Out of the frying-pan and into the freezer

The only clue as to where the dwarf could have got to was a love-starved weedeater gazing longingly downstream from the battlements.

Korg was in fact wishing that he wasn't where he was. He'd been small enough to slip under the bulkhead, and pull the tiny anchor-door shut behind him. Now he was in the darkness on a wild roller-coaster ride. The door was outward opening. And somebody was leaning against it. If he pushed now . . . he might overbalance the small boat. They hurtled downwards. And downwards. Korg closed his eyes, not that it made any difference in the cold, stuffy darkness. Oh well. Something was bound to come up. He just hoped it would be the boat, and not his breakfast.

After what seemed to be an eternity, but was probably just five minutes short of it, Korg felt the keel of the small boat grate . . . on gravel. They must be down at the rarely seen ground level of Sylvan. Motion stopped.

It took more than mere contusions, and having puked his lungs out, to stop someone like Korg. But it did slow him down slightly. By the time he had hauled himself stiffly out of the small doorway, and set off after Vila and Squigs, they were already several yards off. She was frog-marching Squigs toward the towering root-walls. These were only occasionally illuminated by the globules of dripping phosphorescence among the blobby black slime moulds that covered them.

As quietly as he could, Korg ran closer, until suddenly he heard the sound of gongs and kettledrums. He dived after them, aiming for the hole in the air that Vila was just forcing Squigs through.

Ortant sucked at the marrowbone, savoring the selenium. So, this is what a Demon Lord tasted like. Not bad, if a little rich for tea-time. It would have been nice in mid-winter. He sighed. Well, he'd tasted it. But unless he ate his own master there wouldn't be any more for mid-winter. With one exception, the lords were now extinct. He sighed again. Where would it all end?

He would of course report all the happenings to the next Ledge-meeting of the Juvenile and Ignominious Order. But something was wrong there too. His reports used to result in action, but ever since the Overlord's destruction at the hands of the Demon Lords, the order's devious moves had ground to a halt. Either there was too much fear of discovery now or, as rumor in the upper echelons of the order had it, the Overlord herself had actually also been the Great Weeny.

Upstairs, M'lord was celebrating his triumph in gory style, with that bunch of paper-merchants and other sycophants. It was a rather more somber meal here in the servants' hall. There was no conversation at all, and the only sound was the slurping and the occasional "splop" of the marrow being sucked from the bones. Less favored imps had had to make do with the marrow bones of lesser beings, but there were still more than enough to go round.

"Ah," said the elderly doorman, Atient, gloomily. "This is the life." The imp surveyed the pile of empty marrow-bones on his plate. "Still, it don't seem right somehow. Not the way things uster be."

"He's not anywhere. We've searched the schloss from cellar to attic. The dwarf's nowhere to be found." Huigi's voice was empty of its usual mocking tone. There were big tears edging onto the lower lids of Venus's eyes. She was pale under her freckles. She gave a small determined sniff. One which would have softened harder hearts than the vamp's. "We'll search again," he said hastily.

Kate came over from the Crum, who was not assisting in the search, except to mooch around heroically, to put an arm around Venus. "At least he came, Vee. Everybody came. Except that long drink of water." She sounded annoyed about the last point.

Crummag opened his mouth, and shut it again. "Er, yes. Why don't we, that is Kate and I, go and check out the upstairs bedrooms?" he said, with a toothy smile and broad wink at Kate.

"Oh, Crummag! How could you even suggest something like that?" demanded Kate. "Of course I'm not going to leave Vee now."

Venus managed a wan smile. "You go ahead. I'm going to join in with one of the other search parties."

"No way," said Kate firmly. "Come on, Crummag. Off your butt. Let's go and find Vee's hero."

"He's not my hero," Venus protested weakly.

Kate paid no attention to this obvious falsehood. "Cheer up Vee. He's so tough, he's bound to land on his feet."

Actually he landed on his elbow, shoulder and upper back, skidding along the cinders. They were on a narrow ledge, above the reaching abyss. Korg stopped just short of the edge, a startled Vila and Squigs staring at him. It was half-dark here, but the blackness was shot with a reddish glow. Korg pulled himself to his feet. Looked over the edge. The pit went down, down, and then down some more, but there was a bottom. And from that bottom stared a red bubbling circle-eye, glowing with heat. From that eye of magma came the rush of hot, sulphurous air.

"Korg!" exclaimed Squigs.

"Right first time, oh lofty one," said Korg with a small bow, unlimbering his axe. "You've been getting into bad company, mate. I've come to take you home to sleep it off."

Vila grabbed Squigs by his still-tied hands. And threw him across her ample hip to thump and sprawl against the rough wall of the volcanic pipe. From across her shoulder she produced a short lance that she'd seized from one of her own terrified folk before leaping into the water. "You little worm! He's mine. Fair payment for those two silly girls."

She had an enormous reach advantage, and the dwarf, on the crumbling outer lip of the ledge, had no space to maneuver. The fight might have ended abruptly, had Squigs not stuck out a long leg as she lunged. Vila stumbled over his size fourteen foot and scrabbled at the loose-cinder trail. She righted herself, but the lance was gone.

Korg slowly and deliberately put down his axe. "I don't let my friends buy a round for me, without doing the same for them. The tall 'un's a fair exchange for his own girl, but for mine," his snaggle teeth gleamed in the red darkness, "you've got to take me. So come and get me, you cellulite special."

Vila gave a bellow of outrage, and made a grab at his arm. "Yah! Missed me, lardbottom." The dwarf, still staying on the edge, leaned forward and stuck his tongue out. "Those hips get any wider and you'll have to walk sideways through doors, fat dairy cow." By the furious yell, Korg had found another of the rusalka's weaknesses. "Hah! Couldn't catch a pig in a passage, you big bandy grease blob!" Korg mocked as he dodged.

Angry beyond thought, Vila dived at her small tormentor.

He ducked.

Her scream went on for a long, long time as she fell.

Korg picked up his axe. "Looks like the balloons won't keep her up after all. You all right, mate? Nice bit of footwork you did there." He came over to the wall, and started untying the rope around Squigs' wrists.

"Korg. What are you doing here? How did you get here?"

The dwarf shrugged. "Like I said, I don't let other folk pay my debts for me. When I heard Vila start to chirp about what she wanted, I knew you well enough to know what you'd do. So, I went and hid in the boat. Then I followed you . . . here." He grinned. "It beat the hell out of going back the same way as we came down."

Squigs flexed his fingers. Put out his right hand. "You're a nutter, Korg. Thanks." Korg put the axe down, and they shook hands solemnly. "It was nothing. She'd have pronged me with that lance for sure if you hadn't tripped her."

Squigs looked at the axe. "So why did you put your axe down, after she'd lost that spear-thing?"

Korg chuckled. "I've got myself involved in this woman's equality, or superiority, or whatever business, but my mam always said I wasn't to hit girls. Hard to break the habits thumped into you as a kid." He shouldered the axe again. "Now, where the hell are we, and where do we go? I don't fancy down, myself. My mam said I wasn't to pick up fallen women."

"Hell. And I don't know. In that order," said Squigs quietly. "I'm afraid, Korg, you might have rescued me . . . but you've condemned yourself. I've no idea how we get back. My computer is sitting in the cupboard of my room at the Schloss Raubgerig. We're up a place that's a lot colder and dryer than shit-creek without a paddle."

Korg wiped his brow. "Colder?"

Squigs nodded. "Yeah. Away from this volcanic vent it is. It wasn't always like this, apparently. But now, if there was enough water, Hell would freeze over regularly."

Korg looked down at the bubbling lava lake far, far below. He shrugged. "Well. That's the way it works out then. What shall we do? I've never seen much sense in sitting around feeling sorry for myself."

"No." Squigs thrust his hands deep into the overall pockets. Felt the meager few bottles of chemicals and wot-nots he'd transferred into there from his lab coat pockets. "Let's go looking for a bastard called M'lord Strate. He was what was behind Vila. Be nice to fix him and whatever his racket is."

Korg grinned. "That's more like it. Up or down? I hope you don't mind if we stick to the ledge, which I reckon will lead us either way. I don't fancy climbing these sheer walls much."

Squigs found his bleak mood lightening. He bowed low. "Shall we try going upward then, oh altitudinous master?"

"Shut up, shortarse, and follow me." The dwarf pointed with his axe to the upward slope of the ledge. "Come on. Let's get out of here. This place is the absolute pits!" They began the long trudge along the corkscrewing cinder path, upward toward the darkness and cold.

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