Back at Darmo House

I caught Filima before she hit the mirror, before she could touch that thing trying to come through. She was in a dead faint.

The face glared at me, sucking in more black specks, pausing to mouth more stuff I couldn't hear. Well, screw him. I swatted at the table and sent it and the mirror crashing over. The sickly light abruptly winked out.

Scooping up Filima, I pushed past the velvet curtains.

"What happened?" Shankey demanded. He was right there, making no apology for eavesdropping, or rather pavilion-dropping.

But it was nonstop for me to the nearest couch, which was next to a nice, bright sun-filled window with lots of fresh air coming in. Perfect, we needed both. I put Filima down, then sat rather suddenly on the floor next to her. There hadn't been a lot of lifting effort involved since she didn't weigh much, but I felt like I'd run for miles.

Shankey patted her cheek. "Lady Filima?"

"Fainted," I gasped. "Don't. Know why."

"What did you do?" Debreban wanted to know.

"Nothing. Just. Rescued her. Is all."

Shankey snarled, yanked on the bell pull, and yelled orders. Definitely a man of action. For the next few minutes the place was full of freaked-out servants shouting, waving their arms, and running around. Very intense. Finally, a matron-type woman came in, sensibly told everyone to calm down, and passed an open vial under Filima's nose. It must have been the same stinky stuff Greta had used on Terrin last night. I sniffed ammonia again; Filima popped wide awake.

"Argh! Agh! Foo!" she said, waving it away.

Now they were asking her if she was all right, and she had no immediate answer to give, probably trying to figure it out herself. No one asked about me, of course. It must be that aura of competence I give off that makes people think I'm a hundred percent all the time. I shut my eyes and rested.

"Myhr?"

Her hand on my shoulder. A light caress. Nice. The kind that makes me purr.

Then an impatient thump. "Myhr!"

"Hah? What?" I jolted out of my fog.

"You all right?" Filima was up, blinking, concerned. Scared, too, judging by the ashy tint of her cinnamon skin.

"I think so. What was that all about? And please don't tell me I should know, 'cause I don't."

"That makes two of us. I've never seen anything like it before. Had no idea the mirror could do that."

"Who was he?"

"He?"

"The face in the mirror. Who was that guy?"

"I saw no face, only a horrible cloud thing coming at me."

"My lady . . ." began Shankey, who wasn't happy, "what went on in there?"

"I'm not sure, Captain. Something was trying to contact us. In my scrying mirror. A psychic-message, perhaps."

"More like a psychic-mugging," I put in. "The image was coming through, going all three-dimensional. I'm no expert, but I got the impression it was using you to do it."

"Me?" Filima went a shade more ashy.

Shankey and Debreban exchanged looks. The worried kind.

I could relate. "I think it was taking strength from you. That's probably what made you faint."

"But how? My mirror has only ever shown me ordinary visions of people and places I know. Nothing like that's happened before. Where did it come from?"

Hell, maybe. The sulfur and rotting-meat stenches, blackness, clouds, the ongoing Hell-river situation, lots of spooky stuff that could connect together way too well. I decided against sharing; things were stirred up enough for now.

A scowl from Shankey, directed at Filima. "My lady, for your own safety, may I respectfully suggest you leave that magic stuff the hell alone?"

A shocked look from Filima at his language. She started to reply, then zipped up. "Sounds like a very good idea, Captain." She addressed the rest of the crowd of servants. "Show's over, gang, beat it."

She was in quite a state. Her formal mode of speech had slipped badly, along with some of those dulcet tones. I couldn't blame her, still feeling pretty shaken myself.

"Oh, my head." She lay back on the couch, rubbing her temples. "Someone get me some mint tea."

The matron lady muttered an acknowledgement and left, herding a bunch of other servants ahead of her, until the room was mostly clear. Shankey and Debreban remained, the latter eyeing the pavilion as though he expected something to jump out of it at him. He had a hand on his sword hilt, for all the good it might do him. In my experience not a lot of metaphysical phenomena are affected by solid weapons, though cold iron would be a help. I wondered if his sword had any in it. A metallurgist I'm not.

Filima groaned again. Lady in distress. And a nice distraction from my tail-chasing speculations. I pulled myself together and stood, going around to the end of the couch so I was behind Filima. "Sit up," I ordered.

She did so, no questions. Made for a nice change.

"Now close your eyes and relax."

"What are you doing?" Shankey asked as I was about to lay hands on his lady.

"I know a couple of pressure points that should help her head. It's okay, I know what I'm doing." Terrin had taught me a thing or three, but I think I already had an inborn instinct about therapeutic massage. It made me very popular with women, I can tell you.

I tried a pressing light thumb on her lower neck, taking it slow and gentle, working my way around the nerve clusters. (Don't try this at home, people, this is for trained, professional stunt-Myhrs only.) Almost instantly Filima gave out with a delicious moan. Oh, to have different circumstances, the things I could do for this babe.

Shankey kept up with the suspicious bodyguard thing for awhile, then eased back as he saw her obvious enjoyment.

"Ohhh, that's wonnnderful. . . ." She sighed, going all limp as I massaged her shoulders and back. She'd been granite-hard when I'd started; it's very gratifying to get an immediate and positive result from one's efforts. It's much more gratifying to follow through on them, but this wasn't the time or place - though if she named a time, I'd pick a place. Rowhr-rowhr!

Man, was this fun. Took my mind right off that terror in the tent. A little too much off. I gave her one last squeeze and prod - in a very gentlemanly way - and stopped for my own best good. No baseball scores came to mind just then, but looking at the black velvet curtains helped calm me down a bit. I'd stand up later.

"Thank you!" she cried. "I feel fantastic!

Always good to hear that from a woman.

"I think my headache's gone. It's a miracle."

"More of a Myhr-acle," I chirped. "And you're welcome. Now how about shutting down the shop for real like the captain wants?"

She swung her legs to the floor, turning to see me. "What do you mean?"

I motioned at the pavilion. "Take down the curtains, put the furniture in the attic, dump the mirror in the river, and go on a nice, long, magic-free vacation."

"I can't do that!"

"Sure you can. I bet the captain here will be the first volunteer for the dismantling crew."

Shankey nodded enthusiastically.

Filima's voice went up a notch. "But I need the mirror so I know what's going on!"

"It pointed me out, didn't it? You want my help, don't you? Trust me on this, you don't want to use that thing again. Even if you don't sink it, I want your word of honor as the best oochie-coochie dancer in five provinces that you won't go in there again for any reason."

A protesting noise from her throat.

"Promise?"

She made a growl this time, but it sounded like the agreeing kind. "Very well."

"Maybe after we get this Hell-river business smoothed out you can play Presto the Magician, but until then leave that kind of play to the experts."

"Experts? Does that mean your partner is also a wizard?"

During lunch she'd gotten the idea I was a Talent in the magic sense. It seemed best not to correct her. "Last time I checked. He's probably wondering where I am. Clem, too. The sooner I'm out of here, the sooner Terrin and I can return and look into things."

A maid came in with a drinks tray. Mint tea for two. I helped myself. Yum. Filima gulped half her goblet, probably not tasting it. She must have used the brief time for thinking instead. When she put her tea back on the tray, she was sitting up straight, like for a piano recital, and had recovered her posh tones.

"Captain Shankey, you're to escort Mr. Myhr wherever he wants, then guide him back here before sunset. He is to be my honored guest."

His chain of command reestablished, he came to attention. "Yes, my lady."

Well, this was cool. Come in as a prisoner and go out as a celeb. Nothing like a little rescue derring-do to put a fella in good with the boss-lady. I just hoped Terrin could figure things out for her or it could become a prisoner gig again. For us both.

"You'll be back soon?" she asked.

I love when a woman says that to me. "Soon as I can."

She smiled. Mmm, you could have used it for rocket fuel to the moon and back. Then her smile faltered. She looked narrowly past my shoulder at Debreban. "Excuse me, but don't I know you from somewhere? You're not on the house staff, are you?"

Debreban started to open his mouth.

I saved him from putting his foot into it. "He's sort of with me, lady. Was acting as native guide in the city. Don't think I'll need him anymore if Captain Shankey takes over. Come on, guys, daylight's burning."

We all hastily bowed good-bye to Filima, then Shankey and Debreban walked me through the doors.

"Thanks," Debreban muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

"You're welcome," I muttered back. I didn't know why he was so hinkie about her knowing him, but good old trustworthy instinct said I should do him a favor. I'd collect an explanation later.

With my change of status in place we would use the front door, but now it was my turn to take a detour to the basement facilities. That wine at lunch may not have given me a buzz, but it was liquid, and I had plenty of it on board, plus the tea. The guys were polite and didn't stare while I did my business - some people want to know just how far down the fur goes - and looked out the basement windows instead.

"Wonder why they're here?" said Debreban in an idle tone.

"Who?" asked Shankey.

"That lot just outside your lady's gate are all in Overduke Anton's colors. They're not doing much, just standing around."

Shankey grunted. "Pretty odd."

"Think it's to do with Lord Perdle seeing me here?"

"We could go ask them."

"I don't want to. Not just now. Maybe I should get back to my lord's house first, find out what's going on."

"It's probably nothing to do with you."

"I'd better make sure, though."

"Debreban, you and I may have a fine opinion of you, but to the clan lords you're just a face in the crowd."

"Until you get noticed. Like Lady Filima almost did. I don't want to be noticed by Lord Anton."

"What have you got against him?"

I zipped up and found a washbasin and towel, moving quietly so as not to interrupt.

Debreban shrugged, apparently not possessing an easy answer. "His eyes. Ever see them? They look right through a man. They say he can turn a person to stone when the mood's on him. He works magic, too. Bigger stuff than scrying. Lord Cadmus says he has visions. Bad ones."

"So I've heard, but there's never been anything harmful come of it. My lady's only ever said good of him. She's best friends with that new lady he's been seeing. The talk I've heard is he's a decent enough fellow. That troop out there probably has a message to deliver to the house."

"Then they should ring the bell and hand it over, not stand around like a raiding party waiting to be called."

Shankey frowned. "You've got a point there, my friend. Let's go up and see what they want."

"It's your house."

"That it is. You hang back and watch my lady's guest, and I'll go talk with them. They'll expect me to come out, anyway."

All finished, I was peering over their shoulders with interest. When they turned to find themselves nose-to-muzzle with me we all gave a little jump of surprise.

"Urgh," said Debreban. Edgy type for a guard. He should switch to CPA work.

"What's the deal?" I asked. Outside, beyond the gated opening to the grounds of Darmo House, stood a few big guys in black-and-silver cloaks.

"Nothing you need trouble yourself about, Mr. Myhr," said Shankey. "If you don't mind a little delay, I'll go see what they want."

"It's all one to me, fellas."

We went upstairs. Debreban and I cooled our heels in a big hall.

"So who do you work for again?" I asked.

"Lord Cadmus Burkus."

I refrained from saying bless you.

Elsewhere in Rumpock, at Burkus House

Cadmus lay collapsed on his scrying mirror, biting back the knife-sharp agony that threatened to split his head in two. The shock lasted only a moment, but he remained still for much longer, panting like a dog, wishing he'd not gotten himself into this mess. If only Botello hadn't offered him so damn much money when they'd started working together. Money and advanced magical training - it seemed like a good idea at the time. Cadmus had known there would be a few strings to the arrangement; he'd just not suspected they'd be so bloody painful.

From within the mirror came Botello Darmo's grating voice. "Get up, you idiot! Let me see you!"

Tiredly, Cadmus pushed himself off the mirror. Dizziness threatened to twist his belly inside out. He barely heard the tirade of cursing aimed at him. The fact that the curses did indeed originate straight from Hell held little intimidation for him. He always had trouble focusing on larger issues when his guts were woozy.

"If you'd held your concentration I'd have made it through!" Botello carped. "She was right in front of me, her magic flowing into me. You stopped it! I'll make you pay, Cadmus, don't think I'll forget this!"

Cadmus ran a hand over his sweating face. He was secretly elated that Botello's experiment had collapsed, but couldn't show one hint of that to the grumbling bastard. "It wasn't my fault; there was someone else in the room with her. Didn't you see the chap with the circus mask?"

"That was some damned cat, nothing more!"

"A cat the size of a man? With a man's body? Your mirror may distort things, but not by that much. Filima's hooked up with one of her old touring chums, you mark me."

"I'll rip you to shreds, you mean!"

"Botello, rant all you like, but I did warn you it was too soon to attempt a manifestation. You've not stored up nearly enough power yet - "

That set him off again.

Cadmus waited him out. The more Botello gave in to his temper, the more magic he squandered. Perhaps if he wasted enough he'd be unable to use the mirror. Pleasant thought, that: with Botello trapped forever in Hell Cadmus could devote all his time to forgetting this whole unpleasant episode and pay court to the lovely Filima. Perhaps in some way he could even atone for today's ill-turn for her. He'd really not wanted to help Botello, had done quite a lot of arguing to dissuade him -

"Do you hear me, Cadmus?"

"Yes, I hear you. So will everyone else in the house if you keep shouting."

"You didn't answer."

"Sorry, old man, would you repeat the question?"

"The magical source by the bell tower. The wizard. I want that person tracked down before sunset. I've told you to do that, why isn't it done?"

"Yes, I remember, but the captain of my house guard is the only one I can trust for such a task and he's not back from . . ."

Botello exploded again. The word idiot dominated the outburst. "You didn't hear a damned word I said! I told you to see to it personally!"

"You did not. I distinctly recall you wanted me to make sure the person was swayed to our side. You never said anything about my going to look into it. In fact, I got the impression you preferred me close by the mirror in case you needed to talk. Certainly if I'd known you wanted me out and about I'd have done so ages ago - "

Another crash of pain. This time Cadmus cried aloud. He lay still for a much longer period. Various fragments of thoughts came drifting to him, the largest being that he wasn't getting paid nearly enough for this abuse. He was a clan lord, dammit, one of the oldest houses in the province with heaps of honors amassed by his ancestors. Why should he have to put up with being treated like some inferior servant's dogsbody?

Grimly, he choked on the fact that he had no choice in the matter anymore. Botello owned him. Not completely, but nearly so because of his assistance in his experiments. Gawds, if anyone found out, he'd be ruined.

Cadmus had thought it a lark, just a harmless bit of fiddle faddle and an excuse to visit Darmo House and feast his eyes on Filima during dinner. By the time he understood that all the castings performed in the cellar were for a more sinister purpose than improving scrying skills, it was too late. He should have known better, he really should. There were plenty of cautionary tales about that sort of thing, but Cadmus had never been much for reading, and the money had been right there on the table, enough to keep his tottering household going for months.

Too late now.

"Wake up, Cadmus, I know you're not that hurt."

He groaned, pushing himself away again. "What? What do you want?"

"The wizard. I felt him, I still feel him. He's like a great bonfire of power."

"You're sure it's a man?"

"Yes, I am now. He's so powerful his energy is coming through even during the day. That's why I tried manifesting this soon. There was enough to bring me through, but the flow was cut. He must have gone to ground in a shielded area. I had to take from Filima. The stupid bitch has power, but not nearly what's needed for the job."

Cadmus shut his eyes a moment to hide any reaction he might give about the name-calling. Botello's attitude toward his widow had gone very sour in the last two weeks. Being in Hell might account for his constant bad mood, but he was quite over the top whenever she came into the conversation. "Then you shouldn't have to bother her in the future."

"I'll do whatever I please with her!"

"Yes, of course. I'm sure she'll be delighted to see you again once you've solved this bodily displacement thing. I was wondering . . . why were you trying to come through her mirror? Wouldn't it make more sense to come through mine? It is larger, you know, less of a squeeze for you."

"The doorway size doesn't matter, it's the power. The aetheric structures I set up at Darmo House are still in place and tuned to me. I should have manifested in my work-chamber, but the mirror there is broken. Hers is the closest in proximity to it. It was my bad luck she happened to see me coming through, but good luck so she could provide a boost. If you'd just held out a moment longer . . ."

Cadmus had held as long as he could. He'd made an honest effort. It rankled that his hard work went unappreciated. "Her mirror might be broken now. That cat fellow did some mischief, I warrant."

"Then find out who he is. I never heard her talk of any clowns in cat masks in that traveling troupe she danced with. Maybe he's an old lover sniffing after her money. My money. Find him and tell me what's going on over there, but get to that wizard immediately!" Botello's distorted image in the mirror went black as he cut their link.

Blinking, Cadmus woke up a lot more. Damnation, if anyone was entitled to Filima's money it was himself. He'd put significant labor into his pursuit of her; time to start forging ahead in earnest. Gawd knows he was more Filima's type than some scruffy entertainer hiding under a cat's mummery. Maybe the fellow was covered in warts or had a horrible skin condition. If he didn't now, he soon would. Cadmus had a spell for that lying around somewhere in the house. . . .

Of course Botello was something of a snag in the marriage stratagem. Cadmus had been reasonably sure Botello would stay bodily displaced, since in the history of known magic - not to mention ordinary life and death history - no one had ever escaped Hell before. Displaced or truly dead, he should have been there for keeps, but he'd somehow set up a route out that might work for him, providing he had enough power. Even the Hell-river was insufficient to the task, but this new wizard might upset the applecart in a bad way.

Perhaps . . . if he were taken out of the picture. Botello would be none too pleased losing a power source to feed from, but to hell with him. Literally.

Cadmus did not relish violence, but, as a necessary means to an end, was confident he could inflict it. The means was easy enough: most magical Talents were highly allergic to cold iron - especially in the form of a blade-thrust to the heart. Hmm. Yes. There were possibilities in that. Cadmus rose from his chair and escaped his scrying chamber, fresh purpose lending him new energy and nerve. Now where the devil had the butler hidden all the dueling weapons?

* * *

Elsewhere in Rumpock, at Overduke Anton's Palace

Anton writhed in a death-struggle with the bedclothes. His body ran with sweat, eyes rolled up in their sockets, limbs thrashing. He fought to wake himself from the dream, the nightmare, groaning like a dying man.

Someone had hold of his shoulders, shaking him hard.

"Come on, honey, come out of it!"

Velma. Sweet, sensible Velma. He managed to open his eyelids enough to glimpse her concerned face, which was very close to his.

"That's it, stay right here with me," she said. "You're safe."

His body relaxed as he gratefully exchanged illusion for reality. "Oh, gawds."

"You said it, honey." She lay next to him, arms cuddling him tight.

He liked that, reaching for her, holding her desperately hard.

"Oof! Easy, now, I'm breakable at this angle." She shifted to a more comfortable position with his head on her bare shoulder, settling in to stroke his brows and hair.

He breathed deeply of her flower perfume, trying to will away the lingering shreds of his latest dream.

"Must have been a bad one," Velma commented after awhile. "I've never seen you like that before. Scary. I've got an uncle who has those kinds of fits, but only after he's been in a tavern for a week."

Anton grunted. "The price of my Talent. They've been getting worse. It's that damned river."

"I know. What was this one about?"

He shook his head. He didn't like to share the really bad ones with her. She didn't need the burden.

"Oh, come on, honey. If you aren't gonna see a doctor about them you need to talk to somebody. Might as well be me."

After a time he sighed, picking one of the lesser visions to relate. "I saw something trying to break through from another world. There was a black room and a table with a hole in it, but instead of a floor showing under the table it was a doorway, a tunnel. A creature was coming through."

"What kind of creature?"

"A Hell-being. Huge. There was smoke and clouds obscuring things, but I saw its eyes, heard its voice, a horrible squalling shriek, like all the souls that ever died crying in torment at once. It was reaching toward me. All I could do was watch. Couldn't run or fight."

"No wonder you got into such a state, and in the middle of the day, too."

That troubled Anton, as well. Usually his nastier dreams took place at night when the veils between the worlds were thin. He'd hoped to catch up on his sleep with a nice afternoon nap - after a little healthy leisure fun with Velma. She'd enthusiastically helped tire him out, but not enough to dispel the visions.

"I think . . ." he said, "I think it's going to get worse. Soon."

"Can you do anything about it?"

"I don't know. Probably have to call a meeting of the remaining Talents in the city. Gawd, I hate meetings. They expect me to hand them all the answers, then they debate about them for hours."

"You need to do that delegation of power stuff."

"Tried that. Appoint one of them to do something and he appoints a committee, then they swill wine over an endless series of meals before coming up with exactly nothing in their 'study.' I should have it so easy."

"You'll have to get tough with them. Declare an emergency, a call to arms. Rumpock hasn't had a decent crisis in decades, so they take the peace for granted. You've traveled, seen what it's like in other provinces. You know what's needed to pull them all together."

He made a rumbling sound, turning it into a grim chuckle. "Yes. They won't like it much, doing some real work."

"You won't like it much, you mean." She twiddled his earlobe.

"Hmm?"

"You've got a nice comfy throne without a lot of work or hard decisions to make. Makes a guy lazy."

Had it been anyone else but Velma making that accusation he might have gotten a little cross. "I suppose you're right."

"Of course I am, but you can prove me wrong. Call the Talents in for a meeting and kick their butts into doing something. You can exaggerate the vision stuff, stir them up."

"I won't have to exaggerate."

"I was afraid you'd say that, honey."

He reluctantly dragged himself from her side and got dressed, but came back to kiss her forehead. "You're lovely," he told her, then left for his audience chamber. Carrying her smile in his memory was much better than that damned vision.

Perdle was at his worktable at the far end of the chamber. He looked up as Anton stalked across the long hall.

"Good afternoon, my lord."

Anton changed course, guided by Perdle's voice. He just made out a blurry figure next to one of the windows. "Hello, Perds. What's the news on that cat-masked fellow?"

"None, my lord. The welcoming honor guard I sent out for him hasn't returned yet."

"Honor guard? Why send that many for a casual invitation?"

"Keeps the troops on their toes, sir. Makes them feel useful having something to do. The drills get boring for the poor chaps. Besides, does the city good to see their overduke's colors marching on the streets. Reassures them that authority is in place and on the job."

The palace colors were black and silver, flashy, but hardly vibrant; Anton thought Perdle's expectations were a touch inflated, but knew his heart was in the right place. "Very well. Let's hope they don't scare him off. What about Lord Cadmus? Has he replied to his dinner invitation?"

"Not yet, sir. The page bearing it was dispatched about three hours ago; he's not yet returned with a reply. Lord Cadmus might have shut himself into his Black Room to delve into this Hell-river problem. He goes all incommunicado when he's playing with his magic, you know."

Anton pursed his lips to keep from making a crude observation about what sort of activities Cadmus might pursue when alone. Perdle could be quite oblivious at times. "Send another page to find out what's going on. I'd like to talk to Cadmus tonight. Now I've an errand for the rest of the house guard to run."

"At once, my lord." Perdle shuffled his work papers together and made to leave.

"Hang about, let me tell it first."

"Ah, yes, just so, my lord." He put the papers down, striking an attentive pose.

Anton outlined his desire to have a meeting first thing the next day with the remaining magical Talents in the city. "All of them," he clarified. "Whatever their level of skill and experience, I want them here. You won't need to notify Cadmus, I'll tell him over dinner."

"There's quite a number of those people on night-duty, sir. From watching the Hell-river, you know."

"That's why the meeting will be one hour after dawn. They can go home and sleep later."

"Dawn, my lord? You plan to get up that early?" Perdle seemed quite stunned.

"Yes, Perdle. I'm sure I can manage. Just have my tea ready as usual. I don't know how long the meeting will last, so notify the cooks they might have extra mouths for breakfast. You need to be there, too, and a few scribes to take notes."

"Sir, may I ask the prompting of such a gatherage? To summon them all on such short notice might be construed as an emergency.

You've gotten that right, old friend. "I had another vision."

"Oh. My sympathies, sir. Something of a serious nature, then?"

"They're all serious these days. See to it, Perds, there's a good fellow."

Anton left the audience chamber, his boot heels echoing hollow on the marble floor. He wanted air and made for one of the palace towers. The climb was a chore, but worth the effort. He pushed up the trapdoor to be greeted by a gust of clean, head-clearing wind.

Wanting solitude, he slammed the trap down again to discourage interruptions, and spent the next few minutes just breathing. He wondered how much longer that would go on. In addition to the Hell creature trying to break through, Anton had once again seen himself drowning in that damned river. This time its black fog was solid, viscous as jam. It had clogged his nose and mouth, blinded him, yet, strangely, he was still able to see Cadmus and that cat thing pushing him down deep. Anton had struggled and cursed and fought desperately, but they -

He shook his head to dislodge the image. It was a deadly warning of some sort, whether literal or symbolic remained to be seen. The dreams weren't always specific. He'd long ago accepted that frustrating aspect of his Talent, but still, it was no easier to bear. Few friends in his inner circle could appreciate the burdens of precognition. Those who did not would congratulate him on his gift and express a desire to have it themselves. No doubt they thought it would help them at gambling. The better-informed regarded him with respect mixed with sympathy. Anton would rather chuck his gift in the Rumpock River with the rest of the rubbish and have a normal life, but one couldn't change what the gawds ordained. He might as well have wished to be taller or shorter. He was stuck, might as well make the best of it, as always.

Going to the waist-high wall of the tower, he stared out over his city, what he could see of it. His eyes could pick out the general shapes of structures, blobs of color, light and dark, the smaller moving blobs that were people navigating the streets. He thought some of them paused to wave up at him. Just in case, he waved back.

"Long live Overduke Anton!" someone called in the distance, sounding quite cheerful.

He waved again. It was nice to be popular, but was their affection well-bestowed? If he and the other Talents couldn't find a solution to the Hell-river problem, send it back to its source, they were all . . . well . . . doomed.

All too clear on his inner eye was the worst vision yet: the whole of Rumpock in flames with Hell-creatures everywhere greedily feasting on his hapless people.

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