by James Alan Gardner

To the writers of the Wooden Whale And to friend and former roommate Larry Hackman, who gave me the gloomy tag-line

And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.

— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

(Yes, Mr. Melville, I would. A cataract of sand, especially one the size of Niagara Falls, would be mind-bogglingly cool.)

The best is the enemy of the good.

— Voltaire


Thanks to Khalid Shaukat for calculating the Islamic date. Thanks to A. A. Milne for Zunctweed. Thanks to Howard Gardner (no relation) for his theory of multiple intelligences, reflected here in aspects of the way psionic powers work. Thanks to John McMullen and Anton Kostechne for creative uses of nanotechnology. Thanks to Derwin Mak for winning the auction and dying so colorfully. Thanks to Linda Carson, Richard Curtis, and Jennifer Brehl for the usual editorial advice.

Death Hotel really exists, and I'm glad I got the chance to put it into a story. My only regret is that I couldn't work in one other tidbit about the Hotel: it sits close to a pioneer cemetery with a special gate designed to prevent witches from stealing corpses. Two hundred years ago, witches were supposedly incapable of turning sharp corners, so the gate forced people to turn sharply several times on their way in or out.

It must have been a great annoyance to pallbearers.

Earth: Town of Simka, Feliss Province

One day before the spring equinox

2457 A.D.


It began, as many things do, in a tavern: about eight o'clock on a Friday evening, in The Pot of Gold on Post-Hoc Lane in Simka. Contrary to its end-of-the- rainbow name, The Pot of Gold was a dreary blood-clot of a place — the sort of vomitous swill-hole where the lamps had to be locked in wire cages to prevent drunks from swigging the kerosene, where the tapman's only insurance policy was a trio of flintlock pistols worn on a grease-smudged bandoleer, and where the Steel Caryatid squashed a cockroach ‹BANG› with her tankard before asking, 'Why would anyone go on a quest?'

'For glory,' said Sir Pelinor.

'For God,' said Sister Impervia.

'For kicks,' said Myoko Namida.

'For Gretchen Kinnderboom,' said I, 'provided the task didn't take too much effort, and Gretchen promised to be extravagantly grateful.'

The Caryatid slapped my foot (which was propped on the table beside her). 'Be serious, Phil,' she told me. 'I'm talking about real, honest-to-goodness quests, not trotting down to Dover-on-Sea to fetch peach-scented soap.'

I sat up straighter. 'They've got a new supply of peach-scented soap?'

'Vanity, vanity,' murmured Sister Impervia, whose own taste in soap could be described as 'The more lye, the better.'

'We're talking about quests,' said the Caryatid, 'and I don't understand why a sane person would go on one. Not that anyone at this table qualifies as sane.'

Sir Pelinor socked on his mustache, producing a wheezy, bubbling sound that was amusing the first time I heard it, irritating the next dozen times, totally maddening the three hundred times after that, and now a source of complete indifference. 'Depends what you call a quest,' he said. 'Suppose a village hereabouts was having trouble with a largish animal — a bear, perhaps, or a cougar. I wouldn't call it insane to gather a few friends and go hunt down the beast.'

'Especially,' Myoko added, 'if the villagers offered a reward.'

'Or suppose,' Sister Impervia said, 'a gang of heathen bandits stole St. Judith's jawbone from the academy chapel. Wouldn't we be honorbound to organize a party and retrieve the saint's remains?'

The Caryatid made a face. 'Those aren't quests, they're errands. You'd leave such business to the town watch… if Simka had a real town watch, instead of Whisky Jess and the Paunch That Walks Like a Man. I'm not talking about junkets to the countryside, I mean real live quests.'

'What qualifies as a real live quest?' Myoko asked. 'Finding the Holy Grail? Slaying the Jabberwock?'

'Saw a Jabberwock once,' Sir Pelinor said with another mustache-suck. 'Rusty mechanical thing in the remains of an OldTech amusement park. Four hundred years ago, parents paid for their kiddies to ride its back. No wonder OldTech society collapsed — if I'd seen that monster when I was a child, I wouldn't have slept again till I was twenty.'

'I don't care about your Jabberwock,' the Caryatid said. 'I don't care about quests at all.'

'Then why,' Myoko asked, 'do you keep talking about them?'

'Because,' the Caryatid answered, staring moodily at the cockroach guts on the table, 'this afternoon I had a sort of a prophecy kind of thing.'

'Uh-oh,' said the other four of us in unison… even Sister Impervia, who's theologically obliged to treat prophecies as Precious Gifts From Heaven. We all knew the Caryatid had flashes of second sight; alas, her gift of prophecy only raised its head when something really ugly was about to happen.

I won't bother you with the full story of how the Caryatid got this way, but here's the gist: twenty years ago, when she still had a normal name and was doing her bachelor's in thaumaturgy, the Caryatid got shanghaied into a necromantic experiment run by a grad student. Like most sorcerous projects, this one required a long disgusting ritual… and partway through a procedure involving two tubs of lard and a hand-puppet, the grad student lost his nerve and ran shrieking from the room. Our friend Caryatid managed to slide off the pony and shut down the calliope before she could be incinerated by eldritch forces; but the experience gave her a serious sunburn and an incurable case of the premonitions.

Personally, I have nothing against premonitions if they provide useful information about the future… like whether your partner has a stopper in spades, or if Gretchen Kinnderboom will be in a forthcoming mood two weekends hence. But the Caryatid never foresaw anything helpful; she only perceived disasters, and then only when it was too late to avert them.

An illustrative example: at Feliss Academy's most recent staff party, all of us teachers had just finished dinner when a trout skeleton on the Caryatid's plate proclaimed, 'You're sure going to regret eating me.' The entire faculty rose as one, hied ourselves to the closest commode, and desperately stuck our fingers down our throats. Alas, to no avail — everyone from the chancellor down to the lowest lecturer in Latin literature succumbed to a dose of the trots.

If the Caryatid had received another vision of the future, the only sensible response was bowel-chilling dread. We therefore sat in clenched silence for at least a count of ten before anyone mustered the nerve to speak. Finally, it was Pelinor who ventured to ask the obvious: 'So, er… what did this sort of a prophecy kind of thing say?'

'Well…' The Caryatid kept her gaze on the crushed cockroach rather than making eye contact with the rest of us. 'I was in the lab cleaning up after Freshman Class 4A—'

'May they burn in hell for eternity,' Sister Impervia said.

We looked at her curiously.

'It's book report week,' she explained.

We all said, 'Ahh!'

'I was cleaning up after Freshman 4A,' the Caryatid resumed, 'and I peeked into the crucible of Two-Jigger Volantes… you know him?'

We nodded. I had no direct acquaintance with the unfortunate Mr. Volantes, but word gets around. The Freshman collective unconscious had appointed Two- Jigger the Official Class Goat — the brunt of their jokes, the person nobody sat with at mealtimes, and the one whose underclothes were most often on display atop the school's flag pole.

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