Read Swell Foop Online

Authors: Piers Anthony

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Fantasy fiction, #Humorous, #Humorous fiction, #Science Fiction/Fantasy, #Xanth (Imaginary place)

Swell Foop (7 page)

BOOK: Swell Foop
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"Hello, Com Passion!" Breanna replied.

You must meet our offspring

A third machine appeared, smaller than the other two.

"You have a baby!" Breanna exclaimed, delighted. "What's his name?"

Its screen lighted.
§
com ponent
§

"Hello, Ponent," Breanna said. "Welcome to the club." The small screen brightened and turned pink. The little machine was a bit shy as yet.

Breanna turned back to Passion. "I need to find the Ring of Fire, and it's not where it is supposed to be. Can you help me?"

No
Passion scripted with evident regret.

Her spirits sinking, Breanna tried once more. "Ponent, maybe you can help me. Where do you think I should look for the Ring of Fire?"

§
will you take a cookie?
§

"A cookie?" Breanna asked, surprised.

©
He insists on giving out cookies
©
Passion scripted fondly.

"Young folk do like cookies," Xeth reminded Breanna.

"For sure! But I thought they liked getting them, not giving them."

MACHINES DON'T EAT THINGS
Pewter printed.

©
Once you accept his cooking, he will always know you.
©

"Oh. Okay, Ponent, give me your cookie."

An oblong image of a cookie appeared on the little screen. Breanna reached down, and it jumped onto her hand. It was decorated like a printed circuit board, with a pastry foundation, colored sugar wires, and raisin resistors. She took a byte, and it was delicious. "Thank you. Now what is your input on the Ring of Fire?"

The little screen flickered as the machine pondered. Then it steadied.
§
i dont have big data banks yet so i have to figure things out a little at a time. i think if you cant find it where its supposed to be and it isnt where it isnt supposed to be it must be hidden where its supposed to be so you cant find it so you should look again maybe harder.
§

Breanna considered. "Does that makes sense?" she asked the others.

DOUBTFUL

POSSIBLY

"Ludicrous!" Metria snapped.

"Yes," Xeth said.

"Well, it makes sense to me," Breanna decided. "I'm going to go look again."

"I'll take you back," Metria said. "I love to see mortals make fools of themselves in vain quests."

"Thank you, Ponent," Breanna said. "I'll go look harder."

Then the demoness smoked up a cloud and transported them back to the demon's bathroom.

It was unchanged. The towel and cloth still hung by the wall, and the pitcher and basin remained on the counter. No Ring.

"Why do demons have a washroom?" Xeth asked.

Metria laughed. "It's a joke! Demons don't need to wash. We just fuzz into smoke and leave the dirt behind."

"So this is for mortal visitors?" Breanna asked.

"We hardly ever have visitors. So it's just a wasted chamber."

"Yet my sense tells me the Ring of Fire is here. Why should it be in a useless room?" Then she paused, a dim bulb blinking over her head. "So it won't be disturbed! No one ever comes here. It must be here!"

"Except that it obviously isn't," Metria said dourly.

"Said how?" Xeth asked.

"Dreary, dismal, forbidding, morose, dolorous—"

"It was the correct word the first time!" Breanna snapped.

They both looked abashed. "Sorry about that," the demoness said.

Breanna focused on the room. "We have to look harder. It must be here, only we can't see it."

"Sometimes the obvious is confusing as hades," Metria said. "That's the way it is in Grossclout's class. I remember when he demanded that we figure out why new human adults don't have magic talents, and washed me out when I missed it. I didn't realize it was a trick question."

Breanna was distracted for a moment, despite her better judgment. "But Mundanes
don't
have talents in Xanth. I'm the only exception I know of, and I made a special deal. It's because you have to be delivered into magic, not into science."

"You'd have flunked out too."

"But everyone knows—"

"The Demon Professor says everyone has mush for brains."

"But none of the Black Wave had talents when we came to Xanth. I didn't. Only the children who were delivered here later. So I
know
from personal experience that—"

"The interpretation of personal experience is mush, he says. This time he proved it."

"Proved it? How?"

"By bringing in a Mundane mortal man with a magic talent as Exhibit A. His talent was metallergy."

"You mean metallurgy?" Breanna asked, trying to cut short the multiple alternatives sequence. "Working with metals?"

"No. Met-allergy. His metalwork made folk sneeze."

"And he had immigrated from Mundania? The talent had grown after he lived here? I find that hard to believe."

"Me too," Xeth said.

"It turns out that magic infuses new Mundane folk too slowly to show until time has passed. So they think they have no talents, and stop looking for them. Children respond much more rapidly, so their talents show sooner. The professor says that anyone who has lived in Xanth for more than five years has a talent, if he only knew it."

"I'll be bleeped!" Breanna exclaimed. "I never thought of that!"

"Typical mush-filled skull."

"I guess so. But how come the word hasn't gotten out?"

"It's just one of those obscure facts Grossclout uses to flunk unwary students. Nobody's interested."

"Maybe no demons are. But I'll bet most mortals would be. I'll have to tell them to look, after this mission is done." Then Breanna brought herself back to business. "So maybe this is another mush case. I just have to see that Ring. By clearing the mush out of my thick skull."

"You got it, mushmind." The demoness formed momentarily into a big steaming bowl of cornmeal mush.

"Okay, I'm trying to look with a new perspective. To see whatever I missed before." Breanna crossed and uncrossed her eyes, looking around.

"But we can see everything," Xeth protested. "The pitcher, the basin, the dirt-ring where the basin sat—everything."

Breanna's jaw dropped half a notch. "The dirt-ring! That's a Ring."

"But not the one we want," Metria said.

"I wonder." Breanna approached the counter. She put her finger to the ring of dirt—and felt something hot. She closed her hand on it, and lifted—and the entire Ring came up. It was hot because little flames were dancing around it, though they did not actually burn her hand. As it moved it shrank until it was the size of a finger ring. "Got it!"

"It was masquerading as dirt!" Metria said, amazed.

"It was there all the time," Xeth agreed. "My mind was mush."

"Mine too," Metria agreed.

"And it was Com Ponent who put us on to it," Breanna agreed. "All it took was a little elementary reasoning." She put the Ring on her little finger, where it fit perfectly. The flames continued to flicker without burning her flesh. There was no doubt about the identity of the Ring of Fire.

"It fooled me," Metria said. "I thought it would look—"

"The way it does now," Xeth agreed. "So did I."

"For sure," Breanna agreed, well satisfied. "We were all mushbrains. But you really helped, with your story of that class lesson. That got just enough mush out." She looked around, invigorated. "Now I want to go home to Castle Zombie and get married."

 

 

 

 

Che Centaur looked at the gathering of zombies. Which one should he choose as a guide? Breanna was already departing with King Xeth.

"I'll take you," Zyzzyva Zombie said. "Mine is the Ring of Earth."

"I thought I might look for the Ring of Air, since I can fly."

"No, that's for Sim. Anyway, they don't have to match up that way."

That made sense. "Very well. Where is it?"

"The Good Magician has it."

"Humfrey? But then he could have given it to Cynthia when he gave her the Service."

"No. He does not know where he has it, and he did not realize it would be necessary." She spoke with no detectable impediment, and there was no rot visible on her; she was an extremely fresh zombie. She was also a warrior woman, carrying a short sword, and she looked very fit generally.

"Very well. I will take you there."

She got on his back, and she was lithe and light, no problem to carry. Of course it was no problem to carry anyone who could stay mounted, since he flicked them light anyway. He did so, first flicking her, then flicking himself, so that they were light enough to fly. Then he spread his wings and took off.

"Oh, it's nice up here!" she exclaimed, exactly like a tourist. "I seldom have the chance to fly. That is why I wanted to go with you or Cynthia: to have that chance."

"This is a serious mission," Che reminded her. "Not an entertainment jaunt."

"I know it. Nevertheless, I can appreciate the wonder of flight better than most zombies, being better preserved, and probably am less onerous for you to carry."

She had a point. Che prided himself on being open-minded, but contact with far-gone zombies did not especially appeal. Now he appreciated the Land of Xanth anew as it spread out below them, seeing it through her eyes, as it were.

Indeed, it was beautiful, with green and yellow forests interspersed by blue and silver lakes and brown and red fields—and here and there an old gray mountain poked its head up, surrounded by its child mountains who did not yet reach its height. They would surely get there in time; mountains were slow to achieve maturity. Overhead the sun floated serenely on, radiating rays of contentment. It was a nice day.

"What is that?" Zyzzyva inquired.

Che looked. There was a small cloud to the side, moving swiftly to intercept their flight path. "A mischievous juvenile cloud, I think."

"That's interesting. I have a much clearer view of it from up here." Zyzzyva twisted around to get a better view. Her body was fit and firm; she was a warrior lass, and he could feel it as she moved. He wondered whether she had been killed in battle; if so, she must have given a good account of herself. "Are those pigtails?"

Che looked again. Sure enough, there were two vapor streamlets trailing behind, with misty bows at their ends. "It's a girl cloud."

The cloud got before them and began to huff and puff into a gray glob. There was an internal rumble, and lightning flashed. "She's trying to block us off," Zyzzyva said indignantly.

"Now I think I recognize her attitude," Che said. "A chip off the old cloud block."

"What block?"

"Fracto. He caught and married Happy Bottom, a storm from Mundania. They stay mostly in the Region of Air, but this one must have sneaked out of the nursery."

"Oh, yes—that encounter happened while I was still alive. The Land of Xanth almost got blown away."

"Fortunately Fracto decided to help."

A face formed on the cloud. It looked at them. Then the mouth opened, sucking in air.

"She is about to blow us away!" Zyzzyva said, alarmed.

"Fray!" Che called loudly. "Does your mother know where you are?"

The cloud choked on her breath, and her pigtails flounced. She scudded hastily away, leaving tiny balls of vapor behind.

"They're so cute when they're little," Zyzzyva said. "I hope I can get the stork's attention soon."

"Surely you will," Che said encouragingly.

They reached the Good Magician's Castle. Che was heading in for a landing on the roof, but unexpectedly lost elevation. He must have recovered too much weight, and was falling. He flicked his tail repeatedly to lighten his body, but it had no effect. Something was wrong.

"Hang on!" he cried. "Crash landing!"

Fortunately there was a large pillow bush growing beside the moat. He was able to steer for it, and landed with a dull whomp! Zyzzyva slid off his back, but seemed to be all right. Zombies were hard to hurt, even the well-preserved ones; it was part of their magic.

"I don't know what went wrong," he gasped. "Suddenly I lost my power of flight."

"No harm done," she said. "We can cross the bridge."

But as they approached the drawbridge, a group of five men appeared. They were bright colors, and were armed with assorted weapons. They arrayed themselves before the bridge in militaristic manner.

"That's a defensive platoon," Zyzzyva said. "We'll have to fight them."

"But I didn't come here to fight!" Che protested. "I just want to find the Ring of Earth."

"Maybe we can reason with them, then." She walked ahead, approaching the group. "We are here on important business. Please let us through to see the Good Magician."

"No," the orange man said, looking quickly around. He had large bright eyes.

"Who are you?" she asked, evidently nettled.

"I am Vita Man A. These are my companions, B, C, D, and E. Now go away, zombie."

Zyzzyva glanced back at Che. "I did ask them nicely," she said.

"Let me try." Che stepped forward. "It is urgent that we speak with Magician Humfrey. Please let us pass, or notify him that we are here."

"If you persist, we shall drive you off, crossbreed."

Che was getting a bit nettled himself. "But this can't wait. We have to find the—"

The orange man drew his sword and swung at Che. But Zyzzyva moved faster. Her own sword whistled as it moved. The orange man's head flew off his body.

Astonished, they both stared. "I thought he would dodge or block," Zyzzyva said.

"That annoys me," the Vita man said. He sheathed his sword, bent down to pick up his head, and set it back on his neck. Then he drew the sword again.

"He's a zombie!" Zyzzyva exclaimed. "He can't be killed."

"But he's not rotting."

"True. Xeth and I are the only zombies with no visible rot. So he must be a golem. An animated thing, not a real man. Curious to find organisms like that here."

"Do you know what?" Che asked. "I believe this is a Challenge! That's why I lost the power of flight."

"But we're not coming here as querents. We have legitimate business."

"There must be a mistake. But if we want to get in, it seems we must fathom the Challenges."

"I am not good at fathoming, since I died."

"Fortunately I haven't died. We simply have to figure out what is required."

"What is required is clearing these obnoxious men out of our way."

"There is surely a way without chopping them up, since that doesn't seem to hurt them."

"Very well. You fathom it, and if that doesn't work, I will chop them to small enough pieces so that we can cross before they get themselves back together."

"I don't think that's the proper way."

"What, are you a pacifist?"

Che hadn't thought about that. "I suppose I do try to find the most expedient solution to any problem. The Good Magician's Challenges generally do have some nonviolent way through, and I think it behooves us to find it."

"Well, it's your quest," she said doubtfully.

"If I can't find it, then we'll try your way."

"Fair enough."

Che considered. The five Vita men were five different colors. Did that mean anything?

"They look good enough to eat," Zyzzyva said. "Too bad I no longer have to eat."

"Eat!" Che said. "Vitamins!"

"Are you spelling that right?"

"Of course. That's the key. He said he was Vita Man A. We assumed he meant he was the first of five men denominated by letters of the alphabet. But it's a pun. These creatures really are supposed to be eaten."

"But zombies don't eat."

"This Challenge isn't for you, but for me. I have to eat them."

She remained dubious. "It will take you a long time."

"Probably one bite of each will do. Chop off a finger or toe, and I'll eat that."

"Coming up." She faced the orange man. "Prepare to be chopped, Vita men."

But Che was already reconsidering. "Maybe if I just identify them, it will do."

"Still trying for the peaceful way," she said, disgusted.

Che rifled through his excellent memory for obscure facts. He had been tutoring Sim for years, and so was very sharp on facts. The men were different colors, but also seemed to have different qualities. "Vita Man A, you are the one who sees well," he said.

The orange man nodded and stepped back.

Che addressed the gray man, who seemed to have very quick reactions. "Vita Man B, your nerves are excellent."

The gray man stepped back.

The green man seemed to have snow on his head and shoulders, as though freezing, but did not look at all uncomfortable. "Vita Man C, you can beat the common cold."

The next man was stoutly built and shining white, like a beam of sunshine. "Vita Man D, you have strong bones."

The last one was blood red. "Vita Man E, you have a strong heart."

Now they were all retreating across the bridge. Che nodded. "We cracked the riddle. They knew it. There was no point in continuing the Challenge."

"I think they are cowards."

She did have a militaristic mindset. "Maybe we'll have to fight in the next Challenge," he said.

They crossed the drawbridge, stepped onto the inner shore of the moat—and found themselves in darkness.

"Did night fall, or is my sight failing?" Zyzzyva inquired.

"It seems to be magical darkness. This must be the second Challenge."

"Well, it can't hurt me; I have no concern about darkness. Zombies thrive in it. But it may be a problem for you."

"Yes. I prefer light when I have something to accomplish." But he stepped forward, having no alternative.

"I can go first, if you want."

"I suspect that whatever is here will find me regardless." He banged into something solid, and stopped.

"Did it find you?"

"I found it. It seems to be a wall. The way must turn."

He turned to the left, but soon encountered another wall. He turned to the right, and found another wall. There seemed to be no open way forward. But behind was the moat; that was unlikely to be the route. Yet there had to be a way.

He felt the walls, but found no break. They extended high and low and to either side, blocking every avenue.

"Maybe you have to say a spell," Zyzzyva suggested.

"Open sez me," he said. But the walls remained solid.

He retreated, backing to the moat. Suddenly the castle returned to view, in full daylight. There was no sign of any tunnel, with or without walls. Could the darkness be illusion?

Still, the illusion of darkness was like the illusion of light: If it seemed to exist, it did exist. An illusory lamp worked as well as a real one. He could try to ignore the darkness, but that wouldn't banish the effect.

Zyzzyva appeared beside him. "Ah, there you are. That's one weird tunnel. I can't see into it from here, or out of it from there."

"It seems to be a structure of illusion. Made to conceal the wall. There must be some way around that wall, if I could only see it."

She laughed. "Too bad the wall's not illusion too."

Then they looked at each other with dawning surmise. Surmises were always best when dawning; they weren't much for evening. "Could it be?" he asked. "An illusion of touch?"

"Does that kind of illusion exist?"

"I don't see why not. It could be covered by darkness because otherwise we'd see that the wall isn't there, and be suspicious."

"Unless it's an invisible real wall."

"No need to cover that with darkness."

"One way to find out."

They forged back into the invisible darkness. Che put his hands forward to find the wall. When he did, he pushed against it—and his hands moved on through its seeming substance as if penetrating jelly. He forged on, feeling the pressure of the wall against his flanks and wings and finally his tail. Then he was beyond it, and in a moment emerged into light.

Zyzzyva reappeared just behind him. "That was interesting. I think you mortals have more fun than we zombies do."

"Also more frustration."

"I suppose so. We tend to take things more as they come, and relax under a nice blanket of dirt when nothing comes."

"We seem to be through the second Challenge. There should be one more."

She looked around. "We seem to be in an old workshop."

It was true. It was a roofless chamber filled with odds, evens, ends, middles, and whatnots. There were no doors, and the walls were too high to jump over.

"The Challenge must be to find our way out of here and into the castle."

"You still can't fly?"

Che spread his wings and flicked his side. He did not lighten. "Correct."

BOOK: Swell Foop
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