"Guiles Thornby isn't it?" the Reever asked me. "We met when I visited your... employer's home."
"Nice to see you again Reever," I said. "Thanks for saving my life, by the way. I thought I was going to be monster-chow there for a few minutes. Who's the one with the flame-thrower? I'd like to shake his hand."
"That would be Tinhill," said the Reever. "It seems that its his day to be a hero, yours is the second life he's saved this morning. Our friend Blackfur ran afoul of a patch of hungry sawtooth vine."
"How badly is he hurt?" I asked quickly. "Those things are poisonous as well as hungry! If my Medi-kit survived that lizard's foot-stomp I may be able to help."
"Let's go down and look for it," the Reever replied. Tinhill hasn't anything that will counteract all of the symptoms." The Reever took me aside as the two children looked at one another with frightened faces. As we climbed back down the hill that I'd just come up, the Reever continued- "Actually, I'm glad that it was you that we met- or, at least one of the Collector's people. Blackfur's only hope now is to get to some advanced medical help."
"I know. The Collector warned us about sawtooth vine- not only is the plant carnivorous, poisonous, and as motile as an octopus- it also leaves microscopic seeds behind in any wound that it makes. So that it can spread if the victim does manage to get away, I suppose. Great evolutionary tactic for a plant, but vicious."
"Yes, if we don't kill those seedlings in his wound- within six months he'll be dead and sprouting vines."
"They'll eat him for fertilizer..."
"Then let's pray that my Medi-kit wasn't damaged. Or you'll have to kill your friend and burn his body." There wasn't much left to say after that.
When we found my pack I did another round of cursing- aimed at the lizard, of course. Most of the contents of the pack were a total loss, but the medi-kit was all right- as were the crystals that held the patterns of the things that the Collector had sent me to search out. My communicator was flattened, so was my blaster. My clothing was pressed flat, but at least it wasn't the clothes I was wearing. I hoisted the remains of my pack and we lost no time getting back up the slope and seeing to Blackfur's wounds. My medi-kit buzzed and clicked to itself when I placed it over the wounds. Its little "treatment in progress" light stayed lit for nearly half an hour- while we held Blackfur still and hoped that the medicine reservoirs wouldn't run dry before the medi-kit was through.
I shouldn't have been worried- the Collector uses tiny teleport units in each medicine vial in the kit- those things would never run dry! Once I saw a wine bottle with one of those teleports used as a weapon. Someone threw it like a grenade. When the bottle burst, the wine kept flowing until the teleport's safety cut in. Ever seen a five acre pond of red wine?
Once the treatment was finished and Blackfur was sleeping, I finally got around to asking what the Reever and his friends was doing in the mountains. Something in the Reever's description of the black cloud clicked in my memory. It sounded just like something that had once attacked the Museum! If I was right, this same thing had caused the Collector to make one of his few mistakes- one that he still regretted bitterly. One that was still remembered by the natives of this planet as "the night that the stars changed." I shivered with fear at the memory.
"So, where to from here Reever?" I asked.
"You will be joining us, young man?" asked Tinhill.
"Yes, I'm in. My boss would want me to help. I think that we have a common enemy. Of course, without my communicator I'm cut off from asking for his help and advise. Or from getting us any faster transport," I added.
"I thought you had an implanted communicator," said the Reever.
"Damaged in a fight a few months ago," I said. "I have to wait a few more months before the replacement can be fitted. I have a high rejection factor and those implants always cause me trouble. My body keeps reacting to the damned things, like an allergy or something."
"We were going to ride to Tulag," said the young boy. Ely, I think he'd said his name was- the girl was his sister Pearl. "To ask for the advice and help of King Lutay."
"Isn't that the land where everyone is a magician?" I asked. "Never been there. I thought that they didn't allow anyone to visit."
"I was a history teacher there," said the Reever, "In their college. I believe that my friends there will allow us entry to the kingdom. Lutay's son Alazar became one of my best friends, and was my best student. Besides, my position allows me free access to any realm on the planet, theoretically."
"Theoretically?" I asked.
"There are some places that would not be safe to visit," the Reever said. He declined to amplify that statement further.
"We were going to follow the river down to the gateway of Tulag," said Pearl. "But with Uncle Blackfur injured..." Her voice trailed off in sadness.
"I think I can help there," I said. "Are there any rapids or waterfalls on this river?"
"Not on the part we'd have to travel," said the Reever. "Why?"
"Well, parts of my tool kit are intact- I think we can build a boat of some kind and float downstream."
"Good," said Tinhill. "Lets get busy."
It was the ugliest boat I'd ever seen. But, it floated and held all of us- selkies included. It took us three days to build. Without the molecular "saw" and the ion bonder from my tool kit it would have taken us a month or better. The saw is a single-strand molecule, unbreakable, and able to slice through almost anything. The ion bonder we used like a welder- joining the wooden planks together, as if they were becoming a single boat-shaped piece of wood.
Blackfur slept fitfully for most of that time. Pearl stayed close to him and I showed her how to use the medi-kit. It wasn't giving him any more anti-venom injections, but it was monitoring his progress and keeping him sedated. We woke him long enough to get him aboard the boat, then let him sleep some more.
Once we had everything loaded, we untied and began drifting downstream. In a few days- a week at the most -we'd be at the gates of a land that I'd never even thought to be real, much less able to visit. The Collector would never forgive me if I'd passed up this opportunity. I hummed a tune from an old movie and wondered what Dorothy and Toto would have thought of an entire country full of Wizards.
Six days later we saw the tallest waterfall in the world. Just upstream of where it entered the river we were navigating was a dock, a large glassed-in building, and what looked like a set of rails stretching up to the top of the waterfall. In spite of everything I'd seen since I'd started working for the Collector, I was impressed with the engineering. Most areas of Bethdish were medieval in character. Some still had the remains of high-tech cultures scattered about, but a very few seemed to have escaped the various falls from civilization that were the norm. Tulag looked to be one of the few that kept their advances far longer than the rest of the world. I suppose that their isolation was the deciding factor.
"Port Verbad," said the Reever. "I haven't been this way in five centuries or more. Doesn't seem to have changed much."
As we floated closer I could see figures standing on the boat-dock.
"Looks like we have a reception committee," I said. "Will they be friendly?"
"Tulag has never attacked any other country," said Tinhill. The Reever nodded in agreement. "They have repulsed invaders from time to time, but conquest is not in their character."
"Emissaries from Tulag have helped many peoples across the world, often as teachers or healers. They also help preserve histories and technology- providing a link across the ages, helping cultures in the long climb back to advanced civilization," said the Reever. "They are the most advanced society in the world, except for my own people. They are isolationists, but not unkind or rabidly paranoid. They know that history has to advance at it's own pace. No doubt they have been aware of us for days, but if we were unwelcome they would have cast an illusion over this place that would have prevented us from seeing it."
One of the figures on the dock raised his arms and gestured toward our boat. We felt a gentle lurch as the boat changed course by itself and sped toward the dock. The boat stopped as we touched the dock. Ropes were cast to us and we tied up.
"Welcome to Port Verbad," said the man who had magically brought us to rest. "I am Anarday, Portmaster of Verbad. I welcome you in the name of Lutay, the Wizard-king of Tulag. Be assured that you will be well received and made guests of Tulag for as long as you wish. Reever, it has been far too long since you last graced our fair land. Tinhill of Cequat, High Priest of Antuth from the land of Urth in the High Valley- you honor us with your presence." Anarday bowed low to Tinhill. Evidently the Reever wasn't the only celebrity in our little party. "May the God of Sun and Stars bless this day and our meeting. Is your injured companion able yet to travel?"
"I can make it," said Blackfur weakly. He had been awake but quiet for several hours now. The medi-kit had finished it's cure and had pronounced him on the road to recovery two days ago. "Though I may need a strong shoulder to lean upon."
"Your need has been anticipated, honored blacksmith. Our strength is yours to call upon. Come, Lutay awaits in his Tower. You will have a pleasant journey to his home, and have time to rest from your wearying trip."
"Follow the yellow brick road..." I thought. "Toto, we definitely aren't in Kansas any more," I said to no one at all.
Bethdish is a world circling a star, called Antuth by the natives (who named the star after the chief deity in their pantheon), presently some 65 lightyears from Earth. Rumor has it that the entire solar system had earlier been located in the Andromeda Galaxy, but was moved by some mysterious force to its new location in our own Milky Way Galaxy. The surviving written history of Bethdish covers some 12,000 years, (with the afore-mentioned displacement to the Milky Way occuring in their year 6055 -- circa 3140 AD, Terran Calendar) but the records of the Immortals reportedly go back roughly a billion years and relate the rise and fall of several civilized eras of non-immortal natives before the present recorded history begins.
The Immortals claim to have been directly created by the Gods of Bethdish, while the diverse non-immortal species are said to have evolved naturally. The several alien colonies now present are, of course, immigrants. One Xenoarcheologist of note, Professor Eustas Gray of the Emperor Norton University of San Francisco, has published several monographs on the subject of excavations on Bethdish that purport to uphold the Immortal's beliefs. Other experts in the field dispute his findings, but all the evidence is not yet in.
Further records of the history of Bethdish are forthcoming from this Author, while previous excerpts are available in your local information network.
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