It all started, others agreed later, with Umlaut. Because he wasn't what he seemed to be. His talent was emulation, which was mostly a matter of causing others to see him as he represented himself to be, to a degree. But it might as well have been troublE with a capital E, because of the mischief it led to. It was the teenth of the month, and all the teens were out, but that was only the setting.
At the moment Umlaut was pretending to be a seventeen-year-old girl. The age was right, but not the gender. He was doing it to escape the attention of a real girl who had taken an unwholesome fancy to him. In fact she was chasing him. That might have been all right, for Sherry was pretty enough, except for her talent. That was in her kisses: They were sweeter than wine. Which was fine, up to a point. Unfortunately her first kiss made him feel so pleasant that he wanted more, and three made him tipsy, and last time he had awakened next morning with a dreadful hangover and no memory of the date. But Sherry's father had warned him that if he did it again, he'd have to marry her. That might not have been so bad, except that what good was an experience if he couldn't remember it? So he was trying to take it easy, atleast until he figured out whether he really wanted to marry a sixteen-year-old girl just yet. She thought he was strong, handsome, and suitable; now he regretted emulating her ideal man quite so thoroughly. It would be impossible to do it continuously, and what would happen when she found out how dully ordinary he really was?
Umlaut rounded a bend and spied a group of teenagers having a party. That seemed ideal; he could merge with them and conceal himself until Sherry gave up the chase. Then he could sneak away, free, and return to his normal, somewhat inadequate self.
He ran up to them, hastily adjusting his emulation to make him seem like one of them. "Sorry I got lost," he said somewhat breathlessly. "What's up?"
"We just got a package of Wetti shirts," the tallest and handsomest boy replied. "We traded a rock hound for them."
"Don't you remember? We found it in the old rock mine last week. Friendly dog made of stone."
"Oh, sure," Umlaut said. Of course he didn't remember, because he hadn't been part of this group. Then, to hide his ignorance, he changed the subject. "What are Wetti shirts?"
"We're not sure, but they say they're a lot of fun for girls to wear and great for contests. So why don't you be the first? Put one on." He shoved the package at Umlaut. Of course he took Umlaut for a girl, because that was what he was emulating.
At that point Sherry rounded the turn and ran up. She was breathing hard with the effort. She was a fairly full-figured girl, and several of the boys were looking with interest. "Have you seen Umlaut?" she panted.
"A strong, handsome, suitable boy, running down this path." She paused for a deeper breath, straining a shirt button or two in the process, along with a male eyeball or two.
"No, only another--"
"Try a Wetti shirt," Umlaut said quickly, shoving the package at her. "They're great fun for girls and contests."
"Now wait," the boy protested. "She's not one of us."
That got Sherry's dander up. The dander immediately flewoff in search of a flock of deese, but that didn't stop Sherry. She grabbed the boy by a lapel and planted a kiss on his face. "You were saying?" she demanded, well knowing her power.
The boy looked pleasantly dazed, as if he had just downed a glass of something intoxicatingly sweet. "She's one of us," he decided.
Sherry took a shirt from the package and put it on over her blouse. Suddenly a wash of water fell on her, making her scream pleasantly. The new shirt turned transparent and clung to her body, which seemed about twice as fully formed as before. "I like it," she said. "Who else is in this contest?"
"Contest?" the boy asked, his eyes locked to her front profile. So were the eyes of the other boys in the group, and some of the girls, though there might have been a difference in the girls' expressions.
"The shirt is for contests," she reminded him. "How can I win, if nobody else competes?"
"This girl, what's her name," the boy said, prying his eyes away and turning to Umlaut.
Oops. Umlaut couldn't put on one of those shirts. Emulation had its limits, and it would be shattered if his top half got transparently wet. Then the teens would all know he was an impostor, and Sherry would nab him. All she had to do was plant one sweet kiss on him, and he'd linger for another and be lost. Next morning he'd wake up with a headache and married. He simply wasn't ready for that, apart from the problem of fooling her. Because Sherry, however sweet her kisses and full her body, was not his idea of the perfect wife. Anyway, he was too young to marry.
He bolted. "Hey!" the boy cried. In a moment all of them were chasing him.
Now he was in twice as much trouble as before. Where could he go to escape?
He came up on a young woman who was walking in the same direction. "Uh, hello," he said somewhat breathlessly.
She turned to face him. She had an explorer's cap and a name tag saying Miss Guide. "May I help you?"
"Yes! Please tell me where I can escape a group of pursuing teens!"
"Take the left fork," she said. "Though you are welcome to dally a bit."
"Thank you!" He ran on ahead of her. Belatedly he wondered why she might want to dally with another girl.
But before he found a fork, he came up on another young woman. From behind she had a remarkable figure, and from before also, when he passed her. Her name tag said Miss In Form. "Is the left fork the one?" he gasped.
"In Dubitably," she agreed.
"Thanks!" He ran on.
He overhauled a third young woman, this one wearing a many-feathered bonnet. Her name tag said Miss Chief.
"Is the--?" he started.
"Oh, yes," she agreed. "You'll make a fine Indian maiden."
"Thanks!" He ran on. But something was nagging one corner of his mind. Those young women--if their name tags were literal, they might not be the best sources of information. Misguide, Misinform, Mischief ...
Then he spied a fork in the path. The left fork was marked CONTEST BEACH and the right fork CASTLE ZOMBIE. Ordinarily Umlaut would have preferred the left, especially if he could have watched all the girls in the group donning Wetti shirts for the contest. But at the moment the right fork seemed better. Nobody much who wasn't a zombie went there.
Sure enough, the pursuit soon languished. Umlaut knew the teens wouldn't be too disappointed, because Sherry liked to kiss people, especially boys. But just in case any of the girls followed, he kept running. He let his emulation lapse; he'd run by the castle and then go home.
He almost collided with a group of teen zombie girls. He hadn't realized that zombies had teens, but of course they would be out today if they existed.
"Ooooz, ughsh!" one cried. "A live bzoy!"
"Who caresz?" another demanded. "He'z male."
"Say, yesh," a third said. "Letz kisz him!"
For some reason that escaped him at the moment, Umlaut did not want to be kissed by a group of zombie girlz. So he quickly refurbished his emulation. "I'm notz a boy," he protested. "I'm anozer zombie girzl."
"Oh, zo you are," the second girl said, disappointed. "Whatz you got?"
"Wetti shirts," Umlaut said, realizing that he still carried the package. "They're good for girls in contests."
"Letz try them!" the first girl said.
The zombies quickly took the remaining shirts and put them on. In a moment all were thoroughly soaked, their upper bodies showing to disadvantage. What looked great on live girls was somewhat sordid on zombie girls.
"Ooooz, ughsh!" they exclaimed, quickly appreciating that fact. "We look awzful!"
They tried to remove the shirts, but the wet things clung, tangling with the regular clothing underneath, so that the effect became worse. The girls were screaming with frustration as bits of cloth tore and dangled.
"What's going on here?" It was an irate black girl who appeared to be fully alive.
"Wetzi shirs," a zombie girl explained. "Contezt."
"A wet T-shirt contest? Zombies have no business getting into that. Who put you up to this nonsense?"
"Zhee did!" the girls said, pointing to Umlaut.
More mischief! Umlaut tried to shrink away but couldn't think of a suitable emulation on the spur of the moment; the spur merely jabbed him uncomfortably.
The black girl turned on Umlaut, a small black cloud forming over her head. "I'll deal with you later," she said menacingly. "For now, go muck out the dungeon."
Umlaut decided not to argue; he was in enough trouble already. This was evidently a person of authority. He hurried toward the castle.
He had expected something pretty dingy. He had underestimated the case. Castle Zombie up close was a festering ruin of an edifice. The moat was covered with sludge, and there was slime on the worn stones. The drawbridge was rotten and about to collapse. He did not want to try to cross over it.
"Got a problem?" It was a young man, fully alive.
Umlaut decided to stick with his zombie girl emulation. "Who zhou?"
The man smiled. "I am Justin Tree, master of Castle Zombie. You don't recognize me?"
Umlaut thought fast. "Bad eyzs."
"Of course; I should have realized. And you can't see the bridge clearly enough to cross."
"Yez. I waz zent to muck the dunzeon."
"Oh, yes, Breanna has been meaning to assign a crew for that. The dragon manure is accumulating. Don't be concerned; that bridge is stronger than it looks. Just walk across and take the first stairway down. You'll find a spading fork at the dungeon entrance."
"Zank youz." Umlaut walked cautiously across, and the bridge did turn out to be solid enough.
So the man was Justin Tree. Umlaut had heard of him. He had married a Black Wave girl a year or so back. That would be the one who had sent him here: Breanna of the Black Wave. They had taken over the castle after the original zombie master had retired. It looked as if they still had a lot of cleaning up to do.
He found the stairway down, as slimy as the rest of it. He made his way below. Now he got nervous: What was this about a dragon? A dungeon was not his idea of fun, and a dungeon and a dragon were definitely worth avoiding. But the only way out was back past the master of the castle. So he went on.
There was the spading fork. He picked it up. If the dragon attacked, maybe he could use the fork to warn it back. That didn't seem very promising, but what else was there? Maybe he could simply duck into a small, dark passage and hide from it. He might emulate an ogre, but that would set back only a medium to small dragon.
He walked on through cobwebbed passages and chambers, his eyes adjusting to the gloom. It wasn't pitch dark so much as intensely dim, with wan weak beams of light seeping through crevices in the walls. This dungeon region was huge; he could get lost in it. So he went back to the foot of the stairway, then advanced again, this time scraping a line with a tine of the fork. That would be his sure trail back. It was easier to make a good mark, one that would show up in thedusky recesses, if he walked backward and held it down behind his progress.
It got more difficult, because a layer of mucky manure was building up, thickening as he progressed. He would have a big job to do, once he had his route marked. Where was he supposed to put all this stuff? The odor was awful.
He bumped into something. Startled, he turned. There was a monstrous snout. "The dragon!" he cried and scrambled to escape. But his feet slipped on the solidified stench, and he fell on his rear and slid into a wall. He was done for.
After a moment he realized two things: His bottom was sore from the fall, and the dragon hadn't eaten him. He climbed to his feet, rubbing his soiled posterior. "Ooo, that smarts," he said.
The dragon moved. The huge nose nudged a shelf Umlaut hadn't seen before, and a bottle fell off and rolled toward him. He stooped to pick it up. The crude label said HEALING.
Could that be true? If so, by what mischance had the monster happened to knock that particular bottle down at this time? Good fortune had never been Umlaut's forte.
He decided to try it. He opened the bottle, poured a drop of goo on his hand, and slid the hand down inside his pants to smear the stuff on his rear. Immediately he felt its benefit; not only did his bottom stop smarting, it suddenly felt great. He had gotten a bit tired from the constant bending and pressing on the fork; now his energy had been restored. It truly was healing elixir.
But the mystery remained: How had what he needed been so providently presented to him--by the action of a dragon? Umlaut did not have a lot of belief in coincidences, at least not favorable ones. Normally they just got him into deeper trouble.
Could the dragon have done it intentionally? That seemed incredible, but added to the fact that the creature had not attacked when it could have, it was a possibility. "Did you do that on purpose?" he inquired.
The huge head nodded.
Still, that was not absolute proof. "Are you going to gobble me up as soon as I turn my back on you?"
The snout moved sidewise in a ponderous no gesture.
This was becoming more interesting. "Do you understand my words?"
The head nodded.
"What is two plus one?"
The head bobbed three times.
"You're intelligent!" Umlaut exclaimed.
The dragon hesitated.
"For an animal," Umlaut amended.
The head nodded.
"So you understand me and mean me no harm?"
"Well, that's fine, because I have come here to muck out your stall. Do you happen to know where I can dump the stuff?"
The dragon turned and slithered away. Umlaut hesitated, then decided that it was best to trust the creature, since he could not get the job done otherwise. He followed.
The dragon led him to a large chamber with a hole in the floor. "An oubliette!" Umlaut said. "Dump it down there?"
The dragon nodded.
"But there's a lot of this stuff. Won't it eventually fill up the oubliette?"
The head shook no.
"Magic? Or fast composting?"
That seemed to be the case. At any rate, the dragon nodded.
"Well, I'd better get started," Umlaut said. "I think I'll need more than a fork, though."
The dragon slithered to another chamber, leading him to a two-wheeled cart. That would help.
Umlaut worked. Soon he forgot how he had come here and just focused on the job. It did need to be done, and no one else was here to do it. He started with the chambers closest to the oubliette and worked slowly outward.
Then the dragon nudged him. Umlaut jumped; he had almost forgotten the creature's presence, though the dragon was obviously the source of all this manure. "Something wrong?" he asked.
The dragon made a sidewise motion with its snout, then slithered away. Umlaut followed. They went to the foot ofthe stairs. Breanna of the Black Wave stood there, holding a burning torch. "I think there's been a mistake," she said. "We don't have any record of a zombie girl of your description, and the zombies don't know you." She raised the torch. "In fact you don't look like a zombie at all--or a girl."
Oops. Umlaut had let his emulation lapse again. Did it matter? "I'm a living boy named Umlaut," he said. "I got caught up in things."
"Why didn't you protest when I sent you to the dungeon? I thought you were a misbehaving zombie girl."
"It was easier just to go."
She glanced at the dragon. "I see you are getting along well enough with Drivel."
"Drivel Dragon? That's his name?"
"Zombies tend to have descriptive names. He drools."
"I hadn't noticed."
"Well, come on. We'll get you cleaned up and give you supper and a bed for the night, and you can go on your way in the morning with our apology for the misunderstanding."
Umlaut looked at the dragon. "What about Drivel?"
"He won't fit in the castle. He was here when we took over. We feed him and let him be."
"This is not a vicious or stupid creature. Why is he confined?"
"We don't know. The Zombie Master didn't mention him."
Umlaut made what he suspected was a foolish decision. "Thanks, no thanks. I'll stay down here with him. The job's a long way from being done."
"But it's not your job! I mean to get up a cleanup crew, in due course. It's just taking us time to catch up on everything."
"Well, I'll help you catch up. Maybe I can find out why Drivel was locked in here."
"You can't find out! There are no records of him. We just have to accept what is."
Umlaut knew better but just had to make an issue. "I don't know much about you, Breanna of the Black Wave, but from what I heard, you never put up with 'what is' before."
The woman looked stunned. "You're right! I've become part of the status quo. I'm ashamed."
Umlaut was surprised by her change. "I guess we all get caught up in things."
"For sure! You really want to stay down here?"
"Yes. And try to find out what is the case with Drivel. He's certainly not violent."
"I'll bring your food right down." She handed him the torch, turned, and mounted the steps.
Umlaut turned to the dragon. "Am I being foolish?" he asked.
The dragon shrugged. That was a considerable maneuver, a long ripple along its nearer torso, but the meaning seemed clear enough.
"Here's the thing: I don't have much experience with dragons, but it is my understanding that they generally eat people and anything else they catch. Instead you have been friendly to me. That makes me think that you're not an ordinary dragon. You helped me do my job; maybe I can help you in return. If I can just figure out how."
"So maybe if I talk enough, and you agree or disagree, I can figure it out. Then maybe we'll know what's next."
The dragon nodded.
"Is there a place I can put this torch?"
Drivel nosed a section of a wall. Umlaut went there and found a notch in a nook. He set the base of the torch in the notch, and the polished indentation of the nook served to reflect the light outward.
Breanna arrived back with a small cart. She paused at the top of the steps. "I'll toss Drivel's stakes down, but that won't work for your supper; you'll have to come here for it."
Umlaut went up the steps and found a very nice meal on a tray. Then Breanna tossed down one stake after another. They were evidently from a nearby garden, meat-flavored posts. They smelled like fresh flesh.
"See you in the morning," Breanna said as she departed.
They ate together, by the flickering light of the torch. Drivel seemed to like his stakes well enough. Umlaut tried a bite of one: yes, exactly like raw meat.
While they ate, they conversed, in their fashion. Umlaut talked and Drivel nodded or negated, and they zeroed in onthe story. Soon it came reasonably clear. There were some surprises.
Drivel was not actually a dragon. In fact he was not even male. He--she--was a female water serpent whose name was Sesame. She had been chased by a persistent male of her species whose favor she did not desire, so she had fled to where he would not follow: Castle Zombie.
"Me too!" Umlaut agreed. "In my fashion."
But the moat had been too unsanitary for her taste, so she had had to make her way into the dungeon. Unfortunately a storm had come, and the zombies had battened down the hatches, or whatever it was they did, and Sesame had gotten closed in. A real dragon might have burned its way out, but she was merely a stranded sea serpent without fire, smoke, or steam, and without legs or claws. So she was trapped.
"But weren't you uncomfortable out of the water?" Umlaut asked.
She certainly was. Fortunately the dungeon was dank, and the slime on the walls was damp, and when it rained some water leaked in. She had found basins to collect it, so that she was able to drink and sometimes even to bathe. She had become acclimatized to existing out of the water; after all, many serpents were able to cope on land, and so could she.
"But weren't you hungry?"
Yes indeed. So she had approached a zombie who was storing something in the dungeon, representing herself as a male dragon, because she didn't know how close her serpent suitor might be lurking and needed to remain concealed. The zombie had told Breanna, who had assumed that the dragon was supposed to be there and had arranged for food. Stakes and chops from the local meat trees were fine.
"You have my talent!" Umlaut exclaimed.
The dragon/serpent looked at him quizzically.
"I mean you can emulate things. You certainly seemed like a male dragon to me. And I would have seemed like a zombie maiden to you, if I had thought to maintain my emulation."
It turned out that she had taken him for a zombie girl, then realized that he wasn't when he had started working and muttering bad words as he got grimed. Girls, of course, didn't know any bad words.
"So we're two of a kind," Umlaut said. "Which is odd, because talents aren't supposed to repeat."
Sesame shook her head. Further dialogue established her position: that talents did repeat, as shown with the curse fiends who all had the same talent of cursing, and the flying centaurs, whose talent was flying or making themselves light enough to fly. Also, similar talents could be implemented different ways, as with the centaurs who might fly by having powerful wings, or by lightening magic. But mainly there was no rule about it; folk had just assumed that talents could not repeat, without any proof. It was folklore.
"You're right," Umlaut said. "You must have thought about this somewhat."
She had. She had always been a cerebral sort, which set her apart from others of her kind. It was a frustration, because no other serpents were interested in philosophical questions. They cared mainly about chomping the next fish or unwary human swimmer, and about breeding. She had nothing against either pursuit but did not care to be limited to them when the universe was such a fascinating mystery. So she had been exploring the fringes of the watery domain, including Castle Zombie, when she was spied by a land serpent interested only in breeding and got caught away from the sea.
"Castle Zombie is well beyond the fringe of the sea," Umlaut protested. "It's landlocked, in fact junglelocked."
So she had discovered. She had reached it by swimming up a river, then portaging to its moat. It was a fine, intriguing castle, if only she weren't locked into it.
"But you don't need to be locked in anymore. I'm sure they'll let you go, once they realize it's a mistake."
But first she had to verify whether the land serpent remained watching. He could slither faster than she could on land, so she had to be sure not to alert him. She did not want to be subjected to involuntary breeding. But perhaps that was something that Umlaut, a male, would not understand.
Umlaut thought about his relationship with Sherry and decided that he did understand. "Breeding is fine, in its place, at the right time, with the right other person," he said. "But if any of those factors are wrong, then it's not fine. I fled a too-ardent girl on my way here."
He did understand! She was thrilled. It was just about the first time she had encountered anyone else who understood anything halfway obscure. Did he have an obscure mind?
He laughed. "No, just a garden variety human mind."
She would like to meet more minds like that. She had not realized that human folk had them. But of course she could not go among humans and converse with them, because they wouldn't trust her not to gobble them, and because she couldn't talk in their language. She couldn't explain to them that she really didn't like to eat human flesh. It smelled bad, no offense, and tasted worse.
Umlaut began to get a glimmer of an inkling of a notion. He pounced on it before it escaped. "Why don't we travel together? I could talk with the people, and you could listen, and I could ask your questions for you. Then you could meet all the obscure minds you want to."
Oh, that sounded scrumptious! She could just kiss him, except that she didn't want to scare him.
"Well, I think I have pretty well come to trust you," Umlaut said. "You can kiss me if you want to. Just don't swallow me."
She would try not to do that. Would he move into deeper shadow with her?
Umlaut began to get nervous. But nothing in their long dialogue indicated that she wished him any harm, so this would be a good test of his trust. If she chomped him, he would know better next time. If there were ever a next time. He followed her away from the torch.
When it was almost quite dark, he stopped moving. "Here I am." What had he let himself in for? A chomping, or a slavering of drool?
A pretty girl kissed him on the mouth. Startled, he put his arms around her. She was cool and lithe, with a dress made of fine scales. Where had she come from?
Then he caught on. "Sesame!"
She nodded. It was indeed her. The scales were not of her dress, but of her neck, and of course she had no arms or hair. She had emulated a girl, using the darkness to hide her real outline. She had known it wouldn't work very well in thelight, but with only their lips touching, the emulation was effective. Did he like it?
"Yes, actually," he said. "How did you learn to kiss like a girl?"
Well, she was a girl--a girl serpent. Kissing came naturally with the gender.
"I wonder if I could kiss like a serpent?" he asked. "I never thought to try an emulation like that."
There was no time like the present, she intimated. She would emulate herself, and he could try being serpentine. She would let him know how well it worked.
Umlaut focused. He had seldom tried animals before, and never a serpent, but the principle should be similar. He thought of himself as a big, powerful, flexing male serpent, looking for a female to kiss. There just happened to be a nice female in range. He shot his head forward and gave her a toothy smooch.
She jerked back, her coils roiling desperately. In a moment she was gone. What had happened?
Then, embarrassed, she returned. He had felt so much like a male serpent that she had thought for a moment that the land serpent had gotten in and was about to force her to breed. She had spooked. She was apologetic.
Umlaut was rather pleased. "I was that good?"
Yes, he had been that good. She would have enjoyed it, had she not spooked.
"When you kissed me, I thought it was a pretty girl," Umlaut said. "I tried to embrace her, before I realized."
Exactly, Sesame agreed. When they couldn't see each other, they could emulate more effectively, because vision did not belie the effect. She had never had occasion to experiment in such a manner before, perhaps because it would not have been safe with a real male serpent.
"Or with a real human girl," he agreed. "Things could go too far, too fast."
It struck her that different as they were in form and gender, some things about their lives were very similar.
"Yes," he agreed. In truth, he had liked Sesame's kiss better than Sherry's. Then he thought of something else. "Maybe--I don't want to be objectionable, but maybe we should try tofind out what the limits of our talents are, before we try going out to travel. Suppose I emulate a serpent, and you emulate a girl, and we kiss again? Could we fool each other simultaneously?"
She agreed it would be worthwhile to find out. So they tried it. And it was a disaster. They both recoiled.
"Girls taste awful!" Umlaut exclaimed, wiping off his mouth.
And serpents were fanged and lipless, she agreed.
"Which is exactly what we would discover if we kissed while neither of us was emulating. We are of different kinds, physically."
Which was of course obvious, she agreed. But didn't he have better things to do than travel with a serpent?
"Actually, no," he said thoughtfully. "My life has been pretty much marking time so far. I always thought I'd like to go out and have big adventures in faraway places, but I never knew how to get started. Maybe this is the way."
They decided to see about it in the morning. Then they settled down to sleep. Sesame coiled into the shape of a mattress, and Umlaut lay down on it. It was very comfortable.
Just as he was drifting off to sleep, the girl kissed him again. He kissed her back, knowing who it was. But he was glad it was dark.