Chapter Thirteen

In an Undetermined Otherside Location Not Quite in Hell

Overduke Anton was not a man given to hysteria. Life had taught him the wisdom of calm; it had been decades since his last outburst in childhood. He forgot all about self-control for a whole minute, though, as he tumbled helplessly in a terrifying, smoky abyss the color of blood. At any point in his long fall he expected to be dashed into something unforgivably solid that would silence his voice for good. Panic and shock required expression, so he vented them. Fully.

Then he had to draw breath, and a distant part of his mind informed him that he should have struck that unknown solidity by now. He risked opening his eyes a tiny crack - the blood-red clouds stinking of sulfur still unnerved him - to ascertain just what had happened to him . . . was happening.

Nothing pleasant.

He still seemed to be falling. It felt like falling, yet the clouds remained close, slow-churning about him, so they were either traveling at the same speed, or he was victim to delusion. Gathering his bewildered wits and forcing them to work, he concluded he was floating in some other place than his Black Room. As there were no cloudy red abysses anywhere near Rumpock, he eliminated one possibility after another - including visions, hallucinations, drugged kidnapping, and drunkenness. What remained he did not care for at all, as it meant that Cadmus had managed to shove him into an Otherside place, a not very nice one from the look and smell of things.

Look . . . by gawds, he could see! Never had his physical vision been so clear before. His circumstance was awful, of course, but the novelty of unblurred sight took away a bit of its edge. But where and how was he? He didn't feel right, not bodily.

His hands, he noted, were not his own. The fingers and nails were all wrong and the garment clothing him - he'd never worn this drab brown color that he could remember. The same went for the trousers, robe, and boots. He felt his face and hair. Oh, yes, those were wrong. What else? No . . . oh, no . . . not that. . . .

Fresh horror blooming, he grabbed his crotch, then sighed out gratitude. Everything was there, hopefully in working order. Hastily, he pulled up the hem of his tunic, opened his trousers, and checked their contents. Good gawds. That wasn't his wedding tackle. What in the name of everything had Cadmus done to him?

Before he could crumble into another bout of panic, there came a decided change in the sulfurous red air. The unforgiving hard surface he anticipated occurred, only he seemed to just be on it instead of smashing into it. That was good. So far as it went.

He stood upright just as the clouds began to thin and whisk away. Intuition made him do up his trousers again. He be damned if he got caught anywhere with his pants down.

Dignity restored, Anton looked about him with his sharp new eyesight . . . and promptly wished himself blind.

Emerging from the retreating clouds before him was a Hell-being. There was no mistaking it, as it looked exactly like the nightmare vision he'd had not so very long past. The eyes were the same; so was the voice, a squalling shriek like all the souls that ever died cried out their torment through its gaping mouth, as though trapped within. The demon was far uglier, larger, and smellier than the vision, and the earth - or whatever it was Anton now stood upon - shook as it walked.

It loomed over him like a great red mass of growling hate, then bared several rows of needle-sharp teeth, snuffling to get his scent, glowering down with fiery eyes.

Despite a profound instinctual urge to pelt away shrieking, Anton held his ground. In the vision he'd dreamed he could not run or fight. If he was where he thought he was, there would be no point attempting escape. No one ever got out of this place to tell the tale. "Hallo, there," he ventured.

The demon snuffled again, belched out fetid breath, and roared. A very unsettling sound. "You're not Darmo," it pronounced with dark certainty.

Anton didn't quite know how to respond to that. Darmo? As in Botello? What did he have to do with things?

"Not. Darmo," it thundered again, ominously.

"Er . . . no. Not as such." Anton didn't recognize the voice he used to respond. It wasn't the one he'd been born with, but someone else's. Almost familiar, but not. Was this how Botello sounded inside his own head? A tiny little inkling of the terrible truth began to trickle into Anton's consciousness.

Rumble. Growl. The demon stood tall as houses over him, burning slime dripping from its jaws. "Then who the hell are you?" it wanted to know.

* * *

Darmo House, the Kitchen

It was a good thing Filima had once led an ordinary sort of life, otherwise she wouldn't have been able to unbend enough to sit around a kitchen with Shankey and watch while I puttered and put things together for food. She had the demeanor of royalty required for her gig as the lady of the manor, but could drop it according to the situation. Anyone born to the life wouldn't have adjusted. She did a very nice slump with her elbows firmly on the table, looking all cute and adorable. I wanted to tell her that, but in her mood she might have slugged me.

Shankey turned out to be the snob of the moment, at first refusing to sit down until she specifically told him it was all right. He didn't mean anything against her; it was just his training. After I located and raided a stout keg we each had a beer and that helped things along. It wasn't as potent as Clem's, but worked well enough.

At this hour the staff was all in bed; we had the place to ourselves, and however huge the room, candles made our patch pretty cozy. Not a lot of light, but cozy. I had good night vision, but used my sense of smell more often than not to locate the needed ingredients for the feast I planned. Though Terrin had top cookery training, even he couldn't match my skill at made-from-scratch pizza.

As this wasn't the Earth I knew, there were differences in the food, but dough was dough and cheese was cheese nearly everywhere in the Multiverse. Tomato sauce was trickier, but I let my nose lead me until I found something like it in a cooler crock. They called it wolf apple smash, and warned that I'd need honey to take out the tartness.

I tasted the red sauce. Tomato/to-mah-to, a rose is a rose, and a cigar is a smelly leaf that costs way too much. This was what I wanted. "Just needs salt."

"Salt?" Filima was scandalized. "You'll ruin it."

"Trust me, this will work."

"What are we doing here? We should be helping Terrin!"

"Trust me, that won't work. When he's on a research binge just keep clear. You clean up the mess he leaves only after he's done."

"But I can help him with Botello's code."

"You've been studying it for two weeks, right? Not made a crack, right? Let the wizard-dude play. He's got the magic for it."

"So do I," she maintained.

And any little league player could throw a baseball, but not like Nolan Ryan. I kept the comparison to myself. One, she wouldn't get the reference, and two, if she did, she'd be mad at me for implying she didn't have the same level of expertise as Terrin. I was sure she knew that, but guilt and desperation to fix things had to be clouding her thinking. Now that she'd broken down and confessed all, she wanted action and to be a part of it.

"Just chill and go with the flow," I said, hoping to sound reassuring. "Terrin knows what he's doing."

He needed his space and isolation to concentrate. Sure, he could block out distractions, even hubba-hubba babes like Filima, unless she made a point to put herself in the middle of his work. As restless as she'd gotten that was a forgone conclusion. He'd turn real cranky then. Better to keep them apart until it was time.

Time for what, I didn't know, but I felt it. It was big and on its way.

Sooner or later.

Not now, but not never.

I'd have been bored (not to mention hungry) standing around waiting on it, though. Might as well have a snack.

My morning wanderings around Rumpock confirmed that this world not only lacked pizza, but was woefully behind on the concept of delivery food, period. If it turned out we were stuck here permanently I planned to correct that lack and make lots of money. I could go into partnership with Clem since he was a friendly sort and had a good kitchen all set up. I could be "Myhr the Singing Pizza Cat, Your Order in Thirty Minutes or It's Free." Hmm. That might not be too cost-effective in a horse-and-wagon society. Have to come up with a different promotion ploy.

From the size of the measuring cups this place had a different system than Earth; good thing I never bothered to learn imperial or metric. I went by eyeball calculation and the feel of the dough. Shankey knew a thing or three about baking ovens - maybe from that cook girlfriend of his - and got a fire going for me. Man, back home I'd have had to pay extra for the taste that would come out of this kitchen and said as much to them. Though there were only two in my audience, I felt compelled to have a running patter going about pizza parlors back home as I mixed, rolled, and tossed. It kept Filima distracted. She actually smiled when I began spinning the dough overhead like a juggler.

I spread it out on a close cousin to a cookie sheet, poured on wolf apple smash spiked with salt, vinegar, and a touch of garlic, then loaded on toppings like sliced sausage, mushrooms, and cheese. Oh, for some pepperoni.

"It'll be great," I said in response to their horrified looks. Apparently no one had ever combined these items into a single dish before. I was the first ever to do so on this world and for many brave minutes felt a little like Neil Armstrong. My audience maintained the face-making shtick until I got another round of beer for the table.

"What's going to happen to me?" Filima asked.

I didn't think her question had anything to do with how her digestion would react to the pizza. "In relation to . . . ?"

"When the town finds out what I've done. What Botello did."

"They won't," said Shankey.

"They could," she countered. "We all scry on each other unless we think to put up protections. I'm sure someone might know already."

"I doubt it," I said. "Botello had that spot shielded up the wahzoo or someone would have sensed it. The kind of power he was working down there would have been astrally noticed by someone long before you walked in on him. He had it locked tight."

Shankey agreed. "If anyone had found out, he would have stepped forward by now and spoken to the overduke."

"Unless it's that idiot Cadmus." Filima made a derisive humph sound. "He and Botello talked magic all the time, though I'm sure as often as not he came over to ogle me."

"You think Lord Cadmus knows anything that could help us?"

She shrugged, her eyes dull from the beer. "He's the honorable sort who would have stepped forward by now. He'd want to help out against the Hell-river. Even he's not that dim - except where I'm concerned. He'd keep quiet if he thought it would further his suit, I'm sure. I'm certain he scrys on me all the time. I put up protections, but he could find a way around them. Bloody puppy love."

"But" - Shankey shot a warning glance at me - "what if he's really in love with you?"

"I don't want to think about that. Poor Botello's not cold in his tomb yet."

Poor Botello???

Shankey was equally scandalized. "My lady, Lord Botello tried to feed you to a demon!"

"Which has nothing to do with me not wanting to get involved with another man until I'm damned good and ready!"

That would be about twenty years from now to judge by her tone. Standing behind Filima, I made a throat-cutting gesture at Shankey, who caught the message and nodded. He'd apparently dealt with enough women to understand when to shut up.

"Wooo, that's sure smelling good," I said, to change the subject. I peered into the depths of the baking oven. The crust was just starting to brown, the shredded cheese to melt. "Not long now."

Filima took a swig of beer. "Takes longer to put it together than to cook," she observed.

"And less time to eat it, which is why I made it triple-huge."

"We won't finish all that."

"No problem. Cold pizza's just as tasty. Ask any college kid who's pulled an all-nighter." If and when Terrin completed his code-breaking he'd want a sizable chunk of the feast too.

And speak of the devil, he sauntered in. There wasn't a speck of dust on him. He looked almost normal. "Wassup?"

"Sausage pizza," I said.

"Coolies." He sat at the table next to Filima. If she'd just look at me with that kind of anticipation.

"Well?" she demanded, eyebrows and voice rising.

He shrugged. "You want the bad news first? Or the bad news first?"

"That's supposed to be good news/bad news," I pointed out.

"Not this time. Got any beer left?"

"Did you find out what Botello was doing?" she asked, eyebrows and voice going higher.

"Yeah, and it ain't good from any angle."

"You broke the code?"

He curled his lip in disgust. "Code? You call that a code? More like shorthand notes. I didn't bother."

"But how did you - ?"

"I just held the stuff for awhile and felt up the vibes he left behind. He might as well have put it in Times Square in lights. You guys are in deep kimchee."

"Terrin . . ." I handed him a flagon of beer. "You're scaring the lady."

"That's awright, she can take it. But one thing - that little tiff in the basement ain't nothing compared to what's coming."

The offhand way he said it pounded the point home. We stared at each other for a bad moment. They went pale and so did I - under the fur. It felt the way pale should feel, anyway. "Well, go on."

He slugged back the beer, all of it, and cut loose with a monumental belch. I swear the walls shook. "That's better." He leaned forward. "Okay, it's like this: Botello's studies got him into opening portals between planes. Myhr and I do that all the time when we travel, it's no big deal because I know what I'm doing."

I stifled a snort.

He heard. "I know what I'm doing," he repeated. "Your guy thought he knew, but didn't really. Most beginners are like that. All they see are the special effects, they don't get the wherefores of the underlying work behind them and only groove to the flash and dazzle. Lazy twits."

"The scrying mirror was a portal? Into Hell?"

"Give the cat a kewpie doll. Botello had enough personal power to open one and probably thought he could control whatever came through it. He was working in a fast and dirty way, not how you're supposed to. All those jars and liquids and junk were part of his conjuring. Amateur stuff. No real wizard who knows his noodles has to bother. It's a matter of power, will, intent, and some damned brutal training - years of it, which he didn't bother with - you get those four working smooth and you don't need silly things like props."

"Okay we get that, and that Botello was opening portals better left shut. Why?"

"Oh, pul-ease! For power, of course."

"Power." I felt a bit of a let-down. "That's it?"

"Pretty much. Of course, what he was after was a mash of Panavision, Technicolor, Cinemascope, Omnimax with Dolby Digital sound with subwoofers only elephants can hear kind of power."

I got what he was saying, even if Filima and Shankey were lost. "Serious shit kind of power."

"The most serious, shittiest kind, yes."

"Magic power?" asked Shankey, visibly floundering at what to him must have been a string of incomprehensible gabble-words. He was mostly right.

Terrin lifted his flagon for a refill. "Yuppers. Only kind worth having. There's just a few little problems: to get that high a degree you have to give something in return. The Multiverse is strict on checks and balances. Make it rain in one field, another one goes dry - those are the rules; you deal with them. Botello the do-it-yourselfer on a roll decided he was above that. He started small, like a guy who only snorts coke on the weekends, thought he was in control, and the demons he dealt with let him keep on thinking it. Then when he was thoroughly addicted to what they fed him, they kept upping the dose."

"And getting what in return?" I asked, topping off his flagon.

"Knowledge about this side of Reality. Anything they can use that might break down the barriers. They want to be here because Hell is hell. The more they find out about this side the more they want it, but hate it at the same time. The way other countries look at America. They want the mod-cons decadence - cheap fast food, blue jeans, and flush toilets - but since they can't get them, they gouge tourist wallets and blow up embassies. Copy for the evening news."

I looked at Filima. "You get that?"

She shook her head. "Botello found a way of bringing demons into this side of Reality? And they want to be here?"

"So far, they only managed it for short periods in his downstairs Black Room," said Terrin. "Crappy as that place was, it's still better than Hell. If that was all he showed them of this side they'd want it. Want it bad. Beer?"

I remembered the flagon in my hand and gave it over. "So if they got the idea that his room was just a small part of something better . . ."

"Then they'd want it real bad. They'd feed him up, offer him a sweetheart of a power deal, all he has to do is fix it so they can drop in for casual visits. That's what they'd tell him, anyhow, and he'd believe them because he'd want to believe. The way things are set up with the planes, demons aren't allowed to do crossings on their own. They have to be brought in under very specific conditions. The Powers That Be get very honked off with those who make the attempt themselves so they must have been paying attention to Botello's screwing around. That's how you ended up being the defender of all Reality, girl." He smirked at Filima.

"All Reality?" She seemed unconvinced.

"Pretty much. I wouldn't sweat it. Sooner or later everyone gets a turn and most don't even know it. Usually it's something subtle like holding a door for someone at the right place and time. Or not holding a door. That's going on all over so no one really notices. But - if something major is getting the balance out of whack more force is needed than a butterfly doing a wing-rumba in a rain forest. So this time they sent in a pissed-off, ignored wife swinging a cold-iron mallet like Hank Aaron on speed. Congratulate your fine self, girl. You saved the world. For a little while. I figure we got a couple of hours yet."

"Hours?" she squeaked. It was a cute squeak, but didn't suit her.

"Hours." I said evenly. "Then what happens?"

"Something bad."

"Define that, please."

He peered past me at the oven. "Hey, get that pizza out before it burns. I'm starvin'!"

* * *

The Overduke's Black Room in the Palace

Cadmus's contribution of magic energy helped Botello feel much better, but still not quite satisfied. He required a lot more power, not only to initiate what was to come, but to withstand the aftermath. Once he opened the Door Between the demons might not discern friend from food unless he had sufficient protections around himself.

In a few hours that wouldn't be a problem. The remaining Talents of Rumpock would come to the palace, singly, in pairs, in groups, all with the expectation of resolving the business with the Hell-river. There'd be a resolution, just not one they'd like.

Filima would be in their number. Should he scrape her out first or let her watch it happen to the others? Either way had its own appeal. Either would teach her not to interrupt his workings. "We need to talk. . . ." indeed. Bloody woman.

He began pacing around the room, wonderful new possibilities giving him a surfeit of nervous energy. Wonderful feeling.

Perhaps . . . he could send an escort to fetch her to the palace. The Hell-river would drain away her small store of powers as she passed through it, but it might be worth the sacrifice to have a private chat with her. He could ignore the curfew. He was the overduke after all; he could order anything he liked and people would jump to it. Lovely advantage, that.

Turning too sharply, he bashed into the overduke's table, nearly sending the reversed scrying mirror off its edge. Botello caught it only just in time, fumbling badly. If only he weren't so damned blind. It was like trying to see through overly thick, fogged glass. He'd have to find a way of correcting the fault, or see to it that his own body was manifested anew. There was no question of reinhabiting his old one. What shape it was in after two weeks of rotting away in the Darmo family tomb he didn't want to consider. While he was about it he could fix his manifestation at a much younger physical age, truly fix it. Imagine being perpetually twenty. He could be taller, too. And cure that lifelong nagging ingrown toenail trouble . . .

But later. First things first.

He checked his trousers. Well, Anton's trousers. Contents thereof.

Good gawds.

Apparently there were some compensations for being half blind.

* * *

Same Palace. The Dungeon

Cadmus decided that his situation - confinement in one of the overduke's dungeon cells - though bad, could be worse. The place was small, but thus far free of hungry rodents and obnoxious crawly bugs.

He'd had a good meal, even if he couldn't remember eating, so it would be hours yet before risking his digestion to the vagaries of prison food.

The delightful Velma had believed his story about Anton being possessed by Botello. She was a brainy, practical sort and would pool resources with that squinty gentleman doctor fellow. Between them they'd eventually come up with something helpful to their problems.

Captain Rockbush was out of the old school, meaning that prisoners were treated with a certain degree of respect no matter what their accused crime. He'd follow the letter of his orders and be polite . . . right up to the point where Cadmus ascended the scaffold.

Cadmus shied away from that one. It was one thing to run swinging into a duel to the death, quite another to coldly consider the idea of being executed. He was fairly certain Botello would have that uppermost in mind, only it wasn't likely to be a formal execution. He'd send some lackey down with a knife or garrote. Or see to it himself.

But Captain Rockbush wouldn't allow that on his watch. Being old school he would require no end of proper paperwork, even from Anton, which could take days. Botello couldn't hide behind the overduke's face for that long without someone noticing.

Sigh of relief. Cadmus was safe for the moment. Things could indeed be much worse.

So . . . now what? He frowned at the drab walls. He'd not been here long enough to justify scratching marks on them as had past incarcerates. Besides, he really didn't care to leave a written record that yet another member of the Burkus clan had ended up in jail. The family reputation was spotty enough. He'd really hoped to redeem it by marrying the divine Filima, fathering some lovely children, and raising them up smarter than he'd been raised. First and foremost: he'd keep them away from Burkus family history lest they take all those bad ends as a model instead of a lesson.

"Cadmus!"

The fierce whisper jarring him from his somewhat dented dreams had come from Velma. She'd changed from her fragile evening dress into a very flattering riding-type costume, all high boots and trousers. She might not have been born a duchess, but certainly possessed the good taste inherent to the class. With a better figure. No wonder Anton adored her. Cadmus got up from the plank bed upon which he'd been reclining and executed a superbly ironic bow to acknowledge his fallen circumstance. "Dear lady, how nice to see you again. So kind of you to brighten my lonely incarceration with the warmth of your presence."

"Oh, will you leave off the fancy talk, we're not at court now."

"One must keep up appearances, good for morale, y'see."

She came close to the bars of his cell. They were new bars and hadn't had time to rust yet. Not that this dungeon was damp. As dungeons go it was rather decent. "Were you serious that you knew a way of getting Anton back from Hell?"

Cadmus looked past her. Captain Rockbush stood a few paces away by a big slab of a door, his deadpan gaze well over their heads. It was an illusion of privacy only; Rockbush could hear everything, of course, giving no indication of what he thought of the proceedings. Cadmus supposed that so long as he and Velma didn't talk of escape there was no cause to worry.

"Yes, actually," he said, pleased she'd followed up on what he'd shouted over his shoulder when Rockbush and his man had dragged him off. "I had a positively brilliant thought on that."

"Then what is it?" she demanded.

"I suggest we try a seance."

Her face went a touch funny, and her tone went flat. "A seance. That's it?"

"As a way of contacting Anton; then he can tell us what to do."

"Unless he's too busy being tortured by demons to hear."

"There's that, but if he's not, then I think he is most likely to be in the best position to advise us on a suitable course of action. The advantage of a seance is that one does not require magic to obtain results. Of course, magic is a help. Otherwise there is a chance that whatever answers our call to the Otherside might not be Anton. I've heard some of the entities over there are very good at imitation and misdirection. Since they're not subject to the laws of time they love wasting ours, you know. Having a Talent on this side who can tell the difference between the overduke and an astral impostor would be handy."

"Yes, I see what you mean, but right now all the Talents are sitting around Rumpock roofs watching the Hell-river . . . except for Filima."

An awful thought occured to Cadmus. "What if she's helping Botello?"

"Filima? Don't be absurd, she has more sense."

He was suitably abashed. Of course his darling wouldn't dirty her hands with Botello's schemings. "Then we must bring her in."

"But the curfew's on. What do we say at the gate? 'Excuse me, mister guard, we have an emergency seance to conduct, let us through, please.' "

"Dear lady, we have the palace doctor with us. He has no need to explain himself. Just ask him to toddle over to Darmo House with a note for Filima explaining things. Or not explaining things. She might find them difficult to believe just written out cold. You can tell her everything when she gets here. And I would strongly recommend you both avoid contact with Botello. From past talks I got the impression he was none too pleased with his wife - er - widow, that is to say. If he saw her he might get the wind up."

"Don't worry, I know how to handle him."

"But it's not the him you know! Not Anton. He's Botello."

"He's a man. I know how they work."

Cadmus wasn't sure how to take that, feeling a vague need to defend his gender, but so long as she was lending a hand to the cause what did it matter? "Fine, now go write that note to Filima and bring her down here."

"Here? Why?"

"Out of consideration for Captain Rockbush. He won't let me out."

"Strange place to hold a seance," she muttered.

"Indeed, they are rather more associated with candlelit parlors, but one must make do. Now, please hurry along before Botello takes it into his head to chop mine off."

"You think he would do that?"

"At the earliest opportunity."

"Why didn't he kill you when he had you in the Black Room?"

"I wondered myself until I remembered some lore I once read about the energies of death. A lot gets released and transformed when one dies, and murdering me there would have disrupted whatever power construct he set up. He must need things left well enough alone for the moment. Probably waiting for dawn when the Talents come over."

Velma's gaze flicked at Rockbush. She leaned closer. "There's a little problem we have about sending the doctor to fetch Filima."

"Which is . . . ?"

"I already sent him out to warn the Talents not to come here after all."

"Oh. Then you thought of the emergency loophole, too." Cadmus had intended to recommend it at some point.

"Uh-huh."

"Well, that was very clever of you, but deuced bad timing. I don't suppose you could slip out of the palace and fetch her yourself?"

"If I have some help."

"I'd offer my services, but as you can see . . ." He gestured at his cell.

She straightened and turned. "I'll ask for the captain's assistance."

As she spoke in such a way as to indicate he was now a part of the conversation, Rockbush relaxed his "I'm not listening" posture. "Yes, lady?"

Velma told him she required an escort to take her to Darmo House.

He smiled and nodded. "I'll be pleased to see to it myself, lady. We can leave at first light."

She did not look overly surprised. "You must be aware that I need to leave now."

"Sorry, lady, but the overduke's curfew is on. Until he revokes it, or gives you a writ of exception, I have to follow my orders."

She gave a sigh. "Damn. I suppose you do. Even if the overduke is really someone else using his body?"

"Not my place to make those distinctions, lady. Now Lord Perdle might be able to help you if you're reluctant to speak with Lord Anton."

"What a marvelous suggestion, but Lord Perdle is not in the palace."

"It is a bit of a dilemma, lady." He was not unsympathetic in his manner, just tied by the restrictions of his office.

But Cadmus had enough. "Oh, bother! Let's have the seance here and now and take our chances. You know Anton well enough to tell the difference between him and an Otherside entity, don't you?"

"Yes," said Velma. "But since Botello is involved we really should have Filima in on things. She needs to know what her husband is up to. I'll just have to go myself."

"When you have a writ of passage, lady," the captain reminded her. "My men won't let you out the gates without one."

"And if I should avoid the gates and sneak over the wall?" she challenged.

"Then they would have to arrest you. Sorry, lady, but they have their orders."

"Yes, one must have those, mustn't one? Damn and blast! Out of my way!" She stormed toward the door.

Rockbush made haste to remove himself from her path.

Cadmus called after her. "Velma! You can't risk arr - "

Velma, coming even with Rockbush made a very fast, strong uppercut motion with her near fist. She was quite a bit shorter, which put her into an ideal position to inflict the most awful damage to his groin area. Rockbush emitted a piteous sound - Cadmus winced in wholehearted sympathy - and doubled over. Without mercy, Velma struck again, this time with a flexible object she pulled from a pocket in her riding jacket. It made a nasty thumping noise upon connecting with the captain's head, and thereafter he ceased all movement.

"My gawds. You've killed him!" Cadmus observed to the abrupt silence that filled the chamber.

"Just put him to sleep for a while," she said. With some effort, she turned the body over and rifled his pockets.

"What did you hit him with?"

"A stocking full of coins. My mum taught me how to save my money and keep it safe all in one." She found a largish ring full of keys, pushed up, and came over to try them on the cell lock.

"Are you sure he's not dead?"

"Yes, I had plenty of oafs to practice on when I was in the circus. Some rubes just don't get that no means no. He'll have a headache but won't remember how he got it." She fitted a key in and gave it a twist. The lock tumblers fell into place, and she pulled the door open. "Quickly, put his cloak on."

"I won't fool anyone up close."

"So? We just don't let them get close."

"And if they do anyway?"

"Then run like hell."

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