THE ADVENTURE OF THE TOXIC CELEBUTANTE by Kevin O’Brien
 
Part Two
 
The shelter was too small for all three to go in, so she and Liaison crouched down outside and watched Sunny do her thing. The creature was asleep, but she didn’t disturb him, she just retrieved his bedpan and brought it out. She had asked the craftswomen to carved bowls for the bads and criticals to relieve themselves in rather than soil the floors of their huts. Eile could see it was half-full of urine, but it had no faeces.
 
Sunny set the bowl on the ground and knelt in front of it. “Last night I had a dream, in which I was back in college, taking a chemistry test. I had answered all the questions except one, and in the logic of dreams, I knew I would fail the course if I couldn’t find the answer. It was a list of symptoms and the question was, what caused them? I struggled with it for what seemed like hours, then I realized the answer was staring me in the face. It was a chemistry class, so it had to be some form of chemical poisoning, and the most likely type was some kind of metal.”
 
“You mean, like iron or something?” Eile asked.
 
“Not exactly, but close. Three-quarters of all elements are classified as metals based on their atomic structure and chemical properties, whether they might seem like it or not. Most likely it’s a relatively light metal, something fairly common in rocks and minerals. Once I identify it, I can devise a treatment.”
 
“So what’s with the pee?”
 
“Metals are excreted in urine, especially the light ones. Now that I know what to look for, I know a spell that’ll work. I’m gonna try and find out if anything unusual’s in this urine.”
 
She nodded. “Go for it.”
 
Sunny gave her a weak smile. “Hold on to your butts.” She then closed her eyes, as if deep in thought.
 
“What is she doing?” whispered Liaison.
 
“She’s concentrating” Eile also kept her voice quiet. “She’s imagining what the spell’ll do and what it’ll tell her. It’s sorta like drawing in power.”
 
He nodded. She figured he would understand it that way, and he did seem to have an awed expression on his face.
 
Presently, Sunny took her right hand and dipped her fingers into the urine. “Chemi-analysis.” She spoke in a weird, resonate voice, as if she talked through a tube. Nothing else happened; there was no glow, or sparks, or smoke, or anything else that indicated the spell was working. Yet Eile knew that inside her partner’s head, the Dream-magic told her everything that was in the urine. She just had to wait out the mumbo-jumbo.
 
After a few minutes, Sunny opened her eyes. She blinked and shook her head, then removed her hand and flicked the urine off her fingers. She finally focused on her.
 
“Arsenic.”
 
“That’s all?”
 
She nodded, but Eile knew that was enough. Arsenic was highly toxic; any good murder mystery could tell you that.
 
Sunny took a moment to place the bowl back inside the hut, then she motioned for her and Liaison to follow. She went back to their shelter, and they all went inside and sat down.
 
“We’ve got serious trouble, boy and girl. There was enough arsenic in that one person’s urine to kill him; not immediately, but eventually.”
 
“What is this ar-sin-ik?” Liaison asked.
 
“It’s a metal-like substance, not as heavy as iron or lead or gold, but similar in structure and properties. It’s fairly common in minerals, and some of its compounds are even deadlier than the pure element. It can be found in soil and water, and you can ingest it by eating or drinking anything contaminated with it. However, most of the time we consume so little that our bodies can handle it with no ill effects. These people have somehow consumed a fatal dose. It wasn’t so much that it killed them right off, but as long as it’s in their bodies, it will continue to make them sick until it does kill them, or they become so weakened that they die of something else. The only way to save them is to remove it as quickly as possible, and to find the source of the contamination and isolate it.”
 
“How do we do either one?”
 
“Well, arsenic can be scavenged by thiols; sulphur compounds. Garlic and onions contain substances that have these compounds. If we can find either or both, or something equivalent that isn’t itself poisonous, and feed it to them, it should eliminate the arsenic in their bodies. At that point, it’s just a matter of taking proper care of them until they recover. The problem is, it won’t do much good if they’re still ingesting it. That’s why we gotta find out where the arsenic came from and get rid of it or keep it away from them.”
 
“Well, where could they get it from?”
 
“Out here, there’s really only two ways: from their food or water. High doses of arsenic can be found in fish and other seafood, and particularly in mushrooms, but it’s usually in a pretty benign organic form. The arsenic in that patient’s urine was inorganic. The only other way to get it from food is to eat something that has itself been poisoned.”
 
“The grubs. One of the ambulatories told me they live underground.”
 
Sunny nodded. “They could’ve picked up the arsenic from contaminated ground water. I’ll hafta screen everything the gatherers bring in during the day. But I think the most likely source is contaminated drinking water, like from a pool or stream. If the levels are low enough, it wouldn’t poison them, or even make then visibly sick, but if they kept drinking from the same source, the arsenic would build up in their bodies until it became dangerous, even lethal. I’ll hafta screen all nearby water sources, including the spring Liaison showed you.”
 
“But where would it come from?”
 
“Potable water always has trace amounts of arsenic leached out of rocks and the soil. For these levels, if we were in the Waking World, I’d suspect a mining operation, a waste dump, or runoff from an industrial complex. Here, it’s probably due to erosion exposing a mineral vein that contains large amounts of arsenic, maybe even an arsenic mineral itself. Whatever, once I find out how the contamination occurred, we should be able to track it back to its source. We’ll hafta question everyone, find out where they’ve been getting their water, and if they’ve been eating anything unusual or different lately. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual: tend their illnesses, keep them clean and fed, and dispose of those who die. Priority one, though, is finding the right herb or plant to remove the arsenic. Liaison, I need to speak with the foragers before the go out in the morning.”
 
He nodded. “I will collect them myself.”
 
Sunny smiled. “Sounds like a plan, people. Together we can whip this thing!”
 
Eile returned her smile. Sunny’s enthusiasm could be infectious, and once she had a viable idea of what was wrong, a cure seemed possible. But Eile still wondered how they were going to find the arsenic source, and if they could do anything about it once they did.
 
 
 
Sunny had garlic and onion that she used in camp cooking. She let each forager sniff and taste them, and a couple seemed to recognize them. Even so, most of them managed to bring back at least one item they thought would match. Sunny rejected most of them as being ineffectual due to the presence of toxins or tannins that rendered them inedible, but they had managed to find a variety of wild garlic and two varieties of onions, as well as a leafy herb. Sunny identified it as tseapa, and she sent them back out to collect as much of each as they could while she checked the food. She found no evidence of contamination in anything. The fungi did have high levels of arsenic, as she expected, but she determined it was of the benign organic form. The grubs and the tortoises did have higher than normal levels of inorganic arsenic, but not enough to account for the poisonings, even if they were all a creature ate. She also cleared the local spring, and Eile and her work party refilled the cauldron and cistern.
 
For breakfast, the creatures pulped the roots and fruits and mashed the grubs, then mixed it all together, making something that looked like a brownish farina-based porridge. The healthier individuals also got pieces of fungus and tortoise meat added on top. The ambulatories took it around to the bad and critical cases, removing their bedpans to be emptied at the same time. Sunny admonished a couple she caught just dumping the contents onto the ground outside the huts, instructing them to toss them out in the latrine instead, and Liaison backed her up. She actually wasn’t concerned about the urine; she just didn’t want to contaminate their new grounds with the faeces or arsenic. Besides, that had been part of the reason why they moved the camp, to get the creatures away from their own bodily waste. As that went on, Liaison showed Eile a technique for removing the head and viscera from a grub all at once and pinching off the legs, followed by wrapping them in leaves and roasting them in the coals. After some minutes, they came out looking like grilled brats. Eile nibbled on one and felt surprised by how good it tasted. The soft, squishy, pasty flesh had toughened into the consistency of sausage meat, and it had an unusual nutty, shellfish flavour that she found quite tasty. She figured she could learn to like stuff like that. Liaison also roasted some roots and fungi, and she shared them with Sunny, followed by fruit.
 
When the foragers returned with the herbs, Sunny seemed disappointed at how little there was. She had enough to give each patient a bulb of garlic and a couple of bulbs of onions for a couple of days, but she figured it could take ten days to two weeks to get all the arsenic out of their systems. To get more they would either have to go further afield or try to cultivate them. The bright spot was that the tseapa herb was quite common, and she used it to make a strong tea. It wouldn’t be as effective as garlic, but it was better than nothing, and those who could barely eat could still benefit from it. When she was ready, she and Eile made the rounds of the patients with her volunteers. While she dosed them and tended their illnesses, Eile spoke with those who were coherent enough for conversation. Unfortunately, no pattern emerged. There was not one food item they all ate in enough quantities to account for the toxicity, and they confirmed that, until they came to the Dying Camp, they drank from the Milk Stream.
 
Their progress was a mixed bag as well. Eile had taken it for granted that once they were removed from their filth and had fresh water, regular food, and medical attention, their physical health would improve as quickly as their morale. A few did seem to get better; however, most showed no change, a few got worse, and three criticals had died in the night. Two were from among the incurables, which didn’t surprise Sunny, though it saddened her, and she decided the arsenic did them in. The third, however, was one of those she thought could be saved, but when she examined him, she realized he had died of systemic shock from blood poisoning. She figured one of his boils must have gone septic. Though she had lanced and drained them all the day before, the infection must have already been in his blood. At that point, nothing could have been done for him, short of a massive antibiotic treatment. It made her wonder which of the others were in the same predicament, but one of her herbal concoctions had antibiotic properties, so she figured that as long as they stayed alive, they still had a chance. Liaison and some of Eile’s workers removed the bodies and took them to the clearing to be burned.
 
By mid-late-morning they had finished, and Eile and Sunny conferred with Liaison some distance from the camp.
 
“Looks like it’s a bust.” Eile felt dejected.
 
Sunny gave her a quizzical expression. “What do you mean?”
 
“These guys have nothing in common except bein’ sick.”
 
“But that’s not true!”
 
“Wha’?”
 
“Didn’t you hear them? They all drank from the Milk Stream.”
 
“Well, yeah, so? That can’t be the source of the contamination, or the whole village’d be sick.”
 
“They probably are.”
 
“Eh?! Yer not makin’ any sense, ya butthead!”
 
“Look, arsenic doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Levels that a healthy person can shrug off with only minor discomfort might kill someone else who is sickly or otherwise has a low resistance. I mean, there may have been a number of deaths already, they just occurred among those who are expected to die. No one would even suspect anything was wrong until healthy people started falling ill. They may all be feeling the effects by now, but haven’t become debilitated enough to feel the need to come here.”
 
Eile noted that Liaison didn’t objected or even get upset. “You seem ta be taking this rather calmly.”
 
“I do not like her accusation, but what she says make sense. Before the outbreak began, there had been an increase in the mortality of the very young and the old and infirm, and then among those you have described as ‘sickly’.”
 
“Have your people noticed anything else unusual?” Sunny asked.
 
He thought it over. “Our females have had more miscarriages, and some of our babies have been born underweight or deformed.”
 
“That kinda thing is pretty standard with metal poisoning.”
 
His quills collapsed against his back and it seemed that his whole body drooped, as if he had suddenly become despondent.
 
“What’s the matter?”
 
“The Mother sometimes gets angry with us, but usually Her punishment is a storm, or a flood, or a wild fire. To poison us with Her own milk...” His voice trailed off, as if that thought was too disturbing to contemplate.
 
“Maybe it’s not her fault.”
 
He eyed Sunny with a look that mixed suspicion with hope. “How do you mean?”
 
“When your women nurse, do you restrict them from eating certain foods, to keep their milk from being contaminated?”
 
He gave her a surprised look. “Yes, we do. We don’t even allow them to smoke.”
 
“Your women smoke?!” Sunny squealed.
 
“Not now!” Eile barked.
 
But Liaison wasn’t listening; he considered her words as he stroked his chin. “I see what you mean. You believe the Mother has consumed something noxious?”
 
“In a manner of speaking. I think the stream’s been exposed to arsenic in some fashion and it’s gotten into the water. Since your people drink from it almost exclusively, the arsenic has had a chance to build up in their bodies. That’s also the reason you’re fairly healthy; you only drink from it occasionally, so your body can remove the arsenic before it accumulates.”
 
Eile felt confused. “Isn’t this all kinda moot? We don’t even know if their water is the source.” Though she had to admit, that seemed likely.
 
“Well, there’s only one way to find out!” Sunny focused on Liaison. “Can you take us there?”
 
He nodded. “Yes, it is only an hour’s journey from here.”
 
“Alright! Eile and I need to grab a few things, but we’ll meet you here in a few minutes.”
 
“I shall await you.”
 
Eile followed Sunny back their hut, where they retrieved the rest of their ensembles.
 
“You really think their stream is the source of the arsenic?”
 
Sunny paused and gave her a worried look. “I certainly hope so, because otherwise I’m fresh outta ideas.”
 
“Yeah.” She didn’t like the sound of that either.
 
 
 
When they reached the Milk Stream, Eile was surprised to see that it was more like a small river. The point Liaison took them to was where it ran down a steep, rocky slope, which created a cascade series of falls. It was then that she realized that it corresponded to the Meoluc River, one of the three major waterways that passed through the forest.
 
Sunny took the bucket she brought with her and made her way out on the slippery, moss-covered rocks, while Eile nervously watched, her heart pounding as she expected the bimbo to slip and fall at any moment and be carried away by the current. But Sunny reached one of the falls without mishap, rinsed out the bucket, then filled it and brought it back.
 
“That was fun!” she gushed.
 
“Way ta take yer life inta yer hands, ya butthead. Where’d you leave me if you broke yer neck?”
 
“Oh, poo on you. Do you always hafta rain on my parade?”
 
“Heh, speaking of rain, the view’s kinda worth the aggravation.”
 
Sunny gave her a puzzled look; Eile motioned towards her chest and she looked down at herself. She had removed her jacket before she went out, and the water from the falls had soaked her top so that it clung to her bosom like a second skin, showing every bump, swell, and curve exactly.
 
She crinkled her eyes and giggled. “I guess I do stand out at that!”
 
That’s an understatement. If it weren’t for the circumstances, I’d be ripping that shirt off by now.
 
“Yeah, well, cover up, we’ve got company.” And she glanced at Liaison, who watched them both with a bemused look.
 
“You need not be concerned; you both look rather ugly to me.”
 
Eile grinned as Sunny laughed. “Heh, yeah, we probably do. So, what’s it ta be, ya ditz, analyse the water or have a wet tee-shirt contest?”
 
Sunny smirked and squatted down to stick her hand in the bucket. Eile waited for her to complete her mumbo-jumbo, and presently she stood up.
 
With a rather grim look on her face. “There’s enough arsenic in the water to kill the whole village.”
 
“That bad, huh?”
 
Sunny nodded and focused on Liaison. “Have your people noticed any changes in the populations or kinds of animals living in the stream?”
 
“Over the past few months, there has been a decline in frogs, salamanders, turtles, and certain types of fish.”
 
“The arsenic probably killed off the creatures they fed on. That probably caused their numbers to crash, assuming it didn’t kill them too.”
 
“But why’d it take so long?” Eile asked.
 
“It may not have taken very long at all, three, four weeks tops for enough to accumulate to start killing. It just took a while to cascade through the ecosystem. Plus, the levels aren’t high enough to cause acute poisoning in Liaison’s people. And like I said, some of them may have been affected worse than others. But once in their system, it weakens them, suppresses their immune system, makes them vulnerable to other diseases.”
 
“Which they picked up at the Dying Camp. But some have been there for up ta two months. Why didn’t any of them recover?”
 
“Arsenic can stick around for quite some time, unless removed by specific scavenging agents. It builds up in the tissues and diffuses out only slowly. As such, even if cut off from the source of contamination for weeks, they can still have enough in them to eventually kill them.”
 
Liaison gave her a pointed stare. “You are saying that all of my people are at risk?”
 
“Yes, they are. I’m sorry.”
 
“What can be done about it?”
 
“Well, for now, we can find them a temporary source of water. The arsenic will eventually be excreted as long as there is no source to replace it. They can also make that happen faster by eating garlic and drinking that tseapa tea.”
 
“They will not agree to those conditions. To do either of them would violate any number of taboos; they would not risk the shame.”
 
“We hafta try; it’s the only way to save them.”
 
“What if we had the Mother’s blessing?” Eile asked. “Would they do it then?”
 
He nodded. “They would, but how would we secure that?”
 
“You said the goddess of the well speaks for the Mother. What if she endorsed it?”
 
He stroked his chin again. “That would probably work. Presumably, the spirit would speak to the Mother. But we would need proof.”
 
“And there’s only one way to get it,” Sunny said. “We hafta follow the river upstream until we find the source of the contamination.”
 
“That may be difficult. The stream comes out of the Hills of Life. They are sacred to the Mother. To enter them without permission and proper purification would be a very serious offense. It would be as if we violated our own birth-mothers.”
 
“Even for outcasts like us?” Eile asked.
 
“Especially for outcasts.”
 
“What’d be the penalty?”
 
“If my people caught us entering or leaving the Hills, they would kill us without hesitation. Once inside, they would not follow, but then it would be the wrath of the Mother we should fear. And She can do more than kill us; She can prevent our spirits from entering the next life and force them to wander forever between the winds.”
 
“But we’re trying to help the Mother!” Sunny argued. “Surely she would see that!”
 
“One would hope so, but we could never be sure, unless the spirits told us.”
 
“You don’t hafta come with us.” Eile tried to reassure him. “White-Lion and I’ll take the risk alone.”
 
He shook his head. “No. You are my responsibility. And outcast I may be, but I am still one of the People. If I can save them from their own folly, I will, even if I must risk the fate of my spirit to do it. Besides, someone needs to guide you, and no one else will do it.”
 
Eile smiled. She was starting to really like the little guy. “We’ll be glad ta have ya.”
 
“Okay, boy and girl!” Sunny squealed. “We’ll leave first thing sunup tomorrow. I just wanna make sure the others know what to do while we’re gone.”
 
 
 
Sunny spent the rest of the day instructing the healthier ambulatories on how to proceed in her absence, but it seemed to Eile that they needed little coaching, being as they had been her helpers from the start. She doubted they would be willing to perform any kind of surgery, no matter how minor, but she also knew that Sunny’s efforts had made that unnecessary, for the time being. All they needed to do was continue to administer her potions and teas, and she had made sufficient to last for seven days, which she calculated should be more than enough time to get where they needed to go and back. After they ate and retired for the night, this time sleeping on their bedroll for better comfort, Sunny was so excited that she couldn’t fall asleep until Eile gave her the relief she needed. After that they slept like comatose cats the entire night.
 
Liaison woke them at first dawn, and after they relieved themselves, washed, and dressed, they repacked their gear and rolled up their bedding, and joined him at the cauldron. They ate a couple of baked grubs along with fruit and some of their travel bread, then set out snacking on tortoise shish kebabs after Sunny had a last minute conference with her assistants. They finished the kebabs by the time they reached the Meoluc, and Liaison led them upstream towards the northwest.
 
Eile had a pretty good idea that what Liaison called the Hills of Life were, on a map, the Palin Hills, a knot of uplands that poked up out of the northwest corner of the Forest of Parg. It was the source of the region’s three major rivers: the Squros, which ran southwest between the Karthian and the Havasok Hills and eventually joined with the Zuro River in the Land of Sydathria; the Amassone, which ran northeast through the Forest to join up with the River Skai north of the port city of Dylath-Leen; and the Meoluc, which ran southeast through the Forest to empty into the Bay of Skailyn. She was grateful that the jungle wasn’t as thick along the river, so they had a fairly easy time traveling, except for clambering over or detouring around the occasional jumble of boulders, while twice they had to scale steep slopes that turned the river into a cascade.
 
This was the first time she and Sunny had actually entered the Forest, though they had gone around it numerous times. From the stories they had heard, it sounded much like the Congo or the Amazon, and their experience didn’t contradict that, though it was drier than they expected a rain forest to be. Actually, Eile would have been happy to have never entered it at all; there were no roads through it, and the natives had a reputation for being very unfriendly. But as Sunny had told the entity in the well, they were returning from their journey to find the Temple of Ubasti with Medb hErenn, and they were eager to get back to Ulthar before they woke up. The traveller they had met had informed them that cutting through the Forest would save them two whole days, so they decided to try it. He had instructed them to keep first the Squros and then the Hills on their right at all times, but somehow they had crossed the river, because by afternoon they found it and then the Hills on their left. Not knowing how to get back on the proper track they just kept moving forward until approaching evening forced them to make camp for the night. Liaison’s people discovered them in the morning after they had dressed but before they could eat or pack.
 
They didn’t stop for lunch and instead ate jerky and adventurer’s chocolate (a concoction of raw chocolate, flour, sugar, and lard that was virtually tasteless and had a reputation for being well-nigh indigestible), and snacked along the way by foraging at Liaison’s instruction (though they balked at eating live wood grubs and maggot-filled fruits that smelled like faeces). They finally reached the foot of the Hills by late afternoon, and Liaison decided to stop there to spend the night rather than tackle the uplands in the evening.
 
As Eile set up camp, he and Sunny went hunting, and they brought back a small wild boar she brought down with her bow. Together they whipped up a passable kalua pig with side dishes of roasted forest snails and crawdads taken from a seasonal pond, and a poi made from starchy tubers and coarse fruits. When they had eaten their fill they buried the carcass in the cooking pit, and after cleaning up they sat around the fire, sharing a ration of brandy and rum with coffee and nuts, singing songs, and telling tall tales. At one point they told him how they had gotten lost.
 
“You were lucky,” he said.
 
“How so?” asked Sunny.
 
“Where you entered the jungle is ruled by the Suramnese. They are a decadent people who kidnap and enslave trespassers, whom they subject to sadistic torture for their vile pleasure, and I have heard tales that they will lure attractive victims into their territory for exactly that purpose. Had you somehow avoided them, north of the Hills you would have encountered the Tsul Kalu, a tribe of vicious beast-men who kill and eat anyone they encounter. Even the way you did go is fraught with peril, because that portion of the Squros is the home of the Tiki-tiik. Though nominally peaceful, they will mercilessly attack anyone who harms their trees, and the poison they use with their darts is deadlier than ours. And even if you had been able to avoid us and cross the Milk Stream, you would have encountered the Kigani, a tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals, long before you reached Fort Grant.”
 
“What if we had followed the Milk Stream?” Eile asked.
 
“Are you on good terms with cats?”
 
She glanced at Sunny. “Yeah, one of our best friends is a cat. She stayed behind in Oonai when we headed home.”
 
He nodded. “Then you may have found refuge with the Mbuti downstream. They are a tribe of feral cats that have made that part of the jungle their home. They could help you get across the Stream and guide you north to friendly tribes that would see you safely to the fort. However, you would first have to cross the territories of two dangerous tribes, the Kerit and the Ske’er’eete; they do not tolerate trespassers any better than my people do.”
 
“Geezus. Then what options do we have?”
 
“If you tried going south to the Havasok Hills you would encounter a community of Tcho-Tchos, who would try to capture you to sacrifice to their dark gods. Your best choice would be to cross the Stream then head down to the Sangha tribe. Though suspicious of strangers, they are mortal enemies of the Kigani, and for a reward they might agree to guide you to the fort. They are almost the only ones strong enough to protect you from the Kigani. Failing that, you could petition the Kuba-Teke, but you would have to face the Mikinalo along the way.”
 
“The who?” Sunny asked.
 
“A giant man-eating plant.”
 
She and Sunny exchanged worried glances. “Could you see us safely to Fort Grant?” Sunny asked.
 
Liaison took a moment to fill a pipe with dried weed and light it from the fire. “If you succeed in curing my people of this plague, you will have expiated your sin; we would not be beholden to you.” He expelled a puff of smoke. “But I have grown fond of the two of you, and would not see you put to unnecessary harm. If you succeed, I promise I will see you safely to those who can help you; the Mbuti most likely, or the Sangha. After that, you are on your own.”
 
Eile felt relieved, and from her partner’s expression she realized Sunny felt the same. “We’d appreciate it; thank you.”
 
“But that is only if you succeed. Otherwise it will be my sad duty to slay you both.”
 
She nodded. “We understand.” And Sunny nodded too. “By the way, do yer people have a name?”
 
“We call ourselves ‘The People’, as all others call themselves. But our neighbours call us the j’Anelicas.”
 
“May we call you that?” Sunny asked.
 
He shrugged. “It is of little consequence what you call us, provided it does not insult us.” And he accentuated his reply with a puff of smoke.
 
 
 
In the morning after he woke them, Liaison made them a breakfast of roasted grubs and tortoises, with more tubers and some sweet fruit. They were on the move before sunrise and followed the river into the mountains, sticking to the bank as much as possible. The going was tougher because of the rugged terrain, and they often had to detour around impassable falls or slog through the water itself. Eile figured it took longer to go half the distance of the day before, and the travel felt exhausting, but by mid-afternoon they reached the opening of a long, narrow ravine with steep walls. It had been closed off by a wooden palisade with a towered gate, except where the now smaller river flowed through a gap covered by an iron grate. As they watched from the cover of a stand of trees, a train of workers carrying large baskets filled with rocks on their backs wound its way through the gate.
 
Sunny shot her a pop-eyed astonished look, and she nodded. It was a mining operation.
 
Signalling silence, Liaison gestured for them to leave their packs hidden and he led them up the slope above the ravine to a spot where they could look down inside. It was V-shaped, the narrow end being a steep cliff-like slope with a waterfall running down its face. A levee diverted the water from the river bed to accumulate behind a dam. Runoff from the spillway turned a wheel, which was attached to a long wooden building. From inside, Eile could hear what sounded like dropping hammers. The water flowed along the length of the building to a collecting pool that sat just below the nearest end, before flowing through a ditch back into the river bed. The rest of the ravine held numerous tipi-shaped military tents along with a large Weatherport hut, as well as a smithy, an open-air refectory with a kitchen and bakery, an infirmary, and a bathhouse. Various people, all men, some armed, milled around, but none looked like slaves.
 
As they watched, a large door above the collecting pool opened, and workers dumped sludge from wheelbarrows into the pool.
 
“Son of a—!” That was as strong as Sunny’s language ever got. “That’s got to be the source of the arsenic!”
 
“Yeah.”
 
From where he lay between them, Liaison crawled back into the brush, and Eile heard him move further up the ravine.
 
“We’ve gotta close them down!”
 
Eile nodded. “We can destroy the building, but what about that pool? All that gunk’ll leak arsenic for years.”
 
“Not if also we tear down that levee. The water will return to its natural course. Then, we can block off the ditch and fill in the pool. That’ll seal it up for good.”
 
She nodded again. That could work—
 
“Grab ‘em!”
 
From behind her, she felt someone seize her by the arms and haul her to her feet.
 
“Hey! Leggo of me, you asshole!” She fought and kicked, but then someone else stuck a sword in her face. She calmed down and found that she and Sunny were each being held by a thug while a third, probably the leader, sized them up. At first she feared they were as good as dead, but then he lowered his weapon.
 
“You’re coming with us. Give us any trouble, and we’ll beat ya bloody, got it?”
 
“Yeah,” and Sunny nodded. Satisfied, he grunted and gestured to his companions. The men hauled them back down to the stockade and through the gate, pausing inside the guard house just long enough to relieve them of their weapons. Then they dragged them to the Weatherport hut.
 
The toughs pushed her and Sunny inside, but didn’t follow. She and Sunny looked behind themselves as they closed the door-like flap.
 
“Well, well, what do we have here?”
 
Her spine tingled and her skin goose-pimpled as she recognized the voice. She whipped around and caught a glimpse of Sunny’s face; she looked as shocked as she felt.
 
A woman sat behind a table covered with ledgers and loose papers, lighted by a few lanterns hanging from the hut’s metal ceiling frame. She had long, full-bodied, champagne-brown hair that flowed over her shoulders and framed a beautiful rectangular face with gold-amber eyes, dark-tan skin, and youthful but distinctive features, the most exotic being her slender triangular nose whose tip curved sharply downward like the tooth of a raptor’s beak. Which didn’t mar her appearance but reinforced her wilful domineering personality. She wore a short, long-sleeved, midnight-blue jacket with padded shoulders, but no shirt, thereby revealing the swell of her small breasts.
 
“Oh, my word!” Sunny breathed.
 
“Marseilles Sheraton.” This wasn’t good. She was the celebutante heiress to the Sheraton hotel fortune, infamous in the Waking World for her partying private life and sexual escapades. She was also a criminal godfather who was into everything illegal from assassination to white slavery, especially pornography; her specialty was Internet snuff films involving rape and torture. And she hated their guts.
 
She smiled, but it was hard and cold. “Nice to meet you two again as well. Still the adventurous duo, I see.”
 
“Yer the last person we expected ta find here.”
 
“You took the words right out of my mouth.”
 
“I’m surprised the cats haven’t flayed you alive yet.”
 
“You know better than I do, it’s only the Waking World where they don’t want people to know their secret. Here, they don’t care. Besides, I am under the protection of the Queen’s litter-brother, Lucifer. She cannot afford a feline civil war, so she leaves me alone as long as I don’t interfere with feline concerns.”
 
Sunny strode forward a couple of steps. “Just what’s going on here, anyways?” Her voice sounded stern and disapproving, like she scolded a miscreant child.
 
Sheraton smiled again, but for once she beamed with pride. “You like my little operation? The surrounding hills contain rich deposits of cobalt.”
 
“Cobalt?!”
 
“Yes, in the form of skutterudite ore.”
 
“Oh my fabulous gravy!” Sunny said. “That’s cobalt arsenide!”
 
“Why am I not surprised?” Eile said in a sarcastic tone.
 
Sheraton frowned in confusion. “What are you two talking about?”
 
“Yer operation is contaminating the river with arsenic.”
 
“So?” Her face appeared totally neutral, with no hint of emotion.
 
“It’s killing the j’Anelicas that depend on it for water!” Sunny said.
 
Sheraton’s expression didn’t change. “So? What do I care?”
 
Eile wasn’t surprised at her reaction, but Sunny exploded. “You monster!”
 
Sheraton scowled. “Spare me the histrionics! These deposits are clearly exposed. They’re easy to mine and extract; all I have to do is remove the arsenic. They yield large amounts of cobalt oxide, plus some nickel, a rich bonus. There’s no way in Hell I’m going to let concern for some primitive creatures, which aren’t even human, to interfere with that.”
 
“Isn’t cobalt radioactive?” Eile didn’t like the idea of being bombarded by nuclear death rays.
 
“Natural cobalt is a stable isotope,” Sunny replied, “so there’s no danger.” Then she addressed Sheraton. “But what good is it here?” Eile understood she meant the Dreamlands.
 
Sheraton barked out a laugh. “Are you kidding? It’s a worth a fortune! It’s highly prized for its blue and green colours in glass, ceramics, inks, and paints. It can be used to harden steel, making it corrosion, heat, and wear-resistant. It serves as a ground coating for enamelling. It can be electroplated to form a hard, lustrous shell that resists oxidation. Some sorcerers even use it in their spells. I’ve already made a million tahlers off this operation just in the past six months, and I expect to triple that by the end of the year.”
 
Eile smirked. “And being as the hills are sacred and taboo, you can operate in complete safety, undiscovered.”
 
Sheraton smiled. “Exactly.”
 
“There’s more to this than just a filthy purse string,” Sunny said.
 
Sheraton raised an eyebrow, not getting the reference, but she waved it off. “Why all this interest in those pygmy bastards?”
 
“They’ve been getting sick drinking your tainted water, and they asked us to cure them.”
 
“Asked you? My experience with them is that they kill first and forget to ask questions.”
 
Eile shrugged her shoulders. “Well, they were gonna, but then...um...” She looked at Sunny.
 
“Their god asked them to spare us.”
 
Sheraton looked dumbfounded. “Their...god?”
 
“Well, it’s not really a god, just some entity they worship.”
 
“But when it found out we were Team Girl, it convinced them ta ask us ta help them.”
 
“Really.”
 
“Hey! You needn’t make it sound like we’re nuts! You’ve been here long enough; you know what this place is like, what can be found here.”
 
Sheraton frowned. “You two always did have the devil’s own luck. Whatever. In any event, it’s been fun chatting with you two, but I’ve got work to do.”
 
“So, what’re you going to do with us?” Sunny sounded nervous.
 
Eile felt butterflies dive-bomb her stomach, but she’d be damned if she’d let Sheraton see her scared. “She’s probably gonna give us to her workers for their entertainment.”
 
Sunny gave her a puzzled look. “What sort of entertainment?”
 
Eile sighed in frustration. “Whaddya think, ya dope?”
 
For a moment, Sunny looked confused, but then she figured out what she meant.
 
“Oh!” Her eyes imitating her mouth. “Oh dear!”
 
“Yeah, ‘oh dear’ is right, ya ditz.”
 
“Don’t tempt me.” Sheraton gave them a fiendish leer. “I’d like nothing better. Though if it comes to that, I’d probably make a small fortune doping you up on black lotus and selling you as sex toys. Then again, the Leng Men have offered a substantial reward for your capture. Frankly, I’m rather curious about what they would do to you. I understand their tortures can be quite ingenious.”
 
“Why do you hate us so much?” Sunny asked in all innocence. “What did we ever do to you?”
 
Sheraton slammed a hand down on the table, startling them both. She bolted out of her chair and leaned over the table, bracing her hands on its top.
 
“What did you do to me?! You ruined me, that’s what you did! You destroyed my life! If I didn’t like getting blood on my hands—” She picked up a letter opener, holding it like a weapon, and left the rest of her threat unspoken.
 
Eile’s heart thudded against her sternum like it was trying to escape, but she was more mad than scared. “We didn’t do a freakin’ thing, lady! All we did was turn you in when you tried ta blackmail yer own family with that phony kidnapping scheme. And you still managed ta pull it off. So yer not exactly hurtin’.”
 
Sheraton straightened up as she savagely threw the opener at the desk, and its point stuck in the wood. “A measly hundred million; hardly adequate compensation when I used to be worth a hundred times that.”
 
Eile smirked again. “That’s not what we’ve heard. You’ve been doin’ pretty good for yerself since then, and it hasn’t exactly crimped yer social life either.”
 
Sheraton came out from behind the table, jamming her fists into her hips. She had a fit, slim body and figure, with shapely legs covered by a short midnight-blue skirt that went two-thirds of the way down her thighs, but she was barely taller than either of them. Oddly enough, she was barefoot.
 
“The life I have now may not be a hard one, but it wasn’t what I chose!”
 
Sunny was more direct. “Oh, please! Cut the sob story, sister. Everything that’s happened is your own fault, and any ‘suffering’ you feel pales compared to what you did to those poor innocent people. Especially the children! Really, Sheraton, children? I mean, what kind of inhuman freak makes movies of kids being raped and tortured?! It’d be bad enough if you were titillated by that, but you did it for money! I don’t understand how a woman could be so cold and unfeeling! Don’t you have any warmth? Don’t you feel any guilt at all?!”
 
The expression the felonious celebutante flashed in that moment seemed so diabolically cruel that Eile feared they had crossed some sort of line. “You two are lucky that killing you here and now wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as killing you in the Waking World, no matter how painful.” Her voice was so low it sounded like something heavy being dragged over coarse gravel. “And the only thing that keeps me from packing you off to the Dylath-Leen slave market is that whatever degradation you’d experience would only last as long as you’re asleep; I would prefer it lasted for years!”
 
Eile had thought the j’Anelicas were hard-core, but at least they were not sadists. It made her realize that sometimes a primitive savage could be nobler than a so-called civilized woman.
 
“Besides, I’m willing to forgo revenge, for the time being. I might have a use for you. There can be no doubt you are two very capable young ladies, and I have need of that here. I would be willing to put aside my hatred, if you would be willing to put aside your high moral ideals.”
 
“If you think—” Eile stepped on Sunny’s foot. “Ow!!”
 
“What did you have in mind?” Sunny threw her a shocked expression, as if she thought she had gone mad.
 
Sheraton stepped closer. She had a suspicious look in her eyes, but she said, “One reason this operation is not more profitable is because I’m not here to supervise it half the time, and my men are most certainly either goofing off or robbing me blind. I can’t trust any of them to look out for my interests, but if you agreed to oversee the work when I’m awake, I know I could trust you, since the alternative would be far more unpleasant, however personally unsatisfying.”
 
“That’s not much of an incentive. What’s ta keep you from carrying out yer revenge after you close this operation down?”
 
Sheraton threw her a grim smile. “Nothing, but as long as this mine is profitable, I’ll keep it running until the ore plays out. That could be Dream-years from the size of it. Maybe by then you will prove invaluable, in which case I would be a fool to dispose of you.”
 
Eile shook her head. “Still not enough. We’d wanna share of the take.”
 
“Why should I agree?”
 
“Because even if we only double yer revenue, you’d still come out further ahead than you do now. And I can guarantee we’d at least triple it.”
 
Sheraton didn’t respond right away, but Eile could almost see the gears turning in her head as she calculated her advantage.
 
“How much would you want?”
 
“A third.”
 
Sheraton shook her head. “No, too much; an eighth.”
 
“We’ve got expenses too, ya know. A quarter.”
 
“There’s nowhere to spend it out here. A sixth.”
 
“Let’s split the difference; a fifth.”
 
Sheraton calculated some more, then favoured her with a wry smile. “On one condition: I want control of your bodies in the Waking World.”
 
“Meaning what?”
 
“Meaning that you’ll live with me, and you’ll sleep where I can keep an eye on you.”
 
“You’ll split our take, half dollars, half tahlers?”
 
Sheraton grinned. “Agreed.”
 
She nodded, smiling. “Agreed.”
 
“Eile, no!”
 
“I’m not dyin’ for those creatures, Sunny! Besides, we can help ‘em better this way.”
 
“Let’s drink to our partnership.” Sheraton walked over to a small table that had a decanter of wine and a dozen glasses.
 
“What are you doing?!” Sunny gave her an angry look.
 
“Just go along with me for now.” She whispered in her ear as Sheraton poured wine into three glasses. “I’ll explain later.”
 
Sunny arched her eyebrows, but then she smiled in a sly manner and winked. “Gotcha, partner.” She crinkled her eyes.
 
Sheraton turned around and came back, offering a glass to each of them. She raised hers and said, “To a successful collaboration.” They tapped their glasses against hers and started to take a sip.
 
“Oh, before I forget...” Eile and Sunny lowered their hands. “My men saw you with one of those creatures. We can’t have it causing trouble. Where can they find it?”
 
Cripes! She had hoped she didn’t know about Liaison. Maybe she could try a bluff. “He ran off before you caught us. We really don’t know where he is.”
 
Sheraton smiled in triumph, and Eile realized she had just blundered big time. “So, you are working together.”
 
“Huh?” Sunny squeaked.
 
“Eile wouldn’t have called it ‘he’ if you weren’t. What was your plan? To infiltrate my operation and then let it and its friends in after dark? Not bad, actually, it might have worked. Now, then, tell me where it is and I might—”
 
Sunny threw her glass of wine into Sheraton’s face. “We’d never betray a friend, even if you kill us!” Eile was shocked by Sunny’s sudden display of defiance, but after it wore off, she felt proud of her, even as she realized Sheraton wouldn’t forgive it.
 
Sheraton blinked and gasped in surprise, but then her face clouded in rage. “You filthy slut!” She spat wine off her lips as she raised her hand to strike Sunny across the face, but Eile dropped her glass and caught her arm as Sunny shrank back.
 
“Touch her, and I’ll break yer goddamned neck!”
 
Sheraton stared at her, still enraged, wine dripping off her cheeks, nose, and chin, but Eile also saw fear in her eyes. She wrenched her hand out of her grip, stepped back, and flung her glass away.
 
“Guards!”
 
The three toughs who had captured them opened the door-flap, but only one strode in.
 
“Get them out of my sight!”
 
He grinned and signalled to the other two, who came in and gripped their arms.
 
“Take them out of camp, cut their throats, and throw them into the ravine. Let the scavengers take care of them.”
 
“Yes, Ma’am, right after we have a little fun first.”
 
“No, now!”
 
“Don’t worry, we won’t take long.” And the other two laughed.
 
She walked up to him and jabbed a finger in his chest. “I said now! I want them killed immediately! They’re too dangerous, too resourceful, especially her!” She pointed at Sunny, who blinked an innocent ‘Who, me?’ look at her.
 
The leader thug looked down at her with a displeased expression. “Look here, lady—”
 
Sheraton whipped a kukri knife out from behind her back underneath her jacket and pressed the blade to his neck. “You are not indispensable. Do as I say, or I’ll replace you with someone more obedient. Understand?!”
 
His face resembled a mask of fright, as he sweated and gulped and gritted his teeth, and even Eile believed she would do it on the spot. He closed his eyes and said, “Yes, Ma’am.”
 
She lowered the knife. “Then get to it!”
 
He nodded and turned towards his companions. “Get ‘em out of here!” As they pulled her and Sunny out, Eile saw Sheraton turn away and head back to the table, wiping a hand across her face.
 
They were dragged a few yards from the hut, when the leader stopped and signalled to two more to accompany them.
 
“Get yer hands off us, assholes!” Eile jerked her arm loose.
 
“Let ‘em go, they can’t run anyway.” The four others surrounded them, taking out their swords, and formed an escort as the leader started off for the gate.
 
“I’m sorry,” Sunny said, sounding contrite.
 
“Eh, forget it. You only did what I was thinkin’; I couldn’t’ve turned him in either. Besides, we’re not dead yet.”
 
“Shut up!” the tough behind her ordered. She gave him a baleful stare, but made no reply.
 
Once through the gate the party didn’t go far. Out of sight of the camp around the bulge of an outcrop of granite, the terrain dropped away into a deep, forested ravine. Beside the edge, placed off to one side, stood eight man-high posts.
 
“Tie ‘em up.” They were pushed towards the poles while two of the men took lengths of rope out from under their coats.
 
“Hey, what gives?” another man said. “Aren’t we gonna bang ‘em first?”
 
“The bitch wants ‘em dead now.” The leader sounded less than pleased.
 
“Damn! The first pieces of tail to come our way in months, too! What’s her problem, anyway?”
 
“She says they’re dangerous.”
 
“Them?! Shit, they’re just girls, fer christsakes. What can they do?”
 
“Hell if I know, but her orders were clear.”
 
“Screw her orders! We can at least strip ‘em.”
 
“What if we tied ‘em to the posts backwards? Then we can do ‘em and they can’t stop us or get away.”
 
The leader thought that idea over. “You know, that just might work. As long as they’re helpless, it shouldn’t matter, right boys?”
 
The tough nearest Eile said, “Yeah, there’s nothing that says we can’t have some fun with ‘em.” And he stroked her ponytail.
 
She slapped the hand away. “Hands off, buster!”
 
The leader said, “Hey, you can fight all you want, it makes no difference to us, we’ll just take what we want regardless, but if you give it to us willingly, you’ll live a little longer. At least, you’ll have a happy memory when we cut your throats.” His men laughed with grim humour as he grinned in an evil fashion. “And if you’re really good, we might even let you go, right boys?” The laughter increased in strength.
 
“Hey!” The laughter stopped as the men looked at Sunny.
 
“You want what we got?” She slipped off her jacket. “Then come and get it!” And she lifted her shirt above her breasts.
 
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK

 Outcast of Venus

 

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