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The Enchanted Bunny

David Drake

Joe Johnson got into the little car of the airport's People Mover, ignoring the synthesized voice that was telling him to keep away from the doors. Joe was trying to carry his attaché case—stuffed with clothes as well as papers, since he'd used it for an overnight bag on this quick trip to see the Senator—and also to read the wad of photocopy the Senator had handed Joe in front of the terminal "to glance through on the flight back."

The Senator hadn't wanted to be around when Joe read the new section. He must have thought Joe wouldn't be pleased at the way he'd handled the Poopsi LaFlamme Incident.

The Senator was right.

Joe sat down on a plastic-cushioned seat. At least the car was empty except for Joe and the swarthy man—was he an Oriental?—the swarthy Oriental at the far end. When Joe flew in the day before, he'd shared the ride to the main concourse with a family of seven, five of whom—including the putative father—were playing catch with a Nerf ball.

The doors closed. The People Mover said something about the next stop being the Red Concourse and lurched into gentle motion.

Joe flipped another page of the chapter over the paper clip holding it by the corner. It was about that time that I met a Miss LaFlamme, a friend of my wife Margaret, who worked, as I understand it, as a dancer of some sort. . . .

Good God Almighty! Did the Senator—did the ex-Senator, who was well known to be broke for a lot of the reasons that could make his memoirs a best-seller—really think he was going to get away with this?

The publishers hadn't paid a six-figure advance for stump speeches and homilies. They'd been promised scandal, they wanted scandal—

And the Senator's rewrite man, Joe Johnson, wanted scandal, too, because his two-percent royalty share was worth zip, zilch, zero if The Image of a Public Man turned out to be bumpf like this.

". . . stopping at the Red Concourse," said the synthesized voice. The car slowed, smoothly but abruptly enough that the attaché case slid on Joe's lap and he had to grab at it. More people got on.

Joe flipped the page.

—helping Miss LaFlamme carry the bags of groceries to her suite. Unfortunately, the elevator—

The People Mover shoop-shooped into motion again. Joe tightened his grip on the case. One of the new arrivals in the car was a crying infant.

Joe felt like crying also. Senator Coble had been told about the sort of thing that would go into the book. He'd agreed.

An elevator repairman at Poopsi LaFlamme's hotel had lifted the access plate to see why somebody'd pulled the emergency stop button between floors. He'd had a camera in his pocket. That had been the Senator's bad luck at the time; but the photo of two goggle-eyed drunks, wearing nothing but stupid expressions as they stared up from a litter of champagne bottles, would be great for the back jacket. . . .

Except apparently the Senator thought everybody—and particularly his publishers—had been living on a different planet when all that occurred.

"In a moment, we will be stopping at the Blue Concourse," said the People Mover dispassionately.

Joe flipped the page. Unfortunately, pornographic photographs, neither of whose participants looked in the least like myself or Miss LaFlamme, began to circulate in the gutter press—

And the Washington Post. And Time magazine. And—

The car halted. The people who'd boarded at the previous stop got off.

Joe flipped the page.—avoided the notoriety inevitable with legal proceedings, because I remembered the words of my sainted mother, may she smile on me from her present home with Jesus. "Fools' names," she told me, "and fools' faces, are always found in public—"

Damn! Joe's concourse!

The People Mover's doors were still open. Joe jumped up.

The paper clip slipped and half the ridiculous nonsense he'd been reading spewed across the floor of the car.

For a moment, Joe hesitated, but he had plenty of time to catch his plane. He bent and began picking up the mess.

The draft might be useless, but it wasn't something Joe wanted to leave lying around either. The swarthy man—maybe a Mongolian? He didn't look like any of the Oriental races with which Joe was familiar—watched without expression.

The car slowed and stopped again. Joe stuffed the papers into his attaché case and stepped out. He'd cross to the People Mover on the opposite side of the brightly-lighted concourse and go back one stop.

There were several dozen people in the concourse: businessmen, family groups, youths with backpacks and sports equipment that they'd have the dickens of a time fitting into the overhead stowage of the aircraft on which they traveled. Nothing unusual—

Except that they were all Japanese.

Well, a tourist group; or chance; and anyway, it didn't matter to Joe Johnson. . . .

But the faces all turned toward him as he started across the tile floor. People backed away. A little boy grabbed his mother's kimono-clad legs and screamed in abject terror.

Joe paused. A pair of airport policemen began running down the escalator from the upper level of the concourse. Joe couldn't understand the words they were shouting at him.

The policemen wore flat caps and brass-buttoned frock coats, and they were both drawing the sabers that clattered in patent-leather sheaths at their sides.

Joe hurled himself back into the People Mover just as the doors closed. He stared out through the windows at the screaming foreign crowd. He was terrified that people would burst in on him before the car started to move—

Though the faces he saw looked as frightened as his own must be.

The People Mover's circuitry shunted it into motion. Joe breathed out in relief and looked around him. Only then did he realize that he wasn't in the car he'd left.

There were no seats or any other amenities within the vehicle. The walls were corrugated metal. They'd been painted a bilious hospital-green at some point, but now most of their color came from rust.

Scratched graffiti covered the walls, the floor, and other scribblings. The writing wasn't in any language Joe recognized.

Joe set his attaché case between his feet and rubbed his eyes with both hands. He felt more alone than he ever had before in his life. He must have fallen and hit his head; but he wasn't waking up.

The car didn't sound as smooth as a piece of electronics any more. Bearings squealed like lost souls. There was a persistent slow jarring as the flat spot in a wheel hit the track, again and again.

The People Mover—if that's what it was now—slowed and stopped with a sepulchral moan. The door didn't open automatically. Joe hesitated, then gripped the handle and slid the panel sideways.

There wasn't a crowd of infuriated Japanese waiting on the concourse. There wasn't even a concourse, just a dingy street, and it seemed to be deserted.

Joe got out of the vehicle. It was one of a series of cars which curved out of sight among twisted buildings. The line began to move again, very slowly, as Joe watched transfixed. He couldn't tell what powered the train, but it certainly wasn't electric motors in the individual cars.

There was a smell of sulphur in the air, and there was very little light.

Joe looked up. The sky was blue, but its color was that of a cobalt bowl rather than heaven. There seemed to be a solid dome covering the city, because occasionally a streak of angry red crawled across it. The trails differed in length and placement, but they always described the same curves.

The close-set buildings were three and four stories high, with peak roofs and many gables. The windows were barred, and none of them were lighted.

Joe swallowed. His arms clutched the attaché case to his chest. The train clanked and squealed behind him, moving toward some unguessable destination. . . .

Figures moved half a block away: a man was walking his dogs on the dim street. Claws or heel taps clicked on the cracked concrete.

"Sir?" Joe called. His voice sounded squeaky. "Excuse me, sir?"

They were very big dogs. Joe knew a man who walked a pet cougar, but these blurred, sinewy forms were more the size of tigers.

There was a rumbling overhead like that of a distant avalanche. The walker paused. Joe looked up.

The dome reddened with great blotches. Clouds, Joe thought—and then his mind coalesced the blotches into a single shape, a human face distorted as if it were being pressed down onto the field of a photocopier.

A face that must have been hundreds of yards across.

Red, sickly light flooded down onto the city from the roaring dome. The two "dogs" reared up onto their hind legs. They had lizard teeth and limbs like armatures of wire. The "man" walking them was the same as his beasts, and they were none of them from any human universe.

A fluting Ka-Ka-Ka-Ka-Ka came from the throats of the demon trio as they loped toward Joe.

Joe turned. He was probably screaming. The train clacked past behind him at less than a walking pace. Joe grabbed the handle of one of the doors. The panel slid a few inches, then stopped with a rusty shriek.

Joe shrieked louder and wrenched the door open with a convulsive effort. He leaped into the interior. For a moment, he was aware of nothing but the clawed hand slashing toward him.

Then Joe landed on stiff cushions and a man's lap, while a voice said, "Bless me, Kiki! The wizard we've been looking for!"


"I beg your pardon," said Joe, disentangling himself from the other man in what seemed to be a horse-drawn carriage clopping over cobblestones.

It struck Joe that he'd never heard "I beg your pardon" used as a real apology until now; but that sure wasn't the only first he'd racked up on this trip to Atlanta.

The other man in the carriage seemed to be in his late teens. He was dressed in a green silk jumper with puffed sleeves and breeches, high stockings, and a fur cloak.

A sword stood upright with the chape of its scabbard between the man's feet. The weapon had an ornate hilt, but it was of a serviceable size and stiffness. Joe rubbed his nose, where he'd given himself a good crack when he hit the sword.

A tiny monkey peeked out from behind the youth's right ear, then his left, and furiously. The animal wore a miniature fur cloak fastened with a diamond brooch.

The monkey's garment reminded Joe that wherever he was, it wasn't Atlanta in the summertime. The carriage had gauze curtains rather than glazing over the windows. Joe shivered in his cotton slacks and short-sleeved shirt.

"I'm Delendor, Master Sorcerer," the youth said. "Though of course you'd already know that, wouldn't you? May I ask how you choose to be named here in Hamisch?"

Kiki hopped from Delendor's shoulder to Joe's. The monkey's body was warm and smelled faintly of stale urine. It crawled around the back of Joe's neck, making clicking sounds.

"I'm Joe Johnson," Joe said. "I think I am. God."

He clicked open the latches of his attaché case. Everything inside was as he remembered it, including the dirty socks.

Kiki reached down, snatched the pen out of Joe's shirt pocket, and hurled it through the carriage window at the head of a burly man riding a donkey in the opposite direction.

The man shouted, "Muckin' bassit!"

Joe shouted, "Hey!"

Delendor shouted, "Kiki! For shame!"

The monkey chirped, leaped, and disappeared behind Delendor's head again.

"I am sorry," Delendor said. "Was it valuable? We can stop and . . . ?"

And discuss things with the guy on the donkey, Joe thought. "No thanks, I've got enough problems," he said aloud. "It was just a twenty-nine-cent pen, after all."

Though replacing it might be a little difficult.

"You see," Delendor continued, "Kiki's been my only friend for eight years, since father sent my sister Estoril off to Glenheim to be fostered by King Belder. I don't get along very well with my brothers Glam and Groag, you know . . . them being older, I suppose."

"Eight years?" Joe said, focusing on a little question because he sure-hell didn't want to think about the bigger ones. "How long do monkeys live, anyway?"

"Oh!" said Delendor. "I don't—I'd rather not think about that." He wrapped his chittering pet in his cloak and held him tightly.

Joe flashed a sudden memory of himself moments before, clutching his attaché case to his chest and praying that he was somewhere other than in the hell which his senses showed him. At least Kiki was alive. . . .

"Estoril's visiting us any day now," Delendor said, bubbly again. Kiki peeked out of the cloak, then hopped to balance on the carriage window. "It'll be wonderful to see her again. And to find a great magician to help me, too! My stars must really be in alignment!"

"I'm not a magician," Joe said in a dull voice.

Reaction was setting in. He stared at the photocopied chapter of the Senator's memoirs. That sort of fantasy he was used to.

"After you help me slay the dragon," Delendor continued, proving that he hadn't been listening to Joe, "I'll get more respect. And of course we'll save the kingdom."

"Of course," muttered Joe.

Kiki reached out the window and snatched the plume from the helmet of a man in half-armor who carried a short-hafted spontoon. The spontoon's ornate blade was more symbol than weapon. The man bellowed.

"Kiki!" Delendor cried. "Not the Civic Guard!" He took the plume away from his pet and leaned out the window of the carriage as the horses plodded along.

"Oh," said the guardsman—the cop—in a changed voice as he trotted beside the vehicle to retrieve his ornament. "No harm done, Your Highness. Have your little joke."

"Ah . . ." Joe said. "Ah, Delendor? Are you a king?"

"Of course not," Delendor said in surprise. "My father, King Morhaven, is still alive."

He pursed his lips. "And anyway, both Glam and Groag are older than I am. Though that wouldn't prevent father . . ."

Joe hugged his attaché case. He closed his eyes. The carriage was unsprung, but its swaying suggested that it was suspended from leather straps to soften the rap of the cobblestones.


"Now," the prince went on cheerfully, "I suppose the dragon's the important thing . . . but what I really want you to do is to find my enchanted princess."

Joe opened his eyes. "I'm not . . ." he began.

But there wasn't any point in repeating what Delendor wouldn't listen to anyway. For that matter, there was nothing unreasonable about assuming that a man who plopped out of midair into a moving carriage was a magician.

The prince opened the locket on his neck chain and displayed it to Joe. The interior could have held a miniature painting—but it didn't. It was a mirror, and it showed Joe his own haggard face.

"I've had the locket all my life," Delendor said, "a gift from my sainted mother. It was the most beautiful girl in the world—and as I grew older, so did the girl in the painting. But only a few weeks ago, I opened the locket and it was a rabbit, just as you see it now. I'm sure she's the princess I'm to marry, and that she's been turned into a bunny by an evil sorcerer."

Delendor beamed at Joe. "Don't you think?"

"I suppose next," Joe said resignedly, "you're going to tell me about your wicked stepmother."

"I beg your pardon!" snapped the prince, giving the phrase its usual connotations.

Delendor drew himself up straight and closed the locket. "My mother Blumarine was a saint! Everyone who knew her says so. And when she died giving birth to me, my father never thought of marrying a third time."

"Ah," said Joe. "Look, sorry, that's not what I meant." It occurred to him that Delendor's sword was too respectable a piece of hardware to be only for show.

"I'm not sure what father's first wife was like," the prince went on, relaxing immediately. "But I think she must have been all right. Estoril more than balances Glam and Groag, don't you think?"

"I, ah," Joe said. "Well, I'll take your word for it."

"They say that Mother had been in love with a young knight in her father's court," Delendor went on. "Her father was King Belder of Glenheim, of course. But they couldn't marry until he'd proved himself—which he tried to do when the dragon appeared in Glenheim that time. And it almost broke Mother's heart when the dragon ate the young man. King Belder married her to my father at once to take her, well, her mind off the tragedy, but they say she never really recovered."

Kiki leaned out of the window and began chittering happily. Delendor stroked his pet's fur and said, "Yes, yes, we're almost home, little friend."

He beamed at Joe once more. "That's why it's so important for me to slay the dragon now that it's reappeared, you see," the prince explained. "As a gift to my sainted mother. And then we'll find my enchanted princess."

Joe buried his face in his hands. "Oh, God," he muttered.

Something warm patted his thumb. Kiki was trying to console him.


The measured hoofbeats echoed, then the windows darkened for a moment as the carriage passed beneath a masonry gateway. Joe pushed the curtain aside for a better look.

They'd driven into a flagged courtyard in the center of a three-story stone building. The inner walls glittered with hundreds of diamond-paned windows. Servants in red and yellow livery bustled about the coach, while other servants in more prosaic garb busied themselves with washing, smithing, carpentry—and apparently lounging about.

"The Palace of Hamisch," Delendor said with satisfaction.

Joe nodded. A real fairytale palace looked more practical—and comfortable—than the nineteenth-century notion of what a fairytale palace should be.

A real fairy-tale palace. God 'elp us.

The carriage pulled up beneath a porte cochere. Servants flung open the doors with enthusiasm to hand out the prince and his companion.

Joe didn't know quite how to react. He let a pair of liveried youths take his hands, but the whole business made him feel as though he were wearing a corsage and a prom dress.

Kiki jumped from Delendor's right shoulder to his left and back again. Joe noticed that each of the nearest servants kept a hand surreptitiously close to his cap.

The carriage clucked into motion. There was a stable on the opposite side of the courtyard.

"Your Highness," said the fiftyish man whose age and corpulence marked him as the palace major domo, "your father and brothers have been meeting in regard to the, ah, dragon; and King Morhaven specifically asked that when you arrived, you be sent—"

"Is my sister here yet?" Delendor interrupted.

"Yes," said the major domo, "the Princess Estoril has been placed in her old rooms in—"

As the carriage swung into the stables, the driver turned and smirked over his shoulder at Joe. He was the swarthy maybe-Mongolian who'd shared Joe's car in Atlanta.

"Hey!" Joe bawled as he took a long stride. His foot slipped on the smooth flagstones and he fell on his arse.

The coach disappeared into the stables.

Instead of making another attempt to run after the man, Joe stood and used the attention that his performance had just gained him to demand, "Prince! Your Highness, that is. Who was driving us?"

Delendor blinked. "How on earth would I know?" he said. "I just called for a coach, of course."

The nods of all the servants underscored a statement as obviously true as the fact the sun rose in the east.

Did the sun here rise in the east?

"Well, anyway, Clarkson," the prince went on, turning again to the major domo, "find a room for my friend here in my wing. I'll go see Estoril at once."

"Ah, Your Highness," the major domo replied with the fixed smile of an underling caught in the middle. "Your father did specifically ask that—"

"Oh, don't worry about that, Clarkson!" Delendor threw over his shoulder as he strode into the palace. "My friend Joe here is a mighty magician. He and I will take care of the dragon, never fear!"

Clarkson watched as his master disappeared, then sized up Joe. "No doubt . . ." the major domo said neutrally. "Well, we're used to His Highness' enthusiasms, aren't we?"

Joe nodded, though he was pretty sure that the question wasn't one which Clarkson expected him to answer.


Joe's room was on the third floor, overlooking the courtyard. Its only furnishings were a bed frame and a cedar chest. There were two casement windows and, in one corner against the outer wall, a fireplace which shared a flue with the room next door.

The fire wasn't set, and the room was colder than Hell.

Clarkson watched with glum disdain as a housekeeper opened the cedar chest with a key hanging from her belt. She handed out feather comforters to lower-ranking maids. They spread them over the bed frame in what looked like a warm, if not particularly soft, arrangement.

"Why isn't the fire laid?" the major domo demanded peevishly. "And there should be a chamberpot, you know what happens when there isn't a chamberpot. And on the courtyard side, too!"

"I don't know where the girl's gotten to," the housekeeper said with a grimace. "I'm sure it'll be seen to shortly, sir."

"Ah," Joe said. "Ah, Clarkson? I wonder if you could find me some warmer clothes? A fur coat would be perfect."

The major domo stared at Joe disdainfully. "That's scarcely my affair," he said. "I suppose you can talk to the chamberlain. Or to the prince, no doubt."

Enough was enough.

Joe set his attaché case down and stood with his hands on his hips.

"Oh?" he said, letting the past hour of terror and frustration raise his voice into real anger. "Oh? It doesn't matter to you, then? Well, Clarkson, does it matter to you if you spend the rest of eternity as a fat green frog in the castle moat?"

The maids and housekeeper scurried out of the room, their mouths forming ovals of silent horror. Clarkson's face set itself in a rictus. "Yes, of course, milord," he muttered through stiff lips. "Yes, of course, I'll take care of that immediately."

The major domo dodged through the door like a caroming pinball, keeping as far from Joe as he could. He bowed, spreading his arms—and grabbed the handle to pull the door closed behind him.

Which left Joe alone, as cold as fear and an all-stone room could make a man.

He stared out one of the diamond-paned windows. It was clean enough, but there was frost on both sides of the glass. Maybe one of the half-seen figures in the rooms across the courtyard was the maybe-Mongolian, who'd maybe brought Joe—

His door opened and banged shut again behind a slip of a girl in drab clothing. She shot the flimsy bolt and ran two steps toward the cedar chest before she realized Joe had turned from the window and was watching her in amazement.

Joe thought she was going to scream, but she choked the sound off by clapping both her hands over her own mouth. Through her fingers she whimpered, "Please help me! Please hide me!"

"Coo-ee!" called a man's deep voice from the hallway.

"Here chick-chick-chickee!" boomed another man.

A fist hammered Joe's door. "Better not make us come in for you, chickie," the first voice warned.


"Sure," Joe whispered.

The girl was short and rail-thin. Mousy brown hair trailed out from beneath her mobcap. She started for the chest again.

Joe grabbed her by the shoulder. "Not there," he said, raising his voice a little because the banging on the door had become louder and constant. He threw back the top comforter.

"There," he explained, pointing. She gave him a hopeful, terrified look and flattened herself crossways on the bed.

Joe folded the thick feather quilt over her. Then he slid up one of the windows—it couldn't possibly make the room colder—and drew open the bolt just as the door panel started to splinter inward under the impacts of something harder than a hand.

Two black-bearded men, built like NFL nose guards, forced their way into the room. They'd been hammering the door with their sword pommels.

Delendor's weapon had looked serviceable. The swords this pair carried would have been two-handers—in hands smaller than theirs.

They didn't even bother to look at Joe. "Where are you, bitch?" one shouted. "We were just gonna show you a good time, but by god it'll be the last time fer you now!"

"Look, I'm here as a guest of—" Joe began.

"There we go!" the other intruder boomed as his eyes lighted on the cedar chest as the only hiding place in the room.

He kicked the chest with the toe of his heavy leather boot. "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" he shouted.

His fellow rammed his big sword through the top of the cedar chest and splinteringly out the back. Its point sparked on the stone flooring.

Both men stabbed repeatedly at the fragile wood until it was quite obvious that the chest was empty.

They'd thought she was inside that, Joe realized. His body went cold. He'd already put his case down. Otherwise his nerveless hands would've dropped it.

"We saw 'er come in, so she musta got out the . . ." one of the men said. He peered through the open casement. There was no ledge, and the walls were a smooth, sheer drop to the flagstone courtyard.

The two men turned toward Joe simultaneously. They held their bare swords with the easy naturalness of accountants keying numbers into adding machines.

"And just who the hell are you, boyo?" asked the one who'd first stabbed the cedar chest.

In what seemed likely to be his last thought, Joe wondered whether the FAA kept statistics on the number of air travelers who were hacked to death by sword-carrying thugs.

"He's the magician who's going to help your royal brother slay the dragon, Groag," said a cold voice from the doorway.

Which would make the other thug Glam; and no, they didn't show much family resemblance to Delendor.

Joe turned. The brothers had jumped noticeably when the newcomer spoke; and anyway, turning his back on Glam and Groag wouldn't make them more likely to dismember him.

"I'm Joe Johnson," he said, holding out his hand to be shaken. "I'm glad to see you."

Classic understatement.

The newcomer was tall, gray, and fine-featured. He wore black velvet robes, rather like academic regalia—though heavier, which this damned unheated building made a good idea. He stared at Joe's hand for a moment, then touched it in an obvious attempt to puzzle out an unfamiliar form of social interchange.

"My name is Ezekiel," he said. "I—"

"I think we'll go now," muttered Glam, bouncing off the doorjamb in much the fashion that the major domo had done minutes earlier. Groag followed him on the same course. Joe noticed that the brothers had sheathed their swords.

The room returned to normal size with Glam and Groag out of it. There were some advantages to being mistaken for a magician.

"Ah, thanks," Joe said. "I, ah . . . didn't like the way things were going."

"They're not bad lads," Ezekiel said with what seemed to be his universal air of cool detachment. "A little headstrong, perhaps. But I couldn't have you turning the king's elder sons into . . . frogs, I believe I heard?"

He raised a quizzical eyebrow.

Joe shrugged. Before he spoke—before he decided what to say—a train of servants streamed into the room, carrying furs; charcoal and kindling with which they laid a fire; and a chamberpot.

"I suppose," Ezekiel pressed, "you have your apparatus with you? You don't—" he paused "—plan to deal with the dragon unaided, do you?"

"I was wondering," Joe temporized, "if you could tell me something about this dragon?"

Ezekiel blinked. "I'm not sure what it is you want to know," he said reasonably enough. "It's a dragon more than thirty yards long and invulnerable to weapons except at one point on its body . . . which no one in recorded history has discovered."

He smiled coldly. "It digs a burrow deep in the rock and sleeps twenty years of twenty-one, which is good . . . but in the year the beast wakes, it does quite enough damage to ruin a kingdom for a generation. Glenheim has barely recovered from the most recent visitation . . . and this time, the creature has chosen to devour a path through Hamisch. As no doubt your friend Prince Delendor has explained."

The servants were leaving with as much dispatch as they'd arrived. They carried out the scraps of cedar chest with a muttered promise of a replacement.

The fire burned nicely and might even have warmed the room, except that the window was still open. Joe shut it.

"Delendor was too occupied with seeing his sister to give me much of the background," he said neutrally.

Ezekiel's face twisted with disgust, the first emotion he'd shown since he arrived. "Prince Delendor's affection for his sister is, I'm sorry to say, unnatural," he said. "The king was well advised to send Estoril away when he did."

His lips pursed, shutting off the flow of excessively free words. "I wish you luck with your difficult task," Ezekiel concluded formally. "It's of course an honor to meet so powerful a colleague as yourself."

He left the room, and Joe closed the door behind him.

Joe took a deep breath. Well, he was still alive, which he wouldn't've bet would be the case a few minutes ago.

"Ah," he said to the bed. "You can come out now."

The folded comforter lay so flat that for an instant Joe thought the girl had been spirited away—which fit the way other things had been happening, though it wouldn't've improved his mood.

"Oh, bless you, sir," said her muffled voice as the feathers humped. The girl slipped out and stood before him again.

She wasn't really a girl. Her face was that of a woman in her mid-twenties, maybe a few years younger than Joe. Her slight form and, even more, her air of frightened diffidence made her look much younger at a glance.

"I'll . . ." she said. "I think it's safe for me to leave now. Bless—"

"Wait a darn minute!" Joe said. He put out his arm to stop her progress toward the door, then jerked back—furious with himself—when he saw the look of terror flash across her face.

"Look," he said, "I'd just like to know your name—"

"Mary, sir," she said with a deep curtsey. When she rose, she was blushing.

"For God's sake, call me Joe!" he said, more harshly than he'd meant.

Joe cleared his throat. His new fur garments were stacked in a corner. He donned a cloak as much to give his hands something to do as for the warmth of it. "And, ah," he said, "maybe you can give me a notion of what's going on? I mean—"

He didn't mean Glam and Groag, as Mary's expression of fear and distaste suggested she thought he did.

Joe understood the brothers well enough. They were jocks in a society which put even fewer restrictions on jock behavior than did a college dorm.

"No, no," Joe said, patting her thin shoulder. "Not that. Just tell me if what Ezekiel said about the dragon's true. And who is Ezekiel, anyway?"

"Why, he's the royal sorcerer," Mary said in amazement. "And a very powerful one, though nowhere near as powerful as you, Master Joe. It would take Ezekiel weeks to turn somebody into a frog, and I'm sure he doesn't know how to deal with the dragon."

"Oh, boy," Joe said. From the look behind Ezekiel's eyes when they talked, the magician had been contemplating the start of a multiweek project that would leave him with one fewer rival—and the moat with one more frog.

"I'm sure he must really hate you, Master Joe," Mary said, confirming Joe's guess. "Of course, Ezekiel doesn't really like anybody, though he does things for Glam and Groag often enough."

Does this palace even have a moat?

"Look, Mary," he said "is Delendor the only guy trying to kill this dragon, then? Isn't there an army or—you know, something?"

"Well, many brave knights have tried to slay the dragon over the years," Mary said, frowning at the unfamiliar word "army." "And sometimes commoners or even peasants have attacked the beast, but that didn't work either. So now there's . . . well, Glam and Groag say they've been spying out the dragon's habits, but I don't think anybody really wants to get near it."

A look of terrible sadness crossed the woman's face. "Except for Prince Delendor. He's serious. Oh, Master Joe, you will save him, won't you?"

Joe smiled and patted the woman's shoulder again. "We'll see what we can do," he said.

But dollars to doughnuts, there was damn-all a freelance writer could do about this problem.


Joe waited in his room; at first in the expectation that Delendor would be back shortly . . . and later, because Joe didn't have anyplace better to go. Anyway, the scatterbrained youth might still arrive.

Joe carried the Fasti to read on the airplane. Ovid's erudite myths and false etymologies had at least as much bearing on this world as they did on the one from which the People Mover had spirited Joe away.

After an hour or so, Joe snagged the first servant to pass in the hallway and asked for an armchair. What he got was solid, cushionless, and not particularly comfortable—but it arrived within fifteen minutes of Joe's request. The men carrying the chair panted as if they'd run all the way from the basement with it.

The frog story seemed to have gotten around.

But nobody else came to Joe's room until a servant summoned him to dinner in the evening.


"It's so brave of you to return to Hamisch to show solidarity when the dragon threatens, Estoril," said Delendor. "Most people are fleeing the other way."

Kiki sat on the prince's head. When Delendor leaned forward to see his sister past his two huge brothers and King Morhaven, the youth and monkey looked like a totem pole.

Estoril was black-haired, like Glam and Groag, but her fine features were at least as lovely as Delendor's were boyishly handsome.

"Or into the city," said the king gloomily. "We're going to have a real sanitation problem soon, especially because of the herds of animals."

"I don't think that will be a serious difficulty, Your Highness," said Ezekiel, beside Estoril at the far end of the table from Joe. "The creature demolished the walls of Glenheim within minutes on its previous appearance . . . and, as I recall, made short work of the cattle sheltering there."

"Well," said Delendor brightly, "that won't be a problem here, because I'm going to slay the dragon. Right, Joe?"

"Actually," said Estoril, giving Delendor a look that Joe couldn't fathom, "my visiting now had nothing to do with the dragon. Katya—that was Blumarine's old nurse—died. In her last hours, she told me some things that . . . well, I thought I'd visit again."

Ezekiel took a sip of wine that Joe thought could double as antifreeze. "I met Katya once," he said. "She was a wise woman of some power. Did you know her, Joe?" the magician added sharply.

Joe choked on a mouthful of stewed carrot.

"Uh-uh," he managed to mumble without spraying. The meal ran to grilled meat and boiled vegetables, both of which would have been okay if they'd been taken off the heat within an hour or so of being thoroughly cooked.

Estoril turned. Joe couldn't see her face, but there was steel in her voice as she said, "According to Katya, Blumarine herself was a powerful magician. Was that the case, Master Ezekiel?"

"My mother?" Delendor blurted in amazement.

"My understanding, dear Princess," Ezekiel said in a deliberately condescending voice, "is that your stepmother may have been a student of wisdom; but that if she ever practiced the craft, it was on the most rarified of levels. At any rate—"

The magician paused to drink the rest of his wine with apparent satisfaction. "At any rate," he went on, "it's certain that she couldn't prevent the young knight with whom she was romantically linked from being killed and eaten by the dragon."

The table waited in frozen silence.

"I believe," Ezekiel concluded, "that his name was Delendor, too, was it not, Princess?"

King Morhaven hid his own face in his winecup. Glam and Groag chuckled like pools of bubbling mud.

The hell of embarrassment was that it only afflicted decent—or at least partially-decent—people. "I wonder if any of you can tell me," Joe said loudly to change the subject, "about the kind of guns you have here?"

Everyone stared at him. "Guns?" the king repeated.

Well, they'd been speaking English until now. "I mean," Joe explained, "the things that shoot, you know, bullets?"

This time it was Delendor who said, "Bullets?"

Ezekiel sneered.

Right, back to words of one syllable. After all, Joe had worked with the Senator. . . . "What," said Joe, "do you use to shoot things at a distance?"

"Distance" was two syllables.

"Arbalests, of course," said Morhaven. He pointed to a servant and ordered, "You there. Bring Master Joe an arbalest."

"Or you can throw rocks," Delendor noted happily. "I met a peasant who was very clever that way. Knocked squirrels right out of trees."

"From what I've been told," Joe said, "I doubt that slinging pebbles at your dragon is going to do a lot of good."

"What?" Groag said to Delendor in honest horror. "You're going to throw rocks at the dragon instead of facing it with your sword?"

The servant was returning to the table, carrying a massive crossbow that looked as though it weighed twenty pounds.

And that meant, just possibly, that Joe could arrange for Delendor to kill the dragon!

"Why, that's disgusting!" Glam added, echoing Groag's tone. "Even for a little shrimp like you!"

"Hang on—" Joe said. Everybody ignored him.

"I said nothing of the sort!" Delendor spluttered, his voice rising an octave. "How dare you suggest that I'd act in an unknightly fashion?"

Joe snapped his fingers and shouted, "Wait a minute!"

The room fell silent. Servants flattened. Delendor's brothers flinched as if ready to duck under the table to preserve themselves from frogness.

"Right," said Joe in a normal voice. "Now, the problem isn't knightly honor, it's the dragon. Is that correct?"

Morhaven and all three of his sons opened their mouths to object. Before they could speak, Estoril said, "Yes, that is correct."

She looked around the table. Her eyes were the color of a sunlit glacier. The men closed their mouths again without speaking.

"Right," Joe repeated. "Now, I know you've got charcoal. Do you have sulphur?"

The proportions were seventy-five, fifteen, ten. But Joe couldn't for the life of him remember whether the fifteen was charcoal or sulphur.

Everyone else at the table looked at Ezekiel. The magician frowned and said, "Yes, I have sulphur in my laboratory. But I don't see—"

"Wait," said Joe, because this was the kicker, the make-or-break. He swallowed. "Do you have potassium nitrate here? Saltpeter? I think it comes from . . ."

Joe thought it came from under manure piles, but unless the locals had the stuff refined, he was damned if he could find it himself. He wasn't a chemist, he just had slightly misspent his youth.

"Yes . . ." Ezekiel agreed. "I have a store of saltpeter."

"Then, by god, I can help you kill this dragon!" Joe said in a rush of heady triumph. "No problem!"

Reality froze him. "Ah . . ." he added. "That is, if Master Ezekiel helps by providing materials and, ah, equipment for my work?"

"And I'll slay—" Delendor began.

"Father," Estoril interjected with enough clarity and volume to cut through her brother's burbling, "Delendor is after all rather young. Perhaps Glam or—"

"What?" roared Glam and Groag together.

"What?" shrilled Delendor as he jumped to his feet. Kiki leaped from the prince's head and described a cartwheel in the air. "I demand the right to prove myself by—"

"Silence!" boomed King Morhaven. He stood, and for the first time Joe was reminded that the hunched, aging man was a monarch.

The king pointed at Delendor and dipped his finger. The youth subsided into his chair as if Morhaven had thrown a control lever.

King Morhaven transferred his gaze and pointing finger to Joe. "You," he said, "will prepare your dragon-killing magic." He turned. "And you, Ezekiel," he continued, "will help your colleague in whatever fashion he requires."

The magician—the real magician—nodded his cold face. "I hear and obey, Your Highness," he said.

Morhaven turned majestically again. "Delendor," he said, "your sister is correct that you are young; but the task is one at which seasoned heroes have failed in ages past. You have my permission to try your skill against the monster."

The king's face looked haggard, but there was no denying the authority in his voice as he added, "And if you succeed in saving the kingdom, my son, then there can be only one suitable recompense."

Joe blinked. If he understood correctly (and there couldn't be much doubt about what Morhaven meant), then the king had just offered the crown to his youngest son for slaying the dragon.

No wonder everybody was staring in amazement as King Morhaven seated himself again.

The regal gesture ended with a thump and a startled gasp from the king as his fanny hit the throne six inches below where it had been when he stood.

Kiki, chirruping happily, ran for the door. The monkey dragged behind him the thick cushion he'd abstracted from the throne while Morhaven was standing.


Joe, wearing an ankle-length flannel nightgown (at home he slept nude; but at home he didn't sleep in a stone icebox), had just started to get into bed when there was a soft rapping on his door.

He straightened. The fireplace held only the memory of an orange glow, but it was enough for him to navigate to the door past the room's few objects.

"Yes?" he whispered, standing to the side of the stone jamb in memory of the way the brothers' swords had ripped the cedar chest.

"Please, sir?" responded a tiny voice he thought he recognized.

Joe opened the door. Mary, a thin wraith, slipped in and shoved the door closed before Joe could.

"Please, sir," she repeated. "If you could hide me for a few nights yet, I'd be ever so grateful."

"What?" Joe said. "Mary, for Pete's sake! I'd like to help, but there's nowhere—"

And as she spoke, the obvious thought struck him dumb. No! She was the size of an eight-year-old, she was as helpless as an eight-year old, and the very thought—


"Oh, Master Joe, I'll sleep at the foot of your bed," Mary explained. "I'll be ever so quiet, I promise. I'm just so afraid."

With excellent reason, Joe realized. If the dragon was half as real and dangerous as Glam and Groag, then this place was long overdue for the invention of gunpowder.

And anyway, there wasn't much time to spend thinking about the situation, unless he wanted them both to freeze.

"Right," Joe said. "We'll, ah—"

But the girl—the woman!—had already eeled between the upper and lower comforters, lying crosswise as she'd hidden this afternoon. Joe got in more gingerly, keeping his knees bent.

"Ah, Mary?" he said after a moment.

"Joe sir?"

"Could King Morhaven make Delendor his successor under, ah, your constitution?"

"Oh, yes!" the muffled voice responded. "And wouldn't it be wonderful? But only when Delendor shows what a hero he is. Oh, Master Joe, sir, you're a gift from heaven to all Hamisch!"

"Or something," muttered Joe. But now that he'd thought of gunpowder, he was pretty confident.


Arnault, the royal armorer, was a husky, sooty man wearing a leather apron. His forearms were the size of Joe's calves; blisters from flying sparks gave them an ulcerated look.

"Yaas, master?" he rumbled in a voice that suggested that he was happier in his forge than being summoned to the new magician's laboratory.

Joe wasn't thrilled about the laboratory either. He was using the palace's summer kitchen, built in a corner of the courtyard and open on all sides to vent the heat of the ovens and grills during hot weather.

The weather now was cold enough that Joe wore fur mittens to keep the brass mortar and pestle from freezing his hands. On the other hand, the light was good; there was plenty of work space . . . and if something went wrong, the open sides would be a real advantage.

"Right," said Joe to the armorer. "I want you to make me a steel tube about three feet long and with a bore of . . ." Forty-five caliber? No, that might be a little tricky.

Joe cleared his throat. "A bore of about a half inch. Somewhere around that, it doesn't matter precisely so long as it's the same all the way along."


"And, ah," Joe added, beaming as though a display of confidence would banish the utter confusion from the armorer's face, "make sure the tube's walls are thick. Maybe you could use a wagon axle or something."

After all, they wouldn't have to carry the gun far.

"What?" the armorer repeated.

"I thought you wanted the tube to be steel, Joe," said Estoril. "Or was that one of the paradoxes of your craft?"

There were at least a hundred spectators, mostly servants. They crowded the sides of the summer kitchen to goggle at the magical preparations. He'd ordered them away half a dozen times, but that just meant the mass drew back a few yards into the courtyard . . . and drifted inward as soon as Joe bent over his paraphernalia again.

Of course, Joe could demand a closed room and bar himself in it until he'd finished the process—or blown himself to smithereens. That still didn't seem like the better choice.

Joe didn't even bother telling the members of the royal family to leave him alone. But if he had to do this over, he'd keep a couple frogs in his coat pockets and let them out at strategic times. . . .

The spectators weren't the immediate problem, though.

"Right," Joe said with his chirpy face on. "How thick are your axles here?"

"Waal," said the armorer, "they's aboot—" He mimed a four-inch diameter with his hands.

"But they're wooden!" said Delendor. "Ah, aren't they?" He looked around at the other spectators.

Ezekiel nodded silently. Joe thought he saw the magician's mouth quirk toward a smile.

"Right," said Joe. "Wood."

He swallowed. "Well, all I meant was that you need to get a round steel rod about this thick"—he curled his middle finger against the tip of his thumb, making a circle of about two inches in diameter—"and a yard long. Then—"

"Naow," said the armorer.

"No?" Joe translated aloud. His control slipped. "Well, why the hell not, then?"

"Whaar's a body t' foind so much stale, thaan?" the armorer demanded. "Is a body t' coot the edge fram avery sword in the kingdom, thaan?"

The big man's complexion was suffusing with blood and rage, and Joe didn't like the way the fellow's hands knotted about one another. The armorer wouldn't have to strangle a man in the normal fashion. He could just grab a victim's head and give a quick jerk, like a hunter finishing a wounded pheasant. . . .

"And after you have provided Arnault with the billet of steel, Master Joe," Ezekiel interjected—and thank goodness for the sardonic magician for a change, because he directed Arnault's smoldering eyes away from Joe. "Then I think you'll have to teach him your magical technique of boring the material."

The armorer didn't deign to nod.

"Right," said Joe, as though the false word were a catechism. Black gloom settled over his soul.

Joe didn't know anything about metalworking. If he had some background in metallurgy, he still wouldn't know how to adapt modern techniques to things Arnault could accomplish . . . which seemed to mean hammering bars into rough horseshoe shapes.

"Perhaps Arnault could weld a bundle of iron rods into a tube?" Estoril suggested. "About a yard long, you said?"

"Yaas, loidy," agreed the armorer with a massive nod.

"No!" gasped Joe.

Even Joe could visualize the blackened mass of weak spots and open holes that would result from somebody trying to weld a tube on a hand forge. Arnault wouldn't be making a gun, it'd be a bomb!

Joe's face cleared while the others stared—or glowered, in the cases of Arnault and Delendor's brothers—at him. "Estoril," he said, "you're brilliant! Now, how fast does this dragon move?"

"Yes, not only beautiful but wise beyond imagining," Delendor said, turning toward the princess. "I—"

"Del!" Estoril snapped, glancing fiercely toward Delendor, then looking away as if to emphasize that she'd never seen him before in her life.

"For the most part, not very quickly," Ezekiel answered. Joe had already noticed that the magician was carrying out the spirit as well as the letter of King Morhaven's orders. "And it sleeps for long periods."

He smiled again. You didn't have to know Ezekiel for long to know what kind of news would cause him to smile.

"When the beast chooses to run, though," Ezekiel went on, "it can catch a galloping horse . . . as I understand Sir Delendor of Glenheim learned in times past."

Joe stared at Ezekiel and thought, You cruel son of a bitch.

Ezekiel scared him, the way looking eye-to-eye at a spider had scared him once. There wasn't anything in the magician that belonged in human society, despite the man's undoubted brains and knowledge.

"Right," said Joe as though he still thought he was speaking to a human being. "Would the dragon go around, say, a cast-iron kettle—" Did they have cast-iron kettles? "—if it had a fuze burning to it?"

"The dragon walks through walls of fire," Delendor said. "I don't think we'll be able to burn it, Joe."

He sounded doubtful. Doubtful about his choice of a magician, Joe suspected.

"We won't try," Joe said in sudden confidence. "We'll blow the thing to hell and gone!"

His enthusiasm—the foreign wizard's enthusiasm—drew a gasp of delight and wonder from the assembled crowd; except, noticeably, from Ezekiel and Delendor's brothers.

"Now," said Joe, "we'll need to test it. What do you use for pipes here?"

"Poipes?" said Arnault.

"You know," Joe explained. "Water pipes."

"Pipes for water?" said Delendor. "Why, we have wells. Don't you have wells in your own country, Joe?"

"I have tubing drawn of lead, left over from my clepsydra," said Ezekiel.

He held up his index finger. "The outer size is this," he explained, "and the inner size"—he held up the little finger of the same hand—"is this."

"Perfect!" Joe said, wondering what a clepsydra was. "Great! Fetch me a six-inch length, that'll be enough, and I'll get back to making something to fill it with. Boy, that dragon's going to get his last surprise!"

Ezekiel stayed where he was, but Joe had more important things to deal with than enforcing instantaneous obedience. He hadn't gotten very far with his gunpowder, after all.

Joe had made gunpowder when he was in grade school, but he'd never been able to make it correctly because of the cost. Now it had to be right, but cost didn't matter.

Charcoal was easy, then as now. As a kid, he'd ground up a charcoal briquette, using the face of a hammer and a saucepan abstracted from the kitchen.

Here, Ezekiel provided a mortar and a pestle whose sides sloped to a concave grinding surface which mated with the mortar's convex head, both of brass. Pieces of natural charcoal (which looked disconcertingly like scraps of burned wood) powdered more cleanly than briquettes processed with sawdust had done.

Joe poured the black dust into one of Ezekiel's screw-stoppered brass jars. He didn't bother wiping the pestle clean, because after all, he was going to mix all the ingredients at some point anyway.

Lumps of sulphur powdered as easily as bits of dried mud. Sulphur had been a cheap purchase at the drugstore also. The only complicating factor was that you didn't want to buy the jar of sulphur from the same druggist as sold you the saltpeter.

Saltpeter was the rub. Saltpeter was expensive, and it was supposed to provide seventy-five percent of the bulk of the powder; so Joe and his friends had changed the formula. It was as simple as that.

After all, they weren't trying to shoot a knight out of his armored saddle—or blow a dragon to kingdom come. They just wanted spectacular fireworks. Mixing the ingredients in equal parts gave a lot more hiss and spatter from a small jar of saltpeter than the "right" way would have done.

With his powdered sulphur in a second jar, Joe got to work on the saltpeter.

Ezekiel's store of the substance amounted to several pounds, so far as Joe could judge the quantity in the heavy brass container. He didn't know precisely how much gunpowder it was going to take to blow up a dragon, but this ought to do the job.

The saltpeter crystals were a dirty yellow-white, like the teeth of Glam and Groag. They crushed beneath the mortar with a faint squeaking, unlike the crisp, wholesome sound the charcoal had made.

The spectators were getting bored. Kiki had snatched a hat and was now more the center of interest than Joe was. Servants formed a ring about the little animal and were making good-natured attempts to grab him as he bounced around them, cloak fluttering.

The spectators who weren't watching the monkey had mostly broken up into their own conversational groups. Delendor and his sister murmured about old times, while Glam and Groag discussed the fine points of unlacing a deer.

It had bothered Joe to feel that he was some sort of a circus act. He found that it bothered him more to think that he was a boring circus act, a tumbler whom everybody ignored while the lion tamer and trapeze artists performed in the other rings.

Almost everybody ignored him. As Joe mixed his test batch of powder—three measures of saltpeter and a half measure each of charcoal and sulphur (because he still couldn't for the life of him remember which of the pair was supposed to be fifteen percent and which ten)—he felt Ezekiel's eyes on his back. The magician's gaze was cold and veiled, like a container of dry ice.

And Ezekiel wasn't quite the only one watching with unabated interest as Joe went on with the procedure. Joe lifted his head to stretch his cramped shoulders. In a third-floor room across the courtyard—Joe's room, he thought, though he couldn't be sure—was a wan white face observing at a safe distance from Glam and Groag.

Mary's features were indistinct, but Joe felt the poor kid's concern.

He went back to mixing his ingredients. He felt better for the glimpse at the window.

"All right, Ezekiel," Joe said loudly to call everybody's attention back to him. "I'll need the tube now."

Ezekiel smiled and extended his hand with the length of lead pipe in it.

Joe was sure Ezekiel hadn't left the summer kitchen. The piece could have been concealed in the magician's sleeve all the time, but that left the question of how he'd known what Joe would want before Joe himself knew.

Being thought to be a magician in this culture was fine. Knowing a real magician was rather like knowing a real Mafioso. . . .

"Right," said Joe, staring at the pipe and thinking about the possible remainder of his life—unless he could find a People Mover going in the opposite direction. "Right . . ."

Time for that later. He needed to close one end of the pipe before he filled it with powder. He could use Ezekiel's mortar to pound the soft metal into a seam, but that wasn't the job for which the piece of lab equipment had been designed.

Besides, the mortar's owner was watching.

"Arnault," Joe said briskly to the master armorer. "I need to close the end of this pipe. Do you have a hammer with you?"

"This poipe . . . ?" Arnault said, reaching out for the piece. When the armorer frowned, wrinkles gave his face almost the same surface as his cracked, stained leather apron.

He took the piece between his right thumb and index finger. When he squeezed, the metal flattened as if between a hammer and anvil.

Joe blinked. Arnault returned the pipe to him. The flattened end was warm.

Arnault didn't speak, but a smile of pride suffused his whole pitted, muscular being.

"Ah," said Joe. "Thank you."

Joe looked at the pipe he held, the glass funnel set out in readiness, and the brass container of gunpowder. Either the cold or the shock of everything that'd been happening made his brain logy, because it took ten seconds of consideration before he realized that he was going to need a third hand. He glanced at the crowd.

Ezekiel was used to this type of work; Delendor was the guy whose life and career most depended on the job—

And Joe, for different reasons, didn't trust either one of them. "Estoril?" he said. "Princess? Would you please hold this tube vertical while I pour the powder into it?"

Joe's eyes had scanned the window across the courtyard before settling back on the princess; but that was a silly thought and unworthy of him, even in his present state.

Estoril handled the pipe with the competence Joe already knew to expect from her. The spout of the funnel fit within the lead cylinder, so he didn't have to tell her not to worry if some of the gunpowder dribbled down.

The brass powder container was slick, heavy, and, when Joe took off his glove for a better grip, shockingly cold. He shook the jar as carefully as he could, dribbling a stream of the dirty-yellow gunpowder into the funnel and thence the pipe.

It sure didn't look black. Maybe he should've used more charcoal after all?

Drifting grains of sulphur gave the air a brimstone hint that reminded Joe of the immediately-previous stop on what had begun as a People Mover.

The tube was nearly full. Joe put down the items he held and took the tube from Estoril. "Arnault," he said, holding the almost-bomb to the armorer, "I'd like you to close this down to a little hole in the end. Can you do that?"

Arnault stared at the piece. It looked tiny in his hand. "Right," he said. "Doon to a coont haar."

Joe pursed his lips. "A little larger than that, I think," he said. "About the size of a straw."

Though, thinking about the sort of women who would willingly consort with the master armorer, Arnault's description might have been quite accurate.

Granted that lead wasn't armor plate, it was still amazing to watch Arnault force the tube into the desired shape between the tips of his thumbs and index fingers. When he handed the result back, Joe couldn't imagine a machine shop back home improving on the job.

Nothing left to do but to complete the test.

Joe had been planning to take the bomb outside the walls of the palace, but now he had a better idea. The summer kitchen's three ovens were solid masonry affairs; and this was, after all, only a little bomb. . . .

Joe arranged it at the back of the center oven.

"Now, I want all of you to keep to the sides," Joe said, his voice deepened and multiplied by the cavity. When he straightened, he found everybody was staring at him from wherever they'd been standing before . . . except that Delendor and his brothers had moved up directly behind "the magician" to stare into the oven.

Ezekiel grinned.

Joe stuck his thumbs in his ears and waggled his fingers. "Back!" he shouted.

Kiki's four limbs gripped Delendor's head, completely hiding the youth's face. Glam and Groag hurtled into the crowd like elephants charging butt-first, doing a marvelous job of clearing the area in front of the oven.

"Right," said Joe, breathing heavily. "Now, if you'll all just keep it that way while I set the fuze."

From what he remembered, you were supposed to make your fuze by soaking string in a solution of gunpowder and letting it dry—or some damned thing. For this purpose, a bare train of powder would do well enough.

Joe dribbled a little pile of the foul-looking stuff at the base of the bomb, then ran the trail out to the mouth of the oven. Granted that he wasn't being graded on aesthetics, he still sure wished his black powder looked back.

"Now—" he said with his hand raised for a flourish.


Joe screwed down the top on the powder container and set it carefully on the ground to the side of the bank of ovens. All he needed was for a spark to get into that.

"Now," Joe repeated as the crowd watched him. "I'm going to light the fuze and—"

And neither he, not any of the people around him, had a match.

"Ah," he said, changing mental direction again. "Would somebody bring me a candle or—something, you know? I want to light the fuze."

"You want to light it now?" asked Ezekiel.

Joe nodded. He didn't understand the emphasis. "Ah, yeah," he said. "Is there some reason—"

Ezekiel snapped his fingers. Something that looked like a tiny—no, it had to have been a spark—popped from his pointing index finger. The spark flicked the end of the train of gunpowder.

"Get back!" Joe shouted, waving his arms as he scrambled aside also. "Get clear, y'all!"

Ezekiel was smiling at him in cold satisfaction.

The pops and splutters of burning gunpowder echoed from the oven. Stinking white smoke oozed out of the door and hung in the cold air like a mass of raw cotton, opaque and evil-looking.

Joe put his hands over his ears and opened his mouth to help equalize pressure against the coming blast. He wished he'd remembered to warn the locals that the bang would—

There was a pop. A stream of orange-red sparks spurted through the open oven door. Joe heard a whanging sound from within, a whee!—and the would-be bomb came sailing straight up the flue of the oven. It mounted skyward on a trail of white smoke and a rain of molten lead.

The crowd scattered, screaming in justified terror. Delendor picked up his sister and ran for the nearest doorway in a cloud of skirts. Even Ezekiel fled, though he did so with more judgment than any of the others: he flung himself into one of the cold ovens.

The rocket began to curve as the wall of the lead tube melted unevenly. The only two people still watching it were Joe, in utter dismay; and Arnault, who stared out from the haze of his smoldering hair with a rapturous look on his face.

The rocket punched through one of the third-floor windows across from Joe's room. There was a faint pop from within. The remainder of the damaged window shivered outward into the courtyard.

Maybe a boxcar load of this "gunpowder" would daze a dragon. But probably not.

Arnault turned to Joe. The armorer's spark-lighted beard had gone out, but a wreath of hideous stench still wrapped him. "Moy, but yoor a cooning baastaard!" Arnault bellowed happily as he hugged Joe to him.

Joe squealed. His mother had always told him that if he persisted in playing with gunpowder he'd surely be killed, though he doubted she'd expected him to be crushed in an elephantine expression of joy. . . .

Arnault threw open his arms. Joe sprawled on the flagstones. He took a deep breath of the cold, sulphurous air and began coughing it out again.

Ezekiel crawled from the oven. His face was livid where it wasn't smudged with soot. For a moment, the magician stared upward toward the missing window, a gap in the array of diamond-paned reflections. A tiny wisp of smoke came out of the opening.

"You may think you're clever, destroying my laboratory that way!" he cried to Joe. "But it won't help your protege against the dragon, you know. And that's what you're sworn to do!"

The magician turned and strode toward the door into the palace. His robes were flapping. The wisp of smoke from his room became a column. As Ezekiel reached the doorway, he flung dignity to the winds and began to run up the stairs.

Delendor reappeared, looking flushed and joyful. "Wow!" the prince said. "That's tremendous, Joe! My mother's spirit certainly led me right. Why, that dragon won't have a chance!"

"I'm glad you feel that way," said Joe as he got to his feet.

Joe's belly felt cold. What he'd done was sure-hell impressive . . . but it proved that he couldn't make gunpowder that would explode.

And that meant that Delendor was a dead duck.


There was a faint tap on Joe's door.

"Sure, come in," he mumbled without looking away from the window. The sun was still above the horizon, but in the shadowed courtyard beneath, servants and vehicles moved as if glimpsed through the water of a deep pool.

Mary slipped into the room. For a moment she poised beside the door, ready to flee. Then she asked, "Master Joe, am I disturbing you? If you need to plan all the little details of how you'll destroy the dragon, then I—"

Joe turned. The room was almost dark. The charcoal fire gave little light, and the low sun had to be reflected many times to reach Joe's leading-webbed windows.

"I can't destroy the dragon!" he said savagely. "I can't kill it, and I can't go home. And none of it's any fault of mine that I can see!"

Mary cowered back against the door. Her eyes were on Joe's face but her thin fingers fumbled to reopen the door.

"Aw, child, don't do that . . ." he said, reaching out—then grimacing in self-disgust when he saw her wince at the gesture. "Look," he said, "I'm just frustrated that . . . well, that I made things worse."

Mary began fussing with the fire, adding small bits of charcoal from the terra cotta container beside the fireplace. "And so now you want to leave?" she asked.

"I always wanted to leave," Joe said. He tried to keep the force of his emotion out of his voice. "Mary, I never wanted to come here, it just happened. But it doesn't look like I'll ever be able to leave, either."

"But Joe," she said, lifting her big frightened eyes to his, "only a great magician could have done what you did this morning. I don't see why you think you're failing."

"Because I'm not a chemist," Joe explained.

He turned away from the pain in the maid's expression. The courtyard was still deeper in shadow. "Because I'm not much of anything, if you want to know the truth. I did the only thing I know how to do—from when I was a kid. And that's not going to help a damned bit if the dragon's half what everybody tells me it is."

Mary touched the hem of Joe's cloak diffidently. "I think you're something," she said.

"What I am," said Joe, "is the guy who told Delendor he'd fix it so he'd kill the dragon. Which was a lie. And Delendor's a decent kid who deserved better 'n that."

A four-horse carriage drove out of the stables across the courtyard. The streets would be pitch dark soon, so the lanterns on the vehicle's foreposts were lighted. They waked glimmers of vermilion lacquer and gilt on the carriage's polished sides.

"I'm sure you'll find a—" Mary began.

The carriage driver looked up at Joe's window. Great god almighty! It was the Mongolian!

Joe spun to his door. He had barely enough control to jiggle the latch open—it was simple but not of a present-day familiar type—instead of breaking off the slender handle that lifted the bar. His shoes skidded as he ran to the nearest staircase, but he managed not to fall.

At the back of Joe's mind was the knowledge that somebody—fate, the Mongolian, sunspots, whatever—might be playing with him. He could reach the courtyard and find that the coach had driven out the main gate and into the city . . . or simply had disappeared.

But Joe had to try. He should've had better sense to begin with than to think he could do any good in a world with dragons and real sorcerers. Since he'd screwed things up even worse, the only honorable course was to get himself the hell out of the way at the first chance that was offered.

Sure, that was honorable. And besides, it was survivable.

This was a servants' staircase, helical with stone steps that were just as slick as the floors. There wasn't any namby-pamby nonsense about stair railings, either. By god, there were things Joe knew that he could teach these people . . .

Unfortunately, none of those things included dragon-slaying methods; and nobody in Hamisch was going to be much interested in staircase and bathroom designs from the guy who got Prince Delendor killed.

Joe swept down on a trio of maids. They flattened to the curving walls in terror when "the new magician" galloped past them.

The two long flights took him—well, Joe didn't know how long it took him. He knew if he slipped, he'd knock himself silly for sure; and he suspected that was just the sort of joke the Mongolian had in mind to torment a perfectly innocent ghostwriter.

He reached the ground floor between the laundry room and the buttery. A liveried servant dozed on a chair beside the courtyard door. Joe slammed past him, startling the man shriekingly awake as though the morning's rocket had been set off again between his coattails.

The carriage waited in the twilit courtyard. The swarthy driver smirked past the coach lamp toward Joe. Vague voices drifted between the stone walls, and concertina music came from somewhere in the servants' quarters.

Joe put his foot on the carriage step and gripped the silver door latch. It was warmer than the surrounding air, but it wouldn't have stopped Joe if he'd thought the cold metal would flay the skin from his palm.

"Stop, Master Joe!" somebody wailed.

The carriage door started to swing open. Joe looked over his shoulder.

Mary had followed him down the stairs. Her eyes were streaming tears.

Her arms held out to him the attaché case he'd abandoned when he saw his chance to go home.

Much the way Joe had abandoned Mary and his promise to Delendor.

"Right," said Joe. He hopped down from the carriage step and took the case from the maid.

"I don't think I'll need this for a while," he said to the sobbing woman. "But it may as well stay in my room for now. With me."

The driver clucked something to his horses. The coach began to move in toward the archway, but Joe didn't look back as he guided Mary into the palace.

As a result, Joe didn't see the clawed, skeletally-thin hand that pulled shut the carriage door from the inside.

* * *

A horde of minuscule demons was sweeping shattered equipment from Ezekiel's workbench. They suddenly froze in place, then formed a flying arrowhead which curved halfway around the laboratory before vanishing into the dimension from which the creatures had come. Their voices made a tiny eeping that persisted several seconds after the demons themselves disappeared.

"What's that?/What happened?" Glam and Groag blurted together in high-pitched voices. Each brother slapped one hand to his swordhilt and covered his face with the other, as though they thought the swarm of demons might flee down their throats—

As indeed the panicky demons might do, and much good the outflung hands would be in that event.

Ezekiel made one attempt to regain control by gesturing. Then he heard what the demons were wailing and stepped to an undamaged window—the center of the three casements was boarded up—to glance down into the courtyard.

"Great God!" he muttered as he jumped back again from the glass—and much good a stone wall would be if the being below chose to act against Ezekiel.

"What's going on?" Glam demanded in his full, booming voice. He'd regained confidence now that the flying demons were gone, and there seemed to be no room within his thick skull for wonder at what had frightened the horde away.

"I saw a . . ." the magician said. "A being. A being from the 7th Plane."

Groag strode over to the window Ezekiel had vacated and looked out. "You mean Delendor's tame wizard?" he said. "He don't look any great shakes to me."

"Joe Johnson is down there?" Ezekiel asked sharply. "You see him?"

"Yeah, sure I see him," Groag said, testy with his sudden fear and his present, false, assumption of safety. "He's getting into a carr—no, he ain't. He's going—" the big man squinted for a better look in the twilight "—back inside."

Ezekiel swallowed. The lingering smell of brimstone seemed sharper. "What is the—carriage doing?" he asked with as much nonchalance as he could muster.

"Huh?" Groag answered. "It just drove off, out the gate. Why?"

"Whadda ya mean, 7th Plane?" Glam asked. "You mean a demon?"

As though the word had been a summons, one of Ezekiel's pack of demons thrust its head back into the laboratory, then followed with its entire body. The creature was blue and more nearly the size of a gnat than a fly.

The demon gripped a shard of broken alembic and tried to lift the piece with a metallic shimmering of its wings. After it quivered vainly for several seconds, hundreds more of its fellows poured through the hole in the continuum and resumed their duties. Bits and pieces of wreckage rose and vanished.

"Not a demon," the magician said, speaking as much to himself as to the pair of humans with him in his laboratory. "Demons are beings of the 3d Plane, below rather than above ours. The inhabitants of the 7th Plane are—"

"But it's not this Joe character that we're supposed to worry about, then?" Glam interrupted.

"If he communes with creatures of the 7th Plane, then you'd better worry about him!" Ezekiel snapped. The magician's vehemence straightened the two hulking princes like a slap. "The—folk of the 7th Plane don't meddle in human affairs, precisely . . . but they offer choices. They have terrible powers, but they won't be guided by humans. Nobody deals with them."

"Well then, what—" Groag said, his brow furrowing.

"Except," Ezekiel continued, "that the Princess Blumarine is said to have done so."

"You mean Delendor's mother . . . ?" Glam said in what was for him a considerable mental stretch. "But she's dead. Ain't she?"

"Blumarine couldn't save her beloved knight," Ezekiel said savagely. "And she won't be able to save her son, either. Do you hear?"

He glared around the room. "Do you hear?"

The waves of tiny demon wings rose and trembled with the amplitude of the magician's voice.


"Ah, good morning, Joe," said Delendor. "I was just wondering how preparations for my dragon-slaying are coming?"

Joe looked at the prince sourly. "You're up bright and early," he said.

"Well, ah, yes," Delendor agreed, looking around Joe's room with vague interest. "I do get up early, you know; and besides, Estoril and I are going on a picnic today."

Mary, wearing a sturdy pair of boots in place of her usual slippers, curtsied. She was blushing furiously. Kiki hopped from the prince's shoulder and chirped at Mary's feet, but the maid seemed unwilling even to admit the monkey was there.

"Ah, you're going on a picnic also, Joe?" Delendor added. His lips pursed. "But with an arbalest?"

"What we're doing," Joe said, "is taking a look at your blasted dragon."

"Really?" said Delendor. "Goodness. Why?"

"Because I haven't got a clue as to what to do about a damned dragon!" Joe snarled. "Because I'm not a magician! But I might be able to help if I had the faintest notion of what I'm supposed to be dealing with."

He didn't so much calm as run through the temporary enthusiasm that anger gave him. "And I, well, I'd really like to help things out here. Mary said she'd guide me. Apparently the dragon's pretty close to the city already."

Delendor nodded with his lips still pursed. "Yes," he said, "I wanted to go to the glade north of the walls where we picnicked when we were little, but Clarkson says that's not a good idea. But why the arbalest?"

The youth's expression grew tight and angry. "You're not planning to—"

"No, I'm not planning to shoot the dragon with a crossbow!" Joe blazed. "Though I sure as hell would if I thought it'd do a damned bit of good."

"Oh!" squealed Mary.

The maid had stuffed rags in her boots to line them down to the size of her tiny feet. Kiki grabbed the end of one and ran around in a circle, attempting to bind Mary's ankles together. Joe snatched at the monkey with his free hand.

Kiki bounded up the wall, off the ceiling, and back onto Delendor's shoulder in an impressive display of acrobatics—and judgment, given the fury that bent Joe's groping hand into a claw.

"Bad, bad monkey!" Delendor chided.

"Look, Delendor," Joe continued in an attempt to sound calm. "I just figured I ought to be armed if I'm going to look for this thing."

"Oh, well," the prince said, his face clearing. "Well, I'll loan you a sword then, Joe. It's more fitting to your position, though I suppose technically a magician isn't a—"

"No, I don't want a sword," Joe interrupted. "I don't know anything about swords except they're long enough to trip me if I need to run . . . as I figure I'll want to, pretty soon now."

"Ah," said Delendor. He didn't look as though he would have approved if he understood. His eyes wandered; focused on Mary, who'd taken off her boot to restuff it; and snapped back to Joe.

"Delendor," Joe said, "I don't know anything about crossbows either. Or guns, if it comes to that. Arnault had to crank this—" he hefted the weapon in his right hand with some difficulty "—up for me."

Joe tried to smile as though he meant it. "Mary," he went on with a nod to the maid, "warned me not to put an arrow in the thing until I was out in open country. It's just a security blanket, but the good lord knows I need some security."

Delendor reached a decision. He nodded enthusiastically. "I understand," he said. "A very noble, if I may say so, undertaking. I'll tell Estoril that we won't be able to picnic today, because I'm going with my magician to view the threat to the kingdom first-hand."

"Ah," Joe said. "Ah, are you really sure you want to do this?"

"I certainly do," the prince responded firmly. "And not only that, but we'll go on foot. The—fate—of Sir Delendor, my namesake, suggests that horses aren't to be trusted in the vicinity of the dragon."

Joe nodded. It just might be, he thought, that Delendor wasn't a complete airhead.


"Well, it's certainly a beautiful day to be out in the country, isn't it?" Delendor gushed. "Bright sun, crisp breeze . . . just cool enough to be bracing."

Joe sneezed. "No people around," he said. "Not a soul."

He looked back over his shoulder. The pennoned turrets on the city walls were still visible every time the road rolled upward. They'd set out on the main turnpike between Glenheim and Hamisch, so there should've been some traffic.

Unless the dragon was a lot closer than the farmers from outlying districts, now thronging the streets of Hamisch, had insisted.

It occurred to Joe that the farmers might be more than a little upset about the lack of progress in dealing with the beast that was devastating their lands. If some of the nobles who were supposed to slay such threats could be enticed into proximity to the dragon, then one or the other was going to be killed.

And the farmers might think either result was a good one.

"I don't think we should be walking right up the road," Mary said, echoing Joe's next thought as it formed.

Delendor looked at the brush fringing the sides of the highway, then tapped the road's cobblestone surface with his green leather shoe. The edges of the road were apparently cut back every few years, but at the moment they were a tangle of saplings, bushes, and creepers—thick enough to provide concealment for somebody a few yards in, but not too dense to get through without a machete.

"Well, it might be more comfortable for walking," he said judiciously. "But my sword would catch. I don't think we'll do that."

"We'll do that," said Joe grimly as he forced his way into the brush.

Joe's legs were holding up—they'd walked less than a mile—but his arms were aching with the weight of the crossbow. The nut that held back the thumb-thick cord had a slot in it to grip the nock of the bolt. At least Joe didn't have the bolt falling off every time he let the weapon point down, the way he'd expected.

The bolt—the quarrel—had a thick wood shaft and three wooden feathers. The head was square and steel, with a four-knobbed face instead of a point. It looked dangerous as hell—

And if the dragon had shrugged off showers of similar missiles, as everybody assured Joe the beast had, then the dragon was hell on four legs.

Kiki was having the time of his life, swinging around the three humans. He was so light that the branches of saplings, none of which were more than twelve feet tall, were sufficient to support his cheerful acrobatics.

Delendor, last in the line, had rotated his swordbelt so that the weapon in its scabbard hung behind him like a stiff tail. It didn't get in his way after all.

The prince's tasseled fur cloak, his ruffed tunic, and his ballooning silk breeches, on the other hand, seemed to cling and fray on every thorn. Delendor became increasingly—vocally—irritated about the fact.

"Joe," he called, "this doesn't make any sense at all. We could never escape if the dragon charged us, but the thorns wouldn't slow the beast a bit."

"We couldn't outrun it anyway," Joe said, doggedly forcing his way between a clump of saplings. "All we're trying to do is stay out of sight."

"The dragon stops when it makes a kill," Mary said. "The others will have time to get away while it eats."

The careless, matter-of-fact statement contrasted unpleasantly with the maid's timid voice.

"Well, perhaps in that case I should be in the lead," Delendor suggested. "Because my rank is—drat! Where do all these blackberry vines come from?"

If the prince had paid attention to what he was doing rather than to his concept of noblesse oblige, he'd've gone around those vines the way his companions had.

"You know," Delendor resumed a moment later, "this makes even less sense than I'd thought. We're making so much noise that we'll never sneak up on the—"

Joe froze with one foot lifted. He hissed, "Hush!"

"—dragon. I've done enough hunting to know—ulp!"

Mary had turned and clamped her hand over Delendor's mouth with surprising strength. "Oh, please, Prince!" she whispered. "Please obey Master Joe."

Joe put his foot down very carefully. Something that clanked and wheezed like a steam locomotive was coming up the road toward them. There wasn't much doubt about what the something was.

The dragon came around a sweeping bend only fifty yards away. Its color was the red of glowing iron.

The dragon probably wasn't any longer than the thirty-odd yards Ezekiel had claimed for it . . . but seeing a creature of the unimaginably great size was very different from hearing the words spoken.

No wonder the knights—and the crossbowmen—had been unable to harm the thing.

The dragon was covered with bony scutes similar to those of a crocodile, and the beast's general shape was crocodilelike as well: so low-slung that the long jaws almost brushed the cobblestones, with a massive body carried on four short legs. The upper and lower rows of the dragon's teeth overlapped like the spikes of an Iron Maiden.

The dragon's claws sparked on the roadway. Its breath chuffed out a reek of decay which enveloped Joe as he peered from the brush in amazement.

Well, he'd come to look at the dragon to determine what were its weak spots.

There weren't any.

They'd have to get back to Hamisch as fast as they could—making the necessary wide circuit to avoid the dragon. The beast would reach the city in a few tens of minutes, and the only hope of the people inside was to scatter. The walls wouldn't last a—

"Kikikikiki!" shrieked the monkey. It hurled a bit of seedpod as it charged the dragon.

"Kiki!" cried Delendor in a voice almost as high-pitched as his pet's. The prince whisked his sword from its sheath and crossed the expanse of brush between himself and the highway in three deerlike leaps.

With Mary running after him, an equally athletic, equally quixotic, demonstration.

"For god's sake!" Joe screamed. He tried to aim his arbalest. A loop of honeysuckle was caught around the right arm of the bow. "Come back! Come back!"

The dragon didn't charge, but its head swung with horrifying speed to clop within a finger's breadth of Kiki. The monkey's cries rose into a sound like an electronic watch alarm.

Kiki hurled himself back into the brush. Delendor continued to run forward, with Mary right behind him—casting doubt on the evolutionary course of intelligence.

"Get down!" Joe cried. "Don't, for god's sake—"

He slipped his bow loose of the vines and raised the weapon. He'd fired a rifle a couple times but the crossbow had a knob rather than a shoulder stock.

There weren't any proper sights. Joe tried to aim along the bolt's vertical fin, but the weapon's heavy muzzle wobbled furiously around a six-inch circle. The dragon was only twenty feet away, and Joe was going to miss it if he—

Delendor swung his sword in a swift, glittering arc. It rang on the dragon's snout as though it had struck an anvil. The blade shattered and the hilt, vibrating like a badly-tuned harmonica, flew out of Delendor's hand.

Delendor yelped and lost his footing. He hit the cobblestones butt-first, which was just as well in the short run because the dragon's jaws slammed where the prince's torso had been.

"Get out of the—" Joe shrieked.

"Take me!" Mary cried, waving her arms to catch the monster's attention as she stepped on Delendor's swordhilt.

Mary's foot flew in the air. She hit the ground in a flurry of skirts.

The dragon paused, faced with two victims ten feet apart. It opened its jaws wider. The maw was the size of a concert grand with the lid up. The interior of the dragon's mouth was as white as dried bone.

I'll never have a better chance, thought Joe as he squeezed the under-lever trigger of his crossbow. The muzzle dropped as the cord slammed forward.

Joe whanged his bolt into the roadway in an explosion of sparks.

The dragon snorted. It started to—

For Pete's sake, it was arching its short neck, then its back. Its monstrous, clawed forelegs were off the ground—

The sight should've been as ridiculous as that of Fantasia's crocodiles doing The Dance of the Hours . . . but this close to the creature, it was more like watching an ICBM rising from its silo in preparation to launch.

The dragon was quivering in a tetanic arch, making little whimpering sounds. Its belly plates were red like the scutes of its back and sides, but there were fine lines of yellow skin where the plates met.

There was a hole where the lower jaw joined the first plate covering the underside of the neck. The hole didn't look large, but blood was bubbling furiously out of it.

Joe's quarrel had ricocheted into what might very well be the only vulnerable point in the dragon's armor.

The dragon rose onto the claws of its hind feet. Its tail was stiff. The beast's armor squealed under the strain to which convulsing muscles were subjecting it.

Mary and Delendor sat up, staring at the monster that towered above them. Their legs were splayed, and they supported their torsos on their hands.

"Wow!" said the prince. Joe, fifty feet back in the brush, couldn't come up with anything more suitable for the occasion.

Kiki hopped onto Joe's shoulder. He made what were almost purring sounds as he stroked Joe's hair.

The dragon completed its arc and toppled backwards. It hit the ground with a crash.

Its limbs and tail continued to pummel the ground for hours, like the aftershocks of an earthquake.


Though there were eight yoke of oxen hitched to the sledge, they wheezed and blew with the effort of dragging the dragon's head, upside down, into the palace courtyard. The beast's tongue lolled out to drag the flagstones, striking sparks from them.

Prince Delendor sat astride the stump of the beast's neck. He waved his swordhilt and beamed as he received the boisterous cheers of the crowd.

"Must be the whole city down there," Groag said glumly as he watched from one window of Ezekiel's laboratory.

"Must be the whole country," Glam corrected in a similar tone. " 'Cept us."

"Lookit that!" said Groag.

"Then get out of the way and I will," snapped the magician, tapping Groag on the shoulder and making little shooing motions with his hand. The big prince stepped aside, shaking his head.

The wreckage was gone from the laboratory, but neither the middle window nor the broken glassware had been replaced. A tinge of brimstone from the rocket still clung to the air.

The scene in the courtyard did nothing to improve Ezekiel's humor. King Morhaven was kneeling to Delendor, though the youth quickly dismounted as from a horse and stood Morhaven erect again.

The cheering rattled the laboratory's remaining windows.

"He'll make Delendor co-ruler as a result of this, you know," Ezekiel said. "And heir."

He turned and glared savagely at the two royal brothers. "You know that, don't you?"

Glam twisted the toe of his boot against the floor, as though trying to grind something deep into the stone. "Well," he said, "you know . . . You know, if the little prick killed the dragon, I dunno what else the ole man could do. Lookit the teeth on that sucker."

"Don't be a bigger fool than God made you!" Ezekiel snarled. "Delendor didn't have anything to do with killing the dragon. It was that magician of his! That damned magician."

He made a cryptic sign. A swarm of twinkling demons whisked out of their own plane. Their tiny hands compressed globes of air into a pair of shimmering lenses.

Ezekiel stared through the alignment, then stepped back. "There," he said to the brothers. "Look at that."

Glam looked through the tubeless telescope, despite an obvious reluctance to put his eye close to the miniature demons who formed it. The lenses were focused on the dragon's neck. The wound there was marked with a flag of blood.

"Well," said Glam as his brother shouldered him aside, "that's where he stabbed the sucker, right?"

"Idiot!" Ezekiel said. "The wound's square, from a crossbow bolt. And who do you see carrying a crossbow?"

"Oh-h-h," said the brothers together.

Behind the sledge, almost lost in the crowd that mobbed Delendor, was the prince's magician—carrying a heavy arbalest. A servant girl clung to him, squeezed by the people cheering their master.

"I don' get it," Groag said. "Lotsa guys shot it with crossbows before, din't they? I heard that, anyhow."

"Of course they did, oaf!" said Ezekiel. "This was obviously an enchanted arbalest which struck the one vulnerable part of the dragon's armor—even though a spot on the underside of the beast's throat couldn't be hit by a crossbow bolt."

He swung the telescope slightly by tapping the manicured nail of his index finger against the objective lens. Tiny demons popped and crackled at the contact.

Groag glared at the crossbow. "Don' look so special ta me," he said.

"I don' get it," Glam said. "If he got a crossbow ta kill the dragon, then what was all that stuff with the powder and fire t'other morning? Some kinda joke, was it?"

The magician grimaced. "I'm not sure," he admitted, glancing around his laboratory and remembering how it had looked before a rocket sizzled through the center window. "But I think . . ."

Ezekiel had been shrinking down into his velvet robes. Now he shook himself and rose again to his full height.

"I think," the magician resumed, "that Joe Johnson has been brought here from a very great distance by a—7th Plane inhabitant. He initially attempted to use the magic of his own region here, but the correspondences differed. Rather than work them out, he found it easier to adapt our magic to the task."

"You promised us," said Glam in a dangerous voice, "that there wouldn't be no problem with Delendor. An' now you say there is."

"I can take care of your brother easily enough," said Ezekiel in a carefully neutral tone. "But only after Joe Johnson is out of the way. Do you understand?"

Glam guffawed in a voice that rattled the window even against the cheering voices below. "You bet we do!" he said. "Cold iron's proof agin magic, right?"

"Ah, belt up," said his brother, staring through the telescope again. "You charge in like a bull in a boo-dwa, you just screw things up. I'll handle this one."

As he spoke, Groag marked carefully the servant to whom Joe Johnson gave his enchanted crossbow.


"And you said you weren't a magician!" Delendor crowed.

"Del, careful!" Estoril warned, but the prince had already jumped into a heel-clicking curvette too energetic for Joe's small room.

The feather in Delendor's peaked cap flattened against the ceiling. Kiki bounded from the prince's shoulder and caromed off the four walls before cringing against Joe's ankles.

Joe wrapped the quilt around him tighter. Servants had built up the fire next to which he huddled in his armchair. Despite that and the quilt, he still felt cold enough that the monkey's warm body was surprisingly pleasant.

He wondered where Mary had gone—and whether she'd be back tonight as usual.

He sneezed again.

"Bless you!" said Delendor, slightly more subdued. He sat down again on the cedar chest beside Estoril. "You know," he bubbled to the princess, "I just swung, swish!"

"I believe I heard that, yes," Estoril said dryly. Joe thought she winked at him, but he was blowing his nose and couldn't be sure.

Did Lancelot catch colds while carrying out deeds of derring-do? More to the point, did Lancelot's faithful servant catch colds?

"I didn't even know that I'd killed it until I saw it topple over backward!" Delendor continued, oblivious to everything but his own—false—memory. "Joe here's magic guided my thrust straight to the monster's throat! Except . . ."

Delendor's handsome brow furrowed. "You know, I thought I'd cut at the dragon instead of thrusting." He brightened again. "Just shows how memory can play tricks on you, doesn't it?"

Joe sneezed.

Maybe now that the dragon was dead, he'd be able to go back home . . . though somehow, after the primary colors of life in Hamisch, even the Senator and his shenanigans seemed gray.

"But here, I've been doing all the talking," Delendor said, showing that he had some awareness of the world beyond him. "Essie, what was it you came back from Glenheim to tell us?"

Estoril looked at her hands, laid neatly in a chevron on the lap of her lace-fronted dress. "To tell the truth," she began, "I'm not sure. . . ."

"You know," the prince resumed, as though Estoril had finished her thought instead of merely her words, "when Joe arrived here, I really wanted him to find my enchanted princess."

Delendor fumbled within his puff-fronted tunic. "But now that you're back, Essie, I—well, I don't think about it very much."

He opened the oval locket and handed it to Estoril. From the flash of lamplight as the object passed, Joe knew it was still a mirror so far as he was concerned. He roused himself to ask, "Princess, what do you see in it?"

Estoril smiled. "My face," she said. "But the locket is very old—and it belonged to Del's mother."

She returned the locket to Delendor. "The Princess Blumarine was a very good woman," she said carefully. "But from what Katya told me, she was very—"

A sort of smile, wry but good-humored, flicked Estoril's mouth. "Powerful would be the wrong word, I think. The Princess Blumarine was very learned. I'm sure that the mirror shows her son whatever he says it does."

Delendor gave her a look of prim horror. "Essie!" he said. "Of course I wouldn't lie to you!"

Estoril glanced at the windows. They were again gray traceries of leading that barely illuminated the room. "Master Joe," the princess said, "would you like us to summon lamps?"

"Huh?" said Joe, aroused from his doze. "Oh, no—I mean . . . after you leave, that is, I think I'll just sit here and hope my sinuses decide to drain."

The problem wasn't just the cold breeze—and being out in it all day while the trophy was dragged to the palace. The shock of everything he'd been through today and the past three days had weakened Joe, leaving him prey to a bug.

"Well," said Estoril as she stood up, "we were just leaving."

"We . . . ?" said Delendor, though he hopped to his feet also.

"Are leaving," Estoril repeated. "And we're going to send some hot soup up to Joe."

"Oh, I'm not really—" Joe began.

"Which he will drink all of," the princess continued in a tone with as much flexibility as the dragon's armor.

Estoril opened the door and pointed Delendor into the hall; but then she paused. "Master Joe," she said softly, "the kingdom owes its safety to you. And I owe you Delendor's life—"

"Yes, yes," the prince broke in over Estoril's shoulder. "We owe it all to you, Joe."

"I wouldn't want you to think," Estoril continued as though there had been no interruption, "that we are unaware of precisely what you've accomplished. Or that we're ungrateful for your tact."

"It wasn't—" Joe said, but there was no way he could explain just what it was since he didn't have a clue himself. He started to get up.

"No, stay right there," Estoril ordered in her head nurse/mother persona.

"Kiki?" called Delendor. "Kiki?"

The monkey peeked out from between Joe's feet. Kiki had wrapped himself in a corner of the quilt also. After a moment, and with obvious reluctance, the little creature sprang across the cold floor and back on his master's shoulder.

"Remember to drink your soup," Estoril called as she pulled the door closed behind her.

Joe relaxed again. He missed the warmth of Kiki, though. Estoril was quite a lady. Smart and tough, but not cold for all that. She could've made the best ruler of anybody Joe had met yet in Hamisch, but it was obvious that wouldn't happen while there were sons around.

For that matter, Estoril probably couldn't get elected President, either, so long as there was some male boob with a fluent smile and the right connections to run against her.

Delendor wasn't a bad kid, and in a few years he wouldn't be a kid. He'd proved he had guts enough when he charged the dragon—like a damned fool! Maybe with his sister behind to do the thinking for the next while, Delendor could turn out to be a useful king.

Joe wasn't sure whether he was awake or dreaming. The coals in the fireplace were a mass of white ash, but they continued to give off heat.

If he got up and looked through the window behind him, would he really see the head of a dragon in the courtyard? Would he even see a courtyard?

But the warmth was good, and Joe really didn't want to move. Whatever reality was would keep. . . .

Something that sounded like a dropped garbage can came banging its way down the hall. The dragon's claws had sounded like that on the roadway—if there was a dragon, if there was a road. The claws hadn't echoed, but they'd been louder because the beast was so—

Joe's door burst open under the stroke of an armored hand. The latch flew across the room, bar in one direction and bracket in the other. A figure in full armor stood in the doorway with a drawn sword.

"You're in league with sundry devils, magician," the figure boomed in Glam's voice—muffled by coming through the pointed faceplate of a pig's-head basinet. "But your time's come now!"

Joe's skin flushed as though he were coming out of a faint. He jumped to his feet, slinging aside the quilt—

And fell on his face in front of Glam.

A pane of the window behind Joe blasted into the room like storm-blown ice. There was a blang! Many times louder than the sound of Glam knocking the door open. Joe twisted, trying unsuccessfully to get his feet back under him in the worst nightmare he'd had since—

Since jumping from that demon-wracked hell into Delendor's carriage, a detached, analytical part of his mind told him.

Glam toppled over on his pointed faceplate. Amazing how much noise a suit of plate armor makes when you drop it to a stone floor. . . .

Delendor, Estoril, and a crowd of servants burst into the room—led by Mary with a lantern and a terrified expression.

"Stop right where you are, Glam!" Delendor shouted. The youth's right hand kept dipping to his empty scabbard. Lack of a sword hadn't kept him from charging Glam as blithely as he had the dragon in the morning.

"Oh, Master Joe," Mary said, kneeling on the stones as Joe managed to rise into a squat. "I saw Glam coming down the hall, so I ran to get help."

"You're all right, then?" Delendor said in amazement. He finally took in the fact that the awkward sprawl on the floor was Glam, not Joe; and that Glam wasn't moving.

Which surprised the hell out of Joe, too, now that he had time to think about it.

"You lot," Estoril ordered, gesturing to a pair of the huskier servants. "Stand the brute up again."

The princess had come running also; and it couldn't have been because she thought Glam in a rage would spare a woman. "Joe, what happened?"

"I'm damned if I know," Joe muttered. "Except that—"

He looked accusingly toward the prince's shoulder. Kiki cowered behind Delendor's head, then peeked over his master's feathered cap.

"—except that I know your little pet tied my shoelaces, Delendor," Joe concluded.

"Then you should thank him, Joe," said Estoril in a voice carefully purged of all emotion. "Because he seems to have saved your life."

She pointed. The fins of a heavy quarrel stood out slightly from the square hole in the center of Glam's breastplate. Crossbows here might not be able to penetrate dragons easily, but they sure punched through steel armor a treat.

Joe looked over his shoulder at the pane missing from the casement. The bolt that blew it out could've been fired from any of a dozen rooms across the courtyard, he supposed; but Joe wasn't in any real doubt as to whose hand had been on the trigger.

Not a bad time to fall on his face.

Delendor swept his hat off and bowed to Joe. The faces of all those who'd come to rescue Joe were suffused with awe.

"Through iron," the prince said, speaking for all of them. "What an amazingly powerful magician!"


"I did not tell you to kill the foreign magician, Groag," said Ezekiel. He pitched his voice in a compromise between being threatening and keeping anybody in the hall from overhearing.

"And I most particularly didn't tell you—you, a layman!—to attempt using a magician's own weapons against him!"

"B-b-but—" Groag said. His hands clenched into fists the size of deer hams. The tears squeezing from his eyes could have been either from grief for his brother or from rage.

Or from fear. In which case both the men in Ezekiel's laboratory were afraid of Joe Johnson.

"Although the thought of using the foreigner's magic against him wasn't a bad one," Ezekiel added mildly, now that he was sure Groag wasn't going to pull him apart with his bare hands.

The magician's workbench had been partly refurbished into a production line. In a large glass vat, minuscule demons swam though a dark sludge. The demons' blue wings and scales sparkled as the creatures rose to the surface in waves, then submerged for another pass, thoroughly mixing the constituents of the thick mass.

Another work-gang of demons lifted tiny shovelsful of the sludge and spread it on a copper plate pierced with thousands of identical holes. Still more demons hovered and blew their hot breath on the bottom of the plate, keeping it just warm to the touch.

Groag stared at the operation for a moment. "Whazat?" he demanded.

"That," said Ezekiel, "was what you would have done if you'd had any sense."

"You din't tell—"

"You didn't ask!" the magician snapped.

He cleared his throat. "It was obvious to me," Ezekiel resumed in the dry, supercilious voice of a haughty lecturer, "that Joe Johnson's flame magic required some amendments to work here. I consulted my sources to learn the secret of those changes. Thus—"

Ezekiel gestured. "The ingredients were correct, though the proportions had to be modified slightly. Most important, they have to be mixed wet so that each kernel of powder retains the proper proportion of each ingredient."

Groag leaned to get a better look at the flowing sludge. His nose almost touched the surface. The wave of mixers broke upward just then; one of the demons yanked a hair out of Groag's nostril before resubmerging.


"After the mixing is complete," Ezekiel continued with a satisfied smirk, "the material is spread here—" he indicated the plate "—and dried at low heat. When that process is almost complete, my minions will form the material into kernels by extruding it through the holes in the plate."

Groag, covering his nose with his left hand, furrowed his brow and stared at the production line while a thought slowly formed. At last he said, "So what?"

The magician sighed. "Yes," he said, "I rather thought that might be the next question. Well, my boy, I'll show you 'what.' "

He gestured. A squad of demons whisked together the grains of gunpowder which had already been forced through the plate and carried them to a glass bottle of a size to hold a lady's perfume. When the demons were done, there was just enough room left for Ezekiel to insert the stopper firmly into the bottle's neck.

"When this batch is complete," the magician said as he picked up the bottle and walked to one of the undamaged windows, "there will be enough of the material to fill the brass container on the end of the bench."

He slid the casement up in its frame, then set the bottle on the ledge. A cold breeze rushed into the laboratory, making the oil lamps gutter. A glittering demon began to curvette above the bottle like a blowfly over a corpse.

"If you were to take that large container into Joe Johnson's room tomorrow evening while everyone is at dinner," Ezekiel continued as he stepped back, "you could conceal it under the chair in which he sits. And when Joe Johnson returns to his room—"

Ezekiel gestured. The demon shot straight down and reached a tiny arm through the bottle. When Ezekiel snapped his fingers, there was a spark from the demon's hand and the gunpowder detonated with a tremendous crash.

Groag bellowed in fear. Even the magician stepped backward, startled by the vehemence of what he'd achieved. His hand brushed his fine, gray beard and came away sparkling with slivers of glass.

Ezekiel cleared his throat. His ears rang.

He thought his own voice sounded thin as he concluded, "—that might happen to our foreign friend!"

* * *

The lock of Joe Johnson's door hadn't been repaired, so Groag didn't need a key to make a surreptitious entry into the magician's room.

Nobody would remark on Groag's absence at dinner. They'd just assume he was still sulking about the way the old man fawned on Delendor. They'd've been right any other time, too.

They'd see how long that poof Delendor lasted, once his tame magician was splattered all across the walls!

There was a small lamp burning in the room. It provided the only light, now, because Joe Johnson had tacked curtains over his windows. Was the magician afraid of another quarrel flying through the glass?

Groag shuddered under his chain mail even to think of aiming an arbalest at the cunning bastard. He'd been lucky his stupid brother came in the door just then. Otherwise Joe Johnson would probably have turned the bolt around and it'd've been Groag with wooden fins growing out of his chest!

The brass container, its top screwed down tight on the magic powder, was heavy. Its surface was slick, and it kept turning in Groag's hands as though it wanted to slip away from him.

What if Ezekiel's magic hadn't been strong enough to counteract the power of the stranger?

Groag looked at the armchair pulled close to the fireplace. Its seat and legs were bare, nothing whatever to cover the shining container.

The comforter in which Joe Johnson wrapped himself was neatly folded on the bed. If Groag moved the quilt, that would be as much a giveaway as the obvious presence of the container itself.

Which left one sure hiding place. Groag stepped to the fireplace and used the poker to scrape a long trench in the pile of charcoal and hot, white ash. He set the magic container into the trench and carefully covered it again.

The mound was higher than it had been, but there was nothing to draw the eye in the few moments between Joe Johnson entering the room and his sitting down directly in front of the fireplace. . . .

Groag straightened, looking pleased. There was a whisper of sound behind him. He turned like a great cat and met the wide, frightened eyes of the little maid who'd just opened the door.

By god, it was the bitch he and Glam had been chasing the other day!

"What are you doing here?" the maid demanded in a squeaky soprano.

"Nothing you'll live to tell about!" Groag bellowed. He didn't bother to draw a sword. Instead, he leaped forward with the poker upraised.

There was a flash as red as the fires of Armageddon.

The blast was equally impressive, but Groag didn't live to hear it.


Mary lay on her back, across the hall from where white haze seethed from Joe's doorway.

Joe had left the banquet before the serious drinking began, so he reached the bomb site as quickly as any of the servants. Wind through the window openings drew orange flickers from the fire within; the stench of burning feathers mingled with the brimstone odor of gunpowder.

Joe knelt, cradling Mary's fragile body in his arms. She was unconscious but breathing normally.

Thank god!

Dozens of servants came running from both directions, many of them carrying firebuckets. Joe grabbed a sturdy-looking female, pointed to Mary, and said, "Watch her! I'll be right back!"

He snatched a lamp from a wall bracket and plunged into his room. His feet slipped.

On Groag.

King Morhaven's eldest son had taken most of the blast. The shock wave blew Mary through the open door; Groag had been driven into the stone doorjamb instead.

Joe couldn't be sure whether Groag's clothes had been blown off his body, or whether the body had simply leaked through the fabric after being strained through his chain-link armor. He could be identified by the ornate hilt of his sword.

Confirmation came from the smoldering black beard hairs which clung to the bloodstained wall.

"Joe! Joe!" Delendor shouted as the young prince led a crowd up the stairway from the banquet hall. "Are you all right?"

Servants were tossing buckets of water on the flames, but that was pointless: there was nothing left in the room to save, and the wooden roof beams weren't yet in danger.

Joe grabbed a handful of burning bedding and flung it through one of the window openings. The mass drifted down into the courtyard. Blazing bits of cloth and feathers dribbled away like a slow-motion firework.

Others took over the job, hurling out even the shattered remnants of the bed frame and cedar chest. Nobody seemed to be too concerned about Groag.

Joe wasn't concerned either. He stepped out into the hall again, just as the thundering squadron of nobles from the banquet hall reached the scene.

Most of the nobles. Master Ezekiel wasn't among them.

"Is it . . . ?" King Morhaven called. "Is it . . . ?"

The king knew as well as anybody else did who was likely to be at the bottom of the current problem.

Joe opened his mouth to answer as bluntly as rage made him wish—but you couldn't blame the father for the sons, and anyway, there'd been enough outbursts of one sort and another this night.

"You'd better look for yourself," he said, and he handed Morhaven the lamp. The king, Delendor, and Estoril forced their way into the room through the mob of frantic servants.

"I'll take over now," Joe said as he squatted beside Mary again. A firebucket had been set nearby. He dipped his handkerchief in the water and began to sponge powder blackening and speckles of Groag from the maid's face.

The king came out of Joe's room. He'd aged a decade in a few seconds. Delendor and the princess walked to either side of Morhaven, looking worried and poised to catch him if he collapsed. Even Kiki seemed upset.

Morhaven straightened. "Very well," he said. "Events have forced me to the choice I'd already made. People of Hamisch, my successor shall be my son Delen—"

Estoril put one slim white hand over King Morhaven's mouth. "Father," she said in the shocked silence, "I wasn't sure that I'd ever repeat what Katya told me before she died. I think now that I have to."

"Katya?" Delendor repeated with a puzzled expression.

"Your mother Blumarine's nurse!" the princess snapped. "Don't you remember?"

Which of course Delendor hadn't, but he was used enough to the situation to nod wisely. His monkey aped his motions.

Estoril lowered her hand and looked Morhaven in the eye. "Father," she said. "Your Majesty. Princess Blumarine was secretly married to Sir Delendor. And her son Delendor—isn't your son, Your Majesty."

"Well I'll be!" said Delendor. If there was any emotion besides amazement in his tone, Joe didn't hear it. "Well I'll be. Then you're not my sister, Essie?"

"No," Estoril said, "but you have a real older sister." She took the locket from around Delendor's neck and snapped it open. "There," she continued. "That's your sister."

"Why," said Delendor. "Why . . . why look, Joe, she isn't a rabbit any more!"

He held the locket down to Joe. Instead of a mirror, it held a miniature painting on ivory of a young woman with lustrous blond hair. She was absolutely beautiful.

"And," Delendor added, rising with new excitement in his voice, "that means there's no reason we can't be married. Essie, will you be my queen?"

"I think," said Estoril dryly, "that the proper question is, 'Del, will you be my consort?' But I think the answer is yes, either way."

She smiled. There was nothing dry about the affection in her eyes.

The woman in Joe's lap stirred. He looked down, his mouth already forming the words, "Oh, thank god you're all right, Mary—"

She wasn't Mary.

She was the woman in the locket painting.

"Good lord!" Joe blurted. "Who are you?"

The blond woman smiled. If there was a sight more beautiful than her face, it was her face with a smile wrapping it. "I'm Mary, Joe," she said.

Mary tried to sit. She was still dizzy from the explosion; Joe's arm helped her. "You've told my brother, then?" she asked/said to Estoril.

Even Estoril looked surprised. "Yes, and you're . . ."

"I'm your sister, Del," Mary said, "though for your sake and hers, Mother kept it a secret. When the dragon appeared, I wanted to help you—but Katya put a spell on me to hide my likeness to you and prevent me from telling you the truth. She'd promised Blumarine . . . but I came to be near you anyway."

"And I broke the spell," Estoril amplified to Delendor's puzzled expression, "by telling you who your real father was."

Delendor blinked. Then his face cleared and he beamed happily. "Well, anyway," he said, "everything's settled now."

"No," said Joe in a voice that would have chilled him if it hadn't come from his own mouth. "There's one thing yet to be settled. Between me and Ezekiel."

He squeezed Mary's hand as he released her, but the woman didn't occupy a major part of his mind just at the moment.

Joe stood and picked up Groag's sword. The shagreen scabbard had been blown away, and several of the jewels had been knocked out of the hilt, but the weapon was still serviceable.

It would serve.

With the sword in his hand, Joe began jogging down the hall. He was moving at a pace he was sure he could keep up until he reached Ezekiel's laboratory across the building.

Or wherever else the magician ran, this side of Hell.


Joe heard a crash of metal and breaking glass as he neared the last corner between him and the laboratory. When he rounded it, he saw the door of the laboratory open, a satchel dropped on the hallway, still spilling paraphernalia—

And a stairwell door still swinging closed.

Ezekiel had run from the banquet hall to his laboratory to pack the cream of his belongings. When he heard retribution coming, he'd abandoned even those valuables in his haste to escape.

Which he wasn't about to do.

"Hold it right there, Ezekiel!" Joe bellowed as he slammed down the stairs behind the fleeing magician. The long sword in Joe's hand sang and sparked crazily as its point scraped the stairwell. Ezekiel's black robe trailed back around the stone helix, almost close enough to touch, but the unencumbered magician was able to maintain his distance ahead of his pursuer, past the first landing, the second—

Ezekiel banged through the door to the ground floor.

"Stop him!" Joe called to the servant there at the door by the pantry.

The fellow might have tried, but Ezekiel snapped his fingers. The servant froze with his mouth gaping like that of a surfaced carp. He blinked a moment later, but the magician was already past.

Ezekiel wasn't—puff—casting spells at Joe—puff—because he was sure—puff—that Joe was a greater magician than he was.

Ezekiel ran outside. Joe slipped and had to grab the jamb to keep from falling. A four-horse carriage waited in the courtyard.

The driver was a smirking Mongolian.

Ezekiel recognized the 7th Plane inhabitant also. "I'll be back to defeat you yet, Joe Johnson!" the magician screamed over his shoulder. He grabbed the latch and threw open the carriage door.

A clawed, hairy paw closed on Ezekiel's neck and drew him the rest of the way into the conveyance.

Joe stood panting, still clinging to the doorjamb as the coach drew away. It was accelerating faster than horses should have been able to move it.

Something flew out of a side window just as the vehicle disappeared into the arched gateway. It looked like a hand, but Joe didn't feel any need for certainty on the point.

Someone touched Joe's shoulder. He turned to see Mary, the new Mary, with a wistful smile on her face.

"It's over," Joe said to her, all he could manage while he tried to catch his breath.

"Mother—Mother's friends, I suppose—brought you here to save my brother," Mary said. An attempt to make her smile a cheerful one failed miserably. "I suppose you'll go home to your own plane now?"

Joe grunted something that was meant to be laughter.

"I think that was my ride," he said, pointing his thumb in the direction the coach had disappeared.. "Believe me, I'm not getting in if it decides to come back again."

Mary wet her full, red lips nervously. "Are you disappointed?" she asked in a whisper.

"Do you remember what the king said upstairs?" Joe asked carefully. "About events making him do what he'd already decided he wanted to?"

Joe dropped the sword so that he could use both his arms to hug Mary.

He had a lot to learn about this world, but some things were just the same as they were back home.


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