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On a Pale Horse

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On a Pale Horse

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Author: Piers Anthony
Publisher: Del Rey, 1983
Series: Incarnations of Immortality: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Contemporary Fantasy
Avg Member Rating:
(55 reads / 19 ratings)


When Zane shot Death, he learned, too late, that he would have to assume his place, speeding over the world riding his pale horse, and ending the lives of others. Sooner than he would have thought possible, Zane found himself being drawn to Satan's plot. Already the Prince of Evil was forging a trap in which Zane must act to destroy Luna, the woman he loved... unless he could discover the only way out....


"Death," the proprietor said clearly, showing the stone. It was a bright red ruby, multifaceted, set in a plain gold ring. It was a full carat--large for this quality.

Zane shook his head, experiencing a chill. "I don't want that one!"

The man smiled, an obviously perfunctory and practiced expression reserved for wavering marks. He was well dressed, but somewhat sallow, in the manner of those who remained in the shade too long. "You misunderstand, sir. This fine gem does not bring you death. It does the opposite."

Zane was hardly reassured. "Then why call it--?"

"The Deathstone." Again that annoyingly patronizing shaping of the face, as the proprietor eased the ignorant concern of the balky customer. "It merely advises the wearer of the proximity of termination, by darkening. The speed and intensity of the change notifies you of the potential circumstance of your demise--in plenty of time for you to avoid it."

"But isn't that paradox?" Zane had seen such stones advertised, usually at prohibitive prices, but discounted the claims as marketing hyperbole. "A prophecy isn't valid, if--"

"No paradox," the proprietor said with professional certainty. "Merely adequate warning. You could hardly obtain a better service, sir. After all, what is more precious than life?"
"That presumes a person's life is worth living," Zane said sourly. He was a young man of no particular stature or distinction of feature, with acne scars that neither medication nor spot-spell had been able to eradicate entirely. His hair was dishwater brown and somewhat unkempt, and his teeth were unfashionably irregular. He was obviously a depressive type. "So it darkens, and you change your course, and you don't die. You figure the warning saved you. But it could be a random turning of the stone. Color-spells are a dime a dozen. No way to prove the prophecy was valid. On the other hand, if it fails to darken, and you die, how can you complain? You'll be dead!" He scratched distractedly at a scar. "If it's wrong, how do you get a refund?"

"You don't believe?" the proprietor asked, frowning expertly. Apart from his complexion, he was a moderately handsome man of early middle age whose hair was enchanted to carry a permanent chestnut wave. "I run a respectable shop. I assure you, all my spell stones are genuine."

"According to the Apocalypse, Death rides a pale horse," Zane said, warming to his melancholy. He evidently had some education in this area. "I question whether an inanimate object, a chunk of colored corundum, can stay that dread horseman so simply. Given the uncertainties of the situation, such a stone is of no practical use to the owner. He can only test it by seeing it turn, then refusing to change his course. If it is a valid prophecy, he is doomed. If it is not, he has been cheated. It's a no-win game. I have played enough of that type."

"I will provide you a demonstration," the proprietor said, perceiving a morbid streak that could make this customer vulnerable to an aggressive and properly slanted sales pitch. "Skepticism is healthy, sir, and you are obviously too intelligent to be deceived by defective merchandise. The value of the stone can be proved."

Zane shrugged, affecting indifference. "A free demonstration? Can it be worth more than I pay for it?"

The proprietor smiled more genuinely, knowing that his fish, despite evasive maneuverings, was halfway hooked. Truly uninterested persons did not linger to argue cases. He took the stone from the magically theft-proofed glass display case and proffered it.

Zane smiled quirkily and accepted the ring, putting it on the tip of his thumb. "Unless there's some immediate and obvious threat for the stone to point out--"

Then he was silent, for already the ring was turning. The bright red deepened to dark red, and then to opaque.

Zane's mind began to numb around the edges. Death--he had a deep guilt there. He looked at his left arm, feeling a spot of blood burning into the skin. He pictured the face of his mother as she died. How could he ever exonerate that memory?

"Death--within hours, suddenly!" the proprietor said, aghast. "The stone is absolutely black! I've never seen it turn so fast!"

Zane shook off his private specter. No, he could not afford to believe in this! "If I am to die within hours, I'll have no need of this stone."

"But you do need it, sir!" the proprietor insisted. "With the Deathstone you can change your fate. Hold it and decide on a new course, and if the color returns, you know it's right. You can save your life! But you have to have this fine magical ruby to guide you. To steer you away from death. Otherwise you will surely perish before the day is out. That warning is emphatic!"

Zane hesitated. The Deathstone was an impressive item now. It had, as it were, not minced words. But he had been thinking about death while holding the stone, and that could have made the color turn. Emotion-indicator spells were simple and cheap, hardly deserving the name of magic. There could be many things like that to give false readings. Still--

"How much?" he asked

"How much is life worth?" the propietor asked in return, with a certain predatory gleam in his eyes.

"About two cents, if this stone is right," Zane said grimly. Yet his heart was beating with nervous power.

"Two cents--per minute," the proprietor said, going into the closing spiel. "But this phenomenal and beautiful stone is available presently at a discount of fifty percent. I will sell it to you for a mere one cent per minute, including principal, interest, servicing, insurance--"

"How much per month?" Zane demanded, seeing himself getting reeled in.

The proprietor brought out a pocket calculator and punched buttons dexterously. "Four hundred and thirty-two dollars."

Zane stiffened. He had anticipated a high price, but this was impossible. A family could buy a good house for a similar figure!

"How long?"

"Only fifteen years or less."

"Or less?"

"In case the gem should miscarry, the insurance will pay off the balance owing, of course."

"Of course," Zane agreed with a wry quirk of his mouth. A miscarriage meant death, which meant a bum enchantment. They planned to collect their money regardless of the effectiveness of the Deathstone in protecting its owner. He performed a quick mental calculation and concluded he was being charged a little over seventy-five thousand in total. About two-thirds of that would be interest and other peripherals; still, it was a lot of money. A great lot! More, probably, than his life was worth. Literally.

"He handed back the ruby. Its color returned rapidly as the proprietor took it. In moments its special, deep shade of red glowed beautifully in the lighting of the shop. A ruby was indeed a lovely gemstone, even when it wasn't magic.

"What else?" Zane asked. He was shaken, but still wanted to find something that would help him.

"Love," the proprietor said immediately, bringing out a cloudy blue sapphire mounted on another gold ring.

Zane looked at the stone. "Love, as in romance? A woman? Marriage?"

"Or whatever." The proprietor's smile was not quite as warm as it had been, perhaps because of the misstep on the prior stone. He did not enjoy seeing fish slip the hook. This gem was probably less expensive, meaning a smaller profit. "This fine stone brightens at the prospect of romance of any kind. Sapphire, as you know, is chemically the same stone as ruby; both are corundum, but because the colors of sapphire are not as rare as those of ruby, the value is less. This is therefore a bargain. It will tune in to your romance; all you have to do is follow its signal until you score."

"Zane remained skeptical. "You can't find romance by zeroing in as if it's a target! There are social aspects, complex nuances of compatibility--"

"The Lovestone takes account of all that, sir. It orients on the right one, taking all factors into consideration. Left to your own devices, you are very likely to make a mistake, and suffer an unfortunate liaison, perhaps one that will become a grief to you. With this stone, that will never happen."

"But there could be many excellent combinations," Zane protested. "Many right women. How can a mere gem select among them?"

"Circumstances alter cases, sir. Some women are ideal for any man, with qualities of beauty, talent, and loyalty that make them highly desirable regardless of the variations in the males. But most of them are already married, as these qualities are readily perceived by the boy next door, lucky fellow. Others may be destined for some devaluing development, like a disfiguring illness or serious problems among their relatives. The Lovestone knows; it orients on the most suitable, most reliable, most available individual. It is unerring. Simply turn it to obtain the brightest glow and follow where it leads. You will not be disappointed." He held forth the blue sapphire. "One demonstration trial, sir."

"I don't know. If it's like the last one--"

"This is romance! How can you lose?"

Copyright © 1983 by Piers Anthony


On a Pale Horse

- Badseedgirl


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