Whatever titles and respect he'd enjoyed as overduke were entirely useless in the end, Anton decided. The only things that counted with this demonic lot - aside from demonstrating any aptitude for inflicting pain - were magical power and knowledge. Apparently little of either were to be had in this realm.
Anton found himself bereft of his store of magic. Botello must have stripped him during that awful moment when they'd traded places. Bloody thief. He'd not taken Anton's inherent knowledge, though, so not all was lost, just in a very, very bad place. Perhaps in time he could renew his energies. Only he didn't want to spend that time here.
The demons had shown in a most graphic way the consequences of lying to them, not on his own person, but upon some other hapless souls already in residence. Anton, after suppressing a strong urge to vomit, felt pity for them, but forced himself to be pragmatic. They were here because they'd brought it on themselves in some way. He was not of their number and reasonably certain the demons knew it. Though he was made uncomfortable, and thoroughly frightened, they'd not committed torture on him, just a few sharp nudges to keep him alert. Because of that tiny blessing, he was coming to the conclusion that they honestly didn't know what to do with him.
"Where is Botello?" they'd asked.
"He's gone Otherside," he'd replied. "He's taken my place, is using my body, having put me in this one."
"Get him back," they'd ordered.
His life experience in politics and diplomacy proved to be more handy than magic. Rather than unwisely admit he had not a single clue as to how to accomplish such a feat, he agreed to work something out.
Thus did they allow him some minor magical tools and freedom to work, but kept him under close watch. He got the impression that they had been more lax with Botello and weren't going to repeat the mistake.
Even with them looking over his shoulder, he did manage to make Otherside contact through a charged-up scrying mirror he willed into being, once they told him how to do it. Interesting feature about this place, the way thoughts could be made into form. Pity everyone here was so brutal, despairing or terrified, else they could turn the Hell plane into a quite nice place for them.
He'd hoped to find Botello with the mirror, but instead got that Burkus lackey. The poor man had looked right out of his depth. Anton did not have much confidence in him as a messenger. Suppose he was able to get to Velma, what then? She was a smart girl, but would she believe his story? Would she test things by speaking to Botello? Would he discover her out? And then what?
My gawd, if he hurts her, I'll have his skin on a wall.
The demons watched him; he watched the demons and fought an ongoing battle against giving in to shrieking panic. It's one thing to be condemned to Hell when the Powers decree you deserve the punishment, but quite another to be thrust in by the machinations of a fellow human.
I'm not even dead. There must be some provision for that in the Law of the Powers. He could not, offhand, recall any, having left the more esoteric matters of spiritual precepts to Lord Perdle, who quite enjoyed such canonistic convolutions. Making contact with him might prove more helpful. He could sort out the mess. If Anton - looking like Botello - appearing in Perd's shaving mirror didn't send the fellow into a spasm. It could take quite a lot of time, too, all the while with Botello up to gawd knows what. Probably finding a way to bring all these bloody demons into that side of Reality.
My vision coming true. No. Can't allow that. No, no, no, no, no.
The demons had altered their appearance since his initial encounter with that first creature. For some reason they now looked like warped versions of his courtiers. He decided it had more to do with his perception than the actuality. Whatever might really be beneath their facades he was in no hurry to find out.
Oh, yes, then there was that damned Gate. Literally. Far overhead an amorphous form screamed across the lowering sky like a shooting star, but minus the inherent beauty. He heard whisperings among his guards. Another soul, they said. Another soul. If there was any cause for joy in Hell, it was the arrival of fresh misery to feed upon. Anton never cared for that sort of company. Too much like some of his gossipy female relatives, only their echoing chant was more likely to be Do you know who died today? followed by a detailed report of the whole dreadful process.
Enough of that distraction. Enough of waiting. He had to accept that things might not be going smoothly on the Otherside. With Botello there it was only to be expected. Anton would have to find a path out of Hell on his own.
Summoning up the courage to move, he made his way - with a demonic train in tow closely watching him - to the Gate. Perhaps his magical energy was gone, but he still had a mind well trained for problem-solving and the two-edged gift of his inner visions. That was one aspect of his Talent Botello could not touch. A player might be without his lute, but he could still create music if born with a genius for it.
Anton found a place where he could look at the Gate almost straight on, in the middle of a dry gully. The demons didn't seem to like him going down there.
"Is there a problem?" he asked.
"You are where the river flows," one of them replied.
The Hell-river? Well, fancy that. He wasn't too worried about being swept away in any black flood. His nightmare had been of himself drowning in the murk, not Botello. "Where is it now? On Otherside?"
The demon shrugged.
"Does the river vanish during the night and return at dawn?"
It stared as though not understanding the question. "The river comes and goes."
Not terribly endowed with brains, are you? "When is it due to return?"
It shrugged again.
Hmm. Interesting. They didn't have much concept of time. Not surprising in a place of eternity. His own time sense might well be confused. Hours in this place could be only minutes in his home Reality. Perhaps he should give that Burkus man longer to work. On the other hand, it would also give Botello longer to work.
Anton stood in the middle of the gully and walked toward the great black Gate. Formidable things. Opening inward. Beneath them a sizable crescent-shaped gap that would otherwise be filled up by the river. It was open and looked somewhat promising, but surely its hazy depths couldn't be an escape route. They'd have tried it by now. That is, if they'd thought to try it. In a Reality where thoughts could take on form the demons might be unaware of the possibility. Might not even see the same things he saw. Where there was nothing for him they might see acres of bear traps.
He couldn't quite make out what lay beyond that space; it was gray and blurred as fog. He hiked over. Demons on either bank of the riverbed kept pace.
He peered under the gap. Still a blur, but he thought he heard something within.
"Hallo? Is anyone there? Hallo?"
No reply, but the sound, a strange, soft whispering was definitely real.
Bending to duck through, he stepped toward it.
"You cannot go there," said one of the demons. Others nodded agreement.
"Not allowed. You will stay on this side of the Gate."
"You want Botello back, don't you?"
"Then I have to go get him."
"He isn't there."
"How do you know that unless I look?"
The demons had no answer. He'd stumped them for the moment, so he proceeded before they got more forceful with their objections. He went slowly, well aware that souls don't just escape from Hell. It simply wasn't done. Nor should it be this easy.
He poked his head under the Gate. "Hallo. Anyone home?"
No reply or challenge. So far so good. He eased into the gray blur, straining to see. A light or a shape, anything solid. He raised one hand to touch the bottom edge of the Gate. That was solid. Thick, too; it took ages to reach an ending to it - unless he was walking lengthwise instead of across. No matter, he came to a place where he could stand upright and did so. He went dizzy for a moment, for there was no reference to up or down here, only the disorientating limbo.
The whispering was all around him, gibberish in a thousand times ten thousand voices. He called out again.
"My name is Anton. I was thrown into Hell by mistake. Is there anyone in charge to whom I may speak about this? Hallo?"
Now they were muttering, sounding none too pleased. He hoped this wasn't one of those members-only clubs, and feared he'd blundered in regardless.
"I'm not actually dead," he explained. "This isn't my body. I was dispossessed, you see, and I'd really like to clear the problem up and go back to where I belong."
The muttering abruptly ceased.
Trembling, he stared all around, finding nothing to focus on. It was almost as bad as Hell where things were far too visible. To offset another bout of dizziness he shut his eyes.
That's when things sprang into being for him. Oh, yes, his vision worked perfectly here.
* * *
I thought to stick with Terrin, but he and the girls took off pretty fast to Filima's room in search of crystal balls and other magical junk. Just like him to grab the babes for himself. I could have followed, but from the sound of things they'd be talking shop, even Velma, who had some catching up to do with her friend. It would be all magic talk, like hanging with a bunch of computer geeks. 'Puter chat I could relate to, but this world was a few centuries short of developing microchips. Double ditto for potato chips, even.
That left me and the other guys to take care of the threat of the false overduke, if and when he decided to show up.
Shankey stressed the importance of keeping lights away from the windows. The house had to look asleep as normal. He led us back to the kitchen and rooted around in what looked like Dr. Jekyll's pantry, finding a bottle covered with pasted-on cautionary labels. He squinted at the curly lettering.
" 'Three drops per glass of water for a sound night's rest,' " he read. He put it back on a high shelf. "Not strong enough. What's this one? 'One drop per gallon of water to soothe a panicked bull.' Yeah, that should do it. Okay, I'll go check on the guys by the front gate. Back in a minute."
He slipped out the kitchen door. I was curious to see what he planned and followed quietly. Debreban and Cadmus hung back to compare notes about escaping from crazed, body-stealing, fire-throwing wizards.
Shankey opted for a casual approach, going up to several men in black-and-silver garb who stood just outside the Darmo House property, greeting them in a friendly if surprised manner. My ears picked up enough of their exchange to determine that he wouldn't need any help fighting off invaders. Not for the moment. He pretended to believe whatever story they gave him for why they were hanging around his lady's driveway entry in the middle of the night. His friendly offer of liquid refreshment was readily accepted.
I was back in the kitchen setting beer flagons out on the table when he returned. "How fast will that stuff work?" I asked as he brought the bottle of knock-out juice over.
He didn't know. "I saw it used once at a horse-racing meet. One of the runners went into a fit, tried to kick its stall down along with a few stable lads. The animal apothecary managed to shove a drop of this into its mouth before getting bit. Not too long after the horse keeled over to sleep for a few hours. So did the apothecary, only he woke up a couple days later."
"Must be absorbed through the skin. You got an eye-dropper? We don't wanna risk touching this."
He found a thin glass tube like a delicate straw and used it to transfer a drop of the juice into each flagon. I filled six of them with beer. He put them on a tray and went outside again to play waiter, returning soon after with empties.
"They're in no pain," he announced, satisfied.
"Sure it won't kill them?"
"Not really, but if the apothecary survived, these guys should, too."
I hoped none of them suffered from bad hearts or sleeping sickness.
He and Debreban went to work hauling snoring bodies off to a gardener's hut. After the first trip they returned with twin wheelbarrows, and that made the job go faster. Shankey took over-tunics, weapons, helmets, and cloaks from two of the men, then he and Debreban put them on.
"Won't Botello recognize you?" After all, Shankey had worked for the guy for years, and Debreban was likely to be a fresh memory.
"Who looks at a guard?" Shankey pulled the helmet into position. It had some impressive and concealing metalwork around the eyes and over the cheeks. His impersonation plan might work. "Besides, it's really dark out, and if his lordship comes, he's going to be in a hurry." He and Debreban quick-marched out to the front gate.
"He'll come and soon," pronounced Cadmus, who was sitting at the table, looking morose. I offered him some leftover pizza, but he only shuddered, one hand straying to his stomach. "He'll know that I've talked to Filima and told her everything."
"He won't know for sure," I said. "If you keep out of sight, it keeps him guessing and buys Filima some time."
"You as well. He's assumed you're a wizard of great power. Wants to strip you of your magic. Why aren't you? With those looks you should be magical."
I shrugged. "Just not in the cards and I am delighted. Saves me a lot of headaches in the long run." Terrin was more than welcome to mess with the whammy tech; there were way too many details you had to remember to work it right without getting fried. Speaking of fried, what was Hell gonna be like? "You talked to this Botello dude a lot? After he was dead? Is that what I heard?"
Cadmus stared down at the table. "He'd speak to me through my scrying mirror. It was horrible the first time. I was trying to see - well, never mind - in place of what I wanted I got his face instead. Not ashamed to admit he frightened me silly. He was supposed to be dead, after all. Thought I'd somehow tripped and fallen into a bit of necromancy which is not the done thing around here. First he pleaded with me for help, later on he got more and more short, then demanding, then he was ordering me about like a skivvy. I expect the last two weeks of being in Hell did that to him."
No shit. I wondered if I needed to worry about losing my sanity and gaining an attitude. "Couldn't you have just not used the mirror?"
"The situation had turned too complicated by then. And I was really trying to help him escape. By the time I realized what a mistake it was I was too psychically linked to him to pull back. He was getting magically stronger, too. I couldn't block him." His shoulders bunched up.
"Did he ever explain how he got tossed into Hell?"
"Not really. Just said it was a mistake. Do you know?"
I didn't think Filima would mind if I gave Cadmus the headlines. He might need the information anyway, and if things went wrong tonight, then it wouldn't matter.
When I finished Cadmus was suitably impressed. "Poor Filima. What a burden she's been carrying, and I've been such a swine pestering her. I'll have to apologize right away." He began to scoot his chair back.
"Uh-uh." I waved him down. "It can wait. She and Terrin are cooking up some major mojo, so let them work. When you were talking to Botello did you see anything of Hell?
"Only his face and some red clouds. Sometimes they were pale green. Why do you want to know?"
"Just wanna be prepared." I suggested we wait in the front hall where we'd have a better chance of bushwhacking Botello in case Debreban and Shankey missed their window. Just as we entered the foyer, Velma was coming downstairs, candle in hand.
"Terrin said it's time," she told me, looking solemn. Apparently Terrin had briefed her.
My heart gave one terrific lurch. Oh, gawd, I was scared. Then my brain twitched and unexpectedly kicked out an idea. A wonderful idea. Why couldn't I have been this brilliant half an hour ago and saved myself some nail-chewing? "Great!" I said and bounded past her.
Terrin had set up shop in the fancy blue room, but not inside the velvet-draped pavilion. That was lying in a sloppy heap next to a pillar along with the table and shards from the scrying mirror I'd broken earlier. Four chairs were now in the center of the floor, arranged according to the compass points. My initial impression was that he'd had second thoughts about a seance.
Within their space was a big circle drawn in white chalk on the blue mosaic floor, about six feet across. He'd inscribed its perimeter with a lot of symbols and sigils using several different alphabets. It was enclosed in a second, much larger circle where the chairs stood. Each of them was in its own smaller circle like some kind of cosmic basketball court. He'd lighted a ton of incense - a nice-smelling brand - and the black candle, which would absorb negativity. He had some serious shit going on here; even from the doorway the magic radiating from the circles set my whiskers to twitching a rumba.
"I may not have to go," I announced.
Terrin and Filima paused their conversation. He shot me a look. "You better be sure, they don't have bathrooms on that side."
"Get serious. I had this flash: why don't we first capture Botello and make him swap places with the overduke? I bet you could get him to do that. We have a seance to contact Anton and zap them both. But before we do, we make Botello tell us how to get rid of the Hell-river and stop things up so the demon hordes can't come through."
He thought it over. For about a minute. A real long minute to me. "Sounds cool," he finally said.
I sagged with relief.
" 'Cept I don't know how to do that."
"What? To hear you talk I thought you knew how to do everything!"
"Magically that's almost true. If I knew everything we'd be home right now and richer than Bill Gates on our own tax-exempt islands."
"What exactly is it you can't do, then?"
"Getting Botello to body-swap with the overduke without the overduke being in the vicinity. I figure once those two are in close proximity that problem will take care of itself. To make it happen you have to go in and find Botello's astral body. I'm not risking phoning him up on a scrying mirror, 'cause we don't know who will answer or try to break through. The other thing I can't do is force Botello to talk - either in this Reality or on the Otherside. He's gonna be plenty pissed wherever he is and in no mood to cooperate."
"So we keep him on this side and go medieval on him."
"Which would damage the overduke's body, and then he'd be pissed. If we had Pentothol we might be able to do something, but we don't. To get him to cooperate requires a lever or a bribe, and we ain't got squat. And there's no guarantee that Botello knows what we want him to know. For all his power he's an amateur, and they tend to cut corners when real work is inconvenient to their desires. I still need you over there to find Anton and help me work out how to deal with the river, but when it comes down to brass tacks, Anton is a side issue. The river is the big deal."
"So I go to Hell?"
"You go to Hell."
"Ain't that the truth?"
Cadmus and Velma walked in. His gaze went right to Filima and took the rest of his body along. He guided her off into a corner for a quiet talk. Apologizing like crazy if I read his body language correctly. I could have listened in, but was too busy smiling at Velma. She came over to me, smiling back.
"I think it's a brave thing you're doing," she said. "Terrin told me how you're going to find Anton and bring him home."
The last I'd heard I was going to find Botello and kill him. Of course that was scrapped what with Botello being Anton. I switched gears quick, though. It's not often I have a major babe hanging on my every word. Very cheering, considering the circumstances.
"Well, it's a dirty job, but someone has to - "
"Can it," said Terrin. "We gotta get moving. You guys, front and center in the chairs. We're going to do a modified kind of seance."
"Really?" Cadmus perked up. "You liked my idea?"
"It has angles I can use, so listen. We're all going to sit, Myhr lies on the floor in the middle. I'm going to be his anchor for this side of Reality, you guys are gonna add your psychic energy to the pot. It means less work for me so I can focus on keeping him safe."
I was all for that.
"But Botello drained off my magical energy," said Cadmus.
"Good. Less static on the line. This is a mental thing, not a magic thing. Filima, you keep your power to yourself, don't try to help me."
She nodded, and everyone picked a chair, standing ready. They looked as nervous as I felt. He gave them each a small quartz crystal and told them how to hold it. I got a larger crystal and a sword.
Cadmus stared. "I say! That's my sword, the one made with - oh, ah, that is . . ."
"Cold iron," Terrin completed for him. "Yeah, I got it off of blondie-boy. Told me it was a family antique. What's your family doing running around making wizard killers?"
"Haven't the faintest," he said, looking uncomfortable. "The thing's very old. Forgot I had it."
"Yeah, sure, whatever. Myhr, there's two things you have to remember to make this work: hang onto the sword, hang onto the crystal."
"I get the drill. If I don't then horrible things happen to me, right?"
"Exactly - you lose these and we'd have to buy new ones 'cause they're borrowed."
"Then I won't be trapped in Hell and eaten by demons?"
"I never said that. And stop speculating on what you think might be there. It won't ever be what you think, besides I'll shield you from seeing the worst of it so - "
"Worst of what?"
"What do you think?"
Oh Gawd . . .
"Just tell yourself it's a movie with production design straight out of Alien and you should be able to keep from going into shock."
My back fur was up. In a big way. All over my spine like static electricity. "Terrin . . ."
He gave me one of those looks. No smart-ass grin, no patronizing, snarky frown, but something of the real person he kept well hidden inside. "It'll be fine. I promise."
Jeez, but I'm a sucker for sincerity. One of these days I'd have to get therapy before it killed me.
"Places everyone," he said to the others. They all sat except for Terrin. "We're going for a take. Myhr, lie down in the circle, your head to the south."
I did so. Terrin stood before the southern chair, looming over me. He had a small crystal ball in one hand, and a large quartz crystal in the other that he held out over me. He muttered some kind of chant, waving the quartz around in a power pattern. The chalk sigils surrounding me kindled and brightened, feeble at first, then glowing like embers from a fire. They began to pulse; it was pretty, until I realized their pulsing exactly matched the beating of my heart.
He stopped waving, stepped back, and dropped wearily onto his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Nothing, just this gawd-damned magic-sucking world! It's trying to kill me. I ain't gonna give it the satisfaction."
Something about him had slipped. His aura was wrong. What in the world . . . I focused and realized he'd cast a glamour on himself. It seemed to melt from him, at least to my eyes. I didn't know if the others saw the reality.
He looked to be a hundred years older, hair turned bone white and so much color leeched from his skin that the veins underneath were visible. His weight was down, too; he'd gone gaunt, from cheekbones to hands, which were downright spidery.
We'd been here only one night, a day, and another night. At the rate he was deteriorating . . . I got a nasty, dark, cold feeling inside that he was dying and that it would be only a matter of hours.
"Yeah," he said, as though hearing my thoughts. Sometimes he picked them up if they were strong enough. "This is as serious as death." From the expression on his wasted face I knew he wasn't exaggerating.
He made an effort to straighten. I could see now that he was moving like an arthritic chicken. Despite the warm gold glow of the sigils he looked sickly. One-good-breeze-and-he-might-float-away kind of sickly.
Damn . . . and damn again. That wasn't fair. It sucked canal water.
"Yeah," he said. "It does. I can't do this alone, Myhr. I need your help."
Jeez - I knew what it had cost him to say that.
"What do I do?" I asked. I was nervous. Didn't like it. Couldn't help it.
"Close your eyes, breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. The same for the rest of you. Clear your minds."
Easy enough, but I couldn't ask questions. Maybe he just wanted me to shut up so he could concentrate. I did the breathing for awhile until a dim flashing took place beyond my closed eyelids. That would be the sigils pulsing brighter. Their pace still matched my heartbeat - which was speeding up.
I gripped my crystal and the sword hard.
"Keep breathing," he said.
After a minute or three the flashing faded. The room turned strangely cold. I thought I knew what that meant.
Okay, show me what you see.
My eyes popped open as much from surprise as anything else. I sat up. His voice was right in my head. "What the hell - ?"
Yeah, pretty much, he cheerfully agreed.
In. My. Head. "You didn't say you'd be crawling around my skull! Get out!"
Cool it, Myhr, I already know what you do in the shower on Saturday nights, so chill. Your secrets are safe with me.
Anguished screams cut no ice with him. He waited for me to settle down. Look, we're stuck like this for the duration. Just do what I say and it'll be over that much faster. Okay?
Like I had a choice in the matter. It was one thing to get a telepathic distress call from him, very much another to hold a conversation. "What else are you into?"
"Not a lot. I'm seeing through your eyes. It's coool. I gotta get me a set like yours when this is done."
I suppressed a groan. And shut my eyes for a second, just to annoy him.
Take stock. Are you all there?
Now that was a damn stupid question, until I remembered where and what I was: a projection of myself into the Otherside. I seemed to be in my own solid body, wearing familiar clothes, sword and crystal firmly in hand. One part of my brain accepted the reality, found comfort in it; another part was just as certain it was pure illusion. I didn't know why I knew that, must have been the cat DNA pulling some overtime. "It's copasetic so far as it goes. Now what?"
I looked around. And listened. And smelled. And felt.
It was bad. Bad beyond bad.
No pretty blue room, but a strange, flat landscape with no specific light source. Earth, trees, grass, sky, clouds were an unrelieved cotton candy pink. My sensitive nose was jammed with the smell of burning sugar. The pink ground was sticky. I was being pelted by cobwebs of forming candy. The stuff fell on me like gossamer snow. Pink, of course. Sticky.
On the heavy air I heard the thin fruity voices of thousands of children singing. In Hell? That was wrong. Terrin had sent me to the wrong place. I was in kiddie heaven and any second some Otherside Shirley Temple in a fluffy dress would come tripping up to give me a chorus of "The Good Ship Lollipop."
The singing children abruptly launched into that particular song.
"Terrin? You messing with my brain? What's going on here?"
Your brain's already messed up. I'm doing what I can to shield you from what's really here.
"You promised me Alien. I'd rather have that than this!"
No you wouldn't. Shut up and walk. Hold your crystal out. See if it draws you anywhere or lights up.
"Okay, I'm walking. Gawd, it's like the floor of a dollar movie theater here."
He snickered. The son of a bitch had put me in circus hell and he was laughing about it. You're doing fine. Bear left at that - er - ah - tree.
"Tree?" It looked more like a giant gumball. "What is it? What are you seeing?"
Never mind, you don't wanna know. Oh, yeah - do me a favor and don't eat anything here.
Yeah, sure, like I was planning to scarf down this junk. Not that hungry. "How does that do you a favor?"
So I don't have to listen to you bellyache about it later.
He seemed to be following a theme here, so I decided not to ask him what was really raining on me.
I slogged forward, going fast. I guessed that this was costing him a lot in terms of effort, and speed would be a good thing, but I was without a clue to where I was going. The quartz didn't do any special effects for me. Once I glanced behind when I thought I saw movement. Nothing there unless you counted a faint silver thread winding away into the pink distance. One end was attached to my back somehow. Must have been how he was channeling to me. Man, this was weird.
"There's nothing here," I said. "Just miles and miles of monochromatic indigestion."
Okay. Dammit. I was hoping I wouldn't have to do this to you.
Before I could ask an obvious question I felt a rippling shift through my body, through the whole of everything around it. The pink landscape suddenly darkened to blood-red, the sticky rain stopped, and the children's singing changed to laughter like wind chimes, harsh and discordant. In another minute I would really hate this place.
You should see something. Look!
I looked, but even my eyes had their limits. Making a slow, in-place circle - without tangling my astral thread, it remained illogically straight - I held out the crystal. It flickered once, very faintly.
That's good! Go with it!
I moved in that direction, though the crystal remained dormant. "Not that I'm eager to see any of 'em, but shouldn't there be some demons here?"
Yeah, but I'm shielding you. They can't see you either, if that's a comfort.
It was. A big one.
I'll prolly have to remove it before too long. When you get closer to Anton. What shields you could hide him from view.
"Hey. I just thought of something. How will I know Anton if and when I see him?"
Easy. He'll be the one not trying to eat you.
Oh, gawd . . .
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com