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Chapter 8. UNDER THE SEA

I try thinking of a way to outwit the Old Creature. While I might not be able to open a window back to Earth, I'm sure I can open one to the demon universe and return home from there. But Art reads my mind and chuckles.

"I will not permit it."

"You can't stop me," I retort.

"Actually I can. I have the power to tear apart any window that you create, and I can do it before the window opens. If necessary, we can stay here for decades and duel with each other, but I would not recommend it. You would lose."

I start working on a window, to test him, but Art's smug expression stops me. He's telling the truth. Cursing, I begin to question him again, but he only turns and walks back to the stone chamber, where a dark grey window is waiting for us.

"What is it to be?" Art asks.

Since I've no real choice, I snarl and step forward with him.

Just before I reach the window, Art's body unravels and he becomes a ball of multicolored light again. "I have to travel like this," he tells me, his words sounding inside my head. "I need to cocoon you again. But I will resume the shape of Art when we come to our next stop."

"Whatever." I sniff unhappily, bitter at being manipulated.

The light sweeps over and surrounds me. When Art gives the command, I step into the window and we progress.

Over the next few hours we pass through several chambers similar to the one on Atlantis. Some are made of stone but others are carved out of wood, metal, or other substances. One is simply a chamber of lights, a dome of panels and patches. We don't leave any of these chambers, just stay long enough for Art to open a new window, then move on again.

I'm still amazed by Atlantis, stunned by the proof of other life-forms in our universe. I always assumed we weren't alone, that there were intelligent beings on other worlds. But to see an actual alien was an incredible experience. Even if it did just look like a big slug!

Art's a quiet guide. He concentrates on steering us from one chamber to the next. I don't think it's easy. These patches of lights aren't as easily mastered as the ones I'm accustomed to. It seems to be hard work.

I'm still worried about Dervish and the others, and in shock about the loss of Beranabus. But there's nothing I can do, so I lie back and bide my time. I'm in the grip of something more powerful than myself. I don't understand it and I can't fight or escape. Yet.

We pass through another window and I find myself in a waterlogged chamber. I'm not sure what the walls are made of, but it looks like seaweed. As we slip through, parts of the walls glow. It's not magic-I can see small organisms in the crevices of the greenish blocks. They're like underwater glowworms.

"We will rest awhile," Art says, letting the window close behind us. The lights surrounding me shimmer, then slip off, although a layer remains, keeping me dry and providing me with air.

"That's clever," I note as the ball of light transforms into a boy.

"What?" Art frowns.

"The shield."

"It is nothing special."

"Are you tired?" I ask, detecting weariness in his tone.

"Yes." He sighs. "Travel of this nature is draining. We don't normally cross vast distances so swiftly. But time is against us, so I must push myself."

"How far have we come?"

He pauses, then says, "You do not have words to describe it. Your scientists do, but their terms would mean nothing to you."

Art heads towards a gap in the glowing blocks and I glide after him. We exit the chamber and I'm confronted with an underwater paradise. I'm blown away by what I see, and it takes a minute before I can do anything except bob up and down in the water and stare.

We're in the middle of a city. The buildings are all kinds of weird shapes, made of seaweed, shells, and huge, twisting roots. Many rise far above and deep below us, two hundred floors high, maybe more. Most sway gently. All sorts of colors, illuminated by enormous swathes of the glowing organisms I saw in the chamber.

There are no roads, just avenues between, through, and around the buildings. No glass or doors, only scores of holes in the structures.

I spot some creatures. There are hordes-schools?-of them all around us, floating along the avenues, darting in and out of holes in the buildings. They look like the sea life of my world, only more varied.

As I'm watching, a shark-like beast with several mouths and one giant eye chases an animal that looks like a cross between a seal and a deer. The predator runs down its prey and rips it to shreds. Clouds of scavengers move in quickly and finish off the scraps that the shark leaves behind.

"Are we safe?" I ask nervously. There are more of the sharks around, and other mutations that look ever fiercer.

"They won't harm us," Art says. "This is a perfectly balanced world. Nothing would attack anything that it was not, by nature, designed to prey upon."

As he says that, a sea snake the size of a redwood tree passes beneath us. It raises its huge head and studies us. I feel like I'm going to be its lunch. But then it moves on, jaws opening and closing slowly, in search of other food.

"I don't like this," I mutter. "When can we leave?"

"Soon," Art says. "First I must acknowledge the greeting of the natives."

A ring of creatures closes around us. Each looks like a cross between a small whale and an octopus, large but graceful. Their many arms are adorned with shells and sea flowers, and intricate designs that might be tattoos. They swirl over, under, and around one another, as if dancing.

"They are dancing," Art says. "They worship my kind and wish to perform in our honor. We have not passed through here in a long time. They are excited."

"Why do they think so much of you?" I ask.

"We saved them from a demon attack long ago."

"The Demonata cross to other worlds?" I frown.

"Of course," Art says. "They hate all life-forms. You are not the first to suffer at their hands. And you won't be the last. Far from it."

Other creatures gather around us, joining the dance. Their movements become more involved, dozens of different species sweeping around one another, every blink of an eye or swish of a tail carefully choreographed. Through the crush I spot something weird rising from the depths.

"Is that a chessboard?" I ask. It's much bigger than any board I've ever seen, but it's the right shape, with the usual arrangement of black and white squares.

"There are Boards like this on almost all the worlds where we have had an influence," Art says. "The Boards are central to the development of intelligence. Some species forget about them as they evolve, but most remember in one way or another."

"I don't get it. What's the big deal about chess?"

"The game means nothing," Art answers. "The Board is everything."

Something about the way he stresses the word sparks a memory. I recall a visit I paid to Lord Loss's kingdom several years ago. The demon master loves chess. One of the rooms in his web-based castle was full of sets. He produced a board that he referred to as the original Board. Each square was a self-contained universe of its own, filled with an array of demons.

"Yes," Art says before I can form a question. "That was the Board we used on your world."

"I still don't understand," I frown. "The Board was just a toy."

"The Boards are not toys," Art says. "Each is a map of the original universe, a link to the past before time."

"You're talking gibberish," I scowl.

"It will become clear soon," Art assures me, then pushes through a gap that the sea creatures have created. "Come. I am fully rested, and the dance has moved into its final arc. It is time for us to depart."

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