Authors: John Dechancie
“Yeah, but as you said, it's getting a little late for that.”
Reaching the dining hall, they entered and walked to a long table where a group of people sat having lunch. Side tables were heavy with a sumptuous buffet. The selection was eclectic, catering to every taste.
“Hello, hello,” Lord Peter Thaxton called to the approaching pair.
“Hi,” Linda said as she spooned some lamb stew into a bowl. Bringing it over to the table, she said, “I thought you and Mr. Dalton were going to Gene's bachelor party.”
“We are,” Cleve Dalton said. He inclined his head toward Lord Peter. “He insisted on having lunch first.”
“Nobody said anything about lunch at the party,” Lord Peter said.
“There'll be mounds of food,” Linda told him. “I whipped it all up, matter of fact.”
“But the party's at one, is it not?” Lord Peter took out his pocket watch. “It's only half past twelve.”
“Besides, I always have the same lunch.”
Dalton nodded. “Kippers, Yorkshire pudding, steak-and-kidney pie, and tea.”
“With lemon. Same lunch, every day, day in and day out.”
“Are you implying there's something wrong in that?” Lord Peter asked archly.
“Nothing wrong with it. You're just a creature of habit, is all.”
“âCreature,'is it? Well, this creature likes his habits.”
“I said there was nothing wrong with it.”
Deena Williams and Barnaby Walsh interrupted their conversation so Deena could ask, “Linda, you all ready for the wedding?”
“As ready as I'll ever be.”
“Oh, a little, I guess. Deena, were you ever married?”
“Hell, yeah. Three times.”
Linda was nonplussed for a moment before replying, “But you don't look old enough.”
“I'll take that as a compliment.”
“Sorry, I meantâNever mind. Are you still married?”
“They was all duds, all three. Divorced âem all. Well, not the last one, really. I didn't have enough money to pay off the lawyer and I don't think he ever sent in the papers. So, I guess I'm still married to Dud Number Three.”
“Life's a bitch, ain't it?”
“Life's a sick puppy, no matter what the gender,” the portly Barnaby Walsh said.
“Shut up, Walsh.”
“Anyway, Linda, good luck being married to Casanova.”
Linda rolled her eyes. “Deena, please!”
“Sorry. I like Gene, don't get me wrong.”
“I know you like Gene.”
“I'm sorry, really.”
Deena flinched inwardly. “Whoops. Put my foot in it.”
“I said forget it.” Linda pushed lamb stew around with her spoon, then dropped the spoon and pushed the bowl away. “I'm not hungry. Think I'll go for a walk.”
“Are you okay?” Melanie asked.
Melanie said with underscored sincerity, “Linda, all of us hope you'll be very happy.”
“Thanks. See you all later.”
Linda walked out of the dining hall. An uncomfortable silence fell. Lord Peter broke it.
“Well, I feel much better for having eaten my usual lunch.” He patted his lips with a serviette.
“Lord Peter, you're a man of principles,” Dalton said.
“I thank you, sir.”
“And a horse's ass.”
“As are you, sir. Now, I think I will go to Gene's picnic. Would you care to accompany this horse's ass to that auspicious affair?”
“As one horse's ass to another, I would be honored, sir.”
“If you people would kindly excuse us,” Lord Peter said.
“You're excused,” Deena said.
Dalton and Thaxton walked out the door.
“I guess I said the wrong thing to Linda,” Deena lamented. “Am I dumb.”
“Oh, she'll be all right,” Melanie said, looking unconvinced.
the tomb was dry and dark, its air stifling, carrying the odor of ancient decay and a musty staleness, a stuffiness, that made him want to sneeze. Dust of ages lay in piles on the stone floor. Dry death and time-bleached bones lay within. And gold and silver, perhaps. Perhaps not.
Rance got out the lantern, lit it with the striking stone, then made his way forward. The passage elbowed left, then right.
The way was narrow at first, slitlike side passages leading off it. Then he entered a steeply sloping grand gallery, its plug-blocks long since broken up into manageable fragments. He climbed the gallery into a large chamber with a gabled roof. Nothing lay within but some toppled statues, a smashed and empty sarcophagus, and scattered debris.
His heart sank. He slid back down the gallery and examined some of the side passages. All were dark. He took a deep breath and entered the widest one.
It went a short way, then flared out into a large antechamber. He stopped in his tracks.
A bronze door, quite intact, stood at the far end of the chamber. He rushed to it and, to his astonishment, found it locked or barred shut from the inside. There was no hole in the wall. Nothing bore witness to any forced entry whatsoever. How could this be?
He held the lantern high and looked around. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling like gray threads. In the corner to his right stood a tall box, a sarcophagus standing on end. It was made of plain stone and bore no inscriptions. He looked at it briefly, then fixed his gaze on the painted lettering which ran along the walls of the chamber. The ancient glyphs were difficult to read. He stepped closer to study them.
There was quite a lot to the inscription; it seemed to run on and on. Freely translated, it read:
* know by these words that whosoever disturbeth the peace of the dead will not die but will suffer the pangs of ill fortune so long as he walks the earth * calamity will befall him at every turn and men will shun him as they would a carrier of plague * neither respite nor surcease will he know forever and ever * you may think this some sort of jest but let me assure you that this is meant in deadly earnest * i realize you must have seen any number of these warnings and curses and have had a jolly good laugh but be warned that you will not be laughing when the full force of this particular curse comes down upon your head * oh i can just see you standing there sneering and scoffing * very well take what jollity you may from these words for i guarantee that it will be the last time a smile curls your scrofulous lip * no be my guest go
“He does blather on,” Rance complained. The inscription had run across four walls and now continued down a narrow passage. Holding the lantern high, he followed after it, reading along.
right ahead * far be it from me to spoil a good joke but it is i who will have the last laugh and believe me i will laugh heartily at your impending misfortune * you doubtless think me cruel but i ask you to consider this * here you are blithely ransacking my tomb
“This is absurd.” Rance sidestepped down the passageway, squinting in the gloom but continuing to read.
without a thought or a care as to my welfare so why should i be concerned with yours * of course i realize what you must be thinking * he is a wealthy king and dead besides so why begrudge you a few trinkets * after all they are of no earthly use to me * it is simply a matter of principle * i suppose you think it is easy to be a king * simply a matter of planting your fat behind on a throne and farting out edicts and directives and so forth * well my friend you labor under a common misconception * not only is being king if you will pardon the expression a royal pain in the ass it is also dangerous * palace intrigue * plots * cabals * assassination attempts * oh that puts the matter in a slightly different light does it * well you havent heard the half of it * how would you
“Ye gods, will it never end?” Rance despaired.
like to spend your days sitting on a throne facing an endless procession of foreign dignitaries provincial governors courtiers vassals functionaries supplicants envoys emissaries and solicitors all begging and pleading and wanting handouts and filing petitions and currying favor and fawning obsequiously * day after day after endless day this interminable parade of whining complaining beggars puling about their personal problems their legal entanglements and their petty concerns * not quite the life you imagined is it * and i suppose you think having a few dozen wives and concubines makes up for it * disabuse yourself of this notion as well my ghoulish friend for you have no idea what utter unremitting hell it is to have more than the one wife the gods in their infinite mercy naturally intended a man to have * simply take all the henpecks of one harridan of a spouse and multiply them by
“Enough!” Rance cried in disgust. He stalked back to the antechamber.
Sighing, he put the lantern down. At least the curse wasn't death. In any case, he would not let a curse deter him now. He did not look forward to chiseling, chipping, and hammering through limestone, but times were hard, and this was the only work he could get. He fetched his sledgehammer and returned to examine the inner door. He knocked a scarred knuckle against it and was surprised. The hollow echo told him that it wasn't a solid metal door, as he had first thought. It was probably wood in a cladding of metal. He wouldn't have to break through the wall after all. He'd make short work of the door.
Don't even think of it.
The thought came unbidden into his mind, and he soon realized it was a voice.
That's right. This place is forbidden to you. Begone!
He stiffened, then slowly exhaled.
“Your warning only entices me.”
Be twice warned, then. You will enter in the flesh, but leave in the spirit.
“A spirit is what I assume you are.”
Brilliant deduction. Now, go.
He spit on his hands and grasped the haft of the hammer. Something bothered him about this. It wasn't a proper door for a tomb, not the usual thing. The ancient Zinites built sturdy tombs employing layers of protective measures, some physical, others magical, and he hadn't encountered any unpleasant magic so farâbesides the curse, that is.
From the shadows behind him came the scrape of stone on stone. He froze for a moment, hammer poised to strike. Then he whirled, dropping the hammer, and drew his sword.
The lid to the upright sarcophagus fell forward and slammed to the floor.
The sarcophagus was empty.
Rance sighed and lowered the hammer.
Gave you a scare, did it?
“Your humor eludes me. Just who are you, by the way?”
I am the august monarch for whom this many-times-violated tomb was built. And I think it was damned clever.
Rance gave a crooked smile. “No doubt you have the right.”
So you think that door is easy prey, do you?
“Something tells me it is not.”
It will yield like dry kindling. Try it!
He turned and regarded the barrier. He read the curse again.
There came a chuckle.
Makes you think twice, and then some, doesn't it?
“It does, yes. But it makes me think that something of value lies within.”
It stands to reason! Who would waste such potent power on baubles or some marble bust or another? Some effigy of a long-forgotten potentateâone, say, of your humble host.
“Perhaps you would. Where are your mortal remains?”
Gone to dust ages ago. Stripped of every jewel and trampled underfoot by tomb robbers. My bones splintered! My countenance smashedâ! . . . I beg your forgiveness. Indulge me.
“By all means, go on.”
Suffice it to say my elements have long been commingled with those of the universe. But let's get to business. Why not have a crack at that door?
Rance eyed the empty coffin askance.
“You seem strangely eager.”
Then you're afraid. The curse deters you, as it did all the others. I fear it is my lot to wait for someone with sufficient mettle.
“Hold on, I haven't yet made my decision.”
The voice took time to size him up.
No, not you.
“Eh? Why not?”
You're an odd-looking sort. Dark-complexioned, long-faced. And a long nose, too. It emphasizes a weak chin, a sure sign of pusillanimity.
Rance smiled. “Your taunts won't goad me. But I will take a crack at your door. The truth is I'm desperately in need of booty.”
Splendid! Finally someone with sufficient courage. You have my profound admiration and deepest sympathy.
Rance halted a motion to lift the hammer.
The curse, man, the curse! Have its implications somehow eluded you?
“No, but in my own particular case, my fortunes could not go more awry.”
Down on your luck? You have the look of degenerate nobility about you. Land poor? Too bad. But your luck can and will get worse. This I will warrant.
“Spirit, I detect a note of glee.”
Academic interest only. You will admit I have little to occupy my time.
“Is this truly, then, what death is?”
My punishment, I think.
“You're not certain?”
The uncertainty is surely part of the punishment.
He nodded, picked up the sledge, and slammed at the door.
The barrier came down in no time. Within lay darkness. He picked up the lantern and peered in. It was a thick, almost tangible darkness that seemed to drink up light.
“Of course, damn you. What fiendish delights have you planned for me?”
Fiend I am none. Would that I were! Demons are powerful. Alas, I am but a soul lost.
“Lost and by the wind mourned, Ghost, begone! You bother me.”