Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks

  It was at that same moment that they heard the latch on the door at the end of the corridor begin to turn.

  Michel Ard Rhi came down the front hallway past the entry and paused momentarily as he saw the gorilla and the shaggy dog sitting there on the waiting bench. It was apparent that he wasn't sure what to make of them. He looked at them, and they looked back. No one said anything.

  Ben held his breath and waited. He could feel Miles go rigid beside him. Suddenly, Michel seemed to realize what they were doing there. “Oh, yes,”he said. “The Halloween party at the school. You must be here for Elizabeth.”

  A phone rang somewhere down the hall.

  Michel hesitated, as if he might say something more, then turned and walked away quickly to answer it. The shaggy dog and the gorilla glanced at each other in silent relief.

  The guard pushed his way wearily through the cellar door and came down the corridor of iron cages, boots clumping heavily on the stone block. He was dressed in black and wore an automatic weapon and a ring of keys at his belt. Elizabeth shrank further into the darkness behind the hidden section of wall where she was concealed, peering out through the tiny crack she had left open.

  Willow was still out there in the corridor. But where? Why couldn't she see her?

  She watched the guard pause at Abernathy's cage, check the door perfunctorily to make certain it was locked, then turn and walk back again the way he had come. As he passed her hiding place, the keys at his belt suddenly came free. Elizabeth blinked in disbelief. The snap that held them seemed to loosen of its own accord and all at once the keys were gone. The guard completed his walk down the corridor, pushed back through the metal door, and disappeared.

  Elizabeth slipped quickly from her hiding place. “Willow!” she called in a muffled hiss.

  The sylph appeared out of nowhere at her side, the ring of keys in one hand. “Hurry, now,”she whispered. “We do not have much time.”

  They went back to Abernathy's cage, and Willow opened the door with the key Elizabeth had given her earlier. They hastened inside, moving to the incoherent dog and kneeling beside him. Willow bent close. The scribe's eyes were dilated and his breathing was rapid. When she tried to lift him, he sagged helplessly against her.

  A moment of panic seized her. He was far too heavy for her to carry—far too heavy even if Elizabeth helped. She had to find a way to bring him out of his stupor.

  “Try these until you find one that fits,”she told Elizabeth, handing her the key ring.

  Elizabeth went to work with the keys, trying one after another in the lock of the neck chain. Willow rubbed Abernathy's paws, then his head. Nothing seemed to help. Her panic deepened. She had to bring Ben down. But she knew, even as she considered the idea, that it wasn't possible. The plan wouldn't work with Ben down here. Besides, there simply wasn't time.

  Finally, she did the only thing she could think to do to help the dog. She used her fairy magic. She was so weak that she had little to command, but she called up what she had. She placed her hands on Abernathy's head, closed her eyes in concentration, and drew the poison out of his system and into her own. It entered her in a rush, a vile fluid, and she worked desperately to negate its effects on her own body. She was not strong enough. It was too much for her. Some of it broke through her defenses and began to sicken further her already weakened system. Nausea mingled with pain. She shuddered and wrenched herself away, vomiting into the straw.

  “Willow, Willow!” she heard Elizabeth cry out in fear. “Please, don't be sick!”

  The little clown's face was pressed up against her own, whispering urgently, crying. Willow blinked. The red nose was gone again, she thought, distracted. She couldn't seem to organize her thoughts. Everything was drifting.

  Then suddenly, miraculously, she heard Abernathy say, “Willow? What are you doing here?” And she knew it was going to be all right.

  It was only after they were back in the passageway, safely clear of the cages, that Elizabeth rubbed her face where the clown's nose should have been and realized she had lost it. Panic gripped her. She must have dropped it while they were freeing Abernathy. It would certainly be found. She thought about stopping, then decided not to. It was too late to do anything now. Willow was too weak to go back and would never let Elizabeth return alone. She bit her tongue and concentrated on the task at hand, shining the flashlight's thin beam on the stairs ahead as they climbed toward the broom closet. Willow and Abernathy followed a few steps behind, hanging on to each other for support, both of them looking as if they would collapse with every step.

  “Just a little farther,”Elizabeth kept whispering to encourage them, but neither replied.

  They reached the landing to the broom closet, worked the wall section open, and pushed inside. Willow's pale face was bright with perspiration, and she seemed to be having trouble focusing. “It is all right, Elizabeth,”she assured the little girl, seeing the look of worry in her eyes, but Elizabeth was no fool and could clearly see that it was definitely not all right.

  When they were finally back inside Elizabeth's room, the little girl and Willow worked hurriedly on Abernathy, combing his matted fur, cleaning him up as best they could. They tried to strip off his ruined clothes, but he protested so vehemently about being left naked that they finally agreed to let him keep the half pants and boots. It wasn't what Ben had wanted, but Willow was too tired to argue. She could feel herself withering a bit more with the passing of every second.

  She surprised herself though. She wasn't as frightened of dying as she had imagined she would be.

  The hall phone rang for what seemed to Ben and Miles an interminable length of time before the doorman appeared to answer it. There was a brief conversation, and then the doorman hung up and said to them, “Miss Elizabeth said to tell you that she would be right down.”

  “Finally!” Miles breathed in a hushed voice.

  The doorman lingered a moment, then walked away again.

  “I'm going out now,”Ben whispered. “Remember what to do.”

  He rose and disappeared silently through the front door. He went down the front steps and got into the car. There, he stripped away the dog suit, straightened the costume beneath, and slipped a new mask into place. Then he got out again and went back inside.

  The doorman was just returning. He frowned on seeing the gorilla now sitting in the company of a skeleton. “This is Mr. Andrews,”Miles said quickly. “He was waiting in the car, but he got tired. Mr. Barker went upstairs to help his wife with Elizabeth.”

  The doorman nodded absently, still staring at Ben. He appeared to be on the verge of saying something when Elizabeth, the green lady, and the shaggy dog came down the stairway. The green lady did not look well at all.

  “All set, John,”Elizabeth said brightly to the doorman. She was carrying a small overnight bag. “We have to hurry. By the way, I forgot. I'm spending the night with Nita Coles. Tell Michel, will you? ‘Bye.”

  The doorman smiled faintly and said good-bye. The bunch of them, the gorilla, the skeleton, the green lady, the shaggy dog, and Elizabeth went out the door quickly and were gone.

  The doorman stared after them thoughtfully. Had the shaggy dog been wearing pants when he came in?

  By the time Ben Holiday pulled the rental car into the parking lot of Franklin Elementary, there were miniature witches, werewolves, ghosts, devils, punk rockers, and assorted other horrors arriving from everywhere, all dashing from their cars to the shelter of the lighted school as if truly possessed. The rain was still falling heavily. There were going to be more than a few disappointed trick-or-treaters this night.

  Ben turned the wheel into the curb and put the gearshift into park. He looked over at Elizabeth seated next to him. “Time to go, kiddo.”

  Elizabeth nodded, somehow managing to look sad even with the painted happy face. “I wish I could go with you.”

  “Not this time, honey,”Ben smiled. “You know what to do now, don't you—after the party?”

/>   “Sure. I go home with Nita and her parents and stay there until my dad comes for me.”She sounded sad, too.

  “Right. Mr. Bennett will see to it that he finds out what has happened to you. Whatever happens, don't go back to the castle. Okay?”

  “Okay. Good-bye, Ben. Good-bye, Willow.”She turned to Willow, seated next to her, and gave the sylph a long hug and kiss on the cheek. Willow kissed her back and smiled, saying nothing. She was so sick it was hard for her to talk. “Will you be okay?” Elizabeth wanted to know, asking the question hesitantly.

  “Yes, Elizabeth.”Willow managed another quick kiss and opened the door. Ben had never seen her this bad, not even when she had been prevented from making the transformation into her namesake that first time she was taken into Abaddon. His patience slipped a notch.

  “ ‘Bye, Abernathy,”Elizabeth said to the dog, who was seated with Miles in the back. She started to say something, stopped, and then said, “I'll miss you.”

  Abernathy nodded. “I will miss you, too, Elizabeth.”

  Then she was out the door and dashing for the school. Ben waited until she was safely inside, then wheeled the car out of the parking lot and sped quickly back through Woodinville to 522 and turned west.

  “High Lord, I cannot thank you enough for coming to rescue me,”Abernathy was saying. “I had given myself up for lost.”

  Ben was thinking of Willow and trying hard to keep the car within the speed limit. “I'm sorry this had to happen, Abernathy. Questor is sorry, too. He really is.”

  “I find that hard to believe,”the dog declared, sounding very much like his old self. The effect of the drugs had pretty much worn off, and the scribe was more tired than anything. It was Willow who was in trouble now.

  Ben eased the speed of the rental car up a notch.

  “He was trying to help you, don't forget,”he said.

  “He scarcely understands the meaning of the word!” Abernathy huffed. He was quiet a moment. “By the way— here.”He took the chain with the medallion from his own neck, reached across the seatback, and placed it carefully about Ben's. “I feel much better knowing you have this safely back.”

  Ben didn't say so, but he felt much better, too.

  He reached Interstate 5 twenty minutes later and turned the car south. The rain diminished somewhat and it appeared to be clearing ahead. The airport was less than half an hour's drive.

  Willow's hand stretched across the seat and found his. He squeezed it gently and tried to will some of the strength from his body into hers.

  A car passed them in the left lane and a woman in the passenger seat stared over. What she saw was a skeleton driving a gorilla, a shaggy dog, and a lady dyed green. The woman said something to the driver and the car moved on.

  Ben had forgotten about their costumes. He thought momentarily about removing them, then decided against it. There wasn't time. Besides, this was Halloween. Lots of people would be out in costumes tonight, going one place or another, trick-or-treating, attending parties, having fun. It was like that in Seattle; he'd read as much in this morning's newspaper. Halloween was a big deal.

  He was feeling better about things by the time the lights of the city came into view. The rain had practically disappeared, and they were only moments from their destination. He watched the skyscrapers brighten the night skies and spread away before him in vertical lines. He took a deep breath and allowed himself the luxury of thinking they were almost safely home.

  That was when he saw the lights of the state patrol car coming up behind him. “Oh, oh,”he muttered.

  The patrol car closed quickly, and he eased the rental car over onto the freeway shoulder by a bridge abutment. The patrol car pulled in behind.

  “Doc, what's he stopping you for?” Miles demanded. “Were you speeding or something?”

  Ben had a sick feeling in his stomach. “I don't think so,”he said quietly.

  He watched in the rearview mirror. The trooper was on the radio a moment, and another patrol car pulled up behind the first. The trooper in the first car got out then, walked up to Ben's window, and looked in. His face was inscrutable. “Can I see your license, sir?”

  Ben reached for his billfold and belatedly remembered he didn't have it. Miles had signed for the car on his license. “Officer, I don't have it with me, but I can give you the number. It is a valid license. And the car is registered with Mr. Bennett.”

  He indicated the gorilla. Miles was trying to take off the head, but it was stuck. The trooper nodded. “Do you have some proof of identification?” he asked.

  “Uh, Mr. Bennett has,”Ben said.

  “I do, officer,”Miles hastily confirmed. “Here, right inside this damn suit if I can just…” He trailed off, struggling to get it free.

  The trooper looked at Willow and Abernathy. Then he looked back at Ben. “I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to come with me, sir,”he said. “Please pull your vehicle out behind mine and follow me downtown. The other patrol car will follow you.”

  Ben went cold. Something had gone terribly wrong. “I'm a lawyer,”he said impulsively. “Are we being charged with something?”

  The trooper shook his head. “Not by me, you aren't. Except maybe I'll issue you a warning ticket for driving a vehicle without carrying your license—assuming you have a license like you say. I'll want to check the registration on this vehicle as well.”

  “But… ?”

  “There is apparently another matter that needs clearing up. Please follow me, sir.”He turned away without further explanation and walked back to his car.

  Ben slumped back and heard Miles say softly in his ear, “We've been made, Doc. What do we do now?”

  He shook his head wearily. He didn't have the slightest idea.

  It took Questor Thews the better part of three days to travel by horseback from Sterling Silver to the eastern edge of the Wastelands. He went alone, slipping from the castle before dawn of the first day, departing while the bothersome G'home Gnomes and all those annoyingly insistent ambassadors, couriers, and supplicants from one place or another still slept. Affairs of state would simply have to wait, he had decided, whether it was convenient or not. Bunion and Parsnip were there to see him off, anxious that they be allowed to accompany him, distressed at his insistence on going alone. Questor would not be swayed by the toothy grins and the furtive looks. This was something he must do by himself. Neither of them could help. It was best that they stay at the castle and look after things in his absence. He mounted his old gray and rode out, Don Quixote without his Sancho Panza, a scarecrow searching for his field of need. He went north through the wooded hill country of Sterling Silver, northeast across the fields and pastures of the Greensward, and finally east into the Wastelands.

  It was nearing sunset on that third day when he finally sighted the distant glow of the Fire Springs.

  “Come along, now,”he urged his old gray, who had caught the scent of what lay ahead and was beginning to balk.

  Questor Thews was a man who bore a very large burden of guilt. He knew that things would not be right again in the Kingdom of Landover until the High Lord was returned. Nightshade would continue her campaign of disruption and anarchy until someone found a way to deal with that bottle and its demon. Questor was not, unfortunately, the one who could do that. The High Lord was. But the High Lord was trapped in his old world and would not be able to come back again until he recovered his lost medallion—and even then would likely not come back if he could not bring Willow and the missing Abernathy with him. All of this was the fault of one Questor Thews, of course, and the wizard could not afford to stand by longer and allow matters to assume their own course when the course they assumed might well be the wrong one.

  Therefore, he had come up with a plan to put things back the way they were. It was a very straightforward, if somewhat minimally developed plan—but a plan nevertheless. He would enlist the aid of the dragon Strabo to bring Holiday and the others back.

  It was all quite simp
le, really, and he was surprised that he hadn't thought of it earlier. No one could journey in or out of the valley of Landover without passing through the mists of fairy, and no one could pass out of Landover and back in again through the mists of fairy without the magic of Holiday's missing medallion—no one, that is, except Strabo. Dragons could still go pretty much where they chose. Oh, they couldn't go deep into the fairy mists, of course, because dragons had been banished from there long ago. But they could go most places. The magic that allowed them passage through the mists was their own. That was why dragons were apt to pop up almost anywhere. Strabo was no exception. He had already taken Ben Holiday down into the netherworld of Abaddon for the purpose of rescuing Questor, Willow, Aberiiathy, and the kobolds from the demons. He could certainly make a second trip now to rescue Holiday.

  Questor's face knotted. Strabo could, to be sure—but whether or not he would was another matter entirely. After all, the Abaddon trip had been made under extreme duress, and the dragon had made it quite clear on a number of occasions since that he would rather choke on his own smoke than lift a claw to help Ben Holiday again.

  So while the plan's conception was indeed quite simple, its execution probably would not be.

  “Ah, well,”he sighed resignedly. “Something has to be tried.”

  He guided the gray to the edge of the hills that ringed the Fire Springs, dismounted, stripped saddle and bridle from the old horse, slapped him on the rump, and sent him home. No point in worrying about keeping the horse, he thought. If he couldn't persuade Strabo to help, he wouldn't be needing a horse.

  He tugged at one long ear. How was he going to persuade Strabo to help anyway?

  *He thought about it a moment, then shrugged away his worry and began to make his way up the slope through the heavy scrub. Twilight descended gradually over the valley in darkening patches of blue and gray, and the sun diminished to a thin silver slash above the treeline along the western rim, then disappeared altogether. Questor glanced up. A bank of low-hanging clouds hung directly overhead, and its underside shimmered orange and red from the glow of the Springs. The wizard breathed in smoke and ash and sneezed. A sneeze, he thought irritably! That was how this whole mess had begun! He shoved ahead doggedly, heedless of the brambles and scrub that caught his robes and tore through fabric and skin. The explosions were audible now, short, booming coughs that lifted into the night like giant hiccups before subsiding into gurgles of discontent. The heat grew intense, and Questor began sweating freely.

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