by Judith Tracy
Shalimar swayed to and fro on her rocker. "Are you listening, Casper?" Casper laughed. "Get to the good parts, like the fighting."
"In due time, lad, humour an old lady and listen. You may learn something." Casper dashed across the room, grabbing a brand, and started to stab at thin air. "Take that, you mean, nasty ogre."
Shalimar sighed and waited for Casper to take his seat on the floor. Patience was definitely one of her virtues. She wasn't much of a warrior, nor a quick learner, but neither was she one to tangle with. When angered, she was full of fury and often was lucky, more so than being accomplished.
"You know, this land was once peaceful. Ogres, dwarfs, zombies, and skeletons didn't always roam the valleys and forests. It was even quite safe for one to explore the caves and mines without a glow. Why, my dear friend, Dustbunny, used to speak of the Inn when it was once a place to dine and dance and be merry. But all that was before the time of the vengeful wizard. It's a mere memory to most of us."
"Does anyone know the name of that wiz?"
"The Arch- Wizard Richard knows. He knows all and sees all. It's better that way. I don't really want to know, but I do have my own thoughts on the subject. Still, it's wise us mortals don't know for sure."
"Will we ever know it?"
"On the day he's used to kill him. At least that's what the legend says."
Casper's eyes lit up. "I sure hope I'm with him when it happens."
Shalimar laughed. "Stick to killing zombies. The keep's no place for you. Perhaps you should learn some fighting skills. I could ask Pugsley, but I hate to impose on a friendship. Wizards can be temperamental, most are good, but there is a bit of a prankster in all of them. Catch them on a good day and they can be most helpful in a cryptic way, but watch out. Don't ever push, always be polite and show respect. They do FoD a mortal when angered."
"OOOOO, the Ole Finger of Death." Casper shuddered.
"I don't think you have much to worry about. Just be yourself and be polite." Just then the door opened and in walked Oberon the sorcerer. Shalimar smiled and watched as he laid the limp body of Huxley on the feather bed.
"Make yourself comfortable, friend," she said as she retrieved a clay cup and proceeded to pour some tea in it.
"Is he dead again?" Casper asked.
Just then the body of Huxley disappeared. Shalimar stared at the sheets covered in blood and sighed. Nodding at Casper, the three of them waited as the door opened and Hux walked back in, shaking a bit, but none-the-less looking fit.
"Look at me," he said turning around, "do I have a target on my back?"
Oberon laughed. "Flee sometime. At the least try a FoD. Those thieving killers don't deserve the benefits of besting you, and perhaps you'll get lucky, like Ichabod in his fight with Hawumph."
Hux grabbed a cup and drank the Darjeeling. "Am used to starting over. It's just another name to add to my notebook of revenge."
"Let's see," Shalimar said, "there's Phantom, Fishbait, Sassenach,
Feliny, Malaise, and of course, Whatever. Can't forget him. I think he lives to kill
"They all do. They wait till I get magic and then pounce. I'm going to wear that touchstone out."
Oberon looked at Shalimar and shared a smile. "Well, I've much to do before the meeting. I don't have the time today to lament over those mortals that choose murder as a way of life. You two can discuss strategies; I'm off to the market. Our guests should be here soon. Ookrio, Sonsie, and Clare will be here for dinner."
"May I accompany you?" asked Casper.
"I suppose it's safe enough. It's early in the day, and we should be able to find some decent weapons. Come, let me glow you."
The sorceress made some magical gestures and instantly the two of them lit up like a lighted brand.
"I don't understand," said Casper. "The sun is high."
"It gets dark when we enter the land and we'll have to pass through it on our journey. Let's hurry so we can get back."
"Will you tell me more about Valetant?"
"Sure. What more would you like to know?" Shalimar ruffled Casper's hair and winked.
"Did you know the Prince?"
The woman hesitated. Shalimar didn't, but in another persona, long ago, she did, for Valetant was in love with her sister. She hesitated and then decided not to mention that. An omission wasn't the same thing as a lie. "Not really. He really wasn't the type of person that one wanted to get to know. Valetant was full of himself. That much could have been forgiven, but he was a braggart and boaster as well. He hung around killers for those were the only ones that put up with him, and they did because he was a very wealthy man.
"The sad thing was the he really was an exceedingly handsome man. Many a maiden's head would turn as he made his daily ride into town. He could never pass a mirror without looking in it. In fact, there's a mirror in the evil woods, a magic one, that most believe belonged to Valetant"
"Is it his, Shal?" asked Casper.
"I believe at one time it was. It was given to him by someone that cared for him very much."
"I thought you said no one liked him."
"Well, there were a couple, ok? There was a very beautiful, young lady that loved him. She refused to see the bad, deafened herself to the gossip, and painted a lovely picture with the tiny threads of goodness he cloaked himself in. Valetant used her, betrayed her. She could have done so much better, for you see, there was a wizard that loved her, also."
"And she preferred the Prince to a wizard?"
"Well, yes, but he was a mortal when they courted. Entering the halls of magic only furthered to separate them. He had a hard time making the transition. Finally, without word he disappeared and when he did return, she refused to hear his excuses."
"If he was a wiz, why didn't he make her love him? Aren't they all powerful?" Casper asked.
"Love is one thing they don't tamper with. I suppose he could have, maybe even should have, but he wanted her love given, not taken. He loved her so much, he even sacrificed his own happiness for her."
"When did the fighting start?"
"Patience, patience. The battles were the outcome, not the story. Valetant knew about the maiden and the wiz and since he hated all wizards, he pursued and wooed Liliana.
"Liliana? Was that her name?"
Shalimar sighed. The last thing she wanted to do was name names, but since she had already blurted out that fact, she nodded.
"Liliana was vulnerable and defenseless. It didn't take much for Valetant to win her over with lies and promises. The rejected wizard wanted so badly to confront Valetant, but was afraid it may show weakness. And poor Liliana, so exposed, so trusting, fell for the plotting Prince.
"Of course, as soon as Valetant had her hand, he became even more obnoxious. Now he had something a wiz wanted and every chance, he'd post some taunting message on the bulletin board. Now wizards don't take kindly to pretension and before long there was dissension in their ranks.
"The wizzes started to fight? How could you know that, they are so secretive?"
"Sometimes it's not all that hard to guess. One wiz would undo what another did. It would be little things, like weather changes. One minute it would be sunny and then there would be snow. Things would be missing only to show up in the weirdest of places. But most of all, the killer population expanded at an alarming rate. "For a while, it was terrifying to leave the house. Around every corner lurked someone who was looking for a fight. They were all wizzes, and since they were immortal, the only way they could get out their aggressions was to play at being mortal. FoD spells were a regular event. And Valetant, he continued to add fuel to the fire. He set a wedding date and invited only a few immortals."
"Who was the wizard that loved Liliana?"
"Please don't ask me. I made the mistake of blurting out Liliana's name. Sometimes it is better for the innocent to remain ignorant. Knowledge breeds fear; fear mistakes. I'd much prefer to know less. Be simpler, trust me."
"But you can trust me Shal."
"Trust no one. In the end, they will betray you."
"Not even you?"
"Not even me. I'd never harm you of my own account, but there are force spells. I might not have a choice."
"So that's all? The way everyone talks, seemed like a big deal."
"Shhhhh, I think I hear something."
Shalimar had made it to the deerpark in the eastern corner of the Land, and picked up the falchion for herself and the axe for Casper. As she was spinning her story, she had made sure to gather some necessary things like wafers, vials, phials, and containers to make the journey safer. As luck would have it, she found the scarab. There were others in the forest and mountains. She didn't want to alarm Casper, so she was quite secretive with her magical gestures.
They had made it as far as the villa. Since the kitchen door was open, Shalimar hurried Casper up the driveway. There on the road was key and she picked it up, grasping it tightly in her fist. A minute or two later, they passed by the monastery. The door was ajar and she hustled Casper further north.
"We're being followed. Don't look back. Maybe we can lose them in the maze."
Casper pointed up ahead. "What about that building? Maybe your key will fit the lock and we can hide inside."
Shalimar shuddered. "That's the keep. Going inside can be more dangerous than facing a killer."
"But the maze is farther away. Let's try it Shalimar. I hear footsteps too. And besides, isn't that where Valetant is? Maybe we can go get him."
Shalimar bent down on one knee. "Casper, I'm afraid. It's one of the most difficult places to get through safely. To, me it's even scarier than facing the dragon. I'd really rather not."
"I'm with you. I promise I won't let you down, and if we can get Valetant, then we'd be safe. Please, Shal. Please?"
Shalimar hesitated and tried the key. The door creaked open and the two of them entered. The last thing she wanted to do was fight the keepers. Maybe they could hide, but where?"
Casper went running up the steps before Shalimar had a chance to stop him. The loud whoosh alerted her long before the lad shouted for help. Without giving it a second thought, she ran up and joined the battle.
The wyvern was fierce. He stung Casper, and Shalimar had to hand him the bottle of medicine. Suddenly there were flashes of brilliant colors and the pair felt the surge of power rush through their bloodstream. The beast was at his best, but luck and the watchful eye of someone powerful gave them the extra dexterity and strength they need to win the battle. The wyvern was in critical condition when Casper gave him one last, hard whack with his axe.
"He's dead! We killed him!" shouted Casper, taking a deep breath and collapsing on the step.
"Sleep, while I watch over you. Then you can do the same."
Shalimar leaned against the banister, guarding the tired body of her charge. Smiling, she looked upward and whispered thanks to the powerful being that had helped them.
After sleeping herself, and regaining her stamina, she sat down on the top step. "Let's wait here. It won't be long before nightfall and we are close enough to the border to make it there safely."
"But I wanna go get him. We can do it."
Shalimar shook her head. "Some other time, perhaps."
"There's no time like the present, Shalimar. Actually, it's long overdue. The answers to all your questions are but a few floors away. Go and find out for yourself. Don't force me to force you."
The voice came out of nowhere. Casper was looking at her curiously as the tears cascaded down her cheeks. She didn't want to go, but had no choice. Her stomach was in knots and she felt queasy.
Casper put his hand on hers and asked if she was ok. It was then that she realized he hadn't heard a thing he was saying.
"Not really, but it's not important. You said you wanted to get Valetant earlier, so let's go get him."
"Really? You mean that?"
"Follow my instructions carefully. When you are low in stamina, eat one wafer at a time. We'll sleep whenever we can. Do not, and I repeat do not go running up the steps without me again. Do exactly as I tell you, ok?"
"Yes ma'am. I promise."
"Let's do it then," Shalimar said standing back up. We've three mobiles to kill before we can fetch Valetant and then, it gets more difficult each level. But, the longer we wait the worse it's going to get. On my count, head up the stairs."
It wasn't easy, but the two of them managed the next few floors. They slept when they could, and only one wafer had to be eaten. As terrified and nervous as she was, there was a bit of comfort in the knowledge that someone powerful watched over her. Not that he would interfere, but just that he was present, and it didn't hurt that he helped a bit. Casper and herself did have his assistance in the increased dexterity and stamina.
"One left to go, and this one isn't going to be easy at all. They save the worst for last."
"What is it?" asked Casper.
"I don't know. Many were the times I came this far and lacked the courage to go forward. I've never been beyond this point."
"You're no fraidy cat. Can't imagine why you would stop here with only one left."
"Sometimes, one's fear paralyzes them. They forget everything they know and freeze. It's not the battle that I fear, nor death. Something is up there waiting for me. I know that, and don't want to find out."
"Well, for what it's worth, I'm with you. Lets do it and get it over with."
Shalimar nodded and headed up the stairs. The hall was dark and dusky. She could barely see anything. Very slowly she edged forward until the fragrance of jasmine wafted through her nostrils. The scent was familiar, too familiar. Shalimar froze.
It was Casper who attacked. She could hear the sounds of his axe slicing the air as he missed. More than anything she knew she should help him, but she just couldn't. Sounds of crowing echoed in the chamber. Feathers were flying as the boy slashed at the darting birds. Casper shouted at her, the words rang in her ears, but still she stood motionless.
The bright flashes of light surrounded her. She felt strong. Casper was slipping fast and if she didn't join him soon, he would die.
"Kill her, Shalimar. Kill her and be free."
A powerful hand pushed her forward. She felt a chill as her arm was being raised. The blade found its way to flesh and without thinking about it, she fought with all her might. Casper had fled, and still he returned to help her.
"I can't get to you, Shal. Something or someone is keeping me here."
"It's ok Casper," she found herself saying. "I need to do this myself."
One by one the crows were defeated. Blood covered the marble floor. Soon the room was empty of life except for the two warriors. Shalimar stared at the lifeless body slumped on the floor.
"Go get him. Go get Valetant."
Shalimar whispered the instructions in Casper's ears and the two entered the treasure chamber. There, like so many have told her, was the great sword, the enchanted Prince.
"Can I have him," Casper asked.
Shalimar nodded. "Take him. I don't want him. Not now, not ever."
The boy ran and grabbed the shining sword. Shalimar smiled and quietly thanked Pugsley for his assistance. Her words were soft, barely audible, but Casper was too excited to hear anything. It was a good thing. He would ask her who she was talking to and millions of other questions. She now had all the missing pieces to the puzzle. The name of the wizards involved she would guard with her life. They trusted her; she would never let them down. The blade glowed with an eerie light. It was a plain weapon, devoid of jewels. Its prize was far greater than mere baubles. Its strength was in the temper of the blade. Its weakness was still the same. Immediately the Prince started talking.
"Good day! I am yclept Valetant, and I am the mightiest weapon in the land. Tis a fact, I am a most excellent prize."
The woman watched the smile creep over the lad's face as the talking sword boasted. He taunted him to fight, called the child nasty names and never once shut up. Slowly, they made their way out of the room and down the hall. The stench of death filled her senses. She stopped to look at the dead body sprawled on the cold, marble floor.
"Thou art a shameful humiliation. Thou art a mockery of competence. I am oft told that I am a truly special treasure."
Valetant didn't miss a beat. "Thou art devoid of character and breeding."
For once she was glad to hear the loud voice of the boastful Prince. It drowned out her whispered good-bye's as she bid her sister farewell.
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