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The Wizardry Cursed


Beware of open-ended contracts. They are hell to support.

—Programmers' saying 


Torches flickered and smoked, casting fitful light through the cavern. Tosig Longbeard, King of the Dwarves—or at least the Mid-Northeastern Dwarves of the Southern Forest Range—shifted on his carved alabaster throne and eyed his visitors with distaste.

It was, he had to admit, a most unusual sight. Three Troll Kings in the same room and not fighting. The sight and stench would have been enough to gag a human; but dwarves have a somewhat different aesthetic and King Tosig's attitude owed more to the delegation's demands than their looks or smell. He drummed his fingers on the throne arm as he tried to figure a diplomatic way out of this mess.

The smaller troll in the center did the talking. He was unusually intelligent for a troll and their host had no doubt he was the one who had organized this meeting. Pox rot him! Tosig thought as he waited for him to run down.

"This is not a matter for me or my people," Tosig broke in at last. "If this new human wizard bothers you, then destroy him."

"We cannot," the troll king replied. "This magic is too strong." His face split into a snaggle-toothed grin. "But dwarves have powerful magic. Dwarves can kill this new wizard."

His two companions nodded and growled assent. King Tosig glowered back and felt a tiny burning sensation kindle somewhere up under his breastbone. At that moment he truly wanted to kill the new wizard who had brought him all this trouble.

At that moment the new wizard wouldn't have been at all averse to being killed.

Like King Tosig's hall, the chamber was underground and dimly lit. But instead of rough stone, the walls were fine mosaics in subdued and tasteful patterns. There were no smoky torches here, only a diffuse radiance that seemed to emanate from everywhere in the room. And while the creature that faced the two humans across the table might be decidedly odd, by no stretch of the imagination could it be called either ugly or stinking.

But that did not mean the wizard was enjoying himself.

"Okay, look," William Irving Zumwalt said. "If the dryads mark their trees our woodcutters will leave them alone. But in return our people can cut other trees and use the forest without being harassed."

The being across the nacreous table cocked its head, as if listening to far-away voices. It was manlike, but then so is a gorilla if you stretch the term far enough. Parchment skin stretched over delicate bones. Fingers so long they were almost tentacles. Enormous dark eyes that slanted at the corners. Ears blood-pink and pointed. The thing was at once inhumanly beautiful and deeply disturbing.

The silence dragged on. Wiz shifted and fidgeted while the creature sat with its head to one side and its eyes focused on things far beyond its visitor. Elven magic could warp time to make centuries pass in a single night. But Wiz was finding that non-mortals didn't need magic to make a night drag on for centuries.

"It will be done," the creature said finally. "The trees will be marked."

"But when?"

The other lifted a delicate hand and waved it airily. "Soon," it fluted.

Wiz took a tighter rein on his temper. "Soon" to a non-mortal meant any time in the next geologic eon—if then.

"But precisely when? I can't go back to my people and tell them just `soon.' We've got to be able to go into the forests to cut wood and gather food."

"You wish it done soon. I say it will be soon. That is enough."

"Fine, but we need . . ." Wiz was talking to empty air. The being had vanished, leaving Wiz and his companion alone in the gently glowing chamber. Slowly and inexorably the light was dying, a none-too-subtle hint that the meeting was over.

"Well, then . . ." Jerry Andrews put his palms on the opalescent table and heaved himself up from the low chair. He had lost weight in the year or so he had been in this world, but he still outweighed Wiz by nearly 100 pounds just as he overtopped him by a head.

"Next full moon," Wiz agreed and got up as well.

I hope they will be here then, he thought as he followed Jerry through the fading light of the corridor and out into the clear frosty air outside the hill. There was no door or other obvious exit. One step they were within the enchanted hill and the next step they were outside, with the forest looming up behind them and the gently glowing magic barrier that cordoned off this place in front of them.

Reflexively they both inhaled deeply. There was nothing wrong with the air inside, but the air outside seemed sweeter. The smell of freedom, Wiz decided. It was just a few more steps along the moonlit path and they were past the barrier and back in the forest that belonged to men.

* * *

"Mortals drive us from the forest," the troll king's voice echoed off the walls of the cavern. "We cannot hunt where we did."

Meaning you can't hunt mortals, King Tosig thought sourly. Well, what did you expect, you silly nit? You go around eating people, even mortals, and naturally they'll object. The burning in his stomach was stronger and he knew he would be up all night, walking the floor and drinking ground chalk.

He understood the trolls' problem in a general way. For time out of mind trolls had roamed the marches of the human realms, devouring human travelers and occasionally daring to attack mortal farms and villages. Then three or four seasons ago a new magician had arisen among the humans. Brought from outside the World, or so the story went.

At first this alien wizard had only used his power in human quarrels. But before long his vastly more powerful magic had begun to spread among mortals. Suddenly the humans had respectable magical powers and the trolls, who had almost none, had lost a major item in their diet.

Tosig tugged his beard. This was a pretty problem indeed. So far there had been little contact between humans and dwarves and he would just as soon keep it that way. His realms were far from the lands of mortals and his people had not suffered from the humans' new magic. However he had heard stories and they were not the sort to encourage him to stir up trouble in that direction.

Well, maybe he wouldn't have to. The king had been talking for nearly a day-tenth and hadn't yet . . .

"I call debt-right!" the troll king thundered. "Blood for my people."

A stillness settled over the hall. All the dwarves present knew that the troll kings' claim was legitimate. Tosig sighed and inwardly cursed the day he had contracted a debt to a gang of trolls. But contract it he had, and now the troll had made a formal demand. Debts must be paid.

There were practical considerations as well. The dwarves traded salt and iron to the trolls for hides, some forest products and the odd bit of booty. It was not a terribly profitable trade, but if the truth be known the Mid-Northeastern Dwarves of the Southern Forest Range were not a terribly wealthy tribe. They didn't need complications with the trolls now.

As if I didn't have enough problems! Tosig thought as the pain in his stomach gnawed and the silence stretched on. As if . . . Suddenly he stopped short and thought furiously.

Ignoring the burning inside he nodded to his visitors.

"It pleases me to grant your request. The thing shall be done." He waved dismissal. "Now go."

"When?" the small troll demanded eagerly.

"Soon," Tosig said loftily. "Return to your forests." He repeated the dismissing gesture. The guards around the perimeter of the hall shifted and the trolls took the hint. Jostling and squabbling, they made their way out of the hall.

As soon as his unwelcome guests were gone, he motioned to his seneschal.

"Make sure they leave immediately," he said, rising from his throne. "And see that their rooms are fumigated. The last batch had lice."

The seneschal nodded and began to back away, but the dwarf king caught his sleeve and pulled him close.

"Send Glandurg to me in my chamber," he commanded in a low voice.

There was a flash of bewilderment on the seneschal's leathery face. Normally it was part of his job to keep Glandurg as far away from his royal relative as he could. But he nodded, sketched another bow and hurried to do his master's bidding.

* * *

Beyond the barrier, Bal-Simba was waiting. The enormous black wizard sat patiently on a rock wrapped in a cloak against the evening chill. Beside him was Danny, the other member of the programming team. Huddled next to Danny was his wife June. Fortunately it was a large rock.

Bal-Simba was there because it was as close as he could get to the negotiations. Despite being the head of the Council of the North and as such the leader of nearly all the mortals in the World, the non-mortals would not treat with him. Wiz Zumwalt's new magic was stronger and to the non-mortals that made him the only mortal who mattered. They would tolerate Jerry, Wiz's cubicle mate from his days as a programmer in Cupertino, because Jerry was Wiz's right-hand man and also an expert with the new magic.

Danny was there because Wiz and Jerry were. Like Jerry, he had been magically brought to this world to help Wiz complete his magic compiler and like Jerry he had chosen to stay behind when most of the programmers went back. He had matured considerably in the year or so since he had come to the World, but there was still a lot of punk kid and hacker in Danny.

June was there because Danny was. If being a father and husband had matured Danny, being mother and wife apparently affected June not at all. She was still an almost feral presence; shy, silent and remote from everyone except Danny and their infant son. Even pregnancy and motherhood had not added a single pound to her painfully thin frame.

Sitting pressed up against Danny she reminded Wiz of a wild animal, unsure of her surroundings and ready to lash out at anyone who came too close. As she moved, Wiz saw that she had Ian with her, nursing under the cloak.

"Well, Sparrow?" Bal-Simba asked as they approached.

"They said they'd do it, but they won't say when. I think we're supposed to meet again at the next full moon."

Bal-Simba nodded. He had hoped for something definite to tell the farmers, but he had not really expected much more.

Wiz sighed. "Lord, do you think we're making any progress at all?"

Bal-Simba sighed in return. "How am I to judge, Sparrow? I know as little of dealing with these creatures as you do. Less perhaps." He rubbed his massive forehead with a meaty hand. "Still, they continue to treat with us and that is no small thing. Nor is there any sign of war by non-mortals against mortals and that is a large thing indeed."

Wiz nodded. His new magic had upset the balance of this World and sent humans thrusting out past their ancient boundaries in a wave of settlement, destroying magical creatures as they went. The non-mortals had reacted and the World had teetered on the brink of a war of extermination against humans. With the aid of a team of shanghaied computer programmers, Wiz had been able to stem the tide and temporarily confine the humans within somewhat larger boundaries, blunting the threat and removing the danger of war.

But to keep the peace the humans needed some kind of treaty with the World's non-mortals, something that would set out rules for both groups. The negotiations had dragged on for months with many different beings. Apparently most of the non-mortals either couldn't conceive of the idea of a general policy or weren't interested in negotiating one with the humans. So arrangements had to be made a bit at a time with one group of non-mortals after another.

It would have tried the patience of a seasoned diplomat and Wiz was a long way from being any sort of diplomat. Worse, he was the only mortal the elves and others wanted to deal with and to him the meetings were a form of exquisite torture.

"Well, now what?"

Bal-Simba heaved his bulk up off the rock and picked up his wizard's staff. "That we shall know at the next full moon, Sparrow."

* * *

"You sent for me, Uncle?"

King Tosig looked up sourly at the young dwarf standing in the door of his study. His sister's niece's son was well-enough formed, with broad shoulders and powerful limbs. His beard was long and thick, as a dwarf's beard should be, and his craggy features bore a hint of the dwarf king's own.

The face was fine. It was what was behind it that was the problem.

Instead of digging, making, hoarding and other normal dwarfish pursuits, Glandurg's mind was forever on other things. Where the average dwarf is an intensely practical, rather unimaginative sort, Glandurg was a dreamer and a romantic.

The young dwarf knew that there was more to life than the tunnels and forges of his subterranean home. He just wasn't sure what. Being young, inexperienced and a romantic, he was convinced it was better than what was here.

Worse, he had gathered a group of young dwarves about him and converted them with his cockamamie chatter. They careened about the tunnels, refusing to listen to their elders and engaging in all sorts of undwarvish nonsense.

To Tosig, who was practical and unimaginative even for a dwarf, Glandurg and his friends were a constant source of trouble. If such a thing were possible Tosig would have suspected a taint of mortal blood in his ancestry.

The dwarf king forced his face into an unaccustomed smile and gestured at his visitor. "Come in, boy. And close the door behind you."

"Uncle, I really am sorry about the sewage tunnel," Glandurg began breathlessly. "But the survey showed . . ."

The dwarf king reddened at the thought of the stope flooded when that tunnel broke through, and his already perilous hold on his temper weakened. As if a dwarf had to rely on a survey to know where he was underground!

"Never mind that," he cut his near-nephew off. "I have another job for you and your friends."

"It's not another sewage tunnel, is it?" Glandurg began apprehensively. "Because if it is . . ."

"No, this is something else. Something more suited to your talents. Oh sit down, boy! Sit!" He shooed the young dwarf into a three-legged chair in front of his desk.

Apprehensive at this unprecedented honor, Glandurg sank into the chair, his eyes riveted on Tosig's face.

"Now then," said Tosig, composing his thoughts. "You know I had an embassy from the trolls this evening?"

Glandurg nodded eagerly. "Three mighty kings of the trolls—or so it is said." His face fell. "I was on guard duty on the peaks."

Tosig nodded. He did not mention he had given standing orders to keep Glandurg out of the throne room during audiences.

"The trolls came asking a great favor and for reasons of state I have decided to grant their request."

Glandurg leaned forward expectantly.

"The trolls are threatened by a new wizard who has arisen among the mortals. A wizard from beyond the World, bringing with him strange and powerful magic. Our allies the trolls suffer cruelly under his influence and they beg succor."

He fixed his young relative with an eagle stare. "You are to be their succor. I want you to gather a troop of hardy adventurers and kill the human wizard with the new magic."

Glandurg gulped. "You mean go Outside? Out into the World?"

"Well, you're not going to find him in our tunnels are you?" Tosig snapped.

"No, I mean, of course not, but . . ."

The dwarf king glared and the young dwarf trailed off. Glandurg was all for adventure and travel, in the abstract. But now that he was facing the possibility of leaving the tunnels where he had lived all his 184 years, he discovered he wasn't so sure he wanted to go.

"We'll need supplies," he said at last. "And gold."

Tosig's stomach flared again, but he nodded. "Anything you need. Within reason, boy! Within reason. Now, how soon can you leave?"

"I don't know. A week perhaps."

Tosig nodded. "A week if you must, then. Sooner if you can. Our allies depend on us in this and I am depending on you."

Glandurg's face glowed.

"Thank you, Uncle. I will strive to prove myself worthy." He bowed deeply and then whirled and raced out the door, slamming it behind him.

As the door reverberated behind his young relative, King Tosig allowed himself a tight little smile.

A debt was a debt and debts must be paid, even to trolls. On the other hand, he thought, nowhere it is written what coin they must be paid in. Clearly there must be an effort to crush this Sparrow, but if the effort failed and one of his blood relatives perished in the attempt, why, who could blame the king or his people? Even mortal magicians were not without defenses after all.

He shifted and the pain in his stomach came back, but not so bad this time. Maybe he wouldn't need the ground chalk after all.

* * *

"Dammit, they're stalling!" Danny said as the group picked its way along the trail in the moonlight. "They're just keeping us hanging."

"Why?" asked Jerry. "It doesn't get them anything."

"I dunno why," Danny said stubbornly, "but were being stalled."

Wiz walked beside his fellows, too tired to join the argument. Pointless anyway, he thought. No matter what their motives are we've got to keep negotiating with them. It's the best we've got.

Behind them Ian made a tentative whimper. June quickly hushed him.

"I thought you were going to leave her home," Wiz said in an undervoice as he jerked his head back at June.

"Well, I tried," Danny said defensively. "But she came anyway. You can't argue with her. It's like she doesn't hear."

"If you can't keep her at home maybe it would be better if you didn't come to these things."

"No way, man. This is where stuff is happening. Besides, she's not a problem. She just sits with me." Wiz saw the angry jut of his jaw and decided to try a different approach.

"Okay, but it can't be good for the baby to be out in this weather. And it will be even colder next full moon."

Danny's expression cleared as he thought about it. "Yeah. You're right. Maybe I should stay home."

Wiz nodded. The new Danny could be just as obnoxious as the know-it-all kid who had come to this world a little over a year ago, but at least you could reason with him.

More or less, Wiz reminded himself.

* * *

At the base of the enchanted hill Bal-Simba motioned the party to halt in a clearing. They clustered together while he began the chant to transport them back to the Capital on the Wizard's Way.

A quickly spoken spell, a flash of familiar darkness and they were standing on the flagstones of the Outer Court of the Wizard's Keep, just inside the main gates of the castle.

Wiz blinked at the brightness of the lantern-lit courtyard after the moonlit forest clearing.

"You know, this is still wrong," Jerry said as the guardsmen hurried to open the inner gate that separated the Outer Court from the Keep proper.

"Looks fine to me," Wiz said as his wife Moira came through the gate to meet him. The mellow glow of the lanterns caught the coppery highlights in her red hair and warmed the creamy tones of her freckled skin. She was easily the best thing Wiz had seen all day and he hugged her tight and kissed her soundly.

"No, think about it," Jerry persisted as Wiz and Moira broke the clinch. "We just teleported in here. But what about the velocity differences caused by the rotation of the planet? There should be a speed difference. And there's the energy gradient, and . . ."

Moira's green eyes gleamed with amusement "Has he been like this all evening, love?"

"Just since we got back," Wiz told her.

But . . ." Jerry interjected.

Wiz was in no mood for one of Jerry's attempts to apply the finer points of physics to this world. "It's magic, okay?"

"Yeah," Jerry persisted as they went through the inner gate, "but magic has rules."

"But that doesn't mean we understand them."

"Still . . ."

"Look, there are a lot weirder things about this place than some missing energy when we teleport. Let's leave it, all right?"

Jerry looked at him sympathetically.

"You're really beat, aren't you?"

Wiz sighed and put his arm around Moira's waist. "Yeah, but at least that's over for another month. Maybe we can concentrate on writing software for while."

"Oh, a week at least," Jerry said. "Then we've got a couple of other loose ends to deal with."

Wiz thought about those "loose ends" and glared at his friend. "You had to remind me, didn't you?"


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