Botello's Black Room, Back in the Present
None of us had anything to say for awhile. Filima was all talked out, hoarse and blowing her nose for the umpteenth time. Even Terrin kept quiet, which was a singular feat for him. Shankey and I exchanged looks, then looked at Filima, then all around the chamber, trying to imagine what it had been like during the big fight. And how it had been for Filima having to haul her dead husband up to their room. And for two solid weeks keeping up the show of the fiction she'd invented about him dying peacefully in his bed, all the time with that black fog rolling in every night as a grim reminder.
"Whooh," I muttered, full of fresh respect for her.
Shankey echoed me.
She continued, her voice subdued. "After that it seemed best to keep quiet and hope the mess would resolve itself. Each sunset I'd pray for the Hell-river not to appear, but it kept coming. So I've been scrying every day, asking for a solution, asking for a cure, asking to find a way to put it all back and retrieve the lost Talents. Then when I asked to be shown someone who could really help - you were there in the image."
Lucky me, I said to myself.
Shankey made an ahem sound. "My lady, if you would, I was wondering one thing . . . if Lord Botello was pulled into the mirror how was his body still here?"
"I don't know." Her head was down as she stood over that bare spot on the floor.
"That's easy," said Terrin. "What got dragged off was his astral form."
"Huh." Shankey did some frowning. "I heard those were invisible. Not tangible."
"Hardly ever on this side of Reality, but back then this place was so charged up with magic energy his astral self would have been more solid than Gibraltar."
"Sort of a 'rock' star," I explained.
Terrin snarled. Good. He did his best work while annoyed. "Hush up with yourself, I'm on a roll. Botello's astral bod and all the brain and soul and the spirit luggage that goes with it got sucked in. When the mirror shattered that chopped his connection, what was left on this side - his physical self - died."
"I didn't mean for that to happen," said Filima.
"Of course you didn't," I told her, moving in with a comforting arm around her shoulders. I was sincere, not just trying to cop a feel. "He brought it onto himself."
"But he might not have died if I hadn't interfered."
"True," said Terrin. "But you did and it was supposed to turn out that way." He was a great one for Fate and karma stuff. It was from him that I learned about there being no such thing as a coincidence. "The big question is what was he trying to do? I don't mess around with demons like that. They can be fun and all, but he was screwing around with them in a dumb-ass way. Don't you have any idea what he was up to?"
Filima shook her head. "I've been over it a hundred times, and told you all that I saw. I've gone through his papers and notes, but he used a personal code that would only make sense to him."
"You still got that stuff?"
"It's up in his other Black Room."
"I wanna see. And why for is it always a 'Black Room' for doing magic here? Why can't it be purple? Maybe something orange with green polka dots. I never saw such a sorry-ass cliche world. You people gotta lighten up with yourselves, no wonder you got a black river. That's depressing as hell. Po-loo-shun all over the damn place . . ." He led the way out, grumbling at shortcomings of all kinds.
Shankey stuck a thumb in his direction and asked me, "Is he all right?"
"Oh, yeah, couldn't be better. It's a sign he's in a really good mood. The more he complains, the better for us. In case you hadn't noticed, he sucked off the leftover magical energy in here."
"When? Was it like what he did upstairs?"
"Nah. Just a little finger waggling here and there, like licking the bowl to get the last of the cake frosting." Only in this case the bowl had been brimming. The magic energy that had given my whiskers the twitchy itches was all gone now. Still didn't make this place any friendlier.
"Damn, I would like to have seen - oh, beg pardon, my lady!" He snapped to abrupt attention.
Filima was one of those gals who could command whole regiments with the lifting of one eyebrow. She had both raised at us, evidently wanting to go after Terrin. She was all recovered from her great confession, thank you very much, and ready to do something else.
"Uh . . . yeah," I added, and escorted her toward the tunnel door.
* * *
The Overduke's Palace, a Hallway
Cadmus Burkus only gradually became aware that things were not right and not right in a bloody serious way. For one, he was only partly conscious, yet walking. Not the sort of activity that becomes a perfect gentleman even when he's drunk. One tended to stumble into furniture and walls and thus provide much amusing but detrimental gossip for acquaintances to chew over for weeks on end. No, if one was drinking it was best done under circumstances where walking wasn't required.
But he was not drunk. Exhausted and suffering the ill-effects of overeating at a rich table, but not drunk. Pity. He wanted a good drink, because instinct told him something more was going on and it was bad. Very bad indeed, as in a bloody, bloody serious way. So what made him still able to walk?
Ah, that was it. He was being helped along. The assistance spared him from collisions with furniture and walls, but he was rather puzzled as to why two people were engaged in such a triplet exercise with him. It seemed to be two . . . holding firmly to each of his arms. Males. Large fellows. In the overduke's black-and-silver colors.
What the devil was going on?
Cadmus tried to work that one out, and at the same time endeavored to fix his geographic location, determine the time of day - or night, as it was dark - and how he had come to be in such a state of affairs. It was quite a lot to do all in one go, and frankly he was not at his best. He was still diligently at it when a very beautiful young woman appeared in front of him, halting his escorts.
"Captain Rockbush, what are you doing?" she asked of one of the men.
Excellent. The very question Cadmus planned to voice himself, once he got the hang of talking again.
"Orders from Lord Anton, ma'am," was the prompt reply. "Lord Cadmus is to be confined for the time being in the - "
" - in the dungeon, until - "
" - until Lord Anton calls for him again."
"Why?" She was very shocked. Cadmus felt the same way. Hardly any of the overduke's friends were ever tossed into dungeons. The man was a somber sort, orderly, not given to arbitrary judgments. If you were jailed it was for a damn good reason.
Goodness, what could have happened to put the overduke off to such a degree? He always liked me.
"Don't know, ma'am. Just following his lordship's orders. Seemed very keen about it, he was."
"Has Lord Cadmus done anything wrong?"
Yes, have I done anything wrong?
"Wouldn't know, ma'am. We was just called to his lordship's Black Room and told what to do."
The Black Room . . . something really awful had happened there. . . .
She was addressing him now. Who was - oh, yes, Velma, that dancer friend of the divine Filima. Stunning girl, just not his type. Needed to have more money. Still, she was very easy on the eye. Might as well be gallant to her, maybe she'd turn out to be an eccentric heiress run away from her wealthy family to be in the circus. Cadmus managed to straighten, then swayed into a droopy bow. Not his finest effort, he critically chided himself, particularly when he couldn't haul back up again. It put her very finely shaped breasts within his immediate field of view, though, so he had nothing else to complain about.
"Cadmus? Are you drunk?"
He discovered he could speak. Good show. "F-f-far from it, my lady. Deuced tired, though. P'rhaps if you could direct me to a guest room. I'd be uncommonly grateful for a nice lie-down."
She bent to peer at him, then felt his forehead. "My gawds, you're cold as ice!"
Now that she'd mentioned it, he was a trifle chilled. Her hand was lovely and warm, though. He sighed and leaned into her touch, but overbalanced and the two chaps next to him made themselves useful by keeping him afoot.
"Take him in here, Captain," said Velma, pointing someplace.
"Sorry, ma'am, we're under orders."
"He's sick and in need of help. I'm sure Lord Anton won't mind a little detour."
The captain hesitated.
"Oh, do bring him, Captain, he's obviously in no condition to escape."
"No, ma'am, but that's not the point. When the overduke gives an order it's my duty to obey."
"I don't question that, I'm just saying do it ten minutes from now. Do bring Lord Cadmus in here and ring the house bell for the doctor."
More hesitation. Velma not having any actual authority was the problem. Now if she had rank or was more than Anton's girlfriend that would make a difference. On the other hand, Anton had a (usually) lenient manner about him, was known to be a kind man, and positively doted on the lady. She wasn't being unreasonable, and it did help that she was pretty. Cadmus hoped she would win. He wanted to get to know her better. She could help him with his conquest of Filima.
Filima . . . there was some sort of trouble connected with her. Had to do with somebody or other she'd been married to . . .
"In here," Velma ordered. "Please?" Stern but charming about it.
Captain Rockbush yielded. Couldn't blame him. Few men would be able to hold out for long against her eyes. Cadmus found himself being half carried into one of the many palace parlors. A nice one with lots of comfy chairs. They let him lie out on a long settee. Mmm. Velvet covering. Very soft. Now if he could just shut his eyes for a little he'd sleep off this not-hangover and sort the rest out in the morning.
Damn, she was slapping his face and shaking him awake. What was it with women that they absolutely could not stand to let a sleeping man sleep? "Yes? Ad yer serv'ce, lady. What d'ye need?" He'd be polite if it killed him.
There was some sort of trouble involving killing, too. Was it that wizard he'd planned to skewer earlier today? No, he'd changed his mind about him. Had gone back to Burkus House to dress for dinner with the overduke.
"Wake up, man, and tell me what happened in Anton's Black Room. You two were going to try an experiment."
"We were?" When did he go to the palace? He'd just been up in his room choosing clothes for the evening, anticipating an overnight stay. He was going to make a quick call on Filima so she could see how splendid he looked in his dress clothes on his charger, off to see the overduke himself about high and mighty matters. That would have to impress her. Cadmus had been undecided about whether or not to wear his great chain with - no, of course he'd rejected the heavy gold and gone with the black pearl . . . um . . . and then something had interrupted. . . .
"Yes, you two went up there not half an hour ago. Why does Anton suddenly want you in the dungeon?" Velma's urgent voice yanked him into the present.
"Oh, it's not Anton, but Botello who wants me there." Good gawds, what was he on about?
Velma asked the very same question, then urged Rockbush to ring for the doctor again and to hurry. "What do you mean about Lord Botello? He's dead."
"Only bodily displaced," Cadmus corrected. He winced, vaguely recalling an evil memory of getting psychically shocked by a not-so-dead man whose present residence was Hell. Pity the bastard couldn't stay there. Hadn't stayed there. Leaping about like a locust he was. And as hungry. "He's being very difficult about it, too. Wish he'd leave me alone."
"Who? Anton or Botello?"
"Both. Though it's mostly Botello. You haven't any cold mint tea have you? Dinner was lovely, but left me rather too full - "
"What are you talking about, Cadmus?"
"Mint tea. Good for the belly - I mean digestion. I do beg your pardon. Didn't mean to go all vulgar. Do say you'll forgive me."
"Delirious?" suggested Captain Rockbush somewhere above him. "It's that or drunk and he don't smell drunk. More like rotten eggs."
"You got that, too?" Velma again. "It's all over his clothes."
Sweet of her to be so concerned about his scent, especially since it wasn't very pleasant. Cadmus really must send her some flowers or compose a modest poem to show his gratitude. Nothing too elaborate, mustn't give the overduke cause for jealousy or Filima the idea that she had been displaced.
Displaced . . . now Filima's husband was quite another matter on that topic. But Botello wasn't her husband now that he was - for all practical purposes on this side of Reality - dead. The mourners stuffed his body in the Darmo crypt, had a drink to his memory, and that should have been the end of the business, but the bastard just couldn't leave well enough alone. He should stay decently dead and let his dear widow move on with her life. If she was called his widow, what was Botello's designation of relation to her now? Was there a name for it besides "the deceased"? Might make for an interesting conversation some rainy evening. Just not with Filima.
"Yes, m'lady, right here, at yer serv'ce."
"What's that rotten egg smell?"
Mmm? Was that a trick question? Or were they playing Riddle or Diddle? He always liked the game. Usually won.
"Doctor, thank goodness!"
Someone else had joined the party. Cadmus hoped to now be excused from the gaming circle so he could nap, but it was not to be. He found himself being poked, thumped, his heart listened to, his eyelids pried open, and his ears assaulted with questions. Shouted questions.
"Not so loud, if you please, I'm not deaf," he complained.
"Then wake yourself, Lord Cadmus," the man bellowed.
Damned if I will, so there! Cadmus purposely shut his eyes. The intrusion abated for a moment then he abruptly and nastily breathed in the most horrid, acidic, pungent, oh-my-gawds-get-that-away-from-me, stinging, nose-burning stench.
"Argh! Agh! Foo!" he cried, trying to wave it off. He sat bolt upright and stared around. The inventory of the room, besides the plush furniture, included Velma, two guards, and a bald young man with a squint who happened to be the doctor in residence for the ducal palace. The four of them stared back at Cadmus with varying expressions of concern, puzzlement, suspicion, and squinty satisfaction.
"Wonderful stuff," said the doctor, putting a cork stopper on a glass vial, the source of the smell. "My mother gave me the recipe. Good for all kinds of hystericals."
"I am not given to hysterics," Cadmus said, a trifle archly.
"No, but you weren't at all well. Bit of mental wandering, sir. Not the done thing in polite society."
"Oh, that's different, then." Cadmus instantly understood. This doctor fellow seemed a man after his own heart. Perhaps he'd had similar schooling in gentlemanly graces.
"You said some very interesting things, though. Would you mind explaining them to us?"
"I should be delighted, sir. And lady." He nodded at Velma. "If you would be so kind as to jog my memory, just the smallest nudge will do." He hoped. Something was stirring in Rumpock. Had to do with a dream or nightmare, only he'd been awake. Overduke Anton was - was . . .
Cadmus shot to his feet. "Oh, my gawds!"
* * *
Darmo House, Botello's Other Black Room
Terrin had fired up enough candles for a pope's birthday cake. When you're cut off from a culture with electricity all over the place, you miss the truly useful things like lightbulbs. We could have employed a bank of them here, the kind they put in baseball stadiums for night games. It would have made a good stab against the gloom of Botello Darmo's other sanctum. Though not underground, it was just as dark and seemed all the more disturbing for being behind an ordinary door.
Instead of using a free-standing pavilion, he'd shrouded a small interior room entirely with the trendy black velvet - layers and layers of it. So much that I wanted to own stock in the town's fabric concession and maybe go down in Rumpock history as the dude who invented their first vacuum cleaner. There was enough dust in here to dress an Okie set for a remake of The Grapes of Wrath.
"Whuuaa - aahhh - choooo!" was my first comment when we all crowded inside. Shankey thoughtfully loaned me a handkerchief. From the crumpling it was the one he'd jammed in the swiveling tunnel door. I used it anyway, so thoroughly that he told me to keep it.
While I wiped my nose and sneezed, Terrin and Filima got busy at a paper-blanketed formation that might have served as a work desk. It was so buried under books and other office-style clutter I couldn't tell. The dust got worse for their excavations, but I stuck it out until Filima, who already had a head start on nasal problems with her recent crying, called a sniffling retreat.
Terrin, apparently immune, stayed behind as the rest of us emerged into the hall. Filima and I then had a brief sneezing, nose-blowing contest, which I won, but only because my facial anatomy gave me a larger practice field.
"What a mess," she complained. "No wonder he forbade me to ever go in there. It wasn't because he had secrets, he just knew the first thing I'd do would be to call in the cleaning maids."
"He had secrets all right," I said. "Didn't you feel the magical energy?"
But Shankey shook his head like a guy trying hard to get a joke. "It gave me the creeps. Is that what magic feels like?"
"His kind." Meaning Botello, who had a very negative style.
My nose was clear now, and since Shankey was absolutely unaffected by the dust I got the idea that we'd run into another type of burglar alarm, one directed specifically at those sensitive to magic. Botello was looking to be a little more brainy than I'd estimated, or at least subtle. A non-practitioner would find nothing of interest or sense in the arcane books and papers. The ones who might would be so busy with allergy symptoms times twenty they'd be forced to leave. He'd probably worked a neutralizer into the spell so as to exclude himself. Terrin should have been forced out by now, but he was a special case, being a lot more powerful than Botello to the point of taking advantage of things.
"Dark magic," Shankey muttered.
"Don't worry. By the time Terrin's done the room will be sucked clean."
"But if it's a dark conjuring, won't that be bad for him?"
"Not Terrin. He's weird that way. Black, white, gray, green with orange polka dots, magic's all the same to him. He's trying to recover what's been drained out of him." Which could amount to a lot of whammy juice. He'd been seriously bad off earlier today. I hoped he'd get enough stored to allow us to split this world, but not so soon that we couldn't help Filima.
She brushed at dust clinging to her sleeves, but from her expression her mind was on something else. Breaking off in mid-swipe, she fixed Shankey with her gaze. Uh-oh.
"Captain, I have a very serious request to ask of you."
He did that coming-to-attention thing again. "My lady."
"A request, not an order."
Shankey went to an at-ease posture. "Ma'am?"
"It's to do with all that I spoke of downstairs in that awful room. I'm asking if you would not say anything about it to anyone until and unless I tell you otherwise. I could order you as your liege-lady, but I'd rather ask you as a friend."
The look that came over his face was a doozy. Right then and there if she'd asked him to jump off a cliff into a lion pit he'd have done it - as her friend. Heck, I might do it too, and I wasn't at all ready to commit to a relationship.
"My lady honors me," he said, pretty humble.
"Yes, my lady. What was said in that room stays there. I understand the consequences."
"It's for Darmo House, not me."
"It's for all of us," he said, solemn.
If I hadn't known he was already involved with the house cook I'd have told them to get a room. Speaking of cooks . . . "Now that that's out of the way, how 'bout some food?" I suggested brightly.
They stared, but what the hey, I hadn't eaten since lunch, just some nibbles from Terrin's tray. Huge as it was, I'd finally used it up, especially in the last hour or so. Trudging through tunnels and listening to harrowing stories about fighting demons does that to me.
"But we don't have time to eat," said Filima.
"Where'd you get that?" I wanted to know. Tense lady, but she had good reason. She needed to relax; we all did. I opened the door to the room.
Terrin was seated before the pile of arcane stuff, focused on paperwork. There was noticeably less dust, and by half-closing my eyes I could make out a thin but steady stream of minute specks swirling into a spot between his shoulder blades. They swirled into it like water down a drain, going right through his Hawaiian shirt and the T-shirt he wore under it. He had a special tattoo on his back, which was linked to his magic, of course, like everything else about him. Some days it was hard to tell if he was dedicated, driven, or just filling in time between techno-raves and getting laid. Right now it was business as usual. "Dude . . . you gonna be awhile?"
He gave a grouchy grunt that could have meant anything.
"Ooo-kay. We'll be in the kitchen when you're done."
Grunt. Of the "don't bother me" variety.
"Boy, is he in a chatty mood," I said to them, pulling the door shut. "Thought he never would button it. Come on, I need a beer-and-pizza fix."
"What's pizza?" asked Shankey.
* * *
The Overduke's Palace, a Parlor
"Orders is orders ma'am," said Captain Rockbush stoically. "His lordship is the only one who can revoke 'em."
"But if what we heard is true, then it was not Lord Anton who gave those orders," Velma patiently argued.
"I was there, ma'am, I oughter know Lord Anton from Lord Botello, who was a sight shorter and dead these two weeks."
"But Lord Anton has been possessed by Botello!"
"Perhaps so, ma'am, but it's not my place to make that judgment. Besides, this here Lord Cadmus might be telling you a tale so as to make an escape. I will afford that it is very original. I've not heard better."
"But he positively reeks of sulfur - doesn't that tell you something?"
"Only that Lord Anton was at work in his Black Room. Maybe he had call for sulfur in his magics. Or rotten eggs. Not my place to make inquiries into his business, ma'am."
Cadmus, sitting on the edge of one of the comfy chairs, buried his head in his hands and groaned. "It's all right, Velma. This is the price of my trusting the wrong man. My gawds, a dead man at that. And they say the dead don't lie."
The other guard, posted at the door by Rockbush, stifled a snort of reaction. Whether it was amusement or derision was hard to say. Rockbush was rather more conscious of his training in palace deportment and shot him a glare. The doctor stood by a window, looking squintily thoughtful.
"Perhaps Lord Perdle might be of assistance," he suggested.
"Maybe," said Velma. "But he's not here in the palace. It would be very hard to convince him that anything was off with Anton, either. Perdle's a good minister, but doesn't have a lot of imagination."
"I'm really very, very sorry," Cadmus moaned. "I know it won't help, but there it is."
"I'm sure someone will forgive you," she said, not too consolingly. "But right now we need a way of putting Anton back where he belongs."
"No question about it. With Botello pretending to be overduke there's all manner of mischief he can get up to."
"I'm more concerned about getting Anton out of Hell," she snapped.
Cadmus winced. "Um, yes, sorry. That must be our first course of action."
"So what do we do?" she demanded.
He opened his mouth, but no brilliant solution came out. He tried thinking a bit, but came up empty there, as well. Had the few hours he'd spent in a mindlock destroyed his ability to reason? Impossible. Cadmus was fully aware and awake now and trying hard not to shiver as various possibilities about his own immediate future came unbidden to him. Those were gruesomely clear. Nearly all had him wasting away in a dungeon bound up in different kinds of torture devices; the rest had to do with quicker modes of death. It was one thing to hear about the stuff when at a party with a ghost story theme, quite another to face the prospect of learning about them firsthand. Botello would want this inconvenient witness quite thoroughly gone.
"Logically," said the doctor, "we must confront Lord Anton - that is to say Botello. If he is Botello. Are you sure?"
"Abundantly so, my dear fellow," Cadmus answered. "He will deny all, though."
"Certainly he would, whether or not what you told us is true. But the motivation behind the denial will be different for each man. If he is Lord Anton he will have one sort of reaction. If he is Lord Botello, another. But how to determine which is which? Perhaps the lady would be able to shed some light should she be a witness to - "
"Forget it," said Velma. "Let's just assume he's Botello and take it from there, 'cause if he's really Anton it's gonna be easier to get forgiveness than permission."
"Permission to do what?"
"I don't know! Cadmus has all the magic training, ask him."
Cadmus groaned again. "Magic training, but no magic. He scraped me clean."
"It's all gone. I can feel it inside, that is, I can't feel it inside. This happened to me once before when I had a really bad cold, was flat on my back for weeks. Though I got well again physically I was still recovering astrally. Took me months to build up to full magical strength again."
"Indeed," said the doctor. "I've heard the same complaint from other Talents; physical ills and even pregnancy affects their working powers. What about now?"
"Recovering what you've lost."
"That's the dodgy bit; there's no magical energy to be had. Botello's drained it all away."
"All of it?"
"Yes! That's why there are no Talents left in Rumpock!"
"That's not just a rumor?"
"No! The Talents who were in town the night the Hell-river first rolled through were gone by morning. He never told me what happened to them, but I think they'd been absorbed into it."
"Absorbed. Uh-hum." The doctor sounded dubious, but lacking Talent himself it was understandable. "No one was reported as missing, though."
"Because of the river! It did something to nearly everyone's memory. Oh, bother. You believe it, don't you, Velma?"
"Anton believed it, and I believed him," she hedged. "But back to the main problem. How do we get Botello out of him and Anton back from Hell? Without magic?"
"We might come morning."
"What do you mean?"
"The dawn meeting of the remaining Talents? You and Anton talked about it at dinner."
"But I wasn't there. That was Botello in my body, remember?"
She nodded. "And neither of us noticed any difference in your manner, either. It could be real hard proving Anton's Botello."
Cadmus looked up, nonplused and annoyed. "You mean you didn't see anything odd about my behavior?"
"Sorry. It's not the sort of thing you normally have to look out for."
He bit back a very ungentlemanly word. Bloody Botello. Not only had he done a mindlock and impersonated him, but had been good at it. Cadmus hated the idea of being that easy to mimic.
"The meeting," reminded Velma. "Just after dawn the Talents are all going to come here. Anton wanted them to focus together and work out a way of getting rid of the Hell-river. They would either talk it all out or he told me something about pooling their power to help him get a really clear vision of a solution. Seemed like a good idea at the time, not so good now, unless they can put Anton back where he belongs."
"You'll have to warn them off or Botello will scrape them out just like me, then gawd knows what he'll do next. He'll be the only one with magical power, mountains of it."
"There's not that much left," she pointed out. "And magic's not all that strong."
He gaped at her. People without Talent just didn't know. It was like explaining music to the tone-deaf. "Not on this side of Reality. It's more subtle here. But on Otherside . . . like in Hell . . . it's beyond imagining."
And evidently beyond Velma's immediate imagining. "Okay, fine, but Botello's on our side of Reality, so he'll be limited in what he can do."
"No he won't! I think he's going to have the same impact here as he did when he was in Hell."
"That's bad, right? So then we've really got to get Anton back. How?"
Cadmus was about to lose all sense of good manners and bellow out to her face that he didn't know, when a perfectly wonderful, absolutely brilliant thought blossomed in his mind.
But before Cadmus could voice it, Captain Rockbush clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder. "That's all for now, sir, your lordship's feeling better, and I've got my orders. Come along quietly, there's a good fellow."
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