Vale of the vole, p.27
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       Vale of the Vole, p.27

           Piers Anthony

  Soon all of them looked like candle flames, even Marrow. They commenced their trip across the realm of Fire. The path showed in the form of a pattern of fuels, whether comprised of just gas, or flowing liquid, or sturdy solids. They could endure on any of it, though their color and heat varied as the fuels did. The flavors of the fuels varied, and their reliability. Gas was green and flickering, while coal was blue and even, and wood was yellow and sputtering. They became connoisseurs of fuels, for these were the stuff of life. To be without fuel was to perish: a horrible thought.

  They crossed the field of fire, and came to a sharp boundary: water. A seemingly endless lake stretched across the plain, terminating the fuel and therefore the fire. It seemed bleak indeed. But the path continued into it.

  “We thank you for your hospitality, Fire,” Esk said. “Now we must move on through Water.”

  A flame face appeared. “I don’t envy you,” it said, and flamed out.

  “Oh, Element of Water,” Esk said, addressing the lake. “We are four travelers who must pass through your territory. May we do so in safety and comfort?”

  A face formed on the surface of the lake, with eyes like whirlpools. “Dive in,” it mouthed wetly.

  “But at the moment we are in the form of flames,” Esk said. “We fear being abruptly quenched.”

  The water mouth simply opened into a widening ripple ring. There was no other answer.

  “I will try it,” Marrow said. “I have no life to lose.”

  The skeleton-flame leaped into the water, hissed hugely, and flickered out. “Oops,” Volney said.

  Then a bone-white fish poked its snout out of the water. It spouted a stream of water toward them, then turned tail.

  Esk looked at Chex. “Marrow?”

  “So it would seem,” she said.

  “Then I’ll follow.” Esk dived into the water.

  He felt the shock of the cutoff of his flame. But at the same time he felt the pleasant pressure of the cool water. He inhaled—and felt the water surge through his gills. He was now a fish.

  There was another splash, and a new fish appeared. This one had brown scales and a large body with white fins above that fluttered like wings. “Hello, Chex,” he said in fishtalk.

  “This is very like flying!” she replied, pleased.

  “This is very like living,” the bone-white fish said, wiggling its bony fins.

  There was one more splash, and a squat fish with short fins appeared. “This is very like tunneling,” it said, also pleased.

  They swam across the Element of Water, following the glowing trail of bubbles that marked their path. They passed waving seaweed plants, and bubbling underwater springs, and regions where the sunlight speckled the upper surface, and shallows where white sand lay like a desert with dunes, and deeps where the seafloor was lost in the gloom of the unfathomable unknown.

  It was, indeed, like flying. Chex fairly danced, her upper fins stroking like wings, moving up toward the surface and down toward the floor. Esk had never longed to fly, but now he understood how it was with her; there was a unique freedom in this mode that made landbound travel seem oppressively dull.

  Other fish came to watch them pass, but these did not intrude on the marked path. Some were large and looked hungry, but the path was evidently enchanted to keep them off.

  In due course they reached the far side of the Element of Water, gourd annex. The path lead through a translucent vertical wall, and there seemed to be no special challenge to passing through it, except for their fishly status.

  “O Void,” Esk spoke, “we are four travelers, needing to pass through your territory on a quest. Will you—”

  He broke off, horrified. “What am I saying? That’s the Void! No one escapes from it!”

  “Except the night mares,” Chex agreed, equally horrified. “My dam was here once, and had to be carried out by night mares. She had to pay a fee of half her soul for that!”

  “And my dam—my mother too!” Esk said. “And my father—they were left with no more than one full soul between them. We can’t go there!”

  “You forget,” Marrow said. “This is not the true Void we face, but merely its annex. This is the dream of the Void, which horrifies sleepers, even as you are being horrified now. It is no more binding on you than the gourd itself.”

  Chex nodded, which was a nice accomplishment in her fishly form. “I suppose we can risk it then, since the path leads into it, and the path is supposed to be safe.” She sounded extremely uncertain.

  “We either trust it or we don’t,” Esk said. “Since we must pass through it to reach the containment spell, that is what we must do.” He hoped he sounded more assured than he felt. His knees felt weak, which was alarming because he didn’t have any knees at the moment.

  Esk repeated his ritual address to the Void, but there was no response. They discussed this, and concluded reluctantly that if they could swim through the barrier, it was probably safe to do so, and they would assume appropriate forms in the next Element. Perhaps even their own.

  This time, mutually nervous, they linked hands (fins), and swam forward into the barrier together.

  They found themselves floating in the air above a featureless plain. The water was gone, but they remained fish.

  “I thought I might revert to my own form,” Chex said, surprised.

  As she spoke, she did so, becoming a centaur, floating in the air without flying. “And be tied to the ground,” she added, startled again. Whereupon she dropped to the ground, her hooves striking with clunks.

  “Then why aren’t the rest of us reverting?” Esk asked.

  The rest of them reverted similarly. Marrow was in his assembled form, the complete skeleton.

  “I think I would have settled for a fleshly state,” he said wistfully. And became a living man, fully fleshed, naked.

  “I think we have a special situation here,” Chex said, with a certain centaurish understatement.

  “Very special,” Volney agreed, assuming the form of another man.

  “This is like the Fire realm,” Chex said. “There we could shape our forms, and Volney spoke as we do; but here it is more so.”

  “I had noted your amelioration of speech,” Volney agreed. “I always wondered what it would be like to walk upright, as human folk do.”

  “Or to be fleshed, as living folk are,” Marrow added, asuming the form of a male centaur.

  “Or to be masculine,” Chex said, turning male.

  “Um, we may be in danger of getting distracted from our mission,” Esk warned.

  The others immediately reverted to their natural forms.

  “I will be relieved when we finally reach the containment spell,” Chex said. “We could be distracted for eternity in a place like this, and the danger of that might be similar to that of the gourd via the peephole, not to mention the risk to the Vale of the Vole.”

  “All too true,” Volney agreed. “There are dangers other than physical.”

  They followed the path, which wound generally downward. At first the scenery was blank, but gradually trees and fields and bushes developed.

  Chex paused. “At the risk of distraction, let me pose a question,” she said. “Is it possible that there is no scenery, and that we are imagining it? If so, things may not be what they seem.”

  “Easy to test,” Esk said. “Let’s all concentrate on there being no scenery, and see if it disappears.”

  They concentrated, and it disappeared.

  “My next question,” Chex said slowly, “is, are we also imagining the path?”

  Esk whistled. “We’d better find out!”

  They concentrated, but the path remained.

  “That, at least, is genuine,” Chex said, relieved. “We can imagine any scenery we want, just so long as we don’t lose the path.”

  They proceeded, and the scenery formed again, this time more elaborately and less credibly. It seemed to be a joint effort, with voles and winged centaurs flying in the dist
ance, and trees growing in the manner of bones and bearing skulls for fruit, and brass girls peeking from behind translucent metal curtains that showed their bronzed legs.

  Then the path led into a loop. There was no question about this; they circled the loop several times, verifying that it went nowhere.

  “I think we have come to the end,” Esk said. “But where is the containment spell?”

  “Abolish the scenery,” Marrow suggested.

  They concentrated, and their surroundings became blank again. Now they saw that the path’s loop enclosed a deep hole. The terrain simply curved down until lost in a blackness so deep that it seemed to suck them in; they had to yank their gazes away.

  “But what is it?” Volney asked.

  “I suspect it is the center of the Void,” Marrow said. “The black hole from which nothing returns.”

  “But if the spell is down there, how can we bring it out?” Esk asked.

  “You forget again,” Marrow said. “This is the Void annex, not the Void itself. This is a representation of the center. We might indeed be able to fetch something from it.”

  “But the path does not go into it, just around it,” Volney said. “That suggests that the spell is not in it, but-”

  “But is it!” Chex exclaimed.

  “The containment spell is the Void?” Esk asked, confused.

  “I think I see the logic,” Chex said. “What contains a wiggle swarm?”

  “Nothing,” Esk said. “You have to catch and kill every one, or there will be another swarm later.”

  “Not so,” Volney protested.

  “Point taken,” Chex said quickly. “But we agree that there is no wall that will bar swarming wiggle larvae; they zzapp through everything until they run out of energy or find their particular type of rock or get killed.”

  “True,” Volney agreed.

  “So the notion of a containment spell is a strange one,” she continued. “It claims to contain the uncontainable. However, there is one thing that contains anything inside it, without exceptions, and that is—”

  “The Void!” Esk and Volney chorused.

  “The Void,” she agreed. “My dam and Esk’s parents escaped the outer region of the Void only through the intercession of the night mares, who alone can range such regions freely. So that outer wall of the Void should contain the wiggles too, not hurting them, just preventing them from escaping it, until they run out of energy and expire. They would die happy, imagining that they are in their favorite rock, but they would not reach beyond it. In due course all of them would be gone, except those who drilled down and actually found their type of rock within the enclosed region. The Void is indeed the containment spell.”

  Her logic was compelling. “But how can we take the—the Void with us to the Vale?” Esk asked.

  “Obviously we can’t,” she said. “But perhaps we can take this representation of it, and it will do the job.”

  “Imagination won’t stop a wiggle swarm!” Esk protested. “A wiggle larva has very little imagination; it is single-minded.”

  “True. But I suspect that this gourd Void operates like the peephole. If we take it to the Vale and set it up, it will lock the wiggles into the real Void, which is a region just like this only more permanent, and the effect will be the same. Then all we shall have to do is return it to the gourd, and—”

  She broke off as the implication sank in. Marrow was the one who voiced it. “How do we set up the Void there without being trapped in it ourselves, and how do we return it to the gourd when we are done with it?”

  “There must be a way,” Esk said. “We really have two problems: getting it there, and getting it back—without being trapped in it.”

  Marrow leaned over the hole, peering at it. “Don’t do that!” Chex exclaimed. “If you fall in—”

  “It is only a representation,” the skeleton reminded her. He reached down, picked up the edge of the hole, and folded the hole in half. Then, as the others stared, he folded it again, into a quarter, and continued until it was a small wad he could hide in one bone fist. “The problem of moving it has been solved. I was concerned that I would be unable to handle it, because the demon folk cannot handle anything of the gourd, but it seems I am not made of the same stuff as the demons.”

  “Evidently not,” Chex agreed. “I did not realize that demons were limited in that respect.”

  “Demons, being soulless, are barred from handling things that relate intimately to souls,” Marrow explained. “Most of the things of the gourd relate, for it is the living conscience, the guardian of the soul, that summons the dreams.”

  The blank scenery around them was gone. Now they stood in a large chamber, evidently the real-life setting for the illusion that was this aspect of the realm of the gourd. The illusion had faded with the folding of the central part of it.

  “Uh, yes, so it seems,” Esk agreed. “We can take it there, and back here the same way. But only if we can be next to it to pick it up, and when the wiggles swarm, we’ll be so full of zzapp holes that we’ll be dead.”

  “I am already dead,” Marrow reminded him. “I shall be glad to remain beside the hole until the wiggle swarm is done.”

  “And the rest of us can remain outside,” Chex said. “Marrow, I think you have made the completion of our mission possible!” She leaned down and kissed the top of his skull.

  The skeleton seemed disconcerted. “Was that an apology?”

  “An apology?” she asked.

  “You either kissed me or knocked skulls, and that means—”

  She laughed. “Yes, that was an apology for ever thinking that you were not as genuine a person as any of the rest of us!” She glanced about. “Now let’s have—let’s see—Volney use the pathfinder spell to find us a path to the zombie gourd exit. He hasn’t used that spell before.” She brought out the pathfinder spell and handed it to the vole.

  “Gladly,” Volney said.

  Chapter 15. Monsters

  Three women welcomed them back to Castle Roogna: old Latia, mature Bria, and young Ivy. Everyone else was tied up with the search for the missing Good Magician Humfrey.

  Esk happened to be leading as they arrived at the orchard, so he got the first brunt of it.

  “Did you get the containment spell?” Latia asked.

  “Have I caused you embarrassment?” Bria asked.

  “What was it like in the gourd?” Ivy asked.

  Esk addressed them in order. “We got it. Yes, you have. It was weird.”

  Then Marrow showed his fist full of Void, distracting Latia, and Chex started giving a travelogue for Ivy, leaving only Bria.

  “Then I must apologize,” she said eagerly. “What did I do?”

  “You used me to get you out of the gourd, and to try to become real.”

  She had been about to embrace him, but now she paused. “Yes, that’s true. But you know, my mother, Blythe, always did rather regret that she never got to know the ogre, your father, better, or get out more into this world. She spoke of it sometimes, and I could see how sad she was. It wasn’t that she was unhappy in the City of Brass, just that she wondered what might have been. I inherited that wondering; that’s why I wandered, and finally got myself lost. I was looking for a way out, but I couldn’t find it. Then you came, and I knew right away that not only could you get me out, but you were sort of cute too. Then when I learned that you were the son of Mother’s ogre, I just knew I wanted you for myself. When I found the accommodation spell I knew it was possible. I knew you were looking for a flesh girl, and that you wouldn’t like my type without a lot of encouragement, so I just had to act fast if I was to have any hope at all. That’s the whole of it.”

  “I don’t think so,” Esk said. “Why did you think I wouldn’t like you?”

  “Well, I’m not exactly like the flesh girls.”

  “You’re still holding back.”

  “Whatever happened to you in the gourd, you learned a lot!” she exclaimed.

I learned my deepest fear, and now I can recognize that kind of fear in others. You must have good reason to think I won’t like you if I know the truth.”

  “It’s the soul,” she whispered.

  “The what?”

  “We creatures of the dream realm don’t have souls. We can’t be real without them.”

  “You want my soul?” he exclaimed, shocked.

  “Maybe—half of it?” she said timidly.

  “You can’t have any of it!” he exclaimed, outraged.

  “Yes, of course,” she said almost inaudibly. “Then let me apologize, and I will leave you alone.”

  “No! No apology! I’ve had enough of that artifice!” He spun away from her and stalked off.

  The other dialogues were winding down. “We muvt move on to the Vale,” Volney said. “The monvters will be arriving.”

  “Start in the morning!” Ivy exclaimed. “There’s so much I want to hear!”

  They agreed. They were tired from their day’s trek. The path out through the gourd had been almost as convoluted as the one going in, and then they had had to walk from the gourd to Castle Roogna. It would be better to start fresh in the morning.

  Next day they set forth, with Volney leading the way, then Chex, Esk, Marrow, Latia, and Bria. The brass girl had not spoken to him since his rebuff of her desire, and he felt a little guilty about that, but a lot angry about being asked for such a thing. Half his soul!

  Then he remembered something Chex had said, and speeded up to walk abreast of her. “Didn’t your mother lose half her soul? To get out of the Void?”

  “Yes. That was the price of the night mares. Souls are in great demand in the realm of the gourd. Your folks paid it too.”

  “They never talked much about that aspect of their experience,” he said. “I never thought they had half souls.”

  “Oh, they don’t. The Night Stallion gave back a soul at the end, so they each had a full one again. They probably never thought about the matter since.”

  Esk wasn’t sure of that. “But your mother—”

  “My dam never got hers back. But she really didn’t mind. You see, that was the half soul that went to Mare Imbri, and enabled her to become real and survive the loss of her body in the true Void and become a day mare. Chem grew her soul back in time, anyway, so really didn’t lose anything.”

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