Vale of the vole, p.23
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       Vale of the Vole, p.23

           Piers Anthony
 

  “I really don’t understand,” she said. She tickled his nose with a whisker.

  The tickle caused Volney to sneeze. The foul pebble flew from his nose, and was lost in the dust. Suddenly he was exposed to the full impact of the mating odor.

  It was time for desperate measures. Volney held his breath and leaped for the wall. He jammed on his external claws and dug at the wall with extraordinary vigor. The rock powdered under the magic of the talons, and a new hole developed.

  “What’s the matter?” Wilda asked. “Did I say something to offend you? I apologize!”

  “Don’t apologize!” Volney gasped, remembering one more thing Esk had mentioned. Some folk had a most intimate mode of apology!

  “But I only want to be nice to you!” she pleaded.

  As Volney breathed, some of the scent reached him. Why not simply turn back and—?

  But his rational mind still had enough sway to dominate —as long as he held his breath again. He continued his digging, getting his nose into the new rock, filtering out the scent.

  “Ah, you wish to flirt,” she said. “I will play! I will catch you!”

  “Yes, catch me!” Volney gasped. He could dig his way out of her range, and before she found him, a wiggle male would pass within range of her scent, and would preempt the mating. Then, afterwards, she would remember the Vale, and feel no outrage at Volney’s abrupt retreat.

  But he had forgotten what good borers the wiggles were. Wilda started her own tunnel, parallel to his, pacing him, and she readily matched his progress. He had no more strength pills; he could not enhance himself with a spell to outdistance her. When she grew tired of playing, she would loop her tunnel and cut off his, and merge the two; and then her scent would overwhelm him, and they would be locked in the futile mating effort.

  What could he do? She was tunneling above him, preventing him from going for the surface. She might not be bright about the details of genetics, but she was canny about tunneling, as all the members of the great family of voles were. It was inherent; any related creature who could not tunnel well was soon squeezed out of the ground. One of the shames of the surface creatures was surely their inadequacy as tunnelers.

  Maybe he could double back, fooling her, and then head for the surface before she could catch him. She wouldn’t brave the surface until after mating; it wasn’t the wiggle way. He hoped.

  He widened his tunnel, making room to turn his body around, then scurried back. It was much faster reexcavating refuse rocks than boring through solid virgin stone, and he made three times the speed. He soon intersected her original suite and scrambled through it.

  “How nice,” she murmured, wiggling her whiskers. “You have returned.”

  Volney held his breath and skidded to a stop. She had anticipated him! He could almost feel the scent caressing his fur. He spun about and plunged back into his tunnel. Soon he was back at its end, boring forward. Could he angle it up now, before she followed him back here?

  He could not. She was already angling her tunnel toward his; he could tell by the sound of it..

  Then he had a dark notion. He knew one place she wouldn’t go!

  Abruptly, he angled down. He had the excellent volish spatial memory that enabled him to orient on any region he had visited before. He knew where to go.

  Wilda paced him, not closing in, evidently curious about this new ploy. She knew he couldn’t dig down forever; eventually he would have to turn up again, and then she would end the flirtation and close in for the finale.

  Wouldn’t it be easier, he wondered, just to let her catch him? But then he realized that it was the scent influencing him. Every time he bored through a fracture zone, a suggestion of that scent filtered through, and now it was filtering through the fracture zones of his will to resist and centering on his desire. If he let her catch him, he would never make the rendezvous with his friends on the surface, and the Vale of the Vole would not be saved. He had to fight on through!

  Now he was nearing his current destination: the living lava flow. If he played this too close, he would suffer another type of fate; and as he fried to death, he would wish he had remained with the wiggle princess after all. For if he died in the lava, then Wilda would mate elsewhere, and go to the Vale—and there would be no containment spell.

  He felt the heat. He did not know the full extent of the flow, but did know where his prior tunnel to it was. He angled across to intersect that, hoping that Wilda did not realize what he had in mind.

  Her tunneling slowed as she felt the heat of the lava; this was not a region she liked! She was hesitating, while he ground on. Good; he didn’t like this region either, and didn’t want to go any further into it than absolutely necessary.

  Then she came to her decision. Her tunnel angled to intercept his.

  Volney increased his effort. He was tired from the two days of solid boring he had done to reach the princess, but he knew that he had to draw on any strength he had remaining. If she caught him, all was lost.

  The heat of the rock increased. This made the boring easier for his magic talons, but also worried him; he was approaching the lava from the other side, and could not be sure of its limit.

  Despite his effort, Wilda was gaining on him. Before he could locate his tunnel of several days ago, she cut him off. Her tunnel broke through into his, and her nose appeared before his nose.

  “This is fun,” she said. “But I don’t like this region. Let’s go back to my suite and make love.” This was, in the circumstances, a virtually irresistible offer.

  Volney tried to hold his breath, but his effort of boring had him gasping; he could not stop breathing now. He knew he had lost. He breathed in her fragrance.

  But, strangely, he felt no overwhelming desire for her now. She was pretty, and she was nice; he found no fault in her. He did not blame her for her nature. In another situation he would have liked to associate with her more thoroughly. But he no longer felt the compulsion to mate with her. What had happened?

  The scent that was strong in his nostrils now was that of the lava. It was very close, and the rock through which they were tunneling was hot.

  That was it: the lava was burning off the mating scent! He had been saved by the flow!

  “Princess Wilda,” he said gently. “I like you, and find you most attractive. But I am not of your species, and I would do you no favor by attempting to mate with you. I must return to the surface to look for the containment spell, so that your swarm may flourish in the Vale without hurting any other creatures there. Go and find a mate of your own kind, and take my best wishes with you.”

  Her whiskers quivered unhappily. “You do not wish to mate with me?”

  “I want to, but know it would only harm you,” he said, and realized that he was not being insincere. “I am doing what is best. I will always remember you, with deepest regret for what I cannot do, for you are a delight among females.”

  Then he resumed his tunneling, heading up at a steep angle. She squatted where she was for a moment; then, forlornly, she turned and moved back toward her suite.

  It was done. Somehow he was not thrilled. If only he could have yielded …

  It took him three days to reach the surface, because he was tired; he suspected the fatigue was emotional as much as physical. The merest suggestion of that mating scent clung to his fur, and every so often he got a faint whiff, and it sent him into a daydream of regret. The princess was a wiggle, true, but she had been most delectable; now that his decision had been made, he was free to regret, endlessly, what might have been, foolish as that would have been. He could appreciate Esk’s problem with the brassie girl; the sweetest temptation could be that which was known to be the most foolish.

  He had one day remaining to make the rendezvous when he broke surface. It was not that far away, so he collapsed and slept.

  On the next day he trudged on to Castle Roogna, and to the orchard. There were Esk and Chex, and the brassie girl and the skeleton man and the old curse
fiend, and of course little Ivy, who dashed up and hugged him exactly as if he were one of her pets. The odd thing was that he discovered that he liked it; he felt much more volish in that moment.

  They exchanged histories. It turned out that Esk had gotten the ogres to agree to help; already the gross humanoids were organizing in their dull fashion for their tromp to the Vale. Chex had gotten the winged monsters to agree, too; they would appear in due course.

  Then Volney, with some misgiving, explained what he had accomplished. “A wiggle princesss!” Ivy exclaimed with the characteristic humanoid problem with the “s.” “How excssiting!”

  Chex was far more sober. “A wiggle sswarm?” she asked, alarmed. “That’ss quite a rissk!”

  “We sshall have to ssearch for the containment spell on the Losst Path,” Esk said.

  That led to a discussion of ways and means. The gourd was very chancy; who should enter, by the zombie route, and who should stay behind?

  “I don’t want to enter that way,” Bria protested. “It might get me permanently fouled up.”

  “Readily ssolved,” Chex said. “Let Essk return you to the Losst Path; then he will look for you from the insside, and resscue you again. Then you will be able to come to thiss world all the way physsically, or to return to your ccity. What iss your ccity called, inssidentally?”

  “Brassilia,” Bria responded. “But I may not want to return there.”

  “It will be your choicse, of coursse,” the centaur said. Volney could tell by her manner that Bria’s hesitation was no surprise to the centaur. Of course the brassie girl wanted to remain here; she was casting her scent for Esk. That was obvious to every member of the party except, of course, Esk himself.

  Chex turned to the skeleton. “And you, Marrow—do you wissh to rissk the loop back in via the zombie gourd?”

  “I confesss to developing an interesst in thiss world,” the skeleton said. “I am in no russh to return to the haunted garden. Sso I would like to travel with you, if you concur.”

  “But you rissk a convolussion whosse nature we do not properly undersstand,” she reminded him.

  Marrow shrugged. He was very good at that, because of the articulation and exposure of his bones. “It iss an interessting convolussion.”

  “Very interessting,” the centaur agreed. “That makess our party four; I think that iss enough. Latia and Bria can wait here, and if we do not return in a week—”

  “Then I will go in after you,” Bria said. “And Latia will inform the voless of the Vale that the ogress and winged monssterss and wiggless are coming, sso they can prepare.”

  That settled it. Tomorrow their party of four would set out for the huge zombie gourd Chex knew about. Volney knew it had to be done, but he was ill at ease. The notion of physically entering the gourd appalled him. But not as much as the notion of letting his folk of the Vale down.

  Chapter 13. Dreams

  It took them one day to reach the zombie gourd, because the others could not travel as rapidly as Chex. They planned for a journey of two days within the gourd to find the containment spell, and the same time to return, giving them one day’s leeway. The margin was the same, but the stakes were rising; the Vale of the Vole might well be hostage to their success.

  Chex brought out the pathfinder spell. Esk had used it for the path to the ogre fen, and it would not work for him again, so Chex was taking her turn now. “The easiest and safest path for four folk to the lost containment spell,” she enounced carefully. Esk recognized the wisdom of that; the gourd had its own difficulties and dangers, such as entrapment on the Lost Path. He had asked for the shortest path to the ogre fen, and it had been slightly harrowing in places; the gourd was bound to be worse.

  The path appeared before them. As they had anticipated, it led into the huge peephole. Esk was nervous about this, because of his prior experience with the gourd, but he reminded himself that this was not the same situation; when they entered physically, they could depart physically, on their own initiative. Also, they had the guidance of the path. And of course he had not been hurt before, just confused. He had even emerged with a couple of new friends.

  But the others were leaping in, and he had to follow before he got left out. He leaped—and found himself in the midst of rotting plants. It was as if some monstrous blight had descended on this glade and caused the vegetation to sicken and die.

  “Vombie plantv,” Volney muttered, evidently as bothered as Esk was.

  Chex was showing the way along an overgrown and slushy path between depressions. Esk saw a fallen headstone, and realized that these were sunken graves, with the sickly plants crowding them. He did not like this place at all!

  “Watch the snake,” Chex called.

  Esk looked ahead, and saw a horrendous zombie serpent striking at Marrow’s bone leg. But its aim wasn’t good; it bit a plant instead. The skeleton walked on, unperturbed. He was back in his original state, having doffed the suit Latia had made for him at some point; indeed, it seemed like a pointless affectation for him.

  Volney paused, watching the snake. He started to pass it, and it drew back again to strike; he scooted on ahead, and the snake missed and bit the plant again. It really was not particularly bright or swift, as snakes went, though perhaps was up to par as zombies went.

  The oddest thing was that the plant was now becoming quite healthy. The venom seemed to enhance it.

  “Zombies are afraid of health,” Chex called back. “So the bite threatens to deliver what they fear. But we aren’t zombies, and we can’t be sure what it would do to us.”

  Indeed they could not be sure! Esk timed the snake, and zipped on by it, and ran to catch up with the others.

  They were now at a region of slashing knives. “This is the route I took before,” Chex said. “The path leads here, but it must diverge somewhere, because I was going to Centaur Isle then.” She drew a knife from her pack, and threw it into the gantlet.

  There was an instant melee as the knives attacked the intruder knife. They cut each other up in the process, going wild, and soon all of them were broken. The four of them should be able to pass this way—but the marks of the pathfinder’s path no longer seemed to go here.

  Chex nodded. “It changes; the knife fight is merely a key, not a part of the path.” She set out along a new path that proceeded back the way they had come.

  The decaying vegetation had changed to decaying stone and other junk. Chex came to a green rock that was so far gone it resembled a fungus. She lifted a forehoof and struck it against this rock.

  The thing flew apart. Where the pieces landed, they sank into the ground, and awful green fire rose up, spreading to the ground itself, consuming it. Before long something showed beneath: a platform of wood that did not burn.

  Chex knocked the near end of the wood, and it dropped, and the far end swung up. There was a hollow beneath, with wooden steps leading down.

  “Now the path should lead away,” Chex remarked.

  But it did not. The wear marks that signaled the proper route proceeded down those steps.

  “I admit I was curious about this,” the centaur said. “But it means the route will no longer be familiar to me. At least this has been enough to show you the way of it; the path can be devious.”

  Indeed it could be! “But reasonably safe and easy,” Esk repeated. He wished he knew what was considered reasonable in the strange world of the gourd! If striking zombie snakes represented safety, what would represent danger?

  Chex stepped down into the pit, somewhat awkwardly. It was evident that centaurs were not made for stairs. There was a landing below, large enough for the four of them. Beyond it, a broad lighted passage extended, and this was clearly the path.

  They lined up four abreast and walked onward. This really wasn’t very bad, so far; maybe the path was going to be easy by human definition.

  Then they came to a rusty barred gate across the passage. Behind it stood four grotesque zombies. One was a rotting man, another a
decaying centaur, another a moldy vole, and the last a tattered skeleton.

  “This has abruptly become specific,” Chex remarked. “Something knows we are here.”

  “I am not reavvured,” Volney said.

  “It is not unknown,” Marrow said. “We of the gourd are animations of the concepts of bad dreams. Now that you—and it seems I—have entered this realm physically, those dreams are coalescing. I suspect this will become rather unpleasant for you.”

  “Not for you?” Chex inquired.

  “I do not dream, of course, so cannot have a bad dream.”

  “But that figure before you looks very much like a spoiled skeleton.”

  “Yes. This is odd. It must have mistaken me for a living creature. I am not certain whether to feel flattered or insulted.”

  “But what do we do now?” Esk asked. “Break through the gate? It has no opening, and the bars are too closely set to let us through.”

  “If, as I conjecture, these are animations from our minds, it will be necessary for us to face them directly,” Marrow said. “They are of course intended to frighten us away. Bad dreams lose their power when the subject fails to flee in terror.” He glanced around. “I hope you will not repeat that in the outside world. Trade secret, you know.”

  Esk would have laughed, if his knees hadn’t felt so weak.

  “Then I shall face my doppelganger,” Chex said boldly. She stepped up to the gate.

  The zombie centaur stepped up similarly, as if it were a mirror image. It met her right at the gate. She put out her right hand, and it matched her with its left. She touched it—and her hand passed through its hand.

  No, not through—into. The two merged, and disappeared.

  Startled, Chex drew back her arm. So did the zombie, and both hands reappeared.

  “Like water!” Esk exclaimed. “Like putting your hand into water! It disappears, and so does the reflection.”

 
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