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16

In Which Mendanbar Cleans Up

Mendanbar blew out the lantern and set it on the floor. They didn't need it anymore anyway. They were near enough to see by the light of the wizards' torches, even in the shadows. Carrying their buckets, Cimorene, Morwen, and Telemain slipped behind nearby pillars as another wizard came around the corner from the far end of the cave.

"Most gracious and powerful Head Wizard," he said, bowing to Zemenar.

"We've checked everything at least twice. There's no one outside and no sign of anyone coming. That spell Xinamon felt before must have been some sort of normal variation."

Behind the pillars, Mendanbar winced. The wizards had noticed the locating spell he had sent out earlier. Cimorene frowned and shook her head at him, but he wasn't sure what she meant by that. Morwen scowled at them both and put her finger to her lips.

"Possibly," Zemenar replied. "I don't want to take any chance, though.

The King of the Enchanted Forest has a certain amount of magic, and we don't fully understand it. Call in a few more wizards, just to make sure."

"If you don't want to take chances, we ought to use up the dragon now and get out of here," Dizenel said.

"I'm with you," the most recent arrival agreed. "Dragons make me nervous. Are you sure she can't get out?"

"If she could, she'd have done so right away," Zemenar said. "Don't worry about it. We've put the power of at least an acre of the Enchanted Forest into building that shield, and no one can lower it except us."

"Are you sure?" the wizard persisted.

"Take a closer look, if you're not satisfied," Zemenar said, waving at the glow.

"It's impressive," the wizard said, moving nearer. "But with a spell this new, how can you be positive-Say, what's that?"

At their companion's change in tone, the wizards' heads swiveled to look at Kazul. For a frozen moment, no one spoke. Then a wizard at the back said, "It's a cat."

Mendanbar glanced sideways in time to see Morwen shake her head and take a firmer grip on her bucket of soapy water. He grimaced. They had only six buckets of soapy water among them, and there were already eleven wizards in the cave. If it came to a fight, they would be badly outnumbered.

"How did a cat get inside the shield?" another wizard asked. "It wasn't there yesterday."

"It wasn't there a few hours ago," Dizenel said. "Where did it come from?"

"Spread out and search the cave," Zemenar commanded, rising. "And bring in the dragonsbane. Someone's snooping."

The wizards fanned out across the cavern and started toward the forest of pillars. There was no way Mendanbar and the others could get away without being seen, even if they had been willing to abandon Kazul to her fate. Mendanbar drew his sword. Soapy water or not, he felt better with a weapon in his hand.

As the first wizard reached the pillars, he jerked in surprise, then raised his staff. Before he could release whatever spell he had planned, a shower of soapy water drenched him from head to foot. The wizard shrieked loudly.

"Blast you six ways from next Wednesday!" he shouted as he began to melt. "This is the second time you've liquefied me! May you and your pet dragon and your triple-cursed wash water turn purple with orange spots and fall down a bottomless pit!"

The other wizards stopped in their tracks. "It's Cimorene!" one of them said nervously.

"That's Princess Cimorene, to you," Cimorene said, stepping out from behind a pillar. She held her second bucket in plain sight, ready to throw.

"Stay back," Zemenar ordered. "Blast her from a distance."

"Cowards!" Cimorene taunted, and ducked behind another of the stone columns. "Come and get me!"

It wasn't going to work, Mendanbar told himself, taking a firmer grip on his sword. Zemenar was too clever to let his wizards chase Cimorene into the maze of stone. They would stay at a safe distance and throw bolts of power into the pillars until they destroyed the maze or killed everyone in it, or both.

Three more wizards came running in. Zemenar stopped them with a gesture. The rest of the wizards backed away from the pillars and lined up across the width of the cave.

"Now, then," the Head Wizard said, lifting his staff and pointing it at the pillar Cimorene had ducked behind. "Take this."

Mendanbar felt magic swell around the end of the staff. An instant later, before he had time to reach for the magic himself, the spell shot forward and exploded, shattering the pillar and sending chips of rock flying in all directions.

"Ow!" Cimorene's voice cried from somewhere in the shadows.

Without thinking, Mendanbar stepped out from behind his pillar, bucket in one hand, sword in the other, into full view of the wizards. "Over here!" he called. If he could distract them for a minute or two, perhaps Cimorene could get safely behind another column.

"Mendanbar!" For an instant, Zemenar looked thoroughly startled.

Then he smiled nastily. "How nice to see you. I've been hoping you would turn up, so we could finish this little business at last."

As he spoke, Zemenar stepped forward and shifted his staff to point at Mendanbar. Mendanbar raised his sword and stayed where he was. He felt magic building around the staff once more and decided not to wait to find out what Zemenar intended it to become. Instead, he reached out through the sword and touched the wizard's spell, the same way he touched the magic threads of the Enchanted Forest.

It was much easier to do here than it had been in the Mountains of Morning. The sword sopped up the spell in an instant. Mendanbar could sense the channels of power Zemenar had been using to feed his spell, and he touched those, too, and pulled. The sword obligingly drank them in.

"What are you doing?" Zemenar cried in astonishment, lowering his staff. His hair stood out around his head, as wild and tangled as the magical mess he'd left on the floor of Mendanbar's castle.

"I'm stopping you," Mendanbar said. His whole arm tingled with the power the sword had absorbed. If he could just think of the right thing to do with it…

"And a good thing, too," Morwen said from several pillars over.

"You're too greedy for your own good, or anyone else's, for that matter."

"I am not greedy," Zemenar protested angrily. "I have every right to-" "You're greedy, all right," Cimorene said from just behind Mendanbar.

"And you wouldn't know what to do with all the power you want even if you got it. Just look at you! Your hair's like a bird's nest."

Zemenar scowled. Mendanbar stared at him without really seeing him, trying to remember why Cimorene's words sounded familiar.

"The gargoyle!" he said suddenly. "Why didn't I think of that before?"

"What gargoyle?" one of the wizards asked.

"Never mind him," Zemenar said. "He's only trying to distract us. All together, now: blast them?"

The line of wizards raised their staffs. Mendanbar grinned and twisted the mass of power in the sword, just as he had done two days earlier when he had grown tired of the gargoyle's complaints. Soapy water spurted out of the empty air in front of the wizards in a hard, fast stream, as if it were being pumped through an invisible hose. The foaming spray washed over the entire line, thoroughly soaking them all.

Puddles grew rapidly on the stones underfoot, and wizards shouted and slid on the suddenly slippery floor.

Several of them dropped their staffs to rub at their eyes, which had apparently gotten soap in them. None of them melted.

Mendanbar felt a moment of panic. He'd been sure that his magically created soapy water would work just as well as the buckets they had hauled with them from the castle, but it didn't seem to be doing anything. The wizards would get themselves together any minute, and what would he do then?

"Did you remember the lemon juice?" Cimorene said in his ear.

"Oh, right," said Mendanbar. He twisted the power again, and another spray of soapy water (this time smelling strongly of lemon) squirted over the wizards. To Mendanbar's considerable relief, they collapsed into gooey puddles, one after another. In another moment, there were no wizards left in the cave at all, only staffs, soggy robes, and a great deal of water and soapsuds.

Mendanbar studied the puddles, then set his bucket of soapy water on the ground. It didn't look as if he'd be needing it anymore. He kept his sword out, however, since he didn't know how many more wizards might still be outside.

"Fascinating," said Telemain. He moved forward and knelt at the edge of a puddle. "This mess appears to be mainly the liquefying agent."

"It does?" Cimorene asked.

"He means it's mostly soapy water," Mendanbar said.

"And a good thing, too, or it would take forever to clean up," Morwen said. "Wizards are a nuisance even when they're gone."

"It's a pity it isn't permanent," Cimorene said. "I'd like to get rid of that Zemenar once and for all."

"Removing their staffs will delay their reappearance," Telemain said.

"I suggest we do so before we leave."

"Good idea," Morwen said. She picked her way between puddles and began collecting the wizards' staffs. Telemain went back to studying the puddle.

Cimorene turned to Mendanbar. "Now, if Kazul can just-oh, no!"

Mendanbar followed Cimorene's gaze. The glowing, golden shield spell still blocked half of the cavern, imprisoning Kazul.

There was a long silence. Then Cimorene said, "Telemain, were those wizards right when they said they were the only ones who could take down that spell?"

"What's that?" Telemain said, looking up. "Really, must you interrupt so constantly? I'm never going to get anything finished at this rate."

"But think of all the interesting things you're finding out," Mendanbar said. Kazul's shield, for instance. Have you ever seen anything like it before?"

"Now that you mention it, no," Telemain replied, scrambling to his feet. "Let me look at it."

"That was the idea," Cimorene muttered.

They all watched while Telemain examined the shield. He walked from one end to the other, then put a hand gingerly against the glow and pushed.

When nothing seemed to happen, he twisted one of his rings twice and touched it to the glow.

"Can you get rid of it?" Cimorene asked.

"I don't know yet," Telemain said. "I'm still checking the parameters of the primary enchantment."

"Oh."

The magician twisted a different ring and touched it to the glow. This time there was a spark. "Ah!" Telemain said in a satisfied tone. "I suspected as much."

"Well, are you going to tell us about it?" Morwen said as she dropped a load of wizards' staffs in a pile against the wall.

"It's a self-sustaining barrier produced by a recirculation of the initial power input," Telemain explained. "Because of the rotation effect, most physical substances cannot pass through the shield in either direction. Unlike the majority of spells, this one needs no exterior energy source, so the usual procedures for dismantling such sorceries would be completely ineffective."

"What does that mean?" Cimorene demanded.

"The spell keeps itself up, we can't get in or out, and we don't have any way of getting rid of it," Mendanbar translated.

"Then how did the cat get in?" Cimorene asked, pointing at Morwen's large silver-and-cream cat, which had climbed onto Kazul's back and lay curled up between her wings.

"Cats are like that," Morwen said. "When he comes out, I'll ask him how he did it, if you want me to, but don't expect too much in the way of an answer. Cats enjoy being mysterious."

"I don't care what they enjoy," Cimorene said. "We have to get Kazul out of there, and if that cat can help-" "It is unlikely," Telemain interrupted, stepping back from the glow.

"The cat's method of moving through the barrier is, in all probability, useless to anyone else. Fortunately, we have other resources."

"We do?"

Telemain looked at Mendanbar. "While I have not had a chance to make a thorough and complete examination of that extremely intriguing weapon you carry, I have observed enough to determine that its function is fundamentally antithetical to wizards and their magic. A straightforward penetration appears quite possible and would disrupt the recirculation effect, resulting in the collapse of the self-sustaining mechanism."

"What?" said Cimorene.

"Really, Telemain, must you?" said Morwen.

"Right," said Mendanbar. He took three steps forward and stuck his sword into the glowing spell.

A jolt of power ran up his arm and the globe of light flashed brighter than the sun. Mendanbar's eyes were dazzled by the flare, so he couldn't see anything except purple spots, but he heard a loud roar, the angry hiss of a cat, and the sound of scales on stone, so he was sure the barrier was gone.

"Kazul," Cimorene called from behind him. "It's all right. It's not wizards, it's us."

"And about time," a deep, unfamiliar voice said. "Hello, Cimorene, Morwen. It's nice to see you again. Who are these others?"

"This is Mendanbar, the King of the Enchanted Forest," Cimorene answered, and Mendanbar felt her hand on his shoulder. "He's the one who let you out. Over there is Telemain. He's a magician, and he figured out how to do it."

"Greetings, Your Majesty," Mendanbar said, blinking. The purple spots began to fade at last, and he found himself staring into the green-gold eyes of an enormous female dragon. He only just managed to keep himself from backing up automatically. "Pleased to meet you."

"Under the circumstances, most definitely so am I," said the dragon with a smile that showed a large number of sharp-looking silver teeth.

"How did you manage it?"

"Weren't you watching?" Cimorene asked.

"Watching what?" Kazul replied. "I couldn't see a thing except what was inside that blasted bubble with me."

"We could see you."

"The shielding spell was unidirectional," Telemain put in. "The external absorptive effect would enhance its efficiency."

Kazul gave Telemain a hard look and smiled again, this time showing a//of her teeth. "What was that again?"

Telemain looked at Kazul. Then he looked at Mendanbar. He frowned in concentration, and finally he said carefully, "The shield was a one-way spell. It soaked up everything that tried to get in from outside and used the energy to make itself stronger."

"Very good," Morwen said. "I was beginning to think you were hopeless."

"I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about," Telemain said A yowl of complaint made them all turn their heads. The cream-and-silver cat was standing at the edge of the wet, soapy, lemon-scented area where the wizards had melted, shaking his front paws one at a time and eying the water with extreme disfavor.

"Too bad," Morwen told the cat. "If you hadn't sneaked in and attracted their attention, Mendanbar might not have had to be quite so extravagant with the spray. You'll have to get across it by yourself.

Where's Chaos?"

The cat blinked disdainfully and began washing his right paw. Kazul snorted softly. "If you want a ride, climb up," she told the cat.

"But you'd better hurry, because I'm leaving now."

Kazul rose to her feet, shaking her wings. The cat looked up from his washing, then took two bounds and leaped from the top of a projecting rock. He disappeared behind Kazul's shoulder, and there was a brief sound of claws scraping against scales. Then the cat appeared on Kazul's back, riding comfortably between the dragon's wings and looking tremendously pleased with himself.

"Wait a minute," Mendanbar said as the dragon started toward the other end of the cave. "There may be more wizards out there."

"Good," said Kazul without slowing down at all. "Four days is a long time to spend inside a blank bubble, and I owe them one. Besides, I'm hungry."

"I should think so!" Cimorene said, following the dragon. "Didn't they give you anything to eat?"

"No, and I wouldn't have taken it if they had," Kazul said. Her voice became muffled as her head turned the corner at the far end of the cave.

"For all I knew, those mumble mumble could have mumble dragonsbane in everything. I mumble mumble end up like Tokoz."

"But if there are more wizards-," Mendanbar began, then gave up and hurried after Cimorene. Clearly, neither she nor Kazul was going to listen to him, and if there were more wizards outside it would be better if he-and his sword-were there to help.


15 In Which Everyone Argues | Searching for Dragons | 17 In Which Mendanbar Grows Some Trees and Makes a Wicked Suggestion