Outside Clem's Place

"Gawd, that was close," breathed Debreban. "He nearly saw me."

"He nearly saw all of us," corrected Shankey.

"You guys wanna get off me?" I asked, somewhat muffled and breathless. "Friendship is great, but I think we're moving way too fast here."

Debreban was on me, Shankey was on Debreban, and the three of us were face-down behind a cart full of radishes. Shankey removed his sturdy weight, and with a few oofs and ughs we got ourselves upright again. Lots of people stared, particularly the radish seller, but no one was curious enough to inquire why three adults were playing hide-and-seek in the street.

Debreban had spotted his master coming out of Clem's Place and acted reflexively, tripping me flat. He dropped on top before I knew what was happening, then Shankey joined us.

"Why'd you do that?" I wanted to know. "It doesn't matter if this Cadmus dude sees me or not. We've never met."

"No, but he might have been curious enough to come over to talk to you like everyone else since we left the stables."

True. Once back in the town proper I'd collected another quasi-parade of kids who must have heard about me from their friends and wanted a first-hand encounter with the cat-guy. Any other time and I'd have been glad to oblige, but I was in a hurry to get back to Terrin.

"He's in a bad mood," Debreban fretted about his master. "Didn't he look like he was in a bad mood? Bad."

"I didn't see him," I said, futilely brushing at the dirt and other stains I'd collected here and back in the tunnel. "This is my favorite shirt."

"My lady will see that it's cleaned," Shankey promised. "Let's keep moving. Don't you still hear your friend?"

I'd told them about Terrin's walkie-talkie-in-my-brain summoning. They'd been skeptical, but had seen enough magic to give me the benefit of the doubt and cooperate. Shankey had saddled three of the Darmo horses to speed our return to the inn. We'd just been tying them to a hitching post when Debreban spotted his boss and hit the dirt. Or in this case, the Myhr. "Thanks for the reminder."

We pressed forward before more kids could gang up on us. My chief distraction from them was Terrin's voice in my head keeping up a constant stream of talk with a single theme of me getting to him. The annoying, but worry-making, call was like a radio station playing my least favorite commercials with no volume control or on/off switch. I tried mentally replying to let him know I had the message, but it was one-way traffic.

About two minutes ago the internal noise stopped. I didn't know whether to celebrate or panic.

Clem was cleaning a mug behind the bar as we rushed in. He called something after me about the show, but I charged past and up the narrow stairs, pushing the door open.

Terrin sat cross-legged on the floor with his back to me, his usual meditative posture. With Shankey and Debreban crowding each other in the doorway, I cautiously moved around to see his face.

His eyes were open, with only the whites showing. In his hands was that black candle, alight; some of its wax had melted and flowed over his fingers. His breathing was shallow and fast, which was wrong for meditation.

"Terrin? Hey, what's the emergency?"

His eyelids shivered, then he took a deeper breath, and shivered all over.

"You sick or something? What do you want me to do?"

He blinked out of it, his eyes wandering a few seconds before focusing on me. "It's about time you got here. Where were you, Timbuktu?"

Gracious as always. "Pretty much, and I've risked life and limb to get here - "

"Yeah, sure, okie-dokie, lissen up, we got a problem. I told you something was wrong with this world. I finally figured out there's a magic drain here."

"Yeah, it's to do with that black fog."

"Not during the day it ain't! I've been feeling tired from the first and it kicked in big time a little bit ago. It's in the fat part of the curve and sucking me dry. I made it back here where I have shields, but they aren't gonna last. We gotta find a way to get off this world before I'm husked out, or we stay here for good. You will, anyway. Much more of this and I'm hosed."

"How hosed?"

He suddenly turned to glare at my guests. "Who are those guys?"

"It's okay, they're cool - "

"You think everyone's cool. Who are they?"

I made a quick introduction. "Shankey's boss lady has invited us to come stay with her and help out on this Hell-river problem."

"Hell-schmell, I gotta leave this planet! We have to find gems and leave now while I still have the strength to do the travel spell."

"I'm on your side for that, but - "

"It's dead serious, Myhr. We'll have to lift some and pay out the karmic debt later. I can't wait for the quartzes to recharge. They won't recharge anyway since all the latent magic is gone."

"Lady Filima has gems. Doesn't she, Shankey?"

"Oh, lots," said Shankey enthusiastically. "Lots of jewels."

That was the right magic word to use with Terrin. "Great. Get two and bring 'em here. I want out of this dump before sunset."

Man, he was totally freaked. I'd rarely seen him like this before. "It's more complicated than you know."

"I don't care. We're outta here a-s-a-p or I'm dead!"

Okay, that was hosed and a half. "What about your shields and the protective wards?"

"They're too weak to hold for long."

"Ahh," began Shankey in a helpful tone, "Darmo House is magically shielded. From what I know of 'em they've been in place for centuries, added onto over time. They may be why Lady Filima didn't vanish with the other Talents. She's the same as ever."

"Huh? What?" Terrin demanded.

"We need to get you caught up on all the stuff I've learned today," I said. "I got inside information you need."

"Just gimme the headlines."

I did so, with Shankey and Debreban nodding vigorous confirmation as I outlined the city's problem with the Hell-river, the disappearance of all the town Talents and described Botello Darmo's hidden workshop. "If we can get you to Darmo House you'll have better protection than in this place."

"You sure about that?"

"No, but sooner or later your wards and stuff will give way, right? You'll have a better chance surviving there than here. Besides, you need to see what we've found."

"When I get there. If I get there."

"We've horses outside."

"Not fast enough; it means leaving my shelter. I won't last five minutes. There's something ugly out there sucking magic off like a frat house empties a keg."

"Can you make a movable shield?" asked Debreban. "I've heard talk of such things."

Terrin gave him a cockeyed look. "I like you, blondie, you think like me."

Debreban offered a weak smile, perhaps unsure whether or not to take that as a compliment. Terrin was still in his wrinkled Hawaiian shirt, holed jeans, and purple high-tops. By no stretch of imagination on any world we'd ever been to did he look like a wizard.

"Okay, gang, I gotta work," he said. "You guys beat it and have the horses ready. Soon as I'm downstairs we go and don't stop. How far away is this place?"

"About a mile," I said. "But with the street traffic it might take us a bit to get there."

"So long as I don't have to walk I should be able to make it."

I grabbed up our backpacks, stuffing them with scattered odds and ends from the room. "See you when you show. I gotta talk with Clem before we split."

Zipping the packs shut, I herded Shankey and Debreban down to the common room.

"Lady Filima said she could reimburse the landlord here for me leaving before my run was over," I said to Shankey.

"Yeah, I remember."

"Can you help square things with him so he's not sore with me?"

"No problem."

Shankey and I told Clem about our need to whisk away a sick Terrin while Debreban went for the horses. Before venturing forth, he folded his distinctively colored cloak under one arm and looked both ways on the street. When he came back we'd settled everything with the easy-going Clem, who accepted Shankey's offer of Darmo money in place of my show. I let him do the bargaining since he was more familiar with the currency values.

"I'll return when I can, if I can," I promised Clem.

He continued polishing a mug. "Fine by me. I don't hold with people being sick in my place. Business'll be better for a bit, though. Crowd here has some new songs to sing and that belching contest is going to be a regular tavern event now. You done me a favor."

It was good to know that I'd left behind a fresh cultural tradition they could enjoy for years to come. Beatles and belching. Who would have thought it?

"Shankey?" Debreban called us over to one side, fidgeting with his bundled cloak. "I should get back to Burkus House. Lord Cadmus has been waiting all day. Maybe he even came looking for me here."

"He was here?" I asked. I thought he'd only been passing in the street.

"Saw him coming out."

"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all this world, why did he come into mine?"

He shrugged. "He'll probably tell me once I'm back. I was supposed to be following Shankey; gawd knows what I'm going to report about today. I went well outside the bounds of my orders. That sort of thing annoys him."

"Well, if he dismisses you," said Shankey, "come over to Darmo House and I'll see that you get into my guards. It's regular pay, you know."

"Shank, you are a true friend and anyone who says otherwise will have to deal with me."

I'd have gone all misty-eyed, but Terrin was coming downstairs. He looked almost normal.

"Horses," he said, tossing me the black candle as he zoomed past. I hastily put it away. We were on the clock, now, and I didn't know for how long.

* * *

Elsewhere, NOT in Rumpock, in Hell

"You're not getting results," the demon said to Botello Darmo. It wasn't the one who looked like Great Aunt Matilda. Instead, it bore an equally disturbing resemblance to Uncle Fraddlip, who was still alive in a mental hospice somewhere.

"These things take time," said Botello.

"That runs differently here. You should have results by now."

"I am limited by how time is reckoned on Otherside." Keep your manner nice and even, Botello. Don't let it see you sweat.

Sweat was a major by-product in certain segments of Hell. Botello presently stood in the center of one of them. He felt heat, but not at the same intensity as some of the souls being roasted only yards away. The demon who had summoned him for a conference had temporarily removed their voice boxes, so the only sounds they could produce were of the breathy variety. It was like being in a room full of leaky bellows. Botello made a point of not looking at their faces. They all bore an uncanny likeness to his own and he knew damned well the demon had done that to make a point.

"Nonetheless, we want a show of results now."

"I will have some shortly. It is nearly sunset on Otherside. The river will vanish. I believe I understand what needs to be done to restore its flow here."

"Sunset or dawn, it's all the same," the demon stated.

Very true in a place where there was no sleep and the light - if it was light - remained the same throughout, except in those places where they had none. Lots of those.

"I understand that, but I am limited to Otherside reckoning," Botello said patiently. "I will make progress tonight, though."

"What sort of progress?"

"It's an experiment. I won't know until after it's done. What happens then will give me a direction, then I will be better able to provide results."

"You didn't answer the question."

"I did as best I could within the language. What is up here" - he pointed to his head - "is not easy to express. Much of it is very abstract, intuition-oriented."

The demon frowned. It had a permanent frown, but this one was deeper than usual. "You will make progress, you will achieve results," it said. Unmistakable orders. "If not . . ." It waved a very long talon at all the soundlessly screaming Botello Darmos around them. "But worse. Far, far worse."

The original Botello nodded, feeling pale and hoping it wouldn't show in the low light.

The demon quietly vanished, taking the audience chamber and the wheezing floor show with it, leaving Botello alone by the dim banks of the Hell-river.

He did not sag in relief. His guardian demon was presently out of sight, but probably looking on. It wasn't smart, but good at its job, like reporting Botello's "excessive use" of scrying with an Otherside human under the guise of getting information. A few extra, quite necessary contacts and everyone goes into a spasm. Typical. Just typical. They wanted things fixed, but begrudged every step he took toward achieving that goal. Perhaps they suspected - no, make that they must be certain - he had something else planned. Which he did, but how could they know about it? He'd been extremely careful. They must be watching him more closely than he suspected.

Making his boots, socks, and lower pant legs vanish, Botello sat on the edge of the bank, thrusting his feet into the black stream to feed. It took longer than usual; the magical energy was thinning. Or his appetite was growing. What he'd fed on earlier from that wizard had been wonderful, even if most of it had been squandered in the attempt to materialize. He wanted more of that energy.

If only Cadmus hadn't given out. And that business with the cat interrupting. Botello had thought there was something odd about it, but dismissed its apparent great size to a distortion produced by the mirror. Could it have indeed been man-sized and man-shaped as Cadmus insisted? Where would Filima have found such a creature and what was its purpose? Or was it one of her old traveling show mummers done up in a mask?

He would ask her later himself. When the time came. He would ask her about a lot of things.

The one mistake Botello could accept as his own fault had been trying to materialize by recreating his old body. Obviously it was far too difficult and costly in terms of magical power. The conversion of ephemeral energy into something solid was always a tricky calculation, especially when emotions were involved. Though magic worked better with the inclusion of strong emotional energies, those were the most difficult to control. One could get too easily diverted.

Using Filima's mirror might also have been a touch misjudged, too. If only the bitch hadn't been present. The mere sight of her had infuriated him. Though it added to his strength, the anger disrupted his concentration just the tiniest bit. Add that to Cadmus's weakening and of course the whole structure collapsed, closely followed by one of the overlords of Hell appearing to ply a number of unanswerable questions. Why couldn't they mind their own bloody business and let him get on with things?

Botello had covered the small disaster well from this side. Even his personal demon had noticed nothing. So how had the overlord found out?

Scrying, perhaps, or something like it. They had tremendous powers, but strange limitations he was still trying to identify.

But later. Botello stood, willed his clothing back into place, then conjured up a scrying mirror. That idiot Cadmus was taking too bloody long.

* * *

Elsewhere in Hell

The overlord demon dismissed the image of the silently screaming Darmos and waved in the image of the real one, who was sitting on the riverbank again, laving his feet in the river's black stream. That creature was always hungry. Much more feeding and he'd become a real problem.

He didn't belong here like the rest of the souls, not in the usual sense. He'd not come in the proper way through the gates. The Outer Guardians hadn't found out about him yet, but there would be Hell to pay - in the absolute, most literal sense - if they did. It was part of the Great Balance that all souls had to enter Hell through the gates. How Darmo managed to get around the judgmental process had been the main perplexity occupying the overlords for what seemed like ages now. They were all impatient for an answer and even more impatient to get rid of Darmo.

As he wasn't doing anything but sitting, the demon waved his image off and focused on a different plane, shifting time backwards to see if more dreams had come in.

No, nothing new. The little spheres of dream and thought floated about undisturbed, meaning the human in the Otherside city gifted with the visions was probably awake. Why they spent so much of their pathetically small ration of time conscious was a mystery. Why be up and about when they should be asleep and dreaming? It was much more rewarding than playing their incomprehensible social games.

Few of them ever put their dreams to use, either, and this fellow was no exception. He accepted his gift, but was unwilling to understand and exploit it. Was even afraid of it at times. His dreams were Outer Guardian warnings, of course, vague and full of portents as usual, though lately they'd all been clear enough. The dreamer didn't seem to know what to do about them.

Little matter. The overlord demon found the visions of the future a ripe feast, a wonderful view of better things to come. It reached forth, again relishing the one of that frail city in flames, with demon hordes feasting on the remaining souls. Here were no rancid leavings thrust through the gates, but fresh, sweet innocence and complacency, still alive, and all ripped to glorious, bloody shreds. The Guardians would hate that, try to stop it, but after such a feasting the demonic overlords would be strong enough to fight them off this time.

"What are you doing?" asked another demon. It was much larger, uglier, and more powerful, appearing out of nowhere, of course.

The overlord shut down its viewing. "Nothing."

"So you're all done with your work?"

It dared not reply to that one. Work was never finished here and they all knew it. In reply, it waved the images of the screaming Darmos back into being again, this time with their voice boxes restored. The awful chorus drowned out all possibility of further conversation.

The other demon nodded and vanished, one of its more annoying traits. You never knew where or when it would show up. The overlord demon wished it could do that, too, travel anywhere, commanding beings as strong as itself.

After Darmo sorted things out, perhaps that would be possible. But he had to be watched. He was up to something else. And it was connected with the Hell-river. He had told the truth, but not all of it.

The demon brought back the image of Darmo, who had conjured a scrying mirror. Again? Was he aware of just how much power it cost to use those things?

* * *

Back in Rumpock, at Burkus House

Cadmus decided against wearing his usual clan colors for his visit to Filima. Better that she see him as himself, not a household, though the peacock mix of purple and green looked remarkably well with his coloring. He'd heard every joke there was about the combination and had learned to reply with wit and good humor, backed by his absolute certainty that of all people, he could carry them off.

Instead, he chose to wear a somber red so dark as to nearly be black. He'd been told it was a rather rare dye to achieve, and it was almost hypnotically eye-catching. He did a turn or two before his dressing room mirror and struck a pose; casual, yet manly. Yes, this would suit just fine. Sober enough to be appropriate for visiting a recent widow, yet festive enough for dinner at the overduke's palace. A light-colored under-shirting would set it off nicely, showing just the smallest bands of cream at the throat and wrists. Now, how did the whole ensemble look with his clan honors?

He draped the thick gold chain around his shoulders, centering the medallion on his breast. No, that didn't work at all. Far too pretentious. Save that thing for public appearances when one was expected to make a bit of show for the cheering throngs. He hurriedly stripped it off and replaced it with a thinner, more subtle piece that had a small, teardrop-shaped black pearl attached. Much better.

Cadmus thanked the gawds for the wisdom to have invested in so much gentleman's training, else he'd be putting his foot into things all over the place, like Lord Wattle, always overdressed and ill-prepared for the rigors of Rumpock's social whirl, poor fellow. He was stinking rich, so few minded his ways; some even liked him, too. Filima once mentioned she found the man's clumsy quirks a touch endearing, like a sad-faced clown.

No accounting for a woman's taste in men, though on second thought Cadmus considered he might have dismissed Wattle too swiftly. The fellow was never without female companionship, after all. His money had seemed the best reason for that, but equally wealthy women often sought him out.

Perhaps if I tripped and looked sheepish once in a while, Filima would warm up to me. Cadmus disliked the idea of appearing the least bit maladroit, not after all his sword-fighting and dancing masters had drilled a near-perfect sense of balance into him. But the appearance of vulnerability . . . there might be something to it. He'd seen a play once about a handsome man who couldn't get a lady's attention until he was injured, then she nursed him to health, falling in love at the same time. But the idea of allowing himself to be skewered in a duel held little appeal for Cadmus.

"I could fall down her stairs and pretend to twist my ankle," he said to the image in his dressing room mirror. The image looked thoughtful and interested. "Then I could be very grateful to her as she helped me. Perhaps I could even fake a touch of fever, confessing my love to her in my delirium so she'd know my sincerity."

Oh, my. That was ever so much better than a love spell. Why hadn't he thought of it before?

Because he'd only been at this courting business for two weeks. To charm, to seduce, those he was very good at, but to truly get a woman to fall in love with him . . . oh, the complexities, but he was positive he could work through them all. The man in the mirror looked back with bright, beaming confidence. What woman could resist all that?

This staged accident would take a bit of planning. He couldn't fit it in tonight; his dinner with Anton precluded that, but later this week . . . yes, while he was at Darmo House he'd wrangle an invitation from her or could make a light-hearted promise to call on her later in the week - as a concerned friend, of course.

The only snag Cadmus foresaw was the need to avoid actually falling down any stairs. He should be discovered already at the bottom, artistically sprawled and groaning with bravely suppressed agony. He knew a small illusion spell that caused a show of redness and swelling good enough to fool a healer. The hard part would be achieving enough privacy to get away with the ruse. Her servants were always about. He couldn't just lie down, they'd see that and the spell-casting. Damn, he might have to fall after all. At least he'd be realistically bruised, but what a price to pay.

His thoughtful reflection in the mirror began to warp and churn, as though in disagreement. What in the world . . . ?

Botello Darmo's distorted form suddenly appeared, nearly filling the frame.

Cadmus jumped back, startled.

"Stay where you are, you idiot!" Botello ordered. His voice was as uneven as his swimming image.

"How is it you're here?" Cadmus demanded. His heart thumped violently at this new and unpleasant show of magical power. It should have been impossible. What was Botello up to in Hell that allowed him such an awful freedom? "This isn't my Black Room, and I'm not scrying."

"I know that! You should be there now telling me why you've not found that magician yet."

"I found him, but he's at your house. Lady - "

"My house?"

"Lady Filima seems to have found him first. I'm told he runs about wearing a cat mask, or it might be his real face - "

"What!?" Botello roared.

Cadmus flinched. "I was just going over there to track him down."

"Shutup, shutup, shutup!"

The image spun about, highly agitated. Cadmus had never seen this wide a view of Botello; until now only his face had been visible. How odd that he still wore his working clothes, the ones he used to put on when engaging in spells, which included his long robe. It seemed more likely that he should have been in a nightshirt, since that's how he'd been dressed when his body was found. Legends ran that one spent some portion of the afterlife wearing the memory of one's last outfit. Because of that, Cadmus made a point of always being well turned out; even his night clothes were beautifully tailored.

Botello settled down. He almost looked sane. "Listen closely to me, Cadmus."

Cadmus gave him his guarded attention, hoping this wouldn't involve another jolt of pain. It wouldn't do to turn up on Filima's doorstep all shaking and pale, though that might be better than throwing himself down her grand staircase.

"Listen to me," Botello whispered. "Come closer. I can't let anyone else hear this."

"I'm alone."

"Anyone on this side! Press your ear against the mirror. Hurry!"

Damn Botello for doing this now. Cadmus wouldn't have any time at all with Filima. A brief, dropping-in visit was exactly right for the desired effect, but a flying stop was just plain insulting. Besides, a man in a hurry gave the impression of disorganization, not busyness.

"Couldn't this wait until tomorrow? I'm to dine at the overduke's palace tonight and I've got to get there before curfew."

"The overduke? Perfect. What I have to say involves him. Something you need to know."

Gossip? Gossip from Hell? Cadmus wanted no part of it, but the enticing lure of truly interesting information tugged at him. Anyway, the sooner he got this over with, the sooner he could depart. "Oh, very well." He pressed his ear to the chill surface of the mirror.

Then he shrieked.

* * *

Just Outside Burkus House About Ten Minutes Later

Debreban ducked guiltily through the wrought iron gates, then remembered to stand up straight, squaring himself. Just because Lord Cadmus might be angry didn't mean the rest of the meager household would embrace his example. Though most of them looked on Cadmus with the kind of indulgent affection usually reserved for wayward, but charmingly cute, infants, none took their emotional cues from him. They were a sensible lot, and gawd knows, where the eccentric Burkus clan was concerned, one needed to remain sensible.

Toward that end, Debreban paused to put his cloak back on again, so as to present a competent facade when he made his report. Drat, there was a seam parting up near the shoulder. He'd have to get one of the house girls to mend it for him; his own sewing skills were too limited. It was too much to expect Lord Cadmus to notice and replace the cloak with a proper new one, not until more money came in, but dammit, the head of the guard for Burkus House should not be seen running about in thready rags.

At least it was clean. Mostly clean. Trudging through that tunnel and then the streets had certainly caked on the dust. Well, that could be brushed off. . . .

From up the carriage drive came the sound of hooves going at a smart pace. The only horse left in the stable capable of that much energy was his lordship's showy war charger. As there'd been no war here for ages many thought the animal should be traded in for something more practical, like a flock of egg-producing, edible chickens.

Debreban broke off toothsome thoughts of roasting fowls as the big white horse nervously cantered up, Lord Cadmus astride it. One couldn't fault him for his looks; he cut a dashing figure in the saddle, but why was he wearing the cloak with the house colors with that outfit? The purple and green clashed horribly with the deep garnet red. Had he suddenly been struck color-blind?

"My lord," said Debreban, executing a bow as horse and rider approached. "About that errand you sent me on . . ." He had thought up a reasonable excuse for his lateness; not a good one, but reasonable.

"Out of my way," Cadmus ordered, rather shortly.

Debreban stepped back, though he was nowhere near the horse's path. The great animal still skittered, head plunging up and down, its iron shoes striking sparks on the carriageway cobbles. Cadmus pulled the reins sharply, which upset the horse even more, making him buck.

"Bloody bastard, don't you dare!" Cadmus snapped, hauling the reins tighter.

Debreban judged that things could get out of hand if he didn't interfere. He jumped in quick, seizing the bridle. The horse started to rear back, dragging him along, but weight and muscle saved him. He spoke the horse's name in a calming voice, hand on its nose, and that eased the crisis. His mum had always maintained he had a way with animals and should have stayed on the farm.

"Let him go, you lout! You think I can't handle him?"

Sheer surprise made Debreban let go. He'd seen his lord annoyed, but never to the point of name-calling. It wasn't the gentlemanly thing, even to servitors. Cadmus looked incensed beyond the measure of the situation. There was something seriously wrong here, you could see it in his red-rimmed eyes.

"My lord, I - "

"Are you deaf? Out of my way, you clot!"

Debreban got out of the way, and the horse went back to its frantic dancing. Whitestone was usually very well-mannered; what had gotten into him? Cadmus dug in his heels and otherwise did things he shouldn't that only added to the problem. The horse finally leaped forward, heading toward the gate. Poor Whitestone was already patched in sweat. The only time Debreban had seen its like before was with an animal panicked by a nearby fire. What could have this one so spooked?

"Brainless bloody idiot," Cadmus snarled over his shoulder as he charged away.

Debreban stared open-mouthed after his master. Now that was just mean.

***

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