Chapter Fourteen

Burkus House, an Upstairs Hall

Hours after his inexplicably ill-mannered master had ridden away to the palace, Debreban was still unsettled by the encounter. His evening meal did not sit well with him, either, his digestion being disturbed by all that he'd seen and heard that day. How a simple errand of following Captain Shankey around had turned into a major adventure involving catmen and secret tunnels and magic and grouchy wizards required much mulling over.

Debreban would have liked to talk it out with somebody, but the whole household was long gone to bed at this hour. Besides, he'd have had to provide an enormous lump of background explanation to his audience, which never worked too well in his experience. Better to speak with a person who had been there. That would be Shankey, of course, but he was at Darmo House, probably hearing all sorts of interesting tales from Myhr and the sickly young fellow he'd introduced as being a real wizard. He'd not looked too terribly wizardlike, but it takes all sorts to make a world.

So Debreban tried to quell his restlessness with a bout of walking, hoping it would tire him out. He patrolled the grounds until the mosquitoes drove him indoors, then paced throughout the house. Fortunately it was a big square structure with an enclosed courtyard, enabling him to walk endlessly round and round without having to pay mind to his path. He kept to the upper floor, so the tramp of his boots wouldn't disturb the sleeping staff. Only Lord Cadmus slept upstairs, and he was gone for the night. Debreban could stalk the hallways to his heart's content, and did so for quite some time.

It didn't help as much as he'd hoped.

He partially convinced himself that the disturbing encounter with Lord Cadmus had been a misapprehension of some kind. Perhaps his lordship had received some upsetting news, causing him to be in a tremendous hurry to be elsewhere. That would explain his short temper. This did seem confirmed when one of the staff mentioned his lordship was off to dine at the palace. It did not explain the peculiar behavior of the horse. Though a fine-looking war charger, the animal had ever been as well-mannered as its master. Had he not known better, Debreban would have sworn a changeling demon steed had taken good old Whitestone's place. Strange how he kept trying to throw his rider. Lord Cadmus had barely been able to keep his seat, and he was the best horseman in the province.

Could he have been drunk? Not likely. Except at parties, his lordship was usually sparing in his consumption of spirits. Whether that was an economic stratagem or to do with the sodden demise of several dipsomaniac relatives was debatable. Either way, his lordship never drank while riding.

Yes, something was up. Probably to do with that Hell-river the Talents were in such a twist over. Debreban had never seen the phenomenon, but knew enough about magic to respect the concept. Magic was like air; you couldn't see the stuff, but it was very useful to have around, and when a storm was up you certainly could feel it.

That's how things had been in that awful tunnel. He hated closed-in dark places to begin with, and combined with the noise and stinks . . . well, it was a good thing that Myhr had been there to vanquish the bad stuff. Odd man . . . creature . . . whatever, but friendly. Why was it that Shankey had first thought him to be a man wearing a cat mask? Perhaps Lady Filima had seen a vision in her scrying mirror. Debreban did not approve of those. They were nothing less than an invasion of privacy. He'd been quite scandalized when he first learned of such devices. He was aware that Lord Cadmus had one in his Black Room, and made a point to avoid the spot.

Debreban happened to be walking past the door to that very chamber. He kept walking, and with some success quelled the creeping gooseflesh that was trying to take hold of his spine. His personal remedy for that was to mutter a childhood prayer and cross his fingers. There, he felt better now already. As usual, nothing leaped roaring from the Black Room at him and nothing ever would.

His confidence faded as he approached his master's private suite. The door was shut, as were all the others on this floor, but a strange wavery light now leaked from the threshold space. It had not been there moments ago when he'd last passed this way.

Debreban ran down a logical list of what might be causing the light, in short order dismissing the moon shining through an open window, a forgotten candle or lamp, or some impossible reflection from the Rumpock River. Nothing he was familiar with could possibly create that strange red glow.

The gooseflesh returned, rather forcefully.

Oh, damn.

He wished himself elsewhere, but it didn't work. Like it or not he was the captain of the guards for Burkus House, and it was his job to protect the place. Defending against magical threats was not specifically mentioned in his contract, though. Lord Cadmus should really deal with this. If only he was here.

Oh, damn again.

Hoping it would be something quite hilariously boring, Debreban drew his sword and cautiously opened the door. No reaction came bounding out, though the red glow got stronger, washing him with crimson color. He pushed the door wide with the tip of his sword and waited. All remained quiet . . . no . . . he heard a strange low hum coming from within. It wavered with the light and made the inside of his ears itch.

Bracing, he stepped in, looking around very quickly, wanting a few hundred candles to light the way and a host of Talents to back him up.

So far as he could tell by the lurid radiance, his master's rooms were in good order. A few clothes were strewn about the dressing area, but that was normal when there was a dinner engagement on, according to his lordship's long-suffering valet. Only the glow and the humming were out of place. Debreban eased forward to their source which turned out to be a huge dressing mirror.

A fine piece of art in a heavy, gold-leafed frame, it stood alone in one corner, and at first glanced seemed to be on fire. Its surface roiled with blood colored clouds, yet they remained confined inside, as though reflecting some other place than the dim room. He stared at it for some time, not coming to harm, but still nerved up.

The hum grew louder. Was it meant to be a burglar alarm like that dragon-breath sound in the Darmo tunnel? If so, then perhaps throwing an object made of cold iron into the works would stop it. His own sword wouldn't do, what would . . . a fire poker perhaps?

His gaze fell upon a long shape left casually propped against a chair: a sword and scabbard of antique style that he thought he recognized. Yes, it was one of the oddities of the Burkus House armory collection, supposedly a wizard-slayer because of the composition of its metal. Why was it off its stand and up here? His lordship must have had some use for it. No matter; Debreban accepted the opportune gift of fate and grabbed it up.

Weighty thing, but nicely balanced, with a slightly curving black blade that still held a killing edge. The pommel felt right and reassuring in his hand as he rounded on the mirror like a hero about to face down a long-sought-after adversary.

Of course it was all very well to strike a pose even if no one was around to appreciate it, but nothing happened. The clouds continued to churn, the hum steadied out. After some minutes of this they ceased to intimidate him. Perhaps he shouldn't even be here. His master might have cast some kind of spell to create this effect and would be annoyed to have it disrupted.

But Debreban's instinct went against that conclusion. No, there was something afoot that wanted looking into.

He extended his arm, very gently touching the surface of the mirror with the tip of the black sword.

Oh, my.

The clouds recoiled like a slug struck with salt. The hum rose to a high shriek and cut off into sudden silence.

I broke it!

Debreban fell back a step, holding the blade in a guard position, ready for whatever might rush forth. The clouds slowly recovered, only now there seemed to be some form to them, a roughly oval shape in their midst. Eventually he made out human features. Was this what scrying was like for the Talents?

The face - three times larger than normal - grew more solid, and though possessed of a red cast, its features seemed familiar. He couldn't quite place . . . yes, of course, it was Lord Botello Darmo. . . .

Who was dead.

Oh, damn. Again. A lot.

Darmo looked out from the mirror, his gaze sharp as a spike as it fell upon Debreban.

"Hallo there," he said politely. "To whom am I speaking?"

Debreban didn't have enough spit in his mouth to reply.

"Come now, man, answer. It's a simple question. Are those Burkus House colors?"

Debreban managed to nod.

The head, floating in red clouds, curled its lip. "Bloody hell." Darmo seemed to hear something and turned away to reply. "Sorry, just slipped out. I'm having trouble connecting with the Otherside. I think I've got hold of the wrong place." He flinched, as though in pain, then looked back to Debreban. "Is this Burkus House? Answer me!" Desperation crept into his voice.

"Yes, sir," Debreban whispered.

"Speak up!"

"Yes, sir!"

"Bloody - oh, never mind. Who are you?"

"Captain of the house guards." Remembering a cautionary tale with a particularly bad end featuring magical mirrors, Debreban knew better than to provide this being with his name.

"Where is Cadmus Burkus?"

"A-at the overduke's palace for dinner. Staying the night."

"No doubt. Is this the scrying mirror in his Black Room?"

"No, sir. This is his lordship's dressing room mirror."

"No wonder it's taking so much power to get through. Do you know who I am?"

Debreban did his best to overcome his trembling. "You look like the late Lord Botello Darmo, sir."

" 'Look like.' Wise reply. Oh, do buck yourself up, fellow, you're in no danger. Not yet, anyway. That's better. Right, now I want you to listen carefully, I can only say this once. . . ." His voice faded as clouds blew over his face.

"What?"

The face twisted with frustration. "Oh, bloody, bloody hell!"

Something on the Otherside happened, turning the red clouds pale green for a moment like a flare of lightning in a heavy storm; Darmo blenched in reaction, twisting in agony.

"For gawds' sake, help me!" he cried.

* * *

In the Streets Not Far From the Palace

"That was very well, done, dear lady," said Cadmus, judging that they were far enough from the ducal gates to make speech safe.

"Thank you, but keep your voice down. There's Talents on watch and we don't want them reporting us," Velma said in a low, muttering tone.

He obligingly matched it. "Where did you learn such acrobatics?" Their recent flight from the palace involved slipping around the backstairs like ghosts to reach a side door, a hair-raising tree climb, some dicey walking along a swaying branch to get over a wall, and finally a jolting drop into darkness. It took Cadmus back to his school days and those occasions when he and the other boys found it expedient to break away from the restrictions of academics for a bit of illicit fun and frolic.

"The circus, where else? I didn't spend all my time dancing the oochie-coochie. I had a crush on a trapeze artist, then there was the tumbler, then the actor, then the . . ." She caught herself. "Never mind them. Which way to Darmo House? Everything looks so different in the dark."

Remembering that she was a relative newcomer to town, Cadmus pointed down a twisty, turny street. "This one. It's a bit of a walk, though."

"Then let's get going. Any sign of the black fog for you?"

Cadmus frowned into the night. It looked and felt perfectly normal. That had to be wrong. "Not a wisp, and I should see it. Botello did an excellent job removing my magical energy; I've no sense for the stuff now. What a bother. I shall have words with him about it at the first opportunity, I promise you. Strong words."

As it was very dark, she held onto his arm. That felt nice. Pity she wasn't Filima, but he would see her soon. All right, so he wouldn't be collapsed at her feet, a brave, injured warrior in need of tender succor, but bursting in on her with a spine-tingling tale of possession, unjust arrest, and narrow escapes from dungeons was just as good. He was certain Velma would put in a word or two on his behalf. She didn't out and out agree with him that his idea of a seance was utterly brilliant, but obviously thought it important enough to pursue. At any rate, it got him clear of the dungeon and the two of them away from Botello for the time being. Pity he had to leave his horse behind. He would have looked so much better galloping up to the Darmo gates with a fainting Velma in his protective arms.

Not that she'd have cooperated, but a heroic scene all the same.

"Someone's coming," she hissed.

He'd not been paying much attention and nearly stumbled as she dragged him into a small space between buildings. Holding his breath, he just barely made out the sound of someone's approach. Velma pressed against him - that felt very nice - and held her breath, too, going absolutely still.

The stranger wore boots, made no effort to be quiet, and seemed to be in a furious hurry. Cadmus saw by his faint silhouette it was a man, and one he recognized.

He stepped into his path. "Captain Debreban? What are you doing out?"

Debreban reacted as though he'd been hit with a hot lance in a tender spot. He jumped a full yard to the side, had his sword ready in hand, and gasped out a cry of shock all in one go. Agile fellow.

"L-lord Cadmus?" he wheezed.

"The same. Is there an emergency? Why are you here?"

"Can't tell you, my lord, important errand, can't delay, have to - "

"Errand? For whom? What are you doing with that sword?" Cadmus suddenly noticed it was the black-bladed wizard-killer he'd left propped by a chair in his rooms.

"Cadmus?" Velma emerged from the shadows. Debreban jumped again, just not as far. "Who is this man?"

"This is the captain of my guards, Debreban. Actually, I want to have a word with you. . . ." Cadmus turned back to his man, who seemed on the edge of bolting. What a strange look on his face, almost as though he'd seen a -  "I say, Captain, has something happened?"

"Ah, no, my lord - "

Velma stepped forward. "Of course something's happened or you'd not be out past the curfew. Is there a problem at Burkus House?"

"No problem, lady. My lord, forgive me, but I must be going."

"Not until you explain yourself," said Cadmus.

Debreban peered hard at him. "And if I don't, my lord?"

The uncharacteristic challenge from a heretofore unshakably loyal man took Cadmus aback. "Well, I shall be very displeased with you, Captain. Very displeased. Now put your sword away and behave like a proper gentleman, you're upsetting Lady Velma."

Relaxing somewhat, Debreban abruptly grinned.

"Just 'Velma,' Cadmus, you know I'm not - "

"Velma?" said Debreban. "The overduke's uh - that is - "

"Girlfriend," said Velma patiently. "Is there a problem?"

"No! I've been sent to find you, to deliver a message from . . . er . . . someone." He finished up rather lamely.

"Who?"

"I can't say. I was told to speak to you and you alone." He stole a wall-eyed glance at Cadmus.

"Oh, very well," said Cadmus, taking the hint. "I'll stand over here and not listen, will that suit?"

"Yes, my lord."

Snorting, Cadmus stepped off a pace or two, put his hands over his ears, and hummed a favorite dance song. This was altogether a very aggravating situation. Shut out by his own guard captain. It smacked of intrigue or worse. Or . . . what if Debreban had a message from Filima? He'd been sent to follow her guard captain today, had made friends with him, too, according to that tavern keeper. What if she found out? Learned about his scrying? If it involved Cadmus she'd not want him to hear a single word. How bloody frustrating. Still, he was a gentleman, and ladies were entitled to their secrets. Besides, he could always catch up on things using his mirror. If he ever went near the damned thing again. Not likely after tonight. Hell, maybe he should just start sending her flowers like a normal suitor and damn the expense.

Velma tapped his arm to indicate the conference was over. He let his hands drop and tried not to look too curious.

"You'll never guess," she said. "He had a message for me from Anton."

Cadmus blinked. "You're right, I never would have guessed that. How?"

Debreban again displayed reluctance. "Lady . . ."

"It's all right, Captain," she assured him. "Lord Cadmus is no longer possessed by Botello Darmo. It's Overduke Anton he's using now. Anton doesn't know that Cadmus is free."

He shook his head and frowned, indicating a low opinion of the magical leapfrogging. "Very well . . ."

Debreban launched into a lightning-quick report of the recent goings on in Cadmus's dressing room mirror, which had to do with things they already knew: that Botello had traded places with Anton and was up to no good. Cadmus's questions bunched up so fast behind his teeth that he had trouble speaking in a coherent manner.

"So Lord Anton is all right?" he finally managed to blurt.

"Of course not," said Velma. "He's in Hell, trapped in Botello's astral body. That's very not all right."

"I meant he isn't being tortured or anything."

"He didn't specifically mention that, my lord," said Debreban. "I think he was being closely watched by . . . something. But he didn't look at all well and was in a great hurry to leave."

"No doubt. If it was truly Lord Anton and not some Otherside deception. Are you certain?"

Debreban had to admit to a shortage of certainty about many recent events.

"I'm positive it was Anton," said Velma. "He told the captain to remind me of a backrub I gave this morning as proof. Botello would know nothing about that."

"Backrub?"

"Yes. I happen to be very good at them. Now let's get going to your place."

"Not Darmo House?"

"Yours. So we can talk to Anton in your mirror."

"But Filima has a quite nice scrying mirror." He was not ready to give up his quest to see her.

"And a wizard," added Debreban.

That was unexpected. "A wizard?"

"Ah, yes, my lord. I learned about him during that - ah - errand you put me on this morning. He was ailing a bit, but I was told he's quite clever."

"Wizard?" Cadmus repeated, trying to remember the specifics of the day's errands . . . Debreban was supposed to follow the Darmo House guard. Cadmus had been told to go looking for wizards. Wizard. One with a cat's face on. So he'd taken shelter with Filima. Botello would be furious, but sod him.

"Yes, my lord. The wizard's friend is a friend of Captain Shankey of Darmo House, and the two of them were taking him there the last I saw. I was given to understand he needed to be in a protected area as his magic was being drained off."

By Botello who'd wanted to finish dining off the wizard. Greedy bugger. "Oh - ah - interesting. Then we should go meet the fellow and see if he can lend us a hand with this mess."

"I thought all the Talents were missing or on watch," said Velma.

"He's newly come to Rumpock, lady," Debreban explained. "Looked a bit washed out, though."

"But Filima will still have some magical energy left for us, I'm sure," Cadmus urged. "And a mirror. It'll be safer, too. Once Botello notices we're gone Burkus House will be the first place he looks."

"And Darmo House the second," Velma pointed out. "We'll sort it later, let's just get moving."

"Yes! Please do get moving!" a woman cried from a window directly above them. "People are trying to sleep, y'know!"

A chorus of annoyed agreement erupted from lots of other windows overlooking the street.

"Move along, ye bloody toffs!"

"Some of us have to work in the morning!"

"Have some consideration!"

"Call the Watch!"

"Plug yer flippin' pie hole!"

"You plug yers!"

Swallowing embarrassment, for a true gentleman never makes a nuisance of himself, especially in public, Cadmus seized both Velma and Debreban by their arms and hauled them away, double-time.

* * *

The Palace Dungeon

Captain Rockbush had a singularly unpleasant awakening. Not only did he have the most awful, horrible agony in his crotch and head, but the overduke himself was yelling at him for some reason. He had served in the palace man and boy for thirty years, and never in that time had the overduke raised his voice to anyone, much less cursed them out. Something was very seriously wrong. His lordship was positively screeching.

What happened, you dolt? Who helped him get away? Did he bribe you? Was that it? Where is he, you witless, brainless bastard! Where IS he?

One question after another hammered at him as he lay on the stone floor, each more insulting than the last. Rockbush would have attempted a reply, but was far too occupied dealing with nasty physical distractions. What had happened? The last thing clear in his mind was something to do with Lord Cadmus. Arresting him . . . then that fine-looking lady had come along and stopped things. Females just didn't understand the law. Took a bit to get her to come around, and then she had come around and . . . Rockbush groaned.

How had he ended down on the floor like this and in this condition? Obviously the overduke had no clue to offer, not with the fit he was throwing.

Eventually he finished screaming profanity and went away.

Rockbush remained very still and hoped his pain would likewise depart.

* * *

Darmo House, the Kitchen

Terrin had a gift for depression. When he was in the mood for inflicting despair and misery he waded in with both fists and maniacal glee; it was one of his great pleasures in life. He could bring down helium and not break a sweat.

"So," I said, "essentially the outcome is we die, you die, everybody dies? Consumed by flesh-eating demons who get off on death energy, terror, and destruction on a massive scale?"

"Pretty much," he said, picking a stray mushroom from his plate. He chewed on it, staring into space, exuding contentment.

This bummer news, I hardly need mention, totally eclipsed the historic and delicious debut of Pizza a la Myhr in Rumpock. Filima and Shankey ate a little, made some half-hearted yummy noises to be polite, and mostly stared in horror at Terrin, who scarfed nearly half the pie down as he talked of planetwide annihilation at the hands - or rather teeth - of starving hordes of demons who were likely to pour through onto this plane at any moment. I wanted to think he colored his narrative that dark on purpose just to have more pizza for himself, but the odds were against it.

"Botello can do that?" I had a hard time believing just one guy could wipe out a world that hadn't yet developed atomic weaponry.

"All he has to do is open the right astral door so the Hell-plane guys - demons to you - come rolling in to do their doomsday gig."

"Why would they want to?"

"Just because."

"But why?"

"It's what they do. If they were nice they wouldn't be in Hell!"

"Good point. And out of this Botello gets a bunch of magic power?"

"Which he can't handle."

"You know that for sure?"

"Pretty much. If his most advanced work has him still relying on props like that junk in the basement, no way could he be remotely ready on a mental or psychic level to handle the real-deal energies that will be slamming around out there. He'll get turned inside out fast, and that's only if he's lucky. If not, he'll get turned inside out slow. Let's open a pool on it. I'll bet fifty it'll be slow and they'll make it go on - oh - for a couple weeks, our time. Any takers?"

Shankey seemed to understand what he was getting at and scowled. Filima looked like she'd tuned out everything. As for me, I was used to the black attitude. And this after all his complaints about the color of the velvet curtains.

"You don't have fifty, in theirs or any other currency," I said.

Terrin shrugged. "When the end comes money ain't gonna help nobody, no how."

"What can we do to stop it?"

"Stop it? Who wants to stop it?"

"I do!"

He grumped. "Mr. Tree-Hugging Goodie-Goodie, of course you would. I'm tired of this incarnation. The Multiverse has been fucking around with me long enough, I'll be glad to kiss this life bye-bye."

"That's fine for you, but the rest of us aren't quite ready to leave yet."

"Hey, it'll be fun to start over. I've done it dozens of times. Nothing like getting burned at the stake or cut in two by cannon fire or - "

"Terrin . . ." The last thing we needed was a recital of his past lives and how they'd ended for him. Things were gruesome enough at the moment.

He laughed and sucked down more pizza.

"Anyway," I continued, "if the Powers That Be put Filima in the cellar with the mallet to delay things, I'm fairly sure it was to allow time for your arrival here so you could fix the problem. As you are so fond of saying, there's no such thing as coincidence."

"Prolly so. Just like them to screw me like that. I swear I might as well drop my pants, hand them a broomstick with a sandpaper condom, and bend over to make it that much easier." He looked up at the shadowy ceiling high above. "You hear me? I know what you're doing, and it ain't funny!"

"On the other hand, I seriously doubt this world is having an apocalypse just to inconvenience you."

"Of course it is. That's how things really work!"

I got a sudden flash of inspiration. "What about Heaven?"

"What about it?"

"Doesn't this world have one? They got a Hell, shouldn't there be a Heaven to balance things?"

"Yeah, they got one of those. I asked around. It's a nice one."

Filima and Shankey nodded agreement on that point, looking hopeful.

"So why don't we call for help from that side?" I asked. "Then we could have hordes of angels pouring in to stop the demons."

He rolled his eyes. "You ever see a real apocalypse? They're ugly, lots of property damage, which includes people. You wouldn't like it, trust me. The idea here is to not let things get that far."

"Okay. Very sensible. Another question."

"Surprise me."

"All right. On one hand we got a bunch of starved demons wanting to vacation in this Reality. Why is it that there aren't a bunch of angels wanting to get in here, too, only instead of eating people they run around being nice to everybody?"

"Because they're in the Heaven-plane."

"So?"

"I'll put it this way: if you had the penthouse suite in Trump Towers rent free, guilt free, tax free forever with everything you always wanted right there and then when you wanted it, would you wanna visit a Third World trash dump to feel even happier?"

"I see your point."

"Exactly. What help we get in this Reality is the angel version of Peace Corps volunteers. They're dedicated types, and point the natives in the best direction, but it's the locals who have to do the work. If the trouble is truly over our heads, then maybe we'll get some kind of divine intervention, but don't expect it. The Powers That Be are a twisted gang with a warped sense of humor."

"Sure explains my life."

"And mine.

"Excuse me?" This from Shankey. "Is there a way to avert the disaster and save the world?"

Terrin slugged back more beer and belched. Yes, the walls did visibly shake. "Uh-huh," he said, then looked at me, smirking again. "But you won't like it."

That was a given. "Okay, what is it? Both barrels, don't spare the buckshot."

"You've no idea."

"We're all agreed on that point. What is it?"

"You go to the astral plane."

Hah? I blanked for a second. "But I don't have a ticket."

"Don't be a fuzzle. Think about it."

Digestion interfered with my cognitive processes. I was full of beer and pizza, having overindulged in the latter, figuring since it was my last meal, I might as well pig out. "I'm sorry, but I misheard. I thought you said I should go to the astral plane."

He tapped his finger on the tip of his nose. Grinning. Boy, did he have a lot of teeth. "Specifically, to Hell."

I was suddenly on overload with outrage and panicked butterflies. Neither combined too well with the beer and pizza. "What are you talking about? Did I hear right? What's going on? Answer the last one first."

"You go there so you can stop Botello."

At this Shankey leaned forward, all attention, and Filima sat up straight, coming alert. "Deal in what way?" he asked.

"Kill him," said Terrin. "What else?"

I choked, on the verge of blanking completely. "Kill a dead man?"

They all stared at me.

Well, someone had to say it. I waved them over to Terrin. "It's his idea! Talk to him!"

"You want to kill Botello?" asked Filima.

"Call it soul-death," said Terrin. "Just take him out of planar existence once and for all. Then he won't be able to reincarnate a generation or three down the line and start trouble all over again. I know his type, he doesn't give up."

"Isn't that kinda harsh?" I asked.

"Harsh? The guy is fucking around with ending this world, planning the deaths of untold millions, is in the process of ripping apart the very veils that keep the Multiverse running smooth and more or less sane, and you think one little soul-death to prevent it all is harsh?"

"I withdraw the question."

Terrin flapped one hand to indicate our surroundings. "You wanna save the world, snuff Botello."

"Great, fine, wonderful. But I heard you say I was going to the astral plane . . . with a side trip to Hell? No way, Jose. That kind of tripping is your department, as you are so fond of reminding me."

"Not this time around."

"Yes, this time around and for all times around! I'm not trained for visiting other planes. You've told me how dangerous it is."

"You'll be safe with me running the tour."

"That's not the issue. Why the hell are you even thinking of sending me?"

"I got my reasons."

"So share!"

He shot me an annoyed look. I flared my lip whiskers right back at him. "Excuse us," he said to Filima and Shankey. "Private conference."

He slipped off his chair and led the way out of the kitchen into a hall, then to another hall. Big place. He finally stopped at a window with a view to the outside. The house and grounds being on a hill, we could see down to some of the city - and the black fog flowing through its streets.

I crossed my arms. "Okay. Give. Why me? You're better equipped for that kind of thing, you float around the planes all the time."

"Yeah, but I don't bother with a physical presence there. To do what needs to be done requires a solid body on - "

"Wait, I thought an astral bod wasn't solid."

"Not on this side, and usually not over there. But for this job the rules have to be different."

This was way out of my league. "Which means you should go, you know all that stuff!"

"Yeah, but I'm needed here. Now shuttup and listen: when I'm playing tourist I don't establish a physical body on the planes. I can only do that when I have an anchor on this side to guide me back. There are no wizards left here powerful enough for the job, so you have to be the one to travel while I act as your anchor. If there was any other way I'd try, but we're on our own. We have to brilliantly improvise."

We he says. Uh-huh. Suuurrre.

He continued. "You'll need a planar equivalent of a physical body there so you can do the work. That's what takes so much energy. I'm going to channel it to you along the anchor line."

"What kind of energy?"

"We don't have time for Wizardry 101. Just trust me to get it right."

"Come on, there's plenty of people more magically inclined than me." I was in some ways magically un-inclined. Terrin said it had to do with my feline side. "What about Filima? Can't she anchor you?"

He shook his head. "It'd be asking her to hold a train in place with a string. And I can't send her; she's too emotionally involved to focus."

"Or Shankey? He's a soldier; he knows weapons. You wanna kill someone, that's his kind of job."

"Shankey doesn't have the magical moxie not to freak at the stuff he'd see."

"And I wouldn't?"

"You're used to special effects. Besides, those two don't trust me enough yet to forge a strong enough psychic link."

"Woo, I'm so surprised. Find someone who does."

He showed his teeth at me again, which wasn't the same as a grin. "I already have."

"Dammit, Terrin . . ." Like it or not, all the traveling we'd done together had established a bond between us. And, like it or not, I trusted him. So far as magic went I trusted him. Really. When it came to equally splitting a pizza that was another matter. "I'm not up to snuff when it comes to magic. My cat and human DNA mix - "

"Makes you ideal for the job."

Hah? Whazzat?

"Lissen," he said. "Cats are aware of magic, but it doesn't affect them in the same way as humans. You'll have a huge immunity to some of the stuff over there. And no one else here - including my otherwise flawless self - has your senses, reflexes, or strength."

He had a point. Though my body was mostly human, the cat in me gave me a hell of an edge, twenty-four/seven. I was so used to it I generally forgot it. "Flattering, if entirely true, but - hey!" Then the really big question popped into my buzzed brain. I'd been too busy making objections to think straight. Terrin's fault. Like any really good wizard he knew all about the art of misdirection.

"Does this require killing me?"

He did a double-take. His face screwed up. He was all over offended. Shocked, even. "Jeez-louise, NO!!"

That was a relief.

"What ever gave you such a fizzy-headed idea?"

"It's been my understanding," I said with much dignity, "that most people have to be dead to go to Hell,"

"Stick with me and I'll widen your horizons."

Well, they were broadening right now. With other possibilities. "Okay, it's time."

"For what?"

"To tell me the real problem. If this was just about Botello and astral travel we could have stayed in the kitchen."

He scowled.

"You forget that I've been hanging with you for way too long. I know how powerful you are and how you work. If bumping off Botello was all there was to the gig then you'd call him up in one of those mirrors, grab him by the family jewels, and drag him into this Reality for some terminal ass-kicking. Tell me I'm wrong."

Terrin glared at me a moment, then broke into another big grin. "You're learning, fur-face."

"So what's the real deal?"

"That is." He pointed at the Hell-river. "Rolling in each night, sucking off every last scrap of magic energy like some kind of psychic vacuum cleaner. It's gotten so its effect continues on a lesser level even during the day. That's what must have begun sapping me out the moment we arrived. I told you there was something wrong with this world. I'm safe behind these walls for just a little while. Soon it's gonna break through the household protections. That's gonna happen whether the demons invade or not."

I nodded. "Okay, I'm clear on that. And killing Botello will stop the river?"

"No, I don't think so."

Hah? Again. "Aw, shit. What's going on there?"

"It seems to be running its own program. Even with Botello soul-dead I'm probably still screwed, but snuffing him has to be done no matter what."

I rested my rump on the windowsill, my sense of reality shifting in a profound way. Terrin seemed to be going suddenly altruistic, was willing to save this world even if it didn't help him, but this wasn't the time to give him a big thumbs-up about it.

"There's no way to help you?" I asked.

He looked at me. His green eyes had turned silver gray, a sign he was truly serious. "With you on the Otherside, I might be able to figure a way to fix things and survive."

"How?"

"I won't know until you get there. Yes, I could yank Botello through to this side and whack him, but stopping the river is something more involved."

"You want me to go to Hell for you?"

" 'Fraid so, fur-face."

I thought it over as best I could given the short time and circumstances. From the first, without even knowing me or my past, he'd taken me in, fed me, given me a job at his magic shop and so on. So what if lately we'd been bouncing all over the Multiverse like a couple of bad checks; it had been lots of fun. He was asking a LOT, but I figured I owed him.

"Okay," I said. "Why not? But how will I get back?"

He gave me a funny look. "Back??"

I blanched under the fur.

He held his hands up. "Kidding!"

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