Twilight Jack's seen many a year

                        He's ridden the comets; he's traveled the spheres

                        He laughs all the time but he's never known joy

                        With the soul of an ancient and the form of a boy


                                  Chapter Three


            His real name wasn't Jack, that was just the name the Storyteller gave him.  Even Jack himself had forgotten his real name.

            Twilight Jack had lived for over seven thousand years.

            He was a normal human, perfectly ordinary in every way except one:  he couldn't seem to die.  In his seventeenth year he had simply stopped aging.  Physically, anyway.

            He never learned why it happened.  He consulted mage after mage, but he wasn't under any ensorcelment they could discover.  He sought out priests of half a hundred deities; they told him he wasn't cursed.  He spoke to scientists of fifty different races; even the gnomes told him it wasn't a physiological condition.  He wasn't possessed by some strange outerplanar entity; he hadn't been exposed to some unknown substance with youthful side effects; he hadn't passed through a wild magic zone; he hadn't offended any gods; he hadn't stepped in something.  In short, he hadn't done anything to gain immortality.  It had just happened.

            Perhaps most people would have regarded immortality as the ultimate gift.  And, for a time (the first few millenia or so) it wasn't too bad.

            But eventually the novelty died.  Jack was human, after all, and there are some things the human mind just isn't meant to cope with.  Like immortality.

            There weren't many creatures in the multiverse as long-lived as Jack.  A few dragons, some undead, and the gods themselves.  In his time he had seen empires rise and fall, had seen new races born and old ones become extinct, had even seen his own family line die out.

            And eventually, as the millenia took their toll, Jack was not truly human anymore.

            Jack was not a good man.  In his time he had tried nearly every vice that had a name.  And some that hadn't.

            In his defense, he was not a particularily evil man either.  He had tried the virtues as well.

            But he tired of both, in time.  If he had been born a truly evil man he would have set out to conquer the universe.  If he had been born good he would have set out to rid the universe of evil.  (After all, eternity is a long enough time to accomplish both.)  But since he was neither, he was left with nothing to fill the boredom.

            So he became an assassin.

            Through the course of his life he had, at one time or another, done nearly every type of work there was to do.  But the career and lifestyle that suited him best was killing.  And, at killing, he was the best there was.

            He wasn't much on traditional methods, however.  He enjoyed a good manhunt too much to simply knife an unsuspecting victim from behind, or slip poison into someone's drink.  He could do these things, of course, and had at one time or another, but that wasn't his style.  He liked to let his victims know he was after them long before he struck.   That way they might run.  And a manhunt was one of the few things which never seemed to bore him.

            Of course, there was also the hope that someone would get lucky and kill him.

            Which was how he came to be on Ch'brothil, a trading satellite in Trispace.

            There never was a reasonable explanation for the success of Ch'brothil.  A two-bit moon circling an uninhabited world in a backwater sphere on the edge of known space, it probably should never existed.  But somehow the refuse of the known universe seemed to find its way here, and from the day of its founding, Ch'brothil had thrived.

            There was no law here.  Ch'brothil had started as a haven for pirates and smugglers, and had only gotten worse since then.  Thieves and thugs roamed the narrow and winding alleyways, looking for easy pickings, while prostitutes displayed themselves beneath the lamplights.

            Jack slipped through the streets like a panther, and the pickpockets and cutthroats gave him wide berth.  They knew a dangerous man when they saw one.  He paid them no heed.  He was coming to the end of a hunt today; he was going to kill a man.

            The Spacer's Cat was a run-down ramshackle excuse for a tavern that anywhere else would be abandoned.  Here of course it was bustling.  Jack looked it up and down once before entering.

            "You have to be over twenty to come in here, boy." said a man at the door.  He was a sour older man with bad teeth and a thinning pate.  Jack didn't answer.  He dealt with this almost everywhere he went.  If the man pressed it further, Jack would kill him.

            The man grunted as Jack passed him, but made no movement to stop him.

            The place was filled nearly to bursting, and the noise level was high; raucous laughter and bawdy singing seemed to fill the air.  Clouds of tyboc smoke were everywhere, burning the eyes and assailing the lungs.

            Jack scanned the crowd.  It was the usual assortment of debris one could to expect to find:  drunks, traders, miners, ladies of ill repute, pirates, outlaws, even a few non-human species.  Just because humans had invented these sorts of establishments didn't mean other races didn't enjoy the vices they provided.

            "Hello there, little boy," said a prostitute provocatively, sauntering towards him and draping her arm over his shoulder.  "First time out in the big bad world?  Let momma show you how it's done.  You need a mature woman."

            Jack only looked at her.  She saw his eyes, and backed away as if she'd been bitten.

            Jack had already forgotten her.  He'd spotted his quarry.

            The man was at one of the gaming tables, just where he'd expected him to be.  Casually Jack approached.

            The game was Flow, a complicated card game that had originated somewhere out near Wryspace and which made use of a one-hundred and ten card deck.  There were four players at the table:  two rough-looking miners who looked enough alike to pass for brothers, a foppishly dressed elf who looked faintly familiar, and the man Jack was after, an unkempt man with a starwheel pistol laying next to his hand and a malicious look in his eyes.

            "Gentlemen," said Jack, approaching.  "I see there is room for another player at your table.  I wonder if I might join you?"

            "Table's full, runt," grunted one of the miners without looking up.  "Go home to mommy."

            Casually Jack reached down and grasped the man by the wrist, wrenching him from his chair and sending him hurtling across the room.  The surprised miner's head connected solidly with the baseboard of the bar, and he slumped unconscious to the floor.

            "I believe there is a place open now," said Jack, sitting.  "I trust no-one else objects?"

            No-one else did.  The boisterous room had hushed.  All eyes were on Jack now, and more than one hand lingered near a weapon.  Jack was pleased.  The manuever he had used on the miner was a simple trick of manipulating an opponent's body, not a measure of brute strength, but to the untrained eye it was always impressive, and intimidating.

            The starwheel pistol had disappeared from the table; no doubt the man was holding it in his lap.

            "I suppose," said the elf after a moment, "introductions are in order."  He was perhaps the only one in the room who seemed not the least affected by the sudden display, and was shuffling the cards calmly, as if the exchange between Jack and the miner were something he saw every day.  "My name is Julian Sandstar.  The gentleman to my left," he indicated the remaining miner, "is Brond Gravlin, I believe.  And the gentleman to my right-"

            "Randal Pierce," finished Jack.

            Pierce shifted in his seat.  "Do we know each other, mister?"  He certainly hadn't expected anyone in this system to know his real name.

            Jack smiled.  "Only by reputation, I'm afraid.  I go by Jack.  Twilight Jack.  I'm the man who's been chasing you through the last three spheres."

            The starwheel was out now, staring Jack in the face.  "You!" said Pierce.

            "Well, this is interesting," said the elf, sitting back.

            "You're the one the neogi put on me!" accused the man.  "You came here to kill me!"  His hand shook slightly.

            Jack lifted the cards which had been dealt to the man he had unseated.  Carefully he arranged them.  "A good hand, I think, though I'm not well-acquainted with the game."

            "Jettison games!" swore Pierce.  "They sent you to hunt me down!  Tell me why I shouldn't end your miserable existance right here and now!"

            Almost lazily Jack's hand lashed out, seizing the pistol in one motion and backhanding Pierce with the next.  The movement was so swift that Pierce could do little more than reel backwards.

            "Excellant make," remarked Jack, examining the weapon closely.  He still held the cards in his other hand.  "Dwarvish?"

            "Giff," muttered Pierce thickly, one hand cupping the left side of his face.  A tiny dribble of blood was oozing from the corner of his mouth.

            "Ah!" said Jack, delighted.  "Giff work.  I must have it.  How much do you want for it?"

            Pierce stared suspiciously across the table.  "Keep it," he muttered at last.

            "You're certain?" asked Jack.  "It must be very valuable."

            "Consider it a gift," said the man sardonically.

            Jack placed the pistol back on the table.  "Well, then.  Back to business.  How much do you value your life?"

            "I haven't any money, assassin."  Pierce sounded resigned to his fate.  "I can't buy you off.  Go ahead and finish it."

            "I had in mind a game of chance.  You didn't lead me much of a chase, but I'm in a generous mood."

            Pierce was suspicious.  "What do you mean?"

            "I mean this game.  Do you have a good hand?"

            The man bit his lip, not certain whether he was being made sport of.  "It's not bad," he said at last.

            "Then let's play this hand through.  If you win, then I'll let you go free and give you a two week headstart before I come after you.  If not, well, today's as good a day to die as any."

            "Look," protested Pierce suddenly, "I don't deserve to die!"

            "Everybody deserves to die," said Jack flatly.  "I know that better than anybody.  In the end it's a luxury."

            "So I killed a few neogi, so what?  Surely you can't blame me for that!  They're slavers, cannibals!"

            "I didn't ask why they wanted you dead.  It was enough that they were willing to pay for it."

            Pierce shook his head violently.  "You can't take their side!  You know what they are!  Most people would probably give me a medal for what I did!"

            "Most people probably would.  Are we going to play?"

            Pierce's voice took on a desperate tone.  "Look, if it's money, I can raise it.  I don't know how, but I'll find a way."

            "It's not money."

            "What then?  What do you want me to do?"


            Pierce stared across the table at Jack for several moments, then looked down at the starwheel.  The pistol was within reach, if he were fast enough.  He looked back up at Jack again, hoping for some sign of sympathy or compassion.  He saw death, cold and simple, and realized that his life was riding on the hand he had been dealt.

            Finally he reachd for the cards which were laid face down before him.  Gingerly he lifted them, one at a time, his hand trembling.  A bead of sweat appeared on his forehead and his brow furrowed with concentration.  He scrutinized them as if they held the very secret of the multiverse.

            Jack glanced down at the hand he held.  "I hold."  Flow was a complex game which relied on many factors, including the sphere in which it was played, the number of players, the race of the player, and the local standard time.  A player was dealt a hand of thirteen cards, five to seven of which he could play at any time (depending on the variables).  He could sacrifice up to three cards, asking for more in hopes of improving his hand, or he could play what he was dealt.

            Pierce took a long moment to look at his cards again before pulling four from his hand and flipping them onto the table.  The Queen of the Arcane, the Ancient Mariner, the Dreamslayer, the Zodar.  Only the Zodar and the Ancient Mariner were powerful cards, but in combination with the others it formed a Triumph, one of the most powerful hands in the game.  It was very nearly unbeatable.

            Jack smiled.  Slowly he laid down his own cards.  The Flowfiend, the 13 of  Scro, the Comet Stallion, the Sun Dragon, and the 7 of Voids.  Each one more powerful than the one before.  But while each of them was extremely powerful in its own right, together they served only to neutralize each other.

            "Nothing," muttered Pierce after a moment.  "You've got nothing!"  He looked up at Jack suspiciously, uncertain.

            Jack shrugged.

            "I've won," said Pierce in disbelief.  "I've won!"

            He kept looking from the cards to Jack, as though he couldn't quite believe what he'd seen.

            "Excuse me," said the elf.  "I believe there were others involved in this game?"

            Jack considered him for a moment, then nodded.

            "Then I suppose, gentlemen, that I'd better play my hand as well."

            "Wait a minute!" said Pierce, "This doesn't concern you!  This was between me and him!"

            "Play on," said Jack to the elf.

            "That's not fair!" cried Pierce.

            "You have a strong hand.  You still might win.  Play on, gentlemen."

             "I believe order of play dictates Brond plays next," said the elf, indicating the remaining miner.

            Brond, who had been sitting very still and watching in silence, maintained that he had no hand at all and folded without once looking at the cards he was dealt.

            "Very well," stated the elf indifferently, "I suppose that leaves only me."  He spread his hand out.  The Sentinel, the Autarch of Irya, the 9 of Demons, and the Rock.

            An inarticulate cry escaped Pierce's lips as he caught sight of the last card and he leaped to his feet, his chair tumbling behind him.

            His hands flew to his throat and his mouth opened in a soundless scream.  He bent forward at the waist, then jerked spasmodically backwards, landing heavily on the floor.  His face had turned a splotchy purple and his tongue, which was black and at least twice its normal size, protruded from his mouth.  His heels began to drum on the floor and his arms flailed wildly as if he were having a fit.

            A moment later he was still, eyes staring sightlessly upward.

            "You lose," said Jack.

            Brond leaped from his seat in horror, staring down at the corpse.  He looked back at Jack in almost superstitious dread, then backed away from the table, crossing himself in a religious sign Jack was not familiar with.

            "Shall we play another hand?" asked the elf, shuffling the cards expertly.  "Perhaps for higher stakes?"

            "I've lost interest in the game," said Jack, rising.

            "That's too bad," said the elf, "because I think I have something you want."

            Jack paused, considering.  "I suppose it's possible."

            "Splendid!  Then perhaps  we might find somewhere more private.  What I have to offer you is... sensitive."

            Jack shrugged, sitting down again slowly.  "I've got nothing to hide from anyone.  Have you?"

            "Many things," chuckled the elf.  "Many things.  I believe I introduced myself a moment ago.  My name is Julian Sandstar."

            "Well, Julian, I doubt you have anything to offer me, but I'll listen.  You interest me."

            "How so?"

            Jack shrugged.  "You haven't twitched since the moment I sat down.  Most people tend to get nervous around me.  And then there's the game.  Why did you do it?"

            "Do what?"

            "Play.  You must have known you would win.  I was willing to let Pierce live."

            The elf smiled.  "I know something of your reputation.  I wanted to see you kill a man."


            He gave a laugh.  "And, I have to confess, I didn't see a damn thing.  You're every bit as good as they say you are.  How did you kill him, by the way?"

            Jack shrugged.  "Poison.  Tritlych-sethret, to be precise.  It's found in on the fourth moon of Minbar, in Ramspace."

            Julian looked down at the body.  "I kind of guessed it would be poison.  I was wondering more how you administered it."

            Jack shook his head.  "Trade secret.  It's like the art of illusion; never quite as impressive once you know how it's done."  Actually, there was a poison-coated needle on his left boot.  When Pierce had started to rise, Jack had kicked him under the table.  The poison was painful, but swift to take effect.

            The elf was disappointed, but only slightly.  "Ah well, the point is immaterial.  You're good, every bit as good as I've heard."

            "Why the concern with my prowess?  Are you thinking of taking me on?"

            Julian laughed.  "Me?  Heavens no!  I'm no killer!   I'm a gambler - arguably the finest gambler in the multiverse.  Which is why I wanted to see you in action, to see if my first instinct was correct."


            "It was.  You're the horse to back in the coming race."

            "What race is that?"

            "The Raver."

            There was a pause.  Then:  "I'm listening."

            Julian smiled.  "I know how to find him."

            Jack considered.  "I'm no bounty hunter.  Why would I want to find him?"

            "Because you haven't found him yet," said Julian.  "Remember, I know your reputation.  You won't let this opportunity pass you by."

            The elf had a point.  There weren't many things Jack hadn't seen over his lifetime.  The Raver was one of those things.  It had become a hobby trying to track the mand down, one that Jack had returned to again and again.

            "I'm not even certain the Raver really exists," Jack said finally.  That was true, although it would be a great disappointment if the Raver did not.

            "If he doesn't, then you can settle that once and for all.  But you don't really believe he's just a myth, do you?"

            "And you've got a lead on him."

            "That's right."

            "What do you want out of it?"

            The elf spread his hands expansively.  "I'm a gambler, remember?  I trust my instincts.  And my instincts tell me to go after the Raver.  So I give you the lead, and you help me get there."

            "Why do you need me?"

            Julian laughed again.  "Forgetting for a moment that an encounter with the Raver might prove life-threatening, there are certainly a fair number of people on his trail who would end my existance - painfully - in order to keep me from achieving my goal.  I've already told you that I'm no killer.  You have the necessary skills to take care of the competition, in addition to whatever challenges the Raver himself might throw our way."

            Jack thought for a moment.  "And why should I take you?  What's to stop me from 'ending your existance' once you've told me what your lead is?"

            "I think I'll trust your word.  Besides, you said I interested you.  As long as I keep you from becoming bored, I'd say I could expect to live a good long life."

            "Very well," said Jack, "I'll take you up on your offer."  He stood.  "And long life is greatly overrated.