|The only movement was the dancing torchlight; the only sound its soft
hiss. The two figures stood still as gargoyles. Then the woman tilted her
chin and regarded Conan with deep, brown eyes. "Are you a player, too?"
Conan nodded and they both lowered their swords. He could not stop looking
at her. She was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. She was
almost as tall as he and the eyes that regarded him were large and brown
as a fawn's. Her olive complexion was smooth as a dewy morning; her lips
were full and dark. From the leather headband across her forehead black
hair fell in waves past her shoulders, each curl shining like jet in the
dim torchlight. Her leather armor fit as if she had been carved of a single
She let her sword hang loosely in her right hand and put her left hand
on her hip as she looked Conan up and down. "Well," she said, "you'll never
get out of this level standing there with your mouth open." She switched
her sword and extended her right hand. "I am Julia."
Conan snapped his mouth shut and clasped her arm. Her grasp was firm;
her skin soft.
"Conan," he blurted.
"Have you any pets?" she asked.
"What?" he answered, thinking her voice had more of the mellow richness
of a recorder than a flute.
"I have two cats, named Spats and Bowtie. Had you a plan for escaping
Conan's mind snapped back to the problem at hand, escaping the Wizard's
muddy dungeons. "Well..." he said.
"Do you think that animals can think?" Julia asked. Without waiting
for a response, she strode off.
Confused, Conan followed her down what turned out to be a dead end.
She stopped before a glowing panel in the wall.
Something made the hair on the back of his neck prickle, but Conan was
sure Julia would not knowingly lead them into danger. "What is this?" he
"It is our salvation from these dungeons," Julia said, her eyes glowing
yellow in the reflection of the wall. "All you have to do is enter a credit
number. Do you have one?"
Conan looked at the wall. The glow was caused by a sign which read "EXIT,
enter credit number below." There was no other notation.
"We must not," Conan said. "It would not be a secure transaction."
Julia turned and brushed his cheek with her hand. "You want to escape,
"No," he said, "I mean, yes. But this is too dangerous."
Julia took a step back, looking disappointed, then as he watched, her
form started to shimmer and dissolve into brightness. Conan staggered back
to the wall and shielded his eyes with his hand. When he looked again,
the figure standing before him seemed normal. Too normal. Average height,
average coloring, average features. He (or maybe she) looked both strange
and familiar, as if he reminded Conan of everyone he knew, all at once.
And Conan did know him. "J!"
"So you recognize me. I am flattered. But I am so terribly disappointed
that you did not trust 'Julia.' I really put a lot of effort into that
"Crawl back to your hole. You have no power once unmasked."
"Oh, aren't we testy!" J smiled gleefully. "I did have you going there,
didn't I? Admit it."
Conan hung his sword back on his belt and reached instead for the leather
pouch. As he opened the drawstrings, J laughed.
"I am so glad you've decided to be reasonable," J said. "What treasure
do you have for me?"
Conan withdrew the amulet and held it at arm's length before J's startled
face. The word of power inscribed on it glowed: CRIV. J gave a little cry,
then his form started to shimmer and dissolve. With a hiss, he had vanished,
leaving only a slick of mud on the floor.
"Well done, Conan," boomed a deep voice behind him.
© 1997, by Hadley V. Baxendale