Previously in Only Slightly
Bidet and Fridgara returned to Mars to locate Yarek's laboratory there and retrieve certain items to allow Yarek's plan to continue despite the death of Pen-Ghast and the resulting loss of the Fire component of his spell. Once there, they found Bidet's parents and several other willing helpers who accompanied them to the laboratory.
Meanwhile, the Karema landed on Arelon and captured Elizabeth. She was extremely surprised and confused to be informed that the Karema were looking for Anneka and The Geraldine: apparently Yarek was lying to them, and they wanted to convince the two women that they were not a threat to humanity. They accompanied this claim with the rather improbable assertion that they could resurrect all those killed in their attack on the planet. Combined with weaponry that caused no damage to buildings, this would effectively make it as if the attack had never happened.
Yarek's laboratory, Fridgara was pleased to see, was heated and pressurised with an eminently breathable atmosphere. She took off her helmet, sniffed the slightly stale air, then nodded and extracted herself from her suit. The others followed her example, and they proceeded into the entrance corridor free of encumbrance.
The corridor was narrow and low for the first fifty metres or so, but angled quite steeply downwards. Since they'd found the entrance in the base of a smallish cliff (as small as Martian cliffs ever got, which was still pretty big), they were quite deep underground before the corridor opened out into a hallway some fifteen metres in height, about twenty metres wide and well over a hundred and fifty long. The light spells conjured up by Bidet, Bath and Fridgara in the corridor seemed very small and insignificant in the vast hallway, but Yarek had described the entrance procedure for the lab, and Fridgara soon found the crystal globe he'd described. It was on a pedestal not far to the left of the entrance to the hallway. She touched it, and light flooded
the space, coming from nowhere in particular but illuminating intricately carved walls, a mirror-finished floor and a ceiling apparently behaving like a giant video screen.
'Wow,' Harriet said as she looked around, attempting to take in the vastness and complexity of the designs.
'This is the work of a seriously bored man,' Pord remarked, running his fingers over a stone leaf, part of a huge mass of carved ivy climbing part of the wall. Fridgara craned her neck to look at the ceiling, which was showing scenes of industrious labour - the building of the pyramids, she realised.
'He was here a long time,' Bidet said. 'Although not as long as he's been where he is now.'
'Where's that?' Riy asked, curious. Bidet shrugged.
'Absolutely no idea,' he said. 'Somewhere on the rim I think.'
Harriet had wandered further into the hallway, and bent to examine part of the floor. 'Hey!' she called suddenly, 'I think someone's been here. And not long ago either.'
She soon had an attentive audience to examine the rock dust on the otherwise smooth floor. 'Looks like what's just outside,' Bidet commented. Fridgara nodded, and looked back towards the entrance.
'We've trailed loads of it in with us,' she said, gesturing to the extremely obvious signs of their passage. 'Whoever left this was being careful.'
'Any sign they came back out again?' Bidet asked.
'No, but would they leave any? Perhaps all the dust came off on the way in.' Harriet stood up. 'But they could still be here.'
'The lab does have built-in defences,' Fridgara assured everyone. 'If it's someone hostile, they won't have gotten very far.'
'Well, we will not find anything standing here, hmm?' Riy said, and started down the hallway. 'Are any of you coming?'
The others followed, and they passed through several assorted magical barriers without incident. None showed signs that anyone else had passed through since Yarek had left, but with the dust now all off their boots, they didn't exactly leave much trace either. Every part of the complex was carved in intricate detail, some parts enchanted to show moving images, or play sounds, and they even found a room filled
with a vast assortment of cut glass fountains, still gushing crystal-clear water even after centuries unattended.
'Why did he leave here?' Harriet asked after they'd passed through that room.
'Too close to Earth,' Fridgara said. 'He didn't want to risk attracting attention to it before the time was right.'
The next room was sealed off by a solid stone block which, according to some subtle magical probing, didn't actually exist. Bath thought that was extremely cunning.
'A door that doesn't think it exists is perfect, really,' he said. Riy and Harriet looked confused; Bidet and Fridgara had their heads together discussing Yarek's instructions for opening it, and Agnes had an amused kind of smile on her face, but she watched Pord examine the surface of the door more than she watched her husband, who continued to explain his thoughts about the door. 'You see, if something knows it
exists, you can affect it with magic, but if it's convinced it doesn't... well, it's just as much there as any other door, but you can't cast a spell on it. At least, not without great difficulty,' he amended, as Bidet had just cast a spell which caused the door to slide out of the way. Bath scowled at his son, who just grinned impudently back.
'The trick,' he explained, 'is to cast the spell on the opening mechanism rather than the door. Not that the opening mechanism is particularly easy to find, of course.'
'Of course,' Bath allowed, and strode through the open door into Yarek's main lab.
It was a vast, circular chamber with a domed roof, large enough for a couple of good-sized cathedrals and a few hundred overweight elephants and decorated in the same way as the rest of the complex. Tables, desks, benches and pedestals were scattered across the floor, each holding an assortment of interesting items, most of which were clearly magical. Shelves around the walls held hundreds upon hundreds of books, and a fountain in the middle of the room provided a pleasing background sound.
'Nice,' Pord said. 'I could stay here a while.'
GOOD, another voice said, a voice which penetrated to the spine. WE HAVE MUCH TO DISCUSS.
Despite having never seen a Karema before, Bidet and Fridgara had been instructed by Yarek, and recognised the voice immediately. Almost as one, they raised their hands and sent balls of fire and great bolts of lightning towards the shadowy figure which had just emerged from behind the fountain. Thunder resounded under the dome, and the fountain
shattered into a thousand pieces, but the figure simply brushed off their attack and gestured in turn, sending all the humans flying backwards into the wall and pinning them there, feet a metre or more from the floor and unable to move anything below the neck.
I DO NOT WANT TO HARM YOU, the Karema said. WE MUST TALK.
'What is there to say to you?' Bidet retorted. 'We know why you're here. You've come to stop Yarek's spell.'
'You won't succeed,' Fridgara said. 'We will defeat you.'
PERHAPS. BUT I MUST TRY. FOR THE SURVIVAL OF MY RACE, THE SPELL MUST NOT BE CAST.
'The survival of your race depends on destroying ours?'
The Karema, as much as anyone could read of its undeniably alien figure, seemed visibly taken aback by that.
DESTROYING YOUR SPECIES? WHY WOULD WE WISH TO HARM A SPECIES FROM WHICH WE CAN LEARN SO MUCH?
I SEE YOUR DILEMMA. YAREK HAS TOLD YOU LIES, AND YOU HAVE BELIEVED THEM, BUT NOW I TELL THE TRUTH AND YOU DO NOT BELIEVE ME.
'Damn right we don't,' Bidet said. The Karema looked at him.
THEN I SHALL EXPLAIN -
It was cut off by a vast fireball which engulfed it before rapidly dissipating. The humans fell to the floor, Harriet landing awkwardly and crying out as she twisted her ankle. Bath was the only one who landed with any kind of grace, one hand held up with flames licking around it.
'Shall we?' he asked, and the battle began.
Afterwards, nobody would be able to describe it, as it was near-chaos from the start. The Karema was powerful, far more powerful than any of the humans individually, but the combined talents of Bidet, Fridgara and especially Bath were formidable, and Agnes and Pord had their own brands of trouble to add to the mixture. Fire and lightning scorched the walls and ceiling and floor, great gusts of wind and
clouds of smoke and fog swirled beneath the dome. Vast monsters from the depths of nightmare appeared and disappeared all around the room while great chasms opened up in the floor, spewing out ash and smoke and lava before closing again as if they had never been. The noise was
hideous, and the first Fridgara knew of Harriet limping up behind her was the woman's touch on her shoulder, and her whisper to source from her. Another counter-attack by the Karema made it impossible for Fridgara to offer thanks, for she needed Harriet's strength immediately. What would have burned her flesh from her bones and pulverised the remains flicked into the wall, where it blasted out a hole big enough to take a four-poster bed.
We have to link our strength, Bath's voice came telepathically through the noise. Fridgara immediately sent hers out to him, and Harriet's, and felt Bidet doing the same. Bath appeared to be sourcing from Riy; Agnes had made everyone invisible very near the start of the fight, and Pord was running telepathic interference. Bath drew deeply of their combined strength, constructing a spell of such
breathtaking power and complexity as Fridgara had ever seen. His reputation was correct; Bath was a phenominally powerful wizard. In raw strength he had never shown much potential, but his skill and experience more than made up for that.
As it did now, cutting through counterspells from the Karema, alien though they were, and casting his own. For a moment, time seemed to freeze, then the room went black.
Eventually, they awoke and stood unsteadily, looking out of their eyes at the devastated lab, and trying to remember what had happened. Only a short while ago, they had been separate entities, but already that seemed an impossible way to live, so isolated, not at all like this blending of minds both human and Karema. They knew, without knowing, every memory, thought, feeling and experience they had ever had. They also knew the truth of the Karema's words, and the part
which had not believed them saw how they had been deceived.
In the ruins of the lab, the entity which had once been seven humans and one Karema sought out the objects Yarek had sent the humans for and destroyed them. Once the task was done, they looked around.
A shame about the mess, they thought, but perhaps not for the worst.
What next? they thought.
Yarek, they replied. Yarek is next.
A shimmer in the air, and they were gone.