by Anna M.C.
Hulkar the Barbarian narrowed his bulging, bloodshot eyes and squinted perplexedly at his hands, as if he'd never seen them before -- at least, not quite so many of them, in quite such an Impressionist soft-focus rendering. More specifically, he stared at the tiny shot glass engulfed in his enormous meaty fingers, incongruous as if he'd grabbed a thimble in anticipation of a little supplemental tailoring -- a hem here, an alteration there, when the looting and pillaging and bashing of heads business suffered a seasonal slump. Of course, the only nipping and tucking Hulkar ever performed involved swords and flesh, not needle and thread, since he was the lesser-known, less-successful little brother of Vulkar the Barbarian. Sad to say, Hulkar actually boasted *less* brain power and strategic ability than old Vulkar, which meant that his fits of mayhem rarely produced anything close to a profit. Oh, he'd tried to claim that Carnage for Carnage's Sake represented an avant-garde movement of artistic integrity, and all that, but nobody really bought it. Least of all Hulkar.
Then, when Vulkar had finally Bit the Big One, Hulkar had shown precious little akin to proper familial bereavement. Hell, he'd thrown a *party.* The sort of party which involved musicians, dancing-girls, and no need for a designated coachman since nobody was planning on going home anytime soon. And then Vulkar had arisen, undead and nastier than ever, and it became apparent that, even with the considerable disadvantage of being technically dead, old Vulkar *still* outclassed his younger brother. Hulkar was destined to trudge in the lengthy shadow of his ruthless sibling pretty much forever.
It was enough to make a barbarian turn to drink.
And here, at least, was an activity at which young Hulkar excelled. He quickly found that he could drink anyone under the table in record time, leaving plenty left over for rifling through their pockets, confiscating their belongings, and indulging in a little creative and gratuitous bashing of heads just to satisfy his more aesthetic longings. When it came to the quaffing of liver-corroding substances, Hulkar had never, in a long and illustrious career, met his match in liquid battle.
"Hey, there, fella, you okay? Lookin' kinda green. An' I could swear you're swayin' just a bit . . . 'course, I had too much myself, so it might just be *me* that's swayin'." The figure sprawled comfortably in the chair at the opposite end of the grubby, beer-stained table proffered Hulkar a grin so friendly that it appeared to have invested in extra teeth just for the occasion. "Y'know what'll make us both feel a *whole* lot better? Gettin' a little somethin' in the ol' stomach. I know just the thing. Hey, Hank," he drawled to the stoic barkeep, "how 'bout grillin' up some nice eggs over-easy for me 'n' my friend, here, and be sure to keep the yellow stuff nice 'n' runny --"
One enormous purple vein in Hulkar's forehead twitched. With an inhuman groan, a shuddering thud, and a tinkle of rattling glass, said forehead met the tabletop with considerable force (which, to be fair, was generally the way Hulkar met anyone or anything. He never made an acquaintance with, say, a fruit basket in hand). The amber ale in Hulkar's glass sloshed over the rim, dribbling down to puddle on the cheap wood with an ominous wisp of smoke. Sick oblivion, haunted with nauseating visions of oozing egg yolks, followed soon thereafter.
Hulkar the Barbarian had been vanquished.
"The bigger they come . . ." the lanky man sighed. Ignoring the scorch-marks rapidly smoldering their way across the tabletop, he casually plucked the glass from Hulkar's unresisting fingers and downed its contents in a single gulp, swallowing with a bracing sniff-and-belch combination. In one smooth movement, he stood and tugged the barbarian's leather cash-purse from his belt, tossing it to the bartender with an effortless, deceptively accurate underhand. "How 'bout a round for everybody, Hank? Hulkar an' me feel like celebratin'." At that same moment, the formerly tense crowd encircling the table celebrated his coup-de-grace with a rowdy chorus of hail-the-conquering-hero cheering:
"Hooray! Jus-TIN! Jus-TIN! Woo-hoo!"
Prince Justin Greystone smiled and winked fondly in turn at both of the winsome Winslows who had materialized like one of Traquill's nicer spells, one under each arm, gazing up at him worshipfully. "Nothin' to it. I was just hittin' my stride. Just gotta learn to pace yourself . . ." With that, he lurched suddenly, dipping to one side like a lone ship tossed in a stormy sea of lager. Amidst much concerned cooing and clucking of tongues, both Winslows clutched him tighter, steadying his uncertain weaving. Flashing a wicked grin, he abruptly stood upright, returning their embrace with a flurry of thinly-disguised groping. "Gotcha!" Good-naturedly, he awaited the playful scolding, giggling rebukes, and admonitory hair-ruffling which would surely come in penance for his prank.
Immediately, the tavern broke into a chorus of rowdy booing, jeers, and catcalls.
Perplexed, the prince turned around to face the crowd, raking one hand through his dark hair in befuddlement. "Hey, it wasn't *that* bad a joke ---"
And then he saw the real target of the tavern's disapproval, haloed in a glow of white and gold by the late-afternoon winter sunlight slanting through the doorway, every muscle rigid with the effort to stand aloof from the sin and grime and dissipation. It was the ultimate wet blanket, the pinnacle of party poopers, the one and only . . . "Erik!"
"Justin." Prince Erik Greystone pronounced the name in the same tone of voice commercials use for phrases like "embarrassing personal itch."
Quickly recovering from his surprise, Justin blithely disregarded the blatant lack of warmth radiating from his self-righteous sibling and dealt him a friendly bear hug. "What're *you* doin' here? Think you took a wrong turn. If you're lookin' to fight evil, Blackpool's due north'a here, last I checked."
Erik met Justin's jovial greeting with his characteristic glare of frosty disapproval, his blue eyes, blond hair, and frigid attitude threatening to usurp Dirk Blackpool's rightful title of Ice Prince of the Snow Regions. "And I'm guessing it's been quite awhile since you bothered to check. After all, his ex-chambermaid Gweneth's been working here for quite awhile now." At one end of the bar, a comely brunette bearing a tray of drinks blushed fetchingly. Justin had "liberated" her from Castle Blackpool almost a year ago, and it said a lot for her inherent modesty that she was still capable of blushing. "But I didn't come here to remind you of your irresponsibility --"
Justin brushed his brother's carefully coiffed bangs aside to press one palm against his forehead in mock-concern, stemming the flow of his tirade. "No kiddin'? That's a first. You sure you're feelin' okay? How many fingers am I holdin' up? Damn -- check the almanac, Hank, I think we might be havin' another Blue Moon."
Erik batted his brother's hand away irritably. "It's me who should be asking *you* to count fingers, after how much I've just seen you drink."
Justin shook his head regretfully, eyes downcast. "Ahhh, spyin' on your own flesh-'n'-blood, Erik. Shame, shame. I'll have you know I just defeated a dangerous barbarian in heroic single combat." Those blue eyes now twinkled with incorrigible mischief, the glint of an illicit candle burning after solid citizens have gone to sleep. "It was downright epic -- wasn't it, ladies?" The Winslows nodded in enthusiastic confirmation as they resumed their flanking positions, pressed up against his broad chest like busty bookends. "An' I assure you I'm none the worse for wear. Which is more'n I can say for poor Hulkar, there." On cue, the barbarian snorted in his sleep, a glistening tendril of saliva quivering from his gaping maw. A conquering army of over 40 shot glasses surrounded his head, the entire tableau echoing one of Hogarth's less attractive etchings.
"You have the metabolism of a brinker, Justin," Erik admitted in grudging admiration.
"Why, thank you, little brother. Now, can I buy you a drink? Or, technically speakin', can Hulkar buy you one? He's feelin' in a mighty generous mood." The Winslows giggled, secure in their perpetual role as his unique variation on a Greek chorus, foreshadowing impending pleasure, not doom.
"I don't think drinking would be a good idea . . . at a time like this." Erik steadfastly ignored the fresh wave of groans washing over the bar. "I need to talk to you, Justin . . . in private."
Justin exhaled heavily, extricating himself from his fleshy tangle of Winslows. "You know, it's just amazin'. When Lucille says she'd like to talk to me in private, I know I'm in for a fine evenin'. An' then you can say those exact same words, an' I know my day's all shot to hell. If you'll excuse me, ladies." To the breathy tune of Winslow sighs, they exited the tavern, Erik striding like a man with a mission, Justin ambling on behind with the bemused tolerance of one who knows he'll get at least an entertaining show for his trouble.
Crossing his arms, Justin leaned against the outer tavern wall with a comfortable economy of movement, assuming a position genetically engineered to expend the minimum effort required to remain upright. His was the easy, rangy, centaur grace of the natural horseman, the kind whose very bones and blood have melded to the contours of a saddle, have memorized the rhythm of the ride -- and, more importantly, have learned how well that skill with curves and motion can apply to willing female flesh. Justin knew how to move *with* events instead of fighting against them, to let them carry him with just the faintest tug or nudge to alter course when absolutely necessary. While Erik retained his stance of perpetual ramrod-straight attention, hand poised upon his sword, Justin couldn't be more "at ease" unless he actually opted for a nap.
In every way, the two brothers were a study in contrasts, Erik decked out in his usual crimson-and-gold "Look, Dirk, here's an easy target!" ensemble, while Justin wore an inconspicuous choice of forest-green tunic, earth-brown leggings, and sensible boots. Unlike Erik's spit-and-polish perfection, there was something indefinably, endearingly scruffy about Justin, a rumpled look as if he'd just rolled out of bed -- or was just about to roll back into one, with a female friend in tow. If Erik was an exclamation point in the great book of life, Justin played the part of the ellipsis, an eternally lazy pause to smell the roses, right before arranging a clandestine liaison in the rose garden. Still, the lean strength of his bare arms was unmistakable, understated yet apparent underneath his metal wristbands. Clearly, Justin could fight. In fact, with that wrist armor, he could fight quite dirty, performing impromptu orthodontic surgery with every blow. He simply preferred to avoid it whenever possible. Given the choice between sex and violence, sex would win every time. "So what ultimate weapon has our ol' pal Dirk cooked up now?"
Erik gritted his teeth. "Could you keep your voice down? By the gods, Justin, do you even know what the word 'private' means? Judging by your social life, probably not."
"Aw, come off it, Erik, you're only foolin' yourself if you wanna play Mr. Secret Agent. Everybody in there knows the only reason you ever drop by is 'cause somethin's happenin' that smells an awful lot like black leather. Why'dya think you're so unpopular in there? Besides the obvious reasons, I mean." A broad, sly grin insinuated its way across his face as Erik registered the subtle jibe. "So what is it?"
The word hung in the air like an accusation. Which, in a sense, it was. It was the click of the lock when an unexpected husband comes home; the clink of brass knuckles on the fist of a bookie's goon; the chink of an empty bottle when the bar's long closed. It was all that, and so much more.
"Voodoo . . .?" Justin paled a bit beneath his tan, his lackadaisical posture betraying the first hint of stress as his naturally puffy hair fought the urge to stand on end. "What do you . . . I mean, Traquill cleared all that up . . . right? You're . . .you're feelin' okay, right?" Desperation made it less a question than a plea, a *demand* that it must be so.
Erik smiled grimly at the brittle edge sharpening his brother's forced cheerfulness. "If I didn't know you so well, Justin, I'd swear that's guilt I hear. But no, that's *fear,* isn't it? You wouldn't have the *decency* to feel guilty."
"Hey, none of that was my fault!" Justin protested.
"Speakin' any which way!" Erik's lingering resentment really wasn't fair. Justin couldn't help it if a Listian had been utterly overwhelmed by his natural charisma, charm, and sex appeal -- a common enough affliction among those of the female persuasion, wasn't it? Only usually, the consequences weren't quite so . . . drastic. It had been well over a year now since that woman had struck the proverbial deal with the devil -- in this case, Dirk Blackpool. She'd attacked Erik with a voodoo spell in exchange for Dirk's promise to deliver up Justin on a silver platter as her reward. Actually, the silver platter had been optional. He had a feeling *clothing* had been optional. And he got the distinct impression that making Erik suffer had been something of a bonus for her. This was, in short, one scary wench. Cute, but scary. Made Bethel look harmless as Ariel in comparison.
It had been flattering, in a way -- a very *strange* way -- but he'd been glad when Traquill had quickly cracked the enchantment. After all, Erik had suffered something terrible. And more importantly, who knew what unspeakable acts a woman with that much power could force him to do? Maybe even . . . get married?
He shuddered violently. "Is she . . . is she back?" He avoided mentioning her name, instinctively sensing it was bad mojo to verbalize bad news. Names had a way of summoning things. And people.
Erik was not nearly so superstitious. Or smart, depending on your point of view. "You mean CJ?"
"Shh-shhh!" Justin hissed. "Not so loud!"
Erik grinned, clearly enjoying the turnabout. Normally, Justin existed on some happy plane of Reprobate Zen while Erik ran around finding new things to worry about on a daily basis. Finding new things to worry about was the closest thing Erik had to a hobby. However, finding something that could penetrate Justin's perpetually pickled equanimity was an event unusual enough to savor. Unfortunately, he was pressed for time. "Relax, Justin. Your little admirer isn't the problem this time. It's Bethel, and --"
He didn't even get a chance to finish the sentence before Justin the Carefree bounced back, radiating relief. "Bethel? No problem. Traquill can take care of her without even wakin' up. Good thing, too, since he probably *won't* wake up." He laughed heartily at his own lame joke, slapping Erik on the back in a fraternal fashion. "So that witch is up to somethin' naughty, eh? You need ol' Justin to give her a good spankin'?"
"Spare me your fantasies, Justin," Erik growled. "This is serious. She and Vector are up to some very black magic."
Lower lip curling in revulsion, he rubbed his sturdy chin thoughtfully. "Well, I ain't volunteerin' to spank *him,* I'll tell ya that much."
"Very funny. See if you can laugh at this: a spy just in from Karteia has reported that Dirk decided the whole voodoo scheme was sound in principle, and just needed more powerful magic behind it. He's got Bethel working on it now, with Vector's help."
Justin whistled softly. "Does Traquill know?"
"Of course. Traquill's prepared a blocking spell to fight any harmful influences on the Greystones. He's casting as we speak. He thinks it should be enough -- if he remembered the correct ingredients, that is." Frustration glittered in his eyes brighter than the play of sunlight on gold lamé.
"Man. Let's hope so." He laid one hand on Erik's shoulder in commiseration, then waited a decent interval. "So why exactly are you tellin' me all this?"
Jerking the sympathetic hand away, Erik tossed his head in indignation. Amazingly, his blond locks didn't so much as stir at the gesture. Clearly, not even voodoo would penetrate that hairspray. "Well, besides my stupid assumption that you might care, Traquill told me to bring you back home. He doesn't know exactly what effect that blocking spell could have. He warned me that we could be putting out a lot of fires."
"Did he mean that literally or figuratively?"
"With Traquill, you never know."
Justin nodded, wincing. There was a reason Camarand employed the largest standing fire brigade in Aperans. "Great. Just great. So where's Marko?"
"You won't weasel out of it that easily, Justin. Marko's visiting his brother. I sent a messenger, but it'll take awhile. That leaves you."
Pushing away from the wall, Justin re-entered both the tavern and the welcoming arms of the Winslow sisters. "Erik, it's less than a mile to the castle. You see any fires, you just holler, and I'll come runnin'. In the meantime, I got a very important appointment."
Erik followed, relentless as a bloodhound. "With a girl, a drink, or a pair of dice?"
"If I'm lucky, all three." He chucked Lucille under the chin, happily accepting her tankard of ale before Erik could intercept it. "If I'm *really* lucky, all three at the same time."
Erik glowered. "Justin, you are--"
"Tired of listenin'. Cut the lectures, Erik. Either join me or go home. In the meantime, I'm havin' another drink, and nothin's gonna stop me." Defiantly, he took a large swig.
Then he doubled over, spraying the entire mouthful in a classic spit-take.
"Justin! What the hell are you *doing"?" Erik snarled, wiping at his spattered tunic. With shrill cries of distress, the dampened Winslows were doing much the same.
Gasping, Justin wiped his forearm across his mouth. "I . . . I don't know. I just . . . Hank, what'd you *put* in this batch, anyway? Went down about as smooth as a knife in the gut."
Hank, the cheap ale connoisseur, took umbrage. "Hey! That's the house finest you're talking about!"
"If that's your finest, I'd hate to taste your worst. Lucille, be a darlin' and get me some wine, would you? I want somethin' to drink, not polish armor with." As Hank's lower lip trembled with the indignation of a wounded craftsman, Justin accepted a cup of wine. Raising it to Erik in toast, he tossed it back.
This time, Erik ducked. The Winslows weren't so fortunate.
"By the gods, Justin! Watch it!" Erik wrenched the cup away from Justin, who was too busy clutching at his stomach to care about the loss of the liquor. The Winslows dabbed wadded handkerchiefs at the wine-colored blotches festooning their dresses, muttering words no ladies should know, let alone say.
"Hank, what'd I ever do to you that you're tryin' to poison me?" Beads of sweat stood out on Justin's forehead, and the merry laugh-lines which habitually etched his eyes had altered to an angry squint.
"You insult my wine now?" Hank bustled over, snatched the cup from Erik's hand, and swallowed a large mouthful, without apparent harm. "Perfect! Bold! Slightly fruity!"
Even in pain, Justin couldn't resist. "You describin' Erik or the wine? Hey, just kiddin'," he hastened to add, as Erik bristled. "You gotta admit, you do wear an awful lot of sparkly stuff. Anyway, Hank, if you can drink that, you're a better man than me."
"There's nothing wrong with this wine! Here, you try it." Nodding vigorously, he thrust the cup back at Erik, who finally took a reluctant sip.
"Pretty typical, I'd say," Erik shrugged. He stifled a laugh at his brother's stricken look. "Come on, Justin, with all the swill you've drunk today, you had to reach your limit sometime. That's all."
"But I never . . . gods, I must be gettin' old," Justin muttered. "I think I better go lie down." Now genuinely leaning on the Winslows for support, he made his unsteady way to the private rooms at the rear of the tavern.
Erik's face usually had an air of "I told you so" about it, but now it was more insufferable than ever, the smug expression of a Noah finally watching his neighbors tread water. He'd always known Justin's unsavory lifestyle would catch up with him sooner or later. Nobody could live like that all the time without eventual consequences. Nobody could be that damn happy, and have that much fun. It just wasn't natural.
Hank clutched at Erik's arm as the prince prepared to leave. "Do you think he'll be okay?"
The stern set to Erik's mouth softened in the face of such obvious distress, and he patted the tavern owner's arm reassuringly. "I'm sure he'll be fine after he rests a little bit."
"Gods, I hope so. I mean, what'll it do to the reputation of my tavern if a prince dies in here after drinking my wine?"
Erik's face hardened once more. "Your concern for his well-being is just heartwarming, you know that? Puts a lump in my throat."
Suddenly, both of them jumped as a yelp echoed through the tavern. Justin, his tunic slightly disarranged, limped back into the main room. "Somethin's really wrong, Erik."
"Justin, I told you --"
"It's not just the drink. Lucille just tried to . . . make me feel better," he euphemized, casting Erik a glance which spoke volumes, most of them highly pornographic and fully color-illustrated. "And wham! Same thing."
"Well, you shouldn't be trying to . . . . *feel better,*" Erik snapped, "so soon after a hangover."
"That wasn't a hangover. I don't *get* hangovers. This is ridiculous, Erik, I never had a problem with just havin' a little fun, never did me a bit of harm. Why now? I felt fit as a fiddle this mornin'. Why should it hit me now, like magic --" He stopped abruptly as a horrible thought socked him square between the eyes. "Oh, gods, no."
"What is it?" Erik ventured, feeling the beginnings of genuine concern seep into his soul. It wasn't like Justin to use that tone. That was Erik's own "Dirk crisis" tone. He'd practiced for years in front of Marko to get just the right note of grim portent modulated into every syllable. It was a bit annoying that Justin could nail it on his first try.
Slowly, like a man walking to his own funeral, Justin approached the card game in progress in a shadowed corner. "Floyd, deal me in."
"Sure thing. I ain't above taking money from a sick man," the midget replied cheerfully, counting out the requisite cards. With a trembling hand, Justin picked them up, then flung them violently across the room, blowing on his fingertips as if he'd grabbed a red-hot poker.
"That bad of a hand, eh?" Floyd asked sympathetically.
Throat dry, hand throbbing, Justin turned to Erik. "I think goin' back to the castle is a damn fine idea after all. I got a feelin' that blockin' spell of Traquill's is blockin' all the wrong 'harmful influences' where *I'm* concerned."
"What do you mean, you can't help him? Erik exploded, glaring down at Traquill, who continued munching on a slice of toast, utterly unperturbed. "You *are* a wizard, aren't you?" he added accusingly.
Comfortably seated in the pseudo-medieval equivalent of a La-Z-Boy, pointy-shoed feet perched on a plush velvet ottoman, the blue-robed wizard paused in mid-chew and raised one snow-white eyebrow. "No need to get nasty, junior. I was casting spells before you were a twinkle in old Richard's eye. I was casting spells before Richard's great-great-great-grandfather was a twinkle in *his* father's eye. I was casting --"
Erik halted the genealogical litany with an upraised palm before he could get to the amoebas in the primordial soup and the twinkles residing in what passed for their eyes. "Okay, okay, I get the picture. Really old, whole lotta casting going on. So what's the problem?"
"This is different. Told you this isn't the sort of magic I deal in, but you agreed that I should rush right in half-cocked and start with the abra-cadabra. Told you I couldn't guarantee what a blocking spell would do -- so how am I supposed to *undo* it when I don't know what I *did*? Just do it backwards? For all I know, that could turn him inside-out." Beard waggling, he nodded at the miserable, shivering Justin, huddled in the corner like an addict on day seven of a twelve-step program. "I'm surprised you're not all for the change in him, Erik. Take away those 'harmful' vices, and he just might give you a run for your kolnas in the hero department." Erik just stared, his "we are not amused" face firmly in place, while Traquill finished chewing and swallowed noisily, washing it down with a slurp of tea. "Besides, the spell might wear off by itself in time."
"Might?" Justin muttered, hugging himself, teeth chattering. "No offense, Tray, but that ain't very reassuring. I don't even make *bets* on odds like that."
"Not betting on much of anything right now, are ya?" Traquill quipped, digging his elbow into Erik's ribs. He sighed at the resolutely stony faces of the Greystone brothers. "Well, *I* thought it was funny. Okay, lemme see if I've got this straight. Justin, you can't drink, you can't gamble, and you can't . . . enjoy female companionship. Hurts like hell when you try. That about cover it?"
"And don't forget the rash." Erik and Justin exchanged significant, embarrassed glances. It was the first time in living memory anyone had ever seen Justin look embarrassed. They'd just presumed that, as a result of some strange biological defect, he wasn't capable of the emotion.
"Rash?" Traquill coughed politely. "Do I really want to know?"
"I can't wear a shirt," Justin explained glumly. "Doesn't matter what fabric. Even tried one of Erik's silk jobs. Whatever I wear, it itches somethin' fierce 'till I take it off."
Squinting his rheumy eyes, the wizard focused on Justin's bare, muscular, respectably hairy chest, goose-pimpled in the chilly air of Traquill's quarters. "Ah, so that explains it. Thought for a minute I'd have to nail a 'No shirt, no shoes, no service' sign on the door. That's definitely a . . . creative. . . side effect. Looks like you might need some help staying warm."
A cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh drifted from the opposite side of Traquill's chair. Erik glared at the heavily hooded figure of the nun from the Most Sacred Order of Kaltrinnia in the Karteian Snow Regions, the spy who'd brought the report in the first place. "Something funny about my brother's pain, Sister?"
"Not at all, just a chronic scratchy throat. Comes from living in the Snow Regions," she coughed, voice and shoulders shaking underneath the shadowed hood. "Our order deplores suffering of any kind, of course."
"Then you're sure livin' in the wrong end of Aperans, lady," Justin observed.
Abruptly, Erik whirled around, crimson cloak swirling about him dramatically. It was, no doubt, the main reason he wore the cloak. "Well, maybe *you* can sit around and eat toast while my brother suffers, but I can't. If Bethel and Vector are playing voodoo, then maybe they can break a spell gone wrong. Sister, you said they're at Castle Dracnil, right?"
"Yep, Land of Storms. That's the one. Take a right at the Forest of Doom," she affirmed brightly.
Tugging on his gauntlets, Erik bowed his head solemnly, kneeling at her feet. "Then I ask your blessing for my quest, good Sister."
The hood looked around nervously. "Oh. Er, yeah, right." Reluctantly, she placed her palm atop his head. "Ouch! You could stab someone with that hairspray. I mean, um, go in peace, my good brother, and . . . ah . . . may the most sacred light of Kaltrinnia be a beacon to guide your way . . . etc., etc."
The prince peered up at her suspiciously. "Etcetera?"
"Um, we're a Reformed Order?" Surreptitiously, she wiped her hand on her robe, the sticky residue clinging persistently.
Rising to his feet, Erik crossed the room in a few determined strides, placing one arm around Justin's shoulders in a manly hug. "Take courage, friend. I won't be back until I've broken this spell's fiendish grip upon your soul!" With that, he swashed and buckled his way out of the room while keeping one hand upon his sword at all times, which (gotta give him credit, here) really isn't that easy to pull off without spraining something.
"Well, that's one bright spot, anyway," Justin observed, his drawn face breaking into a wan smile.
"What, that Erik's helping you?" the nun asked.
"No, that he won't be back for awhile."
The suspicious coughing from the shadowed recesses of the hood commenced once more.
"Well, Justin, I don't know what to tell you," Traquill shrugged. "I mean, a little enforced taste of the virtuous lifestyle won't be pleasant, but it's not like it'll *kill* you. Although it might make you *wish* you were dead."
"You really stink at bein' comforting, ya know that?"
"So I've been told."
"What about you, Sister?" Justin drawled, his instinctive desire to charm the nearest available female kicking in. Justin operated on a sort of permanent Sexual Harassment Autopilot which was in no way fazed by a little something like sackcloth and ashes. "You got any words of wisdom for me? I'm pretty new at this abstinence and chastity deal. Gonna have a lotta time on my hands."
"Me?" the hood squeaked. "Well, there's . . . er . . . I mean, there's always . . . canasta, I suppose?"
"Look, my boy." Traquill leaned forward sympathetically. "Why don't you go and lie down? You might feel better."
"*Much* better," the nun added. Traquill moved one foot from the ottoman to kick her in the shin. She socked him on the shoulder in retaliation.
Too depressed to notice, Justin nodded, trudging toward the door with dispirited, dragging steps. "You're probably right. If you learn anythin', let me know, would ya?"
"You'll be the first, Justin," Traquill reassured his departing back. Quickly, he beckoned to the nun. "Make sure he's gone."
She peered around the corner. "Yep, heading for his bedroom." There was a note of very un-nunnish satisfaction in the words.
"Good. Belldonna!" The elderly wizard snapped his fingers.
An electric hum and a burst of glitter later, the ethereal maiden glowed before him. "Does dear Prince Erik have a problem?"
"Want me to list 'em alphabetically? But that's beside the point. Belldonna, Erik's heading for Castle Dracnil. I want you to wait 'till he reaches about the halfway point -- say, right before the Forest of Doom -- and then appear to him. Tell him Justin's fine, my spell is broken, Bethel and Vector have given up, happy ending, blah blah blah."
Belldonna blinked her beautiful eyes uncertainly. She was transparent even at the best of times -- it came with the whole mist and moonlight deal -- but now the first faint traces of "the old codger's finally lost it" peeked through her face like an anxious puppy in a petshop window. "But . . . why do you want for me to wait until he's halfway there? If you've already broken the spell, why not save him from wasting so much time? And I don't sense your spell signature anyway, or any hostile magic from Bethel *or* Vector, I sense --"
"Look, Fairydust, just can it and do what I say, all right?" Traquill snapped. Seeing her stricken expression, he relented. "Belle, you're right, it's not really my spell, and Bethel and Vector aren't really up to anything. It's all a long story, just trust me and run along."
"Fine. But *I'm* the one who's supposed to talk in riddles, not you." Sniffling slightly, Belldonna vanished.
"Don't see why you have to tell him anything at all. A little vacation in a Dracnil dungeon would do him good." The nun's arms crossed petulantly as she stalked back over to the wizard's side. A casual observer would have sensed by this point that she was not the sort of nun to prance around the hills of Austria singing scales like an idiot. In fact, she didn't seem to be behaving much like a proper nun at all . . .
"Watch it. Don't make me any more uneasy about this agreement than I already am." He looked her up and down, his elderly eyes just a trifle anxious. "She'll be gentle with him, right?"
The bogus nun finally drew her hood back, revealing waves of long red hair and an impish grin. "Gentle as a lamb," Anna reassured him, fingers firmly crossed behind her back.
Traquill snorted skeptically. "You used to be so nice. I think she's a bad influence on you. She makes damn good jam, though." He reached for a jar, lavishing its dwindling contents generously on another slice of toast. "Terrific," he mumbled through a mouthful, spraying crumbs far and wide.
"Just wait'll you try her homemade apricot preserves. Oh, and her praline popcorn." Dislodging his feet, Anna settled down on the ottoman and helped herself to a slice. "Guaranteed to kill any lingering fits of conscience."
"Magic?" he inquired.
"Naw. Just *really* tasty."
With a weary groan, Justin stumbled into his darkened bedroom and flung himself spread-eagle on the bed. He didn't dare pull the covers up under his chin -- that rash was a bugger. Gloomily, he scratched his bare chest and stared at the ceiling. "Haven't gone to bed this early since I was twelve," he sighed. "Alone, that is."
"Poor baby. Feeling under the weather?"
Justin rocketed out of bed, knocking over his bedside candle in his frantic scrambling to light it. For a moment, it looked like the local fire brigade might have a non-Traquill-related disaster to contend with. "All right, who's there?" he yelled, finally giving up.
Obligingly, the soft "shhcck" of a match and a hint of sulfur suffused the air. An amber glow dispelled the shadows to the far corners of the room, where they clustered thickly, watching with a voyeuristic interest. The brunette woman lounging in his overstuffed easy chair lit a single candle and then extinguished her match, using a convenient miniature portrait of Erik as an ashtray. After a sip of tea, she spoke, her voice warm and sweet and deviously dangerous as a Bourbon Street evening. "Hello, Justin. We meet at last. You seem *awfully* tense."
Although Justin had never seen her before, he had an alarmingly good idea of exactly who and what he was dealing with. He stared, especially at her daringly low-cut, black-and-white taffeta gown. "CJ. Gods, this is all I need."
"How well you phrase it." She stood up and shook out the heavy mass of her skirt. It was far more frou-frou than the frocks she usually favored, but it had been ideal for a recent formal work occasion. "Do you like it? Didn't think I'd get a chance to wear it again so soon."
He backed away nervously. "This is really not a good time --"
"Best possible time, I bet. Ooops -- sorry. I probably shouldn't mention betting, or drinking, or . . . *other things* right now. It'd be too cruel, since I hear you have a little problem. *Several* little problems." She laughed at his shocked expression. "Don't look so surprised. I have my spies, too. Point is," she explained, advancing upon him in an ominous rustle of taffeta, "I also have a solution for you." As his back hit the wall, CJ slowly and deliberately displayed the cover of a book she held in one hand.
"*Voodoo Magic in 10 Easy Lessons,*" he read. None other than the infamous text that started it all last time. He looked from the book to her face and back again. Hope and doubt and a healthy dose of fear warred in his expression. "So you could . . . fix . . ."
"You'd be good as new," she purred. Drawing as close as the stiff taffeta skirt would allow, she pressed her free hand against the contours of his bare chest. "Mmm. *Very* nice."
"Thank you." He swallowed hard, prominent Adam's apple bobbing up and down as if searching vainly for an escape route. Despite the cold, he was sweating. Profusely. "So you'd be doin' this as a . . . favor?"
She actually snorted with laughter that time. "Oh, Justin, you're so cute. I don't *do* favors."
"Oh. So you'd want . . . somethin' from me, then."
"Mmm-hmm," she smirked, trailing fingertips through his chest hair. "Something."
"Right." He took a deep, shuddering breath, readying himself for the horrific plunge into unfathomable, hostile depths. "Okay. Man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Maybe gettin' m-married won't be *that* bad," he whispered, much as the more optimistic among the damned claim that hell is just a trifle stuffy. Judging by the difficulty he had even stammering his way through the word "married," his pep talk failed abysmally.
"Married?" She stepped back, jaw dropping, all amusement gone. "You think I want to get married to a playboy prince? Of all the stupid -- where'd you get an idea like that? Do I *look* like Bethel?"
His eyes involuntarily darted to her plunging bodice, like blue lodestones drawn to a magnet -- or pair of magnets, as the case may be. "Well, in that dress --"
"Shuttin' up, yes, ma'am."
"Married? Give me a break!" She rolled her eyes. "That's hardly what I had in mind."
Against all odds, hope began to win the fight with doubt and fear. "Really? What'd you have in mind, then?"
"Well, I don't usually do much for my birthday, but tonight I was hoping you wouldn't mind helping me . . . celebrate." The word "celebrate" took on connotations not found in any dictionary.
"Celebrate . . . how?" Justin pushed, not yet quite believing his good fortune.
"Let's just say I'd need to restore *all* your vices to accomplish what I have in mind."
Hope blazed across the touchdown line, spiked the ball, and did a flamboyant little victory dance. His confidence returning in a joyous burst, Justin slid his hands around her waist. "In that case, darlin', sure thing, count me in on the party. I'm *awful* good at . . . celebratin'. So how old are you --"
"Shuttin' up, yes, ma'am."
"Now close your eyes. I need to break m -- I mean, break *Traquill's* spell." CJ disengaged his hands, which had begun to migrate upwards of their own volition, and opened the book to a seemingly random page.
"Why do I need to shut my eyes?"
She groped for a likely-sounding reason, while he just groped. "If you don't, you could go blind."
"I've heard *that* one before. You know, it's an awful funny thing, all this happenin' on your birthday. Why should I trust you?"
"What choice do you have? Assuming you want to have any fun again, ever?"
"Good point." Reluctantly, he closed his eyes.
After waving her hand in front of his face just to make sure, she set the book down, removed his roving hands again, and rummaged in her purse, pulling out a dark-haired voodoo doll instantly recognizable as Justin. Obviously, far more care had been lavished upon the construction of this one than the sad rag replica of Erik she'd thrown together last year. Swiftly, she removed the pins from the doll's mouth, hands, chest, and . . . another area, then stuffed both doll and pins into her purse. "All done," she sang out.
He opened his eyes. "Spell's broken?"
"Only one way to find out," CJ grinned. "Actually, there's several ways, but let's start with getting you a drink." Retrieving a bottle from the liquor cabinet, she poured him a goblet of wine.
"I like the way you think, darlin.'" Cautiously, he sipped. No pain beyond the usual slightly sour burn of a really cheap vintage. "I'll be damned. You did it!" Cheerfully, Justin reached for a tunic crumpled on a chair and began to pull it over his head.
Immediately, her brow furrowing with disapproval, her hand darted back inside her purse to jam a single pin back into place. "Owww!" He reflexively yanked his shirt back off, scratching at his chest, hair mussed and eyes perplexed.
CJ smiled sympathetically, snapping her purse shut. She couldn't help herself. He just looked so . . . so darn *cute* like that, especially with those metal wristbands. "I'm afraid *that* little problem might take just a little longer to wear off."
Justin shrugged philosophically, tossing the tunic on the floor. "I guess you'll just have to help me keep warm 'till then."
"*Not* a problem."
"Though I think your chest might get colder'n mine in that dress --"
"Shuttin' up, yes, ma'am."
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