Batanya and Clovache were cleaning their armor in one of the courtyards of the Britlingen Collective, which sits atop a hill in the ancient city of Spauling. It was a fine summer day, and they sat on benches that they’d positioned to catch the sun.
“I’m as pale as a pooka belly,” Clovache said.
“Not quite,” Batanya said, after looking at Clovache rather seriously. Batanya was the older of the two; she was twenty-eight to Clovache’s twenty-four. Batanya was pale, too, since she spent most of her time in armor of one kind or another, but that didn’t bother Batanya.
“Oh, thank you. Not quite,” Clovache said, imitating Batanya’s husky voice. It was a pretty bad imitation. Batanya smiled. She and Clovache had worked together for five years, and there wasn’t much they didn’t know about each other. They had both done most of their growing up within the Collective walls.
“You are a bit like a pooka, though. Your hair is the same color as the back fur, and you like the night life better than the daylight. But I’m sure you wouldn’t taste as good deep-fried.”
Clovache stretched out a foot to kick Batanya, very lightly. “We’ll go out to eat later,” she said. “How about Pooka Palace?”
Batanya nodded. “Unless Trovis is there. If he’s in the place, I’m leaving.”
The two women worked in a friendly silence for a few minutes. They were polishing what they called their “liquid armor,” the most popular single item of body defense in the Britlingen’s huge collection. Liquid armor wasn’t really liquid. It resembled a wet suit more than anything, but it was considerably easier to don. There was a keypad the size of a credit card on the chest. It allowed for communication with anyone else wearing a similar suit, and it had a personal sequence programmed into it that allowed only one wearer to use the armor. The material would toughen when the sequence was pressed in, to allow the wearer to be almost invulnerable; without this procedure, the armor was ineffective. The protocol had been added to prevent the armor from being stolen. Before the code had been added, a few Britlingens had been murdered for their armor. It was used in cooler weather. The two women had already cleaned their summer-weight gear.
Batanya had turned her suit inside out and was cleaning the inner surface with a pleasant-scented solvent from a large green pot. Clovache was using the all-purpose cleaner on the hardened pieces that could be strapped on over the liquid armor.
Clovache threw a finished piece down on the towel she’d spread on the ground and picked up another one. “Hard drill this morning,” she observed.
“Trovis was not in a good mood,” Batanya said.
“And why would that be?” Clovache asked, trying to sound innocent.
Batanya flushed a little, causing the scar that ran across her right cheek to stand out. Clovache had heard people tease Batanya about the scar, but they only did it once. “He tried to jump me in the bathroom last night. I had to give him an elbow to the gut. Trovis is making a fool of himself.”
Clovache agreed. “If he’s trying to show you who’s boss, he is a fool,” she said. “And if he keeps it up, I shall go to Flechette and put it to her that Trovis should be removed from his command.”
“That would make Trovis crazy, which is a good thing,” Batanya said. “But it would make us look weak.”
Clovache looked startled, but after a moment, she nodded. “I understand. We should be able to eat whatever Trovis puts on the table.” She tested the strength of a strap. “If worse comes to worst, perhaps he’ll have an accident.”
“Hush your mouth,” Batanya said, genuinely shocked. “After all—”
“Britlingens don’t kill Britlingens,” Clovache said dutifully. “We leave that to the rest of the world.”
That was the first lesson a novice learned when he or she came to the fortress.
“There are exceptions,” Clovache said stubbornly as she gathered up her armor. “And his obsession with you provides one.”
“Not for you to say.” Batanya stood, the sheet containing all her paraphernalia draped over one shoulder. “I’ll meet you at the gate in a couple of hours?”
“Surely,” her junior said.
Later that same afternoon, the two bodyguards strolled down to the Pooka Palace. Batanya grumbled about the narrow streets and their ancient cobblestones, which made it very impractical to keep a hovercraft at the castle. This was a source of grief to Batanya, who loved to drive fast.
Pooka Palace had opened its outside section in honor of the balmy weather. The place was full of familiar faces from the Collective. Though Britlingens had the run of the city, they tended to linger close to the hilltop castle. Naturally, the shops that clustered in the winding old streets around the base of the hill were mostly dedicated to serving the bodyguards and assassins who lived in the ancient castle. There were a lot of storefronts that advertised repair services, either of armor or of arms. There were magic shops filled with arcane items the witches of the Collective might need or want. There were dark-fronted shops filled with bits of machinery that the mechs found intriguing. There were at least a score of bars and restaurants, but Pooka Palace was Clovache’s favorite.
Waiting at a fairly clean table was a friend of theirs named Geit, a broad-shouldered and genial man who could swing a sword with enough force to take off a head with one lop. He was an assassin; though Clovache and Batanya were in the bodyguard division, they didn’t discriminate in their friendships as some did.
Geit had already ordered baskets of fried pooka and fish, and they’d just toasted with three tankards of ale when they saw a child from the castle approaching, wearing the red vest of a messenger. Though walking quickly, the boy was also playing with a conjuring ball; it was clearly a cheap one, but the ball was still charged with enough magic to keep it in the air for a few seconds each time he tossed it up. The child interrupted his play to scan the faces at the tables. He spotted them and trotted over.
“Lady Warrior, excuse me,” said the child, bowing. “Are you Senior Batanya?”
“I am, squirt,” Batanya said. She drained her mug of ale. “Who needs what?”
“Commander Trovis has, ah, requested, that you and your junior come up to the fortress immediately, to the Hall of Contracts.”
Geit whistled. “But you just got back from a job. Why would Trovis send you out again?”
“After the last one, I’d hoped we’d rest longer,” Batanya said. “Getting out of that hotel was no fun, especially carrying a client who would burn up in sunlight. Well, we must go, Geit. Have a drink on us.” After hastily finishing their baskets of food (a Britlingen never passes up a chance to eat), she paid the bar tab and looked away as Clovache gave Geit a quick kiss on the cheek. The two women followed the child back up the winding streets to the gate of the Collective. The guards on duty recognized them and nodded to indicate they could reenter without the usual search.
The Hall of Contracts was conveniently close to the witches’ and mechs’ wing, since witchcraft (enhanced by science) provided the transportation to at least fifty percent of the missions. In fact, Batanya couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone overland to a job.
The hall itself didn’t look important. It was a just a large room, one wall of which was decorated with some indifferent paintings. This was called the Wall of Shame; the art hung there depicted employees of the Collective who had screwed up in some notable way. (The Britlingen instruction model was heavily weighted toward learning by the mistakes of one’s predecessors.) Aside from the paintings and some benches, there was only a table with a few chairs, a large lightsource, and some writing instruments.
Trovis was leaning back in one of the wooden chairs, his feet propped on the table. This was inappropriate behavior for the Hall of Contracts, for these contracts were the lifeblood of the Collective. Signing each contract was an important moment. Not only was this the main source of income for the Collective, but each contract might bring about the death of the Britlingens charged with fulfilling it.
“His promotion’s gone to his head,” Clovache muttered. “He wouldn’t have dared behave so a halfyear ago.”
The child scampered off once he’d gotten his tip, and Batanya and Clovache advanced to the table. One of the senior commanders, Flechette, entered from a side door, and since she had a staff in her hands, she used it to sweep Trovis’s legs to the side, neatly knocking him out of his chair.
“Respect for the room,” she said harshly, as Trovis scrambled to right himself. The two bodyguards kept their faces absolutely blank, which took a lot of effort. Flechette paid no attention to the lower-ranked Trovis’s shock and anger, but threw herself into one of the chairs. Despite Flechette’s apparent age—she looked at least sixty, which few Britlingens attained—she moved like a much younger woman. “You’ve summoned us,” Flechette said. “What have you, Sergeant?”
Trovis collected himself. If he’d had a weapon, perhaps he would have drawn on his superior, but he’d come to the hall unarmed—an unusual circumstance for a Britlingen, even as poor a Britlingen as Trovis. “This customer has come in person,” he said, biting off his words. He gestured toward a man standing at the rear of the hall, apparently examining one of the paintings—the one of Johanson the Fool, Batanya noted. She was trying to avoid meeting Trovis’s eyes.
“What happened to this fellow?” asked a light voice, and the stranger turned to look at them inquiringly. He was a couple of inches taller than Batanya, who was of medium height for a woman. The stranger was lightly built, and fair, and wearing clothes that signaled he was from the city-state of Pardua, which lay about two hours’ drive from Spauling. Batanya had visited there on business several times. In Pardua, poor vision was corrected by brilliantly colored and decorated goggles, and the stranger wore a striking pair: a shrieking blue, spotted with artificial purple stones. They made him look remarkably silly.
Since no one else spoke, Batanya said, “Johanson the Fool walked his client into an ambush. When it was over, he and his client were as full of darts as a pincushion has pins.”
“I don’t know what a pincushion is, but I take your meaning,” the stranger said. He cast another look at the grisly picture. “I am here to hire two Britlingens as bodyguards. I don’t want to end up like Johanson’s client.” He shuddered elaborately.
“Very well,” said Flechette. “You understand, clients don’t actually show up at the Collective very often. Usually the contract is negotiated on the witchweb.”
“Is that right? I’m sorry I broke with proper procedure.” The blond dandy minced over to the table. “I happened to be in Spauling and thought I’d come directly to the source. See what I was getting, in other words.”
“You would be getting Clovache and her senior, Batanya,” Trovis said, smiling broadly. “After he described the job, Commander Flechette, I knew they would be perfect.”
“Why?” Flechette said. She had little use for Trovis, and she’d never hidden her opinion. After Batanya and Trovis had both been out of commission following a previous set-to, Flechette had begun watching the man like a hawk.
“They protected their last client under circumstances that no one foresaw,” Trovis said, his voice silky. “Who could not be impressed by their performance? I am sure they can handle this.”
Flechette eyed Trovis before turning her attention to the client. “What is your goal, stranger? And your name, incidentally.”
“I’m so sorry! My name is Crick. And I need to retrieve something of mine that I lost in a rather dangerous place.”
Bodyguards go into tense situations all the time (especially ones of Batanya and Clovache’s caliber), so it wasn’t the word “dangerous” that bothered Batanya: it was the bullshit detector shrilling in her brain. She looked at Clovache, who nodded grimly. Crick was not telling all the truth, certainly; and he was not the silly, rather effeminate Parduan he portrayed himself to be. The oblivious Trovis wouldn’t have spotted the excellent muscle tone in the slender body. The bodyguards had. But clients lied all the time, didn’t they? Batanya shrugged: what could you do? Clovache nodded again: nothing.
Trovis and Flechette went over the basic contract with the Parduan. It covered the price of transference by witchweb to the site the client chose. It covered the directive of the mission—to get Crick and his property back in one piece. It contained the standard insurance clause, so the treatment of any injuries the bodyguards sustained would be paid for by the client.
Batanya and Clovache paid attention, because that was part of the deal. All bodyguards had to be aware of what they’d agreed to do, and what they hadn’t. Though the two had stood in the Hall of Contracts dozens of times and listened to exactly the same discussion, this preparation was as much part of the work as getting their weapons ready. No deniability on this job.
At last the prolonged contract session was over. Since Crick was a first-time customer of the Britlingen Collective, it had taken a bit longer than usual. Batanya noticed that Crick had asked some very shrewd questions.
“Will you sign?” Flechette asked formally, when Crick declared himself satisfied.
Crick picked up the pen and signed the contract.
“The client has agreed. Will you sign, senior?” Flechette asked Batanya. She sighed, but she picked up the pen and scribbled her name.
“You, junior?” Clovache followed suit.
“Now what?” Crick asked brightly.
“We withdraw, you give your bodyguards your place of destination, and they fetch the appropriate gear. They meet you here, then you go to the witchwing through that door. The witches and the mechs take over the transportation.” Trovis was bored now, and showing it. He hadn’t found an excuse to provoke anyone into a fight, the client had the money and had paid the asking price, and furthermore Trovis had arranged to rid himself of his most irritating subordinates for at least a few days—possibly permanently. There was nothing more to be wrung from the situation. He took the earliest opportunity to slip out of the room, if a rather solid man six feet tall can “slip” anywhere.
“Where’s he slinking off to?” Clovache muttered.
“Some quiet spot where he can think of some other way to make me miserable,” Batanya answered, and then was sorry she’d spoken. She hoped Flechette hadn’t heard. Going over the head of one’s superior officer to complain to a higher rank was not admired among the members of the Britlingen Collective.
But Flechette seemed intent on observing the courtesies required by her position as commander: she wished the client a successful journey, clapped Clovache on the shoulder and shook Batanya’s hand, and advised them to eat before they left . . . her standard farewell. Then she drew herself up, gave the Britlingen salute, and said, “What is the law?”
“The client’s word,” Batanya said smartly. Clovache was a beat behind her.
Crick was watching, his eyes intent behind the ridiculous goggles. When Flechette had left, the two bodyguards drew closer to him.
“What temperature should we pack for?” Clovache asked. “What kind of fighting?”
Crick had been listening while the contract was explained, but nonetheless he asked, “You can’t tell anyone what I say; is that right?”
Batanya nodded. Clovache just looked resigned.
“To Hell,” Crick said. “We’re going to Hell.”
After a long moment of silence, Clovache said, “We’ll need our summer armor, then.”
“What happened was this,” Crick said, suddenly chatty. He’d taken a seat at the table, and Clovache and Batanya followed suit. “I obtained a certain item from the King of Hell, and I misplaced it when I had to leave. I definitely didn’t enjoy my stay with the king, and I’m afraid my abrupt departure may have angered him. As you may have deduced, I need to avoid Lucifer. I very much need to avoid him. I must get in and out of Hell as quietly as possible. Since I can’t look in every direction at once, I hired you two to help me watch.”
“So you’re a thief.” Batanya was entering a list of things she needed to take, using her wrist communicator. She glanced up long enough to make sure he was listening.
“Ah, yes. But a thief with a cause,” Crick added brightly.
“Don’t care,” Batanya said. “No matter what you are, no matter what your cause or motivation, we’ll do what we’ve been hired to do.” She looked him square in the eyes.
“Then we’re all fine,” Crick said, in his most foolish voice. One of the castle cats wandered in and leaped into his lap. He stroked its long orange fur. Batanya eyed it indifferently. She’d never been one for pets, though cats were at least preferable to dogs.
Anything was preferable to dogs.
“How long do you expect we’ll be gone?” Clovache asked Crick.
“If we’re not back in two weeks, we’re not coming back,” Crick said with a pleasant smile. “That would be my best evaluation.”
Batanya remembered that Clovache had tickets to a concert in a week’s time.
“Can you turn those tickets in?” Batanya asked. She ran her fingers through her short, inky hair.
“Nonrefundable,” Clovache said gloomily. “Oh, well.” She rose to her feet. “Senior,” she said, her voice formal, “I ask leave to go prepare.”
“I’ll be there in a minute myself,” Batanya said. “Go ahead.” She eyed their client narrowly. As soon as Clovache had gone, Batanya said, “I know there’s much you’re not telling us. No client ever tells us the whole story. You always lie. But if there’s some word you could speak that would help us prepare to guard you, now is the time to speak that word.”
Crick looked down at the table for a long moment. The cat jumped out of his lap and left by a window. “Nothing,” he said. “There’s nothing else I can tell you now that will be of any assistance.”
“All right then,” she said grimly. “You’ve got two of Britlingen’s best protecting you, Crick. I hope you appreciate that.”
“I am paying well for the service,” he said. His voice was cool.
Batanya might have told him that no amount of money could make up for the loss of their lives, but that wouldn’t have been true. The Britlingen Collective had put a price on that, and Crick had paid it.
“I’ll return shortly,” she said, and rose to her feet. “The witches and mechs will be ready by then, too.” She saw, with a grim satisfaction, that the mention of the witches made Crick shiver. Witches gave everyone the creeps.
Standing in the middle of her little room, Batanya hauled her backpack from the footlocker. She checked her wrist communicator. It showed her the list she’d made—not in written words, but in symbols. Some of the weapons she often carried would be useless in Hell. Any fray would take place suddenly and at close quarters, almost certainly, so taking some of the missile-firing guns would be useless, as would any of the weapons relying on sun power. Hell was underground in a vast network of intersecting tunnels.
“Batanya,” called Clovache, whose room was across the hall, “What about crossbows?” The wrist crossbows were incredibly powerful and ranked at the top of Clovache’s list of favorite devices.
“Do they kill demons?” Batanya called back. “I don’t think so. I think we should take the . . .” What did kill a demon? The bespelled throwing stars, of course. “The throwing stars,” she called. Steel? Silver? What else would be useful?
She went over all the armaments in her head as she pulled on her summer armor, which was a very lightweight porous fabric spun by spiderlike creatures from Moraeus. The summer version was like wearing chain mail all over, though it had the texture and appearance of cloth. It was even more expensive and harder to find than liquid armor. The Britlingen company store sold it at what they said was cost—but Batanya had had to save for two years to purchase it. She’d loaned Clovache the money to buy her own summer armor during Clovache’s first year as Batanya’s junior. “Damn Collective,” Batanya muttered as she put the few extra things she’d need into the prepared waterproof backpack that all Britlingens carried on their travels. It was always stocked with a few microthin clean garments, compressed cooked food that could be eaten on the run, a pill or two that provided bursts of energy and had to be used judiciously, some bandages and antibiotics, and a bottle of water. To forestall other kinds of emergencies, all the Britlingens, male and female, were injected with birth control drugs on a monthly basis. Those who skipped this injection were listed in bright red chalk on a big board in the entrance hall.
“Got your list?” she asked from Clovache’s doorway. “Oh, have you checked your pocket?” Batanya had already touched her tongue to the artificial pouch in her right cheek, and she nodded when Clovache’s right hand flew to her left armpit. Clovache nodded in confirmation and then burrowed back into her closet.
“Yes, I just need to write Geit a note.” Clovache’s voice was muffled. She was probably searching for some paper and a pen, items Clovache didn’t need too often.
“Are you and Geit knocking armor?”
“Yes. He’s very vigorous.”
Smiling, Batanya shook her head, though Clovache couldn’t see her. “You’d do better to keep Geit as a friend,” she said. “But I guess it’s too late for that.”
Her junior reemerged. “He will be. I always stay friends with my lovers. It’s my gift.” Clovache’s light brown hair stuck up in spikes all over her head. She hadn’t pulled on the armor’s hood yet. It was her least favorite piece of protection. Batanya was none too fond of it either, though her own close-clipped curly black hair lay so close to her skull she might as well have been wearing the hood already.
Together, checking and rechecking their equipment, the two bodyguards went down the list. Traveling very light made careful preparation even more crucial. The older warrior noticed that Clovache had slipped the frame of her wrist crossbow into the special compartment on the outside of the pack, and she kept her mouth shut. If it made Clovache feel stronger, the slight extra weight was worth it.
At last the two decided they were ready, and they walked out of the dormitory. Neither Batanya nor Clovache bothered to lock their doors behind them. Theft was a rare occurrence in the castle. It was punishable by death. Of course, unlocked doors made elaborate practical jokes very easy to stage. Batanya touched the scar on her cheek.
Their employer was waiting in the Hall of Contracts, just as he’d been bid. Batanya gave the Parduan a sharp nod to indicate they were ready to go. Crick stood, brushed the wrinkles out of his outer tunic, and said, “I suppose now we meet the witches and the mechs?”
“Yes,” Clovache said. “No way around it, Crick.”
He looked startled for a brief moment. “It shows, then.”
Batanya snorted.
“That would be a yes, I take it. Well, well. Where do we go?”
“This door.” It was heavy Moraeus wood and banded with metal. There were runes and other symbols from several magical systems incised in the stone all around the door and carved into the door itself. If the Britlingen Collective were destroyed at that moment, Batanya reckoned the Hall of Witchcraft and all within it would remain standing.
She knocked on the door, the pattern of a bodyguard, four evenly spaced knocks. After a moment, it swung open, and the three walked through, falling into the pattern they would assume for the journey: Batanya in front, her eyes moving from side to side, Crick following, and then Clovache, whose task was to keep her face forward but her ears behind—a tricky thing to do, but that was the traditional job of the junior.
The door swung shut behind them, and they were faced with a veiled man in white robes. His glistening silver hair trailed almost to the floor.
Fucking witches, Batanya thought. Always posing.
“We come for transportation,” she said, though of course the witch already knew that. But she had to adhere to the ritual. The witches and the mechs went nuts if the rituals weren’t followed.
“We’re ready,” said the witch, who appeared to be smiling behind the veil. “So few want to be sent to Hell. We’ve enjoyed the preparations.” That was an unexpected bit of sharing; Clovache was almost inclined to think not too badly of him, when the witch added, “Of course, we’ve never gotten to bring anyone back.”
“Which room?” Batanya asked, her voice quite level.
He inclined his head toward the doorway behind him and turned to glide into the huge room ahead of them. He moved with an eerie smoothness. Batanya and Clovache had wondered between themselves if the witches practiced moving like that. They had entertained the whole bar at the Pooka Palace one night by acting out the Floating Walk 101 class. Batanya turned to exchange a weak grin with Clovache. That had been a very good night.
In the middle of the room was a shallow basin raised on a plinth, and in the basin was a smoky fire. A group of seven witches stood in a casual circle around the basin, and they all seemed prepared with small vials of herbs or chemicals, and a number of focus items. The children taken in by the Collective came in handy for the witches’ rituals, too. At the side of each witch was a boy or girl of ages ranging from fourteen to five. Each child held a cloudy globe.
In the corner of the room, a lone mech was seated on a stool before a vast and complex machine. Batanya saw her client’s shoulders jump a little. The Parduan was wound pretty tight, and she hoped he didn’t come unsprung. What would she do if he withdrew a weapon from his clothing and tried to kill the witches? Hmmm, that was a poser. The client’s wish was law, right? But the witches were under the protection of the Collective; in fact, they were an essential part of the Collective’s operation. The scenario presented a neat problem to debate over many tankards of ale when they returned . . . if they returned.
Batanya turned to the client and pointed to a little set of steps that led to a platform over the basin. “Up,” she said, and went up herself ahead of him. The three crowded onto the small platform, and the two bodyguards put their arms around Crick, which made him jump yet again. “A Crick sandwich,” he muttered foolishly, and over his shoulder Clovache rolled her eyes at Batanya, who sighed.
Then the witches began their chanting, their drawing of runes in the air, and their tossing of herbs on the fire, and the smoke began to rise, and the mech in the corner began his mysterious button punching on the machine, and then . . .
They were in Hell.
Of course, it was hot in the tunnel. The smell was most unpleasant. Hell had been named from the stories from Earth, and its atmosphere was not the only similarity that had spawned the comparison. Life on the surface above Hell was almost impossible because of the pools of gases that dotted the landscape. The beings that still lived aboveground were savage and very foreign. Down below, where the being named Lucifer ruled, was where almost all Hell’s life was conducted. Its curved tunnels were notoriously dangerous and difficult to navigate.
Crick had a map, which he whipped out of a pocket in his tunic. The map was made from a very flexible material, and he held the unfolded surface wide open to peer at it, angling the face of the map toward the arched roof. That was where the tunnel’s lightsource originated, though Clovache couldn’t identify the devices that issued the light, or how those devices were powered. They’d found themselves in a main passage; Clovache noticed that other branch tunnel mouths within view were much darker and smaller. For the moment, the three were alone, but there was a clear sound of footsteps from the west. It was the work of a moment for Batanya to drag Crick backward into one of the dark tunnels, though the rock floor was so inexplicably slick that she almost landed on her back. Clovache leaped after her and skidded so hard she almost hit the wall. Crick still had his map spread in his hands, and he squawked, but it was through Batanya’s fingers.
The two Britlingens pressed their client up against the stone wall of the tunnel, their bodies between the opening and Crick. Crick was very quiet now, having grasped the situation, and Batanya thought it safe to remove her hand. She eased a throwing star out of its sheath and held it at the ready.
Two demons walked past the mouth. They were perhaps five feet tall, red and bumpy, and though they had two arms and two legs, that was the end of their resemblance to humans. They did have cloven hooves and tails, and sharp pointed ears, but they were hairless and their genitals were barbed, whether they were male or female. Batanya saw Crick’s eyes lock onto the crucial area, and she shared his wince. No matter how many times you had seen the demons strut their stuff, it was awful to imagine that “stuff” in operation.
The demons passed out of view without detecting their presence.
All three of them exhaled with relief, and Batanya put the star away.
“Let’s just stay here for a moment,” she whispered. “Tell us what your plan is.” When Batanya made a suggestion in that particular voice, even if she had to whisper it, wise people listened, and Crick was at least that wise.
“All right,” Crick said, just as quietly. He extracted something from one of his pockets—his garment seemed to have a hundred of them—and pressed a button. It was a tiny lightsource, probably battery powered, and he turned so that his body was between the light and the mouth of their tunnel. He handed the map to Batanya. Clovache squatted right beside him to add her body to the screen, and they all peered down at the map.
It was detailed, showing tunnel after tunnel, chamber after chamber. “How’d you get this?” Clovache said, her voice hushed and respectful. This was a valuable item.
“You don’t want to know,” Crick said, his tenor voice cheerful. “You really don’t.” His long, thin finger moved over the markings on the map for a moment, and then he said, “Here we are.” There was a pulsing star at the spot he indicated.
“Too bad the other critters don’t show up the way we do,” Batanya muttered. “But at least we have a frame of reference.”
“I couldn’t afford the kind that shows all life-forms,” Crick said apologetically.
“What, you actually paid for this?” Clovache’s eyebrows were raised skeptically. She clearly thought he’d stolen it.
“Well, no. I mean I couldn’t afford the jail time. The better ones were locked up tighter, and I was in a hurry,” he said, without the slightest trace of shame.
“What is this object of yours that you ‘left behind’ the last time you visited this place?” Batanya said.
“It’s a conjuring ball.”
“But those are everywhere, you can buy one in any shop.”
“Not like this one. It’s for real.”
The two Britlingens stared at their client. Conjuring balls, full of tiny machinery and spells and capable of performing very innocuous bits of magic like lighting candles or drying plates, were hugely popular gifts for children. Even a cheap one could entertain a child for hours until the magic ran down, and the more expensive models were almost as good as giving someone a pet. They might last two or three years, and could do quite a variety of tasks and tricks. But everyone knew that the balls were not permanent sources of magic. Sooner or later, they’d exhaust their power.
“You’re telling us this conjuring ball is eternal?” Clovache said, her voice almost a growl.
“Yes.” Crick looked rather proud.
“Did you make it?”
“No, of course not. I stole it on commission.”
“You mean you stole it from the Lord of Hell because someone had asked you to get it?”
Crick nodded, looking pleased with her acumen.
“Who?” Batanya had a creeping feeling along her arms. This was getting worse and worse. “Who commissioned the theft?”
“And you went back to Pardua without the ball? Having taken his money?”
“Taken it and spent it,” Crick said, his foolish face looking rather downcast.
“We are so fucked,” Clovache said.
There was a moment of silence while they all considered the truth of this. Belshazzar, a warlord of Pardua, was actually a glorified gangster. (Perhaps all warlords are.) Belshazzar was ruthless, drastic, and notoriously indirect in his punishments. He would enjoy amputating your hand if you stole from him, but he enjoyed even more kidnapping your mother, say, and forcing you to watch as he amputated her hand. Then yours.
“Hey, we’re Britlingens,” Batanya said bracingly. “Not only are we made of tough stuff, but we can hardly be blamed for what our client has done. Britlingens are hired hands, not the responsible parties.”
“True,” Clovache said. “Our Collective would intervene, if they had any notion of where we were. Trovis wouldn’t pay ransom for us, but Flechette might. I’m not so very partial to my left hand, anyway. And maybe we can buy some time by persuading Belshazzar to kill Crick here, first.”
“Thanks, bodyguards-sworn-to-protect-me,” said Crick, somewhat coldly, “but let’s leave the discussion of my possible demise for later. Right now, we’ve got a conjuring ball to retrieve.”
“Did you hide it or was it captured?” Batanya asked.
“I hid it,” Crick said. “I seized a moment of solitude.”
He peered at the map. “Here,” he said, and indicated a tunnel to the north of the one where they crouched. There was a fair amount of walking in between.
“If you had given the witches this map, they could have landed us right there,” Clovache muttered.
“Yes, but then we would have landed in the barracks. So that seemed like a poor choice to me.”
“You hid the ball in the barracks of the soldiers of the King of Hell?”
He shrugged. “It was where I was.”
“How’d . . . No. Let’s focus. Unless you have a better idea, we’ll work our way closer and see what our chances are.” It was obvious from Batanya’s tone that she considered those chances slim to nil. “Lucky for you I don’t have children, Crick, or I’d be cursing you in their names.”
“Oh my goodness, that’s hard to believe,” Crick said blandly. “That you don’t have children, I mean. What could the men of Spauling be thinking of?”
“Slitting your throat, most likely,” Batanya said. “I know that’s crossed my mind.”
“What is the law?” Crick didn’t sound at all worried.
“The client’s word,” Clovache said, but Batanya could tell it hurt her to say it.
“Let’s get moving. Stop the jawing.” Batanya wanted to correct Clovache’s attitude. That was her job.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Clovache muttered, by way of apology. “This is a very bad mission.”
In a few seconds, Clovache’s dark outlook was validated. Just as they were edging forward to take a gander out the mouth of their tunnel, they heard something moving in the darkness behind them.
It was something that was dragging itself along.
“It’s a slug,” Crick said urgently. “We must move now or be stuck to the tunnel walls in a coat of slug goo. Or we’ll be absorbed.”
They hadn’t the faintest idea what Crick was talking about, but he’d been there before and they hadn’t. Also, the smell that preceded the dragging sound was strong enough to make even the hardened bodyguards gag. Batanya checked to make sure the passage was clear, and the three darted out into the main tunnel, turning left; Batanya figured that was north. They left the dragging noise and the awful smell behind them, so evidently the slugs didn’t move very swiftly. But after a few minutes, Batanya heard footsteps coming at a fast clip. At her hand gesture, the three leaped into a very small side tunnel, much narrower than the one that had been their first refuge.
This tunnel turned out to be occupied by three soldiers doing the nasty, and in this instance that was no euphemism. Since they were from different species, this was an unattractive and complicated undertaking. Before Crick’s involuntary sound of disgust had cleared his throat, before Clovache had quite figured out how they’d all hooked up, Batanya had silenced the soldiers permanently with her short sword.
It was hard to say in the dim lighting that was only a step above darkness, but Batanya, cleaning her sword on the trousers of one deceased soldier, felt Crick might even look a bit green.
“Thank you,” he said, after a moment.
“Don’t mention it,” she said.
They crouched in the gloom with the corpses, Clovache glancing at the bodies from time to time in curiosity. “Have you ever seen that?” she asked Batanya, pointing to the conjunction of a greenish brown snake-headed humanoid creature and a wolfwoman. Batanya shook her head. “This job is always an education,” she said.
After a few minutes, it seemed apparent no one had heard the muted groans and gurgles of the dying soldiers; or perhaps if any passerby had, the noises had been perceived as arising from their activity. At any rate, no one came to investigate.
Batanya knew it was only a matter of time before they came face-to-face with someone who would challenge them. The traffic in the tunnel made it obvious that they were getting closer to the hub of Hell’s activities. Several times various beings passed the mouth of their little hidey-hole, and each time the three held their breath until the footsteps had passed (if the creatures had feet). One of the slugs oozed by, and Clovache and Batanya got to observe firsthand how the creatures undulated through the tunnels, the slime oozing from their underbellies and sides to grease their passage. This slime hardened within seconds. Now Clovache understood why the floor of the tunnel was so smooth and even; the passage of the slugs, the largest of which was perhaps ten feet long and as big around as a medium barrel, had led to a gradual buildup of the substance. There was a coating on the bottom half of the walls, too, but it wasn’t as thick and glassy as the layer on the floor.
“If we’d known, we could have brought metal cleats,” Batanya said practically. “Perhaps someone should have told us.”
Crick was wise enough to keep his response to himself. He just grinned at Batanya in a foolish way. “There’ll be less traffic at nighttime,” he whispered. “We’ll have to wait it out.”
Some hours passed, and the activity in the tunnels died down. The three spent the passing time trying to ignore the smell of both the heaped bodies and the dark area beyond them at the end of the tunnel, perhaps five yards farther. The area had evidently been used as a latrine in the recent past, and though the functional amenity was handy, it was also unpleasant to be around for any length of time—and all they had was lengthy time. Very lengthy. The two Britlingens dozed, ate a couple of energy bars, gave Crick another, and drank sparingly. Presumably there were underground springs somewhere; almost all living beings needed fluid. But they hadn’t seen one, and the map showed only the tunnels.
“At least we haven’t seen any animals,” Clovache said in a bright whisper. “I wonder how they supply themselves with meat?”
“There are pens of cows and other edible creatures, kept pretty far distant from the rest of Lucifer’s palace,” Crick said. “Why are you glad we haven’t seen animals?”
“They might bark,” Clovache said quickly. In the dim light that pervaded the tunnels, which varied quite a bit from one tunnel to the next, she looked as if she wished she hadn’t spoken.
Crick looked curious, which was probably his natural condition. “You wanted to avoid dogs in particular?” he said. “Why?”
There was an awful moment of silence.
“Because this large scar on my face was caused by a dog. I got it on my first mission,” Batanya said, with no inflection at all. “We were protecting a guy who bred attack dogs. His breeding and training methods were famous. A rival of his, as a practical joke, bribed one of our client’s kennel boys to feed the dogs an irritant that acted on their nervous system.”
“How did that turn out?”
Batanya shrugged and looked away.
“Not very well,” Clovache said. “I hadn’t finished training. A man named Damon was Batanya’s junior. This alleged practical joke cost him his life.”
“Did your client live?” Crick asked Batanya directly.
She met his eyes. “Yes,” she said. “He lived, though he lost a leg and one hand. Damon died after four hours. I got the scar.”
That was end of all conversation for a long time.
Batanya gradually became convinced that it was night. It was hard to tell with no change in the light, but it felt like night to her. She gave Clovache a hand signal. After a quick check of all their accoutrements, the bodyguards prepared to move. According to the legend on Crick’s handy-dandy map, they were about a mile from their objective as a crow flies, if a crow would be demented enough to navigate the tunnels of Hell.
Clovache glared at the map, which in some ways was a godsend, in other ways completely useless. Fumbling their way ignorantly would have been nearly suicidal, but the map would have been so much more valuable if it had shown the rooms that must be lying somewhere. Presumably, in this huge underground empire, there was a throne room for the king, a refectory of some kind, a prison, an audience chamber, and so on. As it was, they knew where they had to go in order to retrieve Crick’s left-behind treasure, but they had no idea what they might encounter on the way there.
“It’s not like we ever knew what to expect anyway,” Clovache said to Batanya, who nodded. They’d been partners long enough to have abbreviated conversations.
As if her words had been a self-fulfilling prophecy, they rounded the next bend to find two armed guards blocking the way.
“We heard you coming a mile away,” said the one who was least humanoid. He was a not a demon. In fact, Batanya had no idea what his origin was. He was quadrupedal, gray, and clothed in a material like cobwebs. He had a device in his hand that looked like the frame for a tennis racket. With a dexterous motion, he swung the thing toward them, and a large-weave net flowed out of the frame to land over Batanya and Crick, who was right behind her.
Clovache fled, rightly figuring that someone needed to stay free. To the hoots and jeers of the two guards, Batanya unsheathed her short sword and began sweeping the blade from side to side. To her vast irritation, the strands of the net stuck to the sword and moved with it. The net was so elastic that it didn’t provide enough resistance to be severed.
“Shit!” she said. From the corner of her eye she saw that Crick had adapted and was working with his dagger. He was having better luck with his smaller blade than she was with her sword, so she pulled out her own knife and began cutting. The second guard, a human who looked quite a bit like Trovis, had drawn some kind of handgun, a hazardous decision in a rock tunnel. Since a ricochet was just as likely to wound her or her client as it was to hit the one who deserved it, Batanya threw her dagger through a rent she’d just made in the net and killed the Trovis-like human, who gurgled dramatically before he crumpled to the floor of the tunnel. There was a certain flash of satisfaction in the moment.
The net-thrower seemed startled that things weren’t going his way, and he wasn’t keeping the net mended quickly enough to contain Crick and Batanya. Crick was working very quickly, which was good, since Batanya had been forced to return to using her sword. She’d changed her technique to the more effective one of stabbing through the net in short jabs, rather than trying to sweep a large cut through the strands.
Batanya was startled to see something long and dark slide past her on the tunnel floor. By the time she realized it was Clovache, the other woman was on her feet and plunging her neotaser into the mass of the net-throwing thing’s body. A good jolt of electricity will interrupt almost any being’s thought processes, and it had a dramatic effect on their gray enemy. All four legs shot out and began skidding around on the slippery surface of the tunnel. The effect was weirdly like dancing, but when Clovache delivered another jolt, it became evident that the creature was in its death throes. It collapsed in a spidery heap, twitched a couple of times, and lay still.
“That was brilliant,” Batanya said, trying not to pant.
“I took a running start, threw myself down, and away I went. It was just like sliding over ice.” Clovache looked rather pleased at the compliment. “Especially at the sides of the floor where no one walks.”
Crick was staring at them wild-eyed while Batanya cut the remnants of the tattered net away from their limbs.
“You all right?” Clovache asked him, clapping him on the shoulder by way of encouragement.
“Yes,” Crick said. He took off the idiotic goggles. He had quite sharp blue eyes underneath them. Without the sparkly distraction, his face was bony and agreeable and intelligent. “I want to say right now, you two are worth every penny I paid.”
“Say that after you get back alive,” Batanya advised him, as Clovache deposited the neotaser into the pocket designed for it. After the slide across the slug slick, her summer armor was a little grubby, but completely intact. Clovache’s hood had come off in the fracas, and she tugged it back over her matted hair. (“If you have an iota of vanity, this is not the job for you,” the sergeant who’d recruited her from her home village had said. Clovache, like all the young recruits, had lied.)
“We have to get out of here fast,” Batanya said, and without another word, they all stepped over the bodies and hurried down the tunnel. With a glance at the map, Crick indicated a dark opening to the side, again to the left, and they ducked into it, none too soon. Howling, another gray quadrupedal creature loped across the spot they’d just vacated.
Batanya wondered if the gray creatures had some kind of mind-link. Perhaps the dead one had sent some kind of signal when he was wounded.
After a long moment, they heard an eerie wailing. The second soldier had found his dead buddy. This was going to draw all kinds of attention to the area, and the faster they relocated, the better.
Batanya made the punching gesture with her fist that meant “move out,” and they hurried away from the wailing. This time they were going west, following Crick’s gestures. This tunnel was particularly slick, and they had to pick their way very carefully to avoid landing on their asses. The unpitted glassiness of the slugs’ hardened secretions argued that this passage was not much traveled by the minions of Lucifer; that was the good part. It also argued that the slugs used it a lot. That, of course, was the bad part. Batanya had a momentary image of being beneath one of the slugs as it moved with its slow, sure, rippling motion. She could feel the goo clogging her nose and mouth until she couldn’t breathe. She would harden to the floor after the slug had passed.
Then she shook herself vigorously. Letting one’s imagination take over was an indulgence that sapped the energy of a warrior. She glanced over her shoulder at Crick, who was shuddering. Maybe he’d had the same mental image.
From behind him, Clovache hissed, “Hurry up!”
Their luck held for ten frantic minutes. Then they heard the dragging sound of an approaching slug, and there was no handy escape hatch. In fact, there was not an intersecting tunnel opening as far as the eye could see. If there was one around the next bend, they simply couldn’t count on reaching it before they met the oncoming slug.
“Back,” Batanya ordered. Abruptly, they were hurrying as fast retracing their steps as they had been going forward. The first tunnel mouth they spotted also contained an approaching slug; it was so close to issuing forth into their main tunnel that its antennae were waving in their direction. They kept on going, hearing the relentless progress of the larger creature behind them, until they spotted another opening, a much smaller one.
It was like a baby tunnel, but it represented safety at that moment, and they dove into it with all haste. They had to crawl in on their knees. At least it was extensive enough to hold all three of them.
“The slugs don’t seem to be sentient,” Batanya said, keeping her voice low. “That is, I don’t think they’re smart enough to be working for the King of Hell. I think the slugs made the tunnels.”
Crick said, “Lucifer adapted the idea from the slugs. When the surface planet was growing uninhabitable, he began exploring down here; or at least, he sent his creatures and hirelings down here. Many of them died because they underestimated the sheer power of the slugs. The nasty things don’t think much, but they’ve got very strong instincts, and they can attack with surprising speed when they’re angry.”
This was a flood of information. “What makes them angry?” Clovache asked.
“Anything blocking their way,” Crick said.
“What do they eat?”
“Anything blocking their way.” Crick looked apologetic. “They seem to take nutrients from the soil. But when they run over someone, they generally pause on top of them, and suck up everything they can.”
That was much worse than Batanya’s mental image, and she felt quite sick for just a moment. “Then we’d better not get under them,” she said, in the toughest voice she could manage. “Why don’t Lucifer’s warriors clear them out of the tunnels? Surely they’re the ones in the greatest danger?”
“Lucifer needs the slugs too much,” Crick explained. “They do most of the digging for him. Of course, he can’t really direct where the slug tunnels go, but they add to his palace for free. At the same time, the slugs stabilize the tunnels with their secretions. He only has to shore up the occasional roof. Plus, the slugs are good at patrolling the existing passageways. If he loses the odd fighter, he doesn’t really care.”
“You know a lot about this.” In the dim light, Batanya couldn’t read their client’s expression, but she had the impression he flinched.
“Yes,” he said. “I was a prisoner here for quite some time. Lucifer enjoys talking.”
“This is information it might have been good to have before,” Batanya said. “Not so much about your imprisonment, though that’s interesting, of course.” Batanya could be polite when she chose. “This stuff about the slugs . . . We needed to know that before now.”
“Why don’t you tell us something else we might need to know?” Clovache suggested. “Just in the interest of keeping you alive.” Another slug was coming. They could hear the distinctive dragging sound, inhale the noisome smell. They were stuck here for a few minutes.
“Belshazzar heard from an informant that the conjuring ball was in the private cabinet of the King of Hell,” Crick said. “It was a commission steal. I was hired by Belshazzar partly because I’m good, partly because I owed him a lot of money anyway. But I did succeed in getting the ball, though it was in the darkest corner of the darkest cabinet in Lucifer’s apartment . . .”
“Less with the colorful and more with the facts,” Batanya said firmly.
Crick was a bit disconcerted to be knocked out of his storytelling groove, but he nodded obligingly. “Actually, it was in a special room off the king’s bedroom. His, ah, toy room, so to speak. Belshazzar was pretty sure I’d get to see that room when Lucifer found out I was actually one of the last of the Harwell Clan.”
Batanya’s eyes widened. Clovache looked bewildered.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“It means our client here has special physical attractions.”
Clovache looked him over, couldn’t see it. She liked her men big and burly. “Like what?”
When Crick just shrugged, Clovache looked at her lieutenant. “What?” she asked.
Batanya said, “Crick here has two penises.”
“Get out of town,” Clovache said. “Really?” She sounded both admiring and intrigued.
Crick nodded, trying to look modest. “There are few of us left. We don’t tend to be model citizens, according to the rules of other societies, so the Harwell Clan has been decimated in the last decade.”
“Is there anyone who doesn’t want to hurt you?” Clovache asked.
“Sure. You two.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Batanya muttered. She pulled her hood down and ran her fingers through her short black hair. “Okay, so how’d you get the conjuring ball into the barracks?”
“They didn’t know I had it,” Crick said. “When I decided it was time to take my leave of the king—his demands got rather tiresome—I ran away, taking the conjuring ball with me. When it was obvious I was going to be captured, I concealed it.”
“Where?” Batanya asked bluntly.
“Ah, in the only available place.”
“And they didn’t search you thoroughly?” Batanya was professionally astonished. “It wouldn’t get by us.”
Crick half-bowed to them. “I have no doubt,” he said politely. “However, they thought I might have stolen one of Lucifer’s big pieces of jewelry or some of his coins, which could not be concealed in the same manner, and they didn’t think of checking me to see if I’d made off with anything else of value. I, ah, couldn’t tolerate the concealment anymore, so in a moment when no one else was in the room, I hid the ball. They’d parked me in a room in the barracks while the sergeant needed them to beat another prisoner, and that gave me ten minutes locked by myself in a room without a window. I took advantage of the opportunity.”
“So you want us to take you back into the barracks, find the room where you were held, extract the conjuring ball, and get you out again alive. To return you to Spauling. Where you have to seek sanctuary because Belshazzar wants to kill you. Or perhaps you want to send the ball to Belshazzar in the hopes that he’ll honor his original contract with you. And King Lucifer wants you back in his playroom.”
“I suppose all that’s true,” Crick said. For the first time, when he tried to sound cheerful, he failed.
“Belshazzar is angry because of your tardiness and your loss of the ball, and Lucifer is angry because you ran away before he’d finished playing with you.”
“That’s a fair summary,” Crick admitted.
“How’d you get the fee for the witches at the Collective? I’m just curious,” Clovache said. “It’s not my business. But I know they don’t extend credit.” Batanya’s shoulders heaved with silent laughter at the idea.
“Ah, well, I may have lifted a few things from the houses of various nobles in Spauling.”
“A few things? Must have been more like a cartload, to have afforded us.”
“You’ll be interested to know I got a price break as long as I specified the two guards I wanted to hire.”
Both the women became very serious instantly. “Trovis,” hissed Batanya.
“He really has a big hate against you,” Crick said. “When he heard where I needed to go, he jiggered around the duty roster so that your names came up.”
Batanya and Clovache looked at each other. “When we get back,” Clovache said, “we’ll take care of him. This has gone on long enough.”
“Why does he hold such a grudge?” Crick asked. The two turned as one to stare at him. “Oh, ladies, come on! We’re in this together. If I make it back alone, I’ll kill him for you.”
“Good enough,” Clovache said. “My esteemed senior, here, turned him down so forcefully she broke his arm.”
Crick whistled silently. “I take it a plain refusal wouldn’t suffice?”
“He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Batanya said. “He was waiting in my room when I came home one night. I tried being tactful, which doesn’t come easily to me. I tried being firm. I tried being rude. He persisted. The time came to try force.”
“He broke her nose,” Clovache said to Crick. “He broke her collarbone. But she broke a major bone of his, so she won.”
“He cried,” Batanya said, her lips curving in a slight smile. “But enough of happy reminiscences. We’ve hunkered here long enough. Time to be on the move.”
This time Crick had to brace himself a bit before he stepped out into the larger tunnel. Batanya thought she knew what had made him run before he was ready, during his earlier stay with the king. Maybe he’d lost his nerve, maybe he’d lost his ability to handle the physical tastes of Lucifer, but Batanya was willing to bet he’d lost his tolerance for the tunnels.
She couldn’t deny that she shared a bit of that feeling. In fact, Hell was awful. She took a deep breath of the thick stinking air, and the closed-in feeling began to lay a blanket over her normal brisk spirit. The indirect light wasn’t bright enough to really illuminate the way; it was better than nothing, but its dull consistency added to the gloomy atmosphere. They’d moved out again, but their pace was too slow. Batanya felt that their energy was being sapped by the place.
Batanya realized their mission had to be completed at what speed they could summon. They needed to get out of the tunnels and back home before they grew too tense—or too depressed—to cope. She’d never encountered such a set of circumstances.
“You remember our last mission?” she said suddenly to Clovache.
Clovache was visibly surprised at Batanya’s question. “Of course.”
“That was a very bad situation. The building exploding, our client being completely defenseless and unable to walk. Yet I never despaired, and I never thought we wouldn’t get out of it.”
“Senior, do you have a fever?”
“The tunnels are getting to me and Crick, here. You don’t seem to be as bothered by them. You may have to take over the lead.”
“I don’t mind them. Just say the word, senior.”
“Thanks, junior. I’ll let you know.”
Batanya turned and began to lead the way again. Crick kept possession of the map, using whispers or a pointing finger to give directions. They kept to smaller tunnels so they’d be less likely to meet up with Hell’s denizens. The downside to this stratagem was that when they did meet up with a creature, there was no side tunnel to help them dodge the attack, which came instantly. During an incredibly long journey that seemed to last at least six hours, but actually lasted perhaps two, the Britlingens killed at least ten of Hell’s odder creatures. Only by the narrowest of margins, the three avoided the slow but inexorable progress of two slugs. Batanya’s fingers began to tremble, and she knew the time was approaching when she’d have to hand over leadership to her junior.
But before she had to cede her position, they were captured.
It happened very quickly. They were caught in the worst possible situation, in a long stretch where there weren’t any hidey-holes to duck into. Also, the tunnel was gently curved, so the oncoming enemy was hidden from them until there was no possibility of escape. No change in sound announced their coming. These soldiers were like large dust bunnies. They progressed by rolling silently down the slick floors. At first, Batanya was inclined to laugh, but Crick’s expression told her that they were in big trouble. “Run!” he said hoarsely. “Run!” They reversed, but Batanya, who was now in the rear, was overcome within seconds.
It was like being sucked up in a vacuum cleaner, Batanya thought, as she gagged and choked on the dust and bits of hair and trash that made up the creature’s body. It managed to get strands twisted around her wrists and to lift her off the floor so she had no traction. She began to kick out and throw her body from side to side, but somehow the dust bunny surrounded her with strands and particles of debris that restrained her efficiently.
“Clovache!” she called. “You?”
“Held fast,” came a muffled voice. “Crick?”
There was only a choked series of coughs to indicate Crick’s position.
The ball began rolling down the tunnel, Batanya inside. She rapidly became so dizzy that her priority changed from escaping the creature to not throwing up.
The heat increased as her encompassing, nebulous captor rolled through the passages. Finally, the sense of constriction eased. The wretchedly sick Batanya felt that they’d arrived in a large open space. Then movement blessedly ceased, and all the threads and bits of debris that had snared her simply unknitted. “Oh, shit,” she said, a second before she landed on a stone floor that had never known the passage of a slug.
The impact knocked her breathless for a minute, but the second she could inhale she was on her feet with her short sword drawn. The dustball that had held her rolled away, and for the first time she saw Lucifer’s great hall. It had a high vaulted ceiling and was randomly dotted with stone pillars. There was a throne carved out of the stone; it had been created when the rest of the hall was mined, and it stood in dark splendor by itself in the middle of the vast space. The handsome gentleman standing on its bottom step was wearing a three-piece suit and a neck scarf decorated with a huge ruby stickpin. He was blond. He was smiling.
“I always thought Lucifer would have black hair,” Clovache whispered, as she got up on one knee. She was a yard away, and she had given in to the impulse to vomit. Crick? Batanya looked around for their client, and she found him on the floor behind her. She positioned herself in front of his prone form and got ready to fight.
“Brave but foolish,” said the blond man. “Look.” He pointed behind her, and very cautiously Batanya turned her head. Just in the edges of the light that hung over Lucifer’s head was a host of creatures—demons, more of the quadrupeds, wolf-men, snakemen, dust bunnies, humans. There were at least two hundred of them, and they were all armed in one way or another.
“Well, shit,” Batanya said for the second time. She nudged Crick with her heel. “Shall I die in your defense?” she asked. Crick groaned, rolled on his side away from her, and puked, considerately aiming away from her boots. Clovache staggered upright and with fingers that were shaking so hard they were almost useless, she attached her wrist crossbow to her left arm, the bow cocked and at the ready and the arrows neatly lined up in their strap. Batanya had never been prouder of her junior.
“Surely he doesn’t want you to,” Lucifer said. “You two are so . . . formidable. The great thief Crick wouldn’t want to condemn two brave warriors to death unnecessarily?”
“No,” Crick moaned. “No, don’t do it.”
“That’s good, Crick! Now they can provide entertainment for my troops,” Lucifer said, smiling angelically.
“The Collective would frown on that,” Batanya said.
Lucifer’s smile dimmed a little. He strolled over to the little cluster of shaken outer-worlders. His nose didn’t wrinkle when he got within smelling distance, so Batanya figured his olfactory sense must have been damaged by his long sojourn in the fetid air of Hell. “The Britlingen Collective,” he said, only the faintest trace of a question in his voice. The two women nodded in unison. Lucifer made a face; a disappointed face, Batanya decided.
“I have no wish to fight the Collective,” Lucifer said. He brightened. “On the other hand, who’d know?”
“If we don’t come back, everyone would know,” Batanya said. “Our souls belong to the Collective. You’re aware of our death clause?”
Everyone who’d heard of the Britlingens had heard of the death clause. When a Britlingen died, his or her soul appeared in the recording hall, reenacting that death. The reenactment was recorded for posterity. The recordings were required viewing during the course of instruction.
“Perhaps some of my people could keep you just at the brink,” Lucifer suggested. “They’re quite talented at that.”
“They’ll die out of sheer pigheadedness,” Crick said, his voice raspy. “Lu, what the hell?”
Lucifer was close enough now for Batanya to see every detail. He was formed like a man, and was extremely handsome; his short blond hair was more golden and thicker than Crick’s, but it was smoothed back in the same way. Lucifer was also thin and well-muscled like Crick, but he made no pretense at foolishness. Even a sick bodyguard could register the avidity in his eyes when he looked at the recaptured Harwellian.
Clovache stood on Crick’s far side, her back to Batanya’s. There was a long moment of tension while they waited to hear what Lucifer would say.
“Oh, all right,” Lucifer said. He sounded both gleeful and a little sulky, as if he’d gotten what he wanted but it could have been a little better.
“All right what?” Batanya said, not relaxing in the least. A wolfman was snarling at her from three yards away, and she was keeping her eyes on him. He was close enough to a canine to give her the creeps. She was ready to sweep the sword across his throat, given half a chance. She could feel Clovache trembling at her back. The trip through the tunnels had taken its toll on the junior Britlingen.
“We’ll make a deal,” Lucifer told them. He took a step closer. “Stand down, and your client only has to stay for a week with me. Fight, and he stays the rest of his life.”
“Why are you willing to make such a deal?” Batanya said, after examining the idea briefly. “Kill us both, and you have him forever anyway.”
“True. But you’re right, I don’t want to get in bad odor with the Collective,” Lucifer said. “I’ll hold you all for a week, enjoy the delights of Crick . . . then you can all three return to the Collective, more or less unmolested. Besides, when I was taking inventory a few days ago, I found that an item is missing from my collection of wonderful things. I’d like to ask Crick a few questions about that, while we’re having fun. But I swear he’ll live, especially if he talks quickly.”
Batanya’s leg was touching Clovache’s, and she could feel Clovache’s leg begin to shake a bit harder.
She didn’t believe Lucifer, of course, but she couldn’t think of any counteroffer that would give them an advantage. The wolfman advanced an inch or two, his lips drawing back from his fangs. Another one of the four-legged creatures with a net eased a little closer on her left.
“What is the law?” Batanya said quietly.
“The client’s word,” Clovache whispered. There was a moment of silence.
“I accept your offer,” Crick said to Lucifer. His voice was devoid of any inflection.
“Oh, that’s good then,” Lucifer said. He beamed at the three. “Ladies, you can stand down. I have a lovely jail just waiting for you, and you can enjoy it all by yourself. I won’t permit any company. Crick, for you I have something else entirely.” The host of creatures circling them began yowling and laughing, or making whatever noise passed for it.
Batanya turned to help Crick up, and their eyes met squarely.
“He won’t keep to his word,” Crick said very close to her ear.
“What shall we do?” Batanya said. “We can fight to the death. I will kill you now, if you would prefer that to him.” She jerked her head toward the advancing Lucifer.
“No,” Crick said. “That part’s bad, but not fatal. I can get through it and even enjoy some of it. He won’t let me go, though. Something will happen to me, or you. We have to get out with the conjuring ball. I might as well die here if I don’t get out with it. It’s in Barrack Three, on top of the first cabinet on the right.”
Batanya said, “All right,” having no idea what she could do with the knowledge. “I’ll ask to speak to you in a couple of days.”
Crick patted her on the shoulder, turned to nod at Clovache, whose face was streaming with sweat, and then bowed to Lucifer.
“Marl, take them to the cells,” Lucifer instructed the wolfman, and draped his arm across Crick’s shoulders to lead Crick away.
Batanya heard him say, “Love, I’ve gotten some new toys since you were here last,” and then the wolfman snarled at her. When he could see he had her attention, he jerked his shaggy head northward. The two Britlingens surrendered their weapons to two quadrupedal net-throwers, then trudged off, following the wolfman’s lead. The crowd of Lucifer’s hirelings surrounded them, but aside from an occasional poke or prod or gobbet of spit didn’t offer them harm. Batanya didn’t like being spit on, but then again, no one had ever died of it, unless you counted the acid-spitting lizards she’d encountered on a previous job. She cast an uneasy look through the crowd and didn’t spot any.
“Well,” she said to Clovache, “We’ve been in worse spots.”
“Right,” Clovache said, with some effort. Batanya could tell Clovache’s stomach was still acting up. “This is an evening at the Pooka Palace compared to some of the places we’ve been.”
Batanya almost smiled, to the astonishment of the crowd.
Jail in Hell was about what you’d expect. They passed through the guardroom, with weapons hung on the walls that even Batanya had never seen, and many that she had. The weapons ranged from full-tech guns to your basic swords and spears and clubs. The guards were your basic hostile and contemptuous louts. A snakeman flicked his forked tongue out to touch Clovache’s cheek as she passed him, and he laughed in a hissing kind of way at her expression of disgust. The wolfman growled, “Keep your tongue to yourself, Sha,” and Sha snapped to attention, or at least as close to that as a curved spine like his could manage.
Clovache and Batanya had to strip under all eyes, because they couldn’t remain in their armor; they had expected that, but it wasn’t pleasant, of course. They donned the drawstring pants and shapeless tunics they were given, along with pairs of thick socks with padded soles. Then Marl, who appeared to be the shift captain, unlocked a heavy door with a peephole in the middle, and held it open for the prisoners to pass through.
The cells were rough-floored, having been hewn out of the rock instead of being created by the tunneling slugs, and the dimensions were roomy since occasionally they had to house creatures much larger than humans. Batanya assessed hers in one quick look. There was a latrine in one corner, which was quite an odd shape since all species don’t poop the same way, and there was a cot, twice as wide as Batanya’s bed in Spauling, to accommodate a variety of creatures. Clovache’s cell was right by hers, and there were bars from floor to ceiling in between, spaced a little less than the breadth of a hand apart. In the same manner, the front of the cells were also barred from floor to ceiling, so the prisoners were always in view of their fellow prisoners and whoever happened to be in the jail block. There were only six cells. The first cell on each side was empty. The last one on the left became Batanya’s, and the one next to it, Clovache’s.
The two cells directly across from theirs were also occupied by humans. Opposite Batanya, a young man was sitting on his cot. He jumped up eagerly while the guards were locking up Batanya. He was wearing the same prisoners’ outfit, but on him it looked good.
The youth was slender, ethereally lovely, and very pleased to have some company. “People who can talk to me!” he said in a melodic voice. “Am I not beautiful? Do I not deserve to be admired?”
Since Batanya was busy pulling down the tunic and tightening the drawstring on the pants, she didn’t answer immediately. When she’d gotten herself arranged and the guards were occupied with Clovache, she turned to give him an examination. “Oh, yes, you’re pretty as a picture,” she said politely. “Why are you here instead of in Lucifer’s bed?” If Lucifer was hooked on men, she couldn’t imagine him turning down such a choice morsel. The rich chestnut of the youth’s hair, his wide green eyes, his smooth-as-silk tan skin . . . Well, it was enough to make your mouth water, if you’d been in any mood for fun and games. Batanya wasn’t.
“Oh, I was for a while,” he said. Even his voice was pleasant; just deep enough to be masculine, formed by a smiling mouth. “He was so incredibly lucky to have me! I shone in his bed like a star in the night sky! Not that I’ve seen the night sky in many ages. But I do remember it,” he added wistfully. He pulled his own tunic off over his head and doffed his trousers in a second graceful gesture. “Do you notice how lovely my ass is? Is not my cock perfect? And my legs—so straight, so well formed.”
The guards hardly gave the prisoner a glance as they exited. Presumably they’d seen the show before. Batanya was pleased to see that Clovache was regarding the young man with interest. He rotated slowly so that both newcomers could get a comprehensive look at his assets.
“Yes, very nice,” Batanya said, which was not nearly enough for the youth.
“You can’t have seen anything like me before,” he said to Clovache, coaxingly.
“That’s for damn sure,” she agreed, cocking an eyebrow.
“Yes, one of kind,” he said proudly. He couldn’t seem to speak of himself any other way. “It’s simply inexplicable that Lucifer could prefer anyone else to me. Though some of the things he liked to do hurt me and bruised my fair flesh,” he added, looking a little sad. “However,” he said, brightening, “the blue tint did look fascinating against my normal skin tone.”
The two Britlingens tried hard not to look at each other.
“You can put your clothes back on,” Batanya said. “You’re certainly very attractive, but we have more urgent things to think of. What is your name, handsome?”
“Narcissus,” he said. “Isn’t that beautiful?”
“Yes,” Clovache said, with every appearance of sincerity. “We’ve heard of you.” She turned to Batanya and winked. Batanya was relieved her junior was feeling well enough to react to the young man.
“Oh, my fame has spread even to . . . wherever it is you come from?” This idea made him very cheerful. He picked up a small mirror and began examining his own face in it.
“I guess the guards let him have a mirror so he’d shut up,” Batanya muttered. Narcissus, totally involved in his reflection, didn’t seem to notice his fellow prisoners anymore.
“Excuse me,” called the woman across from Clovache.
The two Britlingens went to the front of their cells. “Can I help you?” Clovache asked. It was a ridiculous question, but it would start the conversational ball rolling.
“Can you tell me what year it is?” the woman asked.
“That depends on what dimension you inhabit,” Batanya said. “And what planet you live on.”
The woman sighed. She appeared to be in her forties. She had short brownish hair, straight white teeth with a marked gap in front, and a pleasant face. “I hear things like that here all the time, and I’m not sure what to make of it,” she said. She was wearing tailored pants and a blouse with funny dots down the front. Batanya realized, after a moment’s study, that these round objects were the means of holding the shirt closed. Buttons, that was what they were called. There was a heavy jacket with big lapels and a hat and goggles hanging on a peg on the wall, the only place in the cell to hang possessions.
“You’re not wearing the prison outfit,” Clovache said. “Why is that?”
“I don’t know. I landed on an island in the Pacific, after the longest flight I’ve ever had.” The handsome woman looked momentarily confused. “I don’t know exactly where we were when our plane began to falter. And my navigator didn’t survive the landing.” She was silent for a long moment. “When I got out of the plane, I was stumbling around, and I went between two palm trees, and suddenly I was here. I was caught right away by some of those spidery things, and they brought me down to show me to the handsome gentleman. Is his name really Lucifer? Have I gone to Hell?”
“You landed on Hell. Now we’re below the surface, of course. What country are you from?” There was something oddly out of place about this woman.
“I’m from the United States of America,” she said. “I’m an aviatrix.”
Clovache looked over at Batanya, who shrugged. “I don’t know what that is,” she said.
“I fly airplanes,” the woman said with simple pride.
“I’m afraid you’re not on Earth any longer,” Batanya said. “At least . . . you’re not in the same dimension as Earth. We were just there a few weeks ago.”
“I figured that I couldn’t be back home. And I am surely not in the Pacific.” The woman sat on the cot, as if her knees had simply given out. “I don’t know how long . . . What year is it? I left in 1937.”
“The year here wouldn’t be the same as the year it was when you left,” Clovache said. “We are Britlingens.”
The woman’s face stayed blank.
Batanya said, “You seem to have been caught up in some event, or some magic, unknown to us.”
The woman took a deep, shuddering breath. “What year was it when you were last on Earth?” she asked, as if not quite certain she wanted to know the answer.
“Ah . . . well past your time,” Clovache said. She glanced across Narcissus’s cell to Batanya. “After 2000, anyway, though I’m not sure I ever noticed what year it was.” She shrugged. “We knew we weren’t going to be there long.”
“It was in the 2000s,” Batanya agreed.
“I can’t understand this,” the woman said quietly. “I must be insane.”
“What’s your name?” Batanya asked. Maybe a change of topic would break the woman’s black mood.
“Amelia Earhart.” She glanced from Batanya to Clovache as if, despite everything, she thought they might recognize her name. She and Narcissus had that in common, anyway.
When Amelia saw that the two Britlingens hadn’t heard of her, she shrugged. Then her whole posture stiffened as the prisoners all heard a sound approaching the big door that was supposed to seal off the cells, though the guards had left it open. It was a sort of scratchy, snuffly sound. “Ah, the dogs,” Amelia said. “It must be almost dinnertime.”
“Dogs?” Batanya said hoarsely, at almost the same moment that Clovache said, “What kind of dogs?”
“They’re large,” Narcissus said. He was taking a break from staring at his reflection. He was polishing his mirror with the hem of his tunic.
“Large!” Amelia laughed, the first normal sound they’d heard in this place. “They’re giants!”
Two huge black hounds came through the doorway and began sniffing down the corridor. They had short, shining fur, pointed ears, and long, thin tails. Their mouths were open and their long pink tongues were lolling out, providing a sharp color contrast to their sharp white fangs and their glowing red eyes.
Batanya pressed herself as far back in her cell as she could go, unless she could gouge a niche in the stone wall. She managed to say, “Do they let the dogs come into the cells?” Dogs! It would be dogs! Why couldn’t the prison level be guarded by hydras, or gargoyles? Anything besides dogs.
“No,” Narcissus said. The dogs swung their heads toward him and took a tentative step closer to the bars of his cell. With a complete disregard for the long, sharp teeth and the demonic eyes, Narcissus moved to the front of the cell and stretched his hand between the bars. The fearsome beasts took a big sniff, and the one nearer Narcissus let the young man scratch his head.
The three women stared at this, and Narcissus smiled. “Even dogs are attracted to me,” he said happily. “But you know, I love them, too.”
Batanya shuddered when she thought of some of the things she’d seen in her travels. She hoped the bars remained in place, for Narcissus’s sake. “Attracted” could translate in many ways.
After a moment, the hounds seemed to lose interest in Narcissus and resumed their prowl down the corridor. The red eyes fixed on each prisoner in turn, and a growl began rumbling through their chests as they came to Batanya’s cell. Her face was set in the clenched expression of someone completely determined not to show what she was feeling, but she was pale and sweating.
“Just stay back from the bars,” Clovache said, keeping her voice smooth and calm with a huge effort. “They can’t get you. They’re just reacting to your . . .” Clovache couldn’t bring herself to say the word in connection to her senior.
Batanya understood her, though, and she said it herself. “Yes, they smell my fear.” She hated this, hated herself for feeling it. Hated having a weakness. You’re a warrior, she told herself. That was years ago. You’re too old to feel this, now.
Both the hounds thrust their heads against the bars of her cell, and they began to bay. It was like nothing she’d ever heard. It took every ounce of grit she had to keep her knees stiff. Two human guards came rushing down the corridor to check out the hounds’ agitation. The hounds were by now so excited that they wheeled and leaped toward the guards, who were completely taken by surprise. Both men were armed with a form of gun, but before the stocky man on the left could draw his from its holster, the nearest hound had leaped upon him and taken out his neck with one huge bite. The guard’s head, its expression still startled, rolled grotesquely across the floor, coming to stop at Amelia Earhart’s cell. The other man was faster and steadier. He was ready to fire before the second hound was on him. His finger tightened on the trigger and the first bullet thudded into the beast leaping for him. The hound landed short, whimpering, and its decapitating buddy swung his head toward the attacking guard and growled.
But the tall, brawny fellow was not going to back down. “I’ll shoot you down!” he screamed, and the dogs seemed to think better about attacking someone as aggressive as they were. The one that had been shot was healing already. A gout of black blood spattered on the stone was the only reminder of the wound.
“They’re not going to die,” Batanya said. She and Clovache noticed at the same moment that the black blood on the stone was beginning to hiss, and a cloud of smoke was rising from the place where it had lain. When the smoke dispersed, there was a miniature crater in the floor of the corridor.
“God almighty,” said Amelia Earhart.
Narcissus crooned to the dog, “Did the nasty man want to shoot you?” and the hound that had been shot snuffled the hand that Narcissus extended through the bars. Even the guard watched incredulously.
The hound licked Narcissus’s hand.
Clovache’s mouth fell open and they all waited to see what would happen. But Narcissus didn’t scream and fall on the ground in pain. He stood regarding the huge beast with self-centered benevolence, and the huge tongue, long and thin and somehow obscene, slathered the beautiful pale hands with dog spit. Only the blood was corrosive.
“Hmmm.” Batanya was calmer now. She was ashamed of her display of fear, and she’d begun thinking. The hounds padded off the way they’d come, the guard watching them cautiously and keeping his gun drawn. Only when they’d left the room and he’d watched them exit the guardroom beyond did he squat down to get a grip on his former colleague’s ankles. He tugged. Leaving an unpleasant swath of body fluids in its wake, the corpse began moving. Finally, it vanished from sight. After a moment or two, the guard came back for the head. He didn’t speak to the prisoners, and the prisoners didn’t say a word.
After he was gone, Clovache said, “I’m guessing the guards are chosen among the unpopular and the incompetent.”
Narcissus smiled. “Yes, the guards don’t last long. For a while, I got special concessions when I told them that since the dogs liked me, they’d be less likely to attack the ones who gave me things that made me happy. That worked for while; I got the mirror, and some extra food, and even a hairbrush. But then the bigger hound got angry with the female guard, one of those insectlike ones, and snapped off her foreleg. I didn’t get any extras after that.”
“How’d she walk without the foreleg?” Clovache asked.
“Not very well. In fact, I had to laugh,” Narcissus said.
Batanya looked at him. He was quite heartless, she decided, unless the pity and sympathy were directed at him. But he wasn’t useless.
“How often do the hellhounds come around?” she asked Amelia.
“Twice a day, at least that’s what they did yesterday,” Amelia said briskly. “I think this is morning, and this was their first visit. Do you know what time it is?”
Batanya shrugged. “I lost track.”
“I guess they’re let loose for regular patrols. Or maybe they’re controlled some other way. I haven’t seen a handler. They get to do what they want, as you saw.”
Batanya sat on her bed and began to think. At least she and Clovache were side by side. There was no point in counting on any help from Narcissus. At any moment, his mirror could distract him, and his only concern was himself. At any moment, he could decide that his own comfort and pleasure were better served by inaction than action. But Amelia seemed plucky.
Perhaps Narcissus, a mythological character known even in Spauling’s literature, could be considered timeless. Maybe he was even immortal. But Amelia Earhart, according to her own testimony, was a complete human, tied to a specific time line in Earth’s history. Somehow, she’d time-traveled successfully, a fact that the magicians and technicians who powered the Britlingen Collective would find extremely interesting. Not that they had any business tampering with time; in fact, the possibility gave Batanya deep misgivings. But returning with Amelia, if that was possible, would make up for having let their client Crick get captured. Plus, Amelia seemed like a sensible woman, and she didn’t seem to have any idea of how to return to her own time and place in the world, whatever that might have been.
“Listen, Amelia, Clovache,” Batanya said. She didn’t like that Narcissus could overhear, but she had no option. She had no writing materials, and she wasn’t telepathic, and she didn’t know sign language. When I get back, she thought, I’ll ask the teachers to put sign language on the curriculum. She smiled. It was extremely unlikely they’d live to do that, but she could tell her survival sense had decreed that she should plan on it.
Amelia and Clovache both came to the front of their cages.
“How long do we have before they feed us?” Batanya asked Amelia.
Amelia pondered. “They should be by with something pretty soon,” she said. “The feeding’s not exactly regular, but we do get three meals a day. It’s pretty much the same food no matter what the time of day is: not really breakfast, dinner, supper.”
Batanya said, “We have to get out of here. Sooner or later, Lucifer will get tired of Crick, or he’ll forget he doesn’t want to alienate the Collective—we’ll explain that to you later, Amelia—and he’ll have us killed, or we’ll meet an ‘accident.’ You’ll notice he’s pretty careless with his soldiers.”
“I’m listening,” Amelia said. “What about sissy-boy, here?” She nodded toward Narcissus’s cage. A glance told Batanya that the beautiful youth was busy brushing his chestnut hair.
“He’s all for himself,” Batanya said. “The best we can hope is that he doesn’t get in our way.” Narcissus, still sans clothing, began examining his body, pore by pore, as far as Batanya could tell. He lifted his genitals, gave them a good scan, and then dropped his package as casually as if it’d been a bunch of wilted flowers.
“What’s your plan?” Clovache said.
“Here it is.” It didn’t take long to explain.
In a little while, two guards (the one who’d escaped the hellhounds, and Sha) brought in a cart with four large bowls. The pass-through hatches for the bowls were at the bottom of the bars in the door, and each bowl was shoved through with very little care for whether it slopped over or not. A bucket of water followed it. This must have been intended for both washing and drinking, since there was a dipper hanging from the side of the bucket. Sha, the snakeman, still found Clovache attractive and showed his admiration openly.
“Show me what you’ve got, little one,” he hissed to Clovache, who looked a little anxious. Sha had a spear, and a dagger thrust through his belt. Lucifer had ordered the guards not to go into the cells, but Sha might disobey.
“He can’t let you out, and he can’t go in,” Amelia said. “He doesn’t have the key on his belt.” Batanya could tell by the relaxation in her shoulders that Clovache was relieved, though her face remained stony as he continued to tell her what he’d like to do with her.
“Who does have the key?” Batanya said to Amelia. She didn’t want Clovache to think she was worried. “The other guard doesn’t have it either.”
“I think the commander of the guard has it at all times, at least as far as I’ve been able to see. That would be the wolfy one called Marl.”
Clovache grew tired of Sha’s suggestive remarks and told him to fuck off. Batanya laughed, but she noticed that Amelia looked quite shocked. “I’m sorry,” Batanya called. “We are rough soldiers, and our language is sometimes just as rough.”
Amelia’s face cleared, and she managed to smile back at Batanya.
“Did you notice how that guard couldn’t take his eyes off me?” Narcissus asked, and the three women sighed in unison.
Batanya hunkered down to examine the contents of her supper bowl. She had a very rudimentary Plan A, and she turned it over in her head while she ate.
There was no Plan B.
Like good Britlingens, Batanya and Clovache consumed everything in their bowls. Batanya wasn’t sure what the meal was—some kind of noodle and some meat, though what the creature had originally been was anybody’s guess—but it wasn’t spoiled. She sniffed very carefully for poison, and asked Amelia how she’d felt after the other meals she’d eaten.
“Fine,” Amelia said, astonished.
At last Clovache took a mouthful to see if the food was drugged, since that was the job of a junior. The Britlingens waited for a few minutes.
“I feel fine,” Clovache said, and without further ado they dug in. There was a hunk of bread in the bowl, too, and it was fairly good. No vegetables; she guessed those would have been hard to produce underground. Not a healthy meal, but it would supply the energy they’d need.
“Save a bit of meat,” Batanya said.
After they’d eaten and rested, the two Britlingens exercised. Amelia and Narcissus were interested, Amelia because she was obviously a normally active woman and because she was bored, and Narcissus because he thought exercise might improve his body. Amelia showed them how to do “jumping jacks,” which amused Batanya. They ran in place, lunged, squatted, punched at the air in jabs (Amelia called that “shadow boxing”), and completed a hundred push-ups (at least, Clovache and Batanya completed a hundred). After a few more exercises, they all took a nap, for lack of anything better to do. The guards didn’t reappear for at least four hours, and then when they opened the door at the end of the corridor, it was to push the cart through again, so it was time for lunch . . . or maybe supper. Possibly breakfast?
Batanya was ashamed that she’d lost track of how many hours they’d moved through the tunnels before they’d been captured. They’d left Spauling in the middle of the afternoon, though that didn’t necessarily mean they’d arrived in Hell at the same time of day. And, really, did it make a difference? Some of the denizens of Hell were sure to be awake around the clock.
When she heard the click of the hounds’ claws on the stone floor, Batanya got ready, though her hands were not steady and sweat was already trickling down her back.
“I fucking hate dogs,” she whispered, but Clovache heard her.
“Have you reached in your pocket?” Clovache asked.
“Your outfits don’t have pockets,” Amelia said.
“We brought our own,” Batanya told her.
After a particularly successful mission, their client had given Clovache and Batanya a sizable bonus. Clovache had wanted to take a trip to Pardua and go to the famous male whorehouse there to see the dancing, but Batanya had persuaded her to visit a special medical technician instead. Batanya had a false wall in one cheek, prepared with careful and expensive surgery. In that secret thin pocket, she’d stowed a small flat blade. It was sharp enough and long enough to open a vein, whether her own or someone else’s, but it was strictly an emergency option.
The time had come to use it.
Clovache had a similar false pouch on the underside of her arm, high up near the pit. A very thorough search would have uncovered her pocket, and possibly Batanya’s, but they hadn’t been searched very thoroughly, proof of the fact that the worst soldiers got prison guard duty in Hell. Clovache stepped to the front of her cell at the moment Batanya did.
“Narcissus,” Clovache said. The young man stopped examining his fingernails and looked at her. “Don’t be upset,” she said steadily. “I promise you they’ll heal.”
“Good luck,” Amelia said, very quietly, as the hounds entered the jail corridor. Their massive black heads swung from side to side, as if they were considering who would taste best. Their red eyes glowed like burning coals.
The Britlingens held out the bits of meat they’d saved, for the hounds’ inspection. They were standing as close together as they could get at the juncture of their cells. Noses twitching, the two beasts approached cautiously. Clovache’s hand was just within the bars, and the hound sniffing at her meat shoved his head closer. It was much too broad to fit between the bars, but his nose extended inside the cell. While Clovache’s left hand fed the hound, her right hand slid between the bars to grip the broad studded collar, and then her tiny blade scored the hound’s skin at the neck. A gush of blood told her she’d struck the best spot, and that blood sprayed on the bars of the cell as the hound reared back, baying and shrieking.
The blood also spattered on Clovache’s hands.
Batanya’s hound turned slightly to leap against the bars at the juncture of the cells in an attempt to get at Clovache, and as he reared with his chest and stomach exposed, Batanya’s bladed hand darted out to rake the hound’s skin. She’d had the presence of mind to pull off her tunic and hold it to the dog, too, which was a good thing, since she didn’t get an arterial spray. Pulling the soaked tunic back through, she immediately rubbed the bloody cloth over the metal of the bars. She stuffed the tunic down at the bottom of the bars, so the blood remaining in the cloth might do some good. This left her standing bare-chested, but she pulled the blanket from her bed and draped it around her shoulders. She hoped they wouldn’t notice the absence of her tunic.
A group of guards rushed in to investigate the dogs’ commotion, and it took everything the Britlingens had to look stunned. Though Narcissus had flinched when the dogs were hurt, he was silent, at least for the moment. Amelia provided a great distraction by screaming up a storm, and since the guards looked at her and the hounds first, Batanya and Clovache had the chance to slide their thin blades into places that might escape inspection. Batanya’s went into the thick padding of her socks, and Clovache’s into a tiny crevice in the stone floor of her cell.
“Hands in the water!” Batanya said hoarsely, and Clovache immersed her hands in her water bucket. Batanya hoped it was quick enough to save Clovache’s skin.
“They attacked each other!” Amelia told the guards. The American woman was not a great actress, but she did look very excited. They believed her.
“I’ve never seen them turn on each other,” Sha hissed, but he didn’t seem inclined to ask more questions. After all, the prisoners were in their cells, and unarmed.
Though the hounds were still whining, their wounds were healing fast. Narcissus called them to him and stroked their huge heads while they whimpered. Narcissus had kept silent for so long that Batanya was hopeful he wouldn’t blurt out some information. He was watching all the action with an expression that sat oddly on his face.
“He’s thinking about something besides himself,” Clovache muttered to Batanya, who was standing as close as she could get, because she wanted a look at Clovache’s hands. “That can’t be good.” Tears were running down Clovache’s face. That meant the water immersion hadn’t completely worked.
“Steady,” she said, and Narcissus moved to the corner of his cell to look at the bars on Batanya’s. Batanya followed the direction of his gaze. The bars were beginning to smoke; just a little, easy to miss in the murky atmosphere, but still ... Their eyes met. Come on, beautiful, she thought. Give me this. I’ll admire you till the pookas return to their burrows, if you’ll just give me this. She tried to smile winsomely, but it was too much of an effort. She gave him a good, hard stare. She was much better at that.
“What are you doing, bitch?” screamed Sha. Clovache whirled to face him, her fingers scattering drops of water. The skin of her hands was blistered, and Clovache clasped them behind her after a quick downward glance.
“Washing my hands, since the hounds slobbered all over them,” Clovache said. “What did you feed them, razor blades? Why’d they bite each other?” Sha glared at her, suspicion written all over his scaled face, and a third guard, one of the dust-balls, rolled around in an unbelieving manner.
The steam coming off the bars was slowly increasing in density, and any moment the guards would notice. If sheer force of will could have moved them, they would have shot back outside the doors. The hounds, casting malevolent looks at Batanya and Clovache, skulked out into the guardroom. The guards, after a few more threats and a lot more curses, followed. The doors slammed shut just in time, because the smoke was beginning to really pour off the bars that had been touched with hound blood.
“Let me see your hands,” Batanya said, and Clovache held them out. There were bright red blisters covering the palms of Clovache’s hands. They looked so painful that even Narcissus winced in sympathy. (He felt better after he looked down at his own white, unsullied hands.)
Clovache shrugged. “Worth it, if we get out. Will they come back in if we make a lot of noise?” she asked Narcissus.
“No,” said the beautiful youth after a moment’s thought. “Others scream and plead all the time. And they only came in before because the hounds were howling, and the hounds are favorites of Lucifer’s. An ogre beat his heads against the bars for an hour before they came to check, two weeks ago.” He looked at the Britlingens expectantly.
“You were so clever to keep silent when the hounds were in here,” Batanya said hastily. “I was so proud of you. I don’t know how we’d accomplish this without your help.”
Satisfied temporarily, Narcissus gave her a lovely smile and fetched his hairbrush.
The smoke roiled and thickened, and the air got even worse. After perhaps five minutes, the smoke began to dissipate, though the thick atmosphere made it hard to see what damage had been done. Batanya positioned herself carefully and swung the heavy water bucket at what she figured was the weakest point. She got as close as she could to examine the weak spot. She hadn’t caused any visible damage, but the impact of the metal-rimmed bucket against the bars hadn’t felt as violent as she’d expected. Heartened, Batanya swung the bucket again, putting all the strength of her upper body into the movement. The bars bent outward, and a few flakes fell off the fast-corroding metal. She swung again, and the metal bent outward. Clovache had grasped her own bucket in her damaged hands and began the same procedure on the bars of her own cell. That didn’t go as swiftly, because smearing the blood on a wide section had produced better results than a more intense application in a few spots. With a roar of sheer focus, Batanya swung the bucket for a tenth time, and a section of the bars broke off, creating an aperture large enough to allow her to climb out. Amelia cheered, Narcissus gaped, and Clovache sagged against her cot with relief. The next instant, she was back to swinging her bucket. While Batanya ran to hide behind the door, Clovache began to yell in time with her attacks on the bars.
Narcissus had told them the guards were slow to react to prisoner noise, and it took a few minutes before the combination of Clovache’s piercing screams and the banging of the bucket roused them to come check. The first one through the door was the snakeman, Sha, and Batanya was on his back instantly, slicing the side of his neck with her tiny blade. His blood was not red, more of a deep purple, and it didn’t spray, but welled sluggishly from the gash. But he crumpled to the floor, scaled hands clutching at the wound as if to keep his blood inside. Batanya leaped over him to attack the dustball. It didn’t seem to have a mortal spot to wound, at least to human eyes, but Batanya swung her arm as if there were a sword in it instead of an inch-and-a-half blade, and the startled dustball rolled farther into the corridor, bringing it closer to Amelia’s cell. Amelia thrust her arms through the bars and brought them together, as she would as if she had caught an assailant’s neck. Batanya had wondered if Amelia’s arms would cut through the dustball, but the aviatrix seemed to be compressing an area. The dustball reacted in an agitated fashion, so at least it was seriously frightened at being held like that. Compression was the key to defeating the creature.
Clovache, halfway out of her own cell, climbed back in to get her blanket from the cot.
“Stand away,” she yelled to Batanya, who obeyed instantly. Clovache tossed the blanket over the creature, and then she and Batanya threw themselves on it. The dustball began to deflate as they pressed it against the bars of Amelia’s cell, and when the two Britlingens dug their feet in and pushed harder, the escaping air achieved a moaning sound. The smell was even more unpleasant than the other smells in the jail, and Amelia looked really queasy.
After a silent struggle that seemed to go on for hours, the dustball was squashed flat. When the Britlingens cautiously released their pressure, a large lump of hair, trash, and dust fell to the stone floor. Clovache threw the blanket on top of it, in case it could pump itself back up, and she dragged the snakeman’s ghastly body on top of that, while Batanya divested Sha of his dagger.
“What’s happening?” Marl called from the guardroom. The door had swung shut behind Sha and the dustball, so he didn’t have a good view, and he wasn’t at the peephole—too cautious, maybe.
“Help! Help! He’s killing me!” Clovache screamed. Furious that Sha was interfering with a valuable prisoner, Marl threw open the door and rushed into the prison wing, sword drawn. Batanya tripped him and stabbed him through the neck with Sha’s dagger. Within seconds, they’d gotten the keys off his belt and Batanya was unlocking Amelia’s cell. The tall woman didn’t waste any time getting out, and the four former prisoners clustered together for a minute.
“Amelia, Narcissus, I don’t know what you want to do, but Clovache and I have to rescue our client,” Batanya said. “Does either of you have any knowledge of where Lucifer’s chambers are?”
“I do,” Narcissus said. “I spent hours there, entrancing and entertaining him.” He made a ludicrous attempt to look modest.
“Will you take us there?” Batanya asked. There was no time for finesse. They were in the middle of hostile territory.
“We want to keep you with us as long as we can,” Clovache said more diplomatically, “and if you can’t help us, we have to be on our way.”
“Since you ask so nicely,” Narcissus said, casting a cold look in Batanya’s direction, “I will lead you there.”
There was no question that Amelia wanted to go. She was pale with anxiety, and choking on the suffocating miasma of the jail. The four ex-prisoners crept to the open door. The air in the guard chamber outside was remarkably stinky, but it was a big improvement nonetheless.
For a few seconds they just breathed.
The great thing about the guardroom was the weapons hanging on the walls. Batanya felt much more like herself with a gun in one hand and a sword in the other. Clovache spotted their armor, and seized it with a yip of delight. She was about to shimmy into it when Batanya stopped her. “It’s too Britlingen,” Batanya said. “We need to be guards.” The two pulled on the green pants and tunics that the guards wore. Clovache reluctantly bundled the two suits into a backpack. She would have felt much better with it on her body, but Batanya knew Clovache could see the sense of her decision. To compensate, Clovache armed herself to the teeth with two guns, a short spear, and a dagger.
“We’re going to pretend we have you two in custody,” Batanya explained to Amelia and Narcissus, who had pulled on his clothes. “If we herd you ahead of us, that’s a good way for Narcissus to guide us to our client without it being obvious we don’t know the way.” Amelia nodded. She was so anxious to leave the jail that she couldn’t form words.
The Britlingens held their new weapons at businesslike attitudes. When Batanya glanced down at the gun she held, she found she had no idea what would happen when she fired it, or even if she had it pointing in the right direction. Narcissus stepped ahead of them, casting a look over his shoulder to make sure they’d all noticed his beautiful butt. They smiled at him reassuringly and nodded to show encouragement and admiration. He led them to the right into the large trunk corridor they’d traversed to get there.
When they passed another group of Lucifer’s soldiers, Batanya gripped the gun so hard she thought it might bend, but no one questioned them. One woman whistled after Narcissus, which pleased him no end, though he seemed equally happy when a snakeman pinched his left lower cheek.
“When you get through with him, pass him along,” hissed the snakeman.
“Lucifer wants him,” Batanya said, shrugging.
Because of the uniform tunics they’d donned in the prison area, they went a long way without challenge. The two Britlingens looked very different without the hoods of their summer armor, and they were certainly sufficiently tough to pass as guards. As they moved through the tunnels, the traffic increased and the tunnels themselves became wider and decorated with paintings and lamps. These bits of civilization gradually increased in frequency and splendor, until they found themselves in the audience hall where they’d first seen Lucifer. Narcissus led them across this, though they were going much more slowly now because of the groups of servants or soldiers who were also crossing the large space. Hell sure was busy. Lucifer wasn’t in the great hall, to Batanya’s relief. She wanted to reclaim Crick when there weren’t scores of Lucifer’s minions around.
After they’d freed their client, all they’d have to do was fight through all these savage creatures to get to the surface, or at least find some quiet and undisturbed spot so the Britlingens could trigger their beacon and their party could be returned to the castle in Spauling.
That was all they had to do.
Batanya quelled a moment of despair. Britlingens never gave up. There was a client to save. She thought of her picture going up on the Wall of Shame, and her lip curled in distaste.
They were brought up short just at that moment by the four guards barring the two magnificent doors. Narcissus’s dead halt meant this was Lucifer’s personal suite.
Talk their way in, or just start killing? If a troop of soldiers hadn’t appeared just at that moment marching by on some other business, Batanya might have found out how well her new sword worked. But there were at least twelve soldiers, and two of them were the quadruped net-throwers. Batanya had formed a strong disinclination to tangle with them again, if she could help it. Clovache glanced at her senior, a question in her face, and Batanya nodded.
Clovache said, “Lucifer wants these two,” jerking her head to indicate Amelia and Narcissus.
“He didn’t say anything to us,” the guard with the fanciest uniform said. She was a huge woman with golden skin and golden eyes. Narcissus fluttered his eyelashes at her, and she choked back a surprised laugh. “I’m Ginever, day captain,” she said.
“I’m Clovache, prison guard. The Master apparently told Marl, who ordered us to bring them,” Clovache said.
Ginever looked surprised, as if Lucifer talking directly to Marl was unlikely. It probably was, considering Marl had been a lowly prison guard overseer.
“Let me just ask,” she said. “He’s got his shiny toy back, and he doesn’t like to be disturbed when he’s playing.”
Batanya felt an unexpected wave of pity for Crick. The Harwell Clan was nearly extinct because of its members’ unusual physical attribute. Being gifted had its price. When Batanya had the time to be curious, she promised herself she’d learn the clan’s history.
“This one is wanted to join in the fun,” Clovache said, pointing to Narcissus. “You can see the attraction.”
“Oh, yes,” said the golden woman, smiling. “Oh, yes. He’s been here often enough before. Well, I must check.” She knocked on the left door, a quick set of three raps. Her ear to its surface, she waited. She must have heard some sound of assent, because she drew back to open the door. Batanya exhaled a silent sigh of relief.
“In, prisoners, move your feet!” she said, as curtly as a real prison guard. Ginever was no fool and certainly had a full complement of arms as well as three comrades, and the sooner they were out from under her eyes, the better.
Clovache led the way, followed by Narcissus and Amelia Earhart, with Batanya prodding from behind with the sword.
Lucifer, a flogger in his hand, was standing by a pillar. Crick was bound to the pillar, his back exposed and striped with blood. Batanya gulped, resisting the nausea that rose in her throat. Lucifer was staring at them, trying to figure out their presence, and in the split second before he could decipher their intent, Batanya leaped at him with the sword.
She got him, right through the stomach, but not before he managed to swing the flogger. It raked Batanya’s back without enough force to draw blood through her clothing, but enough to make her dig in the sword for all she was worth.
Lucifer’s beautiful face was twisted with anger. Despite the blade in his guts, he said, “I’ll kill you for this, if I live.”
“Oh, of course you’ll live,” Clovache said. Narcissus was looking at Lucifer hungrily, as if seeing someone else lovely was enough to excite his libido. Amelia was throwing up into a pot on the floor. Crick looked at them as if they were all as beautiful as Narcissus. But what he said was, “Get me out of this.”
“The key?” Batanya said. Lucifer sneered at her. Batanya pulled a dagger from her belt. “You don’t need both those pretty blue eyes,” she said. “Which one do you want the most?”
“On the table by the bed,” Lucifer said. Clovache ran to fetch it, and Batanya risked a glance to check on Narcissus and Amelia. Suddenly Lucifer bellowed at the top of his lungs, and in quick response there was pounding at the door. Ginever called, “Master? Master?”
“Kill them all!” Lucifer yelled, and the door began to bow inward.
“Find an exit,” Batanya told Amelia, who’d finished being sick. “There’s sure to be one.” Amelia nodded, braced herself visibly, and began scanning the walls of the huge room. It was a very busy boudoir. It contained an enormous bed, many hangings, lots of torture paraphernalia and knickknacks, and a roaring fire; about what you’d expect of the personal apartment of the King of Hell.
“Here,” Amelia called. She’d pulled aside a wall hanging depicting—well, it was as complicated as the threesome of soldiers they’d seen in the tunnels—and sure enough, there was a door.
“It doesn’t lead to the surface,” Lucifer said. “You’re all going to die. But not before I have some fun with each of you, I hope.”
“You already had fun with me,” Narcissus said plaintively. “Surely you haven’t forgotten me?”
“Just kill him right now,” Lucifer advised Batanya, and for a second she was tempted. But there were other things to do, and besides, she had a jumbled feeling that killing Narcissus would be like breaking an ancient porcelain vase. He wasn’t very useful, but he was beautiful.
Lucifer’s wound was healing, as she’d expected, and he wouldn’t be on the floor for long. The pounding at the door had accelerated, and there wasn’t time to do more than wrap one of Crick’s chains around the no-longer-bleeding lord and lock it with one of Crick’s locks. Clovache had Crick moving and had picked up one of Lucifer’s tunics and pulled it roughly over their client’s head. Crick himself bent with obvious pain to pull on some shoes, and then they were tumbling out the door Amelia had found.
Batanya hadn’t been sure Narcissus would follow, he’d seemed so intent on forcing a compliment from his former lover—or torturer; but the beautiful youth trailed after them, though he didn’t seem nearly anxious or urgent enough to suit her.
The door had to be blocked behind them. There was nothing in the dusty passage to help them do this, and the door didn’t lock on this side.
Clovache said a few choice things, and Crick said, “Stand back.” His voice was shaky but clear, and Batanya was grateful that he was well enough to remain on top of their perilous situation. Crick muttered a few words under his breath and pressed his hand in a curious gesture toward the door.
“It will hold them for a few minutes,” he said, and they hurried away. “That’s pretty much all the magic I have, so don’t expect more,” he added, getting the words out with an obvious effort. The passage was stone-floored like the rest of the underground palace, but it had been made strictly by men. The roof was braced, and there was no slug slime on the floor and walls.
“Do you know where this leads?” Batanya asked Narcissus.
“I didn’t even know it was here,” he said. “I never tried to escape from Lucifer before.” Of course not.
It would have been wonderful to have Crick’s map, but there was no telling where it had gone after Crick had been stripped. It wasn’t like they had a lot of choices to make; the passage had so far not branched off.
“We’re going northwest,” Crick said, when they paused to get their breath. By now, the back of Lucifer’s tunic was striped with Crick’s blood. His face looked even bonier than it had before. Batanya admired his fortitude. “That’s the direction of the guards’ barracks.”
“You’re still determined to retrieve the conjuring ball,” Batanya said with resignation.
“I might as well go back into that room and let him kill me there if I don’t return with the ball. I held out telling him where it was. I can’t come back to get it.”
“Crap.” Batanya wanted to pat him or choke him, she wasn’t sure which.
“What is the law?” Clovache said sullenly.
“The client’s word,” Batanya said, with resignation.
They started out again, trying to move faster. Amelia was uncomplaining, but she was panting heavily, and she stumbled from time to time. Narcissus was in better shape, but he was not as keen as the rest were on getting out of Hell. Crick kept pace gamely, but he didn’t object when Batanya put her arm under his shoulder to help him along.
The passage did branch off, finally, though the dust on the floor would surely indicate which way they’d taken. There was no help for it. They barged on straight ahead, since according to Crick that was still the best way to the barracks. The passage had led them slightly uphill, Batanya had noticed, and ahead of them they saw extra light coming from a grate in the floor.
The small group paused, and Clovache whispered into Narcissus’s ear, “You must keep silent.” They crept forward as quietly as they could, and Batanya felt Amelia’s arm quiver with the effort the older woman was making to calm her ragged breathing.
When they got very close to the grate, Batanya leaned Crick up against the wall and stepped silently up to it by herself.
She was looking down into one of the soldiers’ mess rooms. There were about twenty various creatures sitting around a table eating bread and meat, and drinking—those that had mouths—from bowls. They were all talking (or growling, or hooting), and when there was a loud alarm, at first they ignored it. Suddenly a large snakeman bounded into the room, and he bellowed (as much as his throat would permit him), “To arms! Lucifer has been attacked!” Whether from devotion or fear or professional pride, the collection of soldiers cleared out of the mess hall in double quick time.
“Shit,” Batanya said, and Crick tried to smile.
“I agree,” he said. “But at the same time, this is the last place they’d expect us to come, and if they’re clearing out, this is our best chance to retrieve the ball.”
“Which way?” Batanya said, having no argument to make with that.
“Forward,” he said, trying to put some energy in his voice.
So on they hurried. Two more grates were passed, Crick taking a careful look down each one, and at the third one he said, “This is it.”
Batanya’s shoulders wanted to sag with relief, but she kept herself braced and ready for action. She had an awful feeling she could hear the sound of pursuit coming up the passage; it was some way distant, but their pursuers would catch up quickly since they were all fit. So she wouldn’t think about what would happen after that, she squatted down to remove the grate, which wasn’t secured in any way; why would it be? Before she could speak, Crick grasped the rim and lowered himself down to the bed that was almost squarely beneath the grate. Crick gasped in sudden pain and dropped heavily, and the bed broke. Crick ended up on the floor, curled in a ball. In a flash, Batanya lowered herself through the opening and dropped a lot more gracefully.
“You idiot,” she said as she helped Crick to rise. “Where is it?” He pointed to some cabinets lined up against the wall, obviously intended to hold the soldiers’ effects.
“On top,” he said. “On top of the first cabinet to the right.” This proved to be a narrow cabinet with three lines scratched on it. Batanya opened the cabinet, stood on the lowest shelf, and heaved herself up. Sure enough, back against the wall where it would be out of sight, there was the conjuring ball, hastily concealed by Crick months before. It was wrapped in a rag that had been used to wipe it clean. Remembering where Crick had kept it concealed, Batanya was grateful. She grabbed the ball and leaped down, bounding over to Crick in almost the same moment. He took it and tossed it up to Clovache. Batanya gripped Crick around the hips and lifted. Clovache and Amelia reached down and seized Crick’s upstretched hands, and together they bundled the thief up into the passage again. Once he was out of the way, Batanya made a good leap to seize the lip of the opening herself, and with the help of the two women she managed to join the others, just as the door of the room below opened with a crash.
“Now,” she said to Clovache. “Now!”
Clovache pressed a lump behind her ear where the beacon was implanted. Then she pressed it again. Batanya reached behind her own ear and pressed hers three times. Five people to transport.
Nothing happened.
“Fuck,” Batanya said. “Can the ball get us out of here?”
“I don’t know how to get it to . . .” Crick began, and then the sounds of pursuit became immediate. Batanya swung around to face the oncoming horde, and Clovache picked up her short spear and hurled it at the lead figure, one of the snakemen. He fell and the others stumbled around him, but it was only a matter of seconds before they were overwhelmed. Crick dropped the conjuring ball, and Amelia retrieved it automatically. “I want to go back,” she said, almost weeping.
There was confused swirl of colors and sounds, the impression of a high wind, and they were standing under a brilliant sun on what appeared to be a small island. The sea surged all around; there was no other land in sight. There were a few palm trees, and Batanya heard a bird scream. A wrecked airplane was crumpled on the beach before them, a dead man lying next to it. Amelia’s face was a study in shock, and Batanya was sure her own face matched it. Clovache, thinking very quickly, seized the conjuring ball from Amelia’s hand, and said, “To the beacon.”
The sounds and colors again, the dizzying whirling feeling, and then they all arrived on the platform in the hall of the magicians and mechs.
There was quite a crowd in there; and it took Batanya a long second to realize she didn’t need to kill them. Clovache actually took a swipe with her short sword, which made her commander leap back smartly.
“Hold!” Flechette bellowed. “Hold, you fool!”
After a moment of reorientation, Batanya understood she didn’t need to stand in front of Crick any longer, and she stepped aside. Crick was doubled over, gasping in pain. Amelia stared around her, so stunned it would be hard to pick one emotion from another as they crossed her face. After a moment’s evaluation, Narcissus trotted down the few stairs to the handsomest person he could see, a young mech woman. Though he was grimy and wearing his prison tunic, she looked at him as if she’d seen the face of a god, which Batanya supposed was not too very far from the truth. Narcissus held out his hand, and the mech had a hard job to decide whether to shake it or kneel to kiss it. She settled for holding it and basking in the smile Narcissus bestowed. “Do you like dogs?” he asked her.
Batanya and Clovache helped Crick down to the floor. Crick said, “For a bit, there, we didn’t know if you would get us out in time.” He made an effort to sound casual. That was exactly what Batanya had been thinking, but she hadn’t wanted say it out loud (especially in front of her junior).
“This asshole almost prevented us from extracting you,” Flechette said, and for the first time Batanya noticed that Flechette was gripping Trovis by the arm. “He tried to persuade the magicians and mechs that you’d sent a false signal, that the minions of Hell would home in on the beacon if they acted on it.”
“I didn’t believe him,” said the young mech woman, with a shy smile. “I called Flechette to overrule him.”
“Can I execute Trovis?” Clovache asked. “He has tried to have us done in more times than I can count, and all because Batanya wouldn’t lie with him and broke his arm making him back off.”
“Ah,” said Flechette. “Perhaps we shouldn’t kill him . . . but he must be punished.”
Clovache still had the conjuring ball. Though Trovis made an effort to dodge and to twist out of Flechette’s grip, Clovache ran her arm around Trovis’s neck, looked down at the ball, said, “Go back!” Pop! She and Flechette and Trovis were staring at a vast green sea, scraggly palm trees, a wrecked airplane, and a dead man.
“Drop Trovis’s arm,” she told Flechette, who did, at least partly from surprise at getting an order from a junior. Clovache took a step back from the gaping Trovis herself, gripped Flechette’s shoulder, concentrated on the ball, said, “Back to the hall,” and Pop! They were back in the magicians’ hall.
Minus Trovis.
“Brilliant,” said Batanya.
When she’d collected herself, Flechette said, “This is just. No one will dispute it.”
Trials had never really caught on at the Britlingen Collective.
“Who—and what—have you brought with you?” asked the tall, veiled magician who had ushered them in on the day they’d departed. Every magician and mech in the room, even Narcissus’s new admirer, was electrified with excitement at Clovache’s demonstration.
“This is Amelia Earhart,” Batanya said, taking care to pronounce the name correctly. “She is a . . . She can operate a flying machine, and she left home, which was America, on Earth, in July of 1937.”
“A time traveler,” exclaimed the magician. His eyes, above the veil, were almost glowing with interest. “And that is surely Lucifer’s conjuring ball.”
“It’s the island. That one tiny island,” Batanya said. “That’s the key. Amelia landed on it by accident, and then as she explored the island, she found herself in Hell. The island is a portal of some kind. Once Amelia had come through, she could pass back, with the help of the conjuring ball. She took Clovache and the rest of us through. Then our homing spell finally worked, and we returned through the portal to land here. So the conjuring ball can take you through the portal, if you’re with someone who’s passed through it once.” Batanya couldn’t decide if her theory was complete nonsense or not. The magicians and mechs could study their magical hearts out and tell her their findings.
In the meantime, she would have happy daydreams of Trovis on a deserted Pacific island in 1937 in the middle of nowhere.
“If this proves to be true, you have experienced amazing magic,” the veiled magician told Amelia, who looked heartened by the greeting.
“Well, thank you very much, sir,” she said. “I’ll try to make myself useful. I don’t guess you can send me home? Not to the island.” She shuddered. “But to America? In my own time?”
“Not at this moment,” said another magician, “but maybe we can work on it with your help.”
“Sure,” Amelia said.
“Crick,” Flechette said, “we will take you to the medical rooms. Was your mission achieved?”
“Yes,” he said. He was glad of the two men who came to help him down the steps, but he turned to look back at Clovache and Batanya. “And I was very satisfied with the service.”
A week later, Batanya and Clovache had returned to their favorite courtyard to spar with each other. First they used weapons, then they wrestled. They were sweaty and limber and pleased with themselves when they were through, and though Batanya pointed out a few mistakes her junior had made, they sprawled on the grass in the sunlight in good harmony.
“How is Geit?” Batanya asked.
“Glad to see me again, and very vigorous in telling me so,” Clovache said, smiling to herself. “Did I hear someone knocking on your door at night?”
“Unexpectedly, yes.” Batanya grinned, which made her scar more obvious. But who cared?
“Do tell?”
“Our client,” Batanya said.
“Oh, my honor! Then you’ve experienced . . .”
“Oh, yes,” Batanya said, her voice rich with satisfaction.
“I didn’t get a very good look in Lucifer’s chamber,” Clovache said, “being in imminent danger and so forth. How is he all . . . arranged?”
“Very satisfactorily,” Crick said, dropping onto the ground beside Batanya.
“How are you today, Harwell Clansman?” she asked.
“Very well, Britlingen.” He smiled down at her. “But I have to go to Pardua to give Belshazzar his conjuring ball, now that I’m well enough to travel.”
“Will you be there long?”
“Depends on how much Belshazzar believes me.”
“What, do you need a sworn statement?” Clovache said. “We were there, we saw the conjuring ball, we saw you retrieve it, and in fact we came within a breath or two of losing our lives for it. Though it turned out to be quite handy, if you can concentrate. That’s all I did, you know, concentrate on where I wanted to go.”
“Ah, but am I taking Belshazzar the same conjuring ball that we retrieved?” Crick said. “That’s what he’ll wonder.”
Clovache gaped at him. “And why would you not?” she demanded. “Oh. Oh, it’s very valuable. But he commissioned you to steal it!”
“And what am I?”
“A thief,” Batanya said, without opening her eyes. “Dear Crick, you are a thief.” Her hardened hand slipped into his bony one.
After that, they all enjoyed the blue sky and the floating clouds, the light breeze that stirred their hair. Perhaps they were all thinking about how excited the magicians and the mechs had been when they’d seen the conjuring ball; how they’d peppered Crick with questions, most of which he couldn’t answer, about the ball’s properties and history and operation; how they’d disappeared with it for a few days, taking Amelia with them, to “make sure it still worked.”
“Be careful along the road, and come back when you can,” Clovache said, when she got up to take her gear into the castle.
“Oh, I will,” Crick said. He lay back in the green grass, smiling gently at Batanya. “I’m thinking of taking an apartment down the hill, in Spauling.”
“Really?” Batanya said. “That’s very interesting.” She was on her feet. “Invite me to the housewarming, will you?”
“You’ll be the only guest.”