Read Witch Doctor - Wiz in Rhyme-3 Online

Authors: Christopher Stasheff

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #Fantastic Fiction, #Wizards, #Fantasy - Series

Witch Doctor - Wiz in Rhyme-3 (2 page)

Except for Matt.

Matt was already working on his M.A. when I met him, and by the time I graduated, he was making good progress on his PhD. So what was I going to do when I got my degree? Leave town, and the one good friend I had? Not to mention the only three girls who'd ever thought I was human.

No way.

So I started work on my master's. Physics, of course. How come? From literature and philosophy?

Because I took "Intro to Asia" for a freshman distribution requirement, and found out about zen-and learned about Shredinger's Cat in "History of Science." Put the two together, and it made a lot of sense.

Don't ask. You had to be there.

Then Matt ran into a snag on his doctoral dissertation. Do you know what it's like to see a real friend deteriorating in front of your eyes? He found that scrap of parchment, the-i got hung up trying to translate it. Wasn't in any known language, so it had to be a prank. I mean, that's obvious, right? Not even logic-just common sense. Matt didn't have any.

Now, don't get me wrong. Matt's my friend, and I think the world of the guy, but I'm realistic about him, too. He was something of a compulsive, and something of an idealist, as well-to the point of ... Well, you know the difference between fantasy and reality? Matt didn't. Not always, anyway.

No, he was convinced that parchment was a real, authentic, historical document, and he wasted half his last year trying to decipher it.

I was getting real worried about him-losing weight, bags under his eyes, drawn and pale ... Matt, not me. I didn't have any spare weight to lose. Him, he was the credulous type-one of the kind that's born every minute. I'm one of the other kind, two born for every one of him. I mean, I wouldn't believe it was April if I didn't see the calendar. Forget about that robin pecking at the window, and the buds on the trees. If I don't see it in black and white, it's Nature pulling a fast one. Maybe a thaw.

So he had disappeared.

I thought about calling the police, but I remembered they couldn't

do anything-Matt was a grown man, and there hadn't been any bloodstains in his apartment. Besides, I hadn't been on terribly good terms with the local constables ever since that year I was experimenting with recreational chemicals.

Still, I gave it a try. I actually went into the police station-me, with my long hair and beard. Nobody gave me more than a casual glance, but my back still prickled-probably from an early memory, a very early memory, of my father saying something about "the pigs" loving to beat on anybody who didn't have a crew cut. Of course, that was long ago, in 1968, and I was so little that all I remember of him was a big, tall pair of blue jeans with a tie-dyed T-shirt and a lot of hair at the top. I hated that memory for ten years, because it was all I knew of him until Mom decided to get in touch with him again, and I found out he wasn't really the ogre I figured he must have been, to have left Mom and me that way. Found out it wasn't all his idea, either. And I had a basis for understanding him-by that time, I had begun to know what it was like to have all the other kids put you down.

"I'm sorry, kid," he told me once. "I didn't know alienation was hereditary. " Of course, it wasn't-just the personality traits that led to it. I wouldn't say I ever loved him, but at least I warmed to him some. He had shaved and gotten a haircut, even a three-piece suit, by then, but it didn't fool anybody for very long. Especially me. Maybe that's why I wear chambray and blue jeans. And long hair, and a beard-like my early memories of him.

And early memories stay with you longest and deepest, so I really felt as if I were walking into the lion's den.

The cop at the desk looked up as I approached. "Can I help you?" About then, he could have helped me out of there, and I might have needed it-but I said, "I hope so. A friend of mine. He's disappeared. Right away, he looked grave. "Did he leave any message?" I thought of the parchment, but what good is writing you can't read? Besides, he wasn't the one who wrote it. "Not a word." He frowned. "But he was over twenty-one"' "Yeah," I admitted.

"Any reason to think there might have been foul play?" Now, that question sent the icicle skittering down my spine. Not that the idea hadn't been there, lurking at the back of my dread, mind you-but I had worked real hard not to put words to it. Now that the sergeant had, I couldn't ignore it any more. "Not really," I admitted.

"It's just not like him to pick up and pack out like that."

"It happens," the sergeant sighed. "People just get fed up with life and take off. We'll post his name and watch for him, and let you know if we find out anything-but that's all we can do." I'd been pretty sure of that. "Thanks," I said. "He's Matt Mantrell.

Matthew. And I'm-" "Saul Bremener." He kept his eyes on the form he was filling in.

"Three-ten North Thirteenth Street. We'll let you know if we hear anything. " My stomach went hollow, and my skin crawled. It doesn't always help your morale, finding out that the cops know you by name.

"Uh ... thanks," I croaked.

"Don't mention it." He looked up. "Have a good day, Mr. Bremener-and don't take any wooden cigarettes, okay?"

"Wooden," I agreed, and turned numbly about and drifted out of that den of doom. So they remembered my little experiments. It makes one wonder.

The sunlight and morning air braced me, in spite of the lack of sleep. I decided they were nice guys, after all-they'd left me alone until they could see if it was a passing fad, or something permanent. Passing, in my case. So it was smart-they'd saved taxpayers'

money and my reputation. I wondered if there was anything written about me anywhere.

Probably. Somewhere. I mean, they had to have something to do during the slow season. I began to sympathize with Matt-maybe blowing town suddenly wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Get real, I told myself sternly. Where else would I find such sympathetic cops?

Back to the search. Maybe they couldn't do anything officially, but I wasn't official.

So I searched high and low, called the last girl Matt had been seen with-back when I was a junior-and started getting baggy eyes myself. Finally, I took a few slugs of Pepto-Bismol as a preventative, screwed my disgust to the nausea point, and went back into his apartment.

I scolded myself for not having moved that table; just lucky Matt hadn't left anything on it. I laid my notebook down on the desk next to the phone and gave a quick look at the table, the kitchenette counter, and the miniature sofa. Nothing there but dust and spider silk.

Then I went through that apartment inch by inch, clearing webs and squashing spiders. Or trying to, anyway-I must have been dealing with a new and mutant breed. Those little bug-eaters were fast!

Especially the big fat one-I took my eyes off it for a second to glance at the arachnid next door, and when I glanced back, it wasn't there any more.

it wasn't the only thing that wasn't there-neither was any sign of where Matt might be. I mean, nothing-until I turned and looked at the kitchenette table and saw the parchment.

I stared. Then I closed my eyes, shook my head, and stared again. it was still there. I could have sworn I'd put it back in my notebook-so I picked up the notebook and checked. Yep, the piece of sheepskin was still in it, all right.

That gave me pause. Practically a freeze, really, while I thought unprintable thoughts. Finally, slowly, I looked up and checked again. it was on the table.

I looked down at the notebook, real fast, but not fast enough-it was back between the lined sheets. I held my head still and flicked a glance over to the table, but it must have read my mind, 'cause it was there by the time I looked. Then I laid down the notebook, real carefully, and stepped back, so I could see both the notebook and the table at the same time.

They each had a parchment.

Well, that settled that. I gave up and brought the notebook over to the table. I set it down beside the parchment. Yep, they were both still there-Matt's parchment in my notebook, and a brand-new one where none had ever been before. At least, a few minutes before-I had checked the table as I crawled across it. I frowned, taking a closer look at the new parchment.

It was written in runes, and the "paper" was genuine sheepskin, all right.

How come runes?

Because runes are magical.

I tried to ignore the prickling at the base of my skull and told myself sternly that runes were just ordinary, everyday letters in somebody else's language. Okay, so it was an old language, and a lot of the items written in it had been ceremonial, which was why they had been preserved-but that didn't mean they were magical. I mean, the people who wrote them may have thought they could work magichut that was just superstition.

But it was also something that made the scholar in me sit up brightly and smack his lips. I mean, literature had been one of my undergraduate majors-justified an extra year on campus, right thereand although it wasn't my main field any more, I was still interested. I'd learned at least a little bit about those old symbols-and I knew Matt had a book around here that explained the rest. I hunted around until I found it, blew the dust and webbing off, and sat down to study. I looked up each rune and wrote its Roman-letter equivalent just above it. I tried pencil first, but it just skittered off that slick surface, so I had to use a felt pen. After all, this couldn't really be anything old, could it?

After three letters, I leaned back to see if it made a word. H-e-y.

I recoiled and glared down at it. How dare it sound like English!

just a coincidence. I went to work on the next word. P-a-u-l.

I sat very still, my glance riveted to those runes. "Hey, Paul"?

Who in the ninth century knew my name?

Then a thought skipped through, and I took a closer look at the parchment. I mean, the material itself. It was new, brand-new, fresh off the sheep, compared to Matt's parchment, which was brittle and yellow-several years old, at least. Something inside me whispered centuries, but I resolutely ignored it and went on to the next word. I wrote the Roman letters above the runes, refusing to be sidetracked, resisting the temptation to pronounce the words they formed, until I had all the symbols converted-though something inside me was adding them up as I went along, and whispering a very nasty suspicion to me. But as long as I had another rune to look up, I could ignore it-even after I'd already learned all the runes again and was looking each one up very deliberately, telling myself it was just to make sure I hadn't made a mistake.

Finally, though, I had written down all the letter equivalents and I couldn't put it off any longer. I stayed hunched over the parchment, my hands spread flat on the table, trying to grip into the plywood as I read the translated words.

H-e-y P-a-ul g-e-t i-n t-o-u-c-h I-v-e I-o-s-t y-o-u-r address. Or, to give it the proper emphatic delivery: "Hey, Paul! Get in touch! I've lost your address!"

I could almost hear Matt's voice saying those words, and I swear my nails bit into the plywood. What kin o a ousy joe was t is?

Friend? You call that a friend? First he leaves town without a word, and then he sends me this?

I was just realizing that he couldn't have sent it, when I felt the pain in the back of my hand.

"Damn!" I snatched it back, saw the little red dot in the center, then the big fat spider standing there with that big wide grin painted on its abdomen, and so help me, it was laughing at me. Anger churned up, but the room was already getting fuzzy. Still, I tried to hang on to that anger, tried to lift a hand to swat-the blasted thing had no right to ...

But before I could even finish the thought, the haze thickened, wrapped itself around me like a cool blanket, rolled itself up, and bore me away to someplace dim and distant, and I almost managed to stay conscious.

Chapter Two

When I came to, the mist was gone, and I felt amazingly well. I mean, I had never felt that whole, that healthy, since I was a kid-and I hadn't been aware of it then, of course. it was like waking up on an April day, with the air fresh and warming from the night's chill, and the sun painting the day in primaries as you watch, and knowing it's your birthday.

But it wasn't April, it was November, and I was inside Matt's apartment. Only I wasn't, I was out in the open-and it wasn't November any more, it really was April. Either that, or it was Florida. Florida, with mountains stabbing up from the horizon? And not gently rounded mountains, like the Appalachians, but jagged granite obelisks, with snow on top?

Of course, they were off in the distance. Close by, all I could see was a field of wheat, with two or three little hedges cutting it into odd shapes. Whoever lived here, they could use some lessons in geometry.

I was just beginning to wonder how I'd come here, when I saw the knight.

Well, I knew about the Society for Creative Anachronism, of course, but I also knew they didn't go in for tilting, and this guy was carrying one of the most authentic lances I could have imagined. Plus, he was riding a Percheron-and I don't know any SCA types who could afford the upkeep on a pony, let alone a beerwagon bronc. And, of course, there were the half-dozen men on

foot behind him, all wearing more or less the same combination of brown and gray, with steel bands glinting on their hats and long spears in their hands. They raised a whoop and pointed at me. The knight turned to look.

He saw me and perked up right away-dropped the point of the lance to horizontal, aimed the warhorse at me, and kicked it into a gallop. Must have been the long hair and the beard. Mine, I mean. Either that, or he had something against blue jeans and chambray. His men raised another whoop and came pelting after him like children hearing the bells on an ice cream truck. I just stood there, staring at all that scrap iron and horse meat thundering down at me, trying very, very hard not to believe any of it.

Then I realized the tip of the lance had come close enough so that I could see it was sharp and made of steel, and I had to believe that much. I jumped aside. The rider tried to swerve, bellowing some nasty things, but his Percheron didn't have that tight a turning radius, and he went crashing into the underbrush.

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