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The moment of the magici.., p.1
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       The Moment of the Magician: A Spellsinger Adventure (Book Four), p.1

           Alan Dean Foster
The Moment of the Magician: A Spellsinger Adventure (Book Four)

  The Moment of the Magician

  Alan Dean Foster



















  For Tim Hildebrandt,

  A good friend and a fellow journeyer

  Through the lands of Never-Never…


  “AND I SAY OPLODE should give way!”

  The speaker, Asmouelle the tamandua, stood before the narrow wooden oval that was the Quorum table and glared at his colleagues. His nose was damp and glistening, and so was the table. Most everything stayed damp in Quasequa, a city built on numerous islands in the middle of the Lake of Sorrowful Pearls. Causeways joined the islands together, and each isle sent its duly chosen representative to argue for it in the Quorum.

  This afternoon the arguments raged hotter than the air outside the Quorumate. The members were debating the selection of an advisor in matters arcane and magical.

  The unexpected challenger for this mystic position sat and brooded in a chair at the far end of the Quorum chamber. Reluctant attendants saw to his needs. They were afraid of the newcomer. So were several members of the Quorum, though none confessed such unseemly fears openly.

  Two members openly supported the challenger, but not out of fear. Kindore and Vazvek saw a chance to better themselves by striking a bargain with the newcomer for their aid. The rest of the Quorum regarded this naked display of sycophancy with disgust.

  And now Asmouelle appeared to have joined them.

  The tamandua sat down. Domurmur the lynx rose and spoke dispassionately. “And I say this wanderer has yet to prove himself capable of anything stronger than bad breath.” His paws rested on the ancient table, which was as black and shiny as a bottle of oil.

  Kindore responded with an insult of some subtlety, and once again the debate dissolved into chaos. It ceased only when Trendavi raised a hand for silence. He did not stand. Long experience had taught him that it was not necessary for a legislator to jump up and down like a toy in a box to make a point.

  The aged pangolin squinted down the length of the table, studying the challenger silently for a moment. Then he nodded to his left.

  “Oplode the Sly has been principal advisor in arcane matters to the Quorum of Quasequa for nearly thirty years. Skillfully and well has he served. The city and its citizens have profited much from his advice.” Trendavi showed scaly palms. “As have we all.”

  Words of agreement rose from the members while Kindore and Vazvek were conspicuous by their silence. The newcomer said nothing.

  “It is true that this Markus person”—and Trendavi gestured toward the individual in the solitary chair, who sat smiling to himself as if at some secret joke—”has demonstrated to the Quorum nothing more than a facile tongue.”

  Now the newcomer stood and approached the black table. “Since you credit me with it, let me use it, friends.” The towering form of his personal bodyguard moved to stand close to the door. “Can I come nearer?” He smiled pleasantly and even Domurmur had to admit that this Markus the Ineluctable, as he styled himself, could be downright ingratiating in manner when he so desired. Especially for a human, a species not noted for its social graces.

  Trendavi nodded. All eyes focused on the newcomer as he moved close.

  For his part, Markus the Ineluctable sensed antagonism, fear, curiosity, and some open support among the members of the Quorum. He would concentrate his efforts on persuading those who seemed to be wavering. Of the ten, he could count on three. The two who openly feared him he could ignore. He had to persuade at least two others.

  And he had to move carefully lest he panic them all. It was too early to press his demands. His position was uncertain in Quasequa, and despite his powers, he had no wish to raise a formal alliance against him. Far better to make friends of them than enemies. Of a majority, anyway.

  “I’ve come here from a faraway land, a land farther off and stranger than any of you can imagine.”

  “So you’ve claimed.” Domurmur had become something of an unofficial spokesman for Markus’s opposition. “All that you claim is difficult to believe.”

  “Yet much of it is proven by my presence, isn’t it?”

  “Not necessarily,” said Newmadeen, preening her whiskers casually. One of her long ears was bent forward in the middle, a sign of beauty among the hares.

  Markus turned away momentarily and coughed. He did not need to cough, but he didn’t want them to see the expression on his face. He didn’t like being called a liar. Calming himself, he turned to face them again. Newmadeen he didn’t reply to, but he would remember her. Oh, yes, he would remember her. Markus the Ineluctable never forgot an enemy.

  “Why not?”

  Cascuyom the howler shrugged. “There is nothing unique or remarkable about your person. There are many humans living in Quasequa. All species mix freely here. Or you could have come from any one of several neighboring lands with denser human populations. Your humanness is proof of nothing.”

  Markus stepped up to the table, enjoying the way several of the members shied away from him. “But I’m no mere human! I’m not your usual mortal. I am a magician—the magician. Markus the Ineluctable! I have powers you cannot comprehend, abilities you cannot conceive of, talents you cannot imagine!”

  “A mouth big beyond belief,” Domurmur whispered to the beauteous Newmadeen.

  Trendavi cleared his throat, spoke thoughtfully and, he hoped, with some degree of neutrality. “You must think quite highly of your skills to come straight to the Quorum to challenge the faithful and talented Oplode without first passing time as an apprentice. For the nonce I will credit you with boldness instead of ignorance. Whether Oplode will be as forgiving remains to be seen.” He nodded toward the salamander seated in the advisor’s chair off to his right.

  Red-orange blotches decorated what was visible of Oplode’s back. He wore a single garment that resembled a raincoat. It was not close-fitting. No salamander could wear anything close to its skin because its natural bodily secretions would cause the material to stick.

  Oplode’s long tail flicked nervously back and forth. What he’d heard of this Markus the Ineluctable hadn’t pleased him. Now that he saw him in the flesh, he liked the man even less.

  Still, he’d held his peace because protocol demanded it. Not that his personal opinion would be accepted as evidence. The selection of chief advisor to the Quorum was purely a matter of business. He would have his turn in due course. So he continued to sit quietly, ignoring the debate as best he could while trying to still the twitching of his tail.

  Markus was talking on. “I can do things you won’t believe by means of a magic you’ve never encountered before.”

  “More talk,” said Domurmur, slapping the table with a paw. Markus grinned at him.

  “I suspected it would come to this. You want more than talk from me.”

  “That’d be nice,” said Domurmur sarcastically. “We’ve had to contend with applicants whose loquaciousness far exceeded their abilities before.”

  For an instant, it seemed as if Markus the Ineluctable was about to lose his temper. His barely concealed rage didn’t faze Domurmur. He was made of sterner stuff than some of his colleagues.

  “Yes,” said Oplode suddenly, unable to contain himself any longer. “Let’s have an end to this

  All eyes turned to the chief advisor as he rose from his seat. The glow bulbs hanging by their single strands from the curved stone ceiling pulsed a little brighter as the salamander stood. It was his spelling which provided their soft, steady light. The servitors flanking the doorways whispered expectantly among themselves. Attendants and Quorum members alike could feel the power flowing from the old wizard, could sense that he was completely involved in what was taking place.

  About the challenger there was no such perceptible aura of strength. There was only the air of mystery and feeling of alienness he had brought with him from the moment he’d stepped into the chamber. That, and the regal bearing he affected, which somehow seemed not to fit.

  Nor was his actual appearance particularly impressive. He was tall for a human but not spectacularly so, round of countenance, and crowned with less fur than most. In hand-to-hand combat it was unlikely he could have defeated any of the Quorum with the exception of old Trendavi, for he displayed a considerable paunch above his belt line.

  The forthcoming battle would not be physical, however. Oplode approached the Quorum. “I see no reason to oppose a challenge. Indeed, I could not turn it down if I wished to. Nor is there any way you can choose between us without a contest of wills. The people of Quasequa deserve to have an advisor who has proven his abilities.” He sighed deeply, looked resigned as he smoothed the slime on the back of his hands with a fold of his voluminous robe.

  “I have demonstrated my fitness many times before and expect to have to do so many times again.” He cocked an amphibian eye toward the newcomer. “Have you any objection to a public contest?”

  “Here and now suits me fine.” Markus fairly oozed confidence. “I’m a little new at this kind of duel. Do we need seconds?”

  “I think not. In any event, my assistant Flute is quite young and I would not want him subjected to mystic influences that could injure him at a delicate stage of his development.”

  “Aw, I wouldn’t do that.” Markus turned. “Prugg, no matter what happens you stay there and keep out of the way. Understand?” The huge bodyguard nodded once and backed away from the table. He was not completely impassive, however. Like everyone else in the chamber, he was curious to see how his master would fare. He was even a little worried. After all, Oplode was the most noted wizard in the land. It was simple for his master to overawe the peasant folk with his magic, but outwitting Oplode would be another matter entirely.

  Markus the Ineluctable seemed anything but intimidated, though. He grinned and gestured expansively toward the salamander. “You first.”

  Oplode did not smile. “Food is vital to the health of all. No food is more important to the people of Quasequa than the fish that swim in the lakes around us.” He slid back his sleeves, cleared his throat, and his words rolled through the chamber.

  “The bounty of the lake

  I bid you all to share

  Your hungers may you slake

  With meat beyond compare

  For while I advise Quasequa there will be

  No nutritional dystopia

  But always instead if you look you will see

  An ichthyological cornucopia.”

  Quorum members and servitors alike watched with the fascination of children as a small, glowing blue-green whirlpool formed in the air above the floor. You could smell the lake water as the vortex hummed. Then the fish poured forth, falling head upon tail, until there was a heaping mound of flopping, bouncing weewaw lying in the middle of the floor. Weewaw, the hardest to catch and tastiest of all. And Oplode had brought forth this expensive and improbable feast with a wave of his hands and a few words.

  The wizard spoke only when the last fish had tumbled to the stones and the whirlpool had vanished. “Can you so readily insure the supply of food to the citizens of the city?”

  Markus frowned a moment. Then his grin returned. He raised his hands above his head, the fingers pointing outward. His black cape fluttered behind him. The Quorum members strained to listen, but those with good hearing could make no sense of the newcomer’s words. Even Oplode, who could hear the incantation clearly, did not understand. The words were strange and sharp.

  Sense they might not have made, but there was no denying their effect. A bright green glow appeared before the table. A few of the members shifted nervously in their chairs, and Markus casually assured them they had nothing to worry about.

  The glow expanded and thinned. Markus looked smug as the glow formed a floating rectangle above the floor.

  It was an aquarium without sides. Magic alone held the water in place. Swimming to and fro within the drifting section of lake was a whole school of weewaw, suspended before the Quorum.

  “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I hate waste. Wouldn’t it be better to get your fish one at a time and keep the others fresh for the taking?”

  Oplode muttered something and his pile of dead weewaw vanished. Markus did likewise and the floating aquarium also disappeared, save for a few misplaced drops which stained the floor.

  “Well brought!” said Kindore, only to have his colleagues shush him. Oplode glared at the flying squirrel, then turned his attention back to the smiling Markus. They had determined one thing already.

  His challenger was for real.

  “It is not enough to feed a population in times of difficulty, stranger. One must be able to defend them as well.” Again he lifted an arm, made sinuous motions in the air.

  “Let those who threaten

  beware, beware

  We will not fight

  with air, with air

  We mold our weapons

  with care, so there

  Be metallurgical might!”

  Fire this time, bright and hot. The Quorum members shielded their faces as the set of armor coalesced before them, melting out of the flames. Sword, shield, and long spear accompanied it. The fire cooled and flickered out.

  Notorian moved from his seat to inspect the newly forged weapons. He hefted the sword, tapped the armor with it.

  “Fine instruments for fighting.”

  “For one fighter, yes,” Markus agreed readily. “For a trained warrior. But what of the ordinary citizen? How does he, or she, defend the community?”

  Once more he raised his hands, once again he intoned an invocation none could comprehend. This he concluded by swinging his cape around in front of him, to form a funnel in the air.

  There was a tinkling sound as something fell from the base of the funnel. Then another, and another. It became a metallic clashing as the flow increased, until the flow of knives was a shining waterfall pouring from the bottom of the cape.

  Notorian the wolf picked one up and tested the edge. “Finest steel I’ve ever seen,” he declared to the stunned Quorum. The rush of metal continued until Trendavi finally raised a hand himself.

  “Enough!” Markus nodded, let the cape swirl back around his neck. As he did so, the clanging waterfall ceased. The floor of the Quorum chamber was awash in knives of every shape and size. Markus kicked a few of them aside and bowed.

  “As my employers wish.” He swept a hand out to encompass the armory. “A gift to the Quorum and to the citizens of Quasequa, my adopted home.”

  “They’re only knives,” Cascuyom muttered.

  “You’d prefer swords?” Markus asked him, overhearing. “Or maybe something more lethal still? Like this.” He threw his left hand toward the ceiling. A burst of lightning flew from his fingers to shatter the pole holding a banner across the table. Splinters and fabric tumbled onto the Quorum. Markus grinned as they fought to extricate themselves while maintaining their dignity.

  “Something more impressive?” he inquired.

  “No, no, that will be quite satisfactory,” harrumphed Trendavi, trying to untangle himself from the fallen banner.

  “You can feed and you can destroy,” snapped Oplode, “but can you create?”

  Again the salamander’s hands moved in time to his mouth.
  “Jewels of the earth

  Scarce and profound

  Gems of great worth

  Come forth from the ground

  Rise here to please us

  To tempt and to tease us!”

  Crystals of blue and yellow, of rose and lavender began to take shape in the center of the table. They seemed to grow out of the wood, catching the light as they developed, throwing back delightful colors at the enraptured members. By the time Oplode concluded the incantation, the entire table was encrusted with crystals. A smattering of applause came from the servitors gathered along the walls.

  But Markus the Ineluctable only smiled wider as he moved his fingers against one another. The applause for Oplode turned to awed whispers.

  Flowers began to appear, growing out of the naked stone of the walls and ceiling. Exotic, alien blossoms that put forth the most exquisite smells. A blaze of color and fragrance filled the Quorum chamber to overflowing.

  You could see the opinions of several members of the Quorum begin to shift in Markus’s favor.

  “Satisfied yet?” Markus asked them. “You tell me which of us is the more powerful magician.”

  “A magician is a trickster, not a wizard,” said Oplode.

  Markus shrugged. “I prefer magician. I’m comfortable with it. I’ve always called myself a magician. As for my ‘tricks,’ they seem just as effective as your wizardry. Had enough?”

  “There is one more thing,” said Oplode slowly. “You have shown what you can do for others, but can you do for yourself?” So saying he pointed a red-and-black arm at Markus’s face and uttered an incantation so powerful the words cannot stand repeating. A slight but steady breeze sprang up, rippling the fur of the onlookers, and the glow bulbs grew dim. No one in the chamber dared to breathe, lest a fraction of that energy latch onto them and turn them to dust.

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