Here in this silent. alien world, far from the streets of Chicago, the trap was shutting around him. He had felt it ever since the start of the run,and now his mounting sense of danger seemed to have reached some critical point.
He sensed that, here in this damned jungle, he was going to die.
The calm of the jungle made the foreboding the more unbearable. Dorin could live with the idea of death by a sudden bullet because the touch-and-go business of the streets might turn against him, but in this infinitely patient jungle, the wait was agonizing. What was he doing here? The city was where he belonged, the streets, whose staccato rhythm matched that of his own body, spirit, and magic.
He stared down through the cockpit window at the ocean of jungle vegetation rolling as far as the eye could see. As his hired pilot skimmed the Federated Boeing tilt-wing just over that ocean of green, the hypnotic, dull buzz of the rotors sent his mind drifting back over the past several days.
It had all begun when Solomon Daniels, his Fixer in Chicago had contacted him. Daniels, who supplied Dorin’s talismonger shop with fetishes and other magical supplies, had discovered the source of his own supplier’s fetishes. The corp with whom Daniels did business could not have realized the value of such information or they would have guarded it more closely. With knowledge of sources, a customer could bypass his middleman, even if that middleman were a large corp. What Solomon learned was that two primitive communities in the South American jungles were the source of the fetishes. The local shamans made and sold them to the supply corp for almost nothing. Hey, see a buck, make a buck, Dorin thought. Such was the will of Coyote.
So it was that Solomon hired Dorin to make a run into the jungle to buy up as many fetishes as possible at the low wholesale price. Dorin had jumped at the chance. He liked the thrill of a run, and swiping the fetishes out from under the noses of the corp buyers appealed to his spirit. Though the first premonition of doom had stirred even then, Dorin ignored it as mere jitters. But on every step of the run, the feeling grew more intense until it was almost tangible. He felt like an ant caught in an ant lion’s trap, sliding inexorably down through the sand into the jaws of death.
He tried to shake it off, thinking he must stop taking everything so seriously. Just then, the pilot said something in what could have been either -Spanish or Portuguese, and pointed out across the jungle. It was their destination, the little village of thatched roofs enclosed like an island in the ocean of green.
They’d already made quite a haul at the first village, and Dorin was expecting to totally pack the rotorcraft’s cargo with plunder from this one. But he also hoped there’d be no repeat of his strange reception at the first village.
The pilot had landed the F-B in a clearing near the first village, and Dorin had hopped out to greet the villagers even before the rotors stopped turning. He had been smooth, rehearsed, and prepared with a smattering of the tribe’s dialect. When the shamans appeared, they received him with supreme politeness mixed with caution. But when they thought he wasn’t looking, Dorin caught them giving him odd stares, especially one shriveled husk of a man whose beady eyes never left Dorin. The deal went off without a hitch, the shamans not even attempting to negotiate. At first. he thought it was because they didn’t know he would have paid more, then he suddenly realized that they were afraid of him. They wanted him to leave, and quickly.
While the villagers loaded up the plane, Dorin couldn’t help but look back at the old man with the beady eyes. Wrapped in a faded blanket, the weathered shaman continued to gaze intently at Dorin. But the look was one of sympathy, perhaps pity. Then the man’s eyes filled and a single tear ran down one creased cheek,driving Dorin’s sense of spiritual doom deep into his soul.
Again, he tried to shake it off. The old man had no right to pity him, he thought angrily. Why were they treating him like this? Nothing had happened and nothing would. He wanted to go up to the old shaman and scream, “Stop looking at me like I’m a ghost!And don’t pity me. I don’t want your pity and I don’t need it!” But by then, the villagers had finished loading the cargo, and Dorin didn’t want to risk an outburst that no one would understand anyway.
A cry from his pilot brought him back to the present. What happened next seemed to go in stop motion as though the light from the sky were a dance floor strobe light. What the pilot saw was a sleek silver and blue jet fighter that knifed through the clouds like a bolt of lightning, then whistled down. A missile dropped from under the fighter’s wing, and for one long moment, hung in the sky. Then reality accelerated as the missile fired and blazed toward the rotorcraft. Dorin’s pilot jerked frantically at the craft’s controls, but the missile struck.
The concussion threw Dorin forward against his safety belt and slammed his head into the cockpit window, dazing him.The rotorcraft was completely out of control, spinning in a mad vertigo. He tried to concentrate on a spell, but his head throbbed from the window impact. He could hear the rotorcraft smashing through vegetation in its descent, and he tried to brace for impact. When it came, the pilot’s side of the plane slammed into the ground, buckling the metal. The breath was torn from Dorin’s lungs on impact.
The aircraft slid to a halt. carving a long furrow in the jungle floor. The rotorcraft just lay there on its side, with Dorin buckled in his seat and suspended above the ground. As he gasped painfully for breath, he caught traces of the smell of smoke. Glancing down, Dorin saw the pilot lost in a twisted mangle of sheet metal and flesh. Smoke billowed around him as an electrical fire crackled from behind in the remains of the aircraft, but the door above Dorin had buckled on impact and sealed. Concentrating his will, he felt a surge of magic course into his hand, knitting the flesh into tough leather and then into a hard enamel. With a punch, his hardened hand smashed through the cockpit window, shattering the glass in a wave on concentric rings. He hammered on the window several more times until the entire frame of glass popped out, then he dropped the spell. His head already ached with needles of pain from the effort of sustaining magic. Choking on the smoke now pouring through the shattered window, Dorin unbuckled his safety belt and climbed through the window.
He slid down the nose of the aircraft and staggered several meters away, where he slumped down against a tree. Panting heavily as his muscles quivered with remaining adrenalin, he touched his aching head and felt his hair wet with something warm and sticky. When Dorin took his hand away, his fingertips were smeared with crimson. He was certain he must have some kind of concussion.
Through his dazed state, Dorin tried to evaluate the situation. The jet that had shot him down must certainly belong to the corp he’d been sent to undercut, and they would certainly come looking for the wreckage of his rotorcraft. They must have discovered Dorin’s visit to the first village and mobilized to catch him at the second. The situation looked bleak. They couldn’t be far off,and he had no food and only his urban survival skills in the middle of a jungle. He had a probable concussion, too, with no spell to cure it.
But Thomas Dorin laughed. Hadn’t he cheated death? A presentiment of spiritual doom had screamed death from the start of this run,and he had cheated it. For once,his Coyote spirit was wrong. This, ironically, gave him strength. He was a survivor. He would continue to face the challenges before him and survive. He considered conjuring a spirit to conceal the wreckage, but it would take too much out of him to call up a spirit powerful enough to conceal the crash site. Instead, he stood up and prepared to set off east toward the ocean. In a brief flash, the sense of foreboding returned stronger than ever, but Dorin dismissed it fearlessly and began to walk.
Delirium soon replaced any other thoughts as physical exertion made his head injury worse. One day passing into the next, he could barely distinguish between hallucination and reality. Stumbling through the heavy vegetation, it was as though he moved through a surreal world of dreams. He had lost any desire for food or water and any conscious sense of direction, yet he felt drawn toward some goal. And all the while, his Coyote spirit warned him of death. Now he was sure it was his totem, not just some sixth sense. At times, he would follow phantom coyotes through the jungle only to end up walking In circles, or worse yet, continue to plod on toward his nameless goal.
After the eighth day, Dorin’s physical and spiritual re- sources gave out and he collapsed. He was passing through an area overgrown with vines, but it felt as though his body were touching something made from stone. Before he could wonder about that. he slipped or was pushed into the astral plane. His astral form , so different from Dorin’s ripped muscular physique, dressed in the flashy clothes he favored, was naked and emaciated. And yet, he seemed to perceive everything so clearly and consciously. The stone monument before him had a clear astral image that radiated strong magic. The monument was an unmarked pyramid four meters high and just as wide. A phantom coyote identical to those he had chased through the jungle appeared alongside him. As Dorin watched, the coyote’s fur began to move, almost to writhe. Peering closer at the astral form, he saw that the coyote was swarming with large warrior ants, each one the size of one of Dorin’s thumbs, and with square heads and thick mandibles. As the coyote looked sadly at him, for an instant Dorin saw its face replaced by that of the old shaman with the beady eyes and tears of pity. Then the phantom uttered a long and lonesome howl. As the mournful sound died away, the coyote collapsed . Immediately, the ants devoured its body, and the phantom corpse soon disappeared under the writhing mass of insects. All the while, Dorin experienced the scene as though through time-elapsed photography. When the body was gone, Dorin felt empty inside and knew that he had not escaped. The trap had shut around him.
And then the ants began to pour over him, burrowing into his skin and rooting out great chunks of his astral flesh. But he was like a spectator, watching it all happen, his consciousness removed from the destruction of his astral body. The ants carried the bits and pieces of his astral form up Into the pyramid, with several carrying each rib and a swarm carrying his bare skull. As the procession reached the top of the monument, it began to disappear down through a hole into the pyramid. At that point, Dorin’s clarity of vision seemed to dim. He wasn’t sure exactly, but perhaps it was that the ants were rebuilding his astral body in the murky interior of the pyramid.
Then he understood. Power. They offered him power. Real power, not just the freedom of that stupid Coyote. The possibilities danced before him, dark sparks glowing with energy. A figure danced before him. Young and beautiful, she was everything he had ever wanted. With this new power, he would have her. She would be his, she would be his Queen.
Thomas Dorin threw back his head and laughed as the sparks danced around him.
She would be his Queen.