mansion, like those of the other gage-ghouls, was said to be staffed by the spirits of dead men, Snash felt a sensation like a cold rill down his spine.
Beckoning, the phantom led him across the cavernous first floor (whose furnishings and arrangements Snash couldn't quite get a handle on in the gloom, although they struck him as extremely unnerving), through a chamber centered on an immense circular pool filled with green-scummed water, and then onto a stone runway projecting from the side of the tower….out near the end, the Lord of the Gage Ghouls was stroking his gigantic mount (who was standing on four stumpy legs) and seemed to be having a rather animated conversation with another sharkrider. Both wore long black-leather robes; the ghoul chief had a spiny crowned helmet thrust down onto his hood.
“Thy new fish, as swift as that?” he was hissing to his lieutenant as Snash came up.
“Aye, My Lord,” said the other.
“Thou art saying thou canst return to your tower, mount, swoop down---”
“I do say it, liege.”
At that, the Lord of the Gage Ghouls turned towards Snash, and the runt’s knees began to quiver as he got a look at the sharkrider’s glowing red eyes, which seemed to be hovering inside his hood, almost as though they really weren’t fastened to anything. Indeed, the one on the right began to rise, much as if the ghoul were lifting his eye rather than an eyebrow.
“Dispatch, sir,” said Snash.
The Shark Lord took it, then said to the other ghoul: “Thou wouldst wager thy dacha on the Sea of Hot Mud?”
Snash had no idea of what a dacha was.
“Against the Iron Saddle of Moggoth,” the subordinate answered.
The chief nodded. “So be it…let us, then, proceed.”
And even before he finished saying proceed, he seized Snash and tossed him over the side.
At first Snash was so startled that he didn’t even realize what had happened to him.
Then, with the air beating into his face and blowing his lips open, making his eyes tear up and his ears thutter, and the side of the Spike blurring past him on his left, and the spires beneath still distant but getting less so every instant, he began to appreciate the gravity of his situation.
A bartizan whooshed by to the side, and he wondered if it was the one he and Slagbag had gone out onto…approaching from the right, a flight of grawks appeared in his field of vision, as though they were making for the balcony, and he waved his arms to fend them off, but he struck several, and one of them wound up stuck to his face, grawking madly before he peeled it off and flung it over his shoulder.
Passing through a drifting plume of bitter-tasting smoke from a chimney, he saw a tower rushing up, a slender bridge connecting it to the Spike, tiny figures going to and fro upon the span. For a few moments he was certain he was going to strike the bridge, right on the edge; the yarks below lifted their faces, and he thought he heard them taking bets as to whether or not he was going to hit. He recognized a fellow messenger by the name of Rakhrik (a nasty little git), who cried: “Hullo Snash!” even as Snash dropped past, grazing his scalp on a projecting bit of stone. To increase his leeway, he pressed his head against his shoulder, but another projection clipped his ear, and even after he plummetted below the bridge, something struck him on the back of the skull, as if one of the boys up there had pegged something down at him; he clapped palms to the crown and back of his head.
Soon he was well down among the lesser towers, and below there was a horrible thicket of still lesser ones, bristling with every kind of point, some stacked with impaled dead yarks….it sure looked as though the Shark Lord had made that bet scores of times. There were just plain old points, but also grotesque vanes, and lighting-rods, and sculptures of beaky birds and beasts, and actual birds and beasts squatting with their beaks turned up.… he was just about to land face first on a truly awful needle-nosed critter which had just shut its trap and lifted its snout to impale him when…
He heard a tremendous rush---
Even as he felt the first faint tickle of beak-tip on eyelid, a shark, flipped up on its side so it could slip between towers, swept alongside, seized him with one foreclaw, and zipped out between more spires, which looked so close together that Snash couldn’t imagine the fish negotiating a passage until it actually did so and started to climb…the Shark Lord’s lieutenant had made good on his boast, although Snash didn’t feel the least bit grateful to him.
Up and up the monstrous fish soared, alongside the Spike…just before it touched down on the ringlike summit, it dropped Snash to the stone, and as it settled he rolled aside, remaining prostrate until it folded its fins.
As the winner dismounted, up came the Shark Lord, and the two of them paid poor Snash no attention whatsoever as he stood there trembling. He listened to them discussing the finer points of shark-breeding for a few moments before he turned and headed off…Slagbag was, of course, waiting for him outside the Shark Lord’s gate, although Snash didn’t tell him the whole story until they were safely hidden in a hiding-spot well down inside the Spike.
“And it was all just on a bet?” Slagbag demanded.
Snash nodded.
“Someone should toss them over the side,” Slagbag said. “See how they like it.”
“That’s cursed rebel talk,” Snash laughed.
Slagbag grunted and nodded. “Yeah.”

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