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“So, Conan and Elric walk into a bar . . .” Orbek looked thoughtful. I couldn’t tell if he was deadpanning or making one up on the spot. Considering all he knew of Conan and Elric was stories I’ve told him – he doesn’t speak English and last I heard, neither Howard nor Moorcock has been published in Westerling – I thought I’d let him roll it out a little. The beer was good and the crowd was friendly, so why not? “All right.” I gave him an encouraging wave of my tankard. Beer splashed our table, and it wasn’t lonely. We’d been there a while. “Go on.” Orbek’s meaty brows pulled together. “There’s no on. Maybe I say instead, Conan and Elric walk into this bar, hey?” “Um. . . .” Orbek angled his head to point with his tusks. “Check it out.” I turned just enough to catch sight of them in the long mirror hung above the top shelf bottles. Sure enough: threading through the late-evening crowd, a beanpole elf-wannabe albino dressed like a rough-trade whore in a leather bar wearing a black sword the size of a cricket bat, alongside a beefy Black Irish-looking goon with shoulders almost as wide as Orbek’s and piercing blue eyes half-hiding behind his Prince-Valiant-meetsWhitesnake haircut. “What is it, Halloween?” “What’s Halloween?” “Ignore them.” I turned back to Orbek before they caught me looking. “Just another couple of assholes looking for trouble.”
“Trouble sounds like a plan,” Orbek said. “Guys dressed up like something they’re not need to get pounded.” “Other than me, right?” “You ain’t dressed like somebody famous. Just the opposite. That’s the point, hey?” “So far.” “So you get Whitey and I’ll take Blue Eyes.” “For fuck’s sake, Orbek, have you not being paying attention all these years? On this planet, you have to allow for the very real possibility those two guys look like Conan and Elric because they are Conan and Elric.” I kept my head down. “The Conan guy – how old does he look?” Orbek frowned judiciously. “Maybe forty. And change. Maybe almost old as you. Not so much grey, though. And he’s maybe eight times your size.” “How’s he dressed? “You see already – tunic and pants, belt, boots, broadsword and frogsticker. And his tunic fits like he maybe has light chainmail underneath.” I leaned my forehead against my tankard. It wasn’t cold enough to help. “If he’s faking, he knows what he’s doing. Most guys would be ten or fifteen years younger and wearing nothing but a breechclout, weapons and an assload of muscles.” “All the more reason, hey? How often do I get to kill somebody famous?” “Listen, goddammit – each of those guys is the deadliest man in his world. Not ‘one of.’ The. With a capital T.” “Don’t mean they’re deadliest in ours.” “Let’s skip testing it, huh?” “Like you say, little brother.” Orbek leaned back and laced his fingers together over the top of his skull-ridge. “Then I think maybe we might want to buy them a couple-three beers, hey?” “Are you pulling my dick? Why would –?” “Because they’re coming over.” I set down the tankard and tried to massage away my oncoming headache. “Weapons?” “Where they belong.”
“That’s something, I guess.” I shifted my other hand to the small of my back like my right kidney hurt, because my right kidney was just behind the grip of the Automag holstered inside my belt. “Let me know if either of them draws.” “No worries, little brother. Pretty friendly, they look. Both smiling.” “Yeah? Let me explain. These guys, when they smile – it’s like when I smile.” Orbek froze. “For real?” “Only worse. A lot worse.” “Uh. Wow. Okay.” “So no sudden moves, huh?” “No sudden nothing. Born lucky, me – but like you say: skip the testing.” I felt them come to a stop behind me. I took another drink. Who wants to die sober? “There’s a man or five around these parts who suggests you’d be the man to see, if I want someone killed.” The voice was deep as a lion’s cough, and the accent was a clipped drawl, like an Oxford don who’d spent half his life in Texas. “You look like you can handle most killings without my help,” I said into my tankard. “You say that without looking.” “I’m being polite. I’ve heard Amra, Lion of the Black Corsairs, has killed men for daring to meet his eye.” “You know who I am.” The drawl turned appreciative, and a little amused. “May we join you?” “Nice manners for a barbarian,” Orbek muttered. “Talks good too.” “Orbek, for fuck’s sake, the guy speaks like thirty languages. He’s being polite back, all right?” I nodded the Cimmerian toward the chair on my left. “Please. Can I offer you gentlemen a drink?” On my right, the Last Emperor of Melniboné showed me a mouthful of unpleasantly sharp teeth. “Allow me.” The albino flicked his long, inhumanly graceful fingers in a complicated flourish; a purplish mist coalesced above the tabletop, and when it evaporated there were four golden chalices standing there. The last of the mist twisted up from whatever liquid they held. Interesting. At the very least, a sign that I needed to pay closer attention.
Orbek’s eyebrows went up. “Grillswill.” “Swill?” “No insult intended, my lord,” I said. “Grillswill is just a word for a local spirit – a whiskey made from malted barley roasted over peat. We’re sure whatever you’ve provided is, y’know, superb. At least.” The albino showed me even more of those teeth as he sat down. “Such confidence, gentlemen, is warming to the heart.” I smiled back at him. No reason to tell him I caught the quote – he’d just think I was sucking up. “Warming for real?” Orbek said. “You got a heart?” “Orbek.” “What? Just asking. Not like he’s human or something.” He picked up his chalice and gave its contents a couple of good long snuffles, first with his left nostril then with his right. “Smells clean.” “Why would he bother with poison?” The Cimmerian leaned forward and downed half his chalice at a gulp. “If he wants you hurt, I’m right here.” “Huh. You drink pretty good for a little guy.” Orbek drained his chalice altogether, coughed once, unleashed a thunderous belch and slammed his chalice on the table. “Not regular grillswill, hey? Good flavor but kinda weak. You got more pretty clouds up your sleeve, I could have another.” Elric shrugged one shoulder half a millimeter or so, and Orbek’s chalice refilled itself. The albino looked me over, his eyes glittering with reflected flame. “Well?” I think the flames were reflected . . . but I suddenly couldn’t remember whether there were lamps behind me. So what the hell: I took a sip. “Oh, my god . . .” My voice came out low and hoarse. I took a bigger sip. “Oh, my god!” It was Laphroaig. The real stuff – Pride of Islay, 10 years old. None of this quarterbarrel sherry-cask bullshit. The real thing. “Wow. Thank you. Even if you kill me tonight. Thanks.” I knocked back the rest of my chalice too and thumped it down on the table. “So I guess that means you guys know who I am too.”
Conan grinned at me. “Let’s see. Dominic, and Shade. Jonathan Fist. K’thal the Betrayer. Enemy of God. Blade of Tyshalle. Right Hand of Ma’elKoth.” The flames in Elric’s eyes got brighter, and more red. “Prince of Chaos,” he murmured. “That’s my favorite.” Figures it would be. “There’s a few more. So look, before we do this,” I said, “can I say one thing?” They exchanged a shrug. I pulled the Automag and showed it to them. Just showed it. I didn’t point it at anybody. “Do either of you know what this is?” “Of course.” Elric’s teeth glittered almost as much as his eyes, and Conan didn’t look the slightest bit puzzled. “I just want to say that I didn’t come here looking for you two. Either or both. I’m not after you, and I really, really don’t want to fight you. Either or both.” “Fight?” Elric said. “You almost never fight. I respect that about you.” “Especially not against guys who know who I am and who have a fucking ocean of drop on me. And who have swords and armor and magic and probably other shit I can’t remember right now. If I were after you, I would have shot you both before you spotted me.” “Easy to say,” Conan muttered. “Yeah, the barbarian sixth sense thing, I know. For what it’s worth, okay? If somebody gets hurt here tonight, it won’t be because I started it.” I safetied the pistol and set it in the center of the table. “I know what I owe you. There’s nothing that can make me raise a hand against you. Either or both.” “Indeed?” Elric made a little circular stirring gesture with his forefinger, and my chalice was full of Laphroaig again. “And what do you owe us?” “Everything,” I said. It was the truth. “I wouldn’t even exist if not for you.” They exchanged another shrug. Conan lifted his chalice to me. “Unexpectedly honest.” “You know who I am. You probably know that lying to people is one of the things I’m not good at.” “It is said,” Elric murmured meditatively, “that you would rather kill a man than lie to him.”
“Like most of what’s said about me, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but yeah. Basically yeah. I am myself indifferent honest –” “Yet I could accuse me of such crimes, it were better my mother had not borne me,” Conan finished for me. I blinked. “You’ve read Shakespeare.” Conan hid a smile behind his up-tilted chalice. “I traveled with a troupe of players for a season once. I was to play the king in The Murther of Gonzago at Castle Elsinore, yet before my entrance – for we all have our entrances and exits, and strut and fret our hour upon the stage –” “Okay, now you’re just pulling my dick.” “Not unless he’s got three hands,” Orbek said. “This leather boy looks game, here, though – I mean, if you’re into that kind of action, hey?” “Orbek.” “Sorry. Yah yah. Sorry. Just sit here and drink good swill, me.” “Right.” I opened one hand toward Conan and the other toward Elric. “I grew up reading you guys. You made me who I am.” Elric finally took a sip from his chalice. “Is that a compliment or an insult?” Those shiny teeth were stained purple when he lowered the cup. Whatever he was drinking, it wasn’t Scotch. “You two, King Kull –” “A bore,” Conan said. “I was born at least partly because nobody gave a damn about him.” “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser –” “Who would have been here tonight,” Elric said, “save for an unfortunate occurrence relating to three prostitutes, a lich-king and some variety of whale-god –” “And Solomon Kane, and Dorian Hawkwood, Bran Mak Morn and – did you say,
whale god? Wait – they would have been here?”
“They lead complicated lives. As do you, my friend. It’s interesting that you mention Bran Mak Morn.” “It is?” “You favor him,” Conan told me. “Seriously. Older, of course – you could pass for his father.”
“What now, cracks about my age?” “You cannot deny that you’re a bit past, shall we say,” Elric murmured, “what humans would call your prime.” “Oh, sure, this from a guy who’s like, a thousand-seventy-nine or something.” “I am curious how you mention my good friend Solomon Kane,” Conan said, “and yet –” “You’re friends with Solomon Kane? He’d blow your balls off for being a pagan, wouldn’t he?” “I have a Get Out of Hell Free Card,” Conan said. “Care to see it? Signed by Dante himself.” “Come on.” “I did pass a year or two in Florence. Before the Renaissance – I can’t tolerate the Borgias. They ruined Italy for everybody.” “Now wait a second –” I shut my mouth so fast I almost chipped a tooth. Got them. Got them both. “This is only an informal chat,” Elric said. “Merely to acquaint ourselves, and to let you know your nomination is being considered.” “Nomination for what?” “To join our Company,” he said with a languid wave. “We once were the Company of Heroes – you know, Gilgamesh, Herakles, Theseus, Samson, Child of Water. These days our membership skews a bit to the anti side.” “Should never have let in Achilles,” Conan muttered. “Sure, he can fight – but what a stuck-up little prick. Whiny, too.” “So . . . what, this is, like, an interview?” Elric nodded. “How many people have you killed?” “Me personally? Or, y’know, bystanders and collateral damage?” I looked at Orbek. He gave me a baffled shrug. “Dunno,” I said. “I don’t exactly keep score. Six or seven hundred, probably.” Conan snorted. “Lightweight.” Elric sighed. “I’ve killed more in a single battle.” “Hey,” Orbek said. “What about our clan? Do they count?”
“Yeah, I blew open a river and killed maybe ten thousand Black Knives. Including bitches and cubs – uh, women and children.” Conan started to look interested. “On purpose?” “I was angry.” “This is more in the range that we’ve been expecting,” Elric said. “Now: kingdoms. Empires. Thrones in general. How many have you held?” “None.” “Oh, that’s not good.” “I’ve thrown a couple into wars by murdering the king. Once an emperor. And a count or two.” “We’ll call that a push,” Conan said. “A push?” Orbek sat up straight. “Cockknockers know who you’re talking to, you? My little brother kills gods –” “Gods.” Elric sounded bored. Conan sighed. “Are we counting gods now?” “Big talk. How many gods you kill, smart bitch?” “That would depend on what you mean by god.” Conan thought it over. “Four, I think.” “Counting the dragon-god in Red Nails?” I asked. “Five, then.” “Those ain’t real gods,” Orbek said. “Then ask Elric,” I suggested. “Go on. Ask.” “Yah, okay, skinny. How many?” “I?” Elric’s smile curved less than the blade of a razor. “Most of them.” A long silence. Orbek got very, very interested in the contents of his chalice. “Uh, okay.” “Moving on,” Conan said. “What about satire?” “I can be pretty sarcastic.” “Parody,” Elric said. “My friend here, for example, inspired the legendary Thrud.” “Not to mention Cohen the Barbarian,” Conan said enthusiastically. “If I have to get old, I want to get that kind of old.”
“I get it,” I said. “Elrod of Melvinbone, bearer of the enchanted blade Seersucker.” “The best-drawn of my many alter egos,” Elric purred. “And you?” “Not so much. I kind of am a parody.” “He’s just not funny,” Orbek said. “Depends who you ask.” “Let’s say I ask anybody who’s not you.” “Okay, so I’m more of an ironic commentary. Look, forget about that. How about cunning?” I asked. “Is that worth anything?” Conan shrugged. “It worked well enough for Odysseus.” “I don’t claim to be smart as Odysseus. But I am smart enough to know you two fuckers aren’t Conan and Elric. Company of Heroes, my blistering ass. You work for Suvudu. I already lost the fucking cage match. I thought I was done.” They exchanged a thoughtful look. “With the Suvidu,” Elric said, “you’re never done.” I went for the Automag, faster than hell but a hell of a lot slower than Conan. By the time my hand got to the party, the Automag was pinned to the tabletop through its trigger guard by twelve inches of poniard, on whose hilt was leaning about two hundred and sixty pounds of superhuman killing machine – but I’m fast too. Just in other ways. The superhuman killing machine grinned at me. “Let’s leave the pistol where it is.” “Sure,” I said, then flicked off the safety and shoved the Automag toward him barrel first. The poniard through the trigger guard worked just as well as my finger, maybe better. The Automag roared flame and metal, a three round burst that blasted Conan spinning backward out of his chair trailing a mist of vaporized blood. Elric kicked himself spinning away into a aerial backroll that brought him to one knee with both hands on the hilt of that back black sword and his head lower than the tabletop. “Don’t,” I said, but the tip of that poniard was really damn deep in the table, and me trying to wrench it out was less scary than having the Automag pointed at his face. Elric had his sword out and now all of a sudden it was two swords, as it kind of came apart in pieces that left him with a long needle-pointed dagger in one hand and in the other a long, elegantly curved rapier, and I knew who he was now because the dagger would be Scalpel and the rapier Cat’s Claw, and damn if he wasn’t even faster in person. He
launched himself toward me and my only chance to slow him was to abandon the poniard and the Automag and just flip the table into him. Hard. He crashed into the table and I encouraged the whole table-crash theme with a backspinning side kick to slam the table and him both back into the wall. He went down and the table went upside down on top of him and since my pistol was underneath with him I jumped as high as I could and came down on the table with both boots. It cracked, and didn’t do his ribs any favors either. He grunted and wheezed, “Thought you didn’t want to fight . . .” “This wasn’t a fight. This was friendly advice to leave me the fuck alone.” Conan, still on the ground because Orbek had him covered with his own pistol – which is a hell of a lot bigger than mine – was gasping blood from the mess the tristack shatterslugs had made out of his internal organs. “Hate to hear your unfriendly advice.” “The unfriendly advice I just pay somebody to mention in your eulogy. Take off the wig.” “Do I have to?” “Being gut-shot’s no picnic. Having your head blown off will be worse.” “So?” Orbek said. “Shoot him in the face?” “Not yet. You’ll only piss him off. He’s immortal.” “For real?” “For real. That’s the thing about this place. Yeah, they were dressed up like something they’re not – but they really are as deadly as the guys they were pretending to be.” “Huh. Go figure.” “If they hadn’t been worried about keeping up the act, they probably would have smoked us both.” “See? Born lucky, me.” I kneeled on the table and spoke to another of my personal heroes. “I’m gonna flip this table up far enough to fish out my pistol. Play nice, and we can all part as friends. Try anything and I pin you here while my brother shoots you to hamburger, then we feed your body to the dinner crowd.” “Perhaps,” he said thinly, “we can come to some sort of accommodation.”
“Exactly my idea.” We worked it out. He still looked like Elric, even if a bit rumpled. “How’d you know me?” “The first clue was the chalices. Automatically refill with your favorite drink? That’s Nehwon magic, not Melnibonéan. Lankhmar, in fact. And I’m taking mine with me.” “Too clever by half.” “Your weapons – pretty nifty piece of machining. Mikli the Artificer, right?” “You are entirely too well-informed.” “Eh. I should have known you on sight. There’s no way somebody could get Stormbringer that close to me without my knowing.” “Really?” Now he began to look interested. “Why is that?” “It’s because of screw you.” I gestured at the other one. “The wig.” Conan reached up and pulled that fine head of black hair off. Underneath, his crewcut was red as a ripe apple. “You knew me too?” “You weren’t even being careful. The Renaissance? Shakespeare? Come on. Next you’d be bragging about crucifying Jesus.” “That was Casca. I’m a little surprised to meet you, finally,” he said. “You’re darker than I expected.” “What, because of the name thing?” “Red hair, blue eyes,” he murmured, gesturing weakly at his own. “It’s the Mark of Cain.” “So I’m told. I do have a – well, let’s call him a close friend – who has red hair and blue eyes. But you’ll never meet him.” Orbek’s eyes were about a big around a coffee cups. I took pity on him. “He says Kane, I say Caine. K-A-N-E.” “Good,” Orbek said. “Things are screwy enough.” “So you two go back to the Suvudu and tell him, them, whateverthefuck, that unless he-they-it have an itch to take the kind of harm that doesn’t heal –” I was interrupted by a troop of spiders made out of ice. They decided to pop out of my buttcrack and go marching double-time up my spine and then spread out over my head, and of course they weren’t spiders or ice, but that’s how it felt, and I said, “Orbek.”
“Yah, little brother?” “Remember what I said about knowing if Stormbringer gets close?” “Yah . . .?” “I think I’m knowing.” “So if Conan and Elric walk into this bar –?” “We run like hell.” That troop of ice-spiders got bigger, and meaner, and I think they had crab claws or something, and I said, “And, y’know, why wait? We might need the head start.” “Now?” “Now.” We ran like hell.
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