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They climbed up before dawn. Twelve of them, twelve young rascals clambering over the fallen boulders at the foot of the Hill of Dancing Ghosts. They slipped like wraiths into the hidden opening in the cliff face. Here torches were handed out. Young Dimpy grasped the rough wood of the handle, Big Balla lit the end from her torch half-blinding Dimpy, and he stumbled up the steps after the others feeling his heart thumping like a manic janzi pecker.
"Get on! Get on!" Sleed gave Dimpy a vicious push which sent him staggering up the steps. The stink of Sleed's greased hair cut acridly through the smells of damp earth and burning torches and sweat. Sleed was bigger than the others and unpleasant with it. He was known as Sleed the Slick and was in command of this section of novices in the Hellraisers. "You'll have to shape up if you wanna join us, you useless tanzy."
Dimpy struggled on up the slippery ascent. He didn't much mind being called a tanzy, for he knew he wasn't. He didn't care to be called Young Dimpy. Oh, sure, he was young all right, not as green as these scared novices, but younger than Sleed or Big Balla. Since the slide and the death of his father and brothers he'd matured in caring for his mother and sisters. The slide had knocked the heart out of his old gang, the Roaring Fifties, so that the Hellraisers had moved into the territory without serious opposition. Now, like it or not, he had to prove himself as a gang member all over again.
Screams splintered up from ahead and a couple of novices tumbled down the steps almost knocking Dimpy over. Confusion broke all along the line. Weird shadows fled across the stairway. Big Balla was alreadythrusting her way up and Sleed, with his customary vicious shove, pushed past Dimpy and started after her.
"If'n it's them stinking Screaming Leems I'll--" What Sleed intended to do to the rival gang was lost as his words drowned in the uproar. The Screaming Leems, considered Dimpy, had to be way out of their territory if they were mounting a raid here. He could feel the closeness of the walls, the slime underfoot, the dark stench of the place. The novices were caterwauling away, terrified out of their wits. Dimpy dragged in a gagging breath and started after Sleed. He was thinking of Big Balla.
Pushing novices out of his way Dimpy reached the top of the steps where the uncertain light revealed Big Balla and Sleed desperately using their torches to hold off a half-grown praxul whose three stalked eyes glinted red above the fanged slot between his jaws.
Dimpy knew about praxuls. Nasty beasts, squamous and scuttling, they inhabited the honeycombed interiors of the hills along with a whole horrendous slew of fellow monsters. Much of the hill's interior was illuminated by a fungus which gave light enough for the praxul's three eyes. He didn't much like the orange glare of the torches.
"Get his eyes!" shouted Dimpy. He darted in, thrust and skipped back. He missed. Luckily for him, the praxul's sweep of claw also missed.
"I know! I know!" snarled Sleed. "Get outta my way, tanzy." He jumped in, slashed his torch, missed and stumbled back.
The thing stood about waist high, warty of scaled hide, and its claws' reach made it difficult to get at. Like most denizens of the caverns the praxul could use other senses than sight to focus on its prey; taking out his sight was the priority. The stink of its ooze sickened in Dimpy's nostrils, used as he was to the aromas of the warrens in the runnels between the lordly hills of Oxonium.
Big Balla lunged. Dimpy's reaction was instantaneous. In a single sweep his left fist gripped Big Balla's belt and a supple twisting turn span her away from the lethal slice of claw. A rip of cloth jagged off the girl's tunic caught in the claw. Big Balla yelped. In the same twisting motion Dimpy swirled his torch before them, blazing sparks in a fiery fountain. The praxul crouched back, weaving from side to side, hungrily seeking a way past the flame to his dinner.
"Let me at him!" Sleed tried to sidestep and slash his brand in at an angle. The beast weaved back and sliced and Sleed just managed to topple back, falling to a knee as the girl used her torch to cover him.
That tiny interruption in the flow of jump, thrust and retreat gave Dimpy the opportunity he needed. His actions were fast--very fast. His torch connected with one stalked eye. The eye sizzled. The praxul's claw flashed past his thigh. The thing screeched. The stench grew worse with the sour taste of frizzled eye.
The praxul was not unintelligent, with the instincts of his kind. He valued his sight, despite his other senses. He backed off further, hissing, weaving from side to side, claws waving. He was in pain. Despite all, Dimpy felt a stab of pity for the praxul. Then, clearly deciding his dinner was not to be found beyond the flare of the torches, he turned and scuttled off into the dimness.
Dimpy and Big Balla let out simultaneous whoops of relief. Sleed glared malevolently after the disappearing monster. He shook his torch. "I'd a done him good, by Ferzakl. Yeah--if he hadn't run off."
The girl touched Dimpy lightly on the shoulder. Her face became suddenly different, grave with the seriousness of sudden realization of just what had happened. "Thanks, Dimpy. He'd have had me, for sure." She tossed her hair back. "You were quick, by Ferzakl, mighty quick."
Dimpy felt it unnecessary to mention that he had acquired a reputation in the Roaring Fifties for the speed of his reflexes. He just let a small smile curve his lips. "Yes," he said.
Sleed swung about at the top of the steps. "Well, what are you tanzies waiting for? Come on! Come!"
The huddled novices with their torches quivering began to climb the last of the steps and venture along the uneven footing of the twisting, claustrophobic tunnel that lay ahead.
Noises echoed. The jagged roof lowered down over the scrambling party and splashes of torchlight glittered from condensation streaking the walls. Now Sleed the Slick had taken it upon his unlovely person to climb immediately abaft of Dimpy with Big Balla up front leading the way. She was no novice, being in training for the position of leader on a par with Sleed. At too frequent intervals Sleed prodded Dimpy on painfully. One of these days, said Dimpy to himself, controlling his anger with an almost physical shudder, one of these days I'll cut out this cramph's liver and lights and fricassee 'em in samphron oil and then feed 'em to the dogs--so help me!
The upward way turned into a level passage which opened out into a gallery. One side was slimed wall, the other was black emptiness. Noises seemed to be sucked out and down. Nobody spoke. The torches' orange hair shrank against the darkness.
The way eased when they left the galleried cavern and passed into an ordinary tunnel. A little further on they came to a blocked up side entrance with a Rapa skull gleaming ruddily yellow nailed into a crevice. Dimpy felt a pang. Somewhere through the maze of tunnels beyond that skull were the old ways of the Roaring Fifties. The slide had brought down tons of rubble and solid rock which beside squashing Fat Nath and Lora the Leemkin had sealed off the secret ways.
The next junction did not need to be marked off in so sinister a fashion. The distorted opening in the wall reeked of sulphur. The hell-spawned stink gushed out to be sucked up into a crevice in the roof.
"Bad jangles, that," remarked Big Balla, who stood passing the novices along.
"I'm in charge here, girl, and don't you forget it." Sleed the Slick was a Khibil and although as a race they considered themselves vastly superior to all other diffs, even Khibils might have checked at this specimen. "I'll tell these tanzies what's what."
Big Balla opened her mouth; then she closed it with a snap and jerked her jut of chin up. As a Hytak she knew her worth in the society of the gangs. But, also as a Hytak, she understood order and discipline even in so unruly a mob as the Hellraisers. And, as the second in command training to be a leader, she must, guessed Dimpy, feel ferocious distaste that she'd been stuck with this rast Sleed. The way up turned and twisted along treacherous tunnels. Dimpy had no difficulty in committing the tortuous passages to memory. Darkness partially pierced by the flare of the torches, dankness, the sense of pressure, of a closing in and suffocating weight, oppressed the party. They stumbled and hurried along, the novice gang members new to this experience, Sleed viciously impatient, Balla containing her emotions, and Dimpy clambering agilely along with them. Those first trepidations as he'd entered the hidden opening at the foot of the Hill of Dancing Ghosts that had so pumped up his heart rate he put down in his youthful arrogance to mere nostalgia--to the last time he'd gone up a Hill and all those painful memories.
That had been the day before the slide. He'd lost good friends then and more in the last futile resistance of the Roaring Fifties to the Hellraisers. The odd thing was, Dimpy wasn't at all sure that he did have a burning desire to prove himself to these Hellraisers. His desires had always been straightforward--to do everything for his family and comrades, and to the Red Hot Gullet of Karbonar the Inevitable with any and everyone else. And, said young Dimpy resolutely to himself, if you condemned him for that then to the Red Hot Gullet of Karbonar the Inevitable with you, too, dom.
Upwards the party climbed, following the ways marked with the secret signs of the Hellraisers. Dimpy committed all to his memory as Sleed and Big Balla counseled the novices. Dimpy did not know for sure if all the great Hills of Oxonium were honeycombed with passages; he'd admitted he'd be surprised if they were not. As for the Hills themselves where the lordly ones of the city lived, there lay the fat ponshos ripe for the plucking. His Uncle Petegland had once suffered an unpleasant experience with a Hill and from then on resolutely referred to them as Contours. A brown and black crawzer like a man size centipede had taken Uncle Petegland into its ashy jaws when for an instant he had been looking the other way.
Now Dimpy used a trick his father had taught him. His surroundings remained clear to him and he took note of all that went on; but he could think of other things, of what he intended to do with his life, of just how he would dispose of Sleed the Slick, of regrets that Big Balla was a Hytak, for although apim and Hytak could marry and produce beautiful children, he would--again in his youthful arrogance--have much preferred her to be apim like himself.
The boy in front turned his ankle on a loose stone and would have fallen had not Dimpy caught him in a supple grasp. He hauled the lad up with a quick: "You're all right, Staky. Just use your eyes--"
Sleed gave Dimpy an almighty shove in the small of the back. Dimpy staggered forward, still holding Staky, and the two collapsed.
"You useless tanzy! You stupid rast! Get on, get on!"
Even then--even then young Dimpy helped Staky to rise as he stood up himself. His fist closed around the handle of the short curved knife at his belt. Sleed saw that instinctive, betraying gesture.
The bigger lad's foxy face tightened. He was not yet old enough for his bristly whiskers to be more than stubble; but all a Khibil's pride in his race, all a Khibil's self-superiority, blazed out in an expression of utter hatred. Dimpy controlled himself in a way he found strange to him, swiveled, stony-faced, and went on up the rough passage. He found that look on the Khibil's face to be overdone, melodramatic. But young as he was he recognized that look's deadly intent.
Not quite as much in control of himself as he imagined, he banged his head against a low outcrop. Dimpy said something in reference to ibmas of the vilest kind and pushed on. His father had always said he had a skull like a vosk. The bang served merely to irritate him further with his surroundings, with his company, with the purpose of this raid.
Although the city of Oxonium existed on two general levels of altitude, there were many levels within the class structures of the higher and lower. From the warrens in the steep-sided canyons, calculating eyes studied the aristocratic inhabitants of the contours. From the summits, intolerant and suspicious eyes watched the human garbage festering in the runnels. The great lords employed guards and paid the infamous Kataki Watch to police the vermin below. The gangs trained their young people in all the arts of deception, theft and murder.
Here and there within the tortuous ascent the route had been cut by humans to link chambers. Some passageways were even paved and lined with masonry blocks. How long ago this work had been carried out no one really knew. Apocryphal stories abounded, of course, in the true Kregan way.
Sleed the Slick carried a broad dagger at his waist, and, like Dimpy and his curved knife, had had the sense not to use that against the praxul. If, said Dimpy to himself, if the cramph prods me with that I'll--well, and what would he do--here underground and surrounded by aspiring members of the Hellraisers? He clenched his teeth and went on and up in a most foul mood.
Water dropped from the roof to splash into a stream alongside the footway. Far up ahead a spark of light glittered.
"Quiet," snarled Sleed.
The spark turned into a lantern perched on a ledge. A youngster wearing a ponsho skin stood up as the party approached. His sallow face looked peaky under the hood and his eyes gleamed. Silently he motioned upwards.
Big Balla took the lead and began the climb. Rough-cut steps, ten to a flight, zigzagged back and forth from landing to landing. Dimpy counted six flights before he followed Staky through an open trapdoor to step onto a wooden floor.
A stale musty odor surrounded him; but the cellar was dry. A pile of long sausage-like sacks stood against one wall. Steps led up.
The formalities here were very similar to those Dimpy had been accustomed to with his old gang. They climbed into the back room of a store. Rolled carpets everywhere indicated the nature of the establishment. The tenseness in the recruits might have affected Dimpy had he not been so wound up and irritated by what he considered the totally unnecessary ritual test in his case. The novices, yes, let them prove their fitness to join the gang. He'd been a fully qualified gang member and chapter deldar, young as he was.
A fat Rapa with mangy feathers looked them over with his beak high. He sniffed. "You know what you have to do. Do not return until you are successful. On no account return here if you are followed." He touched the dagger at his waist. "Remember."
One by one the urchins left the shop to join up at a discreet distance. When it was Dimpy's turn he felt at once the strangeness of an alien place and the familiarity of crowded streets filled with people bustling about their daily lives. The clamor of people chaffering and laughing and shouting beat at him. The clatter of hooves and the grinding of bronze rimmed wheels added a touch of unreality to a lad brought up in the dens below. The air--ah, the sweet, sweet air of Kregen!
The breeze blew cleanly, scented with baking bread and cakes and the juices of fruits, sullied only slightly by the coarser smells of commerce. The air tasted good to young Dimpy.
The Hill of Dancing Ghosts was also known as Barter Hill and whilst the folk up here might not be the great and lordly ones they were well fed and clothed and walked with confident steps. Their slaves and servants, of course, did not share these attributes.
The aspirant gang members moved into their pre-arranged groups slinking as they had been taught to merge and become invisible among the slaves, eyes downcast. Dimpy owned to a genuine feeling of pleasure that Big Balla stood at his elbow.
Splitting one from the other as they trod ways they had never seen before save in the scratched markings in the dust of their den, the novices penetrated deeper into the clustered buildings of the Hill of Barter. Other young lads with respectable clothes, the Perfume Patrol of Oxonium, dashed past. Crowds jostled everywhere. Smells floated in the warm air, varying from one street and bazaar to the next. Dimpy rescinded his original decision to get this whole farce over with as quickly as possible. He was fully aware that Sleed would be keeping a very personal and hostile eye on him, so he decided to make the cramph wait. He kept to the shady sides of the streets, head bowed in the universal servitude of the slave, eyes picking up everything that went on.
From the corner of a plaza he saw one of the gang members over the way sneak up to the rear of a self-important-looking Fristle. Lolalee was quick. Her curved knife flashed once in the lights of the suns. Then she was running fleet as a hare with the sword she had slashed from its hangings already concealed under the rags clothing her thin body. The Fristle swung about, his cat-face mean, and began yelling. By the time that happened and the crowd started to think of pursuit, Lolalee had vanished.
"Well done," said Big Balla, softly.
"I like her style."
"There's Staky over there looking--looking unhappy. The idiot's dithering. You be careful, Dimpy." With that, she was off.
From his knowledge of the city and this Contour, Dimpy knew the next square was the Kyro of Nath the Haggler. The platz was busy, its stalls well patronized. Dimpy rounded the corner to see Sleed running towards him holding out a sword hilt-first. Instinctively Dimpy took the weapon into his fist and Sleed, without a word, hared off.
Dimpy did not, just did not, believe what happened next.
The big, ugly and altogether unpleasant Kataki to whom Sleed spoke reacted at once. From the crowds a shrill cry shocked up.
"My sword! Thief! Thief!"
The Kataki ran lumberingly for Dimpy.
Without thinking, Dimpy threw down the sword and ran.