Authors: John Dechancie
“Don't try to figure it out all at once. I can only explain so much. Now I gotta show you. Just take it as it comes. You'll understand everything in due time.” Leaning forward to the cabbie, Jeremy said, “Turn right at this next road.”
“I just don't know,” Max said, shaking his head. “This is all so nuts.”
“Yeah,” Jeremy said. “The Castle's like that. But just go with it.”
“Go with it?”
“Yeah. Go with the nuttiness. Get into the flow, and it'll work for you. It always does for me.”
Go with the flow? Max thought. And what choice did he have? Temporarily giving up any attempt at making sense of all this, he sat back. “Anything you say, Doctor.” He exhaled and looked out the window.
After a moment Max said, “You're not a doctor, are you? You don't have any degree at all.”
“Uh, not really, not in the real world,” Jeremy confessed. “High school, and that's about it. But Osmirik, the Castle scribe, gave me an honorary doctorate. A real sheepskin. He said I deserved it.”
“Oh, God,” Max said.
“It'll be okay, really.”
“I'm okay,” Max said. “I'm going to be okay. I'm fine. I just wish I could remember my mantra.”
“are we having fun yet?”
Gene did a classic spit take, spraying beer across the picnic bench. Then he alternated guffawing and choking.
“Only Snowclaw could say that in all seriousness,” said Phil Kaufmann, wiping off his sleeve with a paper napkin.
“Well, I am serious,” Snowclaw said. “This is a party, right? We're supposed to have fun, whatever that is. And since I really don't know much about human stuff, I was simply askingâ”
“We know, we know,” Gene said, having recovered. “And the answer is . . . no, we're not having a whole hell of a lot of fun yet, but give it time, give it time.”
“I'm enjoying the dancing girls,” Kaufmann said.
The merrymakers, all male, watched approvingly as the dancing women continued their display of terpsichorean skill. Music blared from a boombox on the table. They were all perfunctorily clad, all beautiful, and all untouchable, protected by invisible magical screens. Not that any of the men had made advances; one of them had simply blundered too near one member of the troupe and had received a mild shock.
The party tables were set up very near the portal entrance to this world, a world that was one of many of its type: parklike, perpetually blue-skied, temperate, and safe. Expansive greenswards spread between stately trees that resembled oaks, but were not.
Gene was bored. He took another swing of beer. It was good beer. Great, in fact. But he was still bored.
“What's the matter, chum?” Snowclaw asked, scratching his white, thick-furred belly.
“Hell, not a thing.”
“Explain to me again this marriage stuff.”
“Snowy, it all has to do with human mating behavior. You wouldn't understand.”
“Well, I know about mating behavior. But from what I understand, you and Linda have already mated. Soâ”
“Snowy, Jesus H. Christ.”
Phil Kaufmann and a few of the other men suppressed a chuckle.
“Huh? What'd I say?”
“Nothing. You're right, we did, but now we're going to ritualize it. Celebrate it.”
“Uh-huh.” Snowclaw shook his huge, white ursine head. His yellow cat's-eyes looked oddly thoughtful. “I think I understand.” He thought some more, then shook his head. “I don't understand.”
“Don't trouble yourself about it,” Gene told him. “I'm human and I don't quite understand it. It's a cultural thing.”
“What's that mean?”
“Uh . . . Snowy, have another candle.”
Gene picked up a beeswax candle, dipped it into a bowl of Thousand Island dressing, and offered it to his nonhuman friend.
“Thanks,” Snowclaw said, taking it. He crunched it between his wickedly sharp teeth and swallowed it all.
“Anyone seen Dalton and Lord Peter?” Gene asked.
“They were in the Queen's Hall when I passed,” said Tyrene, the captain of the Castle guard.
“Lord Peter sticks to his daily schedule,” Gene said, “come hell or high water.”
“Aye, he does. A creature of habit. But there's nothing wrong with that.”
“I guess not, but it would bore the crap out of me. Can't stand to do the same thing every day.” Gene added in a mumble, “Or being married to the same woman every day.”
“Nothing, Tyrene, nothing. Just thinking aloud.”
Tyrene nodded and sipped at his flagon of ale. He had heard what Gene had said.
“Sure are beautiful, these girls,” said another party guest appreciatively. “Excuse me, women.”
“Girls . . . women . . .”
“Eh?” Snowclaw turned his snowy head toward Gene.
“You sure don't seem happy.”
“What's that mean? Oh, it means you're really happy, doesn't it?”
“I'm really happy.”
“How come you look like you lost your last friend?”
“I have a headache.”
“What you need is a good scrap.”
Gene drank from his beer stein. “I might at that.”
“Yeah, gets the blood moving.”
“Be nice to find a nice war or revolution.”
“Or just a nice sword fight.”
Gene shook his head. “Listen to me. I've become a warmonger. A blood-and-thunder addict. And me a longtime peace activist.”
“What's a peace activist?”
“A person who professes to hate war, and disapproves of some wars, yet condones certain others.”
“Doesn't make sense.”
Gene nodded. “Uh-huh.” He drank more beer.
The dancers danced on, circulating among the tables, showcasing their skill and their wares. The “sun” shone down benignly. Puffed clouds moved slowly across the sky. It was a pleasant day. Very pleasant.
“Damn,” Gene said for no apparent reason.
“Snowy, let's get out of this joint.”
“Okay by me, Gene.”
Gene raised his voice. “Guys, would you mind awfully if Snowy and I take off? I hate to throw a wet blanket on the festivities . . .”
“Gene, it's your party,” Phil said.
“Thanks. You're sure, now?”
“Go ahead. We can do quite nicely without you. We haven't even gotten to the food yet.”
“Before we eat, though,” someone else said, “we're going to get roaring drunk and play a little touch football. Right, guys?”
Declarations of enthusiastic agreement.
“And after the feast, poker,” said Phil. “You're going to miss all the fun.”
“We'll stop back,” Gene said. “I gotta take care of this headache, is all. Going to go see Doc Mirabilis.”
“Get lost, Gene,” Phil said, raising his glass of stout. “And, again, congratulations. You're a lucky man.”
“Hear, hear,” came the chorus. Each man raised his glass in a toast.
“Thanks, guys. See you later. Let's go, Snowy.”
“I'm with ya.”
Gene and his friend, the fearsome white beast, walked out of that pleasant world and entered the Castle. They came through the arch, stepping into the corridor.
Snowclaw asked, “Where are we going?”
“I dunno. Let's hunt up some danger.”
“Now you are talking. That kind of fun I can understand.”
he crouched in darkness, the lamp long since extinguished. He did not know how many days had passed. The darkness was like an old cloak smelling faintly of mildew. Sometimes the voice would talk to him; mostly it was silent, waiting. Watching.
He felt something scurry across his fingers. Immediately he brought his other hand down, caught the wriggling insect, and brought it to his mouth.
He held it, poised, for several long moments. Then he threw the thing away.
Not yet, he thought. Not quite yet.
He summoned the mind-picture of the power grid he had worked on since he had been entrapped. There were a multitude of connections. As many as he connected, there were still more he forgot.
It's useless to work magic here
, the voice said.
I've told you repeatedly, but still you persist
“Bugger off!” he mouthed, then mentally castigated himself for answering. He had sworn off giving the malevolent spirit any satisfaction.
The voice chuckled.
Temper, temper. No, supernatural powers simply cannot permeate a structure of this mathematical shape. You are insulated from all help, my friend. Doomed.
So it would seem. He made a few emendations to the design, considered the whole, then dismissed it from his mind. Useless. He had walked a foolish road, and now he would pay the toll.
But not yet. Not quite yet.
He cast a communication spell. A disembodied female voice answered his hail. The voice was distant and distorted.
“Good morning, Mystic Light and Power Company!”
“Hello. I'd like to order some long-distance power, if I might?”
“Hello! I say, I'd like to orderâ”
“I'm sorry, sir, but I can barely hear you!”
Rance cleared his throat and tried again, this time shouting: “This is Rance of Corcindor. I want a line to some major magic power. My account should be good. Can you do it?”
“We can deliver anywhere in the Twelve Kingdoms and outlying areas, Mr. Rance. Where are you?”
“Zin? Let me check that, sir . . . Sir? I don't have a Zin on my route map.”
“It's just a little to the east ofâ”
“Oh, wait, I found it,” the woman said. “Whoa. You're way out in the boonies!”
“Yes. Can you deliver power here?”
“Oh, I don't know offhand, sir. That's way off our usual delivery routes.”
“My credit is good.”
“Checking your account, I can see that that's true, sir. But there may be extra charges.”
“I'll pay them! Please send the power right away.”
“I'll see what I can do. Sir, looking at your account, I can see that you might benefit from our Frequent Long-Distance Budget Plan. Just say the word, sir, and I'll start you on the Plan right away!”
“Yes! Yes! Anything, just send the power!”
“Right away, sir! Have the results of this call been satisfactory to you?”
“I said, have the resultsâ?”
“Yes, yes, yes, fine! Please, I'm in rather a bit of trouble, if you don't mind.”
So he reinvoked his power grid and concentrated on an alternative configuration for it. He felt . . . perceived, somehow, that this new configuration had possibilities, and that these possibilities must be realized in order for power to flow. But . . .?
This is interesting.
The proscription went back into effect.
No, this is very interesting. It seems magical techniques have advanced considerably since my day.
He felt something warm, furry, and foul-smelling crawl over his crossed legs. The thing sniffed at his crotch, then scurried off.
Amazing. You should be ravenous by now. You should have eaten that rodent in one gulp, fur, teeth and all. But still you sit and ponder. What strength of will!
“The sauce is everything,” he replied.
The voice was silent.
A tremor went through the structure. The rumbling ceased, then all was quiet. In a far corner of the tomb, a mote of dust fell, sounding like thunder.
That was you, was it not?
There was no reply.
Answer me! You have solved the problem, haven't you?
Again, silence, darkness.
Do not think you will escape! Even if you succeed in
leaving the chamber, you will not leave my tomb with your soul cleaving to your rotten carcass!
All was soundless.
Where are you?
In one corner of the chamber, a beetle defecated.
He did not know exactly where he was. Somewhere in the pyramid, surely. He rose, finding himself in a low-ceilinged passage. He crept slowly forward. He heard the voice calling far off, then nearer. How does a spirit search? He did not stop to think on the matter. Soon, anyway, the point was moot.
There you are! Back into that chamber at once. You disgust me. I always hated a sneak thief. Did I ever describe the torments that thieves were afforded in my reign?
“Be silent, demon. It is time I took my leave of you. Many thanks for your hospitality.”
Not so fast!
Something snorted in the blackness behind him. His sensitive eyes caught a hint of an outline, a shape, huge, menacing, with eyes radiating demonic light, red like superheated metal. He ran, stumbled, and fell down an endless hole.
He came to his senses and struggled to his feet. A bolt of pain shot through him, but he straightened and steadied himself, only to hear the shuffling of enormous feet behind. He gimped off.
He banged his head on the ceiling. Wincing, he stooped and duck-walked, somersaulting over rubble and blocks of stone. The ceiling lowered again, and he was reduced to crawling. Still the thing behind him followed.
The passage constricted, and he had to force himself through. Dust choked him, scratched at his eyes. The noise behind him did not stop. What had the thing doneâmade itself smaller? Ahead there was light, and he wriggled toward it.
He squeezed forward and got hung up. He was stuck. Something nibbled at his toes.
He screamed, pushed himself through, and fell out into fierce daylight, sliding down a ramp and onto a ledge. Unhurt, he scrambled to his feet.
He was on a terrace halfway up the side of the pyramid, and he was free. The thing in the hole howled.