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Authors: piers anthony

xanth 40 - isis orb

BOOK: xanth 40 - isis orb
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Isis Orb

A Xanth Novel

Piers Anthony

Chapter 1:


Hapless paced restlessly across his dingy excuse for a home. He wanted something, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. Until he did figure it out, his life was in limbo; he couldn’t go anywhere or make any key decision. He had never been any great shakes as a person, but now that he was living on his own he realized just how empty his existence was. Yet he couldn’t think of what to do about it. So he remained a faded gray eyed, dirt brown haired, dull average excuse for nothing much.

He had considered doing what others did, and going to see the Good Magician Humfrey with a Question. But when he reconsidered it, he realized that it was probably not a good idea; he was no hero to participate in some grand design. If he even made it into the GM’s castle, Humfrey would probably laugh him right back out of it. So squelch that.

There was a knock on the battered door. That made him jump; nobody ever came to call on him. It must be a lost traveler seeking directions from whoever happened to be close enough to ask. Him.

He pulled the door open with an unpleasant squeak. There stood a gnome in a crumpled suit. “Hapless,” he said. “Invite me in.”

How did this stranger know his name? “Uh, sure, I guess. Come in.”

The gnome entered, then sat on the least rickety chair. “Hapless, I don’t have time to waste, so listen carefully. I am the Good Magician Humfrey, and I have come to persuade you to come to my castle for an Answer.”

Hapless answered with the grace for which he was known. “Huh?”

“Don’t make me repeat myself; that wastes time. All you need to do is agree.”

Hapless finally got a bit of ground under his emotional feet. “I don’t want to do that! The Good Magician requires a year’s service for a perplexing Answer.”

“Or an equivalent Service of another nature,” Humfrey agreed. “My Answer is always cryptic but worthwhile.”

“This is ridiculous!” Hapless sputtered. “It’s a trite formula! Some oaf comes with a stupid Question, gets a stupider Answer, then has to serve some complicated quest that completely messes up his life. Why should I get into anything like that? My life is already frustrating enough.”

“Because formulas exist for excellent reason: they work. You have no life to speak of; only by following this formula will you achieve your three life ambitions.”

ambitions? I have no idea what I want.”

“That is part of your problem. You want to play a musical instrument well, to have a good girlfriend, and to make a difference in Xanth. You will achieve all three only by taking a Quest.”

Hapless opened his mouth to protest, then stalled. Because the moment the Good Magician spelled out what he wanted, he saw that it was true. It wasn’t magic to make him desire things he hadn’t before; it was a clarification of desires he had always had but never been able to recognize. Humfrey had his number.

Still, he protested. “My talent is to conjure any musical instrument. But it’s no good, because I can’t
any instrument. No girl is interested in me because I don’t have a useful talent. And as for making a difference, I have no idea how.”

“Precisely. Your Quest will gradually clarify those aspects, so that by the time it concludes you will have succeeded in accomplishing all three.” Humfrey stood. “I must be on my way. Your appointment at my castle is three days hence. Be there.”

“I’ll do no such thing!” Hapless said, working up a somewhat ineffective annoyance. “Why should I take your word about any of this nonsense?”

Humfrey rolled his eyes expressively, as if dealing with an idiot. “Because I anticipated your visit, and set up for it, making you the focus. When you foolishly changed your mind, all that work was in danger of being wasted. Five innocent folk will have their lives ruined, or at least never properly developed, a mean goddess will prevail, and two nice girls and a nasty one will remain unattached. Several of them are bound to come to me with Questions, which will then make their problems become my problems to solve. That will be a pain in the butt. I need to circumvent it. You yourself are largely worthless, but the others have marvelous lives to fulfill, and it’s unfair to them to be so whimsically balked. So I am taking a hand for the greater good, not to mention my personal convenience, which means enlisting you, undeserving as you are.”

Now this was interesting, not least because of the three girls. Two nice ones and a nasty one? That last had a certain guilty appeal. Nice girls weren’t interested in him, but maybe a nasty one would be. He should be so lucky! “You—you think I could do all that? Just by taking the Quest?”

Humfrey hardly paused to consider. “I don’t think, I know. However there is a qualification: you
do it, but whether you
remains in question. The future is never guaranteed. You will simply have to take your chances.”

“I—I don’t know. I don’t much like taking chances.”

Again the eye roll. “That’s been your problem throughout. You don’t want to take a chance on completely fulfilling your life and enabling several others to fulfill theirs? Knowing that the alternative is to settle into a lifelong slump of nonentity? You’re boxing yourself in. You have to learn to think outside the box.”

“Box? What box? I don’t see any box.”

“That’s figurative, not literal, you numbskull.”

“I have to figure outside a box? I still don’t know what box.”

The Good Magician looked at him as if about ready to tear out a handful of hair, and he didn’t have much to spare. Then he changed his mind. “This box,” Humfrey said impatiently, producing a small closed dull gray box. “Think outside it, because what’s in it isn’t what you want.”

“It isn’t? Why?”

“Because that’s its magic: to contain always the wrong thing.” He thrust the box at Hapless.

Hapless took it. What could he do? If he turned this down he might never meet the nasty girl.

Humfrey walked to the door. “Be there,” he repeated, and exited.

Hapless stood there, staring at the box. It stared back at him, in its fashion. It contained the wrong thing? Hapless didn’t even know what the right thing was.

He got a dull idea. He could check inside the box, and whatever was in it would be wrong, and that might give him a clue what would be right.

He unfastened the closure and lifted the lid. Inside was a small picture of a rather pretty girl. She had flaring reddish hair, a cute nose, and a kissable mouth. “Who are you?” Hapless asked rhetorically.

“I’m Cylla Cybin, dummy,” the picture answered.

Hapless was so surprised he almost dropped the box.

“Hey! Don’t drop me, butterfingers!” the picture snapped.

“Uh, sorry. It’s just that I expected something repulsive, like a dirty sock, not a pretty girl picture that talks.”

“Pretty girl,” Cylla repeated, mellowing. “Do you really think so?”

“Well, sure, but that doesn’t matter.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Because what’s in this box is wrong for me, so even if you were real, it wouldn’t be good. The picture must be warning me to stay clear of you.”

“Oh really,” she said, as if considering potential ramifications.

“It’s nothing personal. I’d love to have a girlfriend like you. But you’re wrong, so that’s that.”

“And you’re going to be governed by a stupid box?”

“Well, the Good Magician gave it to me, and told me—”

“The Good Magician! You saw him?”

“I guess, in a manner. He told me to go to his castle and take a Quest. And to think outside the box.”

“I’m going with you.”


“You’re hard of hearing?”

“But—but you’re just a picture!”

Cylla frowned. “I am not just a picture. I’m a real girl whose picture somehow got inside your stupid box. That’s not at all the same. I want to go see the Good Magician, but I don’t want to travel alone, so I’ll go with you.”

“You want me to take your picture to the Good Magician?”

The picture’s expression seemed to echo that of Humfrey, when he had to explain something obvious, to a dullard. “I don’t care about the picture,” she said carefully. “I’m talking about the real me. Take. Me. To. The Good Magician’s Castle.”

“But I don’t even know where you are.”

“You’re in the village? Start walking north to the enchanted path. I’ll meet you there.”

What could he do? She was far more certain about things than he was. “Okay. Uh, when?”

“Now,” she said firmly. “Get moving. We don’t want to be caught out in the open when night falls.”

How had he gotten into this? Hiking to the Good Magician with the wrong girl? But it seemed he had his marching orders. He grabbed his knapsack and popped the box into it, then stepped out of the house. He turned north and started walking.

As he came to the edge of the village, where the enchanted path began, there was a woman waiting. He knew it was Cylla, because the figure was just as shapely as the face was pretty. “About time,” she said as he caught up to her. She fell in beside him, walking. “What’s your name?”

BOOK: xanth 40 - isis orb
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