The Way of the Word

31. October 2010

Scary Little Monsters

Filed under: Commentary,general,Uncategorized — jensaltmann @ 20:43
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I enjoy Halloween. I don’t attend any parties, I don’t dress up. I like the early evening, when the children come out, dressed up as ghosts and witches and monstery, and demand candy.

Halloween isn’t as big here in Germany as it is in the US. The children don’t go overboard with their costumes. You get a lot of black-robed ghosts, and a lot of little witches.

I always pretend I’m scared when I see them. I open the door, and get afraid. I really ham it up. I am, after all, not attempting to win an Oscar or a Tony. What I want is give some pre-schoolers the feeling that they have a really scary costume for Halloween. I have fun, the children have fun, a sense of accomplishment, and free candy, and everyone wins.

Tonight is a night that three boys, each of them maybe six or seven years old, will probably brag about at school on Monday. Because, apparently, I really sold it to them. I got so scared that they go scared and took off their masks to reassure me that no, they are not really evil ghosts, they are just children.

I managed to stay in character and not burst out laughing until they were well on their way to the next house, and the door was closed. I consider that a full and unreserved success. All the way.

29. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 40

Looking down at the bubbling lava in Wakano’s Throne, Ghenni still hadn’t entirely gotten over recent events. First, Habbassin had stopped the volcano. Oh, sure, the other two had helped, but Ghenni had been there. She knew exactly what had happened. After they had stopped the eruption, the magic-users had evacuated every living thing from the island. Returning, they had reerupted the volcano, letting it run its course.

“What we did was only a stopgap measure,” Habbassin had told her. “If we left it at that, it could blow up again any time. If we erupt it now, while we’re still around to control it, you’ll be safe. For a while, anyway.”

“What do you mean, we, blue-face?” Bolwyn had said. The portly wizard had been in earshot throughout, not contributing anything. Habbassin had countered his complaint with that special smile he reserved for the gatherers of artifacts. The smile Ghenni was glad he didn’t smile at her.

“Guess who’ll never leave here if they don’t help me,” the djinn had said.

The wizards had decided to cooperate.

The difficult part had come after the second eruption. Ghenni knew how hard it was because Habbassin had recruited not only the two wizards but all the villagers as well. For some reason, the djinn had considered restoring the island essential. While the villagers would have been perfectly happy to settle on the island they had been evacuated to, Habbassin had insisted. He had proven very persuasive.

It had taken several weeks, but finally the island looked more or less as it had before the catastrophe. The cooled lava had been removed. The huts had been rebuilt, better even than before because the villagers had taken some of the advice of the three visitors on how to improve their homes. The volcano had been repaired. Although there were now vents below the waterline, where cold water entered the volcano, cooling it down, while lava would flow out of the vents first, reducing the pressure if there were a new eruption. That at least had been Habbassin’s explanation. The children had been the first to discover the spot of warm water as a playground. Some of the adults had followed the children to play with them, and word had gotten around that a visit to the hot water could be beneficial. Now the adults also enjoyed the hot baths. Together, the people had replanted trees and bushes and flowers, provided by the wizards. It would take some time for everything to grow back as tall as it had been, but grow back it would, now. Habbassin had even brought animals from other islands, to replenish the animal population as he had put it.

It had taken weeks, but now they were done. The island was good as new, better even. Ghenni, her two friends, Elomei, Jamao, Habbassin and the two wizards had gathered on top of Wakano’s Throne.

“We did our part,” Terek said. “You cannot claim otherwise.”

“That’s true,” Habbassin said. “You’re free to go. I release my spell.”

“I still don’t get it,” Bolwyn said. “I mean, you’ve won. We’re beaten, and we’re leaving. You can tell us how come you didn’t obey when I had your lamp. I mean, you’re supposed to grant three wishes to whoever holds that lamp, aren’t you?”

“I am obliged to grant three wishes to whoever is the proprietor of my prison,” Habbassin confirmed. “It doesn’t have to be a lamp. Although, in this case, it was, yes.”

“So?”

“What makes you think I’m dumb enough to give you my lamp?” Habbassin said. He help out his hand, palm up. The lamp materialized on his palm. “Here, take it,” Habbassin said. “As a souvenir.”

Bolwyn took the lamp from the djinn’s outstretched hand and tucked it into his tunic.

“Don’t look so glum, Terek,” Habbassin said. “You can have one too.” Another lamp, identical to the first, materialized. Terek took it.

“A duplicate,” he said, studying the item in his hand. “Clever. You also never told us your name.”

“Names are powerful,” Elomei said.

“Anything to make sure you’ve no power over me,” Habbassin agreed. “The real lamp is hidden somewhere on this island. You’ll never find it.”

“If it hasn’t been destroyed,” Ghenni said. Habbassin shrugged.

“It’s still there,” he said. “I’d know if it were gone, believe me.” He flashed the smile at the wizards. “If I were you, I’d get outta here. I might change my mind about letting you go, you know.”

Terek and Bolwyn exchanged a look.

“Until next time,” Terek said, reaching into his pouch.

“Until next time,” Bolwyn repeated, doing likewise.

The wizards each cast their spell ingredients into the air. The fine powders hung in the air for a moment, then they began to twist, expanding as they did until they completely enveloped the wizards. Suddenly, the twisters were gone. The wizards were gone with them.

“That’s that,” Habbassin muttered.

“What was that about three wishes?” Ghenni said.

“Will they be back?” Jamao said, ignoring Ghenni. Habbassin shrugged.

“These two?” the djinn said. “I don’t think so. They’ve learned their lesson.” He contemplated the question for a moment. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be others, though,” he admitted. “So long as I am here, there is always the chance that there will be others. They might even be worse than those two clowns. Or worse yet, they might be better. If you know what I mean.”

“Then leave,” Jamao said, gesturing imperiously. Habbassin laughed.

“I would if I could,” the djinn said. “Believe me, I’d like nothing better than to get off this godsforsaken rock. If I could. Ghenni, do you want to tell him, or should I?”

“What was that Bolwyn said about three wishes?” Ghenni said. Habbassin ignored her.

“That lamp the wizards mentioned,” he told Jamao, “I’m bound to it. There’s nothing I can do about it. So long as the lamp’s on this island, I’m stuck here.”

“What if we take the lamp away from here?” Jamao said.

“I’d go too. I go anywhere the lamp goes. That’s my curse.”

“Where is the lamp?” Elomei said. Habbassin laughed.

“Oh no, you don’t. I wouldn’t give them two the lamp, what makes you think you can have it?” He shrugged. “On the other hand, you can’t get it anyway. We — Ghenni, her buddies and I — hid it in a cave. It caved in when the volcano shook everything up. I don’t think anyone can get that lamp now.” He winked at the witch-woman. “Except me, and I’m not buying.”

“Then what can we do?”

“I could do something,” Ghenni said. “I’m still the, what did you call it, proprietor of the lamp.”

“Nice try, kid, but you’d have to make a wish to make me get it, and there aren’t enough left to make me do anything afterwards.” Habbassin frowned. “Provided you’ve any wishes left. Haven’t I trick– Haven’t you used them all up already?”

“I don’t think so,” Miki said. “I think there’s still the third wish left.”

“Yeah,” Ankhoro agreed. “You still gotta grant her one more wish.”

“Whatever it will be, we should discuss it someplace more hospitable,” Jamao said. Spreading his arms wide, he herded the others off the mountain. Ghenni kept her smile to herself. She could understand why the chief was uncomfortable so near Wakano. She would have been uncomfortable as well, a couple of days before. A part of her still marveled at how blasé she had become about all this. Seeing, experiencing rather, so very many strange things first hand probably did that to you, another part of her figured. She did as Jamao said anyway. There was no reason not to; besides, it was unpleasantly warm.

As if by mutual agreement, nobody spoke on the way back to the village. Even Habbassin kept quiet. Ghenni wondered what was the matter with him. Perhaps it was that his secret was out now, that everybody knew that thing about the wishes. Especially about the wish that apparently was left over. Being honest with herself, Ghenni admitted that she was wondering about that too. There were grownups involved now. Knowing them, Ghenni was sure they would want to take over the situation, the lamp, and the last wish.

It wasn’t fair.

On the other hand, Habbassin had obviously always considered her the proprietor of the lamp. Whatever else happened, that final wish was hers.

Not that she had any idea what to do with it.

Back in the village, Jamao shooed everybody into his hut, which was much more luxurious now than it had any right to be. He had been quite creative about adapting the visitors’s cultural differences to his own uses. Among the new inventions they had introduced which he had put into his home were chairs and tables. Jamao sat down on a very pretentious-looking chair. The others settled into utilitarian variants.

“The question is what to do with that last wish,” Jamao began without preamble. “I’m sure we have all contemplated that on the way back.”

“I’d rather say the question is what to do with Habbassin,” Opona replied. “So long as he is here, we won’t be safe from people like Terek and Bolwyn. Those two were enough for me, thank you, I don’t need to meet more of their kind.”

Jamao nodded.

“I know it was bad for you and your daughter,” he said with a fake-looking smile. “However, it was your other daughter’s fault that all this happened. If she had brought the lamp to us right away …”

“Perhaps we would have been rid of you,” Elomei said. Jamao looked at her, blinking.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. You can’t blame a child for acting like a child. Nor can you play ‘what if’ games in this case. None of us would have known what to do with that lamp. None of us would have even known it was a lamp, or even an enchanted one.”

“Cursed,” Habbassin said.

“A curse is only an enchantment with bad effects. The point is, if Ghenni had given you the lamp, our visitors would have concentrated on you. Wakano knows what they would have done to get through to your thick skull.”

“I see what you mean,” Jamao said, making a face. Ghenni doubted he did.

“Whatever we decide,” Opona said, “we can do nothing until we have the lamp. Habbassin, would you please fetch it here?”

“Is that a wish?” Habbassin said with a sly smile.

“It is a good idea,” Elomei said. “Be a good boy. Fetch.”

“I’m not a dog,” the djinn grumbled. He faded from view. Jamao stared, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, at where he had stood only a heartbeat before.

“He does that a lot,” Ghenni said. “Usually, he’s much more spectacular about it. He loves to put on a spectacle.”

“Yeah, but not right now,” Habbassin said, popping back in. He put the lamp on the table. “Here you are.”

“So that’s the lamp,” Jamao said, reaching for the artifact.

“That’s the lamp,” Ghenni confirmed, taking it. She frowned. “It really is, is it? I thought you couldn’t touch it.”

“The one and only,” Habbassin said. “And yes, I can move it if the owner commands me to.”

“So what do we do?” Opona said.

“I’ve been thinking,” Habbassin said, sitting down. “About how kind Ghenni and her friends were.” He smiled at the children. “About the trouble my presence among you has caused you.” He nodded at Elomei and Opona. “Some of you almost died because of me.”

“We noticed,” Jamao huffed.

“And yet Ghenni refused to give me up to the gatherers,” Habbassin continued. “Her loyalty was unbelieveable. I owe her … very much.”

“So what’re you going to do about it?” the chief said.

“As long as the lamp is here, there is a good chance that other fortune hunters will come to seek me. But I can’t leave. I’m bound to the lamp. There’s nothing I can do about it, and you can believe me when I say I tried. Still, I owe you. All that trouble you had because of me… The only chance is to remove the lamp from the island.”

“How?” Elomei said.

“Some of you people could get into your boats, row far out and take the lamp to another island. Or perhaps just throw it into the water. If I’m lucky, it’ll get eaten by a shark and a fisherman’ll catch that shark later on and I’ll be back out again. Or perhaps the shark’ll die and I’ll spend the rest of eternity on the bottom of the sea.”

“What if something happens to the lamp?” Miki said softly. Putting the lamp back on the table, Ghenni turned to look at her friend. As did everybody else. Ghenni realized that as usual, everybody had apparently forgotten the child was present.

“What do you mean?” Elomei said.

“Habbassin keeps telling us how he’s bound to the lamp,” Miki said, making herself even smaller. Ghenni reached out and took her hand. Miki smiled and straightened. A bit. “Now we talk about taking the lamp away from the island. But if he’s bound to the lamp, won’t he be freed if we break the lamp?”

“You know, I never thought of it …” Habbassin said, rubbing his chin. He shook his head. “No. Won’t work. It could only work if the lamp were completely destroyed. I don’t see how…”

“Wakano,” Miki said. “If anyone can destroy the lamp it’s he, isn’t it? After how you helped us, I’m sure he will.”

Habbassin leaned back in his chair. He looked at his hand, looked out of the window at the now quiet volcano.

“Throw the lamp into the volcano,” he said softly. “You know, that just might work …”

“About that last wish,” Jamao said quickly, “I’ve been thinking about that …”

“We could wish Habbassin free of the lamp,” Ghenni said quickly. “That’s it! We wish Habbassin free of the lamp, and when he is we throw it into Wakano’s Throne, where it’ll be completely destroyed.”

“Exactly,” Miki nodded enthusiastically. “That should do it. The lamp will be destroyed, and Habbassin can go wherever he wants to.”

“You would do that for me?” the djinn said.

“Sure,” Miki said. She stood up. “Let’s get on with it.”

“Let’s,” Ghenni cried. Taking the lamp, she rose and headed for the door.

“There’s a faster way,” Habbassin said, twirling his finger.

Ghenni blinked, and they were back on the volcano.

“All right,” Habbassin said, looking into the lava. “Here’s how we do it. You rub the lamp, and while you rub it you make your wish. Speak it out loud.”

Ghenni rubbed the lamp.

“I wish that Habbassin no longer be bound to this lamp,” she intoned. “Or any other lamp, for that matter.”

Habbassin screamed as he turned into blue smoke and was drawn into the lamp, obviously against his will. When he had been completely sucked inside, the lamp shook violently. It was all Ghenni could do not to drop it. The lid sprang off and a dense blue cloud escaped from it. Off to the right, the cloud solidified into Habbassin. The djinn screamed.

“Are you all right?” Miki called out.

“Throw it!” Habbassin yelled. “Just throw that damn thing into the damn volcano!”

Reaching back as far as she could, Ghenni swung her arm and hurled the lamp into the volcano. It flashed and vanished even before it hit the lava. Habbassin screamed again and collapsed.

The children rushed to his side. Each girl took hold of one of his arms. Together, they helped him back to his feet.

“Are you all right?” Miki asked.

“I … will be,” Habbassin said, straightening. He squared his shoulders. Shook himself. Smiled. “I am,” he said, sounding surprised. “I suppose I really am.” He hugged the children to his expansive gut. “It worked!” he yelled. He threw back his head and laughed, laughed so hard he cried. “It really, actually worked! I’m free!” He kissed first Miki, then Ghenni on the top of their heads. “Thank you. Thank you, my friends. I’m free. I’m really truly free.”

Releasing the children, Habbassin stepped back a couple of paces.

“I can go now,” he said. “I bless you all, my friends. You don’t know … You can’t know … You have no idea what …” He held out both of his hands. They began to glow, a glow that spread to both girls, enveloped them. “A little parting gift,” he said. “You’ll find out in time what it does.”

“You’re leaving?” Miki said.

“Right away,” Habbassin said, nodding so hard Ghenni feared his head would fall off. “For the first time in I don’t know how long I’m free again.”

“Where will you go?” Ghenni said.

“Home. Not right away, I’m afraid. I’ve no idea where I am, or how long I’ve been stuck in that lamp. Or even where home is and how to get there. It’ll probably a long and difficult journey. But eventually, I’ll get home. Of that, I’m certain.”

“Won’t you stay?” Miki said. Habbassin knelt before the child and put his hands on her shoulders.

“I can’t. You know why I can’t. I’d be a danger to you all if I did. That was why we destroyed the lamp, remember.”

Miki nodded.

“Yes,” she said. “I just thought…”

“I know,” Habbassin said, ruffling her hair. “Thank you for caring, Miki.”

Rising to his feet, Habbassin stepped back.

“Well, I gotta get going,” he said. He spread his arms. Looking at Ghenni, he said, “One thing’s sure. I’ll never forget you, or what you did for me. I’ll be eternally grateful.”

The djinn took a deep breath and released it with a hiss.

“We won’t forget you either,” Ghenni said.

“You can count on that,” Opona said. She wasn’t smiling. Habbassin winked at her.

“I’d be surprised if you did,” he said. He raised his head to look up at the sky. “This has been too long a good-bye for my tastes already,” he said, rising up. “Have a good life.”

Waving at the people on the volcano, he picked up speed as he rose higher and higher. Within seconds, he was gone.

“He could’ve taken us back home,” Jamao grumbled.

“The exercise will do you good,” Elomei said. “Now come.”

Opona put her hand on Ghenni’s shoulder.

“That sounds like a good idea,” she told her daughter. “He’s gone. Let’s get on with our lives.”

Looking up at where she had last seen Habbassin, Ghenni nodded.

“Yes,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “Let’s.”

THE END

28. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 39

Ghenni concentrated on Bolwyn. The crystal showed her the wizard on the volcano’s far side. He zipped back and forth, as if to make sure nobody was around. Satisfied with his findings, Bolwyn levitated farther up. He too called forth eldritch energies, shaping them into something he found useful for his plan against Wakano’s rage. In Bolwyn’s case, the energy took the shape of a plow. With a few simple gestures, the plow cut into the volcano’s side, gouging deep until Wakano’s fire flowed out of the wound Bolwyn cut into the mountainside. Bolwyn gestured again. His clothes were wet with sweat, moreso than they should be even if the sweat came only from the lava’s heat. His face reddened with effort, his face twisted with concentration. The plow cut deeper, deeper still, deepening the gouge, lengthening it. The deeper and farther the gouge went, the more lava spilled into it. The more lava flowed from the gouge, the less Terek had to deal with on his side. Instead, it flowed to the side of the island where no people were in danger, where all it could do was form strange shapes until it flowed into the sea.

Which, Ghenni now noticed, seemed more shallow than she had ever seen it before. Had Wakano’s fire evaporated so much water? She couldn’t imagine. No so much that one could notice. There was too much water in the sea for that. Wasn’t there?

So that’s what Habbassin’s up to.

Ghenni saw the djinn hover over the sea, his arms spread wide, concentrating on something on the horizon.

Ghenni let the crystal follow the djinn’s gaze until she discovered where all the water had gone.

It had gone into the giant tsunami that rapidly approached the island.

Ghenni looked up from the crystal. She tried to rise, but the ground shook too hard for a steady stand, so she decided against it. She looked past the mountain, at the horizon. Yes, there it was. Habbassin had really caused a tsunami. It grew rapidly, or seemed to as it neared the island and filled her view. It was eerily silent, not nearly as noisy as Ghenni would have expected. Then again, perhaps the tsunami’s noise was simply drowned out by the volcano’s.

“He must’ve lost his mind,” Ghenni muttered. Wasn’t one doom at a time enough?

Ghenni shook her head to clear it. No use staring at the giant wave. No use trying to get away either. Her reasons for staying had just doubled. There was no way she could get to a safe place in time. Provided there was such a thing as a safe place on this island. Ghenni didn’t think so. Her best chance lay with the trio of magic-users. One of whom had apparently lost his mind.

Ghenni concentrated on the crystal again. She saw Terek and Bolwyn. Both had completed their tasks. Working together, they actually managed to stop some of Wakano’s fire. Ghenni wasn’t sure how they did it. Nor did she care. The only thing that mattered was that they were succeeding. It didn’t look to be enough, though. The volcano still rumbled, still spewed rocks into the sky. Lava still spilled over the rim, although most of it now spilled into where the sea used to be.

Habbassin came into view. The others joined him. Terek and Bolwyn reached into their pouches and threw powders into the smoke-filled air. Habbassin gestured. The smoke gathered, changed its appearance.

Ghenni looked away from the crystal to look directly at the mountain again. She could barely make out the three figures hovering just beneath the darkness. She coughed once before realizing that the air was improving. The darkness above the three figures — it had to be all the smoke and dust Wakano had spewed forth. They were drawing it in, obviously. Through the crystal, Ghenni saw that the dust changed texture, became like a thundercloud. True to its new appearance, lightning flashed from the cloud. Ghenni shuddered. Considering how much dirt Wakano had spat out … She decided not to think about the size of the cloud, which still grew, blotting out the sun. Within moments, the only light was the red glow from the volcano, and the flashes of lightning from the giant cloud.

Then the tsunami arrived.

Silently, it hovered over the island for a moment, dwarfing even the mountain. The wizards threw some powder at it. Blue light arced from their hands at the tsunami as it collapsed … as it shrank … as it hardened … Ghenni could feel the chill even where she sat, as if the tsunami drew all the heat from all over the place. She rubbed her arm with her free hand. Something cold and wet touched it. Looking up, she saw fluffy white flakes tumble from the sky. Ghenni held out her hand and caught a couple of the flakes. They turned into cold water instantly. Ghenni looked at the mountain again, just in time to see the tsunami collapse into itself, the pieces falling into the volcano. Steam rose up where ice, for Ghenni was sure now that the wizards had turned the wave into ice, met lava. The steam rose, high into the air, where it was captured and conscripted into the cloud. The cloud released the water, raining down at the mountain, at the surrounding land, at Wakano’s fire. No, not rain, Ghenni realized. It released the same fluffy flakes that had once already caught her attention.

Slowly, whatever the magickal trio did took effect. Already the ground steadied. Wakano’s rumbling quieted. At first, it was replaced by the hissing of steam, but even that quieted down and seemed to cease.

Soon, everything had quieted down. Ghenni offered a prayer to Wakano, thanking him that he had spared them after all. She had barely finished when Habbassin, Terek and Bolwyn popped up next to her.

“I didn’t think it’d work,” Bolwyn gushed. “When you said you needed a tsunami, I thought you’d gone over the deep end. I really did.”

“But it worked,” Terek said.

“A stopgap, at best,” Habbassin said, raising his hands. “We’ve offered the lava a way of less resistance away from the village. We managed to reduce the pressure, clean up the air and cool it down a bit. That doesn’t mean it won’t blow up again, probably quite soon.” He turned to Ghenni, picked her up and held her high.

“We did it!” he cheered. Setting the girl down, he added, “At least we bought your people some time to find another island to stay on. I’m afraid Wakano’ll be pretty mad at being thwarted this time around.” Looking at the two men, he continued, “I couldn’t have done it alone.”

“Yeah,” Bolwyn said. “Can we go now?”

“Not yet,” Habbassin said. “We still have out work cut out for us.” He swept his arm to encompass all around them. “I’d say you still need to make amends for all this.”

“So what do we do now?” Terek said. He sounded even more tired than he looked. The rings under his eyes nearly frightened Ghenni.

Not as much as Habbassin’s grin did, when she caught a look at it.

“We’re going to make the volano erupt again,” the djinn said.

27. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 38

Both wizards stopped fighting. Together, they stared at the lethal beauty of the spectacle unfolding before their eyes.

“We did that,” Terek said.

“We only speeded it up,” Bolwyn replied. “That mountain was acting up since before we arrived. It would’ve erupted anyway. We only made it go a bit sooner.”

Terek took a breath so deep it visibly expanded his chest. He let it out slowly.

“You are right,” he said. “Now what do we do?”

Ghenni looked from the wizards to Habbassin. The djinn’s eyes narrowed to tiny slits. Spreading his fingers as wide as they would go, he moved his hands in small sweeps in front of him. Ghenni thought she saw a glow that resembled a small net, but the glow faded so quickly she wasn’t sure. She was sure about the smile on Habbassin’s face, though; sure, and glad she wasn’t either of the wizards. She didn’t like that smile at all.

“There’s only one thing we can do,” Bolwyn said. He started to move his hands in gestures Ghenni had learned to recognize as working magic. “Cut our losses and get out of here.”

“I fear you are correct,” Terek said, sighing. He began to move his hands in a fashion similar to Bolwyn’s. “Until the next time, then.”

Terek began to fade out, but he didn’t make it all the way. He was about halfway gone when he stopped fading. He screamed, like a man in terrible pain, resolidifying at the same time. He collapsed. Beside him, the same thing happened to Bolwyn.

“What happened?” Bolwyn said, recovering first. “That spell always works. It’s so simple it’s foolproof, dammit”

“I have no idea,” Terek replied. “It felt like running into a barrier.” He struggled to his knees. Turning his head, he glared at Habbassin. “You! That was your doing, djinn. You are the only one powerful enough.”

“Gee, you found me out,” Habbassin said, his flat voice belying the flippancy of his words. “You know, I figured it’s not fair. You trigger that volcano, and after you do you run off, leaving these people to die. I thought you should do something about the volcano.”

“Get real,” Bolwyn said, rising to his feet. “That thing’ll probably tear the entire island to pieces.” Bolwyn pulled the lamp from a pocket and shook it at Habbassin. “Whatever you did, I command you to undo it.”

Habbassin went to Bolwyn. He took the lamp from the wizards hands. Without looking, he melted it until it was a puddle at his feet.

“Get real,” the djinn said. “You didn’t think I’d give someone like you power over me? I won’t lift my anti-teleportation spell until after we’ve saved this island. Get it?”

“That wasn’t … You weren’t …”

“For someone so smart, you are certainly not very intelligent,” Habbassin said. He turned his back at Bolwyn. “Now you two can help me stop that volcano, or you can crawl into a hole and die. Your choice.” Habbassin turned his arms into wings. Flapping them, he took a running leap off what was left of the cliff. He circled, gaining altitude. When he was high enough, he flew toward Wakano’s Throne.

“We’re doomed,” Bolwyn muttered. “We can’t get away from here. We’re dead.”

“On the other hand, we are both very advanced magic users,” Terek said softly. “The djinn is obviously even more advanced than we are. He may even be as powerful as the both of us together. If we pool our abilities, we may succeed with this mad scheme.” He smirked. “What have we to lose by trying? Either we succeed, and live. Or we fail, and die. Or we do nothing, and die.

“I do not wish to die just yet.”

With that, Terek spread his arms. A cold blue light enveloped him as he rose into the air, following in Habbassin’s wake.

“They’re crazy,” Bolwyn said to nobody in particular. “Nobody’s ever stopped a volcano. Nobody.”

“What do you have to lose by trying?” Ghenni said. Bolwyn looked at her, surprised as if he had forgotten she was there. Which, Ghenni conceded, he probably had. “This is all your fault,” Ghenni continued. She coughed. The air was quickly filling with smoke and dust. It was getting difficult to breathe. “If you hadn’t come, nobody would’ve gotten sick. If you hadn’t come, none of this would’ve happened. Now see what you’ve done.” She gestured at the land around her. “Look at what you did here. This used to be a beautiful place, but you and Terek destroyed it. What for? Nothing! As if that weren’t enough, you make Wakano so angry he’ll probably destroy the entire island. Hab– The djinn thinks you can do something about it. So go and do it. If not, you’re welcome to die here with us. Welcome to? Hah! You deserve to die with us!” Ghenni spat at his feet, which triggered another coughing spell.

Bolwyn looked at her as he would look at a strange rare specimen. Rubbing his chin, he looked at the volcano.

“You can’t get away,” Ghenni reminded him. “You can die here, or you can try help save everyone.”

“No choice, really,” Bolwyn said. He actually smiled, although it was kind of sad. “I really don’t wanna die just yet.” He spread his arms wide and faded from view. Ghenni gasped. Had Habbassin’s spell stopped working? Had Bolwyn somehow managed to teleport himself to safety?

Ghenni looked at the sea. She could try to run, but she knew it wouldn’t do her any good. If the three magic-users failed, she was too far even from the village to reach it in time. Sure, she could jump into the sea and try to swim to the next island, but she knew it to be too far. Her strength would abandon her before she ever got close enough to even see it.

Remembering her viewing crystal, Ghenni took it from its pouch. She whispered the magic word. Sitting down on the ground, she wondered what she should look at. Her family? No. She knew what they would be doing. The entire village would be getting into the boats and try to row away to safety. Her parents would probably worry about her.

She decided she really didn’t need to see that. Chuckling, she shook her head. So much had happened during these last couple of days. She hadn’t realized how much it had changed her. Looking at the Throne, Ghenni wondered if it was an adult reaction to calmly accept whatever the gods had planned for one. If so, she reflected, she had probably become an adult these last couple of days; in spirit if not yet in body.

Ghenni concentrated on Bolwyn. The crystal cleared, showing a clear picture of the rotund wizard flying above the volcano, side by side with Terek and Habbassin. They were circling, all three, apparently searching for the best way to calm Wakano down. They hovered a moment. Were they discussing how to proceed? Ghenni couldn’t tell. She supposed they had when she saw them split up, each trying a different approach to try and calm Wakano. Ghenni’s mind’s eye, through the crystal, followed Terek first.

Terek flew toward the village, but not very far. He landed just ahead of the flow of lava. No, he didn’t land. Instead, he levitated a couple of inches above the ground. Ghenni could well understand why. The tremors would have made keeping his balance alone a nearly impossible task. He would have been so busy standing up, he would be unable to work any useful magic.

Terek raised his face to the sky. Raising his hands, he shouted something Ghenni couldn’t hear. His hands glowed. The light sprang from his hands, turning into what looked like a giant wall, only made of stone instead of wood. The light wall turned solid and sank slowly to the ground, right in the lava’s path. Ghenni chewed her lip. Would it work? Would the wall stop Wakano’s fire? She didn’t think so.

Neither, apparently, did Terek, who retreated a few hundred yards. Again, he raised his face and hands to the sky. Again, his hands glowed. This time, the glow became a giant crystal, smooth and nearly flat. Ghenni recognized it; Habbassin had shown her something similar. A lens, he had called it. The lens glinted with sunlight, gathered it, focused it, until it released the sunlight as a single coherent powerful beam that cut into the ground, carving a wide and deep trench.

Wakano’s fire was stopped by the wall Terek had conjured up before. Still, it was obvious it wouldn’t hold. At best, it would slow Wakano’s fire down, buying more time for the people to escape. Which, Ghenni thought, was probably what Terek had in mind. The trench he dug in the lava’s way would slow it down even more.

Ghenni sighed. Terek wasn’t accomplishing much, in her opinion, but at least he was doing something. What were the others up to?

26. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 37

“Wonderful,” Bolwyn said. He beamed. His hands followed the lamp’s outline without actually touching it. He looked up at Ghenni. “I can actually feel his power. What’s his name?”

Ghenni swallowed.

“What?”

“I said, what’s his name? He’s got to have a name, doesn’t he.”

“Well, yes. Yes, I suppose he does. I never thought about it. He told me he’s a djinni.”

“That’s all? He never told you his name?”

“He told me he’s a djinni,” Ghenni repeated, sticking to the literal truth. Lying was wrong. Her mother had told her often enough. But she wasn’t lying now, was she? There was no need to lie if a half-truth would do.

Although Opona would probably not care about the distinction.

“Clever little fellow,” Bolwyn muttered. “I can almost admire him. Did he give you your three wishes?”

“What three wishes?” Ghenni blurted out before she could stop herself. Bolwyn laughed out loud.

“Never mind that. This little bugger’s smarter than I’d thought.” He held the lamp up at eye-level and looked at it. “I almost wonder if I can dare rub it, and release the spirit within.”

“You should not,” Terek said. “I get the distinct impression that this djinn might be craftier than you are. It would not surprise me if, in the end, you should end up serving it.”

“Sore loser,” Bolwyn said.

“Tell me, old friend,” Terek continued, “did you tell the child that I am responsible for the malady that befell her family?”

Bolwyn looked at Terek, making an innocent face. He blinked once and returned his attention to the lamp.

“Excuse me?” Ghenni said. Terek turned his attention to her.

“Did he?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Was that the reason why you gave the lamp to him, instead of me? Did you consider me responsible?”

“And because Bolwyn said he knew a cure,” Ghenni admitted. Terek nodded.

“Up to your usual games, are you,” he said, turning to Bolwyn. “It is not sufficient that you succeed, everybody else must be slandered in the process? Even if it means blaming them for your crimes?”

“When did you figure it out?” Bolwyn asked absently.

“Actually, only when you really had a cure for measles. Are these real measles you used to infect these people?”

“Magically augmented. I couldn’t take the chance the djinn might know a cure …” Bolwny looked up from the lamp, his mouth open and eyes wide. “Oh, damn.”

“You did it,” Ghenni said, taking a step toward Bolwyn, clenching her fists at her sides. “You made everybody sick, just so you could get the lamp.”

“What’d you expect me to do, sit still and wait until you give in or I die of old age? I don’t have the time. There’s plenty more artifacts to be gathered, and I gotta do it all in a single lifetime. Forcing you to decide was the most efficient way.” Bolwyn made a face. “Geez, I’ve spent too much time around you, Terek. I’m starting to sound like you, even.”

“That was a very mean thing to do,” Ghenni said. Bolwyn shrugged.

“Life sucks. Get used to it. Me, I got what I came for. I’m outta this dump.”

Bolwyn started for the door. He had not gotten far before glowing red concentric rings that came out of nowhere tied him up. Ghenni looked from Bolwyn to Terek, who stood with his right arm outstretched. Terek pointed his forefinger at Bolwyn.

“I fear I can not allow that,” Terek said calmly.

“What’s it to you?” Bolwyn said. He turned. A slight move of his left hand dissolved the rings. “It’s not like I never conned natives before to get what I wanted. Anyway, you’re no saint either. Remember the sea serpent you used to introduce yourself?”

“Nobody was truly harmed,” Terek said. “True, I am not above using trickery to expedite matters. But I never knowingly endanger anyone’s lives.”

“So whattaya gonna do about it?” Bolwyn said, thrusting his chins out.

“At the very least, I will take that lamp from you,” Terek said.

“Wouldn’t it be better to discuss that away from the village?” Ghenni said, stepping between the two wizards. “You know, someplace where there isn’t anyone else who can get hurt?”

“Step aside, child,” Terek said. He reached out and pushed Ghenni out of the way.

“You never had a chance against me under normal circumstances,” Bolwyn said. “Today, you’re simply outmatched.”

“Braggard.”

“Get real.” Bolwyn grinned and rubbed the lamp. Blue smoke poured from the nozzle. It billowed forth and solidified into the familiar shape of Habbassin.

As the djinn bowed to Bolwyn, Elomei grabbed Ghenni and pulled her away.

“This is what you were hiding from me?” the witch-woman whispered. Ghenni nodded, unable to take her eyes off the scene playing out before her.

“Your wish?” Habbassin rumbled, bowing deeply.

“Destroy the infidel,” Bolwyn screamed, pointing at Terek. Ghenni looked at Terek. His adams apple moved, and while his stance didn’t change his complexion looked a bit paler than before.

Habbassin straightened. He turned around. He looked at Terek. He rubbed his chin. He turned to Bolwyn.

“I don’t think so,” he said casually. “You want to fight, you slug it out yourselves.” A chair popped up out of nowhere behind him. Habbassin sat down inside it. “But I’m willing to referee between you.”

Bolwyn stared at the lamp, reddening. He opened and shut his mouth like a fish on the beach.

“But … But … But … I hold the lamp. You’re supposed to obey me.”

“Actually, technically, all I gotta do is grant three wishes for the proprietor of my lamp.” A tall glass with liquid inside and a straw materialized in Habbassin’s hand. “You’re just a thief. Now shape up or ship out.” He looked at Ghenni, winked. “How you doing, kid?”

“Better,” Ghenni said. She gave Habbassin her most radiant smile. “So that was …”

“Close.”

“I suppose we are more evenly matched than you had anticipated,” Terek said, his usual confident smile back in place. He raised both hands high. “Let’s have it out then.”

Bolwyn glared at Terek with so much anger and hatred it made Ghenni shudder. It seemed as if Bolwyn tried to kill Terek with his eyes. She realized what the glare meant. She had seen Zoltan use that look on her far too often. Bolwyn had been thwarted, now Terek was a welcome target to vent his anger on.

“Let’s,” Bolwyn agreed, his voice far too gentle for the look on his face. He made an almost casual sweep with his right hand. A fireball materialized out of nowhere at the end of the sweep. It followed the sweep’s direction toward Terek …

… and vanished into thin air.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Habbassin admonished them. “You’d fight a magickal duel right here? When there are dozens of innocent bystanders around who could get hurt by your fallout?

“I don’t think so.”

Habbassin rotated his forefinger in the air. A miniature tornado formed above it. The tornado grew larger, ever larger, until it swept up Ghenni and the wizards.

When Ghenni could see again, she was somewhere else entirely. Looking around, she realized they had materialized at the cliff near Habbassin’s cave. The wizards were much more disoriented. Why shouldn’t they, Ghenni thought. They might know magic, but they didn’t know the island very well.

“This is a much better place to settle your disagreements,” Habbassin said, sipping from his glass. “No innocent bystanders to get hurt. No native property to be damaged. Not even much of a landscape to ruin.

“Have at thee, then.”

“Djinn, I command you to destroy that man,” Bolwyn said, shaking the lamp at Habbassin. The djinn smiled.

“I don’t do commands,” he said. “Sorry, old boy. Perhaps you’ll want to rephrase it?”

“Very well. Djinn, my first wish is that you destroy that man.”

Habbassin looked Terek over. Ghenni wondered by Terek hadn’t used this chance to attack Bolwyn. The rotund wizard was distracted by Habbassin’s persistent refusal to obey him. Now would be the best time to decide this duel without any risk.

Ghenni was distracted by an eye that formed at the back of Habbassin’s head. It winked at her, then vanished.

“Very well,” Habbassin said dismissively. He waved his hand at Bolwyn. “I empower you, as far as I am able, to fight Terek to the finish. But don’t make a mess of it.”

This time, Bolwyn released a bolt of lightning. Terek was ready for it, blocked it with a glowing disk that appeared in front of him. The disk glowed brighter as the lighning hit it. The disk spun, moderately at first but gaining speed with every rotation. Energy discharges flared at the rim. Instead of shooting off all over the place, they collected into tiny little balls of cracking energy that sped toward Bolwyn, who was hard pressed to fend them off.

“You said you’d empower me,” Bolwyn hissed through clenched teeth.

“As far as I am able,” Habbassin said, conjuring a second chair for Ghenni. He gestured at her to sit. She sat. “However, I have no legal authority at all in this hemisphere. Technically, I’m not empowered to empower anyone at all. In other words, I couldn’t grant you the legal authority to fight Terek if I wanted you.” He snapped his fingers in mock anger. “Darn it. That means what you’re doing is probably illegal.”

“Damn you,” Bolwyn cried, releasing a bolt of energy at Habbassin, who deflected it easily. This time, Terek used his chance. He knelt and pressed both hands against the ground. Ghenni felt the earth tremble, almost as if Wakano were angrily rumbling. Habbassin gestured, and both chairs rose into the air. The groundquake nearly cost Bolwyn his balance. Before he could fall, he rose into the air. Spreading his arms wide, he began to glow, until he was brighter than the sun. The heat he gave off was tremendous. Ghenni was sure Habbassin shielded her; otherwise, she didn’t think she could survive the heat. As it was, it was merely uncomfortable. Terek too managed to protect himself from both the light and the heat, by creating a globe of shadow around himself.

The surrounding plant life wasn’t as lucky. Around the duelists, the plants burst into flame. Dried from Bolwyn’s heat, the fire spread quickly. Terek created a second shadow-globe, which he sent out to engulf Bolwyn. That took care of Bolwyn’s imitation sun. Terek followed up with a miniature thunderstorm, which he sent into the globe. Ghenni heard the thunder, now and then she saw a bolt of lighning flash out of the shadows. Following the lighning was a bright spot of light that expanded and dissolved the shadow-globe.

“Thanks for sending a lightning to show me the way out,” Bolwyn hissed. He held out his hands, his fingers spread and pointing at Terek. His fingertips glowed red. The glow turned into semi-solid looking red bands that expanded as they came for Terek. One wrapped itself around his right wrist, another tied his left arm against his waist. He only found a way to stop them when one aimed at his head. Middle-sized sticks materialized around him, flew into the rings and fooled them into constricting. Terek glowed. The rings that already bound him fell apart.

Another sweeping gesture made the ground rumble again. Ghenni looked around, trying to locate the source of the rumble.

It wasn’t difficult to find. Several large trees tore themselves loose from the soil they had rooted in. Using their roots in a fashion similar to feet, they ambled toward Bolwyn. Bolwyn glanced at Ghenni, noticed she was looking at something behind him, turned and discovered the results of Terek’s latest spell. He reached into his pouch, withdrew a herb, put it into his mouth, chewed his and blew a monumental cloud of yellow dust at the trees. The dust spread out as it traveled. Everything that touched it died and decayed within moments. The trees lasted a moment longer than the other plants around them, those that had survived Bolwyn’s sunlight attack, but they too succumbed in less time than it takes to tell about it. Bolwyn whirled and blew another yellow cloud at Terek. Whirling his right arm in circles, Terek called up a wind that blew the cloud back at Bolwyn. Bolwyn inhaled the yellow dust and laughed.

“They’re very good, you know,” Habbassin remarked. “Almost as good as I am.”

“That reminds me, where are Elomei, mother and Lejani?”

“Back at home, where they belong. Did you think I couldn’t choose who I teleport?” He grinned at her. “What did you think of my teleportation spell, anyway? Neat, huh?”

“Too showy. Are you sure we’ll be all right here?”

“I’ve set up a sphere of universal protection,” Habbassin nodded. “Nothing from the outside can touch us. Of course, that means we can’t influence anything that goes on out there either, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay, don’t you think?”

“I just wish they wouldn’t cause so much damage.”

“It could be worse. Imagine that fight taking place in your village.”

Ghenni did for just a moment. The result made her shudder.

“I’d rather not, thanks.”

Ghenni returned her attention to the fight. Both men were flying now, dancing a complicated aerial ballet, shooting and dodging bolts of fire and energy. Ghenni noticed that their entire corner of the forest now burned, set aflame by deflected bolts of eldritch energy.

She tried hard not to cry for all the life that was destroyed for two men’s vanities.

“Can’t you do something about that?” she whispered.

“I told you, as long as we’re in here, there’s nothing I can do about what goes on out there,” Habbassin said softly. He took her hand and squeezed it gently. Ghenni squeezed back.

Bolwyn, meanwhile, had landed a lucky shot, throwing Terek off-balance. Terek fell to the ground like a bird with broken wings. Bolwyn followed up on his advantage by raining a continuous barrage of eldritch energies down upon his opponent. Terek barely managed to erect a dome of golden light to protect himself. The dome reflected, as far as Ghenni could see, all of Bolwyn’s energies. They were reflected into the air, where some glanced off Habbassin’s sphere of protection. They were reflected parallel to the ground, where they razed what little was left of life. They were reflected into the ground, causing the cliff to crumble, throwing huge chunks into the abyss.

Habbassin swore softly.

The vibrations threw Terek off-balance. He fell, barely able to maintain his dome with one outstretched hand. Bolwyn landed. Folding his arms across his chest, he looked at Terek and laughed.

“Say goodbye to this life,” the stout wizard said. “I’ll make sure it’ll be painful.”

Terek knelt on the ground, panting. He looked beaten, but not yet defeated. Ghenni wondered if he still had a trick up his sleeve.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Terek gasped.

Bolwyn reached into his bag and removed something from it. He knelt, took some earth into his hands and rubbed it, thoroughly mingling the earth with whatever he had taken from his bag.

“Remember your opening gambit?” Bolwyn said, pressing both palms flat on the ground. “That was a nice little earthquake you manufactured. Well, I’m gonna do you one better. I’m gonna shake the ground up until it throws you into the sea.”

The earth already began to tremble. A slight shiver at first, then a tremor, quaking worse and worse until the ground heaved up in waves almost like the sea. Terek, apparently too weak to take to the sky, was tossed around like a broken doll.

“Will that hurt the village?” Ghenni asked. Habbassin looked around. He chewed on his lip. He looked at Bolwyn, at Terek, at something behind him. Ghenni turned, trying to see what Habbassin saw. But she couldn’t. There wasn’t anything special. There was only Wakano’s Throne, burning an angry red.

Habbassin dissolved the sphere. Ghenni found herself hanging in the air. Habbassin dropped down until he floated inches above the ground.

“STOP!” he thundered, clapping his hands. The force of the blast that came from the clap threw Bolwyn off his feet. Dazed, the wizard sat on the ground. The tremors continued.

“Don’t you realize what you’re doing?” Habbassin yelled at Bolwyn. “We’re all sitting on top of a live volcano!” The djinn pointed at Wakano’s Throne. Ghenni turned to look at the mountain.

The smoke issuing from the mountain grew darker. The red glow grew deeper, more intense. Ghenni thought she saw things, glowing bright red against the dark smoke, fly from the mountain, arc high into the sky before they fell down again. The mountain rumbled angrily.

Now they’ve gone and done it, Ghenni thought dispiritedly. Now they’ve woken up Wakano and made him mad.

The red glow spilled over the mountaintop and began to run down the sides of the mountain, burning everything it came near.

Habbassin also looked at the Throne.

“Congratulations,” he said to nobody in particular. “You idiots have just erupted an active volcano.”

25. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 36

“What I want you to do,” Habbassin said, “is go over to the hut where Bolwyn and Terek stay. Give the lamp to Bolwyn. He’s the one who offered you the cure, right?”

“Right.”

“Right. Okay. When you give the lamp to Bolwyn, make sure Terek is there to see it.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see. But, kid, this is important. Don’t let Bolwyn have the lamp if Terek isn’t there to see it. I know. Let’s check first. If one of them isn’t in, we wait until both are. Take your crystal.”

Ghenni took the crystal, stared at it and concentrated on Terek and Bolwyn. Soon, an image formed inside the stone. She saw both men clearly. They seemed to argue. Whatever they were doing, they were in their assigned hut.

“So they’re both there. Good. Exactly what we need. Uhm, one last piece of advice, kid.”

“Go ahead.”

“This is important. Whatever you do, don’t tell them my name. I can’t explain why, it’s too complicated. Let’s just say it’d be pretty bad for all of us if they knew my name. Understood?”

“No.” Ghenni enjoyed Habbassin’s exasperated look. “But I’ll do what you say. I won’t tell them your name, even if they ask.”

“All right,” Habbassin said, rubbing his hands. “It’s showtime.” Beginning with his feet, the djinn dissolved into blue smoke, smoke that seemed to be drawn into the lamp Ghenni held in her hands. She watched, fascinated by the spectacle. When the smoke had vanished, Ghenni left the hut.

She stood for a moment just outside the door. It was still night. Nobody was up and about. Good. It meant she wouldn’t have to answer any embarrassing questions about why she was outside when she was supposed to be inside.

Ghenni went halfway through the village when the ground shook so hard she went to her knees. She looked up and behind, at Wakano’s Throne. Was it her imagination, or was the mountaintop really glowing? At any rate, Ghenni was sure it wasn’t clouds rising up from the mountain. The girl wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but she had a feeling, deep down inside, that something bad was about to happen.

When the ground stopped shaking, Ghenni got back on her feet and ran the remaining yards to the wizards’s hut. Hiding the lamp behind her back, Ghenni waited until she had caught her breath again before she entered.

“Now lookit who’s there,” Bolwyn said when he saw Ghenni.

“Ghenni?” Terek said, turning. He frowned. “Has something happened? Why did you break quarantine?”

“I’ve come to make a trade,” Ghenni said. Bolwyn sat up straighter, turning his attention toward her. Terek folded his arms across his chest, frowning even harder.

“What trade?” he asked.

“Bolwyn knows,” Ghenni said, pointing. “He came to me. He said he could cure my family if I gave him the atchoofat.”

“Artefact,” Bolwyn corrected automatically.

“Artefact,” Ghenni repeated. “They’re getting worse. I’m scared. So, I trade. You get the art-a-fat and cure my mother and my sister in return.”

“Whatever he promised you, he’s lying,” Terek said. “There’s no way to cure measles.”

“It’s a deal,” Bolwyn said. He held out his hands. “Do you have it with you?”

Ghenni brought her hands forth and presented the lamp. Terek frowned.

“So what? I’ve seen dozens of them.”

“You gotta rub it,” Ghenni said. “The djinn comes out only when you rub it.”

“The djinn? You mean you really have a djinn in that lamp?” Terek said. He reached for the lamp. Ghenni held it away from him. “I have seen such a thing before. I even have one or two. None have ever been so powerful as to attract my attention halfway across the world.” He closed his eyes, extending his arms toward the lamp. “Yes, definitely a djinn. I can feel its power.”

“Same here,” Bolwyn said. He too held out his hands. “All right, kid. You said you’d deal. Gimme.” He smiled. It was far from pretty. There was too much avarice in the smile.

“No. First you must cure my family. As you promised. You cure them. Elomei watches as you do it, so she can do it herself if it happens again. You teach her how. When you’re done, then you can have the lamp. Not before.”

Bolwyn opened his mouth as if to say something. He looked at the lamp, saw the way Ghenni held it, with one palm on the metal, ready to rub. Bolwyn closed his mouth, looking at Ghenni.

“All right,” he said. “We do it your way. I can wait a coupl’a hours longer.” He stood up, pulling his trousers up as he did. “Let’s go get it over with.”

Bolwyn grabbed his bag and rushed out of the door. Terek and Ghenni exchanged a look. Terek shrugged.

“Why did you offer him the lamp?” he asked.

“You said you can’t cure my family.”

Terek nodded. He rubbed his chin.

That’s sure getting around, Ghenni thought. She managed not to giggle at the thought.

“I wonder how,” the wizard said. “There’s no cure for measles that I know. I simply fail to imagine how Bolwyn could know more than I do.”

“Things happen,” Ghenni said with a shrug. “Can we go now.”

“Certainly.” They stepped outside. Terek frowned at Wakano’s Throne.

“I am not certain I like the look of that volcano,” he said.

“I suppose Wakano’s mad at everything that’s going on here,” Ghenni said, pushing past Terek.

“So long as he does not decide to punish us all…” Terek said, trailing off. Ghenni wasn’t sure she liked the way he said that. He sounded afraid.

Ghenni ignored Terek and his misgivings as she rushed back to her hut instead. Entering, she saw Bolwyn help Elomei to her feet.

“I haven’t slept so well in ages,” the old woman said. “I feel wonderfully refreshed. You simply must give me that recipe, my boy.” Bolwyn had the decency to blush. Ghenni giggled. Elomei winked at her.

“I’ve come to cure these people,” Bolwyn said, making a sweeping gesture with his arm that encompassed the entire hut. “Ghenni insisted I should teach you.”

“Why the change of mind?” Elomei said.

“Ask the child,” Bolwyn replied. He sat down beside Opona. Frowning at the bucket, he tossed most of the ice water into a far corner. Lighting a fire with a snap of his fingers, he put the bucket above the flames.

“When the water boils, I’ll add the spell ingredients,” he explained. “It’s important that the water boils before you add them.” Elomei went to the portly wizard’s side, all attention. Ghenni went to her mother’s side and took her hand.

“Don’t worry, mom,” she said. “You’ll soon feel better. I promise.”

From the corner of her eyes, she watched Terek watch Bolwyn with a look that was so intense she was glad it wasn’t directed at her.

Bolwyn opened his bag and, together with Elomei, produced a foul-smelling brew. When he was done, he looked up at Ghenni. He smiled.

“Your patients’ll have to drink this,” he said. “Don’t worry. It tastes as bad as it smells.” He sniffed, wrinkling his nose as the vapors entered his nostrils. “Although I admit it seems impossible. Medicine has to taste bad to be effective, or so my mother always told me. Anyway, once they’ve had their fill, it should only be a matter of hours until they’re back on their feet.”

“Wholly restored?” Elomei said. Bolwyn shook his head no.

“Not right away. You gotta expect some side effects when people’ve been so sick so long. They’ll need some rest, exercise and decent food, but that’s about it.”

“I have never heard of this cure before,” Terek said. “Where did you learn it?”

“The same place where our friend in the lamp comes from,” Bolwyn said. “If you can believe that. I wouldn’t; the coincidence would look too far-fetched to me. Anyway, there was that little herbalist …” Bolwyn stopped, smiled and cleared his throat. “But that’s a different story, for a different time. I’ve honored my end of the bargain. Ghenni, if you’d please keep up your end and hand over that lamp …? Thanks.”

Ghenni held on to the lamp for a moment longer than necessary. It didn’t feel right. They had worked so hard so long. Now it was all supposed to have been for nothing?

She released her hold on the lamp and stepped back. Habbassin had said she should trust him. She did. She had to. She had no other choice.

24. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 35

“What?” Ghenni turned to face the djinn. “Why didn’t you think of what before?”

“I think I know what’s up, kid.” The chair turned into a blue mist that the djinn absorbed as he stood. He looked smug. Habbassin went over to Opona. He laid his palm on her forehead. His hand glowed, a glow that spread out to cover all of the woman’s body.

“Gotcha,” the djinn muttered. The glow faded. Habbassin looked at Ghenni. His grin frightened her. “I was right,” he said.

“Right about what?”

“Doesn’t matter,” me muttered. He looked at Ghenni, a glint in his eye that matched his smile. “I think I know a way to help your family. Do you still trust me?”

“… Yes …”

Habbassin nodded.

“In that case, I know exactly what to do. All you must do is trust me, and do what I say. Even if you’d rather not.” That grin again. “Especially if you’d rather not.”

“I don’t think I understand…”

“Doesn’t matter. You will. I’ll be back in no time. Just wait here.”

Habbassin vanished. He didn’t disappear in a puff of smoke, or fade away. Nothing like that this time; he was there one moment and gone the next. Ghenni continued to stare at where he had been until her mind registered his departure. When it did she blinked rapidly several times.

Now that was unexpected, she thought. Where were the theatralics? Where the drama?

Whatever he was up to, he had to be quite serious about it.

Ghenni shook her head and turned her attention to the bucket Habbassin had left. The coating had restored itself. Ghenni poked another hole into the ice and renewed the wrappings around her mother’s and sister’s ankles.

“That should break the fever,” Habbassin said. Ghenni let out a startled cry. She turned and glared at the djinn.

“You’re getting better at it, I think,” the djinn said, rubbing his chin. “There’s almost so much menace in that look it makes me want to run away.”

“Don’t do that,” Ghenni snarled. “What happened to your fade-in fade-out entrances?”

“I only do those for an appreciative audience,” Habbassin said. He looked at Elomei. The djinn frowned and went over to the old woman. He examined her briefly. “She’ll be all right,” he finally declared. “I’d almost say someone meant really well with her. After that nap, she’ll probably feel better than she has in years.”

Ghenni felt better. She had been worried about the spell Bolwyn had put on the old woman. Sure, he had said it was only a sleep spell that would cause no lasting harm, but he wasn’t exactly trustworthy.

“What do you want?” she said.

“Help you.”

“How? You said you didn’t know how to cure my family.”

“No, but whoever caused this does. If they didn’t, they’d have nothing with which to bargain.” He rubbed his chin. “Unless he’s bluffing, but I don’t think so. Not with his fiercest competitor around. That could backfire too mightily.”

“How. Do. You. Plan. To. Help. Me?”

“Oh. That. Well, I sort of caused all this when I showed up here, didn’t I?” Habbassin sat down on the ground, folding his legs underneath himself. “Quite involuntarily, honestly, but still. Anyway, I’ve decided that, because I caused all this, which I certainly didn’t intend when I showed up here, I swear, it’s up to me to put an end to it.” The djinn rubbed his nose and pulled on his earlobe. “Well, that and the fact that you were willing to stick up for me even though I let you down. I figure I owe you. I’ve thought about it, you better believe it, and I’ve come up with the perfect solution.”

“Get to the point.”

“Getting low on patience?”

“I haven’t really slept since all this started,” Ghenni said, “and I do feel a bit cranky. A bit? No. I feel very cranky. So yes, I am getting low on patience. The sooner you get to the point, the sooner this will all be over.”

“Good point. I think I can do something about your lack of sleep.” A tall glass with a steaming black fluid inside materialized on Habbassin’s outstretched palm. “Drink this. It’ll refresh you.”

Ghenni accepted the glass. She held it gingerly as she inspected the contents. She moved it from hand to hand, hoping to lessen the effect of the heat on the fingers that held the glass. She looked at it. It was a deep, sinister black. She sniffed it, curling her nose when the acrid smell impacted on her nostrils.

“Drink it while it’s hot,” Habbassin said, “or it won’t work as well.”

Ghenni raised the glass to her lips. She took a deep breath and sipped. It tasted bitter. Ghenni shuddered.

“You have to drink it all up if you want it to help,” the djinn said. Ghenni drank, slowly. The bitter fluid burned a hot path into her stomach. She could feel it work, though.

“All right,” Habbassin said, smiling. “Now, my solution to our problem. I can’t cure your family. One of the wizards most likely can. The catch is, he’ll only do it in trade for this.” He held out his lamp. Ghenni spewed a mouthful of black fluid all over the djinn. He grimaced, waved, and it vanished.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Ghenni said.

“Be a little more careful, would you?” Habbassin said. “That stuff’s extra hot.”

“That’s your lamp.”

“Sure looks that way, doesn’t it. That’s why I brought it. You see, kid, there’s a very simple solution to our problems. Simple yet elegant. It’s like this: everybody gets what they want. You take the lamp and give it to the wizard who can cure them. In return, he’ll cure your family. Everybody’s happy.”

“But … but we can’t do that. If he gets your lamp, he gets you too. You’ll be his slave. Wouldn’t you?”

“At the very least I’d finally get off this dull little rock you call a home,” Habbassin shrugged. “Which solves my problem of infinite boredom. It’ll also solve the magic problem of everybody else. When I’m gone, I won’t have to use them as entertainment any longer.”

“But what about you? We’ve worked so long and so hard to keep you out of their hands, we can’t just give up now.”

“Ghenni, do you remember what I asked you a couple of minutes ago?”

“What?”

“Do you remember?”

“… You asked me to trust you.”

“Exactly. Well, do you? Trust me?”

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Okay. Now, do you believe me when I say I know exactly what I’m doing?”

“I’m not sure…”

“I do, though. Now, I want you to take this lamp and trade it for the lives of your family. Trust me. I know exactly what I’m doing.” He chuckled. “We should’ve thought of this when all this started. Okay, Ghenni, don’t worry, kid. It’ll all come out right if you just do what I tell you.”

Ghenni took first a deep breath and then the lamp from Habbassin’s hands. The djinn favored her with a very broad grin. And a wink.

23. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 34

Lejani moaned. Ghenni turned. She looked at her sister who shifted in her sleep. Ghenni looked at Elomei, who now leaned against the wall with her eyes closed. The old woman snored softly. Bolwyn shrugged.

“Basically, I mingled a sleep spell into the ingredients. She’ll feel really refreshed in a couple of hours.” The fat man smiled. “Hey, I’ve never been out to kill anyone. All I want is that artefact.”

“Do you care at all what you’re doing to us?”

“Should I? Look at it from my point of view, kid. I drop in on some people. I stay long enough to find and get what I’m looking for. Then, before you know it, I’m gone. Sure, sometimes I gotta play some tricks on people, but nobody ever gets seriously hurt.”

“You don’t call that serious?” Ghenni pointed at her sister.

“I said Terek did that, didn’t I? It’s not my style. I am, however, not above taking advantage of somebody else’s schemes.” Bolwyn shrugged. “Imagine the stories you people can tell your children and grandchildren. Admit it, kid, Terek and me, we’re probably the most exciting thing to happen on this godsforsaken island in eons, if not ever.”

Bolwyn sat up straighter when a low grumble filled the air. The ground shook softly.

“This island is my home, and it is not godforsaken,” Ghenni said quietly. “Do you hear it? Do you feel it? Wakano has heard you. He has decided to remind you of his power.”

“Aww, that’s just a volcano. I’ve seen them before. They’re nowhere near as special as you seem to think. Still, I hope to be long gone before this one blows. So, how about it? Will you give me the artefact?”

“I can’t leave the hut. Not for another six days.”

“Find another way to get it, then. Frankly, my dear, I don’t think your folks’re gonna last that long.”

Ghenni turned once again to look at Lejani and Opona. She closed her eyes and sighed.

“Would you please fetch some cold water?” she said. “I need to do something to help them.”

“Sure thing,” Bolwyn said, rising. “Remember, kid, don’t take too long to think about it.”

Ghenni nodded. Bolwyn studied her for a few seconds. He nodded and left the hut. A few minutes later he returned. Wordless, he put a bucket full with water on the ground. Then he left. Ghenni hefted the bucket and carried it to her sister’s bedroll. She dunked a cloth into the water, just like Terek had shown her, and wrapped it around Lejani’s ankles. She soaked another cloth which she wrapped around Opona’s ankles. She looked at Elomei, who still snored peacefully.

“I guess you heard everything, huh?” she said. She put her hand on her mother’s forehead. It was still unpleasantly hot. “So, now you know the mess I’ve gotten myself into. Not just myself, mind you, but also Ankhoro and Miki. On the other hand, the ones who’s really deep in this mess are you and Lejani, and it’s all my fault for finding that stupid lamp.

“There. It’s out now. Yes, mom, I know what those two bad men are looking for. It’s a lamp. At least, the djinn who lives in the lamp said it’s a lamp, and he had no reason to lie about it so I guess he said the truth.” Ghenni unwrapped the cloth from Lejani’s ankles and soaked it again. When it was cold enough, she rewrapped Lejani’s ankles. While she worked, she told her unconscious audience the entire story.

“So there you have it,” she concluded. That’s all there is to it. That’s why you were made so sick.

“I don’t know what to do anymore. If I give Bolwyn Habbassin’s lamp, he’ll cure you. He said. But what if he lied? What if he can’t cure you. What if I give him the lamp and he just takes it and goes away with it? I mean, I’d be betraying a friend. Of course, he’s not a very good friend. He’s always there when there’s a chance to make trouble. The one time I really needed his help, he refused. Last night, remember? When I asked him to heal you? He simply refused to do it. When you hear him talk, he’s always such a wonderful magic-user. But when you really need his magic, he says ‘forget it’ and goes away. What kind of friend is that? Wouldn’t you agree that I should turn him over to Bolwyn if that means Bolwyn will cure you? Isn’t family more important than friends?

“But I can’t just hand him over. If I did, I’d be just as bad. Isn’t that really the worst kind of friend, one who betrays your trust? If I did that, would anyone ever trust me again? Could they? I mean, they’d be right not to.”

Ghenni stopped her monologue. She laughed softly.

“Listen to me,” she said. “I’m babbling. And you can’t even hear it. Actually, I’m rather glad you can’t. If you did, I couldn’t tell you all this. On the other hand, if you could, I wouldn’t need to tell you all this. But, really, I’ve carried this inside me for so long now… Well, not really all that long, just a couple of days, but it seems much longer.” She sighed. “I just don’t know what to do, mom. Do I turn Habbassin over to Bolwyn? Should I betray a friend to save my family? Or should I keep Habbassin hidden, and watch you die?

“I really wish you could tell me, mom.”

“You still want to protect me?”

Ghenni gasped. She pressed her palm against her chest to keep her heart from leaping out of her. She turned.

“How did you get in here without my noticing?” she hissed at Habbassin.

“I thought you knew by now,” the djinn said. “I’m pretty resourceful.” He stirred the water in the bucket with his hand. “This is getting too warm. Allow me.” The usual blue mist surrounded the bucket. Ghenni watched as the water hardened. “We call that ice,” Habbassin said. “There’s a thin coating of it on top. Break it. The water underneath is probably colder than anything you’ve ever felt before.”

Ghenni poked her finger at the ice coating the water. She shuddered and drew back. In her entire life, she had never felt anything that cold.

She poked again, harder. The ice broke, to reveal water underneath. Ghenni dipped her finger into it. She shuddered again. This water seemed even colder than the ice that had topped it. She took the strip of cloth and dunked it into the water. It changed in her hands. As she watched, the cloth grew a bit. It changed texture, became softer to the touch, fluffier. Ghenni glared accusingly at Habbassin. The djinn shrugged.

“Nothing against your cloth, but this type soaks better.”

“Go away,” Ghenni said.

“Not before you answer my question. I asked, ‘You still want to protect me?'”

“What if I do?”

“You believe I refused to help your family, and you still want to protect me from the gatherers?”

“You did refuse.”

Habbassin shook his head no.

“That’s what I wanted you to think. The truth is…” He swallowed. Ghenni looked at his face. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him so serious. “The truth is,” he continued, “I couldn’t.”

Ghenni blinked. Blinked again.

“Say again?”

A chair materialized behind the djinn. Habbassin sat down on it without looking. His shoulders slumped, his head hung down. Unusually far down. Ghenni realized he had elongated his neck. She almost smiled. Even now, he couldn’t stop fooling around.

“I couldn’t help them,” he said. I wanted to, I really did. You and your friends, you’ve been so terribly nice, you know, helpful. I would’ve been happy if there’d been anything I could’ve done to help. I really did want to cure your family. Measles, that’s a very simple healing spell. Usually, anyway.”

“If it’s so simple, why do you say you can’t help them?”

“Because I can’t. I used the spell I was taught for this. Measles is pretty common where I come from, you know, and every healer knows this spell. Only it didn’t work. It should have, but it didn’t.”

“Why didn’t you…”

“You believed in me. I wanted … well, I … call it vanity, dammit.”

“Excuse me? I don’t think I understand a word you’re saying.”

“You thought I knew what I was doing. Well, I did. At least I thought I did. No, I really do. Anyway, you thought I could do anything. I, well, I wanted you to go on thinking that. You wouldn’t think it if you were around to see me fail, would you. So when I found out I couldn’t help, I decided to pretend to refuse to help.”

“You know, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Yeah. I know. Now. I mean, I heard what you said to your mother. You’re willing to stand by me even though you thought I’d let you down.”

Habbassin made a face as though he expected her to pick up the thread. Ghenni kept quiet; she continued to look at him without saying a word.

“Okay, it was dumb,” he finally admitted. “Live and learn. Look at the bright side, at least I didn’t make things worse.”

“Yeah. Right.” Ghenni folded her arms across her chest and turned away. She gnawed on her lower lip as she thought.

“Bolwyn claims to know a cure for measles.”

“If it’s the same one I tried, I don’t think so. There’s something wrong with these measles. They’re too virulent. Too hard on the people. The spell should’ve cured them, but didn’t. It’s as if … That’s it!” He slapped his forehead with his palm. “Why didn’t I think of it before.”

22. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 33

“Food’s on.”

Bolwyn’s cheerful voice penetrated even the cloud of gloom that hung around Ghenni’s head. She looked up at the wizard, who held a huge tray with a variety of foodstuffs on it in his hands.

“I thought nobody’s allowed in here,” she said. Bolwyn put the tray down and winked.

“Exept for Terek and me, of course. We’re both immune. Nothing can happen to us.”

“It is sensible then that you should attend us,” Elomei said. She picked up a morsel and eyed it carefully. “What is this?”

“Terek prepared it. It’s fish. He used a recipe he learned, oh, on the other side of the world or thereabouts. Try it. You might like it.”

Elomei put the morsel in her mouth and started chewing. She nodded enthusiastically and helped herself to more. Bolwyn smiled. He took a wooden plate which he filled with a selection from the tray. He gave Ghenni the plate.

“You know,” he said softly, sitting down beside her, “I wasn’t entirely honest with you yesterday.”

“Oh?” Ghenni liked the food Bolwyn had given her. “How so?”

“I played stupid. You know how it is, sometimes you don’t want people to know what you know either, right?”

Ghenni nodded, too busy with eating to speak. She looked at Elomei, who had sat down to eat at the other end of the hut. The old woman was concentrating on her food so hard she completely ignored them both. Ghenni wondered idly if the food was under a spell. Perhaps she should’ve passed. Oh well, if it was tainted, it was too late now anyway.

“I didn’t want Terek to know that I had recognized the measles too,” he continued. “I don’t trust Terek. Do you?”

Ghenni shook her head no.

“After all, he conjured the sea serpent that attacked your people, simply to give himself a good entrance. Remember our little boatride that day? We agreed we didn’t trust Terek. Do we still? Agree on that, I mean?”

“Yes,” Ghenni said. “His cooking’s great, though.”

“No dispute there,” Bolwyn grinned. “It’s better than my own, anyway.”

Ghenni craned her neck to look at Elomei. The witch-woman sat on the mat on the other side of the hut. Apparently, she had gotten herself a second helping. She was so busy eating she completely ignored the exchange between Bolwyn and Ghenni.

“How come Elomei acts so funny?” Ghenni asked. “I’ve never seen her like this before.”

“A little something added to her food,” Bolwyn said with a shrug. “It’s harmless. All it does is keep her attention away from us. Now, where was I? Oh. Yes. Terek. The point is, never mind how much we both like it here, we’re still here for a purpose. We’re still here to find that magickal artifact. And never mind how well we get along socially, each of us wants to find that artifact before the other does.”

“Makes sense to me.”

“I knew it would. You’re a smart girl, Ghenni.” Bolwyn patted Ghenni’s knee. When he stopped, she wiped it off.

“What are you getting to?”

“Straight to the point,” Bolwyn beamed. “I like that. All right. The point. My best guess is that Terek might know how to cure measles.”

“What?”

“Might, I said.” Bolwyn held up a hand. “I’m not saying he does. No, what I was thinking is, if he knows a cure, he’ll probably trade it for the artifact. I wouldn’t be surprised if he shows up here with an offer as soon as I’ve left.”

“So?”

“I wouldn’t even be surprised to learn that Terek infected everybody here on purpose. It wouldn’t be the first time, you see. Make everybody sick, then cure them. For a price, of course.” Bolwyn smiled. It looked cold, slimy and sly. “Not this time, though.”

“Why not?”

“As it happens, I also know a cure for measles. It’s really a simple little spell.”

“Why didn’t you say so yesterday?”

“Because I didn’t want Terek to know. What did I tell you about keeping secrets? Things might get ugly if he finds out too soon that I can counter his scheme. His plan, I mean.”

“So you’ll cure my mother and sister?”

“Why not? Of course, my help isn’t for free. I’ll trade it. Nothing too expensive, don’t worry.”

“What do you want?” Ghenni asked. As if I didn’t know.

She looked once more at Elomei, who was still too busy eating to pay attention to what happened around her. Ghenni felt sorry for the old woman. She would feel pretty bad once this was over.

“You remember why both of us came here, I suppose. Because we sensed that a magickal artifact is hidden somewhere here on this island.”

“And you’re both after it. This is getting boring, you know.”

“Oh.” Bolwyn chuckled. “I guess it is. All right. But, bear with me. You see, we’re both sure that you, kiddo, are somehow involved with this artifact. Maybe you found it and started to use it. Now, if I had family that was as sick as yours, and if I had such a powerful artifact, I’d use it first chance I’d get. I see your folk aren’t better yet. Guess the artifact didn’t help, did it.”

“What…” artifact, Ghenni was about to reply. It had become almost reflexive by now. She stopped herself. Bolwyn was right. Habbassin hadn’t only been unable to help, he had refused. What did she owe him anymore? “… makes you think so?” she concluded.

“Now, as I said, I can cure your family. If anyone else here caught the measles too, I can cure them as well.” He snapped his fingers. “Almost as easy as that. Just in case someone else comes down with it, I’ll teach your shaman over there how to work the cure. Nothing to it, really, if you know how. Nobody’d ever have to get sick with measles again. If I do all that, will you give me the artifact?” Ghenni looked at him, trying to keep her expression blank. Bolwyn smiled at her. “I’m not really asking all that much. Think about it. Has that thing ever been anything else but trouble?”

Ghenni thought of all the problems she had had recently. One thing she had to agree with. She had had more than her share of trouble since Habbassin had arrived. But the djinn had helped wherever he could. Unless he had been busy playing pranks on unsuspecting people. And except for the one time when it had counted. On the other hand, all her troubles had really only begun when the two wizards had arrived. No, it hadn’t been Habbassin who had caused her all that trouble. It had been the wizards. The wizards, and their single-minded, greedy quest for Habbassin’s lamp.

Now, Bolwyn claimed that Terek was responsible for the measles that plagued her family. It was possible. Terek had hurt people before. She didn’t doubt Terek would hurt anyone to get what he wants. On the other hand, she wasn’t entirely sure how trustworthy he was. He claimed Terek had caused this. He might have, as well. He claimed he kew how to cure it. He could be lying.

What was she to do?

“I need to think about it,” she said. Bolwyn patted her shoulder.

“Of course,” he said softly. “Take your time. Of course, if you take too much time…” he pointed a thumb at Opona.

“I know,” Ghenni sighed.

What was a girl to do?

21. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 32

“It kills them because your people don’t know this disease,” Bolwyn said. “Terek and I, we were lucky. We might just as easily have caught something your bodies have learned to handle. Something that’s as harmless to you as measles are to us. Something that could have killed us regardless.”

“How do we cure it then?” Elomei said.

“There is no cure,” Terek said with a shrug. “I’m afraid that’s the plain, ugly truth. If we could help, we would.”

“Sure we would,” Bolwyn agreed. “After everything you people’ve done for us…” He shrugged. Ghenni was beginning to hate the gesture. “This is beyond me,” he concluded.

“The same is true for me, I fear,” Terek said. “If you treat them the way we described to you however, that should be a considerable help.”

“We shall do that,” Elomei said. “I will begin at once. Ghenni, I shall need your help. I need you to gather everyone Lejani and Opona have been in contact with for… how long did you say?”

“Seven days.”

“Seven days. Take them to an empty hut and tell them to stay there.”

“But that’d be just about everybody,” Ghenni protested.

“She has a point there,” Bolwyn said. “You’d need to gather in everyone who’s been in touch with everyone who’s been in touch with anyone who’s been in touch…” He trailed off to count something on his fingers. He grimaced and stopped. “But that’s next to impossible. I guess you should simply gather everyone they’ve been in close contact with. Such as Ghenni here, or the lady’s husband. Most people should be safe anyway; or they’d already have shown symptoms.”

Terek made a face as if he were about to object, but Bolwyn silenced him with a sharp look. Terek closed his eyes. He nodded.

“Confining you two and the man of the house should do,” he agreed. “But not here. If you show no symptoms, you could go back outside.”

“These two are in my care,” Elomei said. “I will not abandon them when they need me the most.”

“What she said,” Ghenni added. She bit her lip. Me and my big mouth. With the two wizards unable to help, perhaps Habbassin might. But how could she go to ask him for help if she was stuck in this hut? “That is …”

“You’re afraid,” Elomei said, nodding. “I understand. Go, then. Find your father. Take him to my hut. You will both stay there for seven days. You will not come out before then. If you remain well, you may come out again. If not, you will at least not endanger anyone else.”

“I understand,” Ghenni said, looking down. She had to find her father before she had to stay in Elomei’s hut. That bought her some time. Perhaps she could use that time to rush to the cave to talk with Habbassin. No. They would get suspicious if she took too long. Being stuck in a hut with her father wouldn’t help either. She’d be under constant supervision. No, she would have to find another way to get in touch with the djinn. Perhaps staying in this hut would be the best solution after all.

“I’d rather stay here, after all,” she said. “To look after them. Somebody has to, so why shouldn’t I do it? Terek said it’s not difficult. Why should someone else risk getting measles when I might already have them?” Besides, with both patients asleep most of the time, there would be a better chance to sneak off to get help.

“She makes sense,” Terek said. “Let her stay. You can spell her… Sorry. You can look her up every now and then to make sure she is all right.”

“To make sure the other two are all right too,” Bolwyn added. “Actually, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if you moved in here too. You’ve had pretty close contact with them over the last couple of days, remember? It’d be better if you stayed too. Just in case you got it too. You know.”

“I know,” Elomei said with a nod. “You speak sense. Very well. I shall stay here as well.” She smiled a toothless smile. “It is just as well. Ghenni, you mean well, but it is easier for two people to tend these patients. But who will see to the needs of my people?”

“We shall take care of that,” Terek said. “You may have noticed that we are quite competent magic-users ourselves. We should be able to replace you for a week.”

“Thank you,” Elomei said. Ghenni made an effort not to roll her eyes in frustration. There went her beautiful plan.

On the other hand, there was nothing to keep Miki or Ankhoro from going to Habbassin. All she had to do was a way to get in touch with them. That was a much simpler proposition than leaving the village to go to the cliffs.

She nodded to herself. From the corner of her eye, she saw Bolwyn raise an eyebrow.

“I think that’s a good idea too,” she said quickly. “It’s definitely better than having to stay awake all the time. Besides, if either of us has the measles, the other can care for all three of us … them … whoever.”

“We are agreed then,” Terek said. “I shall go find Pahone and send him to your hut. I will explain everything to him.” He smiled. “Do not worry about that.”

“Could you tell Miki or Ankhoro to come by, please?” Ghenni said.

“I do not know if that is wise,” Terek frowned.

“Please. I need to tell them what’s going on. There’s some stuff I need too. Stuff they have. You know.”

“Kid stuff,” Bolwyn smiled. “All right. No problem. But remember to keep your distance, hear? The two stay out of this hut. Or they stay in here for seven days. Wouldn’t that get pretty crowded?”

“It sure would.”

“All right, then. We’re agreed. You can talk, but you keep your distance.”

“I will continue to invoke the spirits on behalf of the poor two children,” Elomei said. Terek reacted to that, blinking at the old woman with an empty stare. Two heartbeats later, he nodded.

“Of course,” he said. “At the very least, it could do no harm. You need to be frugal with the incense, however. If at all possible, do without.”

“I understand.”

The wizard and the witch-woman shared a look. Both nodded. Terek patted Ghenni’s head.

“I am sorry there is not more I can do for your family,” he said. As he left the hut, Bolwyn looked after him. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but seemed to change his mind. He shook his head and followed Terek instead.

Now what was that all about? Ghenni thought, looking after him. She still pondered the question when Ankhoro showed up a few moments later.

“You called?” he said cheerfully. There was something about his eyes that didn’t look cheerful at all, however.

Ghenni moved closer to make sure she could talk without being overheard.

“I guess you’ve heard,” she whispered. “Elomei can’t help mom and Lejani, and the wizards are helpless too.”

“Yes. What can I do?”

“It’s sweet of you to ask,” Ghenni said. She smiled when Ankhoro made a face at being called sweet. “Actually, there is something. You could go to the cave and tell Habbassin. He said he might be able to help.”

“If the wizards couldn’t…”

“It can’t hurt to try, can it? The worst that can happen is, he can’t help. In that case, we’re no worse off than we are already. But what if he can help? I think we just have to try. Don’t you?”

“Can’t hurt.”

“Right. Tell him to be careful, though. Elomei’s in here with me. We wouldn’t want her to notice him, now would we?”

“I’m surprised you still care about that, after what happened.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“Okay, I won’t. Don’t worry. I’ll go get him. Need anything else, while I’m at it?”

“No,” Ghenni smiled. “Now move off, willya.”

“See you in seven,” Ankhoro said. He ran off, waving. Ghenni returned the wave. She watched him vanish into the jungle. Somehow, that made her feel better. Only a few hours now, and Habbassin would take care of those measles. Everybody would be better. Ghenni blinked and rubbed her eyes. She sure needed a rest now…

Ghenni stared at her knuckles, wide-eyed. She held her breath, blinked, sniffled experimentally.

“My eyes are hurting,” she said. Elomei was instantly by her side.

“Let me see, child.” She took Ghenni through all the steps Terek had explained to her. When she finished the examination, she smiled. The relief in that smile was evident. “You are simply tired, child. How long has it been since you last had a good night’s sleep?”

“Is that it?”

“I would say so, yes. Lay down on your bedroll, close your eyes and sleep. In a few hours, you will be good as new.”

Ghenni nodded and lay down as instructed. Sleep came within minutes.

When the voice whispered in her ear, she thought she were dreaming.

“Psst. Kid.”

“Hmmm? Habbassin?”

“The one and only. Ankhoro said you wanted to see me?”

Ghenni opened her eyes. It was dark.

“It’s the middle of the night.”

“I know. The best possible time to make a house call, doncha think? So, what’s up?”

“Elomei…”

“Is going to be sound asleep as long as necessary. I made sure of that. So, you want to shoot some breeze, or is there anything the matter?”

Ghenni looked at the djinn, who sat full-sized and in living color in the middle of the hut.

All things considered, perhaps it’s really for the best that it’s the middle of the night, she thought. Quickly, she told him what had happened, and what Terek and Bolwyn had discovered.

“Measles, huh? Just as I’d thought. They say they can’t cure them?” The djinn sneered. “To think I was afraid of their magic, can you imagine? All right, then, gimme a minute.”

A blue mist whirled around Habbassin. When it settled, he once again wore the white robe. He rolled up his sleeves and held his arms high over his head. He turned his head, wiggled his eyebrows and winked at Ghenni. Ghenni decided not to tell him how much better she would feel if he quit fooling around and got on with curing her family.

Habbassin’s hands began to glow with a blue light. He put one hand each on one of the afflicted women. The glow spread from his hands until each of the two patents was engulfed. It flared up, then dimmed quickly. To Ghenni it looked as if the glow were absorbed into the sick womens’s bodies.

Habbassin frowned. He rolled up his sleeves again. Ghenni hadn’t noticed how they had unrolled themselves. He raised his hands again. The hands began to glow again. He repeated the entire procedure.

Afterwards, he waited for a few moments.

“Well, uhm, after checking them out I can, uhm, definitely say that they have a bad case of the measles,” the djinn said. He scratched his head.

“That’s fine,” Ghenni said. “Now if you would please heal them?”

“Nope. Sorry, kid.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, nope. Sorry, kid.”

Ghenni grabbed Habbassin’s shoulder and turned him around. The djinn folded his arms across his chest while he studied the ceiling.

“What do you mean, nope?” Ghenni hissed.

“Just that. I mean, get real, kid. Your folks got the measles. The measly measles. They’ll get over it in a couple of days. Now me, I’m a world-class magic-using djinn. Doing a spell to cure someone of the measles… They’d throw me out of the union. This is simply beneath my notice.”

“Wait a moment,” Ghenni said. “Are you telling me you aren’t going to help them? You refuse to help them?”

“Yup. That’s about the size of it.” Habbassin lowered his gaze, fixing it on a spot a few millimeters above Ghenni’s left shoulder. “Come back again if you have a problem that’s worthy of my attention.”

“You can’t do this. After everything we’ve done for you? I mean, if it hadn’t been for us, your lamp would’ve been the property of one of those wizards already. We did so much to keep your lamp out of their hands. And you just stand there and tell me that saving two lives is beneath your notice?”

“That’s a pretty good summary,” Habbassin nodded.

“I should take your lamp and simply give it to one of the wizards.”

“But you won’t.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because they won’t let you out of this hut? Plus, the cave is impossible to find if you haven’t been there. I remember your making sure of that.”

“I … I’ll do it as soon as I can get out of here.”

“If you feel you must.” Habbassin shrugged. “By that time, you’ll have calmed yourself down.” The djinn gestured at Elomei. “Gotta go now. Your watchdog’ll wake up in a couple of minutes now.” He wagged his fingers at Ghenni. “See you in seven.” He vanished in a cloud of blue smoke.

Ghenni spent the time until Elomei woke up staring at the spot where she had last seen the djinn. She clenched her fists so hard they hurt.

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