Chapter Eleven

Just outside Botello Darmo's Black Room

Shankey held his lantern high. The handkerchief he'd left behind seemed to be sprouting right out of the stone of the wall. "Still there," he said, somewhat unnecessarily. He must have been nervous.

I understood the feeling. We were all twitching a little, except Terrin, of course. Botello's burglar alarms were still in place, first hitting us with the dragon-with-a-sore-head noise routine, then assaulting us with bad smells. Knowing they were harmless didn't help. Filima had a tight grip on my arm - which I didn't mind - and Shankey kept muttering - which I did. Terrin ignored all of us, forging ahead. All he did was to raise his arm once, and both noise and stink had ceased.

"Tasty," he said. There was a decided bounce in his step again. He must have been sucking down magical energy like ice tea on a hot day.

The distractions gone, Shankey trotted ahead to the site of the secret door. He tried to pull the handkerchief out, but it stuck fast until he pushed. The stone slab door swiveled easily. Must have been a hell of a good engineering job to make that happen.

Terrin had his own lantern and plunged inside. I gestured for Filima to proceed me, but she balked.

"Nothing in there but broken junk," I told her.

She gave me a funny look, as though she might burst into laughter or sock me one and couldn't quite make up her mind. "I'd rather wait out here."

"So would I, but his nibs will want you inside. Come on. He won't let anything happen to you."

She made a little sound to indicate faint confidence in that promise, then gathered her skirts up and stepped in. Shankey hesitated, like he wanted to bolt someplace very much elsewhere, then duty overcame desire and he followed his lady. Muttering.

"Day-um," said Terrin. "Don't you have maid service down here?" He kicked at pottery shards with his purple high-tops.

"No," she said, looking around, visibly shivering. "Botello never told me about this room."

"I just bet he didn't. If I had a hidey-hole like this I sure wouldn't share. But you found out about it, anyway." He shot her one of his patented, don't-you-tell-me-no-friggin'-lies looks.

She totally missed it, busy being wall-eyed about the surroundings. "Yes, I found out. I followed him one night."

"Through all that?" asked Shankey, pointing toward the tunnel and its defunct alarms.

"He dispelled the protections whenever he came down," she explained.

"Meaning you followed him more than once?" I asked.

"Yes. He'd tell me he'd be going for a midnight walk on the grounds or be reading late in his study or something like that. He expected me to be stupid enough to believe him."

Lot of disgust there. Couldn't blame her. On the other hand, Botello had been stupid enough to leave a raving gorgeous gal like Filima all on her lonesome. What a dickhead.

"Instead," she continued, "he would come down here."

"Can't see the attraction myself," I said. "But didn't he have a magic room upstairs?"

"Yes, but not like this one. I'd have sensed something of what he was up to."

"And that would be . . . ?"

"Nothing good."

From the heebies I was getting by being here again, that went without saying, but I wanted her to be more specific.

"Was this his scrying mirror?" asked Terrin, pointing to the floor and a scatter of especially lethal-looking shards of polished stone.

She nodded.

"Where's the table it sat on?"

"There was none. He had it on a stand, like a dressing room mirror. It was quite large."

"How large?"

She held her hand up just above her own height. "Wide, too. Like a doorway."

"Huh," he grunted. "Check this out." He bumped stone with his toe.

I dropped to my haunches for a good close look, seeing a few dozen small replicas of myself peering back from the pieces. In a normal mirror it should have been just parts of me in the reflections, but scrying mirrors are different. I thought it had to do with polarization and the material, but had never followed up on the idea. "What about it?"

"There's not that much here. I've broken mirrors before and they make a nasty mess. A big one."

"Maybe the rest is under the other debris."

"Not in this spot."

I noticed that there wasn't much broken pottery stuff near where the mirror must have stood. Then there was the body-shaped clear area right next to it. That Sherlock Holmes movie I'd once seen came back to mind. Too bad he wasn't here to help out. I'd have preferred to have him do the talking for the next few minutes, not me, but he wouldn't know how to push the issue to get Filima to talk.

"Uh, Captain Shankey . . . you got some armor on, don't you?"

He gave a start at being addressed, but recovered. He must have the heebies, too. Bad. "No, the house guard only wears armor on formal occasions."

"Well, that's a leather vest, isn't it? That should protect you."

"From what?" Now he looked as uneasy as his jumpy pal Debreban.

"The floor. I want you to lie down right here." I pointed to the body-shaped bare spot.

"Why not you?"

" 'Cause I don't have the vest."

"I'll loan it to you."

Terrin scowled. "Just do it!"

Shankey very gingerly did so. Muttering. Couldn't blame him. He made a good job of it, though, spreading his arms out to fit the space. "Like this?"

Filima's turn to make a noise, a soft choking. No fainting, but she didn't look well. It was hard to judge her color by the lantern light, but I could guess she'd gone all ashy again and then some.

"Was that how you found him?" I asked her.

Shankey gaped at us both, then shot quickly to his feet. "Found who?"

"Lord Botello," I told him. "If he died here, that would explain the floor's condition and those drag marks in the tunnel dust."

"My lady, is it true?" He turned a little ashy himself.

"I want to leave," she said, starting for the door.

Terrin got in front of her, not in a threatening way - he had his hands in his jeans' pockets - but his attitude stopped her cold. "Uh-uh. Time to spill. What happened the night Botello died?"

"I can't talk about that here!"

"Sure you can. This is the best place."

"It's horrible. I hate it!"

"That's just you; I like things just fine."

"Terrin . . ." I began.

He glared at me.

"You're freaking her out. If she's too freaked out . . ."

"Awright, awright!" He waved his arms. There was nothing magical in the gesture, just him venting impatience. "Lady, you are in a heap of trouble and so's the rest of this sorry planet. You wanna save the world, you gotta tell us what happened, and I mean everything."

"Oh, gawds," she moaned.

* * *

Darmo House, Two Weeks Ago

Filima had spent a fortune on the silken wisps of pale fabric that floated about her otherwise nude body like smoke, but had Botello noticed?

No. Damn him.

He'd simply walked out of their bedroom with barely a grunt of acknowledgment for what should have been a spectacular erotic surprise. She had yelled after him how much the outfit had cost, hoping to spark some kind of reaction, if only a fight. He seemed not to have heard and continued down the hall to his private study.

She executed a perfect dancing turn in front of her dressing room mirror, then spoiled the finish by scowling. Her face would freeze like that unless Botello likewise turned himself around. Thinking of the diverse effects of both honey and vinegar on flies she composed herself, attempting a more cheerful expression and didn't quite achieve it. Her face was somber and sad, like those of other women in unhappy marriages.

Dammit. How she hated being one of their number.

And damn Botello for losing interest in her. Maybe she should go ahead and let Lord Cadmus follow up on his puppy love crush on her. At least then she'd get some appreciation for her efforts. If only Botello would -

Oh, forget it. You're not getting any tonight.

What was he up to? What could possibly be more entertaining to him than an eager, hot, half-naked woman? Magic? She dabbled in magic to please him, but it always gave her a headache. What was the attraction?

He wouldn't be in his study, that was for certain. Was he going to take another walk around the grounds? Read another book he had to finish? What an insult to her to think she'd fall for those old excuses one more time. He'd be down in that not-so-secret chamber of his again. Not with another woman, either. Filima had eliminated that possibility early on. She'd know how to deal with a flesh-and-blood rival. His obsession with magic was something else again.

Her image in the mirror was back to scowling again. It didn't look good, but that was how she felt, dammit.

All right. Enough was too much. To hell with whatever he was working on; she was his wife and it was past time he realized he had to show at least a minimum of consideration to her. Gawds, he was more polite to the servants. If he couldn't scrape up a little respect then they had no business being married. She'd go back to the dancing stage and life on the road rather than deal with this kind of frustration day after day.

Edge-of-a-cliff time, she realized. Or, less dangerously, a crossroads. She'd come to one without being too consciously aware of having traveled. The last time had been when he'd proposed. Yes or no. Either answer promised to lead down profoundly different paths for her life. Right up to the last instant she'd not known what her reply would be. She'd finally smiled, blurted out yes, then they'd embraced and celebrated. What had prompted that answer? Oh, yeah, she'd been in love with him. She could be in love with him again, deeply, sincerely, if only he'd wake up to what wasn't happening between them.

Well, she'd wake him up tonight, one way or another.

Filima changed out of her fragile seduction costume and into a more practical dress. Not one of her newer ones; the basement and the tunnel were a filthy mess, so there was no sense in wrecking anything nice. No need for anything alluring, either. If he hadn't noticed her new sleeping gown, he certainly wouldn't be swayed by anything else in her wardrobe. She slipped on sturdy shoes, too, being disinclined to collecting stubbed toes while wandering around in the dark down there.

Thankfully, the hallway was clear. Good. She had no fondness for every servant in the house knowing her private business. Gawds, the whole town would hear of this brawl before breakfast if she wasn't careful. She knew rumors were afoot; Velma had told her as much during their occasional lunches together.

"You need to dump him and get back on the road," her best friend from the old days cheerfully advised. "You don't need to put up with that kind of crap. There's a hundred other guys out there better than him. Maybe not as rich, but better."

"I didn't marry him for money," said Filima. "Not too much, anyway. He was nice at first, really cared for me."

"They all do, honey. Once they get that ring on your finger it changes them. You're fun to start with, then sooner or later, if they get stupid about it, you become part of the furniture."

"But they're not all like Botello."

"Doesn't matter to you so long as Botello is like Botello," Velma pointed out. She was very pragmatic about such issues. "Like me and Anton. He's a good egg, but the moment he drops to one knee and proposes I'm out of there."

"But you could be the overduchess of Rumpock."

"I'm a person, not a title. No thanks. I like being his girlfriend, but 'wife' is a job with too many strings attached."

The trouble was, Filima liked being Lady Filima Botello Darmo. And she liked Botello. Had loved him. Could love him again. When he wasn't being such an ass. He'd been an ass for a very long while now.

Time to sort things out one way or another.

Filima eased into the hall, walking sedately so as not to draw attention from some sleepless lackey. It was past midnight and unlikely anyone would be up so late. Two back staircases later and she was in the basement fumbling to light a lantern with the candle she'd brought. She dripped wax all over, but got a good flame going. Not that it was much help down here. Why couldn't Botello have his pastime in a better section of the house? When this was done, she'd get all the servants organized into a cleaning army and make a serious assault on this jumble. Gawds, there was junk here going back for generations . . . but if she decided to leave then it wouldn't be her problem, so why waste effort planning something that might not happen?

Because I don't want it to be over. If he'd just wake up . . . I'm the best thing that ever happened to him. How could he forget that?

She found the door leading to the secret tunnel and hauled it open. It had been no great surprise to her to learn of its existence; every old house was supposed to have a hidden tunnel. But the adventure stories she'd heard as a child involving romantic trysts or escaping royalty had made them much more exciting or even scary. This stuffy foolishness was just another route to the stables, and a grubby one at that.

The secret chamber was something else again. The first time she'd followed Botello down here, she'd lost him, thinking he'd gone on to the stables to meet up with some woman. Only on the third trip had she noticed the marks in the floor dust, the hairline crack in the wall, and discovered his workroom. She'd felt both relief and annoyance that it was only a second Black Room for him and not a love nest. She'd opened the door just enough to see he was in the midst of some spell, then left in disgust. Well, not this time. There would be no casually dropped questions over dinner about his magical projects, allowing him an opportunity to open up and share - make that confess. He never answered anyway, poring over a book instead. Had she tied some pages to her body he might have looked up once in a while.

Putting the lantern down, she pushed gently on the swiveling door, peering ahead. He had only a few candles lighted and the air was filled with - whew! - that really horrible incense that smelled like burning manure and old socks. She'd forbade him to ever use it in the house. Even the stuff that gave her headaches was preferable. Fine for her this time, though; it put her in the proper mood for a confrontation she knew she would win whatever the outcome.

He had his back to her, facing the largest scrying mirror she'd ever seen. Why did he need anything that big? When did he get it? And how had he wrestled it down here? It had to weigh more than a horse. She stared around at the strange contents of the chamber and began to understand just how much effort he'd put into things. Quite a lot.

And what was that awful feeling of foreboding creeping up her spine? She only felt that at funerals when she forgot to shield her magical senses and could pick up echoes of sorrow and anguish left behind in the graveyard by mourners for the dead. Filima lowered her personal wards just a little and the sad stuff gave way to something deeper, darker, positively threatening. The magical energy here was thick as the stink of death at a butcher's shop, anything but wholesome. What had he gotten himself into? She squared herself for the reckoning.

"Botello," she said, firmly, in a clear voice. "We need to talk. . . ."

He whipped around as though struck by lightning. What a look on his face, first a flash of abject shock, a guilty start, then he turned positively murderous. "What are you doing here!?"

"I'm your wife, remember? And I'm asking the same thing. What is all this about?"

"None of your damn business! Get out!"

"Don't you curse at me like that!"

He only cursed more and louder and the grand denouement she'd envisioned devolved into yet another dreary salvo-trading domestic clash, no different from a thousand others that probably took place every night in Rumpock. Gawds, she'd even played such scenes on the stage when filling in for ailing leading ladies. The make-believe dialogue had been much more clever then.

"You've no business here, so get out!" he shouted.

She stood her ground. "Not just yet. I'm here because this was the only way I could get through to you. We've been drifting apart for ages now and I want to know - "

"It can wait until morning. I've no time for this." He moved toward her.

"You'll just have to make time. Our marriage is more important than some magic experiment."

"Yes, yes, of course, but I can't talk now. Forces are at work that I can't stop; you couldn't have picked a worse moment to interrupt."

"What are you doing?" What sort of spell existed that couldn't be shelved if necessary? Unless he was into . . . the out-of-the-ordinary equipment, the smells, the unhealthy fuzzy growths on the walls, the feelings of dread, suddenly added up to disaster in her mind. "Oh, my gawds, Botello! You're not doing sorcery are you?"

"No, of course not!" He looked scandalized.

But he'd hesitated just an instant too long before replying. He never could hide his guilt from her. "Don't lie to me, I read enough in those books of yours to know the difference between normal magics and Darkside sorceries."

"That's just in the books, written by ignorant people too afraid to do any real research. There is no Darkside, only neutral magical energy - gawds, woman, just get out of here and we'll talk it over in the morning." He took her arm, hustling her toward the door.

She balked. "Not until I hear exactly what you think you're doing." She knew her man. He was clever about many things and utterly stupid about others. She'd blundered right into one of his more spectacular stupid patches.

"It's a very crucial experiment, and I can't waste time telling you about it. You'll hear everything in the morning. If I'm not in the right spot by the time the moon reaches its height - "

"Moon? How can you see the moon in this pit?"

He didn't answer, but shoved her at the door, rather too hard. She tripped on something and fell. Instead of a contrite apology for his roughness, he only cursed again and dragged her up. "Dammit, get out of here!"

In all their time together he'd never been violent. She shook him off. "All right, but this is the end!" She marched away, fighting an unexpected surge of tears. "You hear me?"

No reply. She decided not to look back. Nothing she saw would make her feel better. She stumbled through the swiveling door and swung it shut again. It ground softly into place with no satisfying slam of finality. She was glad she'd left the lantern in the tunnel, else total darkness would have been her lot. Botello hadn't offered her so much as a candle stub, the thoughtless bastard.

Damn the man! Filima found a handkerchief and spent several minutes sobbing hard and blowing her nose until the fit passed and she was ready to think again. Leaving him would be no problem; she could stay with Velma at the ducal palace until the overduke dissolved the marriage. Thank the gawds he was an easy-going man about matrimonial disputes. And fair. Filima would be able to retain all her clothes and jewelry. No starving in the gutter until she was on her feet again. The parting would be simple enough, she had only to pack and go; no one would blame her. Botello's secret magical vice was enough to disgust anyone.

Sorcery - hardly so minor a thing as a vice. Dark magic was not the done thing among the Talents of the city. It ranked with the lowest of all common crimes, like murder and rape. She would have to tell someone what was going on. As a Talent herself, albeit a minor one, it was her duty to notify others of the possible danger. People who fooled around with such magics always came to a bad end, or seriously imperiled things for others. That was the whole point of Darkside spells, to purposely cause injury. It went against everything the Talents believed in.

But could she have been wrong? Botello was not an evil man, just full of himself. Always thinking he was right. He could have convinced himself that just one little experiment in sorcery would be harmless.

Filima was well aware of her own faults, the foremost being her willingness to give anyone she liked the benefit of a doubt. She was well tangled up in doubt now. Perhaps she had misinterpreted things. Before she threw away three years of marriage and turned Botello in for succumbing to a fit of bad judgment she had to be absolutely certain. After all, if he'd been up to something really awful he'd never have let her leave, knowing she'd go for help to stop him.

All right, she'd give him one more chance. Instinct told her it was likely to be one too many, but if he blew it, then to hell with him.

She once more gently pushed the door open.

The smell - make that smells - were even more disgusting. How could he stand it? They seemed to emanate from the rows of glass and crockery on shelving that lined the chamber. Some had small candles underneath, heating the liquids inside to steam. The fumes visibly rose to mingle with the fuzzy black fungus growing out of the walls. He was doing more than just raising weird mushrooms, though.

Botello had resumed his place in front of the scrying mirror. He wore a heavy robe of some kind, an absurd, oversized garment with a huge hood and sleeves that fell down past his hands. Why ever for? Other Talents she knew had no need of such props, but then they were not doing Darkside experiments. Apparently certain rituals required protective clothing. You didn't require protection when dealing with normal magic.

Too involved with the mirror, he did not hear her stealthy return. She stood quietly behind him, his taller, robe-shrouded body blocking her reflection from his view.

He was chanting. Something about the words, their pronunciation, the language itself made her flesh itch all over, as though she was crawling with tiny bugs. She resisted the urge to look at herself, focusing on Botello. It was dim in here, but she could just barely make out his aura.

Oh, hell. That couldn't be good. Black on black on top of more black. What had he done to himself? How could she have missed it before? He must have shielded that from her whenever he left this place, else she would have sensed the change ages ago. No wonder he'd been so distant.

He directed the chant at the mirror - which no longer reflected the dark room. How odd to see scrying working so well and so easily. It was always a painful struggle for her. But the image coming into view was not like the simple little visions of the future that she usually sought. Instead of a small, blurred view of something symbolic, this something was very large and specific and mobile. The placement of features made it a face, but not like anything she'd ever seen before, and gut instinct told her it was right out of Hell. The real Hell. The my-gawds-you're-not-kidding-it-really-exists Hell.

All right, she'd seen enough, more than enough, to withdraw from her benefit-of-a-doubt fantasy. She would run as fast as she could down the tunnel to the stable then saddle a horse to take her straight to the overduke's palace. This was too important to delegate to any servant. Whatever Botello was up to had to be stopped before anyone got hurt.

The thing in the mirror seemed to be speaking to Botello, using a muted whisper that felt like cold slime in her ears. Botello nodded eagerly, his arms stretched forward in a greeting gesture. A snow of black flyspecks flowed from the demon's - it had to be a demon - side of reality and swirled around the room. Some of them landed on her like cinders from a fire. They didn't sting or burn, yet she made haste to brush them off, calling to mind a protective prayer from childhood. Even as she quickly mumbled out the words, the black stuff drifted away from her as if repulsed.

No Darkside magic, my ass, she thought at the end of the prayer. She repeated it, louder than before. Neither Botello nor the demon heard. Perhaps the protective warding within its words made her inaudible to them. What about invisible? As she began the prayer a third time, a comforting counterpoint to Botello's previous chanting, she looked about for a weapon. No clear plan came to her, she only knew she had to stop whatever was taking place. For reasons best known to themselves, the gawds had put her here. Filima had never been particularly spiritual before, but now she felt absolutely certain she was the unlikely instrument of divine intervention. She would have felt more confident with a legion of ducal guards and Talents behind her, though.

What could she do? It had to be simple and fast. That unholy duet was building up to something. She could hardly see Botello for the flyspecks. They'd clustered themselves so thickly around him he seemed engulfed in a black fog. The stuff washed out from him in a slow whirlpool motion, beginning to fill the room. She was yet clear of it, but not for long.

Should she upset all the crockery? The stuff boiling away in them seemed connected to the spell. If their smelly contents were that important then the least disruption might stop things. She didn't want to get too close, though. A weapon . . . over there on a table with a number of tools, a big mallet with a long, sturdy handle and a metal face on the striking surface. Cold iron. Perfect. It was heavy, but balanced, and keeping up with dancing practice made her strong for her size.

Filima smashed the nearest container with a good solid whack. It made a fearful mess, exploding all over, splashing her dress. Thankfully the liquid wasn't boiling or acidic, but what a stink.

She heard a bellow from her soon to be ex-husband, but had no time for him, busy smashing two more jars, wielding the mallet like a broadsword. She shouted her prayer like a war cry, her blood up, the frenzy of destruction seizing her.

Smash! Wallop! Gawds, this feels great!

Months of pent-up frustrations lent her unexpected strength and speed. She'd nearly cleared a whole shelf when Botello grabbed her from behind.

"You stupid bitch!" he screamed.

She laughed at the name-calling. Once upon a time it had been important to her; she was above that pettiness now, fighting the good fight. Or she would if he let go of her waist. He lifted her up and away from doing more damage, bringing her around to face the demon in the mirror. It was the only thing she could see clearly in the whirling black fog, filling all her sight.

My, what an awful grimace the creature had for her, and it reached with a knobbly claw - actually coming out of the mirror - to take her from Botello. No, he was giving her into its grasp. What a bastard! Snarling, she raised the mallet high and brought it down on the demon's outstretched appendage. The cold metal head struck a blinding spray of sparks off its flesh, and a lot of things happened at once.

The close air of the chamber suddenly thundered with a howl of pure agony. Botello unceremoniously dropped her, falling away. The black fog turned thick as syrup, closing over her head. Instinctively holding her breath, she lashed out with the mallet, and was gratified when it punched a hole in the smothering reek. She gasped out her war cry prayer again, snatches of words she couldn't hear for the roaring around her. The room shook from it.

Filima staggered toward another shelf, but the quaking was already making short work of the objects there. Things jumped and smashed themselves all on their own.

Botello . . . where was he? Under all that black muck. It was creeping up over her knees. She waded over to where she thought he might be and felt around for him. Ouch, nothing there but broken shards and more muck. Maybe if she disrupted the flow from the mirror it would clear away. Too bad she didn't know any powerful disruption spells. All she had was her childhood prayer and the mallet.

Not enough. The demon's face writhed about within the confines of the mirror, then pushed through, raging at her, all fangs and hot, stinking breath. Damned abomination, daring to come into her world and throw its weight around? Not bloody likely.

She thumped it a hard one on the nose. A burst of white fire. Another howl of pain and fury. More breakage. Where had that ass Botello crept off to? Just like him to run away and leave her in the lurch. She shouted his name, but again, could not hear her own voice.

Something stirred under the fog. One flailing hand broke its surface. So, he was hiding down there, probably smothering. She made a grab for him, connected, and pulled hard. He should drown in the stuff, but that would be too good a fate. He was going to face Overduke Anton if she had to drag him to the palace herself.

Botello floundered upright, blinked around in horror, and staggered to his feet. Shaking free of her, he faced the mirror and its demon, raised his arms and began that sickening chant once more.

Or tried to.

The demon suddenly withdrew itself, leaving behind a glowing red afterimage of its last grimace. Filima thought it had retreated, then realized it had only taken itself out of the way. It was her only warning. The next thing to fill the mirror was a vast rolling wave of that black fog, crashing through like a river in full flood. She braced herself against it, hoping her prayer and weapon would hold out.

Not this time. The force of the wave sent her tumbling. She rolled into a ball and tucked her chin down, hanging onto the mallet because she had to hold onto something solid in the chaos. She was thrown about like a leaf in a windstorm, all her senses crushed and overwhelmed by its shrieking force. It seemed to last for hours, with her holding her breath the whole time.

Finally she had to take in air or explode. She gasped once, loudly, and was surprised to hear herself. Her ears rang like Rumpock's famous bell tower at noon, but she could make out sounds beyond the deep drone that rumbled through her body.

Like Botello's pain-filled whine. She crushed a twinge of compassion for him; the idiot had brought this on himself, after all. Served him right if he was bruised black as that damned fog . . . which was no longer in the room.

She blinked, astonished she could see anything. With all that sound and fury the candles should have blown out, but they remained perversely lighted, their flames tall and still, as if in defiance to what had ripped through here. Filima had read and heard of metaphysical storms, maybe she'd just experienced one.

A shadow of movement made her look up. Just in time. The last shreds of the black fog were oozing through the otherwise unyielding walls of the chamber, leaving behind a layer of shriveled fungus.

"Oh, no . . ." whispered Botello. "Oh, nooooo. . . ."

She looked where he was looking: at the mirror. No demon. In its place was a blood-red swirling with a black hole in the middle, like bathwater spinning down a drain. A sound like rising wind came from it.

Not again.

She'd had her fill of otherworldly weather. Time to shut the damn door and be done.

Using the mallet to push herself up, she stalked toward the mirror. Botello was just beginning to stand as well and was in her path. Filima started to push him aside when the red vortex emerged from the mirror like a waterspout. She ducked and rolled as it lashed at her. The hot breeze of it tugged her body, but ultimately passed her over.

Botello made a dash for the door. His movement seemed to attract the thing, which whipped at him fast as lightning. It caught at his feet, crept up to his waist, and pulled him toward the mirror. He screamed and fought, kicking and hitting with his fists to no effect. He frantically called to her.

Filima uncoiled and struck out with the mallet, aiming for the fattest part of the flow. The streaming thing was like a snake made of air. She could halt its spin, but only for an instant before it recoiled and reformed, still carrying Botello.

She struck again. No effect. It slowed, but did not stop. Now Botello was caught fast in its swift swirl. She got one blurred glimpse of his face, mouth hanging wide, eyes gone to pits, then he was sucked straight into the mirror. Gone. The polished stone surface abruptly shot through with a thousand cracks. Bits of the center flaked off and followed Botello. More broke away, tumbling into the vortex until little was left but a few inches of the outside rim.

Then it buckled completely, the edge blowing outward before collapsing to the floor. The remaining glass and crockery vessels in the room also collapsed, spewing their contents everywhere. Filima covered her eyes, but none of the stuff touched her. The force had gone out of everything.

The next sound she became aware of was a soft drip-drip-drip of fluid. She ventured a peek, gaze drawn to an overturned pot, dribbling out the last of its diabolic soup into a pool in a low spot of the floor.

She waited before moving, unsure whether the storm was done or not. When nothing more happened for the next few minutes, she cautiously stood, mallet raised over her shoulder, ready for further assault. None came.

Gawds, what a mess. And poor Botello. She could feel sorry for him now. What had happened to him? Had the Darkside forces he thought he could control turned on him? That's what they usually did to sorcerers in the scarier stories.

She made a slow survey of the damage, then caught herself, stopping and staring. Botello lay prosaically sprawled on the floor just a pace or two from where the mirror had been. Had the vortex somehow silently returned him? She went over to kneel by him, slapping his cheek with the back of her hand to get him to wake. His head lolled. His eyes remained shut. He was terribly, terribly still all over.

Oh, no. Oh, damn. Oh, everything.

Her ear against his chest, she detected no sign of breath or heartbeat. In fact, he'd gone quite cold. She felt the same, inside. Empty, too.

For quite a long time she couldn't think. She only stared at him, at the wreckage around them, and not one thought or feeling came to her. It was as though she'd been hollowed out and had nothing to fill the space. Perhaps it was a good thing. Thoughts and feelings were dangerous, painful.

She sat and stared . . . until a really bad muscle cramp manifested in her left calf like a spear thrust. With a soft cry she straightened her leg and brutally massaged the excruciating knot until it passed off. Little by little she became aware of a hundred other aches and pains such as she'd not had since her days on stage in the circus.

Tears again. Not a lot. Just reaction. She swiped them away, glaring at Botello.

"It's all your fault," she snarled. "If you'd just been a little - oh, damn it all!" Filima made herself stop crying, which she managed within a few brief, forceful hiccups. This wasn't the time or place for self-indulgence, she had to think.

Right. Botello was dead, his Black Room an unholy - in every sense of the word - shambles, and she was smack in the middle of it all. Whatever his reason for dealing with Darkside matters, would anyone believe that she had nothing to do with them? Had known nothing about them? It was one thing to go self-righteously marching off to the palace to turn her live spouse in to the overduke, quite another to be . . . here.

Those members of Rumpock society who were not near and dear friends, lots of those, had taken it for granted that she'd married Botello for his money and an easy life. Yes, there was some truth to that. Botello's gradual, but unmistakable, estrangement to her was no secret, either. They might think she'd killed him to keep it all rather than lose the bulk of the estate to him in a divorce.

Then there was that handsome idiot, Cadmus. Suppose anyone thought she'd taken him as a lover? Everyone knew he needed money, too. Yet another reason to get rid of her spouse.

No, it was ridiculous. She would go to the overduke, tell him all, and let matters take their proper course. If she could survive a fight with a real demon, she could get through the gossip and finger-pointing from the town snobs. Certainly none of them could have handled themselves any better. She stifled a slightly hysterical giggle at the thought of the brittle and bitter Lady Sweggmit swinging a mallet in defense of her side of Reality. She wouldn't know which end to pick up. Or gads, she could break a nail in the process.

Filima cleared her throat. She had to focus.

She stood and brushed herself off, feeling stiff and sore, but otherwise unharmed. No cuts or scratches, which she regarded as miraculous. Maybe all that praying had shielded her from flying debris the way it had driven off the black fog. She hoped the stuff had harmlessly dissipated.

Then a truly bad feeling overcame her. The foreboding she had when first walking in was nothing to this awful sinking of her heart. She tried to shove it away, but it wouldn't budge. Something had happened. She just knew. On an intensely deep level, she knew.

Several minutes and one staircase and secret door later she quietly emerged into the relatively fresh air of the Darmo stables. They were on the large side; she didn't have to worry about waking the lads who worked here. Their quarters were on the far end of the building. The horses didn't matter either. A few poked their heads out, curious, but none made a fuss. Strange. They should have been all twitchy what with the earthquake. Unless its row had been confined solely to the chamber. Bloody metaphysics. More trouble than they were worth.

Making her way past the stalls, she unlatched a door to the outside. Real fresh air at last. How sweet it was, but she couldn't pause to breathe; she had to find out for sure.

Filima hurried along a graveled path toward the wall enclosing the estate grounds. She could just make out one of the gates in the waning moonlight. Beyond the gate was blackness.

Her heart caught in her throat and wedged there.

The gate, made of iron bars painted white, opened directly onto one of the roads leading down a gentle slope into Rumpock. That road was now completely hidden by thick, black fog, which was waist-high to her.

Oh, dear gawds, Botello, what have you done?

The whole town would see it. They'd panic. They would blame her once the story was out. Never mind the dead Botello, she would get the brunt of their fear and fury. Not even Overduke Anton could protect her then. They'd break into Darmo House, drag her and all the servants out, and after they'd finished tearing everyone to pieces hang those pieces from the bell tower.

Filima dropped back from the gate, fighting nausea. It wasn't just her skin at risk, but dozens of others. Even if she left town this minute, providing the fog allowed her passage, the whole of the Darmo household would suffer. She'd just inherited the lot of them, was responsible for the welfare and safety of dozens of her people. Maybe she'd not been high-born into such duty, but she fully understood the necessity that the show must go on.

But how? Pretend this disaster never happened?

Hmm. There was something useful there. Desperation was a wonderful clarifier. What if she pretended to be as ignorant as anyone else about that fog? That was one way out. How could she make Botello disappear, though?

Don't even try.

By the time she got back to the Black Room, she had it worked through. Of course, everything hinged on her getting him upstairs without being spotted by any of the servitors she was going to try to protect. She could trust all of them to keep a secret . . . for five minutes. Not nearly long enough.

Botello was as she'd left him, sprawled amid the fragments of pots, crocks, and scrying mirror. His heavy hooded robe had indeed protected him well. There wasn't a mark on him. Brushing off debris, she folded his arms tight over his chest, bent his legs up, grabbed a double handful of robe and dragged him out.

It wasn't as hard as she'd anticipated. Fear was a superb tonic, lending her even more strength than she'd shown against the demon. Facing it down was nothing compared to hauling Botello's corpse through the tunnel, up two flights of stairs, and into their bedroom. The last stage was almost effortless as the house floors were always in a state of high polish, making it easy to slide him along.

Once the last door was shut and locked she had to resist the urge to drop over in her tracks. Instead, she began the unpleasant task of stripping Botello to his skin. She stopped once to flee to her bath chamber and throw up in the tub there. That took some time. It couldn't be helped. She ran water to wash away her weakness, then wet down a towel to wipe her face. The same towel served to wipe away all trace of the noisome liquids that had splashed them both. Within an hour Botello was clean, his usual night tunic pulled over him, and he was tucked into his side of the bed. Clean herself in her tunic, Filima bundled their clothes - robe, shoes, dress, underclothes, the lot - together and made one last foray down the back stairs to the basement. In a brick-encased side chamber she found the incinerator, an ingenious monstrosity for household debris that also kept a huge supply of fresh river water piping hot for bathing and other sundry purposes.

She threw the bundle into the firebox, pushing it in deep with a long-handled poker. When everything was fully aflame, she hurried back to her room.

Now she could drop in her tracks.

But not quite.

She had to drop in her tracks in the bed, lying next to Botello. They may have grown apart in the marriage, but they still slept together.

Had slept together. That was over.

Except for this one last time.

There he lay, cold and still and so very, very, awfully and utterly dead, and if she thought about it she'd get sick again or start screaming. Yet she had to lie next to him.

Filima was known to be a late sleeper. While dawn crept up and the morning wore on, while the house woke and went about its normal chores, she would have to lie there for hours on end until it was her usual time to wake.

I can't do that.

So what if she'd been an instrument of the gawds down in the Black Room? Up here she was just herself: scared, sick, tired to the bone, and wishing the whole night had never happened.

But she made herself do it. The bedclothes had to look right.

She took care not to touch him as she eased between the sheets. It was impossible to lie still. Tremors coursed through her body, making her shake as though from fever. The release of tears she had to put off. Once begun, she wouldn't be able to stop and it would seem odd if her face was found to be puffed and red.

Unexpectedly, she dozed off. Only a few minutes worth, but enough to disorient her. For several seconds all was well, then memory tilted her back into turmoil again. She didn't want to sleep. What if she tossed and turned right over onto him? Ugh.

She got out of bed and paced and sat and paced and looked out the window and brushed her hair and paced and sat and looked out the window and blew her nose and paced and wished the damn sun would come up and sat and paced. Had that fog blotted out the whole sky?

When the agonizingly slow process of dawn did finally begin, she peered anxiously down at the slice of town she could see. The black river undulated through the streets, still at waist height so far as she could tell.

And . . . people were walking in it. She could just make out the distant figures of early risers beginning their day. They went about their business without haste, without a sign that anything was amiss. What was wrong with them? They should have been ringing alarm bells and running around shouting their neighbors awake and sending messengers to the overduke's palace demanding answers and action.

Unless they couldn't see it. If that stuff was strictly magical in nature then most people would remain ignorant of its existence. Perhaps only those like her born with a measure of Talent would be aware. No town-wide panic to worry about, but she'd still have to deal with some kind of blame. Best to wait things out and see what happened.

Someone knocked softly at the door.

She stared at it, her heart thumping hard. Who was - ?

Oh. Botello's valet. The man was under orders to come the same time every morning no matter how late an hour his master had gotten to bed. Standing orders from the lord of the house. Filima usually slept through it all.

In about three seconds the valet would come in to shake Botello awake. She had to not be out of bed.

In two seconds she'd dashed from the window and dove under the covers. Her eyes clamped shut, and she assumed a relaxed sleep posture just as the door opened. She heard the man's careful tiptoeing across the room and the rustle as he touched Botello and murmured to him it was time to wake.

Far a very insane moment, Filima fancied she heard Botello's usual low grunt in reply and the shift and creak of the bed as he got out. That was ever her signal to turn over and snuggle deeper into her pillows. It didn't happen, of course, but the thought alone almost made it real, almost made her scream.

The valet called again to his master, whispering. Silence and a long pause. Another rustle as sheets were drawn back, and then the man's gasp of shock. A longer pause as he made sure. Then he made sure again. A heavy, groaning sigh. He retreated quickly and used the bell pull, having the presence of mind to use the codes for the butler and Filima's chief personal maid. Both would be needed for the coming crisis. Filima heard the bells ringing distantly within the house.

Then the valet was on her side of the bed, gently touching her shoulder. She twitched, a sleeper who did not want to be disturbed. Mornings were not a good time for her and they all knew it.

"My lady? Please, my lady, you need to get up." The man sounded very unhappy, pleading. She hated the crack in his voice, knew she would hate the look he would have. When she opened her eyes to squint at him his expression was such as to tell even a stranger that something very bad was at hand.

"Yes, what is it, Jules?" she mumbled thickly.

"My lady, please come with me." He got her dressing gown from a chair and held it before him, ready for her. His hands shook.

"What is it, a fire?" She pretended to struggle to consciousness. When did she suddenly become such a great actress?

"No, my lady, please. Your maid is on the way. But you must get out of bed."

"What is the matter?" She shot a little more alert, sitting up. "Botello? What's going on? Botello?" She turned to him. Had to touch him. She wasn't acting when she recoiled from the stiffening corpse.

No need now to hold back the screams.

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