Twisted Road
(the Bad Intentions Remix)

by SRoni

Spoiler: Do NOT read without first reading Aadler’s Hell Hath No Fury. Seriously. DON’T.

Part I

He watched the scene unfold on the screen. Sure, he could have watched without a screen, could have watched from the room, could have watched it without even opening his eyes. But where was the fun in that?

The woman behind the desk was a blonde who was obviously British: if not in the way she talked, then in the way she looked. She had an angular, high-cheekboned face, and she was dressed in a tailored cream-and-brown suit. She looked to be in her mid-forties (but how many people who worked for him were as young as they looked?), and was looking at the visitor like he smelled bad. “You don’t have an appointment. I must insist that you leave,” She repeated for the second time.

The young man standing in front of her shifted his weight. “Call your boss, I have to see him.” He also repeated himself for the second time, looking around the office, on the surface casually, but any fool could see that he was inspecting it carefully.

And the old man was not a fool.

The old man rather liked the furniture he’d picked out for the office. The wooden furniture was polished, not varnished. The walls were covered in expensive-looking textured cloth (and the reason it looked expensive was because it was expensive); the carpet was crisp, resilient and a muted rose.

“You’re not authorised to be here,” the woman told him. “You have no business with this organisation. If you don’t leave at once, I shall call Security.”

With a heavy sigh the young man killed her, his roundhouse kick reaching across the desktop to crush her throat. Even as she slammed back against the wall, he let his original spin carry him the rest of the way around, and came down facing the door, hands up and ready. He held the stance for several seconds, waiting and listening, then settled back with his weight evenly balanced on the whole of his foot, rather than the balls.

The young man picked up the phone and tried different numbers. When he keyed in “666”, the old man held back a laugh. Arrogant whelp had a sense of humor. It was bound to get him in trouble, but the old man liked him in spite of it. Or maybe because of it.

Yes, sir. The old man was going to be able to have a lot of fun with the young man when he became his.

The younger man reached for the Rolodex, and the old man did laugh, knowing what he would find, and knowing how the young man would respond.

And he was right. The young man pushed it away, his lips pursed and his eyebrows drawn together into a frown. He was an attractive young man, and he knew it, but at the moment, he wasn’t focused on that (which had to be one of the few times in the young man’s life that he wasn’t focused on himself), and the glowering somehow managed to add to his charm. All it did in this instance, though, was begin to annoy the old man, who was not a good person to annoy. People had annoyed him before. Those people had paid dearly.

The young man picked up the telephone again, his eyebrows still knit. “I’m here, and you know it. We can talk, or I can see how much trouble I can cause. It’s up to you.” He hung up without waiting for an answer. Good thing, too. He wouldn’t have gotten one.

The young man looked around the office again, turning in a slow circle, trying to figure out what to do.

The old man sighed, and pressed a button.

The young man spotted the second door when the circle put his back to the main entrance. He stared for several seconds, shook his head with a growl, crossed to the door and opened it.

The old man crossed to the wet bar, and waited for the younger man to notice him. “All right, then, you’re here. I don’t suppose you have a name?” As if he needed to ask. He knew who the man who’d barged in on him was. He was not omnipotent, but he knew who certain people were. He kept an eye on his own. It provided entertainment.

The younger man stepped inside without answering, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet.

“I asked your name,” he prompted, letting the barest hint of impatience show. “It’s only common courtesy to introduce yourself.”

The younger man stopped his entrance when he was between four and five feet away. (Optimum striking distance; interesting. Not many would have the audacity to come in and threaten him.) “You can call me Cale.”

Which wasn’t an answer. “Not your real name, naturally.” He already knew his real name, he was just trying to figure out how cautious the young man was going to play it. “Can’t blame you for being careful, though you’d have been a lot more careful to just stay the hell home.” He inspected his fingernails, feigning disinterest. “Cale. Is that supposed to carry any special meaning?”

“No.” He looked up from his fingernails and saw the young man shake his head. “But I’ll answer to it.”

“Hmmp.” That was helpful. “Well, it’ll do.” He didn’t introduce himself back. It wasn’t necessary. If the young man didn’t know who he was, he wouldn’t have gotten there. He wasn’t exactly on the beaten path; you didn’t find him by getting lost, or by aimless wandering. “You aren’t much for manners, but you made it this far, so I suppose I should offer you a drink.”

Cale thought a moment and asked, “What do you recommend?”

“I don’t know your tastes.” The old man gave a flippant shrug. “You invited yourself, y’know. But I have anything you might care to try.” He gestured at the bar without looking away from Cale. “Liquor, soft drinks, fruit juice, your pleasure.”

“Pomegranate juice?” the young man asked, a glint of humor in his eyes.

The old man’s own sense of humor vanished. “You won’t make yourself popular with that kind of smart mouth, boy.” He strode across the room to his desk, and sent a swivel chair spinning over to where Cale stood. “Sit down. I want to know how you found this place.”

Cale paused, then sat down slowly. “I think I’d rather not tell you,” he said, looking for all the world like the cat that ate the canary. “I can’t see me wanting to come back here, but somebody else might, and I don’t see why I should make it harder for them. Unless you’d like to bargain for the information?”

The old man’s smile changed subtly as he leaned against the desk. “I don’t bargain, boy, at least not here I don’t, and definitely not with macho punks like you. As for coming back, you might not even leave. You have pissed me off royally: bulldozing in here, killing my secretary …”

“I was tired of being jerked around,” Cale interrupted. “You know everything that goes on in this place, you knew I was here looking for you. She was trying to give me the brush-off, and I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t having any.” The boy shrugged. “You can always replace her … or bring her back, if she was real.”

“I do have a sizeable labor pool.” He paused, and then continued. “But I’m still torqued. Taekwon-do?”

“What?” Cale asked.

The old man sighed. “The kick. Hard to tell from only one technique, and so many people mix styles these days, but it looked like taekwon-do to me.”

Cale paused before answering. “A little bit of a mix,” he admitted. “Some taekwon-do, but mostly hapkido.” The old man hid a smile. The boy had deliberately misled him. No, the old man didn’t watch everyone, or even every minute of one person. But he’d been fascinated by this one, and had watched more of him than of many others. He knew what the young man had been up to for the previous year. He hadn’t done taekwon-do since seventh grade; his most recent and intense experience had ranged through muay Thai, American Kenpo, hard-style Shotokan, vale tudo. He’d spent hours every day practicing, drilling himself, striking and grappling in steel cages and fight clubs and private no-holds-barred challenges. The old man had been impressed with how quickly the young man made himself into a modern-day gladiator, but in the end it was the only impressive thing about him.

The old man started talking again. “I like watching the various fighting styles. It’s more in my nephew’s field than mine, but the Asians do make fine warriors, though they get a little too esoteric for my tastes. You really think it’ll do you any good?”

Cale shrugged with an obviously calculated nonchalance. The old man almost smiled. This one thought he was such a good actor. He wasn’t. He had enough charm to fool the girls, but that was about it. “I doubt it. But it doesn’t matter.”

The old man channeled his amusement into annoyance. “It matters, boy.” He moved behind the desk, sat down. “Believe me, it matters.”

“No, it doesn’t.” The young man’s voice came out strong and forceful. The old man raised an eyebrow at the tone. No one had had the audacity to speak to him in such a way in eons. The young man continued obliviously with whatever inane thing he was saying. “And I’ll tell you why. Before I started this trip, I worked out the possibilities in my head. Either you can kill me, or you can’t. Personally, I don’t think you can; I think the way things are set up, you can only touch the people who come here through normal channels. But if I’m wrong, either you will kill me or you won’t. And I’m ready for either one.”

The old man nodded, hiding the fact that he was impressed. Wouldn’t do to show his hand at this stage of the game. “Clear thinking, as far as it goes. But you left out one option. If it comes right down to it, I can just wait for you to go away.” He permitted a thin, cold smile to steal across his face. “I’ve had a lot of practice at waiting.”

“I’d advise you not to try it.” The young man’s voice had a note of barely contained amusement to it. “I didn’t come here unprepared, and I didn’t really expect to find you in a cooperative mood. Push me to it, and I guarantee to make myself impossible to ignore.”

The old man let himself give a snort to sum up his feelings. “Been awhile since anyone had the brass to threaten me. You in that big a hurry to die?”

“No, I’m not,” Cale said. “I’ll fight you every way I know how, if I have to, even though I don’t think there’s any chance I could win or even hold my own. But I’m not backing down. I don’t leave until I have what I came here for.”

The old man sighed and walked back to his chair, letting himself smile once his back was to the whelp. “Let me guess,” he said with inexpressible weariness. “A woman?”

Cale’s smile held none of the amusement that his voice had. “Isn’t it always?”

“Damn near.” The old man permitted his shoulders to slump. “That doesn’t stop me from hoping for something different, just to break the monotony. You aren’t going to start singing, are you?”

“Singing?” The puppy shook his head. “Would it make any difference?”

“A few have tried it. Should have known better, I never fall for any trick twice. Warriors lose their weapons on the way in, magic-users can’t pack enough juice to make much of a dent … there was one guy who gave me a little bit of a challenge, a professional stage magician and escape artist, but that was a generation ago.” He tilted back in his chair, contemplating putting his feet on the desk. “You’re the first to think he could accomplish anything by sheer rudeness.”

“Well?” the arrogant young man asked with a raised eyebrow. “Am I wrong?”

The old man shook his head and sighed. “I’m having trouble figuring you out, boy,” he admitted. “You can’t have gotten here without knowing a lot about me, and if you know anything you know that I keep what’s mine. Not greediness, it’s just how the rules are set up. The minstrel almost found a loophole, but that was a freak case. Only a dozen or so have tried it since then. They came up dry, and you’re no different.”

“I guess I really blew it.” The young man stood up. “So I was wrong. So there’s no way to break one of your contracts. So send me back where I came from, and have a big laugh at the dumb bozo who thought he could waltz in here and tell you what to do.” He looked the old man directly in the eyes, a challenge in them. “I’m waiting.”

He did not like challenges, particularly not in his domain. He knew how this would play out, but this was quickly losing its entertainment value. This was a day very different from most days, but he still wasn’t sure if it was worth it. “You’re going to come to a bad end, boy. You’re wrong about me not being able to touch you; I can, if I really want to and if I’m ready to take the hassle that comes with breaking procedure. You can’t tell me what to do, not here on my home ground, and that’s the bottom line.” The old man paused. “On the other hand, you just being here makes a hell of an itch, and I can’t scratch it without causing more trouble for myself than you ever could. I could wait you out, if I put my mind to it, but I’m not in the mood. You up for a game?”

“A game?” Cale paused. “What kind of game?”

“A series of trials.” The best gambles were the straightforward ones that looked easy. They were always the ones that got you. “Pass them, I’ll give you what you want. Fail, and you’re mine.” He paused. “Or you could let it go, leave while you’re ahead. ’Course, I wouldn’t lay heavy odds on you showing that much good sense.”

“Trials.” Cale repeated the old man for the second time. “I don’t think so. I’m not about to put myself in your hands, not without a better idea of what I’d be facing.”

“You don’t get a playbook, boy. And you don’t dictate terms to me. Take it or leave it.”

“The more trials there are, the more chances I have to fail,” the younger man pointed out. “You could just keep piling them on till I fumbled a play or fell over from exhaustion. Make it one fair challenge and I might take a chance.”

The old man’s laugh was as sudden and as threatening as a gunshot. “First you threaten, then you try to haggle. You might’ve been better off singing.” He pretended to think for a moment. “No, one challenge you might sail through by blind luck. Five would make a nice, well-rounded test.”

“Really?” The young man raised an eyebrow. “I’d love to find someone sucker enough to buy a pitch like that. Use the first few trials to gauge the guy’s weaknesses, and then shape the next set to zero in on them. No, if you want to rule out luck, two trials should be enough.”

“Three,” the old man said. “Final offer. Don’t try to angle for better.”

The young man didn’t heed the advice. “I don’t know. You’ve got the home field advantage here, I can’t afford to give away too much. How about this: you get your challenges, but we go best two out of three.”

The old man made himself unclench his jaw. “I told you not to push for more. You don’t listen too good, do you?” The unclenching of his jaw didn’t keep his voice from coming out low and dangerously hard.

Cale countered quickly. “I listened to the part about me making an itch you couldn’t scratch. That’s an advantage I’m not about to lose. I might trade it for a good deal, but I won’t throw it away for a crappy one.”

The old man allowed himself to glare at him, and the arrogant puppy matched him glare for glare. The boy had guts; he couldn’t remember the last time someone had challenged him the way, or as many times, as the young man already had. “Three trials,” he finally answered. “Win them all, I give you the woman. Lose one, you still get to leave free and clear. Lose two or more, you come under my authority.” Sooner than he would normally, at any rate. “And that really is the bottom line.”

“Okay, what kind of challenges?” The young man held up a hand. (Smart boy. He would have killed Cale otherwise, paperwork or no paperwork.) “I’m not bargaining now, I just want to know if this is something I can agree to.”

“Standard stuff: mind, body, spirit. The idea isn’t to squash you, although I’ll admit I’m starting to lean that way; no, this is to make sure no one wins a dispensation unless he’s worthy.” Which this one wasn’t. He knew the end results, but it would be interesting to watch how it got to that point. Even if it meant dealing with the young man for a longer time. “You’ve got nerve and guts, but I’ve seen my share of heroes, and you don’t qualify. I’ll give you a fair test because I don’t see you passing a fair test. What do you say to that?”

“Three trials. Body, mind, and spirit.” The old man didn’t miss the rearrangement of the tests, and hid a smile. The young man used his fingers to tick it off. “One and I’m toast, two and I break even, three and I win. I’ve got your word on this?”

He stood purposefully and stepped away from the desk. “I will serve you no challenge that a strong, brave, clever man cannot meet. And I will afford you such reward as you truly earn. By my name and dominion, this be so.” He returned his voice to its normal timbre and cadence. “Satisfied?”

“Your word is all I asked. We have a deal.” The young man would do well to learn some humility. He never would, though … at least, not in this life.

“All right, then. Might as well go straight to it … unless you’d like a chance to get yourself ready …” He raised an eyebrow at the young man, before continuing, “… or to reconsider?”

Cale thought a moment, but replied with absolute certainty. (Very few things in the world were absolute, and certainty was never one of them.) “I’m ready now. And I won’t be changing my mind.”

The old man shrugged. “Suit yourself. That door there —” he pointed to a door opposite of where Cale had entered, “— will lead to your first challenge.” He sat back in the chair and gave in to his desire to put his feet on the desk. Let someone else deal with the scuff marks later. “Any last words you want to throw out?”

The young man stopped with his hand on the doorknob, shook his head, and turned the knob.

Part II

The old man watched the first challenge with anticipation.

But Cale got past his adversary. The whelp had a brain, after all.

The second challenge, he ignored. It wasn’t a fun one to watch, with the burning flesh and the determination. He noted the name that Cale had turned into a mantra to get through the pain, however, and held back a smile. That one wouldn’t be held by anyone. Least of all an arrogant immature whelp who had an annoying, overwhelming sense of entitlement. Oh, she’d been infatuated. But when he’d shown his true colors, she’d stopped trying to get him back. That’s why he was there.

He’d never been turned down before.

She’d been his downfall twice.

Thrice, if the old man had anything to say about it.

The once was right after an insult that Cale rightly deserved. Her roommate had gone to see Cale, to talk to him about his behavior. Cale tried to do his personal brand of magic with her, and it had started to work. The redhead was too intelligent for him, though; she had realized what was happening, had catalogued it, and drawn him up short. The caveman beer-drinkers played with fire, and she had to come save him. The woman that would be his downfall had to rescue him.

And he’d apologized to her. Had offered her another chance. He’d realized — too late — that he’d let something extraordinary go. Something head and shoulders above even the extraordinary.

And she’d knocked him flat with a hit that he’d never seen coming. She’d done nothing to telegraph it. Not one flicker of an eyelash. Hadn’t changed her expression.

Had simply moved, and he was on the ground.

And the boy couldn’t forgive that.

The second time was soon after the first. Cale had been bragging about his conquest to a group of college military demon-hunters (really, how do you classify The Initiative?), and the farm boy from Iowa dropped him in his tracks with a well-placed right hook to the jaw. (Interestingly enough, he’d actually deigned to watch the incident, and had been chanting softly, “Wait for it. Wait for it. If you pick the right moment, and get it at just the right spot, you can break his jaw …” Corn-fed hadn’t broken it, but it had still been an embarrassment for Cale.)

He could tell in the way that Cale was going about the tests that he’d switched the order of the tests to be what he’d perceived him as saying: body, spirit, mind. Cale should have paid attention to the order as actually stated.

He watched the third challenge. Watched as Cale thought he had it in the bag, because, after all, the old man had thrown a girl at him, and there wasn’t anything Cale could handle better than a girl.

He watched as Cale worked the girl over. Got her to trust him and then betrayed her with a smile and a kiss. Much as Judas had.

He walked back to the bar.

And he waited for the selfish S.O.B. to enter his room again.

* * *

“Damn, but that was a show! I’ll tell you, boy, I take it back about you not being hero material: vicious, backstabbing bastards, the ones I’ve known, and they’d gladly welcome you as a brother.”

“Some other time, maybe. We had an agreement. I carried out my end.” Cale sounded preoccupied.

“And I’ll keep mine.” He poured himself a drink. “That doesn’t mean we can’t relax a bit before I send you on your merry way. I’ll be the first to say, you turned in a hell of a performance.” He tipped his tumbler at the young man. That deserves to be recognized.”

“Thanks. As far as that goes, I’ll have to admit you set a fair test.” The boy crossed over to him, keeping the five-foot striking distance he’d maintained before. “It was no picnic, believe me, but I could tell I was being given a decent chance. You kept your word, clear down the line. I apologize for doubting.”

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

“You made promises. You kept them. That’s a fact.” The young man kept a careful look on his face.

“And you’ve got bootlicking down to a fine art. That’s another fact.” He paused. “But you deliver it well enough.” This was going to be fun. He leaned his elbows on the bar. “I underestimated you. I took you for one of the types that are all bluster and guts, but no judgment or imagination. You surprised me, and that doesn’t happen very often. I’m almost sorry to send you home empty-handed.” A full pause and a ghost of a smile. “Almost.”

Cale stiffened slowly. “What are you talking about? I passed all your challenges.”

“Not all.” He allowed himself to show the smile. “You were sailing right along there, but you blew the last one.”

“You set me three obstacles. I got past all three. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.” The young man kept his voice slow and quiet.

He still wasn’t quite sure how it was going to play out, but it was still fun. He shook his head. “You made it here, all right, but you failed the test. You strung that poor girl along, and then double-crossed her when she was most vulnerable. You think that merits a reward?”

“How else was I supposed to get past her?” the whelp demanded, still keeping his voice even. But he couldn’t control his eyes.

The old man stated it simply. “All you had to do was ask her. She wouldn’t have stopped you. She’s come a long way … and you just knocked it to hell and gone, it’ll probably be centuries before she recovers. You have a quick mind, you thought your way past my champion. And a strong body, you kept going through pain that would have killed most people. But spirit was a bust; there isn’t an ounce of compassion anywhere in you.” Cale tried to argue, opened and closed his mouth, but had no voice. The old man turned away deliberately and sat atop his desk, picking at his nails. “You bargained it down to where two wins means I can’t keep you here … so be on your way, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”

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

“Do I?” He looked up from his nails. “And why would that be? We made an agreement. I’m keeping the agreement. Few minutes ago, you were all for it.”

“Another set of trials.” Cale moved to stand next to him. (Never mind the five-foot optimum striking distance now, it was too desperate.) “You can make them harder, you can set different terms, I don’t care. I can’t leave without her!” His voice was getting more and more frantic.

“But you will.” The best punch is the straight one, and that’s what the old man was doing verbally. He backed Cale up slowly. “You’ll go, and you’ll take nothing with you except the memory of failure.” Not quite true, but close enough. “And every time you look back on this, you can remind yourself that you almost made it, you had it all won, and then threw it away because you couldn’t not be a treacherous little dickweed.” It suddenly occurred to him that he was enjoying this a little too much. He went back to his tumbler. “I’m only sorry I have to let you go at all.”

Cale was jabbering. “But you don’t. More trials, and you have another shot at me. You came close the last time, you can’t know how close.” Actually, he could, since Cale had lost the last one. “Just another chance, that’s all I ask!”

The old man allowed himself to laugh. Yes, he’d let himself enjoy it a little while longer. “Now this is more like it. Begging looks good on you.” He cocked his head to the side. “Another set of challenges, hmm? And what kind of sweetheart deal do you think you can make for yourself this time?”

“I …” He trailed off, and ducked his head. Boy was a lousy actor. He could handle the girls, but when it came to other men … he needed to take some lessons. “I guess I’m not in a position to negotiate for terms.”

“Not by a long shot,” he agreed cheerfully, and tossed back the rest of his drink. “Okay, this is how it’s going to play …” Then it hit him.

Oh, damn.

The young man looked just the least bit smug, and that didn’t bode well. “What the hell —?”

“I’m sorry, do we have a problem?” Cale’s voice was dripping with false honey.

He knew, he knew how it was going to play out. He knew that Cale would leave with the girl. But this? This wasn’t expected. He gave in and threw the tumbler against the wall. “What’s going on here? What are you trying to pull?”

Some men were scariest when they were smiling. Cale wasn’t one of those people, but it didn’t stop him from trying. “I’m not ‘trying’ anything. It’s already been done. What you felt just now was the hook being set, and if I start reeling in the line, you’re going to get a bellyache you’ll never forget.”

The old man shook his head, trying to figure it out, trying to ignore the pain in his stomach. “Something in the drink … but that’s impossible, it’s my own stock. And you can’t have brought anything in …”

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

The old man tilted his head. “Threats? You threaten me —?”

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

“Enough!” the old man roared. “One thing’s for sure, I’ve had a bellyful of you in more ways than one. If this woman means so damned much to you, then good riddance to you both. What’s her name?” As if he didn’t know, but he still had to ask.

Cale gave him the name. (What was her mother thinking? It ought to be a law that whenever a child was named, the mother or father had to live for three months with that name.

Even though in this case, it wasn’t the mother’s fault at all, but the daughter’s stubborn refusal to answer to anything else after her cousin died.)

He looked up the information on the computer. “I love these things,” he admitted. “I’ve been bringing in new systems as fast as they’re developed, digitizing and cross-indexing all my back-files, laying cables everywhere so I’m hooked in wherever I go. It really has streamlined operations a lot, but the plain fact of the matter is, I just like to play with — Okay, I limited the search to the last twenty years, but that still leaves a long list. When did she come here?” He had to stall. If Cale got too far, the friends’ spell wouldn’t take hold. If he didn’t get far enough, the broken spell wouldn’t reach. It was a tricky balance.

He received an answer, typed it into the computer, and waited for it to give him its report. “Pretty much what I thought. Three candidates here. One is fifty-six, from Manchester. One is thirty and black: Kingston.” (Where it was a legitimate nickname.) “Neither of those would be your style, though, would they? No, you’d want one like this, a college girl.” He sighed theatrically. “Sunnydale. You could have saved the both of us a lot of trouble if you’d just mentioned that at the beginning.”

“Bring her up, and I’ll be on my way.” The boy didn’t have a humble bone in his body.

“And none too soon,” the old man retorted. “Fine, I’ll send down the order.” He hit the right keys. “It’s done. Now: however you came in, you’ll have to leave by the regular route. You know the procedure?”

“I lead, she follows. If I turn to look at her, I lose her, but as long as I keep going, I’m fine. And once we’re outside, you can’t reach either one of us anymore.” He paused. “I miss anything?”

Head of the class. “No, you did your readings before you started the tour.” He sat down in the leather chair. “I have one last thing to say to you, boy, and then I’ll only be too glad to see the door close behind you.”

“I think I’ll pass.”

It wasn’t an offer, whelp, it was a demand. “It’ll take my people a few minutes to get her ready to go, so hear me out.”

“Make it fast.”

“Be that way, then. It’s just this: you made a bad deal for yourself, boy. I never could have held your girl anyway: she doesn’t belong, I was only allowed to provide transitional quarters because technically she punched her own ticket, and even then I had to hustle to keep old One-Eye from topping my bid. I was just supposed to keep her in appropriate style until some silly-assed prophesy had been fulfilled —” He was struck by a thought, and went with it. “— which I guess would be you — and then send her back with no memory of her time here. It was a privilege to have her as a guest, her kind is that rare.” He surveyed the boy. “You? You’re a different matter. We wouldn’t be where we are if you weren’t already well on your way to being one of mine. So maybe you should ask yourself which would be better: win and go on, knowing full well that sooner or later you’ll wind up back here under my authority — and I have a long memory for grudges — or let it go and walk away and start rewriting your life so you’ll have some chance of never seeing me again.”

“I’m touched that my welfare is so important to you.” Cale spoke with fake sincerity. His face slowly shifted. “Are we done yet?”

“Fine, suit yourself. You can go. She should be ready now. There’ll be signs outside, pointing the way to the main entrance; the girl will join you somewhere along the line. I’ll call ahead and have Charon waiting for you.” Cale reached the door when the old man stopped him. “Boy.”

Cale turned. “What?”

“You won’t be able to hold her, either. She can’t be held, not that one; she’ll slip out of your fingers, and you’ll have mortgaged away your soul for nothing. Is she worth it?”

Cale took in a breath, let it out. “No,” he answered simply, and was gone.


The old man knew how it would turn out. He wasn’t omniscient by any means, but some things were just known. The girl had defeated prophecy after prophecy, and would continue to do so, but this wasn’t an ordinary prophecy. This one had been old when the Trojan War was being fought.

Her friends would win the battle they didn’t even know they were fighting, even while thinking they’d lost.

She would be ripped away from Cale, and thrown back into her body in her coffin, and she’d have to dig her way out.

She would spend a year coming to terms with the fact that she was alive again, and hating it.

He was patient. And he hadn’t been lying when he said that he could hold onto a grudge for a very long time.

He waited, for the selfish S.O.B. to enter his room again.


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