"Shouldn't we be seeing some demons about now?" Filima asked.
"Let's be glad that we haven't." Cadmus had quite enough on his plate; he didn't care to be dealing with demons just yet, thank you very much.
"But they should be all over the place. If they're not, then where did they go?"
Cadmus was reluctant to voice the idea that Botello had rounded them up and would soon descend in a surprise attack. And for that matter where had Botello taken himself? There wasn't a surfeit of cover around here; a few scraggly, thorny growths that might loosely be described as trees was the limit of the scenery, along with some rocks.
"Party," mumbled Terrin behind him.
"What's that?" asked Velma.
"They gonna party."
"What do you mean?"
"Wha'dya think? Get me to th' dam' river. An' tell Godzilla boy t' stop bumpin' me so much!"
"Cadmus, we have to hurry!"
"Right-oh!" he said, and began to trot.
* * *
"Hey!" I said. "Check it out! My sword and the crystal!" I darted to one side and snagged them from where they lay on the flat blue ground, none the worse for wear, not even scratched.
Anton kept walking. "I'd wondered whose those were," he said. His eyes were still shut. "They skittered toward me in some strong wind that came through. Stopped right at my feet just a few minutes ago."
Minutes? So all that action with the succubae and my long nap had been a time-compressed dream? No way, no way. I had to have been in a space opera-style time warp or pocket or whatever they called those things. It had happened, and I was walking funny to prove it. "Why didn't you pick them up?"
"They weren't mine. Besides, I sensed the sword had some cold iron in it and might not be good for me to handle. Disrupts one's Talent, you know. I'm out of magic now as it is. Crystals are even trickier. Never know what energies are stored in the pesky things. Best to leave them lay until one's been properly introduced."
"Is it going to be a problem for you if I hang on to them?"
"Don't think so; just avoid whacking me with either one and we should get along fine."
I looked over the crystal for any sign of light. It had a normal weight now. "Myhr to Enterprise, come in. Time to beam me up. Terrin? You out there, dude? Hello?" No answering voice popped into my head.
"Wants to be charged up again," said Anton.
"I told Terrin it needed new batteries." I shoved it in a pocket and got a solid grip on the sword. Didn't know what good it'd do me at the moment, but I felt better having it along.
"Terrin's your wizard friend?"
"Yeah. He was anchoring my astral body. The line snapped, and I don't know why. I think Botello might have interrupted the circle."
"Yes, that would explain some of the things I've seen and sensed. Is Terrin a short fellow with white hair?"
Jeez, I was walking with Anton-Wan Kenobi. "Last time I saw. This magic drain did stuff to him, messed him up. You can see him?"
"I've caught a glimpse or two. He's on this Side. Over in the Hell plane."
I snorted. "That's practically his home turf. Probably having a party."
"Don't think so. Cadmus is carrying him."
My guts made a swoop. "He's not dead, is he?"
"No, Filima's talking to him, but he doesn't look at all well."
"She's here, too? Who else?"
Anton shook his head. "Sorry. Just brief pictures of them. But we must move more quickly."
So we picked up the pace. "How is it you can see like that?"
"It's my Gift. Been rather a bother, but turning out to be useful here. In the Reality plane the visions come through clear, but are not always specific in their meanings. The Powers That Be have to limit our Otherside knowledge or it throws off the balance. They sent me some warnings, but no explanations. Best they could do, I fear."
He was sounding like Terrin, but more refined in his language. "You don't go running around the Reality plane like that, do you? With your eyes shut?"
"Oh, certainly not. The rules are a tad different on this side. I've been shown and told some interesting things, not all of them good."
"Hard to explain."
"Can you tell me about the Hell-river?"
"It started with Botello."
"He invented it?"
"Goodness, no, but his magical experiments caused something of a metaphysical earthquake, which brought it flowing into the Reality plane when the veils are thinnest, at night. The Overlords in the Hell plane were naturally upset at first, then saw it as a means to escape."
"Into the Reality plane?"
"Into any plane. You've seen their place - would you want to spend eternity there?"
Good point. "Can't these Powers keep them in?"
"That's what the Hell-river's for, serves as a boundary between the planes. It holds a store of magical energy, which is what confines the demons. They can't use magic themselves, but are very familiar with it, like a horse with a bridle. They're always eager to manipulate people like Botello into serving their ends while pretending themselves to serve. He has ambition, a weakness they exploited, but he has always been a trifle short on imagination. Tends to dismiss the obvious."
"That he just wasn't up to the task. Thought himself special. Stupid bugger. What he's managed to do is botch up the balance. One living being thrown into Hell the wrong way - which is what happened with Botello - is what upset things. It made quite a stir, I can tell you. Brought him no end of attention. The Powers are very specific about protocol. The only way you are supposed to get into Hell is through the proper channels. You have to die, go through a bit of processing with the Powers, and if you're really deserving punishment, off you fly through the Gate."
Who would have thought line-breaking could be taken so seriously? On the other hand, who was that eager to break into Hell? "Why didn't the Powers just get him out?"
"They didn't know he was there. The Inner Overlords were hiding him, hoping he could do something to help them escape using the river. Normally it flows in a circle. Any being who tries to cross it is brought right back again. But suddenly the Hell-river vanished from Hell, an unthinkable disaster, and any unshielded Talents in the Reality plane unfortunate enough to be in its path were sucked in. It has quite a store of magical energy from them. That's upset things, too."
"They all died?"
"Not as such."
"Close enough. Only there were no bodies left behind. The holes made when they vanished just knitted up, memories were adjusted. The Powers had a hand in that, an emergency measure to keep people from a panic. The missing Talents are imprisoned in the Hell-river, and it wants correcting."
"Would that leave the astral plane empty, too?"
"Look for yourself," he said, gesturing at the blue limbo around us. "Bloody boring, isn't it? The Powers shut everything down so they could better spot any demons who might get through."
No wonder those succubae had been so lonely.
"Now the river flows nightly in the Reality plane. So far, beings in the river when it vanishes from Hell are left behind when it shifts course, but that's about to change. Several more living souls have been pulled into Hell - with their bodies - and that has created a link to the Reality plane. Very shortly the Hell-river is going to shift course and be flowing in both directions at once. Then the demons will be able to escape. Well, it's just not the done thing."
"No, of course not," I said faintly.
"So we're going to find Botello, get me back into my proper body, and try to put things right again."
"What about the overlords?" Who and whatever they were. "What about the demons?"
"I'm sure you can take care of them."
It was news to me. "Huh?"
"Your sword - "
"Is borrowed! I'm a lover, not a fighter. I didn't do too well on that side of the Gate. One of those demons nearly got me."
"But you fought it off."
"I gave it a paper cut, but nothing that would stop it. That thing was huge." I anticipated that overlords were even bigger and meaner.
"Like a bulldozer."
"Okay, like a small building. A tall, small building. With arms and teeth."
He smiled. "When it's time I'm sure you'll be up to the task."
"Wish I had your confidence about it."
"Remember where you are. Desire for something can make it occur."
"Really?" News to me.
"Your desires will affect the objects and beings already here, or rather there. When we get to the Gate you'll see. The demons do it all the time, but not for anything pleasant. They're not very smart. Cunning, but not smart."
"Why didn't Terrin tell me that?"
Anton shrugged. "He might not have known. You two aren't from around here are you?"
"You could say that and then some."
"Ah. Likely used to different rules. They change from world to world, you know."
He was spooking me. Seemed to know a lot more than he should. I wanted to find out just how much, but had to focus on the current situation. "How do I do this?"
"Just think of what you want, but it has to be based in this side. You won't materialize a cup of tea, because that's not here."
"Work with what's at hand?"
"Why haven't you done any of that to get out?"
"Because I'm in the wrong body, and escaping is a bit more complex. That's why Botello couldn't escape. Well, here's the Gate. Gird up."
* * *
On the Other Side of the Gate
"Looks like Botello's run afoul of the chaps here," said Cadmus.
Behind the questionable cover of a tree, he and Filima watched some rather tense proceedings going on close to the great Gate. A hair-raising and stomach-churning collection of terrifically ugly creatures - demons - were gathered there, the lot of them focused on the interplay between one of their own and Botello. He was presently engulfed in the grasp of that creature, his legs dangling some ten feet from the ground. He appeared to be doing a lot of fast talking.
"He does seem to be in trouble," agreed Filima.
Terrin, lying on his back next to her and apparently asleep or passed out, offered no comment. They were only yards from the empty riverbed, but the space in between was crowded with demons. To get to it, they would have to backtrack a goodly distance, which was not practical at the moment.
"Hope they don't hurt him. For Lord Anton's sake," she added.
"It doesn't look good. They seem none too pleased. I just wish those buggers would shift themselves." Cadmus nodded toward the ones blocking the way to the gully.
As though reading his mind, the demons began to move closer to the Gate, clearing a path.
"I say, that's luck. Let's go while we can. Keep low and quiet." He hoisted Terrin over his shoulder, and they hurried across the open ground.
* * *
Botello struggled hard to breathe normally, difficult to do while being held so tight. Maybe he should have taken his chances and stayed close to Filima. He'd removed Cadmus as a threat, and the odd-looking short fellow wasn't strong enough to swat flies. Filima might have proved useful as an offering or at least as an indication of Botello's intent to honor his agreement with the overlords.
"I tell you again, I have brought sacrifices to you," he wheezed. "They are back near where you found me."
"The Gate," said the overlord. "Open it."
"I can't without them." There, a flat lie, but it might buy him time to think of something better.
"Then bring back the river."
"Free me. I can't do anything like this."
"You will escape."
"How can I? I don't know how I got free before."
"Lie," stated the demon.
Botello cried out as a blast of heat washed through him. Not the merely uncomfortable warmth of a summer day, but a real fire roasting his every nerve. His cry rose and extended into a prolonged scream until he ran out of air. He twitched and trembled, trying to struggle away from the agony, then it left him as suddenly as it had come. Panting, he saw his flesh was unseared. If that had been an illusion of pain what would it be like if they began torturing him in earnest?
Best not to find out.
"No lies," the demon said. "Open the Gate or bring back the river."
"All right." He was too weary and frightened to think. Just agree and hope to find an opportunity to . . . and there it was.
Staring down past the demon Botello spotted them making their way toward the riverbed. Filima and the others. How had Cadmus recovered from a broken neck? No matter.
He pointed. "I need them. I told you I brought sacrifices."
Almost as one, the demons turned to look.
* * *
"That's torn it," said Cadmus. "Run!" He urged Filima ahead of him. She sprinted like a deer. He strove to keep up and was only a pace behind when she scrabbled down the edge of the bank into the wide, shallow gully.
"Now what?" she asked, still moving.
"Go toward the Gate."
"They'll cut in front of us."
"Then cross to the other side. I don't see any of them there."
"Bad idea," mumbled Terrin unexpectedly.
"Then what do we do?" Cadmus demanded.
"Just put me down and stand back. Something heavy's about to break."
"What's broken?" Cadmus eased Terrin onto the dry red dust, then stood off, fidgeting, wanting to go after Filima.
He sprawled spread-eagled, laughing like a rusty gate. "Just watch."
Cadmus started to object, then speech left him. He stared around in disbelief. Filima gave a sharp gasp of surprise. She scampered back to him and grabbed his arm. That was nice.
Where Terrin's body touched, where their feet touched, thick black fog began to ooze forth from the ground.
"Party time!" crowed Terrin.
* * *
Anton and I crouched under the Gate, peering out at the riverbed. The black fog was coming back, swirling up around Terrin, Cadmus, and Filima. Their body language was eloquent; except for Terrin, who just lay there, they were clearly alarmed. "Is that good or bad?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "Absolutely."
Well, what did I expect from a man with his eyes closed all the time? "So what next?"
"Let's go get my body back." He started forward. I caught him.
"Have you noticed there's a demon convention out there?"
"I believe they'll be rather too busy for the next few minutes. Let's take advantage of it."
He smiled and walked unafraid into the towering crowd. I followed and profoundly wished us both invisible. No way to tell if it worked or not, but the monsters did seem to have their attention focused downriver, even the one who had Botello in its hand. Claw. Whatever.
I kept close to Anton, my sword ready. Maybe my wish was working. None of them looked at us, and we got close to Botello. The demon holding him was growling.
"I told you," said Botello. "Now release me so I can finish the working."
Another growl, but it set him down. The instant he was clear he started toward the Gate.
And what a look he had on his face when he saw us.
Anton smiled. "Hallo, Botello. You have something belonging to me. Be so kind as to return it. No questions asked."
Botello, a big blond guy, briefly showed teeth, then ducked behind a demon. He was still trying to get to the Gate. Anton took off after him, leaving me flat-footed in a forest of demons. A couple of them noticed me, meaning I wasn't invisible after all, but that was it. They and the rest began to file toward the riverbed and its rising fog. The roars and growls shaking the air were anticipatory. They were smacking their chops and making the underworld equivalent of yummy noises.
"Slow up," I whispered aloud, wishing for that to happen. Some of them heard and looked back, but kept going.
Not good, not good. I was supposed to use what was at hand, so what was here? Rocks. Lots of those. Maybe if they formed themselves into a really high wall between the demons and the fog . . .
Chunks of red stone rolled in front of the demons, formed a line, and began stacking up so fast that they seemed to grow. More rocks rained down out of nowhere, locking themselves into place. The wall shot up, ten feet, then twenty, then fifty, blotting out a wide section of the lowering sky.
Ohhhh, man, it was soo coool.
The demons stopped and stared at it, studying the situation. I turned to check on Anton. He and Botello were in a dead heat for the gap under the Gate. Botello made a dive, but came up short. Anton landed on him, and they rolled around trading punches. That must have been pretty weird for them, each hitting his own body. Talk about abusing oneself.
My brilliant wall came tumbling down. Demons weren't just pounding their way through, they seemed to be causing the stones to fly every which way. They must have been doing the wishing thing as well, and were likely a lot better and faster at it, having had more practice. I dropped to avoid some red missiles shooting my way and imagined them slamming back to whoever threw them. The rocks stopped in midair and reversed. No way to see where they hit, but bear-growls of annoyance boomed soon after.
Dust, there was plenty of that lying around. A sandstorm might slow them. The instant I thought it, it roared up, but I overdid things, and was myself caught in the blast. Half-blind, I retreated, staggering to the Gate, which was clear of the mess.
Anton was barely holding his own, his face bloody. Botello had the larger body, and didn't seem to care what kind of damage he inflicted on his former residence. Rubbing grit from my eyes, I waded in to help, which consisted of poking Botello with my sword to get his attention.
He let out with an unhappy yelp, then squinted at me. "What are you?"
"The name's Myhr." He could figure out for himself what it rhymed with; I was too stressed to be friendly. "You gonna swap with Anton or do I have to invent shish-kebab with you?"
He caught the intent, even if the words were confusing, and sneered. "You can't force me out. Not without killing this body."
My guess was he hadn't heard of The Exorcist, and that Anton had an ace up his sleeve. "Okay, you win, on your feet so we can leave." Another jab with the sword point convinced him to cooperate for the moment. Anton got up and twisted Botello's arms behind him.
"You okay?" I asked.
"River," he puffed, breathless through his bloody mask.
My sandstorm was gone. Some joker had made it rain, not the cotton-candy stuff I'd encountered when I first arrived, but a harsh, blatting downpour with drops the size of marbles. They hit about as hard, too, turning the sand into muddy soup. The demons plodded easily through it, like tanks with legs.
Beyond them the Hell-river had swollen considerably.
"Is it flowing in both directions?" I wanted to know.
"Unfortunately, yes." Anton's eyes were open now and on the haunted side. "You need to remove those creatures from our path."
"Just imagine them over there someplace." He made a wave toward the vague distance.
"I can do that?"
"If you visualize it. Hurry!"
So I visualized all the demons a mile away in the middle of a sandstorm, encircled by a wall. Damned if it didn't happen.
Man, if I could do this kind of thing on the Reality plane . . .
"Move!" said Anton.
I shoved my sword into my belt and helped him push the reluctant Botello forward. There wasn't much ground to cover, but the demons would be back quick enough once they'd figured out a thing or three.
The black fog was up to our shins where we entered it. Strangely, Botello stopped struggling, was even eager to go faster. My instincts didn't like that much, but I couldn't think what to do about it. I was a little busy trying to come up with demon-delaying tactics, adding in a good old Texas-style twister to keep them busy. It sure made for one hell of a roar, even in this place.
Cadmus and Filima were in the black stuff up to their waists, and I couldn't see Terrin at all, but where he had last been the fog bounded up like a smoky fountain.
"Lord Anton?" Cadmus called. "I'm terribly sorry about that business after dinner, but - ow!"
Filima had given him a light swat on the arm. "Later!"
"Yes," Anton agreed. "Later. Do come over and lend Myhr a hand, there's a good fellow."
Cadmus lurched toward us, as though wading. "It's gotten rather thick. Very odd."
It didn't feel thick to me. Must have been a magic thing. They all had Talent and were floundering; I was immune. "Where's Terrin?"
"Underneath. Refused to come out. He likes it."
Botello suddenly shook free. He was a big guy and pretty determined. "What?" He rounded on me. "You're not the wizard?"
"Only because there's no money in it."
Boy, did he look pissed. "Where is he? Taking my power?"
"Heads up, Cadmus, megalomaniacal episode coming through."
"Grab him!" Anton yelled.
We grabbed him. Cadmus was full of muscles, and I had a feline edge that made me strong for my size. We each had an arm, but it was even money how long we could hang on. "Now what?"
"Push him under!"
We did that too. Botello didn't fight us, which was alarming. He didn't fight us for the longest time, like maybe a minute, then began thrashing.
"What's going on?" I asked.
Anton had moved off to one side. "The magic's too much for him to absorb."
"We're feeding him magic?" That seemed a remarkably bad idea. So bad that Cadmus and I let Botello struggle to the surface. He wheezed and choked just like it had been water.
"You're drowning him in it," said Anton. "Put him back under."
"But won't that kill your body?"
"It will kill Botello. That's more important than anything else."
"You . . . can't!" Botello objected.
"I must. You're the one who's upset the balance. Better you die than those poor people back on the Reality plane."
"You'll die, too! What you're in is all that's left of me! You'll remain here!"
Anton shrugged. "I'm willing to make that sacrifice to save them. Part and parcel of being an overduke, you know. Kill him."
"But Lord Anton . . ." Cadmus was horrified.
"Just do it, Cadmus. Be quick. I don't want my body to needlessly suffer."
This I didn't like, but I went along with Cadmus and shoved Botello under. Responsibility can be a bitch. He fought us, a last-ditch madman's effort, but was losing momentum.
Terrin surfaced. Literally. He bobbed up from the fog like a submarine, one with a big grin painted on the bow. He looked better. His hair had gone back to its normal red, and the ruddiness had returned to his skin, which had lost a good century or so of wrinkling.
"Hey," I said. "How you doing?"
"I'm cool. Lot of great stuff floating around here. You should try it."
"Check this out." He pointed to his forehead. He had horns. "Ain't they cool? I may keep 'em!"
"Terrin, I'm a little busy here. . . ." The sight of me and Cadmus trying to drown a man in magic fog didn't seem worthy of comment from him.
"And there's a bunch of demons about to do a tsunami on our ass." I'd noticed the roar of my tornado had ceased, replaced by other roars. And I thought they'd been annoyed earlier.
"Anton said if you visualize - "
"Oh, hush, I can fix it."
Since he was back to being his old confident-to-the-point-of-being-snotty self, it was safe to assume he could fix things and put my whole attention on Botello. It was really way past awful holding a man down, waiting for him to die. I'd seen something like it in a Hitchcock movie that had made me squirm. This was real, though, and I was an active participant. Cadmus looked the way I felt, but his gaze was on Anton, not the horror at hand.
Anton swiped blood from his eyes and watched, his face solemn, sad, and so weary it hurt to see. I felt terrible for him, and hoped he could slip back under the Gate when it was over. He shouldn't have to stay in Hell, not after this.
Botello had pretty much spent himself. His desperate bucking subsided to an infrequent, reflexive twitch. Not long now.
Wading over, Anton gave a nod. "That should do it."
We lifted Botello clear of the fog. He drooped like a dead man, and seemed heavier than he should be. We dragged him to the riverbank and laid him out.
Anton came forward and took Botello by one hand. Nothing happened for a moment, then I glimpsed a faint rippling between them.
"What was that?"
No answer. Anton's eyes rolled up, and he keeled over like he'd been shot. Cadmus caught him and hauled him over next to Botello. Filima cautiously approached, not eager to get close to either of them, but staring hard.
"I think he's done it," she said. "The auras have changed. Can you tell?"
Cadmus and I both tried. I wasn't sure what was there, but some kind of swap had taken place between them. He shook Botello. "My Lord Anton? Are you there?"
He got a groan in response. The man's blue eyes fluttered open, and he looked around, puzzled. He raised one arm, studied it, than let it drop. "Blind as a bat again. Thank gawds."
"Yes, I'm here. I managed to get back. I think." With a small spurt of energy, he sat up, undid his trousers, and looked inside. He gave a great sigh of relief. "Thanks gawds," he said, with much more fervor, then noticed Filima gaping at him. "Please pretend you didn't see that, thank you." He did himself up again, and with Cadmus helping, found his feet.
"Are you all right, Lord Anton?" Cadmus sure liked saying that name.
"As well as can be expected. Would you mind very much removing him completely from the river? There's a good fellow." He slogged up the bank himself while Cadmus and I hauled what was left of Botello clear.
"He's not dead," I told them.
Anton wasn't surprised. "There's no death in Hell. I rather hoped he might not know that. However, it's time we left. None if us belong here, even your friend."
Terrin was farther up the bank. He turned toward us once, flashing one of his shit-eating grins.
Uh-oh. What's going on?
I joined him. So did the others.
"Wha'd'ya think?" He gestured proudly at the expanse of Hell within our view. Gone was my high wall, sandstorm, tornado, the works. In place of the dark red dust and rock was a vast, unbroken plain of white, right out of Antarctica. It was dim and dreary, but unmistakable. Silent, sober, and still. Every single one of the demons was frozen solid in place, in mid-move. Ice and snow covered them completely, their growls caught solid in their throats.
"Cooo-oool," I said, meaning its every sense. My breath hung in the shivery air.
Terrin smirked and snickered. "I've always wanted to do that!"
"I say," said Cadmus, "that's rippingly original. Who would have thought it?"
He was serious, too.
"It won't last." I pointed to one of the bigger demons, who was beginning to crack free of his subzero prison. "Anton, If you've got a way outta here I suggest we take it."
He smiled. It came off better with him looking out behind his face instead of Botello. "Might be a bit tricky but I think we can manage with your help."
My help? What was I supposed to do?
"Just hold still. Everyone form a circle around Myhr, one hand on the shoulder next to you, the other on him."
What was this, a square dance or a really kinky variation of my time with the succubae? They did as Anton instructed.
"Now everyone visualize being back on the Reality plane again. Four went out, four will return."
What about me? Had I turned into chopped liver and not noticed?
Nothing happened while the four of them focused, which was worry-making. A few more of the demons struggled free of their ice and were lumbering our way. I made more ice appear under their feet. They slipped and fell on their asses, but recovered quick. Still seated, they started sliding toward us: screaming, out-of-control, toothy bobsleds.
"You guys think harder, okay?" I said. "And snap it up."
"Chill, Myhr," said Terrin. He sounded tense.
I glimpsed a last vision of the demons on a juggernaut path straight toward us and braced for a killing impact . . . then something happened. It wasn't too much different from Terrin's travel spell; maybe he even put a chunk of that energy into Anton's mojo. The ground seemed to drop away, sending me plummeting, yet not feeling the gravity. It was like falling up. Their faces whisked around me in a top-speed blur, made me dizzy, so I shut my eyes.
The next bad thing was my sudden weight-gain. I felt like I'd put on tons of lead. It turned the falling up into a real fall, switching too fast for me to work into a real panic. Before I got even halfway through the process I landed - whump.
My breath was knocked so far out I thought I'd never get it back. This wasn't a struggle, but a major war to get air inside. It didn't help that there was something heavy on my face. I wrestled it off, my eyes bulging, mouth open.
Standing over me, their faces stricken, were Shankey, Debreban, and Velma. They held hands as though playing an overgrown ring-around-the-rosie game.
Shankey spoke first, looking at Velma. "Is that supposed to happen?"
She shrugged. "I dunno. I've never done a seance before." She peered hard at me. "Are you dead or what?"
"Uhhh," I gasped. Then wheezed. Then coughed. Then lay flat, resting until my lungs got used to the idea of going back to work again. The leaden feeling gradually passed; I was able to sort myself out. I was in the blue room, on the floor, swathed in black velvet. This was considerably better than the last place.
"Where are the others?" asked Velma. "Are they alive?"
"Uhhh." I tried to make it sound positive.
But her answer came whirling in on its own. They all ducked and shielded against a prolonged gust of wind tearing through the room from nowhere. The velvet whipped from me, and made a complete circuit before wrapping around a pillar like a flag, its ends snapping.
Then the bound-from-Hell express dumped them, one-by-one, in various undignified heaps: Filima, Cadmus, Anton. Terrin, more used to that kind of travel, landed on his feet.
It looked like everyone would be awhile sorting themselves out and playing catch-up. Velma, once she ascertained that Anton was back to himself again, got real happy and affectionate. Cadmus swept Filima up in a really good face-hugger kiss - when did that happen? - and she didn't fight him on it. I chose to avoid the whole Q and A session, trudging to the windows for more air. Man, I was tired. Terrin came over and plopped down next to me.
"Check it out," he said, gesturing at the view. "The fog's gone."
"It better be," I muttered, not bothering to turn around. "I'm not going through that again."
He felt his forehead. The horns were still there.
"Rad souvenir," I said. "Keeping them?"
"Be hard wearing a hat."
He blew that off with a snort. "How much you think we'll get for this one?"
"For saving the world? A lot. A couple of really big diamonds, at least."
"Rubies are better."
"Whatever, so long as it gets us home or to a place with an astral map, indoor plumbing and decent toilet paper. I assume we helped save the world. Is the astral plane back to normal? Magic energy restored?"
"Yeah, sure. No probs there. The balances are recovering themselves."
"What about all those magicians and the rest who vanished?"
He closed his eyes, humming to himself, but without making any noise. "They've all returned where they belong. Metaphysically, this world's the way it should be. Even Botello."
"You got news on him?"
"Absorbed a flash on the trip out. He's no longer on the event horizon."
"Still in Hell?"
"Naw. He was sucked out feetfirst in another direction. I figure he's got some explaining to do to the Powers That Be. Glad I'm not him, they'll prolly send him back as a dung beetle."
A humongous thunderclap exploded right over the house, making it shake under us. That interrupted conversation for a minute. The others drifted over to the window as the sky opened up. Veils of water poured down on Rumpock. That would fix the fire. I started to ask Terrin if he'd done a magical good deed, but he was on his way out, stretching mightily.
"Later," he called, not looking to see if we noticed his departure.
That rat. He left me stuck in the middle of a rush of hero-worship from all sides. I wanted a nap.
* * *
I eventually got it, sometime well after dawn.
Overduke Anton had to leave to take care of the business with the fire and to make a start on restoration. Velma went with him to help out, and eventually Cadmus and Filima joined them. Shankey and Debreban hung with me, and we had an early breakfast in the kitchen. Shankey's girlfriend, the cook, turned out to be an easy-on-the-eye surprise. We scarfed cold pizza while she got the fires going for the morning meal, and I told them some of the stuff I'd seen on the Otherside.
A messenger in black-and-silver livery turned up with a note from Anton. He was also looking for the ducal guardsmen Botello had used, but they weren't to be found. We all kept quiet until the guy left. Shankey read the note.
The fire damage was bad, but not too catastrophic. They lost the bell tower and an inn got scorched up pretty bad, nothing that couldn't be patched over in time for the Mid-Summer Festival. Terrin and I were cordially invited to be special guests of honor at that event and in the meantime were welcome to enjoy the overduke's hospitality at his palace. A formal note would follow.
I had a bad feeling that smoked inn might have been Clem's Place. If so, then I'd see about doing him a few benefit concerts, then slip him the recipe for pizza so he could have the first franchise.
But later. Wining and dining could wait.
I convinced Shankey and Debreban of the necessity of my beauty sleep and went upstairs. The big empty bed in my room looked like paradise. It felt even better. I shucked out of my clothes and dropped face-first into the pillows, so out of it I didn't care if I ever came back.
But no rest for the wicked.
Snuggling into the sheets with lip-smacking delight, I was on the edge of drifting off. Thought I had drifted off. But I became aware of another presence close by. I caught no sense of danger from it. Quite the contrary.
After a little fuzzy reflection, I concluded I really was asleep, but dreaming. Dreams take you to all kinds of places, especially on the astral plane if you're so inclined. I'd never been there before that I could recall, but you can't go to Hell and back without having to endure a few major psychic changes.
I cracked open an astral eyeball. Reclining next to me on the bed was a succubus. She lapped her long tongue on my nose, tickling it. Her tail ran slowly up one of my legs. She had the biggest grin.
"Well, hi there, you sweetie-tweetie-piddie pie! How's my favorite virgin this fine day?"
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