Part III

"Damn, but that was a show!" The old man was back at the bar, his grin genial, expansive, and only vaguely predatory. "I'll tell you, boy, I take it back about you not being hero material: vicious, backstabbing bastards, the ones I've known, and they'd welcome you as a brother."

"Some other time, maybe." Cale spoke abstractedly; the skin of his wrist stung and burned where the girl had torn it with her nails, and dozens of pinprick bites throbbed along his jaw. "We had an agreement. I carried out my end."

"And I'll keep mine." The old man tilted a filigreed flask to pour a generous splash of rose-amber liquid into a whiskey tumbler. "That doesn't mean we can't relax for a bit before I send you on your way. I'll be the first to say, you turned in a hell of a performance. That deserves to be recognized."

"Thanks." Cale crossed over to join the old man, maintaining the same five-foot distance he had kept before. "As far as that goes, I'll have to admit you set a fair test. It was no picnic, believe me, but I could tell I was being given a decent chance." His tone was carefully respectful without being obsequious. "You kept your word, clear down the line. I apologize for doubting."

The old man took a long sip from the tumbler, one eyebrow arching a quarter of an inch. "Picked up some manners, have you? If I'd known putting you through the mill would bring about this kind of improvement, I wouldn't have wasted all that time talking."

"You made promises," Cale said. "You kept them. That's a fact."

"And you've got bootlicking down to a fine art," the old man replied. "That's another fact. But you deliver it well enough." He set the tumbler down, leaning against the bar as he looked the younger man over one more time. "I underestimated you. I took you for one of the types that are all bluster and guts, but no judgment or imagination. You surprised me, and that doesn't happen very often. I'm almost sorry to send you home empty-handed." A meaningful pause. "Almost."

Cale went slowly rigid. "What are you talking about? I passed all your challenges."

"Not all." The old man smiled thinly. "You were sailing right along there, but you blew the last one."

"You set me three obstacles," Cale said, quiet and even and flat. "I got past all three. I wouldn't be here if I hadn't."

The old man shook his head. "You made it here, all right, but you failed the test. You strung that poor girl along, and then double-crossed her when she was most vulnerable. You think that merits a reward?"

Cale began to sag, but he wouldn't let the old man stare him down. "How else was I supposed to get past her?" he demanded.

"All you had to do was ask her," the old man said. "She wouldn't have stopped you. She's come a long way … and you just knocked it to hell and gone, it'll probably be centuries before she recovers." The smile was still there, but the eyes were cold, cold. "You have a quick mind, you thought your way past my champion. And a strong body, you kept going through pain that would have killed most people. But spirit was a bust; there isn't an ounce of compassion anywhere in you." Cale opened and closed his mouth several times, but nothing came out. The old man turned away and crossed back to his desk, sitting on the broad flat top. "You bargained it down to where two wins means I can't keep you here … so be on your way, and don't let the door hit you in the ass."

Cale turned toward the bar and hunched over it like one who had lost all strength in his legs, his back to the old man, shoulders shaking with convulsive jerks. At last he turned again to face his host. "You have to give me another chance."

"Do I?" Where Cale's voice had been high and desperate, the old man's was rich with pleasure. "And why would that be? We made an agreement. I'm keeping the agreement. Few minutes ago, you were all for it."

"Another set of trials," Cale insisted. He left the bar to move to where the old man sat. "You can make them harder, you can set different terms, I don't care. I can't leave without her!"

"But you will." The old man stood, and Cale gave ground as the other advanced on him. "You'll go, and you'll take nothing with you except the memory of failure. And every time you look back on this, you can remind yourself that you almost made it, you had it all won, and then threw it away because you couldn't not be a treacherous little dickweed. I'm only sorry I have to let you go at all."

"But you don't." Cale was almost babbling now. "More trials, and you have another shot at me. You came close the last time, you can't know how close. Just another chance, that's all I ask!"

The old man laughed. "Now this is more like it," he said. "Begging looks good on you." He returned to the bar, picked up the whiskey tumbler. "Another set of challenges, hmm? And what kind of sweetheart deal do you think you can make for yourself this time?"

"I …" Cale swallowed, took a shaky breath. "I guess I'm not in a position to negotiate for terms."

"Not by a long shot." The old man drained the contents of the tumbler, reached for the flask to replenish it. "Okay, this is how it's going to play …"

Then he stopped, his brows knitting in a small, puzzled frown, as if he had just registered some tiny but vital detail. Cale watched, suddenly and subtly less woebegone. The old man looked down at the empty tumbler, and then at the younger man, and his features darkened with growing anger. "What the hell —?"

"I'm sorry," Cale said, mock concern sweetening his tone. "Do we have a problem?"

The old man whipped his arm around, and the tumbler exploded against the far wall. "What's going on here?" he demanded. "What are you trying to pull?"

His smile every bit as chilling as the old man's had been, Cale said, "I'm not 'trying' anything. It's already done. What you felt just now was the hook being set, and if I start reeling in the line, you're going to get a bellyache you'll never forget."

The old man shook his head in bewilderment, mystification for the moment greater than rage. "Something in the drink … but that's impossible, it's my own stock. And you can't have brought anything in …"

"I won't explain it to you," Cale snapped. "You damned well did underestimate me, and I'm not about to make the same mistake. You can feel it inside you, you know it's real, so you'd better believe me on this: give me what I came here for, or I'll tear you inside-out!"

The old man seemed to swell with wrath and outrage. "Threats? You threaten me —?"

"You still don't understand what you're dealing with," Cale interrupted him. "I don't care. I don't care about your status, or your power, or your immortal in-laws, or what you can do to me, or anything else. I'll do whatever it takes, I'd pound myself into jelly just to leave a stain on your shoes, and right now I have a grenade in your guts and my finger through the ring to pull the pin." His voice had been rising, and now it grew to a bellow. "Give me the girl! Give me the girl! GIVE ME THE GIRL!"

His fury, however theatrical, was also a rebound from fear and relief. He had known something was wrong as soon as he was back in the old man's office, when he realized that his injuries, however minor, hadn't vanished as with the first two trials. He only had one hidden card to play, and under the spur of dire necessity he had improvised maniacally to alter its function and direction. There had been no way to know if it would be enough, or even if it would work at all, and success made him savage with triumph.

No, he hadn't been able to carry in anything: no weapons, tools, spell materials, potions or poisons. But before he took the last step that brought him to the old man's domain, Cale had paid a half-demon sorceress with the unlikely name of Tiphaine to cast a spell on him. The spell anchored him to the mundane world, so that a simple incantation could reactivate it and draw him back (hopefully, before anyone could muster up the power to stop it). He had originally planned it as an emergency measure, for some situation wherein he might have the opportunity to grab the woman he sought and snatch her away; but while standing with his back to the old man, he had milked one of the scratches on his wrist until a drop of blood had fallen into the unattended drink.

After that, it was just a matter of waiting for the old man to take another swallow, and then waiting to see if the spell anchor would be extended to cover him. An outside chance, perhaps … but then, the old man had won a bride because she had been unwary enough to eat a single pomegranate seed while in his realm. If one seed could do that, then why not see what effect a drop of enchanted hero's-blood would have on the old man?

Quite a bit, apparently. The old man cut through the escalating shouts with a thunderous roar: "ENOUGH!" He looked to Cale, seething, and said, "One thing's for sure, I've had a bellyful of you in more ways than one. If this woman means so damned much to you, then good riddance to you both. What's her name?"

Cale told him, and wasn't surprised when the old man stared. He recovered himself quickly, though, and went to the computer station at the far corner, keying in information or commands with a chattering of rapid strokes. "I love these things," he observed in an aside as the machine began to process. He spoke musingly, his anger supplanted for the moment by unfeigned pleasure. "I've been bringing in new systems as fast as they're developed, digitizing and cross-indexing all my back-files, laying cable everywhere so I'm hooked in wherever I go. It really has streamlined operations a lot, but the truth is, I just like to play with …" He stopped as lines scrolled down the screen. "Okay, I limited the search to the last twenty years, but that still leaves a long list. When did she come here?"

Cale told him: day, and date, and approximate time. The old man did another fast sort, and looked back to Cale. "Pretty much what I thought. Three candidates here. One is fifty-six, from Manchester. One is thirty and black: Kingston. Neither of those would be your style, though, would they? No, you'd want one like this, a college girl." He sighed. "Sunnydale. You could have saved us both a lot of trouble if you'd just mentioned that at the beginning."

Cale shrugged. Why pretend to be sorry? What counted was winning, the rest was trim. "Bring her up, and I'll be on my way."

"And none too soon," the old man observed sourly. "Fine, I'll send down the order." He keyed, hit RETURN, and stood back from the computer. "It's done. Now: however you came in, you'll have to leave by the regular route. You know the procedure?"

"I lead, she follows," Cale replied, terse and level. "If I turn to look at her, I lose her, but as long as I keep going, I'm fine. And once we're outside, you can't reach either one of us anymore. I miss anything?"

"No, you did your readings before you started the tour." He went back to his desk, sat in the leather chair. "I have one last thing to say to you, boy, and then I'll be only too glad to see the door close behind you."

"I think I'll pass," Cale told him.

The old man cut away the demurral with a choppy gesture. "It'll take my people a few minutes to get her ready to go, so hear me out."

Cale kept his face blank against the excitement rising inside him. "Make it fast," he said.

"Be that way, then." The old man leaned back in the chair. "It's just this: you made a bad deal for yourself, boy. I never could have held your girl anyway: she doesn't belong, I was only allowed to provide transitional quarters because technically she punched her own ticket, and even then I had to hustle to keep old One-Eye from topping my bid. I was just supposed to keep her in appropriate style until some silly-assed prophecy had been fulfilled — which I guess would be you — and then send her back with no memory of her time here. It was a privilege to have her as a guest, her kind is that rare.

"You're a different matter, we wouldn't be where we are if you weren't already well on your way to being one of mine. So maybe you should ask yourself which would be better: win and go on, knowing full well that sooner or later you'll wind up back here under my authority — and I have a long memory for grudges! — or let it go and walk away and start rewriting your life so you'll have some chance of never seeing me again."

"I'm touched that my welfare is so important to you," Cale said. "Are we done yet?"

"Fine, suit yourself. You can go, she should be ready now. There'll be signs outside, pointing the way to the main entrance; the girl will join you somewhere along the line. I'll call ahead and have the boat waiting."

Cale turned and started for the door. His hand was on the knob when the old man called, "Boy."

Cale stopped. "What?"

"You won't be able to hold her, either. She can't be held, not that one; she'll slip out of your fingers, and you'll have mortgaged away your soul for nothing." The old man sounded genuinely perplexed. "Is she worth it?"

Cale took in a breath, let it out. "No," he said, and pulled open the door.

In the reception area, the secretary's body was gone. It might have been his imagination — or his mood — but the lighting seemed more somber. Outside he saw the first of the signs directing him to the exit, and he started to walk. The sour taste of long-held tension was leaving his mouth, and his pulse began to thud with a wild, harsh excitement. At the second corner he heard the footsteps behind him, and it felt as if his heart would tear its way out of his chest.

The urge to turn and face her was almost sickening in its intensity, but he wasn't going to turn. She was his already, bought and paid for. She would follow wherever he led: through the halls, over the open ground, into the boat, across the river. He would hold her in the grip of his will, his obsession, until they were out in the sunlight. He wouldn't need to turn and look to be sure, because he was already sure and nothing would shake that.

Once more he reached back into the memories for strength. The chase, and the victory, followed inevitably by the process of drawing away: the familiar pattern, comfortable and reassuring. But then things began to go wrong. First her friend, all earnest indignation and laughable naiveté, coming to berate him but then being irresistibly drawn into the silken net of his words and glances … only it hadn't worked out that way, she had laughed at him, and the unexpected violent intrusion of those drunken, animalistic frat boys had at first been a welcome reprieve from the lash of her derision. Then spreading flames, and strangling smoke, and no way out … except she was there, somehow, and somehow she got him outside, alive and whole. And he had turned to her, struggling for proper words of thanks, so giddy with gratitude that he was even ready to give her another chance … and she had struck him down, without a word, without even changing the expression on that beautiful, grimed face.

Somehow the stories had started then: that the legendary charmer had met his match, been set up and knocked down and left to wilt. (He had his suspicions as to where the rumors began, too. Her other friend, the townie who had worked the bar, the lowbrow geek who would never be anything better than a plumber.) He had fought back, making sure the truth was known, spreading the word about just how little importance she had held for him … and been struck down again, this time by the hulking TA with the easy grin and a right hook like a thunderbolt. In front of witnesses. All of them, laughing.

He had vowed to silence the laughter. He had beaten himself into a weapon, to show her, to show them all … and then, when he was almost ready, she was suddenly gone. Out of his reach. Escaped.

But not now.

He walked, hearing the faint sounds of her steps behind him, a terrible joy hammering through his veins. You're mine, he told her in his mind. I own you now, and I have debts to settle. Did you think I wouldn't find you? Did you believe there was any place you could hide, after what you did? No way, no way in hell. I swore I'd make you pay, and I've come to collect.

The building was behind him now; a broad plain stretched ahead. There was no sun. In the distance, he could see the glimmering of the river. He did not notice the sign that said, BEWARE OF DOGGG. If he had, he would have seen no humor in it. He walked, feet chuffing in the gray ash of the plain, leading the girl with the power of his hate to where the ferryman awaited them.

end