the gondwanan night continued to deepen as the few stars that had been visible became obscured by a heavy fog that seemed to have followed the three emissaries out of the lost city to meet sherlock holmes and his two sturdy escorts.
melvil the marauder roared with laughter at holmes' suggestion that the little covered wagon concealed the queen of darkness.
"bless you sir, her majesty doesn't even know you exist yet. no, no, its the vizier you will dealing with. the vizier, sir."
holmes with some difficulty concealed his exasperation. "so it is the vizier within the cart, i presume. am i to stand here and deal with him with mud on my boots and a raging thirst, or has some hospitality worthy of the queen of darkness been laid on? if so, i strongly suggest it be provided with some dispatch."
barbarian the bartender leaned forward on his steed, a creature about one quarter horse, one quarter dragon, and half rhinoceros. "listen my friend," he addressed holmes, "in answer to your second question, the queen of darkness is not an innkeeper. she wouldn't care one hyborean dime for your comfort level, if she even knew you existed. in answer to your first question, no it is not the vizier in the cart. the cart contains the cat-toad-queen of caroliningia, one of the limitless kings, queens, empresses and emperors that her majesty collects like flowers on a spring day."
barbarian paused in his recitation. mike mean took a sip of his ginger ale and laughed. "so you were the bad guy, eh?"
"we were a couple of right villains. but when i teamed up with mel i was usually the bad guy and he was the good guy."
"is mel still around?"
"he's down in level 8, last i heard."
"no, he's a shattered wreck. but that's another story."
"and why am i to deal with this personage, if i may ask?"
"you aren't going to deal with her. you might have a hard time communicating with her. no, her majesty just likes to send her captive kings and queens along on little errands, you might say, as a reminder of her limitless might. so the cat-toad-queen is just a kind of trophy me and mel are carrying,"
"you might consider it a sign of respect, sir," melvil the mercenary added in a conciliatory tone, "that we brought one of her majesty's trophies along to meet you."
"how very droll," holmes answered. "i have known other empresses in my time who preferred a more gracious display of their power. but i suppose that that is neither here nor there. a more relevant inquiry might be, do you mean to provide me and my two worthy companions with a more efficacious mode of transportation than our feet, or are we to stand here in the deepening gloom jabbering like postboys?"
"i could tie you up and throw you across the back of my mount," barbarian answered. "would you like that? you might get your drink of water faster."
holmes seemed to hesitate in answering.
"man up, mr holmes!" cried baywolf the briton. " man up! these two rogues wouldn't ride too far out of their way of a cold drink - or solid victuals either. we can't be too far away now."
holmes didn't reply but cast a longing glance at the little covered wagon.
melvil roared with laughter. "bless you, sir, you don't want to be in the wagon with the cat-toad-queen! not at all, sir! ha, ha, ha!"
"just keep on the way you were," said barbarian. "and you will get to the lost city. it will get darker before it gets lighter. stay in the darkness and you will find your way. wherever you feel most lost, you will be closest to your destination."
'wow man, that's heavy." mac the mailman had entered and sat down at the bar beside mike. "that really says it all."
melvil and barbarian and the little dragon wheeled around and disappeared into the murk.
"what a pair!" exclaimed amadis of atlantis. "i would hardly care to waste steel on them. let us hope the great queen has warriors at arms more worthy of the glory of her name."
'yes, brother," baywolf replied, "see how they turned tail at your fearsome challenges."
"gentlemen, please," said holmes as he picked up his foot to resume marching. "let us save our words and energies for the challenges which lie ahead."
"a sad day, gentlemen, a sad day." francis farquhar sat down on the stool on the other side of mac the mailman. "are any ceremonies planned, or will the last day be a day like any other?"
"no ceremonies here," barbarian answered. '"what will you have?"
"a doctor pepper, please." farquhar turned to mike and mac. "will you gentlemen be here until closing time?"
"no," mike answered, "we are on our way to the recycling center."
"always a sad occasion," farquhar noted.
"my friend sammy is due to be released today. i want to ask him a few questions about his untimely demise."
"i see.' farqhuar answered slowly. "you know how unlikely it is that he will remember. or that he will remember you at all."
"i know," said mike. "but you never know. what about you? isn't this a little late in the day for you? or early, or something?"
"indeed. it's a long story. a tale for another time."
"barbarian has been telling us a tale," mac the mailman said. "why don't you start over at the beginning so me and farqhuar can hear the whole thing?"
"sure,"said barbarian. "i'm easy."
"the beginning is always a good place to start over," observed farqhuar.
the lost city, when they finally reached it , surpassed in splendor and strangeness anything holmes and his companions could have conceived. silver was dust, gold was dirt, and the humblest buildings were constructed of mysterious metals almost too glittering and precious for humans eyes.
"no guards at the gate," observed holmes as they passed through it. "curious."
"who do they need to guard against?" baywolf answered. "they rule all."
"or think they do," amadis shook his head. "pride, pride."
"if they rule all," holmes replied testily, "who attacked us out in the desert?"
"bandits no doubt," answered a voice behind them. "bandits who would never attack the city itself - or so they would have you think."
holmes turned and looked down at a ragamuffin wearing a flat black hat who thrust a pamphlet at him.
"guide to the city, sir," the ragamuffin announced. "and other wisdom and wonderment as well."
"jojo!" baywolf exclaimed. "is there no escaping you?"
"who better then, to be your guide?"
"i am afraid we won't be needing your services," holmes told the ragamuffin. "we are here to see the queen."
"but sir," jojo answered. "everybody who comes to the city comes to see the queen. but when will you get to see the queen? that is the question."