This story is set just before the beginning of Season Six; as such, it takes place subsequent to events in "The Gift". (When I was writing it, I thought of the setting as being relatively obscure; I have since learned that Hercules/Xena fans are thoroughly conversant with the subject, and have even offered advice on some of the subtler points.) Like most of my fics, it places its focus elsewhere than on major Buffy characters. Hope that doesn't bother anyone; if it does, you've been duly warned.
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related characters are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox.
The woman behind the desk was a butterscotch blonde with one of those angular, high-cheekboned British faces. The impression was reinforced by her style of dress, a tastefully tailored suit in cream and subdued brown. She looked to be in her mid-forties, and chronically dissatisfied. At the moment, her visitor admitted to himself, she had little reason to be pleased. "You don't have an appointment," she was saying for the second time. "I must insist that you leave."
"Call your boss," he repeated in turn. "I have to see him." He gave the office another, closer inspection. The furniture was wood, polished to a high gloss rather than varnished. The walls were covered in an expensive-looking but rather unattractive textured cloth; the carpet was crisp and resilient. He didn't believe any of it.
"You're not authorized to be here," the woman told him. "You have no business with this organization. If you don't leave at once, I shall call Security."
With a heavy sigh the young man killed her, his roundhouse kick reaching across the desktop to crush her throat. Even as she slammed back against the wall, one of her shoes flipping upward in ironic counterpoint, he let his original spin carry him the rest of the way around, and came down facing the door, hands up and ready. No one was there. He held the stance for several seconds, waiting and listening, then settled back with a simultaneous sense of foolishness and unease. No reason why 'Security' -- if they existed -- would be constrained to use the door, but it wouldn't have done to ignore it.
The room, he noted, had not faded away when he killed the secretary. Further, it didn't appear that anyone was going to come to him, at least not immediately. He sighed again, and turned back to the desk. A stockinged foot protruded from beneath it; the woman had apparently rebounded from the wall, to slide out of her chair and down under the desk. The visitor chided himself internally for keeping his back to her for so long; he couldn't afford to repeat such carelessness.
The telephone emitted a dial tone when he picked it up, but that still left the matter of which number to try. He punched in "0"; if They could dream up an office, why not a switchboard? He heard ringing over the line, but broke the connection after ten rings without an answer. Next he ventured "411", then "911"; and, after some seconds' consideration, "666". None of the three connected him to another line. Either the telephone was just window dressing (much, he believed, as was the rest of this setup), or whatever infernal 'operator' worked it was out to lunch by now. Or else, he reminded himself, he was being watched, and the watchers would get around to him in Their own sweet time.
This was not getting easier. His eyes settled on a Rolodex, nestled between the telephone and the raised edge of the desktop, and he reached for it with a soft grunt of satisfaction. This, at least, should give him some idea where to start ...
Nothing. The index cards were all blank. There were over a hundred, and he turned the Rolodex to flip through them; not one carried a name or number. He pushed the device away, lips pursed and eyebrows knit. A file full of blank cards. Right. This was the first explicit evidence he had found to support his strongest suspicion: that this office was pure phony, stage-set to divert or confuse unwelcome callers -- if not for his own sole benefit -- that the rules were not just different but wholly unknown.
He picked up the telephone again, though he doubted it was necessary. "I'm here, and you know it," he said into the mouthpiece. "We can talk, or I can see how much trouble I can cause. It's up to you." He hung up without waiting for an answer.
Strong words, and he had meant them, but actually carrying out the threat might pose something of a problem. The power here was enormously beyond anything he could hope to muster; theoretically he occupied a peculiar position that (theoretically) protected him from direct attack, but his own ability to affect his current environs and their unseen controller(s) was severely limited. For well over a year he had driven himself with pitiless determination in preparation for a battle that had then escaped him, followed by months of equally focused search for a means of entering this hidden domain: begging, blustering, bribing, using flattery or force or guile to gather mystical secrets or artifacts which could then be used to acquire yet greater advantage. In the end, however, he had gained only ingress, finding it impossible to take along anything beyond the knowledge in his head and the hard-tempered capacities of his body. Cunningly applied, those might be sufficient, but that brought him back to choosing the manner of application.
He glanced around the office one more time, turning in a slow circle, sorting possibilities. Start breaking furniture, expanding the circle of destruction as he proceeded? A fire would provide better effect for less effort, if he could start one, but it might be that the hands-on touch would communicate greater affront. Or he could take a lotus position on the top of the desk and begin reciting phrases in Attic Greek, biblical Hebrew, Farsi, Mandarin, ecclesiastical Latin, gutter Fyarll and ceremonial Iroquoian, painstakingly chosen and memorized for their offensiveness and projected disruption quotient ...
He saw the second door when the surveying circle put his back to the main entrance. He stared for several seconds, his skin crawling despite his most brutal efforts at self-control. The central door faced the secretary's desk, so that visitors could be screened and the unwelcome turned away; the second door was behind the desk and to its right. Had it been there when he came in? He couldn't remember seeing it before. Conversely, he had no precise memory of its not being there. It seemed impossible that he could have inspected the office and searched the desk for clues without noticing another door, but that didn't mean it couldn't have happened ...
He shook his head with a faint growl of disgust. He was prepared to face the deadly or the bizarre, but some orderly corner of his mind still rebelled against uncertainty. Well, he wasn't about to let that stop him. He crossed to the door and opened it.
The inner room was consistent with the style he had seen so far, though the décor was both more tasteful and more lavish, and the lighting scheme more subdued. The desk was executive model, and a separate computer station was set into one corner of the room. On the other wall was a wet bar. "All right, then, you're here," said the old man at the bar. "I don't suppose you have a name?"
The one thus addressed stepped inside without answering, every nerve on shrieking alert. He didn't want to take his eyes off the old man, he didn't want to chance missing anything else. He felt the familiar tingle of adrenaline, his weight shifting onto the balls of his feet. This was like the charged seconds before a match began, but a thousand times more intense. He could die in the next minute. He had never been more alive. If his stomach didn't hold still, he was going to throw up.
The old man was just under six feet tall, and a bit too thickset to be categorized as 'medium build'. He wore a white short-sleeved polo shirt, white khaki slacks, and white canvas shoes, but there was nothing effete about him; he simply looked comfortable. His forearms were heavy with muscle, and the skin of his arms and face had the graininess that comes with age. He appeared to be around sixty years old, a very robust sixty. His hair was cropped short, not so much gray as evenly mixed black and white, and he had a short, crisp beard. The lines of the face were severe, but there might have been a hint of sardonic humor in the eyes. The newcomer drew no comfort from this; for all he knew, there was something entertaining in watching an idiot hurry to his doom.
"I asked your name," the old man prompted, impatience barely showing past the total, unruffled confidence. "It's only common courtesy to introduce yourself."
The intruder stopped when he was within five feet. (Optimum striking distance, and you could guarantee the old man knew it as well as he did. Still, you worked with what you had.) "You can call me Cale," he said.
The old man regarded him with a faint lift of one eyebrow. "Not your real name, naturally. Can't blame you for being careful, though you'd have been a lot more careful to just stay the hell home." He inspected thick, square fingernails. "Cale. Is that supposed to carry any special meaning?"
"No." The younger man shook his head. "But I'll answer to it."
"Hmmp. Well, it'll do," the old man said. He did not, Cale noted, offer to identify himself. Not that there was much doubt. "You aren't much for manners, but you made it this far, so I suppose I should offer you a drink."
Good. Good. Getting inside in the first place had been the first encouraging sign; not being killed within seconds of the meeting ratcheted that up by a factor of a hundred or so. All the same, this was no time to get reckless. Cale weighed the offer, and asked,"What do you recommend?"
"I don't know your tastes," the old man said with a shrug. "You invited yourself, y'know. But I have anything you might care to try." He gestured at the bar without looking away from Cale. "Liquor, soft drinks, fruit juice, your pleasure."
The words were out before Cale could stop them. "Pomegranate juice?" he said.
The old man's lips thinned, and his eyes were suddenly cold. "You won't make yourself popular with that kind of smart mouth, boy." He strode across the room to his desk, and sent a swivel chair spinning over to where Cale stood. "Sit down," he commanded. "I want to know how you found this place."
Cale considered it, then sat down slowly. "I think I'd rather not tell you," he said. "I can't see me wanting to come back here, but somebody else might, and I don't see why I should make it harder for them. Unless you'd like to bargain for the information?"
The old man's smile held no amusement, and he leaned back against the desk. "I don't bargain, boy, at least not here I don't, and definitely not with macho punks like you. As for coming back, you might not even leave. You have pissed me off royally: bulldozing in here, killing my secretary ..."
"I was tired of being jerked around," Cale interrupted. "You know everything that goes on in this place, you knew I was here looking for you. She was trying to give me the brush-off, and I wanted to make it clear that I wasn't having any. You can always replace her ... or bring her back, if she was real."
"I do have a sizeable labor pool," the old man admitted. "But I'm still torqued. Taekwon-do?"
"What?" Cale asked.
"The kick," the old man said. "Hard to tell from only one technique, and so many people mix styles these days, but it looked like taekwon-do to me."
Cale thought before answering. "A little bit of a mix," he conceded. "Some taekwon-do, but mostly hapkido." He wasn't ready to chance an outright lie, but at the same time he saw no point in giving away even the tiniest advantage. He hadn't done taekwon-do since seventh grade; his most recent and intense experience had ranged through muay Thai, American Kenpo, hard-style Shotokan, vale tudo ... driving himself through group classes and one-on-one instruction, culling the essential techniques and then drilling himself for hours every day, striking and grappling in steel cages and fight clubs and private no-holds-barred challenges. Never using his own name (he had debts to settle, and that hadn't involved providing any kind of advance warning), so that in more than a year of savage conditioning he had begun to think of himself as Cale ...
He pulled himself back to the moment; the old man was speaking. "... more in my nephew's field than mine, but the Asians do make fine warriors, though they get a little too esoteric for my tastes. You really think it'll do you any good?"
Cale shrugged with calculated nonchalance. "I doubt it. But it doesn't matter."
"It matters, boy." The old man moved behind the desk, sat down. "Believe me, it matters."
"No, it doesn't," Cale said, sharp and forceful. "And I'll tell you why. Before I started this trip, I worked out the possibilities in my head. Either you can kill me, or you can't. Personally, I don't think you can; I think the way things are set up, you can only touch the people who come here through normal channels. But if I'm wrong, either you will kill me or you won't. And I'm ready for either one."
The old man nodded. "Clear thinking, as far as it goes," he observed. "But you left out one option. If it comes right down to it, I can just wait for you to go away." A thin smile. "I've had a lot of practice at waiting."
"I'd advise you not to try it," Cale said. "I didn't come here unprepared, and I didn't really expect to find you in a cooperative mood. Push me to it, and I guarantee to make myself impossible to ignore."
The answer was a derisive snort. "Been awhile since anyone had the brass to threaten me. You in that big a hurry to die?"
"No, I'm not," Cale said. "I'll fight you every way I know how, if I have to, even though I don't think there's any chance I could win or even hold my own. But I'm not backing down. I don't leave until I have what I came here for."
The old man sighed and settled back in his chair. "Let me guess," he said with inexpressible weariness. "A woman?"
Cale's smile was a grimace without mirth. "Isn't it always?"
"Damn near," the old man admitted gloomily. "That doesn't stop me from hoping for something different, just to break the monotony." He shot a suspicious glance at Cale. "You aren't going to start singing, are you?"
"Singing?" Cale shook his head. "Would it make any difference?"
"A few have tried it," the old man said. "Should have known better, I never fall for any trick twice. Warriors lose their weapons on the way in, magic-users can't pack enough juice to make much of a dent ... there was a professional escape artist who gave me a little bit of a challenge, but that was a generation ago." He tilted back in his chair, looked Cale over again. "You're the first to think he could accomplish anything by sheer rudeness."
"Well?" Cale said. "Am I wrong?"
The old man let out his breath with a whoosh. "I'm having trouble figuring you out, boy. You can't have gotten here without knowing a lot about me, and if you know anything you know that I keep what's mine. Not greediness, it's just how the rules are set up.The minstrel almost found a loophole, but that was a freak case. Only a dozen or so have tried it since then. They came up dry, and you're no different."
Cale was surprised, though he didn't let it show on his face; he would have thought there would have been more to make the atempt. Had he been luckier than he had realized in finding a side-entrance to the old man's domain? If so, he was ready to stretch that luck to its farthest limit. "I guess I really blew it," he said, standing. "So I was wrong. So there's no way to break one of your contracts. So send me back where I came from, and have a big laugh at the dumb bozo who thought he could waltz in here and tell you what to do." He forced his eyes to lock with those of his 'host'. "I'm waiting."
The old man drummed his fingers on the desktop. "You're going to come to a bad end, boy. You're wrong about me not being able to touch you; I can, if I really want to and if I'm ready to take the hassle that comes with breaking procedure. You can't tell me what to do, not here on my home ground, and that's the bottom line."
Cale folded his arms across his chest, said nothing. You didn't fight as many matches as he had without being able to feel an opening in your opponent, and one was there now. So stand pat, let it run ...
"On the other hand," the old man said, "you just being here makes a hell of an itch, and I can't scratch it without causing more trouble for myself than you ever could. I could wait you out, if I put my mind to it, but I'm not in the mood. You up for a game?"
At once wary and hopeful, Cale repeated, "A game?" He'd been watching for some such overture; this was where the old man would try to catch him out, and this was where he might gain the leverage he needed. "What kind of game?"
"A series of trials," the old man replied. "Pass them, I'll give you what you want. Fail, and you're mine." His gaze was appraising and amused. "Or you could let it go, leave while you're ahead. 'Course, I wouldn't lay heavy odds on you showing that much good sense."
"Trials," Cale said, again echoing the old man's earlier statement. He made a show of considering, then announced, "I don't think so. I'm not about to put myself in your hands, not without a better idea of what I'd be facing."
"You don't get a playbook, boy," the old man scoffed. "And you don't dictate terms to me. Take it or leave it."
Okay, now it was getting ticklish. He couldn't afford to take it, not as it currently stood, but a flat refusal would stiffen the old man's position. "The more trials there are, the more chances I have to fail," he pointed out. "You could just keep piling them on till I fumbled a play or fell over from exhaustion. Make it one fair challenge and I might take a chance."
The old man's laugh was like a gunshot. "First you threaten, then you try to haggle. You might've been better off singing." Despite the scorn of his words, his eyes were bright with growing eagerness. "No, one challenge you might sail through by blind luck. Five would make a nice, well-rounded test."
"Really?" Cale let his voice show some of the same competitive excitement, enough to keep the other on the hook. "I'd love to find someone sucker enough to buy a pitch like that. Use the first few trials to gauge the guy's weaknesses, and then shape the next set to zero in on them. No, if you want to rule out luck, two trials should be enough."
"Three," the old man said. "Final offer. Don't try to angle for better."
"I don't know," Cale said. "You've got the home field advantage here, I can't afford to give away too much. How about this: you get your challenges, but we go best two out of three."
The line of the old man's jaw had hardened. "I told you not to push for more," he said. "You don't listen too good, do you?"
"I listened to the part about me making an itch you couldn't scratch," Cale shot back. "That's an advantage I'm not about to lose. I might trade it for a good deal, but I won't throw it away for a crappy one."
The old man glowered at him, eyes like lasers, and Cale matched him glare for glare. He'd already put it all on the line here: not just his life, but an eternity of torment if he failed. What else was he supposed to have to lose?
"Three trials," the old man said at last. "Win them all, I give you the woman. Lose one, you still get to leave free and clear. Lose two or more, you come under my authority. And that really is the bottom line."
Could he gain any more points here? Probably not, the old man's words had carried a ring of finality. "Okay, what kind of challenges?" Cale held up one hand to forestall an eruption. "I'm not bargaining now, I just want to know if this is something I can agree to."
The old man's gesture was sharp and irritable; clearly, his patience was on a fast ebb. "Standard stuff: mind, body, spirit. The idea isn't to squash you, although I'll admit I'm starting to lean that way; no, this is to make sure no one wins a dispensation unless he's worthy." His eyes swept Cale in a slow, unimpressed assessment. "You've got nerve and guts, but I've seen my share of heroes, and you don't qualify. I'll give you a fair test because I don't see you passing a fair test. What do you say to that?"
This was it, Cale realized. He'd hit the limits, he wouldn't get a better deal than he had already. Nor was there any question of backing out; that decision had been made before he ever came here, he couldn't walk away now. "Three trials," he said briskly. "Body, mind, and spirit. One and I'm toast, two and I break even, three and I win. I've got your word on this?"
The old man stood and stepped away from the desk. "I will serve you no challenge that a strong, brave, clever man cannot meet," he said, his voice deepening into a knell of power. "And I will afford you such reward as you truly earn. By my name and dominion, this be so." He slanted a look at Cale, and in a normal tone he said, "Satisfied?"
It would have to do. The old man would keep his word or he wouldn't; in either case, it was out of his hands. "Your word is all I asked," he said in reply. "We have a deal."
"Okay, then," the old man said, rubbing his hands together in slow pleasure. "Might as well go straight to it ... unless you'd like a chance to get yourself ready, or to reconsider?"
Cale gave it a moment's thought. Was there anything to be gained by playing for time, trying to learn more of what he might be facing? He couldn't see it; he had placed himself in the other's power, and added time was more likely to favor his adversary. "I'm ready now," he said, freighting the words with total conviction. "And I won't be changing my mind."
"Suit yourself," the old man said. "That door there --" (Damn it, there hadn't been any such door when he first came in, he knew he'd checked the room this time!) "-- will lead to your first challenge." He sat back in the chair and crossed his feet on the surface of the desk. "Any last words you want to throw out?"
Cale barely heard him; he was already walking toward the door, all his attention narrowing and sharpening to the task ahead. Then the words penetrated. He stopped with his hand on the doorknob, searching for a snappy response.
None came. He shook his head without looking back, and turned the knob.
The door opened out into a courtyard, an enclosed space with walls and paving of rough brown stone, a small garden section, and an alcove at the far end within which a second door was set. Two benches were placed at opposite sides, east/west where the doors were north/south, and from the east bench a man rose without hurry at the sight of Cale. "Ah," he said. "I wasn't told. A moment, if you will." He stepped out of the sandals he wore and shrugged off his outer garment, a kind of sleeveless tunic of coarse weave, loosely belted and of the same general color as the courtyard stone. Beneath it he wore only a brief loin-cloth of some twisted fabric; he was solidly muscled, with whitened scars on his arms, chest, and at the left knee, but would have been easily six inches shorter than Cale, perhaps more, and of proportionately less weight. He crossed to a point a dozen feet or so from the far door, his steps light, brisk, and casual, and turned to face his visitor. "Now. We may begin whenever you wish."
The man's demeanor was cordial, even cheerful, and Cale found himself uncomforted. He had seen the same kind of thing at many tournaments: quiet, diffident, polite men who hung back, watched and nodded, and invariably surprised the swaggering steroid freaks and chest-beaters. He had learned to be wary of the type, and now he stopped well short of where the other had taken his position. His features carefully composed, he said, "So what's the deal here? Any rules I should know about?"
"Yes, that would be important," the other man acknowledged. He made a gesture that took in his surroundings, and said, "Within these walls, the only law is that of my lord Dis, and he tells me that I may let none pass. Still, I abide by certain guidelines, for sport and for the sake of fair play. I am not bound by them, save by my own choice, but you might find them of interest."
"Sure," Cale said, matching his tone and manner to that of the smaller man. "Fire away."
If the other had any trouble understanding the colloquialism, he showed no sign of it. "To begin, I will contest with you only while you stand within the field of play." He indicated the stones at his feet, and Cale saw that a semicircular line was of a somewhat lighter color, marking an area roughly the shape of the three-point boundary on a basketball court, though at least twice the size. "Then, if it is agreeable, we will set our match in three parts. In the first I will only defend, and you may attack as you will. In the next, I will assess your own defenses, but on my word I will not attempt to land a deciding blow. In the last, there are no constraints, and the victor is he who stands at the end." His smile, amiable and relaxed, showed who he expected that to be.
"I agree to your rules," Cale said, and launched himself into the circle with a huge leap, going at his adversary with every last measure of his greater weight and reach and momentum, striking and kicking and driving in to grapple. Where he had jockeyed for advantage with the old man, all his instincts told him that here he faced a fighter of such consummate skill that he couldn't afford to give the man a single extra moment to further gauge his capabilities.
It was like chasing a ghost. Within the first second it was clear that he had achieved no momentary surprise with the instant attack; his nameless foe slipped the assault so smoothly that it felt as if Cale had hurled himself at the wrong space within the stone circle, and continued to evade, parry and misdirect Cale's follow-ups with an unsettling lack of effort. When Cale attempted to use his attacks to shift their relative positions and edge himself closer to the far door, however, the other man's techniques changed. Though he held himself to the defensive posture he had promised, the defenses immediately became more painful: easy deflections gave way to hard-bone blocks, redirections of motion were extended to send Cale tumbling and gasping across the floor of the courtyard, and the last such flung him entirely out of the designated combat circle.
Cale stood, breathing hard, to find the other man watching him with mild eyes; he hadn't even broken a sweat. "An amateur, then," he observed with apparent regret. "You could show promise with seasoning, but for now I fear you are much overmatched. Ah, well. With your leave, we may rest a moment before the next bout."
Cale nodded wordlessly, and turned to trudge toward the bench opposite the one where his adversary had previously sat. It was an unexpected courtesy -- the other man needed no rest, he had nullified Cale's attacks almost absentmindedly -- but one he intended to exploit to the fullest. In his peripheral vision he saw his foe move to the second bench (though he had waited until Cale was well away from the marking line), where he lounged with a seeming unconcern that somehow failed to convey carelessness or lack of attention.
Behind the bench was a small pool fed by a low, bubbling fountain; mossy rocks lined the sides and bottom, and iridescent fishes darted in the green shadows. Cale gazed at the rippled surface for several minutes, eyes blank, then went to his knees in front of the pool. He took off his shirt, by now grimed with sweat and dust, and laid it out in front of where he knelt; and, reaching down into the cool depths, drew up water to splash on his arms and bare chest and face, though he was careful not to let any drop of it pass his lips.
When at last he returned to the bench, he left the shirt loosely folded next to him, and sat silently studying the man who waited on the other side of the courtyard. 'No challenge that a strong, brave, clever man cannot meet.' Right. He knew his own capabilities, knew without vanity that his hand-to-hand skills were equal to those required by any special forces unit on Earth; but the man he faced was at an entirely different level, proficient to a degree that almost transcended human flesh. He might well have jabbed and cut with cestus-spiked fists in the original Olympics, or stood in the Coliseum with upraised arms to the cheers of Roman multitudes ... and then spent a couple of millennia in the old man's realm, honing his art against all comers. There was no possibility of beating him in a straight-up fight. None.
Cale stood, and the other man did likewise. They started for the contest circle, Cale leaving his shirt on the bench. The pugilist quickened his step to reach the circle several seconds in advance, and Cale made no attempt to compete for first arrival; something told him that would have proven uncomfortable as well as unsuccessful. This time the other man took position some five feet back of the boundary, so that Cale could enter the circle without being immediately nose-to-nose with his adversary. Cale nodded his appreciation and stepped inside, and the other man was on him with the leisurely power of a tidal wave.
Just as before, Cale was helpless against his opponent. He tried to turn off his mind and let his reflexes meet the other's advance, but found that to be no more effectual than conscious strategy; the smaller man probed with light, darting jabs that shifted instantly to take merciless advantage of Cale's automatic responses. True to his word, he held back from the finishing strike he could have delivered at any moment, but Cale was taking substantially more of a pounding than he had received in the first segment of this one-sided contest. Reminding himself that the other man had placed no restrictions on his role -- he had only sworn to his own behavior -- Cale doggedly moved to the offensive, calling on everything he had learned, trapping and shin-kicks and nerve-point techniques, grappling, joint locks, anything that might serve against the irresistible versatility and craft of his foe.
It failed as he had known it would, the other man somehow blocking and striking simultaneously, so perfectly synchronized with the fruitless attempts that Cale might as well have been attacking himself. Still he refused to back away, soaking up a systematic pummeling that steadily became more intense, until one last panting, uncoordinated swing overbalanced him and Cale again stumbled outside the stone circle.
He stayed where he had fallen for three or four minutes, supporting himself on his hands and knees while he forced air through ragged lungs. The pugilist stood, silent and watchful, until Cale pulled himself to his feet and began moving back toward the neutral bench. As he had done before, the other waited until Cale was halfway to his destination before stepping out of the circle. "You do not beg," he said to Cale's back. "You meet your fate without hesitation or retreat. I respect this. Take as long as you wish to recover. We know how this will end; it need not be hastened."
Cale lifted a hand in acknowledgement, but didn't turn or speak. All the same, he kept the other man in the corner of his eye as he neared the bench. There would be a moment ... It came, and in the instant the smaller man began to recline on his own bench, Cale snatched up his shirt by the sleeves, whipped it around his head in a quick arc, and hurled it across the courtyard at his foe, and was racing for the contest circle even as the improvised missile left his hand.
He had set a pattern, he had taken his lumps and fought on against hopeless odds and done all the things a strong, brave, overmatched man would do, while he waited for the only chance he would have. The shirt, folded with seeming carelessness, was in fact loosely knotted around a pear-sized stone he had palmed from the bottom of the pool, and the single swing had sent it rocketing toward the other bench with centrifugal force augmenting all his frantic strength. In the fraction of a second the pugilist needed to reach his feet, the barely padded stone struck home: not against his head -- that would have been ideal -- but to the side of the scarred knee, and the man stumbled for a crucial moment before regaining his balance and bounding in grim pursuit.
After the first bout, and throughout the second, Cale had kept disparate elements foremost in his concentration, even as he had swung and reeled under the methodical punishment of his adversary. The man's behavior, guarding the area around the door until Cale was well away from it (which had in turn allowed Cale to reach his own bench, and hidden weapon, first); where the two benches lay in relation to the far door; speed and distance, and how the slung stone could not only reach the other man far more swiftly than a direct charge, but could be launched in the same instant Cale dashed for his goal; the other man's several-times-demonstrated sense of fair play, which might make him the tiniest bit slower to recognize and react to trickery from one who had fought him toe-to-toe even though unquestionably outclassed.
And one last thing: the door itself. Cale had been confident that he could maintain his brief lead in the short race to and through the stone circle ... but if he had to stop at the door and pull it open, rather than pushing straight through, he was a dead man, plain and simple. The door leading into the courtyard had opened to a push, and the one before him now --
-- did the same. Cale burst through it and out of the courtyard, and the first trial was behind him.
* * *
He was a man renewed. Literally; as soon as he was through the door, he found himself restored to his pre-trial condition. The bruises and sprains were gone, the split lip and bloodied nose, the scrapes from tumbles across the paving stones. He was even wearing his shirt again, unstained and unwrinkled.
Cale pursed his lips in a noiseless whistle. This was encouraging; it not only indicated that he had suitably passed the first challenge, it meant he could meet the next one with none of his physical capacity eroded. Before, he had refused to consider the possibility of failure, but now he began actually to believe he might succeed.
Resolutely he clamped down on that line of thought. One thing at a time, and his current task required all his attention. The door from the courtyard had brought him to a single room, and less mystical surroundings he could hardly have predicted. The walls were plain cinder block; prosaic industrial bulbs provided light, and the floor was equally undistinguished concrete. Where the courtyard might have been from the garden of a Roman villa or feudal estate, this room was seemingly drawn from some minor factory or municipal storage facility. Cale's first thought was that he was in a transitional area, with the second challenge yet to be encountered; as his eyes took in more detail, he began to revise that impression.
To begin with, the door on the far side of the room (not the one through which he had entered, he wouldn't be opening that one again unless absolutely all other options had been exhausted) had no visible handle or latch, and when he pushed experimentally, it held solid with no hint of swinging open. For another thing, the room itself was featureless; a brief glance showed no furniture, no fixtures, nothing except himself and the two doors. He was about to return to inspecting the exit door when something caught his eye, something beside the frame of the entrance door, and he went to get a closer look. A metal collar of some kind, like a medium-sized drain pipe, was set into the wall, and protruding from it for a few inches was the end of a metal bar. Cale took cautious hold of the bar and withdrew it from the collar; it was not quite four feet long, and as it came clear of the wall he encountered resistance: a chain was riveted to the other end. Automatically he gave the bar another tug, and felt it release another inch or so of slack before again being brought up short.
Another couple of repetitions clarified the situation. Apparently the chain was strung through a clockwork-like mechanism that would feed out a single link when the chain was pulled, but the chain then had to be allowed to retract slightly before the mechanism would release the next link. The bar could be pulled out, along the chain, by means of a series of tug-and-relax motions. But why?
Cale returned to the far door and looked it over again. This time he saw, a hand's breadth from one side, a recessed slot that, on closer inspection, seemed to angle diagonally upward. He suspected that the bar from the other wall would fit into the slot, and then serve as an unlocking handle to open the door.
He didn't like it. The old man had specified tests of body, mind and spirit. The first challenge had been physical, and brutally demanding; if this one, now, was a mental test, wouldn't it be more complicated than what he was seeing? And yet, as he went over and over every detail in the room, Cale could find no added factors. The exit door would not open without some external aid. The chained bar was the only external feature in the room. If there was more to the situation than that, it wasn't readily apparent.
He sighed. It couldn't be that straightforward, but whatever was the twist awaiting him, it would have to be discovered in-process. He went back to the first door, took hold of the bar, and began the pull-slack, pull-slack procedure that fed out the chain.
The room was perhaps thirty feet across. The first four feet of chain played out easily, then Cale began to feel faint resistance. At seven feet the resistance had increased to the point where Cale had to lean back and put some muscle into each pull, but past that the opposing force remained stable, and he settled into a backward rocking motion that continued to play out chain.
At twelve feet he noticed the heat. The bar he was pulling had warmed as he worked, but that could have been the result of normal friction or even his own exertion. It had quickly become uncomfortable, though, and by fifteen feet it was hot. He set his jaw and went on pulling and releasing, pulling and releasing.
At twenty feet a new blister on his palm broke, and the sharp pain startled him just enough that he lost his grasp. The bar jerked from his hands, and he jumped to catch it as the unopposed tension reeled it back toward the wall. It was at seven feet again before he got a good grip and braced to halt the return.
He held where he was for a minute, resting and assessing. The bar seemed to have lost some of its heat when it left his hands; but now, he realized, it was warming again, which meant the temperature increased with time rather than distance. He pulled, and the chain played out as before; gave slack, pulled again, and again it functioned according to its previous pattern.
Cale released the bar and let it return to the wall. He wanted all the heat to dissipate before he started again, and meanwhile he needed to think. Okay, so this was a test of will, meaning a challenge to the spirit. He looked at his hands, and the smaller blisters that bordered the one that had burst. Was there any way to shade the odds, gain an extra edge as he had in the first challenge? The bar itself might provide enough leverage to break the chain, if he could get a good purchase; but the end was too large to fit into any of the links, besides which there was no obvious way to secure any other part of the chain to give him something to twist against.
Or ... right. When he judged that enough time had passed, he took off his shirt, wrapped it around the bar, and began again: pull-slack, pull-slack. This time he went as rapidly as the mechanism would operate, trying to gain distance ahead of the growing heat. At fifteen feet he could feel it through the padding of the shirt; by twenty it was once again nearing the level of pain, but the extra insulation made all the difference. Pull-slack, pull-slack, pull-slack. Twenty-four feet and he knew he could do it, this mechanical mother was hurting him but it wouldn't beat him. Twenty-eight feet, almost to the door ...
The shirt burst into flame. Cale yelped and flung it away, unable to suppress his reaction; the chained bar shot across the room, and the burning cloth flapped to the concrete floor. He shook his scorched hands, blew on them, hugged them into the relative comfort of his armpits. When he had regained control, he looked back to the unlocking bar, now fully recessed once again in its metal collar. His nostrils flared, and his lips thinned to a slit line.
All right. All right, God damn it.
He returned to the entrance door, sat cross-legged in front of it. Anger quickened his pulse, but he made himself relax, made his breathing slow and deliberate, pulled his mind away from the immediate moment and down into a dark, cold place.
The bar hadn't been that hot. It couldn't have gotten so hot as to produce ignition in cloth fiber, not without frying the skin of his palms long before that point. The laws of nature were being bent in this room, so that the the nature of the test would be simple and iron-solid. Strength of will. Strength of will. Fine, then. He knew he had it, he had only to call it up and then hang on to it.
Inhale, exhale. Relax, relax. Clear the mind, wipe away all distractions, strip out everything except the essential focus, the source of his will, the reason he was here. Eyes, an elusive blue-gray-green that defied precise definition, open and clear and holding something he didn't want to name. The feel of her hands clutching at him, the whisper of her breath in his ears. Terror of imminent death, and then salvation from the most unlikely direction, and the expression on that face as he poured out his feelings ... and then the response. Another response, unsought and unexpected, when he had spoken later of what she meant to him. Moments branded on his heart forever, memories that had driven him to remake himself in pursuit of a resolution that had then been snatched away from him. He had refused to accept it, had searched and stolen and fought until he found his way here. He couldn't quit. He would die before he quit. He owed her too much.
Strength of will. Strength of will.
He stood and took hold of the bar, his face empty, eyes unfocused, mind in another place. Pull-slack, pull-slack, pull-slack. Moving like a robot, a machine to match the machine he was working while his soul was concentrated in that center where her memory resided. At twenty feet the torture of his seared hands broke through his detachment; at twenty-five feet he was screaming in rage and defiance, screaming her name as a mantra to force all his resolve into a fire that burned brighter than any suffering. At thirty feet, half-blind with hate and agony and fury, he forced the bar into the door slot and wrenched downward with charred hands, the stink of his own roasting flesh choking his nostrils, and toppled forward into oblivion.
His eyes opened, and he clutched reflexively for support as his mind sought balance. He didn't know where he was, he couldn't see ... a soft cloth was bound around his head, covering his eyes, and he pulled it away with clumsy haste.
"Don't." It was a woman's voice: quiet, controlled, underlaid with an odd note of entreaty. "You don't need to worry. I won't hurt you."
Cale looked to the sound, but he was still disoriented, and his vision registered disconnected details of his surroundings well before he located the speaker. Whitewashed walls, hung with small tapestries and unframed mosaics in multicolored stones. Wooden floors, fine-grained and aromatic with the smell of cedar. (Or perhaps that came from elsewhere; wouldn't cedar be too soft to serve properly as a flooring material?) A chair to one side, woven cloth stretched across a frame ... and, yes, he was lying on a longer version of the same item. A door --
Not a door. His eyes focused, and Cale realized he was looking at a mirror, angled to allow him to see into an adjoining room. A woman (or possibly a girl) sat on one of the frame/cloth chairs; she wore a loose shift of white linen or raw cotton, embroidered with tiny patterns in blue and red and yellow, and her hair was covered with a similarly embroidered cloth, somehow secured behind her head so that the headpiece hung in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a nun's wimple. Her face was clear and olive-complected, with dark eyes and sooty lashes, cleanly arched brows, and full, lush lips. She might have been fourteen, or thirty, or ageless.
"I believe you," Cale said, though he didn't, not entirely. "If you wanted to hurt me, you could have done it already. How long was I out?"
Her hand moved in a small gesture. "Not long. You were gasping, like someone having a nightmare, and then you just stopped. I made you as comfortable as I could, and waited for you to wake up."
He had already ascertained that, as had occurred with the first test, success had reset his body to its uninjured state; even the shirt had again been restored. "Thank you," he said, keeping his eyes on the reflection of the girl's face and his voice low and polite. He had just seen another door behind her, but nothing in his face or manner betrayed the quick lurch of excitement. "I've had a rough afternoon, so a little hospitality is really appreciated right now."
"It ..." The girl bit her lip. "It's nothing, really. I don't get company very often, and it's nice to ... to have someone to be nice to." Her smile was nervous and uncertain. "Would you like me to get you some water, or wine, or tea? Or I have some lemons I could squeeze out ..."
"No, that's all right." Cale returned the smile, imbuing it with a little extra warmth. "According to the stories, I should be careful what I eat or drink while I'm here."
"Oh!" She looked to him with wonder and realization. "So you're a ... visitor? Not one of the residents here?" He nodded confirmation, and she said, "You're right, you probably shouldn't have anything. Although He'd probably want me to make the offer anyhow."
Cale let the light brighten behind his eyes as he smiled again at the wry humor underscoring her words. "Well, you did your best, so he can't hold it against you, now, can he?" It was automatic, old routines smoothly reasserting themselves, and he made no attempt to check it. What he had here ...
Her response was everything he could have hoped for; she positively blossomed at his approval and implied comradeship. "He could," she answered, the cloth that covered her hair stirring with some breeze that didn't reach Cale. "He can do whatever He wants here. But He probably won't."
"Ah," he said, letting the word carry a teasing note. "So you're one of his favorites."
"No, I wouldn't say that." She hadn't exactly been taken aback at the suggestion, but her pleasure had visibly dimmed. "It's just, mostly He leaves me alone here. I ... don't exactly want Him to get interested again, but I do get lonely."
"That's a shame," Cale told her. "A shame, and a waste, and a mystery." The last word made her tilt her head quizzically, and he explained, "That anyone could tire of such pleasant and considerate company." He stood and took a half-step, not toward the mirror but toward the low archway that opened into the room reflected there. "If it were up to me --"
"No!" She had come to her feet with the swiftness of a startled deer, her eyes wide with alarm. "Please, you can't ..." She brought herself under tight control, and looked to him with imploring eyes. "Can we just talk? Just sit awhile, and talk? I get so lonely here, you can't understand ..."
Cale kept bafflement and concern on his face, while his thoughts raced. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you. You've been so nice ... I'd never do anything to offend or upset you." He sat, slowly, his gaze locked with hers and his smile reassuring. She did the same, her mouth trembling with agitation and reluctant hope; she reached up to tuck back the headcloth as it shifted again in response to some ...
Hair, covered. Lonely woman. Infrequent company.
Cale knew what he faced now, and he let the full force of his natural charisma flow out of him even as he evaluated his current position and the possibilities it held. He had taught himself to fight, drilled himself in the rules and nuances of mystical practices ... but dealing with women, that was his own special gift, the arena where he reigned supreme. "If that's what you want, we'll talk," he told her. "It's the least I can do."
So they talked, Cale effortlessly reestablishing and reinforcing the first faint connection that had already formed. He spoke of his home town, his family, stories of school and friends and personal experiences. Dreams, and desires, and the things that mattered; disappointments, riddles, the meaning of existence. He kept it moving between them, a conversation rather than an exposition, guiding the interplay with a deft, undetectable subtlety that nonetheless constituted total control. He could do this practically in his sleep, inborn ability polished by interminable enthusiastic practice, so that it was child's play to assess his options while he worked her happily along.
The old man had played it straight with him, he had to admit that. Three challenges to face, three doors to pass through, each with a unique obstacle. Furthermore, in each case he had been given the opportunity to work out the nature of the test and choose a method of meeting it. The physical trial he had passed as much by guile as by fighting ability; the test of spirit he had surmounted by guts and inflexible determination. This last one was obviously a mental puzzle, a tactical challenge, and if he couldn't slide through it on sheer charm, he wasn't the man he knew himself to be.
He finished the anecdote he had been relating to her, and let the moment stretch out while he held her eyes with his own. "I know who you are," he said at last.
She sat very still, and he was sure it wasn't imagination that she had lost some of her color. "Do you?" she asked, almost too softly to hear.
"I'm not really solid on all the old stories," he said. "But from what I remember, you didn't choose what happened to you, it was someone else's doing. And you've dealt with me decently, you've been thoughtful and nice and you've done everything you can to keep me comfortable and safe. I think you've gotten some bad press; I think, even if there was any truth to the original legend, you got tired of it a long time ago." He had stood while he spoke, slowly to avoid triggering her previous panic. "I think you just want to be treated like a person."
Her eyes were brimming with barely contained tears, but she held her head straight and her gaze direct. "I want a lot of things," she said, yearning raw beneath the surface calm. "Most of them are impossible."
"And some aren't." He raised the cloth he had earlier stripped away, and deliberately tied it over his eyes, knotting it firmly in the back. Facing the archway he couldn't see, he called gravely, "Can I come in? If that's okay with you?"
The silence seemed to go on forever, and he could feel her in the darkness ahead: wanting to try, wanting to believe, wanting to take the chance. "It could ... still be dangerous," she said finally.
"I'll be careful," he said. "And I trust you."
There was another long pause. "Why would you do this?" she asked.
His lips bent in what wasn't really a smile, conveying regret rather than humor. "Because you deserve it," he said. "Because you got a raw deal, and you took care of me, and you deserve it."
This time it was only seconds before she spoke again, fear and hope intermingled. "Come ahead, then."
He had memorized the layout of the room he occupied, and what he could see of hers from the mirror, but he made his steps hesitant and uncertain. Not too much, he wanted to go to her rather than having her come to him, but he also didn't want to look too sure of himself. He found the archway, turned into it, and moved forward until she halted him with a light touch.
He reached out to let his hands rest on her shoulders. "Is this all right?" he asked, his voice just slightly shaky with manly, gruff tenderness.
"Yes," she whispered.
His arms went around her, ever so gently, and she let herself nestle against him. He had known she was petite, but she would have been well under five feet tall, her head not even reaching the top of his chest. He stroked her cheek, ran a thumb over her lips, the fingers of his other hand tracing up and down her spine. She shuddered, and he tilted her face upward, bent to find her lips with his own. She met him with tremulous eagerness, her breath ragged with need, reaching up to slide her fingers into his hair.
Beneath the protective blindfold, his eyes were tightly closed, even as his hands orchestrated her responses with expert caresses. All his experience and instinct told him he had her, but this was no time to be taking chances. He was here, the third door was there, all that remained was to close the distance without becoming garden statuary. He lowered his lips to her throat, pulling her closer, turning her and altering his own stance so that he stood at a slight angle behind her, kissing her neck with mounting passion while his arms enfolded her above and below her breasts ...
It was the work of a casual moment to raise the upper arm, pressing her throat into the crook of the elbow while he shifted the lower arm to interlock with the upper in the classic jujutsu bare-arm choke. She stiffened, disbelieving, then erupted in shrieking betrayal ... but it was laggard and futile, he had secured the hold too carefully. He cranked it in, using his greater height to lift her off her feet while he jammed his face into the back of her head to hold the blindfold in place. She fought with hopeless desperation, drumming her heels against his shins, clawing at his hands, the tendrils of her hair squirming from beneath the headcloth to hiss and snap at his cheek and jaw with needle teeth. He ignored it all, increasing the pressure until he felt her go limp, and then maintaining the choke for an additional ten seconds before releasing her.
He had stood as still as possible while his arms cut off the blood flow to her brain, not wishing any movement to jumble the mental image of his position in the room. He laid her out on the floor with what gentleness he could spare, murmuring, "Sorry, sweetheart, that's just how the game is played." He found the exit door, his hands going unerringly to the antique ironwork of the latch, lifting and pushing -- no, wait, this one did have to be pulled open. Good thing it had been here instead of at the second door ...
Confident and triumphant, the girl forgotten, he stepped through the final barrier that separated him from his prize.
"Damn, but that was a show!" The old man was back at the bar, his grin genial, expansive, and only vaguely predatory. "I'll tell you, boy, I take it back about you not being hero material: vicious, backstabbing bastards, the ones I've known, and they'd welcome you as a brother."
"Some other time, maybe." Cale spoke abstractedly; the skin of his wrist stung and burned where the girl had torn it with her nails, and dozens of pinprick bites throbbed along his jaw. "We had an agreement. I carried out my end."
"And I'll keep mine." The old man tilted a filigreed flask to pour a generous splash of rose-amber liquid into a whiskey tumbler. "That doesn't mean we can't relax for a bit before I send you on your way. I'll be the first to say, you turned in a hell of a performance. That deserves to be recognized."
"Thanks." Cale crossed over to join the old man, maintaining the same five-foot distance he had kept before. "As far as that goes, I'll have to admit you set a fair test. It was no picnic, believe me, but I could tell I was being given a decent chance." His tone was carefully respectful without being obsequious. "You kept your word, clear down the line. I apologize for doubting."
The old man took a long sip from the tumbler, one eyebrow arching a quarter of an inch. "Picked up some manners, have you? If I'd known putting you through the mill would bring about this kind of improvement, I wouldn't have wasted all that time talking."
"You made promises," Cale said. "You kept them. That's a fact."
"And you've got bootlicking down to a fine art," the old man replied. "That's another fact. But you deliver it well enough." He set the tumbler down, leaning against the bar as he looked the younger man over one more time. "I underestimated you. I took you for one of the types that are all bluster and guts, but no judgment or imagination. You surprised me, and that doesn't happen very often. I'm almost sorry to send you home empty-handed." A meaningful pause. "Almost."
Cale went slowly rigid. "What are you talking about? I passed all your challenges."
"Not all." The old man smiled thinly. "You were sailing right along there, but you blew the last one."
"You set me three obstacles," Cale said, quiet and even and flat. "I got past all three. I wouldn't be here if I hadn't."
The old man shook his head. "You made it here, all right, but you failed the test. You strung that poor girl along, and then double-crossed her when she was most vulnerable. You think that merits a reward?"
Cale began to sag, but he wouldn't let the old man stare him down. "How else was I supposed to get past her?" he demanded.
"All you had to do was ask her," the old man said. "She wouldn't have stopped you. She's come a long way ... and you just knocked it to hell and gone, it'll probably be a century before she recovers." The smile was still there, but the eyes were cold, cold. "You have a quick mind, you thought your way past my champion. And a strong body, you kept going through pain that would have killed most people. But spirit was a bust; there isn't an ounce of compassion anywhere in you." Cale opened and closed his mouth several times, but nothing came out. The old man turned away and crossed back to his desk, sitting on the broad flat top. "You bargained it down to where two wins means I can't keep you here ... so be on your way, and don't let the door hit you in the ass."
Cale turned toward the bar and hunched over it like one who had lost all strength in his legs, his back to the old man, shoulders shaking with convulsive jerks. At last he turned again to face his host. "You have to give me another chance."
"Do I?" Where Cale's voice had been high and desperate, the old man's was rich with pleasure. "And why would that be? We made an agreement. I'm keeping the agreement. Few minutes ago, you were all for it."
"Another set of trials," Cale insisted. He left the bar to move to where the old man sat. "You can make them harder, you can set different terms, I don't care. I can't leave without her!"
"But you will." The old man stood, and Cale gave ground as the other advanced on him. "You'll go, and you'll take nothing with you except the memory of failure. And every time you look back on this, you can remind yourself that you almost made it, you had it all won, and then threw it away because you couldn't not be a treacherous little dickweed. I'm only sorry I have to let you go at all."
"But you don't." Cale was almost babbling now. "More trials, and you have another shot at me. You came close the last time, you can't know how close. Just another chance, that's all I ask!"
The old man laughed. "Now this is more like it," he said. "Begging looks good on you." He returned to the bar, picked up the whiskey tumbler. "Another set of challenges, hmm? And what kind of sweetheart deal do you think you can make for yourself this time?"
"I ..." Cale swallowed, took a shaky breath. "I guess I'm not in a position to negotiate for terms."
"Not by a long shot." The old man drained the contents of the tumbler, reached for the flask to replenish it. "Okay, this is how it's going to play ..."
Then he stopped, his brows knitting in a small, puzzled frown, as if he had just registered some tiny but vital detail. Cale watched, suddenly and subtly less woebegone. The old man looked down at the empty tumbler, and then at the younger man, and his features darkened with growing anger. "What the hell --?"
"I'm sorry," Cale said, mock concern sweetening his tone. "Do we have a problem?"
The old man whipped his arm around, and the tumbler exploded against the far wall. "What's going on here?" he demanded. "What are you trying to pull?"
His smile every bit as chilling as the old man's had been, Cale said, "I'm not 'trying' anything. It's already done. What you felt just now was the hook being set, and if I start reeling in the line, you're going to get a bellyache you'll never forget."
The old man shook his head in bewilderment, mystification for the moment greater than rage. "Something in the drink ... but that's impossible, it's my own stock. And you can't have brought anything in ..."
"I won't explain it to you," Cale snapped. "You damned well did underestimate me, and I'm not about to make the same mistake. You can feel it inside you, you know it's real, so you'd better believe me on this: give me what I came here for, or I'll tear you inside-out!"
The old man seemed to swell with wrath and outrage. "Threats? You threaten me --?"
"You still don't understand what you're dealing with," Cale interrupted him. "I don't care. I don't care about your status, or your power, or your immortal in-laws, or what you can do to me, or anything else. I'll do whatever it takes, I'd pound myself into jelly just to leave a stain on your shoes, and right now I have a grenade in your guts and my finger through the ring to pull the pin." His voice had been rising, and now it grew to a bellow. "Give me the girl! Give me the girl! GIVE ME THE GIRL!"
His fury, however theatrical, was also a rebound from fear and relief. He had known something was wrong as soon as he was back in the old man's office, when he realized that his injuries, however minor, hadn't vanished as with the first two trials. He only had one hidden card to play, and under the spur of dire necessity he had improvised maniacally to alter its function and direction. There had been no way to know if it would be enough, or even if it would work at all, and success made him savage with triumph.
No, he hadn't been able to carry in anything: no weapons, tools, spell materials, potions or poisons. But before he took the last step that brought him to the old man's domain, Cale had paid a half-demon sorceress to cast a spell on him. The spell anchored him to the mundane world, so that a simple incantation could reactivate it and draw him back (hopefully, before anyone could muster up the power to stop it). He had originally planned it as an emergency measure, for some situation wherein he might have the opportunity to grab the woman he sought and snatch her away; but while standing with his back to the old man, he had milked one of the scratches on his wrist until a drop of blood had fallen into the unattended drink.
After that, it was just a matter of waiting for the old man to take another swallow, and then waiting to see if the spell anchor would be extended to cover him. An outside chance, perhaps ... but then, the old man had won a bride because she had been unwary enough to eat a single pomegranate seed while in his realm. If one seed could do that, then why not see what effect a drop of enchanted hero's-blood would have on the old man?
Quite a bit, apparently. The old man cut through the escalating shouts with a thunderous roar: "ENOUGH!" He looked to Cale, seething, and said, "One thing's for sure, I've had a bellyful of you in more ways than one. If this woman means so damned much to you, then good riddance to you both. What's her name?"
Cale told him, and wasn't surprised when the old man stared. He recovered himself quickly, though, and went to the computer station at the far corner, keying in information or commands with a chattering of rapid strokes. "I love these things," he observed in an aside as the machine began to process. He spoke musingly, his anger supplanted for the moment by unfeigned pleasure. "I've been bringing in new systems as fast as they're developed, digitizing and cross-indexing all my back-files, laying cable everywhere so I'm hooked in wherever I go. It really has streamlined operations a lot, but the truth is, I just like to play with ..." He stopped as lines scrolled down the screen. "Okay, I limited the search to the last twenty years, but that still leaves a long list. When did she come here?"
Cale told him: day, and date, and approximate time. The old man did another fast sort, and looked back to Cale. "Pretty much what I thought. Three candidates here. One is fifty-six, from Manchester. One is thirty and black: Kingston. Neither of those would be your style, though, would they? No, you'd want one like this, a college girl." He sighed. "Sunnydale. You could have saved us both a lot of trouble if you'd just mentioned that at the beginning."
Cale shrugged. Why pretend to be sorry? What counted was winning, the rest was trim. "Bring her up, and I'll be on my way."
"And none too soon," the old man observed sourly. "Fine, I'll send down the order." He keyed, hit RETURN, and stood back from the computer. "It's done. Now: however you came in, you'll have to leave by the regular route. You know the procedure?"
"I lead, she follows," Cale replied, terse and level. "If I turn to look at her, I lose her, but as long as I keep going, I'm fine. And once we're outside, you can't reach either one of us anymore. I miss anything?"
"No, you did your readings before you started the tour." He went back to his desk, sat in the leather chair. "I have one last thing to say to you, boy, and then I'll be only too glad to see the door close behind you."
"I think I'll pass," Cale told him.
The old man cut away the demurral with a choppy gesture. "It'll take my people a few minutes to get her ready to go, so hear me out."
Cale kept his face blank against the excitement rising inside him. "Make it fast," he said.
"Be that way, then." The old man leaned back in the chair. "It's just this: you made a bad deal for yourself, boy. I never could have held your girl anyway: she doesn't belong, I was only allowed to provide transitional quarters because technically she punched her own ticket, and even then I had to hustle to keep old One-Eye from topping my bid. I was just supposed to keep her in appropriate style until some silly-assed prophecy had been fulfilled -- which I guess would be you -- and then send her back with no memory of her time here. It was a privilege to have her as a guest, her kind is that rare.
"You're a different matter, we wouldn't be where we are if you weren't already well on your way to being one of mine. So maybe you should ask yourself which would be better: win and go on, knowing full well that sooner or later you'll wind up back here under my authority -- and I have a long memory for grudges! -- or let it go and walk away and start rewriting your life so you'll have some chance of never seeing me again."
"I'm touched that my welfare is so important to you," Cale said. "Are we done yet?"
"Fine, suit yourself. You can go, she should be ready now. There'll be signs outside, pointing the way to the main entrance; the girl will join you somewhere along the line. I'll call ahead and have the boat waiting."
Cale turned and started for the door. His hand was on the knob when the old man called, "Boy."
Cale stopped. "What?"
"You won't be able to hold her, either. She can't be held, not that one; she'll slip out of your fingers, and you'll have mortgaged away your soul for nothing." The old man sounded genuinely perplexed. "Is she worth it?"
Cale took in a breath, let it out. "No," he said, and pulled open the door.
In the reception area, the secretary's body was gone. It might have been his imagination -- or his mood -- but the lighting seemed more somber. Outside he saw the first of the signs directing him to the exit, and he started to walk. The sour taste of long-held tension was leaving his mouth, and his pulse began to thud with a wild, harsh excitement. At the second corner he heard the footsteps behind him, and it felt as if his heart would tear its way out of his chest.
The urge to turn and face her was almost sickening in its intensity, but he wasn't going to turn. She was his already, bought and paid for. She would follow wherever he led: through the halls, over the open ground, into the boat, across the river. He would hold her in the grip of his will, his obsession, until they were out in the sunlight. He wouldn't need to turn and look to be sure, because he was already sure and nothing would shake that.
Once more he reached back into the memories for strength. The chase, and the victory, followed inevitably by the process of drawing away: the familiar pattern, comfortable and reassuring. But then things began to go wrong. First her friend, all earnest indignation and laughable naiveté, coming to berate him but then being irresistibly drawn into the silken net of his words and glances ... only it hadn't worked out that way, she had laughed at him, and the unexpected violent intrusion of those drunken, animalistic frat boys had at first been a welcome reprieve from the lash of her derision. Then spreading flames, and strangling smoke, and no way out ... except she was there, somehow, and somehow she got him outside, alive and whole. And he had turned to her, struggling for proper words of thanks, so giddy with gratitude that he was even ready to give her another chance ... and she had struck him down, without a word, without even changing the expression on that beautiful, grimed face.
Somehow the stories had started then: that the legendary charmer had met his match, been set up and knocked down and left to wilt. (He had his suspicions as to where the rumors began, too. Her other friend, the townie who had worked the bar, the lowbrow geek who would never be anything better than a plumber.) He had fought back, making sure the truth was known, spreading the word about just how little importance she had held for him ... and been struck down again, this time by the hulking TA with the easy grin and a right hook like a thunderbolt. In front of witnesses. All of them, laughing.
He had vowed to silence the laughter. He had beaten himself into a weapon, to show her, to show them all ... and then, when he was almost ready, she was suddenly gone. Out of his reach. Escaped.
But not now.
He walked, hearing the faint sounds of her steps behind him, a terrible joy hammering through his veins. You're mine, he told her in his mind. I own you now, and I have debts to settle. Did you think I wouldn't find you? Did you believe there was any place you could hide, after what you did? No way, no way in hell. I swore I'd make you pay, and I've come to collect.
The building was behind him now; a broad plain stretched ahead. There was no sun. In the distance, he could see the glimmering of the river. He did not notice the sign that said, BEWARE OF DOGGG. If he had, he would have seen no humor in it. He walked, feet chuffing in the gray ash of the plain, leading the girl with the power of his hate to where the ferryman awaited them.
Back to SunS Fanfic.