Chapter Seventeen

In a Street Near Darmo House

Botello's horse, commandeered from one of Anton's guard, wasn't as restive as that white monster belonging to Cadmus, nor as pliant as the one stolen by the Burkus House lackey, but somewhere in between. The animal was none too happy having him on its back, but not to the point of bucking, just balky and restive, ears flat, snorting and stamping all the way. Botello considered slapping a tranquility spell on it, but decided to save his power. Throwing fire had taken a bit out of him. Better to save himself for facing his dear, soon-to-be-departed wife.

Besides, Filima would have a quantity of useful magical energy with which he could restore himself. Not a lot, but fresh, better than the thin scraps flowing around him in the Hell-river. First he would drain her, then strangle her. Then he could go down to his Black Room and try to salvage his experiment.

Perhaps he should hold off the strangling, though. In dealing with the Otherside powers it was a good idea to bring an offering. So what if she wasn't a virgin? Her soul was innocent enough to make a meal for them. They relished innocence since there was none in Hell. The supply of souls they got was only the worst leavings sent there by the Powers. No wonder the demons were anxious to feast on living beings on this side. . . .

The horse stubbornly tried to turn back, forcing him to wheel it around. Bloody beast, he should offer it to them as well.

The move left him confused on his direction. Damn Anton's worthless eyes. Botello squinted, trying to fix on anything familiar in the dim blurs that made up his faulty vision. He spied a vague, flickering light. That would be the fire by the bell tower. It must be spreading. Bells were ringing all over Rumpock; people were emerging from their houses, muttering sleepy, uneasy questions. A few recognized him or rather who he seemed to be.

"Lord Anton! What is the matter?" asked one man holding a lantern.

"Nothing, which way is Darmo House?"

The man hesitated. Probably with his mouth hanging open.

"Answer me!" He pulled hard on the reins to keep the nervous horse in hand.

Several pointed. "Is there a fire? What are those bells about?"

He left them no reply, but dug in his heels and held onto the saddle pommel to keep from falling off. Damned animal must have caught a whiff of the smoke. Now it was only too glad to move along.

Botello thought he knew where he was now. Any street going in this direction would open onto the lane that ran around the whole of his property. Once inside he could find his way easily enough.

He made it to the lane and slowed his mount, peering anxiously for a break in the high wall. It was hard to tell if the amorphous blot ahead was a gate or a change in brick color. He decided it was a gate, flanked by two oddly shaped black columns. He had no such decor outside his wall. Had Filima changed things? Throwing his money around, was she? The columns came to attention as he approached, startling him.

"Lord Anton, sir!" said one of them, probably snapping a smart salute.

He quickly recovered. "Report."

"All is quiet, my lord."

"One of you hold this damned beast for me."

A guard, no longer a column, darted forward to take the horse's bridle. It calmed down for him. Botello dismounted and went toward the gate. Yes, this was the small one leading to the stables and gardens. Normally the overduke would go through the main entry, but Botello had no time for protocol. It would shortly become a useless concept, anyway. He felt inside the metal work for a hidden catch under the lock and swung it open.

"Do you wish escort, my lord?"

"No, I can manage."

Now . . . should he go through the secret tunnel by way of the stables or just take a side door into the house? He opted for the quickness of the latter. Filima would be surprised either way. First by the overduke's appearance in the house, then by his true identity when he revealed it to her. What a look she would have on her face; he'd have to be sure to stand close enough to see each nuance of her horrified realization.

Unless Cadmus or his man had gotten here ahead of him and alerted them all. There were other gates, other means inside.

But the house was dark, no sign of disturbance that he could see - which was very damned little with these eyes. No matter. He could deal with any trouble now, while in this skin. How satisfying it was to be in control of everything. And it would only get better and better.

* * *

The Main Gates of Darmo House

"Shankey?"

"Yeah, Debreban?"

"Does it look like the fire is spreading?" Debreban peered down the long hill to a distant, evil glow in the middle of Rumpock.

"Sure does."

"Lots of smoke."

"Sure is. Not your fault, though."

Debreban appreciated the sentiment. "Maybe we could yell and send people from here over to help fight it."

"I think they're already on their way. The bells and the Watch are doing their job of waking the city. We have to stay here and do ours until Lord Botello arrives."

Debreban grunted agreement, but it was hard to stand by and do nothing. He hated waiting. "Shankey . . . ?"

"I'm still here, Debreban," came the patient reply.

"What if Lord Botello doesn't come in by the front way?"

* * *

In Hell

The crystal flickered in my hand like a loose lightbulb. "Did you see that?"

Yeah, said Terrin. Keep swinging until it steadies out.

I waved it around, turning. "No dice. Maybe it needs fresh batteries."

There's too much psychic interference for it to fix on Anton.

"Where's it coming from?"

You don't wanna know. You guys really have to focus on him so I can cut through it.

By that I understood he was speaking to the others in his circle. Was he in their heads, too? Were they in mine? Yeeps.

Picture him clear in your mind like he was standing in front of you. Remember he looks like Botello, but Anton's inside the skin. Hold it steady.

The quartz glowed, but went out again. I moved forward. The closer I got to Anton the brighter it would get. Presumably. It had been hit or miss since my arrival, with me switching directions every few yards or so. The vivid red monotony of the landscape was getting to my overstressed brain in a big way, disorienting perception. The land, or whatever it was on this Side, seemed to slowly breathe. Hopefully it was only an illusion; I didn't need a bout of seasickness just now.

I began to hear another noise besides the bitter, chimelike laughter and Terrin's mental chat. Bits of low sound, almost a voice, but not quite, floated to me on the burned-sugar air, like a basso-fortissimo bear with a bad stomach. Sometimes it was close and loud, very cranky. My ears were twitching all over the place; my legs moved faster. Cat instinct was trying hard to cut in and take over; I couldn't stop if I wanted so I didn't. Strange thing, though, I wasn't tired or running out of breath. Astral bodies were tough, apparently. That or they had other kinds of weaknesses.

"I think I'm going in a circle, Terrin. That rock looks familiar."

Rock? Oh, yeah, rock. Yeah, that's a rock. Nothing else at all. Don't touch it, okay? You're right, we've been here before. I'm gonna have to crank up the volume. Brace yourself.

Pausing, I braced, knowing better than to ask him what for and rode out the next shifting, shimmering wave of change.

Things got darker and smellier, being too much like the burglar alarm in Botello's tunnel. I'd need a week-long bath to get rid of the stink. If I ever got back.

Then I saw them.

Shadowy beings loomed out of the murk, huge hulking things with pointy teeth and glowing eyes and scales and attitudes. I was completely unprepared to deal with their immensity and ugliness. It wasn't just the surface fear of a bad surprise, this one went down to my toes and back again. All the cat in me, all the human in me froze, trapped in place by an abject primal panic so intense it hurt. My heart thumped a few times, crawled into my throat, flipped over, and stopped. I remained standing, but swayed.

"Are those demons?" I whispered, hardly able to hear myself.

Yuppers. Take it easy. I don't think they'll notice you unless you make a fuss. They're not too smart.

Neither are bulldozers, but they can still do damage. These things were about the same size.

"Terrin . . ."

Chill out, buddy. I mean it! Chill! I won't say it's okay, but you have to focus if you wanna leave. Try to get that damn crystal to work.

I felt like the proverbial cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Maybe I didn't have a tail, but a feeling of hideous vulnerability was all over me like a cheap suit.

The quartz began to glow very faintly when I swung it in a direction off to my left. It wasn't so much a swing as uncontrollable trembling.

Great! Follow it, Myhr!

Anything to get out of this place. It was ground zero for everything I hated most and a few I'd never thought about. The demons remained ghostly to me, and I could only hope I appeared the same to them. They seemed too busy with various activities to pay any attention. Those activities - I did not look closely - involved inflicting a wide variety of tortures on writhing forms and figures. Some of those looked human; others were too twisted out of shape to tell. What had once been hard laughter had become screams. The bear noises were from the demons. This was more like the Alien set Terrin had mentioned, only in comparison the alien was cute and cuddly. This was H.R. Giger on acid having a really bad trip.

I held tight to the sword and the crystal and let my feet do their stuff. The movement got my heart going again, but it was still jammed in my throat. I had to swallow a lot to be able to talk. "Terrin? The quartz is getting heavier. Not much glow, but it's putting on weight."

He made approving sounds. You're getting closer. Hurry!

Did that. The demons got louder and more solid-looking. One of them paused in its activity and looked right at me, glowing eyes going narrow with awareness. Oh, shit. I sprinted, hoping for concealment, and instead found a lot more like him beginning to perceive my presence.

"My cover's blown. Can you put me back in the candy hell?"

No.

No time to ask why not; I kept going. The crystal put on a few more pounds. Then I had to stop. Cutting through the otherwise flat landscape was a wide, deep gully, right across my path. It was steep-sided here, nothing I couldn't handle, but if I went down into it the demons would really notice me in its uncluttered emptiness.

On the other hand, maybe there was a good reason why it was so bare. If natives avoided a place it was usually because something nasty was already in residence. It had to be monumentally awful to scare off a bunch like this. I gingerly worked my way along the edge.

What are you doing?

I explained my reasons; Terrin subsided. For a moment.

Y'know? It looks like a dry riverbed.

"For the Hell-river?"

What are the odds?

In this place, considerably better than me winning a lottery jackpot. I followed the bank until a wall emerged out of the dark red murk. A really big wall, twice the size of the one they used to keep King Kong in his yard. The gully ran right under a massive-beyond-massive Gate. I couldn't see what lay past it.

"I think I have to go there. Will it be safe?"

How the hell should I know?

"I thought you'd been here before!"

Yeah, but not this spot. I party in better areas. You're in the slums.

Slums? Hell had slums? It made a creepy kind of sense.

"You. Come here." A deep, guttural, slow-motion, bearlike voice, not friendly, and much too close.

Oi vey, it was a demon. More teeth than Bruce the shark and his whole family of sequels. Solid. Hungry-looking. Looking right at me.

"Come here," it roared, making the air vibrate.

Yeah, right. I scampered into the gully and ran flat out toward the gap under the Gate.

This got lots of attention. Dozens of demons hulked over to line the banks, pointing, shouting up a major earthquake.

It's okay! They won't touch you so long as you have the sword!

"Do they know that?!?"

Terrin didn't reply right away; I ran faster. The gap yawned, but wasn't as tall as I'd thought. I'd have to duck to get under it. No problem.

"Noot alllooowed," said the demon, slow-motion pissed. It began to lumber down into the gully. Maybe it couldn't run, but being able to cover ground in sweeping five-yard strides it had enough speed to match my efforts. So this was how Jack felt when he was up the beanstalk loping through marathons.

After the one glimpse, there was no need to look back; I could hear the demon catching up. The ground rippled with each step it took. Red gravel shook from the sides of the gully like stony rain.

Boom. BOOM. BOOM.

Like it was home plate, I made a headfirst dive and slide under the Gate into the gray oblivion, slamming onto what felt like firm earth. Scrambling blindly forward, I sensed a low, confined space. The demon, yelling, was right on top of me. I rolled farther to escape its reach and lashed out with the sword. It connected, scraping against a giving surface. The next sound - which I assumed was the demon screaming - made nails on a chalkboard seem sweet as Mozart. Man, that cold iron stuff really did the job. When I pulled the blade back it had some green goo on it that smoked like burning rubber and smelled even worse.

The din and the monster retreated, but I wasn't going to wait to see if some of his friends might be brave enough to follow. I lurched to my feet . . . and abruptly cracked my skull against something hard. Light flashed behind my eyes, and my legs forgot how to take my weight. They slithered right out from under me. I pitched forward.

Hold on to the damn sword! Terrin yelled.

Sword? I had a sword?

* * *

Darmo House

Botello looked about his fine home with a mixture of smug contempt and frustration. The latter was the result of the overduke's rotten vision. Botello kept bumping into things in what should have been familiar territory. Had that bitch been moving the furniture around? His world was blurred beyond patience; he kept rubbing his eyes, trying to clear away the obscuring film.

What little he could see in the deep shadows was so dull, so utterly, pathetically, mundane compared to the wonders and horrors he'd recently observed. It was a symbol for the whole of this bloody boring Reality. How could he have thought to return when there were so many other places to manifest? He'd lived his life on a flat plain and almost too late discovered the addictive enchantment of mountains and valleys. Two weeks in Hell could indeed change a man's outlook on everything, especially when that man was the only one to ever escape the place. He'd fooled them all: demons, Outer Guardians, overlords, and Powers, and gotten away with it.

Just a little cleaning away of old business here and he could leave forever. A thousand times a thousand planes and more were out there waiting for him to find them. Of course to get to them he needed magical power, more than this world could provide, but that would come when he finished manipulating the river.

The truly laughable part was how Anton and Cadmus had helped him. Tucked away in their minds had been the keys Botello needed to open the Otherside Gate. Their researches in this Reality to solve their little Hell-river problem had plucked up arcane details he'd overlooked before in his own studies. Neither man had the whole, nor would they have known what to do with it. But when he'd passed through their minds the separate and well-scattered pieces jumped out as sweet, bright flashes of insight. It seemed so brilliantly simple to him now.

He cracked a shin on a low table. What was it doing here instead of in the side hall? Bloody woman. Probably asleep in their room. Serve her right if he strangled her in what had been their bed, but no, he'd decided she would be more useful elsewhere. It would be just as unpleasant for her, and this time with no cold iron mallet in hand to spoil things. When had she gone so bloody stupid on him? No matter, he'd be shed of her very shortly.

He crept to the top of the grand stairs, blinking a lot, trying to get his eyes to adjust to the additional darkness of the upper hall. They refused to do so; he moved close to her door to see if any light showed through the keyhole. Nothing.

He eased it open and went in, fuming mightily when he found she wasn't in bed. Not even slept in it. Where had she taken herself at this hour? Certainly not out of the house or some drowsy servant would be up and wandering about waiting for her return, candles lighted to welcome her back. Was she with that idiot Cadmus? But he couldn't have arrived here yet or the whole place would be stirred up.

Perhaps she was huddled away in her so-called Black Room.

A poor imitation to his own chamber; she'd gone there often enough on sleepless nights, looking for clues to her tiny little future. She could have been helping him instead, working on something truly important. Had she been more open-minded about acquiring knowledge he'd have welcomed her in, but she was as terrified as the rest when it came to uncovering hidden truths. Bloody fools. Didn't they know that the best diamonds were always in the deepest, darkest, most dangerous mines?

He crept along the hall toward the blue doors with the gold trim.

* * *

Outside Darmo House

Shankey considered Debreban's question. The man had talent for guard work. It was an obvious detail that needed to be checked. "You got something there. I'll watch this gate, you make a quick rounding of the house. We may have to wait inside in order to nab him."

"Won't he be suspicious to find the front deserted?"

"He's gonna be that way no matter what. Give a yell if you see anything."

Debreban nodded and took off.

* * *

Just Inside the Great Gate

Oh, what a bummer. My head hurt so bad I couldn't hear myself, much less Terrin, who was wanting to know what was going on. I wondered if he'd felt the knock. It was my own fault, which made the pain worse. If I hadn't stood up so fast . . .

Growl, snarl, screech, and other similar noises expressing major annoyance began to rise and cluster behind me. I'd pissed off those demons in a big way. Had to put some distance between us. Maybe I'd lose them in the gray fog, unless I got lost myself.

"Terrin?"

Right here. He didn't sound so good.

"You okay?"

Never mind, check that crystal. You still got it, you got the sword?

"Yes and yes. Oh, my head."

I know. Don't do that again.

I was on his side for that. "The crystal's heavy as a bowling ball."

Go with it. See where you are.

"Can't. Foggy. Is this place safe?"

Just get moving. I'm losing it here.

So I got moving. Hard to judge how fast; I could have been on a cosmic treadmill going no place. The demon noises slowly faded. Maybe. All I was certain of was the quartz putting on more pounds. I could barely hold it in front of me. As least the pain in my head subsided as I walked.

The gray had no texture or smell to it, a bona fide limbo, with me the only real thing inside. Except I wasn't real, just a projection. I hoped my body back in the circle was doing okay. Probably better than Terrin. He'd sounded awful.

Faster, move faster. I used the sword like a cane, tapping ahead of my feet to make sure the ground was still there for them to land on.

Then . . . steps. Going down. In Hell, was that necessarily a good thing? But the quartz flickered once, so I went with it. If it got any heavier I'd need a truck to haul it around.

The fog began to unexpectedly break up, less limbo and more cloudlike, taking on a pale blue cast. There was a harsh, brassy quality to it, like a too-hot summer day, and it was getting warmer. The lower I went the more the clouds retreated. The steps ended. I was on a flat, spongy surface, visibility bounded within a slow-churning sphere of blue about ten feet in diameter.

"Am I still in Hell?"

Yes, Terrin said wearily.

"But where?"

He made no reply. I went with the quartz for a few yards, the limits of my vision traveling with me.

"Anyone here? Overduke Anton? Hello?"

"Well, hi there, big boy!"

I about jumped out of my skin, which is saying a lot after what I'd just been through. Whirling in a circle with the sword up, I tried to get a fix on the voice, which was bright, friendly in tone, and decidedly feminine. I didn't want to trust it, not in this place.

"I'm over here!" she called.

My ears swiveled, and I wheeled that way. A portion of the light blue clouds changed color, shifting to yellow, then red, then orange. The orange deepened and intensified. It took on form, a female shape, about my height. She finally coalesced and solidified into what appeared to be a major, major babe, with a curvy rounded figure right out of a Mickey Spillane novel. She had glowing fluorescent orange skin, and royal blue hair, lipstick, and nails. I could get used to that. I was less sure of the blue horns and her blue forked tongue, which she was using to lick her delicate blue eyebrows. She wore six-inch blue high heels, a big smile, and nothing else.

Eeek. Yikes. I recognized her. She was one of those cartoon lesbian demon babes from Terrin's T-shirt, come to life.

"Ooo-ooo!" she said, looking at me like she just finished a month-long fast and I was made of chocolate. "You're cuu-uute!"

* * *

Darmo House, Outside the Blue Room

Botello felt the magical energy radiating from behind the closed door of the blue room like midday heat. It was the best he'd tasted since draining both Anton and Cadmus, but much stronger. What was going on?

Then he remembered the power of the wizard he'd sensed earlier. Filima must have brought him in, somehow. What were they up to in there?

Nothing good for me, he thought, softly opening the door.

A wall of sweet-smelling incense rolled out to greet him. He fought to suppress the urge to gag, waving futilely at the haze. Why wasn't she using the usual mixture he'd made up for her? The stuff that gave her headaches, that kept her scrying sessions short, kept her from learning too much. Someone was interfering.

Faint light came from a single black candle, fragile symbol of protection. A delicious wash of energy, both magic and psychic, was blended with the incense smoke. He took care not to feed from it just yet, lest he alarm anyone to his intrusion before he'd found out everything.

Treading lightly, Botello entered the room, hand on his belt knife. He'd have preferred a sword, but couldn't manage it and ride a horse. No matter. He drew no attention from the people within and was able to get quite close so even Anton's faulty eyes could see.

The black velvet pavilion was down. She had been busy.

Four, no, five of them, counting the one lying on the floor in the middle of a power circle. The others were seated at the compass points around . . . gawds, that was not a man. Not with those bizarre features. Cadmus had mentioned a man with a cat's face, and Botello had glimpsed something of it the first time he'd tried to manifest. He'd thought the veils between the planes had distorted the size of an ordinary cat and had dismissed it as such. Perhaps this creature was the wizard, but why put on so fantastical a form?

The others - Cadmus and Velma were in their number. How had she gotten caught up in this? At least it explained how Cadmus had escaped. They'd slipped past the ducal hunting parties and probably babbled everything to Filima . . . who was right over there, his dear, dear, darling, wife Filima, along with a short, red-haired stranger in odd clothes. They all seemed to be in some form of light trance. Each held a clear crystal, eyes closed, heads held high, their breathing deep and measured. He could see the psychic link flowing between their auras, thin, but strong enough for their purpose, whatever that might be. It swirled thickest above the cat-man on the floor who also held a quartz crystal and a sword.

So that was it. The wizard was on an astral outing. Looking for the lost Anton, no doubt.

Well, we can't allow that to continue.

Drawing his knife, Botello glided purposefully toward the wizard.

* * *

Darmo House, the Main Hall

Sword in hand, Debreban tread very lightly indeed, head cocked and ears straining for the least little sound. After finding a side door to the house left hanging open, his every instinct told him that Botello had slipped in. No time to call to Shankey for help; it might already be too late.

Debreban knew that the others were doing something magical and important to try to get the overduke back from Hell, but were they in the chamber in the tunnel or up in her ladyship's special blue room?

A strong smell of incense caught his attention. The chamber was too far away for anything like that to travel to the house. The special room, then.

He dashed up the stairs two and three at a time, moving soft and swift as a hunter. It was just possible, even in his sturdy boots. He had to worry about creaking floors, though. And anyone sneaking up on him. He edged along a wall to keep his back covered.

The door to the blue room was also wide open. Threads of incense smoke drifted out. He held his breath and peered inside.

Dark, except for one candle burning and a bit of light from the tall, narrow windows. He could make out four seated forms and a fifth figure lying on the floor. It was Myhr, apparently asleep. Looming over him was a tall, ominously familiar shape. Botello in the overduke's body. His back was to the door. None of the others seemed aware of him. None made a single move as he stooped over Myhr, a wicked, long knife in his hand raised to strike.

Debreban ran through his limited choices as he darted forward. He couldn't take Botello out by sword without killing the overduke, but he could crack him a good one from behind. With a lightning-quick shift, Debreban flipped his blade point-downward and slammed the hilt hard against Botello's skull.

Oh, yes, that made a very satisfying whack.

He'd been too gentle, though. Instead of falling, Botello staggered away with a pain-filled grunt. He tripped over Myhr's body and went sprawling. Debreban started after him, then froze as an uncanny wailing noise suddenly shot up from the chalk circle at his feet.

Magic. He did not trust the stuff, had little faith in those who claimed to be able to control it. One might as well try to control the weather; it was just too great a power, and now it seemed to be in protest of whatever they were doing here.

The wailing rose high, filling the room. The thick incense smoke was caught and swirled around by a hot, sulfurous wind that swept in from nowhere. It plucked at his clothes, made him retreat.

Lord Cadmus suddenly opened his eyes. He stared down at Botello, then at Debreban, lips parting for speech. His voice was lost in the otherworld uproar. Filima and Velma also woke up; only Terrin the wizard and Myhr remained as they were.

Botello pushed himself upright, turning. He squinted at Debreban, rage flooding his features.

Fearing another blast of fire more than the magic of the circle, Debreban charged forward. He leaped over Myhr, throwing himself bodily onto Botello, tackling him. For a few breathless moments they rolled wildly around the floor, cursing and punching. Debreban tried to get hold of the knife, at the same time bashing away with his hilt. Neither ploy worked, but it kept Botello from hurting anyone else.

The wind strengthened to gale force, howling around the circle like a confined beast. Debreban felt it seize hold of him like a giant, threatening to lift him up. It tugged at his legs, trying to pull him in. He kicked from its grasp. Still hanging on to Botello's knife hand, he tucked his head and tumbled forward. It was an awkward somersault; he landed on his side, but was clear of the wind.

Botello yelled agony for his sharply twisted arm, but still had fight in him. He brought his other hand up to take the knife, and lashed out. Debreban let go and rolled clear, blocking the thrust with the flat of his sword more by luck than skill. Botello made another swipe, but it fell short. He was being dragged into the circle by the wind.

Cadmus was on his feet now, unsteady, trying to brace against the storm force while making a grab for the knife himself. He managed to fall onto Botello, apparently landing hard, slowing him. He pinned Botello's arms and shouted. Debreban couldn't make out the words, but understood the intent. He reached into the flow and clubbed Botello's knife hand with the sword hilt. The knife fell free and went skittering over the floor. Debreban tried to grasp Botello's arms and drag him out, but the whirling force was too great; it would suck him in now.

Filima and Velma, their hair streaming, cried out as they were boosted right from their chairs. Cadmus quit Botello and stood to go to them, but was carried upward as well. They spun helplessly, three reluctant birds caught in a Hell-storm.

Debreban looked around, frantic for a rope to throw to them and spotted the discarded pile of black velvet draping. There had to be something in that mess he could use. He scrabbled over, digging quickly. No cording, but the velvet itself might work. There were yards of it in yard-wide strips. He pulled a long piece clear of the tangle and knotted an end around one of the room's support pillars. The length extended to the circle, but only just.

He wrapped the other end around his left arm. The windstorm had taken on a funnel shape, the widest part on the floor. In the brief time he'd looked away, it had swept Botello and Terrin up into its chaos. Myhr still lay oblivious on the floor. Debreban clutched hard on the velvet and leaned in.

It was like putting his arm in a vast fall of water. The wind was as solid as that, just as strong. He held on for his own dear life, but reached out, hoping to catch someone, anyone.

His hand closed around a limb, an arm, no time to see whose; he hauled for all he was worth to pull them both out of the maelstrom. He was weighed down for an awful yawning instant, then suddenly light. Velma came sailing clear. She landed hard, rolling into the remaining pile of velvet.

He couldn't tell if she was alive, too busy. He dipped into the current again, but this time it was so fast he was bounced back out like a stone skipping over a lake. He tried once more. Failed.

The small top of the funnel was lowering, and something had changed about its base. Instead of a blue mosaic floor there was a deep, dark opening with a red glow far down in its center. The sulfur stench overcame the sweet incense. Myhr seemed to float on top of it, serenely insensible to the abyss beneath him.

A blast of flame shot up around the edges of the circle, licking the high ceiling. Debreban fell back, covering his eyes. The heat beat him down; the roar deafened him.

And then . . . abrupt stillness.

The only movement he felt was his heart slamming against his ribs.

What . . . ?

He looked unbelieving on the aftermath.

Though the sulfur stink hung rotten on the air, there was no sign of fire or smoke. The floor was solidly where it had always been. The four chairs rested undisturbed within the circle. Velma lay just beyond - unmoving. The single black candle continued to burn steadily, untouched by the mad wind.

All the rest were all gone, though. All of them. Even the wizard. Only Myhr remained in place, and he was as still as death.

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