Authors: John Dechancie
He eased his mount to a halt and surveyed. A gnarled scrub forest to the east; a gradual flattening to the west. The sun boiled behind thick clouds on the horizon. Ruins to the south and east. To the west also. In fact, nothing but ruins lay about. This was ancient Zin; the Zinites had built much, and much remained of their handiwork, crumbled and weathered though it was. But the stench of death and decay lay over the land, a pall of oppressive misery and despair hung over all.
“Gods,” Rance said. “This is depressing.”
Grand edifices these ruins once had been: temples, palaces, courtyards, and squares; all now were heaps of tumbled block, here and there a long column, sometimes two together holding up the remains of a shattered pediment. There were, however, a few intact structures. One was an ancient convenience bazaar. The sign read, in ancient demotic script: stop ân'haggle.
He had his eye on the stepped pyramid at the edge of the plain. A tomb, perhaps. Unrifled? He doubted it, but there could be scraps left behind: an interesting potsherd, perhaps a whole urn; even a bauble of some sort, some souvenir that would fetch a good price back in Corcindor. Maybe some trading stamps and a bottle opener.
He would make camp soon, perhaps on this ridge ahead, so he could survey the land below for targets of opportunity.
He continued on.
He followed a narrow pass between two craggy outcrops. When he reached its end and came out onto the slope of the hill, he was astonished to find a small town. He had thought nothing lived here.
His mount whickered nervously. He turned his head and watched a vague shadow take on shape and substance. A quaint tavern lay on his right. The rest of the little town had a bad case of the quaints as well, for all that it might have sprung into existence a moment agoâas indeed he suspected was the case. But the spell had likely been cast centuries before, set here to trap the unwary intruder.
He ignored it all. His mount sidestepped, neighing and quivering. He searched the land below for possibilities. He needed money, and badly. There had to be something below that generations of grave robbers had overlooked.
“Hello, cutie! Have the time?”
He looked up. A fair-haired woman with a hard but attractive face was smiling at him, leaning out of an upper-story window.
“Time is what I have least of, woman.”
She shrugged. “Not even a moment to spare?” She parted her blouse and exposed heavy, pink-nippled breasts.
“I . . .” He looked again. As breasts went, they were very nice indeed.
But his better judgment told him nay. He turned away from her.
She sniffed. “Well, all right for you.”
He kneed his mount, and the beast bolted forward. He had to rein it in.
“Some men just haven't got what it takes.”
He ignored that comment and others directed at his back. The town seemed to bunch up ahead, blocking his path, a jumble of shop fronts and houses.
“You look a mite hungry, sir. Care to bide awhile?”
He regarded the portly, white-aproned man walking toward him, then turned his head. Anotherâtall, gaunt and grim-facedâapproached from the opposite direction.
“I care to pass through, if you good people will let me.”
“Certainly, honored sir,” the innkeeper said, “but you do look a bit peckish. I've just put on a pot of stew. It'll be done after a few mugs of good beer.”
“Thank you, no.”
The other grabbed the reins. The eyes were dead.
His sword was a flashing reflection of the sun, brief and brilliant. The tall one suddenly lacked a right hand. He screamed and backed away, the stump spurting blood.
The manâif indeed he was a manâstood in wide-eyed astonishment, watching bright blood splash into the dust. “Hey! You . . . you cut off my hand!”
“Uh . . . Yes, I did, yes,” Rance said.
“I don't believe . . . Did you see that? He cut off my hand. He cut off my frigging hand, just like that!”
“Hardly friendly,” the innkeeper commented.
you actually cut off my hand!”
“Take warning,” Rance said, moving on.
The man turned indignant. “Warning? Did you say warning?” He held up the fountaining stump. “
is a warning? Is that what you're telling me? What do you do when you get really pissed off?”
Rance was somewhat nonplussed. He sheathed his sword. “Well, I'm sorry. When you came at me, Iâ”
“All I wanted to do was take your mount into the stable for some water and food and a nice rubdown. But no-o-o-o. It's Mr. Touchy! Mr. Hands-Off! Mr. Macho Guy!”
“See here,” Rance began. “Youâ”
An armored rider came out of a side street, his steed foaming at the bit. The horse stopped, reared.
“Mortal,” came a deep, echoing voice emanating from behind a visored helm, “prepare to meet thy doom.”
Rance's sword again hissed from its scabbard. “Prepare to meet this, spirit!”
“Your sword hisses nicely,” the specter observed, drawing his own weapon.
It was the biggest, wickedest blade that Rance had ever seen. Rance swallowed hard.
“Make acquaintance with my sword, Just Avenger,” the armored eidolon said. “How call you yours?”
Rance drew himself up. “The name of my sword,” he said, holding his blade high, “is Bruce.”
Rance's shoulders slumped. “Uh, you heard me.”
The fearful apparition laughed derisively. “Bruce?”
“I call him Brucie. That's his name.”
There was general merriment. The demon with the still-gushing stump stood there giggling along with the rest.
“âBrucie'?” the warrior-demon sneered. “What kind of name is that to strike fear into the heart of your enemy?”
“I got it secondhand,” Rance muttered. “That was the name given the sword by its maker, and in order to take advantage of all the magical stuff you have to invoke it by its name, and that's its name. Bruce. That's all there is to it.”
“Well, it's ridiculous!”
“Well, I'm sorry,” Rance said with some hauteur.
“I suppose your dagger is named Murray. And the horse? Butterfly Love Moon? Or perhaps Tittybum Upyourarse-on-the-Leeward-Side?”
The innkeeper especially loved this. Convulsed, he rolled on the ground repeating “Butterfly Love Moon” over and over.
Rance boiled. “Right, that tears it. Laugh if you must, but you'll be laughing out of the other side of your helm when you get a taste of Brucie's cold steel.”
“Oh, steel-tasting time, everyone!” the handless one minced. Then, an aside: “I hear the real pros spit it out and go on to the next sample.”
The spectral mount suddenly charged, its rider's sword swishing like a scythe.
Rance backstepped his mount, jerked the reins to the right, then heeled into a canter. He swung and blocked his attacker's slashing swipe. Then his mount broke into a gallop down the middle of the street.
The dust became a mire, his mount's hooves sinking to the first joint. The animal whinnied piteously, struggling to disengage itself from the muck.
The mire did not seem to impede Rance's attacker. The dark rider turned, reared again, and bore down.
Rance fended off another onslaught, then dismounted and led the beast out of the mud, which now began crystallizing into dry crackling.
He remounted in time to ward off another savage blow. This time he followed up and decapitated the rider. The helmeted head fell to earth and shattered like a glass sphere.
The town faded, its new-ancient gables blending with the gray sky. Soon the phantom hamlet was no more, and the hillside was clear again.
But a faint voice lingered.
“Ooo, talk about rough trade . . .”
He sheathed his sword and continued down the slope. Big rocks blocked his path, and his mount scrabbled around them down to level ground. The valley of the Zinites was nearer now, but darkness hovered at the edge of the world. He decided to make camp.
The night was long. Voices wailed in the distance, naming the unnameable, invoking powers of darkness. Greenish mist choked the valley below. Vague shapes moved against the night sky. Rance thought they were dark clouds, but was not sure.
He kicked another dry stick into the fire and huddled closer to the flames.
Presently he opened his bedroll, spread it out, and lay down. He took out a parchment scrollâa back issue of
âand read himself to sleep.
Nothing disturbed him during the night.
He stood looking up at the pinnacle of the immense burial pyramid. The structure was at least as tall as it was wide, and it was very wide indeed, and was set off in stepsâhe counted seven. An involved sequence of ramps, each quite steep, led to the top. A forced entrance had been cut into the west side of the thing, a gash in the stone like a wound that had never healed.
He could see that there was zero chance of recovering anything of value from this site. Hundreds of tomb robbers had plundered it, perhaps thousands. Generations. What was of value was long gone.
He looked around. And there was nothing else. All had been picked over, searched through a thousand times. He had sifted through piles of bones, skullsâremains of ancient Zinites, or squatters who had died almost as long ago? Zin's history was a muddle. There was no telling. The bones were probably those of ghouls who had succumbed to the inevitable curses and protection devices.
He tethered his mount and untied a packet of tools and other paraphernalia. He slung it over his back and strode forward toward the lowest ramp.
at thirty-five, Maximilian Dumbrowsky knew his life was a mess, but there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He had tried.
In fact, he had tried: (1) psychotherapy; (2) Zen; (3) various forms of meditation; (4) good old-fashioned psychoanalysis; (5) existential therapy; (7) biofeedback training; (9) jogging; (10) running; (11) massage; (12) screaming; (13) macrobiotic and other diets; (14) drugs; (15) sex; (16) and assorted cheap thrills.
None of the above had done him any good.
He had done almost everything there was to do, gone with every fad, every New Age flimflam. He had dared to be great, tried to win through intimidation, pulled his own strings, got himself together, found his own private space, sensitized himself, desensitized himself, sought union with the cosmic Om, only to find in the end that he was . . . OK.
But he didn't feel it. In truth, he was fed up, more than a little desperate, and was seriously thinking of looking into pyramid-selling schemes.
was a mess. He lived with not a farthing to his name in three squalid rooms in the student/aging-hippie section of town. His career history, spaciously laid out with embarrassingly long periods of unemployment, was a sorry record of job-hopping. His present job was excremental, and his boss, Herb Fenton, was a dolt of the first water.
Regarding (15) [see above], Penny wasn't returning his calls to her phone recorder. Hadn't for three weeks. The least of his worries, actually.
And his present psychotherapistâhe was back to (1) againâwas giving up his private practice to work in a large university hospital upstate. He handed Max a card with the address and phone of another therapist, to whom he had referred Max's case. Max had glanced at it, slipped the card into a pocket, and promptly lost it.
He just couldn't face starting over again. He had checked with a physicians'reference service, got a few names, but hadn't done anything about getting a new shrink.
Working late again. Printer's deadline for the updated hardware catalog.
Coming back from dinner, Max snapped on the light in his cubbyhole of an office. The place was cramped, windowless, and drab. There was a desk with reams of paper and old catalogs piled around a battered typewriter and a telephone. A filing cabinet occupied one corner. The rest of the room was stuffed to the ceiling with cardboard cartons. Max sat down at the desk. A note taped to the telephone read: max, call meâherb.
“I'll call you âHerb,'” Max grumbled. “You have about as much brainpower as a sprig of parsley.”
He tore off the note, crumpled it, and threw it in the direction of the gorged wastebasket.
The phone jingled. Oh, God. Not Herb.
“Hello,” Max answered dully.
“Mr. Dumbrowsky? Maximilian Dumbrowsky?”
“Hey,” the squeaky male voice said. “I've been trying to reach you for weeks.”
“Sorry. I'm not home much. Who is this?”
“Dr. Jeremy Hochstader. You called a physicians'reference service, about a psychotherapist? You gave your work number. I traced it, and just by chance we happen to work in the same office building.”
It took a few seconds for Max to make the connection. “Oh, right. I remember now. Um, lookâ”
“I was wondering if you still needed help. I'm in the business of helping people, though you might think that my methods are a little, you know, unorthodoxâ”
“Listen,” Max broke in, “I'm . . . well, I'm really not sure I want to continue therapy at all. If I decide to, I'll give you a call. Are you in the book?”
“Uh, not really. But first, let me tell you a few things, you know, like inducements. My therapeutic techniques are very unconventional, and a helluva lot more effective than the usual mumbo-jumbo. And my fees are very low. I
happen to be in my office tonight. Why don't you drop down and we'll talk it over? Sixth floor.”
“Uh, let me think about it.”
Whoever this bird was, he sounded young. Very young. Sounded like a kid.
Hochstader babbled on for a bit, but Max cut him off, pretended to write down the phone number, and abruptly hung up. Rare bird, Max thought. Sounded like a kid selling magazines to get himself through college.