Esrever Doom

Xanth (Volume 37 of 37)

Piers Anthony

Tor Books

1
ARRIVAL

 
 
Kody woke when the nurse came into his hospital room. He felt awful. “What happened?”
“Ah, you’re awake,” the nurse said. “The doctor will be with you shortly. Now if you will just sign this admittance paper, your insurance will cover it.”
“What happened?” he repeated as her hand guided his numb fingers for the signature.
She glanced at him sympathetically. “You don’t remember?”
“I don’t,” he agreed.
“You were in an accident. A bad one. But they got you here in time.”
“In time for what?”
“The doctor will explain. Meanwhile this will relax you.”
“Don’t—” But she was already giving him a dose via the IV hooked to his arm. He had no choice but to fade out.
When Kody woke again, he was cautious about speaking. He wanted to know more about his situation before they dosed him. He had been in an accident? It must have been a bad one, because his whole body felt washed out. Had a drunk driver hit him? Then what about his car? Was it suffering similarly?
The nurse, morbidly attuned, knew he was awake. “Just in time for the doctor,” she said briskly, as if that was all that mattered.
“I just want to know—”
“Not now,” she said with impersonal efficiency. “He’s here.”
So much for any preference he might have. This was, after all, a hospital; they had better things to do than chat with patients.
The doctor was brusque. “You face some serious surgery, Mr. Kody.”
“My name’s not—”
“Don’t be concerned; we’ll put you out for the duration. It’s called an artificial coma. When you emerge, the surgery will be done and you’ll be well on the way to recovery.”
“Surgery? What for?”
“So glad you understand.” Already the nurse was doing her thing with the IV. He had only moments of consciousness remaining.
“There may be some disorientation,” the doctor explained. “It’s a known side effect of the anesthetic. A sense of floating, perhaps some temporary mood reversal. Nothing to be concerned about, Mr. Kody.”
Mood reversal? He didn’t want his mood or anything else reversed. But it was too late to protest; he was going under. Only the doctor’s last words lingered. Mood Reverse. Mood. Reverse. Mood reversed was Doom. That did not sound good.
*   *   *
“Boom! Doom!” the ogre cried, hurling the poor creature at the shimmering wall.
Kody reacted before thinking. He put out a hand and intercepted the victim just before it collided. He brought it in to him, unharmed, as the ogre tromped away.
Ogre? Where was he?
It got worse. He looked at the creature he had just rescued. It was a bird. No, a cat. In fact it had the head and wings of a bird, and the body and tail of a cat.
The creature, briefly stunned, recovered. “Cheep?” it said.
“You’re welcome, I think,” Kody said. “I don’t know where you were going, but it didn’t look healthy.”
“Cheep!” The creature looked at the wall, which shimmered in response. The wall was translucent, with an open meadow beyond, but there was a sinister cast to the scene. Kody didn’t like it.
“Can you run or fly? I think you need to go home before you run afoul of another ogre.”
The thing seemed to understand him. It sat up in his hand, spread its wings, and flapped. It flew up, made a circle in the air, then departed, flying over the jungle.
“You’re welcome,” Kody repeated, bemused.
Now, exactly where was he? Not in the hospital! This seemed to be some sort of fantasy land, with ogres, catbirds, sinister walls, and who knew what else. Kody really wasn’t into fantasy; that was his friend Joshua’s department. He was at a loss to explain how he had so suddenly come here; the last he knew, he was being put under for some sort of surgery. The doctor said there would be disorientation, maybe mood reversal, and his disoriented mind had translated Mood to Doom.
Could that phrase Mood Reverse be translated into Esrever Doom? That would make about as much sense as the rest of it. He was doomed to be caught in reversal.
And there had been the ogre crying “Doom!” Kody had arrived just in time to rescue a composite creature from likely doom. An incredible coincidence.
But maybe not. Maybe he was in the coma, suffering some sort of mind reversal, and this was a dream deriving from that word. No coincidence at all, if he was imagining it.
Well, he might as well enjoy it while it lasted. He feared he would not enjoy whatever had happened to him in the real world.
He saw a speck in the sky. Something was flying in, and it did not look like a regular bird. Was the composite creature returning? No, this one was rapidly looking larger as it approached. It was the size of an eagle, no, a turkey, no, a horse.
A horse?
It looked like a large winged horse. With the forepart of a man. A—a flying centaur.
The creature landed neatly before him and folded his monstrous gray-brown feathered wings. His muscular human portion was taller than Kody, which was unusual. “Hello, stranger! My friend the catbird tells me you rescued him from a fate worse than death.” Now Kody saw that the small creature was perching on the centaur’s broad equine back, between the wings.
“I don’t know—” Kody said, somewhat at a loss for words.
“Of course you don’t know me,” the centaur said. “I am Griff the Hipporoc, son of a male centaur and a female roc bird. My parents splashed into each other at a love spring they took for a normal pond. You know how it is; these accidents happen all the time, and account for many interesting crossbreeds. So I share their characteristics, and can speak avian dialects as well as human ones. That’s how I came to know the catbird.”
That hadn’t been exactly what Kody was saying, but it would do. “I’m Kody, from—” He paused, uncertain whether his origin would make any sense to this fantasy creature.
“From Mundania, of course,” Griff said. “You have that civilian look about you. Did you die?”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Kody said, startled. “At least not yet. They put me in a coma, and I seem to be having a really weird dream.”
“Well, that’s one way to come to Xanth,” Griff said. “We do see Mundanes here every so often, and dreams are important. Look, I really appreciate the way you saved my friend from the Void, so I came to tell you that.”
“The Void?”
“The Region from which there’s no return,” Griff said, gesturing at the wall. “That’s the event horizon. If the catbird had gone through that, he would have been lost.”
“Oh, I see,” Kody said, not really seeing.
“So I think I owe you a return favor. Why don’t I take you anywhere you want to go, so you don’t have to stumble through the dangerous jungle? Air travel is much faster and safer. You’ll soon get eaten by a dragon otherwise.”
“I appreciate that,” Kody said. “I don’t know whether getting eaten by a dragon in a dream would affect me much, but I’d rather not find out. But I have no idea where I want to go.”
“Good point.” Griff considered favors.
Two micelike creatures ran along the ground between them. “Oh, bleep!” Griff said. “Don’t let them touch you.”
Bleep? “Those mice? Aren’t they harmless?”
“Hardly! Those are vices. A cross between a vole and a mouse. See those letters on their backs? The one is an AD, the other a DE. If the ADvice touches you it will make you do bad things. Then you’ll have to touch the DEvice to become nicer. Better to stay clear of them entirely.” He stomped a front hoof. “Get away from us; we don’t want any vices.” The little creatures scurried away.
“Uh, thank you for the ad— uh, the clarification,” Kody said.
“That’s not enough of a favor. You saved my friend’s life.”
The catbird chirped.
“Now that’s an idea,” Griff agreed. “I’ll give him the check her board.” He looked at Kody. “Do you play check hers?”
“Well, I—”
“Or cheese. It’s adaptable. But it doesn’t matter. Just refocus and you’ll see the scenes. Touch whichever one you want to go to.” He produced a small object and handed it to Kody. “We have to be going now, but thanks again for what you did.” The centaur spread his huge wings, trotted along the ground, and sailed upward. In one and a half moments he was gone.
One and a half moments? Evidently that was how time was kept here in Xanth.
He looked at the object. It was a folded mass that unfolded repeatedly to show a checkerboard (check her board?) with the checkers painted on the squares. Each one resembled a buxom young woman in a circular skirt. He touched one, and she moved forward to another square, jiggling.
Intrigued, he touched another, but she didn’t move. Then he touched one of the opposing checkers, which resembled a handsome young man in a kilt, and he did move. It was necessary to take turns. Soon Kody was in a game with himself, seeing the check hers jump each other and disappear. When each one jumped, skirt flaring, the other piece looked up, froze in place as if seeing something forbidden, and faded out with an audible huff. They were checking each other out! Thus Check Hers and Check His. This was one naughty magic board!
But checkers was a relatively simple game. Too bad there were not chess pieces. And as he thought of that, the chess pieces appeared, each a little marvel of statuary carved from hard cheese. Which must be why they called it cheese instead of chess; it wasn’t just a typo. When he touched a pawn, it stepped forward two squares. Other pieces moved in their traditional ways. So he could play chess on this board.
But what about the pictures Griff had mentioned? Kody focused, and refocused, and in a moment got the range. It was like looking at a 3-D picture; focus was everything. Once he had the pictures, they were fascinating. Scenes of assorted magical creatures and things. And if he touched one he would be there?
Better experiment cautiously, because some indeed were dragons. So he oriented on an appealing castle with pleasant foliage and turrets. That should be safe to visit. He touched it.
Nothing happened. Ah, well. He folded the checkerboard, tucked it in a pocket, and looked around.
He was standing before the castle. The change had been so smooth he had not realized it had taken place.
So the game board worked. He could go where he wished, in this fantasy land. There were sixty-four scenes in all; surely one would serve his purpose. If he could only figure out what his purpose was, in this dream.
The front gate of the castle opened. A stunningly lovely young woman stood there, svelte and blond, evidently the mistress of this castle, as she wore a petite crown. “Why, hello,” she said, surprised.
“I apologize for intruding,” Kody said. “A centaur gave me a magic device that enables me to travel, and I was trying it out. I think I can as readily depart as I came here.”
“First let me touch you,” the woman said, approaching him. He stood bemused as she came and touched his hand. “Oh!”
“You see, I’m not from this region,” he said. “I don’t know the geography or the customs.”
“You are Kody, from Mundania,” she said. “You were in some sort of accident, and woke in a hospital, where they drugged you, and you find yourself here in Xanth. You think it’s all a dream.”
Kody’s mouth opened, but no words came out. How could she know that?
She smiled, and it was like the rising sun. “I am Princess Dawn. My talent is to know everything about anything living that I touch. You need my help. You must have been guided here. Come in.” She turned and reentered the castle. Her back side was just as impressive as her front side.
Kody followed. He kept being surprised by this dream!
“This is Caprice Castle,” Dawn said as they walked. “It has marvelous properties you will discover soon enough. A number of us live here. We gather puns for storage, so that Xanth is not infested worse than it has to be.”
“Puns,” Kody said. “I believe I have encountered some of those.”
“Indeed, it is hard to avoid them. It’s a real problem.”
“Yes,” he agreed. But puns were the least of his concerns at the moment.
“Picka, dear,” Dawn said, not loudly.
A spook-house animated skeleton appeared. “Yes, dear,” it said.
“This is Kody, from Mundania. He needs help.”
“We’ll help him,” the skeleton agreed. It came forward to shake Kody’s hand. He tried not to recoil at the touch of the bare bones. “I am Picka Bone, Dawn’s husband. And these are our children.” For two small figures had appeared. One was a walking skeleton, the other a cute little girl.
It seemed this crazy realm was destined to keep surprising him. A walking skeleton could marry a princess, and they could have children? Obviously so.
“I’m Piton,” the little male skeleton said.
“Hello, Piton,” Kody said. “You look a lot like your father.”
The boy giggled, complimented.
“I’m Data,” the girl said.
Kody realized that Piton was a P name, surely because of his father Picka, while Data was a D name, after her mother Dawn. It seemed that in Xanth men had sons, women had daughters. “Hello, Data. You are lovely like your mother.”
The child blushed with pleasure. Kody had not realized a small child could blush. But of course this was a magic land.
There was an awkward pause. Then Dawn approached. “I need to touch you again.”
“Welcome,” Kody said. “I never mind being touched by a lovely lady.” That made him pause, because it was not the kind of thing he had ever said before.
Dawn touched him. “It is true. You see us as beautiful.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” Kody asked, perplexed. “I’m no expert, but if you are not one of the loveliest women extant, and your daughter a beautiful child, this is the most remarkable realm imaginable. Or is it considered bad manners to say the obvious? Have I given offense?”
“No offense,” Dawn said. “Far from it.”
“He sees you as beautiful?” Picka asked, as if not quite believing it.
“He does,” Dawn said. “And Data as really cute.”
“Then he’s immune!”
Dawn considered. “Not exactly. He’s just not reversed in the same way we are.”
“Then can he fix it?”
“I don’t know. Kody is not completely real, here.”
Picka looked at her, perplexed. “Not?”
So did Kody. A walking skeleton found him perplexing? “I don’t really understand any of this.”
“Come and sit down,” Dawn said. “This may take some explaining.”
Soon they were ensconced in an appealing living room. Data, thrilled to be appreciated as pretty, came to sit on Kody’s lap. But the surprises were not through. For a moment she became a little skeleton, startling him. It was definitely her, because now her dress hung loosely on the bones. She was just as cute in that form as when she had flesh.
“We can change,” Data said, her voice emanating from her little skull. “It’s part of the magic of Caprice Castle.” She reappeared in human form, and squirmed to get her sagged dress to fit properly. “Do you really think I’m cute?”
“Yes, definitely,” Kody said.
“That’s great!” She leaned forward to hug him.
“Here is the background,” Dawn said in a businesslike tone. “About a week ago the Land of Xanth was affected by a malign spell of reversal that caused people to perceive others as the opposite of what they are. That is, handsome or beautiful folk are perceived as ugly, while ugly folk are seen as handsome or lovely. Those in the middle range are affected less, becoming moderately the opposite of what they were. So, for example, others now see me as a hag, while seeing true hags as beautiful. We of the sightly persuasion find this distinctly awkward. We would like to have the old order restored, but we don’t know how to do it. The Good Magician Humfrey says that only a person unaffected by the spell has any chance to nullify it. But all residents of Xanth are similarly affected, at least to some degree.”
Kody’s head was trying to spin. “This is not a literal change? Just one of perception?”
“Correct,” Picka said. “I see Dawn as I always have. But now I am repulsed. That complicates our relationship.”
“So it’s really a mood reversal,” Kody said. “Your sight has not changed, just your appreciation of what you see.” Esrever doom, he thought: mood reverse. It was almost starting to make odd sense.
“Exactly,” Picka agreed. “Even when she assumes skeletal form, I see her nice bones as ugly sticks.”
“I don’t like being seen as ugly,” Dawn said candidly. “No woman does.”
“While I, being Mundane, am not affected,” Kody said, getting it straight.
“Not exactly,” Dawn said.
“I’m not exactly here, yes, as it seems I am dreaming. But apart from that, I see things as they are.”
“Not exactly,” Dawn repeated.
“I’m not following you.”
“I think I need to demonstrate.” She glanced at Picka. “With your acquiescence, dear.”
The skeleton shrugged. “Of course.”
She faced Kody. “Stand.”
Data got off his lap, knowing what was coming. He stood, perplexed.
She came to him, put her arms around him, drew him close, and kissed him. He felt almost as if he were floating off the floor. Her wonderful bosom was pressing into his chest, his hands were somehow on her marvelous bottom, and the contact of their lips was sheer rapture. She was an utterly mesmerizing creature. In that moment he loved her, despite knowing that she was not and would never be his. Not only was she a magic princess, far beyond his station, she was a thoroughly married mother of two. He had no business reacting romantically to her.
She drew back, knowing how well she had impressed him. Now it was no mystery how she had conquered a walking skeleton. She could seduce the dead, if she tried. “You liked that.”
“God help me, I did,” he admitted, shaken. “Please don’t do it again.”
“So you are reversed.”
Now he appreciated her point. “I guess I am.”
“Reversed?” Picka asked. “He’s a perfectly normal man.”
“Indeed he is,” Dawn agreed.
Picka and the two children looked at her, puzzled.
Kody changed the subject. “So it may be that I am here for a reason: to get this spell of reversal turned off. So that Mood Reverse is no longer Esrever Doom.”
“It may be,” Dawn agreed. “The Good Magician will know.”
“Who is this Good Magician?” Kody asked.
“He is Xanth’s most respected Magician of Information,” Picka said. “Anyone who really needs to know something can go to ask the Good Magician. But it isn’t easy.”
“Not easy?”
“He doesn’t much like to be bothered,” Picka said. “He is chronically Grumpy, so much so that he has five and a half wives who rotate month by month, a new one stepping in when the old one is worn down. He makes his castle difficult to get into, so that most querents are discouraged and go away without entering. And when he does Answer a Question, he charges the person a year’s service, or an equivalent service. Even then, his Answers are seldom obvious; it takes time to figure them out.”
“That does seem to be discouraging,” Kody agreed. “Obviously I don’t want to ask him anything.”
“Yet you must,” Dawn said. “The welfare of Xanth may depend on it.”
The welfare of a purely imaginary magic land he was dreaming about. Yet she surely knew it better than he did. What could he do, but agree? “I must.”
“We will have you here as our guest for a few days,” Dawn said. “You need time to acclimatize, to get to know more about Xanth. Then we will send you to the Good Magician’s Castle.”
“But if I am here only a few days, there won’t be time for me to do anything, regardless.”
“You will be in Xanth as long as you need to be,” she said with certainty.
“So be it,” he agreed. “But you won’t need to help me get there. I have the chessboard.” He touched it in his pocket.
“It is best not to depend too much on such artifacts,” Dawn said. “Some of them are limited, so that if you use it when you don’t need to, you may not be able to use it when you do need to.”
“Point taken,” Kody agreed.
“Tweeter will show you to your room. You can clean up, then go out to talk with Bryce.”
“Tweeter? Bryce?”
“Tweeter is a bird who knows what’s what,” Picka said. “Bryce is an old Mundane who arrived here last year. Princess Harmony is courting him.”
And there was a small nondescript bird hovering in the air before him. “Good to meet you, Tweeter,” Kody said.
The bird flew out of the room, and Kody followed. It was apparent that animals were not just animals, here; they were people. They proceeded up winding stairs to a rather nice suite on an upper floor, complete with a made bed, dresser, bathroom, and shower.
“This is all for me?” Kody asked.
“Tweet.”
Kody washed up at the sink, noting that the mirror showed him as unchanged from life. Then the glass flickered, and Picka’s skull appeared.
“Dawn said you should eat before you go out, as it might be a long afternoon,” the skeleton said. “Tweeter will show you where.”
He needed food in a dream realm? Evidently so, because he was getting hungry. “Thanks. I’ll be there,” Kody answered. Then he glanced at the bird. “A magic mirror?”
“Tweet,” Tweeter agreed. He was evidently a bird of few words.
In due course they reported to the dining nook, where the meal was already laid out: a sandwich in the shape of a realistic submarine complete with a pickle periscope, and a glass of what looked like root beer. The two children were there. “Yours,” Data said expectantly.
He bit into the sandwich, and it was excellent. Then he sipped the drink, and jumped. It felt as if something had kicked him in the rear, though that was impossible, as he was sitting. Both children giggled, and Tweeter made a laughing tweet.
Something was up. “Okay, what’s the joke?” he asked them.
“It’s boot rear,” Piton said. He looked to be barely two years old, assuming skeletons aged at the rate of fleshly folk, but could speak well enough.
Kody contemplated the drink. Root beer, boot rear. A pun that was literal. A kick in the ass. But it was nevertheless tasty and satisfying. “Thank you. I did get a kick out of it.”
Children and bird laughed again.
It seemed that this dream realm had a character of its own, and humor was a significant part of it. He could live with that.
After lunch he departed the castle with Tweeter, on his way to find Bryce. The landscape was a hilly jungle with odd-looking plants and trees. He spied what had to be a pie plant, because it was growing pies, and another growing assorted shoes.
There was a path curving around and through the scenery, meandering as if enjoying itself. The air was pleasant.
Then Tweeter paused. “Tweet!” That sounded like alarm.
“What is it?”
Instead of answering the bird flew to a large tree by the side of the path, and perched on a massive lower branch. He made a gesture with one wing as if beckoning. So Kody carefully climbed up to join him there. But immediately Tweeter flew to a higher branch, and Kody followed again. Before long they both were on a high branch, peering down at the path. It was a fine view, but what was the point?
There was a motion behind the trees, accompanied by a sort of snuffling. Then a large dark creature, a vastly oversized lizard, came walking down the path, its long body sinuously handling the curves.
“Is that a dinosaur?” Kody asked, amazed.
“Tweet.” That was negation.
“Then it must be—a dragon!”
“Tweet.” Agreement.
The dragon heard them. It angled its head to peer up the tree. A puff of smoke emerged from its snoot.
“A smoker!” Kody said. Somewhere he had heard that dragons came in several types, one of which was the smoker. If that thing chose to rev up its smoke it could make a cloud around the tree and literally smoke them out. He understood that in house fires, more people died from smoke inhalation than from direct burning. This thing was dangerous!
Then the dragon shrugged and moved on. It had concluded that they weren’t worth the effort. It would have required a lot of smoke to surround a tree this size.
“But if you hadn’t warned me, I’d have run right into it on the path. It could have smoked me with one puff, and swallowed me whole.”
“Tweet,” Tweeter agreed.
“Well, look who’s climbing trees!” a female voice screeched.
Kody looked, but didn’t see anything.
“A silly tweety bird and an ignorant Mundane oaf,” the voice screeched.
Now Kody saw the source, perched in a distant tree. It looked like a vulture, except that it had an ugly human head.
“That’s a harpy!” he exclaimed, amazed.
“Tweet,” Tweeter agreed.
“Lo, the light dawns!” the harpy screeched. “I’m Sniper, mistress of the long-distance verbal attack! What are you two doing there—making love?”
“That’s one foul mouth on that creature,” Kody remarked.
“Get it straight, idiot!” the harpy screeched. “I have a fowl mouth, not a foul mouth!”
Kody was getting annoyed. “And your face is uglier than your mouth.”
This set the harpy back. “Ugly?”
“Repulsive,” Kody clarified.
“But since the Curse I’ve been beautiful!”
Curse? Then Kody caught on: the reversal that made lovely women seem ugly, and ugly harpies seem beautiful. “Too bad, Sniper; I see you as you are.”
Tweeter was amused. “Tweet!”
“Oh, yeah?” the harpy screeched. “Well, you’re another!” Then she spread her motley wings and took off, evidently overmatched.
“Tweet.”
“You’re right,” Kody said. “That was sort of fun.”
They dismounted from the tree and resumed travel along the path. Now Kody appreciated his need for a competent guide. It wasn’t just a matter of finding a man, but of knowing what dangers to avoid. The bird knew.
They came to a bushy clearing. Tweeter flew ahead, then returned. “Tweet.”
“Right. Go this way.” He followed the bird to where a young man was kneeling before a melon.
The man glanced up. “Hello. Tweeter tells me you’re Kody, a fellow Mundanian, newly arrived, and you want to compare notes.”
“Uh, yes, in essence,” Kody agreed, taken aback. All that from one tweet? Well, maybe it did fit within 140 characters.
“I’m Bryce. Just let me capture this pun, and I’ll be with you.”
Now Kody saw that the melon had legs, head, and tail. It was a sadly fat little dog! Bryce opened a bag and put it over the creature. When it was safely inside, he closed the bag and stood up. “That’s a melon-collie, a gourd dog. More pun than guardian, I fear. We’re trying to capture the most egregious puns first.”
“So I see,” Kody said.
“So how did you come to Xanth, Kody?”
“I was being anesthetized for surgery, and they warned me there could be side effects, such as mood reverse. I got mood backward and it came out doom. Esrever doom. Things seem to have regressed from there.”
“Could you have died?”
“Not that I know of. I’m in a controlled coma.”
“So you should return when they bring you out of it.”
“Yes. Then the dream will end.”
Bryce smiled. “Funny thing about dreams. Some turn out to be true. Take me: I’m eighty-one years old and in ill health.”
Kody repressed a smile. “You don’t look it.”
“I know. I was magically youthened when I came here, and now am twenty-two, physically, and absolutely healthy. And being courted by a princess. For some men, that would be the stuff of dreams.”
“For some men,” Kody agreed cautiously.
A lovely teenaged girl approached, accompanied by several young dogs. “Did I hear my name?”
“Princess Harmony,” Bryce said. “Kody Mundane.”
Harmony smiled, lighting the area. She had lustrous brown hair under her pert crown, glowing brown eyes, and wore a shape-fitting brown dress. “Kody,” she repeated.
“Princess Harmony,” Kody said. “You look ravishing.”
She seemed surprised. “I do?”
He laughed. “I can’t think when I’ve seen a prettier teen, princess or not.”
Harmony turned to Bryce. “What do you see?”
“You are the ugliest creature I have ever seen,” Bryce answered matter-of-factly.
She looked again at Kody. “Do you want to rephrase your answer?”
“Tweet!”
Harmony looked startled. “True?”
“True,” Kody said. “I am not suffering that particular reversal. I see people as they are, and you are almost as beautiful as Princess Dawn.”
“Thank you. I think I was, before the gross reversal.” She frowned, frustrated.
“So you’re here for a reason,” Bryce said. “To abolish the Curse.”
“I’m not sure about that. I think I’m here by coincidence, or pure imagination. But if I can help, I will.”
“I need that Curse to be abolished,” Harmony said seriously to Kody. “You heard him say how I’m the ugliest creature he’s ever seen. That means when the Curse goes, he’ll see me as the loveliest. Then maybe I can nail him. A kiss or two could do it. Certainly a night in the hay. Then he’ll have to marry me.”
“Stop it!” Bryce said. “You’re only seventeen. You know I won’t touch a child.”
“I know you’ll try not to touch a teen. But you’re weakening.”
Kody shook his head. “You’re trying to seduce him, and he’s resisting?”
She made a cute moue. “He has this foolish Mundane thing about being my grandfather’s age and not robbing the cradle.”
“I am your grandfather’s age!” Bryce protested.
Harmony turned to Kody. “See?”
Kody shook his head. “There must be more of a story here than I know.”
“There is,” Bryce and Harmony said together. Then they laughed. They had evidently been over this ground many times. Obviously they knew each other well, and were probably in love even if they didn’t admit it.
“Maybe I can help you collect a few puns while we talk,” Kody said. “I need to know more about this land of Zanth.”
“Xanth,” Bryce said, somehow hearing the spelling. “And yes, you do need to know more about it, if you’re to abolish the Curse.”
Harmony conjured (perhaps literally) a pun bag for Kody, and they reoriented on the pun-collecting chore. “Woof!” a puppy barked.
“Show the way, Wolfe,” Harmony said.
“Wolfe’s the son of Woofer, Tweeter’s friend,” Bryce explained. “He and his sister Rowena are working with us today. Their mother, Rachel, crossed into Xanth last year with me, found romance, but returned to Mundania. Woofer was pretty broken up about it, but the pups are doing well.”
Kody saw that the male pup had a W name, the same as his sire. The female one had an R name, the same as her mother. “Woofer? That sounds like a loudspeaker.”
“Precisely. There are three of them, Woofer Dog, Tweeter Bird, and Midrange Cat. They came to Xanth with a Mundane family, and now live here.”
“There seems to be a lot of Mundania here.”
“Right around here, yes. Not elsewhere. That’s probably why Dawn sent you to me. Mundanes understand Mundanes better.”
Wolfe barked. There was a huge-trunked tree that looked like nothing so much as a giant beer mug. Small side branches held out steaming hot dogs and mugs of what had to be beer.
Bryce held up his bag. “Now if we can just fathom the pun.”
“Frank ‘n Stein,” Kody said before he thought.
The monster mug shimmered, dissolved into smoke, and flowed into Kody’s pun bag.
“You’re a quick learner,” Bryce said as Kody stared.
“I had no idea!”
“You could make a good pun catcher,” Harmony said. “Of course, it is considered hard labor because it drives people crazy.”
“But about this Curse,” Kody said as they resumed their quest for puns. “I understand I’m supposed to go beg a favor from a certain Good Magician, who will tell me how to go about it. But that he charges outrageously. I don’t see why I should do it.”
“Because if you don’t, you’ll be stuck here forever with pundigestion,” Harmony said. “Watch where you’re stepping. That’s crab grass.”
Now Kody saw the little green pincers orienting on his feet. He quickly put down the bag. “In, crabby.” And the grass wavered into smoke and flowed in.
Wolfe barked, signaling another pun. A woman was walking toward them. She was of indifferent appearance, which meant the reversal had little effect, but her bosom was curiously cloudy. In fact it was roiling, as if live things were trying to escape. The effect was both fascinating and alarming.
“What is that?” Bryce asked. Kody was similarly perplexed.
“A storm front,” Harmony said. “If you men weren’t so fixed on bosoms…” She opened her bag, and the front dissolved and entered it.
“Ah, here are some nuts,” Bryce said. But when he took one it unwound into a wad of paper money. Wolfe barked.
“Cashews,” Kody said. “So money really does grow on trees, here.” But he was concluding that they were right: he needed to get out of this punfest before it rotted his brain. “How do I get to the Good Magician’s Castle?”
“We’d take you there,” Bryce said. “But we’re pretty busy here, as you can see. We don’t want any of these puns to escape, lest they reproduce. Any we don’t get today will be lost. But Harmony may be able to help.”
“Yes,” the princess agreed as she grabbed a vat of tea that had books floating in it. “Novel-tea.” It dissipated and was duly captured. “I can mark a path there. But you’ll need a steed, and some protection. Here there be dragons.”
“True,” Kody agreed, remembering the one he and Tweeter had encountered. “And harpies.”
“I will talk to Dawn about it tonight,” she said. “I’m sure we can arrange something.”
“You could just point the way, and I can go there. I have a good sense of direction.”
Both Bryce and Harmony shook their heads. Tweeter tweeted negatively. Even the dog barked No. Apparently they had little confidence in his traveling ability.
Kody sighed. “What must be, must be. I will accept the help I need.”
Bryce nodded. “You’re learning.”
Harmony punched him on the arm. “Now if you were as fast a study, you’d learn that age is irrelevant here in Xanth. Then you’d marry me.”
“Unfortunately I’m not that fast a study,” Bryce said.
They all laughed.

Copyright © 2013 by Piers Anthony Jacob