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Haggling in the Wasteland

by Rudi Dornemann

Sitting in the shade and relative cool of his yurt, the vulture keeper realized he had company. Someone was walking back and forth in the blaze of light and heat outside. The keeper hadn't heard a camel, and anyone crossing the waste on foot--well, they'd be crawling by now, if they were still moving at all. Which left only one possibility.

"If you're here to haunt," said the keeper, "save yourself the aggravation. I've got wards. Ground 'round here's full of quartz, so they'll hold."

"I'm just,” said a voice like a sigh, "here to talk."

"Don't particularly want to talk," said the vulture keeper. He went back to tuning his zither.

"You have something of mine," said the ghost. "Or you will, when your flock returns."

The keeper strummed and made his answer into a little tune. "Whatever they bring back, it's something of mine."

"It's a particularly valuable stone," said the ghost.

The keeper worked a troublesome string. "That's what I deal in: carbuncles (twang), snake stones (twang) -- any brain stone my vultures find (twang) and you wizards will buy." (twa-ng-ng-ng)

"I need you to deliver it to my heir-apprentice," said the ghost, "in the hidden city of Ar-Zellekan."

"I'm semi-retired. Only go as far as the caravanserai. Don't go to cities, even ones I can find." The keeper had tuned the last of the strings. "Give up and move on, little wisp. Like the priests say: rise up as rain and come down again in the Afterworld."

"My enemies will pay the merchants ten times its worth to kill you and take it."

The keeper stopped his strumming. "That seems..." he said, "unnecessarily harsh."

"The stone will bond with you by the time you reach the settlements," said the ghost. "They won't be able to use it with you alive."

"My retirement's getting shorter either way, although...” the keeper reached into his pocket for a zither pick, “this isn't my first retirement.”


The keeper strummed a complicated tune.

"You were a wizard, weren't you?"

"Wizard-king. Nearly wizard-emperor," said the keeper. "Had the skill; lacked the power." He stilled the zither's strings. "Guess that won't be a problem much longer. Just hope your heir knows some good war-spells."

"He's a pacifist," said the ghost, "like all our people. Perhaps I've exaggerated the stone's power."

"A hidden city would make a fine capital," said the keeper.

"The stone's strong, but not that strong," said the ghost. "Nothing special. Nevermind." He blew away with the next breeze.

"Good," said the keeper, and returned to his zithering.

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