Darmo House, just outside Filima's Blue Room

"Shouldn't she be finished dressing by now?" I asked. After all, I was ready.

Shankey shrugged. "That's ladies' stuff; I don't know how long it takes them to change."

"Forever." Usually when there was a movie I was anxious to see so we'd miss the trailers or worse, opening credits. I knocked on Filima's blue and gold-trimmed door again. Perhaps the first time I'd been too soft. Now I gave it several brisk wake-it-up, shake-it-up raps.

I really did have to use all the towels to dry off from the bath, but it had been worth it. My fur was all fluffed and shining, I had on fresh clothes, and some invisible servant had even polished my boots. Ready for most anything, I was impatient to get started on . . . on whatever came next. Sneaking suspicion told me that step one required I get Terrin and Filima together and let him take the lead. Having looked in on him I knew he was in a different shirt and able to at least walk.

In fact, he was ambling slowly down the hall toward us. Not his normal no-time-to-waste strut, but better than being flat on his back. He still didn't look right.

"Wassup?" he said.

"Trying to see if Filima's receiving." I knocked again.

He moved past and tried the door knob. Yeah, it worked.

"I'd have done that next," I said.

"No you wouldn't," said Shankey. "That's my job."

"Then you go first."

He obligingly went first. "Lady Filima?"

The painted clouds on the high ceiling were muted this late in the day. Shadows filled the corners of the huge room, frowning at us. Incense hung heavy in the air, a really nasty, head-numbing brand that made my whiskers twitch. The place was no longer cheerful, but gloomy and cold.

And she'd not taken down that black pavilion thing.

"Oh, shit." Suddenly flushed with foreboding, I made a beeline for it, pulling the curtain aside. Filima was slumped on the candlelit table within, her head on another scrying mirror. I picked her up and took her to the couch.

"See," Terrin grumbled. "Her you carry. Me you drag like a sack of potatoes."

Shankey sheered off to haul on the bell rope a few times. He grumbled as well, displaying a surprising store of gutter language, all of it terrifically appropriate for the situation. I felt like repeating some myself as I tried to bring her around.

"Terrin, can you do anything?" I called over my shoulder.

"She'll be all right," he said, his attention on the black curtains. He must have spotted the aura of magic permeating them. He went inside.

A lot he knew. I lightly slapped her cheeks and wrists, the extent of my first aid for fainting. Feet up, that was another trick to try. I grabbed her ankles and did that elevation thing like you see in the emergency manuals. Maybe overdoing it.

"Hey," said Shankey, coming over quick. "What the hell are you - "

"I'm copping a peek up her skirt. Here, you take 'em." I put her feet into his startled hands and went to a table that held a carafe of water and other drinkables, returning with the water and something that smelled like brandy. I flicked one in her face and got her to take a sip of the other. She didn't like it, but tough love and all that. "Come on, wake up, ya dizzy dame."

The matron lady entered. With her bottle of stinky stuff.

"Argh! Agh! Foo!" went Filima, waving and sneezing.

The matron lady left. With a satisfied expression. She herded out the other servants who had charged in. You'd think they'd be used to this kind of riot by now.

Filima's eyelids fluttered and peeled back. She stared at Shankey. "Captain? What are - ?"

Shankey hastily dropped her feet and pointed at me. "He told me to do it. I didn't look!"

"Yo," I said, drawing their combined attention. "End of emergency. It's the rake-over-the-coals hour. Filima, what the hell were you thinking? After what happened the last time - "

She waved some more to shut me up. "I know, but I had to have a look. Oh, my head."

"You're lucky another one of those creepy-crawlies didn't come through your mirror again."

"If that's what was really there."

"It was there, all right."

"Regardless, whatever happened earlier began on its own. I've never had any trouble before. Anyway, nothing hurt me."

"Yeah, sure, except for passing out cold again."

"That was my headache. Could you rub my neck . . . ?"

I grumped and growled, one of my more effective vocalizations with all the cat inside me, but obliged, standing behind her to work on a few nerve clusters.

"Ohhh, that's so much better."

And I thought I could purr. But I couldn't let her moans of pleasure distract me. Not too damn much. "Why were you messing around with the magic again?"

"I had to see what else was going on in the city."

"Again, why?"

"It's what I do this time of day. If I study the initial manifestation of the Hell-river enough, it might provide a clue to getting rid of it."

"Excuse me? You've got a wizard right here. You can't talk shop with him?"

"I had to see to this first," she insisted.

Terrin's muffled voice came from behind the black folds. "Never mind that, Myhr, she's throwing out more fog than the river. Ask her why she freaked when she saw my shirt."

"What's he doing in there?" She shifted from under my massage and started for the pavilion. I caught her and made her stay put. Shankey might have objected to his boss being manhandled - or rather cathandled - but he'd pulled the velvet out of the way for a look inside himself.

"Terrin's checking things out," I answered. "You got magic all around that thing. He's going to go over it. What about his shirt?"

"Shirt?"

"The one with the orange demon babes that you saw him in. Soon as you flashed on it, you split. I thought it was just a sign of your good taste, but . . ."

Filima squinched her face up, then shook her head, her shoulders slumping under my hands. "I'm so damn tired."

"Uh-uh, no continued-next-week crap. Talk, lady."

She remained slumped. And quiet. But after a moment or three, she gave out with a deep sigh and a shudder. "All right. What he wore was a vision."

"Hah?"

"A vision of Hell."

A short bark of laughter came from Terrin across the room. Whatever he was doing in the pavilion had Shankey riveted.

"A vision of Hell? Little more info, please."

"I saw it once in my mirror." Another wave, vaguely at Terrin and presumably his previous shirt.

"There's a lot of weird shit going on around here," Terrin put in.

Like I hadn't noticed. I turned to Filima. "And that's what set you off?"

"I had to find out if he was a Darkside creature, so I tried scrying to find out about him. Nothing came through, just blackness, like a horrible gaping, hungry maw. . . ."

"Look, I know Terrin's hard to get used to, but he's hardly - "

He poked his head out, peering past Shankey. "It's like a football game, Myhr. She thought she was sitting all safe in the home bleachers, then she sees my shirt and thinks I'm a spy for the other team."

"The other team? There's teams?"

"Yeah. And the other guys are pretty tough."

"The Hell-river?"

"I dunno yet. But Filima does."

"No I don't!"

He threw a sour, cranky look. "Oh, hush," he told her.

Surprisingly, she did.

He retreated inside and I heard a low humming, not the kind of sound that comes from a human throat. Filima noticed it, too, and froze. My ears twitched and flattened, ditto for my lip whiskers. Magic stuff, fairly heavy-duty. It went on for about a minute, rising in force, then falling to nothing.

Shankey backed his way out of the pavilion, his mouth open. "You should have seen what he did," he said. "He went all glowy and there were these black specks whirling around like snow and they went right into him! That was magic, wasn't it?"

"Terrin?" I called. "What's going on?"

He emerged, his ruddy color nearly restored. "Just recharging my batteries. There was energy in there, not a lot, but it might get me through this mess. Jeez, it's dark. Somebody put on a light."

Shankey reached into the pavilion and came out with a table candle, using it to light others in the room. He looked excited. "Wasn't that magic? Someone tell me if that was magic. Was that magic?"

"You got it," I said agreeably. Filima by candlelight was absolutely devastating. I got the massage thing going in earnest. A cat can dream, can't he? Her mind wasn't on me, though - she wasn't moaning like before - instead she stared out the windows, her shoulders bunching up under my hands.

She pointed. "Oh, gawds, here it is again."

We all looked. The streets and ways of the city below had movement, not of people, but of a black, slowly undulating mass. It seemed solid and wispy all at once, growing out of nothing all over, all at the same time. In a very short while the city was choked with it to a depth of about head height.

"What's that?" I asked, pointing higher.

On the roof of one of the taller buildings were several small bobbing lights. As my eyes got used to the darkness I saw they were lanterns in the hands of people shifting nervously about.

"They're the overduke's volunteers," Filima answered. "Those few remaining Talents are in shielded sanctuaries keeping watch on the river. They've not asked me to help yet because of the mourning period for Botello's death or else I'd be with them, too."

"You need to be here," said Terrin. "It's time for show-and-tell, and you're up first."

But none of us could tear away from the window, not even Terrin. His head was cocked and slightly tilted back, upper lip curled just enough to show his teeth, eyes half shut. He seemed about to have a sneezing fit. That told me he was using his inner sight on the river. With it he could see things invisible to most others. I had some of that ability as well, but since it's a normal part of me I don't have to concentrate to make it work.

Shankey, however, was frustrated. "I don't see a damn thing," he complained.

"That's the idea," said Terrin in a distant voice. "Trust me, it's out there."

Out there and then some. The black fog butted right up against the front gates of the grounds. It should have been able to ooze through the wrought iron, but didn't, apparently held in check by the house's shields.

"Do the magical protections extend as far as the stables?" I asked.

Filima nodded absently, still staring. She had a lost, frightened look that made me want to gather her in close and go all cave-cat on her.

Not the time or place. Dammit. "Gang . . . I think we should have a tour of the dungeon."

* * *

Elsewhere, at the Overduke's Palace

Botello liked the palace dining room; it had the only true grandeur in the whole wretched city. The ceilings were overwhelmingly high, and like the walls, heavy with ornate decorations and gold leaf. The vast table and its many chairs were on the same scale. This level of luxury should have engulfed the three people seated at one lonely end, but those three were extraordinary enough in themselves to suit their surroundings.

Overduke Anton, tall and spare in black discreetly trimmed in silver, could fill a room all on his own. He had the presence needed for his office, a rare kind of stillness that commanded attention. By his remaining in one place the world had to necessarily move around him; however, he possessed enough charm so as not to be annoying about it.

Seated to his left was Lord Cadmus Burkus, considered to be the most handsome man in the province. His looks, combined with a certain flippant wit and a mastery of the physical skills of hunting, swordplay, and horsemanship, made him an essential guest at all the fashionable parties.

Then there was Velma, a quite devastatingly beautiful young woman, come from the humble origins of a traveling circus. A dancer, of course. She'd met Anton at one of the Darmo House parties, invited there by her old friend, Lady Filima.

Botello suppressed a growl of displeasure at the thought of his treacherous wife. He also brutally suppressed a violent surge of resentment and fear emanating from the mind-imprisoned Cadmus. So, the fop did have real feelings for the bitch. Serve him right if he ever got her.

"Does the strawberry sauce not agree with you, Lord Cadmus?" asked Velma, noticing his expression.

"It's delicious," he countered. "I'm just a touch distracted by this Hell-river puzzle."

"I've not heard it defined as a puzzle before," said Anton. "Have you learned something new about it?"

Until now the topic of the river had not been broached. On purpose, Botello thought, so as not to spoil the dinner, but that suited him. How good it was to eat real food again, even when in another's body. It had cost him some effort of will not to bolt everything down like a starving farmhand. He was bodily sated, but on the astral level still ravenous. That would soon be remedied.

"Sadly not, my lord," he replied. "I've been busy with study, but it remains an enigma to me."

"What about your portal theory?"

Portal? What had that idiot Cadmus revealed? "I'm still investigating that area. Nothing of significance has presented itself."

Anton sipped his dessert wine, making a brief face. "Well, I hope you can be more forthcoming with details in the morning. I've invited all the other Talents over for a general meeting, very early. This Hell-river nonsense has gone on quite long enough; we're going to put an end to it. The curfew isn't popular, and if it's still on by the time the Mid-Summer Festival is upon us, it'll spoil everything. Can't expect people to be done with their drinking and debauchery by sunset."

"No, of course not." Gawds, he only saw the river as an inconvenience to some ridiculous celebration? It couldn't be; the overduke was a much more subtle man than that. Botello committed an otherwise unthinkable breach of etiquette - he was beyond such trivialities now, anyway - and used his inner sight for a look at Anton's aura. What an interesting pattern . . . and the colors . . .

Ah. So that's how it was; the man was terrified. He hid it well, having had decades of practice with the public life he led, but there it was for those with the Sight. What visions of the future had he seen to put him into such a state?

Velma was in a similar state of strain, but on a much lesser level. Her concern would be for Anton, not the future of Rumpock. She had rather sharper eyes than her lover, though.

"Anything wrong, Lord Cadmus?" Her delicate brows were up, questioning.

Filima would use that exact same expression when she was about to catch him out in some lie - that is, misdirection. Botello had to smother a strong urge to throw a psychic shock at Velma. Not the time or place and he couldn't afford to waste magic.

He smiled instead. "At the risk of giving Lord Anton cause for jealousy, I must confess your beauty quite enthralled me for a moment. I hope not to give offense, though." He bowed to her from his chair. There. Exactly the sort of pretty speech a twit like Cadmus would make. It had the right effect, too. Velma beamed and Anton nodded once to indicate that respectful admiration for his girlfriend was acceptable.

Velma's good cheer didn't last long, and her face sobered soon after. Did she know anything or was she back to worrying about Anton? That had to be it. She couldn't know Cadmus well enough to detect anything wrong, and Anton was too wound into his Hell-river worry to notice. Botello dabbed the corners of his mouth with his napkin. Velma, playing hostess rather well, nodded at this silent signal that their guest was prepared to quit the table and suggested they remove to one of the parlors. They rose, Botello with difficulty, for he was very full. Anton offered Velma his arm, she accepted, and they ambled from the dining room. Servants with candles in hand guided their way along a vast hall.

Social rituals . . . Botello had had a bellyful of them before his displacement. Good manners were quite useless in Hell - unless one was one of the demons, of course. Then one commanded respect, based on the fact that any demon with power could make existence extremely unpleasant for those with less power. And if he didn't do something to help himself soon, Botello would be back there and at their mercy - ah, there was the catch, they had none - in a very short while.

"Perhaps," said the overduke, "even something of insignificance could prove useful in our quest."

"Pardon?" said Botello.

"Your portal theory. You've found nothing significant, but much may hang upon a small detail. This business is too important to overlook anything. Perhaps a fresh pair of eyes is needed."

"Indeed, my lord. I didn't want to trouble you over trifles, though." Botello tried to call to mind all he'd ever related to Cadmus about portal-travel. Pity he couldn't be questioned, but the mind-prison he was locked into only allowed for the most basic communication of feelings. Anything more complicated and he might manage an escape. No problem for Botello, though; the way to prevent being caught out in a lie was to just be vague and let the other person take the lead. It had worked often enough on Filima. Almost often enough.

"After that wonderful meal I'm in a mood for trifles," Anton countered. Beneath his fear a tiny flame of hope warmed his aura. Hope was an excellent tool for manipulation.

Botello nodded. "Very well. I could try recreating one of my experiments. With your help, we might be able to make some sort of progress. That would require the use of your Black Room."

"It is at your disposal."

My, but isn't he being generous? Most Talents held their special chambers aloof from visitors. It could disrupt all their stored magic. Generous or desperate.

Velma paused before the door to one of the informal parlors. "This sounds like it might take a bit of doing."

Anton also paused, with a questioning look at Cadmus.

Botello gave a rueful smile. "It is the nature of the art. I hope you'll forgive me for stealing him away."

"Anything to get rid of that Hell-river," she said. "I'll say goodnight now, then."

Botello brushed his lips on the back of her outstretched hand, then Anton affectionately pecked her cheek. She wafted into the parlor; they took another direction toward Anton's private apartments. Neither man said anything. Ahead of them silent servants padded along, lighting candles and opening doors. The last door at the end of the hall remained shut. The two guards flanking it came to attention at their approach.

Anton had a key on a neck chain and used it to deal with the lock. Botello took a candle from one of the servants, holding it high. The door, a black slab of oak with touches of silver, swung wide. A breath of chill air flowing from the room within made the flame shiver. Having seen Hell, Botello found nothing to intimidate him here. He walked in behind Anton and solidly shut the door, sliding the inside bolt into place. They would have total privacy, now. Lovely. Botello looked eagerly around, this being his first time here.

The overduke's own magical chamber was larger than he'd expected. Instead of a pavilion of black velvet to help focus the power, the walls themselves were covered in that plush fabric. The ceiling, too. In the center was a table with a scrying mirror on it, and a simple chair. Botello lighted more candles on tall stands, but they helped little against the darkness.

"You anticipated something more elaborate?" asked Anton. He pulled a cord that caused a thick sheet of velvet to close over the doorway, cocooning them utterly. The layers of plush fabric muffled all sound. That was good. The men outside would hear nothing.

Botello ignored a stab of worry that Anton had picked up on his thoughts. The man had prophetic dreams, but was not clairvoyant. "I suppose so."

"I don't need more than this. I wish there was no need of any of it, but one must accept one's path." He flicked a handkerchief over the mirror, whisking away a thin hint of dust. He stared long at the blank, polished face of the device, then puffed out a brief sigh. "The visions have gotten worse, you know."

Gawds, the great man was actually unbending a bit. That was a decidedly confiding tone, as one friend to another. Excellent. All the better to catch him off-guard. Sympathy was in order. "I'm sorry to hear that. I take it they're distressing?"

"They're damned hard on my sleep. Haven't had a good night's rest since Botello died."

He gulped to hide his smirk. "Yes, it was terrible what happened to him."

"We should all have so easy a passing. Go to sleep with a beautiful woman, wake up in . . . well, wherever it is the gawds store souls until it's time for them to come back again."

"He will be missed." Botello took care not to grind his teeth. What had Filima told them? Dead in his bed? The lying bitch.

Anton took a deep breath, clearing his throat. "Past and done. Let's see to the present and try to save the future. What have you in mind for this experiment? Do you require anything special?"

"Only your cooperation, my lord. If you will seat yourself before the mirror . . . and I shall stand opposite."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Shut your eyes, and compose yourself as you would for a scrying session."

"I was hoping to avoid that," said Anton in a wry tone. He sat and followed instructions. "I never see anything I like."

Botello took his place and held still for some minutes, stretching forth with his astral senses to determine the level of magic in the chamber. Quite a lot of it was stored up - years of it. His heart hammered frantically with anticipation, but he couldn't feast just yet.

Between them the black scrying mirror went dull, the black turning to gray. Clouds formed within its bounds. Anton must have felt something. He opened his eyes. There was a roiling image within the mirror, formless, but taking on color, going from gray to blood-red.

"That's never happened before - " he began, startled.

Botello slapped his right hand upon Anton's forehead. Anton gave a brief gasp, then froze, his blue eyes wide, his mouth sagging in shock. Visible now, his aura writhed like burning silk in a high wind. Botello reached toward the mirror with his left hand. Instead of stopping on what should have been hard surface, he slipped right through into the churning red clouds.

Something within them suddenly seized Botello's hand in a death-grip. Yes, they would be eager to know what he was doing, eager to tug him back. As whatever it was began to pull him in, he forced a wrenching shift in the magical flow. Anton's aura went flooding from his body. Botello heard his cry of anguish as the man's consciousness passed through him, down his arm, and into the clawing grasp of those on the Other Side. Then Botello cried out himself as he fled from Cadmus's body, diving blindly into Anton's empty vessel.

He crashed heavily to the stone floor. Disoriented, fighting nausea, he desperately tried to locate Cadmus. There. Over there, swaying, looking dazed. Fully conscious again Cadmus Burkus stared down, stupefied, at the mirror and at his arm, which was lost in the soft surface up to his elbow.

Yelling panic, Cadmus wrested himself free, twisting and falling. While he tried to sort himself out, Botello used the time to stagger to his feet. He could barely see the images in the mirror, only a blurred impression of blood and fire and . . . yes, he could hear Anton's screams now. Not in his own voice, but that of the astral body Botello had left behind in Hell. Anton would have a fine time dealing with the politics there. . . .

Botello flipped the mirror over, shutting off the noise. He gathered himself, peering around the dim room. Damn, he'd known the overduke had bad eyes, but the man was all but blind. It would have to do for now.

"My lord?" Cadmus now lay flat on his back, obviously exhausted and very shaken.

"I'm right here." Botello stood over him like a mountain. Smiling.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes, but what exactly happened?"

"It was Botello Darmo, I can't explain how he did it, but - gawds, my gut's full to bursting." Cadmus groaned and turned on his side.

Yes, well, Botello had indulged quite heavily at the dining table. Time to indulge some more now that he was in a body and in complete control of it. He was so very, very starved.

"Let me help you, my boy." Reaching down, he took Cadmus's hand. The man was a fool, but he did have magical energy, a goodly amount, and taking it fresh was far better than the stored stuff of the room.

Cadmus passed out long before Botello finished draining him.

***

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