“Right,” said Priestess Cereus, and then, to Summer’s surprise, she took off her headdress and flopped down next to the altar with her legs out in front of her.
“Have a seat,” she suggested. Summer sat down next to her, wondering what would happen next.
“Sorry for the informality,” said the priestess, “but the snakes get very heavy. Someone large sent you, didn’t they? Not just the hoopoe lord. Someone with destiny held in their teeth.”
“Baba Yaga,” said Summer faintly.
“That’d do it.” Cereus leaned her head back against the altar, rubbing her neck. “I won’t lie, I was hoping for someone a little…ah…less volatile to get involved.”
Summer raised her eyebrows. “Like who?”
Cereus shrugged. Her voice was changing as she talked, becoming more conversational and less like she was uttering deep wisdom. It also made her sound even more like Summer’s former teacher. “Oh, no one in specific. One of the other great players in the game. Archangel Michael, perhaps, or the Blacksmith or the Wanderer with the Flute. Even the Bone Woman, though she rarely trifles with anything so large. But she loves the desert and we are in a city built of bones, so I thought perhaps…” She shook her head and gave a short, humorless laugh. “But Baba Yaga gives you what you deserve. What an alarming prospect!”
“But you were expecting someone?” asked Summer.
“I asked for help,” said Cereus simply. “I am very small, but the Pipes are very large. Something would come from them, if only to stand witness as they died.”
She put a hand over her face. “And someone came,” she said wearily.
Summer sagged. The wasps must have gotten here already, if the priestess was so sad. “How bad is it?” she whispered.
The priestess made a wobbling gesture with her hands. “It is slow,” she said. “We could still recover, if it would simply stop. But nothing has stopped it, not prayers, not magic, not poison sprays or cement. Believe me, I’ve tried. I even cut a section out, to clean flesh, and the next day the edges were rotting away…”
She sounded as if she might cry.
“It’ll be okay,” said Summer. She was on firmer ground now. “It’ll be okay. Do you want to tell me about it?”
The priestess let out a long breath that caught a few times. “No, it won’t be okay,” she said, almost to herself. “But I had to do something.”
The serpent headdress fell off the altar with a thump. It began to slither along the floor toward the two humans.
“Are they alive?” asked Summer, round-eyed.
“The snakes?” The priestess leaned back. “More or less. They’re part of the hat, but they act alive. I call them Right and Left. Right’s a bit more friendly, Left’s a bit smarter. Give them a pat if you like, they don’t bite. They can’t, actually, the mouths don’t open at all.”
Summer cautiously stroked Right. It felt like the snakes she’d petted at the zoo, delicate skin overlaying hard muscle. It twisted around, rested its chin (did snakes have chins?) on the back of her hand, and appeared to go to sleep.
Priestess Cereus watched Summer petting the snake, then said abruptly, “Wait, I’m assuming things and I should know better. This is about the Pipes rotting, isn’t it? You didn’t come because, oh, Baba Yaga wants a citizen’s skull for her fence, or is looking for the horse the color of dawn or something, right?”
“I think it is,” said Summer. “I mean, the Queen-in-Chains is sending wasps and they’re doing something—poisoning big things, huge things, things that matter—and we need to catch a wasp so we can follow it back to her. And Lord Almondgrove said that the Great Pipes were a wondrous thing, so we came to see if there were any wasps here.”
“Wasps…well, it might be wasps. It might be anything. Here, I’ll show you.”
Cereus rose to her feet and helped Summer up. Her grip was strong and warm. She tucked the snakes under her arm and Right curled around her wrist. Left gazed off into the distance with a faintly contemptuous expression.
Behind the altar was a second, smaller door. Cereus tapped on it, and Ankh opened it.
“You may accompany us,” said Cereus to the goose, “but I must ask you not to speak of what you see to any citizen of the Pipes. If they knew, there would be a panic and we cannot afford panic.”
The smell of the sage was fainter here, but there was another, stronger odor, sweet and rotten.
Glorious was right. The incense is to hide something.
The corridor narrowed as they went through it. It grew dimmer, and then there was another door.
“Please guard this door,” said the priestess to Ankh. “There is no way to the outside from here. If Arlight or anyone else comes, come and fetch me, but do not let them through the door.”
The goose-guard turned her head. Her dark eyes flickered in her white face, but she dipped her beak in acknowledgement.
Summer was beginning to feel frightened. They’d come to find damage, but how bad was it?
The priestess opened the door only a few inches. She slipped through, then held it just wide enough for Summer to enter.
It was dark inside. The smell was so thick that she had to pull her t-shirt up over her nose and mouth.
She could hear Cereus moving about, and then a light flared up, and Summer saw what it looked like when a wondrous thing began to die.
The chamber was draped with rotting cactus flesh. It hung down in greasy cream colored strands, like pale seaweed. The great ribs were discolored and shone with oily reflections.
It was impossible to see how far back the room went. It did not so much darken as vanish behind layers of gauzy decay. The floor was marked with deep black holes, and Summer realized that they were footprints where the priestess had walked.
There was a bed, or something that had been a bed, against a wall nearby. It looked as if spiders had draped it in webs. Great sheets of decaying flesh had fallen down over it. In places it was thick and knotted like ropes while in others it had thinned nearly to transparency.
“The private chambers of the priestess of the Pipes,” said Cereus. She did not sound like Miss Hardert now, but high and hard and frightened. Miss Hardert had never sounded frightened, not even during fire drills. “No one comes here, so I’ve been able to hide it. It doesn’t break through the outer skin, you see. Cactus rot from the inside, like people…”
She put her hands over her face and gave a single dry sob.
How long did she sleep in that bed, with the room—no, the city—rotting around her?
It seemed, as the priestess’s shoulders shook, that it had been too long.
Summer could not tell her that it would be okay. She could not say anything at all. She wanted to turn away and run.
It was monstrous. It stank.
This is what we came here to find, but I didn’t…I thought it would be small…just a little gray hole, maybe, something we could put a jar over and catch a wasp…
The space inside her chest was a jumble of fear and revulsion, but a thought came clear nonetheless: if her heart’s desire lay on the other side of this, she would be willing to go her whole life without finding it.
Summer hunched her shoulders. Her only thought was to make herself as small as possible, to keep her hands from touching those soft, rotten sheets of flesh. But when she shoved her hands into her pockets, her right hand touched three hard objects.
One was the lock from her own back gate. One was the turquoise stone. The last was the acorn from the Frog Tree.
Her fingers closed over the acorn, and she thought of the dryad who had given it to her.
The dryad lived inside the tree.
The inside of the tree must have looked like this.
The cancer at the heart of the world, Boarskin had said.
And she remembered another voice then, a woman with the eyes of a dragon, and though the edges of the memory of the Forester were fuzzy, she remembered weeping on that woman’s shoulder for the plight of the Frog Tree.
If I can catch a wasp, perhaps I can stop this. If not for the Great Pipes, then for all the other wondrous things. For the giant turtles and the Frog Tree and the fields of wheat and all the other things in Orcus that I don’t even know about yet.
She had to lift her foot up as if it belonged to someone else, as if her shoes were made of lead, but she did, and put it down again, and so took a step forward into the cathedral of decay.
The sheets of rotten cactus flesh swayed as she went through them. She did not want to touch them, but the thought of having them touch her face was even worse. She ducked low to avoid them.
Her feet seemed to bruise the ground as she walked.
“It started at the far end,” said Cereus behind her. “Just a little gray spot like mold.”
“That must be where the wasps started,” said Summer. If she focused on the mechanics, she was not thinking about what it would be like if those pale seaweed tendrils brushed across her face. “If they’re still there, maybe we can catch one.”
“I’ll try anything,” said Cereus. Her voice was muffled, as if by tears. “Anything at all.”
Summer saw a bright blaze of light ahead. Fire? No, it was golden and the curtains of rot moved slightly in a breeze. A doorway?
She said there wasn’t a way out…maybe this is new?
“There’s a hole up here.” Summer moved forward. Had the wasp damage gotten so bad that it’d eaten through the tough cactus skin?
“Is it large?” asked Cereus. Her voice was rough with panic. “Look at it, tell me how big it is!”
The hole was on the underside. It was easily big enough for Summer’s shoulders. How did she not know this was here? Of course, maybe she didn’t want to go this far in…I certainly wouldn’t…
Summer gingerly set her hands on the edge of the hole. This part was gray and dead and hard, not slimy and rotten. That made it easier. She leaned forward, looking out, and saw—
“There’s someone here!” she said, startled, and then the priestess of the Pipes shoved her, hard.
She tumbled forward through the hole and landed on her side. The fall was only about three feet down, but it knocked the wind out of her. The slope of the canyon wall was very steep there and she rolled down, unable to stop herself, until something stopped her.
“About time,” said a familiar voice.
Summer blinked upward, still half-stunned by the fall, and at last came face-to-face with Grub.
Her mind seemed to move impossibly slowly. This was not happening. This could not be happening. Surely she was still back inside the cactus city, not lying here on the ground at Grub’s feet. Surely she was not alone.
“Ankh!” she screamed. Her voice sounded pathetically thin in her own ears. She wanted to yell, not croak. She tried again. “Ankh!”
Someone grabbed her collar and hauled her up to her knees. She had a brief glimpse of Grub’s soft white face, the lines of fleshy dots down his neck, and then everything went black and hot and hard to breathe. Was someone squeezing her throat?
“Don’t strangle her,” said Grub. “Zultan wants her alive.”
The squeezing eased. The darkness and the heat did not.
I think there’s a bag. On my head. Is that possible? Do people do that?
For some reason all she could think of was how they’d put the guinea pig in a sack in Alice in Wonderland and how it had been sort of a joke in the book and it wasn’t a joke at all, it was horrible, the bag was mashed against her mouth and she couldn’t get enough air and when she tried to breathe in, the fabric got sucked in and she felt like she was breathing burlap.
“Ankh!” she tried to yell again, and then a more immediate thought struck her. “Cereus! Run!”
The priestess was right there, and Grub was out here, and he could just reach in and grab her and—
The world stuttered. There was a bright flash. Summer had been up on her knees and then she was falling and she realized this just as she landed on her side in the dirt. Her head, previously full of panic, seemed suddenly blank.
“Don’t hit her!” cried Cereus.
Her thoughts, when they came, were slow and sloggy. It hadn’t hurt the way she understood hurting. Maybe the pain had all happened when the world had seemed to skip, and she’d missed it. Her left ear felt very hot.
…I fell out of the hole…is this the same fall…was that before…?
There was a rock under her ribs that was jabbing her, and that was a normal kind of pain. She focused on that. What had the light been?
People were talking. She had a vague feeling that it was important to listen to what they were saying. It was hard to think around the pain of the rock and the slowness in her head. The heat in her ear was getting worse and it was starting to pulse. She could only pick up snatches of the conversation.
“…done what you asked…leaving…”
“Inside…god help me…” Was that Miss Hardert?
“Then we’ll be gone. Get her on a horse, boys.”
The world swung around. Summer thought she might throw up, but some small voice of self-preservation said that if she threw up in the bag, she was going to be stuck in the bag with it and that would be impossibly horrible. She gulped. Her eyes and nose streamed and made it no easier to breathe, but she didn’t throw up.
“Wait! You said…you promised…”
“I don’t know why you’d think that. We said we wouldn’t burn this wretched city around your ears,” said Grub. It had to be Grub. “Not that we’d fix whatever’s wrong with it.” He was standing very close.
That was not Miss Hardert. Miss Hardert was in another world and she wouldn’t be talking to Grub.
“Call a priest,” said Grub, annoyed. “I don’t know why your damned plant is stinking to heaven. It’s caught whatever nasty rot’s gotten everything else.”
“…but…not going to hurt her…”
“Not my call,” said Grub. “Zultan wants her. He’s not known for sweet mercy.”
A cry of despair.
It took a very long time to penetrate Summer’s slow thoughts, and then the magnitude of the betrayal seemed to overwhelm her.
She pushed me out of the hole.
She was planning to give me to Grub the whole time.
And they’d walked in, as trusting as lambs, even Glorious and the goose-guards, and straight into Grub’s clutches.
“Hurry,” said Grub. Summer’s breath went out of her as she got thrown over something, something hot and alive. “I don’t trust that fool of a priestess to keep the wolf busy for long.”
This was all to separate me from Glorious. They’re scared of him.
Someone said something to Grub, but Summer lost track of it as her arms were wrenched behind her. Coarse rope slid along her skin. It hurt. Moreover it itched, and that was almost worst.
She was on her stomach. Her wrists hurt. And then somebody climbed up behind her on the…horse? Was it a horse?
Sleipnerians. They breed them out of spiders, Reginald said.
Ten minutes ago, the thought of touching one of the awful horse-monsters would have made her skin crawl. Ten minutes ago, she had been standing inside the Great Pipes with the priestess and the goose-guards right outside the door. Had Ankh even heard her scream?
This isn’t really happening, is it?
It was too fast. Huge irrevocable things should not be allowed to happen so fast! It didn’t make any sense that people were allowed to betray you and tie you up and throw you over a horse-monster before you had time to think.
Summer began to cry. The tears slid down the end of her nose and itched horribly and the fabric tried to get into her mouth with every sob. She wanted Glorious and her friends to rescue her. She wanted to have never needed rescue. More than anything, she wanted to go home.
The sky did not open. Baba Yaga did not whisk her back to her own backyard. Grub did not untie her and tell her that there had been a mistake. Instead the horse began to move and the rider dragged her sideways a bit so that she did not fall off.
She had to stop crying because she could hardly breathe. Something—a saddle or the bones in the horse’s back, assuming horse-spiders even had bones—was ramming into her chest. The sack was strangling her.
Her vision grew bright and sparkled in time to her pulse.
The rider made a guttural sound and shouted something to Grub. Grub shouted something back.
Summer felt her throat get even tighter as the rider dug his fingers under the sack at her neck—and then he pulled it free.
She sucked air in so hard that it made her cough. The rider slapped her back as if she were choking. It was hot in the high desert, but the air felt blissfully chilly after the fabric.
When she thought that she might not die just yet, she looked at the rider.
He was human, or close to it. He had a hawk-like face, but only in the figure of speech, with a sharp nose and angled cheekbones. He glared down at her as if she had made a mess and he was going to have to clean it up.
That’s not fair… thought Summer. I didn’t mean to… She had a strong urge to apologize, which made no sense at all.
She turned her head a little and looked at the horse. Then she wished she hadn’t.
The horse’s muzzle was studded with round black eyes, set in little cups of bone. Its mouth bisected neatly down from the nose, strangely hairy, and those are folded up mandibles like a spider what does it eat no let’s not think about that that would be a very bad thing to think…
She dropped her head, exhausted. Her skull was pounding. The legs stretching out in front of her looked like horse legs, more or less, except that there were too many of them. But they were segmented in strange places and there were tufts of bristly black hairs along the backs, stiff as wire. The hooves were split into three heavy toes, and there was a heavy black hook on the back, in about the same place where Glorious had a dewclaw.
Summer closed her eyes. Possibly her head was going to kill her before the dreadful horse-spider could do it. It would probably just be one extra-hard throb and then everything would go dark and there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. That seemed infinitely preferable to what the Sleipnerian might do with its folded mandibles and those wicked bone hooks.
She wondered if she’d see Baba Yaga again as she was dying. It seemed likely, somehow. If Baba Yaga sent you somewhere, she’d show up again, if only to shake her head and tell you that next time she was going to get a competent little girl, maybe one with leopard feet or who knew judo, something like that, someone smart enough to ask for luck instead of grace, what good was grace when you were slung over the back of a nightmare anyway…
Without quite knowing it (or perhaps knowing how to stop it) Summer drifted off, half-dream and half-hallucination, Baba Yaga mixed up with the Forester and the Sleipnerian mixed up with Glorious, all of them talking at her, until the only real left thing in the world was the pounding pain in her skull, and then not even that.