I was first in the bar again when the doors opened at six. The bartender raised an eyebrow and reached for the brandy, but I shook my head and went for an American beer, thinking I might need to keep a clearer head. That actually got me a more steeply-raised eyebrow, so I grinned sheepishly and hoped I could be served by the other bar staff for the rest of the evening.
The place filled up slowly, and the first act came and went in a hail of plastic glasses. Apparently the bands that I thought the crowd has disliked the previous evening were nowhere near as bad as the bands this evening. The second band came and went just as fast, and the third group on looked very nervous. The crowd let them play through their set though, and I found myself tapping my foot along with one or two of their numbers, all the while wondering what I was going to do here. If Lady Cthulhu was going to attempt some kind of ritual, how was I to stop it? Rally the crowd? It seemed likely that most of the people here were here to see Lady Cthulhu, they'd be unlikely to start throwing things, or rush the stage, just because I wanted them to. And I was older than most of them, which could only detract from my credibility. By the time Lady Cthulhu were announced, I was nearly panicking.
The band stumbled on stage, seeming much less coherent than they had been the previous evening, and the lead guitarist was missing. I felt my stomach relax, I hadn't realised it was twisting itself in knots. Perhaps the band had already fallen out and this was all that was left. The drummer started up without any announcement about the missing lead guitarist -- Michael, I suddenly remembered -- an odd beat trying to syncopate with itself. For a minute there was nothing else, just a drum solo that changed every time I thought I had the rhythm figured out, and the then bass players joined in with low, throbbing notes that immediately gave me a headache. Around me the crowd stirred restively, and then someone started stamping on the floor, a counterpoint to the drumbeat. Within seconds the rest of the crowd was responding and the two percussion lines coiled around each other like snakes. The image of the chicken-head caduceus sprang into focus in my mind.
I was almost expecting the singer when he started, and though I didn't know the words, I recognised the overall theme of his chant; it was a summoning chant, one of the old ones from the lost continents. Something that the Black Pharaoh would know and pass on. My headache was now a pulsing line of fire from the front of my head to the back and my skull felt two sizes too small for my brain. I was pretty certain the only reason I hadn't joined in with the stamping was because I'd have fallen over. Little star-bursts of white light were starting to obscure my vision now, precursors to a migraine. Yet they weren't enough to stop me seeing watch Michael stalk on to the stage, a sneer across his face and the midnight-blue guitar slung around his neck. He raised his hand like an emperor, flexed his fingers, and brought them down against the strings in a dramatic opening chord.
The hotel manager came up to the room at a dead run; he'd already found the mutilated desk-clerk and feared that there was a madman loose in his hotel. When he found me standing looking stunned, clutching my hands to my ears, and saw that Guldtronen had been similarly mutilated he assumed that we'd been victims as well and called the police. Guldtronen was useless to them, raving about things only he could see, and I had a headache I couldn't shake and was listening to screams that never seemed to end. They gave up eventually, and hunted for clues that didn't exist to a person who wasn't, never suspecting that I'd already locked the monster away.
But the lock was only as strong as my mind, and the Ilmatu kept probing. Whenever I slept, whenever I was stressed, whenever I did anything that let my guard down, she tried to break the binding. I'd find myself waking up in mid-recital, seconds away from letting the Ilmatu out again. The shock from that would be enough to let her force more words from my lips, and the number of times I found myself mere syllables away from disaster....
Hypnosis helped a little. I locked the words away in a cabinet, I locked the same words away in my head behind walls she had to break down first. Now I spent my nights dreaming of her, intangible battles I still couldn't afford to lose.
The screaming that only I could hear had stopped.
I was lying down, face down, on a sticky, cold floor that stank. I lifted my head up just to free my mouth so I could breath without smelling anything. All around me were other people, also lying down. Moving amongst them were people dressed in fluorescent jackets, bending over and checking bodies. One of them must have seen me move, because they came over.
"Can you hear me?"
"Yes, of course," I said. My headache had disappeared, and I looked at the stage. Michael was gone, but the rest of the band were there, also lying down. The midnight blue guitar was also there, abandoned on the stage. "Why?"
"Huh." Hands touched both sides of my head, and my ears were fondled. "Looks like you're the lucky one then. Do you know what happened?"
"Umm." I could guess, since the screaming had stopped. The chord from the guitar had overwhelmed me and the Ilmatu was able to force me to speak the words of binding backwards, undoing the enchantment and freeing her. I wasn't going to tell anyone else that though. "No. The band had just come on to the stage, I think."
"Yeah. You're the only person here who's got any ears. So either this was an unbelievably weird concert, you collect ears and have hidden them cunningly about your person, or someone else collects ears and missed you."
"The Ilmatu steal your senses, one at a time. When they've got them all, they've got you." Hissed words from a doomed man locked in a cell.
"Right. That is weird. Um, can I go now?"
"You'll have to talk to the police first, they're over there. Go over and say hi."
I did, but via the stage, picking up a guitar first. I had no idea if the guitar could bring DeeDee out of her coma but I wasn't leaving it around for anyone to pick up and start playing with, and I had no idea if the Ilmatu was finished with me. If she was coming back, I wanted a weapon.