Vale of the vole, p.2
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       Vale of the Vole, p.2

           Piers Anthony
 

  He sat on the pillows, and there was no outcry. He shook out his blanket, with no protest. He found a piece of redberry pie and ate it without event. He began to hope.

  It was surprising how quickly boredom set in. One thing about his experience with Metria: it had been interesting, in more than one way. Now that it was too late, he wondered whether he had been mistaken in turning down her offer. She might have provided him with some phenomenal experience!

  He dug out his game of pebbles. His collection of stones had served well in past times to while away dull hours. They were of several different colors, and he had fashioned a game by drawing them out of the bag one at a time and setting them down on the floor in patterns. Each stone had to be set next to one of its own color to form a line or curve. The object was for one color to circle another. He might draw several red stones in succession, not looking at each until it was clear of the bag, and Red would make progress against White; then White would produce several and reverse the advantage. Blue and Green and Gray were also in there fighting. Sometimes the colors made alliances, ganging up against each other. The game could get quite exciting, as he animated the personalities of the colors in his mind. The patterns could become quite convoluted.

  He brought out the first stone. It was glistening black. He set it down, starting the game.

  “Hey, freak, what do you think you’re doing?” the stone asked.

  He snatched it up and thrust it back into the bag and twisted the opening tight, trying to seal it in. But smoke issued through the material and swirled before him, and soon Metria was there. “I thought you’d given up and left it to me,” she remarked.

  “I thought you’d given up,” he retorted.

  “Demons never give up unless they want to. Come on, I really want this place. Can’t we deal?”

  “No.” But then his foolish curiosity overcame him. “Why are you so insistent on this place, instead of just becoming a bird and perching on a branch or something?”

  “This place is secluded and comfortable, and other creatures don’t know about it. We demons need to spend most of our time in solid state, and it’s easiest to do it while sleeping, so a good private place is valuable.”

  “I thought demons didn’t need to sleep.”

  “We don’t need to sleep, mortal. But we can sleep if we choose, and often we do. This is a perfect sleeping place, so I mean to have it.”

  “Well, I don’t mean to let you have it.”

  Her lips formed a pout. “I’m trying to be nice about it, Esk. It’s an effort. Suppose I give you two great experiences?”

  “Two?”

  “Sex and death.”

  “You already tried to kill me!”

  “I mean the other way around. You can kill me, after you enjoy me.”

  “Demons can’t be killed.” But he found himself guiltily intrigued.

  “We can’t die, but we can do extremely realistic emulations of dying. You can choke me, and I’ll gag and turn purple and my eyeballs will bulge way out and I’ll struggle with diminishing force until finally I sag down and stop breathing and my body turns cold. It will be just like throttling a living woman.”

  “Ugh,” Esk said, revolted.

  “Well, what do you want, then? Three great experiences? Name your stupid price.”

  He was tempted to ask about the third experience, but decided that he probably would not like it any better than the second. “No.”

  “I’ll even throw in the first one free,” she said. “Just so you can fully appreciate what I offer. I can assume any form you wish, just to make it interesting. Is there any particular mortal girl you’ve been wanting to—”

  “No!” he cried.

  “Look, there’s no obligation! I just want to demonstrate my good faith! I really want this den, without getting bothered all the time. I know an awful lot that you could hardly learn in a year, let alone in a day, and—”

  “No!”

  “Don’t be so stuffy.” She inhaled, making her breasts stand out splendidly, and leaned toward him.

  “I said no three times,” Esk said querulously. “Why aren’t you stopping?”

  “Because I’m not doing, I’m persuading,” she said. “And you want to be persuaded, don’t you, Esk?”

  He was afraid that anything he said at this point would be a lie. He lurched out of the hideout, ashamed of himself. He had to get rid of the demoness, before she succeeded in corrupting him!

  He stayed away a full ten days this time. But he felt out of sorts without the use of his hideout, and realized that he was actually giving it up to her without a fight. He had to go there and pester her until she left, instead of allowing her to do it to him.

  He braced himself and went to the beerbarrel tree. All was quiet, outside and in, but he knew this was no certain indication of her absence. He sat on the pillows, shook out the blanket, ate a scrap of cheese, dumped all the colored stones out on the floor, and poked everything he could think of. There was no response from any of it. Could she really be gone this time? Or was she merely lying low, waiting until he relaxed, before appearing with some new offer? How many such offers could he resist, before he succumbed to the temptation. How many did he want to resist?

  Already she was corrupting him, and she wasn’t even trying!

  Still, if she never manifested, then the hideout was his, even if she was here. Except that if she should be watching and listening to everything he did here, how could he ever really relax? He had to be sure she was gone, and not just out doing some temporary mischief elsewhere.

  He heard something, faint in the distance outside the tree. He held his breath, listening.

  “Eskil! Eskil!”

  That was his mother’s voice! She was searching for him, calling his name, and if he didn’t show up soon, she was apt to discover this hideout! He scrambled out and ran to her, not directly but in a roundabout way, so as not to give away the location of his secret place.

  “What is it, Mother?” he called when the direction was suitable.

  Tandy turned to face him. She had kept much of her nymphly figure, and was a pretty figure of a women. There was the corruption of the demoness again: How could he presume to notice such a thing about his own mother?

  “Oh, Eskil,” she said. “You must come home right away! It’s horrible!”

  He was gripped by sudden alarm. “What’s horrible?”

  “Your father—some other ogre smashed him, I think, and—”

  His alarm became horror. “He’s hurt?”

  “He may not survive the hour! We have to get some healing elixir before it’s too late!”

  “I know where there’s a spring!” he cried. “I’ll go get it!” He took the little bottle she carried, and charged off through the forest, his heart pounding from more than the exertion. His father, dying!

  He reached the spring and swooped with the bottle dipping out the healing elixir. Then he ran back toward the house.

  He charged in. “Where is he?” he cried, panting. Tandy turned from the table, where she was preparing leftover soup. “Where is who, dear?” she inquired mildly.

  “Father! Smash Ogre! I have the elixir!”

  Smash emerged from another room. He was in his human mode. “You called me, son?”

  Esk looked from one to the other. “You—you’re not hurt!”

  Tandy’s brow furrowed. “Whatever gave you the idea your father was hurt, Esk?”

  “But you were just telling me, out in the forest—”

  “I have not left the house all afternoon, dear,” she said reprovingly.

  “But—” But obviously it was true. His mother never interrupted leftover soup for anything short of a dire emergency, and it seemed there had been not even a mild emergency. How could he have thought—?

  Then he understood. Metria! She could emulate anything or anyone! She had pretended to be his mother, and he had been completely fooled.

  “I—I guess I had a dream,” he said a
wkwardly. “I thought Father was hurt, so I fetched some elixir—”

  “That was nice of you, dear,” Tandy said, and returned her attention to her soup.

  “But save the elixir,” Smash said. “Never can tell when that stuff’ll be handy.”

  “Uh, sure,” Esk said, looking for a stopper for the vial. But now the vial fuzzed into vapor, and the elixir spilled to the floor. What a fool he had been!

  Next day he returned to the hideout. “Metria!” he bawled. “Show yourself, you damned demoness!”

  She appeared. “Why, I do believe you are having a change of mind,” she said. “You never complimented me like that before.”

  “You made me think my father was dying!” he accused her.

  “Of course, Esk. If one thing doesn’t work, I try another. How else am I to be left in peace here?”

  “You mean you’re going to keep on doing things like that? Making me think my folks are in trouble?”

  “Why of course not, Esk! Obviously that didn’t work either, because here you are again.”

  He didn’t trust this. “Then what—”

  “I’ll just have to do something real to your folks, so you won’t have time to bother me.”

  It took only a moment for him to grasp that, despite his quarter-ogre heritage. “No!”

  “That’s a category denial, Esk. You know you can’t enforce that. I’ll get your folks one way or another, in time. You can’t watch them both all the time.”

  He leaped at her. She started to dematerialize, then reconsidered. Instead she met him, flinging her arms about him. “But I’m still willing to deal for the den, and even to give you the free sample, if—”

  The force of his leap was carrying them on, and now they landed together on the pillows. Metria wrapped her legs about his body and her arms about his head, hauling him in to her for a kiss. “I’m really being more than reasonable, for my kind,” she whispered against his cheek. “All I want is to be left alone in my den.”

  “My den!” he gasped.

  “Which I am offering a generous price for,” she said. “Most men would grasp most eagerly at the chance, not to mention the flesh. Now just let me get these clothes off you—”

  He wrenched himself away from her. “No!”

  She sighed. “Well, no one can say I didn’t try. I really have nothing against your folks, because they don’t even know about the den. But if that’s what it takes to—”

  “No! I’ll—I’ll leave you alone! You leave them alone!”

  “Why how nice of you, Esk,” she said. “You are becoming reasonable. I shall be glad to leave all of you alone, as long as you do not come here.”

  Esk got to his feet, turned around, and walked away from her. He knew he had lost, and it galled him, but there seemed to be no other way.

  Could he trust her to leave his folks alone? The more he thought about it, as he walked, the more he distrusted it. The demoness might decide she liked the house better than the tree, and act against the family anyway. Demons had no conscience; that was their great strength and weakness.

  He had to got rid of Metria. Only then could he be quite sure that his family was safe. But how? Every time he tried to make her move, she tried to seduce him, or worse, and she seemed a lot closer to victory than he. Where could he find the answer?

  Then he realized where. He would go ask the Good Magician Humfrey! Humfrey knew everything, and for one year’s service would answer any question. It was a steep price, but would be worth it to save his family from the possible malice of the demoness.

  His decision made, Esk felt better. Tomorrow he would start his trip to the Good Magician’s castle.

  Chapter 2. Chex

  Tandy hadn’t wanted to let him go, of course, and he had been unable to tell her that it was to protect her and Smash and their house that he was doing it. So he had told another aspect of the truth: that it was time for him to take his Ogreish Rite of Passage (obviously the word was “right,” but ogres weren’t much on spelling) and perform some mighty act of destruction to become an adult, and so he wanted to go to the Good Magician to get advice. Smash had endorsed that enthusiastically, so Tandy really couldn’t prevent it. And, in a sense, it was true; it was time for him to assert himself, and he did need advice. But the great act of destruction he contemplated was reversed; he actually wanted to prevent it by getting rid of Metria before she hurt someone. He hoped that wasn’t too great a stretch of the reality.

  “But the Good Magician requires a year of service for each answer!” Tandy had protested. “I know, because I served that year, when—”

  “When he put you together with me,” Smash had reminded her. That had ended that; of course she wasn’t going to claim that the Good Magician had served her ill. He had indeed solved her problem by providing her with a companion who could stand up to the demon who threatened her.

  And what companion could enable Esk to stand up to Metria? he wondered. What he really needed was a spell to make her simply go away and stay away, no questions asked. He would ask for it at the outset, so that he could banish her immediately; then he would serve out his year, satisfied that there was no threat to his folks.

  Now he hiked west through the brush, garbed in the gray shirt and trousers his mother had insisted he wear, which matched his gray eyes. Such things were important to mothers. He was seeking one of the magic paths that led to the Good Magician’s castle. They were enchanted to protect all travelers, so the trip should be easy enough. Here near home he was familiar with the land, so readily avoided problems, but when he hit strange territory he wanted to be on a path. Even as minor a nuisance as the curse burrs could be bad, if one stumbled into a bed of them unaware. Major threats, such as large dragons—well, it was best just to avoid those.

  He found a path, but distrusted it, because it was too convenient. Sure enough, it led directly to a tangle tree. A full ogre might tramp down it anyway, being too stupid to know the difference, and bash the tree, being too strong to care, but Esk was only a quarter ogre and had to exercise some discretion. So he shunned the path—and sure enough, he blundered into a patch of curse burrs.

  “Confound you!” he exclaimed as one dug into his leg. That one hesitated, then dropped off; his curse had been pretty mild. Too bad he didn’t have any harpy blood; a harpy could curse so villainously that the foliage around her dirty body smoked. Curse burrs never bothered harpies!

  Three more burrs were pricking him. “Go jump in the lake!” he exclaimed, and one fell off, reluctantly. “Your parent is a weed!” and another loosened. “May a dragon roast you!” and the third let go.

  His problem was that he had never learned to curse effectively. Tandy, being a gentle creature, had not been any suitable role model in this respect, and Smash was not all that verbal; when annoyed, he simply turned ogre and bashed whatever bothered him. Esk knew that his education had been neglected in this respect, but it was rather late to do much about it.

  There were two more burrs pricking his ankles. They were difficult to reach, because when he bent over his backpack tended to shift, so he sat down. Unfortunately, there were more burrs below, and what the demoness had termed his mule landed solidly on them.

  “#©£$¢%¶¿!!” he bawled, sailing up. The burrs flew from him like zzapping wiggles, leaving little vapor trails behind.

  Esk stared after them. He hadn’t realized that he knew language like that! Of course, he had been stung hard in an indelicate place, so had reacted involuntarily. Still …

  He tried to recall what he had said, but could not. Apparently this was like his ogre strength or his curse fiend acting that came only in extreme need. Too bad.

  He resumed his trek, and in due course encountered a promising path. It did not lead to a tangle tree or a dragon’s lair, so seemed good. He wasn’t sure how to tell whether it was enchanted, but if no hostile creatures appeared on it, he would assume that it was.

  He stopped for lunch. Tandy had made him blueberry san
dwiches, his favorite, and current pie. His teeth received a pleasant little shock when he bit into the pie and caused the current to flow. The sandwiches were delightfully cold, because the berries had been harvested when blue with cold, in the month of FeBlueberry, and retained their frigid nature. Tandy had a special touch with food, which she said she had learned while serving the Good Magician.

  Well, maybe he would pick up useful skills too, while serving his term. By all accounts, the service the Magician required was not arduous, and was often beneficial to the server in unanticipated ways. The monsters that came with questions served as guardians, and Tandy had served as a housekeeper. Smash Ogre had performed a task in lieu of a year, traveling with Tandy and guarding her from danger. Esk would be willing to perform alternate service, especially in the company of some young woman resembling his mother in certain respects.

  But that reminded him of Metria, who had offered him entirely too much companionship. He still wondered why he had so resolutely refused her offer. It wasn’t because he really valued his hideout; he could have fashioned another in a different region of the forest. Probably it was because he simply wasn’t ready for the type of experience she offered—at least, not with a creature who was totally cynical about it. A real girl, with real feelings and sensitivities and concerns—that would have been most interesting. But a century-old unhuman creature who did it purely as a matter of bargaining—that was frightening. She could have gotten him fairly into it, then changed into a harpy or something, and laughed her demoniac head off. He did not trust her at all.

  There, maybe, was the real key: trust. Demons were absolutely untrustworthy, because they had no souls; everyone knew that. The only safe way to handle a demon was to stay away from it, because there was no telling what it might do next. Metria had first tried to kill him, then to seduce him; now she threatened his family, and that only confirmed the popular wisdom. He hoped he reached the Good Magician’s castle soon, so that he could set that matter right.

 
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