Authors: Piers Anthony
Astrid woke early, as she often did. She left her husband sleeping in the tent and went out to look for pun virus remnants, which sometimes showed up better in the predawn light. She carried a closed vial of elixir, as all the members of her party did, at all times; it was vital to their mission. It was a tedious chore, but somebody had to do it, and they were elected.
She spied an interesting nest and went to investigate. Bees buzzed up warningly as she approached. Astrid merely pursed her lips and blew a breath of air at them, and they quickly spun out of control. After that they recognized her nature and let her be, knowing that she was not a threat to them unless they molested her.
Then she recognized the type: they were quilting bees, whose nest consisted of tiny quilts. It was surely very warm. There was obviously no virus here, for the bees were a pun that had not been eliminated.
She heard a faint panting. Sure enough, there was a pants bush, with several ripe pairs of smart-looking pants. Too smart: those were smarty pants, that when harvested would make the wearer run around madly, or could even run around on their own.
Then there was a spectacles bush with several very nice-looking spectacles ready. Astrid had an interest, as she always wore dark glasses. She folded her own glasses and pocketed them, then took a set from the bush and tried them on. Immediately she became dubious, mistrustful, and extremely cynical. Ohâthese were skepticals. She put them back and tried a nice red-tinted pair. Her mood went from sulky to positive; everything looked wonderful. So these were rose-colored glasses. They would do, for now; she was happy for the temper uplift.
There were plenty of puns here, confirmation that the virus had not ravaged this section. But there could still be lurking pockets of it. She had to make sure.
She crossed a barren section where nothing much grew. This was vaguely familiar; she had once lived in country like this. In fact this could be that region, rendered less recognizable by her human perspective. There was a figure kneeling on the ground, facing away from her. Astrid approached. “Hello.”
The figure looked up. It was a woman, a large elf with pointed ears and odd four-fingered hands. “Hello.”
Then Astrid saw that before the elf woman was a marked gravesite with a plaque: JONE. “Oh, I'm sorry! I did not realize you were grieving.”
“No, that's all right. I can't bring Jone back.” The elf stood. “I am Jenny.”
“I am Astrid. I was just looking for pockets of pun virus to eliminate.”
Jenny stepped toward her. “I am pleased to meet you, Astrid.”
Astrid stepped back. “Please, I do not mean to seem unfriendly, but it is not safe to touch me. I am poisonous.”
Jenny stopped. “I apologize for presuming. You look lovely.”
“Itâit's a kind of curse. My appearance gives men a particular idea, but I can't be touched.” Then, to change the awkward subject: “If I may ask, who was Jone?”
“My last baby daughter. There was a prophecy that she would one day help someone save Xanth from destruction. But then there was a horrible accident and she died. It has been some time, but I still come out to visit her grave. That is surely foolish of me, and I do not generally speak of it to others.”
“I'm sorry. I regret intruding. I grew up in this region, but did not know of this grave.”
“It is visible only when I come here,” Jenny said.
“I will let you be.” Astrid turned to go.
“That's all right. There's something familiar about you. Have we by chance met before?”
“I don't think so. I think I would have remembered yourâ”Astrid broke off, embarrassed.
“My pointed ears? My four-fingered hands?”
“Yes. I apologize forâ”
“No need. I am unique to Xanth, as perhaps you are.”
“Perhaps so,” Astrid agreed.
There was a sound in the distance. A figure loomed, running swiftly toward them. It was a giant wolf!
“Stand behind me,” Astrid said. “I will deter it.”
Jenny laughed. “No need. That is my husband.”
The wolf slid to a halt, changing to a large handsome man. “Ready to go, dear?”
“Ready, dear,” Jenny agreed. “Farewell, Astrid. I'm sure I know you from somewhere.”
The man became the wolf again. Jenny leaped and landed on his back, riding him like a horse. Then they were off.
Astrid stood bemused. She turned to look at the grave, but it was gone, or at least hidden again. She shook her head, marveling at the odd encounter.
She moved on, discovering a trail in the shape of the letter N. It had an odor of guts. She smiled; that would be an N-Trail. Most folk would avoid it because of the unsavory smell, but such things didn't bother her. Interesting things could sometimes be found along such trails, for those who had the stomach to follow them to their ends. Anyway, this was a very pretty trail, thanks to the rosy glasses.
It led to a lovely little glade that seemed to be a campsite. To whom did it belong?
“Hello, lovely maiden,” a somewhat gravelly voice said. “No, don't try to retreat; the trail has been closed off behind you.”
Astrid glanced back and saw that it was true; the trail appeared to have become constricted, and there was no clear passage back. “So it seems,” she agreed, unconcerned. She removed the glasses and put her regular ones back on, because she suspected that mischief was afoot and she wanted to see things accurately. Now the clogged trail did not look nearly so nice.
“Shall we exchange introductions? I am Truculent.” He stepped out of the shadow and stood revealed as a supremely ugly troll.
“I am Astrid,” she said.
“And what brings a succulent creature like you to this ill neck of the woods, fair Astrid?”
“I am on a mission to extirpate the last remnants of the anti-pun virus that recently ravaged Xanth,” she explained. “I carry a vial of elixir that will eliminate any vestige of the foul virus.” She held it up. “We all do; we never want to discover the virus and be unable to destroy it before it spreads.”
“You all do? How many are there in your party?”
“Five lovely maidens and four males. One of us has not yet found her ideal companion.”
“That's too bad,” Truculent said. “She is doomed to find only the worst companion.”
“I don't think I understand,” Astrid said. Actually she was beginning to get a notion. Trolls had a mixed reputation and a certain crude taste for human maidens. She had encountered one once, and was familiar with the type. “Are you by any ill chance speaking of yourself? I think it is fair to say she would not be interested.”
“I am, and she would not. Trolls come in assorted types. Some are noble, some build highways, and some are simply bad news. I happen to be of the latter persuasion.”
“Then why do you believe she would associate with you?”
“Because she would have no choice.”
He was a brute, all right. But she needed to be quite certain before she acted. “Maybe I am being a bit dull this morning. Surely she would have a choice.”
“She would not. Any more than you do, pretty creature.”
There it was: her appearance had turned him on, and he had mainly one thing on his brutish mind. But she argued her case, in the off-chance that she was misunderstanding his implication. “Certainly I have a choice! I can associate with whomever I please, and as it happens I have a good man who loves me. I will not be taking up with the likes of you.”
“I see I need to spell it out,” Truculent said. “I have a five-stage process with respect to a tender morsel like you. First I will chase you down and catch you. That will be a slight but pleasant challenge, since you will be confined to my glade. Second I will rape you. That will be another pleasant challenge, as you will surely struggle and scream, enhancing the conquest. Third, I will kill you. That too should be fun, with blood spattering as I bite off pieces of you until you expire. Fourth I shall roast you on a spit until you are thoroughly cooked, as roasted meat is far tastier than raw flesh. Fifth, I shall eat you, swallowing your juicy tidbits and gnawing on your bones. Then I will start the process over with the four remaining girls of your party. This should make an excellent and nutritious week.”
Astrid considered briefly. “I don't believe I favor your five-stage process. Neither will my companions.”
“I beg your pardon,” Truculent said apologetically. “Did I give you the misimpression that you had any choice in the matter?”
“I do labor under that impression. For example, what of the men of my party? They will not readily cooperate with your process.”
“I was forgetting the men,” the troll agreed. “For them I will skip the rape and still have four-fifths the fun. That will extend my pleasure beyond a week.”
“You seem remarkably confident, considering that you don't know what talents the members of my party may possess.”
“That merely adds the pleasure of the unknown. On rare occasion a victim does manage to escape my trap. But I believe I have closed the weaknesses, and this little arena is secure.”
“I doubt it.”
“Then shall we put it to the proof now? See if you can escape me.” The troll advanced menacingly on her.
Astrid did not retreat. “Are you sure you won't reconsider? I do not want to harm you if you are reasonable.”
“Enough of the humor, delicious delicacy! Try to make at least a token chase of it.” He stepped closer.
“Sorry. I decline to play any part of your fell game.”
Truculent stood before her, looming over her. “I am losing my patience with you, sweet taste. Must I knock some sense into your innocent skull?”
“You can try.”
“Then take this, cute fool!” He swing his open hand and slapped her face. Her glasses flew off. He grabbed her shoulders and stared into her face. “
At which point he dropped dead.
Astrid shook her head. “I gave you every chance to relent,” she said sadly. “I really don't like killing folk if there is any alternative.”
She went to pick up her fallen glasses; fortunately they were unbroken. Their heavy tint was, of course, not to protect her eyes from the sunlight, but to protect other folk from her direct stare. She didn't want to kill anyone by accident. Not even a troll.
Well, it was time to leave this dread glade. But she discovered that the N trail remained clogged; it had not reverted at the death of the troll. The path was impenetrable.
She walked around the edge of the glade. Now she saw why the troll had thought she was trapped: the trees grew tightly around it, forming a virtual wall, and thorny vines bound them together. There was no room to walk between them. This barrier extended high up so that only a flying creature could readily escape it. Truculent Troll had wrought his arena carefully. But in his arrogance he had picked on the wrong victim.
So how was she to depart? She didn't want to mess up anything she didn't have to. She was just checking for signs of the pun virus, and there were none here.
Well, there was a way. In the last month she and her friends had discovered that they had been granted certain additional talents to facilitate their mission. Mainly, they could change between their most familiar forms. Astrid had not had much use for this, as her man Art preferred her in her human form. But now it seemed appropriate.
She carefully removed her sequined dress, slippers, and underwear. She formed it all into a compact bundle together with her glasses. Quite compact; she was able to tuck it under her tongue, thanks to its magic. Then she changed to her original form: a large female basilisk. She was actually an extremely pretty basilisk, but few folk cared to appreciate that, because her very ambiance was slowly lethal.
Now she circled the glade again, this time sniffing the ground. Sure enough, there was the smell of troll footprints leading to a particular spot. It looked just as tangled as the rest, but her nose said there was access. She touched it with a paw, and her digits passed through without touching. One of the trees was an illusion!
She nosed on into what turned out to be a tunnel through the twisted foliage. It wasn't visible, but it was there. The troll must have known it well enough to use it even without seeing it. Where did it go?
Straight to a nickelpede nest. The vicious insects swarmed over it, ready to gouge out nickel-size chunks of flesh from whatever blundered into their domain. There was no way around it; the vine walls were tight on either side.
Well, she could handle nickelpedes. The taste of her flesh would kill any who bit into it, and of course her stare would wipe out any she saw. So she braced herself and marched into the nest. And through it, untouched. It was illusion too!
The path led to the mouth of a cave. It was closely barred, and locked, like a prison cell. It probably
a cell, where the troll kept his future meals. Such as maidens he had caught and raped, but not yet gotten around to killing, cooking, and eating. He would keep them alive so their meat wouldn't spoil. They ought to be rescued.
Astrid changed back into human form. “Hello!” she called. “Is anybody in there?”
“Go away!” a faint voice replied from deep within the cave.
This was curious. “Why?” Astrid called back.
“This is the lair of a troll. Go away before he catches you and adds you to our number. It is not safe here, especially for maidens, which you sound like. We are doomed, but you can still save yourself if you flee quickly.”
“I will not flee,” Astrid called. “I have come to rescue you. But these bars balk me. How may I open the gate?”
“We'll try to tell you,” the voice called. Now there was a scurrying as the captives emerged from the depth of the cave. They were goblin maidens, small and lovely. They paused as they saw her. “You're a nymph!”