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The Source of Magic
Xanth Book 2
By Piers Anthony
Chapter 9: Vortex Fiends.
At dawn they emerged from the madness region, each holding a piece of spell-reversal wood. They had traveled tediously, separating Crombie at intervals from his piece of wood, getting his indication of the best immediate route, then returning his chunk to him so that he could perceive threats accurately until the next orientation.
Once they were out, they located a reasonably secure roost in a stork-leg tree, setting their pieces of wood in a circle about its spindly trunks so that no hostile magic could approach them without getting reversed. That was not a perfect defense, but they were so tired they had to make do.
Several hours later Bink woke, stretched, and descended. The centaur remained lodged on a broad branch, his four hooves dangling down on either side; it seemed the tree-climbing experience during the madness had added a nonmagical talent to his repertoire. The Magician lay curled in a ball within a large nest he had conjured from one of his vials. Crombie, ever the good soldier, was already up, scouting the area, and the golem was with him.
"One thing I want to know..." Bink started, as he munched on slices of raisin bread from a loaf Crombie had plucked from a local breadfruit tree. It was a trifle overripe, but otherwise excellent.
Crombie squawked. "...is who destroyed that reverse-spell tree," Grundy finished.
"You're translating again!"
"I'm not touching any wood at the moment." The golem fidgeted. "But I don't think I'm as real as I was last night, during the madness."
"Still, there must be some feeling remaining," Bink said. "It can be like that, approaching a goal. Two steps forward, one back--but you must never give up."
Grundy showed more animation. "Say, that's a positive way of looking at it, mushmind!"
Bink was glad to have given encouragement, though the golem's unendearing little mannerisms remained evident. "How did you know what I was about to ask? About the destruction of--"
"You always come up with questions, Bink," the golem said. "So we pointed out the location of the subject of your next question, and it matched up with the tree stump. So we researched it. It was a challenge."
That was an intriguing ramification of Crombie's talent! Anticipating the answers to future questions! Magic kept coming up with surprises. "Only a real creature likes challenges," Bink said.
"I guess so. It's sort of fun, the challenge of becoming real. Now that I know that maybe it's possible. But I still have this ragtag body; no amount of caring can change that. It just means that now I fear the death that will surely come." He shrugged, dismissing it "Anyway, the tree was blasted by a curse from that direction." He pointed.
Bink looked. "All I see is a lake." Then, startled: "Didn't the ogre say something about--?"
"Fiends of the lake, who hurled a curse that blasted the whole forest," Grundy said. "We checked: that is the lake."
Humfrey descended from the tree. "I'd better bottle some of this wood, if I can get my magic to work on it," he said. "Never can tell when it might be useful."
"Cast a spell hurling it away from your bottle," Chester suggested from the tree. He, too, dropped to the ground, after some awkward maneuvering that put his handsome posterior in jeopardy. Centaurs really did not belong in trees.
The Magician set up his vial and wood and uttered an incantation. There was a flash, a puff of smoke, and a gradual clearing of the air.
There sat the vial, corked. There sat the wood. The Good Magician was gone.
"Where did he go?" Bink demanded.
Crombie whirled and pointed his wing. Directly toward the bottle.
"Oh, no!" Bink cried, horrified. "His spell reversed, all right! It banished him to the bottle!" He dashed over and picked it up, jerking out the cork. Vapor issued forth, expanding and swirling and coalescing and forming in due course into the Good Magician. There was a fried egg perched on his head. "I forgot I was keeping breakfast in that one," he said ruefully.
Grundy could hold back his newfound emotion no longer. He burst out laughing. He fell to the ground and rolled about, guffawing. "Oh, nobody gnomes the trouble he's seen!" the golem gasped, going into a further paroxysm.
"A sense of humor is part of being real," Chester said solemnly.
"Just so," Humfrey agreed somewhat shortly, "Good thing an enemy did not get hold of the bottle. The holder has power over the content."
The Magician tried again--and again. Eventually he found the proper aspect of reversal and managed to conjure the wood into the vial. Bink hoped the effort was worth it. At least he knew, now, how the Good Magician had assembled such an assortment of items. He simply bottled anything he thought he might need.
Then Bink encountered another pile of earth. "Hey, Magician!" he cried. "Time to investigate this thing. What is making these mounds? Are they all over Xanth, or just where we happen to be?"
Humfrey came over to contemplate the pile. "I suppose I'd better," he grumped. "There was one on the siren's isle, and another at our bone-camp." He brought out his magic mirror. "What thing is this?" he snapped at it.
The mirror clouded thoughtfully, then cleared. It produced the image of a wormlike creature.
"That's a wiggle!" Bink exclaimed, horrified. "Are the wiggles swarming again?"
"That's not a wiggle," Chester said. "Look at the scale. It's ten times too large." And in the mirror a measuring stick appeared beside the worm, showing it to be ten times the length of a wiggle. "Don't you know your taxonomy? That's a squiggle."
"A squiggle?" Bink asked blankly. He did not want to admit that he had never heard of that species. "It looks like an overgrown wiggle to me."
"They are cousins," Chester explained. "The squiggles are larger, slower, and do not swarm. They are solitary creatures, traveling under the ground. They are harmless."
"But the piles of dirt--"
"I had forgotten about that," Chester said. "I should have recognized the castings before. They eject the dirt from their tunnels behind them, and where they touch the surface it forms into a pile. As they tunnel on, the further castings plug up the hole, so there is nothing left except the pile."
"But what do they do?"
"They move about, make piles of earth. That's all."
"But why are they following me? I have nothing to do with squiggles."
"Could be coincidence," Humfrey said. He addressed the mirror. "Is it?"
The mirror's unhappy baby face showed.
"Someone or something is setting the squiggle to spy on us, then," Humfrey said, and the mirror smiled. "The question is, who?"
The mirror turned dark. "The same as the source of magic?" Humfrey demanded. The mirror denied it. "Bink's enemy, then?" And the smiling baby returned.
"Not the same as the fiends of the lake?" Bink asked.
The baby smiled.
"You mean it is the same?"
"Don't confuse the mirror with your illogic," the Magician snapped. "It agreed it was not the same!"
"Uh, yes," Bink said. "Still, if our route takes us past the fiends, we have a problem. With the enemy spying on us all the way, and throwing obstacles in our way, he's sure to excite the fiends into something dire."
"I believe you are correct," Humfrey said. "It may be time for me to expend some more of my magic."
"Glory be!" Chester exclaimed ironically.
"Quiet, horserear!" Humfrey snapped. "Now let me see. Do we have to pass the fiends of the lake to reach our destination?" The mirror smiled.
"And the fiends have curse-magic sufficient to blast forests?"
The mirror agreed.
"What's the most convenient way to pass without trouble?"
The mirror showed a picture of Bink watching a play.
Humfrey looked up. "Can any of you make sense of this?"
Crombie squawked. "Where am I?" Grundy translated.
"Let me rephrase that question," Humfrey said quickly. "Where is Crombie while Bink is watching the play?"
The mirror showed one of the Magician's vials. The griffin went into an angry medley of squawks. "Oh come off it, beakbrain!" the golem said. "You know I can't repeat words like that in public. Not if I want to become real."
"Beakbrain's concern is understandable," Chester said. "Why should he be banished to a bottle? He might never get out."
"I'm supposed to do the translations!" Grundy complained, forgetting his prior reluctance.
Humfrey put away the mirror. "If you won't pay attention to my advice," he informed Crombie, "then do it your own way."
"You temperamental real people are at it again," Grundy said. "The rational thing to do is listen to the advice, consider the alternatives, discuss them, and form a consensus."
"The little imp is making uncommon sense," Chester said.
"Which little imp?" Grundy demanded.
"I suspect," the Magician said grimly, "that the garrulous golem would be best off in a bottle."
"We're fighting again," Bink said. "If the mirror says we can pass the fiends most conveniently' by traveling in bottles, I'd rather gamble on that than on the sort of thing we've just been through."
"You don't have to gamble," Grundy pointed out. "You have to go watch a dumb play."
"I have faith in my mirror," Humfrey said, and the mirror blushed so brightly there was a faint glow through his jacket. "To prove it, I will submit to bottling myself. I believe the one Beauregard used is pleasantly upholstered and huge enough for two. Suppose Crombie and Grundy and I enter that bottle and give it to Bink to carry? Then he can ride Chester to the play."
"I'm willing," Bink said. He wondered privately whether the Good Magician would take all his other bottles with him into the bottle. That seemed a bit paradoxical, but no doubt was possible. "But I don't know exactly where the fiends are, and I'd rather not barge in on them unexpectedly. If we approach carefully, circumspectly, they may be less fiendish."
Crombie pointed to the lake.
"Yes, I know. But where at the lake? At the edge? On an island? I mean, before I innocently walk into a tree-blasting curse--"
Crombie squawked and spread his wings. His proud colors flashed as he flew up and made for the lake.
"Wait, featherbrain!" Chester cried. "They'll see you by air! That will give us all away!" But the griffin ignored him.
They watched Crombie wing handsomely out over the water, his plumage flexing red, blue, and white. "I have to admit the ornery cuss is a beautiful animal," Chester murmured.
Then the griffin folded his wings and plummeted toward the surface of the lake, spinning in the air. "A curse!" Bink cried. "They shot him down with a curse!"
But then the figure straightened out, regained altitude, and winged back. Crombie seemed to be all right.
"What happened?" Bink demanded as the griffin landed. "Was it a curse?"
"Squawk!" Crombie replied. Grundy translated: "What curse? I merely did my turnabout to get a closer fix on the fiends. They reside under the water."
"Under the water!" Bink cried. "How can we go there?"
Humfrey brought out another vial and handed it to Bink. "These pills will do the trick. Take one every two hours while submerged. It will--"
"There's a mound starting!" Chester cried. "A spy!"
Humfrey whipped out yet another vial, uncorked it, and aimed it at the upwelling dirt A jet of vapor shot out, striking the mound. Crystals of ice formed. The mound froze.
"Fire extinguisher," the Magician explained. "Very cold. That squiggle is frozen stiff in its tunnel."
"Let me kill it while I can catch it!" Chester said eagerly.
"Wait!" Bink said. "How long will the freeze last?"
"Only a couple of minutes," Humfrey said. "Then the squiggle will resume activity with no impairment"
"And no memory of the missing minutes?" Bink asked.
"It should not be aware of the lapse. Squiggles aren't very smart."
"Then don't kill it! Get out of its observation. It will be convinced this was a false alarm, that we were never here. It will so report to its master, throwing the enemy off the track."
The Magician's brow lifted. "Very intelligent, Bink. You are thinking more like a leader now. We shall hide in the bottle, and you and Chester can carry it with you. Quickly, before the freeze abates."
The griffin remained uncertain, but acquiesced. The Magician set the vial, performed his incantation, and man, griffin, and golem vanished.
"Grab the bottle, get on my back, hang on!" Chester cried. "Time's almost up!"
Bink snatched up the lone vial remaining, jumped on Chester's back, and hung on. The centaur took off. In a moment his hooves were splashing through the shallow water. "Gimme a pill!" Chester cried.
Bink fumbled out a pill from the bottle, praying he would not spill the works as he bounced around. He popped one into his mouth and handed the other forward to Chester's raised hand. "I hope these work!" he cried.
"That's all we need--another wrong bottle!" Chester exclaimed. "Gobble a foaming insulation pill..."
Bink wished the centaur hadn't thought of that. Insulation, or freezing extinguisher--ouch!
He glanced back. Was it his imagination, or was the dirt mound growing again? Had they gotten away in time? Suppose the squiggle saw their footprints?
Then Chester hit a drop-off, and they plunged underwater. Bink choked involuntarily as the liquid covered his mouth--but the water was just like air to his breathing. In fact, it was like air to his whole body, except for its color. They could breathe!
This experience reminded him of something. In a moment he had it: the Queen's anniversary party! That had been illusory underwater scenery, while this was genuine. Unfortunately, the Queen's version had been prettier. Here things were murky and dull.
Chester plodded on, picking his way carefully through the unfamiliar aquatic environment. Dusky clouds of sediment stirred up around his legs. Curious fish looked the pair over. Chester now held his bow in his hands, in case they should encounter a sea monster. Apart from the tension, it was soon rather dull going.
Bink drew out the bottle that held the Magician and put his eye to the side. Vaguely he made out the shapes of a tiny griffin and tinier man. They were in a carpeted room like that of a palace, and were looking at moving pictures in the magic mirror. It seemed very comfortable. Much nicer, in fact, than forging through the murk toward fiends.
Another ugly thought came. Suppose he had grabbed the wrong bottle himself, and popped the Magician into his mouth in lieu of a water-breathing pill? Such things were very scary right now.
Bink put the vial in his pocket, reassured that his friends were secure. He wondered what would happen if he shook the bottle violently, but resisted the urge to experiment. "Let's go visit the fiends," he said with false cheer.
Shortly they approached a splendid marine castle. It was formed from seashells--which meant it was probably magical, since few seashells formed in lakes without the aid of magic. Little whirlpools ascended from its turrets, apparently bringing air down to the inhabitants. Instead of a moat, the castle had a thick wall of seaweed, patrolled by vigilant swordfish.
"Well, let's hope the fiends are kind to travelers," Bink said. There were no bubbles as he spoke; the pill had fully acclimatized him.
"Let's hope the Magician's mirror knew its business," the centaur responded grimly. "And that the fiends don't connect the fool griffin with us, if they saw him."
They marched up to the main gate. A behemoth rose out of the muck, mostly mouth.
"Hooold!" the behemoth bellowed. "Whoo goooes there?" It was very proficient and resonant on the long O's; the sound reverberated across the reaches of the cavernous maw.
"Chester and Bink, travelers," Bink said with some trepidation. "We'd like lodging for the night."
"Soooo?" the monster inquired. "Then goooo!" Its mouth gaped even more horrendously.
"Go?" the centaur repeated aggressively. "We just came!"
"Soo gooo!" the behemoth reverberated, its orifice gaping so widely that the centaur could have ridden right into it without ducking his head.
Chester reached for his sword. "Uh, hooold--I mean hold," Bink murmured. "I remember--the gargoyle--I think it means to go inside. Inside the mouth."
The centaur peered into the monster's tunnel-like throat. "Damned if I'll cooperate in my own consumption!"
"But that's the entrance to the castle!" Bink explained. "The behemoth itself."
Chester stared. "Well I'll be gelded!" And without further hesitation he galloped in.
Sure enough, the throat continued on into the castle. Lights appeared at the end of the tunnel, and soon they emerged into a palatial receiving hall. Intricately woven tapestries covered the walls, and the floor was done in fancy wooden squares.
A handsome, almost pretty young man walked up to greet them. He had ornate curls about his ears and a neat mustache. His costume was a princely robe embroidered with brightly colored threads, and he wore soft slippers with pointed toes. "Welcome to Gateway Castle," he said. "May I inquire your identities and the purpose of this visit?"
"You may," Chester said.
There was a pause. "Well?" the man said, a bit nettled.
"Well, why don't you inquire?" Chester said. "I gave you permission."
Small muscles quirked about the man's mouth, making him less pretty. "I so inquire."
"I am Chester Centaur, and this is my companion Bink. He's human."
"So I noted. And your purpose?"
"We seek the source of magic," Bink said.
"You have lost your way. It is at the Amazon village, some distance north. But the direct route is hazardous to your sanity."
"We have been there," Bink said. "That is not the ultimate source, but merely the upwelling of magic dust. What we seek lies below. According to our information, a more convenient route passes through this castle."
The man almost smiled. "Oh, you would not care for that route!"
"Try us and see."
"This is beyond my cognizance. You will have to talk with the lord of the manor."
"Good enough," Bink said. He wondered what sort of a fiend this lord would be, who had such a docile human servant.
"If you would be good enough to come this way."
"We're good enough," Chester said.
"But first we must do something about your hooves. The floor is teak parquet; we do not wish it scratched or dented."
"Why put it on the floor, then?" Chester demanded.
"We do not apply it to the floor of our stable," the man said. He produced several disks of felt pads "Apply these to your hooves; they will adhere, and muffle the impact."
"How about wearing one of these on your mouth?" Chester demanded.
"It's a small concession," Bink murmured. Chester's hooves were sound, since the healing elixir had eliminated all damage to the centaur's hind end, but they were hard enough to leave an imprint. "Humor the poor man. The fiends are probably very strict about such things, and punish their servants for violations."
With imperfect grace, Chester pressed his hooves one at a time onto the felt disks. The material clung to them, and it made the centaur's footfalls silent.
They moved through an elegant hall, descended carpeted steps, and entered a small chamber. There was barely room for Chester to stand. "If this is your main hall--" he began.
The man touched a button. The door slid closed. Then, abruptly, the room moved.
Bink flung out his hands, startled, and Chester kicked a hole in the rear wall.
"Easy, visitors," the man said with a small frown. "Haven't you ridden an elevator before? It is inanimate magic, a chamber that rises or sinks when occupied. Saves wear on stairs."
"Oh," Bink said, abashed. He preferred more conventional magic.
The magic lift stopped. The door slid open. They stepped out into another hall, and in due course came to the chambers of the lord of the manor.
He was, to Bink's surprise, a man, garbed richly in silver cloth and diamonds, but with the same foolish slippers his servant wore. "So you proffer service for a night's lodging," he said briskly.
"This is our custom," Bink said.
"And ours too!" the lord agreed heartily. "Have you any special talents?"
Bink couldn't tell his own, and didn't know Chester's. "Uh, not exactly. But we're strong, and can do work."
"Work? Oh my heavens no!" the lord exclaimed. "People do not work here!"
Oh? "How do you live, then?" Bink asked. "We organize, we direct--and we entertain," the lord said. "Have you any entertainment abilities?" Bink spread his hands. "I'm afraid not."
"Excellent! You will make an ideal audience."
"Audience?" Bink knew that Chester was as perplexed as he. The mirror had shown him watching a play--yet that could hardly be a service!
"We send our troupes out to entertain the masses, accepting payment in materials and services. It is a rewarding profession, esthetically and practically. But it is necessary to obtain advance audience ratings, so that we can gauge our reception precisely."
This innocuous employment hardly jibed with the local reputation! "To be an audience--to watch your shows--that's all you require? It hardly seems equitable! I'm afraid we would not be able to present an informed critical report--"
"No necessity! Our magic monitors will gauge your reactions, and point up our rough edges. You will have nothing to do but react, honestly."
"I suppose we could do that" Bink said dubiously. "If you really are satisfied."
"Something funny here," Chester said. "How come you have a reputation as fiends?"
"Uh, that's not diplomatic," Bink murmured, embarrassed.
"Fiends? Who called us fiends?" the lord demanded. "The ogre," Chester replied. "He said you blasted a whole forest with a curse."
The lord stroked his goatee. "The ogre survives?"
"Chester, shut up!" Bink hissed. But the centaur's unruly nature had taken control. "All he was doing was rescuing his lady ogre, and you couldn't stand to have him happy, so--"
"Ah, yes, that ogre. I suppose to an ogre's way of thinking, we would be fiends. To us, crunching human bones is fiendish. It is all in one's perspective."
Apparently the centaur had not antagonized the lord, though Bink judged that to be sheer luck. Unless the lord, like his troupe, was an actor--in which case there could be serious and subtle trouble. "This one is now a vegetarian," Bink said. "But I'm curious: do you really have such devastating curses, and why should you care what an ogre does? You really don't have cause to worry about ogres, here under the lake; they can't swim."
"We do really have such curses," the lord said. "They constitute group effort, the massing of all our magic. We have no individual talents, only individual contributions toward the whole."
Bink was amazed. Here was a whole society with duplicating talents! Magic did repeat itself!
"We do not employ our curses haphazardly, however. We went after the ogre as a professional matter. He was interfering with our monopoly."
Both Bink and Chester were blank. "Your what?"
"We handle all formal entertainments in southern Xanth. That bad actor blundered into one of our sets and kidnapped our leading lady. We do not tolerate such interference or competition."
"You used an ogress for a leading lady?" Bink asked.
"We used a transformed nymph--a consummate actress. All our players are consummate, as you shall see. In that role she resembled the most ogre like ogress imaginable, absolutely horrible." He paused, considering. "In fact, with her artistic temperament, she was getting pretty ogre like in life. Prima donna..."
"Then the ogre's error was understandable."
"Perhaps. But not tolerable. He had no business on that set. We had to scrub the whole production. It ruined our season."
Bink wondered what reception the ogre would encounter, as he rescued his ideal female. An actress in ogress guise, actually from the castle of the fiends!
"What about the reverse-spell tree?" Chester asked.
"People were taking its fruit and being entertained by the reversal effects. We did not appreciate the competition. So we eliminated it."
Chester glanced at Bink, but did not speak. Perhaps these people really were somewhat fiendish. To abolish all rival forms of entertainment--
"And where did you say you were traveling to?" the lord inquired.
"To the source of magic," Bink said. "We understand it is underground, and that the best route leads through this castle."
"I do not appreciate humor at my expense," the lord said, frowning. "If you do not wish to inform me of your mission, that is certainly your privilege. But do not taunt me with an obvious fabrication."
Bink had the impression that obviousness was a worse affront than fabrication, to this person.
"Listen, fiend!" Chester said, bridling in most obvious fashion. "Centaurs do not lie!"
"Uh, let me handle this," Bink said quickly. "There is surely some misunderstanding. We are on quest for the source of magic--but perhaps we have been misinformed as to its access."
The lord mellowed. "That must be the case. Below this castle lies only the vortex. Nothing that goes that route ever returns. We are the Gateway; we straddle the vortex, protecting innocent creatures from being drawn unwittingly into that horrible fate. Who informed you that the object of your quest lay in such a direction?"
"Well, a Magician--"
"Never trust a Magician! They are all up to mischief!"
"Uh, maybe so," Bink said uneasily, and Chester nodded thoughtfully. "He was very convincing."
"They tend to be," the lord said darkly. Abruptly he shifted the subject. "I will show you the vortex. This way, if you please." He led the way to an interior panel. It slid aside at his touch. There was a glistening wall of glassy substance. No, not glass; it was moving. Fleeting irregularities showed horizontally. Now Bink could see through it somewhat vaguely, making out the three-dimensional shape. It was a column, perhaps twice his armspan in diameter, with a hollow center. In fact it was water, coursing around in circles at high speed. Or in spirals, going down--
"A whirlpool!" Chester exclaimed. "We are looking at the nether column of a whirlpool!"
"Correct," the lord said with pride. "We have constructed our castle around it, containing it by magic. Substances may pass into it, but not out of it. Criminals and other untoward persons are fed into its maw, to disappear forever. This is a most salutary deterrent."
Surely so! The mass of moving fluid was awesome in its smooth power, and frightening. Yet it was also in its fashion luring, like the song of the siren, or the madness.
Bink yanked his gaze away. "But where does it go?"
"Who would presume to know?" the lord inquired in return, quirking an eyebrow expressively. He slid the panel across and the vision of the vortex was gone.
"Enough of this," the lord decided. "We shall wine and dine you fittingly, and then you will audience our play."
The meal was excellent, served by fetching young women in scant green outfits who paid flattering attention to the travelers, especially Chester. They seemed to admire both his muscular man-portion and his handsome equine portion. Bink wondered, as he had before, what it was girls saw in horses. The siren had been so eager to ride!
At last, stuffed, Bink and Chester were ushered to the theater. The stage was several times the size of the chamber for the audience. Apparently these people did not like to watch as much as they liked to perform.
The curtain lifted and it was on: a gaudily costumed affair replete with bold swordsmen and buxom women and funny jokers. The staged duels were impressive, but Bink wondered how proficient those men would be with their weapons in a real battle. There was a considerable difference between technical skill and combat nerve! The women were marvelously seductive--but would they be as shapely without the support of their special clothes, or as wittily suggestive minus the memorized lines?
"You do not find our production entertaining?" the lord inquired.
"I prefer life," Bink replied.
The lord made a note on his pad: MORE REALISM,
Then the play shifted to a scene of music. The heroine sang a lovely song of loss and longing, meditating on her faithless lover, and it was difficult to imagine how any lout, no matter how louty, could be faithless to such a desirable creature. Bink thought of Chameleon again, and longed for her again. Chester was standing raptly beside him, probably thinking of horsing around with Cherie Centaur, who was indeed a fetching filly.
Then the song was augmented by a hauntingly lovely accompaniment. A flute was playing, its notes of such absolute quality and clarity that the lady's voice was shamed. Bink looked toward that sound--and there it was, a gleaming silver flute hanging in the air beside the heroine, playing by itself. A magic flute! The lady ceased singing, surprised, but the flute played on. Indeed, freed of the limitations of her voice, it trilled on into an aria of phenomenal expertise and beauty. Now the entire cast of players stood listening, seeming to find it as novel as Bink did.
The lord jumped to his feet "Who is performing that magic?" he demanded.
No one answered. All were absorbed in the presentation.
"Clear that set!" the lord cried, red-faced. "Everybody out, out, out!"
Slowly they cleared, fading into the wings, looking back at the solo instrument The stage was empty--but still the flute played, performing a medley of melodies, each more lovely than the one preceding.
The lord grabbed Bink by the shoulders. "Are you doing it?" he demanded, seeming about ready to choke.
Bink tore his attention from the flute. "I have no magic like that!" he said.
The lord hauled on Chester's muscular arm. "You--it must be yours, then!"
Chester's head turned to face him. "What?" he asked, as if coming out of a reverie. In that instant, flute and music faded.
"Chester!" Bink exclaimed. "Your talent! All the beauty in your nature, suppressed because it was linked to your magic, and as a centaur you couldn't--"
"My talent!" Chester repeated, amazed. "It must be me! I never did dare to--who would have believed--"
"Play it again!" Bink urged. "Make beautiful music! Prove you have magic, just as your hero-uncle Herman the Hermit did!"
"Yes," Chester agreed. He concentrated. The flute reappeared. It began to play, haltingly at first, then with greater conviction and beauty. And strangely, the centaur's rather homely face began to seem less so. Not so strange, Bink realized: much of Chester's brutality of expression stemmed from his habitual snarl. That snarl had abated; he had no need of it any more.
"Now you don't owe the Magician any service," Bink pointed out. "You found your talent yourself."
"What abominable mischief!" the lord cried. "You accepted our hospitality on the agreement that you would render service as an audience. You are not an audience--you are a performer. You have reneged on your agreement with us!"
Now a portion of Chester's familiar arrogance reasserted itself. The flute blew a flat note. "Manfeathers!" the centaur snapped. "I was only playing along with your heroine's song. Bring your play back; I'll watch it, and accompany it."
"Hardly," the lord said grimly. "We tolerate no non-guild performances in our midst. We maintain a monopoly."
"What are you going to do?" Chester demanded. "Throw a fit? I mean, a curse?"
"Uh, I wouldn't--" Bink cautioned his friend.
"I'll not tolerate such arrogance from a mere half-man!" the lord said.
"Oh, yeah?" Chester retorted. With an easy and insulting gesture he caught the man's shirtfront with one hand and lifted him off the floor.
"Chester, we're their guests!" Bink protested.
"Not any more!" the lord gasped. "Get out of this castle before we destroy you for your insolence!"
"My insolence--for playing a magic flute?" Chester demanded incredulously. "How would you like that flute up your--"
"Chester!" Bink cried warningly, though he had considerable sympathy for the centaur's position. He invoked the one name that had power to restrain Chester's wrath: "Cherie wouldn't like it if you--"
"Oh, I wouldn't do it to her!" Chester said. reconsidered. "Not with a flute--"
All this time the centaur had been holding the lord suspended in air. Suddenly the man's shirt ripped, and then he fell ignominiously to the floor. More than ignominiously: he landed in a fresh pile of dirt.
Actually, this cushioned his impact, saving him from possible injury. But it multiplied his rage. "Dirt!" the lord cried. "This animal dumped me in dirt!"
"Well, that's where you belong," Chester said. "I really wouldn't want to dirty my clean silver flute on you." He glanced at Bink. "I'm glad it's silver, and not some cheap metal. Shows quality, that flute."
"Yes," Bink agreed hastily. "Now if we can leave--"
"What's dirt doing on my teak parquet?" the lord demanded. There was now a crowd of actors and servants about him, helping him up, brushing him off, fawning.
"The squiggle," Bink said, dismayed. "It found us again."
"Oh, so it's a friend of yours!" the lord cried, proceeding dramatically from rage to rage. "I should have known! It shall be the first to be cursed!" And he pointed one finger, shaking with emotion, at the pile. "All together now. A-one, a-two, a-three!"
Everyone linked hands and concentrated. At the count of three the curse came forth, like a bolt of lightning from the lord's finger. Ball lightning: it formed into a glowing mass the size of a fist, and drifted down to touch the dirt. At contact it exploded--or imploded. There was a flash of darkness and a momentary acrid odor; then the air cleared and there was nothing. No dirt, no squiggle, no flooring, in that region.
The lord glanced at the hole with satisfaction. "That's one squiggle that will never bother us again," he said. "Now for you, half-man." He raised his terrible finger to point at Chester. "A-one, a-two--"
Bink dived across, knocking the man's arm aside. The curse spun off and smashed into a column. There was another implosion of darkness, and a chunk of the column dissolved into nothingness.
"Now see what you've done!" the lord cried, becoming if possible even more angry than before. Bink could not protest; probably his talent had been responsible for the seemingly random shot. The curse had to destroy something, after all.
Bink himself would be immune--but not Chester, "Let's get out of here!" Bink said. "Give me a ride out of range of those curses!"
Chester, about to draw his sword, reconsidered in mid-motion. "That's right--I can take care of myself, but you're just a man. Come on!"
Bink scrambled to straddle the centaur's back, and they leaped away just as the lord was leveling another curse. Chester galloped down the hall, his feet oddly silent because of the hoofpads. The fiends set up a howl of pursuit.
"Which way is out?" Bink cried.
"How should I know? That's birdbeak's department I'm only a former guest of the fiends."
Good old Chester! All prickle and performance.
"We're somewhere upstairs," Bink said. "Except they don't use stairs. We could break out a window and swim--" He reached into his pocket, feeling the bottle that contained Crombie, Grundy, and the Magician. He fumbled until he found the one containing the water-breathing-spell pills; couldn't afford a mistake now! "We'd better take new pills; it's been over two hours."
They gulped their pills on the run. Now they were ready for the water--if they could find it They had left the pursuit behind for the moment; no man on foot could match the speed of a centaur.
Bink had a second thought "We don't want to go out--we want to go down. Into the nether region, to the source of magic."
"Where they tried to scare us away from," Chester agreed. He spun about as neatly as he had when dodging exploding pineapples, his two front feet down so that fore and hind sections rotated about the axis. Then he cantered back the way they had come.
"Hold up!" Bink screamed. "This is suicidal! We don't even know where the entrance to the vortex is!"
"The vortex has to be in the center of the castle; matter of architectural stability," Chester said. "Besides which, I have a fair directional sense of my own; I know roughly where it is from here. I am prepared to make my own entrance." Bink tended to forget that behind the brutal facade lay a fine centaur mind Chester knew what he was doing.
They rounded a corner--and plowed into the charging fiends. People went tumbling every which way--but a massive curse rose up from the jumble and sailed after Chester.
Bink, glancing nervously back, spied it. "Chester--run!" he cried. "There's a curse on your tail!"
"On my tail!" Chester cried indignantly, and leaped forward. He didn't mind threats to his homely face, but his beautiful behind was sacred.
The curse, oriented on its target, pursued with determination. "This one we can't avoid," Bink said. "It's locked onto us, as the other was locked onto the ogre,"
"Should we swear off crunching bones?"
"I never was much for human bones anyway!"
"I think the vortex is ahead," Chester said. "Hang on--I'm going in!"
He leaped--directly at a blank wooden panel. The wood shattered under the impact of his forehooves, and the two of them crashed directly into the vortex.
Bink's last thought as the awful swirl engulfed him, hauling him brutally around and around and down and down, providing one terrifying glimpse of its dark center shaft, was: what would happen to the curse that followed them? Then he spiraled into oblivion.
Chapter 12: Demon Xanth.
"On his way," Humfrey said. Bink kept his sword drawn as he followed the Magician. Jewel walked silently behind him, carrying the golem.
"Incidentally," Humfrey said. "Crombie was not deceiving you. The antidote you seek does lie in the direction of the lake--but beyond it The coral could enable you to obtain it--if things work out."
"I have no interest in bribes from the enemy," Bink said curtly.
"You don't?" Jewel asked. "You don't want the antidote?"
"Sorry--I didn't mean I intended to renege," Bink told her. "It's a matter of principle. I can't let the enemy subvert me, even though I do not wish to burden you with my love any longer than--"
"It's no burden, Bink," she said. "I never saw anything so brave as--"
"But since the antidote is evidently out of reach, there is no point in keeping you. I'm sorry I inconvenienced you for nothing. You are free to go, now."
She caught at his arm. Bink automatically moved his sword out of the way. "Bink, I--"
Bink yielded to his desire at last and kissed her. To his surprise, she returned the kiss emphatically. The scent of yellow roses surrounded them. Then he pushed her gently away. "Take good care of yourself, nymph. This sort of adventure is not for you. I would like to believe that you are safe and happy with your gems and your job, always."
"Bink, I can't go."
"You have to go! Here there is only horror and danger, and I have no right to subject you to it. You must depart without discovering the source of magic, so that you will have no enemy."
Now she smelled of pine trees on a hot day, all pungent and fresh and mildly intoxicating. The elixir had cured her hoarseness, too, and had erased the no-sleep shadows under her eyes. She was as lovely as she had been the moment he first saw her. "You have no right to send me away, either," she said.
Humfrey moved. Bink's sword leaped up warningly. Jewel backed off, frightened again.
"Have no concern," the Magician said. "We approach the source of magic."
Bink, wary, hardly dared believe it. "I see nothing special."
"See this rock?" Humfrey asked, pointing. "It is the magic rock, slowly moving up, leaking through to the surface after hundreds of years, squeezing through a fault in the regular strata. Above, it becomes magic dust. Part of the natural or magical conversion of the land's crust." He pointed down. "Below--is where it becomes charged. The source of magic."
"Yes--but how is it charged with magic?" Bink demanded. "Why has the coral so adamantly opposed my approach?"
"You will soon know." The Magician showed the way to a natural, curving tunnel-ramp that led down. "Feel the intensifying strength of magic, here? The most minor talent looms like that of a Magician--but all talents are largely nullified by the ambience. It is as if magic does not exist, paradoxically, because it can not be differentiated properly."
Bink could not make much sense of that. He continued on down, alert for further betrayal, conscious of the pressure of magic all about him. If a lightning bug made its little spark here, there would be a blast sufficient to blow the top off a mountain! They were certainly approaching the source--but was this also a trap?
The ramp debouched into an enormous cave, whose far wall was carved into the shape of a giant demon face. "The Demon Xanth, the source of magic," Humfrey said simply.
"This statue, this mere mask?" Bink asked incredulously. "What joke is this?"
"Hardly a joke, Bink. Without this Demon, our land would be just like Mundania. A land without magic."
"And this is all you have to show me? How do you expect me to believe it?"
"I don't expect that you have to listen to the rationale. Only then can you grasp the immense significance of what you see--and appreciate the incalculable peril your presence here means to our society."
Bink shook his head with resignation. "I said I'd listen. I'll listen. But I don't guarantee to believe your story."
"You can not fail to believe," Humfrey said. "But whether you accept--that is the gamble. The information comes in this manner: we shall walk about this chamber, intercepting a few of the magic vortexes of the Demon's thoughts. Then we will understand."
"I don't want any more magic experience!" Bink protested. "All I want to know is the nature of the source."
"You shall, you shall!" Humfrey said. "Just walk with me, that is all. There is no other way." He stepped forward.
Still suspicious, Bink paced him, for he did not want to let the Magician get beyond the immediate reach of his sword.
Suddenly he felt giddy; it was as if he were falling, but his feet were firm. He paused, bracing himself against he knew not what. Another siege of madness? If that were the trap--
He saw stars. Not the paltry motes of the normal night sky, but monstrous and monstrously strange balls of flaming yet unburning substance, of gas more dense than rock, and tides without water. They were so far apart that a dragon could not have flown from one to another in its lifetime, and so numerous that a man could not count them all in his lifetime, yet all were visible at once. Between these magically huge-small, distant-close unbelievable certainties flew the omnipotent Demons, touching a small (enormous) star here to make it flicker, a large (tiny) one there to make it glow red, and upon occasion puffing one into the blinding flash of a nova. The realm of the stars was the Demons' playground.
The vision faded. Bink looked dazedly around at the cave, and the tremendous, still face of the Demon. "You stepped out of that particular thought-vortex," Humfrey explained. "Each one is extremely narrow, though deep."
"Uh, yes," Bink agreed. He took another step--and faced a lovely she-Demon, with eyes as deep as the vortex of the fiends and hair that spread out like the tail of a comet. She was not precisely female, for the Demons had no reproduction and therefore no sex unless they wanted it for entertainment; they were eternal. They had always existed, and always would exist, as long as there was any point in existence. But for variety at times they played with variations of sex and assumed the aspect of male, female, itmale, hemale, shemale, neutermale and anonymale. At the moment she was close enough to a category to be viewed as such, and it was not a he category.
"-------->" she said, formulating a concept so vastly spacious as to fail to register upon Bink's comprehension. Yet her portent was so significant it moved him profoundly. He felt a sudden compelling urgency to--but such a thing would have been inexpressibly obscene in human terms, had it been possible or even conceivable. She was not, after all, closest in category to female.
Bink emerged from the thought eddy and saw Jewel standing transfixed, meshed in a different current. Her lips were parted, her bosom heaving. What was she experiencing? Bink suffered a quadruple-level reaction: horror that she should be subjected to any thought as crudely and sophisticatedly compelling as the one he had just experienced, for she was an innocent nymph; jealousy that she should react so raptly to something other than himself, especially if it were as suggestive a notion as the one he had absorbed; guilt about feeling that way about a nymph he could not really have, though he would not have wished the concept on the one he did have; and intense curiosity. Suppose an itmale made an offer--oh, horrible! Yet so tempting, too.
But Humfrey was moving, and Bink had to move too. He stepped into an eternal memory, so long that it resembled a magic highway extending into infinity both ways. The line-of-sight--though sight was not precisely the sense employed--to the past disappeared into a far-far distant flash. The Demon universe had begun in an explosion, and ended in another, and the whole of time and matter was the mere hiatus between these bangs--which two bangs were in turn only aspects of the same one. Obviously this was a completely alien universe from Bink's own! Yet, in the throes of this flux of relevant meaninglessness, it became believable. A super-magic framework for the super-magical Demons!
Bink emerged from the Thought "But what do the Demons have to do with the source of the magic of Xanth?" he demanded plaintively.
Then he entered a new flux--a complex one. If we cooperate, we can enlarge our A's, the pseudo-female Demon communicated seductively. At least, this was as much as Bink could grasp of her import, that had levels and resonances and symbolisms as myriad as the stars, and as intense and diffuse and confusing. My formula is E(A/Rth, yours X(A/N)th. Our A's match.
Chapter 4: Magician's Castle.
Magician Humfrey's castle was the same as ever. It stood tall and slender, with stout outer ramparts and a high inner tower topped by embrasures and parapets and similar accouterments normal to castles. It was smaller than Bink remembered, but he knew it had not changed. Perhaps the problem was that his memory of the interior made it larger than his memory of the exterior. With magic, it was possible that the inside really was larger than the outside.
The magic access routes had been changed, however, and the hippocampus or water-horse was gone from the moat, its time of service expired. There was surely another creature standing guard inside, in lieu of the manticora Bink had known: the one at the Anniversary party. Even monsters had to give a year of their lives as fee for the Good Magician's Answers, and they normally performed as guardians of the castle. Humfrey did not appreciate casual intrusions.
As they came to the moat, the nature of the new guardian became apparent Monster? Monsters! The water teemed with serpentine loops, some white, some black, sliding past each other interminably.
"But where are the heads, the tails?" Chester inquired, perplexed. "All I see are coils."
The three of them stood by the moat, pondering. What could a whole fleet of sea serpents have wanted to ask the Good Magician, needing his Answer so badly that all were willing to pay the fee? How had they gotten here? It seemed it was not for Bink and his friends to know.
Fortunately, this was not a hazard he had to brave.
Bink was on the King's business, and would be admitted to the castle as soon as he made his presence known. "Magician Humfrey!" he called.
There was no response from the castle. Doubtless the Good Magician was buried in a good book of magic, oblivious to outside proceedings. "Magician, it is Bink, on a mission for the King!" he called again.
Still no response. "The old gnome must be hard of hearing," Chester muttered. "Let me try." He cupped his hands before his mouth and bellowed: "MAGICIAN: COMPANY!"
The bellow echoed and re-echoed from the battlements, but the castle was silent "He should be at home," Bink said. "He never goes anywhere. Still, we can check. Crombie, where is the Good Magician?"
The griffin went through his act and pointed--directly toward the castle. "Must be beyond it," Chester said. "If your talent's not on the blink again."
Crombie squawked, his fine hackle-feathers rising again. He stood on his hind feet and made boxing motions with his front feet, challenging the centaur to fight Chester seemed quite ready to oblige.
"No, no!" Bink cried, diving between them. "We don't want to make a bad impression!"
"Hell, I wanted to make a good impression--on his feathery face," Chester grumbled.
Bink knew he had to separate the two combative creatures. "Go around to the other side of the castle and get another fix on the Magician," he told Crombie.
"Triangulate," Chester said.
Triangulate? Bink, accustomed to his friend's surly manner, had forgotten how educated centaurs were. Triangulation was a magical means of locating something without going there directly. Chester had a good mind and a lot of background information, when he cared to let it show.
The griffin decided that the word was not, after all, a scatological insult, and flew to one side of the castle and pointed again. Toward the castle. No question about it: the Magician was home.
"Better fly in and notify him we're here," Bink said. "We don't want to mess with those moat-monsters."
Crombie took off again. There was a small landing area between the moat and the castle, but no opening in the wall, so the griffin mounted to the high turrets. But there seemed to be no entry there for a creature of that size, so after circling the tower twice the griffin flew back.
"I remember now," Bink said. "The windows are barred. A small bird can get through, but not a griffin. We'll just have to brave the moat after all."
"We're here on the King's business!" Chester exclaimed angrily. His unhandsome face was excellent for scowling. "We don't have to run the gauntlet!"
Bink was piqued himself. But he knew he could make it through, because of his talent. "It is my responsibility. I'll see if I can navigate the castle obstacles and get his attention, then he'll let you in."
"We won't let you brave that moat alone!" Chester protested, and Crombie squawked agreement. These two might have their rivalry, but they knew their ultimate loyalty.
This was awkward. They had no magical protection. "I'd really rather do it alone," Bink said. "I am smaller than you, and more likely to slip through. If I fall in the moat, you can lasso me and haul me out, quickly. But I could never haul you out, if--"
"Got a point," Chester admitted grudgingly. "Crombie can fly across the water, but we already know he can't get in. Too bad he's not strong enough to fly with you,"
Crombie started to bridle again, but Bink cut in quickly. "He could carry your rope to me, in an emergency. I really think it is best this way. You can help me most by figuring out what type of monsters are in that moat. Is there anything in the centaur's lexicon about headless serpents?"
"Some--but the coils don't match the pattern. They look more like pieces of a--" Chester broke off, staring. "It is! It's an ouroboros!"
"An ouroboros?" Bink repeated blankly. "What's that--a fleet of sea monsters?"
"It is all one monster, a water dragon, clutching its own tail between its teeth. Half of it white, half black. The symbolism is--"
"But there are a score or more segments, all over the moat! Some are in toward the castle, and some out near the edge. Look--there's three lined up parallel. They can't be pieces of the same monster!"
"Yes they can," Chester said wisely. "The ouroboros loops entirely around the castle--"
"But that would account for only a single-file line of--"
"Loops several times, and its head plunges below its own coils to catch the tail, A little like a mobius strip. So--"
"Never mind. That's specialized magic. Take my word: that thing in the moat is all one monster--and it can't bite because it won't let go of its tail. So if you're good at balancing, you can walk along it to the castle."
"But no segment shows above the water more than five feet! I'd fall in, if I tried to jump from segment to segment!"
"Don't jump," Chester said with unusual patience, for him. "Walk. Even coiled several times around the loop, the thing is too long for the moat, so it has to make vertical convolutions. These can never straighten out; as soon as one subsides, another must rise, and this happens in a progressive undulation. That's how the ouroboros moves, in this restricted locale. So you need never get wet; just follow one stage of the thing to the end."
"This makes no sense to me!" Bink said. "You're speaking in Centaurese. Can't you simplify?"
"Just jump aboard the nearest loop and stay there," Chester advised. "You'll understand it once you do it."
"You have more confidence in me than I do," Bink said dubiously. "I hope you know what I'm doing."
"I trusted you to get us out of the nickelpede crevice Crombie got us into," Chester said. "Now you trust me to get you across that moat. It isn't as if you've never ridden a monster before."
"Squawk!" Crombie cried, pointing a wing at the centaur. Bink smiled; he had been riding the centaur. Score one for the soldier.
"Just don't fall off," Chester continued evenly. "You'd get crushed by the coils."
"Um," Bink agreed, sobering. Even with his talent backing him up, he didn't like this. Walking the back of a moving sea monster? Why not walk the wings of a flying roc, while he was at it!
He cast his gaze about, as he tended to do when he sought some escape from what he knew he could not escape--and spotted another mound of earth. Angrily he marched a few paces and stepped on it, pressing it down.
But when a convenient loop offered, Bink jumped across to it, windmilling his arms in the fashion of a mill-tree to regain his balance. The segment of monster sank somewhat beneath his weight, then stabilized pneumatically. Though glistening with moisture, the white skin was not slippery. Good; maybe this walk was possible after all!
The flesh rippled. The section in front of him subsided into the water. "Turn about!" Chester called from the bank. "Stay with it!"
Bink turned, windmilling again. There, behind/before him, the loop was extending. He stepped along it, hurrying as the water lapped at his heels. This was like a magic highway, opening out ahead of him, closing behind him. Maybe that was the basic principle of such one-way paths; they were really the backs of monsters! Yet though the serpent seemed to be moving toward Bink's rear, the loop stayed in place, or drifted slightly forward. So he was walking fairly swiftly, to make rather slow progress. "I'll never get across this way," he complained. "I'm not even walking toward the castle."
"You'll get there," Chester called. "Keep your feet going."
Bink kept walking, and the centaur and griffin moved slowly around the moat to keep pace. Suddenly a loop developed between him and his friends. "Hey, I've crossed to an inner loop--and I never left this one!" Bink exclaimed.
"You are spiraling inward," Chester explained. "There is no other way to go. When you get to the inner bank, jump off."
Bink continued, rather enjoying it now that he had his sea legs and understood the mechanism. There was no way he could avoid reaching the other shore, so long as he kept his place here. Yet what an ingenious puzzle it was; could he have solved it without Chester's help?
Abruptly the segment narrowed. He was coming to the end of the tail! Then the head of the ouroboros came in sight, its teeth firmly clamped to the tail. Suddenly nervous again, Bink had no alternative but to tread on that head. Suppose it decided to let go the tail, just this once, and take him in instead? The big dragon eyes stared briefly at him, sending a chill through his body.
Then the head was past, continuing its undulation into the water, and Bink was treading the massive neck, broad as a highway after the slender tail. Apparently this dragon, serpent, or whatever was independent of air; it could keep its head submerged indefinitely. Yet how did it eat, if it never let go of its tail? It couldn't be eating itself, could it? Maybe that had been its Question for the Magician: how could it let go of its tail, so it could consume the idiots who walked along its length? No, if it had the answer to that, it would have gobbled up Bink as he passed. "Jump, Bink!" Chester called. Oops--had the serpent changed its mind, let go, and come to gobble? Bink looked back, but saw nothing special. Then he looked ahead--and discovered that the body was twisting down and under the adjacent leg of the spiral. No more highway! He leaped to shore as his footing ended.
Now he was at the outer rampart of the castle. He looked for the great doorway he had encountered on his first approach to this castle, back before Trent was King--and found a waterfall.
A waterfall? How had that gotten here? He traced It upward and saw a ledge; the water issued from somewhere out of sight, to course down over the frame of the door.
Was there an aperture behind the sheet of water? Bink did not relish getting wet here, after traversing the whole moat dry, but he would have to look. He removed his clothing and set it aside, so that it would not get soaked, then nudged cautiously into the waterfall.
The water was cool but not chill. There was a small air space behind it. Then the wood facing of the door. He explored the surface with his hands, pushing here and there, but found no looseness anywhere. There was no entrance here.
He backed out of the fall, shaking his head to clear it of drips. Where could he go from here? The ledge circled the castle, but he knew the wall was solid stone throughout. There would be no access to the interior.
Nevertheless, Bink made the circuit, verifying his suspicion. No access. What now?
He suffered a surge of anger. Here he was on the King's business; why should he have to go through all this nonsense? The old gnome-Magician thought he was so clever, putting a maze around himself! Bink had just about had it with mazes. First the Queen's, then the nickelpede crevice, now this.
But at heart Bink was a practical man. In due course the pressure of his anger ceased, like the steam of a relaxing dragon. He came to look at the waterfall again. This was no mountain, with natural drainage. The water had to be raised by mundane or magical means to an upper level, then poured out. Surely it was a circulatory system, drawn from the moat and returning to it. Could he swim in where the water was sucked up?
No. Water could go where he could not. Such as through a sieve. He could drown, if his body got stuck in the water channel. Not worth the risk.
The only other direction was up. Could he climb?
Yes he could. He now noted little handholds in the wood at the edge of the waterfall. "Here I come," he muttered.
He climbed. As his head poked over the sill, he froze. There on the roof squatted a gargoyle. The water issued from its grotesque mouth.
Then he realized that this monster, like the ouroboros, should not be dangerous if he handled it properly. The gargoyle, assigned to water-spouting duty, would be unlikely to chase him.
Bink clambered to the surface of the small roof. He surveyed the situation from this firmer footing. The gargoyle was about his own height, but it was mostly face. The body was so foreshortened as to represent no more than a pedestal. The head was so distorted that Bink could not tell whether it was man, animal, or other. Huge eyes bulged, the nose was like that of a horse, the ears flared out enormously, and the mouth took up fully a third of the face. With the water pouring out like a prolonged regurgitation.
Behind the monster the wall of the castle resumed. There were no handholds, and even if he could scale it, he saw only barred apertures above. No particular hope there.
Bink contemplated the gargoyle. How had it gotten up here? It had no real hands or feet to use to climb the way Bink had. Was there a door behind it? That seemed reasonable.
He would have to move the monster away from that door. But how? The thing had not attacked him, but its attitude might change if he molested it. The gargoyle was more massive than he; it might shove him right of the roof. Too bad he didn't have his sword to defend himself; that was with his clothing, back beside the moat.
Should he climb back down to get it? No, he was sure that would not be wise; it would give away his intent. The gargoyle could move over and crunch his fingers as he ascended with the weapon.
Maybe he could bluff it. "Move over, foulface; I am on a mission for the King."
The gargoyle ignored him. That was another thing that was getting to Bink: being ignored. "Move, or I'll move you myself!" He stepped toward the monster.
No reaction. How could he back down now? Trusting his talent to protect him, Bink moved in beside the gargoyle, staying clear of the river of water spouting from its mouth, and applied his hands to its surface. The grotesque face felt like stone, completely hard. It was heavy, too; shove as he might he could not budge it. This monster was defeating him--and it hadn't even noticed him!
Then Bink had a bright idea. Sometimes creatures were vulnerable to their own specialties. The gargoyle's specialty was ugliness.
Bink stood before it, straddling the river. "Hey, homely--here's what you look like!" He put his fingers in the corners of his mouth to stretch it wide while he bugged his eyes.
The gargoyle reacted. It pursed its lips to funnel the water toward Bink. Bink jumped nimbly aside. "Nyaat" he yelled, puffing out his cheeks to make another ludicrous face.
The monster shuddered with rage. It shot another blast of water at him. Bink was tagged by the fringe of it, and almost washed off the ledge. This was, after all, a chancy business!
He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. "Haa!" he cried, unable to form anything much better while holding the expression.
The gargoyle was infuriated. Its mouth opened until it took up half the face. But with the opening that large, the water emerged at low pressure, dribbling down the ugly chin.
Bink dived forward--directly into that mouth. He scrambled upstream against the slowly moving water--and emerged into a reservoir tank within the castle. In a moment he had stroked to the surface and climbed out He was inside!
But not yet safe. A cactus cat perched at the edge of the reservoir. It was about half Bink's height, with a normal feline face, but its fur was composed of thorns. On the ears the thorns were very large and stiff, like slender spikes. But the cat's real weapons were on its front legs: knifelike blades of bone projecting from the front, scintillatingly sharp. These obviously could not be wielded endwise like daggers, but would be devastating as slicers.
The thorn-fur was horizontally striped, green and brown, and this pattern carried over into the three tails. A pretty but dangerous creature; one that no cognizant person would pat casually on the head saying "Nice kitty."
Was this another guardian of the castle, or merely a houseguest? Cactus cats normally ran wild, slicing up cactus with their blades and feeding on the fermenting sap. Needle cactuses fought back, however, shooting their needles into anything that annoyed them, so they were natural enemies to the cactus cats. Encounters between the two were said to be quite something! But there was no cactus of any kind here. Maybe this was an animal soliciting an Answer from the Good Magician.
Bink tried to skirt it, but the cat moved lithely to the only apparent exit and settled there. So it seemed he would have to force the issue, regardless.
Suddenly Bink got mad. He had had enough of these obstructions. He was no mere supplicant, he was here on the King's business! "Cat, get out of my way!" he said loudly.
The animal began to snore. But Bink knew it would come awake instantly and violently if he tried to sneak past it. Cats were ornery that way. This creature was playing cat and mouse with him--and that made him madder yet.
But what could he do? He was no needle cactus, with hundreds of sliver-thorns to launch. How could he strike at this insufferable cat?
Needles. There were other missiles than needles.
"Then pay the consequence!" Bink snapped. He leaned over the reservoir and sliced his hand across its surface, scooping out a fierce splash of water. The droplets arched across the room and splatted against the wall beside the sleeping cat.
The creature rose up with a screech of sheerest feline fury. Sparks radiated from its ears. Most cats hated water, other than small tame amounts for drinking, and desert cats were enraged by it. The thing charged Bink, its forelimb blades gleaming.
Bink scooped another volley of liquid at it. The cat leaped straight up in horror, letting the splash pass under. Oh, it was ecstatically angry now!
"We can handle this two ways, Cactus," Bink said calmly, his hand ready by the water. "Either I can soak you down thoroughly--or you can stand and let me pass. Or any combination of the two."
The cat snarled. It looked at Bink, then at the water. Finally it affected loss of interest, in the manner of balked felines, and stalked to the side, all three tails standing stiffly.
"Very good, Cactus," Bink said. "But a word to the cunning: if I were to be attacked on the way, I should simply have to grab my antagonist and plunge into the pool and drown him, whatever the mutual cost. That would be inconvenient, and I hope it does not become necessary."
The cat pretended not to hear. It settled down again to sleep.
Bink walked toward the door, affecting a nonchalance similar to that of the cactus cat, but was wary. Fortunately he had bluffed it out; the cat did not move.
Now he was past the hurdles. He explored the castle until he located the Good Magician Humfrey. The man was gnomelike, perched on top of three huge tomes so as to gain the elevation he needed to pore over a fourth. He was old, perhaps the oldest man in the Land of Xanth, with skin wrinkled and mottled. But he was a fine and honest Magician, and Bink knew him to be a kindly individual under all his gruff-ness.
"Magician!" Bink exclaimed, still irked by the challenge of entry. "Why don't you pay attention to who's visiting! I had to run your infernal gauntlet--and I'm not even coming as a supplicant. I'm on the King's business."
Humfrey looked up, rubbing one reddish eye with a gnarled little hand. "Oh, hello, Bink. Why haven't you visited me before this?"
"We were yelling across the moat! You never answered!"
Humfrey frowned. "Why should I answer a transformed griffin who squawks in a manner that would make a real griffin blush? Why should I acknowledge the bellow of an ornery centaur? The one has no Question, and the other doesn't want to pay for his. Both are wasting my time."
"So you were aware of us all the time!" Bink exclaimed, half-angry, half-admiring, with a little indefinable emotion left over. What a personality this was! "You let me struggle through the whole needless gauntlet!"
"Needless, Bink? You come on a mission that will cost me an inordinate amount of time, and will threaten the welfare of Xanth itself. Why should I encourage you in such folly?"
"I don't need encouragement!" Bink cried hotly. "All I need is advice--because the King thought that was best"
The Good Magician shook his head. "The King is a remarkably savvy customer. You need more than advice, Bink."
"Well, all I need from you is advice!"
"You shall have it, and without charge: forget this mission."
"I can't forget this mission! I'm on assignment for the--"
"So you said. I did tell you that you needed more than advice. You're as ornery as your friends. Why didn't you leave that poor dragon alone?"
"Leave the poor--" Bink started indignantly. Then he laughed. "You're some character, Magician! Now stop teasing me and tell me why, since you obviously have been well aware of my progress, you did not let us into the castle the easy way."
"Because I hate to be disturbed for minor matters. Had you been balked by my routine defenses, you could hardly have possessed the will to pursue your mission properly. But as I feared, you persevered. What started as a minor diversion with a shapely ghost has become a serious quest--and the result is opaque even to my magic. I queried Beauregard on the matter, and he got so upset I had to rebottle him before he had a nervous breakdown."
Beauregard--that was the bespectacled demon corked in a container, highly educated. Bink began to feel uncomfortable. "What could so shake up a demon?"
"The end of Xanth," Humfrey said simply.
"But all I'm looking for is the source of magic," Bink protested. "I'm not going to do anything to harm Xanth. I love Xanth!"
"You weren't going to install the Evil Magician as King, last time you were here," Humfrey reminded him. "Your minor personal quests have a way of getting out of hand."
"You mean this present mission is going to be worse than the last one?" Bink asked, feeling both excited and appalled. He had only wanted to find his own talent, before.
The Magician nodded soberly. "So it would seem. I can not fathom in what precise manner your quest will threaten Xanth, but I am certain the risks are extraordinary."
Bink thought of giving up the quest and returning to Chameleon, ugly and sharp of tongue as she was at the moment, with Millie the nonghost hovering near. Suddenly he became much more interested in the source of the magic of Xanth. "Thanks for your advice. I'm going on."
"Less hasty, Bink! That was not my magic advice; that was just common sense, for which I make no charge. I knew you would ignore it."
Bink found it hard at times not to get impatient with the Good Magician. "Let's have your magic Answer, then."
"And what do you proffer for payment?"
"Payment!" Bink expostulated. "This is--"
"The King's business," the Magician finished. "Be realistic, Bink. The King is merely getting you out of his hair for a while until your home life sweetens up. He can't have you tearing up his palace every time he tries to make out with the Queen. That hardly warrants my waiver of fee."
Only a foolish man tried to argue with a Magician whose talent was information. Bink argued. "The King merely timed the mission conveniently. My job always has been to seek out the source of magic; it just took me a while to get around to it. It is important for the King to have this knowledge. Now that I'm actually on the quest, the authority of the King is behind it, and he can call on your resources if he chooses. You knew that when you helped make him King."
Humfrey shook his head. "Trent has become arrogant in his power. He draws ruthlessly on the talents of others to forward his purposes." Then he smiled.
"In other words, he is exactly the kind of monarch Xanth needs. He does not plead or petition, he commands. I as a loyal citizen must support that exercise of power." He glanced at Bink. "However capriciously it happens to be exercised. Thus my fee becomes forfeit to the good of Xanth, though in this case I fear it is the bad of Xanth."
This capitulation was too sudden and too amiable. There had to be a catch. "What is your Answer, then?"
"What is your Question?"
Bink choked on a mouthful of air. "What do I need for this quest?" he spluttered.
"Your quest can not be successful unless you take a Magician along."
"Take a Magician!" Bink exclaimed. "There are only three Magician-class people in Xanth, and two of them are the King and Queen! I can't--" He broke of, realizing. "You?"
"I told you this was going to cost me time!" Humfrey grumbled. "All my arcane researches interrupted, my castle mothballed--because you can't wait a few days for your wife to finish her pregnancy and get sweet and pretty again."
"You old rogue!" Bink cried. "You want to come!"
"I hardly made that claim," the Magician said sourly. "The fact is, this quest is too important to allow it to be bungled by an amateur, as well the King understood when he sent you here. Since there is no one else of suitable expertise available, I am forced to make the sacrifice. There is no necessity, however, that I be gracious about it."
"But you could have sought the source of magic anytime! You didn't have to co-opt the quest right when I--"
"I co-opt nothing. It is your quest; I merely accompany you, as an emergency resource."
"You mean you're not taking over?"
"What do I want with leadership? I shall stick to my own business, leaving the pesky details of management and routing to you, until my resources are needed--which I trust will not be soon or often."
Now Bink was uncertain how serious Humfrey was.
Surely a man who specialized in magical information would be seriously interested in the source of magic--but certainly the Good Magician liked his convenience and privacy, as his castle and mode of operation testified. Probably Humfrey was torn between desires for isolation and knowledge, so reacted negatively while doing what he deemed to be the right thing. No sense in aggravating the situation. The man would certainly be an incalculable asset on a quest of this nature. "I am sorry to be the agent of such inconvenience to you, but glad to have your help. Your expertise is vastly greater than mine."
"Umph," Humfrey agreed, trying not to seem mollified. "Let's get on with it. Go tell the troll to let down the drawbridge for your companions."
"Uh, there is one other thing," Bink said. "Someone may be trying to kill me--"
"And you want to know who."
"Yes. And why. I don't like--"
"That is not the King's business. It will have to be covered by a separate fee."
Oh. Just when Bink had begun to suspect there was a decent streak in the Good Magician, he had this confirmation of the man's mercenary nature. One year of service for the Answer? Bink preferred to locate and deal with his enemy himself. "Forget it," he said.
"It is already forgotten," Humfrey said graciously.
Bink trekked downstairs, found the troll, and gave it the instruction. The brute winched down the bridge. Where the drawbridge mechanism was Bink did not know, as it had not been apparent from the outside, and the troll stood in a chamber near the center of the castle. There had to be magical augmentation to connect what the troll did to what the bridge did. But it worked, and Chester and Crombie entered at last, emerging from a gate that opened from the center of the castle. How could there be an opening here, with no hole through the wall? The Magician was evidently squandering a lot of magic here! Maybe some clever technician had brought a Question, and constructed this mechanism in fee.
"I knew you'd come through, Bink!" the centaur said. "What did the old gnome say about your quest?"
"He's coming with me."
Chester shook his head. "You're in trouble."
The Magician came downstairs to meet them. "So you want to know your obscene talent," he said to the centaur. "What fee do you offer the old gnome?"
Chester was for once abashed. "I'm not sure I--centaurs aren't supposed to--"
"Aren't supposed to be wishy-washy?" Humfrey asked cuttingly.
"Chester just came along to give me a ride," Bink said. "And fight dragons."
"Bink will still need a ride," Humfrey said. "Since I am now associated with this quest, it behooves me to arrange for it. I proffer you this deal: in lieu of the customary year's service for the Answer, I will accept service for the duration of this quest"
Chester was startled. "You mean I do have a talent? A magic one?"
"And you know it already? What it is?"
"Then--" But the centaur paused. "I might figure it out for myself, if it was so easy for you to do. Why should I pay you for it?"
"Why, indeed," the Magician agreed.
"But if I don't figure it out, and if Bink gets in trouble because he meets a dragon when I'm not there--"
"I would love to let you stew indefinitely in your dilemma," Humfrey said. "But I am in a hurry and Bink needs a ride, so I'll cut it short. Undertake the service I require, in advance of my Answer. If you fail to solve your talent yourself, I will tell you at the termination of the quest--or any prior time you so request If you do solve it yourself, I will provide a second Answer to whatever other question you may ask. Thus you will in effect have two Answers for the price of one."
Chester considered momentarily. "Done," he agreed. "I like adventure anyway."
The Magician turned to Crombie. "Now you are directly in the King's service, so are committed for the duration. He has given you a fine form, but it lacks intelligible speech. I believe it would be better for you to be more communicative. Accordingly, meet another of my fee-servitors: Grundy the Golem." A miniature man-figure appeared, his whole height hardly the span of an ordinary man's hand. He seemed to have been formed from bits of string and clay and wood and other refuse, but he was animate.
The griffin looked at the golem with a certain surprised contempt. One bite of that eagle's beak could sever all four appendages from the figure. "Squawk!" Crombie remarked.
"Same to you, birdbeak," the golem said without special emphasis, as if he didn't really care.
"Grundy's talent is translation," the Magician explained. "I shall assign him to render the soldier's griffin-speech into human speech, so we can better understand him. He already understands us, as so many animals do, so no reverse translation is required. The golem is small enough for any of us to carry without strain, so his transportation will be no problem. Bink will ride the centaur, and I will ride the griffin. That way we shall make expeditious progress." And so, efficiently, it was arranged. The quest for the source of the magic of Xanth had begun.
Chapter 11: Brain Coral.
Bink woke with a start as the diggle halted. "I think we're here," Jewel murmured. Her voice was hoarse from hours of singing.
"You should have waked me before!" Bink said. "To take my turn singing the worm along. You've sung yourself out."
"Your head was so nice on my shoulder, I couldn't disturb you," she rasped. "Besides, you'll need all your strength. I can feel the magic intensifying as we move along."
Bink felt it too: a subtle prickle on his skin like that of the magic dust. For all he knew, the rock through which they traveled might be the magic-dust rock, before it welled to the surface. But the mystery remained: what was it that imbued that rock with magic? "Uh, thanks," he said awkwardly. "You're a sweet nymph."
"Well--" She turned her head, making it easy to kiss. She smelled of especially fine roses: this magic, too, was enhanced by the environment. Bink leaned forward, inhaling the delicious fragrance, bringing his lips close to--
They were interrupted by the sight of the bottle. It bobbled on the glowing surface of another lake. Something was attached to it, a bit of string or tar--
"Grundy!" Bink cried.
The golem looked up. "About time you got here! Fetch in this bottle, before--"
"Is it safe to swim in this lake?" Bink asked, wary of the glow. It might keep the goblins away, but that didn't make it safe for people.
"No," Jewel said. "The water is slowly poisonous to most forms of life. One drink won't hurt much, if you get out of it soon, up at the headwaters where it is diluted by the fresh flow from the surface. But down here, where it has absorbed much more horrible magic--"
"Right. No swimming," Bink said. "Chester, can you lasso it?"
"Out of range," the centaur said. "If the eddy currents carry it closer to shore I can snag it readily enough."
"Better hurry," Grundy called. "There's something under the lake, and it--"
"The fiends lived under a lake," Chester said. "Do you think the enemy--?"
Bink started stripping of! his clothing. "I think I'd better swim out and get that bottle right now. If the lake harms me, the Magician can give me a drop of his healing elixir. That should be more potent, too, here."
"Don't do that!" Jewel cried. "That lake--I don't think you'd ever reach the bottle. Here, I'll have the diggle phase through the water. Nothing hurts him when he's in phase."
At her direction, and hoarse singing, the worm slid into the water, erecting its circular flange to form a temporary tunnel through the liquid, as through rock. He moved very slowly, until Chester's flute appeared and played a brisk, beautiful marching tune. The flute seemed larger and brighter than it had before, and its sound was louder: more magical enhancement. The diggle speeded up, expanding and contracting in time to the music. He advanced purposefully toward the bottle. "Oh, thank you, centaur," Jewel whispered.
"Hurry! Hurry!" the golem called. "The coral is aware of the--is trying to--is--HELP! IT'S COMING UP TO GET ME!"
Then Grundy screamed horribly, as if in human pain. "I'm not real enough, yet," he gasped after the scream had torn its way out of his system. "I'm still just a golem, just a thing, string and gum. I can be controlled. I--"
He broke off, then screamed again, then resumed more quietly. "I'm gone."
Bink understood none of this, yet had the sinking feeling that he should somehow have tried to help the golem to fight off--what? Some encouragement, some reminder of the feelings Grundy evidently did have. Maybe the golem could have fought off his private personal horror, if--
Now the worm was almost at the bottle. Quickly Grundy wrapped his string-arms about the cork, braced his feet against the neck of the bottle, and heaved. "By the power of the brain coral, emerge!" he gasped.
The cork flew out. Smoke poured from the bottle, swirled into a whirlwind, ballooned, then coalesced into the figures of the Good Magician and the griffin. "Grundy rescued them!" Chester exclaimed as his flute faded out.
"Fly to shore!" Bink cried. "Don't touch the water!"
Humfrey caught hold of Crombie, who spread his wings and bore them both up. For a moment they tilted unsteadily, then righted and moved smoothly forward.
Bink ran up as they landed at the shore. "We were so worried about you, afraid the enemy would get you first!"
"The enemy did," Humfrey said, reaching for a vial as he let go of the griffin. "Turn about, Bink; desist your quest, and you will not be harmed."
"Desist my quest!" Bink cried, amazed. "Right when I'm so close to accomplishing it? You know I won't do that!"
"I serve a new master, but my scruples remain," Humfrey said. There was something sinister about him now; he remained a small, gnomish man, but now there was no humor in that characterization. His gaze was more like that of a basilisk than that of a man: a cold, deadly stare. "It is necessary that you understand. The bottle was opened by the agency of the entity that lies beneath this lake, a creature of tremendous intelligence and magic and conscience, but lacking the ability to move. This is the brain coral, who has to operate through other agencies to accomplish its noble purpose."
"The--enemy?" Bink asked, dismayed. "The one who sent the magic sword, and the dragon, and the squiggle--"
"And countless other obstructions, most of which your own magic foiled before they manifested. The coral can not control a conscious, intelligent, living entity; it must operate through thought suggestions that seem like the creature's own notions. That was why the dragon chased you, and the squiggle spied on you, and why the other seemingly coincidental complications occurred. But your talent brought you through almost unscathed. The siren lured you, but the gorgon did not enchant you into stone; the midas fly was diverted to another target, the curse of the fiends missed you. Now, at the heart of the coral's magic, you are finally balked. You must turn back, because--"
"But it can not control you!" Bink protested. "You are a man, an intelligent man, a Magician!"
"It assumed control of the golem, possible only because Grundy's reality was not complete and this is the region of the coral's greatest power. It caused the golem to open the bottle. Crombie and I are subject to the holder of the bottle. It does not matter that the bottle is now floating on the surface of the coral lake; the conjuration was done in the name of the brain coral, and it is binding."
"But--" Bink protested, unable to continue because he could not formulate his thought.
"That was the most savage engagement of this campaign," Humfrey continued. 'The struggle for possession of the bottle. The coral managed to dislodge it from your clothing, but your magic caused the cork to work loose, and we started to emerge. That was the impact of the fiends curse, aiding you by what seemed like an incredible coincidence. It shook the bottle within the vortex. But the coral used a strong eddy current to jam the stopper back, trapping Grundy outside. But your magic made the magic mirror get caught halfway, shattering it, with fragments inside and out, enabling us to establish communication of a sort. Then the coral's magic caused you to lose your fragment of glass. But your magic guided you to Beauregard, who re-established communication. You nearly reached the bottle in time, by turning the liability of your infatuation for the nymph into an asset--your talent outmaneuvered the coral neatly there!--but here the coral's magic is stronger than yours, and so it got the bottle first. Barely. In effect, your two talents have canceled out. But now the coral, through the power of the bottle, controls Crombie and me. All our powers are at its service, and you have lost"
Chester stood beside Bink. "So you have become the enemy," he said slowly.
"Not really. Now that we have access to the coral's perspective, we know that it is on the side of reason. Bink, your quest is dangerous, not merely for you, but for all the land of Xanth. You must desist, believe me!"
"I do not believe you," Bink said grimly. "Not now. Not now that you've changed sides."
"Same here," Chester said. "Conjure yourself back into the bottle, and let us rescue the bottle and release you in our power. Then if you can repeat that statement, I'll listen."
"That is what I thought," Chester said. "I undertook this mission as a service to you, Magician, but I have never collected my Answer from you. I can quit your service anytime I want. But I shall not renounce this quest merely because some hidden monster has scared you into changing your mind."
"Your position is comprehensible," Humfrey said with surprising mildness. "I do not, as you point out, have any present call on your service. But I am obliged to advise you both that if we can not prevail upon your reason, we must oppose you materially."
"You mean you would actually fight us?" Bink asked incredulously.
"We do not wish to resort to force," Humfrey said. "But it is imperative that you desist. Go now, give up your quest, and all will be well"
"And if we don't quit?" Chester demanded belligerently, eyeing Crombie. Obviously the centaur would not be entirely loath to match his prowess against that of the griffin. There had been a kind of rivalry between them all along.
"In that case we should have to nullify you," Humfrey said gravely. Small he was, but he remained a Magician, and his statement sent an ugly chill through Bink. Nobody could afford to take lightly the threat of a Magician.
Bink was torn between unkind alternatives. How could he fight his friends, the very ones he had struggled so hard to rescue? Yet if they were under the spell of the enemy, how could he afford to yield to their demand? If only he could get at the brain coral, the enemy, and destroy it, then his friends would be freed from its baleful influence. But the coral was deep under the poison water, unreachable. Unless--
"Jewel!" he cried. "Send the diggle down to make holes through the coral!"
"I can't, Bink," she said sadly. "The diggle never came back after we sent it after the bottle. I'm stuck here with my bucket of gems." She flipped a diamond angrily into the water. "I can't even plant them properly, now."
"The worm has been sent away," Humfrey said. "Only the completion of your quest can destroy the coral--along with all the Land of Xanth. Depart now, or suffer the consequence."
Bink glanced at Chester. "I don't want to hurt him. Maybe if I can knock him out, get him out of range of the coral--"
"While I take care of birdbeak," Chester said, nominally regretful.
"I don't want bloodshed!" Bink cried. "These are our friends, whom we must rescue."
"I suppose so," Chester agreed reluctantly, "I'll try to immobilize the griffin without hurting him too much. Maybe I'll just pull out a few of his feathers."
Bink realized that this was as much of a compromise as Chester was prepared to make. "Very well. But stop the moment he yields."
Now he faced Humfrey again. "I intend to pursue my quest. I ask you to depart, and to refrain from trying to interfere. It grieves me even to contemplate strife between us, but--"
Humfrey rummaged in his belt of vials. He brought one out. "Huh-uh!" Bink cried, striding across. Yet his out right horror at practicing any kind of violence against his friends held him back, and he got there too late. The cork came out and the vapor issued. It formed into...a green poncho, which flapped about in the air before settling to the floor.
"Wrong bottle," the Magician muttered, and uncorked another.
Bink, momentarily frozen, realized that he could not subdue the Magician until he separated the man from his arsenal of vials. Bink's talent might have helped Humfrey to confuse the bottles, but that sort of error could not be counted on after the first time. Bink drew his sword, intending to slice the belt from the Good Magician's waist--but realized that this seemed like a murderous attack. Again he hesitated--and was brought up short by the coalescing vapor. Suddenly thirteen black cats faced him, spitting viciously.
Bink had never seen a pure cat before, in the flesh. He regarded the cat as an extinct species. He just stood there and stared at this abrupt de-extinction, unable to formulate a durable opinion. If he killed these animals, would he be re-extincting the species?
Meanwhile, the centaur joined battle with the griffin. Their encounter was savage from the outset, despite Chester's promises. His bow was in his hands, and an arrow sizzled through the air. But Crombie, an experienced soldier, did not wait for it to arrive. He leaped and spread his wings, then closed them with a great backblast of air. He shot upward at an angle, the arrow passing beneath his tail feathers. Then he banked near the cavern ceiling and plummeted toward the centaur, screaming, claws outstretched.
Chester's bow was instantly replaced by his rope. He swung up a loop that closed about the griffin's torso, drawing the wings closed. He jerked, and Crombie was swung about in a quarter-circle. The centaur was about three times as massive as his opponent, so was able to control him this way.
A black cat leaped at Bink's face, forcing him to pay attention to his own battle. Reflexively he brought his sword around--and sliced the animal cleanly in half.
Bink froze again in horror. He had not meant to kill it! A rare creature like this--maybe these cats were all that remained in the whole Land of Xanth, being preserved only by the Magician's magic.
Then two things changed his attitude. First, the severed halves of the cat he had struck did not die; they metamorphosed into smaller cats. This was not a real cat, but a pseudo-cat, shaped from life-clay and given a feline imperative. Any part of it became another cat. Had a dog been shaped from the same material, it would have fractured into more dogs. So Bink hardly needed to worry about preservation of that species. Second, another cat was biting him on the ankle.
In a sudden fury of relief and ire, Bink laid about him with his blade. He sliced cats in halves, quarters, and eighths--and every segment became a smaller feline, attacking him with renewed ferocity. This was like fighting the hydra--only this time he had no spell-reversal wood to feed it, and there was no thread to make it drop. Soon he had a hundred tiny cats pouncing on him like rats, and then a thousand attacking like nickelpedes. The more he fought, the worse it got.
Was this magic related to that of the hydra? That monster had been typified by seven, while the cats were thirteen, but each doubled with each strike against a member. If there were some key, some counterspell to abolish doubling magic--
"Get smart, Bink!" Chester called, stomping on several cats that had wandered into his territory. "Sweep them all into the drink."
Of course! Bink stooped low and swung the flat of his sword sidewise, sweeping dozens of thumbnail-sized cats into the lake. They hissed as they splashed, like so many hot pebbles, and then thrashed to the bottom. Whether they were drowning or being poisoned he could not tell, but none emerged.
While he swept his way to victory, Bink absorbed the continuing centaur-griffin engagement. He could not observe everything, but was able to bridge the gaps well enough. He had to keep track, because if anything happened to Chester, Bink would have another enemy to face.
Crombie, initially incapacitated by the rope, bent his head down and sheared his bond cleanly with one crunch of his sharp beak. He spread his wings explosively, made a defiant squawk, and launched a three-point charge at Chester's head: beak, claw, and talon.
The centaur, thrown off balance by the abrupt slackening of the rope, staggered. He had better stability than a man, but he had been hauling hard. His equine shoulder thudded against a stalagmite and broke it off as the griffin made contact. Bink winced--but as it turned out, the stalagmite was more of a problem to Crombie than to Chester. The pointed top fell across the griffin's left wing, weighing it down, forcing Crombie to flap his other wing vigorously to right himself.
Chester rose up, one talon slash down the side of his face where the griffin's strike had missed his eye. But his two great hands now grasped the griffin's two front legs. "Got you now, birdie!" he cried. But in this position he could not use his sword, so he tried to bash the griffin against the broken base of the stalagmite.
Crombie squawked and brought his hind legs up for a double slash that would have disemboweled the centaur's human portion had it scored. Chester hastily let go, throwing Crombie violently away from him. Then he grabbed for his bow and arrow again. The griffin, however, spread his wings to brake his flight, looped about, and closed in again before the arrow could be brought to bear. Now it was hand-to-claw.
Bink had cleared his area of little cats--but the Good Magician had had time to organize his vials and open the next. This coalesced into a mound of bright-red cherry bombs. Oh, no! Bink had had experience with these violent little fruits before, as there was a tree of them on the palace grounds. In fact, these were probably from that same tree. If any of them scored on him--
He dived for Humfrey, catching the Magician's arm before he could throw. Humfrey struggled desperately against Bink's superior strength. Bink still held back, hating this violence though he saw no alternative to it. Both of them fell to the floor. The Magician's belt tore loose, and a collection of vials tumbled across the stone. Some of their corks popped out. The cherry bombs were dislodged; they rolled away and dunked into the lake, where they detonated with harmless thuds and clouds of steam. One rolled into Jewel's bucket of gems.
The explosion sent precious stones flying all over the cavern. Diamonds shot by Bink's ears; a huge pearl thunked into the Magician's chest; opals got under Chester's hooves. "Oh, no!" Jewel cried, horrified. "That's not the way it's supposed to be done! Each has to be planted in exactly the right place!"
Bink was sorry about the gems, but he had more pressing problems. The new bottles were spewing forth a bewildering variety of things.
The first was a pair of winged shoes. "So that's where I left them!" Humfrey exclaimed. But they flew out of reach before he could grab them. The second vial loosed a giant hour-glass whose sands were running out--also harmless in this instance. The next was a collection of exotic-looking seeds, some like huge flat fish eyes, others like salt-and-pepper mix, others like one-winged flies. They fluttered out and littered a wide patch, crunching underfoot, rolling like marbles, squishing and adhering like burrs. But they did not seem to be any direct threat.
Unfortunately, the other vials were also pouring out vapors. These produced a bucket of garbage (so that was how the Magician cleaned his castle: he swept it all into a vial!), a bag of supergrow fertilizer, a miniature thunderstorm, and a small nova star. Now the seeds had food, water, and light. Suddenly they were sprouting. Tendrils poked out, bodies swelled, pods popped, leaves burst forth. Roots gripped the rock and clasped items of garbage; stems shot up to form a dense and variegated carpet. Diverse species fought their own miniature battles over the best fertilizer territory. In moments Bink and the Magician were surrounded by an expanding little jungle. Vines clung to feet, branches poked at bodies, and leaves obscured vision. Soon the plants were flowering. Now their species were identifiable. Lady slippers produced footwear of a most delicate nature, causing Jewel to exclaim in delight and snatch off a pair for herself. Knotweeds formed the most intricate specialized knots: bow, granny, lanyard, clinch, hangman, and half-hitch. Bink had to step quickly to avoid getting tied up. That would cost him the victory right there!
Meanwhile, the Magician was trying to avoid the snapping jaws of dog-tooth violets and dandelions, while a hawkweed made little swoops at his head. Bink would have laughed--but had too many problems of his own. A goldenrod was trying to impale him on its metallic spire, and a sunflower was blinding him with its effulgence. The nova star was no longer needed; the cave was now as bright as day, and would remain so until the sunflower went to seed.
Bink ducked just in time to avoid a flight of glinting arrowheads--but his foot slipped on a buttercup, squirting butter out and making him sit down hard--ooomph--on the squishy head of a skunk cabbage. Suddenly he was steamed in the nauseating fragrance.
Well, what had he expected? He had very little protective talent now; the enemy brain coral had canceled out his magic. Bink was on his own, and had to make his own breaks. At least Humfrey was no better off; at the moment he was being given a hotfoot by a patch of fireweed. He snatched up a flower from a water lily and poured its water out to douse the fire. Meanwhile, several paintbrushes were decorating him with stripes of red, green, and blue. Stray diamonds from the nymph's collection were sticking to his clothes.
This was getting nowhere! Bink tore his way out of the miniature jungle, holding his breath and closing his eyes as a parcel of poppies popped loudly about his head. He felt something enclosing his hands, and had to look: it was a pair of foxgloves. A bluebell rang in his ear; then he was out of it. And there was the Magician's belt with its remaining vials. Suddenly he realized: if he controlled this, Humfrey would be helpless. All his magic was contained in these vials!
Bink stepped toward it--but at that moment the Magician emerged from the foliage, plastered with crowfeet. Humfrey brushed them off, and the feet scampered away. A lone primrose turned its flower away from this gaucherie. Humfrey dived for his magic belt, arriving just as Bink did.
Bink laid his hands on it. There was a tug-of-war. More vials spilled out. One puffed into a kettle of barley soup that spilled across the floor and was eagerly lapped up by the questing rootlets of the jungle. Another developed into a package of mixed nuts and bolts. Then Bink found a steaming rice pudding and heaved it at the Magician--but Humfrey scored first with a big mince pie. Minces flew out explosively, twenty-four of them, littering a yet wider area. Bink caught the brunt of it in his face. Minces were wriggling in his hair and down his neck and partially obscuring his vision. Bink fanned the air with his sword, trying to keep the Magician back while he cleared his vision. Oddly, he could perceive the neighboring battle of centaur and griffin better than his own, at this moment.
Chester's human torso was now streaked with blood from the vicious raking of the griffin's talons. But one of Crombie's forelegs was broken, and one of his wings half-stripped of feathers. That hand-to-claw combat had been savage!
Now the centaur was stalking his opponent with sword in hand, and the griffin was flying in ragged circles just out of reach, seeking an opening. Despite Bink's cautions, these two were deadly serious; they were out to kill each other. Yet how could Bink stop them?
The Magician found a vial and opened it. Bink advanced alertly--but it was another miscue. A huge bowl of yogurt manifested. It had, by the look and smell of it, been in the bottle too long; it had spoiled. It floated gently toward the lake; let the brain coral try a taste of that! But Humfrey already had another vial. These mistakes were not the result of Bink's talent so much as sheer, honest chance; Humfrey seemed to have a hundred things in his vials (he was reputed to have a hundred spells, after all), and few were readily adaptable to combat, and now they were all mixed up. The odds were against anything really dangerous appearing from any randomly chosen vial.
Yet the odds could be beaten. The vial produced a writhing vine from a kraken, which undulated aggressively toward Bink. But he sliced it into fragments with his sword, and advanced on the Magician again. Bink knew he could control the situation now; nothing in Humfrey's bottles could match the devastating presence of a capable sword.
Desperately Humfrey opened bottles, searching for something to further his c