Back at Darmo House

Man, was I full. All that food. I'd lost count of my seconds, thirds, and fourths and had to loosen my top pants button. Good thing I wouldn't be singing for some hours yet. No way could I take a deep breath now. If Filima offered me a wafer-thin after-dinner mint, things would get Monty Python messy.

Our conversation throughout the meal had gone rather well, considering that when it came to the Hell-river we had wildly opposite views. She was positive I could help her, and I was positive I couldn't, not unless she came up with a lot more background that I could give to Terrin. And money. Despite the lyrics of my improv song, she'd missed their message and hadn't once mentioned money.

That black velvet pavilion had begun to nag at me, too. I asked her about it, but she just shrugged and said it was a "retiring place." What the hell did that mean? Was it an upper-class toilet?

Heh. No way.

Just because I'm not interested in magic doesn't mean I can't sense it. That curtain-shrouded question mark was definitely a hot-spot. Not a big one, but enough to make my muzzle whiskers twitch. It was the first whiff of real magic I'd detected since we got here. I'd have to tell Terrin. He'd be all over it like a cheap suit.

"Lemme make sure I got this straight," I was saying to Filima. "One night a couple weeks back this Hell-river just appeared?"

"Yes."

"And no one can say what it is or where it comes from?"

"You know that to be true."

"Pretend I don't know anything." Which was way too right. "Something happened to cause its appearance here. Rivers don't change course without a reason, even the metaphysical kind."

"Yes, we're all aware of that. Those of us who can see it have discussed nothing else."

"The 'those' being a few people in high society. Why is that? What makes them different from the rest of the townspeople?"

"We're high-born and wealthy, I suppose."

That couldn't be it. She was wealthy, but in my experience damn-few high-born ladies go into oochie-coochie dancing for a living. I didn't mention that, of course. "Do you all practice magic?"

"Not everyone. Just those with Talent, and not many of them."

"None of the townspeople have any Talent?"

"Of course some of them did, but they're not around anymore."

"Hah?"

"When the river appeared they left."

"Where'd they go?"

She looked unhappy. "No one knows."

Uh-huh. "Someone must. They had relatives and friends, maybe a nice little job where they'd be missed."

"They didn't leave in that sense. They just weren't around any more."

"Like they vanished - poof?"

"Exactly."

Not good. Maybe the river had sucked them in. The way it crept up the outside wall of the inn like a misty version of the Blob still gave me the heebies, though I realized now it probably hadn't sensed me at all, but had been sniffing for Terrin. That guy was a magical power station, broadcasting twenty-four/seven to anyone or anything geared to pick up his kind of signals. "That's pretty serious," I said. "Didn't you try to find them?"

"Once we worked out what had happened, Overduke Anton had investigators running all over town looking for them. No one knows where they are. It's as though they'd all been forgotten by all their friends."

"If they'd been forgotten, then how did you know they were missing?"

"Those of us with Talent who remained remembered them."

Oh.

"But it took us days to work that much out." She snorted disgust, whether for her slowness or that of her friends was hard to judge.

"And nobody's upset about it? Like this overduke?"

"Of course he's upset, we all are, but he can't draw a lot of attention to it or there might be a panic."

"If there was going to be a panic, it'd have happened by now. Maybe you should have a panic, a real big one. It might stir up an answer." I could use a few of those. "The Hell-river appears, a few practitioners in the upper classes can see it, but the rest of the town folk don't, and all the magic-types down there vanish, only no one else notices or misses them. A conspiracy or mass hypnosis?"

She shrugged.

"Aside from the river coming, what else happened a couple weeks ago?"

Behind me I heard Shankey shift on his feet. I turned to glance at him. He seemed like a guy with something on the tip of his tongue and it wasn't an after-dinner mint.

"Yeah, Captain?" I said encouragingly.

Filima's turn to shift. She added in some throat-clearing, too.

I turned back to her. She had the same look as Shankey. "Yeah, lady?"

"I don't see how it could be connected . . ." she began. Her trailing off gave me to think otherwise.

"How what could be connected?"

"Well, it was about the time my husband died that the river appeared."

I sensed major pay dirt here. "Did he, by any chance, go in for magic?"

"Actually, yes. He did. Yes."

"And no one's put together that there might be a connection between the two?"

She lifted her chin, frowning a lot. She was still gorgeous. "I have. But I don't know what it could be. You do."

Gawd, she was still playing that tune. I'd have to do some creative jamming to get past her chorus. I gave a deprecating shrug. "Maybe so. If I do, I'm going to need your help."

"What sort of help?"

"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. Accept no substitutes."

The frown turned into a scowl. An adorable one.

I gave a bigger shrug. "It's not really a lot to ask. Wouldn't you want the same?"

A quick thinker was this babe. She stopped making faces and nodded.

"Okay, then it's cards on the table time, Lady Filima. First: How did you know to find me?"

She shook her head, plump lips sealed shut. A quick thinker but with a really bad stubborn streak.

I kept a patient I-don't-care kind of tone. "If you want my help, you need to tell me everything. It's in the rules."

"What rules?"

"Myhr's Rules for Magical Investigation 101. You talk or I walk."

Shankey shifted again, maybe getting ready to contest my challenge, but neither of us needed to worry about who was faster at the fifty-yard door dash. Filima made a capitulating sigh. She sounded like she meant it.

"Very well, I'll show you."

It took some effort for me to lever myself and my meal out of our comfy chair and follow her to the "retiring place." Man, what a lunch. I hoped there was a bed in the pavilion so I could take a nap. Filima drew back a fold of black velvet just enough to allow us to slip inside, then let it fall into place again.

Drat. No bed, just a simple stool and small table, lighted by a single candle on a sturdy floor stand. It was very dark and stuffy with the smell of old incense. Not a very fragrant brand, either. Flat on the table was a scrying mirror similar to the ones Terrin and I sold at his Dallas shop: round, about a foot across with a highly polished black surface. Terrin worked the things all the time; I prefer a big-screen TV with a remote and cable.

"You know what this is?" she asked.

"Sure, I've seen 'em before. That's how you found me?"

She nodded, solemn.

"Cool that you can use one of those; not many people have the knack."

"It's difficult, but not impossible."

"Were you looking for me in particular?"

"I asked the mirror to show something that would help against the Hell-river."

"And it picked me? For certain?"

"I clearly saw you coming from a building near the bell tower and sent Captain Shankey to find and bring you here."

Oh, lucky, lucky me. I should be so blessed when it comes to picking lottery numbers.

"You are the right one to help us, Mr. Myhr. The magic never lies. I know that for a fact."

Boy, did she have a lot to learn. Like the river, her mirror had probably sensed Terrin and geographically focused where she could find him. A literal interpretation to her request. I'd just walked onto the stage at the wrong moment. It happens to the best of us, only this time it brought me more than guffaws from a bemused audience. A quick exit would be the wise course, but I hadn't heard Shankey or his pal Debreban move from their posts. No way could I get past either of them without a fuss. Besides, I was still too full of lunch for feats of derring-do. Hanging around here didn't appeal since I wasn't eager to get involved with this Hell-river stuff. Not without pay. She'd still not mentioned money yet. Wizards don't work for free, especially Terrin.

On the other hand, Filima had fed me, so that made up a little for the kidnapping. I could also understand why she was hanging on my every word. Under all the gorgeous trimmings and posh airs, she was scared. Really, really scared. "Just what is your stake in this?" I asked.

"Stake?"

"Why's it so important that I help you? What do you get out of it?"

She blinked. "I don't get anything. I just want the Hell-river sent back to wherever it came from."

"That's pretty civic-minded, but aside from making all the town magicians vanish and scaring the pants off tourists like me, what is the river doing right now that's especially threatening?"

That one netted me another scowl. It was still adorable, but I'd touched a nerve. "It's come to a place where it shouldn't be! That's more than enough threat for anyone. You can't leave things so seriously out of balance without consequences."

I had the feeling she and Terrin would get along just fine. He was really big about cause-and-effect stuff in magic.

"If we don't find a way to put the river back I'm positive something truly dreadful will happen," she continued, voice rising.

Talk about a stress case, she needed calming. "If this river has been running for a couple of weeks and no harm done except for some missing persons" - Terrin might be able to sniff them out; he could find other Talents almost as fast as a sex business - "then maybe things won't be as bad as - "

"Don't you see?"

"Not very well, no." It was pretty dim in here, even for my eyes.

"Every night the river gets a little bit bigger."

She could have mentioned that sooner. "That's a threat?"

"I've no reason to think otherwise. It grows in strength, but the change is so gradual I don't think even the overduke is aware of the potentials."

"Such as . . . ?"

"Compare it to a normal river. Ever see one in flood? I have, and the devastation is the most horrible thing you can imagine. I think that when it gets large enough the remaining people with Talent will also vanish. There will be no one left to remember them, or try to get them back. Please, Mr. Myhr, please help us."

I'm a sucker for a pleading dame, but usually the circumstances are a lot more romantic. "I'm not sure I can help. . . ."

"I'll pay you anything."

Hello. My favorite magic word: money. Or gems. Filima probably had a dusty old diamond tiara lying around somewhere that Terrin could use. Something like that would power us a lot farther toward home than the quartz crystals stuck in his fishing hat. "No promises, but maybe we can work out a deal."

She jumped for it like we'd already signed contracts. This babe was scared. "You've a plan?"

"Not yet. I'll need to study the river some more - without your captain breathing down my neck."

"Shankey won't bother you, I swear."

Filima had gotten agreeable way too fast. There had to be a hitch, but I'd find it later, after I was clear of the house. "Sounds great. I'll just go back to my place and settle in for a good bout of research." And do some serious data dumping on Terrin. With this info he might be able to figure out what to do. The prospect of getting some real diamonds for his travel-whammy might even make him hurry.

"But you must stay here as my guest," she said, dropping the shoe I'd expected.

"I must?"

"Yes, of course. My house is infinitely more comfortable than anything you'd find in town. I also have supplies of every kind of herb and incense, magical equipment, books, whatever you'll need."

Hmm. A cushy place to nap, regular meals, servants, and - compared to the facilities at Clem's Place - decent plumbing. This just turned into a no-brainer. Add to it the sight of the glorious Filima wafting through the halls and I was ready to apply for a long-term lease.

"It sounds pretty good, but I'll have to consult with my partner."

"Your partner? Why didn't you mention him?"

"Already did - when I was singing. His name's Terrin."

"I thought that was a nonsense song."

"Nope, all true. I have to go back, find him, and do my late afternoon show at Clem's Place. He'll expect me to draw in the early supper crowd for a couple hours."

"No need. I'll see to it he's compensated for your being elsewhere."

"But I've got an obligation. He's been advertising me all day, and the lunch crowd might be back for more. You know how it is, the show must go on, at least for one more time so I don't look bad."

Filima grinned. Much more adorable than her scowl. "You like the applause, don't you?"

"Almost as much as chocolate."

"What's that?"

"An old Aztec love spell."

Somewhere close I heard a choking noise that sounded like Shankey lurking nearby. Having swivelly ears on top of one's head is a heck of an advantage at times. If he was any good at his job he'd have been listening in on this little conversation in Filima's retiring place. I chose to ignore him, and Filima hadn't noticed.

"Love spells?" She snorted. "Those things never work."

"I've seen them work very well indeed. It's getting them to stop once they're up and running that's the big problem." I was more or less quoting Terrin. We stocked harmless love charms at the shop. I say harmless since Terrin always neutralized what he sold to infatuated girls and horny guys. It was an honor thing with him. That kind of emotional coercion and manipulation rankled the hell out of him. If something did happen between the caster and the castee it would have happened anyway, was meant to happen. Love is its own magic, after all, but none of the lovelorn customers were ready to believe that. Everybody wants an edge.

Filima looked a little wobbly all of a sudden, putting a hand to her forehead.

"Anything wrong?" I asked.

"I get like this in here. Scrying gives me headaches."

"You're not scrying, though."

"The incense, then. I'm sure I'm allergic to it."

The leftover stink of whatever she used was pretty strong. "You need to switch brands."

"But that's the kind you have to use for scrying."

"Who told you that? Never mind, there's others that work just as well you might not be allergic to. Nag Champa is a good all-purpose one, and it smells the same burning or not. . . ."

She'd stopped listening to my sales pitch, which was a leftover habit from when I helped out at Terrin's shop, and stared down at the surface of the dark mirror. "Something's coming through. That's never happened before, not unless I'm initiating it."

Now I stared at the mirror. Its polished surface did seem to be shifting, reminding me too much of that black fog of the Hell-river only this time in red. "Maybe we should leave."

"No, I must see. Perhaps your presence has set off some magic."

I had solid doubts about that, but was curious. She sat on the stool, and I kibitzed over her shoulder. It was hard to concentrate with the scent of flowers coming off her hair. From my vantage point I not only saw the mirror, but had a wonderful grandstand view down the front of her low-cut dress.

Oh, baby!

What a perfect spot: I could stare at those beauties all I wanted - so long as I didn't drop any drool on them.

"There!" she exclaimed, leaning forward.

Damn, she'd blocked my view.

"Do you see it?"

Reluctantly, I transferred my attention. The blood-red fog roiled and boiled, and though I first thought it my imagination, there seemed to be a form emerging from the mess. The image was distracting enough to take my mind off appreciation of Filima's hypnotic figure.

A man's face shivered in and out, like looking through moving layers of smoked glass. He was no one I knew, just the usual collection of eyes, brows, nose and mouth . . . but somehow he was very, very wrong.

Sulfur? Why was there a whiff of that in the air? Or was it just rotten eggs? It came and went, replaced by the stink of something putrid and festering, which also whipped away, stirred by the wind - a hot wind that should not have been in this small, completely enclosed area.

The candle went out, but light remained, coming from the mirror. It originated from it, absolutely was not a reflection.

All my back hairs were up, and yes, my spine began to arch outward. Instinct from my cat DNA boomed a red alert at full force; it wanted me away from there. My human side fought it, trying to see more. The conflict caused me to hiss, actually hiss.

The face in the mirror came closer, the mouth open and working in a scream or a curse. It seemed to touch the surface and begin to raise itself up, a three-dimensional thing trying to squeeze its way through.

The light - now turned pale green like from a rotting corpse - flowed from the mirror, bathing Filima. Black specks tumbled in the glimmer. They spun around her head, then swirled down to the emerging face. Its mouth yawned wide to receive them.

Filima's eyes rolled up in her head, and she slumped forward with a soft moan.

Elsewhere in Rumpock

Terrin hoped to gawd he was on the right street this time. Every twisty-turny way in this hellhole looked alike to him now, and they all seemed to be uphill, even the downhill ones.

He staggered along like a drunk, keeping his legs under him only by an act of concentrated will. The air was way too thin to breathe; his lungs worked overtime and then some. Sweat ran freely down his face, but he shivered with cold. People hastily got out of his path. Maybe they thought he had plague or something. Good and fine. No one offered to help. That was fine, too. It would have delayed him, and he couldn't afford a delay. He had to get to shelter - magical shelter.

The bell tower, yes, there it was, useful landmark. But what direction was it from Clem's inn . . . from . . . somewhere . . . um . . . someplace. . . .

The thought slipped from his head. Dammit.

Where was he? Tower. Move.

He plunged toward it, running a few steps, slowing to gulp air, running a few more. What if he couldn't make it to the inn? Had to consider that possibility. Just getting under any old roof wasn't the problem, he had to be in a shielded area. Those weren't too common. The ones he'd sensed were weak, nothing compared to the safe zone he'd set up . . . um . . . where?

The inn, Clem's Place.

More steps. Blinking and wheezing, his strength drained out like water from a tub, a steady, swirling stream that would take him with it in the end.

No way. No fucking way!

Anger helped him focus. He looked up and charged forward again, certain he'd spotted a familiar door ahead.

No, not that one, the next one over.

Yeah, red letters spelling out the serving hours for drink and food, the smell of both drifted from the wide-open front door.

Terrin dove through headfirst, landing hard on the bare flags of the floor.

Air. Lots of air here. He lay like a dying fish for a few moments, gradually becoming aware of Clem and Greta staring down at him.

"Usually they stagger and fall over after they leave here," Clem remarked.

"Are you all right, Mr. Terrin?" asked Greta. "You look sick."

He recovered enough to show his teeth. It wasn't the same as a smile. "Tired. Just tired. Need to rest."

"But you look feverish," she insisted.

"I don't hold with people being feverish in my place," Clem added. "Bad for business."

"Got too much sun is all," said Terrin, making an effort to stand. He dragged himself onto a bench, and squinted outside. The street shimmered violently in his vision. It wouldn't stop. Dizzy-making. What the hell was going on out there? "Is Myhr around?"

"He got taken off awhile back," said Clem, with a nod toward the door. He didn't seem to notice the shimmer at all. "Couple of fellers carted him right out just like that. He told us to tell you."

Huh, what? "What fellers? What happened? Was he kidnapped?"

"Looked more like a pretty firm invite. Could be an arrest, but they wasn't city watch. One of them was in Burkus House colors, and I think the other might have belonged to Darmo House. Mr. Myhr yelled something that sounded like Lady Filima's name as he was going out. She's important in these parts."

"Arrested? You think he was arrested?"

"Maybe, but the clan houses don't have the authority for that, only the overduke's people are allowed to make city arrests. I'm not too happy about all this fuss; Mr. Myhr's supposed to do a late afternoon show - "

"Who took him away?"

He got a more detailed report from Greta, who cheerfully provided some background on the house names involved. "Those two men came in, had a huge lunch, and drank like tomorrow wouldn't come. Real chummy they were, then they had a little nap, but perked up when Mr. Myhr began the noon show. They seemed to know to look for him."

"And they took him away just like that? People can do that here?"

Clem shrugged. "It happens. Usually for a good reason."

"Good for who?"

Another shrug. "Well, if he don't come back, you'll have to pay a proper rent on the room. Nothing personal, just business."

Room rent was the least of Terrin's problems. He'd gotten his breath back, but still felt weak. And cold. And sweaty. And . . . itchy. Like his skin was on inside out.

"Are there any healers around here? Magical healers?" No time for circumlocution. He'd take the risk of getting burned at the stake. Wouldn't be the first time.

"Magic?" said Greta, surprised. "There may have been, once upon a time. We usually call in Doc Warty. She's not magic, though."

"I don't hold with that weird-fangled magic stuff," said Clem. "Too unpredictable. Scares off customers."

Terrin groaned, but wasn't surprised. If there was some kind of draining field floating around this berg, little wonder all the Talents were gone. But had they vanished, been sucked dry, or just moved out? And why couldn't anyone remember them?

And what the hell was out there that was so efficiently sucking him dry of magical energy? He was safe in here for the time being. The shields and wards he'd set last night seemed to be holding up well enough, like a brick house against a storm. Perhaps he could shrink them down to cover a smaller area and recharge himself with the leftovers. That would confine him to his room, though, unless he could establish a moving shield he could take with him. Those never lasted very long, though.

He had to find Myhr. Clem and Greta might be talked into going on a search, but they'd have to know where to look. Terrin excused himself and crawled upstairs. Literally. The last few yards of steps he took on all fours to conserve himself.

Myhr had left the black candle bought that morning on a small table. Good man. Cat. Whatever. Terrin fumbled for a Bic lighter in his backpack, pulling out a few other useful items. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he lighted the candle, then held it in front of him, gazing at the flame, working up a good strong visualization. Gawd, it was hard.

Usually he had no need of props. When he did use things like candles it was only to keep the energy up and running while he went off to do other stuff. Sort of like setting the VCR to catch a show.

Not this time.

He focused on the flame, took it into himself, and surrounded himself with its glowing image. He began to warm up a little. Illusion only, but wasn't everything?

Myhr! Where the hell are you?!

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