Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks


  At last he topped a rise and stopped, hands settling firmly on his hips. The Fire Springs were spread out below him, a series of jagged craters in which a blue and yellow liquid bubbled and sizzled. Periodically, a crater would erupt in a geyser of flame, then settle back again discontentedly. The air was sulfurous and hot, its stench a mix of the burning liquid and the blackened bones of animals the resident dragon had devoured.

  The dragon was eating now, it happened. He lay wrapped about one of the smaller craters at the north end of the Springs, busily gnawing on what appeared to Questor to be the remains of an unfortunate cow. Bones snapped and crackled loudly within the monstrous jaws, black teeth grinding contentedly. Questor wrinkled his nose in distaste. Strabo's eating habits had always annoyed him.

  “Dragon, dragon,”he murmured softly to himself.

  Strabo seared a section of the cow with his fire, then tore it from the carcass and chewed loudly.

  Questor Thews came forward to the very cage of the rise so that he was plainly visible. “Old dragon!” he called out. “I need a word with you!”

  Strabo stopped chewing a moment and looked up. “Who's there?” he snapped irritably. He squinted. “Questor Thews, is that you?”

  “It is.”

  “I thought so. How boring.”The dragon's teeth snapped the air for emphasis. “And who are you calling Old’? You're practically a fossil yourself!”

  “I need a word with you.”

  “So you said. I heard you quite clearly. It comes as no surprise, Questor Thews. You always want a word with someone. You seem to delight in talking. I sometimes think that if you could manage to transform your unending conversation into magic, you would indeed be a formidable wizard.”

  Questor's brow furrowed. “This is quite important!”

  “Not to me. I have a dinner to finish.”

  The dragon went back to work on the cow, gnawing a new portion free and chewing contentedly. He seemed oblivious of anything else.

  “Reduced to stealing cows again, are you?” Questor asked suddenly, coming forward another few steps. “Teh, tch. How sad. Practically a charity case, aren't you?”

  Strabo stopped eating in mid-bite and swung his crusted, scaled head slowly about to face the wizard. “This cow is a stray that wandered in and stayed for dinner,”he said, grinning. “Rather like yourself.”

  “I would make a poor meal for you.”

  ‘Then perhaps you would make a decent dessert!” The dragon seemed to consider the idea. “No, I suppose not. There's not enough of you even for that.”

  “Not for a stomach the size of yours!”

  “On the other hand, eating you would at least silence you.”

  Questor shook his head. “Why don't you just hear what I have to tell you?”

  “I told you, wizard, I am eating!”

  Questor hunkered down on his heels, smoothing his patched robes. “Very well. I shall wait until you are finished.”

  “Do anything you please, so long as you keep silent!”

  Strabo returned to his meal, searing the flesh with quick bursts of fire, tearing off great chunks of meat and bone, and chewing ferociously. His long tail twisted and snapped as he ate, as if it were the impatient recipient of food that was too long in reaching it. Questor watched. Out of the corner of one eye, Strabo watched back.

  Finally, the dragon discarded the carcass of the cow by spitting it into the mouth of the crater he was wrapped about and wheeled sharply once more toward the wizard. “Enough of this, Questor Thews! How can I eat with you sitting there and staring at me as if you were some harbinger of doom? You ruin my appetite! What is it that you want?”

  Questor climbed gingerly to his feet, rubbing at his cramped legs. “I want your help.”

  The dragon snaked his way through the craters, his monstrous, cumbersome body impervious to the ash and fire, his tail and wings shaking off drops of liquid flame as he went. When he reached Questor's end of the Springs, he lifted himself up on his hind legs and licked his jaws hungrily with a long, split tongue.

  “Questor Thews, I find it impossible to think of a single reason why I would want to help you! And do not, please, give me that tired old recitation about the close ties of dragons and wizards, how we have shared so much of history, and how we must do what we can for each other in times of need. You tried that last time, if you recall. It was nonsense then and it is nonsense now. Helping you in any way, frankly, is abhorrent!”

  “Your help is not for me,”Questor finally managed to get in. “Your help is for the High Lord.”

  The dragon stared at him as if he were mad. “Holiday? You want me to help Holiday? Why ever in the world would I agree to do that?”

  “Because he is your High Lord as well as mine,”Questor said. “It is time to acknowledge the fact, Strabo. Like it or not, Ben Holiday is High Lord of Landover, and so long as you live within the valley you are subject to his laws. That means that you are required to give aid to your King when he needs it!”

  Strabo was in stitches. He was laughing so hard he could no longer hold himself upright; he collapsed in one of the craters, showering flames everywhere. Questor ducked a scattering and straightened. “There is nothing to laugh about here!”

  “There is everything!” the dragon howled. He choked and gasped and belched smoke and fire. “Questor Thews, you are truly astounding. I think you even believe yourself sometimes. How droll!”

  “Will you help or not?” Questor demanded indignantly.

  “I should say not!” The dragon rose up once more. “I am not a subject of this land or its High Lord! I live where I choose and obey my own laws! I am certainly not required to give aid to anyone—least of all Holiday! What utter nonsense!”

  Questor was not surprised to hear Strabo speak like this, knowing perfectly well that the dragon had never willingly done anything to help anyone in his entire life. But it had been worth the try.

  “What of the pretty sylph, Willow?” he asked. “She is in need of your help as well. You saved her life once before, remember? She has sung to you and given you dreams to muse on. Surely, you would help Holiday if it meant helping her.”

  “Not a chance,”the dragon sniffed.

  Questor thought. “Very well,”he said. “Then you must help Holiday for your own sake.”

  “My own sake?” Strabo licked his teeth. “What clever argument will you conjure up now, wizard?”

  “An argument that even a dragon can understand,”Questor Thews replied. “Nightshade has gained control of a magic that threatens everyone in the valley. She has already begun to employ it, turning humans and the fairy folk against each other and causing disorder everywhere. If she is allowed to continue, she will destroy them all.”

  The dragon sneered. “What do I care?”

  Questor shrugged. “Sooner or later she will get around to you, Strabo. Next to Holiday, you are her worst enemy. What do you imagine will happen to you then?”

  “Bah! I am a match for any magic the witch might command!”

  Questor rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I wish I could say the same. This is a different magic, Strabo—a magic as old as your own. It comes in the form of a demon that lives in a bottle. The demon draws its strength from the holder of the bottle and can employ that strength in any way it chooses. You would agree, wouldn't you, that Nightshade's strength is formidable?”

  “I agree to nothing!” The dragon was irritated. “Get out of here, Questor Thews! I tire of you!”

  “As much as you hate Holiday, his is the only magic that can withstand the demon. Landover's High Lord commands the Paladin, and the Paladin can withstand anything.”

  “Begone, wizard!”

  “If you do not agree to help Holiday, Strabo, there will be no Paladin to stand against Nightshade and the demon. If you do not agree to help, we are all doomed.”

  “Begone!”

  The dragon breathed a stream of fire that seared the whole of the slope below where Questor Thews wa
s standing and left the air smoking and filled with ash. Questor choked and gasped and retreated from the heat. When the air cleared, he saw the dragon turning sullenly away. “I care nothing for Nightshade, her demon, Holiday, you, or anyone else in this valley!” he muttered. “I barely care anything for myself! Now, go!”

  Questor Thews frowned his deepest frown. Well, he had tried. No one could say that he hadn't. He had done his best to reason with the dragon and he had failed. The dragon was simply being his normal, intractable self. If he continued to press the matter now, it would mean a fight.

  He sighed wearily. That was the way it was between dragons and wizards. That was the way it had always been.

  He strode forward to the edge of the rise again and stopped. “Strabo!” The dragon's crusted head swung about. “Old dragon, it appears that we shall have to do this the hard way. I had hoped that common sense would prevail over innate stubbornness, but it now appears clear that will not be possible. It is necessary that you agree to help the High Lord, and if you will not do so willingly, then you shall do so nevertheless!”

  Strabo stared at Questor in genuine amazement. “Good heavens, Questor Thews, are you threatening me?”

  Questor drew himself up to his full height. “If threatening you is what it takes to gain your cooperation, then I will threaten you and worse.”

  “Really?” The dragon took a long moment to study the wizard, then slapped his tail in a crater of fire with a loud whack and sent the burning liquid flying everywhere. “Go on home, silly old wizard!” he snapped and started to turn away.

  Questor brought his hands up in a broad sweep, fire gathering at his fingertips as he did so. With a lunge, he sent the fire hurtling at the dragon. It struck Strabo full along the length of his great body, lifted him from the earth, and sent him flying over several of the bubbling craters to land in a tangled heap. Rock and flames scattered everywhere, and the dragon gave an audible grunt.

  “Dear me!” Questor whispered, surprised that he could muster such magic.

  Strabo picked himself up slowly, shook himself head to tail, coughed, spit, and turned slowly back to the wizard. “Where did you learn to do thatV he asked, a hint of admiration in his voice.

  “I have learned much you do not yet know about,”Questor bluffed. “Best that you simply agree now to do as I have asked.”

  Strabo replied with a sheet of flame that lanced at Questor and sent him cartwheeling head over heels into a patch of brush. A second rash of fire followed, but Questor was tumbling back down the hillside by that time, out of sight, and the fire merely fried the landscape until it was black.

  “Bah, come back here, Questor Thews!” the dragon called after him from the other side of the rise. “This fight hasn't even started yet and already you're running for home!”

  Questor picked himself up gingerly and started back up the slope. This was going to require a considerable effort on his part, he decided grimly.

  For the next twenty minutes, wizard and dragon attacked each other with a ferocity that was terrifying. They twisted and dodged and skipped about, hurdling craters that spit smoke and steam and flame, turning the whole of the Fire Springs into a blackened battleground. Blow for blow they traded, Questor employing every conceivable form of magic against the dragon, conjuring up spells he didn't even know he knew, Strabo answering back with bursts of flame. Back and forth they swung, pushing and shoving like fighters in a ring, and when the twenty minutes drew to a close, they were both gasping for breath and lurching like drunks.

  “Wizard… you continually astonish me!” Strabo panted, slowly curling himself into a ball at the center of the Springs.

  “Have you… given further consideration to… my request?” Questor demanded in reply.

  “Most… certainly,”Strabo said and sent a fireball hurtling at the wizard.

  They resumed their struggle wordlessly, and only their grunts and cries and the occasional booming coughs of the craters broke the evening stillness. The clouds dispersed, and a scattering of stars and several of Landover's moons broke through the cover. The wind died, and the air warmed. Twilight passed away, and night descended.

  Questor sent a swarm of gnats at the dragon, clogging his nose, eyes, and mouth. Strabo choked and gasped and breathed fire everywhere, thrashing as if chained. He began to swear, using words Questor had never heard before. Then he lifted free of the earth, launched himself at the wizard, and attempted to flatten him. Questor conjured a hole in the earth and dropped into it just before the dragon landed with a whump where previously he had been standing. Strabo sat there, looking about for him, not seeing him, so angry at his apparent miss he didn't realize what had happened. Then a six-foot bee stinger shoved at him from underneath and sent him lurching skyward again with a howl. Questor appeared from the hole, throwing fire; the dragon threw fire back; and both of them fell apart again, singed and smoking.

  “Wizard, we are… too old for this!” Strabo gasped, licking away bits of ash that were crusted on his nose. “Give it up!”

  “I will give it up… when you say ‘yes’—not before!” Questor answered.

  Strabo shook his blackened head. “Whatever… it is you wish, it cannot possibly… be worth all this!”

  Questor wondered. He was black from head to foot with ash and burns, his robes were tattered and soiled beyond repair, his hair was standing straight out from his head, and the muscles and joints of his body felt as if they would never be right again. He had tried every magic he knew and then some, and nothing had fazed the dragon. He was alive, he thought, only by a series of flukes unparalleled in the history of wizardry. Much of the magic he had tried had misfired—as usual—and much of what he might like to do was beyond him. The only thing that was keeping him on his feet was the knowledge that if he failed now, he might as well forget about ever calling himself a wizard again. This was his last chance, his one opportunity to prove to himself—even if to no one else—that he really was the wizard he had always claimed to be.

  He took a deep breath. “Are you… ready to listen?” he asked.

  Strabo opened his maw as far as it would open and showed Questor all of his considerable teeth. “Step… inside, why don't you, Questor Thews… so you can better hear my answer!”

  Questor sent a flurry of canker sores into the dragon's mouth, but the hide was so tough they couldn't even begin to settle before they were dispatched. Strabo responded with a blast that sent the wizard tumbling head over heels and burned off his boots. They traded fireballs for a moment, then Questor pinwheeled his arms until it seemed they might fly off and sent a ferocious ice storm at the dragon. Sleet and frigid wind beat against the dragon as he sought refuge in the fire of one of the larger craters. But the storm was so fierce it suffocated the flames and turned the liquid in the crater to ice. Strabo was trapped in the resulting block, the ice hammering off his head as he howled in rage.

  Finally, the magic gave out and the storm subsided. A foot of snow covered the dragon, but it was already melting from the heat of the other craters. Strabo poked his head out from beneath the covering and shook off the last of the flakes irritably. Then he heaved upward with a roar, and the ice shattered into cubes. The dragon was free once more, steam pouring from his nostrils as he swung about to face Questor Thews.

  Questor stiffened. What would it take to overcome the beast, he wondered in frustration. What did he have to do?

  He dodged another rush of flame, then another, and threw up a shield of magic against a third. Strabo was simply too strong. He wasn't going to win a test of strength against the dragon. He had to find another way.

  He waited for Strabo to pause for breath, then sent an itch.

  The itch started inside the dragon's left hind foot, but when he lifted the foot to scratch, the itch moved up to his thigh, then to his back, his neck, his ear, his nose, and back down to his right foot. Strabo twisted and grunted, flailing madly as the itch worked its way up one side and down the other, as elusive a
s buttered sausage, slipping and sliding away from him as he sought to relieve it. He howled and he roared, he writhed and he lurched, and nothing helped. He forgot about Questor Thews, working his serpentine body over the sharp edges of the craters, dousing himself in the liquid fire, trying desperately to scratch.

  When at last Questor Thews made a quick motion with his hands and took back the itch, Strabo was a limp noodle. He lay gasping at the center of the Fire Springs, his strength momentarily spent, his tongue hanging out on the ground. His eyes rolled wearily until they settled at last on the wizard.

  “All right, all right!” he said, panting like an old dog. “I have had enough! What is it that you want, Questor Thews? Just tell me and let's get it over!”

  Questor Thews puffed up a bit and permitted himself a smile of satisfaction.

  “Well, old dragon, it is really quite simple,”he began.

  Chief Deputy Pick Wilson of the King County Sheriff's Department leaned forward cautiously across his paper-laden work desk and said to Ben Holiday, “So you and your friends were just on your way to a Halloween party at… What hotel was that again?”

  Ben looked thoughtful. “I think it was the Sheraton. I'm not sure. The invitation should be in the car somewhere.”

  “Uh-huh. So you were on your way to this party, in a rental car, your suitcases packed in the trunk…”

  “We were leaving right afterward for the airport,”Ben interjected. The room smelled of new paint and disinfectant and was suffocatingly hot.

  “With no identification, not even your driver's license?” Wilson paused, looking mildly baffled.

 
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