There wasn’t any great hurry to rescue Tarcuna, not really. Xolgrohim didn’t much want to kill her, we guessed. If he did want to (or anything else), he would have done it already.
“Unless he is trying to bring you woe, Jyothky. Or give you a distracting fury,” said Ythac.
“I don’t think he actually hates me,” I argued. “My parents, certainly, they killed him. Killing me would annoy them a little. Killing my hoven friend whom they’ve never met wouldn’t bother them at all.”
“I should go in there with you,” said Ythac. “Xolgrohim won’t want to kill me. If he hates my father too — and he ought to — killing me would only save my father the trouble.”
“Have you heard from Rankotherium?” I asked.
“I’ve told my mother about Llredh. She’s not very happy. I don’t know if she’s told my father or not. Let’s think about your lich-god problem now, please, Jyothky?”
But there wasn’t very much we could do from outside the Mystery Zone. Except to stare at the Mystery Zone itself. It was a sticky dysparallel mess of astral magic, a rough hypersphere woven of loose burlappy cables, mostly for detection, and shot through with the scratchy tin wires of painspells. Blinding-spells grew like stinking mushrooms here and there, mostly around the Pit of Despair and one of the palaces, blocking many of Ythac’s attempts to discover anything. (But we had excellent maps, made during Trest’s invasion and occuption, current up to and excluding the capture and enslavement of both countries by astral monsters from beyond the curve of the universe.) Nothing was terribly strong, but there was a lot of it — and we felt the theoceptive prickling of the loose god about. And of course it wasn’t that much like dragon magic, and we had only a loose idea of exactly how it would behave.
Ythac and Llredh insisted on doing every kind of research they could think of. So we interrogated some terrified local farmers, thus:
All three of us landed in a triangle around a lentil-field where barehoofed peasants labored in thick mud. Llredh roared, “Innocent farmers! Fearing and fleeing, you must do neither of these!”
The most organized and clever of the peasants tried to figure out what Llredh had said. The rest, naturally, tried to run away from him. Ythac and I blocked them with wings and tails and such. “Please don’t run away. We just want to ask you a few questions about what’s happened in Ghemel. We’ll pay for the information, in healing.”
After two-thirds of an hour of determined, iron-willed, fierce peasant calming, punctuated with healing sunburn, blisters, day-old scorpion stings, and a lost finger that wasn’t going to grow back but didn’t need to be infected about it, we had three peasants to talk to. And a dozen others to farm desultorily and pretend they could rescue their friends if they got into trouble.
“What happened in Ghemel?”, we asked.
“Don’t know for certain,” they said. “All we know is, anyone who crosses Pran ad’Darak Street screams and screams like they was being boiled alive or something, then turns and walks into the city and never comes back out.”
“We’ve seen hovens walking around in the city. Do you know what goes on in there?”, we asked.
“Not for sure ‘n certain, that we don’t. My cousin says they’re mostly building things in there,” said the youngest informant.
“What does your cousin know that you don’t?”
“Probably a lot, if it please you. He’s been in there since nearly the beginning, and he’s important in there,” said the informant.
Well, that was interesting. “You can talk to people inside?”
“Oh, sure. We bring food and things to Damarrhu Market, just on this side of Pran ad’Darak, and people from the city come out and buy it. Sometimes they stay and talk. Not like proper people visiting their friends on market day, they won’t sit down and drink mint tea and sit and catch up with old friends. But they’ll say a few words,” said our peasant.
“And what do they say?”
“Well, Murghal neng Nhestravvath came back from the desert with a doomsome demon as an ally. He’s harnessed everyone in the city up with pain. If they don’t do exactly what he says, right prompt, they hurt so bad that they’d cut their throat with a hacksaw to make it feel better. I know that for a fact. Murghal made some of the Trestean soldiers do it in the grand square, my cousin says. He was terrible before, now he is a thousand times terrible.”