I tore off Terrin's blanket, slipped my hands under his arms, and hauled him backwards from the room. The hall was little more than shoulder wide, making it hard to maneuver, but I got us both clear, then kicked the door closed. The whispering faded slightly; the shutter racket remained strong. My heart banging a good counterpoint, I dragged Terrin downstairs, his rump catching on the steps, thudding all the way. Even that didn't wake him.

Clem heard the ruckus though, emerging from some back area of the inn, candle in hand. "What's going on?"

"There's stuff," I said, none too coherently as I pulled Terrin toward the common room, in too much of a hurry to pick him up. "Street, black mist, creeping, talking, wants inside real bad."

He stared down his long nose like I'd gone simple. "Uh-huh."

"Just look out and see - no! Don't look out and see! I mean, my friend won't wake up."

"Is he sick? I don't hold with sick boarders."

"It's some kind of nervous fit, nothing catching." I hoped. "Help me get him on a table, bring that candle over. You got some smelling salts? What's that stuff crawling along the streets?"

"What stuff?"

"The black stuff trying to get inside." I glanced at the windows, but they were closed for the night.

"Nothing out on the streets this hour," Clem assured. "Just city watch."

"Is the city watch a bunch of black mist?"

Clem shot me a sideways "are you nuts" kind of look. I gave up to focus on Terrin. Clem's wife came out next and, having had several kids, was used to dealing with late emergencies. Greta had to admit this was a new one for her, but was willing to help. Clem and I got Terrin on one of the long serving tables and had to unfold him. He was still locked in his cross-legged position.

"Sure he ain't died?" asked Clem. He wasn't too alarmed at the prospect.

"Hush," said his wife, waving an open bottle of something under Terrin's nose. It smelled like cleaning fluid, heavy on the ammonia. I pinched my muzzle in reaction and fell away a few steps, ending up by a window. It had cracks around the edges like the one upstairs, but no signs of any black mist seeping through. Good, so far as it went.

Terrin suddenly mumbled, tried to move his head away from the bottle, then his face screwed up as though for a huge sneeze. It never happened, but his lids did finally peel apart. His eyes had gone from dark gray to ghost-pale silver.

"Argh! Agh! Foo!" he said, trying to wriggle away.

Clem held him down. "Easy there, son. Greta, I think he's had enough fumes."

Greta stoppered the bottle with a triumphant smirk. "Works every time."

I quit the window, along with its temptation to peek out, and came over. "What the hell was that about?" I was scared, which translated as severe annoyance.

Terrin blinked at me, at all of us standing around the table gawking down at him. "You're not Auntie Em," he said to me with great certainty.

"I'm not Bert Lahr, either. 'Fess up. You weren't just asleep, were you?"

"Huh? What am I doing down here?" He shrugged off Clem's restraining hands and sat up, violently rubbing his nose. "Phew!"

"Were you dreaming?" Sometimes Terrin's dreams were more real to him than being awake. It took time for him to shake off the cobwebs.

"Dreaming? I was - why'd you interrupt my meditation?"

"Because there's this black misty stuff outside and it was coming in the window like the Marines landing."

"How much beer did you have?" asked Clem, conversationally.

"Not that much! Go see it for yourself." Now that Terrin was up and almost running I had more confidence about dealing with the heebie-jeebie fog river.

Clem shrugged and went to the door, the rest of us following. He unlocked and opened up.

The black mist still flowed strongly, but was retreating fast, beginning to shred into sooty wisps. "There! Just like I said."

"Where?" asked Clem. There was no way he could miss it, even with his normal eyesight.

I pointed. "There!"

Clem began to squint. "Sorry, friend, but I don't see nothing. You see anything, Greta?"

"Just a lot of dark street," she said. Neither of them struck me as faking; no one could be that oblivious.

Terrin tugged at my shirt sleeve. I looked. He shook his head once, lips pursed. I got the message and backed down, though it griped me. "Okay, maybe it was the beer. Maybe I'm having an allergic reaction and hallucinating." That was a total lie. I have a weird body chemistry. Alcohol doesn't affect me as much as it does other people. It takes a lot to get me drunk. I'd not had nearly enough tonight for that.

"Sometimes the brewings don't set right with some people," Clem said generously. "Now what about you, Mr. Terrin? You were doing poorly for a bit there. Mr. Myhr here was in a state about it, and I don't blame him. What's your ailment?"

Terrin shrugged. "I'm just a really heavy sleeper. Sorry if this dude got hyper about it. Sometimes he's jumpy as a cat."

"Hey!" I said, miffed at the wholesale cliche.

The dig and my reaction to it did the job, distracting Clem and Greta, letting them know that the situation wasn't serious. I tendered apologies for the disruption, then we all went back to our rooms; I hung behind so Terrin walked in first.

"Is it clear?"

"Yeah, come on," he said.

"You saw that stuff outside. Tell me you saw that stuff."

"I saw that stuff."

"What was it? I didn't smell anything off it so it couldn't have been river mist."

"You didn't smell anything because it's not wholly on this plane of reality. That's why those two didn't see it. You did, probably because of the cat in you, and I saw because that's what I do."

"I was freaking out because it came up to our window and tried to get in. What is it?"

"Could be a lot of things." He opened the window. "Street's clear now."

"Think that's why they have a curfew? To keep people from running into that junk?"

"Maybe."

"So what are the lot of things it could be? A short list is fine."

He shrugged. "I don't want to commit until I know more. Could be restless souls, an astral river, a rip in the space-time continuum . . ."

"Don't soap me with the techno-babble, this ain't Star Trek!"

"I know. I'm serious."

That's what I didn't want to hear; I hate it when he's serious. It's the only thing worse than when he's kidding around. "What do we do? It might come back."

"I wouldn't worry. Nothing got in, did it?"

"Well, no . . ."

"And nothing will without me knowing. I put the usual wards up all around this place soon as we settled in. We're safe."

"Safe" is often a relative term with Terrin. He shifted away from the window and stooped to pick up his blanket. He straightened, halting in mid-motion, making a face. "Day-um! My ass hurts!"

"That happened when I took you downstairs."

"Next time wake me up."

"I tried. Clem thought rigor had set in. That was not your usual meditative state by a long shot."

"Huh. I'll have to find out about that. See if it has to do with the mist. Are there any other wizards in town? They might know something."

"I heard of a few at dinner. Don't know if they're real, though. People seem pretty neutral about magic here, but I wouldn't push it."

"We'll find out in the morning." He wrapped the blanket around his shoulders again and settled down, cross-legged.

"You're going to sleep?"

"Meditate. Do some astral-travel to see what's in the neighborhood. Chill out, don't sweat it. We're safe. Get some sleep yourself, and don't bother me until I wake up on my own."

I grumped - quietly - knowing more questions wouldn't get me anywhere. Between the leftover adrenaline and the fading beer buzz I was developing a headache. If I lay down now I might make myself conk out before it really kicked in. One last look outside, though. Terrin hadn't locked the window. He was way too trusting at times.

The street was empty. I had a bad feeling it was only temporary.

* * *

Morning came too soon. It always does. I almost wish it would tiptoe up, sweet and soft, and give me a gentle little warning of approach, but I'd have only beat it to a pulp.

This world didn't seem to have coffee, but Greta recognized the signs of sore need as I made my way gingerly to one of the common room tables. She brought a cup and poured in some kind of herbal tea alternative. Not the same as a triple espresso, but it was sweet and hot and helped restore me to life.

"No beer for you tonight," she said with a smile. "Perhaps some soft cider instead?"

"Yeah, that'd be great. Bet I need the vitamin C, anyway."

She smiled again; the language spell seemed to be translating my nonsense perfectly. I sometimes wondered how it was at translating the Beatles' songs, if those still rhymed or not. No matter, they were usually a big hit. If the crowd was up to it I might attempt a version of "Hey, Jude." It worked best with accompaniment, but sometimes I could get people to join in on the chorus part, clapping hands. Audience participation is a must in the business.

"Have you seen Terrin?" I asked. He'd left his blanket on the floor. I'd caught my feet in it when I first staggered awake.

"Went out early. Didn't say when he'd be back."

He wouldn't.

"He didn't eat anything, either," Greta added. "He could use some fattening. Looks poorly, he does."

Terrin was short and his build on the spare side, a swimmer's bod. When we hit medieval-type worlds the well-fed locals took it as a sign of ill-health. He wasn't much for food unless he was doing supernatural stuff, then he sucked the chow down like a starving bear, so I was puzzled. He'd done a load of magic lately and should have been stuffing his face.

Revived by the hot tea, I charmed a sweet roll of some kind from Greta, then went out to explore a little before lunchtime when I'd have to be back for my act.

The inn's front door was wide open to a bright, sunny lane full of people. Not one sign of that black-fog river. I went around the building to check the window. The shutter was locked fast as I'd left it and seemed none the worse for last night's assault. No three-toed gouges, dents, leftover ectoplasm, or related supernatural junk had been left behind. I was almost disappointed, as any of that would have proved I wasn't a nutcase. Terrin believed me, at least. I think. I'd have to find him, and see what his astral trip turned up. Time to hit the streets.

My face is my fortune. Its impact on Rumpock's population was wonderfully flattering.

Those who had seen yesterday's show called and waved to me, telling their friends about the singing cat-guy at Clem's. I'd amble over and talk, asking questions of my own, making more jokes, gathering up a parade of kids as I went. Of course I'd have to stop and say hello to each of them as well. They were great, all wanting touch my fur and rub me behind the ears. I never got tired of it.

I love kids. Sometimes they had cute big sisters or single mommies.

After asking around I got directions to an apothecary, the usual place to go to pick up a trail that might lead to a Talent. I didn't have much interest in the magical arts, but did want to eventually get home again. Terrin and I always made the rounds hoping to find someone with a line on astral maps.

Those are really hard to come by. Our bad luck.

The way things work for Terrin is that he has some control over his travel spell. He can bounce us to physically compatible worlds, keeping clear of spots with poisonous air or all-ocean planets. Except for one place where everyone had these weird bumps all over their foreheads, the people looked like people, dogs looked like dogs, and cats looked like me.

What Terrin had no control over was direction. He'd explained the ins and outs of astral jumps or whatever it was we did, but tech stuff, even the magical kind, never stays in my head very long. I'm more of an artsy-fartsy kind of guy. Sing a song to me and I can remember it. Abstract concepts - and magic is full of those - usually put me into a state of "Hah? Whazzat?"

So we'd blip out of one place and pop into another, all of it fairly random. Terrin said we were more or less heading in the right direction for home. He'd also explained how he knew that, but I'd forget and ask him again. After the third or fourth time he'd only say "It's magic, okay?" to get me to lose interest. I had the idea our journey was like Columbus being more or less headed in the right direction for China. If all these other worlds weren't in the way we'd get there. A map would be a big help, the astral kind, which I took to mean it wouldn't be printed out on parchment like some medieval Mapsco.

Terrin said that once we had a map, he could figure how far we had to go and plot our jumps accordingly. It might take awhile since it was usually weeks before the quartz crystals charged back up again. Magical energy levels fluctuated from stop to stop.

Now if we really wanted a shortcut out, a fast exit before the crystals were ready, then gems were the medium to use. Precious gems. They carried a powerful charge naturally, and the bigger and more flawless the stone the farther we could go. But they vanished after the spell took effect. Terrin said they were completely consumed by the energy conversion, whatever that meant. Traveling first class is expensive. Quartz was more mundane, but had staying power.

The other problem with gems was coming by them. They're universally hard to find. Expensive.

A couple of times on worlds where magic was a cool thing Terrin would hire out as a wizard to some rich person. He'd take diamonds in payment, then off we'd go. The problem was finding a rich person willing to pay for services rendered. If they were rich enough to afford magic, then they usually had a Talent on call. I'd suggested to Terrin he stand on a corner and hold a sign: "Will Cast Spells for Gems."

His reply was creatively obscene.

He's a heck of a wizard, but doesn't know a damn thing about carving a niche in a competitive market. That, or he trusts in the Multiverse a lot more than I do to provide for us. I'd long ascertained the big M to be unfair, mostly crazed, and possessing of a very warped sense of humor.

It sure explains my existence.

* * *

Elsewhere in Rumpock, at Darmo House

Lady Filima Darmo sat in her Black Room, hovering over her scrying mirror, trying a little too hard to coax an image from it and getting a headache for her trouble.

She'd done all the right things, placing candles where their light wouldn't reflect in the mirror's surface, burning the special incense that made her nauseous, and focusing her will upon the Outside with the object of drawing it Inside. She had to find out what had happened last night with the Hell-river. The nightmare she'd had of being sucked into it had felt entirely too real, especially the part where she'd heard her dead husband laughing. Then there was that awful glimpse of Hell. Oddly, it was populated by dancing naked demons . . . females, with blue hair and bright orange skin. What were those about?

Filima's mirror remained innocuously blank, frustrating her. It was like trying to play a tune on her harp and not quite getting the last bit while everyone else played perfectly. And, of course, no one would dream of correcting her. That was the problem of having too much power. You reach a point where everyone says "yes" much too often, and find it's not as much fun as it should be. On the other hand, a mulish, inexplicable "no" was thoroughly infuriating.

And here was this damned magical (supposedly) mirror saying "no" to her on a regular basis. She'd have banged on it to force the issue, but the instructions strictly forbade rough handling of any kind.

As usual when she tried to scry, Filima felt the headache getting worse. It was that awful incense. And the mirror. And the whole bloody world trying to go wrong despite her best efforts to the contrary.

"Show me something helpful, dammit," she growled.

Before the throbbing in her head could crest into full-blown agony, an image finally surfaced. Rumpock's central bell tower appeared briefly. The landmark shimmered, replaced by a view of a tavern or inn of some kind. It had a sign with red lettering, but she couldn't make out the name. Emerging from the front door was a man . . . with a strange, improbable face, like a cat. He had to be wearing a mask of some sort, a very detailed one made of russet fur that covered the whole of his head. He waved in a friendly manner to someone, then moved out of sight.

The mirror went blank, seeming to suck the tiny moving pictures into itself. It would show no more.

Filima staggered out of the smoke-filled, stifling chamber before she got sick, pushing through thick layers of velvet curtains to gain the more breathable air of her Blue Room. The lighting here was normal, coming from several tall, slender windows. The fresh morning brightness hurt her eyes and not just from being in the Black Room. She preferred sleeping in late. It was the only sane thing to do most days.

Her maid stood ready with mint tea chilled with chips of winter ice. Expensive, but Filima could afford it. She drank the tea, which helped settle her stomach, and pressed the cold crystal of the goblet against her aching forehead.

What a pain, but it had been worth it, for scrying rarely worked for her; when it did, she always saw something truly important. Like the business with her dead husband. Before he'd gotten dead. That had been a near thing. She shuddered and made herself veer away from the memory. Best not to go there for now.

Despite the headache Filima wanted to celebrate this little success, but didn't dare. She had to carry on normally, even if she went crazy from it. She had no doubt that the maid would take her tray of cheer back to the kitchens, and by mysterious, circuitous routes a detailed description of this morning's goings on at Darmo House would find its way to the other clan houses within the hour, complete with Filima's every expression.

Another typical day in Rumpock. Tea and gossip. Little wonder she preferred to sleep them through.

Not typical, she thought. Something had changed. Something huge. She'd felt it last night when the Hell-river had been on the prowl through her dream. Whether it was connected to that man in the cat mask or her dead husband remained to be seen.

Damn Botello Darmo.

He'd been so nice at first. Why did he have to go stupid on her? Men, you can't live with them and you can't kill them. Not unless you're really, really careful, anyway.

An envelope imprinted with a familiar clan marking lay on the tea tray, catching her eye. That morning's mail, bearing another letter from Lord Cadmus Burkus. Either he'd be requesting she come to dine with him or begging permission to call on her. Good gawds, it had only been two weeks since her husband's funeral. It was indecent. How could such a handsome man be so damned thick? Didn't he see? She was not interested in him. Of course, his interest in her wasn't likely to be romantic. She was a rich young widow. Enough said.

Wearily and warily, she opened the envelope. Within the fold of heavy paper it held a single pressed flower. It sort of looked like a rose. Ugh. However beautiful it had been when in bloom it was a disaster now, all faded to gray and falling apart.

She sneezed mightily, turning the flower into dusty mulch. She brushed off her gown and told the maid to sweep up the mess. No, there would be no reply to the letter. Cadmus hadn't seen fit to include a note, after all - was she supposed to read his mind? Why did he think she'd enjoy some shriveled-up weed?

Unless it was a spell. That would be just like him to try casting a love spell on her. As if he had enough magical power to get through her protections. He really should know better. What a loser.

Filima finished her tea and sent for Captain Shankey, the head of her house guard. A solid man, he'd been in Botello's family since his early youth, long before her own arrival. She liked him, but didn't trust him with information, only errands. He would die to protect clan Darmo, but like all the rest of the family she'd married into, Filima was forced to assume he had his own motives for doing so, and those did not necessarily include her best interests - especially if he ever got a clue about how his late master had passed on.

"Go into the city," she told Shankey. "Close to the bell tower there is an inn or tavern with red letters on its sign. You are to find a man in that area who wears a cat mask on his face. Bring him to me."

"A cat mask, my lady?"

"Just what I said. Ask around. There can't be many like him. Perhaps a circus has come and he's one of the clowns."

That explanation seemed to work. His mouth twitched slightly. Now his mind she could almost read. And he should be ashamed of himself. Just because she'd once been an oochie-coochie dancer in a side show was no reason to assume she was going to go back to it. Then again, if he assumed she was reestablishing contact with her old circus chums all the better to mislead the flow of gossip from her house.

Captain Shankey bowed deeply and left to carry out her orders.

* * *

Elsewhere in Rumpock, at Burkus House

Lord Cadmus Burkus sat in his Black Room, scrying through his own mirror, albeit with more success than Filima. He watched her stagger out, holding her head as usual, and clawing blindly for her cold drink. She sat for a time, apparently thinking, then spotted his envelope in the tray. My, what a face she makes. You'd think it was a dose of the whistling runs instead of a token of my esteem.

Cadmus pressed all his concentration on Filima's image, so as to not miss a single nuance of her expression as she opened the envelope. There, she had it in her hand now, the rose he'd sneaked from her hair at the Mid-Summer Festival last year. She'd caught him at it, though. Who would have thought the damned thing would have been so firmly pinned into place? What a yelp she'd given when he'd yanked too hard. He had to pretend to be swatting a bug . . . but he had palmed the flower.

Later that night he'd carefully pressed it in a book of love poetry in the hope that the verses within would travel via the rose to take root in her heart. Or something like that. Love spells were horribly tricky things, all sympathetic magic and fine print.

He stared in his mirror, his mouth dry. Would the love powder he'd sprinkled over the rose work?

He winced at the force of her sneeze. You could almost hear it.

Oh, dear. She didn't look in love, nor even the least bit wistful, only annoyed as she wiped her nose. Damn. Damn-damn-damn and darn. He had so wanted her to succumb this time. Maybe he should have used a book of lust poems instead. He'd read somewhere that lust spells were somewhat easier to achieve. She might be less allergic to a good healthy bout of pillow-pounding. Certainly she'd not had much of that in the latter months of her marriage. Botello had been far too preoccupied with other matters to bother with her. The fool.

Apparently unaware of her brush with True Love, Filima conducted a short audience with the captain of her house guard. What about? It had to be something to do with her scrying mirror. What if she's been watching me watching her? Cadmus bit his lip, fretting. That would be bad. Very, very bad. What could it have shown her? Why was she even scrying at all? The mental demands always gave her a headache. Maybe that was why the love powder hadn't worked. Women with headaches were never in the mood.

Cadmus broke his link to his mirror and pushed from his own curtained sanctum into the outer room. It was rather plainer than Filima's fabulous Blue Room, the aged furnishings dating from a previous generation; Cadmus had scant money to spare for stylish household decor. If only one of his late near and dears had developed a talent for making money instead of spending it. True to his breeding, Cadmus suffered from the family affliction of squandering huge sums of cash, but he was quite proud that his expenditures were sensibly selective. No drinking himself to death with the finest and rarest of brandies like Uncle Tidmo, or collecting erotic pottery like Grand-pap Nuckle - though the estate sale of the pottery to other collectors had been rather profitable.

The proceeds allowed Cadmus to invest in himself.

Once he'd outlived his immediate relatives and got the money, Cadmus bought himself a first-rate gentleman's education. Of course, none of it was of much practical use in the world, though he was in great demand at parties for his wit, fashionable clothes, and beautiful body. He enjoyed himself, but it didn't improve his finances. That would only happen when he snagged a wealthy wife. He felt honor-bound to give her value for her money, so he kept himself fit, clever, and got as much practice in the arts of love as time and cash flow permitted.

It would be a double boon for him to actually like his future wife. And he did like Filima, quite a lot. She had money and a beautiful house; Cadmus saw to it that he possessed the good taste to be able to appreciate both fully. He could give her class, and she could give him . . . well, he'd spied on her bathing often enough. The goods were in mouthwateringly excellent condition despite her retirement from the dancing stage. Botello Darmo had chosen one hell of a woman to marry. How considerate of him to leave her widowed while she was still in her prime.

So far as Cadmus was concerned, Filima was perfect.

If only she would realize that.

Cadmus called in Debreban, the captain of his own house guard, a tough young retainer pledged to duty, do-or-die, so long as it was for the good of Clan Burkus. With instructions to seek out and observe Lady Filima's captain to discover what he was up to, he also bowed low and departed. Cadmus wondered if the fellow would simply meet with Filima's man at a tavern to grumble over a beer about working conditions.

One way to find out. He turned back into the Black Room, closed the curtain, and hovered over his scrying mirror. The image that came up was not, however, the one he wanted. This one could speak, among other, less pleasant, things.

He went very pale.

"Cadmus, you idiot," it said, highly irritated. "You've been blocking me!"

* * *

Elsewhere in Rumpock, at the Overduke's Palace

Overduke Anton had not slept well at all. He struggled against the wrinkled and tossed sheets of his big bed, rousing his latest girlfriend awake.

"What is it, honey?" she mumbled sleepily.

"That damned Hell-river. Dreamed about it again."

"Aw, I'm sorry. Was it bad?"

"All my dreams about it are bad." This time Anton had seen himself in the black mists, choking on their flow while above him two demons laughed heartily as they pushed him down. One of them looked like Lord Cadmus and the other had a man's body with a face like a cat, which was disturbing. Though somewhat fond of Cadmus, Anton rather liked cats. This one had been doing its almighty best to drown him and was succeeding despite his frantic fighting. The nightmare hadn't been too horrible compared to others he'd lately suffered, but was unnervingly real. How good it was to thrash himself conscious and encounter Velma's sane and comforting presence next to him. Much better than waking up screaming, which Anton sometimes did when he slept alone.

"You should see a doctor, then," said Velma. "C'mon, lemme give you a nice backrub."

Anton regarded the girl fondly. He prized her ability to state the obvious in as few words as possible and then forget the matter, so unlike the palace politicians who would worry a topic to shreds. Besides, none of them ever offered to give him a nice backrub. Not that he would have accepted. Anton rolled over and let Velma have her way with him until one thing led to another, with an enthusiastic conclusion that left them both in a happy, dozy state. It was his favorite way to start a day. Hell, it was his favorite way to end a night and fill all the hours in between.

But it was day, now, more's the pity. Time to go to work.

Clad in an expensive robe designed to awe the common people who would never see it, Anton strolled into his morning reception room to break his fast. A dozen of his retainers, councilors, and other payroll leeches bowed to him. And well they should, for he had a commanding physical presence, being taller than any of them, with a soldier's build and piercing blue eyes. It was rumored Overduke Anton could turn people to stone with a glance.

He found that wonderfully amusing. True, he could unnerve the most stoic types with his unblinking gaze, but they did it all themselves. Everyone felt guilty about something; all you had to do was watch and wait them out. You could get along quite well in life on a frown coupled with a glowering stare. Both came easily to Anton, who was not only blessed with an ingrained expression of perpetual annoyance but also was terrifically nearsighted. Any return stares were quite lost on him.

Anton grunted to acknowledge those present and went to the room's only table, seating himself on the room's only chair. Early in his rule he discovered that business sessions tended to run more quickly when everyone else had to stand. The table was just big enough to hold one sheet of paper. Once his morning cup of hot, very sweet tea had been placed on it, there was little room left for even half a sheet of paper.

No fool, Anton knew how to plan things.

He sipped gratefully at the tea, appreciative of its buffering qualities as he made the transition between bed and business. In the farthest-flung reaches of all the surrounding lands, in the meanest, most primitive of living conditions, he'd noticed a very important, very telling detail about people in general. They all had a morning cup of some flavored hot liquid before starting the day. That, or beer. Quite sensible of them, really. Kept them from cutting one another's throats.

His over-paid minions watched his every move. No one was allowed to speak until he said something first, and he never spoke until he was damned good and ready. Gawd knows how long they'd been out here, waiting. Not his problem if they had sore feet and aching legs from standing on the marble floor. They knew he was not an early riser.

His tea finished, he looked in the general direction of his chief minister, Lord Perdle. He was in his usual spot, a dark-clad blur with a thick chain of office draped on his shoulders. Anton spotted the gleam of its gold reflecting the late morning light.

"What's on for today, Perds?" Anton asked mildly, not squinting out of ingrained habit.

The others relaxed a trifle now that the business at hand was finally moving ahead. Anton waded through a number of surprisingly simple-to-solve problems very quickly. It made him uneasy. Were they hiding some disaster from him? He didn't like that. If only he could see their faces better. Unless they were within two paces of him they were all just pinkish, brownish or whitish blobs that talked too much. To find out what was going on under the surface meant he'd have to listen to them, and more often than not it was boring as hell.

Which reminds me . . .

Anton looked up to his right. "Perdle? Any changes with that Hell-river?"

"Changes, my lord?" Perdle had moved off to the left. He was supposed to stay in one spot so Anton knew where to turn when speaking to him.

"Yes. News. Alterations. Signs and portents. Had a bit of a vision about it." For some reason calling his nightmares "visions" held more weight with this lot.

"Indeed, my lord?"

"Indeed. Have someone look into it. Top priority, there's a good fellow."

The Perdle-blob leaned over to whisper to an underling-blob, who quickly vanished into the general blurs of the room. "It is done, my lord," Perdle announced.

Anton wanted to correct him. Obviously it wasn't done at all, only just begun, but it wasn't nice to correct people in front of an audience. "Right. Well and good. What's next?"

"The planning out of the Mid-Summer Festival, my lord."

"Oh, heavens, you can find someone else to deal with that. Next you'll have me arranging birthday parties for cats."

"For cats, my lord?"

Why on earth had he mentioned cats? Oh, that damned dream again. The only time he ever saw things clear and sharp was in dreams. Pity they tended to be bad ones. Who was that cat-demon, anyway? What did it represent? It had shoved him down into the black river with a human-shaped hand and quite inhuman strength. . . .

"Who did you wish to take charge of the festival arrangements, my lord?" asked Perdle.

Anton gratefully abandoned the dream memory. "See if Lady Filima Darmo is interested in having a go."

"But, my lord, she's still in official mourning. It's been less than two weeks since - "

"Then see her unofficially. Might do her good having something to take her mind off her grief." Anton hadn't noticed Filima being especially afflicted with suffering over the loss of her husband, but that could be her just showing a brave front to the world. She might welcome a diversion. "Must be terribly boring for her, all cooped up in Darmo House."

"But, my lord . . ." Perdle sounded helpless.

Anton hated that tone. "Out with it. All the objections."

"Lady Filima is under a bit of a cloud, socially. Lord Botello's death was . . . rather odd."

"People pop off all the time, Perdle, nothing odd about it at all. The posted notice was quite clear. Doesn't anyone bother reading the damn things? Did the whole city forget I conducted the inquiry myself? Botello died of natural causes. There wasn't a mark on his body. The physicians determined his heart stopped, died in his sleep. Never knew what hit him. We should all have so easy a passing. And the inquiry did cover the poison question, so forget about trotting that one out. If such a perfect, undetectable, and fast concoction existed, every apothecary would be rich."

"But, my lord, aside from the rumors, there's the question of the other clan ladies. They might take it amiss that you never first considered any of them for the honor."

"I did consider them. That's why I hope Filima takes the job. The only time I ever really enjoyed myself at a party was at her house. She knows how to have a good time; the rest of them are too obsessed with protocol. Anything else?"

Perdle held silent.

"It's settled then. Ask Lady Filima if she'd like to play official hostess and plan the festival. My show of confidence in her should banish any rumors of foul play about the late Lord Botello. See to it, Perdle, there's a good fellow."

Perdle bowed low, then rose and murmured to another underling, who faded in the murky distance.

There were two aspects of his duties that Overduke Anton wholly treasured: being right and always having the last word.

* * *

Elsewhere, NOT in Rumpock, in Hell

Botello Darmo glared at his scrying mirror, which was on the wall, or something that looked like a wall. The handsome, if somewhat gullible, face of Cadmus Burkus peered out of its depths at him.

"Cadmus, you idiot," Botello snapped. "You've been blocking me!"

"I'm sorry, were you trying to get through?"

"Of course I have. What have you been doing all morning?"

"Oh, just keeping an eye on things."

"My wife, you mean."

Cadmus returned one of his more charming smiles. "Well, my dear old chap, she's your widow now, and you did give me permission to look after her."

"But not to slither into her bed!"

"I don't see what difference it makes to you. You're dead after all - "

"I'm not dead! I'm only bodily displaced!"

"Yes, and I'm terribly sorry about that. How are things today?"

Botello almost replied with a blistering flare of anger, but remembered to count to five instead. He didn't have the energy to waste on the likes of Cadmus. "Never mind that, something's happened on your side, and I want you to look into it for me."

"Certainly. Anything to help lighten your load," Cadmus said with the cheery confidence of one who knew he'd never be up to the task and therefore would not be blamed for his failure.

A lot you know, you idiot. "The Hell-river sensed something last night, something big."

"What might that be?"

"You're to find out."

Cadmus made a face. "I'll need more information."

"Go to an inn by the town bell tower, a two-story place with red lettering on the sign. There's a huge magical energy force in that area. Even you should be able to sense what's there."

"But there hasn't been anything like that around here since you - "

"Exactly."

"Just what sort of force is it? Person, place or thing?"

"Person," Botello said with certainty. He had no hard verification for what was only a feeling, but knew to trust his instincts when it came to magic. Cadmus remained skeptical. "You mean a Talent? There? I didn't think any were left in the town, not after you - "

"Never mind that. You find whoever it is and see to it he or she is on our side."

"We have a side?"

Botello snarled, forgot himself, and released a searing flash of rage. In reaction, Cadmus cried out a pitiful wail of sudden agony and fell forward onto his mirror. His white, pain-distorted face pressed hard against it, presenting a flattened view to Botello.

"I'm deadly serious, you fool," Botello whispered through set teeth. "You want more, or have I made my point?"

Cadmus mumbled out something affirmative and apologetic.

The groveling pleased Botello. "Right, now pull yourself together and get moving. Before the day is out I want that person under your roof. Do whatever it takes. This is important."

"W-why?" Cadmus shakily pushed himself upright. "If I may ask?"

"You'll know when the time is right. Just do it. And stay off your damned mirror so I can get through to you."

With a wave of his arm, Botello severed contact, his own glass going foggy. It melted into the wall, which also melted, leaving him alone in a stark, dim landscape. He stood on one shore of the great black Hell-river, close to the great black Gates of Hell. So far as he was concerned, he was altogether on the wrong side of them. He shouldn't even be here, having not died in the normal sense of the word.

When he'd first arrived, Botello Darmo had been surprised at how normal the nether regions turned out to be, until it was explained to him that his perceptions were being purposely warped so as to preserve his usefulness. One of the demonic overlords gave him a peek at a small segment of Hell's reality for a second or two, to prove the truth of his assertion, which was more than enough for Botello. In that scant glimpse he understood that a tree was not really a tree, nor was a bird a bird. The actuality beneath was entirely awful, so he did his best to forget it when he was up and about on business, which was all the time. There is no sleep in Hell. It put everyone in a very foul state of mind.

"You'll have to hurry," a demon called over to him, the creature being Botello's own personal companion. Disturbingly like his Great Aunt Matilda, right down to the spiky moustache and bass voice, it was an unwelcome reminder of family. Sooner or later he was certain he'd run into a few deceased members of his clan in this place. The only thing worse than being in Hell was being stuck in Hell with a pack of relatives. "They want you to hurry. Or else."

It was doubtful that this particular demon had any clue as to what the overlords here wanted; the thing was just reverting to type. Its job was to torment souls, but for now it had orders to hold off and keep other creatures away. The most it was allowed to do was nag him, a distraction that could defeat the overlords' purpose.

Why couldn't they have given me a smarter guardian?

Probably didn't dare. What Botello had planned with the overlords would upset some very carefully laid out balances. They wouldn't want word of it to get around to the realm's general populace and thence to Outer Guardians. Botello had little worry for any of them, so long as the overlords down here remained ignorant of his very special private plans.

Botello strolled over and tapped the Gates of Hell. They seemed solid, as always. A formidable barrier they were, too, even if what he saw was just as warped to his scrutiny as everything else. This reality was all about symbolism. These gates looked the way he would expect gates to look; the overlords here saw something else again, and both versions were correct. The common symbol being that they were barrier and opening in one. Right now they were fulfilling the barrier role, and at any moment . . .

There. A heavy clank and clink as the lock tumblers fell into place, then that awesome yawning creak as the two halves parted, opening inward. Botello watched avidly, taking in every detail as another soul was about to enter Hell.

A naked man, borne up by some powerful invisible force, came hurtling through. He was screaming, but that was commonplace; they all made an appropriately unholy row once they realized where they were bound. The man was seized in midair by some flying demons who carried him away into the depths of Hell, indication that he'd been very bad, indeed, and soon his screams and their cackles of delight were lost in the distance.

Botello paid them no mind, his attention on the opening mechanisms involved. Most were not visible to ordinary sight, but he had enough magical training to see on other levels. He got a glimpse of Light beyond, but it vanished almost immediately. The Outer Guardians who delivered souls from one place or another were always too busy to linger. He'd several times tried to get one to pause and talk, but had been ignored.

The gates, vast metal-studded constructions a good (or bad) two yards thick, slammed decisively shut. The reverberating clang was truly impressive. The whole place shook from it, worse than being under Rumpock's bell tower. No wonder the overlords here wanted out; anything to escape that mind-numbing boom.

If that was what they heard. The gates were a perception. That fascinated Botello. All those demonic hordes kept confined to one spot by an idea.

Unaffected by any sound or action was the Hell-river. It flowed smoothly in under the gates, a thick black mist of negativity that circled the boundaries of the realm. If not exactly a tourist attraction, it was one of the more important landmarks here. But at night, much to the displeasure of the overlords, the river vanished altogether. It wasn't supposed to do that.

That was the other task given to him: to find out why the river was behaving so strangely. They knew Botello had something to do with it, for the vanishing business began the same night as his arrival. He managed to convince the overlords of his own ignorance of the phenomenon, bartering himself out of torture with his willingness to solve the mystery, though in retrospect they gave in to his offer rather fast. He suspected they were afraid of the river. It was saturated with magical energy, and so far as he'd observed they never touched the stuff. He did not ask why, lest his revealed ignorance alter his situation for the worse.

He stood on the edge of the riverbank and looked down into the apparently bottomless depths of darkness.

"You better hurry," said the demon. It sounded bored.

Botello barely heard. He wore - or seemed to wear - the clothes he'd last been wearing while his soul still occupied his body. Under a heavy wizard's robe he was clad in an ordinary outfit, dark colored, a small rusty stain on the tunic, souvenir of his last solid meal. He was hungry now, but there was no food in Hell. Not the usual sort of nourishment, anyway.

He willed off his boots and socks, and part of his trouser legs vanished. Sitting, he dangled his bare feet in the black fog. He'd have splashed in it, had that been possible.

Through his soles he sensed a profound vibration, like the ground when a phalanx of horses charged past. He shut his eyes and opened up a few crucial internal shields. His feet ceased to be solid, merging with the river. He drew its dark energy into himself, quickly, before the demon noticed anything. Hunger fled from him.

Yes, there was a new force in this flow, strong and very intense. The river had sought it out for him, draining the source into itself, delivering it to one who knew how to feed on that magical power. Here was a feast indeed. He felt himself swelling like a leech, the stuff flickering through him like lightning, enough strength to challenge the demonic overlords themselves.

If this source lasted long enough he could push his plan forward in mere days instead of weeks.

There was a way out of Hell. Via the power in the river. Botello, who did not believe in coincidence, was certain an escape had been timely delivered to him.

So long as that idiot Cadmus didn't botch things.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***