Vale of the vole, p.26
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       Vale of the Vole, p.26

           Piers Anthony
 

  “It is good to return to conventional horrors,” Marrow said enthusiastically.

  “That’s right,” Chex said. “This is the origin of bad dreams; I had almost forgotten.”

  “Yes. These are the sensations experienced by those alone and nervous. Aren’t they lovely?”

  “Lovely,” she agreed with resignation.

  Then a huge face formed above them, its eyes glowing. “Whoo invades theese mmy premisesss?” it demanded windily.

  “Oh, go retire to the Lost Path!” Chex snapped at it. “We’ve been through enough already.”

  “Oooh, sooo?” the face asked, scowling. The mouth opened wide, impossibly wide, until it was larger than the face itself. From it came another entire face, uglier than the first, with a huge warty nose and daggerlike teeth.

  “Tressspasssers!” this new face hissed.

  “Look, would you mind?” Chex asked impatiently. “We are trying to get somewhere, and we’re getting tired of routine spooks. Just let us alone.”

  “Aarrgh!” the face growled. It opened its mouth, and the dagger teeth flashed. From this orifice came a third face, even worse, with little dancing flames in lieu of eyes, and a beak instead of a nose, and a hole like a deep cave for a mouth.

  “Will you leave off?” Chex shouted. She unslung her bow, nocked an arrow, and let it fly at the beak.

  “Uh, that might not be wise,” Esk said, somewhat too late. He was amazed at the facility with which she had attacked the face. He had known that centaurs were good with bows, but had not realized just how good.

  The arrow passed right through the beak, for it was only an image in the sky. But the face reacted with outrage. It roared, sending down a blast of frigid air admixed with sleet, and lunged down at them. Before they could move, the gaping orifice closed on them. The monster had swallowed their party whole!

  The temperature plummeted, and the sleet quickly coated them with ice. In a moment they found themselves standing on a snow-covered hill, with the wind howling around them, driving off any heat remaining in their flimsy bodies.

  “You’re right,” Chex said, her teeth chattering. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

  They huddled together for scant warmth, except for Marrow, who wasn’t affected, though the snow was caking on his bones. The storm raged around them, blotting out the sun and, indeed, the sky. They were unable to look into the wind; the whole scene was just the rush of air. It was mean in the belly of the air monster!

  And it was increasing! The force of the wind was threatening to sweep them right off the mountain, even before they froze to death. “S-some easy p-path!” Esk chattered.

  “I believe this is the realm of the Element of Air,” Marrow commented. “The gourd annex, of course. Air becomes quite stormy when aroused.”

  “Fanvy that!” Volney muttered from almost under the snow.

  “Fancy that,” Chex repeated. “Let’s burrow down for some warmth until this passes.”

  “It will not pass,” Marrow said. “When Air is offended, it will not rest until it destroys its offender.”

  Indeed, the storm was still intensifying. The sleet and snow blasted at them like sharp sand. Their huddle was not effective; there was too much exposed surface, and the wind and cold were too intense.

  “We shall have to tunnel down below it,” Chex said. “Only I am unable to tunnel well, and am afraid of close confinement. Only the knowledge that this is all the world of the gourd has enabled me to endure the subterranean passages we have navigated hitherto.”

  “I am able to tunnel,” Volney said. He donned his special talons and more or less dived into the snow, sending up a shower of white. In a moment he disappeared into the hole he was excavating, with only the flying refuse signaling his activity.

  “Your fear of confinement did not manifest in your bad dream,” the skull remarked.

  “That is true,” she agreed, surprised. “I was more afraid of rejection than of getting squashed. If I conquered my deepest fear, I should be able to conquer my lesser fear.” She squared her shoulders. “At any rate, I will try. I think at this point I would rather be squoze than froze.”

  “But it will take too long to dig a hole in the ground big enough for all of us,” Esk said.

  “We can make a snow fort to shelter us partially until the digging is complete,” Chex said. She tried to move snow with her hands, but they quickly turned blue, and her activity slowed; she was freezing. “Oh, if only I had a shovel!” she exclaimed, tucking her hands under her wings.

  “I will be your shovel,” Marrow said. “Kick me.”

  “What?” Esk asked.

  “Kick me apart and form my bones into a shovel,” the skeleton clarified.

  “Oh, yes!” Chex agreed. “Bend over.”

  Marrow bent over, and she turned around and delivered a powerful kick to his bone posterior. His bones flew apart, but as they landed they connected in a chain. Chex formed this chain into a crude shovel, with the long leg bones serving as the handle and the tines of the rib cage serving as the scoop. There were a number of bones left over, so Esk formed these into a somewhat clumsier second shovel with the grinning skull as the scoop. There was a linkage of tiny bones between the shovels; it seemed that Marrow never came completely apart.

  They proceeded to dig, and it went very well. The energy they expended warmed them, and the shovels worked very well despite their seeming clumsiness. Apparently the magic of the skeleton facilitated whatever task his bones were shaped to. Soon they had a massive excavation, and the force of the howling winds was first cramped and then cut off.

  Meanwhile Volney was still boring down. Abruptly his head appeared in the hole. “I have found a cave,” he announced. “However, it may not be wive to enter it.”

  “Why not?” Esk asked. “We can’t stay here long; we’ll freeze!”

  “There may be another monvter.”

  Chex paused in her labor. “It is a warm cave?”

  “Comfortable. But—”

  “Then let’s chance the monster!” she exclaimed.

  “But what about the path?” Esk asked. “We have to follow the path!”

  “The path iv there,” Volney said.

  “That does it,” Chex said. “If I can scramble down your hole, I’m going to!”

  “In a moment,” Volney said. He resumed tunneling, and the hole widened rapidly. Soon it was wide enough to allow Chex to squeeze through—or so she judged.

  “Push me when I need it,” she told Esk, handing him her shovel. “Ignore me if I scream; I may foolishly panic.” She had to lean her head and shoulders way forward, and grasp her front legs with her hands, and stretch her hind feet out behind. It looked like an extremely uncomfortable position for her, but she simply did what she had to to get by.

  Volney helped pull her from below, and Esk helped push her from above, but the thickest part of her body wedged in tight and would not move. She was stuck.

  “Now what do we do?” Esk asked rhetorically.

  “Use one of my bones as a lever to pry her out,” the skull said.

  Startled, Esk almost dropped it. But why shouldn’t Marrow talk when re-formed into a shovel? He spoke by magic anyway. He set his shovel, which had arm bones for its handle, at the end of Chex’s shovel, forming a double-length pole. “Can you hold firm if I push at the side?”

  “Certainly,” the skull said. “We skeletons pride ourselves on our rigidity.”

  Esk slid the business end of the shovel/pole down where the centaur was wedged, then slowly leaned outward on the handle, trying to wedge her body in just that amount needed to enable it to pass. It didn’t work.

  “A little to the left,” the skull suggested.

  Esk tried again, to the left, beside one of her folded wings. “Yes, that’s it,” the skull said. “I can feel the give, here. A little more …”

  Esk pushed a little harder. Suddenly Chex gave a wiggle, and her torso slid down a little. It was working!

 
; Following Marrow’s suggestions, Esk pried carefully in different places, each time getting the torso down a bit more. Finally it slid the rest of the way down. She was through!

  Esk dropped down behind her. The hole debouched in a cave, where the centaur and the vole were now standing. In the light from the hole he had come from, Esk saw that Chex was touching up some scrapes on her hide. “I, ah, had to pry a little,” he said.

  “Good thing, too,” she said. “I was in danger of suffocating, not to mention panicking.” Indeed, she seemed shaken, but she had survived the experience.

  It was warmer in the cave, and that was a blessing. He spotted the faint glow of the pathfinder path; it did indeed pass this way. But what was this about a monster?

  There was an ear-grinding bellow from the direction the path led. There was, indeed, a monster!

  They exchanged glances. “But we can’t go back,” Chex said. “Even if I could squeeze through, going up, I wouldn’t care to; there’s only the angry Element of Air up there.”

  “And it is supposed to be safe,” Esk said. “So far, it has been scary, but we haven’t actually been hurt.”

  “Vo far,” Volney agreed, twitching his whiskers disapprovingly.

  They moved on along the path. It wasn’t long before they found the source of the roaring. It was a huge face set in the floor of the cave, whose mouth was a cave in itself, and whose eyes were steaming vents.

  Chex paused at the chin. “The last face was that of the Element of Air,” she said, “at least as personified here in the gourd. That should make this one the personification of the Element of Earth.”

  “Growerr!” the mouth roared, and sulfurous gases fumed up, making them cough.

  But the path led into this mouth.

  “Let’s put Marrow back together while we consider,” Chex said.

  “No need,” the skull said. “You may need a shovel or a lever again—or a weapon. Wait till we’re clear of these difficulties, if you don’t mind carrying me.”

  “I don’t mind,” Esk said. He was coming to respect the skeleton’s properties increasingly. Marrow was a very versatile fellow!

  “If we invult thiv fave, it could be movt uncomfortable,” Volney warned.

  That gave Esk an idea. “So let’s flatter it!” he said. Chex nodded. “Perhaps we could have had an easier transition through Air, if I had not lost my temper. That was a most uncentaurish thing for me to do.”

  “Have you ever seen a handsomer face?” Esk asked loudly. “One with more, uh, earthy features?”

  “Why, I’m not sure I have,” Chex replied. “It is a most appropriate sculpture.”

  The huge mouth stretched into a smile. The roaring abated.

  “Let’s go in and see what other wonders are here,” Esk said. “I’m sure it is even prettier inside than outside.”

  “That is certainly possible,” Chex agreed. “We do tend to forget how much we owe to the Element of Earth. Without it we would have very little substance.”

  The smile stretched into a satisfied grin. A large stony tongue protruded, forming into a ramp.

  They walked down this ramp, into the mouth. There was no squeeze at all.

  After a short descent, the ramp leveled out into a winding road through a network of caves. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, and there were magnificent pillars rising from below, their points seeking those of the stalactites with uncanny accuracy. Some were of prettily colored stone, showing green and red and yellow in merging bands. Some were crystalline, translucent, seeming almost too delicate to survive any shudder of the ground in the region. Some glowed, providing soft light for the path. Now it required no stretch of imagination to compliment the beauty of this region; it was indeed lovely.

  There were also chambers of broken stones, but even these were remarkable. The stones were assorted gems, ranging from multicolored quartz to scintillating diamonds. Here Chex’s female nature asserted itself. “We are merely passing through,” she said, “but I wonder—do you think it would be all right if I took one little fragment of this lovely purple amethyst? It is such pretty stone!”

  “If the Element of Earth doesn’t object,” the skull said.

  Chex leaned down to pick up one stone, from a mound half her height. “May I keep this one?” she asked. “I promise to treasure it forever, and my memory of this region.”

  From the walls of the cave there came a soft purring.

  Esk resolved to try the positive approach first, in all future encounters with strange folk or forces. What a difference it had made in this case!

  Finally they came to a wall of fire. “This promises to be more of a challenge,” Chex remarked. “How do we enter the Annex of the Element of Fire without getting burned?”

  “I suspect you will have to become flames,” the skull said.

  Chex laughed, then sobered. “That was not humor,” she concluded.

  “It certainly isn’t funny,” Esk said. “I don’t want to get burned up.”

  “Perhapv more imaginavhion?” Volney asked.

  “You mean make another picture of a door, and step through it?” Chex asked. “But if beyond is the realm of fire, we would still be burned.”

  Esk pondered. “We insulted Air, and almost got wiped out in a snowstorm. We complimented Earth, and had a very pleasant tour. Suppose we compliment Fire? These Elements have power, and they can make things hard or easy for us if they choose.”

  Chex nodded. “If Air could almost freeze us to death, maybe Fire can refrain from burning us to death, if it chooses. But how do we compliment Fire?”

  “You might try telling it the truth,” Marrow’s skull said.

  “The truth?” Esk asked. “That we don’t want to get burned?”

  “That we have a mission to perform, and need its help.”

  It was Esk’s turn to nod. “I’ll try it.”

  He faced the wall of fire. “O Element of Fire,” he intoned, “we are four travelers who must pass through your realm. May we talk to you?”

  A giant face formed in the wall, with eyes like sunspots and a mouth like a monstrous magnetic flux. “Ooooh?” it inquired hotly.

  “Yes, we have traversed Air and Earth, and now we come to you. We have used you in our cooking and to heat us when we are cold. We appreciate your power, but we cannot touch you without being hurt. Will you let us pass without being burned?”

  The face considered. “You must be-come flame,” it said, enunciating each syllable with a flare of fire.

  “But—” Esk began.

  “We can become flame—without being hurt?” Chex cut in.

  “Yes—if you ac-cept,” the fireface said.

  “And we can go on to the next realm?”

  “Yes.”

  “Then we accept,” she said. “How do we become flame?”

  For answer, the mouth opened into a big fiery circle.

  “We have to trust the word of the Element of Fire,” Chex said. Then she leaped into the circle.

  She vanished. In her place was only a dancing flame in the shape of a centaur.

  Esk stared, horrified. “It burned her up!” he whispered.

  The centaur-flame turned and made a beckoning motion.

  “No—that is her,” the skull said. “She has become flame. Throw me in next.”

  Esk’s hand was shaking, but he heaved the bone staff through the hoop. It converted into a flame the shape of a skeleton.

  “It muvt be true,” Volney said. “The path iv vuppoved to be vafe, remember. Heave me up nekvt.”

  Esk leaned down and locked his hands together. The vole put a hind foot in, then heaved as Esk heaved, and managed to flop into the circle. He too disappeared in flame.

  Now it was Esk’s turn. He contemplated the ring of fire, and quailed. Was it really safe to pass through that hoop, or had the others been burned up and mocking flameimages substituted? How could he be sure? Chex had conquered her claustrophobia and entered Earth; could he conquer his fear of being
burned and trust his body to Fire?

  He hesitated, unable to take the plunge. The three fire folk beckoned him from beyond. But fire demons would do that, too; it was no proof that his friends were all right.

  Then he thought about how he might escape, if he did not enter the flame. The path that had brought them here could not be traveled the other way; there were too many barriers, blank walls, one-way pictures and such. He could not return alone; he had to be with someone who had the pathfinder spell that could ferret out a new path. So he was lost, by himself. He might as well perish in the flame.

  That gave him the doubtful confidence to take the plunge. He took a breath, held it, and jumped into the hoop.

  There was a flare of vertigo. Then he landed on a jet of fuel, and it buoyed him and sustained him.

  “Welcome aboard,” Chex said. “For a moment I thought you weren’t going to rejoin us!”

  Esk looked down at himself. He was fashioned of flame! “Be careful not to stray from a source of fuel,” Volney cautioned. “You can fade quickly if careless.”

  Esk did a double take. “You’re not lisping!” he exclaimed, his body flaring brightly with his surprise.

  “I never lisped!” the fire-vole said indignantly. “It is you who has corrected his hissing.”

  Esk decided not to argue the case. He quickly verified the fuel situation; if he stepped off his jet, his body became anemic and threatened to flare out. There were many jets here, so there was no problem; he simply had to step from one to another.

  He looked at Chex. She was changing shape!

  “Flame is malleable,” she said, observing his look. He wasn’t sure how any of them saw or heard or spoke, but they did. “I have trouble keeping my posterior hot, so I am experimenting with a shape that is more efficient for this purpose.” She continued to change, until she lost all semblance of centaurhood and most resembled the flame on a big candle. Then she extended a pseudopod of fire to an adjacent jet, and flared up there, and let her prior self die out.

  Esk tried it. He merged his two feet into one base, and felt better; more of the fuel was pouring into his being. He reached for the next jet, and saw that it was an extension of flame rather than an arm; why take the trouble to shape a useless arm, when all he needed was the connection?

 
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