by Trevor Hopkins

There was a creaking noise from within, as if somebody was carefully manoeuvring themselves to a more upright posture in bed and arranging the bedclothes.

"Who is it?" came a soft voice through the door, not as high-pitched as I might have expected.

"It's Nether," my brother said.

"Come in."

Nether tugged on the handle and pushed the door open. I followed him inside. A human female sat up in a small bed, a bed which would never have allowed two to share in comfort. Her eyes widened slightly as she caught sight of me trailing in, then she looked at Nether and back to me again, as if unsure of what she was seeing. Then she nodded, a single dip of the chin than seemed to signify her acceptance of the situation: that it was not excessive imagination or wishful thinking, but there really were two mythical creatures at the bottom of her bed.

All humans tend to look the same to me, even under ideal circumstances, and Rosie was so swathed in pyjamas and bedclothes it was hard to determine any distinguishing features at all. She was shorter than most, a little rounder than most. Her hair was that orange colour that humans call "red", her eyes were somewhere between blue and green, and her pale skin was dusted with those marks known as freckles.

"Are you the one that came for Nether all those years ago?" Rosie blurted out, smiling uncertainly at me, "The one my grandfather told me about?"

"Findo Gask, Private Detective. And Nether’s brother," I said, bowing in an exaggerated fashion and lifting my hat in a parody of formal politeness.

"Please to meet you, Findo," she said, "My grandfather remembered you well, I think."

"I remember him," I said civilly, "Although I only met him the once. That was a long time ago."

"Indeed," she replied, "He was a good man, if a bit earthy at times."

Rosie looked sad for a fleeting moment, then she was distracted. She held her hand to her head, swallowing awkwardly and repeatedly, and grimacing at some discomfort around her face.

"Are you okay?" I asked solicitously.

"My ears hurt," she said simply, "I can't seem to clear them."

I looked at Nether, whose anxious gaze returned my worried expression in spades.

"You're right," I said to him levelly, "You really do need my help."

Rosie looked confused, turning her head from Nether to me and back again.

"What's wrong?" she demanded. I explained.

The Goblin caverns are deep down in the earth, many thousands of feet - even miles - below the surface. The portals which link surface and deeps aren't tunnels, at least in the conventional sense. They utilize the same technology as the transit tubes which link the caverns together, but are set vertically rather than nearly horizontal.

Anybody entering or leaving the Goblin world will always experience a sudden change in air pressure. It is something that Goblins are not very sensitive to. But most humans can feel pressure changes in their inner ear - when they fly up in an aircraft, for example, or even when they take a high-speed lift in a tall building. An entrance to the Lower Realms drops you a mile into the ground instantaneously, with a rapid pressure change. This causes discomfort, even severe pain, to almost all humans; it is another one of the reason why people from the surface do not frequently visit the caverns of the Goblins.

In a few places, there are staging points for human visitors, allowing them to acclimatise to the air pressure before continuing their descent, or ascent. Or there are conventional stairs, although nobody in their right mind really wants to walk up, or down, a flight of stairs a mile high.

If Rosie was still suffering from pains now, she had probably been abducted to the Lower Realms, by person or persons unknown. And it looked quite possible that she had returned very quickly, without the courtesy of stopping to let her recover. That would certainly hurt like hell, adding to her pain and confusion when she was dumped in that alley.

Part 27 Part 29