Millie the ghost was beautiful. Of course, she wasn't a ghost any more, so she was Millie the nurse. She was not especially bright, and she was hardly young. She was twenty-nine years old as she reckoned it, and about eight hundred and twenty-nine as others reckoned it: the oldest creature currently associated with Castle Roogna. She had been ensorcelled as a maid of seventeen, eight centuries ago, when Castle Roogna was young, and restored to life at the time of Dor's birth. In the interim she had been a ghost, and the label had never quite worn off. And why should it? By all accounts she had been a most attractive ghost.
Indeed, she had the loveliest glowing hair, flowing like poppycorn silk to the dimpled backs of her knees. The terrain those tresses covered in passing was-was-how was it that Dor had never noticed it before? Millie had been his nurse all these years, taking care of him while his parents were busy, and they tended to be busy a great deal of the time.
Oh, he understood that well enough. He told others that the King trusted his parents Bink and Chameleon, and anyone the King trusted was bound to be very busy, because the King's missions were too important to leave to nobodies. All that was true enough. But Dor knew his folks didn't have to accept all those important missions that took them all over the Land 0f Xanth and beyond. They simply liked to travel, to be away from home. Right now they were far away, in "Mundania, and nobody went to Mundania for pleasure.
It was because of him, because of his talent. Dor remembered years ago when he had talked to the double bed Bink and Chameleon used, and asked it what had happened overnight, just from idle curiosity, and it had said-well, it had been quite interesting, especially since Chameleon had been in her beauty stage, prettier and stupider than Millie the ghost, which was going some. But his mother had overheard some of that dialogue, and told his father, and after that Dor wasn't allowed in the bedroom any more. It wasn't that his parents didn't love him, Bink had carefully explained; it was that they felt nervous about what they called "invasion of privacy." So they tended to do their most interesting things away from the house, and Dor had learned not to pry. Not when and where anyone in authority could overhear, at any rate. Millie took care of him; she had no privacy secrets. True, she didn't like him talking to the toilet, though it was just a pot that got emptied every day into the back garden where dung beetles magicked the stuff into sweet-smelling roses. Dor couldn't talk to roses, because they were alive. He could talk to a dead rose-but then it remembered only what had happened since it was cut, and that wasn't very much. And Millie didn't like him making fun of Jonathan. Apart from that she was quite reasonable, and he liked her. But he had never really noticed her shape before.
Millie was very like a nymph, with all sorts of feminine projections and softnesses and things, and her skin was as clear as the surface of a milkweed pod just before it got milked. She usually wore a light gauzy dress that lent her an ethereal quality strongly reminiscent of her ghosthood, yet failed to conceal excitingly gentle contours beneath. Her voice was as soft as the call of a wraith. Yet she had more wit than a nymph, and more substance than a wraith. She had-
"Oh, what the fudge am I trying to figure out?" Dor demanded aloud,
"How should I know?" the kitchen table responded irritably. It had been fashioned from gnarled acorn wood, and it had a crooked temper.
Millie turned, smiling automatically. She had been washing plates at the sink; she claimed it was easier to do them by hand than to locate the proper cleaning spell, and probably for her it was. The spell was in powder form, and it came in a box the spell-caster made up at the palace, and the powder was forever running out. Few things were more annoying than chasing all over the yard after running powder. So Millie didn't take a powder; she scrubbed the dishes herself. "Are you still hungry, Dor?"
"No," he said, embarrassed. He was hungry, but not for food. If hunger was the proper term.
There was a hesitant, somewhat sodden knock on the door. Millie glanced across at it, her hair rippling down its luxuriant length. "That will be Jonathan," she said brightly.
Jonathan the zombie. Dor scowled. It wasn't that he had anything special against zombies, but he didn't like them around the house. They tended to drop putrid chunks of themselves as they walked, and they were not pretty to look at. "Oh, what do you see in that bag of bones?" Dor demanded, hunching his body and pulling his lips in around his teeth to mimic the zombie mode.
"Why, Dor, that isn't nice! Jonathan is an old friend. I've known him for centuries." No exaggeration! The zombies had haunted the environs of Castle Roogna as long as the ghosts had. Naturally the two types of freaks had gotten to know each other.
But Millie was a woman now, alive and whole and firm. Extremely firm, Dor thought as he watched her move trippingly across the kitchen to the back door. Jonathan was, in contrast, a horribly animated dead man. A living corpse. How could she pay attention to him?
"Beauty and the beast," he muttered savagely. Frustrated and angry, Dor stalked out of the kitchen and into the main room of the cottage. The floor was smooth, hard rind, polished until it had become reflective, and the walls were yellow-white. He banged his fist into one. "Hey, stop that!" the wall protested. "You'll fracture me. I'm only cheese, you know!"
Dor knew. The house was a large, hollowed out cottage cheese, long since hardened into rigidity. When it had grown, it had been alive; but as a house it was dead, and therefore he could talk to it. Not that it had anything worth saying.
Dor stormed on out the front door. "Don't you dare slam me!" it warned, but he slammed it anyway, and heard its shaken groan behind him. That door always had been more ham than cheese.
The day outside was gloomy. He should have known; Jonathan preferred gloomy days to come calling, because they kept his chronically rotting flesh from drying up so quickly. In fact, it was about to rain. The clouds were kneading themselves into darker convolutions, getting set to clean out their systems.
"Don't you water on me!" Dor yelled into the sky in much the tone the door had used on him. The nearest cloud chuckled evilly, with a sound like thunder.
"Dor! Wait!" a little voice called. It was Grundy the golem, actually no golem any more, not that it made much difference. He was Dor's outdoor companion, and was always alert for Dor's treks into the forest. Dor's folks had really fixed it up so he would always be supervised-by people like Millie, who had no embarrassing secrets, or like Grundy, who didn't care if they did. In fact Grundy would be downright proud to have an embarrassment.
That started Dor on another chain of thought. Actually it wasn't just Bink and Chameleon; nobody in Castle Roogna cared to associate too closely with Dor. Because all sorts of things went on that the furniture saw and heard, and Dor could talk to the furniture. For him, the walls had ears and the floors had eyes. What was wrong with people? Were they ashamed of everything they did? Only King Trent seemed completely at ease with him. But the King could hardly spend all his time entertaining a mere boy.
Grundy caught up. "This is a bad day for exploring, Dor!" he warned. "That storm means business."
Dor looked dourly up at the cloud. "Go soak your empty head!" he yelled at it "You're no thunderhead, you're a dunderhead!"
He was answered by a spate of yellow hailstones, and had to hunch over like a zombie and shield his face with his arms until they passed.
"Be halfway sensible, Dor!" Grundy urged. "Don't mess with that mean storm! It'll wash us out!"
Dor reluctantly yielded to common sense. "We'll seek cover. But not at home; the zombie's there."
"I wonder what Millie sees in him," Grundy said.
"That's what I asked." The rain was commencing. They hurried to an umbrella tree, whose great thin canopy was just spreading to meet the droplets. Umbrella trees preferred dry soil, so they shielded it against rain. When the sun shone, they folded up, so as not to obstruct the rays. There were also parasol trees, which reacted oppositely, spreading for the sun and folding for the rain. When the two happened to seed together, there was a real wilderness problem.
Two larger boys, the sons of palace guards, had already taken shelter under the same tree. "Well," one cried. "If it isn't the dope who talks to chairs!"
"Go find your own tree, twerp," the other boy ordered. He had sloping shoulders and a projecting chin.
"Look, Horsejaw!" Grundy snapped. "This tree doesn't belong to you! Everyone shares umbrellas in a storm."
"Not with chair-talkers, midget."
"He's a Magician!" Grundy said indignantly. "He talks to the inanimate. No one else can do that; no one else ever could do that in the whole history of Xanth, or ever will again!"
"Let it be, Grundy," Dor murmured. The golem had a sharp tongue that could get them both into trouble. "We'll find another tree."
"See?" Horsejaw demanded triumphantly. "Little stinker don't stand up to his betters." And he laughed.
Suddenly there was a detonation of sound right behind them. Both Dor and Grundy jumped in alarm, before remembering that this was Horsejaw's talent: projecting booms. Both older boys laughed uproariously.
Dor stepped out from under the umbrella-and his foot came down on a snake. He recoiled-but immediately the snake faded into a wisp of smoke. That was the other boy's talent: the conjuration of small, harmless reptiles. The two continued to laugh with such enthusiasm that they were collapsing against the umbrella trunk.
Dor and Grundy went to another tree, prodded by another sonic boom. Dor concealed his anger. He didn't like being treated this way, but against the superior physical power of the older boys he was helpless. His father Bink was a muscular man, well able to fight when the occasion required, but Dor took after his mother more: small and slender. How he wished he were like his father!
The rain was pelting down now, soaking Dor and Grundy. "Why do you tolerate it?" Grundy demanded. "You are a Magician!"
"A Magician of communication," Dor retorted. "That doesn't count for much, among boys."
"It counts for plenty!" Grundy cried, his little legs splashing through the forming puddles. Absent-mindedly Dor reached down to pick him up; the one-time golem was only a few inches tall. "You could talk to their clothes, find out all their secrets, blackmail them-"
"You're too damned ethical, Dor," Grundy complained. "Power goes to the unscrupulous. If your father, Bink, had been properly unscrupulous, he'd have been King."
"He didn't want to be King!"
"That's beside the point. Kingship isn't a matter of want, it's a matter of talent. Only a full male Magician can be King."
"Which King Trent is. And he's a good King. My father says the Land of Xanth has really improved since Magician Trent took over. It used to be all chaos and anarchy and bad magic except for right near the villages."
"Your father sees the best in everyone. He is entirely too nice. You take after him."
Dor smiled. "Why thank you, Grundy."
"That wasn't a compliment!"
"I know it wasn't-to you."
Grundy paused. "Sometimes I get the sinister feeling you're not as naive as you seem. Who knows, maybe little normal worms of anger and jealousy gnaw in your heart, as they do in other hearts."
"They do. Today when the zombie called on Millie-" He broke off.
"Oh, you notice Millie now! You're growing up!"
Dor whirled on him-and of course, since the golem was in his hand, Grundy whirled too. "What do you mean by that?"
"Merely that men notice things about women that boys don't. Don't you know what Millie's talent is?"
"No. What is it?"
"I thought that was something all women had."
"Something all women wish they had. Millie's is magical; any man near her gets ideas."
That didn't make sense to Dor. "My father doesn't."
"Your father stays well away from her. Did you think that was coincidence?"
Dor had thought it was his own talent that kept Bink away from home so much. It was tempting to think he was mistaken. "What about the King?"
"He has iron control. But you can bet those ideas are percolating in his brain, out of sight. Ever notice how closely the Queen watches him, when Millie's around?"
Dor had always thought it was him the Queen was watching disapprovingly, when as a child Millie had taken him to the palace. Now he was uncertain, so he didn't argue further. The golem was always full of gossipy news that adults found hilarious even when the news was suspect. Adults could be sort of stupid at times.
They came up to a pavilion in the Castle Roogna orchard. It had a drying stone set up for just such occasions as this. As they approached it, warm radiation came out, which started the pleasant drying of their clothes. Few things felt as good as a drying stone after a chill soaking! "I really appreciate your service, drier," Dor told it.
"All part of the job," the stone replied. "My cousin, the sharpening stone, really has his work cut out for him. All those knives to hone, you know. Ha ha!"
"Ha ha," Dor agreed mildly, patting it. The trouble with talking with inanimate objects was that they weren't very bright-but thought they were.
Another figure emerged from the orchard, clasping a cluster of chocolate cherries in one hand. "Oh, no!" she exclaimed, recognizing Dor. "If it isn't dodo Dor, the lifeless snooper."
"Look who's talking," Grundy retorted. "Irate Irene, palace brat."
"Princess Irene, to you," the girl snapped. "My father is King, remember?"
"Well, you'll never be King," Grundy said.
"'Cause women can't assume the throne, golem! But if I were a man-"
"If you were a man, you still wouldn't be King, because you don't have Magician-caliber magic."
"I do too!" she flared.
"Stinkfinger?" Grundy inquired derisively.
"That's green thumb!" she yelled, furious. "I can make any plant grow. Fast. Big. Healthy."
Dor had stayed out of the argument, but fairness required his interjection. "That's creditable magic."
"Stay out of this, dodo!" she snapped. "What do you know about it?"
Dor spread his hands. How did he get into arguments he was trying to avoid? "Nothing. I can't grow a thing."
"You will when you're a man," Grundy muttered.
Irene remained angry. "So how come they call you a Magician, while I am only-"
"A spoiled brat," Grundy finished for her.
Irene burst into tears. She was a rather pretty child, with green eyes and a greenish tinge to her hair to match her talent, but her thumbs were normal flesh color. She was a girl, and a year younger than Dor, so she could cry if she wanted to. But it bothered him. He wanted to get along with her, and somehow had never been able to. "I hate you!" she screeched at him.
Genuinely baffled, Dor could only inquire: "Why?"
"Because you're going to be K-King! And if I want to be Q-Queen, I'll have to-to-"
"To marry him," Grundy said. "You really should learn to finish your own sentences."
"Ugh!" she cried, and it sounded as if she really were about to throw up. She looked wildly about, and spotted a tiny plant at the fringe of the pavilion. "Grow!" she yelled at it, pointing.
The plant, responsive to her talent, grew. It was a shadowboxer, with little boxing gloves mounted on springy tendrils. The gloves clenched and struck at the shadows formed by distant lightning. Soon the boxer was several feet high, and the gloves were the size of human fists. They struck at the vague shadows of the pavilion's interior. Dor backed away, knowing the blows had force.
Attracted by his motion, and by the sharper shadow his body made, the plant leaned toward him. The gloves were now larger than human fists, and mounted on vines as thick as human wrists. There were a dozen of them, several striking while several more recoiled for the next strike, keeping the plant as a whole in balance. Irene watched, a small gloat playing about her mouth.
"How did I get into this?" Dor asked, disgruntled. He didn't want to flee the pavilion; the storm had intensified and yellow rain was cascading off the roof. The booming of its fusillade was unnerving; there were too many hailstones mixed in, and it looked suspiciously like a suitable habitat for tornado wraiths.
"Well, I don't know for sure," the pavilion answered. "But once I overheard the Queen talking with a ghost, as they took shelter from a small shower, and she said Bink always had been an annoyance to her, and now Bink's son was an annoyance to her daughter. She said she'd do something about it, if it weren't for the King."
"But I never did anything to them!" Dor protested.
"Yes you did," Grundy said. "You were born a full Magician. They can't stand that."
Now the boxing gloves had him boxed in, backed to the very edge of the pavilion. "How do I get out of this?"
"Make a light," the pavilion said. "Shadowboxers can't stand light."
"I don't have a light!" One glove grazed his chest, but as he nudged away from it, water streamed down his back. This was a yellow rain; did it leave a yellow streak?
"Then you'd better run," the pavilion said.
"Yeah, dodo!" Irene agreed. The plant was not bothering her, since she had enchanted it. "Go bash your head into a giant hailstone. Some ice would be good for your brain."
Three more boxing gloves struck at him. Dor plunged into the rain. He was instantly soaked again, but fortunately the hailstones were small and light and somewhat mushy. Irene's mocking laughter pursued him.
Gusts of wind buffeted him savagely and lightning played about the sky. Dor knew he had no business being out in this storm, but he refused to return home. He ran into the jungle.
"Turn about!" Grundy yelled into his ear. The golem was clinging to his shoulder. "Get under cover!"
It was excellent advice; lightning bolts could do a lot of harm if they struck too near. After they had lain for a few hours on the ground and cooled off so that they were not so bright, they could be gathered and used for bolting together walls and things. But a fresh one could spear right through a man.
Nevertheless, Dor kept running. The general frustration and confusion he felt inside exceeded that outside.
He was not so confused as to blunder into the obvious hazards of the wilderness. The immediate Castle Roogna environs were spelled to be safe for people and their friends, but the deep jungle could not be rendered safe short of annihilation. No spell would tame a tangle tree for long, or subdue a dragon. Instead, certain paths were protected, and the wise person remained on these paths.
A lightning bolt cracked past him and buried its point in the trunk of a massive acorn tree, the brilliant length of the bolt quivering. It was a small one, but it had three good sharp jags and could have wiped Dor out if it had hit him. The tree trunk was blistering with the heat of it.
That was too close a miss. Dor ran across to the nearest charmed path, one bearing south. No bolts would strike him here. He knew the path's ultimate destination was the Magic Dust village, governed by trolls, but he had never gone that far. This time-well, he kept running, though his breath was rasping past his teeth. At least the exertion kept him warm.
"Good thing I'm along," Grundy said in his ear. "That way there's at least one rational mind in the re-"
Dor had to laugh, and his mood lightened. "Half a mind, anyway," he said. The storm was lightening too, as if in tandem with his mood. The way he interacted with the inanimate, that was entirely possible. He slowed to a walk, breathing hard, but continued south. How he wished he had a big, strong, muscular body that could run without panting or knock the gloves right off shadowboxers, instead of this rather small, slight frame. Of course, he didn't have his full growth yet, but he knew he would never be a giant.
"I remember a storm we suffered down this way, just before you were born," Grundy remarked. "Your daddy, Bink, and Chester Centaur, and Crombie the soldier in griffin guise-the King transformed him for the quest, you know-and the Good Magician-"
"Good Magician Humfrey?" Dor demanded. "You traveled with him? He never leaves his castle."
"It was your father's quest for the source of magic; naturally Humfrey came along. The old gnome was always keen on information. Good thing, too; he's the one who showed me how to become real. Good thing for him, too; he met the gorgon, and you should have seen the flip she did over him, the first man she could talk to who didn't turn to stone. Anyway, this storm was so bad it washed out some of the stars from the sky; they were floating in puddles."
"Stop, Grundy!" Dor cried, laughing. "I believe in magic, as any sensible person does, but I'm not a fool! Stars wouldn't float in water. They would fizzle out in seconds!"
"Maybe they did. I was riding a flying fish at the time, so I couldn't see them too well. But it was some storm!"
There was a shudder in the ground, not thunder. Dor halted, alarmed. "What is that?"
"Sounds like the tramp of a giant, to me," Grundy hazarded. His talent was translation, and he could interpret anything any creature said, but footfalls weren't language. "Or worse. It just might be-"
Suddenly it loomed from the gloom. "An ogre!" Dor finished, terrified. "Right on the path! How could the enchantment have failed? We're supposed to be safe on these-"
The ogre tramped on toward them, a towering hulk more than twice Dor's height and broad in proportion. Its great gap-toothed mouth cracked open horrendously. An awful growl blasted out like the breath of a hungry dragon.
"What say, lil man-will you give me a han-?" Grundy said.
"What?" Dor asked, startled almost out of his fright.
'That's what the ogre says; I was translating."
Oh. Of course. "No! I need my hands! He can't eat them." Though he was uncertain how the ogre could be stopped from eating anything he wanted. Ogres were great bone-crunchers.
The ogre growled again. "Me not eat whelp; me seek for help," Grundy said. Then the golem did a double take. "Crunch!" he cried. "The vegetarian ogre!"
"Then why does he want to eat my hand?" Dor demanded.
The monster smiled. The expression most resembled the opening of a volcanic fissure. Gassy breath hissed out "You little loudmouthed twerp, hardly bigger than a burp."
"That's me!" Grundy agreed, answering his own translation. "Good to see you again, Crunch! How's the little lady, she with hair like nettles and skin like mush, whose face would make a zombie blush?"
"She lovely as ever; me forsake she never," the ogre replied. Dor was beginning to be able to make out the words directly; the thing was speaking his language, but with a foul accent that nearly obliterated meaning. "We have good bash, make little Smash."
Dor was by this time reassured that the spell of the path had not failed. This ogre was harmless-well, no ogre was harmless, but at least not ravening-and therefore able to mix with men. "A little smash?"
"Smash baby ogre, "bout like you; now he gone and we too few."
"You smashed your baby?" Dor asked horrified, Maybe there was something wrong with the path-spell after all.
"Dodo! Smash is the name of their baby," Grundy explained. "All the ogres have descriptive names."
"Then why is Smash gone?" Dor demanded nervously. "Troll wives eat their husbands, so maybe ogres eat-"
"Smash wandered away in drizzle; now we search for he fizzle."
This recent storm was a mere drizzle to the ogres? That made sense. No doubt Crunch used a lightning bolt for a toothpick. "We'll help you find your baby," Dor said, grasping this positive mission with enthusiasm. Nothing like a little quest to restore spirits! Crunch's search for his little one had fizzled, so he had asked for help, and few human beings ever had such a request from an ogre! "Grundy can ask living things, because he knows all their languages, and I'll ask the dead ones. We'll run him down in no time!"
Crunch heaved a grateful sigh that almost blew Dor down. Quickly they went to the spot where the tyke had last been seen. Smash had, Crunch explained, been innocently chewing up nails, getting his daily ration of iron, then must have wandered away.
"Did the little ogre pass this way?" Dor asked a nearby rock.
"Yes-and he went toward that tree," the rock replied.
"Why don't you just have the ground tell you warm or cold?" Grundy suggested.
"The ground is not an individual entity," Dor answered. "It's just part of the whole land of Xanth. I doubt I could get its specific attention. Anyway, much of it is alive-roots, bugs, germs, magic things. They mess up communication."
"There is a ridge of stone," Grundy pointed out. "You could use it."
Good idea. "Tell me warm or cold, as I walk," Dor told it, and started to walk toward the tree. Crunch followed as softly as he was able, so that the shuddering of the land did not quite drown out the rock's voice.
"Warm-warm-cool-warm," the ridge called, steering Dor on the correct course. Dor realized suddenly that he was in fact a Magician; no one else could accomplish such a search. Irene's plant-growing magic was a strong talent, a worthy one, but it lacked the versatility of this. Her green thumb could not be turned to nonbotanic uses. A King, to rule Xanth, had to be able to exert his power effectively, as Magician Trent did. Trent could transform any enemy into a toad, and everyone in Xanth knew that. But Magician Trent was also smart; he used his talent merely to back up his brains and will. What would a girl like Irene do, if she occupied the throne? Line the paths with shadowboxing plants? Dor's talent was far more effective; he could learn all the secrets anyone had except those never voiced or shown before an inanimate object. Knowledge was the root of power. Good Magician Humfrey knew that. He-
"That's a tangler!" Grundy hissed in his ear.
Dor's attention snapped back to the surface. Good thing the golem had stayed with him, instead of questioning creatures on his own; Dor had been mindlessly reacting to the ridge's directives, and now stood directly before a medium-sized tangle tree. Which was no doubt why Grundy had remained, knowing that Dor was prone to such carelessness. If little Smash had gone there-
"I could ask it," Grundy said. "But the tree would probably lie, if it didn't just ignore me. Plants don't talk much anyway."
Crunch stepped close. "Growrrh!" he roared, poking one clublike finger at the dangling tentacles. The message needed no translation.
The tangler gave a vegetable keen of fear and whipped its tentacles away.
Dor, amazed, stepped forward. "Warm," the ridge said. Dor stepped nervously into the circle normally commanded by the tangler. "Cool," the ridge said.
So the little ogre had steered just clear of the tree and gone on. A close call-for tyke and tree! But now the trail led toward the deep cleft of a nickelpede warren. Nickelpedes would gouge disks out of the flesh of anything, even an ogre. If-but then the trail veered away.
The ridge subsided, but there were a number of individual rocks in this vicinity, and they served as well, and on the trail went, meandering past a routine assortment of Xanth horrors: a needle-cactus, the nest of a harpy, a poison spring, a man-eating violent flower-fortunately Smash had been no man, but an ogre, so the flower had turned purple in frustration-a patch of spear-grass with its speartips glinting evilly. Plus similar threats, with which the wilderness abounded. Smash had avoided stepping into any traps, until at last the tyke had come to the lair of a flying dragon.
Dor halted, dismayed. This time there was no doubt: no one passed this close to such a lair without paying the price. Dragons were the lords of the jungle, as a class; specific monsters might prevail against specific dragons; but overall, dragons governed the wilds much as Man governed the tames.
They could hear the dragon cubs entertaining themselves with some poor prey, happily scorching each potential route of escape. Dragon cubs needed practice to get their scorching up to par. A stationary target sufficed only up to a point; after that they needed live lures, to get their reflexes and aim properly tracked.
"Smash is there?" Dor asked, dreading the answer.
"Hot," the nearest stone agreed warmly. Crunch grimaced, and this time not even an ogress would have mistaken his ire. He stomped up to the scene of the crime. The ground danced under the impact of his footfalls, but the dragon's lair seemed secure.
The lair's entrance was a narrow cleft that only the narrow torso of a small dragon could pass through. Crunch put one hand at each side of it and sent a brutal surge of power galumphing through his massively muscles. The rock split asunder, and suddenly entrance was ogre-sized. The dragons were exposed, in their conservative nest of diamonds and heat-resistant jewels. The thing about fire-breathing dragons was that ordinary nest material led to burn up or melt or scorch unpleasantly, so diamonds were a dragon's best friend, a little ogre, no larger than Dor himself, stood amid three winged dragonets while the dragonlady glared benignly on. The ogreling was stoutly structured and would probably have been a match for any single dragon his size, but the three were making things hot for him. There were scorch marks all about, though the little ogre seemed as yet unhurt. Dragons did like to play with their food before roasting it
Crunch did not even growl. He just leaned over and looked at the dragoness-and the smoke issuing from her mouth sank like chill fog to the floor. For Crunch massed as much as she did, and it would be redundant to specify the power-to-mass ratio of ogres. She was not up to this snuff, not even with a belly full of fuel. She never moved a muscle, petrified as if she had locked gazes with a gorgon.
Now Smash advanced on one dragonet. "Me tweak you tail, you big o'l snail!" he cried gleefully. He hauled on the tail, swung the dragon around, and hurled it carelessly against the far wall.
The second little dragon opened its mouth and wafted out a small column of fire. Smash exhaled with such force that the flame rammed right back inside the dragon, who was immediately overcome by a heated fit of coughing.
The third dragonet, no coward, pounced on Smash with all four clawed feet extended. Smash raised one fist. The dragon landed squarely on it, its head and tail whipping around to smack into each other. It fell on the bed of diamonds, stunned.
Even the littlest ogre was tougher than its weight in dragons, when the odds were evened. Dor had not believed this, before; he had thought it was mere folklore.
"Now games are through, to home with you," Crunch said, reaching in to lift his son out of the lair by his tough scruff of the neck. With his other fist, Crunch struck the nest so hard that the diamonds bounced out in a cloud, scattering all over the landscape. The dragoness winced; she would have a tedious cleanup chore to do. Without a backward glance at her, they tramped away. Except for Grundy, who couldn't resist putting in a last word: "Good thing for you, you didn't hurt the tyke," he called to the dragon lady. "If you had, Crunch might have gotten angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry."
Fortunately, Crunch was now in a good mood. "Little man help we; how pay we fee?" the ogre inquired of Dor.
Abashed, Dor demurred. "We were glad to help," he said. "We have to get home now."
Crunch considered. This took some time; he was big but not smart. He addressed Grundy: "Golem tell true: what can me do?"
"Oh, Dor doesn't really need any help," Grundy said. "He's a Magician."
Crunch swelled up ominously. "Me get mad, when truth not had."
Daunted, Grundy responded quickly. "Well, the boys around Castle Roogna do tease Dor a little. He's not as big and strong as the big boys, but he has more magic, so they sort of-"
Crunch cut him off with an impatient gesture. The ogre picked Dor up gently in one huge hand-fortunately not by the scruff of the neck-and carried him north along the path. Such was the ogre's stride, they were very soon at the edge of the Castle Roogna orchard. He set Dor down and stood silently while boy and golem proceeded forward.
"Thanks for the lift," Dor said weakly. He was certainly glad this monster was a vegetarian.
Crunch did not respond. Frozen in his hunched-over posture, he most resembled the massive stump of a burned-out gnarlbole tree.
Awkwardly, Dor went on toward his home, passing near the umbrella tree. As luck would have it, the two bullies were still there. Both jumped up when they saw Dor, and eager for sport, ran out to bar his way. "The little snooper's back!" Horsejaw cried. "What's he doing on a path meant for people?"
"I wouldn't," Grundy said warningly For answer, a little snake landed on his head. A sonic boom went off behind Dor. The boys laughed.
Then the ground shuddered. The bullies looked around wildly, fearing an avalanche from nowhere. There was another shudder, jarring Dor's teeth. It was the ogre tramping forward under full steam.
Horsejaw's mouth fell open as he saw that monster bearing down on him. He was too startled to move. The other boy tried to run, but the ground shook so violently that he fell on his face and lay there. Several small snakes appeared, squiggled nervously, and vanished; no help there. If there were any more sonic booms, they were drowned out by the violence of the ogre's approach.
Crunch strode up until he loomed over the small party, his thick torso dwarfing the slender metal trunk of a nearby ironwood tree. "Dor me friend," he thundered distinctly, and the umbrella tree collapsed into shambles with the vibration. "Help he lend." Small cracks opened in the hard ground of the path, and somewhere a heavy branch crashed to the forest floor. "If laugh at lad, me might get mad." And he swung one clublike fist around in a great circle, barely over Horsejaw's head, so that the wind made the bully's hair stand on end. At least, Dor thought it was the wind that did it; the boy looked terrified.
The ogre's fist smashed into the trunk of the iron-wood tree. There was a nearly deafening clang. A tubular section of iron sprang out, leaving the top of the tree momentarily suspended in air; then it dropped heavily and fell over with a crash that made the ground shake once more. Ironwood was solid stuff! An acrid wisp of smoke wafted up from the stump: the top of it was glowing red with a white fringe, and part of it where the ogre's fist had touched had melted.
Crunch selected a jagged splinter of iron, picked his teeth with it, and wheeled about. His monstrous horny toes gouged a furrow from the path in the process. He tramped thunderously back south, humming a merry tune of bloodshed. In a moment he was gone, but the vibration of the terrain took a long time to quiet. Away in the palace, there was the tinkling crash of a window shattering.
Horsejaw stood looking at the iron stump. His eyes flickered momentarily to Dor, then back to the steaming metal. Then he fainted.
"I don't think the boys will tease you so much any more, Dor," Grundy remarked gravely.
Dor was not teased much any more. No one wanted to upset his friend. But this hardly eased his unrest. The teasing had not bothered him as much as it had bothered Grundy; Dor had always known he could use his superior magic to bring others into line, if he really had to. It was his general isolation from others that weighed on him, and his new awareness of Millie the ghost. What a difference there was between a brat like Irene and a woman like Millie! Yet Irene was the one Dor was expected to get along with. It wasn't fair.
He needed to talk with someone. His parents were approachable, but Chameleon varied so much in appearance and intellect that he never could be certain how to approach her, and Bink might not be sympathetic to this particular problem. Besides which, both of them were away on a trip to Mundania, on business for the King. The Land of Xanth was busy establishing diplomatic relations with Mundania, and after the centuries of bad relations this was a touchy matter, requiring the utmost finesse. So Dor's parents were out. Grundy would chat with him anytime-but the former golem was apt to get too cute about other people's problems. Such as calling Irene's green-thumb talent "stinkfinger." Dor hardly blamed her for retaliating violently, inconvenient as it had been for him personally. Grundy cared, all right-that was how he had become a real, living person-but he didn't really understand. Anyhow, he knew Dor too well. Dor's grandfather Roland, whose talent was the stun-the ability to freeze people immobile-was a good man to talk to, but he was at his home in the North Village, a good two days' travel across the Gap.
There was only one person Dor could approach who was human, competent, mature, discreet, male, and an equivalent Magician. That was the King. He knew the King was a busy man; it seemed the trade arrangements with Mundania were constantly complex, and of course there were many local problems to be handled. But King Trent always made time for Dor. Perhaps that was one root of Irene's hostility, which had spread to the Queen and the palace personnel in insidious channels. Irene talked to her father less than Dor did. So Dor tried not to abuse his Magician's privilege. But this time he simply had to go.
He picked Grundy up and marched to the palace. The palace was actually Castle Roogna. For many years it had been a castle that was not a palace, deserted and forlorn, but King Trent had changed that. Now it was the seat of government of Xanth, as it had been in its youth.
Crombie the soldier stood guard at the drawbridge across the moat. This was mainly to remind visitors to stay clear of the water, because the moat-monsters were not tame. One would think that was evident, but every few months some fool wandered too close, or tried to swim in the murky water, or even attempted to feed some tidbit to a monster by hand. Such attempts were invariably successful; sometimes the monster got the whole person, sometimes only the hand.
Crombie was asleep on his feet. Grundy took advantage of this to generate some humor at the soldier's expense. "Hey, there, birdbeak; how's the stinking broad?"
One eye cracked open. Immediately Grundy rephrased his greeting. "Hello, handsome soldier; how's the sweet wife?"
Both eyes came open, rolling expressively. "Jewel is well and cute and smelling like a rose and too worn out to go to work today, I daresay. I had a weekend pass."
So that was why the soldier was so sleepy! Crombie's wife lived in underground caverns south of the Magic Dust village; it was a long way to travel on short notice. But that was not exactly what Crombie meant. He had the royal travel-conjurer zap him to the caverns, and back again when his pass expired, Crombie's fatigue was not from traveling.
"A soldier really knows how to make a pass," Grundy observed, with a smirk he thought Dor wouldn't understand. Dor understood, more or less; he just didn't see the humor in it.
"That's for sure!" Crombie agreed heartily. "Women-I can take "em or leave "em, but my wife's a Jewel of a nymph."
That had special meaning too. Nymphs were ideally shaped female creatures of little intellect, useful primarily for man's passing entertainment. It was strange that Crombie had married one. But he had been under an omen of marriage, and Jewel was said to be a very special nymph, with unusual wit for the breed, who had an important job. Dor had asked his father about Jewel once, since none of the local artifacts knew about her, but Bink had answered evasively. That was part of the reason Dor didn't want to ask his father about Millie. Millie was nymphlike at times, and evasions were disquieting. Had there been something between-? No, impossible. Anyway, this sort of information could not be elicited from inanimate objects; they did not understand living feelings at all. They were purely objective. Usually.
"Watch out for the moat-monsters," Crombie warned dutifully. "They're not tame." Slowly his eyelids sank. He was asleep again.
"I'd sure like to watch one of his passes in a magic mirror, Grundy said. "But it'd break the glass in the pattern of an X."
They went on into the palace. Suddenly a three-headed wolf stalked out before them, growling fiercely. Dor paused. "Is that real?" he murmured to the floor.
"No," the floor responded in an undertone.
Relieved, Dor walked right into the wolf-and through it. The monster was mere illusion, a construct of the Queen. She resented his presence here, and her illusions were so proficient that there was no direct to tell them from reality except by touch-which be dangerous if something happened not to be an illusion. But his magic had nullified hers, as it usually did; she could never fool him long. "Sorceresses shouldn't mess with Magicians," Grundy observed snidely, and the wolf growled in anger as it vanished.
It was replaced by an image of the Queen herself, regal in robe and crown. She always enhanced her appearance for company; she was sort of dumpy in real flesh. "My husband is occupied at the moment," she said with exaggerated formality. "Kindly wait in the upstairs drawing room." Then, under her breath, she added: "Better yet, wait in the moat."
The Queen did not conceal her dislike of him, but she would not dare misrepresent the position of the King. She would inform Dor when the King was free. "Thank you, Your Highness," Dor replied as formally as she had addressed him, and walked to the drawing room.
Actually, the drawing room did not contain any drawings, only one huge tapestry hung on the wall. This had once been a bedroom; Dor's father mentioned sleeping in it once, back before Castle Roogna was restored. In fact Dor himself had slept in it, earlier in life; he remembered being fascinated by the great tapestry. Now the bed had been replaced by a couch, but the tapestry remained as intriguing as ever.
It was embroidered with scenes from the ancient past of Castle Roogna and its environs, eight hundred years ago. In one section was the Castle, its battlements under construction by a herd of centaurs; in other sections were the deep wilderness of Xanth, the awful Gap dragon, villages protected by stockades-such defenses were no longer used-and other castles. In fact there were more castles than there were today.
The more Dor looked at it, the more he saw-for the figures in the tapestry moved when watched. Since everything was more or less in proportion, the representations of men were tiny; the tip of his little finger could cover one of them over. But every detail seemed authentic. The whole lives of these people were shown, if one cared to watch long enough. Of course, their lives proceeded at the same rate contemporary lives did, so Dor had never seen a whole life pass; he would be an old man before that happened. And of course the process had to have some reasonable cessation, because otherwise the tapestry would long since have passed beyond the Castle Roogna stage and gotten right up to the present. So there were aspects of this magic Dor had not yet fathomed; he just had to accept what he saw. Meanwhile, the tapestry figures worked and slept and fought and loved, in miniature.
Memories flooded Dor. What adventures he had seen, years ago, riveted to this moving picture. Swordsmen and dragons and fair ladies and magic of every type, going on and on! But all in baffling silence; without words, much of the action became meaningless. Why did this swordsman battle this dragon, yet leave that other dragon alone? Why did the chambermaid kiss this courtier, and not that one, though that one was handsomer? Who was responsible for this particular enchantment? And why was that centaur so angry after a liaison with his filly? There was so much of it going on at once that it was hard to fathom any overall pattern.
He had asked Millie about it, and she had gladly told him the valiant tales of her youth-for she had been young at the time of Castle Roogna's construction. But though her tales were more cohesive than those of the moving pictures of the tapestry, they were also more selective. Millie did not enjoy healthy bloodshed or deadly peril or violent love; she preferred episodes of simple joy and family accommodation. That sort of thing could get dull after a while.
Also, she never talked about herself, after she had left her native stockade. Nothing about her own life and loves, or how she became a ghost. And she wouldn't tell how she had come to know the zombie Jonathan, though this could have happened quite naturally in the course of eight centuries of lonely association in Castle Roogna. Dor wondered whether, if he should ever happen to be a ghost for eight hundred years, zombies might begin to look good to him. He doubted it. At any rate, his thirst for knowledge had been frustrated, and he had finally given it up.
Why hadn't he simply made the tapestry itself talk to him, answering his questions? Dor didn't remember, so he asked the tapestry: "Please explain the nature of your images."
"I cannot," the tapestry replied. "They are as varied and detailed as life itself, not subject to interpretation by the likes of me." There it was: when performing its given function, the tapestry was painstakingly apt; but when speaking as a piece of rug, it lacked the mind to fathom its own images. He could learn from it whether a fly had sat on it in the past hour, but not the motive of an eight-hundred-years-gone Magician.
Now, as Dor contemplated the images, his old interest in history resurged. What a world that had been, back during the celebrated Fourth Wave of human colonization of Xanth! Then adventure had reigned supreme. Not dullness, as in the present.
A giant frog appeared. "The King will see you now, Master Do-oo-or," it croaked. It was of course another illusion of Queen Iris; she was forever showing off her versatility,
"Thanks, frogface," Grundy said. He always knew when he could slip in a healthy insult without paying for it. "Catch any good flies in that big mouth of yours recently?" The frog swelled up angrily, but could not protest lest it step-or hop-out of character. The Queen disliked compromising her illusions. "How's your mother, the toad?" the golem continued blithely, the malice hardly showing in his tone. "Did she ever clean up those purple warts on her-"
The frog exploded. "Well, you didn't have to blow up at me," Grundy reproved the vanishing smoke. "I was only being sociable, frogbrain."
Dor, With superhuman effort, kept his face straight. The Queen could still be watching, in the guise of a no-see-'em gnat or something. There were times when Grundy's caustic wit got him into trouble, but it was worth it.
The King's library was also upstairs, just a few doors down. That was where the King was always to be found when not otherwise occupied-and sometimes even when he was. It was not supposed to be generally known, but Dor had pried the news out of the furniture: sometimes the Queen made an image of the King in the library, at the King's behest, so he could interview some minor functionary when he was busy with more important things elsewhere. The King never did that with Dor, however.
Dor proceeded directly to the library, noting a ghost flitting across the dusky hall farther down. Millie had been one of half a dozen ghosts, and the only one to be restored to life; the others still hovered about their haunts. Dor rather liked them; they were friendly but rather shy, and were easily spooked. He was sure each had its story, but like Millie they were diffident about themselves.
He knocked at the library door. "Come in, Dor," the King's voice answered immediately. He always seemed to know when Dor came calling, even when the Queen was not around to inform him.
Dor entered, suddenly shy. "I-uh-if you're not too busy-"
King Trent smiled. "I am busy, Dor. But your business is important."
Suddenly it hardly seemed so. The King was a solid, graying man old enough to be Dor's grandfather, yet still handsome. He wore a comfortable robe, somewhat faded and threadbare; he depended on the Queen to garb him in illusion befitting whatever occasion occurred, so needed no real clothes. At the moment he was highly relaxed and informal, and Dor knew this was intended to make Dor himself feel the same. "I, uh, I can come back another time-"
King Trent frowned. "And leave me to pore over the next dull treaty amendment? My eyes are tired enough already!" A stray bluebottle fly buzzed him, and absentmindedly the King transformed it into a small bluebottle tree growing from a crevice in the desk. "Come, Magician-let us chat for a while. How are things with you?"
"Well, we met a big frog-" Grundy began, but silenced instantly when the King glanced his way.
"Uh, about the same," Dor said. The King was giving him an opening; why couldn't he speak his mind?
"Your cottage cheese still sound?"
"Oh, yes, the house is doing fine. Talks back quite a bit, though." Inanity!
"I understand you made friends with Crunch the ogre."
Did the King know everything? "Yes, I helped find his child, Smash."
"But my daughter Irene doesn't like you."
"Not much." Dor wished he had stayed at home. "But she-" Dor found himself at a loss for a polite compliment. Irene was a pretty girl; her father surely knew that already. She made plants grow-but she should have been more powerfully talented. "She-"
"She is young, yet. However, even mature women are not always explicable. They seem to change overnight into completely different creatures."
Grundy laughed. "That's for sure! Dor's sweet on Millie the ghost!"
"Shut up!" Dor cried in a fury of embarrassment
"An exceptional woman," King Trent observed as if he had not heard Dor's outcry. "A ghost for eight centuries, abruptly restored to life in the present. Her talent makes her unsuitable for normal positions around the palace, so she has served admirably as a governess at your cottage. Now you are growing up, and must begin to train for adult responsibilities."
"Adult?" Dor asked, still bemused by his shame. It was not the Queen-frog who had the big mouth; it was Grundy!
"You are the heir apparent to the throne of Xanth. Do not be concerned about my daughter; she is not Magician level and cannot assume the office unless there is no Magician available, and then only on an interim basis until a Magician appears, preserving continuity of government. Should I be removed from the picture in the next decade, you will have to take over. It is better that you be prepared."
Suddenly the present seemed overwhelmingly real. "But I can't-I don't-"
"You have the necessary magic, Dor. You lack the experience and fortitude to use it properly. I would be remiss if I did not arrange to provide you with that experience."
"No Magician should require the services of an ogre to enforce his authority. You have not yet been hardened to the occasional ruthlessness required."
"Uh-" Dor knew his face was crimson. He had just received a potent rebuke, and knew it was justified. For a Magician to give way to the likes of Horse-jaw-
"I believe you need a mission, Dor. A man's quest. One whose completion will demonstrate your competence for the office you are coming to."
This had taken an entirely different tack than Dor had anticipated. It was as if the King had made his decision and summoned Dor for this directive, rather than merely granting an audience. "I-maybe so." Maybe so? For certain so!
"You hold Millie in respect," the King said. "But you are aware that she is not of your generation, and has one great unmet need."
"Jonathan," Dor said. "She-she loves Jonathan the zombie!" He was almost indignant.
"Then I think the nicest thing anyone could do for her would be to discover a way to restore Jonathan to full life. Then, perhaps, the reason she loves him would become apparent"
"But-" Dor had to halt. He knew that Grundy's remarks were only the least of the ridicule that would be directed at him if he ever expressed any serious ideas of his own about Millie. She was an eight-hundred-year-old woman; he was just a boy. Only way to stifle all speculation would be to give her what she most wanted: Jonathan, alive. "But how-?"
The King spread his hands. "I do not know the answer, Dor. But there may be one who does."
There was only one person in the Land of Xanth who knew all the answers: the Good Magician Humfrey. But he was a sour old man who charged a year's service for each Answer. Only a person of considerable determination and fortitude went to consult Good Magician Humfrey.
Suddenly Dor realized the nature of the challenge King Trent had laid down for him. First, he would have to leave these familiar environs and trek through the hazardous wilderness to the Good Magician's castle. Then he would have to force his way in to brace the Magician. Then serve his year for the Answer. Then use the Answer to restore Jonathan to life-knowing that in so doing, he was abolishing any chance that Millie would ever-
His mind balked. This was no quest; this was disaster!
"Ordinary citizens have only themselves to be concerned about," Trent said. "A ruler must be concerned for the welfare of others as much as for himself. He must be prepared to make sacrifices-sometimes very personal ones. He may even have to lose the woman he loves, and marry the one he doesn't love-for the good of the realm."
Give up Millie, marry Irene? Dor rebelled-then realized that the King had not been talking about Dor, but about himself. Trent had lost his wife and child in Mundania, and then married the Sorceress Iris, whom he never professed to love, and had a child by her-for the good of the realm. Trent asked nothing of any citizen he would not ask of himself.
"I will never be the man you are," Dor said humbly.
The King rose, clapping him on the back so that Grundy almost fell off his shoulder. Trent might be old, but he was still strong. "I was never the man I am," he said. "A man is only the man he seems to be. Inside, where no one sees, he may be a mass of gnawing worms of doubt and ire and grief." He paused reflectively as he showed Dor firmly to the doorway. "No challenge is easy. The measure of the challenge a man rises to at need is the measure of the man. I proffer you a challenge for a Magician and a King."
Dor found himself standing in the hall, still bemused. Even Grundy was silent
Good Magician Humfrey's castle was east of Castle Roogna, not far as the dragon flew, but more than a day's journey through the treacherous wilderness for a boy on foot. There was no enchanted path to Humfrey's retreat, because the Magician abhorred company; all paths led away only. Dor could not be sent there instantly by spell, because this was his quest, his private personal challenge, to accomplish by himself.
Dor started in the morning, using his talent to solve part of the problem of travel. "Stones, give me a warning whistle whenever I approach anything dangerous to me, and let me know the best route to the Good Magician's castle."
"We can tell you what is dangerous," the rocks chorused. There were no stony silences for him "But we don't know where the Good Magician's castle is. He has strewn little forget-spells all over."
"He should have known. I've been there," Grundy offered. "It's not far south of the Gap. Bear north toward the Gap, then east, then south to his castle."
"And if I'm off, and miss it, where will I wind up?" Dor inquired sourly.
"In the belly of a dragon, most likely."
Dor bore north, heeding the whistles. Most citizens of Xanth did not know of the Gap's existence, because it had been enchanted into anonymity, but Dor had lived all his life in this neighborhood and visited the chasm several times. Warned by his talent, he steered clear of diversions such as dragon runs, tangle trees, ant-lion prides, choke nettles, saw grass, and other threats. Only his father Bink could traverse the wilderness alone with greater equanimity, and maybe King Trent himself. Still, Grundy was nervous. "If you don't live to be King, I'll be in big trouble," he remarked, not entirely humorously.
When they got hungry, the stones directed them to the nearest breadloaf trees, soda poppies, and jelly-barrel trunks. Then on, as the day waned.
"Say!" Grundy exclaimed. "There are one-way paths from Humfrey's castle to the Gap. We're bound to cross one. The stones will know where such a path is, because they will have seen people walking along them. The forget spells are just about the location of the Magician's castle, not about stray people, so we can bypass them."
"Right!" Dor agreed. "Stones, have any of you seen much travel?"
There was a chorus of no's. But he kept checking as he progressed, and in due course found some stones (hat had indeed observed such travelers. After some experimentation, he managed to get aligned with the path, and took a step toward the chasm. There it was, suddenly: a clear path leading to a bridge that seemed to span the full width of the Gap. But when he faced the other way, there was only jungle. Fascinating magic, these paths!
"Maybe if you walked backward-" Grundy suggested.
"But then I'd stumble into all sorts of things!"
"Well, you walk forward, and I'll face backward and keep an eye on the path."
They tried that, and it worked. The stones gave general guidance, and Grundy warned him whenever he drifted to one side or another. They made good progress, for of course the path was charmed, with no serious hazards in its immediate vicinity. But it had taken some time to find it, and when dark closed in they were still in the wilderness. Fortunately they located a pillow bush and fashioned a bed of multicolored pillows, setting out sputtering bugbombs from a bug-bomb weed to repel predatory insects. They didn't worry about rain; Dor called out to a passing cloud, and it assured him that the clouds were all resting tonight, saving up for a blowout two days hence.
In the morning they feasted on boysengirls berries, the seeds like tiny boys a bit strong, and the jelly girls a bit sweet, so that they had to be taken together for full enjoyment. They washed the berries down with the juice from punctured coffee beans and took up the march again. Dor felt somewhat stiff; he wasn't used to this amount of walking. "Funny, I feel fine," Grundy remarked. He, of course, had ridden Dor's shoulder most of the way.
Another friendly cloud advised them when the Magician's castle was in sight. Humfrey had not thought to put forget spells on the clouds, or perhaps had found it impractical, since clouds tended to drift constantly. As it was, Dor realized he was fortunate these were good-natured cumulus clouds, instead of the bad-tempered thunderheads. By midmorning they were there.
The castle was small but pretty, with round turrets stretching up beyond the battlements, and a cute blue moat. Within the moat swam a triton: a handsome man with a fish's tail, carrying a wicked triple-tipped spear. He glared at the intruders.
"I think our first hurdle is upon us," Grundy remarked. "That merman is not about to let us pass."
"How did you get past, when you came to ask a Question?" Dor asked.
"That was a dozen years ago! It's all been changed. I snuck by a carnivorous seaweed in the moat, and climbed a slippery glass wall, and outsmarted a sword swallower inside."
"A sword swallower? How could he hurt you?"
Dor thought about that, and smiled. But the golem was right: past experience was no aid to the present. Not while the Good Magician's defenses kept changing.
He put a foot forward to touch the surface of the water. Immediately the triton swam forward, head and arm raised, trident poised. "It is only fair to warn you, intruder, that I have five notches on my spear shaft."
Dor jerked back his foot. "How do we get past this monster?" he asked, staring into the moat.
"I'm not allowed to tell you that," the water replied apologetically. "The old gnome's got everything counterspelled."
"He would," Grundy grumbled. "You can't out-gnome a gnome in his own home."
"But there is a way," Dor said. "We just have to figure it out. That's the challenge."
"While the Magician chortles inside, waiting to see if we'll make it or get speared. He's got a sense of humor like that of a tangle tree."
Dor made as if to dive into the moat. The triton raised his trident again. The merman's arm was muscular, and as he supported his body well out of the water the points of his weapon glinted in the sun. Dor backed off again.
"Maybe there's a tunnel under the moat," Grundy suggested.
They walked around the moat. At one point there was a metallic plaque inscribed with the words TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
"I don't know what that means," Dor complained.
'Til translate," Grundy said. "It means: keep out."
"I wonder if it means more?" Dor mused. "Why should Humfrey put a sign out here, when there's no obvious way in anyway? Why say it in language only a golem understands? That doesn't seem to make sense-which means it probably makes a lot of sense, if you interpret it correctly."
"I don't know why you're fulminating about a stupid sign, when you need to be figuring out how to cross the moat."
"Now, if there were a tunnel that the Magician could use without running afoul of his own hazards, he'd need a marked place for it to emerge," Dor continued. "Naturally he wouldn't want anyone else using it without his permission. So he might cover it over and put a stay-away spell on it. Like this."
"You know, I think you've got a brain after all," Grundy admitted. "But you'd have to have a counter-spell to get it open, and it's not allowed to tell you that secret."
"But it's only a stone. Not too bright. We might be able to trick it."
"I get you. Let's try a dialogue, know what I mean?" They had played this game before.
Dor nodded, smiling. They stepped up close to the plaque. "Good morning, plaque," Dor greeted it.
"Not to you, it ain't," the plaque responded. "I ain't going to tell you nothing."
"That's because you don't know nothing," Grundy said loudly, with a fine sneer in his voice.
"I do not know nothing!"
"My friend claims you have no secrets to divulge," Dor told the plaque.
"Your friend's a dumdum."
"The plaque says you're a dumdum," Dor informed Grundy.
"Yeah? Well the plaque's a dumdum."
"Plaque, my friend says you're a-"
"I am not!" the plaque retorted angrily. "He's the dumdum." What feelings objects had tended to be superficial. "He doesn't have my secret."
"What secret, dodo?" Grundy demanded, his voice even more heavily freighted with sneer than before.
"My secret chamber, that's what! He doesn't have that, does he?"
"Nobody has that," Grundy cried, scowling. "You're just making that up so we won't think you're the granitehead you really are!"
"Is that so? Well look at that, dumdum!" And the face of the plaque swung open to reveal an interior chamber. Inside was a small box.
Dor reached in and snatched out the box before the plaque caught on to its mistake. "And what have we here?" he inquired gleefully.
"Gimme that back!" the plaque cried. "It's mine, all mine!"
Dor studied the box. On the top was a button marked with the words DON'T PUSH. He pushed it.
The lid sprang up. A snakelike thing leaped out, startling Dor, who dropped the box. "HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!" it bellowed.
The snake-thing landed on the ground, its energy spent. "Jack, at your service," it said. "Jack in the box. You sure look foolish."
"A golem," Grundy said. "I should have known. Golems are insufferable."
"You oughta know, pinhead," Jack retorted. He reached into a serpentine pocket and drew out a shiny disk. "Here is an achievement button to commemorate the occasion." He held it up.
Dor reached down and took the button. It had two faces. On one side it said TRESPASSER. On the other it said PERSECUTED.
Dor had to laugh, ruefully. "I guess I fell for it! That's what I get for seeking the easy way through."
He put the button against his shirt, where it stuck magically, PERSECUTED side out. Then he picked up the Jack, put him back in the box, closed the lid, set the works back inside the plaque's chamber, and closed that, "Well played, plaque," he said. "Yeah," the plaque agreed, mollified. They returned their attention to the moat. "No substitute for my own ingenuity," Dor said. "But this diversion has given me a notion. If we can be tricked by a decoy-"
"I don't see what you're up to," Grundy said. "That triton knows his target."
"That triton thinks he knows his target. Watch this." And Dor squatted by the water and said to it: "I shall make a wager with you, water. I bet that you can't imitate my voice."
"Yeah?" the water replied, sounding just like Dor. "Hey, that's pretty good, for a beginner. But you can't do it in more than one place at a time."
"That's what you think!" the water said in Dor's voice from two places.
"You're much better than I thought!" Dor confessed ruefully. "But the real challenge is to do it so well that a third party could not tell which is me and which is you. I'm sure you couldn't fool that triton, for example."
"That wetback?" the water demanded. "What do you want to bet, sucker?"
"That water's calling you a kind of fish," Grundy muttered.
Dor considered. "Well, I don't have anything you would value. Unless-that's it! You can't talk to other people, but you still need some way to show them your prowess. You could do that with this button." He brought up the TRESPASSER / PERSECUTED button, showing both sides. "See, it says what you do to intruders. You can flash it from your surface in sinister warning."
"You're on!" the water said eagerly. "You hide, and if old three-point follows my voice instead of you, I win the prize."
"Right," Dor agreed. "I really hate to risk an item of this value, but then I don't think I'm going to lose it You distract him, and I'll hide under your surface. If he can't find me before I drown, the button's yours."
"Hey, there's a flaw in that logic!" Grundy protested. "If you drown-"
"Hello, fishtail!" a voice cried from the far side of the moat. "I'm the creep from the jungle!"
The triton, who had been viewing the proceedings without interest, whirled. "Another one?"
Dor slipped into the water, took half a breath, and dived below the surface. He swam vigorously, feeling the cool flow across his skin. No trident struck him. As his lungs labored painfully against his locked throat, he found the inner wall of the moat and thrust his head up.
He gasped for breath, and so did Grundy, still clinging to his shoulder. The triton was still chasing here and there, following the shifting voices. "Over here, sharksnoot! No, here, mer-thing! Are you blind, fish-face?"
Dor heaved himself out. "Safe!" he cried. "You win, moat; here's the prize. It hurts awfully to lose it, but you sure showed me up." And he flipped the button into the water.
"Anytime, sucker," the water replied smugly.
The significance of Grundy's prior comment sank in belatedly. A sucker was a kind of fish, prone to fasten to the legs of swimmers and-but he hoped there were none here.
The decoy voices subsided. The triton looked around, spotting him with surprise. "How did you do that? I chased you all over the moat!"
"You certainly did," Dor agreed. "I'm really breathless."
"You some sort of Magician or something?"
That describes it."
"Oh." The triton swam away, affecting loss of interest
The second challenge was now before them. There was a narrow ledge of stone between the moat and the castle wall. Dor found no obvious entry to the castle. "It's always this way," Grundy said wisely. "A blank wall. Inanimate obstacle. But the worst is always inside."
"Good to know," Dor said, feeling a chill that was not entirely from his soaking clothing. He was beginning to appreciate the depth of the challenge King Trent had made for him. At each stage he was forced to question his ability and his motive: were the risk and effort worth the prize? He had never been exposed to a sustained challenge of this magnitude before, where even his talent could help him only deviously. With the counterspells against things-giving away information, he was forced to employ his magic very cleverly, as with the moat. Maybe this was the necessary course to manhood-but he would much prefer to have a safe route home. He was, after all, only a boy. He didn't have the mass and thews of a man, and certainly not the courage. Yet here he was-and he had better go forward, because the triton would hardly let him go back.
The mass and thews of a man. The notion appealed insidiously. If by some magic he could become bigger and stronger than his father, and be skilled with the sword, so that he didn't have to have an ogre backing him up-ah, then wouldn't his problems be over! No more weaseling about, using tricks to sneak by tritons, arguing with plaques
But this was foolish wishful thinking. He would never be such a man, even when full grown. "Full groan," he muttered, appreciating the morbid pun. Maybe he would have made a good zombie!
They circled the castle again. At intervals there were alcoves with plants growing in them, decorating the blank wall. But they weren't approachable plants. Stinkweeds, skunk cabbages, poison ivy-the last flipped a drop of glistening poison at him, but he avoided it. The drop struck the stone ledge and etched a smoking hole in it. Another alcove held a needle-cactus, one of the worst plant menaces of all. Dor hastened on past that one, lest the ornery vegetable elect to fire a volley of needles at him.
"You climbed a wall of glass?" Dor inquired skeptically, contemplating the blank stone. He was not a good climber, and there were no handholds, steps, or other aids in existence.
"I was a golem then-a construct of string gunk. It didn't matter if I fell; I wasn't real. I exist only to do translations. Today I could not climb that glass wall, or even this stone wall; I have too much reality to lose."
Too much reality to lose. That made sense. Dor's own reality became more attractive as he pondered the possible losing of it. Why was he wishing for a hero's body and power? He was a Magician, probable heir to the throne. Strong men were common; Magicians were rare. Why throw that away-for a zombie?
Then he thought of lovely Millie. To do something nice for her, make her grateful. Ah, foolishness! But it seemed he was also that kind of a fool. Maybe it came with growing up. Her talent of sex appeal-
Dor tapped at the stone. It was distressingly solid. No hollow panels there. He felt for crevices. The interstices between stones were too small for his fingers, and he already knew there were no ledges for climbing. "Got to be in one of those alcoves," he said.
They checked the alcoves, carefully. There was nothing. The noxious plants grew from stone planters sitting on the rampart; there was no secret entrance through their dirt.
But the niche of the needle-cactus seemed deeper. In fact it curved into darkness beyond the cactus. A passage!
Now all he had to do was figure out how to pass one of the deadliest of the medium-sized plants of Xanth. Needle-cactuses tended to shoot first and consider afterward. Even a tangle tree would probably give way to a needier, if they grew side by side. Chester the centaur, a friend of Dor's father, still had puncture scars marring his handsome rump where a needier had chastened him.
Dor poked his head cautiously around the corner. "I don't suppose you feel like letting a traveler pass?" he inquired without much hope.
A needle shot directly at his face. He jerked violently back, and it hissed on out to land in the moat There was an irate protest from the triton, who didn't like having his residence littered.
"The needier says no," Grundy translated gratuitously.
"I could have guessed." How was he going to pass this hurdle? He couldn't swim under this cactus, or reason with it, or avoid it. There was barely room to squeeze by it, in the confined alcove.
"Maybe loop it with a rope, and haul it out of the way," Grundy suggested dubiously.
"We don't have a rope," Dor pointed out. "And nothing to make one with."
"I know someone whose talent is making ropes from water," Grundy said.
"So he could pass this menace. We can't. And if we did have rope, we'd get needled the moment we hauled the cactus out into the open."
"Unless we yanked it right into the moat." Dor chuckled at the thought. Then he got serious. "Could we fashion a shield?"
"Nothing to fashion it from. Same problem as the rope. This ledge is barren. Now if cacti don't like water at all, maybe we can scoop-"
"They can live without it, but they like it fine," Dor said. "They get rained on all the time. Just so long as it doesn't flood too much. Splashing won't do any good, unless-" He paused, considering. "If we could send a lot of water flowing through there, flood out the cactus, wash the dirt from its pot, expose the roots-"
Dor sighed. "No way, without a bucket. We just aren't set up to handle this cactus."
"Yeah. A firedrake could handle it. Those plants don't like fire: it burns off their needles. Then they can't fight until they grow new ones, and that takes time. But we don't have any fire." He shook a few drops from his body. "Sometimes I wish you had more physical magic, Dor. If you could point your finger and paralyze or stun or burn-"
"Then the Good Magician would have had other defenses for his castle, that those talents would be useless against. Magic is not enough; you have to use your brain."
"How can a brain stop a needier from needling?" Grundy demanded. "The thing isn't smart; you can't make a deal with it."
"The cactus isn't smart," Dor repeated, an idea forming. "So it might not grasp what would be obvious to us."
"Whatever you're talking about is not obvious to me, either," the golem said.
"Your talent is translation. Can you talk cactus language too?"
"Of course. But what has that to do with-"
"Suppose we told it we were dangerous to it? That we were salamanders, burning hot, about to burn it down?"
"Wouldn't work. It might be scared-but all it would do would be to fire off a volley of needles, to kill the salamander before the creature could get close."
"Hm, yes. But what about something that wasn't threatening, but was still sort of dangerous? A fireman, maybe, just passing through with flame on low."
Grundy considered. "That just might work. But if it failed-"
"Doom," Dor finished. "We'd be pincushions."
Both looked back at the moat. The triton was watching them alertly. "Pincushions either way," Grundy said. "I sure wish we were heroes, instead of golems and boys. We're not cut out for this sort of thing."
"The longer we stand here, the more scared I get," Dor agreed. "So let's get on with it before I start crying," he added, and wished he hadn't phrased it quite that way.
Grundy looked at the needle-cactus again. "When I was really a golem, a little thing like a needier couldn't hurt me. I wasn't real. I felt no pain. But now-I'm too scared to know what to say."
"I'll say it. It's my quest, after all; you don't have to participate. I don't know why you're risking yourself here anyway."
"Because I care, you twit!"
Which had to be true. "Okay. You just translate what I say into cactus talk." Dor nerved himself again and walked slowly toward the vegetable monster.
"Say something! Say something!" Grundy cried, as needles oriented on them visibly, ready to fly off their handles.
"I am a fireman," Dor said uncertainly. "I-I am made of fire. Anything that touches me gets burned to a crisp. This is my firedog, Grundy the growler. I am just taking my hot dog for a walk, just passing through, chewing idly on a firecracker. I love crackers!"
Grundy made a running series of scrapes and whistles, as of wind blowing through erect cactus needles. The needier seemed to be listening; there was an alert quiver about its needles now. Could this possibly work?
"We are merely passing through," Dor continued. "We aren't looking for trouble. We don't like to burn off needles unless we really have to, because they scorch and pop and smell real bad." He saw some needles wilt as Grundy translated. The message was getting through! "We have nothing against cactuses, so long as they keep their place. Some cactuses are very nice. Some of Grundy's best friends are cactuses; he likes to-" Dor paused. What would a firedog do with a compatible cactus? Water it down, of course-with a stream of fire. That wouldn't go over very well, here. "Uh, he likes to sniff their flowers as he dogtrots by. We only get upset if any needles happen to get in our way. When we get upset, we get very hot. Very very hot. In fact we just get all burned up." He decided not to overdo it, lest he lose credibility. "But we aren't too hot right now because we know no nice cactus would try to stick us. So we won't have to burn off any inconvenient needles."
The cactus seemed to withdraw into itself, giving them room to pass without touching. His ploy was working! "My, these firecrackers are good. Would you like a cracker, cactus?" He held out one hand.
The cactus gave a little keen of apprehension, much as the tangler had when Crunch the ogre growled at it. The needles shied away. Then Dor was past it, penetrating into the alcove passage. But he was still within range of the needier, so he kept talking. After all, if the thing caught on to his ruse, it would be a very angry cactus.
"Sure was nice meeting you, cactus. You're a real sharp creature. Not like the one I encountered the other day, who tried to put a needle in my back. I fear I lost my temper. Tempering takes a lot of heat. I fired up like a wounded salamander, and I went back and hugged that poor cactus until all its needles burst into flame. The scorch marks are still on it, but I'm happy to say that it will probably survive. Lucky it was a wet day, raining in fact, so my heat only cooked its outer layers some instead of setting the whole thing on fire. I'm sorry I did that; I really think that needle in the back was an accident. Something that just slipped out. I just can't help myself when I get hot."
He rounded the curve in the passage, so that he was no longer in view of the needier. Then he leaned against the wall, feeling faint.
Grundy's translation came to an end. "You're the best liar I've ever seen," he said admiringly.
"I'm the scaredest liar you've ever seen!"
"Well, I guess it takes practice. But you did well; I could hardly keep up with those whoppers! But I knew if I cracked a smile, I'd really get needled."
Dor pondered the implications. He had indeed achieved his victory by lying. Was that the way it should be? He doubted it. He made a mental resolution: no more lying. Not unless absolutely necessary. If a thing could not be accomplished honestly, probably it wasn't worth accomplishing at all.
"I never realized what a coward I was," Dor said, changing the subject slightly. "I'll never grow up."
"I'm a coward too," Grundy said consolingly. "I've never been so scared since I turned real."
"One more challenge to handle-the worst one. I wish I were man-sized and man-couraged!"
"Me too," the golem agreed.
The passage terminated in a conventional door with a conventional door latch. "Here we come, ready or not," Dor muttered.
"You're not ready," the door replied.
Dor ignored it. He worked the latch and opened the door.
There was a small room paneled in bird-of-paradise feathers. A woman of extraordinary perfection stood watching them. She wore a low-cut gown, jeweled sandals, a comprehensive kerchief, and an imported pair of Mundane dark glasses. "Welcome, guests," she breathed, in such a way that Dor's gaze was attracted to the site of breathing, right where the gown was cut lowest yet fullest.
"Uh, thanks," Dor said, nonplused. This was the worst hazard of all? He needed no adult-male vision to see that it was a hazard few men would balk at.
"There's something about her-I don't like this," Grundy whispered in his ear. "I know her from somewhere-"
"Here, let me have a look at you," the woman said, lifting her hand to her glasses. Dor's glance was drawn away from her torso to her face. Her hair began to move under her kerchief, as if separately alive.
Grundy stiffened. "Close your eyes!" he cried. "I recognize her now. Those serpent locks-that's the gorgon!"
Dor's eyes snapped closed. He barged ahead, trying to get out of the room before any accident caused him to take an involuntary look. He knew what the gorgon was; her glance turned men to stone. If they met that glance with their own.
His blindly moving feet tripped over a step, and Dor fell headlong. He threw his arms up to shield his face, but did not open his eyes. He landed jarringly and lay there, eyelids still tightly screwed down.
There was the swish of long skirts coming near. "Get up, young man," the gorgon said. Her voice was deceptively soft.
"No!" Dor cried. "I don't want to turn to stone!"
"You won't turn to stone. The hurdles are over; you have won your way into the castle of the Good Magician Humfrey. No one will harm you here."
"Go away!" he said. "I won't look at you!"
She sighed, very femininely. "Golem, you look at me. Then you can reassure your friend."
"I don't want to be stone either!" Grundy protested. "I had too much trouble getting real to throw it away now. I saw what happened to all those men your sister the siren lured to your island."
"And you also saw how the Good Magician nullified me. There is no threat now."
"That's right! He-but how do I know the spell's still on? It's been a long time since-"
"Take this mirror and look at me through the reflection first," she said. "Then you will know."
"I can't handle a big mirror! I'm only inches tall, only a-oh, what's the use! Dor, I'm going to look at her. If I turn to stone, you'll know she can't be trusted."
"I already have," the golem said, relieved. "It's all right, Dor, you can look."
Grundy had never deceived him. Dor clenched his teeth and cracked open an eye, seeing the lighted room and the gorgon's nearest foot. It was a very pretty foot, with fluorescently tinted toenails, topped by a shapely ankle. Funny how he had never noticed ankles before! He got to his hands and knees, his eyes traveling cautiously up her marvelously molded legs until the view was cut off by the hem of her gown. It was a shapely gown, too, slightly translucent so that the suggestion of her legs continued on up to-but enough of this stalling. He forced his reluctant eyes to travel all the way up past her contours until they approached her head.
Her hair, now unbound, consisted of a mass of writhing little snakes. They were appealingly horrible. But the face was nothing. Just a vacuum, as if the head were a hollow ball with the front panel removed.
"But-but I saw your face before, all except the eyes-"
"You saw this mask of my face," she said, holding it up. "And the dark glasses. There was never any chance for you to look into my true face."
So it seemed. "Then why-?"
"To scare you off-if you lacked the courage to do what is necessary in order to reach the Good Magician."
"I just closed my eyes and ran," Dor said.
"But you ran forward, not back."
So he had. Even in his terror, he had not given up his quest. Or had he merely run whichever way he happened to be facing? Dor wasn't sure. He considered the gorgon again. Once he got used to the anomaly of her missing face, he found her quite attractive. "But you-what is a gorgon doing here?"
"I am serving my year's fee, awaiting my Answer." Dor shook his head, trying to get this straight. "You?-if I may ask-what was your Question?"
"I asked the Good Magician if he would marry me."
Dor choked. "He-he made you-serve a fee, for that?"
"Oh, yes. He always charges a year's service, or the equivalent. That's why he has so much magic around the castle. He's been in this business for a century or so."
"I know all that! But yours was a different kind of-"
She seemed to smile, behind her invisibility. "No exceptions, except maybe on direct order from the King. I don't mind. I knew what to expect when I came here. Soon my year will be finished, and I will have my Answer."
Grundy shook his little head. "I thought the old gnome was nuts. But this-he's crazy!"
"By no means," the gorgon said. "I could make him a pretty good wife, once I learn the ropes. He may be old, but he's not dead, and he needs-"
"I meant, to make you work a year-why doesn't he just marry you, and have your service for life?"
"You want me to ask him a second Question, and serve another year for the Answer?" she demanded.
"Uh, no. I was just curious. I don't really understand the Good Magician."
"You and everyone else!" she agreed wryly, and Dor began to feel an affinity for this shapely, faceless female. "But slowly I'm learning his ways. It is a good question you raise; I shall have to think about it, and maybe I can figure out that answer for myself. If he wants my service, why would he settle for a year of It when he could readily have it all? If he doesn't want my service, why not send me out to guard the moat or something where he won't have to see me every day? There has got to be a reason." She scratched her head, causing several snakes to hiss warningly.
"Why do you even want to marry him?" Grundy asked. "He's such a gloomy old gnome, he's no prize for a woman, especially a pretty one."
"Who said I wanted to marry him?"
Grundy did a rare double take. "You distinctly-your Question-"
"That is for information, golem. Once I know whether he will marry me, I'll be able to decide whether I should do it. It's a difficult decision."
"Agreed," Grundy said. "King Trent must have labored similarly before marrying Queen Iris."
"Do you love him?" Dor inquired.
"Well, I think I do. You see, he's the first man who ever associated with me without you know." She nodded her head toward the corner. There was the statue of a man, carved beautifully in marble.
"That's-?" Dor asked, alarmed.
"No, I really am a statue," the stone answered him. "A fine original work of sculpture."
"Humfrey won't let me do any real conversions," the gorgon said. "Not even for old times' sake. I'm just here to identify the foolish or to scare off the fault-hearted. The Magician won't answer cowards."
"Then he won't answer me," Dor said sadly. "I was so scared-"
"No, that's not cowardice. Being terrified but going ahead and doing what must be done-that's courage. The one who feels no fear is a fool, and the one who lets fear rule him is a coward. You are neither. Same for you, golem. You never deserted your friend, and were willing to risk your precious flesh body to help him. I think the Magician will answer."
Dor considered that. "I sure don't feel very brave," he said at last. "All I did was hide my face."
"I admit it would have been more impressive had you closed your eyes and fenced with me blind!" she said. "Or snatched up a mirror to use. We keep several handy, for those who have the wit to take that option. But you're only a boy. The standards are not as strict."
"Uh, yes," Dor agreed, still not pleased.
"You should have seen me when I came here," she warmly. "I was so frightened, I hid my face-just as you did."
"If you didn't hide your face, you'd turn everyone to stone," Grundy pointed out
"That too," she agreed.
"Say," Grundy demanded. "It was twelve years ago when you met the Good Gnome. I was there, remember? How come you're just now asking your Question?"
"I left my island at the Time of No Magic," she said frankly. "Suddenly no magic worked at all in the whole Land of Xanth, and the magic things were dying or turning mundane, and all the old spells were undone. I don't know why that was-"
"I know," Grundy said. "But I can't tell, except to say it won't happen again."
"All my former conquests reverted to life. There were some pretty rowdy men there, you know-trolls and things. So I got all flustered and fled. I was afraid they would hurt me."
"That was a sensible fear," Grundy said. "When they didn't catch you, they went back to the Magic Dust village where most of them had come from, and I guess they're still there. Lot of very eager women in that village, after all that time with all their men gone."
"But when the magic came back, the Magician's spell on my face was gone. It was one of the one-shot variety, that carried only until interrupted. A lot of spells are like that, mine included. So I had my face again, and I-you know."
Dor knew. She had started making statues again.
"By then, I knew what was happening," she continued. "I had been pretty naive, there on my isolated island, but I was learning. I really didn't want to be that way. So I remembered what Humfrey had said about Mundania, where magic doesn't ever work-that certainly must be a potent counterspell laid on that land!-and I went there. And he was right. I was a normal girl. I had thought I could never stand to leave there, but the Time of No Magic showed me that maybe I could stand it after all. And when I tried, I could.
It was sort of strange and fun, not nearly as bad as I had feared. People accepted me, and men-do you know I'd never kissed a man in Xanth?"
Dor was ashamed to comment He had never kissed a woman other than his mother, who of course didn't count. He thought fleetingly of Millie. If-
"But after a while I began to miss Xanth," the gorgon continued. "The magic, the special creatures-do you know I even got to miss the tangle trees? When you're born to magic you can't just set it aside; it is part of your being. So I had to come back. But that meant-you know, more statues. So I went to Humfrey's castle. By that time I knew he was the Good Magician-he never told me that when we met!-and that he wasn't all that approachable, and I got girlishly nervous. I knew that if I wanted to be with a man in Xanth, I mean man-to-woman, it would have to be one like him. Who had the power to neutralize my talent. The more I thought about it-well, here I am."
"Didn't you have trouble getting into the castle?"
"Oh, yes! It was awful. There was this foghorn guarding the moat, and I found this little boat there, but every time I tried to cross that horn blasted out such columns of fog that I couldn't see or hear anything, and the boat always turned around and came back to shore. It was a magic boat, you see; you had to steer it or it went right back to its dock. I got all covered in fog, and my hair was hissing something awful; it doesn't like that sort of thing."
Her hair, of course, consisted of myriad tiny snakes or eels. They were rather cute, now that he was getting used to the style. "How did you get across the moat, then?"
"I finally got smart. I steered the boat directly toward the foghorn, no matter how bad the fog got. It was like swimming through a waterfall! When I reached the horn-I was across. Because it was inside, not outside."
"Oops-the gnome cometh," Grundy said.
"Oh, I must get back to work!" the gorgon said, hastily tripping out of the room. "I was in the middle of the laundry when you arrived; he uses more socks!" She was gone.
"Gnomes do have big dirty feet," Grundy remarked. "sort of like goblins, in that respect."
The Good Magician Humfrey walked in. He was, indeed, gnomelike, old and gnarled and small. His feet were big and bare and, yes, dirty. "There's not a clean pair of socks in the whole castle!" he grumped. "Girl, haven't you done that laundry yet? I asked for it an hour ago!"
"Uh, Good Magician-" Dor said, moving toward him,
"It isn't as if socks are that complicated to wash," Humfrey continued irritably. "I've shown her the cleaning spell." He looked around. "Where is that girl? Does she think the whole Land of Xanth is made of stone, merely waiting on her convenience?"
"Uh, Good Magician Humfrey," Dor said, trying again. "I have come to ask-"
"I can't stand another minute without my socks!" Humfrey said, sitting down on the step. "I'm no barefoot boy any more, and even when I was, I always wore shoes. I spilled an itching-powder formula here once, and it gets between my toes. If that fool girl doesn't-"
"Hey, old gnome!" Grundy bawled deafeningly. Humfrey glanced at him in an offhand way. "Oh, hello, Grundy. What are you doing here? Didn't I tell you how to become real?"
"I am real, gnome," Grundy said. "I'm just speaking your language, as is my talent. I'm here with my friend Dor, showing him how to get a Magician's attention."
"Dor doesn't need a Magician's attention. He's a Magician himself. He needs a quest. He ought to go find the secret of making zombies human, so he can please Millie the ghost. Besides, I'm not dressed for company. My socks-"
"To hell with your socks!" Grundy exclaimed. "The boy's come all the way here to ask you how to get that secret, and you have to give him an Answer."
"To hell with my socks? Not before they're clean! I wouldn't be caught dead in dirty socks."
"All right, gnome, I'll fetch your socks," Grundy said. "You stay right here on this step and talk to Dor, okay?" He jumped down and scurried from the room.
"Uh, I'm sorry-" Dor began hesitantly.
"It did take Grundy some time to get the message, but the cranial capacity of golems is very small. Now that he has left us alone, I can convey private reflections."
"Oh, I don't mind Grundy-"
"The fact is, Dor, you are slated to be the next King of Xanth. Now I suppose I could charge you the usual fee for my Answer, but that might be impolitic if you were to become King before I died. My references suggest that will be the case. One can never be absolutely sure about the future, of course; the future-history texts misrepresent it almost as much as the past history texts do the past. But why gamble foolishly? You are a full Magician in your own right, with power as great as mine, and of a similar genre. Given time, you will know as much as I. It becomes expedient to deal with fellow Magicians on an equal basis. Besides which, a year out of your life at this stage might in some devious way pose a threat to the welfare of your father, Bink, who cares greatly for you, and that would be an unconscionable mischief. I remember when I was attempting to fathom his talent, and the invisible giant came marching by with a tread worse than an ogre's and almost shook down the castle. But that's another matter. In this case I can not provide your full Answer anyway, because there is an ambiguity in the record. It seems it is a trade secret kept by another Magician. Are you willing to make a deal?"
"I, uh-" Dor said, not overwhelmed, but verging on it. Future history? Kingship in the foreseeable future? His father's mysterious talent? Another Magician?
"Very good. What you want is the Elixir of Restoration. What I want is historical information about a critically vague but important Wave of Xanth. The elixir is similar to the Healing Elixir that is common enough today, but is of a distinct variant formula adapted to zombies. Only the Zombie Master of the Fourth Wave knows the formula. If I enable you to interview him, will you render me a complete accounting of your adventures in that realm?"
"The-the Fourth Wave? But-"
"Then it's agreed!" Humfrey said. "Sign your name to this release form, here, so I can tie my history text into the spell." He shoved a quill into Dor's flaccid hand and a printed parchment under it, and Dor almost automatically signed. "So good to do business with a reasonable Magician. Ah, here are my socks at last. High time!" For the golem had reappeared, staggering under the huge burden.
Humfrey leaned forward and began squeezing his big feet into the socks. It was no wonder, Dor thought, that they got dirty so rapidly! The Magician wasn't bothering to wash his feet before donning the socks.
"The problem with the Fourth Wave of human colonization of Xanth is that it occurred circa eight centuries ago. I trust you are familiar with Xanth history? The centaur pedagogue gave you the scoop? Good. So I don't need to remind you how the people came in brutal Waves of conquest, killing and stealing and ravaging until they wasted it all, then had nothing better to do than settle down and watch their children turn magic, whereupon some new Wave of no-magic barbarians would invade and victimize them. So a Wave could be several generations in duration. The boldest of these, for reasons we won't go into now, was the Fourth Wave. The greatest of the ancient Magicians lived then: King Roogna, who built Castle Roogna; his archenemy and dinner companion, Magician Murphy; and the Zombie Master, whom you will interview. Plus lesser talents like the neo-Sorceress Vadne. How you will elicit the formula from the Zombie Master I don't know; he was something of a recluse, not sociable the way I am."
Grundy snorted derisively.
"Thank you," Humfrey said. He seemed to thrive on insult. "Sit down, Dor-right there will do." Dor, too disoriented to protest, sat down on the decorated carpet he had been standing on, Grundy beside him. The texture of it was luxuriant; he was comfortable.
"But the main problem is the time frame. The Zombie Master can not come to you, so you must go to him. The only presently feasible way to do that is via the tapestry."
"The tapestry?" Dor asked, surprised by this familiar item. "The Castle Roogna tapestry?"
"The same. I shall give you a spell to enable you to enter it. You will not do so physically, of course; your body is much too big to be in scale. The spell will accommodate a reasonably close match, but you are hundreds of times too massive. So you will animate the body of one of the players already depicted there. We shall have to make an arrangement for your present body-ah, I know! The Brain Coral! I owe it a favor, or it owes me one-no difference. The Coral has always wanted to taste mortality. It can animate your body during your absence, so no one will know. The golem will have to help cover for you, of course."
"I've been doing that all along," Grundy said complacently.
"Now the carpet will take you to the Coral, then to the tapestry. Don't worry; I have preprogrammed it. Here, better take something to eat along the way. Gorgon!"
The gorgon hurried in with three vials. "You didn't wash your feet!" she cried to the Magician, appalled.
Humfrey took a white vial from her hand, "I had her fix this earlier, so if it turns your stomach to stone, blame her, not me." He almost chuckled as he handed the stoppered container to Dor. "Grundy, you better hang on to the spell. Remember, it's in two parts: the yellow puts him into the tapestry, the green puts the Coral into his body. Don't confuse them!" He gave the golem two tiny colored packets. "Or is it the other way around? Well, on with you. I don't have all day," He clapped his hands together with a sharp report-and the carpet on which Dor sat took off.
Too surprised to protest, Dor grabbed for the edges and hung on. "You don't have clean feet either," he heard the gorgon saying indignantly to Humfrey as the carpet looped the room, getting its bearings. "But I brought two dry-cleaning spells, one for each foot, so-"
Dor missed the rest. The carpet sailed out of the room, through several other chambers, banked around a corner, angled up an interminably coiling stair, and shot out of a high turret window whose sides almost scraped skin off Dor's tight knuckles. Suddenly the ground was far below, and getting farther; already the Magician's castle seemed small.
"Hey-I think I'm scared of heights!" Dor cried, his vision recoiling.
"Nonsense," Grundy retorted. "You made it up here okay, didn't you? What are you going to do, jump?"
"Noooo!" Dor cried, horrified. "But I might quietly fall."
"What you need is a good meal to settle your stomach during the boring flight," Grundy said. "Let's just get this white bottle open-"
"I'm not hungry! I think I'm heightsick!"
The golem hauled at the cork, and it popped out. Fine smoke issued, swirled, and coalesced into two fine sandwiches, a brimming glass of milk, and a sprig of parsley. Dor had to grab at everything before the wind whipped it away.
"We're really traveling in style!" Grundy said, crunching his little teeth on the parsley. "Drink your milk, Dor."
"You sound just like Millie." But Dor gulped his milk. It was very good, obviously fresh from the pod, and the milkweed must have been grown in chocolate soil.
"I hear that in Mundania they squeeze milk out of animals," Grundy observed. That made Dor's stomach do another roil. They really were barbarians in Mundania.
Then he started in on a sandwich, as he had either to eat it or continue holding it, and he wanted his hands free to clutch the carpet again. It was a door-jam and turnip sandwich, his favorite; obviously the Good Magician had researched his tastes and prepared for this occasion before Dor ever arrived at the castle. The second one was a red potato soup sandwich, somewhat squishy but with excellent taste. The gorgon had a very nice touch.
Dor thought about the anomaly of so formidable a creature as the gorgon reduced to being a common maid at the Magician's castle while she waited to learn whether Humfrey would marry her. Yet wasn't this the lot of the average woman? Maybe the Magician was merely showing her what she could expect If she married. That could be more important than his actual Answer. Or was that part of the Answer? The Good Magician had his peculiarities, but also a devious comprehension of the real situation. He had obviously known all about Dor himself, yet allowed him to struggle through the rigors of entry into the castle. Odd competence!
The carpet angled forward, causing Dor to suffer another spasm of vertigo. Yet his seat seemed secure. The material of the carpet seemed to hold him firmly yet comfortably, so that he did not slide off even when it tilted. Wonderful magic!
Now the carpet banked, circling for a landing-but it didn't land. It plunged at frightening speed directly toward a deep crevasse in the ground. "Where are we going?" Dor cried, alarmed.
"Into the teeth of a tangler!" Grundy replied. "A big one!" He pointed ahead, and for once he seemed less than cocksure.
"Right!" the rug agreed, still accelerating.
It was indeed a big tangle tree-one not even an ogre could cow. Its massive trunk grew from the base of the chasm, while its upper tentacles overlapped the rim. What a menace that must be to travelers seeking to cross the cleft!
The carpet banked again, accelerated again, and buzzed the crest of the tree. The tentacles reached up hungrily. "Has this rug gone crazy?" Dor demanded. "Nobody tangles with a full-sized tangler!"
"Oh, a big sphinx might get away with it," Grundy suggested. "Or the old invisible giant. Or a cockatrice."
The carpet banked yet again, sending Dor's hair flying to the side, and looped around for another nervy pass at the top of the tree. This time the tentacles were ready; they rose up in a green mass to intercept it. "Doom!" Grundy cried, covering his eyes. "Why did I ever turn real?"
But the carpet plunged directly below the tentacles, zooming right past the bared and scowling trunk of the tangler and into the ground at its base. Except that the ground opened into a small crevice transfixed by a root-and the carpet dropped into this hole.
Down, down-the horror of the heights had been abruptly replaced by the horror of the depths! Dor cowered, expecting to smash momentarily into a wall. But the carpet seemed to know its harrowing route; it never touched a wall.
There began to be a little light-a sustained glow from the walls. But this only showed how convoluted this region was. Chamber after chamber opened and closed, and passages branched at all angles. Yet the carpet sped unerringly along its programmed route, down into the very bowels of Xanth.
Bowels. Dor wished his thought hadn't phrased it that way. He still felt nervously sick. This harebrained ride-
The carpet halted abruptly beside a somber subterranean lake. In this faint illumination the water itself assumed a glow, revealing murky depths suggestive of mind-boggling secrets. The carpet settled to the cavern floor and became limp. "This must be our station," Grundy observed.
"But there's nothing here!" Nothing living, he meant.
I am here, something thought in his mind. I am the Brain Coral-here beyond your sight beneath the lake. You bear the stigma of the Good Magician and are accompanied by his golem. Have you come to abate his debt to me?
"I am my own golem!" Grundy protested. "And I'm not a golem any more. I'm real!"
"He said it was your debt to him," Dor answered the Brain Coral nervously. This was an uncomfortable place, and there was disquieting power in the mental voice, and an alien quality. This was a creature of Magician-class magic, but not at all human. I think."
Same thing, the voice thought. Perhaps it was the thought voicing. What is the offer?
"You-if you would care to animate my body while my spirit is away-I know it's not much of a body, just a juvenile-"
Done! the Coral replied. Go work your spells; I will be there.
"Uh, thank you. I-"
Thank you. I have existed a thousand years, storing mortals in my preservative lake, without ever enjoying the sensations of mortality myself. Now at last I shall experience them, however fleetingly.
"Uh, yes, I guess. You do understand that I will want my body back, when-"
Naturally. Such spells are always self-limiting; there will be no more than a fortnight before it reverts. Time enough.
Self-limiting? Dor hadn't known that. What a good thing the Good Magician had set it up. Had Dor tried to work such a spell by himself, he could have been stuck forever in the tapestry. The best spells were fail-safe.
The carpet took off without warning. "Farewell, Coral!" Dor cried, but there was no answer. Either the Brain Coral's communications range was short, or it had ceased to pay attention. Or it objected to inane courtesies.
The return trip was similar to the descent, with its interminable convolutions, but now Dor felt more secure, and his stomach stayed pretty much in place. He had new confidence in the Good Magician's planning and in the carpet's competence. He hardly winced as they shot up out of the crack into the bosom of the tangle tree, though he did have a qualm as the tentacles convulsed. The carpet merely dodged the embrace, allowing the Tangier to catch nothing but the qualm, and zoomed along the base of the crevasse. When well clear of the tree, it rose smoothly out of the chasm and powered into the sky. The afternoon was blindingly bright, after the gloom of the caverns.
Now they flew north. Dor looked down, trying to spot the Magic Dust village, but all he saw was jungle, One area was dark, as if burned out, but no village. Then, all too soon, Castle Roogna hove in view. The carpet circled it once, getting its bearings as was its wont, then slanted down and into a window, through a hall, and into the tapestry room.
"Here's the first spell," Grundy said, lifting the yellow package.
"No, wait!" Dor cried, abruptly afraid of the magnitude of what he contemplated. He had supposed he would only have to search out some hidden spring in the contemporary world, and now faced a far more significant undertaking. To actually enter a picture-"I need time to uncramp my legs, to-" To decide whether he was really up to this challenge. Maybe-
But Grundy had already torn open the wrapping. Yellow mist spread out, diffusing into the air, forming a little cloud.
"I don't even know what body in the tapestry to-"
Then the expanding mist encompassed him. Dor felt himself swaying, falling without falling. For a moment he saw his body standing there stupidly, tousle-haired and slack-jawed. Then the great tapestry was coming at him, expanding hugely. There was a bug on it, then this too fuzzed out. He glimpsed a section of woven jungle, with a muscular young man standing with a huge sword, at bay against-
Dor stood at bay, his trusty blade unmasked. The goblins in front of him faded back, afraid, before he could get a close look at them. He hadn't seen goblins in the flesh before. They were small, twisted, ugly creatures with disproportionately large heads and hands and feet.
Goblins? Of course he hadn't seen them before! There had been few goblins on the surface of Xanth in daylight for centuries! They hid in the caverns beneath the surface, afraid of light.
Oh-this was no longer the present! This was the tapestry, depicting the world of eight hundred years ago. So there could be goblins here-bold ones, un-cowed by light.
But he, himself-what of him? What body-oh, yes, the huge-thewed, giant young man. Dor had never before experienced such ready power; the massive sword felt light in his hands, though he knew that in his real body he would barely have been able to swing it two-handed. This was the kind of body he had daydreamed about!
Something stung him on the head. Dor clapped his hand there, knocking himself momentarily dizzy, but whatever it was, was gone. It had felt, however, like a louse or flea. He had no antifleas spell with him. Already the penalties of the primitive life were manifesting.
The jungle was close. Great-leaved branches formed a seemingly solid wall of green. There were fewer magic plants than he was used to; these more closely resembled Mundane trees. Which, again, made sense; the Land of Xanth was closer to Mundania in nature than it would be in Dor's day. Evolution-the pedagogue centaur had taught him about that, how magic things evolved into more magical things, to compete and survive better.
Something entered the periphery of his vision as he looked around. Dor whirled-and discovered that it had not been his sword that made the goblins retreat. Behind him stood a spider-the height of a man. Dor forgot all about the lurking goblins. He lifted the great sword, feeling the facility with which his body handled it. This was a trained warrior whose muscles had been augmented by experience and skill-which was fortunate, because Dor himself was no swordsman. He could have sliced himself up, if this body hadn't possessed good reflexes.
The spider reacted similarly. It carried no sword, but hardly needed to. It had eight hairy legs and two huge green eyes-no, four eyes, two large and two small-no, there were at least six, scattered about its head. Two sharp fangs projected inward from the mouth parts, and two mouth-legs fitted outside. Overall, the creature was as horrible as Dor could imagine. Now it was preparing to pounce on him.
On top of that, the thing was chittering at him, making a series of clicking sounds that could only be some sort of threat. Grundy the golem could have translated instantly-but Grundy was eight hundred years or so away, now. The spider's two larger forelegs were raised; though they had neither fingers nor claws, they looked formidable. And those mandibles behind them, and those eyes-
Dor made a feint with his sword, surprising himself; his body was bringing its own expertise into play. The monster drew back, clicking angrily. "What's that thing trying to say?" Dor asked himself nervously, not at all sure he could fend the monster off despite his own greatly enhanced size and strength.
The sword he held thought he had spoken to it. "I know battle language. The monster says he doesn't really want to fight, but he's never seen a horror like you before. He wonders whether you are good to eat."
"A horror like me!" Dor exclaimed incredulously. "Is the monster crazy?"
"I can't be the judge of that," the sword said. "I only understand battle competence. This creature seems disoriented but competent enough to me. For all I know, you could be the crazy one."
"I'm a twelve-year-old boy from eight hundred years in the future-or from outside this tapestry, whichever makes more sense."
"Now my doubt has been allayed. You are indubitably crazy."
"Well, you're in my hand now," Dor said, nettled. "You'll do as I direct."
"By all means. Swords have ever been the best servants of crazy men."
The monster spider had not actually attacked. Its attention seemed to be diverted. It was hard to tell what was the object of its diversion, because its eyes aimed in so many directions at once. Maybe it was only trying to understand his dialogue with the sword. Dor tried to spot what it was looking at-and saw the goblins returning.
One thing about goblins: they were enemies. No one knew exactly what had happened to them, but it had been conjectured that they had been driven underground after centuries of warfare, because of their implacable hatred of man. Once, legend claimed, the goblins had gotten along with man; indeed, they were distantly related to men. But something had changed-
"This is no good," Dor said. "If I fight the monster, the goblins will attack me from behind. But if I turn my back on the spider, it will eat me. Or something."
"So slay the monster, then fight the goblins," the sword said. "Die in honorable combat. It is the warrior's way."
"I'm no warrior!" Dor cried, thoroughly frightened. It had not occurred to him that the world of the tapestry would pose an immediate threat to him. But now he was in it, this world seemed thoroughly real, and he didn't want to find out whether he could die here. Maybe his death would merely catapult him back prematurely, terminating the spell, dumping him into his own body, mission unaccomplished. Maybe it would be more final.
"You were a warrior until a few minutes ago," the sword said, "A very stupid one, to be sure, to have gotten yourself trapped by this motley band of goblins, but nevertheless a warrior. Brains never were a requirement for war anyway; in fact they tend to be a liability. Now all of a sudden you're timid as hell, and you're also talking to me. You never did that before."
"It's my talent. Talking to inanimate objects."
"That sounds like an insult," the sword said, glinting ominously.
"No, not at all," Dor said hastily. He certainly didn't need to have his own sword mad at him now! "I am the only person privileged to talk to swords. All other people must talk to other people."
"Oh," it said, mollified. "That is an unusual honor. How come you never did it before?"
Dor shrugged. He didn't want to go into the insanity bit again. "Maybe I just didn't feel worthy."
"Must be," the sword agreed. "Now let's slay that monster."
"No. If it hasn't attacked by this time, I believe it when it says it doesn't want to fight. My father always says it's best to be friends if you can. He even made friends with a dragon once."
"You forget I was your father's sword before you inherited me. He never said anything of the kind. He said, "Gorge, guzzle, and wench, for tomorrow we get gutted.' Then a wench's husband caught up with him while he was gorged and guzzled, and he got gutted."
Mundanes were brutes; Dor had already known that. So this news about the family of this body was not all that shocking. Still, it was a lot more immediate than it had been. "About making friends with a dragon-the word dragon may be taken as slang for an aggressive woman."
The sword laughed. "Oh, clever! And absolutely crazy. You're right; your old man could have said it. Friends with a dragon!"
Dor decided to gamble. Though the sword could translate some of what the monster said into human language, it could not translate what Dor said into monster-spider language, for that was not the sword's talent. It was one-way. But communication should be possible, if he tried hard enough. "I'm going to make a peace overture by gesture," he told the sword.
"A peace overture! Your father would roll over in his booze-sodden grave!"
"You just translate what the spider says to me."
"I only understand combat language, not that sissy peace stuff," the sword said with warlike dignity. "If the monster doesn't fight, I have no interest."
"Then I shall put you away." Dor looked for the scabbard. He touched his hip, but found no sheath there. "Uh, where do you go?" The sword said something unintelligible. "Where?" Dor repeated, frowning.
"Into my scabbard, idiot!" the sword said cuttingly.
"Where the hell is the scabbard? I can't find it."
"Don't you remember anything? It's across your big stupid back where it belongs!"
Dor felt his back with his left hand. There was a harness, with the scabbard angled from his right buttock to his left shoulder. He lifted the sword and maneuvered the point into the end of the sheath. Obviously there was an art to this, and he lacked that art. Had he allowed his body to do it automatically, there would have been no problem; but now he was opposing the nature of his body, putting away a sword in the face of battle. "Bro-tther!" the sword muttered with disgust.
But when Dor relaxed, distracted by his own chain of thought, his body took over, and the sword slid into its scabbard and was fastened into place at last.
"Then you, scabbard," Dor said. "You must understand peace, or at least truce."
"Yes," the scabbard replied. "I comprehend the language of negotiation-from-strength, of peace-with-honor."
Dor spread his arms wide before the monster spider, who had remained frozen in position all this time, while the goblins inched forward, suspecting a trap. Dor was trying to suggest peace. The monster spread its own front legs wide and chittered. Behind it the face of another goblin appeared, watching with suspicion. It seemed the goblins were not allied to the spider, and didn't understand it any better than Dor himself did.
"It says it was wondering when you would attack," the scabbard said. "It thought for a moment you intended peace, but now you are making ready to grasp it with your pincers so you can bite or crush or sting it to death."
Hastily Dor closed his arms.
The spider chittered. "Aha," the scabbard said. "Now it knows it has outbluffed you. You are huddled in terror. It can consume you without resistance."
Dor's embarrassment turned to anger. "Now look here, monster!" he snapped, shaking his left fist in the creature's hairy green face. "I don't want to have to fight you, but if you force me-"
Another chitter. "At last!" the scabbard said. "You have elected to meet it on equal terms, it says, neither threatening nor cowering. It is a stranger here, and is willing to declare a truce."
Amazed and gratified, Dor held his pose. The spider brought its left foreleg forward. Still Dor did not move, afraid that any change might be misinterpreted. Slowly the segmented leg came up until the mittonlike tip touched Dor's fist. "Truce," the scabbard said.
"Truce," Dor agreed, relieved. The monster no longer looked so horrible; in fact its green fur was handsome in its fashion, and the eyes gleamed like flawless jewels. The top of its abdomen was variegated, so that seen from above it might resemble a smiling human face: two round black fur eyes, a white fur mouth, a broad black fur mustache, and delicate green complexion. Maybe the face-image was meant to frighten away predators, though what might predate on a spider this size Dor hesitated to conjecture. The eight legs were gray, tied neatly in to the base of the thorax. The two fangs were orange-brown, and long tufts of hair sprouted around some of the eyes. Really, quite a pretty creature, though formidable.
Suddenly the lurking goblins attacked in a swarm. Dor's body acted before he knew what it was doing. It whirled, drawing the sword from its sheath, and swung at the nearest enemy. "I thirst for your black blood, spawn of darkness!" the sword cried in a happy singsong. "Come let me taste your foul flesh!"
The goblins were hardly daunted. Two charged right at Dor. They were half Dor's height, and the outsized extremities made them look like cruel caricatures of the Good Magician Humfrey. But where the Magician was grumpy, these were evil; there was incredible malignance in their misshapen faces. Their bodies were thin, like the stalks of weeds, and bumpy. They carried crude weapons: chips of stone, splinters of wood, and small thorny branches.
"Stand back!" Dor cried, brandishing the hungry, thirsty sword. "I don't want to hurt you!" But emotionally he did want to hurt them; antipathy flooded through him, for no good reason he could fathom. He merely hated goblins. Maybe it was inherent in being a man, this revulsion by the caricatures of Man. Something completely alien could be tolerated, like the huge spider, but something that looked like a distorted man-
Then he jumped. A third goblin had sneaked in from the side and bitten him on the thigh. It hurt horribly. Dor punched him on the head with his left fist-and it hurt worse. The goblin's head was like a rock! Dor tried to grab an arm and haul the creature off, but it clung tenaciously, overbalancing him, still gnawing. Meanwhile, the other two were advancing, watching the gleaming blade with their beady eyes, trying to get safely around it. More goblins were crowding in behind.
Then a hairy leg swung in. It inserted itself between the goblin and Dor's leg and thrust out. The goblin was ripped away, screaming with rage.
Dor turned-and stared into the nearest eye of the monster spider. He saw his own reflection in the green depth: a large, flat, bearded man's face, wholly unlike his real face. Even after allowing for the distortion of the lens. "Uh, thanks," he said.
Then both goblins at the front dived for him. Their little gnarly legs propelled them with surprising power, perhaps because their bodies were so small and light. They sailed right at his head.
The body's mighty arm flexed. The sword swistled joyfully across in an arc, pointing outward. There was an awful double jerk, as of a stick banging through weeds-and the two goblins fell in four pieces.
Had he done that? Dor stared at the dark-red blood, seeing it turn black as it spilled out over the ground. Those goblins were thoroughly dead, and he was a killer. He felt nauseated.
The spider cluttered. Dor looked-and saw four goblins clinging to four of its legs, while others tried to reach its body. The spider was stretching its legs out, lifting its roughly globular body high to keep out of their reach, but was being inevitably borne down by their weight. The underside was unprotected; even small sharp stones could puncture it quickly.
Dor took his sword, pointed it at the nearest goblin, and thrust it violently forward. The sharp point transfixed the scrawny body and plunged into the earth beside the spider's foot. Not that the spider had any foot in the usual sense; the final segment of its leg bulged slightly and rounded off toelessly.
"Don't do that!" the sword cried. "Dirt dulls my edge!"
Dor jerked it out. The transfixed goblin came up with it. "Ghaaah!" it cried, its eyes bulging, arms and legs kicking wildly. The little monster couldn't even die cleanly, but had to make it as grisly and awful as possible.
Dor lifted one of his boots-he had not realized he was wearing them, before-braced it against the goblin's contorted face, and shoved the creature off his sword. Blood squirted across the blade as the thing collapsed in a messy heap.
Then Dor transfixed a second goblin, more carefully so as not to dull the edge of the blade, removing the remains more efficiently. Something in the back of his mind was throwing up, vomiting, puking out its guts, but Dor walled that off while he methodically did his job.
The spider reached behind him with a long foreleg. A goblin screamed; it had almost reached Dor's back. Dor hardly reacted; he stabbed and cleared the third goblin, then the fourth. He was getting pretty good at this.
Abruptly the goblins were gone. A dozen of them lay dead on the ground; the rest had fled. Dor had killed six, so the spider must have matched him kill for kill. They were a good fighting team!
Now, in the aftermath, Dor suffered realization of what he had done. The back of his mind burst its retaining dam and washed forward with grisly abandon. Dor looked upon the carnage, and spewed out the potato soup sandwich he had recently consumed, eight hundred years from now. At least it looked like potato soup, more than like goblin guts. He hardly cared. To kill humanoid creatures-
The spider chittered. Dor needed no translation. "I'm not used to bloodshed," he said, suppressing another heave. "If only they hadn't attacked-I didn't want to do this!" He felt tears sting his eyes. He had heard of girls being upset about losing their virginity; now he had an inkling what it felt like. He had defended himself, he had had to do that, but in the process had lost something he knew he could never recover. He had shed humanoid blood How could he ever get the taint from his soul?
The spider seemed to understand. It moved to a dead goblin, held it with its palps, and sank its fangs into the body. But immediately it raised its head and spat out the goblin's blood. Again, Dor needed no translation: the goblin tasted awful!
There was no way to undo what had been done, no way to reclaim his lost innocence. His body had fought in the manner it was accustomed to. As his revulsion abated, Dor realized that both he and the monster spider had had a narrow escape. Had they not been together, and made their truce, and fought together, both would have fallen prey to the savage goblins.
Why had the goblins attacked? Dor could find no reason except that he and the spider had been present and had seemed vulnerable. If goblins thought they could prevail, they attacked; it seemed to be that simple. Maybe they had been hungry, and Dor and the spider had appeared to be easier prey than whatever else offered. At any rate, it had been the goblins who started it, so Dor told himself he should not feel complete guilt. He had only done to the goblins what the goblins had tried to do to him.
Still, there remained a grim pocket of negation in him, or horror at himself, at the capacity he had discovered in himself for slaughter. His new, powerful body had been the mechanism, but the will had been his own; he could not blame that on anything else.
If this was part of growing up, he didn't like it.
He turned his attention to the spider. Was this creature native to this jungle? This seemed unlikely. The scabbard had said the spider was a stranger here, and it surely would not have fallen prey to goblins on the ground if it were familiar with this region. It would have been safe in its web, high in some tree. Dor had not seen any giant spiders illustrated in the tapestry. So yes, this could be a stranger, as he himself was. In any event, a useful ally. If he could only talk to it.
Well, he could talk with it, if he worked out a system. If he could find some object that understood spiders, not just war talk or negotiation-from-strength talk. Some pebble on the ground where spiders foraged, perhaps, or-
"That's it!" he cried.
"What's it?" his sword replied, startled. "Are you going to clean me off now, so I won't rust?"
"Uh, of course," Dor said, abashed. Swords in his own day all had antirust spells, but now he was amid primitive times. He wiped the blade carefully on the freshest grass he could find, and sheathed it. Then he walked to the nearest tree and inspected its bark carefully.
Meanwhile the monster spider was cleaning its body, wiping the blood off its legs with its mouth parts, making itself look glossy-clean again. One of its eyes-it turned out to have eight of them, not six-watched Dor. Since the eyes faced in each direction, it did not have to move its body at all to watch everything around it, but Dor was sure one of those eyes was assigned to him.
"Aha!" Dor exclaimed. He had found a cobweb.
"Are you addressing me?" the cob inquired.
"I am indeed! You're from a spider, aren't you? You understand the language of spiders?"
"I certainly do. I was fashioned by a lovely Banded Garden Spider, the prettiest arachnid you never did see, all black-and-orange-striped, with the longest legs! You should have seen her snare a mosquito! But a mean old gnat-catcher bird got her, I don't know why, it certainly wasn't out of gnats-"
"Yes, very sad," Dor agreed. "Now I'm going to take you with me-may I put you on my shoulder? I want you to translate some spider talk for me."
"Well, my schedule is-"
Dor poked a finger at it warningly. "-really quite flexible," the web concluded hastily. "In fact I'm not doing anything at the moment. Do try not to mess up my pattern when you move me. My mistress put so much effort into it-"
Dor moved it carefully to his shoulder and fixed the pattern there, only messing up a few strands. Then he returned to the monster spider. "My, he's a big one!" the web remarked. "I never realized that species grew quite so large."
"Say something to me," Dor said to the spider. "I'll signal yes or no, some way you can understand."
The spider cluttered, "I wish I knew what you wanted, alien thing," the web translated. This was almost like having Grundy the golem with him! But Grundy could translate both ways. Well, on with it; he was a human being, albeit a young and inexperienced one, and he should be able to work this out. Dor raised his fist in the spider's greeting-among-equals mode. Maybe he could let this indicate agreement, and the wide-open-arms gesture the opposite. "You desire to renew the truce?" the spider inquired. "It doesn't really need renewal-but of course you are an alien creature, so you wouldn't know-" Dor spread his arms. The spider drew back, alarmed. "You wish to terminate the truce? This isn't-"
Confused, Dor dropped his arms. This wasn't working! How could he hold a dialogue if the spider interpreted everything strictly on its own terms?
"I wonder if something is wrong with you," the spider chittered. "You fought well, but now you seem to be at a loss. You don't seem to be wounded. I saw you regurgitate the refuse from your last meal; are you hungry again? How long has it been since you've eaten a really juicy fly?"
Dor spread his arms in negation, causing the spider to react again. "It is almost as if you are in some fashion responding to what I am saying-" Gladly, Dor raised his fist.
Startled, the spider surveyed him with its biggest, greenest eyes. "You do understand?" Dor raised his fist again.
"Let's verify this," the spider chittered, excited. "It hadn't occurred to me that you might be sapient. Too much to expect, really, especially in a non-arachnid monster. Yet you did honor the covenant. Very well: if you comprehend what I am saying, raise your forelegs."
Dor's hands shot up over his head. "Fascinating!" the spider chittered. "I just may have discovered non-arachnid intelligence! Now lower one appendage."
Dor dropped his left arm. It was working; the spider was establishing communication with a non-arachnid sapience!
They proceeded from there. In the course of the next hour, Dor taught the spider-or the spider evoked from his subject, depending on viewpoint-the human words for yes-good, no-bad, danger, food, and rest. And Dor learned-or the spider taught this: He was an adult middle-aged male of his kind. His name was Phidippus Variegatus, "Jumper" for short. He was a jumping spider of the family Salticidae, the most handsome and sophisticated of the spider clans, though not the largest or most populous. Other clans no doubt had other opinions about appearance and sophistication, it had to be conceded. His kind neither lazed in webs, waiting for prey to fly in, nor lay in ambush hoping to trap prey. His kind went out boldly by day-though he could see excellently by night too, be it understood-stalking insects and capturing them with bold jumps. That was, after all, the most ethical mode.
Jumper had been stalking a particularly luscious-looking fly perched on the tapestry wall, when something strange had happened and he had found himself here. He had been too disoriented to jump, what with the presence of this-pardon the description, but candor becomes necessary-grotesque creature of four limbs, and the onslaught of the goblin-bugs. But now Jumper was back in possession of his faculties-and seemed to have nowhere to go. This land was strange to him; the trees had shrunk, the creatures were horribly strange, and there seemed to be no others of his kind. How could he return home?
Dor was able, now, to fathom what had happened, but lacked the means to convey it. The little spider had been walking on the tapestry when Good Magician Humfrey's yellow spell took hold, and the spell had carried him into the tapestry world along with Dor. Since the spider was peripheral, his transformation had been only partial; instead of becoming small in scale with the figures of the tapestry, and occupying the body of a tapestry spider, he had kept his original body, becoming only somewhat smaller than before. Thus, here in the tapestry, Jumper seemed like a man-sized giant. Dor, had he entered similarly, would have been the size of several mountains.
The only way Jumper could return to his own world was by being with Dor when he returned. At least, so Dor conjectured. It might be that the spell would revert everything it had put into the tapestry, when the time came. But that would be a gamble. So it was safest to stay together, returning more or less as a unit: Dor to his body and size, Jumper to the contemporary world. Dor could not make the details clear, since he hardly had them clear in his own mind, but the spider was no fool. Jumper agreed: they would stay together.
Now both of them were hungry. The black flesh of the goblins was inedible, and Dor saw none of the familiar plants of his own time. No jellybarrel trees, flying fruits, water chestnuts, or pie fungi, and certainly no giant insects for Jumper to feed on. What were they to do?
Then Dor had an idea. "Are there any buglike forms around here?" he asked the web. "You know-the big six-legged creatures, segmented, with feelers and pincers and things?"
"There are crabapple trees an hour's birdflight from here," the web said. "I have heard the birds squawking about getting pinched there,"
An hour's birdflight would mean perhaps six hours travel by land; it depended on the bird and on the terrain. "Anything closer?"
"I've seen some tree-dwelling lobsters right around here. But they have mean tempers."
"That should be just the thing; I'd feel guilty about fingering sweet-tempered ones." Dor faced Jumper. "Food," he said, pointing to the nearest tree.
Jumper brightened. It was not that his eyes glowed, but merely a heightening of posture. "I shall verify." He moved with surprising rapidity to the nearest trunk.
"Uh, is it safe?" Dor asked the web.
"Of course not. There are all manner of bug-eating birds up there, and maybe some bird-eating bugs."
Oh. Birds were deadly to spider-sized spiders. Jumper was something else. Still, best not to take chances. "Danger," Dor said.
Jumper clicked his tusks together. "All life is a danger. Hunger is a danger too. I am at home at the heights." And he continued climbing the tree with his marvelous facility, straight up the trunk. His eight legs really helped. Dor had assumed that two or four legs were best, but already he was having second or fourth thoughts. He could not mount a tree like that!
In a moment Jumper's worried chitter percolated down through the foliage. "Unless there are praying mantises up here?"
"What's a preying whatsit?" Dor asked the web quietly.
"That's p-r-a-y, not p-r-e-y. The mantis prays for prey."
"All right. What is it?"
"A bug-eating bug. Big. Bigger than almost any spider."
Just so. "None your size," Dor called up, hoping Jumper understood. Then he waited at the base, nervously. No mantises, surely-but wouldn't a steam dragon be as bad? His acquaintance with the big spider was recent, but he felt a certain responsibility for Jumper. It was Dor's fault Jumper was in this predicament, after all. And yet, if Jumper hadn't been brought along in the eddy-current of the spell, what would have happened to Dor himself, thrown innocent into the pack of goblins? The two of them together had overcome the menace, while Dor alone would have-He shudderd to think of it. He owed Jumper a considerable debt already, and his adventure in the tapestry had just begun!
Something loomed at his face. Dor ducked, alarmed, fingers scrambling at his hip for his sword-and of course not finding it there. Then he saw that the looming thing was a tree-lobster, descending on a thread. Except that lobsters didn't use threads! No, this, one was tightly bound, helpless, its leaf-green claws tied close to its bark-brown body, swinging head down. A captive of the big spider!
Almost, Dor felt sympathy for the lobster, for it was still alive and struggling vainly against its web-bands. But he remembered the time he had climbed a butternut tree to fetch some butter, and a lobster had nipped him. He had been nervous about them ever since; they were ornery creatures. This one's red antennae radiated malevolence at him.
Another bound lobster was lowered to hang a few feet above the ground, and then a third. Then Jumper himself floated down. "I ate the rest," he cluttered. "Less juicy than flies, but nonetheless excellent. These ones I shall save for future repasts. My gratitude to you for your timely information, Dor-man."
"Yes," Dor said, using the best word he had to indicate a positive response directly. He was glad that he had been able to help, but it was not enough. His responsibility would not be through until he had returned Jumper to his own world.
Now it was Dor's turn to look for food. He asked the web, but it had seen mainly things that moved, while Dor preferred sedentary food. So he inquired of stones he saw, and sticks of wood, and soon located a hominy tree with a few ripe grits on it. This wasn't much, but it would hold him for a while. The magic vegetation did exist; it was merely sparser, more secretive than in his own day, forcing him to search it out more carefully.
By this time it was late afternoon. It would not be safe to spend the night on the ground; more goblins could come, or other threats could manifest. If this were Dor's own world, there would have been half a dozen bad threats already, as well as several nuisances and a couple of annoyances. But maybe the goblin band had cleaned out the local monsters, not liking the competition. "Rest," Dor said, pointing to the declining sun.
Jumper understood. "I can see very well in the dark, but it may be unsafe for Dor-man. The trees are not safe either; there are other things than birds up there, that I perceived a moment ago. One resembled a bird, but had a man-face and a bad odor-"
"A harpy!" Dor cried. "Face and bosom of a woman, body of a bird. They're awful!" Of course he knew Jumper couldn't follow all that, but he would pick up the tone of agreement.
"Therefore we should sleep in the air," Jumper concluded. "I will string you from a branch and you will swing safe for the night."
Dor was not sanguine about this notion either, but could neither express his objection adequately nor offer a better alternative. To be trussed up like one of those living lobsters-
With misgivings that he trusted were not evident to the spider. Dor suffered himself to be looped by several strands of line. Jumper drew the material from his spinnerets, which were organs in his posterior. He cheerfully explained it in more detail than Dor cared to know, as he proceeded: "My silk is a liquid that hardens into a strong thread as it is drawn out. With my six spinnerets I shape it into strands of whatever texture, strength, and quality I happen to require. In this case I'm using single threads for the hammock and a multi-strand cable for the main line. Now you wait here a moment while I make the connection."
There wasn't much else Dor could do at this stage except wait as requested. That silk was strong stuff!
Jumper climbed up through the air. Noting Dor's startled reaction, he chittered down the explanation: "My dragline. I left it in place when I finished catching the lobsters. We spiders could not survive without our draglines. They keep us from falling, ever. Sometimes my hatchmates and I would have drag races, when I was young, jumping from high places to see who could bounce closest to the ground without touching " He climbed on out of sight.
"Hatchmates?" Dor inquired, mainly to keep the spider cluttering so he would know where he was.
"My siblings who hatched from the egg sac," Jumper responded from above. "Several hundred of us, shedding our first skins and emerging into the great outer world to disperse and fend for ourselves. Is this not the case with your kind too?"
"No," Dor admitted. "I am the only one in my family."
"My consolations! Did some monster consume all the rest before they could escape?"
"Uh, not exactly. My parents take good care of me, when they are home."
"Your sire and siress remain together? I fear I misunderstand your expression."
"Intriguing notion, maintaining a relationship with one's mate and offspring after procreation. Perhaps I should check with my mate, when I return, just to see how she's managing with the egg sac. Wouldn't want my spiderlings to hatch prematurely." Then, abruptly, Dor was hoisted off the ground. Jumper was hauling him into the air like a lobester!
Yet it was oddly comfortable. Jumper had not bound him, but had placed his strands competently so that Dor was well supported without being confined. Most of the lines were invisible, unless he knew exactly where to look. The spider was really expert at this sort of thing!
It was easy to relax in this hammock, to rest-and he did feel safe. In a moment Jumper glided down to hang beside him. They dangled together as the serenity of the night closed in above them, secure from the threats of ground and tree.
Dor jumped. He scratched his head. Something scuttled away through his hair. It was that flea again, probably the same one who had bitten him when he first arrived. He thought of mentioning it to the spider, who should certainly know how to catch a flea, but then worried that he might lose an ear in the process.
Those tusks of Jumper's were fierce! This was one problem he preferred to handle himself. Next time the critter bit him
Dor woke as the light filtered in through the branches. He felt some discomfort, for he was not used to sleeping in a vertical position, but he knew he was better off than he might have been. His leg was sore where the goblin had bitten it, and his right arm was stiff from swinging the heavy sword, and his stomach rumbled with borderline dissatisfaction. But this was a well-conditioned body; the sensations were mere annoyances.
Jumper stirred. He dropped to the ground to make sure it was safe, then climbed back up to lower Dor. As Dor's foot touched the forest floor, the big spider moved his legs dexterously around him, and the net of web fell away. Dor was free.
Now, suddenly, he felt an urgent call of nature. He retreated to a bush to take care of it. Floating in air was nice, but was limiting in certain ways! He wondered whether real heroes were ever embarrassed by such problems; certainly the subject never came up in the heroic tales of this period.
Jumper chittered as Dor returned. Dor listened, but could make no sense of it. What had happened to his translator?
After a moment he found out: the big spider had removed it when he cut away the net-web. It was a natural error. Dor found a strand of Jumper's own left over silk and put that on his shoulder. "Translate," he ordered it.
" mission, while mine is merely to return to my normal world," Jumper was saying. "So it behooves me to help you complete your mission, so that we can both return."
"Yes," Dor agreed.
"Obviously magic is involved. Some spell has carried me to your world-except that you do not seem overly familiar with it yourself. So it must be a strange aspect of your world. You are here to accomplish something, after which you will be released from your enchantment. So if we stay together-"
"Yes!" Dor agreed. Jumper was one smart arachnid. He must have thought things out during the night, recognizing the seeming change in his size and Dor's ignorance of these surroundings as linked things.
"So the best thing to do is get your job done as fast as possible," Jumper concluded. "If you will indicate where you need to travel-"
"To the Zombie Master," Dor said. But of course that wasn't clear. Also, he had no idea where to find the Zombie Master. This led to a somewhat confused discussion. Finally Dor asked some of the local artifacts; they knew nothing of the Zombie Master, but had heard of King Roogna. It seemed a detachment of the King's army had passed this way.
"King Roogna! Of course!" Dor exclaimed. "He would know! He would know everything! I should talk with him first, and he will tell me how to find the Zombie Master."
Thus it was decided. Dor got general directions from the landscape, and they began their trek toward Castle Roogna. In one part of his mind Dor remained bemused by the fact that this was the tapestry world, and the entire tapestry was inside Castle Roogna. Yet they evidently faced a journey of many days to reach the Castle. It did make sense, somehow, he was sure. As much sense as magic ever did.
He was getting used to this new jungle. Rather, this old jungle. Many of the trees were giant, with voluminously proliferating foliage, but had very little magic. It was as if it took longer for magic to infuse the vegetation than the animals. Sweat gnats were present, and bluebottle flies, their bottle bodies refracting the beams of sunlight they buzzed through. But even these minor insects did not approach Jumper too closely. This was one advantage of traveling with a spider.
"No!" Dor cried suddenly. "Danger!" He pointed. "You're walking into a tangle tree!"
Jumper paused. "I gather there is some threat? All see is the collection of vines."
In the spider's normal, small world there would be no tangle trees, Dor realized. Tanglers were there, to be sure, but they would hardly bother anything as small as a spider. Also, Jumper might have lived all his life in the tapestry room of Castle Roogna, so never encountered any of the jungle threats, regardless of relative sizes. Yet he seemed familiar with trees in general, so he must have spent some time outside.
"I'll show you," Dor said. He picked up a large stick and heaved it at the tree. The tangler's tentacles snatched it out of the air and tore it to splinters.
"I see what you mean," Jumper said appreciatively. "I believe I walked on the foliage of such a tree once in my youth, but it paid me no attention. Now that I am on its scale, it is another condition. I am glad I am keeping your company, weird though your form is."
Which was a decent compliment. Dor inspected the tangler from a safe distance. He had identified it almost too late, because it was of a different subspecies from the ones he had known. It was cruder, more like a mundane tree, with light bark on the tentacles, and it lacked the pleasant greensward and sweet perfume beneath. Tanglers had grown more sophisticated over the centuries as their prey became more wary. For a person attuned to the end product, the cruder ancestral version was hard to identify. He would have to be more careful; there was less magic in the jungle, but what there was just as dangerous to him and Jumper.
They resumed their journey. The Land of Xanth was a peninsula connected to Mundania by a narrow, mountainous isthmus at the northwest extremity. Dor's body appeared to be that of a Mundane who had recently crossed the isthmus; maybe that was why he had been easy for the goblins to trap. It took time to appreciate all the hazards of Xanth, and even a lifetime did not suffice for some people. A Mundane would have all the wrong reflexes, and perish quickly, Which perhaps was why the Mundanes invaded in Waves; there was security in great numbers.
Now they were proceeding toward the center of Xanth, Castle Roogna, in a southerly direction. How they would cross the Gap that cut Xanth in two Dor wasn't certain. In his day the northern wilderness was not as dangerous as the southern wilderness, and since there was less magic now-or rather, less-developed magic-Dor did not anticipate too much trouble this side of the Gap. But the Land of Xanth had a way of fooling people, so he remained on guard.
Castle Roogna. He wondered whether there was a tapestry on its wall, depicting-what? The events another eight hundred years past? Or the present, including himself coming toward the Castle? Intriguing thought!
Jumper paused, raising his two frontmost forelegs, which seemed to be the most sensitive to new things. Dor had noted no ears on the spider; was it possible he heard with his legs? "Something strange," Jumper chittered.
The spider had grown accustomed to the routine strangenesses of this land, so this must be something special. Dor looked. Before them stood a creature vaguely like a small dragon, yet obviously not a dragon. Yet with dragon affinities. It had an irregularly sinuous body, small wings that did not seem functional, claws, tail, and a lizard head, but lacked the formidable teeth and fire of a true dragon. In fact, it did not look very formidable.
"I think it will be safe to circle around it," Dor said. There was a swampy region to the west with malodorous bubbles, and a thicket of glistening brambles to the east, so it was necessary to pass through this creature's territory. "We're not looking for trouble, and maybe it isn't either." Knowing Jumper could hardly understand all that discussion, he set the example by detouring right, to circle the monster at a safe distance without going too near the bubbly swamp.
But the creature extended one leg enormously, so that it stretched way out to block Dor's progress. "You may not pass," it rasped. "This is my domain, my precinct, my territory. I govern."
At least it talked! "We do not seek any quarrel with you," Dor said, remembering adult protocol for such things. "If you let us pass, we will not bother you."
"If you pass, you prevail," the monster said. "I am Gerrymander; I prevail by whatever devious configuration."
Dor knew of no such creature in his own time. This must have been an evolutionary dead end. Gerrymander-who prevailed by changing its shape to block the passage of others? A strange definition of success!
"I do not wish to damage you, Gerrymander," Dor said, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword. He feared it looked as if he were scratching his shoulder, and wished this body had a more conventional harness for the sword, but that couldn't be helped. "But we must pass."
Gerrymander's shape settled grotesquely. It contracted along its extremity and stood in its original form before Dor. "You shall not. I hold this office eternally, regardless of the need or merit of others."
The thing was meeting his challenge squarely. Dor was daunted. He was using the body of a powerful grown man, but he remained a boy at heart, and he never had been much for combat. Those goblins, the horrible way they had died-no, not that again! "Then I'll just have to go around another way." He backed off.
"You shall not!" Gerrymander repeated. "No one supersedes me by fair means!" Its neck extended in a series of odd jumps until its head came to rest behind Dor. Now he was half encircled.
Sudden fear prompted him to do what determination had not. Dor drew his sword with the practiced speed of his warrior-body and pointed it directly at the creature's heart region. "Get out of my way!"
For answer, the thing's left wing began extending with the same chunky jerks, forming a misshapen barrier around Dor's other side. "I am surrounding you, isolating your influence," Gerrymander said. "You have no power, your grass roots are shriveling, your aspirations fading away. Your strength will be mine."
And Dor did feel a sinister weakening, as if his body were being drained of some vital imperative.
Terrified by this strange threat, he reacted savagely. He struck with all his power at the thing's neck. The great sword cut cleanly through Gerrymander's substance as if it were mere cocoa from a nut, cleaving the monster in twain.
But no blood flowed. "I don't have to be contiguous," Gerrymander cried, its severed head forming little legs as its ears elongated. The ears were now limbs. "I don't have to be reasonable; I have the power of accommodation. I can be any shape and any number, anytime. I am master of form and number. I cover whatever territory I need, regardless of my actual base, to hold power."
Dor struck again, separating a section of body, but the thing did not die or yield. Dor cut it into half a dozen bloodless segments, yet they maintained their formation about him. An arm coalesced into a torso, the fingers of its hands stretching into separate arms and legs; a leg sprouted legs and a tail; the original tail grew a head. "I convolute, I divide, I conquer!" the original head cried, as the segments closed in.
"Help! Jumper!" Dor cried, entirely unnerved.
"I am here, friend," the spider chittered. "Sheathe your blade, lest you injure me, and I will aid you."
Dor obeyed. His body was shaking with fear and humiliation. Whatever had given him the notion that all he needed to be a hero was a hero's body?
Jumper bounded phenomenally, passing right over Gerrymander and landing beside Dor. "I will tie this creature," the spider chittered. "I will bind it together so that it cannot move."
Jumper rapidly drew yards of silk from his versatile spinnerets. He looped his line about Gerrymander's tail section, anchoring it in several places with sticky lumps. Then he looped another segment and drew the two together, making a package. Working rapidly with his eight legs and with marvelous dexterity, he looped more segments and drew them in tight. He was forcing Gerrymander to collect back into its original volume.
As the segments came together, they merged, forming one creature. The superfluous arms, legs, heads, and tails flowed back into the main mass. Gerrymander was being put back together. But this wasn't enough.
"I surround, I select, I conquer!" the monster cried, its tail re-expanding to fill the space it had occupied as a separate segment. Jumper's strands could not prevent this; they remained in place, anchoring the creature, but could not stop its projection from growing around and between them. All the spider had accomplished was the undoing of Dor's slicing; the monster's basic talent was not affected.
"I fear that I, like you, am being overcome," Jumper chittered. "Come, friend, let us retreat and reconsider." He flung a loop around Dor, then leaped straight up thirty feet to cling to the overhanging branch of a mundane tree. Then he hauled on his line, and drew Dor slowly up after him.
Gerrymander gave a shriek of pure anguish. "Ah, they escape me!" It tried to catch Dor's rising legs.
Dor yanked his feet out of the thing's grasp. The creature extended itself, rising high to pace him, and grabbed again. Dor drew his sword and slashed at the grotesquely reaching hand-limb. Gerrymander's catching claw was cut off, and it fell to the ground, where it quickly merged with the rest of the body. The thing might not be hurt by having chunks of itself cut off, but it was unable to lift such pieces very far into the air without support. "Aaahh!" it cried despairingly. "I have been outmaneuvered!"
"We had only to jump over it!" Dor cried with realization. "Just as it blocked us, knowing no laws of motion, we could pass it without such laws. The moment we pass it, we win. That's how you fight Gerrymander!"
Indeed, the defeated monster was rapidly dwindling into its smaller original form. Its power existed only so long as it was matching its challenge. According to its definition.
"Strange are the ways of this world," Jumper chittered.
Dor only shook his head, agreeing.
Jumper lowered Dor down beyond Gerrymander, and the two resumed their trek. Now Dor knew how the spider got his name! He had never before seen such jumping ability. He had thought all spiders made webs, but Jumper didn't, though he certainly had faculty with silk. It was, Dor realized, not safe to categorize creatures too blithely; there were enormous variations.
They were becoming wise to the ways of this region, and traveled rapidly. Most wild creatures were wary of Jumper, who looked more ferocious than he was, and seemed quite alien to this world-which he was not. He was merely large for his type.
By nightfall they had traversed most of northern Xanth, Dor judged. They might have traveled faster, but had to stop to forage for food every so often. He remembered that there was supposed to be a grove of peace trees in this vicinity; not a good place to sleep, for the sleeper might never find the initiative to wake again. So at his behest they camped just shy of the main forest, suspended from a solitary crabapple tree in a field. A stream nearby provided water for Dor, and the crabs from the tree were a minor feast for Jumper,
Next morning they passed hastily through the peace grove, never stopping to rest. Dor felt lethargy overwhelming him, but these trees, too, had not developed their magic to its potency of later centuries, and he was able to fight it off. Jumper, unused to this effect, became sluggish, but Dor goaded him on until they were out of the grove.
At last they stood at the brink of the Gap. A thousand paces across, here, and just as deep, it was Xanth's most scenic and devastating landmark. "It doesn't appear on any maps of my day," Dor said, "because there is some kind of forget spell associated with it. But most of us at Castle Roogna have become more or less immune to the effect, so we can remember. I don't know how we can get across except by climbing down this wall and up the other. You could do that readily, I'm sure, but I'm not nearly as good a climber as you, and I get nervous about heights."
They had conversed during their trek, and Jumper was already picking up a small versatile vocabulary of Dor's words. He could now make out the general gist of Dor's speech. "I believe we can cross this, if we must," he chittered. "There is however, a certain element of risk."
"Yes, the Gap dragon," Dor said, remembering. "Danger?"
"Big danger, at the bottom of the chasm. Dragon-like Gerrymander, only worse. Teeth."
"We can jump over it?"
"The dragon would-the teeth-it's just not safe," Dor said, frustrated. He could not remember whether the Gap dragon was a fire-breather or a steamer, but didn't want to risk it either way. Nobody in his right mind, and not too many in their wrong minds, messed with a full-sized dragon!
"However, we do not need to descend," Jumper chittered. "I contemplate ballooning."
"Floating across the chasm on an airborne line. There is updraft here; I believe conditions are favorable, in the height of the day when the warm air rises. But there remain risks."
"Risks," Dor repeated, stunned by the whole notion. "Flying on silk?"
"If the air current should change, or a storm arise-"
The more Dor thought about it, the less he liked it. Yet his other options did not seem better. He did not want to go down into the Gap, or to try to walk all the way around it. He had a couple of weeks here in the tapestry to complete his mission, and had used two days already; going the way around the Gap could use all the rest. He needed to get to Castle Roogna as rapidly as possible. "I guess we'd better balloon," he said reluctantly.
Jumper stood at the edge of the Gap and drew out some silk. Instead of attaching it to anything, he let the wind take it. Soon it was unreeling rapidly, the end of the silk being drawn upward like a magic kite. Dor could see only a few feet of it; beyond that the silk became invisible in the distance no matter how carefully he traced it. He did not see how this could carry anything across the chasm.
"It is almost ready," Jumper chittered. "Let me fasten it to you, friend, before it hauls me away." Indeed, the huge spider was now clinging to the ground.
There was evidently quite a strong pull from that invisible thread. "Please approach."
Dor stepped close, and with deft motions of his forelegs the spider fashioned a hammock to support him. Then an extra gust of wind came, and Dor was hauled into the air and out over the Gap.
Too startled to move or scream, Dor stared down into the awesome depths. He swung down on the end of his tether as his kite achieved its special orientation. He thought he would sink right down into the chasm, but then the updraft caught hold strongly and carried him upward.
The walls of the chasm angled down on either side to form a wedgelike base. The sunlight angled down from the east, making stark shadows in the irregularities of the cliff. Even so, the depths remained gloomy. No, he didn't want to go down there!
As he rose back above the rim of the canyon the wind eased. It lifted him slowly, but also carried him westward along the chasm. He was not really getting across. Jumper remained on the rim, spinning a balloon line for himself-but this took time, and the distance between them was extending alarmingly. Suppose they got completely separated?
Dor had known Jumper only two days, but he had come to depend on the big spider. It was not merely that Jumper was company, or that he fought well, or that he had so many useful tricks with his silk-such as ballooning!-it was that Jumper was adult. Dor had the body of a man, but fell far short of the judgement or certainty of a man. He got frightened when alone, and insecure, not always for sufficient reason. Jumper, in contrast, coolly assessed every situation and reacted with level-minded precision. He could make mistakes, but they didn't throw him. He was a stabilizing influence, and Dor needed that. He hadn't realized it until this moment-which was part of his problem. He was not good at analyzing his own motives ahead of a crisis. He needed the company of someone who understood him, someone who could prepare for Dor's mistakes without making an embarrassing issue of it. Someone like Jumper.
There was a pain in his scalp. Dor swatted at it Damn that flea!
The wind was, if anything, picking up now. Dor sailed faster and higher. His apprehension mounted. It hardly seemed he was going to come down anywhere, certainly not the far side of the Gap. He might be blown all the way out to sea and drown or be consumed by sea monsters. Or he might float higher and higher until he starved. Worst of all, he might even land in Mundania. Why hadn't Jumper anticipated this?
The answer was, he had. The spider had warned of the risk. And Dor had decided to take that risk. Now he was paying the price of that decision.
A speck appeared among the clouds. A bug, no a bird, no a harpy, no a dragon-no, it loomed larger still. A roc-it must be a roc-bird, largest of all winged creatures. But as it came closer yet, and he gained perspective on it, he knew that it was after all to small to be a roc, though it certainly was large. It was a bird with bright but tasteless plumage; patches of red, blue, and yellow on the wings, a brown tail speckled with white, and a body streaked in shades of green. The head was black with a white patch about one eye and two purple feathers near the gray beak. In short, a hodgepodge.
The bird loomed close, cocking one eye at Dor. This was another danger he hadn't thought of: attack by a flying creature. He grabbed for his sword, but restrained himself, afraid he would cut through his silken line and plummet into the chasm. He had been lucky he didn't sever his line when he was escaping from Gerrymander-but that had been a far lesser height than this. Yet if he didn't defend himself, the bird might eat him. It did not look like a predator; the beak was wrong. More like a scavenger. But the way it peered at him-
"Hoo-rah!" the bird cried. It dived forward, extended its big handlike feet, and snatched Dor out of the air. "Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah!" and it stroked powerfully south, carrying Dor along.
This was the direction he had wanted to go, but not the manner. Prey for a monstrous, loud-beaked bird! Now he was glad Jumper wasn't with him, for the spider could not have helped him against so large a creature, and would only have fallen prey too. A big bird would be the worst possible menace to a big spider!
Now that his fate was upon him, Dor found himself much less afraid than he had thought he ought to be. Here he was going to be cruelly consumed, but most of what he felt was relief that his friend had escaped that destiny. Was this a sign he was growing up? Too bad he would never have the chance to complete the process!
Of course Jumper would be stuck in the tapestry world, without Dor's spell to release him from it, unless the spell automatically reverted whatever didn't belong here. Such as one live spider, and the digested refuse of-still, it wasn't his own body getting eaten. Maybe a compromise: his spirit halfway dead, so he would return as a zombie. He could wander about the dismal countryside swapping ghoul stories with Jonathan. Yuck!
"Hoo-rah!" the bird cried again, descending toward a hugely spreading mundane-type tree. In a moment it landed on a tremendous nest, depositing Dor in its center.
The nest was incredible. It had been fashioned from every imaginable and some unimaginable substance: string, leaves, bark, snakeskins, seaweed, human clothing, feathers, silver wire-Dor's father had mentioned a silver oak somewhere in the jungle; the bird must have found that tree-dragon's scales, a petrified peanut-butter sandwich, strands of hair from a harpy's tail-harpies had hairy feathers, or feathery hairs-a tangle-tree tentacle, pieces of broken glass, seashells strung together, an amulet fashioned from centaur mane, several dried worms, and a mishmash of less identifiable things.
But what filled the nest was even more remarkable. There were eggs, of course-but not this bird's own eggs, for they were of all colors, sizes, and shapes. Round eggs, oblong eggs, hourglass eggs; green ones, purple ones, polka-dotted ones; an egg the size of Dor's head, and another the size of his littlest fingernail. At least one was an alabaster darning egg. There were also assorted nuts and berries and screws. There were dead fish and live wires and golden keys and brass-bound books, and pine and ice-cream cones. There was a marble statue of a winged horse, and marbles carved from unicorn horn. There was an hourglass with a quarter hour on it, and three linked rings made of ice. A soiled sunbeam and a polished werewolf dropping. Five goofballs. And Dor.
"Hoo-rah!" the bird cried exultantly, flapping its wings so that papers, leaves, and feathers flew about in a miniature windstorm within the nest. Then it took off.
It seemed this bird liked to collect things. Dor had become part of the collection. Was he the first man so collected, since he saw no other here? Or had the others been eaten? No, he saw no human bones. Not that that proved anything; the bird could digest the bones along with the flesh. Probably he had become collect-worthy because he had seemed to be a flying man: an unusual species.
Dor made his way past the bric-a-brac to the nearest rim of the nest so that he could peer over. But all he could see were layers of leaves. He was sure he was far up in the tree, however; it would be suicidal to jump. Could he climb down? The limb of the tree on which the nest perched was round, smooth-barked, and moist; only the fact that it branched at the base of the nest made it possible for anything to remain on top of it. Dor was almost certain he would fall off. He simply was not a good climber.
He knew he should make a decision soon, and take action before the Hoorah bird returned, but he found himself paralyzed with objections to any positive course. To jump was to fall and die; to climb was to fall and die; to remain here was-to be eaten? "I don't know what to do!" he cried, near tears.
"That's easy," the unicorn statue said. "Make a rope from fragments of the Hoorah's nest, and let yourself down to the ground."
"Not from my substance!" the nest protested.
Dor took hold of a piece of cord and yanked it out of the nest. It snapped readily. He drew on some long straw with similar result. He tried for some cloth; it, too, lacked cohesion. He took hold of the silver wire, but it was so fine it cut into his hands. "You're right, nest," he said, "Not from your substance." He looked about, however, taking some faint heart. "Any other notion, things?"
"I am a magic ring," a golden circlet said. "Put me on and make a wish, any wish, any wish at all. I am all-powerful."
Then how had it ended up here? But he couldn't afford to be too choosy. Dor put it on his little finger. "I wish I were safe on the ground."
Nothing happened. "The ring is a liar," the werewolf dropping growled.
"I am not!" the ring cried. "It just takes a little time. A little patience. Have faith in me. I'm out of practice, that's all."
Its statement was greeted by a rumble of derisive laughter from many other artifacts of the Hoorah's nest. Dor cleared junk from one area and lay down, trying to think of something. But his mind would not perform.
Then a hairy leg came up over the rim of the nest, followed by another, and a pair of huge green eyes plus a collection of smaller black eyes. "Jumper!" Dor cried, delighted. "How did you find me?"
"I never needed to search for you," the spider chittered, hauling his pretty abdomen over the brim. That variegated fur-face had never looked so good! "As a matter of routine I attached a dragline to you. When the Hoorah took you, I was carried along behind, though at a fair distance. I daresay I was virtually invisible. I did get hung up on the tree, but once I climbed the line to its end I found you."
"That's great! I was afraid I'd never see you again!"
"You forget I need your magic to escape this world." Actually their dialogue was not nearly this concise, because Jumper still did not know many human words, but it seemed like normal conversation in retrospect. "Now shall we depart?"
Jumper attached a new line to Dor and made ready to lower him down through the foliage. But just then they heard the beat of huge wings. The Hoorah was returning!
Jumper sprang out of the nest and disappeared below. Dor, alarmed, remembered almost immediately that no spider ever fell; his dragline protected him. Dor might have jumped similarly, but wasn't sure his own dragline was properly anchored. The Hoorah's approach had become audible just when Jumper was seeing to it, interrupting the process.
Or maybe, Dor reminded himself savagely, he was simply too scared to do what he had to, in time.
The Hoorah's mishmash plumage appeared. It covered the nest. Something dropped. "Hoo-rah!" Then the bird was off again on its insatiable mission of collection.
The thing most recently deposited stirred. It flung limbs about, and a curtain of hair. It righted itself and sat up.
It was a woman. A young, pretty, girl-type maiden.
As the big bird disappeared, Jumper climbed back over the side of the nest. The girl spied him and screamed. She flung her hair about. She kicked her feet. She was a healthy young thing with a penetrating scream, marvelous blond tresses, and extremely well-formed legs.
"It's all right!" Dor cried, not certain whether he was thinking more of the situation, which was hardly all right, or of her exposed legs, which were more than all right. This body really noticed such things! "He's a friend! Don't bring back the Hoorah!"
The maiden's head snapped about to face him. She seemed almost as alarmed by Dor as by the huge spider. "Who are you? How do you know?"
"I'm Dor," he said simply. Maybe one year he would learn how to introduce himself to a lady with flair! "The spider is my companion."
Distrustfully, she watched Jumper. "Ooo, ugly! I've never seen a monster like that before. I think I'd rather be eaten by the bird. At least it's familiar."
"Jumper's not ugly! He doesn't eat people. They don't taste good."
She whirled to face him again, and once more her golden hair flung out in a spiral swirl. She looked suddenly familiar. But he was sure he had not seen her here before; he had encountered no girls here in the past. "How does he know?"
"We were attacked by a band of goblins. He tasted one."
"Goblins! They aren't real people! Of course they taste bad!"
"How do you know?" Dor countered, using her own query.
"It just stands to reason that a sweet maid like me tastes better than any old messy goblin!"
Dor found it hard to refute that logic. Certainly he would rather kiss her than a goblin.
Now what had put that thought in his mind?
"I am unable to follow your full dialogue," Jumper said. "But I gather the female of your species does not trust me."
"Right on target, monster!" she agreed.
"Uh!, you do take some getting used to," Dor said. "You, un, appear as strange to her as she does to you."
Jumper was startled. "It could not be that extreme!"
"Well, maybe I exaggerated." Diplomacy or truth?
The thing actually talks!" the girl exclaimed. "Only it throws its voice to your shoulder."
"Well, that's hard to explain-"
"Nevertheless," Jumper cut in, "we had better vacate this nest quickly."
"Why does its voice come from your shoulder?" the girl insisted. Evidently she had a lively curiosity.
"I made a translation web," Dor explained. "Jumper's voice is the chitter. You should at least say hello to him,"
"Oh." She leaned forward, giving Dor his first conscious peek down into a buxom bodice. Stunned, he stood stock-still. "Hello, Jumper-monster," she said to the web.
"Wow!" said the web. "Get a load of that-"
"You don't have to speak to the web," Dor said quickly, though he was sorry to undeceive her. Now she wouldn't be leaning on him any more. A background region of his mind wondered why a spiderweb would care to remark on the particular view offered, as it was surely not of interest to spiders.
" yellow silk," the web finished, even as Dor's guilty thought progressed. Oh-of course. Spiders were interested in silk, and colored silk would be a novelty.
"That's hair, not silk," he murmured. Then, more loudly to the girl: "Jumper understands you without the web."
"About vacating the nest-" Jumper chittered.
"Yes! Can you make another dragline for her?"
"Immediately." Jumper moved toward the girl.
"Eeeeek!" she screamed, flinging her silk about "The hairy monster's going to eat me!"
"Be quiet!" Dor snapped, losing patience despite the impression her attributes had made on him. Either this body had singular appetites, or he had been missing a whole dimension of experience all his prior life! "You'll bring back the Hoorah."
She quietened reluctantly. "I won't let that thing near me."
She would talk to the spider, but not cooperate with him. She seemed almost as juvenile as Dor himself. "I can't carry you down," he told her. "I'm only-" He broke off. He was no longer a twelve-year-old boy in body, but a powerful man. "Well, maybe I can. Jumper, will the line hold two of us?"
"Indubitably. I have only to make a stronger cable," the spider chittered, his spinnerets already at work. In moments he had made a new harness for Dor, with a stronger cable.
Meanwhile the girl, with her irrepressible feminine curiosity, was exploring the nest. "Oh, jewels!" she exclaimed, clapping her cute little hands together excitedly,
"What kind?" Dor asked, wondering whether they would be useful for buying food or shelter later on. Jewels were not nearly as valuable in Xanth as in Mundania, but many people liked them.
"We are cultured pearls," several voices chorused. "Most refined and well mannered, with our lineage dating back to the emperor of all oysters. We are aristocrats among jewels."
"Oh, I'll take you!" the girl cried, seeming unsurprised at their speech. She scooped them up and filled her apron pockets.
Now they heard the Hoorah returning. Dor put his left arm around the girl's slender and supple waist and lifted her easily off her feet; what power this body had! Maybe it wasn't his muscles so much as her lack of mass; she was featherlike though firmly fleshed. There must be a special magic about girls like this, he thought, to make them full yet light. He leaped over the edge of the nest, trusting Jumper's dragline to preserve them from a fall. The girl screamed, kicked her feet, and flung her hair in his face. "Quiet," he said around a mouthful of golden strands, holding her close so she wouldn't wriggle loose. He was feeling very heroistic at the moment
The line went taut. It was springy, like a big rubber band from a rubber tree. They bounced back up almost to the base of the nest. The girl jiggled against him, all soft and intriguing in a fashion he would have liked to understand better. But he had no chance to explore that matter at the moment
As they steadied, Jumper came down to join them. He did not jerk and bounce; he glided to a controlled halt beside them, for he was paying out his dragline as he went. "I have set up a pulley," he chittered. "My weight will counterbalance yours-but the two of you weigh more than I do, so I'm depending on friction to keep it slow."
Dor did not follow all of that. But ft the magic called friction could safely lower them, good. They were all three descending at a fair but not frightening rate, and that was satisfactory. The branches of the huge tree were passing interminably, its layers of leaves concealing them from the nest.
A shadow fell across them. It was the Hoorah bird, circling down to spy out its lost artifacts. In a moment it would spot them, for they were in a slanting sunbeam.
Dor tried to draw his sword with his right hand, but this was difficult while he was supporting the girl with his left arm. Light she was, but she seemed to be getting heavier. Again, he worried about severing his own lifeline as the blade emerged from its scabbard.
"Hang still!" Jumper chittered. "A still target is very hard to locate."
Dor gave up on the sword. But they couldn't hang still. Dor and the girl weighed too much; they kept dropping, while the spider rose, hauled by the magic of the pulley. Jumper grabbed on to a branch with several legs, did something, and scurried along the branch toward the trunk of the tree. Dor and the girl did not fall; Dor realized that Jumper had fastened his line to the branch, halting the pulley action.
That left Dor and the terrified girl dangling like bait for the Hoorah. She was squirming, twitching her silk, and kicking her feet uselessly. His left arm, despite its mighty thews, was tiring. Pretty soon he'd be down to one thew, then none. Girls certainly were a nuisance at times.
The Hoorah spied the motion. "Hoo-rah!" it cried, and angled down.
Suddenly a green and gray-brown shape hurtled at them from the side. It seemed to have a mustached face on it. The girl screamed piercingly and flung out her arms, banging Dor's nose with her cute elbow. He almost dropped her. But the shape was now in contact with them, its momentum shoving them all to the side, swinging on the line until they came up against a leafy branch. The hurtling Hoorah missed, swerving barely in time to avoid smacking its beak into the main tree trunk.
"I will attempt to distract it," Jumper chittered-for of course he was the one who had rescued them. It was the variegated abdomen face-pattern Dor had noted. "I have tied you to this branch; the bird may not see you if you remain motionless and silent."
Fat chance! The girl inhaled and opened her pretty mouth to scream again. Dor put his big ugly right hand across it. "Quiet!"
"Mmmph mmmph, you mmmph!" she mmmphed, one eye above his hand filling with anger while the other eye retained its terror. He hoped she wasn't saying the unmaidenlike thing he feared she was saying; it would be detrimental to her image.
"Well, if you'd only accepted a dragline for yourself, we wouldn't be in this picklement." Dor whispered back. But he knew that was unfair. The Hoorah had returned too soon, regardless.
"Come and get me, featherbrain," Jumper chittered from another branch. Of course the translation came from Dor's shoulder. But the spider also waved his forelegs, and that attracted the bird's attention. The Hoorah zoomed toward that branch-and the spider sprang twenty feet to another, chittering vehemently. Dor knew the big bird could not understand Jumper's actual words, but the tone was unmistakable.
Then again, why shouldn't birds comprehend spider language? The two species interacted often enough. Which illustrated the supreme courage Jumper was displaying, for the thing he most feared was birds. To save his friend and a stranger, the spider was baiting his personal nightmare menace.
"You can do better than that, squawkhead!" Jumper chittered. And jumped again, as the bird wheeled in the air. The Hoorah was remarkably agile for its size.
After several futile passes, the bird realized that Jumper was too quick for it to catch. Just as well, as the translations of the spider's insults were turning the girl's ears a delicate shell-pink. The Hoorah looked around, casting about for the other prey. Fortunately all they had to do was remain still and silent.
Dor, trying to make his fatigued left arm more comfortable, shifted his hold slightly. The girl slipped down a bit, her bosom getting squeezed. She screamed, almost without taking a breath, catching him off guard.
Oh, no! Dor, needing his right hand to help hold on to the branch, had uncovered her mouth. Foolish mistake!
The Hoorah oriented immediately on the sound. It zoomed directly toward them. Jumper was behind it, unable to distract it this time. The Hoorah knew easy prey when it found it.
With the inspiration of desperation, Dor grabbed with his right hand at the girl's clothing, questing for her pockets. Though she wore a showy dress that was cut high at the knees and low at the bodice, her apron covered much of that, and was utilitarian.
She screamed as if attacked-not unreasonably, in this case-but he continued until he found what he was looking for: the cultured pearls she had picked up from the nest. "What is your pet peeve?" he demanded as he flipped the first pearl into the air.
"I don't make pets of peeves!" the pearl retorted. "But I hate people who drop me off branches!" It dropped out of sight-and the Hoorah, tracing the sound of its voice, followed it down.
Jumper half-bounded, half-swung across to them.
"Marvelous ploy!" he chittered. "Throw the next to the side, and I will lower you quietly to the ground."
"Right!" Dor agreed. He faced the girl. "And don't scream," he warned.
She inhaled to scream.
"Or I'll tickle you!" he threatened.
That got her. Meekly she let herself deflate. She even handed him a pearl from her apron breast pocket, so he wouldn't have to dig it out himself. That was almost more cooperative than he liked.
"And what is your peeve?" he inquired of the pearl, and hurled it to the side.
"I hate uncultured people who can't appreciate cultured pearls!" it cried.
They heard a "Hoo-rah!" in the distance as the bird went after it The bird certainly appreciated cultured pearls!
By the time they reached the ground, they were out of pearls-but also out of peril. They had lost the bird. Dor picked up a few sticks of wood for emergency use in case the Hoorah came near again, and the three of them hurried away.
"You see!" the ring on Dor's finger cried. "I granted your wish! You are safe on the ground!"
"I guess I can't argue with that," Dor agreed. But he maintained a healthy private reservation.
Dor judged they were now fairly close to Castle Roogna, since the Hoorah bird had carried them in the right direction, but the day was waning and he didn't want to hurry lest they fall into another trap. So they foraged for supper, locating a few marshmallow bushes and an apple pine and some iced-tea leaves. Jumper tried a bit of pine apple, but declared he preferred crustaceans. The girl had finally come to accept the big spider as a companion, and even allowed Jumper to string her up for the night. She was, she confessed daintily, afraid of bugs and things on the ground, and at the moment was none too keen on birds in trees either.
Thus the three of them hung comfortably from silken threads, safe from the predators above and below. There were advantages to the arachnid mode, Dor decided.
Jumper fell silent, no doubt already asleep and recuperating from his formidable exertions of the day. But Dor and the girl talked for a while, in low tones so as not to attract unwanted and/or hazardous attention.
"Where do you come from?" she inquired. "Where do you go?"
Dor answered as briefly as he could, omitting the details about his age and the relation of his world to hers. He told her he was from a strange land, like this one but far removed, and he had come here looking for the Zombie Master, who might help him obtain an elixir to help a friend. He made clear that Jumper was from that same land, and was his trusted friend. "After all, without Jumper, we would never have escaped from the Hoorah's nest."
Her story was as simple. "I am a maid of just barely maybe seventeen, from the West Stockade by the lovely seashore where the gaze-gourds grow, traveling to the new capital to seek my fortune. But when I crossed a high ridge-to stay away from the tiger lilies, you know, because they have a special taste for sweet young things, those lilies of the valley-the Hoorah bird spotted me, and though I screamed and flung my hair about and kicked my feet exactly as a maid is supposed to-well, you know the rest."
"We can help you get to Castle Roogna, since we're going there too," Dor said. It probably was not much of a coincidence, since the Castle was the social and magical center of Xanth; no doubt everyone who was anyone went to Castle Roogna.
She clapped her hands in that girlishly cute way she had, and jiggled in her harness with that womanly provocation she also had. "Oh, would you? That's wonderful!"
Dor was pleased too. She was delightful company! "But what will you do at Castle Roogna?" he inquired.
"I hope to find employment as a chambermaid, there to encounter completely by surprise some handsome courtier who will love me madly and take me away from it all, and I shall live happily ever after in his rich house when all I ever expected was a life of chamber-maiding."
Dor, even in his youth, knew this to be a simplistic ambition. Why should a courtier elect to marry a common chambermaid? But he had sense enough not to disparage her ambition. Instead he remembered a question he had overlooked before, perhaps because he had been looking at other aspects of her nature. Those aspects she kicked and bounced and flung about so freely. "What is your name?"
"Oh." She laughed musically, making a token kick and bounce and fling. "Didn't I tell you? I am Millie the maid."
Dor hung there, stunned. Of course! He should have recognized her. Twelve years younger-eight hundred twelve years younger!-herself as she was before he ever had known her, young and inexperienced and hopeful, and above all innocent. Stripped of the grim experience of eight centuries of ghost-hood, a naive cute girl hardly older than himself.
Hardly older? Five years older-and they were monstrous years. She was every resilient inch a woman, while he was but a boy of-"I wish I were a man!" he murmured.
"Done!" the ring on his finger cried. "I now pronounce you man."
"What?" Millie inquired gently. Of course she didn't recognize him. Not only was he not in his own body, he wouldn't even exist for eight hundred years. "Uh, I was just wishing-"
"Yes?" the ring said eagerly. Dor bopped his head. "That I could get rid of this infernal flea that keeps biting me, and get some sleep," he said.
"Now wait," the ring protested. "I can do anything, but you're asking for two things at once!"
"I'll settle for the sleep," Dor said. Before long, the sleep came to pass. He dreamed of standing near a huge brightly bedecked gumball bush, wanting a gumball awful bad, especially a golden one close by, but restrained by the magic curse that might be protecting the fruits. It was not merely that he wasn't certain how to pluck a gumball without invoking the curse, it was that the bush was in the yard of another house, so that he really was not sure he had the right to pluck from it. It was a tall bush, with its luscious fruits dangling out of his normal reach. But he was up on magic stilts, very long and strong, so that now he stood tall enough to reach the delightful golden globe easily. If only he dared. If only he should.
More than that, he had never as a child liked gum-balls that well. He had seen others liking them, but he had not understood why. Now he wanted one so badly-and was suspicious of this change in himself.
Dor woke in turmoil. Jumper was hanging near him, several eyes watching him with concern. "Are you well, friend Dor-man?" the spider cluttered.
"-just a nightmare," Dor said uncertainly.
This is an illness?"
"There are magic horses, half illusion, who chase people at night, scaring them," Dor explained. "So when a person experiences something frightening at night, he calls it a night-stallion or a night-mare."
"Ah, figurative," Jumper agreed once he understood. "You dreamed of such a horse. A mare-a female."
"Yes. A-a horse of another color. I-I wanted to ride that mare very much, but wasn't sure I could stay on that golden mount-oh, I don't know what I'm trying to say!"
Jumper considered. "Please do not be offended, friend. I do not as yet comprehend your language well, or your nature. Are you by chance a juvenile? A young entity?"
"Yes," Dor replied tightly. The spider seemed to understand it well enough.
"One beneath the normal breeding age of your species?"
"And this sleeping female of your kind, her with the golden silk-she is mature?"
"I believe your problem is natural. You have merely to wait until you mature, then you will suffer no further confusion."
"But suppose she-she belongs to another-?"
"There is no ownership in this sort of thing," Jumper assured him. "She will indicate whether she finds you suitable."
"Suitable for what?"
Jumper made a chitter-chuckle. "That will become apparent at the appropriate occasion."
"You sound like King Trent!" Dor said accusingly.
"Who I presume is a mature male of your species-perhaps of middle age."
On target. Despite his confusion and frustration, Dor was glad to have such a person with him. The outer form hardly mattered.
Millie stirred, and Dor suffered a sudden eagerness to halt this conversation. It was dawn, anyway; time to eat and resume the trek to Castle Roogna.
Dor got bearings from the local sticks and stones, and they set off for the Castle. But this time they encountered a large river. Dor didn't remember this from his own time-but of course the channel could have shifted in eight hundred years, and with the charmed paths he might not have noticed a river anyway. The water was quite specific in answer to Dor's question: the Castle lay beyond the far side, and there was no convenient way across the water.
"I wish I had a good way to pass this river," Dor said.
"Ill see to it," the ring on his finger said. "Just give me a little time. I got you to sleep last night, didn't I? You have to have patience, you know."
"I know," Dor said with half a smile.
"Gnome wasn't built in a day, after all."
"I could balloon us across," Jumper offered.
"Last time we ballooned, the Hoorah nabbed us," Dor pointed out. "And if it hadn't, we would probably have been blown right out of Xanth anyway. I don't want to risk that again."
"Ballooning is somewhat at the mercy of the winds," the spider agreed. "I had intended to fasten an anchor to the ground, before, so that we could not be blown too far and could always return to our starting point if necessary, but I admit I reckoned without the big bird. I had somehow thought no other creatures had been expanded in size the way I have been-in retrospect, a foolish assumption. I agree: ballooning is best saved for an emergency."
"In my stockade, we use boats to cross water," Millie offered. "With spells to ward off water monsters."
"Do you know how to make a boat?" Jumper chittered. The question was directed at Millie, but the web on Dor's shoulder translated it anyway. Inanimate objects tended to become more accommodating when they associated with him for prolonged periods.
"No," she said. "I am a maid."
And maids did not do anything useful? Maybe she simply meant she was not involved in masculine pursuits. "Do you know the anti-water-monster spells?" Dor asked her.
"No, only our stockade monster-speller can do those. That's his talent."
Dor exchanged glances with several of Jumper's eyes. The girl was nice, but she wasn't much help.
"I believe your sword would proffer some discouragement to water predators," Jumper chittered, "I could loop their extremities with silk, and render them vulnerable to your sharp edge."
Dor did not relish the prospect of battling water monsters, but recognized the feasibility of the spider's proposal. "Except the boat We still need that," he pointed out, almost with relief.
"I think I might fashion a craft from silk," Jumper chittered. "In fact I can walk on water sometimes, when the surface is calm. I might tow the boat across."
"Why not just go across and string up one of your lines?" Millie inquired. "Then you could draw us across, as you drew us up into the tree last night."
"Excellent notion!" the spider agreed. "If I could get across without attracting attention-"
"Maybe we could set up a distraction," Dor suggested. "So they wouldn't notice you."
They discussed details, then proceeded. They gathered a number of sticks and stones for Dor to talk to, which could serve as one type of distraction, and located a few stink bugs, which they hoped would be another type of distraction. Stink bugs smelled mild enough when handled gently, but exploded with stench when abused. Jumper fashioned several stout ropes of silk, attaching one to an overhanging tree and leaving the others for the people to use as lariats.
When all was ready, Jumper set off across the water. His eight feet made dents in the surface but did not break through; actually he was quite fleet, almost skating across.
But all too soon there was a ripple behind him, A great ugly snout broke the surface: a serpentine river monster. All they could see was part of the head, but it was huge. No small boat would have been safe-and neither was Jumper. This was the type of monster much in demand for moat service.
"Hey, snoutnose!" Dor called. He saw an ear twitch on the monster's head, but its glassy eye remained fixed on the spider. More distraction was needed, and quickly!
Dor took a stick of wood, as large as he thought he could throw that distance. "Stick, I'll bet you can't insult that monster enough to make it chase you." Insults seemed to be a prime tool for making creatures react.
"Oh yeah?" the stick retorted. "Just try me, dirt-face!"
Dor glanced into the surface of the water. Sure enough, he had dirt smeared across his face. But that would have to wait. "Go to it!" he said, and hurled the stick far out toward the monster.
The stick splashed just behind the great head: an almost perfect throw. Dor could never have done that in his own body! The monster whirled around, thinking it was an attack from behind. "Look at that snotty snoot!" the stick cried as it bobbled amidst its ripples. Water monsters, it was said, were quite vain about then: ferocious faces. "If I had a mug like that, I'd bury it in green mud!"
The monster lifted its head high. "Honk!" it exclaimed angrily. It could not talk the human language, but evidently understood it well enough. Most monsters who hoped for moat employment made it a point to develop some acquaintance with the employers mode of communication.
"Better blow out that tube before you choke," the stick said, warming up to its task. "I haven't heard a noise like that since a bull croak smacked into my tree and brained out its brainless brains."
The monster made a strike at the stick. The diversion was working! But already Dor saw other ripples following, the pattern of them orienting on Jumper. The spider was moving rapidly, but not fast enough to escape these creatures. Time for the next ploy.
Dor grabbed the rope strung to the tree, hauled himself up, and swung out over the water. "Hoorah!" he cried.
Heads popped out of the water, now orienting on him. Toothy, glared-eyed excrescences on sinuous necks. "You can't catch me, deadpans!" he cried. Deadpans were creatures who lurked around cooking fires, associating with slinky copperheads and similar ilk, and had the ugliest faces found in nature.
Several of the monsters were quite willing to try. White wakes appeared as the heads coursed forward.
Dor hastily swung back and jumped to shore. "How many monster are there?" he demanded, amazed at the number.
"Always one more than you can handle," the water replied. "That's standard operating procedure."
That made magical sense. Too bad he hadn't realized it before Jumper exposed himself on the water. But how, then, could he distract them all?
He had to try, lest Jumper be caught. It was not as it he were a garden-variety traveler; he was a Magician.
Dor picked up a stink bug, rolled it into a ball, and threw it as hard as he could toward the skating spider. Jumper was now over halfway across the river, and making good time. The bug, angered by this treatment, bounced on the water behind the spider and burst into stench. Dor could not smell it from this distance, but he heard the monsters in that vicinity choking and retreating. Dor threw three more bugs, just to be sure; then Jumper was out of range.
Millie was doing her part. She was capering beside the water and waving her hands and calling out to the monsters. Her flesh bounced in what had to be, to a monster, the tastiest manner. Even Dor felt like taking a bite. Or something. The trouble was, the monsters were responding too well. "Get back, Millie!" Dor cried. "They have long necks!"
Indeed they did. One monster shot its head forward, jaws gaping. Slaver sprayed out past the projecting tiers of teeth. Glints shot from the cruel eyes.
Millie, abruptly aware of her peril, stood frozen. What, no kicks and screams? Dor asked himself. Maybe it was because she had been kicking and screaming, in a manner, before, so that would have represented no contrast.
Dor's fingers scrambled over his shoulder for his sword as he leaped to intercept the monster. He jerked at the hilt-and it snagged, wrenching out of his hand as the sword cleared the scabbard. The blade tumbled to the ground. "Oh, no!" the sword moaned. Dor found himself striking a dramatic pose before the monster, sword hand upraised-and empty.
The monster did a double take. Then it started to chuckle. Dor somewhat sheepishly bent to retrieve his weapon-and of course the toothed snout dived down to chomp him.
Dor leaped up, legs spreading to vault the descending head, and boxed the monster on one ear with his left fist. Then he landed, whirled, and brought his sword to bear. He did not strike; he had the gleaming blade poised before one of the monster's eyeballs. The gleam of the blade bounced the eye's glints away harmlessly.
"Now I spare you, where you did not spare me," he said. "Do you take that as a signal of weakness?"
The eye stared into the swordpoint. The monster's head quivered in negation as it slid back. Dor strode forward, keeping his point near the eye. In a moment the head disappeared beneath the surface of the river.
The other monsters, noting this, did not advance. They assumed Dor had some powerful magic. And he realized this truth, which his body had known: deal with the leader, and you have dealt with the followers.
"Why, that's the bravest thing I ever saw!" Millie exclaimed, clapping her hands again. She did that often now, and it sent most interesting ripples through her torso-yet Dor had never seen her do it in his own world. What had changed?
Eight hundred years of half-life: That was what had changed her. Most of her maidenly bounce had been pressed out of her by that tragedy.
But more immediately: what had changed in him? He should never have had the nerve to face up to a full-fledged river monster, let alone cow it into retreat Yet he had done so unthinkingly, when Millie was threatened. Maybe it was his body taking over again, reacting in a conditioned way, even to the extent of facing down a monster in such a way as to abate the whole fleet of monsters at once.
What kind of a man had this body been, before Dor arrived? Where had he gone? Would he return when Dor went back to his own world? He had thought this body was stupid, but now there seemed to be considerable compensations. Maybe the body had never needed to worry too much about danger ahead, because of its competence in handling that danger when it faced it. This body, without Dor present to mess it up, could have handled that whole goblin band alone.
The flea bit him just over the right ear. Dor almost sliced his own head off, trying to swat it with his sword hand. Here he could face down a monster, but could not get rid of a single pesky flea! One of these days he was going to find a flea-repellent plant.
"Look-the spider has made it across!" Millie cried.
So he had. Their distractions had been sufficient after all. Maybe there had been one more monster than Dor could handle-but he had not been alone.
Relieved, Dor went to the tree where the crossing cable had been anchored. Already it was tightening, lifting out of the water, as Jumper labored at the other end to draw it taut. The spider could exert a lot of force on a line, achieving special leverage with his eight legs. Soon the cable stretched from tree to tree, sagging only slightly in the middle of the river, as nearly as Dor could see. It was an extremely stout line, compared to Jumper's usual, but still it tended to disappear in the distance.
"Now we can hand-walk it across," Dor said. And asked himself: We can?
"Maybe you can," Millie said. "You're a big brave strong rugged man. But I am a little diffident weak soft maid. I could never-"
If only she knew Dor's true state! "Very well; I'll carry you." Dor picked her up, set her in the tree at the end of the line, then hauled himself up with a convulsive heave of his thews. He placed his boots on the cable, found his balance, and picked Millie up in his arms.
"What are you doing?" she cried, alarmed. She kicked her feet. Dor noticed again how dainty her feet were, and how cutely they kicked. There was an art to foot-kicking, and she had it; the legs had to flex at the knees, and the feet had to swing just so, not so fast that the legs could not be seen clearly. "You can't possibly keep your balance."
"That so?" he inquired. "Then I suppose we will fall into the river and have to swim after all." He walked forward, balancing.
"Are you crazy?" she demanded, horrified. And he echoed to himself: Am I crazy? He knew such a feat of balancing was impossible without magical assistance-yet here was this body, doing it.
What superb equilibrium this barbarian body had! No wonder Mundane Waves had conquered Xanth over and over, despite all the power of magic brought to bear against them.
Millie stopped kicking, afraid she would make him lose his balance. Dor marveled as he went; had he realized the potentialities of this body before, he would have been much less afraid of heights. He realized now that his concern about certain things, such as taking a fall, was not inherent, but more a product of his frailty of physique. When he had confidence in his abilities, fear faded. So, to that extent, the body of a man did make him more of a man in spirit too.
Then more trouble came. Big, ugly shapes flitted out of the forest to hover above the river. They were too solid for birds; their heads were man-sized.
The grotesque flock milled for a moment, then spied the figures on the cable. "Heee!" one cried, and they all wheeled and bore on Dor.
"Harpies!" Millie cried. "Oh, we are undone!"
Dor wanted to reach for his sword, but couldn't; both arms were taken with the girl. The river monsters were lurking at a discreet distance; they were cautious about approaching this formidable man while he kept his feet, but might have second thoughts if he were floundering in the water-as he soon would be if he grabbed for his sword, dropped Millie, and lost his balance. He was helpless.
The harpies closed on them, their dirty wings wafting a foul odor down. Dirty birds indeed! They were greasy avians with the heads and breasts of women. Not pretty faces and breasts like Millie's; their visages were witchlike and their dugs grotesque. Their voices were raucous. Their birdy legs had great ugly chipped talons.
"What a find, sisters!" the leader harpy screeched. "Take them, take them!"
The flock plunged down, screaming with glee. Claws closed as half a dozen foul creatures clutched at Millie, who screamed and kicked and flung her tresses about to no avail, as usual. She was torn from Dor's grasp and lifted into the sky.
Then about ten more harpies converged on Dor himself. Their talons closed on his forearms, his biceps, his calves, thighs, hair, and belt. The claws were rounded, without cutting edges, so did not hurt him so long as the points were clear; they merely clamped onto his appendages like iron manacles. The grimy wings beat powerfully, and he was borne upward in their putrid midst
They carried him across the water and into the forest at treetop level, so that his sagging posterior almost brushed the highest fronds. They hoisted him on through the forest until they reached a great cleft in the ground, where they glided down. This was not the Gap; it was far smaller, more tin a par with the crevasse he had entered on the magic carpet. Could it be the same one? No; the location was wrong, and the configuration different. Dug into the clifflike sides of this one were grubby holes: caves made by the harpies for their nests. They bore him down into the largest cave and dumped him unceremoniously on the filthy floor.
Dor got up, brushing dirt off his body. Millie was not here; they must have taken her to another cave. Unless there were connecting passages-which seemed unlikely, since these creatures flew better than they walked-he would be unable to reach her by foot. He retained his sword, but could not hope to slay all the harpies in this degenerate harpy city; they would overwhelm him. Either they knew this and so had contempt for his blade, or they simply hadn't recognized it in its mundane sheath across his back. The latter seemed more likely. At last he was beginning to appreciate that location! So it would be foolish to betray his possession of the weapon by making a premature move. He would have to wait and see what they wanted from him, just in case it wasn't a quick meal of his flesh, and fight only as a last resort.
One thing about being a hero: the threats were larger than life, and the glooms gloomier. In his real life he would never have gotten into a situation like this!
The harpies scuttled back, leaving one especially hideous crone before him. "My, aren't you the husky one!" she cackled, her ropy hair flying about wildly as she pecked her head forward, chickenlike. Maybe those were feathers on her pate; it was hard to tell under the muck. "Good teeth, good muscle tone, handsome-yes, you'll do just fine!"
"Just fine for what?" Dor demanded with more belligerence than he felt. He was scared.
"Just fine for my chick," the old hen clucked. "Heavenly Helen, Harpy Queen. We need a man on alternate generations, a vulture the other times."
"What have you done with the girl?" Dor decided not to name her, lest these polluted monsters assume he was closer to her, or she to him, than he/she was and try to coerce him by torturing her. He knew monsters would do this sort of thing. That was the nature of monsters, after all.
He was quite right. "She will be cooked upon a fire of dung for supper," the canny old bird screeched gleefully. "She's such a delectable morsel! Unless you do as we demand."
"But you haven't told me what you demand."
"Haven't we now?" The dirty bird cocked her head at him cannily. "Are you trying to feign innocence? That will get you nowhere, my pretty man-type male buck! Into the nest with you!" And she partly spread her awful wings and advanced, her stink smiting him anew. Dor backed off-and stumbled into an offshoot cave.
So there were interconnecting passages. This one was not large enough for him to stand in; it was more suitable for scuttling. So he scuttled around a bend, and the tunnel opened into a fair-sized chamber whose domed ceiling did permit him to climb back to his feet
Another harpy faced him there-but what a difference there was! This was a young bird, with metallic sheen on her feathers, shiny brass claws, the face and breasts of a lovely maiden-and she was clean. Her hair was neatly brushed, each tress luxuriant; if there were any feathers in it, they were silken ones. She was the prettiest harpy Dor had ever seen or imagined.
"So you are the man Momma found for me," Helen Harpy murmured. Her voice was sultry, no screech.
Dor looked around. The chamber was bare except for the large nest in the center, formed of fluffy down feathers so that it sprang up like a magic bubble bath. The room opened out on the canyon-a sheer drop of a couple hundred feet. Even if he were able to navigate that, how could he rescue Millie? One could hardly climb a sheer rock face while screaming and kicking one's feet.
"I think I'm going to enjoy this," Helen murmured, "I had my doubts when Momma said she'd find me a man, but I did not know how fine a man she intended. I'm so glad I wasn't in the vulture generation, the way Momma was."
"Vulture?" Dor asked, casting about for some other exit. If he could sneak through a tunnel, find Millie-
"We're half-human, half-vulture," she explained. "Since there are no males of our species, we have to alternate."
Dor had not realized there were no male harpies.
Somehow he had supposed there were, in his day. But he had never looked into the matter. All he had ever actually seen were females; any males there were kept pretty much to themselves, making the females do the foraging. At any rate, this was not his present concern,
He had a bright idea. "Nest, what's the best way out of here?"
"Oblige the harpy," the nest replied, its down feathers wafting softly as it spoke. They were of pastel hues, pretty. "They hardly ever kill breeders, unless they're really hungry."
"I don't even know what the harpy wants!" Dor protested.
"Come here," the fair harpy murmured. "I'll show you what I want, you delightful hunk of man."
"I wish I were out of here," Dor muttered.
"I'm still working on the river crossing," the ring on his finger complained.
"What's that?" Helen asked, spreading her pretty wings a little. Her down feathers were as white as her breasts, and probably as soft.
"A magic ring. It grants wishes," Dor said, hoping this was not too great an exaggeration. Actually, he hadn't caught the ring failing; he just was never sure that its successes were by any agency of its own magic.
"Oh? I've always wanted one of those."
Dor pulled it off his finger. "You might as well have it; I just want to rescue Millie." Oops-he had said her name.
Helen snatched the proffered ring. Harpies were very good at snatching. "You're not a goblin spy, are you? We're at war with the goblins."
Dor hadn't known that. "I-we killed a number of goblins. A band of them attacked us."
"Good. The goblins are our mortal enemies."
Dor's curiosity was aroused. "Why? You're both monsters; I should think you'd get along together."
"We did, once, long ago. But the goblins did us the foulest of turns, so now we are at war with them."
Dor sat down on the edge of the nest. It was as soft and fluffy as it looked. "That's funny. I thought only my own kind waged wars."
"We're half your kind, you know," she said. She seemed fairly nice as he got to know her. She smelled faintly of roses. Apparently it was only the old harpies who were so awful. "A lot of creatures are, like the centaurs, mer-folk, fauns, werewolves, sphinxes, and all-and they all inherited man's warlike propensities. The worst are the pseudo-men, like the trolls, ogres, elves, giants, and goblins. They all have armies and go on rampages of destruction periodically. How much better it would be if we half-humans had inherited your intelligence, curiosity, and artistry without your barbarity."
She was making increasing sense. "Maybe if you had inherited our other halves, so you had the heads of vultures and the hindquarters of people-"
She laughed musically. "It would have made breeding easier! But I'd rather have the intelligence, despite its flaws."
"What did the goblins do to the harpies?" She sighed, breathing deeply. She had a most impressive human portion, that way, and Dor was glad it was the upper section she had inherited. "That's a long story, handsome man. Come, rest your head against my wing, and I'll preen the dirt from your face while I tell you."
That seemed harmless. He leaned back against her wing, and found it firm and smooth and slightly resilient, with a fresh feather smell.
"Way back when Xanth was new," she said in a dulcet narrative style, "and the creatures were experiencing the first great radiation of forms, becoming all the magical combinations we know today, we half-people felt an affinity for each other." She licked his cheek delicately with her tongue; about to protest, Dor realized that this was what she meant by preening. Well, he had agreed to it, and actually the sensation was not bad at all.
"The full-men from Mundania came in savage Waves, killing and destroying," she continued, giving his ear a little nip. "We half-people had to cooperate merely to survive. The goblins lived adjacent to we harpies-or is that us harpies? I never can remember-sometimes even sharing the same caves. They slept by day and foraged by night, while we foraged by day.
So our two species were able to use the same sleeping areas. But as our populations grew there was not enough room for us all." Her preening, fitted between words, had progressed to his mouth; her lips were remarkably soft and sweet as they traversed his own. If be hadn't known better, he might have thought this was a kiss.
"Some of our hens had to move out and build nests in trees," she continued, reaching the other side of his face. "They got to like that better, and still do perch in trees. But the goblins became covetous of our space, and reasoned that if there were fewer of us there would be room for more of them. So they conspired against our innocence. Their females, some of whom in those days were very comely, lured away our males, corrupting them with-with-" She paused, and her wing shuddered. This was evidently difficult for her. It was none too easy for Dor, either, because now her breast was against his cheek, as she strained to reach the far side of his neck. Somehow he found it difficult to concentrate on her words.
"With their arms and-and legs," Helen got out at last. "We had not been so long diverged from human beings that our males did not remember and lust after what they called real girls, though most human and humanoid women would not have anything to do with vulture tails. When the lady goblins became approachable-I would term them other than ladies, but I'm not supposed to know that sort of language-when these creatures beckoned our cocks-oh, males are such foolish things!"
"Right," Dor agreed, feeling pretty foolish himself, half-smothered between her neck and bosom. He knew better than to argue with the really foolish sex.
"And so we lost our cock-harpies, and our hens became soured. That's why we have a certain exaggerated reputation for being impolite to people. What's the use of trying, when there are no cocks to please?"
"But that was only one generation," Dor protested. "More cocks should have hatched in the next generation."
"No. There were no more eggs-no fertile ones. There had never been a great number of cocks-our kind hatched about five females for every male-and now there were none. Our hens were becoming old and bitter, unfulfilled. There's nothing so bitter as an old harpy with an empty nest."
"Yes, of course." She seemed finally to have completed the preening; he had no doubt his face was shiningly clean now. "But why didn't all the harpies die out, then?"
"We hens had to seek males of other species. We abhor the necessity-but our alternative is extinction. Since we derived originally from a cross between human and vulture-I understand that was quite a scene, there at the love spring-we have had to return to these sources to maintain our nature. There are some problems, however. The human and vulture males aren't inclined generally to mate with harpies, and we can't always get them to the love spring to make it happen-and when they do, the result is always a female chick. It seems only a harpy cock can generate males of our species. So we have become a flock of old hens."
That was some history! Dor had heard about the nefarious love springs, where diverse creatures innocently drank, then plunged into love with the next creature of the opposite sex they met. Much of the population of Xanth was the fault of such springs, producing the remarkable crossbreeds that thereafter bred true. Fortunately the love-water had to be fresh, or it lost its potency; otherwise people would be endlessly slipping it into the cups of their friends as practical jokes. But he could see how this would create a problem for the harpies, who could not always carry a potential mate to the spring, or make him drink from it.
Now Helen's whole body shook with rage, and her voice took on a little of the tone of the older hens. "And this is what the cursed goblins did to us, and why we hate them and war against them. We want to kill off all their males, as they did ours. We shall fight until we have our vengeance for the horrible wrong they did us. Already we are massing our armies and gathering our allies among the winged kinds, and we shall wreak a fittingly horrible vengeance by scratching the goblin nation from the fair face of Xanth!"
By this time Dor had fairly well grasped the purpose for which he had been brought here. "I, uh, I sympathize with your predicament. But I can't really help you. I'm too young; I'm not a man yet."
She drew back and twisted her head to look at him, her large eyes larger yet "You certainly look like a man."
"I got big quite suddenly. I'm really twelve years old. That's not much for my kind. I just want to help my friend Millie."
She considered momentarily. "Twelve years old. That just might be statutory seduction. Very well. I'll accept the ring you offered, in lieu of-of the other. Maybe it can wish me a fertile egg."
"I can! I can!" the ring exclaimed eagerly.
"I didn't really want to do this anyhow," Helen said as she screwed the ring onto her largest claw. She had merely held it, up till now. "Momma insisted, that's all. You can have the girl, though at your age I really don't know what you'll do with her. She's four caves to the right."
"Uh, thank you," Dor said. "Won't your mother object-I mean, if I just walk out?"
"Not if I don't squawk. And I won't squawk if the ring works okay."
"But that ring takes time to operate, even if-"
"Oh, go ahead. Can't you see I'm trying to give you a break?"
Dor went ahead. He wasn't sure how long she would have patience with the ring, or whether she would simply change her mind. Of course it was always possible that the ring really could produce. How nice for the harpies if it could give them a male chick! But meanwhile, he didn't want to waste time.
The old harridan eyed him suspiciously, but did not challenge him. He counted four subcaves to the right and went in. Sure enough, there was Millie, disheveled but intact. "Oh, Dor!" she cried. "I knew you'd rescue me!"
"I haven't rescued you yet," he warned her. "I traded my wishing ring to get to you."
"Then we'd better get out of here in a hurry! That ring couldn't wish itself out of a dream."
Why would it want to? he wondered. He checked the cave exit. Like the other, it opened onto a formidable drop. "I don't think we can just walk out. I don't think there are any exits that don't require flying. That's why the harpies aren't worried about us escaping."
"They-they were threatening to cook me for supper. I'd rather jump, than-"
"That was just to get me to cooperate," Dor said. Yet he had the grisly fear that it had been no bluff. Why should they have told her the threat, when he wasn't there to hear? The harpies were not nice creatures.
"To cooperate? What did they want from you?"
"A service I couldn't perform." Though this body of his had masculine capabilities and probably could-no, that wasn't the point.
Millie looked at his face. "It's clean!" she exclaimed.
"I, uh, had it washed."
Her eyes narrowed. "About that service-are you sure-?"
Damn that female intuition! Dor kneeled by the exit hole, feeling around it with his fingers. "Maybe there are handholds or something."
There weren't. The face of the cliff was as hard and smooth as glass, and the drop looked horrendous. He saw harpies flitting from other caves, coming and going, always flying. No hope there!
Even if there had been handholds, they would have required both of his hands. He would have been unable to hold on to Millie with one, and she would have screamed and kicked her feet and flung her hair about and fallen to her death the moment she attempted to make such a climb by herself. She was a delectable female, but just not much use at man-business.
Not that he could make any such claim himself, after that session with Heavenly Helen Harpy.
Helen had said that the harpies had once shared quarters with the goblins. The goblins did not fly, and he doubted they could climb well enough to handle this sheer cliff. If they had shared these caves, there had to be footpaths to them, somewhere. Maybe these had been cemented over, after the goblins had been driven out. "Walls, do any of you conceal goblin tunnels?" he asked.
"Not me!" the walls chorused.
"You mean the goblins never used these caves?" Dor demanded, disappointed. Had Helen lied to him-or had she been referring to other caves, before the harpies moved here?
"Untrue," the walls said. "Goblins originally hollowed out these caves, hollowed and hallowed, before the war started."
"Then how did the goblins get in and out?"
"Through the ceilings, of course."
Dor clapped the heel of his hand to his forehead. Of course! One problem with questioning the inanimate was that the inanimate didn't have much imagination and tended to answer literally. He had really meant to question all the artifacts in and of this chamber, but he had only actually named the walls, so only they had responded. "Ceiling, do you conceal a goblin passage?"
"I do," the ceiling replied. "You could have saved a lot of trouble if you'd asked me first, instead of talking with those stupid walls."
"Why isn't it visible?"
"The harpies sealed it over with mud plaster and droppings. Everyone knows that."
"That's why the stink!" Millie cried. "They use their dung for building."
Dor drew his sword. "Tell me where to strike to free the passage," he said.
"Right here," the ceiling said at one side.
Dor dug his swordpoint in and twisted. A chunk of brown plaster dropped to the floor. He dug harder and gouged more out. Soon the passage opened. A draft of foul air washed down from the hole.
"What's that fresh smell?" a harpy voice screeched from the cavern hall.
"Fresh smell!" Dor exclaimed, almost choking on the stench. He and Millie had become more or less acclimatized to the odor pervading the caves, but now that the air was moving, his nostrils could not so readily filter it out. Yet perhaps this breeze was offensive to the harpies.
The old hen appeared in the entrance. "They're trying to sneak out the old goblin hole!" she screeched. "Stop them!"
Dor strode across to block her advance, sword held before him. Afoot, unable to spread her wings, the harpy was at a disadvantage, and had to retreat. "Climb up into the hole!" Dor cried to Millie. "Use the goblin passage to escape!"
Millie stared up into the blackness of the hole. "I'm afraid!" she cried. "There might be nickelpedes!"
That struck him. Nickelpedes were vicious insects five times as ferocious as centipedes, with pincers made of nickel. They attacked anything that moved in darkness.
Now more harpies were pressing close. They respected Dor's bared blade, but did not retreat farther than they had to. He could not swing freely in the passage, and didn't really want to shed their blood; after all, they were half-human, and it wasn't nice to kill females.
What was he going to do? With the harpies in front, and Millie balking, and an open cliff outside-in this situation he couldn't fool anyone by making the walls talk. He was stuck. He might hold off the dirty birds indefinitely, but he couldn't escape. Actually, if they started flying in from the clifside, he would have trouble, because he couldn't very well cover both entrances, and Millie would not be much help. And in due course he and Millie would get tired, and hungry and thirsty, and would have to sleep. They would be captive again.
"Millie, you've got to get up that goblin passage!" he cried.
"No good, no good!" the harpies outside screeched. "We know where it goes, we're covering the exit. You can't escape!"
Then why were they telling him this? Easier to nab him at the goblin-tunnel exit. So they must be bluffing.
Then Millie screamed. Dor looked-and spied a huge hairy shape dropping out of the hole. Green eyes looked back at him. "Jumper!" How glad he was to see the big spider again!
"I could not place my lines," the spider chittered. "The lady-man-birds would have spied me on the face of the cliff. So I had to come in this way,"
"But the harpies are watching the exit-"
"They are. But they did not follow me inside, because of the nickelpedes."
"Nickelpedes are pinching bugs. I was hungry anyway. They were delicious."
Naturally a spider would be able to handle big bugs! But the harpies were more formidable. "If we can't use the goblin tunnel-" Dor began.
Jumper fastened a line to Millie, and another to Dor. "I am generating sufficient lines to lower you to the bottom, but you will have to let yourselves down. I suggest you swing and slide so the birds will not be able to catch you readily."
"I can't do that!" Millie protested. "I don't have big arm muscles and things!"
Dor glanced at her. She was half right; she did lack big arm muscles, but she certainly had other things. "I'll carry you again." He flicked his swordpoint, warning back the encroaching harpies.
"You'll need both arms to lower yourself," Jumper pointed out. "I will jump across and string a guideline. That way you can swing from the center of the cleft, not banging the walls. But you will be caught in midair."
"Can't be helped. You'll have to relax the guideline, so we can drop slowly lower. Just be sure that line is tight when we start."
"Yes, that is possible, though difficult. Your two weights will make a great deal of tension."
Dor poked at the witchly face of another harpy. "Millie can watch you, and tell me when it's ready. You wave to her from the far side."
"Correct." Jumper ran to the cliff opening and disappeared. There was an outcry from the harpies outside; they had never seen a jumping spider this size before, and were amazed and frightened.
"He's waving!" Millie cried.
That had been quick! Dor made a last poke at the harpies, whirled, grabbed her with his left arm, and flung himself out over the cliff. Then he remembered: be still had the sword in his right hand. He had forgotten to hang on to the line.
They plummeted toward the bottom of the chasm. Millie screamed and kicked her feet, and her hair smacked Dor's face.
Then, with a wrench, the line drew taut. He didn't need to hold on; Jumper had attached the cable to him, and tied the other end to the center of the trans-chasm cable. Once more the spider's mature foresight had saved him. Now Dor surmised when the attachment had been made; he had been distracted by the encroaching harpies, and had not noticed.
They were swinging down and across the chasm, bouncing slightly. The harpies were milling about, screaming, but not doing anything effective. They saw his waving sword.
Across they swung, grandly, almost colliding with the far wall. Jumper had kept the line short so they would not crash, but it was so close that Dor had to put his feet out and brake against the cliff, momentarily. Then they were swinging back. And forth again, in lessening arcs. As they came to rest, they were suspended about halfway down the depth of the chasm.
The harpies were beginning to organize, trying to catch Dor and Millie in their claws, as they had before.
But Dor had his sword out this time, and that made the difference. He waved it threateningly, and the harpies stayed just clear, screaming imprecations and losing feathers to the flashing tip of his weapon. It was hard for the dirty birds to match velocities with him, because of the swinging and bouncing. They were not, however, about to give up the pursuit.
Jumper, on the far side of the chasm, levered the two in the manner only he could do, and Dor and Millie descended. The rage of the harpies increased as the range increased. "Don't let them get to the bottom!" one cried. "The enemy is there!" That hardly reassured Dor. What good would it be, escaping one menace only to fall into the clutches of another? Well, he would have to worry about that in due course. At least the harpies hadn't thought to cut the trans-chasm cable. Or if they had thought, they had rejected the notion. They didn't want to kill Dor, for then he would certainly be useless to them. And Millie might not taste as good scraped up from the floor of the-but enough of such thoughts!
Now the base of the chasm was close. It was rocky and narrow and curvy, with holes and ridges. There seemed to be no way out, though this was uncertain since it twined out of sight in either direction.
As they swung lower, their orientation shifted, thanks to Jumper's maneuvering of the lines, so that now they were traveling along the cleft rather than across it The harpies became more desperate. "Keep them away from ground!" the oldest and ugliest crone screeched. "Grab them! Snatch them! Lift them up. Drop the girl if you have to, we don't really need her, but save that buck!"
Dor swung his sword in increasingly desperate arcs, keeping them at bay, trying not to sever his own line. A talon lanced into his shoulder from behind, and great foul wings beat about his head. Millie screamed loudly and kicked her feet harder, and her hair formed a golden splay in a passing sunbeam. None of that helped. Dor aimed his sword up and thrust violently over his own head and down behind it. The point jammed into something. There was an ear-shattering scream that momentarily drowned out Millie's racket, and the talon released his shoulder. When he yanked the sword forward there was blood on the tip. He slashed in another circle, slicing feathers off the harpies in front This violence sickened him, as it had when he fought the goblin band, but he kept on.
Suddenly the line dropped. Millie emitted a truly classic Eeeeek! as they fell-but the drop was very short. The mighty muscles and sinews of Dor's legs flexed expertly, breaking his fall, preserving his balance. He still had Millie; now he set her down gently. Her skirt and bodice had separated; Dor stared briefly, not realizing that they were different pieces, and she tucked them together self-consciously. At least she had stopped screaming.
A greenish shape dropped down beside them. "Sorry about that drop," Jumper chittered. "The harpies attacked me, and I had to move."
"Quite all right," Dor said. "You got us out of the harpy caves."
The harpies were still milling in the chasm, but no longer attacking. Jumper had plunged through them by surprise, using his dragline to brake at the last moment so he hadn't been hurt. What a marvelous thing that dragline was!
"Why are the harpies staying clear?" Millie asked.
It was a stupid question that like so many of its kind was not so stupid after all. The harpies were raucous, ugly, and evil-smelling-except for Helen-but not notably cowardly. Why were they afraid of this rocky path?
"One of them said something about the enemy down here," Dor said, remembering.
Millie screamed and pointed. Charging along the crevice-path was a contingent of goblins. No sooner feared than realized!
"I can hold them off," Dor said, striding forward with his sword leading. He didn't know whether this was his body's impulse or his own, but it was a fact that heroism was greatly facilitated by this powerful and well-coordinated physique. He knew it could devastate the little goblins, so he could afford to be bold. In his own twelve-year-old-sized body he would have been justifiably hesitant-and been thought a coward.
"I will lead the way out," Jumper chittered. "Perhaps there will be a slope I can enable you to climb, anchored by my lines. You can serve as rearguard."
They moved east, Dor walking backward so as to face the goblins without getting separated from his party. Obviously there would be no escape toward the goblin caves.
"It's just a small band," a harpy screeched. "We can handle them! Wipe them out, hens!"
Suddenly the harpies were plummeting toward the goblins. There was an instant melee punctuated by cries, screeches, groans, and rages. A cloud of feathers formed. Dor craned to see what was happening, but the dust stirred up to obscure it. They seemed to be fighting claw-to-nail, and it was not at all gentle.
"Trouble ahead!" Jumper cluttered, and Millie screamed.
Dor glanced there-and saw more goblins charging from the west: a larger band. The spider stood to fight, though he could easily have jumped clear and clung to the cliff wall, saving himself. Except that he would not desert his friends. To no avail; the horde quickly overran him. Millie's piercing screams did not help her; a dozen goblin hands grasped her flailing arms and kicking feet and swirling tresses.
Dor whirled to help, but was already too late. Goblins grabbed him everywhere and bore him to the ground. He tried to kick his feet, but they were weighted by sheer mass of goblin. Just like that, they had been captured by the enemy.
All three of them were borne rapidly eastward, helpless. Suddenly a cave opened in the chasm wall, and the goblin band charged inside. It was dark here, and cool; Dor had the impression of descent, but couldn't be sure.
In due course they were brought to a room lit by guttering torches. This amazed Dor, for in his day goblins were desperately afraid of fire. But in his day goblins did not go abroad by day, either; in fact there were very few on the surface of Xanth at all. So this was another thing that had changed in eight centuries.
At one end of the chamber was a throne fashioned from a massive complex of stalagmites. It looked as if stone had run like hot wax, making layers and colored trails over itself until the whole had melded into this single twisted yet beautiful mass. An especially fierce-looking goblin bestrode it, his gnarled black legs almost merging with the stone.
"Well, trespassers!" the goblin chief cried angrily. "What made you suppose you could intrude on these our demesnes with impunity?"
Millie was quietly screaming and still trying to kick her feet; she didn't like the goblins' mottled hands on her legs. The goblins, however, seemed more interested than antipathetic. Jumper was chittering, but Dor knew the goblins could not comprehend that. So he stepped forward, breaking free of those who restrained him. "We did not mean to intrude, sir," he said. "We were only trying to escape the harpies." He had little hope of mercy from these monsters, but had to try.
The goblin's dusky brows lifted in astonishment. "You, a Man, call a goblin sir?"
"Well, if you'll tell me your proper title, I'll use it," Dor said nervously, though he tried to keep up a moderately bold front. Somewhere along the way his sword had been wrenched from his hand, and he felt naked without it.
"I am Subchief Craven, of the Chasm Clan of Goblins," the chief said. "However, sir will do nicely for an address."
Several goblin guards snickered. It was Craven, not Dor, who reacted to that derisive mirth. "You find the notion of sir humorous?" he demanded of them furiously.
"This is obviously no hero-man, but an impostor who knows naught of honor or combat," another goblin retorted. "His sir is so worthless as to be an insult."
"Oh yeah?" Craven cried. "We'll verify that, Crool. Will you meet him in honor challenge?"
Crool examined Dor, somewhat taken aback. But now the laughter of the clan was turning on him. "A single goblin does not meet a single human, even an impostor. The normal ratio is four or five to one."
"Then bring on your henchmen!" Craven cried. He turned to the guards at the other side of the hall. "Return to this man-warrior his sword. We shall discover whether his sir is valid."
What a devious and wonderful thing was pride, Dor thought. Now the subchief was rooting for the captive to prevail against the goblin kind.
Two goblins dashed up, carrying Dor's sword and lifting the hilt for him to take. He was glad to have it back, but did not like the prospective combat. He had not been at all pleased about the goblin-killing he had done before, and that misgiving grew as he observed how similar to his own kind these creatures were. They looked different, but their pride was similar.
The goblins gave him no choice. They cleared a disk in the center of the cavern, and the five goblins of drool's clan came at him. They were armed with small clubs and sharp fragments of stone, and looked determined. They obviously intended to do him in if they got the chance.
Dor's body took over. He strode toward the band, his blade swinging. The goblins threw themselves to the sides. Dor turned to his right, kicking one goblin so hard the creature scooted across the smooth rock to fetch up against a wall, his stone knife fragmenting. Dor whirled on the others, swinging his blade, and they scattered again. One further foray, to clear the goblin sneaking in behind him; Dor caught the moving club on his blade and punched underneath it with his left fist. He scored on the goblin's head, the thing hard as a rock, driving the creature back, shaken.
Suddenly Dor stood alone in the circle. He had vanquished the band, thanks to the power and expertise of his body-and he hadn't killed a single goblin. That made him feel better. It could not make up for the four he had killed before, but it eased his guilt somewhat.
Craven smiled grotesquely. "Now is that a suitable sir or is it not?" he demanded rhetorically. "Keep your sword, Man; you have established your status. Come-you and your party are my guests."
Jumper chittered. "It seems goblins set great store by status," the web translated. "You were very clever to utter that mark of respect."
Dor was abashed. "I just thought that was what you said to a chief."
"It seems you were correct."
The captivity had, by this miracle of courtesy, become a visit. The goblin chief treated them to a sumptuous meal of candied cavelice, sugared slugs, and censored centipedes. Jumper pronounced it excellent. Dor and Millie weren't so sure.
"So you were fighting the horrendous harpies," Craven said, making conversation as he politely ripped several segments from a large centipede with his big yellow teeth and strained out the legs through the gap between teeth. He had seemed a bit wary of Jumper at first, but after appreciating the way the spider's chelicerae, which were the big nippers where another creature's jaws would be, crushed the food, Craven seemed quite satisfied. The crunching was even more vicious than that of the goblins, therefore better table manners. Then when the spider secreted digestive liquid that dissolved the delicacies into goo, and sucked that into his stomach, the goblins had to applaud. They had never been able to eat like that!
"Good thing we rescued you," the goblin chief said during a respite from his own attempt to emulate Jumper's mode of feasting. No matter how hard he tried, he was unable to dissolve his food with his saliva before swallowing it.
"Yes," Dor agreed. Actually, the slugs weren't bad, the flesh being spongy and juicy, and Millie was getting the hang of the lice. She chewed them and spat out the fibrous legs in approved goblin fashion, somehow making it seem dainty. The banquet table was littered with legs.
"Why were they after you?" Craven asked. "We came out because we heard the commotion, and brought you in because any enemy of the harpies may be a friend of ours."
"They wanted-" Dor was not sure how to express it. "They wanted me to do something for Heavenly Helen Harpy."
"Heavenly Helen?" Millie inquired, her brow furrowing suspiciously.
Craven laughed so hard he sprayed centipede legs on the cavern ceiling. The goblin courtiers applauded the marksmanship. "Heavenly Helen! So that's how they do it! Grabbing human men for studs! No wonder you fought them off! What a horrible fate!"
"Oh, I don't know-" Dor began, then caught Millie's look. He shifted the subject. "They said it was all because of you goblins. That you stole away their men."
"We were just getting even for what they did to us!" Craven cried. "Once we shared caves, but they were greedy for our space, so they wreaked a foul enchantment on us. They blighted the sight of our females so that they perceived the merits of our men in reverse, The boldest, bravest, handsomest, brightest goblins became anathema to them; they were drawn infallibly to the weakest, ugliest, stupidest cowards and thieves among us, and with those they mated. In this manner our whole species was inevitably degraded. We were once more handsome than the elves and smarter than the gnomes and stronger than the trolls and had more honor than the Men themselves-and now look at us, warped and gnarled and stupid and cowardly and given to treachery, so that five of us cannot threaten one of you. The harpies set that enchantment on us, and only they can lift it, and the vile birds refuse to do that. So we must seek whatever vengeance we can, while we yet retain some power in Xanth."
This was a side of the story the harpies hadn't told! Dor realized that peace was impossible, for there was now no way to undo the damage done to the harpies. Unless there could be an original mating between human and vulture to produce a male harpy-but he could hardly imagine any person or bird doing that! So the goblin-harpy war would continue, until-
"But we shall have the final chortle," Craven said with grim satisfaction. "Already the clans of the goblins are massing, augmented by our brothers of the deep caverns, numberless in number, and by our allies of similar species. We shall extirpate the harpies and their ilk from the face of Xanth!"
Dor remembered how the harpies were also massing their winged forces for the final battle. That would be some engagement!
The honored visitors were given a fine dark cave for the night, with healthy rats to fend off the nickelpedes, and a vent in the ceiling through which the dark air rose. They were guests-yet there was something about the firmness of their hosts that gave Dor disquieting pause. He recalled Craven's remarks about the nature of goblins, their propensity for treachery. Were they so eager to practice their low arts that, rather than kill prisoners outright, they preferred to pretend they were honored guests-who could then be betrayed? Did the goblins really intend to set them free, or were they merely fattening up fresh meat for their repasts? Craven, by his own statement, could hardly be trusted.
Dor exchanged glances with Jumper's largest eyes. No words were exchanged, for the goblins could be listening through holes in the walls, but it was evident the spider had similar misgivings.
"Make loud snoring sounds," Dor murmured to the floor where he lay in the dark. The floor obliged, and soon all other sounds were drowned out by the rasps, groans, and wheezes of supposed sleep. Under that cover, Dor held a whispered conference with his friends.
So at night-it was hard to tell the time of day down here, but Jumper had an excellent sense of time-they set about sneaking out. The goblins had not realized the potential of the giant spider, since Jumper had stood to fight instead of jumping clear. Thus Craven had not set guards in the ceiling aperture. Actually, the goblins really were rather stupid, as the subchief had said.
Jumper jumped to the ceiling, clung there, walked into the ventilator hole and explored where it led. Soon he was back to hoist Dor and Millie up. They wound their way through the darkness as silently as possible, while the raucous snores faded in the distance. At length-the length of a silken guideline-they emerged at the starlit surface.
It had been surprisingly simple. Dor knew it would have been impossibly difficult had Jumper not been with them. Jumper, with his superlative night vision, his silken lines, and his scaling ability. The spider made the impossible possible.
They found a safe tree to hang from for the rest of the night, then resumed their trek in the morning. The local sticks and stones were as helpful as usual, and they located Castle Roogna without difficulty about noon. Dor was able to recognize the general lay of the land, but the vegetation was all different. There was no orchard; instead there were a number of predaceous plants. And-the Castle was only half complete.
Dor had seen Castle Roogna many times, but in this changed situation it stood out like a completely novel structure. It was large-the largest castle in all the Land of Xanth-and its outer ramparts were the tallest and most massive. It was roughly square, about a hundred feet on a side, and the walls rose thirty feet or more above the moat. It was braced by four great towers at the corners, their square outlines projecting halfway out from the main frame, enlarging it, and casting stark shadows against the recessed walls. In the center of each side of the castle was a smaller round tower, also projecting out by half its diameter, casting more subtle shadows. Solid battlements surmounted the top. There were no windows or other apertures. In Dor's day some had been cut, but this was a more adventurous period, and the defenses had to be as strong as possible. Overall, this was as powerful and impressive an edifice as Dor cared to imagine.
But the inner structure was virtually nonexistent; the beautiful palace portion had at this stage to be a mere courtyard. And the north wall lacked its upper courses; the huge stones stair-stepped down in the center, and the round support tower was incomplete.
A herd of centaurs was laboring on this section, using hoists and massive cables and sheer brute force to draw the blocks to the top. They worked with somewhat less efficiency and conviction than Dor would have expected, based on his knowledge of the centaurs of his own day. They looked rougher, too, as if the human and equine sections were imperfectly joined. Dor was reminded that not only had new species risen in eight hundred years, the old ones had suffered refinement.
Dor marched up to the centaur supervisor, who stood outside the moat, near a crude wooden scaffold supporting the next block to be hoisted. He was sweating as he trotted back and forth, calling out instructions to the pulley crew, trying to maneuver the stone up without cracking into the existing wall. Horseflies buzzed annoyingly about his hindquarters-not the big flying-horse variety, but the little horse-biting variety. They buzzed off quickly when Jumper came near, but the centaur didn't notice.
"Uh, where is King Roogna?" Dor inquired as the centaur paused to give him a harried glance.
"Go find him yourself!" the surly creature retorted brusquely. "Can't you see we're busy here?"
The centaurs of Dor's time were generally the soul of courtesy except when aroused. One notable exception was "Uncle Chester," sire of Dor's centaur playmate Chet. This centaur supervisor was reminiscent of Chester, and the other members of this herd resembled him too. Chester must have been a throw-back to this original type: ugly of facial feature, handsome of posterior, powerfully constructed, surly of disposition, yet a creature of sterling qualities once his confidence was won.
Dor and his party retreated. This was obviously not the occasion to bug the centaurs. "Stone, where is King Roogna?" Dor inquired of a section of a block that had not yet been transported across the moat.
"He resides in a temporary hut south of here," the stone responded.
As Dor had suspected. There would have to be a lot more work on the Castle before it was habitable for a King, though in the event of war the inner court should be safe enough for camping. No one would choose to live there while the centaurs were hoisting massive rocks about.
They went south. Dor was tempted to make a detour to the spot where his cottage cheese existed in his own day, but resisted; there would be nothing there.
They came across a hut adapted from a large pumpkin, set in a small but neat yard. A solid, graying man in soiled shorts was contemplating a chocolate cherry tree while chewing on the fruit: evidently a gardener sampling the product. The man hailed them without waiting for an introduction: "Welcome, travelers! Come have a cherry while they are available."
The three stopped. Dor plucked a cherry and found it excellent: a delicious outer coating of sweet brown chocolate, a firm cherry exterior with a liquid center. Millie liked the fruit too. "Better than candied cave-lice," she opined. Jumper was too polite to demur, but evidently had another opinion.
"Pretend it is a swollen tick," Dor suggested in a low voice. The spider waved a foreleg, acquiescing.
"Well, let's try it again," the gardener said. "I'm having some difficulty with this one." He concentrated on the tree.
"Are you trying to do a spell?" Dor inquired, plucking another cherry. "To add fertilizer to it, or something?"
"Um, no. The centaurs provide plenty of fertilizer. As a matter of fact-" The man's eyes widened, startled. "Hold that cherry a moment, sir, if you please. Don't bite into it."
Dor paused, cherry near mouth. The first had been so good, he was a bit put out to have the gardener deny him the second so arbitrarily. He looked at the fruit. It lacked the chocolate covering, and its surface was bright red and hard. "I won't," he agreed. "This must be a bad one." He flipped it away."
"Don't-" the man cried, too late. "That's a-"
There was an explosion nearby. Millie screamed. The noise was deafening, and heat blasted at them.
All four of them stumbled to the side, away from the blast.
The concussion subsided. Dor looked around dazedly. There was a wisp of smoke rising from the vicinity of the explosion. "What was that?" Dor asked, shaken. He discovered he had his sword in hand, and put it away self-consciously.
"The cherry bomb you threw," the gardener said. "Lucky you did not bite into it."
"The cherry-that was a chocolate cherry, from this-" Dor looked at the tree. "Why, those are cherry bombs, now! How-?"
"This must be King Roogna," Millie offered. "We didn't recognize him."
Nonplused, Dor worked it out. He had pictured King Roogna as a man somewhat like King Trent, polished, intelligent, commanding of demeanor, a man nobody would care to take lightly. But of course the folklore of eight hundred years would clothe the Magician in larger-than-life grandeur. It was not a person's appearance that counted in Xanth, it was his magic talent. So this pudgy, informal, gardener-type man with the gentle manner and thinning, graying hair and sweaty armpits, unprepossessing-this could indeed be the King. "This tree-he changed it from chocolate cherry to cherry bomb-Magician King Roogna's talent was adapting magic to his purpose-"
"Was?" the King inquired, raising a dust-smeared eyebrow.
Dor had been thinking of the historical figure, who was of course contemporary in the tapestry world. "I, uh, is. Your Majesty. I-" He started to bow, changed his mind in midmotion, started to kneel, changed his mind again, and found himself dissolving in confusion.
The King set a firm, friendly hand on his shoulder. "Be at ease, warrior. Had I desired obeisance, I would nave made it known at the outset. It is my talent that sets me apart, rather than my office. In fact, my office is insecure at the moment. My troops are all on furlough because we have no quarters yet for them, and difficulties plague the construction of my Castle. So pretension would ill befit me, were I inclined toward it."
"Uh, yes, Your Majesty," Dor mumbled.
The King contemplated him. "I gather you are from Mundania, though you seem to have had some garbled account of Xanth." He glanced at Millie. "And the young lady has the aspect of the West Stockade. They do raise some pretty fruits there." He looked at Jumper. "And this person-I don't believe I have encountered a jumping spider of your magnitude before, sir. Is it an enchantment?"
"He called me sir," Jumper cluttered. "Is a King supposed to do that?"
"A King," Roogna said firmly, "can do just about anything he chooses. Preferably he chooses to rule well. I note your voice is translated by a web on the warrior's shoulder." His aspect hardened, and he began to suggest the manner Dor had expected in a King. "This interests me. There appears to be unusual magic here."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Dor said quickly. "There is considerable enchantment here, but it is hard to explain."
"All magic is hard to explain," Roogna said.
"He makes things talk," Millie said helpfully. "The sticks and stones don't break his bones. They talk to him. And walls and water and things. That's how we found our way here."
"A Mundane Magician?" Roogna asked. "This is a virtual contradiction in terms!"
"I, uh, said it was hard to explain, Your Majesty," Dor said awkwardly.
A figure approached: a compact squarish man of the King's generation, with a slightly crooked smile. "Do I smell something interesting, Roogna?" he inquired.
"You do indeed, Murphy," the King replied. "Here, let's introduce ourselves more adequately. I am Magician Roogna, pro-term King. My talent is the adaptation of living magic to my purpose." He looked meaningfully at Dor.
"I, uh, I am Dor. Er, Magician Dor. My talent is communication with the inanimate." Then, in case that wasn't clear, he added: "I talk to things."
The King prompted Millie with another glance. "I am Millie the maid, an innocent girl of the West Stockade village," she said. "My talent is-" She blushed delicately, and her talent manifested strongly. "Sex appeal."
On around the circle: "I am Phidippus Variegatus of the family of Salticidae: Jumper the spider for short," Jumper chittered. "My talent, like that of all my kind, is silk."
At last it came to the newcomer. "And I am Magician Murphy. My talent is making things go wrong. I am the chief obstacle to Roogna's power, and his rival for dominance in Xanth."
Dor's mouth dropped open. "You are the Enemy Magician? Right here with the King?"
King Roogna laughed. "What better place? It is true we oppose each other, but this is a matter of politics. Magicians, as a rule, do not practice their talents directly on each other. We prefer to manifest our powers more politely. Murphy and I are two of the three Magicians extant. The third has no interest in politics, so we two are the rivals for power in Xanth. We are trying our strength in this manner: if I can succeed in completing Castle Roogna before the year is out, Murphy will yield me uncontested title to the throne. If I fail, I will abdicate the throne, and since there is no other Magician suitable for the office, the anarchy that follows will likely foster Murphy as the dominant figure. Meanwhile we share the camaraderie of our status. It is an equitable arrangement."
"But-" Dor was appalled; "You treat the welfare of the whole Land of Xanth as if it were a game!"
The King shook his head gravely. "No game, Magician Dor. We are absolutely serious. But we also indulge ourselves in honor. If one of us can prevail in war, he can surely do it by humane rules of conduct. This is warfare of the civilized kind."
Jumper chittered. "There is warfare of the uncivilized kind approaching," the web translated. "The harpies and the goblins are massing their forces to exterminate each other."
Murphy smiled. "Ah, you betray my secret, spider!"
"If anything can go wrong, it will," Dor said. "You mean the war between monsters is your doing?"
"By no means, Magician," the Enemy demurred. "The war of monsters has roots going well back before our time, and no doubt will continue long after our time. My talent merely encourages the most violent outbreak at the least convenient time for Roogna."
"And we need hardly guess where the two armies will randomly meet," King Roogna exclaimed, his gaze turning northward toward the incomplete Castle.
"I had hoped it would be a surprise," Murphy admitted ruefully. "That would prevent you from calling back your troops in time to defend the Castle. But for the intrusion of these visitors, it might have been unforeshadowed."
"So your talent fouled you up, this time!" Millie said.
"Perhaps an eddy-current," Jumper chittered.
"My talent is not proof against the influence of other Magicians," Murphy said. "The ramifications of the talents of Magician caliber extend well beyond the apparent aspects. If another Magician were to oppose me, my talent would feel the impact, regardless of the specific nature of the opposing talent. And it seems another Magician has indeed entered the picture. It will take time to comprehend the significance of this new element."
That was an apt remark: Dor had entered the picture literally, for this was the tapestry, the picture-world.
Murphy studied Dor with a certain disquieting intensity. "I would like to get to know you better, sir. Would you care to accept my hospitality for the duration of your stay here, or until we all hie into the Castle to avoid the ravages of the monsters? We had thought there were no unknown Magicians in Xanth at this time."
"Sir?" Jumper chittered. He was still having a problem with this word, having seen its power.
"But you are the enemy!" Dor protested.
"Oh, go with him," Roogna said. "I lack proper facilities for three, at the moment, though soon the Castle will be in order. The maid can stay with my wife, and the spider I daresay would be happiest hanging from a tree. I assure you Murphy will not hurt you, Dor. It is his prerogative, by the rules of our contest, to be given opportunity to fathom significant new elements, particularly if they add to the strength of my position. I have a similar privilege to inspect his allies. You may both rejoin me and your companions for the evening repast."
Somewhat bemused, Dor went with Murphy. "I don't understand this business, Magician. You act as if you and King Roogna are friends!"
"We are peers. That's not the same as friends, but it will do. We have no others except the Zombie Master, and he is not one to associate with on this basis. There is of course neo-Sorceress Vadne, who would have assisted me had I agreed to marry her, but I declined and so she joined the King. But she is not a dominant figure. So if we desire the companionship of our level, we must seek it in each other. And now, it seems, in you. I am extremely curious about you, Dor."
This was awkward. "I am from a far land."
"Obviously. I had not been aware that any Magicians resided in Mundania."
"Well, I'm not really from Mundania." But could he afford to tell the whole truth?
"Don't tell me, let me guess! Not from Mundania-so it must be somewhere in Xanth. North of the Gap?"
"You remember the Gap?"
"Uh, I guess it's all right. I-my people have trouble remembering the Gap, sometimes."
"Strange. The Gap is most memorable. So you're south of it?"
"Not exactly. You see, I-"
"Let's see your talent. Can you make this jewel talk?" Murphy held up a glittering emerald.
"What is your nature?" Dor asked the stone. "What are you worth? What is your secret?"
"I am glass," the jewel responded. "A fake. I am worth almost nothing. The Magician has dozens like me to give to greedy fools for their support."
Murphy raised an expressive eyebrow. "But you are not fake, Dor! There must be few secrets hidden from you! A remarkable informational talent!"
"So the mystery expands! How could a full Magician have remained concealed so long? Roogna and I once harnessed a magic sniffer and surveyed this whole region. That was how the site for the Castle was selected. There is a high concentration of useful magic here, and overall the effect is very strong. If the source of all magic is not in this vicinity, it can not be far from it. So we found enchantment aplenty, but no Magicians. Yet in our experience, no really strong magic emerges from the hinterland. How could a man of Mundane aspect, with a warrior's reflexes, turn up suddenly with such a talent? It hardly seems possible."
"In fact, I suspect it is impossible-or rather, it must be the result of magic beyond our present comprehension. Some special enchantment-" He broke off, lifting one finger expressively. "An anachronism! That would account for it! You are from the Land of Xanth-in another time!"
"Uh, yes," Dor said. Murphy was no fool!
"Not the past, surely, for there is no record of such a talent historically. Of course many of the ancient records have been lost, owing to Waves and such. Still, talents tend to grow more sophisticated with time, and yours is quite sophisticated. So it must be the future. How far?"
The truth could not be concealed from this clever man! "Eight hundred years," Dor admitted.
They had arrived at Murphy's tent. "Come in, have a drink of cider-a fine sweet-cider press just fruited in my yard-and tell me all about it."
"But I'm not on your side!" Dor blurted. "I want King Roogna to win!"
"Naturally you do. All right-thinking people do. Fortunately for me, there are as many wrong-thinking people as right-thinkers. But surely you must realize that ignorance serves my purpose, not his. Only the orderly categorization of facts can promote a stable kingdom."
"Then why do you want this information? Are you going to try to do something to me?" Dor's hand touched his sword.
"Magicians do not act against Magicians," Murphy reminded him. "Not directly. I mean you no personal mischief. Rather, I am trying to determine the impact and meaning of your presence here. The addition of another full Magician to the equation could change the outcome of our contest. If your force is sufficient to tip the balance in Roogna's favor, and I cannot reverse it, then I would have to concede the throne to him without further ado, and save us all much torment. Therefore it behooves both Roogna and me to ascertain your nature, early and accurately. Why do you think he sent you with me?"
"You two are the strangest enemies I ever saw! I can't follow the convolutions of your game."
"We merely abide by the rules. Without rules, there is no game." Murphy handed him a glass of cider. "Tell me the whole story, Dor, and we shall ascertain how your presence affects our situation. You will be welcome then to explain it to the King."
Dor seemed to have no choice. He wished Jumper were here to advise him, or Grundy the golem; he just didn't have confidence in his own judgment. Yet he always felt most at home with the truth. So he told the Enemy Magician as much of the story as he could organize: his quest to help restore a zombie, the inclusion of Jumper in the spell, the adventure within the tapestry.
"No problem about locating the Zombie Master," Murphy said. "The problem is, he won't help you."
"But only he knows the secret of restoring zombies! That's the whole purpose in my-"
"He may know," Murphy said. "But he won't tell. He does nothing for anyone. That is why he lives alone."
"I still have to ask him," Dor said stubbornly. "Meanwhile, what about you? Now that you know King Roogna did-I mean will-complete the Castle-"
"That is indeed a ponderous matter. Yet there are several considerations. One is that what you say may not be true."
Dor was stung. His body's hand, responsive in its fashion to his mood, reached over his shoulder for the sword.
Murphy held up a hand, unalarmed. "You sound so uncertain, yet your body reacts so aggressively! This corroborates your story, of course. Do not force me to use my magic against you. You would suffer mishap before ever you brought your weapon to bear. I did not call you a liar. I merely conjecture that you could be misinformed. History is notorious for misinformation. That castle you knew could have been built a century later and given the name of Roogna, to lend verisimilitude to the new order. How would you know?"
"Very what?" Dor asked, confused.
"Verisimilitude. Realism. To make it seem likely and true."
Dor was startled. A Castle built much later, called Roogna. He had never thought of that.
"But there are other approaches," Murphy continued. "Assume your version of history is accurate-as indeed it may be. Now you have returned. What can you do-except change your history? In which case your presence can at best be neutral, and at worst reverse the outcome of the present competition between Roogna and Murphy. So your excursion may be an auspicious omen for me. I hardly mean to interfere with you! I think it may be my talent that brought you here, to foul up Roogna."
Dor was startled again. Himself, an agent of the enemy? Yet it was suddenly all too plausible!
"But I rather suspect," Murphy continued, "that you will in fact prove unable to change history m any significant respect. I visualize it as a protean thing. Yielding to specific imperatives yet always reasserting itself when the pressure abates. I doubt anything you can do will have impact after you depart. It will be an interesting phenomenon to watch, however."
Dor was silent. This Magician had neutralized him thoroughly, expertly, without doing a thing except talk. The worst of it was, he was very much afraid that Murphy was correct. The more Dor might try to interfere, here in the tapestry world, the more likely he was to hurt King Roogna's chances. So Dor would have to remain as neutral as possible, lest even his help prove disastrous.
They finished their cider and returned to King Roogna. "This man is indeed a Magician," Murphy announced. "But I deem him no threat to my designs, though he aligns himself with you. He will explain as he chooses."
The King glanced at Dor inquiringly. "It is true," Dor said. "He has shown me that any help I may try to render you can have the opposite effect. We don't know that for sure, but it is a risk. So I must remain neutral, to my regret." Dor had surprised himself by making a very adult-sounding statement. Maybe it was Murphy's influence.
"Very well," the King said. "Murphy is many things, but his integrity is unimpeachable. Since you may not help me, may I help you?"
"Only by telling me where to find the Zombie Master."
"Oh, you can't get anything from him," the King assured Dor. "He helps no one."
"So Magician Murphy informed me. Yet it is vital that I see him, and after that I shall depart this land."
"Then wait a few days, until I complete the present phase of the Castle. Then I can spare you a guide and guard. I owe you this in deference to your Magician status. The Zombie Master lives east of here, in the heart of the wilderness; it is difficult to pass."
Dor chafed inwardly at the delay, but felt it best to accede. He and his friends had had too many narrow escapes already. A guide and guard would help.
They rejoined Millie and Jumper. "The King has given me a job!" Millie exclaimed immediately, bouncing and clapping her hands and swinging her hair in such a full circle that it lapped around her face, momentarily concealing it. "As soon as the Castle is complete."
"If we have time to wait," Jumper chittered, "I should like to recompense the King's hospitality by offering my service for the duration of our stay here."
"Uh-" Dor started to protest, realizing that what applied to himself should also apply to the spider.
"That is most courteous of you," the King said heartily. "I understand from the young lady that you are adept at hoisting and lowering objects. We have dire need of such ability at the moment. Rest tonight; tomorrow you will join my sturdy centaur crew."
Murphy glanced meaningfully at Dor. The Enemy Magician was satisfied to make this trial of the validity of his conjecture. And Dor had to be satisfied too. Maybe Murphy was wrong, after all. They could not afford to assume he was right, if he were not. So Dor was silent, not wanting to alarm the King or Jumper unnecessarily. Silent, but not at ease.
The King served them royally enough with pies from a pie tree he had adapted for this purpose: pizza, shepherd's, mince, cheese, and pecan pies, washed down with excellent fruit punch from a punchfruit tree.
"In my land," Dor remarked, "the King is a transformer. He changes living things into other living things. He can change a man into a tree, or a dragon into a toad. How does this differ from your own talent, Your Majesty?"
"A transformer," King Roogna murmured. "That's a potent talent! I can not change a man into a tree! I only adapt forms of magic to other purposes-a sleep spell to a truth spell, a chocolate cherry to a cherry bomb. So I would say your King is a more powerful Magician than I am."
Dor was abashed. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty. I didn't mean to imply-"
"You didn't, Dor. I am not competing with your King for status. Nor am I competing with you. We Magicians have a certain camaraderie, as I mentioned; we respect each other's talents. I'd like to meet your King sometime. After I have completed the Castle."
"Which may be never," Murphy said.
"Now with him I am competing," the King said good-naturedly, and bit into another piece of pie. Dor said nothing, still having trouble accepting this friendly-rivalry facade.
In the morning Jumper reported to the Castle construction crew. Dor went along to help translate, since no one else could understand the spider's chittering-and because he was privately concerned about Jumper's possible influence on history. Or lack of it. If anything Dor or Jumper did could affect King Roogna's success-
Dor shook his head uneasily. King Roogna was busy today, adapting new spells to preserve the roof of the Castle-once the construction reached that stage. The magic, it seemed, had to be built right into the Castle; otherwise it would not endure. This business of adapting spells, such as the one a water dragon used to prevent the water from dousing its flame-converting that to make an unleakable roof-well, that was certainly something a transformer couldn't do! So King Roogna had no reason to be modest. It was very difficult to compare the strength of talents. But if Jumper's offer of help were only to hurt-
They approached the same centaur supervisor who had brushed them off before. It seemed he had charge of the north wall, the one still under construction. The creature was pacing and fretting about the arrival of additional blocks of stone; it seemed the quarriers had fouled up a spell or two and were running behind schedule.
"King Roogna would like to have my friend help," Dor said. "He can lift stones into place with his silken lines, or climb sheer walls to-"
"A giant bug?" the centaur demanded, swishing his tail rapidly back and forth. "We don't want his kind among us!"
"But he's here to help!"
Now the other centaur workers were dismounting from the wall and crowding in close. They loomed uncomfortably large. A centaur standing the height of a man actually had about six times the mass of a man, and these stood somewhat taller than Dor-whose present body was a giant among men. "We don't associate with no bugs!" one cried. "Get that weirdo out of here!"
Nonplused, Dor turned to Jumper. "I-they don't-"
"I understand," Jumper chittered. "I am not their kind."
Dor eyed the massed centaurs, who seemed eager for any pretext to take time off from their labors. "I don't understand! You can do so much-"
"We don't care if he can throw droppings at the big green moon!" one yelled. "Get him out of here before we fetch a fly swatter!"
Dor got angry. "You shouldn't talk to him like that! Jumper's not a fly; he eats flies! He can keep all the horseflies away-"
"Bug-lover!" the supervisor snapped. "You're as bad as he is! Now watch I don't pound you both into the ground!"
"Yeah! Yeah!" the other centaurs agreed, stomping their hooves.
Jumper chittered. "These creatures are hostile. We shall depart." He started off.
Dor followed him, but not with docility. With each step he took his anger grew. "They had no right to do that! The King needs help!" Yet at the same time he wondered whether this were not for the best. If Jumper were not allowed to participate, Murphy's curse couldn't operate, could it? They would not change history.
Soon they were back at the royal tent. The King was outdoors beside a pond, where a small water dragon was captive. The thing was snorting smoke angrily and lashing up a froth with its tail, but Roogna seemed not to be concerned. "Now climb up on this roofing material," he was telling the dragon. "Propinquity facilitates adaptation." Then he looked up and spied Dor and Jumper. "Some problem at the construction site?"
Dor tried to be civilized, but it burst out of him. "The centaurs won't let Jumper work! They say he's different!"
"So I am," Jumper chittered.
King Roogna had seemed like an even-tempered, harmless sort of man. Now that changed. He stood up straight and his jaw hardened. "I will not have this attitude in my kingdom!" He snapped his fingers, and in a moment a flying dragon arrived: a beautiful creature armored in stainless steel, with burnished talons and a long snout suitable for aiming a jet of fire accurately from a distance. "Dragon, it seems my work crew is getting balky. Fetch your contingent and-"
Jumper chittered violently. "No, Your Majesty!" the web translated, almost shredding itself in its effort to transmit the force of the spider's conviction. "Do not chastise your workers. They are no more ignorant than my own kind, and they are doing necessary work. I regret I caused disruption."
"Disruption? By offering to help?" The King's brow remained stormy. "At least I must chastise them with my magic. Centaurs do not have to have such pretty tails, so useful for swishing away flies. I can adapt them to lizards' tails, useful for slinking along between rocks. That will dampen their overweening arrogance!"
"No!" Jumper still protested. "Do not allow the curse to distort your judgment."
Roogna's eyes widened. "Murphy! You're right, of course! This is his doing! If alienophobia could interfere, it does interfere!"
Dor too was startled. That was it, certainly! Magician Murphy had laid a curse on the construction of the Castle, and Jumper's offer had triggered it. The centaurs were not really to blame.
"You are a sensible, generous creature," the King said to Jumper. "Since you plead the cause of those who wrong you, I must abate my action. I regret the necessity, and the wrong done you, but it seems I cannot take advantage of your kind offer of assistance." He dismissed the flying dragon with a kingly offhand gesture. "The centaurs are allies, not servants; they labor on the Castle because they are most proficient at this sort of construction. I have done return favors for them. I regret that I let my temper slip. Please feel free to use my facilities until I can arrange for your escort. Meanwhile, you are welcome to watch me operate here, though I hope you will not interrupt my concentration with foolish questions."
They settled down to watch the King. Dor was quite curious about the actual mechanism for adapting a spell. Did the King just command it, as Dor commanded objects to speak, or was it a silent effort of will? But hardly had Roogna gotten the balky water dragon placed before a messenger-imp ran up. "King, sir-there's been a foul-up at the construction site! The wrong spell was on the building blocks, and they're pushing each other apart instead of pulling themselves together."
"The wrong spell!" Roogna roared indignantly. "I adapted that spell myself only last week!" There followed a brief discussion. It turned out that a full course of blocks had been laid in the wrong place, causing their spells to conflict with those of the next course instead of meshing. Someone had fouled up, and the error had not been caught in time. They were large blocks, each weighing many hundreds of pounds.
Roogna tore out a few hairs from his rapidly graying head. "The curse of Murphy again! This will cost us another week! Do I have to lay every block with my own frail hands? Tell them to rip out that course and replace it with the correct one."
The imp scurried off, and the King returned to his task. But just as he was about to work his magic, another imp arrived. "Hey, King-a goblin army is marching from the south!"
Grimly the King asked: "What is its estimated time of arrival?"
"ETA zero minus ten days."
"That's one shoe," the King muttered, and returned to his work. Naturally the water dragon had wandered out of place, and had to be coaxed laboriously back. Murphy's curse operated in small ways, too.
The King was shortly interrupted by yet another imp. "Roog, old boy-a harpy flight is massing in the north!"
"The other shoe," Roogna said resignedly. "The two forces will converge on this spot, courtesy of Murphy, and by the time they have destroyed each other, the landscape will be in ruins and Castle Roogna in rubble. If we had only been able to complete the breastworks in time-but now that is hopeless. My enemy has done some remarkably apt scheming. I am forced to admire it."
"He's a smart man," Dor said. "There must be some way to divert those armies, if they're not really after the Castle. I mean, if the goblins and harpies don't care about the Castle at all, but only happen to be fighting here." He was disturbed. It didn't seem that his presence had caused this problem, but he wasn't quite sure. If his encounters with the harpies and goblins had set them both off-
"Any direct attempt at diversion would cause them both to attack us," Roogna said. "They are extremely intractable creatures. We lack the inclination and means to fend off either of those brute hordes. In your world, Man may be the dominant creature, but here that has not yet been established."
"If you recruited some more creatures to help you-"
"I would have to dissipate my magic repaying them for that service-instead of working on the Castle."
"Your human army-can't you call it back from furlough?"
"Murphy's curse is especially apt at interfering with organizational messages. I doubt we could summon the full complement back before the monsters arrived. And I'm sure those men need to protect their own homesteads from the advancing monsters. I think it better to defend the Castle with what we have on hand. That's a small chance, but as good as the alternative. I fear Murphy has really checked me, this time."
Maybe another Magician could help-" Dor interrupted himself with another thought. "The Zombie Master! Would his help make the difference?"
The King considered. "Yes, it probably would. Because he represents a primary focus of magic, with all its ramifications, and because he is relatively close, with no Gap to navigate in getting here, and because his zombies could man the battlements without number or upkeep: the ideal army in this kind of situation. Just feeding my own army during siege would be a terrific problem; we have supplies only for the crews working here now. But this is useless conjecture; the Zombie Master does not participate in politics."
"I have to go see him anyway," Dor exclaimed, excited. "I could talk to him, explain what is at stake-" To hell with caution! If the King was about to lose without Dor's help, why not take the risk? He really could do no harm. "Jumper could come along; he's better than I am at lots of things. The worst I could do is fail."
The King stroked his beard. "There is that. I regard it as a long shot, but since you are willing-tell the Zombie Master I would be willing to make some reasonable exchange for his assistance." He cocked a finger, and another imp appeared. Dor wondered where those imps hid when not in use; the King was evidently well attended, though he made little show of it. Like King Trent, he masked his power except when show was necessary. "Prepare an escort and guide for an excursion to the castle of the Zombie Master. Magician Dor will depart in the morning on a mission for me."
But in the morning there was one more: Millie the maid. "With the Castle delayed, and the household staff shipping out during the emergency, I have no job yet," she explained. "Maybe I can help."
In future centuries she would be a sad ghost, and come to know the zombie Jonathan, and seek to restore him. She knew nothing of this now, but Dor did. How could he deny her, her chance to assist him in this mission-since it was ultimately for her? Maybe in some way she could help.
Why did he feel so glad for her company? He knew he could never-she was not-his body appreciated aspects of her that he himself had hardly glimpsed, but she could never be his in that way. So why should he fool himself with impossible notions?
Yet how glad he was to be with her, even this brief time!
The escort was a dragon horse, with the front part of a horse and the rear of a dragon. The guide was another imp. "Well, sport, let's get on with it," the imp exclaimed impatiently. He was a good deal larger than Grundy the golem, but smaller than a goblin, and reminded Dor somewhat of each.
There were three saddles spaced along the creature's back. Dor took one, Millie another, and Jumper clinging to the third, unable to sit in it. The imp perched on the equine head, whispering into the expressive ears.
Abruptly they were moving. The horse forelegs struck the ground powerfully, while the reptilian hind legs dug their claws in and shoved back. The monster half-galloped, half-slithered forward in great lurches. Millie screamed, and Dor was almost catapulted out of the saddle. The imp chuckled impishly. He had known this would happen.
Jumper bounded over Dor's head, landing just behind the girl. With deft motions the spider trussed her to the saddle with silken threads so that she could not be dislodged. Then Jumper did the same for Dor. Suddenly there was no question of being shaken loose; they did not even have to hold on. "Ah, you take all the fun out of it!" the imp complained.
The dragon moved rapidly. The lurching smoothed as the creature got up speed, and became a more or less even rising and falling. Dor closed his eyes and imagined he was on a boat, sailing the waves. Up, down, sway; up, down, sway. He began to feel seasick, and had to open his eyes again.
The foliage was rushing past. This creature was really moving! It threaded neatly through seemingly impassable tangles, avoiding tangle trees and monster warrens, hardly abating its pace even for fair-sized rifts. The imp was an obnoxious little man-thing, typical of his kind, spreading insults imp-partially-but he really knew his route and controlled the dragon expertly. Dor appreciated expertise wherever he found it.
Which was not to say the whole trip was smooth. There were hills and dales and curves. Once the dragon splashed through a boggy lake, swimming strongly but soaking their feet and lower legs in the process. Another time it ascended a steep bank, going almost vertically before crushing it. Once a griffin rose up challengingly before it, squawking; the dragon horse neighed warningly and feinted with its hooves, and the griffin decided to give way.
Soon they neared the demesnes of the Zombie Master-and Dor realized with a start that this was the same site as that of Good Magician Humfrey's castle, eight hundred years later. But maybe that was not strange; that place which seemed fit for one Magician might also appeal to another. If Dor were to build a castle someday for himself, he would look for an ideal site, and might be governed by considerations similar to those of some former Magician.
However, the Zombie Master had his own defenses, and these turned out to be as formidable in their fashion as those of Magician Humfrey. A pair of zombies rose up before the dragon horse-and the fearless creature sheered off, unwilling to suffer contact with this rotting flesh. Millie, seeing the zombies, screamed, and even the imp looked disgusted.
"This is as far as we go," the imp announced. "Nothing will bother you here-except zombies. How you get in to talk with their master I don't even care to know. Dismount and let us go home."
Dor shrugged. Zombies posed no special horror for him, since he had more or less associated with Jonathan all his life. He didn't like zombies, but he wasn't afraid of them. "Very well. Tell the King we are in conference with the Zombie Master, and will send news soon."
"Fat chance," the imp muttered. Dor pretended not to hear that.
The three dismounted. Immediately Dor felt cramps in his legs; that ride had really battered them! Millie stood bowlegged, unable even to kick her feet properly. Only Jumper was unkinked; he had perched atop his saddle throughout, being unable to sit at all.
The dragon horse neighed, wheeled on hoof and claw and tail, and shoved off. The three were showered with dirt and twigs thrown up by its feet. It was certainly glad to get away from here!
Dor worked the knots out of his legs as well as he could, and limped up to the guard-zombies. "We come on a mission from King Roogna. Take us to your Master."
The zombie opened its ponderous and marbled jaws. "Nooo nnn ffasssess!" it declared with fetid breath.
Dor concentrated, trying to make out the words. Was his talent operating here? These things were dead, yet fashioned from organic material. Wood was organic, and he could speak to it when it was dead. Did the spell that gave these monsters animation also give them sufficient pseudo-life to nullify his communication with inanimate things? Or was it partially operative? Probably the latter; he could converse, but with difficulty.
Jumper chittered. "I believe it said "No one passes," the web on Dor's shoulder said.
Dor glanced at the spider, surprised. Had it come to the point where Jumper could understand Dor's language better than Dor himself could?
Jumper chittered again. "Do not be dismayed; all of your words are strange to me; this is merely another aspect of strangeness."
Dor smiled. "That makes sense! Very well; you can help me converse with the zombies." He returned his attention to the guards, who had remained as silent as the grave, as patient as time. They had no living urges to impel them. "Tell your Master he has visitors. He must see us."
"Nooo," the zombie insisted. "Nooo nnnn!"
"Then we shall just have to introduce ourselves." Dor made to pass.
The zombie raised a grisly arm to block his way. Shreds of rotten flesh festooned it, and the white bone showed through in places. Millie screamed. She certainly had no affection for any zombie at this stage of her life! But centuries of ghosthood could change a person's perspective, Dor concluded.
Dor reached for his sword, but Jumper was there before him, trussing up the zombie in silk. In a moment the other zombie was similarly incapacitated. Dor had to admit this was the better way; zombies were messy to slay, he understood, because they could not be killed. They had to be dismembered, and even the pieces fought on. Which was one reason they would make such a good army for King Roogna, if that could only be arranged. This way, they were efficiently neutralized, and in a manner that should not offend the Zombie Master.
But they had not gone far toward the castle that stood on a mound in the forest-in Dor's day both mound and forest were gone-before a zombie serpent challenged them. It hissed and rattled in a fashion only deviously reminiscent of a live serpent, but there was no doubt it sought to bar their progress. Jumper neutralized it as he had the others. Whatever would they have done without the big spider!
Then a zombie tangle tree menaced them. This was too much even for the spider; the tree stood four times the height of a man and had perhaps a hundred moldering tentacles. Even ft it were feasible to truss it up, the thing would have the strength to snap the strands. Therefore Dor menaced it with his gleaming sword while the others sidled past; even a zombie tree had some care for its extremities.
In this manner they achieved the castle. It, too, was an animated ruin. Stones had fallen from its walls to reveal fossilized inner supporting timbers, and shreds of cloth hung in the window apertures. There had once been a moat, but it had long since filled in with debris; a stench rose from what thick liquid remained. There was-yes, a zombie bog-monster languishing in the mire. Its slime-coated orbs focused on the intruders with as much glare as their sunken condition permitted them to mount.
The party crossed the broken-down drawbridge and pounded on the sagging door. Splinters and fragments were dislodged, but of course there was no answer. So Dor completed the demolition of the door with a few strokes of his sword, and the three marched in. Not without a qualm or two.
"Hallooo!" Dor called, and his voice reverberated through the tomblike halls. "Zombie Master! We are on a mission for the King!"
A zombie ogre appeared. Millie screamed and did a little skip back, her hair swinging almost straight up; she must have kicked her feet, forgetting that she was standing on them. Jumper braced her with one leg to prevent her falling backward into the moat, where the moat-monster was trying vainly to slaver. "Noo. Goo," the ogre boomed hollowly, for its chest had been eviscerated by decay. Dor remembered Crunch the ogre, and retreated; a zombie ogre was still an ogre.
"We must see the Zombie Master," Millie said, though pale with fear. In her cute way, she too, had courage.
"Soo? Ooh." The ogre shuffled down a hall, and the party followed.
They entered a chamber like a crypt. Another zombie glanced up, resting its cadaverous hands on the table before it. "On what pretext do you intrude here?" it demanded coldly.
"We want to see the Zombie Master!" Dor exclaimed. "Now get out of the way, you bundle of bones, if you're not going to help."
The zombie stared somberly at him. It was an unusually well-preserved specimen, gaunt but not yet rotten. "You have no business with me. You are not yet dead."
"Of course we're not yet-" Dor paused. That "yet" distracted him.
Jumper chittered. "This man is alive. He must be-"
"The Zombie Master himself!" Millie finished, horrified.
Dor sighed. He had done it again. When would he grow up and learn to check things out before making assumptions? First King Roogna, whom he had thought to be a gardener; now the Zombie Master. He fumbled for an apology. "Uh-"
"Why do the living seek me?" the Zombie Master demanded.
"Uh, King Roogna needs your help," Dor blurted. "And I need the elixir to restore a zombie to life."
"I do not indulge in politics," the Zombie Master said. "And I have no interest in restoring zombies to life; that would undermine my own talent." He made a chill gesture of dismissal and returned to his business-which was the corpse of an ant lion that he was evidently about to animate.
"Now see here-" Dor began angrily. But the zombie ogre stepped forward menacingly, and Dor was cowed. His present body was big and strong and swift, but in no way could it match the least of ogres. One swing of that huge fist-
Jumper chittered. "I think our mission has failed."
Dor took another look at the ogre, remembering how Crunch had snapped an ironwood tree off at the base with one careless blow. This creature was not in good condition, being dead, but could probably snap an aluminumwood tree off. Mere human flesh would be no problem at all. So his second thought was much the same as his first: he could not prevail here,
Dor turned about. He knew that they could not coerce a Magician to help; it had to be voluntary. The Zombie Master, as the others had warned, was simply not approachable.
A hero would have found some way. But Dor was just a lad of twelve, accompanied by a giant spider and a girl who screamed constantly and who would become a ghost at an early age. No heroes here! And so he accepted the gall of defeat, for both his quests. The gall of growing up, of becoming disillusioned.
Dor half-expected one of the others to protest, as Grundy the golem always did. But Millie was only a helpless maid, possessing little initiative, and Jumper was not Dor's kind; the spider comprehended human imperatives only imperfectly.
They walked out, and the zombies did not bother them. They trekked down the hill. The dragon horse was gone, of course. They might have had it wait, but they had not expected to need it this soon. Dor's lack of foresight had penalized him again. Not that delay made much difference, at this stage. So they would simply have to march back themselves.
They untied the two zombie guards Jumper had trussed in silk. "Nothing personal," Dor explained to them. "Our business with your Master is finished." They marched. Millie made a very pretty marcher, when she wasn't screaming or kicking her feet; her hair still flung about naturally. He was getting used to her as she was now, and found her rather intriguing. In fact, he wouldn't mind-but that wouldn't be right. He had to guard against the thoughts his Mundane body put into his head; Mundanes weren't very subtle.
Abruptly they happened on a campfire. This was strange, because fire was hardly used in the Land of Xanth. Few things needed cooking, and heat was more efficiently obtained by pouring a little firewater on whatever needed warming. But this was obviously an organized fire, with sticks formed into a circular pile. The flames licked merrily up through the center. Someone had been here recently; in fact the person must have departed moments before Dor and his party arrived.
"Stand where you are, stranger," a voice called from the shadow. "I've got you covered with a bow."
Millie screamed. Dor reached for his sword, then stopped; he couldn't draw before an arrow struck him. No sense in compounding this yet-again lack of foresight by getting himself unnecessarily killed. Jumper jumped straight up and disappeared into the foliage of a tree overhanging them.
The challenger stepped forth. He was a brutish man, Mundane by the look of him, and he had not been bluffing about the bow. The string was taut, and the arrow nocked and centered on Dor's midsection. Knowing the capabilities of his own Mundane body, Dor had little reason to doubt the competence of this challenger. It seemed as if all Mundanes were born warriors. Perhaps this was in compensation for their abysmal lack of magic. Or maybe the soft, gentle, peaceful Mundanes didn't go out invading other lands.
"Who the hell are you, poking around my campfire?" the brute demanded. "What happened to that creep with you, the hairy thing with the legs?"
"I am Dor, on mission for the King," Dor said. He spoke more boldly than was his wont, fresh from the pain of failure of his missions. "The others are my companions. Who are you, to challenge me thusly?"
"So you're a Xanthie!" the man exclaimed sneeringly. "You sure could've fooled me; you look just like a man. You try a spell on me and I'll drill you!"
So this really was a Mundane. Dor had never seen one in the flesh before. "You don't have a talent?"
"Don't get smart with me, creep!" Then the man looked at him more closely. "Say, you're even dressed like one of us! You sure you're not a deserter?"
"Would you like to see my talent?" Dor asked evenly.
The man considered. "'Yeah, in a moment. But no tricks." He turned his head and yelled. "Hey, Joe! Come and set guard on a pair here!"
Joe arrived. He was another brutish man, unclean and malodorous. "What's all this noise about-"
He broke off. His lips pursed in a crude whistle. "Get a load of that babe!"
Oops, Dor thought Millie's talent was operating.
Millie made a token scream and stepped back. Joe stepped forward aggressively. "Boy, I could really use a number like this!" His hand shot out, catching her slender arm. This time Millie's scream was in earnest.
Dor's body took over. His left hand grabbed at the first Mundane's bow while his right snapped over his shoulder to whip out the sword. Suddenly the two Mundanes were standing at bay. "Leave her be!" Dor cried.
Millie turned on him, surprised and gratified. "Why Dor-I didn't know you cared!"
"I didn't know either," he muttered. And knew it was a lie. He had resolved to stop lying, but it seemed to come naturally at times like these. Was that part of growing up too: learning to lie socially? He had always cared for Millie, but had never known how to express it. Only the immediate threat to her had prompted his action.
"You won't get away with this!" Joe said angrily. "We've got troops all around here, looking for plunder."
Dor spoke to the club that dangled from the man's waist. "Is that true, club?"
"It's true," the club said. "This is the advance unit of the Mundane Fifth Wave, They marched down the coast past the Gap, then cut inland. They are completely immune to reason. All they want is wealth and women and easy living, in that order. Flee whilst you can."
The first Mundane's mouth dropped open. "Magic! He's really got magic!"
Dor backed away, Millie beside him. This was a tactical error, for the moment the two Mundanes were beyond sword-slash range they drew their own weapons. And set up a shout: "Enemy escaping! Cut him off!"
A shape dropped from above: Jumper. He landed almost on top of the two Mundanes and trussed them up before they knew what was happening. But the alarm had already been given, and there were sounds all around of men closing in.
"We had better use the upper reaches," Jumper cluttered. "The Mundanes will not pursue us there."
"But they can shoot their arrows at us!" Dor protested.
"They may not see us." Jumper fastened safety lines to Dor and Millie, and they scrambled up the trunk of a tree.
The Mundanes were arriving. These alien men were worse than goblins! Dor was climbing rapidly, thanks to his body's huge muscles, but Millie was slow. She would surely be caught. "I will distract them!" Jumper cluttered, and dropped low on his dragline.
Dor waited for Millie to catch up with him, then continued on up into the foliage. Just as they got to some reasonable cover, the Mundanes converged on the tree. Jumper chittered at them, swinging across to another tree.
"Get that bug!" a Mundane cried. He lunged for Jumper, but missed as the spider zipped a few feet up his line. Jumper could have escaped then, by going on up into the heights, or simply jumping over the Mundanes and running-but Dor was still struggling to haul Millie to safety. So the heroic spider dangled low, chittering in a manner that sounded challenging and insulting even without translation.
Another Mundane lunged-and missed. Mundanes just didn't think of an enemy rising suddenly up. But there were too many; now the spider had nowhere to go. One Mundane had the wit to chop at the dragline with a sword, severing the invisible silk. Jumper dropped to the ground. Instantly the men pounced on him, grabbing him one man to a leg, much as the goblins had, so that he was helpless.
Men and goblins: was there really much difference between them? The Mundanes were bigger, but
Dor was about to turn back, to aid his friend, but one of Jumper's eight eyes spied him. "Don't waste my effort!" he chittered, knowing that no one besides Dor could understand him. "Return to the Zombie Master; it is the only place you can keep the girl safe."
Dor hadn't thought of that. The Zombie Master might not be friendly, but at least he was not too hostile. It was the best place to be until the Mundane horde passed.
He climbed up into the protective splay of leaves, urging Millie on. His last sight of Jumper was of the men bearing him to the ground, striking his soft body brutally with their fists. They weren't trying to kill, they were trying to hurt, to make their enemy suffer as long as possible before the end. Because Jumper had balked them from capturing the girl-and because Jumper was different. Dor winced, feeling the pain of the blows in his own gut. What would they do to his friend?
Jumper had left a network of silken lines strung through the upper foliage, guiding Dor and Millie and providing rapid transit from one great tree to another. It was amazing how much he had accomplished in the brief time he had been aloft, and with what foresight. Dor had never thought his friend was deserting him-but neither had he anticipated the sacrifice Jumper would make. He felt the unmanly tears stinging his eyes, was afraid Millie would notice them, then decided he didn't care. Jumper-to have Jumper trapped like this, perhaps badly hurt, because of Dor's own carelessness-
Suddenly there was a piercing terrible, great chittering from below. It translated into a sheer scream of agony, chilling in its implication.
"They are pulling off his legs!" Millie whispered in horror. "That's what Mundanes do to spiders. The wings off butterflies-"
Dor saw that her beautiful face was streaked with helpless tears. She was not ashamed to cry!
Then something congealed in Dor. "Come on!" he snapped, and swung forward at a faster pace.
"Don't you care, that-?" she demanded plaintively.
Reproachfully, she hurried. Dor felt like a heel from a No. 1 shoe-tree, knowing she thought concern for his own safety motivated him, but he wasted no effort trying to explain. Jumper had eight legs; it would take the Mundanes time to get them all, and he had to use that time well.
In moments they ran out of Jumper's lines and dropped to the ground. They were now at the base of the hill on which the Zombie Master's castle sat. A zombie rose up to challenge them, but Dor shoved it aside so roughly that it collapsed in a jumble of shredded meat and chipped bone. He dragged Millie on.
They never paused at the chopped-open castle door. Dor charged right in. The zombie ogre rose up; Dor parried it with his blade, ducked under its arm, and plunged on through the gloomy hall. At last he burst into the Zombie Master's chamber, where the zombie ant lion was now taking its first steps.
"Magician!" Dor cried. "You must save my friend the spider! The Mundanes are pulling out his legs!"
The Zombie Master shook his cadaverous head and waved with an emaciated hand. "I have no interest in-"
Dor menaced him with his sword. "If you do not help this instant, I will surely slay you!" Such was his hurt and desperation, he was not bluffing, though he feared the Magician could turn him into a zombie.
Now the Zombie Master showed some spirit. "So you, a mortal, dare to threaten a Magician?"
"I am a Magician too!" Dor cried. "But even if I weren't, I would do anything to save my friend, who sacrificed himself for me and Millie!"
Millie put a restraining hand on Dor's arm. "Please," she said. "You can not threaten a Magician. Let me handle it, Dor. I am not a Magician like you, but I do have my talent."
Dor paused, and Millie stepped close to the Zombie Master, smiling with difficulty. "Sir, I am not a forward maid, and no Sorceress, but I too would do anything to help the bold friend who preserved us. If you but knew Jumper the spider-please, now, if you have any compassion at all-"
The Magician looked at her closely for the first time. Dor remembered what her talent was, and knew how it softened men. He was just beginning to appreciate its impact on himself. The Zombie Master was after all a man, and he too had to feel the impact.
"You will tarry with me?" he asked incredulously.
Dor did not like the sound of that word, tarry.
Millie spread her arms toward the Zombie Master. "Save my friend. What becomes of me is not important."
A kind of shudder ran through the Magician. "This becomes you not, maid," he said. "Yet-" He turned to his ogre. "Gather my forces, Egor; go with this man and do as he desires. Save the spider."
Dor took off, running through the gloomy halls and from the castle. The true horror was what lay ahead of him. The zombie ogre followed, crying out to the things of the castle: "Ccome ccome!"
Zombies erupted from the adjacent rooms, in their haste dripping stray clods, bones, and teeth. They closed in behind the ogre: men, wolves, bats, and other creatures too far gone to identify. In grisly procession they followed Dor down the hill.
His concern for his friend lent him swiftness, and somehow the zombies kept up. Yet even as he ran, Dor wondered whether he had not left Millie to as bad a fate as the one he strove to rescue Jumper from. The spider had sacrificed himself to save the two of them; Millie had sacrificed herself to save the spider. The full nature of Millie's talent had never been apparent to him, though it was coming clearer; it included holding and kissing and-
His mind balked. Kissing the Zombie Master? He ran faster yet.
They burst upon the Mundanes. The first thing Dor saw was Jumper: the brutal men had hung him up by four legs, and yanked off the other four. The spider was alive, but in terrible pain after this torture.
Dor went mad. "Kill!" he screamed, and his sword was in his hand. Almost of its own volition, the blade chopped into the neck of the Mundane nearest Jumper-the one holding the spider leg that had been torn off most recently. Dor was reminded of the centipede legs spat out at the goblin banquet. But this was his friend! The keen edge sliced through the flesh with surprising ease. It passed right through the neck, and the man's head popped off. Dor stared, momentarily numb to the implication; then he looked again at the severed leg, and whirled on the next Mundane.
Meanwhile the zombies were attacking with a will. The Mundanes panicked, becoming aware of the horror that had fallen on them. Dor had heard that Mundanes were a superstitious lot; zombies should play on that propensity. The men scattered, and in a moment there was nothing in the glade except the victors, three bodies, and Jumper.
Dor couldn't let himself relax. "Carry the spider to the castle," he ordered the ogre. "Carefully!" He turned to the other zombies. "Collect the severed legs and bring them along." Would it be possible to convert them into usable zombie legs and put them back on the spider?
The ogre picked up the mutilated body. Other zombies found the missing legs, and dragged along the dead Mundanes. The strength of the zombies was surprising-or maybe it was just willpower. They brought their prizes grimly to the castle.
Millie met them at the entrance. She looked all right. Her clothes were still on, and her hair was unmussed. Dor had trouble phrasing his question. "He-did he-?"
"The Zombie Master was a perfect gentleman," she said brightly. "We just talked. He's an educated man. I think he's lonely; no one ever visited with him before."
And no wonder! Dor's attention returned to Jumper. "He's alive, but in terrible pain. They-they pulled off four legs!"
"The brutes!" she exclaimed with feeling. She had seemed a rather innocent, helpless maid before, but now she was reacting to stress and horror with increasing personality. "How can we help him?"
Jumper revived enough to chitter weakly. "Only time will help me. Time to regrow my lost limbs. A month or so."
"But I must return to the King in mere days!" Dor cried. "And to my own land-"
"Return without me. Perhaps I can render some service to the Zombie Master in return for his hospitality."
"But I must take the Zombie Master with me, to help the King!" Yet that, too, was an impasse; the Magician had already refused to get involved in politics.
The Zombie Master was there; in his distraction Dor had not been aware of his arrival. "Why did the men torment the spider?"
"I am alien to this world," Jumper chittered. "I am a natural creature, but in my enchantment in this realm of men I become a thing of horror. Only these friends, who know me-" His cluttering ceased abruptly; he was unconscious.
"A thing of horror, yet with sentience and courage," the Zombie Master murmured thoughtfully. He looked up. "I will care for this creature as long as he requires it. Egor, carry him to the guest chamber."
The ogre picked Jumper up again and tromped away.
"I wish there were some way to cure him faster," Dor said. "Some medicinal spell, like the healing elixir-" He snapped his fingers. "That's it! I know where there's a Healing Spring, within a day's journey of here!"
Now he had the Magician's attention. "I could use such elixir in my art," the Zombie Master exclaimed. "I will help you fetch it, if you will share the precious fluid with me."
"There's plenty," Dor agreed. "Only there's one catch. You can't act against the interest of the Healing Spring, or you forfeit its benefit."
"A fair stipulation." The Zombie Master showed the way to an inner courtyard. A monstrous zombie bird roosted there.
Dor stared. This was a roc! The largest of all birds, restored to pseudo-life by the talent of this Magician. The entire world of the dead was under the power of this man!
"Carry this man where he will," the Zombie Master directed the roc. "Return him safely with his burden to this spot."
"Uh, I'll need a jug or something-" Dor said.
The Magician produced two jugs: one for each of them. Dor climbed onto the stinking back of the roc, anchored himself by grasping the rotting stubs of two great feathers, and tied the jugs with a length of Jumper's silk left over from his last dragline.
The roc flapped its monstrous wings. The spread was so great, the tips touched the castle walls on either side of the courtyard. Grimy feathers flew wide, bits of meat sprayed off, and the bony substructure crackled alarmingly. But there was tremendous power remaining in this creature. A roc in its prime could carry an elephant-that was an imaginary creature the size of a small sphinx-and Dor weighed far less than that. So even this animated corpse could perform creditably enough.
They lumbered into the air, barely clearing the castle roof. There were so many holes in the great wings that Dor marveled that they did not fall apart, let alone have sufficient leverage to make flight possible. But the spell of the Zombie Master was a wondrous thing; no zombie ever quite disintegrated, though all of them seemed perpetually on the verge of doing so.
They looped above the castle. "Go east!" Dor cried.
He hoped he knew the terrain well enough by air to locate the spot. He tried to visualize the tapestry to orient himself-was he actually flying above it now?-but this world was too real for that.
Dor had only been to the Healing Spring once with his father Bink, who had needed elixir for some obscure adult purpose. On that trip Bink had reminisced about his adventures there: how he had met Dor's mother Chameleon, she being then in the guise of Dee, her normal phase, at such and such a spot, and how he had found the soldier Crombie at this other spot, wounded, and used the elixir to restore him to health. Dor and Bink had visited briefly with a dryad, a wood nymph associated with a particular tree, resembling a pretty girl of about Millie's present age. She had tousled Dor's hair and wished him well. Ah, yes, it had been a fine trip! But now, high in the air, Dor could not ask the objects of the ground where the Spring was, and there were no clouds close enough to hail-hail-call, that is, not hail-stone-and his memory seemed fallible.
Then he spied a channel of especially healthy jungle, obviously benefiting from the flowing water from the Spring. "Down there," he cried. "At the head of that stream."
The zombie roc dropped like a stone, righted itself, glided in for a landing, tilted a little, and clipped a tree with one far-reaching wing tip. Immediately the wing crumpled, and the roc's whole body swerved out of control. It was a crash landing that sent Dor tumbling from his perch.
He picked himself up, bruised but intact. The roc was a wreck. Both wings had been broken; there was no way the creature could fly now. How was he to get back in time to do Jumper much good? If he walked, it would take him a day in the best of conditions; carrying two heavy jugs it would be longer. Assuming he didn't get snapped up by a tangle tree, dragon, or other monster along the way.
He reconnoitered. They had missed the Spring, but there was a handsome tree nearby on the hillside. And-he recognized it. "Dryad!" he cried, running toward it. "Remember me, Dor?"
There was no response. Suddenly he realized: this was eight hundred years earlier! The dryad would not remember him-in fact there probably was no dryad here yet, and this was probably not the same tree. Even if the time had been correct, the nymph still would hardly have recognized him in his present body. He had been boyishly foolish. Yet again.
Disconsolately he trekked down the slope. Of course this was not the same tree! The real one had been some distance from the Spring, not right beside it. And an average tree of today would be an extraordinary tree by Dor's own time; even plants aged considerably in eight centuries. His hopes had really fouled up his thinking! He would have to find his own way out of this mess, without help from any dryad.
Well, not entirely without help. "What is the best route out of here?" he asked the nearest stone.
"Ride that roc bird out," the rock replied.
"But the roc's wings are broken!"
"So sprinkle it with some elixir, idiot!"
Dor stopped dead in his tracks. So obvious! "I am an idiot!" he exclaimed.
"That's what I said," the stone agreed smugly.
Dor ran up to the roc, got his jugs, and ran to the Spring. "Mind if I take some of your elixir?" he inquired rhetorically.
"Yes, I mind!" the Spring replied. "All you creatures come and steal my substance, that I labor so hard to enchant, and what recompense do I get for it?"
"What recompense!" Dor retorted. "You demand the stiffest price of all!"
"What are you talking about? I never made any demands!"
Something was wrong. Then Dor caught on. Again, that eight-hundred-year factor. The Spring had not yet developed its compensatory enchantment. Well, maybe Dor could do it a favor. "Look, Spring, I intend to pay you for your substance. Give me these two jugs full of elixir, and I will tell you how to get fair recompense from all other takers."
"Done!" the Spring cried.
Dor dipped the jugs full, noting how the bruises vanished from his body as he touched the water. This was the Spring, all right! "All you need is a supplementary enchantment, requiring that anyone who benefits from your elixir cannot thereafter act against your interests. The more your water is used, the more your power will grow."
"But suppose someone calls my bluff?"
"It will be no bluff. You will take back your magic. It will be as if he never was healed by you."
"Say, yes-I could do that!" the Spring said excitedly. "It would take a while, maybe a few centuries, to build that extra spell, but since it's just a refinement of the original magic, a termination clause as it were-yes, it will work. Oh, thank you, thank you, stranger!"
"I told you I would repay you," Dor said, gratified. Then he thought of something else. "Uh-I'm only a visitor to this land, and what I do may fade out after I leave. So you'd better get right on that spell, so you don't lose it once I'm gone."
"How long do I have?"
Dor did a quick calculation. "Maybe ten days."
"I'll fix it in my mind," the Spring said. "I'll memorize it so hard that nothing can shake it loose."
"That's good," Dor said. "Farewell!"
"I'm not a well, I'm a spring!" But it was a good-natured correction.
"Maybe you're a wellspring," Dor suggested. "Because you make creatures well again."
"Bye," the Spring said, dismissing him.
Dor returned to the roc and sprinkled elixir from his jar on its wings. Immediately they healed; in fact, they were better than they had been. But they remained zombie wings, dead flesh. There were, after all, limits; the elixir could not restore the dead to life.
Which was why he was on this quest. Only the Zombie Master could do what needed to be done. Meanwhile, he had to get back to Jumper soon, lest the spider also require restoration from the dead.
Dor boarded, tied the jugs, and hung on. "Home, roc!" he cried.
The roc taxied about to face the channel forged by its crash landing, worked its legs to accelerate, flapped its wings, and launched violently into the air. This takeoff was far more precipitous than the first one had been; it was all Dor could do to hang on. The elixir had given the wings new power. Fortunately there were a few droplets remaining on his hands, and these healed the feathers to which he clung. Now they were great long fluffy colorful puffs of plumage suitable for ladies' hats, easy to grasp.
The roc wheeled in the sky, then stroked powerfully for the Zombie Master's castle. The landscape fairly whizzed by below. They reached their destination in half the time it had taken to make the outbound trip. No wonder the Magician wanted the elixir; his zombies would be twice as good now!
But a new problem manifested. From above, Dor could see that the Mundanes had rallied, and now were laying siege to the castle. There were many of them; their whole advance army must have gathered for this effort. They evidently were not cowards; they had been panicked by the ferocity of the zombies' attack, but now they were angry at the three deaths and sought revenge. Also, they probably thought that any castle so well guarded must conceal enormous riches, so their greed had been invoked. In helping his friend Jumper, Dor had brought serious mischief to the Zombie Master. Dor was sure his father would have had more sense than that; it was yet another reminder of his own youth and inexperience and thoughtlessness. When, oh when, would he ever grow up and be adult?
The roc dived, hawklike, banked, and plopped into place in the courtyard. The landing was heavy, for the bird's feet had not been healed; the sound carried throughout the castle.
The Zombie Master and Millie rushed up. "You got it!" Millie cried, clapping her hands.
"I got it," Dor agreed. He handed one jug to the Magician, keeping the other for himself. "Take me to Jumper."
Millie guided him to the guest room. The big spider lay there, ichor leaking from his stumps. The variegated fur face on the back of his abdomen seemed to be making a grimace of distress. His eyes, always open, were filmed with pain. He was conscious again, but so weak he could chitter only faintly. "Good to see you again, friend! I fear the injuries have been too extensive. Legs can be regrown, but internal organs have been crushed too. I cannot-"
"Yes you can, friend!" Dor cried. "Take that!" And he poured a liberal dose of elixir over Jumper's shuddering body.
Like magic-unsurprisingly-the spider was whole again. As the liquid coursed over the fur-face, the green and white and black brightened until they shone. As it touched each stump, the legs sprouted out, long and hairy and strong. As it was absorbed, the internal organs were restored, and the body firmed out. In a moment there was no sign that Jumper had ever been injured.
"It is amazing!" he chittered. "I did not even need to have my original legs returned! I have not felt so good since I was hatched! What is this medicine?"
"Healing elixir," Dor explained. "I knew where there was a Spring of it-" He broke off, overcome by emotion. "Oh, Jumper! If you had died-" And he embraced the spider as well as he could, the tears once more overflowing his eyes. To hell with being adult!
"I think it was worth the torture," Jumper chittered, one mandible moving against Dor's ear. "Watch I don't nip your antenna off."
"Go ahead! I have plenty more healing elixir to use to grow a new ear!"
"Besides which," Millie added, "human flesh tastes awful. Maybe even worse than goblin meat."
The Zombie Master had followed them. "You are human, yet you hold this alien creature in such esteem you cry for him," he remarked.
"And what's wrong with that?" Millie demanded.
"Nothing," the Magician said wanly. "Absolutely nothing. No one ever cried for me."
Even in the height of his relief, Dor perceived the meaning of the Zombie Master's words. The man had been alienated from his own kind by the nature of his magic, rendered a pariah. He identified with Jumper, another alien. That was why he had agreed to take care of Jumper. More than anything else, the Magician must want people to care for him the way Dor and Millie cared for Jumper.
"Will you help King Roogna?" Dor asked, disengaging from his friend.
"I do not indulge in politics," the Zombie Master said, the coldness returning.
Because the King was no pariah. This Magician might assist those who showed him some human compassion, but King Roogna had not done that. "Would you at least come to meet the King, to talk with him? If you helped him, he would see that you received due honor-"
"Honor by fiat? Never!"
Dor found he could not argue with that. He would not have wanted that sort of honor either. If there were such a thing as dishonorable honor, that would be it. He had made another stupid error of approach, and squelched his chances-again. Some emissary he was proving to be!
But there was another problem. "You know the Mundanes of the Fifth Wave are getting ready to attack this castle?"
"I do know," the Zombie Master agreed. "My zombie eye-flies report there are hundreds of them. Too many to overcome with my present force. I have sent the roc out to round up more bodies, to shore up my defenses. To facilitate this, the roc will not even land here at the castle; it will drop the bodies in the courtyard and proceed immediately for more."
"The Mundanes are mad at us," Dor said, "because we killed three of them. Maybe if we leave-"
"My zombies helped you," the Zombie Master pointed out. "You can gain nothing other than your own demises by departing now. The Mundanes have this castle surrounded. To them, it is a repository of unguessable riches; no reasonable demurral will change their fixed minds."
"Maybe if they saw us leave," Dor said. "The roc could carry us out. Oh-the roc's away for the duration."
"It seems we must remain, at least for a time,"
Jumper cluttered. "Perhaps we can assist in the defense of the castle."
"Uh, yes, we'd better," Dor agreed. "Since we seem to have brought this siege down upon it." Then, for no good reason, he found himself making another appeal: "Uh, Magician-will you reconsider the matter of the zombie restorative elixir? This is not a political matter, and-"
The Zombie Master glanced at him coldly. Before the Magician could speak, Millie put her sweet little hand on his lean arm. "Please," she breathed. She was excruciatingly attractive when she breathed that way. Yet she could not know that it was as a favor to herself, of eight hundred years later, that Dor was obtaining this precious substance.
The Zombie Master's coldness faded. "Since she asks, and you are a good and loyal man, I do reconsider. I will develop the agent you require." But it was evident that most of the responsibility for his change of heart was Millie's. And her breathing.
Dor knew victory of a sort-yet it was incomplete. He was succeeding in his private personal mission, while failing in his mission for the King. Was that right? He didn't know, but had to take what he could. "Thank you, Magician," he said humbly.
The siege was serious. The Mundanes were reasonably apt at this sort of thing, since they were an army. Motivated by vengeance and greed and the knowledge that at least one measurelessly pretty girl was inside the castle, they knew no decent limits. They closed in about the castle and readied their assault.
At first the Mundanes simply marched across the rickety drawbridge and up to the blasted main gate. But the zombie ogre came charging out, much of his strength restored by the healing elixir, and tossed them into the moat, where the restored bog-monster chomped them. It did not actually eat them, because zombies had no appetite, but its chomping was effective. After that the Mundanes were more cautious.
"We have to clear the junk out of that moat," Dor said. "They can just about wade across, as it is now, and the monster can't get them all. If we do it now, while they're recovering from the shock of meeting Egor Ogre-"
"You have the makings of an excellent tactician," the Zombie Master said. "By all means handle it. I am working out your zombie restorative formula, which is devious in detail."
So Dor took a squad of zombies out. "I am mortal, so should not expose myself," he told them as he eyed the bog-monster. It had been trained not to attack other zombies, but that did not help him. "Arrows cannot kill you. So I will stand watch from the ramparts and call down directions. You will go down into the moat and start hauling armfuls of garbage out." He felt less than heroic in this role, but knew it was the expedient course. The Mundanes were surely excellent archers. He was here to get the job done, after all, not to make himself look good.
The zombies marched down. They milled about uncertainly. They did not have very good minds, their brains being mostly rotten. The healing elixir worked wonders with their bodies, but could not restore the life and intellect that had once made them men and animals. Dor found his original revulsion for their condition giving way to sadness. What zombie ever knew joy?
"You with the skullhead," Dor called. "Scoop up those water weeds and dump them on the shore." The zombies started in, laboriously. "You with the scarred legs-haul that log out and bring it to the front gate. We can use it to rebuild the door." It was almost pointless to explain such things to zombies, but he couldn't help himself. It was part of his process of self-justification.
If what he did had no permanence in this tapestry world, what of this present situation? But for him, the Mundanes would not have laid siege to the castle of the Zombie Master. If the Magician were killed, would he be restored after Dor departed the scene? Or was the siege inevitable, since the Fifth Wave had already been headed this way? It was a matter of history, but Dor could not recall the details, assuming he had ever learned them. There were aspects of history the centaur pedagogues did not teach their human pupils, and Dor had not been a terrifically attentive pupil anyway. He would remedy that when he got home again.
If he got home again
A few arrows came from the forest to plunk into the zombie workers, but with no effect. That evidently gave the Mundanes pause for thought. Then a party of warriors advanced with swords drawn, intending to cut the zombies into pieces too small to operate. Dor used a bow he had picked up from the castle armory, ancient and worn but serviceable. He was no expert at this, but his body had evidently been trained to this weapon too; it was very much the complete warrior. He fired an arrow at a Mundane but struck the one beside his intended target. "Good shot!" Millie exclaimed, and Dor was ashamed to admit the truth. No doubt if he had let the body do the whole thing itself, it would have scored properly, but he had tried to select his own target. He had better stick to swords in future.
But it sufficed to discourage the attack, since this was just an offhand Mundane gesture, not a real assault on the castle. Also, they didn't know that there was only a single archer on the wall. The Mundanes retreated, and the moat-clearing continued. Dor was pleased: he was accomplishing something useful. It would be ten times as hard to storm the castle with that moat deep and clear. Well, maybe eight times as hard.
Meanwhile, Jumper was climbing about the rafters and inner walls of the castle, routing out vermin-which he gobbled with glee-and shoring up weak spots. He lashed subsiding members with silk cords, and he patched small holes, using wood and chinks of stone fastened in place by sticky masses of silk. Then he strung alarm lines across the embrasures to alert him to any intrusions there. This was a small castle, somewhat haphazardly constructed, with a single peaked roof, so in a short time the spider was able to accomplish much.
Millie went over the living and cooking facilities. The Zombie Master, a bachelor, had a good store of provisions but evidently survived mainly on those that required least effort to prepare: cheese balls, fried eggs from the friers that nested on the rafters, hot dogs from the dogwood that grew just inside the moat, and shrimp from the shrimp plants in the courtyard. The courtyard was south of the roofed region, so that the sunlight could slant in over the south wall to reach the ground inside; a number of plants and animals existed there, since the zombies did not bother them.
Millie set about making more substantial meals. She found dried fruits in the cellar, and dehydrated vegetables, all neatly spelled to keep them from spoiling, and cooked up a genuine handmade mashed peach and potato cobblestone stew. It was amazing.
And the Zombie Master, after due experimentation in his laboratory, produced for Dor a tiny vial of life-restorative elixir, brewed from the healing water by the art of his talent. "Do not mislay this, or use it incautiously," he cautioned. "The dosage suffices only for one."
"Thank you," Dor said, feeling inadequate. "This is the whole reason I came to this-this land. I can't tell you how important this vial is to me."
"Perhaps you could offer me a hint, however," the Magician said. "Since we are about to sustain a determined siege, from which we may not emerge-I admit a certain curiosity."
Delicately put! "I'm sorry about that," Dor said. "I know you prefer living alone, and if I'd known we'd cause all this trouble-"
"I did not say I objected to either the company or the trouble," the Zombie Master said. "I find I rather enjoy both. You three are comparatively simple people, not given to duplicity, and the mere presence of a challenge to survival evokes an appreciation for life that had been lacking."
"Uh, yes," Dor said, surprised. The Magician was becoming quite sociable! "You deserve to know." Dor was feeling generous now that he had this much of his mission accomplished, and the Zombie Master's candor was nice to receive. "I am from eight hundred years in your future. There is a zombie in my time I wish to restore to full life as a favor to-to a friend." Even in this moment of confidence, he could not quite confess his real interest in Millie. This vial would make her happy, and himself desolate, but the thing had to be done. "You are the only one who knows the formula for such restoration. So, by means of enchantment, I came to you."
"A most interesting origin; I am not certain I believe it. For whom are you doing this favor?"
"A-a lady." The thought of letting Millie learn of her eight-hundred-year fate appalled him, and he resolved not to utter her name. He had not had much luck in keeping such resolutions before, but he was learning how. What horror would this knowledge wreak on so innocent a maid, who screamed and flung her hair about and kicked her feet so fetchingly at the slightest alarm? Far better that she not know!
"And who is the zombie?" the Magician prodded gently. "I do not mean to pry into what does not concern me-but zombies do concern me, for surely every zombie existing in your day is a product of my magic. I have a certain consideration for their welfare."
Dor wanted to balk, but found that, ethically, he could not deny the Zombie Master this knowledge. "She-the lady calls him Jonathan. That's all I know."
The man stiffened. "Ah, the penalty of idle curiosity!" he breathed.
"You know this zombie?"
"I-may. It becomes a lesson in philanthropy. I never suspected I would be doing such a favor for this particular individual."
"Is he one of your zombies here at the castle?" Already Dor felt a tinge of jealousy.
"Not presently. I have no doubt you will encounter him anon."
"I don't want to-" No, he could not say that. What was to be, was to be. "I don't know whether it would be wise to tell him-I mean, eight hundred years is a long time to wait for restoration. He might want to take the medicine now, and then he wouldn't be there for the lady-" Which was itself a fiendishly tempting notion he had to suppress. The elimination of Jonathan from his own time would not only rid him of competition for Millie's favor-it would eliminate his whole reason for coming here. How could he restore a zombie who had already been restored eight centuries ago? But if he didn't do it-paradox, which could be fatal magic.
"A very long time," the Zombie Master agreed. "Have no concern; I will not betray your secret to any party." He dismissed the subject with a brusque nod. "Now we must see to the castle defenses. My observer-bugs inform me that the Mundanes are massing for a major effort."
The defenders girded to meet that effort. Jumper guarded the east wall and the roof, setting up a series of traplines and interferences for intruders. The Zombie Master took the south wall, which enclosed the courtyard. Dor took the west. All were augmented by contingents of zombies, and of course the ogre handled the north gate. Millie remained inside-to watch for hostile magic, conjurations and such, they told her. No one wanted to put her on the ramparts during the violence, where her cute reactions would serve as a magnet for Mundanes. She also had charge of the supply of healing elixir, so she could come to the aid of the wounded.
The zombie bugs must have made excellent use of their elixir-restored eyes, for the attack occurred right on schedule. A wave of Mundanes charged the side of the castle. Not the front gate, where Egor's reputation more than sufficed, but the weakest wall-which happened to be Dor's.
They threw down logs to form a makeshift bridge, stationed men with outsize shields on either side of it to block the moat-monster, and funneled about half their number across. They carried three scaling ladders, which they threw up against the wall. The castle had been constructed foolishly, with a ledge above the first two stories, ideal for ladders to hook to. The ledge terminated abruptly at the corner where the courtyard commenced, but led to a small door near the northern edge. Presumably this access was intended to facilitate cleaning of the gutter spouts-but it also ruined the integrity of the castle's defense. A blank wall, with no ledge and no door, would have been so much better!
Dor stationed himself before the door and waited, hoping he was ready. His stomach was restless; in fact at the moment he felt in urgent need of a toilet. But of course he couldn't leave. None of them could leave their posts until the attack was over; that had been agreed. There was no telling what tricks the Mundanes might try to draw the defenders out of position, making the castle vulnerable.
Men swarmed up the ladders. They were met at the top by zombie animals: a two-headed wolf with rotting jaws but excellently restored teeth; a serpent with gruesomely articulated coils; and a satyr with sharp horns and hooves.
The first men up were evidently braced for human zombies; these animals unnerved them, causing them to be easy prey. Then Dor ducked in with a long crowbar-he had no idea what the crows used them for-and levered off the first ladder, pushing it away from the wall so that it fell with its burden into the moat. The splashing Mundanes screamed. Dor felt a shock of remorse; he would never be acclimatized to killing! Actually, he reminded himself, the fall was not far as these things went, and the watery landing was soft. But the men were in a certain amount of armor that hampered their swimming.
Dor moved to the next ladder, but this one was really hooked on tightly. The zombie serpent was having trouble holding off the onslaught. "What's holding you on?" Dor cried in exasperation as he labored to pry it up.
"I am an enchanted ladder," it replied. "The stupid Mundanes stole me from a stockade arsenal; they don't know my properties."
"What are your properties?" Dor inquired.
"I anchor irrevocably when emplaced-until someone utters the command 'weigh anchor.' Then I kick loose violently. This facilitates disengagement."
"That doesn't sound quite right. It's weigh as in lifting, spoken with authority."
"Weigh anchor!" Dor cried with authority.
"Oooh, now you've done it!" the ladder cried, and kicked off violently, dumping its occupants into the moat.
Dor went on to the next. The delay at the second ladder had cost him vital time, however. The top warrior had gotten over his shock of encountering the satyr, and had hacked it to pieces. Now three warriors stood on the deck, with more crowding up. Fortunately there was not room for them to stand abreast; they were in a line, and until they moved, the fourth man could not dismount from the ladder.
The first Mundane gave a loud cry and brought his sword down on Dor as if chopping wood. Dor's body parried automatically blocking the descending sword with his crowbar so that it glanced off to the side. Simultaneously he dodged forward, coming inside the Mundane's guard, striking into the man's gut with his left fist. The man doubled over, and Dor caught his leg and heaved him over the parapet into the moat. He rose to face the next Mundane in one fluid motion.
This man was smarter about his attack. He came at Dor carefully, sword extended like a spear, forcing him back. The Mundane knew he did not need to slay Dor yet; all that was required was that he widen the stretch of ledge held by his forces, so that others could get off the ladder.
Dor, on the other hand, had to keep the man penned until he could eliminate him and the next man and get at the ladder. So he met the Mundane's thrust with his own, pointing the bar, refusing to give way. In this restricted locale, the crowbar was an excellent weapon.
The Mundane's eyes widened in an expression of astonishment. "Mike!" he cried. "You survived! We thought you were lost in that damned magic jungle!"
He seemed to be addressing Dor. It might be a ruse. "Look to yourself, Mundane," Dor said, and forced the man's sword out of the way so he could shove him outward with his arm and shoulder.
The Mundane hardly tried to resist. "They told me there was a man looked like you, but I didn't believe it! I should've known the best infighter in the troop would make it okay! Hell, with your strength and balance-"
"Balance?" Dor asked, remembering how his body had walked Jumper's line across the river.
"Sure, you could've joined a circus! But you kept pushing your luck too far. What are you doing here, Mike? Last I saw you, we got separated by goblin bands. We had to cut out to the coast, thought you'd rejoin us-and here you are! Lost your memory or something?"
Then Dor's wedging prevailed, and the Mundane, surprised, toppled into the moat. Quickly Dor charged the third, jamming the dull point of his bar into the man's middle before he got his guard up, and this one also fell. Then Dor jammed his pole into the ladder hooks and wrenched so hard that a whole section of the stone parapet gave way and the ladder lost purchase. All the men on it fell screaming. The job was done.
Now, standing victorious on the edge, looking down, Dor suffered a multiple reaction. He had killed, again, this time not in ignorance or in the agony of reaction to his friend's mutilation, but to do his job defending the castle. Murder had become a job. Was that how he proposed to forward his career? The sheer facility with which he had done it-maybe that was partly the natural prowess of his body, but he had also used his talent to gain the ladder's secret. No, it was he himself who was responsible, and he felt a great and growing guilt-after the fact
And the Mundane-that man had recognized Dor, or rather Dor's body, calling him Mike. That must mean this body was that of a Mundane, part of this army, a man separated from his companions in the jungle, trapped by goblins, and presumed dead. Dor had taken over that body, preventing its return to its army. What had happened to the personality of the real Mike?
Dor bashed his hand against his head. The flea had bitten him again. Infernal bug! Oops-others called Jumper a bug, and Dor didn't like that; maybe the flea didn't like being called a-oh, forget it!
Where had he been, as he pondered things and watched the Mundanes drown below? Oh, yes: the fate of the personality of the original Mike Mundane. Dor couldn't answer that. He presumed the real Mike would return when Dor left. What bothered him more was the fact that he had taken advantage of the Mundane's recognition of him, to hurl the man from the wall. The Mundane had paused, not wishing to strike a friend-and had paid for that understandable courtesy with his position, perhaps his life. How would Dor himself feel if he encountered Jumper, and welcomed him-and Jumper struck him down? That had been a cruel gesture!
Nevertheless, he had held his position. He hoped the others had held theirs. He didn't dare check directly; this was his position to defend, and another ladder crew could arrive the moment he deserted his post.
War was not nice. If Dor ever got to be King, he would see that problems were settled some other way if at all possible. No one would ever convince him that there was any glory in battle.
The sun sank slowly before him. The Mundanes scrambled out of the moat, dragging their wounded and dead. They took their ladders, too, though these were sadly broken.
At last Millie came. "You can come down, now, Dor," she said hesitantly. "The zombie bugs say the Mundanes are too busy with their wounded to mount another attack today, and they won't do it by night."
"Why not? A sneak attack-"
"Because they think this is a haunted castle, and they're afraid of the dark."
Dor burst out laughing. It was hardly that funny, but the tension in him forced itself out.
It drained from him quickly. With relief he followed her down the winding stairs to the main hall. He noted the pleasant sway of her hips as she walked. He was noticing more things like that, recently.
They organized a night-watch system. There had been no attack on the other sides; Dor had handled it all. "We would have come to your aid," Jumper chittered. "But we feared some ruse."
"Exactly," Dor agreed. "I would not have come to help you, either."
"If we don't have discipline, we have nothing," the Zombie Master said. "We living are too few."
"But tonight you rest," Millie told Dor. "You have labored hard, and have earned it."
Dor didn't argue. He was certainly tired, and somewhat sick at heart, too. That business with the Mundane who recognized him
Jumper took the first watch, scrambling all about the walls and ceilings inside and out. The Zombie Master retired for half a night's sleep before relieving the spider. That left Millie-who insisted on keeping Dor company while he ate and rested.
"You fought so bravely, Dor," she said, urging a soupnut on him.
"I feel sick." Then, aware of her gentle hurt, he qualified it. "Not from your cooking, Millie. From the killing. Striking men with a weapon. Dumping them into the moat. One of them recognized me. I dumped him, too."
How could he explain? "He thought he did. So he didn't strike me. It wasn't fair to strike him."
"But they were storming the castle! You had to fight. Or we would all have been-" She squiggled, trying to suggest something awful. It didn't come across; she was delectable.
"But I'm not a killer!" Dor protested vehemently. "I'm only a twelve-year-old-" He caught himself, but didn't know how to correct his slip.
"A twelve-year veteran of warfare!" she exclaimed. "Surely you have killed before!"
It was grossly misplaced, but her sympathy gratified him strongly. His tired body reacted; his left arm reached out to enclose her hips in its embrace, as she stood beside him. He squeezed her against his side. Oh, her posterior was resilient!
"Why, Dor!" she said, surprised and pleased. "You like me!"
Dor forced himself to drop his arm. What business did he have, touching her? Especially in the vicinity of her cushiony posterior! "More than I can say."
"I like you too, Dor." She sat down in his lap, her derriere twice as soft and bouncy as before. Again his body reacted, enfolding her in an arm. Dor had never before experienced such sensation. Suddenly he was aware that his body knew what to do, if only he let it. That she was willing. That it could be an experience like none he had imagined in his young life. He was twelve; his body was older. It could do it.
"Oh, Dor," she murmured, bending her head to kiss him on the mouth. Her lips were so sweet he-
The flea chomped him hard on the left ear. Dor bashed at it-and boxed his ear. The pain was brief but intense.
He stood up, dumping Millie roughly to her feet "I have to get some rest," he said.
She made no further sound, but only stood there, eyes downcast. He knew he had hurt her terribly. She had committed the cardinal maidenly sin of being forward, and been rebuked. But what could he do? He did not exist in her world. He would soon depart, leaving her alone for eight hundred years, and when they rejoined he would be twelve years old again. He had no right!
But oh, what might have been, had he been more of a man.
There was no attack in the night, and none in the morning-but the siege had not been lifted. The Mundanes were preparing another onslaught, and the defenders simply had to wait for it. While precious time slipped by, and the situation worsened for King Roogna. Magician Murphy was surely smiling.
Dor found Millie and the Zombie Master having breakfast together. They were chatting merrily, but stopped as he joined them. Millie blushed and turned her face away.
The Zombie Master frowned. He was halfway handsome after one acclimatized to his gauntness. "Dor, our conversation was innocent. But it appears there is something amiss between you and the lady. Do you wish me to depart?"
"No!" Dor and Millie said together.
The Magician looked nonplused. "I have not had company in some time. Perhaps I have forgotten the social niceties. So I must inquire somewhat baldly: would you take exception, Dor, if I expressed an interest in the lady?"
A green icicle of jealousy stabbed into Dor. He fought it off. But he could not speak.
Now Millie turned her large eyes on Dor. There was a mute plea in them that he almost understood. "No!" he said. Millie's eyes dropped, hurt again. Twice he had rejected her.
The Zombie Master shrugged his bony shoulders. "I do not know what else I can say. Let us continue our meal."
Dor thought of asking him to help the King, but realized again that what the Magician might do at his behest was suspect-and had an inspiration. What Dor himself did might lack validity, and what Jumper did-but what Millie did should hold up. She was of this world. So if she persuaded the Zombie Master to help the King-
A zombie entered. "Ttaakk," it rattled. "Hhoourr."
"Thank you, Bruce," the Zombie Master said. He turned to the others. "The Mundanes are organizing for another attack in an hour. We had best repair to our stations."
This time the attack came on Jumper's side. The Mundanes had assembled a massive battering ram. Not a real ram; those animals did not seem to have evolved yet. A mock ram fashioned from a heavy trunk of ironwood, mounted on wheels. Dor heard the boom and shudder as it crashed over the bridge they laid down over the moat and collided with the old stone. He hoped the wall was holding, but could not go to see or help: his post was here, not to be deserted lest another ladder attack come without warning. The others had had the discipline to stay clear of his section, last time, for the same reason. This was a special kind of courage, this standing aloof and ignorant.
An arrow dropped to his ledge. It had slid over the roof of the castle and fallen, its impetus spent. "What's the news over there?" Dor asked it.
"We're trying to batter a hole in the wall," the arrow said. "But that damned huge bug keeps yanking out our moat-crossing planks with its sticky lines. We're trying to shoot that spider, but it dodges too fast. Thing runs right across a sheer brick wall! I thought I had it-" The arrow sighed. "But I didn't, quite."
"Too bad," Dor said, smiling.
"Don't patronize me!" the arrow cried sharply. "I am a first-class weapon!"
"Maybe you need a more accurate bowman."
"That's for sure. More good arrows are ruined by bad marksmanship-oh, what's the use! If arrows ruled the world, instead of stupid people-"
Life was tough all over, Dor thought. Even for the nonliving. He did not speak to the arrow again, so it could not answer. Objects had to be invoked each time, initially. Only when he gave them a continuing command, voiced or unvoiced, as with the spiderweb that translated Jumper's chittering, did they speak on their own. Or when, through constant association with him, they picked up some of his talent, as with the walls and doors of his cheese cottage, his home.
How far removed that home seemed, now!
After a while the furor subsided, and Dor knew Jumper had succeeded in balking the attack. He considered going to check, since the threat had now abated, but decided to stay at his post. His curiosity was urgent, but discipline was discipline, even when it became virtually pointless.
And, quietly, a ladder crew came to his side. They were trying to sneak in! Dor waited silently for them to work their way across the moat and lift and hook the ladder and mount it. They thought he was absent or asleep, or at least not paying attention. How close they had come to being correct!
Then, just as the first Mundane came over the parapet, Dor charged across with his lever, wedged the ladder up, and shoved it away from the wall. He hardly noticed the screams and splashes as the men landed in the moat. By his constancy he had stopped the sneak raid and helped save the castle! Had he yielded to temptation and left his post prematurely
He felt somewhat more heroistic than he had before.
Finally the zombie eye-spy announced that the Mundanes had withdrawn their main attack force, and Dor rejoined the others within. It was midday. They ate, then whiled away the long afternoon working on a jigsaw puzzle that Millie had discovered while cleaning the drawing room.
It was a magic puzzle, of course, for the jigs and saws were magical creatures who delighted in their art. When assembled, it would be a beautiful picture; but now it was in myriad little pieces that had to be fitted together. No two pieces fit unless spelled by the proper plea, which was often devious, and the portions of the picture that showed kept changing. The principle seemed to be similar to that of the magic tapestry of Dor's own time, with the little figures moving as in life. In fact-
"This is it!" Dor exclaimed. "We are weaving the tapestry!"
The others looked up, except for Jumper, whose eyes were always looking up, down, and across, without moving. "What tapestry?" Millie inquired somewhat coldly. She was still sweetly angry with him for his rejection of her.
"The-I, uh, I can't exactly explain," he said lamely.
Jumper caught on. "Friend, I believe I know the tapestry you mean," he chittered. "The King mentioned it. He is looking for a suitable picture to hang upon the wall of Castle Roogna, that will entertain viewers and be representative of what he is trying to accomplish. This one should do excellently, if the Zombie Master will yield it up."
"I yield it up to you," the Magician said. "Because I respect your nature. Take it with you when you return to Castle Roogna."
"This is generous of you," Jumper chittered, placing another piece. His excellent vision made him adept at this task; he could look at several places at once, superimposing them in his brain, checking the fit without ever touching the pieces. He paused to chitter at the piece he held, and it evidently understood the invocation, because it merged seamlessly into the main mass of the forming picture. "But unless we are able to assist the King, the Castle will never be complete."
The Zombie Master did not answer, but Millie looked up, startled. She caught Dor's eye, and he nodded. She had caught on!
But she frowned. Dor knew the problem: she was interested in him, Dor, and did not want to practice her charms on the Magician. She was in no position to understand why Dor eschewed her, or why he did not continue to plead the cause of Castle Roogna himself. So she was sullen, concentrating on the puzzle. The afternoon wore on.
The puzzle was fascinating, an excellent device for whiling away the tense time. They all seemed to share its compulsion, vying together against its challenge as if it were the Mundane army.
"I have always enjoyed puzzles," the Zombie Master remarked, and indeed he was the best of the human participants. His skeletal hands became quick and sure as they fetched pieces and jerked them across to likely slots, comparing, rejecting, comparing again and matching. Thin, gaunt, but basically healthy and alert, the Magician seemed more human with each hour that he passed in Millie's company. "The excitement of discovery, without threat. When I was a child, before my talent was known, I would smash blocks of stone with a hammer, then reassemble them into the original. Of course it lacked the cohesion-"
"Was that not an aspect of your talent?" Jumper chittered. "Now you reassemble creatures, but they lack the cohesion of life."
The Magician laughed, the first time they had heard him do that. He flung back his shaggy brown hair so that his eyebrow ridges and cheekbones stood out more prominently. "A significant insight! Yes, I suppose creating zombies is not so very different from restoring stones. Yet it becomes a lonely pursuit, because others-"
"I understand," Jumper chittered. "You are a normal creature, as I am, but this world does not see it that way. I have my own world to return to, but you have only this one."
"Would that I could go to your world," the Magician said, lightly but with a certain longing beneath. "To begin fresh, unprejudged. Even among spiders, I would feel more at home."
Millie did not speak, but her demeanor softened. They worked on the puzzle. It occurred to Dor that human relations were similar to such a puzzle, meshed by the conventions of language. If only he knew where the piece that was his whole life should be fitted!
"When I was young," the Zombie Master remarked after a bit, "I dreamed idly of marrying and settling down in the normal fashion, raising a family. I had no thought of being-as you see me now. I had better appetite, was more fully fleshed, was hardly distinguishable from normal boys. Then one day I found a dead flying frog, and was sorry for it, and tried to will it back to life, and-"
"The first zombie!" Millie exclaimed. "True. I watched that frog fly away with amazement, thinking I had wakened the dead. But it was less than that; I could only half-waken the dead. Except, perhaps, in special cases." He glanced at Dor, obviously thinking of the restorative elixir. But that was more than the Zombie Master's magic; that incorporated the magic of the healing elixir too, so was a collaboration. "From that point, my career was set. Against my preference, I achieved far greater status and isolation than any other of my time. It seemed that many others desired what I could do for them-making zombie animals to guard their homes, or fight their battles, or do their work-but none cared to associate with me on a personal level. I became disgusted; I do not like being used without respect."
Millie's softening became something more. "You poor man!" she exclaimed.
"You three are the first who have associated with me without revulsion," the Zombie Master continued. "True, you came begging favors-"
"We didn't understand!" Millie cried. "These two are from another land, far away, and I am only an innocent maid-"
"Yes," the Magician agreed, looking at her with muted intensity. "Innocent, but with a talent that causes others to react."
"Except for the three of you," she said. "Every other man has wanted to grab me. Dor dumped me on the floor." She cast a dark look at him.
"Your friend restrains himself because he is not of your world and must soon depart, and cannot take you with him," the Zombie Master said. Dor was amazed and gratified at the man's comprehension. "He can thus make you no commitments, and is too much the gentleman to take advantage on a temporary basis."
"But I would go with him!" she cried naively.
Jumper interjected a chitter: "It is impossible, maid. There is magic involved."
Her chin thrust forward in cute rebellion.
"Yet if you cared to remain here at my castle, Millie, you could have a life of status-" the Magician began, then reined himself. "But also of isolation. That must be confessed."
"You really have a lot of company," Millie said. "The zombies aren't so bad when you get to know them. They have different personalities. They can't help it if they're not quite alive."
"They are often better company than the living creatures," the Zombie Master agreed. "They do possess muted emotions and dim memories of their prior lives. It is ignorance that makes them suspect-the ignorance of the majority of normal people. All the zombies need are set jobs to do, and a comfortable grave-site to sleep in between tasks-and acceptance."
Dor listened, noting how Millie and the Magician were coming together, forcing himself to stay out of it. His direct involvement could invalidate anything that happened-if Murphy was right. Yet it bothered him increasingly, this attempt to use the Zombie Master, who was after all a decent man.
"I don't think I'd mind living among zombies," Millie said. "I met a girl zombie in the garden; I think in life she must have been almost as pretty as I am."
"Almost," the Zombie Master agreed with a smile. "She was slain by a pneumonia spell intended for another. But when I restored her, her family would not take her back, so she remains here. I regret that I cannot undo my magic, once it has been applied; she is doomed like the others to live half-alive forever."
"I screamed when I met the first zombie. But now-"
"I realize your primary interest is elsewhere," the Magician said, glancing obliquely at Dor. "But if, accepting the fact that you cannot be with him, you would consider remaining here with me-"
"I have to help the King," she said. "We promised to-"
The Zombie bowed to the inevitable. "For you, I would even indulge in politics. Ad hoc. Employ my zombies to-"
"No!" Dor cried, surprising himself. "This is wrong!"
The Zombie Master glanced at him expressionlessly. "You are after all asserting your interest in the lady?"
"No! I can't have her. I know that. But we stay here only because we are under siege, and the moment the siege lifts we'll go back to King Roogna. It is dishonorable to let her play upon your loneliness only to gain your help for the King. The end does not justify the mean." He had heard King Trent say that, in his own time, but had not appreciated its full meaning until now. End and mean-or was it ends and means? "You have been generous to me and Jumper, because you understood our needs and respected them. How could you respect Millie if-"
For the first time, they saw Millie angry. "I wasn't trying to use him! He's a nice man! It's just that I made a promise to the King, and I can't just go off and do something else and let the whole Kingdom fall!"
Dor was chagrined. He had not really understood her innocence. "I'm sorry, Millie. I thought-"
"You think too much!" she flared.
"Yet your thought does you credit," the Zombie Master said to Dor. "And your naivete" does you credit, too," he said to Millie. "I was aware of the ramifications. I am accustomed to trading for favors. This is not an evil, when the conditions of exchange are openly negotiated. I am simply prepared to compromise, in this circumstance. If it is necessary to save the Kingdom to make the lady happy, then I am prepared to save the Kingdom. Quid pro quo. I am pleased that the damsel keeps her word to the King so stringently; I can reasonably suppose that she would similarly keep her word to you, Dor. Or to me, were she to give it."
"I haven't given it!" Millie protested. "Not to anyone! Not that way." But she seemed subtly nattered.
"The matter may be academic," Jumper chittered. "We are under siege here, and lack the means to do more than defend ourselves within this castle, with the aid of the loyal zombies. We cannot help the King anyway."
"And even if there were no siege," the Magician said, "I have suffered attrition of zombies. They are immortal, but when physically destroyed, with the pieces lost, they become useless. I could only bring a token force to the aid of the King. Not enough to overwhelm the curse on Castle Roogna."
"You could make more zombies," Dor said. "If you had more dead bodies."
"Oh, yes, without limit. But I need intact bodies, and fresh ones are best."
"Could we but overcome the Mundanes," Jumper chittered, "we could use their bodies to fashion a mighty army."
"If we had a mighty army, we could use it to vanquish the Mundanes," Dor pointed out. "Closed circle."
"I do not wish to interfere with human concerns," Jumper chittered. "But I believe I see a course through the impasse. There is some risk entailed-"
"There is risk entailed in remaining under siege," the Zombie Master said. "Present your notion; we can consider its merit jointly." He placed another piece of puzzle, uttering the mergeance spell under his breath. "It is an arrangement, a series of agreements utilizing all our efforts," Jumper chittered. "The Zombie Master and Millie must defend this castle for a time alone, while I convey Dor outside by night. I can swing him along a line to a near tree so that no one will notice. The Mundanes can not see as well as I can in darkness. Then Dor must use his talent to locate some of the real monsters of the wilderness-the dragons and such-and enlist their aid."
"Dragons will not help men!" Dor protested. "They would not be helping men," Jumper chittered. "They would be fighting men."
"But-" Then Dor caught on. "Mundanes!"
"But we are people too," Millie said. Jumper angled his head to cock eyes of three different sizes at her. He was obviously not human. "Well, still-" she faltered.
"I will be with Dor," Jumper chittered. "They will know me for a monster, and him for a Magician. Inside the castle will be another Magician and a woman, and many zombie animals. No normal human men. We will convey this promise: any monsters who die in the battle to lift the siege will be restored as zombies. But mainly, they will have the thrill of killing men with impunity. The King will not condemn them for what they do, since it is to assist him."
"It just might work!" Dor exclaimed. "Let's go!"
"Not until dark," Jumper chittered.
"And not until you've eaten," Millie added. She bounced off to the kitchen.
Jumper placed a final puzzle-piece and retired to an upstairs rafter to rest. That left Dor and the Zombie Master with the puzzle, which was coming along nicely. They had largely completed the center, with the scene of Castle Roogna, and were working toward the Zombie Master's castle. Dor was increasingly curious to know how it would turn out. Would they be able to see themselves in it, under Mundane siege? How much of reality did these magic pictures reflect?
"Are you really going to help the King?" Dor asked. "I mean, if we break the siege here?"
"Yes. To please the lady. And to please you."
Still Dor was troubled. "There is something else I must tell you."
"You are about to risk your life in the defense of my castle. Speak without inhibition."
"The lady is doomed to die young. I know this from history."
The Zombie Master's hand froze, with a translucent piece of puzzle held between gaunt ringers. The piece changed from warm red light to cold blue ice. "I know that you would not deliberately deceive me."
Maybe he had spoken too uninhibitedly "I would be deceiving you if I failed to warn you. She-maybe death is not the right word. But she will be a ghost for centuries. So you will not be able to-" Dor found himself overcome by remorse at what he could not prevent. "I think someone will murder her, or try to. At age seventeen."
"What age is she now?"
The Magician rested his head against his band. The puzzle-piece turned white. "I suppose I could make a zombie of her, and keep her with me. But it wouldn't be the same."
"She-if you're helping the King to please her-or to please any of us-we'll all be gone within the year. So it may not be worth it, to-"
"Your honesty becomes painful," the Zombie Master said. "Yet it seems that if I am to please any of you, I must do it promptly. There may not again in my lifetime be opportunity to please anyone worth pleasing."
Dor did not know what to say to this, so he simply put out his hand. The Magician set down the puzzle-piece, which had turned black, and shook Dor's hand gravely. They returned to the puzzle, speaking no more.
The puzzle, Dor wondered-for his mind had to get away from the grim prior subject. How could this puzzle be the tapestry, when they were all within the tapestry? Was it possible to enter this forming picture, by means of a suitable spell, and find another world within it? Or had the tapestry been merely a gateway, the entry point, not the world itself? Was it coincidence that he should be assembling this particular picture at this juncture? The Zombie Master was the key to this whole quest, the vital element-and he had the tapestry, the key to the entry to this world. Yet he had given it to Jumper. How did this relate?
Dor shook his head. Such mysteries were beyond his fathoming. All he could do was what he could do.
That night Dor and Jumper departed the castle on the spider's line. It would have been possible to convey Millie out in the same manner, but they cared neither to subject her to the risk nor to desert the Zombie Master, even had circumstances been otherwise. There were Mundane sentries posted; Millie would have screamed, and that would have been disastrous. As it was, Dor trusted Jumper's night vision to thread them through the dark foliage, and they managed to pass without being detected. Soon they were deep in the jungle, beyond the Mundane ring of troops.
"We'd better start with the lord of the jungle," Dor said. "If he goes along with it, most of the rest will. That is the nature of jungles."
"And if the lord does not cooperate?"
"Then you will use your safety line to yank me out of his reach, in a hurry."
Jumper affixed a dragline to him, then carried the other end. In an emergency, the spider would be able to act quickly. Dor found himself wishing he had a silk-making gland; those lines were extremely handy.
The spider found him a rock in the dark. "Where is the local dragon king?" Dor demanded of it.
The stone directed him to a narrow hole in a rocky hillside. "This is it?" Dor inquired dubiously.
"You'd better believe it," the cave replied.
"Oh, I believe it!" Dor said, not wishing to antagonize the residence of the monster he hoped to bargain with.
"And if you care to depart uncooked, you'd better not wake the monarch," the cave said.
Jumper chittered. "That small cave has a large mouth."
"What?" the cave demanded.
Dor gulped. "I have to wake him." Then he put his hands to his mouth and called. "Dragon! I must parlay. I have news of interest to you."
There was a snort from deep within the cave. Then a plume of smoke wafted out, white in the blackness, followed by a rolling growl. The scent of scorch suffused the air.
"What does he say?" Dor asked the cave. "He says that if you have news of interest, come into his parlor. Your life depends on the accuracy of your advance promotion."
"His parlor?" Jumper chittered. "That is an ominous phrasing. When a spider invites-"
Dor had not bargained on this. "In there? In the dragon's cave?"
"See any other caves, man-roast?" the cave demanded.
Jumper made another soft chitter. "Huge mouth!"
"I guess I'd better go down," Dor said. "I have better night vision; let me go," Jumper chittered.
"No. You can't use objects to translate the dragon's speech, and I can't jump into trees and string a line to the castle wall. I must talk with the dragon. You must be ready to bear the news." He swallowed again. "In case my mission fails. You can communicate with Millie, now, by signals."
Jumper touched him with a foreleg, the pressure expressive. "Your logic prevails, friend Dor-man. I shall listen by this entrance, and return alone if necessary. I will draw you up by the dragline if you call, rapidly. Have courage, friend."
"I'm scared as hell." But Dor remembered what the gorgon had said about courage: that it was a matter of doing what needed to be done despite fear. He was bleakly reassured. Maybe technically he would be a dead hero, instead of a dead coward. "If-if something happens, try to salvage some piece of me, and keep it with you. I think the return spell will orient on it, and carry you home when the time is up. I wouldn't want you to be trapped in this world."
"It would not be doom," Jumper replied. "This world is a novel experience."
More of an experience than Dor had bargained for! He took a breath, then slid into the cave's big mouth. The interior was not large enough to permit him to stand, as the throat constricted, but that did not mean the dragon was small. Dragons tended to be long and sinuous.
The passage curved down and around, so black it was impossible to see. "Warn me of any drops, spikes, or other geographic hazards," Dor said.
"There are none, other than the dragon," the wall replied. "That's more than enough."
"I wish there were a little light," Dor muttered. "Too bad I gave away my wishing ring."
The dragon growled from below. "You want light?" the wall translated. "I'll give you light!" And tongues of bright flame snaked up the passage.
"Not that much!" Dor cried, cringing from the heat.
The flames subsided. It was evident that the dragon understood human speech, and was not blasting him indiscriminately. That was both reassuring and alarming. If there was anything more dangerous than a dragon, it was an intelligent dragon. Yet of course the smartest dragon would be most likely to rise to leadership in the complex hierarchy of the wilderness. Provided it also possessed sufficient ferocity.
Dor emerged at last in the stomach of the cave. This was the dragon's lair. The light waxed and waned, here, as the monster breathed and the flames washed out of his mouth. In the waxing the whole cave glittered, for of course the nest was made of diamonds. Not paltry ones like those of the small flying dragon Crunch the ogre had cowed; huge ones, befitting the status of the lord of the jungle. They refracted the light, reflected it, focused it, and broke it up into rainbow splays. Colors cascaded across the walls and ceiling, and bathed the dragon itself in re-reflected hues. Crunch the ogre would never beard this monster in his den!
And the dragon himself: his scales were mirror-polished, iridescent, and as supple and overlapping as the best warrior's mail. The great front jaws were burnished brass tapering to needlepoints, and its snout was gold-plated. The eyes were like fall moons, their veins reminiscent of the contours of the green cheese there, and as the light changed the cheese changed flavor.
"You're beautiful!" Dor exclaimed. "I've never seen such splendor!"
"You damn me with faint praise," the dragon grumped.
"Uh, yes, sir, I come to-"
"What?" the dragon demanded through a blaze of fire.
"That was the word."
Dor had suspected it was. "Uh, sir, I-"
"All right already. Now what does a Man-Magician want with the likes of me, a mere monster monarch?"
"I come to, uh, make a deal. You know how it is not safe, uh, I mean expedient, for you to, uh, eat men, and-"
The dragon snorted a snort of flame uncomfortably close to Dor's boots. "I eat what I eat! I am lord of the jungle."
"Yes, sir, of course. But men are not of the jungle. When you eat too many of them, they start making, er, difficulties. They use special magic to-"
"I don't care to talk about it!" This time the snort was pungent smoke.
"Uh, yes. Sir. What I'm trying to say is that there are some men who need, er, eating. Mundane men from outside Xanth, who don't have magic. If you and your cohorts cared to, uh-"
"I begin to absorb your drift," the dragon said. "If we were to indulge in some, shall we say, sport, your Magicians would not object? Your King Whats-his-name-?"
"King Roogna. No, I don't believe he would object. This time. Provided you ate only Mundanes."
"It is not always easy to tell at a glance whether a given man is native or Mundane. You all taste alike to us."
Good point. "Well-we'll wear green sashes," Dor said, thinking of some bedspreads he had seen in the Zombie Master's castle. They could be torn into sashes. "It would be only in this region; don't go near Castle Roogna."
"Castle Roogna is in the territory of my cousin, who can be touchy about infringements," the dragon said. "There is plenty to eat in this area. Those Mundanes are especially big and juicy. I understand. Is there a time limit?"
"Uh, would two days be enough?"
"More than enough. Shall we say it commences at dawn tomorrow?"