Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks

  Abernathy didn't know what “creepy” meant, but he was sure it was something Michel Ard Rhi could be. “I have to get away from here, Elizabeth. You have to help me.

  “But, Abernathy, where will you go?” she asked immediately.

  “It really doesn't matter so long as it is far away from here,”he advised. He paused, frowning. “I still cannot understand why I am here rather than somewhere else. Here, of all places. How could that happen?” He shook his head.

  “I think I should go with you,”Elizabeth said suddenly.

  “No! No, you cannot do that!” Abernathy replied at once. “No, no, Elizabeth, I have to go alone.”

  “But you don't even know where you're going!”

  “I can find my way, believe me. There is a way back into Landover if you wear the medallion. The High Lord told me something of it once—a place called Virginia. I can find it.”

  “Virginia is at the other end of the country!” Elizabeth exclaimed, horrified. “How will you get there?”

  Abernathy stared at her. He had no idea, of course. “There are ways,”he said finally. “But I have to get out of here first. Will you help me?”

  Elizabeth sighed. “Of course, I'll help you.”She stood up, walked over to the window, and looked out. “I have to think of a way to sneak you through one of the gates. They check everyone going out.”She thought. “It's too late today to do anything. Maybe tomorrow. I have to go to school, but I get home by four. Or maybe I'll pretend to be sick and stay home. I can't hide you here for very long.”She looked over. “I still think I should go with you.”

  Abernathy nodded. “I know. But you can't, Elizabeth. You are too young. It would be too dangerous.”

  Elizabeth frowned, then turned back to the window. “My dad says that sometimes when I ask to do things.”

  “I suppose he does.”

  Elizabeth turned back again and looked over with a smile. He saw himself fleetingly in the mirror behind her, saw himself as she saw him, a dog in red and gold silk clothing sitting on her bed, glasses on his furry nose, soulful brown eyes looking back at her. He suddenly thought how ridiculous he must seem to her. He looked away, embarrassed.

  But she surprised him. “Are we going to stay good friends, Abernathy,”she asked, “even after you're gone?”

  He would have smiled if it were possible for dogs to do so. “Yes, Elizabeth, we are.”

  “Good. I'm really glad that I'm the one who found you, you know.”

  “I am, too.”

  “I still wish you would let me come with you.”

  “I know.”

  “Why don't you think about it.”

  “I will.”

  “Do you promise?”

  Abernathy sighed. “Elizabeth?”


  “I could think much better if I had something to eat. And maybe something to drink?”

  She bounced out of the room. Abernathy watched her go. He liked Elizabeth. He had to admit that he didn't mind so much being a dog around her after all.

  “There is something that lives in the bottle,”Questor Thews said.

  He sat with Ben, Willow, and the kobolds in the garden room. Night's shadows cloaked everything in shawls of gray and black, save only where a single dimmed light from a smokeless lamp lent muted shades of color to a small circle of space where four listeners sat hunched over in silence, waiting for the wizard to continue. Questor's owlish face was gaunt and craggy with worry, his brow furrowed more deeply than usual, his eyes bits of silver glitter. His hands were folded in his lap, gnarled sticks of deadwood that had become inextricably locked together.

  “The thing is called a Darkling. It is a kind of demon.”

  Like the bottle imp, Ben thought suddenly, remembering the old Robert Louis Stevenson story. Then he remembered what the creature of that story had done to its owners and he experienced a sudden twinge of uneasiness.

  “The Darkling is very like the genie of the lamp in the old tales,”Questor continued. Ben felt the uneasiness begin to subside. “It serves the holder of its bottle, appearing when summoned, doing its master's bidding. It uses various forms of magic to accomplish this.”He sighed. “Unfortunately, the magic it uses is all bad.”

  “How bad?” Ben asked quietly. The uneasiness was back.

  “That depends, High Lord.”Questor cleared his throat and rocked back in thought. “You have to understand the nature of the magic the Darkling employs. It isn't a magic that is self-contained; it is a magic that is derivatory.”

  “Which means what?”

  “Which means that the Darkling draws its strength from the holder of the bottle. Its magic is fed by the strength of character of the one who calls upon it—not by what is good and kind in that character, but by what is bad and hurtful. Anger, selfishness, greed, envy, other emotions that you can name as well as I, destructive emotions that lurk within all of us to some degree—the Darkling draws the power for its magic from these.”

  “It feeds on human failing,”Willow observed softly. “I have heard of such creatures, long ago banished from the mists.”

  “Well, that is not yet the worst of it,”Questor went on wearily. His mouth had twisted into a scowl that threatened to pull his nose down into his beard. “I mentioned before that the bottle seemed somehow familiar to me. It is—or was, a very long time ago. It has been more than twenty years since I last saw it. It was only just this evening that I was able to remember where.”He cleared his throat nervously. “I last saw it in the hands of my half-brother. The bottle belonged to him.”

  “Oh, oh,”Ben groaned.

  “But how did it get here?” Willow asked.

  The wizard sighed his deepest sigh yet. ‘To explain that, I have to go back in time.”

  “Not too far back, I hope?” Ben pleaded.

  “High Lord, I will go no further back than is necessary for the purpose of completing my explanation.”Questor was slightly indignant. “You must appreciate the fact that the amount of time either of us might believe necessary is somewhat subjective when one…”

  “Just do it, Questor—please!” Ben urged helplessly.

  Questor hesitated, shrugged, nodded, then rocked back once more. He was seated on a bench that offered no back support at all and appeared at every rock to be in danger of going over altogether. He tugged up his legs beneath his robe as a child would, drawing them close to his chest, and his owlish face assumed a faraway look. His brows knitted, and his lips tightened. He appeared to Ben to be a man who had eaten something disagreeable.

  Finally, he was ready. “You will remember that my half-brother was Court Wizard to the old King,”he began. They all nodded, the kobolds included. “I was without position at the Court, but I would visit from time to time anyway. The old King often gave me small tasks that took me to other parts of the kingdom—tasks that were of no particular interest to my half-brother. My half-brother had been named tutor to the old King's young son shortly after the boy's eighth year, and the whole of my half-brother's time thereafter was occupied with teaching that boy. Unfortunately, he was teaching the boy all the wrong things. He saw that the old King was weakening, aging more quickly, sick from ailments which could not be cured. He knew that the boy would be King after his father was gone, and he wanted control of the boy. Michel was his name. Michel Ard Rhi.”

  He cocked his head. “Michel had never demonstrated much character, even before he began spending all his study time with Meeks. But after my half-brother got his hands on him, he became a thoroughly despicable lad in no time at all. He was cruel and mean-spirited. He took great delight in tormenting everyone and everything. He was obsessed with the magic Meeks employed and he begged after it as would a hungry man for food. Meeks used the magic to win the boy over and then finally to subvert him altogether.”

  “Delightful,”Ben observed. “So what has this got to do with the bottle, Questor?”

  “Weil.”Questor had assumed his best professorial look. “One of the
toys that Meeks gave to Michel to use was the bottle. Michel was allowed to summon the Darkling and order him about. The demon was extremely dangerous, you understand, but not if one appreciated his uses. My half-brother understood enough to keep the creature under control, and Michel's play presented no real threat to him. Michel used the Darkling in quite frightful ways—often in terrible games with animals. It was during one of these uses that Abernathy lost patience with the boy and thrashed him, and I was then forced to change my good friend from a man to a dog in order that he not be harmed.

  “It was shortly after that the old King saw what was happening to the boy and ordered all tutoring to stop. Meeks was forbidden to engage in magic thereafter when the boy was about. All the boy's magic things were ordered destroyed—the bottle, in particular.”

  “But that didn't happen, obviously,”Ben interjected.

  Questor shook his head. ‘The old King was weak, but he was still protected by the Paladin. Meeks was not about to challenge him. My half-brother was content to wait for the old man to die. He was already planning his future with the boy, already planning to abandon Landover for other worlds. Time would eventually give him everything, he believed. On the other hand, he was not about to give up the bottle—certainly not about to let it be destroyed. But he couldn't simply hide it; the old King might learn of his deception. And even if he did, he couldn't convey the magic out of Landover when he left, in any case; the natural law of things would not permit it. What was he to do, then?”

  Questor paused as if expecting an answer. When he failed to get one, he bent forward conspiratorially and whispered, “What he did was to order the Darkling to convey himself and his bottle out of Landover to a place where both would remain hidden until my half-brother came for them once more. Very ingenious.”

  Ben frowned impatiently. “Questor, what does all this have to do with the price of apples and oranges?” Questor looked befuddled. “What about the bottle?” Ben snapped.

  Questor grimaced and held up his hands imploringly. “My half-brother promised it to the boy. That bottle was the boy's favorite possession. My half-brother assured Michel that his bottle would not be destroyed. He said they would recover it later, after the death of the old King, after they had taken up residence in another land and begun selling kingships to Landover. It was to be their secret.”He shrugged. “I would have informed the old King, of course, had I known. But I did not learn of all this until later when the old King was gone. That was when Meeks first chose to tell me about it.”

  “He told you about it?” Ben was appalled.

  Questor looked mortified. “Yes, High Lord. There was no reason not to. There was nothing I could do about the matter. My half-brother was quite proud of himself, and his pride insisted that he share his satisfaction in his accomplishments with someone. I was always his first choice when it came time to bestow such honors.”

  Ben was thinking. Questor glanced at him nervously. “I regret that it took me until now to remember all this, High Lord. I realize I should have remembered sooner. But it has been over twenty years, and the bottle simply didn't recall itself to my memory until…”

  “Wait a minute!” Ben cut him short. “What about the bottle? What happened to it?”

  What happened to it? Questor repeated.

  “Yes. That was the question. What happened to it?”

  Questor looked as if he wanted to disappear into himself. “My half-brother retrieved it and gave it back to Michel.”

  “Gave it back…” Ben stopped, horrified.

  “Well, there was no reason not'to give it back, you see,”Questor tried to explain. “My half-brother had made the boy a promise, you remember. There was little danger in keeping it. They were in a new world, and the magic of the bottle was considerably diminished by the fact that not much of anyone in that world believed in or practiced magic. It was relatively harmless there, and…”

  “Wait a minute!” Ben interrupted. “We're talking about my world!”

  “Your old world, yes…”

  “My world! The bottle was in my world! You said… ! That means… !”Ben was beside himself. He took a quick breath. “Your errant magic worked an exchange, didn't it? That was what you said, wasn't it? And if the magic brought the bottle here, it must have sent Abernathy therel What in the hell have you done, Questor? You've sent Abernathy to my world! Worse, you've sent him to this nut Michel, haven't you?”

  Questor nodded dismally.

  “Along with my medallion, damnit, so that now I can't even get back into my world to help him!”

  Questor cringed. “Yes, High Lord.”

  Ben sat back without a word, glanced at Willow, then glanced at the kobolds. No one said anything. The room was still, the sounds of the night distant whispers. Ben wondered why these things always seemed to happen to him.

  “We have to get the bottle back,”he said finally. He looked at Questor. “And when we do, you had better find a way to exchange it back again for Abernathy!”

  The wizard's face screwed into a knot. “I will do my best, High Lord.”

  Ben shook his head hopelessly. “Whatever.”He stood up. “Well, we can't do much until sunrise. It's too dark out there to try to track down those confounded gnomes now. Even Bunion would have trouble. Hardly any light at all— clouded over, no moon. Damn the luck!” He strode to the windows and back again. “At least Fillip and Sot don't know what they've taken. They think of the bottle as a pretty possession. Maybe they won't open it before we find them. Maybe they'll just sit there and look at it.”

  “Perhaps.”Questor looked doubtful.

  “But perhaps not?” Ben finished.

  “There is a problem.”

  “Another problem, Questor?”

  “Yes, High Lord, I am afraid so.”The wizard swallowed. “The Darkling is a very unpredictable creature.”


  “Sometimes it comes out of the bottle on its own.”

  Not a dozen miles from where Ben Holiday was staring in horror at Questor Thews, Fillip and Sot lay huddled together in the concealing blackness of the night. They had scooped out an abandoned badger den and backed their way in, two chubby, furry bodies disappearing inch by inch into the earth until nothing remained but pointed snouts and glittering eyes. They crouched within their makeshift warren, listening to the sounds that rose about them, as still as the leaves hanging limp from the surrounding trees in the windless, peaceful air.

  “Shall we take it out one more time?” asked Sot finally.

  “I think we should keep it hidden,”replied Fillip.

  “But we need only take it out for a moment,”argued Sot.

  “That might be one moment too long,”insisted Fillip.

  “But there is no light,”persisted Sot.

  “Some need no light/’ declared Fillip.

  Then they were quiet again, eyes blinking, noses sniffing. Somewhere distant, a bird cried out sharply.

  “Do you think the High Lord will miss it?” asked Sot.

  “He said he wished he had never seen it,”answered Fillip. “He said he wished it would disappear.”

  “But he still might miss it,”said Sot.

  “He has many other bottles and vases and pretty things,”said Fillip.

  “I think we should take it out one more time.”

  “I think we should leave it where it is.”

  “Just to look at the dancing clowns.”

  “Just to give someone else a chance to steal it.”

  Sot hunched down irritably, squirming in a way that would leave no doubt in his brother's mind as to how he felt about the matter. Fillip ignored him. Sot squirmed some more, then sighed and stared out again into the night. He was thinking of the tasty meal and the warm bed he had left behind at the castle.

  “We should have stayed with the High Lord until morning,”he said.

  “It was necessary that we leave at once with the bottle,”replied Fillip, a tad weary now of the other's talk. Hi
s nose wrinkled. “The High Lord was disturbed by the presence of the bottle. It gave him great pain even to look upon it. It reminded him of the dog. The dog was his friend—although I admit I will never understand how anyone can be friends with a dog. Dogs are good to eat, but have no other purpose.”

  “We should have told him we were taking the bottle,”argued Sot.

  “That would only have caused him more pain,”rebutted Fillip.

  “He will be angry with us.”

  “He will be pleased.”

  “I think we should look at the bottle again.”

  “Will you stop… ?”

  “Just to be certain that it is still all right.”

  “… asking that same… ?”

  “Just to be sure.”

  Fillip sighed a deep, wheezy sigh that sent dust flying from their burrow entrance. Sot sneezed. Fillip glanced at him and blinked. Sot blinked back.

  “Perhaps just for a very, very brief moment,”said Fillip finally.

  “Yes, just for a moment,”agreed Sot.

  Their wrinkled, grimy fingers pawed at the cluster of sticks and leaves that concealed a narrow hole they had dug in the earth directly before them. When the clutter was pushed aside, they reached in together and gingerly extracted a cloth-bound bundle. Holding it close, they loosened the wrappings and pulled out the bottle.

  Carefully, they set it on the ground in front of their noses, its painted white surface gleaming faintly, its red harlequins at their dance. Two pairs of gnome eyes glittered with excitement.

  “Such a pretty thing,”whispered Fillip.

  “Such a beautiful treasure,”echoed Sot.

  They stared at it some more. The allotted moment stretched into several and then into many. Still they stared, transfixed.

  “I wonder if there is anything inside,”mused Fillip.

  “I wonder,”mused Sot.

  Fillip reached out and shook the bottle gently. The harlequins seemed to dance faster. “It seems empty,”he said.

  Sot shook it as well. “It does,”he agreed.

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