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IX. CASTLE OF ILLUSION


Chapter 1

Sunday, 19 June 2005

After the first heady rush, things settled for a bit. Nigel hurried them off the porch through the other entrance far away from the crowd. The hall, cleared in the center to make room for dancing, already appeared a bit brighter, the sounds louder and stranger. Together they felt their way along the sides to within sight of the round stone arch of the exit.

Then Don Yago stepped in their way, hands on hips, hailing them with an enormous grin.

“Ho, friends, well met!” he said. “Having fun yet, my lads?” Clapping them upon the shoulders, “Oh yes, I can see you have, maybe too much. Dear me, look at those eyes.” He whistled in surprise. “Tsk, tsk, Professor, I’m surprised. What have you ingested?”

Gus shook his head, “Not my fault; didn’t mean to. Ask him, he’s the one that did it.”

“Oh really, now? Did you dose the Prof without his permission?”

“Love of God, man, I didn’t mean it. The whole thing was an accident, truly.”

“Hmmm,” Taff said. Leaning towards Nigel, he whispered, “I suppose you wouldn’t know where a fellow could get a taste now?”

“Old sod, I’d give it all to you if I could,” Nigel shook his head, “indulging here was a bad idea. I’m sorry, there’s no more. We just need to get out of here right now.”

“Dear me, tsk, tsk,” Don Yago shook his head. “That’s too bad: I can see how it might be a problem. I wish I could guide you lads through this, but I do have obligations. But maybe I can do something for you.” He dug in the satchel hanging at his side and pulled out a small object wrapped in black velvet. He uncovered a small crystal bottle mounted upon a golden shaft. Within nestled a fragment of a dainty white feather.

“Behold the Feather of Truth!” he whispered with great drama, holding it up. “Where it originated, no man can say for sure. The wise claim it is all which remains of a plume from the elusive Zhar-Ptitsa bird, a creature so fabulous it made the Phoenix look like a pigeon. A few dare murmur the quill fell from an even rarer bird, the Holy Ghost Itself, shed unceremoniously during the most holy act of conception of Our Lord.” He piously crossed himself.

Waving the sparkling object side to side before their dazzled eyeballs, he continued, “How that could be, who can say? Yet certain it is, however, this very feather was wielded by thrice-great Hermes in Egypt in curious long-forgotten Stygian rites far beneath the Great Pyramid. This later became the pride and glory of the High Epopt of Cairo, from whom it was acquired for St. Louis by the Holy Holmendis during that otherwise inglorious Crusade.

“I won’t waste your time telling how it fell into my hands,” the Reliquarian said with a modest apologetic cough, “or how I came to learn of its many mystic properties.” Don Yago tapped Nigel lightly on the forehead with the crystal and smiled with diabolical sweetness. “But to you tonight, ‘old chum,’ it grants the truth. You shall discern the true souls of everyone you meet. But be warned, if you can see them, they can see you. Tonight you can speak only the truth. Think of that before you try to fool people again.” His laughter followed Nigel as the stoned journalist fled stumbling into the crowd.

Taff tucked the vial away and turned to Gus. “Right, now how about you, Prof?”

“Please, no mind games, dude,” Gus replied with an effort, covering his face with his hands. “I can’t take it. Please, just tell me what to do or I’ll never find my way out of here.”

“Easy, old chap. Maybe that was a beastly prank, but if your dodgy chum’s half as gonzo as he claims, he should be just fine. It’s okay, mate, you’re just tripping balls, so relax,” Taff said in a soothing manner. “You need to get to a safe, comfy place, listen to nice, mellow music, and think happy thoughts. Everything will be fine, you’ll have a great time which you’ll never recall. Just hold onto that, okay?” He looked at Gus for a moment and said, “Wait here, Prof. I’ll try to find somebody who can lead you back to the hotel.”

In the meantime, as he wrote much later, Nigel found himself in another world. But he couldn’t decide if it was Heaven or Hell, for beauty and horror shifted and melted, intermingling in an indescribable, intricate combinations. The wide range of costumes and the carnival setting certainly didn’t help either. In his confusion, he stumbled onto the terrace again. There Cindi still held court, a flawless idol shining in the midst of a horde of fawning, pawing lepers groveling around her feet. He fled before she could turn her awful single-eyed Medusa gaze at him.

The evening took on ever-more nightmarish qualities. It was as if the party turned inside out, a grotesque masque reversed, where attire revealed the wearer’s true essence rather than concealing it. Pudgy princesses betrayed their cruel vanity and pride in their slightest gestures, their pig-eyed, fat husbands leering and smacking like would-be Henry VIIIs.

The old were tearful, wrinkled creatures grasping and moaning for more of everything; the young, as magnificent in their cluelessness as they were feckless and unstained; curious faces burning bright as lamps with innocent cupidity. Among them lurched red-faced drunks with gaping mouths and purple tongues. Their spittle flew as they laughed like the fiends of Hades, leering and pawing at him in intimate obscenity.

Most of these quickly moved out of his way. But there were a few crazed souls under the influence of God-knew-what who wanted to play along. These horrors considered his ever-more desperate pleas and threats part of his ranting act. But not even they could detain him long.

Over this grotesque vista hung a faint pall of sour disappointment, of too many dreams gone bad like spoiled milk. Numbness grew, an immense world-weariness of endless futile repetition, like a once-comforting song which lost all meaning as it droning continually on a journey with no end or sense. He wandered lost in a purgatory of those so damned they were totally ignorant and uncaring of their plight. As he was.

Finally he found himself outside, to his immense relief. Nigel threw his head back, drinking in the cool night air, and promptly doubled over, retching into the bushes. He heard an angelic voice ask with infinite kindness, “Are you alright?”

He looked up. Framed against the swirling stars above was the kind face of a beautiful young woman framed in shining white, wearing a black veil streaked silver by moonlight. She looked at him with tender concern. Instead of rising, he dropped upon one knee.

“Yup, okay, gracias, señora, just a little too much… and then the air, ma’am,” Nigel mumbled, waving his hand, unsure if he should cross himself or something.

She smiled with ruby lips, dark eyes twinkling. “Count Roland’s insistence on authenticity for his dinner parties often takes a toll, I’ve heard, on those unused to rich fare,” she said, “but I’m surprised it would affect a big Texan as you.”

Nigel’s other knee dropped. “Why… d’ya reckon I’m from Texas, ma’am?”

“Why, your accent, of course. You sound like a movie cowboy.”

“I’ll be horse-whupped… no way,” Nigel said, clutching his throat. “What in tarnation happened to my goldurned voice?” It was true. He sounded like a hick again, and couldn’t stop.

The woman stepped back, startled. “Are you sure you’re all right, Mister – ?”

“Name’s Nic,” he confessed, “Nic Buckhorn, ma’am.” He clasped the hem of her gown in desperation and prayed as his drawl grew clumsy, thick, and slow, speaking with the front of his mouth. “I’m sorry, so danged sorry. Please, ma’am, gimme my doggone voice back. Lemme talk good agin. I’ll stop with the lyin’, and drinkin’, cheatin’ and durn near everythang else, ma’am, but jist don’t make me soun’ like this no more. I cain’t stand it! Por favor, Madre Díos!”

“Who do you think I am?” she said in sudden anger, ripping the cloth from his hands, stepping away again. “Only God or His Mother could grant that!”

“Yer not her?” Nic knelt, helpless, his hands open before him, staring at her. “Sorry, ma’am, lady, whoever ya are; I meant no offense. But who in Sam Houston are ya?”

The woman haughtily drew herself up. “My name is Sister Christina Santarovel: I’m Cardinal Mortens’ liaison with the town authorities for the Festival.”

“No ma’am; you’re not.” “I assure you I am, Mr. Buckhorn, and upon official business. Good night, sir.” She started to turn away.

“No disrespec’, ma’am, that’s not all ya are, now, is it? There’s sumthin’ more to ya, ain’t thar? There’s a kinda differ’nt light off ya. I kin see that jest as plain as day.”

She halted, suddenly looking at him in a strange way. “Aren’t you the reporter, the one once married to the singer, Cindi Salvage?”

“I retain that dubious honor, ma’am,” the man said, slowly climbing to his feet. Christ, he sounded stupider by the moment. His mouth felt weird. Was he actually becoming buck-toothed? Nic felt a thrill of fear that he might start braying.

“Always questioning – I see why you chose to dress as an inquisitor.” The nun’s eyes thoughtfully narrowed while she fingered her rosary, lips pursed. “Yet even in your state of intoxication, you mistook me for the Scolding Madonna?”

“Yessum,” he stammered like a bumpkin. “It’s that there light. I’m confused. Either way, yer a dead ringer for her, ma’am, surely are, honest Injun, no disrespect to you nor her.”

“But you prayed to Our Gracious Lady anyway,” Sister Santarovel laughed, tension gone, “which could be a sign that there may be hope for you yet, Mr. Buckhorn, despite all I’ve heard.” She turned away, raising a hand in benediction. “Good night. Be easy and I pray she will take care of you.”

 


 

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“Even I,
who with my Ampliospectus did behold mountains on the Moon and creatures sporting in the dew,
have no mirror which can bedazzle the soul.
That art belongs to another age as yet undreamed of. ”

Testimony of Magister Ieronimus to the Inquisition,
1337

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