Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks

  Questor hastily said something to Bunion, listened to the kobold's reply, and turned back to Ben. “They have opened the bottle, High Lord. They have set the Darkling free.”

  “And the Darkling is turning raindrops into gems?”

  “Yes, High Lord.”Questor looked decidedly uneasy. “Apparently it amuses the gnomes.”

  “I'll bet it does, those little ferret-faced bozos!” Ben scowled. Why wasn't anything ever easy? “Well, so much for getting the bottle back unopened. Now what, Questor? Will the Darkling try to stop us from putting it back in the bottle?”

  Questor shook his head doubtfully. “That depends on Fillip and Sot, High Lord. Whoever holds the bottle controls the demon.”

  “So the real question is, will Fillip and Sot refuse to give the bottle back to us?”

  “The magic is a powerful lure, High Lord.”

  Ben nodded. “Then we need a plan.”

  The plan he came up with was fairly simple. They would ride over to a place just out of sight of the gnomes. Parsnip would remain with the horses while the others went forward afoot. Ben, Questor, and Willow would approach from the front, openly. Bunion would sneak around behind. If Ben was unable to persuade the gnomes to return the bottle willingly, Bunion would snatch it away before they could do anything to stop him.

  “Remember, Bunion, if you see me rub my chin with my hand, that's your signal,”Ben finished. “You get in there as fast as you can and you get that bottle!”

  The kobold grinned wolfishly.

  They turned west, Bunion showing the way, Parsnip trailing with the pack animals, and rode the short distance to where the G'home Gnomes were at play with their treasure. They pulled into a stand of fir behind a low ridge while still hidden from view, dismounted, gave the horses over to Parsnip, sent Bunion on ahead to get into place, and began walking up the ridge. When they reached its crest, they stopped short.

  Fillip and Sot sat beneath a massive old willow, legs tucked up underneath, hands outstretched, laughing gleefully. The old willow's boughs were heavy with rain, and as the droplets slipped free they became sparkling gem-stones. The gnomes tried to catch those that fell close, but most tumbled earthward out of reach and collected in shimmering piles. There were gemstones everywhere, heaps of them, flashing rainbow colors through the afternoon gray and damp, a seeming mirage come to life.

  The bottle sat upon the ground between the G'home Gnomes, forgotten. An ugly, spiderlike creature danced upon the bottle's rim where the stopper had been pulled and flicked bits of green fire at the raindrops. Each bit of fire changed another droplet into a gemstone.

  It was the weirdest scene Ben Holiday had ever witnessed. Fillip and Sot looked as if they had gone nuts.

  “All right! That's enough!” he yelled sharply.

  The G'home Gnomes froze, shrinking down against the earth like wilted flowers. The Darkling crouched catlike on the lip of the bottle, eyes glittering. Ben waited a moment to be certain that he had their attention, then started down the slope of the ridge, Questor and Willow in tow. When he reached the outer curtain of the willow's broad canopy —not more than a dozen yards from the gnomes—he stopped.

  “What do you think you're doing, guys?” he asked quietly.

  Fillip and Sot looked terrified. “Leave us alone!” they cried. “Let us be!” The words all jumbled together as they spoke them, and Ben couldn't tell who was saying what.

  “There is a small problem that needs solving first,”he said evenly. “You have something that belongs to me.”

  “No, no,”whined Fillip.

  “Nothing,”whined Sot.

  “How about the bottle?” he asked.

  The moment he said the word “bottle” the gnomes had their hands on it, snatching it back away from him. The Darkling stayed perched on the open lip, clinging to the glass as if it had suction cups on its fingers. Ben had a clear view of the creature now; it was an ugly little thing. The red eyes glittered hatefully, and Ben looked quickly away.

  “Fillip. Sot.”He tried to keep his voice calm. “You have to give the bottle back. It doesn't belong to you. You took it without permission.”

  “You said you wished you had never seen it!” insisted Fillip.

  “You said you wished it would disappear!” added Sot.

  “You put it away!”

  “You didn't want it!”

  “Great High Lord!”

  “Mighty High Lord!”

  Ben held up his hands quickly to silence them. “You have to give it back, fellas. That's all there is to it. Close it up and hand it over—right now.”

  The gnomes pulled the bottle closer still. Their eyes narrowed, and something of the look he had seen in the Darkling's eyes reflected suddenly in their own. Fillip's muzzle was drawing back to show teeth. Sot was stroking the demon's arched spine.

  “The bottle belongs to us!” snapped Fillip.

  “The bottle is ours!” grated Sot.

  The terror was still evident in their eyes, but Ben had mistaken completely its source. He had thought them frightened of him; in truth, they were frightened, not of him, but of losing the bottle.

  “Nuts!” he muttered and looked at Questor.

  The wizard stepped forward. His scarecrow form straightened. “Fillip and Sot, you are hereby charged with theft of royal property and flight to avoid return of same!” He cleared his throat officiously. “Return the property now —the bottle, that is—and all charges will be dropped. Otherwise, you will be arrested and placed in the castle dungeons.”He paused hopefully. “You don't want that, do you?”

  The G'home Gnomes cringed. Then suddenly they leaned down to the bottle as the Darkling whispered something up to them. When they looked back again, the defiance was evident.

  “You lie to us!” declared Fillip.

  “You wish to hurt us!” declared Sot.

  “You want the bottle for yourselves!”

  “You want its treasures for your own use!”

  “You try to trick us!”

  “You play hateful games!”

  They were on their feet now, holding the bottle between them, backing slowly toward the base of the tree. Ben was appalled. He had never seen the gnomes like this they were actually ready to fight!

  “What's happening here?” he whispered urgently.

  “It is the demon, High Lord!” Questor whispered back. “It poisons everyone it touches!”

  Ben was already regretting that he had even bothered trying to talk the gnomes out of the bottle. It would have been smarter just to send Bunion in to steal the damn thing and be done with it.

  Willow appeared suddenly at his other side. “Fillip!” she called out. “Sot! Please, do not do this to the High Lord! Remember how he came to you when no one else would? Remember how he helped you?” Her voice softened. “He has always helped you when you needed it; you owe him much. Return the bottle to him. He needs the bottle to help find Abernathy and bring him safely back. Do not obstruct him like this. Listen to what is inside of you. Give him back the bottle.”

  For just a moment, Ben thought they would. They seemed to respond better to Willow; they looked sheepish and guilty. They started forward a step or two, tenuous shufflings, muttering something unintelligible, appearing themselves once more. Then the Darkling darted from the bottle onto first Fillip's shoulder and then Sot's, hissing wickedly, then dropped back again, dancing as if maddened. Fillip and Sot stopped abruptly and began retreating once more. The look of fear and defiance returned.

  That was enough for Ben. It was time to call on Bunion. He brought his hand up to his chin and rubbed it as if thinking matters over.

  Bunion shot out of nowhere, a blur of darkness against the gray haze of the rain. Fillip and Sot never saw him. He was on them before they realized what was happening. But, by then, the attempt to regain possession of the bottle had already failed. One instant Bunion seemed to have his hands on the bottle; in the next he was flung back, thrown by an invisible force. Incredibly, t
he Darkling had taken matters into its own hands. The demon hissed, spit like a cat, and threw a massive bolt of green fire at the kobold. Bunion was picked up again and hurtled backward through the air to disappear completely from view.

  Ben was already rushing forward, but he was not nearly quick enough. The G'home Gnomes screamed in warning, and the Darkling was quick to respond. It whirled on Ben, fingers flicking at the air. Raindrops turned to knives and whistled toward the High Lord in a lethal barrage. Ben had no chance to dodge them.

  Fortunately, he didn't have to. For once, Questor Thews got the magic to work right the first time, and the knives were turned aside at the last possible moment. Ben blinked, shied away out of reflex, came around again when he realized he wasn't a pincushion after all, and yelled for Questor and Willow to run. Already the Darkling was lashing out again, this time with a bewildering array of rocks and loose stone, thrown from the earth as if scooped by some giant's hand. Questor's shield held firm, however, and the three friends backed quickly away, crouching down against the strange assault as it hammered toward them.

  Then the stones were obscured in a gust of hailstones and winter sleet that suddenly took shape out of the falling rain and came at them with frightening purpose. Questor cried out sharply, threw out his hands, and a flash of blinding light obscured everything. But the protective shield was beginning to give and the hailstones to break through. They struck with stinging, painful blows, and Ben staggered back, trying to protect Willow as they edged toward the summit of the ridge.

  “Get down, High Lord!” he heard Questor yell frantically.

  Pulling Willow close, he stumbled over the summit and down the far slope. Questor's shield gave way completely. Hail and sleet were all about, a blinding flurry of white, striking at them. Ben fell to the ground and rolled, Willow going down with him, tumbling wildly through scrub and bare earth.

  Then, miraculously, the sleet and hail were gone. Rain fell softly once more, the day gray and empty and still. Ben let his eyes slip open, met Willow's as they lifted to find him, then caught a glimpse of Questor over her shoulder as he struggled up woodenly and brushed himself off.

  There was no sign of the gnomes or the demon.

  Ben was shaking. He was frightened and angry and grateful to be alive. The Darkling had very nearly killed them. He reached over impulsively and hugged Willow close.

  They found Bunion snarled in some brush several hundred yards off, bruised and battered, but conscious. He should have been dead, considering the beating he had taken, but kobolds were very tough creatures. Willow worked over him carefully for a time, using the healing powers common to the once-upon-a-time fairy people of the lake country, touching him gently, taking away the worst of the hurt. After less than half an hour, Bunion was back on his feet, stiff and sore, but grinning wickedly. The kobold hissed a few words of unmistakable meaning at Questor. He wanted another crack at the demon.

  But the Darkling had disappeared along with the bottle and Fillip and Sot, and there was no trace of where they might have gone. Ben and company searched for a time, scouring the surrounding countryside for a trail. They found nothing. Apparently the demon had used his magic to conceal their tracks.

  “Or maybe they simply flew out of here, High Lord,”Questor advised solemnly. “The Darkling has such power.”

  “Are there any limits to what this thing can do?” Ben asked.

  “The only limits imposed on it are those imposed by the character of the holder of the bottle. The worse the character, the stronger the demon.”Questor sighed. “Fillip and Sot are not really bad creatures. The strength the Darkling can draw from them should exhaust itself quickly.”

  “I feel sorry for them, Ben,”Willow said quietly. “For Fillip and Sot.”

  He looked at her in surprise, then nodded wearily. “I suppose I do, too. I don't imagine they even know what's happened to them.”He turned. “Parsnip, bring the horses!”

  The kobold hurried away. Ben glanced skyward momentarily, thinking. The rain was ending, the day edging quickly toward dusk. There wasn't enough time left to accomplish much of anything before nightfall.

  “What do we do now, High Lord?” Questor asked him. The others crowded close.

  Ben's jaw tightened. “I'll tell you what we do, Questor.We wait until morning. Then we go after Fillip and Sot. We hunt for them until we find them, and when we find them we get the bottle back and shut the Darkling away once and for all!”

  He glanced over at a grinning Bunion. “And next time we'll be ready for the little monster!”

  Abernathy spent his first full day in Ben's world shut away in Elizabeth's room, discovering how much trouble he was really in. Elizabeth had considered the possibility of staying home sick from school in order to be with him, but had discarded the idea when she realized being sick would bring the housekeeper on a determined crusade of mercy and Abernathy would likely be discovered in the process. Besides, she hadn't come up with a plan to sneak him out of Graum Wythe yet, so she needed the day to think the matter over.

  So off she went to school while Abernathy stayed hidden in her room, reading old magazines and newspapers. He asked her for the reading material, and she brought it to him from her father's study before she left. Abernathy was Court Historian as well as Court Scribe in Landover and he knew something of the histories of other worlds as well as his own. He had made it a point to study the history of Ben's world when Meeks moved over there and began recruiting men willing to pay for Landover's throne. It had been pretty frightening stuff. Most of what Abernathy remembered had to do with machines and sciences and any number of wars. Since he was wearing the medallion, he could read and speak the language of any world he was in, so learning what Ben's world was like wouldn't be difficult. But it would be necessary if he was to find a way back to his own.

  So he picked through the stack of magazines and newspapers, propped up on Elizabeth's bed amid stuffed animals and dolls, a scattering of pillows at his back, and tried to figure out how things worked. Most of his reading was superfluous. There were an abnormally large number of stories about wars and killing, most the result of politics and economics, many having no rational purpose. There were a number of stories having to do with investigations of one sort or another as well. Abernathy read a few and gave up, concluding that he was trapped in a world full of crooks and thieves. Some of the magazines offered stories of romance and adventure, but Abernathy skipped those. He read more closely the advertisements—that's what they were called, he discovered—and learned most of what was useful from them.

  The advertisements told him what was for sale in the way of goods and services, and that let him discover several things. It let him discover that no one traveled by horse or carriage; everyone rode or even flew in machines developed by the world's sciences. It let him discover that in order to use these machines, he had to pay for the privilege with money or something called credit, and he, of course, had neither. Finally, it let him discover—forgetting for the moment the fact that he was a talking dog—that no one dressed anything like the way he did, talked anything like the way he did, or shared much of anything else in the way of a common social, economic, or cultural background. Once beyond the walls of Graum Wythe, he would stand out from everyone else as clearly as day from night.

  One of the magazines included a map of the United States, which he quickly realized was Ben's country. He found the state of Washington, where he was, and the state of Virginia, where he had to go. The topography of the country between was clearly delineated on the map. A legend advised him of the distance he would have to travel. Elizabeth had been right—it was a long, long way from here to there. He might walk it, but it looked as if the walk could take him forever.

  After a time, he put down the newspapers and the magazines, got off the bed, walked over to the twin latticework windows that opened to the south, and looked out. The countryside immediately surrounding the castle was planted with vineyards. There were a few small patches
of open space, a tiny stream that meandered about, and several distant houses that dotted the landscape, but not much of anything else. The houses intrigued Abernathy. He had seen pictures of such houses in the magazines, and neither those nor these were anything at all like the houses in Lan-dover. Graum Wythe seemed sorely out of place amid such structures, as if it had been picked up and plunked down without thought to whether it belonged or not. Abernathy assumed it was here solely because it was the prideful recreation of Michel Ard Rhi's imaginary fortress from his childhood—the place he had occupied in his mind most of his life. There was a moat about it, guardhouses at either end of the drawbridge leading over, a low stone wall farther out with wire and sharp barbs atop it, and a gate. Abernathy shook his head. Michel hadn't changed.

  Elizabeth had prepared a sandwich and something called potato chips for Abernathy's lunch, and he ate them at midday before settling back down to read further from the magazines and newspapers. He hadn't been at it for more than a few minutes when he heard footsteps come up to the bedroom door, saw the door handle turn, and watched in horror as it swung open.

  There wasn't time to hide. There wasn't time to do anything but drop down amid the newspapers and magazines and play dead. So that was what Abernathy did.

  A woman came into the room carrying an armful of what appeared to be cleaning supplies. Abernathy could see this through slitted eyes. She was humming to herself, unaware yet that there was anyone else in the room. Abernathy had curled himself into a ball, trying hard to blend in with the stuffed animals. Was this the dreaded housekeeper Elizabeth had thought to avoid by going on to school instead of playing sick? Why hadn't Elizabeth warned him that she might come into the room to clean anyway? He tried hard not to breathe. Maybe she wouldn't notice him. Maybe she would leave if he just…

  She turned around and looked right at him. She stiffened in surprise and put her hands on her hips. “Well, what's this? What are you doing here? There's not supposed to be any dogs in here! That Elizabeth!”

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