A Formula For Chaos had the formula for a good read-a strong, page-turning plot with lots of action, unusual and unexpected magical lore, and sympathetic characters with interesting problems....

Diana Paxson
Author of The Serpent's Tooth, The
White Raven
and theWestria cycle.



I thoroughly enjoyed A Formula For Chaos. Not only do we get solid characters moving within a well-realized world, but unlike most humorous fantasies, the writing displays real wit-a civilized quality and an unfortunately rare one these days.

Katharine Kerr
Author of the Deverry series,
Freezeframes and Palace



An Excerpt from


A Formula For Chaos

by

Kevin Andrew Murphy




Copyright Kevin Andrew Murphy, All Rights Reserved

Author's Note: This is the prologue and first three sections of an as-yet-unpublished novel, the first book of a trilogy which I started in high school and worked on on and off for years between other projects. So far it's received accademic honors-including a big thumbs up from Frederick Jameson (one of the world's top literary critics, as well as my professor from a year of independent studies at UCSC), the Phi Kappa Phi award from USC's Masters in Professional writing program-as well as rave reviews from readers (including a few major authors) not to mention a couple strong nibbles from editors, but as of yet, no firm bites or contracts. And so, with the current state of publishing, I have decided to put this sample on the Net, both to solicit feedback, stir-up interest, and, to be blunt, sell copies if people like what they read here.
Admittedly an electronic copy can't be taken to the beach and dropped in the sand, but by the same token a paperback can't be pulled up on your computer screen at work or printed out in some businesslike font and hidden under a spreadsheet for when the boss comes by. After all, I've done my stint in corporate hell, and I know that most managers don't care if you are busy or productive so much as how busy or productive you look when the top brass and the investors come by. It's a matter of window dressing, like high heels and power ties, and having something fun to read saves you the trouble of playing with paperclips when your real work is done or you're waiting for a call-back. Plus, if you have trouble with regular books, you can even print out a copy in a large type face.
Also, unlike a paperback, the way I look at it, the purchase of an electronic copy should work like a subscription. If, a year down the road, I decide to revise this novel, people who've already bought a copy won't have to put down any more money for an electronic copy of the "Author's preferred edition" or whatever I choose to call the revision. I'll just keep a list of everyone who's bought one and send them the new one-or, once they get all the key-encryption business working properly, I'll just set it up as a "secure document" that anyone with the right permissions can access whenever they feel like it. Plus, once I sell this to a hard print publisher (since I very firmly intend for it to come out in a traditional binding as well), I will send my loyal fans a copy of the first mass market edition, signed, numbered and everything. The price for this? A mere $7.95, the same price as a paperback at the supermarket checkout aisle. And not only will you get the electronic copy now, all the electronic revised and author's preferred editions to come, and the signed mass market edition once I sell it to a regular publisher, but I will also put your name and website on a page for the "Agents of Chaos", the official A Formula For Chaos and Calafian Chronicles fan club and subscriber database. Heck, once I have a chance to tweak around with Photoshop, I'll even send you your electronic "Agent of Chaos" membership badge, suitable for putting on your web page and displaying to the world at large (and linking back to my website if you are so inclined).
Of course, since you can never be certain what's up with the world of electronics, publishing and copyright law, this may change in the future. But for the time being it should work. All of the "Agents of Chaos" will have their names put on the "Agents of Chaos" web page with their names hotlinked to their websites and/or e-mail as they see fit, so everyone who wants to say "I read him first!" or "I knew him back then!" will have documentable proof that indeed they did.
Publishers and editors of course do not have to pay for a copy, and I'll even send them a hardcopy if they so desire. After all, even if it may be a dying medium, I'd still like to see this novel in traditional book form. Two short stories set in this same world-"Dead & Gone" and "The Croquet Mallet Murders"-have been published in The Shimmering Door and I, Vampire anthologies respectively, and while I know this novel will eventually see print, I also know that everything's going electronic so I might as well make a few bucks on it right now. After all, while an editor's interest may warm your heart, only a signed contract and a check to follow actually warms your bones. At $7.95 each, I only have to sell about five hundred before I match the average "first novel" advance, and five hundred copies won't even make a dent in the average publisher's print run.
So help me do it. See your name, e-mail or web page listed on the official "Agents of Chaos" list. Get the nifty "Agent of Chaos" badge for your website. And if you read my novel back when I had it at UC Santa Cruz and gave me feedback, c'mon back and read it again and I'll put your name on the list as one of the a charter members of the "Agents of Chaos".

A Formula For Chaos


Book I of the ALCHEMY Trilogy


by

Kevin Andrew Murphy




A Formula For Chaos


Table of Contents


Prologue

Stage I: Dissolution-The Breakdown of Previous Orders

Step I: Yellow Magic & Blackmail
Step II: Elixir Mortis
Step III: Mall Apropos

Stage II: Purification-Freedom from the Base Matter

Step I: In Vino Eris

Stage III: Azoth Pondus-Introduction to the Fiery Furnace

Step I: C. O. Demonology
Step II: Cute Little Devils

Stage IV: Putrefaction-Letting Everything Sit & Go to Hell

Step I: Do You Believe in Science?
Step II: To Hell and Back
Step III: Swampwater Surprise
Step IV: Yes, But Is It Art?
Step V: Lesser Evils and Minor Miracles

Stage V: Multiplication-Freeing the Spirit & Showing the True Nature

Step I: Day of the Cotton Pickin' Dead
Step II: Ghost in the Latrine
Step III: Of Zombies and Iced Tea

Stage VI: Fermentation-Allowing the Ingredients to Mix

Step I: The Spirit of the Evening
Step II: A Night to Remember
Step III: Hopeless Necromantics
Step IV: Did We or Didn't We?
Step V: Happy Unbirthday

Stage VII: Projection-Yin and Yang United in Perfection

Step I: Neutral Spirits
Step II: Astral Ejection
Step III: Fright Wight
Step IV: Mana Loa and Other Nutty Things
Step V: The Absinthe-Minded Adept

Epilogue


Prologue


Michael 'Deathshrike Mike' Feather stood in the San Francisco International Airport, watching a dragon take off. Its silver wings beat the air and the glass in front of him shuddered. A dusting of powdered scale fell as the dragon left the ground, adding to the sparkling faze of magical pollution that made the City glitter like the jewel of fairyland it was.
Mike turned and flexed his own wings behind him, pinions stretching to their full reach. He knew he struck a classic pose-angel wings and black leather were made for each other.
Furling, he adjusted his cap and listened to the slink of chain across the brim. Where were those two? Ariel and Griff were supposed to have met him three hours ago, and there was a job on the line.
"Excuse me, sir," growled a raspy voice. Mike looked up at a seemingly endless expanse of brown fur towering over him. He took a step back and the fur resolved into a nine-foot-tall anthropomorphic grizzly wearing plaid shorts and a loud, unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt.
"Sir," the bear began, though Mike couldn't tell whether it was clearing its throat or growling, "you appear troubled. Many of us today are troubled by the ever increasing complexities of magic-based society. Indeed, we may question our reason for being here. We may even have cursed Fate aloud for our lot in life-Certainly I know I have-but sir, there is no longer any reason to despair! All things can now be explained!"
Mike craned his neck up since the bear was near double his height, though still managed a smirk. "Really?"
"Yes! The Church of Magicology has discovered the true nature of magic and the origin of the universe. Here," A huge paw swooped down with a clawful of leaflets, "take one of our complimentary brochures."
Mike grimaced and took a pamphlet. This was the wrong place to deal with this bozo the way he would have liked. "Thanks. Bye."
"Don't you want to know about the origin of the universe?" The bear blocked his exit. "How in the beginning the One split into the Two, Yin and Yang? And how Yin and Yang gave way to the Three-Cardinal, Fixed, Mutable-and then the Two split into the Four, the Four Elements? And after the Creation of the Eight and the Twelve, the One split itself into the Seven? And the others grew jealous and-"
"No, and I've got to use the john. Bye." Mike tried to step around him.
"-and sprang upon the Seven, and Yin and Yang tore the Seven between themselves into the metaphysical and physical realms, creating the Fourteen, the Fourteen Arts?"
"Listen, bear, I-"
"Don't you want to know the true nature of Power?"
He paused. "Power?"
"Yes, Power!" The bear waved its claws and leaflets in the air. "The true nature of magical power, as put down in Dialectics. And not only magical power-also the power of science. True and real science!"
Mike took a deep breath. "Bear, I don't have the time to believe in science or your religion or anything else made up by a dead magic-fiction author. So if-"
"But science exists!" the bear roared. "True science! Real science! Science that-"
"How dare you!" screamed a voice from across the air terminal. Michael glanced over. A dark-haired young man in a red sweat shirt and white cotton surfer pants marched purposefully towards them, a fortyish businesswoman attempting to sprint after him in high heels. The young man pointed his index finger directly at the bear's nose. "How dare you say things like that in public! Don't you know that-" He broke off as the businesswoman grabbed his arm and regained her balance. She was dressed in a pink wool suit and pale green blouse, purse and shoes a matching shade of grey.
Mike took in the pink and green pastels and bit his lip. Either a preppie or a fay, equal likelihood of either. Though of course fays were a lot more dangerous. "why are you annoying the nice religious fanatic? This is a public place, dear."
He turned to her, wild-eyed. "But Ms. Hope! Didn't you hear what he was saying? He said-"
"Jason," she said sweetly, "the Island of California is a free country. Now-"
"But it is true!" roared the bear. "Science does exist!"
"That's a secret!" screamed Jason in return. "You're-"
Ms. Hope patted him on the arm. "Jason, don't you mean to say that that's not true?"
Jason looked at her, then at Mike and the bear. "Uh, yeah," he said. "It's not true. Science doesn't exist." He held out a gold- embossed card. "You can believe me. I'm a certified sortilegist."
"You're a prophet?" the bear breathed in awe. Ms. Hope pressed her fingers to her forehead as if she had a migraine.
Mike glanced up at the bear and grinned. "They can fake those things easy."
The bear looked at him in confusion and so did Jason. "But-" the prophet said, "But it's true. I mean it's true that it's not true. Science doesn't exist. Really," he said with an earnest look, darting from Mike to Ms. Hope, "it doesn't."
"Got any more ancient secrets to reveal, sortilegist?" Mike twitched a corner of his mouth.
Jason looked to Ms. Hope, who patted him on the arm again and turned to Mike. "Please excuse him. He took some essence of ergot and he's been like this ever since."
Mike just smiled back.
Jason's pupils dilated for a few seconds, then focused on him. "Ms. Hope!" Jason screamed, pointing. "He's the one! He's one of the Keys!"
"Huh?"
Ms. Hope turned Jason to face her. "Jason, I think we've annoyed this poor man and this bear long enough. Now, if-"
"But he's one of the Keys to Fate!" Jason screamed. "He was at the start of that dream I had, and-"
"And now you've met him," Ms. Hope finished for him, "and your dream's come true and everything's wonderful."
"But-"
"No buts, Jason. Come along." Ms. Hope tugged at his arm.
Jason resisted. "But he's one of the Keystones! One of the Keys to the Fate I saw in my dream!"
"Well if it's Fate, dear, then there's very little we can do about it."
Jason looked bewildered, then grabbed the rock crystal pendant on his neck and looked at Mike through it. He started and dropped the crystal. "Uh-yeah, I guess we should."
Mike grabbed the crystal's cord and pulled Jason close in a throttle hold, hissing, "Do that again, you nosy seer, and I bet you can imagine a dozen things I could do to you." He slowly let go of the prophet and watched him stumble back.
Jason stared at him, wide-eyed, then clutched his hands to his face and ran off, screaming in terror.
Ms. Hope looked disconcerted. "Uh- so nice to meet you. Hope we never see you again. Goodbye," she said and took off. Jason had tripped and was having a seizure in the middle of a luggage carousel.
Mike looked up at the slack-jawed bear and tried to think of the right closing comment. "Mike!" came a voice off to his right.
He glanced over. There stood Ariel, red hair windblown, sparkling with the glamour of the faze in the air. Towering up behind her was Griff, white wings folded back over lion's haunches, the blue feathers on his ears and the tassel of his tail dyed punk green. Ariel's broom was marked with the Thorn's bind-rune while Griff had it bleached into the ruby feathers on his chest.
Mike stepped around the bear and confronted them. "I've been waiting three hours for you assholes. We got a job, remember?"
Ariel reached out an caressed his cheek. "Yeah Mike, we remember."
Mike twisted away and contemplated the brochure the bear had given him, then glanced up at the giant gryphon. "Griff, bear's giving out free pamphlets. Want one?"
Griff took the cue. "Rawk! Free pamphlets!" he screamed his parrot imitation, bounding forward. In one snap he bit off half the leaflets in the grizzly's paw. The bear took a step back, looking eye to eye with the huge gryphon chewing brochures at him.
Mike slipped an arm around Ariel. "C'mon, Griff. We got a job."

Stage I: Dissolution-The Breakdown of Previous Orders

Step I: Yellow Magic & Blackmail


Claude drew a ten-pointed star around the crucible's stand, and the oils in the retort underwent a change, shifting from a clear pink to a liquid pearl. Opalescent salts forming on the inner walls melted and flowed down as the heat rose, then shifted again, spreading a fine tracery up the glass while the color tinged blue. This was a crucial stage. The azure peacock, or gryphon feathers as he'd called it back at Berkeley despite protests from his stuffier professors.
He straightened up and stretched his neck, shaking a lock of blond hair out of his eyes. Sunlight shone on his diploma on the wall, glinting off the royal seal of the University of Calafia and the golden Adept's Rose. Claude grinned slightly. They'd stopped complaining when he'd succeeded in the Great Work and synthesized the Elixir Vit‘ only a year ago.
He'd become an adept at eighteen. Immortal, for all the good it did him.
Claude swung his fist at an empty spot on the workbench, but stopped short for fear of jostling the alembic. Damn! The muscles in his forearms knotted and he squeezed his fists and his eyes tight. What good did immortality do you when you already knew you were doomed?
Eight months ago. Mrs. Dunleavy's office. Charlotte Dunleavy, sortilegist to the stars. She'd reached into her scrabble bag, pulling out tiles and dooming him with one simple incontrovertible prophecy, painting the picture blacker with every subsequent divination. Death and family curses and everything else, death if he tried to break the curse or do any of a dozen different things, and finally a warning not to try to discover more. He was doomed, and you couldn't cheat Fate.
Maybe. There were a few historical instances where it was thought to have happened, though it had only been sortilegists who'd done it so far as anyone knew. That was the way they became masters of their own destinies-everyone else who cheated fate was just damned lucky. But masters were as rare as adepts, and even if he found one, a consultation would be death.
But he was an adept, damn it, and alchemists could do anything given enough time and ingredients.
It was the highest magic of a hex he needed right now.
Claude picked up a small crystal vial holding the essence of a four-leafed clover he'd found the day before in Golden Gate Park. He could have just bought one, but for the sympathetic resonances to be most powerful, it was best if you gathered everything yourself. And he needed this to be at its strongest.
A wishing potion. Of all the myriad processes, it was the only one that approached the Great Work in difficulty, and surpassed it in uncertainty and danger. Four-leafed clovers, dandelions, stardust, distilled rainbows, candles saved from all his birthdays-the wildmagic was without parallel. And unpredictable. Like all of hexery, you could never tell if a wish would be granted until it was.
"I don't want to die. Please, don't let me die," Claude whispered to the potion, fingertips brushing then glass, then realized he was crying a moment later. He quickly unstopped the vial and held it to his cheek. An adept's tears were a powerful totem and might help. Almost anything might help.
The tiny vial was full in a matter of seconds. Claude brushed away the stray tears and steeled himself. He was going to survive. He was Claude Almont, youngest adept in the history of California. He wasn't going to go along with the Fates' twisted little schemes, not without a fight.
Carefully he added the clover essence and tears to the crucible, then crossed his eyes, waggled his fingers in several combinations, and nearly choked as he said a twelve syllable Word of Power that couldn't have been written without glottal stops, tongue clicks, and at least three umlauts.
There, Claude thought as the oils became tinged with emerald, let the hackers down in Necronomicon Valley try to guess that one. If this potion failed, it wasn't going to be because someone had stolen his wish.
He took out his watch and flipped it open. A proper incantation needed to be said just before noon, and then the resulting potion would have to simmer till midnight of tonight, Walpurgis night, before anything else could be done.
Bing-Bong! came the sound of the doorbell.
Claude looked at his watch again. He still had fifteen minutes or so before he had to do anything, and a distraction would be good.
Slipping out of his ceremonial yellow lab coat, he clicked the watch shut and tucked it in his back pocket as he went into the living room.
. . . getting your MCB in stereo? blared the crystal ball in the wall unit as Claude tossed the coat over a chair. MCB, Music Crystal Ball, all day, all night. The MCB logo then shifted to three punk rockers jumping around with enchanted guitars. Claude waved his hand in an arcane gesture and the crystal ball shut off. He didn't know why he'd subscribed to the new silver cable service.
Bing-Bong!
He paused a moment to tuck in his shirt and rub a fleck of dry potion out of the ivory blond hair on his forearm.
Bing-Bong! Bing-
Claude sighed and got the door.
Bong! came the sound as he opened it. Claude saw an angel in black leather, a winged skull tattoo on his forearm with the motto: Born to Fly. Hanging on the angel's left wing was a young red-haired woman in tight jeans and a Wands 'n Roses T- shirt, a high speed hazelwood broomstick slung over her back. Behind them was a wall of ruby feathers with a bind-rune bleached into it.
"You Claude Almont?" the angel asked.
"Uh, yeah," said Claude, trying to figure out what was behind the angel's wings and what the bind-rune was. All he could make out was the top of the eihwaz rune and a bunch of feathers. He glanced at the sign he had left hanging on his doorknob: Busy Spellcasting-Do Not Disturb. "Pardon me, but I'm in the middle of a spell."
"It can wait." The angel produced a slender silver wand with a sparkling topaz star on the tip. "Going to let us in?"
Claude nodded and moved back, wishing desperately that he'd made a contribution to the campaign for mandatory wand registration.
The angel and the woman stepped inside. After them, the biggest gryphon Claude had ever seen squeezed through the doorway, losing a few feathers in the process. It was then that could fully see the bind- rune: four thurisaz's supporting each other, crossed by eihwaz and isa with a variant ing in the center. Thor's strength four times, focused by yew, fixed by ice, with a seed of additional power to add to the punch. There were probably nastier bind-runes, but Claude couldn't think of any off hand.
The gryphon swiped a rear paw, shutting the door, then reached out its talons and grabbed Claude around the chest, lifting him in the air. As every muscle in his body tensed, Claude forgot about the bind-rune and was struck with the incredibly inappropriate thought that the potion back in the lab really had been the same shade of azure as a gryphon's head feathers. Except this one's ears were punk green.
The angel sauntered off into the apartment, and Claude heard him mumble a word which must have reinstituted his wand's safety catch. "Nice place you've got here."
"Yeah, nice," the gryphon repeated, turning him around so he could see the angel and the woman. Claude tried to touch the floor with his toes, but his size-fifteen running shoes didn't reach. Dangling, he looked down at his own apartment.
"Put him down, Griff." The angel motioned with his head.
Claude let out a gasp as his feet touched the carpet. His knees then started to buckle under him. The gryphon repositioned his talons, one over each shoulder, points pricking into the skin of his chest and back. Claude's knees immediately stiffened and he glanced straight up.
"Hi," said Griff, hooked beak as sharp and black as his claws. Claude swallowed and looked back down. Despite being six feet six, he felt short.
Mike took up perch on one of the armchairs of the conversation pit, Ariel to one side. He glared at her. "Watch the feathers."
She smoothed them down. "Better, Mike?"
He sneered in reply, but let her keep stroking his wing. Mike turned his attention to Claude. "Hi. We're the Thorns. We need an alchemist."
Claude recalled the papers. The Thorns, one of the island's broomstick gangs, involved in a whole slew of illegal activities. He remembered then-The white thurisaz bind-rune was their insignia. "Uh, I'm booked for the next three months."
"You're going to make time. We need the Elixir Vitæ."
"I don't-"
"Have it anymore," Mike finished for him. "I know, you drank it. We need a new batch."
"It only gives me immortality. It's just a youth potion to anyone else."
Mike got out a cigarette and lit it from the fireblossom on the end table. Claude watched the alchemical flower flare bright as the oil lamp's air intake was opened, then grow dim as it was shut. "You'd be surprised. But doesn't matter; you're making it anyway." He took a long drag on the cigarette and what Claude smelled was not tobacco. "Let's talk terms. Ariel?"
She reached into her purse and produced a manila folder, handing it to Mike. He smiled. "This is from Charlotte Dunleavy's office. Know her?"
Claude's eyes went wide.
"Dull, dull, dull." Mike flipped through the pages. "Okay, here it is: 'Claude Almont will become a frost giant before his twenty- first birthday unless he is killed because of this knowledge, and will remain one for the rest of his life, for the curse can never be lifted.'" The angel looked up. "Kind of a silly prophecy, huh? Oh well, the good stuff comes later anyway."
He flipped to the back of the folder and took out a few sheets paper-clipped together. "Where do we start? With what happens if you go to the press for help?" He found the passage. "'. . . yet one week before the interview, an assassin hired by Japanese gianting interests will . . .' Or would you like to hear about what happens if you try the government? '. . . will be surreptitiously executed to preserve harmony with both Japan and fundamentalist Christian groups who wish to prove the purity of the human race.'" Mike flexed his wings and snorted. "Yeah, right. And here's my favorite: '. . . will escape on a Greenpeace ship, yet three years after the prophecy comes to pass, while following the ice wyrm migration, will be harpooned by Russian border guards and hauled off to be processed into cold sore liniment for smelly old women in Budapest.'" He put the prophecies away and smiled. "Okay, so I made up the last part. You'll probably be made into cough drops or something. But you get the idea."
Mike folded the cover slowly shut and looked up. "All we need to do is drop this folder in the right laps and you can kiss your adept ass goodbye. Get the picture?" He handed the prophecies back to Ariel. Smiling, Mike leaned over and opened the air intake of the fireblossom, stubbing out his cigarette. He pushed the vent shut and Claude watched the delicate flames wither and die. Ash swirled in the oil of the globe.
Claude felt all the blood drain out of his face and he gasped.
"Want a cough drop?" Ariel asked and Claude nearly convulsed as he tried to keep his stomach down.
"Hey, Ariel, be cool," Mike said, but there wasn't any feeling behind the words. "For him that would be cannibalism. Right, Frosty?"
Bastards. You sick, sadistic bastards, Claude thought. I wish I actually were a frost giant so I could step on you and grind you into the carpet.
"So are you going to make us the elixir, Frosty?"
Claude looked up and swallowed. He wanted to wipe his eyes, but Griff's claws still had hold of his shoulders. After a few ragged breaths he responded. "It's awfully hard. It'd take me a long time to compound."
Mike nodded. "That's why you're coming with us. Ariel, go pack him some stuff."
"Sure, Mike." She breezed past, pausing to ruffle Claude's wavy hair.
"Now," said Mike, "we-"
Ka-Boom! The sound reverberated through the walls and Claude screamed as Griff's claws poked into his skin.
Mike pulled out the hand wand. "What did you just do, alchemist?"
"I- I-" Claude stammered, wanting to back away but feeling the points of the gryphon's claws. "I had a potion on the burner."
Ariel poked her head out of his bedroom. "What happened?"
Griff let go of him and shoved Claude forwards with his talons. "Asshole here left something on the stove."
"Oh. Well-"
The front door rattled and clicked, and a thirtyish woman peered in nervously, her hair bleached white and ratted into a sideways ponytail interwoven with a profusion of polished crystal beads.
"Francine?" Claude said.
She stepped inside, talking in a rapid stream. "Oh thank goodness you're alright, Claude. I was so worried. I heard the explosion so I used the key you gave me for emergencies. You really shouldn't make potions all alone. Jon always has me there when he summons a demon, just in case he makes a mistake. What happened?"
"I-" Claude looked. Mike had slipped the hand wand into his pocket, but Griff's claws and beak were still behind him. "I forgot something on the burner."
"Oh dear, I should have ignored that sign on your door and knocked earlier, but I hadn't even considered that this batch might apply to you too." She held out two crumpled slips of paper. "I made some of my fortune cookies and look what they said."
Claude read the fortunes: There is great danger to one nearby. You will be in a position to stop it; and Someone very close to you may depart this world before the day is out.
"And after that, I told Jon not to do any demon conjurations or anything like that. It hadn't even occurred to me that my divinations might apply to you too, but I'm so glad you're alright."
She looked at Mike and Ariel, then up at Griff. "Hi. Not often Claude has someone over who's taller than he is." Francine smiled and looked around. "So, what are all of you doing?"
Mike hopped off the back of the arm chair and spread his wings to their full span. "We're gonna go flying."
Francine cocked her head to one side. "I thought flying made you broomsick, Claude."
"Uh-yeah-I-"
"I'll be flying. He's going piggyback." Griff rested a talon on Claude's shoulder. "Real wings are the only way to fly."
There was a deprecating noise from Ariel, and Francine shrugged. "I wouldn't know-except for when I dream I'm a bird, but-" She looked at Claude. "You okay?"
"He's just a little shook up," Mike said. "He was about to go in the lab when the explosion happened."
"Oh," Francine said, then paused a moment. "Oh my goodness, my cookies! They'll be burnt to a crisp!" She grabbed the doorknob and waved frantically. "Glad everything's alright. Have a nice time. Bye."
"Uh-" Claude began. Griff flexed a talon on his shoulder. The door clicked shut behind her. Damn! Claude thought. Sortilegists could be such airheads.
Mike smiled. "You got nice neighbors."
"Yeah, nice." Griff chuckled like a parrot.
The angel shrugged and ruffled the feathers on his wings. "Let's take a look at your lab."
The damage wasn't too bad: A large section of the workbench was blackened and bits of glass and droplets of potion were scattered about the room. Claude put his finger into a spatter on the paint of the door frame. The unfinished wishing potion ran down his finger, slick with rainbow and sparkle. Claude silently cursed the Fates. He'd gotten too close and they'd pulled in the Thorns to stop him.
Mike stepped in front of Claude and faced him. "The lab we've got has everything for making the elixir, but if there's anything else you need, tell me what it is."
"Uh," Claude said, "that paint set on the shelf, my lucky cauldron, that knife, those bells, the grimoires-"
"The what's?" Mike asked.
"The books," Claude explained. "Um, the silver kazoo, my fountain pen, that little wooden box-it's my traveling potion kit-and those prisms. That's it, I think."
"Good." Mike dumped everything into the cauldron.
Ariel appeared beside Claude with his old sportsbag. "Got your stuff, alchemist. Clean underwear, that sort of thing."
Mike walked out with the cauldron. "Here, put this in the bag. I don't have room for it." He shoved the potion kit at her.
Ariel zipped them it in the sportsbag. "Cool it, Mike."
Griff flicked the catch on the sliding glass door and opened it out onto the balcony. A light breeze ruffled in and the gryphon sniffed. "Good updraft."
Mike twitched his wings. "Seems like everything's ready."
Ariel took out some flying salve and greased her wrists. A moment later she and the broomstick were levitating an inch above the carpet.
There was a click from the front door again. "Oh," Francine said, stepping into the apartment. "I'm so glad I caught you before you left. Here," She put a white paper sack in Claude's hands, "I wanted you to have some of my fortune cookies."
Claude put on the jean jacket Ariel handed him and slipped the cookies inside. "Uh-Thanks."
Mike looked at Francine and smiled. "We're gonna be gone for a while. Mind locking up?"
"Oh, of course not."
Claude got astride Griff. He couldn't believe this. Francine sometimes acted dingy, but he'd never thought she could be such an airhead.
The giant gryphon stepped out onto the balcony, grabbed the railing with his talons, and with a jack rabbit leap from his hindquarters, vaulted over the edge. His wings unfolded and caught the air. Claude felt his stomach come up in his mouth and grabbed the black feathers on Griff's back. "Hang on," the gryphon screamed. "Here we go."
Claude squeezed his legs as tight as he could around Griff's huge girth, crushing feathers in his hands. Ariel sped over them on the broomstick, making the gryphon say something obscene and unintelligible.
"Have a nice fly!" called Francine behind them.

Step II: Elixir Mortis


It was one of the old robber barons' keeps at the crest of Nob Hill, an example of budgetless San Francisco Victoriana. If Claude had played tourist the day before, he might even have remembered some of the mansion's history. As it was, he wasn't thinking about that just now.
The gryphon crouched over him on the marble steps, beak glinting murderously in the sunlight. "Why'd you have to urp all over my feathers?"
"I get broomsick," Claude whispered feebly.
Mike shoved Claude out of the way and glared up at gryphon. "Cool it, man. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."
Ariel laughed. "You know the rules, Griff. Go around back and get cleaned up. See ya." She patted his haunch.
Griff switched his tail, red eyes still fixed on Claude.
"C'mon." Mike grabbed Claude by the collar and pushed open the door of the mansion. The air inside was cool and smelled of mahogany and lemon oil. "Welcome to your new home."
Ariel shut the door behind them and Claude took in the entry hall. It was classic San Francisco mahogany and red velvet, with lots of grossly expensive antique furniture. That wasn't what he was looking at.
Directly over the mantel of the entry hall fireplace was a portrait, a grinning skeleton in a top hat and purple frock coat. The skull's eyes glowed dimly red. A white Eoh-Thorne bind-rune was painted on the front of the hat, a recent addition to a much older painting.
Claude wasn't religious, but he knew his Voudoun, one of the oldest religions on the isle. He also knew which of the loa spirits you didn't mess with and which cults you avoided.
He backed into Mike, pointing a shaky finger. "That's Baron Samedi."
Mike patted him on the shoulder, then pushed him forward. "That's right. Say hi to your host. That's who you're making the elixir for."
Claude stumbled and caught himself on a claw-footed high table, the marble top cool beneath his fingers. A Tiffany vase tipped slightly then rocked circular with a rapid drrrrr as it came to rest.
"Say hi," Mike ordered.
"Hi."
Mike grabbed Claude's sleeve and walked on. Claude was taken down a maze of halls and staircases bespeaking a century of affluence and the desire to display it. Tables, vases, curio cabinets, all were antique, worth a fortune in and of themselves and holding treasures worth far more. Crystal and gilt along the way gave the illusion of gold and diamonds-and knowing the reputation of the Samedi Cult, it might not all be illusion.
They came to a set of double doors carved with the seven illustrations from the book of Abraham the Jew, symbolic representations of the seven stages of the Great Work. They were faithful reproductions, down to the annoying inaccuracies, Claude noted.
"Here we go," Mike said. The angel turned a gold key in the lock and swung the doors open. Claude stepped inside, taking in the room.
It was the type of alchemy lab he'd always wanted; big as a gymnasium, with vaulted ceilings and skylights, one end done up as a huge research library and sitting room with plush oriental rugs and wall hangings, the other in bare granite with glass cases full of alchemicals and high stone tables for compounding potions. In the corner, sharing the same end as the library, were a four- poster and washstand and, very much in the old style, a chamber pot behind a screen and a bell pull at the bedside.
Mike stepped in beside him and leaned against the left-hand door, taking out a switchblade and gesturing to the room. "This is it. Genuine adept's lab, though the last one we had disappeared back in the twenties."
Claude thought back into his alchemical history. "Pierce Morgan?"
"Nah," Mike said. "This guy wasn't in the books. He was an adept long time before they started taking their names down."
Which was a long time ago, Claude thought. Adepts didn't just disappear without it hitting the papers.
Ariel brushed past, going to the stone tables and placing the cauldron and sportsbag on top.
Claude looked over at the angel and Mike grinned at him, paring his nails with the knife. "You make the elixir, we let you and your file go. That simple." Mike stabbed the door and sheathed the switchblade with a nasty snikt. "You get difficult, we get difficult. And we work for Baron Samedi. That means you get cute and off one of us, it ain't gonna do any good, 'cause we got necromancy to make sure we stick around as haunts, twice as bad as we are right now. And whatever you do to us, a thaumaturge can just undo, and we got one." Mike smiled. "You got that?"
Claude nodded in shock and Ariel tripped by, grabbing Mike by the hand after running her fingers over other portions of his anatomy. "C'mon, Mike."
Mike smiled and let himself be led out by Ariel, folding a wing around her. "Have fun, alchemist. See ya." He shut the door and Claude heard the key turn in the lock.
Claude went over to the gold velvet sofa and sat down, the old wood creaking with his weight. He breathed out slowly. Samedi cultists. The Thorns were linked in with the Samedi cultists. A shiver went up his spine and he wished he'd been kidnapped by the Satanists instead. Satanists he could cope with. The Satanic Temple was right there on Powell and Jeffreson, open to the public, and Claude even had a friend who was a cambion, horns, hooves and all. Of course Piper had run away and converted to Zen when he was sixteen, and he'd told Claude what a bunch of whackos the Satanists were; but even so, their practices were public knowledge. The legal ones, at least.
Nobody knew for certain what the cult of Baron Samedi did. But there were rumors-Zombies, death spells, curses. He'd heard whisperings of them in college, a voudoun cult chock full of corrupt necromancers and sorcerers, spiritualism of the nasty sort. The police and their oracles had never come up with anything conclusive, but the rumors still persisted. And here were the Samedi cultists. What did they want with the Elixir Vitæ?
After a minute of just sitting and staring, Claude shifted position and heard a crunkle from inside his jean jacket. He pulled out the bag of fortune cookies Francine had given him and opened it. One of the cookies had broken. He fished the fortune out of the pieces and read it: Only a silly goose prepares the sauce for his own cooking.
Claude glanced around. Sauce? They wanted him to make the Elixir Vitæ, but after that they said they were going to let him go. Right? He cracked another fortune cookie: A well prepared fowl is usually dead.
Claude felt the blood drain out his knees. What was going on? They wanted him to make them the Elixir Vitæ. Were they going to kill him after they got it?
He clutched the white paper bag. After all, why wouldn't they kill him? Once they got what they wanted, he'd be a liability to whatever evil plot they had. But by the same token, he was a public figure, people asked him for interviews all the time, and a murder investigation or a missing person's report would cause more problems than an adept staying quiet for fear of his life.
Claude couldn't explain it and didn't bother to try-He smashed another cookie: Kill a man, you get his money. Kill a bee, you get its honey. Kill a mink and you get a stole. What do you get when you kill a soul?
Claude almost screamed at the sight of the morbid riddle. Kill a soul? Riddling prophecies could be fun, but not when they concerned your own doom. He wasn't going to guess and smashed another cookie: The root of all magic is spiritual.
Claude thought a moment. He was an alchemist, a wizard. There were two types of wizards: Those who had been born with their magic naturally, a random gift, and those who had gotten their magic from a fay. Natural wizards were rare and powerful, and he was one. Fey wizards were common, and their power and spells lasted only as long as the original fay's spells held up, no matter how skillful they were.
Claude knew a lot of fey wizards, and there was always that jealousy, 'I wish I had your magic.' But it was something you either had or you didn't. He was born with the golden art as a part of his soul. You couldn't get it somewhere else.
He broke another fortune cookie: The Golden Apple is desired by all, but no one eats the core.
The Golden Apple was the symbol of chaos. It was also the fruit of immortality. He'd drunk the Elixir Vitæ, and that had mixed with his own natural magic to give him immortality. Physical immortality, that is. He didn't age and he didn't get sick, but he'd die the same as anyone else if he got sacrificed.
Claude thought about it. He possessed the magic of alchemy, the yellow art, the golden art, the Golden Apple. And his soul, the core of his being, could be taken out or destroyed by the right corrupt necromancer, leaving him an empty husk. A young, healthy, immortal husk.
But destroying his soul would destroy his magic too . . . unless . . . the necromancer worked with a spellbreaker, twisting the magic and spinning their spells together to form a wildmagic of greater power. And a spellbreaker, through the magic of apotropaism, could possibly reverse the nature of the Elixir Vitæ, making it into the Elixir Mortis, the elixir of mortality, instant death to any who drank it. Or someone in a apotropaic ceremony could drink his elixir, the quintessence of his magic, and steal it and his immortality that way. Or they could do both.
Claude theorized a bit more. It was the most disgusting ritual he'd ever heard of, but it might work, especially with a fay to help. And with his own unwitting cooperation. But even if they were trying steal his magic, would they really go so far as to kill him or destroy his soul? Why not just steal the magic and have done with it? What magical purpose would his death serve?
He grabbed out a handful of fortune cookies and squeezed them into cookie crumbs: Death is the most symbolic of endings; Virgin wool takes colors best; and Silly, silly, silly goose! Applesauce is apple juice!
Claude dropped the cookie crumbs on the floor in horror. He didn't need anything more specific. They were going to kill him, body and soul, stealing his magic and his immortality at the same time, maybe even drinking his blood. And somehow they'd figured out he was a virgin, which made him all the better for a sacrifice. How'd they know that?
He paused, realizing that was a stupid thing to worry about given all of his other problems. He hadn't had time to do much more than study alchemy in college, and he'd gone in early, so it didn't take a sortilegist to guess that he still hadn't 'lost it.' With lycanthropy and all the other sexually transmitted curses running around, he'd thought he'd been playing it safe. He'd never thought it would come to this.
Claude stood up and then sat back down. They were going to kill him, but not until they got the Elixir Vitæ. So long as they didn't know that he knew, he'd be fine. He hoped.
But what was he going to do? Claude frantically cracked a fortune cookie: Behind the skull lies enlightenment.
Hands shaking as he read the fortune, Claude looked up. Over the alchemical library's mantel was another portrait of Baron Samedi, a cucurbit in the skeleton's hands holding a vignette of a graveyard and rotting corpses, symbolic of the stage of Putrefaction, fourth step in the Great Work.
Baron Samedi. Samedi, Saturday in French. Saturday, Saturn's day. Saturn, the father who eats his children, the death which consumes life, Time in his darker aspect, the Reaper who cuts the unripe grain, the early frost.
Of all the concepts in alchemical symbolism, Saturn had frightened him the most as a child. Saturn, Saturn's day, Saturday, Samedi, Baron Samedi. Like all encrypted magic, it became a gross etymological pun once deciphered. Behind the skull lies enlightenment.
He flung the scrap of paper to the floor. Death was a path to knowledge, but not one he was going to take.
Claude brushed the cookie crumbs off his pants and got up. He hated that portrait, and knowing this mansion it had probably been painted by a necromancer and had a little of the loa's spiritual reality behind the paint. And he didn't like the way it was looking at him. If Samedi cultists were going to spy on him, they damn well better do it in person.
He dragged over an armchair, a fanciful mahogany affair which belonged in a museum, and propped it against the right wall of the fireplace. Climbing up on the arms, he took hold of one edge of the portrait's frame and pulled. It was bolted to the wall. Claude grabbed the elaborate border with both hands and wrenched, throwing his weight into it. He'd always looked more like a professional football player or dragon slayer than an alchemist anyway, and for once his strength came in handy.
With a rending shriek, the right edge of the frame came away from the wall and the portrait swung sideways with Claude still hanging from it. The wood then buckled and the canvas tore and Claude fell hard to the hearth rug, half of the frame in his hands.
His shoulder ached, but as he sat up and felt around, he found nothing broken. Claude shook his head. If he was going to escape a bunch of deranged voodoo cultists intent on sacrificing his body and fileting his soul, he wasn't going to do it by mindless vandalism of their mansion, satisfying as that might be.
He glanced up at Baron Samedi's shredded skull. The left half of the portrait dangled perpendicular from its hinges, the painting hanging in strips.
Claude picked up right half of the broken frame. One rosette of the twined death roses was empty, its center a perfectly smooth hole, the outer edge grimed with dust and multiple coats of varnish.
He got to his feet and looked above the mantel. Set into the wall was a square of black granite, incised with a hand in a circle limned in gold. Where the right half of the frame had been, all that was left was a wooden button, the center of the empty rosette.
Claude dropped the broken frame and got back up on the mantel. Not even quite sure what he was doing, he placed his left hand palm to palm with the one etched in stone. Violet fox fire flickered around the circle, and the stone dematerialized.
He flexed his hand in the open air and recognized the trace of sorcery that had guided it. The key to the safe was an adept's palm, and as an adept he had been judged worthy. Or something like that-wardings could be so pompous, though he had a feeling that if he hadn't been an adept, he would have been frizzled like a fritter. Claude shook his head to clear it of the muzziness of ensorcelment and looked into the safe.
Sitting on shelves, neatly labeled and filmed with dust, were the greatest of alchemicals: the White Elixir, the Red Elixir, the Powder of Projection, the Yellow Tincture and the Philosophers Stone. Everything but the Elixir Vitæ and the Panacea. An adept's personal stash, and quite a bit of it too. Whoever had been here before had been a lot wiser when they went about the Great Work, or at least had had the foresight to make a large supply of all the preliminary materials. Potions, like chocolate chip cookies, were best made in large batches. You could always find something to do with leftovers.
Claude smiled. Beyond the skull lies enlightenment. Off to one side of the safe were a slim journal and a slightly thicker grimoire.
He reached for the notebook first and flipped through the faded parchment. It was in some Slavic language Claude couldn't read, but the diagrams were enough to show that someone had indeed succeeded in the Great Work in 1647. Someone who'd disappeared in the twenties, Mike had said.
Claude glanced at the Philosophers' Stone and the elixirs, not quite believing that the Thorns hadn't known they were here if they wanted the Elixir Vitæ so badly. And if they hadn't, it was awfully convenient that he'd stumbled onto them. Too convenient. The whole thing had gone beyond the long arm of Fate. It was just too weird. There had to be a hex involved.
Claude looked at the rainbow stain of the wishing potion on his finger. That or else wildmagic from the explosion had led to this chain of events. He sucked at the drop of wishing potion. In either case, the hexery might save his life if he took advantage of it.
Claude replaced the journal, then got down off the mantel and went back to the bag of fortune cookies. He broke one, pausing to shove the crumbs in his mouth. The fortune read: The wise man knows that books hold more answers than he does.
He went back to the mantel, but the granite block with the gold hand had reappeared in his absence. Hesitantly, he placed his palm on the stone. The fox fire flickered and the stone again dematerialized.
Claude took out the grimoire, gold leaf showing dully under the dust. It was immensely heavy for such a small book. He went back to the sofa and broke another cookie to make sure that this was the book he was looking for. The wise man also knows when not to ask stupid questions.
He wasn't going to look a gift pegasus in the mouth. Claude ran a finger down the leather and felt the cool supple texture, dust coming away. He then folded back the cover and realized the binding wasn't done in gold leaf, it was solid gold, leather touched by the Philosophers' Stone.
Claude frowned and looked at the title page, gilt-edged vellum. Scribed in gold ink were the words A Formula for Chaos. An apple in gold leaf sat below, like an unbitten version of the Apple Spellcaster logo.
Claude paged through the grimoire. It dealt with a bit of discredited eighteenth century magical theory known as the dimensions. Actually it made quite a bit of sense; demons always referred to several different hells, so it was perfectly reasonable that there would be just as many earths-though of course only a fool would trust the word of a demon. At least ones from hell-demons born and raised in California were perfectly okay, or at least most of them were.
The book gave a formula for an alchemical gas which could open a random, temporary gateway between worlds. He pulled out another fortune cookie just to make sure this was it. No time to prepare. Necessity dictates that you start immediately.
Claude slammed the book and looked up, then quickly found his place again since he hadn't the faintest idea where to start. Sublimate of fog, tincture of irresolution, and the oil of the unknown. He got up and went to the other end of the laboratory.
Shelves held rows and rows of alchemicals-in alphabetical order, thankfully. Finding the proper ingredients, he emptied the prescribed amounts into an Erlenmeyer flask, swirling them gently together. Now spirits of snow, rose essence, and oil of white. He continued to add to the complex mixture. Okay. Now- A dram of the Universal Solvent? Claude looked back at the book. Yep, that's what it called for, to dissolve the barrier between worlds and allow entrance to the primal chaos.
Claude stared nearly cross-eyed at the book. The primal chaos? He paused and reread that section. The fog created was supposed to temporarily dissolve the barrier between worlds, opening a gate into the primal chaos. Supposedly those who used the formula would be shielded from the worst of the powers of chaos, and would only be hurled into a random, parallel world and time. There were protections, certainly, but even so . . .
Well, he'd used the Universal Solvent before. The formula needed to be created by the admixture of the White Elixir and the Red Elixir, naturally, with an infusion of-
He paused again. Lotus essence? That was what kids on the street were getting stoned on, one of the most illegal alchemicals. Claude could understand the reasoning behind the need for both, but lotus essence and the Universal Solvent were lethal enough by themselves. Not to mention the primal chaos. He crushed a fortune cookie: Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do-or die. Well that was a lovely little prophecy. He smashed another one: He who hesitates is lost!
Not one to ignore signs and portents, let alone Francine's cookie fortunes, Claude looked through the cases. There it was, lotus essence. There was some consolation to being held prisoner by a broomstick gang.
He got a set of the Red and White Elixirs from the wall safe, then paused to swing the trashed portrait of Baron Samedi back into place. It didn't look quite right, but would pass casual inspection, or at worst just seem like he went temporarily nuts and decided to shred the portrait-which was pretty much what had happened anyway. Claude didn't like the idea of a loa spirit watching him, but it would be worse if his discovery were discovered. And if the portrait really did a spell on it, trashing it might have trashed the magic anyway. Then again, it may have just royally pissed off the loa.
He tossed the broken pieces of frame in the wood bin, then gathered up the stray cookie fortunes and finished the cold mixture of alchemicals. Claude poured it into ten crystal potion flasks. Makes ten eight- ounce bottles, he thought incongruously, expecting the Universal Solvent to eat through the glass at any moment; but its nature must have been warped by the lotus essence. Hopefully. Now what?
Claude paused. The ingredients were getting rarer and rarer, and even the adept's safe didn't have this one. But he did.
He got his ceremonial gold athame out of the cauldron and pricked his left ring finger. One drop of adept's blood in each to act as catalyst.
The blood welled up on his fingertip, daffodil yellow. It was the one change the Elixir Vitæ had wrought in him that he hadn't quite gotten used to yet. But bright yellow blood had seemed a pretty small price to pay for physical immortality. He hadn't known people would try to kill him for it.
The pale blue potions congealed at the touch of the yellow blood, swirling into a strange opaque red. Sucking his pricked finger, blood tasting more of sulfur than salt, he read the concluding part of the recipe and his eyes got wider in disbelief with each line. "This guy's got to be kidding," he gasped. "Where in the hell am I supposed to get a stuffed crocodile? And I'll be damned if I recite this gibberish." Claude glared at the prescribed incantation. He paused, unsure of what to do, then grabbed for a fortune cookie. Claude stuffed the handful of crumbs in his mouth as he read the slip of paper: Necessity is the mother of invention. Have an affair with her. He looked at the fortune. How? Claude smashed one more of the prophetic cookies. Only a fool asks who's there/When Death comes knocking at the door.
His mouth went so dry that he could hardly swallow the crumbs. How was he supposed to cast the spell without the necessary props? He snatched up the grimoire and studied the list of outdated paraphernalia, wondering where he was going to get any of them.
There was a sharp click from the door and Claude's heart jumped so hard it was painful. He clutched the book to his chest and looked as the door opened.
Ariel stood there, a tray in her hands. She cocked her head to one side. "Thought you might want something to eat." She stepped into the lab, kicking the door shut behind her. With a provocative sway to her hips, Ariel went and set the tray down on one of the spare stone tables. She surveyed the potion flasks. "Not wasting any time, are you?"
Claude lowered the book and tried to look a little more relaxed while at the same time blocking a clear view of the portrait of Baron Samedi. "Uh, no. I want to get home."
She smiled, a nasty knowing smile and Claude knew exactly what it meant. His heart pounded.
Ariel moved closer to him and picked up the lotus essence. "Partying, alchemist?"
Claude felt the soft gold of the grimoire denting under his fingernails. "No. I need it as an ingredient."
"Oh." She smiled.
"Listen, you're really disrupting my concentration. If you want the elixir, you have to leave me alone to work on it. Okay?"
"Sure, man. Whatever you say." Ariel unstopped the lotus essence and dipped in a long fingernail. She placed it in her mouth, sucking luxuriantly. "Mmm, good shit." She set the bottle on the counter, patted him on the rear, allowing her fingertips to roam for a second, then wandered to the door, humming some pop tune. "Just ring if you need anything."
She shut the door behind herself and the lock clicked. Claude stared after her. Almost caught, and he still needed to get ritual implements. He could ask the Thorns if he could go looking through their attic or prop room, but they'd probably ask too many questions, and he'd freak out and-
He slammed the book shut and grabbed for another fortune cookie: If you can't make it, fake it.
There was no arguing with that logic. He slipped out of his jean jacket. He should be wearing only his ceremonial color if he was going to do a spell; it could give the ritual extra power, something that he needed a lot of right now. Hastily, he kicked off his blue running shoes and got a pair of yellow jogging shorts out of his sportsbag, though left his jockey shorts where they were.
He took a piece of yellow chalk from a blackboard in the corner and retraced one of the large rings set into the floor. What should the inner design be? Triangle? Pentagram? Mandala? On impulse, he made the circle into a smiley face. Why not.
Claude set the bottles on the eyes and mouth, then found a small incense burner, cast in the shape of a grinning imp. He put a couple of incense cones on its forked tongue, fished his Swiss army knife out of his pocket, and pulled a small silver tine from among the other tools. The tip glowed red the minute it was fully unsheathed, and he touched it to the incense. He folded the knife away, then snapped the burner shut and placed it in the center of the circle. Smoke began to issue from its ears. Claude studied the figure: It looked just as ridiculous as a stuffed crocodile. That was probably good.
He closed his eyes and exhaled. Now for the incantation. Claude stood before the figure, lowered his deep voice, and intoned the rhyme, making it up as he went along:

Differences in time and space,
Uh- Meld, unite, and interface,
Juxtapose and then . . . connect,
Interweave and intersect,
One is all and all is one,
And so since time and space begun.

He winced as he pronounced the last word of the incantation and hoped that his magic wouldn't care that he had gotten the tense wrong.
Like the wrath of a vengeful English teacher, light flashed from the eyes of the incense burner. The twin beams focused on the flask of potion at the base of the smile and the glass began to glow pink, the luminescence spreading to the other nine bottles. The light from the figure soon grew to such intensity that Claude had to shield his eyes. A sudden bang made him flinch. When he looked, the light had stopped and the head of the incense burner was open in a somnolent yawn. He sighed in relief: even though there had been a lot of wildmagic from the makeshift incantation, the bottles were still intact and the liquid inside had changed to a greyish pink. It looked as if he had been successful.
He smashed another fortune cookie. Even if not being perfection itself, your work will serve your purposes. Well, that was nice. But what was wrong with the potions? He crushed another: Only those of magic and that which is theirs may pass through magic and that which is its. He wrinkled his forehead in thought. Only creatures of magic could use the potions? Well, as an adept he certainly qualified.
There was a slam of the doors being thrown open and bouncing off the walls. Claude dropped the bag.
"Hiya!" Mike stepped into the room, spreading his wings. The backdraft as he took off slammed the doors closed. Mike did a somersault in the air, arcing through the vault of the laboratory, and landed in front of Claude, wings straight up. The angel brought them down carefully and mechanically, like the furling of antique fans. Claude grabbed for the bottles of elixir so they wouldn't be knocked over, but he couldn't feel even the slightest wind ruffle his hair.
Mike spun on a boot-heel, facing the workbench. "Great place here. Always liked alchemy. Always wished I could do it." He glanced back over his shoulder and grinned. Claude knew the thoughts behind that grin and clutched the half-full bottle of the Red Elixir to his chest. "But I guess it's only for alchemist's like you," Mike finished, turning back. Claude heard the lie behind the words and shuddered. Mike was the one who would get the power. They were going to sacrifice him so Mike could become an alchemist.
The angel poked a finger at the cookie crumbs and the fortunes lying on the workbench. "What you got-"
One glance through those fortunes would tell Mike everything. In panic, Claude swung the bottle down, clubbing him in the back of the head. The glass shattered and the Red Elixir sprayed everywhere.
Claude backed away, knowing the Red Elixir's power. "You-" Mike swore, spinning, wings sweeping across the workbench. Potions fell to the floor, including the White Elixir. Glass and droplets flew and the White Elixir joined the Red in a shimmer of alchemy, forming the Universal Solvent. Tiles, glass, flesh, and everything else in contact with the alkahest bubbled and hissed. The angel screamed and collapsed, sinking into the floor as it dissolved along with him.
"I-" Mike said, but whether his last words were a statement, a plea, a threat or a curse, Claude couldn't tell. Mike had been dissolved, and a hole in the floor and the workbench along with him.
Claude continued to move away until his back touched the far wall. He reached out and grabbed a handful of the drapery, using it to wipe away the Red Elixir on his hands. He'd never meant for anything like that to have happened. He slid to the floor, clutching the heavy velvet to him. It was cool and dark and he huddled into the folds. He'd never meant to kill anyone. He'd only meant to stun him, but the bottle had broken and-
Claude let the tears flow free, clutching the soft darkness of the old velvet to his face, and cursed the Fates or the hex or whoever was responsible for all this happening. He hadn't wanted any of it. All he'd wanted was a nice home and a nice alchemy practice and maybe someone who'd . . .
A bit later, his tears had subsided enough that could go and look more closely at the scene of the accident. Except for a stray feather, Mike was gone and a hole in the floor led down to the floor below and the floor below that and probably the basement beyond. New tears wet his face, and Claude let them fall freely.
He looked on the floor. Knocked aside amid the wreckage was one last fortune cookie. He picked it up and broke it open: If you wish to leave all your troubles behind, it is best they thought you dead.
Claude thought a second, then got his fountain pen and a piece of paper and wrote:

Last Will and Testament and First and Last Suicide Note
I, Claude Amadeus Almont, being of sound mind and body and being faced by death and dishonor from many quarters, have opted for suicide. I leave all my worldly possessions to the Society for the Protection of Enchanted Species and the Save the Basilisk Fund. Goodbye cruel world!
Sincerely,

Claude Amadeus Almont, A.A.
(Adept Alchemist)



He propped the note up on the shelves of alchemicals, then went to the adept's safe and took out two more bottles of the White and Red Elixirs. He poured the entire contents of the Red Elixir into a pool on the tiles and set the empty flask by the note. He then stood back and threw the White Elixir into the Red. It shattered and dissolved a second whole in the floor.
Claude went and got his sportsbag, loaded in all but one of the transfer potions from the circle, and zipped it shut. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Well, here goes," he said to the silent room and smashed the potion bottle at his feet. A cloud of greyish-pink fog billowed up and enveloped him.
When it dissipated a second later, he was gone as well.

Step I: Mall Apropos


Nicole wore her mall-attack gear: pale green cropped cotton blouse, blue denim skirt, white high-tops and a silver neck chain. Her portable CD player was holstered to her right, headphones in a torc around her neck with the cord stretched across her chest like a bandolier. An overstuffed Hermes bag hung blackjack-ready from her left hand, while in her right she held the goods of a dozen merchants.
Me Nicole, brave white huntress, Nicole thought, dumping her plunder on one of the mall benches. Eastridge Mall no match for Nicole, greatest huntress in San Jose. Bravest huntress in all Northern California.
She brushed a strand of hair out of her face and sat down, then began to transfer everything to a rainbow-striped carryall she'd gotten at Macy's: a pair of jeans, a couple sweaters, a couple CD's, a bag of gold chains from some unknown-percentage-off sale, two beach towels and something from the Waldenbooks bargain table titled The Valley Girl Lexicon.
Nicole glanced at the book before stuffing it in next to the towels. God, what dated trash. She didn't even know why she'd bought it, except that Walden's hadn't had anything new in except for yet-another- Dragonlance-and/or-Star-Trek novel, and she'd read more than enough of them to know what the next one would be.
She didn't know why she'd bought any of it. Nicole kicked the carryall up against the bars of the second level railing, then got up and leaned against it herself, looking down at the reflecting pool of the mall fountain, which had been turned off to conserve water. Not as if they ever put new water in the fountain anyway.
Her hair fell down two feet straight, dark brown, and she stared past it at her reflection in the pool below. She had what might have been called a sculptured face, but by a sculptor who had been more interested in contours than angles. Her nose wasn't short enough to be called a snub, or turned up enough to warrant the pug description, and her cheekbones, eyebrows, and chin were even less remarkable. Her one good feature, she admitted, was clear skin-a rare virtue in a girl not-quite-yet seventeen. As if to make up for this, she had freckles, a light smattering across the cheekbones and the bridge of her nose. Her eyes were green, with the little epicanthic fold in the corner, and she had tinted contacts to make them look greener, but the blue tiles in the pool made their reflection look muddy black.
Nicole straightened up and brushed her hair back over her shoulders, wondering if she should go see a movie since there wasn't much more that she wanted to buy. Actually, there hadn't been anything she's wanted to buy, but there hadn't been any other alternatives. "Well, dear," her mother had said, "your father and I are going to the Anderson's for the weekend, so it's up to you to amuse yourself. Go shopping or practice ballet or go to that dugong or whatever you call it."
The word was dojong, but Nicole wasn't in the mood for tae-kwon-do right now, though it would be fun to kick someone. She glanced around the mall's upper level, visualizing ninja sneak attacks on several shoppers. Ballet was also out, if just because she wasn't in the mood for people who thought 5'7" was awkward and ungainly for a woman. And the drama club had just struck the sets for the last production, and casting for "Arsenic and Old Lace" wouldn't begin for a week. Nicole smirked. She'd probably get one of the old ladies, and right now the idea of poisoning people and burying them in the basement appealed to her.
Unfortunately, her house didn't have a basement, so all that left was shopping. She got out her wallet and glanced through it. Almost forty in cash, left from the two twenties her mother had given her for lunch, and charge cards for the Emporium, Macy's, Nordstrom's and VISA, all of which her mother had also given her. Nicole took them out and looked at the neat raised gold lettering on all four. Nicole Elaine Scarborough. Yep, that was her. The cards were just another part of her mother's control game. At the end of the month, her mother would look over the statements and know exactly where she'd gone and what she'd done- far easier than ever asking her daughter about her life. VISA gold card-Big Mother is watching you.
Nicole weighed the cards in her hand. They weren't shuriken, but they would do. Taking the Emporium card first, she aimed carefully at the two-and-a-half story metal sculpture rising up out of the fountain and let fly. A bit light, but the card still made a decent clang against the polished metal pipes before fluttering down into the water. Nicole followed it with the Nordstrom's card. "Why doesn't something interesting happen!?!?!?"
Several people stopped and stared and Nicole gave them the mad laugh she'd practiced for Ophelia. She fired off the Macy's card, hoping she looked completely insane, then finished with the VISA. She'd go downtown, give all her cash to the first homeless person she found, leave the carryall on a park bench, and tell her mother she'd been robbed at gun-
"What do you think you're-" A hand landed on her shoulder and Nicole spun, grabbing hold of it and stopping just short of flipping the owner over the railing onto the level below. She stared up into the startled brown eyes of a man in his mid-twenties wearing a hooded red sweat shirt and surfer pants and one of those quartz crystal pendants you find in head shops and New Age book stores.
He pulled his arm away from her. "What do you think you're doing here? Don't you know that you're weakening the fabric of the universe?"
"What?"
He went pale. "The Veils! Every time you rend the veils, it weakens the space-time continuum. Perfectly innocent wardrobes become dimensional gates-not to mention the cultural contamination."
Something in the back of Nicole's mind told her that she should feel lucky, as this was the first raving lunatic she had ever met. Though as it was, all she could manage was an incredulous "Huh?"
"Go back to your own dimension! You're-"
"Jason," interrupted an icy voice, of the type that typically brooks no contradiction, "what are you bothering this girl for?"
Nicole looked over at a middle-aged woman in a pink and green pastel 'dress-for-success' meets Miami Vice suit, and the guy in the surfer clothes said, "Ms. Hope! She's the one!"
Ms. Hope looked over Nicole with a cool wire-rimmed stare. "Jason, I find that highly unlikely. The man we're looking for isn't a shapechanger."
"No!" he said loudly, making several more passerby on the mall stop, stare, and quickly walk away. "I had a vision! She's the one!" He pointed, nearly sticking his finger in Nicole's eye. "The Gate Mistress!"
Ms. Hope looked carefully at Nicole and the frames of her glasses sparkled oddly. "Jason, she's never been out of this dimension."
"But I had a vision!"
"You had too much cold pizza. Remember that ridiculous prophecy you spouted last year after you went to the smorgasbord?"
"But she was just casting a spell-"
Ms. Hope grabbed his arm. "Enough, Jason." She turned to Nicole. "Please excuse him. He's suffering from . . ." She paused. "Uh, jet lag. So sorry to bother you." She dragged him off into the mall. "Jason, I trust my own glasses more than I trust your deranged visions. I tell you . . ."
Nicole watched the two leave. And she thought she'd been going crazy. Obviously it was something best left to the professionals.

Stage II: Purification-Freedom from the Base Matter (& Increase in Heat)

Step I: In Vino Eris


Enveloped by the vapor, Claude fell in a spiral of vertigo. Multihued shapes swam before his eyes like the afterimages of pixie- light in the darkness-or darkness in the sun. His skin felt as sensitive as if he were in the grips of a fever spirit-but there was nothing to feel. An insidious, maddening, cloying whisper hissed words he couldn't understand, promising everything, nothing, something, anything-but it couldn't promise, not really, since he couldn't actually hear it. A strange, tenuous odor dared him to identify it while he was unable to do more than sense its presence. Snatches of half-remembered aftertastes coursed across his palate, but were gone before he could put a name to them.
Claude drifted through the mist until suddenly light and sound exploded around him. He groped for something, anything tangible, found it, leaned over, and retched uncontrollably.
"What in the hell are you doing?" a girl's voice shrieked, outraged.
"Mary Ann, if you have to ask that, you're stupider than you look," said another girl's voice.
Mary Ann shrilled, "But Lynette, he's barfing all over the clearance table!"
"I don't blame him. Those dresses make me want to puke too."
Claude tried to stand but an attack of the dry heaves overcame him. He felt a cool hand on his shoulder and a quiet voice asked him, "Are you all right?" Claude nodded weakly and opened his eyes to see the interior of a women's clothing store. Some of the designs were so bizarre that he knew it could be nothing else.
He stood up shakily.
"Are you sure you're alright?" repeated a tall, pretty, young black woman with glass beads in her hair and a badge pinned to the front of her dress, proclaiming, LYNETTE: AST. MANAGER.
"I think so," Claude said. He rubbed his eyes. Upon closer inspection of the store, he noticed his additions to the clearance table. "I'm really sorry about that. How much do I-"
"Nothing," Lynette interrupted and added, "Diane, you work the cash register. Mary Ann, get those dresses in a bag and take them into the janitors' room. There's a big sink in there that you can wash them in. When you're finished, hang them up on the sprinkler system pipe that runs along the ceiling."
Mary Ann objected. "You're not thinking of selling them now, are you?"
"Heck no, girl. We'll send them to the clearance center. Diane, you make out the transfer form."
"What should I put as the reason for their not selling?"
"Say that the customers found them nauseating."
Diane giggled.
"Where am I?" Claude asked softly. He was shuddering and the ichor seemed to have drained out of his hands and feet.
"You need some fresh air. Here," Claude found something foisted into his hand, "drink this. The entrance to the mall's that way."
Claude took a sip of lukewarm coffee and wandered into the complexities of an indoor shopping mall, trying to collect his thoughts. He'd killed someone. The memory hit him like a block of ice and he felt the coffee slosh and dribble warm down his hand. He'd killed Mike, the angel. It had been an accident, he hadn't meant to, but he'd panicked and he'd smashed the bottle of the Red Elixir, then Mike knocked over the White Elixir, and the Universal Solvent had dissolved him. And Mike had been planning to kill him, body and soul, and steal his magic and-
He sat down heavily on the edge of a fountain and began to cry again, dimly becoming aware of a tingling in his right hand. Claude looked and saw the stain of the wishing potion mixed with the Red Elixir and coffee, his own tears acting as catalyst as the potions began to undergo some sort of reaction.
Quickly he plunged his hands into the fountain, scrubbing frantically at the stain. There was no telling what the reaction might be, especially considering his emotional state. The wildmagic could go insane, he drunk some of the coffee, and . . .
Claude scrubbed more, wishing that the water were moving-that was the simplest way to suspend a runaway reaction or other uncontrolled spell-but unfortunately the mall's management hadn't seen fit to have an undine conjured to operate the fountain. Though maybe there was a drought.
Opalescent sparkles filtered away from his fingertips, winking out as they touched the coins on the bottom, and on second thought Claude was glad that there wasn't an undine-there was no telling what even dampened wildmagic would do to a water elemental.
The worst of the alchemicals were off in a minute, but Claude knew he should give his hands a proper washing in running water. He stood up and shook off his hands, then suddenly realized that he was wearing just socks on his feet when he almost slipped on an especially smooth tile on the mall floor.
Claude got out the running shoes Ariel had put in his sportsbag and put them on, then finished the last of the coffee, crumpled the paper cup, and threw it in a nearby garbage can. He looked around, seeing a restaurant dubbed The Magic Pan. The name was rather silly, advertising the obvious. Claude shook his head-you could never understand these nouvelle cuisine places anyway-and entered. He was hungry, they'd have a sink with running water, and he needed to use the bathroom anyway.
The hostess seated him quickly at a table by the window, and just as quickly he asked for some water, agreed to the special of the day-whatever it was-and went into the restroom.
Claude went to the sink and turned on both taps. The Red Elixir had stained his hands like blood and the liquid soap fizzed strangely in reaction with the alchemical. Claude scrubbed at the stain, using more and more soap and feeling like Lady Macbeth. He'd never meant to kill anyone. It was an accident. It had just happened. He'd killed Mike, and he'd escaped the Thorns and the Samedi cultists and his world. Everything he knew was gone.
A drop splashed onto his hands followed by another and another, and Claude realized he was crying again. He knelt down at the sink, hearing the tap gush like a waterfall as he let the tears come, one after another.
He didn't know how long he knelt there, crying, asking for forgiveness, telling himself he didn't need any since Mike had meant to kill him and knowing that that didn't make any difference at all. He had killed another person. Another thinking, living person. He hadn't meant to, it had been an accident, but like all crimes of passion, in the heat of the moment he had done something, and someone had died.
No one came in and asked him if anything was wrong. Or if they did, they didn't stay.
Finally, Claude looked up at his tear- stained face in the mirror, blue eyes ichorshot, puffy and yellow-rimmed. God he looked awful. He stood up, leaning on the tap and letting his weight shut it. Slowly he wiped away the tears on his face, then splashed cold water in his eyes and felt better in a minute.
Claude went into a stall and locked the door behind him. After using the facilities for their intended purpose, he realized that he'd ordered lunch and didn't have any money on him. And even if he did, it probably wouldn't be the right currency for wherever he was. A minor emergency, but something he could deal with.
He unzipped his sportsbag and removed the box of potions. Inside, there were about four dozen small crystal vials, most of which had eyedropper tops, and a few larger ones. Claude sorted through the vials until he found one filled with a clear fluid and another containing a dark gold syrup. He flipped up the lid of the toilet and reached for the flasket of clear fluid. Even though purity oil was a rare all-purpose antivenin and antitoxin, Claude had no wish to put his fingers into any sort of curse which might be lurking in the toilet, especially an extra- dimensional one, so he squeezed a drop of the oil into the water where it quickly disassociated. Venereal curses, for some reason he didn't understand, had a kind of life to them which could be destroyed by subjecting them to heat or any of various alchemicals.
He had just screwed the cap back on the bottle when it occurred to him that he might not have killed anything and just made a bunch of clean curses, so he got out a vial of smoky black oil marked with a skull and crossbones. He unstopped it gingerly and let one small drop fall into the toilet. The water turned a brackish black, then suddenly switched back to clear as the first oil neutralized the second. Claude put the Oil of Death back with the other bottles and flushed the toilet twice to make sure that the last of it was gone. He figured he was safe then because any curse that could survive the Oil of Death would probably have gotten him already.
Claude took out the third bottle. Ethical dilemma, here we come. What was worse, counterfeiting, or getting arrested for stiffing a restaurant when you'd just been through the most awful experience of your life and all you wanted to do was eat something and drown your sorrows in nouvelle cuisine? Claude's stomach growled in answer and he removed the stopper, then tilted the vial gently over the toilet until a trickle of golden fluid fell in.
Faerie gold philtre was almost more difficult to compound than it was worth-especially with the legal penalties for making and using it-but once he'd made it on a dare his last year in school, he'd just never gotten around to throwing it away. While certainly not the Great Work, the philtre was a good exercise, and he was sure the experience had helped him achieve the Elixir Vitæ.
The honey-colored droplet diffused slowly in the water, shading it delicate amber. Claude dropped a piece of toilet paper into the commode. For an instant it shimmered, then a tracery of green lines appeared on its surface. A second time it blurred and then took on the appearance of a slip of crisp green and white paper. He fished the note out of the toilet and saw the portrait of a man with tousled hair named Jackson plus the number twenty in each corner and the words The United States of America.
Claude had been to the United States once or twice, but didn't remember the currency being anything like this. It was mostly silver. However, the banknote in his hands was proof that not only was he in an alternate world, just like the formula for chaos had said, he'd also moved to the mainland. Except everything looked pretty much the same as before-he was in a perfectly ordinary shopping mall somewhere in the United States.
Claude tore off eleven more sheets of paper and threw them in the commode. They metamorphosed quickly. He plucked them out and dried them on some fresh tissue, then threw the toilet paper in the bowl and flushed what appeared to be a pile of twenty-dollar bills. Claude grinned. He had always wanted to flush money down the toilet.
He put the bills in his wallet and the box back in the bag, then went and washed his hands again before returning to the restaurant. A waitress had left a glass of water while he was gone. He took a sip of, unsure of what he was going to do. He'd not only left California, but the entire world he'd grown up on. However, most of the important factors in one world were supposed to remain in its parallel, or at least that's what the Formula for Chaos had said.
Then he remembered that in his haste to get away, he had left behind the grimoire. Damn! Damn!! Damn!!! Claude thumped the table so hard that he knocked the wine glass over. Self-consciously, he righted it as most of the restaurant's patrons who had nothing better to do stared at him. He ignored them, thinking.
This was a different world. That meant that all the prophecies that depended on his old world were meaningless and irrelevant. The only one that might still hold true was the one about becoming a frost giant.
He thought some more. The most important thing to find out was if this worlds' governments also condoned the genocide of giants and idolized such depraved historical figures as Jack the Giant-Killer. If it did not, there was always work for a good alchemist, regardless of size, and if it did, he still had nine more potions with which to try nine more worlds.
"Hello," said a woman in a pink pastel business suit, sitting down in the chair opposite him. Claude sprayed his water across the table over her, then gulped down what was left in his mouth.
She took a spare napkin and wiped herself off. "Don't worry, it's no trouble. Sit down, Jason." A young man in surfer clothes sat down next to her. She looked up at Claude and smiled. "My, you startle easily."
"Who are you?" was all that Claude could manage.
"Me? I'm Dominique Hope, and this is Jason. And you're . . ."
"Claude," said Jason. "You're Claude, Claude Almont, right?"
Claude nodded, then looked at the pair. "Fay and sortilegist?"
"Yes," she said, smiling. "Dominique le Fay and Jason Stargazer."
Claude sighed. "I should have known you would follow me."
Jason looked at him curiously. "You know who we are?"
Ms. Hope shrugged. "You should hardly be surprised, Jason. Alchemists are the Jacks of all trades in the wizardry business, next to fays, of course."
The alchemical reaction in Claude's mind didn't come out with the proper result. The sortilegist was surprised that he knew who they were? Except the Thorns had told him who he was dealing with right from the start. Claude looked up at them. "You're from the Cult of Baron Samedi."
Jason looked shocked and bewildered, a standard expression for sortilegists when they don't understand something, while Dominique Hope just looked mildly perplexed. "Hardly. Whyever would you think that?"
Claude leaned away. "You want to kill me and steal my magic," he hissed. "I know all about your plan and I already killed one of you and I'll do it again." That last was a lie the sortilegist would probably know immediately, but it was his best bluff now that he was backed into a corner.
The fay sucked her lower lip. "Well, that certainly explains why you skipped dimensions." She put up her hand and signaled a waitress. "A carafe of your best Chablis, please."
The waitress nodded and walked off and Ms. Hope turned back to Claude. "No, we are not the Cult of Baron Samedi or anything resembling it. We are the Guardians Of Dimensional Secrets."
"The . . ." Claude trailed off.
Ms. Hope rolled her eyes. "Yes, I know the acronym's a little pretentious, but it's less silly than a lot of things they call dimensional travellers, and people tend to remember it. Anyway, we are a league of concerned wizards and . . . concerned wizards, and we attempt to regulate the flow of interdimensional traffic and try to keep it limited to only trained wizards and . . . certain other researchers."
"What she means," Jason said, "is that we're going to take you back to your own dimension. You don't belong in this world, and right now anyone who knows the right spells can use the law of sympathy on you to pass through the veils to this dimension from yours."
Claude couldn't believe how stupid the Samedi cultists must think he was. "I'm not going back."
Ms. Hope smiled. "I'm afraid you don't have any choice in the matter. We're going to take you back. One of our goetians is going to teleport us home in three hours time, and we're taking you with us."
The waitress brought the wine, cocking her head to one side. "Anything else?"
"No, not yet, thank you." Ms. Hope poured glasses for herself and Jason. "If you're worried about some silly little voodoo cult, we have means to protect you, and we hope and expect you to join us in time."
"Actually," said Jason, "the Cult of Baron Samedi is very powerful, and has franchises in more than one dimension."
"Jason!" Ms. Hope looked piqued. "First of all, don't go telling classified information, and second, religions do not have franchises."
"But they generally operate on the same socioeconomic basis and in the same manner as-"
"Jason, no." She turned back to Claude. "I'm sorry. I realize that the Samedi Cult is a thoroughly unpleasant and dangerous enemy to have-especially if you've killed one of their members-but you're going back and that's final." She took a sip of wine. "We've dealt with their kind before."
Jason looked at him. "You really have to. This world has a lot of knowledge in it your world couldn't handle and vice versa, and you wouldn't believe how bad the cultural pollution gets in some dimensions where people continually keep hopping in and out."
Ms. Hope poured a glass of wine and handed it to him. "To your quick and speedy return to our own world, and hopefully swift membership in the Guardians Of Dimensional Secrets."
"In Vino Veritas," said Jason.
Claude looked at his wine, then raised his glass, "In Vino Volatilis Quintessentia Alcoholis!" The wine in the glass foamed and frothed as the quintessential alcohol was sublimated and Claude rapped Ms. Hope's and Jason's glasses. Their wine effervesced, and Jason slumped forward on the table.
"Thatsh naw proper Lathin," Ms. Hope slurred.
Claude grabbed his bag and stood up. "I meant what I said and I said what I meant," he murmured, "the spell keeps on working one hundred percent." He nearly bumped into the waitress. "Oh, uh . . ." He grabbed out his wallet, then remembered that all his money was really just toilet paper anyway. "They're paying," he said quickly, shoving the wallet back in his pocket and rushing out of the restaurant.
"A vision, a vision," he heard Jason babbling.
"Shuth up."
Claude half ran through the mall and tried to think. He needed to go somewhere to hide, somewhere where a sortilegist couldn't trace him. Except sortilegists could trace just about anything, especially with a fay to hype their power, so there was really no point in it, unless he could find a hex to tangle the lines of fate so no one could do a divination, except they could use a hex to predestine that they'd find him and . . .
Blind with panic, Claude ran for the entrance of the mall.

Stage III: Azoth Pondus-Introduction to the Fiery Furnace

Step I: C. O. Demonology


Nicole tossed the wrappers from a Carl's Jr. chicken-something and fries in the trash, then gathered up her purse and carryall and wandered out towards the entrance of the mall. She held the Valley Girl book with her left hand, absently sipping down the last of her Coke. The book was pretty dated, but might be useful for character pieces-she could do a pretty good 'Val' if she wanted to.
Shaking the ice to get the straw down to the last bit of liquid, Nicole took the final sip, then headed for one of the mall trash cans, considering her course of action. If she took 101, that would lead to the Julian Street exit, which led straight to the heart of downtown San Jose. Or was it 280 that-
A wall of human flesh barreled into her. "Omigod!" Nicole screamed as she tried to step back, the carryall got in the way, and she and the person crashing into her tumbled into a planter. There was a sound of breaking glass.
"Geez! I'm, like real sorry, y'know," Nicole apologized, still mentally in Valley Girl mode as she tried to get disentangled.
"No need, it was my fault," the guy said, turning slightly yellow as he removed his hand from her chest. A streamer of pink fog coiled in between them, followed by another and another, obscuring her vision.
There was a slam as if reality had been wrenched from its moorings and a sickening lurch like the sensation at the top of a roller coaster. A nova of stroboscopic light and color exploded, while a sound spun around her like The Vienna Boys Choir Sings Don Ho played backwards at 45 RPM, when originally recorded at thirty-three. A taste like the annual Terlingua Chili Cook-off adding the frozen dessert category, and a smell like perfume designers of Paris introducing Eau de Iguana, por Homme. Then suddenly an abrupt slam and nothing but the feel of wood and the smell of dust.

* * *


Nicole opened her eyes slowly and found herself pinned, her face pressed flat against sun-bleached floor boards.
She struggled and finally slipped out from under the guy who'd bashed into her. Nicole felt heat on her face. Confused, she brushed her hair out of her eyes and saw a pillar of fire two feet away. She quickly scrambled back, only to find another directly behind her. Sheets of flame leapt in time to strange fiddle music. Nicole closed her eyes: This was not real. This was not happening. She peeked briefly: It was. She clutched at the floor in a desperate lunge for reality, paused, and then gave the boards a hesitant pat. They were not the sticky, soft-drink scummed tiles of the mall. The fiddle music continued to play as she closed her eyes again, various thoughts coursing through her mind, among which was the predominating theme of Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. Nicole opened her eyes again. No, this was not Kansas. It was also not the Eastridge Mall.
She closed her eyes again, weighing the evidence. The last thing she clearly remembered-that made any sense, that is-was being knocked down. Then came absolute chaos. Then this. Lovely, thought Nicole, I have a concussion.
It wasn't as if that were anything new. When she was eight years old, her parents had gone to yet another party and left her in the care of Mary Ellen Sanders, a brain-dead teenager whose concept of baby sitting was sending kids to bed five hours early so she could talk on the phone to her boyfriend. Nicole had decided to escape out her bedroom window, slipped on a broken shingle, and had fallen and brained herself on the driveway.
Then came the week and a half in the hospital with tubes down her nose, during which time she was in a coma having weird dreams. That's what happened the last time she'd been knocked out, anyway.
Nicole tried calming herself, then opened her eyes to the flames and fiddle music. This was a remarkably static hallucination, but then again so had been the last one.
She tried willing herself awake, but it didn't work. Nicole then closed her eyes and decided to wait for the paramedics.
About five minutes passed, the paramedics hadn't come (at least as far as she could tell), and the fiddle music was driving her bats. She opened her eyes to the same scene as before, then glanced over at the blond guy. He was unconscious. This is projection, Nicole thought, remembering what rudimentary psychology she knew. He knocked me unconscious; ergo I'm dreaming of him that way. Nicole peeled back his left eyelid and saw the pupil of a large blue eye narrow in response to the light. Well, at least he didn't have a concussion too. She closed her own eyes and paused to think some more. That deranged guy in the mall had told her not to go to other dimensions. Hmm. That could explain why her brain had decided on this particular hallucination.
Nicole glanced up, but all she saw was a bit of cobwebby thatch badly in need of repair. She felt as if she were in a doctor's waiting room, waiting for the doctor.
As was usual with waiting rooms, she began to fidget, then got to her feet.
Looking further around her hallucination, she saw that she was standing inside a circumscribed square traced on the boards in charcoal. Around her the ring of fire leapt in a meticulously choreographed pattern, obscuring the rest of the room and almost touching the thatched roof. The carryall, the Valley Girl book, and the remains of her Carl's Jr. soda lay spilled on the boards nearby, along with the blond guy and a yellow sportsbag she didn't recognize.
She was about to attempt a look under the curtain of flames when the fiddle playing increased in tempo and a cracked male voice sang:
Listen to my serenade,
All elementals promenade!

The eight sections of the wall of fire paired off and bobbed around the ring perpendicular to Nicole.
Ah so, she thought. Apparently as she paid more attention to it, the hallucination became more interesting.
Nicole looked through the gaps in the sinister square-dance and saw that the rest of the room was a rickety, one-room shack built from old boards and driftwood. In one corner of the hovel sat an enormous pile of gold mixed with silver and jewels. The whole building listed badly towards that end. Beyond the open doorway was a swamp filled with cattails and dragonflies. A small rowboat tied to the doorpost floated in the stagnant water.
The music stopped.
She turned around to view the other end of the shanty and saw a table, a bed, a chair, a badly dented charcoal brazier holding the crisped remains of what may have once been a toad, and a middle-aged man standing in the middle of the room, a violin and bow tucked under his arm. He was dressed in a red velvet smoking jacket patched in various places, red leather slippers with the toes worn through, and had a bright crimson fez perched squarely atop his greying hair. His only other marks of distinction were a small gold seal ring, a waxed moustache, and an immaculate goatee.
Eyes glittering with greed, he walked around the perimeter of the figure and cackled to himself, "It will hold. Yes, it will hold." He rubbed his hands in delight.
"Um, excuse me." Nicole waved as calmly as anyone could in her situation. "Would you please tell me where I am, who you are, and what in the hell I'm doing here?"
In mid-cackle, the man stopped and faced her. "Certainly," he replied. "You are trapped within my circle of power, I am a goetian, and you," he added with zest, "are going to give me three bags of gold." He glared. "And I'll tell you already that I'm not going to sign for it."
Circles of power? Bags of gold? A goetian, whatever that was? This was some hallucination, but Nicole decided to play along. "I hate to tell you this, but I don't have three bags of gold." She smiled. "Will you take a check?"
"Nonsense!" the man cried. "Every demon has gold. And as for whatever a check is, no, I will not accept one."
Nicole bit her lower lip so she would not give the obvious comeback; MasterCard and VISA no doubt came under the same listing as out-of-dimension checks, and anyway, she'd already thrown hers away. She paused then, realizing that even if she was hallucinating, what she was saying was probably being said in reality, same as a person talking in her sleep. Which meant that someone was getting an interesting show.
She looked at the man in the bathrobe. "Listen," she said, deciding he was probably one of the paramedics. "I've got the Kaiser protection plan. My parents signed me up with Kaiser Permanente."
"You cannot call upon your eternal ruler. He has no power here."
"What?"
"Your Kaiser Permanente, the eternal ruler of the Hells, has no power here, and all of your threats of his wrath are to me as naught. It would be best for you if you were to simply give me the gold."
"What makes you think I have gold?"
"You're a demon!"
"And you're Santa Claus, right? Come on! Do I look like a demon?" Nicole asked incredulously.
"'Demons are masters of disguise and lies,'" the man recited.
Demons were also, if Nicole knew her demonology lore correctly, unable to leave the circle they were summoned into. When the next gap in the ring of fire came by, she easily put her foot over the border of the figure.
The goetian's fiddle and bow instantly came up and he sang:
Allemand left once a-gain
And form into the grand old chain!

A sheet of flame licked around her outstretched leg, and Nicole shrieked and tumbled backwards into the circle. Hallucination or no, she was burned. The fires stretched into ribbons, weaving a complex pattern around her while she desperately applied a hand lotion sample she'd gotten at Macy's. This guy meant business.
The goetian grinned at her through the intermittent slits in the wall of fire. "I see that my variant on the standard demon summons is working well."
Nicole glanced over at the charcoal design and winced at the pain from her leg. It was going to blister.
"No," the demonologist said, "there is no invisible barrier around you, as I see you have already surmised. You are wholly on earth. We share the same floor and I am better protected by my elementals than by any circle of power." He smirked smugly. "I learned of this interesting variant recently and I am most pleased with the results. Elementals are most tractable, even if I can't control them like a sorcerer, and anyway, I didn't bother to summon any of the foul humors of your realm, so regardless of how tough of a demon you are, you'll suffocate if you don't cough up soon. I know you shapechangers very well."
Nicole closed her eyes. This was just too weird.
"You should have seen the one I summoned last week. It was dressed up as a tooth fairy and tried to convince me that all it had was a bag of dimes and children's teeth. Except," the goetian chuckled, "tooth fairies have gossamer wings-not bat wings." He laughed merrily and stopped pacing for a second. "I must compliment you, though, on the incredible detail of your disguise. If I didn't know better, I would really think you were a young woman."
"That's because I am," Nicole huffed in exasperation, smearing more hand lotion on her calf.
The demonologist looked down at the blond guy from the mall. "By the way, who's that? Your latest victim or your lunch or both?"
Nicole wished that she knew. She pondered the question for a second and, hitting upon a possible way to make the goetian release her, exclaimed in her best frightened Valley Girl voice, "Omigod! That's the demon! Let me out before he eats me!"
"'Maybe you should let me out' time, is it?" the man mimicked. "'I'm a tooth fairy. I have to collect teeth.' 'I'm a talking rabbit. Let me deliver my eggs.' 'I'm just a poor priest, little girl, carpenter, hunter, princess, et cetera. Won't you please let me go? Won't you release me so I can dismember you as I sip your blood?' That's your game, isn't it?" The man turned around and paced the opposite direction. "Well, I'm not going to fall for it. I didn't start summoning demons yesterday, and I've dealt with enough demons of the shapechanging kind to know all their tricks.
"I command you, the demon lord Niclod, to give me three bags of gold!" the man thundered.
"My name's Nicole and I told you I don't have any."
"You cannot fool me, Niclod. You will give me what I desire!"
She realized the goetian was absolutely convinced that she was a demon who was out to get him so she finally conceded, "Okay, so I'm the demon Gobbledegook or whatever you said. I still don't have three bags of gold. What are you going to do about it?"
"I will wait," he stated. "The worst fault of demons is that they're claustrophobic so I know you will eventually give me what I want." He pulled up the chair and sat down on it.
Nicole glared at him. "What if I try to escape? What are you going to do then?"
"Nothing. But you may be assured that the eight fire elementals I have set as guards will not. And they are more than a match for any demon." He grinned. "What do you say to that, Niclod?"
"Bag your face, you skanky melvin," Nicole said, giving her worst Valley Girl insult.
"You cannot confuse me by speaking in tongues, Niclod. I will have my bags of gold," the man uttered gravely and thumped his fist in his palm.
Nicole flipped him off, then realized something. "Wait a second: Three bags of gold and you let me out, that's the bargain, right?"
"Exactly."
Nicole rummaged through her purse until she found the white paper sack she'd slipped inside for safekeeping. She knew there was a reason why she'd bought these. "Okay, here we go, three bags of gold." Nicole held up a neck chain, a bracelet and an ankle bracelet individually wrapped in the little plastic Ziploc bags used by cheap jewelers to keep chains from tangling.
The goetian did not look amused. "When I said gold I meant hard coinage and when I said bags I meant sacks large enough to carry flour in."
"Oh well. Next time be specific. I fulfilled my part of the bargain, you fulfill yours."
The goetian stuck out his tongue. "This isn't a bargain; I'm not selling you anything but your freedom. This is called extortion, and I'm redefining my demands: Three bags of gold weighing at least ten pounds each.
"The gold, not the bags," he added. "The thing I dislike most about you demons is that you're all a bunch of smart asses."
Nicole slipped the chains away and zipped up her purse. Great. Demonology reduced to cosmic kidnapping. "Why don't you ask him for gold?" She pointed to the blond guy. "That's the demon Gorgonzola."
"Then I will have six bags of gold!" the demonologist crowed in delight. "Three from Gorgonzola and three from you, Niclod."
"Wake up, Gorgonzola," Nicole said and shook the big blond. He remained immobile so she lifted one of his eyelids to reveal the eye rolled back, felt his pulse, and reported, "He's unconscious. When are you going to let us go?"
"When I get six bags of gold."
Nicole looked the man squarely in the eye and saw that he was serious. Fanatics, there was no escaping them. She turned her back on him and reapplied herself to the task of waking the guy from the mall, but in spite all ploys, he refused to return to her hallucination-or to reality. Whichever it was, Nicole intended to find out.
Barring his finally coming to, she decided that the best place to find out who he was would be his wallet. She reached down and pried it out of his shorts, feeling strange because she had never put her hand in a man's pants before and had not imagined that her first time would be in search of anything quite so mundane.
Nicole withdrew her unprepossessing prize: a perfectly ordinary, scuffed, dark brown men's leather billfold. As she flipped it open, a card fell into her lap which she picked up and read: C.W.A. California Wizards Association. Claude Amadeus Almont: Member in Good Standing. She scanned the rest of the card and then compared Claude's rough-hewn features to their image trapped in a funny black-and-white silver hologram. Nicole raise an eyebrow. She knew hallucinations were supposed to be weird, but this was getting surreal. She next found his certified alchemist's license, a Greenpeace membership with the Save the Giants motto, his library card, some damp toilet paper, a ticket stub from a Marin County concert and wine tasting, and several gold-foil banknotes alchemically etched with the likenesses of Norton III, Emperor of Northern California, and Calafia, ruler of La Republica Baja Calafia, starlet of Hollywood, and the Island of California's reigning beauty queen.
After peeking at the back of his broomstick license, which stated that in the event of his death, his body was to be donated to necromancy, she decided to pry no further and slipped the wallet back into Claude's pocket. Curiouser and curiouser, thought Nicole. This hallucination was all rather like a Zen koen. She liked fantasy, therefore the hallucination was in terms of fantasy. When she'd hit her head on the floor of the mall, she had been put into a coma. The magic circle was symbolic of the coma she was in, while the fire elementals were obviously symbolic of the pain which kept her there.
She glanced at the goetian who was rubbing his hands and leering. He most likely stood for the irrational side of her subconscious that wished to keep her trapped by pain. That being the case, if she could just break free of the circle, she would symbolically come out of the coma and wake up.
She then looked over at Claude, the alchemist from Marin. For the life of her, she couldn't figure out what he symbolized. A big unconscious alchemist was not one of her fantasies, even if he was cute. Maybe, since she was a Westerner, some Freudian projection had slipped into her Zen koen and-
"Not sure what to eat first?" the goetian baited.
Nicole whirled.
"There seems to be a lot of meat on the arms, though if you aren't quite as hungry, I'm sure you could find something more to your taste."
She gave him a withering look.
"Or are you one of those demons who's on a special diet? Let me guess-It's the one where you only get to drink the blood of virgins, right?" He smiled superciliously. "There's a demoness I call Hagatha I summon quite often. She tells me that diet's all the rage where she comes from-Hell has such a short supply of virgins that you're bound to lose weight if you go on it." The demonologist gave a pensive look and remarked, "But you're from a different hell than her so you probably wouldn't know about that."
Nicole stood up and looked at the goetian through the flickering flames. Alright, thought Nicole, time to get out of this stupid coma. Smiling demurely, she inquired, "Excuse me. How do you expect me to get three bags of gold through that?" and gestured to the square-dancing elementals.
"You will give them to me now, then?"
"Certainly."
The man looked at her suspiciously. "I want to see them first."
Nicole rolled her eyes. Her gaze then lit on the carryall, her purse, and the blond alchemist's sportsbag. She picked them up by the straps and displayed them to the goetian. "Will this do?"
"Those don't look like any of the bags of gold I've gotten from demons before."
Nicole looked at the man. He definitely represented the irrational side of her subconscious. "Picky-picky. First we want three bags of gold, then we want three big bags of gold, now we're holding out for matched luggage." Nicole shouldered her purse and patted the side pouch so her car keys jangled. "Just think: all that lovely gold that could be yours if you just weren't so choosy about packaging. And just look at the size of these two." She raised the carryall and the sportsbag. A convenient tinkling came from inside the second and Nicole smiled her best seductive actress smile. "I bet most demons aren't that generous."
The goetian got to his feet and giggled madly. "Now this is a little more like it." Hands palsied with greed, he tucked the fiddle under his chin and began the windup for a call.
Nicole was ready:
Entrechat and pirouette
Now let's all do the minuet!

The flames immediately leapt, twirled, and divided into two columns flanking Nicole, who dropped the sportsbag and carryall and vaulted down the aisle, swinging the momentum of her landing into a front kick at the goetian. Thwank-k-k!!! went the sound as the goetian smashed her in the face with the violin and she rolled away. Nicole grabbed the front of his smoking jacket and brought her knee up, flipping him. There came a thudding crunch behind her as he landed and she scrambled to her feet.
Nicole stood ready in a fighting stance as the goetian rolled off his partially crushed violin. He jammed the battered instrument to his neck and squealed the bow across it off-key, shouting:
Whirl round me in swirlin' balls
And listen only to my calls!

The elementals swiftly complied, becoming madly spinning fireballs that danced a pyrotechnic ring-around-the-rosie around him. The goetian tried to continue the tune, but the cracked wood splintered under the force of the bow and his hysteric clutch and the fiddle soon fell to pieces. The man gasped. "I had not considered that a demon might know the words of command for the fire dance."
"That's because I'm not a demon," Nicole bit out as she felt the blood running down her cheek from catgut scratches.
The demonologist looked at her, appalled. "You shapechangers never know when to quit, do you?" He slumped down on the floor. "'But I'm not a demon-I'm a'-Oh what's the use," he sighed in exhaustion. "At least I now have exclusive control over the salamanders and can be safe from your wiles. Just make it easy on both of us and pay up."
"You've already got two of the bags," Nicole pointed out.
The goetian brightened. "That's right- the big ones." He pulled the carryall over and dumped it out into his lap. "What is this? Pants and sweaters?"
"Yes," said Nicole, "and two towels from Macy's. I was shopping."
The goetian started stuffing the clothes back into the carryall. "I have heard of demons going through elaborate masquerades, but this is ridiculous. Magical gold turning into old leaves and so forth is a common enough ploy, and you get suitable marks for originality for turning it into clothes, but I am not amused." He set the carryall on the floor in front of him. "Niclod, I demand that you immediately change the contents of this bag back into the gold I requested."
"Listen, jerkface, I told you already I'm not a demon, and I'm getting pretty sick of this too. So I'd appreciate if you could cut the bull and let me out of this coma."
"Coma," said the goetian. "So that's what you shapechangers call our world. Interesting." He smiled. "But regardless, the deal I stated still stands: three ten-pound bags of gold and I banish you. Don't think you've won anything by our little exchange. I'm just as safe inside the circle as outside, so long as the elementals stay between us, and I now have exclusive control of them. So you may wait quietly as long as you like before you pay, but since I have brought none of the air of your hell-I believe you call it smog-you will suffocate soon enough. And if you try to leave my house, I will have my elementals put a swift end to you. Do you understand?"
"You're nuts." Nicole let the statement fall. She walked around the circle towards the huge pile of riches in the corner.
"Stay away from my gold, Niclod," the goetian said. "Else I'll have the elementals dance around you right now, and circle up four, and that will put a swift end to you."
Nicole looked at the goetian. She'd never thought that the irrational side of her subconscious could be so thoroughly crazy. "Yes, sahib. Is there anything else your grace would like?"
"Stay away from my desk. And my bed. And the door."
"Anything else?"
"Not off hand, no."
"Good." Nicole found a clear spot on the floor and sat down and opened her purse. "By the way, there isn't any gold in here either." She showed him the contents, then got out a Tom Petty disk and slipped it in her CD player. Nicole put on the headphones and smiled at the goetian and followed this by taking out a pack of miniature Snoopy playing cards and laying herself a solitaire spread.
She began to play, occasionally trying a rhymed couplet on the elementals with no appreciable effect. Nicole soon established that any attempts to converse with the goetian would only bring a reply to the effect of "You're a demon-gimme gold," though slightly more eloquent in phrasing-but not much. She smiled and put the headphones back into place. If a waiting game is what he wanted, a waiting game was what he got.

Step II: Cute Little Devils


After about three hours, Nicole put the cards back in their box, shoved them in her purse, and repeated, "So are you going to let me out of this coma?"
"As soon as I get my gold, I'll banish you to Hell," the man stated flatly.
"Jerk." She had never thought her irrational mind could be this irrational. It was almost enough to make her believe in Dianetics. She lost a staring match with the goetian, then put a hand to her eyes and leaned her head down. "Could you turn those damned things off? They're giving me a headache." She motioned to the square-dancing elementals, then got out a couple of aspirins and took them without any water, which made her feel worse.
"No."
"Jerk."
"Give me my gold."
Nicole glowered at him. She should have known better than to try to out-wait her subconscious. Obviously breaking the circle had not been the solution to getting out of the coma. That wasn't what was keeping her, and neither was the pain symbolized by the fire elementals. It was her own irrational mind. Knock that out and Nicole knew she would wake up.
Now how? Nicole reached her hand into her purse and it closed it around a large bottle of perfume. Bingo. "Oh Mr. Go-ee- shan," she said sweetly, stressing the syllables of the weird word, "I think I'm ready to give you some of that gold."
"Well it's about time."
"Sure is," Nicole said. "Now just close your eyes . . ."
The demonologist pursed his lips. "Just how stupid do you think I am?"
Nicole looked at the goetian and decided that in some ways she should be glad her subconscious wasn't that stupid. "Okay," she said, "no tricks. If you'll just open that other bag, you'll find some of that gold you want."
The goetian pulled the alchemist's sportsbag over and looked at the zipper. "How do you open this?"
"You grab hold of the little metal tab and pull."
The goetian did as she said, darting her suspicious glances all the while, as Nicole attempted to smile demurely. The moment he glanced in the bag, Nicole withdrew the perfume and hurled it straight at the man's skull, timing her throw to match a gap in the curtain of fire.
As the perfume arced through the gap, the closest elemental reached out a blazing pseudopod, intercepted it, and drew the limb and its catch back into its body. The other seven elementals performed identical movements.
"Oh what is this?" said the goetian disgustedly. "More clothes and some liqueur?" He pulled out several small crystal decanters and set them on the floor, glaring at her.
A sudden Boom! rocked the shack as flame exploded outward. When Nicole opened her eyes, there was a gap in the ring of elementals, and the air reeked of Poison.
The demonologist popped up like a jumping-jack. "What happened to my elemental?"
"It couldn't read directions. That bottle was clearly marked Do not expose to direct flame or heat."
"What?"
"Uh, pardon me," Nicole said, covering herself. "Just speaking in tongues again."
"What are you talking about? What's that smell?"
"Poison."
The goetian screamed, then covered his mouth and huddled on the floor.
Nicole rifled through her purse, hoping to find another bottle of perfume. She paused then as she saw the cover of one of the CD's: Def Leppard's Pyromania. Oh how stupid could she be.
Nicole slipped Tom Petty out and replaced him with Pyromania.
She leapt up, hit the play button, and pulled out the headphone cord all in one move. "Yaah!" Nicole screamed as she threw the Tom Petty CD like a shuriken, jumping across the room.
The CD flew through a fire elemental and sliced the strings of the battered violin the goetian had raised reflexively, ruining Nicole's aim for his throat. Catgut and flaming plastic snapped back in the goetian's face while the fire elementals bobbed indecisively. But when Joe Elliot screamed, "Give me Py-Ro-Ma-Ni-A!!!" the salamanders apparently decided to disregard the goetian's square dancing calls and blazed into flaming novas, shooting sparks everywhere in a choreographed disco inferno.
"No!" wailed the goetian, running to the pile of riches in the corner. Nicole, panicked, slammed the CD player off.
She reached down and snagged up the bottles of pink liqueur. If Poison could knock out elementals, this stuff probably could too. Nicole pitched it to the nearest elemental and the fireball engulfed the glass. A second later there was a distinct "foop" noise, the salamander's flames were tinged with pink, and it shrank to a pinpoint spark and disappeared.
Nicole began flinging potions at elementals. She knocked out four more before the goetian screamed, "To me, Fire! Protect me from the demon!" banging two goblets together like the percussion for a dwarven drinking song from 'Das Rhinegold.'
The two remaining salamanders broke orbit and spun to the goetian, just avoiding another bottle which flew through the door and landed in the swamp. Nicole lobbed a second potion and scored a hit. The final elemental bobbed in the air before the goetian while the man scrabbled insanely backwards up the pile of gold and jewels.
A spark landed in front of Nicole. She looked up and saw small fires already eating holes in the cobwebby thatch, started by the fireworks less than thirty seconds before.
"Holy . . ." Nicole left the thought unfinished.
"No! You can't have my gold! It's mine!" the goetian wailed like a little girl about to lose a doll.
"What-" Nicole began, then pointed to Claude and shouted at the wild-eyed demonologist, "Get your ass off those coins and help me get him out before we're all crisped! This whole place's going to go up in a few minutes!"
"You're lying! You want to chew on my arm after you rip it from my body! I know what you demons do to things!" the man shrieked and began to cry as the roof above him caught fire. "I know! You're just toying with me before you banish my last elemental and eat me, and now you're trying to trick me into coming to you!" He buried his face in his hands and sobbed, "And it's all my fault. I should have believed that girl when she said she was a hex and that she was going to throw an instant karma curse on me if I didn't give her her opals back. I should have known better than to summon a demon lord of your power, one that can banish elementals and bring another demon lord along with it. Or demon lady. I can never tell with you damned shapechangers whether you're really a demon lady or a demon lord in drag or whether you switch back and forth like succubi and incubi whenever the mood suits you. And I haven't even gotten a chance to summon a succubus yet, and now I never will. And it's all my fault. . . ."
"I'm not a demon, you idiot!" Nicole shouted.
"That's what they all say! I know you're going to tear out my throat any second now, and I'm sure there's nothing I can do to stop a demon of your power, but I'll sure as Hell try!" So saying, he ripped a string of at least two-dozen firecrackers out of his pocket and threw them beneath the elemental. "Light, Fire!" he cried, frantically searching his pockets.
The salamander flared in a nova of brilliance and lit the fuses of the crackers as well as more of the thatch. With a rapid salvo of bangs, the fireworks scattered across the floor, each detonating loudly with a stench of sulfur and charcoal as it brought a miniature devil into being. Nicole gasped and then stepped back from the nearest one. They looked like less-cute, nude versions of the Orange Julius logo, complete with horns, tails, and little red bat wings, and she did not need a Dantean field guide to know that they were imps.
"Hey, we've reached Nirvana!" exclaimed an impette with the name Ressionable tattooed across her chest.
"Not Nirvana, Ressionable," said an imp imprinted with the name Eccable. "This level of perfection is called Heaven, but all the same, it is a very holy place and we should thank our Lord for having brought us here to do his bidding." He bowed to the goetian.
An impette named Ious sniffed. "I still don't think he's God."
Nicole backed away as several of the imps eyed her, and a male imp called Rudent stepped towards the goetian. "Yeah, we think you're a fraud!"
"You really think so?" asked Ressionable, wide-eyed. "I sort of believed him."
"Nah, he's just a fake." Rudent stuck out his tongue at the goetian.
"Do not mock Our Lord or you will suffer his wrath!" Eccable warned devoutly.
Rudent turned to stick his tongue out at Eccable and mooned the goetian simultaneously. The foretold wrath came in the form of a handful of coins and jewelry the demonologist hurled at him.
"Pennies from Heaven!" exclaimed Ressionable.
"Beg Our Lord's forgiveness," directed Eccable.
Ious twitched her tail. "I wouldn't."
"Silence!" roared the goetian. "I am too God and I command you to protect me from that demon- that de- I mean that demented houri there!" He pointed directly at Nicole.
"I thought God was supposed to be omnipotent," remarked Ious.
The goetian screamed as if he had lost what little sanity was left him and flung a cherry bomb into the elemental's flames. Nicole hurled her last bottle at the same moment.
"Dodge, Fire!" the hysterical goetian screamed. The whirling fireball spun aside at the last instant, narrowly missing the potion, and set the wall of the shack ablaze in the process as the cherry bomb fell to the boards and sputtered wickedly.
The demonologist tried to ward off the flying bottle, and the flask shattered on the edge of the golden chalice. The potion rapidly expanded into gas, and Nicole watched in amazement as the vapor billowed out to engulf the goetian and the entire treasure heap, then faded away, leaving a bare corner.
Nicole had no time to wonder where the goetian had gotten to since at that moment the cherry bomb exploded and she was standing face to face with a demoness. Or what she took to be a demoness. Nicole had always pictured she-demons as sultry, erotic creatures with a tantalizing, evilly glamorous look about them, and this one looked more like a diabolic bag lady. She had sooty black skin, sharp ebon horns and claws with hangnails, and the labyrinthian rats' maze of her hair was offset by a hideous little black pillbox hat with a rent veil. A horribly mauled leather purse dangled from her talons to knock against her knobby knees and their wrinkled fishnet stockings.
"Hast thou summoned me, my pretty?" the hellish hag inquired as she wobbled forward in her ill-fitting high heel shoes.
Before Nicole could even gibber, imp Eccable said, "No, Hagatha, Our Lord and master did."
"Except she just destroyed him." Ressionable pointed a finger at Nicole.
Ious rolled her eyes again. "I thought you couldn't destroy God."
"We must have faith," said Eccable.
"Shut up," said the hag to all of them. She wobbled closer to Nicole, her sagging breasts swinging obscenely against the front of her dingy smock. "So, my pretty, thou hast caused trouble for the master? Then thou shalt pay!" the hag cackled as she jumped forwards. "He hath summoned me to this paradise a final time so I may avenge his death!"
"I don't think it's Paradise," Ious remarked. "Too much smoke and fire for one."
"Hiyaa!" Nicole screamed, doing a front kick, followed by a spin and rear kick to the hag's stomach.
The hag said a choice word and grabbed Nicole's foot with her talons and slammed her to the floor. "Give thanks, heavenly vixen, that I am a pious woman and shall make thine end swift and merciful!"
Nicole rolled and sprang back up and answered with an axe kick. The hag parried with the handbag, and Nicole did another front kick and disarmed her opponent of the purse, her calf streaming blood from burns and talon scratches. "Imps!" screamed the hag, "If thou wilt look in my purse, thou wilt find some acid creme and a set of thumbscrews."
The imps caught the leather bag and dumped it out. "And get some of those hot coals," the hag ordered as a few fell from the burning roof. "Heavenly flesh is no proof against their-"
"Yataaa!!!" Nicole screamed, doing a flying sidekick, knocking the demoness into the fire elemental.
"Aaaaiiiighhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" The demoness thrashed about for a moment, flames coming out of the eye sockets of her skull like something from a particularly disgusting horror movie. She was then was completely carbonized by the fire elemental, which evidently even a demon's well tempered skin was no proof against.
An imp named Recating gasped a few phrases sounding like they came from the bathroom walls of Hell and flew out through the door, followed by the rest of the cute little devils, all of whom echoed his sentiments, if not his exact wording.
Nicole stared at the blackened spot on the floor where the bag demoness had been. A crackling sound caught her attention. The elemental had ceased its wild gyrations and hovered in place.
She gazed on as the fireball flared thrice in succession, spun once on its horizontal axis, and shot out through the roof with the speed of a hummingbird. The suction whipped Nicole's hair about her head, and bits of flaming wood fell hissing into the swamp a second later. She gazed up through the hole and watched the salamander disappear into the twilight sky.
This was just too weird. Nicole closed her eyes for a moment to go through her mental cope list, realized that some things were beyond rational contemplation-like most of this afternoon-and so opened them just as a large cinder fell before her. She looked up and saw that the fires on the ends of the beams were still smoldering, and she knew that it would only be a short time before the thatch would dry and the whole shack would be ablaze.
She tried to revive the alchemist from Marin but to no avail; he was still as out of it as he had been on their arrival. Nicole hastily shoveled the spilled contents of the carryall back in, along with the handful of jewelry the goetian had thrown at the imps, then snatched up the two bags and her purse and threw them into the rowboat outside the door.
Eyes watering from the smoke, Nicole went back to the alchemist and grabbed him by the foot and pulled and pulled. "C'mon," she muttered, straining until finally something shifted.
"Aigh!" Nicole screamed as she fell over backwards, Claude's running shoe in one hand.
She had never gone into frenzy before, but this seemed an opportune time for it. The giant running shoe arced into the rowboat, and the next thing Nicole knew she had flipped, rolled, or otherwise propelled Claude's massive body to a position by the doorpost just as a small section of the flaming roof collapsed behind her and scattered coals across the floor to start new fires.
She grabbed the rope tied above Claude's head and reeled the rowboat over, then tried to ease him down the short three- foot drop into the boat. However, his weight proved too much for her and with a frantic yelp they both toppled in, landing on the bags.
Nicole fumbled desperately with the knot on the prow. The bowline was old and hardened by years of being steeped in swamp water. She quickly gave up on disentangling it and climbed back into the blazing shanty. Frantically she untied the rope and threw it out the door. Coughing from the smoke, Nicole gripped the doorpost and vaulted out of the shack towards the boat as it began to drift off.
She landed in the water and pulled herself along by the tow rope which floated beside her. Once she got to the boat, she heaved herself over the side, bedraggled and wet.
After a few quick gasps, Nicole stood and caught up a long bamboo pole from the bottom of the boat and started poling feverishly away from the burning shack. A minute later, she decided that she was safe and stopped the boat in a patch of tules. That same moment, a deafening explosion came from the shanty and a pillar of fire shot into the sky.
Nicole slumped down in the boat on top of Claude and passed out from exhaustion and smoke inhalation, just as the goetian's ramshackle driftwood house fell in on itself and collapsed sizzling into the water.

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