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February 19, 2024

The Aser Stories 56: Oz Can Keep Them All

By Sand Pilarski

Once again Aser and Danner are snatched from the evil wizard Fellmount's clutches in the nick of time. Whose stupid idea was this anyway?

In the tunnel beneath the audience room of Castle Caedmon, my friend and relative Dan Ur-Jennan and I came to a broad wooden door. Danner pushed on the lever to open it, but it wouldn't budge. "Locked," she said. "Dammit, now we have to climb back up all those stairs."

"Not if I can help it," I said, and reached up to the top of the door. Using my dagger, I picked out of the crack between door and lintel a thin piece of rope and pulled on it. With a creak the bar across the door on the other side lifted, and the lever handle moved freely. "A friend and I ran away from home for the summer when we were kids and came through here. We chivvied the door open with a sword the first time and then installed our own door-opener."

"A sword? That's a story I'd like to hear," Danner said over her shoulder as she pushed on the door.

"What the hell?" I said, shielding my eyes from the light. The door opened on a bright room with broad windows overlooking an ocean beach.

We stood there squinting and gaping at the plush beige carpeting and dark blue and green patterned drapes drawn back from the windows. I looked back at the dark and dusty cave behind us, then forward at the ocean rolling up onto the beach.

"WILL you please SHUT the door, what are you dithering about?" said Cloudraft the Great, striding forward to pull Danner into the room. I followed her, and the wizard slammed the door shut. On this side, it was just an ordinary flat board door.

"CLOUDY!" Danner cried, and flung her arms around his neck in a jubilant hug.

I shouted, "What are you doing? Where are we?"

Danner detached herself from smooching Cloudraft and looked around. "Where are Guillaume and Narsai?"

Cloudraft answered me while Danner was still speaking. "A nice place called Oceanside, but that's not important. I brought you here because --"

Danner was sniffing the air. "There are no baboons here -- what have you done with them?"

Cloudraft frowned. "I left them with you, of course, in that abominable graveyard camp, but that's not important now -- "

"The hell it isn't!" shouted Danner. "Where are they? How the hell could you leave them behind?"

"I DON'T KNOW!" Cloudraft roared, pulling at his gray hair.

"They must have been sleeping in some barn back in Sweetwater and didn't know we left," she said to me, her eyes wide. She turned and grabbed the wizard's lapels. "You have to find them! Or send us back to Sweetwater so we can find them!"

The wizard batted her hands away and smoothed the front of his robe. "I can't! Fellmount found a magic hat and is waiting for you at the end of that tunnel!"

I turned to Danner. "You know, this creep Fellmount just can't take a joke worth a damn. You'd think he had better things to do with his time than kill shamans."

"You tricked me into blowing up his residence and his hat," puffed Cloudraft angrily. "He was unable use his magic and had to leave town on a horse, a horrid fate for which I have great sympathy."

"He deserved every cinder of it, too," said Danner, looking around the room. "And his hat was ugly -- reminded me of an amputated octopus."

"If he had to leave the city, it was because the city found out about his shady dealings," I added. "That rat bastard is crookeder than an oil magnate."

"And just what are you doing with ladies' gloves, Cloudraft?" said Danner, picking up a pair of soft suede gloves.

"Oh, those are Hailie's. We had breakfast this morning."

"Hailie's? Breakfast?" Danner's voice took on a steely tone. She began advancing on Cloudraft again. "You abandoned the baboons and us but you're having a comfy breakfast with some tootsie?"

"Yes, well, er, no, now Danner, it's not what you think. Her name is Hailcatcher, and she's a wizard, too. Oceanside is apparently a favorite destination for cross-dimensional travelers, you see. Just wait until you meet her, you'll find her an agreeable companion. I've told her all about you," he added hastily.

"Oh, really?" said Danner.

A tall blonde woman in high heels and a short dress walked slowly into the room, smiling. She wore a small beaded hat with a couple of long feathers rakishly tucked into its side. A filmy scarf wrapped around the brim matched the color of her red dress. "Why, Cloudraft, dah-ling," she said languidly, "how lovely of you to bring your friends."

"Hailcatcher, these are the two shamans I told you about. Ase Ur-Jennan and Dan Ur-Jennan." Cloudraft said to her.

"Simply charmed," said Hailcatcher, and held out her hand for me to shake, and then reached for Danner's hand. As Danner touched her hand, a spark snapped and Danner jerked her hand back with an expletive. "Oh, dear," said the wizard woman, "must have been leftover magical static." She smiled condescendingly.

Danner gave the misplaced gloves a backhand toss that hit Hailcatcher smartly in the chest. "Oops. Pardon me, that must have been a muscle spasm."

"Cloudraft, my dear, you must teach your servants civility before you allow them out in public," Hailcatcher observed, looking down her nose.

"Cloudraft," I said, "you either need to stand up for your apprentice against dirty little tricks or you need to send us back to our own dimension and not trouble us with your roadhouse floozies."

She gasped in outrage, but then did a double-take at Danner. "Your apprentice?"

Danner spun on Cloudraft. "You didn't tell her I was your apprentice?"

"And how dare you suggest that I am a roadhouse floozy, you insignificant beggar? If you weren't under Cloudraft's protection, I'd turn you into a -- "

"Oh, shut up," I interrupted.

At that moment I decided that I was sick and tired of wizards. Benevolent wizards, legendary wizards, revenge-seeking wizards, I didn't care. Wizards have to be the most pompous assholes in the known universe. Just because they can conjure things (including themselves) from one place to another, and rearrange the currents of Fate to confer blessings or curses on people, and hop from dimension to dimension, they think they're owed some special reverence. They look for special privileges in housing, usually in nice castles, in return for magical favors -- how is that different from the king's concubine who rents out her body for rooms in the palace, or from the tart who sits in the farmer's lap in the tavern for coins stuffed down her bodice so that she has breakfast money in the morning?

Everybody has to get out of the way of a wizard, because if you don't, you're likely to end up turned into a statue or maybe a juicy frog in an alligator-infested swamp. Just because someone has the power to transmute matter into different shapes shouldn't mean that they have the right to kick everyone else out of their path. I mean, what about the goodwife who can turn a dozen apples and some flour and fat into an apple pie? Does she command her family to get out of her way because she has the secret of good baking? Wait ... most of them do chase everyone else out of their kitchens ...

Wizards are also completely wrapped up in their own wizardiness. You never find wizards volunteering to pick up trash in city parks, even though they could probably cast a spell to make all the pieces of paper and old shoes magically jump into a waste bin instead of having people do the dirty work. They don't even think about stuff like that. They spend their time slobbering over ancient texts and catalogs of hats and wands and robes and writing incoherent treatises on what new tricks they've discovered that no one else can do and that no one else wants to do. They socialize with other wizards to the exclusion of the rest of society (except for sucking up to their patrons, of course) and don't give a half a damn about how the general populace is faring. Kind of like the lords of the Desmesnes, come to think of it, but when I cry outrage at the lords, they can't turn me into a goat or anything.

And conceited, did I mention that? Meet a wizard on the street and strike up a conversation with them, and you won't get six sentences into any subject before they remind you that they are a wizard and can do just about anything. What if everyone was like that? What if the baker, when you said Good morning, how do you do? answered, How do I do? Why, I can bake cinnamon rolls so perfectly that if your mother tasted them, she'd rush out and obtain a job as a stable-mucker rather than ever attempt to make pastries again. Mind you, the baker wouldn't dare say that, even if it was true, because even a barrel-maker's apprentice would make trouble for him if he did. Maybe put onion oil into the barrels sent to the miller who supplies the baker with flour. But with wizards, it's the power thing. You have to hold your tongue or deal with the curses, the transformations, the death threats.

Of course you find people like that even when they aren't wizards. All they need is a little power to make them power-mad, as though they were entitled to the veneration and subservience of all, and blameless in the abuse of all. Finding themselves in a position of authority, they forget that authority is supposed to mean "can do all the tasks that fall under my responsibility" and instead take it to mean "order other people to do everything, and treat them like crap in the process."

The butler gets promoted to the position of headman for the castle because of his exceptional faithfulness and efficiency. Some synapse in his brain short-circuits, and suddenly he forgets how much time and effort need to be put into each daily job. Now he berates the workers under his supervision to hurry, hurry, hurry -- while he sits in a chair in the kitchen before the fire and thinks of ways to make the older, slower servants quit so that he can hire in young, desperate, fast-moving help. They'll work for less money, you see, and then the headman can pocket the difference. "I have the position," says the headman, "and therefore I call the shots. I have the power, and therefore, you who don't obey my every command will find yourself on the street."

Someone should only bounce a rock off their heads.

I just wanted to go back to dispensing herbal remedies and shouting on street corners at miscreant passers-by. I couldn't do that, because the wizard Fellmount of Verdansward was going to kill us. And since Fellmount was just about the most powerful and unscrupulous wizard alive, there was little chance at all that Danner and I would survive his retribution. And for the same reason, Hailie was unlikely to get between Fellmount and his prey.

"Why in all the rings of Hell are we talking to this person, anyway?" I asked Cloudraft.

"Hailcatcher believes that she can assist me in finding a way to protect you two from Fellmount's anger."

Danner and I looked at each other, at Hailcatcher, and back at Cloudraft. "Send us back to Sweetwater," Danner said. "I want to find my baboons. They must be worried sick."

"I've told you, I can't do that! Fellmount knows that you were in that area -- "

"How did Fellmount find out that we were in that area, pray tell?" I asked. "The trail we took to Sweetwater isn't on any maps. In fact, I don't even think Sweetwater is put on maps anymore. So how would Fellmount know that we crossed a couple fields and went through the woods to Castle Caedmon? Have you ever been to Caedmon, Cloudraft?"

"Yes," he said, "I was there long ago, before the old Lord died. I'd hoped he'd offer me residency there, but he had no use for wizardry. His son would have, but that's all water under the bridge now. I knew you'd make for Caedmon after you left Sweetwater, it's on the way to -- "

"What I propose," interrupted the wizard Hailcatcher, "is that you hide out in this dimension until Fellmount cools down a little. That way you'll have us both for protection, and I can help you look like you fit in."

"Cloudraft," I said, calling his attention back to me, "who all did you tell we were in Sweetwater, making for Castle Caedmon?"

Cloudraft darted a startled look at Hailcatcher, whose face took on an expression of pure hatred just before Danner's fist met her nose, knocking her flat out onto the floor.

"You told her about our trip during breakfast, didn't you?" Danner said, stripping the unconscious woman's hat from her head. "And mysteriously strangely unbelievably, Fellmount shows up to kill us right after you tell her where we are."

"I can't believe that she would be involved in this," Cloudraft said, appalled at Danner's search of the woman's large handbag.

"Listen. You didn't set out to thwart Fellmount, we tricked you, remember that?" I said. "But why would Hailcatcher try to get in his way?" I paused to let him wonder why she would. "The answer is she wouldn't get in his way! She's not stupid, she's working with him!"

"Aha!" said Danner, holding up a slim wand that looked like a black chopstick with a gold end. "That's what I was looking for. Now, Cloudraft the Great, we would like to go back to our own dimension, right now, no waiting, express lane, ten items or less."

"But you'll be killed!"

"Send us to Sweetwater," I said. "At least we'll have an hour or two leeway if Fellmount is still in Caedmon. And tell Miss High Heels here that we took off up the coast in this dimension, thumbing on Highway 1."

"You know the highways here?" asked Danner suspiciously.

"Later," I replied.

Cloudraft finished a series of gestures over the door to his hotel room. "There! The door will open directly on the Sweetwater Cemetery so that you will have some ghosts for magical cover again. I'll join you as soon as I can."

I opened the door and a green, sunny expanse dotted with headstones was visible.

Danner stepped into the doorway, turned to Cloudraft, and said, "Don't bother. This was our last conversation. We who are about to die think you're an idiot." She slammed the door.

I guess Danner about had it with wizards, too.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-06-30
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