Authors: Piers Anthony
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Science Fiction, #High Tech
“I could give you some sleepfog,” the lady robot said.
“You stayed awake all night researching, and the Game is this afternoon. You have to rest.”
“No drugs!” Stile snapped. “Better to be keyed up than fogged out.”
“Better yet to be rational,” she said.
He shook his head, looking at her. She was so exactly like a woman that most people never realized the truth.
Not only could she function in all the ways of a living human female, she was extremely well formed. Her hair was a sun-bleached brown, shoulder length; her lips were full and slightly tinted, kissable; her eyes were green be hind long lashes. She was the sort of creature rich, lonely men obtained to gratify their private passions more perfectly than any real woman would. But Stile knew her for what she was, and had no passion for her.
“This is one time I wish I could just dick off the way you can.”
“I wish I were flesh,” she said wistfully. She was programmed to love him and protect him and she was absolutely true to her program, as a machine had to be. “Come on—I’ll put you to sleep.” She took Stile’s head in her lap and stroked his hair and hummed a lullaby.
Oddly enough, it worked. Her body was warm and soft, her touch gentle, and he had complete faith in her motive.
Stile was dose to few people and he tended to feel easier around machines. His tensions slipped away and his consciousness followed.
He found himself dreaming of the time several days before, when he had passed the Platinum Flute on to the musician Clef and guided the man across the curtain. In this dream he followed Clef’s consciousness, not his own.
Somehow this did not seem strange. Stile had felt an instant and deep camaraderie with the man when they played music together. Stile himself was highly skilled with a number of instruments, but Clefs musical ability amounted to genius. It had been impossible to remain aloof from a person who played that well. Clef had never been to the frame of Phaze. He stared at the lush tufts of grass, the tremendous oaks and pines, and the unicorn awaiting them, as if he were seeing something strange.
“This is Neysa,” Stile informed him, perceived in the dream as a different person. The unicorn was black, with white socks on the rear feet, and was as small for her species as Stile was for his. Clef towered over them both, and felt awkward. “She will carry thee to the Platinum Demesnes.”
What affectation was this? Stile had spoken normally until this moment. “I don’t even know how to ride!” Clef protested. “And that’s a mythical creature!” He eyed the long spiraled horn, wishing he could touch it to verify that it was only tacked on to the horse. He had been told that this was a land of magic, but he found that hard to credit.
“Well, I could conjure thee there, but—“
“Absolutely not! Magic is—incredible. Wherever I have to go. I’ll walk.”
Stile shrugged. “That is thy business. But I must insist that Neysa accompany thee. Until thou dost reach the protection of the Little Folk, this region is not safe for thee.”
“Why are you suddenly talking archaically?” Clef demanded.
“This is the tongue of this frame,” Stile explained.
“Now must I conjure clothing for thee.” “Clothing!” Clef exclaimed, daunted. “I am a serf, like you, forbidden to—I can not—“
Stile had recovered a package of clothing from a hiding place and was putting it on. “Here in Phaze, thou art a man. Trust me; clothe thyself.” He paused, then said in a singsong voice: “An ye can, clothe this man.” Suddenly Clef was clothed like a Citizen of Proton, with silken trousers, shirt, jacket of light leather, and even shoes. He felt ludicrous and illicit.
“If anyone sees me in this outrageous costume—“ He squinted at Stile. “You were serious about magic! You conjured this!”
“Aye. Now must I conjure myself to the Blue Demesnes, to report to the Lady Blue. Neysa and the Flute will keep thee safe, methinks. Farewell, friend.”
“Farewell,” Clef responded weakly.
Stile sang another spell and vanished. Clef contemplated the vacated spot for a while, absorbing this new evidence of enchantment, then felt his own clothing. Blue trousers, golden shirt—what next? “And I’m supposed to travel with you,” he said to the little unicorn. “With thee, I should perhaps say. Well, he did warn me there would be tribulations. I don’t suppose you know the direction?” Neysa blew a note through her horn that sounded like an affirmation rendered in harmonica music. Clef had not realized that the animal’s horn was hollow, or that she would really comprehend his words. He followed her lead.
The scenery was lovely. To the near south was a range of purple-hued mountains, visible through gaps in the forest cover. The immediate land was hilly, covered with rich green turf. Exotic birds fluttered in the branches of the trees. No path was visible, but the unicorn picked out an easy passage unerringly.
“Are you—art thou able to play music on that horn?” Clef inquired facetiously, feeling a need to assert himself verbally if not physically.
For answer, Neysa played a merry little tune, as if on a well-handled harmonica. Clef, amazed, fell silent. He would have to watch what he said in this fantastic frame; more things were literal than he was inclined to believe.
The pace became swift, as Neysa moved up to her limit.
Clef had always liked to walk, so was in no discomfort, but wondered just how far they were going. In Proton, with the limitation of the domes, it was never necessary to walk far before encountering mass transportation. Obviously there was no such limit here.
The animal perked up her small ears, listening for some thing. Clef knew that horses had good hearing, and presumed unicorns were the same. It occurred to him that a world of magic could have magical dangers and he had no notion how to cope with that sort of thing. Presumably this equine would protect him in much the way Stile’s distaff robot protected him in Proton; still, Clef felt nervous.
Then, abruptly, the unicorn became a petite young woman, wearing a simple black dress and white slippers.
She was small, even smaller than Stile, with lustrous black hair that reminded him of the mane or tail of—
Of course! This was, after all, the same creature, in a different shape. She even had a snub-hom in her forehead, and her shoes somehow resembled hooves, for their slipper tops tied into thick, sturdy soles.
“Stile is getting married,” Neysa said. There was the suggestion of harmonica music in her voice. “I must go there. I will summon a werewolf to guide thee.”
“A werewolf!” Clef exclaimed, horrified.
But the girl was a unicorn again. She blew a loud blast on her horn.
Faintly, there was an answering baying. Now Neysa played a brief harmonica tune. There was a responding yip, much closer. She changed back into the girl. Clef tried to ascertain how she did that, but it was too quick; she seemed simply to phase from one form to the other with no intermediate steps. Perhaps that was why this frame was called Phaze—people phased from one form to an other, or from nudity to attire, or from place to place.
“A bitch is coming,” Neysa said, startling Clef again; he had not expected such a term from so pert a miss. “Fare well.” She changed into a firefly, flashed once, and zoomed away to the north. There seemed to be no conservation of mass here.
A dark shape charged toward him, low and furry, gleaming-eyed and toothed. Clef clutched the Platinum Flute—and suddenly it was a fine rapier. “Will wonders never cease!” he exclaimed. This was a weapon with which he was proficient. He stood awaiting the onslaught of the wolf with enhanced confidence, though he was by no means comfortable. He did not relish the idea of blood shed, even in self-defense.
But the creature drew up short and metamorphosed into a woman. This one was older; in fact, she looked grand motherly.
Clef was catching on to the system. “You—thou art the werewolf the unicorn summoned?”
“Aye. I am the werebitch available, man-creature. I have seen weddings enow; since my old wolf died I care not overmuch to see more. I will guide and guard thee to the Elven Demesnes. Put thou that blade away.”
“It is not a blade; it is a rapier,” Clef said somewhat primly. But now it was neither; it was the Flute again.
“Neysa told you all that in one brief melody?”
“Aye. She was ever economical of speech. What is thy name, man?” the bitch inquired as she walked east.
“Clef, from the frame of Proton. And thine?”
“Serrilryan, of Kurrelgyre’s Pack. We range mostly southeast of the Blue Demesnes, up to the Purple Mountains. Good hunting here.”
“No doubt,” Clef agreed dryly.
“If thou art walking all the way to the Platinum Demesnes, thou wilt have to step faster. Clef-man. We have forty miles to go.”
“My legs are already tiring, Serrilryan.”
“We can help that. Take thou a sniff of this.” She held out a little bag of something.
Clef sniffed. The bag emitted a pungent aroma. “What is this?”
“Wolfsbane. For strength.”
“Superstition,” he muttered.
“Have ye noted how fast thy walk is now?”
Clef noticed, with surprise. “I’m almost running, but I don’t feel winded at all!” “Superstition,” she said complacently.
Whatever it was, it enabled him to cover distance with wolflike endurance. Serrilryan shifted back to canine form to pace him.
Still, they were only partway there as night came on.
The bitch became the woman again. “Do thou make a fire, Clef-man. I will hunt supper.”
“But—“ But she was already back to bitch-form and gone.
Clef gathered what dry wood he could find, along with bits of old moss and straw. He formed a neat tepee, but had no idea how to ignite it. Presumably the denizens of this frame could make fire with simple spells, or perhaps they borrowed fire-breathing dragons. Such resources were not available to him.
Then he had a notion. The Platinum Flute had become a rapier when he wanted a weapon; could it also become a.
He held it near the tepee. It had formed into a dublike rod. From the tip a fat spark jumped, igniting the mass. He had discovered how to use this thing! He was almost get ting to like magic.
When the bitch returned with a freshly slain rabbit, the fire was ready. “Good enough,” she said gruffly. She roasted the rabbit on a spit.
This type of meal was foreign to Clef, but he managed to get through it. Stile had warned him there would be privations. But he was ready to suffer anything to obtain legitimate possession of the Platinum Flute, the most remarkable instrument he could imagine. Only the Little Folk could grant that; it was their Flute.
Serrilryan showed him where there was a streamlet of fresh water, so that he could drink and wash. Out of deference to his human sensitivity, she refrained from lap ping her own drink until he was sated.
Now all he had to worry about was the night. He really wasn’t equipped to sleep in the wilderness. “Serrilryan, I realize that for your kind this is no problem, but I am not accustomed to sleeping outside. I am concerned about bugs and things.” Though in fact no bugs had bothered him here; perhaps the reek of the wolfsbane kept them away. “Is there any domicile available?”