"Watch out for snakes," said Boldaar as he struggled to pull his foot free of the clinging mud. "They like to drop out of trees around here."
Lurk nodded. They were both knee-deep in shallow water and soft mud, and there were no trees in this open stretch of swamp, but the land rose ahead, and gnarled, twisted trees crowded the slimy bank.
"I don't like snakes," said Boldaar. He hawked and spat, and the glob of phlegm floated, glistening, on the surface of the brackish water as though even it preferred to stay out of the murky depths. "It was around here somewhere that I ran into the last one."
"What happened?" asked Lurk as he took another slow step through the sludge.
"Long story," said Boldaar.
"We've got time," said Lurk.
The older man shrugged. "Killed it," he said.
Lurk waited, but it seemed his guide had nothing further to add.
"Y'know," he said after a while, "that's not a very long story after all!"
"Guess not," drawled Boldaar. "Hush now, voices tend to carry across the open water."
"Oh?" said Lurk.
"Attracts tagors," added Boldaar.
"Oh," said Lurk. He opened his mouth to add something more, then closed it again. From what he had heard so far about these tagors, he was in no hurry to meet one.
They entered the shadow of the first misshapen tree, its branches overhanging the water, and Lurk glanced up nervously into the tangle of vegetation as the chill fell over them. Nothing moved up there, but still Lurk lowered one hand to touch the hilt of his light rapier.
"Come on," said Boldaar as he splashed and squelched up onto land which was only nominally drier than the muddy stretch of water. His boots sank ankle-deep into the slime. He reached back a hand and helped haul Lurk up onto the bank.
"How much further," said Lurk.
The old man stared at Lurk speculatively for a moment. "You won't forget me, will you? You won't abandon me here like my last buddy did?"
Lurk shook his head. "I give you my word of honour," he said.
The old man spat again. "Well, lad, don't take this the wrong way, but I don't exactly know that your word is worth a whole hell of a lot. And honour, well, I've never had much truck with it meself."
"Fair enough," said Lurk. "I guess you've got no reason to trust me. But then, I'm not sure I have any way to convince you that my word is good." He shrugged. "I have to meet with Yodel, I have to ask him to train me. Once I'm done, I will bring back a transport to pick you up. And them, of course," he added, waving back the way they had come.
Boldaar grunted. "Reckon that'll have to do," he said. "Just hope you find your friend."
Lurk frowned. "I thought you were taking me to him," he said.
Boldaar shrugged. "I'm taking you to where I saw him last. Old Yodel don't get found by nobody unless he wants to be. It's the best I can do."
"Okay," said Lurk. He grinned. "Reckon that'll have to do," he added.
Boldaar stared at him for a long moment before turning away. "Come on," he said over his shoulder. "Not far now."
The next twenty minutes passed in silence, save for the squelching of mud and the steady, ever-present drone of insects. Once there was a small yelp and a splash as something small and furry was grabbed by something large and scaly, and Lurk gripped his light rapier more firmly. Boldaar never even turned toward the sound, so after a few seconds Lurk continued on after his guide.
If the other man was following a path through this slimy desolation, Lurk could not see it.
When Boldaar did gasp in surprise, Lurk drew his light rapier and lunged forward, his thumb tensed to activate the weapon.
"Oh," he said.
A large, twisted branch had been ripped from a tree and jammed deeply into the mud in the centre of a small clearing. Mounted on the branch, snarling at the two men, was a large spiky skull with a mouth full of very pointy teeth.
"What is it?" wondered Lurk aloud.
"Tagor skull," said Boldaar. "It's a sign. Says 'keep out!'"
"No kidding," agreed Lurk.
"I go no further," said Boldaar. "This is Yodel's territory now, and he's obviously not as friendly as the last time I met him."
"Oh," said Lurk. He looked back and forth from the menacing skull to the old man.
Boldaar shrugged. "You say you're his friend? I'm sure you'll find him."
"Right," said Lurk slowly. "Well, uh, I guess this is goodbye, then." He stuck out his hand. After a moment Boldaar took it, and clenched tightly in a bone-crunching grip that would have been painful if he gripped flesh and bone rather than electronics and plasteel.
"See you," he said. "And don't forget, we want off this mud-ball! Don't keep me—us—waiting too long!"
"I won't," said Lurk, but the old man had already turned away and begun wending his way back through the trees the way they had come.
Lurk glanced at the skull—he definitely did not want to meet a tagor—and stepped past it. The path out of the clearing was faint, and he followed it only a short distance before it petered out. Now there was nothing before him but swamp. Trees, and gnarled shrubs, and stagnant water which plopped and bubbled occasionally as something stirred beneath its surface. Flat lily pads covered some of the watery surface; in other places the water gleamed dully in the dim light. None of it gave Lurk any clue as to whether the water was three inches deep, or hid a pit of sucking, hungry mud. He dared not go any further.
"Hello," he called out. The thick fetid air dampened his voice, crushing it into silence. There was no echo. There was no reply at all but the eternal drone of the insects.
"Hello," he called again. "I'm looking for Yodel."
Lurk looked around. There was no sign of intelligent life; even the skull on the pole was lost to view behind the twisted, tangled vegetation and the miserable drizzle.
Lurk reached up under his bandanna and scratched his chin thoughtfully. He wondered if the Jubbly master was even still alive; from what little Bent K'nobby had said about his former master, Lurk had got the impression that Yodel was ancient. Perhaps he had simply died, out here in the swamp, with nobody to know, or to mourn his passing.
On the other hand, thought Lurk, he is supposed to be in hiding. Probably doesn't want to be pestered by every passing tourist with nothing to do but give in to idle curiosity—the skull back there says that much!
Lurk reached out with his mind, feeling for the Source. It was vibrant and strong here—and hopelessly tangled and, somehow, murky. That makes sense! Lurk nodded to himself. If he's hiding from anyone, it's from the Imperator and Vapour. What better place to hide than in a place like this? He shuddered. The Source was far from friendly in this place.
Lurk thought about what Boldaar had said to him. Perhaps Yodel would not be found—but perhaps he would find Lurk.
Lurk closed his eyes, and concentrated on his own inner peace. Gradually, the noise of the swamp faded away—even the stench seemed to lessen somewhat—as Lurk's senses contracted to a small puddle of stillness in his mind's eye. From that still centre, he pushed his awareness out through the Source, spreading himself out through the virtual code—messy, spaghetti code—which defined the swamp which surrounded him. Finally, he spoke in his mind.
Master Yodel, are you there? I seek training.
There was no reply. Lurk tried again.
Master Yodel, please. I need your help.
Still no reply, but Lurk had the distinct impression that the silence was that of somebody listening intently.
Master Yodel, I seek an audience. He waited. Bent K'nobby sent me.
Bent? came the distant reply.
Obeah Bum K'nobby.
"Well," croaked a voice from behind him, "why say this before, did you not?"
Lurk yelped in surprise, and spun around. In his haste he got his feet tangled, and with all the grace of a three-legged hephelump—which, for the record, is one of the most graceless things in the known galaxy—he tumbled to the ground, splashing heavily into the slimy water. Coughing and spluttering, he thrashed his arms in the foul-smelling goop until he managed to sit up.
Standing on the path, squinting at Lurk in dismay, one eyebrow raised in an expression of disbelief, was a three foot tall albino frog. It leaned on a short, gnarled walking stick—thickly knobbed at one end, narrowing almost to a point at the other—and wore a threadbare brown robe. One tiny foot was deformed and turned inwards.
Lurk had no idea what a rabbit was—something which would make a good stew, perhaps?—but he had the sudden unshakeable feeling that he had just tumbled down the rabbit-hole.
"Excuse me, little frog," he said inanely, "did you speak to me?"
The frog drew itself to its full height—almost three foot one inch—and said: "A frog I am not." It did not sound happy. It wasn't a frog, Lurk realised—although there were many similarities. Frogs, though, did not have large pointed ears, as this creature had.
It was the creature's distinctive manner of speaking which finally caught Lurk's attention. It used an unusual grammatical twist, and it seemed to Lurk that it was a speech pattern which would be tempting to imitate. He had heard that same pattern before, from Boldaar, and from Bent K'nobby. Both men had spent time with...
"Yodel?" asked Lurk.
Yodel nodded. "Serve you well, your insight does," he said. "Although, not much of a leap, it was!"
"I'm screwed, aren't I?" said Lurk with a sigh.
"Make a good first impression, you do not," agreed Yodel.
"A thousand apologies, Master Yodel," said Lurk humbly. "You startled me, and I was expecting someone..."
"Taller?" asked Yodel.
"Well, yes," said Lurk.
"A lot, I get that," said Yodel. He leaned forward and poked Lurk in the chest with the muddy tip of his walking stick. "Late you are, young Splitwhisker. Waiting, I have been."
"You know who I am?" asked Lurk.
Yodel sighed and shook his small, frog-like head. "Master of the obvious, you are," he said. "Told me, Obeah Bum did, that on your way you were. Six weeks ago, that was!"
"I'm sorry," said Lurk. "I had to go to Hoff, to make sure..."
But Yodel had turned away. He tilted his head and spoke to the empty air. "Train him, I cannot," he said. "Impetuous, he is. Wilful."
Was I any different when you trained me? replied the empty air. Lurk blinked as he recognised the voice.
"Bent?" he asked.
Limned with a soft green glow, the figure of Obeah Bum K'nobby shimmered into view.
Yodel shook his head. "Too old, he is. When you I trained, young you were. Impetuous too, yes—and look to where that led."
Lurk stood up slowly. His clothes were soaked, and he felt thick, cold mud oozing unpleasantly down his legs inside the trousers of his flight suit.
"But I've learned so much," pleaded the young man. "Tell him, Bent."
Yodel shook his head again. "Too old."
He must be trained, said Bent. He is too powerful. Without guidance, he is a danger to all around him—and he will be turned easily to the Hard Side of the Source.
"Yeah," said Lurk. "A danger to ... hey, wait a minute."
"True, this is," said Yodel. He sighed deeply. "Very well," he said at last. "Train him I must."
"Thank you, Master Yodel," said Lurk. "I think."
"But first, eat we must," said Yodel. "Come, young Splitwhisker." He turned and hobbled away through the swamp. The path he followed was clearly visible, although Lurk was sure it had not been there earlier. He glanced at the shimmering, translucent figure of Bent—his old mentor shrugged apologetically before fading silently away—and then turned to follow the small form of Yodel. For a shuffling, crippled frog, the Jubbly master moved surprisingly quickly.
Lurk sat on the hard-packed dirt floor, hunched double so as not to bang his head against the low ceiling. The hut was as tiny as its owner, and Lurk felt like a giant, cramped and confined.
At least it was dry.
Yodel bustled around the tiny kitchen—little more than a fireplace with a large metal pot suspended over the flickering flames, and a tiny pantry. Lurk watched the short Jubbly master as he stirred the contents of the pot, then spooned some of the liquid into a bowl which he handed over to the youth. Lurk took it carefully, and accepted the proffered spoon. He peered suspiciously into the bowl. The liquid was thick, and numerous unidentifiable chunks floated in it. He sniffed cautiously, and struggled to keep the grimace of distaste from his face.
Lurk had grown up on the hot, dry planet of Ratatouille; he had never had stew before. On the icy world of Hoff, however, the Rebellion's cooks had introduced him to the wonders of steaming hot meat pies. He would gladly trade this slop for a dish of cubed steak and vegetables, topped with a light and fluffy pastry.
"Eat up," said the Jubbly Master, and he poked his young guest with his walking stick. "Much energy you will need, if trained you are to be."
Lurk stirred the bowl of stew, and something green and slimy bobbed to the surface. He blinked at it. To his horror it blinked back. He dropped the spoon hurriedly back into the bowl.
Yodel cackled with laughter. "Eat up," he said again.
"Stew, or stew not," said Yodel, "there is no pie!"
Lurk stared up at the creature in disbelief. "You can read my mind?" he asked.
"Read your mind, I can," agreed Yodel, "but much energy does that take. Easier to read, your face is. Now eat. Long, tomorrow will be. Much to do there is."
Lurk lifted another spoonful from the bowl and studied it cautiously. It didn't seem inclined to start moving, so after a slight pause he placed it in his mouth. It actually tasted pretty good. Yodel sat down opposite the young man and began to eat heartily from his own bowl. For a while the hut was filled with the slurping sounds of stew being swallowed.
"Yodel," began Lurk as he set his bowl aside.
"More?" asked Yodel.
"No!" said Lurk quickly. "I mean, uh, no thanks, I'm quite full."
"Suit yourself," said Yodel as he refilled his own bowl.
"Um, Master Yodel," began Lurk again. "I have a question."
"Always so impatient, young Splitwhisker," said Yodel. "For eating there is a time, and for talking there is a time."
"Sorry, Master Yodel," persisted Lurk, "but I have to know. I have held onto this question for some time. It concerns my, uh, it concerns Barth Vapour."
Yodel sighed and put down his bowl. "Told you, did he? Unfortunate, this is." The Jubbly master nodded wearily. "Your father he is."
"Oh, not that," said Lurk. "He never told me that!"
"Whoops," said Yodel. "Forget, you must. Unlearn what you have just learned..."
"It's okay," said Lurk. "I figured that out before I even faced Vapour. No, I just want to know what happened to him after the, uh, battle at Yawn."
"Oh," said Yodel. He tilted his face upward quizzically.
Did I not mention that? came Bent's sepulchral voice. I'm sure I did.
"Mention it you did not," said Yodel sternly.
Sorry, said Bent.
"Now, Lurk, your father..." Yodel paused, and stared blindly into his bowl of stew. "Gone, his presence is from the Source. But dead he is not. A puzzle this is!"
"Are you saying that even you do not know where he is?" demanded Lurk. "How can he be gone but not dead? I don't understand."
"Possible it is, that Vapour from death saved himself."
The same way I did, said Bent gently. He shimmered into view, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the increasingly crowded kitchen. In fact, he did not fit completely, and one shoulder was buried in the wall of the hut. It did not seem to bother him. Or a similar way, anyway. You may recall I told you something about writing oneself into the very Source code itself?
"Well yes," said Lurk, "but I kind of assumed that if Vapour had done that, you would still be able to detect his presence?"
Indeed, confirmed Bent. That is not what he has done. Perhaps, though, he managed to move himself over to another simulation entirely.
"Another simulation?" asked Lurk.
Think of it as a parallel universe, said Bent.
"Like, but not alike," added Yodel cryptically.
Lurk shook his head. "I think you've lost me."
All this, as I told you, is merely a virtual reality. Bent waved his hand, indicating the hut and, beyond that, the entirety of the known galaxy. The machines generate it to keep us docile, under control. Lurk nodded. One popular theory is that the machines are actually running multiple such simulations. In parallel, as it were. With enough incentive, in theory, a Stiff Lord could travel from one simulation to another.
"Oh," said Lurk.
"Only theory it is," said Yodel. "No proof do we have. But possible it is."
"Wow," said Lurk, blinking. "That is just..." He trailed off, lost for words.
Isn't it? agreed Bent.
Lurk stared back and forth between the two Jubbly masters, the living and the dead. Bent's very existence was proof enough that the Source held many secrets.
"I wonder where he is," Lurk said at last.