Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks

  Ben rode in silence, his mood as bleak and despairing as the land he traveled. He was putting up a brave front, but he knew he had run out of options. Strabo had been his last chance. Since the dragon couldn’t tell him how to find Rydall, he was faced with the unpleasant possibility that no one could. And if he couldn’t find Rydall, he couldn’t find Mistaya or Questor Thews or Abernathy. If he couldn’t find his daughter and his friends, he would have no other choice but to return to Sterling Silver and sit around waiting for the rest of Rydall’s monsters to come for him. Three down and four to go; it was not a comforting thought. They had almost had him several times already—almost had the Paladin, he corrected, but it was the same thing. He didn’t think he could survive four more, and if he did, he didn’t really believe he would get Mistaya back, anyway.

  It was a terrible thought, and he cursed himself silently for thinking it. But it was true. It was what he believed. Rydall wasn’t the sort to keep a bargain, not this man who devoured countries, who sent monsters to kill their Kings, and who kidnapped children and used them as hostages. No, Rydall played games with his victims, and when you played games of his sort, you made up the rules as you went along so that you didn’t lose. It didn’t matter if the Paladin survived all seven challengers or not. Mistaya wasn’t coming back.

  Unless Ben found her and brought her back himself.

  Which at the moment he didn’t seem to have the slightest hope of doing.

  He thought about what Strabo had told him. There was no sign of Rydall’s passage through the fairy mists now or any time in the recent past. There was no sign of Mistaya. So what did that tell him? That Rydall was lying? That Strabo had missed something? But Rydall had said he had come through the fairy mists. He had said his army was prepared to follow. Through the mists. Maybe, Ben thought suddenly, Rydall’s black-cloaked companion had magic that facilitated this and left no trail. Maybe the magic was such that it could conceal the point of passage. But wouldn’t Strabo have found some trace of that magic? Nothing escaped the dragon. Had Rydall been able to do what no one else could and deceive the beast?

  Then it occurred to Ben that there was another way into Landover, a way he had forgotten about—through the demon world of Abbadon. Could it be that Rydall had gained entry from there? But in order to do so he would have had to bypass the demons. Or win their support, as the Gorse had done, promising them something in return. Could Marnhull’s King have done that? It didn’t feel right. The demons hated humans; they never made bargains with them unless they were forced to. It was one thing to ally themselves with the Gorse, itself a creature of dark magic. It was another to join forces with someone like Rydall. Besides, Rydall had said that he had come through the mists, and that was not the same thing as coming out of Abaddon.

  Jurisdiction was proceeding at a walk, picking his way carefully over the rocky ground, moving so slowly that they were barely making any progress at all. Ben was oblivious, lost in thought. Willow rode next to him, watching his face, not wanting to distract him. Bunion walked beside them, bright eyes shifting from one to the other, then back to the barren land ahead. It was no concern of his. Behind them the Fire Springs had disappeared into the curve of the horizon, leaving little more than a dark smudge of smoke and ash against the sky.

  A crow with red eyes appeared out of the retreating night to the west and circled lazily overhead, unseen.

  What was it he was missing? Ben wondered. Surely there was something he had overlooked, or mistaken, or failed to recognize—something that would lead him to Rydall. Maybe he was going about this the wrong way. Assume for the moment that Rydall was lying about who and what he was and where he came from. It was a fair enough assumption given Rydall’s disposition toward game playing. Invent the rules of a game, put them in play, and wait to see what would happen—that seemed to fit with what he knew of Rydall. The question he had asked himself earlier and then not gotten back to for an answer was, Why was Rydall doing all this? It had been the River Master’s question as well. Why was Marnhull’s King sending monsters to challenge Ben instead of simply demanding his life in exchange for Mistaya’s? Why was he spending so much time challenging the Paladin to individual duels when he could just as easily have marched his army into Landover and taken it by force? To avoid bloodshed and loss of life? That didn’t seem likely.

  In fact—and admittedly this was a stretch—Ben was beginning to question if Rydall had any real interest in Landover at all.

  Because the truth was that this entire business was beginning to feel very personal. Ben couldn’t put his finger on why, but he definitely sensed it. It was something about those monsters, the nature of their magic, and the manner of their attack. Something. The confrontation between Rydall and himself looked to have more to do with the two of them than with Landover. Landover seemed almost an excuse, a pawn to be played and then discarded. Rydall didn’t appear to be in any hurry to complete his conquest. No time limits had been imposed regarding the passing of the throne, and no mention had been made of when a transition was expected to take place. All that seemed to matter was the contest.

  Why was Rydall wasting so much time if all he wanted was to persuade Ben to give up the throne? Wouldn’t Ben do that anyway if it meant getting Mistaya back safely?

  Wouldn’t he?

  He looked quickly at Willow, a pang of guilt lancing through him as he hesitated with his answer. She was staring back at him, but no condemnation or suspicion registered in her green eyes, only concern and sadness and, behind it all, unfailing love. He was suddenly ashamed. He knew the answer, didn’t he? When his wife in his old world, Annie, and their unborn child had died, he had thought he would never recover; they were gone, and he could not get them back again. Now he had Willow and Mistaya, and he could not bear losing them as well. He would give up anything to keep them.

  Midmorning had arrived, and the Wastelands were hazy—bright and sweltering.

  Ben turned to Willow. “Another mile or so and we’ll stop and rest,” he told her. “And we’ll talk things out a bit.”

  She nodded and said nothing. They rode slowly on.

  Overhead, the crow with red eyes wheeled back the way it had come and was gone.

  Nightshade flew quickly to the draw through which Holiday and his companions would pass, holding the struggling wurm firmly in her beak. She could barely keep her rage in check. She had waited all night for him to come to her, believing he must, certain that the dragon would offer no help and send him away. Instead, the beast had gone hunting for him—hunting, like some tame dog!—and Holiday had not come back as expected but had camped within the confines of the Fire Springs, a place she could not safely penetrate even with her formidable magic. So she had been forced to wait, to spend the entire night in the Wastelands keeping watch over her prize.

  As if in response to her anger, the wurm wrapped itself around her beak and tried to bite her.

  She laughed to herself as she watched its tiny teeth gnash. It had been a regular earthworm once, fat and sleek and indolent. Now it was her creature and would undertake the task she had set for it, becoming Rydall’s fourth monster.

  She was still dismayed that there had been a need for a fourth. The robot should have been enough, would have been enough if not for the Ardsheal. That the River Master should intercede on Holiday’s behalf as well, granddaughter or no, was infuriating. Holiday and he were no more friends than Holiday and the dragon. Why did these obvious enemies keep offering to help the play-King and interfering with her plans? What madness was this?

  On the other hand, she thought, trying to put matters in a better light, it had been her intention from the beginning that Holiday survive until the particular end she had devised for him, the end that would come at Mistaya’s hands. It would be less enjoyable if he was to die before then. And the appearance of the Ardsheal had provided her with fresh inspiration for playing with Landover’s beleaguered High Lord. So nothing had been lost after all, had it?

p; She swooped down onto the flats and glided into the shadow of a draw that opened between two massive hills that blocked passage to the west and east. Holiday and his companions had come through the draw on the way to the dragon; the hoofprints of the horses made that plain enough. They would return the same way. But this time she would have the wurm waiting for them. She hopped across the ground on her bird feet to the tiny puddle of seepage water that sat back in the shadow of the rocks and had not yet evaporated with the heat of the day. A little water was all it took; a little would be more than enough.

  She held the wurm over the water, watching it struggle to get free. She was tired of holding it. It was bad enough that she’d been forced to travel all the way to the Wastelands in nonhuman form, not daring to use her magic for fear it would reveal her presence and give the game away. But having to keep a secure grip on the little monster for so long was really too much. She had been able to put it down last night, safely up in the rocks where the ground was dry and hard and offered the creature no escape. Now she was ready to release it for good. She was thinking that she would like to stay around to see what would happen when she did, but she had been gone from the Deep Fell for a long time now, and she didn’t like leaving the girl alone. Mistaya was growing impatient with the direction and limitation of her lessons. In fact, the wurm had been Nightshade’s idea, devised when the girl had failed to come up with anything new. She was still obedient, but there were signs that the girl might test the rules Nightshade had imposed on her. Mistaya was incredibly gifted, both with imagination and with talent, and under the witch’s tutelage her skills at applying her magic had grown formidable. If she ever chose to challenge Nightshade …

  The witch brushed the idea aside with a sneer. She was not frightened of Mistaya. She wasn’t frightened of anyone.

  But it didn’t hurt to be cautious.

  She made up her mind. It was best that she return to the Deep Fell as quickly as she could. It was best that she make certain Mistaya did not step out of line.

  She dropped the wurm into the puddle of water and watched it sink. Then she flew swiftly away.

  Ben Holiday peered into the distance, catching sight of the draw that led through the rugged Wasteland hills to the flats beyond. The light was so poor this day, its clarity so diluted by heat and mist, that everything appeared fuzzy and distorted. Even the horizon shimmered as if it were a mirage in danger of disappearing altogether. Ahead, the draw was a mass of impenetrable shadows.

  He guided Jurisdiction toward the opening, his mind on other things.

  He was thinking again about that robot. Why was it so familiar? Where had he seen it? He was absolutely certain by now that he had, and it was maddening that he could not remember from where. Complicating matters was his growing suspicion that he had seen Rydall’s other monsters, as well. And he was now willing to bet, having given the matter considerable thought, that he had seen them since coming into Landover. Yet how could that be? They couldn’t have been alive; he would have remembered that. Had Questor or Abernathy told him about them? Had someone described them to him? Had he seen a drawing or a picture?

  They reached the edge of the shadows that marked the entrance to the draw. Ahead, the passageway was dark and empty. Ben nudged Jurisdiction forward, his stomach grumbling softly as he savored the prospect of lunch.

  Suddenly Bunion chittered in warning. Ben glanced down at the kobold, who was looking back from where they had come. Ben followed his gaze, shading his eyes against the glare of the sun. At first he saw nothing. Then he caught sight of a tiny black speck hanging low against the horizon. The speck seemed to be growing larger.

  Ben blinked uncertainly. “What in the heck is—”

  That was all he got out before the ground in front of them erupted in a shower of earth and rock and something huge and dark rose out of the draw’s deep shadows. Bunion catapulted over Crane, snatching Willow from the saddle an instant before the horse was swallowed whole by the thing before it. There was a terrified scream and the crunching of bones. Dust and heat filled the air. Jurisdiction leapt away in panic, barely avoiding the massive jaws that reached now for him, sweeping past Ben’s head with ferocious purpose. Ben hung on as his horse bolted, catching just a glimpse of the thing attacking them—a monstrous snake of some sort, faceless, eyeless, all teeth and maw, its purplish body smooth and ringed like …

  Like a worm’s, for goodness’ sake!

  Ben reached instinctively for the medallion, but Jurisdiction was shying so badly—skittering up the slope of a steep rise, twisting and bucking in terror—that he had to abandon the attempt and grasp the saddle and reins with both hands to avoid being thrown. He saw Bunion and Willow scrambling up the far side of the draw and into the rocks. The monster dove downward suddenly into the earth, wriggling underground, its great bulk disappearing in the manner of a whale’s beneath the surface of an ocean. It burrowed down, the earth rising above it as it tunneled, and the line of the tunnel moved directly toward Ben.

  Ben kicked Jurisdiction frantically, trying to make the horse come down off the rise. But Jurisdiction was panicked beyond all reason and could think only to climb higher. It was a losing battle, the horse’s hooves slipping badly on the loose rock and earth, its progress stalled. Ben wrenched the horse’s head about and sent him scrambling along the side of the slope parallel to the crest, still hoping to turn him downward. Behind them the earth buckled and lifted, the monster turning to follow.

  The gap between them closed.

  In desperation Ben released his grip on the saddle and tried to reach inside his tunic for the medallion. But the instant he did so Jurisdiction stumbled and went down, throwing him head over heels into the scrub. The terrified horse came back to his feet at once and this time bolted down the slope to safety. Ben was not so fortunate. Dazed and bloodied from his spill, he scrambled up and began racing ahead without any idea what it was he was racing toward, aware only that the subterranean horror was almost on top of him. Rocks and earth split and rumbled as the creature’s huge bulk tunneled deliberately in pursuit. Ben groped for the medallion, feeling its hardness through the fabric of his tunic, unable to work it free from where it lodged in the folds. Sweat and blood ran down into his eyes, blinding him. Any moment now his attacker would surface. Any moment it would have him. He could feel the medallion’s smooth edge, could touch its engraved surface through the tunic cloth. Another moment! Just one more …!

  Then earth and rock exploded skyward, knocking Ben off his feet and sending him tumbling away. He lost his grip on the medallion and landed on his back with a sharp grunt, the wind knocked from his lungs. The worm-thing towered over him, earth-encrusted body arching forward, jaws opening, mouth reaching down.

  Ben twisted wildly in an effort to escape, knowing he was too late, knowing he could not. The medallion! he thought. Have to …!

  Then something bigger and blacker and more ferocious than his attacker hurtled out of the sky. Claws fastened on the monster’s body, snatching it backward and away. Huge jaws snapped down, severing the sightless head. The head, its maw still gaping, fell away in a gush of ichor, but the body continued to squirm madly. The jaws snapped down again and yet again, and the monster at last fell lifeless.

  Strabo dropped what was left, fanned the air once with his great wings, and settled slowly earthward. Willow and Bunion were already running over from the far side of the draw.

  “You really are a great deal of trouble, Holiday,” the dragon hissed. The great head swung about, and the lantern eyes fastened on him. “A great deal.”

  “I know,” Ben managed, gasping for breath as he pulled himself back to his feet. “But thanks, anyway.”

  Willow reached him in a rush and threw her arms around him. “Thank you, Strabo,” she echoed, releasing her grip on Ben just enough to turn toward the dragon. “You know how much he means to me. Thank you very much.”

  Strabo sniffed. “Well, if I’ve given you reason to smile, fair enough,” he d
eclared, a hint of pleasure in his rough voice.

  “How did you know to come?” Ben asked. “When we left, you were asleep.”

  The dragon folded his wings against his body, and his eyes lidded. “The Wastelands are mine, Holiday. They belong to me. They are all I have left of what once was unending. Therefore, they are ruled as I determine they should be. No magic is allowed here but my own. If another intrudes, I am warned at once. Even asleep, my senses tell me. I knew of this creature the moment it took shape.” He paused. “Do you know what this is?”

  Both Ben and Willow shook their heads.

  “This is a wurm. W-U-R-M. An ordinary worm turned predator by magic. Expose it to water, and it grows to the size you see now.” Strabo glanced down at the severed parts and spit in distaste. “Pathetic excuse for disturbing my rest.”

  “Rydall again,” Ben said quietly.

  Strabo’s head swung back. “I don’t know about Rydall,” he hissed softly, “but I do know about witches. Wurms are a particular favorite of witches.”

  Ben stared. “Nightshade?” he said finally.

  The dragon’s head lifted. “Among others.” He yawned and looked to the east. “Time to be getting back to bed. Try to stay alive long enough to get out of the Wastelands, Holiday. After that you won’t be my responsibility anymore.”

  Without another word he spread his wings, lifted away, and flew out of sight. Ben and Willow watched him go. Bunion stood with them a moment, then left at Ben’s direction to hunt for Jurisdiction.

  Willow wiped blood from Ben’s face with a strip of cloth torn from her shirt. After a moment she said, “Could Nightshade be involved in this?”

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