It took them five days to reach the Great Pipes. The land changed around them, the trees growing thin and tall again, reminding Summer of the desert. It was colder, though. Pine needles lay dry and crackling under Glorious’s paws.
Ankh and Ounk waddled when Glorious walked and flew when he ran. Summer stopped thinking they looked absurd and began to admire the alert arch of their necks and the way they handled their weapons.
It was strange to feel safer because one was guarded by geese, but among so many strange things, it hardly registered at all.
At night, they took shifts. One stood guard outside the cottage while the other slept. They did not make any great fuss out of it, they simply did it.
“It is what we do,” said Ankh, when Summer asked.
“Since the very beginning,” said Ounk. “When the moon-fox killed the first earth and our ancestors were hatched to guard the second one.”
“When were hoopoes hatched?” asked Summer.
Ankh glanced over at Reginald, who was practicing his dance steps. “When the gods were feeling particularly mischievous,” she said.
“I heard that!” said Reginald, while the weasel snickered in Summer’s hair.
Summer didn’t recognize the Pipes when she saw them at first. At first they looked like odd mountains, and then like lumpy skyscrapers, and then like a rock formation. It was not until they had come over a ridge and begun their descent into a narrow valley that she realized what she was looking at.
“Is that a cactus?”
“It is,” said Ankh.
“An organpipe cactus,” said Ounk. “The largest in all the world, so far as we know.”
It was larger than Summer had realized. The roots were down in the valley and the top stood well above the ridgeline. The many arms of the cactus filled the valley completely in both directions, a wall of knobbly green.
The Great Pipes were deeply grooved up and down, studded with spines as thick as a fence post. Holes riddled the cactus, edged with gray. Summer feared that it might be wasp damage, until she saw birds going in and out—not little birds, like the valet flock, but enormous woodpeckers the size of Reginald.
The hoopoe took to the air and flew ahead, calling out. Several woodpeckers looked out of their holes and flew out to meet him. They had pale bellies and wings striped black and white like a tweed suit. Each had a spot of red on top of their heads, far more vivid than blood.
They circled in the air, then Reginald perched on a cactus spine and the woodpeckers gripped onto the cactus and turned their heads to face him. Summer couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other.
“Do you think it’s dangerous to live there, with all those spines?” asked Summer.
Glorious made a hrrrmmm noise. Ounk shook her head. “It would be, but they clip the ends off,” she said. “And down at the base, most of the spines are ground away, for land-walkers.”
Land-walkers, thought Summer. Does that include human-type people?
Apparently it did, because a few minutes later, someone came out to meet them.
He was not exactly the same as the humans in Summer’s world, but he was quite close. His skin was the same buff color as the woodpeckers’ feathers and his hair was the same blinding red shade as their crests. Otherwise he looked perfectly ordinary. He wore a moss-green tunic and his arms were tattooed in swirls of red and violet.
“May I help you, travelers?” he asked. His eyes lingered on Glorious.
Summer took a deep breath. “Lord Almondgrove sent us,” she said. (It was easier to say that than Baba Yaga sent me, and she suspected that people would be more likely to believe her.) “May we speak to someone in charge, please?”
She half-expected him to laugh at her or say something about how young she was, but he did not. Perhaps the wolf and the goose-guards made her seem like someone worth listening to.
Instead he said, “Is the matter spiritual or political?”
“…uh,” said Summer. “It’s…err….magical. Which is that?”
He screwed up his face in thought. “Good question. Well, I will take you to the Temple, and then if we’ve chosen wrong, they’ll send you to the Mayor.”
“That should work,” said Summer gratefully.
“Then follow me.”
The Temple was built deep inside the cactus. Their guide led them into a door in the base of one of the arms. A short flight of stone steps led up to it. The cactus had actually grown into the steps, the green flesh scarred but clearly alive.
“This must have been here a long time,” said Summer.
“Centuries,” said their guide. “The Great Pipes are at least ten thousand years old. Organpipes rarely flower until their first century, but in spring, there are so many flowers that the pollen falls like golden snow.”
Reginald landed beside them. “Capital fellows here,” he said cheerfully. “Always a little hard to talk to woodpeckers. All rat-a-tat-tat, too fast to follow! But decent folk. They say the Temple’s where we want to be.”
“Excellent,” said the guide, and vanished into the cactus.
Summer went first, with Glorious beside her, then Reginald, then the goose-guard. It was large enough for two to walk abreast. The inside was cool and dim. She could not figure out what the walls were made of—something like wood, but like no wood she’d ever seen, full of polished hollows.
“Cactus ribs,” said the guide. “Almost like bones. The most marvelous stuff in the world, but we only harvest a small amount, to keep the Pipes healthy. You can touch it if you like.”
Everyone unobtrusively found a piece of wall to touch. The guide laughed.
The ribs had a strange texture under Summer’s fingertips, like a hard sponge. It reminded her of coral branches.
The guide led them through several oddly shaped doorways. The openings were normal enough at ground height, but rose high in the air in irregular shapes, no two alike. One looked like an elongated heart and the next was a lattice of holes.
“The doors are where two of the trunks grow together,” the red-headed man explained. “If they lie together too closely, they can begin to rot, and so we must cut away the damaged ribs. But we cut only so much as we must.”
A flight of steps led down and then the walls belled out around them, into a chamber nearly as large as the hall where the noble-birds had danced. It was full of people, most of them the same buff-and-scarlet as their guide, and it appeared to be a market. There were people behind tables and even more people swirling between the tables, shopping and haggling. Summer saw woodpeckers perched on vertical stands behind tables, selling carvings and fruits and jars of things that looked rather like pickles. She glanced at one as they passed, saw that the pickles had legs, and looked away hurriedly.
In among the others were a few more exotic persons—green-skinned humanoids and copper-scaled lizards that walked upright, and one family that wouldn’t have been out of place on a street in Summer’s world.
Ripples of interest went out as their group threaded their way through the hall—“A wolf! Look at that!” and “Is that a dog?” and, “No, the dogs are gone. It’s a wolf, I think.”
Glorious’s tongue lolled in amusement.
“I’m sorry,” said the guide, “it’s the fastest route, please forgive them, Master Wolf, we don’t usually see your people here—”
“Let them look,” said Glorious. “My hide is not so raw that another’s eyes can scar it.”
It was rather nice, Summer thought, to see someone else briefly baffled by Glorious’s cryptic statements.
“Oh,” said their guide. “Um, all right. This way, please…”
They came to more steps. The walls here looked less like bone and more like a fine tangle of roots and earth.
“The marketplace is underground,” explained the guide, “as are most of the largest rooms. The cactus roots are not so sensitive as the ribs. The Temple is the largest room within the Pipes themselves.”
The reason for this became obvious as soon as they reached the Temple. Here one of the vast arms of the cactus lay on its side. The grooved walls curved and twisted slightly. Summer felt as if she were standing inside some kind of giant sea creature.
It was here that they encountered the first actual door they had seen, rather than a doorway. The door was about eight feet high, round, and made of some pale, translucent substance, like pearl.
…I wish I hadn’t thought that.
“If you will wait here, please,” said the guide.
He slipped through the door.
A wave of incense came through the door as he closed it. It was so thick that the weasel coughed in her pocket and Summer had to wipe her eyes.
“Guh,” muttered the weasel, sticking his head out. “What is that?”
“Even I can smell that,” said Reginald, “and I’m not much for the old sniff box.”
“Burning sage,” said Glorious, lifting his head. “But there is another smell beneath it. Someone is hiding something.”
Summer stared at the door, but it had no answers. She found herself trying to figure out where one would get a pearl that size, or for that matter, a fingernail.
“Do they have giant oysters in Orcus?” she asked.
“They say the island of Shellip is built on a giant oyster,” said Reginald doubtfully, “but it looks like a perfectly ordinary island to me. I don’t know how you’d tell. Why?”
“I was wondering what the door was made of.”
“The lower carapace of a mammoth tortoise,” said Ankh. “They are no longer hunted, for they are too rare. I suspect that this one is very old.”
“Nearly a thousand years,” said the guide cheerfully, stepping back through. “Come, travelers, the priestess will see you now.”
He pushed the door open wide, and they stepped into a very long room. The floor was tiled in marble and the polished ribs of the cactus formed a starburst at the far end.
The smoke was pouring from braziers on either side of the room. It hung thickly over the ceiling, forming a cloud that one could hardly see through. A series of sneezes came from inside Summer’s pocket.
A woman stood in front of the starburst. She was tall and stately, clad in long violet robes edged with silver. Her fingers shone with rings and she had vestments made from polished cactus ribs, linked together like chainmail.
She also looked almost exactly like Summer’s fourth-grade teacher, Miss Hardert, except taller and with slightly different colored skin.
“The priestess Cereus, Voice of the Great Pipes,” said the guide to them, and then, in a ringing voice, “Your Holiness, pilgrims sent by Lord Almondgrove to see you on a matter most…”
He paused and glanced at them.
“Urgent,” said Summer firmly.
“A matter most urgent!”
What would he say if I’d said, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal, really,’ I wonder? ‘A matter most casual?’
Priestess Cereus wore a headdress with a pair of serpents on it. They coiled down over her shoulders, turning their heads and flicking their tongues. It was impossible to see if she had Miss Hardert’s salt-and-pepper hair under the serpents, but it seemed likely.
“Welcome to the Great Pipes, pilgrims,” said the priestess. If she had followed with, “Please hand your homework to the front of the class,” it would not have surprised Summer in the least. Still, her voice was deeper than Miss Hardert’s, a voice for uttering prophecy and commandments, not a voice for handing in homework.
The priestess beckoned them forward.
It was a long way. Glorious’s claws clicked on the stone floor. The valet-flock halted at the doorway, making tiny chirps of dismay at the smoke.
“It’s all right, chaps,” said Reginald. “Can’t imagine I’ll need a new neck-cloth in the next five minutes. Go back outside, will you?”
The valet-birds took off with glad chirps. Reginald shook his head fondly.
“Why have you come?” asked the priestess. The serpents on her shoulders watched with lidless golden eyes.
“Snakes,” muttered the weasel. “Never liked snakes.”
Summer licked her lips. She hadn’t prepared a speech. She hadn’t realized that she was going to have to make one.
“We came here looking for a wondrous thing,” she said. “Um.”
“The Great Pipes are wondrous,” said the priestess impassively. “Is that all?”
“Errr. No. We’re looking for—uh—that is, there’s something attacking wondrous things.Wasps. We’re trying to catch one. Has there been any damage? To the pipes? Like rotting or something eating away a chunk?”
She rubbed her hands on her jeans. Her palms were sweaty and the incense was making her a little light-headed.
“I will speak to the human girl alone,” said Priestess Cereus.
Summer blinked. Ankh and Ounk bristled.
“We cannot allow that.”
“She is in our care.”
The guide frowned. “Do you question the goodwill of the Voice of the Great Pipes? Your charge could stab our priestess with that sword of hers, too.”
The Priestess raised her hand. “Peace, Arlight. They mean no disrespect. Good birds, will you allow this? There are two entrances to this chamber, the one you have entered and one behind the altar, to my private quarters. If you will station yourself at each door, no one may enter or leave without your knowledge. Will that be acceptable?”
Ankh and Ounk glanced at each other.
“Summer?” asked Ankh.
“It’s okay,” said Summer. She wasn’t sure what was going on, but surely this was only the next step in this adventure. She unbuckled the cheese-sword. “Can you hold this for me, Reginald?”
Reginald took the sword, tucking it awkwardly under his wing. The weasel climbed out of her pocket and onto Glorious’s shoulder.
“Sorr—achoo!—I can’t—not with the smoke—ah—ach-choo!” He sneezed and chittered simultaneously and had to cling to the wolf’s fur to keep from falling off.
“May we inspect the room?” asked Ounk.
Summer stood awkwardly beside the priestess as the geese waddled the length of the temple. Their guide, Arlight, rocked on his feet, looking slightly embarrassed. Priestess Cereus herself folded her arms inside her sleeves, as composed as the serpents on her shoulders.
The geese nodded to each other. Ankh went to the back and Summer heard the click of a door closing as she took her post outside it.
Glorious curled his lips. “Something is rotting,” he said.
“More than you know, wolf,” said the priestess, so quietly that Summer thought perhaps only she had heard.
“You sure about this, Summer?” asked Reginald.
Summer nodded. They’d come here to find rot. It would be silly to leave because they’d found it.
Perhaps it looked like courage or foolishness. Perhaps she was placing far too much hope on the resemblance. But Summer simply could not believe ill of someone who looked so much like Miss Hardert. Miss Hardert had told her that she had a gift for writing and suggested she enter a contest. Summer’s story had come in third out of over two hundred entries, and there had been a certificate and the principal had congratulated her over the loudspeaker.
Her ears got hot at the memory, but it was a pleasant sort of embarrassment.
Glorious and Reginald followed Arlight out the main door. Reginald looked back. Glorious did not.
The door closed. The smoke roiled. And Summer was alone with the Priestess of the Pipes.