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What do you hate and fear the most? I know a girl who gags and throws up at the mere sight of a bird. Poor kid, when she was a barefoot moppet she stepped on a fledgling robin in the grass. She hasn't gotten over the squish of it yet.

Birds don't trouble me. I can look at them all day. It takes snakes to give me the green shudders. I hate them.

She was getting better at them, I decided. This was the fourth one since breakfast and the roughest-looking of the lot. It was a diamondback rattler, and lay coiled on the rug at my feet. I turned my swivel chair slowly back to my desk and riveted my eyes to the blotter. Snakes are ghastly things. But there was no future in letting them shake me up.

I bent over in my swivel chair and swung my left arm like a flail just below this rattler's raised head. He struck at me, but late, and missed. The swipe I took at him should have swept him over, but he got his coils around me. When I heaved back up straight before my desk, he was as neatly wrapped around my forearm as a Western Union splice.

Enough of his tail was free to make that buzz that means "Look out!" About a foot of his business end stood up off my arm. His forked tongue flicked out over his horny lip, pink and dainty.

"Now, vanish!" I said to the snake. It didn't. Instead the door to my office opened, letting in a little more of the unmistakable smell of the hospital, as well as old Maragon, Grand Master of the Lodge. He was complaining and shaking a finger at me as he came toward my desk. He didn't jump more than a foot when he got a look at my arm. His shaggy gray eyebrows climbed way, way up his forehead in a mutely shouted question.

I wouldn't give the old goat the time of day. When I dead-panned him, he shrugged and lowered himself into the chair beside my desk.

"Thought you hated snakes, Lefty," he said.

"A guy could get used to almost anything, Grand Master," I said. "I found a cobra under my pillow when I rolled out of the sack this morning. A coral snake fell out of the folds of my towel when I went to take a shower. Somebody stashed a bushmaster here in my locker to meet me when I dressed for surgery. I'm getting almost fond of snakes."

Maragon semaphored doubt by squeezing his eyebrows down in a scowl. "Even real snakes?" he protested.

"It's the most artful hallucination I've ever experienced," I granted. "This snake has weight, a cold feel and a scratchy scaliness. This new witch of yours really knows her stuff. I just would have thought..." I dribbled off, raising my shoulders.

"Thought what, Lefty?"

"Oh," I said. "That it was somehow beneath the dignity of the Grand Master to drag himself down here to the hospital just to add a little conviction to the hallucination. I mean, working up a big entrance, and all this pretense of your seeing a snake."

His smile was a little weary. "Try a lift, Lefty," Maragon said.

He had finally overplayed his hand. Hallucinations don't respond to telekinesis—there's nothing there to lift. I fixed on the rattler's crouching head and lifted. The TK jerked the S-shaped curve out of his neck. I could feel his coils fight my lift. At some moment there I must have gotten the point that this snake was real.

I guess I was screaming and shaking it from me for five minutes after Maragon had unwrapped the coils from my arm....