At once, Jason was covered with sludge. His nose and mouth were filled with some kind of noxious liquid, and his vision was filled with a greenish shade of black. He writhed, but he was stopped a moment later when he felt a long object encircle his torso many times. It lifted him up, and in another moment he was out of the slime, if still covered in it. He wiped his eyes thoroughly and blinked a few times. He was not at all happy to see where he was.

Apparently, the party's verseportation had taken them to a spot submerged in the putrid water of a swamp. Jason scrutinized the scenery no further: his gaze was fixed on the thing that had lifted him out of the water. It was a monster—a less conspicuously threatening monster than the muscle-bound hulk that had cracked Roland's ribs, but a far stranger one. It was an extremely thin five-foot–tall biped, its hips no wider than Jason's thigh. Its head was like a human's, but squashed widthwise and stretched out vertically; its two eyes were not quite on the front of its face, and one was higher than the other. Those eyes had to be uniquely arranged to fit that narrow face. The creature had a tiny mouth, and no nose. Its feet, Jason would soon see, were normally sized humanoid ones. In place of arms, it had four very thin, very long tentacles extended from holes placed around its upper body, and three more such holes besides. The tentacles were currently occupied holding each of our four heroes above the surface of the water as the monster inspected them. Its skin was quite hairless and smooth and all a medium gray, except for a large white spot on its navel.

"What were you doing there?" the creature said. Its voice was high-pitched but quiet.

The party eyed each other from their various awkward positions in the air. They had a lot on their minds, but chiefly, they were thinking that they'd probably just gone out of the frying pan and into the fire. They told each other this clearly enough with their faces.

Jason wished he'd at least had a chance to change out of his nightclothes; he and Curtis wore only a loose T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts each. Nevertheless, he was the first to regain the use of his tongue. "Trying to escape the plot." he said. "We failed. Miserably."

Assuming he was interpreting its face correctly, the creature was mystified.

"No, it's probably better that you don't understand it." Jason added. "I do, and it just makes everything worse."

"I—I apologize deeply, sir." said Roland. "We―"

"I'm female." the creature interrupted.

A frightened little squeak escaped from Roland. "Sorry, sorry, ma'am! As I was saying, all the multiverse has gotten very dangerous lately, what with all the… uh… creatures that have been wreaking havoc. The four of us were threatened by some, and we feared for our lives, so we performed a random verseport together. That landed, or rather, submerged us here. We'd be much obliged if―"

"No, I don't think I'll let you go." said the monster. "You could be useful to us."

"'Us'?" said Curtis.

"I and my mate. You'll meet him now."

The monster set off along the swamp, stepping carefully through the brackish water as its—no, I suppose I should say "her"—captives swayed up and down, their soaked hair and clothing still dripping all over. Jason looked drearily at his dreary surroundings. Whatever verse this was, it was definitely summer here: the sun beat down as hard as it could between the leaf canopy provided by the thin trees. The water was a tannish-blackish shade of green that was as nauseating as it was chromatically complex. Beneath its surface, and throughout the air, thousands of oversized insects buzzed. One, of a shape that was unfamiliar to Jason and surely unlike any seen on Earth, landed on the Argonaut's mighty nose for a while. Jason would've loved to swipe it away, but his arms were bound to his sides by the monster's tentacles—when he tried struggling, the monster responded by squeezing so hard for a moment that Jason's bones ached. All he could do was glower at the bug. And speaking of noses, I'll spare you a description of what Jason was smelling at this moment, so as to ensure that your latest meal keeps its rightful place in your belly.

"My God, Jason," Roland suddenly spoke up, "you can be amazingly idiotic sometimes."

Jason was stunned. He had to crane his neck in a rather painful way in order to see Roland's face. The adventurer looked serious enough.

"I'm referring to your television nonsense." said Roland. He was speaking in English, at least. The sudden change of setting from Roland's apartment in the middle of the night to this swamp in the middle of the day had served to thoroughly awaken the entire party. "That kind of postmodern philosophy is all well and good when one's in a contemplative mood, but you must leave all such metaphysical concerns by the wayside when our lives are threatened!"

"Roland," said Jason, "our lives are threatened by metaphysical concerns. That's my whole point."

"Not now, guys!" said Curtis.

"Listen to him." said the monster, and gave all a good squeeze—even Simon, who'd said nothing so far, but wasn't inclined to complain, either. Roland cried out at the pressure on his injured ribs. After that, they all fell silent.

In a few minutes, the monster came to a six-foot–tall hunter-green tent set on a piece of dry ground. A fifth tentacle extended from a hole under the creature's right shoulder, took hold of the zipper on the front of the tent flap, and opened it. Inside, Jason could see another creature, seemingly identical to the one that had captured them, sleeping on the floor. None of its—I mean, his tentacles were visible; Jason supposed they had all been retracted into the monster's thin frame. Beside him, three steel barrels, each about as tall as Jason, stood upright. A few sealed, bulging garbage bags spotted with ambiguous stains were scattered about the tent. Jason's nose informed him that the bags were full of not trash, but perfectly edible dried meat.

The party's captor rolled the end of her free tentacle into a ball and lightly tapped the sleeper on the head. His eyes slid open slowly, then, when he saw the captives hanging in the air, widened with interest. He heaved himself to his feet with the help of his tentacles and asked, in a voice indistinguishable from the other monster's, "How did you get those?"

"I found all four of them just lying underwater." said the female. "This one said they randomly verseported there to escape from monsters." She positioned Roland to face her mate.

"Strange." said the male. "I guess it was the All-Mother's will."

"Whose will?" Jason asked at once.

"No questions." the male said quickly. "Now… what―"

"I figured they could help us damage the reagents." said the female. "They'll go through them while we hold the drivers."

"Yes," the other monster said after a pause, "that sounds like a good idea." He looked at the faces of each of the humans present, now all turned towards him. "I guess we have to tell you what we're doing. A few days ago, we made this stuff" (he gestured at the barrels) "with chemicals we got from a factory. It's the All-Mother's recipe for a liquid to make reagents deteriorate. You pour it on organic reagents, and after a few minutes you can't see it, or feel it. But after a few days, the stuff won't work as material components for magic.

"What we're going to do is catch the trucks that are delivering materials for soldiers' reagent kits to a processing plant near here. No one will know the stuff's defective until the soldiers try to use it. That'll hurt the Droydanian army." The monster smiled, kind of.

<"Droydanian"?> Jason thought. <Are we in Droydania?>

"No one will know we did anything, thanks to these." The male monster extended a tentacle that fished around behind a garbage bag. He withdrew a strange object, some kind of thick badge with a loop attached to the back through which the monster had stuck his tentacle. The back of the badge was blank. The monster didn't turn the object, so Jason couldn't see the other side. "This is an Antimnemonic."

"Gesundheit." Jason mumbled, in the original German.

"It's only a piece of plastic, but it has a magical symbol on the front. Anyone who sees it will forget the present few minutes soon afterwords."

<Ah, the neuralizer.>

"We have two, so Gol and I will each carry one. Don't look at them."

"Thorm?" said the female.


"Can you hold these now? My tentacles are tired."


And so the foursome were ferried from the tentacles of the first monster (presumably Gol) to those of the second (presumably Thorm). Jason was convinced that there was something meaningful about running afoul of two monsters named Thorm, but since this Thorm didn't seem interested in eating him, he doubted the connection was a very helpful one.

The monsters said something about how there was still a couple of hours before the first trucks full of reagents would arrive nearby. Then, Gol decided to take a nap, and Thorm went for a stroll with Jason, Roland, Curtis, and Simon still tightly clutched in his tentacles.

Nothing was said the whole time Thorm mucked about the swamp, except for one sentence uttered at a seemingly arbitrary moment.

"Jason," said Simon, "I believe you were right."

When the time came, the monsters met at the tent once more. After some minutes of debate, they decided to split up the humans thus: Jason and Roland would go with Thorm, while Curtis and Simon would accompany Gol. Jason wasn't sure if this was the best possible arrangement. He was, at least, glad that Roland and Simon would be kept apart. He was anything but glad when Thorm took the time to search each member of the party for reagents; having one of those tentacles rifle through one's clothing felt violating. More important, without their reagents, the mages were rendered more or less nonmagical. Roland (as well as Curtis, much to Jason's surprise) trembled with barely contained rage when Thorm tossed his reagent pouch to the floor. Jason was allowed to keep the broken bracelet.

Thorm and Gol each took a barrel, an Antimnemonic, and their assigned captives, and off they went. Jason and Roland looked at each other as Thorm strode across the swamp in one direction, and Gol in another. Roland's face was grim: before, there was some hope that he and the other mages could fight for their freedom, as soon as their hands were released. Now, Jason supposed that their only hope was to use the reagents they were expected to sabotage.

Gradually, the ground became drier, and the trees thinned. In time, the odd trio left the wood and arrived at a great meadow, its knee-high grass broken only by a relatively narrow, featureless, perfectly straight paved road. Each end disappeared into the horizon. The only object on it Jason could see was a seeming speck of dust far, far away to his left, inching its way down the road.

"Stand here until the truck stops." said Thorm, planting Jason's and Roland's feet on the pavement and releasing them from his grip. Jason rejoiced in the ability to freely move his limbs for the first time in hours. Thorm dropped the barrel and lay down in the grass. His thin frame made him quite invisible in that position.

They waited, mirthlessly, until the speck of dust grew into an automobile and accelerated its speed of approach. Then the automobile became clearly distinguishable as a truck, and drew close enough that Jason began to feel in danger of being run down. Then, when the driver realized that these barefoot lunatics weren't planning on getting out of the way, the truck screeched to a halt just a few yards ahead of them, its engine still running. The driver, a lanky middle-aged gentleman wearing a baseball cap, stared at them with one eyebrow raised. Jason shrugged, embarrassed at being seen in his boxers by a strange human.

Before anyone could speak, Thorm leapt into action. With alarming agility, he sprang to his feet and dashed to the front of the cab. The driver was speechless with fright. He threw the truck into reverse gear and slammed the accelerator. Too late—Thorm smashed a tentacle through the windshield and knocked the driver out of his seat. He picked the man up and lifted him out of the cab.

"Don't speak, or you die." said Thorm, pointing the Antimnemonic at the driver. He beckoned to Jason and Roland with a tentacle, picked up the barrel, and led them to the back of the truck. There, he frisked the driver until he found a bunch of keys, which he "handed" to Roland. "Open it up."

And so Jason and Roland went through the various crates, barrels, and chests that were being shipped to the plant. For each, they opened it (using one of the keys, if necessary), brought it outside, where Thorm poured a clear fluid from the barrel onto its contents, and neatly put it back in its place. Thorm was careful to specify that all should be left apparently as it was found. He was also careful (very careful, in fact) to be sure that Roland didn't take any of the reagents for himself—he knew Jason couldn't cast spells because the Argonaut hadn't been carrying any reagents of his own. <No good.> Jason thought. <So much for the easy way out.> Once again, he had to find a plan. But without magic, how could he hope to stand against this monster? And in such a scripted situation, how could he trick the monster into letting him and Roland escape?

Even after Jason and Roland finished their work, and Thorm put the driver back in the cab and sent him on his way ("I shouldn't have broken the windshield;" Thorm said when he was gone; "it'll make them suspicious."), Jason was still scheming. He was still scheming when another truck arrived and they began the whole process all over again. He was still scheming as he tried to unlock a large trunk—first with one key, then with another, then another. There were an awful lot of keys on that ring. Finally, he found the right one—and then, finally, an idea came to him.

"I gotta plan." Jason whispered to Roland out of the corner of his mouth the next time they passed each other. "I'll tell you in bits." Over the next few minutes, he slowly explained the plan in terse sentences, or in some cases sentence fragments, that he whispered in stolen moments. Never before had Jason so appreciated the concisely expressive power of English.

"Fine," Roland whispered after Jason was finished, "next truck."