Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Dan Simmons: Death Of The Centaur

Dan Simmons, Death Of The Centaur, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales, Science Fiction Short Stories, Historias de ciencia ficcion, Salomé Guadalupe Ingelmo


The teacher and the boy climbed the steep arc of lawn that overlooked the southernmost curve of the Missouri River. Occasionally they glanced up at the stately brick mansion that held the high ground. Its tiers of tall win-dows and wide French doors reflected the broken patterns of bare branches against a gray sky. Both the boy and the young man knew the big house was most likely empty—its owner spent only a few weeks a year in town—but ap-proaching so close afforded them the pleasurable tension of trespass as well as an outstanding view.
A hundred feet from the mansion they stopped climb-ing and sat down, backs against a tree which shielded them from the slight breeze and protected them from the casual notice of anyone in the house. The sun was very warm, a false spring warmth which would almost surely be driven off by at least one more snowstorm before re-turning in earnest. The wide expanse of lawn, dropping down to the railroad tracks and the river two hundred yards below, had the faint, green splotchiness of thawing earth. The air smelled like Saturday.
The teacher took up a short blade of grass, rolled it in his fingers, and began to chew on it thoughtfully. The boy pulled a piece, squinted at it for a long second, and did likewise.
"Mr. Kennan, d'you think the river's gonna rise again this year and flood everythin' like it done before?" asked the boy.
"I don't know, Terry," said the young man. He did not turn to look at the boy, but raised his face to the sun and closed his eyes.
The boy looked sideways at his teacher and noticed how the red hairs in the man's beard glinted in the sun-light. Terry put his head back against the rough bark of the old elm but was too animated to shut his eyes for more than a few seconds.
"Do you figure it'll flood Main if it does?"
"I doubt it, Terry. That kind of flood only comes along every few years."
Neither participant in the conversation found it strange that the teacher was commenting on events which he had never experienced first hand. Kennan had been in the small Missouri town just under seven months, having ar-rived on an incredibly hot Labor Day just before school began. By then the flood had been old news for four months. Terry Bester, although only ten years old, had seen three such floods in his life and he remembered the cursing and thumping in the morning darkness the previ-ous April when the volunteer firemen had called his father down to work on the levee.
A train whistle came to them from the north, the Dopplered noise sounding delicate in the warm air. The teacher opened his eyes to await the coming of the eleven a.m. freight to St. Louis. Both counted the cars as the long train roared below them, diesel throbbing, whistle rising in pitch and then dropping as the last cars disappeared toward town around the bend in the track where they had just walked.
"Whew, good thing we wasn't down there," said Terry loudly.
"Weren't," said Mr. Kennan.
"Huh?" said Terry and looked at the man.
"We weren't down there," repeated the bearded young man with a hint of irritation in his voice.

"Yeah," said Terry and there was a silence. Mr. Kennan closed his eyes and rested his head against the tree trunk once again. Terry stood to throw imaginary stones at the mansion. Sensing his teacher's disapproval, he stopped the pantomine and stood facing the tree, resting his chin against the bark and squinting up at the high branches. Far overhead a squirrel leaped.
"Twenty-six," said Terry.
"What's that?"
"Cars on that train. I counted twenty-six."
"Mmmmm. I counted twenty-four."
"Yeah. Me too. That's what I meant to say. Twenty-four, I meant."
Kennan sat forward and rolled the blade of grass in his hands. His thoughts were
elsewhere. Terry rode an invisi-ble horse around in tight circles while making
galloping sounds deep in his throat. He added the phlegmy noise of a rifle shot,
grabbed at his chest, and tumbled off the horse. The boy rolled bonelessly down the
hill and came to a contorted, grass-covered stop not three feet from his teacher.
Kennan glanced at him and then looked out at the river. The Missouri moved by,
coffee brown, complicated by never repeating patterns of swirls and eddies.
"Terry, did you know that this is the southernmost bend of the Missouri River?
Right here?"
"Uh-uh," said the boy.
"It is," said the teacher and looked across at the far shore.
"Hey, Mr. Kennan?"
"Yes?"
"What's gonna happen on Monday?"
"What do you mean?" asked Kennan, knowing what he meant.
"You know, in the Story."
The young man laughed and tossed away the blade of grass. For a brief second
Terry thought that his teacher threw like a girl, but he immediately banished that from
his mind.
"You know I can't tell you ahead of the others, Terry. That wouldn't be fair, would
it?"
"Awww," said the boy but it was a perfunctory whine, and something in the tone
suggested that he was pleased with the response. The two stood up. Kennan
brushed off the seat of his pants, and then pulled bits of grass from the child's
tangled hair. Together they walked back down the hill in the direction of the rail line
and town.

The centaur, the neo-cat, and the sorcerer-ape moved across the endless Sea of
Grass. Gernisavien was too short to see above the high grass and had to ride on
Raul's back. The centaur did not mind—he did not even notice her weight—and he
enjoyed talking to her as he breasted the rippling waves of lemon-colored grass.
Behind them came Dobby, ambling along in his comical, anthropoid stride and
humming snatches of unintelligible tunes.
For nine days they waded the Sea of Grass. Far behind were the Haunted Ruins and
the threat of the ratspiders. Far ahead—not yet in sight—was their immediate goal of
the Mountains of Mist. At night Dobby would unsling his massive shoulder pack and
retrieve the great silken um-brella of their tent. Intricate orange markings decorated
the blue dome. Gernisavien loved the sound created as the evening wind came up
and stirred a thousand miles of grass while rustling the silken canopy above them.
They were very careful with their fire. A single care-less spark could ignite the entire
Sea and there would be no escape.
Raul would return from his evening hunt with his bow over a shoulder and a limp
grazer in one massive hand. After dinner they often talked softly or listened to
Dobby play the strange wind instrument he had found in the Man Ruins. As the night
grew later, Dobby would point out the constellations—the Swan, Mellam's Bow, the
Crystal Skyship, and the Little Lyre. Raul would tell stories of courage and sacrifice
handed down through six genera-tions of Centaur Clan warriors.
One evening after they had carefully doused the fire, Gernisavien spoke. Her voice
seemed tiny under the blaze of stars and was almost lost in the great sighing of wind
in the grass. "What are our chances of actually finding the farcaster?"
"We can't know that," came Raul's firm voice. "We just have to keep heading south
and do our best."
"But what if the Wizards get there first?" persisted the tawny neo-cat.
It was Dobby who answered. "Best we not discuss the Wizards at night," he said.
"Never talk about scaly things after dark, that's what my old Granmum used to say."
In the morning they ate a cold breakfast, looked at the magic needle on Dobby's
direction finder, and once again picked up the journey. The sun was close to the
zenith when Raul suddenly froze and pointed to the east.
"Look!"
At first Gernisavien could see nothing, but after taking a handful of Raul's mane to
steady herself and standing on his broad back, she could make out—sails! Billowing
white sails against an azure sky. And beneath the straining canvas she could see a
ship—a huge ship—creaking along on wooden wheels that must have been twenty
feet high.
And it was headed right for them!

The classroom was ugly and uncomfortable. For a long time it had been used as a
storeroom and even now the walls were marked and gashed where boxes and metal
map cases had been stored.
The room, like the school, was old but not picturesque. It evoked no Norman
Rockwell twinges of nostalgia. The once-high ceilings had been lowered with
ill-fitting accoustical tiles that cut off the top third of the windows. Tubular
fluorescent lights hung from gray bars that emerged through holes in the ceiling tiles.
The floors once had been smooth and varnished but were now splintered to the
point that students could not risk taking off their soaked tennis shoes on wet days.
Twenty-eight plastic pink-and-tan metal desks filled a space designed for three rows
of wooden schooldesks from a previous century. The desks were old enough that
their tilted tops were carved and scratched and their ugly, tubu-lar legs gouged new
splinters from the floor. It was impossible to place a pencil on a desktop without it
rolling noisily, and every time a child lifted the desktop to reach for a book, the little
room echoed to the sound of screech-ing metal and notebooks falling to the floor.
The windows were high and warped and all but one refused to open. The previous
September, when the tem-perature continued to hover near ninety degrees and
chil-dren's sneakers sank into the asphalt playground, the little room was almost
unlivable with only a rare stirring of breeze coming through the windows.
The chalkboard was four feet wide and had a crack running along the right side.
Kennan had once used it to illustrate the San Andreas Fault. On his first day he had
discovered that the room had no chalk, only one eraser, no yardstick, no globe, only
one pull-down map (and that pre-dating World War Two), no bookshelves, and a
clock per-manently frozen at one twenty-three. Kennan had requisitioned a wall clock
on the third of September and an old one was mounted next to the door by the end
of January. It stopped frequently so Kennan kept a cheap alarm clock on his desk.
Its ticking had become back-ground noise to all the other sounds in the room.
Occa-sionally he set the alarm to signify the end of a quiz or silent reading period.
On the last day before Christmas va-cation, he had let the alarm go off at two
o'clock to herald the end of work and the beginning of their hour-long Christmas
party. The other classes reserved only the last twenty minutes of the day for their
parties and although Kennan was reprimanded by the principal for not reading the
school policy booklet, the incident confirmed the sus-picion of most of the children
in the school that Mr. Kennan's class was a fun place to be.
Kennan's memory of that Christmas season would al-ways be linked with the musty,
dimly lit basement of Reardon's Department Store, a faded and failing five and dime
store on Water Street, where he had shopped for his fourth graders' presents late
one evening. One by one he had selected the cheap rings, jars of bubble-blowing
liquid, toy soldiers, balsa wood gliders, and model kits—each with a special
message in mind—taking them home to wrap until the early morning hours.
Kennan had covered the chipped walls of the class-room with posters, including the
illustrated map of Boston which had hung in his dorm room for three years. He
changed the one bulletin board every three weeks. Now it boasted a huge map of the
planet Garden on which the events of The Story were marked.
There was nothing he could do about the faint odor of rotting plaster and seeping
sewage that permeated the room. Nor could he change the irritating buzz and flicker
of the overhead lights. But he bought an old armchair at a fleamarket and borrowed
an area rug from his landlord and every afternoon at one-ten, just after lunch period
and just before language arts, Kennan sat in the sprung chair and twenty-seven
children crowded into the carpeted corner and the tale resumed.
Gernisavien and Dobby paid their last two credit coins to enter the huge arena where
Raul was scheduled to fight the Invincible Shrike. All around them were the dark
al-leys and gabled rooftops of legendary Carvnal. They pushed through the entrance
tunnel with the crowd and came out in the tiered amphitheatre where hundreds of
torches cast bizarre shadows up into the stands.
Around the circular pit were crowded all the races of Garden, or rather, all those
races which had not been ex-terminated resisting the evil Wizards: the hooded
Druids, brachiate tree dwellers from the Great Forest, a band of fuzzies in their
bright orange robes, many lizard soldiers hissing and laughing and shouting, stubby
little Marsh Folk, and hundreds of mutants. The night air was filled with strange
sounds and stranger smells. Vendors bellowed over the noise to hawk their fried
argot wings and cold beer. Out in the arena, work crews raked sand over the drying
pools of blood that marked the spots where earlier Death Game contestants had lost
to the Shrike.
"Why does he have to fight?" asked Gernisavien as they took their places on the
rough bench.
"It's the only way to earn a thousand credits so we can take the Sky Galleon south
tomorrow morning," Dobby answered in a low voice. A tall mutant sat down next to
him on the bench, and Dobby had to tug to retrieve the end of his purple cape.
"Bat why can't we just leave the city or take the raft farther south?" persisted
Gernisavien. The little neo-cat's tail was flicking back and forth.
"Raul explained all that," whispered Dobby. "The Wizards know that we're in
Carvnal. They must already be covering the city gates and the docks. Besides, with
their flying platforms we could never outdistance them on foot or by raft. No, Raul's
right, this is the only way."
"But no one beats the Shrike! Isn't that right? The thing was genetically designed
during the Wizard Wars as a killing machine, wasn't it?" Gernisavien said miserably.
She squinted as if the light from the stadium torches hurt her eyes.
"Yes," said Dobby, "but he doesn't have to beat it to earn the thousand credits. Just
stay alive for three minutes in the same arena."
"Has anyone ever done that?" Gernisavien's whisper was ragged.
"Well ... I think..." began Dobby but was inter-rupted by a blare of trumpets from
the arena. There was an immediate hushing of crowd noise. The torches seemed to
flare more brightly and on one side of the wide pit a heavy portcullis drew up into
the wall.
What's a portcullis?
It's like a big, heavy gate with spikes on the bottom. So every eye in the stadium was
on that black hole in the wall. There was a long minute of silence so deep that you
could hear the torches crackling and sputtering. Then the Shrike came out.
It was about seven and a half feet tall and it gleamed like polished steel in the light.
Razor sharp spikes curled out like scythe blades from various parts of its smooth,
metallic exoskeleton. Its elbows and knees were protected by rings of natural armor
which also were covered by short spikes. There was even a spike protruding from
its high forehead, just above where the red, multi-faceted eyes blazed like flaming
rubies. Its hands were claws with five curved, metal blades that opened and closed
so quickly that they were only a blur. The claws went snicker-snack, snicker-snack.
The Shrike moved out to the center of the arena slowly, lurching along like a
sharp-edged sculpture learn-ing how to walk. Its head lifted, the fighting beak
snapped, and the red eyes searched the crowd as if seeking future victims.
Suddenly the stillness was broken as the hundreds of spectators began booing and
jeering and throwing small items. Through it all the Shrike stood motionless and
mute, seemingly unaware of the barrage of noise and mis-siles. Only once—when a
large melon flew from the stands and headed straight for the Shrike's head—only
then did it condescend to move. But how it moved! The Shrike leaped twenty feet to
one side with a jump so in-credibly fast that the terrible creature was invisible for a
second. The crowd hushed in awe.
Then the trumpets sounded again, a tall wooden door opened, and the first
contestant of the Late Games entered. It was a rock giant much like the one that had
chased Dobby when they were crossing the Mountains of Mist. But this one was
bigger—at least twelve feet tall—and it looked to be made of solid muscle.
"I hope he doesn't beat the Shrike and take the prize before Raul gets to fight," said
Dobby. Gernisavien flashed the sorcerer-ape a disapproving glance.
It was over in twenty seconds. One moment the two opponents stood facing each
other in the torchlight and an instant later the Shrike was back in the center of the ring
and the rock giant was lying in various parts of the arena. Some of the pieces were
still twitching.
There were four more contestants. Two were obvious suicides—whom the crowd
booed loudly—one was a drunken lizard soldier with a high-powered crossbow, and
the last was a fierce mutant with body armor of his own and a battle-axe twice as tall
as Gernisavien. None of them lasted a minute.
Then the trumpets sounded again and Raul cantered into the arena. Gernisavien
watched through her fingers as the handsome centaur, upper body oiled and
glistening, moved toward the waiting Shrike. Raul was carrying only his hunting
spear and a light shield. No—wait—there was a small bottle hanging from a thong
around his neck.
"What's that?" asked Gernisavien, her voice sounding lost and quavery even to
herself.
Dobby did not take his eyes off the arena as he an-swered. "A chemical I found in
the Man Ruins. May the gods grant that I mixed it right."
Down in the arena the Shrike began its attack.
Dear Whitney,
Yes—you're right—this part of the country is the sev-enth circle of desolation.
Sometimes I walk down the street (my "home" here is on a hill, if you can call
fur-nished rooms in a rotting old brick house a home) and catch a glimpse of the
Missouri River and remember those great days we had out on the Cape during
spring break of our senior year. Remember the time we went riding along the beach
and a thunderstorm came boiling in from the Bay and Pomegranate got so spooked?
(And we had to ... ahem ... wait it out in the boathouse?) Glad to hear that you enjoy
working in the Senator's office. Do all you Wellesley girls ascend directly into jobs
like that or do most end up at Katie Gibbs School for Fu-ture Secretaries? (Sorry
about that—someone stuck in the Meerschaum Pipe Capital of the World as I am
shouldn't throw stones ... or stow thrones for that matter. Did you know that every
corncob pipe in the western hemisphere comes from this town? I've got two inches
of white soot on my windowsill and on the hood of my car to prove it!)
No—I don't get into St. Louis very much. It's about a fifty mile trip and the Volvo
has been sitting by the curb for over a month. The head gasket is shot and it takes
about ten years to get a part sent out here. I was lucky even to find a garage with
metric tools. I did take the bus into the Big City three weeks ago. Went right after
school Friday and got home Sunday evening in time to get de-pressed and to do my
lesson plans. Ended up not seeing much except three movies and a lot of
bookstores. Finally took a tour of the Gateway Arch. (No—I will not bore you with
the details.) The best part of the weekend was enjoy-ing the amenities of a good
hotel for two nights.
To answer your question—I'm not totally sorry that I came out West to go to grad
school in St. Louis. It was a good program (who can beat an 11-month Masters
pro-gram?) but I hadn't anticipated that I'd be too poor to es-cape this goddamn
state without teaching here for a year. Even that might have been OK if I could have
found a po-sition in Webster Groves or University City ... but the Meerschaum Pipe
Capital of the World? This place—and the people—are straight out of Deliverance.
Still—it's only a year, and if I get a job with Hovane Acad or the Experimental
School (have you seen Fentworth recently?), this year could be invaluable
back-ground experience.
So you want to hear more about my students? What can you say about a bunch of
bucolic fourth graders? I've already told you about some of the antics of Crazy
Don-ald. If this podunk district had any real special ed or reme-dial programs he'd
be in them all. Instead, I throw a lassoo on him and try to keep him from hurting
anyone. So let's see, who does that leave to tell you about?
Monica—our resident nine-year-old sexpot. She has her eye on me but she'll settle
for Craig Stears in the sixth grade if I'm not available.
Sara—a real sweet kid. A curly-haired, heart-faced lit-tle cutie. I like Sara. Her
mother died last year and I think she needs an extra dose of affection.
Brad—Brad's the class moron. Dumber than Donald, if that's possible. He's been
retained twice. (Yes ... this dis-trict does flunk kids ... and spank them.) Not a
discipline problem, Brad's just a big, dumb cluck in bib overalls and a bowl haircut.
Teresa—Here's a girl after your own heart, Whit. A horse nut! Has a gelding which
she enters in shows around here and in Illinois. But I'm afraid Teresa's into the
Cow-girl Mystique. Probably wouldn't know an English riding saddle if she sat on it.
The kid wears cowboy boots to school every day and keeps a currycomb in her
desk. And then there's Chuck & Orville(!) & William-call-me-Bill & Theresa
(another one) & Bobby Lee & Alice & Alice's twin sister Agnes & etc. & etc...
Oh, I mentioned Terry Bester last time, but I do want to tell you more about him.
He's a homely little kid—all overbite and receding chin. His hair hangs in his eyes
and his mother must trim it with hedgeclippers. He wears the same filthy plaid shirt
every day of the year and his boots have holes in them and one heel gone. (Get the
picture? This kid's straight out of Tobacco Road!)
Still—Terry's my favorite. On the first day of school I was making some point and
waving my arm around in my usual, histrionic fashion and Terry (who sits right up
front, unlike most of the other boys) made a dive for the floor. I started to get mad
at him for clowning around and then noticed his face. The kid was scared to death!
Obviously he was getting the shit beat out of him at home and had ducked out of
habit.
Terry seems determined to fit every poor-kid stereo-type. He even drags around this
homemade shoeshine box and makes a few quarters shining these hillbillies' boots
down at the Dew Drop Inn and Berringer's Bar & Grill where his old man hangs out.
Anyway, to make a long story short, the little guy has been spending a lot of time
with me. He often shows up at the back porch here about five-thirty or six o'clock.
Fre-quently I invite him to stay for dinner—although when I tell him I'm busy and I
have to write or something, he doesn't seem to resent it and he's back the next night.
Sometimes when I'm reading I forget he's there until ten or eleven o'clock. His
parents don't seem to care where he is or when he gets home. When I got back from
my week-end in St. Louis, there was 'ol Terry sitting on my back steps with that
absurd shoeshine kit. For all I know he'd been sitting there since Friday night.
Last weekend he calmly mentioned something that made my hair stand on end. He
said that last year when he was in third grade "Ma and the Old Man got in a terrible
fight." Finally Ma locked the front door when the drunken father stepped out onto
the porch to scream at the neigh-bors or something. The guy just got madder and
madder when he couldn't get back in and started shouting that he was going to kill
them all. Terry says that he was hugging his six-year-old sister, his Ma was crying
and screaming, and then the Old Man kicked in the door. He proceeded to hit
Terry's mother in the mouth and drag the two kids out to his pickup truck. He drove
them up Sawmill Road (in nearby Boone National Forest) and finally jerked the
chil-dren out of the cab and pulled his shotgun off the rack. (Everybody carries guns
in their pickups here, Whit. I've been thinking of getting a gun rack for the Volvo!)
You can imagine Terry telling me all of this. Every once in a while he'd pause to
brush the hair out of his eyes, but his voice was as calm as if he were telling me the
plot of a TV show he'd seen once.
So the father drags eight-year-old Terry and his little sister into the trees and tells
them to get down on their knees and pray to God for forgiveness because he's got
to shoot them. Terry says that the old drunk was waving the double-barreled
shotgun at them and that his little sister, Cindy, just "went and wet her panties, then
and there." In-stead of shooting, Terry's father just lurched off into the woods and
stood there cussing at the sky for several mi-nutes. Then he stuck the kids back in
the pickup and drove them home. The mother never filed charges.
I've seen Mr. Bester around town. He reminds me of whatshisname in the movie
version of To Kill A Mocking-bird. You know, the racist farmer that Boo Radley
kills. Wait a minute, I'll look it up. (Bob Ewell!)
So you can see why I'm allowing Terry to spend so much time with me. He needs a
positive male role model around ... as well as a sensitive adult to talk to and learn
from. I'd consider adopting Terry if that were possible.
So now you know a little bit of how the other half lives. That's one reason why this
year's been so important even if it has been sheer purgatory. Part of me can't wait to
get back to you and the sea and a real city where people speak correctly and where
you can walk into a drugstore and order a frappe without being stared at. But part of
me knows how important this year is—both for me and the kids I'm touching by
being here. Just the oral tradition of the story that I'm telling them is something they
would never get otherwise.
Well, I'm out of paper and it's almost one a.m. School tomorrow. Give my best to
your family, Whit, and tell the Senator to keep up the good work. With any luck (and
the head gasket willing) you'll be seeing me sometime in mid-June.
Take care. Please write. It's lonely out here in the Missouri woods.
Love,
Paul
The great Sky Galleon moved between high banks of ftratocumulus that caught the
last pink rays of sunset. Raul, Dobby, and Gernisavien stood on the deck and
watched the great orb of the sun slowly sink into the layer of clouds beneath them.
From time to time, Captain Kokus would bellow orders to the chimp-sailors who
scampered through the rigging and sails far above the deck. Occasion-ally the
captain turned and murmured quiet orders to the mate, who spoke into the metal
speaking tube. Gernisavien could sense the fine adjustments to the hidden tanks of
anti-gravity fluid.
Eventually the light faded except for the first twinkling of stars and the two minor
moons hurtling above the cloud layer. Unseen sailors lit lantern running lights hanging
from mast tops and spars. The climbing cloud towers lost the last of their glow and
Dobby suggested that the three go below to prepare for the Spring Solstice party.
And what a party it was! The long Captain's Table was heaped with fine foods and
rare wines. There was succu-lent roast bison from the Northern Steppes, swordfish
from South Bay, and icy bellfruit from the far-off Equatorial Ar-chipelago. The thirty
guests—even the two dour Druids—ate and laughed as they never had before. The
wine glasses continued to be refilled by the ship's stewards and soon the toasts
began to flow as quickly as the wine. At one point Dobby rose to toast Captain
Kokus and his splendid ship. Dobby referred to the grizzled old skysailor as a "fine
fellow anthropoid" but stumbled a bit over the phrase and had to start again to
general laughter. Captain Kokus returned the compliment by toasting the intrepid trio
and praising Raul for his courageous victory at the Carvnal Death Games. Nothing
was said about the Galle-on's undignified departure from the city mooring tower with
two squads of lizard soldiers in hot pursuit of the last three passengers. The diners
applauded and cheered.
Then it was time for the Solstice Ball to begin. The ta-ble was cleared, the tablecloth
was furled, and then the ta-ble itself was broken into pieces and carried away.
Guests stood around on the broad curve of the lowest deck and accepted refills
once more. Then the ship's orchestra filed in and began their preparations.
When all was in readiness, Captain Kokus clapped his hands and there was a
silence.
"Once again I formally welcome you all aboard the Benevolent Zephyr," rumbled the
Captain, "and extend to you all the best wishes of the Solstice season. And now ...
let the dancing begin!"
And with a final clap of his hands the lantern light dimmed, the orchestra began
playing, and great wooden louvers on the belly of the ship swung down so that
noth-ing stood between the passengers and the depths of sky be-neath them except
crystal floor. There was a general oohing and ahhing and everyone took an
involuntary step backward. Immediately this was followed by a burst of laughter and
applause and then the dancing began.
On sped the great, graceful Sky Galleon into the aerial rivers of the night. Seen from
above there would have been only the glow of the running lanterns and the only
sound was the sigh and slap of wind in the sails and oc-casional calls of "All's
Well!" from the lookout in the crow's nest. But seen from below, the ship blazed
with light and echoed to tunes so ancient that they were said to have come from
legendary Old Earth. Forest nymphs and demimen danced and pirouetted five
thousand feet above the night-shrouded hills. At one point sober Gernisavien found
herself in the undignified position of dancing with a centaur—lifted high in Raul's
strong arms as his hooves tapped their own rhythm on the unscratchable crystal
floor. A storm came up before the party ended and the cap-tain had the lights turned
down so that the company could look past their feet at the lightning that rippled
through the stormclouds far below. After a hushed moment, the orchestra began
playing the Solstice Hymn and Gernisavien, much to her surprise, discovered herself
singing the sentimental old ballad along with the others. Tears welled up in her eyes.
Then it was to bed, with revelers stumbling along the suddenly pitching corridors.
Even the throes of an aerial storm could not prevent most of the tired passengers
from dropping off to sleep. Dobby lay sprawled on his back, his purple beret on the
pillow beside him, his great, smiling, simian mouth opened wide to release mighty
snores. Gernisavien had found her bunk too large so she slept curled up in an open
drawer which swung out slightly and then slid back to the ship's even rockings. Only
Raul could not sleep, and after checking in on his friends he went above deck. There
he stood huddled against the cold breeze and watched the first, false light of dawn
touch the boiling cloudtops.
Raul was thinking grim thoughts. He knew that if they were not intercepted by the
Wizard's flying machines, it was only a few more days' journey to South Bay. From
there it would be a four or five day trek overland to the supposed Farcaster Site.
They were already much too close to the Wizard's Stronghold. The odds were poor
that the three friends would live out the week. Raul tapped at the dagger on his belt
and watched the new day begin.


Mr. Kennan stood on the asphalt playground with fourth graders running and playing
all around him and smiled up at the pleasant spring day. His army jacket, so
frequently commented upon by the children, was not needed on such a warm day,
but he wore it loosely along with his sports-car cap. Occasionally he would grin just
for the hell of it and rub at his beard. It was a beautiful day!
The children's spirits reflected the promise of summer all around them. The little
playground that had been such a grim exercise yard through the long months of
winter now seemed to be the most pleasant of places. Discarded jackets and
sweaters littered the ground as children swung from the monkey bars, ran to the
bordering alley and back, or played kickball near the brick cliff of the school
build-ing. Donald and Orville were engrossed in floating some tiny stick in a mud
puddle, and even Terry entered into the spirit of the day by galloping around with
Bill and Brad. Kennan overheard the boy say to Brad, "You be Dobby 'n I'll be Raul
an' we'll be fightin' the ratspiders." Bill began to protest as the three boys ran toward
the far end of the playground and Kennan knew that he was resisting becom-ing a
female neo-cat, even for the ten minutes left of the recess.
Kennan breathed deeply and smiled once again. Life seemed to be flowing again
after months of frozen soli-tude. Who would have dreamed that Missouri (hadn't it
been part of the Confederacy? ... or wanted to be...) could have such chill, gray,
endless winters? There had been five snow days when school had to be cancelled.
Af-ter two such snow days followed by a weekend, Kennan had realized with a
shock that he had not spoken to any-one for four days. Would they have come
looking for him if he had died? Would they have found him in his fur-nished room,
propped up at the jerry-rigged writing desk surrounded by his manuscripts and
shelves of silent paper-backs?
Kennan smiled at the conceit now, but it had been a grim thought during the darkest
days of winter. The kickball eluded a fielder and rolled to where Kennan was
standing amid his inevitable flock of adoring girls. He made a production of
scooping up the ball and throwing it to the shouting catcher. The throw went wide
and bounced off the basement window of the art room.
Kennan turned away to survey the apple blossoms fill-ing the tree in a nearby yard.
New grass was growing up in the centerline of the alley. He could smell the river
flowing by only four blocks away. Thirteen days of school left! He viewed the end
of the year with self-conscious sadness mixed with unalloyed elation. He couldn't
wait to be away—his car, newly resurrected, packed with his few cartons of books
and possessions, and the summer sunlight warm on his arm as he headed east on
Interstate 70. Kennan imagined his leisurely escape from the Midwest—the seemingly
endless barrier of cornfields passed, the surge of traffic on the Pennsylvania
Turnpike, the contraction of distance between cities, the familiar exit signs in
Massachusetts, the smell of the sea ... Still, this had been his first class. He would
never forget these children and they would never forget him. He imagined them
sharing with their children and grandchildren the long, epic tale he had forged for
them. During the past weeks he had even toyed with the idea of another year in
Missouri.
Sara came forward from the little pack of girls follow-ing their teacher. She slipped
her arm through Mr. Kennan's and looked up at him with a practiced coquettishness.
Kennan smiled, patted her absently on the part in her hair, and took a few steps away
from the children. Reaching into his coat pocket he withdrew a crumpled letter and
reread parts of it for the tenth time. Then he re-placed it and stared north toward the
unseen river. Suddenly he was roused by an explosion of noise from the kickball
players. Kennan glanced irritably at his watch, raised a plastic whistle to his lips, and
signaled the end of recess. The children grabbed at scattered coats and ran to line
up.

It was much warmer near South Bay. Raul, Dobby, and Gernisavien headed along
the coast toward the legendary Farcaster Site. According to the ancient map which
Dobby had found in the Man Ruins so many months ago, their journey's end should
be only a few days to the west. Around her neck Gernisavien wore the key that they
had found in the Carvnal Archives and paid for with the death of their old friend
Fenn. If the Old Books were right, that key would activate the long dormant farcaster
and reunite Garden with the Web of Worlds. Then would the tyranny of the cruel
Wizards finally be cast down.
It was under the shadow of these same Wizards that our trio of friends made their
way west. The sharp Fanghorn Mountains lay to the north and somewhere in their
shadowy reaches was the feared Wizards' Strong-hold.
The friends kept watch on the skies, always on the lookout for the Wizards' flying
platforms as they moved along under the cover of lush, tropical foliage. Gernisavien
marveled at the palm trees that rose two hundred feet high along their march.
On the afternoon of the third day they made camp near the mouth of a small river
that fed into the South Sea. Dobby arranged their silk tent under the trees so that the
warm breezes caused it to billow and ripple. Raul made sure the tent would be
invisible from the air and then they sat down to their cold rations. By mutual consent
they had avoided a fire since landing at South Bay, subsisting on biscuits and cold
jerky purchased from the Benevolent Zephyr's ship stores.
The tropical sunset was spectacular. The stars seemed to explode into the night sky.
Dobby pointed out the Southern Archer, a constellation that was invisible from their
respective homes in the northern part of the conti-nent. Gernisavien felt a stab of
homesickness, but put off the sadness by fingering the ancient key around her neck
and imagining the thrill of reopening the farcaster portals to a hundred worlds. Which
of those stars held other worlds, other peoples?
Dobby seemed to read her thoughts. "It seems impos-sible that the journey is almost
over, doesn't it?"
Raul rose, stretched, and moved away in the darkness to reconnoiter the stream.
"I keep thinking of that Fuzzy's predictions," said Gernisavien. "Remember, in
Tartuffel's Treehouse?"
Dobby nodded his massive head. How could one forget the frightening glimpses of
the future which that strange little creature had offered each of them?
"Most of them have come to pass," grumbled the sorcerer-ape. "Even the Shrike is
behind us."
"Yes, but not my dream—not the one with the Wizards all around in that terrible
little room," replied Gernisavien. It was true. Of all the future-seeing dreams, the
neo-cat's had been the most frightening, the most ominous, and the least discussed.
Strapped down and helpless on a stainless steel oper-ating table with the hooded
Wizards looming over her. Then the tallest stepping forward into the blood-red
light ... slowly drawing back its hood...
Gernisavien shuddered at the memory. As if to change the subject, Dobby stood and
looked around in the darkness.
"Where's Raul?" His attention was captured by the rising of the two moons above
the jungle canopy. Then he realized that the moons did not rise this early...
"Run!" cried Dobby and pushed the startled neo-cat to-the trees. But it was too late.
The air filled with the scream of flying platforms. Rays of fire lanced out from the
airborne machines and exploded the tops of trees into balls of flame. Knocked off
her feet, fur and eyebrow whiskers singed from the heat, Gernisavien could see the
hooded Wizards on the hovering machines, could hear the screams of the lizard
soldiers as they leaped to the ground.
For a self-avowed coward, Dobby fought valiantly. Dodging the first thrust of a
lizard's pike, he grabbed the long shaft and wrested it away. Dobby stabbed the
startled reptile through the throat and turned to hold off five more of the hissing
enemy. He had downed two lizards and was lifting a third high into the air with his
long, strong arms when he was struck down by a blow from behind.
Gernisavien let out a yell and ran toward her friend, but before she had taken five
steps a tall, scaly form loomed over her and something struck her on the skull. The
next few minutes were confused. She regained con-sciousness just after she and
Dobby were loaded aboard two platforms which lifted into the air.
Then came the stirring sound which had thrilled her so many times before—Raul's
war horn blown loud and sweet and clear. Five pure notes of challenge broke
through the babble of noise and the crackle of flames.
Raul came charging across the clearing in a full gallop, war spear leveled, shield high,
with the cry of the Centaur Clan on his lips. Lizard soldiers went down like tenpins.
A Wizard fired a shaft of flame, but Raul warded it off with his shield of sacred
metal. His long spear broke as it pierced three lizards attempting to cower behind
one an-other, but he cast it aside and pulled out his lethal short sword. Once again he
shouted his clan war cry and waded into a pack of hissing, sword-wielding lizards.
Gernisavien felt the platform shudder and stop at tree-top height. She heard the
hooded Wizard at the controls rasp a command and thirty lizards fired their
crossbows. The air was filled with the scream of feathered bolts and then filled again
with lizard screams as the deadly shafts slammed into them and centaur alike.
Gernisavien felt her heart stop as she saw at least six bolts strike home against Raul's
chest and sides. The great centaur went down in a heap of lizard bodies. Green tails
and scaled arms still twitched in that pile of death.
Gernisavien let out one high, mournful cry of rage and then the cuff of a Wizard's
fist against her head sent her back into blessed darkness.
Thurs., May 20
Warmer today. Temp. in the high 70's all day. Evening seems to go on forever.
Spent some time in the library tonight. Mailed off my vita to three more
places—Phillips-Exeter, the Latin School, and Green Mtn. No response yet from
Whitney on the Exp. Sch. Sent her the forms almost two weeks ago & she was
going to talk to Dr. Fentworth as soon as she re-ceived them.
Picked up some chicken at Col. Sanders. The neigh-borhood has really come
alive—with the window open I can hear kids screaming and playing down on the 5th
St. School playground. (It's after 9 p.m. but there's still a little light in the sky.) Late
at night I can hear the deep rumble of the ships' engines as the barges move upriver
& then the slosh of the waves against the concrete pilings down at the end of Locust
Street.
Talked to Mr. Eppet and Dr. North (Asst. Supt.) about next year. Could still get a
contract here if I wanted it. (Not much chance of that.) Other teachers are circling
my room like buzzards. Mrs. Kyle has her name on a piece of tape on my file cabinet
and Mrs. Reardon (the greedy old cow—why doesn't she just tend to her husband's
store and keep shouting at the kids not to read the comics?) has staked out my chair,
the globe (the one we just got in March), and the paperback stand. She can't wait for
me to be gone next year. (They'll only have two fourth grades again—) When I
leave, the school can lapse back into the Dark Ages. (No wonder T.C. and the
others called it the Menopause Foundation.)
Loud horn from the river. Ship's bells. Reminds me of the cowbells tinkling from the
masts of the small craft at anchor in Yarmouth.
The story is right on schedule. Donna, Sara, and Alice were crying today. (So were
some of the boys but they tried to hide it.) They'll be relieved to hear Monday's
ep-isode. It's not time for ol' Raul to die yet—when he does it will be in the finest
epic tradition. If nothing else, this tale is a great lesson in friendship, loyalty, and
honor. The ending will be sad—with Raul sacrificing himself to free the
others—holding off the Wizards until his friends can activate the teleportation
device. But hopefully the last ep-isode where Gernisavien & Dobby bring the
humans back to Garden to clobber the Wizards will offset the sad part. At least it'll
be a hell of a finale.
I've got to write this thing down! Maybe this summer.
Totally dark out now. The streetlight outside my sec-ond story window here is
shining through the maple leaves. A breeze has come up. Think I'll go for a walk
down to the river and then come back to do some work.
Gernisavien awoke to an icy wind whipping at her face. The nine Wizards' platforms
were floating above mountaintops that glowed white in the starlight. The air was very
thin. Gernisavien's arm hung over the side of the platform. If she rolled over she
would fall hundreds of feet to her death.
The little neo-cat could dimly make out the other plat-forms silhouetted against the
stars and could see the robed Wizard figures on each, but there was no sign of
Dobby.
A hissing from a Wizard on her own platform, directed at the lizard at the controls,
made Gernisavien look ahead. The platform was headed for a mountain that loomed
up like a broken tooth directly ahead of them. The lizard made no attempt to change
their course and Gernisavien realized that at their present speed they would crash
into the rock and ice in less than thirty seconds. The neo-cat prepared to jump, but
at the last second the lizard calmly touched a button on the panel and the platform
began to slow.
Ahead of them the side of the mountain rose up into it-self and revealed the entrance
to a huge tunnel. Light as red as newly spilled blood poured out of the aperture.
Then the platform was inside, the wall had lowered into place behind them, and
Gernisavien was a prisoner in the Wizards' Stronghold.

On Saturday morning Mr. Kennan took Sara, Monica, and Terry on an all-day
outing. Terry was not pleased with the presence of the two giggling girls, but he
occupied the front seat with an air of proprietal indifference and ignored the silly
outbursts of whispers emanating from the back. Mr. Kennan joked with all three
children as he drove across the river into Daniel Boone National Forest. The girls
dissolved into more giggles and frantic whispers whenever they were addressed, but
Terry answered the jests with his usual humorless drawl.
Kennan parked near a picnic spot and the four spent an hour clambering around on a
heap of boulders in among the trees. Then the teacher sent Terry back to the car and
the boy returned with a wicker picnic hamper. Mr. Kennan had purchased
sandwiches at the supermarket delicatessen and there were cans of soft drinks, bags
of corn chips, and a pack of Oreo cookies. They sat on a high rock and ate in
companionable silence. As always, Kennan marveled at the ravenous appetites of
such little people.
In the early afternoon, he drove them back across the bridge and headed north along
the state highway that soon headed back west again along the river. Fourteen miles
and they were in Hermann, a picturesque little German community that had preserved
all of the Victorian charm that nearby towns had either lost or never possessed. The
Maifest was still underway and Kennan treated the kids to a ride on a wheezing
Ferris wheel and to genuine chocolate ice cream at a sidewalk cafe. Women in bright
peasant garb danced with older men who looked pleasantly ridiculous in lederhosen.
A band sat in a white bandstand and gamely produced polka after polka for the small
crowd.
It was almost dinnertime when Kennan drove them home. Monica whined and
wheedled until the teacher told Terry to ride in the back and allowed Monica up
front. This arrangement pleased no one. Terry and Sara sat in trozen silence while
Monica fidgeted in paroxysms of nervousness whenever Kennan spoke to her or
looked her way. Finally they stopped at a gas station under the pretext of a restroom
break, and the old arrangement was restored for the last eight miles.
Both girls shouted their perfunctory
"Thank-you-very-much-we-had-a-very-nice-time" while they ran pell mell for their
respective front doors. Kennan heaved a melodra-matic sigh after Monica was out of
sight and turned to his last passenger.
"Well, Terry, where to? Shall we stop by the Dog'N'Suds for dinner?"
Surprisingly, the boy suggested an alternative. "How 'bout the fish fry?"
Kennan had forgotten about the fish fry. Held at the Elk's Lodge Recreation Area,
three miles out of town, the annual event was evidently considered a big deal.
"OK," said Kennan, "let's go try the fish fry."
Half the town was there. Two huge tents sheltered ta-bles where diners gorged
themselves on fried catfish, French fries, and coleslaw. A few dilapidated carnival
rides made up a midway in the high grass adjacent to the parking lot. Homemade
booths sold pies, opportunities to throw a softball at weighted milk bottles, and
raffle chances at a color television set. Out on the baseball dia-mond, the men's
softball teams were playing their last tournament games. Deeper in the meadow, two
opposing groups of volunteer firemen aimed their high pressure firehoses at a barrel
suspended on a cable. They pushed it back and forth to the cheering of a small
crowd.
Kennan and Terry sat at a long table and ate catfish. They strolled past the booths
while townspeople greeted Kennan by name. The teacher recognized about one
person in ten. Together they watched a ballgame, and by the time it was over the sun
had set and strings of hanging lights had come on. The merry-go-round cranked out
its four tunes of imitation calliope music while fireflies blinked along the edge of the
woods. Some boys ran by in a pack and called to Terry. Kennan pressed two
dollars into the surprised boy's hands, and Terry ran off with the others toward the
rides and games.
Kennan watched the beginning of the next game under the yellow field lights and then
wandered back to the tent for a beer. Kay Bennett, the district's school psychologist,
was there and Kennan bought a second round of beers while the two sat talking. Kay
was from California, was in her second year here, and felt as trapped as Kennan in
this small, Missouri backwater. They took their plastic cups and wandered away
from the lights. Broad paths ran from the Elk Lodge to small cabins in among the
trees. The two walked the trails and watched as the full moon rose above the
meadow. Twice they came upon high school students petting in the darkness. Both
times they turned away with knowing smiles and amused glances. Kennan felt his
own excitement rising as he stood near the young woman in the moonlight.
Later, as he was driving home, Kennan slammed the steering wheel and wished that
he had gotten to know Kay earlier in the year. How different the winter would have
been!
Back in his apartment, Kennan got out the bottle of Chivas Regal and sat reading
Voltaire at the kitchen table. A gentle night breeze came in through the screen. Two
drinks later he showered and crawled into bed. He decided not to make a journal
entry but smiled at the fullness of the day.
"Shit!" said Kennan as he sat up in bed. He dressed quickly, ignoring his socks and
pulling on a nylon wind-breaker over his pajama tops.
The moon was bright enough that he could have driven without headlights as he
pushed the Volvo around tight turns in the county road. The parking lot was empty
and there were deep ruts and gouges in the field. The rides were still there, but
folded and ready to be loaded on trailers. The meadow was moon-dappled and, to
Kennan's first relieved glance, empty. But then he saw the shadowy figure on the top
row of empty bleachers.
When he came close enough the moonlight allowed him to see the streaks on the
boy's dusty face. Kennan stood on a lower level and started to speak, found no
words, stopped, and shrugged.
"I knowed you'd come back," said Terry. His voice seemed cheerful. "I knowed
you'd come back."

Raul was alive. He struggled to free himself from the pile of lizard bodies. It had
been the shirt. Since Carvnal he had worn the brightly decorated tunic that Fenn had
given him at Treetops. It is more than decoration. Isn't that what the strange little
Fuzzy had said? Indeed it was. The shirt had stopped six high-velocity crossbow
bolts from penetrating. Certainly it had been more effective than the loose-link armor
that still adorned the lizard corpses all around.
Raul made it up onto all four legs and took a few shaky steps. He didn't know how
long he had been unconscious. It hurt to breathe. Raul felt his upper torso and
wondered if the impact had broken a rib.
No matter. He moved around the clearing, first picking up his bow and then
retrieving as many arrows as he could. He found his short sword where it had cleft a
liz-ard's shield, helmet, and skull. His clan warspear was bro-ken, but he snapped off
the sacred metal spearhead and dropped it in his quiver. When he had armed himself
as well as he could, picking up a long lizard war lance, he galloped to the edge of the
clearing.
Some of the palm trees were still smoldering. The Wizard platforms could not have
been gone for long. And Raul knew where they must have gone.
To the north gleamed the high peaks of the Fanghorn Mountains. Wincing a bit, Raul
strapped his shield and bow to his back. Then, breaking into an effortless,
distance-devouring canter, he headed north.


Night. Bugs dance in agitated clouds around the mer-cury vapor lamps. Kennan is
standing in a phone booth near a small grocery store. The store is closed and dark.
The side street is empty.
"Yes, Whit, I did get it..." Only Kennan's voice is audible in the darkness.
"No, I know that ... I am aware that it isn't easy to get to see Fentworth."
"Sure I do, but it isn't that simple, Whit. Not only do I ... I have a contract. It
specifies that..."
"Those last days will make a difference..."
"So what did he say?"
"Look, I don't see what difference it makes if I see him now or when he gets back in
August. If he has to de-cide on the position, they can't fill it 'til he gets back, can
they? If I can just make arrangements to..."
"Oh, yeah? Yeah, I see. Before he goes? Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh, I see that..."
"No, Whit, it is important that you're going to be there. It's just a matter of ... it's just
that I don't have the money to fly. And then I'd have to fly back to get my stuff."
"Yeah. Yeah. That'd work out, but I can't afford to miss those last few ... I don't
know. I suppose, why? Hell, Whitney, you've been to Europe before .. . why don't
you ... no, really, why don't you tell your folks you can't join them until late June
or..."
"Yeah. You did? Your folks won't be there? What about ... whatshername, the
housekeeper, yeah, Millie ... Until when?"
"Damn. Yes, it does sound good."
"No, no, I do appreciate it, Whitney. You don't know how much it means to me..."
"Yeah. Uh-huh, that all makes sense but, look, it's hard to explain. No, listen, there's
tomorrow. Friday, yeah ... and then Monday's off because of Memorial Day. Then
they go Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday's their last day. No ... just report
cards and stuff. Look, couldn't it be just a week later?"
"Uh-huh. Yeah. OK, I understand that. Well, look, let me think about it overnight, all
right?"
"I know that ... but he's around on Saturday, isn't he?"
"OK, look, I'll call you tomorrow ... that's Friday night ... and I'll let you know what
... no, goddamn it, Whit, I'm poor but I'm not that poor, I don't want your parents
getting billed for ... look, I'll call you about nine o'clock, that's ... uh ... eleven your
time, OK?"
"Well, you could call him on Saturday then and tell him I'd be there Wednesday, or I
can just wait and hope something else opens up. Uh-huh, uh-huh ... well, let's just ...
just let me think about it, OK? Yes ... well, I will take that into consideration, don't
worry."
"Look, Whit, I'm running out of quarters here. Yeah. About nine ... I mean eleven.
No ... me too. It's real good to hear your voice ... Yeah. OK. I'll talk to you
to-morrow then. Yeah ... I look forward to seeing you soon, too. Me too. Bye,
Whit."

After Dobby's unsuccessful escape attempt, they hung him from chains on the wall.
From where Gernisavien was strapped to the table, she could not see if he was still
breathing. The red light made it look as if he had been flayed alive.
Tall, shrouded shapes moved through the bloody dim-ness. When the Wizards
weren't turned her way, Gernisavien strained against the metal bands at her wrists
and ankles. No use. The steel did not budge an inch. The neo-cat relaxed and
inspected the steel table to which she was pinned. The smooth surface had metal
gutters on the side and small drain holes. Gernisavien wondered at their purpose and
then wished she hadn't. Her heart was racing so fast that she feared it would tear its
way out of her chest.
At least Dobby's escape attempt the day before had distracted the guards long
enough for Gernisavien to raise her hands, lift the key, and swallow it.
There was a movement in the shadows and the tallest of the hooded figures stepped
forward into a shaft of red light. Slowly the Wizard drew back its hood. Gernisavien
stared in horror at overlapping scales, a face like a mantis's skull, great eyes that
looked like pools of congealed blood, and fangs which dripped a thick mucus.
The Wizard said something that Gernisavien did not understand. Slowly it raised its
bony, scaly hand. Clenched in the foul claws was a scalpel...
Less than half a mile away, Raul labored uphill through heavy snowdrifts. His
hooves slipped on icy rocks. Twice he caught himself and only the strength of his
massive arms allowed him to pull his body to safety. A fall now meant certain death.
The shirt Fenn had given him provided some warmth for his upper body, but the rest
of him was freezing. His hands were quickly growing numb, and Raul knew that they
would not save him again should he slip. What was worse, the sun was beginning to
set. The centaur knew that he would not survive another night at these elevations.
If only he could find the opening!
Just as he was beginning to despair, Raul heard a rock fall below him and then a
whispered curse came on the icy wind. Crawling to the edge of the snowy overhang,
he looked down on two lizard guards no more than thirty feet away. They stood next
to a heavy metal door that had been painted white to blend in with the snowy
mountainside. The lizards wore white hoods and parkas and if it had not been for the
curse, Raul would never have seen them.
The sun was down. A freezing wind swept the slopes and threw icy crystals against
the centaur's quivering flanks. Raul crouched in the snow. His frozen fingers reached
for his bow and arrows.

From the estate atop the hill, the view of the river had been largely occluded by
late-spring foliage. But from the wide veranda doors one could easily watch the boy
and the man climbing the verdant curve of lawn. They walked slowly. The man was
talking; the boy was looking up at him.
The man sat down on the grass and beckoned for the boy to do likewise. The boy
shook his head and took two steps backward. The man spoke again. His hands were
stretched out, fingers splayed wide. He leaned forward in an earnest gesture, but the
boy took another two steps back. When the man rose, the boy turned and began
walking quickly down the hill. The man took a few steps after him but stopped when
the boy broke into a jog.
In less than a minute, the boy was out of sight around the bend in the railroad tracks
and the man stood alone on the hill.


Kennan drove the Volvo down the narrow side street and stopped opposite Terry's
house. He sat in the car for a long minute with his hands on the steering wheel. As
Kennan reached for the Volvo's door handle, Mr. Bester came out of the house and
stepped down from the high porch into the side yard. The man wore baggy bib
overalls and no shirt. As he bent to peer under the house for something, his gray
stubble caught the light. Kennan paused for a second and then drove on.

At two a.m. Kennan was still loading the books into cardboard cartons. As he
passed in front of the screened window he thought he heard a noise from across the
street. He put down the stack of books, walked to the screen, and looked down
through streetlight glare and leaf shadows.
"Terry?"
There was no response. The shadows on the lawn did not move and a few minutes
later Kennan resumed his packing.
He had planned to leave very early Sunday morning, but it was almost ten before the
car was loaded. It was strangely cold, and a few drops of rain fell from leaden skies.
His landlord was not home—in church probably—so Kennan dropped the key in his
mailbox.
He drove around the town twice and past the school four times before he cursed
softly and headed west on the main highway.
Traffic was very light on Interstate 55 and the few cars there tended to drive with
their lights on. Occasionally rain would spatter the windshield. He stopped for
breakfast on the west side of St. Louis. The waitress said that it was too late for
breakfast so he had a hamburger and coffee. The storm light outside made the cafe
seem dark and cold.
It was pouring by the time he passed through down-town St. Louis. The tricky lane
changes made Kennan miss seeing the Gateway Arch as he crossed the Missis-sippi.
The river was as gray and turbulent as the sky.
Once in Illinois, the Volvo headed east on Interstate 70, the trip settled down to the
hiss of tires on wet pave-ment and the quick metronome of the wipers. This soon
depressed Kennan and he switched on the radio. It sur-prised him a bit to hear the
roars and shouts of the Indi-anapolis 500 being broadcast. He listened to it as great
trucks whooshed past him in the drizzle. Within half an hour the announcer in
Indianapolis was describing the storm clouds coming in from the west, and Kennan
turned off the radio in the sure knowledge that the race would be called.
In silence he drove eastward.

On the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Mr. Kennan's fourth graders filed into their
classroom to find Mrs. Borcherding installed behind the teacher's desk. All of them
knew her from times she had substituted for their regular teachers in years past.
Some of the children had known her as their first grade teacher during her last year
before retirement.
Mrs. Borcherding was a swollen mass of fat, wrinkles, and wattles. Her upper arms
hung loose and flapped when she gestured. Her legs were bloated masses of flesh
strain-ing against support stockings. Her arms, hands, and face were liberally
sprinkled with liver spots and her whole body gave off a faint aroma of decay that
soon permeated the room. The children sat with their hands folded on their desks in
unaccustomed formality and faced her silently.
"Mr. Kennan has been called away," said the appari-tion in a voice that seemed too
phlegmy to be human. "I believe there was an illness in the family. At any rate, I will
be your teacher for these last three days of school. I want it understood that I expect
everyone in this class to work. It does not matter to me whether there are three days
school left or three hundred. Nor am I interested in whether you've had to work as
hard as you should have up to now. You will do your best work right up until the
time you are dismissed on Thursday afternoon. Your report curds have already been
filled out, but don't think that you can start fooling around now. Mr. Eppert has
given me the authority to change grades as I see fit. And that includes conduct
grades. It is still possible that some of you may live to be retained in fourth grade if I
see the necessity during the next few days. Now, are there any questions? No
questions? Very good, you may get out your arithmetic books for a drill."


During morning recess, Terry was besieged with kids demanding information. He
stood as mute as a rock against the crashing waves of curiosity and desperation. The
one piece of information he did impart caused the children to turn and babble at one
another like extras in a melodramatic crowd scene.
It was mid-afternoon before someone worked up nerve to confront Mrs.
Borcherding. Naturally it was Sara who went forward. In the thick stillness of the
handwriting ex-ercise, Sara's tiny voice was as high and urgent as a bee's distracting
buzz. Mrs. Borcherding listened, frowned, and focused her scowl on the front row
as Sara went back to her seat.
"Terry Bester."
"Yes'm," said Terry.
"Mmmmm ... Sally says that you ... ahh ... have something to share with us," began
Mrs. Borcherding. The class started to giggle at the mistake with Sara's name but
then froze as Mrs. Borcherding's little eyes darted around to find the source of the
noise. "All right, since the class evidently has been expecting this for some time, we
will get this ... story ... out of the way right now and then go on to social studies."
"No, ma'm," said Terry softly.
"What was that?" Mrs. Borcherding looked long and hard at the boy, obviously
ready to rise out of her chair at any sign of defiance. Terry sat at polite attention, his
hands folded on his notebook. Only in the firm set of the thin lips was there any sign
of impertinence.
"It would be convenient to get this out of the way now," repeated the substitute.
"No, ma'am," repeated Terry and continued quickly before the shocked fat lady
could say anything. "I was told that I was s'posed to tell it on the last day. That's
Thurs-day. That's what he said."
Mrs. Borcherding stared down at Terry. She started to speak, closed her mouth with
an audible snap, and then began again. "We'll use your regular Thursday recess time.
Right before clean up. Those people who wish to miss recess can stay inside to
listen. The others will be al-lowed to go outside and play."
"Yes, ma'am," said Terry and returned to his handwrit-ing drill.
Wednesday morning was hot and thick with summer. The children entered the
classroom with hopeful eyes that turned to downcast glances as they spied the bulk
of Mrs. Borcherding behind the desk. She rarely rose from her chair, and, as if to
balance her immobility, the children were confined to their desks, Mr. Kennan's
assignment check-out cards and independent work centers abandoned. At each
recess Terry was mobbed with children seek-ing some small preview.
Uncharacteristically for him, the attention did not seem to please him. He sought the
far reaches of the playground and stood throwing pebbles at a picket fence.
Before school on Thursday, the rumor spread that Mr. Kennan's Volvo had been
seen on Main Street the night before. Monica Davis had been eating downtown at the
Embers Restaurant when she was sure she had seen Mr. Kennan drive by. Sara took
it upon herself to call her classmates with the information and happily accepted the
reprimands from irate parents who did not appreciate early morning phone calls from
fourth graders. By eight-fifteen, forty-five minutes before the bell rang, most of the
class was on the playground. It was Bill who volunteered to go into the school and
check out the situation.
Three minutes later he returned. One look at his crestfallen face told most of them
what they needed to know. "Well?" insisted Brad.
"It's Borcherding," said Bill.
"Maybe he's not here yet," ventured Monica, but few believed it and the girls wilted
under their reprimanding stares.
When it came time to file in, reality sat before them in the same strained, purple-print
dress that she had worn on Tuesday. The day dragged by with that indescribable,
open-windowed languor that only the last day of school can engender. The morning
was filled with busy work made all the more maddening by the echoing emptiness of
the rest of the school. Most classes were gone on class pic-nics. Mr. Kennan had
long ago outlined his plan of hiking all the way to Riverfront Park to spend the entire
day in "an orgy of playing softball and eating goodies." Specific children had
volunteered to bring specific goodies. But there was no question of that now. When
the students glanced up from their work to acknowledge a command from Mrs.
Borcherding, there was a common look in their eyes. They shared a dawning
realization that the world was not stable; that there were trapdoors to reality which
could be sprung without warning. It was a lesson that all of the children instinctively
had known once, but had been foolish enough to forget temporarily while encircled
with the protective ring of magic.
The day crawled to noon. The class ate in the almost empty lunchroom, sharing it
with only a first grade class being punished and five slobbering members of Miss
Cart-er's self-contained EMR class.
Shouts on the playground were strangely subdued. No one approached Terry. If he
was nervous, he did not show it as he stood leaning against a tetherball pole with his
arms folded.
In the afternoon they checked in their rented books—Brad and Donald had to pay
for their lost or damaged books—and sat in silent rows as Mrs. Borcherding
labori-ously took inventory. They knew that the last hour and a half of school would
consist of scrubbing desks, clearing the walls of posters, and covering the
bookshelves with paper. All these activities were useless, the children knew, because
in a week or two the custodians would move ev-erything out of the room to clean
again anyway. They knew that Mrs. Borcherding would wait until the last pos-sible
moment to hand out their report cards, hinting all the while that some of them did not
pass—or certainly did not deserve to. They also knew that everyone would pass.
At five minutes past two, Mrs. Borcherding ponder-ously stood and looked at the
twenty-seven children sitting silently in their strangely clean desks. Tall stacks of
books surrounded them like defensive sandbags.
"All right," said Mrs. Borcherding, "you may go out to recess."
No one moved except Brad who stood up, looked around in confusion at his seated
classmates, and then sat back down with a foolish grin. Mrs. Borcherding flushed,
started to speak, checked herself, and dropped heavily into her chair.
"Terry, I believe that you had something to say," she wheezed. She glanced up at the
clock on the wall—it was not running—and then down at the alarm clock which the
children had covertly continued to wind. "You have thir-teen minutes, young man.
Try not to waste their entire re-cess time."
"Yes'm," said Terry and stood. He crossed to the long bulletin board and raised his
hand to the triangular pattern of magic marker mountains which ran near the southern
coast of the sketched-in continent. He said nothing. The children nodded silently.
Terry dropped his hand and went to the front of the room. His corduroy pants made
a whik-wik sound as he walked.
Once at the front of the room, he turned and faced his classmates. Sluggish currents
of heat, the drone of insects, and distant shouts came through the open windows.
Terry cleared his throat. His lips were white but his high, soft voice was firm as he
began to speak.


Raul was up the hill from the two lizards who're guarding the door to that place
where the Wizards was keeping Dobby and Gernisavien. Remember, this was about
the time that that big Wizard was getting his knife to maybe cut Gernisavien open to
get the key. Anyway, Raul's fingers was froze, but he knew he'd have to kill the
lizards real quick or he wouldn't get a second chance. The snow was blowing all
around him and it was getting dark real fast.
The lizards were hunkered over and sort of mumbling to each other. They were
wearing these real thick parka-like coats and Raul knew that if he didn't shoot just
right that the arrow wouldn't get through all that stuff. Especially if they was wearing
armor too.
So Raul got two arrows out. One he stuck point first in the snow and the other he
goes and notches. His hands feel like he's wearing thick gloves but he ain't. He's
worried that he can't feel nothing with his fingers and maybe the arrow'll let go too
soon and that'll tip off the lizards. But he tries not to think about that and he draws
the bowstring back as far as he can. Remember, this is a special bow—it come
down the clan line from his old man who was war chief of all the centaurs and
nobody 'cept for Raul can pull it all the way back.
He does. And he has to hold it that way while he takes aim. His muscles are freezing
and for a second he begins to shake up and down, but he takes a big, deep breath
and holds it steady ... the bow ... on that first lizard, the one who's standing closest
to the door. It's real dark now but there's a little bit of red light coming from around
that door.
Swiish! Raul lets her go. And no sooner than he lets the first one fly but than he's
notchin' the second arrow and pulling back on it. The first lizard—the one nearest
the door?—he makes a funny little sound as the arrow gets him smack dab in the
throat and sticks out the other side. But the other lizard, he's looking out the other
way and when he turns to see what's going on—swiish—there's an arrow growin'
out of the back of his neck too and then he falls, but he slides over the edge and
keeps on going down to the frozen ice about two miles below, but neither one of
them made no sound.
And then Raul's coming down the hill on all four legs, sort of slipping and sliding
and making straight for the door. Well, it's a real big metal door and there ain't no
doorknob or nothing and it's locked. But the first lizard—the one who's laying dead
in the snow—he's got this ring of keys with about sixteen big keys on it. And one of
them fits. But it's lucky that he wasn't the one who fell over the edge, is all.
So Raul sticks this key in and the door slides back sideways and there's this long
tunnel going off straight ahead 'til it turns and it's all lit with red light and sort of
spooky. He walks into the tunnel and maybe he done something wrong or maybe
there's an electric eyeball or something 'cause suddenly these bells are going off like
an alarm.
"Well, I done it now," Raul thinks to hisself and takes off galloping down the
hallway full speed. He'd put his bow back by this time and he's got his sword out.
Meanwhile, you remember that Gernisavien was all strapped down to this steel table
and there was a Wizard standing over her fixing to slit open her belly to get at that
farcaster key? He had the knife out—it was sort of like a doctor's knife, it was so
sharp you could cut butter with it—and he was standing there just sort of deciding
where to make the cut when all the bells went off.
"It's Raul!" yells Dobby who's hanging there on the wall and who's still alive.
The Wizard, he turns real fast and throws some switches and all these TV screens
light up. On some of the screens you see lizard soldiers running and others you see a
couple of Wizards sort of looking around and on one you see Raul running down
this hallway.
The Wizard says something in Wizard talk to these other guys in robes in the room
and then they go running out of the room together. So now Dobby and Gernisavien
are all alone in there, but there ain't nothing they can do except to watch the TV
because they're all tied up.
Raul, he's coming around this bend and all of the sud-den here are a bunch of lizards
in front of him and they've got crossbows and he's just got his sword. But they're
more surprised than he is and he puts his head down and charges full speed into
them and before they can get their crossbows loaded and everything he's in there
swinging and there are lizard heads and tails and stuff flying around.
Now Gernisavien can see this on the TV and she and Dobby are cheering and
everything but they can see the other TVs too, and the halls is full of lizards and the
Wiz-ards are coming too. So Dobby, he begins to pull and pull against the chains as
hard as he can. Remember, his arms are stronger than they look like we found out
when he held up part of Tartuffel's Treehouse that time.
"What're you doing?" goes Gernisavien.
"Tryin' to get at that!" goes Dobby and he points at the table full of test tubes and
bottles and all the chemical stuff where the Wizards had been working.
"What for?" goes Gernisavien.
"It's nucular fuel," Dobby says, "and that blue stuff is anti-gravity stuff like in the sky
galleon. If it gets all mixed up..." And Dobby keeps pulling and pulling until the veins
stood up out of his head, but finally one of the chain things breaks and Dobby's
hanging down by one arm but he's too tired to keep going.
"Wait a minute," goes Gernisavien. She's watching the TV.
Raul was killing lizards this way and that and he got to within maybe a hundred feet
or so to where Dobby and Gernisavien's being kept, but he don't know that and
sud-denly here come these four or five Wizards with their fire guns. Raul, he barely
gets his shield up in time. As it is they scorched off some of his hair and mane and
burned up all of his arrows and stuff on his back. And they burned up his daddy's
bow, too.
So Raul starts going backwards and he knows they're trying to cut him off 'cause he
can see the lizards running down these side hallways. So he turns and gallops as fast
as he can but the Wizards are coming down the main way and when they get a clear
shot he'll be a goner. So Raul stops and picks up a crossbow and he sort of keeps
them back by shooting their way.
All of the sudden he's in this big room where the Wizards keep their flying platforms.
And Raul goes and jumps the railing and lands on one and starts to look at the
con-trols. He pushes this button and the wall rolls up—it's the door on the side of
the mountain. Raul looks outside and sees the fresh air and stars and everything.
And when he looks back all he can see is doorways full of lizards and here come the
Wizards with their fire guns and everything and Raul knows that if he stays he can't
dodge them all. Raul's not so much afraid of getting killed as he is of get-ting hurt
real bad and having to stay there all chained up like Gernisavien and Dobby.
So Raul, he pushes the buttons until the flying plat-form starts flying and the
Wizards are blasting away with their fire guns, but he's already outside in the night air
and they can't get a good shot at him as he flies away sort of zig-zagging.
Now back up the hallway, Gernisavien and Dobby've been watching all this on the
TV. Dobby's face, it always looks kind of sad but now it looks sadder than ever.
"Can you get your other arm loose?" goes Gernisavien.
Dobby just shakes his head no. He ain't got no lever-age.
Gernisavien, she knows that the key's still in her stom-ach. And she knows that the
Wizards're planning to use it to get at all those other worlds in the Web of Worlds.
And maybe the humans could fight them off but it looks like it'd be real hard what
with the Wizards coming on them by surprise and all. Gernisavien remembers all the
times they talked about when they would get to the farcaster and all the planets
they'd go to together and all the people they'd see.
"It's been fun, hasn't it?" goes Dobby.
"Yeah," says Gernisavien. And then she says. "Go ahead. Do it."
Dobby knows what she means. He smiles and the smile, it's sort of sad and sort of
happy at the same time. Then he leans out real far until he's standing on the wall
sideways. That's when they hear the Wizard's footsteps in the hallway. So Dobby
starts swinging his right arm—the one with the chain hanging loose from it—and then
he brings it down on the nucular fuel and other things on the table and smashes them
all together.
Raul is five or six miles away when he sees the mountain blow up. The top just sort
of came off and the whole thing went up in the air like a volcano. Raul's just high
enough and just far enough away that he didn't get blown to pieces with it. And he
knew who did it. And why.
Now I don't know what else he was thinking about. But he was all by himself now.
And he flew around up there alone while all the lava runs down the mountains and
sparks shoot up into the air. And there's nowhere for him go now. He can't get the
farcaster to work all by himself. Gernisavien had the key and Dobby was the only
one to knew how to turn it on.
Raul stayed up there in the dark for a long time. Then he turned the platform around
and flew away. And that's the end.


There was a silence. Children sat stone still and watched as Terry went back to his
desk. His corduroys went whik-wik. As he sat down, several of the girls began sob.
Many of the boys looked down or raised their desk lids to hide their own tears.
Mrs. Borcherding was at a loss. Then she turned to the clock, turned back angrily to
the alarm clock, and raised it between her and the class.
"See what you did, young man," she snapped. "You've wasted the class's entire
recess and put us behind schedule on our clean-up. Quickly everyone, get ready to
scrub your desks!"
The children rubbed at their eyes, took deep breaths, and obediently set to the final
tasks that stood between them and freedom.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

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