Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks

Ben clutched the other's arm for a moment, then released him and carried Willow through the courtroom debris to where Strabo had swung about to face the opening in the wall. The dragon eyed Ben malevolently, hissed, and showed all of his teeth. “Ride me, Holiday,”he invited menacingly. “It will be the last chance you will ever have to do so.”

  “Strabo. I would never have believed it,”Ben marveled.

  “I care nothing for what you believe,”the dragon snarled. “Quit wasting my time!”

  Ben cradled Willow tightly against him and started to mount. “It must have taken a small miracle for Questor to…” He stopped at the sudden sound of approaching helicopters, their rotors whipping through the night.

  Strabo's lips curled back. “What is that I hear?” he hissed.

  “Trouble,”Ben answered, and hitched his way up quickly behind Questor. Willow opened her eyes briefly and closed them again. Ben squeezed her shoulders and pulled her close. “Hurry up, Abernathy!”

  Elizabeth was hugging the dog once more. “I still want to go with you!” she whispered fiercely. “I still do!”

  “I know,”he whispered back, then broke free roughly. “I'm sorry, Elizabeth. Good-bye.”

  The others were calling out to him. He was halfway through the shattered gallery gate to join them when he heard Elizabeth call frantically, “Abernathy!” He turned at once. “Come back? Please? Someday?”

  He paused, then nodded. “I promise, Elizabeth.”

  “Don't forget about me!”

  “I won't. Not ever.”

  “I love you, Abernathy,”she said.

  He smiled, tried to respond, then simply licked at his nose and hurried away. He was crying when he pulled himself up behind Ben. “Sorry, High Lord,”he said softly.

  “Home, dragon!” Questor Thews cried.

  Strabo hissed in response and lifted clear of the shattered courtroom. Wind blew and dust swirled with the beating of the great beast's wings; the lights that remained flickered and went out, and the dragon seemed to fill the whole of the night. A thing out of legend and bedtime tales, he was real for yet another instant to the man and the child who watched. Then he flew through the opening in the wall and was gone.

  Miles walked back up the aisle to where Elizabeth was staring out into the dark. He stood there with her in silence, smiling as he felt her hand come up to take his own.

  Strabo burst through the opening in the wall of the Courts Building five stories up and nearly collided with a helicopter. Machine and beast veered away from each other, slicing through the chill night air and the narrow beams of several spotlights situated in the streets below. Neither was sure of what the other had encountered, each a dark shape against the city, and the confusion was evident. The helicopter disappeared skyward with a roar of its engine. Strabo dropped down between the buildings, flattening out.

  There were screams from the people in the streets.

  “Climb, dragon!” Questor Thews cried frantically.

  Strabo soared skyward once more, arcing between a pair of tall buildings, steam rolling off his scaled hide. Ben and his companions clung to him for dear life despite the fact that Questor's magic strapped them all securely in place. The helicopter roared back around the corner of a building, lights searching. A second ship followed. Strabo shrieked.

  “Tell him not to use his fire on them!” Ben cried to Questor in warning, picturing flaming ships and buildings and Miles and Elizabeth in jail.

  “He can't!” Questor shouted back, head bent close. “His magic is as limited in this world as my own! He has only a little fire and he must save it if we are to make the crossover!”

  Ben had forgotten. Strabo needed his fire to open a passage back into Landover. That was how he had brought them out of Abaddon when the demons had trapped them there.

  They dodged and twisted, but the helicopters followed. Strabo rounded the corner of a building and shot out toward the bay. Wharfs, piers and jettys, shipyards with their dry docks and containers of freight, giant cranes that looked like goose-necked dinosaurs, and a kaleidoscope of vessels of all sizes and shapes passed away underneath. Ahead, far beyond, loomed a massive range of mountains. Below, the lights of the city winked and flashed.

  A ship whistle sounded with a shriek, frightening them all with its closeness. Strabo shuddered, twisted left, and began to climb. Ben squinted. Something huge loomed close behind, dropping rapidly, small red and green lights blinking.

  “A jet!” he cried in frantic warning. “Look out, Questori”

  Questor screamed something to Strabo, and the dragon whipped aside, just as the huge airplane dropped past on its path of descent. Engines roared, the wind screamed, and every other sound disappeared into white silence.

  Strabo came around again and started back for the city, blackened teeth showing.

  “No!” Questor howled. “Climb, dragon—take us home!”

  But Strabo was too infuriated. He wanted someone or something to fight. Steam blew in jets from his nostrils and there were strange, frightening sounds emanating from his throat.

  He passed back over the harbor and spotted the helicopters. He roared in challenge, and now fire burned redly from his jaws.

  Ben was wild. “Turn him, Questori If he uses up all his fire, we'll be trapped here!”

  Questor Thews shouted in warning at the dragon, but Strabo ignored him. He went straight for the helicopters, slashed between them so that they were forced to veer frantically aside to avoid a collision, then sped back into the midst of the city buildings. Spotlights whipped across the sky in search of them. Ben was certain he could hear people screaming. He was certain he could hear gunfire. Strabo, heaven help them, was flying blind.

  Then, just when it appeared that matters were completely out of control, the dragon seemed to remember himself. With a shriek that froze the entire night into stillness, Strabo suddenly shot skyward. Ben, Questor, Aber-nathy, and Willow were thrust back viciously. Wind whipped and tore at them, threatening to unseat them, chilling them to the bone. Sound and sight disappeared in a vortex of motion. Ben held his breath and waited for them all to disintegrate. That was how this chase was going to end, he decided. They were simply going to come apart. There wasn't any doubt of it.

  He was wrong. Strabo shrieked a second time and suddenly breathed out a rush of fire. The air seemed to melt and the sky to open. A jagged hole appeared, black and empty, and they flew into it.

  The blackness swallowed them. There was a flare of light and a surge of heat. Ben closed his eyes, then slowly opened them again.

  A scattering of colored moons and solemn, twinkling stars brightened the night like a child's picture book. Mountain walls rose all about and trailers of mist played hide-and-seek through craggy peaks and great, silent trees.

  Ben Holiday let his breath escape in a slow hiss of relief.

  They were home.

  The little company spent the remainder of that night on the western slope of the valley just north of the Heart. They settled themselves in a grove of fruit trees mixed with a scattering of crimson-leaved maples, the smell of berries and apples mingling with hardwood bark and new sap in the cool night air. Cicadas hummed, crickets chirped, night birds called from near and far, and the whole of the valley whispered in the softest cadence that all was well. Sleep was an old and valued friend on such a night. For all but one of the worn and harried members of the little company, it came easily.

  Ben Holiday alone remained awake. Even Strabo slept, curled up some distance off within the shelter of a low ravine, but Ben stayed awake. Sleep would not come for him. He leaned back against Willow and waited for the dawn, troubled and anxious. Willow was a tree now. She had made the transformation moments after they had eased her down off the back of the dragon, barely conscious. She had tried to reassure Ben with a quick squeeze of one hand and a momentary smile, and then she was changing. Ben remained unconvinced. He stayed awake next to her, wishing that it was not just in his imagination that he could seem to
hear the sound of her breathing grow steadily stronger, smoother, deeper in tone. He knew she believed the transformation was necessary, that whatever the nature of the illness that had ravaged her in his world, whatever the form of the poison that attacked her, the soil of her own world would heal her. Maybe yes, maybe no, Ben thought. He had seen it work before, but that was before. He continued to keep an uneasy watch.

  Even so, he tried several times to snatch a bit of sleep, tried to close his eyes and let it embrace him, but his thoughts were dark and filled with the promise of terrifying dreams. He could not shake the memory of how close they had all come to not making it back. He could not forget the sense of helplessness he had experienced there in that empty courtroom when all his options had been stripped from him, a trial lawyer whose arguments and appeals had finally been exhausted. He could not forgive himself for so completely losing control.

  Questions whispered to him from the night. How far away from himself had he come in giving up his old life for his new? How much had he sacrificed to regenerate his sense of purpose? Too much, perhaps—so much, that he was in very real danger of losing his identity.

  He drifted in and out of a sort of half sleep, through uneven bouts of self-recrimination and second-guessing, plagued by demons of his own making. He knew he should dismiss them, yet he could not find the means. He grappled with them helplessly, each encounter provoking new pain and doubt. He was too vulnerable, and he could not seem to protect himself. He simply drifted.

  When dawn's light did begin at last to creep into the dark recesses of his consciousness, the eastern sky lightening and the night fading west, he found he had slept somehow, if only briefly. He jolted awake from a fitful doze, his eyes searching quickly for Willow, finding her asleep beside him, her color strong again, her life miraculously restored. There were tears in his eyes, and he brushed at them, smiling. Then, finally, the demons began to slip away, and he could feel again some small measure of hope that he might yet make sense out of who and what he was and take back into his own hands the lines that measured out his life.

  He confronted then, for the first time, something he had carefully avoided that entire night—the prospect of dealing with Nightshade and the Darkling. The specter of such an encounter had been lurking at the edge of his subconscious ever since Questor had told him after landing what had become of the bottle, kept just back of where he would be forced to think about it. But now he must think of it, he knew. He could put it off no longer. Everything that had gone before in his long search for the medallion and Aber-nathy would be rendered pointless if he did not find a way, once and for all, to dispose of that damnable bottle. That meant he must face Nightshade. And that could easily cost him his life.

  He sat in the gradually brightening clearing, feeling the pulse of the morning begin to quicken and the sluggishness of its night sleep begin to fade. He let his hand drift down to Willow's face and his fingers brush her skin softly. She stirred, but did not waken. How was he to do what must be done? he wondered. How was he to retrieve the bottle from Nightshade so that the demon could be put back inside? The doubts and fears had left him now, their needles withdrawn. He was able to think in clear, pragmatic terms. He must become the Paladin again, he realized, the knight-errant that was the alter ego of the Kings of Landover, that frightening iron juggernaut that seemed to claim a bit more of his soul each time he called upon its services. He shuddered involuntarily at the surge of ambivalent emotions that were stirred within him. He would need the Paladin's strength to withstand Nightshade's magic, not to mention the demon's. Questor Thews would help, of course. Ques-tor would lend his own magic to the cause. The real question was, would the two of them be enough? Even forgetting Nightshade for the moment, how could they overcome the Darkling? How could anyone overcome a creature whose power was apparently limitless?

  Ben Holiday sat alone in the brightening dawn and pondered this puzzle. He was still pondering it when the others came awake, the solution he sought as elusive as summer frost.

  He was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when halfway through a breakfast in which he was principally concerned with assuring himself that Willow was well again, the answer came to him.

  He was surprised, too, when, following breakfast, Strabo offered to carry them all north to the Deep Fell. He needn't have been. The dragon didn't make the offer because he felt an obligation to do anything further to help, or because he felt Questor had any further hold over him either. He had no sense of responsibility or concern for the success of their endeavors. He made it because he was anxious to let Holiday and Nightshade have at each other and he wanted to be there to enjoy the show. Someone's spilled blood was necessary to satisfy his irritation at having been dragged into this conflict in the first place, and he could only hope that witch and King would both bleed freely in the battle that was to follow.

  “You owe me, Holiday!” the dragon announced with a venomous hiss on making the offer to convey Ben to his own funeral. “This makes twice now that I have saved your worthless skin and twice now that you have given me nothing in return! If Nightshade dispatches you, I will consider the debt paid—but not otherwise! Think of what I have suffered for you! I was attacked, Holiday—chased and hounded by metal flying things, hunted with lights, screamed at and threatened by others like yourself, my system fouled by poisons I can only guess at, and my equanimity thoughtlessly disrupted!” He took a long, careful breath. “Let me put it another way. I find you the most annoying, bothersome creature I have ever had the misfortune of encountering and I long for the day you are finally no more!”

  Having said that, he knelt down so that the object of his derision might mount him. Ben glanced at Questor, who shrugged and said, “What else can you expect from a dragon?”

  Willow and Abernathy gave him fits as well by insisting that they should accompany him. When he had the temerity to suggest that he didn't think this was such a good idea, given the extent of the danger Questor and he would likely be facing from the witch and the bottle demon, both immediately suggested that perhaps he had better think again.

  “I did not survive the acute discomforts of Graum Wythe's dungeons and the vicissitudes of Michel Ard Rhi's personality to be left behind now!” his scribe announced rather irritably. “I intend to see this matter through to its proper conclusion! Besides,”he huffed, “you need someone to keep an eye on the wizard!”

  “Nor do I intend to be left behind, either,”Willow hastened to add. “I am well now, and you may have need of me. I have told you before, Ben Holiday—what happens to you happens to me.”

  Ben was hardly convinced by either argument; neither appeared to him to have fully recovered from the hardships of the journey over and back and neither would be of much help in dealing with Nightshade and the Darkling. But he knew there wasn't anything he could say that would change their minds and he decided it would be easier to take them than to try to force them to remain behind. He shook his head. Things never seemed to work out quite the way he wanted them to.

  So they lifted skyward aboard the dragon, departing the grove of fruit and maple trees that had been their night's camp, leaving behind the Heart with its rows of flags, stanchions, and polished oak benches and the distant, tiny island where rested castle Sterling Silver, and passing finally out of the hill country of the south into the plains and grasslands of the north. They flew until the Greensward was behind them and the wall of the Melchor rose ahead. Then Strabo dipped earthward, sailing lazily across the dark, misted bowl of the Deep Fell, presumably so that Nightshade couldn't miss seeing them, settling at last on a small scrap of grassland a short distance from the hollows’ edge.

  Ben and his companions eased themselves down from the dragon's back, casting furtive glances toward the rim of the witch's home. Mist swirled sluggishly in the windless midday air as if stirred by some invisible hand, and silence masked all signs of whatever life waited below. The air was sultry and fetid, and the clouds were gathered thick across this str
etch of the mountains. East, sunlight brightened the land; here, gray haze cloaked everything.

  Signs of the wilt that had marked the land at the time of Ben's arrival in Landover were evident again. Leaves were withered and sick-looking; whole stands of trees and patches of scrub were black. The devastation spread outward from the Deep Fell for as far as the eye could see— almost as if some sickness had crawled out of the hollows and begun devouring what lay beyond in ever-widening circles.

  “A fitting place for your demise, Holiday!” sneered the dragon, bending close. “Why don't you get on with it?”

  He spread his wings and soared off into the mountains, settling comfortably upon an outcropping of rock that overlooked the hollows and gave him a clear view of everything below.

  “I find him quite intolerable these days,”Questor Thews said quietly.

  “I find it hard to believe he was ever anything else,”Ben said.

  He positioned Willow and Abernathy in a broken stand of Bonnie Blues some distance back, pleading with them to stay out of sight until matters with the witch and the demon were resolved. He had no real expectation that his entreaties would be heeded, but he at least had to make the effort.

  He returned to Questor and spoke quietly with him then, explaining for the first time his plan for dealing with the Darkling. Questor was thoughtful for a moment, then announced, “High Lord, I think you may have found the answer.”

  Ben's smile was faint. “Finding the answer is one thing; applying it is another. You know what I mean, don't you? This will be tricky, Questor. It has to be done just so. Much depends on you.”

  Questor's owlish face was solemn. “I understand, High Lord. I won't let you down.”

  Ben nodded. “Just don't let yourself down. Are you ready?”

  “Ready, High Lord.”

  Ben turned to face the Deep Fell and called out sharply, “Nightshade!” The name echoed and slowly died away. Ben waited, then called again. “Nightshade!” Again, the name echoed into silence. Nightshade did not appear. Beside him, Questor shifted his booted feet uneasily.

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