Back | Next

A Thaumaturge Insulted. A Daemon Destroyed. A Sorcerer Demeaned. A Glyph Dispelled, A Wizard Offended. A Ward Dissolved. A Mollified Mage. The Seal Is Broken!

"Disrespect, master?" queried the apprentice.

"Of course, disrespect!" spoke Zulkeh. "A slur, a sneer, a gesture of base contempt!" He pointed accusingly at the naga, which was still coiling and writhing about, its glowing eyes now fixed on the wizard.

Shelyid's brow wrinkled. "Well, I don't know, master, sure and the thing's a fright, and it's kind of obscene the way it keeps telling you to kiss it and all, but I'm not sure it's really being disrespectful. Actually, I think it's trying to trick—"

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Dolt of an apprentice! What boots it, the naga's words? 'Tis the very presence of the thing which offends me!"

Shelyid eyed the snake-spirit again. "Well, yes master, I can see where the thing's ugly, and I know you have real refined—"

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Cretin of a gnome! What boots it, the naga's appearance? I say again, 'tis the very presence of the thing which affronts!"

"Well," said Shelyid uncertainly, then, in a small voice: "I guess I don't understand, master."

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Of course you don't! You are a lowly apprentice—naturally you do not grasp the insult which is here delivered unto me."

Seeing no understanding on Shelyid's face, the wizard threw up his hands with exasperation. Then, with the look of resignation of one forced, for the thousandth time, to explain the obvious yet again:

"What am I, my loyal but stupid apprentice?"

"O master, you are the wisest and most powerful sorcerer in the world!" came the instant response.

"At last! A glimmer of intellect! And what am I doing here?"

Shelyid frowned. "Well, you're here to take that relic thing that's sitting right there under the naga."

"Good, good. Two correct statements in a row. And what is the purpose of the naga's presence?"

Shelyid frowned, hesitated, then said: "Well, I guess it's here to keep the thing from being taken."

"Very good! Three correct statements in a row." The mage smiled, patted Shelyid's head, then glowered deeply at the naga.

"And therein lies the insult!" he spoke. "For to put a naga—and a green, at that!—to prevent the mightiest mage of the world from seizing yon relic—O infamy! O insult!"

"That's a lot of fancy talk," commented Ignace, pressed against the far wall, face pale, eyes fixed fearfully on the naga, "but how's about some action?" His sentiment seemed shared by Greyboar, who was pressed equally flat against the same far wall. Even the snarl kept its distance, sidling with agitation, growling at the naga.

"Action, you say? Observe, then, the dispatch of a naga!" And so saying, the wizard advanced upon the spirit-snake, who, for its part, hissed: "Oh you stallion! Kiss me! Kiss me, you stallion!"

"Which scroll do you want, master? I'll get it for you!" The dwarf began scrabbling in the sack.

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Think you a thaumaturge of my puissance needs to consult a library to dispatch a mere naga—and a green, at that?" He was now almost upon the thing.

"Oh my gander! Kiss me! Kiss me, my gander!" Now great was the naga's excitement.

"Bah!" oathed the wizard. "Think you I would not know from memory the hexes of the great scholar and serpentbane, I speak, of course, of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi Sfondrati-Piccolomini?"

At the name, the naga recoiled in terror. Too late! For even now did Zulkeh purse his lips, like a lover, and speak the words of snakedoom:

"Oh mon goose! Kiss me! Kiss me, mon goose!"

A great wail filled the room, as of a lost soul—the naga was gone, vanished like smoke!

"I'll be damned," said Greyboar. He and Ignace stared at the wizard, a new respect in their eyes. But Zulkeh took no notice, for he was even now inspecting the relic at close hand—though 'twas noticed by all that he kept his hands away.

"There will now appear a glyph," he predicted. Sure enough, but a second later did a great rune appear on the book's cover, elaborate in its calligraphy, glowing a baleful crimson.

"O outrage!" cried Zulkeh. "O dishonor!"

"What's the matter, master?" queried Shelyid.

The mage's eyes seemed almost as red as the rune. "The matter? The matter? Look at the glyph, diminutive dolt!"

The apprentice approached and examined the glyph. "Looks like a rune, master," he said. "A nasty-looking one, too."

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Of course it's nasty-looking! Not just nasty-looking, I might add, 'tis nasty in actual fact. Touch the thing without first draining its power, and your body will be blasted by lightning."

"No kidding?" This from Ignace, still plastered to the wall.

The wizard bestowed his hot-eyed look upon the agent. "Do you doubt me?" he demanded. "Touch the thing, then!"

"No, no," replied Ignace hastily, "wouldn't doubt you for a minute!"

"Never question a professional at his work, myself," added Greyboar. Even the snarl looked away from Zulkeh's glare.

Zulkeh turned back to the table. "A rune!" he snorted. "A miserable, wretched, ridiculous rune. Not even an ideogram, much less a hieroglyph!

"Barbarous things, runes," he grumbled. "To be expected, of course! Barbarous folk, northmen. Crude, uncivilized, not much better than savages."

Seeing Shelyid inching toward the sack, the wizard made a peremptory gesture. "Cease and desist, lilliputian librarian! Think you I require assistance to remember the phrase which drains all power from a rune-glyph? Fie on such witless notions! Exists not a journeyman warlock in creation who could not, in his sleep, recite the infallible weird of those masters of barbarian lore, I speak, of course, of the Runettes Laebmauntsforscynneweëld!"

And so saying, the wizard began dancing and shuffling about, snapping his fingers, crooning the following tune:

"Who put the rune on the book, the book?
"Who was that man?
"He thinks himself quite grand!
"But he's so very plain to see!
"Bebop! Shebop!"

The glyph faded away in less than a second.

Ignoring the exclamations of praise coming from the duo still plastered to the far wall, Zulkeh—not yet touching the book—announced, in a tone of supreme confidence:

"And now for the ward."

All eyes were fixed on the Rap Sheet, at first in anticipation, then in puzzlement.

"The ward always takes a bit of time, Shelyid," explained Zulkeh. " 'Tis always the third of the four relic guards, and its appearance is always delayed—this in the hope of lulling the ignorant would-be reiver to lay his hands upon the relic. To do so before unlocking the ward, of course, would be disastrous."

"Would you be, like, fried alive or something?" queried the gnome.

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "The cruder of the dooms we have already surmounted. Nay, Shelyid, the unwary seizer of still-warded relics finds himself drawn into the relic itself, there to spend eternity in the utter boredom of relichood. A horrible fate—even for a scholar!"

Zulkeh stretched his limbs, looked about. "Perhaps we could take some refreshment, Shelyid. 'Twill be some time yet before the ward, its hope of an easy snatch frustrated, becomes manifest. The more potent the ward, it goes without saying, the greater its patience. The legendary wards of old were known to lurk as much as two full days before making their appearance. In these modern times, however, I doubt me we shall need to wait more than four hours, perhaps not more than—what? Already?"

Great was the sorcerer's indignation.

"O scurrilous discompliment! O scabrous disesteem! O insult piled onto insult!" He stalked about the chamber, fists clenched above his head. Smoke and lightning issued from his ears. Shelyid quailed, for he naturally recognized in Zulkeh's circular pacing the famed and dreaded peripatis thaumaturgae—counterclockwise, eleven steps to the circuit, with, of course, the semi-hop following each third completion of the circuit to throw off what demons might be tailing behind in the netherworld.

"Look at the thing!" he spoke. More accurately, bellowed with rage.

"It's like a cage of glowing red bars, master," said Shelyid. "Like the door to a vault, maybe, if a vault door was made of molten steel."

"Precisely!" snarled Zulkeh. "It's a vault ward! The most primitive, simple-minded, rudimentary, oafish, hebetate and thick-witted of all wards! I was tossing the things off like a short-order cook my first year at the University!"

He stopped his pacing. Glowered for a moment more, then began to speak. But before even a single word was finished, he hesitated.

"Bah!" oathed the wizard. " 'Tis so long ago I have forgotten the exact phrasing. Infuriating! To have such simple problems posed that one has to grope to remember the answer!"

He sighed. "Still, best to get it right. Even a vault ward can be dangerous if improperly unlocked. Shelyid, get me the Memoirs of Sutton Sfondrati-Piccolomini."

The dwarf disappeared into the sack, reemerged not more than a minute later with a volume in his hand. The mage quickly flipped through the pages.

"Now, where is it?" he muttered. "Ah! Here is the relevant passage." At once he recited the following:

" 'Willie, why do you rob banks?' 'Because that's where the money is.' "

The glowing bars had already begun to fade before he was well into the passage. By its end, they were gone.

The wizard handed the volume back to his apprentice. "And what insult comes next?" he demanded. "There is still the last guard, the seal. In what manner will my dignity be affronted now?"

He glared at the Rap Sheet, then seized it with both hands and shook it fiercely.

"O master!" cried Shelyid. "Be careful!"

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "The seal is not dangerous! It is the final guard because it is the last resort. The relic reiver having avoided the grasp of the daemon, the blast of the glyph, and the snare of the ward, there is naught can stop him now but the prevention, by sheer sealing away, of his ability to use the relic. Such is the purpose of the seal. I can now safely take the relic in hand—indeed, I could travel the world with it, use it as a footstool, a pillow!—but can I use it without opening it, without breaking the seal? Of course not! Even now, look you as I attempt to open the book!"

And so saying, the wizard made what was clearly an effort to turn the pages. As well turn the pages of a solid block of marble!

"And so what demeaning seal will appear?" demanded Zulkeh. "Solomon's Seal, I expect, which can be broken by any half-literate herbalist in her hovel in the woods!"

He began to utter more phrases of contempt and contumely, but stopped. For now had a seal appeared, like unto a great blob of wax plastered across the open edge of the book.

"But what's this?" he demanded. He frowned, gazing at the seal which was rapidly taking form. Odd ridges and whorls solidified, spotted gold and black.

"Fascinating! Extraordinary!" he cried, as soon as the seal had taken its final shape and structure.

"What is it, master?" queried Shelyid.

"Why, why, 'tis a Leopard Seal! Astonishing!"

"What's a Leopard Seal, master?"

Zulkeh stared down at his apprentice, thoughtfully.

"Truly, 'tis early in your apprenticeship for an introduction to the higher seals, yet—recall, dwarf, that I predicted this journey would expose you to new knowledge and lore!"

"Oh yes, master!" cried Shelyid.

"Know, Shelyid, that all of the higher seals take their inspiration from the souls of animals. For who could keep their counsel better than dumb beasts? I might mention, in this regard, that we see here the absurdity of the popular belief that Solomon's Seals are the greatest of seals. Preposterous! How could a seal inspired by the soul of Solomon—that vainglorious babbler, that opinionated chatterbox, that obsessive-compulsive spouter of judgments and pronunciamentos, that—well! Suffice it to say that the expression 'pillow talk' finds its origin in Solomon's liaison with the Queen of Sheba."

Here the wizard wagged his finger in Shelyid's nose.

"Nay, fie upon such witless notions! To inspirit a seal with real power of mutery, 'tis necessary to draw upon the souls of dumb beasts. True, such beasts utter sounds, but sounds without meaning. Likewise, should I shatter the seal on this binder by force rather than science, I should reduce the contents within to pure babble. Such is the reason that all the higher seals are inspirited of animals."

"Oh, I understand, master!" cried Shelyid. "So this seal is, well, inspired by a leopard soul." The dwarf frowned in puzzlement. "I would have thought maybe a tiger or a lion would—"

"Nay, nay!" spoke Zulkeh. Shelyid fell silent. The wizard stroked his beard.

"I am perhaps responsible for your confusion," he admitted. "There are, it is true, excellent seals derived from the felines. And, 'tis true enough, the tiger and lion seals are the best of the lot. The seals inspirited by leopards—which are properly called 'panther seals,' by the way—are noticeably weaker. But this is not such a seal, Shelyid. Nay, nay, this seal is of the greatest of the seal families, I speak, of course, of the pinnipeds. For what animal soul could better inspirit a seal than a seal?"

The wizard paced back and forth, gesturing with the book in his hand.

"Within the seal seals, there are of course gradations. Weakest are the Harbor Seals. The Harp Seals are famed for—well, times presses! Suffice it to say, Shelyid, that of all the seal seals, the most potent—on this all scholars agree—are the Leopard Seals."

He held up the relic in both hands, his face positively glowing. "So!" he cried. "At last I am shown proper respect!" A frown. "But why would such a great seal be combined with such a wretched set of daemons, glyphs and wards?" The wizard pondered for a moment, before his expression cleared.

"Of course!" he exclaimed. "I had forgot me that the relic is a Rap Sheet, long in the possession of the Cruds. No doubt it was the Angel Jimmy Jesus himself who set the daemon, glyph, ward and seal. This explains all! The grandeur of the seal, its well-nigh perfection of mutery, derives from the most outstanding characteristic—personality trait, you might say—of the Angel Jimmy Jesus, which is known even to babes in swaddling clothes."

"He's a total paranoid," said Greyboar.

"Claims friends are enemies," elaborated Ignace, "and the better the friends the more certain their enmity. Why else would they be your best friends, except to get close enough to stab you in the back?"

"Precisely!" agreed the wizard. "A classic paranoid. He actually believes that the whole world is out to get him, when all studies have shown that not more than three-fourths the global population actively seeks his death, although, in all fairness, one should add that a good three-fourths of the one-fourth remaining would certainly cheer from the sidelines as the multi-millioned mob tore him limb from skeletal limb."

"Then why was the other stuff so rotten?" asked Shelyid. "You know—the daemon and glyph and stuff?"

" 'Tis obvious, youth!" spoke the mage. Zulkeh turned to Greyboar and Ignace.

"Enlighten my apprentice, good sirs. What is the second most prominent characteristic of the Angel Jimmy Jesus, known to schoolboys at their desks?"

"He's a total incompetent," stated Greyboar.

"Worst thing ever happened to the Cruds, him being put in charge," added Ignace. "I remember once when some Senators tried to get rid of him, there was mass demonstrations and riots in the streets of Ozar, every revolutionist and insurrectionary gathered the world over demanding he keep his job."

"Exactly! A complete nincompoop—in all but one thing, which is keeping his mouth shut. And certainly we cannot sneer at this seal," he mused, gazing down at the book in his hand.

"So! Let me to work! 'Twill take hours, no doubt, for this is a challenge worthy of my science!" Happily muttering to himself, the wizard headed over to his sack and began rummaging. Soon enough he realized that rummaging in the great sack was difficult with the Rap Sheet still in his hand.

"Shelyid!" spoke the mage, extending the relic toward his apprentice, "hold this for me a moment." Then, seeing the look of apprehension on Shelyid's face, Zulkeh snorted. "Come, come, dwarf! I have already explained the thing is harmless!"

Gingerly, Shelyid extended his hand and took the book.

At once the great seal shattered into a thousand pieces, which fell to the floor and melted away into nothing. The Rap Sheet was open!

Back | Next